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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap31"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER XXXI </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> AT MIDNIGHT </H4> <P> The silence of the night was unbroken. The valley of the Red Sand River was wrapped in a peace such as it had never known since Dave had first brought into it the restless activity of his American spirit. But it was a depressing peace to the dwellers in the valley, for it portended disaster. No word had reached them of the prospects at the mill, only a vague rumor had spread of the doings at the lumber camp. Dave knew the value of silence in such matters, and he had taken care to enforce silence on all who were in a position to enlighten the minds which thirsted for such information. </P> <P> The people of Malkern were waiting, waiting for something definite on the part of the master of the mills. On him depended their future movements. The mill was silent, even though the work of repairing had been completed. But, as yet, they had not lost faith in the man who had piloted them through all the shoals of early struggles to the haven of comparative prosperity. However, the calm, the unwonted silence of the valley depressed and worried them. They longed for the drone, however monotonous, of the mill. They loved it, for it meant that their wheels of life were well oiled, and that they were driving pleasantly along their set track to the terminal of success. </P> <P> Yet while the village slept all was intense activity at the mills. The men had been gathered together again, late that night, and the army of workers was once more complete. The sawyers were at their saws, oiling and fitting, and generally making ready for work. The engineers were at their engines, the firemen at their furnaces, the lumber-jacks were at the shoots, and in the yards. The boom was manned by men who sat around smoking, peavey in hand, ready to handle the mightiest "ninety-footers" that the mountain forests could send them. The checkers were at their posts, and the tally boys were "shooting craps" at the foot of the shoots. The mill, like a resting giant lying prone upon his back, was bursting with a latent strength and activity that only needed the controlling will to set in motion, to drive it to an effort such as Malkern had never seen before, such as, perhaps, Malkern would never see again. And inside Dave's office, that Will lay watching and waiting. </P> <P> It was a curious scene inside the office. The place had been largely converted since the master of the mills had returned. It was half sick room, half office, and the feminine touch about the place was quite incongruous in the office of such a man as Dave. But then just now Dave's control was only of the mill outside. In this room he yielded to another authority. He was in the hands of womenfolk; that is, his body was. He had no word to say in the arrangement of the room, and he was only permitted to think his control outside. </P> <P> It was eleven o'clock, and his mother was preparing to take her departure. Since his return from the camp she was her son's almost constant attendant. Betty's chief concern was for the mill outside, and the careful execution of the man's orders to his foremen. She took a share of the nursing, but only in moments of leisure, and these were very few. Now she had just returned from a final inspection and consultation with Dawson. And the glow of satisfaction on her face was good to see. </P> <P> "Now, mother dear," she said, after having made her report to Dave, "you've got to be off home, and to bed. You've had a long, hard day, and I'm going to relieve you. Dave is all right, and," she added with a smile, "maybe he'll be better still before morning. We expect the logs down by daylight, and then&mdash;I guess their arrival in the boom will do more to mend his poor broken shoulder than all our quacks and nostrums. So be off with you. I shall be here all night. I don't intend to rest till the first log enters the boom." </P> <P> The old woman rose wearily from her rocking-chair at her boy's bedside. Her worn face was tired. At her age the strain of nursing was very heavy. But whatever weakness there was in her body, her spirit was as strong as the younger woman's. Her boy was sick, and nothing else could compare with a disaster of that nature. But now she was ready to go, for so it had been arranged between them earlier. </P> <P> She crossed to Betty's side, and, placing her hands upon the girl's shoulders, kissed her tenderly on both cheeks. </P> <P> "God bless and keep you, dearie," she said, with deep emotion. "I'd like to tell you all I feel, but I can't. You're our guardian angel&mdash;Dave's and mine. Good-night." </P> <P> "Good-night, mother dear," said the girl, her eyes brightening with a suspicion of tears. Then, with an assumption of lightness which helped to disguise her real feelings, "Now don't you stay awake. Go right off to sleep, and&mdash;in the morning you shall hear&mdash;the mills!" </P> <P> The old woman nodded and smiled. Next to her boy she loved this motherless girl best in the world. She gathered up her few belongings and went to the bedside. Bending over the sick man she kissed his rugged face tenderly. For a moment one great arm held her in its tremendous embrace, then she toddled out of the room. </P> <P> Betty took her rocking-chair. She sat back and rocked herself in silence for some moments. Her eyes wandered over the curious little room, noting the details of it as though hugging to herself the memory of the smallest trifle that concerned this wonderful time that was hers. </P> <P> There was Dave's desk before the window. It was hers now. There were the vast tomes that recorded his output of lumber. She had spent hours over them calculating figures for the man beside her. There were the flowers his mother had brought, and which she had found time to arrange so that he could see and enjoy them. There were the bandages it was her duty to adjust. There were the remains of the food of which they had both partaken. </P> <P> It was all real, yet so strange. So strange to her who had spent her life surrounded by all those duties so essentially feminine, so closely allied to her uncle's spiritual calling. She felt that she had moved out into a new world, a world in which there was room for her to expand, in which she could bring into play all those faculties which she had always known herself to possess, but which had so long lain dormant that she had almost come to regard her belief in their existence as a mere dream, a mere vanity. </P> <P> It was a wonderful thing this, that had happened to her, and the happiness of it was so overwhelming that it almost made her afraid. Yet the fact remained. She was working for him, she was working with her muscles and brain extended. She sighed, and, placing her hands behind her head, stretched luxuriously. It was good to feel the muscles straining, it was good to contemplate the progress of things in his interests, it was good to love, and to feel that that love was something more practical than the mere sentimentality of awakened passion. </P> <P> Her wandering attention was recalled by a movement of her patient. She glanced round at him, and his face was turned toward her. Her smiling eyes responded to his steady, contemplative gaze. </P> <P> "Well?" he said, in a grave, subdued voice, "it ought to be getting near now?" </P> <P> The girl nodded. </P> <P> "I don't see how we can tell exactly, but&mdash;unless anything goes wrong the first logs should get through before daylight. It's good to think of, Dave." Her eyes sparkled with delight at the prospect. </P> <P> The man eyed her for a few silent moments, and his eyes deepened to a passionate warmth. </P> <P> "You're a great little woman, Betty," he said at last. "When I think of all you have done for me&mdash;well, I just feel that my life can never be long enough to repay you in. Throughout this business you have been my second self, with all the freshness and enthusiasm of a mind and heart thrilling with youthful strength. I can never forget the journey down from the camp. When I think of the awful physical strain you must have gone through, driving day and night, with a prisoner beside you, and a useless hulk of a man lying behind, I marvel. When I think that you had to do everything, feed us, camp for us, see to the horses for us, it all seems like some fantastic dream. How did you do it? How did I come to let you? It makes me smile to think that I, in my manly superiority, simply lolled about with a revolver handy to enforce our prisoner's obedience to your orders. Ah, little Betty, I can only thank Almighty God that I have been blest with such a little&mdash;friend." </P> <P> The girl laid the tips of her fingers over his mouth. </P> <P> "You mustn't say these things," she said, in a thrilling voice. "We&mdash;you and I&mdash;are just here together to work out your&mdash;your plans. God has been very, very good to me that He has given me the power, in however small a degree, to help you. Now let us put these things from our minds for a time and be&mdash;be practical. Talking of our prisoner, what are you going to do with&mdash;poor Jim?" </P> <P> It was some moments before Dave answered her. It was not that he had no answer to her question, but her words had sent his mind wandering off among long past days. He was thinking of the young lad he had so ardently tried to befriend. He was thinking of the "poor Jim" of then and now. He was recalling that day when those two had come to him with their secret, with their youthful hope of the future, and of all that day had meant to him. They had planned, he had planned, and now it was all so&mdash;different. His inclination was to show this man leniency, but his inclination had no power to alter his resolve. </P> <P> When he spoke there was no resentment in his tone against the man who had so cruelly tried to ruin him, only a quiet decision. </P> <P> "I want you to tell Simon Odd to bring him here," he said. Then he smiled. "I intend him to spend the night with me. That is, until the first log comes down the river." </P> <P> "What are you going to do?" </P> <P> The man's smile increased in tenderness. </P> <P> "Don't worry your little head about that, Betty," he said. "There are things which must be said between us. Things which only men can say to men. I promise you he will be free to go when the mill starts work&mdash;but not until then." His eyes grew stern. "I owe you so much, Betty," he went on, "that I must be frank with you. So much depends upon our starting work again that I cannot let him go until that happens." </P> <P> "And if&mdash;just supposing&mdash;that does not happen&mdash;I mean, supposing, through his agency, the mill remains idle?" </P> <P> "I cannot answer you. I have only one thing to add." Dave had raised himself upon his elbow, and his face was hard and set. "No man may bring ruin upon a community to satisfy his own mean desires, his revenge, however that revenge may be justified. If we fail, if Malkern is to be made to suffer through that man&mdash;God help him!" </P> <P> The girl was facing him now. Her two hands were outstretched appealingly. </P> <P> "But, Dave, should you judge him? Have you the right? Surely there is but one judge, and His alone is the right to condemn weak, erring human nature. Surely it is not for you&mdash;us." </P> <P> Dave dropped back upon his pillow. There was no relenting in his eyes. </P> <P> "His own work shall judge him," he said in a hard voice. "What I may do is between him and me." </P> <P> Betty looked at him long and earnestly. Then she rose from her chair. </P> <P> "So be it, Dave. I ask you but one thing. Deal with him as your heart prompts you, and not as your head dictates. I will send him to you, and will come back again&mdash;when the mill is at work." </P> <P> Their eyes met in one long ardent gaze. The man nodded, and the smile in his eyes was very, very tender. </P> <P> "Yes, Betty. Don't leave me too long&mdash;I can't do without you now." </P> <P> The girl's eyes dropped before the light she beheld in his. </P> <P> "I don't want you to&mdash;do without me," she murmured. And she hurried out of the room. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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