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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap10"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER X </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> AN AUSPICIOUS MEETING </H4> <P> Malkern as a village had two moments in the day when it wore the appearance of a thoroughly busy city. At all other times there was little outward sign to tell of the prosperity it really enjoyed. Malkern's really bustling time was at noon, when its workers took an hour and a half recess for the midday meal, and at six o'clock in the evening, when the day and night "shifts" at the mill exchanged places. </P> <P> There was no eight-hour working day in this lumbering village. The lumber-jacks and all the people associated with it worked to make money, not to earn a mere living. They had not reached that deplorable condition of social pessimism when the worker for a wage believes he is the man who is making millions for an employer, who is prospering only by his, the worker's, capacity to do. They were working each for himself, and regarded the man who could afford them such opportunity as an undisguised blessing. The longer the "time" the higher the wages, and this was their whole scheme of life. </P> <P> Besides this, there is a certain pride of achievement in the lumber-jack. He is not a mere automaton. He is a man virile, strong, and of a wonderful independence all his own. His spirits are animal, keen of perception, keen for all the joys of life such as he knows. He lives his life, whether in play or work. Whether he be a sealer, a cant-hook man, a teamster, or an axeman, his pride is in his skill, and the rating of his skill is estimated largely by the tally of his day's work, on which depends the proportion of his wages. </P> <P> It was the midday dinner-hour now, and the mill was debouching its rough tide of workers upon the main street. Harley-Smith's bar was full of men seeking unnecessary "appetizers." Every boarding-house was rapidly filling with hungry men clamoring for the ample, even luxurious meal awaiting them. These men lived well; their work was tremendous, and food of the best, and ample, was needed to keep them fit. The few stores which the village boasted were full of eager purchasers demanding instant service lest the precious time be lost. </P> <P> Harley-Smith's hotel abutted on the main road, and the tide had to pass its inviting portals on their way to the village. Usually the veranda was empty at this time, for the regular boarders were at dinner, and the bar claimed those who were not yet dining. But on this occasion it possessed a solitary occupant. </P> <P> He was sitting on a hard windsor chair, tilted back at a dangerous angle, with his feet propped upon the veranda rail in an attitude of ease, if not of elegance. He was apparently quite unconcerned at anything going on about him. His broad-brimmed hat was tilted well forward upon his nose, in a manner that served the dual purpose of shading his eyes from the dazzling sunlight, and permitting his gaze to wander whither he pleased without the observation of the passers-by. To give a further suggestion of indolent indifference, he was luxuriously smoking one of Harley-Smith's best cigars. </P> <P> But the man's attitude was a pretense. No one passed the veranda who escaped the vigilance of his quick eyes. He scanned each face sharply, and passed on to the next; nor did his watchfulness relax for one instant. It was clear he was looking for some one whom he expected would pass that way, and it was equally evident he had no desire to advertise the fact. </P> <P> Suddenly he pushed his hat back from his face, and, at the same time, his feet dropped to the boarded floor. This brought his chair on its four legs with a jolt, and he sat bolt upright. Now he showed the bloated young face of Jim Truscott. There was a look in his eyes of something approaching venomous satisfaction. He had seen the man he was looking for, and promptly beckoned to him. </P> <P> Dick Mansell was passing at that moment, and his small, ferret-like eyes caught the summons. He hesitated, nor did he come at once in response to the other's smile of good-fellowship. </P> <P> "Dick!" Truscott said. Then he added genially, "I was wondering if you'd come along this way." </P> <P> Mansell nodded indifferently. His face was ill-humored, and his small eyes had little friendliness in them. He nodded, and was about to pass on, but the other stayed him with a gesture. </P> <P> "Don't go," he said. "I want to speak to you. Come up to my room and have a drink." </P> <P> He kept his voice low, but he might have saved himself the trouble. The passing crowd were far too intent upon their own concerns to bother with him. The fact was his attitude was the result of nearly forty-eight hours of hard thinking, thinking inspired by a weak character goaded to offense by the rough but justifiable treatment meted out to him in Dave's office. This man's character, at no time robust, was now morally run-down, and its condition was like the weakly body of an unhealthy man. It collected to itself every injurious germ and left him diseased. His brain and nerves were thrilling with resentment, and a desire to get even with the "board." He was furiously determined that Dave should remember with regret the moment he had laid hands upon him, and that he had come between him and the girl he had intended to make his own. </P> <P> Mansell, stepping on to the veranda, paused and looked the other full in the eye. </P> <P> "Well," he said, after a moment's doubtful consideration, "what is it? 'Tain't like you givin' drink away&mdash;'specially to me. What monkey tricks is it?" </P> <P> There was truculence in the sawyer's tone. There was offense in his very attitude. </P> <P> "Are you coming to my room for that drink?" </P> <P> Truscott spoke quite coldly, but he knew the curse of the man's thirst. He had reason to. </P> <P> Mansell laughed without any mirth. </P> <P> "Guess I may as well drink your brandy. It'll taste the same as any other. Go ahead." </P> <P> His host at once led the way into the hotel and up the stairs to his room. It was a front room on the first floor, and comparatively luxurious. The moment the door closed behind him Mansell took in the details with some interest. </P> <P> "A mighty swell apartment&mdash;fer you," he observed offensively. </P> <P> Truscott shrugged as he turned his back to pour out drinks at the table. </P> <P> "That's my business," he said. "I pay for it, and," he added, glancing meaningly over his shoulder, "I can afford to pay for it&mdash;or anything else I choose to have." </P> <P> Mansell was a fine figure of a man, and beside him the other looked slight, even weedy. But his face and head spoiled him. Both were small and mean, and gave the impression of a low order of intelligence. Yet he was reputed one of the finest sawyers in the valley, and a man, when not on the drink, to be thoroughly trusted. Before he went away to the Yukon with Jim he had been a teetotaler for two years, and on that account, and his unrivaled powers as a sawyer, he had acted as the other's foreman in his early lumbering enterprise. Except, however, for those two years his past had in it far more shadows than light. </P> <P> He grinned unpleasantly. </P> <P> "No need to ast how you came by the stuff," he said. </P> <P> Truscott was round on him in an instant. His eyes shone wickedly, but there was a grin about his lips. </P> <P> "The same way you tried to come by it too, only you couldn't keep your damned head clear. You couldn't let this stuff alone." He handed the man a glass of neat brandy. "You and your cursed drink nearly ruined my chances. It wasn't your fault you didn't. When I ran that game up in Dawson I was a fool to take you into it. I did it out of decency, because you had gone up there with me, and quite against my best judgment when I saw the way you were drinking. If you'd kept straight you'd be in the same position as I am. You wouldn't have returned here more or less broke and only too ready to set rotten yarns going around about me." </P> <P> The sawyer had taken the brandy and swallowed it. Now he set the glass down on the table with a vicious bang. </P> <P> "What yarns?" he demanded angrily. </P> <P> "Tchah! Hardwig's a meddling busybody. You might have known it would come back to me sooner or later. But I didn't bring you here to throw these things up in your face. You brought it on yourself. Keep a civil tongue, and if you like to stand in I'll put you into a good thing. You're not working? And you've got no money?" </P> <P> Truscott's questions came sharply. His plans were clear in his mind. These points he had made sure of already. But he wanted to approach the matter he had in hand in what he considered the best way in dealing with a man like Mansell. He knew the sawyer to have scruples of a kind, that is until they had been carefully undermined by brandy. It was his purpose to undermine them now. </P> <P> "You seem to know a heap," Mansell observed sarcastically. Then he became a shade more interested. "What's the 'good thing'?" </P> <P> Jim poured some brandy out for himself, at the same time, as though unconsciously, replenishing the other's glass liberally. The sawyer watched him while he waited for a reply, and suddenly a thought occurred to his none too ready brain. </P> <P> "Drink, eh?" he laughed mockingly, as though answering a challenge on the subject. "Drink? Say, who's been doing the drink since you got back? Folks says as your gal has gone right back on you, that ther' wench as you was a-sparkin' 'fore we lit out. An' it's clear along of liquor. They say you're soused most ev'ry night, an' most days too. You should git gassin'&mdash;I don't think." </P> <P> The man's mean face was alight with brutish glee. He felt he had handed the other a pretty retort. And in his satisfaction he snatched up his glass and drank off its contents at a gulp. Indifferent to the gibe, Jim smiled his satisfaction as he watched the other drain his glass. </P> <P> "You've got no work?" he demanded, as Mansell set it down empty. </P> <P> "Sure I ain't," the other grinned. "An'," he added, under the warming influence of the spirit, "I ain't worritin' a heap neither. My credit's good with the boardin'-house boss. Y' see," he went on, his pride of craft in his gimlet eyes, "I'm kind o' known here for a boss sawyer. When they want sawyers there's allus work for Dick Mansell." </P> <P> "Your credit's good?" Truscott went on, ignoring the man's boasting. "Then you have no money?" </P> <P> "I allows the market's kind o' low." </P> <P> Mansell's mood had become one of clumsy jocularity under the influence of the brandy. </P> <P> "If you can get work so easily, why don't you?" Truscott demanded, filling the two glasses again as he spoke. </P> <P> Mansell seated himself on the bed unbidden. </P> <P> "Wal," he began expansively, "I'm kind o' holiday-makin', as they say. Y' see," he went on with a leer, "I worked so a'mighty hard gittin' back from the Yukon, I'm kind o' fatigued. Savee? Guess I'll git to work later. Say, one o' them for me?" he finished up, pointing at the glasses. </P> <P> Truscott nodded, and Mansell helped himself greedily. </P> <P> The former fell in with the other's mood. He found him very easy to deal with. It was just a question of sufficient drink. </P> <P> "Well, I don't believe in work, anyway. That is unless it happens to be my pleasure, too. I worked hard up at Dawson, but it was my pleasure. I made good money, too&mdash;a hell of a sight more than you or anybody else ever had any idea of." </P> <P> "You ran a dandy game," agreed the sawyer. </P> <P> "With plenty of customers with mighty fat rolls of money." </P> <P> Mansell nodded. </P> <P> "I was a fool to quit you," he said regretfully. </P> <P> "You were. But it isn't too late. If you aren't yearning to work too hard." </P> <P> Truscott's smile was crafty. And, even with the drink in him, Mansell saw and understood it. </P> <P> "Monkey tricks?" he said. </P> <P> "Monkey tricks&mdash;if you like." </P> <P> Mansell looked over at the bottle. </P> <P> "Hand us another horn of that pizen an' I'll listen," he said. </P> <P> The other poured out the brandy readily, taking care to be more than liberal. He watched the sawyer drink, and then, drawing a chair forward, he sat down. </P> <P> "What's that old mill of mine worth?" he asked suddenly. </P> <P> They exchanged glances silently. Truscott was watching the effect of his question, and the other was trying to fathom the meaning of it. </P> <P> "I'd say," Mansell replied slowly, giving up the puzzle and waiting for enlightenment&mdash;"I'd say, to a man who needs it bad, it's worth anything over fifteen thousand dollars. Fer scrappin', I'd say it warn't worth but fi' thousand." </P> <P> "I was thinking of a man needing it." </P> <P> "Fifteen thousand an' over." </P> <P> Truscott leant forward in his chair and became confidential. </P> <P> "Dave wants to buy that mill, and I'm going to sell it to him," he said impressively. "I'll take twenty thousand for it, and get as much more as I can. See? Now I don't want that money. I wouldn't care to handle his money. I've got plenty, and the means of making heaps more if I need it." </P> <P> He paused to let his words sink in. Mansell nodded with his eyes on the brandy bottle. As yet he did not see the man's drift. He did not see where he came in. He waited, and Truscott went on. </P> <P> "Now what would you be willing to do for that twenty thousand&mdash;or more?" he asked smilingly. </P> <P> The other turned his head with a start, and, for one fleeting second, his beady eyes searched his companion's face. He saw nothing there but quiet good-nature. It was the face of the old Jim Truscott&mdash;used to hide the poisoned mind behind it. </P> <P> "Give me a drink," Mansell demanded roughly. "This needs some thinkin'." </P> <P> Truscott handed him the bottle, and watched him while he drank nearly half a tumbler of the raw spirit. </P> <P> "Well?" </P> <P> Mansell breathed heavily. </P> <P> "Seems to me I'd do&mdash;a heap," he said at last. </P> <P> "Would you take a job as sawyer in Dave's mill, and&mdash;and act under my orders?" </P> <P> "It kind o' depends on the orders." For some reason the lumberman became cautious. The price was high&mdash;almost too high for him. </P> <P> Truscott suddenly rose from his seat, and crossing the room, turned the key in the door. Then he closed the window carefully. He finally glanced round the room, and came back to his seat. Then, leaning forward and lowering his tone, he detailed carefully all that the lumberman would have to do to earn the money. It took some time in the telling, but at last he sat back with a callous laugh. </P> <P> "That's all it is, Dick, my boy," he cried familiarly. "You will be as safe as houses. Not only that, but I may not need your help at all. I have other plans which are even better, and which may do the job without your help. See? This is only in case it is necessary. You see I don't want to leave anything to chance. I want to be ready. And I want no after consequences. You understand? You may get the money for doing nothing. On the other hand, what you have to do entails little enough risk. The price is high, simply because I do not want the money, and I want to be sure I can rely on you." </P> <P> The man's plausibility impressed the none too bright-witted lumberman. Then, too, the brandy had done its work. His last scruple fled, banished by his innate crookedness, set afire by the spirit and the dazzling bait held out to him. It was a case of the clever rascal dominating the less dangerous, but more brutal, type of man. Mansell was as potter's clay in this man's hands. The clay dry would have been impossible to mould, but moistened, the artist in villainy had no difficulty in handling it. And the lubricating process had been liberally supplied. </P> <P> "I'm on," Mansell said, his small eyes twinkling viciously. "I'm on sure. Twenty thousand! Gee! But I'll need it all, Jim," he added greedily. "I'll need it all, and any more you git. You said it yourself, I was to git the lot. Yes," as though reassuring himself, "I'm on." </P> <P> Truscott nodded approvingly. </P> <P> "Good boy," he said pleasantly. "But there's one thing more, Dick. I make it a proviso you don't go on any teetotal racket. I know you. Anyway, I don't believe in the water wagon worth a cent. It don't suit you in work like this. But don't get drunk and act foolish. Keep on the edge. See? Get through this racket right, and you've got a small pile that'll fill your belly up like a distillery&mdash;after. You'll get the stuff in a bundle the moment you've done the work." </P> <P> Mansell reached out for the bottle without invitation, picked it up, and put the neck to his lips. Nor did he put it down till he had drained it. It was the culminating point. The spirit had done its work, and as Truscott watched him he knew that, body and soul, the man was his. The lumberman flung the empty bottle on the bed. </P> <P> "I'll do it, you damned crook," he cried. "I'll do it, but not because I like you, or anything to do with you. It's the bills I need sure&mdash;green, crisp, crinkly bills. But I'll need fifty of 'em now. Hand over, pard," he cried exultingly. "Hand over, you imp of hell. I want fifty now, or I don't stir a hand. Hand 'em&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Suddenly the man staggered back and fell on the bed, staring stupidly at the shining silver-plated revolver in the other's hands. </P> <P> "Hold your noise, you drunken hog," Jim cried in a biting tone. "This is the sort of thing I suppose I can expect from a blasted fool like you. Now understand this, I'm going to give you that fifty, not because you demand it, but to seal our compact. And by the Holy Moses, when you've handled it, if you attempt to play any game on me, I'll blow you to hell quicker than any through mail could carry you there. Get that, and let it sink into your fool brain." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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