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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap07"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER VII </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> THE WORK AT THE MILLS </H4> <P> It was sundown. The evening shadows, long drawn out, were rapidly merging into the purple shades of twilight. The hush of night was stealing upon the valley. </P> <P> There was one voice alone, one discordant note, to jar upon the peace of Nature's repose. It was the voice of Dave's mills, a voice that was never silent. The village, with all its bustling life, its noisy boarding-houses, its well-filled drinking booths, its roystering lumber-jacks released from their day's toil, was powerless to disturb that repose. But the harsh voice of the driving machinery rose dominant above all other sounds. Repose was impossible, even for Nature, where the restless spirit of Dave's enterprise prevailed. </P> <P> The vast wooden structures of the mills, acres of them, stood like some devouring growth at the very core of Nature's fair body. It almost seemed like a living organism feeding upon all the best she had to yield. Day and night the saws, like the gleaming fangs of a voracious life, tore, devoured, digested, and the song of its labors droned without ceasing. </P> <P> Controlling, directing, ordering to the last detail, Dave sat in his unpretentious office. Love of the lumberman's craft ran hot in his veins. He had been born and bred to it. He had passed through its every phase. He was a sawyer whose name was historical in the forests of Oregon. As a cant-hook man he had few equals. As foreman he could extract more work from these simple woodsman giants than could those he employed in a similar capacity. </P> <P> In work he was inevitable. His men knew that when he demanded they must yield. In this direction he displayed no sympathy, no gentleness. He knew the disposition of the lumber-jack. These woodsmen rate their employer by his driving power. They understand and expect to be ruled by a stern discipline, and if this treatment is not forthcoming, their employer may just as well abandon his enterprise for all the work they will yield him. </P> <P> But though this was Dave in his business, it was the result of his tremendous force of character rather than the nature of the man. If he drove, it was honestly, legitimately. He paid for the best a man could give him, and he saw that he got it. Sickness was sure of ready sympathy, not outspoken, but practical. He was much like the prairie man with his horse. His beast is cared for far better than its master cares for himself, but it must work, and work enthusiastically to the last ounce of its power. Fail, and the horse must go. So it was with Dave. The man who failed him would receive his "time" instantly. There was no question, no excuse. And every lumber-jack knew this and gladly entered his service. </P> <P> Dave was closeted with his foreman, Joel Dawson, receiving the day's report. </P> <P> "The tally's eighty thousand," Dawson was saying. </P> <P> Dave looked up from his books. His keen, humorous eyes surveyed the man's squat figure. </P> <P> "Not enough," he said. </P> <P> "She's pressing hard now," came the man's rejoinder, almost defensively. </P> <P> "She's got to do twenty thousand more," retorted Dave finally. </P> <P> "Then y'll have to give her more saw room." </P> <P> "We'll see to it. Meanwhile shove her. How are the logs running? Is Mason keeping the length?" </P> <P> "Guess he cayn't do better. We ain't handled nothin' under eighty foot." </P> <P> "Good. They're driving down the river fast?" </P> <P> "The boom's full, an' we're workin' 'em good an' plenty." The man paused. "'Bout more saw beds an' rollers," he went on a moment later. "Ther' ain't an inch o' space, boss. We'll hev to build." </P> <P> Dave shook his head and faced round from his desk. </P> <P> "There's no time. You'll have to take out the gang saws and replace them for log trimming." </P> <P> Dawson spat into the spittoon. He eyed the ugly, powerful young features of his boss speculatively while he made a swift mental calculation. </P> <P> "That'll mebbe give us eight thousand more. 'Tain't enough, I guess," he said emphatically. "Say, there's that mill up river. Her as belongs to Jim Truscott. If we had her runnin' I 'lows we'd handle twenty-five thousand on a day and night shift. Givin' us fifty all told." </P> <P> Dave's eyes lit. </P> <P> "I've thought of that," he said. "That'll put us up with a small margin. I'll see what can be done. How are the new boys making? I've had a good report from Mason up on No. 1 camp. He's transferred his older hands to new camps, and has the new men with him. He's started to cut on Section 80. His estimate is ten million in the stump on that cut; all big stuff. He's running a big saw-gang up there. The roads were easy making and good for travoying, and most of the timber is within half a mile of the river. We don't need to worry about the 'drive.' He's got the stuff plenty, and all the 'hands' he needs. It's the mill right here that's worrying." </P> <P> Dawson took a fresh chew. </P> <P> "Yes, it's the mill, I guess," he said slowly. "That an' this yer strike. We're goin' to feel it&mdash;the strike, I mean. The engineers and firemen are going 'out,' I hear, sure." </P> <P> "That doesn't hit us," said Dave sharply. But there was a keen look of inquiry in his eyes. </P> <P> "Don't it?" Dawson raised his shaggy eyebrows. </P> <P> "Our stuff is merely to be placed on board here. The government will see to its transport." </P> <P> The foreman shook his head. </P> <P> "What o' them firemen an' engineers in the mill? Say, they're mostly union men, an'&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "I see." Dave became thoughtful. </P> <P> "Guess that ain't the only trouble neither," Dawson went on, warming. "Strikes is hell-fire anyways. Ther' ain't no stoppin' 'em when they git good an' goin'. Ther's folk who'd hate work wuss'n pizin when others, of a different craft, are buckin'. I hate strikes, anyway, an' I'll feel a sight easier when the railroaders quits." </P> <P> "You're alarming yourself without need," Dave said easily, closing his books and rising from his seat. "Guess I'll get to supper. And see you remember I look to you to shove her. Are you posting the 'tally'?" </P> <P> "Sure. They're goin' up every shift." </P> <P> A few minutes later the foreman took his departure to hand over to Simon Odd, who ran the mills at night. Dave watched him go. Then, instead of going off to his supper, he sat down again. </P> <P> Dawson's warning was not without its effect on him, in spite of the easy manner in which he had set it aside. If his mills were to be affected by the strike it would be the worst disaster that could befall&mdash;short of fire. To find himself with millions of feet coming down the river on the drive and no possibility of getting it cut would mean absolute ruin. Yes, it was a nasty thought. A thought so unpleasant that he promptly set it aside and turned his attention to more pleasant matters. </P> <P> One of the most pleasant that occurred to him was the condition of things in the village. Malkern had already begun to boom as the first result of his sudden burst of increased work. Outside capital was coming in for town plots, and several fresh buildings were going up. Addlestone Chicks, the dry-goods storekeeper, was extending his premises to accommodate the enormous increase in his trade. Two more saloons were being considered, both to be built by men from Calford, and the railroad had promised two mails a day instead of one. </P> <P> Dave thought of these things with the satisfaction of a man who is steadily realizing his ambitions. It only needed his success for prosperity to come automatically to the village in the valley. That was it, his success. This thought brought to his mind again the matter of Jim Truscott's mill, and this, again, set him thinking of Jim himself. </P> <P> He had seen nothing of Jim since his meeting with him on the bridge, and the memory of that meeting was a dark shadow in his recollection. Since that time two days had passed, two days spent in arduous labor, when there had been no time for more than a passing thought for anything else. He had seen no one outside of his mills. He had seen neither Betty nor her uncle; no one who could tell him how matters were going with the prodigal. He felt somehow that he had been neglectful, he felt that he had wrongfully allowed himself to be swamped in the vortex of the whirling waters of his labors. He had purposely shut out every other consideration. </P> <P> Now his mind turned upon Betty, and he suddenly decided to take half an hour's respite and visit Harley-Smith's saloon. He felt that this would be the best direction in which to seek Jim Truscott. Five years ago it would have been different. </P> <P> He rose from his seat and stretched his cumbersome body. Young as he was, he felt stiff. His tremendous effort was making itself felt. Picking up his pipe he lit it, and as he dropped the charred end of the match in the spittoon a knock came at the door. It opened in answer to his call, and in the half-light of the evening he recognized the very man whom he had just decided to seek. </P> <P> It was Jim Truscott who stood in the doorway peering into the darkened room. And at last his searching eyes rested on the enormous figure of the lumberman. Dave was well in the shadow, and what light came in through the window fell full upon the newcomer's face. </P> <P> In the brief silence he had a good look at him. He saw that now he was clean-shaven, that his hair had been trimmed, that his clothes were good and belonged to the more civilized conditions of city life. He was good-looking beyond a doubt; a face, he thought, to catch a young girl's fancy. There was something romantic in the dark setting of the eyes, the keen aquiline nose, the broad forehead. It was only the lower part of the face that he found fault with. There was that vicious weakness about the mouth and chin, and it set him pondering. There were the marks of dissipation about the eyes too, only now they were a hundredfold more pronounced. Where before the rounded cheeks had once so smoothly sloped away, now there were puffings, with deep, unwholesome furrows which, in a man of his age, had no right to be there. </P> <P> Jim was the first to speak, and his manner was almost defiant. </P> <P> "Well?" he ejaculated. </P> <P> "Well?" responded Dave; and the newly-opened waters suddenly froze over again. </P> <P> They measured each other, eye to eye. Both had the memory of their meeting two days ago keenly alive in their thought. Finally Jim broke into a laugh that sounded harshly. </P> <P> "After five years' absence your cordiality is overwhelming," he said. </P> <P> "I seem to remember meeting you on the bridge two days ago," retorted Dave. </P> <P> Then he turned to his desk and lit the lamp. The mill siren hooted out its mournful cry. Its roar was deafening, and answered as an excuse for the silence which remained for some moments between the two men. When the last echo had died out Truscott spoke again. Evidently he had availed himself of those seconds to decide on a more conciliatory course. </P> <P> "That's nerve-racking," he said lightly. </P> <P> "Yes, if your nerves aren't in the best condition," replied Dave. Then he indicated a chair and both men seated themselves. </P> <P> Truscott made himself comfortable and lit a cigar. </P> <P> "Well, Dave," he said pleasantly, "after five years I return here to find everybody talking of you, of your work, of the fortune you are making, of the prosperity of the village&mdash;which, by the way, is credited to your efforts. You are the man of the moment in the valley; you are it!" </P> <P> Dave nodded. </P> <P> "Things are doing." </P> <P> "Doing, man! Why, it's the most wonderful thing. I leave a little dozy village, and I come back to a town thrilling with a magnificent prosperity, with money in plenty for everybody, and on every hand talk of investment, and dreams of fortunes to be made. I'm glad I came. I'm glad I left that benighted country of cold and empty stomachs and returned to this veritable Tom Tiddler's ground. I too intend to share in the prosperity you have brought about. Dave, you are a wonder." </P> <P> "I thought you'd come to talk of other matters," said Dave quietly. </P> <P> His words had ample effect. The enthusiasm dropped from the other like a cloak. His face lost its smile, and his eyes became watchful. </P> <P> "You mean&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Betty," said Dave shortly. </P> <P> Truscott stirred uneasily. Dave's directness was a little disconcerting. Suddenly the latter leant forward in his chair, and his steady eyes held his visitor. </P> <P> "Five years ago, Jim, you went away, and, going, you left Betty to my care&mdash;for you. That child has always been in my thoughts, and though I've never had an opportunity to afford her the protection you asked of me, it has not been my fault. She has never once needed it. You went away to make money for her, so that when you came back you could marry her. I remember our meeting two days ago, and it's not my intention to say a thing of it. I have been so busy since then that I have seen nobody who could tell me of either her or you, so I know nothing of how your affairs stand. But if you've anything to say on the matter now I'm prepared to listen. Did you make good up there in the Yukon?" </P> <P> Dave's tone was the tone Truscott had always known. It was kindly, it was strong with honesty and purpose. He felt easier for it, and his relief sounded in his reply. </P> <P> "I can't complain," he said, settling himself more comfortably in his chair. </P> <P> "I'm glad," said Dave simply. "I was doubtful of the experiment, but&mdash;well, I'm glad. And&mdash;&mdash;?" </P> <P> Suddenly Jim sprang to his feet and began to pace the room. Dave watched him. He was reading him. He was studying the nervous movements, and interpreting them as surely as though their meaning were written large in the plainest lettering. It was the same man he had known five years ago&mdash;the same, only with a difference. He beheld the weakness he had realized before, but now, where there had been frank honesty in all his movements and expressions, there was a furtive undercurrent which suggested only too clearly the truth of the stories told about him. </P> <P> "Dave," he burst out at last, coming to a sudden stand in front of him. "I've come to you about Betty. I've come to you to tell you all the regret I have at that meeting of ours on the bridge, and all I said at the time. I want to tell you that I'm a rotten fool and blackguard. That I haven't been near Betty since I came back. I was to have gone to tea that afternoon, and didn't do so because I got blind drunk instead, and when her uncle came to fetch me I told him to go to hell, and insulted him in a dozen ways. I want to tell you that while I was away I practically forgot Betty, I didn't care for her any longer, that I scarcely even regarded our engagement as serious. I feel I must tell you this. And now it is all changed. I have seen her and I want her. I love her madly, and&mdash;and I have spoiled all my chances. She'll never speak to me again. I am a fool and a crook&mdash;an utter wrong 'un, but I want her. I must have her!" </P> <P> The man paused breathlessly. His words carried conviction. His manner was passion-swept There could be no doubt as to his sincerity, or of the truth of the momentary remorse conveyed in his self-accusation. </P> <P> Dave's teeth shut tight upon his pipe-stem. </P> <P> "And you did all that?" he inquired with a tenseness that made his voice painfully harsh. </P> <P> "Yes, yes, I did. Dave, you can't say any harder things to me than I've said to myself. When I drink there's madness in my blood that drives me where it will." </P> <P> The other suddenly rose from his seat and towered over him. The look on his rugged face was one of mastery. His personality dominated Truscott at that moment in a manner that made him shrink before his steady, luminous eyes. </P> <P> "How've you earned your living?" he demanded sharply. </P> <P> "I'm a gambler," came Jim's uneasy reply, the truth forced from him against his will. </P> <P> "You're a drunkard and a crook?" </P> <P> "I'm a fool. I told you." </P> <P> Dave accepted the admission. </P> <P> "Then for God's sake get out of this village, and write and release Betty from her engagement. You say you love her. Prove it by releasing her, and be a man." </P> <P> Dave's voice rang out deep with emotion. At that moment he was thinking of Betty, and not of the man before him. He was not there to judge him, his only thought was of the tragedy threatening the girl. </P> <P> Truscott had suddenly become calm, and his eyes had again assumed that furtive watchfulness as he looked up into the larger man's face. He shook his head. </P> <P> "I can't give her up," he said obstinately, after a pause. </P> <P> Dave sat down again, watching the set, almost savage expression of the other's face. The position was difficult; he was not only dealing with this man, but with a woman whose sense of duty and honor was such that left him little hope of settling the matter as he felt it should be settled. Finally he decided to appeal again to the man's better nature. </P> <P> "Jim," he said solemnly, "you come here and confess yourself a crook, and, if not a drunkard, at least a man with a bad tendency that way. You say you love Betty, in spite of having forgotten her while you were away. On your conscience I ask you, can you wilfully drag this girl, who has known only the purest, most innocent, and God-fearing life, into the path you admit you have been, are treading? Can you drag her down with you? Can you in your utter selfishness take her from a home where she is surrounded by all that can keep a woman pure and good? I don't believe it. That is not the Jim I used to know. Jim, take it from me, there is only one decent course open to you, one honest one. Leave her alone, and go from here yourself. You have no right to her so long as your life is what it is." </P> <P> "But my life is going to be that no longer," Truscott broke in with passionate earnestness. "Dave, help me out in this. For God's sake, do. It will be the making of me. I have money now, and I want to get rid of the old life. I, too, want to be decent. I do. I swear it. Give me this chance to straighten myself. I know your influence with her. You can get her to excuse that lapse. She will listen to you. My God! Dave, you don't know how I love that girl." </P> <P> While the lumberman listened his heart hardened. He understood the selfishness, the weakness underlying this man's passion. He understood more than that, Betty was no longer the child she was five years ago, but a handsome woman of perfect moulding. And, truth to tell, he felt this sudden reawakening of the man's passion was not worthy of the name of the love he claimed for it, but rather belonged to baser inspiration. But his own feelings prevented his doing what he would like to have done. He felt that he ought to kick the man out of his office, and have him hunted out of the village. But years ago he had given his promise of help, and a promise was never a light thing with him. And besides that, he realized his own love for Betty, and could not help fearing that his judgment was biassed by it. In the end he gave the answer which from the first he knew he must give. </P> <P> "If you mean that," he said coldly, "I will do what I can for you." </P> <P> Jim's face lit, and he held out his hand impulsively. </P> <P> "Thanks, Dave," he cried, his whole face clearing and lighting up as if by magic. "You're a bully friend. Shake!" </P> <P> But the other ignored the outstretched hand. Somehow he felt he could no longer take it in friendship. Truscott saw the coldness in his eyes, and instantly drew his hand away. He moved toward the door. </P> <P> "Will you see her to-night?" he asked over his shoulder. </P> <P> "I can't say. You'll probably hear from her." </P> <P> At the door the man turned, and Dave suddenly recollected something. </P> <P> "Oh, by the way," he said, still in his coldest manner, "I'd like to buy that old mill of yours&mdash;or lease it. I don't mind which. How much do you want for it?" </P> <P> Jim flashed a sharp glance at him. </P> <P> "My old mill?" Then he laughed peculiarly. "What do you want with that?" </P> <P> The other considered for a moment. </P> <P> "My mill hasn't sufficient capacity," he said at last. "You see, my contract is urgent. It must be completed before winter shuts down&mdash;under an enormous penalty. We are getting a few thousand a day behind on my calculations. Your mill will put me right, with a margin to spare against accidents." </P> <P> "I see." And the thoughtfulness of Truscott's manner seemed unnecessary. He avoided Dave's eyes. "You're under a penalty, eh? I s'pose the government are a hard crowd to deal with?" </P> <P> Dave nodded. </P> <P> "If I fail it means something very like&mdash;ruin," he said, almost as though speaking to himself. </P> <P> Truscott whistled. </P> <P> "Pretty dangerous, traveling so near the limit," he said. </P> <P> "Yes. Well? What about the mill?" </P> <P> "I must think it over. I'll let you know." </P> <P> He turned and left the office without another word, and Dave stared after him, speechless with surprise and disgust. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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