The Right of Way
OLD DEBTS FOR NEW
Jo Portugtais was breaking the law of the river—he was running a little raft
down the stream at night, instead of tying up at sundown and camping on the
shore, or sitting snugly over cooking-pot by the little wooden caboose on his
raft. But defiance of custom and tradition was a habit with Jo Portugais. He had
lived in his own way many a year, and he was likely to do so till the end,
though he was a young man yet. He had many professions, or rather many gifts,
which he practised as it pleased him. He was river-driver, woodsman, hunter,
carpenter, guide, as whim or opportunity came to him. On the evening when
Charley Steele met with his mishap he was a river-driver—or so it seemed. He had
been up nor'west a hundred and fifty miles, and he had come down-stream alone
with his raft-which in the usual course should take two men to guide it—through
slides, over rapids, and in strong currents. Defying the code of the river, with
only one small light at the rear of his raft, he voyaged the swift current
towards his home, which, when he arrived opposite the Cote Dorion, was still a
hundred miles below. He had watched the lights in the river-drivers' camps, had
seen the men beside the fires, and had drifted on, with no temptation to join in
the songs floating out over the dark water, to share the contents of the jugs
raised to boisterous lips, or to thrust his hand into the greasy cooking-pot for
a succulent bone.
He drifted on until he came opposite Charlemagne's tavern. Here the current
carried him inshore. He saw the dim light, he saw dark figures in the bar-room,
he even got a glimpse of Suzon Charlemagne. He dropped the house behind quickly,
but looked back, leaning on the oar and thinking how swift was the rush of the
current past the tavern. His eyes were on the tavern door and the light shining
through it. Suddenly the light disappeared, and the door vanished into darkness.
He heard a scuffle, and then a heavy splash.
"There's trouble there," said Jo Portugais, straining his eyes through the
night, for a kind of low roar, dwindling to a loud whispering, and then a noise
of hurrying feet, came down the stream, and he could dimly see dark figures
running away into the night by different paths.
"Some dirty work, very sure," said Jo Portugais, and his eyes travelled back
over the dark water like a lynx's, for the splash was in his ear, and a sort of
prescience possessed him. He could not stop his raft. It must go on down the
current, or be swerved to the shore, to be fastened.
"God knows, it had an ugly sound," said Jo Portugais, and again strained his
eyes and ears. He shifted his position and took another oar, where the
raft-lantern might not throw a reflection upon the water. He saw a light shine
again through the tavern doorway, then a dark object block the light, and a head
thrust forward towards the river as though listening.
At this moment he fancied he saw something in the water nearing him. He
stretched his neck. Yes, there was something.
"It's a man. God save us—was it murder?" said Jo Portugais, and shuddered.
"Was it murder?"
The body moved more swiftly than the raft. There was a hand thrust up—two
"He's alive!" said Jo Portugais, and, hurriedly pulling round his waist a
rope tied to a timber, jumped into the water.
Three minutes later, on the raft, he was examining a wound in the head of an
As his hand wandered over the body towards the heart, it touched something
that rattled against a button. He picked it up mechanically and held it to the
light. It was an eye-glass.
"My God!" said Jo Portugais, and peered into the man's face. "It's him." Then
he remembered the last words the man had spoken to him—"Get out of my sight.
You're as guilty as hell!" But his heart yearned towards the man nevertheless.