Chapter XXV. Drift-Logs
 

The following week was very stormy. The rain drove up from the south, and the river rose rapidly. The ice, now greatly weakened, slowly stirred before its final rush to the sea. Then the moment arrived when it started forward, impelled by the gathering mass up-stream. All day long it surged onward, and far on into the night, carrying along trees, and stones, ripping and grinding, demolishing a wharf here, or up-rooting a tree there. No power of man could stop it. People stood on the shore watching the sight, familiar, and yet always new. The last sign of winter had now departed, and all knew that in a few hours the first steamer of the season would be on her way up-river.

With the ice, and following it, came the drift-logs. In a number of cases booms had been broken, and the work of months ruined in an instant. For a hundred miles or more these logs were scattered along the river, drifting with the tide, caught in coves, and mouths of creeks, or stranded upon the shore. To collect as many of these as possible was a big task. Yet it was important, for these logs represented much money, and their entire loss would spell ruin to some lumbermen.

In less than two days after the ice had gone out, a notice was posted at the store. It told of the offer of ten cents for each drift-log. There were men who made a regular business of this every spring. They bought all the logs which had been collected by the inhabitants along the river, took them to the city, where they were sorted out according to private marks, and sold to their respective owners at an excellent profit.

Formerly, Captain Josh had paid no attention to such posted notices. The work of gathering drift-logs he considered beneath the dignity of an old sea-captain. "I'm not a scavenger," he had often told people, when they had asked him why he didn't collect the logs which always floated near his shore, and into the little cove just below his house. "If I can't make a livin' without doin' sich work, then I'll give up."

But this spring the captain studied the notice most carefully, and he walked back to the Anchorage in a very thoughtful mood. He was thinking of the scouts. He was anxious that they should make more money, and here was a fine opportunity. They had already two hundred dollars in the bank, for the bear and the wreaths had added another fifty to the account. But the captain was not satisfied. He longed to have three hundred dollars there, for with that amount there was hardly a possible chance of the Hillcrest troop being beaten in the struggle for the prize. He disliked the idea of now turning scavenger after he had talked so much against the work. But he was not thinking of himself, so that made a vast difference.

He found the scouts at Headquarters, for school was out, and this was their regular afternoon of meeting. They were awaiting his coming with eagerness, as they, too, had seen the notice in the store. But they knew the captain's views on the matter, and, therefore, had serious doubts about speaking to him in reference to the drift-logs.

"Hello, boys," was his cheery greeting, as he seated himself upon a block of wood before the door. "How's business?"

"Not very good," Rod replied. "But we have a plan for making more money."

"Yez have, eh? Well, that's interestin'. What is it?"

"But we're afraid you won't like it," Rod declared.

"H'm, is that so? Must be pretty bad, then. Not goin' to steal chickens, are yez? I can't agree to that."

The boys gave a hearty laugh, and the captain smiled grimly. He was quite certain what the plan was which the scouts had in view.

"Oh, no, we wouldn't steal anything," Rod hastened to explain. "We want only honest money. This will be honest, but you don't like the way of earning it."

"How d'ye know that, young man? What makes ye wise so mighty sudden?"

"You have often said so yourself, sir. Haven't you told us that you didn't like collecting drift-logs? You always said it was beneath your dignity, didn't you?"

"Ho, ho, that's it," the captain roared. "Suppose I did say that, what's wrong about it?"

"Nothing, sir, nothing, only----"

"Only what?"

"That you wouldn't care for us to gather drift-logs, and sell them."

"Did I ever say anything about you?" the captain demanded.

"No, sir. But we thought----"

"Oh, so yez thought, eh? Well, then stop sich thinking and git to work. It's beneath my dignity to be pokin' around after logs, because I'm a sea-captain. But that has nothin' to do with you. It's beneath my dignity to go bare-footed, but it's all right fer you. It's beneath my dignity to go to school, but not fer you, see?"

"And you're quite willing to let us collect the logs?" Rod enquired. He was all alert now and excited, as were also the rest of the scouts.

"Sure. Go ahead, and I'll keep an eye over yez."

"And may we have the tender?"

"Certainly. Yez couldn't do much without that. But be very careful, and don't git a duckin'. I don't want any accidents. Yer parents look to me to take care of yez, and I don't want to have any bad news to carry to yer homes."

Thus it came about that the boys began to gather logs that very afternoon. The captain sat upon the shore watching and giving advice. Four of the scouts manned the tender. Two rowed, while Rod and Phil herded the logs together, which were then towed to the little cove and fastened to the shore. The rest of the boys rolled the stranded logs into the water, and then by means of poles floated them also into the cove. It was very exciting work, and the time came all too soon for them to go home. But before they left they counted how many they had, and found that there were one hundred and forty-five safely rounded up. This was most encouraging, and their hearts were filled with joy at the success of their undertaking.

The captain had watched the boys with great interest. He was proud of the speedy and skilful manner in which they had performed the work. He knew that if he had assisted there would now be many more logs in the cove. But he could not afford to lose his dignity, oh, no, and he chuckled as he sat there for a few minutes after the scouts had gone home.

That evening when supper was over, the captain started out alone in the tender. He told his wife that it might be late before he got home, and for her not to worry. He knew where many logs were lying in coves and creeks unknown to the scouts. Hour after hour he patiently toiled, collecting these, and lashing them together with timber-dogs and ropes he had brought with him. It was long after dark when he at last took his raft in tow, and began to row for his own shore. The tide was favourable, so after a pull of over an hour he had the satisfaction of making them fast to a tree in front of the Anchorage.

Next morning the captain was in great spirits, and he chuckled so often over his breakfast that his wife's curiosity was aroused.

"What is it, Joshua?" she asked. "You seem to be greatly amused over something."

"Oh, it's only a little surprise fer the scouts," was the reply. "Don't say a word, and I'll tell ye."

"But what about your dignity, Joshua?" Mrs. Britt laughingly enquired, when she had heard the story. "May I tell Whyn? She would be so pleased, poor girl."

"Sure, Betsey. But how is she this mornin'?"

"No better, I'm afraid. She is failing fast. She hasn't been able to see the scouts for some time, and you know what that means. She just lies there all day without saying hardly anything. She is so different from what she was when she first came here."

"But she still takes an interest in what the scouts are doin', does she not?"

"Oh, yes, in a way. But she cannot get up her old enthusiasm. The least excitement tires her. She is an angel, if ever there was one. Mrs. Sinclair is coming this morning, so she wrote. She will be terribly disappointed in Whyn."

Often during the day the captain went to see if the logs he had gathered during the night were safe. Then before school was out, he took off all the tacklings, and scattered the logs along the shore, so that they had the appearance of having drifted there in the night. He kept a strict watch over them now lest they should get too far from the shore, and very glad was he when at last the scouts arrived.

They were surprised and delighted to find so many logs near at hand, and never for a moment did they suspect what the captain had done. It took them the rest of the afternoon getting the logs into the cove, and when this was accomplished, they stood upon the shore and gazed proudly upon their haul, as the captain termed it.

"Ye've done well, lads," he remarked, "fer ye must have nigh onto three hundred now. But yez should have a boom around them. If a gale springs up, there'll be trouble."

Acting upon this suggestion, and directed by the captain, the scouts spent another hour in encircling their logs with a stout boom, which they made secure to the shore.

"There, that's better," was the captain's comment, when this had been completed. "Yez'd better hurry home now, fer it's gittin' rather late."

As the boys were about to leave, a small tug came up the river, and swerved somewhat to the left. A man was standing in the wheel-house, watching those on shore. No word was spoken as the boat sped by, but a thoughtful expression appeared in Captain Josh's eyes as he stood and studied the tug for several minutes.

"I wonder what she's after," he mused, half aloud.

"Perhaps she's going up-river for logs," Rod suggested.

"Maybe she is, lad. But I was jist wondering whose logs she's after, that's all. I know that craft, so that's what makes me uneasy. If it's your logs she's after it'll be well to keep a sharp lookout to-night. Last spring quite a number of logs disappeared, and I know yez don't want to run any risk with yours."

The scouts were much excited now, and the idea of keeping watch appealed to their fancy. They all wanted to stay, but the captain told them to go home first and get permission from their parents.

"I'll keep a eye out," he told them, "until some of yez come back. Ye'd better bring yer blankets along, so that the ones who are not on duty kin sleep. I guess ye'll find the floor of Headquarters quite soft before mornin'."

By the time the scouts returned it was nine o'clock. They found the captain on guard near the shore.

"Nothin' doin' yit," was his greeting. "But, then, it's too early. The best thing fer yez to do is to take an hour each on watch. Put the youngest on first, and the older ones kin take from midnight. If anything of special interest turns up, let me know. I'll sleep with one ear open."

And thus the watch began. It was a novel experience for the scouts, and all were anxious for their turn to arrive. Every time the door opened and guard was relieved, all awoke, for they slept lightly, as the floor was not as soft as their own beds at home.

Phil had taken from twelve to one, and he was followed by Rod. It was a beautiful night, with the stars twinkling overhead. Not a ripple disturbed the surface of the river. Frogs croaked in the distance, and peculiar night sounds fell upon his ears. He sincerely hoped that something would happen during his watch, and as he sat upon a log among the bushes his eyes and ears were keenly alert.

Never before did an hour appear so tedious to Rod. When it seemed that he had been there long enough he pulled out the watch the captain had let the boys have for the night and, striking a match, saw that he had been on guard only half an hour. At times a drowsy feeling came over him, and he was forced to move about to keep from going to sleep at his post. He wondered if the other scouts had felt the same way.

He had just seated himself after a short walk, when a sound out on the river arrested his attention. At first he thought that he must be mistaken. But, no, he was sure now that he could hear the noise of a boat cutting through the water. This brought him to his feet, and he strained his eyes in an effort to see what it could be. And as he looked he beheld a dim object in the distance, which was growing more distinct. It was moving when he first saw it. Then it slowed down and seemed to be drifting. There was hardly a sound made now, and the watcher on the shore could tell that the boat was drawing closer to where the logs were lying. This looked serious, and he believed that it was there for no good purpose. He waited a few moments, however, to be sure. He did not wish to give a false alarm, and thus bring upon himself the ridicule of the other scouts.

The boat was now near enough for him to discern it quite plainly. Presently it stopped and a small boat put off, and made straight for the logs. Rod hesitated no longer, but turning, sped swiftly along the shore and then up the path leading to the Anchorage. Reaching the house, he pounded upon the door, which was opened almost immediately by the captain.

"They're there!" Rod gasped.

"After the logs?" the captain enquired. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. Come quick, or it will be too late!"

Stepping to one corner of the kitchen, the captain picked up his rifle, and swiftly followed Rod to the shore. There they paused and listened.

"Ye're right, by gum!" the captain whispered. "The skunks! But I'll stop their fun. Into the tender now, and make no noise."

With Rod seated astern, and the captain at the oars, it took but a few minutes to come close to the tug. A long line had already been made fast to the raft, and the small boat with two men on board was returning from fastening the warp. Captain Josh ceased rowing and waited. Then he caught up his rifle, and held it in readiness.

"Hold on there!" he roared. "What's the meanin' of all this?"

"None of your business," was the gruff and somewhat startled reply. "Get out of the way or we'll run ye down!"

"Is that so?" and the captain drew back the hammer of his rifle. "Bluff all ye like, but I've something here which does more'n bluff. Stop rowin', I tell ye, or I'll blow yer heads off!"

It was remarkable what an effect these words had upon the night-prowlers. They could see, as well, the levelled rifle, and they believed that the man holding it meant business. They stopped rowing, but the boat still glided onward.

"Back water, and keep away from the tug!" the captain commanded.

The men obeyed, and soon the boat was lying but a few yards off.

"There, that's better," the captain commented. "Now, what have yez to say about yer actions here?"

"We're only obeyin' orders," was the surly reply. "We were told to come fer these logs."

"Who told ye?"

"Nick Taftie. We're workin' fer him."

"H'm, I thought so. Worked fer him last year at the same job, eh?"

"Yes."

"How many of yez are there?" the captain enquired.

"Three. Pete Simons, the engineer, is on board."

"Well, then, ye jist tell Pete to drop anchor, and tumble in there with yez. If yez try any foolin', I'll shoot."

"But what are ye going to do?" one of the men demanded. "We can't stay here."

"Never mind what I'm goin' to do; ye'll find that out in plenty of time. It's not a bad place to stay, after all. Yez won't starve, and I shan't shoot so long as yez behave yerselves. Hurry up, and give Pete his orders!"

The engineer had heard every word which had been spoken. At first he was tempted to steam away, and leave his companions to their fate. But he knew that he could not very well steer the tug and handle the engine at the same time. He, therefore, decided to remain. It took him only a few minutes to run out the anchor, and join his companions, as they backed their boat to the stern of the tug.

"Now pull fer the shore," the captain ordered. "Don't try to git away from me. At the first sign I'll shoot."

Rod rowed the tender, while the captain with his rifle across his knees kept his eyes fixed upon the three men in the other boat. When a short distance from the shore, the captain commanded them to stop, and hand over their oars. This they reluctantly did, and waited to see what would happen next.

"Got an anchor on board?" the captain asked.

"Yes, a small one," was the reply.

"Well, out with it then, and don't pull it up till yez receive orders."