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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap15"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XV </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> BETTY TAKES COVER </H4> <P> In the office they found Parson Tom at work with pencil and note-book. The latter he closed as they came in. </P> <P> "For goodness' sake shut that door behind you," he laughed. "I've been trying to think of the things I need for my journey to-night, but that uproar makes it well-nigh impossible." </P> <P> The words brought Betty back to matters of the moment. Everything had been forgotten in the interest of her tour of the mills at Dave's side. Now she realized that time was short, and she too must make her preparations. </P> <P> Dave closed the door. </P> <P> "We'd best get down to the barn and fix things there," he said. "Then you can get right back home and arrange matters with Mary. Betty could go on and prepare her." </P> <P> The girl nodded her approval. </P> <P> "Yes," she said, "and I can get my own things together." </P> <P> Both men looked at her. </P> <P> She answered their challenge at once, but now there was a great change in her manner. She no longer laughed at them. She no longer carried things with a high hand. She intended going up to the camps, but it almost seemed as though she desired their justification to support her decision. Somehow that tour of the mills at Dave's side had lessened her belief in herself. </P> <P> "Yes," she said, "I know neither of you wants me to go. Perhaps, from your masculine point of view, you are both right. But&mdash;but I want to go. I do indeed. This is no mere whim. Uncle, speak up and admit the necessity for nursing. Who on earth is up there to do it? No one." </P> <P> Then she turned to Dave, and her earnest eyes were full of almost humble entreaty. </P> <P> "You won't refuse me, Dave?" she said. "I feel I must go. I feel that some one, some strange voice, is calling to me to go. That my presence there is needed. I am only a woman, and in these big schemes of yours it is ridiculous to think that I should play a part. Yet somehow&mdash;somehow&mdash;&mdash;Oh, Dave, won't you let me help, if only in this small way? It will be something for me to look back upon when you have succeeded; something for me to cherish, this thought that I have helped you even in so small a way. You won't refuse me. It is so little to you, and it means so&mdash;so much to me." </P> <P> Her uncle was watching the grave face of the lumberman; and when she finished he waited, smiling, for the effect of her appeal. </P> <P> It was some moments before Dave answered. Betty's eyes were shining with eager hope, and at last her impatience got the better of her. </P> <P> "You said 'yes' once to-night," she urged softly. </P> <P> Her uncle's smile broadened. He was glad the onus of this thing was on the broad shoulders of his friend. </P> <P> "Betty," said Dave at last, looking squarely into her eyes, "will you promise me to keep to the sick camps, and not go about amongst the 'jacks' who aren't sick without your uncle?" </P> <P> There was something in the man's eyes which made the girl drop hers suddenly. She colored slightly, perhaps with vexation. She somehow felt awkward. And she had never felt awkward with Dave in her life before. However, she answered him gladly. </P> <P> "I promise&mdash;promise willingly." </P> <P> "Then I'll not go back on my promise. Go and get ready, little girl," he said gently. </P> <P> She waited for no more. Her eyes thanked him, and for once, though he never saw it, nor, if he had, would he have understood it, there was a shyness in them such as had never been there before. </P> <P> As the door closed behind her he turned with a sigh to his old friend. </P> <P> "Well, Tom," he said, with a dry, half regretful smile, "it strikes me there are a pair of fools in this room." </P> <P> The parson chuckled delightedly. </P> <P> "But one is bigger than the other. You wait until Mary sees you. My word!" </P> <BR> <P> Betty hurried out of the mill. She knew the time was all too short; besides, she did not want to give the men time to change their minds. And then there was still her aunt to appease. </P> <P> Outside in the yards the thirsty red sand had entirely lapped up the day's rain. It was almost as dry as though the summer rains were mere showers. The night was brilliantly fine, and though as yet there was no moon, the heavens were diamond-studded, and the milky way spread its ghostly path sheer across the sky. Half running in her eagerness, the girl dodged amongst the stacks of lumber, making her way direct to a point in the fence nearest to her home. To go round to the gates would mean a long, circuitous route that would waste at least ten minutes. </P> <P> As she sped, the din of the mill rapidly receded, and the shadows thrown by the flare lights of the yards behind her lengthened and died out, merged in the darkness of the night beyond their radiance. At the fence she paused and looked about for the easiest place to climb. It was high, and the lateral rails were wide apart. It was all the same whichever way she looked, so, taking her courage in both hands, and lifting her skirts knee high, she essayed the task. It was no easy matter, but she managed it, coming down on the other side much more heavily than she cared about. Still, in her excited state, she didn't pause to trouble about a trifle like that. </P> <P> She was strangely happy without fully understanding the reason. This trip to the hills would be a break in the monotony of her daily routine. But somehow it was not that that elated her. She loved her work, and at no time wanted to shirk it. No, it was not that. Yet it was something to do with her going. Something to do with the hill camps; something to do with helping&mdash;Dave&mdash;ah! Yes, it was that. She knew it now, and the knowledge thrilled her with a feeling she had never before experienced. </P> <P> Her course took her through a dense clump of pine woods. She was far away from the direct trail, but she knew every inch of the way. </P> <P> Somehow she felt glad of the cool darkness of those woods. Their depth of shadow swallowed her up and hid her from all the rest of the world, and, for the moment, it was good to be alone. She liked the feeling that no one was near her&mdash;not even Dave. She wanted to think it all out. She wanted to understand herself. This delight that had come to her, this joy. Dave had promised to let her help him in his great work. It was too good to be true. How she would work. Yes, she would strain every nerve to nurse the men back to health, so that there should be no check in the work. </P> <P> Suddenly she paused in her thought. Her heart seemed to stand still, then its thumping almost stifled her. She had realized her true motive. Yes, she knew it now. It was not the poor sick men she was thinking of. She was not thinking of her uncle, who would be slaving for sheer love of his fellow men. No, it was of Dave she was thinking. Dave&mdash;her Dave. </P> <P> Now she knew. She loved him. She felt it here, here, and she pressed both hands over her heart, which was beating tumultuously and thrilling with an emotion such as she had never known before. Never, even in the days when she had believed herself in love with Jim Truscott. She wanted to laugh, to cry aloud her happiness to the dark woods which crowded round her. She wanted to tell all the world. She wanted everything about her to know of it, to share in it. Oh, how good God was to her. She knew that she loved Dave. Loved him with a passion that swept every thought of herself from her fevered brain. She wanted to be his slave; his&mdash;his all. </P> <P> Suddenly her passion-swept thoughts turned hideously cold. What of Dave? Did he?&mdash;could he? No, he looked upon her as his little "chum" and nothing more. How could it be otherwise? Had he not witnessed her betrothal to Jim Truscott? Had he not been at her side when she renounced him? Had he not always looked after her as an elder brother? Had he&mdash;&mdash; </P> <P> She came to a dead standstill in the heart of the woods, gripped by a fear that had nothing to do with her thoughts. It was the harsh sound of a voice. And it was just ahead of her. It rang ominously in her ears at such an hour, and in such a place. She listened. Who could be in those woods at that hour of the night? Who beside herself? The voice was so distinct that she felt it must be very, very near. Then she remembered how the woods echo, particularly at night, and a shiver of fear swept over her at the thought that perhaps the sound of her own footsteps had reached the ears of the owner of the voice. She had no desire to encounter any drunken lumber-jacks in such a place. Her heart beat faster, as she cast about in her mind for the best thing to do. </P> <P> The voice she had first heard now gave place to another, which she instantly recognized. The recognition shocked her violently. There could be no mistaking the second voice. It was Jim Truscott's. Hardly knowing what she did, she stepped behind a tree and waited. </P> <P> "I can't get the other thing working yet," she heard Truscott say in a tone of annoyance. "It's a job that takes longer than I figured on. Now, see here, you've got to get busy right away. We must get the brakes on him right now. My job will come on later, and be the final check. That's why I wanted you to-night." </P> <P> Then came the other voice, and, to the listening girl, its harsh note had in it a surly discontent that almost amounted to open rebellion. </P> <P> "Say, that ain't how you said, Jim. We fixed it so I hadn't got to do a thing till you'd played your 'hand.' Play it, an' if you fail clear out, then it's right up to me, an' I'll stick to the deal." </P> <P> Enlightenment was coming to Betty. This was some gambling plot. She knew Jim's record. Some poor wretch was to be robbed. The other man was of course a confederate. But Jim was talking again. Now his voice was commanding, even threatening. </P> <P> "This is no damned child's play; we're going to have no quibbling. You want that money, Mansell, and you've got to earn it. It's the spirit of the bargain I want, not the letter. Maybe you're weakening. Maybe you're scared. Damn it, man! it's the simplest thing&mdash;do as I say and&mdash;the money's yours." </P> <P> At the mention of the man's name Betty was filled with wonder. She had seen Mansell at work in the mill. The night shift was not relieved until six o'clock in the morning. How then came he there? What was he doing in company with Jim? </P> <P> But now the sawyer's voice was raised in downright anger, and the girl's alarm leapt again. </P> <P> "I said I'd stick to the deal," he cried. Then he added doggedly, "And a deal's a deal." </P> <P> Jim's reply followed in a much lower key, and she had to strain to hear. </P> <P> "I'm not going to be fooled by you," he said. "You'll do this job when I say. When I say, mind&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> But at this point his voice dropped so low that the rest was lost. And though Betty strained to catch the words, only the drone of the voices reached her. Presently even that ceased. Then she heard the sound of footsteps receding in different directions, and she knew the men had parted. When the silence of the woods had swallowed up the last sound she set off at a run for home. </P> <P> She thought a great deal about that mysterious encounter on her way. It was mysterious, she decided. She wondered what she should do about it. These men were plotting to cheat and rob some of Dave's lumber-jacks. Wasn't it her duty to try and stop them? She was horrified at the thought of the depths to which Jim had sunk. It was all so paltry, so&mdash;so mean. </P> <P> Then the strangeness of the place they had selected for their meeting struck her. Why those woods, so remote from the village? A moment's thought solved the matter to her own satisfaction. No doubt Mansell had made some excuse to leave the mill for a few minutes, and in order not to prolong his absence too much, Jim had come out from the village to meet him. Yes, that was reasonable. </P> <P> Finally she decided to tell Dave and her uncle. Dave would find a way of stopping them. Trust him for that. He could always deal with such things better&mdash;yes, even better than her uncle, she admitted to herself in her new-born pride in him. </P> <P> A few minutes later the twinkling lights through the trees showed her her destination. Another few minutes and she was explaining to her aunt that she was off to the hill camps nursing. As had been expected, her news was badly received. </P> <P> "It's bad enough that your uncle's got to go in the midst of his pressing duties," Mrs. Tom ex*claimed with heat. "What about the affairs of the new church? What about the sick folk right here? What about old Mrs. Styles? She's likely to die any minute. Who's to bury her with him away? And what about Sarah Dingley? She's haunted&mdash;delusions&mdash;and there's no one can pacify her but him. And now they must needs take you. It isn't right. You up there amongst all those rough men. It's not decent. It's&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "I know, auntie," Betty broke in. "It's all you say. But&mdash;but think of those poor helpless sick men up there, with no comfort. They've just got to lie about and either get well, or&mdash;or die. No one to care for them. No one to write a last letter to their friends for them. No one to see they get proper food, and&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Stuff and nonsense!" her aunt exclaimed. "Now you, Betty, listen to me. Go, if go you must. I'll have nothing to do with it. It's not with my consent you'll go. And some one is going to hear what I think about it, even if he does run the Malkern Mills. If&mdash;if Dave wasn't so big, and such a dear good fellow, I'd like&mdash;yes, I'd like to box his ears. Be off with you and see to your packing, miss, and don't forget your thickest flannels. Those mountains are terribly cold at nights, even in summer." Then, as the girl ran off to her room, she exploded in a final burst of anger. "Well there, they're all fools, and I've no patience with any of 'em." </P> <P> It did not take long for Betty to get her few things together and pitch them into a grip. The barest necessities were all she required, and her practical mind guided her instinctively. Her task was quite completed when, ten minutes later, she heard the rattle of buckboard wheels and her uncle's cheery voice down-stairs in the parlor. </P> <P> Then she hurried across to her aunt's room. She knew her uncle so well. He wouldn't bother to pack anything for himself. She dragged a large kit bag from under the bed, and, ransacking the bureau, selected what she considered the most necessary things for his comfort and flung them into it. It was all done with the greatest possible haste, and by the time she had everything ready, her uncle joined her and carried the grips downstairs. In the meantime Mary Chepstow, all her anger passed, was busily loading the little table with an ample supper. She might disapprove her niece's going, she might resent the sudden call on her husband, but she would see them both amply fed before starting, and that the buckboard was well provisioned for the road. </P> <P> For the most part supper was eaten in silence. These people were so much in the habit of doing for others, so many calls were made upon them, that such an occasion as this presented little in the way of emergency. It was their life to help others, their delight, and their creed. And Mary's protest meant no more than words, she only hesitated at the thought of Betty's going amongst these rough lumber-jacks. But even this, on reflection, was not so terrible as she at first thought. Betty was an unusual girl, and she expected the unusual from her. So she put her simple trust in the Almighty, and did all she knew to help them. </P> <P> It was not until the meal was nearly over that Chepstow imparted a piece of news he had gleaned on his way from the mill. He suddenly looked up from his plate, and his eyes sought his niece's face. She was lost in a happy contemplation of the events of that night at the mill. All her thoughts, all her soul was, at that moment, centred upon Dave. Now her uncle's voice startled her into a self-conscious blush. </P> <P> "Who d'you think I met on my way up here?" he inquired, searching her face. </P> <P> Betty answered him awkwardly. "I&mdash;I don't know," she said. </P> <P> Her uncle reached for the salad, and helped himself deliberately before he enlightened her further. </P> <P> "Jim Truscott," he said at last, without looking up. </P> <P> "Jim Truscott?" exclaimed Aunt Mary, her round eyes wondering. Then she voiced a thought which had long since passed from her niece's mind. "What was he doing out here at this hour of the night?" </P> <P> The parson shrugged. </P> <P> "It seems he was waiting for me. He didn't call here, I s'pose?" </P> <P> Mary shook her head. Betty was waiting to hear more. </P> <P> "I feel sorry for him," he went on. "I'm inclined to think we've judged him harshly. I'm sure we have. It only goes to show how poor and weak our efforts are to understand and help our fellows. He is very, very repentant. Poor fellow, I have never seen any one so down on his luck. He doesn't excuse himself. In fact, he blames himself even more than we have done." </P> <P> "Poor fellow," murmured Aunt Mary. </P> <P> Betty remained silent, and her uncle went on. </P> <P> "He's off down east to make a fresh start. He was waiting to tell me so. He also wanted to tell me how sorry he was for his behavior to us, to you, Betty, and he trusted you would find it possible to forgive him, and think better of him when he was gone. I never saw a fellow so cut up. It was quite pitiful." </P> <P> "When's he going?" Betty suddenly asked, and there was a hardness in her voice which startled her uncle. </P> <P> "That doesn't sound like forgiveness," he said. "Don't you think, my dear, if he's trying to do better you might&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Betty smiled into the earnest face. </P> <P> "Yes, uncle, I forgive him everything, freely, gladly&mdash;if he is going to start afresh." </P> <P> "Doubt?" </P> <P> But Betty still had that conversation in the woods in her mind. </P> <P> "I mustn't judge him. His own future actions are all that matter. The past is gone, and can be wiped out. I would give a lot to see him&mdash;right himself." </P> <P> "That is the spirit, dear," Aunt Mary put in. "Your uncle is quite right: we must forgive him." </P> <P> Betty nodded; but remained silent. She was half inclined to tell them all she had heard, but it occurred to her that perhaps she had interpreted it all wrong&mdash;and yet&mdash;anyway, if he were sincere, if he really meant all he had said to her uncle she must not, had no right to do, or say, anything that could prejudice him. So she kept silent, and her uncle went on. </P> <P> "He's off to-morrow on the east-bound mail. That's why he was waiting to see me to-night. He told me he had heard I was going up into the hills, and waited to catch me before I went. Said he couldn't go away without seeing me first. I told him I was going physicking, that the camps were down with fever, and the spread of it might seriously interfere with Dave's work. He was very interested, poor chap, and hoped all would come right. He spoke of Dave in the most cordial terms, and wished he could do something to help. Of course, that's impossible. But I pointed out that the whole future of Malkern, us all, depended on the work going through. Dave would be simply ruined if it didn't. There's a tremendous lot of good in that boy. I always knew it. Once he gets away from this gambling, and cuts out the whiskey, he'll get right again. I suggested his turning teetotaler, and he assured me he'd made up his mind to it. Well, Betty my dear, time's up." </P> <P> Chepstow rose from the table and filled his pipe. Betty followed him, and put on her wraps. Aunt Mary stood by to help to the last. </P> <P> It was less than an hour from the time of Betty's return home that the final farewells were spoken and the buckboard started back for the mill. Aunt Mary watched them go. She saw them vanish into the night, and slowly turned back across the veranda into the house. They were her all, her loved ones. They had gone for perhaps only a few weeks, but their going made her feel very lonely. She gave a deep sigh as she began to clear the remains of the supper away. Then, slowly, two unbidden tears welled up into her round, soft eyes and rolled heavily down her plump cheeks. Instantly she pulled herself together, and dashed her hand across her eyes. And once more the steady courage which was the key-note of her life asserted itself. She could not afford to give way to any such weakness. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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