The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
All that day and the next night the fight was hand to hand, without the opportunity of a breathing space. Then Orde, bareheaded and dishevelled, strung to a high excitement, but cool as a veteran under fire, began to be harassed by annoyances. The piles provided for the drivers gave out. Newmark left, ostensibly to purchase more. He did not return. Tom North and Jim Denning, their eyes burning deep in their heads for lack of sleep, came to Orde holding to him symbolically their empty hands.
"No more piles," they said briefly.
"Get 'em," said Orde with equal brevity. "Newmark will have enough here shortly. In the meantime, get them."
North and his friend disappeared, taking with them the crews of the drivers and the two tugs. After an interval they returned towing small rafts of the long timbers. Orde did not make any inquiries; nor until days later did he see a copy of the newspaper telling how a lawless gang of rivermen had driven away the railroad men and stolen the railroad's property. These piles lasted five or six hours. Tom North placed and drove them accurately and deliberately, quite unmindful of the constant danger. A cold fire seemed to consume the man, inflaming his courage and his dogged obstinacy. Once a wing of the jam broke suddenly just as his crew had placed a pile in the carrier. The scow was picked up, whirled around, carried bodily a hundred feet, and deposited finally with a crash. The instant the craft steadied and even before any one could tell whether or no the danger was past, Tom cut loose the hammer and drove that pile!
"I put you in that carrier to be drove!" he shouted viciously, "and drove you'll be, if we are goin' to hell!"
When the Spray shouldered the scow back to position that one pile was left standing upright in the channel, a monument to the blind determination of the man.
Fortunately the wing break carried with it but a few logs; but it sufficed to show, if demonstration were needed, what would happen if any more serious break should occur.
Orde was everywhere. Long since he had lost his hat; and over his forehead and into his eyes the strands of his hair whipped tousled and unkempt. Miles and miles he travelled; running along the tops of the booms, over the surface of the jam, spying the weakening places, and hurrying to them a rescue. He seemed tireless, omnipresent, alive to every need. It was as though his personality alone held in correlation these struggling forces; as though were he to relax for an instant his effort they would burst forth with the explosion of long-pent energies.
Toward noon the piles gave out again.
"Where in hell is Newmark!" exploded Orde, and immediately was himself again, controlled and resourceful. He sent North and a crew of men to cut piles from standing timber in farm wood lots near the river.
"Haul them out with your winch," said he. "If the owners object, stand them off with your peavies. Get them anyway."
About three of the afternoon the Lucy Belle splattered up stream from the village, carrying an excursion to see the jam. Captain Simpson brought her as close in as possible. The waves raised by her awkward paddle-wheel and her clumsy lines surged among the logs and piles. Orde looked on this with distrust.
"Go tell him to pull out of that," he instructed Jimmy Powers "The confounded old fool ought to know better than that. Tell him it's dangerous. If the jam goes out, it'll carry him to Kingdom Come."
Jimmy Powers returned red-faced from his interview.
"He told me to go to hell," he said shortly.
"Oh, he did," snapped Orde. "I should think we had enough without that old idiot!"
With the short nervous leaps of a suppressed anger he ran down to where the Sprite had just towed the Number One driver into a new position.
"Lay me alongside the Lucy Belle," he told Marsh.
But Simpson, in a position of importance at last, was disinclined to listen. He had worn his blue clothes and brass buttons for a good many years in charge only of boxes and barrels. Now at a stroke he found himself commander over tenscore people. Likewise, at fifty cents a head, he foresaw a good thing as long as high water should last. He had risen nobly to the occasion; for he had even hoisted his bunting and brought with him the local brass band. Orde, brusque in his desire to hurry through an affair of minor importance, rubbed the man the wrong way.
"I reckon I've some rights on this river," Captain Simpson concluded the argument, "and I ain't agoin' to be bulldozed out of them."
The excursionists, typical "trippers" from Redding, Holland, Monrovia and Muskegon, cheered this sentiment and jeered at Orde.
Orde nodded briefly.
"Marsh," said he to his captain in a low voice, "get a crew and take them in charge. Run 'em off."
As soon as the tug touched the piling, he was off and away, paying no further attention to a matter already settled. Captain Marsh called a dozen rivermen to him; laid the Sprite alongside the Lucy Belle, and in spite of Simpson's scandalised protests and an incipient panic among the passengers, thrust aside the regular crew of the steamship and took charge. Quite calmly he surveyed the scene. From the height of the steamer's bridge he could see abroad over the country. A warm June sun flooded the landscape which was filled with the peace of early summer. The river seemed to flow smoothly and quietly enough, in spite of the swiftness of its current and the swollen volume of its waters. Only up stream where the big jam shrugged and groaned did any element jar on the peace of the scene; and even that, in contrast to the rest of the landscape, afforded small hint to the inexperienced eye of the imminence of a mighty destruction.
Captain Marsh paid little attention to all this. His eye swept rapidly up and down where the banks used to be until he saw a cross current deeper than the rest sweeping in athwart the inundated fields. He swung over the wheel and rang to the engine-room for half speed ahead. Slowly the Lucy Belle answered. Quite calmly Captain Marsh rammed her through the opening and out over the cornfields. The Lucy Belle was a typical river steamboat, built light in the draught in order to slide over the numerous shifting bars to be encountered in her customary business. When Captain Marsh saw that he had hit the opening, he rang for full speed, and rammed the poor old Lucy Belle hard aground in about a foot of water through which a few mournful dried cornstalks were showing their heads. Then, his hands in his pockets, he sauntered out of the pilot-house to the deck.
"Now if you want to picnic," he told the astonished and frightened excursionists, "go to it!"
With entire indifference to the water, he vaulted over the low rail and splashed away. The rivermen and the engineer who had accompanied him lingered only long enough to start up the band.
"Now you're safe as a cow tied to a brick wall," said the Rough Red, whose appearance alone had gone far toward overawing the passengers. "Be joyful. Start up the music. Start her up, I tell you!"
The band hastily began to squawk, very much out of time, and somewhat out of tune.
"That's right," grinned the Rough Red savagely, "keep her up. If you quit before I get back to work, I'll come back and take you apart."
They waded through the shallow water in the cornfield. After them wafted the rather disorganised strains of whoa, Emma. Captain Simpson was indulging in what resembled heat apoplexy. After a time the Lucy Belle's crew recovered their scattered wits sufficiently to transport the passengers in small boats to a point near the county road, whence all trudged to town. The Lucy Belle grew in the cornfield until several weeks later, when time was found to pull her off on rollers.
Arrived at the booms Captain Marsh shook the loose water from his legs.
"All right, sir," he reported to Orde. "I ran 'em ashore yonder."
Orde looked up, brushing the hair from his eyes. He glanced in the direction of the cornfield, and a quick grin flickered across the absorbed expression of his face.
"I should think you did," said he briefly. "I guess that'll end the excursion business. Now take Number Two up below the swing; and then run down and see if you can discover Tom. He went somewhere after piles about an hour ago."
Down river the various mill owners were busy with what men they had left in stringing defences across the river in case Orde's works should go out. When Orde heard this he swore vigourously.
"Crazy fools," he spat out. "They'd be a lot better off helping here. If this goes out, their little booms won't amount to a whiff of wind."
He sent word to that effect; but, lacking the enforcement of his personal presence his messages did not carry conviction, and the panic-stricken owners continued to labour, each according to his ideas, on what Orde's clearer vision saw to be a series of almost comical futilities. However, Welton answered the summons. Orde hailed his coming with a shout.
"I want a dredge," he yelled, as soon as the lumberman was within distance. "I believe we can relieve the pressure somewhat by a channel into Steam's bayou. Get that Government dredge up and through the bayou as soon as you can."
"All right," said Welton briefly. "Can you hold her?"
"I've got to hold her," replied Orde between his clenched teeth. "Have you seen Newmark? Where in hell is Newmark? I need him for fifty things, and he's disappeared off the face of the earth! Purdy! that second cable! She's snapped a strand! Get a reinforcing line on her!" He ran in the direction of the new danger without another thought of Welton.
By the late afternoon casual spectators from the countryside had gathered in some number. The bolder or more curious of these added a further touch of anxiety to the situation by clambering out over the jam for a better view. Orde issued instructions that these should keep off the logs; but in spite of that, with the impertinent perseverance of the sight-seer, many persisted from time to time, when the rivermen were too busily engaged to attend to them, in venturing out where they were not only in danger but also in the way. Tom North would have none of this on his pile-driver. If a man was not actually working, he had no business on Number One.
"But," protested a spectator mildly, "I own this driver. I haven't any objections to your grabbing her in this emergency, even if you did manhandle my captain; but surely you are not going to keep me off my own property?"
"I don't give a tinker's damn who you are," replied North sturdily. "If you're not working, you get off."
And get off he did.
The broad deck of the pile-driver scow was a tempting point from which to survey the work, and the ugly jam, and the water boiling angrily, and the hollow-eyed, dishevelled maniacs who worked doggedly with set teeth as though they had not already gone without two nights' sleep. North had often to order ashore intruders, until his temper shortened to the vanishing point. One big hulking countryman attempted to argue the point. North promptly knocked him overboard into the shallow water between the driver and the bank. He did not rise; so North fished for him in the most matter-of-fact way with a boat hook, threw him on the bank unconscious, and went on driving piles! The incident raised a laugh among the men.
But flesh and blood has its limit of endurance; and that limit was almost reached. Orde heard the first premonitions of reaction in the mild grumblings that arose. He knew these men well from his long experience with them. Although the need for struggle against the tireless dynamics of the river was as insistent as ever; although it seemed certain that a moment's cessation of effort would permit the enemy an irretrievable gain, he called a halt on the whole work.
"Boys," said he, irrelevantly, "let's have a smoke?"
He set the example by throwing himself full length against a slanting pile and most leisurely filling his pipe. The men stared a moment; then followed his example. A great peace of evening filled the sky. The horizon lay low and black against the afterglow. Beneath it the river shone like silver. Only the groaning, the heave and shrugging of the jam, and the low threatening gurgle of hurrying waters reminded the toil-weary men of the enemy's continued activity. Over beyond the rise of land that lay between the river and Stearn's Bayou could be seen the cloud of mingled smoke and steam that marked the activities of the dredge. For ten minutes they rested in the solace of tobacco. Orde was apparently more at ease than any of the rest, but each instant he expected to hear the premonitory crack that would sound the end of everything. Finally he yawned, knocked the ashes from his pipe, and got to his feet.
"Now," said he, a new ring in his voice, "come on and let's get something done!"
They responded to a man.