The two bushmen hastily finished the new set of skids. By now the stock of logs at the mill would be almost exhausted. No doubt the millhands were clapping on the speed in an effort to overtake them. It had always been like this: whenever anything happened to hold the bushmen up, the mill output would rise from 5000 to 6000 or even 7000 board feet per day. Not that the bushmen intended to be overtaken. Far from it. The thought of the mill braggarts boasting over such an event wouldn’t bear thinking of, but they both knew that it would be a near thing this time.
The white pines stood so thick near the skids that it was difficult to pull a saw between them. The breaker-out had cleared a track up to the stand by the time they’d knocked the first tree down, and the bullocky could already be heard calling to his leaders as he made his way up the track. The trammie was at the skids with his tandem-yoked horses ready to load the logs on to the tram. He offered nothing in the way of encouragement.
“You bush rats had better get your shirt-tails cracking,” he said. “The last log was going on to the breaking-down bench when I left.”
“This one’ll do three eighteens,” said one of the bushmen, standing the measuring-stick up against a nearby tree. “We’ll have to knock another down for a load.”
The other bushman said nothing. He very seldom did say anything. To him words were precious things, not to be flung lightly to the four winds where they might never be recovered. He preferred to let his mate do the talking. He reckoned he was better at it. They were an odd pair.
One was short, thickset, heavily muscled, and bald. The other was tall and lean with a shock of sun-bleached hair that hung down over his ears, then curled round and began to grow up again as if seeking the sunlight like the trees in which they worked. Each month he went to town with the intention of getting his hair cut, but something always intervened to prevent it so that the following day his mate would knock it about a bit with an old pair of blunt scissors.
But in spite of the differences between them, they seemed to think the same thoughts at the same time, particularly when they were on the crosscut. It was as if the thoughts of one travelled along the band of steel to occupy the mind of the other. This transfer of thought had gone on for so long now that neither saw anything unusual in it.
The two bushmen walked along opposite sides of the log, each holding the handle of the crosscut. They set the saw teeth down on the axe-mark indicating the first eighteen feet.
“Reckon she’s straight?” asked the voluble one, squinting along the saw. The other didn’t reply. He saw no need. Bushmen of their standing didn’t cut crooked cuts.
With long easy swinging strokes the saw ate into the soft wood. They stopped only once, to tap a wedge into the saw-cut to keep it open and then continued on until a soft little pop and a settling of the tree-trunk indicated they were through.
The breaker-out threw his timberjack in alongside the log and jacked it clear, so that he could snipe the end and drive the sidedogs to take the hook of the single hauling chain that ran down between the pairs of bullocks. The bushmen were interested in none of this. The second and third logs were cut off before the first had reached the skids. By the time the second was on its way the front scarf was cut in the next tree and the bushmen were backing it up with the six-foot crosscut saw. This tree stood perfectly plumb on its stump and was not expected to break much wood.
“How much wood are you holding?” asked the talkative one.
“Coupla inches,” answered his mate. “Better stick a wedge in her.”
The other took the broad-bladed backing-up wedge and drove it into the saw-cut with the maul. The tree shook visibly and took a decided lean. He struck another blow for luck and got the surprise of his life when a bee plummeted down from a knothole and stung him on the top of his bald head. He became vastly excited and sprang off his jigger board and dived into the undergrowth.
From this haven he called urgently for help. “Get the sting out,” he pleaded. “Mind you don’t squeeze the poison in.”
His mate strolled over to where he was peering apprehensively through the foliage as if expecting further attacks. His mate had no fear of bees. He peered professionally at the sting before briefly sterilising the face of his axe by wiping it on the leg of his trousers. He then deftly scraped the sting clear with the razor-sharp blade.
“Got yer fair in the centre of the think-tank,” he said.
It would appear that the axe had the same power of thought transference as the saw, because both men were struck with the same idea without a word being spoken. Broad smiles appeared on both weather-beaten faces.
The silent one became almost loquacious. “Wedge her over while I get a plug of clay ready,” he said.
The other bushman didn’t fancy this job much, but he liked the other even less, so he sneaked up to the tree, struck the wedge a tremendous blow and fled back to the undergrowth again. After several such efforts the tree gave a tremendous crack, and began its apparently leisurely journey towards the ground. A moment after it struck, with an earsplitting crash, his mate dived into the still-falling debris, and blocked the hive-entrance with his ball of clay. A few bees who had emerged on impact buzzed about frantically seeking entry, but the bushman cut a leafy branch and laid it over the plug. The bees obligingly crawled into the foliage and were lost from view. Others returning to the hive formed a small cloud high in the air where the knothole had been.
The two bushmen set about with a will. They had two saw-cuts to put through before, as they put it, “those log-hauling louts” got back from their last trip to the skids with the butt log from the previous tree.
When the log-haulers arrived, not only was the log ready but the bushmen were quite helpful. With their assistance it was broken out and on its way to the skids in record time. No mill-rats were going to gloat over their causing a break in production, they said. They watched it loaded on to the tram and chuckled gleefully when the trammie spread his butterfly cape over the clay plug and seated himself on it, before clucking to his horses to start them on their journey to the mill.
After he’d gone the bullocky unyoked his team, and he and the breaker-out set off back. They were finished for the day. The bushmen cut a few more logs, but their hearts were no longer in their work. They were waiting for the knock-off whistle to blow; or rather, they were waiting to see if it did blow. Under normal circumstances its shriek would shatter the stillness exactly on the hour. Farmers out on the clearing would set their watches by it. It would be heard four times a day when the mill was cutting, and it was never wrong. The chap who blew it tended the mill boiler, and lived only for his fire, his head of steam, and his whistle. He was at his happiest when the steam was screaming out of the safety valve and the gauge needle touched 120 pounds.
When the bed of embers glowed six inches deep along his fire bars and the water sight-glass showed the boiler to be a quarter full, he permitted his gaunt frame a little rest from the searing heat, and gazed with satisfaction at his watch hanging from a nail on a beam beside his neatly framed second-class ticket in steam. In an hour, a minute, or a moment, he’d be able to display his unique artistry on the lanyard of the whistle. Anybody could give the thing a tug and it would roar obligingly, but no other hand was able to bring in the weird dying note to the blast that went on and on, growing ever fainter, until a listener was unable to tell exactly the moment it ceased. This dying note was the cry of anguish from the spirits of those who had crossed the boilerman’s path during the day and had been contemptuously consigned to the flames.
Up in the bush, the two bushmen consulted their watches. Five o’clock came and went and no signal came from the mill. At a quarter past they grinned broadly.
“Guess she worked,” said the silent one.
They gathered their tucker-bags and set off down the tram track. About halfway home they met the mill boss.
“Oh,” he said sarcastically, “here come Charlie Chaplin and Al Capone. Whose bright idea was it to send in the log with the beehive in it?”
“What beehive?” they asked almost together.
“Was there a beehive?” asked the talkative one. “We never saw no beehive, did we, Bert?”
The other shook his head.
“Funny we never saw it,” he went on wonderingly, “because where there’s a beehive there’s always bees. ‘Ave you noticed that? They come out in thousands when the tree hits the ground. P’raps they was all knocked out with the crash.”
The silent one stopped kicking idly at the sawdust ballast between the sleepers and took his pipe from his mouth, disclosing a tooth worn to half the length of its fellows through champing its way through innumerable pipe-stems. It was evident he was going to speak.
“We might’ve been stung,” he said plaintively.
The boss was not a tolerant man. He cursed the two bushmen briefly and to the point before striding back down the track to his house—on his way making a big circle round the mill.
When the two bushmen reached the mill, they found the place deserted except for one figure toiling wraithlike in a cloud of steam from an open valve. It was the stoker, assembling a steam hose to deal with the bees that had given up all hope of repairing their hive and were intent only on revenge. The log from which they were issuing at any movement, lay upon the breaking-down bench with the first flitch lying beside it. This first cut had opened up the hive, from which honey was dripping into the sawdust below.
Bees swarmed throughout the mill and occasionally penetrated the stoker’s smoke-screen, only to have their spirits condemned to the flames.
The two bushmen thoughtfully watched his efforts for a while before setting out for the row of whares in which the workers lived. It was here that they met their first blue man; He was groping his way to the cookhouse, his face so swollen that his eyes were fast becoming mere slits. Somebody had daubed him generously with a blue-bag. The bushmen hurriedly washed and then they too followed him for their evening meal.
It was a sombre repast. Diners plied knives and forks clumsily with their pudgy hands and peered closely at their plates in an effort to locate their portion. Some who had become completely sightless contented themselves with mugs of tea which, by dint of long practice, they were able to manage without the gift of sight. One thing they had in common: all were painted the same ghastly shade of blue.
The bushmen alone were gay. They ate their way through their own rations with speed, and collected those of the more handicapped and ate them as well.
The talkative one talked all the time, advancing theories as to how the bees got into the mill unnoticed, and even more ingenious theories on how to get them out again. The millhands said little, excepting those who still retained some sight, and these made pointed remarks about the bump on the bushman’s bald head, which had already drawn his eyebrows up into an alert, startled expression.
“This bump on me nut?” said the bushman happily. “Oh that—that’s nothin’—I just got clobbered by a falling branch, that’s all.”