The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

A VAIN SEARCH


Skirting the ridge from the river bank to the southeast point where Professor Carlton had commenced his survey and where Abner knew he would find the warden’s blaze the three cruisers took advantage of the remaining twilight to proceed towards their destination and put as much distance between them and the hostile camp-fire up-stream as possible.

Needless to say the small campfire built behind the hemlocks was carefully obliterated, Bub taking pains to scatter dried leaves and sticks over the dead embers. The canoe, too, was cunningly concealed a few yards from the bank. With all traces of their arrival thus eliminated the trio believed their presence would be unsuspected till some accident revealed it.

“And we must be mighty careful not to have any accidents happen,” cautioned Abner, who was leading the way.

“If them fellers believe we are at Hood mountain they will keep to the river, waiting for us to arrive. They won’t think of cruising around the ridge ’less they see a smoke, or hear a rifle shot. So, it’s short rations and a quick trip. Gitting back is what troubles me.”

“Why?” asked Bub.

“I expected Reddy to put that question,” replied Abner. “I’m afraid that by the time we’ve done our work the Nace gang will have learned we ain’t at Hood, and being suspicious that we’re up here they’ll begin snooping ’round a bit.”

“I feel a sprinkle,” broke in Stanley, who had been holding out his palm to test the weather.

“By jing! that’s so. It’s going to rain,” mumbled Abner. “We’ll have to find an opening and put up a lean-to. Only, ye’ll have to use yer knives in cutting the poles as we can’t risk any noise. “I’d planned on sleeping in our blankets to-night.”

“And what if they find the lean-to?” inquired Stanley, who preferred a drenching to the chance of meeting Big Nick and his friends.

“We’ll take the chance,” returned Abner. “It ain’t likely they’ll do any scouting while it rains and there won’t be any signs to draw ’em over here anyway. I’m too old to sleep in wet blankets ’less I have to. If my rheumatiz gits to capering ’round in my system ye’ll find ye have a cripple to tote back to civilization.”

“Never knew you had rheumatism,” said Bub, as they halted in a small opening surrounded by dense growth.

“Never had,” readily conceded Abner. “But I might have. And I’m too old to git use to it.”

The gathering darkness and the fact the hatchets were prohibited made the task of erecting the lean-to an arduous one. Besides the rain was pattering down quite steadily before the last spruce bough was placed on the roof and the three crawled into moist blankets in any but an agreeable frame of mind.

The continual drip-drip of the rain brought a feeling of homesickness to Stanley, which he sought in vain to fight off. His thoughts wandered persistently to the snug home up on Hood mountain and he recalled over and over the kind words and advice of Laura. His companions could not know what was on his mind, nor that long after their regular breathing told they were asleep that he remained awake and miserable.

The morning broke grey and sullen. The rain had ceased but threatened to fall any minute. Stanley gazed hopefully towards the east, trusting to find a faint glow that would betoken the coming of the sun.

“Ye needn’t spend time staring for clear weather,” snapped Abner, whose temper was a bit out of joint as he prepared a meager breakfast. “Ye ought to know by this time that when the clouds hang as low and heavy as they do now that it’ll keep it up all day.”

“He hasn’t been out in a rain storm before,” reminded Bub. “The only rain we’ve had was the night we slept warm and tight up on Hood.

“Will ye keep shut?” groaned Abner. “What ye want to bring up them memories fer? I’m trying to keep my mind off’n it. I vum! but I’d like to be sticking my legs under that table now. Real coffee with condensed milk and some of Miss Laura’s cakes and maple syrup.”

“She makes the best buttered toast I ever ate,” sighed Stanley.

“Let her and her toast alone,” harshly commanded Abner. “Want to drive me crazy? The idee of talking about toast when we’ve got to set down to soggy bread and cold victuals and no coffee. Prob’ly she’ll be having some of them hot rolls this morning. Never see a timber cruiser yet but what was a fool, else he wouldn’t be prying ’round in the woods when he could have a hot breakfast in a civilized way.”

The old man’s inconsistency evoked a faint smile from the two youths, but the day was too dreary for a thorough appreciation.

After the hurried meal Abner strapped on his pack and led the way through a fine drizzle. At first it was nothing more than a mist which caused their clothing to steam. Gradually the water began to trickle from their hat brims into their eyes and down their necks until Bub said he wished he could fall into a pool and get well soaked and have done with it.

With the exception of the wayfarers the whole wood seemed to be indoors. No bird calls gladdened their path; no unseen forms crashed away in alarm as they advanced. Only the monotonous drip-drip accompanied them. Under the spruce and pine they found something of shelter, but when the hardwood growth was penetrated Abner’s hand in pushing aside limb or bush sent a shower-bath over the two behind, and by the time they reached the foot of the ridge they were thoroughly drenched.

“Can’t we build a little fire and dry out?” asked Stanley.

“If ye could build a fire on all sides and overhead and carry it ’round with ye all day it might be a good scheme,” sarcastically replied Abner. “But fer me, I’d prefer not to go through the process of gitting wet ag’in. What good would it do ye if ye was bone dry this minute? In five more ye’d be wet a’gin. No, we’ll rough it. This is what city chaps pay money to enjoy in the woods.”

“Only they usually bring lots of tents and a stove and read novels inside while it rains,” added Bub.

“I can stand it,” laughed Stanley, now beginning to be amused at the water trickling down into Abner’s disgusted eyes.

“Shall we wait till to-morrow before beginning the cruise?” asked Bub, whose hopes were centered on an affirmative answer.

“No, sirree!” exploded Abner. “We’ll start in now. If this rain thinks it can make me quit it’s mistaken.”

“But we don’t ever work when it rains,” remonstrated Bub.

“That’s true when we are on a decent cruise, as the time we spend drying our clothes at night more’n takes off anything we gain. But this is a rush order and we’ve got to go through with it.”

“If the rain inconveniences us it will keep Big Nick and his gang under cover,” Stanley sought to encourage.

“I’d almost prefer to dodge a hot bullet to catching wet rain drops all day,” grumbled Abner, viciously pushing his way through some undergrowth. “Come on; we’ll make a start.”

With a doleful grin Bub winked at Stanley and fell in behind. For two hours the three climbed and fought their way up the side of the ridge. Then Abner came to a halt and began hunting for the warden’s blaze.

“He said I’d be sure to find it and could depend upon it,” growled Abner after several minutes of vain effort. “He didn’t know what he was talking about. I’ll bet there ain’t a mark within a mile of here. Most likely he started in at the other end of—”

“Possibly this is it,” broke in Stanley, pulling aside some rain laden boughs and revealing a chipped trunk.

“Wal, he must have took pains to hide it,” crustily acknowledged Abner.

But with the finding of the blaze Abner’s temper improved a trifle. In his zeal to run out the old line he forgot the rain in a measure and his eyes regained some of their old light as he eagerly worked his way due north.

By the aid of his compass and map and with the youths some fifteen feet on either side of him he pursued his quest for a mile. The net result of his endeavors was zero.

To be doubly sure he carefully retraced his steps and arrived at the starting point without having discovered anything in the company’s favor.

“It’s simply a waste of time and muscle,” he complained as they came to a pause. “If Carlton couldn’t find anything it ain’t expected that I can. Every monument has been removed.”

“Does this end it?” asked Stanley, deeply disappointed at their failure.

“Hardly,” grimly replied Abner. “We’ll run the line Nace is depending on. Our line originally, as we hold, ran from here due north. Nace holds it runs from here northeast. And that leaves him the triangle of rattling good timber. Wal, let’s be moving.”

The second trip was made more quickly, as at every one-fourth of a mile the cruisers found the cedar post, encircled with stones and again encircled by blazed trees.

“Now we’ll cut to the west for a fourth of a mile and then we’ve made the round of the lot,” said Abner.

This leg of their trip was accomplished in a pouring rain, the very heavens seeming to open in a purpose to drown them. Although protected by a noble growth, the roof of tree tops leaked in many places and Stanley never before realized how much water his clothing could hold. The water squashed in his boots at every step and his sleeves were spouts, ever sending two trickling streams down his arms and wrists. His hat was a sodden rag.

“Now we are where we were when we turned back after tracing the west line,” informed Abner, coming to a halt. “This makes twice we’ve gone over this line going backward, or three times in all. I guess I’ll let ye two follow it out, as there ain’t nothing to be found, and I’ll take a dip into the lot and make a few stands. Might as well git an idee of what we’re losing while I’m about it.”

Bub nodded and took the lead, striking a true course to the point where Professor Carlton had made his initial blaze. The youths proceeded slowly, each secretly anxious to find some trace of a monument or boundary mark, in order to crow over Abner. As a result the three arrived at the starting point at about the same time.

The rain began to lessen, but it was not the promise of a clear to-morrow that caused Abner’s eyes to light up with enthusiasm.

“Younkers, it’s one of the best bits of spruce I ever see,” he cried, smacking his lips. “I made about ten stands and figger it will run ahead of any eighty acres in the state.”

“And we can’t have it,” reminded Stanley, sorrowfully.

The light faded from the veteran’s gaze and he bowed his head. “I was so took up with the timber that I plumb forgot it isn’t fer us to operate,” he groaned. “Why! it’s simply a shame to let such a growth git away from the Great Northern. If I wasn’t a honest man I’d shift them posts back where Nace prob ’ly took ’em from in the first place.”

“That would be hardly honest,” protested Stanley. “We are not positive that he removed them. We only suspect it.”

“Of course we can’t do it, although anything would be honest if it beat Nace,” snarled Abner. “But it wouldn’t do any good to shift ’em, as he’s had surveyors up here, who’ll swear as to where they found the posts. I must admit that all the marks are there as he claims, even to the marks on the beech beside the half-mile post. I guess we lose.”

“Well, what next?” demanded the practical Bub. “No use crying over spilled milk. If we can’t find anything, we can’t, and we might as well eat. The company can’t blame us for failing to do the impossible.”

“I hate to give up,” remonstrated Stanley.

“Seeing it’s the first time I ever failed I kind of feel the same way,” shortly informed Abner. “Start a small blaze, Bub.”

“Going to risk a fire?” inquired Bub, his tone showing surprise.

“Yas, I’m going to risk a fire,” returned Abner, completely losing his patience. “Is it fer me or one ye younkers to say what I’ll risk?”

“Certainly it is for you, Mister Whitten,” politely answered Bub.

“Wal, git busy, then. I’m going to have some hot coffee no matter what happens. Only, ye needn’t feel called upon to make a bonfire.”

But the steaming coffee did not work any radical change in the veteran’s temperament. It was not the discomforts of the day that affected him; it was the knowledge that he had failed for the first time in his long career.

“It ain’t fair,” the youths heard him muttering to himself as he moodily filled his pipe. “It ain’t right to send me up to do detective work. I’m a timber cruiser. Give me a cant and I’ll cruise it and tell how much she’ll cut and what equipment is needed. But I never advertised myself to be a detective that could find what ain’t to be found. Hatton said I needn’t come back till I’d won out. His own job was in the balance. I’ll beat back to the warden’s and send in word I’m looking fer a new place.”

Stanley grimaced as he overheard this confession of defeat and gazed appealingly at Bub. But the latter simply shook his head, indicating that he, too, surrendered and believed there was nothing they could do.

“How long do we stay here, Mr. Whitten?” finally asked Stanley.

Abner raised his head and stared vacantly; then as he sensed the query he shortly replied, “I’m waiting fer Noisy Charlie to arrive. If he don’t come by to-morrer I’ll start back. He knows where to look fer us and should turn up by to-morrer morning.”

“Isn’t there anything he could do to help us?” anxiously asked Stanley.

Abner knocked out the heel of his pipe in deep irritation. “S’pose a Injun guide can cruise better’n I can?” he demanded. “Charlie has his fine points, but when it comes to locating lines and monuments I can teach him his A B C’s.”

“That’s so,” whispered Bub. “If Abner can’t win out, no one can. When Hatton sent him up here he knew he was sending the best man in the state. But he can’t do the impossible.”

“Did Hatton mean what he said about discharging him if he failed?” murmured Stanley.

Bub grinned, “Guess he’d change his mind if he did,” he replied. “Anyway, Abner would be so touchy that he’d refuse to go back unless he succeeded. So far as a job is concerned there isn’t an operator in Maine, doing business on a big scale, but who would be glad to get Abner. He’s had lots of offers from all over.”

“Then he means what he says; that he gives up all hope and admits the fight is lost?” queried Stanley, his eyes flashing.

“That is exactly what he means, my son, and I’d lose lots of sleep over it, if that would help any,” returned Bub.

“I feel mad clear through. I’m going to walk it off. Give me the rifle,” gritted Stanley, rising.

“I wouldn’t take a gun, Stanley,” advised Bub. “Take an ax. You won’t meet anything that needs a gun, and it would only mean you’d have to clean it up after you got back. Leave the gun in its case and take an ax, my son.”

“All right,” agreed Stanley. “Don’t worry about me. I can find my way back. See, it is about to clear up.” And he pointed to a rift in the clouds where a spear of sunshine was stabbing its way through to gladden the earth.

“Don’t leave the ridge, and be careful to keep along our blaze,” yawned Bub, feeling inclined to take a nap.

Abner lifted his head with a jerk. “Where ye going?” he sharply demanded.

“Only for a little stroll to get some of the mad out of my system?” sadly smiled Stanley, grasping the ax.

“I don’t blame ye. Follow the blaze due north and ye can’t get lost. And as I don’t relish the idee of staying behind with this magpie I’ll cruise over towards the enemy’s camp and see what they’re doing. Stay here, Bub, and keep camp.”

“Come back in good temper, Mister Whitten; and be careful that Big Nick doesn’t get a crack at you. Take a rifle?”

“No,” decided Abner. “I don’t figger on being seen. No use to git the guns wet. Remember, Reddy, don’t leave the blaze and don’t fail to git back before it’s dark.”

“I’ll be here before you are,” promised Stanley. “I shall not go far. The sunshine is beginning to cure me already. So long, Bub.”

“Be sure and find all the missing monuments,” cautioned Bub.

“As Nace has stolen them and set them up on the other line I fear I can’t,” laughed Stanley. “But I feel it in my bones that we’re going to win out yet.”

“What ye feel in yer bones is a touch of rheumatiz,” grumbled Abner, striding away towards the river.