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"Tug of War" from Short Stories

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Short Stories
Tug of War
by Ellis Parker Butler 'Tug of War' by Ellis Parker Butler

The Salter Lumber Company had owned the stern-wheeler rafting steamer Sam Salter for a year, pushing long rafts down the Mississippi from Lake Pepin to the mill at Riverbank, when the Mosher Lumber Company put a new rafter, the Mosher Belle in commission. Clean, sleek and glistening white the Mosher Belle was a twin sister to the Sam Salter, and Big Sam Salter knew what would happen. He sent for Ernie Cooper, the square-jawed captain of the Sam Salter.

Ernie Cooper knew just about what Big Sam was going to say. He stood by Big Sam's desk, turning his cap in his hand. He was square-shouldered and short-legged and he had been mate and captain for twenty years and there was no better man on the river. He had never wrecked a raft, hit a bridge or gone on a bar. He was proud of his record, proud of the Sam Salter and proudest of all of his blue uniform jacket and navy-style cap. He was the first man on a Mississippi River rafter to wear a uniform. Big Sam Salter had awarded it to him the day he broke all records, bringing a log-raft from Lake Pepin to the Riverbank boom in twelve hours less time than ever before.

"Ernie," said Big Sam, "you've seen the Mosher Belle."

"I have, sir," said Ernie Cooper. "And I've seen Mike Flaherty aboard her in a blue cap and coat, and blue pants with a stripe down the leg, and what has he done to deserve them?"

"Never mind that," said Big Sam. "I did not send for you to talk about what Pete Mosher lets his captains wear. I know what's in your mind, and you can put it out of your mind right now. I'll have no race with the Mosher Belle."

"No, sir."

"The Salter Lumber Company does not care a damn which boat is the faster. The Salter Lumber Company is in business to bring logs to the mill, to saw logs into lumber, and to make money for the company."

"Yes, sir."

"The Sam Salter is a year older than the Mosher Belle and we've driven her hard. The Mosher Belle has a hull eight inches shallower than the Sam Salter and she should be speedier. We will admit it. So no racing with the Mosher Belle, Ernie."

"No, sir, Mr. Salter."

"When a steamer races she is strained. The fires are too hot, the boiler carries too much steam, the engines are racked, the whole boat is shaken. One race hurts a boat more than five years of honest work. You understand me, Ernie? I'll have no racing."

"No, sir; no racing," said Ernie Cooper.

'Tug of War' by Ellis Parker Butler

"Then get about your business," said Big Sam, and he turned back to his desk. He waited until Ernie Cooper had closed the office door and then he turned to George Trent, his bookkeeper.

"He'll race," Big Sam said. "I know, and you know, that hell and high water can't stop it."

The next morning at six the Sam Salter and the Mosher Belle backed out from the Riverbank levee where they had been loading supplies. For half an hour mighty clouds of black smoke had been pouring out of their stacks, and from the cupola on top of his mansion on the West Bluff Big Sam Salter watched through a long brass telescope. The two boats headed upstream, the clouds of smoke trailing behind them.

"I'll be waitin' for ye at Pepin," Mike Flaherty shouted across to Ernie Cooper. "Good-by t' ye, Cooper."

"You'll be waiting in a pig's eye," Ernie shouted back. "I'll tell them there that you're on your way. But he told no one at Lake Pepin that the Mosher Belle was on her way. He burned coal as if it was waste paper; he cursed the pilot and the engineer and the firemen, and he drove the Sam Salter for every inch of speed there was in her but he was half an hour behind the Mosher Belle when he entered Lake Pepin, to be greeted by hootings of the Belle's siren and yells and jeers from her crew. A dozen brooms were nailed to the top of the Belle's pilot house; it was a sign of triumph -- the Mosher Belle had "swept the river."

"And did I show ye me heels, Cooper?" Mike Flaherty laughed. "Did th' Belle walk away from ye? We know which is the speediest boat now, Cooper."

"All right; you won," said Ernie, for he was sore. "Let's have no more talk about it. Half an hour -- what does that amount to?"

"'Twas enough t' make th' Sam Salter a has-been," crowed Flaherty. "'Twas enough for that, Ernie."

"Half an hour!" said Ernie scornfully. "What's that? A crew will waste twice that hooking onto a raft. To hear you brag a man would think a rafter was no more than a rabbit. A skinny greyhound built to do nothing but leap. The Sam Salter is a better rafter than your Mosher Belle ever was or ever will be. The Sam Salter was built to push rafts and, by heaven, she can do it. That thin-bottomed tub of yours --"

"I'll listen to no words against the Mosher Belle, Mr. Cooper."

"Then go stick your head in the mud," said Ernie, "before it swells up and busts. Half an hour! You ought to beat me five hours, you drawing eight inches less water. Your Belle is nothing but a blasted clamshell, skidding over the water, but when it comes to pushing a raft you'll be nowhere with the Sam Salter. The Sam Salter is best rafter on the river. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."

"You brag a lot," said Mike Flaherty. "Boast is a good dog but Win is a better. I don't wonder you're sore."

The Mosher boom held only a few logs this time as it happened and the Belle had to lay over for a week in Pepin while Ernie went his way down river. The Sam Salter had no sooner delivered her raft in the sawmill boom than young Tom Carter from the office shouted from the shore that Big Sam wanted to see Ernie at the office and wanted to see him quick. When Ernie walked up to Sam's desk the lumberman handed him a slip of paper.

"What's this?" Ernie asked, his face going red as he looked at the slip, for it was a bill made out on one of the Salter Lumber Company's billheads: "To Coal and Fun ............... . $100.00".

"You had your fun and you burned my coal," Big Sam said, "and you can pay for it. Did I tell you not to race the Mosher Belle?"

"You did sir," admitted Ernie.

"And you let her beat the Sam Salter. A man who disobeys orders should win, Cooper. Give me that cap; I'll have no man wearing the Salter insignia and losing."

Ernie handed the cap to Sam Salter.

"Take off that coat," said Big Sam. "I'll have no captain swelling around in uniform who races against my orders -- and loses."

Very slowly Ernie took off the blue coat. He folded it carefully and laid it over the back of a chair, and Big Sam laid the gold-braided cap on top of it. Ernie stood there in his shirtsleeves, his pants held up by a pair of police suspenders with red and blue stripes. His face was white now.

"That's all," said Big Sam, turning bade to his desk. "Get back to your boat. George yonder will give you your orders."

Ernie walked over to where George sat on his long-legged stool. He took a wallet from his hip pocket and laid ten ten dollar bills on George's desk and George slipped them into his desk drawer and handed Ernie the manifolds of the orders for the Sam Salter, and Ernie walked out of the office capless and coatless but with his chin still square and his shoulders still broad. His orders were to run up to Dubuque and bring down a lumber raft from the Hettinger mill there. He had the raft at the Riverbank levee when Mike Flaherty and the Mosher Belle pushed by with the log raft from Pepin. The Mosher Belle gave two toots of the siren as she passed, the brooms still on her pilothouse, and Mike Flaherty lifted his gold-braided cap in salute. Ernie Cooper did not return the salute. He wore no cap, for one thing, and he wore no coat; he had gone bareheaded and coatless for a week.

The two big sawmills stood on the edge of the river two miles or so below the town of Riverbank, facing Big Cow Island which splits the river. Four miles above the town is another island -- Little Cow -- and for six miles the river runs wide and straight from Little Cow to Big Cow, all but a mile wide. Ernie Cooper, in his pocket the new orders instructing him to proceed to Lake Pepin, sat on a coil of rope on the deck of the Sam Salter waiting for the Mosher Belle to cut loose from her raft and run up to the levee to load stores. An hour passed, and another hour, and Ernie sat there, smoking his pipe, knocking out the ash, filling his pipe again. It was close to dusk and Arthur, the dark brown cook, was dishing up chow when the Mosher Belle slid in to the levee. Ernie knocked the ash from his pipe again and went ashore. He plodded through the soft sand to the bow of the Belle where Flaherty's mate was superintending the lowering of the plank.

"Is Mike aboard?" Ernie asked and walked up the plank, and Flaherty came forward from the engine room.

"Be damned if it ain't old Push-push!" Flaherty laughed, which was not wise for a man hates a name like that which is apt to stick. "And in his new rig-out," he said to Finney Ransome, his mate, for he had already heard what had happened in Big Sam's office.

"They're fine bright galluses," said Ransome.

"It took you a long time to fetch that raft down," said Ernie, ignoring Ransome. "It seems a waste of coal to use the Mosher Belle for the job; a raft would float down as quickly without her."

'Tug of War' by Ellis Parker Butler

"An' is that still stickin' in your craw, Cooper?" Flaherty asked. "Th' trouble with you, Cooper, is that th' lickin' has got ye sore. Nothin' will do ye but to malign th' best boat th' river ever floated."

"Best boat!" scoffed Ernie. "A toy boat! I told you once and I tell you again that the Sam Salter can push the Mosher Belle off the river as easy as Ransome yonder can push a penny off a plate."

"Any mouth can talk," said Flaherty, "and th' bigger th' louder."

"Money talks," said Ernie, taking his wallet from his pocket and slapping it on his palm. "I've two hundred dollars that says the Sam Salter can out-push this boat of yours any day in the week. Put up or shut up, Flaherty,"

The result was that Ernie and Flaherty and Fin Ransome, together with Ernie's mate Jobe Duncan, plodded across the levee sand and across the railway tracks and the pavement of Front Street, and finished the talk in Schneider's place over a table that had glasses and bottles on it, and the money was put in Schneider's hands.

At six the next morning the Mosher Belle dropped down to Tallant's coal pockets at the lower end of the levee for the best soft coal Tallant could supply. The black smoke was already pouring from the Sam Salter's stacks and hanging in a low dense cloud over the river, and as soon as the coal began to go aboard the Mosher Belle her stacks belched equal clouds. Harve Hanson, the engineer of the Riverbank Waterworks, sitting on his barrel chair at the door of the pump house, saw the smoke clouds and guessed that another race was on. He blew half a dozen long toots on his fire siren, for that was his custom when big news touched the river. He blew the siren when the ice began to move out in the spring and when the river made a danger mark in high water.

Big Sam Salter was half dressed when he heard the siren and he ran up the stairs to the cupola on top of his mansion and put the end of his old brass telescope to his eye. Over the tops of the trees he saw the black smoke cloud lying on the river; he saw the Sam Salter and the Mosher Belle.

"The idiot!" he exclaimed, meaning Ernie Cooper, for he knew the Belle was the better boat for speed, given equal handling. "I'll break him for this."

He saw Ernie standing on the deck forward of the pilot house, coatless and hat-less, and as Ernie turned he saw the bright buckles of his suspenders glitter in the morning sun. He saw Ernie turn to the pilot and give an order as the Mosher Belle, farther out in the river, drew up abreast, but the Sam Salter did not speed forward as a boat should at the beginning of a race. She moved slowly out front the levee and the Mosher Belle moved as slowly.

Men and boys, brought by Harve Hanson's siren, were gathering on the levee, and the two boats forged slowly up the wide river side by side, the long streamers of greasy black smoke trailing behind, settling low on the water in the breezeless air.

"Now, what does that mean?" Sam Salter asked, puzzled. "What are those two crazy coots up to now?"

He was even more puzzled when the two boats neared Little Cow Island. They hesitated, swung backward and then came together bow to bow in the middle of the river like two stags locked antler to antler.

"By thunder, they're going to push!" Big Sam exclaimed.

The Sam Salter's stern was toward the near or Iowa bank and Big Sam could see the paddle wheel kick up the water now, revolving faster as the blades churned the water. The bows of the boats were right for this contest, not pointed but blunt, rounded at the corners. What he could not see was that the two boats were lashed together, each having twin capstans forward. It was as if two buffalo bulls, head to head, were tied so by the horns.

"Idiots! Idiots! What do they think they're doing?" Big Sam cried, and he ran down the stairs, half dressed as he was, and got Ed Mosher on the phone, shouting what was happening on the river. "Get word to that crazy Flaherty of yours," he called. "Stop the infernal nonsense. They're both of them crazy."

"How can I stop them?" Mosher asked. "You stop them if you know how; the Mosher Belle can take care of herself."

Big Sam slammed up the receiver and got into the rest of his clothes. No automobiles then, but he slapped a saddle and bridle on his riding horse and clattered down to the levee. The Mazie May lay there, a small sand-dredging steamer, but her boilers were cold, and she was no use. The best Big Sam could get was a skiff with two men to row it. He sat in the stern and urged them to pull hard.

On the Sam Salter Ernie Cooper stood with his left thumb hooked under a suspender shouting orders from the upper deck as the two boats pushed their hardest and floated down with the current. Mike Flaherty was not so calm. He ran from furnace to engine room, dashed up to shout at the pilot and dashed down again, fluent with oaths, for the Mosher Belle was being forced back inch by inch. Flaherty ran to look at the furnace fires -- they were roaring hells. The steam gauge of the boilers showed every inch he dared carry; the Mosher Belle was giving him every ounce of power there was in her. Flaherty ran like a madman to the pilothouse.

"Put the wheel over!" he shouted. "Put it over hard, Dinny!"

His pilot nodded and spat out of the window. He understood but he turned the wheel slowly lest a sudden strain snap the cable that on the downstream side held the two boats together. All was fair in this battle of the boats and he understood what Flaherty had in mind -- to swing the stern of the Mosher Belle upstream, if ever so little, so that the current would fight for him, pushing the Sam Salter down and backward. For half a minute the maneuver won; the two boats, locked together as one, were no longer lined straight across the current and the Sam Salter slid backward, all her gained distance lost.

"Get that spare cable around these capstans!" Ernie Cooper yelled, and two men of his crew jumped to obey. He turned to shout to his pilot but the Sam Salter's wheel was already being swung to straighten out the boats. The pilot put the wheel hard over as the pilot of the Mosher Belle let his spin back, but the harm was already done. Ernie was outmaneuvered; although the stern of the Sam Salter was ever so slightly downstream the current was strong and enough to overcome such advantage as the Salter had because of greater depth of hull.

Big Sam, urging his oarsmen to row harder, saw the two boats take this new slant, and swore.

"The big ape!" he cried. "I'll fire him for this. Who told him he knew how to run a boat? Ed Mosher will have the laugh on me the rest of his life. Get me aboard that boat; I'll put a stop to this."

The two steamers, with the Mosher Belle slowly pushing the Sam Salter backward, floated down the river in their mantle of smoke, and as Big Sam's skiff came abreast of them his oarsmen sent the skiff above the Sam Salter and brought it alongside the Salter on the upriver side. Big Sam scrambled aboard and Ernie, both thumbs under his suspenders now, turned toward him.

"Cooper, I want this nonsense stopped," Big Sam ordered. "Cut that cable, you fool."

"Captain Cooper to you when you're on my boat," said Ernie, "and will you kindly leave me alone, or will you have me put you off the Sam Salter? You can boss me when I'm ashore, Sam," he said more politely, "but not when I am on my boat."

"When I get you ashore I'll fire you," said Big Sam.

'Tug of War' by Ellis Parker Butler

"That's your affair. Get out of my way now; I've got a job on my hands."

"What are you two crazy men trying to do?"

"I'll push him ashore or he'll push me ashore, and we'll settle once and for all which is the best boat on the river," said Ernie, running his thumbs up and down his suspenders and glancing up at the smoke pouring from his stacks. He spoke to two of his men. "If Mister Salter bothers me," he said, "put him in his skiff and let him float."

Big Sam climbed to the upper deck and stood by the pilothouse for he had no wish to be put off the boat. The two pilots were having a battle of their own now, each trying to out-sharp the other, but the Mosher Belle kept her advantage; with a shallower hull she yielded more quickly to the rudder and was able to keep the Sam Salter subject to the current's thrust while profiting by it herself.

It was like the struggle of two great white water giants. The paddle wheels slapped the water, throwing it high against the tall white sterns of the boats. The water of the river above the steamers was torn and chopped into waves that slashed against the cut banks -- and still the two steamers pushed. Never had such a tough battle or such a crazy one been seen on the river. Pushing each other thus with all the horsepower their engines could produce, the two boats with bows locked were carried down the river until they were opposite the levee. And still they pushed.

The Sam Salter had this additional disadvantage: her deeper hull, drawing more water, gave the current more grasp; the river itself tended to swing the Sam Salter downstream, so that she had three fights in one -- to push back the Mosher Belle, to battle the river current, and to struggle to swing the locked boats back to right angles with the current again.

"Give it up, Cooper; you're licked," Big Sam shouted down, but Ernie gave him nothing but a scowl. The two boats were now nearing Big Cow Island which narrowed the river by almost half. Here the Mosher Belle would have to push the Sam Salter but a few hundred yards to ram the Salter's wheel into the steep cut-bank and win the fight. Ernie ran up to the upper deck and up the six steps to the pilothouse door.

"Cooper --" Big Sam shouted, but Ernie was in the pilothouse. He pulled the handle that sent a bell jangling in the engine room and the paddle wheel came to rest. He pulled the handle thrice and three bells sounded down below and slowly the paddle wheel began to revolve in reverse. A curt word to the pilot and the rudder swung and, pushed by the Mosher Belle and aided by her own wheel, the Sam Salter went backward. Her stern swung upstream.

So close was the stern of the Sam Salter to the nose of Big Cow Island that Big Sam drew a deep breath and closed his fists. It seemed inevitable that the boat would strike the tip of the island, but Ernie's hand was on the lever. He signaled "Stop!" and then "Go ahead full speed!" and the Salter, now with all the advantage of the current which was swifter here, thrust the Mosher Belle backward and diagonally down and across the channel. The Mosher Belle had no chance at all. As if the momentary pause had given the Sam Salter new strength she rushed the Belle backward; she thrust her through the water as if she was an unpowered barge.

Big Sam heard the paddle-blades of the Mosher Belle crash and splinter as she went stern first onto the mud flat that projected from the Illinois shore; he saw the stern of the Belle rise slightly as she slithered onto the flat, high and almost dry. Ernie jangled his bell and the Sam Salter came to rest.

"Throw off those cables!" Ernie shouted down to his mate, and to Flaherty he shouted words of contempt. "A clam shell! A water sled! A toy boat!"

He left the Mosher Belle there on the mud flat to wallow there until she could be pulled off, and backed out into the river and turned the Sam Salter's bow toward the levee.

"And now say what you've got to say?" he said to Big Sam.

"I have nothing to say to a captain when he is in command of his boat, as you so plainly told me," said Big Sam. "I'll say what I have to say in my office. You will report there at three o'clock."

"Yes, sir; three o'clock," said Ernie.

At three he was in Big Sam's office, and on his desk the gaunt lumberman had a small pile of bills and silver.

"Sit down," said Big Sam. "You have done the biggest fool thing that any captain on this river ever did. You risked my boat; a bit more and you would have piled her up on the end of the island."

"I have nothing to say."

"You have pushed my friend Ed Mosher's boat onto a mud flat and it will cost me half a thousand dollars to haul her off."

"I have nothing to say."

"You've probably wracked the engine of the Sam Salter so that she'll never again be the boat she was."

"I have nothing to say, Mr. Salter, sir."

"You've disobeyed my orders. You have spoken disrespectfully to me. Cooper, you are discharged. Here's your pay that is coming to you."

Ernie took the money. He did not count it but pushed it into his pocket. He turned toward the door.

"Now, wait a minute," called Big Sam. "You don't get off that easy. You come here. George, give me that cap and coat."

The bookkeeper went to a closet and brought out the gold-braided cap and the uniform coat and laid them on the flap of Big Sam's desk.

"Put them on, Ernie," said Big Sam. "You've been fired, and justice has been done, but, by the eternal gods, it was worth ten years to see the Sam Salter push that Belle of Ed Mosher's onto that mud flat. Put on the cap and coat, Ernie; you're hired again."

"Yes, sir, and thank you," said Ernie, and he put the cap on his head and drew it down firmly, and picked up the coat

"But no more of this push-push. No more tug of war foolishness. And no more racing, until --"

"Until?" asked Ernie.

"Until I get a boat that can run circles around the Mosher Belle."

'Tug of War' by Ellis Parker Butler



Saturday, October 07 at 1:21:29am USA Central
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