"Will you mind coming early—at nine in the morning?"
"Mind! I'll be sitting on the steps at sunrise if you say so," Bruce answered heartily.
How young she looked—how like the little girl of the picture when she laughed! Bruce looked at his watch as he returned to his party to see how many hours it would be before nine in the morning.
* * * * *
The shabbiness of the hotel where Helen lived surprised him. It was worse than his own. She had looked so exceptionally well-dressed the previous evening he had supposed that what she called ruin was comparative affluence, for Bruce had not yet learned that clothes are unsafe standards by which to judge the resources of city folks, just as on the plains and in the mountains faded overalls and a ragged shirt are equally untrustworthy guides to a man's financial rating. And the musty odor that met him in the gloomy hallway—he felt how she must loathe it. He had wondered at the early hour she'd set but when Helen came down she quickly explained.
"I must leave here at half past and if you have not finished what you have to say I thought you might walk with me to the office."
"The office?" It shocked him that she should have to go to an office, that she had hours, that anybody should have a claim upon her time by paying for it.
"Did you think I was an heiress!"
"Last night you looked as though you might be." His tone told her of his admiration.
"Relics of past greatness," Helen replied smiling. "A remodelled gown that was my mother's. One good street suit at a time and a blouse or two is the best I can do. I am merely a wonderful bluff in the evening."
Bruce felt that it was a sore spot although she was smiling, and he could not help being glad, for it meant she needed him. If he had found her in prosperous circumstances the success or failure of the placer would have meant very little to her. He must succeed, he told himself exuberantly; his incentive now was to make her life happier and easier.
"If everything goes this summer as I hope—and expect—" he said slowly, "you need not be a 'bluff' at any hour of the day."
Her eyes widened.
"What do you mean?"
Then Bruce described the ground that he and Slim had located. He told of his confidence in it, of his efforts to raise the money to develop it, and the means by which he had accomplished it. Encouraged by her intelligent interest he talked with eager enthusiasm of his plans for working it, describing mercury traps, and undercurrents, discussing the comparative merits of pole and block, Hungarian and caribou rifles. Once he was well started it seemed to him that he must have been saving up things all his life to tell to this girl. He talked almost breathlessly as though he had much to say and an appallingly short time to say it in.
He told her about his friend, Old Felix, and about the "sassy" blue-jays and the darting kingfisher that nested in the cut-bank where he worked, of the bush-birds that shared his sour-dough bread. He tried to picture to her the black bear lumbering over the river bowlders to the service berry bush across the river, where he stood on his hind legs, cramming his mouth and watching over his shoulder, looking like a funny little man in baggy trousers. He told her of his hero, the great Agassiz, of his mother, of whom even yet he could not speak without a break in his voice, and of his father, as he remembered him, harsh, silent, interested only in his cattle.
It dawned upon Bruce suddenly that he had been talking about himself—babbling for nearly an hour.
"Why haven't you stopped me?" he demanded, pausing in the middle of a sentence and coloring to his hair. "I've been prattling like an old soldier, telling war stories in a Home. What's got into me?"
Helen laughed aloud at his dismay.
"Honest," he assured her ruefully, "I never broke out like this before. And the worst of it is that I know with the least encouragement from you I'll start again. I never wanted to talk so much in my life. I'm ransacking my brain this very minute to see if there's anything else I know that I haven't told you. Oh, yes, there is," he exclaimed putting his hand inside his coat, "there's some more money coming to you from Slim—I forgot to tell you. It isn't a great deal but—" he laid in her hand the bank-notes Sprudell had been obliged to give him in Bartlesville after having denied finding her.
Helen looked from the money to Bruce in surprised inquiry:
"But Mr. Sprudell has already given me what Freddie left."
"Oh, this is another matter—a collection I made for him after Sprudell left," he replied glibly. It was considerable satisfaction to think that Sprudell had had to pay for his perfidy and she would benefit by it.
The last thing that Helen had expected to do was to cry, but the money meant so much to her just then; her relief was so great that the tears welled into her eyes. She bit her lip hard but they kept coming, and, mortified at such an exhibition, she laid her arm on the back of the worn plush sofa and hid her face.
Tears, however embarrassing, have a way of breaking down barriers and Bruce impulsively took in his the other hand that lay in her lap.
"What is it, Miss Dunbar? Won't you tell me? If you only knew how proud and happy I should be to have you talk to me frankly. You can't imagine how I've looked forward to being allowed to do something for you. It means everything to me—far more than to you."
Bruce remembered having seen his mother cry, through homesickness and loneliness, softly, uncomplainingly, as she went about her work in the ugly frame house back there on the bleak prairie. And he remembered the roars of rage in which Peroxide Louise had voiced her jealousy. But he had seen few women cry, and now he was so sorry for her that it hurt him—he felt as though someone had laid a hand upon his heart and squeezed it.
"It's relief, I suppose," she said brokenly. "It's disgusting that money should be so important."
"And do you need it so badly?" Bruce asked gravely.
"I need it if I am to go on living." And she told him of the doctor's warning.
"You must go away at once." Brace's voice was sharp with anxiety. "I wish you could come West," he added wistfully.
"I'd love it, but it is out of the question; it's too far—too expensive."
Bruce's black eyebrows came together. His poverty had never seemed so galling, so humiliating.
"I must go." She got up quickly. "I'm late. Do my eyes look very badly?"
"They're all right." He turned abruptly for his hat. He knew that if he looked an instant longer he should kiss her! What was the matter with him anyhow? he asked himself for the second time. Was he getting maudlin? Not content with talking a strange girl to death he would put on the finishing touch by kissing her. It was high time he was getting back to the mountains!
He walked with her to the office, wishing with all his heart that the blocks were each a mile long, and in his fear lest he miss a single word she had to say he pushed divers pedestrians out of his way with so little ceremony that only his size saved him from unpleasant consequences.
It was incredible and absurd that he should find it so hard to say good-bye to a girl he had just met, but when they reached the steps it was not until he had exhausted every infantile excuse he could think of for detaining her just an instant longer that he finally said reluctantly:
"I suppose you must go, but—" he hesitated; it seemed a tremendous thing to ask of her because it meant so much to him—"I'd like to write to you if you'd answer my letter. Pardners always write to each other, you know." He was smiling, but Helen was almost startled by the wistful earnestness in his eyes. "I'd like to know how it feels," he added, "to draw something in the mail besides a mail-order catalogue—to have something to look forward to."
"To be sure—we are partners, aren't we?"
"I've had a good many but I never had one I liked better." Bruce replied with such fervor that Helen felt herself coloring.
"I don't like being a silent partner," she returned lightly. "I wish I could do my share. I'm even afraid to say I'll pray for your success for, to the present, I've never made a prayer that's been answered. But," and she sobered, "I want to tell you I do believe in you. It's like a fairy tale—too wonderful and good to be true—but I'm going to bank on it and whatever happens now—no matter how disagreeable—I shall be telling myself that it is of no importance for in a few months my hard times will all be done."
Bruce took the hand she gave him and looked deep into her eyes.
"I'll try—with all my might," he said huskily, and in his heart the simple promise was a vow.
He watched her as she ran up the steps and disappeared inside the wide doors of the office building—resenting again the thought that she had "hours"—that she had to work for pay. If all went well—if there were no accidents or miscalculations—he should be able to see her again by—certainly by October. What a long time half a year was when a person came to think of it! What a lot of hours there were in six months! Bruce sighed as he turned away.
He looked up to meet the vacant gaze of a nondescript person lounging on the curbing. It was the fourth or fifth time that morning he thought he had seen that same blank face.
"Is this town full of twins and triplets in battered derbies?" Bruce asked himself, eying the idler sharply as he passed, "or is that hombre tagging me around?"
A PRACTICAL MAN
Bruce's thoughts were a jumble of dynamos and motors, direct and alternating currents, volts and amperes, when James J. Jennings' papier-mache suitcase hit him in the shins in the lobby of a hotel which was headquarters for mining men in the somnolent city on the Pacific coast.
Jennings promptly dropped the suitcase and thrust out a hand which still had ground into the knuckles oil and smudge acquired while helping put up a power-plant in Alaska.
"Where did you come from—what are you doing here?" Bruce had seen him last in Alberta.
"Been up in the North Country, but"—James lifted a remarkable upper lip in a shy grin of ecstasy—"I aims to git married and stay in the States."
"Shoo—you don't say so!" Bruce exclaimed, properly surprised and congratulatory.
"Yep," he beamed, then dropped, as he added mournfully, "So fur I've had awful bad luck with my wives; they allus die or quit me."
Bruce ventured the hope that his luck might change with this, his last—and as Jennings explained—fifth venture.
"I kinda think it will," the prospective bridegroom declared hopefully. "Bertha looks—er—lasty. But what about you?—I never knew you'd even saw a city."
"I'm a sure enough Sourdough," Bruce admitted, "but I did stray out of the timber. Register, and I'll tell you all about it—maybe you can help me."
Jennings, Bruce commented mentally as he watched him walk to the desk, was not exactly the person he would have singled out as the hero of five serious romances. Even five years before, in the Kootnai country, Jennings had been no matinee idol and Time had not been lenient.
He had bent knees, protuberant, that seemed to wobble. A horseman would have called him knee-sprung and declared he stumbled. His back was stooped so his outline was the letter S, and CARE was written in capitals on his corrugated brow. No railroad president with a strike on ever wore a heavier air of responsibility, though the suitcase which gave out an empty rattle contained James's earthly all. His teeth were yellow fangs and his complexion suggested a bad case of San Jose scale, but his distinctive feature was a long elastic upper lip which he had a habit of puffing out like a bear pouting in a trap. Yet James's physical imperfections had been no handicap, as was proved by the fact that he was paying alimony into two households and the bride on the horizon was contemplating matrimony with an enthusiasm equal to his own.
While Jennings breakfasted Bruce told him the purpose of his visit to the Pacific coast, hoping that out of the wide experience with machinery which Jennings claimed he might make some useful suggestions; besides Bruce found it a relief to talk the situation over with someone he had known.
"I don't pretend to know the first thing about electrical machinery," he said frankly, "I only know the results I want—that I must have. I've got to rely on the judgment and honesty of others and there's such a diversity of opinion that I tell you, Jennings, I'm scared to death lest I make a mistake. And I can't afford to make a mistake. I've left myself no margin for mistakes, every dollar has got to count."
"There's one thing you want to remember when you're workin' in an isolated country, and that's the need of strength—strength and simplicity. These new-fangled—"
Bruce interrupted eagerly—
"My idea exactly—durability. If anything breaks down there that can't he repaired on the place it means laying off the crew from a month to six weeks while the parts are going in and out to the factory."
"That's it—that's why I say strength above everything." Nearly half a century of frying-pan bread had given Jennings indigestion and now as he sipped his hot water he pondered, bursting out finally—"If I was you, Burt, I'll tell you what I'd do, I'd install the old type Edison machines for that very reason. You can't break 'em with a trip hammer. They're so simple a kid can run 'em. There's nothin' about 'em to git out of repair onct they're up. If you aim to work that ground with scrapers, I'll tell you now it's goin' to be a big drag on the motors. Of course they're a little bit heavier than these new-fangled—"
"But the agents tell me these newer and lighter machines will stand it."
Jennings blew out his elastic upper lip and shrugged a shoulder:
"Maybe they know more than I do—maybe they do, but it's to their interest to talk 'em up, ain't it? I'm no college electrician—I'm a practical man and I been around machinery nigh to fifty years, so I know them old-fashioned motors. They'll stand an overload, and take my word for it they'll git it on them scrapers. These new-fangled machines will stand jest about what they're rated at and you can't tell me anything differenter. I say them old type Edison machines is the thing for rough work in that kind of a country. Ain't I seen what they can do on drudgers? Besides, you can pick 'em up for half the price and as good as new with a little repairin'."
"I wonder if they would do the work," Bruce murmured to himself thoughtfully.
"What interest would I have in tellin' you if they wouldn't?" Jennings demanded.
"I didn't mean that the way it sounded," Bruce assured him quickly. "I was thinking that if they would do the work and I could save something on the price of machinery I'd sure breathe easier."
"Do the work!" scornfully. "You can pull off a chunk of mountain with a good donkey-engine and them motors. Why, on the drudgers up here in Alasky—"
"Do you know where you can get hold of any of these machines?"
"I think I do," Jennings reflected. "Before I went down North I knowed where they was a couple if they ain't been sold."
"Suppose you look them up and find out their condition—will you do this for me?"
"Bet I will, old man, I'd like to see you make a go of it. I gotta show up at Bertha's, then I'll run right out and look 'em over and report this evenin'."
Jennings kept his word and when Bruce saw him cross the office with a spray of lilies-of-the-valley in his buttonhole and stepping like an English cob he guessed that he either had been successful or his call upon Bertha had been eminently satisfactory. He was correct, it proved, in both surmises.
"They're there yet" he announced with elation, "in good shape, too. The motors need re-winding and there's some other little tinkerin', but aside from that—say, my boy, you're lucky—nearly as lucky as I am. I tell you I'm goin' to git a great little woman!"
"Glad to hear it, Jennings. But about this machinery, what's it going to weigh? I don't know that I told you but I mean to take it down the river."
"It's no mill-pond," Bruce answered dryly, "full of rapids." Jennings looked a little startled, and Bruce added:
"The weight is a mighty important feature."
"The dynamos will weigh close to 22,000 pounds, and the whole 55,000 pounds approximately."
"They weigh a-plenty," Bruce looked thoughtful, "but I reckon I can bring them if I must. And there's no doubt about the must, as a wagon road in there would cost $20,000."
As the outcome of the chance meeting Bruce bought the machines upon Jennings's recommendation with a saving of much money and Jennings furthermore was engaged to make the necessary repairs and install the plant on the river. It was a load off Bruce's mind to feel that this part of the work was safe in the hands of a practical, experienced man accustomed to coping with the emergencies which arise when working far from transportation facilities.
Once this was settled there was nothing more for Bruce to do in the city and a great deal to be done upon the river, so he bade good-bye to Jennings and left immediately.
On the journey from the Pacific coast to Spokane the gritting of the car-wheels was a song of success, of achievement. Bruce felt himself alive to the finger-tips with the joy of at last being busy at something worth while. He looked back upon the times when he had thought himself happy with profound pity for his ignorance.
When he had stretched himself at night on his mattress of pine-boughs with his head on the bear-grass pillow watching through the cabin window the moon rise out of the "draw" where Big Squaw creek headed, he had thought that he was happy. When he had found a bit of float that "panned," a ledge that held possibilities, or the yellow flakes had shown up thicker than usual in the day's clean-up he had called this satisfaction, the momentary exhilaration, happiness. When he had landed a battling "red-side" after a struggle and later thrust his fork through the crisp, brown skin into its steaming pink flesh he had characterized that animal contentment such as any clod might have, as happiness. Poor fool, he told himself now, he had not known the meaning of the word.
His day dreams had taken on a different color. His goal was always before him and this goal was represented by the hour when the machinery in the power and pump houses was running smoothly, when a head of water was flowing through the flume and sluice-boxes and the scrapers were handling 1000 cubic yards a day. As he stared through the window at the flying landscape he saw, not the orchards and wheat fields of the great state of Washington, but quicksilver lying thick with amalgam behind the riffles and the scales sagging with precious, yellow, honey-combed chunks of gold still hot from the retort.
Sometimes he found himself anticipating the moment when he should be telegraphing the amount of the clean-up to Helen Dunbar, to Harrah, and to Harrah's good-naturedly pessimistic friends. Bruce ransacked his brain for somebody in the world to envy, but there was no one.
He had gone directly to the river from the East, taking a surveyor with him, and as soon as his application for the water-right in Big Squaw creek had been granted he got a crew together composed chiefly of the magnates from Ore City who, owing to Dill's failure to take up the options, found themselves still at leisure and the financial depression unrelieved.
Ore City nursed a grievance against Dill that was some sorer than a carbuncle and it relieved its feelings by inventing punishments should he ever return to the camp which in ingenuity rivalled the tortures of the Inquisition. Bruce, too, often speculated concerning Dill, for it looked as though he had purposely betrayed Sprudell's interest. Certainly a man of his mining experience knew better than to make locations in the snow and to pass assessment work which was obviously inadequate. From Sprudell, Bruce had heard nothing and engrossed in his new activities all but forgot him and his treachery, his insults and mysterious threats of vengeance.
Before leaving for the Pacific coast to buy machinery, Bruce had mapped out for the crew the work to be done in his absence and now, upon his return, he found great changes had come to the quiet bar on the river. There was a kitchen where Toy reigned, an arbitrary monarch, and a long bunk-house built of lumber sawed by an old-fashioned water-wheel which itself had been laboriously whip-sawed from heavy logs. Across the river the men were straining and lifting and tugging on the green timbers for the 500 feet of trestle which the survey demanded in order to get the 200-feet head that was necessary to develop the 250 horse-power needed for the pumps and scrapers.
Bruce was not long in exchanging the clothes of civilization for the recognized uniform of the miner, and in flannel shirt and overalls he toiled side by side with Porcupine Jim, Lannigan and the other local celebrities on his pay-roll, who by heroic exertions were pushing the trestle foot by foot across Big Squaw creek.
The position of General Manager as Bruce interpreted it was no sinecure. A General Manager who worked was an anomaly, something unheard of in the district where the title carried with it the time-honored prerogative of sitting in the shade issuing orders, sustained and soothed by an unfailing supply of liquid refreshment.
And while the crew wondered, they criticised—not through any lack of regard for Bruce but merely from habit and the secret belief that whatever he did they could have done better. In their hours of relaxation it was their wont to go over his plans for working the ground, so far as they knew them, and explain to each other carefully and in detail how it was impossible for Bruce with the kind of a "rig" he was putting in, to handle enough dirt to wash out a breast-pin. Yet they toiled none the less faithfully for these dispiriting conversations, doing the work of horses, often to the point of exhaustion.
When the trestle was well along Bruce commenced sawing lumber for the half mile of flume which was to bring the water from the head-gate across the trestle to the pressure-box above the power-house. He sawed in such frenzy of haste—for there was so much to do and so little time to do it in—and with such concentration that when he raised his eyes the air seemed full of two by fours, and bottoms. When he closed them at night he saw "inch stuff," and bottoms. When he dreamed, it was of saw-logs, battens and bottoms.
Spring came unmistakably and Bruce waited anxiously for word from Jennings that the repairs had been made and the machinery was on its way to Meadows—the mountain town one hundred and fifty miles above where the barges would be built and loaded for their hazardous journey.
As the sun grew stronger daily Bruce began to watch the river with increasing anxiety. He wondered if he had made it clear to Jennings that delay, the difference of a week, might mean a year's postponement. The period nearest approaching safety was when the river was at the middle stage of the spring rise—about eight feet above low water. After it had passed this point only the utterly foolhardy would have attempted it.
Bruce's nerves were at a tension as the days went by and he saw the great green snake swelling with the coming of warmer weather. Inch by inch the water crept up the sides of "Old Turtle-back," the huge glazed rock that rose defiantly, splitting the current in the middle. A few hot suns would melt the snowbanks in the mountains to send the river thundering between its banks until the very earth trembled, and its navigation was unthinkable.
The telegram came finally, and Bruce's relief was so great that, as little as he liked him, he could almost have embraced Smaltz, the man who brought the news that the machinery was boxed and on its way to Meadows.
"Thank God, that worry's over!" Bruce ejaculated as he read it, and Smaltz lingered. "I may get a night's sleep now instead of lying awake listening to the river."
"Oh, the machinery's started?"
Bruce had an impression that he already knew the contents of the telegram in spite of his air of innocence and his question.
"Yes," he nodded briefly.
"Say,—me and Porcupine Jim been talkin' it over and wonderin' if we'd pay our own way around so it wouldn't cost the Company nothin', if you'd let us come down with a boat from Meadows?"
"Can you handle a sweep?"
"Can I?" Smaltz sniggered. "Try me!"
Bruce looked at him a moment before he answered. He was wondering why the very sight of Smaltz irritated him. He was the only man of the crew that he disliked thoroughly. His boastful speech, his swaggering walk, a veiled insolence in his eyes and manner made Bruce itch to send him up the hill for good, but since Smaltz was unquestionably the best all-round man he had, he would not allow himself to be influenced by his personal prejudices. While he boasted he had yet to fail to make good his boastings and the tattered credentials he had displayed when he had asked for work were of the best. When he asserted now that he could handle a sweep it was fairly certain that he could not only handle one but handle it well. Porcupine Jim, Bruce knew, had had some experience, so there was no good reason why he should not let them go since they were anxious.
"I've engaged the front sweepman for the other two boats," Bruce said finally, "but if you and Jim want to take a hind sweep each and will promise to obey orders I guess there's no objection."
"Surest thing you know," Smaltz answered in the fresh tone that rasped Bruce. "An' much obliged. Anything to git a chanst to shoot them rapids. I'd do it if I wasn't gittin' nothin' out of it just for the fun of it."
"It won't look like fun to me with all I'll have at stake," said Bruce soberly.
"Aw—don't worry—we kin cut her." Smaltz tossed the assurance back airily as he walked away, looking sharply to the right and left over his shoulder. It was a habit he had, Bruce often had noticed it, along with a fashion of stepping quickly around corners, peering and craning his neck as if perpetually on the alert for something or somebody. "You act like some feller that's 'done time'—or orter. I'll bet a hundred to one you know how to make horsehair bridles," Woods, the carpenter, had once told him pointedly, and the criticism had voiced Bruce's own thoughts.
In the mail which Smaltz had brought down from Ore City was a letter from Helen Dunbar. It was the second he had had and he told himself as he tore it open eagerly that it had come none too soon, for the first one was well nigh worn out. He could not get over the surprise of discovering how many readings three or four pages of scraggly handwriting will stand without loss of interest.
Now, as he tried to grasp it all in a glance, the friendliness of it, the confidence and encouragement it contained made him glow. But at the end there was a paragraph which startled him—always the fly in the ointment—that gave rise to a vague uneasiness he could not immediately shake off.
"I ran up to the city one day last week," the paragraph read, "and who do you suppose I saw with Winfield Harrah in the lobby of the Hotel Strathmore? You would never guess. None other than our versatile friend T. Victor Sprudell!"
How did they meet? For what purpose had Sprudell sought Harrah's acquaintance? It troubled as well as puzzled Bruce for he could not think the meeting an accident because even he could see that Harrah and Sprudell moved in widely different stratas of society.
PROPHETS OF EVIL
The difference between success and failure is sometimes only a hair's breadth, the turning of a hand, and although the man who loses is frequently as deserving of commendation as the man who wins he seldom receives it, and Bruce knew that this would be particularly true of his attempt to shoot the dangerous rapids of the river with heavily loaded boats. If he accomplished the feat he would be lauded as a marvel of nerve and skill and shrewdness, if he failed he would be known in the terse language of Meadows as "One crazy damn fool."
While the more conservative citizens of the mountain towns refrained from publicly expressing their thoughts, a coterie known as the "Old Timers" left him in no doubt as to their own opinion of the attempt. Each day they came to the river bank as regularly as though they had office-hours and stationed themselves on a pile of lumber near where Bruce caulked and tarred the seams of the three boats which were to make the first trip through the rapids. They made Bruce think of so many ancient ravens, as they roosted in a row croaking disaster. By the time the machinery was due to arrive they spoke of the wreck of the boats as something foreordained and settled. They differed only as to where it would happen.
"I really doubts, Burt, if you so much as git through the Pine-Crick rapids."
"I mind the time Jake Hazlett and his crew was drowned at the 'Wild Goose.' It seems the coroner was already there a settin' on a corp' that had come up in the eddy. 'Go on through, boys!' he hollers to 'em, 'I'll wait for you down below. It'll save me another trip from Medders'."
Bruce worked on, apparently unperturbed by these discouraging reminiscences.
"They say they's a place down there where the river's so narrow it's bent over," volunteered a third pessimist, as he cut an artistic initial in a plank with the skill of long practice. "And you'll go through the Black Canyon like a bat out o' hell. But I has no notion whatsoever that you'll ever come up when you hits that waterfall on the other end. When her nose dips under, heavy-loaded like that, she'll sink and fill right thar. Why—"
"Do you rickolect," quavered a spry young cub of eighty-two who talked of the Civil War and the Nez Perce uprising as though they were the events of yesterday, "do you remember the time 'Death-on-the-Trail' lost his hull outfit tryin' to git through the 'Devil's Teeth'? The idee of an old feller like him startin' out alone! Why he was all of seventy."
"An' the time 'Starvation Bill' turned over at Proctors's Falls?" chortled another. "Fritz Yandell said the river was full of grub—cracker cans, prunes and the like o' that, for clost to a week. I never grieved much to hear of an accident to him for we'd had a railroad in here twenty years ago if it hadn't been for Bill. The survey outfit took him along for helper and he et up all the grub, so the Injin guide quit 'em cold and they couldn't go on. I allus hoped he'd starve to death somm'eres, but after a spell of sickness from swallerin' a ham-bone, he died tryin' to eat six dozen aigs on a bet."
"Talkin' of Fritz Yandell—he told me he fished him a compass and transit out'n the river after them Governmint Yellow-Legs wrecked on Butcher's Bar." The speaker added cheerfully: "Since the Whites come into the country I reckon all told you could count the boats that's got through without trouble on the fingers of one hand. If these boats was goin' empty I'd say 'all right—you're liable to make it,' but sunk deep in the water with six or eight thousand pounds—Burt, you orter have your head examined."
But Bruce refused to let himself think of accident. He knew water, he could handle a sweep; he meant to take every precaution and he could, he must get through.
The river was rising rapidly now, not an inch at a time but inches, for the days were warmer—warm enough to start rivulets running from sheltered snowbanks in the mountains. Daily the distance increased from shore to shore. Sprawling trees, driftwood, carcasses, the year's rubbish from draws and gulches, swept by on the broad bosom of the yellow flood. The half-submerged willows were bending in the current and water-mark after water-mark disappeared on the bridge piles.
Bruce had not realized that the days of waiting had stretched his nerves to such a tension until he learned that the freight had really come. He felt for a moment as though the burdens of the world had been suddenly rolled from his shoulders. His relief was short-lived. It changed to consternation when he saw the last of the machinery piled upon the bank for loading. It weighed not fifty thousand pounds but all of ninety—nearer a hundred! Dumfounded for the moment, he did not see how he could take it. The saving that he had made on the purchase price was eaten up by the extra weight owing to the excessive freight rates from the coast and on the branch line to Meadows. More than that, Jennings had disobeyed his explicit orders to box the smaller parts of each machine together. All had been thrown in the car helter-skelter.
Not since he had raged at "Slim" had Bruce been so furious, but there was little time to indulge his temper for there was now an extra boat to build upon which he must trust Smaltz as front sweepman.
They all worked early and late, building the extra barge, dividing the weight and loading the unwieldy machinery, but the best they could do, counting four boats to a trip instead of three, each barge drew from eight to twelve inches of water.
Though he gave no outward sign and went on stubbornly, the undertaking under such conditions—even to Bruce—looked foolhardy, while the croakings of the "Old Timers" rose to a wail of lamentation.
The last nail was driven and the last piece loaded and Bruce and his boatmen stood on the banks at dusk looking at the four barges, securely tied with bow and stern lines riding on the rising flood. Thirty-seven feet long they were, five feet high, eight feet wide while the sweeps were of two young fir trees over six inches in diameter and twenty feet in length. A twelve foot plank formed the blade which was bolted obliquely to one end and the whole balanced on a pin. They were clumsy looking enough, these flat-bottomed barges, but the only type of boat that could ride the rough water and skim the rocks so menacingly close to the surface.
"There's nothin' left to do now but say our prayers." Smaltz's jocularity broke the silence.
"My wife hasn't quit snifflin' since she heard the weight I was goin' to take," said Saunders, the boatman upon whom Bruce counted most. "If I hadn't promised I don't know as I'd take the risk. I wouldn't, as it is, for anybody else, but I know what it means to you."
"And I sure hate to ask it," said Bruce answered gravely. "If anything happens I'll never forgive myself."
"Well—we can only do the best we can—and hope," said Saunders. "The water's as near right as it ever will be; and I wouldn't worry if it wasn't for the load."
"To-morrow at eight, boys, and be prompt. Every hour is counting from now on, with two more trips to make."
Bruce walked slowly up the street and went to his room, too tired and depressed for conversation down below. The weigh-bill from the station-agent was even worse than he had expected; and the question which he asked himself over and over was whether Jennings's under-estimation of the weight was deliberate misrepresentation or bad figuring? Whatever the cause the costly error had shaken his faith in Jennings.
Bruce was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow. The last thing he remembered was Smaltz's raucous voice in the bar-room below boasting of the wicked rapids he had shot in the tumultuous "Colo-rady" and on the Stikine in the far north.
The noise of the bar-room ceased at an early hour and the little mountain town grew quiet but Bruce was not conscious of the change. It was midnight—and long past—well toward morning when in the sleep which had been so profound he heard his mother calling, calling in the same dear, sweet way that she used to call him when, tired out with following his father on long rides, he had overslept in the morning.
"Bruce! Bruce-boy! Up-adaisy!"
He stirred uneasily and imagined that he answered.
The voice came again and there was pleading in the shrill, staccato notes:
"Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!"
The cry from dreamland roused his consciousness at last. He sat up startled. There was no thought in his mind but the boats—the boats! In seconds, not minutes, he was in his clothes and stumbling down the dark stairway. There was something ghostly in the hollow echo of his footsteps on the plank sidewalk as he ran through the main street of the still village.
He saw that one boat was gone from its mooring before he reached the bank! He could see plainly the space where it had been. The other boats were safe—but the fourth—. He stopped short on the bank for one brief second weak with relief. The fourth barge, which was holding it temporarily. The water by some miracle it had jammed against the third barge which was holding it temporarily. The water was slapping against the side that was turned to the stream and the other was bumping, bumping against the stern of the third boat but the loose barge was working a little closer to the current with each bump. A matter of five minutes more at the most and it would have been started on its journey to destruction.
Bruce sprang to the stern of the third barge and dragged the loose bow-line from the water. It was shorter by many feet—the stout, new rope had been cut! It was not necessary to strike a match—the starlight was sufficient to show him that. He stared at it, unable to credit his own eyes. He scrambled over the machinery to the stern. The stern-line was the same—cut square and clean. If further evidence was needed, it was furnished by the severed portion, which was still tied around a bush.
There was no more sleep for Bruce that night. Bewildered, dumfounded by the discovery, he rolled himself in a "tarp" and laid down on the boat's platform. So far as he knew he had not an enemy in the town. There seemed absolutely no reasonable explanation for the act.
AT THE BIG MALLARD
The sun rose the next morning upon an eventful day in Bruce's life. He was backing his judgment—or was it only his mulish obstinacy?—against the conviction of the community. He knew that if it had not been for their personal friendship for himself the married men among his boatmen would have backed out. There was excitement and tension in the air.
The wide, yellow river was running like a mill-race, bending the willows, lapping hungrily at the crumbling shore. The bank was black with groups of people, tearful wives and whimpering children, lugubrious neighbors, pessimistic citizens. Bruce called the men together and assigned each boat its place in line. Beyond explicit orders that no boatman should attempt to pass another and the barges must be kept a safe distance apart, he gave few instructions, for they had only to follow his lead.
"But if you see I'm in trouble, follow Saunders, who's second. And, Jim, do exactly as Smaltz tells you—you'll be on the hind sweep in the third boat with him."
In addition to a head and hind sweepman each barge carried a bailer, for there were rapids where at any stage of the water a boat partially filled. The men now silently took their places and Bruce on his platform gripped the sweep-handle and nodded—
The barge drifted a little distance slowly, then faster; the current caught it and it started on its journey like some great swift-swimming bird. As he glided into the shadow of the bridge Saunders started; before he turned the bend Smaltz was waving his farewells, and as Meadows vanished from his sight the fourth boat, the heaviest loaded, was on its way. Bruce drew a deep breath, rest was behind him, the next three days would be hours of almost continual anxiety and strain.
The forenoon of the first day was comparatively easy going, though there were places enough for an amateur to wreck; but the real battle with the river began at the Pine Creek Rapids—the battle that no experienced boatman ever was rash enough to prophesy the result. The sinister stream, with its rapids and whirlpools, its waterfalls and dangerous channel-rocks, had claimed countless victims in the old days of the gold rush and there were years together since the white people had settled at Meadows that no boat had gone even a third of its length. Wherever the name of the river was known its ill-fame went with it, and those feared it most who knew it best. Only the inexperienced, those too unfamiliar with water to recognize its perils so long as nothing happened, spoke lightly of its dangers.
Above the Pine Creek Rapids, Bruce swung into an eddy to tie up for lunch; besides, he wanted to see how Smaltz handled his sweep. Smaltz came on, grinning, and Porcupine Jim, bare-headed, his yellow pompadour shining in the sun like corn-silk, responded instantly to every order with a stroke. They were working together perfectly, Bruce noted with relief, and the landing Smaltz made in the eddy was quite as good as the one he had made himself.
Once more Bruce had to admit that if Smaltz boasted he always made good his boast. He believed there was little doubt but that he was equal to the work.
An ominous roar was coming from the rapids, a continuous rumble like thunder far back in the hills. It was not the most cheerful sound by which to eat and the meal was brief. The gravity of the boatmen who knew the river was contagious and the grin faded gradually from Smaltz's face.
Life preservers were dragged out within easy reach, the sweepmen replaced their boots with rubber-soled canvas ties and cleared their platform of every nail and splinter. When all were ready, Bruce swung off his hat and laid both hands upon his sweep.
"Throw off the lines," he said quietly and his black eyes took on a steady shine.
There was something creepy, portentous, in the seemingly deliberate quietness with which the boat crept from the still water of the eddy toward the channel.
The bailer in the stern changed color and no one spoke. There was an occasional ripple against the side of the boat but save for that distant roar no other sound broke the strained stillness. Bruce crouched over his sweep like some huge cat, a cougar waiting to grapple with an enemy as wily and as formidable as himself. The boat slipped forward with a kind of stealth and then the current caught it.
Faster it moved, then faster and faster. The rocks and bushes at the water's edge flew by. The sound was now a steady boom! boom! growing louder with every heart-beat, until it was like the indescribable roar of a cloudburst in a canyon—an avalanche of water dropping from a great height.
The boat was racing now with a speed which made the flying rocks and foliage along the shore a blur—racing toward a white stretch of churning spray and foam that reached as far down the river as it was possible to see. From the water which dashed itself to whiteness against the rocks there still came the mighty boom! boom! which had put fear into many a heart.
The barge was leaping toward it as though drawn by the invisible force of some great suction pump. The hind sweepman gripped the handle of the sweep until his knuckles went white and Bruce over his shoulder watched the wild water with a jaw set and rigid.
The heavy barge seemed to pause for an instant on the edge of a precipice with half her length in mid-air before her bow dropped heavily into a curve of water that was like the hollow of a great green shell. The roar that followed was deafening. The sheet of water that broke over the boat for an instant shut out the sun. Then she came up like a clumsy Newfoundland, with the water streaming from the platform and swishing through the machinery, and all on board drenched to the skin.
Bruce stood at his post unshaken, throwing his great strength on the sweep this way and that—endeavoring to keep it in the centre of the current—in the middle of the tortuous channel through which the boat was racing like mad. And the hind-sweepman, doing his part, responded, with all the weight of body and strength he possessed, to Bruce's low-voiced orders almost before they had left his lips.
Quick and tremendous action was imperative for there were places where a single instant's tardiness meant destruction. There was no time in that mad rush to rectify mistakes. A miscalculation, a stroke of the sweep too little or too much, would send the heavily loaded boat with that tremendous, terrifying force behind it, crashing and splintering on a rock like a flimsy-bottomed strawberry box.
For all of seven miles Bruce never lifted his eyes, straining them as he wielded his sweep for the deceptive, submerged granite boulders over which the water slid in a thin sheet. Immovable, tense, he steered with the sureness of knowledge and grim determination until the boat ceased to leap and ahead lay a little stretch of peace.
Then he turned and looked at the lolling tongues behind him that seemed still reaching for the boat and straightening up he shook his fist:
"You didn't get me that time, dog-gone you, and what's more you won't!"
All three boats were coming, rearing and plunging, disappearing and reappearing. Anxiously he watched Smaltz work until a bend of the river shut them all from sight. It was many miles before the river straightened out again but when it did he saw them all riding safely, with Smaltz holding his place in line.
Stretches of white water came at frequent intervals all day but Bruce slept on the platform of his barge that night more soundly than he ever had dared hope. Each hour that passed, each rapid that they put behind them, was so much done; he was so much nearer his goal.
On the second night when they tied up, with the Devil's Teeth, the Black Canyon and the Whiplash passed in safety, Bruce felt almost secure, although the rapid that he dreaded most remained for the third and last day.
The boatmen stood, a silent group, at The Big Mallard. "She's a bad one, boys—and looking wicked as I've ever seen her." There was a furrow of anxiety between Bruce's heavy brows.
Every grave face was a shade paler and Porcupine Jim's eyes looked like two blue buttons sewed on white paper as he stared.
"I wish I was back in Meennyso-ta." The unimaginative Swede's voice was plaintive.
"We dare not risk the other channel, Saunders," said Bruce briefly, "the water's hardly up enough for that."
"I don't believe we could make it," Saunders answered; "it's too long a chance."
Smaltz was studying the rocks and current intently, as though to impress upon his mind every twist and turn. His face was serious but he made no comment and walked back in silence to the eddy above where the boats were tied.
It was the only rapid where they had stopped to "look out the trail ahead," but a peculiarity of the Big Mallard was that the channel changed with the varying stages of the water and it was too dangerous at any stage to trust to luck.
It was a stretch of water not easy to describe. Words seem colorless—inadequate to convey the picture it presented or the sense of awe it inspired. Looking at it from among the boulders on the shore it seemed the last degree of madness for human beings to pit their Lilliputian strength against that racing, thundering flood. Certain it was that The Big Mallard was the supreme test of courage and boatmanship.
The river, running like a mill-race, shot straight and smooth down grade until it reached a high, sharp, jutting ledge of granite, where it made a sharp turn. The main current made a close swirl and then fairly leaping took a sudden rush for a narrow passageway between two great boulders, one of which rose close to shore and the other nearer the centre of the river. The latter being covered thinly with a sheet of water which shot over it to drop into a dark hole like a well, rising again to strike another rock immediately below and curve back. For three hundred yards or more the river seethed and boiled, a stretch of roaring whiteness, as though its growing fury had culminated in this foaming fit of rage, and from it came uncanny sounds like children crying, women screaming.
Bruce's eyes were shining brilliantly with the excitement of the desperate game ahead when he put into the river, but nothing could exceed the carefulness, the caution with which he worked his boat out of the eddy so that when the current caught it it should catch it right. Watching the landmarks on either shore, measuring distances, calculating the consequences of each stroke, he placed the clumsy barge where he would have it, with all the accurate skill of a good billiard player making a shot.
The boat reached the edge of the current; then it caught it full. With a jump like a race-horse at the signal it was shooting down the toboggan slide of water toward the jutting granite ledge. The blanched bailer in the stern could have touched it with his hand as the boat whipped around the corner, clearing it by so small a margin that it seemed to him his heart stood still.
Bruce's muscles turned to steel as he gripped the sweep handle for the last mad rush. He looked the personification of human daring. The wind blew his hair straight back. The joy of battle blazed in his eyes. His face was alight with a reckless exultation. But powerful, fearless as he was, it did not seem as though it were within the range of human skill or possibilities to place a boat in that toboggan slide of water so that it would cut the current diagonally, miss the rock nearest shore and shoot across to miss the channel boulder and that yawning hole beneath. But he did, though he skimmed the wide-mouthed well so close that the bailer stared into its dark depths with bulging eyes.
The boat leaped in the spray below, but the worst was passed and Bruce and his hind sweepman exchanged the swift smile of satisfaction which men have for each other at such a time.
"Keep her steady—straight away." He had not dared yet to lift his eyes to look behind save for that one glance.
"My God! they're comin' right together!"
The sharp cry from the hind sweepman made him turn. They had rounded the ledge abreast and Smaltz's boat inside was crowding Saunders hard. Saunders and his helper were working with superhuman strength to throw the boat into the outer channel in the fraction of time before it started on the final shoot. Could they do it! could they! Bruce felt his lungs—his heart—something inside him hurt with his sharp intake of breath as he watched that desperate battle whose loss meant not only sunk machinery but very likely death.
Bruce's hands were still full getting his own boat to safety. He dared not look too long behind.
"They're goin' to make it! They're almost through! They're safe!" Then—shrilly—"They're gone! they've lost a sweep."
Bruce turned quickly at his helper's cry of consternation, turned to see the hind-sweep wildly threshing the air while the boat spun around and around in the boiling water, disappearing, reappearing, sinking a little lower with each plunge. Then, at the risk of having every rib crushed in, they saw the bailer throw his body across the sweep and hold it down before it quite leaped from its pin. The hind-sweepman was scrambling wildly to reach and hold the handle as it beat the air. He got it—held it for a second—then it was wrenched out of his hand. He tried again and again before he held it, but finally Bruce said huskily——
"They'll make it—they'll make it sure if Saunders can hold her a little longer off the rocks."
His own boat had reached quieter water. Simultaneously, it seemed, both he and his helper thought of Smaltz. They took their eyes from the boat in trouble and the hind-sweepman's jaw dropped. He said unemotionally—dully—as he might have said—"I'm sick; I'm hungry"—"They've struck."
Yes—they had struck. If Bruce had not been so absorbed he might have heard the bottom splintering when she hit the rock.
Her bow shot high into the air and settled at the stern. As she slid off, tilted, filled and sunk, Smaltz and Porcupine Jim both jumped. Then the river made a bend which shut it all from Bruce's sight. It was half a mile before he found a landing. He tied up and walked back, unexcited, not hurrying, with a curious quietness inside.
Smaltz and Jim were fighting when he got there. Smaltz was sitting astride the latter's chest. There were epithets and recriminations, accusations, counter-charges, oaths. The Swede was crying and a little stream of red was trickling toward his ear. Bruce eyed him calmly, contemplatively, thinking what a face he made, and how ludicrous he looked with the sand matted in his corn-silk hair and covering him like a tamale casing of corn-meal as it stuck to his wet clothes.
He left them and walked up the river where the rock rose like a monument to his hopes. With his hands on his hips he watched the water rippling around it, slipping over the spot where the boat lay buried with some portion of every machine upon the works while like a bolt from the blue the knowledge came to him that since the old Edison type was obsolete the factories no longer made duplicates of the parts.
"THE FORLORN HOPE"
It was August. "Old Turtle-back" was showing up at the diggin's and the river would reach low water-mark with less than half a foot.
Pole in hand, big John Johnson of the crew stood on the rocking raft anchored below The Big Mallard and opposite the rock where the boat had sunk and smiled his solemn smile at Bruce.
"Don't know but what we ought to name her and break a bottle of ketchup over the bow of this here craft a'fore we la'nch her."
"The Forlorn Hope, The Last Chance, or something appropriate like that," Bruce suggested, although there was too much truth in the jest for him to smile. This attempt to recover the sunken boat was literally that. If it was gone, he was done. His work, all that he had been through, was wasted effort; the whole an expensive fiasco proving that the majority are sometimes right.
The suspense which Bruce had been under for more than two months would soon be ended one way or the other. Day and night it seemed to him he had thought of little else than the fate of the sunken boat. His brain was tired with conjecturing as to what had happened to her when the water had reached its flood. Had the force of it shoved her into deeper water? Had the sand which the water carried at that period filled and covered her? Had the current wrenched her to pieces and imbedded the machinery deep in the sediment and mud?
Questioning his own judgment, doubtful as to whether he was right or wrong, he had gone on with the work as though the machinery was to be recovered, yet all the time he was filled with sickening doubts. But it seemed as though his inborn tenacity of purpose, his mulish obstinacy, would not let him quit, driving him on to finish the flume and trestle 40 feet high with every green log and timber snaked in and put in place by hand; to finish the pressure box and penstock and the 200 feet of pipe-line riveted on the broiling hillside when the metal was almost too hot to touch with the bare hand. The foundation of the power house was ready for the machinery and the Pelton water-wheel had been installed. It had taken time and money and grimy sweat. Was it all in vain?
Asking himself the question for which ten minutes at most would find the answer Bruce sprang upon the tilting raft and nodded—
As Bruce balanced himself on the raft while the Swede poled slowly toward the rock that now arose from the water the size of a small house, he was thankful that the face can be made at times to serve as so good a mask. Not for the world would he have had John Johnson guess how afraid he was, how actually scared to death when the raft bumped against the huge brown rock and he knew that he must look over the side.
Holding the raft steady, Johnson kept his eyes on Bruce's face as he peered into the river and searched the bottom. Not a muscle of Bruce's face moved nor an eyelid flickered in the tense silence. Then he said quietly—
"John, she's gone."
A look of sympathy softened the Swede's homely face.
Bruce straightened up.
"Gone!" he reiterated—"gone."
Johnson might guess a little but he could never guess the whole of the despair which seemed to crush Bruce like an overwhelming weight as he stood looking at the sun shining upon the back of the twisting green snake of a river that he had thought he could beat; Johnson never had risked and lost anybody's money but his own, he never had allowed a woman he loved to build her hopes upon his judgment and success. To have failed so quickly and so completely—oh, the mortification of it! the chagrin!
Finally Johnson said gently:
"Guess we might as well go back."
Bruce winced. It reminded him what going back meant. To discharge the crew and telegraph his failure to Helen Dunbar, Harrah and the rest, then to watch the lumber dry out and the cracks widen in the flume, the rust take the machinery and the water-wheel go to ruin—that's what going back meant—taking up his lonely, pointless life where he had left it off, growing morbid, eccentric, like the other failures sulking in the hills.
"There were parts of two dynamos, one 50 horse-power motor, a keeper, and a field, beside the fly-wheel in the boat." Bruce looked absently at Johnson but he was talking to himself. "I wonder, I wonder"—a gleam of hope lit up his face—"John, go up to Fritz Yandell's and borrow that compass that he fished out of the river."
Johnson looked puzzled but started in a hurry. In an hour or so he was back, still puzzled; compasses he thought were for people who were lost.
"It's only a chance, John, another forlorn hope, but there's magnetic iron in those dynamos and the needle might show it if we can get above the boat."
Johnson's friendly eye shone instantly with interest. Starting from the spot of the wreck, he poled slowly down the river, keeping in line with the rock. Ten, twenty, thirty—fifty feet below the rock they poled and the needle did not waver from the north.
"She'd go to pieces before she ever travelled this far." The glimmer of hope in Bruce's eyes had died. "Either the needle won't locate her or she's drifted into the channel. If that's the case we'll never get her out."
Then Johnson poled back and forth, zig-zagging from bank to bank, covering every foot of space, and still the needle hung steadfastly to its place.
They were all of fifty feet from where the boat had sunk and some forty feet from shore when Bruce cried sharply:
"Hold her steady! Wait!"
The needle wavered—agitated unmistakably—then the parts of the dynamos and the motor in the boat dragged the reluctant point of steel slowly, flutteringly, but surely, from its affinity, the magnetic North.
Bruce gulped at something in his throat before he spoke——
"John, we've GOT her!"
"I see her!" Johnson executed a kind of dance on the rocking raft. "Lookee," he pointed into the exasperatingly dense water, "see her there—like a shadow—her bow is shoved up four—five feet above her stern. Got her?"
Bruce nodded, then they looked at each other joyfully, and Bruce remembered afterward that they had giggled hysterically like two boys.
"The water'll drop a foot yet," Bruce said excitedly. "Can you dive?"
"First cousin to a musk-rat," the Swede declared.
"We'll build a raft like a hollow square, use a tripod and bring up the chain blocks. What we can't raise with a grappling-hook, we'll go after. John, we're going to get it—every piece!"
"Bet yer life we'll get her!" John cried responsively, "if I has to git drunk to do it and stand to my neck in water for a week."
Bruce paused in the blithesome task of packing six by eights to look at the machinery which lay like a pile of junk on the river bank. Each time he passed he looked at it and always he felt the same hot impatience and burning sense of irritation.
The days, the weeks, months were going by and nothing moved.
Two months Jennings had named as the maximum of time required to set up the machines and have the plant in working order. "We'll be throwin' dirt by the middle of July," he had said, confidently, and it was now close to the middle of September. The lost machinery was no longer an excuse, as every piece had been recovered by grappling and diving, and landed safely at the diggin's.
Twice the whole crew save Jennings had dragged a heavy barge fifteen miles up the river, advancing only a pull at a time against the strong current, windlassing over the rapids with big John Johnson poling like mad to keep the boat off the rocks; sleeping at night in wet clothing, waking stiff and jaded as stage horses to go at it again. Six days they had been getting up, and a little over an hour coming down, while two trips had been necessary owing to the low stage of the water, which now made the running of a deeply loaded boat impossible. It had been a severe test of endurance and loyalty in which none had fallen short and no one among them had worked with more tireless energy than Smaltz, or his erstwhile friend but present enemy, Porcupine Jim.
There was amazingly little damage done to the submerged machinery, and when the last bit of iron was unloaded on the bank, the years which had come upon Bruce in the weeks of strain and tension seemed to roll away. Unless some fresh calamity happened, by September, surely, they would be "throwing dirt."
Now, as Bruce changed the lumber from the raw spot on his right shoulder to the raw spot on his left shoulder he was wondering how much more of a chance was due Jennings, how much longer he could hold his tongue. A more extended acquaintance with his "practical man" had taught him how easily a virtue may become a fault.
In his insistence upon solidity and exactitude he went beyond the point of careful workmanship and became a putterer. He was the King of Putterers. He could out-putter a plumber. And when he had finished it was usually some unimportant piece of work that any man who handled tools could have done as well in half the time.
Bruce had a favorite bush, thick, and a safe distance from the work, behind which it was his wont to retire at such times as the sight of Jennings puttering while the crew under him stood idle, became too much for Bruce's nerves:
"He'd break the Bank of England!" Bruce would exclaim in a vehement whisper behind the bush. "If he'd been on the pay-roll of Rameses II, they'd have dug up his work intact. It's fierce! As sure as shooting I'm going to run out of money."
Yet so long as Jennings was in charge, Bruce would not listen to attacks upon him behind his back, and Jennings had succeeded in antagonizing almost all the crew. With the same regularity that the sun rose he and Woods, the carpenter, had their daily set-to, if over nothing more important than the mislaying of a file or saw—no doubt they were at it now.
Bruce sighed. It seemed eons ago that he had had time to watch the kingfisher flying to his nest or the water-ousel ducking and teetering sociably at his feet. They never came any more, neither they nor the black bear to his service-berry bush and Old Felix had learned in one bitter lesson how his confidence in man had been misplaced. Nothing came any more but annoyances, trouble, and thinking of trouble. Bruce wondered what was the matter with Toy. He had looked as grim and forbidding at breakfast as a Chinese god of war.
But it was no time to speculate, with a load of lumber grinding into his sore shoulder, so Bruce hurried on across the slippery foot-log and up a steep pitch to see the carpenter charging through the brush brandishing a saw as if it was a sabre.
"I want my 'time,'" he shouted when he saw Bruce. "Him or me has got to quit. I won't work with that feller—I won't take orders from the likes o' him! I never saw a man from Oregon yit that was worth the powder to blow him up! Half-baked, no-account fakirs, the whole lot of 'em—allus a hirin' for somethin' they cain't do! Middle West renegades! Poor white trash! Oregon is the New Jersey of the Pacific coast; it's the Missoury of the West. It ought to be throwed into some other state and its name wiped off the map. That there Jennings has got the ear-marks of Oregon printed on him like a governmint stamp. Every time I see that putterin' web-foot's tracks in the dust it makes me hot. He don't know how to put up this plant no mor'n I do and you'll find it out. If an Oregonian'd be offered a job teachin' dead languages in a college he'd make a bluff at doin' it if he couldn't write his own name. Why them 'web-feet'—"
"Just what in particular is the matter?" Bruce asked, as the carpenter paused, not for want of verbal ammunition but because he was out of breath.
"Matter!" panted Woods, "he's got us strainin' our life out puttin' up them green four-by-eight's when they's no need. They'd carry a ocean cable, them cross-arms would. Four-by-fives is big enough for all the wire that'll be strung here. John Johnson jest fell out'n a tree a liftin' and like to broke a lung."
"Do you feel sure that four-by-five's are strong enough?"
"Try it—that's all I ask."
"You'd better come back to work."
The carpenter hesitated.
"I don't like to quit when you need me, but," he waved the rip-saw in a significant gesture, "if that Oregonian gives me any more back-talk I aims to cut him up in chunks."
It was the first time Bruce had countermanded one of Jennings's orders but now he backed Woods up. He had shared the carpenter's opinion that four-by-five's were strong enough but he had said nothing, supposing that Jennings was following precedent and knew what he was about. Woods, too, had voiced a suspicion which kept rising in his mind as to whether Jennings did know how to put up the machines. Was it possible that the unimportant detail work which Jennings insisted upon doing personally in order that it might be exactly right, was only a subterfuge to put off as long as possible the day when the showdown must come? Was it in his mind to draw his generous wages as long as he safely might then invent some plausible excuse to quit?
Bruce was not a fool but neither was he apt to be suspicious of a person he had no good reason to mistrust. He had made every allowance for Jennings' slowness, but his bank account was rapidly reaching a stage where, even if he would, he could no longer humor Jennings' mania for solidity. Something had to move, and, taking Jennings aside, Bruce told him so.
The look which darkened Jennings's face when his instructions to Woods were countermanded surprised Bruce. It was more than chagrin, it was—ugly. It prejudiced Bruce against him as all his puttering had failed to do. The correctness or incorrectness of his contention concerning the cross-arm seemed of less importance than the fact that Bruce's interference had impaired his dignity—belittled him in the eyes of the crew.
"Am I the constructin' ingineer, or ain't I? If I am, I'm entitled to some respect." More than ever Jennings looked like a bear pouting in a trap.
"What's your dignity got to do with it?" Bruce demanded. "I'm General Manager, when it comes to that, and I've been packing cross-arms like a mule. This is no time to talk about what's due you—get results. This pay-roll can't go on forever, Jennings. There's an end. At this rate it'll come quick. You know what the success of this proposition means to me—my first, and, I beg of you don't putter any more; get busy and put up those machines. You say that 50 horse-power motor has got to be rewound—"
"One man can't work on that alone," Jennings interrupted in a surly tone. "I can't do anything on it until that other electrician comes in."
"Get Smaltz to help you."
"Smaltz! What does he know. Him holding out for them four-be-five cross-arms shows what he knows."
"Sometimes I think he knows a good deal more than he lets on."
"Don't you think it," Jennings sneered. "He don't know half as much as he lets on. Jest one of them rovin' windjammers pickin' up a little smatterin' here and there. Run a power-house in the Coeur d'Alenes. Huh—what's that! This here feller that I got comin' is a 'lectrical genius. He's worked with me on drudgers, and I know."
Glaring at the victorious carpenter who, being human, sent back a grin, Jennings went to the power-house, mumbling to the last that "four-be-five's" would never hold.
"I think I go now I think."
The old Chinaman at his elbow was dressed for travelling in a clean but unironed shirt; and his shoes had been newly hobbed. His round, black hat was pulled down purposefully as far as his ears would permit. All his possessions were stuffed into his best overalls with the legs tied around his waist and the pair of attached suspenders worn over his shoulders so that at first glance he presented the startling appearance of carrying a headless corpse pick-a-back.
Bruce looked at him in astonishment. He would as soon have thought of thus suddenly losing his right arm.
The Chinaman's yellow face was impassive, his snuff-brown eyes quite blank.
"I go now," he repeated.
"But Toy—" There are a special set of sensations which accompany the announcement of the departure of cooks, Bruce felt distinctly when his heart hit his boots. To be without a cook just now was more than an annoyance—it was a tragedy—but mostly it was the Chinaman's ingratitude that hurt.
"I go," was the stubborn answer.
Bruce knew the tone.
"All right—go," he answered coldly, "but first I want you to tell me why."
A flame of anger leaped into Toy's eyes; his whole face worked; he was stirred to the centre of his being.
"She kick on me!" he hissed. "She say I no can cook!"
Instantly Bruce understood. Jennings's bride had been guilty of the one unforgivable offense. His own eyes flashed.
"Tell her to keep out of the kitchen."
Toy shook his head.
"I no likee her; I no stay."
"Won't you stay if I ask you as a favor?"
The Chinaman reiterated in his stubborn monotone:
"She kick on my glub; I no likee her; I no stay."
"You're going to put me in an awful hole, Toy, if you go."
"She want my job, I think. All light—I no care."
Bruce knew him too well to argue. The Chinaman could see only one thing, and that loomed colossal. He had been insulted; his dignity would not permit him even to breathe under the same roof with a woman who said he could not cook. He turned away abruptly and jogged down the trail with the overalls stuffed with his possessions bobbing ludicrously on his back.
Heavy-hearted Bruce watched him go. If Toy had forgotten that he owed him for his life he would not remind him, but he had thought that the Chinaman's gratitude was deeper than this, although, it was true, he never had thanked him or indicated in any way that he realized or appreciated what Bruce had done. Nevertheless Bruce had believed that in his way Toy was fond of him, that deep under his yellow skin there was loyalty and a passive, undemonstrative affection. Obviously there was none. He was no different from other Chinamen, it seemed—the white man and his country were only means to an end.
Bruce would not have believed that anybody with oblique eyes and a shingled queue could have hurt him so. Of the three men he had befriended, two had turned the knife in him. He wondered cynically how soon he would hear from Uncle Bill.
THE GENERAL MANAGER
Jennings and Woods were now sworn enemies and the stringing of the wires became a matter of intense interest, as this was the test which would prove the truth or fallacy of Jennings' cantankerous harping that the cross-arms were too light.
In isolated camps where there is no outside diversion such tests of opinion become momentous matters, and the present instance was no exception. Mrs. Jennings, too, had taken sides—her husband's, naturally—and the anti-Jennings faction was made to realize fully the possibilities for revenge which lie within the jurisdiction of the cook.
The alacrity with which Jennings's bride stepped into Toy's shoes convinced Bruce that the Chinaman had been correct in his assertion, but he was helpless in the circumstances, and accepted the inevitable, being able for the first time to understand why there are wife-beaters.
Jennings had opined that his bride was "lasty." She looked it. "Bertha" stood six feet in her moccasins and lifted a sack of flour as the weaker of her sex toy with a fan. She had an undershot jaw and a nose so retrousse that the crew asserted it was possible to observe the convolutions of her brain and see what she had planned for the next meal. Be that as it may, Bertha had them cowed to a man, with the possible exception of Porcupine Jim, whose hide no mere sarcasm could penetrate. There was general envy of the temerity which enabled Jim to ask for more biscuits when the plate was empty. Even Smaltz shrank involuntarily when she came toward him with her mouth on the bias and a look in her deep-set eyes which said that she would as soon, or sooner, pour the steaming contents of the coffee-pot down the back of his neck than in his cup, while Woods averred that "Doc" Tanner who fasted forty days didn't have anything on him.
Nobody but Jennings shared Bertha's hallucination that she could cook, and he was the recipient of special dishes, such delicacies as cup-custard, and toast. This in no wise added to Jennings's popularity with the crew and when Bruce suggested as much to the unblushing bride she told him, with arms akimbo and her heels well planted some three feet apart, that if they "didn't like it let 'em come and tell her so."
Bertha was looking like a gargoyle when the men filed in for supper the night before the stringing of the wires was to begin. The fact that men antagonistic to her husband dared walk in before her eyes and eat, seemed like bravado, a challenge, and filled her with such black resentment that Bruce trembled for the carpenter when she hovered over him like a Fury, with a platter of bacon.
Woods, too, felt his peril, and intrepid soul though he was, seemed to contract, withdraw like a turtle into his flannel collar, as though already he felt the sizzling grease on his unprotected pate.
Conversation was at a standstill in the atmosphere charged with Bertha's disapproval. Only Porcupine Jim, quite unconscious, unabashed, heaped his plate and ate with all the loud abandon of a Berkshire Red. Emboldened by the pangs of hunger a long way from satisfied, John Johnson tried to "palm" a fourth biscuit while surreptitiously reaching for a third. Unfortunately John was not sufficiently practised in the art of legerdemain and the biscuit slipped from his fingers. It fell off the table and rolled like a cartwheel to Bertha's feet.
"Shan't I bring you in the shovel, Mr. Johnson?" she inquired in a tone of deadly politeness as she polished the biscuit on her lip and returned it to the plate.
John's ears flamed, also his neck and face. The honest Swede looked like a sheep-killing dog caught in the act. He dared not answer, and she added:
"There's three apiece."
"Mrs. Jennings, I haven't put the camp on half-rations yet." Bruce was mutinous at last.
The bride drew herself up and reared back from the waist-line until she looked all of seven feet tall. The row of short locks that hung down like a row of fish-hooks beneath a knob of black hair seemed to stand out straight and the window rattled in its casing as she swarmed down on Bruce.
"Look a here, young feller, I don't need no boss to tell me how much to cook!"
Jennings protested mildly:
"Now don't you go and git upset, Babe."
"Babe" turned upon him savagely:
"And don't you go to takin' sides! I'm used to livin' good an' when I think what I give up to come down here to this hole—"
"I know 'taint what you're used to," Jennings agreed in a conciliatory tone.
Smaltz took this occasion to ostentatiously inspect a confection the upper and lower crusts of which stuck together like two pieces of adhesive plaster.
"Looks like somebudy's been high-gradin' this here pie."
The criticism might have touched even a mild-tempered cook; it made a demon of Bertha. She started around the table with the obvious intention of doing Smaltz bodily harm, but at the moment, Porcupine Jim, whose roving eye had been searching the table for more food, lighted upon one of the special dishes set before Jennings' plate.
It looked like rice pudding with raisins in it! If there was one delicacy which appealed to James's palate more than another it was rice pudding with raisins in it. He arose from the bench in all the pristine splendor of the orange-colored cotton undershirt in which he worked and dined, and reached for the pudding. It was a considerable distance and he was unable to reach it by merely stretching himself over the table, so James, unhampered by the rules of etiquette prescribed by a finical Society, put his knee on the table and buried his thumb in the pudding as he dragged it toward him by the rim.
Without warning he sat down so hard and so suddenly that his feet flew up and kicked the table underneath.
"Leggo!" he gurgled.
For answer Bertha took another twist around the stout neck-band of his orange undergarment.
"I'll learn you rough-necks some manners!" she panted. "I'll git the respect that's comin' to a lady if I have to clean out this here camp!"
"You quit, now!" He rolled a pair of wild, beseeching eyes around the table. "Somebudy take her off!"
"Coward—to fight a woman!" She fell back with a section of James's shirt in one hand, with the other reaching for his hair.
He clapped the crook of his elbow over his ear and started to slide under the table when the special Providence that looks after Swedes intervened. A long, plump, shining bull-snake took that particular moment to slip off one of the log beams and bounce on the bride's head.
She threw herself on Jennings emitting sounds like forty catamounts tied in a bag. The flying crew jammed in the doorway, burst through and never stopped to look behind until they were well outside.
"Hy-sterics," said the carpenter who was married—"she's took a fit."
"Hydrophoby—she must a bit herself!" Porcupine Jim was vigorously massaging his neck.
The bride was sitting on the floor beating her heels, when Bruce put his head in the door cautiously:
"If there's anything I can do—"
Bertha renewed her screams at sight of him.
"They is—" she shrieked—"Git out!"
"You don't want to go near 'em when they're in a tantrum," advised the carpenter in an experienced tone. "But that's about the hardest one I ever see."
Jennings, staggering manfully under his burden, bore the hysterical Amazon to her tent and it remained for Bruce to do her work.
"That's a devil of a job for a General Manager," commented John Johnson sympathetically, as he stood in the doorway watching Bruce, with his sleeves rolled up, scraping assiduously at the bottom of a frying-pan.
Bruce smiled grimly but made no reply. He had been thinking the same thing himself.
Bruce often had watched an ant trying to move a bread-crumb many times its size, pushing with all its feet braced, rushing it with its head, backing off and considering and going at it again. Failing, running frantically around in front to drag and pull and tug. Trying it this way and that, stopping to rest for an instant then tackling it in fresh frenzy—and getting nowhere, until, out of pity, he gave it a lift.
Bruce felt that this power-plant was his bread-crumb, and tug and push and struggle as he would he could not make it budge. The thought, too, was becoming a conviction that Jennings, who should have helped him push, was riding on the other side.
"I wouldn't even mind his riding," Bruce said to himself ironically, "if he wouldn't drag his feet."
He was hoping with all his heart that the much discussed cross-arms would hold, for when the wires were up and stretched across the river he would feel that the bread-crumb had at least moved.
When Bruce crossed to the work the next morning, the "come-along" was clamped to the transmission wire and hooked to the block-and-tackle. Naturally Jennings had charge of the stretching of the wire and he selected Smaltz as his assistant.
All the crew, intensely interested in the test, stood around as Jennings, taciturn and sour and addressing no one but Smaltz, puttered about his preparations.
Finally he cried:
The wire tightened and the slack disappeared under Smaltz's steady pull. The carpenter and the crew watched the cross-arm anxiously as the strain came upon it under the taut wire. Their faces brightened as it held.
Smaltz looked at Jennings quizzically.
"You ain't heard me tell you yet to stop," was the snarling answer.
"Here goes, then." Smaltz's face wore an expressive grin as he put his strength on the rope of the block-and-tackle, which gave him the pull of a four-horse team.
Bruce heard the cross-arm splinter as he came up the trail through the brush.
Jennings turned to Woods and said offensively:
"Old as you are, I guess I kin learn you somethin' yet."
The carpenter's face had turned white. With a gesture Bruce stopped his belligerent advance.
"Try the next one, Jennings," he said quietly.
Once more the slack was taken up and the wire grew taut—so taut it would have twanged like a fiddle-string if it had been struck. Jennings did not give Smaltz the sign to stop even when the cross-arm cracked. Without a word of protest Bruce watched the stout four-by-five splinter and drop off.
"There—you see—I told you so! I knowed!" Jennings looked triumphantly at the carpenter as he spoke. Then, turning to the crew: "Knock 'em off—every one. Now I'll do it right!"
Not a man moved and for an instant Bruce dared not trust himself to speak. When he did speak it was in a tone that made Jennings look up startled:
"You'll come across the river and get your time." His surprise was genuine as Bruce went on—"Do you imagine," he asked savagely, trying to steady his voice, "that I haven't intelligence enough to know that you've got to allow for the swaying of the trees in the wind, for the contraction and expansion of heat and cold, for the weight of snow and sleet? Do you think I haven't brains enough to see when you're deliberately destroying another man's work? I've been trying to make myself believe in you—believe that in spite of your faults you were honest. Now I know that you've been drawing pay for months for work you don't know how to do. I can't see any difference between you and any common thief who takes what doesn't belong to him. Right here you quit! Vamoose!" Bruce made a sweeping gesture—"You go up that hill as quick as the Lord will let you."
"Alf" Banule, the electrical genius for whom Jennings had sent to help him rewind an armature and who therefore had taken Jennings's place as constructing engineer, had the distinction of being the only person Bruce had ever seen who could remove his socks without taking off his shoes. He accomplished the feat with ease for the reason that there were never any toes in the aforesaid shoes. As he himself said, he would have been a tall man if there had not been so much of him turned up at the end.
The only way he was able to wear shoes at all, save those made to order, was to cut out the toes; the same applied to his socks, and the exposed portion of his bare feet had not that dimpled pinkness which moves poets to song. From the rear, Banule's shoes looked like two bobsleds going down hill, and from the front the effect of the loose soles was that of two great mouths opening and closing. Yet he skimmed the river boulders at amazing speed, seeming to find no inconvenience in the flap-flapping of the loose leather as he leaped from rock to rock.
In contrast to his yawning shoes and a pair of trousers the original shade of which was a matter of uncertainty, together with a black satine shirt whose color made change unnecessary, was a stylish Tyrolese hat—green felt—with a butterfly bow perched jauntily on one side. And underneath this stylishness there was a prematurely bald head covered with smudges of machine grease which it could readily be believed were souvenirs of his apprentice days in the machine shop. If indifference to appearance be a mark of genius it would be impossible to deny Banule's claim to the title.
He was the direct antithesis of Jennings, harnessed lightning in clothes, working early and late. He flew at the machinery like a madman, yelling for wrenches, and rivets and bolts, chiselling, and soldering, and oiling, until the fly-wheel was on its shaft in the power-house, and the dynamos, dragged at top speed from the river-bank, no longer looked like a pile of junk. The switchboard went up, and the pressure gauge, and the wiring for the power-house light. But for all Bruce's relief at seeing things moving, he had a feeling of uneasiness lest there was too much haste. "Good enough—that's good enough!" were the words oftenest on Banule's lips. They filled Bruce with vague forebodings, misgivings, and he came to feel a flash of irritation each time the genius said airily: "Oh, that's good enough."
Bruce warned him often—"Don't slight your work—do it right if it takes twice as long."
Banule always made the same cheering answer: "Don't worry, everything is going fine; in less than a month we'll be generating 'juice'." And Bruce tried to find comfort in the assurance.
When Bruce pulled the lever which opened the valve, and heard the hiss of the water when it shot from the nozzle and hit the wheel, and watched the belt, and shaft, and big fly-wheel speed up until the spokes were a blur and the breeze it created lifted his hair, it was the happiest moment of his life. When he saw the thread of carbon filament in the glass bulb turn red and grow to a bright, white light, he had something of the feeling of ecstasy that he imagined a mother must have when she looks at her first-born—a mixture of wonder and joy.