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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap21"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXI </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> AN ADVENTURE IN THE FOG </H4> <P> Tom Chepstow set out for the dugout. Churchman as he was his blood was stirred to fighting heat, his lean, hard muscles were tingling with a nervous desire for action. Nor did he attempt to check his feelings, or compose them into a condition compatible with his holy calling. Possibly, when the time had passed for action, and the mantle of peace and good-will toward all men had once more fallen upon him, he would bitterly regret his outbreak, but, for the moment, he was a man, human, passionate, unreasoning, thrilling with the joy of life, and the delight of a moral truancy from all his accepted principles. No schoolboy could have broken the bonds of discipline with a greater joy, and his own subconscious knowledge of wrong-doing was no mar to his pleasure. </P> <P> The fog was thick, but it did not cause him great inconvenience. He took to the woods for his course, and, keeping close to the edge which encircled the camp clearing, he had little difficulty in striking the path to the dugout. This achieved he had but to follow it carefully. The one possibility that caused him any anxiety was lest he should overshoot the hut in the fog. </P> <P> But he need have had no fear of this. Dense as the fog was, the lights of the dugout were plainly visible when he came to it. Betty, with careful forethought, had set the oil lamps in the two windows. She quite understood the difficulties of that forest land, and she had no desire for the men-folk to spend the night roaming the wilderness. </P> <P> The parson found her calmly alert. She did not fly at him with a rush of questions. She was far more composed than he, yet there was a sparkling brilliancy in her brown eyes which told of feelings strongly controlled; her eyelids were well parted, and there was a shade of quickening in the dilation of her nostrils as she breathed. She looked up into his face as he turned after closing the door, and his tongue answered the mute challenge. </P> <P> "There's to be a great game to-night," he said, rubbing the palms of his hands together. The tone, the action, both served to point the state of his mind. </P> <P> Knowing him as she did Betty needed no words to tell her that the "game" was to be no sort of play. </P> <P> "It's a 'strike,'" he went on. "A strike, and a bad one. They intend to make a prisoner of Mason, and, maybe, of us. We've got to outwit them. Now, help me get some things together, and I'll tell you while we get ready. We've got to quit to-night." </P> <P> He picked up a gunny sack while he was speaking and gave it to Betty to hold open. Then he immediately began to deplete the lumberman's larder of any eatables that could be easily carried. </P> <P> Ever since the men had left her this strike had been in Betty's mind, so his announcement in no way startled her. </P> <P> "What of Dave?" she asked composedly. "Has he any&mdash;idea of it?" </P> <P> "That's just it. We've got to let him know. He's quite in the dark. Communications cut. Mason must get away at once to let him know. He intends to 'jump' their buckboard and team&mdash;I mean these strikers' buckboard." He laughed. He felt ready to laugh at most things. It was not that he did not care. His desire was inspired by the thought that he was to play a part in the "game." </P> <P> "The one that came in to-night?" Betty asked, taking up a fresh sack to receive some pots and blankets. </P> <P> "Yes." </P> <P> "And we are to bolt with him?" she went on in a peculiar manner. </P> <P> Her uncle paused in the act of putting firearms and ammunition into the sack. Her tone checked his enthusiasm. Then he laughed. </P> <P> "We're not 'bolting' Betty, we're escaping so that Dave may get the news. His fortune depends on our success. Remember our communications are cut." </P> <P> But his arguments fell upon deaf ears. Betty smiled and shook her brown head. </P> <P> "We're bolting, uncle. Listen. There's no need for us to go. In fact, we can't go. Think for a moment. Things depend on the speed with which Dave learns of the trouble. We should make two more in the buckboard of which the horses are already tired. Mason, by himself, will travel light. Besides, a girl is a deterrent when it comes to&mdash;fighting. No, wait." She held up a warning finger as he was about to interrupt. "Then there are the sick here. We cannot leave them. They&mdash;are our duty. Besides, Dave's interests would be ill served if we left the fever to continue its ravages unchecked." </P> <P> In her last remark Betty displayed her woman's practical instinct. Perhaps she was not fully aware of her real motive. Perhaps she conscientiously believed that it was their duty that claimed her. Nevertheless her thought was for the man she loved, and it guided her every word and action; it inspired her. The threat of imprisonment up here did not frighten her, did not even enter into her considerations at all. Dave&mdash;her every nerve vibrated with desire to help him, to save him. </P> <P> Chepstow suddenly reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. His enthusiasm had passed, and, for the moment, the churchman in him was uppermost again. </P> <P> "You're right, Betty," he said with decision. "We stay here." </P> <P> The girl's eyes thanked him, but her words were full of practical thought. </P> <P> "Will Mason come here? Because, if so, we'll get these things outside ready." </P> <P> "No. We've got to carry them down the trail and meet him there. There may be a rush. There may be a scuffle. We don't know. I half think you'd better stay here while I go and meet him." </P> <P> Betty shook her head. </P> <P> "I'm going to help," she exclaimed, with a flash of battle in her eyes. </P> <P> "Then come on." Her uncle shouldered the heavier of the two sacks, and was about to tuck the other under his arm, but Betty took it from him, and lifted it to her shoulder in a twinkling. </P> <P> "Halves," she cried, as she moved toward the door. </P> <P> The man laughed light-heartedly and blew out the lights. Then, as he reached the girl's side, a distant report caused him to stop short. </P> <P> "What's that?" he demanded. </P> <P> "A pistol shot," cried Betty. "Come along!" </P> <P> They ran out of the hut and down the trail, and, in a moment, were swallowed up in the fog. </P> <P CLASS="noindent" ALIGN="center"> <SPAN STYLE="letter-spacing: 4em">*****</SPAN><BR> </P> <P> Bob Mason intended to give Chepstow a fair start. He knew, if he were to be successful, his task would occupy far less time than the other's. And a vital point in his scheme lay in meeting his two friends at the appointed spot. </P> <P> He was fully alive to the rank audacity of his plan. It was desperate, and the chances were heavily against him. But he was not a man to shrink from an undertaking on such a score. He had to warn Dave, and this was the only means that suggested itself. If he were not a genius of invention, he was at least full of courage and determination. </P> <P> On his previous reconnoitre he had located the buckboard at the tying-posts in front of the store. Quite why it had been left there he could not understand, unless the strike-leader intended leaving camp that night. However, the point of interest lay in the fact of the vehicle and horses being there ready for his use if he could only safely possess himself of them, so speculation as to the reason of its being there was only of secondary interest. </P> <P> When he made his first move Tom Chepstow had been gone some ten minutes. He groped his way carefully along the wall until the front angle of the building was reached, and here he paused to ascertain the position of things. The meeting was still in progress inside, and, as yet, there seemed to be no sign of its breaking up. The steady hum of voices that reached him told him this. </P> <P> About twenty yards directly in front of him was the buckboard; while to the right, perhaps half that distance away, was the open door of the store, and adjacent to it a large glass window. Both were lit up, and the glow from the oil lamps shone dully on the fog bank. He was half inclined to reconnoitre these latter to ascertain if any one were about, but finally decided to go straight for his goal and chance everything. With this intention he moved straight out from the building and vanished in the fog. </P> <P> He walked quickly. Fortune favored him until he was within a few yards of the tying-post, when suddenly the clanging of an iron-handled bucket being set roughly upon the ground brought him to a dead standstill. Some one was tending the horses&mdash;probably watering them. Evidently they were being got ready for a journey. Almost unconsciously his hand went to the pocket in which he carried his revolver. </P> <P> At that moment a roar of applause came from the store, and he knew the meeting was drawing to a close. Then came a prolonged cheering, followed by the raucous singing of "He's a jolly good fellow." It <i>was</i> the end. </P> <P> He could delay no longer. Taking his bearings as well as the fog would permit, he struck out for the tail end of the buckboard. He intended reaching the "near-side" of the horses, where he felt that the reins would be looped up upon the harness, and as the best means of avoiding the man with the bucket. </P> <P> In this he had little difficulty, and when he reached the vehicle he bent low, and, passing clear of the wheels, drew up toward the horses' heads. By this time the man with the bucket was moving away, and he breathed more freely. </P> <P> But his relief was short-lived. The men were already pouring out of the store, and the fog-laden air was filled with the muffled tones of many voices. To add to his discomfiture he further became aware of footsteps approaching. He could delay no longer. He dared not wait to let them pass. Then, they might be the owners of the buckboard. His movements became charged with almost electrical activity. </P> <P> He reached out and assured himself that the bits were in the horses' mouths. Then he groped for the reins; as he expected, they were looped in the harness. Possessing himself of them, he reached for the collar-chain securing the horses to the posts. He pressed the swivel open, and, releasing it, lowered the chain noiselessly. And a moment later two men loomed up out of the fog on the "off-side." They were talking, and he listened. </P> <P> "It's bad med'cine you leaving to-night," he heard the voice of the strike-leader say in a grumbling tone. </P> <P> "I can't help that," came the response. It was a voice he did not recognize. </P> <P> "Well, we've got to secure this man Mason to-night. You can't trust these fellows a heap. Give 'em time, and some one will blow the game. Then he'll be off like a rabbit." </P> <P> "Well, it's up to you to get him," the strange voice retorted sharply. "I'm paying you heavily. You've undertaken the job. Besides, there's that cursed parson and his niece up here. I daren't take a chance of their seeing me. I oughtn't to have come up here at all. If Lieberstein hadn't been such a grasping pig of a Jew there would have been no need for my coming. You've just got to put everything through on your own, Walford. I'm off." </P> <P> Mason waited for no more. The buckboard belonged to the stranger, and he was about to use it. He laughed inwardly, and his spirits rose. Everything was ready. He dropped back to the full extent of the reins as stealthily and as swiftly as possible. This cleared him of the buckboard and hid him from the view of the men. Then with a rein in each hand he slapped them as sharply as he could on the quarters of the cold and restless horses. They jumped at the neck-yoke, and with a "yank" he swung them clear of the tying-posts. He shouted at them and slapped the reins again, and the only too willing beasts plunged into a gallop. </P> <P> He heard an exclamation from one of the men as the buckboard shot past them, and the other made a futile grab for the off-side rein. For himself he seized the rail of the carryall with one hand and gave a wild leap. He dropped into the vehicle safely but with some force, and his legs were left hanging over the back. </P> <P> But he had not cleared the danger yet. He was in the act of drawing in his legs when they were seized in an arm embrace, and the whole weight of a man hung upon him in an effort to drag him off the vehicle. There was no time to consider. He felt himself sliding over the rail, which only checked his progress for an instant. But that instant gave him a winning chance. He drew his revolver, and leveling it, aimed point-blank at where he thought the man's shoulder must be. There was a loud report, and the grip on his legs relaxed. The man dropped to the ground, and he was left to scramble to his feet and climb over into the driving-seat. </P> <P> A blind, wild drive was that race from the store. He drove like a fury in the fog, trusting to the instinct of the horses and the luck of the reckless to guide him into the comparative safety of the eastward trail. </P> <P> As the horses flew over the ground the cries of the strikers filled the air. They seemed to come from every direction, even ahead. The noise, the rattle of the speeding wheels, fired his excitement. The fog&mdash;the dense gray pall that hung over the whole camp&mdash;was his salvation, and he shouted back defiance. </P> <P> It was a useless and dangerous thing to do, and he realized his folly at once. A great cry instantly went up from the strikers. He was recognized, and his name was shouted in execration. He only laughed. There was joy in the feel of the reins, in the pulling of the mettlesome horses. They were running strong and well within themselves. </P> <P> It was only a matter of seconds from the time of his start to the moment when he felt the vehicle bump heavily over a series of ruts. He promptly threw his weight on the near-side rein, and the horses swung round. It was the trail he was looking for. And as the horses settled down to it he breathed more freely. It was only after this point had been gained and passed that he realized the extent of his previous risk. He knew that the entrance to the trail on its far side was lined by log shanties, and he had been driving straight for them. </P> <P> In the midst of his freshly-acquired ease of mind came a sudden and unpleasant recollection. He remembered the path through the woods to the dugout; it was shorter than the trail he was on by nearly a mile. While he had over a mile and a half to go, those in pursuit, if they took to the path, had barely half. </P> <P> He listened. But he knew beforehand that his fears were only too well founded. Yes, he could hear them. The voices of the pursuers sounded away to the left. They were abreast of him. They had taken to the woods. He snatched the whip from its socket and laid it heavily across the horses' backs, and the animals stretched out into a race. The buckboard jumped, it rattled and shrieked. The pace was terrific. But he was ready to take every chance now, so long as he could gain sufficient time to take up those he knew to be waiting for him ahead. </P> <P> In another few minutes he would know the worst&mdash;or the best. Again and again he urged his horses. But already they were straining at the top of their speed. They galloped as though the spirit of the race had entered their willing souls. They could do no more than they were doing; it was only cruelty to flog them. If their present speed was insufficient then he could not hope to outstrip the strikers. If he only could hear their voices dropping behind. </P> <P> The minutes slipped by. The fog worried him. He was watching for the dugout, and he feared lest he should pass it unseen. Nor could he estimate the distance he had come. Hark! the shouts of the pursuers were drawing nearer, and&mdash;they were still abreast of him! He must be close on the dugout. He peered into the fog, and suddenly a dark shadow at the trail-side loomed up. There was no mistaking it. It was the hut; and it was in darkness. His friends must be on ahead. How far! that was the question. On that depended everything. </P> <P> What was that? The hammering of heavy feet on the hard trail sounded directly behind him. He had gained nothing. Then he thought of that halt that yet remained in front of him, and something like panic seized him. He slashed viciously at his horses. </P> <P> He felt like a man obsessed with the thought of trailing bloodhounds. He must keep on, on. There must be no pause, no rest, or the ravening pack would fall on him and rend him. Yet he knew that halt must come. He was gaining rapidly enough now. Without that halt they could never come up with him. But&mdash;his ears were straining for Chepstow's summons. Every second it was withheld was something gained. He possessed a frantic hope that some guiding spirit might have induced the churchman to take up a position very much further on than he had suggested. </P> <P> "Hallo!" </P> <P> The call had come. Chepstow was at the edge of the trail. Mason's hopes dropped to zero. He abandoned himself to the inevitable, flung his weight on the reins, and brought his horses to a stand with a jolt. </P> <P> "Where's Miss Betty?" he demanded. But his ears caught the sound of the men behind him, and he hurried on without waiting for a reply. "Quick, parson! The bags! fling 'em in, and jump for it! They're close behind!" </P> <P> "Betty's gone back," cried Chepstow, flinging the sacks into the carryall. "I'm going back too. You go on alone. We've got the sick to see to. Tell Dave we're all right. So long! Drive on! Good luck! Eh?" </P> <P> A horrified cry from Mason had caused the final ejaculation. </P> <P> He was pointing at the off-side horse standing out at right angles to the pole. </P> <P> "For God's sake, fix that trace," he cried. "Quick, man! It's unhooked! Gee! What infern&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Chepstow sprang to secure the loosened trace. He, too, could hear the pursuers close behind. He fumbled the iron links in his anxiety, and it took some moments to adjust. </P> <P> "Right," he cried at last, after what seemed an interminable time. Mason whipped up his horses, and they sprang to their traces. But as they did so there was a sudden rush from behind, and a figure leapt on to the carryall. The buckboard rocked and the driver, in the act of shouting at his horses, felt himself seized by the throat from behind. </P> <P> Fortunately the churchman saw it all. His blood rushed to his brain. As the buckboard was sweeping past him he caught the iron rail and leapt. In an instant he was on his feet and had closed with Mason's assailant. He, too, went for the throat, with all the ferocity of a bulldog. The mantle of the church was cast to the winds. He was panting with the lust for fight, and he crushed his fingers deep into the man's windpipe. They dropped together on the sacks. </P> <P> Mason, released, dared not turn. He plied his whip furiously. He had the legs of his pursuers and he meant to add to his distance. He heard the struggle going on behind him. He heard the gasp of a choking man. And, listening, he reveled in it as men of his stamp will revel in such things. </P> <P> "Choke him, parson! Choke the swine!" he hurled viciously over his shoulder. </P> <P> He got no answer. The struggle went on in silence, and presently Mason began to fear for the result. He slackened his horses down and glanced back. Tom Chepstow's working features looked up into his. </P> <P> "I've got him," he said: then of a sudden he looked anxiously down at the man he was kneeling on. "He's&mdash;he's unconscious. I hope&mdash;&mdash; You'd better pull up." </P> <P> "I wish you'd choke the life out of him," cried Mason furiously. </P> <P> "I did my best, I'm afraid," the parson replied ruefully. "You'd better pull up." </P> <P> But the lumberman kept on. </P> <P> "Half a minute. Get these matches, and have a look at him. I'll slow down." </P> <P> The churchman seized the matches, and, in his anxiety at what he had done, struck several before he got one burning long enough to see the unconscious man's face. Finally he succeeded, and an ejaculation of surprise broke from him. </P> <P> "Heavens! It's Jim Truscott!" he cried. </P> <P> He pressed his hand over the man's heart. </P> <P> "Thank God! he's alive," he added. </P> <P> Mason drew up sharply. A sudden change had come over his whole manner. He sprang to the ground. </P> <P> "Here, help me secure him," he said almost fiercely. "I'll take him down to Dave." </P> <P> They lashed their prisoner by his hands and feet. Then Mason seized the churchman excitedly by the arm. </P> <P> "Get back, parson!" he cried. "Get back to the dugout quick as hell'll let you! There's Miss Betty!" </P> <P> "God! I'd forgotten! And there's those&mdash;strikers!" </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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