The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
At this moment the cook stepped into view, and, making a trumpet of his two hands, sent across the water a long, weird, and not unmusical cry. The men at once began slowly to drift in the direction of the camp. There, when the tin plates had all been filled, and each had found a place to his liking, Orde addressed them. His manner was casual and conversational.
"Boys," said he, "the old mossback who owns that dam has come up here loaded to scatter. He's built up the sill of that gate until we can't get a draw on the water, and he refuses to give, lend, or sell us the right to cut her out. I've made him every reasonable proposition, but all I get back is quotations from the prophets. Now, we've got to get those logs out--that's what we're here for. A fine bunch of whitewater birlers we'd look if we got hung up by an old mossback in a plug hat. Johnny Sims, what's the answer?"
"Cut her out," grinned Johnny Sims briefly.
"Correct!" replied Orde with a chuckle. "Cut her out. But, my son, it's against the law to interfere with another man's property."
This was so obviously humourous in intent that its only reception consisted of more grins from everybody.
"But," went on Orde more seriously, "it's quite a job. We can't work more than six or eight men at it at a time. We got to work as fast as we can before the old man can interfere."
"The nearest sheriff's at Spruce Rapids," commented some one philosophically.
"We have sixty men, all told," said Orde. "We ought to be able to carry it through."
He filled his plate and walked across to a vacant place. Here he found himself next to Newmark.
"Hello!" he greeted that young man, "fixed it with the doctor all right?"
"Yes," replied Newmark, in his brief, dry manner, "thanks! I think I ought to tell you that the sheriff is not at Spruce Rapids, but at the village--expecting trouble."
Orde whistled, then broke into a roar of delight.
"Boys," he called, "old Plug Hat's got the sheriff right handy. I guess he sort of expected we'd be thinking of cutting through that dam. How'd you like to go to jail?"
"I'd like to see any sheriff take us to jail, unless he had an army with him," growled one of the river-jacks.
"Has he a posse?" inquired Orde of Newmark.
"I didn't see any; but I understood in the village that the governor had been advised to hold State troops in readiness for trouble."
Orde fell into a brown study, eating mechanically. The men began an eager and somewhat truculent discussion full of lawless and bloodthirsty suggestion. Some suggested the kidnapping and sequestration of Reed until the affair should be finished.
"How'd he get hold of his old sheriff, then?" they inquired with some pertinence.
Orde, however, paid no attention to all this talk, but continued to frown into space. At last his face cleared, and he slapped down his tin plate so violently that the knife and fork jumped off into the dirt.
"I have it!" he cried aloud.
But he would not tell what he had. After the noon hour he instructed a half-dozen men to provide themselves with saws, axes, picks, and shovels, and all marched in the direction of the mill.
When within a hundred yards or so of that structure the advancing riverman saw the lank, black figure of the mill owner flap into sight, astride a bony old horse, and clatter away, coat-tails flying, up the road and into the waiting forest.
"Now, boys!" cried Orde crisply. "He'll be back in an hour with the sheriff. Lively!" He rapidly designated ten men of his crew. "You boys get to work and make things hum. Get as much done as you can before the sheriff comes."
"He'll have to bring all of Spruce County to get me," commented one of those chosen, spitting on his hands.
"Me, too!" said others.
"Now, listen," said Orde, holding them with an impressive gesture. "When that sheriff comes, with or without a posse, I want you to go peaceably. Understand?"
"Cave in? Not much!" cried Purdy.
"See here," and Orde drew them aside to an earnest, low-voiced conversation that lasted several minutes. When he had finished he clapped each of them on the back, and all moved off, laughing, to the dam.
"Now, boys," he commanded the others, "no row without orders. Understand? If there's going to be a fight, I'll give you the word when."
The chopping crew descended to the bottom of the sluice, the gate of which had been shut, and began immediately to chop away at the apron. As the water in the pond above had been drawn low by the morning's work, none overflowed the gate, so the men were enabled to work dry. Below the apron, of course, had been filled in with earth and stones. As soon as the axe-men had effected an entry to this deposit, other men with shovels and picks began to remove the filling.
The work had continued nearly an hour when Orde commanded the fifty or more idlers back to camp.
"Get out, boys," he ordered. "The sheriff will be here pretty quick now, and I don't want any row. Get out of sight."
"And leave them to fight her out alone? Guess not!" grumbled a tall, burly individual with a red face.
Orde immediately walked directly to this man.
"Am I bossing this drive, or am I not?" he demanded.
The riverman growled something.
Smack! Smack! sounded Orde's fists. The man, taken by surprise, went down in a heap, but immediately rebounded to his feet as though made of rubber. But Orde had seized a peavy, and stood over against his antagonist, the murderous weapon upraised.
"Lie down, you hound, or I'll brain you!" he roared at the top strength of his great voice. "Want fight, do you? Well, you won't have to wait till the sheriff gets here! You make a move!"
For a full half minute the man crouched breathless, and Orde, his ruddy face congested, held his threatening attitude. Then he dropped his peavy and stepped aside.
"March!" he commanded. "Get your turkey and hit the hay trail. You'll get your time at Redding."
The man sullenly arose and slouched away, grumbling under his breath. Orde watched him from sight, then turned to the silent group, a new crispness in his manner.
"Well?" he demanded.
Hesitating, they turned to the river trail, leaving the ten still working at the sluice. When well within the fringe of the brush, Orde called a halt. His customary good-humour seemed quite restored.
"Now, boys," he commanded, "squat down and lay low. You give me an ache! Don't you suppose I got this thing all figured out? If fight would do any good, you know mighty well I'd fight. And the boys won't be in jail any longer than it takes to get a wire to Daly to bail them out. Smoke up, and don't bother."
They filled their pipes and settled down to an enjoyment of the situation. Ordinarily from very early in the morning until very late at night the riverman is busy every instant at his dangerous and absorbing work. Those affairs which do not immediately concern his task--as the swiftness of rapids, the state of flood, the curves of streams, the height of water, the obstructions of channels, the quantities of logs--pass by the outer fringe of his consciousness, if indeed they reach him at all. Thus, often he works all day up to his waist in a current bearing the rotten ice of the first break-up, or endures the drenching of an early spring rain, or battles the rigours of a belated snow with apparent indifference. You or I would be exceedingly uncomfortable; would require an effort of fortitude to make the plunge. Yet these men, absorbed in the mighty problems of their task, have little attention to spare to such things. The cold, the wet, the discomfort, the hunger, the weariness, all pass as shadows on the background. In like manner the softer moods of the spring rarely penetrate through the concentration of faculties on the work. The warm sun shines; the birds by thousands flutter and twitter and sing their way north; the delicate green of spring, showered from the hand of the passing Sower, sprinkles the tops of the trees, and gradually sifts down through the branches; the great, beautiful silver clouds sail down the horizon like ships of a statelier age, as totally without actual existence to these men. The logs, the river--those are enough to strain all the faculties a man possesses, and more.
So when, as now, a chance combination of circumstances brings them leisure to look about them, the forest and the world of out-of-doors comes to them with a freshness impossible for the city dweller to realise. The surroundings are accustomed, but they bring new messages. To most of them, these impressions never reach the point of coherency. They brood, and muse, and expand in the actual and figurative warmth, and proffer the general opinion that it is a damn fine day!
Another full half hour elapsed before the situation developed further. Then Tom North's friend Jim, who had gathered his long figure on the top of a stump, unclasped his knees and remarked that old Plug Hat was back.
The men arose to their feet and peered cautiously through the brush. They saw Reed, accompanied by a thick-set man whom some recognised as the sheriff of the county, approach the edge of the dam. A moment later the working crew mounted to the top, stacked their tools neatly, resumed their coats and jackets, and departed up the road in convoy of the sheriff.
A gasp of astonishment broke from the concealed rivermen.
"Well, I'll be damned!" ejaculated one. "What are we comin' to? That's the first time I ever see one lonesome sheriff gather in ten river-hogs without the aid of a gatlin' or an ambulance! What's the matter with that chicken-livered bunch, anyway?"
Orde watched them, his eyes expressionless, until they had disappeared in the fringe of the forest Then he turned to the astonished group.
"Jim," said he, "and you, Ellis, and you, and you, and you, and you, get to work on that dam. And remember this, if you are arrested, go peaceably. Any resistance will spoil the whole game."
The men broke into mingled cheers and laughter as the full significance of Orde's plan reached them. They streamed back to the dam, where they perched proffering advice and encouragement to those about to descend.
Immediately, however, Reed was out, his eyes blazing either side his hawk nose.
"Here!" he cried, "quit that! I'll have ye arrested!"
"Arrest ahead," replied Orde coldly.
Reed stormed back and forth for a moment, then departed at full speed up the road.
"Now, boys, get as much done as possible," urged Orde. "We better get back in the brush, or he may try to take in the whole b'iling of us on some sort of a blanket warrant."
"How about the other boys?" inquired North.
"I gave one of them a telegram to send to Daly," replied Orde. "Daly will be up to bail them out."
Once more they hid in the woods; and again, after a longer interval, the mill owner and the sheriff reappeared. Reed appeared to be expostulating violently, and a number of times pointed up river; but the sheriff went ahead stolidly to the dam, summoned those working below, and departed up the road as before. Reed stood uncertain until he saw the rivermen beginning to re-emerge from the brush, then followed the officer at top speed.
Without the necessity of command, a half-dozen men leaped down on the apron. The previous crews had made considerable progress in weakening the heavy supports. As soon as these should be cut out and the backing removed, the mere sawing through of the massive sill should carry away the whole obstruction.
"Next time will decide it," remarked Orde. "If the sheriff brings a posse and sits down to lay for us, of course we won't be able to get near to finish the job."
"I didn't think that of George Morris," commented Sims in an aggrieved way. "He was a riverman himself once before he was sheriff."
"He's got to obey orders, and serve a warrant when it's issued, of course," replied Orde to this. "What did you expect?"
At the end of another hour, which brought the time to four o'clock, the sheriff made his third appearance--this time in a side-bar buggy.
"I wish I dared join that confab," said Orde, "and hear what's going on, but I'm afraid he'd jug me sure."
"He wouldn't jug me," spoke up Newmark. "I'll go down."
"Bully for you!" agreed Orde.
The young man departed in his precise, methodical manner, picking his way rather mincingly among the inequalities of the trail. In spite of the worn and wrinkled condition of his garments, they retained something of a city hang and smartness that sharply differentiated their wearer from even the well-dressed citizens of a smaller town. They seemed to match the refined, shrewd, but cold intelligence of his lean and nervous face.
About sunset he returned from a scene which the distant spectators had watched with breathless interest. It was in essence only a repetition of the two that had preceded it, but Reed had evidently gone almost to the point of violence in his insistence, and the sheriff had shaken him off rudely. Finally, Morris and his six prisoners had trailed away. The sheriff and North's friend occupied the seat of the buggy, while the other five trudged peaceably alongside. Once again Reed clattered away on his bony steed, but this time ahead of the official party.
With a whoop the river crew, now reduced to a scant dozen, rushed down to meet the too deliberate Newmark.
"Well?" they demanded, crowding about him.
"Reed wanted the sheriff to stay and protect the dam," reported Newmark in his brief, dry manner. "Sheriff refused. Said his duty was simply to arrest on warrant, and as often as Reed got out warrants, he'd serve them. Reed said, then, he should get a posse and hunt up Orde and the rest of them. Sheriff replied that as far as he could see, the terms of his warrant were covered by the men he found working on the dam, Reed demanded protection, Sheriff said for him to get an injunction, and it would be enforced."
"Well, that's all right," interjected Orde with satisfaction. "We'll have her cut through before he gets that injunction, and I guess I've got men enough here and down river to get through before we're all arrested."
"Yes," said Newmark, "that's all very well. But now he's gone to telegraph the governor to send the troops."
Orde whistled a jig tune.
"Kind of expected that, boys," said he. "Let's see. The next train out from Redding--They'll be here by five in the morning at soonest. Hope it'll be later."
"What will you do?" asked Newmark.
"Take chances," replied Orde. "All you boys get to work. Zeke," he commanded one of the cookees, "go up road, and report if Morris comes back. I reckon this time we'll have to scatter if he comes after us. I hope we won't have to, though. Like to keep everything square on account of this State troop business."
The sun had dropped below the fringe of trees, which immediately etched their delicate outlines against a pale, translucent green sky. Two straight, thin columns of smoke rose from the neglected camp-fires. Orde, glancing around him, noticed these.
"Doctor," he commanded sharply, "get at your grub! Make some coffee right off, and bring it down. Get the lanterns from the wanigan, and bring them to the dam. Come on, boys!"
Over a score of men attacked the sluice-way, for by now part of the rear crew had come down river. The pond above had recovered its volume. Water was beginning to trickle over the top of the gate. In a short time progress became difficult, almost impossible, The men worked up to their knees in swift water. They could not see, and the strokes of axe or pick lost much of their force against the liquid. Dusk fell. The fringe of the forest became mysterious in its velvet dark. Silver streaks, of a supernal calm, suggested the reaches of the pond. Above, the sky's day surface unfolded and receded and dissolved and melted away until, through the pale afterglow, one saw beyond into the infinities. Down by the sluice a dozen lanterns flickered and blinked yellow against the blue- blackness of the night.
After some time Orde called his crew off and opened the sluice- gates. The water had become too deep for effective work, and a half hour's flow would reduce the pressure. The time was occupied in eating and in drying off about the huge fire the second cookee had built close at hand.
"Water cold, boys?" asked Orde.
"Some," was his reply.
"Want to quit?" he inquired, with mock solicitude.
Orde's shout of laughter broke the night silence of the whispering breeze and the rushing water.
"We'll stick to 'em like death to a dead nigger," was his comment.
Newmark, having extracted a kind of cardigan jacket from the bag he had brought with him as far as the mill, looked at the smooth, iron- black water and shivered.
When the meal was finished, the men lit their pipes and went back to work philosophically. With entire absorption in the task, they dug, chopped, and picked. The dull sound of blows, the gurgle and trickle of the water, the occasional grunt or brief comment of a riverman alone broke the calm of evening. Now that the sluice-gate was down and the water had ceased temporarily to flow over it, the work went faster. Orde, watching with the eye of an expert, vouchsafed to the taciturn Newmark that he thought they'd make it.
Near midnight, however, a swaying lantern was seen approaching. Orde, leaping to his feet with a curse at the boy on watch, heard the sound of wheels. A moment later, Daly's bulky form stepped into the illumination of the fire.
Orde wandered over to where his principal stood peering about him.
"Hullo!" said he.
"Oh, there you are!" cried Daly angrily. "What in hell you up to here?"
"Running logs," replied Orde coolly.
"Running logs!" shouted Daly, tugging at his overcoat pocket, and finally producing a much-folded newspaper. "How about this?"
Orde unfolded the paper and lowered it to the campfire. It was an extra, screaming with wood type. He read it deliberately over.
the headline ran.
RIOTING AND BLOODSHED IN THE WOODS
RIVERMEN AND DAM OWNERS CLASH!
There followed a vague and highly coloured statement to the effect that an initial skirmish had left the field in possession of the rivermen, in spite of the sheriff and a large posse, but that troops were being rushed to the spot, and that this "high-handed defiance of authority" would undoubtedly soon be suppressed. It concluded truthfully with the statement that the loss of life was as yet unknown.
Orde folded up the paper and handed it back.
"Don't you know any better than to get into that kind of a row down here?" Daly had been saying. "Do you want to bring us up for good here? Don't you realise that this isn't the northern peninsula? What are you trying to do, any way?"
"Sure I do," replied Orde placidly. "Come along here till I show you the situation."
Ten minutes later, Daly, relieved in his mind, was standing by the fire drinking hot coffee and laughing at Orde's description of Reed's plug hat.
To Orde's satisfaction, the sheriff did not reappear. Reed evidently now pinned his faith to the State troops.
All night the work went on, the men spelling each other at intervals of every few hours. By three o'clock the main abutments had been removed. The gate was then blocked to prevent its fall when its nether support should be withdrawn, and two men, leaning over cautiously, began at arm's-length to deliver their axe-strokes against the middle of the sill-timbers of the sluice itself, notching each heavy beam deeply that the force of the current might finally break it in two. The night was very dark, and very still. Even the night creatures had fallen into the quietude that precedes the first morning hours. The muffled, spaced blows of the axes, the low-voiced comments or directions of the workers, the crackle of the fire ashore were thrown by contrast into an undue importance. Men in blankets, awaiting their turn, slept close to the blaze.
Suddenly the vast silence of before dawn was broken by a loud and exultant yell from one of the axemen. At once the two scrambled to the top of the dam. The blanketed figures about the fire sprang to life. A brief instant later the snapping of wood fibres began like the rapid explosions of infantry fire; a crash and bang of timbers smote the air; and then the river, exultant, roaring with joy, rushed from its pent quietude into the new passage opened for it. At the same moment, as though at the signal, a single bird, premonitor of the yet distant day, lifted up his voice, clearly audible above the tumult.
Orde stormed into the camp up stream, his eyes bright, his big voice booming exultantly.
"Roll out, you river-hogs!" he shouted to those who had worked out their shifts earlier in the night. "Roll out, you web-footed sons of guns, and hear the little birds sing praise!"
Newmark, who had sat up the night through, and now shivered sleepily by the fire, began to hunt around for the bed-roll he had, earlier in the evening, dumped down somewhere in camp.
"I suppose that's all," said he. "Just a case of run logs now. I'll turn in for a little."
But Orde, a thick slice of bread half-way to his lips, had frozen in an attitude of attentive listening.
"Hark!" said he.
Faint, still in the depths of the forest, the wandering morning breeze bore to their ears a sound whose difference from the louder noises nearer at hand alone rendered it audible.
"The troops!" exclaimed Orde.
He seized a lantern and returned down the trail, followed eagerly by Newmark and every man in camp.
"Troops coming!" said Orde to Daly.
The men drew a little to one side, watching the dim line of the forest, dark against the paling sky. Shadows seemed to stir in its blackness. They heard quite distinctly the clink of metal against metal. A man rode out of the shadow and reined up by the fire. "Halt!" commanded a harsh voice. The rivermen could make out the troops--three or four score of them--standing rigid at attention. Reed, afoot now in favour of the commanding officer, pushed forward.
"Who is in charge here?" inquired the officer crisply.
"I am," replied Orde, stepping forward.
"I wish to inquire, sir, if you have gone mad to counsel your men to resist civil authority?"
"I have not resisted civil authority," replied Orde respectfully.
"It has been otherwise reported."
"The reports have been false. The sheriff of this county has arrested about twenty of my men single-handed and without the slightest trouble."
"Mr. Morris," cried the officer sharply.
"Yes?" replied the sheriff.
"Is what this man says true?"
"It sure is. Never had so little fuss arrestin' rivermen before in my life."
The officer's face turned a slow brick-red. For a moment he said nothing, then exploded with the utmost violence.
"Then why the devil am I dragged up here with my men in the night?" he cried. "Who's responsible for this insanity, anyway? Don't you know," he roared at Reed, who that moment swung within his range of vision, "that I have no standing in the presence of civil law? What do you mean getting me up here to your miserable little backwoods squabbles?"
Reed started to say something, but was immediately cut short by the irate captain.
"I've nothing to do with that; settle it in court. And what's more, you'll have something yourself to settle with the State! About, face! Forward, march!"
The men faded into the gray light as though dissolved by it.
A deep and respectful silence fell upon the men, which was broken by Orde's solemn and dramatic declamation.
"The King of France and twice ten thousand men Marched up the hill, and then marched down again,"
he recited; then burst into his deep roar of laughter.
"Now you see, boys," he said, digging his fists into his eyes, "if you'd put up a row, what we'd have got into. No blue-coats in mine, thank you. Well, push the grub pile, and then get at those logs. It's a case of flood-water now."
But Reed, having recovered from his astonishment, had still his say.
"I tell ye, I'm not done with ye yet," he threatened, shaking his bony forefinger in Orde's face. "I'll sue ye for damages, and I'll git 'em, too."
"See here, you old mossback," said Orde, thrusting his bulky form to the fore, "you sue just as soon as you want to. You can't get at it any too quick to suit us. But just now you get out of this camp, and you stay out. You're an old man, and we don't want to be rough with you, but you're biting off more than you can chew. Skedaddle!"
Reed hesitated, waving his long arms about, flail-like, as though to begin a new oration.
"Now, do hop along," urged Orde. "We'll pay you any legitimate damages, of course, but you can't expect to hang up a riverful of logs just on a notion. And we're sick of you. Oh, hell, then! See here, you two; just see that this man leaves camp."
Orde turned square on his heel. Reed, after a glance at the two huge rivermen approaching, beat a retreat to his mill, muttering and wrathful still.
"Well, good-bye, boys," said Daly, pulling on his overcoat; "I'll just get along and bail the boys out of that village calaboose. I reckon they've had a good night's rest. Be good!"
The fringe of trees to eastward showed clearly against the whitening sky. Hundreds of birds of all kinds sang in an ecstasy. Another day had begun. Already men with pike-poles were guiding the sullen timbers toward the sluice-way.