The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume IV, Number 1, Pages 12-19
This is the eighth in a series of legendary recollections of the Northwest written in 1961 by Lynn A. Hull, who had been a lumberiack for many years. The stories, written in the form of letters to his son, take place in the 1920's and 1930's.
The Four by Four Fish
Today I overheard Windy Jack pouring it out to the 15 year old whistle punk. Now the two of them were sitting down by the boat landing and I could see they both had fishing poles and were supposed to be fishing. But I knew Windy Jack and if either of those two were fishing at all it would be the whistle punk. I went down there very quietly. Windy Jack was talking and fishing, and that kid was listening and fishing. Both were doing two jobs at once - so neither noticed me when I sat down behind and listened to this:
Say, Sonny, did I ever tell you about Bill and me finding that lake down there in California? No? Well, we did and that was some lake, way up there in the mountains. We walked and climbed two days and one night to get to it. It had no water running into it and no water running out. How it got its water, I dunno, but we looked all around there, and me and Bill decided we were the first people to ever see it. So while we was a sitting there looking down in that clear water, about four hundred feet deep - I'm telling you sonny, that's a long ways down to see in water - we seen some four by four's about ten feet long (looked just like that post over there) go shooting through the water, some going that way and some going this way. "Bill" I sez, "who in Hell is down there shoving those four by fours around." "Damfiknow." "Well, some fool is gonna get hit with one."
"That was some lake!"
Well, we watched them go back and forth, this way and that way, and all at once one of those four by fours darned near stopped, and I sez to Bill, "Look at that one Bill, its gonna float to the top." You won't believe this, but that post started coiling up like a watch spring and it got real tight, then it unwound as if it was broke and as it straightened out it went sailing across that lake. We saw a lot of those four by fours coiling and uncoiling and taking off like an arrow. We tried to catch one with our fish line, but they didn't even slow down. So I sent Bill after the rope we had used to climb up with. We made a noose on the end and let it sink down to where the posts were going back and forth. It wasn't long before one sailed right through that loop and I yelled to Bill, "Pull." But he was too late. So we waited, and as there were millions of them, we didn't wait too long before another started through. I yelled "jerk," and by grannies we had one. That was the darndest thing you ever did see. When we got it on the bank we saw that it was four inches by four inches and close to ten feet long. It sure looked like a post, but it wasn't. It was some kind of a fish with the color of new gold. It had no eyes, no fins, and no tail. It was just as close to being a 4 x 4 as it could possibly be. We saw it was getting late and we'd have to get down from there sudden like. I took my hand axe and chopped off about two feet of the fish to take with us. I wrapped it in ferns and stowed it in Bill's packsack. I noticed when I cut it, there weren't any bones, not even a backbone. It was just solid fish meat. We got down from there and cooked some of that fish, and let me tell you that was the tastiest fish I had ever eaten. Now I knew Bill and I had something big - too big for us alone; so I wrote to a big fish cannery offering to go in pardners with them in selling these fish to the public. In a few days a city slicker got off the train. I performed the introductions, and we proceeded up the mountain to the lake - but not before we had him sign a paper that we were 50-50 pardners. You ought to have seen that fellow's face when we got to the lake and brought up a fish; right then he began figuring and figuring.
Silent Bill had brought a jug along and began drinking while I told the man how long and hard we had worked to grow such fine fish. I said that we were poor people now after having spent 2 million dollars on research, and only had enough left to fight him in every court in the land if he was figuring to beat us out of our rights. Then that city slicker spoke up, "No siree bob I wasn't figuring that way, I was figuring whether to move our cannery up here or not. We would have to build a railroad, - move a crew in, and build houses. You know how cannery workers are - after awhile they want more rooms on the houses, a school, and a lot of other things. I've been looking this over and I think it will work. When the war ended, we had a large contract for meat canceled, and since then we've had over 10 million empty cans, all the same size as these fish, four by four by four inches tall. If we can get these fish down to the railroad, I'll put in a slicing machine and a couple of men to pack them in the tins and a couple of more men to crate them and load into refrigerated cars where they can be shipped to our cannery in town and cooked. How about a drink pardner?"
The city dude took a healthy drink, and as Bill watched his likker disappear, I was thinking of how one logger I knew had gotten his logs down from a mountain very similar to this, so I sez, "Mister, I have an idea that's worth trying, and I'll give it to you for another raise in our percentage, instead of a 50-50 deal we'll take 70-30 and I'll tell you what it is." "55-50" "Nope 65-35" "60-40 and that final." So we took 60-40 and tore up the old agreement and made a new one and we all signed it. Then I told him, "Flume."
"It's some kind of fish!"
"Yea, you know a trough running down to the railroad with water in it, just like a ditch. "
"It'll work," he said, "yes sir, it'll work. Hey bring that jug back here."
But Bill was on his way home, and I knew that jug just held enough in it to keep him supplied until he got another. The city slicker was out of luck. Well, anyway the flume was built and a hole knocked in the bottom of that lake and those 4" x 4" x 10' fish started shooting 14 miles down the flume. They had formed a pile about 500 feet high before we lost our faith in big business.
"Fish" shooting down the flume
"What happened?" sez the whistle punk.
"What happened?" He had men to load and he had a big slicer and men to run it, but it ran by electricity, and there wasn't an outlet within 90 miles.
"What did you do, Mr. Jack?"
"Well, Hell kid, we moved away from there. And so Sony if you ever get to California, and you get a whiff of air that is plum bad, you'll know you're within a hundred miles or so of that fish pile.
They left and as they did I kept right on swallowing, trying to get that story down into my system.
Windy Jack goes Blind
Last Sunday was a day that I'll never forget - never as long as I live. Early in the morning before the breakfast gong would call one and all to eat, Silent Bill came to my door and very calmly announced, "You come, Jack blind, very much." Knowing him and his odd ways, I knew this was serious.
So, following Silent Bill we were in their shack in a couple of minutes and there Windy Jack lay on his bunk, a towel covering his face and moaning, "I can't see - light the lantern, is it still night? Is the sun up, where is everybody?"
"No oil in lantern - not dark - sun way up, you blind, Jack." This was one of the longest speeches I'd ever heard from Silent Bill. He was a little brutal in his talk, but that was the way of him - short and sweet - why elaborate when it's just more talking to do. Well, this set Windy Jack off into more wailings and beggings of any and all to help him. I didn't know what to do to help but I had to do something. So I started by taking the towel off from his face to see if both eyes were there. I had visions of empty eye sockets - eyes that had been gouged out - his face a shapeless mass. But when I steeled my nerves and looked, there was that same old fat face - but fatter as both eyes were swelled completely shut. In the first aid kit were ointment for poison ivy, iodine, and one small tube labeled "eye ointment." I smeared his eyes with this, covered them with gauze, and used one of his handkerchiefs to hold gauze in place. Then I said, "Keep this on at all times, no bright lights, and I will be in this afternoon to see you. Good day." I could hear him moaning to Silent Bill about how helpless he was, how much of a burden he would be, but how he had lots of guts and would learn to take care of hisself in just a short time.
"I can't see - light the lantern!"
I did worry about him and went back a lot earlier than I intended as I couldn't understand what was wrong. Many thoughts raced through my mind as to what happened, but as usual I was a long ways off in my guesses. On returning to their shack I saw not everything looked the same as it had when I was there before. But one thing was changed: instead of listening to Windy Jack, Silent Bill was now drinking and being natural again. Well, that was good, and so was the shot of moonshine that Silent Bill gave me. I needed that drink and had many more before Windy Jack quit talking long enough for me to ask a few questions. But Windy Jack had the floor at present and wasn't to be stopped; so I sat down by Silent Bill and helped him in his work of listening and drinking. Windy Jack now told us his plans. First we had to find some hickory to make canes for him. (Hickory - my god, I'd have to go back East for that - it doesn't grow in the North West that I knew of). Also he wanted them cured and painted white - all with a band of copper on their tips, but the one he would use on Sunday had to have its band made of pure silver. "Now that not too much for a poor blind man to ask for, is it?" he asked. And on he went about how he had heard of blind people who were sent to Frisco or New York to live and sleep with a hound so that the blind man could get around the streets while he was begging for enough money to buy a soup bone and feed both of them - soup for poor old Windy Jack who was teetotally blind and couldn't see a lick and had nary a friend in this whole dark world, and the bone for his only true friend - that hound dog of his. As he imagined his new life he complained how he was lucky if he got 10 cents from those happy carefree people who had eyes to see where they were going and didn't fall down and get hurt every other step.
Finally, I got a word in "My God, that sure is going to take money to send you to some school. I wonder how we'll get it."
"Well, if that's the way you are, you stingy little runt, I'll stay right here in camp and you and poor old Bill will have to lead me around, you're just like those people I was begging from, a hard hearted, close-fisted, no good runt."
"Well, we ought to think up something until we get hold of some money," I said. Now Silent Bill quit drinking long enough to say, "Me train dog - use old Buster." Buster was a big fat lazy no good mutt who hung around the cookhouse - too lazy to even scratch, much less to lead a blind man, but for once Windy Jack was all for some one else's ideas, and he began to make plans for the harness and all the different commands that were needed. He told Silent Bill to start now as he wouldn't last long without his daily exercise.
The next morning here came Windy Jack being towed by that dog - and the dog being towed by Silent Bill. At every chuck hole Silent Bill would yell "Stand," and Windy Jack would jerk that dog down on his tail; after a pause Silent Bill would yell "Mush" and he'd jerk the dog to his feet, and Windy Jack would jab him with a piece of broom handle. Well, this went on for three or four days.
Windy Jack and guide dog
Everybody cheered him on: "Isn't he brave." "He sure has guts." "I hope if I ever get that way I'll be half as brave as he is." Then I noticed something peculiar - Windy Jack never stumbled, and he jabbed that dog right in the seat every time. I went by Windy Jack and as I was about to pass I dropped a five dollar bill. When I put my foot down on it a hand was there first. Yep, Windy Jack could see. So I said, "Windy Jack this has gone long enough, and if you don't want to go to town with me and see the owner, you'd better tell me what happened."
He immediately gave in. "Well, it was last Saturday." He said "I was helping those engineers move parts for the donkey engine and I carried the spark arrester (a screen shaped to fit over smokestacks to keep fire brands from setting fire to the woods - a law in the North West and very rigidly obeyed and enforced by both owner and rangers) All the time the mosquitos were biting. I was always swatting, first on my back, then in my arms. Finally I put one of the cylindrical arresters over my head an shoulders. 'By Grannies,' sez I, 'let 'em bite through that.' But they didn't have to. They just flew through wherever they wanted as that darn mesh was too wide and clouds of those pesky mosquitos came in around my face in a swarm. I couldn't do a thing. 'Why didn't I take it off?' I couldn't as those small wires were bent upwards all around the bottom and I was stuck. I couldn't get it off as those wires went through my clothes and into my hide. I couldn't even swat those mosquitos, my arms were pinned too. If it hadn't been for a moonshiner coming along with a pair of wirecutters, I'd have been et alive. He got me out of there and offered me a drink and I durn near took it - but I had another thought."
"I couldn't get it off."
"What are you getting at now?" "Well, Boss I'm a quick thinker. So I sez to the moonshiner, 'By Grannies, your likker has got alcohol in it, hasn't it?' 'A little.' 'Well, pour it on my haid, that will kill the pizen,' and he did, but durned if I know whether the mosquitos pizened me and swole up my eyes or whether it was that likker."
Well, I don't reckon anyone will know - all I knew was that my terrible week was over.