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Prophets Of Evil

From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

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


"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

"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

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

"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

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.

Next: At The Big Mallard

Previous: A Practical Man

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