Daylight in the Swamp
Blackwater Logging Camp, 1898
"Daylight in the swamp!" Pa yelled. Ben groaned and turned over. Pa's voice had two volumes: loud and louder. Ben squinted in the lantern light. Pa's square shoulders filled the doorway of the bunk room. "Roll out or roll up," he said.
Ben scrambled to pull on his wool pants and socks. Before he had tied his boots, he heard Pa lift the lid of the kitchen range and chuck in a stick of wood. "Hey, cookee, our bread will never rise if we don't get it warmed up in here," Pa called.
Ben buttoned his shirt and looked at his pocket watch. It was quarter past four. His eyes burned from woodsmoke as he stepped from the bunk room into the kitchen. He hurried over and added wood to the potbellied stove. Then he filled a washbasin from the pail of water on top of the range and splashed his hands and face. But when he reached for a towel, Pa said, "Don't forget the soap."
The second cook's helper, Skip, smirked like he always did whenever Pa corrected Ben.
Ben hustled to the counter to help. "About time you got here." Pa didn't look up from the bean pot he was stirring. "Ain't you forgetting something?"
"I washed my hands."
When Ben saw Skip grin again, he remembered that he hadn't put on his apron. "Sorry, Pa," Ben said, reaching for the wooden rack where they hung the towels and aprons.
"Sorry won't cut it if these lumberjacks get sick from a dirty kitchen." Pa wouldn't let Ben or Skip near the food without scrubbing their hands and tying on their aprons, and he insisted that they wear white shirts. "I seen cookees come straight from the barn without washing. We ain't gonna have that in this camp."
"It wasn't like I was out feeding the horses," Ben said, knowing it was wrong to argue but not being able to stop himself.
"You forgot the rules."
"Everybody in this cookshack follows my rules." Pa set down his spoon. "Am I clear?" Pa had learned his cooking in the army, and he was a stickler for rules. Skip was grinning bigger now.
"Yes, sir," Ben said.
"What are the two questions a jack always asks before he signs on at a logging camp?" Pa asked. Pa was one of the few lumberjacks without a beard, and his clean-shaven jaw was tight. His hair was neatly parted down the middle and slicked back.
"Well?" Pa said.
Skip jumped in. "He asks, 'Who's the cook?'"
"And 'Who's the foreman?'" Ben added.
"Say push, stupid, not foreman," Skip said.
"That's right," Pa said, putting the lid back on the bean pot. "Nobody wants to spend a winter in the woods with a dirty hash slinger or an ornery push. There's only two things these jacks can look forward to: mealtime and springtime."
"And mealtime comes a whole lot sooner," Skip said, finishing one of Pa's favorite sayings.
"Which is what makes our job so important," Pa added, beaming.
No matter how often Pa told Ben to be proud of his cookee's duties, greasing pans, frying flapjacks, cleaning lamp chimneys, and washing dishes were not Ben's idea of important jobs. Last fall when Pa asked Ben to work at the Blackwater Logging Camp, Ben had imagined himself felling giant pines and driving a four-horse team. So far the closest he'd gotten to holding reins was tying his apron strings.
Ben started the oatmeal boiling and opened a gallon-sized can of stewed prunes. The men called prunes logging berries, and they insisted on having them at every meal. Baked beans were also served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ben set four pans of sowbelly in the oven to brown. Then he helped Pa mix up the batter for his sourdough flapjacks, known as sweat pads.
As soon as breakfast was ready, Pa said, "Fetch me the Gabriel horn." Ben took down the five-foot-long tin horn from its hook on the log wall and handed it to Pa. Steam rushed in as Pa stepped through the door and blew into the bugle-style mouthpiece.
Before the third blast had echoed over the clearing, the bunkhouse door swung open and Packy Peloquin stepped out. Tucking in his wool shirt and tying a bright red sash around his middle--the other lumberjacks wore suspenders--Packy trotted toward the cookshack. "Look who's up," Pa said, knowing that Packy was the first in line for every meal. He was barely five feet tall, but he ate so much that Pa teased him about having a hollow leg.
Unlike most of the jacks, Packy was always friendly. "Bon jour, Benjamin," he said, smiling, but the moment he stepped inside the cookshack, he was quiet. The jacks were allowed to wave an empty platter and call for more food, but table talk was forbidden. Anyone who violated Pa's rule missed the next meal.
Skip was scraping the fried spuds onto a platter, and Ben was about to scoop the last batch of doughnuts out of the big cast-iron frying pan when he heard a yell out the back door. "Was that Pa?" Ben asked.
"He just stepped outside to go to the root cellar," Skip said. "I hope he didn't hurt hisself."
Ben was used to Pa's shouting, but the only time he had heard Pa yell that loudly was when he'd plowed over a wasps' nest.
Skip pushed the back door open and ran to the root cellar.
Ben lit a lantern and followed. At the cellar, he heard Skip say, "I'm real sorry, Mr. Ward. I meant to close the syrup spigot, but--"
"But nothing!" Pa roared.
Ben noticed a sweet scent as he walked down the steps. Pa's face was flushed, and amber liquid dripped from his hands. He'd tripped and fallen into an inch-deep puddle of maple syrup.
"I'll teach you a lesson." Pa grabbed at Skip, and the cookee trampled Ben's feet as he ran up the stairs. "Come back here, you laggard pup."
"Don't, Pa," Ben called, but Pa brushed past him. Ben raced up the steps and out of the cellar, but Skip was already scooting into the cookshack with Pa only two strides behind. "Pa," Ben yelled, but he might as well have been shouting at the wall.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Blackwater Ben by William Durbin. Copyright © 2003 by William Durbin. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.