The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
When Newmark awoke once more to interest in affairs, the morning was well spent. On the river the work was going forward with the precision of clockwork. The six-foot lowering of the sluice-way had produced a fine current, which sucked the logs down from above. Men were busily engaged in "sacking" them from the sides of the pond toward its centre, lest the lowering water should leave them stranded. Below the dam the jam crew was finding plenty to do in keeping them moving in the white-water and the shallows. A fine sun, tempered with a prophetic warmth of later spring, animated the scene. Reed had withdrawn to the interior of his mill, and appeared to have given up the contest.
Some of the logs shot away down the current, running freely. To these the crews were not required to pay any attention. With luck, a few of the individual timbers would float ten, even twenty, miles before some chance eddy or fortuitous obstruction would bring them to rest. Such eddies and obstructions, however, drew a constant toll from the ranks of the free-moving logs, so that always the volume of timbers floating with the current diminished, and always the number of logs caught and stranded along the sides of the river increased. To restore these to the faster water was the especial province of the last and most expert crew--the rear.
Orde discovered about noon that the jam crew was having its troubles. Immediately below Reed's dam ran a long chute strewn with boulders, which was alternately a shallow or a stretch of white- water according as the stream rose or fell. Ordinarily the logs were flushed over this declivity by opening the gate, behind which a head of water had been accumulated. Now, however, the efficiency of the gate had been destroyed. Orde early discovered that he was likely to have trouble in preventing the logs rushing through the chute from grounding into a bad jam on the rapids below.
For a time the jam crew succeeded in keeping the "wings" clear. In the centre of the stream, however, a small jam formed, like a pier. Along the banks logs grounded, and were rolled over by their own momentum into places so shallow as to discourage any hope of refloating them unless by main strength. As the sluicing of the nine or ten million feet that constituted this particular drive went forward, the situation rapidly became worse.
"Tom, we've got to get flood-water unless we want to run into an awful job there," said Orde to the foreman. "I wonder if we can't drop that gate 'way down to get something for a head."
The two men examined the chute and the sluice-gate attentively for some time.
"If we could clear out the splinters and rubbish, we might spike a couple of saplings on each side for the gate to slide down into," speculated North. "Might try her on."
The logs were held up in the pond, and a crew of men set to work to cut away, as well as they might in the rush of water, the splintered ends of the old sill and apron. It was hard work. Newmark, watching, thought it impracticable. The current rendered footing impossible, so all the work had to be done from above. Wet wood gripped the long saws vice-like, so that a man's utmost strength could scarcely budge them. The water deadened the force of axe- blows. Nevertheless, with the sure persistence of the riverman, they held to it. Orde, watching them a few moments, satisfied himself that they would succeed, and so departed up river to take charge of the rear.
This crew he found working busily among some overflowed woods. They were herding the laggards of the flock. The subsidence of the water consequent upon the opening of the sluice-gate had left stranded and in shallows many hundreds of the logs. These the men sometimes, waist deep in the icy water, owing to the extreme inequality of the bottom, were rolling over and over with their peavies until once more they floated. Some few the rivermen were forced to carry bodily, ten men to a side, the peavies clamped in as handles. When once they were afloat, the task became easier. From the advantage of deadwood, stumps, or other logs the "sackers" pushed the unwieldy timbers forward, leaping, splashing, heaving, shoving, until at last the steady current of the main river seized the logs and bore them away. With marvellous skill they topped the dripping, bobby, rolling timbers, treading them over and over, back and forth, in unconscious preservation of equilibrium.
There was a good deal of noise and fun at the rear. The crew had been divided, and a half worked on either side the river. A rivalry developed as to which side should advance fastest in the sacking. It became a race. Momentary success in getting ahead of the other fellow was occasion for exultant crowing, while a mishap called forth ironic cheers and catcalls from the rival camp. Just as Orde came tramping up the trail, one of the rivermen's caulks failed to "bite" on an unusually smooth, barked surface. His foot slipped; the log rolled; he tried in vain to regain his balance, and finally fell in with a heavy splash.
The entire river suspended work to send up a howl of delight. As the unfortunate crawled out, dripping from head to foot, he was greeted by a flood of sarcasm and profane inquiry that left no room for even his acknowledged talents of repartee. Cursing and ashamed, he made his way ashore over the logs, spirting water at every step. There he wrung out his woollen clothes as dry as he could, and resumed work.
Hardly had Orde the opportunity to look about at the progress making, however, before he heard his name shouted from the bank. Looking up, to his surprise he saw the solemn cook waving a frantic dish-towel at him. Nothing could induce the cook to attempt the logs.
"What is it, Charlie?" asked Orde, leaping ashore and stamping the loose water from his boots.
"It's all off," confided the cook pessimistically. "It's no good. He's stopped us now."
"What's off? Who's stopped what?"
"Reed. He's druv the men from the dam with a shotgun. We might as well quit."
"Shotgun, hey!" exclaimed Orde. "Well, the old son of a gun!" He thought a moment, his lips puckered as though to whistle; then, as usual, he laughed amusedly. "Let's go take a look at the army," said he.
He swung away at a round pace, followed rather breathlessly by the cook. The trail led through the brush across a little flat point, up over a high bluff where the river swung in, down to another point, and across a pole trail above a marsh to camp.
A pole trail consists of saplings laid end to end, and supported three or four feet above wet places by means of sawbuck-like structures at their extremities. To a river-man or a tight-rope dancer they are easy walks. All others must proceed cautiously in contrite memory of their sins.
Orde marched across the first two lengths confidently enough. Then he heard a splash and lamentations. Turning, he perceived Charlie, covered with mud, in the act of clambering up one of the small trestles.
"Ain't got no caulks!" ran the lamentations. "The ---- of a ---- of a pole-trail, anyways!"
He walked ahead gingerly, threw his hands aloft, bent forward, then suddenly protruded his stomach, held out one foot in front of him, spasmodically half turned, and then, realising the case hopeless, wilted like a wet rag, to clasp the pole trail both by arm and leg. This saved him from falling off altogether, but swung him underneath, where he hung like the sloths in the picture-books. A series of violent wriggles brought him, red-faced and panting, astride the pole, whence, his feelings beyond mere speech, he sadly eyed his precious derby, which lay, crown up, in the mud below.
Orde contemplated the spectacle seriously.
"Sorry I haven't got time to enjoy you just now, Charlie," he remarked. "I'd take it slower, if I were you."
He departed, catching fragments of vows anent never going on any more errands for nobody, and getting his time if ever again he went away from his wanigan.
Orde stopped short outside the fringe of brush to utter another irrepressible chuckle of amusement.
The centre of the dam was occupied by Reed. The old man was still in full regalia, his plug hat fuzzier than ever, and thrust even farther back on his head, his coat-tails and loose trousers flapping at his every movement as he paced back and forth with military precision. Over his shoulder he carried a long percussion-lock shotgun. Not thirty feet away, perched along the bank, for all the world like a row of cormorants, sat the rivermen, watching him solemnly and in silence.
"What's the matter?" inquired Orde, approaching.
The old man surveyed him with a snort of disgust.
"If the law of the land don't protect me, I'll protect myself, sir," he proclaimed. "I give ye fair warning! I ain't a-going to have my property interfered with no more."
"But surely," said Orde, "we have a right to run our logs through. It's an open river."
"And hev ye been running your logs through?" cried the old man excitedly. "Hev ye? First off ye begin to tear down my dam; and then, when the river begins a-roarin' and a-ragin' through, then you tamper with my improvements furthermore, a-lowerin' the gate and otherwise a-modifyin' my structure."
Orde stepped forward to say something further. Immediately Reed wheeled, his thumb on the hammer.
"All right, old Spirit of '76," replied Orde. "Don't shoot; I'll come down."
He walked back to the waiting row, smiling quizzically.
"Well, you calamity howlers, what do you think of it?"
Nobody answered, but everybody looked expectant.
"Think he'd shoot?" inquired Orde of Tom North.
"I know he would," replied North earnestly. "That crazy-headed kind are just the fellers to rip loose."
"I think myself he probably would," agreed Orde.
"Surely," spoke up Newmark, "whatever the status of the damage suits, you have the legal right to run your logs."
Orde rolled a quizzical eye in his direction.
"Per-fect-ly correct, son," he drawled, "but we're engaged in the happy occupation of getting out logs. By the time the law was all adjusted and a head of steam up, the water'd be down. In this game, you get out logs first, and think about law afterward."
"How about legal damages?" insisted Newmark.
"Legal damages!" scoffed Orde. "Legal damages! Why, we count legal damages as part of our regular expenses--like potatoes. It's lucky it's so," he added. "If anybody paid any attention to legal technicalities, there'd never be a log delivered. A man always has enemies.
"Well, what are you going to do?" persisted Newmark.
Orde thrust back his felt hat and ran his fingers through his short, crisp hair.
"There you've got me," he confessed, "but, if necessary, we'll pile the old warrior."
He walked to the edge of the dam and stood looking down current. For perhaps a full minute he remained there motionless, his hat clinging to one side, his hand in his hair. Then he returned to the grimly silent rivermen.
"Boys," he commanded briefly, "get your peavies and come along."
He led the way past the mill to the shallows below.
"There's a trifle of wading to do," he announced. "Bring down two logs--fairly big--and hold them by that old snag," he ordered. "Whoa-up! Easy! Hold them end on--no, pointing up stream--fix 'em about ten foot apart--that's it! George, drive a couple of stakes each side of them to hold 'em. Correct! Now, run down a couple dozen more and pile them across those two--side on to the stream, of course. Roll 'em up--that's the ticket!"
Orde had been splashing about in the shallow water, showing where each timber was to be placed. He drew back, eyeing the result with satisfaction. It looked rather like a small and bristly pier.
Next he cast his eye about and discovered a partially submerged boulder on a line with the newly completed structure. Against this he braced the ends of two more logs, on which he once more caused to be loaded at right angles many timbers. An old stub near shore furnished him the basis of a third pier. He staked a thirty-inch butt for a fourth; and so on, until the piers, in conjunction with the small centre jam already mentioned, extended quite across the river.
All this was accomplished in a very short time, and immediately below the mill, but beyond sight from the sluice-gate of the dam.
"Now, boys," commanded Orde, "shove off some shore logs, and let them come down."
"We'll have a jam sure," objected Purdy stupidly.
"No, my son, would we?" mocked Orde. "I surely hope not!"
The stray logs floating down with the current the rivermen caught and arranged to the best possible advantage about the improvised piers. A good riverman understands the correlation of forces represented by saw-logs and water-pressure. He knows how to look for the key-log in breaking jams; and by the inverse reasoning, when need arises he can form a jam as expertly as Koosy-oonek himself-- that bad little god who brings about the disagreeable and undesired-- "who hides our pipes, steals our last match, and brings rain on the just when they want to go fishing."
So in ten seconds after the shore logs began drifting down from above, the jam was taking shape. Slowly it formed, low and broad. Then, as the water gathered pressure, the logs began to slip over one another. The weight of the topmost sunk those beneath to the bed of the stream. This to a certain extent dammed back the water. Immediately the pressure increased. More logs were piled on top. The piers locked the structure. Below the improvised dam the water fell almost to nothing, and above it, swirling in eddies, grumbling fiercely, bubbling, gurgling, searching busily for an opening, the river, turned back on itself, gathered its swollen and angry forces.
"That will do, boys," said Orde with satisfaction.
He led the way to the bank and sat down. The men followed his example. Every moment the water rose, and each instant, as more logs came down the current, the jam became more formidable.
"Nothing can stand that pressure," breathed Newmark, fascinated.
"The bigger the pressure the tighter she locks," replied Orde, lighting his pipe.
The high bank where the men sat lay well above the reach of the water. Not so the flat on which stood Reed's mill. In order to take full advantage of the water-power developed by the dam, the old man had caused his structure to be built nearly at a level with the stream. Now the river, backing up, rapidly overflowed this flat. As the jam tightened by its own weight and the accumulation of logs, the water fairly jumped from the lowest floor of the mill to the one above.
Orde had not long to wait for Reed's appearance. In less than five minutes the old man descended on the group, somewhat of his martial air abated, and something of a vague anxiety manifest in his eye.
"What's the matter here?" he demanded.
"Matter?" inquired Orde easily. "Oh, nothing much, just a little jam."
"But it's flooding my mill!"
"So I perceive," replied Orde, striking a match.
"Well, why don't you break it?"
The old warrior ran up the bank to where he could get a good view of his property. The water was pouring into the first-floor windows.
"Here!" he cried, running back. "I've a lot of grain up-stairs. It'll be ruined!"
"Not interested," repeated Orde.
Reed was rapidly losing control of himself.
"But I've got a lot of money invested here!" he shouted. "You miserable blackguard, you're ruining me!"
Orde replaced his pipe.
Reed ran back and forth frantically, disappeared, returned bearing an antiquated pike-pole, and single-handed and alone attacked the jam!
Astonishment and delight held the rivermen breathless for a moment. Then a roar of laughter drowned even the noise of the waters. Men pounded each other on the back, rolled over and over, clutching handfuls of earth, struggled weak and red-faced for breath as they saw against the sky-line of the bristling jam the lank, flapping figure with the old plug hat pushing frantically against the immovable statics of a mighty power. The exasperation of delay, the anxiety lest success be lost through the mulish and narrow-minded obstinacy of one man, the resentment against another obstacle not to be foreseen and not to be expected in a task redundantly supplied with obstacles of its own--these found relief at last.
"By Jove!" breathed Newmark softly to himself. "Don Quixote and the windmills!" Then he added vindictively, "The old fool!" although, of course, the drive was not his personal concern.
Only Orde seemed to see the other side. And on Orde the responsibility, uncertainty, and vexation had borne most heavily, for the success of the undertaking was in his hands. With a few quick leaps he had gained the old man's side.
"Look here, Reed," he said kindly, "you can't break this jam. Come ashore now, and let up. You'll kill yourself."
Reed turned to him, a wild light in his eye.
"Break it!" he pleaded. "You're ruining me. I've got all my money in that mill."
"Well," said Orde, "we've got a lot of money in our logs too. You haven't treated us quite right."
Reed glanced frantically toward the flood up stream.
"Come," said Orde, taking him gently by the arm. "There's no reason you and I shouldn't get along together all right. Maybe we're both a little hard-headed. Let's talk it over."
He led the old man ashore, and out of earshot of the rivermen.
At the end of ten minutes he returned.
"War's over, boys!" he shouted cheerfully. "Get in and break that jam."
At once the crew swarmed across the log barrier to a point above the centre pier. This they attacked with their peavies, rolling the top logs off into the current below. In less than no time they had torn out quite a hole in the top layer. The river rushed through the opening. Immediately the logs in the wings were tumbled in from either side. At first the men had to do all of the work, but soon the river itself turned to their assistance. Timbers creaked and settled, or rose slightly buoyant as the water loosened the tangle. Men trod on the edge of expectation. Constantly the logs shifted, and as constantly the men shifted also, avoiding the upheavals and grindings together, wary eyes estimating the correlation of the forces into whose crushing reach a single misstep would bring them. The movement accelerated each instant, as the music of the play hastens to the climax. Wood fibres smashed. The whole mass seemed to sink down and forward into a boiling of waters. Then, with a creak and a groan, the jam moved, hesitated, moved again; finally, urged by the frantic river, went out in a majestic crashing and battering of logs.
At the first movement Newmark expected the rivermen to make their escape. Instead, they stood at attention, their peavies poised, watching cat-eyed the symptoms of the break. Twice or thrice several of the men, observing something not evident to Newmark's unpractised eye, ran forward, used their peavies vigorously for a moment or so, and stood back to watch the result. Only at the very last, when it would seem that some of them must surely he caught, did the river-jacks, using their peavy-shafts as balancing poles, zigzag calmly to shore across the plunging logs. Newmark seemed impressed.
"That was a close shave," said he to the last man ashore.
"What?" inquired the riverman. "Didn't see it. Somebody fall down?"
"Why, no," explained Newmark; "getting in off those logs without getting caught."
"Oh!" said the man indifferently, turning away.
The going out of the jam drained the water from the lower floors of the mill; the upper stories and the grain were still safe.
By evening the sluice-gate had been roughly provided with pole guides down which to slide to the bed of the river. The following morning saw the work going on as methodically as ever. During the night a very good head of water had gathered behind the lowered gate. The rear crew brought down the afterguard of logs to the pond. The sluicers with their long pike-poles thrust the logs into the chute. The jam crew, scattered for many miles along the lower stretches, kept the drive going; running out over the surface of the river like water-bugs to thrust apart logs threatening to lock; leaning for hours on the shafts of their peavies watching contemplatively the orderly ranks as they drifted by, sleepy, on the bosom of the river; occasionally gathering, as the filling of the river gave warning, to break a jam. By the end of the second day the pond was clear, and as Charlie's wanigan was drifting toward the chute, the first of Johnson's drive floated into the head of the pond.