At a flag stop in Louisiana, a big, yellow-haired man named Jules stepped off a day coach at a settlement of twelve houses and a shoebox station. He was the only passenger to get off, and as soon as his right foot touched the cinder apron of the depot, the conductor pulled the step stool from under his left heel, the air brakes gasped, and the train moved in a clanking jerk of couplers.
Remembering his instructions, he walked south down a weedy spur track and found a geared steam locomotive coupled to a crew car and five empty flats. The engineer leaned out from his cab window. "You the evaluatin' man?"
Jules put down his bag, glanced up at the engineer and then around him at the big timber rising from oil-dark water. "Well, ain't you informed. I guess you got a newspaper back in these weeds or maybe a sawmill radio station?"
The engineer looked as though all unnecessary meat had been cooked off of him by the heat of his engine. "The news goes from porch to porch, anyhow." He spat on the end of a crosstie. "I know somebody better buy this place who knows what he's doin'." He nodded to the rear of his train. "Load yourself on the crew car."
The locomotive steamed backwards into a never-cut woods, the homemade coach rocking drunkenly over rails that in places sprang down under mud. After a few miles, the train backed out of the cypresses into the smoky light of a mill yard, and Jules stepped off the car as it drifted on like a wooden cloud making its own sleepy thunder. Surveying the factory, he saw it was larger than the Texas operation he'd just helped to close down, which was already rusting toward oblivion, marooned in the middle of eight thousand acres of drooling pine stumps. The new mill before him was a series of many iron-roofed, gray-plank structures connected with the logic of vegetation: a towering saw shed sprouted a planing section, and suckering off of it was the boiler house and many low-peaked shelters for the finished lumber. He stood in an evil-smelling mocha puddle, looking in vain for dry ground, then bent to tuck his pants inside his boots. As he straightened up, a man in a white shirt and vest came out of the back door of a weatherboard house and began walking toward him. When he was two hundred feet away, Jules could tell by his star that it was only the constable come to see what outlander had happened onto the property. Beyond him, the sawmill gnawed its trees, and jets of steam plumed high over the cinder-pocked rooftops, skidding off to the west, their sooty shadows dragging across the clearing. A safety valve opened with a roar above the boiler house, a man hollered down at the log pond, and a team of eight fly-haunted mules, their coats running with foam, dragged a mud sled overloaded with slabs bound for the fuel pile. Jules looked at his watch. It was a half hour until lunch time, and everybody on shift was working up to the whistle.
The constable, a solemn-looking man, big in the shoulders, walked up slowly. "Do you have business here?" He pushed back a one-dent Carlsbad hat and stared, deadpan, like an idiot or a man so distracted he'd forgotten to control the look in his eyes.
"I got an appointment with the manager to go over some figures." Jules reached out and took the constable's hand but dropped it as soon as he could without giving offense, thinking that if a corpse could shake hands, it would feel like this.
"Some figures," the man said, as if the phrase held a private meaning. From behind him came a strangled shout and the report of a small pistol, sharp as a clap, but he didn't turn around.
Jules stepped up onto a crosstie. "I helped ramrod the Brady mill in east Texas until we cut out last month. The owner, well, he lives up North and sent word for me to come over into Louisiana to look for a new tract. Maybe two, if they're small." In the distance three men fell fighting out the doorway of what Jules guessed was the company saloon. "This is my eighth mill in as many days."
Excerpted from The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux. Copyright© 2003 by Tim Gautreaux. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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