The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Orde now took steps to deflect into the channel recently dredged to Stearn's Bayou the mass of the logs racing down stream from Redding. He estimated that he had still two hours or so in which to do the work. In this time he succeeded by the severest efforts in establishing a rough shunt into the new channel. The logs would come down running free. Only the shock of their impact against the tail of the jam already formed was to be feared. Orde hoped to be able to turn the bulk of them aside.
This at first he succeeded in doing; and very successfully as affecting the pressure on the jam below. The first logs came scattering. Then in a little while the surface of the river was covered with them; they shouldered each other aside in their eagerness to outstrip the rushing water; finally they crowded down more slowly, hardly able to make their way against the choking of the river banks, but putting forth in the very effort to proceed a tremendous power. To the crew working in the channel dredged through to Steam's Bayou the affair was that of driving a rather narrow and swift stream, only exaggerated. By quick and skilful work they succeeded in keeping the logs in motion. A large proportion of the timbers found their way into the bayou. Those that continued on down the river could hardly have much effect on the jam.
The work was breathless in its speed. From one to another sweat- bathed, panting man the logs were handed on. As yet only the advance of the big jam had arrived at the dredged channel.
Orde looked about him and realised this.
"We can't keep this up when the main body hits us," he panted to his neighbour, Jim Denning. "We'll have to do some more pile-driver work."
He made a rapid excursion to the boom camp, whence he returned with thirty or forty of the men who had given up work on the jam below.
"Here, boys," said he, "you can at least keep these logs moving in this channel for a couple of hours. This isn't dangerous."
He spoke quite without sarcastic intent; but the rivermen, already over their first panic, looked at each other a trifle shamefacedly.
"I'll tie into her wherever you say," said one big fellow. "If you fellows are going back to the jam, I'm with you."
Two or three more volunteered. The remainder said nothing, but in silence took charge of the dredged channel.
Orde and his men now returned to the jam where, on the pile-driver, the tugs, and the booms, they set methodically to strengthening the defences as well as they were able.
"She's holding strong and dandy," said Orde to Tom North, examining critically the clumps of piles. "That channel helps a lot in more ways than one. It takes an awful lot of water out of the river. As long as those fellows keep the logs moving, I really believe we're all right."
But shortly the water began to rise again, this time fairly by leaps. In immediate response the jam increased its pressure. For the hundredth time the frail wooden defences opposed to millions of pounds were tested to the very extreme of their endurance. The clumps of piles sagged outward; the network of chains and cables tightened and tightened again, drawing ever nearer the snapping point. Suddenly, almost without warning, the situation had become desperate.
And for the first time Orde completely lost his poise and became fluently profane. He shook his fist against the menacing logs; he apostrophised the river, the high water, the jam, the deserters, Newmark and his illness, ending finally in a general anathema against any and all streams, logs, and floods. Then he stormed away to see if anything had gone wrong at the dredged channel.
"Well," said Tom North, "they've got the old man real good and mad this time."
The crew went on driving piles, stringing cables, binding chains, although, now that the inspiration of Orde's combative spirit was withdrawn the labours seemed useless, futile, a mere filling in of the time before the supreme moment when they would be called upon to pay the sacrifice their persistence and loyalty had proffered for the altar of self-respect and the invincibility of the human Soul.
At the dredged channel Orde saw the rivermen standing idle, and, half-blind with anger he burst upon them demanding by this, that and the other what they meant. Then be stopped short and stared.
Square across the dredged channel and completely blocking it lay a single span of an iron bridge. Although twisted and misshapen, it was still intact, the framework of its overhead truss-work retaining its cage-like shape. Behind it the logs had of course piled up in a jam, which, sinking rapidly to the bed of the channel, had dammed back the water.
"Where in hell did that drop from?" cried Orde.
"Come down on top the jam," explained a riverman. "Must have come way from Redding. We just couldn't scare her out of here."
Orde, suddenly fallen into a cold rage, stared at the obstruction, both fists clenched at his side.
"Too bad, boy," said Welton at his elbow. "But don't take it too hard. You've done more than any of the rest of us could. And we're all losers together."
Orde looked at him strangely.
"That about settles it," repeated Welton.
"Settle!" cried Orde. "I should think not."
Welton smiled quaintly.
"Don't you know when you're licked?"
"Licked, hell!" said Orde. "We've just begun to fight."
"What can you do?"
"Get that bridge span out of there, of course."
"Can't we blow her up with powder?"
"Ever try to blow up iron?"
"There must be some way."
"Oh, there is," replied Welton. "Of course--take her apart bolt by bolt and nut by nut."
"Send for the wrenches, then," snapped Orde.
"But it would take two or three days, even working night and day."
"What of it?"
"But it would be too late--it would do no good--"
"Perhaps not," interrupted Orde; "but it will be doing something, anyway. Look here, Welton, are you game? If you'll get that bridge out in two days I'll hold the jam."
"You can't hold that jam two hours, let alone two days," said Welton decidedly.
"That's my business. You're wasting time. Will you send for lanterns and wrenches and keep this crew working?"
"I will," said Welton.
"Then do it."
During the next two days the old scenes were all relived, with back of them the weight of the struggle that had gone before. The little crew worked as though mad. Excepting them, no one ventured on the river, for to be caught in the imminent break meant to die. Old spars, refuse timbers of all sorts--anything and everything was requisitioned that might help form an obstruction above or below water. Piles were taken where they could be found. Farmer's trees were cut down. Pines belonging to divers and protesting owners were felled and sharpened. Some were brought in by rail. Even the inviolate Government supply was commandeered. The Railroad Company had a fine lot which, with remarkable shortsightedness and lack of public spirit, they refused to sell at any price. The crew took them by force. Once Captain Marsh was found up to his waist in water, himself felling the trees of a wood, and dragging them to the river by a cable attached to the winch of his tug. Night followed day; and day night again. None of the crews realised the fact. The men were caught in the toils of a labour ceaseless and eternal. Never would it end, just as never had it begun. Always were they to handle piles, steam hammers and the implements of their trade, menaced by a jam on the point of breaking, wet by a swollen and angry flood, over-arched by a clear calm sky or by the twinkling peaceful stars. Long since had they ceased to reckon with the results of what they did, the consequences either to themselves or to the jam. Mechanically they performed their labour. Perhaps the logs would kill them. Perhaps these long, black, dripping piles they drove were having some effect on the situation. Neither possibility mattered.
Then all at once, as though a faucet had been turned off, the floods slackened.
"They've opened the channel," said Orde dully. His voice sounded to himself very far away. Suddenly the external world, too, seemed removed to a distance, far from his centre of consciousness. He felt himself moving in strange and distorted surroundings; he heard himself repeating to each of a number of wavering, gigantic figures the talismanic words that had accomplished the dissolution of the earth for himself: "They've opened the channel." At last he felt hard planks beneath his feet, and, shaking his head with an effort, he made out the pilot-house of the Sprite and a hollow-eyed man leaning against it. "They've opened the channel, Marsh," he repeated. "I guess that'll be all." Then quite slowly he sank to the deck, sound asleep.
Welton, returning from his labours with the iron bridge and the jam, found them thus. Men slept on the deck of the tug, aboard the pile- driver. Two or three had even curled up in the crevices of the jam, resting in the arms of the monster they had subdued.