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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap01"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER I </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> DAVE </H4> <P> Dave was thirty-two, but looked forty; for, in moulding his great, strong, ugly face, Nature had been less than kind to him. It is probable, from his earliest, Dave had never looked less than ten years older than he really was. </P> <P> Observing him closely, one had the impression that Nature had set herself the task of equipping him for a tremendous struggle in the battle of life; as though she had determined to make him invincible. Presuming this to have been her purpose, she set to work with a liberal hand. She gave him a big heart, doubtless wishing him to be strong to fight and of a great courage, yet with a wonderful sympathy for the beaten foe. She gave him the thews and sinews of a Hercules, probably arguing that a man must possess a mighty strength with which to carry himself to victory. To give him such physical strength it was necessary to provide a body in keeping. Thus, his shoulders were abnormally wide, his chest was of a mighty girth, his arms were of phenomenal length, and his legs were gnarled and knotted with muscles which could never be satisfactorily disguised by the class of "store" clothes it was his frugal custom to wear. </P> <P> For his head Nature gave him a fine, keen brain; strong, practical, subtly far-seeing in matters commercial, bluntly honest and temperate, yet withal matching his big heart in kindly sympathy. It was thrilling with a vast energy and capacity for work, but so pronounced was its dominating force, that in the development of his physical features it completely destroyed all delicacy of mould and gentleness of expression. He displayed to the world the hard, rugged face of the fighter, without any softening, unless, perhaps, one paused to look into the depths of his deep-set gray eyes. </P> <P> Nature undoubtedly fulfilled her purpose. Dave was equipped as few men are equipped, and if it were to be regretted that his architect had forgotten that even a fighting man has his gentler moments, and that there are certain requirements in his construction to suit him to such moments, in all other respects he had been treated lavishly. Summed up briefly, Dave was a tower of physical might, with a face of striking plainness. </P> <P> It was twelve years since he came to the Red Sand Valley. He was then fresh from the lumber regions of Puget Sound, on the western coast of the United States. He came to Western Canada in search of a country to make his own, with a small capital and a large faith in himself, supported by a courage that did not know the meaning of defeat. </P> <P> He found the Red Sand Valley nestling in the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains. He saw the wonders of the magnificent pine woods which covered the mountain slopes in an endless sea of deep, sombre green. And he knew that these wonderful primordial wastes were only waiting for the axe of the woodsman to yield a building lumber second to none in the world. </P> <P> The valley offered him everything he needed. A river that flowed in full tide all the open season, with possibilities of almost limitless "timber booms" in its backwaters, a delicious setting for a village, with the pick of a dozen adequate sites for the building of lumber mills. He could hope to find nothing better, so he stayed. </P> <P> His beginning was humble. He started with a horse-power saw-pit, and a few men up in the hills cutting for him. But he had begun his great struggle with fortune, and, in a man such as Nature had made him, it was a struggle that could only end with his life. The battle was tremendous, but he never hesitated, he never flinched. </P> <P> Small as was his beginning, six years later his present great mills and the village of Malkern had begun to take shape. Then, a year later, the result of his own persistent representation, the Canadian Northwestern Railroad built a branch line to his valley. And so, in seven years, his success was practically assured. </P> <P> Now he was comfortably prosperous. The village was prosperous. But none knew better than he how much still remained to be achieved before the foundations of his little world were adequate to support the weight of the vast edifice of commercial enterprise, which, with his own two hands, his own keen brain, he hoped to erect. </P> <P> He was an American business man raised in the commercial faith of his country. He understood the value of "monopoly," and he made for it. Thus, when he could ill spare capital, by dint of heavy borrowings he purchased all the land he required, and the "lumbering" rights of that vast region. </P> <P> Then it was that he extended operations. He abandoned his first mill and began the building of his larger enterprise further down the valley, at a point where he had decided that the village of Malkern should also begin its growth. </P> <P> Once the new mill was safely established he sold his old one to a man who had worked with him from the start. The transaction was more in the nature of a gift to an old friend and comrade. The price was nominal, but the agreement was binding that the mill should only be used for the production of small building material, and under no circumstances to be used in the production of rough "baulks." This was to protect his own monopoly in that class of manufacture. </P> <P> George Truscott, the lumberman with whom he made the transaction, worked the old mills with qualified success for two years. Then he died suddenly of blood-poisoning, supervening upon a badly mutilated arm torn by one of his own saws. The mill automatically became the property of his only son Jim, a youth of eighteen, curly-headed, bright, lovable, but wholly irresponsible for such an up-hill fight as the conduct of the business his father had left him. </P> <P> The master of the Malkern mills, as might be expected, was a man of simple habits and frugal tastes. In his early struggles he had had neither time nor money with which to indulge himself, and the habit of simple living had grown upon him. He required so very little. He had no luxurious home; a mere cottage of four rooms and a kitchen, over which an aged and doting mother ruled, her establishment consisting of one small maid. His office was a shack of two rooms, bare but useful, containing one chair and one desk, and anything he desired to find a temporary safe resting-place for strewn about the floor, or hung upon nails driven into the walls. It was all he needed, a roof to shade him from the blazing summer sun when he was making up his books, and four walls to shut out the cruel blasts of the Canadian winter. </P> <P> He was sitting at his desk now, poring over a heap of letters which had just arrived by the Eastern mail. This was the sort of thing he detested. Correspondence entailed a lot of writing, and he hated writing. Figures he could cope with, he had no grudge against them, but composing letters was a task for which he did not feel himself adequately equipped; words did not flow easily from his pen. His education was rather the education of a man who goes through the world with ears and eyes wide open. He had a wide knowledge of men and things, but the inside of books was a realm into which he had not deeply delved. </P> <P> At last he pushed his letters aside and sat back, his complaining chair protesting loudly at the burden imposed upon it. He drew an impatient sigh, and began to fill his pipe, gazing through the rain-stained window under which his untidy desk stood. He had made up his mind to leave the answering of his letters until later in the day, and the decision brought him some relief. </P> <P> He reached for the matches. But suddenly he altered his mind and removed his pipe from his mouth. A smile shone in his deep-set eyes at the sight of a dainty, white figure which had just emerged from behind a big stack of milled timber out in the yard and was hurrying toward the office. </P> <P> He needed no second glance to tell him who the figure belonged to. It was Betty&mdash;little Betty Somers, as he loved to call her&mdash;who taught the extreme youth of Malkern out of her twenty-two years of erudition and worldly wisdom. </P> <P> He sprang from his chair and went to the door to meet her, and as he walked his great bulk and vast muscle gave his gait something of the roll of a sailor. He had no lightness, no grace in his movements; just the ponderous slowness of monumental strength. He stood awaiting her in the doorway, which he almost filled up. </P> <P> Betty was not short, but he towered above her as she came up, his six feet five inches making nothing of her five feet six. </P> <P> "This is bully," he cried delightedly, as she stood before him. "I hadn't a notion you were getting around this morning, Betty." </P> <P> His voice was as unwieldy as his figure; it was husky too, in the manner of powerful voices when their owners attempt to moderate them. The girl laughed frankly up into his face. </P> <P> "I'm playing truant," she explained. Then her pretty lips twisted wryly, and she pointed at the lintel of the door. "Please sit down there," she commanded. Then she laughed again. "I want to talk to you, and&mdash;and I have no desire to dislocate my neck." </P> <P> He made her feel so absurdly small; she was never comfortable unless he was sitting down. </P> <P> The man grinned humorously at her imperious tone, and sat down. They were great friends, these two. Betty looked upon him as a very dear, big, ugly brother to whom she could always carry all her little worries and troubles, and ever be sure of a sympathetic adviser. It never occurred to her that Dave could be anything dearer to anybody. He was just Dave&mdash;dear old Dave, an appellation which seemed to fit him exactly. </P> <P> The thought of him as a lover was quite impossible. It never entered her head. Probably the only people in Malkern who ever considered the possibility of Dave as a lover were his own mother, and perhaps Mrs. Tom Chepstow. But then they were wiser than most of the women of the village. Besides, doubtless his mother was prejudiced, and Mrs. Tom, in her capacity as the wife of the Rev. Tom Chepstow, made it her business to study the members of her husband's parish more carefully than the other women did. But to the ordinary observer he certainly did not suggest the lover. He was so strong, so cumbersome, so unromantic. Then his ways were so deliberate, so machine-like. It almost seemed as though he had taken to himself something of the harsh precision of his own mills. </P> <P> On the other hand, his regard for Betty was a matter of less certainty. Good comradeship was the note he always struck in their intercourse, but oftentimes there would creep into his gray eyes a look which spoke of a warmth of feeling only held under because his good sense warned him of the utter hopelessness of it. He was too painfully aware of the quality of Betty's regard for him to permit himself any false hopes. </P> <P> Betty's brown eyes took on a smiling look of reproach as she held up a warning finger. </P> <P> "Dave," she said, with mock severity, "I always have to remind you of our compact. I insist that you sit down when I am talking to you. I refuse to be made to feel&mdash;and look&mdash;small. Now light your pipe and listen to me." </P> <P> "Go ahead," he grinned, striking a match. His plain features literally shone with delight at her presence there. Her small oval, sun-tanned face was so bright, so full of animation, so healthy looking. There was such a delightful frankness about her. Her figure, perfectly rounded, was slim and athletic, and her every movement suggested the open air and perfect health. </P> <P> "Well, it's this way," she began, seating herself on the corner of a pile of timber: "I'm out on the war-path. I want scalps. My pocketbook is empty and needs filling, and when that's done I'll get back to my school children, on whose behalf I am out hunting." </P> <P> "It's your picnic?" suggested Dave. </P> <P> "Not mine. The kiddies'. So now, old boy, put up your hands! It's your money or your life." And she sat threatening him with her pocketbook, pointing it at him as though it were a pistol. </P> <P> Dave removed his pipe. </P> <P> "Guess you'd best have 'em both," he smiled. </P> <P> But Betty shook her head with a joyous laugh. </P> <P> "I only want your money," she said, extending an open hand toward him. </P> <P> Dave thrust deep into his hip-pocket, and produced a roll of bills. </P> <P> "It's mostly that way," he murmured, counting them out. </P> <P> But his words had reached the girl, and her laugh died suddenly. </P> <P> "Oh, Dave!" she said reproachfully. </P> <P> And the man's contrition set him blundering. </P> <P> "Say, Betty, I'm a fool man anyway. Don't take any sort of notice. I didn't mean a thing. Now here's fifty, and you can have any more you need." </P> <P> He looked straight into her eyes, which at once responded to his anxious smile. But she did not attempt to take the money. She shook her head. </P> <P> "Too much." </P> <P> But he pushed the bills into her hand. </P> <P> "You can't refuse," he said. "You see, it's for the kiddies. It isn't just for you." </P> <P> When Dave insisted refusal was useless. Betty had long since learned that. Besides, as he said, it was for the "kiddies." She took the money, and he sat and watched her as she folded the bills into her pocketbook. The girl looked up at the sound of a short laugh. </P> <P> "What's that for?" she demanded, her brown eyes seriously inquiring. </P> <P> "Oh, just nothing. I was thinking." </P> <P> The man glanced slowly about him. He looked up at the brilliant summer sun. Then his eyes rested upon the rough exterior of his unpretentious office. </P> <P> "It meant something," asserted Betty. "I hate people to laugh&mdash;in that way." </P> <P> "I was thinking of this shack of mine. I was just thinking, Betty, what a heap of difference an elegant coat of paint makes to things. You see, they're just the same underneath, but they&mdash;kind of look different with paint on 'em, kind of please the eye more." </P> <P> "Just so," the girl nodded wisely. "And so you laughed&mdash;in that way." </P> <P> Dave's eyes twinkled. </P> <P> "You're too sharp," he said. Then he abruptly changed the subject. </P> <P> "Now about this picnic. You're expecting all the grown folk?" </P> <P> The girl's eyes opened to their fullest extent. </P> <P> "Of course I do. Don't you always come? It's only once a year." The last was very like a reproach. </P> <P> The man avoided her eyes. He was looking out across the sea of stacked timber at the great sheds beyond, where the saws were shrieking out their incessant song. </P> <P> "I was thinking," he began awkwardly, "that I'm not much good at those things. Of course I guess I can hand pie round to the folks; any fellow can do that. But&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "But what?" The girl had risen from her seat and was trying to compel his gaze. </P> <P> "Well, you see, we're busy here&mdash;desperately busy. Dawson's always grumbling that we're short-handed&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Betty came up close to him, and he suddenly felt a gentle squeeze on his shoulder. </P> <P> "You don't want to come," she said. </P> <P> "'Tisn't that&mdash;not exactly." </P> <P> He kept his eyes turned from her. </P> <P> "You see," he went on, "you'll have such a heap of folk there. They mostly all get around&mdash;for you. Then there'll be Jim Truscott, and Jim's worth a dozen of me when it comes to picnics and 'sociables' and such-like." </P> <P> The girl's hand suddenly dropped from his shoulder, and she turned away. A flush slowly mounted to her sun-tanned cheeks, and she was angry at it. She stood looking out at the mills beyond, but she wasn't thinking of them. </P> <P> At last she turned back to her friend and her soft eyes searched his. </P> <P> "If&mdash;if you don't come to the picnic to-morrow, I'll never forgive you, Dave&mdash;never!" </P> <P> And she was gone before his slow tongue could frame a further excuse. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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