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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap20"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XX </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> THE CHURCH MILITANT </H4> <P> Outside the hut Mason led the way. The mist had deepened into a white fog which seemed to deaden all sound, so quiet was everything, so silent the grim woods all around. It had settled so heavily that it was almost impossible to see anything beyond the edge of the trail. There was just a hazy shadow, like a sudden depth of mist, to mark the woodland borders; beyond this all was gray and desolate. </P> <P> The dugout was built at the trail-side, a trail which had originally been made for travoying logs, but had now become the main trail linking up the camp with the eastern world. The camp itself&mdash;No. 1, the main camp&mdash;was further in the woods to the west, a distance of nearly a mile and a half by trail, but not more than half a mile through the woods. It was this short cut the two men took now. They talked as they went, but in hushed tones. It was as though the gray of the fog, and the knowledge of their mission weighed heavily, inspiring them with a profound feeling of caution. </P> <P> "You've not had any real trouble before?" Chepstow asked. "I mean trouble such as would serve you with a key to what is going on now?" </P> <P> "Oh, we've had occasional 'rackets,'" said Mason easily. "But nothing serious&mdash;nothing to guide us in this. No, we've got to find this out. You see there's no earthly reason for trouble that I know. The boys are paid jolly well, a sight better than I would pay them if this was my outfit. The hours are exacting, I admit. This huge contract has caused that. It's affected us in most every way, but Dave is no niggard, and the inducement has been made more than proportionate, so there's no kick coming on that head. Where before axemen's work was merely a full eight hours, it now takes 'em something like nine and ten, and work like the devil to get through even in that time. But their wages are simply out of sight. Do you know, there are men in this camp drawing from four to five dollars a day clear of food and shelter? Why, the income of some of them is positively princely." </P> <P> "What is it you think is on foot?" Chepstow demanded, as he buttoned his coat close about his neck to keep out the saturating mist. Then, as his companion didn't answer at once, he added half to himself, "It's no wonder there's fever with these mists around." </P> <P> Bob Mason paid no heed to the last remark. The fever had lost interest for him in the storm-clouds he now saw ahead. Hitherto he had not put his thoughts on the matter into concrete form. He had not given actual expression to his fears. There had been so little to guide him. Besides, he had had no sound reason to fear anything, that is no definite reason. It was his work to feel and understand the pulse of the men under him, and it largely depended on the accuracy of his reading whether or not the work under his charge ran smoothly. He had felt for some time that something was wrong, and Betty's story had confirmed his feeling. He was some moments before he answered, but when he did it was with calm decision. </P> <P> "Organized strike," he said at last. </P> <P> Tom Chepstow was startled. The words "organized strike" had an unpleasant sound. He suddenly realized the isolation of these hill camps, the lawless nature of the lumber-jacks. He felt that a strike up here in the mountains would be a very different thing from a strike in the heart of civilization, and that was bad enough. The fact that the tone of Mason's pronouncement had suggested no alarm made him curious to hear his views upon the position. </P> <P> "The reason?" he demanded. </P> <P> The lumberman shrugged. </P> <P> "Haven't a notion." </P> <P> They tramped on in silence for some time, the sound of their footsteps muffled in the fog. The gray was deepening, and, with oncoming night, their surroundings were rapidly becoming more and more obscure. Presently the path opened out into the wide clearing occupied by No. 1 camp. Here shadowy lights were visible in the fog, but beyond that nothing could be seen. Mason paused and glanced carefully about him. </P> <P> "This fog is useful," he said, with a short laugh. "As we don't want to advertise our presence we'll take to the woods opposite, and work our way round to the far side of the camp." </P> <P> "Why the far side?" </P> <P> "The store is that way. And&mdash;yes, I think the store is our best plan. Jules Lieberstein is a time-serving ruffian, and will doubtless lend himself to any wildcat scheme of his customers. Besides, this singsong of the boys sounds suggestive to me." </P> <P> "I see." Chepstow was quick to grasp the other's reasoning. The singsong had suggested nothing to him before. </P> <P> Now they turned from the open and hastened across to the wood-belt. As they entered its gloomy aisles, the fog merged into a pitchy blackness that demanded all the lumberman's woodcraft to negotiate. The parson hung close to his heels, and frequently had to assure himself of his immediate presence by reaching out and touching him. A quarter of an hour's tramp brought them to a halt. </P> <P> "We must get out of this now," whispered Mason. "We are about opposite the store. I've no doubt that buckboard will be somewhere around. I've a great fancy to see it." </P> <P> They moved on, this time with greater caution than before. Leaving the forest they found the fog had become denser. The glow of the camp lights was no longer visible, just a blank gray wall obscured everything. However, this was no deterrent to Mason. He moved along with extreme caution, stepping as lightly and quietly as possible. He wished to avoid observation, and though the fog helped him in this it equally afforded the possibility of his inadvertently running into some one. Once this nearly happened. His straining ears caught the faint sound of footsteps approaching, and he checked his companion only just in the nick of time to let two heavy-footed lumber-jacks cross their course directly in front of them. They were talking quite unguardedly as they went, and seemed absorbed in the subject of their conversation. </P> <P> "Y're a fool, a measly-headed fool, Tyke," one of them was saying, with a heat that held the two men listening. "Y'ain't got nuthin' to lose. We ain't got no kick comin' from us; I'll allow that, sure. But if by kickin' we ken drain a few more dollars out of him I say kick, an' kick good an' hard. Them as is fixin' this racket knows, they'll do the fancy work. We'll jest set around an'&mdash;an' take the boodle as it comes." </P> <P> The man laughed harshly. The shrewdness of his argument pleased him mightily. </P> <P> "But what's it for, though?" asked the other, the man addressed as "Tyke." "Is it a raise in wages?" </P> <P> "Say, ain't you smart?" retorted the first speaker. "Sure, it's wages. A raise. What else does folks strike for?" </P> <P> "But&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Cut it. You ain't no sort o' savee. You ain't got nuthin' but to set around&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> The voice died away in the distance, and Mason turned to his companion. </P> <P> "Not much doubt about that. The man objecting is 'Tyke' Bacon, one of our oldest hands. A thoroughly reliable axeman of the real sort. The other fellow's voice I didn't recognize. I'd say he's likely one of the scallywags I've picked up lately. This trouble seems to have been brewing ever since I was forced to pick up chance loafers who floated into camp." </P> <P> Chepstow had no comment to make, yet the matter was fraught with the keenest interest for him. Mason's coolness did not deceive him, and, even with his limited experience of the men of these camps, the thing was more than significant. Caution became more than ever necessary now as they neared their destination, and in a few moments a ruddy glow of light on the screen of fog told them they had reached the sutler's store. They came to a halt in rear of the building, and it was difficult to estimate their exact position. However, the sound of a powerful, clarion-like voice reached them through the thickness of the log walls, and the lumberman at once proceeded to grope his way along in the hope of finding a window or some opening through which it would be possible to distinguish the words of the speaker. At last his desire was fulfilled. A small break in the heavy wall of lateral logs proved to be a cotton-covered pivot-window. It was closed, but the light shone through it, and the speaker's words were plainly audible. Chepstow closed up behind him, and both men craned forward listening. </P> <P> Some one was addressing what was apparently a meeting of lumber-jacks. The words and voice were not without refinement, and, obviously, were not belonging to a lumberman. Moreover, it struck the listeners that this man, whoever he be, was not addressing a meeting for the first time. In fact Mason had no difficulty in placing him in the calling to which he actually belonged. He was discoursing with all the delectable speciousness of a regular strike organizer. He was one of those products of trade unionism who are always ready to create dissatisfaction where labour's contentment is most nourishing to capital&mdash;that is, at a price. He is not necessarily a part of trade unionism, but exists because trade unionism has created a market for his wares, and made him possible. </P> <P> Just now he was lending all his powers of eloquence and argument to the threadbare quackery of his kind; the iniquity of the possession of wealth acquired by the sweat of a thousand moderately honest brows. It was the old, old dish garnished and hashed up afresh, whose poisonous odors he was wafting into the nostrils of his ignorant audience. </P> <P> He was dealing with men as ignorant and hard as the timber it was their life to cut, and he painted the picture in all the crude, lurid colors most effective to their dull senses. The blessings of liberal employment, of ample wages, the kindly efforts made to add to their happiness and improve their lives were ignored, even rigorously shut out of his argument, or so twisted as to appear definite sins against the legions of labor. For such is the method of those who live upon the hard-earned wages of the unthinking worker. </P> <P> For some minutes the two men listened to the burden of the man's unctuous periods, but at last an exclamation of disgust broke from the lumberman. </P> <P> "Makes you sick!" he whispered in his companion's ear. "And they'll believe it all. Here!" He drew a penknife from his pocket and passed the blade gently through the cotton of the window. The aperture was small, he dared not make it bigger for fear of detection, but, by pressing one eye close up against it, it was sufficient for him to obtain a full view of the room. </P> <P> The place was packed with lumber-jacks, all with their keenest attention upon the speaker, who was addressing them from the reading-desk Tom Chepstow had set up for the purposes of his Sunday evening service. The desecration drew a smothered curse from the lumberman. He was not a religious man, but that an agitator such as this should stand at the parson's desk was too much for him. He scrutinized the fellow closely, nor did he recognize him. He was a stranger to the camp, and his round fat face set his blood surging. Besides this man there were three others sitting behind him on the table the parson had set there for the purposes of administering Holy Communion, and the sight maddened him still more. Two of these he recognized as laborers he had recently taken on his "time sheet," but the other was a stranger to him. </P> <P> At last he drew back and made way for his companion. </P> <P> "Get a good look, parson," he said. Then he added with an angry laugh, "I've thought most of what you'll feel like saying. I'd&mdash;I'd like to riddle the hide of that son-of-a-dog's-wife. We did well to get around. We're in for a heap bad time, I guess." </P> <P> Chepstow took his place. Mason heard him mutter something under his breath, and knew at once that the use of his reading-desk and Communion table had struck home. </P> <P> But the sacrilege was promptly swept from the parson's mind. The speaker was forgotten, the matter of the coming strike, even, was almost forgotten. He had recognized the third man on the table, the man who was a stranger to Mason, and he swung round on the lumberman. </P> <P> "What's Jim Truscott doing there?" he demanded in a sharp whisper. </P> <P> "Who? Jim Truscott?" </P> <P> For a second a puzzled expression set Mason frowning. Then his face cleared. "Say, isn't that the fellow who ran that mill&mdash;he's a friend of&mdash;Dave's?" </P> <P> But the other had turned back to the window. And, at that moment, Mason's attention was also caught by the sudden turn the agitator's talk had taken. </P> <P> "Now, my friends," he was saying, "this is the point I would impress on you. Hitherto we have cut off all communication of a damaging nature to ourselves with the tyrant at Malkern, but the time has come when even more stringent measures must be taken. We wish to conduct our negotiations with the mill-owner himself, direct. We must put before him our proposals. We want no go-betweens. As things stand we cannot reach him, and the reason is the authority of his representative up here. Such obstacles as he can put in our way will be damaging to our cause, and we will not tolerate them. He must be promptly set aside, and, by an absolute stoppage of work, we can force the man from Malkern to come here so that we can talk to him, and insist upon our demands. We must talk to him as from worker to fellow worker. He must be forced to listen to reason. Experience has long since taught me that such is the only way to deal with affairs of this sort. Now, what we propose," and the man turned with a bow to the three men behind him, thus including them with himself, "is that without violence we take possession of these camps and strike all work, and, securing the person of Mr. Mason, and any others likely to interfere with us, we hold them safe until all our plans are fully put through. During the period necessary for the cessation of work, each man will draw an allowance equal to two-thirds of his wages, and he will receive a guarantee of employment when the strike is ended. The sutler, Mr. Lieberstein here, will be the treasurer of the strike funds, and pay each man his daily wage. There is but one thing more I have to say. We intend to take the necessary precautions against interference to-night. The cessation of work will date from this hour. And in the meantime we will put to the vote&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Chepstow, his keen eyes blazing, turned and faced the lumberman. </P> <P> "The scoundrels!" he said, with more force than discretion. "Did you hear? It means&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> The lumberman chuckled, but held up a warning hand. </P> <P> "They're going to take me prisoner," he said. Then he added grimly, "There's going to be a warm time to-night." </P> <P> But the churchman was not listening. Again his thought had reverted to the presence of Jim Truscott at that meeting. </P> <P> "What on earth is young Truscott doing in there?" he asked. "He went away east the night I set out for these hills. What's he got to do with that&mdash;that rascally agitator? Why&mdash;he must be one of the&mdash;leaders of this thing. It's&mdash;it's most puzzling!" </P> <P> Chepstow's puzzlement did not communicate itself to Mason. The camp "boss" was less interested in the identity of these people than in the strike itself. It was his work to see that so much lumber was sent down the river every day. That was his responsibility. Dave looked to him. And he was face to face with a situation which threatened the complete annihilation of all his employer's schemes. A strike effectually carried out might be prolonged indefinitely, and then&mdash; </P> <P> "Look here, parson," he said coolly, "I want you to stay right here for a minute or so. They aren't likely to be finished for a while inside there. I want to 'prospect.' I want to find that buckboard. That damned agitator&mdash;'scuse the language&mdash;must have come up in it, so I guess it's near handy. The fog's good and thick, so there's not a heap of chance of anybody locating us, still&mdash;&mdash;" he paused and glanced into the churchman's alert eyes. "Have a look to your gun," he went on with a quiet smile, "and&mdash;well, you are a parson, but if anybody comes along and attempts to molest you I'd use it if I were in your place." </P> <P> Chepstow made no reply, but there was something in his look that satisfied the other. </P> <P> Mason hurried away and the parson, left alone, leant against the wall, prepared to wait for his return. In spite of the plot he had listened to, the presence of Jim Truscott in that room occupied most of his thoughts. It was most perplexing. He tried every channel of supposition and argument, but none gave him any satisfactory explanation. One thing alone impressed its importance on his mind. That was the necessity of conveying a warning to Dave. But he remembered they&mdash;these conspirators&mdash;had cut communications. Mason and probably he were to be made prisoners. </P> <P> His ire roused. He blazed into a sudden fury. These rascals were to make them prisoners. Almost unconsciously he drew his gun from his pocket and turned to the window. As he did so the sound of approaching footsteps set him alert and defensive. He swung his back to the wall again, and, gun in hand, stood ready. The next moment he hurriedly returned the weapon to his pocket, but not before Mason had seen the attitude and the fighting expression of his face, and it set him smiling. </P> <P> "I've found the buckboard," he said in a whisper. Then he paused and looked straight into the churchman's eyes. "We're up against it," he went on. "Maybe you as well as myself. You can't tell where these fellows'll draw the line. And there's Miss Betty to think of, too. Are you ready to buck? Are you game? You're a parson, I know, and these things&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Get to it, boy," Chepstow interrupted him sharply. "I am of necessity a man of peace, but there are things that become a man's duty. And it seems to me to hit hard will better serve God and man just now than to preach peace. What's your plan?" </P> <P> Mason smiled. He knew he had read the parson aright. He knew he had in him a staunch and loyal support. He liked, too, the phrase by which he excused his weakness for combat. </P> <P> "Well, I mean to do this sponge-faced crawler down, or break my neck in the attempt. I don't intend to be made a prisoner by any damned strikers. This thing means ruin to Dave, and it's up to me to help him out. I'm going to get word through to him. I understand now how our letters have been intercepted, and no doubt his have been stopped too. I'm going to have a flutter in this game. It's a big one, and makes me feel good. What say? Are you game?" </P> <P> "For anything!" exclaimed the parson with eyes sparkling. </P> <P> "Well, there's not a heap of time to waste in talk. I'll just get you to slip back to the dugout. Gather some food and truck into a sack, and a couple of guns or so, and some ammunition. Then get Miss Betty and slip out. Hike on down the trail a hundred yards or so and wait for me. Can you make it?" </P> <P> Chepstow nodded. </P> <P> "And you?" he asked. </P> <P> "I'm going to get possession of that buckboard, and&mdash;come right along. The scheme's rotten, I know. But it's the best I can think of at the moment. It's our only chance of warning Dave. There's not a second to spare now, so cut along. You've got to prepare for a two days' journey." </P> <P> "Anything else?" </P> <P> "Nothing. Miss Betty's good grit&mdash;in case&mdash;&mdash;?" </P> <P> Chepstow nodded. </P> <P> "Game all through. How long can you give me?" </P> <P> "Maybe a half hour." </P> <P> "Good. I can make it in that." </P> <P> "Right. S'long." </P> <P> "S'long." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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