Chapter XI
 

Although scows larger than the Rouletta had run Miles Canon and the rapids below in safety, perhaps none more unwieldy had ever done so. Royal had built his barge stoutly, to be sure, but of other virtues the craft had none. When loaded she was so clumsy, so obstinate, so headstrong that it required unceasing effort to hold her on a course; as for rowing her, it was almost impossible. She took the first swooping rush into the canon, strange to say, in very good form, and thereafter, by dint of herculean efforts, Royal and his three men managed to hold her head down-stream. Sweeping between the palisades, she galloped clumsily onward, wallowing like a hippopotamus. Her long pine sweeps, balanced and bored to receive thick thole-pins, rose and fell like the stiff legs of some fat, square-bodied spider; she reared her bluff bow; then she dove, shrouding herself in spray.

It was a journey to terrify experienced rivermen; doubly terrifying was it to Royal and Kirby, who knew nothing whatever of swift water and to whom its perils were magnified a thousandfold.

In spite of his apprehension, which by now had quickened into panic, Danny rose to the occasion with real credit. His face was like paper, his eyes were wide and strained; nevertheless, he kept his gaze fixed upon the pilot and strove to obey the latter's directions implicitly. Now with all his strength he heaved upon his sweep; now he backed water violently; at no time did he trust himself to look at the cliffs which were scudding past, nor to contemplate the tortuous turns in the gorge ahead. That would have been too much for him. Even when his clumsy oar all but grazed a bastion, or when a jagged promontory seemed about to smash his craft, he refused to cease his frantic labors or to more than lift his eyes. He saw that Rouletta Kirby was very pale, and he tried to shout a word of encouragement to her, but his cry was thin and feeble, and it failed to pierce the thunder of the waters. Danny hoped the girl was not as frightened as he, nor as old Sam--the little man would not have wished such a punishment upon his worst enemy.

Kirby, by reason of his disability, of course, was prevented from lending any active help with the boat and was forced to play a purely passive part. That it was not to his liking any one could have seen, for, once the moorings were slipped, he did not open his lips; he merely stood beside Rouletta, with the fingers of his right hand sunk into her shoulder, his gray face grayer than ever. Together they swayed as the deck beneath them reeled and pitched.

"Look! We're nearly through!" the girl cried in his ear, after what seemed an interminable time.

Kirby nodded. Ahead he could see the end of the canon and what appeared to be freer water; out into this open space the torrent flung itself. The scow was riding the bore, that ridge of water upthrust by reason of the pressure from above; between it and the exit from the chute was a rapidly dwindling expanse of tossing waves. Kirby was greatly relieved, but he could not understand why those rollers at the mouth of the gorge should rear themselves so high and should foam so savagely.

The bluffs ended, the narrow throat vomited the river out, and the scow galloped from shadow into pale sunlight.

The owner of the outfit drew a deep breath, his clutching fingers relaxed their nervous hold. He saw that Danny was trying to make himself heard and he leaned forward to catch the fellow's words, when suddenly the impossible happened. The deck beneath his feet was jerked backward and he was flung to his knees. Simultaneously there came a crash, the sound of rending, splintering wood, and over the stern of the barge poured an icy deluge that all but swept father and daughter away. Rouletta screamed, then she called the name of Royal.

"Danny! Danny!" she cried, for both she and old Sam had seen a terrible thing.

The blade of Royal's sweep had been submerged at the instant of the collision and, as a consequence, the force of that rushing current had borne it forward, catapulting the man on the other end overboard as cleanly, as easily as a school-boy snaps a paper pellet from the end of a pencil. Before their very eyes the Kirbys saw their lieutenant, their lifelong friend and servitor, picked up and hurled into the flood.

"Danny!" shrieked the girl. The voice of the rapids had changed its tone now, for a cataract was drumming upon the after-deck and there was a crashing and a smashing as the piles of boxes came tumbling down. The scow drove higher upon the reef, its bow rose until it stood at a sharp incline, and meanwhile wave after wave cut like a broach over the stern, which steadily sank deeper. Then the deck tilted drunkenly and an avalanche of case-goods was spilled over the side.

Sam Kirby found himself knee-deep in ice water; a roller came curling down upon him, but with a frantic clutch he laid hold of his daughter. He sank the steel hook that did service as a left hand into a pile of freight and hung on, battling to maintain his footing. With a great jarring and jolting the Rouletta rose from the deluge, hung balanced for a moment or two, and then, relieved of a portion of her cargo, righted herself and swung broadside to the stream as if upon a pivot; finally she was carried free. Onward she swept, turning end for end, pounding, staggering, as other rocks from below bit into her bottom.

The river was very low at this season, and the Rouletta, riding deep because half filled, found obstacles she would otherwise have cleared. She was out of the crooked channel now and it was impossible to manage her, so in a crazy succession of loops and swoops she gyrated down toward that tossing mane of spray that marked the White Horse.

With eyes of terror Sam Kirby scanned the boiling expanse through which the barge was drifting, but nowhere could he catch sight of Danny Royal. He turned to shout to his pilot, only to discover that he also was missing and that the steering-sweep was smashed.

"God! He's gone!" cried the old man. It was true; that inundation succeeding the mishap had swept the after-deck clean, and now the scow was not only rudderless, but it lacked a man of experience to direct its course.

Rouletta Kirby was tugging at her father's arm. She lifted a white, horrified face to his and exclaimed: "Danny! I saw him-- go!"

Her father's dead face was twitching; he nodded silently. Then he pointed at the cataract toward which they were being carried. He opened his lips to say something, but one of the crew came running back, shouting hoarsely and waving his arms.

"We're going over," the fellow clamored. "We'll all be drowned!"

Kirby felled him with a blow from his artificial hand; then, when the man scrambled to his feet, his employer ordered:

"Get busy! Do what you can!"

For himself, he took Royal's sweep and struggled with it. But he was woefully ignorant of how to apply his strength and had only the faintest idea what he ought to do.

Meanwhile the thunder of the White Horse steadily increased.

Having brought the last of the Courteau boats through the canon, 'Poleon Doret piloted the little flotilla across to the town of White Horse and there collected his money, while Pierce Phillips and the other men pitched camp.

The labor of making things comfortable for the night did not prevent Lucky Broad from discussing at some length the exciting incidents of the afternoon.

"I hope her Highness got an eyeful of me shooting the chutes," said he, "for that's my farewell trip--positively my last appearance in any water act."

"Mighty decent of you and the Kid to volunteer," Pierce told him.

"It sure was," the other agreed. "Takes a coupla daredevils like him and me to pull that kind of a bonehead play."

Mr. Bridges, who was within hearing distance, shrugged with an assumption of careless indifference. "It takes more 'n a little lather to scare me," he boasted. "I'm a divin' Venus and I ate it up!"

"You--liar!" Lucky cried. "Why, every quill on your head was standing up and you look five years older 'n you did this morning! You heard the undertaker shaking out your shroud all the way down- -you know you did. I never seen a man as scared as you was!" When Bridges accepted the accusation with a grin, the speaker ran on, in a less resentful tone: "I don't mind saying it hardened my arteries some. It made me think of all my sins and follies; I remembered all the bets I'd overlooked. Recollect that pioneer we laid for four hundred at Dyea?"

The Kid nodded. "Sure! I remember him easy. He squawked so loud you gave him back half of it."

"And all the time he had a thousand sewed in his shirt! Wasted opportunities like that lay heavy on a man when he hears the angels tuning up and smells the calla-lilies."

Bridges agreed in all seriousness, and went on to say: "Lucky, if I gotta get out of this country the way I got into it I'm going to let you bury me in Dawson. Look at them rapids ahead of us! Why, the guy that laid out this river was off his nut!"

"You're talking sense. We'll stick till they build a railroad up to us or else we'll let 'em pin a pair of soft-pine overcoats on the two of us. The idea of us calling ourselves wiseacres and doing circus stunts like this! We're suckers! We'll be working in the mines next. I bet I'll see you poulticed onto a pick-handle before we get out."

"Not me! I've raised my last blister, and if ever I get another callous it'll be from layin' abed. Safe and sane, that's me. I--"

Bridges' words were cut short by an exclamation from Doret, who had approached, in company with the Countess Courteau.

"Hallo!" the French Canadian broke in. "Dere comes dat beeg barge."

Out from the lower end of the gorge the Kirby craft had emerged; it was plunging along with explosions of white foam from beneath its bow and with its sweeps rising and falling rhythmically. To Doret's companions it seemed that the scow had come through handily enough and was in little further danger, but 'Poleon, for some reason or other, had blazed into excitement. Down the bank he leaped; then he raised his voice and sent forth a loud cry. It was wasted effort, for it failed to carry. Nevertheless, the warning note in his voice brought his hearers running after him.

"What's the matter?" Pierce inquired.

The pilot paid no heed; he began waving his cap in long sweeps, cursing meanwhile in a patois which the others could not understand.

Even while they stared at the Rouletta she drove head on into an expanse of tumbling breakers, then--the onlookers could not believe their eyes--she stopped dead still, as if she had come to the end of a steel cable or as if she had collided with an invisible wall. Instantly her entire after part was smothered in white. Slowly her bow rose out of the chaos until perhaps ten feet of her bottom was exposed, then she assumed a list.

The Countess uttered a strangled exclamation. "Oh--h! Did you see? There's a man overboard!"

Her eyes were quick, but others, too, had beheld a dark bundle picked up by some mysterious agency and flung end over end into the waves.

The Rouletta's deck-load was dissolving; a moment or two and she turned completely around, then drifted free.

"Why--they brought the girl along!" cried the Countess, in growing dismay. "Sam Kirby should have had better sense. He ought to be hung--"

From the tents and boats along the bank, from the village above, people were assembling hurriedly, a babel of oaths, of shouts arose.

'Poleon found his recent employer plucking at his sleeve.

"There's a woman out there--Kirby's girl," she was crying. "Can't you do something?"

"Wait!" He flung off her grasp and watched intently.

Soon the helpless scow was abreast of the encampment, and in spite of the frantic efforts of her crew to propel her shoreward she drifted momentarily closer to the cataract below. Manifestly it was impossible to row out and intercept the derelict before she took the plunge, and so, helpless in this extremity, the audience began to stream down over the rounded boulders which formed the margin of the river. On the opposite bank another crowd was keeping pace with the wreck. As they ran, these people shouted at one another and gesticulated wildly. Their faces were white, their words were meaningless, for it was a spectacle tense with imminent disaster that they beheld; it turned them sick with apprehension.

Immediately above White Horse the current gathers itself for the final plunge, and although, at the last moment, the Rouletta seemed about to straighten herself out and take the rapids head on, some malign influence checked her swing and she lunged over quarteringly to the torrent.

A roar issued from the throats of the beholders; the craft reappeared, and then, a moment later, was half hidden again in the smother. It could be seen that she was completely awash and that those galloping white-maned horses were charging over her. She was buffeted about as by battering-rams; the remainder of her cargo was being rapidly torn from her deck. Soon another shout arose, for human figures could be seen still clinging to her.

Onward the scow went, until once again she fetched up on a reef or a rock which the low stage of the river had brought close to the surface; there she hung.

'Poleon Doret had gone into action ere this. Having satisfied himself that some of the Rouletta's crew remained alive, he cast loose the painter of the nearest skiff and called to Phillips, who was standing close by:

"Come on! We goin' get dose people!"

Now Pierce had had enough rough water for one day; it seemed to him that there must be other men in this crowd better qualified by training than he to undertake this rescue. But no one stepped forward, and so he obeyed Doret's order. As he slipped out of his coat and kicked off his boots, he reflected, with a sinking feeling of disappointment, that his emotions were not by any means such as a really courageous man would experience. He was completely lacking in enthusiasm for this enterprise, for it struck him as risky, nay, foolhardy, insane, to take a boat over that cataract in an attempt to snatch human beings out from the very midst of those threshing breakers. It seemed more than likely that all hands would be drowned in the undertaking, and he could not summon the reckless abandon necessary to face that likelihood with anything except the frankest apprehension. He was surprised at himself, for he had imagined that when his moment came, if ever it did, that he, Phillips, would prove to be a rather exceptional person; instead he discovered that he was something of a coward. The unexpectedness of this discovery astonished the young man. Being deeply and thoroughly frightened, it was nothing less than the abhorrence at allowing that fright to become known which stiffened his determination. In his own sight he dwindled to very small proportions; then came the realization that Doret was having difficulty in securing volunteers to go with them, and he was considerably heartened at finding he was not greatly different from the rest of these people.

"Who's goin' he'p us?" the Frenchman was shouting. "Come now, you stout fellers. Dere's lady on dat scow. 'Ain't nobody got nerve?"

It was a tribute to the manhood of the North that after a brief hesitation several men offered themselves. At the last moment, however, Broad and Bridges elbowed the others aside, saying: "Here, you! That's our boat and we know how she handles."

Into the skiff they piled and hurriedly stripped down; then, in obedience to Doret's command, they settled themselves at the forward oars, leaving Pierce to set the stroke.

'Poleon stood braced in the stern, like a gondolier, and when willing hands had shot the boat out into the current he leaned his weight upon the after oars; beneath his and Pierce's efforts the ash blades bent. Out into the hurrying flood the four men sent their craft; then, with a mighty heave, the pilot swung its bow down-stream and helped to drive it directly at the throat of the cataract.

There came a breath-taking plunge during which the rescuing skiff and its crew were hidden from the view of those on shore; out into sight they lunged again and, in a cloud of spray, went galloping through the stampeding waves. At risk of capsizing they turned around and, battling furiously against the current, were swept down, stern first, upon the stranded barge. Doret's face was turned back over his shoulder, he was measuring distance, gauging with practised eye the whims and vagaries of the tumbling torrent; when he flung himself upon the oars Pierce Phillips felt his own strength completely dwarfed by that of the big pilot. 'Poleon's hands inclosed his in a viselike grasp; he wielded the sweeps as if they were reeds, and with them he wielded Phillips.

Two people only were left upon the Rouletta, that sidewise plunge having carried the crew away. Once again Sam Kirby's artificial hand had proved its usefulness, and without its aid it is doubtful if either he or his daughter could have withstood the deluge. For a second time he had sunk that sharp steel hook into the solid wood and had managed, by virtue of that advantage, to save himself and his girl. Both of them were half drowned; they were well-nigh frozen, too; now, however, finding themselves in temporary security, Kirby had broached one of the few remaining cases of bottled goods. As the rowboat came close its occupants saw him press a drink upon his daughter, then gulp one for himself.

It was impossible either to lay the skiff alongside the wreck with any degree of care or to hold her there; as a matter of fact, the two hulls collided with a crash, Kid Bridges' oar snapped off short and the side of the lighter boat was smashed in. Water poured over the rescuers. For an instant it seemed that they were doomed, but, clawing fiercely at whatever they could lay hands upon, they checked their progress long enough for the castaways to obey Doret's shout of command. The girl flung herself into Pierce's arms; her father followed, landing in a heap amidships. Even as they jumped the skiff was torn away and hurried onward by the flood. Sam Kirby raised himself to his knees and turned his ashen face to Rouletta.

"Hurt you any, kid?" he inquired.

The girl shook her head. She was very white, her teeth were chattering, her wet dress clung tightly to her figure.

Staring fixedly at the retreating barge the old man cried: "All gone! All gone!" Then, bracing himself with his good hand, he brandished his steel hook at the rapids and heaped curses upon them.

A half-mile below the wreck 'Poleon Doret brought his crippled skiff into an eddy, and there the crowd, which had kept pace with it down the river-bank, lent willing assistance in effecting a landing.

As Kirby stepped ashore he shook hands with the men who had jeopardized their lives for him and his daughter; hi a cheerless, colorless voice he said, "It looks to me like you boys had a drink coming." From his coat pocket he drew a bottle of whisky; with a blow of that artificial hand he struck off its neck and then proffered it to Doret. "Drink hearty!" said he. "It's all that's left of a good outfit!"