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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap26"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXVI </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> TO THE LUMBER CAMP </H4> <P> The gray morning mist rolled slowly up the hillsides from the bosom of the warming valley below. Great billows mounted, swelling in volume till, overweighted, they toppled, surging like the breaking rollers of a wind-swept ocean. Here and there the rosy sunlight brushed the swirling sea with a tenderness of color no painter's brush could ever hope to produce. A precocious sunbeam shot athwart the leaden prospect. It bored its way through the churning fog searching the depths of some benighted wood-lined hollow, as though to rouse its slumbering world. </P> <P> Dense spruce and hemlock forests grew out of the mists. The spires of gigantic pines rose, piercing the gray as though gasping for the warming radiance above. A perching eagle, newly roused from its slumbers, shrieked its morning song till the rebounding cries, echoing from a thousand directions, suggested the reveille of the entire feathered world. The mournful whistle of a solitary marmot swelled the song from many new directions, and the raucous chorus had for its accompaniment the thundering chords of hidden waters, seething and boiling in the mighty canons below. </P> <P> The long-drawn, sibilant hush of night was gone; the leaden mountain dawn had passed; day, glorious in its waking splendor, had routed the grim shadows from the mystic depths of ca´┐Żon, from the leaden-hued forest-laden valleys. The sunlight was upon the dazzling mountain-tops, groping, searching the very heart of the Rocky Mountains. </P> <P> Dave's buckboard, no more conspicuous than some wandering ant in the vast mountain world, crawled from the depths of a wide valley and slowly mounted the shoulders of a forest-clad ridge. It vanished into the twilight of giant woods, only to be seen again, some hours later, at a greater altitude, climbing, climbing the great slopes, or descending to gaping hollows, but always attaining the higher lands. </P> <P> But his speed was by no means a crawl in reality, only did it appear so by reason of the vastness of the world about him. His horses were traveling as fresh, mettlesome beasts can travel when urged by such a man as Dave, with his nerves strung to a terrific tension by the emergency of his journey. The willing beasts raced down the hills over the uneven trail with all the sure-footed carelessness of the prairie-bred broncho. They took the inclines with scarcely perceptible slackening of their gait. And only the sharp hills served them for breathing space. </P> <P> Dave occupied the driving-seat while Mason sat guard over Jim Truscott in the carryall behind. Those two days on the trail had been unusually silent, even for men such as they were, and even taking into consideration the object of their journey. Truscott and Mason were almost "dead beat" with all that had gone before, and Dave&mdash;he was wrapped in his own thoughts. </P> <P> His thoughts carried him far away from his companions into a world where love and strife were curiously blended. Every thread of such thought sent him blundering into mires of trouble, the possibilities of which set his nerves jangling with apprehension. But their contemplation only stiffened his stern resolve to fight the coming battle with a courage and resource such as never yet had he brought to bear in his bid for success. He knew that before him lay the culminating battle of his long and ardent sieging of Fortune's stronghold. He knew that now, at last, he was face to face with the great test of his fitness. He knew that this battle had always been bound to come before the goal of his success was reached; although, perhaps, its method and its cause may have taken a thousand other forms. It is not in the nature of things that a man may march untested straight to the golden pastures of his ambitions. He must fight every foot of his way, and the final battle must ever be the sternest, the crudest. God help the man if he has not the fitness, for Fate and Fortune are remorseless foes. </P> <P> But besides his native courage, Dave was stirred to even greater efforts by man's strongest motive, be his cause for good or evil. Love was the main-spring of his inspiration. He had desired success with a passionate longing all his life, and his success was not all selfishness. But now, before all things, he saw the sweetly gentle face of Betty Somers gazing with a heartful appeal, beckoning him, calling him to help her. Every moment of that long journey the vision remained with him; every moment he felt might be the moment of dire tragedy for her. He dared not trust himself to consider the nature of that tragedy, or he must have turned and rended the man who was its cause. Only he blessed each moment that passed, bringing him nearer to her side. He loved her as he loved nothing and no one else on earth, and somehow there had crept into his mind the thought of a possibility he had never yet dared to consider. It was a vague ray of hope that the impossibility of his love was not so great as he had always believed. </P> <P> How it had stolen in upon him he hardly knew. Perhaps it was his mother's persistent references to Betty. Perhaps it was the result of his talk with the man who had brought her to the straits she was now placed in. Perhaps it was one of these things, or both, coupled with the memory of trifling incidents in the past, which had seemed to mean nothing at the time of their happening. </P> <P> Whatever it was, his love for the girl swept through him now in a way that drove him headlong to her rescue. His own affairs of the mills, the fate of his friends in Malkern, of the village itself; all these things were driven into the background of his thoughts. Betty needed him. The thought set his brain whirling with a wild thrilling happiness, mazed, every alternate moment, with a horrible fear that drove him to the depths of despair. </P> <P> It was high noon when smoke ahead warned him that the journey was nearly over. The buckboard was on the ridge shouldering a wide valley, and below it was the rushing torrent of the Red Sand River. From his position Dave had a full view of the dull green forest world rolling away, east and west, in vast, undulating waves as far as the eye could reach. Only to the south, beyond the valley, was there a break in the dense, verdant carpet. And here it was he beheld the telltale smoke of the lumber camp. </P> <P> "That's the camp," he said, looking straight ahead, watching the slowly rising haze with longing eyes. "Guess we haven't to cross the river. Good." </P> <P> Mason was looking out over his shoulder. </P> <P> "No," he said after a moment's pause, while he tried to read the signs he beheld. "We don't cross the river. Keep to the trail. It takes us right past my shack." </P> <P> "Where Parson Tom and&mdash;&mdash;?" </P> <P> "Yes, where they're living." </P> <P> In another quarter of a mile they would be descending the hollow of a small valley diverging from the valley of the Red Sand River. As they drew near the decline, Dave spoke again. </P> <P> "Can you make anything out, Mason?" he asked. "Seems to me that smoke is thick for&mdash;for stovepipes. There's two lots; one of 'em nearer this way." </P> <P> Mason stared out for some moments, shielding his eyes from the dazzling sun. </P> <P> "I can't be sure," he said at last. "The nearest smoke should be my shack." </P> <P> A grave anxiety crept into Dave's eyes. </P> <P> "It isn't thick there," he said, as though trying to reassure himself. "That's your stovepipe?" </P> <P> "Maybe." </P> <P> Mason's reply expressed doubt. </P> <P> Suddenly Dave leant over and his whip fell sharply across the horses' backs. They sprang at their neck-yoke and raced down into the final dip. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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