The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 20

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The sun was about an hour high when the two youths halted within a few hundred feet of the enemies’ camp. Great caution was now necessary and Bub dropped on his hands and knees and motioned for Stanley to follow his example. Owing to the intervening blackgrowth the conversation of the four men was audible several minutes before they were seen.

Abner had crawled to his feet, and as his young friends silently wriggled their way through the last barrier and were afforded a view of the scene his captors were busily tying him to a tree and showering him with curses.

But Abner’s spirit was indomitable, and as if to give the boys warning, should they be within the reach of his voice, he loudly called, “Ye won’t git them younkers. They’ve seen my smoke and will know enough to keep away. Put that in yer pipe and smoke it.”

“Ye will have it now, will ye?” raged Pete, raising a hatchet.

“Take it easy,” restrained Ben, catching the uplifted arm. “He can wait till we’ve undone his mischief. He’s safe; let’s strike out fer the brats.”

“Good,” endorsed Nick. “Leave old man here. Git boys. I catch um. One help me.”

“Guess ye’d better go with him, Pete,” advised Joe. “Ye seem to need coolin’ off a bit. Ben and me will stay here and watch this feller.”

Pete grumbled and hesitated, evidently inclined to remain in camp, but as the half-breed became impatient he picked up a rifle and fell in behind him, saying, “We’d better separate and beat the woods in a straight line east. They won’t go up stream, and they won’t come here if they’ve got brains enough to read that old hound’s signal. If they do come here Ben and Joe ’ll git ’em.”

Nick grunted an approval, and deploying entered the woods a rod or two beyond the two young spies. Pete passed within a few feet of him and both the youths were grateful that he and not his companion had taken this line.

Bub nudged Stanley exultingly. “That leaves only two,” he ventured to whisper. “I’d rather all three were left than to try to outwit Nick alone.”

“How far will they go?” nervously asked Stanley.

Bub’s face fell. “That’s so. Night is coming on and Pete won’t wander around in the dark. He’s no woodsman; that is, nothing like Abner.”

“I was thinking they might find some trace of us and suspect we were near the camp,” explained Stanley.

“That’s possible—almost probable,” groaned Bub. “Well, my son, it means that if we’re going to do anything for the Whitten family we’ve got to do it pretty quick.”

But think as they could they could decide upon no plan that would warrant success. They were two boys against two men. They were unarmed, except as they had clubs. Each of the men was caressing a rifle and listening intently for some note of victory from the heart of the woods.

“If they were near cover we’d creep around and crawl up behind them and risk taking them by surprise with the clubs,” muttered Bub, his face white and desperate.

This move could hardly be considered, however, as Ben and Joe were some distance from the tangled growth and on their guard. Abner, lashed to a small maple, rested his chin on his breast, apparently overcome.

“Wonder if they’ll catch ’em,” growled Ben, shifting his rifle.

“Guess so,” returned Joe, shortly, evidently not in the mood for conversation. Then he added after a brief silence, “I never fancied this job.”

“Chicken-hearted, eh?” grinned Ben.

“No, I ain’t chicken-hearted,” retorted Joe angrily. “But when I work fer a man I like to feel he’ll back me up in anything I do. We both know that the boss would turn us down in a second if it suited his plans.”

“He pays well,” reminded Ben calmly.

“I don’t know about that,” demurred Joe. “If it means state-prison if we’re caught I don’t call any amount of money good pay.”

“But we ain’t caught yet.”

“That’s just it,” exploded Joe. “We take all the chances and if we win out we’re paid, the boss asking no questions. But if we’re caught he’d go back on us in a minute and swear he knew nothing about us. That’s what sores me. Besides, the Great Northern ain’t the kind of a machine I like to fool with. Take a small operator, like Blusby, when we got his—”

“Shut up!” hissed Ben. “Want to tell everything ye know?”

“But who’s to give it away if ye’re so sure we won’t be caught?” cunningly countered Joe.

“That ain’t the idee. Once a thing is done, let it remain buried. I never rake old coals onto the fire,” replied Ben.

“Say, ye two varmints. Going to kill me on a empty stomach?” cried Abner, raising his head. “Don’t ye realize I ain’t had anything to eat fer several weeks? If ye keep on this way I shall die nat’ral-like and ye’ll miss all yer fun.”

“Ye’ll live long enough to suit us,” grimly assured Joe, scowling maliciously at the veteran.

“Ye might bribe us with some of them pearls and gold ye was telling us about,” taunted Ben.

“Both on ye will look mighty smart in stripes,” mused Abner.

Before either could answer this with blow or curse a rifle echoed far off in the woods, and even as the men straightened and stared in the direction of the sinister sound there came another report.

“That settles ’em,” muttered Ben, rising to his feet, his hands trembling as he toyed with the rifle.

Joe’s face blanched as he believed the tragedy had been consummated, and his voice was unsteady as he added, “There’s no drawing back now. Anyway, we ain’t in that.”

Abner’s eyes were two glistening points as he hoarser cried out, “Ye’ll answer fer it just as if ye fired the cursed bullet.” Then bowing his head he sobbed convulsively.

The two paid no heed to his words, for already an awful fear was stealing over them. Each wished he had never encountered the situation and neither dared look at the other at first. Then the desire to escape returned and they gazed at Abner wolfishly. As Joe had said, there was no drawing back for them and their liberty depended upon no witnesses reaching the settlements.

The youths stared at each other in wonder and amazement as their quick ears caught the two reports.

“They must be shooting at shadows,” whispered Bub.

“I don’t understand it,” puzzled Stanley. “But we must make some kind of a move.”

Bub started convulsively. Then warned, “Don’t budge if a wasp gets at you. One just stung me on the hand. We must have picked a place right under their nest.”

“One stung me,” gritted Stanley. “We can’t remain here and be stung to death without making a noise. Let’s crawl back.”

“Wait,” murmured Bub. “I see the nest. Keep quiet and we won’t be troubled. See that gray bunch in the tree about the size of a hat. That’s it.”

He was pointing to the tree in the middle of the opening, under which Ben and Joe were standing. Even as he indicated the dark grey bunch the men sank to the ground again.

Stanley thrilled in every nerve and his voice was hard to control as he suggested, “If only we could get those fellows after the scoundrels we might have a chance to slip in and free Abner.”

“Great!” chattered Bub. “But how to do it?”

“Find a small rock and smash the nest,” hoarsely advised Stanley.

Without a word Bub silently worked his way backwards and was gone nearly a minute before he returned, holding several fragments of stone in his hands. “Retreat a few feet,” he murmured, “and we’ll have a chance to stand up for the throw.”

In a few seconds Stanley had rejoined him in a little bower, opening on the camp at one side. The nest was plainly visible.

“It all depends on the one throw,” warned Stanley. “If you miss the men will be on their guard. The first shot must hit and bring out a swarm of wasps before the brutes know what is up. The second that happens one of us must be ready to dash forward and cut the ropes.”

“I can’t do it,” groaned Bub. “I’d miss. My hand is shaking so I can hardly hold the rock.”

“You must,” commanded Stanley. “Brace up. I’ll steal around and be ready to make the dash. Lucky I’ve my knife.”

“No, Stan; it won’t do,” whispered Bub. “You must do the shooting and leave the rescue to me. I can do that better than you; but I can’t hit the nest. Take the stones.”

“Very well,” quickly agreed Stanley. “I’ll play the nest is second base and I’m nailing a man trying to steal from first. How long will it take you to get around behind Abner?”

“When you hear a squirrel chattering let her go,” warned Bub. And he vanished noiselessly.

It seemed an interminable time to Stanley waiting. Once left alone he found his hand following Bub’s example and shaking violently.

“It won’t do,” he growled, clinching his fist. “Come, my boy; brace up. The man on first is about to steal. It’s the best game I ever caught. Leighton knows I’ll place the ball in his hands at second. The crowd is cheering. I can hear Dumpy Scott coaching the runner, but it won’t mix me up any. Now, we’re steady, now we’re—”

The scolding chatter of a squirrel reached his ear, and with a masterful effort at control he threw back his arm and threw the stone.

The dull, crunching sound above their heads caused Ben and Joe to look up. Before they could appreciate their danger a swarm of infuriated wasps was upon them, stinging them viciously in the face and on the hands.

With a double scream of rage and pain the two clawed frantically at their heads and then holding their arms to protect the eyes dashed into the cover of the woods. By this time Abner, with eyes tightly closed was spluttering and crying aloud as some of the wasps shifted to him, and he did not notice the bowed figure at his side.

Suddenly he felt his bonds relax and forgetting his tormentors he stared dumbfounded at the wide-eyed Bub.

“Come, Abner. Follow me,” urged the youth, taking the old man’s hand and dragging him towards Stanley’s position.

“Land of sin!” exclaimed Abner in a dreamy voice. “Not ghosts! Here, and alive! Is it real, or be I crazy?”

“These wasps are very real,” panted Bub, forcing the old man to hasten his steps.

“But—but,” spluttered Abner, not sensing the ruse. “I don’t understand. I heard guns. Ye’re here. Why, Reddy! Be ye real?”

Stanley clapped his shoulder warmly. “Wake up,” he tersely commanded. “We have about a minute leeway. We’ve all escaped. It’s all real.”

“Glory be!” sobbed Abner, throwing an arm over each of their necks. “My boys! My boys! To think the younkers didn’t fergit the old man! To think ye pulled it off! I could larrup ye fer coming when I made the signal that I was in trouble and meant fer ye to keep away.”

“Compose yourself, Mr. Whitten,” begged Stanley. “We’re not free yet. They’ll be on our track very shortly. We are depending upon your skill to save us.”

This aroused Abner with a jerk, although he mumbled, “I’m ’bout starved. I ain’t seen food fer so long I don’t know how it looks. My strength is most gone.”

“We don’t need strength,” reminded Bub. “We need your knowledge of the woods. If they’d only dropped a gun when they ran away we’d stick right here.”

“Wal, ye’ve saved old Abner,” sniveled the veteran, “and I guess it’s up to him to return the compliment. Lem’me take the lead.”

Although weak from exhaustion and his long fast Abner got his second wind and in a few moments was picking a course to the southeast with all the caution and skill he had command of.

“Did you hear the guns?” whispered Bub, over Stanley’s shoulder.

“I did,” replied Abner. “I don’t understand it. It mixes me up. If I knew what Nick and that other fiend was shooting at I’d be a great deal easier in my mind. But I can’t figger it out. They must have seen the wind moving a bush and let go at it. That is, Pete prob’ly did. Nick wouldn’t make that mistake.”

“Where to now?” inquired Stanley.

“In a straight line till it’s safe to hit Briar stream. Then we follow that back to Carlton’s.”

“And give up the Flat-Top search?” sighed Stanley.

A suppressed chuckle behind him evidenced that Bub was keenly enjoying the approaching climax.

“I wouldn’t go back there ag’in fer all the spruce in New England,” Abner shot back over his bowed shoulder. “Besides,” and his tone was even more gloomy now, “I’m through with the Great Northern. I’ll git a new job soon’s I can hitch on to the warden’s telephone.”

“But I believe that we can prove the company’s line,” persisted Stanley.

“Reddy, say anything ye want to; ye’ve saved me twice. But if that there Bub makes a crack like that I’ll larrup him the minute I come to a good oak limb. He’s saved me only once. I’ll take it from ye, Reddy, but not from a distant relation. Now, let’s drop the subject.”

“But I enjoy talking about it,” remonstrated Stanley. “Think how proud we’d feel if we could go back successful.”

“Keep it up,” groaned Abner. “The wasps was pleasant little fellers alongside of such talk; but go ahead. Have yer say out.”

“Anyway, it’s worth something to say, ‘I’m working for the Great Northern because I never failed’,” continued Stanley.

“Say,” mumbled Abner, pausing, “if ye two keep on a bee-line I guess ye’ll fetch out all right. I’m going back to Ben and Joe. It’s not so unpleasant back there after all.”

Regardless of the danger Bub gave a shriek of laughter and leaned weakly against a tree.

“Be ye mad?” cried Abner in a smothered voice. “What ye laffing at, ye young varmint? Want to git caught ag’in? Think I can spend all summer up here a gitting of ye loose?”

“Oh, Abner! Abner,” exploded Bub. “Tell him, Stan. Tell him, before I drop.”

“Mr. Whitten, I’ve found the ancient record,” quietly informed Stanley.

“Found what?” asked Abner in a dazed voice.

“The original record. It was on the big beech we passed so many times. The bark had grown over it so it would never be noticed. I found it by accident, of course. I was idly tapping the tree and noticed the wood sounded dull and dead in one spot. When I cut away the bark there was the record. The two circles linked, cut by an arrow, showing the course, and beneath were the initials of the original owner.”

For a count of ten Abner remained rigid, then he hoarser begged, “Tell me ye ain’t fooling. Tell me it’s true; just as true as the wasps was. Ye ain’t playing it low down on the old man, be ye, Reddy?”

“It’s gospel truth,” assured Stanley.

“Lawd! ain’t I thankful,” fervently cried the veteran, looking up at the dying sky, his eyes glowing with ecstasy.

But this mood was quickly replaced by one of the keenest apprehension, and he lamented, “If I could only have been there! Not to take the credit, but to advise ye what to do after ye’d made the bullseye. If only I could have stood at yer elbow and advised, ‘Place that there bark’—”

“In a hollow log,” mischievously broke in Bub.

“No!” rumbled Abner, tossing his arms about wildly. “But back on the tree, Where no one would notice it.”

“That’s what I did,” modestly informed Stanley, not wishing to tease the veteran longer.

“Boy! Reddy!” muttered Abner, catching him by both shoulders and glaring into his eyes. “Did ye really have brains enough to do that?”

“I don’t believe even you would notice it in passing,” said Stanley, reddening violently under the compliment of the veteran’s clutch. “The trailer of lichen I passed across the trunk conceals my work entirely.”

“After this,” mumbled Abner in a low voice, “I’ll tell folks that Reddy—I mean Mister Stanley Malcolm—took me kindly in charge on my last cruise. If anyone asks if ye’re working fer me I’ll say, ‘Hardly, my friend. I am lucky to have a chance to work fer him.’”

“Nonsense, Mr. Whitten,” gladly laughed Stanley. “I am awfully pleased over it because I knew it would please you. But all the credit is due to you. You allowed me to come, you have kindly allowed me to bother you. By a pure accident I find the record.”

“But where are we going?” remonstrated Bub, as Abner abruptly resumed his course.

“Going?” he sniffed. “Where d’ye s’pose we was going? We’re going after that there strip of bark.”

“But the Nace outfit?” cried Bub.

“Bah! I ain’t afraid of ’em now. We’ve won out and my fighting blood is up. We’re going back to Flat-Top. Then we’ll make the mills. After that I’ll take a little vacation with Noisy Charlie and polish them gentlemen off a bit. But there ain’t no need of being careless, just because we feel tickled.”

“I fear we have been too careless already,” warned Stanley. “I am sure I heard someone breaking through the growth behind us.”

“It’s Ben and Joe,” angrily informed Abner. “They move like cart horses. Easy enough to keep out of their reach, but a bullet travels dinged fast. Hump yerselves.”

“He’s straight ahead!” called out a rough voice not far behind.

“I’m closing in on him,” informed at second.

“Be ye?” gritted Abner, increasing his gait. “By jing!” The last was exclaimed as he found himself on the edge of an opening. At either side the woods ended in a dead line. To advance would allow their pursuers an easy mark, unless the clearing could be crossed before the enemy reached it.

“Come on. Run as ye never did,” whispered Abner, pulling his hat well forward and scuttling towards the line of growth in front. The youths could easily have outstripped him, but they purposely accommodated their pace to his. Just as they were within a few rods of the growth Ben broke through the cover behind and excitedly yelled, “Hi, Joe! This way. We’ve got them! Why! There are three!

His amazement at finding three instead of one victim, led him to hesitate a second before firing. In that brief interval Abner sharply warned, “Drop!”

The trio went down as one and Ben’s bullet whistled over Bub’s prostrate body. The second villain by this time gained his comrade’s side and took in the situation at a glance.

“Take yer time,” he advised, cocking his rifle. “They can’t make the woods. But I don’t understand about them younkers. Now, ready!”

But the report that followed his words spouted from the forest ahead of the cruisers and was quickly followed by another. As Abner looked back he could not see either of his pursuers, although groans and the sound of heavy bodies threshing about on the ground were audible.

Then a tall figure stalked out from cover and advanced towards them.

“Noisy Charlie!” fairly screamed Stanley and Bub in unison.

“Howdy,” saluted the Indian. With this greeting he continued on to the other side of the opening, where Ben and Joe were prostrate.

Abner and the youths followed him. The two villains were groaning fearfully, Ben with a hole through his right lung and Joe shot through the hip.

“Are they dying?” whispered Stanley in an awed voice.

“No die,” grunted the Indian, beginning to bind up the wounds and checking the flow of blood. Then he apologized, “Poor light. Bush in way. Fired quick; no good aim.”

“What’ll we do with them?” blankly inquired Abner, his mind centered on the Flat-Top ridge expedition.

“Lumber men near. I bring um,” replied Charlie. “They take men back to mills. Git white medicine. Then go to jail. Leave um here and I send men.”

“I told him to fetch up some of the Frenchmen to the old burn, where someone, prob’ly Nace, cut over the public lot. I thought mebbe some of our Frenchmen worked for Nace up there and could be used as witnesses against him,” explained Abner, as he and the boys limped on after the Indian.

“Here! See something,” suddenly said Charlie, turning to the right. Two rigid forms were stretched out on the ground, a blanket thrown over each.

“Big Nick. White man Pete,” informed Charlie.

“Did you kill them?” gasped Bub, beginning to feel a trifle faint.

“No luck,” grumbled Charlie. “Kill each other. They hunt for someone; you, mebbe. They separate. White man see me, but I hide before he fire. Then Nick come through and White man think Nick me and fire. Nick dying git mad and fire back. Both dead. Good shooting.”

“Charlie, I want to shake hands,” humbly announced Stanley as they pursued their way to a point where strains of a logging song were emanating.

“Good boy,” said Charlie, clasping his hand quickly. “No ’fraid of fox, eh?” And his eyes shone With merriment for a moment.

Then he turned to Bub and slapped his shoulder. “This young fox. Grow to old fox. Smart boy.” The three understood by this that Charlie was paying Bub an elaborate compliment; he meant he would some time be as good a woodsman as Abner. The veteran, too, felt not a little pleased to be pointed out as an example.

Just as the sun sank and left the woods in darkness several campfires twinkled invitingly ahead, and with a loud growling noise Abner broke from the others and dashed into the singing circle and quickly appropriated various bits of food from each surprised logger.

“Gim’me that coffee,” he snapped, sweeping French Louey’s tin dipper from his hand. “And that doughnut,” he added, relieving another. And so on he levied tribute, until he had accumulated a large pile of edibles.

When the others came up French Louey made believe he was afraid of Stanley, whereat the latter laughed joyously and fairly hugged the rough fellow.

“No word for me, eh?” drawled a man on the edge of the circle.

“Why, Mr. White!” cried Stanley, grasping both of the calloused hands. “I’m awfully glad to see you.”

After the greetings were over and the famished youths had eaten their fill, White informed Abner: “It’s all clinched. Louey and three other of our men worked for Nace on the school lot. We’ve got him on the hip. He’ll have to pay the stumpage back to the town.”

“Good,” cried Abner, his eyes twinkling. “I can’t report to any one but Hatton, but I’ll say this, fellers; Mister Nace is up against a lot of trouble.”

“That’s always good news,” declared White. “Now let’s have that song about, ‘He was drownded on the Allagash.’”

The wearied youths crawled thankfully under warm blankets, and lulled to sleep by the swinging chorus, began to recuperate from their strenuous exertions.