Spearfish Lake Tales logo Wes Boyd’s
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Out of the Cage book cover

Out of the Cage
Wes Boyd
©2010, ©2016

Chapter 8

The place they were working was about twenty minutes out into the woods, down roads that had been plowed out sometime in the last few days. It looked like about any other place in the woods and Frenchy couldn’t have found it again on a bet. “Dis got logged in da last few days, yaaah,” Sven explained. “Dis time of year, with all da snow on da ground, the stuff we’re cuttin’ up would be buried under da snow da way we usually do things. Dat means da firewood is green, yaaah, an’ dat means we gotta let it season a while before I can sell it.”

Sven pulled to a stop in an area that had been beaten out with the tracks of large tracked and wheeled vehicles. From the depth of the snow and the tracks, it looked like it would take more than a little snow to stop the machinery that had been used out there – probably fairly recently. Everywhere there were unkempt piles of pine limbs. “Dis is kinda slim pickin’s,” Sven said, and went on to explain that the snow kept them from getting to downed branches that had been lying on the ground a while. “Dey don’t like a lot of pine needles in da stuff we send to da mill, so we can’t be chippin’ dem,” he said as he pulled to a stop with the front of the pickup close to a funny-looking old farm tractor.

The tractor had once been red, as near as Frenchy could tell, but it was hard to say considering the rust and the odd splotches of paint it bore. Obviously someone had just used any paint that happened to be lying around if they thought to paint it at all. But the tractor looked like it was there for business – it had wide dual rear wheels that looked a little bigger than normal, and instead of wheels on the wide-set axle in front it had a couple of rough-looking homemade skis. It had a canvas windbreak around the open seat, and a loader bucket mounted on the front. “You use the tractor much?” Frenchy asked, more for the sake of making conversation than anything else.

“We use it a lot,” Sven explained. “We don’t bring nothin’ out here we don’t use. Da tractor will go through most any snow we come to, but it don’t start too good. We gonna have to jump it for sure after it’s been sitting all weekend.”

Sven set Frenchy to filling the tractor from gas cans in the back of the pickup, while he fiddled around with starting fluid and jumper cables. In a couple minutes the tractor was turning over, and with great reluctance a cylinder caught, then another. A great plume of black smoke rolled out of the exhaust stack for a moment, but before long it had settled down to running.

Elsewhere, the rest of the crew was working on other tasks to get work started for the morning. Red and Turk were fueling up the wood chipper, which had its delivery chute pointing at the back of the stake truck, then they had to mess around and cuss at it for a while to get it started. Shank got two chainsaws out of the back of the pickup, fueled them up, and pulled at the starter cord on one until it ran. He let it warm up for a while, then set it down and started in on the other. “Frenchy, you know how to run a chainsaw?” he asked.

“Not really,” Frenchy admitted.

“Well, you’re going to learn, I guess,” Shank then gave Frenchy a five-minute course in how to operate the saw, then explained, “Real simple, what’s gonna happen is that Sven and Mutt are going to go out with the tractor and a chain to drag in some limbs. What we got to do is to cut them down so they’re in pieces about sixteen inches long, not longer, not much shorter. Usually we start at the butt end and work down until the limb is only a couple of inches thick, maybe a little more than that. Those go in the elevator to get up to the dump truck. The smaller stuff goes into the chipper, but not anything much with pine needles. That means we may have to cut the smaller branches with a lot of needles off the limb. What we’ll probably do for a while is just stack the small limbs over by the chipper. You can work on them while I take the wood to Sven’s.”

It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Frenchy, and he told Shank that.

“Don’t worry about it none, it’ll make sense when you watch it for a while. Red and Turk and I will run the chainsaws at first, but you’ll probably be running one now and then while we’re driving. You can just pick up the firewood we cut and toss it in the elevator, and drag the bare limbs over to the chipper. Once you get the hang of it we’ll work you into the other stuff.”

About that time Frenchy heard Sven call to Mutt, who hopped up on the drawbar of the tractor. They drove a hundred yards or so away to a pile of pine limbs; Mutt got off the back of the tractor with a chain, and started looping it around some of the limbs. “They used a cutter-stripper to take pulp logs out of here the other day,” Red explained. “It goes quick but it leaves a hell of a mess. At least it only leaves it in one area, so that makes it a little easier to drag in.”

In a couple more minutes, a large part of the pile, consisting of several limbs, was sitting at the edge of the work area. Work got under way in earnest; Red and Turk took the chain saws and started cutting pieces of firewood. Sometimes the wood fell where it lay; other times they tossed it in the general direction of the elevator.

Right from the beginning, Frenchy was busy. Although sometimes it took a few seconds to cut a piece off of the branches, it didn’t take long for Red and Turk to pull ahead of him. Shank was hauling wood over to the elevator as well, and occasionally dragged a stack of bare branches over to the chipper, which was just sitting there idling. Soon, there was just a much smaller pile of needled branches sitting in front of them.

And just in time – they no more than finished dealing with the pile when the tractor was back, hauling another load of cut branches, known as “slash.” Even before Mutt had the chain all the way off the logs the tractor had dragged over, Red and Turk were cutting firewood off of some of the pieces in the pile. It turned into an exhausting scramble for Frenchy, gathering up an armload of cut limbs, hauling them over and dumping them in the elevator, then hustling back for more. It seemed to Frenchy like Red and Turk were cutting off the firewood pieces faster than he and Shank could get them over to the elevator. A couple times along in there Sven drove the tractor by with the loader bucket down to push some of the pile of needled branches out of the work area.

After a while – and Frenchy couldn’t tell how long it was – the front of the dump box on the truck was getting stacked so high that it seemed like wood was going to spill over the side. Shank climbed up into the truck and pulled it ahead a few feet, while Frenchy kept hauling wood. “Getting there,” Shank said. “Not going to be long now.”

It wasn’t – in another few minutes the dump truck was full. Shank shut down the elevator, which made things quieter for a few minutes, and told Frenchy to keep hauling the firewood and just dump it close to the elevator for the next load. With that, he got into the dump truck and drove off – the wood, he’d been told, would be dumped behind Sven’s barn to season for a bit, probably until next fall, when it would be hauled to firewood customers.

With Shank gone, Frenchy had to work even harder to keep up with Red and Turk on the chainsaws. The supply of firewood seemed endless, and even then the stack of branches waiting to go to the chipper was growing around the two guys with the chainsaws. Finally, Red shut down his chainsaw and said, “Let’s get some of this shit out of here.” He helped Frenchy drag some of the stuff over within easy reach of the chipper, and when that pile seemed almost out of hand, he fired up the chipper and started to feed branches into it. All it really took was getting one end of the branch into the chipper, it would draw the rest of the branch in and swallow it, spitting the wood chips into the back of the stake truck. The machine worked with a terrible roar, much worse than the noise of the elevator and the chainsaws.

The chipper worked faster than the elevator, or at least there wasn’t as much to deal with, and between the two of them Red and Frenchy soon reduced the pile of naked branches to nothing. “Fuck, we’re gonna be half the damn day filling the truck with this goddamn pine,” Red snorted as he shut down the chipper. “We don’t hardly get no wood chips out of this stuff. That means I’m gonna be working my ass off all day while that fuckin’ Shank drives his fuckin’ truck.”

By then Turk had accumulated quite a pile of firewood, and Sven and Mutt were waiting to drag another load into the work area. They got off the tractor and helped clean up the firewood and drag off branches, but as soon as the area was halfway clear Sven dragged another pile of wood into the work area.

The job was endless – there was always something to do, something that had to get done, something that made Frenchy have to bend over, pick something up, haul it a few feet and dump it, and hustle back for more. At least nobody seemed to specialize – when someone fell behind, someone else would help get the other caught up. It would be unfair to say that everyone worked like a well-oiled machine, because nothing was ever quite done enough to take a break and there was always something else that needed doing.

After a while – Frenchy had no idea of how long it was, but had to be close to an hour, he reckoned later – Shank was back with the dump truck. He pulled it right under the elevator, got out and started the elevator up. Within seconds he and Frenchy were loading wood onto the elevator as fast as they could go. This time, it seemed like it took only minutes to get the dump truck full, and he was off again.

It went on and on – fill the dump truck, haul firewood, haul branches to the chipper, run the chipper a bit, haul more firewood. It wasn’t long before Frenchy was exhausted, more beat out than he had ever been at football practice, as his muscles were still soft from sitting in the jail cell for seven months. He ached; especially his back ached from bending over so much to pick up the firewood and branches. He fucking hurt. In the beginning the job had seemed simple and easy enough, but after a few hours he could see how easy it would be to say, “Fuck this shit!” From what he’d picked up here and there, especially from his father, a lot of people had done just that. It seemed to him like someone would have to be awful stupid, or need a job awful bad, to keep doing this.

During the one short period they got a break all morning – Sven and Mutt were slow getting back with the next pile of branches – Turk spent a little time showing Frenchy how to run the chain saw. Frenchy was just a little leery of the noisy thing, but he soon became a little more comfortable with it. He wasn’t working as fast with it as Red or Turk, because he could see that what he was doing was going to take some experience, but at least it was good to do something else for a while. But he could soon see that he was falling behind, so after a while he let Turk go back to running the chain saw. “Good enough,” Turk told him. “You’ll get better with it when you get used to it.”

Hour after endless hour passed. It seemed like the day was going to drag on forever, but Frenchy kept with it. He knew he needed the money and jobs were hard to come by, and besides, as much as anything else he wanted to prove his father wrong, that he was man enough to take the work.

Finally he noticed Sven idle the tractor down and get off once he’d pulled yet another pile of branches into position. “Let’s get dis shit cleaned up and take a break!” he called, then added, “Frenchy, take a couple armloads of firewood and dump ’em over about twenty feet from the pickup!” Since the pile of logs around the elevator was getting pretty high Frenchy was just as glad to have someplace else to drop an armload or two; then, he went back to hauling more branches to the chipper. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Sven take a small red fuel can from the back of the pickup, and slosh quite a bit onto the new pile of logs. Soon, the pile was blazing nicely, just about the time everyone had cleaned up the pile they’d been working on.

Sven got some five-gallon plastic buckets from the back of the pickup and spread them around the fire at a fair distance – something for people to sit on. At least they weren’t going to have to sit in the snow to eat their lunches, and the fire might warm them up a bit. In any case, the break was going to feel good – Frenchy had been wondering how much longer he was going to be able to go on.

It felt good to sit down with the rest of the crew around the roaring, crackling fire, and good to eat his bologna sandwich and have a cup of coffee that was still warm enough to taste good if not hot enough to enjoy. “So, Frenchy,” Sven said as they sat around eating and shooting the bull about one thing and another, “how you likin’ dis?”

“It’s all right, I guess,” Frenchy said tiredly. “Not quite what I expected, but not all that bad, either.”

“Dis pine is a lotta goddamn work, but it’s all a lotta goddamn work,” Sven explained. “We don’t get da wood chips outa dis pine like we do when we do hardwood or popple. Al Halifax, over at Clark, he don’t usually let us do a lot of hardwood, but when we do it with da leaves off, anything dat don’t get cut up for firewood gets chipped, and we get a hell of a lot more chips. We probably be doin’ some popple in a few days, and things are a lot different, but den, everything is different, yaaah.”

“Seems like you wouldn’t mess around with this pine unless you have to,” Frenchy observed.

“Well, it’s not a case of want to,” Sven explained. “See, I’m an independent contractor, but we still pretty much gotta do what Al wants us ta do. I don’t always understand why he wants us to do some things some ways, but he’s da boss, yaaah? Sometimes we go into a pine area like dis and we just chip everything dat’s too small for firewood, an’ spread it back out on da ground. With everything chipped up it rots quicker and turns into soil for da new plantings. Sometimes we’ll even chip at one place and haul da stuff to another, den spread it with an old manure spreader. We get so much a truckload for doin’ dat, yaaah? Some places, Al, he don’t want us to do dat, ’cause da pine needles are too acid for da soil dere. Here, we just try to spread da little branches out da best we can.”

“Seems like a lot of work,” Frenchy observed. “I’m actually a little surprised that they’d go to that much trouble.”

“Well, yaaah, a lot of places wouldn’t go to da effort,” Sven explained. “We never bothered with shit like this when I was younger, we just cut da pulp logs and leave everything else lay. Sometimes we’d just bulldoze all da slash into a big pile so it’d be out of da way of da tree planting machines. But back before I started doin’ dis Ryan Clark got a bug up his ass dat too much wood was goin’ to waste, and even leavin’ da big pieces of slash meant it took a hell of a long time to rot and go back into da soil. Plus, it made it hard for da tree plantin’ machines ta get around. So Ryan and later Al decided to experiment a little an’ see if choppin da shit up would get better trees quicker. Seems ta do it and I ain’t complainin’, yaaah.”

Frenchy took a sip of his coffee. “When you put it that way, I guess it makes sense.”

“It makes a steady job for me and da crew,” Sven shrugged. We work most of da year, except when da weather is too bad or da mud is too deep. Month, maybe six weeks, da mud will be so damn deep out here durin’ breakup dat we won’t be able to get ’round in da woods at all. Den we work ’round da barn, stack an’ sort firewood, sell some, stuff like dat, maybe take a few days off, dependin’, yaaah?”

So long as he had a little money built up, the idea of a few days off already sounded good to Frenchy. He was already pretty tired, and he thought this stuff could get old in a big hurry. To keep the conversation going – and extend the break for a few minutes – he asked, “So how did you get to doing this?”

“Dat’s a long story and a lot of it is about when my last wife left me,” Sven replied. “But what it come down to was dat winter was comin’ on an’ I didn’t want ta freeze my ass. See, da state will give ya a free permit to cut up down wood on state land for firewood, an’ dat was the cheapest way I could think of to stay warm. So I got da permit, took da pickup out inta da woods with a chainsaw an’ started cuttin’. Well, I hauled me four or five loads, enough to get me started for da winter, and one day a guy asks what I would charge for a face cord, which is roughly a pickup load if you don’t know. Well, da wood weren’t costin’ me nuttin’ but da cuttin’, so I give him a good price and pretty soon I was cuttin’ more for everyone else than I did for me. Well, I got to thinkin’, dat state permit wasn’t no good if I was cuttin’ it for a business an’ I knew I was headin’ for trouble, so I went to Al over at Clark’s to ask how much he’d charge me to do da same thing on Clark land. We worked out a pretty good deal, an’ I did dat for a while. Then they started da wood pellet plant, back about six-seven years ago, and dey found dey weren’t getting’ enough from da plant to keep it goin’ so Al asked me if I’d chop up some small stuff for wood chips. It’s kinda gone from dere.”

“I thought people liked split wood for firewood.”

“Some do,” Sven explained. “But da thing is dat it’s gotta be small enough for a stove or a fireplace, no matter if it’s split or not. If you split wood it’s gotta come from a bigger tree dan dis little shit, an’ dere’s other places dat wood can be used, so it’s more expensive. Since we don’t split much of dis stuff, only a little bit every now and den, it don’t cost so much and I can pass da savings along. Everybody likes to get stuff cheap, so I pretty much sell all da wood we cut. Between dat and da wood chips, it’s a livin’, yaaah?”

It seemed to Frenchy that it was a hell of a lot of work for not much of a living, but he could also see that in some ways it was better than some people were doing.

“Hey, Sven,” Red spoke up. “Frenchy worked pretty good this morning for his first day, a lot better than those last two jokers that quit last week, but we really could use an extra set of hands.”

“Yaaah, we need someone else,” Sven agreed. “Another set of hands would make things go a little quicker and we could get more done. But you know how it is, I have to find someone who can work and not bitch too much about it. I been keeping my ear to da ground; somebody will turn up sooner or later. Frenchy, I didn’t see ya all dat much, but from what I did see, Red is right. You were carryin’ your share of da load and den some. I like dat.”

“Thanks, Sven,” Frenchy said. “I feel like I’m beat to shit, but that’s got to be from all that lying around the jail and not doing a damn thing. Give me a few days at this and I’ll get used to it, then maybe I’ll be able to work a little better.”

“Dat’s good,” Sven said. “Tell you what, if I had twice da number of people we could get more dan twice da work done, but I gotta keep my eye on everything or not as much gets done. What we got here is da real crew, an’ dey know what dey’re doin’, yaaah? I don’t have ta worry much dat dey sit down on dere ass as soon as my back is turned. Dese guys, except for you, of course, dey been with me for a while, they know what’s happenin’ an’ I know what dey can do. Bring in too many new guys and dey start fuckin’ off, like we’re sittin’ here and fuckin’ off now.”

“Yeah,” Turk said. “I was thinking that it was about time to be getting back at it.”

“Red,” Sven said, “is da chip truck gettin’ pretty full?”

“Not quite there yet,” he replied.

“Den let’s chip up da stuff dat’s waitin’, and you can run it into da pellet plant. Dat means we can get two loads of chips in today. Den, let’s get da dump truck full before Mutt and I start haulin’ stuff in and Shank can run da dump truck into da barn. I think we might as well stay here for da afternoon, but I’m thinkin’ maybe we need to set up ’bout a quarter mile dat way” – he pointed off into the open slash field – “at quittin’ time, yaaah?”

<< Back to Last Chapter - - - - Forward to Next Chapter >>
To be continued . . .

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.