Read Riding the Flume Online

Authors: Patricia Curtis Pfitsch

Riding the Flume


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To Jack, who sees Truth in contradictions

•   Acknowledgments   •

riting may be a solitary occupation, but each book depends not only on the author's imagination, but also on the help and goodwill of other people. I want to thank my agent, George Nicholson, and my editor, David Gale, both for their confidence in me and for their sound writing advice.

Thanks to the members of my critique group for their unfailing support and their extreme patience in reading these chapters in their roughest form. And last, but certainly not least, thanks to my family. You are the foundation upon which I'm able to build my dreams, and the most important part of everything I do.

Readers always ask me whether the places and people in my novels are real. In the case of
Riding the Flume
, the setting bears a conscious and yet not-exact resemblance to the area west of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
in California. Connorsville and St. Joseph are made-up towns, and Connor's Basin is also an imaginary place. However, one of the longest lumber flumes ever built had its beginning point in Millwood, California, a town that no longer exists but that used to lie northwest of what is now Kings Canyon National Park. This flume carried lumber out of the mountains down to Sanger, a small town east of Fresno, California. It was fifty-four miles long, twenty miles longer than the lumber flume I've created for
Riding the Flume,
but not as dangerous to ride. As for the people, no character in this book bears any intentional resemblance to any real person, living or dead.

•   Prologue   •

ll week the Sierra Lumber Company's best axmen had swung their double-bitted axes, chopping little by little into the spongy red bark and then the bright, fragrant heartwood of the ancient sequoia tree. It had seemed impossible, like two ants taking tiny bites out of a tall man's ankle. How could something so small as a man with an ax conquer something so huge as a giant sequoia? But it had been done before. The sound of the chopping was sharp and steady in the clear mountain air.

As soon as the axmen had made a huge seven-foot-high notch in the trunk, the sawyers had gone to work on the other side of the tree. They'd already welded two crosscut saws together to make one long saw about twenty-five feet long. Two men each took one end of the saw. Its sharp teeth looked like a monstrous giant's grin.

From where the sawyers stood they couldn't even see
the notch, a dark and weeping wound on the other side of the tree. Back and forth they drew the saw, and it slowly slid into the bark. The sawyers made it seem easy, but it was clear from the sweat running down their faces that it was much harder than it looked. Deeper and deeper the saw sank into the tree until it had almost reached the notch. And then the sawyers stopped.

The felling of the first sequoia in Connor's Basin was going to be an event for the whole town to celebrate. Thomas Connor would see to that. The top of his carriage was visible over the crowd as he led the townspeople to the grove—they came in buggies, in wagons, and on foot. Nobody wanted to miss it.

A small platform had been hastily built not far from the dying giant. Thomas Connor gestured, and his driver pulled the carriage up beside the platform. Connor stepped from the carriage, straightened the coat of his neat black suit, and then turned to help his wife and his daughter, seating them on the chairs waiting for them on the platform. Mrs. Connor's face was hidden by the dark veil of her wide-brimmed hat. Her fancy dress, with its full skirts and puffed sleeves, would have been out of place here in the woods on a regular day, but today was as special as the Fourth of July.

Thomas Connor raised his arms over his head, and the noisy chatter of the crowd died away. The woods were empty for once of the pounding of axes, the crash of trees
falling, the screeching of the logs as they were dragged along in the wooden chutes to the mill, and the shouts and curses of the lumbermen. It was so silent the people could actually hear the birds calling and twittering in the branches of the trees hundreds of feet overhead.

“We are gathered here today to celebrate the beginning of the Sierra Lumber Company's most daring venture.” Connor's loud voice was a bit muffled among the great trees, as if their fibrous bark was absorbing the sound. “I am here to put the rumors to rest. Far from being on the edge of bankruptcy as some have claimed, we are now stronger than ever.” He gestured around him. “Here you see the latest in technology, engineering, and the genius of mankind. Yes, bringing all this together in one place has been expensive. And I am proud of all the loyal lumbermen who were willing, even eager, to give up their weekly paychecks to make this possible.”

Some of the loggers nodded, their faces glowing. But others frowned. Sometimes when the paychecks were withheld, there were near riots in the lumber camp. But not many quit; with the depression on, jobs were few and far between.

“Eager, my foot,” grumbled old Ben. He took his unlit cigar from his mouth and spit onto the ground. He'd been one of the finest axmen of his time, everyone said, but now his fingers were so knotted with rheumatism he could barely hold an ax. This year he'd been hired on as foreman
of the crew; his hands didn't work anymore, but there was nothing wrong with his voice.

“Now all our efforts have come to fruition.” Connor raised his voice a notch over the grumbles. “Each tree in this grove will yield as much as six hundred thousand board feet of lumber—enough to build forty complete houses.” He turned, surveyed the grove, and looked again at his audience. “All the houses in the great state of California could come from this very grove. Citizens of Connorsville, your future looks bright. And to prove it to you, I'm going to raise every salary fifteen cents a day, starting today!”

Cheers and whistles erupted from the crowd, and some of the men threw their caps in the air. Fifteen cents!

“Huh!” Old Ben grumbled again. “Easy enough to owe a dollar and fifteen cents a day as to owe a dollar,” he growled.

“Now, if you people will be so good as to stand back,” Connor was saying, “we'll bring this old giant down and start earning our fifteen-cent raise.” He offered his hand first to his wife and then to his daughter, helping them into the waiting carriage. He stepped in and the carriage moved away, followed by the townspeople—a human river flowing down the hill and up to a rise about two hundred feet away.

Throughout the week, as the giant saw had been moving closer and closer to the notch, other men had been
hammering huge steel wedges into the slice made by the blade. This kept the enormous weight of the tree from trapping the saw forever in the middle of the giant trunk. Now, at Connor's signal, more wedges were hammered into the ever-widening crack, forcing the tree to lean in the proper direction. The minutes crawled by and the ringing of ax on steel continued, filling the air with the tuneless pounding. Then, majestically, the ancient tree began to topple. At first it seemed as if a slight breeze was ruffling the leaves, which were almost out of sight at the top of the tree. The trunk began to sway and creak, and then to lean, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Popping and cracking louder than gunshots, the enormous trunk hurtled toward the earth. It hit the forest floor with the force of an explosion, as if they'd blasted half the mountainside away with a ton of gunpowder. The woods were suddenly engulfed in a thick brown cloud, and then dust and debris began to shower down like rain.

On the rise where the crowd had gathered to watch the show, men began cheering and whistling. But as the dust slowly cleared, the cheers died and silence settled on the forest. The bulk of the tree could be seen stretched out on the ground. The giant trunk, once as wide as many of the houses in Connorsville were tall, had shattered into thousands of useless pieces.

Deep within the stump, a shudder was vibrating the wood, as if in reaction to sudden emptiness after centuries
of carrying the weight of the giant tree. “It's shaking,” someone cried out. “The stump is shaking.”

“Clear these people away!” Connor's voice was urgent and angry, and the lumbermen began directing the townspeople back to Connorsville. So began the logging of Connor's Basin.

•   Chapter One   •

rancie Cavanaugh lay flat on her stomach on the top of the old sequoia stump. A slight breeze billowed her skirt out around her legs and the toes of her old high-buttoned shoes pointed straight into the wood. She kept her finger firmly pressed against the 2,500th ring while she lay her head down, resting her neck. She could feel the heat of the rough sun-warmed wood against her cheek and smell the tangy-sweet scent of resin. “Twenty-five hundred years,” she whispered. And she wasn't to the center yet—there were probably at least five hundred rings left to count.

That meant the tree had been growing for three thousand years when Connor and his men had cut it down six years ago. She sat up, but kept her finger on the tree ring. “What was happening three thousand years ago?” she asked a robin who had come to perch on the upright pole of the
ladder leaning against the giant stump. He seemed totally unafraid of her. He cocked his head and examined her with one bright black eye as if to say, “Well, out with it!”

She answered slowly, thinking it out as if she were in school. “This is the year of our Lord 1894. It was almost two thousand years ago that Jesus was born.” She sucked in her breath. The tree had been over a thousand years old at the time of Christ! Maybe it had sprouted around the time Moses was leading the Hebrews through the wilderness. It was almost too much to imagine. With her free hand she stroked the wood gently as if the stump could feel her touch. But she knew it couldn't feel her. She closed her eyes. It was dead now. Like Carrie. She shook that thought away before the lump could form in her throat and leaned down to resume counting.

“Francie!” It was her mother's voice. She was coming up the path. Francie looked around, realizing too late that the sun was close to setting. She'd lost track of the time again! She grabbed the sharp stone near her hand and scratched two lines across the 2,500th ring to mark her place. Then she stood and looked down, past the swelling buttresses around the bottom of the stump, to the ground. The loggers had started their cut about twenty feet up where the trunk was thinner, so she was way too high up to jump. She sighed and swung herself onto the ladder.

She had to place her feet carefully to avoid the broken rungs as she climbed down. “No wonder the loggers left it
here when they moved,” she grumbled, hoping her mother wouldn't notice how rickety it was.

Even if a rung looked solid, she tested it before she stepped on it. She took another step, and just as she'd decided it was safe to put her whole weight on the rung, it snapped with a loud cracking sound. The ladder started to teeter, but Francie's fingers found a hole in the bark of the old stump. She gripped hard at the hole and kept the ladder upright.

Blessing the animal who'd made the hole, Francie shifted her weight until the ladder leaned solidly against the stump once again. “Maybe it was an owl,” she said, slowly uncurling her fingers, ready to grab again if the ladder moved.

The ladder held firm, but as Francie let go of the edge of the hole she felt something brush her fingertips. She fought the urge to jerk her hand away. Maybe it was a baby bird, she thought. A baby owl. Slowly she took a step up so she could get a glimpse into the hole.

Sunlight shone obligingly into the blackness, but what Francie saw was not an animal but a small cloth bag.

Francie could hear her mother's voice getting louder. In a moment she would reach the clearing. Quickly Francie drew the bag out of the hole. It was made of oiled cloth to make it waterproof and was so light, Francie thought there couldn't be anything inside. She wiggled her fingers into the opening and pulled it wide.

There was something inside after all, a folded piece of paper. She hooked her arm around the ladder, took the paper out of the bag, and unfolded it.

Meet me at Turkey Fork

half past four on Sunday.

Don't tell anyone—the only safety is in secrecy.

The handwriting was almost illegible. Francie's heart gave an unexpected lurch that made her momentarily dizzy. She didn't understand the meaning of the words, but she knew very well who had written the message. The barely readable handwriting had to be her sister Carrie's.

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