The Greater Power/Chapter 27

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CHAPTER XXVII
TIMBER RIGHTS

THEY set to work on the new heading at sunrise next morning, but it was a week or two before they had made much of an opening in the rock beneath the fall. Though Nasmyth had lowered the level of the river a little, the smooth-worn stone still rose sheer from the depths of the whirling pool, and the blasting had obliterated every trace of their previous operations. They were compelled to make new approaches, and they toiled, drenched with the icy spray, on frail, slung stages, cutting sockets for the logs to hold a heavier platform for the little boring-machine Nasmyth had purchased in Victoria. When the platform was built, the working face was narrow, and the rock of a kind that yielded very slowly to the cutting-tool. They had no power but that of well-hardened muscle, and none of the workers had any particular knowledge of engineering.

They pushed the new heading toilsomely beneath the fall, working in rock fissured by the last explosion, through which the water poured in on them, while the river rose when the frost broke up and was succeeded by a week or two of torrential rain. The water swirled high among the boulders, and had crept almost to the mouth of the heading, when one evening Wheeler walked into the shanty. He said nothing of any consequence until supper was over, and he then took a newspaper out of his pocket.

"Have you had any strangers round?" he asked.

"No," answered Nasmyth, with a dry smile. "That is, they didn't get any farther than the head of the gully. Two of them turned up one wet day, and when they found they couldn't get down, they explained rather forcibly what they thought of me."

Wheeler nodded, and handed the paper across to him.

"I guess you did quite right," he said. "This should make it clear that some of the city men with money are on our trail."

Nasmyth glanced at the paper, and saw a notification that certain timber rights in the forest belt surrounding the valley had been applied for.

"The Charters people!" he declared. "When I was in Victoria I had a talk with them. I partly expected something of the kind. By the way, I got a notification from the rancher I mentioned that, if I continued operations, proceedings would be begun against me."

"They mean business," commented Wheeler, with a snap in his dark eyes. "It seems to me there are several of them in the thing, and they evidently expect to get their hands on the valley one way or another. In all probability their idea is to let you get most of the work in, and then scare you into selling out for what they like to offer. Have you had any big trees coming along lately?"

"Yes," answered Mattawa, "one or two went over the fall this afternoon."

"Drift logs?"

"Two had the branches chopped off them."

Wheeler made a sign of comprehension. "Well," he predicted, "you're going to see a good many more of that kind before very long." He turned to Nasmyth. "I'm going to stay over to-morrow. The mill's held up again. We had an awkward break, and I can't get the new fixings in. You can tell me how you're getting on."

They talked until late that night, and on awakening next morning found the river higher and thick with shattered ice. It had also crept into the heading, and the men who worked in it were knee-deep in water. They, however, went on as usual, and it was in the afternoon that several great trees leapt the fall, and, driving down the rapid, whirled away into the black depths of the cañon. Wheeler, who stood watching attentively, nodded as the trees drove by.

"Hemlock. That's not going to count for milling purposes," he observed.

Nasmyth, who came up dripping wet, sat down on a boulder and took out his pipe.

"Did you expect anything else?" he asked.

Wheeler laughed. "I'm not sure that I did. It seems to me the men who want those timber rights don't figure on doing much milling." He looked up sharply. "This one's red cedar."

Another great trunk leapt the fall, swept round the pool, and then brought up with a crash upon the pile of shattered rock which still lay athwart the head of the rapid. Nasmyth rose and straightened himself wearily.

"It's a trifle unfortunate I hadn't hove that rock out with the derrick. We'll have to take hold if the log won't swing clear," he said.

The tree swung a little, and then the thinner head of it drove in among the boulders and stuck fast. In another moment a shout rose from a man standing on the ledge above the fall.

"Quite a batch of big logs coming along!" he called.

Nasmyth thrust his pipe into his pocket, and Wheeler, who watched him, nodded.

"They'll jam and pile up," said Wheeler. "I guess that's what the other folks wanted. You have got to keep them clear."

In another few moments Nasmyth was beating a suspended iron sheet, and while its clangour broke through the roar of the river the men floundered towards him over the shingle. One or two of them had axes, and the rest, running into the shanty, brought out saws and handspikes. In the meanwhile a huge log crashed upon the one held fast, and there was no need to tell any of the men that those which followed would rapidly pile up into an inextricable confusion of interlocked timber. There was only one thing to be done, and that was to cut away the first log, which would hold them back, as soon as possible.

The men set to work, two or three of them running recklessly along the rounded top of the slippery trunk, which rolled a little as it hammered upon the rock. Mattawa, with a big crosscut saw, crouched on the half-submerged pile of stone, and a comrade, who seized its opposite handle, held himself somehow on the second trunk by his knees. It was difficult to understand how they could work at all, but they were accustomed to toiling under embarrassing conditions. The saw had hardly bitten through the bark when another log drove grinding against the rest, and Mattawa's companion, who let the handle go, fell forward on his face. He was up again in a moment, and after that stuck fast while log after log drove smashing upon the growing mass. Sometimes the one he clung to rose up under him, and sometimes it sank until he crouched in the water while another great butt crept up upon it, and it seemed that he must be crushed between them. Still, the saw rasped steadily through the heaving, grinding timber. It was perilous work, but it was clear to all of them that it had to be done.

In the meanwhile Nasmyth and Gordon stood knee-deep amidst the white foam of the rapid. The water was icy cold, and it was with difficulty they kept their feet, while every now and then a shower of spray that leapt out from among the timber fell upon them. The logs were already two deep at that spot, and one great top ground steadily forward over the others as its pressed-down butt was driven on by those behind. One could almost have fancied it was bent on escaping from the horrible confusion of piled-up trunks that moved on one another under the impact of the flood. More were sweeping on, and crash after crash rang through the hoarse clamour of the fall.

Nasmyth felt very feeble as he whirled the heavy axe about his head, for that mass of timber was impressively big. He had torn off his deer-hide jacket, and his soaked blue shirt gaped open to his waist at every heave of his shoulders. He stood in icy water, but the perspiration dripped from him as he swung with every blow. Though some men with good thews and sinews can never learn to use the axe to any purpose, he could chop, and the heavy blade he whirled rang with a rhythmic precision in the widening notch, then flashed about his head, and fell with a chunk that was sharp as a whip-crack into the gap again. In between Gordon's axe swept down, and the blades flashed athwart each other's orbits without a check or clash. It requires years to acquire that kind of proficiency with the axe, but the result is a perfecting of the co-operation between will and hardened muscle.

It was fortunate that both could chop, for the men with the crosscut appeared in difficulties. The tree bent on the pile of rock, and in straining closed the cut upon the saw. Another man who had joined them was endeavouring to hammer a wedge in, but with that crushing weight against him the attempt seemed futile. He persisted, however, and stood above the white froth of the rapid, a puny figure dwarfed by the tremendous rock wall, whirling what appeared to be a wholly insignificant hammer. His comrades were scattered about the grinding mass making ineffective efforts to heave a butt or top clear of the others with their handspikes, but there was clearly only one vulnerable point of attack, and that was the one Nasmyth and Gordon were hewing at. Wheeler, who felt the tension, watched them, clutching hard upon an unlighted pipe. He was aware that if the mass of timber, which grew rapidly larger, once wedged itself fast, it might be a month or two before a flood broke it up; but he had also sense enough to recognize that, since most of the men's efforts were futile, he might just as well sit still.

The trunk was partly hewn through when the top of it bent outwards, and Gordon flashed an anxious glance at it. It was evident that if none of the others wedged themselves in upon and reinforced it the weight behind would shortly rend the trunk apart. Then the position would become a particularly perilous one, for the whole mass would break away in chaotic ruin, and he and his comrade stood close in front of it; but he could not tell how much further strain the tree would bear, and he recognized that it was desirable to hew the notch as deep as possible before he relinquished chopping. The axes rang for another two minutes, and then there was a sudden crash, and a cry from Wheeler that was drowned in the tumult of sound that rose from the liberated timber.

Great logs reared their butts or tops out of the heaving mass. Some rolled round and disappeared beneath those that crept upon them, but for a moment or two the shattered trunk, jammed down by the weight upon it, held them back from the plunge into the rapid. It smashed among the rocks that ground and rent it as it slowly gave way, and Wheeler ran his hardest towards a strip of shingle that projected a little into the river. He saw Nasmyth, who had evidently lost his footing, driving downstream towards it, and knew that in another moment or two the logs would be upon him.

Nasmyth was not exactly swimming. In fact, strictly speaking, one cannot swim in a rapid, nor when there is only three or four feet of water can one get upon one's feet. He rolled over and over, went down and came up again, until Wheeler, floundering into the foaming water, clutched him, and held on desperately, though he felt that his arm was being drawn out of its socket. He would probably have been swept away, too, had not somebody grabbed his jacket, and he heard a hoarse voice behind him.

"Heave!" it said—"heave!"

The strain on Wheeler's arm became intolerable, but somehow he held fast, and just then there was an appalling crash and roar. He felt himself being dragged backwards, and in another moment fell heavily upon the shingle with Nasmyth across his feet. Blinking about him half dazed, he saw the logs drive by, rolling, grinding, smashing, and falling on one another. Then, as they whirled down the rapid, and the roar they made began to die away, he looked round, and saw several gasping men standing close behind him.

"Guess that was quite a near thing," said one of them. "Any way, in this kind of contract you can sure figure on trouble."

This, as a matter of fact, was perfectly correct, for it is only at considerable peril to life and limb that saw-logs are driven down the rivers to a Western mill. They must be guided through each awkward pass and frothing rapid, and the men who undertake it spring with pike and peevie from one to another while the rolling trunks tumultuously charge on.

Nobody, however, troubled himself any further about the matter, and in a few more minutes the men had set to work again heaving the rocks that had held up the first log out of the river with the derrick. It was not until supper was over, and he sat with his companions in the shanty, that Wheeler referred to the affair again. He looked at Nasmyth with a smile.

"I guess it's fortunate you got those logs away," he said. "It's probably a little more than the men who turned them loose on you figured you could do."

"That," agreed Nasmyth, "is very much my own opinion."

Wheeler filled his pipe. "Now," he said reflectively, "anybody can apply for timber rights, and bid for them at public auction, but the man who secures them must cut up so many thousand feet every month. Since that's the case, it's quite evident that nobody is likely to bid for timber rights round the valley, except the Charters people, who have a little mill on the Klatchquot Inlet, and they'd probably get the timber rights 'most for nothing, though they might have to put in a new saw or two with the object of satisfying the Legislature."

"It's rather difficult to see how they expect to make a profit on hemlock in view of what it would cost them to get the logs there," Gordon broke in.

"They don't want to make a profit." Wheeler smiled. "Seems to me it's their programme to get hold of the rights cheap, and then worry you because they can't run the logs through this cañon. The Legislature won't give you land or rights to do nothing with, and it's quite likely the Charters people will file a notification that your workings are the obstacle. Still, they'd probably make you an offer first. If you let them in on the ground-floor—handed them a big slice of the valley or something of the kind—they'd let up on their timber rights. I'm not sure they could run good milling fir to that mill at a profit."

A grim look crept into Nasmyth's face. Difficulties were crowding thick upon him, and though he was as determined as ever on proceeding with the work, he almost felt that it would be only until they crushed him.

"It seems to me we are in the hands of the Charters people, unless I can keep the cañon clear," he commented.

Wheeler's eyes twinkled. "Well," he returned, "they're smart. I have, however, come across smart folks who missed a point or two occasionally. Now, I saw a couple of red cedar logs among that hemlock."

He glanced at Mattawa. "Tom, you've been round the head of the valley. Did you strike any trees of that kind up yonder?"

"A few," answered Mattawa. "It's quite likely there are more."

"A sure thing. You and I are going out timber-right prospecting at sun-up to-morrow. Just now they can't get red cedar shingles fast enough on to the Eastern markets."

Nasmyth looked up and Gordon laughed a soft laugh, while Wheeler waved his hand.

"Anyone can bid for timber rights," he declared. "Now, our folks are open for any business, and we have got a mill. It's not going to cost much to put a shingle-splitting plant in. We have easy water-carriage to the Inlet, where a schooner can load, and the Charters people would have to tow their raw material right along to their mill. Besides, that Inlet's a blame awkward place to get a schooner in. It's quite clear to me we could cut shingles way cheaper than they could." He paused for a moment. "Yes," he said, "if there's milling cedar near the valley, our folks will make their bid. If Charters wants those rights, he'll have to put up the money, and it's quite likely we'll take them up in spite of him if I'm satisfied with my prospecting. In that case, we're not going to worry you about the cañon. In fact, we would probably make you a proposition at so much the log for running the trees down for us."

He filled his pipe again, and Nasmyth looked at him with relief in his eyes.