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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap27"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXVII </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> AT BAY </H4> <P> In the dugout Tom Chepstow was standing with his ear pressed against the door-jamb. He was listening, straining with every nerve alert to glean the least indication of what was going on outside. His face was pale and drawn, and his eyes shone with anxiety. He was gripped by a fear he had never known before, a fear that might well come to the bravest. Personal, physical danger he understood, it was almost pleasant to him, something that gave life a new interest. But this&mdash;this was different, this was horrible. </P> <P> Betty was standing just behind him. She was leaning forward craning intently. Her hands were clenched at her sides, and a similar dread was looking out of her soft eyes. Her face was pale with a marble coldness, her rich red lips were compressed to a fine line, her whole body was tense with the fear that lay behind her straining eyes. There was desperation in the poise of her body, the desperation of a brave woman who sees the last hope vanishing, swallowed up in a tide of disaster she is powerless to stem. </P> <P> For nearly a week these two had been penned up in the hut. But for the last thirty-six hours their stronghold had actually been in a state of siege. From the time of her uncle's realization of the conditions obtaining outside Betty had not ventured without the building, while the man himself had been forced to use the utmost caution in moving abroad. It had been absolutely necessary for him to make several expeditions, otherwise he, too, would have remained in their fortress. They required water and fire-wood, and these things had to be procured. Then, too, there were the sick. </P> <P> But on the third day the climax was reached. Returning from one of his expeditions Chepstow encountered a drunken gang of lumber-jacks. Under the influence of their recent orgy their spirit-soaked brains had conceived the pretty idea of "ilin' the passon's works"; in other words, forcing drink upon him, and making him as drunk as themselves. In their present condition the joke appealed to them, and it was not without a violent struggle that their intended victim escaped. </P> <P> He was carrying fire-wood at the time, and it served him well as a weapon of defense. In a few brief moments he had left one man stunned upon the ground and another with a horribly broken face, and was himself racing for the dugout. He easily outstripped his drunken pursuers, but he was quickly to learn how high a price he must pay for the temporary victory. He had brought a veritable hornets' nest about his ears. </P> <P> The mischief began. The attack upon himself had only been a drunken practical joke. The subsequent happenings were in deadly earnest. The mob came in a blaze of savage fury. Their first thought was for vengeance upon him. In all probability, up to that time, Betty's presence in the hut had been forgotten, but now, as they came to the dugout, they remembered. In their present condition it was but a short step from a desire to revenge themselves upon him, to the suggestion of how it could be accomplished through the girl. They remembered her pretty face, her delicious woman's figure, and instantly they became ravening brutes, fired with a mad desire to possess themselves of her. </P> <P> They were no longer strikers, they were not even men. The spirit taken from the burning store had done its work. A howling pack of demons had been turned loose upon the camp, ready for any fiendish prank, ready for slaughter, ready for anything. These untutored creatures knew no better, they were powerless to help themselves, their passions alone guided them at all times, and now all that was most evil in them was frothing to the surface. Sober, they were as tame as caged wolves kept under by the bludgeon of a stern discipline. Drunk, they were madmen, driven by the untamed passions of the brute creation. They were animals without the restraining instincts of the animal, they lusted for the exercise of their great muscles, and the vital forces which swept through their veins in a passionate torrent. </P> <P> Their first effort was a demand for the surrender of those in the hut, and they were coldly refused. They attempted a parley, and received no encouragement. Now they were determined upon capture, with loudly shouted threats of dire consequences for the defenders' obstinacy. </P> <P> It was close upon noon of the second day of the siege. The hut was barricaded at every point. Door and windows were blocked up with every available piece of furniture that could be spared, and the repeating-rifles were loaded ready, and both uncle and niece were armed with revolvers. They were defending more than life and liberty, and they knew it. They were defending all that is most sacred in a woman's life. It was a ghastly thought, a desperate thought, but a thought that roused in them both a conviction that any defense brain could conceive was justified. If necessary not even life itself should stand in the way of their defense. </P> <P> The yellow lamplight threw gloomy shadows about the barricaded room. Its depressing light added to the sinister aspect of their extremity. The silence was ominous, it was fraught with a portend of disaster; disaster worse than death. How could they hope to withstand the attack of the men outside? They were waiting, waiting for what was to happen. Every conceivable method had been adopted by the besiegers to dislodge their intended victims. They had tried to tear the roof off, but the heavy logs were well dovetailed, and the process would have taken too long, and exposed those attempting it to the fire of the rifles in the capable hands of the defenders. Chepstow had illustrated his determination promptly by a half dozen shots fired at the first moving of one of the logs. Then had come an assault on the door, but, here again, the ready play of the rifle from one of the windows had driven these besiegers hurriedly to cover. Some man, more blinded with drink than the rest of his comrades, had suggested fire. But his suggestion was promptly vetoed. Had it been the parson only they would probably have had no scruples, but Betty was there, and they wanted Betty. </P> <P> For some time there had been no further assault. </P> <P> "I wish I knew how many there were," Chepstow said, in a low voice. </P> <P> "Would that do any good?" </P> <P> The man moved his shoulders in something like a despairing shrug. </P> <P> "Would anything do any good?" </P> <P> "Nothing I can think of," Betty murmured bitterly. </P> <P> "I thought if there were say only a dozen I might open this door. We have the repeating-rifles." </P> <P> The man's eyes as he spoke glittered with a fierce light. Betty saw it, and somehow it made her shiver. </P> <P> It brought home to her their extremity even more poignantly than all that had gone before. When a brave churchman's thoughts concentrated in such a direction she felt that their hopes were small indeed. </P> <P> She shook her head. </P> <P> "No, uncle dear. We must wait for that until they force an entrance." She was cool enough in her desperation, cooler far than he. </P> <P> "Yes," he nodded reluctantly, "perhaps you're right, but the suspense is&mdash;killing. Hark! Listen, they are coming at us again. I wonder what it is to be this time." </P> <P> The harsh voices of the drunken mob could be plainly heard. They were coming nearer. Brutal laughter assailed the straining ears inside, and set their nerves tingling afresh. Then came a hush. It lasted some seconds. Then a single laugh just outside the door broke upon the silence. </P> <P> "Try again," a voice said. "Say, here's some more. 'Struth you're a heap of G&mdash;&mdash; d&mdash;&mdash; foolishness." </P> <P> Another voice broke in angrily. </P> <P> "God strike you!" it snarled, "do it your b&mdash;&mdash; self." </P> <P> "Right ho!" </P> <P> Then there came a shuffling of feet, and, a moment later, a scraping and scratching at the foot of the door. Chepstow glanced down at it, and Betty's eyes were irresistibly drawn in the same direction. </P> <P> "What are they doing now?" </P> <P> It was the voice of the wounded strike-leader on his bunk at the far end of the room. He was staring over at the door, his expression one of even greater fear than that of the defenders themselves. He felt that, in spite of the part he had played in bringing the strike about, his position was no better than these others. If anything happened to them all help for him was gone. Besides, he, too, understood that these men outside were no longer strikers, but wolves, whiskey-soaked savages beyond the control of any strike-leader. </P> <P> He received no reply. The scraping went on. Something was being thrust into the gaping crack which stood an inch wide beneath the door. Suddenly the noise ceased, followed by a long pause. Then, in the strong draught under the door, a puff of oil smoke belched into the room, and its nauseous reek set Chepstow coughing. His cough brought an answering peal of brutal laughter from beyond the door, and some one shouted to his comrades&mdash; </P> <P> "Bully fer you, bo'! Draw 'em! Draw 'em like badgers. Smoke 'em out like gophers." </P> <P> The pungent smoke belched into the room, and the man darted from the door. </P> <P> "Quick!" he cried. "Wet rags! A blanket!" </P> <P> Betty sprang to his assistance. The room was rapidly filling with smoke, which stung their eyes and set them choking. A blanket was snatched off the wounded strike-leader, but the process of saturating it was slow. They had only one barrel of water, and dared not waste it by plunging the blanket into it. So they were forced to resort to the use of a dipper. At last it was ready and the man crushed it down at the foot of the door, and stamped it tight with his foot. </P> <P> But it had taken too much time to set in place. The room was dense with a fog of smoke that set eyes streaming and throats gasping. In reckless despair the man sprang at one of the windows and began to tear down the carefully-built barricade. </P> <P> But now the cunning of the besiegers was displayed. As the last of the barricade was removed Chepstow discovered that the cotton covering of the window was smouldering. He tore it out to let in the fresh air, but only to release a pile of smouldering oil rags, which had been placed on the thickness of the wall, and set it tumbling into the room. The window was barricaded on the outside! </P> <P> The smoke became unbearable now, and the two prisoners set to work to trample the smouldering rags out. It was while they were thus occupied that a fresh disaster occurred. There was a terrific clatter at the stove, and a cloud of smoke and soot practically put the place in darkness. Nor did it need the sound of scrambling feet on the roof to tell those below what had happened. The strikers, by removing the topmost joint of the pipe, where it protruded through the roof, had been able, by the aid of a long stick, to dislodge the rest of the pipe and send it crashing to the floor. It was a master-stroke of diabolical cunning, for now, added to the smoke and soot, the sulphurous fumes of the blazing stove rendered the conditions of the room beyond further endurance. </P> <P> Half blinded and gasping Chepstow sprang at the table and seized a rifle. Betty had dropped into a chair choking. The strike-leader lay moaning, trying to shut out the smoke with his one remaining blanket. </P> <P> "Come on, Betty," shouted the man, in a frenzy of rage. "You've got your revolver. I'm going to open the door, and may God Almighty have mercy on the soul of the man who tries to stop us!" </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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