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Out of the Cage book cover

Out of the Cage
Wes Boyd
©2010, ©2016

Chapter 17

It felt good to have Red pick him up for work on Monday. The community service work was all right, at least in getting a chunk of it out of the way, but he wasn’t getting paid for it and he’d spent more money the past couple weeks than he’d wanted to. Most of the extra had been well spent, like the wallboard for Monica, so really there wasn’t that much to complain about, but still it would feel good to have a paycheck in his pocket at the end of the week again.

Red was even a little early, so it was no problem to have him swing by the Fiesta station again to pick up some more bread and peanut butter and a thermos of coffee, so he’d have some lunch. They didn’t talk much, but Frenchy got the idea that Red had spent much of the weekend with a beer can in his hand, much like he always did.

Even with the stop, the two of them got out to Sven’s just before Shank and Mutt, who brought the usual Monday morning coffee and doughnuts. It proved there were some changes; Dink and his camper had moved on in the last few days, heading who knew where; they doubted that they’d see him again. There were two new guys standing around, who Sven introduced as Cash and Buck. “Dey think dey can work in da woods with us,” he said as everybody worked on the coffee and doughnuts Shank and Mutt had brought. “I guess we see, but we don’t go into da woods for a few days yet. Da ground aroun’ here is OK, I think, but dere are probably some bad spots on da roads out in da woods yet. Dat’s all right, we gotta lot to do around here ta get ready for da summer.”

Sven went on to explain what they’d be doing for the next few days: there was a lot of firewood that had been dumped behind the barn over the last few months to dry out the best it could in the winter snow. Now that the snow was mostly gone except for some little piles in some shady spots, some of the older wood needed to be picked up and stacked in the open shed to dry out a little better before it was ready to be sold. The easiest way to move it would be to load it in the dump truck with the elevator, dump it in the shed and stack it high.

More importantly, some of the dryer firewood in the shed needed attention. Sven explained to the new guys that he sold a lot of firewood over the summer in small bundles at five dollars a bundle. He didn’t sell it directly, but wholesaled it to convenience stores, campgrounds, and the like. “I get three bucks a bundle from da stores,” he said. “Considerin’ dat dere’s a hundred bundles or more to a cord, dat’s almost twice what I make deliverin’ a cord to someone’s home. It’s a pain in da ass, but it’s a profitable pain in da ass so we got to do it.”

Sven went on to add that they needed to make up at least five hundred bundles at about thirty pounds a bundle, and a thousand would be better or else they’d have to take time off during the summer to make up more. On top of that, they’d have to make initial deliveries to several places, and more would be coming right along as campgrounds started to open for the summer in the next month or so. “Since we don’t want to go out in da woods just yet, we might’s well get as much of dat done as we can now.”

They headed out back to get started. Sven and Red rolled a set of scales and a funny-looking machine that was used to plastic-wrap the bundles, leaving the ends open. He told Frenchy to work with Red to get started making up the bundles and learn how to run the machine. Because the plastic wrap needed to be heat sealed, it took a while for each bundle, but Frenchy and Red had to hustle to keep things going. The wood had to be grabbed out of a nearby pile, weighed, wrapped, and then stacked in a different pile, which all added up to a lot of work. Sometimes they’d come across a piece that was a little large, and it was cast aside to be run through the wood splitter later. After a few hours of that, Frenchy thought that standing around leaning on a shovel handle or picking up trash along the road like he’d been doing on the community service crew the last couple weeks was easy work indeed.

Elsewhere on the lot the rest of the crew was just as busy, loading wood onto the elevator to go into the dump truck. Sven speeded up the process with a forked manure bucket on the tractor’s front-end lift. Once the pile was down a bit, he could load wood onto the dump truck directly about as fast as the crew could with the elevator. As soon as the dump truck was pretty full, Shank drove it over and dumped it into the shed, where two and sometimes three guys stacked it as high as they could by hand. It was tiring work all around, except for the drivers, of course, and they switched around a bit just to give the others something of a break.

Everybody was ready to take a break when time for lunch rolled around; they had all been working hard, even harder than they’d gotten used to when working out in the woods. They didn’t bother with a lunchtime bonfire like they had done out in the woods, but Sven got out the plastic buckets for everyone to sit on for a while, commenting that since it was warming up they probably wouldn’t be having the bonfires out in the woods much longer.

They didn’t take as long a lunch break as they did out in the woods, and soon everybody was back to work. By the time the day came to an end, Frenchy was just as tired as he had been working in the woods, if not even more so. However, at the end of the day Red estimated that he and Frenchy had made up 250 bundles of wood, and even Sven thought that was a pretty good day. The shed, which had been nearly empty, was getting pretty full of firewood although there was obviously more to go. Frenchy was so tired after he was done he didn’t even think about heading over to Monica’s to work on the room.

The next day they started out doing the same thing, but with a little twist: instead of just stacking the bundled firewood on the shed floor, Sven had Red back the chip truck up to where they were making up the bundles and start loading it full. This was even more work, since Red and Frenchy had to throw the completed bundles up onto the truck. Sooner or later there wouldn’t be enough room to just throw them up on the tail gate, and one or the other of them had to get up in the back of the truck to stack the bundles, then get back down and catch up on the other work. They didn’t quite have the truck full by the end of the day, but Sven had the rest of the crew help finish loading it with the wood Red and Frenchy had bundled the day before. Once again, Frenchy was so tired he didn’t even think about the project at Monica’s house.

Frenchy figured on more of the same the next day, but was a little surprised when Sven told him to come along with him in the chip truck, leaving Shank in charge of moving the wood, while Red and Buck worked at wrapping more bundles. “It’s a little early,” Sven said as they got on the road, “But we might’s well get a few places stocked up before da busy season gets here, yaaah? We take all dis out to Emil at Shaundessy’s Bait Shop out at dat Wood Duck Lake out on 919.”

“Never heard of it,” Frenchy said. “Seems like a lot of wood for one place.”

“Yah, it is, but he’s my biggest dealer,” Sven explained. “Emil is older dan God, but he got a good business dere. See, da nudist camp is right up da road, an’ dey don’t like strangers like us comin’ in dere to make deliveries. Well, dem nudists burn a lotta goddamn wood for some reason, I guess dey like da campfires. So Emil sells a hell of a lot of wood to ’em. What we got on da truck will just get him started for da year, we bring out four-five more truckloads like dis over da summer. Gotta couple other campgrounds dat sell almost as much but dey not open yet, da owners are still in Florida or somethin’, yaaah? But we get done what we can now, eh?”

Unloading the truck was a big job that took most of the morning. The bundles had to be stacked next to the ramshackle old building, but Sven and Frenchy worked quickly; by noon they were headed back to the barn. “Dis afternoon we load da truck with whatever other bundles we got done and make a few more deliveries,” Sven explained.

After eating lunch with the crew – and Sven making sure that they had been working as hard as they should have been, they loaded the truck not quite as full, and started making the rounds of some of the other dealers. Frenchy reflected that while he’d often seen the bundles of wood around places like the Fiesta station, he’d never really thought about where they’d come from. Since the truck wasn’t as full as it had been in the morning and they didn’t have to go as far, it took less time to empty it again, at a dozen places or more, mostly around Spearfish Lake. “We get another load put together,” Sven said as they were heading back to the barn. “Maybe not tomorrow, maybe da next day, an’ we hit some more dealers, some aroun’ town, some down in Albany River, a few elsewhere, den maybe some more Friday. Dat’ll get everyone set up for da season. Dat’ll take care of da week, an’ Monday we can get back to work in da woods.”

“That’ll be nice for a change,” Frenchy said. “It seems like forever since we’ve been out there.”

“Yeah, we fallin’ behind,” Sven said. “But Al, he knows we can’t get nothin’ done in da woods durin’ spring breakup, so he understands. He got a lotta work for us ta do, a lot more dan we can handle. Lot of it is just chippin’ and lettin’ it lay, he got a bug up his ass dat he wants to try dat a little more. Last week he an’ I been talkin’ about gettin’ another tractor with a chipper dat runs on da power takeoff just ta do dat. I think maybe I have Shank runnin’ dat, with a couple guys to help him. Gonna have ta have some more crew, but Al, he thinks he knows some college kids dat might work out pretty well for da summer. We still need to get some more hands. I think dat Cash ain’t gonna last, but dat Buck looks like he might work out for us. Maybe we get some more college kids, but if I don’t know how dey work I don’t know how bad I want dem on da main crew.”

“I don’t know if you want my opinion,” Frenchy said, thinking that with his new chauffeur’s license he might well spend a good share of time driving the dump truck rather than working on the ground, “but I sort of wonder if college kids are going to work that hard.”

“Yah, I wonder about dat too,” Sven said. “Dat’s why I want Shank ta work with dem on da new chipper crew, he ain’t gonna take no shit and he’s tough enough that da college kids, dey’ll know it. I thought about having ya run dat crew but you ain’t no older dan some of da college kids, an’ I think maybe dey don’t listen to you as well. It’s just gonna be pickin’ up stuff and throwin’ it in da chipper, we ain’t gonna try to get no firewood outa dat, so it might be simpler, yaaah. I guess we see, eh?”

“Well, whatever you want, Sven,” Frenchy said, thinking again that he was going to be driving the dump truck a lot, even if he only did it part of the time.

“I got another idea, yaaah,” Sven replied. “But it’s gonna take more time to talk about dan we got now. How about you don’t go home with Red, an’ we go out to da Spearfish Lake Café and see what dey got on special?”

“Sounds good to me,” Frenchy replied, thinking that it would at least allow him to avoid another cheap supper at home. It would probably mean another night of not working on the project at Monica’s, but maybe with a little luck he could get in some good time on Saturday and Sunday.

Things were winding down by the time they got back to Sven’s barn. From what Frenchy could see, Red and whoever had been working with him had made a lot of progress on bundling more firewood, and the shed was getting more stacked with it, although clearly not as much had gotten done with Sven and him missing.

Soon, everybody was headed off to where they were going, leaving Frenchy and Sven alone. The two of them cleaned up a bit, then headed out to the Spearfish Lake Café. The special that evening was hot turkey sandwich; both of them ordered it, and then sat down with their coffee to wait for it to be delivered. “So,” Frenchy finally said, “what is it you’ve been thinking about?”

“Well, I been thinkin’ about doin’ the deliveries to da dealers, like we done da last couple days,” Sven said. “Like I told ya da other day, it’s a pain in da ass, but it’s a profitable pain in da ass. Da worst part about it is dat it takes da chip truck away from da woods a day or two a week an’ we can be makin’ as much money haulin’ chips to da pellet mill with it.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Frenchy said. “I wondered how you managed it.”

“We managed it somehow in da past,” Sven told him. “But I been thinkin’ about dat too. Let’s face it, Frenchy, most of da crew is good workers but dey look like old bums dat drink too much at da best of times, and most of da time dere’s a good reason for it, ’cause dat’s what dey do. I have ta think dat it ain’t good for business ta have dose guys dealin’ with da dealers. So I been thinkin’, ya young, ya don’t look like no bum, ya a hard worker an’ I know it. An’ I know ya just got dat chauffeur’s license, an’ we gonna get Turk back in a few days. He got one of dem, so I figure on him runnin da dump truck.”

Well so much for that great idea, Frenchy thought as Sven continued, “What I’m thinkin’ is ta have ya do da deliveries, an’ maybe ya can manage to get a few new dealers. What I’m also thinkin’ is dat ya do da bundling an loadin’ an’ stuff so we don’t have to take someone on da crew out of da woods. It don’t pay no more, but I think ya can handle it with workin’ by yourself a lot of da time. If ya get caught up on da deliveries, den maybe you come out an’ work in da woods for a day or two ta fill out da week, yaaah.”

“Sounds pretty reasonable,” Frenchy said, thinking that it sounded a lot better than working on the ground all the time in the woods. “But I have to point out that you’re going to still be short the chip truck, probably a couple days a week.”

“Yaaah, I thought about dat too,” Sven explained. “I thought about ya drivin’ my pickup, but we need it out in da woods, eh? Den I got to thinkin’ about how it’s such a pain in da ass for ya ta be without wheels, an’ I thought maybe you like ta get a pickup ta do it.”

“I’d like to, Sven,” Frenchy replied. “God knows I miss having wheels, but I don’t have that much money in my bank account yet. In fact, I had to hit it a little hard the past couple weeks, to pay my dad and a couple other things. I can’t get much of a truck on what’s left.”

“Thought about dat too,” Sven smiled. “An’ I talked it over with Al, an’ da gal dat does my books. She come up with a good idea dat I never thought about before. Here’s what she was thinkin’, yaaah? We buy ya a truck, probably not a real good one, say a couple grand, maybe a little more, an’ I loan ya da money ta do it. Now, if ya are drivin’ dat truck makin’ deliveries, I gotta pay you fifty-two cents a mile for mileage, dat’s what the feds say ’bout da taxes. I figure dat it costs maybe twenty cents a mile ta run it for gas, maybe a little oil, an’ maybe a little more, it sorta depends on da truck.”

Frenchy didn’t take long to figure that out. “So you’re saying that I’d be putting thirty cents a mile or so in my pocket, right?”

“Yaaah, maybe a little more, except it go back in my pocket for payments. I figure dat you gonna drive maybe three hundred miles a week, so dat’s pretty close to a hundred bucks a week, maybe a little more, dependin’ eh? Now, yaaah, you might have to buy tires or get it worked on some, but dat can come out of dat hundred or so a week an’ I can carry you on it if I have to. But da retail firewood business, it go on into huntin’ season although not as big after school starts. I figure by da time da snow flies again ya can have it paid off, maybe before dat, yaaah.”

Holy shit, Frenchy thought. That would solve the wheels problem big time! He’d really been hurting without them, and resented it in a lot of ways. Not only had it been an inconvenience and a pain in the ass, it restricted a lot of things he could do. Walking everywhere took time, and sometimes it wasn’t time he had to spare, especially when the weather was lousy.

The only thing he could see wrong with the deal is that he’d been figuring on working till August when his probation ended, and then getting the hell out of Spearfish Lake and away from his parents once and for all. This might extend that for a few months, but at least he would have wheels, which he had really missed. And he’d still be putting money back from his regular paycheck – maybe he could hunt around and find a small camper like Dink had. That could solve a lot of problems when he was ready to hit the road too. “Sounds pretty good to me,” he said.

“I think it work for you,” Sven replied. “I don’t think no big truck, maybe just two-wheel drive. I figure dat ya could probably put fifty bundles on it if ya tied the top ones down a little. You could mostly load an’ unload dat over da side so you wouldn’t have ta be climbin’ in and out all da time. Dat would take care of most of da dealers, an’ I’m thinkin’ when ya got to take big loads out to Shaundessy’s or da campgrounds, maybe ya could use da chip truck in da evenin’ or somethin’, eh?”

“Or, maybe just run out there a little more often.”

“Yaaah, maybe, we have to see how dat works out. I’m thinkin’ if ya get behind maybe we can get one of da college kids to help ya out for a day or so, but we have to see how dat works out too. So what do ya think?”

“Sounds pretty good to me,” he replied. “The big thing I see is that I’m going to be needing a truck that’s pretty reliable, or it’s going to eat me alive with repairs.”

“Yaaah, dere is dat,” Sven nodded. “We just have to find ya a good one. I’m thinkin’ maybe tomorrow we take off for a while and go lookin’ for a truck for ya.”

“Sounds good to me,” Frenchy said again. “I don’t suppose we have to be in any big rush.”

“Yaaah, but if we want ta go out to da woods again on Monday we pretty well got to do it tomorrow, ’less we can’t find anything dat looks like it would do da job. If we can’t find somethin’ around here, maybe ya take off from da community service on Saturday an’ we go to Camden or somethin’, yaaah? But I think we be able to find somethin’ right around here. Lotta people looking for a few extra bucks and will sell a truck to get it.”

“I can take off from the community service for a day if I have to,” Frenchy said, imagining what it would be like to have his own wheels again. It wouldn’t be a cool car like the Eagle that had gotten wrecked last summer, but at least it would get him around. “I pulled ahead of it a little the last couple weeks. The one thing I can see that might be a problem is that my dad will get all over my ass if he sees me driving my own truck. He’ll think I’m holding out money on him. Shit, I’m giving him all we agreed on and he still wants more so he can piss it away over at the casino.”

“Well, yaaah, dat might be a problem,” Sven conceded. “Maybe it would be best if ya tell him it’s my truck and I let ya drive it now and then for your own stuff when ya need ta. Maybe you don’t even leave it at home an’ ride out with Red like ya been doin’, eh?”

“That would probably work,” Frenchy said as the waitress showed up with their orders. “It would still be a pain in the ass to get around, but I can still walk out to get it if I have to.” Just having the wheels so he could get around made the prospect of walking that much seem less painful. Even with that limitation on it, having the wheels available would be useful – he could take Monica shopping, for example, so she wouldn’t have to walk. Or maybe she could drive it, while he watched the kids for her. That had been fun back on Sunday, and he’d really enjoyed being with the kids.

They dug into their food, which was as good as usual, and really filled him up after what had actually been a hard day, if less hard than normal. In a way, he would miss working in the woods all the time, but he might not miss it all that much, and a couple days a week would keep his hand in it.

As he ate, he realized that the whole deal was a really nice thing for Sven to be doing for him. There were other ways it could have been done, mostly by Sven just buying the truck and keeping the mileage allotment for himself. Doing it this way at least gave Frenchy the prospect of having paid-for wheels in a few months, a lot more quickly than he could have done it on his own, and Sven still got his fair share out of the deal. That was the act of a real friend, he thought – a friend who cared about him. It wasn’t anything his father would have done; his father would just have been looking for how he could get more money out of it to waste at the casino over at Three Pines. Not for the first time, Frenchy reflected that the last few months that Sven had been much more of a father to him than his father had ever been. Yes, he worked hard for Sven, harder than he might have been willing to do for himself, much harder than he would be willing to do for the community service. But he was being rewarded for the hard work with a friendship – and a truck, of course.

He stopped eating for a moment and looked across the table at his friend. “Sven,” he said, “thank you. This solves a lot of problems for me. I promise I’ll do my best to make sure your trouble isn’t wasted.”

“It solves a couple problems for me, yaaah,” Sven replied after swallowing a bite of the sandwich. “An’ I know it solves some problems for ya. Now, all we gotta do is to make sure it works for da both of us.”

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To be continued . . .

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