The Boss of Wind River/Chapter 16

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XVI

MACNUTT suddenly struck his head a violent blow with his clenched fist and swore. He and Joe sat before the fire smoking a final pipe before turning in, and the gurgle of the water under the banks was music to their ears, for it meant that the logs were travelling free by night.

“What's the matter?” Joe asked, sleepily.

“I ought to be kicked!” cried the foreman in tones of bitter self-condemnation. “I'm a saphead. I got no more sense than a hen. McCane blew that dam on us. What's to hinder his blowing the other when he's finished sluicing his drive? He may be through now.”

“By heavens, Mac!” Joe ejaculated, appalled by the prospect. With the late season's start and the delays which had already occurred such an occurrence would be a calamity. “By heavens Mac, we can't let him get away with it again! We can't afford to take a chance. We've got to be sure he doesn't.”

MacNutt scowled at the fire, biting his pipe stem. “I can't think of but one way out,” said he. “We've got to put a guard on that dam, and if it comes to a case they must have the nerve to make good.”

“You mean——?”

“Just what I say. If any one starts monkeying with it they must stop him—with lead if they have to. Of course you'll be held responsible for such an order.”

Joe's mouth hardened. “Mac,” said he, “this is make or break with me. I've got to get these logs out. Pick one man and I'll go with him myself.”

“Don't do that,” MacNutt dissuaded. “The boys will look after it all right. You better keep out.”

“No, I'll go,” said Joe with determination. “You need every hand on the drive. I won't ask any man to do what I won't do myself. Pick your man and fetch him in here. We ought to start now.”

MacNutt arose and left the tent. In five minutes he returned with a little, brown-faced riverman, Dave Cottrell by name. Joe was surprised. He had expected the foreman to choose Cooley, Haggarty, or one of the noted “bully-boys.” Cottrell was an excellent riverman, active as a squirrel and ready to take any chances, but extremely quiet and self-effacing. He was never in a row, had no chums, and, apparently, no enemies. He minded his own business and avoided notice. Such speech as he essayed was brief and to the point.

“Now Dave,” said the foreman, “we think McCane may blow this dam on us. Mr. Kent is going down to see that it ain't done, and he wants a man with him. How about you? Of course this ain't what you were hired for.”

“That's all right,” said Cottrell.

“You understand,” said Joe, “that we're going to protect the dam at all costs. Can you shoot?”

“Some,” said Cottrell, and MacNutt chuckled to himself.

“Then get ready,” Joe ordered. “We'll start in half an hour.”

“C'rect,” said Cottrell, and departed to roll his blanket.

Blankets and food for two days were made into packs. The outfit owned two rifles, one belonging to Joe, the other to the foreman, who gave it to Cottrell. The little riverman tested the action, filled the magazine, and shouldered his pack.

“Now if you're ready we'll be goin',” said he.

Straightway he took the lead and the command. Joe found himself relegated to a subordinate position, compelled to follow one who seemed to possess the eyesight and easy movement of a nocturnal animal. The riverman had discarded his spiked boots and taken to moccasins. His gait was the bent-kneed amble of the confirmed woods-loafer. It was not pretty, and it looked slouchy and slow; but it carried him along at a tremendous rate. Now and then he paused and waited for the young boss, but made no comment. They left the river and took to the bush, following a course presumably known to Cottrell. They crossed swamps and wormed through alder swales, coming out again on pine and hardwood ridges. Joe was hopelessly lost and bewildered. He had no idea of the direction in which they were going.

“You're sure you're heading right?” he asked.

“Why, of course,” said Cottrell, surprised at the question.

About two o'clock in the morning he halted by a little creek.

“We better take a spell,” he said. “You ain't used to this, but the travellin' will be better from now on.”

Joe was glad to sit down. His legs ached, and he was torn by limbs and briers; but besides the purely physical fatigue was that which comes of travelling an unknown route without the faintest idea of how much of it you are covering. He stretched himself out with his back to a log. Cottrell built a fire and hung a little pail over it. When the water boiled he made tea, and they ate. Afterward they smoked. Warmed and weary, Joe began to nod.

“We better be gettin' on,” said Cottrell.

Once more they plunged into the forest, but it was more open and, as the riverman had foretold, the going was easier. Gradually the stars paled in the east, and a faint gray light succeeded. Then came the rosy streaks of dawn. Cottrell halted and held up his hand. Faint in the distance sounded the measured music of an axe.

“We're in time,” said Cottrell.

They came out on the river and on McCane's rear. Cottrell led the way back into the bush and when they emerged again it was at the dam. The dam pond was brown with logs, and they were being sluiced through in a great hurry. A crew of unkempt, tousled rivermen manned the booms and kept the sticks hustling. Rough Shan McCane stood on the boom by the water-gate directing operations, and his profane urgings came to them above the sound of the water. As they stood on the bank, rifles under their arms, one of the men caught sight of them and pointed. Immediately they became the nucleus of all eyes. McCane came ashore accompanied by half a dozen of his crew. He walked up to the new comers.

“What do yez want?” he demanded.

“When will you be sluiced through?” Joe asked.

“What business is that of yours?” growled the rough one.

“You know what business it is of mine,” Joe answered. “My drive's coming down. And I'll tell you something more, McCane, we're going to camp right here till it does. I warn you now——don't try to wreck this dam!”

“Wreck the dam, is it?” said McCane innocently. “For why should we wreck the dam?”

“I suppose you don't know that the one above went out and hung my drive for a week,” said Joe with sarcasm.

“Is that so?” said McCane with mock sympathy. “Well, well, ye do be in hard luck. What's the guns for? Deer is out o' season. Yon's a pretty-lookin' rifle, now. I'll bet it cost ye somethin'. Let me have a look at it.”

He stretched out his hand casually, and suddenly leaped. His hand fastened on the rifle barrel. Instantly Cottrell's weapon sprang to a level.

“Drop that, McCane!” snapped the little riverman. “You men keep back there, or I'll onhook her into you.”

Rough Shan looked into the ominous tube and slowly released his grip. “Don't ye get gay wid that gun!” he warned. “I could have ye jailed for pointin' it at me.”

The little man's bright eyes twinkled behind the sights. “If she went off as she's pointin' now you wouldn't know what happened,” he announced gravely.

Joe backed up alongside him. “We're not looking for trouble,” said he, “but the man who tries any funny business with that dam will get hurt. Go ahead with your sluicing, or my drive will be down on top of you.”

“Will it?” said McCane. “Then, let me tell ye this, young felly, it'll stop till I get through. I'll sluice when I please.” Behind him his men growled angrily. He shook his fist and roared, forth a flood of blasphemy.

To Joe's utter amazement it was answered by Cottrell. The little man's language was fairly blood-curdling. His words snapped and crackled with venom. Such a “cursing out” had never been heard along the Wind. Finally his voice cracked.

“Burn our camp, would ye?” he croaked hoarsely in conclusion. “Hang our drive, would ye? Blow a dam on us, an' think for to do it again! The man that takes a stick of powder near it will never draw his pay. See them birds!”

Fifty yards away two woodpeckers clung to the bark of a tree, hopping and tapping in search of the worms that were their food. Dave Cottrell's rifle swung to his shoulder. Two reports followed, spaced inappreciably by the jangle of the magazine action. Two mangled masses of bloody feathers fell from the tree. The little man regarded the unkempt crew with evil eyes.

“Lemme see one o' ye make a bad move!” he challenged, and there was death in his voice.

Not a man made a move, bad or otherwise. Cottrell chose a spot overlooking the packed logs and the sliding water of the sluiceway. There he sat down, rifle on knees, and smoked. He had apparently talked himself out, for he answered Joe's remarks with customary brevity.

In half an hour McCane quit sluicing. He and his crew came ashore and lit their pipes, lounging in the sun. The men from the rear came in and the whole camp rested. This continued all day. It was evident that McCane had a purpose in view. With the fall of night Joe and Cottrell moved down on the dam. The stars gave an intermittent light. The banks were deep in shadow, but objects could be made out on the river.

“You better lie down and get some sleep,” Dave advised his boss. “Then you can spell me later. They won't touch the dam till their logs is through, likely, but they may try to do us up.”

Joe rolled up in his blanket and presently slept. The fires of the camp died down. Save for the deep roar of rushing water the night was still.

About twelve o'clock three stones, thrown simultaneously, whizzed out of the darkness. Two missed Cottrell's head by a few inches; the third, thrown short, struck Joe's shoulder a glancing blow as he lay in his blanket.

As he woke with a startled cry Cottrell's rifle spat a rod of flame into the dark. The man fired three shots and paused. A stick cracked in the bushes. Instantly he fired twice more at the sound, and listened. The camp was astir. Men poured out cursing in three languages. Through the babel Cottrell tried to make out the sound of footsteps. Failing, he fired once more, on general principles.

“Stop it, Cottrell!” cried Joe. “We don't want to kill any one.”

“If one o' them rocks had hit my head it would have killed me,” snarled Cottrell. “I'll put the fear o' God in their rotten hearts!” He shoved in fresh cartridges savagely.

“I think you've put it there now,” Joe commented as the row subsided. “But don't shoot at their camp, or they'll start shooting back. They must have a gun in their outfit.”

Boom! The roar of a shotgun shattered the silence, and the shot pellets pattered against the logs and stones. Boom! the second barrel spoke.

“Damn scatter-gun!” said Cottrell with contempt, and fired one shot. The crowd stampeded for cover as the bullet whined a foot above their heads. “It's all right—I held high,” he explained. “It'd be just my darn luck to get one o' them little shots in the eye. Now they won't do no more shootin'.”

This prediction proved correct. The night passed without further incident. With daylight McCane's cook appeared and made up his fire. Later the crew crawled out of their dingy tents. A few washed at the river; but most made no attempt at a toilet. They sat on the ground and wolfed down their food. With the last mouthful they reached for tobacco.

“Red McDougals, Callahans, and Charbonneaus—a dirty bunch,” said Cottrell. The little man had sluiced himself with icy water from top to toe in the gray of the dawn, and was now frying slices of pork strung on green twigs above a small fire. “Some day the small pox will do a good job for 'em. Look at them scratch their backs against the rocks. Ugh!” His disgust was too deep for words. McCane emerged from his tent and Cottrell cursed him with venom.

“What have you got against the man?” asked Joe reaching for a slice of bread.

“He beat up a chum of mine once,” Cottrell replied, “a little feller about my size that had no chance agin him. I'll get him yet for that. I wish t' God he'd made a move yesterday, an' I'd 'a' blowed his head off!”

“Now, look here, Dave,” said Joe, “we're here to protect the dam, and that's all. I won't have any feud mixed up with it.”

“I ain't mixin' it,” said Cottrell. “I'm just prayin' he'll have the nerve to walk out to the sluice gate with a stick of powder in his hand or even a bulge in his shirt.”

But McCane and his crew lay around camp. Nobody went out on the booms or touched a log. The Kent drive would soon be running into their rear, and this meant confusion as well as delay. Joe finally left Cottrell on the dam and walked down to the camp.

“See here, McCane,” said he, “you've got to get your logs out of my way. You can't hang me up like this.”

McCane leered up at him insolently from where he lay stretched on the ground, resting comfortably against a log.

“Can't I? Not a log goes through till I'm good an' ready.”

“But you've got no right——” Joe began hotly, and paused as he saw the living sneer in the other's eyes. He realized that argument was worse than useless and went back to his position. There he awaited the coming of MacNutt and his own crew, wondering what had delayed them.

MacNutt had been delayed for a few hours by a small jam, but finally he ran into the logs of McCane's rear. He reached the dam at the head of a dozen indignant “bully-boys,” and he and Joe tackled McCane.

“You've got to move your logs,” Joe told him again.

“Not till I get ready,” McCane answered as before.

“You think you'll hang our drive, do you?” said MacNutt. “Well, you won't. You get your crew out on them booms at once and go to sluicing.”

McCane merely grinned.

“Get at it!” cried the foreman furiously, and took a step forward.

Rough Shan did not yield an inch.

“If you want a fight you can have it quick,” said he. “Me men have quit me. I can't pay their wages; I'm hung up meself.”

“That's a poor lie,” said MacNutt.

“Ask them,” returned McCane. “If ye will step out here I'll beat the face off of ye!”

MacNutt ignored the challenge and questioned the men. They backed up Rough Shan's statement surlily. Convinced that they were lying but unable to prove it, Joe and MacNutt held council. They had to get their logs through, and the only way to do it was to sluice McCane's first, and charge him with the time.

“A lot of good that will do,” said Joe. “He'll let us sluice them and then hang us up somewhere again.”

“Not if I can help it,” said MacNutt. “I think I can work a game on him. Act as if you were good and sore.”

They returned to Rough Shan.

“Your men say they won't work,” said Joe. “We'll do your sluicing for you, but you'll pay us for it.”

“Like hell I will,” said Rough Shan. “I'll sluice me own logs when I get a fresh crew.”

“You want to hang us up, do you?” cried Joe, finding no difficulty in simulating anger. “You can't do it. My men will pitch the whole bunch of you into the pond if I give them the word. I'll put your logs through. MacNutt, start the sluicing.”

“I warn ye to let my logs alone,” said Rough Shan. “I'll hold ye responsible for every stick that goes through the chute.”

“All right,” said Joe, and turned away.

The sluicing began at once. MacNutt issued private instructions to Cooley and Cottrell. They started upstream, where they were shortly joined by ten more. There they picked up a peakie, and laboriously portaged the heavy boat through the woods well out of sight of the dam, setting it in the water below. With another trip they brought augers, boom-chains and shackles, and a manilla rope. Embarking they ran downstream two miles.

At that point the river ran past the mouth of a backwater, an old channel, now an almost currentless little lake, reedy, with shores of floating bog and bottomed with ooze of unknown depth. The water ran into it sluggishly, and drained out half a mile below over muddy shallows. Logs once ensnared in this backwater could be taken out only at the cost of much time and labour.

The dozen, working at speed, constructed a boom of logs shackled end to end. This they strung slantwise across the stream. One end was moored to the lower side of the backwater's inlet; the other to the opposite bank upstream. Thus logs coming down were deflected to the backwater. Six men with pike poles manned the boom, walking to and fro on the precarious footing, shoving the logs, as they came down, toward the slough. The others saw them safe inside. Dave Cottrell sat in midstream in the peakie, a rifle across his knees, watching either bank.

The work proceeded merrily, for the rivermen enjoyed the trick. Late in the afternoon half a dozen of McCane's crew hove in sight. When they saw the boom and comprehended its meaning they ran forward to cut its moorings.

“You get back there!” yelled Cottrell, raising his rifle. As they paid no attention to him he fired. The bullet cut dirt at the toes of the foremost. “I'll drop one of ye next time,” Cottrell warned them, his eyes glued to the sights.

They halted and cursed him.

“When I count twenty I'm goin' to start shootin' the hats off of ye,” said Cottrell. “If I was on shore I could do it easy, an' hurt no one. Out here the water jiggles the boat, an' I may go high or low. One—two—three——

He began to count. At “ten” they gave back; at “fifteen” they were in full retreat.

McCane, when the news was brought to him, ran out on the booms, his face working with rage. Profanity spewed from his mouth in a steady stream.

“You'll bring every log out o' that backwater or I'll know why,” he thundered. “A dirty trick!”

“Dealin' with you we're dirty every time from now out, and you can tie to that,” MacNutt told him. “Every log in your drive is goin' into that backwater if she'll hold them. You'll get them out yourself, or train beavers to do it for you. You stinkin', lowdown Mick, you've been givin' us dirt all winter. Here's where we get square. Now get off o' these booms, or I'll bash in your head with a peavey. If I say 'sic 'em' to the boys you know what'll happen. You won't have camp nor crew nor nothin' in ten minutes, an' you'll spend the summer in a hospital, like enough. I'm sick of you! Get out!”

McCane's courage was beyond question, but the odds were against him. Twenty hardened fighters, every one of whom thirsted for a chance to trample on his face with caulked boots, crowded up behind MacNutt. His crew, rough and tough as they were, were outnumbered, and Kent's men were picked “bully-boys” with a score to even.

“All right,” said he. “You hear me, MacNutt—I'll get even with you an' Kent. It's comin' to both of ye. The woods ain't big enough for me an' you now.”

“Bah!” said MacNutt, and spat.

McCane went ashore. MacNutt shut down the sluicing with darkness. In the morning it began again. That day saw McCane's entire drive packed in the backwater. He was helpless to prevent it.

Kent's logs slid down merrily into the free current, and Rough Shan and his wild crew cursed the rear out of sight as it swept around a bend below. Then they went at the tedious task of extricating their own drive from the backwater. Rough Shan the next day put Callahan in charge and departed, as he said, to see about supplies, for his grub was running low.