The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
The new firm plunged busily into its more pressing activities. Orde especially had an infinitude of details on his hands. The fat note- book in his side pocket filled rapidly with rough sketches, lists, and estimates. Constantly he interviewed men of all kinds-- rivermen, mill men, contractors, boat builders, hardware dealers, pile-driver captains, builders, wholesale grocery men, cooks, axe- men, chore boys--all a little world in itself.
The signs of progress soon manifested themselves. Below Big Bend the pile-drivers were at work, the square masses of their hammers rising rapidly to the tops of the derricks, there to pause a moment before dropping swiftly to a dull thump! They were placing a long, compact row, which should be the outer bulwarks separating the sorting-booms from the channel of the river. Ashore the carpenters were knocking together a long, low structure for the cook-house and a larger building, destined to serve as bunk-house for the regular boom-crew. There would also be a blacksmith's forge, a storehouse, a tool and supply-house, a barn, and small separate shanties for the married men. Below more labourers with picks, shovels, axes, and scrapers were cutting out and levelling a road which would, when finished, meet the county road to town. The numerous bayous of great marsh were crossed by "float-bridges," lying flat on the surface of the water, which spurted up in rhythmical little jets under the impact of hoofs. Down stream eight miles, below the mills, and just beyond where the drawbridge crossed over to Monrovia, Duncan McLeod's shipyards clipped and sawed, and steamed and bent and bolted away at two tugboats, the machinery for which was already being stowed in the hold of a vessel lying at wharf in Chicago. In the storerooms of hardware firms porters carried and clerks checked off chains, strap iron, bolts, spikes, staples, band iron, bar iron, peavies, cant-hooks, pike-poles, sledge-hammers, blocks, ropes, and cables.
These things took time and attention to details; also a careful supervision. The spring increased, burst into leaf and bloom, and settled into summer. Orde was constantly on the move. As soon as low water came with midsummer, however, he arranged matters to run themselves as far as possible, left with Newmark minute instructions as to personal supervision, and himself departed to Redding. Here he joined a crew which Tom North had already collected, and betook himself to the head of the river.
He knew exactly what he intended to do. Far back on the head-waters he built a dam. The construction of it was crude, consisting merely of log cribs filled with stone and debris placed at intervals across the bed of the stream, against which slanted logs made a face. The gate operated simply, and could be raised to let loose an entire flood. And indeed this was the whole purpose of the dam. It created a reservoir from which could be freed new supplies of water to eke out the dropping spring freshets.
Having accomplished this formidable labour--for the trees had to be cut and hauled, the stone carted, and the earth shovelled--the crew next moved down a good ten miles to where the river dropped over a rapids rough and full of boulders. Here were built and placed a row of stone-filled log cribs in a double row down stream to define the channel and to hold the drive in it and away from the shallows near either bank. The profile of these cribs was that of a right-angled triangle, the slanting side up stream. Booms chained between them helped deflect the drive from the shoals. Their more important office, however, was to give footing to the drivers.
For twenty-five miles then nothing of importance was undertaken. Two or three particularly bad boulders were split out by the explosion of powder charges; a number of snags and old trees were cut away and disposed of; the channel was carefully examined for obstructions of any kind whatever. Then the party came to the falls.
Here Orde purposed his most elaborate bit of rough engineering. The falls were only about fifteen feet high, but they fell straight down to a bed of sheer rock. This had been eaten by the eddies into pot- holes and crannies until a jagged irregular scoop-hollow had formed immediately underneath the fall. Naturally this implied a ledge below.
In flood time the water boiled and roared through this obstruction in a torrent. The saw logs, caught in the rush, plunged end on into the scoop-hollow, hit with a crash, and were spewed out below more or less battered, barked, and stripped. Sometimes, however, when the chance of the drive brought down a hundred logs together, they failed to shoot over the barrier of the ledge. Then followed a jam, a bad jam, difficult and dangerous to break. The falls had taken her usurious share of the lives the river annually demands as her toll.
This condition of affairs Orde had determined, if possible, to obviate. From the thirty-five or forty miles of river that lay above, and from its tributaries would come the bulk of the white and Norway pine for years to follow. At least two thirds of each drive Orde figured would come from above the fall.
"If," said he to North, "we could carry an apron on a slant from just under the crest and over the pot-holes, it would shoot both the water and the logs off a better angle."
"Sure," agreed North, "but you'll have fun placing your apron with all that water running through. Why, it would drown us!"
"I've got a notion on that," said Orde. "First thing is to get the material together."
A hardwood forest topped the slope. Into this went the axe-men. The straightest trees they felled, trimmed, and dragged, down travoy trails they constructed, on sleds they built for the purpose, to the banks of the river. Here they bored the two holes through either end to receive the bolts when later they should be locked together side by side in their places. As fast as they were prepared, men with cant-hooks rolled them down the slope to a flat below the falls. They did these things swiftly and well, because they were part of the practised day's work, but they shook their heads at the falls.
After the trees had been cut in sufficient number--there were seventy-five of them, each twenty-six feet long--Orde led the way back up stream a half mile to a shallows, where he commanded the construction of a number of exaggerated sawhorses with very widespread slanting legs. In the meantime the cook-wagon and the bed-wagon had evidently been making many trips to Sand Creek, fifteen miles away, as was attested by a large pile of heavy planks. When the sawhorses were completed, Orde directed the picks and shovels to be brought up.
At this point the river, as has been hinted, widened over shoals. The banks at either hand, too, were flat and comparatively low. As is often the case in bends of rivers subject to annual floods, the banks sloped back for some distance into a lower black-ash swamp territory.
Orde set his men to digging a channel through this bank. It was no slight job, from one point of view, as the slope down into the swamp began only at a point forty or fifty feet inland; but on the other hand the earth was soft and free from rocks. When completed the channel gave passage to a rather feeble streamlet from the outer fringe of the river. The men were puzzled, but Orde, by the strange freak of his otherwise frank and open nature, as usual told nothing of his plans, even to Tom North.
"He can't expect to turn that river," said Tim Nolan, who was once more with the crew. "He'd have to dig a long ways below that level to catch the main current--and then some."
"Let him alone," advised North, puffing at his short pipe. "He's wiser than a tree full of owls."
Next Orde assigned two men to each of the queer-shaped sawhorses, and instructed them to place the horses in a row across the shallowest part of the river, and broadside to the stream. This was done. The men, half-way to their knees in the swift water, bore down heavily to keep their charges in place. Other men immediately began to lay the heavy planks side by side, perpendicular to and on the up-stream side of the horses. The weight of the water clamped them in place; big rocks and gravel shovelled on in quantity prevented the lower ends from rising; the wide slant of the legs directed the pressure so far downward that the horses were prevented from floating away. And slowly the bulk of the water, thus raised a good three feet above its former level, turned aside into the new channel and poured out to inundate the black-ash swamp beyond.
A good volume still poured over the top of the temporary dam and down to the fall; but it was by this expedient so far reduced that work became possible.
"Now, boys!" cried Orde. "Lively, while we've got the chance!"
By means of blocks and tackles and the team horses the twenty-six- foot logs were placed side by side, slanting from a point two feet below the rim of the fall to the ledge below. They were bolted together top and bottom through the four holes bored for that purpose. This was a confusing and wet business. Sufficient water still flowed in the natural channel of the river to dash in spray over the entire work. Men toiled, wet to the skin, their garments clinging to them, their eyes full of water, barely able to breathe, yet groping doggedly at it, and arriving at last. The weather was warm with the midsummer. They made a joke of the difficulty, and found inexhaustible humour in the fact that one of their number was an Immersion Baptist. When the task was finished, they pried the flash-boards from the improvised dam; piled them neatly beyond reach of high water; rescued the sawhorses and piled them also for a possible future use; blocked the temporary channel with a tree or so--and earth. The river, restored to its immemorial channel by these men who had so nonchalantly turned it aside, roared on, singing again the song it had until now sung uninterruptedly for centuries. Orde and his crew tramped back to the falls, and gazed on their handiwork with satisfaction. Instead of plunging over an edge into a turmoil of foam and eddies, now the water flowed smoothly, almost without a break, over an incline of thirty degrees.
"Logs'll slip over that slick as a gun barrel," said Tom North. "How long do you think she'll last?"
"Haven't an idea," replied Orde. "We may have to do it again next summer, but I don't think it. There's nothing but the smooth of the water to wear those logs until they begin to rot."
Quite cheerfully they took up their long, painstaking journey back down the river.
Travel down the river was at times very pleasant, and at times very disagreeable. The ground had now hardened so that a wanigan boat was unnecessary. Instead, the camp outfit was transported in waggons, which often had to journey far inland, to make extraordinary detours, but which always arrived somehow at the various camping places. Orde and his men, of course, took the river trail.
The river trail ran almost unbroken for over a hundred miles of meandering way. It climbed up the high banks at the points, it crossed the bluffs along their sheer edges, it descended to the thickets in the flats, it crossed the swamps on pole-trails, it skirted the great, solemn woods. Sometimes, in the lower reaches, its continuity was broken by a town, but always after it recovered from its confusion it led on with purpose unvarying. Never did it desert for long the river. The cool, green still reaches, or the tumbling of the white-water, were always within its sight, sometimes beneath its very tread. When occasionally it cut in across a very long bend, it always sent from itself a little tributary trail which traced all the curves, and returned at last to its parent, undoubtedly with a full report of its task. And the trail was beaten hard by the feet of countless men, who, like Orde and his crew, had taken grave, interested charge of the river from her birth to her final rest in the great expanses of the Lake. It is there to-day, although the life that brought it into being has been gone from it these many years.
In midsummer Orde found the river trail most unfamiliar in appearance. Hardly did he recognise it in some places. It possessed a wide, leisurely expansiveness, an indolent luxury, a lazy invitation born of broad green leaves, deep and mysterious shadows, the growth of ferns, docks, and the like cool in the shade of the forest, the shimmer of aspens and poplars through the heat, the green of tangling vines, the drone of insects, the low-voiced call of birds, the opulent splashing of sun-gold through the woods, quite lacking to the hard, tight season in which his river work was usually performed. What, in the early year, had been merely a whip of brush, now had become a screen through whose waving, shifting interstices he caught glimpses of the river flowing green and cool. What had been bare timber amongst whose twigs and branches the full daylight had shone unobstructed, now had clothed itself in foliage and leaned over to make black and mysterious the water that flowed beneath. Countless insects hovered over the polished surface of that water. Dragon-flies cruised about. Little birds swooped silently down and fluttered back, intent on their tiny prey. Water- bugs skated hither and thither in apparently purposeless diagonals. Once in a great while the black depths were stirred. A bass rolled lazily over, carrying with him his captured insect, leaving on the surface of the water concentric rings which widened and died away.
The trail led the crew through many minor labours, all of which consumed time. At Reed's Mill Orde entered into diplomatic negotiations with Old Man Reed, whom he found singularly amenable. The skirmish in the spring seemed to have taken all the fight out of him; or perhaps, more simply, Orde's attitude toward him at that time had won him over to the young man's side. At any rate, as soon as he understood that Orde was now in business for himself, he readily came to an agreement. Thereupon Orde's crew built a new sluiceway and gate far enough down to assure a good head in the pond above. Other dam owners farther down the stream also signed agreements having to do with supplying water over and above what the law required of them. Above one particularly shallow rapid Orde built a dam of his own.
All this took time, and the summer months slipped away. Orde had fallen into the wild life as into a habit. He lived on the river or the trail. His face took on a ruddier hue than ever; his clothes faded to a nondescript neutral colour of their own; his hair below his narrow felt hat bleached three shades. He did his work, and figured on his schemes, and smoked his pipe, and occasionally took little trips to the nearest town, where he spent the day at the hotel desks reading and answering his letters. The weather was generally very warm. Thunder-storms were not infrequent. Until the latter part of August, mosquitoes and black flies were bad.
About the middle of September the crew had worked down as far as Redding, leaving behind them a river tamed, groomed, and harnessed for their uses. Remained still the forty miles between Redding and the Lake to be improved. As, however, navigation for light draught vessels extended as far as that city, Orde here paid off his men. A few days' work with a pile driver would fence the principal shoals from the channel.
He stayed over night with his parents, and at once took the train for Monrovia. There he made his way immediately to the little office the new firm had rented. Newmark had just come down.
"Hullo, Joe," greeted Orde, his teeth flashing in contrast to the tan of his face. "I'm done. Anything new since you wrote last?"
Newmark had acquired his articles of incorporation and sold his stock. How many excursions, demonstrations, representations, and arguments that implied, only one who has undertaken the floating of a new and untried scheme can imagine. Perhaps his task had in it as much of difficulty as Orde's taming of the river. Certainly he carried it to as successful a conclusion. The bulk of the stock he sold to the log-owners themselves; the rest he scattered here and there and everywhere in small lots, as he was able. Some five hundred and thousand dollar blocks even went to Chicago. His own little fortune of twenty thousand he paid in for the shares that represented his half of the majority retained by himself and Orde. The latter gave a note at ten per cent for his proportion of the stock. Newmark then borrowed fifteen thousand more, giving as security a mortgage on the company's newly acquired property--the tugs, booms, buildings, and real estate. Thus was the financing determined. It left the company with obligations of fifteen hundred dollars a year in interest, expenses which would run heavily into the thousands, and an obligation to make good outside stock worth at par exactly forty-nine thousand dollars. In addition, Orde had charged against his account a burden of two thousand dollars a year interest on his personal debt. To offset these liabilities--outside the river improvements and equipments, which would hold little or no value in case of failure--the firm held contracts to deliver about one hundred million feet of logs. After some discussion the partners decided to allow themselves twenty-five hundred dollars apiece by way of salary.
"If we don't make any dividends at first," Orde pointed out, "I've got to keep even on my interest."
"You can't live on five hundred," objected Newmark.
"I'll be on the river and at the booms six months of the year," replied Orde, "and I can't spend much there."
"I'm satisfied," said Newmark thoughtfully, "I'm getting a little better than good interest on my own investment from the start. And in a few years after we've paid up, there'll be mighty big money in it."
He removed his glasses and tapped his palm with their edge.
"The only point that is at all risky to me," said he, "is that we have only one-season contracts. If for any reason we hang up the drive, or fail to deliver promptly, we're going to get left the year following. And then it's B-U-S-T, bust."
"Well, we'll just try not to hang her," replied Orde.