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A Practical Man








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

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."

Jennings nodded.

"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."

"Bad water?"

"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."

Jennings hesitated.

"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.





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Previous: Slim's Sister



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