The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Charlie's wanigan, in case you do not happen to know what such a thing may be, was a scow about twenty feet long by ten wide. It was very solidly constructed of hewn timbers, square at both ends, was inconceivably clumsy, and weighed an unbelievable number of pounds. When loaded, it carried all the bed-rolls, tents, provisions, cooking utensils, tools, and a chest of tobacco, clothes, and other minor supplies. It was managed by Charlie and his two cookees by means of pike-poles and a long sweep at either end. The pike-poles assured progress when the current slacked; the sweeps kept her head- on when drifting with the stream.
Charlie's temperament was pessimistic at best. When the wanigan was to be moved, he rose fairly to the heights of what might be called destructive prophecy.
The packing began before the men had finished breakfast. Shortly after daylight the wanigan, pushed strongly from shore by the pike- poles, was drifting toward the chute. When the heavy scow threatened to turn side-on, the sweeps at either end churned the water frantically in an endeavour to straighten her out. Sometimes, by a misunderstanding, they worked against each other. Then Charlie, raging from one to the other of his satellites, frothed and roared commands and vituperations. His voice rose to a shriek. The cookees, bewildered by so much violence, lost their heads completely. Then Charlie abruptly fell to an exaggerated calm. He sat down amidships on a pile of bags, and gazed with ostentatious indifference out over the pond. Finally, in a voice fallen almost to a whisper, and with an elaborate politeness, Charlie proffered a request that his assistants acquire the sense God gave a rooster. Newmark, who had elected to accompany the wanigan on its voyage, evidently found it vastly amusing, for his eyes twinkled behind his glasses. As the wanigan neared the sluice through which it must shoot the flood-water, the excitement mounted to fever pitch. The water boiled under the strokes of the long steering oars. The air swirled with the multitude and vigour of Charlie's commands. As many of the driving crew as were within distance gathered to watch. It was a supreme moment. As Newmark looked at the smooth rim of the water sucking into the chute, he began to wonder why he had come.
However, the noble ship was pointed right at last, and caught the faster water head-on. Even Charlie managed to look cheerful for an instant, and to grin at his passenger as he wiped his forehead with a very old, red handkerchief.
"All right now," he shouted.
Zeke and his mate took in the oars. The wanigan shot forward below the gate--
Whack! Bump! Bang! and the scow stopped so suddenly that its four men plunged forward in a miscellaneous heap, while Zeke narrowly escaped going overboard. Almost immediately the water, backed up behind the stern, began to overflow into the boat. Newmark, clearing his vision as well as he could for lack of his glasses, saw that the scow had evidently run her bow on an obstruction, and had been brought to a standstill square beneath the sluice-gate. Men seemed to be running toward them. The water was beginning to flow the entire length of the boat. Various lighter articles shot past him and disappeared over the side. Charlie had gone crazy and was grabbing at these, quite uselessly, for as fast as he had caught one thing he let it go in favour of another. The cookees, retaining some small degree of coolness, were pushing uselessly with pike- poles.
Newmark had an inspiration. The more important matters, such as the men's clothes-bags, the rolls of bedding, and the heavier supplies of provisions, had not yet cut loose from their moorings, although the rapid backing of the water threatened soon to convert the wanigan into a chute for nearly the full volume of the current. He seized one of the long oars, thrust the blade under the edge of a thwart astern laid the shaft of the oar across the cargo, and by resting his weight on the handle attempted to bring it down to bind the contents of the wanigan to their places. The cookees saw what he was about, and came to his assistance. Together they succeeded in bending the long hickory sweep far enough to catch its handle-end under another, forward, thwart. The second oar was quickly locked alongside the first, and not a moment too soon. A rush of water forced them all to cling for their lives. The poor old wanigan was almost buried by the river.
But now help was at hand. Two or three rivermen appeared at the edge of the chute. A moment later old man Reed ran up, carrying a rope. This, after some difficulty, was made fast to the bow of the wanigan. A dozen men ran with the end of it to a position of vantage from which they might be able to pull the bow away from the sunken obstruction, but Orde, appearing above, called a halt. After consultation with Reed, another rope was brought and the end of it tossed down to the shipwrecked crew. Orde pointed to the stern of the boat, revolving his hands in pantomime to show that the wanigan would be apt to upset if allowed to get side-on when freed. A short rope led to the top of the dam allowed the bow to be lifted free of the obstruction; a cable astern prevented the current from throwing her broadside to the rush of waters; another cable from the bow led her in the way she should go. Ten minutes later she was pulled ashore out of the eddy below, very much water-logged, and manned by a drenched and disgruntled crew.
But Orde allowed them little chance for lamentation.
"Hard luck!" he said briefly. "Hope you haven't lost much. Now get a move on you and bail out. You've got to get over the shallows while this head is on."
"That's all the thanks you get," grumbled Charlie to himself and the other three as Orde moved away. "Work, slave, get up in the night, drownd yourself--"
He happily discovered that the pails under the forward thwart had not been carried away, and all started in to bail. It was a back- breaking job, and consumed the greater part of two hours. Even at the end of that time the wanigan, though dry of loose water, floated but sluggishly.
"'Bout two ton of water in them bed-rolls and turkeys," grumbled Charlie. "Well, get at it!"
Newmark soon discovered that the progress of the wanigan was looked upon in the light of a side-show by the rivermen. Its appearance was signal for shouts of delighted and ironic encouragement; its tribulations--which at first, in the white-water, were many--the occasion for unsympathetic and unholy joy. Charlie looked on all spectators as enemies. Part of the time he merely glowered. Part of the time he tried to reply in kind. To his intense disgust, he was taken seriously in neither case.
In a couple of hours' run the wanigan had overtaken and left far behind the rear of the drive. All about floated the logs, caroming gently one against the other, shifting and changing the pattern of their brown against the blue of the water. The current flowed strongly and smoothly, but without obstruction. Everything went well. The banks slipped by silently and mysteriously, like the unrolling of a panorama--little strips of marshland, stretches of woodland where the great trees leaned out over the river, thickets of overflowed swampland with the water rising and draining among roots in a strange regularity of its own. The sun shone warm. There was no wind. Newmark wrung out his outer garments, and basked below the gunwale. Zeke and his companion pulled spasmodically on the sweeps. Charlie, having regained his equanimity together with his old brown derby, which he came upon floating sodden in an eddy, marched up and down the broad gunwale with his pike-pole, thrusting away such logs as threatened interference.
"Well," said he at last, "we better make camp. We'll be down in the jam pretty soon."
The cookees abandoned the sweeps in favour of more pike-poles. By pushing and pulling on the logs floating about them, they managed to work the wanigan in close to the bank.
Charlie, a coil of rope in his hand, surveyed the prospects.
"We'll stop right down there by that little knoll," he announced.
He leaped ashore, made a turn around a tree, and braced himself to snub the boat, but unfortunately he had not taken into consideration the "two ton" of water soaked up by the cargo. The weight of the craft relentlessly dragged him forward. In vain he braced and struggled. The end of the rope came to the tree; he clung for a moment, then let go, and ran around the tree to catch it before it should slip into the water.
By this time the wanigan had caught the stronger current at the bend and was gathering momentum. Charlie tried to snub at a sapling, and broke the sapling; on a stub, and uprooted the stub. Down the banks and through the brush he tore at the end of his rope, clinging desperately, trying at every solid tree to stop the career of his runaway, but in every instance being forced by the danger of jamming his hands to let go. Again he lost his derby. The landscape was a blur. Dimly he made out the howls of laughter as the outfit passed a group of rivermen. Then abruptly a ravine yawned before him, and he let go just in time to save himself a fall. The wanigan, trailing her rope, drifted away.
Nor did she stop until she had overtaken the jam. There, her momentum reduced by the closer crowding of the logs, she slowed down enough so that Newmark and the cookees managed to work her to the bank and make her fast.
That evening, after the wanigan's crew had accomplished a hard afternoon's work pitching camp and drying blankets, the first of the rear drifted in very late after a vain search for camp farther up stream.
"For God's sake, Charlie," growled one, "it's a wonder you wouldn't run through to Redding and be done with it."
Whereupon Charlie, who had been preternaturally calm all the afternoon, uttered a shriek of rage, and with a carving-knife chased that man out into the brush. Nor would he be appeased to the point of getting supper until Orde himself had intervened.
"Well," said Orde to Newmark later, around the campfire, "how does river-driving strike you?"
"It is extremely interesting," replied Newmark.
"Like to join the wanigan crew permanently?"
"No, thanks," returned Newmark drily.
"Well, stay with us as long as you're having a good time," invited Orde heartily, but turning away from his rather uncommunicative visitor.
"Thank you," Newmark acknowledged this, "I believe I will."
"Well, Tommy," called Orde across the fire to North, "I reckon we've got to rustle some more supplies. That shipwreck of ours to-day mighty near cleaned us out of some things. Lucky Charlie held his head and locked in the bedding with those sweeps, or we'd have been strapped."
"I didn't do it," grumbled Charlie. "It was him."
"Oh!" Orde congratulated Newmark. "Good work! I'm tickled to death you belonged to that crew."
"That old mossback Reed was right on deck with his rope," remarked Johnny Simms. "That was pretty decent of him."
"Old skunk!" growled North. "He lost us two days with his damn nonsense. You let him off too easy, Jack."
"Oh, he's a poor old devil," replied Orde easily. "He means well enough. That's the way the Lord made him. He can't help how he's made."