"Timber"/Chapter 36

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CHAPTER XXXVI

It was the second day after the fire. All yesterday it had rained, but at evening, just as the light was fading, clouds broke and a crimson sunset touched the trees with a blaze of jeweled glory.

This morning had dawned fair, the air was clean from the great fall of rain, wind came in from the northwest, brisk and cool, dazzling white clouds sped across a dazzling blue sky. Only the river was unclean; red and roiled and high, it rushed savagely down its course, swollen beyond precedent.

In Pancake Jim Harris lay in the Commercial House, swimming back to half-consciousness. Dr. Pelly had been constantly at his bedside since the operation. This morning he left, to go home and sleep.

In the office of the hotel he met Humphrey Bryant.

"How's the boss of Blueberry County?" he asked, with a wan grin.

The editor's tongue roved his lips.

"Well, Rowe's out on bail and half the supervisors are scurrying around trying to find out where lightning will strike next." He chuckled and sobered. "How is he?" The doctor slipped a morsel of plug tobacco into his mouth and winked. "Better'n a hypo, Hump.

"Jim? Well, he's a sick man, but since yesterday I've begun to think that Pelly's a damned good surgeon." He spit at a cuspidor and a smile of pride wrinkled his face. "Another thing, Hump, I'd rather see a live stinker taking his mortal and certain medicine than a dead one going to a hell fire that's largely theoretical!"

They went out together.

"Thad?" asked Pelly as they parted. "He'll clear up all right, so far's his mind goes. His heart though—you can't mend broken hearts like we can a busted skull—That's one reason I want Harris to get well—I'm a vengeful cuss, I guess."

 

Helen was at her desk, busy with figures—ostensibly. A letter written in Luke Taylor's scrawl was before her, paper limp from much handling. She read his promises of aid again and looked out the window and down the road as she had been looking for an hour, ever since John Taylor telephoned from the mill.

"I am coming for a final settlement," he had said. "The last car of lumber will go out tonight."

His final settlement! With all the relief that should have been in the girl's heart there was no rest. She had won; with Luke Taylor's backing there was no chance for her to lose now; she had put herself into a pinch on a theory; fire had laid waste to a full section of her timber. But there would never be incendiarism again, there would be no lack of working capital to tide her over until Foraker's Folly could function—

And yet there was only pain reflected in her face. She saw him coming down the road, walking slowly. He rapped and she opened the door for him. Confusion was on each and after the greeting they avoided looking at one another.

"Here is the statement from the mill," she said. "Is that right?"

He glanced at the totals.

"Right," he said, and drew out a check book.

He wrote slowly, painstakingly, as though it required effort to hold his hand steady. She watched him, with her heart high in her throat, hampering her breathing. The number—the date—the amount in script—in figures—his name—to the last period.

That was all. It was all over, now, for he was handing the check to her and rising, reaching for his hat. She looked at the slip of paper but could not read.

"That concludes our contract," he was saying, "That and my thanks—"

They face done another. Her eyes went to his beseechingly.

"Thanks? My thanks are due to you," she said.

"No, I—I feel as though I were testifying in a revival. You have done a great deal for me. I came up here a—I didn't amount to much. I have learned this: that I know very little; and perhaps that is the first step in finding out things.

"I think you are the biggest person I have ever met," very humbly, and almost shyly, as though his words were presumptuous. "You have opened my eyes, you have set me straight.

"I made you so much trouble. I didn't mean to, but it was because I was ignorant and didn't know it. I'm so sorry." He paused and flushed as he mustered his courage. " I was presumptuous. I—I aspired to things that were quite beyond me. "

He was letting her out easily, he was doing his best to cover the hurt that her error had caused them both! He was going now. She was conscious that he moved toward the door as though in haste. She followed.

"It was I who made the mistake," she said. "I—Anything that menaced my forest menaced me. I couldn't see—beyond that pine."

They were outside, the girl on the bottom step. He was going out of her life because once she had driven him away unjustly. She looked up at the pine trees which seemed so inconsequential now, to have so little meaning. He was denying what she had said, he was humbling himself to make her suffering easy.

His hand was outstretched and she looked at it vaguely and placed hers in it.

"Good-bye," he said. "Good-bye and good luck."

She could not speak. It was an affront to beg forgiveness; she had done the unpardonable; what she had today he had given her; what he was taking out of her life—she was to blame for that.

"Good-bye," she said.

She could not see his face twitch as he turned away. She stood looking after him, holding her hand outstretched as he had released it.

Pauguk at the end of her chain whined and bared her fangs.

Helen turned into the house. It seemed that there was no warmth in her body—

Milt Goddard, working on the motor of her car, watched. He was at a distance, could not hear their words, but he could see their faces and their postures. That was farewell to them, but the big woodsman knew that it was no farewell. He saw that the impulse which could never be shattered so long as life endures was in their hearts. He knew that though John Taylor was disappearing down the trail that skirted the fringe of swamp and made a short cut to the mill, he was not leaving Helen Foraker. Taylor was gone, but he would be back—that, or the girl would follow him down that trail some day, to the ends of the earth if necessary; she was that sort—

He dropped his wrench. The screen door slammed behind Helen. The wind lulled. Pauguk was whining, straining, eyes on the trail Taylor had taken.

For a long interval Goddard stood there. He tried to resume his work, but could not. The rage in his heart grew unbearable and after a time he moved away toward the house, going slowly, silently, on the balls of his feet. The wolf dog turned a quick look at him and glared back at the way her enemy had gone. He spoke softly to her, snapping his thumb. He grasped, her chain, letting it slip through his fingers as he advanced. His hand rested on her back and his fingers fumbled at the snap.

The wolf was free! She was starting forward, crouching, bewildered by this liberty. She dropped her nose to the ground, she went forward, at a walk, at a trot, she reached the edge of the pine; stopped, circled, started on; the trot gave to a gallop and then through the forest echoed the long-drawn hunting cry of her forebears.

Inside the house, a movement, an exclamation. Helen Foraker appeared in the doorway. She saw Goddard, the chain in his hands, and as she cried out to him that long, curdling cry came again, fainter, reverberating through the trees.

"Milt! What—"

Guilty fright swept his face. "He'd 've come back," he said. "He'd 've come back an' you—"

"Milt, she'll kill him!—You murderer!"

She started toward the trail, calling the dog breathlessly and stopped and faced about. Goddard was running frantically away from her, looking over his shoulder, stumbling across the nursery, seeking the shelter of cover, of distance.

Again the hunting cry—and again, more distant, fading away.

"Oh, God help me!" the girl cried. "I can't let her—I can't—"

And then she knew that while her voice and reason had said farewell to John Taylor her heart expected his return. But now—death sped on his trail!

She looked about wildly. An unrooted tree, caught in the current, was floating past and her eyes followed it with strange fascination as it sped in the white foam. It was going that way—the way he had gone—

She did not cry out again but leaped down the hank to where her canoe lay, bottom up. She lifted it in her slender arms, made mighty by that danger. She dropped it into the current; she dipped the paddle deep. The bow shot out and swung downstream, and kneeling in the bottom, sending the gunwale to the water's edge with every stroke, she drove forward, speeding before the speeding flood.

The trail Taylor had taken kept close to the river for a distance, then swung sharply to the left, shirting a widening area of swamp; for half a mile it circled, edging back toward the stream, coming out at an old rollway and then holding straight through the timber toward the mill as the river swung away.

That was her one chance; to beat the wolf to the landing. If she should fail in that she would be behind them and helpless—and Taylor would be helpless before the savage fangs of that animal. She passed the floating tree, left it behind rapidly, sending her canoe forward with all the skill at her command, with all the strength which fear gave her body. Water boiled about the bow, deep eddies fell backward from her frantic paddle to be swallowed in the froth of the eager current.

She swept down a straight stretch of stream, between ranks of reeds and spires of drowned cedar. Far to her left was the path Taylor had taken, far to the left of her raced Pauguk—How fast? How far? She could not reason, could not calculate. Two days ago she had been keyed to great danger, to great activities. She had been able to think then, with great clarity, great rapidity but the thing at stake that day was her property, her pride, her devotion to her father's ideal. Then it had been timber and its related possessions. Today it was a man and her heart at stake—and there was no ability to think or plan. Her breath was fast and loud in her throat. She prayed brokenly—

She approached a jam, where brush and snags had lodged. She crossed the current toward the opening where water boiled through. She cried out when she saw the stout broken branches of a dead tree in the froth, reaching up to tear the bottom from her canoe. She tried to stop, to back, to make land, but could not fight the pull of the current. She felt the impact, saw the bottom of her frail craft bulge as it struck the half submerged tree; saw the bulge run backward toward her, felt the hard pressure of the snag against her knee—and she was through, gasping, cold—but safe, and only a trickle of water coming through the scratched skin of the canoe—

Time! Time! The current seemed to lose its swiftness. Her canoe lagged; she roused herself to even greater effort and still her progress seemed sluggish. The muscles of back and shoulder were tearing loose under the terrific attain so she changed sides with her paddle and the change helped for a moment—and then she moved on as if propelling an awkward craft in dead water.

She could not realize that she swept past the banks in a magnificent rush; did not know that she was driving that canoe as it had never been driven before; did not understand that, roused to this pitch, all the savagery of the current was in her favor, shoving her, making her skim with incredible speed.

On the far side of the swamp John Taylor walked rapidly, hands driven deep into his pockets, head thrust forward. His mind did not function; it was numb, plastic, and he was conscious only of the heaviness of spirit, the hopelessness that had been on him—forever, it seemed. There had been no glory in his bringing Rowe and Harris and the others to answer for what they had done; there had been no sense of reward in knowing that he had thwarted the menace which he had brought upon Helen Foraker. He owed her that much—and more; so much more that he could never balance the account.

He was going away, he knew not where; he would begin again, with a new sense of values, a better balance, the caution which makes men stable. But he had no heart or strength to plan. He wanted only to be away and forget—

Far behind him came the wolf dog. Her eyes were very bright, her tongue lolled as excitement fevered her blood. Ever since that day when Taylor had struck her the impulse to hunt him down and make him pay had been strong when her nostrils told her that he was near. And now she was free, for the first time since puppyhood, and her senses were functioning in her initial hunt.

She was unschooled in trailing. She lost the easy scent a dozen times before she understood that eyes could help as well as nose and that birds and rabbits which had crossed the trail were of no moment. She had started out at a gallop; her pace slowed to a restrained trot; she ceased leaving the scent of the man; she went faster again; her voice lifted in greater assurance. She became confident, as instinct shaped itself. She broke again into a lope, racing on silent feet along the trail. Her fangs dripped slaver and her breath came in eager hoarseness, for the scent was stronger, in the air, now, as well as on the earth. She was closing for her vengeance!

Out in the river Helen rounded a sharp bend where the current flung itself at an unyielding bank, water boiling as she kept her broaching canoe from the smart eddy against the land. She straightened away and height loomed before her, faced with yellow sand—Along that landing passed the trail.

She cried out again for time—Or was she now too late? Had he passed? Had the wolf passed, too? Were they even then on combat somewhere yonder?

A mist dimmed her eyes and she shook her head to clear them, for she could not waste the movement of a hand. She rode high in the canoe, now; her stroke was ragged. The rollway rushed at her. She lurched forward as the bow touched the sand and the stern swung downstream. She stumbled into the water and floundered up the bank, heedless of her canoe which went on down with the current.

She struggled up the sand bluff, fighting for strength, mounted the overhanging rim of sod at the top, paddle in her hand. The trail was there, pitted by yesterday's deluge.

And a man's footprints, fresh—and none else! She heard her voice screaming for him—And then heard another voice, that hunting cry, coming down the wind. She had been in time—! She started forward as the wolf appeared, racing toward her through the cool shadows.

"Pauguk!" she cried. "Pauguk!"

The animal's sharp nose lifted, her bloodshot eyes met the girl's. The lope dropped to a trot; she faltered, swung off—

"Pauguk! Come here!"

For an instant it was as though her command had struck through the roused impulses of the animal, as though Helen's control through years of captivity would hold now. In that fraction of time the wolf hesitated, one forefoot lifted, nose quirking, and then the fangs which had been covered in that brief period bared again and a ragged snarl of defiance came from the throat.

The dog stiffened, gathered and with a roar rushed toward her mistress to pass between her and the river and be again on that hot trail.

She came on, as the girl ran to head her off, gathering speed swiftly. And then the paddle swung hastily and the blade came down on the creature's head; it slivered and was useless as implement or weapon but it had turned the animal, swung her about and though she scrambled, raging against the impetus of the blow, she went over the rim of sod, down into the sand.

She struck her forefeet down stiffly, gasping as she fought against the slide and turned on the soft footing of the slope.

She faced about, raging, clawing to scramble upward, and as she made her first lunge a shout came to them from down the trail and John Taylor, arrested by Helen's cry, ran through the trees. All sounds from the wolf ceased; all her strength went into those swift short leaps upward. Her eyes showed an orange glare, froth gathered on her lips and hate was there not only for the man, now, but for the girl.

Helen hurled the broken paddle at the wolf and missed. She drew back, screaming a warning to Taylor.

The head of the animal appeared above the rim. She raised herself on her hind legs to scratch with paws for the hold that would bring her to their level, and then Helen, backing in fright, stumbled over the dead branch of a pine. It was as long as her body, as thick as her arm.

"Stay back!" she cried to Taylor. "Stay back!"

Pauguk found hold with her paws. One hind foot clawed for added grip. She strained, head flung back, froth on her breast. She raised herself and quivering with the effort to hold her balance, she heaved forward and was up, turning, drawing her haunches forward for that last rush.

The tough branch lifted high, poised, and driven by all the strength in Helen's body, crashed down.

Its point of contact was the wolf's skull. It cut short the shrill yelp of exultation. It checked flight, it struck the beast down. She tried to hold to the brink as she swayed from her feet, and then went over, head and tail limp, rolling over and over, coming to rest at the bottom, head submerged in the current, a shapeless, lifeless body.

The cudgel dropped from the girl's hands and she lifted them to her face, covering her eyes.

Taylor was beside her. She heard his excited questions, felt his hand on her arm.

"Milt turned her loose," she said brokenly. "He turned her loose on your trail—He said you—He said that you would come back—and he didn't want you to come back—ever—"

He was so still that she lowered her hands and looked up.

"He said that I would come back?" he asked steadily. She nodded, mute before his manner. He took one of her hands in his roughly and something like great rage swept into his eyes. "And you came after me, to save me from Pauguk?"

"Y-yes," very lightly.

"Why did you do that?" hoarse voice rising in pitch.

"She'd have killed you!"

"Yes—And then—?"

"Killed you, John—And then you never could have come back!"

She felt the grip of his hand relax; a great breath slipped from him.

"You wanted me back?" he whispered. "Wanted me back—after all?"

"Oh, I wanted you back because of all, John! Because I—because I—Can't you see that I—"

His arms, binding about her body, drove the word from her lips—against his lips—and she was crying for the first time in those weeks of distress, because there was no distress then, no misgiving, no unhappiness, and she could cry—for the happiness that swelled in her heart.

Behind them the Blueberry hurled itself at the high bank and above, between them and the clouds that sped across the brilliant sky, the canopy of pine trees that would never be of the past spread their peaceful shadow over the two, like a blessing.

 

The End