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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap25"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXV </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> MASON'S PRISONER </H4> <P> In a few minutes Dave returned from the barn. He had chosen to attend to the horses himself, for his own reasons preferring not to rouse the man who looked after his horses. </P> <P> His thoughts were busy while he was thus occupied. As yet he had no idea of what had actually occurred in the camps, but Mason's presence at such a time, the identity of his prisoner, the horses' condition of exhaustion; these things warned him of the gravity of the situation, and something of the possibilities. By the time he re´┐Żntered the office he was prepared for anything his "camp-boss" might have to tell him. </P> <P> He noted the faces of the two men carefully. In Mason he saw the weariness of a long nervous strain. His broad face was drawn, his eyes were sunken and deeply shadowed. From head to foot he was powdered with the red dust of the trail. Dave was accustomed to being well served, but he felt that this man had been serving him to something very near the limits of his endurance. Jim Truscott's face afforded him the keenest interest. It was healthier looking than he had seen it since his first return to Malkern. The bloated puffiness, the hall-mark of his persistent debauches, had almost entirely gone. The health produced by open-air and spare feeding showed in the tan of his skin. His eyes were clear, and though he, too, looked worn out, there was less of exhaustion about him than his captor. On the other hand there was none of Mason's fearless honesty in his expression. There was a truculent defiance in his eyes, a furious scowl in the drawn brows. There was a nervousness in the loose, weak mouth. His wrists were lashed securely together by a rope which had been applied with scant mercy. Dave's eyes took all these things in, and he pointed to the latter as he addressed himself to his overseer. </P> <P> "Better loose that," he said, in that even voice which gave away so little of his real feelings. "Guess you're both pretty near done in," he went on, as Mason unfastened the knots. "Got down here in a hurry?" </P> <P> "Yes; got any whiskey?" </P> <P> Mason had finished removing the prisoner's bonds when he spoke. </P> <P> "Brandy." </P> <P> "That'll do." </P> <P> The overseer laughed as men will laugh when they are least inclined to. Dave poured out long drinks and handed them to the two men. Mason drank his down at a gulp, but Truscott pushed his aside without a word. </P> <P> "There's a deal to tell," said the overseer, as he set his glass down. </P> <P> "There's some hours to daylight," Dave replied. "Go right ahead, and take your own time." </P> <P> The other let his tired eyes rest on his prisoner for some moments and remained silent. He was considering how best to tell his story. Suddenly he looked up. </P> <P> "The camp's on 'strike,'" he said. </P> <P> "Ah!" And it was Dave's eyes that fell upon Jim Truscott now. </P> <P> There was a world of significance in that ejaculation and the expression that leapt to the lumberman's eyes. It was a desperate blow the overseer had dealt him; but it was a blow that did not crush. It carried with it a complete explanation. And that explanation was of something he understood and had power to deal with. </P> <P> "And&mdash;this?" Dave nodded in Jim's direction. </P> <P> "Is one of the leaders." </P> <P> "Ah!" </P> <P> Again came Dave's meaning ejaculation. Then he settled himself in his chair and prepared to listen. </P> <P> "Get going," he said; but he felt that he required little more explanation. </P> <P> Mason began his story by inquiries about his own letters to his employer, and learned that none of them had been received during the last few weeks, and he gave a similar reply to Dave's inquiries as to the fate of his letters to the camp. Then he went on to the particulars of the strike movement, from the first appearance of unrest to the final moment when it became an accomplished fact. He told him how the chance "hands" he had been forced to take on had been the disturbing element, and these, he was now convinced, had for some reason been inspired. He told of that visit on the Sunday night to the sutler's store, he told of his narrow escape, and of his shooting down one of the men, and the fortunate capture, made with the timely assistance of Tom Chepstow, of his prisoner. Dave listened attentively, but his eyes were always on Truscott, and at the finish of the long story his commendation was less hearty than one might have expected. </P> <P> "You've made good, Mason, an' I'm obliged," he said, after a prolonged silence. "Say," he went on, glancing at his watch, "there's just four and a half hours to the time we start back for the camp. Go over to Dawson's shack and get a shake-down. Get what sleep you can. I'll call you in time. Meanwhile I'll see to this fellow," he added, indicating the prisoner. "We'll have a heap of time for talk on the way to the camps." </P> <P> The overseer's eyes lit. </P> <P> "Are you going up to the camps?" he inquired eagerly. </P> <P> "Yes, surely. We'll have to straighten this out." Then a sudden thought flashed through his mind. "There's the parson and&mdash;&mdash;!" </P> <P> Mason nodded. </P> <P> "Yes. They've got my shack. There's plenty of arms and ammunition. I left parson to hurry back to&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "He wasn't with her when you left?" </P> <P> There was a sudden, fierce light in Dave's eyes. Mason shook his head, and something of the other's apprehension was in his voice as he replied&mdash; </P> <P> "He was going back there." </P> <P> Dave's eyes were fiercely riveted upon Truscott's face. </P> <P> "We'll start earlier. Get an hour's sleep." </P> <P> There was no misunderstanding his employer's tone. In fact, for the first time since he had left the camp Mason realized the full danger of those two he had left behind him. But he knew he had done the only possible thing in the circumstances, and besides, his presence there would have added to their danger. Still, as he left the office to seek the brief rest for which he was longing, he was not without a qualm of conscience which his honest judgment told him he was not entitled to. </P> <P> Dave closed the door carefully behind him. Then he came back to his chair, and for some moments surveyed his prisoner in silence. Truscott stirred uneasily under the cold regard. Then he looked up, and all his bitter hatred for his one-time friend shone in the defiant stare he gave him. </P> <P> "I've tried to understand, but I can't," Dave said at last, as though his words were the result of long speculation. "It is so far beyond me that&mdash;&mdash; This is your doing, all your doing. It's nothing to do with those&mdash;those 'scabs.' You, and you alone have brought about this strike. First you pay a man to wreck my mills&mdash;you even try to kill me. Now you do this. You have thought it all out with devilish cunning. There is nothing that could ruin me so surely as this strike. You mean to wreck me; nor do you care who goes down in the crash. You have already slain one man in your villainy. For that you stand branded a&mdash;murderer. God alone knows what death and destruction this strike in the hills may bring about. And all of it is aimed at me. Why? In God's name, why?" </P> <P> Dave's manner was that of cold argument. He displayed none of the passion that really stirred him. He longed to take this man in his two great hands, and crush the mean life out of him. But nothing of such feeling was allowed to show itself. He began to fill his pipe. He did not want to smoke, but it gave his hands something to do, and just then his hands demanded something to do. </P> <P> His words elicited no reply. Truscott's eyes were upon the hands fumbling at the bowl of the pipe. He was not really observing them. He was wrapped in his own thoughts, and his eyes simply fixed themselves on the only moving thing in the room. Dave put his pipe in his mouth and refolded his pouch. Presently he went on speaking, and his tone became warmer, and his words more rapid. </P> <P> "There was a time when you were a man, a decent, honest, happy man; a youngster with all the world before you. At that time I did all in my power to help you. You remember? You ran that mill. It was a matter of hanging on and waiting till fortune turned your way for success and prosperity to come. Then one day you came to me; you and she. It was decided that you should go away&mdash;to seek your fortune elsewhere. We shook hands. Do you remember? You left her in my care. All this seems like yesterday. I promised you then that always, in the name of friendship, you could command me. Your trust I carried out to the letter, and all I promised I was ready to fulfil. Need I remind you of what has happened since? Need I draw a picture of the drunkard, gambler who returned to Malkern, of the insults you have put upon her, everybody? Of her patience and loyalty? Of the manner in which you finally made it impossible for her to marry you? It is not necessary. You know it all&mdash;if you are a sane man, which I am beginning to doubt. And now&mdash;now why are you doing all this? I intend to know. I mean to drag it out of you before you leave this room!" </P> <P> He had risen from his seat and stood before his captive with one hand outstretched in his direction, grasping his pipe by the bowl. His calmness had gone, a passion of angry protest surged through his veins. He was no longer the cool, clear-headed master of the mills, but a man swept by a fury of resentment at the injustice, the wanton, devilish, mischievous injustice of one whom he had always befriended. Friendship was gone and in its place there burned the human desire for retaliation. </P> <P> Truscott's introspective stare changed to a wicked laugh. It was forced, and had for its object the intention of goading the other. Dave calmed immediately. He understood that laugh in time, and so it failed in its purpose and died out. In its place the man's face darkened. It was he who fell a victim to his own intention. All his hatred for his one-time friend rose within him suddenly, and swept him on its burning tide. </P> <P> "You stand there preaching! You!" he cried with a ferocity so sudden that it became appalling. "You dare to preach to me of honesty, of friendship, of promises fulfilled? You? God, it makes me boil to hear you! If ever there was a traitor to friendship in this world it is you. I came back to marry Betty. Why else should I come back? And I find&mdash;what? She is changed. You have seen to that. For a time she kept up the pretense of our engagement. Then she seized upon the first excuse to break it. Why? For you! Oh, your trust was well fulfilled. You lost no time in my absence. Who was it I found her with on my return? You! Who was present to give her courage and support when she refused to marry me? You! Do you think I haven't seen the way it has all been worked? You have secured her uncle's and aunt's support. You! You have taken her from me! You! And you preach friendship and honesty to me. God, but you're a liar and a thief!" </P> <P> For a moment the lumberman's fury leapt and in another he would have crushed the man's life out of him, but, in a flash, his whole mood changed. The accusations were so absurd even from his own point of view. Could it be? For a moment he believed that the loss of Betty had unhinged Truscott's mind. But the thought passed, and he grew as calm now as a moment before he had been furious, and an icy sternness chilled him through and through. There was no longer a vestige of pity in him for his accuser. He sat down and lit his pipe, his heavy face set with the iron that had entered his soul. </P> <P> "You have lied to yourself until you have come to believe it," he said sternly. "You have lied because it is your nature to lie, because you have not an honest thought in your mind. I'll not answer your accusations, because they are so hopelessly absurd; but I'll tell you what I intend to do." </P> <P> "You won't answer them because you cannot deny them!" Truscott broke in furiously. "They are true, and you know it. You have stolen her from me. You! Oh, God, I hate you!" </P> <P> His voice rose to a strident shout and Dave raised a warning hand. </P> <P> "Keep quiet!" he commanded coldly. "I have listened to you, and now you shall listen to me." </P> <P> The fire in the other's eyes still shone luridly, but he became silent under the coldly compelling manner, while, like a savage beast, he crouched in his chair ready to break out into passionate protest at the least chance. </P> <P> "I don't know yet how far things have gone in the way you wish them to go up there in the hills, but you have found the way to accomplish your end in ruining me. If the strike continues I tell you frankly you will have done what you set out to do. My resources are taxed now to the limit. That will rejoice you." </P> <P> Truscott grinned savagely as he sprang in with his retort. </P> <P> "The strike is thoroughly established, and there are those up there who'll see it through. Yes, yes, my friend, it is my doing; all my doing, and it cannot fail me now. The money I took from you for the mill I laid out well. I laid out more than that&mdash;practically all I had in the world. Oh, I spared nothing; I had no intention of failing. I would give even my life to ruin you!" </P> <P> "Don't be too sure you may not yet have to pay that price," Dave said grimly. </P> <P> "Willingly." </P> <P> Truscott's whole manner carried conviction. Dave read in the sudden clipping of his teeth, the deadly light of his eyes, the clenching of his hands that he meant it. </P> <P> "I'll ruin you even if I die for it, but I'll see you ruined first," cried Truscott. </P> <P> "You have miscalculated one thing, Truscott," Dave said slowly. "You have forgotten that you are in my power and a captive. However, we'll let that go for the moment. I promise you you shall never live to see me suffer in the way you hope. You shall not even be aware of it. I care nothing for the ruin you hope for, so far as I am personally concerned, but I do care for other reasons. In dragging me down you will drag Malkern down, too. You will ruin many others. You will even involve Betty in the crash, for she, like the rest of us, is bound up in Malkern. And in this you will hurt me&mdash;hurt me as in your wildest dreams you never expected to do." Then he leant forward in his seat, and a subtle, deliberate intensity, more deadly for the very frigidity of his tone was in his whole attitude. His hands were outstretched toward his captive, his fingers were extended and bent at the joints like talons ready to clutch and rend their prey. "Now, I tell you this," he went on, "as surely as harm comes to Betty up in that camp, through any doings of yours, as surely as ruin through your agency descends upon this valley, as Almighty God is my Judge I will tear the life out of you with my own two hands." </P> <P> For a moment Truscott's eyes supported the frigid glare of Dave's. For a moment he had it in his mind to fling defiance at him. Then his eyes shifted and he looked away, and defiance died out of his mind. The stronger nature shook the weaker, and an involuntary shudder of apprehension slowly crept over him. Dave stirred to the pitch of threatening deliberate slaughter had been beyond his imagination. Now that he saw it the sight was not pleasant. </P> <P> Suddenly the lumberman sprang to his feet </P> <P> "We'll start right away," he said, in his usual voice. </P> <P> "We?" The monosyllabic question sprang from Truscott's lips in a sudden access of fear. </P> <P> "Yes. We. Mason, you, and me." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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