The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Orde tramped back to Sawyer's early next morning, hitched into the light buckboard the excellent team with which later, when the drive should spread out, he would make his longest jumps, and drove to head-waters. He arrived in sight of the dam about three o'clock. At the edge of the clearing he pulled up to survey the scene.
A group of three small log-cabins marked the Johnson, and later the Heinzman, camp. From the chimneys a smoke arose. Twenty or thirty rivermen lounged about the sunny side of the largest structure. They had evidently just arrived, for some of their "turkeys" were still piled outside the door. Orde clucked to his horses, and the spidery wheels of the buckboard swung lightly over the wet hummocks of the clearing, to come to a stop opposite the men. Orde leaned forward against his knees.
"Hullo, boys!" said he cheerfully.
No one replied, though two or three nodded surlily. Orde looked them over with some interest.
They were a dirty, unkempt, unshaven, hard-looking lot, with bloodshot eyes, a flicker of the dare-devil in expression, beyond the first youth, hardened into an enduring toughness of fibre--bad men from the Saginaw, in truth, and, unless Orde was mistaken, men just off a drunk, and therefore especially dangerous; men eager to fight at the drop of the hat, or sooner, to be accommodating, and ready to employ in their assaults all the formidable and terrifying weapons of the rough-and-tumble; reckless, hard, irreverrent, blasphemous, to be gained over by no words, fair or foul; absolutely scornful of any and all institutions imposed on them by any other but the few men whom they acknowledged as their leaders. And to master these men's respect there needed either superlative strength, superlative recklessness, or superlative skill.
"Who's your boss?" asked Orde.
"The Rough Red," growled one of the men without moving.
Orde had heard of this man, of his personality and his deeds. Like Silver Jack of the Muskegon, his exploits had been celebrated in song. A big, broad-faced man, with a red beard, they had told him, with little, flickering eyes, a huge voice that bellowed through the woods in a torrent of commands and imprecations, strong as a bull, and savage as a wild beast. A hint of his quality will suffice from the many stories circulated about him. It was said that while jobbing for Morrison and Daly, in some of that firm's Saginaw Valley holdings, the Rough Red had discovered that a horse had gone lame. He called the driver of that team before him, seized an iron starting bar, and with it broke the man's leg. "Try th' lameness yourself, Barney Mallan," said he. To appeal to the charity of such a man would be utterly useless. Orde saw this point. He picked up his reins and spoke to his team.
But before the horses had taken three steps, a huge riverman had planted himself squarely in the way. The others rising, slowly surrounded the rig.
"I don't know what you're up here for," growled the man at the horses' heads, "but you wanted to see the boss, and I guess you'd better see him."
"I intend to see him," said Orde sharply. "Get out of the way and let me hitch my team."
He drove deliberately ahead, forcing the man to step aside, and stopped his horses by a stub. He tied them there and descended, to lean his back also against the log walls of the little house.
After a few moments a huge form appeared above the river bank at some forty rods' distance.
"Yonder he comes now," vouchsafed the man nearest Orde.
Orde made out the great square figure of the boss, his soft hat, his flaming red beard, his dingy mackinaw coat, his dingy black-and- white checked flannel shirt, his dingy blue trousers tucked into high socks, and, instead of driving boots, his ordinary lumberman's rubbers. As a spot of colour, he wore a flaming red knit sash, with tassels. Before he had approached near enough to be plainly distinguishable, he began to bellow at the men, commanding them, with a mighty array of oaths, to wake up and get the sluice-gate open. In a moment or so he had disappeared behind some bushes that intervened in his approach to the house. His course through them could be traced by the top of his cap, which just showed above them. In a moment he thrust through the brush and stood before Orde.
For a moment he stared at the young man, and then, with a wild Irish yell, leaped upon him. Orde, caught unawares and in an awkward position, was hardly able even to struggle against the gigantic riverman. Indeed, before he had recovered his faculties to the point of offering determined resistance, he was pinned back against the wall by his shoulders, and the Rough Red's face was within two feet of his own.
"And how are ye, ye ould darlint?" shouted the latter, with a roll of oaths.
"Why, Jimmy Bourke!" cried Orde, and burst into a laugh.
The Rough Red jerked him to his feet, delivered a bear hug that nearly crushed his ribs, and pounded him mightily on the back.
"You ould snoozer!" he bellowed. "Where the blankety blank in blank did you come from? Byes," he shouted to the men, "it's me ould boss on th' Au Sable six year back--that time, ye mind, whin we had th' ice jam! Glory be! but I'm glad to see ye!"
Orde was still laughing.
"I didn't know you'd turned into the Rough Red, Jimmy," said he. "I don't believe we were either of us old enough for whiskers then, were we?"
The Rough Red grinned.
"Thrue for ye!" said he. "And what have ye been doing all these years?"
"That's just it, Jimmy," said Orde, drawing the giant one side, out of ear-shot. "All my eggs are in one basket, and it's a mean trick of you to hire out for filthy lucre to kick that basket."
"What do ye mane?" asked the Rough Red, fixing his twinkling little eyes on Orde.
"You don't mean to tell me," countered Orde, glancing down at the other's rubber-shod feet, "that this crew has been sent up here just to break out those measly little rollways?"
"Thim?" said the Rough Red. "Thim? Hell, NO! Thim's my bodyguard. They can lick their weight in wild cats, and I'd loike well to see the gang of highbankers that infists this river thry to pry thim out. We weren't sint here to wurrk; we were sint here to foight."
"Fight? Why?" asked Orde.
"Oh, I dunno," replied the Rough Red easily. "Me boss and the blank of a blank blanked blank that's attimptin' to droive this river has some sort of a row."
"Jimmy," said Orde, "didn't you know that I am the gentleman last mentioned?"
"I'm driving this river, and that's my dam-keeper you've got hid away somewhere here, and that's my water you're planning to waste!"
"What?" repeated the Rough Red, but in a different tone of voice.
"That's right," said Orde.
In a tone of vast astonishment, the Rough Red mentioned his probable deserts in the future life.
"Luk here, Jack," said he after a moment, "here's a crew of white- water birlers that ye can't beat nowheres. What do you want us to do? We're now gettin' four dollars a day AN' board from that murderin' ould villain, Heinzman, so we can afford to wurrk for you cheap."
"Oh, please do now, darlint!" wheedled the Rough Red, his little eyes agleam with mischief. "Sind us some oakum and pitch and we'll caulk yure wanigan for ye. Or maybe some more peavies, and we'll hilp ye on yure rollways. And till us, afore ye go, how ye want this dam, and that's the way she'll be. Come, now, dear! and ain't ye short-handed now?"
Orde slapped his knee and laughed.
"This is sure one hell of a joke!" he cried.
"And ain't it now?" said the Rough Red, smiling with as much ingratiation as he was able.
"I'll take you boys on," said Orde at last, "at the usual wages-- dollar and a half for the jam, three for the rear. I doubt if you'll see much of Heinzman's money when this leaks out."