A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

Frank was a logging contractor. He was big and balding, past sixty. He had been a toiler all his life, working in isolation, in the mud and rain, even snow, of winter, and through the sweltering heat of summer. His small outfit of four men, a bulldozer and power saws, hauled and loaded logs off the steep country of the Urewera track and sometimes, off the flats. To Frank, any country of less than thirty degrees slope was flat!

Despite the inherent dangers of the job, the isolation- primitive living conditions, and the daylight-to-dark back-slog of work, Frank’s outfit barely survived. Few logging contractors in the harsh Urewera did. Frank was rough and ready, a popular, honest man, but he had a very, very short fuse. Men who knew him could read the sign. When Frank’s fingers began the drum – a quick, rhythmic- tapping – on his axe handle, on a log, on his knee , or any flat surface, it was time to stop talking and take notice; Frank was about to blow. Then was the time for wise men to step a pace back to give him room.

In the valley where he worked Frank had a small, box-like hut built on sledge runners to shelter his men from the rain and the sun. This was his only concession to the harsh elements. The hut had a doorway in one wall and seating nailed to the other three, leaving a small floor space in the centre. When Frank, his four men, and a log truck driver all entered the hut it was positively crowded.

One hot summer, the Forestry blokes decided that fire danger was just too high, so they invoked a total ban on all open fires over the whole area. This ban didn’t worry Frank and his men too much. They kept on having their billy fires for smoko ~ they’d never set file to the bush and weren’t about to – besides the native didn’t burn like the pines would„ and in their isolation they wouldn’t be caught anyhow.

But one day, Stumpy, a forest ranger, was due to inspect the cut over with Frank. This called for a temporary change of custom. Frank had a hell of a shrewd idea that Stumpy (who he knew well) had a hell of a shrewd idea, that Frank still boiled the billy, but it would be diplomatic not to make it too obvious.

So, on the day of the visit, Frank produced a kerosene pressure primus to boil the billy in the hut. Stumpy arrived as expected, and worked the morning away with Frank. At smoko he trouped into the hut with the rest of the gang. Frank set up the battered primus in the centre of the floor, lit it, and placed the fire-blackened tea billy on top. The huge billy dwarfed the primus.

By oblique comment from Frank, Stumpy got the message that the primus was a concession to the fire ban. The men sat watching the billy waiting for it to boil. They waited, and waited, and waited. Frank , impatient, knelt in the position of prayer to pump up the primus pressure. This increased the hissing noise, and to some small extent the flame, but the water in the huge billy remained only luke warm. The men waited, and waited some more.

Then Frank’s fingers began to drum on the bench beside him. Conversation dwindled into uncomfortable silence. All eyes turned from billy to strong, stubby fingers. “Drum, drum, drum.” The primus struggled manfully but failed abysmally in its task. “Drum, drum, drum”, went the fingers. In the frosty silence the men watched and waited, and waited, and waited.

Finally Frank rose to his feet, the men held their breath. Frank advanced to the primus and billy, lined his feet up, took five short paces backwards, looked out of the door into the distance as though sighting on to goal posts, then, with a short run, booted primus and billy out of the door and half way across the valley. In silence the men rose and slunk out of the little hut.

Smoko was over.