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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap30"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXX </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> IN THE DUGOUT </H4> <P> <SPAN STYLE="font-variant: small-caps">Three</SPAN> arduous and anxious days followed the ending of the strike, and each of the occupants of Mason's dugout felt the strain of them in his or her own particular way. Next to the strike itself, Dave's wound was the most serious consideration. He was the leader, the rudder of his ship; his was the controlling brain; and he was a most exasperating patient. His wound was bad enough, though not dangerous. It would be weeks before the use of his left arm was restored to him; but he had a way of forgetting this, of forgetting that he had lost a great quantity of blood, until weakness prostrated him and roused him to a peevish perversity. </P> <P> Betty was his self-appointed nurse. Tom Chepstow might examine his wound and consider his condition, but it was Betty who dressed his wound, Betty who prepared his food and ministered to his lightest needs. From the moment of his return to the dugout she took charge of him. She consulted no one, she asked for no help. For the time, at least, he was her possession, he was hers to lavish all the fulness of her great love upon, a love that had something almost maternal in its wonderful protective instinct. </P> <P> Mason was busy with the work of reorganization. His was the practical hand and head while Dave was on his sick-bed. From daylight to long after dark he took no rest. Dave's counsel guided him to an extent, but much had to be done without any consultation with the master of the mills. Provisioning the camp was a problem not easily solved. It was simple enough to order up food from Malkern, but there would be at least a week's delay before its arrival. Finally, he surmounted this difficulty, through the return of Lieberstein, who had fled to the woods with his cash-box and a supply of provisions, at the first sign of trouble. Now he had returned to save what he could from the wreck. The Jew needed assistance to recover his looted property&mdash;what remained of it. The overseer gave him that assistance, and at the same time arranged that all provisions so recovered should be redistributed (at a price) as rations to the men. Thus the delay in the arrival of supplies from Malkern was tided over. But though he availed himself of this means of getting over his difficulty he was fully determined to rid the camp, at the earliest opportunity, of so treacherous a rascal as Lieberstein. </P> <P> In two days the work of restoration was in full swing. The burned store and shanties were run up with all a lumberman's rapidity and disregard for finish. Time was the thing that mattered. And so wonderfully did Mason drive and cajole his men, that on the third day the gangs once more marched out into the woods. Once again the forests echoed with the hiss of saw, the ringing clang of smiting axe, the crash of falling trees, the harsh voices of the woodsmen, and the hundred and one sounds of bustling activity which belong to a lumber camp in full work. </P> <P> That day was a pleasant one for the occupants of the dugout. It was a wonderful work Mason had done. They all knew and appreciated his devotion to his wounded employer, and though none spoke of it, whenever he appeared in their midst their appreciation of him showed in their manner. Betty was very gentle and kindly. She saw that he wanted for nothing in the way of the comforts which the dugout could provide. </P> <P> Tom Chepstow was far too busy with his sick to give attention to anything else. His hands were very full, and his was a task that showed so little result. Dave, for the most part, saw everything that was going on about him, and had a full estimate of all that was being done in his interests by the devoted little band, and, absurdly enough, the effect upon him was to stir him to greater irritability. </P> <P> It was evening, and the slanting sunlight shone in through one of the windows. It was a narrow beam of light, but its effect was sufficiently cheering. No dugout is a haven of brightness, and just now this one needed all that could help to lift the shadow of sickness and disaster that pervaded it. </P> <P> Betty was preparing supper, and Dave, lying on his stretcher, his vast bulk only half concealed by the blanket thrown over him, was watching the girl with eyes that fed hungrily upon the swift, graceful movements of her pretty figure, the play of expression upon her sweet, sun-tanned face, the intentness, the whole-hearted concentration in her steady, serious eyes as she went about her work. </P> <P> Now and again she glanced over at his rough bed, but he seemed to be asleep every time she turned in his direction. The result was an additional care in her work. She made no noise lest she should waken him. Presently she stooped and pushed a log into the fire-box of the cook-stove. The cinders fell with a clatter, and she glanced round apprehensively. Her movement was so sudden that Dave's wide-open eyes had no time to shut. In a moment she was all contrition at her clumsiness. </P> <P> "I'm so sorry, Dave," she exclaimed. "I did so hope you'd sleep on till supper. It's half an hour yet." </P> <P> "I haven't been sleeping at all." </P> <P> "Why, I&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> He smiled and shook his head, and his smile delighted the girl. It was the first she had seen in him since his arrival in the camp. His impatience at being kept to his bed was perhaps dying out. She had always heard that the most active and impatient always became reconciled to bed in the end. </P> <P> "Yes, I did it on purpose," Dave said, still smiling. "You see I wanted to think. You'd have talked if I hadn't. I&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Oh, Dave!" </P> <P> Betty's reproach had something very like resentment in it. She turned abruptly to the boiler of stew and tasted its contents, while the man chuckled softly. </P> <P> But she turned round on him again almost immediately. </P> <P> "Why are you laughing?" she demanded quickly. </P> <P> But he did not seem inclined to enlighten her. </P> <P> "Half an hour to supper?" he said musingly. "Tom'll be in directly&mdash;and Mason." </P> <P> Betty was still looking at him with her cooking spoon poised as it had been when she tasted the stew. </P> <P> "Yes," she said, "they'll be in directly. I've only just got to make the tea." She dropped the spoon upon the table and replaced the lid of the boiler. Then she came over to his bedside. "What did you mean saying I should have talked?" she asked, only now there was a smiling response to the smile still lurking in the gray depths of the man's eyes. Dave drew a long sigh of resignation. </P> <P> "Well, y'see, Betty, if I'd laid here with my eyes open, staring about the room, at you, at the roof, at the window for a whole heap of time, you'd have said to yourself, 'Dave's suffering sure. He can't sleep. He's miserable, unhappy.' You'd have said all those things, and with all your kind little heart, you'd have set to work to cheer me up&mdash;same as you'd no doubt have done for that strike-leader fellow you shipped over to the sick camp to make room for me. Well, I just didn't want that kind of cheering. I was thinking&mdash;thinking mighty hard&mdash;figgering how best to make a broken-winged&mdash;er&mdash;owl fly without waiting for the wing to mend. Y'see, thinking's mostly all I can do just now, and I need to do such a mighty heap to keep me from getting mad and breaking things. Y'see every hour, as I lie here, I kind of seem to be storing up steam like a locomotive, and sometimes I feel&mdash;feel as if I was going to bust. Being sick makes me hate things." His smiling protest was yet perfectly serious. The girl understood. A moment later he went on. "Half an hour to supper?" he said, as though suddenly reaching a decision that had cost him much thought. "Well, just sit right down on this stretcher, and I'm going to talk you tired. I'm sick, so you can't refuse." </P> <P> The man's eyes still smiled, but the seriousness of his manner had increased. Nor was Betty slow to observe it. She gladly seated herself on the edge of the stretcher, and without the least embarrassment, without the least self-consciousness, her soft eyes rested on the rugged face of her patient. She was glad that he wanted to talk&mdash;and to her, and she promptly took him up in his own tone. </P> <P> "Well, I've got to listen, I s'pose," she said, with a bright smile. "As you say, you're sick. You might have added that I am your nurse." </P> <P> "Yes, I s'pose you are. It seems funny me needing a nurse. I s'pose I do need one?" </P> <P> Betty nodded; her eyes were bright with an emotion that the man's words had all unconsciously stirred. This man, so strong for himself, so strong to help others&mdash;this man, on whom all who came into contact with him leaned as upon some staunch, unfailing support&mdash;this man, so invincible, so masterful, so eager in the battle where the odds were against him, needed a nurse! A great pity, a great sympathy, went out to him. Then a feeling of joy and gratitude at the thought that she was his nurse succeeded it. She&mdash;she alone had the right to wait upon him. But her face expressed none of these feelings when she replied. She nodded gravely. </P> <P> "Yes, you need a nurse, you poor old Dave. Just for once you're going to give others a chance of being to you what you have always been to them. It breaks my heart to see you on a sickbed; but, Dave, you can never know the joy, the happiness it gives me to be&mdash;your nurse. All my life it has been the other way. All my life you have been my wise counselor, my ever-ready loyal friend; now, in ever so small a degree, you have to lean on me. Don't be perverse, Dave. Let me help you all I can. Don't begrudge me so small a happiness. But you said you were going to talk me tired, and I'm doing it all." She laughed lightly, but it was a laugh to hide her real feelings. </P> <P> The man's uninjured arm reached out, and his great hand rested heavily on one of hers. The pressure of his fingers, intended to be gentle, was crushing. His action meant so much. No words could have thanked her more truly than that hand pressure. Betty's face grew warm with delight; and she turned her eyes toward the stove as though to see that all was well with her cooking. </P> <P> "They're cutting to-day?" Dave's eyes were turned upon the window. The sunlight was dying out now, and the gray dusk was stealing upon the room. Betty understood the longing in the man's heart. </P> <P> "Yes, they're cutting." </P> <P> He stirred uneasily. </P> <P> "My shoulder is mending fast," he said a moment later. And the girl saw his drift. </P> <P> She shook her head. </P> <P> "It's mending, but it won't be well&mdash;for weeks," she said. </P> <P> "It's got to be," he said, with tense emphasis, after a long pause. His voice was low, but thrilling with the purpose of a mind that would not bend to the weakness of his body. </P> <P> "You must be patient, Dave dear," the girl said, with the persuasiveness of a mother for her child. </P> <P> For a moment the man's brows drew together in a frown and his lips compressed. </P> <P> "Betty, Betty, I can't be patient," he suddenly burst out. "I know I'm all wrong; but I can't be patient. You know what all this means. I'm not going to attempt to tell you. You understand it all. I cannot lie here a day longer. Even now I seem to hear the saws and axes at work. I seem to see the men moving through the forests. I seem to hear Mason's orders in the dead calm of the woods. With the first logs that are travoyed to the river I must leave here and get back to Malkern. There is work to be done, and from now on it will be man's work. It will be more than a fight against time. It will be a battle against almost incalculable odds, a battle in which all is against us. Betty, you are my nurse, and as you hope to see me through with this broken shoulder, so you must not attempt to alter my decision. I know you. You want to see me fit and well. Before all things you desire that. You will understand me when I say that, before all things, I must see the work through. My bodily comfort must not be considered; and as my friend, as my nurse, you must not hinder me. I must leave here to-night." </P> <P> The man had lifted himself to a half-sitting posture in his excitement, and the girl watched him with anxious eyes. Now she reached out, and one hand gently pressed him back to his pillow. As he had said, she understood; and when she spoke, her words were the words he wished to hear. They soothed him at once. </P> <P> "Yes, Dave. If you must return, it shall be as you say." </P> <P> He caught her hand and held it, crushing its small round flesh in the hollow of his great palm. It was his gratitude, his gratitude for her understanding and sympathy. His eyes met hers. And in that moment something else stirred in him. The pressure tightened upon her unresisting hand. The blood mounted to her head. It seemed to intoxicate her. It was a moment of such ecstasy as she had dreamed of in a vague sort of way&mdash;a moment when the pure woman spirit in her was exalted to such a throne of spiritual light as is beyond the dream of human imagination. </P> <P> In the man, too, was a change. There was something looking out of his eyes which seemed to have banished his last thought of that lifelong desire for the success of his labors, something which left him no room for anything else, something which had for its inception all the human passionate desire of his tremendous soul. His gray eyes glowed with a living fire; they deepened; a flush of hot blood surged over his rugged features, lighting them out of their plainness. His temples throbbed visibly, and the vast sinews shivered with the fire that swept through his body. </P> <P> In a daze Betty understood the change. Her heart leaped out to him, yielding all her love, all that was hers to give. It cried aloud her joy in the passion of those moments, but her lips were silent. She had gazed into heaven for one brief instant, then her eyes dropped before a vision she dared no longer to look upon. </P> <P> "Betty!" </P> <P> The man had lifted to his elbow again. A torrent of passionate words rushed to his lips. But they remained unspoken. His heavy tongue was incapable of giving them expression. He halted. That one feverish exclamation was all that came, for his tongue clave in his mouth. But in that one word was the avowal of such a love as rarely falls to the lot of woman. It was the man's whole being that spoke. </P> <P> Betty's hand twisted from his grasp. She sprang to her feet and turned to the door. </P> <P> "It's Bob Mason," she said, in a voice that was almost an awed whisper, as she rushed to the cook-stove. </P> <P> The camp-boss strode heavily into the room. There was a light in his eyes that usually would have gladdened the master of the mills. Now, however, Dave's thoughts were far from the matters of the camp. </P> <P> "We've travoyed a hundred to the river bank!" the lumberman exclaimed in a tone of triumph. "The work's begun!" </P> <P> It was Betty who answered him. Hers was the ready sympathy, the heart to understand for others equally with herself. She turned with a smile of welcome, of pride in his pride. </P> <P> "Bob, you're a gem!" she cried, holding out a hand of kindliness to him. </P> <P> And Dave's tardy words followed immediately with characteristic sincerity. </P> <P> "Thanks, Bob," he said, in his deep tones. </P> <P> "It's all right, boss, they're working by flare to-night, an' they're going on till ten o'clock." </P> <P> Dave nodded. His thoughts had once more turned into the smooth channel of his affairs. Betty was serving out supper. </P> <P> A few moments later, weary and depressed, the parson came in for his supper. His report was much the same as usual. Progress&mdash;all his patients were progressing, but it was slow work, for the recent battle had added to the number of his patients. </P> <P> There was very little talk until supper was over. Then it began as Mason was preparing to depart again to his work. Dave spoke of his decision without any preamble. </P> <P> "Say, folks, I'm going back to Malkern to-night," he said, with a smiling glance of humor at his friends in anticipation of the storm of protest he knew his announcement would bring upon himself. </P> <P> Mason was on his feet in an instant. </P> <P> "You can't do it, boss!" he exclaimed. "You&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "No you don't, Dave, old friend," broke in Chepstow, with a shake of his head. "You'll stay right here till I say 'go.'" </P> <P> Dave's smile broadened, and his eyes sought Betty's. </P> <P> "Well, Betty?" he demanded. </P> <P> But Betty understood. </P> <P> "I have nothing to say," she replied quietly. </P> <P> Dave promptly turned again to the parson. His smile had gone again. </P> <P> "I've got to go, Tom," he said. "My work's done here, but it hasn't begun yet in Malkern. Do you get my meaning? Until the cutting began up here I was not needed down there. Now it is different. There is no one in Malkern to head things. Dawson and Odd are good men, but they are only my&mdash;foremen. It is imperative that I go, and&mdash;to-night." </P> <P> "But look here, boss, it can't be done," cried Mason, with a sort of hopeless earnestness. "You aren't fit to move yet. The journey down&mdash;you'd never stand it. Besides&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Yes, besides, who's to take you down? How are you going?" Chepstow broke in sharply. He meant to clinch the matter once for all. </P> <P> Dave's manner returned to the peevishness of his invalid state. </P> <P> "There's the buckboard," he said sharply. </P> <P> "Can you drive it?" demanded the parson with equal sharpness. "I can't take you down. I can't leave the sick. Mason is needed here. Well?" </P> <P> "Don't worry. I'm driving myself," Dave said soberly. </P> <P> Chepstow sprang to his feet and waved his pipe in the air in his angry impatience. </P> <P> "You're mad! You drive? Hang it, man, you couldn't drive a team of fleas. Get up! Get up from that stretcher now, and see how much driving you could do. See here, Dave, I absolutely forbid you to attempt any such thing." </P> <P> Dave raised himself upon his elbow. His steady eyes had something of an angry smile in them. </P> <P> "See here, Tom," he said, imitating the other's manner. "You can talk till you're black in the face. I'm going down to-night. Mason's going to hook the buckboard up for me and fetch Truscott along. I'll have to take him down too. It's no use in your kicking, Tom," he went on, as the parson opened his lips for further protest, "I'm going." He turned again to Mason. "I'll need the buckboard and team in an hour. Guess you'll see to it, boy. An' say, just set food for the two of us in it, and half a sack of oats for the horses&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "One moment, Bob," interrupted Betty. She had been merely an interested listener to the discussion, sitting at the far end of the supper table. Now she came over to Dave's bedside. "You'd best put in food for three." Then she looked down at Dave, smiling reassurance. From him she turned to her uncle with a laughing glance. "Trust you men to argue and wrangle over things that can be settled without the least difficulty. Dave here must get down to Malkern. I understand the importance of his presence there. Very well, he must go. Therefore it's only a question how he can get there with the least possible danger to himself. It's plain Bob can't go down. He must see the work through here. You, uncle, must also stay. It is your duty to the sick. We cannot send any of the men. They are all needed. Well, I'm going to drive him down. We'll make him comfortable in the carryall, and Truscott can share the driving-seat with me&mdash;carefully secured to prevent him getting away. There you are. I will be responsible for Dave's welfare. You need not be anxious." </P> <P> She turned with such a look of confident affection upon the sick man, that, for the moment, no one had a word of protest to offer. It was Dave who spoke first. He took her hand in his and nodded his great head at her. </P> <P> "Thanks, little Betty," he said. "I shall be perfectly safe in your charge." </P> <P> And his words were ample reward to the woman who loved him. It was his acknowledgment of his dependence upon her. </P> <P> After that there was discussion, argument, protest for nearly half an hour. But Dave and Betty held to their decision, and, at last, Tom Chepstow gave way to them. Then it was that Mason went off to make preparations. The parson went to assist him, and Betty and Dave were once more alone. </P> <P> Betty let her uncle go and then lit the lamp. For some moments no word was spoken between the sick man and his nurse. The girl cleared the supper things and put a kettle on the stove. Then, while watching for it to boil, she was about to pack up her few belongings for the journey. But she changed her mind. Instead she came back to the table and faced the stretcher on which the sick man was lying. </P> <P> "Dave," she said, in a low voice, "will you promise me something?" </P> <P> Dave turned his face toward her. </P> <P> "Anything," he said, in all seriousness. </P> <P> The girl waited. She was gauging the meaning of his reply. In anybody else that answer could not have been taken seriously. In him it might be different. </P> <P> "It's a big thing," she said doubtfully. </P> <P> "It don't matter, little girl, I just mean it." </P> <P> She came slowly over to his side. </P> <P> "Do you remember, I once got you to teach me the business of the mill? I wanted to learn then so I could help some one. I want to help some one now. But it's a different 'some one' this time. Do you understand? I&mdash;I haven't forgotten a single thing I learned from you. Will you let me help you? You cannot do all now. Not until your arm is better." She dropped upon her knees at his bedside. "Dave, don't refuse me. You shall just give your orders to me. I will see they are carried out. We&mdash;you and I together&mdash;will run your mills to the success that I know is going to be yours. Don't say no, Dave&mdash;dear." </P> <P> The man had turned to her. He was looking into the depths of the fearless brown eyes before him. He had no intention of refusing her, but he was looking, looking deep down into the beautiful, woman's heart that was beating within her bosom. </P> <P> "I'll not refuse you, Betty. I only thank God Almighty for such a little friend." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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