Back and forth. Back and forth. Littlejim pushed one load of wood trash after another to the ever-growing dump.
By midaftenoon he was so tired his arms felt like they were made of sawdust. He sat on the morning’s stack of boards to watch the gaffers as they guided the huge logs through the sluice and lined them up with the edge of the big saw.
“I reckon we all come here from sommers else.” The words of Uncle Bob kept ringing in his ears. Maybe that’s what it means to be an American. “Everybody came here from somewhere else and made this country and this valley their home. He looked up at the Creek Road, following the contour of the creek that had created the little valley, so narrow in places that it was only wide enough for the creek and the road. The mountains loomed on all sides as the shadows of the twin peaks of the Spear Tops made their dark outline on the dancing rays of the winter sun. The big wheel, powered by water flowing through another sluice, turned slowly as the creek poured over the wheel’s edge, splashing a waterfall below.
Mr. McGuire was guiding an enormous log into the run. He waved at Littlejim. The tired boy lifted his hand to wave back. As Mr. McGuire stuck the sharp point of the gaff into the bark of the log, he turned. But the log rolled over, and Mr. McGuire’s feet flew into the air as he shrieked. Littlejim screamed a warning, but it was useless. Slowly, as if in one of Littlejim’s dreams, Mr. McGuire was thrown high into the air. He fell into the narrow stream of the sluice and was pushed down the sluice by the huge log at his feet. For a long moment, Littlejim stood frozen in time.
Littlejim screamed and ran toward the big saw. He reached the man’s body just as Uncle Bob stopped the saw. The saw had torn through Mr. McGuire. Littlejim stared in horror at the bloody pieces of the man. The earth seemed to move in waves beneath Littlejim’s feet. He could hardly breathe. He gasped for air.
“But he can’t be dead. He just waved at me a minute ago,” the boy told Uncle Bob as he caught his nephew by the shoulder. The boy wrenched away and ran into the bushes that grew along the creek.
Littlejim ran sobbing along the creek bank until he fell. Suddenly he threw up. He picked himself up and ran until his foot caught in a root. He plunged headfirst into the mud at the edge of the creek and lay in the edge of the water.
looked up. Bigjim was standing there.
“Are you hurt?” his father asked abruptly and turned to walk away. His beard jutted forward reflecting the cold light in his dark eyes, but his hands were shaking. He moved to hide the shaking from his son.
“Papa,” Littlejim sobbed. “He was split in two. He was . . .”
Bigjim turned back to face his son. “He was careless. Cost him his life,” said Bigjim. “Could just as leave happen to you. You be more careful of that saw.” And his father was gone into the laurel thicket.
For a long time, Littlejim sat in the mud. He thought of his friend Andy who wanted to be a gaffer like his pa. Then he remembered the time Bigjim had chided his son about finding excuses not to go hunting with him.
“Maybe Papa’s right,” sobbed Littlejim. “Maybe I’m not much of a man.” He saw a pair of feet and looked up to see Uncle Bob standing there. He knelt to help Littlejim get up from the mud.
Uncle Bob’s warm hand felt good on Littlejim’s neck and ear.
“Being a man has nothing to do with it. You’ve had a hard blow this day, to be sure. We all have. Adam was a good man and a friend. But you’re a strong fellow. You’ll be all right. You’re my nephew,” said Uncle Bob. He hugged Littlejim to his big chest, mud and all.
“Poor Andy,” sobbed Littlejim. “His papa . . .”
Uncle Bob patted Littlejim’s back to comfort him.
“Yes, indeed. A hard blow,” said Uncle Bob.
Littlejim sat in Uncle Bob’s little office shack and watched out the open door as the crew made a platform of newly sawn boards on one of the pole wagons, loaded Mr. McGuire’s body onto the boards and covered it with a blanket.
Uncle Bob reached up above his head and brought a bottle from its hiding place. “Drink this, Jimmy,” said Uncle Bob’s voice through the fog inside Littlejim’s head. Something sweet touched his tongue and burned his stomach as he swallowed it. He managed to open his eyes as he sputtered the strange liquid. He looked up. Uncle Bob took a long drink from a brown bottle and then slipped it into a small space between the rafter and the tin roof.
“Peach brandy,” said Uncle Bob with a wink, but his face was very white and his hands shook. “Good for what ails you. Don’t let anyone know where my stash is.
“I won’t, sir,” said Littlejim weakly.
“Come on, we’ll take one of the horses and get you home,” said his uncle.
Littlejim leaned his head against Uncle Bob’s rough coat as the horse trotted down the Creek Road. The smell of Uncle Bob’s pipe tobacco and newly sawn wood made Littlejim feel better as he leaned against the man’s back. The plodding of the horse and the rough cloth helped Littlejim to know that the world was still real, that he was not lost in some awful dream.
Mama made a fresh pot of coffee while Littlejim sat beside the wood stove trying to get warm. He had never been so cold. Mama mixed milk and sugar into the black liquid and handed a steaming mug to Littlejim and one to Uncle Bob. The first sip burned his tongue. “Drink up, Jimmy,” said Uncle Bob, sipping from his own mug. They drank in silence while Mama peeled potatoes and shredded cabbage for supper.
Uncle Bob drained his cup. “That was a godsend,” he said. “Thanks, Gertrude. So long, Jimmy.”
“You’ll be back for supper?” Mama asked.
“As soon as me and Jim pay our respects to Miz McGuire,” he said. “I’ll come back by. Been a hard day.” Mama stood on tiptoe to hug her brother-in-law. “Thank you, little sister,” Uncle Bob said, hugging her. He closed the door softly.
Mama placed the potatoes into a kettle to boil and turned to Littlejim. “Would you like to tell me about it, Jimmy?” she asked quietly.
No words formed in Littlejim’s mind. Mama continued to work quietly. The clock in the front room ticked slowly. The fire crackled as the wood in the firebox of the cookstove broke apart.
“Mr. McGuire waved at me,” Littlejim said at last.
Mama nodded. “Yes, Jimmy,” she said.
“He came to this land with nothing. That was all I could think of.”
There was a long silence before Littlejim said anything else.
“Mama, he came here all the way across the ocean from Ireland. This is a good land, he told us at noonday dinner today. He was so glad to be “an American. . . .” The words came faster and faster, and in a torrent Littlejim told Mama all about Mr. McGuire and the accident and Papa finding him on the creek bank and Uncle Bob bringing him home and all his feelings of the day.
Nell carried Baby May into the kitchen. Mama helped fasten the baby into the highchair and gave each of them a slice of raw potato to chew. Littlejim talked on. Nell sat by Littlejim on his chair and placed a small arm around her big brother’s neck. She patted his back.
Mama left the room. When she returned, she placed a pencil and tablet on the table in front of him, but Littlejim continued to sit as if frozen, staring at the glowing cookstove. His mind would not form words, it would only form pictures of Mr. McGuire’s death.
“It has been a hard day, my son,” said Mama. “Maybe it will help to put some of it on paper.
Littlejim picked up his pencil and wrote, “Adam McGuire was killed today. He was a good man and he was proud to be an American.
The boy wrote on paper all the words he had told Mama. As he wrote, new words seemed to come from his mind. His fingers flew until they were tired. Then he felt empty. All the jumble of feelings inside him was somehow gone.
“I’m so tired, Mama,” he said at last.
“Why don’t you lie on our bed in the front room and rest until supper is ready? Nell will stoke the fire so the room will be warm, won’t you, Nell?” said Mama.
Littlejim watched the flames dance in the fireplace as he drifted off to sleep.
“I hope when my time comes, you’ll lay my old bones to rest in this good land.” Mr. McGuire’s words echoed over and over inside Littlejim’s head. “I’m a part of ye now.”