The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
By midnight the water seemed to have gone down slightly. Half the crew snatched a little sleep. For several hours more the issue hung aggravatingly in equilibrium. Then, with the opening of the channel into Stearn's Bayou the heaviest pressure was relieved. For the moment the acute danger point was passed.
Orde spent the next two days in strengthening the defences. The men were able to take their quota of meals and of sleep. Merely the working hours were longer than usual. Orde himself slept little, and was still possessed by a feverish activity. The flood continued at about the same volume. Until the water should subside, the danger could not be considered completely over with.
In these few days of comparative leisure Orde had time to look about him and to receive news. The jam had been successfully held at the iron railroad bridge above Redding; but only by the most strenuous efforts. Braces of oak beams had been slanted where they would do the most good; chains strengthened the weaker spots; and on top of all ton after ton of railroad iron held the whole immovably. Nolan had enjoyed the advantage of a "floating" jam; of convenient facilities incident to a large city; and of an aroused public sentiment that proffered him all the help he could use. Monrovia, little village that it was, had not grasped the situation. Redding saw it clearly. The loss of the timber alone--representing some millions of dollars' worth of the sawed product--would mean failure of mill companies, of banks holding their paper, and so of firms in other lines of business; and besides would throw thousands of men out of employment. Furthermore, what was quite as serious, should the iron bridge give way, the wooden bridges below could hardly fail to go out. Railroad communication between eastern and western Michigan would be entirely cut off. For a season industry of every description would be practically paralysed. Therefore Nolan had all the help he required. Every device known was employed to strengthen the jam. For only a few hours was the result in doubt. Then as the Clarion jubilantly expressed it, "It's a hundred dollars to an old hat she holds!"
Orde received all this with satisfaction, but with a slight scepticism.
"It's a floating jam; and it gets a push from underneath," he pointed out. "It's probably safe; but another flood might send it out."
"The floods are going down," said North.
"Good Lord; I hope so!" said Orde.
Newmark sent word that a sudden fit of sickness had confined him to the house.
"Didn't think of a little thing like piles," said Orde to himself. "Well, that's hardly fair. Joe couldn't have realised when he left here just how bad things were."
For two days, as has been said, nothing happened. Then Orde decided to break out a channel through the jam itself. This was a necessary preliminary to getting the logs in shape for distribution. An opening was made in the piles, and the rivermen, with pike-pole and peavy, began cautiously to dig their way through the tangled timbers. The Government pile-driver, which had finally been sent up from below, began placing five extra booms at intervals down stream to capture the drift as fast as it was turned loose. From the mills and private booms crews came to assist in the labour. The troubles appeared to be quite over, when word came from Redding that the waters were again rising. Ten minutes later Leopold Lincoln Bunn, the local reporter, came flapping in on Randall's old white horse, like a second Paul Revere, crying that the iron bridge had gone, and the logs were racing down river toward the booms.
"It just went out!" he answered the eager exclamations of the men who crowded around him. "That's all I know. It went out! And the other bridges! Sure! All but the Lake Shore! Don't know why that didn't go out. No; the logs didn't jam there; just slid right under!"
"That settles it," said Welton, turning away.
"You aren't going to quit!" cried Orde.
"Certainly. You're crazy!" said Welton with some asperity. "If they can't stop a little jam with iron, what are your wooden defences going to amount to against the whole accumulation? When those logs hit the tail of this jam, she'll go out before you can wink."
He refused to listen to argument.
"It's sure death," said he, "and I'm not going to sacrifice my men for nothing, even if they'd stay."
Other owners among the bystanders said the same thing. An air of profound discouragement had fallen on them all. The strain of the fight was now telling. The utmost that human flesh and blood was capable of had been accomplished; a hard-won victory had been gained by the narrowest of narrow margins. In this new struggle the old odds were still against them, and in addition the strength that had pushed aside Redding's best effort, augmented by the momentum of a powerful current. It was small wonder they gave up.
Already the news was spreading among the workers on the jams. As man shouted to man, each shouldered his peavy and came running ashore, eager question on his lips. Orde saw the Government driver below casting loose from her moorings. A moment later her tug towed her away to some side bayou of safety out of the expected rush to the Lake.
"But we can hold her!" cried Orde in desperation. "Have a little nerve with you. You aren't going to quit like that!"
He swept them with his eye; then turned away from them with a gesture of despair. They watched him gravely and silently.
"It's no use, boy," said old Carlin; "it's sure death."
"Sure death!" Orde laughed bitterly. "All right; sure death, then. Isn't there a man in this crowd that will tackle this sort of sure death with me?"
"I'm with you."
"And me," said North and the Rough Red in a breath.
"Good!" cried Orde. "You, too, Johnny Sims? and Purdy? and Jimmy Powers? Bully boys!"
"I reckon you'll need the tug," said Marsh.
A dozen more of Orde's personal following volunteered. At once his good humour returned; and his easy leisurely confidence in himself.
"We've got to close that opening, first thing," said he. "Marsh, tow the pile-driver up there."
He caused a heavy line to be run from a tree, situated around the bend down stream, to the stern of the driver.
"Now if you have to," he told North, who had charge, "let go all holds, and the line will probably swing you around out of danger. We on the tug will get out as best we can."
The opening was to be closed by piles driven in groups of sixteen bound together by chains. The clumps were connected one to the other by a system of boom logs and ropes to interpose a continuous barrier. The pile-driver placed the clumps; while the tug attended to the connecting defences.
"Now, boys," said Orde as his last word, "if she starts to go, save yourselves the best way you can. Never mind the driver. Stay on top!"
Slowly the tug and her consort nosed up through the boiling water.
"She's rising already," said Orde to Marsh, watching the water around the piles.
"Yes, and that jam's going out before many minutes," supplemented the tugboat captain grimly.
Both these statements were only too true. Although not fifteen minutes before, the jam had lain locked in perfect safety, now the slight rise of the waters had lifted and loosened the mass until it rose fairly on the quiver.
"Work fast!" Orde called to the men on the pile-driver. "If we can close the opening before those Redding logs hit us, we may be able to turn them into our new channel."
He did not add that if the opening were not closed before the jam broke, as break it would in a very few moments, the probabilities were that both pile-driver and tug would be destroyed. Every man knew that already.
Tom North ordered a pile placed in the carriage; the hammer descended. At once, like battering rams logs began to shoot up from the depths of the river end foremost all about them. These timbers were projected with tremendous force, leaping sometimes half their length above the surface of the water. If any of them had hit either the tug or the pile-driver squarely, it would have stove and sunk the craft. Fortunately this did not happen; but Marsh hastily towed the scow back to a better position. The pile had evidently been driven into the foot of the jam itself, thus loosening timbers lying at the bottom of the river.
The work went forward as rapidly as possible. Four times the jam shrugged and settled; but four times it paused on the brink of discharge. Three of the clumps had been placed and bound; and fifteen piles of the last clump had been driven.
"One more pile!" breathed Orde, his breath quickening a trifle as he glanced up stream.
The hammer in the high derrick ran smoothly to the top, paused, and fell. A half dozen times more it ripped. Then without delay the heavy chains were thrown around the winch, and the steam power began to draw the clumps together.
"Done!" cried Tom North, straightening his back.
"And a job in time, too," said Johnny Sims, indicating the creaking and tottering jam.
North unmoored, and the driver dropped back with the current and around the bend where she was snubbed by the safety line already mentioned.
Immediately the tug churned forward to accomplish the last duty, that of binding the defences together by means of chains and cables. Two men leaped to the floating booms and moved her fore and aft. Orde and the Rough Red set about the task. Methodically they worked from either end toward the middle. When they met finally, Orde directed his assistant to get aboard the tug.
"I'll tie this one, Jimmy," said he.
Aboard the tug all was tense preparation. Marsh grasped alertly the spokes of the wheel. In the engine-room Harvey, his hand on the throttle, stood ready to throw her wide open at the signal. Armed with sharp axes two men prepared to cut the mooring lines on a sign from the Rough Red. They watched his upraised hand. When it should descend, their axes must fall.
"Look out," the Rough Red warned Orde, who was methodically tying the last cumbersome knot, "she's getting ready!"
Orde folded the knot over without reply. Up stream the jam creaked, groaned, settled deliberately forward, cutting a clump of piles like straw.
"She's coming!" cried the Rough Red.
"Give me every second you can," said Orde, without looking up. He was just making the last turns.
The mass toppled slowly, fell into the swift current, and leaped with a roar. The Rough Red watched with cat-like attention.
"Jump!" he cried at last, and his right arm descended.
With the shout and the motion several things happened simultaneously. Orde leaped blindly for the rail, where he was seized and dragged aboard by the Rough Red; the axes fell, Marsh whirled over the wheel, Harvey threw open his throttle. The tug sprang from its leash like a hound. And behind the barrier the logs, tossing and tumbling, the white spray flying before their onslaught, beat in vain against the barrier, like raging wild beasts whose prey has escaped.
"Close call," said Orde briefly.
"Bet you," replied Marsh.
Neither referred to the tug's escape; but to the fortunate closing of the opening.