Part One
Chapter XVI
 

Roaring Dick had not been brought up in the knowledge of protocols or ultimatums. Scarcely had Bob uttered the last words of his brief speech before he was hit twice in the face, good smashing blows that sent him staggering. The blows were followed by a savage rush. Roaring Dick was on his man with the quickness and ferocity of a wildcat. He hit, kicked, wrestled, even bit. Bob was whirled back by the very impetuosity of the attack. Before he could collect his wits he was badly punished and dazed. He tripped and Roaring Dick, with a bellow of satisfaction, began to kick at his body even before he reached the ground.

But strangely enough this fall served to clear Bob's head. Thousands of times he had gone down just like this on the football field, and had then been called upon to struggle on with the ball as far as he was able. A slight hint of the accustomed will sometimes steady us in the most difficult positions. The mind, bumping aimlessly, falls into its groove, and instinctively shoots forward with tremendous velocity. Bob hit the ground, half turned on his shoulder, rolled over twice with the rapid, vigorous twist second-nature to a seasoned halfback, and bounded to his feet. He met Roaring Dick half way with a straight blow. It failed to stop, or even to shake the little riverman. The next instant the men were wrestling fiercely.

Bob found himself surprisingly opposed. Beneath his loose, soft clothing the riverman seemed to be made of steel. Suddenly Bob was called upon to exert every ounce of strength in his body, and to summon all his acquired skill to prevent himself from being ignominiously overpowered. The ferocity of the rush, and the purposeful rapidity of Roaring Dick's attack, as well as the unexpected variety thereof, kept him fully occupied in defending himself. With the exception of the single blow delivered when he had regained his feet, he had been unable even to attempt aggression. It was as though he had touched a button to release an astonishing and bewildering erratic energy.

Bob had done a great deal of boxing and considerable wrestling. During his boyhood and youth he had even become involved in several fisticuffs. They had always been with the boys or young men of his own ideas. Though conducted in anger they retained still a certain remnant of convention. No matter how much you wanted to "do" the other fellow, you tried to accomplish that result by hitting cleanly, or by wrestling him to a point where you could "punch his face in." The object was to hurt your opponent until he had had enough, until he was willing to quit, until he had been thoroughly impressed with the fact that he was punished. But this result was to be accomplished with the fists. If your opponent seized a club, or a stone, or tried to kick, that very act indicated his defeat. He had had enough, and that was one way of acknowledging your superiority. So strongly ingrained had this instinct of the fight-convention become that even now Bob unconsciously was playing according to the rules of the game.

Roaring Dick, on the contrary, was out solely for results. He fought with every resource at his command. Bob was slow to realize this, slow to arouse himself beyond the point of calculated defence. His whole training on the field inclined him to keep cool and to play, whatever the game, from a reasoning standpoint. He was young, strong and practised; but he was not roused above the normal. And, as many rivermen had good reason to know, the normal man availed little against Roaring Dick's maniacal rushes.

The men were close-locked, and tugging and straining for an advantage. Bob crouched lower and lower with a well-defined notion of getting a twist on his opponent. For an instant he partially freed one side. Like lightning Roaring Dick delivered a fierce straight kick at his groin. The blow missed its aim, but Bob felt the long, sharp spikes tearing the flesh of his thigh. Sheer surprise relaxed his muscles for the fraction of an instant. Roaring Dick lowered his head, rammed it into Bob's chin, and at the same time reached for the young man's gullet with both hands. Bob tore his head out of reach in the nick of time. As they closed again Roaring Dick's right hand was free. Bob felt the riverman's thumb fumbling for his eyeball.

"Why, he wants to cripple me, to kill me!" the young man cried to himself. So vivid was the astonishment of this revelation to his sportsman's soul that he believed he had said it aloud. This was no mere fight, it was a combat. In modern civilized conditions combats are notably few and far between. It is difficult for the average man to come to a realization that he must in any circumstances depend on himself for the preservation of his life. Even to the last moment the victim of the real melodrama that occasionally breaks out in the most unlikely places is likely to be more concerned with his outraged dignity than with his peril. That thumb, feeling eagerly for his eye-socket, woke Bob to a new world. A swift anger rushed over him like a hot wave.

This man was trying to injure him. Either the kick or the gouge would have left him maimed for life. A sudden fierce desire to beat his opponent into the earth seized Bob. With a single effort he wrenched his arms free.

Now this fact has been noted again and again: mere size has often little to do with a man's physical prowess. The list of anecdotes wherein the little fellow "puts it all over" the big bully is exceptionally long. Nor are more than a bare majority of the anecdotes baseless. In our own lumber woods a one-hundred-and-thirty-pound man with no other weapon than his two hands once nearly killed a two-hundred-pound blacksmith for pushing him off a bench. This phenomenon arises from the fact that the little man seems capable often of releasing at will a greater flood of dynamic energy than a big man. We express this by saying that it is the spirit that counts. As a matter of truth the big man may have as much courage as the little man. It is simply that he cannot, at will, tap as quickly the vast reservoir of nervous energy that lies beneath all human effort of any kind whatsoever. He cannot arouse himself as can the little man.

It was for the foregoing reason that Roaring Dick had acquired his ascendancy. He possessed the temperament that fuses. When he fought, he fought with the ferocity and concentration of a wild beast. This concentration, this power of fusing to white heat all the powers of a man's being down to the uttermost, this instinctive ability to tap the extra-human stores of dynamics is what constitutes the temperament of genius, whether it be applied to invention, to artistic creation, to ruling, to finance, or merely to beating down personal opposition by beating in the opponent's face. Unfortunately for him, Bob Orde happened also to possess the temperament of genius. The two foul blows aroused him. All at once he became blind to everything but an unreasoning desire to hurt this man who had tried to hurt him. On the side of dynamics the combat suddenly equalized. It became a question merely of relative power, and Bob was the bigger man.

Bob threw his man from him by main strength. Roaring Dick staggered back, only to carrom against a tree. A dozen swift, straight blows in the face drove him by the sheer force of them. He was smothered, overwhelmed, by the young man's superior size. Bob fell upon him savagely. In less than a minute the fight was over as far as Roaring Dick was concerned. Blinded, utterly winded, his whiskey-driven energies drained away, he fell like a log. Bob, still blazing, found himself without an opponent.

He glared about him. The rivermen were gathered in a silent ring. Just beyond stood a side-bar buggy in which a burly, sodden red-faced man stood up the better to see. Bob recognized him as one of the saloon keepers at Twin Falls, and his white-hot brain jumped to the correct conclusion that Roaring Dick, driven by some vague conscience-stirring in regard to his work, had insisted on going down river; and that this dive-keeper, loth to lose a profitable customer in the dull season, had offered transportation in the hopeful probability that he could induce the riverman to return with him. Bob stooped, lifted his unconscious opponent, strode to the side-bar buggy and unceremoniously dumped his burden therein.

"Now," said he roughly, "get out of here! When this man comes to, you tell him he's fired! He's not to show his face on this river again!"

The saloon-keeper demurred, blustering slightly after the time-tried manner of his sort.

"Look here, young fellow, you can't talk that way to me."

"Can't I!" snapped Bob; "well, you turn around and get out of here."

The man met full the blaze of the extra-normal powers not yet fallen below the barrier in the young fellow's personality. He gathered up the reins and drove away.

Bob watched him out of sight, his chest rising and falling with the receding waves of his passion. He was a strange young figure with his torn garments, his tossed hair, the streak of blood beneath his eye, and the inner fading glow of his face. At last he drew a long, shuddering breath, and turned to the expectant and silent group of rivermen.

"Boys," said he pleasantly, "I don't know one damn thing about river-driving, but I do know when a man's doing his best work. I shall expect you fellows to get in and rustle down those logs. Any man who thinks he's going to soldier on me is going to get fooled, and he's going to get his time handed out to him on the spot. As near as I can make out, unless we get an everlasting wiggle on us--every one of us--this drive'll hang up; and I'd just as soon hang it by laying off those who try to shirk as by letting you hang it by not working your best. So get busy. If anybody wants to quit, let 'em step up right now. Any remarks?" He looked from one to another.

"Nary remark," said one man at last.

"All right. Now get your backs into this. It's team work that counts. You've each got your choice; either you can lie like the devil to hide the fact that you were a member of the Cedar Branch crew in 1899, or you can go away and brag about it. It's up to you. Get busy."