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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap11"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XI </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> THE SUMMER RAINS </H4> <P> Truscott looked up from his paper and watched the rain as it hissed against the window. It was falling in a deluge, driven by a gale of wind which swept the woodlands as though bent on crushing out the last dignity of the proud forest giants. The sky was leaden, and held out no promise of relenting. It was a dreary prospect, yet to the man watching it was a matter of small moment. </P> <P> It was nearly midday, and as yet he had not broken his fast. In fact his day was only just beginning. His appearance told plainly the story of his previous night's dissipation. Still, his mood was in no way depressed&mdash;he was too well seasoned to the vicious life he had adopted for that. Besides, the prosperity of Malkern brought much grist to his mill, and its quality more than made up for the after effects of his excesses. </P> <P> He turned to his paper again. It was a day old. A large head-line faced him announcing the spreading of the railway strike. Below it was a column describing how business was already affected, and how, shortly, if a settlement were not soon arrived at, it was feared that the trans-continental traffic could only be kept open with the aid of military engineers. The rest of the paper held no interests for him; he had only read this column, and it seemed to afford him food for much thought. He had read it over twice, and was now reading it for a third time. </P> <P> At last he threw the paper aside and walked across to the table to pour himself out a drink. The thought of food sickened him. The only thing possible was a whiskey-and-milk, and he mixed the beverage and held it to his lips. But the smell of it sickened him, and he set it down and moved away to the window. </P> <P> There was little enough to attract him thither, but he preferred the prospect to the sight and smell of whiskey at that hour of the day. After some moments he made another attempt on his liquid breakfast. He knew he must get it down somehow. He turned and looked at it, shuddered, and turned again to the window. And at that instant he recognized the great figure of Dave, clad from head to foot in oilskins, making his way back from the depot to the mill. </P> <P> The sight fixed his attention, and all the venom in his distorted nature shone in the wicked gleam that sprang into his eyes. His blood was fired with hatred. </P> <P> "Betty for you? Never in your life," he muttered at the passing figure. "Never in mine, Dave, my boy. It's you and me for it, and by God I'll never let up on you!" </P> <P> All unconscious of the venomous thoughts the sight of him had inspired, Dave strode on through the rain. He was deep in his own concerns, and at that moment they were none too pleasant. The deluge of rain damped his spirits enough, but the mail he had just received had brought him news that depressed him still more. The Engineers' Union had called for a general cessation of work east of Winnipeg, and he was wondering how it was likely to affect him. Should his engineers go out, would it be possible to replace them? And if he could, how would he be able to cope with the trouble likely to ensue? He could certainly fall in with the Union's demands, but&mdash;well, he would wait. It was no use anticipating trouble. </P> <P> But more bad news was awaiting him when he reached his office. Dawson, in his absence, had opened a letter which had arrived by runner from Bob Mason, the foreman of the camps up in the hills. </P> <P> Dawson was no alarmist. He always looked to Dave for everything when a crisis confronted them. He felt that if not a crisis, something very like it was before them now, and so he calmly handed Mason's letter to his boss, confident in the latter's capacity to deal with the situation. </P> <P> "This come along by hand," he said easily. "Guess, seein' it's wrote 'important' on it, I opened it." </P> <P> Dave nodded while he threw off his oilskins. He made no particular haste, and deposited his mail on his desk before he took the letter from his foreman. At last, however, he unfolded the sheet of foolscap on which it was written, and read the ominous contents. It was a long letter dealing with the business of the camps, but the one paragraph which had made the letter important threw all the rest into insignificance. It ran&mdash; </P> <BR> <P> "I regret to have to report that an epidemic of mountain fever has broken out in two of our camps&mdash;the new No. 8 and No. 1. We have already nearly eighty cases on the sick list, chiefly amongst the new hands from Ottawa who are not yet acclimatized. The summer rains have been exceedingly heavy, which in a large measure accounts for the trouble. I shall be glad if you will send up medical aid, and a supply of drugs, at once. Dysentery is likely to follow, and you know what that means. </P> <P> "We are necessarily short-handed now, but, by increasing hours and offering inducements, and by engaging any stray hands that filter up to the camps, I hope to keep the work going satisfactorily. I am isolating the sick, of course, but it is most important that you send me the medical aid at once," etc., etc. </P> <BR> <P> Dave was silent for a while after reading the letter, and the gravity of his expression was enhanced by the extreme plainness of his features. His steady eyes were looking out through the open doorway at the mill beyond, as though it were some living creature to whom he was bound by ties of the deepest affection, and for whom he saw the foreshadowing of disaster. At last he turned. </P> <P> "Damn the rain," he said impatiently. Then he added, "I'll see to it." </P> <P> Dawson glanced quickly at his chief. </P> <P> "Nothin' I ken do, boss?" he inquired casually. </P> <P> A grim smile played over Dave's rugged features. </P> <P> "Nothing, I guess," he said, "unless you can fix a nozzle on to heaven's water-main and turn it on to the strikers down east." </P> <P> The other shook his head seriously. </P> <P> "I ain't worth a cent in the plumbin' line, boss," he said. </P> <P> Dawson left the office. The mill claimed him at all times. He never neglected his charge, and rarely allowed himself long absences beyond the range of its strident music. The pressure of work seemed to increase every day. He knew that the strain on his employer was enormous, and somehow he would have been glad if he could have shared this new responsibility. </P> <P> Dave had just taken his slicker from the wall again when Dawson came back to the door. </P> <P> "Say, ther's that feller Mansell been around this mornin' lookin' fer a job. I sed he'd best come around to-morrer. I didn't guess I'd take him on till I see you. He's a drunken bum anyway." </P> <P> Dave nodded. </P> <P> "He used to be a dandy sawyer," he said, "and we need 'em. Is he drinking now?" </P> <P> "I've heard tell. He stank o' whiskey's mornin'. That's why I passed him on. Yes, he's a dandy sawyer, sure. He was on the 'water wagon' 'fore he went off up north with young Truscott. Mebbe he'll sober up agin&mdash;if we put him to work." </P> <P> Dave clenched the matter in his decided way. </P> <P> "Put him on the 'time sheet' to-morrow, and set him on the No. 1 rollers, beside our night office. You can keep a sharp eye on him there. He's a bit of a backslider, but if giving him a job'll pull him up and help him, why, give it him. We've no right to refuse." </P> <P> He struggled into his slicker again as Dawson went off. He inspected the weather outside with no very friendly eye. It meant so much to him. At the moment the deluge was like a bursting waterspout, and the yards were like a lake dotted with islands of lumber. But he plunged out into it without a moment's hesitation. His work must go on, no matter what came. </P> <P> He hurried off in the direction of Chepstow's house. It was some time since he had seen his friend, and though the cause of his present visit was so serious, he was glad of the opportunity of making it. </P> <P> Tom Chepstow saw him coming, and met him on the veranda. He was always a man of cheery spirits, and just now, in spite of the weather, he was well enough satisfied with the world. Matters between Betty and Jim Truscott had been settled just as he could wish, so there was little to bother him. </P> <P> "I was really considering the advisability of a telephone from here to your office, Dave," he said, with a smiling welcome. "But joking apart, I never seem to see you now. How's things down there? If report says truly, you're doing a great work." </P> <P> Dave shook his head. </P> <P> "The mills are," he said modestly. </P> <P> Chepstow laughed heartily. </P> <P> "That's your way of putting it. You and the mills are one. Nobody ever speaks of one without including the other. You'll never marry, my boy. You are wedded to the shriek of your beloved buzz-saws. Here, take off those things and come in. We've got a drop of Mary's sloe gin somewhere." </P> <P> They went into the parlor, and Dave removed his oilskins. While he hung them to drain on a nail outside, the parson poured him out a wineglass of his wife's renowned sloe gin. He drank it down quickly, not because he cared particularly about it, but out of compliment to his friend's wife. Then he set his glass down, and began to explain his visit. </P> <P> "This isn't just a friendly visit, Tom," he said. "It's business. Bad business. You've got to help me out." </P> <P> The parson opened his eyes. It was something quite new to have Dave demanding help. </P> <P> "Go ahead," he said, his keen eyes lighting with amusement. </P> <P> Dave drew a bunch of letters from his coat pocket. He glanced over them hastily, and picked out Mason's and handed it to the other. In picking it out he had discovered another letter he had left unopened. </P> <P> "Read that," he said, while he glanced at the address on the unopened envelope. </P> <P> The handwriting was strange to him, and while Tom Chepstow was reading Mason's letter he tore the other open. As he read, the gravity of his face slowly relaxed. At last an exclamation from the parson made him look up. </P> <P> "This is terrible, Dave!" </P> <P> "It's a bit fierce," the other agreed. "Have you read it all?" he inquired. </P> <P> "Yes." </P> <P> "Then you've got my meaning in coming to you?" </P> <P> "I see. I hadn't thought of it." </P> <P> Dave smiled into the other's face. </P> <P> "You're going to do it for me? It may mean weeks. It may even mean months. You see, it's an epidemic. At the best it might be only a couple of weeks. They're tough, those boys. On the other hand it might mean&mdash;anything to me." </P> <P> Chepstow nodded. He understood well enough what an epidemic of mountain fever in his lumber camps must mean to Dave. He understood the conditions under which he stood with regard to his contract. A catastrophe like that might mean ruin. And ruin for Dave would mean ruin for nearly all connected with Malkern. </P> <P> "Yes, I'll do it, Dave. Putting all friendship on one side, it is clearly my duty. Certainly. I'll go up there and lend all the aid I possibly can. You must outfit me with drugs and help." </P> <P> Dave held out his hand, and the two men gripped. </P> <P> "Thanks, Tom," he said simply, although he experienced a world of relief and gratitude. "I wouldn't insult you with a bribe before you consented, but when you come back there's a thumping check for your charities lying somewhere around my office." </P> <P> The parson laughed in his whole-hearted fashion, while his friend once more donned his oilskins. </P> <P> "I'm always open to that sort of bribery, old boy," he said, and was promptly answered by one of Dave's slow smiles. </P> <P> "That's good," he said. Then he held up his other letter, but he did not offer it to be read. </P> <P> "Betty told you what happened at my office the other day&mdash;I mean, what happened to Jim Truscott?" The parson's face clouded with swift anger. </P> <P> "The ras&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Just so. Yes, we had some bother; but he's just sent me this. A most apologetic letter. He offers to sell me his mill now. I wanted to buy it, you know. He wants twenty thousand dollars cash for it. I shall close the deal at once." He laughed. </P> <P> "Hard up, I s'pose?" </P> <P> Dave shook his head. </P> <P> "I don't think so. His change of front is curious, though," he went on thoughtfully. "However, that don't matter. I want the mill, and&mdash;I'm going to buy. So long. I've got to go and look at that piece of new track I'm getting laid down. My single line to the depot isn't sufficient. I'll let you know about starting up to the camps. I've got a small gang of lumber-jacks coming up from Ottawa. Maybe I'll get you to go up with them later. Thanks, Tom." </P> <P> The two men shook hands again, and Dave departed. </P> <P> He battled his way through the driving rain to his railroad construction, and on the road he thought a good deal of Truscott's neglected letter. There was something in its tone he could not convince himself about. Why, he asked himself, should he, so closely following on the events which had happened in his office, deliberately turn round and display such a Christian-like spirit? Somehow it didn't seem to suit him. It didn't carry conviction. Then there was the letter; its wording was too careful. It was so deliberately careful that it suggested a suppression of real feeling. This was his impression, and though Dave was usually an unsuspicious man, he could not shake it off. </P> <P> He thought of little else but that letter all the way to his works, and after reviewing the man's attitude from what, in his own simple honesty, he considered to be every possible standpoint, he finally, with a quaint, even quixotic, kindliness assured himself that there could after all be but one interpretation to it. The man was penitent at his painful exhibition before Betty, and his vile accusations against himself. That his moral strength was not equal to standing the strain of a personal interview. That his training up at the Yukon, where he had learned the sordid methods of a professional gambler, had suggested the selling of his mill to him as a sort of peace-offering. And the careful, stilted tone of the letter itself was due to the difficulty of its composition. Further, he decided to accept his offer, and do so in a cordial, friendly spirit, and, when opportunity offered, to endeavor, by his own moral influence, to drag him back to the paths of honest citizenship. This was the decision to which his generous nature prompted him. But his head protested. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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