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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap24"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXIV </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT </H4> <P> It was sundown in the Red Sand Valley. The hush of evening had settled upon Malkern, and its calm was only broken by the droning machinery of the mills. The sky was lit by that chilly, yellow afterglow of sunset which, eastward, merges into the gray and purple of twilight. Already the long-drawn shadows had expanded into the dusk so rapidly obscuring the remoter distance. Straight and solemn rose spires of smoke from hidden chimneys, lolling in the still air, as though loath to leave the scented atmosphere of the valley below. It was the moment of delicious calm when Nature is preparing to seek repose. </P> <P> Two women were standing at the door of Dave's house, and the patch of garden surrounding them, so simple, so plain, was a perfect setting for their elderly, plainly clad figures. Dave's mother, very old, but full of quiet energy, was listening to the gentle complaint of Mrs. Chepstow. She was listening, but her gaze was fixed on the distant mills, an attitude which had practically become her settled habit. The mill, to her, was the end of the earth; there was nothing beyond. </P> <P> "I am dreadfully worried," Mrs. Tom was saying, the anxious wrinkles of her forehead lifting her brows perplexedly. "It's more than six weeks since I heard from Tom and Betty. It's not like him, he's so regular with letters usually. It was madness letting Betty go up there. I can't think what we were doing. If anything has happened to them I shall never forgive myself. I think I shall go down and talk to Dave about it. He may know something. He's sure to know if they are well." </P> <P> The other slowly withdrew her gaze from the mills. It was as though the effort required to do so were a great one, and one she reluctantly undertook. The pivot of her life was her boy. A pivot upon which it revolved without flagging or interruption. She had watched him grow to a magnificent manhood, and with all a pure woman's love and wonderful instinct she had watched and tended him as she might some great oak tree raised from the frailest sapling. Then, when his struggles came, she had shared them with him with a supreme loyalty, helping him with a quiet, strong sympathy which found expression in little touches which probably even he never realized. All his successes and disasters had been hers; all his joys, all his sorrows. And now, in her old age, she clung to this love with the pathetic tenacity of one who realizes that the final parting is not far distant. </P> <P> Her furrowed face lit with a wonderful smile. </P> <P> "I cannot say for sure," she said. "There are times when Dave will not admit me to the thoughts which disturb him. At such times I know that things are not running smoothly. There are other times when he talks quite freely of his hopes, his fears. Then I know that all is well. When he complains I know he is questioning his own judgment, and distrusts himself. And when he laughs at things I know that the trouble is a sore one, and I prepare for disaster. All his moods have meaning for me. Just now I am reading from his silence, and it tells me that much is wrong, and I am wondering. But I do not think it concerns Betty&mdash;and, consequently, not your husband; if anything were wrong with her I think I should know." She smiled with all the wisdom of old age. </P> <P> Mrs. Tom's anxiety was slightly allayed, but her curiosity was proportionately roused. </P> <P> "Why would you know&mdash;about Betty?" she asked. </P> <P> The older woman's eyes were again turned in the direction of the mill. </P> <P> "Why&mdash;why?" She smiled and turned to the churchman's wife. "It would produce a fresh mood in my boy, one I'm not familiar with." Then she became suddenly grave. "I think I should dread that mood more than any other. You see, deep down in his heart there are passionate depths that no one has yet stirred. Were they let loose I fear to think how they might drive him. Dave's head only rules just as far as his heart chooses." </P> <P> "But Betty?" demanded Mrs. Tom. "How is she&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Betty?" interrupted the other, humorously eyeing the eager face. "The one great passion of Dave's life is Betty. I know. And he thinks it is hopeless. I am betraying no confidence. Dave hugs his secret to himself, but he can't hide it from me. I'm glad he loves her. You don't know how glad. You see, I am in love with her myself, and&mdash;and I am getting very old." </P> <P> "And&mdash;does Betty know?" </P> <P> Dave's mother shook her head and smiled. </P> <P> "Betty loves him, but neither understands the other's feelings. But that is nothing. Love belongs to Heaven, and Heaven will straighten this out. Listen!" </P> <P> The old woman's eyes turned abruptly in the direction of the mill. There was a curious, anxious look in them, and a perplexed frown drew her brows together. One hand was raised to hold the other woman's attention. It was as though something vital had shocked her, as though some sudden spasm of physical pain had seized her. Her face slowly grew gray. </P> <P> Three people passing along the trail in front of the house had also stopped. Their eyes were also turned in the direction of the mill. Further along a child at play had suddenly paused in its game to turn toward the mill. There were others, too, all over the village who gave up their pursuits to listen. </P> <P> "The mills have stopped work!" cried Mrs. Torn breathlessly. </P> <P> But Dave's mother had no response for her. She had even forgotten the other's presence at her side. The drone of the machinery was silent. </P> <BR> <P> Dawson was interviewing his employer in the latter's office. Both men looked desperately worried. Dave's eyes were lit with a brooding light. It was as though a cloud of storm had settled upon his rugged features. Dawson had desperation in every line of his hard face. </P> <P> "Have you sent up the river?" demanded Dave, eyeing his head man as though he alone were responsible for the trouble which was upon them. </P> <P> "I've sent, boss. We've had jams on the river before, an' I guessed it was that. I didn't worrit any for four-an'-twenty hours. It's different now. Ther' ain't bin a log come down for nigh thirty-six hours." </P> <P> "How many men did you send up?" </P> <P> "Six. Two teams, an' all the gear needed for breakin' the jam." </P> <P> "Yes. You're sure it is a jam?" </P> <P> "Ther' ain't nothin' else, boss. Leastways, I can't see nothin' else." </P> <P> "No. And the boom? You've worked out the 'reserve'?" </P> <P> "Clean right out. Ther' ain't a log in it fit to cut." </P> <P> Dave sat down at his desk. He idled clumsily for some moments with the pen in his fingers. His eyes were staring blankly out of the grimy window. The din of the saws rose and fell, and the music for once struck bitterly into his soul. It jarred his nerves, and he stirred restlessly. What was this new trouble that had come upon him? No logs! No logs! Why? He could not understand. A jam? Dawson said it must be a jam on the river. He was a practical lumberman, and to him it was the only explanation. He had sent up men to find out and free it. But why should there be a jam? The river was wide and swift, and the logs were never sent down in such crowds as to make a thing of that nature possible at this time of year. Later, yes, when the water was low and the stream slack, but now, after the recent rains, it was still a torrent. No logs! The thought was always his nightmare, and now&mdash;it was a reality. </P> <P> "It must be a jam, I s'pose," said Dave presently, but his tone carried no conviction. </P> <P> "What else can it be, boss?" asked the foreman anxiously. </P> <P> His employer's manner, his tone of uncertainty, worried Dawson. He had never seen Dave like this before. </P> <P> "That's so." </P> <P> Then a look of eager interest came into his eyes. He pointed at the window. </P> <P> "Here's Odd," he said. "And he's in a hurry." </P> <P> Dawson threw open the door, and Simon Odd lumbered hurriedly into the room. He seemed to fill up the place with his vast proportions. His face was anxious and doubtful. </P> <P> "I've had to shut down at the other mill, boss," he explained abruptly. "Ther' ain't no logs. Ther've been none for&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Thirty-six hours," broke in Dave, with an impatient nod. "I know." </P> <P> "You know, boss?" </P> <P> "Yes." </P> <P> The master of the mills turned again to the window, and the two men watched him in silence. What would he do? This man to whom they looked in difficulty; this man who had never yet failed in resource, in courage, to meet and overcome every obstacle, every emergency that harassed a lumberman's life. </P> <P> Suddenly he turned to them again. In his eyes there was a peculiar, angry light. </P> <P> "Well?" he demanded, in a fierce way that was utterly foreign to him. "Well?" he reiterated, "what are you standing there for? Get you out, both of you. Shut this mill down, too!" </P> <P> Simon Odd moved to the door, but Dawson remained where he was. It almost seemed as if he had not understood. The mill was to be shut down for the first time within his knowledge. What did it mean? In all his years of association with Dave he had seen such wonders of lumbering done by him that he looked upon him as almost infallible. And now&mdash;now he was tacitly acknowledging defeat without making a single effort. The realization, the shock of it, held him still. He made no move to obey the roughly-spoken command. </P> <P> Suddenly Dave turned on him. His face was flushed. </P> <P> "Get out!" he roared. "Shut down the mill!" </P> <P> It was the cry of a man driven to a momentary frenzy. For the time despair&mdash;black, terrible despair&mdash;drove the lumberman. He felt he wanted to hit out and hurt some one. </P> <P> Dawson silently followed Odd to the door, and in five minutes the saws were still. </P> <P> Dave sat on at his desk waiting. The moment the shriek of the machinery ceased he sprang to his feet and began pacing the floor in nervous, hurried strides. What that cessation meant to him only those may know who have suddenly seen their life's ambitions, their hopes, crushed out at one single blow. Let the saws continue their song, let the droning machinery but keep its dead level of tone, and failure in any other form, however disastrous, could not hurt in such degree as the sudden silencing of his lumberman's world. </P> <P> For some minutes he was like a madman. He could not think, his nerves shivered from his feet to the crown of his great ugly head. His hands were clenched as he strode, until the nails of his fingers cut the flesh of the palms into which they were crushed. For some minutes he saw nothing but the black ruin that rose like a wall before him and shut out every thought from his mind. The cessation of machinery was like a pall suddenly burying his whole strength and manhood beneath its paralyzing weight. </P> <P> But gradually the awful tension eased. It could not hold and its victim remain sane. So narrow was his focus during those first passionate moments that he could not see beyond his own personal loss. But with the passing minutes his view widened, and into the picture grew those things which had always been the inspiration of his ambitions. He flung himself heavily into his chair, and his eyes stared through the dirty window at the silent mill beyond. And for an hour he sat thus, thinking, thinking. His nervous tension had passed, his mind became clear, and though the nature of his thoughts lashed his heart, and a hundred times drove him to the verge of that first passion of despair again, there was an impersonal note in them which allowed the use of his usually clear reasoning, and so helped him to rise above himself once more. </P> <P> His castles had been set a-tumbling, and he saw in their fall the crushing of Malkern, the village which was almost as a child to him. And with the crushing of the village must come disaster to all his friends. For one weak moment he felt that this responsibility should not be his&mdash;it was not fair to fix it on him. What had he done to deserve so hard a treatment? He thought of Tom Chepstow, loyal, kindly, always caring and thinking for those who needed his help. He thought of the traders of the village who hoped and prayed for his success, that meant prosperity for themselves and happiness for their wives and children. And these things began to rekindle the fighting flame within him; the flame which hitherto had always burned so fiercely. He could not let them go under. </P> <P> Then with a rush a picture rose before his mind, flooding it, shutting out all those others, every thought of self or anybody else. It was Betty, with her gentle face, her soft brown hair and tender smiling eyes. Their steady courageous light shone deep down into his heart, and seemed to smite him for his weakness. His pulses began to throb, the weakened tide of his blood was sent coursing through his veins and mounted, mounted steadily to his brain. God! He must not go under. Even now the loyal child was up in the hills fighting his battles for him with&mdash;&mdash; </P> <P> He broke off, and sprang to his feet. A terrible fear had suddenly leapt at his heart and clutched him. Betty was up there in the hills. He had not heard from the hill camps for weeks. And now the supply of logs had ceased. What had happened? What was happening up there? </P> <P> The lethargy of despair lifted like a cloud. He was alert, thrilling with all the virility of his manhood set pulsing through his veins. Once more he was the man Dawson had failed to recognize when he ordered the mills to be closed down. Once more he was the man whose personal force had lifted him to his position as the master of Malkern mills. He was the Dave whom all the people of the village knew, ready to fight to the last ounce of his power, to the last drop of his blood. </P> <P> "They shan't beat us!" he muttered, as he strode out into the yard. Nor could he have said of whom he was speaking, if anybody at all. </P> <BR> <P> It was nearly midnight. Again Dawson and Simon Odd were in their employer's office. But this time a very different note prevailed. Dawson's hard face was full of keen interest. His eyes were eager. He was listening to the great man he had always known. Simon Odd, burly and unassuming, was waiting his turn when his chief had finished with his principal foreman. </P> <P> "I've thought this thing out, Dawson," Dave said pleasantly, in a tone calculated to inspire the other with confidence, and in a manner suggesting that the affair of the logs had not seriously alarmed him, "and evolved a fresh plan of action. No doubt, as you say, the thing's simply a jam on the river. If this is so, it will be freed in a short time, and we can go ahead. On the other hand, there may be some other reason for the trouble. I can't think of any explanation myself, but that is neither here nor there. Now I intend going up the river to-night. Maybe I shall go on to the camps. I shall be entirely guided by circumstances. Anyway I shall likely be away some days. Whatever is wrong, I intend to see it straight. In the meantime you will stand ready to begin work the moment the logs come down. And when they come down I intend they shall come down at a pace that shall make up for all the time we have lost. That's all I have for you. I simply say, be ready. Good-night." </P> <P> The man went out with a grin of satisfaction on his weather-beaten face. This was the Dave he knew, and he was glad. </P> <P> Simon Odd received his orders. He too must be ready. He must have his men ready. His mill must be asked to do more than ever before when the time came, and on his results would depend a comfortable bonus the size of which quite dazzled the simple giant. </P> <P> With his departure Dave began his own preparations. There was much to see to in leaving everything straight for his foremen. Dawson was more than willing. This new responsibility appealed to him as no other confidence his employer could have reposed in him. They spent some time together, and finally Dave returned to his office. </P> <P> During the evening inquirers from the village flooded the place. But no official information on the subject of the cessation of work was forthcoming, nor would Dave see any of them. They were driven to be content with gleanings of news from the mill hands, and these, with the simple lumberman's understanding of such things, explained that there was a jam on the river which might take a day, or even two days, to free. In this way a panic in the village was averted. </P> <P> Dave required provisions from home. But he could not spare the time to return there for them. He intended to set out on his journey at midnight. Besides, he had no wish to alarm his old mother. And somehow he was afraid she would drag the whole truth of his fears out of him. So he sent a note by one of the men setting out his requirements. </P> <P> His answer came promptly. The man returned with the kit bag only, and word that his mother was bringing the food down herself, and he smiled at the futility of his attempt to put her off. </P> <P> Ten minutes later she entered his office with her burden of provisions. Her face was calmly smiling. There was no trace of anxiety in it. So carefully was the latter suppressed that the effort it entailed became apparent to the man. </P> <P> "You shouldn't have bothered, ma," he protested. "I sent the man up specially to bring those things down." </P> <P> His mother's eyes had a shrewd look in them. </P> <P> "I know," she said. "There's a ham and some bacon, biscuit, and a fresh roast of beef here. Then I've put in a good supply of groceries." </P> <P> "Thanks, dear," he said gently. "You always take care of my inner man. But I wish you hadn't bothered this way." </P> <P> "It's no sort of trouble," she said, raising her eyes to his. Then she let them drop again. "Food don't need a lumberman's rough handling." </P> <P> The smile on Dave's face was good to see. He nodded. </P> <P> "I'd better tell you," he said. "You know, we've&mdash;stopped?" </P> <P> His eyes lingered fondly on the aged figure. This woman was very precious to him. </P> <P> "Yes, I know." There was the very slightest flash of anxiety in the old eyes. Then it was gone. </P> <P> "I'm going up the river to find things out." </P> <P> "That's what I understood. Betty is up there&mdash;too." </P> <P> The quiet assurance of his mother's remark brought a fresh light into the man's eyes, and the blood surged to his cheeks. </P> <P> "Yes, ma. That's it&mdash;chiefly." </P> <P> "I thought so. And&mdash;I'm glad. You'll bring her back with you?" </P> <P> "Yes, ma." </P> <P> "Good-bye, boy." His simple assurance satisfied her. Her faith in him was the faith of a mother. </P> <P> The man bent down and kissed the withered, upturned face. </P> <P> She went out, and Dave turned to the things she had brought him. She had thought of everything. And the food&mdash;he smiled. She was his mother, and the food had the amplitude such as is characteristic of a mother when providing for a beloved son. </P> <P> He must visit the barn to see about his horses. He went to the door. Opening it, he paused. Standing there he became aware of the sound of approaching wheels. The absence of any noise from the mills had made the night intensely silent, so that the rattle of wheels upon the hard sand trail, though distant, sounded acutely on the night air. He stood listening, with one great hand grasping the door casing. Yes, they were wheels. And now, too, he could hear the sharp pattering of horses' hoofs. The sound was uneven, yet regular, and he recognized the gait. They were approaching at a gallop. Nearer they came, and of a sudden he understood they were practically racing for the mill. </P> <P> He left the doorway and moved out into the yard. He thought it might be the team which Dawson had sent out returning, and perhaps bringing good news of the jam on the river. He walked toward the yard gates and stood listening intently. The night was dark, but clear and still, and as he listened he fancied in the rattle of the vehicle he recognized the peculiar creak of a buckboard. </P> <P> Nearer and nearer it came, louder and louder the clatter of hoofs and the rattle of wheels. The gallop seemed labored, like the clumsy gait of weary horses, and the waiting man straining could plainly hear a voice urging them on. </P> <P> Suddenly he thought of the gates, and promptly opened them. He hardly knew why he did so. It must have been the effect of the pace at which the horses were being driven. It must have been that the speed inspired him with an idea of emergency. Now he stood out in the road, and stooping, glanced along it till the faint light of the horizon revealed a dark object on the trail. He drew back and slowly returned to the office. </P> <P> The man's voice urging his horses on required no effort to hear now. It was hoarse with shouting, and the slashing of his whip told the waiting man of the pace at which he had traveled. The vehicle entered the yard gates. The urging voice became silent, the weary horses clattered up to the office door and came to a standstill. </P> <P> From the doorway Dave surveyed the outfit. He did not recognize it, but something about the man climbing out of the vehicle was familiar. </P> <P> "That you, Mason?" he asked sharply. </P> <P> "Yes&mdash;and another. Will you bear a hand to get him out?" </P> <P> Dave went to his assistance, wondering. Mason was busy undoing some ropes. Dave's wonder increased. As he came up he saw that the ropes held a man captive in the carryall. </P> <P> "Who is it?" he inquired. </P> <P> "Jim Truscott&mdash;whoever he may be," responded Mason with a laugh, as he freed the last rope. </P> <P> "Ah! Well, come right in&mdash;and bring him along too." </P> <P> But Mason remembered the animals that had served him so well. </P> <P> "What about the 'plugs'?" He was holding his captive, who stood silent at his side. </P> <P> "You go inside. I'll see to them." </P> <P> Dave watched Mason conduct his prisoner into the office, then he sprang into the buckboard and drove it across to the barn. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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