The Boss of Wind River/Chapter 13

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AT MAGUIRE'S STATION Joe disembarked from the crawling, snow-smothered train, consisting of engine, baggage car, and day coach. The platform was covered with boxes, sacks, and bundles; and men were piling them on bobsleighs. These were shanty boys from the Wind River camp.

Haggarty, one eye blackened and almost closed, growled a hearty welcome to the young boss. The latter, looking around, observed other marks of combat. He asked the cause.

“It was like this, Mr. Kent,” Haggarty replied. “The camp was burnt at noon. Half a dozen men wid flour sacks over their heads ran in on the cook, the cookee bein' out on the job. They took him out an' fired the camp. Then they tied him, covered him wid blankets so he wouldn't freeze, an' lit out. The cookee come back an' found him, an' brought us word. MacNutt an' what men he could hold hit for camp to see what could be done, but the rest of us was too mad, an' we boiled across to do up McCane's crew. It was a good fight, but they was too many for us.” He swore with deep feeling. “Just wait. The woods ain't big enough to hold us both after this.”

“Are all the men at camp now?”

“All but what's down wid the teams. There was tents an' stoves went up yesterday. Before that she was a cold rig for sleepin' and eatin'. Now it's better.”

On the long sleigh drive Joe got details, but the main facts were as stated by Haggarty. None of the incendiaries had been recognized, but nobody doubted that they were of Rough Shan's crew.

Joe found a dozen tents pitched around the clearing, well banked with snow and floored with boughs. New buildings were going up as fast as the logs could be hauled out of the woods and laid in place. The work of logging was temporarily suspended. MacNutt, grim and in a poisonous temper, drove the willing crew from streak of dawn till fall of dark.

“You'll blame me, like enough,” said he. “I blame myself. I've seen the like before, and I knew McCane, curse him! If you say so I'm ready to quit, but I'll get even with him for this.”

“I don't blame you a bit,” Joe told him. “It can't be helped. We must get the camp and the cutting going on again, and then we'll square up with McCane when we have time.”

As the buildings neared completion new men began to arrive—strapping, aggressive-eyed fellows who viewed each other and the Wind River men very much after the manner of strange mastiffs. These were draughts from Tobin's and Deever's camps—the “hardest” men from each, picked by the foremen by Joe's instructions and sent on to him. In return, Joe instructed some of his original crew to report to Deever and Tobin. Thus he found himself with a crew of “bully-boys” who feared nothing on earth and were simply spoiling for a fight.

In the completed bunk-house a huge, bearded, riverman leaped high, cracked his heels together and whooped.

“Is it Rough Shan McCane?” he yelled as he hit the floor. “Is it him wid his raft of Callahans an' Red McDougals an' scrapin's of hell wud burn a Kent camp?” His blasphemy was original and unreproducible. “By the Mortal! The moon's high, an' the travellin's good. Come on, bullies, we'll burn them out of their bunks this night!”

The yell that arose reached the ears of Joe and MacNutt. The foreman looked at his employer.

“What's up?” the latter asked.

“If you want McCane's camp burnt and his gang run out of the woods all you have to do is to sit here and smoke your pipe,” MacNutt replied.

Joe seized his cap and opened the door just as the crew began to pour out of the bunk-house hastily pulling on garments as they came. He dashed across the open space and met the leaders.

“What's the excitement, boys?” he asked.

“We're going to burn out Rough Shan for you,” answered the big riverman.

“Oh, you are!” said Joe. “Well, Cooley, I don't remember asking you to do anything of the kind.”

“Sure, you don't need to ask it, Mr. Kent,” returned big Cooley with what he intended for an amiable, protective smile. “The boys will see to it for you.” A yell of fierce affirmation arose behind him. “You go to bed an' know nawthin' about it.”

“Are you giving me orders, Cooley?” Joe demanded in biting tones. “Let me tell you this,” he cried. “Not a man goes out to-night. When I want McCane's camp burnt I'll tell you. Yes, and I'll set fire to it myself. That's the kind of fellow I am. I won't hide behind you boys. Now get back, every man of you!”

They hesitated and murmured. Those behind pushed forward. The young man was showing unsuspected qualities. Joe stepped up close.

“Do you men think I'll let you run this camp?” he demanded. “You're here to cut logs when I tell you and not to fight till I tell you. Get it through you now and get it clear that I'm Boss. Boss, do you understand? BOSS! What I say goes, day or night.” He drew a furrow in the snow with his moccasin. “The man who crosses that line gets his time. If you all cross you all get it. If half of you cross you all get it, and I'll shut down this camp. That's what Clancy and McCane are trying to make me do. If you want to help them and smash me—cross the line!”

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His voice rang clear as a trumpet in the frozen stillness. By accident, almost, he had chosen the right course. Pleadings alone would have been in vain; orders alone would have been useless; the placing of this responsibility upon the men turned the scale.

“Aw, now, Mr. Kent,” said big Cooley coaxingly, “what harm to put the run on them high-bankers and burn their dirty camp?”

Joe eyed him coldly. “I won't argue,” he said. “There's the line. Cross it to-night or try to scrap with McCane's crew before I tell you to, and I'll shut down. I mean it, boys. Goodnight.”

He turned and walked to the foreman's quarters without looking back. Behind him the men stood huddled foolishly. Then, one by one, they straggled back to the bunk-house. From that moment Joe Kent stood with his crew on his own feet. He was boss.

The following night, when he came in with the crew from the woods, he was served with an injunction restraining him, his servants, agents, or workmen, from entering upon the limits of Clancy Brothers, or injuring or interfering with their property or employees.

“Wouldn't that jar a brick wall?” he commented to MacNutt. “They burn our camp and get an injunction against us. I half wish I had let the boys go over last night. Now, I suppose it would be contempt of court to cross their line.”

“Don't let that worry you,” said the foreman grimly. “Orders of court is a poor rig in the woods. All you've got to do is to give me and the boys our time and hire us again when we've cleaned 'em out.”

But this beautifully simple evasion of the law did not appeal to Joe. He wanted logs, and had no time to waste in satisfying his grudges. The weather, which had been ideal for logging, changed and choking snows fell. The road had to be ploughed out time after time. The hauling was heavy and slow. Then came a great thaw. The horses balled and stumbled and caulked themselves. The huge sleighs made pitch-holes in the road. Altogether it was discouraging. Finally the wind switched into the north and the weather hardened. The mercury dropped to zero at night and rose to twenty at noon. The road became icy and the runners slid easily in the ruts. Once more the teamsters took full loads and the choked skidways found relief.

The men, denied the innocent recreation of burning out the other camp, worked with vim. The word went around that Kent needed the logs—needed them, in fact, badly. That was enough. Haggarty, Regan, big Cooley, and half a dozen others set the pace, and the rest of the crew kept up to it. They were at work by the first light, and only darkness forced a halt. The nooning was cut short voluntarily, the men contenting themselves with a few whiffs of tobacco and resuming work without a word from MacNutt.

Joe felt the change. There was a subtle difference in the ring of the axes and the vibration of the saws. They sang a faster song and held a truer note. As he went over the work from man to man with a joke or a pleasant word—criticisms, instructions, and suggestions he still wisely left to MacNutt—he was met by cheerful grins. These rough, virile men of the woods and the river recognized a kinship with the young boss; they felt in him their own fearlessness and willingness to take a chance, and a strength of purpose and of character unmarred by their vices.

Since the rebuilding of the camp they had seen little of McCane's crew. Curses and threats had been exchanged between individuals across the deadline, but on the whole Peace brooded dove-like and triumphant, as it is accustomed to brood above armed states, and the manner of its sudden, startled flight was thus:

Joe and MacNutt, going through a slashing at the farthest corner of the limit which they had reached in the cutting, inadvertently trespassed upon Clancys'; thereby becoming technically guilty of contempt of court. As they ploughed through the deep snow two men came into view from behind the fallen tops. One of these was Rough Shan; the other, to Joe's astonishment, proved to be Finn Clancy.

The two advanced. Joe and MacNutt stopped. Clancy opened the ball with an explosion of profanity.

“Are ye lookin' for more logs to steal?” he observed in conclusion. “Keep to yer own limit, ye young thief, or I'll break yer neck!”

“You've reached your limit!” said Joe through his teeth, and put his whole weight behind his left fist.

Clancy went back in the snow as if he had been hit by an axe. MacNutt, like a dog unleashed, went for McCane. The latter, nothing loath, met him half-way. Clancy staggered up out of the snow spitting blood and broken dentistry, and charged Joe like a bull moose, roaring inarticulate invective. Joe smashed him right and left, took a counter in the face that made his brain swim, was caught in the big man's arms and fought himself free by straight, hard body punches. Two of McCane's men ran into the slashing. At sight of the fight they raised a yell and charged.

This yell reached the ears of Kent's teamster, little Narcisse Laviolette, bending to clutch the butt of a log with a swamp-hook. He straightened himself at the sound.

“Bagosh, some feller mak' de beeg row!” he muttered. “I see heem dat boss an' MacNutt pass heemself dat way. Mo' Gee! mebbe dey ron into plaintee troub'.” He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Ya-hoo-ee! Ya-hoo-ee!” he shouted in a far-carrying cry. Leaving his team to their own devices he turned and ran, shouting at every step.

The buoyant cry went echoing through the forest. It spelt trouble. Man after man left saw in the cut and axe in the limb and ran toward it.

Laviolette bounded into the slashing. In the middle were half a dozen men, fighting fiercely. On the other side, the woods poured forth a yelling crew. Laviolette did not hesitate. He hurled himself through the snow in great leaps, and plunged into the thick of the fray. His heavy “snag-proof” gum boot crashed into one man's face with all the power of his leg-muscles behind it. He sprang on the back of another and bore him to the ground, gripping one ear and tearing it half away from the head, for little Laviolette was a dirty fighter. Then he was kicked in the throat and stamped into the snow.

Clancy was getting the worst of it from Joe, and MacNutt was holding his own with Rough Shan. The first newcomers turned the scale. Laviolette almost evened it again. Then all were swamped by the rush of McCane's crew. Kent and MacNutt went down fighting gamely, and were kicked and hammered until the world swam before their outraged senses.

At this stage of the combat Kent's crew caught sight of the enemy. The roar that went up from them was heard even at the rollways. They charged home. A wave of fighting shantymen surged over Joe, and he raised himself and staggered up as he had often done from the bottom of a scrimmage. Big Cooley raged in the van of the fight, spouting blasphemies and swinging his enormous fists right and left. Beside him Haggarty and Regan found vent for their hatred of the other camp. The fight spread out into a number of single combats, and it was then that Kent's picked fighters proved their quality. Man after man of McCane's gang had enough, quit, and ran. The rout became general.

“Burn them out!” was the cry.

Joe turned to MacNutt, who stood beside him gasping for breath and swaying. “Shall I stop them?” he said.

“Stop nothing!” said the foreman. “If I get there in time I'll touch her off myself!”

He ran twenty yards and fell in the snow. For the first time in his life he had fainted. Joe caught Laviolette darting past and held him.

“Get a sleigh and haul him into camp,” he ordered. Laviolette, mad with excitement, tried to break away. Joe gripped the teamster by the throat and shook him violently, despite a grinding pain in his side which made the forest swim. “Do you hear me, damn you?” he thundered. “A sleigh, I say, or——” His fingers tightened.

“Sure, sure,” croaked the teamster. “Oui, m'sieu! Mo' Gee, I choke!”

Joe released him and bent over MacNutt. Suddenly the world grew black and he pitched down head foremost beside his foreman. Thus neither of them saw the finish of McCane's camp.

The gang roared through the woods and stormed the camp like demons. McCane's cook, game enough, grabbed an axe. Instantly an iron pot, thrown with full force, sailed through the air and broke his right arm. The cookee emerged from the bunk-house with a gun in his hand and found himself face to face with Cooley. He levelled the weapon. The big riverman grinned at him.

“Put it down an' ye won't be hurted,” he said. “Shoot, an' the boys will burn ye alive.”

There was no mistaking the temper of the gang, and the cookee wisely did as he was told. The men raided the van and broached a barrel of kerosene oil. They threw the contents by the pailful inside the buildings.

“Here she goes to hell!” shouted big Cooley as he struck a match.

The light blue flames ran up the oil-soaked wood and took hold. It began to crackle and then to roar. Outside, Kent's crew danced with glee. Some one found a keg of whiskey. Regan smashed in one end and upset the contents on the snow.

“No booze,” said he. “This is no work to get drunk at.”

From a neighbouring knoll most of McCane's crew looked on with curses loud and deep, but they had no collective stomach for further warfare just then. When nothing but charred end-logs and glowing coals remained, Kent's men tramped off through the deep snows shouting gibes and taunts at their enemies. Their vengeance had been ample and satisfying.