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Sparks flew into the dark sky from the fat black stack and died in the night, as an unseen hand shoveled more coal into the fire box. The thrashing propeller and the chuffing of the steam engine concealed the increasing sounds of the lake, of waves sloshing higher against the low riding sides of the big cumbersome raft. The wind had come up, just a little more, as they passed Houghton Point. Jarl (call me Jack) Rylston didn't like the uncertain feel of it, but it didn't mean a whole lot, far as he knew. The wind had shifted and now blew more strongly out of the northeast he knew. It blew directly into the open mouth of the long bay called Chequamegon, pronounced Shwamagun. In his three winters late in the 1890's working in the big woods of northern Wisconsin, Rylston had learned little about the weather on the big lake. True, he'd frequently heard men in camp talking about it, about the sudden storms the big lake brewed up. There were stories about boats that foundered in the steep waves, about the men lost, their bodies gone forever in the deep cold lake. Superior, the biggest lake in the country, they said. The fishermen who told those tales wrestled out a different sort of living in the summer months and only went into the woods when the heavy snow came and the big lake froze.
This wind out of the northeast had that raw, reckless feel of a coming storm. If it had been full winter, he'd expect snow by morning. If it was still full winter, this way of getting out of the woods would not have been possible. The water would have been frozen as far as one could see and no boats would have been on the move. Even so, the cold dark waters made him uneasy. But hiding in Bayfield was no longer something he could abide. He'd heard rumors and some of the men in the bars where he had been spending too much time after he slipped out of the Wisconsin woods early were giving him the evil eye.
Rylston shifted on the log. He was not used to the surging, moving platform under him. He had never been a river pig, riding the roaring spring drives of winter-cut timber down the snow-melt swollen streams to the gathering places, the mills farther south in Wisconsin, or to the shore of the lake to wait for the rafting tugs. He was a teamster. His job was to drive the team of big Belgians with their towering loads of heavy logs down the icy trails and back-country roads to the river banks. What he knew about the lake was almost nothing. It was too cold to swim in, too far to see across and dangerous, regardless of the time of year. He set his boots more firmly on the big oak log and hunched over, cold, horny, hands gripping the long pike pole to steady himself. Somewhere he had lost his heavy mitts, probably in the saloon he'd left so precipitously. When he clenched his left fist, the back of his hand tingled and he could feel the scab from the knife wound grab at the skin. The wound had opened again and there was a warm wetness on his skin. He adjusted his balance on the restless logs under his feet. A single slip in the dark would be his last. He could suffer a smashed leg or worse between the big rough timbers. There was a bite to the air and Rylston used one hand to pull his sheepskin coat more tightly around his wiry body.
Loggers did not ride the big rafts across the lake, although tugboat captains sometimes hired a man to ride at the back of the boat and keep a weather eye on the timber they were dragging through the water. Fortunately for Rylston, this one had no boom watcher. Normally, they did not haul logs into the bay at night, either. But spring had been long in coming this year. The ice went out late and then storms on Lake Superior had kept the boats in their slips while the winter cut waited in the bays and at the stream mouths along the lake. Now, the Ashland mills that lined the shore at the foot of the bay were getting low on timber. If hauling logs across Lake Superior was risky, riding a boom at night was more so, even during the calmest of times. Rylston knew he had to get away, out of Bayfield, out of timber country. An acquaintance in town was found to ferry him out to the boom as it eased on by the little harbor at Bayfield. It had cost him and he had tipped the boy almost his last quarter. He could never risk slipping back to the camp to collect the wages owed him. Nor dared he to try to make it on foot the thirty miles to the railhead at Ashland. The last snowfall had made overland travel near impossible. That preacher, Ames, was his name, had told how tough it was to travel from camp to camp when the heavy spring snows fell. The few roads around the lake were no better. A ride across the bay was the quickest and the best way to slip town, long as the ice was out. He would grab a freight train and be heading south to lose himself in Milwaukee or Chicago before they knew he was gone.
The wind freshened and the white and yellow pine and hemlock moved even more restlessly under their heavy load of hardwoods. The huge chained logs that formed the outside floating fences smacked together and began to surge against the insistent pull of the steamer . It would take little for the whole thing to come apart. Rylston had heard of it -- timber loose and washing up days and weeks later on the shore of the bay to be scavenged by settlers. He thought about moving farther back so if anything happened he would be closer to open water. Then he remembered how cold the water was and shrugged. There was no place to go now except down the bay. Above him, the featureless black sky, full of thick clouds, looked down uncaringly.
The waves and the wind rose quickly after that and the logs began to bound through the water, struggling against the confinement of the perimeter chains. The noise grew louder. Rylston thought he heard the sound of timbers sundering, and glanced over his left shoulder. He did not hear the snapping sound of a faulty link in the tow chain that parted somewhere toward the back when the boom started to break apart and logs to pile up. Nor did he hear the explosion that sent a .44 caliber lead slug into the back of his head and blew away his life.
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