Part One
Chapter I
 

Late one fall afternoon, in the year 1898, a train paused for a moment before crossing a bridge over a river. From it descended a heavy-set, elderly man. The train immediately proceeded on its way.

The heavy-set man looked about him. The river and the bottom-land growths of willow and hardwood were hemmed in, as far as he could see, by low-wooded hills. Only the railroad bridge, the steep embankment of the right-of-way, and a small, painted, windowless structure next the water met his eye as the handiwork of man. The windowless structure was bleak, deserted and obviously locked by a strong padlock and hasp. Nevertheless, the man, throwing on his shoulder a canvas duffle-bag with handles, made his way down the steep railway embankment, across a plank over the ditch, and to the edge of the water. Here he dropped his bag heavily, and looked about him with an air of comical dismay.

The man was probably close to sixty years of age, but florid and vigorous. His body was heavy and round; but so were his arms and legs. An otherwise absolutely unprepossessing face was rendered most attractive by a pair of twinkling, humorous blue eyes, set far apart. Iron-gray hair, with a tendency to curl upward at the ends, escaped from under his hat. His movements were slow and large and purposeful.

He rattled the padlock on the boathouse, looked at his watch, and sat down on his duffle-bag. The wind blew strong up the river; the baring branches of the willows whipped loose their yellow leaves. A dull, leaden light stole up from the east as the afternoon sun lost its strength.

By the end of ten minutes, however, the wind carried with it the creak of rowlocks. A moment later a light, flat duck-boat shot around the bend and drew up at the float.

"Well, Orde, you confounded old scallywattamus," remarked the man on the duffle-bag, without moving, "is this your notion of meeting a train?"

The oarsman moored his frail craft and stepped to the float. He was about ten years the other's junior, big of frame, tanned of skin, clear of eye, and also purposeful of movement.

"This boathouse," he remarked incisively, "is the property of the Maple County Duck Club. Trespassers will be prosecuted. Get off this float."

Then they clasped hands and looked at each other.

"It's surely like old times to see you again, Welton," Orde broke the momentary silence. "It's been--let's see--fifteen years, hasn't it? How's Minnesota?"

"Full of ducks," stated Welton emphatically, "and if you haven't anything but mud hens and hell divers here, I'm going to sue you for getting me here under false pretences. I want ducks."

"Well, I'll get the keeper to shoot you some," replied Orde, soothingly, "or you can come out and see me kill 'em if you'll sit quiet and not rock the boat. Climb aboard. It's getting late."

Welton threw aboard his duffle-bag, and, with a dexterity marvellous in one apparently so unwieldy, stepped in astern. Orde grinned.

"Haven't forgotten how to ride a log, I reckon?" he commented.

Welton exploded.

"Look here, you little squirt!" he cried, "I'd have you know I'm riding logs yet. I don't suppose you'd know a log if you'd see one, you' soft-handed, degenerate, old riverhog, you! A golf ball's about your size!"

"No," said Orde; "a fat old hippopotamus named Welton is about my size--as I'll show you when we land at the Marsh!"

Welton grinned.

"How's Mrs. Orde and the little boy?" he inquired.

"Mrs. Orde is fine and dandy, and the 'little boy,' as you call him, graduated from college last June," Orde replied.

"You don't say!" cried Welton, genuinely astounded. "Why, of course, he must have! Can he lick his dad?"

"You bet he can--or could if his dad would give him a chance. Why, he's been captain of the football team for two years."

"And football's the only game I'd come out of the woods to see," said Welton. "I must have seen him up at Minneapolis when his team licked the stuffing out of our boys; and I remember his name. But I never thought of him as little Bobby--because--well, because I always did remember him as little Bobby."

"He's big Bobby, now, all right," said Orde, "and that's one reason I wanted to see you; why I asked you to run over from Chicago next time you came down. Of course, there are ducks, too."

"There'd better be!" said Welton grimly.

"I want Bob to go into the lumber business, same as his dad was. This congressman game is all right, and I don't see how I can very well get out of it, even if I wanted to. But, Welton, I'm a Riverman, and I always will be. It's in my bones. I want Bob to grow up in the smell of the woods--same as his dad. I've always had that ambition for him. It was the one thing that made me hesitate longest about going to Washington. I looked forward to Orde & Son."

He was resting on his oars, and the duck-boat drifted silently by the swaying brown reeds.

Welton nodded.

"I want you to take him and break him in. I'd rather have you than any one I know. You're the only one of the outsiders who stayed by the Big Jam," Orde continued. "Don't try to favour him--that's no favour. If he doesn't make good, fire him. Don't tell any of your people that he's the son of a friend. Let him stand on his own feet. If he's any good we'll work him into the old game. Just give him a job, and keep an eye on him for me, to see how well he does."

"Jack, the job's his," said Welton. "But it won't do him much good, because it won't last long. We're cleaned up in Minnesota; and have only an odd two years on some odds and ends we picked up in Wisconsin just to keep us busy."

"What are you going to do then?" asked Orde, quietly dipping his oars again.

"I'm going to retire and enjoy life."

Orde laughed quietly.

"Yes, you are!" said he. "You'd have a high old time for a calendar month. Then you'd get uneasy. You'd build you a big house, which would keep you mad for six months more. Then you'd degenerate to buying subscription books, and wheezing around a club and going by the cocktail route. You'd look sweet retiring, now, wouldn't you?"

Welton grinned back, a trifle ruefully.

"You can no more retire than I can," Orde went on. "And as for enjoying life, I'll trade jobs with you in a minute, you ungrateful old idiot."

"I know it, Jack," confessed Welton; "but what can I do? I can't pick up any more timber at any price. I tell you, the game is played out. We're old mossbacks; and our job is done."

"I have five hundred million feet of sugar pine in California. What do you say to going in with me to manufacture?"

"The hell you have!" cried Welton, his jaw dropping. "I didn't know that!"

"Neither does anybody else. I bought it twenty years ago, under a corporation name. I was the whole corporation. Called myself the Wolverine Company."

"You own the Wolverine property, do you?"

"Yes; ever hear of it?"

"I know where it is. I've been out there trying to get hold of something, but you have the heart of it."

"Thought you were going to retire," Orde pointed out.

"The property's all right, but I've some sort of notion the title is clouded."

"Why?"

"Can't seem to remember; but I must have come against some record somewhere. Didn't pay extra much attention, because I wasn't interested in that piece. Something to do with fraudulent homesteading, wasn't it?"

Orde dropped his oars across his lap to fill and light a pipe.

"That title was deliberately clouded by an enemy to prevent my raising money at the time of the Big Jam, when I was pinched," said he. "Frank Taylor straightened it out for me. You can see him. As a matter of fact, most of that land I bought outright from the original homesteaders, and the rest from a bank. I was very particular. There's one 160 I wouldn't take on that account."

"Well, that's all right," said Welton, his jolly eyes twinkling. "Why the secrecy?"

"I wanted a business for Bob when he should grow up," explained Orde; "but I didn't want any of this 'rich man's son' business. Nothing's worse for a boy than to feel that everything's cut and dried for him. He is to understand that he must go to work for somebody else, and stand strictly on his own feet, and make good on his own efforts. That's why I want you to break him in."

"All right. And about this partnership?"

"I want you to take charge. I can't leave Washington. We'll get down to details later. Bob can work for you there the same as here. By and by, we'll see whether to tell him or not."

The twilight had fallen, and the shores of the river were lost in dusk. The surface of the water itself shone with an added luminosity, reflecting the sky. In the middle distance twinkled a light, beyond which in long stretches lay the sombre marshes.

"That's the club," said Orde. "Now, if you disgrace me, you old duffer, I'll use you as a decoy!"

A few moments later the two men, opening the door of the shooting-box, plunged into a murk of blue tobacco smoke. A half-dozen men greeted them boisterously. These were just about to draw lots for choice of blinds on the morrow. A savoury smell of roasting ducks came from the tiny kitchen where Weber--punter, keeper, duck-caller and cook--exercised the last-named function. Welton drew last choice, and was commiserated on his bad fortune. No one offered to give way to the guest, however. On this point the rules of the Club were inflexible.

Luckily the weather changed. It turned cold; the wind blew a gale. Squalls of light snow swept the marshes. Men chattered and shivered, and blew on their wet fingers, but in from the great open lake came myriads of water-fowl, seeking shelter, and the sport was grand.

"Well, old stick-in-the-mud," said Orde as, at the end of two days, the men thawed out in a smoking car, "ducks enough for you?"

"Jack," said Welton solemnly, "there are no ducks in Minnesota. They've all come over here. I've had the time of my life. And about that other thing: as soon as our woods work is under way, I'll run out to California and look over the ground--see how easy it is to log that country. Then we can talk business. In the meantime, send Bob over to the Chicago office. I'll let Harvey break him in a little on the office work until I get back. When will he show up?"

Orde grinned apologetically.

"The kid has set his heart on coaching the team this fall, and he don't want to go to work until after the season," said he. "I'm just an old fool enough to tell him he could wait. I know he ought to be at it now--you and I were, long before his age; but----"

"Oh, shut up!" interrupted Welton, his big body shaking all over with mirth. "You talk like a copy-book. I'm not a constituent, and you needn't run any bluffs on me. You're tickled to death with that boy, and you are hoping that team will lick the everlasting daylights out of Chicago, Thanksgiving; and you wouldn't miss the game or have Bob out of the coaching for the whole of California; and you know it. Send him along when you get ready."