The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER SEVEN

A NARROW ESCAPE


Bub was half way through the small window when Stanley caught him by the leg and pulled him back and relieved him of his rifle.

“We remain here,” he announced.

“Let me go! I must git out! I’ll face "em in the open, but won’t be cooped up in here!” cried Bub in a frenzy.

Stanley shifted his hold to Bub’s shoulder, saying, “Abner said we were to stay here till he came back. Here we stay.”

“Don’t you hear them?” whispered Bub, his eyes gleaming with fear. “Don’t you remember how Big Nick hates me? I must escape from here, Stanley. Let me go.”

“This is our place,” slowly replied Stanley, passing around his companion so as to block the window. “Abner said stick to the shack. I can be of little help in the woods, but I’ve got brains enough to obey orders.”

“I tell you, Big Nick will kill me,” cried Bub.

“Then he’ll kill me,” stoutly returned Stanley. “For your fight is my fight and I’m sticking by you.”

Bub eyed him in growing amazement. Heretofore he had been the leader, almost paternal in his care of the stranger from the city. Now even in his perturbation, he began to realize that they had changed places and Stanley had become the leader. For the first time he noted that Stanley’s lean frame had taken on folds of muscle, and, while yet slim of build, presented the picture of glowing health. The blue eyes, too, had a new light, hard as steel, yet clear as crystal. Then the wailing whistle was repeated and Bub was again overwhelmed by a sense of fear.

“I’m going out that winder!” he snarled, violently endeavoring to break clear of the iron-like grip.

But Stanley’s experience in handling lumber and loading wet pulp squares had made his hands so many hooks of steel and with a grim smile he pressed Bub into a corner and held him powerless.

“Now you listen to me, Mr. Thomas. We are going to obey orders if we die doing it,” gritted Stanley in a low voice. “You can take the lead. at all other times, but not just now. For the next few hours I’m the boss.”

“Let me alone! Git away from me,” hoarsely commanded Bub, struggling in vain.

“Yes, I’ll leave you alone now,” said Stanley, stepping back. “For I know you are mad clear through and wouldn’t leave here if a dozen tigers were about to enter the room. After you’ve cooled off a bit you’ll thank me.”

Bub set his jaw and picked up his rifle, his eyes flaming. As Stanley had said, he was ugly from top to toe and no number of Big Nicks could frighten him. He had been the victim of a spasmodic fear; and he was all the more angry to know he had given way to the emotion and had appeared something of a coward in Stanley’s eyes. This very realization also caused him to feel resentment towards his companion.

Stanley, on his part, seeing that he won his point quickly subsided into his usual self and studied Bub anxiously. He knew Bub’s feelings were hurt and he was only desirous of renewing their old friendship.

To accomplish this he counterfeited a feeling he did not feel and coldly reminded, “I’m waiting to be thanked. I said to-morrow. I’ve changed my mind. You may thank me now.”

Bub glowered at him for a moment, then as the whistle sounded nearer he sighed in relief and the old sweet smile illumined his face. “Forgive me, Stanley. I was mad clear through at you. But it’s all gone now. It’s all gone because we are about to have a bully good fight and I shall have a chance to show you I am no coward. Keep back in the corner. This is my row and I’ll go through with it alone.”

“You know that is impossible,” calmly said Stanley, clasping the other’s hand. His face was pale and he believed he was about to face a desperate situation, but there was no tremor in his hands, no unsteadiness in his voice. “I told you back at the mills that your troubles were mine, just as you made my troubles yours.”

“Well, they’ll have a fine time gitting in here,” decided Bub, half grinning. “What a ninny I was to try to git outside where Nick would have run me down in five minutes.”

Rap! rap! rap! and the door shook.

“I’m going to shoot,” cried Bub, throwing forward the rifle.

“Charlie,” informed a guttural voice.

“Be careful, ye young tyke,” bellowed Abner. “Ye shoot me and I’ll skin ye alive.”

With a hysterical laugh Bub dropped the rifle and sank to the floor. It was Stanley who unfastened the bar and greeted the two men.

“What ye think ye’re doing?” rebuked Abner, picking up the rifle and standing it in the corner. “Want to murder us?”

“One boy afraid,” said Charlie, rearranging the fire.

“I’ll admit I was quite frightened,” generously said Stanley.

“He wasn’t,” doggedly denied Bub. “I was scared out of my boots and wanted to climb through the winder. I thought it was Big Nick and his gang. Stanley kept me here against my will. Said it was orders and he’d obey if he was killed.”

“Good for him,” cried Abner.

“Both good boys. Good for boy to git big scare,” added Charlie, over his shoulder.

“Wal, I’m sorry Bub couldn’t take our word for it that we’d keep between him and Nick,” said Abner.

“Boy fool to leave cabin. Boy wise to be scared,” said Charlie.

“We didn’t expect you to-night,” defended Stanley. “We both thought it was an enemy.”

“We followed Big Nick nearly to Cupsuptic river and felt sure he was headed for the tangled swamps about Weasel Pond. Guess he won’t trouble us for a while,” explained Abner, his tongue beginning to loosen as Charlie deftly prepared fresh coffee and a spider of potato and bacon.

“Then he’s gone for good,” gladly exclaimed Stanley.

“Looks that way,” said Abner.

“No gone. Come back, by’mby,” declared Charlie.

“What did you find?” asked Bub, now eager for details.

“Wal,” slowly began Abner; “we found that the Nace gang has cut the public lot in Bill town. They burned it over, but they couldn’t cover up the stumps. Guess Nick was trying to keep us from drifting in there.”

“Can you prove it against Nace?” asked Bub, his eyes lighting.

“Not very well unless I can find his men. It was cut years ago. He probably got his men up Megantic lake way in Canada and took care to git only Frenchmen who couldn’t talk English. After they finished he hustled them across the border. If I could find some of ’em and take ’em up there it could be proved so close that he’d compromise before he’d stand a lawsuit.”

“How much did he git out of it?” asked the practical Bub.

“From a hurried look at the stumps I estimated the stumpage to have been worth some twelve thousand dollars. Nace is so tied up in politics he couldn’t afford any big scandal this fall when some of his gang is up for election.”

“But how could you tell it was a public lot, and what does that mean?” was Stanley’s double-barreled question.

“I usually have my pocket maps with me,” dryly replied Abner, helping himself generously to potato and bacon.

“And a public lot is a lot given a plantation by the state for school purposes,” completed Bub. “Guess there’s more ’n one such lot that has been raided in the last twenty years.”

“Hard work to see line,” gravely suggested Charlie, but with a humorous twinkle in his small black eyes.

“Guess they found the line after making the cut,” sourly replied Abner. “At first sight you’d say it was an old burn. But just take a walk around and there are the charred stumps of old growth. Don’t doubt he cleaned up fully twelve. thousand, figgering on eight dollars a thousand which he didn’t pay.”

“How’d you suppose they first noticed the burn?” Bub slyly asked of Stanley.

“By the stumps and blackened ground, of course,” replied Stanley.

“Wrong, my son,” chuckled Bub. “They first came upon a thicket of grey birch and poplar and knew it covered a burn.”

Stanley looked questioningly at Abner, who nodded between mouthfuls. And Bub continued, “After the burn the birch and poplar was about the only thing that would grow in the soil. Up they come and shade it all over. Then the ground gits moist enough for spruce and up comes the spruce in time.”

“But what about the birch and poplar? Is there room for all?” asked Stanley.

“Birch and poplar grow fast and die quick,” replied Bub. “That’s why nature selects ’em to prepare the ground for the more valuable spruce.”

“What do we do next, Mr. Whitten?” inquired Stanley.

“Always perlite when ye want to learn the company’s secrets,” sniffed Abner, pushing back his tin plate. “But I've no objection to saying we’ll cruise the east cant of Mt. Jim.”

“Can’t what?” asked Stanley.

“He means jog, innocent,” explained Bub.

“A jog?” repeated Stanley, with no intelligence in his voice.

“Can’t ye learn nothing?” complained Abner. “A cant is a watershed. Part of our timber up north will go down Dead river to the Kennebec and part will follow the west cant and go down the Kennebago.”

“Sleep now,” advised Charlie, rolling himself in his blanket and dropping off at once. The others followed his example and this night Stanley slept soundly.

In the morning Charlie prepared the breakfast as usual and then stalked into the woods. “After fish?” inquired Stanley.

“No, he’s going back to Rangeley,” informed Bub.

“When did Abner tell you?” wondered Stanley.

“He didn’t tell me,” snickered Bub. “Don’t you see Charlie has his rifle and blankets?”

“He’s going to deliver a message to the wangan man,” supplemented Abner. “I want Hatton to know about the cut on the public lot in Bill town. He’ll send men up here to carefully estimate the stumpage. While they are doing that and attracting Nace’s attention we’ll slip over and look at our lines; or rather, try to find our lost line, run more’n a century ago.”

“When do we start?” asked Stanley.

“We’ll cruise Mt. Jim till Charlie gits back, then we’ll push right through,” said Abner.

Both the boys missed Charlie keenly; Stanley more than Bub, perhaps, as it was his first experience in the woods. He had learned to depend upon the silent Indian and feel no apprehension while near him. Abner, too, missed him, but in a different way. He missed the cooking. He did not take kindly to what he and Bub called “squaw” work.

On the first day after Charlie’s departure Abner was content to remain in camp, preparing the packs and studying his maps. This allowed the boys considerable leisure and resulted in Stanley learning a valuable lesson.

He had wandered about a half a mile from the shack and had succeeded in seeing a lynx chasing a rabbit and this incited a conviction that he was rapidly becoming a woodsman, Bub’s discouraging opinion to the contrary. Near the base of a towering ledge, carpeted in front with dead trees, blown down from their meager root-hold, he came upon a low dark opening. He might have passed it if not for a strange whimpering, whining noise.

He smiled as he remembered his first experience with forest sounds and unhesitatingly approached the spot. What was his surprise and joy to see inside the hollow rock two little balls of fur. His bosom swelled as he pictured Bub’s envy of and Abner’s pleasure at his woodsmanship. Just what they were he was undecided. He observed the eyes, barely open, were like little blueberries, and the pointed nose caused him to suspect they were coons. For Bub in describing that animal had sketched out on birch bark his portrait. And yet they were different.

“Probably lots of kinds of coons,” he murmured. “They’re awfully cunning, anyway, and I’ll take them where they’ll be warmer.”

He had proceeded only a few rods in the direction of the camp, however, when he was startled by a snarling roar behind him. He wheeled and beheld a large, gaunt black bear making towards him with unsuspecting swiftness. For a second he was paralyzed; the next found him running for life over the prostrate tree trunks and rocks with the lumbering brute behind him growling in fury and gaining fast. He dared not look back, for fear of tripping and falling and could only gauge the distance
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He dared not look back

 
between him and his pursuer by the increased volume of the animal’s rage.

Nor did he drop his prizes. Even in his frantic haste to escape he told himself it would be cruel to drop the warm little bunches of fur for the bear to destroy. But as he reached the edge of a denser growth, consisting of alders and young birch he found it necessary to abandon one of the babies. With a pang of regret he stooped low and gently dropped it. His throat was parched and burning from the unaccustomed exertion, but he maintained his pace till he found a small opening in the thicket that promised easier traveling.

Plunging into this he was dismayed to come upon a small stream which he must cross. He feared it marked the beginning of a swamp and that on softer footing he would lose headway. Behind him, now much nearer, thundered his implacable foe. With a groan of despair he dropped the other infant and with both arms free cleared the brook, slipped on the further side, regained his balance, and with the hot breath of his Nemesis almost at his back made a heart breaking effort to increase his lead.

On and on with the enraged grumble ever drawing nearer he raced, clearing obstacles in a manner that would have won him much applause on a hurdle track. But at last exhausted nature rebelled, and with a low moan of despair he fell over to the ground, face downward.

Then he believed it was all over as the bushes crackled behind him. He turned his head and to his great joy beheld Abner.

“O Mr. Whitten, look out!” he gasped. “It was chasing me. It’s upon us.”

“If I had a good ash stick I’d larrup ye so’s ye ’d remember it to yer dying day,” cried Abner, his voice choking with anger. “Of all the trying simpletons I ever met ye are the worst. Git up and see if ye can drag yerself back to the camp.”

Painfully Stanley struggled to his feet, casting a frightened glance over his shoulder. The cruiser’s stormy reproach sounded very sweet in his ears. He was saved.

“Where is it?” he whispered, keeping close to Abner’s side.

“It’s toting its cubs back to the den,” gruffly replied Abner.

“What was it, a bear?”

“It was a bear,” exploded Abner. “Now what did ye mean by snooping around her den and stealing her newborn cubs?”

“Were they her cubs?” asked Stanley. “I thought she’d kill them if I dropped them. I thought they were some kind of a coon.”

“I might have suspected it,” cried Abner. “If there is room to make a fool mistake I guess ye can be trusted to come along and take advantage of the opportunity.”

“I thought you’d like them,” meekly apologized Stanley.

This but added fresh fuel to Abner’s wrath, and he exclaimed, “What in tarnation should I want two bear cubs fer?”

“I supposed you’d like to have them to keep and make pets of,” politely responded Stanley.

Abner stopped short in his tracks and wheeling Stanley about grimly inquired, “Young man, where’ll ye have yer body shipped when some fool monkey-shine like this results in yer death?”

“I’m sorry,” mumbled Stanley. “I didn’t mean any harm. And I’m awfully obliged to you for saving my life.”

“Ye can thank yer stars that I was on the ridge and see ye start to run. Even then ye’d been mauled to death and me too, prob’ly, if the bear hadn’t give up the chase to go back to her cubs; fer I didn’t have any gun.”

“Please don’t shoot her,” pleaded Stanley. “She isn’t to blame and the babies need her. But I’m awful thankful to you.”

“Drop that,” tartly commanded Abner. “I owed ye that one for pushing me away from the saw. But remember this, I sha’n’t always be handy to pull ye free of danger. I don’t see where ye got together so much ignorance.” And he rubbed his brow in perplexity.

“Nor do I,” sighed Stanley. Then brightening and his eyes dancing with mischief as the shack dawned in sight, “But could you take the elevated at Franklin Square, go to Second Avenue, make Union Square and catch the uptown express in the subway?”

Abner paused and scratched his head thoughtfully. “I’ve been on the Magalloway hundreds and hundreds of times and have camped several times on the ’Sipoway. But I never did any cruising along the Subway. But I’ll say this, that even if I was a stranger in them parts I wouldn’t go to stealing cubs or interfering with a man’s logs and making a fool of myself. I’d just set tight and wait till I learned the ropes. That’s what I expect ye to do up here.”

Stanley suppressed a smile at Abner’s interpretation of New York’s underground railroad, but was satisfied to drop the question. Abner was not, it seems, for on meeting Bub he told him all about it, adding much of detail that was strange to Stanley.

“Won’t Charlie be tickled to hear it,” cried Bub, smacking his lips. “To think of a man taking his life in his hands—and getting away with it.”

“Please don’t tell him,” begged Stanley. “Abner won’t and I don’t want him to think any worse of me. Goodness knows my mistakes have given him a very poor opinion of me already.”

“I’ll keep a close mouth,” grinned Bub. “But you’re wrong about Charlie. He admires you for your greenness. He says he never saw anyone who could make so many mistakes in so short a time. You’re a revelation to him.”

“Let him be content with what he already knows,” urged Stanley.

Bub nodded good-naturedly and caught up his rifle.

Abner raised his brows in mute inquiry. “Going after the bear,” informed Bub.

Stanley glanced at Abner, his eyes pleading.

Abner cleared his throat and diverted his eyes as he shortly said, “Guess I need ye ’round here. Let the bear go. When I want her killed, I’ll do it myself.”

“But you promised me I should shoot the next one,” reminded Bub, much surprised.

“I know, I know. And so ye shall when we git one that’s ready to be shot,” testily replied Abner. “But it seems yer friend has struck up a friendship with this partic’lar bear and wants her let alone. He’s so fond of her he goes over and visits when he oughter be catching trout fer supper.”

“If you’d seen the cubs,” cried Stanley. “Why, Bub, they are the cutest little things you ever imagined. Abner promised he wouldn’t harm the mother as the cubs need her. She has done nothing a human mother wouldn’t have done. I am the one in fault.”

“Of course if you put it that way I’ll have to let her go,” sighed Bub. “But bear pelts are worth something, Mister Malcolm.”

“And I’ll make it up to you at double the value of her pelt,” eagerly promised Stanley.

Bub grinned and Abner winked slowly. Stanley flushed to his ears and mumbled, “I forgot. It may be some time before I can square it off.”

“That’s better,” said Abner. “Never promise what ye can’t do.”

Bub, relenting and wishing to spare his friend, began asking a volley of questions as to what would be the morrow’s programme.

“We’ll start at sun-up and make the east jog of Mt. Jim,” said Abner. “Don’t know how long we’ll stay there. Ordinarily I could put three weeks in to profit in making that particular cant; but as things be I shall put in a day or two, drop in to see the fire warden on top of Hood mountain and then go on north to where the real business awaits me. It all depends on how soon Charlie overtakes us.”

“Can he find us?” incredulously inquired Stanley.

“He can,” was Abner’s dry response. “If we kept going three hundred miles up north of Quebec where they’re putting in big pulp mills Charlie would follow close enough to cook our second supper, I guess. I vum! I wish he was here now to fix them fish.”