The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 16

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Stanley felt quite an adventurer as he picked his way from blaze to blaze. When with the others he had simply followed their lead. Now all the responsibility rested on him. Of course the frequent patches left by Abner’s hatchet were a sufficient guide even to his untrained eyes. He simply had to keep along this line to pick a correct course, both going and returning. And yet the undertaking was tinged with an air of danger.

In the first place he was alone; secondly, his isolation permitted him to people the woods with hidden foes. He grasped the ax firmly as he advanced and smiled grimly to find himself moving with cautious tread. Once a porcupine leisurely crossed his path and he half-raised the ax, expecting to meet some dangerous enemy.

When about half way down the line he halted irresolute. For some unnamed reason he felt impelled to return.

“Nonsense,” he told himself. “Nothing can be wrong with Bub. I said I would go to the end of the line and I will.”

Still the vague feeling of alarm accompanied him as he closed his lips and resolutely resumed his way to the north. It seemed a long mile, but at last he came to the last blaze and willingly turned to retrace his steps.

As he took the backward trail his desire to do something to aid Abner got the better of his nervousness and he found himself closely scanning every foot of the way between the marked trees. He half smiled at his conceit, but persisted in his search. Only he did not know what he was searching for. It would be almost a miracle if Nace—providing he had shifted the boundaries—had left any tell-tale clues behind him. Reason repeatedly told him this much, and yet his optimism kept urging him to search.

“Well, I confess I’m several kinds of an idiot,” he frankly assured himself as he leaned against a large tree to rest. Through a rift in the swaying roof he could catch a glimpse of blue sky. The sun as yet had not penetrated his resting place, but it was comforting to know that once back in the open he could speedily dry his soggy clothing.

As he ruminated over the last few days and Abner’s great disappointment he began to go over the situation in detail. Nace had everything to prove his case. Even the big beech with the surveyor’s private mark, made nearly a century before, still stood as a witness for the suspected operator. This led him to notice that the tree he was leaning against also was a beech and his eyes opened in admiration as he decided it must be nearly three feet in diameter.

“It’s more than two and a half feet,” he mused, tapping the trunk idly with the back of his ax. “It’s fully as large—yes, larger—than the one on Nace’s line. It’s about half way.”

Then his breath came in a gasp as his ax-head hit a place that gave back a dead sound.

The bark looked smooth, yet it felt beneath the ax as if the wood were dead.

“It can’t be! it can’t be!” he murmured, sinking down at the foot of the tree.

Then he rose and examined the trunk more carefully. “How Bub would laugh at me if he could see me,” he muttered. But the more he tapped the bark the more excited he became and at last he cut a notch above the hollow sounding spot and one below it.

“That will be a strip about eighteen inches long,” he whispered, hardly daring to proceed.

“Now I’ll measure outside the dead spot about five inches. That makes it ten inches wide; now to cut it out. But I must work carefully, so I can replace the bark. For if Bub or Abner should find it I’d have to confess and then they’d joke me ever after.”

Composing himself he quickly cut the four sides of the panel of bark and drawing a long breath wrenched it loose. With an inarticulate cry he stood dumbfounded. There on the tree, clearly outlined in every detail, was the linked circles crossed by the arrow, just as they had found it on the other beech. There were the original owners’ initials, also.

“Can it be! Can it possibly be!” he repeated over and over, staring with mouth agape at the ancient record preserved in the tree trunk.

“Am I dreaming, or is it real?” he whispered, pinching himself to make sure he was not asleep. But there was no doubt of his important discovery and his heart expanded and he felt dizzy as he faintly realized this one tree was worth more than a tenth of a million dollars as it stood.

Finally he collected his scattered senses and examined the panel of bark. Here he had new reason for wonderment and exultation. For the inside of the bark in fitting into the ancient marking had grown ridges that were the reverse of the circles and initials. He knew that if it were held up before a mirror it would read as did the original.

Then the magnitude of it swept over him; he had found by accident what Abner, the veteran could not. It was all clear to him now. Nature, on discovering the wounds inflicted by man, had promptly set to work to heal and conceal. The bark had gradually formed a new protecting surface over the marking, invading all the creases in its effort to undo man’s work.

Sometime within the last few years Nace had discovered that if the cedar posts were shifted it might be possible to get possession of a big slice of this timber land. A beech was mentioned in the original description of the true line. He had found no beech bearing any record of the survey and had passed this hidden monument unsuspecting. But he had found a big beech about half way of the line he intended to substitute. The original beech had been destroyed, he undoubtedly believed. But the ancient beech on his fraudulent line would be accepted as the genuine. It only needed the mark of the two circles and arrow and the initials. This forgery he undoubtedly did himself, not trusting another, Stanley concluded. And in doing it he was cunning enough to give it every appearance of age. Then after a few years had passed and nature had come to his assistance in furthering the deception he had announced his holdings to include the disputed territory.

“I can’t make it seem true even yet,” complained Stanley to a squirrel chattering at him from a nearby limb. “It’s simply ridiculous that I should blunder onto this all-important tree.”

This line of thought led him to a graver one. What should he do with his discovery? Should he hasten to camp, triumphantly bearing the strip of bark as his first impulse urged him; or should he proceed more cautiously and prudently?

“Now, let’s get this thing right,” he pondered, frowning at the bark. “If I leave this here it will be almost too dark to fetch Abner to this spot to-night. I’ve got to tell him to-night or I’d go crazy. If I take it with me and anything should happen a half of my proof and the best half would be lost. For Nace could claim he committed the forgery on this beech, while everyone would know he couldn’t grow this bark so as to tell a lie. No, the bark is the important thing.”

As he was thus weighing the situation he was suddenly seized with alarm. He had heard no sound, he had seen nothing, and yet his heart began beating like a trip-hammer. It was similar to the sensation of fear he had experienced a short while before, when wandering away from the camp.

“I guess, Mr. Bark, we’ll hide you here,” he whispered, peering stealthily over his shoulder.

As he searched about him for a hollow tree or log in which to place his treasure he laughed aloud gently.

“To think I would be silly enough to hide the bark and leave the tree exposed. Of course the bark must go back in place, also the chips I cut out. Now to find them.”

Owing to the care with which he had removed his exhibit he found it an easy task to replace the panel so as to defy all but the most careful scrutiny. Even the chips, where he cut the notches at top and bottom, were arranged in place by the means of several pegs. Then to more effectually cover up all traces of his work, he found some reindeer lichen and trailed it across the tree.

Then he stepped back a few feet and tested it. He could discern nothing that would indicate what was hidden beneath the panel. As he was about to turn away, however, he noticed he had left the twigs and ground at the foot of the beech like an open book to a woodsman. He paused long enough to erase all signs of his having been there. This done he swung his ax over his shoulder and started rapidly for camp.

Bub had asked him to find the ancient and original records. He had found them. And how Bub’s eyes would roll and how Abner would splutter when he sank wearily into a sitting posture and by degrees unfolded his great secret. He would play the part of one discouraged and work the situation up to a disagreeable climax before imparting his news. If possible he would lead Abner along into scolding him.

But as he neared the end of his mile cruise he found his joviality leaving him. He was unaccountably depressed. It angered him to confess it. Here he was, bringing the best of news, and yet he felt as if something had gone wrong. He quickened his steps, and then halted irresolutely.

If he arrived and neither of his friends were there to welcome him he would not know what to do. It would be easier to wait out in the woods than to linger by the deserted campfire. Of course Bub would be there, and yet there was no atmosphere of home-coming for him as he came in sight of the opening.

“O-ee-e-e!” he sounded through his hands, pausing again for he knew not what reason.

There was a space of absolute silence and then faintly came back “O-e-e-e!”

“That’s Bub,” he muttered. “But his reply doesn’t sound very cheerful.” Next he smiled; for why should Bub feel cheerful? If Bub knew what news was being brought to him he would be dancing and prancing to meet his chum.

Again Stanley sounded the call and again it was answered; this time more clearly, but with no particular cordiality in its tone.

“Hi, Bub!” cried Stanley, as he drew within calling distance. “Where are you?”

“Here,” returned a sullen voice from beyond a bunch of ground hemlock.

“Well, cheer up, Mr. Thomas. Can’t you give me a better welcome than that?” There was no reply and Stanley continued, “I say, old man, it’s bad enough for Abner to have the blues, but when you—Heavens!”

The exclamation might well be forgiven him. For bound to a tree, his mouth distended by a cruel gag and wholly unable to speak, was Bub, tears of rage filling his eyes as he beheld his unsuspecting companion walking into the trap.

With a low cry Stanley turned to escape into the woods, but was tripped up by a villainous looking man, who laughed harshly as he made sure of his second victim.

In a few minutes Stanley found himself tied to a tree near Bub, only he was not gagged. As he looked about he beheld two other men lounging on the ground, but rejoiced to observe no signs of Big Nick.

“Take that gag out of my friend’s mouth,” were the first words he uttered.

“Sort of use to giving orders, eh?” grinned the man who had tripped him.

“Let the cub have a free breath,” advised one of the men on the ground. “Besides, we shall want them to talk pretty soon.”

“You miserable cowards to abuse him so,” raged Stanley.

“Shut up!” warned the first speaker, slapping him across the mouth. Then, adding a curse, he said, “He wouldn’t promise not to give you warning. Pretty soon he may refuse to give us some information, but he’ll be glad to. So will you.”

“You can strike me, because I am helpless,” whispered Stanley, his face livid under the blow. “But untie me and you do not dare do it.”

The man laughed, but not heartily, for there was something in the youth’s face that caused him to pause and change his mind and lower his upraised hand.

“Let the cubs alone,” growled one of the men on the ground. “Ye are too ready to knock people ’round ’fore it’s necessary, Pete.”

“Cut out using names, Joe,” growled Pete.

The third man chuckled. “Better both on ye do it,” he advised.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the man called Joe; not seeming much disturbed. “I don’t think these two will tell any tales on us. That is, Big Nick says they won’t. Gave me his word of honor they wouldn’t blab a thing.” And he leered hideously.

“Which on ye cut Nick’s head open?” asked the third man.

“I did,” proudly answered Stanley, his eyes glittering. “And I would like to be turned loose with the same club against you three murderers.”

“Ye would, eh?” growled the man, who had cautioned Pete to leave the prisoners alone. “We’ll make ye sing another tune in a few minutes. How’s yer mouth, Sonny.” The last to Bub.

“Didn’t you know, Stanley, I never gave that signal,” he asked, ignoring the man’s query. “Couldn’t you tell it wasn’t my answer? It seemed as if my heart would break when you kept coming ahead and not suspecting any danger.”

“I did suspect danger; or rather, I felt as if something had gone wrong,” replied Stanley. “I knew the signal didn’t sound right, but supposed the fault was with me.”

“Shut up that chinning,” commanded Joe.

“Three of the bravest fellows I ever saw,” admired Bub, his face flaming with anger. “So brave they jumped me from behind, never giving me a chance to defend myself.”

“We’ll give ye a different sort of a chance pretty soon,” grimly promised Pete.

“Let’s eat,” suggested the third man, rising lazily.

As he prepared bacon and potatoes, drawing on the cruisers’ store for the bacon, Joe and Pete held an earnest consultation, frequently pausing to listen for some signal from the forest.

“S’pose we’d better stay here till Nick shows up,” finally remarked Pete in a tone that carried to the strained hearing of the pale faced youths.

“We stick right here. Either that old hound will come back, or else he’s taken fright and is now being hunted by Nick. Lucky Nick found that campfire they thought they’d hid, and then located the lean-to!”

The youths knew that Abner was meant by “old hound” and each prayed fervently that he would escape capture.

“He won’t stand a ghost of a show,” continued Pete. “He hasn’t any gun with him.”

“How do you know he hasn’t?” cried out Bub.

Pete grinned wolfishly. “Cause Nick found out ye only had two rifles when he first began stalking ye,” he explained. “And here be both on ’em now.”

“Let me warn ye,” cautioned Joe with an oath, “that if ye try to give any signal I’ll cut yer throats.” And he pulled out a murderous looking knife to accent his threat.

Even as he appreciated his danger Stanley was thankful that it was due to no error of his that the half-breed had found their trail. He was also thankful that none of the evil gang knew of his discovery in the woods. At first he was tempted to whisper his secret to Bub, but feared that the latter by his expression would reveal his satisfaction and excite the men’s suspicions. If that were done he believed they would resort to torture but that they would have the truth from one of them. So he closed his lips and kept his news to himself.

Evidently the men had no fear that either youth would call out and warn Abner, should the old man approach the camp. This was doubtless due to their knowledge that Big Nick was searching high and low for the veteran and was expected to find him.

“What will they do with us?” murmured Stanley from the corner of his mouth and so softly that none of their captors heard him.

“Leave us for Big Nick to finish,” shivered Bub, hanging his head to conceal the movements of his lips.

“I’m afraid that we’re in for it,” murmured Stanley.

“I should say we are,” replied Bub. “There is but one chance in a million that Noisy Charlie will come in time. I’d back him against the whole outfit.”

“We can hardly expect him to arrive,” agreed Stanley. Then resolutely, “We must try to escape.”

“I’m tied so tight my blood can hardly circulate,” groaned Bub. “If we escape it must be at night; that is, providing we are released from these trees.”

“Them younkers are whispering,” drawled the third man, busy with the coffee.

“Catch ye at it ag’in and I’ll hurt ye bad,” growled Pete, slouching up to them and scowling into their white faces.

“I was saying my blood has stopped circulating,” replied Bub in a weak voice. “I guess I’m going to faint away.”

Pete studied them for a moment undecided, and Stanley added, “Why can’t you let us lie on the ground? We can’t get away.”

“What d’ye think, Joe? Shall I rope ’em up on the ground?” asked Pete.

Joe came over and examined the two critically. “Mebbe ye’d better. They’d be no use if they croaked before we’ve got what we want from them. Unhitch ’em.”

It was a great relief to the youths to find themselves on their backs, although tightly bound. But in releasing them from the trees the men took care to separate them so that they could not converse without being overheard.

The three men ate heartily of bacon and potatoes and cursed their prisoners roundly for not having any flour in their packs. But they did not offer to give them any of the food.

“I’m hungry,” defiantly announced Bub, as the three finished their meal and proceeded to light their pipes.

“Be ye?” drawled the third man, smoking with great relish. “It’s a good sign in a boy or a hoss to be hungry. Shows natur’ is trying to build up the system. Then by an’ by ye’ll feel thirsty.”

“I’d like a drink of water now,” said Stanley.

“There ye be,” admired the tormentor. “That’s a good sign. I know’d ye’d come to it.” But he made no offer to give either food or drink.

As the evening shadows closed in on the little group the men became impatient. “It’s too late for us to go gunning for the old hound. We’ll have to trust to Nick. What say to putting in the beans?”

This seemed to meet with favor and soon a hole was dug in the ground and filled with wood. This was fed until heaped with coals and then Joe produced from under a bush a huge kettle filled with beans. Evidently the villains had prepared to cook this at their original camp, but on finding traces of the cruisers had brought it with them. The kettle was snugly covered and buried in the coals and then packed over with earth.

“Thar!” admired Pete. “In the mornin’ that will be one of the best kettles of beans ye ever was denied a chance to taste.”

“Then you mean to starve us?” calmly asked Stanley.

“Mebbe yas and mebbe no,” slowly answered Pete. “It all depends on how glib ye talk in the morning. We are just trying to git ye into a sweet frame of mind so’s ye’ll answer a few questions. That’s all.”

“You all realize that you will pay a stiff price for this abuse?” warned Stanley, his jaw thrust forth as his fighting blood dispelled his fears.

All three laughed as if deeply amused. “What price can we pay, Sonny?” tantalized Joe between puffs. “Two younkers and a old man git lost in the woods and never come back. Who’s to blame?”

“So it’s murder, is it?” cried Bub. “You may kill us, but Noisy Charlie will have your scalps in return.”

The three men straightened and stared at him angrily. “That is just the point we want to question ye about,” informed the third man in a low, cruel tone. “We intended to wait till mornin’, but I guess we can hold a term of court right now.”

“Where is this Charlie?” asked Pete, his tone uneasy despite his attempt at carelessness.

“He’s nearer than you think,” jeered Bub. “I wouldn’t be in your shoes for all the timber in Maine. My! but won’t he walk it to you. They say he chased a man clear across to Manitoba once and—”

“Shut up, ye young devil!” roared Joe, hurling a stick of firewood at Bub. The missile left a red streak on the youth’s forehead, and Stanley groaned aloud in mingled fear and fury. He believed Bub was to be murdered on the spot. But Joe was restrained from following up his assault by Pete, who advised:

“Take it easy. Don’t let the cub rasp ye. Time enough to-morrer. They ain’t been tied up long enough yet. Wait till mornin’, when they ache in every limb and are dying for a drink of water, let alone some of our beans.”

“You can kill us by inches, but we’ll say nothing to help you,” declared Stanley, passionately.

“Mebbe not; mebbe ye’ll change yer mind,” chuckled the third man. “Once we git the old hound I guess he’ll talk fast enough to save ye.”

Stanley remained silent, for he knew that while Abner would suffer any torture before he would tell his plans, the sight of either him or Bub being abused would loosen the old man’s tongue.

“Now we’ll go to roost,” announced Joe. Saying this he dragged the boys in between him and Pete and tied a rope onto their arms and legs which in turn he passed around his and his companion’s waists. This meant that if the boys sought to escape the least tug on the rope would arouse their captors.

“And if ye git uneasy in the night and wake me up by twistin’ ’round I’ll make ye sorry,” warned Pete, savagely.

“I guess it’s no go,” whispered Stanley in Bub’s ear as the two laid packed closely together.

“What worries me is Abner,” murmured Bub. “He is either captured or else he knows what is up and is keeping low.”

“Bub,” gasped Stanley in a horror filled voice, “What if he should be—”

“Don’t,” groaned Bub. “Big Nick hasn’t caught him yet, or he’d be coming into camp. The fire the men made could be seen by that villain for a long distance. He’d climb a tree, and if he couldn’t see it, he’d smell it. Abner is safe so far. But O! how I wish he had his rifle.”

“Keep shut!” snarled Pete, giving Bub a vicious kick.

Bub winced under the blow, but gritted his teeth and made no sound. Stanley’s eyes filled with helpless tears, and the two became silent.