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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap28"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXVIII </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> DAVE&mdash;THE MAN </H4> <P> Dave's buckboard swept up the slope of the last valley. It reached the dead level of the old travoy trail, which passed in front of Mason's dugout on its way to the lumber camp. He was looking ahead for signs which he feared to discover; he wanted the reason of the smoke he had seen from afar off. But now a perfect screen of towering pine forest lined the way, and all that lay beyond was hidden from his anxious eyes. </P> <P> He flogged his horses faster. The perfect mountain calm was unbroken; even the speeding horses and the rattle of his buckboard were powerless to disturb that stupendous quiet. It was a mere circumstance in a world too vast to take color from a detail so insignificant. It was that wondrous peace, that thrilling silence that aggravated his fears. His apprehension grew with each passing moment, and, though he made no display, his clutch upon the reins, the sharpness with which he plied his whip, the very immobility of his face, all told their tale of feelings strung to a high pitch. </P> <P> Mason was standing directly behind him in the carryall. He steadied himself with a grip upon the back of the driving-seat. Beside him the wretched Truscott was sitting on the jolting slats of the body of the vehicle, mercilessly thrown about by the bumping over the broken trail. Mason, too, was staring out ahead. </P> <P> "Seems quiet enough," he murmured, half to himself. </P> <P> Dave caught at his words. </P> <P> "That's how it seems," he said, in a tone of doubt. </P> <P> "It's less than half a mile now," Mason went on a moment later. "We're coming to the big bend." </P> <P> Dave nodded. His whip fell across his horses' quarters. "Best get ready," he said significantly. Then he laughed mirthlessly and tried to excuse himself. "I don't guess there'll be a heap of trouble, though." </P> <P> "No." </P> <P> Mason's reply carried no conviction. Both men were in doubt. Neither knew what to expect. Neither knew in what way to prepare for the meeting that was now so near. </P> <P> Now the trail began to swing out to the right. It was the beginning of the big bend. The walls of forest about them receded slightly, opening out where logs had been felled beside the trail in years past. The middle of the curve was a small clearing. Then, further on, as it inclined again to the left, it narrowed down to the bare breadth of the trail. </P> <P> "Just beyond this&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Mason broke off. His words were cut short by a loud shout just ahead of them. It was a shout of triumph and gleeful enjoyment. Dave's whip fell again, and the horses laid on to their traces. From that moment to the moment when the horses were almost flung upon their haunches by the sudden jolt with which Dave pulled them up was a matter of seconds only. He was out of the buckboard, too, having flung the reins to Mason, and was standing facing a small group of a dozen men whom it was almost impossible to recognize as lumberjacks. In truth, there were only three of them who were, the others were some of those Mason had been forced to engage in his extremity. </P> <P> At the sight of Dave's enormous figure a cry broke from the crowd. Then they looked at the buckboard with its panting horses, and Mason standing in the carryall, one hand on the reins and one resting on the revolver on his hip. Their cry died out. But as it did so another broke from their midst. It was Betty's voice, and her uncle's. There was a scuffle and a rush. Gripping the girl by the arm Tom Chepstow burst from their midst and ran to Dave's side, dragging Betty with him. </P> <P> "Thank God!" he cried. </P> <P> But there was no answering joy from Dave. He scarcely even seemed to see them. A livid, frozen rage glared out of his eyes. His face was terrible to behold. He moved forward. His gait was cat-like, his head was thrust forward, it was almost as if he tiptoed and was about to spring upon the mob. As he came within a yard of the foremost of the men he halted, and one great arm shot out with its fist clenching. </P> <P> "Back!" he roared; "back to your camp, every man of you! Back, you cowardly hounds!" </P> <P> There were twelve of them; fierce, savage, half-drunken men. They cared for no one, they feared no one. They were ready to follow whithersoever their passions led them. There was not a man among them that would not fight with the last breath in his body. Yet they hesitated at the sound of that voice. They almost shrank before that passion-lit face. The man's enormous stature was not without awe for them. And in that moment of hesitation the battle was won for Dave. Chepstow's repeating-rifle was at his shoulder, and Mason's revolver had been whipped out of its holster and was held covering them. </P> <P> Suddenly there was a movement in the crowd, somewhere behind. If Dave saw it he gave no sign. But Mason saw it, and, sharply incisive, his voice rang out&mdash; </P> <P> "The first man that moves this way I'll shoot him like a dog!" </P> <P> Instantly every eye among the strikers was turned upon the two men with their ready weapons, and to a man they understood that the game was up. </P> <P> "Get out! Get out&mdash;quick!" Dave's great voice split the air with another deep roar. And the retreat began on the instant with those in the rear. Some one started to run, and in a moment the rest had joined in a rush for the camp, vanishing into the forest like a pack of timber wolves, flinging back fierce, vengeful glances over their shoulders at those who had so easily routed them. </P> <P> No one stirred till the last man had disappeared. Then Dave turned. </P> <P> "Quick!" he cried, in an utterly changed voice, "get into the buckboard!" </P> <P> But Betty turned to him in a half-hysterical condition. </P> <P> "Oh, Dave, Dave!" she cried helplessly. </P> <P> But Dave was just now a man whom none of them had ever seen before. He had words for no one&mdash;not even for Betty. He suddenly caught her in his arms and lifted her bodily into the buckboard. He scrambled in after her, while Chepstow jumped up behind. In a moment, it seemed, they were racing headlong for the camp. </P> <P CLASS="noindent" ALIGN="center"> <SPAN STYLE="letter-spacing: 4em">*****</SPAN><BR> </P> <P> The camp was in a ruinous condition. The destructive demon in men temporarily demented was abroad and his ruthless hand had fallen heavily. The whole atmosphere suggested the red tide of anarchy. The charred remains of the sutler's store was the centre of a net of ruin spread out in every direction, and from this radiated the wreckage of at least a dozen shanties, which had, like the store, been burned to the ground. </P> <P> In the circumstances it would be impossible to guess at the reasons for such destruction: maybe it was the result of carelessness, maybe a mischievous delight in sweeping away that which reminded these men of their obligations to their employer, maybe it was merely a consequence of the settlement of their own drunken feuds. Whatever the cause, the hideous effect of the strike was apparent in every direction. </P> <P> In the centre of the clearing was a great gathering of the lumbermen. Their seared faces expressed every variety of mental attitude, from fierce jocularity down to the blackest hatred of interference from those whose authority had become anathema to them. </P> <P> They were gathered at the call of those who had fled from the dugout, spurred to a defense of what they believed to be their rights by a hurried, garbled account of the summary treatment just meted out to them. They were ready for more than the mere assertion of their demands. They were ready to enforce them, they were ready for any mischief which the circumstances prompted. </P> <P> It was a deadly array. Many were sober, many were sobering, many were still drunk. The latter were those whose cunning had prompted them, at the outset of the strike, to secrete a sufficient supply of liquor from their fellows. And the majority of these were not the real lumber-jacks, those great simple children of the forest, but the riffraff that had drifted into the camp, or had been sent thither by those who promoted the strike. The real lumber-jacks were more or less incapable of such foresight and cunning. They were slow-thinking creatures of vast muscle, only swift and keen as the axes they used when engaged in the work which was theirs. </P> <P> Through the rank animal growth of their bodies their minds had remained too stunted to display the low cunning of the scallywags whose unscrupulous wits alone must supply their idle bodies with a livelihood. But simple as babes, simple and silly as sheep, and as dependent upon their shepherd, as these men were, they were at all times dangerous, the more dangerous for their very simplicity. Just now, with their unthinking brains sick with the poison of labor's impossible argument, and the execrable liquor of the camp, they were a hundred times more deadly. </P> <P> Men had come in for the orgy from all the outlying camps. They had been carefully shepherded by those whose business it was to make the strike successful. Discontent had been preached into every ear, and the seed had fallen upon fruitful, virgin soil. Thus it was that a great concourse had foregathered now. </P> <P> There was an atmosphere of restrained excitement abroad among them. For them the news of Dave's arrival had tremendous possibilities. A babel of harsh voices debated the situation in loud tones, each man forcing home his argument with a mighty power of lung, a never-failing method of supporting doubtful argument. The general attitude was threatening, yet it hardly seemed to be unanimous. There was too much argument. There seemed to be an undercurrent of uncertainty with no single, capable voice to check or guide it. </P> <P> As the moments sped the crowd became more and more threatening, but whether against the master of the mills, or whether the result of hot blood and hot words, it would have been difficult to say. Then, just as the climax seemed to be approaching, a magical change swept over the throng. It was wrought by the sudden appearance of Dave's buckboard, which seemed to leap upon the scene from the depth of the forest. And as it came into view a hoarse, fierce shout went up. Then, in a moment, an expectant hush fell. </P> <P> Dave's eyes were fixed upon the crowd before him. He gave no sign. His face, like a mask, was cold, hard, unyielding. No word was spoken by those in the buckboard. Every one, with nerves straining and pulses throbbing, was waiting for what was to happen; every one except the prisoner, Truscott. </P> <P> The master of the mills read the meaning of what he beheld with the sureness of a man bred to the calling of these men. He knew. And knowing, he had little blame for them. How could it be otherwise with these unthinking souls? The blame must lie elsewhere. But his sympathy left his determination unaltered. He knew, no one better, that here the iron heel alone could prevail, and for the time his heel was shod for the purpose. </P> <P> He drew near. Some one shouted a furious epithet at him, and the cry was taken up by others. The horses shied. He swung them back with a heavy hand, and forced them to face the crowd, his whip falling viciously at the same time. But, for a moment, his face relaxed its cold expression. His quick ears had detected a lack of unanimity in the execration. Suddenly he pulled the horses up. He passed the reins to Mason and leaped to the ground. </P> <P> It was a stirring moment. The mob advanced, but the movement seemed almost reluctant. It was not the rush of blind fury one might have expected, but rather as though it were due to pressure from behind by those under cover of their comrades in front. </P> <P> Dave moved on to meet them, and those in the buckboard remained deathly still. Mason was the first to move. He had just become aware that Dave had left his revolver on the seat of the vehicle. Instantly he lifted the reins and walked the horses closer to the crowd. </P> <P> "He's unarmed," he said, in explanation to the parson. </P> <P> Chepstow nodded. He moved his repeating-rifle to a handier position. Betty looked up. </P> <P> "He left that gun purposely," she said. "I saw him." </P> <P> Her face was ghastly pale, but a light shone in her eyes which nobody could have failed to interpret. Mason saw it and no longer hesitated. </P> <P> "Will you take these reins?" he said. "And&mdash;give me your revolver." </P> <P> The girl understood and obeyed in silence. </P> <P> "I think there'll be trouble," Mason went on a moment later, as he saw Dave halt within a few yards of the front rank of the strikers. </P> <P> He watched the men close about his chief in a semicircle, but the buckboard in rear always held open a road for retreat. Now the crowd pressed up from behind. The semicircle became dense. Those in the buckboard saw that many of the men were carrying the tools of their calling, prominent among them being the deadly peavey, than which, in case of trouble, no weapon could be more dangerous at close quarters. </P> <P> As he halted Dave surveyed the sea of rough, hard faces glowering upon him. He heard the mutterings. He saw the great bared arms and the knotty hands grasping the hafts of their tools. He saw all this and understood, but the sight in no way disturbed him. His great body was erect, his cold eyes unwavering. It was the unconscious pose of a man who feels the power to control within him. </P> <P> "Well?" he inquired, with an easy drawl. </P> <P> Instantly there was silence everywhere. It was the critical moment. It was the moment when, before all things, he must convince these lawless creatures of his power, his reserve of commanding force. </P> <P> "Well?" he demanded again. "Where's your leader? Where's the gopher running this layout? I've come right along to talk to you boys to see if we can't straighten this trouble out. Where's your leader, the man who was hired to make you think I wasn't treating you right; where is he? Speak up, boys, I can't rightly hear all you're saying. I want to parley with your leaders." </P> <P> Mason listening to the great voice of the lumberman chuckled inaudibly. He realized something of Dave's method, and the shrewdness of it. </P> <P> The mutterings had begun afresh. Some of the front rank men drew nearer. Dave did not move. He wanted an answer. He wanted an indication of their actual mood. Somebody laughed in the crowd. It was promptly shouted down. It was the indication the master of the mills sought. They wanted to hear what he had to say. He allowed the ghost of a smile to play round the corners of his stern mouth for a moment. But his attitude remained uncompromising. His back stiffened, his great shoulders squared, he stood out a giant amongst those giants of the forest. </P> <P> "Where's your man?" he cried, in a voice that could be heard by everybody. "Is he backing down? That's not like a lumber-jack. P'r'aps he's not a lumber-jack. P'r'aps he's got no clear argument I can't answer. P'r'aps he hasn't got the grit to get out in the open and talk straight as man to man. Well, let it go at that. Guess you'd best set one of you up as spokesman. I've got all the time you need to listen." </P> <P> "Your blasted skunk of a foreman shot him down!" cried a voice in the crowd, and it was supported by ominous murmurs from the rest. </P> <P> "By God, and Mason was right!" cried Dave, in a voice so fierce that it promptly silenced the murmurs. His dilating eyes rested on several familiar faces. The faces of men who had worked for him for years, men whose hair was graying in the service of the woods. He also flashed his lightning glance upon faces unfamiliar, strangers to his craft. "By God, he was right!" he repeated, as though to force the violence of his opinion upon them. "I could have done it myself. And why? Because he has come here and told you you are badly treated. He's told you the tale that the profits of this work of yours belong to you. He's told you I am an oppressor, who lives by the sweat of your labors. He tells you this because he is paid to tell you. Because he is paid by those who wish to ruin my mills, and put me out of business, and so rob you all of the living I have made it possible for you to earn. You refuse to work at his bidding; what is the result? My mill is closed down. I am ruined. These forests are my right to cut. There is no more cutting to be done. You starve. Yes, you starve like wolves in winter. You'll say you can get work elsewhere. Go and get it, and you'll starve till you get it at half the wage I pay you. I am telling you what is right. I am talking to you with the knowledge of my own ruin staring me in the face. You have been told you can squeeze me, you can squeeze a fraction more of pay out of me. But you can't, not one cent, any man of you; and if you go to work again to keep our ship afloat you'll have to work harder than ever before&mdash;for the same pay. Now pass up your spokesman, and I'll talk to him. I can't bellow for all the world to hear." </P> <P> It was a daring beginning, so daring that those in the buckboard gasped in amazement. But Dave knew his men, or, at least, he knew the real lumber-jack. Straight, biting talk must serve him, or nothing would. </P> <P> Now followed a buzz of excited talk. There were those among the crowd who from the beginning had had doubts, and to these Dave's words appealed. He had voiced something of what they had hazily thought. Others there were who were furious at his biting words. Others again, and these were not real lumber-jacks, who were for turning upon him the savage brutality of their drink-soaked brains. </P> <P> An altercation arose. It was the dispute of factions suddenly inflamed. It was somewhere in rear of the crowd. Those in front turned to learn the cause. Dave watched and listened. He understood. It was the result of his demand for a spokesman. Opinions were divided, and a dozen different men were urged forward. He knew he must check the dispute. Suddenly his voice rang out above the din. </P> <P> "It's no use snarling about it like a lot of coyotes," he roared. "Pass them all through, and I'll listen to 'em all. Now, boys, pass 'em through peaceably." </P> <P> One of the men in front of him supported him. </P> <P> "Aye, aye," he shouted. "That's fair, boys, bring 'em along. The boss'll talk 'em straight." </P> <P> The man beside him hit him sharply in the ribs, and the broad-shouldered "jack" swung round. </P> <P> "Ther' ain't no 'boss' to this layout, Peter," objected the man who had dealt the blow. "Yonder feller ain't no better'n us." </P> <P> The man scowled threateningly as he spoke. He was an enormous brute with a sallow, ill-tempered face, and black hair. Dave heard the words and his eyes surveyed him closely. He saw at a glance there was nothing of the lumberman about him. He set him down at once as a French Canadian bully, probably one of the men instrumental in the strike. </P> <P> However, his attention was now drawn to the commotion caused by six of the lumbermen being pushed to the front as spokesmen. They joined the front rank, and stood sheepishly waiting for their employer. Custom and habit were strong upon them, and a certain awe of the master of the mills affected them. </P> <P> "Now we'll get doing," Dave said, noting with satisfaction that four of the six were old hands who had worked beside him in his early days. "Well, boys, let's have it. What's your trouble? Give us the whole story." </P> <P> But as spokesmen these fellows were not brilliant. They hesitated, and, finally, with something approaching a shamefaced grin, one of them spoke up. </P> <P> "It's&mdash;it's jest wages, boss." </P> <P> "Leave it at 'wages,' Bob!" shouted a voice at the back of the crowd. </P> <P> "Yes," snarled the sallow-faced giant near by. "We're jest man to man. Ther' ain't no 'bosses' around." </P> <P> "Hah!" Dave breathed the ejaculation. Then he turned his eyes, steely hard, upon the last speaker, and his words came in an unmistakable tone. "It seems there are men here who aren't satisfied with their spokesmen. Maybe they'll speak out good and plenty, instead of interrupting." </P> <P> His challenge seemed to appeal to the original spokesman, for he laughed roughly. </P> <P> "Say, boss," he cried, "he don't cut no ice, anyways. He's jest a bum roadmaker. He ain't bin in camp more'n six weeks. We don't pay no 'tention to him. Y'see, boss," he went on, emphasizing the last word purposely, "it's jest wages. We're workin' a sight longer hours than is right, an' we ain't gettin' nuthin' extry 'cep' the rise you give us three months back. Wal, we're wantin' more. That's how." </P> <P> He finished up his clumsy speech with evident relief, and mopped his forehead with his ham-like hand. </P> <P> "And since when, Bob Nicholson, have you come to this conclusion?" demanded Dave, with evident kindliness. </P> <P> His tone produced instant effect upon the man. He became easier at once, and his manner changed to one of distinct friendliness. </P> <P> "Wal, boss, I can't rightly say jest when, fer sure. Guess it must ha' bin when that orator-feller got around&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Shut up!" roared some one in the crowd, and the demand was followed up by distinct cursing in several directions. The sallow-faced roadmaker seized his opportunity. </P> <P> "It's wages we want an' wages we're goin' to git!" he shouted so that the crowd could hear. "You're sweatin' us. That's wot you're doin', sweatin' us, to make your pile a sight bigger. We're honest men up here; we ain't skunks what wants wot isn't our lawful rights. Ef you're yearnin' fer extry work you got to pay fer it. Wot say, boys?" </P> <P> "Aye! That's it. Extry wages," cried a number of voices in the background. But again the chorus was not unanimous. There were those, too, in the front whose scowling faces, turned on the speaker, showed their resentment at this interference by a man they did not recognize as a lumber-jack. </P> <P> Dave seized his opportunity. </P> <P> "You're wanting extra wages for overtime," he cried, in a voice that carried like a steam siren. "Well, why didn't you ask for them? Why did you go out on strike first, and then ask? Why? I'll tell you why. I'll tell you why you chose this damned gopher racket instead of acting like the honest men you boast yourselves to be. I can tell you why you wanted to lock up your camp-boss, and so prevent your wishes reaching me. I can tell you why you had men on the road between here and Malkern to stop letters going through. I can tell you why you honest men set fire to the store here, and stole all the liquor and goods in it. I can tell you why you did these things. Because you've just listened like silly sheep to the skunks who've come along since the fever broke out. Because you've listened to the men who've set out to ruin us both, you and me. Because you've listened to these scallywags, who aren't lumbermen, who've come among you. They're not 'jacks' and they don't understand the work, but they've been drawing the same wages as you, and they're trying to rob you of your living, they're trying to take your jobs from you and leave you nothing. That's why you've done these things, you boys who've worked with me for years and years, and had all you needed. Are you going to let 'em rob you? They <i>are</i> robbing you, for, I swear before God, my mills are closed down, and they'll remain closed, and every one of you can get out and look for new work unless you turn to at once." </P> <P> A murmur again arose as he finished speaking, but this time there was a note of alarm in it, a note of anger that was not against their employer. Faces looked puzzled, and ended by frowning into the faces of neighbors. Dave understood the effect he had made. He was waiting for a bigger effect. He was fighting for something that was dearer to him than life, and all his courage and resource were out to the limit. He glanced at the sallow-faced giant. Their eyes met, and in his was a fierce challenge. He drew the fellow as easily as any expert swordsman. The man had been shrewd enough to detect the change in his comrades, and he promptly hurled himself into the fray to try and recover the lost ground. He stepped forward, towering over his fellows. He meant mischief. </P> <P> "See, mates," he shouted, trying to put a jeer in his angry voice, "look at 'im! He's come here to call us a pack o' skunks an' gophers. Him wot's makin' thousands o' dollars a day out of us. He's come here to kick us like a lot o' lousy curs. His own man shot up our leader, him as was trying to fit things right fer us. I tell you it was murder&mdash;bloody murder! We're dirt to him. He can kick us&mdash;shoot us up. We're dogs&mdash;lousy yeller dogs&mdash;we are. You'll listen to his slobbery talk an' you'll go to work&mdash;and he'll cut your wages lower, so he can make thousan's more out o' you." Then he suddenly swung round on Dave with a fierce oath. "God blast you, it's wages we want&mdash;d'ye hear&mdash;wages! An' we're goin' to have 'em! You ain't goin' to grind us no longer, mister! You're goin' to sign a 'greement fer a rise o' wages of a quarter all round. That's wot you're goin' to do!" </P> <P> Dave was watching, watching. His opportunity was coming. </P> <P> "I came to talk to honest 'jacks,'" he said icily, "not to blacklegs. I'll trouble you to get right back into the crowd, and hide your ugly head, and keep your foul tongue quiet. The boys have got their spokesmen." </P> <P> His voice was sharp, but the man failed to apprehend the danger that lay behind it. He was a bigger man than Dave, and, maybe, he thought to cow him. Perhaps he didn't realize that the master of the mills was now fighting for his existence. </P> <P> There was an instant's pause, and Dave took a step toward him. </P> <P> "Get back!" he roared. </P> <P> His furious demand precipitated things, as he intended it should. Like lightning the giant whipped out a gun. </P> <P> "I'll show you!" he cried. </P> <P> There was a sharp report. But before he could pull the trigger a second time Dave's right fist shot out, and a smashing blow on the chin felled him to the ground like a pole-axed ox. </P> <P> As the man fell Dave turned again to the strikers, and no one noticed that his left arm was hanging helpless at his side. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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