The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

PRESIDENT THAXTER ARRIVES


Hatton sat at his desk, cold of eye and calm in bearing. Opposite him sat Nace, a man with small, dull eyes and heavy jowls. Each was waiting for the other to continue the conversation. Finally Hatton pushed back his chair and observed:

“I am sorry you cannot wait till Mr. Thaxter arrives. I have no powers to complete the transaction without his consent.”

“That’s the trouble with working for a man who’s president of a dozen different concerns,” smiled Nace. “I’ve always worked for Number One.”

“I can easily believe you have been very successful in looking out for Number One,” sneered Hatton.

“What of it?” asked Nace sharply, his eyes glinting. “The Great Northern never got ahead of me much, eh?”

Hatton yawned carelessly, and replied, “Up to now there has never been any difference between us, Mr. Nace.”

“Don’t Mister me,” said Nace. “I’m plain Jim Nace. I’m one of the boys. I work hard and live hard and no man can put a finger on any act of mine and say it’s crooked.”

“Nonsense,” smiled Hatton. “There is no need of this play-acting.”

Nace did not seem to resent this bit of skepticism, but grinned broadly as much amused, and modified, “Well, no one can prove any act of mine is crooked.”

Hatton tapped his desk impressively. “Now, Nace, I know you are crooked. There isn’t a straight hair in your head. But let’s be frank with each other. President Thaxter will be here this afternoon. I must have your ultimatum as to the Flat-Top holdings. We know your timber ends at the line we claim. I have men in the woods now to prove it.”

“And they’ll prove nothing,” serenely assured Nace.

“Perhaps,” agreed Hatton; “they may not. And if they do not I want to know how the matter shall be compromised. How much will you take for that timber if we decide not to carry the matter into court?”

Nace rose and shook his fist angrily at the manager, and shouted, “You have got in the way of thinking I am crooked and that because of that belief you can always make terms with me. Now, Mister Hatton, I’ve got all the money I need, and that timber isn’t for sale.”

Hatton clicked his teeth and gently asked, “What do you intend to do then?”

“I intend to make your company back water. I propose to let every man in the state know that the Great Northern has met more than its match. You’ve got to go through with this thing now you’ve started it, and you’ll go into court and admit you’re mistaken and pay the costs. Then we’ll see what about my counter claim for damages.”

“Counter claim?” cried Hatton, shaken out of his habitual calm.

“Yes, sirree! Counter claim,” triumphantly repeated Nace. “Think you can blacken my character and put me to a big expense to hold what’s mine and then end the matter by simply refusing to sue? Hardly. I’m going to have damages, and big damages. After that point has been settled we’ll see what about selling the land. It might be possible that I would set a price on it, providing you showed the proper spirit in doing what is just and fair.”

“Just and fair,” murmured Hatton in deep disgust. “You mean you believe you have a gold mine in this affair and propose to make the company pay well.”

“If you’d studied the situation a thousand years you couldn’t have put it more neatly,” cried Nace. “The Great Northern is going to pay well. More’n that; it’s going to pay big."

“Then you have no word to send to our president?”

Nace hesitated, his eyes shining with a cunning light as he greed in canvassed his prospects. “Why, of course, I’m hot under the collar,” he explained, rolling his eyes virtuously. “It’s natural I should get mighty mad over the way the Great Northern has abused me. Still, I hope I am not a hard man. I want to be fair, even when I’ve been treated unfairly. I should say that if the company paid me fifty thousand dollars, for the slanders and for my actual money damages I would then be willing to give it an option on the timber. Yes, I’d do that.”

“How much would you want for the timber?” quietly asked Hatton.

Nace pursed up his lips and frowned, as if meditating heavily. “Why, not to be too hard I should say about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

Hatton gasped, although expecting something exorbitant. “Whew!” he whistled. “A fifth of a million, eh? Why, you know the land can’t be worth anywhere near that.”

“Remember that fifty thousand is for slander and the like,” grinned Nace.

“And if we refuse you will sue and be beaten and will end with the timber on your hands,” reminded Hatton.

“Guess I can find a purchaser all right,” grinned Nace, thoroughly enjoying the situation.

Hatton’s gaze hardened. “And where, pray?”

“I have an idea the Consolidated Pulp company wants to break into Maine. It’s got big holdings in New Hampshire.”

The name of this company was a red flag to flatten, as it was the only prospective rival the Great Northern had. But he showed no sign of his rage as he calmly remarked, “Well, there is no hurry. The suit can’t be called in court till the fall term. My cruisers will return shortly and tell me what they find. We might not want the timber anyway. I don’t even know as we could get it out from the ridge, or how much it will cut.”

Nace laughed coarsely, and jeered, “I’ll bet you don’t know a thing about it. By the way, who did you send up there?”

“Abner Whitten,” promptly replied Hatton.

“What! Abner still working for you? Why, one of my men met him up at Hood mountain and he said he was through and was going to get a job with the Feenys up on Chesuncook.”

“I had not heard of his quitting us,” quietly returned Hatton, but inwardly disturbed as he remembered his parting injunction to Abner, not to come back till he had succeeded. He had not meant that order, but he knew the veteran was so sensitive that he might be likely to seek employment elsewhere.

“Sorry I can’t wait for Thaxter,” said Nace, moving towards the door. “But as you say, there’s plenty of time.”

“Hold on, Nace,” said Hatton brusquely. “Let’s quit beating around the bush. Thaxter will expect to see you. You are out after the money. All this slander suit talk is rot and you know it. You want money and nothing else. Thaxter is the man to treat with. He’ll do better by you than the Consolidated people will. If you’ve got us where the wool is short you’d better make the best of it and see the president.”

Nace was deeply impressed by this and showed it by the way his heavy face lengthened out. Then he admitted, “Of course I’m after the money. So is the Great Northern. I insist I’ve been rather cut up by the way the company has knocked me, but as you say there’s no use in my cutting off my nose to spite my face. I’ll be here at eight o’clock sharp to-morrow morning to talk with Thaxter. Maybe, we can arrive at some agreement.”

Left alone the manager’s facial expression changed. It was as if he had slipped aside a mask, revealing the true Hatton. Deep lines drew down his mouth and he bowed his head in his hands to think.

As Abner had said it was he who had taken a hostile initiative against Nace and had placed the company on record as intending to sue the scheming operator. He could see now that he had moved too fast. The papers throughout New England had played up the proposed suit for columns. Nace had raged and was reported as laying large wagers that he would retain the land till he saw fit to sell it. Public opinion had been with the company. It seemed preposterous to believe that the all-powerful Great Northern would take a stand without being assured of success.

Realizing all this Hatton dreaded the coming interview with Thaxter. As yet he had not revealed the true state of affairs to the president. Now it must be done and he feared for his superior’s wrath. It was not a question of money and timber lands alone, but prestige was at stake.

No word had come from Abner since the Indian guide had returned to the Kennebago wangan and had sent word that all Frenchmen, who had ever worked for Nace, should be sent over to him for a trip in the woods. He did not even know for what purpose the men were wanted, but had hoped that the veteran had some shrewd scheme under way. He had talked with Carlton over the telephone and had learned of Abner’s departure for Flat-Top. The encounter with Big Nick had not impressed him as being of any moment, nor easily charged up against Nace. It was he, himself, who had first incurred the half-breed’s hatred.

He still was confident that Nace had swindled them. But this conviction would in no way mollify the president’s displeasure, unless sustained by proofs.

Throughout the afternoon he remained at his desk, transacting the routine of the mills with the same calm demeanor that always characterized his dealings with the foremen. But when alone his head would drop in his hands as he again tested every link in the chain that was holding him down.

“With never a failure against his record, to think Abner must fail now,” he muttered. Then in self-accusation, “But I was a fool, a fool. Why didn’t I move more cautiously? When Carlton could find nothing I should have known Whitten couldn’t, unless by some miracle. And he has failed.”

A step at the door caused him to spring up and smooth out his features. The door opened and in walked Roscoe W. Thaxter, multi-millionaire and president of the Great Northern.

“Hello, Hatton, glad to see you,” cordially greeted Thaxter, helping himself to a chair. “We must get down to business, as I have an automobile outside to take me back to my private car where I shall sleep to-night. What about this pipe line for pulp?” And the president pulled out a memorandum and studied it critically.

“Mr. Thaxter, that was an idea given me by a youth who is employed here. I shall always be I sorry I never thought of it myself,” replied Hatton.

“I see,” murmured the president. “It’s a good idea. A fine one. We must do something for the youth. He may grow up into a manager some day, eh?” And the president smiled good naturedly. “Make mention of him in writing to the Boston office next time. Put the line through at once. It will be a great saving. Hm! Let me see. What else was there? The ore—No, that’s copper. Ah, here it is,” and producing his spectacles the president slowly read from his small book, “In re Flat-Top ridge disputed line.”

Hatton cleared his throat and said, “I fear that Nace has the under hold in that matter. He’s crooked, but I don’t see how we can prove it.”

Pulling his spectacles to the tip of his nose the president stared at the cold-faced man in amazement for a moment, and then exploded, “What! What’s this? You mean to tell me the Great Northern can be done up by a swindler?”

Hatton could have replied that swindlers are usually the persons who “do people up,” but he coughed gently and replied, “There seems to be no way by which we can prove the swindle.”

“But a swindle is a swindle. It’s a self-evident fact. If he’s swindling us why can’t we prove it?”

“I’ve sent men up there repeatedly, the best men in the state. My best cruiser is out on that work now,” explained Hatton. “But while I may believe we are being swindled, if we can’t prove it, what are we to do?”

“I should say that the Great Northern needed a new president, and a new manager in this region,” sternly replied Thaxter. “Why, sir! you calmly tell me we are being swindled. I look at my memorandum book, the figures supplied by you, and I find the timber is estimated at one hundred thousand dollars at least.”

“I believe those figures are a bit below the mark,” said Hatton, who always sought to be scrupulously exact in conferring with his superior.

“Huh!” ejaculated Thaxter. “And we lose that, eh?”

“Mr. Thaxter, unless we come to terms with Nace I fear we shall,” earnestly assured Hatton.

“What! treat with him? Never,” said the president firmly.

“Then he’ll treat with the Consolidated,” warned Hatton.

“Hatton, you have got us into a pretty kettle of fish,” condemned Thaxter. “My secretary has preserved I don’t know how many newspaper articles in which this matter has been widely exploited. Now, by your premature actions we will be made the laughing stock of the whole country. The company’s allied interests will suffer. It means we have lost our prestige, sir.”

Hatton bowed and quietly regretted, “It has been a deep source of pain to me, Mr. Thaxter, to have involved the company in an unwholesome situation. I have my resignation written out to take effect immediately. I will now present it.”

“What good will your resignation do me, or the company?” cried Thaxter. “You’ve been a valuable man for us, Hatton. We had high hopes of you. We had intended to advance you to higher affairs. Keep your resignation, but the advancement must wait until this muddle is satisfactorily cleared up.”

“I thank you,” murmured Hatton. “But my loyalty to the company compels me to advise that we compromise with Nace. He is a coarse, brutal, greedy man. His demands will be exorbitant, but if we can trim them down to decent proportions we will do well to hush the matter up. It will keep out the Consolidated and we will be able to save our face. Needless to say, never again will I be caught in such a trap.”

“I should imagine once would do for a lifetime,” sarcastically replied Thaxter. “Well, it’s like taking a nasty dose of medicine, but if we must go through with it, we must. If it wasn’t for the Consolidated people I’d never consent to any compromise. He might steal my timber, but he should never sell it to me.”

“Very well,” said Hatton, his heart beating high with elation as he believed the worst of the storm was past; “he’ll be here at eight o’clock in the morning to discuss the matter with you.”

“What! he’ll make appointments, set the hour, and tell me when he’ll see me?” fumed Thaxter. “I’ll not see him.”

“But, my dear sir; he undoubtedly realized you are a very busy man and must be seen at that hour, or not at all,” soothed Hatton.

“I can’t see him after that hour, but—well, well, what’s the use. Send word to the scoundrel that he may call on me here at the hour you suggest. Now, I’ll return to my car and see if I can get a little peace and quiet.”

As Hatton was politely opening the door for him Abner stepped across the threshold and dropped his knapsack into a chair.

“I’ll receive your report later, Abner,” informed Hatton.

“Abner? Abner who?” quickly asked the president, turning. “What do you do, Abner?”

“Who might ye be?” asked Abner.

“I might be a wise man and surrounded by intelligent foremen. But I’m simply the president of the company that runs these mills here.”

“Wal, if it’s yer company what pays my wages I’ll say my name is Abner Whitten, timber cruiser and walking-boss fer the Great Northern. I am now ready to report on the Flat-Top ridge matter.”

“He’s the cruiser I was speaking of,” hastily explained Hatton, wishing to be rid of the veteran for fear the president would change his mind and become irascible again.

“Huh!” exclaimed the president, moving back to his chair. “Well, go ahead. I’m the boss here now. What did you find?”

“It was a hopeless quest from the start,” began Hatton, when Thaxter broke in:

“Will you kindly consider yourself on a vacation, sir, for a few minutes? Now, my man, What did you find? Bring me what I call good news and I’ll give you five thousand dollars.”

Abner’s hand, reaching for the knapsack was slowly withdrawn, and he asked, “But if I bring good news because I was helped by two younkers and a Injun will ye make it five thousand dollars apiece?”

“Nonsense, Abner—” warned Hatton.

“Remember that vacation, or you’ll take an indefinite one,” growled Thaxter. Then to Abner, “What are you trying to do? Play a Nace trick on me?”

“I ain’t trying no tricks,” replied Abner indignantly. “As fer vacations ye have a timber cruiser what’ll take one fer good so fer as ye and yer old company is concerned if he hears any more words like them. What d’ye mean talking five thousand dollars to me? I come in here ready to file my report. If ye want to make me a present of five thousand dollars and are willing to make the same to my three companions—always previding the news is worth it—why, say so. If ye don’t there’s no harm done. Ye’ll git yer report without a penny.”

“Stop! stop! Will you stop? Silence, sir,” roared Thaxter. Then very mildly, “Abner, I’m beginning to like you. I’m not in the habit of making presents to men who simply do their duty. But I’m worked up over this Flat-Top ridge proposition. If you bring me news that will help me beat this man Nace I’ll give you the five thousand dollars and—how old are these other two?”

“Sixteen years apiece and growing like sin.”

“Hm. I see. Well, say, fifteen hundred each and the same to the Indian. Yes, I’ll do that.”

“Hooray!” shouted Abner. “We’ll pool the money and divide it even among Charlie, the two boys and me. Bub gits all I leave when I die, anyway. Here’s the report.”

To the amazement of the president and manager he pulled a strip of bark from the knapsack and laid it on the desk.

“What tomfoolery is this?” demanded the president, moving to hurl the bark aside.

“Hands off!” warned Abner, pouncing upon the precious exhibit. “Don’t ye know it’s a’gin the law to destroy monuments like that? Want to be another Jim Nace? That’s the proof ye’re about to part with nine thousand five hundred dollars—plus our reg’lar wages, of course—to git. Here! look!”

And removing the mirror from over the washstand he held the bark before it. “See them two circles, linked, with the arrer and the initials? This bark was cut off’n the ancient beech on yer genuine line by my companion, Reddy, also known as Rusty and Fire-Weed. We earned all ye’ll gin us a gitting it down here.”

“They’ve turned the trick!” cried Hatton. “You won’t have to see Nace.”

“Do you mean this is one of the original boundary marks?” eagerly asked the president.

“It are,” solemnly assured Abner. “The big beech is still standing with the record on its trunk. It has been examined by Noisy Charlie, the younkers and all of the Frenchmen. If it’s cut down afore we git up there ag’in we have all the proof we want.”

“Then I want to see Nace,” grimly decided the president. “Let no word of this get out. It will be a pleasure for me to see Mr. Nace, and at eight, sharp. What else, Friend Abner?”

“Wal, not much of anything. O yes; Big Nick and a feller named Pete, shot each other to death while trying to kill Bub and Reddy. Pete thought he was shooting Charlie and the half-breed killed him just to have company, I guess. Then there’s two scoundrels called Ben and Joe. We left ’em up Rangeley way. Both plugged rather seriously, but they’ll git well enough to go to prison.”

“I’m glad I did not offer a thousand for each item,” smiled the president, now completely restored to good nature. “Anything else?”

“I vum! I plum fergot,” cried Abner. “We found where Nace cut over a public lot. The Frenchmen remembered working fer him on it. So we’ve got a clear case ag’in him. He’ll have to turn over some twelve thousand dollars to the town. And I guess that’s all and I’ll be going.”

“But I am interested in you. Wait a bit,” invited the president.

“And I’m interested in Reddy out there and must hustle out—”

“Have him in here,” commanded the president.

“It’s the youth who thought of the pulp pipe line,” reminded Hatton. Then from the door, “Here, Reddy. Come in here.”

Perhaps Hatton and Abner were never more amazed in their lives when the youth halted on the threshold and in a dazed voice gasped, “Uncle Ross!”