The Boss of Wind River/Chapter 19

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XIX

WITH the breaking of the big jam the luck of the drive seemed to change. The river was rising, the water was good, the logs travelled freely day and night without halt. Indeed, the delays seemed about to prove blessings in disguise, for other firms' drives, more fortunate, would be out of the way. Also when they reached the lower almost currentless stretches of the river, down which the logs would have to be towed in booms by steamers, there would be no delay. But these calculations were upset one day when they got news of a drive just ahead of them.

Straightway Tobin and Joe went down to see about it. Sure enough there was a drive, and as he looked at the end of a stranded log the foremen swore indignantly, for on it was stamped the “CB” of Clancy Brothers.

“It's their drive from Basket Lake,” said Tobin. “They should have had it down three weeks gone.” As they passed downstream he called Joe's attention to the rear crew. “Look at that. See 'em sojerin' on the job. They're loafin', every mother's son of them, and they've a stronger crew than they need, too.”

They found Clancys' river-boss, Tom Archer by name, smoking a pipe and watching the indolent efforts of half a dozen men who were not even pretending to hustle.

“I thought you would have been down long ago,” said Tobin. “Our drive is right behind, and we'll be bumping your rear to-morrow if you don't get some ginger into your crew.”

“They're a lazy bunch,” said Archer without the flicker of an eyelid. “I just have to do the best I can with them. I've cursed them till my throat went back on me.”

Tobin regarded him narrowly. “Let me handle them for twenty-four hours and I'll show you a difference.”

“Thanks, but I can run my job myself,” said Archer dryly.

“The point is,” Joe explained, “that my drive is coming down a-humping, and we need all our time because we have a delivery contract to fill. Can you keep ahead of us, do you think?”

“Couldn't say,” returned Archer.

“I don't want to run down on top of you,” said Joe. “How would it be if I turned a dozen men into your rear to lend a hand?”

Archer regarded him in silence for a ten-second interval. “When I need your help, bub, I'll ask for it.”

“I didn't mean it that way,” Joe explained. “I don't suppose you want to delay me. It's about four days to Moore's Rapids. Will you oblige me by booming there till I get through? Of course I'll pay for the time of your crew.”

“No,” Archer replied. “I have my rights on the river and I don't have to get out of your way. You can tail along behind me.”

“The hell we can!” flared Tobin, whose temper was always set on a hair-trigger. “Do you think we ain't onto you, Archer. What's Clancys payin' you for doin' their dirty work?”

Archer put his pipe in his pocket with deliberation. “Any more talk like that, Tobin, and you and me will settle it right here,” he announced.

Tobin, nowise loath, would have accepted the challenge instantly, but Joe restrained him and pointed to a man who appeared on the bank.

“It's quite plain what this gentleman is up to, Tobin. There's Rough Shan McCane. I guess any more talk is waste time.”

McCane sprang down like a cat and advanced truculently. “Tom,” said he to Archer, “I'm going to give this young feller a father of a lickin' an' put the boots to him afterward. You look after the other one.”

Joe did not assume any attitude popularly supposed to be one of defence, but the bunched shoulder muscles crept and crawled beneath his shirt, and Archer, eying him carefully, interposed a decided negative.

“No, you won't. I don't want any trouble with Mr. Kent or his crew. If they crowd us it'll be different.”

“It'll be a lot different,” said Tobin. “You're McCane, are you? I've heard of your doin's this winter. You've got it comin' to you, me buck, tie into that.”

Then and there hostilities would have started but for Joe and Archer, who kept cool. Tobin and McCane growled at each other like leashed fighting-dogs.

“Come along, Tobin,” Joe ordered. “We're wasting time. You won't reconsider my offer, Archer?”

“No,” replied Archer flatly, “I won't. I have the right-of-way, and I'll keep it.”

The way he intended to keep it immediately became apparent. His drive travelled with maddening slowness. His rear crew made great pretence of working, but the feint was transparent and the tempers of Kent's men wore under the strain. One or two fights took place, more or less indecisive. Clearly a climax was at hand.

Joe took counsel with his foremen, and they threshed the matter out one night sitting around the fire. It was plain that as long as Clancys' drive kept ahead they could make no speed. Much time had already been lost. They could not pass it on the river, and Archer would not yield his right-of-way at Moore's Rapids. It looked like an impasse. It was quiet Deever who suggested the only way out. Deever usually had little to say. The reverse of Tobin, he was slow to anger, but knew no limit when aroused, as unruly lumber jacks found to their cost. He was rather small of frame, but built of wires and steel springs.

“If we run our drive right on top of them and mix the logs we'll make better time than we're making now,” said he. “Then we sack out our own, and they can bring theirs along or not, as they like. There's sortin' booms at Moore's, and we've a strong crew, just spoilin' for a scrap. If we take charge an' cull out all Clancys' logs, why, then we get ahead. It just means a little fight.”

The foremen looked at each other and nodded. Then they looked at Joe. “It sounds good,” said he. “Of course, we haven't any right to do it.”

“Not a right,” said MacNutt cheerfully, “but we've got a blame good crew.”

Joe laughed. “Go to it, then,” said he. “Slam the whole drive down on top of them as soon as you can.”

The speed of a drive depends upon the work of the crew, for although logs can travel no faster than the current the more that are kept in the current the faster the whole will travel. Kent's men sailed into the work like demons. No log had a chance to rest. Soon the two drives tangled and became one, although naturally Clancys' leading logs were far in advance of Kent's. The latter's crew left the other logs religiously alone, but Clancys' men soon began to shove Kent's logs toward the shallows.

“Leave them logs alone!” roared Big Cooley savagely, detecting a man in the act. The man swore back at him defiantly and shoved another log shoreward. Cooley jumped from the log on which he stood, alighting on the one ridden by the offender, and knocked him into the water.

In two minutes the crews were more tangled than the logs. More of Kent's men piled downstream and joined the mêlée. Finally Clancys' rear crew, badly whipped, left the field to their opponents.

When Archer heard of the fight he came back at once. “I won't stand this,” said he. “You've got no right to run into my drive.”

“Keep it out of my way, then,” said Joe. “I gave you your chance; I'm going to drive clean through you.”

“We'll see about that,” said Archer, and took his departure.

Thereafter his crew worked hard but avoided trouble. Nevertheless the drives were hopelessly entangled, and they drew near Moore's Rapids.

The booms at Moore's had been put in and were maintained by the various lumber firms for their own convenience, so that one had as much right to them as another. This was lucky for Kent, for had the booms been owned by a river improvement company, as were those on the lower river, he could not have carried out the high-handed act he contemplated. As it was, the question resolved itself into whether he could seize the booms and hold control of them while he sorted the logs. By so doing he laid himself open to an action for damages, but he could better afford that than further delay.

Twenty-four hours before any logs could reach Moore's, McKenna chose a picked crew and took possession of the booms, forestalling Archer, who intended to do that very thing himself. Therefore when he arrived with a picked crew of his own some hours later he became righteously indignant.

“I have the right-of-way, McKenna,” said he, “and my logs are going down that channel first. You can sort out yours and wait your turn.”

“I hear what you say,” said McKenna from the boom. “You're making a little mistake, Archer. Ours are going through first.”

“What?” cried Archer, suddenly realizing the situation. “Do you know what the law is? The leading drive has precedence in booms, chutes, and slides. You'd better be careful!”

“I know all that,” retorted McKenna. “That's the law—and we're going to break it. You'd hog the river on us, would you? Well, we'll hog the booms and channel on you!”

Archer spat into the stream and swore. “I have nothing against you, McKenna, but you nor no other man can hang my drive. I'll bring down my crew and clear you off the booms. If I can't do that I'll cut them and let the whole shootin' match go down together.”

“That's big talk,” said McKenna. “Now you listen here. We're doing this cold because we have to, and you know it. We won't stop at anything. Bring down your crew and try to clean us out if you like. We expect it. But if you try to cut the booms it's different.” He pointed to a pier out in the current. On it in a state of splendid isolation, sat Davy Cottrell. ”That man out there has a rifle and he can hit birds flying with it. He'll shoot the first man that touches the booms. If you don't believe that, get somebody to try.”

Shortly afterward the first logs began to arrive, and with them Archer's entire crew. Immediately they made a determined attempt to seize the booms, but as these were already occupied by Kent's men, against whom they could advance only in single file, their numbers gave them little advantage. The fight raged along the length of the slippery, swaying boom-logs. Men knocked off into the river swam and climbed up again, or cunningly seized others by the ankles and upset them, taking the chance of being kicked in the face by spiked boots. Gradually Archer's men pushed McKenna's backward and might have driven them from the booms altogether had not the rest of Kent's crew arrived, thirsting for battle.

Archer's crew, now hopelessly outnumbered, fought gamely. The fight spread from booms to shore. Tobin went for Archer and met his match. MacNutt tried to get to Rough Shan, but could not. Quiet Deever, white-faced and eyes ablaze, his lips lifting at the corners in a wolfish snarl, was before him.

“'Rough Shan' they call you,” he gritted through set teeth. “Let's see how rough you are, you dirty cur. Come on an' rough it with a littler man, you lousy, camp-burnin' high-banker!” He planted a terrific right in McCane's face, and was himself knocked sideways the next instant by a heavy swing. They went at it hammer-and-tongs.

Joe Kent found himself paired with a smooth-faced, bronzed, shanty lad who fought with a grin and hit with a grunt. His blows were like the kicks of a mule, but his knowledge of boxing was rudimentary. The young boss smashed him almost at will, but the grin never faded. Always he came back for more, and when he landed, it jarred Joe from top to toe. Finally they clenched and wrestled to and fro among the rough stones of the beach. At this game Joe rather fancied himself, but all he ever remembered of the outcome was that suddenly his feet flew into the air—the rest was a shock, accompanied by marvellous constellations.

He came to with water sluicing his face and a hat fanning air into his lungs. He got to his feet rather dizzily, looked around and laughed.

“You cleaned them out, did you?”

Deever, his face battered and swollen and his knuckles cut to raw meat, grinned happily. Tobin, one eye closed and the other blinking, nodded.

“We're sluicin' now.”

“We put the run on them,” said McKenna, whose leathery face bore the marks of war. “Lucky for us we had the numbers. They're hard lads, but 'tis not like they'll bother us again. Now, boys, the boss is all right. Out on the booms with yez.”

Without delay they swarmed out on the booms. Others went upstream to hustle the logs down. The work of sorting and sluicing went forward merrily, for Kent's logs outnumbered Clancys' in the proportion of four to one, and besides the crew was not very particular as to the ownership of individual logs, which could be culled out later. The main thing was speed. Clancys' logs were sided into an inner boom; Kent's were allowed to go down with the current. It took time, but it was worth it.

Thus Kent's big drive passed Clancys' and ran Moore's Rapids in defiance of the law and usage of the river; but every man, from the young boss down, was very sure that the end justified the means, and was quite ready to take any consequences that might accrue from the high-handed act.