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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap05"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER V </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> JIM TRUSCOTT RETURNS </H4> <P> Dave was on the outskirts of the village when he fell in with Parson Tom. Tom was on ahead, but he saw the great lumbering figure swinging along the trail behind him, and waited. </P> <P> "Hello, Dave," he greeted him, as he came up. "It's ages since I've seen you." </P> <P> The master of the mills laughed good-naturedly. </P> <P> "Sure," he said, "my loafing days are over. I'll be ground hollow before I'm through. The grindstone's good and going. It's good to be at work, Tom. I mean what you'd call at your great work. When I'm through you shall have the finest church that red pine can build." </P> <P> "Ah, it's good to hear you talk like that. I take it things are running smoothly. It's not many men who deserve to make millions, but I think you are one of the few." </P> <P> Dave shook his head. </P> <P> "You're prejudiced about me, Tom," he replied smiling, "but I want that money. And when I get it we'll carry out all our schemes. You know, the schemes we've talked over and planned and planned. Well, when the time comes, we won't forget 'em&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Like most people do. Hello!" The parson was looking ahead in the direction of a small crowd standing outside Harley-Smith's saloon. There was an anxious look in his clear blue eyes, and some comprehension. The crowd was swaying about in unmistakable fashion, and experience told him that a fight was in progress. He had seen so many fights in Malkern. Suddenly he turned to Dave&mdash; </P> <P> "Where are you going?" he inquired. </P> <P> "To the depot." </P> <P> "Good. I'll just cut along over there. That must be stopped." </P> <P> Dave gazed at the swaying crowd. Several men were running to join it. Then he looked down from his great height at the slim, athletic figure of his friend. </P> <P> "Do you want any help?" he inquired casually. </P> <P> Parson Tom shook his head. </P> <P> "No," he said, with a smile of perfect confidence. "They're children, all simple children. Big and awkward and unruly, if you like, but all children. I can manage them." </P> <P> "I believe you can," said Dave. "Well, so long. Don't be too hard on them. Remember they're children." </P> <P> Tom Chepstow laughed back at him as he hurried away. </P> <P> "All right. But unruly children need physical correction as well as moral. And if it is necessary I shan't spare them." </P> <P> He went off at a run, and Dave went on to the depot. He knew his friend down to his very core. There was no man in the village who was the parson's equal in the noble art of self-defense. And it was part of his creed to meet the rougher members of his flock on their own ground. He knew that this militant churchman would stop that fight, and, if necessary, bodily chastise the offenders. It was this wholesome manliness that had so endeared the "fighting parson" to his people. They loved him for his capacity, and consequently respected him far more than they would have done the holiest preacher that ever breathed. He was a man they understood. </P> <P> The spiritual care of a small lumbering village is not lightly to be entered upon. A man must be peculiarly fitted for it. In such a place, where human nature is always at its crudest; where muscle, and not intellect, must always be the dominant note; where life is lived without a thought for the future, and the present concern is only the individual fitness to execute a maximum of labor, and so give expression to a savage vanity in the triumph of brute force, the man who would set out to guide his fellows must possess qualities all too rare in the general run of clergy. His theology must be of the simplest, broadest order. He must live the life of his flock, and teach almost wholly by example. His preaching must be lit with a local setting, and his brush must lay on the color of his people's every-day life. </P> <P> Besides this, he must possess a tremendous moral and physical courage, particularly the latter, for to the lumber-jack nothing else so appeals. He must feel that he is in the presence of a man who is always his equal, if not his superior, in those things he understands. Tom Chepstow was all this. He was a lumberman himself at heart. He knew every detail of the craft. He had lived that life all his manhood's days. </P> <P> Then he possessed a rare gift in medicine. He had purposely studied it and taken his degrees, for no one knew better than he the strength this added to his position. He shed his healing powers upon his people, a gift that reaped him a devotion no sanctity and godliness could ever have brought him. Parson Tom was a practical Christian first, and attended only to spiritual welfare when the body had been duly cared for. </P> <P> Dave went on to the depot, where he despatched his messages. Then he extracted from Jenkins Mudley all the information he possessed upon the matter of the plate-layers' strike, and finally took the river trail back to the mills. </P> <P> His way took him across the log bridge over the river, and here he paused, leaning upon the rail, and gazed thoughtfully down the woodland avenue which enclosed the turbulent stream. </P> <P> Somehow he could never cross that bridge without pausing to admire the wonderful beauty of his little friend's surroundings. He always thought of this river as his friend. How much it was his friend only he knew. But for it, and its peculiarities, his work would be impossible. He did not have to do as so many lumbermen have to, depend on the spring freshet to carry his winter cut down to his mill. The melting snows of the mountains kept the river flowing, a veritable torrent, during the whole of the open season, and at such time he possessed in it a never-failing transport line which cost him not one cent. </P> <P> The hour he had allowed for his dinner was not yet up, and he felt that he could indulge himself a little longer, so he refilled his pipe and smoked while he gazed contemplatively into the depths of the dancing waters below him. </P> <P> But his day-dreaming was promptly interrupted, and the interruption was the coming of Betty, on her way home to her dinner from the schoolhouse up on the hillside. He had seen her only once since the day that brought him the news of his contract. That was on the following Sunday, when he went, as usual, to Tom Chepstow's for supper. </P> <P> Just at that moment Betty was the last person he wanted to see. That was his first thought when he heard her step on the bridge. He had forgotten that this was her way home, and that this was her dinner-time. However, there was no sign of his reluctance in his face when he greeted her. </P> <P> "Why, Betty," he said, as gently as his great voice would let him, "I hadn't thought to see you coming this way." Then he broke off and studied her pretty oval face more closely. "What's wrong?" he inquired presently. "You look&mdash;you look kind of tired." </P> <P> He was quite right. The girl looked pale under her tan, and there was an unusual darkness round her gentle brown eyes. She looked very tired, in spite of the smile of welcome with which she greeted him. </P> <P> "Oh, I'm all right, Dave," she said at once. But her tone was cheerless, in spite of her best effort. </P> <P> He shook his great head and knocked his pipe out. </P> <P> "There's something amiss, child. Guess maybe it's the heat." He turned his eyes up to the blazing sun, as though to reassure himself that the heat was there. </P> <P> Betty leant beside him on the rail. Her proximity, and the evident sadness of her whole manner, made him realize that he must not stay there. At that moment she looked such a pathetic little figure that he felt he could not long be responsible for what he said. He longed to take her in his arms and comfort her. </P> <P> He could think of nothing to say for a long time, but at last he broke out with&mdash; </P> <P> "You'd best not go back to the school this afternoon." </P> <P> But the girl shook her head. </P> <P> "It's not that," she said. Then she paused. Her eyes were fixed on the rushing water as it flowed beneath the bridge. </P> <P> He watched her closely, and gradually a conviction began to grow in his mind. </P> <P> "Dave," she went on at last, "we've always been such good friends, haven't we? You've always been so patient and kind with me when I have bothered you with my little troubles and worries. You never fail to help me out. It seems to me I can never quite do without your help. I&mdash;I"&mdash;she smiled more like her old self, and with relief the man saw some of the alarming shadows vanishing from her face, "I don't think I want to, either. I've had a long talk with Susan Hardwig this morning." </P> <P> "Ah!" </P> <P> The man's growing conviction had received confirmation. </P> <P> "What did that mean?" Betty asked quickly. </P> <P> Dave was staring out down the river. </P> <P> "Just nothing. Only I've had a goodish talk with Joe Hardwig." </P> <P> "Then I needn't go into the details. I've heard the news that Dick Mansell has brought with him." </P> <P> It was a long time before either spoke again. For Dave there seemed so little to say. What could he say? Sympathy was out of the question. He had no right to blame Jim yet. Nor did he feel that he could hold out hope to her, for in his heart he believed that the man's news was true. </P> <P> With Betty, she hardly knew how to express her feelings. She hardly knew what her feelings were. At the time Mrs. Hardwig poured her tale into her ears she had listened quite impersonally. Somehow the story had not appealed to her as concerning herself, and her dominant thought had been pity for the man. It was not until afterward, when she was alone on her way to the school, that the full significance of it came to her; and then it came as a shock. She remembered, all of a sudden, that she was promised to Jim. That when Jim came back she was to marry him. From that moment the matter had never been out of her mind; through all her school hours it was with her, and her attention had been so distracted from her work that she found her small pupils getting out of hand. </P> <P> Yes, she was to marry Jim, and they told her he was a drunkard, a gambler, and a "crook." She had given him her promise; she had sent him away. It was her own doing. Her feelings toward him never came into her thoughts. During the long five years of his absence he had become a sort of habit to her. She had never thought of her real feelings after the first month or two of his going. She was simply waiting for him, and would marry him when he came. It was only now, when she heard this story of him, that her feelings were called upon to assert themselves, and the result was something very like horror at her own position. </P> <P> She remembered now her disappointment at the first realization of all her hopes, when Jim had asked her to marry him. She had not understood then, but now&mdash;now she did. She knew that she had never really loved him. And at the thought of his return she was filled with horror and dread. </P> <P> She was glad that she had met Dave; she had longed to see him. He was the one person she could always lean on. And in her present trouble she wanted to lean on him. </P> <P> "Dave," she began at last, in a voice so hopeless that it cut him to the heart, "somehow I believe that story. That is, in the main. Don't think it makes any difference to me. I shall marry him just the same. Only I seem to see him in his real light now. He was always weak, only I didn't see it then. He was not really the man to go out into the world to fight alone. We were wrong. I was wrong. He should have stayed here." </P> <P> "Yes," Dave nodded. </P> <P> "He must begin over again," she went on, after a pause. "When he comes here we must help him to a fresh start, and we must blot his past out of our minds altogether. There is time enough. He is young. Now I want you to help me. We must ask him no questions. If he wants to speak he can do so. Now that you are booming at the mills we can help him to reopen his mill, and I know you can, and will, help him by putting work in his way. All this is what I've been thinking out. When he comes, and we are&mdash;married," there was the slightest possible hesitation before the word, and Dave's quick ears and quicker senses were swift to hear and interpret it, "I am going to help him with the work. I'll give up my school. I've always had such a contingency in my mind. That's why I got you to teach me your work when he first went away. Tell me, Dave, you'll help me in this. You see the boy can't help his weakness. Perhaps we are stronger than he, and between us we can help him." </P> <P> The man looked at her a long time in silence, and all the while his loyal heart was crying out. His gray eyes shone with a light she did not comprehend. She saw their fixed smile, and only read in them the assent he never withheld from her. </P> <P> "I knew you would," she murmured. </P> <P> It was her voice that roused him. And he spoke just as she turned away in the direction of the schoolhouse trail, whence proceeded the sound of a horse galloping. </P> <P> "Yes, Betty&mdash;I'll help you sure," he said in his deep voice. </P> <P> "You'll help him, you mean," she corrected, turning back to him. </P> <P> But Dave ignored the correction. </P> <P> "Tell me, Betty," he went on again, this time with evident diffidence: "you're glad he's coming back? You feel happy about&mdash;about getting married? You&mdash;love him?" </P> <P> The girl stared straight up into the plain face. Her look was so honest, so full of decision, that her reply left no more to be said. </P> <P> "Five years ago I gave him my promise. That promise I shall redeem, unless Jim, himself, makes its fulfilment impossible." </P> <P> The man nodded. </P> <P> "You can come to me for anything you need for him," he said simply. </P> <P> Betty was about to answer with an outburst of gratitude when, with a rush, a horseman came galloping round the bend of the trail and clattered on to the bridge. At sight of the two figures standing by the rail the horse jibbed, threw himself on to his haunches, and then shied so violently that the rider was unseated and half out of the saddle, clinging desperately to the animal's neck to right himself. And as he hung there struggling, the string of filthy oaths that were hurled at the horse, and any and everybody, was so foul that Betty tried to stop her ears. </P> <P> Dave sprang at the horse and seized the bridle with one hand, with the other he grabbed the horseman and thrust him up into the saddle. The feat could only have been performed by a man of his herculean strength. </P> <P> "Cut that language, you gopher!" he roared into the fellow's ears as he lifted him. </P> <P> "Cut the language!" cried the infuriated man. "What in hell are you standing on a bridge spooning your girl for? This bridge ain't for that sort of truck&mdash;it's for traffic, curse you!" </P> <P> By the time the man had finished speaking he had straightened up in the saddle, and his face was visible to all. Dave jumped back, and Betty gave a little cry. It was Jim Truscott! </P> <P> Yes, it was Jim Truscott, but so changed that even Betty could scarcely believe the evidence of her eyes. In place of the bright, clever-looking face, the slim figure she had always had in her mind during the long five years of his absence, she now beheld a bloated, bearded man, without one particle of the old refinement which had been one of his most pronounced characteristics. It seemed incredible that five years could have so changed him. Even his voice was almost unrecognizable, so husky had it become. His eyes no longer had their look of frank honesty, they were dull and lustreless, and leered morosely. Her heart sank as she looked at him, and she remembered Dick Mansell's story. </P> <P> All three stared for a moment without speaking. Then Jim broke into a laugh so harsh that it made the girl shudder. </P> <P> "Well I'm damned!" he cried. "Of all the welcomes home this beats hell!" </P> <P> "Jim&mdash;oh, Jim!" </P> <P> The cry of horror and pain was literally wrung from the girl. Nor was it without effect. The man seemed to realize his uncouthness, for he suddenly took off his hat, and his face became serious. </P> <P> "I beg your pardon, Betty," he said apologetically. "I forgot where I was. I forgot that the Yukon was behind me, and&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "That you're talking to the lady you're engaged to be married to," put in Dave sharply. </P> <P> Dave's words drew the younger man's attention to himself. For a second a malicious flash shone in the bloated eyes. Then he dropped them and held out his hand. </P> <P> "How do, Dave?" he said coldly. </P> <P> Dave responded without any enthusiasm. He was chilled, chilled and horrified, and he knew that Mansell's story was no exaggeration. He watched Jim turn again to Betty. He saw the strained look in the girl's eyes, and he waited. </P> <P> "I'll come along up to the house later," Jim said coolly. "Guess I'll get along to the hotel and get cleaned some. I allow I ain't fit for party calls at a hog pen just about now. So long." </P> <P> He jabbed his horse's sides with his heels and dashed across the bridge. In a moment he was gone. </P> <P> It was some time before a word was spoken on the bridge. Dave was waiting, and Betty could find no words. She was frightened. She wanted to cry, and through it all her heart felt like lead in her bosom. But her dominant feeling was fear. </P> <P> "Well, little Betty," said Dave presently, in that gentle protecting manner he so often assumed toward her, "I must go on to the mills. What are you going to do?" </P> <P> "I'm going home," she said; and to the keenly sympathetic ears of the man the note of misery in her voice was all too plain. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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