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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap12"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XII </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> THE OLD MILLS </H4> <P> When Dave reached the construction camp the work was in full swing. The men, clad in oilskins, paid little heed to the rain. Ahead was the gang spreading the heavy stone gravel bed, behind it came those laying and trimming ties. Following close upon their heels came others engaged in setting and bolting the rails, while hard in the rear followed a gang leveling, checking gauge, and ballasting. It was very rough railroad construction, but the result was sufficient for the requirements. It was rapid, and lacked the careful precision of a "permanent way," but the men were working at high pressure against time. </P> <P> Dave saw that all was well here. He exchanged a few words with the foreman, and gave his orders. Then he passed on, intending to return to the mill for his buckboard. Crossing the bridge to take a short cut, he encountered Betty driving home from her school in her uncle's buggy. She drew up at once. </P> <P> "Whither away, Dave?" she cried. Then she hastily turned the dozy old mare aside, so as to open the wheels to let the man climb in. "Come along; don't stand there in the rain. Isn't it awful? The river'll be flooding to-morrow if it doesn't stop soon. Back to the mills?" </P> <P> Dave clambered into the buggy and divested himself of his dripping oilskins. The vehicle was a covered one, and comparatively rain-proof, even in such a downpour. </P> <P> "Well, I guess so," he said. "I'm just going back to get my buckboard. Then I'm going up to get a look at Jim Truscott's old mill. He's sent word this morning to say he'll sell it me." </P> <P> The girl chirruped at the old mare, but offered no comment. The simple process of driving over a road nothing could have induced the parson's faithful beast to leave seemed to demand all her attention. </P> <P> "Did he send, or&mdash;have you seen him?" she asked him presently. And it was plain that the matter was of unusual interest to her. </P> <P> "I said he sent. He wrote to me&mdash;and mailed the letter." </P> <P> "Was there anything&mdash;else in the letter?" </P> <P> The girl's tone was cold enough. Dave, watching her, was struck by the decision in her expression. He wanted to hear what she thought of the letter. He was anxious to see its effect on her. He handed it to her, and quietly took the reins out of her hands. </P> <P> "You can read it," he said. And Betty eagerly unfolded the paper. </P> <P> The mare plodded on, splashing solemnly and indifferently through the torrential streams flooding the trail, and they were nearly through the village by the time she handed the letter back and resumed the reins. </P> <P> "Curious. I&mdash;I don't think I understand him at all," she said gravely. </P> <P> "It's an apology," said Dave, anxious for her to continue. </P> <P> "Yes, I suppose it is." She paused. "But why to you?" Then a whimsical smile spread over her round face. "I thought you two were nearly square. Now, if the apology had come to me&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Yes, I hadn't thought of that." </P> <P> Both sat thinking for some time. They arrived at the point where the trail turned up to Tom Chepstow's house. Betty ignored the turning and kept on. </P> <P> "Is that mill worth all that money?" she asked suddenly. </P> <P> Dave shook his head. </P> <P> "You've come too far," he said, pointing at her uncle's house. And the girl smiled. </P> <P> "I want to have a look at the mill. Why are you buying it at that price, Dave?" </P> <P> "Because there's no time to haggle, and&mdash;I want it." </P> <P> Betty nodded. She was looking straight ahead, and the man failed to see the tender light his words had conjured in her eyes. She knew that Dave would never have paid that money to anybody else, no matter how much he wanted the mill. He was doing it for Jim. However unworthy the man was, it made no difference to his large-hearted nature. </P> <P> The tenderness still lingered in her eyes when she turned to him again. </P> <P> "Is Jim hard up?" she inquired. </P> <P> The frigidity of her tone was wholly at variance with her expression. But it told plainly of her feelings for the subject of her inquiry. Dave shook his head. </P> <P> "From all I've heard, and from his own talk, I'd guess not." </P> <P> Betty suddenly became very angry. She wanted to shake somebody, even Dave, since he was the only person near enough to be shaken. </P> <P> "He says in his letter, 'as the mill is no further use to me,'" she cried indignantly. "Dave, your Christian spirit carries you beyond all bounds. You have no right to give all that money for it. It isn't worth it anyway. You are&mdash;and he&mdash;he&mdash;oh, I've simply no words for him!" </P> <P> "But your uncle, with due regard for his cloth, has," Dave put in quickly. </P> <P> Betty's indignation was gone in an instant, lost in the laugh which responded to his dry tone. </P> <P> He had no intention of making her laugh, but he was glad she did so. It told him so much. It reassured him of something on which he had needed reassurance. Her parting with Jim, giving up as it did the habit and belief of years, had troubled him. Then in some measure he had felt himself responsible, although he knew perfectly well that no word of his had ever encouraged her on the course she had elected. He was convinced now. Her regard for Jim was utterly dead, had been dead far longer than probably even she realized. </P> <P> With this conviction a sudden wild hope leapt within him; but, like summer lightning, its very brilliancy left the night seemingly darker. No, it could never be now. Betty liked him, liked him only too well. Her frank friendliness was too outspoken, and then&mdash;ah, yes, he knew himself. Did he ever get the chance of forgetting? Did not his mirror remind him every morning? Did not his hair brushes, even, force it upon him as they loyally struggled to arrange some order in his obstinate wiry hair? Did not every chair, even his very bed, cry out at the awful burden they were called upon to support? Somehow his thoughts made him rebellious. Why should he be so barred? Why should he be denied the happiness all men are created for? But in a man like Dave such rebellion was not likely to find vent in words, or even mood. </P> <P> In the midst of his thought the drone of his own distant mills came to him through the steady hiss of the rain. The sound held him, and he experienced a strange comfort. It was like an answer to his mute appeal. It reminded him that his work lay before him. It was a call to which he was wedded, bound; it claimed his every nerve; it demanded his every thought like the most exacting mistress; and, for the moment, it gripped him with all the old force. </P> <P> "Say," he cried, holding up a warning finger, untidy with years of labor, "isn't she booming? Hark at the saws," he went on, his eyes glowing with pride and enthusiasm. "They're singing to beat the band. It's real music." </P> <P> They listened. </P> <P> "Hark!" he went on presently, and Betty's eyes watched him with a tender smile in their brown depths. "Hear the rise and fall of it as the breeze carries it. Hear the 'boom' of the 'ninety-footers' as they drop into the shoots. Isn't it great? Isn't it elegant music?" </P> <P> Betty nodded. Her sympathy was with him if she smiled at his words. </P> <P> "A lumbering symphony," she said. </P> <P> Dave's face suddenly fell. </P> <P> "Ah," he said apologetically, "you weren't brought up on a diet of buzz-saw trimmings." </P> <P> Betty shook her head. </P> <P> "No," she said gently, "patent food." </P> <P> Dave's enthusiasm dropped from him, and his face, unlit by it, had fallen back into its stern set. At the sight of the almost tragic change Betty's heart smote her, and she hastened to make amends, fearful lest he should fail to realize the sympathy she had for him. </P> <P> "Ah, no, Dave," she cried. "I know. I understand. I, too, love those mills for what they mean to you, to us, to Malkern. They are your world. They are our world. You have slowly, laboriously built them up. You have made us&mdash;Malkern. Your prosperity means happiness and prosperity to hundreds in our beloved valley. You do not love those mills for the fortune they are piling up for you, but for the sake of those others who share in your great profits and whose lives you have been able to gladden. I know you, Dave. And I understand the real music you hear." </P> <P> The man shook his head, but his voice rang with deep feeling. He knew that he did not deserve all this girl's words conveyed, but, coming from her, it was very sweet. </P> <P> "Little Betty," he said, "you kind of run away with things. There's a fellow called 'Dave' I think about a heap. I think about him such a heap I'm most always thinking of him. He's got ambition bad&mdash;so bad he thinks of precious little else. Then he's most terrible human. You'd marvel if you knew just how human he was. Now you'd think, maybe, he'd not want anything he hasn't got, wouldn't you? You'd think he was happy and content to see everything he undertakes prospering, and other folks happy. Well, he just isn't, and that's a fact. He's mighty thankful for mercies received, but there's a heap of other mercies he grumbles because he hasn't got." </P> <P> There was so much sincerity in the man's voice that Betty turned and stared at him. </P> <P> "And aren't you happy, Dave?" she asked, hardly knowing what she said, but, woman-like, fixing on the one point that appealed to her deepest sympathy. </P> <P> He evaded the direct question. </P> <P> "I'm as happy as a third child in playtime," he said; and then, before she could fully grasp his meaning, "Ah, here's the mill. Guess we'll pull up right here." </P> <P> The old mare came to a standstill, and Dave sprang out before Betty could answer him. And as soon as she had alighted he led the horse to a shed out of the rain. </P> <P> Then together they explored the mill, and their talk at once became purely technical. The man became the practical lumberman, and, note-book in hand, he led the way from room to room and floor to floor, observing every detail of the conditions prevailing. And all the time they talked, Betty displaying such an exhaustive knowledge of the man's craft that at times she quite staggered him. It was a revelation, a source of constant wonder, and it added a zest to the work which made him love every moment spent in carrying it out. </P> <P> It was over an hour before the inspection was finished, and to Dave it scarcely seemed more than a matter of minutes. Then there was yet the drive home with Betty at his side. As they drove away the culminating point in the man's brief happiness was reached when the girl, with interest such as his own might have been, pointed out the value of his purchase. </P> <P> "It will take you exactly a week to outfit that mill, I should say," she said. "Its capacity for big stuff is so small you shouldn't pay a cent over ten thousand dollars for it." </P> <P> Dave smiled. Sometimes Betty's keenness of perception in his own business made him feel very small. Several times already that morning she had put things so incisively before him that he found himself wondering whether he had considered them from the right point of view. He was about to answer her, but finally contented himself with a wondering exclamation. </P> <P> "For Heaven's sake, Betty, where did you learn it all?" </P> <P> It was a delighted laugh that answered him. </P> <P> "Where? Where do you think? Why, from the one man competent to teach me. You forget that I came to you for instruction five years ago." </P> <P> The girl's eyes were dancing with pleasure. Somehow the desire for this man's praise and approval had unconsciously become part of her whole outlook. Her simple honesty would not let her deny it&mdash;showed her no reason for denying it. She sometimes told herself it was just her vanity; it was the desire of a pupil for a master's praise. She, as yet, could see no other reason for it, and would have laughed at the idea that any warmer feeling could possibly underlie it. </P> <P> Dave's pleasure in her acknowledgment was very evident. </P> <P> "I haven't forgotten, Betty," he said. "But I never taught you all that. It's your own clever little head. You could give Joel Dawson a start and beat him." </P> <P> "You don't understand," the girl declared quickly. "It was you who gave me the ground-work, and then I thought and thought. You see, I&mdash;I wanted to help Jim when he came back." </P> <P> Dave had no reply to make. The girl's plain statement had damped his enthusiasm. He had forgotten Jim. She had done this for love of the other man. </P> <P> "I want you to do me a great favor," she went on presently. "I want it very&mdash;very much. You think I've learned a lot. Well, I want to learn more. I don't know quite why&mdash;I s'pose it's because I'm interested. I want to see the big lumber being trimmed. I want to see your own mill in full work, and have what I don't understand explained to me. Will you do it? Some night. I'd like to see it all in its most inspiring light. Will you, Dave?" </P> <P> She laid a coaxing hand on his great arm, and looked eagerly into his eyes. At that moment the lumberman would have promised her the world. And he would have striven with every nerve in his body to fulfil his promise. </P> <P> "Sure," he said simply. "Name your own time." </P> <P> And for once the girl didn't thank him in her usual frank way. She simply drew her hand away and chirruped at the old mare. </P> <P> For the rest of the drive home she remained silent. It was as though Dave's ready, eager promise had suddenly affected her in some disturbing way. Her brown eyes looked straight ahead along the trail, and they were curiously serious. </P> <P> They reached the man's home. He alighted, and she drove on to her own destination with a feeling of relief not unmixed with regret. </P> <P> Dave's mother had been long waiting dinner for her boy. She had seen the buggy and guessed who was in it, and as he came up she greeted him with pride and affection shining in her old eyes. </P> <P> "That was Betty?" she inquired, moving across to the dinner-table, while the man removed his slicker. </P> <P> "Yes, ma," he said coolly. He had no desire to discuss Betty with any one just then, not even with his mother. </P> <P> "Driving with her, dear?" she asked, with smiling, searching eyes upon his averted face. </P> <P> "She gave me a lift," Dave replied, coming over and sitting down at the table. </P> <P> His mother, instead of helping him to his food, suddenly came round to his side and laid one affectionate hand upon his great shoulder. The contrast in these two had something almost ridiculous in it. He was so huge, and she was so small. Perhaps the only things they possessed in common, outside of their mutual adoration, were the courage and strength which shone in their gray eyes, and the abounding kindliness of heart for all humanity. But whereas these things in the mother were always second to her love for her boy, the boy's first thought and care was for the great work his own hands had created. </P> <P> "Dave," she said very gently, "when am I going to have a daughter? I'm getting very, very old, and I don't want to leave you alone in the world." </P> <P> The man propped his elbow on the table and rested his head on his hand. His eyes were almost gloomy. </P> <P> "I don't want to lose you, ma," he said. "It would break me up ter'ble. Life's mostly lonesome anyhow." Then he looked keenly up into her face, and his glance was one of concern. "You&mdash;you aren't ailing any?" </P> <P> The old woman shook her head, and her eyes smiled back at him. </P> <P> "No, boy, I'm not ailing. But I worry some at times. You see, I like Betty very, very much. In a different way, I'm almost as fond of her as you are&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Dave started and was about to break in, but his mother shook her head, and her hand caressed his cheek with infinite tenderness. </P> <P> "Why don't you marry her, now&mdash;now that the other is broken off&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> But Dave turned to her, and, swept by an almost fierce emotion, would not be denied. </P> <P> "Why, ma? Why?" he cried, with all the pent-up bitterness of years in the depth of his tone. "Look at me! Look at me! And you ask me why." He held out his two hands as though to let her see him as he was. "Would any woman think of me&mdash;look at me with thoughts of love? She couldn't. What am I? A mountain of muscle, brawn, bone, whatever you will, with a face and figure even a farmer would hate to set up over a corn patch at harvest time." He laughed bitterly. "No&mdash;no, ma," he went on, his tone softening, and taking her worn hand tenderly in his. "There are folks made for marriage, and folks that aren't. And when folks that aren't get marrying they're doing a mean thing on the girl. I'm not going to think a mean thing for Betty&mdash;let alone do one." </P> <P> His mother moved away to her seat. </P> <P> "Well, boy, I'll say no more, but I'm thinking a time'll come when you'll be doing a mean thing by Betty if you don't, and she'll be the one that'll think it&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Ma!" </P> <P> "The dinner's near cold." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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