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At The Big Mallard








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

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--

"Cast off."

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.





Next: The Forlorn Hope

Previous: Prophets Of Evil



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