The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
The next morning dawned clear and breathless. Before daylight the pessimistic cook was out, his fire winking bravely against the darkness. His only satisfaction of the long day came when he aroused the men from the heavy sleep into which daily toil plunged them. With the first light the entire crew were at the banks of the river.
As soon as the wind died the logs had begun to drift slowly out into the open water. The surface of the pond was covered with the scattered timbers floating idly. After a few moments the clank of the bars and ratchet was heard as two of the men raised the heavy sluice-gate on the dam. A roar of water, momently increasing, marked the slow rise of the barrier. A very imaginative man might then have made out a tendency forward on the part of those timbers floating nearest the centre of the pond. It was a very sluggish tendency, however, and the men watching critically shook their heads.
Four more had by this time joined the two men who had raised the gate, and all together, armed with long pike poles, walked out on the funnel-shaped booms that should concentrate the logs into the chute. Here they prodded forward the few timbers within reach, and waited for more.
These were a long time coming. Members of the driving crew leaped shouting from one log to another. Sometimes, when the space across was too wide to jump, they propelled a log over either by rolling it, paddling it, or projecting it by the shock of a leap on one end. In accomplishing these feats of tight-rope balance, they stood upright and graceful, quite unconscious of themselves, their bodies accustomed by long habit to nice and instant obedience to the almost unconscious impulses of the brain. Only their eyes, intent, preoccupied, blazed out by sheer will-power the unstable path their owners should follow. Once at the forefront of the drive, the men began vigorously to urge the logs forward. This they accomplished almost entirely by main strength, for the sluggish current gave them little aid. Under the pressure of their feet as they pushed against their implements, the logs dipped, rolled, and plunged. Nevertheless, they worked as surely from the decks of these unstable craft as from the solid earth itself.
In this manner the logs in the centre of the pond were urged forward until, above the chute, they caught the slightly accelerated current which should bring them down to the pike-pole men at the dam. Immediately, when this stronger influence was felt, the drivers zigzagged back up stream to start a fresh batch. In the meantime a great many logs drifted away to right and left into stagnant water, where they lay absolutely motionless. The moving of them was deferred for the "sacking crew," which would bring up the rear.
Jack Orde wandered back and forth over the work, his hands clasped behind his back, a short pipe clenched between his teeth. To the edge of the drive he rode the logs, then took to the bank and strolled down to the dam. There he stood for a moment gazing aimlessly at the water making over the apron, after which he returned to the work. No cloud obscured the serene good-nature of his face. Meeting Tom North's troubled glance, he grinned broadly.
"Told you we'd have Johnson on our necks," he remarked, jerking his thumb up river toward a rapidly approaching figure.
This soon defined itself as a tall, sun-reddened, very blond individual with a choleric blue eye.
"What in hell's the matter here?" he yelled, as soon as he came within hearing distance.
Orde made no reply, but stood contemplating the newcomer with a flicker of amusement.
"What in hell's the matter?" repeated the latter violently.
"Better go there and inquire," rejoined Orde drolly. "What ails you, Johnson?"
"We're right at your rear," cried the other, "and you ain't even made a start gettin' through this dam! We'll lose the water next! Why in hell ain't you through and gone?"
"Keep your shirt on," advised Orde. "We're getting through as fast as we can. If you want these logs pushed any faster, come down and do it yourself."
Johnson vouchsafed no reply, but splashed away over the logs, examining in detail the progress of the work. After a little he returned within hailing distance.
"If you can't get out logs, why do you take the job?" he roared, with a string of oaths. "If you hang my drive, damn you, you'll catch it for damages! It's gettin' to a purty pass when any old highbanker from anywheres can get out and play jackstraws holdin' up every drive in the river! I tell you our mills need logs, and what's more they're agoin' to git them!"
He departed in a rumble of vituperation.
Orde laughed humorously at his foreman.
"Johnson gets so mad sometimes, his skin cracks," he remarked. "However," he went on more seriously, "there's a heap in what he means, if there ain't so much in what he says. I'll go labour with our old friend below."
He regained the bank, stopped to light his pipe, and sauntered, with every appearance of leisure, down the bank, past the dam, to the mill structure below.
Here he found the owner occupying a chair tilted back against the wall of the building. His ruffled plug hat was thrust, as usual, well away from his high and narrow forehead; the long broadcloth coat fell back to reveal an unbuttoned waistcoat the flapping black trousers were hitched up far enough to display woollen socks wrinkled about bony shanks. He was whittling a pine stick, which he held pointing down between his spread knees, and conversing animatedly with a young fellow occupying another chair at his side.
"And there comes one of 'em now," declaimed the old man dramatically.
Orde nodded briefly to the stranger, and came at once to business.
"I want to talk this matter over with you," he began. "We aren't making much progress. We can't afford to hang up the drive, and the water is going down every day. We've got to have more water. I'll tell you what we'll do: If you'll let us cut down the new sill, we'll replace it in good shape when we get all our logs through."
"No, sir!" promptly vetoed the old man.
"Well, we'll give you something for the privilege. What do you think is fair?"
"I tell ye I'll give you your legal rights, and not a cent more," replied the old man, still quietly, but with quivering nostrils.
"What is your name?" asked Orde.
"My name is Reed, sir."
"Well, Mr. Reed, stop and think what this means. It's a more serious matter than you think. In a little while the water will be so low in the river that it will be impossible to take out the logs this year. That means a large loss, of course, as you know."
"I don't know nothin' about the pesky business, and I don't wan to," snorted Reed.
"Well, there's borers, for one thing, to spoil a good many of the logs. And think what it will mean to the mills. No logs means no lumber. That is bankruptcy for a good many who have contracts to fulfil. And no logs means the mills must close. Thousands of men will be thrown out of their jobs, and a good many of them will go hungry. And with the stream full of the old cutting, that means less to do next winter in the woods--more men thrown out. Getting out a season's cut with the flood-water is a pretty serious matter to a great many people, and if you insist on holding us up here in this slack water the situation will soon become alarming."
"Ye finished?" demanded Reed grimly.
"Yes," replied Orde.
The old man cast from him his half-whittled piece of pine. He closed his jack-knife with a snap and thrust it in his pocket. He brought to earth the front legs of his chair with a thump, and jammed his ruffled plug hat to its proper place.
"And if the whole kit and kaboodle of ye starved out-right," said he, "it would but be the fulfillin' of the word of the prophet who says, 'So will I send upon you famine and evil beasts, and they shall bereave thee, and pestilence and blood shall pass through thee; and I will bring the sword upon thee. I the Lord have spoken it!'"
"That's your last word?" inquired Orde.
"That's my last word, and my first. Ye that make of God's smilin' land waste places and a wilderness, by your own folly shall ye perish."
"Good-day," said Orde, whirling on his heel without further argument.
The young man, who had during this colloquy sat an interested and silent spectator, arose and joined him. Orde looked at his new companion a little curiously. He was a very slender young man, taut-muscled, taut-nerved, but impassive in demeanour. He possessed a shrewd, thin face, steel-gray, inscrutable eyes behind glasses. His costume was quite simply an old gray suit of business clothes and a gray felt hat. At the moment he held in his mouth an unlighted and badly chewed cigar.
"Nice, amiable old party," volunteered Orde with a chuckle.
"Seems to be," agreed the young man drily.
"Well, I reckon we'll just have to worry along without him," remarked Orde, striking his steel caulks into the first log and preparing to cross out into the river where the work was going on.
"Wait a minute," said the young fellow. "Have you any objections to my hanging around a little to watch the work? My name is Newmark-- Joseph Newmark. I'm out in this country a good deal for my health. This thing interests me."
"Sure," replied Orde, puzzled. "Look all you want to. The scenery's free."
"Yes. But can you put me up? Can I get a chance to stay with you a little while?"
"Oh, as far as I'm concerned," agreed Orde heartily. "But," he supplemented with one of his contagious chuckles, "I'm only river- boss. You'll have to fix it up with the doctor--the cook, I mean," he explained, as Newmark look puzzled. "You'll find him at camp up behind that brush. He's a slim, handsome fellow, with a jolly expression of countenance."
He leaped lightly out over the bobbing timbers, leaving Newmark to find his way.
In the centre of the stream the work had been gradually slowing down to a standstill with the subsidence of the first rush of water after the sluice-gate was opened. Tom North, leaning gracefully against the shaft of a peavy, looked up eagerly as his principal approached.
"Well, Jack," he inquired, "is it to be peace or war?"
"War," replied Orde briefly.