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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap19"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XIX </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> IN THE MOUNTAINS </H4> <P> It was Sunday evening. Inside a capacious "dugout" a small group of two men and a girl sat round the stove which had just been lit. </P> <P> In the mountains, even though the heat of August was still at its height, sundown was the signal for the lighting of fires. Dave's lumber camps were high up in the hills, tapping, as they did, the upper forest belts, where grew the vast primordial timbers. In the extreme heat of summer the air was bracing, crisp, and suggested the process of breathing diamonds, but with the setting of the sun a cold shiver from the ancient glaciers above whistled down through the trees and bit into the bones. </P> <P> The daylight still lingered outside, and the cotton-covered windows of the dugout let in just sufficient of it to leave the remoter corners of the hut bathed in rapidly growing shadow. There was a good deal of comfort in the room, though no luxury. The mud cemented walls were whitewashed and adorned with illustrations from the <i>Police Gazette</i>, and other kindred papers. For the most part the furniture was of "home" manufacture. The chairs, and they were all armchairs of sorts, were mere frames with seats of strung rawhide. The table was of the roughest but most solid make, strong enough to be used as a chopping-block, and large enough for an extra bed to be made down upon it. There was a large cupboard serving the dual purpose of larder and pantry, and, in addition to the square cook-stove, the room was heated by a giant wood stove. The only really orthodox piece of furniture was the small writing-desk. </P> <P> For a dugout it was capacious, and, unlike the usual dugout, it possessed three inner rooms backing into the hill against which it was built. One of these was a storeroom for dynamite and other camp equipment, one was a bedroom, and the other was an armory. The necessity for the latter might be questioned, but Bob Mason, the camp "boss," the sole authority over a great number of lumber-jacks, more than a hundred and fifty miles from the faintest semblance of civilization, was content that it should be there. </P> <P> The three faces were serious enough as they gazed down in silence at the glowing, red-hot patch in the iron roof of the stove, and watched it spread, wider and wider, under the forced draught of the open damper. They had been silent for some moments, and before that one of them had practically monopolized the talk. It was Betty who had done most of the talking. Bronzed with the mountain air and sun, her cheeks flushed with interest and excitement, her sweet brown eyes aglow, she had finished recounting to her uncle and Bob Mason a significant incident that had occurred to her that afternoon on her way from the sick camp to the dugout. </P> <P> Walking through a patch of forest which cut the sick quarters off from the main, No. 1, camp, she had encountered two lumber-jacks, whom she had no recollection of having seen before. </P> <P> "They weren't like lumber-jacks," she explained, "except for their clothes. You can't mistake a lumber-jack's manner and speech, particularly when he is talking to a girl. He's so self-conscious and&mdash;and shy. Well, these men were neither. Their speech was the same as ours might be, and their faces, well, they were good-looking fellows, and might never have been out of a city. I never saw anybody look so out of place, as they did, in their clothes. There was no beating about the bush with them. They simply greeted me politely, asked me if I was Miss Somers, and, when I told them I was, calmly warned me to leave the hills without delay&mdash;not later than to-morrow night. I asked them for an explanation, but they only laughed, not rudely, and repeated their warning, adding that you, uncle, had better go too, or they would not be answerable for the consequences. I reminded them of the sick folk, but they only laughed at that too. One of them cynically reminded me they were all 'jacks' and were of no sort of consequence whatever, in fact, if a few of them happened to die off no one would care. He made me angry, and I told them we should certainly care. He promptly retorted, very sharply, that they had not come there to hold any sort of debate on the matter, but to give me warning. He said that his reason in doing so was simply that I was a girl, and that you, uncle, were a much-respected parson, and they had no desire that any harm should come to either of us. That was all. After that they turned away and went off into the forest, taking an opposite direction to the camp." </P> <P> Mason was the first to break the silence that followed the girl's story. </P> <P> "It's serious," he said, speaking with his chin in his hands and his elbows resting on his parted knees. </P> <P> "The warning?" inquired Chepstow, with a quick glance at the other's thoughtful face. </P> <P> Mason nodded. </P> <P> "I've been watching this thing for weeks past," he said, "and the worst of it is I can't make up my mind as to the meaning of it. There's something afoot, but&mdash;&mdash; Do you know I've sent six letters down the river to Dave, and none of them have been answered? My monthly budget of orders is a week overdue. That's not like Dave. How long have you been up here? Seven weeks, ain't it? I've only had three letters from Dave in that time." </P> <P> The foreman flung himself back in his chair with a look of perplexity on his broad, open face. </P> <P> "What can be afoot?" asked Chepstow, after a pause. "The men are working well." </P> <P> "They're working as well as 'scabs' generally do," Mason complained. "And thirty per cent, are 'scabs,' now. They're all slackers. They're none of them lumber-jacks. They haven't the spirit of a 'jack.' I have to drive 'em from morning till night. Oh, by the way, parson, that reminds me, I've got a note for you. It's from the sutler. I know what's in it, that is, I can guess." He drew it from his pocket, handed it across to him. "It's to tell you you can't have the store for service to-night. The boys want it. They're going to have a singsong there, or something of the sort." </P> <P> The churchman's eyes lit. </P> <P> "But he promised me. I've made arrangements. The place is fixed up for it. They can have it afterward, but&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Hadn't you better read the note, uncle?" Betty said gently. She detected the rising storm in his vehemence. </P> <P> He turned at once to the note. It was short, and its tone, though apologetic, was decided beyond all question. </P> <BR> <P> "You can't have the store to-night. I'm sorry, but the boys insist on having it themselves. You will understand I am quite powerless when you remember they are my customers." </P> <BR> <P> Tom Chepstow read the message from Jules Lieberstein twice over. Then he passed it across to Mason. Only the brightness of his eyes told of his feelings. He was annoyed, and his fighting spirit was stirring. </P> <P> "Well, what are you going to do?" Mason inquired, as he passed the paper on to Betty in response to her silent request. </P> <P> "Do? Do?" Chepstow cried, his keen eyes shining angrily. "Why, I'll hold service there, of course. Jules can't give a thing, and, at the last minute, take it away like that. I've had the room prepared and everything. I shall go and see him. I&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "The trouble&mdash;whatever it is&mdash;is in that note, too," Betty interrupted, returning him the paper with the deliberate intention of checking his outburst. </P> <P> Mason gave her a quick glance of approval. Though he did not approve of women in a lumber camp, Betty's quiet capacity, her gentle womanliness, with her great strength of character and keenness of perception underlying it, pleased him immensely. He admired her, and curiously enough frequently found himself discussing affairs of the camp with her as though she were there for the purpose of sharing the burden of his responsibilities. In the ordinary course this would not have happened, but she had come at a moment when his difficulties were many and trying. And at such a time her ready understanding had become decided moral support which was none the less welcome for the fact that he failed to realize it. </P> <P> "You're right," he nodded. "There's something doing. What's that?" </P> <P> All three glanced at the door. And there was a look of uneasiness in each which they could not have explained. Mason hurried across the room with Chepstow at his heels. </P> <P> Outside, night was closing in rapidly. A gray, misty twilight held the mountain world in a gloomy shroud. The vast hills, and the dark woodland belts, loomed hazily through the mist. But the deathly stillness was broken by the rattle of wheels and the beating of hoofs upon the hard trail. The vehicle, whatever it was, had passed the dugout, and the sounds of it were already dying away in the direction of the distant camp. </P> <P> "There's a fog coming down," observed Mason, as they returned to the stove. </P> <P> "That was a buckboard," remarked the parson. </P> <P> "And it was traveling fast and light," added Betty. </P> <P> And each remark indicated the point of view of the speaker. </P> <P> Mason thought less of the vehicle than he did of the fog. Any uneasiness he felt was for his work rather than the trouble he felt to be brewing. A heavy fog was always a deterrent, and, at this time of year, fogs were not unfrequent in the hills. Chepstow was bent on the identity of the arrival, while Betty sought the object of it. </P> <P> Mason did not return to his seat. He stood by the stove for a moment thinking. Then he moved across to his pea-jacket hanging on the wall and put it on, at the same time slipping a revolver into his pocket. Then he pulled a cloth cap well down over his eyes. </P> <P> "I'll get a good look around the camp," he said quietly. </P> <P> "Going to investigate?" Chepstow inquired. </P> <P> "Yes. There have been too many arrivals lately&mdash;one way and another. I'm sick of 'em." </P> <P> Betty looked up into his face with round smiling eyes. </P> <P> "You need a revolver&mdash;to make investigations?" she asked lightly. </P> <P> The lumberman looked her squarely in the eyes for a moment, and there he read something of the thought which had prompted her question. He smiled back at her as he replied. </P> <P> "It's a handy thing to have about you when dealing with the scum of the earth. Lumbermen on this continent are not the beau ideal of gentlefolk, but when you are dealing with the class of loafer such as I have been forced to engage lately, well, the real lumber-jack becomes an angel of gentleness by contrast. A gun doesn't take up much room in your pocket, and it gives an added feeling of security. You see, if there's any sort of trouble brewing the man in authority is not likely to have a healthy time. By the way, parson, I'd suggest you give up this service to-night. Of course it's up to you, I don't want to interfere. You see, if the boys want that store, and you've got it&mdash;why&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> He broke off with a suggestive shake of the head. Betty watched her uncle's face. </P> <P> She saw him suddenly bend down and fling the damper wider open, and in response the stove roared fiercely. He sat with his keen eyes fixed on the glowing aperture, watching the rapidly brightening light that shone through. The suggestion of fiery rage suited his mood at the moment. </P> <P> But his anger was not of long duration. His was an impetuous disposition generally controlled in the end by a kindly, Christian spirit, and, a few moments later, when he spoke, there was the mildness of resignation in his words. </P> <P> "Maybe you're right, Mason," he said calmly. "You understand these boys up here better than I do. Besides, I don't want to cause you any unnecessary trouble, and I see by your manner you're expecting something serious." Then he added regretfully: "But I should have liked to hold that service. And I would have done it, in spite of our Hebrew friend's sordid excuse. However&mdash;&mdash; By the way, can I be of any service to you?" He pointed at the lumberman's bulging pocket. "If it's necessary to carry that, two are always better than one." </P> <P> Betty sighed contentedly. She was glad that her uncle had been advised to give up the service. Her woman's quick wit had taken alarm for him, and&mdash;well, she regarded her simple-minded uncle as her care, she felt she was responsible to her aunt for him. It was the strong maternal instinct in her which made her yearn to protect and care for those whom she loved. Now she waited anxiously for the foreman's reply. To her astonishment it came with an alacrity and ready acceptance which further stirred her alarm. </P> <P> "Thanks," he said. "As you say two&mdash;&mdash; Here, slip this other gun into your coat pocket." And he reached the fellow revolver to his own from its holster upon the wall. "Now let's get on." </P> <P> He moved toward the door. Chepstow was in the act of following when Betty's voice stopped him. </P> <P> "What time will you get back?" she inquired. "How shall I know that&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> She broke off. Her brown eyes were fixed questioningly upon the lumberman's face. </P> <P> "We'll be around in an hour," said Mason confidently "Meanwhile, Miss Betty, after we're gone, just set those bars across the door. And don't let anybody in till you hear either mine or your uncle's voice." </P> <P> The girl understood him, she always understood without asking a lot of questions. She was outwardly quite calm, without the faintest trace of the alarm she really felt. She had no fear for herself. At that moment she was thinking of her uncle. </P> <P> After the men had gone she closed the heavy log door but did not bar it as she had been advised; then, returning to the stove, she sat down and took up some sewing, prepared to await their return with absolute faith and confidence in the lumberman's assurance. </P> <P> She stitched on in the silence, and soon her thoughts drifted back to the man who had so strangely become the lodestone of her life. The trouble suggested by Mason must be his trouble. She wondered what could possibly happen on top of the fever, which she and her uncle had been fighting for the past weeks, that could further jeopardize his contract. She could see only one thing, and her quickness of perception in all matters relating to the world she knew drove her straight to the reality. She knew it was a general strike Mason feared. She knew it by the warning she had received, by the foreman's manner when he prepared to leave the hut. </P> <P> She was troubled. In imagination she saw the great edifice Dave had so ardently labored upon toppling about his ears. In her picture she saw him great, calm, resolute, standing amidst the wreck, with eyes looking out straight ahead full of that great fighting strength which was his, his heart sore and bruised but his lips silent, his great courage and purpose groping for the shattered foundations that the rebuilding might not be delayed an instant. It was her delight and pride to think of him thus, whilst, with every heart-beat, a nervous dread for him shook her whole body. She tried to think wherein she could help this man who was more to her than her own life. She bitterly hated her own womanhood as she thought of those two men bearing arms at that instant in his interests. Why could not she? But she knew that privilege was denied her. She threw her sewing aside as though the effeminacy of it sickened her, and rose from her seat and paced the room. "Oh, Dave, Dave, why can't I help you?" It was the cry that rang through her troubled brain with every moment that the little metal clock on the desk ticked away, while she waited for the men-folk's return. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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