NOTE: B-Sides are peripheral stories connected to Bytown, done every Thursday by request. This week's instalment is for Sean, who asked for an exploration of a very delicate subject...
He hated the water with a passion. Seas, lakes, rivers, streams, all of it. His mother’d begged for water on her deathbed, sent him out to fetch it from the well. Never got a chance to sip it.
He hated water for a reason.
Yet here he was, standing at the edge of the Ottawa, watching lumber float on past like someone turned the river to wood. The waves lapped at his boots, and he shuffled back, almost tripping on the rocks behind him.
The foreman grinned at him, waved him forward. “C’mon, Sisk!” he bellowed. “Can’t ride ‘em from the shore!”
From the looks of it, the logs didn’t need riding at all. They did just fine on their own. But that didn’t stop the logdrivers from prancing along them like they were courting a girl at a dance, weaving this way and that, nudging errant trees with their long poles. Sisk hated the mere sight of it.
The foreman, though, didn’t much care. He gestured wildly, trying to convince Sisk to take a leap of faith—and an actual leap—and hop aboard the trail.
Sisk took a sharp breath, braced himself, and jumped!
His feet hit a log well enough that, for a moment, he thought he’d made it, and was going to be fine. He even smiled, involuntarily, for the split second it took for reality to set in. The log rolled in the water, back toward the shore, and the more Sisk’s body tried to compensate, the worse his predicament got, until he went tumbling into the water, getting a mouthful in the process.
He sputtered and gagged and pulled himself ashore as the other men laughed themselves silly at his misfortune. The foreman just grinned at Sisk, shaking his head as if to say “I told you so.”
Sisk tried to shake the water off himself, with little success. He looked miserable, felt miserable, and—if he didn’t get this job—would absolutely be miserable. From the way the others were laughing, he wasn’t getting the job. Not at all.
“What the hell is going on here?” came a voice from beyond, and the men all turned and stood at attention as a gentleman with an Irish accent stormed his way down the hill, face turning red from exertion and anger. “What’re you all laughin’ about? There’s work t’do!”
The foreman stammered like the least-confident man in the world and said: “Apologies, Mr Aylen. Just figurin’ out a new team to ride ‘em east is all.”
“A new team?” asked snarled Aylen. “A new team? What happened to the old team? O'Donnell and Lewis and the others?”
The other men stared at the ground, afraid of being asked. Sisk wondered what had happened to the old team. Drowned? God, he hoped not.
“Defected,” said the foreman, bitterly. “Crossed the river.”
“Wright,” Aylen spat. “Goddamned Wright.” He looked ready to scream, but instead turned his fury onto those nearest him; namely, Sisk: “You there! You’re a logdriver?”
“Aye,” said Sisk, not very convincingly.
“Poor driver, worse liar. Get out of my sight.”
Sisk didn’t argue, but didn’t leave, either. Aylen turned his attention to the others. “Any of you know the first thing about logdriving? Anyone?”
The other men looked just as awkward as Sisk had been, moments before. Each one tried to convince the others to speak up first, but it just ended up with a lot of whispered pleas and no actual response.
“Feh!” spat Aylen, waving his hand toward them and shouting: “Go on, go! There’s no work for fools here! Go bed for scrap somewhere else!”
“But Mr Aylen—” said the foreman, and got a quick slap to the face for his trouble.
“You want your job past the morning, you find me a team. I don’t care who, and I don’t care how, but you get me a team. Or you’ll be back at the bottom of By’s trench where I found ye. And we both know how that would go.”
Aylen turned, saw Sisk again, and his lip curled into a sneer. “Pathetic,” he said, and stormed off.
Sisk stayed at the river long after the others had gone. He had work to do, and not much time to do it.
The tavern was small and overfull, but no one seemed to mind. The money made on the river went faster than rapids in places like this. Like it was some kind of race. Like there was a prize for being broke first.
Sisk had no money for a beer, but ordered one anyway, sitting near the wall and keeping mostly to himself. His clothes still smelled damp, and his skin itched from contact with the water, but what made him stand out most of all was the way he didn’t seem to be enjoying himself one bit. The odd man out.
“Aye, aye, aye,” said one of the five drunken men at his table, slapping his friend on the shoulder while he gathered his drunken thoughts. “But I don’t know if I am, ‘s what I’m sayin’.”
His friend, a thick-set man with black hair, shrugged in a false apology. He was not drunk, and in no hurry to change it. “If you’re with her, you’re with her,” he said. “What if she’s with child, hmm? What then?”
The drunk friend seemed stymied by that. “I mean...I mean I could...”
“If she’s with child,” said the black-haired one. “She’ll be showing before you get back again. Just think on that. You get back, she’s like yea...” he mimed a round belly, and the other men laughed. “And ain’t no priest’ll marry you then.”
“Marry?” said the drunk one, blanching at the word.
“Aye, ye fool! Marry! An’ don’t say it’s never crossed your mind, ‘cause she’s all y’ever talk about, day an’ night!”
The others laughed their agreement, and the drunk one got a little quieter, a little more subdued. “I thought I’d have more time,” he said, staring into his glass. “Thought I’d have more choices ‘fore I...”
His friend wrapped an arm around him, big smile on his face. “Oh come on, O'Donnell,” he said. “New job, new wife...it’s like you’re growing up, finally. Take hold of that future, man, and don’t let go.”
The drunkard was about to answer when Sisk looked up from his beer. “O'Donnell?” he asked. “The logdriver?”
The other men at the table seemed surprised there was someone else in their midst at all. They shifted to see him, see what he was about. There wasn’t much to go on.
“Aye, that’s me,” said O'Donnell, clearly having trouble focusing on a subject other than his maybe-pregnant girl. “Who’re you?”
“Tried t’get a job like yours today,” he said. “Out on the river.”
One of the other men sniffed the air near Sisk. “Or in it,” he laughed.
“How’d it go?” asked O'Donnell. “You any good?”
“No,” said Sisk, letting out a sigh. “Not as easy as it looks, and it don’t look easy at all.”
“Amen to that,” said O'Donnell, and took a long drink of his beer. “You workin’ on the canal? In the muck?”
“No,” said Sisk. “M’arms aren’t strong enough for that kinda thing.”
“Oof,” said the dark-haired friend. “A man with weak arms’ll find it hard to get by ‘round these parts. You got any other skills?”
“I listen good,” said Sisk, and the others laughed. “So what makes a good logdriver? Strong arms?”
O'Donnell chortled, shook his head. “Light feet.”
“Good eyes,” said the friend.
“Balance,” said another.
“Loyalty?” asked Sisk, and the table quieted. They all observed him with cautious eyes, shifting in their seats. He didn’t change his stance one bit, though. Cradled his beer, expression an enigma.
“Who’re you with again?” as O'Donnell, setting his hands on the table—one right near a dull-tipped knife. “And what’d you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” said Sisk. “And I’m with no one, that’s the thing. Like you said: no work in Bytown for a man with weak arms. Not digging, not driving, not anything.”
“Listen, friend,” said the dark-haired one. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but—”
“I am good with my hands, though,” said Sisk, and sipped his beer. “That any good as a logdriver?”
O'Donnell laughed and shook his head. “Sorry, mate. Hands’re optional.”
“Hmm,” said Sisk. “Good.”
He got to the knife before O'Donnell even knew what was happening. The blade was dull, sure, but with enough force it went straight through his hand and into the table, pinning him there. The others jerked to their feet, but Sisk snatched a fork up, pressing it into the throat of the nearest man—as a warning, and a stark one.
O'Donnell was blubbering in shock, so his dark-haired friend did the talking: “What the hell are you—”
“This is the deal, lads,” said Sisk, in a voice too calm and pleasant to fit with the actions he’d just taken, or the ones he was threatening to do yet. “You’re gonna hop on over the river and beg Mr Aylen for your jobs back. At half pay, as a show of contrition.”
“Half p—” said O'Donnell, before Sisk twisted the knife and made him scream in agony.
“Half pay, and don’t forget to grovel.” He nudged the fork at the one man’s throat. “Do we have an understanding?”
The man nodded, desperate. The others nodded, too, except for the dark-haired one and O'Donnell.
“Please,” said O'Donnell, blood pooling around his hand. “Please, I’ve got a girl...”
“Aye, you can introduce me later,” said Sisk.
“No, I...” O'Donnell was starting to cry. “I need t’start a life. I wanted t’start a life with her. And there’s no way I can do that on half-pay, sir. There’s just no way. She deserves better than that.”
Sisk eased up with the fork, sighing sadly. “Aye,” he said. “I s’pose she does.”
And in the quickest of motions, he plunged the fork into O'Donnell’s jugular. Dark blood sprayed everywhere, and within seconds, the poor man’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped sideways out of his seat, unable to fall to the floor for the knife pinning him to the table.
The other men were in such shock, none of them knew what to do. The black-haired one, covered in his friend’s blood, was stammering wordlessly.
“Right,” said Sisk, pulling the knife free and letting O'Donnell fall, “four steps to your continued existence. What are they?”
He pointed the knife toward the first man, whose shaking voice said: “Beg for our jobs back.”
“Aye,” said Sisk, and pointed the knife at the next man. “And?”
“Half-pay. For half-pay.”
“Good,” said Sisk, and moved to the next victim. “And?”
“Grovel. We’ll grovel.”
“Excellent,” said Sisk, and turned his attention to the black-haired one...who blinked back confusion.
“Wh-what’s step four?” he asked.
Sisk flicked the knife around and slid it into his belt, because it was clear the resistance was done. He finished his beer—and the blood mixed into it—and smiled and said: “You tell Mr Aylen who sent you. And that I’ll start work on Monday.” He peered down at O'Donnell’s body and grinned. “After a weekend alone with the missus.”