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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap03"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER III </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> AFFAIRS IN MALKERN </H4> <P> Four glowing summers have gone; a fifth is dawning, driving before its radiant splendor the dark shadows and gray monotony of winter's icy pall. Malkern is a busy little town, spreading out its feelers in the way of small houses dotted about amidst the park land of the valley. Every year sees a further and further extension of its boarded sidewalks and grass-edged roadways; every year sees its population steadily increasing; every year sees an advancement in the architecture of its residences, and some detail displaying additional prosperity in its residents. </P> <P> Behind this steady growth of prosperity sits Dave, large, quiet, but irresistible. His is the guiding hand. The tiller of the Malkern ship is in his grasp, and it travels the laid course without deviation whatsoever. The harbor lies ahead, and, come storm or calm, he drives steadily on for its haven. </P> <P> Thus far has the man been content. Thus far have his ambitions been satisfied. He has striven, and gained his way inch by inch; but with that striving has grown up in him a desire such as inevitably comes to the strong and capable worker. A steady success creates a desire to achieve a master-stroke, whereby the fruit which hitherto he has been content to pluck singly falls in a mass into his lap. And therein lies the human nature which so often upsets the carefully trained and drilled method of the finest tempered brain. </P> <P> Dave saw his goal looming. He saw clearly that all that he had worked for, hoped for, could be gained at one stroke. That one stroke meant capturing the great government contract for the lumber required for building the new naval docks. It was a contract involving millions of dollars, and, with all the courage with which his spirit was laden, he meant to attempt the capture. His plans had been silently laid. No detail had been forgotten, no pains spared. Night and day his thoughtful brain had worked upon his scheme, and now had come that time when he must sit back and wait for the great moment. Nor did this great moment depend on him, and therein lay the uncertainty, the gamble so dear to the human heart. </P> <P> His scheme had been confided to only three people, and these were with him now, sitting on the veranda of the Rev. Tom Chepstow's house. The house stood on a slightly rising ground facing out to the east, whence a perfect view of the wide-spreading valley was obtained. It was a modest enough place, but trim and carefully kept. Parson Tom's stipend was so limited and uncertain that luxury was quite impossible; a rigid frugality was the ruling in his small household. </P> <P> It was Saturday. The day's work was over, and the family were watching the sunset and awaiting the hour for supper. The parson was luxuriating in a pipe in a well-worn deck-chair at one extremity of the deep, wild-cucumber-covered veranda. Dave sat near him; Mary Chepstow, the parson's wife, was crocheting a baby's woolen jacket, stoutly comfortable in a leather armchair; while Betty, a little more mature in figure, a little quieter in manner, but even prettier and more charming to look at than she was on the day of her picnic nearly five years ago, occupied a seat near the open French window, ready to attend at a moment's notice to the preparing of supper. </P> <P> Betty had been silent for quite a while. She was staring with introspective gaze out in the direction of the railroad depot. The two men had been discussing the best means of raising the funds for the building of a new church, aided by a few impracticable suggestions from Mrs. Chepstow, who had a way of counting her stitches aloud in the midst of her remarks. Suddenly Betty turned to her uncle, whose lean, angular frame was grotesquely hunched up in his deck-chair. </P> <P> "Will old Mudley bring the mail over if the train does come in this evening?" she inquired abruptly. </P> <P> The parson shook his head. His lean, clean-shaven face lit with a quizzical smile as he glanced over at his niece. </P> <P> "Why should he?" he replied. "He never does bring mail round. Are you expecting a letter&mdash;from him?" </P> <P> There was no self-consciousness in the girl's manner as she replied. There was not even warmth. </P> <P> "Oh, no; I was wondering if I should get one from Maud Hardwig. She promised to write me how Lily's wedding went off in Regina. It is a nuisance about the strike. But it's only the plate-layers, isn't it; and it only affects the section where they are constructing east of Winnipeg?" </P> <P> Her uncle removed his pipe. </P> <P> "Yes. But it affects indirectly the whole system. You see, they won't put on local mails from Regina. They wait for the eastern mail to come through. By the way, how long is it since you heard from Jim?" </P> <P> Betty had turned away and was watching the vanishing point of the railway track, where it entered the valley a couple of miles away. Dave's steady eyes turned upon her. But she didn't answer at once, and her uncle had to call her attention. </P> <P> "Betty!" </P> <P> "Oh, I'm sorry, uncle," she replied at once. "I was dreaming. When did I hear? Oh, nearly nine months ago." </P> <P> Mary Chepstow looked up with a start. </P> <P> "Nine months? Gracious, child&mdash;there, I've done it wrong." </P> <P> Bending over her work she withdrew her hook and started to unravel the chain she was making. </P> <P> "Yes," Betty went on coldly. "Nine months since I had a letter. But I've heard indirectly." </P> <P> Her uncle sat up. </P> <P> "You never told me," he said uneasily. </P> <P> The girl's indifference was not without its effect on him. She never talked of Jim Truscott now. And somehow the subject was rarely broached by any of them. Truscott had nominally gone away for two or three years, but they were already in the fifth year since his departure, and there was as yet no word of his returning. Secretly her uncle was rather pleased at her silence on the subject. He augured well from it. He did not think there was to be any heart-breaking over the matter. He had never sanctioned any engagement between them, but he had been prepared to do so if the boy turned up under satisfactory conditions. Now he felt that it was time to take action in the matter. Betty was nearly twenty-seven, and&mdash;well, he did not want her to spend her life waiting for a man who showed no sign of returning. </P> <P> "I didn't see the necessity," she said quietly. "I heard of him through Dave." </P> <P> The parson swung round on the master of the mills. His keen face was alert with the deepest interest. </P> <P> "You, Dave?" he exclaimed. </P> <P> The lumberman stirred uneasily, and Mary Chepstow let her work lie idle in her lap. </P> <P> "Dawson&mdash;my foreman, you know&mdash;got a letter from Mansell. You remember Mansell? He acted as Jim's foreman at his mill. A fine sawyer, Mansell&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Yes, yes." Parson Tom's interest made him impatient. </P> <P> "Well, you remember that Mansell went with Jim when he set out for the Yukon. They intended to try their luck together. Partners, of course. Well, Mansell wrote Dawson he was sick to death of worrying things out up there. He said he'd left Jim, but did not state why. He asked him if my mill was going strong, and would there be a job for him if he came back. He said that Jim was making money now. He had joined a man named Broncho Bill, a pretty hard citizen, and in consequence he was doing better. How he was making money he didn't say. But he finished up his remarks about the boy by saying he'd leave him to tell his own story, as he had no desire to put any one away." </P> <P> Mrs. Chepstow offered no comment, but silently picked up her work and went on with it. Her husband sat back in his chair, stretching his long muscular legs, and folding his hands behind his head. Betty displayed not the least interest in Dave's haltingly told story. </P> <P> The silence on the veranda was ominous. Chepstow began to refill his pipe, furtively watching his niece's pretty profile as she sat looking down the valley. It was his wife who broke the oppressive silence. </P> <P> "I can't believe badly&mdash;three treble in the adjacent hole"&mdash;she muttered, referring to her pattern book, "of him. I always liked him&mdash;five chain." </P> <P> "So do I," put in Dave with emphasis. </P> <P> Betty glanced quickly into his rugged face. </P> <P> "You don't believe the insinuations of that letter?" she asked him sharply. </P> <P> "I don't." </P> <P> Dave's reply was emphatic. Betty smiled over at him. Then she jumped up from her seat and pointed down the track. </P> <P> "There's the mail," she cried. Then she came to her aunt's side and laid a hand coaxingly on her shoulder. "Will you see to supper, dear, if I go down for the mail?" </P> <P> Mrs. Chepstow would not trust herself to speak, she was in the midst of a complicated manipulation of the pattern she was working, so she contented herself with a nod, and Betty was off like the wind. The two men watched her as she sped down the hard red sand trail, and neither spoke until a bend in the road hid her from view. </P> <P> "She's too good a girl, Dave," Chepstow said with almost militant warmth. "She's not going to be made a fool of by&mdash;by&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "She won't be made a fool of by any one," Dave broke in with equal warmth. "There's no fear of it, if I'm any judge," he added. "I don't think you realize that girl's spirit, Tom. Here, I'll tell you something I've never told anybody. When Jim went away Betty came to me and asked me to let her study my mills. She wanted to learn all the business of 'em. All the inside of the management of 'em. If I'd have let her she'd have learnt how to run the saws. And do you know why she did it? I'll tell you. Because she thought Jim might come back broke, and he and she together could start up his old mill again, so as to win through. That's Betty. Can you beat it? That girl has made up her mind to a certain line of action, and she'll see it through, no matter what her feelings may be. No word of yours, or mine, will turn her from her purpose. She'll wait for Jim." </P> <P> "Yes, and waste the best of her life," exclaimed Mrs. Chepstow. "One, two, three&mdash;turn." </P> <P> Dave smiled over at the rotund figure crocheting so assiduously. Although Mary Chepstow was over forty her face still retained its youthful prettiness. The parson laughed. He generally laughed at his wife's views upon anything outside of her small household and the care of the sick villagers. But it was never an unkind laugh. Just a large, tolerant good-nature, a pronounced feature in his character. Parson Tom, like many kindly men, was hasty of temper, even fiery, and being a man of considerable athletic powers, this characteristic had, on more than one occasion, forcibly brought some recalcitrant member of his uncertain-tempered flock to book, and incidentally acquired for him the sobriquet of "the fighting parson." </P> <P> "I don't know about wasting the best of her life," he said. "Betty has never wasted her life. Look at the school she's got now. And, mark you, she's done it all herself. She has three teachers under her. She has negotiated all the finance of the school herself. She got the government by the coat-tails and dragged national support out of it. Why, she's a wonder. No, no, not waste, Mary. Let her wait if she chooses. We won't interfere. I only hope that when Jim does come back he'll be a decent citizen. If he isn't, I'd bet my last cent Betty will know how to deal with him." </P> <P> "She'll sure give him up, if he isn't," said Dave with conviction. </P> <P> Mary looked up, her round blue eyes twinkling. </P> <P> "Dave knows Betty better than we do, Tom. I'd almost think&mdash;&mdash; I'm not sure I like this shade of pink," she digressed, examining her wool closely. "Er&mdash;what was I saying? Oh, yes&mdash;I'd almost think he'd made a special study of her." </P> <P> A deep flush spread slowly over Dave's ugly face, and he tried to hide it by bending over his pipe and examining the inside of the bowl. </P> <P> Parson Tom promptly changed the subject. He shook his head and turned away to watch the ruddy extravagance of the sunset in the valley. </P> <P> "Dave has got far too much to think of in his coming government contract to bother with a girl like Betty. By the way, when do you expect to hear the result of your tender, Dave?" </P> <P> "Any time." </P> <P> The lumberman's embarrassment had vanished at the mention of his contract. His eyes lit, and the whole of his plain features were suddenly illumined. This was his life's purpose. This contract meant everything to him. All that had gone before, all his labor, his early struggles, they were nothing to the store he set by this one great scheme. </P> <P> "Good. And your chances?" There was the keenest interest in the parson's question. </P> <P> "Well, I'd say they're good. You see, that find of ours up in the hills opens a possibility we never had before. The new docks require an enormous supply of ninety-foot timber. It's got to be ninety-foot stuff. Well, we've got the timber in that new find. There's a valley of some thousands of acres of forest which will supply it. Tom," he went on eagerly, "we could cut 'em hundred-and-twenty-foot logs from that forest till the cows come home. It's the greatest proposition in lumbering. It's one of the greatest of those great primordial pine forests which are to be found in the Rockies, if one is lucky enough. At present we are the only people in Canada who can give them the stuff they need, and enough of it. Yes, I think I'll get it. I've set the wires pulling all I know. I've cut the price. I've done everything I can, and I think I'll get it. If I do I'll be a millionaire half a dozen times over, and Malkern, and all its people, will rise to an immense prosperity. I must get it! And having got it, I must push it through successfully." </P> <P> Mary and her husband were hanging on the lumberman's words, carried away by his enthusiasm. There was that light of battle in his eyes, the firm setting of his heavy under-jaw, which they knew and understood so well. To them he was the personification of resolution. To them his personality was irresistible. </P> <P> "Of course you'll push it through successfully," Tom nodded. </P> <P> "Yes, yes. I shall. I must," Dave said, stirring his great body in his chair with a restlessness which spoke of his nervous tension. "But it's this time limit. You see, it's a government contract. They want these naval docks built quickly. The whole scheme is to be rushed through. Since the Imperial Conference has decided that each colony is to build its own share of the navy for imperial defense, in view of the European situation, that building is to be begun at once. They are laying down five ships this year, and, by the end of the year, they are to have docks ready for the laying down of six more. My contract is for the lumber for those docks. You see? My contract must be completed before winter closes down, without fail. I have guaranteed that. Well, as I am the only lumberman in Canada that can supply this heavy lumber, if they do not give it to me they will have to go to the States for it. Yes," he added, with something like a sigh, "I think I shall get it. But&mdash;this time limit! If I fail it will break me, and, in the crash, Malkern will go too." </P> <P> Mary Chepstow sighed with emotion. Her crochet was forgotten. </P> <P> "You won't fail," she murmured, her eyes glistening. "You can't!" </P> <P> "Malkern isn't going to tumble about our ears, old friend," Parson Tom said with quiet assurance. </P> <P> Dave had fallen back into his lounging attitude and puffed at his pipe. </P> <P> "No," he said. Then he pointed down the trail in the direction of the depot. "There's Betty coming along in a hurry with Jenkins Mudley." </P> <P> All eyes turned to look. Betty was almost running beside the tall thin figure of the operator and postmaster of Malkern. They came up with a final rush, the man flourishing a telegram at Dave. Betty was carrying a number of letters. </P> <P> "I just thought I'd bring this along myself," Mudley grinned. "Everything's been delayed through the strike down east. This, too. Felt I'd hate to let any one else hand it to you, Dave." </P> <P> Dave snatched at the tinted envelope and tore it open, while Betty, nodding at her uncle and aunt, her eyes dancing with delight, made frantic signs to them. But they took no notice of her, keeping their eyes fixed on the towering form of the master of the mills. Dave was the calmest man present. He read the message over twice, and then deliberately thrust it into his pocket. Then, as he returned to his seat, he said&mdash;"I've got my contract, folks." </P> <P> "Hurrah!" cried Betty, no longer able to control herself. The operator had previously imparted the fact to her. Then, with a jump, she was on the veranda and flung some letters into her uncle's lap, retaining one for herself that had already been read. The next moment she had seized both of Dave's great hands, and was wringing them with all her heart and soul shining in her eyes. </P> <P> "I'm so&mdash;so glad, I don't know what I'm doing or saying," she cried, and then collapsed on her uncle's knee. </P> <P> Dave laughed quietly, but her aunt, her face belying her words, reproved her gently. </P> <P> "Betty," she said warningly as the girl scrambled to her feet, "don't get excited. I think you'd better go and see to supper. I see you got your letter. How did the wedding go off?" </P> <P> Betty was leaning against one of the veranda posts. </P> <P> "Oh, yes," she said indifferently. "I'd forgotten my letter. It's from Jim. He's coming home." </P> <P> Her aunt suddenly picked up her work. The parson began to open his letters. Dave's eyes, until that moment smiling, suddenly became serious. The girl's news had a strangely damping effect. Dave cleared his throat as though about to speak. But he remained silent. </P> <P> Then Betty moved across to the door. </P> <P> "I'll go and get supper," she said quietly, and vanished into the house. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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