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Boyhood in Norway(20)

2006-09-07 22:18


  There were sixteen saw-mills in all, and the one at which Bonnyboy was employed was the last of the series. They were built on little terraces on both banks of the river, and every four of them were supplied with power from an artificial dam, in which the water was stored in time of drought, and from which it escaped in a mill-race when required for use. These four dams were built of big stones, earthwork, and lumber, faced with smooth planks, over which a small quantity of water usually drizzled into the shallow river-bed. Formerly, before the power was utilized, this slope had been covered with seething and swirling rapids——a favorite resort of the salmon, which leaped high in the spring, and were caught in the box-traps that hung on long beams over the water. Now the salmon had small chance of shedding their spawn in the cool, bright mountain pools, for they could not leap the dams, and if by chance one got into the mill- race, it had a hopeless struggle against a current that would have carried an elephant off his feet. Bonnyboy, who more than once had seen the beautiful silvery fish spring right on to the millwheel, and be flung upon the rocks, had wished that he had understood the language of the fishes, so that he might tell them how foolish such proceedings were. But merciful though he was, he had been much discouraged when, after having put them back into the river, they had promptly repeated the experiment.

  There were about twenty-five or thirty men employed at the mill where Bonnyboy earned his bread in the sweat of his brow, and he was, on the whole, on good terms with all of them. They did, to be sure, make fun of him occasionally; but sometimes he failed to understand it, and at other times he made clumsy but good-humored attempts to repay their gibes in kind. They took good care, however, not to rouse his wrath, for the reputation he had acquired by his treatment of Ola Klemmerud made them afraid to risk a collision.

  This was the situation when the great floods of 188- came, and introduced a spice of danger into Bonnyboy's monotonous life. The mill-races were now kept open night and day, and yet the water burst like a roaring cascade over the tops of dams, and the river-bed was filled to overflowing with a swiftly-hurrying tawny torrent, which filled the air with its rush and swash, and sent hissing showers of spray flying through the tree-tops. Bonnyboy and a gang of twenty men were working as they had never worked before in their lives, under the direction of an engineer, who had been summoned by the mill-owner to strengthen the dams; for if but one of them burst, the whole tremendous volume of water would be precipitated upon the valley, and the village by the lower falls and every farm within half a mile of the river-banks would be swept out of existence. Guards were stationed all the way up the river to intercept any stray lumber that might be afloat. For if a log jam were added to the terrific strain of the flood, there would surely be no salvation possible. Yet in spite of all precautions, big logs now and then came bumping against the dams, and shot with wild gyrations and somersaults down into the brown eddies below.

  The engineer, who was standing on the top of a log pile, had shouted until he was hoarse, and gesticulated with his cane until his arms were lame, but yet there was a great deal to do before he could go to bed with an easy conscience. Bonnyboy and his comrades, who had had by far the harder part of the task, were ready to drop with fatigue. It was now eight o'clock in the evening, and they had worked since six in the morning, and had scarcely had time to swallow their scant rations. Some of them began to grumble, and the engineer had to coax and threaten them to induce them to persevere for another hour. The moon was just rising behind the mountain ridges, and the beautiful valley lay, with its green fields, sprouting forests, and red-painted farm-houses, at Bonnyboy's feet. It was terrible to think that perhaps destruction was to overtake those happy and peaceful homes, where men had lived and died for many hundred years. Bonnyboy could scarcely keep back the tears when this fear suddenly came over him. Was it not strange that, though they knew that danger was threatening, they made not the slightest effort to save themselves? In the village below men were still working in their forges, whose chimneys belched forth fiery smoke, and the sound of their hammer-blows could be heard above the roar of the river. Women were busy with their household tasks; some boys were playing in the streets, damming up the gutters and shrieking with joy when their dams broke. A few provident souls had driven their cattle to the neighboring hills; but neither themselves nor their children had they thought it necessary to remove. The fact was, nobody believed that the dams would break, as they had not imagination enough to foresee what would happen if the dams did break.

  Bonnyboy was wet to the skin, and his knees were a trifle shaky from exhaustion. He had been cutting down an enormous mast-tree, which was needed for a prop to the dam, and had hauled it down with two horses, one of which was a half-broken gray colt, unused to pulling in a team. To restrain this frisky animal had required all Bonnyboy's strength, and he stood wiping his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. Just at that moment a terrified yell sounded from above: "Run for your lives! The upper dam is breaking!"

  The engineer from the top of the log-pile cast a swift glance up the valley, and saw at once from the increasing volume of water that the report was true.

  "Save yourselves, lads!" he screamed. "Run to the woods!"

  And suiting his action to his words, he tumbled down from the log pile, and darted up the hill-side toward the forest. The other men, hearing the wild rush and roar above them, lost no time in following his example. Only Bonnyboy, slow of comprehension as always, did not obey. Suddenly there flared up a wild resolution in his face. He pulled out his knife, cut the traces, and leaped upon the colt's back. Lashing the beast, and shouting at the top of his voice, he dashed down the hill-side at a break-neck pace.

  "The dam is breaking!" he roared. "Run for the woods!"

  He glanced anxiously behind him to see if the flood was overtaking him. A great cloud of spray was rising against the sky, and he heard the yells of men and the frenzied neighing of horses through the thunderous roar. But happily there was time. The dam was giving way gradually, and had not yet let loose the tremendous volume of death and desolation which it held enclosed within its frail timbers. The colt, catching the spirit of excitement in the air, flew like the wind, leaving farm after farm behind it, until it reached the village.

  "The dam is breaking! Run for your lives!" cried Bonnyboy, with a rousing clarion yell which rose above all other poises; and up and down the valley the dread tidings spread like wildfire. In an instant all was in wildest commotion. Terrified mothers, with babes in their arms, came bursting out of the houses, and little girls, hugging kittens or cages with canary-birds, clung weeping to their skirts; shouting men, shrieking women, crying children, barking dogs, gusty showers sweeping from nowhere down upon the distracted fugitives, and above all the ominous, throbbing, pulsating roar as of a mighty chorus of cataracts. It came nearer and nearer. It filled the great vault of the sky with a rush as of colossal wing-beats. Then there came a deafening creaking and crashing; then a huge brownish-white rolling wall, upon which the moonlight gleamed for an instant, and then the very trump of doom——a writhing, brawling, weltering chaos of cattle, dogs, men, lumber, houses, barns, whirling and struggling upon the destroying flood.

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