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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap22"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXII </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> TERROR IN THE MOUNTAINS </H4> <P> Fear drove Chepstow headlong for the dugout. Mason's words, his tone and manner, had served to excite him to a pitch closely bordering upon absolute terror. What of Betty? Over and over again he asked himself what might not happen to her, left alone at the mercy of these savages? What if, baulked of their prey, they turned to loot and wreck his hut? It was more than possible. To his fear-stricken imagination it was inevitable. His gorge rose and he sickened at the thought, and he raced through the fog to the girl's help. </P> <P> The self-torture he suffered in those weary minutes was exquisite. He railed at his own criminal folly in letting her leave his side. He reviled Mason and his wild schemes. Dave and his interests were banished from his mind. The well-being of Malkern, of the mills, of anybody in the world but the helpless girl, mattered not at all to him. It was Betty&mdash;of Betty alone he thought. </P> <P> An innocent girl in the hands of such ruthless brutes as these strikers&mdash;what could she do? It was a maddening thought. He prayed to Heaven as he went, that he might be in time, and his prayers rang with a fervor such as they never possessed in his vocation as a churchman. And this mood alternated with another, which was its direct antithesis. The vicious thoughts of a man roused to battle ran through his brain in a fiery torrent. His whole outlook upon life underwent a change. All the kindly impulses of his heart, all the teachings of his church, all his best Christian beliefs, fell from him, and left him the naked, passionate man. Churchman, good Christian he undoubtedly was, but, before all things, he was a man; and just now a man in fighting mood. </P> <P> It probably took him less than twenty minutes to make the return journey, yet it seemed to him hours&mdash;he certainly endured hours of mental anguish. But at last it ended with almost ludicrous abruptness. In the obscurity of the fog he was brought to a halt by impact with the walls of the dugout. </P> <P> He recovered himself and stood for a moment listening. There was no sound of any one within, nor was there any sign of the strikers. He moved round to the door; a beam of light shone beneath it. He breathed more freely. Then, to his dismay, at his first touch, the door swung open. His fears leapt again, he dreaded what that open door might disclose. Then, in the midst of his fears, a cry of relief and joy broke from him. </P> <P> "Thank God, you're safe!" he exclaimed, as he rushed into the room. </P> <P> Betty looked up from the work in her lap. She was seated beside the box-stove sewing. Her calmness was in flat contrast to her uncle's excited state. She smiled gently, and her soft eyes had in them a questioning humor that had a steadying effect upon the man. </P> <P> "Safe? Why, dear, of course I'm safe," she said. "But&mdash;I was a little anxious about you. You were so long getting back. Did Bob Mason get safely away?" </P> <P> Chepstow laughed. </P> <P> "Yes, oh yes. <i>He</i> got away safely." </P> <P> "He?" </P> <P> The work lay in Betty's lap, and her fingers had become idle. </P> <P> "Yes. But we captured one of the strikers." </P> <P> The parson suddenly turned to the door and barred it securely. Then, as he went on, he crossed to the windows, and began to barricade them. </P> <P> "Yes, we had a busy time. They were hard on his heels when he pulled up for me. We nailed the foremost. He jumped on the buckboard and almost strangled Mason. I jumped on it too, and&mdash;and almost strangled him." </P> <P> He laughed harshly. His blood was still up. Betty bent over her work and her expressive face was hidden. </P> <P> "Who was he? I mean your prisoner. Did you recognize him, or was he a new hand?" </P> <P> Chepstow's laugh abruptly died out. He had suddenly remembered who his prisoner was; and he tried to ignore the question. </P> <P> "Oh, yes, we recognized him. But," he went on hurriedly, "we must get some supper. I think we are in for a busy time." </P> <P> But Betty was not so easily put off. Besides, her curiosity was roused by her uncle's evident desire to avoid the subject. </P> <P> "Who was he?" she demanded again. </P> <P> There was no escape, and the man knew it. Betty could be very persistent. </P> <P> "Eh? Oh, I'm afraid it was Jim&mdash;Jim Truscott," he said reluctantly. </P> <P> Betty rose from her chair without a word. She stirred the fire in the cook-stove, and began to prepare a supper of bacon and potatoes and tea, while her uncle went on with his task of securing the windows. It was the latter who finally broke the silence. </P> <P> "Has any one&mdash;has anybody been here?" he asked awkwardly. </P> <P> Betty did not look up from her work. </P> <P> "Two men paid me a visit," she said easily. "One asked for you. He seemed angry. I&mdash;I told him you had gone over to the sick camp&mdash;that you were coming back to supper. He laughed&mdash;fiercely. He said if you didn't come back I'd find myself up against it. Then he hurried off&mdash;and I was glad." </P> <P> "And the other?" </P> <P> Chepstow's work was finished. He had crossed over and was standing beside the cook-stove. His question came with an undercurrent of fierceness that Betty was unused to, but she smiled up into his face. </P> <P> "The other? I think he had been drinking. He was one of those two I met in the woods. He asked me why I hadn't taken his warning. I told him I was considering it. He leered at me and said it was too late, and assured me I must take the consequences. Then he&mdash;tried to kiss me. It was rather funny." </P> <P> "Funny? Great Heavens! And you&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Betty's smile broadened as she pointed to a heavy revolver lying in the chair she had just vacated. </P> <P> "I didn't have any trouble. I told him there were five barrels in that, all loaded, and each barrel said he'd better get out." </P> <P> "Did&mdash;did he go?" </P> <P> Chepstow could scarcely control his fury. But Betty answered him in a quiet determined manner. </P> <P> "Not until I had emptied one of them," she said. Then with a rueful smile she added, "But it went very wide of its mark." </P> <P> Her uncle tried to laugh, but the result was little better than a furious snort. </P> <P> "Why did you leave the door open?" he inquired a moment later. </P> <P> "Well, you were out. You might have returned in&mdash;in a hurry and&mdash;&mdash; But sit down, uncle dear, food's ready." </P> <P> The man sat down and Betty stood by to supply him with all he needed. Then he noticed she had only prepared food for one. </P> <P> "Why, child, what about you?" he demanded kindly. </P> <P> "I've had some biscuits and tea, before you came in. I'm not hungry. Now don't bother about it, dear. Yes, I am quite well." She shook her head and smiled at him as he attempted to interrupt her, but the smile was a mere cloak to her real feelings. She had eaten before he came in, as she said. But if she hadn't she could have eaten nothing now. Her mind was swept with a hot tide of anxious thought. She had a thousand and one questions unanswered, and she knew it would be useless putting any one of them to her kindly, impetuous uncle. He was to her the gentlest of guardians, but quite impossible as a confidant for her woman's fears, her woman's passionate desire to help the man she loved. He was staunch and brave, and in what might lay before them she could have no better companion, no better champion, but where the subtleties of her woman's feelings were concerned there could be no confidence in him. </P> <P> She watched him eat in silence, and, presently, when he looked up at her, her soft brown eyes were lit by an almost maternal regard for him. He had no understanding of that look, and Betty knew it, otherwise it would not have been there. </P> <P> "I can't understand it all," he said. "Jim is a worse&mdash;a worse rascal than I thought. I believe he's not only in this strike, but one of the organizers. Why? That's what I can't make out. Is it mischief&mdash;wanton mischief? Is it jealousy of Dave's success? It's a puzzle I can't solve anyhow. After all his protestations to me the thing's inconceivable. It's enough to destroy all one's belief in human nature." </P> <P> "Or strengthen it." </P> <P> "Eh?" </P> <P> "It is only natural for people to err," Betty said seriously. "And having erred it is human nature, whatever our motives, however good our intentions, to find that the mire into which we have fallen sucks hard. It is more often than not the floundering to save ourselves that drives us deeper into it. Poor Jim. He needs our pity and help, just as we so often need help." </P> <P> Her uncle stared into the grave young face. His astonishment kept him silent for a moment. He pushed impatiently away from the table. But it was not until Betty had moved back to her chair at the stove that he found words to express himself. He was angry, quite angry with her. It was not that he was really unchristian, but when he thought of all that this strike meant, he felt that sympathy for the man who was possibly the cause of it was entirely out of place. </P> <P> "Truscott needs none of your pity, Betty," he said sharply. "If pity be needed it is surely for those whom one man's mischief will harm. Do you know what this strike means, child? Before it reaches the outside of these camps it will turn a tide of vice loose upon the men themselves. They will drink, gamble. They will quarrel and fight. And when such men fight it more often than not results in some terrible tragedy. Then, like some malignant cuttlefish, this strike will grope its crushing feelers out from here, its lair, seeking prey on which to fix its sucking tentacles. They will reach Malkern, and work will be paralyzed. That means ruin to more than half the villagers who depend upon their weekly wage. It goes further than that. The mills will shut down. And if the mills shut, good-bye to all trade in Malkern. It means ruin for everybody. It means the wrecking of all Dave's hopes&mdash;hopes which have for their object the welfare of the people of our valley. It is a piece of rascality that nothing can justify. Jim Truscott does not need our pity. It is the penitentiary he needs. Betty, I'm&mdash;I'm&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> But Betty looked up with passionate, glowing eyes from the work she had resumed. </P> <P> "Do you think I don't know what it means, uncle?" she demanded, with a depth of feeling that silenced him instantly. "Do you think because I pity poor Jim that I do not understand the enormity of his wickedness in this matter? Have I spent the best part of my life in our valley carrying on the work that has fallen to my share&mdash;work that has been my joy and happiness to do&mdash;without understanding the cruelty which this strike means to our people, those who are powerless to help themselves against it? Do you think I don't understand what it means to Dave? Oh, uncle, if you but knew," she went on reproachfully. "I know it means practically the end of all things for Dave if his contract fails. I know that he is all out for the result. That his resources are even now taxed to their uttermost limit, and that only the smooth running of the work can save him from a disaster that will involve us all. If I had a man's strength there is nothing I would not do to serve him. If my two hands, if my brain could assist him in the smallest degree, he would not need to ask for them. They are his&mdash;his!" she cried, with a passion that thrilled the listening man. "You are angry with me because I feel sorry for an erring man. I <i>am</i> sorry for him. Yet should evil come to our valley&mdash;to Dave&mdash;through his work, no wildcat would show him less mercy than I. Oh, why am I not a man with two strong hands?" she cried despairingly. "Why am I condemned to be a useless burden to those I love? Oh, Dave, Dave," she cried with a sudden self-abandonment, so passionate, so overwhelming that it alarmed her uncle, "why can't I help you? Why can't I stand beside you and share in your battles with these two hands?" She held out her arms, in a gesture of appeal. Then they dropped to her side. In a moment she turned almost fiercely upon her uncle, swept on by a tide of feeling long pent up behind the barrier of her woman's reserve, but now no longer possible of restraint. "I love him! I love him! I know! You are ashamed for me! I can see it in your face! You think me unwomanly! You think I have outraged the conventions which hem our sex in! And what if I have? I don't care! I care for nothing and no one but him! He is the world to me&mdash;the whole, wide world. I love him so I would give my life for him. Oh, uncle, I love him, and I am powerless to help him." </P> <P> She sank into her chair, and buried her face in her hands. Blame, displeasure, contempt, nothing mattered. The woman was stirred, let loose; the calm strength which was so great a part of her character, had been swept aside by her passion, which saw only the hopelessness with which this strike confronted the man she loved. </P> <P> Chepstow watched her for some moments. He was no longer alarmed. His heart ached for her, and he wanted to comfort her. But it was not easy for him. At last he moved close to her side, and laid a hand upon her bowed head. The action was full of a tender, even reverential sympathy. And it was that, more than his words, which helped to comfort the woman's stricken heart. </P> <P> "You're a good child, Betty," he said awkwardly. "And&mdash;and I'm glad you love him. Dave will win out. Don't you fear. It is the difficulties he has had to face that have made him the man he is. Remember Mason has got away, and&mdash;&mdash; What's that?" </P> <P> Something crashed against the door and dropped to the ground outside. Though the exclamation had broken from the man he needed no answer. It was a stone. A stone hurled with vicious force. </P> <P> Betty sat up. Her face had suddenly returned to its usual calm. She looked up into her uncle's eyes, and saw that the light of battle had been rekindled there. Her own eyes brightened. She, too, realized that battle was imminent. They were two against hundreds. Her spirit warmed. Her recent hopelessness passed and she sprang to her feet. </P> <P> "The cowards!" she cried. </P> <P> The man only laughed. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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