The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
The time was the year 1872, and the place a bend in the river above a long pond terminating in a dam. Beyond this dam, and on a flat lower than it, stood a two-story mill structure. Save for a small, stump-dotted clearing, and the road that led from it, all else was forest. Here in the bottom-lands, following the course of the stream, the hardwoods grew dense, their uppermost branches just beginning to spray out in the first green of spring. Farther back, where the higher lands arose from the swamp, could be discerned the graceful frond of white pines and hemlock, and the sturdy tops of Norways and spruce.
A strong wind blew up the length of the pond. It ruffled the surface of the water, swooping down in fan-shaped, scurrying cat's- paws, turning the dark-blue surface as one turns the nap of velvet. At the upper end of the pond it even succeeded in raising quite respectable wavelets, which lap lap lapped eagerly against a barrier of floating logs that filled completely the mouth of the inlet river. And behind this barrier were other logs, and yet others, as far as the eye could see, so that the entire surface of the stream was carpeted by the brown timbers. A man could have walked down the middle of that river as down a highway.
On the bank, and in a small woods-opening, burned two fires, their smoke ducking and twisting under the buffeting of the wind. The first of these fires occupied a shallow trench dug for its accommodation, and was overarched by a rustic framework from which hung several pails, kettles, and pots. An injured-looking, chubby man in a battered brown derby hat moved here and there. He divided his time between the utensils and an indifferent youth--his "cookee." The other, and larger, fire centred a rectangle composed of tall racks, built of saplings and intended for the drying of clothes. Two large tents gleamed white among the trees.
About the drying-fire were gathered thirty-odd men. Some were half- reclining before the blaze; others sat in rows on logs drawn close for the purpose; still others squatted like Indians on their heels, their hands thrown forward to keep the balance. Nearly all were smoking pipes.
Every age was represented in this group, but young men predominated. All wore woollen trousers stuffed into leather boots reaching just to the knee. These boots were armed on the soles with rows of formidable sharp spikes or caulks, a half and sometimes even three quarters of an inch in length. The tight driver's shoe and "stagged" trousers had not then come into use. From the waist down these men wore all alike, as though in a uniform, the outward symbol of their calling. From the waist up was more latitude of personal taste. One young fellow sported a bright-coloured Mackinaw blanket jacket; another wore a red knit sash, with tasselled ends; a third's fancy ran to a bright bandana about his neck. Head-gear, too, covered wide variations of broader or narrower brim, of higher or lower crown; and the faces beneath those hats differed as everywhere the human countenance differs. Only when the inspection, passing the gradations of broad or narrow, thick or thin, bony or rounded, rested finally on the eyes, would the observer have caught again the caste-mark which stamped these men as belonging to a distinct order, and separated them essentially from other men in other occupations. Blue and brown and black and gray these eyes were, but all steady and clear with the steadiness and clarity that comes to those whose daily work compels them under penalty to pay close and undeviating attention to their surroundings. This is true of sailors, hunters, plainsmen, cowboys, and tugboat captains. It was especially true of the old-fashioned river-driver, for a misstep, a miscalculation, a moment's forgetfulness of the sullen forces shifting and changing about him could mean for him maiming or destruction. So, finally, to one of an imaginative bent, these eyes, like the "cork boots," grew to seem part of the uniform, one of the marks of their caste, the outward symbol of their calling.
"Blow, you son of a gun!" cried disgustedly one young fellow with a red bandana, apostrophising the wind. "I wonder if there's any side of this fire that ain't smoky!"
"Keep your hair on, bub," advised a calm and grizzled old-timer. "There's never no smoke on the other side of the fire--whichever that happens to be. And as for wind--she just makes holiday for the river-hogs."
"Holiday, hell!" snorted the younger man. "We ought to be down to Bull's Dam before now--"
"And Bull's Dam is half-way to Redding," mocked a reptilian and red- headed giant on the log, "and Redding is the happy childhood home of--"
The young man leaped to his feet and seized from a pile of tools a peavy--a dangerous weapon, like a heavy cant-hook, but armed at the end with a sharp steel shoe.
"That's about enough!" he warned, raising his weapon, his face suffused and angry. The red-headed man, quite unafraid, rose slowly from the log and advanced, bare-handed, his small eyes narrowed and watchful.
But immediately a dozen men interfered.
"Dry up!" advised the grizzled old-timer--Tom North by name. "You, Purdy, set down; and you, young squirt, subside! If you're going to have ructions, why, have 'em, but not on drive. If you don't look out, I'll set you both to rustling wood for the doctor."
At this threat the belligerents dropped muttering to their places. The wind continued to blow, the fire continued to flare up and down, the men continued to smoke, exchanging from time to time desultory and aimless remarks. Only Tom North carried on a consecutive, low- voiced conversation with another of about his own age.
"Just the same, Jim," he was saying, "it is a little tough on the boys--this new sluice-gate business. They've been sort of expectin' a chance for a day or two at Redding, and now, if this son of a gun of a wind hangs out, I don't know when we'll make her. The shallows at Bull's was always bad enough, but this is worse."
"Yes, I expected to pick you up 'way below," admitted Jim, whose "turkey," or clothes-bag, at his side proclaimed him a newcomer. "Had quite a tramp to find you."
"This stretch of slack water was always a terror," went on North, "and we had fairly to pike-pole every stick through when the wind blew; but now that dam's backed the water up until there reely ain't no current at all. And this breeze has just stopped the drive dead as a smelt."
"Don't opening the sluice-gates give her a draw?" inquired the newcomer.
"Not against this wind--and not much of a draw, anyway, I should guess."
"How long you been hung?"
"Just to-day. I expect Jack will be down from the rear shortly. Ought to see something's wrong when he runs against the tail of this jam of ours."
At this moment the lugubrious, round-faced man in the derby hat stepped aside from the row of steaming utensils he had been arranging.
"Grub pile," he remarked in a conversational tone of voice.
The group arose as one man and moved upon the heap of cutlery and of tin plates and cups. From the open fifty-pound lard pails and kettles they helped themselves liberally; then retired to squat in little groups here and there near the sources of supply. Mere conversation yielded to an industrious silence. Sadly the cook surveyed the scene, his arms folded across the dirty white apron, an immense mental reservation accenting the melancholy of his countenance. After some moments of contemplation he mixed a fizzling concoction of vinegar and soda, which he drank. His rotundity to the contrary notwithstanding, he was ravaged by a gnawing dyspepsia, and the sight of six eggs eaten as a side dish to substantials carried consternation to his interior.
So busily engaged was each after his own fashion that nobody observed the approach of a solitary figure down the highway of the river. The man appeared tiny around the upper bend, momently growing larger as he approached. His progress was jerky and on an uneven zigzag, according as the logs lay, by leaps, short runs, brief pauses, as a riverman goes. Finally he stepped ashore just below the camp, stamped his feet vigorously free of water, and approached the group around the cooking-fire.
No one saw him save the cook, who vouchsafed him a stately and lugubrious inclination of the head.
The newcomer was a man somewhere about thirty years of age, squarely built, big of bone, compact in bulk. His face was burly, jolly, and reddened rather than tanned by long exposure. A pair of twinkling blue eyes and a humorously quirked mouth redeemed his countenance from commonplaceness.
He spread his feet apart and surveyed the scene.
"Well, boys," he remarked at last in a rollicking big voice, "I'm glad to see the situation hasn't spoiled your appetites."
At this they looked up with a spontaneous answering grin. Tom North laid aside his plate and started to arise.
"Sit still, Tom," interposed the newcomer. "Eat hearty. I'm going to feed yet myself. Then we'll see what's to be done. I think first thing you'd better see to having this wind turned off."
After the meal was finished, North and his principal sauntered to the water's edge, where they stood for a minute looking at the logs and the ruffled expanse of water below.
"Might as well have sails on them and be done with it," remarked Jack Orde reflectively. "Couldn't hold 'em any tighter. It's a pity that old mossback had to put in a mill. The water was slack enough before, but now there seems to be no current at all."
"Case of wait for the wind," agreed Tom North. "Old Daly will be red-headed. He must be about out of logs at the mill. The flood- water's going down every minute, and it'll make the riffles above Redding a holy fright. And I expect Johnson's drive will be down on our rear most any time."
"It's there already. Let's go take a look," suggested Orde.
They picked their way around the edge of the pond to the site of the new mill.
"Sluice open all right," commented Orde. "Thought she might be closed."
"I saw to that," rejoined North in an injured tone.
"'Course," agreed Orde, "but he might have dropped her shut on you between times, when you weren't looking."
He walked out on the structure and looked down on the smooth water rushing through.
"Ought to make a draw," he reflected. Then he laughed. "Tom, look here," he called. "Climb down and take a squint at this."
North clambered to a position below.
"The son of a gun!" he exclaimed.
The sluice, instead of bedding at the natural channel of the river, had been built a good six feet above that level; so that, even with the gates wide open, a "head" of six feet was retained in the slack water of the pond.
"No wonder we couldn't get a draw," said Orde. "Let's hunt up old What's-his-name and have a pow-wow."
"His name is plain Reed," explained North. "There he comes now."
"Sainted cats!" cried Orde, with one of his big, rollicking chuckles. "Where did you catch it?"
The owner of the dam flapped into view as a lank and lengthy individual dressed in loose, long clothes and wearing a-top a battered old "plug" hat, the nap of which seemed all to have been rubbed off the wrong way.
As he bore down on the intruders with tremendous, nervous strides, they perceived him to be an old man, white of hair, cadaverous of countenance, with thin, straight lips, and burning, fanatic eyes beneath stiff and bushy brows.
"Good-morning, Mr. Reed," shouted Orde above the noise of the water.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," replied the apparition.
"Nice dam you got here," went on Orde.
Reed nodded, his fiery eyes fixed unblinking on the riverman.
"But you haven't been quite square to us," said Orde. You aren't giving us much show to get our logs out."
"How so?" snapped the owner, his thin lips tightening.
"Oh, I guess you know, all right," laughed Orde, clambering leisurely back to the top of the dam. "That sluice is a good six foot too high."
"Is that so!" cried the old man, plunging suddenly into a craze of excitement. "Well, let me tell you this, Mr. Man, I'm giving you all the law gives you, and that's the natural flow of the river, and not a thing more will you get! You that comes to waste and destroy, to arrogate unto yourselves the kingdoms of the yearth and all the fruits thereof, let me tell you you can't override Simeon Reed! I'm engaged here in a peaceful and fittin' operation, which is to feed the hungry by means of this grist-mill, not to rampage and bring destruction to the noble forests God has planted! I've give you what the law gives you, and nothin' more!"
Somewhat astonished at this outbreak, the two rivermen stood for a moment staring at the old man. Then a steely glint crept into Orde's frank blue eye and the corners of his mouth tightened.
"We want no trouble with you, Mr. Reed," said he, "and I'm no lawyer to know what the law requires you to do and what it requires you not to do. But I do know that this is the only dam on the river with sluices built up that way, and I do know that we'll never get those logs out if we don't get more draw on the water. Good-day."
Followed by the reluctant North he walked away, leaving the gaunt figure of the dam owner gazing after them, his black garments flapping about him, his hands clasped behind his back, his ruffled plug hat thrust from his forehead.
"Well!" burst out North, when they were out of hearing.
"Well!" mimicked Orde with a laugh.
"Are you going to let that old high-banker walk all over you?"
"What are you going to do about it, Tom? It's his dam."
"I don't know. But you ain't going to let him bang us up here all summer--"
"Sure not. But the wind's shifting. Let's see what the weather's like to-morrow. To-day's pretty late."