The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 17
MRS. BRUIN PAYS A VISIT
The morning broke warm and clear with the three men not awakening till long after the hour the true woodsman bestirs himself. The youths slept but little during the night and were softly whispering encouragement several hours before their captors showed any inclnation to arouse themselves.
“They were drinking from a bottle last night,” murmured Bub. “They’ll get up feeling ugly. I’ve seen the stuff work at the mill. We don’t allow drinking there, but sometimes the men break over and they’re always out of temper when they sober up.”
As he finished speaking Pete gave a growl and turned over on his side. As this brought the rope tightly about his waist he began to kick vigorously, cursing in a sleepy voice all the while.
At the first sign of danger from the flying eels Stanley and Bub drew up their legs and Joe received several of the blows. Being incensed he kicked back and the situation began to be serious till Bub let fly with his feet, crying lustily, “Hi, you two big cowards, want to kill us!”
This brought the men to their senses and still cursing they untied the ropes and staggered to their feet.
“What d’ye mean, ye young whelps, by kicking me like that?” bellowed Pete, drawing back his heavy boot for a blow.
“Your friend kicked you. We’re black and blue from your brutality,” protested Stanley. “If you intend to kill us, do it; but don’t kick us to death.”
“Shut up,” snarled Pete, stirring the third man roughly. “Hi, Ben, git up.”
Ben, like the other two, was in a nasty temper and swore roundly at Pete for calling him by name. “What ye didn’t give away last night ye can be counted on to tell this mornin’,” he accused.
The three might have fallen-to and attacked each other, if Bub had not foolishly taunted, “There’s mighty little we don’t know about you. Jim Nace never sent a bigger pack of blunderers to do his dirty work.”
The three stood and looked at each other in silence for several moments. Pete was the first to speak and there was something very dangerous in his low, even voice as he said to his mates, “Boys, that settles it. It ain’t a question of Nick having his way. It means state-prison for us if these brats leave the woods.”
“Ye’re right,” agreed Joe, his brows black with evil passions. “I don’t remember just what we let out last night, but we must have given the whole game away.”
Up to this moment Stanley could not make himself believe that the men would kill him. What Big Nick might do if he returned to camp was the most serious problem on his mind. He feared brutality, especially if he refused to divulge anything they might ask for; but in the back of his mind he had not thought they would slay him in cold blood. Now the sweat stood out on his brow as he watched them. There was no violence in their behavior now; instead, they appeared grave and thoughtful. This mood he wisely decided was more to be dreaded than any exhibition of fiery temper. They had been harsh and abusive. Now they were filled with a common purpose: to escape detection. There was but one way they could do this; they must remove all witnesses. And, unappreciated by the youths, each of the villains realized that Jim N ace would disown them and their acts should they fall into the toils of the law. This knowledge steeled them to cover their tracks at any cost.
“Forgive me, Stan. I guess I’ve settled it now,” whispered Bub, his voice choked with sobs.
“Don’t you mind, old man,” soothed Stanley. “If you hadn’t given it to them I should have. Anyway, we’re not dead yet.”
The men moodily prepared their fire and coffee, each seeming to avoid the eyes of the others, as if some fell thought would reveal itself should he raise his head. And yet each knew that his mate was asking himself the same question: How and when? Nor did this change in demeanor fail to carry its warning to the prisoners. Had the men raved and cursed each of the youths would have entertained the glimmer of a hope; but the grim silence, the brief interchange of inquiring looks, all foretold of a horrible plan.
At last, as the coffee was set aside and Ben was digging out the kettle of beans Pete quietly asked, “Shall we wait for Nick?”
“No,” quickly 'replied Joe. “No need of having more in the game than is necessary.”
“I say yes,” spoke up Ben, taking the cover from the kettle and dipping the point of his hunting knife into the savory beans to see if they were done to suit him. “He had the first grudge. We would only be actin’ in self-defense; but if he’s anxious to take the job off’n our hands, why not let him?”
“I guess them is my sentiments,” slowly decided Pete.
“I’m willin’ to go the whole hog,” brutally announced Joe. “But if ye two think that way, why, I’ll stand back. I only hope we won’t be sorry fer waitin’.”
“How can we be sorry?” scoffed Ben. “Any chance of their getting away? We’ll be hearing from Nick almost any time now.”
Before sitting down to their breakfast the men lifted Bub against a tree and tied him. “Let the t’other one wait till we finish,” suggested Joe, returning to his coffee.
As the others were about to follow his example the report of a rifle held them transfixed like so many statues. Then came a long drawn out cry, like the scream of a lynx.
“It’s Nick, and he’s sighted his game!” yelled Joe, leaping to the rifles.
Instantly Pete answered the signal and armed himself. “Come on,” he shouted to Ben. “We may head the old hound off if we work sharp.”
“I’ll stay and watch the brats,” Ben offered, loath to leave his breakfast.
“We’ll be back in a minute,” cried Pete. “Take their guns and foller us.”
With a sigh Ben appropriated the cruisers’ rifles and disappeared in the woods at the heels of his blood-thirsty companions.
“Bub Thomas, if ever we had a chance it is now,” cried Stanley, straining at his cords.
“I’m choking myself to death trying to work loose,” gasped Bub, his swollen face bearing out his statement in part.
Groaning in mental as well as physical anguish Stanley rolled back and forth, struggling to release himself. “Oh, for an inch of freedom!” he sobbed. “If my finger was a bit longer I believe I could do it. It’s cruel! cruel to be held like this.”
“Oh, heavens, Stan!” sobbed Bub. “We’ve lost our one chance. They’re coming back.”
Stanley, bereft of all hope, caught the crashing sound in front of them. Suddenly he whispered, “It doesn’t sound like them.”
“Maybe it’s Nick, sent back to do the work,” shuddered Bub, now hanging very limp from the tree.
“The hemlock moves. Whoever it is he is very cautious,” whispered Stanley.
Bub strained his head, but was unable to see the newcomer. Stanley, although prostrate on the ground, could see the bushes and ground hemlock moving as if the intruder was half decided not to advance.
“Bub!” he cried in a strangled whisper. “It’s a bear.”
Bub’s form became rigid as Within his range of vision a large black bear appeared. Walking flat-footed and swinging its head from side to side the small fierce eyes were centered on the campfire. With a thrill of hope both realized that bruin as yet had not observed them, but was following up the odor of the pork and beans.
At another time the youths would have found a rich comedy in the bear’s maneuvers to obtain the coveted kettle. Fearing a trap, angry at the smoke and suspicious of the man-smell she timidly advanced and as often gave a snarling growl and awkwardly bounded back. Finally one hook of a claw caught in the bail and the kettle jumped from the fire.
This action on the part of the kettle instilled fresh alarm in bruin’s breast and she retreated half into the hemlock, rumbling savagely.
Stanley was hoping the men would return and be destroyed by the bear. Then the absurdity of this wish was realized and he could find no hope of release from the unexpected intruder. Bub was concerned only with a fear that the bear would sight them and maul them to death. While knowing his fate had been decided by the three men, let alone Big Nick, he was tenacious enough to want to live till the last second.
Only the steaming smell of the kettle saved the boys from being discovered at the outset. But Mrs. Bruin, mindful of her cubs at home, and extremely fond of pork odors had nostrils for the kettle alone. It was hot, but now gingerly tipping it over some of the beans escaped and cooled and with a grunt of joy she gulped them down.
That first taste was so delicious that she cast caution to the winds and juggled the kettle deftly between her big paws in an endeavor to obtain more. But the beans were not so easily dislodged and beyond a few cupfuls she progressed slowly.
With her appetite keen set Mrs. Bruin was not inclined to be annoyed overlong. She announced as much in a deep throated growl as the kettle slipped to the ground. Then her eyes lighted cunningly and she slowly dipped her nose into the kettle. It was not as hot as she feared, that is the beans on the surface, and as a huge piece of pork just tickled her nose she became desperate and with a strong push shoved her head through the opening and deep into the kettle.
But if the beans on the surface had cooled a bit, those beneath were steaming hot and with a roar of pain the bear opened her mouth and frantically tried to free herself. Her sensitive nose was being cruelly burned and the kettle fitted tight. Had she worked gradually, using one of her intelligent paws, and above all things had kept her mouth closed, the triangle of a face would have been drawn forth.
Being crazed by her burns and now thoroughly convinced it was a trap—as she should have known from the man-smell—she lost all idea of cunning and rearing on her hind legs began a mad dance about the opening.
“She’s going into the fire!” cried Bub, his eyes distending at the unusual spectacle.
His voice, coupled with her imprisonment, now caused the bear to lose what little sense she possessed after first being trapped, and with a mighty spring she fulfilled Bub’s prophecy and landed in the smouldering embers. Her muffled roar was changed to a scream of anguish as she danced clear of the coals. With a frenzied effort she jumped to one side, her head striking a tree a smashing blow and breaking the kettle.
Finding herself free she gave another roar and plunged into the wood.
Stanley had held his breath as their visitor hit the tree beside his head and he sighed deep in relief as he beheld her departing.
“She’s gone,” choked Bub.
Stanley did not reply. His eyes were glued on to a piece of the kettle that had landed close beside him.
“Why don’t you speak, Stanley? Did she step on you and kill you? ” cried Bub.
“No,” replied Stanley, not shifting his eyes. “I’m still alive. I am figuring on getting that piece of iron that is about six inches beyond my reach.”
“Roll over to it,” begged Bub, his face twisting to keep pace with Stanley’s efforts.
“If I could have done that I would have rolled into the fire long ago,” panted Stanley. “They hitched one end of the rope to the tree.”
“Go it, Stan! Go it,” pleaded Bub, puffing out his cheeks and straining at his bonds as if that would help his perspiring companion.
“I—can’t—make—it,” groaned Stanley, ceasing his efforts.“Stanley Malcolm, you can make it,” reproached Bub. “I could make it if I had your chance. Even Abner Whitten could make it. A cripple could make it! Get that chunk of iron!”
With a sobbing moan Stanley threw himself madly forward, but instead of trying with his hands so shifted his position as to bring his face all but against it.
“NOW!” yelled Bub. “Get it!”
And with a final effort Stanley stretched his neck another fraction of an inch and worried the iron within reach with his lips. Then he went limp, exhausted.
But Bub was a hard taskmaster and he now urged, “Want them to return and kill us? Get busy with that iron.”
“I’d like to work for you by the week,” choked Stanley, fumbling the piece of metal between his fingers and assailing the rope.
“Not that rope!” warned Bub. “What are you wasting your time on that one for?”
“Who’s doing this?” muttered Stanley, increasing his efforts. “I’m tied to the tree, I tell you. I can’t come to you till I’m free.”
“Forgive me, Stanley. But rush!” whimpered Bub, now on the verge of hysteria as he really believed they stood a chance of escaping.
With repeated strokes Stanley severed the cord and then rolled rapidly to Bub’s feet.
“Can’t you loose your hands?” whispered Bub.
Without replying Stanley brought his back against Bub’s legs and began cutting the rope.
“Freeing my feet won’t free my hands,” reminded Bub, his eyes now fixed in the direction taken by their captors.
“Shut up!” muttered Stanley. “Hold still!”
“You’re cutting my leg,” timidly informed Bub.
Stanley made no response but increased his frantic movements. At last Bub announced “My feet are free. What next?”
“Curl them around me and help me to my feet,” panted Stanley. “I can’t reach the cord around my own feet and I can’t get to your arms unless you help me up.”
Bub caught his idea instantly and after several trials aided Stanley to a standing position. Leaning back against Bub, Stanley then felt blindly for the cord holding the hands imprisoned behind the tree trunk and sawed for his life.
An occasional groan warned him he was nipping the flesh, but without halting he continued. It was sweet music in his ears as Bub half-screamed, “You’ve done it, Stan. You’ve done it!”
And in a few twists and turns he stepped clear of the tree. “Now give me that piece of iron,” he grimly demanded, his jaw squaring as he glanced over his shoulder, fearing the return of the men even in their moment of victory.
“Knife in my pocket,” hoarsely whispered Stanley, completely exhausted by his exertions.
In a second Bub had secured the knife and with three strokes was able to help Stanley to his feet.
For a few moments the two could do nothing more than hobble into the woods, so benumbed were their limbs. Had the men returned at that time they would have found it easy to run the youths down. Repeated rubbing finally allowed of a slow, awkward gait, but freedom was sweet at any price and the youths could only evidence their joy by silent pressures of the hand.
“Where to?” asked Bub, after they had placed a half a mile between them and the scene of their capture.
“We’ll follow the men,” doggedly announced Stanley. “If they’ve got Abner we’ll make a try to release him.”
“Good boy,” approved Bub, heartily. “That’s the way to talk. If they’ve captured Ab and find we’ve skipped they’ll never expect us to come around their camp; and we’ll snag Abner free or get caught ourselves. If I only had a rifle!”
“I shall always feel kindly towards bears,” mused Stanley.
“And baked beans,” thoughtfully added Bub.
“Why! that reminds me,” gasped Stanley. “Why didn’t we think to take some of the provisions? We left blankets, food and everything.” And he halted irresolute. “Shall we go back and get them?”
“What!” cried the horrified Bub. “Go back there? Why, Stan, I’d die a hundred times out here in the woods first. You have a knife; let’s cut two stout cudgels. They will be better than nothing.”
“That’s all I had when I hit Big Nick,” reminded Stanley. “Then we can fasten the knife onto a pole and spear some fish. We won’t starve.”
“I should say not,” cried Bub. “It’s easy to get food in the woods. The only thing that worries me is where we can find Abner.”
Stanley thought long and earnestly and then suggested, “Wouldn’t he try to lead them from the camp, fearing they would find us? If so he’d beat down the river. He’d never go up stream as the ridge would hedge him on one side. Besides, he wouldn’t want to place the ridge between himself and us.”
“That’s just what he would do,” heartily agreed Bub. “And, Stan, I must say I’m proud of you. You reason like a veteran woodsman. Not only would he go down stream to draw them from us, but also in a hope of meeting Noisy Charlie. O if he could only lead them within range of Charlie’s rifle. The Injun would bag every one of them.”
Despite their earnest conversation they kept a keen watch as they stole along, pausing frequently to listen. Once Stanley thought he heard the report of a rifle, but could not tell in what direction of the woods. When sufficiently removed from the camp Bub climbed several trees, hoping to get some clue of their enemies. On one of these occasions a rabbit, pursued by a lynx, broke through the woods and ran across Stanley’s feet. Responding to his nerves he promptly emitted a yell that nearly caused Bub to lose his hold on his aerial perch.
“Wh—what is it?” he faintly inquired, fearing his friend had been recaptured, yet loyally betraying his own position in order to learn the worst.
“Nothing but a rabbit,” answered Stanley, still trembling from his fright. “Hurry down. Another rabbit will scare me to death.”
“You can’t let out many more yells like that last one without attracting some unwelcome callers,” warned Bub, eager to lead the way from the spot.
“Would that sound carry far?” anxiously asked Stanley.
“Big Nick would hear it a half a mile away easy,” frightened Bub. “But he might not know what it meant; especially as he believes we are prisoners.”
Stanley again felt the strange sense of fear that had overcome him just before he was captured. Clutching Bub’s arm he whispered, “Let us conceal ourselves right here, somewhere. My nerves are all shaken to pieces. I feel as if we were in great danger.”
“That would be worse than foolish,” remonstrated Bub. “Let’s get away from here while we may.”
But Stanley was firm. “I must have my way,” he whispered. “I feel as I did when alone in the woods; as I did when I woke up and found Big Nick standing by me.”
This startling bit of information caused Bub’s hair to stir at the roots and he protested, “If you talk like that you’ll have me scared blue. Come, I’ll find a hiding place.”
It took him but a moment to select an ideal spot for concealment. With a sigh of relief Stanley crawled in beside him, after which Bub carefully arranged the growing things so that no clue to their presence would be afforded a keen-eyed passerby.
“If Hatton ever gets me out on a job like this again it’ll be because I’m crazy,” softly whispered Bub.
“Which reminds me,” as gently informed Stanley, “I’ve found the old record. The company wins if we can get clear of this country.”
“It’s no time for joking,” reproached Bub.
“I am not joking. I have found what Abner sought,” earnestly assured Stanley.
Bub’s eyes filled with tears. “Poor old Stan,” he snivelled. “It’s a shame. Don’t think any more about it, old fellow. You’ll feel better by and by. Try and go to sleep. You can rest your head on my shoulder.”
“Do you think I’m crazy?” inquired the amazed Stanley.
“No, no,” soothed Bub, to whom this seemed the cruelest blow of all. “It’s all right. You’ve done fine. Now try to go to sleep.”
“Bub Thomas, if you keep on talking in that creepy tone I will go insane in earnest,” snapped Stanley. “I’m not mad, you silly. I was trying to tell you what I found.”
“Honest, Stan, do you mean it?” exclaimed Bub.
“I tell you yes, a hundred times, yes,” repeated Stanley, now becoming irritated.
“Then you’ve made your everlasting fortune,” announced Bub in an awed voice.
“If there is a fortune in it you and Abner and Charlie are equal partners,” said Stanley sharply.
“But we didn’t find it?”
“Well, you found me, didn’t you? Now keep still while I tell you. For if anything should happen to me and you get back you can tell Hatton.”
He then proceeded to give Bub a full account of his adventure with the beech tree. The thing that impressed Bub the most was Stanley’s forethought in replacing the bark instead of bringing it into camp.
“For if you had brought that with you the gang would have killed us off hand,” be declared firmly.
“I believe they would,” admitted Stanley. “I tried to do what I imagined you and Abner would have done. And reason whispered ‘Be careful.’”
“Reason wouldn’t have whispered that to Bub Thomas,” firmly said Bub. “I’d let out a whoop you could have heard down at Umbagog and waving it on high I’d run to camp and plump into the accommodating arms of Joe and Pete and Ben—may they all reach state-prison.”
“Hush!” hissed Stanley, pressing Bub’s arm. “I hear something.”
Bub cocked his ear, but the wild throbbing of his heart deprived him of his usually keen sense of hearing.
Before either could make a tell-tale movement, or utter a betraying sound, the undergrowth just in front of their hiding place softly parted and they found themselves staring into the swarthy face of Big Nick.
Stanley’s lips were opened to utter a wild cry, but Bub’s hand brought him to his senses. They were in deep shadows and the half-breed had not seen them. It was obvious he had heard something that had aroused his suspicions, possibly Stanley’s outcry when frightened by the rabbit. Both knew he was there for a purpose by the manner in which his burning glance sought to penetrate the way ahead. After pausing for the fraction of a minute he disappeared as silently as he had come, and his path was towards the camp.
“He has learned we are prisoners and he’s going back to pay off old scores,” shuddered Stanley.
“That means he will strike our trail and be after us the minute he finds we have escaped,” warned Bub. “He’ll read the whole story of the bear and how we got free in a glance. Then he’ll be after us.”
“How much leeway have we?” whispered Stanley.
“Until he reaches the camp and takes his first look,” replied Bub. “Now it’s whiteman’s woodcraft against an Injun’s. Come on.”