The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 8

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Abner led the way next morning, the two boys keeping some twenty feet behind him. The canoe had been concealed where it would be safe from thievish hands and Stanley was now called upon to carry a heavy pack over exceedingly rough ground.

“I’m glad Big Nick has left us in peace,” he confided to Bub, as he tried to imitate his friend’s easy gait.

“Abner said that to make us feel comfortable in our minds,” informed Bub. “Big Nick is ahead somewhere and that’s why Charlie was sent back. If we had only Mt. Jim to do Charlie would have stuck along with us and held Nick off. But there’s something important afoot and Abner can’t waste time on Jim. I figure our trip there is largely a bluff, just to mislead the enemy and that Abner doesn’t want to run any risk of being interrupted in the really important work. If Charlie gits word through, some of the poplar peelers will be hustled up here to cover our retreat and act as reinforcements, you see.”

“How far could we go in a straight line and not leave the woods?” asked Stanley, curiously.

“Way up into Canada, and then some,” returned Bub. “About two—thirds of Maine is wilderness land, you know.”

“Will it ever give out?”

“If they don’t follow the example set by our company it will,” he assured. “Our company cuts, so as to make a perpetual investment, taking so many feet a year and above a certain size. Of course we have to cut smaller stuff then they did in the old days, when one giant pine might in falling spoil what to-day would be a half a dozen rattling good trees. If they begin on Mt. Jim this winter it may take anywhere up to ten years to finish it, according to how Abner finds the timber to run. Then in twenty—five years more it will be good cutting again. But we won’t butcher any and everything the way some operators do. Take an individual and he figures he has but one chance at the woods and he intends to get—notice I say ‘get’ instead of ‘git’—his and let the next generation go without. Our company is in business to stay. A hundred years from now the company expects to be engaged in lumbering. And each year sees the timber run into more money. Why, we have one section, a square mile, you know, that was bought in thirty or forty years ago for thirty-five thousand dollars. Abner says the company has refused a million for it since. Some increase, eh?”

“So, some of the operators cut clean, eh?” mused Stanley.

“Do they cut clean?” cried Bub. “Well, I guess they do. I remember being in Windy Peters’ place up near Jackman just after he’d finished cutting on Jim Rawlins’ cant. Rawlins is a land-owner and sells his stumpage to operators. It seems Peters made a clean sweep. Well, Rawlins come in, as smooth as could be, smiling and hand shaking and Peters watching him out the corner of his eye. The first thing Rawlins said was, ‘You’ve always used me well, Peters, and I want to be square with you. Now I ain’t any objections to your taking a crew and some bush hooks and going over on that cant and getting the rest of the timber.’ Meaning, of course, Windy Peters had taken everything but the bushes.”

Stanley’s lesson was here interrupted by Abner, who halted at the foot of a hard wood ridge and stared off to the northwest.

“He’s watching the smoke and trying to figure it out,” whispered Bub as the two youths came up.

“I see no smoke,” said Stanley, gazing in vain.

“It’s just a yellow haze, but it’s plain,” said Bub.

“I shouldn’t be surprised if it’s Big Nick,” muttered Abner. Then seeing the youths he frowned, “Don’t either of you wander away from camp tonight. I don’t like that smoke.”

“Big Nick?” inquired Stanley, his hands tightening.

“He’s there, like enough, but he never built the fire. There’s someone with him who started a blaze when he wasn’t ’round to stop it. It died down mighty quick, as if he’d arrived and put it out. Besides, Nick would use wood that wouldn’t give off any smoke. That feller used pine.”

For the next few miles the trio remained silent. Stanley’s gaze was ever focused on the point where his companions had made out the tell-tale smoke and his nerves were keyed up to a high tension as Abner continued to hold his course. As they mounted the ridge and caught the summit breeze he could see nothing but dark green woodlands stretching to the horizon. The breeze continually rustled the bare branches of the maple and beech, for as yet the belated season had allowed but a few leaves to gladden the deciduous trees, and ever sang gently through the boughs of the evergreens. There was no trace of human habitation, not even a solitary camp, and it seemed as if the three must be alone, surrounded by primeval solitude. And yet somewhere in the northwest was a desperate man, possibly more than one, intent on an evil purpose.

As these thoughts raced through Stanley’s mind and as his nerves responded to the suggestion he found himself becoming timid. The danger crept nearer until the immediate boundaries of their course impressed him as containing a hidden foe. A squirrel, suddenly scolding the passersby, gave a prickly sensation to his skin and he started involuntarily.

Abner read his fears and quietly drawled, “Don’t git scared. We’ve got plenty of leeway. Once we reach the tap of the ridge we’ll swing due north. That’s Jim over there.” And he pointed to the rounded top of a distant mountain, masked in the dark verdure of spruce and pine.

“Funny how spruce will grow almost anywhere,” continued Abner, as if talking to himself. “Ye’ll find it where ye’d swear a root couldn’t git a hold.”

“How could you get them down from up there?” asked Stanley, to whom the rugged slopes appeared to be inaccessible to man.

“That’s easy. Sluice ’em down. All ye got to do is to git them started and stand from under. We won’t have to use a boss except in yarding them down below. Loon River winds around the eastern slope, so it makes it pretty convenient. ”

Among Abner’s other assets was an ability to always find a spring when the hour came to stop and lunch. This in itself impressed Stanley as being marvelous.

“Time to eat,” announced Abner, throwing down his pack. “See if there ain’t a spring under that ledge. Two years ago I remember of finding one there.”

“Here it is,” called out Bub. “Clear and full.”

“And if we could put a railroad through up here, build a big hotel and charge five cents a glass people would say it was the best water in the world,” sniffed Abner. “Well, it is good water. Did ye know, sonny, that Maine is simply peppered with lakes and streams, more so than any other similar area in the United States? That’s what gives ye the woods.”

Stanley nodded absent-mindedly, for he was engaged in idly lighting some dead leaves under a huge maple. To his great amazement he found himself whirled from his play by one sweep of Abner’s powerful arm. Before he could recover his balance Bub dashed by him and in passing gave him a push that sent him headlong into a clump of cedar bushes.

“Say, what do you two mean?” he demanded, crawling forth, his eyes flashing. For he believed the man and youth were suddenly taken insane.

“Hump yerself!” bawled Abner, laying onto the creeping fringe of fire with a bough hurriedly torn from a spruce. “Lend a hand here or I’ll leave ye to shift for yerself.”

“Come on,” barked Bub, his face strained with wrath and fear.

“You’ll answer for that Bub Thomas,” Stanley choked, overcome by the realization that his supposed friend had placed a hand on him in anger.

“I’ll tend to ye soon ’s I have time,” panted Abner, moving about like a madman.

Not till then did Stanley realize the two were fighting as he had never seen men fight before to put out the blaze he had so thoughtlessly started.

With an ashamed face he followed their example, stamping and beating the little red tongues that glided here and there like so many serpents. No sooner was one spot extinguished before a patch of red bloomed in another place. The danger zone apparently was the point where the hardwood trees met the black growth. Here it was that Abner fought the hardest. Once the flames entered the tinder like carpet under the spruce and fir no human agency could stop it from spreading along the base of the ridge.

Tearing off a second bough Stanley sprinted to the spring and plunged them into the water. Then he joined Abner and was gratified to find he could kill more fire with one sweep of his weapon than the cruiser could with several blows of his. So fiercely did they labor that at the end of a few minutes only a smoking, blackened area was left to testify to their danger.

“Whew!” gasped Abner, sinking down on the dead cinders and breathing heavily.

“That’s why I pushed you,” choked Bub, following Abner’s example.

“Ordinary man would have clipped ye good and hard,” added Abner. “What possessed ye to do it?”

Stanley, his cheeks two coals, hung his head in dejection. “If there’s a high cliff handy I guess you’d better shove me off,” he muttered. “I was simply curious to see if the leaves were dry enough to burn.”

“Any other experiments ye’d like to try?” asked Abner.

Stanley shook his head. “I’m sorry. Seems as if all I’ve said on this trip is that ‘I’m sorry’ for one thing or another.”

“Can ye think of any more breaks he can make, Bub?” queried Abner anxiously.

Bub gravely shook his head. “The only thing I can think of is to let him carry the rifle and observe if he looks down the muzzle to see if it’s loaded.”

“I don’t blame you two,” cried Stanley. “I ought to have stayed at the mills. I’m not fit to be out alone. Of course I had no idea that I couldn’t stamp out the blaze in a second. It seemed impossible that it could get beyond my control.”

Abner slowly rose to a sitting posture and not unkindly said, “Younker, I ain’t going to jaw ye; ’cause it’s too serious. I’d carry on like all tarnation if it didn’t amount to much, but this is too serious. Now let’s profit by it by making it a lesson to ye. Of all things a man should be careful of in the woods is fire, especially in May and in the fall. Last year a couple of city chaps went out trout fishing at about this time of year. They built a campfire and then left it. Within three days nearly forty square miles of timber had burned. All the timbering operations throughout the years had just made some little open patches on them ridges. Now they are swept clean as a hound’s tooth, except where a dead pine remains standing, a roost for crows.”

“And that’s why the state has fire wardens stationed on all these mountains,” added Bub. “What Abner tells you is just one sample. Every spring and fall the sky is heavy with smoke from burning timber. We lose more lumber by fire every year than is cut by man, I guess.”

“Have ye noticed that I ain’t been smoking since we struck the woods?” asked Abner. Then without waiting for a reply he explained, “It’s because I am afraid of fire, as careful and experienced as I am.”

“I’ve learned my lesson,” humbly assured Stanley. Then with an irrepressible glint of curiosity in his downcast eyes, “But what if it had got beyond our control for the moment, what would we have done?”

“Wal,” said Abner deliberately, “if it really was beyond our control we’d camped here and taken a nap.”

Bub nodded his head in affirmation, but Stanley could hardly believe the statement.

“It’s like this,” explained Abner; “you fight a fire in the early morning. The minute the fire warden on Hood mountain saw the smoke he’d telephone across to Crooked Hill and then it would be sent north and south and east and west. In each case the warden would call help, and when he asks help to fight a fire every mill owner and operator called upon must send crews. Some sixty or a hundred men would be rushed in here.

“Then they would organize and fight the fire in front, beginning at 3 o’clock in the morning, say, when the blaze is smouldering. The fire always grows with the sun and the wind and the fire-fighting day ends at 10 or 11 o’clock a. m. Then the men go to sleep and rest up for the next morning. If the case is desperate back fires are set at night.”

“That means the men in front set a fire and so control it that it can only spread towards the fire they’re fighting,” explained Bub. “When the two fires meet the blaze is all over.”

“Thank heavens, no damage has been done,” fervently cried Stanley.

“A cent would pay for all the stumpage spoiled by this fire,” agreed Abner, gravely, “but—”

“But what?” prompted Stanley as the old man paused.

“Wal, I might as well say it, as Bub is thinking it now. We’ve told Big Nick about what he wants to know. He’s seen the smoke and knows I’ve got some younkers along, for he’d never give me credit with starting a smoke, let alone a blaze.”

Stanley’s face lengthened. “Mr. Whitten, it seems I have been criminally negligent. I must undo the mischief insofar as I can.”

“Ye’ve been a derned little fool,” agreed Abner. “About the other thing I’ll hold back my opinion till I know what it means.”

Stanley reached forward and clasped Bub’s hand warmly, much to that youth’s bewilderment. “I’m almost too tired to shake hands,” repelled Bub, who began to fear Stanley was not sufficiently impressed with his lesson.

“I know,” mumbled Stanley, moving away. “Don’t fear that I’ll start another blaze.”

“Don’t bear down too hard on him, Bub,” cautioned Abner. “He didn’t mean nothing and he took his medicine like a man. After all, who’s afraid of Big Nick?”

“I love Stanley,” replied Bub simply, “but it’s time he got some sense. He needs to be jolted a bit to cure him of doing the wrong thing at the right time.”

“I know,” mused Abner, “but he had a strange look on his face I didn’t like. Better coddle him up a bit.”

“I’ll call him back and shake hands over again,” cried the warm hearted youth, rising and looking after Stanley. “Why! Abner, I don’t see him. He can’t be lost. Hi! Stanley! Come here! We want you,” he loudly called.

A lone crow mocked him from a distance, but there was no other response. Again he called, but Stanley gave no answer.

By this time Abner was on his feet, keenly gazing down the slope. “After him!” he suddenly shouted. “He’s making towards Big Nick’s camp. He’s trying to square himself by finding Nick and saying he’s lost and a denying that we’re in the woods. Run! run! That’s why he shook hands with ye. Ding his young pelt! Git him. Fetch him back, or I’ll larrup ye.”

Long before he had finished Bub was flying like a deer down the rough way, ever watching for the movement of the bushes and underbrush ahead and below him. A dry sob clutched his throat as he ran on and remembered how he had disdained Stanley’s silent farewell. That the youth would ever use such heroic means to make good his fault had not entered Bub’s imagination. Eminently practical himself he was not prepared to understand an emotional nature.

Stanley did not know he was pursued until Bub came close upon him in a diminutive clearing. “Hold on, Stan. Come back,” gasped Bub.

“Go back yourself. I’ll be along soon,” replied Stanley, lowering his eyes.

“You’ll come now,” cried Bub, springing forward and clutching his arm.

It was in vain Stanley sought to shake him off. “Let me go, Bub. Let me go,” he gritted. “I know what I’m doing. Go back.”

“Sure, we’re both going back,” panted Bub, increasing the pressure of his grasp. “It’s no use, Stan; you were the stronger in camp, because you were in the right. But now I can handle a dozen like you. Come on, you proud child.” And he yanked with renewed energy.

“Hold him till I git there,” called Abner’s voice; “Oughter be ashamed to make a old man hurry.”

The last was a crafty appeal, for Stanley immediately ceased struggling and went limp. “I’ll go back, Bub,” he said.

“Your word is good as a million feet of old growth pine, my son,” panted Bub, gladly relinquishing his hold.

Abner stopped running when he saw the two walking towards him. When they joined him he was gravely studying the geological formation of the outcropping ledge.

“See that spruce cling to them rocks,” he admired, as if nothing had happened. “Ye wouldn’t s’pose there’d be room for a tooth pick to git a hold there, would ye? I s’pose the birds scatter most of the seeds of things that grow and it’s a case of git along, and make the best of the world ye find yerself in, eh?”

Stanley and Bub, arm and arm, proceeded slowly back to the camp, paying no attention to the old man’s prattle, while he talked incessantly, endeavoring to restore harmony of thought.

“Here’s the fly agaric,” he babbled. “It’s one of the two poisonous specimens of mushrooms found in Maine. Take it in July and August when the fly is cutting up something disagreeable and put it in water and it’ll kill ’em off. Ye’ll notice the stem is white and a foot tall, with a creamy yaller cap on top. And the cap is spattered with little scales. They say a Czar of Russia once was killed by eating these.”

Still Stanley and Bub sat side by side, looking at their feet and apparently not hearing him.

Coughing loudly to arouse interest he continued, “And here is the only other poisonous specimen. I don’t know the foreign name, but we call it the ‘Death Cup.’ Pure satiny white. Ain’t it a beauty? There’s no cure for the man who eats it.”

The two youths might have been figures of marble, so motionless did they remain.

“Ahem!” sounded Abner desperately. “Have a few of these snow berries. They have a taste of wintergreen and are s’posed to be a little extry.”

Receiving no recognition Abner hurled the berries from him and threw his hat on the ground. “If I’ve got to be in the woods with a pack of dummies I might as well be alone,” he cried.

With one impulse the youths burst into laughter and as quickly rose and shook the old man warmly by the hand.

“Now if ye’ll kindly cut out this gossiping we’ll go to the foot of old Jim and camp for the night,” Abner growled, once the sunshine returned.