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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap02"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER II </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> A PICNIC IN THE RED SAND VALLEY </H4> <P> Summer, at the foot of the Canadian Rockies, sets in suddenly. There are no dreary days of damp and cold when the east wind bites through to the bones and chills right down to the marrow. One moment all is black, dead; the lean branches and dead grass of last year make a waste of dreary decay. Watch. See the magic of the change. The black of the trees gives way to a warming brown; the grass, so sad in its depression, suddenly lightens with the palest hue of green. There is at once a warmth of tone which spreads itself over the world, and gladdens the heart and sets the pulses throbbing with renewed life and hope. Animal life stirs; the insect world rouses. At the sun's first smile the whole earth wakens; it yawns and stretches itself; it blinks and rubs its eyes, and presently it smiles back. The smile broadens into a laugh, and lo! it is summer, with all the world clad in festal raiment, gorgeous in its myriads of changing color-harmonies. </P> <P> It was on such a day in the smiling valley of the Red Sand River that Betty Somers held her school picnic. There were no shadows to mar the festivities she had arranged. The sky was brilliant, cloudless, and early in the season as it was, the earth was already beginning to crack and parch under the fiery sun. </P> <P> A dozen democrat wagons, bedecked with flags and filled to overflowing with smiling, rosy-faced children, each wagon under the charge of one of the village matrons, set out at eight o'clock in the morning for the camping-ground. Besides these, an hour later, a large number of private buggies conveyed the parents and provender, while the young people of the village rode out on horseback as a sort of escort to the commissariat. It was a gay throng, and there could be little doubt but that the older folk were as delighted at the prospect of the outing as the children themselves. </P> <P> Dave was there with the rest. Betty's challenge had had its effect. But he came without any of the enthusiasm of the rest of the young people. It was perfectly true that the demands of his mill made the outing inconvenient to him, but that was not the real reason of his reluctance. There was another, a far stronger one. All the years of his manhood had taught him that there was small place for him where the youth of both sexes foregathered. His body was too cumbersome, his tongue was too slow, and his face was too plain. The dalliance of man and maid was not for him, he knew, and did he ever doubt or forget it, his looking-glass, like an evil spirit, was ever ready to remind and convince him. </P> <P> The picnic ground was some five miles down the valley, in the depths of a wide, forest-grown glen, through which a tiny tributary of the Red Sand River tumbled its way over a series of miniature waterfalls. The place was large and magnificently rock-bound, and looked as though it had originally been chiseled by Nature to accommodate a rushing mountain torrent. It gave one the impression of a long disused waterway which, profiting by its original purpose, had become so wonderfully fertilized that its vegetation had grown out of all proportion to its capacity. It was a veritable jungle of undergrowth and forest, so dense and wide spreading as almost to shut out the dazzling sunlight. It was an ideal pleasure camping-ground, where the children could romp and play every game known to the Western child, and their elders could revel in the old, old game which never palls, and which the practice of centuries can never rob of its youth. </P> <P> All the morning the children played, while the women were kept busy with the preparations for the midday feast. The men were divided up into two sections, the elders, taking office under the command of Tom Chepstow, organizing the children's games, and the other half, acknowledging the leadership of Mrs. Tom, assisting those engaged in the culinary arrangements. </P> <P> As might be expected, the latter occupation found most favor with the younger men. There was far more fun in wandering through the tangled undergrowth of the riverside to help a girl fill a kettle, than in racking one's brains for some startlingly unoriginal and long-forgotten game with which to dazzle the mind of Malkern's youth. Then there were the joys of gathering fire-wood, a task which enlisted the services of at least a dozen couples. This was a much favored occupation. There was no time limit, and it involved a long, long ramble. Then, too, it was remarkable that every girl performing the simplest duty, and one in which she never required the least assistance when at home, found it quite impossible to do so here without the strong physical and moral support of the man she most favored. </P> <P> Thus the morning passed. While the girls and men flirted, and the older women took to themselves a reflected enjoyment of it all, the children shrieked their delight at the simplest game, and baited their elders with all the impudence of childhood. It was a morning of delight to all; a morning when the sluggish blood of the oldest quickened in the sunken veins; a morning when the joy of living was uppermost, and all care was thrust into the background. </P> <P> It was not until after dinner that Dave saw anything of Betty. As he had anticipated, Jim Truscott never left her side, and his own morning had been spent with Tom Chepstow and the children. Then, at dinner, it had fallen to his lot to assist the matrons in waiting upon the same riotous horde. In consequence, by the time he got his own meal, Betty and the younger section of the helpers had finished theirs and were wandering off into the woods. </P> <P> After dinner he sought out a secluded spot in which to smoke and&mdash;make the best of things. He felt he had earned a rest. His way took him along the bank of the little tumbling river. It was delightfully restful, cool and shadowed by the overhanging trees that nearly met across it. It was not an easy path, but it was calmly beautiful and remote, and that was all he sought. </P> <P> Just above one rapid, something larger than the others he had passed, he came to a little log footbridge. It was a delicious spot, and he sat down and filled his pipe. The murmur of the rapids below came up to him pleasantly. All the foliage about him was of that tender green inspired by the humidity of the dank, river atmosphere. Here and there the sun broke through in patches and lit up the scene, and added beauty to the remoter shadows of the woods. It was all so peaceful. Even the distant voices of the children seemed to add to the calm of his retreat. </P> <P> His pipe was nearly finished, and an insidious languor was stealing over him. He nodded once or twice, almost asleep. Then he started wide awake; a familiar laughing voice sounded just behind him, calling him by name. </P> <P> "Oh, Dave! So this is where you are! I've been hunting for you till&mdash;till my feet are sore." </P> <P> Before he could move Betty had plumped herself down beside him on the bridge. He was wide enough awake now, and his delight at the girl's presence was so apparent that she promptly and frankly remarked upon it. </P> <P> "I do believe you're glad I came, and&mdash;woke you up," she laughed. </P> <P> The man leant back luxuriously and propped himself against the post of the hand-rail. </P> <P> "I am, surely," he said with conviction. "I've been thinking about picnics. It seems to me they're a heap of fun&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "So you stole away by yourself to enjoy this one." </P> <P> Betty's brown eyes glanced slyly at him. There was a half smile in them, and yet they were serious. Dave began to refill his pipe. </P> <P> "Well, Betty, you see I just thought I'd like a smoke. I've been with the kiddies all morning." </P> <P> Suddenly the girl sat round facing him. </P> <P> "Dave, I'm a little beast. I oughtn't to have made you come. I know you don't care for this sort of thing, only&mdash;well, you are so kind, and you are so fond of making people happy. And you&mdash;you&mdash;&mdash; Oh, Dave, I&mdash;I want to tell you something. That's&mdash;that's why I was hunting for you." </P> <P> She had turned from him, and was gazing out down the stream now. Her face was flushed a deep scarlet. For an instant she had encountered his steady gray eyes and her confusion had been complete. She felt as though he had read right down into her very soul. </P> <P> Dave put his pipe away. The serious expression of his rugged face was unchanged, but the smile in his eyes had suddenly become more pronounced. </P> <P> "So that's why you hunted me out?" he said gently. "Well, Betty, you can tell me." </P> <P> He had seen the blushing face. He had noted the embarrassment and hesitancy, and the final desperate plunge. He knew in his heart what was coming, and the pain of that knowledge was so acute that he could almost have cried out. Yet he sat there waiting, his eyes smiling, his face calmly grave as it always was. </P> <P> For nearly a minute neither spoke. Then the man's deep voice urged the girl. </P> <P> "Well?" </P> <P> Betty rested her face in her hands and propped her elbows on her knees. All her embarrassment had gone now. She was thinking, thinking, and when at last her words came that tone of excitement which she had used just a moment before had quite gone out of her voice. </P> <P> "It's Jim," she said quietly. "He's asked me to marry him. I've promised&mdash;and&mdash;and he's gone to speak to uncle." </P> <P> Dave took out his pipe again and looked into the bowl of it. </P> <P> "I guessed it was that," he said, after a while. Then he fumbled for his tobacco. "And&mdash;are you happy&mdash;little Betty?" he asked a moment later. </P> <P> "Yes&mdash;I&mdash;I think so." </P> <P> "You think so?" </P> <P> Dave was astonished out of himself. </P> <P> "You only think so?" he went on, his breath coming quickly. </P> <P> Betty sat quite still and the man watched her, with his pipe and tobacco gripped tightly in his great hand. He was struggling with a mad desire to crush this girl to his heart and defy any one to take her from him. It was a terrible moment. But the wild impulse died down. He took a deep breath and&mdash;slowly filled his pipe. </P> <P> "Tell me," he said, and his tone was very tender. </P> <P> The girl turned to him. She rested an arm on his bent knee and looked up into his face. There was no longer any hesitation or doubt. She was pale under the warm tanning of her cheeks, but she was very pretty, and, to Dave, wildly seductive as she thus appealed to him. </P> <P> "Oh, Dave, I must tell you all. You are my only real friend. You, I know, will understand, and can help me. If I went to uncle, good and kind as he is, I feel he would not understand. And auntie, she is so matter-of-fact and practical. But you&mdash;you are different from anybody else." </P> <P> The man nodded. </P> <P> "I have loved Jim for so long," she went on hurriedly. "Long&mdash;long before he ever even noticed me. To me he has always been everything a man should and could be. You see, he is so kind and thoughtful, so brave, so masterful, so&mdash;so handsome, with just that dash of recklessness which makes him so fascinating to a girl. I have watched him pay attention to other girls, and night after night I have cried myself to sleep about it. Dave, you have never known what it is to love anybody, so all this may seem silly to you, but I only want to show you how much I have always cared for Jim. Well, after a long time he began to take notice of me. I remember it so well," she went on, with a far-away look in her eyes. "It was a year ago, at our Church Social. He spent a lot of time with me there, and gave me a box of candy, and then asked permission to see me home. Dave, from that moment I was in a seventh heaven of happiness. Every day I have felt and hoped that he would ask me to be his wife. I have longed for it, prayed for it, dreaded it, and lived in a dream of happiness. And now he has asked me." </P> <P> She turned away to the bustling stream. Her eyes had become pathetically sad. </P> <P> "And&mdash;&mdash;" Dave prompted her. </P> <P> "Oh, I don't know." She shook her head a little helplessly. "It all seems different now." </P> <P> "Different?" </P> <P> "Yes, that wildly happy feeling has gone." </P> <P> "You are&mdash;unhappy?" </P> <P> The man's voice shook as he put his question. </P> <P> "It isn't that. I'm happy enough, I suppose. Only&mdash;only&mdash;I think I'm frightened now, or something. All my dreams seem to have tumbled about my ears. I have no longer that wonderful looking forward. Is it because he is mine now, and no one can take him from me? Or is it," her voice dropped to an awed whisper, "that&mdash;I&mdash;don't&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> She broke off as though afraid to say all she feared. Dave lit his pipe and smoked slowly and thoughtfully. He had gone through his ordeal listening to her, and now felt that he could face anything without giving his own secret away. He must reassure her. He must remove the doubt in her mind, for, in his quiet, reasoning way, he told himself that all her future happiness was at stake. </P> <P> "No, it's not that, Betty," he said earnestly. "It's not that you love him less. It's just that for all that year you've thought and thought and hoped about it&mdash;till there's nothing more to it," he added lamely. "You see, it's the same with all things. Realization is nothing. It's all in the anticipation. You wait, little girl. When things are fixed, and Parson Tom has said 'right,' you'll&mdash;why, you'll just be the happiest little bit of a girl in Malkern. That's sure." </P> <P> Betty lifted her eyes to his ugly face and looked straight into the kindly eyes. Just for one impulsive moment she reached out and took hold of his knotty hand and squeezed it. </P> <P> "Dave, you are the dearest man in the world. You are the kindest and best," she cried with unusual emotion. "I wonder&mdash;&mdash;" and she turned away to hide the tears that had suddenly welled up into her troubled eyes. </P> <P> But Dave had seen them, and he dared not trust himself to speak. He sat desperately still and sucked at his pipe, emitting great clouds of smoke till the pungent fumes bit his tongue. </P> <P> Then relief came from an unexpected quarter. There was a sharp crackling of bush just above where they sat and the scrunch of crushing pine cones trodden under foot, and Jim Truscott stepped on to the bridge. </P> <P> "Ah, here you are at last. My word, but I had a job to find you." </P> <P> His tone was light and easy, but his usually smiling face was clouded. Betty sprang to her feet. </P> <P> "What is it, Jim?" she demanded, searching his face. "Something is wrong. I know it is." </P> <P> Jim seated himself directly in front of Dave, who now watched him with added interest. He now noticed several things in the boy he did not remember having observed before. The face in repose, or rather without the smile it usually wore, bore signs of weakness about the mouth. The whole of the lower part of it lacked the imprint of keen decision. There was something almost effeminate about the mould of his full lips, something soft and yielding&mdash;even vicious. The rest of his face was good, and even intellectual. He was particularly handsome, with crisp curling hair of a light brown that closely matched his large expressive eyes. His tall athletic figure was strangely at variance with the intellectual cast of his face and head. But what Dave most noticed were the distinct lines of dissipation about his eyes. And he wondered how it was he had never seen them before. Perhaps it was that he so rarely saw Jim without his cheery smile. Perhaps, now that Betty had told him what had taken place, his observation was closer, keener. </P> <P> "What is it, Jim?" He added his voice to Betty's inquiry. Jim's face became gloomier. He turned to the girl, who had resumed her seat at Dave's side. </P> <P> "Have you told him?" he asked, and for a moment his eyes brightened with a shadow of their old smile. </P> <P> The girl nodded, and Dave answered for her. </P> <P> "She's told me enough to know you're the luckiest fellow in the Red Sand Valley," he said kindly. </P> <P> Jim glanced up into the girl's face with all the passion of his youthful heart shining in his handsome eyes. </P> <P> "Yes, I am, Dave&mdash;in that way," he said. Then his smile faded out and was replaced by a brooding frown. "But all the luck hasn't come my way. I've talked to Parson Tom." </P> <P> "Ah!" Dave's ejaculation was ominous. </P> <P> Suddenly Jim exploded, half angrily, half pettishly, like a disappointed schoolboy. </P> <P> "Betty, I've got to go away. Your uncle says so. He asked me all about my mill, what my profits were, and all that. I told him honestly. I know I'm not doing too well. He said I wasn't making enough to keep a nigger servant on. He told me that until I could show him an income of $2,500 a year there was to be no talk of engagement. What is more, he said he couldn't have me philandering about after you until there was a reasonable prospect of that income. We talked and argued, but he was firm. And in the end he advised me, if I were really in earnest and serious, to go right away, take what capital I had, and select a new and rising country to start in. He pointed out that there was not room enough here for two in the lumbering business; that Dave, here, complained of the state of trade, so what chance could I possibly have without a tithe of his resources. Finally, he told me to go and think out a plan, talk it over with you, and then tell him what I had decided upon. So here I am, and&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "So am I," added Betty. </P> <P> "And as I am here as well," put in Dave, "let's talk it over now. Where are you thinking of going?" </P> <P> "Seems to me the Yukon is the place. There's a big rush going on. There's great talk of fabulous fortunes there." </P> <P> "Yes, fabulous," said Dave dryly. "It's a long way. A big fare. You'll find yourself amongst all the scum and blacklegs of this continent. You'll be up against every proposition known to the crook. You'll get tainted. Why not do some ranching? Somewhere around here, toward Edmonton." </P> <P> Jim shook his head gloomily. </P> <P> "I haven't nearly enough capital." </P> <P> "Maybe I could manage it for you," said Dave thoughtfully. "I mean it as a business proposition," he added hastily. </P> <P> Jim's face cleared, and his ready smile broke out like sunshine after a summer storm. </P> <P> "Would you?" he cried. "Yes, a business proposition. Business interest. I know the very place," he went on ardently. "Betty, wouldn't that be bully? How would you like to be a rancher's wife?" </P> <P> But his spirits quickly received a damper. Betty shook her head. </P> <P> "No, Jim. Not at Dave's expense." Then she turned to the man who had made the offer. "No, no, Dave, old friend. Jim and I know you. This is not business from your point of view. You added that to disguise your kindly intention." </P> <P> "But&mdash;&mdash;" Dave began to protest. </P> <P> But Betty would have none of it. </P> <P> "This is a debate," she said, with a brightness she did not feel, "and I am speaking. Jim," she turned gently to her lover, "we'll start fair and square with the world. You must do as uncle says. And you can do it. Do it yourself&mdash;yourself unaided. God will help you&mdash;surely. You are clever; you have youth, health and strength. I will wait for you all my life, if necessary. You have my promise, and it is yours until you come back to claim me. It may be only a year or two. We must be very, very brave. Whatever plan you decide on, if it is the Yukon, or Siberia, or anywhere else, I am content, and I will wait for you." </P> <P> The girl's words were so gently spoken, yet they rang with an irrevocable decision that astonished her hearers. Dave looked into the pretty, set face. He had known her so long. He had seen her in almost every mood, yet here was a fresh side to her character he had never even suspected, and the thought flashed through his mind, to what heights of ambition might a man not soar with such a woman at his side. </P> <P> Jim looked at her too. But his was a stare of amazement, and even resentment. </P> <P> "But why, Betty?" he argued sharply. "Why throw away a business offer such as this, when it means almost certain success? Dave offered it himself, and surely you will allow that he is a business man before all things." </P> <P> "Is he?" Betty smiled. Then she turned to the man who had made the offer. "Dave, will you do something for me?" </P> <P> "Why, yes, Betty&mdash;if it's not to go and wash up cups down there," he replied at once, with a grin. </P> <P> "No, it isn't to wash cups. It's"&mdash;she glanced quickly at Jim, who was watching her with anything but a lover-like stare&mdash;"it's&mdash;to withdraw that offer." </P> <P> Dave removed his pipe and turned to Jim. </P> <P> "That ranch business is off," he said. </P> <P> Then he suddenly sat up and leant toward the younger man. </P> <P> "Jim, boy, you know I wish you well," he said. "I wish you so well that I understand and appreciate Betty's decision now, though I allow I didn't see it at first. She's right. Parson Tom is right. I was wrong. Get right out into the world and make her a home. Get right out and show her, and the rest of us, the stuff you're made of. You won't fail if you put your back into it. And when you come back it'll be a great day for you both. And see here, boy, so long as you run straight you can ask me anything in the name of friendship, and I'll not fail you. Here's my hand on it." </P> <P> Something of Dave's earnestness rather than the girl's quiet strength seemed to suddenly catch hold of and lift the dejected man out of his moodiness. His face cleared and his sunny smile broke out again. He gripped the great hand, and enthusiasm rang in his voice. </P> <P> "By God, you're right, Dave," he cried. "You're a good chap. Yes, I'll go. Betty," he turned to the girl, "I'll go to the Yukon, where there's gold for the seeking. I'll realize all the money I can. I won't part with my mill. That will be my fall-back if I fail. But I won't fail. I'll make money by&mdash;no, I'll make money. And&mdash;&mdash;" Suddenly, at the height of his enthusiasm, his face fell, and the buoyant spirit dropped from him. </P> <P> "Yes, yes," broke in Betty, anxious to see his mood last. </P> <P> Jim thought for a moment while the clouds gathered on his face. Then he looked steadily at Dave. </P> <P> "Dave," he said, and paused. Then he began again. "Dave&mdash;in friendship's name&mdash;I'll ask you something now. Betty here," he swallowed, as though what he had to say was very difficult. "You see, I may be away a long time, you can never tell. Will you&mdash;will you take care of her for me? Will you be her&mdash;her guardian, as you have always been mine? I know I'm asking a lot, but somehow I can't leave her here, and&mdash;I know there's her uncle and aunt. But, I don't know, somehow I'd like to think you had given me your word that she would be all right, that you were looking after her for me. Will you?" </P> <P> His face and tone were both eager, and full of real feeling. Dave never flinched as he listened to the request, yet every word cut into his heart, lashed him till he wondered how it was Jim could not see and understand. He moistened his lips. He groped in his pocket for his matches and lit one. He let it burn out, watching it until the flame nearly reached his fingers. Then he knocked his pipe out on his boot, and broke it with the force he used. Finally he looked up with a smile, and his eyes encountered Betty's. </P> <P> She smiled back, and he turned to her lover, who was waiting for his answer. </P> <P> "Sure I'll look after her&mdash;for you," he said slowly. </P> <P> Jim sprang to his feet. </P> <P> "I can never thank&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> But Dave cut him short. </P> <P> "Don't thank me, boy," he said, preparing to return to the camp. "Just&mdash;get out and do." And he left the lovers to return at their leisure. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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