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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap16"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XVI </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> DISASTER AT THE MILL </H4> <P> Night closed in leaden-hued. The threat of storm had early brought the day to a close, so that the sunset was lost in the massing clouds banking on the western horizon. </P> <P> Summer was well advanced, and already the luxurious foliage of the valley was affected by the blistering heat. The emerald of the trees and the grass had gained a maturer hue, and only the darker pines resisted the searching sunlight. The valley was full ripe, and kindly nature was about to temper her efforts and permit a breathing space. The weather-wise understood this. </P> <P> Dave was standing at his office door watching the approach of the electric storm, preparing to launch its thunders upon the valley. Its progress afforded him no sort of satisfaction. Everybody but himself wanted rain. It had already done him too much harm. </P> <P> He was thinking of the letter he had just received from Bob Mason up in the hills. Its contents were so satisfactory, and this coming rain looked like undoing the good his staunch friends in the mountain camps had so laboriously achieved. </P> <P> While Mason reported that the fever still had the upper hand, its course had been checked; the epidemic had been grappled with and held within bounds. That was sufficiently satisfactory, seeing Chepstow had only been up there ten days. Then, too, Mason had had cause to congratulate himself on another matter. A number of recruits for his work had filtered through to his camps from Heaven and themselves alone knew where. This was quite good. These men were not the best of lumbermen, but under the "camp boss" they would help to keep the work progressing, which, in the circumstances, was all that could be asked. </P> <P> A few minutes later Dave departed into the mills. Since the mill up the river had been converted and set to work, and Simon Odd had been given temporary charge of it, he shared with Dawson the work of overseeing. </P> <P> As he mounted to the principal milling floor the great syren shrieked out its summons to the night shift, and sent the call echoing and re�choing down the valley. There was no cessation of work. The "relief" stood ready, and the work was passed on from hand to hand. </P> <P> Dave saw his foreman standing close by No. 1, and he recognized the relief as Mansell. Dawson was watching the man closely, and judging by the frown on his face, it was plain that something was amiss. He moved over to him and beckoned him into the office. </P> <P> "What's wrong?" he demanded, as soon as the door was closed. </P> <P> Dawson was never the man to choose his words when he had a grievance. That was one of the reasons his employer liked him. He was so rough, and so straightforward. He had a grievance now. </P> <P> "I ain't no sort o' use for these schoolhouse ways," he said, with the added force of an oath. </P> <P> Dave waited for his next attempt. </P> <P> "That skunk Mansell. He's got back to-night. He ain't been on the time-sheet for nigh to a week." </P> <P> "You didn't tell me? Still, he's back." </P> <P> Dave smiled into the other's angry face, and his manner promptly drew an explosion from the hot-headed foreman. </P> <P> "Yes, he's back. But he wouldn't be if I was boss. That's the sort o' Sunday-school racket I ain't no use for. He's back, because you say he's to work right along. Sort of to help him. Yes, he's back. He's been fightin'-drunk fer six nights, and I'd hate to say he's dead sober now." </P> <P> "Yet you signed him on. Why?" </P> <P> "Oh, as to that, he's sober, I guess. But the drink's in him. I tell you, boss, he's rotten&mdash;plumb rotten&mdash;when the drink's in him. I know him. Say&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> But Dave had had enough. </P> <P> "You say he's sober&mdash;well, let it go at that. The man can do his work. That's the important thing to us. Just now we can't bother with his morals. Still, you'd best keep an eye on him." </P> <P> He turned to his books, and Dawson busied himself with the checkers' sheets. For some time both men worked without exchanging a word, and the only interruption was the regular coming of the tally boys, who brought the check slips of the lumber measurements. </P> <P> Through the thin partitions the roar of machinery was incessant, and at frequent intervals the hoarse shouts of the "checkers" reached them. But this disturbed them not at all. It was what they were used to, what they liked to hear, for it told of the work going forward without hitch of any sort. </P> <P> At last the master of the mills looked up from a mass of figures. He had been making careful calculations. </P> <P> "We're short, Dawson," he said briefly. </P> <P> "Short by half a million feet," the foreman returned, without even looking round. </P> <P> "How's Odd doing up the river?" </P> <P> "Good. The machinery's newer, I guess." </P> <P> "Yes. But we can't help that. We've no time for installing new machinery here. Besides, I can't spare the capital." </P> <P> Dawson looked round. </P> <P> "'Tain't that," he said. "We're short of the right stuff in the boom. Lestways, we was yesterday. A hundred and fifty logs. We're doing better to-day. Though not good enough. It's that dogone fever, I guess." </P> <P> "What's in the reserve?" </P> <P> "Fifteen hundred logs now. I've drew on them mighty heavy. We've used up that number twice over a'ready. I'm scairt to draw further. You see, it's a heap better turning out short than using up that. If we're short on the cut only us knows it. If we finish up our reserve, and have to shut down some o' the saws, other folks'll know it, and we ain't lookin' for that trouble." </P> <P> Dave closed his book with a slam. All his recent satisfaction was gone in the discovery of the shortage. He had not suspected it. </P> <P> "I must send up to Mason. It's&mdash;it's hell!" </P> <P> "It's wuss!" </P> <P> Dave swung round on his loyal assistant. </P> <P> "Use every log in the reserve. Every one, mind. We've got to gamble. If Mason keeps us short we're done anyway. Maybe the fever will let up, and things'll work out all right." </P> <P> Dave flung his book aside and stood up. His heavy face was more deeply lined than it had been at the beginning of summer. He looked to be nearer fifty than thirty. The tremendous work and anxiety were telling. </P> <P> "Get out to the shoots," he went on, in a sharp tone of command he rarely used. "I'll see to the tally. Keep 'em right at it. Squeeze the saws, and get the last foot out of 'em. Use the reserve till it's done. We're up against it." </P> <P> Dawson understood. He gave his chief one keen glance, nodded and departed. He knew, no one better, the tremendous burden on the man's gigantic shoulders. </P> <P> Dave watched him go. Then he turned back to the desk. He was not the man to weaken at the vagaries of ill fortune. Such difficulties as at the moment confronted him only stiffened his determination. He would not take a beating. He was ready to battle to the death. He quietly, yet earnestly, cursed the fever to himself, and opened and reread Mason's letter. One paragraph held his attention, and he read it twice over. </P> <BR> <P> "If I'm short on the cut you must not mind too much. I can easily make it up when things straighten out. These hands I'm taking on are mostly 'green.' I can only thank my stars I'm able to find them up here. I can't think where they come from. However, they can work, which is the great thing, and though they need considerable discipline&mdash;they're a rebellious lot&mdash;I mean to make them work." </P> <BR> <P> It was a great thought to the master of the mills that he had such men as Bob Mason in his service. He glowed with satisfaction at the thought, and it largely compensated him for the difficulties besetting him. He put the letter away, and looked over the desk for a memorandum pad. Failing to find what he required, he crossed over to a large cupboard at the far corner of the room. It was roomy, roughly built, to store books and stationery in. The top shelf alone was in use, except that Dawson's winter overcoat hung in the lower part. It was on the top shelf that Dave expected to find the pad he wanted. </P> <P> As he reached the cupboard a terrific crash of thunder shook the building. It was right overhead, and pealed out with nerve-racking force and abruptness. It was the first attack of the threatened storm. The peal died out and all became still again, except for the shriek of the saws beyond the partition walls. He waited listening, and then a strange sound reached him. So used was he to the din of the milling floor that any unusual sound or note never failed to draw and hold his attention. A change of tone in the song of the saws might mean so much. Now this curious sound puzzled him. It was faint, so faint that only his practiced ears could have detected it, yet, to him, it was ominously plain. Suddenly it ceased, but it left him dissatisfied. </P> <P> He was about to resume his search when again he started; and the look he turned upon the door had unmistakable anxiety in it. There it was again, faint, but so painfully distinct. He drew back, half inclined to quit his search, but still he waited, wondering. The noise was as though a farrier's rasp was being lightly passed over a piece of well-oiled steel. At last he made up his mind. He must ascertain its meaning, and he moved to leave the cupboard. Suddenly a terrific grinding noise shrieked harshly above the din of the saws. It culminated in a monstrous thud. Instinctively he sprang back, and was standing half-inside the cupboard when a deafening crash shook the mills to their foundations. There was a fearful rending and smashing of timber. Something struck the walls of the office. It crashed through, and a smashing blow struck the cupboard door and hurled him against the inner wall. He thrust out his arms for protection. The door was fast. He was a prisoner. </P> <P> Now pandemonium reigned. Crash on crash followed in rapid succession. It was as though the office had become the centre of attack for an overwhelming combination of forces. The walls and floor shivered under the terrific onslaught. The very building seemed to totter as though an earthquake were in progress. But at last the end came with a thunder upon the cupboard door, the panels were ripped like tinder, and something vast launched itself through the wrecked woodwork. It struck the imprisoned man in the chest, and in a moment he was pinned to the wall, gasping under ribs bending to the crushing weight which felt to be wringing the very life out of him. </P> <P> A deadly quiet fell as suddenly as the turmoil had arisen, and his quick ears told him that the saws were still, and all work had ceased in the mill. But the pause was momentary. A second later a great shouting arose. Men's voices, loud and hoarse, reached him, and the rushing of heavy feet was significant of the disaster. </P> <P> And he was helpless, a prisoner. </P> <P> He tried to move. His agony was appalling. His ribs felt to be on the verge of cracking under the enormous weight that held him. He raised his arms, but the pain of the effort made him gasp and drop them. Yet he knew he must escape from his prison. He knew that he was needed outside. </P> <P> The shouting grew. It took a definite tone, and became a cry that none could mistake. Dave needed no repetition of it to convince him of the dread truth. The fire spectre loomed before his eyes, and horror nigh drove him to frenzy. </P> <P> In his mind was conjured a picture&mdash;a ghastly picture, such as all his life he had dreaded and shut out of his thoughts. His brain suddenly seemed to grow too big for his head. It grew hot, and his temples hammered. A surge of blood rose with a rush through his great veins. His muscles strung tense, and his hands clenched upon the imprisoning beam. He no longer felt any pain from the crushing weight. He was incapable of feeling anything. It was a moment when mind and body were charged with a maddening force that no other time could command. With his elbows planted against the wall behind him, with his lungs filled with a deep whistling breath, he thrust at the beam with every ounce of his enormous strength put forth. </P> <P> He knew all his imprisonment meant. Not to himself alone. Not to those shouting men outside. It was the mills. Hark! Fire! Fire! The cry was on every hand. The mills&mdash;his mills&mdash;were afire! </P> <P> He struggled as never before in his life had he struggled. He struggled till the sweat poured from his temples, till his hands lacerated, till the veins of his neck stood out like straining ropes, till it seemed as though his lungs must burst. He was spurred by a blind fury, but the beam remained immovable. </P> <P> Hark! The maddening cry filled the air. Fire! Fire! Fire! It was everywhere driving him, urging him, appealing. It rang in his brain with an exquisite torture. It gleamed at him in flaming letters out of the darkness. His mill! </P> <P> Suddenly a cry broke from him as he realized the futility of his effort. It was literally wrung from him in the agony of his soul; nor was he aware that he had spoken. </P> <P> "God, give me strength!" </P> <P> And as the cry went up he hurled himself upon the beam with the fury of a madman. </P> <P> Was it in answer to his prayer? The beam gave. It moved. It was so little, so slight; but it moved. And now, with every fibre braced, he attacked it in one final effort. It gave again. It jolted, it lifted, its rough end tearing the flesh of his chest under his clothing. It tottered for a moment. He struggled on, his bulging eyes and agonized gasping telling plainly of the strain. Inch by inch it gave before him. His muscles felt to be wrenching from the containing tissues, his breathing was spasmodic and whistling, his teeth were grinding together. It gave further, further. Suddenly, with a crash, it fell, the door was wrenched from its hinges, and he was free! </P> <P> He dashed out into the wreck of his office. All was in absolute darkness. He stumbled his way over the debris which covered the floor, and finally reached the shattered remains of the doorway. </P> <P> Now he was no longer in darkness. The milling floor was all too brilliantly lit by the leaping flames down at the "shoot" end of the No. 1 rollers. He waited for nothing, but ran toward the fire. Beyond, dimly outlined in the lurid glow, he could see the men. He saw Dawson and others struggling up the shoot with nozzle and hose, and he put his hands to his mouth and bellowed encouragement. </P> <P> "Five hundred dollars if you get her under!" he cried. </P> <P> If any spur were needed, that voice was sufficient. it was the voice of the master the lumber-jacks knew. </P> <P> Dawson on the lead struggled up, and as he came Dave shouted again. </P> <P> "Now, boy! Sling it hard! And pass the word to pump like hell!" </P> <P> He reached out over the shoot. Dawson threw the nozzle. And as Dave caught it a stream of water belched from the spout. </P> <P> None knew better than he the narrowness of the margin between saving and losing the mills. Another minute and all would have been lost. The whole structure was built of resinous pine, than which there is nothing more inflammable. The fire had got an alarming hold even in those few minutes, and for nearly an hour victory and disaster hung in the balance. Nor did Dave relinquish his post while any doubt remained. It was not until the flames were fully under control that he left the lumber-jacks to complete the work. </P> <P> He was weary&mdash;more weary than he knew. It seemed to him that in that brief hour he had gone through a lifetime of struggle, both mental and physical. He was sore in body and soul. This disaster had come at the worst possible time, and, as a result, he saw in it something like a week's delay. The thought was maddening, and his ill humor found vent in the shortness of his manner when Dawson attempted to draw him aside. </P> <P> "Out with it, man," he exclaimed peevishly. </P> <P> Dawson hesitated. He noticed for the first time the torn condition of his chief's clothes, and the blood stains on the breast of his shirt. Then he blurted out his thankfulness in a tone that made Dave regret his impatience. </P> <P> "I'm a'mighty thankful you're safe, boss," he said fervently. Then, after a pause, "But you&mdash;you got the racket? You're wise to it?" </P> <P> Dave shrugged. Reaction had set in. Nothing seemed to matter, the cause or anything. The mill was safe. He cared for nothing else. </P> <P> "Something broke, I s'pose," he said almost indifferently. </P> <P> "Sure. Suthin' bust. It bust on purpose. Get it?" </P> <P> The foreman's face lit furiously as he made his announcement. </P> <P> Dave turned on him. All his indifference vanished in a twinkling. </P> <P> "Eh? Not&mdash;not an accident?" </P> <P> In an access of loyal rage Dawson seized him by the arm in a nervous clutch, and tried to drag him forward. </P> <P> "Come on," he cried. "Let's find him. It's Mansell!" </P> <P> With a sudden movement Dave flung him off, and the force he used nearly threw the foreman off his feet. His eyes were burning like two live coals. </P> <P> "Come on!" he cried harshly, and Dawson was left to follow as he pleased. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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