The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
During the thirty-three days of the drive, Newmark, to the surprise of everybody, stayed with the work. Some of these days were very disagreeable. April rains are cold and persistent--the proverbs as to showers were made for another latitude. Drenched garments are bad enough when a man is moving about and has daylight; but when night falls, and the work is over, he likes a dry place and a change with which to comfort himself. Dry places there were none. Even the interior of the tents became sodden by continual exits and entrances of dripping men, while dry garments speedily dampened in the shiftings of camp which, in the broader reaches of the lower river, took place nearly every day. Men worked in soaked garments, slept in damp blankets. Charlie cooked only by virtue of persistence. The rivermen ate standing up, as close to the sputtering, roaring fires as they could get. Always the work went forward.
But there were other times when a golden sun rose each morning a little earlier on a green and joyous world. The river ran blue. Migratory birds fled busily northward--robins, flute-voiced blue- birds, warblers of many species, sparrows of different kinds, shore birds and ducks, the sweet-songed thrushes. Little tepid breezes wandered up and down, warm in contrast to the faint snow-chill that even yet lingered in the shadows. Sounds carried clearly, so that the shouts and banter of the rivermen were plainly audible up the reaches of the river. Ashore moist and aggressive green things were pushing up through the watery earth from which, in shade, the last frost had not yet departed. At camp the fires roared invitingly. Charlie's grub was hot and grateful. The fir beds gave dreamless sleep.
Newmark followed the work of the log-drive with great interest. All day long he tramped back and forth--on jam one day, on rear the next. He never said much, but watched keenly, and listened to the men's banter both on the work and about the evening's fire as though he enjoyed it. Gradually the men got used to him, and ceased to treat him as an outsider. His thin, eager face, his steel-blue, inquiring eyes behind the glasses, his gray felt hat, his lank, tense figure in its gray, became a familiar feature. They threw remarks to him, to which he replied briefly and drily. When anything interesting was going on, somebody told him about it. Then he hurried to the spot, no matter how distant it might be. He used always the river trail; he never attempted to ride the logs.
He seemed to depend most on observation, for he rarely asked any questions. What few queries he had to proffer, he made to Orde himself, waiting sometimes until evening to interview that busy and good-natured individual. Then his questions were direct and to the point. They related generally to the advisability of something he had seen done; only rarely did they ask for explanation of the work itself. That Newmark seemed capable of puzzling out for himself.
The drive, as has been said, went down as far as Redding in thirty- three days. It had its share of tribulation. The men worked fourteen and sixteen hours at times. Several bad jams relieved the monotony. Three dams had to be sluiced through. Problems of mechanics arose to be solved on the spot; problems that an older civilisation would have attacked deliberately and with due respect for the seriousness of the situation and the dignity of engineering. Orde solved them by a rough-and-ready but very effective rule of thumb. He built and abandoned structures which would have furnished opportunity for a winter's discussion to some committees; just as, earlier in the work, the loggers had built through a rough country some hundreds of miles of road better than railroad grade, solid in foundation, and smooth as a turnpike, the quarter of which would have occupied the average county board of supervisors for five years. And while he was at it, Orde kept his men busy and satisfied. Your white-water birler is not an easy citizen to handle. Yet never once did the boss appear hurried or flustered. Always he wandered about, his hands in his pockets, chewing a twig, his round, wind-reddened face puckered humorously, his blue eyes twinkling, his square, burly form lazily relaxed. He seemed to meet his men almost solely on the plane of good-natured chaffing. Yet the work was done, and done efficiently, and Orde was the man responsible.
The drive of which Orde had charge was to be delivered at the booms of Morrison and Daly, a mile or so above the city of Redding. Redding was a thriving place of about thirty thousand inhabitants, situated on a long rapids some forty miles from Lake Michigan. The water-power developed from the rapids explained Redding's existence. Most of the logs floated down the river were carried through to the village at the lake coast, where, strung up the river for eight or ten miles, stood a dozen or so big saw-mills, with concomitant booms, yards, and wharves. Morrison and Daly, however, had built a saw and planing mill at Redding, where they supplied most of the local trade and that of the surrounding country-side.
The drive, then, was due to break up as soon as the logs should be safely impounded.
The last camp was made some six or eight miles above the mill. From that point a good proportion of the rivermen, eager for a taste of the town, tramped away down the road, to return early in the morning, more or less drunk, but faithful to their job. One or two did not return.
Among the revellers was the cook, Charlie, commonly called The Doctor. The rivermen early worked off the effects of their rather wild spree, and turned up at noon chipper as larks. Not so the cook. He moped about disconsolately all day; and in the evening, after his work had been finished, he looked so much like a chicken with the pip that Orde's attention was attracted.
"Got that dark-brown taste, Charlie?" he inquired with mock solicitude.
The cook mournfully shook his head.
"Large head? Let's feel your pulse. Stick out your tongue, sonny."
"I ain't been drinking, I tell you!" growled Charlie.
"Drinking!" expostulated Orde, horrified. "Of course not! I hope none of MY boys ever take a drink! But that lemon-pop didn't agree with your stomach--now did it, Charlie?"
"I tell you I only had two glasses of beer!" cried Charlie, goaded, "and I can prove it by Johnny Challan."
Orde turned to survey the pink-cheeked, embarrassed young boy thus designated.
"How many glasses did Johnny Challan have?" he inquired.
"He didn't drink none to speak of," spoke up the boy.
"Then why this joyless demeanour?" begged Orde.
Charlie grumbled, fiercely inarticulate; but Johnny Challan interposed with a chuckle of enjoyment.
"He got 'bunked.'"
"Tell us!" cried Orde delightedly.
"It was down at McNeill's place," explained Johnny Challan; encouraged by the interest of his audience. "They was a couple of sports there who throwed out three cards on the table and bet you couldn't pick the jack. They showed you where the jack was before they throwed, and it surely looked like a picnic, but it wasn't."
"Three-card monte," said Newmark.
"How much?" asked Simms.
"About fifty dollars," replied the boy.
Orde turned on the disgruntled cook.
"And you had fifty in your turkey, camping with this outfit of hard citizens!" he cried. "You ought to lose it."
Johnny Challan was explaining to his companions exactly how the game was played.
"It's a case of keep your eye on the card, I should think," said big Tim Nolan. "If you got a quick enough eye to see him flip the card around, you ought to be able to pick her."
"That's what this sport said," agreed Challan. "'Your eye agin my hand,' says he."
"Well, I'd like to take a try at her," mused Tim.
But at this point Newmark broke into the discussion. "Have you a pack of cards?" he asked in his dry, incisive manner.
Somebody rummaged in a turkey and produced the remains of an old deck.
"I don't believe this is a full deck," said he, "and I think they's part of two decks in it."
"I only want three," assured Newmark, reaching his hand for the pack.
The men crowded around close, those in front squatting, those behind looking over their shoulders.
Newmark cleared a cracker-box of drying socks and drew it to him.
"These three are the cards," he said, speaking rapidly. "There is the jack of hearts. I pass my hands--so. Pick the jack, one of you," he challenged, leaning back from the cracker-box on which lay the three cards, back up. "Any of you," he urged. "You, North."
Thus directly singled out, the foreman leaned forward and rather hesitatingly laid a blunt forefinger on one of the bits of pasteboard.
Without a word, Newmark turned it over. It was the ten of spades.
"Let me try," interposed Tim Nolan, pressing his big shoulders forward. "I bet I know which it was that time; and I bet I can pick her next time."
"Oh, yes, you bet!" shrugged Newmark. "And that's where the card- sharps get you fellows every time. Well, pick it," said he, again deftly flipping the cards.
Nolan, who had watched keenly, indicated one without hesitation. Again it proved to be the ten of spades.
"Anybody else ambitious?" inquired Newmark. Everybody was ambitious; and the young man, with inexhaustible patience, threw out the cards, the corners of his mouth twitching sardonically at each wrong guess.
At length he called a halt.
"By this time I'd have had all your money," he pointed out. "Now, I'll pick the jack."
For the last time he made his swift passes and distributed the cards. Then quite calmly, without disturbing the three on the cracker-box, he held before their eyes the jack of hearts.
An exclamation broke from the interested group. Tim Nolan, who was the nearest, leaned forward and turned over the three on the board. They were the eight of diamonds and two tens of spades.
"That's how the thing is worked nine times out of ten," announced Newmark. "Once in a while you'll run against a straight game, but not often."
"But you showed us the jack every time before you throwed them!" puzzled Johnny Simms.
"Sleight of hand," explained Newmark. "The simplest kind of palming."
"Well, Charlie," said big Tim, "looks to me as if you had just about as much chance as a snowball in hell."
"Where'd you get onto doing all that, Newmark?" inquired North. "You ain't a tin horn yourself?"
Newmark laughed briefly. "Not I," said he. "I learned a lot of those tricks from a travelling magician in college."
During this demonstration Orde had sat well in the background, his chin propped on his hand, watching intently all that was going on. After the comment and exclamations following the exposure of the method had subsided, he spoke.
"Boys," said he, "how game are you to get Charlie's money back--and then some?"
"Try us," returned big Tim.
"This game's at McNeill's, and McNeill's is a tough hole," warned Orde. "Maybe everything will go peaceful, and maybe not. And you boys that go with me have got to keep sober. There isn't going to be any row unless I say so, and I'm not taking any contract to handle a lot of drunken river-hogs as well as go against a game."
"All right," agreed Nolan, "I'm with you."
The thirty or so men of the rear crew then in camp signified their intention to stay by the procession.
"You can't make those sharps disgorge," counselled Newmark. "At the first look of trouble they will light out. They have it all fixed. Force won't do you much good--and may get some of you shot."
"I'm not going to use force," denied Orde. "I'm just going to play their game. But I bet I can make it go. Only I sort of want the moral support of the boys."
"I tell you, you can't win!" cried Newmark disgustedly. "It's a brace game pure and simple."
"I don't know about it's being pure," replied Orde drolly, "but it's simple enough, if you know how to make the wheels go 'round. How is it, boys--will you back my play?"
And such was their confidence that, in face of Newmark's demonstration, they said they would.