The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
Two days later Welton swung from the train at Twin Falls. His red, jolly face was as quizzical as ever, but one who knew him might have noticed that his usual leisurely movements had quickened. He walked rapidly to the livery stable where he ordered a rig.
"Where's the drive, Hank?" he asked the liveryman.
"Search me!" was his reply; "somewhere down river. Old Murdock is up talkin' wild about damage suits, and there's evidently been one hell of a row, but I just got back myself from drivin' a drummer over to Watsonville."
"Know if Darrell is in town?"
"Oh, he's in town; there ain't no manner of doubt as to that."
"Spifflicated, pie-eyed, loaded, soshed," agreed the liveryman succinctly.
Welton shook his head humorously and ruefully.
"Say, Welton," demanded the liveryman with the easy familiarity of his class, "why in blazes do you put a plain drunk like that in charge?"
"Darrell is a good man on a big job," said Welton; "you can't beat him, and you can't get him to take a drink. But it takes a big job to steady him."
"Well, I'd fire him," stated Hank positively.
"He's already fired," spoke up a hostler, "they laid him off two days ago when he went down drunk and tried to take charge."
"Well, now," chuckled Welton, as he gathered up the reins, "who'd have thought old Larsen could scare up the spunk!"
He drove down the river road. When he came to a point opposite Murdock's he drew up.
"That wire said that Murdock had the river blocked," he mused, "but she's certainly flowing free enough now. The river's sacked clean now."
His presence on the bank had attracted the attention of a man in the mill. After a long scrutiny, this individual launched a skiff and pulled across the stream.
"I thought it was you," he cried as soon as he had stepped ashore. "Well, let me tell you I'm going to sue you for damages, big damages!"
Welton looked him over quizzically, and the laughing lines deepened around the corners of his eyes.
"Lay on, MacDuff," said he, "nobody's sued me yet this year, and it didn't seem natural."
"And for assault with deadly weapons, and malicious destruction of property, and seizure and----"
"You must have been talking to a country lawyer," interrupted Welton, with one of his subterranean chuckles. "Don't do it. They got nothing but time, and you know what your copy book says about idle hands." He crossed one leg and leaned back as though for a comfortable chat. "No, you come and see me, Murdock, and state how much you've been damaged, and we'll see what we can do. Why, these little lawyers love to name things big. They'd call a sewing circle a riot if one of the members dropped a stitch."
But Murdock was in deadly earnest.
"Perhaps throwin' dynamite on the end of a pole, and mighty nigh killin' us, and just blowin' the whole river up in the air is your idea of somethin' little," he stormed; "well, you'll find it'll look big enough in court."
"So that's what they did to clear the river," said Welton, more than half to himself. "Well, Murdock, suit yourself; you can see me or that intellectual giant of a lawyer of yours. You'll find me cheaper. So long."
He drove on, chuckling.
"I didn't think old Larsen had the spunk," he repeated after a time. "Guess I ought to have put him in charge in the beginning."
He drove to a point where the erratic road turned inland. There he tied his horse to a tree and tramped on afoot. After a little he came in sight of the rear--and stopped.
The men were working hard; a burst of hearty laughter saluted Welton's ears. He could hardly believe them. Nobody had heard this sullen crew of nondescript rivermen from everywhere exhibit the faintest symptoms of good-humour or interest before. Another burst of laughter came up the breeze. A dozen men ran out over the logs as though skylarking, inserted their peavies in a threatened lock, and pried it loose.
"Pretty work," said the expert in Welton.
He drew nearer through the low growth until he stood well within hearing and seeing distance. Then he stopped again.
Bob Orde was walking up and down the bank talking to the men. They were laughing back at him. His manner was half fun, half earnest, part rueful, part impatient, wholly affectionate.
"You, Jim," said he, "go out and get busy. You're loafing, you know you are; I don't give a damn what you're to do. Do something! Don't give an imitation of a cast-iron hero. No, I won't either tell you what to do. I don't know. But do it, even if you have to make it up out of your own head. Consider the festive water-beetle, and the ant and other industrious doodle-bugs. Get a wiggle on you, fellows. We'll never get out at this rate. If this drive gets hung up, I'm going to murder every last one of you. Come on now, all together; if I could walk out on those logs I'd build a fire under you; but you've got me tied to the bank and you know it, you big fat loafers, you!"
"Keep your hair on, bub; we'll make it, all right"
"Well, we'd just better make it," warned Bob. "Now I'm going down to the jam to see whether their alarm clock went off this morning.--Now, don't slumber!"
After he had disappeared down the trail, Welton stepped into view.
"Oh, Charley!" he called.
One of the rivermen sprang ashore.
"When did the rear leave Murdock's?" he asked without preliminary.
"You've made good time."
"Bet we have," replied Charley with pride.
"Who's jam boss?"
"Who's in charge of the river, then?" demanded Welton sharply.
"Why, young Orde!" replied the riverman, surprised.
"Since he blew up Murdock's piles."
"Oh, he did that, did he? I suppose he fired Darrell, too?"
"Sure. It was a peach of a scrap."
"Yep. That Orde boy is a wonder. He just ruined Roaring Dick."
"He did, did he?" commented Welton. "Well, so long."
He followed Bob down the river trail. At the end of a half-mile he overtook the young fellow kneeling on a point gazing at a peeled stake planted at the edge of the river.
"Wish I knew how long this water was going to hold out," he murmured, as he heard a man pause behind him. "She's dropped two inches by my patent self-adjusting gauge."
"Young man," said Welton, "are you on the payrolls of this company?"
Bob turned around, then instantly came to his feet.
"Oh, you're here at last, Mr. Welton," he cried in tones of vast relief.
"Answer my question, please."
"What?" asked Bob with an expression of bewilderment.
"Are you on the payrolls of this company?"
"No, sir, of course not. You know that."
"Then what are you doing in charge of this river?"
"Why, don't you see--"
"I see you've destroyed property and let us in for a big damage suit. I see you've discharged our employees without authority to do so. I see you're bossing my men and running my drive without the shadow of a right."
"But something had to be done," expostulated Bob.
"What do you know about river-driving?" broke in Welton. "Not a thing."
"Men who told me did--"
"A bunch of river-hogs," broke in Welton contemptuously. "It strikes me, young man, that you have the most colossal cheek I've ever heard of."
But Bob faced him squarely.
"Look here," he said decidedly, "I'm technically wrong, and I know it. But good men told me your measly old drive would hang if it stayed there two days longer; and I believed them, and I believe them yet. I don't claim to know anything about river-driving, but here your confounded drive is well on its way. I kicked that drunk off the river because he was no good. I took hold here to help you out of a hole, and you're out."
"But," said Welton, carefully, "don't you see that you took chances on losing me a lot of property?"
Bob looked up at him a moment wearily.
"From my point of view I have nothing to regret," said he stiffly, and turned away.
The humorous lines about Welton's eyes had been deepening throughout this interview.
"That tops it off," said he. "First you get me into trouble; then you fire my head man; then you run off with my property; finally you tell me to go to hell! Son, you are a great man! Shake!"
Bob whirled in surprise to search Welton's good-natured jolly face. The latter was smiling.
"Shake," he repeated, relapsing, as was his habit when much in earnest, into his more careless speech; "you done just right. Son, remember this:--it's true--it ain't doing things that makes a man so much as deciding things."
One of his great chuckles bubbled up.
"It took some nerve to jump in the way you did; and some sand to handle the flea-bitten bunch of river-hogs----"
"You're mistaken about them," Bob broke in earnestly. "They've been maligned. They're as good and willing a squad as I ever want to see----"
"Oh, sure," laughed Welton; "they're a nice little job lot of tin angels. However, don't worry. You sure saved the day, for I believe we would have hung if we hadn't got over the riffles before this last drop of the water."
He began to laugh, at first, gently, then more and more heartily, until Bob stared at him with considerable curiosity and inquiry. Welton caught his look.
"I was just thinking of Harvey and Collins," he remarked enigmatically as he wiped his eyes. "Oh, Bobby, my son, you sure do please me. Only I was afraid for a minute it might be a flash in the pan and you weren't going to tell me to go to hell."
They turned back toward the rear.
"By the way," Welton remarked, "you made one bad break just now."
"What was that?" asked Bob.
"You told me you were not on the payrolls of this company. You are."