“THEY’S ONLY 2 CAN’TS – – -“


They had gone out one morning in the penetrative chill dampness that seems, by a combination of its paradoxical ability, to freeze and to dissolve, to be of all climatic conditions the one best calculated to dishearten the spirit of man. The mist actually froze to their clothes, the towers were sheeted with ice, the grunts could find no wood dry enough to build a fire. On a normal job the men would have gone in for the day and the foreman would have reported “conditions unsafe for work.” Slim would have been glad to exchange his day’s pay for the warmth of the boarding house, and most of the other men would, too. Earning, as they were, twice as much as any of them needed, half the gang would have been glad to lay out two or three days a week, and many a boss would have had trouble keeping a full force on the job. But not Pop — genial and kind though he was, the little foreman was adamant on points of duty, and the men respected him all the more for it. So well was his fidelity known that Slim was surprised to hear one of the men approach him that morning. 

“Pop, you surely can’t expect men to work out here on a day like this an’ it as mean as it is!” 

“How come I can’t?” 

“It just can’t be done. It’s too mean an’ dangerous for a man to fool wid it. Let’s go in an’ rawhide it to-morrow.” 

“Ed, you’re a good man. I got no fault to find wid your work, but your ideas is fabricated bum. This is a rush job an’ you knowed it when you come heah. De company ain’t payin’ you fifteen dollahs a day to work three days a week an’ then lay out every time de sky leaks a little. It’s payin’ you good money to be sure you put out seven good days of work a week, an’ it’s payin’ me to see that you do. An’ as long as that’s how it’s rigged, that’s how it’s goin’ to happen! I know it’s rough to-day; no one ain’t rawhid’ you to be off de groun’ till we can get some kind a fiah to warm your hands an’ belt. But as for can’t, they’s only two can’ts on my job — if you can’t cut it you can’t stay here!” 

That day Ed cut it, but it was his last. The next day Pop was short a lineman. As they huddled around the fire the following morning the little foreman’s voice boomed cheerfully at the remaining men. 

“Well, boys, de job’s done begun to separate ’em!”

“Separate what, Pop?” 

“Separate de men from de boys! We lost one of them warm-weather linemen this mawnin’. It’s a real job, boys. When you get this winteh behind you you can tell ’em anywhere you go you been through a tough one, an’ it’ll be de truth! It’s a lot tougheh on de women, though, than it is on us. Stumpy ain’t been out of de house two nights this week, an’ I bet they ain’t a married man on de job ain’t stuck to his own side of de bed eveh since we struck these extension towehs! Yes siree! Anybody cuts it here can cut it de next place — an’ cut it smooth an’ clean, too!” 

This, then, was for Slim the ultimate compensation — that he was “cutting it,” that he was holding his own with the best men in the business under conditions from which able linemen had fled. There came a night when he and Red were the last men on the tower. The others had gone down and the whole gang was huddled around the fire waiting for these two. Their rigging was safely lowered and they crossed the ice-coated lacing of the arm level with slow cautious steps, gripping each other’s safeties for double security. All afternoon it had rained and drizzled; now it was colder, the stars were out, and high overhead was the dazzling brilliance of a full moon as they reached the step-bolt leg Red stopped the boy. 

“Take a look around you, Slim. It’s a nice night.” It was. On every side of them were the darkly etched outlines of the skeletal towers. Frost and sleet had covered the nearer ones with the shimmering iridescence of ice that flashed and gleamed in the cold hard moonlight. The more distant towers were silhouetted in all their erect linear arrogance against the arctic blue of the sky. Beyond the last towers the moonlight made a molten glory of a bay studded with lighted boats, and beyond that, silent and remote, was the incredible constellation of New York itself. 

In the wonder of the spectacle the boy was spellbound; cold and fatigue seemed to fall away from him; the weight of his clothes was only a reminder of the proud strength that bore them; the trusted belt that bound his hips so snugly was the armor in which he had won his place in this good and beautiful world, and the towers about him an eternal tribute to the courage and perseverance that had built them. He was startled by Pop’s voice. 

“Ain’t you birds eveh comin’ down outa that roost so we can go home?” 

As he started down the step-bolt leg he turned shyly to Red. 

“Line work ain’t so bad, is it?”