Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Short Story Copyright 2018, Erik F. Helm
Author’s note: This is fiction. The settings and background are historical, but the events were inspired by a stand of pines on a small stream full of wild brook trout here in Crawford county in the Driftless region of Wisconsin.
My fly-fishing partner Henry ‘Heck’ Bounty and I had made our way upstream through a road-like cut, the bushes and grasses scrapping and plunking off the underside of his old Ford pickup. We were in Crawford county Wisconsin fishing a pristine stream for brook trout, and the day was overcast and cool, the trout cooperative, and the scenery immense but quiet and bucolic, as farms gave way to hills, and valleys carved by flowing waters twisted and wound, separated and joined, offering eagles overhead, wildflowers, and a gentle humming of bees.
The path we were following curved uphill to the headwaters of the creek through a narrow opening in a valley, and the hills rose on both side as the temperature slowly dropped and the sound of flowing water burbling and trickling provided a counterpoint to the wheels crunching on gravel and vegetation.
We had spent the morning catching native trout up to 10 inches, as wild and old as the land when the glaciers covered Wisconsin, but missed this corner of the state, preserving towering vistas of limestone, and a land full of rivers. Heck decided to drive to the source of the creek to provide shade for our lunch, and to show me the springs that formed this little gem of a stream that he had fished since he was a little punter so many-many summers passed.
He stopped the truck at the end of the cut, and we set up a little camp table under a large shade tree, and began making sandwiches and pouring the cool beers. As we ate and poured the hissing cold beer down our parched throats, I looked into the distance at the top of the valley where it merged with the surrounding hills and remarked at the enormous stand of white pines dominating the view.
“Those pines mark the very headwater springs of this valley and her braided streams,” Heck reminisced. “There is a story in that stand of pines, something very few people know anymore, more local folklore than actual history, but the historic part… well… that is for the record. It’s the other part that my grandfather told me one evening when we were camping in this very spot. I probably have forgotten some of the details, but the essentials… well, those are too powerful in image ever to forget. If you have a like for a good story, I can provide one for you right here, as we rest… that is, if you are up for another beer.”
I nodded in contentment as well as with curiosity. Another cold beer would go down well, sipped slowly with a background story. As the breeze gently shook the leaves overhead, I nodded and slowly sat back in the camp chair, closing my eyes.
“Those pines mark the end of the logging road, or the remains of it that we drove in on” said Heck. “Back in the day, 1931 to be exact, this hill, and all the surrounding hills were covered in old growth white pines. Many of these towns in the county were lumber towns. The valleys grew tobacco, and the hills provided lumber, floated down the Kickapoo River to towns like Soldiers Grove, which back when logging was big before the civil war, was named Pine Grove. The logs were sawed up into lumber and shipped off to the cities. These hills probably re-built parts of Chicago after it burned in the great fire. Anyway, some of the hills were still covered with the last of the pine growth in the 1920s and 30s, but logging them presented a problem, as no access roads existed, the hills were steep, and the individual stands of trees were small. The last of the logging was delayed for many years until it became economically viable for some company or another to come in and cut. The streams in this whole area were often warm and full of silt and suckers back then due to the bare hills where the logging occurred. The floods began around that time too, as the Kickapoo was and is a relatively small and very crooked river, and the rain that used to be absorbed by the forests just ran off the hills and through the row-crops and tobacco fields carrying mud and rock and too much water for the river to carry. Nobody knew any better in those days. The very land the towns were founded on was destroyed by the town’s livelihood. The fishing was poor too; except for this hidden valley and its old growth pines and wildflower and prairie grass. There were only a few farms up this way, and all of them hardy Germans and Norwegians. There was only one dirt road in and out. Grandpa Bounty and his friends used to drive up here on Sundays after church for a picnic of fresh bread, fried chicken and freshly caught brookies. He is the one who told me the story of the valley, and the little war that was fought here. That conflict is why those pines remain standing to this day.”
I took a long sip of the refreshing beer, and continued to listen, alert to his every word, and nuanced expression.
“In 1931 a logging company began driving a road up the valley toward the pines. There were no conservation groups in those days, and permits were easy to come by. The first inkling that anyone had that these hills were to be logged was probably when the graders showed up with the bulldozers and dozens of men. Anyway, nobody asked the locals. They cut all summer until they removed most of the pines on the south hills, and then moved up here in the early fall. That’s when the troubles began. The company had about fifty workers, mostly town-folk, some of them local, but many not. They had a base-camp at the bottom of the valley with a mess tent, and even cabins for the workers. My great uncle Thomas was the carpenter that built some of the cabins and all the outbuildings.”
“The company had cut about an acre of pines beginning by the oxbow of the stream at the bottom of the hill when things began to go wrong. The first occurrence was that the saws all went dull overnight. It didn’t delay them much, as they had sharpening tools, but the company had to bring in more saws and equipment as the problem continued. There was even a local lawsuit that never went anywhere when the company tried to sue the hardware store that supplied some of the saws. That went on for over a week, and very little was cut down in that time. Eventually the problems grew. Some of the dozers and the trucks broke down after a few hours of morning activity. The mechanic they had with them to service the equipment couldn’t locate any problem, until a local guy who worked at an auto-shop took one of the engines apart. One of the dozers was missing all the ball bearings in its transmission. On further inspection, the other vehicles were similarly troubled by missing bearings, and even one of the cars belonging to the work-foreman had every bearing removed from it overnight, even in the wheels, and no sign it had been done. Every time something happened, it happened in darkness overnight. At first the company turned inward and looked for sabotage within their ranks. A logger who was half-indian nearly got hung, until one of the mechanics pointed out that it was physically impossible for anyone to soundlessly remove bearings from vehicles, especially in the darkness and timeframe of overnight. Rumors and murmuring began amongst the workers, and some speculated that this was the work of spirits of dead Indians from the Black Hawk war. How else could the impossible be explained?”
“Soon enough the equipment and vehicles were overhauled and fixed, and the men went back to work. It was a Monday morning when the crew was ready, but before breakfast was even served, some of the guys noticed little ornaments hanging from the trees, and all around the camp. Hundreds of four-inch long little mayflies constructed from a strip of birch bark curled in the back, and with duck-feather wings tied in with a blade of dried grass were suspended from the trees by tiny vine-cuttings, and moving with the morning breeze. The foreman ordered the things removed, but several of the workers had had it, and left with their equipment, and the rest silently grumbled over breakfast. Their pay was based on the amount cut by each crew, and since nothing much was being cut, no pay was being earned. Smelling trouble, the company foreman gave each worker remaining the equivalent of two-weeks pay to compensate them. The company also hired a retired sheriff and two local hunters to provide security and investigate the strange happenings. Each guard was armed, and the company provided a hefty bounty if they could catch the culprits, for by now, the men and the bosses were convinced that a whole range of natural and supernatural enemies and boogie-men were behind the sabotage.”
“ The next morning brought new mayhem. The guards were up half the night patrolling, but retired when by three A.M. nothing had happened. At dawn the cook came out of his cabin and was welcomed by animals all over the camp. Skunks and raccoons were everywhere. Small piles and trails of corn mush and sardines mixed with raisins intended for breakfast crisscrossed the camp, and the animals were following the trails devouring the free bounty. Two workers got sprayed, and the cook, armed with a frying pan, was bitten by a ‘coon when he tried to wade into the fray frantically swinging at the animals. As he was being bandaged, the guards examined the food-store shack, which they assumed he had left unsecured. The padlock was intact, and no footprints or sign of entry was discovered. One thing was certain though; someone or something had crept into camp, and without leaving any trace, had once again brought the work to a stop. The retired sheriff demanded the key to the lock from the injured cook, and upon opening the storehouse, was greeted by dozens more of those little mayfly creations dangling from the ceiling.”
“One wonders what must have been going through their minds, since none of the sabotage acts seemed capable by human hands. The whole crew and the guards became jumpy, and arguments and fights began to break out. The foreman even ordered one of the truck drivers to load all the liquor supply and the cases of beer for the workers and take them away for storage somewhere. He was taking no chances. That evening saw silence in the camp, and as the workers smoked after dinner, many of them brought out knives and began sharpening them. The guards retired in shifts, with one guard being on patrol at any time that night. The cabins were locked and secured that evening.”
“The final meltdown began the next morning. The retired sheriff woke up just before dawn to relieve his junior for the watch. His holster containing his colt revolver was draped over the bedpost near his head. When he reached for the belt to strap it around his waist, the holster disgorged a dozen of those little hand-tied mayflies. His gun was nowhere to be seen, and the door was padlocked from the inside… The funny thing is that the guy had seen service as a sheriff for something like 20 years down here and had seen it all, from murderous drunks, knife-fights, car crashes, farm implement accidents, bar-fights, and whatnot, but he had never encountered a foe that crept in on the pre-dawn mists, and had no face, no name, and left no footprints. He and the hunters turned guards just up and left the camp. He never spoke a word to the foreman. He just looked at him with a long stare, and shook his head slowly as he turned to leave. He never did collect any money or pay.”
“The driver that carried all the booze and beer away was never seen again, although there seemed to be a few rather oddly jubilant local family picnics in the area for the next few years… All in all, the crew was only in camp for less than two-weeks. After the beer and guards left, the workers followed, until the only remaining workers were two old stoic Norwegians, the boss, and a truck-driver. They took turns sawing one tree at a time for a few days until they were halfway through a tree and the saw stopped with a metallic grating noise. Thinking that the tree was ‘spiked’, an old trick used against loggers where large nails and railroad spikes were hammered into trees to cause the saws to fail, the tree was attacked by axes until it fell. The source of the obstruction proved to be a metal strong-box, which was quickly recognized as the pay safe for the operation. There were no hollows in the tree, and no way in hell that it could in reason have gotten in there. Departing for camp, the four of them visited the office, where sure enough, the safe was not in the locked desk, but instead found inside the live pine tree. The money was not missing, but a single one of those eerie little mayflies sat on top of the cash inside the locked box.”
“Well, that was it. The camp broke the next morning without further incident, leaving the final pines shading the headwater springs untouched to this day.”
I whistled low, popped the cap on another cold beer, and leaned back in the chair as the afternoon clouds darkened and the sound of the rushing waters of the headwaters seemed to increase not in decibels, but in clarity and intensity. One could hear voices in them, if one took the time to listen.
“Did anyone ever find out what or who was behind this?” I asked.
“Good question…” Heck replied with raised eyebrows and a quizzical expression.
“There was an investigation by the Sheriff of the county, but nothing came of it. Officially, the case was closed with a note that the most likely cause was a disgruntled worker or two. They worked them pretty hard in those days.”
“Unofficially, my Grandpa figured it out. He was fishing one day when he ran into a tall thin fellow on the creek. The guy was fly-fishing with a bamboo rod he made himself, and with hand-tied flies. He introduced himself as Earl. Grandpa ran into him several times and they talked. Evidently the guy was some sort of educated gentleman from back east… college and so forth. He owned a large cabin in the woods at the top of the hill above the springs, and hunted and fished in the surrounding land. Now Grandpa was a farmer, but he was also a reader, what you might call a self-educated man, always with a newspaper or book and a slow pipe to smoke while he read in the evenings. Somehow he and Earl got to talking, and Earl invited him back to his cabin.”
“As he described it, the cabin was full of interesting stuff. A large library, a wine cellar all home-made, bottles of herbs, and antique firearms and even a wooden long-bow. He had artwork on the walls too. Not just everyday Saturday Evening Post cutouts badly framed, but actual art from Europe and back East. He served grandpa imported cheeses and home-baked bread and venison sausage and he talked of his love for the poetry of Robert Service while a phonograph played opera, La Boheme he remembered it as. That sort of thing was kind of unheard of back then. Some guy living in the woods who was educated and cultured, and who turned his back on the world. Apparently he was also some sort of armature magician too, for while several bottles of wine disappeared legitimately, Earl also made several vanish into thin air and then made them appear again. Who knows why he turned his back on society, or what made him pull up roots and move to a hill in Crawford County, my Grandpa never did find that out.”
“What made your Grandpa think it was him?” I asked.
“It was those little mayfly things that gave him away. See, Earl had a sort of thing… a mobile I think you call it, full of dozens of those birch bark, feather and grass legged mayflies hanging from the ceiling over his table. Every time the breeze blew in, they danced up and down and twirled. Earl said he liked to watch them late in an evening. Said they reminded him of spring on his little stretch of river.”
“Did your Grandpa ever report him, or tell anyone?” I asked.
“Nah…” Heck smiled… “Nobody would believe him anyway, but he only told dad and me, and that was after a few pulls of local whiskey. See, Earl did some good for the valley. Those pines are still there because he took a stand. He single-handedly defeated a logging company, and did it all non-violent. Other than the damage to equipment and the bite the cook got from the raccoon, nobody ever did get hurt. He haunted that valley and those hills himself. He was a one-man conservation group. How the heck he did it nobody will ever know, but Grandpa always referred to him as ‘special’. That magic he knew must have been special too, but anyone who read as much as he did, and knew about math and architecture, plants, and built all his own tools and fly-rods, and the cabin too probably knew a thing or two most men don’t know, and never will. Most folks can’t think beyond their own nose, much less imagine things and ways that may exist beyond our little mundane world.”
“That is one amazing story… too bad there is no real evidence that it was true.”
Heck smiled and turned to me. “Come on, I will show you something. Just a short hike up the hill.”
We slowly ascended the steep incline in the shade of the pines, passing the springs and seeps that formed the creek, and found ourselves in a sort of clearing near the top of the ridge. At the center amongst the raspberry bushes and cow parsnip were the foundation remains of a wood cabin. Hanging from a small apple tree next to the ruins were a dozen or so of those little hand made mayflies, looking fresh and newly created, and blowing in the breeze like they were dancing.
“Earl must have left several years after that stand he took. Nobody ever saw him again anyway, Grandpa included. He may have left those 85 or so years ago, but part of him, that special part must never have left. Something of him is still here, looking over his pines and the creek, a sort of river-keeper spirit… and watching his little mayflies… dancing into eternity.”