The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

INTO A STRANGE COUNTRY


On the second morning Abner announced he must go his way, but was prevailed upon to wait till after dinner, Stanley’s sprained ankle, thanks to a poultice of beech leaves, was fit for walking and there was no excuse for tarrying longer, except as the pleasure of the Carltons’ society might be considered such.

“We shall surely call here after we’ve finished our business on Flat-Top ridge,” earnestly assured Abner, his eyes roving towards the kitchen, whence emanated savory odors. “In the meantime, I guess I’d better have a talk with ye about my business.”

Withdrawing to a corner Abner produced his map and pointed out the east line of the disputed tract, and said, “Nace seems to have us up a tree. He holds that is our line, while we’re fighting to establish it over here to the west.”

“I know,” quietly said the professor. “I’ve been over all that ground. There are about eighty acres of the best growth in the State in that triangle.”

“How’d ye happen to go there?” asked Abner, much surprised.

“Mr. Hatton directed me to. Don’t you remember I said I was employed by your company? When I am making my regular trips I do a little cruising for Hatton. Not as you do it, but to see if everything is going all right.”

“Ain’t that just like Hatton,” grumbled Abner. “He never said a word to me about ye’re being up there. He gives me my orders as if I was the first one to tackle it, and here I be undertaking a forlorn hope. Of course ye could locate none of the old boundaries?”

“Not a sign,” firmly replied the professor. “Honestly, Mr. Whitten, I fear your errand is a hopeless one. I examined the east line very carefully and the cedar posts and other markings are there, showing every sign of age. But along the line claimed by the company I could find nothing to sustain Mr. Hatton’s contention.”

“That may be,” said Abner doggedly; “but any time I find Nace mixed up in a game I know it’s crooked. Why, he’d rather make fifty cents in a swindle than to make a dollar honestly.”

“You evidently have a very poor opinion of him,” laughed the professor. “Despite his reputation I do not see how the company can go into a court of law and succeed in their suit to hold the land.”

“They’ve got to succeed,” cried Abner, smiting his knee. “It’s not only a question of more’n a hundred thousand dollars, but it’s a question of reputation. Never yet has the company lost in a law-suit. President Thaxter has always directed that the company shall not begin any trouble it can’t go through with and win out. Because of that fighting spirit—and always fighting to win—operators have been mighty skeery of stepping on us. Every man-jack of ’em knows he’s got to have the right on his side if he would whip the company.”

“Certainly; I appreciate that,” said the professor. “But if no litigation has been commenced how is the company embarrassed?”

“Ye mean law-suit by that litisomething,” mumbled Abner. “Taking it fer granted that ye do I’ll tell ye this much: Hatton has gone off half-cocked. He’s formally notified Nace that he should hold the land. Having gone that far and Nace having told other operators and made bets that he would beat us out ye can see the company will stand in a bad light ’less we win. I vum! I wish I’d know’d ahead that ye’d been over the ground. I guess I’d refused to undertake the job.”

“It’s too late for you to withdraw now,” reminded the professor. “But it is my duty as an honest man to repeat that I do not believe you can prove anything in favor of the company by going up there. Still you must go, of course.”

“If we can prove Nace out over that public lot that might be used as a club against him,” suggested Abner, scowling at his thick boots.

“Hardly,” denied the professor. “I’ve studied human nature enough to know that Nace will never let a hundred thousand dollars slip through his fingers for the sake of evading unwholesome publicity. If he has to he’ll pay the value of the stumpage—I believe you said it would run in excess of ten thousand dollars—and then he will clean up his tenth of a million. So far as injuring his reputation is concerned he won’t care a penny, for he knows he has none to be injured. He simply will bribe some paper to explain how it was a natural mistake for him to get over the line; then he’ll give a new bell to some schoolhouse, put a public fountain into his home city, and he’ll have the next election go his way as he always has in the past.”

“Wal, wal, I’m afraid ye’re right,” admitted Abner. “He was shrewd enough to measure all his chances before going into this. He’ll laugh at us. And once he wins in this he’ll be after the company with a sharp stick. Of course Hatton is in a sweat, because it may mean his job. President Thaxter won’t stand for any bungling. Do ye think I’ll be troubled if I go up there?”

“No; not so far as Nace is concerned if he is sure you’ll find nothing. And yes, if he’s left the matter to the discretion of some of his understrappers and Big Nick has any say. Of course if Nick should swear he was hired to set the fire by Nace or one of his agents it would look black for Nace, if the half-breed is shrewd enough to know that he may use it as a lever in compelling Nace’s gang to aid him in getting his revenge. Just how far those men would go I do not know. But I’d feel better if men instead of those two boys were going with you.”

“There’s no limit to the lengths them varmints will go,” said Abner soberly. “Hasn’t Nick repeatedly tried to murder us? I guess they have it writ up in the books that we three sha’n’t return to the mills. So far as I know they may have bagged Noisy Charlie on his way back.”

The professor shook his head firmly. “I don’t fear that,” he said. “I’ve known Charlie ever since I’ve been here. You can’t catch him napping; especially when he realizes what he is confronting.”

“And ye say ye saw nothing, or heard nothing when ye was up there?” asked Abner, seemingly fascinated by the possible dangers of the trip.

The professor paused and pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Well, I’ll say this: I know I was watched and followed. I believe it was by some agent of Nace’s. But I was not molested in any way. What might have happened if I had discovered anything I cannot say. I saw no one, but I came upon signs that told me enough. If I had been an experienced woodsman I could have read much more from those signs, I have no doubt.”

Abner shook his head dolefully. Then he declared, “I’ll fix up some yarn about gitting a message back to the mills and send the boys with it. Then I’ll go on alone, and if anyone is hurt it’ll only be old Abner Whitten. And I’ll pass out a-hoping that someone will be brought to book for the murder.”

“It won’t be discovered as a murder,” sighed the professor. “Word will come that you were caught by a tree, or some such report. If I were you I’d wait till Noisy Charlie comes along and then make the trip without the boys.”

“No,” said Abner firmly, “I won’t have it appear I’m afraid to go up there alone. I start after dinner, but the younkers must return to the mills.”

“Which the younkers most positively will not do, Mr. Whitten, humbly begging your pardon for overhearing your remarks,” broke in Stanley’s resolute voice.

“Which remarks ought to make you feel ashamed to look us in the face, Mister Whitten,” angrily added Bub’s voice.

“See here! Who’s boss ’round here? Me or two young varmints that come a snooping ’round and listening to their elders’ private talk?” fumed Abner.

“It will do no good to find fault with us,” gently replied Stanley.

“It won’t, eh?” blustered Abner. “Wal, We’ll see. When folks come a-spying ’round—”

“We were not spying and you know it, Mister Whitten,” broke in Bub.

“It was entirely an accident,” insisted Stanley. “Professor Carlton believes that.”

“Of course, boys,” soothed the professor. “Both Abner and I know you are not capable of any meanness.”

“They may be angels—which fact I’m a-doubting—but they don’t go with me,” loudly announced Abner.

“Then we’ll follow you,” grinned Bub.

“Every camp you make you’ll find us near neighbors,” promised Stanley.

“See here, boys,” placated Abner; “let’s stop arguing. It’s absolutely necessary that I git word back to Hatton—”

“O ho!” roared Bub. “He’s forgotten so quick that we overheard about his ‘fixing up some yarn.’”

“Thought mebbe ye didn’t hear all I said. But ye don’t go with me.”

“All right. We can make the trip alone then,” said Stanley.

Laura in the background had overheard this conversation and now with eyes kindling approached and placed a hand on Abner’s shoulder. “Mr. Whitten, I was with Stanley and Bub when they came around the corner and caught your words. I do not want any of you to make this trip now. Wait till your guide returns and overtakes you. Surely, there can be no need of hurry.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Miss Laura,” said Abner. “It’s got to be done in a rush.”

“If that is the case,” she slowly said, “the boys must go with you. It would be a crime to let you make the trip alone.”

“Hurrah! ain’t she a brick?” cried Bub, swinging his hat.

“The court seems to be against you, Mr. Whitten,” laughed Stanley. “When do we start?”

“Right after dinner,” growled Abner, filling his pipe viciously. “And if any fool younkers meet with trouble, Abner H. Whitten ain’t to be blamed.”

After the three young folks had retreated triumphantly, Abner remarked, “Two of the best younkers a man ever had with him. That feller, Reddy, would kill out any case of blues just by gitting ye into trouble. It’s been like a three-ring circus ever since we left Kennebago stream.”

“I like them immensely,” heartily assured the professor. “But now as to the trip. Take one of my canoes and follow Briar stream. You’ll have to carry Snake falls and will find lots of swift water to be poled above that point. But you ought to make the trip in three days, even if you take it easy. You’ll find my blaze at the southeast end of the ridge and can follow it right through due north as the company claims the line was originally run. That’ll save you some time. You can take my line as correct, as I was very careful.”

The youths and Laura in the meanwhile were busy in planning on a reunion, as Stanley insisted on styling their next meeting. Bub tried to aid with the dinner but was expelled from the kitchen after spilling the flour.

The noon-day meal was eaten largely in silence, as each one realized the dangers attending the trip. Abner, however, was not deterred by any gloomy cast of thoughts from eating most heartily. When it came time to pack the knapsacks—kindly furnished by the professor to replace those lost—Laura quietly insisted on contributing various delicacies as well as a quantity of substantial viands.

“It’s the first time in my life I ever took home-cooking into the woods,” said Abner. “Guess Noisy Charlie would give me the laff if he knew it. He’d say I was gitting to be a reg’lar dude.”

“Then we’ll leave Miss Laura’s cooking behind,” suggested Bub, winking elaborately.

“Wal, ye won’t,” cried Abner, beginning to get excited. “What do I care fer Charlie, or any other man’s opinion. I’ll take what I want to.” And he hurried to complete the packing as if fearing Laura might change her mind.

Professor Carlton and Laura accompanied the three half way down the mountain, when the youths insisted that Laura should return home. The professor completed the journey to the canoe, and after giving Abner additional explicit directions earnestly shook each by the hand and bade them God-speed.

That afternoon the cruisers took things easy, one of them always keeping a sharp outlook for Big Nick. But twilight found them peacefully arrived at a good camping-place with nothing having happened to disturb the placid quiet of their progress. Thus far they had used the paddles and Stanley began to pride himself upon his ability in this line. His exultation was short-lived, however, when Abner found he had constructed the lean-to in a stand of tall spruce.

“Want to kill us all afore Big Nick can git a whack at us?” rebuked Abner. “What d’ye s’pose Bub and me always picked a open place fer, if it wasn’t the best place?”

“I supposed you just happened to,” replied Stanley, meekly.

“See that limb, there?” and he pointed to a large bough that had been wrenched off by lightning or a tempest. Stanley nodded. “Wal, if yer lean-to had been standing beneath it we’d all be dead by this time,” continued Abner. “Pitch yer shelter out there in the open where nothing can fall on us if it comes up a blow.”

Properly humbled Stanley patiently undid his work and completed the slanting roof as directed. Bub grinned sympathetically and asked him if he were building a whole village.

Trout supplemented their domestic rations, and each said he had never enjoyed a meal more. Then Abner lighted his pipe for a brief smoke before turning in. An olive backed thrush, far up the slope, was singing an evening song. The echo faintly responded from some nearby mountain, while Stanley’s favorite, the hermit thrush, filled the woods about them with vocal purity.

On the next day the falls were encountered. Two tiresome trips were necessary to carry the canoe and supplies around this obstacle, and once the water road was resumed the paddles were laid aside for poles. Abner and Bub handled the poles, although Stanley begged to be allowed to help.

“We can’t run the risk of being dumped,” growled Abner. “We’ve got everything lashed tight, so’s if we should git dumped there’s nothing that can git away. But we ain’t taking no chances with a green man.”

“But I’ve learned to paddle,” protested Stanley, who did not enjoy remaining idle as if he could not be trusted.

“A child can learn to paddle,” sneered Bub. “But only men are allowed to handle a pole, my son.”

“I don’t see as there is anything very difficult about it,” answered Stanley. “You simply put the pole in and push. Think I’m going to loaf through all this swift water?”

“You surely will, my son, unless you get out and wade,” teased Bub. “Now, be silent, please; children should be seen and not heard.”

And to exhibit his skill to the envious Stanley he carelessly pushed on his pole and in a second it was caught between two rocks and the canoe capsized.

“What—what in sin be ye doing?” angrily cried Abner, as he rose spluttering to the surface surface and braced against the current to hold the canoe.

Between coughing and laughing Stanley could only point to the streaming, downcast face of Bub. Finally he managed to inform, “It is not my fault. Mr. Thomas, the expert is the one to blame.”

“Don’t see how my pole caught,” sheepishly bellowed Bub above the roar of the current.

With considerable effort and with each of the trio going under water more than once the delicate craft was worked ashore and righted. Nothing had been lost, but the flour was a dark brown paste.

“Give Reddy that pole and sit down and see if ye can keep quiet,” thundered Abner, as the journey was recommenced.

Bub silently obeyed and grinned ruefully as Stanley took his place and deftly performed his portion of the labor.

“It’s all in knowing how, Mr. Thomas,” he informed the disconsolate Bub. As no more accidents marred the day good progress was made before camp was pitched.

As Stanley was preparing the lean-to, this time in an opening, he was struck with the uselessness of going through the daily grind of cutting poles and gathering spruce or pine boughs.

“Why isn’t it more sensible to take a tent along?” he impatiently inquired, irritated by some remarks from Bub.

“Don’t want a tent,” grumbled Abner, still lamenting the loss of the flour. “If it had been in that canoe when we was spilled it would be soaked and heavy as lead. A tent ain’t the easiest thing in the world to pack ’round through the woods. If ye knew ye was going to be located in one spot for several weeks ye might consider it, but who wants to tote a heavy canvas when a few minutes’ work by a smart younker like yerself will build something to take the place of it?”

“Other folks must take tents with them,” replied Stanley.

“I guess not up in this region,” said Abner.

“Yes, up in this region,” persisted Stanley, his eyes gleaming in triumph as he believed he was about to get the best of the veteran.

“And why?” dryly asked Abner.

“Because if anyone built a lean-to they’d leave it standing. And here are the remains of a campfire and there’s no lean-to. That shows whoever built the fire had a tent.”

“A campfire!” cried Abner, quickly leaving his task of preparing the coffee. “Where?”

Stanley indicated the charred embers he had discovered, and with a smothered exclamation Abner kneeled and examined them closely.

“They’re ahead of us,” he quietly announced as he rose to his feet.

“They? who?” asked Stanley, his voice a bit nervous.

“Members of the Nace outfit,” shortly replied Abner, his face drawing down.

“But how do you know?” persisted Stanley, gazing apprehensively over his shoulder at the still, dusky depths of the forest.

“It’s a fresh fire,” explained Abner, the worried look deepening on his wrinkled features.

Bub came forward and examined the blackened sticks and pieces of charcoal carefully. “It was built before the rain of night before last,” he said.

“That’s right,” frowned Abner. “And it means they are only a day ahead of us.”

“But why do you say ‘they’?” There may be only one,” suggested Stanley.

“They are following the stream. They have a canoe,” replied Abner. “If there was but one man we’d overhauled him. There are three or four. They slept in their blankets without a shelter. That means they are in a rush. I hope ye ain’t been cleaning the rifles again, Reddy.”

“I see to it that the rifles are loaded all the time,” chuckled Bub.

“Well, there’s one consolation,” declared Stanley, his voice full of confidence. “They did not believe we would come this way, else they would have concealed their fire.”

“That’s good woodsman craft,” cried Abner, his eyes brightening. “They took it for granted we would wait on Hood till Noisy Charlie come along, or they’d never left such a trail. So, we don’t have to fear an ambush, unless we go too fast and overtake ’em. We’ll be sort of quiet and Injun like to-morrer and keep a careful eye out fer all small clearings on the bank.”

That night Stanley did not rest as well as usual. Throughout his dreams the blood-streaked face of Big Nick played an important part and once Bub aroused him with a kick and asked him what he was groaning about.

“I thought the half-breed had me,” shivered Stanley, pressing close to his friend.

“Don’t cry till you’re hurt,” sleepily advised Bub. “We’re loaded now and we don’t run from a regiment of Big Nicks. Besides, he knows we are loaded and he won’t be as bold again.”

The third day was taken more leisurely. With Stanley able to handle a pole the previous day’s record could have been surpassed with ease; but Abner was content to advance slowly, ever keeping a close watch of the banks ahead.

“What I fear to see is a thread of smoke,” he explained to his young companions. “If they should let up their pace we’d come in sight of their campfire. That would mean we’d have to hide the canoe and make a circle around ’em, which would be hard work and would cost us time. If we can reach the foot of Flat-top Ridge without running into ’em I’ll be tickled to death. For that’s where we begin work.”

“Flat-top, eh?” pondered Bub. “That’s a new country to me.”

“As it is to me. I had orders to say nothing till we was about there. As we should see it when we turn the next bend I feel at liberty to speak.”

In a short time the bend was reached and three pair of eyes were anxiously focused ahead.

“There she is,” muttered Abner, pointing to a long sugar-loaf shaped ridge. “This stream comes along its base. The disputed line is on the east end. If we can make pretty near the end we’ll take to the woods.”

For the rest of the afternoon dead water was encountered, which not only lessened the drudgery but also allowed more time to examine the banks. Whenever possible Abner hugged the east shore, believing those ahead would camp on that side as it would take them to the base of the ridge.

Several times Stanley gave a false alarm, mistaking some wood sound for a human voice. Especially deceiving to him was the conversational tone of the coon as twilight gathered. Although fooled by it the night he left the lean-to to evidence his courage, he could not rid himself of the belief but what he heard two men talking in low tones each time one of the animals sounded his note.

“We’ll camp here,” abruptly informed Abner, turning the canoe ashore. “And don’t build a fire,” he added as they quietly disembarked and threw their supplies on the shore. “That is, not till we find out if our friends are in this neighborhood.”

For some distance up stream and in back Abner went on a solitary scouting expedition, but returned with no news.

“I’ll go up that rise and climb a tree,” offered Bub. “If there is a fire anywhere along the stream I’ll most likely see it.”

Abner nodded his consent and Bub dashed away. Stanley would have gone with him, but not being invited believed his friend would prefer to go alone.

In a short space of time Bub came running noiselessly back.

“Well?” asked Abner, not lifting his head from the task of unpacking the food.

“I saw their campfire fully half a mile upstream,” panted Bub.

“I expected as much,” calmly announced Abner. “And it relieves my mind. They don’t suspect we’re in this neighborhood, or they’d mask it. Git some dry stick and start a small blaze back of them hemlocks. Ye needn’t be afraid of a little smoke, as it’s gitting dark, but don’t make more’n necessary, as that Big Nick can see like a hungry hawk. After we’ve had our supper we’ll hide the canoe and sneak in back towards the end of the ridge. It may be we can do our work and git out without their knowing it.”

“Only it will mean we must eat cold victuals,” sighed Bub.

“We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to eat anything. By jing! I’d give a cookie if Noisy Charlie was only here.”