Long before sunup the following Saturday, Littlejim wiped the sleep from his eyes and broke the ice in the washpan on the back porch. Quickly he washed his face and hands. Littlejim had a job to do. Today he would earn a dime working as dust doodler in Uncle Bob’s sawmill. Mama always reminded him that the sawmill was a dangerous place, especially when he worked under the big saw. But Littlejim liked to work with the men. Most of all, he liked the shiny dime Uncle Bob paid him at the end of the day.
He hurried to the kitchen and quickly ate Mama’s fried sidemeat, sawmill gravy, and the big cathead biscuits. Mama made these by rolling biscuit dough into balls with her hands when she lacked the time to roll the mixture with a rolling pin and cut it with a proper cutter.
The sun peeped over Wolf Hill as Littlejim made his way through the sawdust knee-deep in the trench under the big saw. As dust doodler, it was his job to remove the sawdust. The saw, larger in diameter than any man on the Creek was tall, shrieked through a log, inches above the top of Littlejim’s head. He filled his flat shovel with sawdust. Heaving the shovel, he flung the fragrant wood meal and curly shavings into the wheelbarrow.
When the wheelbarrow was filled, he strained his skinny legs to push it up the incline behind the saw. At the edge of the mill yard, over by the stacks of lumber ready for market, he dumped the load of wood trash on the side of a pile of sawdust that was already higher than a man’s head.
“Next week, I’ll let you help Fayette load the wagons, if you do a good job today. Then you can haul it to the mine pit up the creek,” said Uncle Bob at the start of the work day. Fayette— the men on the Creek called him Fate—was the man-of-allwork at the sawmill. He did the odd jobs no one else had time to do. Folks said his mind was slow, but Littlejim thought his quick smile and warm good humor made up for the slowness of mind the Creek folk saw in the gentle little man.
“Clean mill yard is good for business,” Uncle Bob said. Bigjim snorted a laugh every time his half-brother said that.
Littlejim knew that Bigjim and Uncle Bob were half-brothers because they had the same father but different mothers. Uncle Bob’s mother had died, and Grandfather had married Miz Caroline, Bigjim’s mother. Littlejim also knew that two men could hardly be less alike. Bob was a fat, round man with a bald head who talked most of the time and laughed a lot. Bigjim was a tall, lean man who seldom laughed and who talked only rarely.
Littlejim had decided that he liked his work as a dust doodler. He liked it especially when Uncle Bob included Littlejim when he addressed the crew as “men.” Besides the shiny dime Uncle Bob would give him at the end of the day, he liked working alone. As the big saw whined above his head, he could think his own thoughts. Today, as he carried shovelfuls of sawdust up the incline and threw them into the wheelbarrow, he thought about the ideas he had for the essay he would write for the competition. He knew he could never convince his papa to let him enter. But as he worked, he became more convinced in his mind that he would have to risk Papa’s disapproval.
As he finished loading the wagon, Uncle Bob blew the whistle on the side of the mill to say it was noon, time for dinner. Mama had packed Littlejim’s dinner in a shiny lard can with a red label on the front that said Arbuckle Premium Quality Lard.
Uncle Bob and Andy’s papa, Mr. McGuire, who was the head gaffer, came to sit with Littlejim on the bank of the creek. McGuire was a small wiry man who moved constantly. He reminded Littlejim of a small brown bird. Uncle Bob said that Adam McGuire was the lightest man on his feet he had ever seen. That’s why he was the head gaffer. He could dance from log to log in the waters of the creek without losing his balance. His was the most highly respected job at the mill yard.
“Air ye being my boy Andy’s friend at the school?” asked Mr. McGuire. He used the same strange pronunciations Littlejim had heard at the store.
“Andy a pupil at Osk’s blab school up the Creek?” interrupted Uncle Bob.
“Yes,” said Mr. McGuire. “You were at Burleson’s Store last week, I believe?”
“Yes, sir,” said Littlejim. He had never eaten dinner with the head gaffer before. That was quite an honor.
“Littlejim’s a pupil at the school, and a mighty good one, too. Right, son?” Uncle Bob always made Littlejim feel proud to be his nephew.
“Well, I try my best, sir,” Littlejim said. He blushed.
“Andy ain’t bein’ much of a scholar, but he’s a good boy,” said the man, between swipes of his biscuit through the white sawmill gravy in his tin plate. “Says he wants to be a gaffer like me. He won’t be needing much schoolin’ fer that. But I would like him to git further than I did. No chance for schoolin’ in the old country.” He pronounced old as if it had two syllables—auold.
Littlejim didn’t want to appear rude, but he was curious. “Where is the old country, sir?” he asked, chewing on his ham biscuit.
“Come over from Erin. Ireland, you call it,” said Mr. McGuire. “Come to work on the railroads. Helped build the tunnels through the mountains to Asheville, then met Bob here in a sawmilling camp over on the French Broad. He hired me, taught me how to be a gaffer. That’s how I come to live here on the Creek.”
Littlejim laughed. He tried to imagine short, round Uncle Bob dancing on the logs as they entered the flume. Being a gaffer was the toughest job in the sawmill. It was also the most dangerous. It took a man who could move quickly and lightly on his feet. He watched Mr. McGuire and wondered if his papa didn’t realize that Mr. McGuire was the smallest man at the sawmill, yet he had the toughest, most dangerous job. Papa seemed to think that a man’s size and strength were the things that made him a man. Mr. McGuire was living proof that size and strength did not make a man important or respected. That was a new thought for the boy. Littlejim would have to think about that some more, he guessed.
“Like a drink of spring water, son?” asked Mr. McGuire. He handed Littlejim his tin water cup.
“Much obliged,” said Littlejim. The water tasted good after the salty ham.
“Yes,” Mr. McGuire continued, “this land’s been mighty good to me. I come here with nothing in my pockets. Now I have land, a home, and a fine family. In the old country, I would still be digging peat for pennies a day. Yes, this is a fine land. A good land.”
“I reckon most of us come here from sommers else,” said Waits Wiseman, who ran the big saw. “I mind my pap telling me about Old Will Wiseman, a-hiding in a tobaccy hogshead on a ship from England. He come here without a penny, too. Served indentureship to pay his passage. He was my great-great-grandfather.”
Littlejim was listening intently. He knew Mama’s family had come from Germany, but he had always thought of everyone else on the Creek as just being from the Creek.
“Where did Papa’s family come from?” Littlejim asked Uncle Bob.
Uncle Bob laughed. “Well, the Houstons were run out of Scotland, I believe. They fought on the wrong side of the war. As I remember, we fought for the Bonnie Prince Charlie. When he lost, that was worse than being a horse thief. If they had stayed, most of them would have been hanged. So they came to this country and finally found their way to the Creek. We made it here in time to join the Overmountain men and fight the British at King’s Mountain.” Uncle Bob was really into his story. Littlejim thought he might talk all afternoon.
But the men all laughed. “Ain’t changed much, have you, Bob?” one of the mill hands said. “Still a family of horse thieves!”
Littlejim opened his mouth to defend Uncle Bob, but his uncle laughed and turned to the man.
“Well, at least I ain’t been run off from Cane Creek yet, like some as I could name.” Everyone laughed again. Littlejim didn’t understand the joke, but he knew that Cane Creek was the next village over the mountain, and he had heard that one of the mill hands was courting a young lady in that community.
“I guess most of the Creek folk have been here awhile?” asked Mr. McGuire. “I am the only late newcomer?”
“No, Miz Gertrude, Littlejim’s ma, come here as a little girl. Prettiest little girl I ever did see,” said Uncle Bob. “I guess all of us are about like the rest of the country. Come here from sommers else.”
“Come here to find a new life,” said Mr. McGuire. “It’s a good land, Bob, a good land. I’m mighty proud to be a part of it and have my little ones grow up here.” The man’s eyes filled with tears.
Uncle Bob smiled at Mr. McGuire.
“We’re glad to make you part of us,” said Uncle Bob.
“And I hope when my time comes, you’ll lay my old bones to rest in this good land. For I’m a part of ye now.”