And this was spring. The ice had already left the smaller lakes and ponds, and in the big lake it had turned black and porous, with several feet of choppy dark water showing around the miles of shoreline. Soon the salmon would begin crowding their way into the narrow inlets, eager for the nourishment washed down by the spring flood. As usual, enough would survive the countless anglers and begin strengthening themselves for the spawning race in the fall. On Main Street, where the town edges the big lake, Sam Perkins was standing on the small stone bridge.
"Well," he said to no one in particular, "a good warm wind’ll do it." He looked out across the bay. "Ice'll be out in two days. Looks like we finally got us another spring."
None of the other men leaning on the stone parapet offered any comment. There wasn't any need to. Sam was an old timer, and Sam knew.
It was early in the morning, and Sam and his fellow sages of the Bridge were well past the age when they were compelled to turn out at such an hour. Maybe they felt the need to kind of keep an eye on things. Anyway, there was always something going on by the Bridge. Already there were three people fishing for salmon. The Bridge was not the best spot for catching the really big ones, but it was good enough. Some feller from down country had won the Fishing Derby last year with one he had caught from there, but Sam and the boys were not fishing. They thought it was still a mite early. They were busy looking at the lake, predicting the weather and watching the town begin the new day.
The Diner was always the first place to open its doors. It was surprising the number of people who were in there so early. Sam got a whiff of the strong black coffee as the door opened and a man came out and got into a Chevy station wagon.
"That Lyall Paige sure makes a good cup of coffee," Sam said to Orion Moody. But he made no move toward the Diner. Tasting was good, but smelling was cheaper.
"He does, Sam." Moody was a small spider of a man, and he had to look up to Sam when he talked. "But the food ain't much. My old lady put out grub like that, I'd a' left her."
"Whatever she put out don't seem to have done you much good, and that's a fact." Bumper Sanborn looked down at Orion. There was no malice in the remark, and Orion took it as a matter of course.
"Better to be skinny like me than an old tub a' butter like you. You see who just come out of there, didn't you?" Orion knew very well they had seen Al Salter get in his car.
"Eats at the Diner every morning lately," said Sam. Al Salter was a well-worn topic.
"Little early for lovin', ain't it?" Bumper Sanborn chuckled.
"Not when I was his age," said Orion, not without pride. "When I was his age, I could love 'em up anytime—morning, noon or night."
"I figure Martha won't get up and get his breakfast no more," said Sam. "Don't know as I blame her."
"You think Christina Coppins is worth eatin' Lyall's food?" said Bumper. Eating was more important than sex in Bumper's life these days.
"I wouldn't say nothing against Christina. Nice girl no matter what she does with that feller Salter. I wonder why she never got married." Orion shook his head.
None of them made any effort to keep their voices down. The three fishermen were beginning to pay more attention to Sam and the boys than to the fish. Sam knew they had an audience. They always did.
"Christina's built comfortable enough," said Bumper.
"Built a little too close to the ground to suit me," said Orion, apparently oblivious to his own lack of stature. His wife was almost a foot taller and thirty pounds heavier than he was. He was proud of her size, almost as if he’d bought her by the pound.
"A little sprung in the butt." Sam squinted his eyes as if he were focusing on that particular part of Christina's anatomy.
"Hell, they all winds up that way in the end," said Orion. He began to cackle. "Get it? In the end."
The other two carefully ignored him.
"You seen that new feller from down country yet, Bumper?" asked Sam.
"Ayeh. Seen him for the first time the other day." Orion was still hoping to get them to laugh at his joke. He did not know anything about the new feller who bought the old Moody place so he knew they had effectively squeezed him out. He'd just have to listen to Sam and Bumper and keep his mouth shut.
"What's his name?" Sam knew they were irritating Orion.
"Reed Hunter. Nice lookin' young feller. Seems like he might be quite a hand with the ladies."
"What's he doin' up there all by himself?"
"Nobody seems to know. Built kind a' slim and wiry, but he's got some heft to his shoulders. Might make a good woodsman."
Bumper always judged men this way. He, and Rufus Peavey after him, had been considered the best axmen in the area. To have Bumper Sanborn say a man would make a good woodsman was high praise. Vernard Bolduc, the Frenchie, was the only one in the present generation who was still hiring out as a woodsman, and he had to go up to Canada every winter to earn a living at it. Timbering was only an occasional occupation locally these days.
"Maybe that feller Hunter don't need to do nothin'." Orion saw his chance to get back in the conversation. Sam and Bumper did not seem to know any more about Reed Hunter than he did. "Must have money if he ain't workin'."
"You don't have no money, and you ain't workin'," Bumper said. His tone was matter-of-fact.
"Ayeh, but he ain't a local. He can't come in brand spankin' new and go right on the town."
"That's so," Sam agreed. "Tain't much of a place up there— just an old house and a mighty pretty view. Still, it must a' cost somethin'."
"Did, if Merrill Walker sold it to him," said Orion.
"Why you suppose Walker keeps the name Jones on all them real estate signs of his? Jones been dead for ten years."
"Ayeh, but them folks from down country don't know it. Folks say he blames every hard deal on Jones," Sam chuckled. "They never find out 'til it's too late that there ain't no Jones."
"How does he stay in business?" Bumper frowned.
"Don't do business with anybody from town anymore," said Sam.
"Ain't nobody in town got any money," said Orion complacently.
"Plenty of foIks here got money, Orion," said Bumper, "only they're willin' to work. You ain't."
The talk went on.
About halfway up Wood Hill, northeast of town, thick columns of sweet steamy mist appeared above the pines. Below them, half of its steep-pitched roof open to the sky, was a sap house. This simple structure had been there for over a hundred years. Just outside it were stacked several cords of wood amidst the few remaining patches of crystalline snow. Corn snow was what the local folks called it, though it looked more like finely crushed ice or frozen slush. The cool shade of the pines and hemlocks which interspersed the maple grove kept the snow from melting entirely during the day, and the still freezing temperature of the early spring nights crystallized what remained. In the deepest parts of the forest, these patches of whiteness would sometimes last well into May.
The men inside were very busy keeping the wood fire under the evaporator at boiling temperature. One man would occasionally slice a piece of butter into the sap to keep it from boiling over. The same man would jealously maintain the sap level. If the pan were allowed to burn, the evaporator would be useless. When the sap in the last sluiceway was ready, a test scoop was taken and subjected to test by hydrometer. If satisfactory, a run-off was made through a felt-lined strainer. The result: maple syrup—New Hampshire maple syrup.
Arne Paulsen was the owner of the sap house, and he was the one who supervised the evaporating. He was a middle-aged, average-sized man with hard hands and gentle watery blue eyes —kind when they looked at you and very alert when they were attending to the important business of making syrup.
Most of the sap entered by pipe into the big container near the roof. The sap was filtered through a double layer of cheesecloth stretched across the top. Arne had laid over a mile of pipeline and had set up filling stations at strategic spots along it. These stations took care of most of the sap orchard and were relatively convenient to the buckets along the route. The men would take the pails from the spiles in the trees and dump them into the nearest filling station.
Some of the better trees were below the sap house, however, and their sap had to be carried for some distance uphill and poured directly into the main container. It was heavy work and awkward going, especially since there was no path. Most of the men took along five- and ten-gallon milk cans so they could make fewer trips. None of them ever complained about the weight. There was a wooden yoke hanging on a nail near the entrance. Nobody used it.
Sapping is a busy time. The season is extremely short and unpredictable. Moreover, sap will spoil if it is not boiled immediately. With a relatively small rig like Arne's it was a twenty four-hour operation. There is very little profit in maple syrup for a small operator. Sapping is essentially a social occasion—not that the cash money would not come in handy. Any cash money was welcome in town, and for some this would be the first they would see this year. No matter how hard they worked, there was always time for talk. The subjects did not vary much.
"I watched you steamin' and puflfin' up the hill, Joe. Lucky for Arne, he don't have to pay you nothin'."
Joe set his milk cans down on the dirt floor of the sap house and straightened up slowly. Joe was Arne's brother-in-law. He was in his middle fifties and had been a woodsman in his younger days. He now worked as a caretaker for one of the wealthier summer residents. He took a big handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck.
"Either that sap's gittin' heavier," Joe breathed, "or I'm gittin' older. Don't know which."
"Don't pay no attention to Les," said Arne turning his kind eyes on Joe. "That young buck won't be able to walk up a hill, even without a bucket a' sap, when he's as old as we are. When we was his age, we had to work for a livin'."
"You always say that, Arne," Les grinned, "and you can git away with it, too, 'cause you know we wasn't around to deny it. From what I hear, you was a real heller when you was young."
"Didn't have no time for much hellin'," said Joe; "we was working too hard."
"Shooah! Yes sah!" Les laughed.
Everybody said Lester Turner was just like his father. Neither father nor son ever seemed to have any money, but they were never on relief either. It would have been difficult to describe them in terms of any specific trade. Like his father before him, Les turned his hand to a little bit of everything. In the winter time, he cut firewood which in the spring and fall he sold to the summer folk, but he was not really in the wood business. He had a small tractor, and he was one of several men in the area who went around during May and June plowing and harrowing for people who wanted their own gardens. If someone wanted to cut over an occasional timber lot, Les Turner was available. If a building contractor needed an extra hand, he would try to get Les. Nobody had ever offered the Turners full-time employment. Neither would have taken it. They worked for themselves and were recognized as good capable men. Les had finished high school but had somehow managed to avoid the draft. He was still unmarried, and he regarded himself as something of a hand with the local girls. When he said that Arne Paulsen must have been a heller, it was meant as a compliment.
Arne sliced another piece of butter into the sap. The foaming sap sizzled back its annoyance and gradually soothed down to a steady bubbling.
"I figger you may have some competition real soon," Arne winked at Joe.
"You don't mean that new feller from down country?" said Les.
"Who's that?" said Joe. He had caught the wink and was playing along.
"Name’s Hunter. Bought the old Moody farm up above here. With him around you won't have a clear field no more."
"I've seen him." Les shrugged. "Been here two months. Only been over town twice. He may be livin' in a run-down farm house, but he's either got money or he had it. Anyways, he'd never look at one of my girls. He'd think he was too good for them."
"Lucky for you, Les," said Arne.
"Lucky for them, you mean," said Les. "All's he'd do would be to turn their heads. Never marry 'em. I know his kind."
"I haven't noticed you rushin' to the altar," said Joe.
"Don't believe in it." Les smiled.
Although the sap house was well hidden, it was less than a hundred yards from the dirt road which twisted east over Wood Hill and beyond to Thorn Mountain. There was almost no traffic this time of year. Mud season was almost over, but the road was still full of ruts and quite soft in places. A car was heard slithering and bouncing its way up beyond the sap house.
"There goes Al Salter," said Les.
"Christina's already at the top," said Arne. "I heard her car go by about twenty minutes ago."
"Funny how you can tell a car by the sound of its engine," said Joe.
"You ain't doubting us, are you, Joe? 'Cause if you are, I'll take you up to the cutoff, and there they'll be, big as life and twice as sassy." Les started to take Joe by the arm.
"You hear anything often enough, Joe," said Arne, "you get to know what it sounds like."
"I believe you. Man can't get by with much in this town."
"Hell, Al don't try to make no secret of it," said Les. "Some of the boys in the barbershop were ragging him about Christina the other day. He didn't deny it. Said for a virgin she was pretty good stuff."
"Lots a' times they're the best kind," said Joe. "Eager to learn and eager to please." He shook his head sadly. "Been a long time."
"Hard to find at any age these days, if you believe half of what you hear," said Arne.
"You know, someday somebody's goin' gunnin' for that feller Salter," said Les. "Now you take Christina. She was a real nice girl. Wasn't nobody could lay a hand on her in school. She wasn't like that friend a' hers, Stella Michaud, and some a' them other girls. No sir! What I can't get through my head is what she sees in Al Salter. He ain't no good. Never was. He come to town from down country and married Martha Stevens 'cause he didn't want to work. He's been living off Chester Stevens for ten years. Christina Coppins ain't the first woman he's taken to bed, and she won't be the last, and he ain't taken the trouble to keep none of 'em secret. Some of the others was married. I tell you some one of these fine days somebody's goin' to kill that son of a bitch, and I won't blame 'em!"
Arne looked up at Les for a moment. The blue eyes were penetrating. "Don't know as I ever heard you riled up about anything before, Les," he said. "You interested in Christina?"
"I always thought she was a nice girl." Les looked sullen.
"Twenty-six is a long time for even a nice girl to keep herself to herself," Arne mused. "Always wondered why nobody ever up and asked her to get married."
"She was always kind a' stuck-up. She don't talk the way we do no more. She had big ideas 'bout gettin' a man from the city who didn't work with his hands."
"Nothin' wrong with a white shirt, Les—if it fits."
"Well, it don't fit me."
Arne looked carefully at Les for a moment and then turned his attention to making a test run of the syrup. It was best to let the subject drop.
"'Lo. Must've got lost."
The three men turned their attention to the latest arrival. His great body filled the doorway, and he was holding two ten-gallon milk cans filled to the necks with sap. He held them absentmindedly as if they were as light as a couple of empty coffee cups. His brown hair hung down almost to his eyes. A battered and dirty porkpie hat was perched on the top of his enormous head. The hat was full of old fishhooks and fishing lures of various types. His was a meaty, florid face. His light eyes were almost lost in the ruddy flesh. It was a vacant face, but somehow very friendly.
The three men were smiling at him, but they probably were unaware of it. They all called him "Little Eeph." His real name was Ephraim Tutt, but he didn't mind what anybody called him as long as they called him. "Little Eeph" was the village idiot. He was looked upon as subhuman by most everyone, but he was tolerated, and by some, even regarded with an amused kind of affection. Instead of committing him to a state institution, the Town Fathers had had him castrated and had returned him to the care of his mother. Although strong as the gelded bull he was, Little Eeph was considered harmless enough, and he had the run of the town. People who had chores which required a strong back and a peanut-sized brain frequently hired Little Eeph. He was not only very willing and very friendly, but his labor cost less than anyone else's. It apparently never caused those who found themselves working shoulder-to-shoulder with him any embarrassment. Possibly it was because they got paid more for less work. Everybody in town knew Little Eeph, and the sight of him shuffling along the street inevitably produced a smile. He always said hello to everyone.
"Where you want these?" Little Eeph easily raised the ten-gallon jugs up to eye level as if Arne could not have seen them.
"Just set them over here, Little Eeph," said Arne.
As Eeph slowly, and with great care, did as he was told, a bell rang. He put down the cans and went to his lunch box. He opened it and took out a small alarm clock. He pushed in the alarm button and sat down on the pile of logs. He turned to the others who had not taken their eyes off him throughout the whole procedure, although they'd seen it many times before.
He looked up at them and grinned happily. "Time for lunch," he said with great pride.
The men smiled and went for their own lunch boxes. Little Eeph's mother always set the clock and put it in the lunch pail. It was the only way she could be sure her son would know when it was time to eat.