Butt of the Camp.
HE was a mean-looking
specimen, this Simon Gillsey, and the Gornish Camp was
not proud of him. His neck was long, his mouth was long
and protruding, like a bird’s beak, his hair was
thin and colorless, his shoulders sloped in such a manner
that his arms, which were long and lean, seemed to start
from somewhere near his waist.
body started forward from the hips, and he used his hands
in a deprecating fashion that seemed to beseech so much
recognition as might be conveyed in a passing kick.
was muscular to a degree that would never be guessed from
his make-up, but the camp was [Page 76] possessed
with a sense of shame at tolerating his presence, and
protected its self-respect by reminding him continually
that he was considered beneath contempt.
seemed quite unconscious of the difference between the
truth and a lie. It was not that he lied from malice—the
hands said he hadn’t “spunk” enough
to know what malice was—but sheer mental obliquity
led him to lie by preference, unless he saw reason to
believe that the truth would conciliate his comrades.
used to steal tobacco and other trifles whenever he found
a good opportunity, and when he was caught his repentance
was that of fear rather than of shame.
At the same time, the poor wretch
was thoroughly courageous in the face of some physical
and external dangers. The puniest man in camp could cow
him with a look, yet none [Page 77] was
prompter than he to face the grave perils of breaking
a log-jam, and there was no cooler hand than his in the
risky labors of stream-driving. Altogether he was a disagreeable
problem to the lumbermen, who resented any element of
pluck in one so unmanly and meagre-spirited as he was.
spite of their contempt, however, they could ill have
done without this cringing axeman. He did small menial
services for his fellows, was ordered about at all times
uncomplainingly, and bore the blame for everything that
went wrong in the Gornish Camp.
one of the hands was in a particularly bad humor, he could
always find some relief for his feelings by kicking Gillsey
in the shins, at which Gillsey would but smile an uneasy
protest, showing the conspicuous absence of his upper
front teeth [Page 78].
again the Gornish Camp was waggishly inclined. The hands
were much addicted to practical jokes. It was not always
wholesome to play these on each other, but Gillsey afforded
a safe object for the ingenuity of the backwoods wit.
For instance, whenever the men
thought it was time to “chop a fellow down,”
in default of a green-horn from the older settlements
they would select Gillsey for the victim, and order that
reluctant scarecrow up to the tree-top. This was much
like the hunting of a tame fox, as far as exhilaration
and manliness were concerned; but sport is sport, and
the men would have their fun, with the heedless brutality
of primitive natures.
This diversion, though rough and
dangerous, is never practised on any but green hands or
unwary visitors; but all signs fail in dry weather, and
for Gillsey no traditions held [Page 79].
When he had climbed as high as his tormentors thought
advisable—which usually was just as high as the
top of the tree—a couple of vigorous choppers would
immediately attack the tree with their axes.
As the tall trunk began to topple
with a sickening hesitation, Gillsey’s eyes would
stick out and his thin hair seem to stand on end, for
to this torture he never grew accustomed. Then, as the
men yelled with delight, the mass of dark branches would
sweep down with a soft, windy crash into the snow, and
Gillsey, pale and nervous, but adorned with that unfailing
toothless smile, would pick himself out of the débris
and slink off to camp.
The men usually consoled him after
such an experience with a couple of plugs of “black-jack”
tobacco,— which seemed to him ample compensation
In camp at night, when the hands
had all gone to bed, two or three wakeful ones would sometimes
get up to have a smoke in the firelight. Such a proceeding
almost always resulted in skylarking, of which Simon would
be the miserable object. Perhaps the arch-conspirator
would go to the cook’s flour-barrel, fill his mouth
with dry flour, and then, climbing to the slumbering Simon’s
bunk, would blow the dusty stuff in a soft, thin stream
all over the sleeper’s face and hair and scraggy
beard. This process was called “blowing him,”
and was counted a huge diversion.
On soft nights, when the camp
was hot and damp, it made, of course, a sufficiently nasty
mess in the victim’s hair, but Gillsey, by contrast,
seemed rather to enjoy it. It never woke him up.
If the joker’s mood happened
to be more boisterous, the approved [Page 81]
procedure was to softly uncover Gillsey’s
feet, and tie a long bit of salmon twine to each big toe.
After waking all the other hands, the conspirators would
retire to their bunks.
Presently some one would give
a smart tug on one of the strings, and pass it over hastily
to his neighbor. Gillsey would wake up with a nervous
yell, and grabbing his toe, seek to extricate it from
the loop. Then would come another and sharper pull at
the other toe, diverting Gillsey’s attention to
The game would be kept up till
the bunks were screaming with laughter, and poor Gillsey
bathed in perspiration and anxiety. Then the boss would
interfere, and Gillsey would be set free.
These are only instances of what
the butt was made to endure, though he was probably able
to thrash almost any one of his tormentors, and had [Page
82] he mustered spirit to attempt this, all the
camp would have seen that he got fair play.
At last, however, it began to
be suspected that Gillsey was stealing from the pork barrels
and other stores. This was serious, and the men would
not play any more jokes upon the culprit. Pending proof,
he was left severely to himself, and enjoyed comparative
peace for nearly a week.
This peace, strange to say, did
not seem to please him. The strange creature hated to
be ignored, and even courted further indignities. No one
would notice him, however, till one night when he came
in late, and undertook to sleep on the “deacon-seat.”
A word of explanation is needed
here. The “deacon-seat”—why so called
I cannot say—is a raised platform running alongside
of the stove, between the chimney and the tier of [Page
83] bunks. It is, of course, a splendid place
to sleep on a bitter night, but no one is allowed so to
occupy it, because in that position he shuts off the warmth
from the rest.
The hands were all apparently
asleep when Gillsey, after a long solitary smoke, reached
for his blanket, and rolled himself up on the coveted
“deacon-seat,” with his back to the glowing
fire. After a deprecating grin directed toward the silent
bunks, he sank to sleep.
Soon in the bunks arose a whispered
consultation, as a result of which stalwart woodsmen climbed
down, braced their backs against the lower tier, doubled
up their knees, and laid their sock feet softly against
the sleeper’s form. At a given signal the legs all
straightened out with tremendous force, and poor Gillsey
shot right across the “deacon-seat” and brought
up with a thud upon the stove [Page 84].
With a yell, he bounced away from
his scorching quarters and plunged into his bunk, not
burnt, but very badly scared. After that he eschewed the
At last the unfortunate wretch
was caught purloining the pork. It became known in the
camp, somehow, that he was a married man, and father of
a family as miserable and shiftless as himself. Here was
an explanation of his raids upon the provisions, for nobody
in the camp would for a moment imagine that Gillsey could,
unaided, support a family.
One Sunday night he was tracked
to a hollow about a mile from camp, where he was met by
a gaunt, wild, eccentric-looking girl, who was clearly
his daughter. The two proceeded to an old stump concealed
under some logs in a thicket, and out of the hollow of
the stump Gillsey fished a lump of salt pork, together
with a big bundle of “hard-tack,” and a [Page
85] parcel or two of some other kind of provender.
The girl threw herself upon the
food like a famishing animal, devoured huge mouthfuls,
and then, gathering all promiscuously into her scanty
skirt, darted off alone through the gloom. As soon as
she had disappeared with her stores, Gillsey was captured
and dragged back to camp.
At first he was too helpless with
terror to open his mouth; but when formally arraigned
before the boss he found his tongue. He implored forgiveness
in the most piteous tones, while at the same time he flatly
denied every charge. He even declared he was not married,
that he had no family, and that he knew no one at all
in the Gornish district or that part of the province.
But the boss knew all about him,
even to his parentage. He lived about ten miles from the
camp, across [Page 86] the mountains,
on the Gornish River itself. As for his guilt, there was
no room for a shadow of uncertainty.
A misdemeanor of this sort is
always severely handled in the lumber camps. But every
man, from the boss down was filled with profound compassion
for Gillsey’s family. A family so afflicted as to
own Gillsey for husband and sire appeared to them deserving
of the tenderest pity.
It was the pathetic savagery and
haggardness of the young girl that had moved the woodmen
to let her off with her booty; and now, the boss declared,
if Gillsey were dismissed without his wages—as was
customary, in addition to other punishment—the family
would surely starve, cut off from the camp pork barrel.
It was decided to give the culprit his wages up to date.
Then came the rough-and-ready sentence of the camp-followers.
The prisoner [Page 87] was to be “dragged”—the
most humiliating punishment on the woodmen’s code.
Gillsey’s tears of fright
were of no avail. He was wrapped in a sort of winding-sheet
of canvas, smeared from head to foot with grease to make
him slip smoothly, and hitched by the fettered wrists
to a pair of horses. The strange team was then driven,
at a moderate pace for about half a mile along the main
woodroad, the whole camp following in procession, and
jeering at the unhappy thief.
When the man was unhitched, unbound,
and set upon his feet,—not physically the worse
for his punishment save that, presumably, his wrists ached
somewhat,—he was given a bundle containing his scanty
belongings, and told to “streak” for home.
As he seemed reluctant to obey, he was kicked into something
like alacrity [Page 88].
When he had got well out of sight
the woodmen returned to their camp. As for the wretched
Gillsey, after the lamentations wherewith he enlivened
his tramp had sunk to silence, he began to think his bundle
remarkably heavy. He sat down on a stump to examine it.
To his blank amazement he found a large lump of pork and
a small bag of flour wrapped up in his dilapidated overalls.
The snow was unusually deep in
the woods that winter, and toward spring there came a
sudden, prolonged, and heavy thaw. The ice broke rapidly
and every loosened brook became a torrent. Past the door
of the camp, which was set in a valley, the Gornish River
went boiling and roaring like a mill-race, all-forgetful
of its wonted serene placidity.
From the camp to Gillsey’s
wretched cabin was only about ten miles across the mountain,
but by the [Page 89] stream, which made
a great circuit to get around a spur of the hills, it
was hardly less than three times as far.
To Gillsey, in his log hut on
a lofty knoll by the stream, the winter had gone by rather
happily. The degradation of his punishment hardly touched
him or his barbarous brood; and his wages had brought
him food enough to keep the wolf from the door. He had
nothing to do but to sit in his cabin and watch the approach
of spring, while his lean boys snared an occasional rabbit.
At last, on a soft moonlight night,
when the woods were full of the sounds of melting and
settling snow, a far-off, ominous roaring smote his ear
and turned his gaze down to the valley. Down the stream,
on the still night, came the deadly, rushing sound, momently
increasing in volume. The tall girl, she who had [Page
90] carried off the pork, heard the noise, and
came to her father’s side.
bust, shore!” she exclaimed in a moment.
Gillsey turned upon her one of
his deprecating, toothless smiles.
ter tech us here,” said he; “but I’m
powerful glad ter be outer the Gornish Camp ter night.
Them chaps be a-goin’ ter ketch it, blame the’r
The girl—she was a mere
overgrown child of fourteen or fifteen—looked thoughtful
a moment, and then darted toward the woods.
“Whar yer goin’, sis?”
called Gillsey, in a startled voice.
said the girl, laconically, not stopping her pace.
“Stop! stop! Come back!”
shouted her father, starting in pursuit. But the girl
“Blame the’r skins!
Blame the’r skins!” murmured Gillsey to himself.
Then, seeing that he was not [Page 91] gaining
on the child, he seemed to gulp something down in his
throat, and finally he shouted:—
go, sis, honest I’ll go. Yer kaint do it
yerself. Come back home!”
The girl stopped, turned round,
and walked back, saying to her father, “They’ve
kep’ us the winter. Yer must git thar in
Gillsey went by the child, at
a long trot, without answering, and disappeared in the
woods; and at the same moment the flood went through the
valley, filling it half-way up to the spot where the cabin
lanky youngster’s word was law to the father, and
she had set his thoughts in a new channel. He felt the
camp must be saved, if he died for it. The girl said so.
He only remembered now how easily the men had let him
off, when they might have half-killed him; and their jeers
and jeers and tormenting he forgot [Page 92].
His loose-hung frame gave him a long stride, and his endurance
was marvellous. Through the gray and silver glades, over
stumps and windfalls, through thickets and black valleys
and treacherous swamps, he went leaping at almost full
long the tremendous effort began to tell. At first he
would not yield; but presently he realized that he was
in danger of giving out, so he slackened speed a little,
in order to save his powers. But as he came out upon the
valley and neared the camp, he caught once more a whisper
of the flood, and sprang forward desperately. Could he
get there in time? The child had said he must.
mouth was dry as a board, and he gasped painfully for
breath, as he stumbled against the camp door; and the
roar of the flood was in his ears. Unable to speak at
first, he battered furiously on the door [Page
93] with an axe, and then smashed in the window.
the men came jumping wrathfully from their bunks, he found
voice to yell:—
“The water! Dam broke! Run!
But the noise of the onrushing
flood was now in their startled ears, and they needed
no words to tell them their awful peril. Not staying an
instant, every man ran for the hillside, barefooted in
the snow. Ere they reached a safe height, Gillsey stumbled
and fell, utterly exhausted, and for a moment no one noticed
the boss of the camp looked back and saw him lying motionless
in his tracks. Already the camp had gone down under the
torrent, and the flood was about to lick up the prostrate
figure; but the boss turned back with tremendous bounds,
swung Gillsey over his shoulder like a sack [Page
94] of oats, and staggered up the slope, as the
water swelled, with a sobbing moan, from his ankles to
the situation of the boss, several more of the hands,
who had climbed to a level of safety, rushed to the rescue.
They seized him and his burden, while others formed a
chain, laying hold of hands. With a shout the whole gang
surged up the hill,—and the river saw its prey dragged
out of its very teeth.
a rest of a few moments, Gillsey quite recovered, and
began most abject apologies for not getting to camp sooner,
so as to give the boys time to save something.
The demonstrative hand-shakings
and praises and gratitude of the men whom he had snatched
from a frightful death seemed to confuse him. He took
it at first for chaff, and said, humbly, that “Bein’
as sis wanted him to git thar in time, he’d did
his best.” But at length it dawned upon [Page
95] him that his comrades regarded him as a man,
as a hero, who had done a really splendid and noble thing.
He began to feel their gratitude and their respect.
it seemed as if a transformation was worked upon the poor
cringing fellow, and he began to believe in himself. A
new, firmer, manlier light woke in his eye, and he held
himself erect. He presently began to move about among
the woodsmen as their equal, and their enduring gratitude
gave his new self-confidence time to ripen. From that
day Simon Gillsey stood on a higher plane. In that one
act of heroism he had found his slumbering manhood [Page