Lars the lumberjack, bulging with muscles and money... Alex, the middling-size seaman... One of them was going to get Miss O'Mara and her cherry pies. But which one? That was
EDNA DEU PREE NELSON
FROM THE pilot house of his small cargo barge Alex Birchley stared broodingly at the Skitabuck River bank. There was something hard and repelling about the land that drew him up tight within himself like a turtle in its shell. The evergreens near the deserted salmon cannery rejected him as a foreigner, suggesting with stern looks that he go back to the sea or the Vancouver docks where he belonged. The giant trees, leaping upward with all that discouraging energy, reminded him of the lumberjack who had glamoured Katie while he had been off on that last trip to sea.
Katie, the poor misguided woman. She had been trapped into listening to a man covered with muscles like a strong fellow in a freak show, and with a chest like the figurehead on a ship. No woman in her right mind would want a man of that sort, who was of no use about the house, who would only break out the seats in her best chairs. Now, a genteel middling-size seaman, who maybe didn’t reach up as tall as Katie but who would tit into her chairs like a pipe in the hand, that was the man she should marry. An agile Irish lad who could run briskly up and down a ladder to paint the house and mend a shingle and hang a birdhouse; a man who for all his lack of weight could handle a barge all by himself and make a neat bit of cash. That was the mate Katie should choose.
And him happy and unsuspecting that morning in Vancouver, back from six months on a freighter and his last trip to sea, exclaiming to himself how the white clouds over the mountains were no whiter than Katie’s skin. A gay larksome man, rushing from Ballantyne Pier to make his last payment on the barge, laying down the money cheerful, thinking how Katie would like the red-and-white trimness of her. As carefree and excited as a young boy he had been, in a blue suit, fresh-pressed, pleased to think how Katie wouldn’t believe her good
luck, since a woman doesn’t often get a barge and a husband the same day, especially a woman no longer exactly a young thing.
When Katie opened the door she looked surprised, as he knew she couldn’t be, seeing the way her hair was curled fresh and her dress like a stiff pink daisy. But understanding how women are, with their coyness, and feeling prickly all over, he said, “Well, Katie, the barge is ours.” He stepped inside, closed the door and slid from his pocket a travel folder on Victoria, where he planned to take Katie for a wedding trip. “Now we’ll get married this very day. And what do you say to that?”
“I don’t recall you even hinting about my marrying you,” she said, sort of uppity. “It was always the barge you spoke of wanting.”
As indeed he had. But a woman should know what a man is saying in his heart when he speaks to her tenderly of a barge.
“It was a barge I wanted, Katie,” he had said. “For you.” And thinking to embrace her and explain things in a pleasant way he put an arm around her, but she shoved it off. “Perhaps I’ll marry Lars Tor,” she says, brisklike. Turning she called, “Lars, come and meet an old friend.”
An old friend, indeed, thought Mr. Birchley, leaning weakly against the mantelpiece that held the conch shell that he had sent Katie, and the painted fan from Hong Kong. And why, he thought angrily, did she think he was sending her gifts and all those letters—at least three a year—if he wasn’t serious about marrying her? He got his legs under control again. “I hope your lumberjack can take care of you, Katie,” he said sternly, “as I would have.”
“Don’t worry.” She tossed her head flippitylike. “Lars has just been promoted assistant superintendent of the Coastal Lumber
Continued on page 40
Continued from page 16
Company. He decides which stand of timber will be cut next. And he makes more money than a man with a barge.”
The man Lars edged sideways through the kitchen door, wiping his mouth with a hand, as if he’d been enjoying one of Katie’s good meals. He stuck his fingers in the little pockets close to his pants belt. Throwing hack his shoulders he took a long breath and Mr. Birchley could see his chest expand four or five inches under his checked yellow-and-red flannel shirt. “Howdy!” he said, and he laughed. “You ain’t very big, are you?” he said. “I thought Katie was kiddin’ about your size.”
Mr. Birchley had taken himself out of the house quickly. Leaving behind him the polluted atmosphere of Vancouver he sailed his barge north along Georgia Strait for a spell. Then he looked at the chart, stared dully at Hecate Strait and Prince Rupert. Alaska lay far north. He shut his eyes tightly and laid a finger on the sheet. He opened his eyes. A river? He would not have chosen the Skitabuck River, but he was not one to question his fate.
Now his barge was tied to the bleached root of an overturned Douglas fir. He asked himself why he had come to this desolate river, where there wasn’t so much as a whisper to cheer a man who was slowly sinking in his own misery. In all the times he had been alone in strange ports he had never felt adrift like this. It was worse than missing t he ship and being without his papers in a foreign land.
The sun moved toward the horizon. It would light the west windows of Katie’s house that looked down on Vancouver harbor. He sighed, stared at the dying blob of gold until black coins danced before his eyes, and he had to close them for a spell. At sea he daily watched the sunset and it told him about the morrow. Out there on the ocean a man learned to expect friendliness from the unpredictable: a cooling breeze from nowhere, for instance, when a vessel was moving through sluggish, tropical waters. The way a fish would jump for the hook when meat was low and the ship miles from any port. How rain fell out of a dead sky, suddenly, when drinking
water was almost gone. Indeed, a man learned to trust in something greater than himself.
Slowly, Mr. Birchley sat back on the nail keg. He was not at sea. And what sort of miracle would one be expecting on land, even were a miracle possible on land?
“Arrah, my lad,” he said, tapping the bowl of his pipe against the keg, watching the cold ashes drift to the floor by his muddy boots. He slipped the pipe into a sagging pocket of his unbrushed blue coat, and folding his arms tightly over his concave-curved chest, wound his legs one around the other like strands of a rope. He sighed, long and heavily.
The sun moved lower, dusk floated up the pale waters of the river, hovered reluctantly in branches of proud, angry trees. Mr. Birchley lifted his eyes for another look at the friendly sky he had known at sea.
FAR UP in the half-light two small objects appeared. Transfixed, Mr. Birchley stared. Nearer they came. In another moment two swans landed gracefully on the river, about fifty feet from the barge. Lifting their wings they rose again, circled the barge and lighted on the hatch covers looking up at him with soft dark eyes, as if they might bid him good eventide.
Hastily he rose from the keg, jerked open the door to the pilot house and ran lightly down the narrow ladder. “Good evening,” he said, warmly.
The world over, in streams and harbors, he had seen handsome bird and fowl, but none the equal of these. Their plumage was thick and white and their legs were strong and smooth, as if encased in elegant stockings. They arched their necks like the aristocrats they were and walked toward him, dignity and breeding in each unhurried step. They were obviously and immediately at home.
Mr. Birchley had great reverence for what came out of the heavens. Up there were sun, moon, stars and planets by which to navigate a vessel and these creatures had come from the sky. For a moment he was speechless with awe. Recovering his voice he said softly, “You are beautiful birds, and I would that Katie might see you.” Admiringly, he stared. He thought of how Katie enjoyed her dozen or more canaries that sang cheerful all day
Continued on page 42
Continued from page 40
long, the busy finch in her dining room window and her chuckling parrots. Sometimes a man could hardly think in Katie’s house for the hullabaloo of the birds.
But Katie had nothing that could match these rare birds, and the sight of them would make her eyes dance with delight. He remembered how her eyes had sparkled when she told him about her green parrot having spoke his name. She was that pi'oud of the little fellow, that couldn’t touch the swans for beauty.
A moment ago he had been without hope. But now the royal birds were here to help him, perhaps to intercede for him in winning Katie back. His heart swelled like a sail in a high wind.
If he went down the river to Bascom he could telephone to Katie about the swans. He would make her a gift of them. Then, she would come immediate to see them. He bit down on his cold pipe, remembering the smile with which Katie had introduced the woodsman, and Mr. Birchley’s mind stirred fearful like a whirlpool. A jilted man had his pride.
“Cronk!” One of the birds curved its elegant neck and fixed Mr.Birchley with gentle eyes that reminded him of Katie’s before she had been swept off her feet by Lars Tor. It seemed to be suggesting to Mr. Birchley that pride is a foolishness where the heart is concerned.
He rubbed his chin and thought hard on the matter, because pride is also a very stubborn thing.
But while he was making up his mind he would shave. Katie did not approve of a man going about unshaven. Quickly he went to his cabin, dropped a bit of kindling into the plump iron stove and soon water was bubbling in the copper kettle. Twice he went over his whiskers. He combed and trimmed his mustache. There was little he could do about the unpressed state of his trousers and coat, but he made a serious attempt to clean and brush them. He polished his boots. Then, since he was dressed for traveling, it seemed only natural to start the barge motor, herd the swans into the cabin and start for Bascom, which he did.
THE BASCOM general store and post office was as empty as a scuttled ship. Mr. Birchley placed his call and waited for it to be put through. He stared into the showcase beside him which was filled with flubby-dubs: hairpins, combs, a hairbrush painted with a papoose, handkerchiefs no bigger than Katie’s hand. Now if he could pluck from the display a couple of pretty words to begin the conversation with Katie he would have no concern about making the call. But no bright singing words rose to his tongue when the operator summoned him.
Ih a twinkling a male voice snapped militantly, “Hello!” Lars Tor shouted as if he was talking all the way from Alaska.
Mr. Birchley said quiet and dignified. “I would like to speak to Miss Kate O’Mara.”
“She has no time for sailors,” the lumberjack said rudely, like the unmannerly fellow he was.
Then Katie took the phone and put the woodsman in his place. “I apologize for my friend,” she says, as polite as if speaking with a stranger. “What would you he wanting?”
Mr. Birchley, cheered at hearing her beautiful voice again, forgot about flowery speeches. “Katie,” he said, scarcely able to hear his own voice above the drumming in his ears, ‘T have a pair of handsome swan to give you.”
“There was I,” Mr. Birchley said, letting his voice purl gently, “moored beside the old salmon cannery on the Skitabuck River above Bascom, when the swans flew from the heavens to my very feet.”
“Fancy that!” Katie says, a little breathlessly. “Do you suppose they migrated all that way from the south? They are great fowl for distance. I must see the dear things at once.”
“I will expect you tomorrow then.” Mr. Birchley felt suddenly weak and giddy at the thought of seeing Katie again.
“Tomorrow, no,” she says. “Tomorrow I have arranged to look at Mr. Tor’s house and land on the Fraser River.”
Mr. Tor’s land indeed! What was property compared to a pair of rare swan? He was surprised at Kate
O’Mara’s lack of judgment, and her usually a woman of wisdom.
“Nor can I come for two weeks. What a pity! I have a practical nursing nursing job that pays well.” She paused, as if thinking hard on the serious matter. “I must find time. A bus will bring me less than a mile from the cannery site. 1 know the way.”
The light went out of Mr. Birchley’s day.
When he had again tied his lines to the upright root of the fallen tree on the Skitabuck the moon had risen. Round, cold, it chilled his heart like ice.
He should have realized when Katie asked him all those questions about buying the house in which she was living that she wanted land and a house. But women chatter like rushing water about foolish things in which they have little interest and all to beguile a thoughtful wary man, and he had listened to her prattle about property with only half an ear, thinking all the while how delighted Katie would be to travel about from cove to village, carefree, all the way from the Juan de Fuca Strait at the south tip of Vancouver Island to Aberdeen on the Skeena. And all the time it was a bit of mountainside and a substantial house she was dreaming about.
And Lars Tor had land.
At Mr. Birchley’s feet the water lapped, mournful. He stared hard at the moon shining on cannery property, corrugated roofs, the lonesome log cabin halfway up the hill. It was not land Mr. Birchley wanted, but if he could give Katie the space of earth she craved and a roof where she could live peaceful with him and the swans, perhaps then she would forget the woodsman.
A remarkable idea stnu
Hurrying into his cabin 1. . paper
and pencil from the shelf7 under his mirror where he kept logbook and razor. “I will buy the cannery property,” he said.
He lit the lamp and adjusted the green shade. Gripping the stubby pencil in his left hand he touched the lead to his tongue. He made thick black figures on paper. Twenty acres would be plenty. There would be repairs to make, a fence to build. He whistled a couple of bars of an Irish air. A man might spend a thousand dollars. It was little enough to make Katie happy. Drawing a fresh sheet of paper toward him he wrote the Land Office for the name of the property’s owner. Sketching a neat little map of the land he enclosed it, asking firmly, with the words underscored, for an early reply. His return address, “General Delivery, Bascom,” he wrote on the flap of the envelope. Tomorrow he would mail the letter. He would wait two weeks for a reply. From experience with port officials Mr. Birchley knew he must allow plenty of time. All the fuss, the paper work, the duplication and howdy-do that went on in government offices. But two weeks should be time enough.
That night, for the first time since he had sailed his barge out of Vancouver harbor, he slept dreamlessly and well.
THE next morning he had breakfast of bacon and tea. Along the river’s edge he sprinkled grain bought yesterday at the Bascom store. He wanted the swans to eat hearty and exercise before coming aboard again for the trip to Bascom. He shaved and dressed.
Then a boat came spitting up the river as if the stream was afire. He wondered what the hubbub was about and ran to the rail. The motorboat swept alongside, tossing up a blinding sheet of river water which drenched Mr. Birchley. He could not see for a moment, but the laugh was that of Lars Tor.
“That your scooter?” The woodsman sounded as if he wore a foghorn inside his shirt.
Mr. Birchley wiped water from his face, removed his wet coat and glanced angrily at his splashed trousers. “A child could navigate with better skill,” he shouted, spirited.
“I’m to blame, Mr. Birchley,” Katie says, stepping out from behind the giant Lars. “I couldn’t wait to see the swans.” She smiled. “I asked Lars
to postpone the trip to his property. Mr. Tor is a lumberman. You’re the skilled navigator, Mr. Birchley.” Her eyes were bright and her red-trimmed dress, fresh-ironed. A small white hat sat trimly on her black hair. She had never looked prettier.
Mr. Birchley struggled into his damp coat, stuck his pipe in a pocket and jerked his cap from his head. “Welcome to the barge,” he said, sorry for his appearance, but cheerful that she had decided to see the swans instead of going with the woodsman to inspect his land.
She handed him two hig covered baskets. “I had Lars rent the boat special to carry the swans home today,” she says.
A weight like an anchor lav suddenly on Mr. Birchley’s chest. If Katie took the swans today his chances of winning her back would be slim indeed. He had counted on her coming often.
Katie stepped onto the barge. Lars 'For, with another senseless bellow of laughter, went shooting up the Skitabuck.
“He’s going to check timber to be cut on this river.” Katie dazzled Mr.
t>. . omile. “Where are the
Settírí£)^u8.' baskets down as if they held man-eating sharks Mr. Birchley took her arm and crossed the deck. “Beside the uprooted fir,” he said, his mind clouded with apprehension for his future with Katie.
She clapped her hands. “The darlings!” Wide-eyed she watched the
birds. “I never saw anything so
beautiful.” After a. few minutes she walked to where the baskets stood. “I brought them cabbage and lettuce,” she says—as if the river isn’t overgrown
with water plants. “I’ll have to chop the greens. Swans are very particular about their food.”
Delighted, he watched her at his blue-topped table in the galley, slicing greens, full of talk, now and again casting an interested look at shelves of dishes, each plate and cup blooming with cornflowers and roses. “Mr. Birchley,” she says, “you must have scoured Vancouver to furnish your kitchen so completely. Í would never believe a barge could have such elegance.”
And how should Katie know about a barge galley he thought tenderly, never having lived aboard a barge. Leaning against the cold stove he shivered with pleasure. He hoped she noticed that the stove would hold her big fruit pies and pineapple cake.
Then he remembered that this might be his last visit alone with Katie and he felt suffocated with the number of things he should say to her before the woodsman returned and took her off. He went onto the deck for air. She followed with the pan of greens and together they walked to feed the swans. Soon the birds were eating from her hand as if she had brought them up from cygnets, conversing with her courteously in well-bred voices as he should be doing could he but find words. The swans finished the greens and went back to fiddling about the old fir tree.
For several minutes Katie watched. Suddenly, she turned. “Mr. Birchley,” she says, clasping her hands, her face pink with excitement, “they are building a nest!”
He looked, and his heart swelled gratefully. For now Katie could not take the birds home and must come again. Words rushed to his lips. “Katie, 1 am going to buy the cannery property.” He took her arm and she didn’t pull away. “Would you like a bird farm?”
After a little she says softly, “I do believe you are interested in something besides the barge. And 1 am sorry I spoke unkindly the other day.”
They went over to the old cannery and Katie looked thoughtful at the sheds just right for bird houses, at the cabin ready to occupy except for a few repairs which he could finish in a hurry. “Mr. Birchley,” she says, “I must think about the matter for a couple of weeks.”
As if for three years Katie hadn’t been thinking hard about becoming Mrs. Birchley. Still, a woman must keep her man worried over something. “You see, Mr. Birchley,” she says sudden, as if the silence distresses her, “Lars expects an answer from me, too.”
And suppose the woodsman did want an answer, could she not give it instantly. A little word “no” takes no time to speak. Mr. Birchley almost broke a hand as he jerked up a bit of flooring from the cabin. “I’ll have
a substantial house here in the flick of a finger,” he promised, looking at her anxious.
But then the motorboat came zigzagging down the river, driven by that crazy Lars Tor.
“Is he back so soon?” Katie looked disappointed.
Mr Birchley, helping her into the motoiboat, spoke loud so the woodsman would hear. “When I have bought the cannery site,” he said, “I will telephone to you, Katie.” He smiled cheery.
“Its been a fine afternoon. I’ll come soon.” Katie waved.
“You buying this land?” The woodsman boked amused. But as he swung the motorboat around fast Mr. Birchley thought he looked worried. And he didn’1 bellow with laughter.
Mr Birchley felt at peace. Soon Katie would be making cherry pie in his galley. He corrected himself. The pies vould be baked in the hillside cabin.
EACH morning for seven days, after cleaning the barge, Mr. Birchley would play his concertina and sing a bit while he thought pleasantly of Katie Then he would check the progress of the nest, which lay in a broad hollow of the fallen tree trunk close ¡o the giant roots, reminding Mr. Birchley of a massive starfish. The nest .vas partially sheltered by the spreading roots, one of which curved shell-like, protecting1^, and -which heid , also one end of the barge’s mooring line.
Within a few' days the nest was j completed. It was lined artfully with down, dead leaves and grasses. It measured four feet across. Aran and Erin, Mr. Birchley had named the swans, after his dead parents, God rest their souls.
When one morning Mr. Birchley found pale blue-green eggs he thought of telephoning Katie. He decided to wait until he had the letter from the Land Office. Instead of telephoning he went to work on the cabin. He shinnied to the roof to check the missing shingles. Sometime later a voice called to him from the edge of the timber above. “Get your scow out of there!”
Glancing up, he saw Lars Tor. Mr. Birchley’s hand tightened on his hammer. “Only a seafaring man would understand about barges and scows,” he said, tolerant.
“Get it out of the river!” The woodsman sounded as if he was giving an order.
F rom his perch on the cabin roof Mr. Birchley said, “Would you be running along. I’m a busy man.” He tossed his hammer in the air and caught it deftly.
“We’re going to dredge the river where your scow is moored.” The woodsman laughed coarsely, as if it were amusing. He lifted an arm, pointed it like a gun. “I will take care of the swans,” he says. “They make good eating. Especially young ones.” Mr. Birchley was shocked at the words. “Man!” he shouted. “Would you be killing the birds that Katie cherishes?”
“Move your scow!” The woodsman turned and disappeared into the forest.
Indeed, Mr. Birchley thought, he had no intention of moving his barge. The woodsman was only jealous because Katie preferred a better man. But no man should take his revenge out on the innocent swans that meant everything to Katie. Not while Mr. Birchley had his two hands and feet. Clambering from the roof he went hurriedly to the barge to think out a course of action.
In the galley he poured himself a mug of cold tea. This he swallowed at '
one gulp. He poured aí ..
he paced the deck, hold. mug,
growing more concerned each moment. If it was something to do with the sea now, he would have the problem solved in a moment, but matters that concerned the land were not so simple he thought. Somehow, he must prevent harm coming to Katie’s swans. If he owned the cannery property he could post No Trespassing notices. Then the birds would be safe enough. The letter from the Land Office might be waiting at Bascom ... A letter was waiting, but from the County Clerk.
Sitting on an apple box in the general store Mr. Birchley reached for his knife and slit the envelope. He snapped the blade shut again, carefully unfolded the letter.
“Your letter to the Land Office,” the Clerk wrote, “has been forwarded to me for reply. The Coastal Lumber Company will begin logging operatious near the old cannery site soon and the river above Bascom must therefore be deepened and widened. The cannery site has been condemned. Dredging of the Skitabuck will start on the fourth of next month.”
Mr. Birchley wiped the dampness from his brow. The Coastal Lumber Company was Lars Tor’s outfit. The woodsman had planned it purposely.
Rising from the box, Mr. Birchley stuck his head out the door. He tried to pull his mind out of the fog. A calendar stared from a wail near the telephone. He walked over and lifted the sheet to check the day on which Erin’s brood would hatch. Smiling at him evilly was a hunter on the Fraser River, holding a pair of dead geese and a gun. Quickly he dropped the sheet. The swans were in danger. The fourth
I vw week off. He must do
somei. j V’ - once to protect them.
And Kaue. There was no land for Katie. Before the woodsman exploded the terrible news to her Mr. Birehley must call her and explain that he had a finer location for her and the swans, maybe up around Prince Rupert far from Lars Tor, where the air was sweet and clean and the Northern Lights lit up the sky.
He took down the receiver.
“I was putting the key in my front door lock,” Katie said, gentle and friendly.
“I have bad news, Katie.” He read her the letter.
“Had you no option on the property?” Katie said, briskly.
“1 had not. It was the name of the owner I was waiting on.” Mr. Birehley sighed. And since Katie seemed extremely quiet for her he added, “I will find another bit of land somewhere along the coast. And the swans I will protect.”
“Mr. Birehley,” Katie says hurriedly, as if her mind is firmly made up, “a man of the sea would never be satisfied to live on the land. Perhaps it is better this way. I will speak to Lars immediately.”
A terrible feeling went over Mr. Birehley for which he had no words. It was like going around in a heavy sea.
“Let no harm come to the swans!” She hung up the phone.
MR. BIRCHLEY wiped his face well and the moisture from his cold hands. For a spell he sat on the j apple box staring at a crack in the ! floor. After a while he rose painfully i and went back to the barge.
Mooring the barge to the fallen log j he watched the swans speaking to one another, unaware of danger. He pulled out a chair from his table in the galley, j his mind going ahead slowly like a ship I struggling to pull itself off a mudbank.
Perhaps he could move the nest onto j the barge. He could saw through the I root, loosen the earth below, slide the nest onto the barge’s rowboat. Ease it onto the barge along the gangwalk.
Angrily, he pushed his mug of tea away and it slopped onto the table. A man could live anywhere, land or sea, if his woman was beside him, and Katie should know it.
“Steady, me lad,” he said. “It is the swans that Katie wants, not you. You must think of a way to save them.” But with a mind dead as driftwood J it was hard to think. He figured at I last that his plan was not practical.
! It would take several men to move j roots and nest. And Erin was a nervous j mother and not an engineer. She j wouldn’t let strangers come near the Í nest. But if he could box the earth i and nest with boards, then with a line thrown around the wall, the barge could tow it away.
From the toolbox he got pick, spade,
I saw, hammer, axe and nails. He walked to the cannery for timbers, j When he started to saw through the log Erin objected and Aran fixed Mr. Birehley with an alert doubtful eye. He finished sawing the log. Then, since the swans were uneasy, he spoke to j them about the problem. “It is not I practical anyhow,” he said. Removing i his cap, he scratched his head, sat on a tree stump to think how it should go from there.
His mind was not working properly, Katie getting between him and his ! labored thoughts. But after a time j it was clear that what he needed was j a floor on which to rest the earth and ! nest. A raft would do. If he had a j raft he could spade out the dirt and j slide the raft into the opening. The j barge would tow it downstream to 1 safety. “Indeed, Katie,” he said, feeling
as if the root and nest lay on his heart, “that will do it.”
Going to the forest he cut small trees. His feet kept slipping on pine needles as if he stood on a sea-washed deck. The timber was tough to cut. He kept hacking, thinking of the evil man who had stolen Katie. He dragged the logs back to the nest.
And then darkness fell.
All night he kept turning on his bunk, troubled that his lack of foresight about land had lost him Katie. Time seemed to be smothering him too, and fear. Suppose he didn’t save the swans.
At dawn he was up, working on the raft. He worked all day and by lantern light cut more logs. At sea he had often taken a hand at carpentering, but he had never built a raft. It must not draw too much water, and that meant careful calculating.
He finished the raft.
Wearing rubber hip boots he waded into the river and began excavating a place for the raft. For three days he worked at clearing out silt, old timbers and refuse packed hard under the log and root.
And then six days had passed. He felt suddenly as if his coat was too tight over his chest. Tomorrow would be too late. At four o’clock that afternoon it began to rain. He went to the barge and donned oilskins. When he came outside again he saw a woman moving down the bill above the cannery and he stared, unbelieving.
It was Katie! His heart sprang toward her.
“The dredge is already coming up the river,” she says, half sobbing. “It will be here by morning. I couldn’t talk sense into Lars. He cares nothing about the swans. Are they safe?”
He took her arm firmly. Now that she was here, the swans would be safely out of the way in no time at all. He felt he could accomplish more than miracles the way his heart was leaping.
The rain had turned into a heavy downpour, but Mr. Birchley sloshed through tiie water to the raft and worked it into the river. “I will have them secure in a moment, Katie.” He glanced at her, watching from the barge.
Holding the line he had fastened to the raft he waded along the shore to the nest. He pulled the raft into position. A sudden gust of wind hit him. his feet slipped, the line was jerked clear of his hand. The raft floated downstream before he could right himself.
Katie’s wail of despair was like that of a drowning woman.
Mr. Birchley walked to the barge and sat at the table in his wet oilskins, and put his chin in his hands. The growing storm pounded hard outside. He thought of the swans out there.
“You did more than a man rightly should.” Katie spoke soft. “1 will make you supper.” She rattled dishes, but he knew she was crying the way women do, trying not to show. But he could eat no supper, which Katie had brought in a shopping bag, although he tried.
It was about eight bells when it happened.
He felt the barge lurch suddenly. He sprang for the door and jerked it open. The rain was still falling. He walked quickly to tlie port side of the barge. As his eyes became accustomed to the shadows he saw that his linos still held. The barge was moving, but this he did not understand. Then he saw the root and nest were moving too.
He ran for lines and lashed the root firmly. The swans seemed unconcerned about their destination. They sat quietly side by side making no stir, like the noble birds they were.
SITTING close beside him in the pilot house Katie says, “Much as I wanted the swans, Mr. Birchley, I could never have married Lars to save them. Nor for land and a fine house on the Fraser River.”
Being a man who could steer a barge with one hand Mr. Birchley put the other around Katie.
“A woman must go with her heart,” she says, quietlike and laid her head against his blue coat. “I can think of no better home than a barge, Mr. Birchley.”
The river sailed past, the stars came out, new and bright and, leaving the mountains behind, Mr. Birchley began to sing for Katie one of the old chanteys. For he understood now that wherever he went, on land or sea, the angels were on his side. A thing for which a seafaring man could be extremely thankful. ★