Wednesday, 16 December 2015 12:05

Letters from a Conservative Farmer: The Last Deal

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer: The Last Deal

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

No one knew it at the time.

The first news I had of it was one November afternoon when I saw Joe coming across the fields from the west and I hailed him. He came in holding a broken chain from a saw in his hand.

What're you doing?

I asked as I set a cup of tea before him.

Logging with Angus.

He smiled.

Boy, he's got some great "shine!"

His eyes were shining.

We got a deal. The storekeeper supplies the grub and gas, and when he sells the logs in spring we divvy the profits.
How much is Angus cutting?

He looked down at his cup.

He's the swamper, so he doesn't have to do much yet. Besides, he has to take care of the Boy.

The swamper cuts the skid trail to get the logs out. I understood the deal now. Angus was the most plausible con man I had ever known, far famed for talking men into partnerships in which the partner did all the work and there wasn't much profit at the end. I could see how this was going: Joe was in the woods all day and then Angus fobbed him off with a glass of "shine" at the end of the day.


he said, taking out a small notebook.

The storekeeper showed me how to tally the logs. You measure inside the bark.

I turned the pages. He'd sure felled a lot of trees, all measured and tallied.

Quite a job,

I said, returning the notebook.

You know the price of logs?
I sold pine last spring for $100 a thousand. But most of yours is spruce and hemlock.
Yeah, but there's a lot of it.

After he left I thought about him. He was a Newfie - what Canadians call Newfoundlanders - happy go lucky, a good worker but easily led astray, as with the "shine." A fisherman, he'd come ashore to work in the woods so he wouldn't be separated from his wife and kids. God help him in the hands of Angus.

We didn't own a vehicle, so sometimes, when the storekeeper was going to Sydney, I'd go with him to get supplies, and thus we were driving together one morning in late January. Cape Bretoners are even more reticent than most country people, especially around strangers, but it was just my outsider status that attracted the storekeeper - he could tell me things he'd never reveal to another Cape Bretoner. I asked him about the deal with Angus and Joe, and he was quite frank about it.

It started about 30 years ago, not long after I bought the store. Angus's wife died and left him with the Boy, born retarded. Children's Aid helped him out. I think nowadays it's $100 a month. Whatever it was over the years, it was just enough for the two of 'em. Summers he picked up a little here and there, but when winter came he had to dip into the grocery money for liquor and tobacco and such. So he came to me with a deal - I disremember what it was, I've done so many deals with him over the years. I'd furnish the grub and so on, he'd do the work, and we'd split the profits.

He looked over at me.

You know Angus. He got somebody else to do the work, they drew their rations, and somehow in the end there wasn't much profit.

He shook his head.

The first few years, Angus skinned me. Skinned me. But over the years I learned, and I guess now we're about even. I'm probably the only man on the island can say that.

I thought about deals and how common they used to be before the war when the only credit for country people was in the hands of storekeepers, the great powers in the old countryside. We talked about it.

Money was mighty scarce then and people paid their bills with just about anything: oysters and eels and cod, herring, too, and smelt. Hand-hewn railroad ties, pulpwood, firewood, logs, ax handles, hand-knit socks and mittens and sweaters.

He was silent, seeming to savor the things.

If you made the deal with a woman, it was simple, cut and dried, but with men it was different, I don't know why. Maybe because men take pleasure in rolling words on their tongues, doing great things just with words. Men have leaned on my counter and described the fattest oysters, the biggest cod, the tallest trees, and everything was perfect, something to dream about. And there they stayed, in dreams. . . . I don't know if I can explain what I've always felt about deals. It isn't the money, it's the dream, of piles of sound straight logs, of nets full of shining herring, and the way I see it the sun is shining and the light shows up things as they really are, perfect, a dream of perfect things that's more than the things themselves. Can you understand that?

he asked earnestly.

Oh yes. It's an old dream and you're not the first man to have had it.

A week later I got a note in the mail from the storekeeper.

Meet me tomorrow at 10 at the end of your lane with the team. I have to see Angus.

It is impossible to drive into Angus's because the lane is impassable. The road went past our mailbox for a half-mile and there was the lane.

The storekeeper climbed into the box on the sleds and I asked what was up.

He told me Laverne (Joe's wife) turned up in the store two days ago to get supplies and made a fuss about all the trees Joe had felled and how much money was being paid for lumber, and how she was determined on her rights: no more hamburger and stew meat, she wanted steak and TV dinners. He sighed.
I give 'em good grub - but steak and TV dinners!

When we turned into Angus's lane he said he'd sent a note to Angus to go to the woods and check. The house was a substantial two-storey farmhouse, very dilapidated now. He was tearing up the porch to burn in the stove, so we had to watch our step.

Angus was sitting in front of the kitchen range, his feet in the oven, wearing a sheepskin-lined overcoat patched with masking tape. He amazed me, as he always did; charming, gracious, speaking in a precise baritone, in the midst of squalor but seeming to be detached from the scene. He spoke at once.

I suppose Laverne stirred you up, eh? Somebody told her the price of logs and she's been calculating ever since. Well, it's true. Even with the snow I could see it. It's the primest stand of timber I've even seen, and Joe's done a fine job. There's plenty more to fell. It goes on and on.

He flung his arms wide.

I had never before seen the storekeeper at a loss. He stared at Angus for a long moment and then he asked about the lay of the land.

I've seen worse. And I've seen a lot better, too. It's a long haul, too. I don't think a tractor could do much.
A bulldozer?

the storekeeper said. Angus shook his head.

You don't want a made road.
A tree farmer then. . . . I'll see what I can do.

Pausing at the door, he asked if Angus knew Laverne? Angus smiled and blew a kiss at him. He said:

A lady of great charm.

We went out laughing, but I could see the storekeeper was preoccupied, and he only absently thanked me when I left him at his truck.

The winter wore on. Joe felled trees, Angus gave him a glass of "shine" at the end of the day, and Laverne drove the storekeeper to distraction. He remained his imperturbable self, however, and that sharpened her resentment, so she hectored Joe for continuing to work for two schemers when anyone could see he'd never be paid. In April, when his cousin at the Strait offered him a job on his trawler, he gave up the woods and left Laverne to break the news after she got the last groceries. She also told the storekeeper they would expect a prompt settlement. Of course, he said, with his best storekeeper smile, just as soon as we get those logs out.

He had been working on that with no success (as I would learn much later). Then he got a break. An Indian from a Reserve on the other side of the island who owed him a big bill was complaining about his money troubles when he said

Now the bloody finance company is after my tree farmer, the only thing I got to make money with.

Next day the Indian began work, keeping his machine in the heart of the unfrequented Backlands. He even took the precaution of bunking there, knowing his house would be watched. Unfortunately, he had to use the Grand Narrows ferry to get on the peninsula, and once the investigator talked to the ferrymen, it was just a matter of driving the roads, looking for a pile of logs. Still, he hauled out a lot of wood, or so it would seem to anyone who hadn't seen what had been cut.

The storekeeper sold the logs at once to the mill at Mabou, and several big truckloads were hauled away. I saw them, and they were the largest loads of logs I've ever seen. What they amounted to only the storekeeper and sawyer knew, and he forgot it as soon as he sawed the logs. He stopped in the store one day when I was there and asked the storekeeper if he knew

. . . a hard bottle blond from hereabouts wanted to find out the tally on some logs I bought off you a while back.
Could describe some of my relatives

the storekeeper answered with a smile.

Had a devil of a time getting rid of her. Told her you were such a horse thief I wouldn't dare buying anything off you anyway.

The storekeeper laughed but said nothing.

Laverne tried the direct approach next. Going to the store on Friday evening, the busiest time of the week, she staged a loud scene. After the second time, the storekeeper sent a note to Joe's cousin at the Strait. Very early one morning we were returning to the house from the stable, carrying the milk pails, when Joe drove up.

I just got off the boat. The storekeeper wants to see me right away. I want you to back me up.
Just let me strain the milk.
I wouldn't be any help backing him against the storekeeper, but I was curious.
This better be the payoff

he muttered several times as we drove the five miles into town.

The storekeeper was just opening up, but he relocked the door after us and led us to his desk in the back, setting a chair for Joe. I leaned against the wall. The storekeeper started off praising Joe for all the work he had done, and then he leaned across the desk, and still speaking pleasantly, only very slowly and distinctly, he said,

Angus doesn't own the land where you felled those trees. That's Crown land. Those trees were stolen. If Lands and Forests found out, you, me, and Angus would be fined for everything we were worth and sent to jail. That's the God's honest truth. Just ask around about Angus. He hasn't felled a tree on his own land for years - he skinned it years ago - but he's sold pulp and lumber every year. That's why we had such a hard time getting a tree farmer in there, and that's why we can't take out any more logs. Do you see?

Joe nodded, scared to death.

All right. Look.

He took a pile of slips from the drawer and rendered Joe an accounting of his expenses: $1957.43 for groceries, cigarettes, gas, oil, spark plug, three replacement chains.

And I fed Angus and the Boy all that time, too. I hardly made a cent on that deal. But because I appreciate the work you did, and because the way things are you can never be paid for all those trees you felled, I'm going to give you this

handing him two crisp $100 bills.

Are we quits?

They shook hands.

One other thing . . .

the storekeeper said, his hand on Joe's shoulder as they started for the door.

I know you won't be able to keep this a secret from Laverne. And women don't seem to understand what we have to go through to make a living on this godforsaken island. But if you want to keep out of jail, don't let her say a word!

One summer day three years later we were driving back from Sydney in his truck when I mentioned what he called "My Last Deal" - Angus and Joe and his family were long gone from the Backlands.

So that's why you had trouble hiring a guy with a tree farmer?
Trouble! I was amazed at how far Angus's reputation spread. Nobody would touch it. There wasn't much said, things like "You think I'm crazy?" til one day a fella in Aberdeen said his machine cost $38,000 and he knew damned well what would happen if he got caught hauling Angus's logs. I was damned lucky with that Indian.

Instead of stopping at our lane he drove on to the end of the road and Angus's lane, now full of brush. There was a junked car rusting away there. The storekeeper looked around and finally said, sort of moaning,

My Waterloo!

I laughed and he had to smile, I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd gone into those woods and seen logs scattered all around, maybe as many as were hauled out, slowly rotting into the ground. I couldn't tell him because I know that whatever he says now, he's a dreamer, and when he dreams he sees the trees as he must have seen them in the vision he had when Angus first described them to him: the white snow lying on the land in long levels and smooth curves, the dark trunks rising straight before him, up and up to their wide spreading crowns, green in the last light of a darkening winter day. *

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