The River-Boss by Stewart Edward White
"Obey orders if you break owners" is a good rule, but a really efficient river-boss knows a better. It runs, "Get the logs out. Get them out peaceably if you can, but get them out." He does not need a field-telephone to headquarters to teach him how to live up to the spirit of this rule. That might involve headquarters.
Jimmy was such a river-boss. Therefore when Mr. Daly, of the firm of Morrison & Daly, unexpectedly contracted to deliver five million feet of logs on a certain date, and the logs an impossible number of miles up river, he called in Jimmy.
Jimmy was a small man, changeless as the Egyptian sphinx. A number of years ago a French comic journal published a series of sketches supposed to represent the Shah of Persia influenced by various emotions. Under each was an appropriate caption, such as Surprise, Grief, Anger, or Astonishment. The portraits were identically alike, and uniformly impassive.
Well, that was Jimmy. He looked always the same. His hair, thick and black, grew low on his forehead; his beard, thick and black, mounted over the ridge of his cheek-bones; and his eyebrows, thick and black, extended in an uninterrupted straight line from one temple to the other. Whatever his small, compact, muscular body might be doing, the mask of his black and white imperturbability remained always unchanged. Generally he sat clasping one knee, staring directly in front of him, and puffing regularly on a "meerschaum" pipe he had earned by saving the tags of Spearhead tobacco. Whatever you said to him sank without splash into this almost primal calm and was lost to your view forever. Perhaps after a time he might do something about it, but always without explanation, calmly, with the lofty inevitability of fate. In fact, he never explained himself, even to his employers.
Daly swung his bulk back and forth in the office chair. Jimmy sat bolt upright, his black hat pendant between his knees.
"I want you to take charge of the driving crew, Jimmy," said the big man; "I want you to drive those logs down to our booms as fast as you can. I give you about twenty days. It ought to be done in that. Sanders will keep time for you, and Merrill will cook. You can get a pretty good crew from the East Branch, where the drive is just over."
When Daly had quite finished his remarks, Jimmy got up and went out without a word. Two days later he and sixty men were breaking rollways forty-five miles up-stream.
Jimmy knew as well as Daly that the latter had given him a hard task. Twenty days was too brief a time. However, that was none of his business.
The logs, during the winter, had been piled in the bed of the stream. They extended over three miles of rollways. Jimmy and his crew began at the down-stream end to tumble the big piles into the current. Sometimes only two or three logs would rattle down; at others the whole deck would bulge outward, hover for a moment, and roar into the stream like grain from an elevator. Shortly the narrows below the rollways jammed. Twelve men were detailed as the jam crew. Their business was to keep the stream free in order that the constantly increasing supply from the rollways might not fill up the river. It was not an easy business, nor a very safe. As the "jam" strung out over more and more of the river, the jam crew was constantly recruited from the men on the rollways. Thus some of the logs, a very few, the luckiest, drifted into the dam pond at Grand Rapids within a few days; the bulk jammed and broke and jammed again at a point a few miles below the rollways, while a large proportion stranded, plugged, caught, and tangled at the very rollways themselves.
Jimmy had permitted himself two days in which to "break out" the rollways. It was done in two. Then the "rear" was started. Men in the rear crew had to see that every last log got into the current. When a jam broke, the middle of it shot down-stream in a most spectacular fashion, but along the banks "winged out" most distressingly. Sometimes the heavy sticks of timber had been forced right out on the dry land. The rear crew lifted them back. When an obstinate log grounded, they jumped cheerfully into the water--with the rotten ice swirling around them--and pried the thing off bottom. Between times they stood upright on single, unstable logs and pushed mightily with poles, while the ice-water sucked in and out of their spiked river shoes.
As for the compensations, naturally there was a good deal of rivalry between the men on the right and left banks of the river as to which "wing" should advance the fastest; and one experiences a certain physical thrill in venturing under thirty feet of jammed logs for the sole purpose of teasing the whole mass to cascade down on one, or of shooting a rapid while standing upright on a single timber. I believe, too, it is considered the height of glory to belong to a rear crew. Still, the water is cold and the hours long, and you have to sleep in a tent.
It can readily be seen that the progress of the "rear" measures the progress of the drive. Some few logs in the "jam" may run fifty miles a day--and often do--but if the sacking has gone slowly at the rear, the drive may not have gained more than a thousand yards. Therefore Jimmy stayed at the rear.
Jimmy was a mighty good riverman. Of course he had nerve, and could do anything with a log and a peavy, and would fight at the drop of a hat--any "bully boy" would qualify there--but also he had judgment. He knew how to use the water, how to recognise the key log of jams, where to place his men--in short, he could get out the logs. Now Jimmy also knew the river from one end to the other, so he had arranged in his mind a sort of schedule for the twenty days. Forty-eight hours for the rollways; a day and a half to the upper rapids; three days into the dam pond; one day to sluice the drive through the Grand Rapids dam; three days for the Crossing; and so on. If everything went well, he could do it, but there must be no hitches in the programme.
Even from this imperfect fragment of the schedule the inexperienced might imagine Jimmy had allowed an altogether disproportionate time to cover the mile or so from the rapids to the dam pond. As it turned, however, he found he had not allowed enough, for at this point the river was peculiar and very trying.
The backwater of the dam extended up-stream a half mile; then occurred a rise of four feet, down the slope of which the water whirled and tumbled, only to spread out over a broad fan of gravel shallows. These shallows did the business. When the logs had bumped through the tribulations of the rapids, they seemed to insist obstinately on resting in the shallows, like a lot of wearied cattle. The rear crew had to wade in. They heaved and pried and pushed industriously, and at the end of it had the satisfaction of seeing a single log slide reluctantly into the current. Sometimes a dozen of them would clamp their peavies on either side, and by sheer brute force carry the stick to deep water. When you reflect that there were some twenty thousand pieces in the drive, and that a good fifty per cent. of them balked below the rapids, you can see that a rear crew of thirty men had its work cut out for it. Jimmy's three days were three-fourths gone, and his job not more than a third finished. McGann, the sluice boss, did a little figuring.
"She'll hang over thim twinty days," he confided to Jimmy. "Shure!"
Jimmy replied not a word, but puffed piston-like smoke from his pipe. McGann shrugged in Celtic despair.
But the little man had been figuring, too, and his arrangements were more elaborate and more nearly completed than McGann suspected. That very morning he sauntered leisurely out over the rear logs, his hands in his pockets. Every once in a while he stopped to utter a few low-voiced words to one or another of the men. The person addressed first looked extremely astonished; then shouldered his peavy and started for camp, leaving the diminished rear a prey to curiosity. Soon the word went about. "Day and night work," they whispered, though it was a little difficult to see the difference in ultimate effectiveness between a half crew working all the time and a whole crew working half the time.
About now Daly began to worry. He took the train to Grand Rapids, anxiety written deep in his brows. When he saw the little inadequate crew pecking in a futile fashion at the logs winged out over the shallows, he swore fervidly and sought Jimmy.
Jimmy appeared calm.
"We'll get them out all right, Mr. Daly," said he.
"Get them out!" growled Daly. "Sure! But when? We ain't got all the summer this season. Those logs have got to hit our booms in fourteen days or they're no good to us!"
"You'll have 'em," assured Jimmy.
Such talk made Daly tired, and he said so.
"Why, it'll take you a week to get her over those confounded shallows," he concluded. "You got to get more men, Jimmy."
"I've tried," answered the boss. "They ain't no more men to be had."
"Suffering Moses!" groaned the owner. "It means the loss of a fifty-thousand-dollar contract to me. You needn't tell me! I've been on the river all my life. I know you can't get them off inside of a week."
"I'll have 'em off to-morrow morning, but it may cost a little something," asserted Jimmy, calmly.
Daly took one look at the mass of logs, and the fifteen men pulling out an average of one a minute. Then he returned in disgust to the city, where he began to adjust his ideas to a loss on his contract.
At sundown the rear crew quit work, and swarmed to the encampment of white tents on the river-bank. There they hung wet clothes over a big skeleton framework built around a monster fire, and ate a dozen eggs apiece as a side dish to supper, and smoked pipes of strong "Peerless" tobacco, and swapped yarns, and sang songs, and asked questions. To the latter they received no satisfactory replies. The crew that had been laid off knew nothing. It appeared they were to go to work after supper. After supper, however, Jimmy told them to turn in and get a little more sleep. They did turn in, and speedily forgot to puzzle.
At midnight, however, Jimmy entered the big tent quietly with a lantern, touching each of the fresh men on the shoulder. They arose without comment, and followed him outside. There they were given tools. Then the little band filed silently down river under the stars.
Jimmy led them, his hands deep in his pockets, puffing white steam-clouds at regular intervals from his "meerschaum" pipe. After twenty minutes they struck the Water Works, then the board-walk of Canal Street. The word passed back for silence. Near the Oriole Factory their leader suddenly dodged in behind the piles of sawed lumber, motioning them to haste. A moment later a fat and dignified officer passed, swinging his club. After the policeman had gone, Jimmy again took up his march at the head of fifteen men, now thoroughly aroused to the fact that something unusual was afoot. Soon a faint roar lifted the night silence. They crossed a street, and a moment after stood at one end of the power-dam.
The long smooth water shot over, like fluid steel, silent and inevitable, mirroring distorted flashes of light that were the stars. Below, it broke in white turmoil, shouting defiance at the calm velvet rush above. Ten seconds later the current was broken. A man, his heels caught against the combing, up to his knees in water, was braced back at the exact angle to withstand the rush. Two other men passed down to him a short heavy timber. A third, plunging his arms and shoulders into the liquid, nailed it home with heavy, inaudible strokes. As though by magic a second timber braced the first, bolted through sockets already cut for it. The workers moved on eight feet, then another eight, then another. More men entered the water. A row of heavy, slanted supports grew out from the shoulder of the dam, dividing the waters into long, arrow-shaped furrows of light. At half-past twelve Tom Clute was swept over the dam into the eddy. He swam ashore. Purdy took his place.
When the supports had reached out over half of the river's span, and the water was dotted with the shoulders of men gracefully slanted against the current, Jimmy gave orders to begin placing the flash-boards. Heavy planks were at once slid across the supports, where the weight of the racing water at once clamped them fast. Spikes held the top board beyond the possibility of a wrench loose. The smooth, quiet river, interrupted at last, murmured and snarled and eddied back, only to rush with increased vehemence around the end of the rapidly growing obstruction.
The policeman, passing back and forth on Canal Street, heard no sound of the labour going on. If he had been an observant policeman, he would have noted an ever-changing tone in the volume of sound roaring up from the eddy below the dam. After a time even he remarked on a certain obvious phenomenon.
"Sure!" said he; "now, that's funny!"
He listened a moment, then passed on. The vagaries of the river were, after all, nothing to him. He belonged on Canal Street, east side; and Canal Street, east side, seemed peaceful.
The river had fallen absolutely silent. The last of Jimmy's flash-boards was in place. Back in the sleeping town the clock in Pierce's Tower struck two.
Jimmy and his men, having thus raised the level of the dam a good three feet, emerged dripping from the west-side canal, and cheerfully took their way northward to where, in the chilly dawn, their companions were sleeping the sleep of the just. As they passed the riffles they paused. A heavy grumbling issued from the logs jammed there, a grumbling brutish and sullen, as though the reluctant animals were beginning to stir. The water had already backed up from the raised dam.
Of course the affair, from a river-driver's standpoint, at once became exceedingly simple. The slumbering fifteen were aroused to astounded drowsiness. By three, just as the dawn was beginning to differentiate the east from the west, the regular clank, clank, clink of the peavies proclaimed that due advantage of the high water was being seized. From then until six was a matter of three hours more. A great deal can be accomplished in three hours with flood-water. The last little jam "pulled" just about the time the first citizen of the west side discovered that his cellar was full of water. When that startled freeman opened the front door to see what was up, he uttered a tremendous ejaculation; and so, shortly, came to the construction of a raft.
Well, the papers got out an extra edition with scare-heads about "Outrages" and "High-handed Lawlessness!" and factory owners by the canals raised up their voices in bitterness over flooded fire-rooms; and property owners of perishable cellar goods howled about damage suits; and the ordinary citizen took to bailing out the hollow places of his domain. Toward nine o'clock, after the first excitement had died, and the flash-boards had been indignantly yanked from their illegal places, a squadron of police went out to hunt up the malefactor. The latter they discovered on a boom-pole directing the sluicing. From this position he declined to stir. One fat policeman ventured a toppling yard or so on the floating timber, threw his hands aloft in loss of equilibrium, and with a mighty effort regained the shore, where he sat down, panting. To the appeals of the squad to come and be arrested, Jimmy paid not the slightest heed. He puffed periodically on his "meerschaum" pipe, and directed the sluicing. Through the twenty-foot gate about a million feet an hour passed. Thus it happened that a little after noon Jimmy came peaceably ashore and gave himself up.
"You won't have no more trouble below," he observed to McGann, his lieutenant, watching reflectively the last logs shoot through the gate. "Just tie right into her and keep her hustling." Then he refilled his pipe, lit it, and approached the expectant squad.
At the station-house he was interviewed by reporters. That is, they asked questions. To only one of them did they elicit a reply.
"Didn't you know you were breaking the law?" inquired the Eagle man. "Didn't you know you'd be arrested?"
"Sure!" replied Jimmy, with obvious contempt.
The next morning the court-room was crowded. Jimmy pleaded guilty, and was fined five hundred dollars or ninety days in jail. To the surprise of everybody he fished out a tremendous roll and paid the fine. The spectators considered it remarkable that a river-boss should carry such an amount. They had not been present at the interview between Jimmy and his principal the night before.
The latter stood near the door as the little man came out.
"Jimmy," said Mr. Daly, distinctly, so that everyone could hear, "I am extremely sorry to see you in this trouble; but perhaps it may prove a lesson to you. Next time you must understand that you are not supposed to exceed your instructions."
Thus did the wily Daly publicly disclaim his liability.
"Yes, sir," said Jimmy, meekly. "Did you get the logs in time, Mr. Daly?"
They looked at each other steadily. Then, for the first and only time, the black and white mask of Jimmy's inscrutability melted away. In his left eye appeared a faint glimmer. Then the left eyelid slowly descended.