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THE PORTRAIT OF

JIRJOHN COBB

 

CHAPTER I

 

WHEREIN A SHERIFF FINDS HIMSELF

GREATLY PUZZLED!

 

The Sheriff, seated on a partly flat boulder, suspiciously eyed the three oddly garbed men who, likewise seated off the dampish earth on boulders that were more or less flat, defiantly faced him—and each other. And faced each other, moreover, over a most convenient conference table provided by a large flat stone, some 27 inches square and 3 inches thick, lying heavily imbedded—at least at certain segments of its periphery—in the ground between them, and whose machine-etched inscription, eaten considerably by years of weather, read:

 

 

This is

Island 46 VII/b

Navigable Waters

BIG RIVER

$1000 fine, or 2 years’ imprisonment, to anybody removing this marker from this island or knowingly covering same with dirt or debris.

       u.s. bureau of rivers and harbors

 

 

Though no mere “conference” was this, being held between the Sheriff and the 3 men, all equidistant about the flat stone government marker, and with feet of all practically touching this improvised table; rather was it, instead, a poker party—a poker party being held not, as customarily, in a comfortable gambling room, but on a lonely, fog-ridden, and now boatless island: a poker party minus cards—minus chips—minus money! And never, since the day he had first been elected Sheriff, had the Sheriff been so downright puzzled.

All three of these individuals, each of whom was dressed in a costume that looked as though it had come straight out of a theatrical studio, might—so far as the Sheriff knew—be criminals, come, this morning, the moment last night’s impenetrable fog had lifted, to rob—or examine or profane—or whatnot else?—the body of Millionaire McCorniss, interred but late yesterday—and just before the fog had dropped down—in McCorniss’ specially constructed burial vault on this little treeless, verdureless island, some 30 or so feet up from where the 4 men now sat. Or all—so far as the Sheriff knew!—might be but reckless cross-river voyagers who—even as each had averred—had tried unsuccessfully to traverse this swirling, rushing wilderness of water that, a few days ago, had been just Big River—but which today was a vast reach of sinister greyish sea extending almost farther than the human eye could reach—a reach that, moreover, was rising—rising—rising steadily—so steadily, in fact, that it seemed certain this island must be completely submerged.

“Now goddang it, you three birds,” the Sheriff was saying belligerently, “you hain’t all o’ you hyar on this island accidental-like—the way you claim—and you know it, too. I’m a man who’s reached 40—and nobody’s dang fool! And I—”

And a man of 41—to be exact and precise—the Sheriff was. His round face was red from much sunburn and windburn; he was stocky in build and strongly muscled. He wore yellow cowhide leather half-boots, laced with thongs, which came halfway up his shins, and a checkered hickory shirt held loosely at the neck with a spotted blue tie. His hat was the typical black felt hat of the typical Midwest sheriff—pointed at the top and exceedingly broad and flat of brim. His suit was brown—the kind of vivid brown that comes only out of country stores—and, peeping halfway out from under the rusticly cut lapel of his coat, was the bright silver star whose letters said “SHERIFF: SHELBY COUNTY.”

As for the other three men, they were, by sheer comparison, no less than downright “stagy” in appearance, to say the least, for—

And, considering this very thing, the Sheriff, studying them again frowningly from his vantage point atop the flat boulder, the loaded gun under his armpit feeling extremely comfortable in view of the utter boatlessness of this island, more and ever more had his doubts that all three men had just—by pure chance—and individually, to boot—turned in, with such boat as each had then had!—at this island. Quite apart from the fact alone that each one’s explanation of why he had even been trying, in the first place, to cross that sinister stretch of rushing waters—was—at least to the Sheriff—not only starkly unconvincing but downright, b’God, ridiculous! It was too—too coincidental by far—their all landing on this island! Not, to be sure, because each had started out from the same shore—the high, east, bluff-protected shore—for it was there only, with its invariable ring-and-vertical-pole mooring posts, and the stepped landing-platforms in the bluffs and inlets, that boats, in flood like this, were now even available; for across Big River, in the lower lands, there was probably nothing today but swamp—and if boat there was on that side, elastically moored, it would have been unreachable! So, the Sheriff was able to reason shrewdly, it was not coincidental that these three voyagers had started out from the same side. Nor—he was also able to deduce—was it coincidental that each of the three had—as it plainly appeared—started out this morning at practically the same moment—and which moment had been practically 9 a.m.—for that was the moment, as at least the Sheriff himself definitely knew, when last night’s fog had lifted suddenly and the sun had momentarily spread itself across the surface of the river. But coincidental—too coincidental—that was it!—that each man had started out from upstream of this island—instead of downstream; and at points just far enough upstream, to boot, that each man’s boat had been easily maneuverable—as it indeed had been—so as to thrust itself up and upon the east shore of Bleeker’s Island!

No, the Sheriff felt he knew better; b’Gad—knew better! He was as certain, in his own mind, that one of these three men—if not maybe two—and maybe all!—were “phony,” as he was of the simple fact that if certain rumors were true concerning the great Cooperstown Dam, far upstream, and over the Ohiuri which fed Big River half of its flow—and that the Cooperstown Dam, therefore, gave way!—and, in turn, tore out the great Cooperstown Reservoir wall, built on the same substructure, and with its imbedded gate-frame attached to the dam itself by oblique steel beams—Bleeker’s Island would lie under 10 feet of water.

“Now see here, you three,” the Sheriff began again harshly, “let’s git down to brass tacks: the real facts o’ how and why you landed whar you be. Fur atter all, you know, men don’t leave the safe bluff-pertected side of a river, durin’ flood, to go to’rds a side that’s all water and swamp inward fur God Hisse’f knows how fur. And even ef’n they did—even if yo’-all did—and landed hyar whar you be—this ain’t no peninsuly sticking miles out from that side—bound to be hit by any down-going boat. This is a island; and whether you call it ‘Island Number 46-VII-b’—as Uncle Sam does on them letters down thar on that gov’ment markin’ stone, what happen jest now to be facin’ me ’stid o’ any o’ you—or whether you call it ‘Bleeker’s Isle,’ it’s mo’ familiar name—it’s still a island—cut off from the world by water—and a goddanged lot of it. Let’s—”

And—considered purely and solely as a geographical entity—and not as an individual human being’s private and official graveyard!—island indeed Bleeker’s—or No. 46-VII-b!—was just now. Oval, elongated, its lengthwise axis parallel with Big River’s now completely lost channel, it was, at the present moment, no more than 40 feet in width, and 80 in length. Even, moreover, was it changed considerably from its regular shape, since the low partly sunk, partly raised stone burial vault, with its superimposed concrete cross, which at regular water stood practically centermost of Bleeker’s Island, was now, due to the risen waters, but one third of the island’s own distance from its present up-river end. Though quite no one, other than one who stood upon it, could know its changed contour, since—as the Sheriff had just emphasized—Bleeker’s Island was indeed physically cut off right now from the world—surrounded, as it was, not only by water that extended, could one have been able to look, almost farther than the eye could see, but immersed as well now in the densest fog that had dropped for years over the valley of Big River. A fog that, moreover, had been increasing so rapidly in the last 25 minutes—and was now so thick—that, from where the four men all sat, one-third off from the down-river end of the island, it seemed that the entire oval of land was surrounded by an impenetrable grey wall. A wall from which, where it appeared almost to touch the island’s up-river end, the waters purled angrily forth against the island’s nose, only to divide—almost frustratedly—into two swiftly rushing, fast dun-colored ribbons, each ribbon seemingly held rigidly in between one down-river extension of that implacable gray wall and one rock-studded shore; then coming angrily and volubly together again, in the lee of the island—only to vanish once more, some 35 feet or so below it, into that all-engulfing grey wall!

Though exactly 10:30 now by the big silver turnip in the Sheriff’s watch pocket, it had been but 10:00 by the same timepiece—or but a scant 30 minutes before—that the eye of man, though unable, to be sure, to make shore, could at least see for blocks and blocks across the rushing waters. Then the mists, which had been rising steadily from those waters, had commenced to change—and suddenly!—into real fog. 15 minutes later a house had gone bobbing merrily past the island, a lone rooster squawking terrifically on its ridgepole, and it had been noticeable, at that very moment, that even the farther edges of that house were completely obscured by the fog. That house was then—at least so the Sheriff estimated—but 100 feet off.

 Thus, in only the first half of that half hour, had visibility shrunk! While, in the second half thereof—well, only the shore of the island completely around and about, and some 40 feet or so of water to its sides and to its lee, was now visible to those on it—at least from the convenient rocks on which they sat; and if, as was likely, more houses were occasionally bobbing past the island at intervals, none on that oval of damp earth could know it—so almost completely had the turbulent breast of Big River been blotted out.

And thus the four men sat—glum and belligerent—and, thanks to a most unusual concatenation of unexpected accidents, minus a single boat by which to leave!

 

While, far upstream—up beyond the point where the Ohiuri joined Big River—up the Ohiuri itself, to be exact—at Cooperstown, no less!—and in, to be precise, a tiny office atop the observation tower that reared itself above the high land which itself lay just above the Cooperstown Dam—United States Engineer Allen Kirby, unhappily pressing back from his forehead a fallen forelock of brown hair that was just beginning to be tipped with grey, was examining, through toric-lensed spectacles, the stenographic notes taken from the full verbal report of the last intrepid diver who had been down to inspect the great Cooperstown Dam across which, even now, the angry waters of the Ohiuri were boiling—roaring—foaming, shook his head sadly. And to his more youthful assistant, blond William Goring, standing—and waiting tensely—said:

“It’s no use, Bill! The cracks are doubled in number—and all the original ones are twice as deep! So there’s absolutely no chance! I said one year ago, you know, that merely driving that sheet piling to bedrock at a number of isolated points, to compensate for the fact that the apparent blue shale ledge they built on was partly blue mud!—and not altogether shale—wasn’t going to solve the problem. At least when the weight of the whole upper Ohiuri—plus the obvious and manifest overweight of the dam itself!—came into play at the same time. And that moment, Bill, has arrived, all right, all right! And with the additional further rises being reported from upstream—slight, but adding up at every tributary—”

“I know, Chief,” Kirby’s assistant replied troubledly. “It’ll be a matter of increased static pressure-head added to the present static pressure-head, with the result that—”

“Increased dynamic pressure-head too, don’t forget,” Kirby corrected him tolerantly. “And all added, moreover, at the wholly wrong end of the lever arm! That is—if you remember your Cardell’s Thesis on Weirs! For that water, my boy, is moving—as it rolls over the top—and spurts through all those open gates; so—”

“Yes,” the other amended hastily, “I hadn’t quite considered that. Though I of course did consider that the force-increments were being added now to the wrong end of the lever arm.” He shook his blond head. “The final tip-tilt all right, Chief. The stresses of which I don’t wonder she can’t take—considering these fearful cross, stresses she’s already carrying at the points where she’s atop blue clay!”

“Right, Bill. The final rotational δrs—integrated over the upper limits of r—but r now equalling h! The stress unbearable! Viz.—the cracks which are increasing now—as this plotted curve here shows—in geometrical—and not just arithmetical—progression. No, Bill, the dam’s a goner. For that curve can never, in this world, become asymptotic to the X-axis! Any more than can the tensile-stresses now existing in the unre-enforced parts of that concrete pass through zero, and become compression-stresses again. God, this affair is going to make one of the worst Congressional construction-scandals that ever broke in America. Far worse, even, than the case of that $1,500,000 Wyandotte County lake dam—yes, that Works Progress Administration job—that caved in completely September 20, 1938, from just its own weight, and similar conditions—before even the water was turned in![1] And the mere fact, Bill, that a few lone wheelbarrows of dirt on this job were trundled off by W.P.A. workers will brand it as another New Deal fiasco, and completely obfuscate the fact that the plans of the Cooperstown Dam were drawn up originally by Republicans—in a Republican regime! And damned glad I am that I was in the Philippines at the time—and not in on it! And—” But Kirby broke off. His face had become suddenly grave. And a bit grey. “But all that’s neither here nor there,” he said hastily, “right now. The point right now, of course, is that you must put Robson at once onto the Valley microphone. And keep him broadcasting a warning, continuously and incessantly. The while I write up a more complete broadcast—and the while you notify all regular radio stations—east—west—north to Chicago and south as far as Memphis—to tack on to their regular announcements a notice for all Valley settlers only to tune in immediately onto their own station U-S-V-B. And—what’s that? Precisely what’s Robson to broadcast? Oh, simply and unreservedly that the Cooperstown Dam is definitely to go down! That—and no more. I’ll incorporate, in the more complete broadcast I get up, the further explanation of how the Reservoir wall, with twice as many defects in it, and lying on the same phony blue shale!—but which is at least protected this moment by the equal hydrostatic pressure on both sides—is due to go down the minute the dam does, thanks to the crazy way those imported German engineers rigidly attached the gate-frame to the west end of the dam with beams, for bracement. And that Reservoir wall going down, I’ll explain, will release all of Lake Oho into the torrent. Have Robson emphasize to all listeners merely that when the dam goes down, the avalanche of water that will roll down Big River will submerge every now unsubmerged sandbar and island between Ohiuri Confluence and Webb City, a hundred miles south of historical Bleeker’s, and will swamp the lowlands for a couple of miles farther inland in both directions. Since—and incidentally here are the latest and final official visibility reports—just in for Robson’s regular weather-broadcast. And never before, Bill, have I known visibility to fall in Big River Valley as it has this morning. For instance—listen to this: Visibility at 9 a.m., thanks perhaps to the sun having come out, was w-100—meaning that the human eye could see fully ’cross-river—at least over the river’s old widths. But, by 10 minutes after 9—with the sun going back in—and for good—visibility dropped immediately to w-50—less than shore to mid-channel, for all mid-channel islands were, it seems, completely lost to either shore, though eye-range, at this time, was still a good half-mile anyway. Thus it stood, anyway, till 9:30, and then commenced drifting downward again, so that at 10—rather, to be exact, 10:05—visibility was v-plus for all types of fog-piercing lights only; and then—then it commenced to plummet!—for at 10:18 it was v-zero for everything! After which, it sailed steadily downward through a lot of steadily increasing minus readings on that Markheim fog scale—which minus readings, to me, are purely academic, in view of the fact that v-zero is the utter limit of practicability for human eye—flare—or whatnot—at any rate, the visibility sailed steadily downward from v-zero, at 10:18, to a point of v-minus-50—and then, at last, stood fast. And at which point, moreover—v-minus 50—so the Government Forecaster says—it’ll remain all day—and, of course, tonight—due to the type of fog—i.e., low pressure—plus the utterly hopeless weather reports from all sides. Pass it anyway, to Robson; for these lowland settlers mustn’t be allowed foolishly to wait and wait and wait for that fog to lift, since it hasn’t a chance to! And—but wait, Bill Robson must put this item in his broadcast absolutely: that while the dam may stand up for hours yet, it may also go at any second. Now jump, man—and get the warning on the air at once!”


[1] Author's Note: Actual fact.

 

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