The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 19

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On leaving the two boys Abner had no definite purpose of making any extensive investigation of the enemies’ stronghold. Disgusted with his failure, gloomy because of the rain and hungry for some of Noisy Charlie’s cooking he felt much out of sorts and plunged into the wet woods to relieve his feelings.

But as he proceeded and drew nearer the strange camp his old curiosity as a cruiser returned and he speedily forgot his damp clothing and wet feet. At times he believed he could smell the acrid reek of the burning wood, and, halting, would sniff the air keenly.

Possibly he had covered two-thirds of the distance when with his mind on the camp and believing the strangers would not be abroad in the storm he stepped boldly into a small glade and found himself staring into the surprised eyes of Big Nick, only eight or ten rods away. If the half-breed recovered his presence of mind in a second he was a shade behind Abner, who with one spring vanished into the woods. The half-breed knew he now had a foeman worthy of his cunning and would have hesitated to stalk his aged foe if not for the knowledge that the cruiser had no rifle. And following Abner’s example he gained the cover of the forest noiselessly.

Then commenced a strange game of hide and seek. Abner would not retreat in any straight line, as he knew he must keep from the other’s keen view. If exposed for only the fraction of a second he realized the half-breed would shoot, and shoot straight. Thus for nearly an hour he passed like a shadow from tree to tree, never seeing his pursuer and remaining unseen in turn. Yet each sensed the other’s presence and realized that at times they were near neighbors. The dripping of the rain, the croak of a frog in some nearby pool, the occasional note of some songster in the open, as the sun threatened to return and flood the wood and heights with warmth, were the only sounds to be heard in the narrow compass of their dodgings and twistings.

The one idea in Abner’s mind was to remain concealed till night should blanket his movements; then he must silently make his camp and warn the youths. On the other hand he was continually tormented by a fear that one of the boys would set out after him, or by some lack of caution advertise their presence. In that event he must adopt a different programme and lead his foe away towards the river. Had he known, as he glided from bush to trunk, from rock to clump of cedar, that already Bub was a prisoner and that Stanley was about to fall into the same clutches it is probable that he could have escaped the half-breed.

But his camp was the magnet that held him hiding about one small circle, ever hoping for an opportunity to fly off at a tangent and rescue his young friends from possible capture. This mode of procedure puzzled the half-breed. It resulted in his overestimating the prowess of his opponent. He feared that Abner might be armed with a revolver, or be planning some coup by which he would win the victory. Because of this error the half-breed did not press matters as he otherwise might have done. Had be known that his white friends had captured Stanley and Bub he would have understood the cruiser’s maneuvers and would have governed himself accordingly.

Thus the two passed back and forth, now seeming to lose an advantage, now believing one was gained. At last the shadows thickened and drawing a deep breath Abner dropped to the ground and with incredible quickness and quietness wormed his way some distance towards his camp. Then half rising he took advantage of a dense growth, skirting it so as to place a barrier between him and Big Nick. It was some minutes before the half-breed realized the cruiser had changed his tactics and was trying to break away. Even then he hesitated to follow, fearing some subterfuge of the white man.

By the time he had circled the woods and had decided upon the general direction taken by Abner the latter was speeding like the wind for camp. As he neared it, he slowed his pace from habitual caution and for several seconds studied the back trail. Even if the half-breed should appear now he believed he could decoy him away from the camp, providing the youths in no way revealed their presence. But the half-breed was some distance back in the forest and finally Abner stole ahead.

As he reached the beginning of the clearing where the camp was pitched he thought he heard voices. Suspicious of all he did not quickly understand, he resumed his former secrecy of movements and stole forward as stealthily as if reconnoitering the camp on the river.

He groaned half aloud as his quick eyes caught the form of Bub tied to the tree and then beheld Stanley also a prisoner. Could he have exchanged places with his companions he would have done so gladly, let the price be what it might. As it was he was unarmed, with a deadly enemy dogging his tracks. Although he could not effect the youths’ release he believed the half-breed as yet knew nothing of their capture. This being so it was still possible for him to lead Big Nick far down the river. He did not believe the white men would seriously injure the boys, and once he had succeeded in decoying the half-breed down stream he might find a way to double back and effect their release.

Nor did he forget to figure as a possible asset—even as Bub and Stanley had shrewdly anticipated—a meeting with Noisy Charlie.

“I ain’t even got a jack-knife,” he groaned as he found he had left that important article beside the slab of bacon in camp.

Then fearful of Nick’s arriving and discovering his friends and the two prisoners Abner shook a withered fist at the trio of scoundrels and darted back to meet and divert the half-breed. Impelled by a fear that he had been instrumental in bringing the half-breed and the youths face to face he spurned all caution for the first half of a mile and dashed along recklessly. At last he paused and wiped his flushed face and began to hope that perhaps he was in time after all.

Ahead some old growth pine towered more than a hundred and fifty feet towards the heavens. It was a wonderful spectacle even for such an experienced woodsman as Abner and at another time he would have stared long and longingly. Just now he could think only of the youths’ danger and the ancient pines interested him in but one particular. They afforded a long range of vision. One could look down their majestic aisles for a great distance with the gaze unobstructed by any undergrowth. It was as if he were in an immense cathedral.

As he searched his imposing surroundings his pulse beat a trifle quicker. It seemed as if he had caught a glimpse of a shadow flitting from trunk to trunk far ahead.

“If that’s Nick I guess I’ll stick pretty close to this five-foot trunk,” he murmured. “After he’s passed I’ll let him know I’m here. But, by jing! this is a bad place to dodge a man armed with a rifle.” And he surveyed the wide open places, the smooth carpet of pine needles, in dismay.

However, Abner Whitten was not one to count the costs when aiding a friend and he drew himself up against the trunk and became motionless. Almost before he could sense it Big Nick passed him, seeming to move on wings, so noiseless were his moccasined feet. With equal stealth Abner revolved around the tree, keeping the trunk between him and his pursuer. It would not do to give a tell-tale sign of his presence just yet; again, he was in an agony of fear that the half-breed would detect the camp if allowed to advance much farther.

“Wal, if it’s got to be done, here gees.” With this desperate exclamation he quickly darted along his avenue of retreat some distance before allowing a dry branch to crackle under his foot.

As if worked by mechanism the half-breed wheeled and raised his rifle. There was nothing to be seen. Vanishing behind a tree trunk he crept tiger like towards the unexplained sound. As he did so his bead-like eyes caught a fleeting glimpse of a human form flashing from view. Uttering a guttural note of triumph he cocked his rifle and sped towards the point where his proposed victim had disappeared. His next note was one of rage, for as he believed he had the veteran cruiser at his mercy and was gloating as he pictured him crouching helpless behind the tree just in front, another stick snapped off to the left and again he was afforded a glimpse of a disappearing form.

He knew it was Abner. No one else in that neighborhood could so escape him, and baring his strong teeth in a snarl he set himself to work to run down this will-o’-the-wisp. He began by running with the speed of a deer towards the point where he last saw his prey. He now was convinced that the cruiser was unarmed. Believing this he devoted all his energies to overtaking the fugitive.

But Abner seemed as evasive as a whip-po’-will. He could be seen just for a second and occasionally heard, but there was no drawing near enough to shoot him. The half-breed had the advantage in years and strength and could make three feet to Abner’s one, but the veteran had the advantage of being in the lead. He was called upon to waste no time in deciding what course he should take; to the contrary the half-breed was often puzzled which way to turn. He usually discovered the right direction by a timely view of Abner’s back. But so soon as he arrived at that point he would sight his quarry far off to one side. Once he cunningly endeavored to anticipate such zigzag maneuvers by running parallel to the line he believed Abner would follow. But this time Abner, as if possessing the power to read his pursuer’s mind, held on straight ahead and gained a great distance.

The half-breed was convulsed with rage as scheme after scheme proved of no avail. To do his best he could only catch an occasional glimpse of the fleeing man, and never one sufficient to warrant a shot. Sometimes he suspected Abner was playing with him, and the thought was maddening. A dozen times he halted and raised his rifle, intending to shoot the moment the cruiser should show an inch of his person. In each instance Abner flashed into view in an unexpected quarter and was gone before the trigger could be pulled.

These repeated failures washed everything from the half-breed’s mind except his desire to kill the cruiser. He even forgot his grudge against the youths in his passion to prove he was a better woodsman than this stoop-shouldered man, so nimbly evading him at every turn.

The old-growth now gave way to a tangle of smaller evergreens and Big Nick cursed fluently under his breath as he realized he had lost a golden opportunity. His only hope now lay in running the old man down. If he could tire him out he would have him at his mercy. He redoubled his efforts as he noted Abner’s course was ever towards Briar stream. This led him to deduce that Abner was making for a canoe and had hopes of escaping him by water. It might also mean that in the canoe was a rifle; for it must be remembered Big Nick as yet knew nothing of the boys or their camp.

This last theory seemed very plausible to him and he made directly for the stream, intending to follow down its bank and intercept Abner, or overtake him before he could arm himself.

But from that moment Abner, for the night at least, was lost to him. Had he known that the veteran was exhausted from his fearful exertions and need of food he would have rested easier. Not knowing this he prowled along the river, made detours through the silent woods, and in every way sought to locate his victim.

It was just as he was giving up his search and was about to retreat to the camp up stream, his heart filled with bitter rage, that Big Nick again sighted his prey. Abner, lame and sore from his night in the woods, was painfully limping, not down stream, but back towards Flat-top. Apparently he believed he had fooled his pursuer and was now beating back to aid his friends.

With a hoarse cry of joy Nick renewed his pursuit. Again some mysterious power told Abner he was being chased, and fighting off his stiffness he renewed his tactics of yesterday. But the half-breed rejoiced as he observed the veteran was not moving with his usual sprightliness. More than once the rifle was sighted, only to be lowered with a cruel smile as Nick decided he had the game in his own hands and preferred to play with his man as a cat torments a mouse.

When Abner realized this fact, his mouth set in stern lines. He was exhausted and must be captured, he told himself. It simply remained to see how far he could lead the dark-faced foe from the neighborhood of the camp.

“I’d give anything if only Charlie could pop out and take charge of this affair,” he groaned as his foot twisted and a sharp pain shot up his leg.

It was at this juncture that by a desperate effort he appeared imbued with the strength and elasticity of youth, and heedless of his aching ankle led the half-breed a furious chase for nearly a fourth of a mile. Enraged, and believing that he had been tricked by a cunning counterfeit of exhaustion, he raised his gun and fired, just as Abner gave up the fight and fell face downward. It was then that the long-drawn-out cry was sounded and was heard by the men about to sit down to their breakfast.

Several repetitions of the cry at last brought Pete, Ben and Joe to the spot and they swore roundly that Big Nick was the greatest man-tracker in the woods.

“And to think we’ve got ’em all. Hey, old hound?” and Pete struck his hat into Abner’s face.

“I’ll see ye behind an iron grating fer that, my lad,” informed Abner in a low voice.

“Ye will, eh?” grinned Pete. “Wal, ye’ll have an eyesight that will look from a grave up here way down to the city then.”

Big Nick was standing like a piece of stone, his nostrils dilated. “You say all?” he asked, his deep voice trembling in its eagerness.

“Sure. We’ve got the kids trussed up at the southeast end of Flat-Top. Found ’em in camp there.”

Big Nick turned to Abner, his eyes glittering evilly. “You dog me away so I no find um. I pay you for that.”

“Ye’ll do mighty well to pay fer yer own debts, ye black-hearted skunk!” shouted Abner. “Of course I dogged ye from them. Hi, ye fellers. D’ye know I’ve had this poor fool on the string all yesterday afternoon and all night. If I hadn’t hurt my ankle I’d be fooling him now. And me an old man with no weapon. That’s the kind of a cur he is. He couldn’t even catch me. Bah! ye a woodsman? Why, ye tanned thief, ye couldn’t find Rangeley plantation ’less ye was led to it.”

The men laughed at Abner’s ridicule, but the half-breed bit his lips till they bled. Then he smiled fiendishly and said, “I bring boys here. I make you say good things about Big Nick. I make you say anything I ask.”

“Say, if that ain’t the Injun of it,” admired Pete. “He’s going to torture the kids till the old feller prays to him.”

“I won’t stand for that,” muttered Ben. “Nothing like that. We’re in bad enough without any extries. Fer my part I don’t care to have them younkers brought here. I left them alive and well, and well supplied with provisions. Guess we’ll call it quits as far as we’re concerned.”

“Ye miserable hounds! ye’re going to send that black devil back there to murder ’em!” shrieked Abner as he caught the significance of Ben’s declaration.

“Easy, easy, Mister Man,” grinned Pete. “We ain’t hired to protect strangers in these woods. We left the young men in good condition. We’re not to blame if a half-breed uses ’em up.”

“Ye’ll git a life sentence fer it, mark me that. And if the men at the mills git at ye first ye’ll swing, even if they don’t hang fer murder in Maine.”

“Is that so?” laughed Joe. “And who's going to tell on us?”

“I be,” roared Abner.

“Tie his arms and drag him along,” directed Pete. “We’ll camp over on the ridge. Joe, explain to Nick what he can and what he can’t do. No bringing the kids to us, ye know.”

With head bowed Abner stumbled along with his captors. He had no doubt but what to save themselves from a state-prison term they would kill him. He would have been glad to promise to drop the whole matter if they would only release the boys. He would have kept the promise, but he knew it was idle to make it, as they would never believe him. To them there was but one way out; the cruisers must never leave the woods, and what the outside world never knew, never happened.

He sounded them, asking why they “tied up” with a half-breed when he could give them well paid employment with his company.

“We’ve got a good boss,” grinned Joe.

“Shut up on that. We have no boss,” warned Ben.

“Ye needn’t try to cover up. Jim Nace is yer boss, but even he, as bad as he is, never meant ye should do murder,” cried Abner.

“Will ye keep yer mouth shet, or shall we do fer ye right here?” hissed Ben.

“And to think ye are fools enough to trust the half-breed, while he’ll throw ye over in a second,” sneered Abner.

“He might if he got mad with us and had a chance to blab,” agreed Pete.

“Meaning ye’ll put him out of the way if necessary?” queried Abner.

“I don’t think he’d be missed very much,” laughed Joe.

Abner said no more. The men talked openly before him, as if realizing what they said would never be carried further. After camp was pitched the veteran fell into a doze and did not wake till late in the afternoon. In the meanwhile one of the men had repaired to the camp on the river and had brought back some supplies. None had suggested going to the boys’ camp, nor did any of them appear willing to discuss the youths. Food was offered to Abner but he paid no heed. If his companions had been done away with he had no desire to live. And his head fell on his breast and his eyes remained half closed.

In the middle of the afternoon he heard a shout and looked up and beheld Big Nick. His hair bristled as he believed he was gazing on a double murderer. And he scarcely could believe his ears when Nick hissed, “Boys git away. No catch um.”

“What!” screamed Abner staggering to his feet, for only his arms were tied. “What! the younkers escape? Hooray! Glory! Kill me, do anything to me, ye pack of thieves and murderers—but my boys has escaped! Whoop!”

“Silence!” growled Pete, advancing on him with a knife, while Ben asked:

“And ye mean ye couldn’t run them down?”

“No catch um,” muttered Big Nick. “Little weasel sly like old fox here.” And he glared at Abner.

The three men eyed each other in consternation. If the boys remained at liberty it would be unsafe to deal harshly with Abner. If even one escaped the bloodshed would have been in vain.

“Wonder if that Injun is trying to throw us?” whispered Joe.

“How fer did ye chase them, Nick?” inquired Pete.

“All over. All day. No find. Come here to git help. Catch um easy when all help.”

“Did they come this way?” eagerly inquired Ben.

Nick nodded. “Come this way. Hide over there,” and he pointed to the east. “Need men beat up woods and scare um out. I watch on edge and catch um.”

Abner’s heart trembled within him. If the boys blundered on to the camp all was lost. If he could but warn them he was a captive he believed Bub would go down stream and meet Noisy Charlie. And his eyes roved desperately about the camp.

Regardless of betraying their presence Ben had heaped on some pine which was now sending up a tall column of yellowish smoke. Abner’s eyes brightened. If Bub only remembered to climb trees he would see the smoke and should know it was made by the enemy.

“But if there was two smokes he’d know I was a prisoner; fer he’d have brains enough to know I never git lost and that it must mean trouble. And he’d also figger out that I’d never call on him fer help, and consequently he must argify that I want him and Reddy to steer clear of this neighborhood. Now lem’me figger a bit.”

His idea of figuring was to carelessly brush some pine kindlings and bits of green boughs into a heap with one foot while the men were earnestly laying their plans for re-capturing the two youths. After he had accumulated what he believed to be a sufficient pile he drew near the fire and idly rearranged the brands with a foot. Then in turning away he kicked a burning brand smartly towards his individual pile. None of the four noticed him, and with no show of haste he carefully forced the brand beneath the mass and rejoiced to see how it caught hold.

But his task was not yet finished. The fire must be allowed to burn awhile. Quickly skirting the group he forced his way between Ben and Joe and gesticulating with his head so as to hold the attention of all he commenced a violent harangue, taking care to use no abuse that would incite them to stop him.

Wildly and vaguely he talked on, Big Nick as well as the others staring at him in open-mouthed amazement. “And I tell ye, and I believe it, that there are diamonds there. Now listen,” and he leaned forward to invite secrecy and mechanically the four gathered close, for his mention of precious stones held their attention. “I know there is gold there. I’ve seen it. Great big flakes and nuggets.” His voice now sank to a whisper, but as he caught the increased crackle of his signal pile he elevated his tones again, loudly crying, “And that gold is enough to make ye all rich.”

“What’s the matter with him? Is he crazy?” gasped Pete.

“No I’m not crazy. I’m talking of gold, car-loads of it. And hatfuls of diamonds,” shrieked Abner, seeking to destroy the warning noise of the second fire.

“Out up here,” gravely announced Nick, tapping his forehead.

“I’m not out up there,” denied Abner in a passionate voice. “I tell ye I know where Jim Nace makes counterfeit dollars. I know where he has a place not more’n ten miles from here where he keeps his silver and gold hid. And with it he makes his money. There! that’s news fer ye, eh?”

He was compelled to pause for want of breath, and Nick’s quick ear caught the sound of an unusual crackling. He turned and beheld the fire and with a growl sprang to it and kicked it to pieces.

“The old hound did it to signal the kids!” howled Pete, striking Abner to the ground with one blow of his brawny fist.

It was at this moment that Stanley saw the second smoke fade away from his perch in the tree top.