The Greater Power/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V
THE FLOOD


THE autumn afternoon was oppressively hot when Gordon, floundering among the whitened driftwood piled along the river-bank, came upon Nasmyth, who lay upon a slope of rock, with his hands, which were badly bruised, clenched upon a drill. Another man, who stood upon a plank inserted into a crevice, swung a hammer, and its ponderous head came ringing down upon the drill, which Nasmyth jerked round at every stroke, so many times to the minute, with rhythmic regularity. As Nasmyth was apparently too busily engaged just then to trouble about him, Gordon sat down on a big log, and taking out his pipe, looked about him when he had lighted it.

The river had made a gap for itself in the great forest that filled the valley, and the sombre firs that rose in serried ranks upon its farther bank rolled back up the hillside, streaked here and there with a little thin white mist. A mile or so away, and lower down the valley, there was an opening in their shadowy masses, out of which rose the ringing of hammers and a long trail of smoke, for workmen from the cities were building the new wood-pulp mill there. In the foreground the river swirled by, frothing at flood level, for a week's fierce sunshine had succeeded a month of torrential rain, and the snow high up on a distant peak was melting fast.

Nobody about the little settlement at the head of the deep inlet had seen the water quite so high at that season, and Gordon noticed how it frothed and boiled about the row of stone-backed piles that stretched out from either bank. As he listened to the hoarse roar of the pent-up torrent, he understood what that partly completed dam must have cost Nasmyth. After a little time Nasmyth rose, and, stepping on the plank, wearily straightened his back.

"We're down far enough," he announced. "Let me have the two sticks of giant-powder, and then tell the boys to jump for cover."

The other man, who sprang down from his perch, handed him what appeared to be two thick sticks of yellow wax, and Gordon watched him as he carefully nipped a copper detonator down on a length of snaky fuse, and embedded it in the plastic material. Then he cautiously tamped the two yellow rolls down into the drilled-out hole. After that he lighted the fuse, and, clambering down the slope of rock, saw Gordon.

"We'll get out of this. It's a short fuse," he said.

Gordon, who was acquainted with the action of giant-powder, had no desire to stay, and they floundered as fast as possible over the driftwood and masses of shattered rock until Nasmyth drew his companion behind a towering fir. Then there was a sharp detonation, a crash, and a shower of flying stones went smashing through the forest and into the river. One, which Gordon fancied must have weighed about two hundred pounds, drove close past them, and struck a young cedar, which snapped off beneath the impact. Then there was a sudden silence, and Nasmyth stretched out his arms with a suggestive weariness before he sat down and took out his pipe.

"No one could have expected that stone to come this way," he remarked, with a little laugh. "It's an example of how contrary things can be. In fact, they've been about as contrary as it's possible the last month or so. As no doubt you have noticed, one very seldom gets much encouragement when he takes the uphill trail. It's very rarely made any easier for him."

Gordon grinned, though he realized that the trail his companion had set out upon was very steep indeed. He had secured the dam-building contract, which was not astonishing, since nobody else appeared anxious to undertake it, and he had already acquired a certain proficiency with the axe and drill. There is as yet very little specialization in that land, which is in many respects fortunate for those who live in it, and the small rancher cheerfully undertakes any kind of primitive engineering that seems likely to provide him with a few dollars, from building timber bridges to blasting waggon roads out of the hardest rock. What is more, he usually makes a success of it. In Nasmyth's case, however, the rise of water had made his task almost insuperably difficult, and it had already left a certain mark on him. Gordon, who was, after all, a doctor, naturally noticed this as he watched him.

Nasmyth was very lean now, but he was also hard and muscular, and the old blue shirt, which hung open at the neck, and torn duck trousers, which clung about him still wet with river-water, accentuated the wiry suppleness of his frame; but it was in his face that Gordon noticed the greatest change. The good-humoured, tolerant indifference he remembered had melted out of it, the lips seemed set more firmly, and the eyes were resolute and keen. Nasmyth, so Gordon noticed, had grown since he first took up his duties as Waynefleet's hired hand. Still, though it was less apparent, the stamp of refinement and what Gordon called, for want of a better term, "sensibility," clung to him, and it seemed to the trained observer that the qualities it suggested might yet handicap his comrade in a country where the struggle with primitive forces chiefly demands from man an unreasoning animal courage. In that land the small contractor and Bush-rancher must bear the brunt on his body every day, toiling waist-deep in icy waters, or gripping the drill with bleeding hands, while each fresh misfortune that follows flood and frost is met with a further strain on weary muscles and sterner resolution. It is a fight that is usually hardest for the man who thinks, and in which the one thing that counts is the brutal, bulldog valour that takes hold and holds on in spite of each crushing blow.

"This high water," said Gordon, "has kept you back considerably."

"It has," Nasmyth replied with emphasis. "It has cost me more money that I care to figure up the last month, and we're considerably behind. The dam's still at the mercy of the next big flood."

"It's a little curious that you seem to stand it better than you did the logging," said Gordon, with a quick glance at him.

Nasmyth appeared to consider this. "I do, and that's a fact. For one thing, I'm fighting for my own hand, and no doubt that counts, though, perhaps, it doesn't go quite far enough. After all, it's a point you ought to know more about than I do."

His companion smiled. "I can describe the mechanical connection between the thought in a man's brain and the movement of his muscles. It's comparatively simple; but when you understand that, you're only beginning. There's much more behind. To particularize, if you had done what you're doing now when you were logging, it would, in all probability, have broken you up again."

Nasmyth fancied that this was correct, though, as he had admitted, he could give no reason for it. He was only conscious that he was being constrained by some new influence, and, under the pressure it laid upon him, he became almost insensible to physical weariness. He had now a motive for fighting, in place of drifting, that no mere hired hand can possess. His indolent content had been rudely dissipated, and something that had lain dormant in the depths of his nature had come uppermost. It was certainly Laura Waynefleet who had given it the first impulse, but why he had permitted her to impose her will on him was a matter that was still incomprehensible to him. Seeing that he did not answer, Gordon changed the subject.

"Some of the boys and I have been wondering how you contrived to finance the thing," he said.

Nasmyth smiled, though there was just a trace of darker colour in his face. "Well," he replied, "one can get tolerably long credit from most of the Bush stores, and Clipton has let me have provisions for the boys on quite reasonable terms. Besides, as it happens, there is money in the family. There was a time when one might have considered it almost the duty of certain relatives of mine to give me a lift, but I didn't offer them the opportunity. I came out here and set about driving cows and chopping trees instead."

"You felt you'd sooner cut your hand off than give them a gentle hint," remarked Gordon. "It's not an uncommon feeling, but, when you give way to it, it clears the other people. Won't you go on?"

"When I undertook this affair, I laid the opportunity before them, and one—the last I expected anything of that kind from—sent me out a draft. He kindly pointed out that there appeared to be in me certain capabilities, which he had never supposed I possessed, and added that, if I ever really succeeded in building a dam or anything else useful, he would be pleased to take a share in my next venture. In the meanwhile, he would charge me interest on the amount of that draft. Perhaps I may mention that the man in question was naturally the one the rest of them rather looked down upon."

Gordon laughed. "Oh, yes," he said, "I like that, naturally. I guess you would have taken their view of him once. Well, since you can put your pride in your pocket, you're evidently growing. There's just one way of putting anything through here, and that's to take hold and hang right on, no matter what it costs. I guess there's one of the boys wanting you."

A man stood knee-deep in the river waving his hand. Nasmyth rose and stretched himself.

"They seem to want me all the time from sun-up until it's dark," he said. "In one way it's a little curious, since there's reason to believe that most of them know a good deal more about what we're doing than I do myself. You'll excuse me."

Gordon smiled as his comrade strode away. He was one who had studied human nature, and because he was well acquainted with the Bushman's capabilities, he knew that there were also limitations to them. Even in such matters as the splitting of hard rock and the driving of massive piles into the river-bed, the higher intelligence of the man of intellect had its effect. Gordon smoked his pipe out as he watched Nasmyth flounder into the stream among the other men, pushing a little car loaded with broken rock that apparently ran along a submerged track. Then he strolled back toward the settlement.

Nasmyth toiled on in the river until the camp-cook hammered upon a suspended iron sheet as a signal that supper was ready. The summons was answered without delay. With the water running from their clothing Nasmyth and his men went back to the little log shanty. One or two changed their dripping garments, but the rest left their clothes to dry upon them, as their employer did. When the plentiful, warm supper had been eaten, Nasmyth went back to the little hut that served him as store and sleeping quarters. A big, grizzled man from Mattawa, Ontario, went in with him, and lounged upon the table while he sat in his bunk, which was filled with fresh spruce twigs.

"I'm pretty well played out, and if I'm to work to-morrow, I've got to sleep to-night," said Nasmyth.

The grizzled axeman nodded. "Well," he volunteered, "I'll stand watch. I was in the last two nights, and I guess it's up to me to see you through. We're going to have trouble, if one of those big logs fetches up across the sluiceway. The river's full of them, and she's risen 'most a foot since sun-up."

Nasmyth held up one hand, and both heard the deep roar of frothing water that came in with the smell of the firs through the open door. The Bush was very still outside, and that hoarse, throbbing note flung back by the rock slope and climbing pines filled the valley. Nasmyth smiled grimly, for it was suggestive of the great forces against which he had pitted his puny strength. Then there was a crash, and, a few moments later, a curious thud, and both men listened, intent and strung up, until the turmoil of the river rose alone again.

"A big log," said the older man. "She has gone through the run. Guess we'll get one by-and-by long enough to jamb. Now, if you'd run out those wing-frames I was stuck on, she'd have took them straight through, every one."

"The trouble was that I hadn't the money, Mattawa," said Nasmyth dryly.

His companion nodded, for this was a trouble he could understand. "Well," he answered, "when you haven't got it you have to face the consequences. I'll roust you out if a big log comes along."

Mattawa went out, and soon afterwards Nasmyth, whose clothes were now partly dry, lay down, dressed as he was, in his twig-packed bunk, with his pipe in his hand. It was growing a little colder, and a keen air, which had in it the properties of an elixir, blew in, but that was a thing Nasmyth scarcely noticed, and the dominant roar of the river held his attention. He wondered again why he had been drawn into the conflict with it, or, rather, why he had permitted Laura Waynefleet to set him such a task, and the answer that it was because he desired to hold her good opinion, and, as he had said, to do her credit, did not seem to go far enough. It merely suggested the further question why he should wish to keep her friendship. Still, there was no disguising the fact that, once he had undertaken the thing, it had got hold of him, and he felt he must go on until his task was successfully accomplished or he was crushed and beaten. It seemed very likely, then, that utter defeat would be his fate. While he pondered, the pipe fell from his hand, and the river's turmoil rang in deep pulsations through his dreams. He was awakened suddenly by a wet hand on his shoulder, and, scrambling out of his bunk on the instant, he saw Mattawa with a lantern in his hand.

"Log right across the sluice-run," said the watcher. "More coming along behind it. They'll sure get piling up."

Nasmyth did not remember that he gave any directions when he sprang, half asleep, out of the shanty. The roar of water had a different note in it, and the clangour of the iron sheet one of the men was pounding rang out harshly. A half-moon hung above the black pines, and dimly-seen men were flitting like shadows toward the waterside. They appeared to know what it was advisable to do, but they stopped just a moment on the edge of the torrent, for which nobody could have blamed them. The water, streaked with smears of froth and foam, swirled by, and there was a tumultuous white seething where the flood boiled across the log in the midst of the stream. The log blocked the gap left open to let the driftwood through, and, as Nasmyth knew, great trees torn up in distant valleys were coming down with the flood. It seemed to him that he could not reasonably have expected to clear that obstacle with a battalion of log-drivers, and he had only a handful of weary men. Still the men went in, floundering knee-deep in the flood, along the submerged pile of stone and clutching at the piles that bound it to save themselves when the stream threatened to sweep their feet from under them, until they came to the gap where the great tree, rolling in the grip of the torrent, thrashed its grinding branches against the stone.

Then, though it was difficult to see how a man of them found a foothold, or kept it on the heaving trunk, the big axes flashed and fell, while a few shadowy figures ran along the top of the log to attack the massy butt across the opening. It would have been arduous labour in daylight and at low-water, but these were men who had faced the most that flood and frost could do. They set about their task in the dark, for that land would have been a wilderness still if the men in it had shown themselves unduly careful of either life or limb.

The great branches yielded beneath the glinting blades, and went on down river again, but Nasmyth, who felt the axe-haft slip in his greasy hands, did not try to lead. It was sufficient if he could keep pace with the rest of the wood-choppers, which was, after all, a thing most men, reared as he had been, would certainly not have done. The lust of conflict was upon him that night, and, balancing himself ankle-deep in water on the trunk that heaved and dipped beneath him, he swung the trenchant steel. He felt that he was pitted against great primeval forces, and, with the gorged veins rising on his forehead and the perspiration dripping from him, man's primitive pride and passions urged him to the struggle.

How long it was before they had stripped the tree to a bare log he did not know, but twice, as they toiled on, he saw a man splash into the river, and, rising in the eddy beneath the submerged dam, crawl, dripping, out again, and at length he found himself beside Mattawa, whirling his axe above a widening notch, and keeping rhythmic stroke. He knew he was acquitting himself creditably then, for Mattawa had swung the axe since he could lift it, and there are men, and mechanics, too, who cannot learn to use it as the Bushmen do in a lifetime; but he also knew that he could not keep pace with his comrade very long. In the meanwhile, he held his aching muscles to their task, and the gleaming blades whirled high above their shoulders in the pale light of the moon. As each left the widening gap the other came shearing down.

The other men were now plying peevie and handspike at the butt of the log, and he and Mattawa toiled on alone, two dim and shadowy figures in the midst of the flood, until at last there was a rending of fibres, and Mattawa leapt clear.

"Jump!" he gasped. "She's going."

Nasmyth jumped. He went down in four or five feet of water, and had the sense to stay there while the log drove over him. Then he came up, and clutching it, held on while it swept downstream into a slacker eddy. There were several other figures apparently clinging to the butt of it, and when he saw them slip off into the river one by one, he let go, too. He was swung out of the eddy into a white turmoil, which hurled him against froth-lapped stones, but at length he found sure footing, and crawled up the bank, which most of his companions had reached before him. When the others came up, he found that he was aching all over, and evidently was badly bruised. He stood still, shivering a little, and blinked at them.

"You're all here?" he said. "Where are those axes?"

It appeared that most of them were in the river, which was not very astonishing, for a man cannot reasonably be expected to swim through a flood with a big axe in his hand, and when somebody said so, Nasmyth made a little gesture of resignation.

"Well," he said, "the logs will just have to pile up, if another big one comes along before the morning."

This was evident. They were all dead weary, and most of them were badly bruised, as well, and they trooped back to the shanty, while Nasmyth limped into his hut. Nasmyth sloughed off his dripping garments, and was asleep in five minutes after he had crawled into his bunk.