The Boss of Wind River/Chapter 21

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XXI

THE Sophie Green, a beamy, shallow-draft, paddle-wheeled old teakettle, lay broadside-on to a rickety wharf which was piled with cord wood. From the pile, across her gang-plank and back again, trotted an endless procession of deckhands and rivermen, carrying the big sticks that were her fuel. The fires were roaring beneath her boilers, and the gauge was beginning to move.

A hundred yards away, at another cord wood pile, her sister craft, the Ada Bell, was receiving like attentions. Out in the darkness, by the fitful light of lanterns, half a dozen big riverboats crowded with men, were shackling up short lengths of boom into longer ones. Chains rattled and hammers rang on cold-shuts as the crews joined the timbers. Down the shore for a mile and more other rivermen hunted for boats, taking everything that would pull two pairs of oars.

When she had steam enough the Sophie Green bellowed and cast off, wallowing around in a short semi-circle. A peakie shot under her stern and a heaving-line uncoiled across her deck. To this was attached a hawser. It came inboard to the bucking clatter of a winch, and was made fast to the towing bitts. Then the crew of the peakie swarmed aboard; the peakie was hoisted up with half a dozen others, and the Sophie felt her way downstream in the darkness, a half-mile of boom trailing after her. In twenty minutes the Ada Bell followed with more boom-timbers in tow.

The river just below the rapids was obstructed by the floating logs of the broken drive, and the Sophie went through them gingerly, fearful for her paddle-wheels. It was still pitch-dark and blowing hard, but the rain had ceased. The lake opened out before them, scummed with foam and torn into choppy, white-topped waves among which the logs were tossing.

Joe and McKenna were in the wheel-house with Capt. Jimmy Congdon, a veteran of the river who had been a warm friend of William Kent's, and was ready to do anything for his son. Captain Jimmy was broad, ruddy, and silver-haired, with a pair of steady blue eyes that never shifted. Periodically he spat to leeward with precision, but until the lake opened up his whole attention was devoted to the wheel.

“Steerin' on a night like this is mostly be-guess and be-god,” he vouchsafed. “There's Six Mile Light off to sta'bo'rd. Now, young man, I run this boat to suit you, so tell me what you want.”

“I want to boom the logs the easiest and quickest way,” Joe informed him. “How would you do it?”

Captain Jimmy spat and reflected. “Blowin' like she is now logs'd jump a boom even if we got 'em into one; but she's breezin' too hard to last. If it was me, come daylight I'd boom off the Fire Island Channel and sweep the floatin' stuff into it.”

This advice was identical with McKenna's. Joe decided to adopt it. Daylight found them lying to, below long, swampy Fire Island, which lay well over toward the eastern shore. They strung a boom from the lower end to the mainland, thus closing the channel and forming a great pocket; and then they went at the tough job of “sweeping up” the scattered drive.

The logs were strewn all over the upper end of the lake; but by that strange attraction which floating objects have for one another many of them lay in small rafts. They lay inert, motionless on the almost glassy expanse, for the storm had blown itself out and a sunny day of almost perfect calm succeeded. When these floating patches of timber were reached the peakies were dumped over the side and the rivermen tumbled into them.

The Sophie Green steamed in a slow, careful circle, and when she had completed it her half-mile of trailing boom lay in a great loop about many patches of logs. She picked up the other end and went ahead, and the logs naturally sagged back into the farther end of the loop.

The Ada Bell went through a similar manœuvre. Then they steamed up to more logs, winged out one end of the boom alongside, and the men in the peakies fed them more logs through the opening. When the booms were full, they took them to Fire Island, emptied the logs out into the big pocket, and came back for more.

As the morning lengthened they obtained reinforcements in the form of a powerful tug belonging to the company and a couple of launches whose owners were not averse to making a few honest dollars. These were of material assistance. The tug took one end of a boom and the Sophie the other and steamed straight ahead in parallel courses. The swath of the boom took up every log between the two boats. Then the Sophie took up both ends as before, but left a dozen lengths of boom-timbers trailing free. These were winged out by a launch, and the rivermen fed logs down the moving funnel thus formed. The tug, meanwhile, went to the assistance of the Ada Bell.

In this manner the lake was being expeditiously cleared of the rafts of floating logs. Joe blessed his stars for the quiet weather, but for which he could have made but little progress, and prayed for its continuance. He had eight days to sweep up the broken drive and bring it through, and this was not a bit too much.

The logs floating openly in the lake were the easiest part of the job; but there were more, strewn along the shore, washed high and dry and embedded in the sand by the storm or caught in shallows and marshy bays—there was where the pull would come.

In the afternoon a long, lean power-boat racketed up the lake, nosed the logs inside Fire Island, went up one shore and down the other, and finally ran alongside the Sophie Green. In it sat Wismer, and he hailed Joe, who looked over the rail.

“This is a nice mess your drive is in, Kent,” said he. “I'm afraid you won't be able to get it down in time.”

“I'll try, anyway,” Joe told him.

“You can't make it,” said Wismer. “Now, I don't want to be hard on you, and I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll make you an offer for the logs as they lie, and if you'll accept it I'll cancel our existing contract.”

“Let's hear your offer,” said Joe. When he heard it he laughed, for it was entirely piratical. “You must think I'm easy. You couldn't steal logs much cheaper.”

“Take it or leave it,” said Wismer, a little puzzled. The Joe Kent with whom he had made his contract had certainly been easy; but this bronzed young fellow leaning over the rail was different. “You don't want to forget that penalty clause,” he added warningly.

“Not for a minute,” said Kent. “I know quite well that Ackerman or Garwood framed up that cinch contract. And I know you're trying to get the logs cheap now, and give them the double-cross. I'm not kicking—merely pointing out that I know what you're up to.”

Wismer reddened, and for the first time found a difficulty in meeting the young man's eye. “You're talking utter nonsense,” said he. “I don't know what you mean, and I don't much care. If you like to take up the offer I've just made, all right. If not, I'll hold you to the letter of our contract.”

“I'm holding myself to it,” said Joe. “I want you to have your booms ready for me, for the first tow of logs goes down the lake to-night.”

He watched Wismer's launch gather way, and turned to the business in hand. At dusk the Ada Bell picked up one tow and the tug another, and started down the lake. The tired crew went ashore just above Fire Island, where the camp was established. Joe and McKenna remained on the Sophie. After supper the foreman came aboard to plan the next day's work.

“Boys,” said Joe, “who cut that boom?”

“McCane, an' no one else,” MacNutt answered, and the others nodded.

“That's what I think,” said Joe, “but I'll never be able to prove it. Now, then, about the drive. Is it possible to get it down on time?”

“Shure,” said McKenna, “if we have good weather.”

“Not unless,” said Tobin.

On a fine-weather basis they planned the work. In the morning they went at it again. Before noon the tow-boats returned, the long booms trailing behind them. Their tows had been emptied down the rapids, and a small crew was seeing them safe into Wismer & Holden's booms.

Late in the afternoon a launch—a flying thing of spotless paint, burnished brass, and throbbing engines—split the lake. A wall of water fell away on either side of her shearing stem, and the white kick of her wake streamed out behind like a giant ribbon. She slowed and swung daintily up to the dingy Sophie Green. In her sat William Crooks and his daughter.

“Hello, Joe!” roared the veteran lumberman. “Hello, Jimmy!” to Captain Congdon. “Throw down a ladder or something. We want to come aboard.”

They came aboard, and the very spick-and-span young man who owned the launch looked doubtfully at the other young man in the flannel shirt, short trousers, and spiked boots, who was on such enviable terms with pretty little Miss Crooks.

“How's she comin'?” Crooks demanded, and Joe told him. “I got twenty boys off my drive on the way to give you a boost,” the old lumberman continued. “We'll show these fellows a thing or two about sweepin' up logs. Jimmy, my girl and I are going to camp down on this old tub of yours till the last log's out of the lake. Got room for us?”

“You bet I have, Bill,” replied Congdon, “Miss Jack, you take my quarters.”

“Couldn't think of it, thank you, Captain Congdon,” said Jack promptly. “I wouldn't put you out for the world.”

“Mutiny, by the Lord!” shouted Captain Jimmy. “Young woman, I'm a bachelor, and used to having my own way. I get awful mean and cranky when I'm opposed. It'd be just like me to refuse to tow a single blame log if you don't obey orders.”

“Aye, aye, sir!” said Jack. “Any more orders, sir?”

“Only that you're to ask for what you want if you don't see it,” said Captain Jimmy, grinning.

The launch shot away down the lake, and the Sophie continued to gather logs. Night fell. This time one boat was sufficient to tow all the day's take. Jack and Joe sat on the foredeck in the dusk, listening to the soft lap of water alongside.

“I can't tell you what I felt when I heard the drive had broken, Joe,” said she. “It seemed so safe before, and now—but you'll make it, Joe, I know you will!”

“I'll make it or bust—and that's no figure of speech,” he told her grimly. “Those twenty men your father has lent me will just about turn the scale. The boys are working like demons—each man doing the work of two; but it depends on the weather more than on anything else. A couple of windy days would knock us cold. However, there's no use worrying about that, and all the weather sharps in the crew, and Congdon as well, say it has set for fair. To-morrow night we'll work by moonlight. I feel a presentiment amounting to a hunch that you'll be Mrs. Kent before another moon.”

She nestled closer to him. “If I were a very conventional person I'd insist on three months at least to prepare a trousseau and make sure of a lot of wedding presents—but I'm not. I've spoken to dad, and he makes your delivery of these logs the only condition. And now, boy, it's time you were asleep. You're working as hard as any of the men.”

The floating logs had all been gathered up. Now the crew attacked those hung in bays and jettisoned on shoals and points. It was slow, hard work, but little by little the broken drive was gathered up. The fine weather held. Nightly tows went down the lake, and each morning the empty-booms trailed back for more.

Joe Kent worked with his men. He was strong, active, and enduring. He developed a fair amount of skill with a peavey, and he derived a fierce satisfaction from each log that he twisted from its resting place and rolled into free water. By just that much he was beating Garwood, Ackerman, Clancys—all the gang who, as principals or tools, had determined to loot his business and strip him of his inheritance.

His young, sinewy body responded to the calls made upon it. Wet to the waist he worked all day and at night until the moon set, cheering on his crew with laugh and joke. Afterward he stumbled aboard the Sophie Green almost too tired to speak, even to Jack; but the first dim light saw him drop over the side eager for the new day's work.

That week Joe lost twenty pounds—and he was not fleshy to start with. Those days of heartbreaking work and the nerve-strain back of it cut lines in his face which were never wholly erased. It was for him a desperate hand-to-hand grapple with time. Logs, logs, logs! By day he worked with them, and by night they crowded his dreams. He had to lift them, to climb over them, to count millions of them; sometimes piles of them cascaded on him, burying him from the world; sometimes they were about to fall on Jack. He would wake, a cry of warning on his lips and the sweat running from every pore of his iron-hard body.

His men responded nobly to the call. They held a fierce, jealous pride in their drive, in their ability to bring it down, in making good any promise given by their employer. Chronic grumblers over small things, they accepted cheerfully the eighteen hours a day of work, and even stretched it a little. And every minute of every hour they worked. Each man moved with a spring and a jump. There were no laggards—none for the foremen to curse. They took in Bill Crooks's chosen twenty and fired them with the same fierce energy. But this was not a hard task, for the word passed around somehow that on their success in getting out the logs depended the marriage of Kent and Miss Jack. Every man straightway felt a personal responsibility, and the way they sailed into the job made Kent's crew hustle to keep pace.

Bill Crooks threw off thirty years, put on a pair of spiked boots, and tramped up and down the shore bellowing encouragement to the rivermen. Most of it took the form of virulent curses directed at the men who had persistently tried to hang Kent's drive.

“But they can't do it, boys!” the old logger would roar. “They may blow dams and saw booms, but we'll do them yet. Birl into her, bullies! All the blasted high-bankers between this and the booms of hell can't hang us up.” Then the men would bark fierce assent, and whirl into the logs with fury.

And so, by unremitting work by day and night, the big drive was swept up from open water, shoal, point, and bay. On the twenty-eighth of June, at midnight, the last logs were boomed. Half an hour afterward the Sophie Green, the Ada Bell, and the big tug started down the lake with heavy tows. The boats were full of rivermen, proud in the consciousness that they had set a record for the river. Their toil and their weariness of body were forgotten. Only a few days separated them from town, where they would make up for both, according to time-honoured custom. They shouted songs—expurgated editions out of deference to Jack Crooks—and the hoarse cough of the ancient Sophie Green's exhaust, delivered at exact intervals, chopped the verses in two.

Jack and Joe had arranged a little treat. The cook rustled a wonderful meal. Boxes of good cigars were passed around. A phonograph played in the bow of each boat. The trip down the lake was as good as a moonlight excursion, and the men of Kent's drives talk of it yet. One by one they lay down on the deck, beside the boilers, anywhere and everywhere, and slept the sleep of exhaustion.

In the morning they let the tows down the rapids. The rivermen debarked, followed down the river, and hustled out the bunches of logs that the few men who had preceded them had not bothered about. It was plain sailing now. That day and the next the channel was brown with logs. Kent's foremen and Wismer & Holden's cullers checked them as they came. Joe and Jack stood out on an anchor pier and watched the booms fill. More logs came down and still more.

Far away on the morning of the thirtieth they heard the bellowing whistles of the Sophie Green and Ada Bell, and the deep-throated blast of the tug telling them that the last of the big drive was down. At six o'clock that night the booms closed behind the last log.

Joe drew a long breath. “Thank heaven,” said he. “Now, girlie, we'll have the best meal they can put up in this little town.”

“We will—but we'll have it in camp,” she informed him. “I've arranged with Jimmy Bowes. This is my treat to the men.”

They occupied the head of an impromptu table of pine boards. Down its length and along similar tables were ranged the rivermen. Huge roasts, fowls, vegetables, and stacks of pies were piled before them, for Jimmy Bowes, having carte blanche from Jack, had raided the shops of the town. When the meal was over Haggarty rose, very red and confused amid low growls of encouragement:

“Go to it, Larry!”

“What are ye waitin' for?”

“Shut up an' listen to him, now!”

“Mr. Kent, an' Miss Crooks an' Mister Crooks,” began Haggarty, and paused. More growls of encouragement. “I'm no speaker, but the boys wants me to tell ye something, an' it's this: There's them that's had it in for ye these months past, an' has done their da—I mean their dirtiest—to spoil yer cut an' hang yer drive. They haven't done it, an' for why? Bekase ye're good stuff, an' kept a stiff upper lip an' stayed wid the game when others would have give it up, beaten. There ain't a man that ain't proud to work for ye, an' we'll stick by ye, Mr. Kent, till there's snowballin' in—in summer. That's what I was to say. An' besides that, an' not wantin' to be fresh at all, we wish you an' the young lady all sorts of luck an' happiness.”

Haggarty sat down and was pounded on the back. Joe rose, almost as confused as Haggarty. “Boys,” said he, “you knew I was in a tight place and you stayed with me. I've got you to thank that my logs are here to-night, instead of somewhere upriver. Each man of you has done the work of a dozen, and I want you to know that I'm grateful. I can't pay you in money, but I want to say that I'm the friend of each man here, and any time one of you wants anything from me all he has to do is to ask for it. I hope to have you all with me next year, and I'll saw every log we cut in my own mills. Just one thing more, and that's an important one.” He took Jack's hand and she rose blushing and laughing while the men cheered madly. “Miss Crooks will be Mrs. Kent in a few weeks, boys, and we ask you all to the wedding.”

The shout that went up startled the little town. They cheered and pounded the table with hammer-like fists. Then in the tumult began a cry which soon grew insistent:

“Cooley, Cooley! Big Bill Cooley!”

“Speech, Bill!”

“Get up on yer hind-legs, ye bully-boy!”

“Tell the boss about it, Bill!”

From the seclusion of the foot of the farthest table came muffled, shame-faced protest and muttered profanity. Suddenly half a dozen pairs of arms heaved the big riverman upon the long table.

“Heavens, Joe! what has he been doing?” gasped Jack.

For big Bill Cooley's face was puffed and cut, and one eye was quite closed. The other glared wickedly at those who had thrust him into prominence. His right hand was bandaged, and the knuckles of the left resembled a hamburger steak. Plainly Cooley had been in the wars.

“You fellies make me tired,” he growled. “Let me down out o' this!”

“Tell the boss an' his young lady first,” howled the crew.

“Go ahead, Cooley,” Joe encouraged him.

“They ain't nothin' to tell, Mr. Kent,” said Cooley. “I only catched Rough Shan McCane in among the lumber piles this afternoon and took a birl out of him.”

The crew yelped joyously beneath him.

“He won't walk for a month!”

“Ye done him up good, Billy-buck!”

“The boots in his face, an' all!”

“Hooray for dat beeg Bill Cooley, de boss bully-boy!”

“Dry up, ye divils! How can he hear himself?”

But Cooley made a flying leap from the table, and nothing could induce him to mount it again. Joe got details at second hand of the fearful licking administered to McCane by Cooley, a combat which had been witnessed by only half a dozen. In the end the big riverman had kicked his enemy into unconsciousness with his spiked boots, according to ancient custom. He desisted only when it was apparent that the fallen man's life hung in the balance. As he and his fellows looked at it, this was merely justice, and very light justice at that.

More than half the crew started for town to drink the health of the young boss and his bride-to-be. It was a beautiful excuse. Jack and Joe walked up the river's bank to take a last look at the logs. They had little to say, for the reaction had set in. They stood silently in the moonlight, gazing at the fields of brown timber covering the surface of the river, safe down at last at the cost of a winter's toil, a spring's heartbreaking endeavour, and a toll of human life.

Joe put his arm around the girl's waist and drew her to him. Strong and full-throated, mellowed by distance, came the last refrain of old Bill Crooks's favourite river-song as the crew shouted it on their way to town.

 

When the drive comes dow-un, when the jam comes down,
What makes yeez lads so wishful-eyed as we draw near to town?
Other eyes is soft an' bright, like the stars of a June night—
Wives an' sweethearts—prayin', waitin'—as we drive the river down.
(Oh, ye divils!)
God bless the eyes that shine for us when we boil into town.”

 

“God bless your eyes, Jack, dear!” said Joe softly, and kissed her. The future lay clear and fair before them, a-flush with the rosy lights of youth and hope.

 

THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.