Part One
Chapter XV
 

Two days later Welton returned to the mill. At his suggestion Bob stayed with the drive. He took his place quietly as a visitor, had the good sense to be unobtrusive, and so was tolerated by the men. That is to say, he sat at the camp fires practically unnoticed, and the rivermen talked as though he were not there. When he addressed any of them they answered him with entire good humour, but ordinarily they paid no more attention to him than they did to the trees and bushes that chanced to surround the camp.

The drive moved forward slowly. Sometimes Billy packed up every day to set forth on one of his highly adventurous drives; again camp stayed for some time in the same place. Bob amused himself tramping up and down the river, reviewing the operations. Occasionally Roaring Dick, in his capacity of river boss, accompanied the young fellow. Why, Bob could not imagine, for the alert, self-contained little riverman trudged along in almost entire silence, his keen chipmunk eyes spying restlessly on all there was to be seen. When Bob ventured a remark or comment, he answered by a grunt or a monosyllable. The grunt or the monosyllable was never sullen or hostile or contemptuous; merely indifferent. Bob learned to economize speech, and so got along well with his strange companion.

By the end of the week the drive entered a cleared farm country. The cultivation was crude and the clearing partial. Low-wooded hills dotted with stumps of the old forest alternated with willow-grown bottom-lands and dense swamps. The farmers lived for the most part in slab or log houses earthed against the winter cold. Fences were of split rails laid "snake fashion." Ploughing had to be in and out between the blackened stumps on the tops of which were piled the loose rocks picked from the soil as the share turned them up. Long, unimproved roads wandered over the hills, following roughly the section lines, but perfectly willing to turn aside through some man's field in order to avoid a steep grade or soft going. These things the rivermen saw from their stream exactly as a trainman would see them from his right-of-way. The river was the highway, and rarely was it considered worth while to climb the low bluffs out of the bottom-land through which it flowed.

In the long run it landed them in a town named Twin Falls. Here were a water-power dam and some small manufactories. Here, too, were saloons and other temptations for rivermen. Camp was made above town. In the evening the men, with but few exceptions, turned in to the sleeping tent at the usual hour. Bob was much surprised at this; but later he came to recognize it as part of a riverman's peculiar code. Until the drive should be down, he did not feel himself privileged to "blow off steam." Even the exceptions did not get so drunk they could not show up the following morning to take a share in sluicing the drive through the dam.

All but Roaring Dick. The latter did not appear at all, and was reported "drunk a-plenty" by some one who had seen him early that morning. Evidently the river boss did not "take this drive serious." His absence seemed to make no difference. The sluicing went forward methodically.

"He'll show up in a day or two," said the cook with entire indifference, when Bob inquired of him.

That evening, however, four or five of the men disappeared, and did not return. Such was the effect of an evil example on the part of the foreman. Larsen took charge. In almost unbroken series the logs shot through the sluiceways into the river below, where they were received by the jam crew and started on the next stage of their long journey to the mills. In a day the dam was passed. One of the younger men rode the last log through the sluiceway, standing upright as it darted down the chute into the eddy below. The crowd of townspeople cheered. The boy waved his hat and birled the log until the spray flew.

But hardly was camp pitched two miles below town when one of the jam crew came upstream to report a difficulty. Larsen at once made ready to accompany him down the river trail, and Bob, out of curiosity, went along, too.

"It's mossbacks," the messenger explained, "and them deadheads we been carrying along. They've rigged up a little sawmill down there, where they're cutting what the farmers haul in to 'em. And then, besides, they've planted a bunch of piles right out in the middle of the stream and boomed in their side, and they're out there with pike-poles, nailin' onto every stick of deadhead that comes along."

"Well, that's all right," said Larsen. "I guess they got a right to them as long as we ain't marked them."

"They can have their deadheads," agreed the riverman, "but their piles have jammed our drive and hung her."

"We'll break the jam," said Larsen.

Arrived at the scene of difficulty, Bob looked about him with great interest. The jam was apparently locked hard and fast against a clump of piles driven about in the centre of the stream. These had evidently been planted as the extreme outwork of a long shunting boom. Men working there could shunt into the sawmill enclosure that portion of the drive to which they could lay claim. The remainder could proceed down the open channel to the left. That was the theory. Unfortunately, this division of the river's width so congested matters that the whole drive had hung.

The jam crew were at work, but even Bob's unpractised eye saw that their task was stupendous. Even should they succeed in loosening the breast, there could be no reason to suppose the performance would not have to be repeated over and over again as the close-ranked drive came against the obstacle.

Larsen took one look, then made his way across to the other side and down to the mill. Bob followed. The little sawmill was going full blast under the handling of three men and a boy. Everything was done in the most primitive manner, by main strength, awkwardness, and old-fashioned tools.

"Who's boss?" yelled Larsen against the clang of the mill.

A slow, black-bearded man stepped forward.

"What can I do for you?" he asked.

"Our drive's hung up against your boom," yelled Larsen.

The man raised his hand and the machinery was suddenly stilled.

"So I perceive," said he.

"Your boom-piles are drove too far out in the stream."

"I don't know about that," objected the mossback.

"I do," insisted Larsen. "Nobody on earth could keep from jamming, the way you got things fixed."

"That's none of my business," said the man steadily.

"Well, we'll have to take out that fur clump of piles to get our jam broke."

"I don't know about that," repeated the man.

Larsen apparently paid no attention to this last remark, but tramped back to the jam. There he ordered a couple of men out with axes, and others with tackle. But at that moment the three men and the boy appeared. They carried three shotguns and a rifle.

"That's about enough of that," said the bearded man, quietly. "You let my property alone. I don't want any trouble with you men, but I'll blow hell out of the first man that touches those piles. I've had about enough of this riverhog monkey-work."

He looked as though he meant business, as did his companions. When the rivermen drew back, he took his position atop the disputed clump of piles, his shotgun across his knees.

The driving crew retreated ashore. Larsen was plainly uncertain.

"I tell you, boys," said he, "I'll get back to town. You wait."

"Guess I'll go along," suggested Bob, determined to miss no phase of this new species of warfare.

"What you going to do?" he asked Larsen when they were once on the trail.

"I don't know," confessed the older man, rubbing his cap. "I'm just goin' to see some lawyer, and then I'm goin' to telegraph the Company. I wish Darrell was in charge. I don't know what to do. You can't expect those boys to run a chance of gittin' a hole in 'em."

"Do you believe they'd shoot?" asked Bob.

"I believe so. It's a long chance, anyhow."

But in Twin Falls they received scant sympathy and encouragement. The place was distinctly bucolic, and as such opposed instinctively to larger mills, big millmen, lumber, lumbermen and all pertaining thereunto. They tolerated the drive because, in the first place they had to; and in the second place there was some slight profit to be made. But the rough rivermen antagonized them, and they were never averse to seeing these buccaneers of the streams in difficulties. Then, too, by chance the country lawyers Larsen consulted happened to be attorneys for the little sawmill men. Larsen tried in his blundering way to express his feeling that "nobody had a right to hang our drive." His explanations were so involved and futile that, without thinking, Bob struck in.

"Surely these men have no right to obstruct as they do. Isn't there some law against interfering with navigation?"

"The stream is not navigable," returned the lawyer curtly.

Bob's memory vouchsafed a confused recollection of something read sometime, somewhere.

"Hasn't a stream been declared navigable when logs can be driven in it?" he asked.

"Are you in charge of this drive?" the lawyer asked, turning on him sharply.

"Why--no," confessed Bob.

"Have you anything to do with this question?"

"I don't believe I have."

"Then I fail to see why I should answer your questions," said the lawyer, with finality. "As to your question," he went on to Larsen with equal coldness, "if you have any doubts as to Mr. Murdock's rights in the stream, you have the recourse of a suit at law to settle that point, and to determine the damages, if any."

Bob found himself in the street with Larsen.

"But they haven't got no right to stop our drive dead that way," expostulated the old man.

Bob's temper was somewhat ruffled by his treatment at the hands of the lawyer.

"Well, they've done it, whether they have the right to or not," he said shortly; "what next?"

"I guess I'll telegraph Mr. Welton," said Larsen.

He did so. The two returned to camp. The rivermen were loafing in camp awaiting Larsen's reappearance. The jam was as before. Larsen walked out on the logs. The boy, seated on the clump of piles, gave a shrill whistle. Immediately from the little mill appeared the brown-bearded man and his two companions. They picked their way across the jam to the piles, where they roosted, their weapons across their knees, until Larsen had returned to the other bank.

"Well, Mr. Welton ought to be up in a couple of days, if he ain't up the main river somewheres," said Larsen.

"Aren't you going to do anything in the meantime?" asked Bob.

"What can I do?" countered Larsen.'

The crew had nothing to say one way or the other, but watched with a cynical amusement the progress of affairs. They smoked, and spat, and squatted on their heels in the Indian taciturnity of their kind when for some reason they withhold their approval. That evening, however, Bob happened to be lying at the campfire next two of the older men. As usual, he smoked in unobtrusive silence, content to be ignored if only the men would act in their accustomed way, and not as before a stranger.

"Wait; hell!" said one of the men to the other. "Times is certainly gone wrong! If they had anything like an oldtime river boss in charge, they'd come the Jack Orde on this lay-out."

Bob pricked up his ears at this mention of his father's name.

"What's that?" he asked.

The riverman rolled over and examined him dispassionately for a few moments.

"Jack Orde," he deigned to explain at last, "was a riverman. He was a good one. He used to run the drive in the Redding country. When he started to take out logs, he took 'em out, by God! I've heard him often: 'Get your logs out first, and pay the damage afterward,' says he. He was a holy terror. They got the state troops out after him once. It came to be a sort of by-word. When you generally gouge, kick and sandbag a man into bein' real good, why we say you come the Jack Orde on him."

"I see," said Bob, vastly amused at this sidelight on the family reputation. "What would you do here?"

"I don't know," replied the riverman, "but I wouldn't lay around and wait."

"Why don't some of you fellows go out there and storm the fort, if you feel that way?" asked Bob.

"Why?" demanded the riverman, "I won't let any boss stump me; but why in hell should I go out and get my hide full of birdshot? If this outfit don't know enough to get its drive down, that ain't my fault."

Bob had seen enough of the breed to recognize this as an eminently characteristic attitude.

"Well," he remarked comfortably, "somebody'll be down from the mill soon."

The riverman turned on him almost savagely.

"Down soon!" he snorted. "So'll the water be 'down soon.' It's dropping every minute. That telegraft of yours won't even start out before to-morrow morning. Don't you fool yourself. That Twin Falls outfit is just too tickled to do us up. It'll be two days before anybody shows up, and then where are you at? Hell!" and the old riverman relapsed into a disgusted silence.

Considerably perturbed, Bob hunted up Larsen.

"Look here, Larsen," said he, "they tell me a delay here is likely to hang up this drive. Is that right?"

The old man looked at his interlocutor, his brow wrinkled.

"I wish Darrell was in charge," said he.

"What would Darrell do that you can't do?" demanded Bob bluntly.

"That's just it; I don't know," confessed Larsen.

"Well, I'd get some weapons up town and drive that gang off," said Bob heatedly.

"They'd have a posse down and jug the lot of us," Larsen pointed out, "before we could clear the river." He suddenly flared up. "I ain't no river boss, and I ain't paid as a river boss, and I never claimed to be one. Why in hell don't they keep their men in charge?"

"You're working for the company, and you ought to do your best for them," said Bob.

But Larsen had abruptly fallen into Scandinavian sulks. He muttered something under his breath, and quite deliberately arose and walked around to the other side of the fire.

Twice during the night Bob arose from his blankets and walked down to the riverside. In the clear moonlight he could see one or the other of the millmen always on watch, his shotgun across his knees. Evidently they did not intend to be surprised by any night work. The young fellow returned very thoughtful to his blankets, where he lay staring up against the canvas of the tent.

Next morning he was up early, and in close consultation with Billy the teamster. The latter listened attentively to what Bob had to say, nodding his head from time to time. Then the two disappeared in the direction of the wagon, where for a long interval they busied themselves at some mysterious operation.

When they finally emerged from the bushes, Bob was carrying over his shoulder a ten-foot poplar sapling around the end of which was fastened a cylindrical bundle of considerable size. Bob paid no attention to the men about the fire, but bent his steps toward the river. Billy, however, said a few delighted words to the sprawling group. It arose with alacrity and followed the young man's lead.

Arrived at the bank of the river, Bob swung his burden to the ground, knelt by it, and lit a match. The rivermen, gathering close, saw that the bundle around the end of the sapling consisted of a dozen rolls of giant powder from which dangled a short fuse. Bob touched his match to the split outer end of the fuse. It spluttered viciously. He arose with great deliberation, picked up his strange weapon, and advanced out over the logs.

In the meantime the opposing army had gathered about the disputed clump of piles, to the full strength of its three shotguns and the single rifle. Bob paid absolutely no attention to them. When within a short distance he stopped and, quite oblivious to warnings and threats from the army, set himself to watching painstakingly the sputtering progress of the fire up the fuse, exactly as a small boy watches his giant cracker which he hopes to explode in mid-air. At what he considered the proper moment he straightened his powerful young body, and cast the sapling from him, javelin-wise.

"Scat!" he shouted, and scrambled madly for cover.

The army decamped in haste. Of its armament it lost near fifty per cent., for one shotgun and the rifle remained where they had fallen. Like Abou Ben Adam, Murdock led all the rest.

Now Bob had hurled his weapon as hard as he knew how, and had scampered for safety without looking to see where it had fallen. As a matter of fact, by one of those very lucky accidents, that often attend a star in the ascendent, the sapling dove head on into a cavern in the jam above the clump of piles. The detonation of the twelve full sticks of giant powder was terrific. Half the river leaped into the air in a beautiful column of water and spray that seemed to hang motionless for appreciable moments. Dark fragments of timbers were hurled in all directions. When the row had died the clump of piles was seen to have disappeared. Bob's chance shot had actually cleared the river!

The rivermen glanced at each other amazedly.

"Did you mean to place that charge, bub?" one asked.

Bob was too good a field general not to welcome the gifts of chance.

"Certainly," he snapped. "Now get out on that river, every mother's son of you. Get that drive going and keep it going. I've cleared the river for you; and if you'd any one of you had the nerve of my poor old fat sub-centre, you'd have done it for yourselves. Get busy! Hop!"

The men jumped for their peavies. Bob raged up and down the bank. For the moment he had forgotten the husk of the situation, and saw it only in essential. Here was a squad to lick into shape, to fashion into a team. It mattered little that they wore spikes in their boots instead of cleats; that they sported little felt hats instead of head guards. The principle was the same. The team had gone to pieces in the face of a crisis; discipline was relaxed; grumblers were getting noisy. Bob plunged joyously head over ears in his task. By now he knew every man by name, and he addressed each personally. He had no idea of what was to be done to start this riverful of logs smoothly and surely on its way; he did not need to. Afloat on the river was technical knowledge enough, and to spare. Bob threw his men at the logs as he used to throw his backs at the opposing line. And they went. Even in the whole-souled, frantic absorption of the good coach he found time to wonder at the likeness of all men. These rivermen differed in no essential from the members of the squad. They responded to the same authority; they could be hurled as a unit against opposing obstacles.

Bob felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and whirled to stare straight into the bloodshot eyes of Roaring Dick. The man was still drunk, but only with the lees of the debauch. He knew perfectly what he was about, but the bad whiskey still hummed through his head. Bob met the baleful glare from under his square brows, as the man teetered back and forth on his heels.

"You got a hell of a nerve!" said Roaring Dick, thickly. "You talk like you was boss of this river."

Bob looked back at him steadily for a full half-minute.

"I am," said he at last.