The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
The morning of June twenty-sixth dawned clear. Orde was early on the road before the heat of the day. He drove his buckboard rapidly over the twelve miles that separated his home from the distributing booms, for he wanted at once to avoid the heat of the first sun and to arrive at the commencement of the day's work. After a glance at the river, he entered the tiny office and set about the examination of the tally sheets left by the foreman. While he was engaged in this checking, the foreman, Tom North, entered.
"The river's rising a little"? he remarked conversationally as he reached for the second set of tally boards.
"You're crazy," muttered Orde, without looking up. "It's clear as a bell; and there have been no rains reported from anywhere."
"It's rising a little, just the same," insisted North, going out.
An hour later Orde, having finished his clerical work, walked out over the booms. The water certainly had risen; and considerably at that. A decided current sucked through the interstices in the piling. The penned logs moved uneasily.
"I should think it was rising!" said Orde to himself, as he watched the slowly moving water. "I wonder what's up. It can't be merely those rains three days ago."
He called one of the younger boys to him, Jimmy Powers by name.
"Here, Jimmy," said he, "mark one of these piles and keep track of how fast the water rises."
For some time the river remained stationary, then resumed its slow increase. Orde shook his head.
"I don't like June floods," he told Tom North. "A fellow can understand an ordinary spring freshet, and knows about how far it will go; but these summer floods are so confounded mysterious. I can't figure out what's struck the old stream, unless they're having almighty heavy rains up near headwaters."
By three o'clock in the afternoon Jimmy Powers reported a rise since morning of six inches. The current had proportionately increased in power.
"Tom," said Orde to the old riverman, "I'm going to send Marsh down for the pile-drivers and some cable. The barge company has some fifteen inch manilla."
"What in blazes do you expect to do with that?" he inquired.
"We may need them," Orde stated with conviction. "Everything's safe enough now; and probably will continue so; but I can't afford to take chances. If those logs ever break through they'll go on out to Lake Michigan and there they wouldn't be worth the salvage."
Tom North stared at his principal in surprise.
"That's a mighty long chance," he commented. "Never knew you to come so near croaking before, Jack."
"If this drive goes out, it surely busts me," replied Orde, "and I'm not taking even long chances."
Captain Marsh, returning with the Sprite, brought an evening paper and news from the telegraph offices. A cloudburst in the China Creek district followed by continued heavy rains was responsible for the increased water. The papers mentioned this only incidentally, and in explanation. Their columns were filled with an account of the big log jam that had formed above the iron railroad bridge. The planing mill's booms had given way under pressure and the contents had piled down stream against the buttresses. Before steps could be taken to clear the way, the head of the drive, hurried by the excess water, had piled in on top. Immediately a jam formed, increasing in weight each moment, until practically the entire third section had piled up back of the bridge.
The papers occupied themselves with the picturesque side of the affair. None expressed any anxiety as to the bridge. It was a new structure, each of whose bents weighed over a hundred tons. A fall of a few inches only would suffice to lock the jam solidly, thus relieving whatever pressure the mass exerted against the iron bridge. That the water would shortly go down was of course inevitable at this time of year. It would be a big jam for the rivermen to break, however.
"Do you think you'll go up there?" asked North.
Orde shook his head.
"They're in a nice pickle," he acknowledged; "but Nolan's in charge and will do his best. I think we may have troubles of our own right here at home."
He slept that night at the booms. The water, contrary to all expectation, rose steadily. By morning it had crept so far up the piles that there began to be danger that it would overflow their tops. In that case, of course, the logs in the booms would also run out.
"Guess it's time we did a little work," remarked Orde.
He set a crew of men to raising the height of the piling by tying logs firmly to the bolted timbers atop. This would take care of an extra two feet of water; a two feet beyond all previous records. Another crew stretched the fifteen inch manilla cables across the field of logs in order to segregate them into several units of mass, and so prevent them from piling up at the down-stream end of the enclosure. The pile-driver began to drop its hammer at spots of weakness. In spite of the accelerated current and the increased volume of the river, everything was soon shipshape and safe.
"We're all right now," said Orde. "The only thing I'm a little uneasy about is those confounded temporary booms upstream. Still they're all right unless they get to piling up. Then we'll have to see what we can do to hold them. I think as soon as the driver is through down at the sorting end, she'd better drive a few clumps of piles to strengthen the swing when it is shut. Then if the logs pile down on us from above, we can hold them there."
About two hours later the pile-driver moved up. The swing was opened; and the men began to drive clumps of piles in such a position as to strengthen the swing when the latter should be shut. It was a slow job. Each pile had to be taken from the raft at the stern of the scow, erected in the "carrier," and pounded into place by the heavy hammer raised and let drop in the derrick at the bow.
Long before the task was finished, the logs in the temporary booms had begun to slide atop one another, to cross and tangle, until at last the river bed inside the booms was filled with a jam of formidable dimensions. From beneath it the water boiled in eddies. Orde, looking at it, roused himself to sudden activity.
"Get a move on," he advised Captain Aspinwall of the driver. "If that jam breaks on us, we want to be ready; and if it don't break before you get this swing strengthened, maybe we can hold her where she is. There's no earthly doubt that those boom piles will never stand up when they get the full pressure of the freshet."
He departed up river on a tour of inspection from which he returned almost immediately.
"Hurry up! Hurry up!" he cried. "She can't last much longer!"
Indeed even to the men on the pile-driver, evidences of the pressure sustained by the slender boom piles were not wanting. Above the steady gurgle of the water and the intermittent puffing and other noises of the work, they could hear a creaking and groaning of timbers full of portent to those who could read the signs.
The driver's crew laboured desperately, hoisting the piles into the carriage, tripping the heavy hammer, sending it aloft again, binding feverishly the clumps of piles together by means of cables. Each man worked with an eye over his shoulder, fearful of the power that menaced him.
Two of the clumps had been placed and bound; a third was nearly finished, when suddenly, with a crack and a roar the upper booms gave way, projecting their logs upon the opening and the driver.
The half dozen members of the crew, caught utterly unaware in spite of the half warning they had been receiving for an hour past, were scattered by the winds of a panic. Two or three flung themselves on their faces; several ran from one end of the scow to the other; one leaped into the river! Imminent destruction seemed upon them.
Tom North, at the winch that operated the arm of the swing, however, retained his presence of mind. At the first sag outward of the boom piles he set in operation the machinery that closed the gate. Clumsy and slow as was his mechanism, he nevertheless succeeded in getting the long arm started. The logs, rushing in back of it, hurried it shut. Immediately they jammed again, and heaped up in a formidable tangle behind the barrier. Tom North, his little black pipe between his teeth, stood calm, the lever of his winch in his hand. A short three feet from the spot on which he stood, the first saw log of the many that might have overwhelmed him thrust forward its ugly head. The wash of the water lifted the huge pile-driver bodily and deposited it with a crash half on the bank and half in the water.
Instantly after the first break Orde had commenced running out over the booms from the shore.
"Good boy, Tom!" he shot at North as he passed.
Across the breast of the jam he hurried, and to the other bank where the pile-driver lay. The crew had recovered from their panic, and were ashore gazing curiously underneath the scow. Captain Aspinwall examined the supports of the derrick on deck.
"That was lucky," said Orde briefly to Aspinwall. "How's the damage? Stove you in?"
"I--I don't think so," replied the captain, turning a rather perturbed face to Orde.
"That's good. I'll send over the tug to help get her afloat. We've got our work cut out for us now. As soon as you're afloat, blow your whistle and I'll come over to tell you what to do."
"You don't expect me to work my driver under the face of that jam!" cried the captain.
"Certainly," snapped Orde, wheeling.
"Not me!" said Aspinwall positively. "I know when I've got enough!"
"What's the matter?" asked Orde.
"It isn't safe," replied the captain; "and I don't intend to risk my men or my driver."
Orde stood for a moment stock-still; then with a snort of anger he leaped to the deck, seized the man by the neck and thrust him bodily over the side to the bank.
"Safe, you white-livered skunk!" he roared. "Safe! Go over in the middle of that ten-acre lot and lie down on your face and see if you feel safe there! Get out; the whole pack of you! I'm in charge here now."
Captain Aspinwall picked himself up, his face red with anger.
"Get off my driver," he snarled. "Put that man off."
Orde seized a short heavy bar.
"This driver is requisitioned," said he. "Get out! I haven't time to fool with you. I've got to save my logs."
They hesitated; and while they did so Tom North and some others of the crew came running across the jam.
"Get a cable to the winch," Orde shouted at these as soon as they were within hearing. "And get Marsh up here with the Sprite. We've got to get afloat."
He paid no more attention to the ejected crew. The latter, overawed by the rivermen, who now gathered in full force, took the part of spectators.
A few minutes' hard work put the driver afloat. Fortunately its raft of piles had not become detached in the upheaval.
"Tom," said Orde briskly to North, "you know the pile-driver business. Pick out your crew, and take charge."
In ten seconds of time the situation had changed from one of comparative safety to one of extreme gravity. The logs, broken loose from the upper temporary booms, now jammed against the swing and against the other logs already filling the main booms. Already the pressure was beginning to tell, as the water banked up behind the mass. The fifteen-inch cables tightened slowly but mightily; some of the piles began to groan and rub one against the other; here and there a log deliberately up-ended above the level.
Orde took charge of the situation in its entirety, as a general might. He set North immediately to driving clumps each of sixteen piles, bound to solidity by chains, and so arranged in angles and slants as to direct the enormous pressure toward either bank, thus splitting the enemy's power. The small driver owned by the Boom Company drove similar clumps here, there and everywhere that need arose or weakness developed. Seventy-five men opposed, to the weight of twenty million tons of logs and a river of water, the expedients invented by determination and desperation.
As in a virulent disease, the symptoms developed rapidly when once the course of the malady was assured. After the first rush, when the upper booms broke, nothing spectacular occurred. Steadily and relentlessly the logs, packed close together down to the very bed of the stream, pressed outward against the frail defences. Orde soon found himself forced from the consideration of definite plans of campaign. He gave over formal defences, and threw his energies to saving the weak places which rapidly developed. By the most tremendous exertions he seemed but just able to keep even. So closely balanced was the equilibrium between the improvisation of defence and the increase of pressure behind the jam that it seemed as if even a moment's breathing spell would bring the deluge. Piles quivered, bent slowly outward--immediately, before the logs behind them could stir, the pile-driver must do its work. Back and forth darted the Sprite and her sister-tug the Spray towing the pile- drivers or the strings of piles. Under the frowning destruction that a breath might loosen, the crews had to do their work. And if ever that breath should come, there would be no chance for escape. Crushed and buried, the men and their craft alike would be borne with the breaking jam to an unknown grave in the Lake. Every man knew it.
Darkness came. No one stopped for food. By the light of lanterns the struggle went on, doubly terrifying in the mystery of night. By day the men, practised in such matters, could at least judge of the probabilities of a break. At night they had to work blindly, uncertain at what moment the forces they could not see would cut loose to overwhelm them.
Morning found no change in the situation. The water rose steadily; the logs grew more and more restive; the defences weaker and more inadequate. Orde brought out steaming pails of coffee which the men gulped down between moments. No one thought of quitting. They were afire with the flame of combat, and were set obstinately on winning even in the face of odds. About ten o'clock they were reinforced by men from the mills downstream. The Owners of those mills had no mind to lose their logs. Another pile-driver was also sent up from the Government work. Without this assistance the jam must surely have gone out. Spectators marvelled how it held as it did. The mass seemed constantly to quiver on the edge of motion. Here and there over the surface of the jam single logs could be seen popping suddenly into the air, propelled as an apple seed is projected from between a boy's thumb and forefinger. Some of the fifteen-inch cables stretched to the shore parted. One, which passed once around an oak tree before reaching its shore anchorage, actually buried itself out of sight in the hard wood. Bunches of piles bent, twisted, or were cut off as though they had been but shocks of Indian corn. The current had become so swift that the tugs could not hold the drivers against it; and as a consequence, before commencing operations, special mooring piles had to be driven. Each minute threatened to bring an end to the jam, yet it held; and without rest the dogged little insects under its face toiled to gain an inch on the waters.