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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap18"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XVIII </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> FACE TO FACE </H4> <P> For the few remaining hours of night Dave took no leisure. He pressed forward the work of repairing the damage, with a zest that set Joel Dawson herding his men on to almost superhuman feats. There was no rest taken, no rest asked. And it said something for the devotion of these lumber-jacks to their employer that no "grouse" or murmur was heard. </P> <P> The rest which the doctor had ordered Dave to take did not come until long after his breakfast hour, and then only it came through sheer physical inability to return to his work. His breakfast was brought to the office, and he made a weak pretense of eating. Then, as he rose from his seat, for the first time in his life he nearly fainted. He saved himself, however, by promptly sitting down again, and in a few seconds his head fell forward on his chest and he was sound asleep, lost in the dreamless slumber of exhaustion. </P> <P> Two hours later Dawson put his head in through the office doorway. He saw the sleeping man and retreated at once. He understood. For himself, he had not yet come to the end of his tether. Besides, Simon Odd would relieve him presently. Then, too, there were others upon whom he could depend for help. </P> <P> It was noon when a quiet tap came at the office door. Dave's old mother peeped in. She had heard of the smash and was fearful for her boy. Seeing him asleep she tiptoed across the room to him. She had met the postmaster on her way, and brought the mail with her. Now she deposited it on his desk and stood looking down at the great recumbent figure with eyes of the deepest love and anxiety. All signs of his lacerated chest were concealed and she was spared what would have been to her a heartbreaking sight. Her gentle heart only took in the unutterably weary attitude of the sleeper. That was sufficient to set her shaking her gray head and sighing heavily. The work, she told herself sadly, was killing him. Nor did she know at the moment how near to the truth she was. </P> <P> For a moment she bent over him, and her aged lips lightly touched his mass of wiry hair. To the world he might be unsightly, he might be ungainly, he might be&mdash;well, all he believed himself to be; to her he possessed every beauty, every virtue a doting mother can bestow upon her offspring. </P> <P> She passed out of the office as silently as she came, and the man's stertorous breathing rose and fell steadily, the only sound in that room of death. </P> <P> Two hours later he awoke with a start. A serving girl blundered into the room with a basket of food. His mother had sent over his dinner. </P> <P> The girl's apologies were profuse. </P> <P> "I jest didn't know, Mr. Dave. I'm sure sorry. Your ma sent me over with these things, an' she said as I was to set 'em right out for you. Y' see she didn't just say you was sleepin', she&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "All right, Maggie," Dave said kindly. Then he looked at his watch, and to his horror found it was two o'clock. He had slept the entire morning through. </P> <P> He swiftly rose from his seat and stretched himself. He was stiff and sore, and that stretch reminded him painfully of his wounded chest. Then his eyes fell upon the ominous pile of furs in the corner. Ah, there was that to see to. </P> <P> He watched the girl set out his dinner and remembered he was hungry. And the moment she left the room he fell upon the food with avidity. Yes, he felt better&mdash;much better, and he was glad. He could return to his work, and see that everything possible was done, and then there was&mdash;that other matter. </P> <P> He had just finished his food when Dr. Symons came in with an apology on his lips. </P> <P> "A bit late," he exclaimed. "Sorry I couldn't make it before. Ah," his quick eyes fell upon the pile of furs. "Dead?" he inquired. </P> <P> Dave nodded. </P> <P> "Sure," the other rattled on. "Had to be. Knew it. Well, there are more good sawyers to be had. Let's look at your chest." </P> <P> Dave submitted, and then the doctor, at the lumberman's request, went off with a rush to see about the arrangements for the sawyer's burial. </P> <P> He had hardly left the place, and Dave was just thinking of going across to the mill again, when there was another call. He was standing at the window. He wanted to return at once to his work, but for some, to him, unaccountable reason he was a prey to a curious reluctance; it was a form of inertia he had never before experienced, and it half annoyed him, yet was irresistibly fascinating. He stood there more or less dreamily, watching the buzzing flies as they hurled themselves against the dirty glass panes. He idly tried to count them. He was not in the least interested, but at that moment, as a result of his wound and his weariness, his brain felt that it needed the rest of such trivialities. </P> <P> It was while occupied in this way that he saw Jim Truscott approaching, and the sight startled him into a mental activity that just then his best interests in the mills failed to stir him to. </P> <P> Then Mansell had told the truth. Jim had not gone east as he had assured Tom Chepstow it was his intention to do. Why was he coming to him now? A grim thought passed through his mind. Was it the fascination which the scene of a crime always has for the criminal? He sat down at his desk, and, when his visitor's knock came, appeared to be busy with his mail. </P> <P> Truscott came in. Dave did not look up, but the tail of his eye warned him of a peculiarly furtive manner in his visitor. </P> <P> "Half a minute," he said, in a preoccupied tone. "Just sit down." </P> <P> The other silently obeyed, while Dave tore open a telegram at haphazard, and immediately became really absorbed in its contents. </P> <P> It was a wire from his agent in Winnipeg, and announced that the railroad strike had been settled, and the news would be public property in twenty-four hours. It further told him that he hoped in future he would have no further hitch to report in the transportation of the Malkern timber, and that now he could cope with practically any quantity Dave might ship down. The news was very satisfactory, except for the reminder it gave him of the disquieting knowledge that his mills were temporarily wrecked, and he could not produce the quantities the agent hoped to ship. At least he could not produce them for some days, and&mdash;yes, there was that shortage from the hills to cope with, too. </P> <P> This brought him to the recollection that the author of half his trouble was in the office, and awaiting his pleasure. He turned at once to his visitor, and surveyed him closely from head to foot. </P> <P> Truscott was sitting with his back to the pile of rugs concealing the dead sawyer. Presently their eyes met, and in the space of that glance the lumberman's thought flowed swiftly. Nor, when he spoke, did his tone suggest either anger or resentment, merely a cool inquiry. </P> <P> "You&mdash;changed your mind?" he said. </P> <P> "What about?" Truscott was on the defensive at once. </P> <P> "You didn't go east, then?" </P> <P> The other's gaze shifted at once, and his manner suggested annoyance with himself for his display. </P> <P> "Oh, yes. I went as far as Winnipeg. Guess I got hung up by the strike, so&mdash;so I came back again. Who told you?" </P> <P> "Tom Chepstow." </P> <P> Truscott nodded. It was some moments before either spoke again. There was an awkwardness between them which seemed to increase every second. Truscott was thinking of their last meeting, and&mdash;something else. Dave was estimating the purpose of this visit. He understood that the man had a purpose, and probably a very definite one. </P> <P> Suddenly the lumberman rose from his seat as though about to terminate the interview, and his movement promptly had the effect he desired. Truscott detained him at once. </P> <P> "You had a bad smash, last night. That's why I came over." </P> <P> Dave smiled. It was just the glimmer of a smile, and frigid as a polar sunbeam. As he made no answer, the other was forced to go on. </P> <P> "I'm sorry, Dave," he continued, with a wonderful display of sincerity. Then he hesitated, but finally plunged into a labored apology. "I dare say Parson Tom has told you something of what I said to him the night he went away. He went up to clear out the fever for you, didn't he? He's a good chap. I hoped he'd tell you anyway. I just&mdash;hadn't the face to come to you myself after what had happened between us. Look here, Dave, you've treated me 'white' since then&mdash;I mean about that mill of mine. You see&mdash;well, I can't just forget old days and old friendships. They're on my conscience bad. I want to straighten up. I want to tell you how sorry I am for what I've done and said in the past. You'd have done right if you'd broken my neck for me. I went east as I said, and all these things hung on my conscience like&mdash;like cobwebs, and I'm determined to clear 'em away. Dave, I want to shake hands before I go for good. I want you to try and forget. The strike's over now, and I'm going away to-day. I&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> He broke off. It seemed as though he had suddenly realized the frigidity of Dave's silence and the hollow ring of his own professions. It is doubtful if he were shamed into silence. It was simply that there was no encouragement to go on, and, in spite of his effrontery, he was left confused. </P> <P> "You're going to-day?" Dave's calmness gave no indication of his feelings. Nor did he offer to shake hands. </P> <P> Truscott nodded. Then&mdash; </P> <P> "The smash&mdash;was it a very bad one?" </P> <P> "Pretty bad." </P> <P> "It&mdash;it won't interfere with your work&mdash;I hope?" </P> <P> "Some." </P> <P> Dave's eyes were fixed steadily upon his visitor, who let his gaze wander. There was something painfully disconcerting in the lumberman's cold regard, and in the brevity of his replies. </P> <P> "Doc Symons told me about it," the other went on presently. "He was fetched here in the night. He said you were hurt. But you seem all right." </P> <P> Dave made it very hard for him. There were thoughts in the back of his head, questions that must be answered. For an instant a doubt swept over him, and his restless eyes came to a standstill on the rugged face of the master of the mills. But he saw nothing there to reassure him, or to give him cause for alarm. It was the same as he had always known it, only perhaps the honest gray eyes lacked their kindly twinkle. </P> <P> "Yes, I'm all right. Doc talks a heap." </P> <P> "Did he lie?" </P> <P> Dave shrugged. </P> <P> "It depends what he calls hurt. Some of the boys were hurt." </P> <P> "Ah. He didn't mention them." </P> <P> Again the conversation languished. </P> <P> "I didn't hear how the smash happened," Truscott went on presently. </P> <P> Dave's eyes suddenly became steely. </P> <P> "It was Mansell's saw. Something broke. Then we got afire. I just got out&mdash;a miracle. I was in the tally room." </P> <P> The lumberman's brevity had in it the clip of snapping teeth. If Truscott noticed it, it suited him to ignore it. He went on quickly. His interest was rising and sweeping him on. </P> <P> "On Mansell's saw!" he said. "When I heard you'd got him working I wondered. He's bad for drink. Was he drunk?" </P> <P> Dave's frigidity was no less for the smile that accompanied his next words. </P> <P> "Maybe he'd been drinking." </P> <P> But Truscott was not listening. He was thinking ahead, and his next question came with almost painful sharpness. </P> <P> "Did he get&mdash;smashed?" </P> <P> "A bit." </P> <P> "Ah. Was he able to account for the&mdash;accident?" </P> <P> The man was leaning forward in his anxiety, and his question was literally hurled at the other. There was a look, too, in his bleared eyes which was a mixture of devilishness and fear. All these things Dave saw. But he displayed no feeling of any sort. </P> <P> "Accidents don't need explaining," he said slowly. "But I didn't say this was an accident. Here, get your eye on that." </P> <P> He drew a piece of saw-blade from his pocket. It was the piece he had picked up in the mill. </P> <P> "Guess it's the bit where it's 'collared' by the driving arm." </P> <P> Truscott examined the steel closely. </P> <P> "Well?" </P> <P> "It's&mdash;just smashed?" Truscott replied questioningly. </P> <P> Dave shook his head. </P> <P> "You can see where it's been filed." </P> <P> Truscott reexamined it and nodded. </P> <P> "I see now. God!" </P> <P> The exclamation was involuntary. It came at the sudden realization of how well his work had been carried out, and what that work meant. Dave, watching, grasped something of its meaning. There was that within him which guided him surely in the mental workings of his fellow man. He was looking into the very heart of this man who had so desperately tried to injure him. And what he saw, though he was angered, stirred him to a strange pity. </P> <P> "It's pretty mean when you think of it," he said slowly. "Makes you think some, doesn't it? Makes you wonder what folks are made of. If you hated, could you have done it? Could you have deliberately set out to ruin a fellow&mdash;to take his life? The man that did this thing figured on just that." </P> <P> "Did he say so?" </P> <P> Truscott's face had paled, and a haunting fear looked out of his eyes. It was the thought of discovery that troubled him. </P> <P> Dave ignored the interruption, and went on with his half-stern, half-pitying regard fixed upon the other. </P> <P> "Had things gone right with him, and had the fire got a fair hold, nothing could have saved us." He shook his head. "That's a mean hate for a man I've never harmed. For a man I've always helped. You couldn't hate like that, Truscott? You couldn't turn on the man that had so helped you? It's a mean spirit; so mean that I can't hate him for it. I'm sorry&mdash;that's all." </P> <P> "He must be a devil." </P> <P> The fear had gone out of Truscott's eyes. All his cool assurance had returned. Dave was blaming the sawyer, and he was satisfied. </P> <P> The lumberman shrugged his great shoulders. </P> <P> "Maybe he is. I don't know. Maybe he's only a poor weak foolish fellow whose wits are all mussed up with brandy, and so he just doesn't know what he's doing." </P> <P> "The man who filed that steel knew what he was doing," cried Truscott. </P> <P> "Don't blame him," replied Dave&mdash;his deep voice full and resonant like an organ note. </P> <P> But Truscott had achieved his object, and he felt like expanding. Dave knew nothing. Suspected nothing. Mansell had played the game for him&mdash;or perhaps&mdash;&mdash; </P> <P> "I tell you it was a diabolical piece of villainy on the part of a cur who&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Don't raise your voice, lad," said Dave, with a sudden solemnity that promptly silenced the other. "Reach round behind you and lift that fur robe." </P> <P> He had risen from his seat and stood pointing one knotty finger at the corner where the dead man was lying. His great figure was full of dignity, his manner had a command in it that was irresistible to the weaker man. </P> <P> Truscott turned, not knowing what to expect. For a second a shudder passed over him. It spent itself as he beheld nothing but the pile of furs. But he made no attempt to reach the robe until Dave's voice, sternly commanding, urged him again. </P> <P> "Lift it," he cried. </P> <P> And the other obeyed even against his will. He reached out, while a great unaccountable fear took hold of him and shook him. His hand touched the robe. He paused. Then his fingers closed upon its furry edge. He lifted it, and lifting it, beheld the face of the dead sawyer. Strangely enough, the glazed eyes were open, and the head was turned, so that they looked straight into the eyes of the living. </P> <P> The hand that held the robe shook. The nerveless fingers relinquished their hold, and it fell back to its place and shut out the sight. But it was some moments before the man recovered himself. When he did so he rose from his chair and moved as far from the dead man as possible. This brought him near the door, and Dave followed him up. </P> <P> "He's dead!" </P> <P> Truscott whispered the words half unconsciously, and the tone of his voice was almost unrecognizable. It sounded like inquiry, yet he had no need to ask the question. </P> <P> "Yes, he's dead&mdash;poor fellow," said Dave solemnly. </P> <P> Then, after a long pause, the other dragged his courage together. He looked up into the face above him. </P> <P> "Did&mdash;did he say why he did it&mdash;or was he&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> It was a stumbling question, which Dave did not let him complete. </P> <P> "Yes, he told me all&mdash;the whole story of it. That's the door, lad. You won't need to shake hands&mdash;now." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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