This story has appeared serially in “The Youth’s Companion,” and my thanks are due the publishers for permission to reprint it.
Frank Lillie Pollock.
THE TIMBER TREASURE
THE END OF A TRAIL
The heavy spruce forest broke away into scattered clearings; the road began to show more sign of use. The shriek of a sawmill began to be audible through the trees, and then the stage rolled into Oakley, splashed with mud from wheels to top, and the tired horses stopped. Tom Jackson crawled out, cramped and chilled with the rough twenty-mile drive, and looked about anxiously for a familiar face.
The stage was standing opposite an unpainted frame hotel, where a group of men had collected to meet it. There were rough woodsmen, forest farmers, dark-faced French habitants, an Indian or two, slouching and silent; the driver as he got down from his seat was exchanging jocularities with some of these, but no one spoke to Tom, and he saw no one whom he recognized. He had a twinge of anxiety. He had written to Uncle Phil to meet him that day. There had been plenty of time, and he had felt certain of seeing either Uncle Phil or one of his sons. Could the letter possibly have gone astray?
Tom’s canvas dunnage sack was handed out to him, and his rifle in its case. He deposited these on the hotel steps, and again searched the group with his eyes. Becoming certain that he knew no one there, he applied to the nearest man, a raw-boned, bearded person in the rough dress of a backwoods settler. He had been talking freely, and seemed to know everybody.
“Have you seen anything of Mr. Phil Jackson around here to-day—or either of his boys?”
“Don’t believe as I know ’em,” returned the pioneer, looking Tom over with acute curiosity. “Was you expectin’ to see ’em?”
“Yes, I wrote them to meet me here, but I don’t see any of them.”
“Well, the town ain’t very big. You can’t miss ’em if they’re here,” the other said, encouragingly.
This had already struck Tom’s mind. The straggling, muddy street of log houses, frame shacks, three or four stores was barely a hundred yards long, and then the vast northern Canadian forest closed in again. Away at the end of the village he had a glimpse of a good-sized river, yellow and swollen with melting snow. There were stray drifts of snow and patches of ice still lingering in sheltered places everywhere, rather to Tom’s surprise, for spring had seemed well advanced when he left Toronto; and despite the sunshine the air was full of a raw harshness, charged with a smell of pine and snow.
He carried his baggage into the hotel and left it there, glancing into the bar and sitting-room. Emerging again, he found the knot of idlers had scattered, and the horses were being unharnessed from the stage. He walked down the board sidewalk as far as it went, scrutinizing every face, looking into the stores, with anxiety growing upon him. Oakley was his uncle’s post-office, but his homestead was some thirty miles back in the woods, and Tom had no idea in which direction nor how to get there.
All at once it occurred to him that they must know at the post-office. That was the place for information. He had passed it already; he had seen the sign, and he turned more hopefully back. The post-office was a general store as well. It was full of a mixed smell of leather and molasses and tobacco, and there was a group of fur-capped settlers smoking and talking beside the big stove. Among them Tom recognized the man he had already spoken with, and they all stopped talking and looked at the boy with great interest. Tom felt that they instantly recognized him as from the city, though he had taken pains to wear his roughest and heaviest clothes, a flannel shirt and high shoepacks which he had used in the woods before; but his hands and face were suspiciously untanned.
The postmaster, a spectacled elderly man, was behind a wire compartment at the rear of the store, and had just finished sorting the mail brought in by the stage when Tom approached him.
“Why, no,” he answered. “I ain’t see Phil Jackson to-day. Fact is, I don’t believe I’ve set eyes on him all winter. Seems to me I heard he’d gone away—him and the boys.”
It was indeed six or eight months since Tom had heard from any of his uncle’s family, but he had never dreamed that they could have left the north Canadian ranch where they had been for five years, and where they were doing prosperously.
“No, Jackson ain’t gone away,” put in one of the men by the stove. “Mebbe he don’t come in to Oakley no more, but he’s still on his homestead.”
“He ain’t been gettin’ his mail here lately, anyways,” said the postmaster. “There’s a letter here for him now—been here a week.”
He reached up to the pigeonholes, and took out a letter, peering at it through his glasses. With a shock Tom recognized the handwriting of the address.
“Why, that’s my own letter!” he cried. “That’s the letter I wrote him. He never got it.”
There was a silence in the store. Tom endeavored to collect himself.
“I fully expected him to meet me here,” he said at last. “Now I’ve got to get out to his ranch some way. Do you know where it is?”
There was a difference of opinion. Nobody seemed to be quite sure.
“I believe he lives over north somewheres,” said the postmaster. “I dunno.”
“Down the river, ain’t it?” said another.
“No, it ain’t,” said a third, decisively. “I know where the Jackson place is. It’s up on Little Coboconk, just below the narrers. I seen Dave Jackson there one day last fall. He was gettin’ out beaver-medder hay.”
“How far is it? How can I get there?” cried Tom.
“Must be ’bout thirty mile. I dunno how to get there—’less you had a canoe. You go right up the river to the Coboconk lakes,” said the postmaster.
“Me and my pardner’s plannin’ to go up past there,” said the man who knew the place. “Guess we could fix it to go to-morrow. We could take you up, if you know how to ride in a canoe without fallin’ out.”
“I’ve paddled a canoe a good many hundred miles,” said Tom indignantly. “I’d be glad to go if you can take me. How much’ll you charge me for the trip?”
The frontiersman glanced sidewise at the boy, and spat against the hot stove.
“Run you up for ten dollars.”
Tom knew well that this was outrageous. If he had been a dweller in that neighborhood he would have been welcome to go for nothing, for the sake of an extra hand at the paddles. And about twenty dollars was all he owned.
“Can’t afford to pay more than five,” he said firmly.
“Oh, well; make it five,” said the other, a little shamefacedly. “We’ll start early—six o’clock, say. You stoppin’ at the hotel?”
Tom had no other place to stop, though he could ill spare the additional dollar or two. He went back and engaged a room, and tried to amuse himself for the rest of the afternoon by looking over the straggling little backwoods village and its environs. He had seen others exactly like it, but he had never before been so close as this to Uncle Phil’s homestead, though he had been many times invited to visit it.
Tom’s home was in Toronto, where his father was in the wholesale lumber business. But there had been a frequent inter-change of letters between the city and the north woods; Uncle Phil always sent down a deer in November, and twice the boys, Dave and Ed, had paid a visit to Toronto. They were three and five years older than Tom, but the cousins had become great friends, and the tales Tom heard of backwoods adventure made him regard it as a sort of ideal life.
Tom had spent his whole life in Toronto, but he did not care for the city. He had unusual physical strength for his seventeen years; he had made several summer camping and canoeing trips into the north woods; he could use a rifle, an ax, and a paddle; and he would immensely have liked to be old enough to go into the woods, secure a hundred acres of free government land, trap, hunt, prospect for minerals. There was iron in those wildernesses, graphite, mica, asbestos, silver, maybe gold too. There were pulp-wood and pine and fine hard woods. Dave had found a clump of “bird’s-eye” maple and obtained three hundred dollars for half a dozen logs. All this appealed much more strongly to Tom than his present university studies and the prospect of a subsequent desk in his father’s office. He came by these tastes honestly enough, for his father in his younger days had been a trapper, a timber-cruiser, a prospector in these same woods, until, growing older and making money, he had settled into a conservative city business.
Mr. Jackson looked with no favor on his son’s disinclination for business. There was time enough, however. Tom had finished his second year at Toronto University, where he had distinguished himself mainly in other ways than scholastically. He was a brilliant Rugby halfback, and had come close to breaking an intercollegiate record for the half-mile. Tom had enjoyed these two college years hugely, and had, in fact, taken little thought of anything but enjoyment. His father was not a millionaire, but Tom had usually only to ask for money in order to get it, and he had spent it with a tolerably free hand. Thinking now of the sums he had squandered, he squirmed with remorse.
The lumber business in Ontario is no longer what it was. Mr. Jackson was a dour and silent trader, who would no more have brought business troubles home with him than he would have discussed household matters with his office staff. He rarely mentioned the business to his son. Perhaps he hoped that Tom would volunteer an interest in the business, but it never occurred to the boy to do this. In fact, as Tom thought of it now, his father had become almost a stranger to him since he had entered the university and had taken up a multiplicity of new personal interests, social and sporting. He met his father only by chance at home, it seemed: at dinner, rarely at luncheon, on Sundays, sometimes of an evening. Tom almost never entered the big lumber-yards and office at the foot of Bathurst Street, and he had spent most of the last two vacations canoeing and camping near the Georgian Bay with a party of young friends.
He had planned to do the same this last summer. A party of college friends was going north to a club-house that some of them possessed near the Lake of Bays. It was to be rather an expensive outing; they were to take three motor-boats, several guides, a cook, and a princely outfit of supplies. Tom’s share of the expenses came to upward of a hundred dollars. He applied to his father for a check, and received a rather curt refusal, accompanied by no explanation.
It was the first time that he could remember having been denied money, and he felt bitterly aggrieved. He canceled his plans, however, and the motor-boats went without him.
About three weeks later his father summoned him to the office.
“I guess I can let you have that money after all, Tom,” he said; and, as he took out his checkbook, he added almost apologetically:
“I really couldn’t do it when you asked me before. Money was like blood to me just then. In fact, I don’t know whether the bank would have cashed the check.”
“Why, has business been as bad as that, Father?” Tom exclaimed, appalled. “I had no idea, or I’d never—”
“The lumber business is pretty well played out in this part of the country,” replied Mr. Jackson. “It’s only far in the north that there’s any white pine left, and I’ve always been a white pine man. I’ll have to go in for pulp-wood, or move west, or shut up shop within a few years. This spring things were worse than I ever knew them to be. For a while it really looked as if I’d have to shut up shop.”
Jackson had never before said so much upon business affairs to his son. The revelation came upon Tom like a thunderbolt. Looking at his father with awakened eyes, he saw for the first time the deep-drawn lines of age and worry upon the face of the veteran lumberman.
“Things are much better now, though,” Jackson hastened to say. “I have a deal or two in hand that should make everything smooth. I think the worst is over.”
“I don’t want this money, Father!” Tom cried. “Look here, can’t I do something? Let me come into the office—or into the yards.”
“Afraid you wouldn’t be much use there, Tommy. We’re too busy to break in new hands. No, take your good time while you can. Your business just now is to get an education. That’s all I want to say to you, Tommy. Don’t neglect it. Foot-ball is all right, but don’t neglect the important thing.”
Tom went away from this interview ashamed, humiliated, and full of good resolutions. He put the check into his bank, resolved to draw no more money for personal expenses that whole year, and instead of going on a holiday trip he, like many other students, secured a job as government fire ranger in the new country north of Lake Temiscaming.
He spent three months thus, mostly in a canoe, and came back brown and hard-trained in the early autumn, for the collegiate term. His good condition made him more than ever in demand for athletics, and his ardor for reform had lost a little of its fine edge during the summer. Nobody ever studied during the autumn term anyhow, he reflected, and he played foot-ball assiduously until the season closed. With the coming of the winter he took a lively interest in hockey; and not until the end of February did he begin to realize that he had made an even worse hash than usual of his scholastic year, and that he would almost infallibly fail to pass the June examinations.
With characteristic impulsiveness he dropped all sports, took no exercise, and plunged heavily into study to make up for lost time. He burned the midnight oil until daylight came; he grew pale and his health fell off, and, as a natural result, in March he was attacked by a serious inflammation of the eyes. He spent a week or so in a darkened room, and came out under orders not to look at a printed page for a month, and not to think of study for the rest of the spring and summer.
He was thrown into compulsory idleness, and he had the pleasure of knowing that it was by his own fault and foolishness. He thought again of suggesting that he take some minor part in the lumber business; but Mr. Jackson was evidently undergoing troubles of his own just then. Business was bad again; he was in ill health besides; he was short-tempered and sarcastic, and Tom’s conscience made him afraid. His eyes, besides, negatived office work; and at last he went down and spoke privately to Williams, the yard foreman, for a job on the lumber piles.
Williams smiled at first, but when he found that Tom really meant it he grew serious, and spoke plainly:
“We couldn’t have the boss’s son in the yard, Mr. Tom; you know we couldn’t. I couldn’t let you loaf on the job, and I couldn’t drive you like the rest of the hands. Oh, I know you wouldn’t loaf, but there’s nothing to learn here anyway. It’s all manual work—lifting and loading and handling. Stay around with me for a day and you can learn it all—if that’s what you’re after.”
Checked again, Tom’s thoughts turned back to the north, where his heart had always been. It was too early for fire ranging; that work is not undertaken until midsummer; but he began to think of Uncle Phil’s homestead in the backwoods, and, little by little, in his hours of enforced inaction, he formed a plan.
His eyes were good enough for all outdoor purposes, and his health needed strong exercise. He would go up and stay with Uncle Phil and the boys, and help them at the spring cultivation, the logging, all the forest and farm work. There would be no doubt about his welcome; another strong arm is always useful in the woods. He would look over the surrounding country. Within a few months he would be eighteen, and capable of homesteading a hundred acres himself. Why should he not do it? There would be pulp-wood on the land, perhaps minerals. If necessary, he could still return to the city rather late next autumn, and continue his studies.
“But I’ll never be any good as a student or at business,” he thought mournfully. “I’m no good at anything but foot-ball, and paddling a canoe and shooting and chopping timber. I’d better go in for what I can do.”
He ventured to confide part of this project to his mother, who endeavored to dissuade him, but finally admitted that a summer in the woods might do him good. He casually introduced the subject to Mr. Jackson, and got an ironical remark that he would “probably be no more useless there than anywhere else,” which put an end to the conversation. It left Tom with some feeling of bitterness. He was not going to ask for any money; on the contrary, he was going to be self-supporting. He had enough money in his bank-account for the articles of outfit he needed, and for his railway fare and for the stage across to Oakley; and while at his uncle’s farm he would have no need of money. He left with the casual manner of going on a pleasure-trip, but he was inwardly determined that it should be winter before the city should see him again, and that he would have something definite to show for the time between.
It had been a great disappointment to find no one at Oakley to meet him. He had counted on a jubilant welcome from his cousins; but he ought to have remembered that pioneers do not go thirty miles to the post-office every week. He would have a little more trouble and expense; that was all; and he went to bed in the bare, cold hotel room in the sure expectation of sleeping the next night at Uncle Phil’s farm.
He was up at daylight, breakfasting early; and when the canoemen called for him punctually at six o’clock he was ready to shoulder his dunnage sack and rifle and go down to the river at the far end of the street.
They put Tom in the middle, and entrusted him with a paddle when he assured them that he was used to this sort of navigation. The Coboconk River was running full and strong with the April freshets and the melting snows, and the three of them found it stiff work to propel the loaded Peterboro up against the current. The roofs of the village passed out of sight, and after the first mile there was no trace of settlement along the wooded shores. It was a rough, picturesque country, densely timbered with small pine and spruce and hemlock, and streaks of snow still lay in the shaded woods. Half a dozen times they started a flock of wild ducks splashing and squawking from the water. There was plenty of game in these woods. Tom had eaten venison steak for supper at the hotel, he felt sure, though it was called beef out of deference to the game-laws. There were bears in this spruce wilderness, and deer and lynxes and sometimes wolves; and muskrats and minks and ermines swarmed along the streams and in the swamps.
Toward noon they reached the end of the river, where it flowed out of the Coboconk lakes, and here they stopped to eat a cold lunch. There were two of the Coboconk lakes: Little Coboconk and Big Coboconk, connected by a narrow strait. The little lake, which they now entered, was perhaps three miles long, and Tom’s destination was just at the upper end. They skirted up close along the shores, and the canoemen scanned the shores narrowly. There was no clearing, nor smoke, nor any trace of a farm. They passed the mouth of a small river and went on almost to the connecting straits, and then the men ran the canoe up to a stranded log.
“Here you are,” said his guide. “See this here trail? That takes you on to Dave Jackson’s barn, where he put his hay. I dunno just where the house is, but you keep a-follerin’ the trail and you can’t miss it.”
They heaved Tom’s dunnage ashore after him, and paddled quickly on toward the upper lake. Tom felt indignant and cheated. He had expected to be landed at his uncle’s door for his five dollars, and he found himself put ashore with a hundred pounds of dunnage and his destination indefinitely distant. But the canoe was already out of sight in the spruce-bordered channel, and there was no help for it.
It was impossible to think of carrying the heavy canvas sack for any distance, and so he hoisted it into the low fork of a tree, intending to get Dave to come down and help him bring it home. He had brought a few delicacies as presents for the younger children—a box of candy, a box of dates and figs—and he crammed these into his pockets, put his rifle under his arm, and started inland.
There was a sort of trail, as the canoeman had said—a faint indication of wheelmarks certainly made no later than last autumn. It was possible to follow them, however, and here and there trees had been cut to open the way; after perhaps a mile of tramping Tom came in sight of the barn he expected.
It was a rough, unchinked log structure, with the door yawning wide, standing close by a wide flat of long grass and reeds, through which a tiny stream slowly wandered—evidently the beaver meadow where Dave had cut his hay. But there was no house in sight, and the woods came up densely around the beaver meadow, with no trace of either road or clearing.
Tom’s heart sank with discouragement. Nevertheless, the barn indicated that he was on the right track, and the house could not be very remote. Experimentally he uncased his rifle and fired it—three shots, the wilderness signal of distress. No woodsman would neglect to answer that call, and he listened long for an answering signal, but none came. The whiskey-jacks squalled from the spruces, excited by the shots, but there was nothing else.
He struck off, however, beyond the beaver meadow, still in the same direction he had been going. Within half a mile he came upon a rushing, swollen little river, doubtless the same which he had seen flowing into the lake. He followed its shores for some distance, and then struck away into the woods, on the watch for a blazed trail or any sign of clearing. But he had been walking in irregular directions for nearly an hour when he suddenly stumbled into a half-cleared road and saw the opening of a large clearing ahead. Full of hope, he rushed forward and then stopped short with a cry of despair.
Before him lay a stumpy clearing of perhaps a dozen acres, showing something green at one end but overgrown with dead weeds at the other. There was no house, but a great heap of charred timber and ashes showed where a house had once stood and had been burned down.
“This must be the wrong place; it must be further on,” Tom muttered, struggling against a horrible conviction. But he went up and examined the wreck left from the fire.
Amid the pell-mell confusion of half-burned logs, joists, and planks was a litter of tin cans, broken kitchenware, scraps of paper and cloth. He could not make out any relics of any sort of furniture; most of the household effects must have been salvaged. There was a broken iron pot, half full of water and deep red with rust—an old ax with the handle burned out. Everything showed signs of having been exposed to the wet a long time. Plainly the fire had not taken place this spring. It must have been during the winter, or, more likely, last autumn.
But surely this wretched place, this tiny clearing, could not be the prosperous homestead that he had imagined Uncle Phil to possess. He groped over the rubbish in search of some evidence. He turned up a scrap of planed board which might have been part of a door-casing. Letters were cut on it with a jack-knife. They were partly charred away, but what was left was plain enough, and he spelled the confirmatory letters “ave Jackso.” It was Dave’s work, he could hardly doubt; and a few moments later he unearthed a tattered book, a copy of Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” water-soaked and scorched, but with his cousin Ed’s name scribbled a dozen times on the fly-leaves.
Tom groaned. There could be no further doubt, nor hope. It was the place, right enough; but the house had been burned and the family had gone, abandoning the claim. Where they had gone he could not even guess; probably it was far, since none of them had been seen at Oakley all winter.
Tom sat down on a blackened log, and tears started into his eyes. Bitterly now he regretted his rashness in coming on without an answer to his letter. There was nothing for it now but to go back to Oakley. He would have to walk. It was thirty miles; and how could he carry his dunnage? And, once there, he would have to make the still more humiliating retreat to Toronto.
He sat there for some time, too confused to be able to think clearly. It was growing late in the afternoon. He could not possibly start on the long tramp back that night. But he shrank from the notion of staying in the neighborhood of that ruined dwelling, where there was no shelter whatever; and he determined to go back to the log barn, which would at any rate afford him cover.
Having a definite notion of his directions, he struck a bee-line across the woods and succeeded in coming out within a hundred yards of the old beaver marsh. It was not more than a mile in a direct line from the burned house, and he investigated the barn with a view to its possibilities for a camp.
It was rather better than he had expected. There were great chinks in the walls, and the roof did not seem tight; but part of the place had been floored with planks and was partitioned off with stalls for two horses. The rest of the flooring was earth, damp and muddy, but at the farthest end was a remnant of the old hay.
Pulling out scraps of boards from the building, he lighted a fire just outside the door. Dusk was beginning to fall, and the snap and glow of the flames lightened the dreariness a little. He went into the woods and gathered up what dead and fallen timber he could drag in. It is hard to collect fuel without an ax, but worse yet to have the camp-fire fail in the night, and he labored until he thought he had enough to last through the dark hours. He had blankets in his dunnage pack, but he did not feel equal to the task of carrying it up from the lake; and he dragged out a heap of hay to the barn-door and threw himself down upon it. By good luck he had saved a portion of his noonday lunch; there had been more than he wanted then, and if it was not much now it was better than nothing, and he ate it hungrily. What he would eat on the tramp back to Oakley he could not imagine. He would have to trust to his rifle; but he did not have the heart to grapple with any more difficulties just then.
Darkness fell. Through the woods, in the intense stillness, he could hear the faint rush of the little river pouring over its rocks. Owls hooted occasionally from the woods. Once he heard the discordant squall of a hunting lynx; but he was tired out and heart-sick, and he felt reckless of any wild animal.
The air grew frosty, and the stars glittered white in the steely-blue sky. He piled on more wood, brought out all the rest of the hay he could find, and burrowed under it, with his rifle beside him; and despite his misery, he fell soundly asleep at last.
Tom awoke with a vague sense of impending disaster, and looked about, unable for a moment to realize where he was. It was just dawn. A gray light hung over the woods. The remains of his fire barely smoked, and frost lay white as snow over everything. Then he remembered—the journey, the wreck of the burned house, the ruin of all his plans; and he got up from his nest of hay, unable to remain quiet.
He built up the fire again, feeling empty and miserable. His supper had been a poor one, and there was nothing for breakfast. Perhaps he might shoot a partridge, he thought, but he felt too inert and lifeless to go on the hunt. At this point he recollected the boxes of dates and candy he had with him, and he got them out and devoured them. It was a queer breakfast, but it comforted his stomach considerably. The heat of the fire began to take the chill out of his blood. Over the trees in the east the sun began to come up gloriously, and with some renewed courage Tom began to think of the journey back to Oakley.
He hated intensely to do it, yet there seemed no other course. It would be a hard, long tramp besides, lasting more than one day, and he would have to depend on what he could shoot. The best thing would be to acquire some provisions before starting; and he filled the magazine of his rifle from the box of cartridges in his pocket, and started into the woods.
He was eager, besides, to explore a little farther before leaving the place. It was just possible that Uncle Phil’s house was still in the vicinity. The burned building might have been some unused structure; the real place might be farther on. He skirted the old beaver meadow and plunged into the woods—a jungle of small spruces and jack-pine, much of it dead as if attacked by some disease. A hare bobbed out from the thickets, incautiously sat up to look at the intruder, and rolled over the next moment. Tom picked it up and hung it at his belt, reflecting that here was meat for at least one meal.
He listened intently for a possible answer to the echo of his shot, but there was no human sound. Pushing on, he reached the deserted clearing, glanced over the fire ruin again, and went on to examine the roughly cut road he had stumbled into the evening before.
This trail led him out to the bank of the little river, and ended. He followed the stream up some rods. Here and there a tree had been cut at least a year ago, but there were no further signs of settlement, not even a blazed trail. He made a wide circle with a radius of a mile and came back to the clearing, unable to cherish any more hope. This clearing was all the settlement there was.
He looked at it disconsolately. It was untidy and studded with stumps. All around its edges great heaps of logs and brush had been piled up. South of the former house these had burned, and the fire had penetrated for some distance into the woods, probably catching from the dwelling. At the farthest end of the clearing there were about three acres of struggling green, the green of some autumn-planted grain. Other green sprouts showed near the ruin—perhaps the relics of a garden. It was not in the least the sort of homestead he had pictured from his cousins’ descriptions, and he thought rather indignantly of the exaggerated accounts they had given him.
He poked over the rubbish again. The ashes were full of nails and screws, bits of glass, and bits of iron. He picked up the old ax-head, and thought of taking it with him. It would be better than nothing, perhaps, in collecting firewood; but he decided that it was too heavy to carry. He put the torn and stained copy of “Ivanhoe” in his pocket; it would be something to read. Nothing else seemed to be of the slightest value to him.
There was no use in lingering about the place any longer. He turned back irresolutely through the woods, and headed toward the river. Ricks of dead driftwood were piled along its rocky banks. A couple of swimming muskrats dived in a circle of ripples as he came up. Tom paused, and as he stood there a lithe black form popped up between two logs within twenty yards.
It was a mink, and a large one. Almost instinctively he put up his rifle and drew a bead on the little fur-bearer’s head. It was broadside to him, but it was a small mark to hit at that distance, and a bullet anywhere but in the head would ruin the pelt. He aimed long, expecting it to dodge away, but it vanished only at the report.
He hardly hoped to have hit, but he found it on the other side of the log, almost decapitated. It was a nearly black pelt and in prime condition. If it had been trapped it might have been worth twenty dollars, but the mangled head would reduce its value. He carefully wiped the fur, however, and skinned the animal, reflecting that this would help pay the expenses of his ill-starred venture.
He rolled up the skin temporarily and put it in his pocket, till he should have time to stretch it, and continued his way down the stream. There were plenty of traces of fur everywhere. He saw several more muskrats though no more of the shy minks. But the signs showed that there were minks there in abundance, and there were probably martins in the woods, foxes, skunks, and perhaps sables and fishers. Dave had said that there was plenty of fur in the district, and he had been right in this, at any rate.
It would be a splendid place for a winter’s trapping, Tom thought, and he almost regretted that it was not November instead of April. The trapping season was almost over now. It crossed his mind that he might stop here for the remainder of it and make what he could. But he had no traps, no grub, none of the necessary camping outfit.
He followed the stream down to the lake, and turned up the shore to the spot where he had landed the day before. His dunnage sack was still safe in the tree fork. He opened it and got out the camp cooking outfit of nested aluminum that he had packed in Toronto. There were salt and pepper boxes, both luckily full, and he put these in his pocket, hesitated, and then walked back over the shore to the old barn again.
Here he relighted the fire, skinned the rabbit, and set the quarters to roast on forked sticks. He was voraciously hungry after the long walk and his insufficient breakfast. While the meat was browning he carefully cleaned the fat from the mink skin and stretched it on a bent twig, and then devoured half the hare, gnawing the bones, sitting back on his pile of hay.
Despite salt and pepper, it was rather dry and flavorless, but the meat heartened him wonderfully. He felt equal now to starting on the tramp to Oakley. He could make fully half the distance to-day, and finish it to-morrow. He would, however, have to abandon his dunnage. He might be able to send for it, but it was a poor chance.
He hesitated, reluctant to go. He crumbled the hay in his hands. It was good hay—wild rich grass from the flats where the beavers of old time had their pond. Dave must have made a good profit out of this hay, he reflected, glancing over the brown meadow beyond him. There were perhaps eight or ten acres of it, a long oval, with the remains of the old beaver dam still visible at the lower end. Evidently it had been mowed last summer, and this wild hay always brings a good price at the winter lumber camps.
“This meadow would make ten tons easily,” he said to himself; “likely more. It’ll bear over a hundred dollars’ worth of hay this summer, and nobody to cut it. If I want some easy farming, here’s my chance.”
The idea came to him carelessly, but it suddenly assumed weight. He could make something more by trapping in the next few weeks—at least another hundred dollars.
“It’ll be hard luck if I can’t get rabbits and birds enough to live on,” he muttered. “There’ll be trout soon, too. It’s getting warm. This old barn would be a good enough place to live in.”
The hay would have to be mowed in July. He would have to cut it, turn it over, and stack it entirely by hand, but he knew he could sell it in the stack as it stood. Living here would cost hardly anything. At the end of the summer he could go back to Toronto with a hundred dollars or so to show for his time.
Or why should he not stay up here till Christmas for the early winter trapping? It would be more profitable than playing foot-ball; and he could spare the time, for he was going to have to take his last year’s collegiate work over again anyhow. For that matter, why should he not keep control of this homestead? It was assuredly abandoned. It had a clearing, at least one building, some grain planted, a field of hay. He had wished for such a forest farm. Here was one at least partly made to his hand. He would be eighteen years old that summer, and eligible to take a government homestead grant. If Uncle Phil had made no sign by that time he could apply to have the rights transferred to himself, and he was perfectly certain that his relatives had no intention of ever resuming possession.
He laughed to himself, but with a new thrill of hope. All sorts of possibilities seemed suddenly to be opening out, just when things had looked blackest. He got up and walked back toward the river, thinking hard, more and more fascinated by his scheme. It was wild enough, but almost anything was better than creeping back in humiliation to Toronto. There was pulp-wood on the place too, which he could cut in his spare time. As for the land itself, it did not promise extraordinary fertility. Much of it was rocky, and the stunted growth of the trees indicated poor soil. Just south of the barn ran an immense ridge of gravel lightly overgrown with white birches. But Tom did not at that moment dwell much on the actual details of agriculture.
He went down to the lake shore and brought his dunnage sack up to the old barn. It was a heavy load to carry on his shoulder, and he had no tump-line; but he dropped it at the barn-door at last, aching and played out, so that he had to drop on the hay and rest. He was getting out of training, he told himself.
When he had recovered breath, he began to unpack his belongings. Without having definitely pronounced a decision to stay here, he went on acting as if the decision had been made. To stop a day or two would do no harm anyway, he thought, if he could pick up food enough; and he went into the log barn to see what could be done with it.
It could be turned into a shack that would at least be good enough for the summer, he thought. The chinks between the logs would not matter much, and he could stop the worst of them with moss. Clearing away all the loose hay at the farther end disclosed a pile of loose boards, which would be useful for patching. He might build a partition across one portion of the building. Under the hay were also a long piece of very good rope, a bit of chain and a broken pitchfork, and a number of loose nails. There were plenty of other nails in the fire wreck.
Growing interested, Tom made a huge broom of spruce branches and swept out the litter from the floored portion of the barn and brushed down the walls. There was a hole in the roof just above. He climbed up with a board or two and contrived to cover it in a temporary fashion. In one corner of the old stalls he fitted a rude bunk and filled it with hay. Unpacking his dunnage, he spread the blankets he had used on camping trips before, and hung up his clothing, his aluminum cooking utensils, the few odds and ends he had brought with him.
After this, he tramped over to the burned cabin to look for nails. There were plenty; he quickly filled his pocket, but they were fire-killed and brittle. They would be of some use, however, and he secured the old ax-head also. The broken iron pot struck him as still having possibilities; the lower half at any rate could be used. He came upon an old tin plate that had not been burned. It might have been the dog’s dish, kept outdoors; but he was not too proud to take it; and, laden with this junk, he returned to the barn again.
The glow of the fire and the blowing smoke as he came up, and the litter of his activities gave him a queer thrill of home. In a couple of days more, he promised himself, it would look still more homelike.
He scoured out the rusty pot with sand and water, and cleaned the tin plate in the same way. The ax-head was in bad condition, but with two of the hardest stones he could find he ground laboriously at the edge until some sharpness was restored. The temper was entirely out of the metal, and so he heated it dull-red in the fire and then dropped it into cold water. After this hardening he again ground the edge and reheated it, this time to a brighter red, and again cooled it suddenly. This treatment produced a rough sort of temper. The edge held at any rate, and Tom shaped a crude, straight handle from an ironwood sapling.
Rough as it was, this ax was an immense and immediate help. He chopped up a supply of firewood with very little difficulty and was delighted to find that the edge did not blunt. If anything, he had made the steel too hard; it had chipped a little.
His foraging about the ruin had been so successful that he determined to go back on the morrow and turn over the ashes thoroughly. There might be many more things that would be useful. The most worthless rubbish took on astonishing value in his complete destitution, and he found an extraordinary pleasure in thus salvaging broken junk and making use of it.
His mind recurred to the fur trade. By lying in wait along the creek he might shoot an odd mink, but this was a most uncertain and wasteful method. He thought of figure-four traps, of deadfalls.
These are seldom very successful where fur animals are shy and much trapped, but in this unfrequented spot he thought they might work. He split up one of the pine boards and whittled out half a dozen sets of figure-fours, which would fall to pieces at a touch of the baited spindle.
Half a dozen whiskey-jacks had been squalling about the roof of the barn for hours, and he shot one of them for bait. He set two of his deadfalls beside the tiny creek in the beaver meadow, where there were muskrat signs, building a little inclosure of stakes and logs with a heavy timber supported over the entrance on the figure-four spring. Going through the woods to the river, he set four more traps along the shore, close to the driftwood where the minks were sure to pass.
It was growing late in the afternoon, and he was hungry again. Remembering that he had nothing eatable but half a rabbit, for which he felt no appetite, he made a circuit through the woods in the hope of picking up a grouse. He did start up several; three of them perched on a tree and sat in full view, craning their necks stupidly to look at him, but he managed to make a clean miss, and they went off with a scared roar of wings. With a shot-gun he might have bagged half a dozen; but no more sitting shots presented themselves, and he came back to the barn empty-handed.
The sky had clouded over, and a raw April wind blew. Twilight fell drearily over the bare woods and the black spruces. Tom cooked his rabbit and ate it without any great relish. He was very tired, and felt once more filled with indecision and distress. More than ever it seemed madness to attempt to remain in this place indefinitely. To make the discomfort worse, the wind changed so that it drove the fire toward the barn. He had to put it out, lest the building should catch fire. Vainly he longed for an interior hearth so that he could heat the place, but he got into his bunk, piled all his blankets and spare clothing over himself, and shivered for some time, but eventually went to sleep.
He awoke about sunrise, feeling stiff and cold. Once more he felt that he had been a fool to stay here even as long as this. Already he might have been back in Oakley, headed for Toronto.
He built up the fire and warmed himself. There were some scraps of rabbit left from last night, and he ate them morosely, feeling that he had carried a diet of rabbit about as far as it would go. This morning he would have to pick up something better; afterward he would plan his retreat to Oakley, and when he had finished the scanty meal he took up his rifle and started toward the river, where he had set the deadfalls.
He had a stroke of luck at once. Coming quietly out by the stream he espied four ducks on the water close to the shore. It was not more than twenty yards, and he knocked over one, and missed with a second bullet; then the birds went splashing and squawking away through the air.
He retrieved the duck with a long stick, hung it on his belt and walked up the shore. The first of his traps was untouched. The second was sprung and the bait taken, but the animal had eluded the falling log. Tom reset it, rebaiting it with the head of the duck. He had not much faith in his deadfalls, but the next one was down and had a muskrat in it—a dark, sleek pelt, quite flattened with the weight of the heavy timber.
Tom was unreasonably elated over his prize. It showed that his traps were good for something after all, and it ran through his mind that he might set a whole string of them up and down the river. He skinned the musquash and put the pelt in his pocket; then he walked slowly up the shore, on the lookout for more ducks.
He saw no more, but, turning into the woods, he managed to pick a partridge out of a tree. He followed his former trail toward the burned cabin, for he wanted to look over the ruins again for something useful. He laid down his rifle and game, and pulled the burned timbers apart pretty thoroughly. He took out a number of good boards that might some time be of service, and found a broken cup, an unbroken saucer, and a useless table knife, but nothing else that was worth taking away.
Walking about the clearing, however, he made a much more important find. He observed a slight mound of earth, some scattered boards and straw almost filling a depression in the ground, and he guessed that it was a last year’s potato pit. It had been emptied, of course, but Tom burrowed about among the earth and straw at the bottom and was rewarded by finding, one by one, nearly a peck of rather small scattered potatoes.
He yelled with delight. He had grown terribly nauseated with a meat diet. His mouth watered at the sight of these grubby little spuds. Taking off his coat, he wrapped them up sack wise in it, and started back immediately for his barn, which already had come to be home.
He had a real dinner that day—wild duck roasted in fragments, and potatoes baked in the ashes and eaten with salt and grease from the duck. Nothing had ever seemed so delicious. There might be still more potatoes in the pit—possibly some other vegetables. Stimulated by the food, his courage revived again, and he definitely resolved to stay here at least until the end of the spring trapping season. If necessary he could tramp down to Oakley and exchange a pelt or two for flour, pork, and sugar. As for a longer stay, there would be time to decide upon that later.
He went back that afternoon to the burned cabin to look for more potatoes, but, after turning the pit thoroughly out, he found only three. He shot a rabbit, however, that had come out of the woods to nibble at the sprouting grain in the clearing, and with the potatoes in his pocket and the rabbit at his belt he walked across to the river and down the shore.
A half a mile down, the stream broke into a series of rapids, swirling among black boulders. The rocks and piled drift logs at the foot of the rapids looked like a good place for mink, and he stopped to examine the “sign.” Minks and musquashes dwelt there, surely; their traces were abundant. He sat down on a log, looking the place over, considering where he might construct a few deadfalls, when he was startled by the sudden appearance of a canoe at the head of the rapid above him.
It shot into sight like an arrow, steered by a single paddler, a dark-faced young fellow, with a big pack piled amidships. The canoeman had not seen him; his whole attention was fixed on running the rapid; he was half-way down it, going like a flash, when Tom foolishly sprang up and shouted from the shore.
The paddler cast a quick, startled glance aside, and it was his undoing. The canoe swerved, and capsized with the suddenness of winking. Tom caught a glimpse of the overturned keel darting past him. The man had gone out of sight in the smother of spray and foam; then Tom saw him come up in the swirl of the tail of the rapid, struggling feebly.
The water was not waist-deep, and Tom rushed in and dragged him out. It was a young Indian, half choked and perhaps partly stunned, but not drowned by any means. He coughed and kicked when Tom deposited him on the shore; and, seeing, that he was safe, Tom made another plunge and rescued the big bale of goods that was drifting fast down-stream. The capsized canoe had lodged against a big half-submerged log lower down, and was secure for the time being.
Tom rushed in and dragged him out
Returning to his Indian, he found him sitting up, looking dazed and angry, and spitting out water. It was a young fellow of about Tom’s own age, wearing a Mackinaw coat and trousers, and a battered felt hat which had stuck to his head, and he looked at Tom with intensely black and angry eyes.
“Hello! Feeling better?” Tom cried.
The Indian boy spluttered a rapid mixture of unintelligible French and Ojibway.
“What you do that for?” he swerved into English. “You make me upset—mos’ drown. I lose canoe—pelts—gun—everyt’ing.”
“Oh no. I got your stuff ashore, and there’s your canoe yonder,” said Tom. “Sorry I scared you. I shouldn’t have called out, but there’s nothing lost, anyway.”
The Indian got to his feet, went dripping to the rescued pack, and turned it over carefully.
“All right, eh? Merci,” he said, his anger dying out. “All my winter trapping here. Thought heem sure lost. Say, you live here? What your name?”
“Tom Jackson. Yes, I guess I live here.”
“You good fellow, Tom. Me, I’m Charlie. Say, must make a fire, quick.”
Both of them were drenched and shivering, and the breeze was cold.
“Come along over to my camp. Fire there,” said Tom. “We’ll put your canoe safe first.”
They pulled the canoe high and dry, rescuing a shot-gun that was tied in it, and then the two boys took up the heavy pack and started across the ridge to the old barn.
The fire was still smoldering, and Tom built it up to a roaring flame. He hastened to change his wet clothes for dry ones; but Charlie, who had no other clothes, merely stood in the heat until he steamed like a kettle, finally becoming passably dry. He said there was tea in his pack, however, and Tom hastened to get it out. There was a little sugar, too; and they hastened to boil the tea, and drank great mugs of the hot, strong, sweet beverage, the first hot drink Tom had had for several days.
As Charlie thawed out he explained that he belonged to an Ojibway village north of Oakley, but he had been trapping far in the northwest with two friends all winter. They had taken another route home; he was returning this way alone with his fur pack, and after selling the plunder he was going to spend the summer at his village. The boy had been partly educated at a mission station. He spoke both English and French in some fashion, frequently mixing them, and when excited he combined them with his native tongue in a manner that would have shattered the nerves of a philologist.
He presently opened up his pack of furs, and Tom was astonished at the showing. There were nearly fifty minks, scores of muskrats, besides skunks, sables, foxes, fishers, and weasels. Altogether there must have been upward of a thousand dollars’ worth of peltry, and all the skins were taken off, cured, and stretched with a neatness that showed the boy an expert at his craft. There were several deer hides also, and one bearskin. Charlie told a great tale of how they had smoked the bear out of his winter nest.
“You trap, too,” he said, his eye lighting on Tom’s single mink skin. “Good pelt, if it ain’t shot. Too bad. Ain’t stretched right neither. You git mebbe seven dollar.”
“More than that,” said Tom. “Look here, you want to trade? I’ll swap you that pelt for some of your traps and grub and—what else you got?”
“Dunno,” said Charlie cunningly. “What you want?”
The boys plunged into a war of bargaining, in which the Indian patience wore out the white nerve. In the end Tom secured four good steel traps, a little tea and sugar and flour from the remains of Charlie’s provisions, and a box of matches, in exchange for the mink and the muskrat skin, an old pair of trousers, and a brilliant red and green necktie which irresistibly took Charlie’s fancy.
When it was over Charlie thawed out still more, and his black eyes twinkled as he looked over his acquisitions.
“Tom, you good fellow. Say, I show you how to trap. You git heap mink here.”
Charlie kept his promise. He stayed three days, looked the field over, and gave Tom quantities of concise expert advice where to set his traps and what bait to use. He expounded deadfalls to him—how to lay blood trails along a trap line, how to stretch and cure the pelts properly. Altogether his instructions were worth almost as much as his traps, and during his stay Tom caught another mink and two muskrats. The boys grew to be great friends in those days, and then Charlie collected his property again and launched his canoe.
“Bo’ jour, Tom!” he said. “You good fellow. I see you again some time, mebbe.”
He went off down the stream, the red and green tie fluttering over his shoulder. Tom hated to see him go. The old barn by the lake seemed doubly lonesome now, but the visit had given him the dose of fresh courage he needed to carry out his enterprise.
THE FISH SHARP
It rained all the next day—a cold, dismal rain that was enough to depress anybody’s spirits. The fire sizzled and smoked, sending choking clouds into the old barn, where Tom had to keep under cover. He employed himself in putting a better edge on the broken ax, and in trying to reharden some of the old nails he had gathered. Before another rain could come, he decided, he would construct some sort of shed over his fireplace, so that it would be water-tight.
Getting out the old boards from the rear of the barn, he put up a partial, rough partition so as to make a room about fifteen feet square near the door. Almost destitute of tools, he made a poor job of it, but it helped to pass a dreary day. When the rain slackened once or twice he made brief excursions into the wet woods with his rifle, returning once with a partridge and once with a rabbit. In the bad weather the game lay close and was not shy.
But the next morning the weather had turned mild and sunny and seemed likely to stay so. Visiting his traps late in the afternoon, he found two minks in the steel traps, and a muskrat under one of the deadfalls. He was greatly encouraged and prepared the pelts with the utmost pains, according to Indian Charlie’s directions.
Cold as the rain had seemed, yet it brought the spring. The birches on the ridge began to be shrouded in a mist of pale green, the maples showed crimson buds, and the patch of struggling grain in the old clearing began to come on vigorously. Apparently it was autumn rye, and Tom began to look at it with more interest. It would be yet another small source of profit, if he stayed to harvest it.
Spring came on with the magical swiftness of the North. Leaves sprang from the trees. The snow water left the river, trout began to rise, and Tom got out his fishing-tackle and secured a welcome variation of diet. He needed it, for the last of Charlie’s flour and sugar went quickly, and at last he was absolutely driven to make the long-projected trip to Oakley. It was a wearisome tramp and worse still on the return; for he came back on the fourth day, carrying thirty pounds on his shoulders—bacon, tea, salt, flour, sugar, a saw and hammer. After his solitude, Oakley had seemed almost metropolitan, and the village was indeed unusually astir, for a big dam was to be built there for a paper-pulp factory, and the place was full of imported laborers.
The old clearing looked almost like home when he got back. He found four trapped muskrats and a mink. Nothing had disturbed his possessions. The grass was beginning to sprout in the old beaver meadow, and the determination grew in him that he would never give the place up. He felt sure that nobody would claim it now, and in a few months he could file homestead papers for it himself. In the autumn he could return to Toronto and continue his collegiate work during the winter. He would plant more grain and clear more land. If Oakley should happen to boom into an industrial town, the claim might become very valuable.
He continued his improvements upon the old barn till it had some suggestion of real comfort. He tended his traps assiduously, making the most of the short remainder of the season. He lived roughly and worked hard, living on flour cakes, meat, and fish, and drinking water. He was a poor cook; he grew very sick of this monotonous diet, and there were times when he would have traded the best of his mink pelts for an apple-pie. There were dreary days of cold spring rain—once of flurrying snow—days that held him idle indoors, when he grew half mad with loneliness and discouragement.
The trapping season came to an end. For some time he had noticed that the fur was deteriorating. He had not done quite so well as he had hoped, but he had seven minks, sixteen muskrats, two raccoons, and a fox pelt. With a little luck he might have had a bearskin, for he caught sight of the animal in plain view within fifty yards, but his rifle happened to be back at the cabin.
He had grown thin, wiry, brown, and bright-eyed. He had never been in such training before, and when he started to Oakley with his fur he had no difficulty in making the journey in a little more than a day. The local storekeeper took advantage of the fact that Tom’s furs were all not thoroughly dried to drive a hard bargain; but the boy finally secured $180, most of which he was expected to take in trade. Goods were what he needed, however, and he laid in a stock of food, ammunition, a new ax, a spade, and a number of miscellanies, together with what few books he could pick up. It was far too much to pack back to his farm, and he invested another twelve dollars in a second-hand canoe—a very dilapidated and much-patched Peterboro, which looked sound enough for all practical purposes.
In this craft he made the trip back a great deal more quickly and comfortably than he had come down. It was late in the afternoon when he turned up into the little river, now much shrunken, paddled up to his trapping ground, put the canoe ashore, and struggled over the ridges with his load of supplies. The old barn stood as he had left it, but when he approached the door he received a shock.
Some one had been there—indeed, more than one person. The door, which he had left closed, was half open, and there were fresh footmarks all about the place. Tom hastily glanced over his possessions. They showed traces of having been disturbed, but so far as he could see nothing was missing. The tracks, going and coming, pointed toward the lake, and at least two persons had made them. He could detect one moccasin track, and one showing the print of leather heels.
It was growing dusk by that time, and Tom was too tired to follow up the trail. After satisfying himself that nothing had been stolen, he unpacked his fresh supplies and reëstablished himself, cooked his supper, and went to his blankets early.
Being tired, he slept later than usual, and on arising his mind at once recurred to his late visitors. He got through breakfast hurriedly and, taking his rifle, started to follow up the trail toward the lake.
It was hard to follow, for the weather had been dry and the ground was hard. The carpet of pine and spruce leaves under the trees left little sign, but Tom got the general direction of the trail, picked it up at intervals, and finally came out on the shore. Some distance down the beach he caught a faint curl of smoke. Hastening that way, he came upon the camp.
There was a small gray canvas tent, a half-dead fire, cooking apparatus scattered about, a pair of wet trousers hung up to dry, but no one in sight. Tom called but got no answer. It was, he judged, the camp of a trout-fishing party, and they were probably somewhere out on the water. Then he caught sight of a boat drawn half ashore and went down to look at it.
It was a flat-bottomed punt, a most unusual craft for the north woods, but it had a more unusual feature still. A square foot of the bottom had been cut out and a glass-bottomed box inserted. Tom perceived its purpose at once. He had seen the like before. It is a device adopted by nature students for looking into the depths of clear water; but he had not expected to find a naturalist on the Coboconk lakes.
Considerably puzzled, he looked up and down the water and thought he made out the shape of a floating canoe far up at the end of Big Coboconk, but he was not sure. Again he shouted two or three times, and at last he went back to his own place again. Crossing the gravelly ridge below the barn, he saw the footprints clearly, and saw too that some one had dug into the gravel and had driven deep holes as if with an iron bar. Prospecting, perhaps. There was mineral in the district, Tom knew. He wondered if there might be a mine on his property. But, if there had been one, Cousin Dave would surely have discovered it; for Dave had done a good deal of prospecting, though without any great success.
Tom half expected another visit from the strange campers that day and kept within sight of his dwelling, but no one appeared. On the following morning he went over to the river, got his canoe, and paddled down to the lake. He went slowly up through the narrows into the bigger lake, and saw, as he had rather expected, two boats lying a quarter of a mile ahead and not far from the shore.
One was a canoe, with a single man in it, doing nothing. The other boat, the punt, looked empty at that distance, but as he watched it a man’s head and shoulders rose out of it and then sank again. The canoeman, leaning over, shoved the punt ahead a little.
Tom paddled quickly up, highly interested. The canoeman turned and looked, and then the occupant of the punt rose out of his crouching position in the bottom. He was a tall man of middle age, with a black mustache and a square jaw. He was roughly dressed as any woodsman, yet somehow he did not seem quite to belong to the wilderness. His assistant was a much less pleasing individual, an unmistakable frontiersman, rough and slovenly, with a shock of grizzled reddish hair, and a surly and suspicious face.
“Hello!” called the punter, in answer to Tom’s hail. “Where’d you come from? Camping? Fishing?”
“No, I live back yonder,” said Tom, indicating the direction. “I think you paid a call there the other day. I was away at Oakley.
“Oh!” exclaimed the other. “I thought that was Jackson’s homestead.”
“Yes. I’m Tom Jackson,” returned Tom, quietly.
Both men looked at the boy curiously.
“Well, my name’s Harrison,” said the man in the punt. “This is Dan McLeod, my guide. Is there anybody at your ranch?”
“I’m there,” Tom assured him, growing somehow uneasy.
“Yes, but your father? Or any of the rest?”
“Why, they’re all away for a while,” Tom explained cautiously. “The house got burned, you see.”
“And in the meantime you’re holding down their homestead for them?”
“I surely am,” said Tom firmly. “Sorry I missed you the other day. Are you on a fishing trip yourself, or—what?” with a curious glance at the glass-bottomed boat.
“Want to see? Take a look, then.”
Tom leaned over and tried to look, finally getting into the punt and putting his face close to the glass plate. The water, though deep, was extremely clear, and the stones and sunken logs could be seen distinctly on the floor of the lake.
“Naturalist?” he inquired.
“Ichthyologist—fish sharp,” said Harrison, nodding. “I’m writing a series of articles for a sporting paper on fly-fishing, and I’m experimenting to see how different flies actually look when seen through water. See here.”
And he hauled up from the water a long gut cast, decorated with a number of trout and bass flies placed at short intervals.
“Studying baits from the point of view of the fish,” he went on. “At the same time I observe the movements of the fish while feeding.”
Tom looked at this apparatus with considerable respect.
“Are you writing for one of the Toronto papers?” he asked. “I know most of them.”
“Are you from Toronto?” said Harrison quickly. “You’re not by chance related to Jackson the lumber merchant there, are you?”
“Why—er—yes, I am some relation of his,” returned Tom, embarrassed. He bent to look through the glass again, and a memory of a legend of the Coboconk lakes came into his mind.
“Haven’t seen anything of the lost raft down there, have you?” he inquired, laughingly.
“Never heard of it. What is it?”
“Your guide ought to know, if he belongs to this district. Why, a raft of valuable timber—black walnut—was sunk and lost on this lake twenty-five or thirty years ago. Everybody has taken a look for it but it’s never been located.”
“Sunk? Why, timber floats, doesn’t it?” said Harrison puzzled.
“Not walnut, unless it’s buoyed with some lighter wood. This raft, they say, was cut by the Wilson Lumber Company. It was floated with pine logs, but it got caught in a storm, broke up, and the walnut went to the bottom—nobody knows where.”
The “fish sharp” looked rather quizzically at him, as if he suspected a joke.
“Some catch in that, isn’t there?” he said. “Never heard of dry wood sinking before. I’d as soon expect to see an ax float.”
As a matter of fact, however, the thing had happened exactly as Tom had said. The “lost raft” had become a tradition of the Coboconk lakes. It was Dave Jackson who had told Tom the story, and Dave had searched for traces of the walnut himself. Tom also had thought of having a look for it when he had nothing else to do. But the lumbering off of the heavy timber had, as usual, affected the watercourses, and the lake had shrunk somewhat and changed its configuration considerably in the last twenty years, so that nobody now knew exactly where the raft had started from shore. The lake had a sandy and soft bottom, and it was probable that the scattered logs had long since sunk deep in the ooze. Experts said, however, that the timber would not be injured by its long immersion.
“Well, if you happen to see a pile of walnut logs on the bottom, I advise you to hook your line on them,” said Tom, laughing. “It was a big raft, and they say that at present prices it would be worth a hundred thousand dollars.”
The ichthyologist gave a cheerfully incredulous laugh, and the sullen-faced guide grinned. Tom paddled away.
“Come up and see me again when I’m home,” he shouted over his shoulder, and Harrison called an acceptance, diving immediately afterward into the bottom of his boat to peer through the glass window.
Tom expected to see his visit returned, but day after day passed in solitude. Twice he went down to the lake but could see nothing of the sporting writer and his guide, though the camp was still there and showed that it was occupied. The weather turned unseasonably warm, almost hot. Birches and maples were in full leaf, and mosquitoes began to be troublesome. Once Tom thought he saw human figures moving about the thickets down toward the lake shore, but no one came near his shack for a week. Then one afternoon Harrison and McLeod tramped in from the woods.
“Hello,” Harrison greeted him. “Sorry we couldn’t get up to see you sooner. But we’re going away to-morrow, and I thought we’d just say good-by.”
“Finished your fish experiments?” Tom asked.
“Yes—got some good fresh material. I think I’ll make a hit with my articles.”
They sat down in front of the old barn in the sunshine. Harrison and his guide lighted pipes, and for some time they chatted casually.
“By the way,” said Harrison at last, “how far does this claim of yours extend? What’s its boundary?”
“Why, down to the lake,” Tom responded, though he was by no means sure of it.
“I see. I suppose you wouldn’t care to sell the place?”
“I couldn’t. It’s my uncle’s.”
“Yes, but he seems to have abandoned it. You’ve taken it over. Isn’t that how it stands? I don’t think your cultivation and improvements would satisfy the government land agents, though. I don’t know exactly what your legal position is, but I might pay you something for them, whatever they are, on condition that you turn the ranch over to me at once.”
“What in the world do you want of it?” Tom demanded.
“It would make a good fishing camp,” Harrison returned.
There were a dozen places along the lake that were as good, Tom knew well. He had a strong revival of the queer suspicion that had associated itself with these strangers. He thought again of the drill-holes he had found in the sand and gravel. There was something behind Harrison’s offer.
“I certainly couldn’t do anything till I’ve seen Uncle Phil or the boys,” he said firmly. “They might turn up any day; I can’t tell. I can let you know if they do.”
“All right,” returned the other, with an air of indifference. “It’s not an important matter. But your uncle’ll never be back. I heard at Oakley that he’d left the county. I’d pay a few hundred dollars to have the place turned over to me, so I could start building a camp. Fact is, I think I could sell it to a city fishing club for a good price. Well, do as you like. I’ll be at Oakley for a while. Come and see me if you’re there.”
Tom bade them good-by with an appearance of cordiality and confidence, but inwardly he was in a turmoil of excitement. Harrison had discovered something valuable on this claim; he felt sure of it. Perhaps his scientific investigations into the water had been only a blind. For a moment Tom thought of the lost raft of walnut. But this would be in the lake, if anywhere, and Harrison’s interest was in the land. It must be mineral. Tom thought of gold and silver, graphite and mica, iron and nickel—all of them found now and again in that district. He hardly dared to go out prospecting just then himself; he gave the other party plenty of time to get away, and passed that evening in perplexed planning. But the next morning at sunrise he hurried down to the gravel ridges where he had seen the traces of Harrison’s digging.
First of all he assured himself that the camp was broken and the intruders really gone. All along the sand of the shore he saw places where they had been probing deep, as if with an iron bar. But most of these traces lay farther back. A gravelly ridge, overgrown with small birches, showed marks of having been prospected from end to end.
Tom knew little of prospecting, but he did know that gold was the only sort of valuable mineral that could possibly be found in that bank of sand and gravel. He went back to camp for a cooking pan, and with excited hopes he began to examine and wash out the possibly precious sand.
A tiny rivulet cutting across the ridge supplied him with water. He swirled the stuff in his pan, throwing out the gravel by degrees, peering eagerly into the bottom for the faintest yellow glitter. But there seemed to be nothing but mere sand and gravel. He went from place to place, washing out samples here and there with such scrupulous care that he felt sure he could have detected the tiniest flake of metal. He worked from one end of the ridge to the other but could find no trace of anything but ordinary gravel.
He stopped, deeply disappointed. Still, he had by no means looked over his whole claim. Some of the rocks, some of the hills might show the outcrop of something valuable. He would have to prospect the whole place; and then a fact came to him that threw out all his calculations.
If a discovery of mineral can be made and proved, a claim may be staked out anywhere, even on homesteaded land. If Harrison had found mineral he had nothing to do but stake his claim. The rights of none of the Jacksons could have interfered with him at all, and he could have had no object in wishing to oust Tom from the property.
It could not be mineral that Harrison had found. Again Tom thought of the sunken raft, and dismissed the notion. He sat on the ground, idly stirring up the gravel with his foot. It reminded him of the enormous heaps of gravel he had seen piled at Oakley for the concrete work on the new dams. Wagons were hauling it ten miles, he had heard; there were no good gravel deposits nearer. And then it flashed upon him that this gravel itself was perhaps the mineral that Harrison wanted.
What was more likely? This great bank of thousands of cubic feet lay near the lake and could be floated down the river on flatboats and unloaded right at the required spot, almost without expense for transportation. Tom felt certain that he had hit on the truth. A gravel quarry cannot be staked like a mining claim; it goes with the homestead rights.
And then Tom remembered that he had no rights in the place at all; and what the rights of his uncle or of Dave were in the deserted farm he did not know. But he firmly determined to hold on to that valuable ground with all his might. What it might be worth he could not guess, but several thousand dollars’ worth of gravel and sand ought to come out of that quarry, and the cement workers at Oakley could use it all.
Tom spent the next two days in great perturbation and anxiety. He was tempted to paddle down to Oakley and to make inquiry of every man in the place for information regarding Uncle Phil; but he disliked leaving the claim. Harrison might somehow steal a march upon him. Those days passed slowly and anxiously. A hot wave swept over the wilderness, as often happens in early spring. The woods grew dry and smoky through the spring green. Tom slept outside his cabin for greater coolness. And then on the third day he saw a man coming up from the lake, and recognized Harrison’s guide, McLeod.
McLeod, carrying a rifle under his arm, came up and greeted the boy with a curt nod. Tom felt that some crisis was approaching, and gathered his wits.
“I thought you and Harrison had gone back to Oakley,” he said.
“Left Harrison there,” said McLeod. “I come back. I wanter talk to you. Now look here! What’s all this? You ain’t young Jackson. This here ain’t your ranch.”
“Yes, I’m Tom Jackson, sure enough,” Tom affirmed.
“No, I knowed all the Jacksons, and there wasn’t no Tom. You ain’t got no rights—”
“Look here,” Tom interrupted. He took out a small snap-shot photograph, taken in Toronto of himself and his two cousins, which he had carried for a long time pasted in his pocket-book. The woodsman looked at it scrutinizingly.
“Looks like you,” he admitted. “And that’s Dave, sure enough. But that thar pictur don’t give you no rights here. Dave took this place—bought it off me, he did. He never told me nothin’ about you. I homesteaded the place first. I built this here barn myself. I sold it to Dave, and now he’s deserted it I’m goin’ to have it back. Who’s goin’ to stop me?”
“There’s plenty more land just as good and better, all around here,” said Tom. “What do you and Harrison want this for?”
“Dunno what Harrison wants,” McLeod muttered, with a crafty glance. “I want it ’cause it’s mine by rights.”
“Quarry rights?” said Tom. “Gravel rights, eh? Is that the idea? They’re using lots of gravel at Oakley now, and you could bring it down from here cheaper than hauling it.”
McLeod looked a little dazed for an instant. Then he cast a swift, cunning glance at Tom’s face.
“Say,” he said, “can’t we split on this? Mebbe I can steer Harrison off, and—”
“No, I won’t split anything,” returned Tom curtly.
“Well, if you won’t, then you’ve got to clear out of here. If you don’t, we’ll run you off.”
“See here!” Tom exclaimed. “You just run off yourself. If it comes to that, I’ve got a rifle, too. I’ve got a right here as the Jacksons’ representative, and I’m going to stay; and if there’s any gravel or anything else sold off this place I’ll sell it myself. Now you get out and tell Harrison what I said.”
McLeod glowered at him for a moment, shifting his rifle under his arm. Tom’s own weapon was ten feet away. Then the woodsman shrugged his shoulders slightly, turned on his heel, and departed without another word.
When he was out of sight Tom took his rifle and crept after him. Arriving at the lake, he espied McLeod’s canoe far over by the other shore. It was moving slowly downward, and passed out of sight. Presumably the man was really bound back to Oakley.
Tom remained on the shore for an hour or two to make sure that the man did not come back. He felt desperately lonely now and unsupported. He was uncertain of his rights, with no one to advise him, with war almost openly declared against him, and with, perhaps, a small fortune at stake.
He turned back at last slowly toward his old barn again, turning plans of defense over in his mind. To his surprise he saw from a distance that the fire had been freshly built up. A brisk smoke was rising; the kettle was on, and a humped figure sat with its back toward him. Tom hurried up in alarm and suspicion, and saw a dark, familiar face.
“Fur all sold,” said Indian Charlie. “I come stay with you, Tom.”
Tom gave a loud hurrah, and whacked Charlie on the shoulder. Nothing could have delighted him more than this reinforcement, just when the air was full of trouble.
“You’ve come at the right time, Charlie!” he exclaimed. “I needed you. But say!” he added anxiously, “have you got any grub?”
“Got flour, pork, tea,” answered the wild boy. “Beans, sugar too. Sure, we eat heap. Ketch plenty fish, shoot plenty deer, rabbit.”
“Shoot maybe more than rabbit,” said Tom, sitting down on the other side of the fire. “There’s trouble, Charlie. I’m on the warpath.”
Charlie fixed bright black eyes on him with an interested grunt, and Tom endeavored to explain briefly that enemies were trying to dislodge him from his position, which he intended to hold, by force if needful.
“Sure, I help you, Tom,” he agreed. “We fight him if he come. You watch for him—I hunt grub—then we fight. We do firs’ rate.”
To Charlie’s aboriginal mind it perhaps seemed a reduction of life to the natural and simple elements of fighting the enemy and getting something to eat; but Tom was not able to take it so easily. He was greatly cheered by Charlie’s companionship, however, and he knew that the Indian boy’s woodcraft would make him most useful as a provider of game. It would be needed. Tom had none too much provision, and the two youthful appetites made deadly inroads on the supplies.
In fact, Charlie went out before dawn the very next morning and killed a deer—a feat which Tom had not yet performed. It was out of season, of course; but Charlie, being an Indian, was exempt from the game-laws, and they would need the meat.
It secured their food supply for a long time, and the Ojibway busied himself in cutting the venison in strips and drying it over a slow, smoky fire. It made a curiously tasteless mess when boiled, but Tom’s stomach was grown hardened to unsavory fare, and Charlie could eat and digest anything, and was anxious only that there should be enough of it.
From that time Charlie took charge of the provisioning, and spent most of the time prowling in the woods, almost always coming back with a hare, a duck, or some other game. He caught trout; he found an early nest of wild duck’s eggs, which he robbed without scruple. He hunted with an old, inferior, muzzle-loading shot-gun, and was a far worse shot than Tom; but he made up for it by craft, and he could have lived well in a country where the white boy would have starved.
Meanwhile Tom did little hunting. He had lost interest in the growing grass of the beaver meadow and in the planted rye of the last year’s field. His thought was concentrated on the quarry claim, for he felt not the slightest doubt that this was the valuable point—worth more than all the grain and hay the farm could grow for years. If he could put through a contract for that gravel and go back to Toronto with a profit of a few thousand dollars to show his father he would feel that he had redeemed all his dignity and laid the basis for a new life. But for the moment he could do nothing whatever, and it was maddening to feel his inability. He was afraid to leave the claim. He expected an attack from some direction, but he did not know where to look for it. Every day he went down to the lake and looked over the water, but he never saw any sign of a canoe or camp.
A week later Charlie had started to the spring for water before breakfast, when he stopped, stooped, scrutinized the ground, and came back hurriedly.
“Somebody been here las’ night!” he announced.
Tom went to look. He was unable to make out anything where the Indian boy pointed, nothing but a shapeless indentation in the dry earth.
“Yes—you look hard!” Charlie insisted, pointing to one spot after another; and at last with a cry of triumph he indicated the clear imprint of a moccasined foot in soft earth just below the spring.
“An Indian?” said Tom, bending over it.
“White man,” corrected the trailer. “Indian walk straight; white man turn out toes like bird.”
He pointed to his own feet and to Tom’s for confirmation, and proceeded to follow up the trail with what seemed to Tom a super-natural acuteness.
“Him stop here—see—set down gun,” Charlie went on with his eyes on the ground. “Go on again, close up to cabin. Stop here—long time—look—listen. Mebbe think steal something. Then him turn round—go back. Let’s see where him go.”
But the earth was hard and dry with the long, hot spell, and even Charlie’s eyes failed to keep the trail more than a hundred yards from the barn. After breakfast they cast about in a wide circle. They did not pick up the trail again, but on the shore of the little river they found a place where a canoe had recently been beached. Moccasined tracks led away from it and returned.
There was no way to tell whether the canoe had gone up-stream or down. Getting into Tom’s canoe, the boys paddled down to the lake, reconnoitered, and then went up the river for a couple of miles, without being able to discover any trace of a landing.
The thought of that mysterious prowler in the dark preyed on Tom’s mind. He felt sure it must have been McLeod, scouting for a chance to “run him off.” He decided that a guard ought to be kept, and for the next two nights he did lie awake till long after midnight, when sleep overcame him. But there was no further sign of any visitor.
It might have been, after all, only some stray voyageur or Indian, attracted by the camp-fire; though in that case he would almost surely have come in openly. But the effect of the incident wore off, and the boys settled again to their steady watchfulness, hunting and scouting.
The hot, dry weather showed signs of breaking up. The sky clouded; a strong wind rose a few days later from the northwest.
“No good hunt to-day,” said Charlie, looking at the sky; but he went out nevertheless immediately after breakfast, leaving Tom at the camp.
He had been gone no more than half an hour when Tom’s nose caught the smell of cedar smoke. It was coming down the wind, a sharp, aromatic odor, growing stronger momentarily. He could not see any smoke, however, and did not pay much attention until in another half-hour he perceived a dark cloud rising over the woods in the west and driving across the tree-tops.
The wind would carry it straight toward the old barn, but even now he did not feel much uneasiness, for a spring fire in the woods seldom burns long or does much damage. But the smoke continued to increase in volume, and the smell of burning to grow more pronounced. Tom wondered that Charlie did not come back. At last he went over to the river, carried his canoe up past the rapid, and paddled up the stream to look at the fire.
In half a mile the smoke made him stop. It was chokingly dense, seeming to fill all the woods in front of him. He saw not a flash of flame, though ashes and live sparks were falling thick, and he could see them driving in swirls overhead on the gale.
At this rate it might go clear over the barn and burn him out. It dawned upon Tom that perhaps McLeod had fired the woods. At that time of year a casual spark could hardly have started so wide a blaze. He let the canoe drop down-stream for a few hundred yards and then rushed into the woods to see if there was any chance of the fire being checked.
The smoke of green wood and cedar leaves was still choking and blinding. He was well in front of the fire now, but a great wisp of flaming bark dropped from the air almost at his side into a tangle of half-dead spruces. It flashed up with a roar. Flames drove out streaming into the green shrubbery, and the resinous leaves of the evergreens sizzled and burned like paper. He had to draw back again. A fresh center of conflagration was started; and he realized that under this roaring gale the fire was bound to sweep unchecked through the woods, burning whatever would burn, jumping spots too green or too damp; and nothing was likely to stop it until it reached the lake.
He tore back to the river—just in time to save his canoe, for a cedar bush had caught fire close beside it. Jumping in, he shot down-stream. He would have to try to save the barn—save his supplies, at any rate. But he had hopes that the beaver meadow would act as a fire-break.
Down the stream he shot, through smoke so dense that he could scarcely see to avoid the rocks and turns of the channel. He lost time by having to portage around the rapid where Charlie had come to grief. Arriving at the usual landing, he observed that Charlie’s canoe was gone. The Indian had evidently returned, secured his canoe, and fled.
Tom rushed across to the barn. Even here the smoke was growing thick, and hot ashes and sparks were flying far overhead. Back in the woods fire and wind roared together. A hasty glance into the barn showed that the blankets were gone, most of the food, the kettles, his own dunnage sack. Charlie had salvaged the place already.
Tom crammed a few small loose articles into his pockets and hesitated. If he had water, if he could keep the roof wet, it might be possible to save the barn. But the nearest water was fifty yards away, and he had nothing to carry it in. Sparks were falling every moment more thickly. The barn would have to take its chance; he would better try to rejoin Charlie; and he ran back to the river and paddled down toward the lake.
Waves were running high and white-capped over Little Coboconk in the strong wind, and so dense a haze lay over the water that it was impossible to see the other shore. Tom lay close to the river mouth for some time, disliking to venture out upon the rough water. Smoke began to roll heavily over the trees along the shore, and at last he paddled out, up through the shelter of the narrow water neck joining the lakes, and into Big Coboconk.
Here the smoke was heavier still, and the wind seemed even more dangerous. He could see nothing at any distance. The gale was driving him offshore and toward the center of the lake, when he thought he heard a shout. He paddled toward the sound. A long object appeared floating on the choppy waves in the smoke. It was a capsized canoe, with a man astride its keel, clinging with arms and legs. Tom thought it was Charlie; he drove up to it, but the face that looked up to him was white. It was Harrison, the “fish sharp.”
“What, you—?” Tom exclaimed; and then shut his mouth and, frowning, steered his canoe alongside for a rescue. It is a ticklish business to transfer a man from one canoe to another. Tom threw his weight far over the stern, and Harrison managed to climb into the bow without another upset, though shipping several bucketfuls of water in the process.
Tom immediately turned his canoe before the wind and paddled toward the other shore. The capsized craft vanished in the haze. The boy’s heart was savage within him. He laid the responsibility of the forest fire on Harrison and his guide, who had no doubt been hanging about the lake for days, awaiting their opportunity.
There was no chance to talk then. It took all his attention to keep the canoe straight and to prevent it from being swamped by the wind and water. The other shore loomed up dimly through the smoke. He could not pick a landing; he had to drive straight ahead. The canoe grounded heavily. He heard a smash of the delicate wood; then they both jumped overboard in the shallows and dragged the craft safely up above the wash of the waves.
“Made it!” said Harrison breathlessly. “Good thing you came up when you did. I upset when I was fifty yards from land. I’m not much of a canoeman.”
“Where’s your partner?” Tom demanded. “Where’s McLeod? Starting fires back in the woods, isn’t he? You nearly got caught in your own trap.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” retorted Harrison. “We didn’t start any fires. I thought this started from your own camp. I don’t know where McLeod is. He went up the river this morning.”
“Don’t bluff any longer, Harrison,” said Tom. “I know what you are after. You’re not up here to study fish. You want to run me off this place. I know all about the gravel quarry. You’ve got a contract for the concrete work at Oakley, I expect, and you can get the gravel down from here cheaper than any other way.”
Harrison stared, and then suddenly began to laugh.
“Gravel?” he exclaimed. “Why, the Oakley contracts were all let months ago. I haven’t got any of them. They’re hauling the gravel from a pit only three miles out of the town. Float it down from here? And keep a steamboat to haul the barges back empty? You’d better learn a little about construction work.”
Tom was taken aback by this convincing denial.
“What did you want this land for, then?” he muttered.
“I told you. For a fishing camp. I don’t know that I do want it now, anyway. It’ll be nothing but ashes and burnt logs after this. I guess nobody will try to take it from you.”
Tom was silenced but not convinced. He dropped the subject, and examined his canoe, which had a good-sized hole punched in the bottom from collision with a rock as they came ashore. It was beyond repair.
“We’ve got nothing to eat,” he remarked, “and no way of getting anywhere—unless your partner comes back, or unless I can locate mine.”
“I saw somebody that looked like that Indian youngster of yours,” said Harrison, “just before I started out. He was paddling pretty fast up the lake in a loaded canoe. If he’s got away with all your outfit you’ll never see him back again.”
Tom had more confidence in Charlie, but the surface of Big Coboconk was shrouded in whirling vapor, and it would be impossible for anybody to find anything, except by chance. The fire had burned down close to the other shore now and seemed to be working down toward the narrows. Ashes and sparks sifted down even where they stood, but there was not much danger of the fire jumping the lake. In the hope of sighting either Charlie or McLeod, they established themselves on the point of a rocky promontory and stared through the bluish smoke drift, but without sighting any canoe. Harrison seemed to hold no grudge for Tom’s suspicions and talked easily, but Tom could not rid himself of a sense of hostility. He felt beaten. His barn was certainly burned; the beaver-meadow hay would be scorched and probably ruined; the whole homestead was uninhabitable now. He would have to find another or go home. As for the gravel quarry, Harrison’s words had sounded only too genuine. Probably the gravel was really of no value, after all.
They both grew very hungry, with nothing to eat. So far as they could judge, the fire seemed to be burning down along Little Coboconk, over a wide area, but the wind was perceptibly falling. Toward the middle of the afternoon Tom was startled by a prolonged, sullen reverberation that seemed to come from overhead.
“Thunder!” exclaimed Harrison. “Can it be going to rain? It’s too good to be true.”
Above the smoke clouds the sky was invisible, but within fifteen minutes the rain did begin to sprinkle and then came in torrents. It lasted three quarters of an hour, and then the thunderstorm seemed to move away westward, though the rain continued to fall in a steady soaking drizzle.
The two castaways sheltered themselves under a great thick spruce, which the rain scarcely penetrated. The rain made the smoke hang lower, and it seemed to be mixed with steam—an impenetrable, reeking gray smother over the whole lake and the forest. But it was certain that the fire would go no further, with the wind falling and the woods wet.
For an hour or so they stood wretchedly under the big spruce. The fine drizzle penetrated the leaves at last, but it did not make much difference, as both of them were wet already to the skin. Harrison’s spirits flagged at last, and they said little, gazing out into the ghostly white drift of smoke and steam and rain.
“This won’t do,” Harrison exclaimed at last. “We’ve got to have something to eat—got to have a canoe. My canoe must have drifted ashore somewhere, and there was a package of grub tied in it. It’ll be soaked, but we can make something out of it. Let’s look for it.”
Tom agreed. Anything was better than standing there any longer hungry and shivering. They separated, Harrison going down toward the narrows, and Tom toward the upper end of the lake, and whoever discovered the canoe was to paddle in search of the other.
Tom discovered the lost canoe within a hundred yards, lying stranded upside down on the shore gravel. If they had only known it they might have left the place at any time that day. The food was gone, though. Only a string loop and the soaked relic of a paper package was left, greatly to Tom’s disappointment. But with the canoe he felt sure of being able to locate Charlie, who must have plenty of supplies with him.
Tom righted and launched the canoe, and shouted for Harrison, but the man was out of hearing. A spare paddle was lashed in the canoe, and Tom got aboard and struck out. It occurred to him that he might as well scout about for Charlie before rejoining Harrison, and he paddled out into the wet reek that overhung the lake.
He followed up the shore a little way and then struck straight across. At intervals he shouted, but got no answer. The other shore of the lake presently loomed up mistily, a desolation of wet ashes, tangles of half-burned thickets and steaming, smoking spruces. He half expected to find Charlie searching for him along this shore, and he paddled downward, looking out sharply for a canoe.
Nothing like a canoe showed, either on the water or ashore. Growing more anxious, for he was desperately hungry, Tom followed the shore down till he came to the narrows connecting the two lakes. At one time, not so long ago, these two lakes had been one, and the land about the narrows was low and sandy, cut with swampy hollows and densely overgrown with small evergreens. But the fire had swept over it, and the spruces and jack-pines were only stubs and skeletons with all their twigs and leafage burned away, leaving only the damp trunks standing amid sand, ashes, and ancient logs half buried in the earth.
As he came up Tom thought he dimly spied a canoe drawn ashore, and paddled up to it. But it was only a great log, laid bare by the burning off of the thickets. He drew up alongside it and stared about. Harrison was nowhere within his restricted area of vision, nor Charlie either, and it was hardly likely that the Indian boy would have gone down into the lower lake.
Tom sat there for a minute, discouraged, absently contemplating the scattered logs. Half consciously he realized that there were a great many of them, mostly showing above ground, that the ends of all of them were sawed square across, as if they had been cut by lumbermen. On the end of the log nearest him he noticed that the letters “D W” had been roughly cut with a tool.
What could “D W” stand for? The name of Daniel Wilson floated into his mind, but for a moment the name conveyed nothing to him, and he did not know where he had heard it. And then he remembered.
It was the Daniel Wilson Lumber Company that had cut the black walnut raft that had been lost on the lake, as the story said.
It struck Tom like an electric flash. He jumped out of the canoe, almost trembling, weariness and hunger forgotten. There were perhaps a hundred logs in sight, on the surface or almost covered by sand and mud, and “D W” was cut on the ends of all of them.
They were blackened by the fire and smoke, but not charred. Between black of fire and the wearing of age it was impossible to make out the kind of wood, but Tom whipped out his knife. Chipping off the outer skin, he saw the unmistakable rich, dark, hard grain. It was walnut. He had discovered the lost raft—or part of it, at all events.
Here it must have sunk in the shallow water near the shore where it had been driven that stormy night twenty-eight years ago. This point had formed part of the lake bottom then. Later the water had receded; the narrows had been formed. A crop of evergreens springing up quickly had concealed the visible part of the scattered raft from the few men who ever passed that way. It might have lain there forever if the fire had not laid it bare.
Tom tried to remember all he had heard of the loss of the raft. Walnut had never been a plentiful timber in that part of the country; but the Wilson Lumber Company, of which Wilson himself was sole owner, had discovered and cut a small tract of it—five or six hundred thousand feet, report said. At that time nobody regarded black walnut as extremely valuable. A market was lacking, and the rich timber was used for firewood and fence-rails, but Wilson had got a government contract for wood for gun-stocks for the army.
The timber was brought out to the head of Coboconk Lake and the raft built there, to be floated down to Oakley, where at that time there was a sawmill and nothing else. But the start of the raft was, for some unknown reason, delayed till too late in the autumn. It was November when it was finally put together, with plenty of pine logs to keep it afloat, and launched down the lake. There is a gentle drift from north to south, and the lumbermen helped with huge sweeps.
When they were half-way down the lake a strong northwest wind sprang up; it turned cold and began to snow. It was then late in the afternoon. The wind continued to rise, and toward midnight the huge raft began to go to pieces. The men aboard had to take to their bateaux and row ashore in a howling storm of wind and snow.
A blinding blizzard blew all the next day, and when it cleared there was nothing to be seen of the raft. A search of the shore revealed a good deal of the pine framework, but all the walnut timber was finally judged to have broken loose and gone to the bottom.
That storm marked the opening of a very early winter. In another day the lake was freezing over. Nothing more could be done, and in the spring no trace could be found of the lost raft. But the story became a local tradition, and for years spasmodic efforts were made to locate it, but never with any success. The lumbermen were by no means sure just where the raft had been when it broke up in that dark night; the lake is large, and it had generally come to be believed that the timber must be sunk too deep in the mud to be recovered.
But the change in the level of the lake had brought some of the former shallows above water. Some of the timber, at any rate, was there in sight, and it was impossible that it was anything else than the wreckage of the old-time raft. Glancing over the scattered logs, Tom thought that there must be thirty or forty thousand feet along that shore, and there was more, perhaps, buried at a little depth. Walnut was then worth, in logs, about three hundred dollars a thousand feet; but if the wood were cut up and dressed in his father’s Toronto yards it would fetch three or four times that price. It was a fortune, and not a small one, that was in sight.
Then suddenly the question of the ownership of the raft struck him. He was the finder, but, after all, not necessarily the owner. Daniel Wilson was dead, and his company long since dissolved. The timber lay on land belonging to his uncle, or his cousin; all the timber on that land belonged to them, whether standing or lying, and this would surely cover driftwood. But was this, after all, Uncle Phil’s homestead; or had he abandoned it; or might it be filed on by the first comer?
Tom did not know. It was the problem of the gravel quarry again, with tenfold intensity. He turned the question over in his mind. In any event he was determined to cling to this treasure-trove if it took the last drop of his blood. And at that moment, glancing up, he perceived Harrison on the other side of the narrows, looking silently at him across the channel.
Tom jumped up almost guiltily. Harrison instantly shouted and waved at him.
“Have you got the canoe? Come over.”
Tom got into the canoe. He felt perfectly certain that Harrison had been watching him for some time—that he knew very well what Tom had discovered—that he had previously discovered it himself. For a moment the boy half hesitated to cross over to the enemy; but after all he had his rifle, and Harrison was unarmed, and moreover he did not think Harrison was a man to resort to open violence.
“What were you doing over there, digging up the ground? Find any grub?” said Harrison with a sharp glance as Tom paddled up beside him.
“I thought I’d seen another canoe there, and I went to look. No, the grub’s all washed away, I’m afraid,” returned Tom.
“Too bad. Well, we’ll just have to put in a hungry night, I guess, but we can get out of here in the morning anyhow.”
He made no further reference to Tom’s prospecting, and they went up the lake to the place where they had spent most of the day, where Tom’s own canoe had been wrecked. It was growing dusk already, and the rain had ceased. The wind had stilled, and the air was thick and fogged with smoke and damp.
With difficulty they collected a little dry kindling from the interior of hollow logs, and managed to start a fire. Fortunately it was a warm night for the season, since they had no blankets, and the only possible camping preparations were to pull off armfuls of damp spruce twigs for a softer couch than the bare ground.
Harrison was silent, busying himself in drying out a piece of plug tobacco which he had found in his pocket, and trying to smoke it. Finally he settled himself back on his sapin and appeared to sleep. But Tom was determined not to close an eye that night.
He was afraid of some treachery; he did not know what. He settled back on his spruce boughs, with his rifle close beside him, and tried to think out a course of action. Harrison was after the same thing as himself, and he must know now that Tom knew it. Which of them had the better legal right, or whether either of them had any legal right at all, Tom had no idea. He would have given anything for his father’s advice. He thought of making a bolt for Oakley and sending out a telegram to Mr. Jackson to come immediately. But he dared not leave the place, and besides his father would very likely disregard the wire as a piece of boy’s foolishness.
Time passed. It had grown very dark. Harrison snored from his couch. Tom himself was growing very weary, but he was resolved not to let himself sleep.
He was desperately hungry besides, faint and miserable. He got up quietly and built up the fire, feeling chilled. At moments a nervous panic swept over him. Fifty thousand derelict dollars lay by that lake, and the gain or loss of them hung on his single wit and skill. Thinking it over he felt that Uncle Phil or Dave held the key of the problem. They must be the owners of this land—hence the owners of the timber. If that was the case, Tom knew well that he would get his rightful share. But this could not be settled without locating them. Greatly he regretted now that he had not made more searching inquiries at Oakley.
Harrison turned over uneasily and appeared to sleep again. Tom envied him his rest. His own eyes were desperately heavy, and he felt worn out with physical and mental fatigue. He must have dozed then, for presently he roused with a start and saw that the fire had burned low. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was after midnight.
Harrison did not appear to have stirred. Tom got up and replenished the fire again. Lying down, he tried to keep his eyes open, once more turning over the heavy problem in his mind. An owl was calling dismally from a tree-top not far away. The soft wailing note mingled with his confused thoughts, growing more and more confused till they melted into something dreamlike.
He awoke next with daylight in his eyes. With a rush of panic he sat up. The fire was burning brightly. A figure was squatting beside it—not Harrison. Harrison was nowhere to be seen, but Tom looked into the dark face of Ojibway Charlie.
“Charlie!” he stammered, jumping up. “Where did you come from? Where’s that man? Where’s Harrison?”
“No see um,” returned Charlie, stolidly. “I see your smoke—come here. You sleep—nobody else here.”
With an exclamation, Tom rushed down to the lake. Charlie’s canoe was there, piled with salvaged outfit from the old barn; but Harrison’s canoe was gone, and Tom’s own canoe with the hole in the bottom now lay capsized with almost the whole bottom smashed out of her. The “fish sharp” had vanished.
ACROSS THE WILDERNESS
Harrison had crept away in the latter part of the night taking the only serviceable canoe with him, leaving Tom, as he imagined, without food or means of transport. It might have been a serious matter for the boy, worn out with hunger, but for Charlie’s opportune appearance.
Tom was, in fact, so empty and exhausted that he turned sick and dizzy, as much with wrath as with weakness, when he realized the treacherous trick Harrison had played. But after all no great harm was done, except that Harrison was away now with a long start on his plan—whatever that was—to get possession of the walnut timber.
Charlie meanwhile had at once begun to put bacon to toast and the pot to boil, which he had previously refrained from doing so as not to waken Tom. Tom was so hungry that he could have eaten the food raw. In fact he did chew a scrap of raw pork while he waited for the rest to cook; but after he had consumed an enormous breakfast of bacon, hard bread, and tea he felt much better, and his spirits rose.
Getting into the canoe, they paddled down to the narrows. There was no sign of Harrison about the place, but Tom thought he saw tracks that had not been made by himself. He pointed out the half-buried logs to the Indian boy, and explained that they were valuable stuff.
“Worth thousands of dollars—more than ten times all your fur catch,” he said. “Those other men want to get it—want to run us off. We mustn’t let them have it.”
The wild boy nodded, and looked at Tom with a sudden spark in his black eyes.
“Sure—they try to burn us off,” he said. “I see him—that red-hair man. He light fire. I see him—too late. I think mebbe I shoot him; then I think better not. I come an’ git stuff from our camp—look for you everywhere almost.”
“Well, I thought all along that McLeod had started that fire,” said Tom. “But I’m glad you didn’t shoot him. But how we’re going to hold the fort here I don’t know. It’ll take a lot of men, money, teams, to get this timber out. Maybe I’d better send you down to Oakley to get a telegram off to my father.”
Charlie had no idea what a telegram was. He shook his head.
“I stay here. I fight um,” he said.
“You see, this land doesn’t belong to me,” Tom went on, half absently going over the argument he had mentally rehearsed so often. “I haven’t any real rights here, I suppose. But no more has Harrison. This place belongs to Uncle Phil, or maybe one of the boys. Here they are, Charlie.”
And Tom took from his pocket the photograph of the group of himself and his cousins which he had shown to McLeod.
Charlie looked at it with great interest and grinned as he recognized the central figure.
“That-um you, Tom,” he said, pointing. Then, indicating one of the others, “Who that man?”
“That’s my cousin Dave.”
“I know him,” Charlie announced, gazing hard.
“No, I guess not,” Tom replied.
“Sure!” Charlie insisted. “I see him this spring. He work in mine camp, ’way up Wawista, what you call Blackfish River.”
“You don’t mean to say you saw Cousin Dave there? When?” burst out Tom.
“Sure I see him. I stop there for grub. I talk to him. He ask me if any prospectors up where I trap. Just ’fore I come out—two, three days ’fore I see you, mebbe.”
Tom gave an almost hysterical yell of laughter.
“Good gracious! To think you had the clue to the puzzle all the while. Charlie, I’ve got to go and bring him quick. Is it far?”
“I go git him,” Charlie offered.
Tom thought for a moment. He would prefer to stay himself, but Charlie could hardly explain the situation; he feared to commit it to writing. Besides, when he came to think of it, he had no writing materials. No, he would have to go himself, and he sought directions from the Indian.
With intense deliberation, Charlie explained that he had seen Dave at a small settlement where there was a mine. Its name was something like Roswick, and it was only two, three days by canoe. It was an easy road to find, with only one long portage. He could not say whether Dave was still there, of course; but the camp must have been just opening for the spring, and it was hardly likely that he would have left so soon.
“You go up this leetle river,” Charlie explained, “mebbe half-day, mebbe day, up to big carry place by long rapid. Make long portage then. Bad trail over portage—hard to find. But then you hit Wawista River, and you go up him, and then up Fish River, and come to Roswick, mebbe two, three days. I go quicker’n you.”
“I dare say you would,” said Tom, digesting this knowledge. “But if you help me to hit the long portage I’ll go alone. You stay here, and keep Harrison from getting away with this timber.”
“Yes, I lay for him,” said the Ojibway. “Hope he come back. He git good dose buck-shot next time.”
“No, don’t kill anybody!” Tom cried; but the Indian looked at him reproachfully.
“How I keep um off if I no shoot um?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Tom admitted. “But if Dave’s where you left him I ought to be back before those other fellows turn up again.”
Tom made his preparations to start without delay. He was to take Charlie’s canoe, and he laid out a due proportion of food—pork, tea, sugar, flour—enough to last him two or three days. Charlie stirred up a large pan of flapjack and baked it—enough for one day at any rate. Long before noon they were ready to start, and Charlie accompanied him as far as the “long portage” to make sure that he should not miss the spot.
The smoke had dissipated; the sky was clearing, and the sun showed a tendency to come out. The first half-mile of the route up the little river lay between burned and charred thickets, and then the fire limit ceased. The stream was low, and several times they had to get out or make a short carry, and it was afternoon when they reached the point where Charlie said he should strike across country to the Wawista. They stopped here to make tea; then Charlie indicated the direction once more and without a word of farewell faded away into the thickets, starting back to the treasure he was to guard.
Two miles due north was the direction, and Charlie said there was an old blazed trail, “hard to find.” He would have to make two trips, once with his pack and once with the canoe. The pack was not very heavy, not more than fifty pounds, and Tom shouldered it and set off with a light heart.
The blazed trail was indeed hard to find, and Tom lost it almost immediately. He did not concern himself much, however, for he knew that if he kept due north he could not fail to hit the river eventually. But fifty pounds on the shoulders means much, over rough ground, and he did not have a regular tump-line. Hard trained as he was, he had to sit down several times and rest. He gasped, in fact, and the sweat burst out in streams; but he kept on and finally broke through a dense belt of willows and saw the Wawista, a broad, slow stream winding away toward the west.
He cached his pack in the low fork of a tree, and went back leisurely for his canoe. This was an even more awkward load to transport. Its length concealed the ground ahead; it tangled itself with the underbrush; two or three times he tripped and fell with the canoe on top of him. He lost his own back trail, and had to drive straight ahead, so that at last he came out on the river a quarter of a mile from the spot where he had left his dunnage.
He secured it, however, and sat down for a final rest before beginning the canoe voyage. It was growing late in the afternoon. The sun shone clearly and warmly now. Not a breath stirred the leaves, fresh and green from the recent rain, and the river flowed with a peaceful murmur. But a feeling of uneasiness came suddenly upon the boy, as if he was under the eyes of some enemy.
It was so strong that he stood up and peered about, rifle in hand. But nothing stirred in the forest, except two noisy whiskey-jacks that discovered him at that moment. It was an attack of nerves, he told himself; but he could not resist a strong inclination to be off immediately.
He piled his dunnage into the canoe and started down the river. A last glance over his shoulder showed the shore deserted; yet the vaguely uneasy feeling pursued him down the stream. He found himself continually glancing back without intending it. The sudden splash of a rising duck made him start violently; but he saw no larger living thing, and as he rounded every curve there was nothing behind nor ahead but the empty stretch of water between the wooded shores.
The voyage down the river was easy. The current ran smooth and strong. There were no portages, and he made good speed even without much hard paddling; yet he had not yet reached the junction with the Fish River when sunset came on. Charlie had said that he should make it that night, but he had lost time on the long portage.
Selecting an open bit of shore, he landed and drew the canoe out of the water. It was a fine, warm night and he did not think it necessary to build a shelter; he merely built fire enough to boil tea, and he ate his lunch of hard bread and cold fried bacon which he had brought with him. For some time he sat by the blaze, reluctant to lie down. Once more he felt uneasily suspicious; but at last he rolled the blanket around his body and stretched out to sleep.
Several times he dozed lightly, awaking with a nervous start. Clear starlight was overhead. The dense spruces looked inky black against the dark-blue sky, and in the light stillness the ripple of the river sounded loud.
He lay awake for some time at last, and finally got up and put fresh wood on the fire. It blazed up suddenly, and he thought he heard a startled stamp and rush through the dark thickets—probably a hare.
He was tired and wanted to sleep, but sleep would not come to him. He thought of the treasure in timber that was to be gained or lost. Harrison would stick at nothing to gain it, he felt sure. In his anxiety, Tom felt half inclined to break camp and go through the night; but he knew that he would gain nothing by wearing himself out. He got up again and went down to the river, bathed his face, and drank, looking up and down the long, dark current in the starlight. Then he came back, feeling less restless, and in time he succumbed to sleep.
When he did sleep he slept long, and awoke to find the early sun on his face. He jumped up uneasily. Everything about the camp was just as he had left it, and in the clear daylight his nocturnal alarms seemed the height of folly. Nevertheless, while the breakfast kettle was heating, he went into the woods where he had heard the sound, and discovered a certainly fresh, shapeless track. It might have been a bear track; it might have been made by a sitting rabbit; or it might have been the tread of a moccasined foot.
He could not determine nor could he trace it for any distance. Vainly he wished for Charlie’s skill as a trailer. He decided that it must have been a bear, and, angry at himself for his nervousness, he went back to the fire, drank his tea, fried pork, and then launched the canoe again.
But the uncanny sense followed him of something’s being on his trail. It seemed as if a pursuer must be just around the last bend of the river. A dozen times he looked quickly back, but the water shone empty in the sun.
Shortly before noon he arrived at the mouth of the Fish River, recognizing it at once from Charlie’s description. Roswick lay a day’s travel or two up this stream, and there he would find Dave Jackson; at least, he hoped so. He felt as if the end of the journey was almost in sight, and he headed the canoe joyfully against the current of the swifter tributary—and glanced quickly and involuntarily back.
Nothing was in sight. There could be nothing, he told himself.
“But I’m going to settle this,” he reflected, after a moment. “Either something’s after me, or there isn’t. I’ll just wait here a bit, and end this foolishness.”
Half ashamed of himself, he dragged the canoe ashore and hid it. Then he took his rifle, and ambushed himself just at the peninsula where the two rivers met, well out of sight under a thicket of willows, and waited. It would be a relief to settle this suspense at the cost of an hour’s time.
Silence settled down, except for the rush of the meeting currents. A mink ran down the shore and into a log heap, popping out again and into the water, busy about its hunting. A pair of wild ducks came swimming down the Wawista, dipping their heads deep, and halted close opposite his ambush. He could have shot the head off one of them, and he contemplated doing it, to secure a bit of fresh meat. His suspicions of pursuit were vanishing. He had been there a long time—an hour, surely. It was scarcely worth while to wait longer, he thought, when the ducks suddenly splashed into flight, and went off quacking over the tree-tops.
Tom’s heart bounded. He caught a glimpse of a canoe coming slowly down the Wawista. The next moment it was in full view.
A single man was in it, handling the paddle with the skill of a practised voyageur; and even at fifty yards Tom recognized the glint of the fox-colored hair under the cap. The paddler paused at the forks of the river, held the canoe balanced while he looked this way and that, and then, as if by some intuition, turned up the Fish River as Tom had done.
The canoe, hugging the shore, came within twenty feet of the willow clump, when Tom stood up suddenly, with the repeater at his shoulder.
“Halt!” he hailed.
McLeod cast a sudden glance at him and then dropped his paddle and reached back like lightning for the gun that stood behind him.
“None of that! Hands up, now—quick! I’ll shoot!” Tom yelled at him; and the woodsman slowly put up his hands, with a grin like a trapped weasel. The canoe drifted backward.
“Paddle in this way—slow,” Tom ordered. “Don’t make a move toward that gun.”
McLeod looked into the rifle muzzle and seemed to hesitate. Then he suddenly took the paddle and forced the canoe up close to the shore, where it hung almost motionless in the slack water.
“Now what are you up to?” Tom demanded. “You tried to burn me out. Now you’ve been trailing me since yesterday; I know it. What are you and Harrison planning to do?”
“Why, I told you I was goin’ to run you off’n that there homestead,” McLeod growled. “You ain’t got no more right there than that Injun boy of yourn. I was there first. If there’s anything in it, I’m the one that gits it.”
“I know what’s in it,” Tom returned, “and so do you. But you haven’t got the ghost of a show, McLeod. I know where Dave Jackson is now. It isn’t over twenty miles from here, and I’ll be back on Coboconk with him in three days. He’s still got the rights to the place, I guess. You’d better drop this and go back home, before you do something that gets you into trouble.”
“These here woods is free, I guess,” said the man. “And you’ll never find Dave Jackson where you’re going.”
But he looked considerably dashed by Tom’s announcement.
“We’ll see about that,” retorted Tom. “And I can’t have you following me. I’m going to stop you. I ought to take your canoe, as Harrison did to me; but you might starve. I don’t want to shoot you.”
He reflected. It is a terrible thing to deprive a man of his canoe in that wilderness, where he may very likely perish before reaching any point where he can obtain supplies. And it is not easy for even a good hunter to live on the country.
“Throw me your paddle,” Tom ordered at last. “It’ll take you some time to make another, I guess, and you’ll never catch up with me when I have that start.”
Under the threat of the rifle McLeod tossed the paddle ashore. With a long pole Tom gave the canoe a strong shove out into the current. It went drifting out into the Wawista, turning helplessly end for end, down the current till it was a hundred yards away. Then McLeod snatched up his gun and fired both barrels.
Tom heard the buck-shot rattle on the leaves around him, and impulsively he fired back, almost without aim. It was a perfectly bloodless duel, and in another minute the canoe went out of sight behind the trees of a bend in the stream.
With a sense of triumph and of infinite relief, Tom launched his canoe again, and proceeded up the river. He no longer felt uneasy; that strange instinct of danger was quiet now. He knew that McLeod could never catch up with him. The rest of the journey should be easy and safe, and he was impatient to reach the end of it.
Travel up the Fish River was not so easy, however. It was a smaller, swifter stream than the Wawista, and more broken by rapids. For an hour at a time he had to discard the paddle for a pole in going up swift water, and portages were so frequent that he thought he walked almost as much as he floated. He did not expect to reach Roswick that day, but he began to look out for signs of mining-camp work or prospecting. It was a district of rock and stunted woods, a mineral country by its look, but he detected no trace of man, and all that day he pushed on, “bucking the river,” paddling, poling, and carrying. It was almost sunset when the appearance of a formidable rapid just ahead brought him to a stop.
He had gone far enough for that day. He landed, looking about for a good camp ground; then he determined to carry the canoe and outfit up to the head of the rapid and camp there, so as to be ready for the start next morning. After a short rest he made the portage, unpacked his supplies, and lighted a fire; and the idea came to him of trying to pick up some small game for supper. He was growing very tired of fried salt pork.
Leaving the kettle on the fire, he turned into the woods from the river. Usually it was easy to find rabbits or partridges almost anywhere, but he wandered about for a full half-hour, and then, seeing a rabbit sitting up in the twilight, he missed it cleanly.
Disgusted at his clumsiness, he turned down parallel with the river, but the bad luck lasted. He found no game, and dusk was deepening. Veering out to strike the shore, he found himself a long way below the big rapid, and he began to walk rapidly up the stream.
He heard the rapid roaring ahead, and he had almost come to it when he stopped with a shock. There was a canoe lying at the shore, a battered Peterboro that he recognized well.
He sprang back into the shadow of the trees, but another glance showed him that nobody was by the boat. Rage boiled up in him at this persistent trailing. There was a paddle in the canoe; he should have remembered that McLeod was sure to have a spare paddle lashed in the canoe. But this time he would cripple him effectually. With a strong shove he sent the canoe whirling down the stream. It would take a day to overtake it on foot, unless it were smashed against a rock, and Tom stood with cocked rifle, grimly waiting for its owner to appear.
Looking up and down the shore he could see nothing of McLeod. He grew uneasy. He was about to scout up toward his camp when a canoe—his own canoe—appeared shooting down the rapid.
McLeod was in her, steering with magnificent skill through the dangerous, broken water; and he did not risk a single glance aside, even when Tom whipped up his rifle and fired desperately. The boy fired to hit; it was a matter of life and death; but it was like shooting at a flying duck. The canoe was past in a twinkling, was down in the tail of the rapid, was almost out of sight, while Tom pumped the lever of the repeater till his magazine was empty. Then McLeod swung his paddle high with a far-away, triumphant whoop.
Tom began to run wildly after him, checked himself, and hurried up to his camp. But he knew too well what he would find.
The fire had burned almost out. The kettle was gone. So were his blankets, his little ax, everything. Nothing was left except what he carried on him. He was afoot in the wilderness in earnest.
As he took in this catastrophe, Tom’s heart seemed to sink into his boots. The river roared savagely over the rapid. He looked round at the darkening wilderness, and it seemed suddenly to have turned sinister, murderous. Without canoe or food, he knew that his life hung by a hair. Plenty of men have died in such a predicament, in that tangled country, where streams are the only highways.
McLeod had intended that this should be his fate. Tom sat down weakly on a log, beside the dying fire. He was likely to leave his bones there, he thought. McLeod was racing back to Coboconk to rejoin Harrison. Between them, they would get out the timber without danger of interruption. Charlie was there, to be sure; but Charlie’s only idea of resistance was, by weapons, which would probably only make matters worse.
But by degrees Tom recovered from the shock.
“I won’t be beaten!” he vowed to himself. “It can’t be more than thirty miles to Roswick now. I can do that on foot, following up the river. I’ve got a rifle and a beltful of cartridges, and it’ll be queer if I can’t pick up enough to keep from starving.”
For a moment he thought of trying to trail McLeod in his turn, to recover one of the two canoes, but he decided that this would be hopeless. McLeod might be miles away already, and he would surely push on with the greatest possible speed.
As he sat there in silence, collecting his nerve, a shadow came out of the thickets by the shore and hopped dimly about in the twilight. It was a rabbit. The light was all but gone; Tom could not see his gun-sights, but he fired. It was almost sheer good luck, but when he went to look he found the rabbit shot through the body, considerably mangled by the bullet but eatable. It had come at the very moment to encourage his resolution, and it would make rations for one day, at any rate.
He built up the fire, dressed the game, and set it to roast on pointed sticks. But he had no salt, and he remembered that unsalted rabbit is perhaps the most flavorless food on earth. It reminded him of those first dreary days after his coming to Coboconk Lake. But the meat had nutriment in it at any rate, and he ate of it sparingly, reserving the greater portion for the next day.
Pulling a heap of dead leaves between two logs, he tried to rest, to sleep; but he was far too uneasy. Without a blanket, the night seemed cold, despite the fire. His little ax was gone, and he had no means of cutting logs large enough to make an efficient heat. He tried to huddle under the leaves, dozed intermittently with horrible dreams of danger, and at last got up in the gray dawn, feeling aching and empty.
The fire had burned entirely out while he slept. There was not even a spark left in the ashes, and to his horror he found that he had no matches. He had used the last in his pockets, and the water-tight box in reserve was gone with the stolen supplies.
This blow almost took away his remaining courage. Fortunately he had roasted the whole hare last night, and most of it was still left. It would last one day.
“After that, I’ll have to eat raw meat, like a wolf,” he thought.
But it was as easy to go on toward Roswick as in any other direction, and he was still determined not to let Harrison win. It occurred to him that the prospecting season was well advanced; he was in the mining country, and he might fall in with a party of mineral hunters at any time. If not—well, he was tough and muscular, and he could surely endure hardships for a day or two.
So he put the rest of the cooked meat carefully in his pockets, his rifle under his arm, and started briskly up the river. There was no trail, and it was rough going. The margin of the stream was grown thickly with willow and spruce and cedar, frequently marshy, sometimes rocky, always hard to get through. From time to time he had to wade a tributary creek. Worse still, the river went in huge curves, so that he felt sure he was traveling two miles for every mile he made westward.
But he was afraid to leave the guidance of the river, and he struggled along. He grew very hungry; hare meat was not filling, but he controlled his desire to eat until noon. Then, after swallowing far less than he wanted, he clambered into a tall tree on the crest of a hill and looked anxiously off into the west.
He could see a long way. It was an infinity of sweeping hill and hollow, all blue-green with the spruces in the sunshine, smoky, unlimited, with here and there a gray gleam of rock. Far away to the right he detected the glitter of a long strip of water—no doubt his river, sweeping in one of its long curves.
He stayed there for some time surveying the desolate landscape. There was nowhere any sign of fire or indication of human life. It occurred to him that he would do well to make straight across country to the water, instead of wasting muscle by following the river around its many bends. He fixed the direction well in his mind, slid down to the ground, and struck out across the woods.
For a time he found the traveling easier. The forest was light and scattered, and the ground firm. Twice he was encouraged by coming upon what seemed to be an old trail, and once he found prospect holes dug the season before.
Feeling sure that he was nearing the end of his journey, he hurried on gaily till he arrived at the edge of the water he had seen from afar off. But it was not the river. It was a little, long lake, with a creek flowing out lazily from near the point where he had struck it.
Now he bitterly repented his folly in leaving the river, his only guide. He had no idea which way it had curved since he left it. It might be close ahead; it might be a dozen miles away to the left. But the only chance of safety was to try to find it again, and he steered off diagonally into the woods to the southwest. The woods became difficult to get through. He struggled for more than two miles through dense tamarac swamps, and at last did come upon a medium-sized river.
Was it the Fish River? He could not tell. He thought it must be; yet it seemed too small, and moreover did not appear to be flowing in the right direction. The sun was sinking low, and all at once it, too, seemed to be in the wrong quarter of the sky. The woods turned dizzily around him; all directions seemed to be reversed.
He had just sense enough to control his panic. Tom had never before been thoroughly “turned around,” but he remembered the hunter’s maxim for those in such a predicament: sit down, shut your eyes for half an hour, and let things right themselves.
He sat down and shut his eyes, but things did not right themselves. The sun dipped below the trees. He was afraid to start in any direction, and he thought he might as well spend the night where he was. Indeed, he felt too weak and empty to go farther without eating.
He gnawed the bones of his rabbit without satisfying his appetite. The idea of eating raw meat did not seem so repulsive to him now, and he stole hungrily into the darkening woods. A pair of feeding grouse whirred up and alighted together in a tree. It was an easy shot, but his hands trembled. He missed, and almost wept with disappointment. Ten minutes later, however, he had better luck, and he bagged a hare, tearing the body badly with the bullet.
He skinned and dressed it hastily, and chewed strips of the raw flesh. It tasted almost delicious, but half an hour afterward he grew deathly sick and vomited. The fit passed, leaving him weak and worn out, and too miserable to care whether he was lost or not.
He had not energy enough to look for a better place for the night, nor to pull twigs for a bed. He lay down and drew himself together as well as he could under his heavy jacket, slept a little, awoke shivering a dozen times, and at last wearily saw the dawn breaking. There was white frost on the earth.
The night, however, had restored his normal sense of direction. It seemed right that the sun should rise where it did, and the light and warmth brought a little comfort. He ventured to chew a little more of the raw meat and this time felt no evil effects. Thinking over the situation, he came to the conclusion that this could not be the Fish River. He would not follow it but would strike due west in the hope of running into some settlement or camp.
So he started again across the woods. The ground grew more broken and rocky. Creeks flowed down rocky gullies; almost impassable swamps alternated with boulder-strewn hillsides. Once he came upon the “discovery-post” of an ancient mining claim. What mineral had been sought he did not know, but a great pit had been dug, the grave of somebody’s hopes, long since deserted, and showing no trace of recent life.
Half a dozen times during that forenoon he dropped to rest, quite worn out. Noon did not mean dinner-time. His sickness had not recurred, but he was afraid to eat much of his uncooked hare, and only chewed morsels as he stumbled along. So far as shooting any more game was concerned, luck seemed still against him, and he did not greatly care.
The sun wheeled from his shoulder to straight ahead, and began to sink. He almost lost expectation of getting anywhere at all. Roswick and the mining-camp seemed a myth. There seemed to be nothing in the whole world but the endless miles of spruce and jack-pine, swamp and rock, which he kept doggedly struggling through.
He was too wearied even to keep up his anger against McLeod, or to think with any interest of the timber treasure. It was all a dulled memory. It was only the force of a past determination that kept driving him ahead.
The sun went down almost without his noticing it, until the woods began to grow dark. He threw himself recklessly on the ground where he happened to be. Probably he could survive that night, but he felt sure that another one would be his last. But he was so bone-weary that he slept with merciful soundness, hardly even disturbed by the cold, till he awoke to find the earth once more powdered with the frost.
He arose stiffly, feeling rheumatic twinges, and plodded forward once more. The weight of the light rifle was growing intolerable. He was mortally afraid lest he should begin to walk in the deadly circle of lost men, and he kept one eye on the sun. His mind was so confused that its changing position disconcerted him sadly.
Then all at once a sound electrified him—a crashing through the undergrowth not many rods ahead. It sounded as if several men were going through at a run. Tom made a staggering rush forward, shouting loudly. In five minutes he heard running water, and then broke out upon the shore of a small river. On the shore opposite him he saw the marks of many heavy boots, but no one was in sight.
Again and again he shouted, but no one answered. He could only guess that a party of hunters had gone past after a deer or a bear. Shaking with exhaustion and excitement, he sat down on a rock to listen and wait.
After he had waited half an hour a boat shot up the stream, poled rapidly by four roughly dressed white men. They ran the boat ashore close to him, pitched out a collection of picks, shovels, and dunnage, and were about to rush away when Tom arose and shouted to them.
They turned and stared, spoke together hastily, and seemed about to go on. But Tom’s forlorn appearance must have struck them, for one of the men came forward hurriedly.
“We’re in a hurry. Are you in on the rush? Why, what’s the matter?”
“The rush?” said Tom dizzily. “I—I don’t know. I’ve been on the trail—lost. Can you give me something to eat?”
The man stared, darted back to his outfit, and returned in a moment with a large lump of bread and a slice of meat.
“Here,” he said. “Eat this. We can’t stop. There’s a big gold discovery in the next township, and everybody’s on the dead run for it. Stop here, and you’ll see lots of fellows pass. You’re all right now. Want anything else? Well, so long!”
And the prospecting party rushed into the woods, leaving Tom ravenously devouring the food. It gave him new life. When he had eaten it he lay back and rested luxuriously, feeling sleepy. He was near the mining-camps at last, and hope flowed back into him.
Within ten minutes another bateau came up and landed a little below him, and its crew vanished in the woods without noticing him. Close behind that boat came another, its occupants singing and shouting in French, as if on a lark.
Tom got up and went down the shore, where the boats seemed to land. But it was nearly an hour before he saw another party. Then two men came by in a canoe, paddling fast, scarcely giving a glance to the boy on the shore. They were almost past when Tom saw clearly the face of the man in the stern, and he gasped as if he had been hit by a bullet.
“Dave!” he exclaimed.
He was not heard. He shouted again, and fired his rifle in the air.
“Dave Jackson! Cousin Dave!” he yelled.
The men glanced curiously back, but the canoe did not stop, and it disappeared around a bend in the stream. But Tom, electrified with surprise and anxiety, rushed after it. Rounding the bend, he saw it far up the river, driving hard ahead with all the force of two strong paddlers, who were evidently determined not to stop for anything.
The ground along the shore was rough and tangled, and he could not pause to pick his way. He tripped and fell, blundering into thickets and morasses, struggling on, almost weeping at the thought of failure at the last inch.
He would certainly have failed; he could have never have overtaken the paddlers, but the canoe ran suddenly inshore. The men hastily unloaded her, shouldered the packs and the canoe itself, and started into the woods. Evidently they planned to portage to some other waterway.
Tom reached the spot of debarkation a few minutes after they had left it. He struck off on their well-marked trail, and, as they were bent double under their loads, he had no difficulty now in overtaking them. Dave Jackson was carrying the canoe, and he stared from under the inverted gunwale in utter astonishment when Tom breathlessly hailed him.
“Tom!” he exclaimed. “It isn’t possible. What in the world are you doing up here? Surely that wasn’t you who yelled at us from the shore?”
“Thank goodness, I’ve come up with you, Dave!” Tom gasped, almost dropping where he stood. “Hold on! Put down that canoe. I’ve been on the trail for days—got robbed—almost starved—trying to find you.”
Then he did drop, dizzily collapsing on a log. Dave set down the canoe, but his partner, a big, bearded prospector, growled impatiently.
“Got no time to stop, Jackson. All them fellows’ll get in ahead of us. If that young chap wants to talk to you, let him come along too.”
“I can’t go another inch,” Tom protested. “And you’ve got to come back with me, Dave. It’s awfully important. I’ve come from Coboconk Lake—your old homestead.”
Dave uttered an exclamation of surprise.
“My old hay farm? You don’t say! Then you’ve been at father’s farm. Bet they were glad to see you. Did they tell you I was up this way?”
Tom stared bewildered.
“No, there wasn’t anybody there. The place was burned out. I thought you’d all abandoned it. But never mind that. Dave, I’ve found the lost walnut raft.”
“You’re joking!” his cousin ejaculated.
“Not a bit of it. I saw the timber. It’s ashore now—part of it anyway. It’s on your land, and you’ve got to come back to claim it.”
And Tom briefly summarized the story of his adventures.
“Gracious, what luck!” Dave exclaimed. “I’d looked, off and on, all around that lake for signs of the old raft, but I never thought of poking into that swamp at the narrows. But you’re all wrong, Tom. That isn’t my land. I didn’t even have the land where I put up the old barn. It was just a hay-making place. I homesteaded a hundred acres back where you saw the burned shack, but when the shack burned I let it go.”
“But wasn’t that Uncle Phil’s place?” stammered Tom.
“I should say not!” Dave laughed. “Was that what you thought? You must have thought we were a pretty shiftless lot. I guess your guides didn’t know where we really lived. Our ranch is west of the river. You leave it before you come to the lake. There’s a trail cut, that you ought to have seen. We’ve got a good farm there, sixty acres planted, house, barns, live stock, and all the rest. It’s about twelve miles from my old shack.”
“You don’t mean to say Uncle Phil was living only twelve miles from me all the time?” cried Tom. “Why, at Oakley they said they hadn’t seen any of you all winter.”
“Likely not. I’ve been up here in the camps, and we don’t get our mail and things at Oakley any more. There’s a new post-office and store eight miles nearer, started last summer.”
“But what about the walnut? Haven’t we any rights in it at all?” asked Tom, in despair.
“I’m afraid not,” said his cousin, after some thought. “But then, neither has your man down there who’s trying to get it. He evidently thinks I own that land. McLeod squatted there for a while before my time. But he never homesteaded any of it. He wasn’t a farmer. No, the only person who can claim that raft, it seems to me, is the Daniel Wilson Lumber Company, that cut it—or its heirs or assigns, if it has any. If it hasn’t, I expect the government’ll claim it.”
Tom groaned. He had never anticipated such a flatly crushing conclusion to the expedition that had almost cost him his life.
“I’d go to the land agent in Oakley and make a claim,” Dave went on. “Maybe you can homestead that land where the raft lies. You’re not old enough? Put it in my name. Go and see father and see what he says.”
“But you’ll come back with me, Dave?” said Tom. “It’s a matter of maybe fifty thousand dollars.”
“If we get it. But I don’t honestly think there’s a chance. I’ve got a better thing up here. With a little luck, I’ll make my everlasting fortune. The samples of free-milling ore out of this new field are something wonderful. It’s better shot than any timber—that doesn’t belong to us anyway. Better come along with me, and we’ll make a big strike together.”
Tom shook his head. He did not have the gold-fever, and he could not relinquish hopes of the walnut timber that he had suffered so much to secure. There was a loud crashing of brush in the distance. Another party of gold hunters was on the trail.
“Say, Jackson, we’ve got to be moving!” cried the bearded man, fuming with impatience.
“All right—in a second. Look here, Tom, we can’t stop. Your best plan is to go back there and try to stand Harrison and McLeod off till you find out definitely what’s right. They can’t claim the raft any more than you can—unless,” he added, “they’ve gone and homesteaded the land where the timber lies. That would give them possession, anyway, and that’s nine points of the law. But they’d likely have done that the first thing if they had thought it was open for filing. You go and see father. And look here, I’ll come down myself as soon as I get our claims staked—in a week, maybe.”
“All right,” said Tom, gloomily. “But where am I now? How do I get out of here?”
“You’re about six miles from the Roswick camp. You made a pretty good shot at it, after all. Follow this river straight down to Roswick; then you have to take the stage out to the railway, and that’ll take you round to Waverley, and you come in to Oakley the same way as you did the first time. Got any money?”
“Not a cent.”
Dave plunged his hand into his pockets. “How much do you want? the railway fare’ll be about six dollars. Here’s fifteen. Will that do?”
“Plenty,” said Tom gratefully. “I sha’n’t forget this, Dave, and I’ll repay you when—”
“You’ll never need to. I’m going to be a rich man by fall. Now we really must rush on, or my partner’ll have a fit. Tell father and mother I’m all right. Sure you won’t come with us yet? You’d better.”
“No,” said Tom. “I’m going to see my own game played out.”
“Good luck with it, then. Good-by!”
Dave and his partner picked up their loads and vanished crashing through the underbrush. Tom turned back toward the river, rather despondently. Physically he felt better; the rest and the food and the talk with Dave had done him good, but he was deeply depressed by his cousin’s pessimistic outlook. Still, he was determined not to let go while there was the slightest chance left. Harrison had no more right to the raft than he himself, at any rate, it appeared. He would see that Harrison did not get it, then, until the real ownership of the walnut could be ascertained.
He made his way down the river shore, meeting three or four parties of prospectors, in bateaux and canoes, and one on foot. It took him a good three hours to reach the mining-camp, where he found merely a collection of sheds and shanties, a store and a towering derrick or two. The place was almost depopulated, for all its inhabitants were on the gold-rush.
He was able to get dinner at the mine boarding-house, and then hung about until the stage left late in the afternoon. An hour’s ride placed him at the railway station, and he boarded a mixed train, which carried him about fifty miles. He changed to a connecting line, waited half the night, and once more took the long stage drive to Oakley.
It was late in the afternoon, but he was desperately anxious to find what was going on at Coboconk Lake. By this time Tom was somewhat known at Oakley, and he was able to borrow a canoe, by paying four dollars for the accommodation; and, after snatching a hurried meal, he started up the river.
Daylight lasted late at that season, and Tom pushed ahead as fast as possible. The recent plentiful food and rest had restored his youthful physique to its full strength, and he was expert at the paddle now. Night found him on the river, however, but an almost full moon rose immediately after sunset, making it possible to go on. He was on the lookout for the trail of which Dave had spoken as leading to his uncle’s homestead, but in the dim light on the shore he could not pick it out. The house was several miles back, anyhow, and he had no idea of trying to reach it that night. He wanted to visit the timber treasure first.
Little Coboconk spread dark and silvery under the moon as he came into it from the river. He paddled ahead, straight up to the narrows, and then paused, checking the paddle. There was a fire on the shore, apparently a large fire that had burned low, and close to it in the shadow two or three large white blurs that looked strangely like tents.
He went on cautiously, in desperate anxiety. They were tents, sure enough, two very large ones, and a smaller one. But no one was in sight about the encampment. It was little after midnight, and doubtless everybody was asleep.
Tom could hardly doubt who had set up this camp. All his hopes sank to nothing; nevertheless, determined to find out the truth, he paddled up to the shore, landed, and stood looking about for a moment. He saw that several of the half-buried logs had been dug out and rolled together, but before he could investigate any further a tent flap was pulled open, there was a sudden exclamation, and a man bounded out, half dressed, presenting a revolver.
“We’ve got you this time! Throw up your hands!” he cried, triumphantly.
Tom instantly put his hands up. The man approached. The boy had never seen him before. He looked like a woodsman or lumber-jack. He peered into Tom’s face, and uttered an exclamation of surprise.
“I thought it was that murdering young Injun. Who are you? What do you want here?”
“Who are you yourself?” returned Tom angrily. “This is my place. I was here before you. What are you camping here for?”
And he took down his hands. Two other men came out of the big tent—rough lumbermen both of them.
“Better wake up the boss and tell him we’ve caught some spy prowlin’ round here, that says he owns the camp,” said Tom’s captor.
One of the men went over to the smaller tent. There was a sound of voices; a few minutes elapsed. Then a man came hastily out, carrying a flashlight, and Tom recognized Harrison, as he had expected.
But Harrison was far from expecting the meeting. He turned the light on Tom as he came up, and started. For several seconds there was silence, while the flashlight wavered.
“I didn’t expect to see you back here, Jackson,” said Harrison at last, in his usual easy tone. “I thought you’d gone for good. I only wished you’d taken that young Ojibway with you. He’s been—”
“I guess you didn’t expect to see me,” retorted Tom hotly. “You thought I was dead up in the woods, didn’t you? McLeod did his best. You tried to burn me out, and you tried to murder me, and now you come in and steal—”
“Hold on! That’s a pretty rough way to talk,” Harrison interrupted him. “You must be crazy. Here, if you’ve got anything to say to me, come along to my tent.”
Tom, boiling with indignation, was conducted to Harrison’s sleeping-tent, where the man turned on an electric lantern, and sat down on the cot-bed from which he had lately arisen.
“You’ve got no kick coming at all,” Harrison resumed. “I made you a proposition to get out, right at the start, even though you had no particular rights here. I discovered this walnut before you thought of looking for it—”
“And then you tried to burn me out, and you sent McLeod to kill me in the woods.”
“As for the fire, it was an accident. McLeod? Well, McLeod tells me that you ambushed him and held him up and threatened to kill him. By way of a joke, after that, he ran off with your canoe and hid it a couple of miles down the river. Didn’t you find it again?”
Tom listened in absolute disbelief.
“Anyhow, you’ve got no sort of right to take out this timber,” he said. “It belongs—if it belongs to anybody—to the man who cut it.”
“And he’s dead. Exactly,” said Harrison. “You see, I took the precaution of going into all that matter long ago. Daniel Wilson died ten years ago, but his son is living in Montreal. This son is Wilson’s only heir. I went to see him, and came to an arrangement. I’ll show you.”
Harrison opened a small box, and after rummaging through it, he produced a large folded document, glanced at it, and handed it to Tom.
It was worded in legal phraseology, hard to comprehend; but the boy made out that Henry Wilson, whose name was undersigned, transferred to A. C. Harrison all his rights in a certain quantity of walnut timber supposed to be in or about Coboconk Lake, formerly the property of the father of the said Henry Wilson.
“I get it out on a basis of paying him a royalty of ten dollars a thousand feet, as you see,” said Harrison. “I paid him a hundred dollars down. It was a gamble, for I wasn’t sure; but I’d been up here before, and I had an idea of where that old raft might have drifted. But you see it’s all straight and aboveboard—”
Tom was hardly listening. The paper appeared to be correctly drawn up, properly signed, and witnessed. He could not doubt its validity. There was nothing to do, then. Harrison had out-manœvered him at every point. The game was up.
He turned almost sick with chagrin and defeat. He threw down the paper and stood up, turning away without a word.
“Hold on. Where are you going?” cried Harrison.
“None of your business! I’m not likely to trouble you any more; that’s all,” Tom returned through clenched teeth.
The game was up
“Well, all right. Only I wish you’d call off that confounded Ojibway boy you left here,” said Harrison, agreeably. “He seems to think we’re trespassers. He’s shot up the camp twice. One of my men got a buck-shot in the leg. It isn’t safe to go into the woods. Tell him that if he doesn’t clear out we’ll hunt him down, and kill him or take him out for the penitentiary.”
Tom had a moment’s pleasure at the thought of Charlie’s “shooting up” Harrison’s camp; but he did not return a word. He strode down to his canoe, and went shooting out into the moonlight of the lake. On the shore he could see the little group of men looking after him.
NOT TOO LATE
Tom felt singularly inclined to shoot up the camp himself, but he restrained himself and paddled down the lake, almost without knowing where he was going. He had, in fact, no plan in his mind. All his plans had fallen into ruin together. He thought of getting away from these woods; he thought of going back to the city. It seemed the only thing left to do. But first it occurred to him, he must see Charlie.
Not merely to give him Harrison’s warning, though the boy would certainly have to be checked in his now unnecessary warfare. But he had no food nor supplies, not even enough for the trip back to Oakley, nothing but his rifle and a few cartridges. Moreover he had, after some hesitation, left all his money with Charlie rather than risk taking it over the trail. There must be about seventy dollars, and he would need it badly.
He had very little idea where the Indian boy was to be found, but he paddled down the lower lake to the mouth of the little river that led up to his old camping ground. In the moonlight and shadow he made his way up this almost to the point where he had shot the mink on that far-away spring morning. Here he disembarked and started into the woods by the way he used to take.
It was rather dark in the shade, but the way was familiar to him, and he went ahead easily. But he had gone no more than two hundred yards when he heard something like a queer, metallic click not far ahead. An instinct made him stop short; and the next moment there was a blaze and a bang, and a load of heavy shot crashed into the tree trunk right at his side.
By good luck, he was not touched. He sprang behind the tree, guessing at once who had fired that shot.
“Don’t shoot, Charlie!” he yelled. “It’s me. It’s Tom.”
Dead silence followed. Nothing seemed to stir in the undergrowth. Tom began to imagine that perhaps it was not Charlie who had fired. It might have been McLeod, come up from the lake to ambush him again. He listened and looked more keenly, but heard nothing, till a voice spoke quietly, almost at his elbow.
“You get back, Tom? You fin’ your cousin?”
Tom was so startled that he jumped. The Ojibway had crawled like a serpent through the brush to get a close look at the intruder before he spoke.
“Gracious, Charlie!” he exclaimed. “Is that you?”
The young Indian came out into the moonlight and surveyed Tom carefully.
“You come—camp this way,” he announced, and, turning, he started off through the woods.
Within a hundred yards or so Tom perceived the glimmer of a very small fire, almost hidden between two rocks. Charlie put on a few fresh sticks, and placed the kettle, and produced a lump of bacon.
“You eat,” he observed. “I wait for you long time. Other man come—git timber, like you say. I lay for ’em—shoot their camp—no good. I hope you come back. I hear noise down by lake to-night—then I hear you come. T’ink you somebody else—shoot you, pretty near.”
“Rather,” said Tom. “I’m glad you’re such a bad shot. You’ve done your best, Charlie, but it’s all up. I can’t have that timber. I’m going away.”
Charlie looked up quickly, with a somber flash in his black eyes.
“You come back, Tom?” he inquired.
“I don’t know. Maybe not.”
Charlie pondered, gazing into the fire. The tea-kettle boiled. Charlie poured out the hot strong stuff into tin cups and handed one to his friend.
“You stay here, Tom,” he proposed. “We git that timber. We lay for them fellows. We can kill them all—easy.”
“No, Charlie. That wouldn’t do,” said Tom, smiling at this too simple solution. “Those fellows have got a right to the timber, and I haven’t, and that settles it. You must stop your shooting at them. You’d better go away too.”
Charlie looked depressed. Probably he had been thoroughly enjoying the guerrilla warfare of the last few days. From his sparing remarks Tom gathered that he had been continually changing his camp, prowling, scouting, feeling himself thoroughly on the warpath. He had fired on Harrison’s party several times; Tom felt devoutly thankful that nobody had been killed. Charlie had most of his smaller possessions cunningly cached in hollow logs and trees, and, on Tom’s inquiry, he went off into the darkness and presently returned with the money—a roll of bills carefully wound in birch bark. Tom would have liked to share it with this faithful comrade, but he would sorely need it all himself. He presented to Charlie, however, all the rest of his outfit: the aluminum cooking utensils, the ax, the odds and ends that had been rescued from the burning barn, and a few worn articles of clothing.
“I stay round ’bout here, Tom,” said Charlie. “You come back.”
“You’d better go and get some work,” Tom suggested. “Go down to Oakley.”
Charles looked disdainful.
“Work hard all winter,” he said. “Trap—hunt—walk snow-shoes. Rest in summer. Say, Tom, you come with me next winter. We trap—hunt—ketch heap fur.”
“I don’t know, Charlie,” Tom answered, regretfully. He wondered where he would be next winter. He had little notion of what he ought to do. He might go to Uncle Phil’s farm, as he had at first intended; but this seemed now to promise nothing. Almost he regretted not having joined Dave in the gold hunt. On the whole it seemed better to go back to Toronto for the time. His clothes were torn; his shoes were almost worn out. He had a little money, however—more than he had started with. He could buy clothes, and then, perhaps, secure a job as before as a summer fire ranger. This might enable him to pay his way at the university, for he was determined to have no more of his former parasitic existence. He felt five years older, ten times as self-reliant as when he had left Toronto only a few months ago; and the thought of his college years of casual study, much foot-ball and hockey, and thoughtless scattering of money filled him with disgust.
“I’ve acted like a kid,” he reflected. “Time I was getting grown up a little. No wonder father wouldn’t have me around the business.”
Anyhow, he had to return the canoe to Oakley, and at dawn he bade Charlie farewell and started down the river again.
“You come back, Tom,” the Ojibway called after him. “I wait for you.”
He went straight down Little Coboconk without looking again at the lost treasure, and entered the river. A mile down he noticed the opening of a well-cut trail,—doubtless the road to Uncle Phil’s place,—and he wondered that he had never observed it before. He felt rather languid from the recent wearing days, and from short sleep for two nights; the river ran smoothly, and he drifted along without any great efforts at paddling, so that it was well into the afternoon when he came into Oakley.
He was late for the stage to the railway, which left only in the forenoon; and he had to spend the rest of the afternoon and the night at the hotel. But the rest was welcome. He managed to improve his wild and wilderness-worn appearance a little, and took the train next morning.
The city seemed strangely noisy, crowded, hot, and dirty when he came out from the station and boarded a street-car to go home. His own tattered and weather-beaten appearance seemed even stranger to the passengers on the car. He was carrying his rifle still, and he must have looked like a trapper from the utmost frontiers. The attention he attracted was so embarrassing that Tom was in haste to get home. He walked hurriedly for a block up Avenue Road after leaving the car and saw his house in the distance; but even then he perceived that the curtains were down everywhere and that the place had a vacant, deserted look.
The front door was locked. He rang the electric bell repeatedly, but in vain, and then tried the side door and the back door, with no more success. Not even a servant was at home. He peeped into the garage through a crack in the door. The car was gone. Evidently the whole family had gone away, though it was the first time he could remember that his father had taken a summer vacation.
Tom was much too familiar with the house to allow locks to keep him out. He knew a basement window that could be opened with a piece of wire, and without much trouble he got himself inside. From the interior of the house he judged that the family had been gone for several days, at least. He went to his own room, hunted out an outfit of fresh clothing more suited to the city, took a bath, and dressed himself. The feel of the stiff collar was strange and irritating. Investigating the kitchen, he could find nothing but some crackers, part of a pot of jam, and a tin of sardines; but these simple foods seemed delicious, and he greedily ate everything in sight.
He looked through the house to see if he could find any indication of where his family had gone. He could discover nothing, but the appearance of the rooms and of the covered furniture seemed to indicate that a long absence was intended. Tom began to grow a trifle uneasy. But they would know all about it at his father’s office, and he left the house and took a downtown car.
To his alarm he found no signs of life about the big lumber-yard at the foot of Bathurst Street. No teams were moving; no one was at work; the great gates were closed and padlocked, with a “No Admission” sign. But the office building was open, and Tom went in.
None of the usual clerks were in the outer office. But he thought he heard a sound from his father’s private room beyond, and he opened the door, and looked in.
Mr. Jackson was not there. But in his usual place at the desk sat a stout man with iron-gray hair, surrounded by an enormous mass of papers and ledgers. His back was to the door, but he wheeled sharply, with a look of annoyance, at hearing the door open.
Tom recognized Mr. Armstrong, his father’s lawyer. For many years Mr. Armstrong had been not only Mr. Jackson’s legal adviser, but his closest personal friend. He did not often come to the house, however, and Tom really knew him very slightly. He had always been somewhat repelled by the lawyer’s dry, ironical manner, and had always had a feeling that Mr. Armstrong did not approve of him.
“Mr. Tom Jackson. Really! The last person I expected to see,” said the lawyer with a chilly smile. Adjusting his eye-glasses, he examined Tom from head to foot. “You look as if you’d been roughing it. Your family has been very anxious about you, you know.”
“Where are they? I’ve just come down from the north woods, and the house is empty,” Tom cried. “What’s happened? Surely father hasn’t left town?”
“Your father has gone to Muskoka with his family, for a little rest—to the Royal Victoria Hotel, Muskoka Beaches,” replied the lawyer. “They were anxious to get in communication with you, but didn’t know how to reach you. I have the key of the house.”
And he produced it from a pigeonhole in the desk.
“But why did they go? Father isn’t ill?”
“Your father is an extremely sick man. To get him out of town, away from business, was his only chance for life, the doctors thought.”
“But what—what is the matter?” cried Tom, paralyzed by this news.
“Why, nothing; that is, nothing very physically serious, I think. And that’s the worse of it. The doctors don’t know what to get hold of. Has your father told you anything about his business affairs?”
“Not much—only that they were a little involved, some time ago. But I thought he had them straightened out all right.”
“So he might have done, with a little bit of luck. He had several large contracts pending. He had bought options of some pulp-wood tracts; he expected to close a deal with the railroad for a big lot of ties. Nothing went right, though. He even failed to get the tie contract. Everything seemed to go back on him at once. He couldn’t take up his options, and he’s been obliged to close out nearly all his holdings at a big loss. At last he broke down. He gave up, and when a man like your father gives up, at his age, it means something serious.”
Tom uttered a horrified exclamation. Armstrong looked at him coldly, but it was easy to see that the lawyer, under his frigid exterior, was deeply affected by the misfortunes of his old friend.
“So you didn’t know anything about it?” he resumed. “Well, the doctors forbade him to think of business for months, and they sent him up north. He put all his affairs into my hands—gave me power to go through the business, and act as I see fit—either to go into bankruptcy, or to try to fight it out.”
“Bankruptcy!” Tom exclaimed. The idea seemed preposterous to him, who had always regarded his father’s business as a source of wealth, varying, indeed, but inexhaustible. “Surely that’s impossible! What have you found?”
“I haven’t finished going through the books. But it looks about as bad as it can be. The lumber business has been slumping for the last year. Three months ago I advised your father to make an assignment and have the thing over. But he said that every dollar of his paper had always been worth a hundred cents, and always would be while he lived. I think he was speaking truth. For if the business goes under I don’t believe he will survive it long. Business was his whole life.”
Tom tried to collect his shocked mind.
“How long will it take you to come to a conclusion?” he asked.
“I don’t know. A considerable time. The accounts are very complicated.”
“How much money would it take to clear everything?”
“It’s hard to say, at this point. Perhaps thirty thousand. I think that twenty thousand might pull it through, in hard cash, at this minute. Are you thinking of furnishing it?” he added, with a return to his ironical manner.
Tom had really come nearer to being able to furnish it than the lawyer imagined; and if Mr. Armstrong had shown himself a little more sympathetic the boy might have told his story and sought advice. But, as it was, he turned away in silence, full of grief and distress.
“I suppose you’ll be going up to join your family in Muskoka,” the lawyer said. “Don’t let your father talk about business when you see him. Get him out in the open air, canoeing, fishing, if you can. Will you dine with me to-night?”
Tom would rather have gone hungry than spend the evening with what seemed to him Armstrong’s sneering and cynical personality. He muttered an excuse, took the key, and went home again. He dined by himself at a lunch-counter, spent the night in the empty house, and next morning took the early train for Muskoka Beaches. He felt that he could make no plans for the summer now until he knew how his father was, and whether his help could be of any avail.
The season was opening well at the summer resort, and the lake in front of the Royal Victoria Hotel was alive with canoes, motor-boats, and skiffs. The lawns were gay with tennis; automobiles roared and thudded, and the wide verandas of the big hotel were crowded with rocking-chairs. It struck Tom that this was anything but a quiet retreat for a man with nervous breakdown. He mounted the steps to the first veranda, looked about uncertainly, and was lucky enough to espy his youngest sister in a far corner, reclining in a camp-chair with a novel.
“Oh, Edith!” he exclaimed, hastening toward her. “How’s father? Where is he?”
The girl jumped up with a cry of astonishment.
“Why, Tom! When did you get here? We wanted to write to you, but we didn’t know where you were. Where have you been? You look like an Indian—all brown and thin.”
“Up in the woods. I’ve just been in town—saw Armstrong, and he told me about father. Do you think he’s dangerously sick?”
“I don’t know, Tom. He’s up all the time, but he can’t sleep and doesn’t eat. We can’t get him to do anything. I think he’s worrying about business, but he never says anything, not even to mamma. You’d better come and see him. He’s up-stairs.”
Tom followed his sister through the hallways of the great hotel, up a flight of stairs, and into the suite of rooms that his father had taken. No one was in them just then; for Mrs. Jackson had gone down-stairs, and her husband was on the private balcony outside, where he spent the sunny part of the days.
Here Tom found him, lying back in a long chair, wrapped closely in a steamer rug, looking pitifully old and broken. Tom could not remember having ever seen his father ill before; and a lump rose in his throat, and he could barely mutter something as he grasped the sick man’s hand. Mr. Jackson greeted him with some pleasure, but his manner was absent and almost indifferent. Tom had a heartbreaking sense that he had meant nothing to his father’s life; he had a conviction also that Armstrong was right, and Mr. Jackson would not long outlast the business he had created.
“This is a good place to come to, Father,” he said, with an effort to be cheerful. “It ought to set you up in no time.”
“The place is well enough,” said the lumberman slowly. “It’s too fashionable to suit me, but your mother likes it, and you can smell the pine woods here. That smell does me good; but I’m getting to be an old man, and there’s no medicine for that.”
“Nonsense! You’re just overworked. You’ll be a young man again after a month’s rest,” Tom remonstrated. “I’m going to take you out in a canoe, trolling for salmon trout.”
Mr. Jackson did not appear to welcome this suggestion.
“Where have you been all this time? What have you been doing with yourself?” he inquired, with no great interest.
“I’ve been up in the woods—on the Coboconk lakes—near Uncle Phil’s place,” Tom answered with some hesitation. “Looking for—for government land to take up. I saw Cousin Dave, just starting on a gold-rush.”
And to entertain his father he gave a humorous description of the hurrying prospectors.
“You’ve been in town. Did you see Armstrong there? What did he tell you?” Mr. Jackson inquired, after listening indifferently to Tom’s story.
“He told me—that you were on no account to talk about business,” Tom evaded, laughing.
“He’s an old fool. But it’ll not bear much talking about, maybe. He told you the shape it’s in, I’ve no doubt. I left it all in his hands. I was at the end of my rope. If the business goes down, Tom, you’ll have to start life a poor man, the same as your father did; and I’m afraid you haven’t got the training or the mind for it,” he added, ruthlessly. “It’s partly my own fault.”
“It wasn’t your fault a bit, Father!” Tom groaned. “It was all my own foolishness. It’s going to be different after this. I’ve learned a lot up there in the woods. I had a rough time and nearly starved. I thought things all over.” He hesitated, and then went on. “I did think once, too, that I was going to make a big strike.”
Mr. Jackson was looking at his son with a little more interest.
“Well, if you can get a bit more practical, Tom, it’ll be a good thing. In fact, it looks as if you’d have to do it. What kind of a strike were you trying to make? Gold? There’s no mineral around the Coboconk lakes. I’ve lumbered all through that district, years ago.”
“You have?” cried Tom. “I never knew that. Then very likely you’ve heard of the big raft of walnut logs that was lost on Coboconk a good many years ago?”
“Everybody’s heard of it up there. What about it?”
“Well—I found it.”
The old lumberman opened his eyes, and sat up briskly.
“You found it? Where? Why, it was sunk in the lake.”
“Don’t get stirred up, Father. There’s nothing in it, I’m afraid. But I did find it. It had been sunk, but close to the shore, near the place where the two lakes connect. The water has gone back a good deal: and, besides, the lake was very low this spring, so that the place where the raft had sunk is clean out of the water now. Some of the timber was sticking out of the sand, and most of it seemed to be only a foot or so down, so I had great hopes of getting it out. It seemed to be in first-rate condition.”
“Well, what did you do?” demanded Mr. Jackson, impatiently.
“Why, you see, the timber didn’t belong to me. I thought it was on Uncle Phil’s land, and that’s why I hunted up Dave. But it isn’t.”
“You ought to have sent word to me at once!” exclaimed Mr. Jackson. His eyes were alive now with interest, and he looked ten years younger all at once.
“Just what I was thinking of doing. But it wouldn’t have made any difference, I’m afraid. There was another man prospecting for it—a fellow named Harrison, who had been up there last summer too. He played me a nasty trick, but he had the rights to the raft.”
“The rights? How did he make that out?” cried Mr. Jackson.
“He had the papers. It seems old Daniel Wilson, who cut the raft, has a son living in Montreal, and Harrison had made some deal with him to get out the timber, if he could find it. He’s paying young Wilson a royalty, I believe.”
“No such thing! The fellow must be an impostor. You should have let me know of this at once, Tom. I can’t imagine what you were thinking of. Do you know the value of walnut now? Never mind! I guess it isn’t too late, if we act quick.”
And, to Tom’s astonishment and alarm, his father threw off the rug and stood up, his eyes bright, looking revitalized. Tom regretted that he had told the story, which he had meant merely to entertain his father.
“Sit down, Father,” he urged, taking his arm gently. “It’s no good. Harrison may be a villain; he certainly tried some rough work on me. But then he made me a cash offer first to leave the place. But, so far as the timber goes, he seems to have his title good. I saw the papers made out by Wilson’s son, all signed and witnessed in proper shape. I don’t see how we can do anything.”
“Papers? A pack of lies! Forgeries!” snorted Mr. Jackson. “Why, I knew old Dan Wilson well. He’s got no son living. Even if he had it would make no difference; for the Daniel Wilson Lumber Company failed five years before Dan’s death, and I bought out all the concern, all the assets, every stick and scrap of them. Paid fifteen hundred dollars, and lost about a thousand on it; but I only meant it to help Dan out. The raft was included in the assets; I’ll show you the papers. They’re in the safe. I never expected to see any of that walnut, but it’s mine—all of it. Why, I’m the Wilson Lumber Company myself, now!”
“You mean to say you really own the timber yourself, Father?” Tom cried, almost stupefied. For just a moment he had the idea that his father’s mind had become slightly deranged; but Mr. Jackson’s practical and competent manner, growing more vigorous every minute, put that idea to flight.
“Of course I do. Armstrong knows all about it. What a pity you didn’t tell him when you were in town! But it can’t be helped. We’re not too late—I hope. What has that Harrison done toward lifting the walnut?”
“Not very much, when I left, three days ago. I think he’d just got to work. They had dug out quite a number of the logs.”
“How many men did he have? How many teams? You don’t know? You should have found out, Tom. Anyhow, it’ll be a matter of weeks to get all that lumber up and raft or haul it away. But we don’t want him to have any claim for salvage against us. We must get on the spot the first minute we can. We’ll start for Coboconk at once, my boy.”
“Let me go alone, Father. Give me authority to act for you. You’re not strong enough to go into the woods.”
“I guess I’m plenty strong enough when there’s something really to be done,” laughed the old lumberman. “It was doing nothing that was killing me—sitting still and seeing nothing but ruin. No, this is just the medicine I want.”
Tom still felt dubious, but Mr. Jackson insisted on action.
“I don’t see why we can’t start to-morrow,” he said. “We can get our outfit and men at Ormond. I guess that’s the nearest railway point to the lake.”
“I thought Oakley was the nearest.”
“Oakley’s down the river—thirty-five miles or so, isn’t it? And we couldn’t take teams up the river in canoes. Ormond is straight west from the Coboconk lakes, only twenty miles, and there’s a logging road, or used to be. That’s the way you go to Phil’s ranch. You can’t teach me much about that district, Tom. Just wait till we get out there.”
Tom’s mother was astounded, half an hour later, to find Mr. Jackson walking briskly up and down the balcony arm in arm with his son, talking with enthusiasm about business matters. Mr. Jackson laughed at her alarm; he declared he felt a hundred per cent. better already, and, in fact, he presently ate a better lunch than he had eaten for a long time. Afterward, however, he consented to take his prescribed nap, and while he was sleeping Tom detailed the new enterprise to his mother. On her suggestion Tom went to consult the doctor who was attending his father. For a dangerously sick man to start suddenly upon the trail did seem a risky experiment.
“This may be just the thing he needs,” said the physician, after listening to Tom’s tale. “Inaction and worry were the hardest things on him. He hasn’t any real disease at all. Make him travel as comfortably as possible, and try to keep him from overexerting himself, and you may bring him back cured.”
Tom did not tell his father about this visit to the doctor, but he was able to throw himself into the preparations with a much better conscience. They did not, however, leave for a day or two. It was not so very far to the Coboconk district, but it was a very circuitous journey by rail. They had to go half-way to Toronto and then back upon a branch line to reach Ormond, and it was late in the afternoon when they at last got off at that backwoods village. The timber treasure lay only twenty-two miles to the east, but it was twenty-two miles of dense second-growth forest penetrated only by the almost disused logging roads.
Ormond was a village of two-score houses and a store or two, larger than Oakley but not now so flourishing. Once this district had been the seat of a thriving lumber industry; Mr. Jackson had worked over it before setting up in Toronto; but most of the pine had been long ago cut, and dull times had come upon Ormond. But Tom was astonished to find his father well known and remembered there still. The proprietor of the hotel, elderly, bearded, and rough, stared at his guests for a moment, and then uttered a shout of recognition.
“Jumping crickets! If it ain’t Matt Jackson!”
Mr. Jackson shook the hotel man’s hand heartily.
“I didn’t know you were up here yet, Andrews,” he said. “I used to know Mr. Andrews well, years ago, when I was lumbering around Coboconk,” he said to Tom. “I expect there may be some of my old lumber-jacks here still. If there are they’re just what we need now. I’ve got a little timber proposition on,” he added to the proprietor.
“Sure, I’ll find ye some of the boys,” exclaimed Andrews. “They’ll be powerful glad to work for ye again, too—the more as jobs is scarce around Ormond these days.”
Tom went up to his room to wash, pleased immensely at the reception they had received. Coming down again, he found his father in animated conversation with a group of old residents, and looking more alive and interested than he had seen him for years. Mr. Jackson was tired, indeed, and went early to bed that night; but he was far from exhausted by the journey, and was up the next morning before his son.
Tom found his father down-stairs, consulting with a big, roughly dressed fellow, bull-necked and huge-chested. His hair was grizzling a little, but his strength appeared noway abated with years, and he treated the lumber merchant with marked deference.
“This is Joe Lynch—Big Joe, they used to call him, and likely do yet,” said Mr. Jackson. “He’s one of the best bushmen in the north, and it isn’t the first time he’s worked for me. He’ll be our foreman now, and he thinks he can pick up six or eight men for us right away. We want to get started at once. Teams and supplies can come on later. Remember, Joe,” he added, “I want men who wouldn’t be afraid of a little trouble. Not roughs, you know, but fellows who can fight if they need to. Maybe there’ll be a row where we’re going.”
“Trust me for thot, sorr,” responded Lynch, with a wink. “They’ll like nothing better. I’ll get ye a bunch that’ll fight their weight in wildcats, any day.”
At that moment breakfast was called, and Tom and his father went into the dining-room.
“I’ve heard news of your man Harrison,” said Mr. Jackson. “He was here ten days ago, hiring men and getting supplies. Nobody knew what he wanted them for. He’s got five men and one team of horses, and he can’t have made any great progress at getting out the walnut yet. But I think we’d better hurry ahead as soon as we can. It’ll take some time to get our outfit together here, but I suppose I can leave that to Lynch—though I’d rather see after it myself. Something’s sure to be overlooked.”
“Better let me scout ahead, Father!” Tom urged. “We can’t tell what Harrison may be doing. He might raft down the timber in small quantities as fast as he got it out, and sell it at Oakley.”
“That’s a fact,” said Mr. Jackson, struck by this danger. “I suppose you could stop anything like that, if you took a man or two with you. I’d give you written authority.”
“But Uncle Phil’s ranch must be on the way,” cried Tom, struck with a fresh idea. “He’d go over with me, or Cousin Ed—maybe somebody else.”
This proposition was so evidently sound that Tom set out soon after breakfast. Plenty of people knew where Phil Jackson’s farm lay, and Tom regretted that he had not originally come to Ormond instead of Oakley. But then he would probably never have reached Coboconk and the lost raft.
He carried only his rifle and a package of cold lunch, expecting to reach the farm some time that afternoon. It was supposed to be only fifteen miles, and there was a road,—not much used, indeed, but still a road,—which it would be easy to follow. Mr. Jackson was to collect his men and their outfit and come on the next day, to rejoin Tom where the trail struck the river, below Little Coboconk.
The old road proved rough traveling. Apparently it had not been used at all for a long time, and it was grown up thickly with small spruces and raspberry thickets—so jungly, in fact, that Tom often found it easier to take to the woods.
It was not going to be easy traveling for the wagons, he thought; and wondered if Harrison’s men had come in this way. Still, he plodded on and ate his lunch about noon, and within the next few miles he began to look for traces of settlement. Nothing appeared, however, and he began to travel slowly, looking about him more carefully for trails. An uneasy qualm began to assail him, but he kept on until, as the sun came down close to the tree-tops, he became assured that he had somehow missed the way.
He turned back at once on his own trail. Once he came to what seemed a cow track crossing the path, but it presently became untraceable. The sun was going down, and he stopped. By this time he was grown hardened to being lost in the woods; but he was hungry, and the prospect of a supperless night was not attractive.
It was warm, however, and he built a fire and made himself as comfortable as possible. Despite an empty stomach, he managed to sleep; and in the earliest morning, rested but famished, he started back on the road over which he had come. But it was only after an hour or so that he came upon an obscure-looking cross trail that he had previously overlooked. He might have passed it again, had not his attention been caught by something like the far-away bellow of a cow.
He followed up the trail toward the sound, and within a quarter of a mile he struck a wide, stumpy, pasture clearing. Beyond another belt of trees he emerged upon a plowed field, with a view of a large log house and barns, which he knew must be the elusive homestead of Uncle Phil.
So it proved. Tom hurried up to the house and got an astonished but enthusiastic welcome. He had come at an unfortunate moment, however. Uncle Phil and Cousin Ed had started within the last hour for the store and post-office, nine miles away on a bush road that Tom had not suspected, and were not likely to be back before evening.
No one was at home but his aunt and the younger children. Tom ate a huge breakfast, told his story, and gave news of Dave on the gold trail, and rested for an hour or so. But he was uneasily impatient to reach the lakes. He was afraid to wait for his uncle’s return, and he got an early dinner, took a packet of lunch, and set out again shortly after midday.
He had his directions more accurately laid now; but it was rough travel through the woods, and he went more slowly than he had hoped. The sun was almost setting when he emerged at last on the shore of the river. He was still a mile or two below Little Coboconk, but he hastened up the stream and saw the long, placid expanse of the lake.
Nothing moved on its waters. From away up by the narrows he thought he saw a curl of smoke in the evening air. The emptiness relieved him; somehow he had almost expected to see the raft afloat and steering down the lake. But he knew that it was almost impossible for Harrison to have salvaged any great quantity of the timber so soon.
Peering ahead, he walked up the stony margin of the lake in the twilight. He had a strange, uneasy feeling that eyes were upon him, as he had had during the journey to Roswick; but this time he was certain that no one could have followed him through the woods. More than once, all the same, he turned quickly to look, but nothing stirred on the surface of the lake or the darkening shores.
Smoke was certainly rising from Harrison’s encampment, but he was afraid to go within sight of the place while the light lasted. He sat down in the thickets just back from the shore and ate his lunch—wise enough this time to reserve a portion for breakfast. Darkness fell on the water. A half-moon grew visible over the trees, and up by the narrows a red glow began to shine.
Tom resumed his course up the shore, careful to make no noise. The glare over the trees looked as if Harrison had set fire to the forest again. But it was not until he reached the head of Little Coboconk that he could see what was going on.
Harrison’s camp lay across the narrows from him, and there were great fires burning on the shore that cast a flood of red light across the water. Dark figures moved through the lurid illumination; he heard the rattle of chains, the thud of axes, and the cries of men hauling and heaving at the timbers. Evidently Harrison, in his desperate haste to get the walnut out, was working day and night.
Tom crept up closer to the narrow channel, feeling secure in the outlying darkness. From the opposite shore he made out a huge, dark shape stretching like a pier. The raft was being rebuilt. And then Tom distinguished Harrison himself, standing in the full light of one of the fires, talking earnestly to another man, a stranger, an elderly man, who did not look in the least like a lumber-jack.
For a long time Tom crouched in the shadows, watching the scene of activity. Logs were being dug out and piled in place. They were not working on the raft just then. Probably daylight was needed for that. But it looked rather certain that no timber was likely to be floated away for some time, and Tom felt vastly relieved. By the next night his father would be here.
He wondered if they were going to work all night. He was tired of waiting on the shore, and he had a great desire to examine the partly constructed raft more closely. Toward nine o’clock, however, he observed the activity slackening. The fires began to die down. Work was knocked off. He perceived that a kettle was being boiled at a smaller and more distant fire. The men gathered around and were served with food. They smoked for a little while after this, while Tom watched impatiently, and then one by one they disappeared into the tents. There were evidently not men enough for the day and night shifts, and so Harrison had simply extended the day as long as possible.
Tom still waited and listened. Silence fell on the camp. The red shine of the fires grew dim, and the pale moonlight began to take its place. But for the fifty yards of channel, Tom would have ventured to reconnoiter the raft more closely; and he was in fact thinking of taking off his clothes and wading and swimming over when a faint, unmistakable splash close at hand caught his attention.
He shrank back into the bushes, cocking his rifle. For full five minutes he stood motionless, every sense alert, but without hearing a twig rustle. Then a shadow moved out of a thicket.
“Tom!” said a subdued voice.
Tom started violently, half raising his rifle.
“You no shoot me, Tom. I watch you long time,” said the shadow.
“Charlie!” exclaimed the boy, recovering himself. “That isn’t you? Why, I thought you were gone long ago. How did you see me?”
“I see you when you come out on river, ’fore dark. Think it’s you, not sure. I follow you—watch long time. I think mebbe you come back some time, Tom. I look for you every day.”
“Charlie, you’re a good scout!” said Tom, his heart warming. “Yes, I’ve found out that timber really is mine after all, so I came back.”
“We fight um, then?” asked Charlie, hopefully.
“Not to-night, anyhow,” Tom responded, smiling. “My father is coming to-morrow. May be a fight then. But how did you get here? Got a canoe? Where’d you get it?”
“My canoe. That red-hair man steal him from you—I steal him back again.”
“Good!” Tom looked across at the dying firelight and the dim tents. “Put me across there, Charlie. I want to see how much of that timber they’ve got out.”
The Ojibway seemed to vanish without a word into the gloom. Within a few minutes the canoe glided up, a darker shadow in the shadow of the lake-side spruces. Tom stepped in cautiously, and Charlie, dipping the paddle without a sound, guided the canoe across the channel and touched the extremity of the half-built raft.
It was not all of walnut, of course. It had to be buoyed with lighter wood, and even in the faint light Tom could see the fresh-cut spruce and pine logs. It was impossible to estimate how much of the old timber there was. He climbed out of the canoe and stood upon the raft itself, which felt as solid under him as a ship.
He raked the silent camp with another cautious glance and walked toward the shore. Reaching the land he could see the earth torn up in wild hollows and mounds, where the walnut had been disinterred. Piles of logs lay in every direction. It looked as if surely the greater part of the lost raft was there, ready for rebuilding again, and Tom was filled with renewed anxiety. They were running it fine. If anything should delay his father and the men from Ormond, Harrison might still get away with his plunder.
He stepped off the raft upon the earth and looked keenly about again. Through his mind passed the idea of doing something to wreck operations—to halt them, at any rate; but he dismissed it. The gain would not be worth the danger. Next day he would have reinforcements on the spot. The best thing would be to retreat into the darkness again and wait.
He had taken half a dozen steps, and he turned to go back. Some dim obstacle lay at his feet. Trying to avoid it, he tripped on something, with a clashing of chains. He stumbled forward and blundered into a hole where a log had been dug up, knocking down a pile of cant-hooks and spades, mingled with chains, which made a deafening crash and clatter. The rifle flew out of his hand.
Almost instantly he heard a voice asking what was the matter. A man dived out of the nearest tent, stared about, and then started toward him. Tom lay flat where he had fallen, invisible, as he hoped, in the darkness. The man came within two yards of him, gazed about again, while Tom lay holding his breath, and then, with a muttered exclamation, struck a match. In the quick, brilliant flare Tom caught a glimpse of the man’s fox-colored hair. He jerked his legs under him and made a plunge to get away, but the fellow was even more agile. He was upon him before Tom touched the raft, and the boy was pulled back by rough hand on his collar.
McLeod turned Tom’s face to the moonlight.
“I declare, ef it ain’t that youngster again!” he exclaimed. “Can’t keep away, hey? All right—I got him!” he called over his shoulder. “It’s that same—”
Tom was aware that Harrison and the stranger were hurrying toward him. Other men were appearing from the tents. He glanced toward the end of the raft. Charlie and his canoe had vanished. He was ashamed at being caught so ignominiously, but he was not particularly afraid. He felt in possession of authority now. He had the whip-hand.
“What’s this?” Harrison cried, turning on the white beam of a flashlight. “Oh, it’s you, is it? Didn’t I warn you to clear out?”
“I’ve come back to stay this time,” Tom retorted. “I know all—”
“Who is it? Do you know him?” interrupted the strange man, who had an honest and good-humored face. He wore a soft collar and a tie, and had slightly the air of a sportsman from town.
“He’s been hanging about all spring,” said Harrison, impatiently. “I don’t know his name. Trying to steal something, I guess.”
“That won’t do,” said Tom. “I know a good deal more than I did when I was here last. I’ve heard all about Daniel Wilson. My father’ll be here in the morning. Just now, I’m in his place.”
“You must be crazy!” Harrison exclaimed. “Look here, you get out of this camp at once.” He took Tom by the shoulder, and propelled him toward the woods. “Got anything to say to me? Well, say it quick!”
The rest of the party remained where they were, laughing. Harrison shoved Tom into the shadows of the trees, gripped his arm hard, and led him on, stumbling over fallen timber.
“You want to talk to me?” he repeated. “Well, go ahead.”
He had dropped the bluff tone of intimidation, and his voice was subtle, conciliating. They were out of ear-shot of the camp now.
“I haven’t much to say,” returned Tom. “I saw my father—Matthew Jackson, of Toronto—and told him all about the raft. You can guess the rest. He took over Dan Wilson’s business, you know. You haven’t any rights here at all. We might pay you something for the work you’ve done already on it, but that’ll be all we’ll do. You’ll have to get ready to quit.”
Harrison steered Tom a little way farther into the woods, saying nothing. Then he stopped, and spoke in a low tone of intense passion.
“Do you think I’d quit now? It’s a year that I’ve been working for this. Part of the timber’s sold already. I’m going to float out a raft to-morrow or the next day. Do you want to have one fight now and another in the courts? Look here, I’ll make a reasonable deal. I’ve got maybe a third of this stuff ready to move. Let me get away with that and I’ll leave the rest of it for you.”
“Can’t do it,” returned Tom promptly. “I couldn’t make such a deal myself, and I know father wouldn’t. He’ll be here to-morrow, and—”
“Your father won’t be here to-morrow. He’s going to be turned back before he gets to the lake,” said Harrison.
“Turned back? What do you mean?” Tom exclaimed, with a sudden, horrified vision of his father being ambushed, perhaps shot on the trail. “Are you going to try another trick? You can’t work it, Harrison!”
They were standing close together and face to face, and at that moment Tom felt something hard against his body. Glancing down, he saw a revolver that glittered dimly, its muzzle digging into his stomach.
“I gave you a chance!” Harrison muttered between clenched teeth. “What do you take—life or death? You young fool, I’m a desperate man. I’m going to have that timber now, and I don’t care what stands in my way—not even murder.”
Tom shrank back involuntarily from the revolver barrel, which sent a cold thrill to his very backbone. He had lost his rifle; he was entirely unarmed. But reason told him that Harrison would not really shoot. He would not go the length of murder, with a dozen men within fifty yards. It was a bluff! Charlie was surely lurking somewhere in the shadows offshore. Tom filled his lungs, and suddenly opened his mouth to yell.
Before the sound could leave his lips Harrison had him by the throat like a tiger, forcing him back against a tree. Tom hit out savagely into the man’s face, but that iron grip seemed to choke the life out of his body. His head swam; everything turned black before him. For an instant the throttling grasp relaxed, and then he received a fearful blow on the head, that sent him plunging down, it seemed into darkness. As he fell he was scarcely aware of another shattering blow, and he knew nothing whatever afterward.
The next hours were blank for Tom, or almost blank. He seemed at last to hear a roaring sound like water. He seemed to be rushing at dizzying speed through worlds of darkness. Then he thought he saw the malicious face of McLeod peering into his own, and again blackness and silence covered everything.
Something aroused him; something was pulling at him. Opening his eyes, he saw strangely an outline of tree-tops sharp against a starry sky. He was being dragged violently by the shoulder.
“Git up, Tom—quick!” a voice penetrated his ears. “They come back soon.”
Tom’s head ached so dizzily that it fell back when he tried to lift it. He could not remember where he was. He did not know who was beside him. He tried feebly to raise his arms, and found that they were roped together; and his legs, too, were tightly bound at the ankles.
“Wait—I see now. I cut you loose,” muttered the hurried voice, which Tom now dimly recognized. A knife-blade flashed, and sawed at the rope. His arms were free, then his legs. He made a feeble effort to get up, and collapsed again.
“No use! Can’t do it!” he murmured thickly.
Charlie seemed to hesitate.
“I carry you,” he said with determination, and, getting his arms around Tom’s body, he sought to heave him on his shoulders. He really might have carried him, for Charlie was used to carrying tremendous loads over canoe portages, but Tom’s faintly reviving spirit rebelled. He slipped down, clung to a tree for several seconds, and tried to steady his whirling head.
“You come,” said Charlie anxiously. “That red-hair man, he be back quick, mebbe. I wait long time.”
Tom had only a vague notion of what the Ojibway meant. He could not remember what had happened; he knew only that some danger hung over him like a nightmare. He let the tree go and attempted to walk. He reeled, and would have fallen but for Charlie’s quick grasp. Then Charlie got an arm around his body, and, half carrying, half leading him, managed to steer him through the woods.
It seemed an endless way to Tom, but it could have been only a few rods, when the Indian uttered a wearied grunt of satisfaction, and Tom saw the shimmer of moonlight on water. Charlie let him go, to sink on the ground, and vanished. In a minute or two he was back, and helped Tom down to the shore. Tom saw a canoe without surprise. He managed to get into it somehow without upsetting it, and settled down into a crumpled heap amidships. Charlie got into the stern, and without a sound the craft glided down the shore, keeping in the shadows of the trees.
By slow degrees the boy’s wits returned, helped by the fresh lake air. Leaning over, he splashed water on his head, which hurt severely. The douche cooled and refreshed him. Memory struggled back.
Painfully he remembered the knock-out he had received—Harrison’s proposal—his scouting at the raft—groping his way back step by step. Of what had taken place after he had been struck senseless he had no idea, nor how much time had passed. From the feeling of the air, it seemed to him that it must now be late in the night.
“Where are we going, Charlie?” he said thickly, over his shoulder.
“By gar, I think you mebbe dead, Tom!” exclaimed the Indian, in excited, though subdued tones. “We go good place. I fix you up all right. Mos’ there now.”
They were going down Little Coboconk now, taking less care to keep out of the moonlight. Just at the lower end of the lake Charlie ran the canoe ashore beside a great log, got out, and helped Tom to disembark. He lifted the canoe out of the water and stowed it somewhere in the dark undergrowth; and then, with an air of being familiar with the place, he grasped Tom’s arm and conducted him among the spruces by several mazy turnings, and at last indicated by a pressure on his shoulder that he was to sit down.
Tom dropped gratefully, finding himself on a thick pile of spruce twigs. Above him he found a rough shelter of bark and boughs.
“I camp here,” said Charlie, “ever since you go ’way. I look down river for you, mos’ every day—think maybe you come back. I see you yesterday when you come.”
“You’re the best friend I ever had, Charlie!” said Tom gratefully. “Maybe you saved my life to-night. How did you find me? Where was I?”
Charlie burst into an explanation, compounded of English and French, which he was apt to use when excited. It made Tom’s head ache, but he gathered that Charlie had slipped out of sight on seeing his friend’s capture, but had stayed close inshore in the canoe. He heard the sound of Tom’s choked-off cry and fall, but had not dared to interfere as Harrison was almost immediately joined by the red-haired man. Between them, they had tied Tom up and carried him several hundred yards farther down the shore, depositing him in a little valley full of evergreens. McLeod remained on guard, while Harrison returned to the camp. Charlie had scouted close up, and thought of shooting the red-haired man, but restrained himself. Finally, McLeod went back to the camp also, to get matches for his pipe, Charlie thought; and the Indian boy seized the opportunity for a rescue.
“We safe here,” he concluded. “Good place—can look up, down—they never find us. Besides, you say your father come.”
“I declare, so he is!” Tom exclaimed with a start. In his confusion and pain he had totally forgotten that fact. Mr. Jackson was coming, was doubtless on the way; and then Tom remembered also Harrison’s statement that his father would be “turned back.”
“We must meet him, Charlie!” he cried. “Those fellows may catch him, murder him perhaps.”
“Plenty time. He not come till daylight,” said Charlie, glancing up at the sky. “Three hours, mebbe. Sleep now.”
And the young Indian stolidly stretched himself on the spruce twigs also, and appeared to fall instantly asleep.
Tom could not rest so easily. It was true, no doubt, that his father would not come in the darkness. Morning would be time enough to look for him. But he felt nervously uneasy, impatient, and alarmed. His head still ached and spun at the slightest movement. Feeling it cautiously, he found it badly swollen on the left side, and blood had dried and caked in his hair. Harrison must have struck him with the revolver butt, he thought.
He tried to compose himself, lay awake for a long time grew drowsy at last and drifted through a series of nightmares, awaking with a painful start. But at last he did sleep, and was disturbed only by hearing Charlie making a fire.
It was daylight, but not yet sunrise. The sleep had done him good. His head ached less, and he felt more in command of his nerve. The Indian boy produced tea, some fragments of pork, and some very hard bread; and the food still further restored Tom’s strength. He was eager to intercept his father, however, and they had no sooner eaten than they took to the canoe again, and dropped down the river to a point where Mr. Jackson would surely pass in coming over the trail from Ormond.
Here, for hour after hour, they waited, watchful alike for friends and for enemies, for Tom more than half expected to espy McLeod scouting down the river shore to prepare some ambush. Tom’s head still ached, but the effects of the blow were fast passing, and under frequent applications of cold water the swelling was going down. They ate a cold lunch, not venturing to light a fire, but it was not until well into the afternoon that Charlie suddenly sat up alertly from the ground where he was lounging.
“Somebody come!” he said in a low voice, staring into the woods.
Tom had heard nothing, and in fact it was nearly ten minutes before he heard trampling and crashing in the undergrowth. The sound instantly reassured him. Harrison’s scouts would not have made so much noise and in fact within a few minutes a party emerged upon the shore a few yards below. In the first two figures Tom recognized his father and “Big Joe” Lynch.
There were four other men with them. Tom burst out from the woods and rushed down to meet the new-comers, followed by Charlie. He was recognized from a distance; there was a waving and a calling of greetings. Tom grasped his father’s hand; then he found himself, being hailed by two others of the party, whom he finally recognized to be Uncle Phil and Cousin Ed.
“Is it all right? We couldn’t—” Mr. Jackson began.
“We missed you yesterday,” put in Ed, a wiry young fellow a year younger than Tom. “But we started out to catch Uncle Matt on the trail this morning.”
“Found him broken down,” said Phil Jackson.
“Yes,” said Tom’s father. “The wagon couldn’t get on very fast. Had to stop and chop the trail. We left three of the men to bring it up, and the rest of us came along on foot. I was getting uneasy about you. How did you find things? Why, what’s the matter with your head?”
“A collision with Mr. Harrison,” said Tom; and he rapidly described his misadventures of the night. Mr. Jackson’s face turned grim as he listened.
“The scoundrel! He was planning to keep you out of the way, I suppose, till he could dispose of some of his loot. He must have planned something to head me off, too. Never mind! his finish is close now. I struck another piece of luck in Ormond. This gentleman,” indicating one of the party whom Tom did not recognize, “is Joe Gillespie, the postmaster there. I used to know him, and he was concerned in the liquidation of the Wilson Lumber Company, so he can testify that I really bought the raft. He’s a magistrate too, so we have the law with us.”
“Good. That’ll fix Harrison!” said Tom, rejoicing. “Let’s hurry ahead.”
“Better not go up lake. Mebbe him lay for us. Go through woods,” put in Charlie.
“I’d take Charlie’s advice on anything now,” said Tom. “He’s right. Better not let Harrison see us coming, though I don’t think he’d make any resistance to so large a party as this.”
First of all it was necessary to cross the river, and Charlie brought up the canoe and ferried them all over. Thence they filed up the shore for half a mile, and then, under the Indian’s guidance, turned into the woods, and made a detour to come around to the narrows at the head of Little Coboconk.
Part of these woods had been swept by the fire, and the walking was bad, choked with fallen timber and half-burned logs. Tom was astonished at his father’s strength. Even after the long tramp he had had that day he pushed through the woods almost as actively as any of them. The familiar atmosphere of the woods and the prospect of action had restored the invalid to health almost magically.
Remembering the doctor’s caution not to overdo the exercise, however, Tom insisted on their stopping for occasional rests. With this slow progress it was almost two hours before Charlie veered to the left. They caught a glimpse of the waters of the lake beyond the scraggly and scorched spruces, and thenceforth they had to move more cautiously.
The shore was a quarter of a mile farther, and by glimpses they saw the white tents, the dark bulk of the raft, and the men’s figures moving about it. Work seemed to be going slowly, however; as they halted at last about a hundred yards from the camp, crouching behind a half-burned clump of willow, Tom thought that operations were entirely suspended.
“Harrison’s found out that I’ve vanished and doesn’t know what to do next,” he chuckled to his father. “Look, that’s Harrison—the man in the brown shirt and soft hat. I don’t know the man with him—some stranger.”
Mr. Jackson took out a field-glass and scrutinized the camp for a few minutes.
“No, not much doing,” he said at last. “But that stranger with your Harrison—I think I know him. Unless I’m much mistaken, he’s a certain lumber dealer of Montreal whom I know very well. Looks as if Harrison was trying to make his sale on the spot.”
And Mr. Jackson put away the glasses, rose to his feet, looked about for a moment, and then walked coolly toward the camp.
Tom gave a cry of protest and then jumped up and followed, and the whole party came after. It happened that nobody noticed them until they were almost at the shore. Harrison was talking earnestly to his companion, looking the other way, until he chanced to turn and beheld the eight advancing figures.
He started forward, uttering an exclamation; and then his eye fell on Tom, and he stopped short again. His face was almost livid.
“What—?” he began, blusteringly; but Mr. Jackson paid not the slightest heed to him. He walked up to the strange man, who was looking surprised, and held out his hand cordially.
“How are you, Archer?” he said. “What are you up here in the woods for—business or pleasure?”
“Why, Jackson, man!” exclaimed the other, after an amazed stare. “You’re the last person I thought of seeing here. I heard you were sick. Pleasure, eh? I guess we’re both here for the same thing. But you’re too late for once, Matt. I’ve made the deal.”
“Not so you can’t break it, I hope,” returned Mr. Jackson, smiling. “For this fellow has no right whatever to any of this walnut timber.”
At this Harrison recovered himself.
“No right to it?” he snarled. “We’ll see about that! Who are you, anyway? Why, this boy here admitted that I had the right of it, and he saw all the papers.”
“You were able to bluff a boy, perhaps, but you can’t bluff Matt Jackson,” returned the lumberman. “You know who I am now. I bought out Dan Wilson. Here’s Mr. Gillespie from Ormond, who’s a magistrate and knows all about it.”
By this time Harrison’s men had come crowding up, curious and hostile. But several of them recognized Mr. Jackson, and all of them knew Gillespie, who greeted two or three of them by name.
“Yes, that’s right,” said the postmaster. “Mr. Jackson bought out Dan Wilson when he failed, and so far as I know this timber was in the deal.”
“Then you don’t know much!” persisted Harrison, furiously. “I’ll fight to the last court for it.”
“Take it to the courts if you want to,” said Mr. Jackson. “You’ll face a warrant for murderous assault on my son, and another for forgery—”
Harrison sprang savagely forward, raising his clenched fist. Tom jumped to protect his father, caught the half-directed blow on his elbow, and drove his fist into Harrison’s face. The next instant he went down himself from a savage uppercut, and heard the rush of a sudden scrimmage. Joe Lynch had grappled with Harrison, and while the two wrestled frantically there was a rush of men from both sides to the spot.
“Stop it! Let him go, Lynch. Here, you young savage, drop that gun!” Mr. Jackson shouted; and Tom struggled to his feet to see the postmaster wrenching the shot-gun out of Charlie’s hands. Harrison went down, with Big Joe on top of him; but Archer and Gillespie dragged the men apart.
Tom caught the half-directed blow
Lynch arose laughing. A moment later Harrison gathered himself up sullenly.
“I’ll settle with you! This ain’t the last—” he began, his voice thick with rage.
“Whenever you like. But now—you get out of this camp!” Mr. Jackson ordered.
“This is my camp. These tents—that team—” Harrison snarled.
“Hold on! That team’s mine,” put in one of his men.
“And you ain’t paid us our last week’s wages,” said another.
“I’ll settle your wages,” Mr. Jackson promised. “Take away your tents and your outfit, Harrison, if you want to.”
Harrison looked about him.
“Take down those tents. Pack up the outfit,” he commanded his men.
Not a lumber-jack stirred. Plainly they had not found Harrison’s service congenial. Harrison glared, snapped a savage curse, and then went into his own tent, coming out in a minute with a dunnage sack. He dragged this down to the shore, dark-faced with rage, but without a glance at anybody, flung it into a canoe, and darted away with fierce strokes of the paddle.
“Seen the last of him, I guess,” said Mr. Jackson. “And he’s left us his outfit. If he doesn’t come back for it we’ll leave it for him at Ormond.”
“Him go to meet red-haired man,” remarked Charlie, who was watching the vanishing canoe. “I seen him, that man, ’way down lake.”
“You did?” exclaimed Mr. Jackson. “Scouting for us, I suppose. You’re a valuable youngster to have around. Want to work for me? I’ll give you a job.”
Charlie shook his head stolidly.
“No work in summer-time. Work hard in winter—hunt—trap. Rest in summer—hunt little, fight mebbe.”
“Well, we won’t have any more fighting, I hope,” said the lumberman. “But there’s a heap of work. You men, Harrison’s gang, I’ll take you all on, if you want to stay with me, and pay you the same as my own men. What do you say?”
All the men agreed, with evident pleasure.
“Always did think there was somethin’ crooked about that feller,” remarked that one of them who owned the team. “Never could git no money out of him.”
“And now,” said the Montreal lumber dealer, “I certainly wish, Jackson, that you’d tell me what all this is about. I spend considerable money to come up here, and find myself landed in a fight.”
“Think yourself lucky that you didn’t get landed for something worse,” Mr. Jackson laughed. “You haven’t paid any money out yet? No? Good. I’ll tell you how the thing stands.”
And he proceeded to detail the circumstances, which were corroborated by the Ormond postmaster.
“I see,” said Archer. “Harrison offered me the stuff at a great bargain, but I didn’t see how there could be anything fishy about it. Well, I’m glad I’m only out my expenses. I suppose you wouldn’t think of selling any of it yourself? I thought not. You’ll make a good thing out of it. Walnut’s almost off the market now, and bringing any sort of fancy price. But I don’t need to tell you anything about that. All I’ve got to do is to look for a way to get home.”
A FIGHT IN THE DARK
“I do believe we’ve got possession of the thing at last, Father,” said Tom, surveying the raft with joy, despite his aching head, which Harrison’s blow had jarred afresh.
“Yes, I don’t see what’s to stop us now,” returned Mr. Jackson.
It was near sunset, and peace had fallen on the camp again. The men of the two parties had fraternized and were sitting about on the logs and smoking. In the background the cook was preparing supper at an open-air fire. Mr. Archer had discreetly withdrawn into a tent, leaving Tom and his father to examine the property they had at last secured.
Harrison must have worked his men skilfully and hard while he had them. The partly built raft already stretched far out from the shore. It was by no means all of walnut, of course. Harrison had cut down all the spruce, jack-pine, and hemlock in sight for the floating foundation. They were put together in “cribs,” connected by strong traverses, pinned down with huge hardwood bolts. The walnut was piled on top of this foundation, and each log was “withed” down to its support with ironwood saplings as thick as a man’s wrist, twisted like rope around the timbers. There were already more than seventy cribs put together, each of them containing fully a thousand feet of walnut.
“His men knew how to handle logs,” Mr. Jackson remarked, looking with an expert eye at the way the timber was withed and pinned together. “Never saw a better built raft. If Dan Wilson had built it as well as this, it mightn’t have broken up so easily. That’s fine walnut, too. It’ll take some drying out and seasoning again, of course, but it’s practically as good as the day it was cut. I don’t believe there’s as much walnut timber as this anywhere else in one spot in all Canada.”
“And nobody knows how much that isn’t dug out yet,” Tom returned. “We ought to be thankful to Harrison, maybe, for all the work he’s done for us. We’ll have the use of his tents and tools too, until he comes to take them away. Not to forget that if he hadn’t tried to drive me out by burning the woods I’d probably never have found the walnut at all.”
“Yes, he seems to have cheated himself all around,” said his father. “If he presents a reasonable bill for labor, I’ll pay it. But I don’t think he ever will. As for what walnut is left,” he added, looking over the scarred surface of the shore, “I suspect that there isn’t much more of it.”
There was some, however, and the combined gangs went to work vigorously on the morrow. About noon the delayed wagon came in from Ormond, with two more men and the supplies, and Mr. Archer and the postmaster rode back in it when it returned. They promised to send out more provisions, for, with Harrison’s gang, Mr. Jackson had more men than he had counted on.
With this strong force the work of getting out the timber went forward rapidly. Tom went over the shore inch by inch, sounding deep into the sand with a long, sharp steel rod. When he struck wood, they dug down to it. Sometimes it was walnut, sometimes merely an old spruce stump, but little by little the precious stuff accumulated, and more cribs were built out upon the raft. By the end of the week they seemed to have got everything that lay in the sand of the shore, and they began to dig at the bottom of the shallow water nearest land.
But evidently they were nearing the end. Mr. Jackson’s shrewd guess had been right. With great exertions and inconvenience they recovered three or four hundred logs from the shoal water, but the labor almost outweighed the gain. These logs, too, were heavily water-soaked. They would dry out in time, but meanwhile they required much light timber to buoy them up, and were spongy and easily damaged. But from Mr. Jackson’s measurements, and he was an experienced “scaler,” the raft then contained about 125,000 feet of walnut. Besides, there was the soft-wood foundation, which was not without value.
“This ought pretty well to clean up all business troubles, my boy,” said Mr. Jackson to Tom, as they viewed the majestic outlines of the raft, which surged and heaved at its moorings in a strong southwest gale. “It’ll net us three hundred dollars a thousand feet; more than that, in fact, for we’ll cut it up ourselves, with thin saws. The ordinary mill wastes ten per cent. in sawdust, and you’ve no idea how valuable even the scraps of such wood are. They make veneer, brush backs, knobs, all sorts of small things. We don’t waste a chip of the stuff.”
For some time, Tom noticed, Mr. Jackson had been saying “we,” and the implied partnership was very pleasant to him. Working day by day with him, Tom had come to realize and respect his father’s science and energy as he never had done before. Up here in the woods, “Matt” Jackson’s reputation was an established one. The rough lumber-jacks jumped at his orders and took his advice unhesitatingly about all sorts of timber craft. The veteran lumberman was in his element and seemed to have almost entirely recovered his health and spirits.
The future no longer looked black to him. He had arrived at the point of talking to his son freely about his business affairs, a compliment which Tom appreciated deeply. On leaving Toronto Mr. Jackson had seen nothing ahead but a voluntary assignment. He had no faith in Mr. Armstrong’s being able to straighten things out. Thirty or forty thousand dollars would be needed, and he could not see any source from which they were to come.
“That’s what it would have come to if you hadn’t dug up this old timber, Tom,” he said. “I wasn’t very genial when you came north, I guess, but I give you the credit, my boy.”
“I don’t deserve it,” said Tom earnestly. “I came up here like a fool. I didn’t have any reasonable idea what I was going to do. It was blind luck that made me stumble on this old raft. But I do think it ought to make enough to clear the business, and something over. Shouldn’t you let Mr. Armstrong hear of it? He’ll be astonished, when we produce a new asset like this.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” agreed his father. “Things have been so busy that I’ve neglected it, and there’s no hurry anyway. He’d write or wire me before he did anything important, and a message would be forwarded at once from the Royal Victoria. I suppose he thinks I’m still lying on my back there. But I’ll send a letter out to him to-morrow.”
Charlie could have taken a letter out to Ormond or down to Oakley. The Ojibway boy was still hanging about the camp, watching the work impassively, seeking out Tom whenever Tom had any leisure. He brought in trout almost daily, and occasionally ducks and partridge, and Mr. Jackson remarked on the advantage of having an Indian about the camp who was exempt from the game-laws. But Charlie was obviously not so happy in the midst of all this activity as he had been at the original camp in the old barn.
Mr. Jackson, however, did not write his letter the next day. It was windy and rainy. One of the last cribs of lumber showed signs of breaking loose under the strain of the weather and had to be refastened. Then they unexpectedly found a “pocket” of eight or ten more walnut logs at a spot where they had not previously looked, and these were dug out and loaded. Altogether it was a busy day and a stormy one. The rain ceased at sunset, but the wind grew even stronger, driving white-capped waves racing across Big Coboconk.
The wind kept Tom awake that night. It roared over the forest and thrummed on the stiff canvas flaps. On the cot opposite him his father slept profoundly rolled in his blankets, but Tom could not settle himself to rest. His mind dwelt on the raft. They had thought of launching it the next day, but this would be out of the question unless the wind went down. It would be impossible to float it down the lake in the face of that gale.
He wondered if there could be any danger of damage as it lay at its mooring. At last, unable to rest, he got up and looked from the tent. It was after eleven o’clock. The night was warm and not very dark. Not a man was in sight. The fires, which had burned low, threw off gusts of fizzing sparks in the wind. A high sea was crashing on the shore, but he could make out the dark expanse of the raft, rising and falling, but apparently secure.
Somewhat reassured, he went back to his cot and lay down again, leaving the lantern burning. He did not undress and lay awake for some time longer, but at last he grew hardened to the roaring of the wind and dozed off. Finally he must have slept soundly, for he wakened with a shock to feel a hand gently gripping his shoulder. Blinking up, he saw Charlie’s battered black hat leaning over him in the dim light.
“You come, Tom. Raft gone,” the Indian said softly.
Tom leaped up with an exclamation. He gave a single glance at his father, who was still sleeping, and bolted from the tent. Outside the water and the wind still roared and crashed; but at the first glance Tom saw in the pale starlight that the raft was no longer there, nor anywhere in sight.
“I wake up—think I hear something,” said Charlie at his elbow. “I go—look. Raft gone.”
Tom rushed down to the landing where it had been moored. Then to his relief he sighted it, a hundred yards from land, a huge expanse like an island, heaving and plunging and drifting out diagonally over the lake.
Tom raised a tremendous shout to alarm the camp, and thought he heard an answer from the tents. The raft must have broken loose in the gale; yet he could hardly understand how that had happened, for six strong ropes had bound it to trees ashore. But Charlie picked up the slack of one of the ropes that was trailing in the wash of the waves and held it silently under his eyes. Tom gasped. The end was not frayed; it was cut squarely off.
“Cut!” he exclaimed.
“I think mebbe so,” said Charlie. “That man come back, I guess. We git him this time, mebbe.”
Tom gave another alarm shout, and jumped into a boat on the shore, followed by the Ojibway. It was a bateau that had been left there by Harrison, heavy to row, but the wind drove them fast in the wake of the raft. Laboring at the oars, Tom saw the outline of the floating timber growing clearer. His blood boiled with wrath; he knew that Harrison must have done this as a last act of revenge. They had not set eyes on the fellow for a week; they thought he had gone for good, but he had come back to retaliate for his loss. Well timed, too, his return had been. The raft was hardly built for rough seas. Under the full force of the gale in the center of the lake it might go to pieces, or be driven against the opposite shore and broken up, repeating the ancient history of the original raft of Dan Wilson.
Fortunately Charlie’s alertness had detected it in time. Tom was disconcerted at seeing that no stir was visible yet in the camp behind. His yells could not have been heard. It was useless now to try to shout in the teeth of the gale, but he strained his muscles to reach the raft.
It was too big to drift very fast, and Tom’s oars overtook it before it had gone another two hundred yards. It looked alarming as he came close, and it was going to be risky to get aboard, for the great mass of logs heaved on the waves, and crashed down on the water. A touch would have crushed the bateau-like bark, but Tom, watching his chance, jumped, landed on his knees, clutched the logs, and staggered to his feet. The boat with Charlie in it recoiled away, thrust backward by his leap.
He was scarcely up when he saw a dark figure shoot across the raft just behind him. Startled, Tom rushed after it. It flashed upon him that this must be Harrison. But the man jumped,—apparently over the side,—and a canoe went spinning away into the gloom, dipping and reeling in the heavy sea.
It had not looked like Harrison’s build. It had more resembled the woodsman McLeod. Tom had no weapon or he would have fired and by the time Charlie had joined him, carrying his shot-gun as always, the canoe was lost in the windy obscurity.
“Got away again!” Tom exclaimed in disgust. “But we’ve got the raft again, anyhow.”
Then he wondered what he was going to do with it. The huge mass of timber was beyond any control. He could only let it drive. Continually he had expected to see the men from ashore following him, but no one seemed to have become aware of what was going on. The sparks whirled up from the low fires, and that was all. Every minute the raft was getting farther from shore, and it would be impossible to tow it back against the wind. It was well out in the open lake now, and it heaved and swung up and down with a motion that strained all the fastenings of the cribs and made Tom’s stomach turn with a qualm like seasickness.
“Fire your gun, Charlie!” he said anxiously. “Maybe they’ll hear it. Hold on! What’s that?”
A report like a pistol-shot had sounded from the far forward end of the raft. Tom rushed forward over the heaving logs. In the center was a great heap of material used in building: withes, cross timbers, pike-poles, axes, ropes, spikes. As he passed around this obstruction he saw, to his horror, one of the cribs swing loose and drift clear, spilling its load of walnut as it went.
Was the raft breaking up already? Tom caught up a pike-pole and rushed forward. Buffeted by the wind and almost deafened by the noise of it and by the creaking and threshing of the timbers, he slipped and staggered in his unspiked boots over the wet logs. As he crossed the fourth crib he stopped with a thrill. He saw the dim figure of a second man close to the forward edge of the raft, with an ax poised over his shoulder.
The miscreant was actually cutting the raft apart. When Tom realized it, he charged forward with a shout. Apparently the man had been quite unaware that the boys had come aboard. He glanced about quickly. The ax blow never fell. He waited till Tom was within ten feet, charging with the steel-shod pole, and then he swung the ax round his head and flung it with all his force.
Tom ducked just in time to dodge the whirling missile as it went over his head with a “whish.” It came so close that the boy lost his balance and stumbled down on one knee, and before he could recover himself the man had pounced on him, forcing him down.
Tom was able to let out a single yell. He recognized Harrison; he had felt that grip before. Again Harrison tried to seize him by the throat, but this time Tom was less off guard. He was lighter than his enemy, but more active. He was a good wrestler, his muscles were hardened now with labor, and he fought like a wildcat.
He squirmed free from the fierce grip and got to his feet. Loosing his arm an instant, he drove a heavy blow into Harrison’s face and heard him grunt. But the next moment Harrison surged upon him with all his weight, and Tom despite his utmost effort, was gripped almost helplessly. He put forth every ounce of strength he had. Defeat meant the loss of the raft. But he could not hold Harrison. He was forced down; he went heavily against the slippery logs, and the next instant he felt Harrison’s knee on his chest.
He caught a glimpse of Charlie’s form flitting distractedly around them with gun half raised, and he was afraid of getting an accidental charge of shot himself. Then Charlie seemed to swing the butt. Tom scarcely heard the thud of the blow, for at that instant the logs seemed to give way under him. A great rift opened, and he went down into the black water, with Harrison still clutching him.
For a second he was dazed and went deep down. His enemy’s grip relaxed and fell away. Then, with a half-involuntary stroke, he came toward the surface. His head knocked against something hard. He was under the raft itself.
In terror he struck out blindly. He knew no directions. He might be swimming toward the center of the raft, where he would surely drown. His breath grew short; then, all at once, his head came out into the fresh air, and he filled his lungs with a great gasp. The raft plunged almost over his shoulders. Tom dodged and ducked to escape having his skull crushed, and caught sight of the Indian peering wildly out into the darkness. He shouted hoarsely, and Charlie helped him aboard with an extended pike-pole.
There was no sign of Harrison, neither swimming on the water nor aboard the raft. He might also have gone under the logs, and be drowning there.
“See anything of him—that other man?” Tom gasped; but Charlie shook his head.
“Think him drown, mebbe. Good job, too!”
Tom cast another anxious glance over the water, ready to rescue his late enemy if he sighted him. But just then the front of the raft swung up and down with a tremendous plunge. Several withes gave way with snapping reports, and another crib disengaged itself from the main body. In his confusion and fright, Tom imagined the whole raft was going to pieces under him. The loose crib still hung by one end, however, and he rushed to the pile of material amidships, seized a bundle of rope, and looped one end over the head of one of the great hardwood pins in the loosened crib. Taking a hitch around another bolt-head on the main raft, he tried to bring the two sections together again. Assisted by the pull of the waves, he brought them together inch by inch, closed the gap to a foot’s width, tied the rope firmly, and repeated the lashing in two other places.
He glanced ashore, where there was still no sign of life. Bitterly now he repented his rashness in going in chase of the raft instead of immediately arousing the camp. But the bateau was still there.
“Get into the boat and make for shore as fast as you can, Charlie,” he commanded. “Rouse them up. Tell them the raft is going to pieces.”
“All right!” said the Ojibway, without emotion. “Can’t paddle much ’gainst wind,” he added. “Mebbe have to cross lake—go round.”
“Any way you like—only do it quick!” cried Tom; and just then another crib, whose transverse bar had split, began to break away.
Tom brought more rope and lashed this also, straining at it as Charlie got into the boat and cast off. He saw the Indian struggling hard against the wind and waves, and then lost sight of him in the darkness. Charlie would do the best he could, Tom knew well; it was only a question of whether he could bring help in time.
Another ironwood withe snapped. Fearing that all the cribs would break apart, Tom set to work to strengthen their fastenings. He dragged up the flattened pieces of timber that had been prepared for transverse and cap-pieces, laid them across the logs wherever there was any sign of weakening, and spiked them down with eight-inch spikes, which he drove home with an ax. Not content with that, he lashed the cribs together with rope as long as the rope lasted; then with odd pieces of chain, and then tried to use the withes. But the ironwood saplings were too stiff for one pair of hands to twist.
He ran to and fro, staggering and slipping on the reeling raft, and he looked almost hopelessly at intervals toward the shore. Nothing could be seen of Charlie’s boat. The Indian might have been driven far up the lake, and obliged to make a long detour by land. The camp-fire was nearly a mile away now. It was a mere red point, and there was no sign of any help coming.
The raft was now well into the middle of the lake, and it plunged and tossed fearfully. It had not been built for any such strains; it was threatening to go as the first raft had gone years ago. To keep it together was work for more than one man; and Tom was, after all, an inexperienced raftsman. Over the wet, swaying surface he hastened up and down, spiking down cross-bars and reinforcing the cap-pieces, but, despite his efforts, the timbers continually worked loose. In the darkness it was impossible to see a part giving way till it was almost beyond mending.
All at once, as he crouched over his work, he was aware of a faint glow on the sky. He looked up. One of the camp-fires ashore had sprung suddenly to a tremendous blaze—a vast, glaring flame blown into long streamers by the wind, whose light spread far out over the water, almost, indeed, to the raft itself.
“Charlie’s stirred them up! Hurrah! Who-oo-p! This way!” Tom shrieked. His voice could not have carried half the distance, but almost immediately a second fire flared up. The men ashore could hardly have been able to see the raft, and Tom had no means of making a light, but they would surely know that it would drift down wind. Tom saw the distant scurrying of figures about the shore, and presently a boat pushed off, and then another.
He lost sight of them, but they must have come fast and rowed hard, with the wind behind them. In ten minutes he heard shouts, and he shouted back to give his direction. There was a rattle of oars, and the excited murmur of men’s voices. He saw the boats now, heaving high and low on the waves, and the leading one steered up alongside. Tom hooked it with a pike-pole; the men caught hold, and Mr. Jackson scrambled actively aboard the raft, followed by Joe Lynch and two more men.
“That you, Tom?” cried Mr. Jackson. “Are you all right? How’s the raft?”
“Pretty near breaking up,” Tom shouted back. “I’m all right—a little wet. Tell you about it later. Must get the raft fastened together.”
Mr. Jackson gave Tom’s arm a rough, affectionate squeeze. “Good for you, old boy! We’ll save the timber—don’t fear. Lynch, get the men—”
Big Joe had not needed any orders. With his two men he was already at work on the raft timbers. The other boat came up at this moment, with four more men in her. Lynch ordered two of them to row back to camp at once and bring out all the rope, chain, spikes, and pieces of heavy plank they could lay hands on, for Tom had already used up nearly all the loose material aboard.
That left a crew of five men. They had a doubtful fight before them, for the raft was laboring under the full force of the wind, out in the open lake, and it was already weakened at every joint. But the lumbermen set vigorously to work. In their spiked boots they raced over the shifting logs, retwisting withes, and lashing and spiking cross-bars with a skill that produced more effect than Tom’s inexpert efforts.
Tom still took his share of the work, and so did Mr. Jackson. The lumber dealer ran over the raft as fearlessly and almost as actively as any of the men, encouraging them, taking in the needs of each spot with a quick glance, using ax and pike-pole himself whenever he could. The break-up of the raft seemed checked; the fight seemed a winning one. No more cribs had escaped, and, though the whole framework was badly strained, it seemed capable of holding together at least until the boat came off with more men and material.
But there was no relaxation of effort. Unexpectedly half a dozen of the withed walnut logs broke loose, rolled off the raft, and, being already saturated, went to the bottom almost like stones. All the rope and chain was used up, but the lumbermen brought up more withes and proceeded to make the rest more secure. Tom and his father were bending over among a group of men who bent a thick ironwood sapling. The butt of it was pegged into a huge auger-hole in the lower framework, and it was to be twisted over the walnut and down into the loading timbers beneath. The men put all their brawny arms into it, when the walnut log rolled suddenly with a heave of the raft. The butt of the withe slipped and flew up with the force of a catapult. It touched one man on the shoulder and sent him sprawling, and the full force of it seemed to catch Mr. Jackson on the side of the head. He reeled over, and went off backward into the water.
There was a shout of alarm. Tom poised himself at the edge of the raft, ready to plunge if he should see his father’s head come up. The rest stood ready with pike-poles, but moment and moment passed, and they saw nothing.
“He’s gone under the raft!” exclaimed Tom.
“Cut her apart!” Big Joe yelled. “Never mind them timbers now. The boss is under ’em!”
Recklessly the men chopped the fastenings they had so labored to secure. A crib swung aside and left a strip of black water—empty. Another gap opened, and this time something was floating on it. In another moment a pike hooked the floating clothing, and they drew the lumberman out upon the logs. He was quite unconscious.
“He’s dead!” Tom gasped.
“You bet he ain’t,” said Lynch, who had put his head over the dripping figure. “He’s breathin’, and his heart’s a-beatin’ strong. He ain’t drowned—just knocked out. He’ll come to!”
The men carried him carefully to the center of the raft, the safest place, and Tom sat down beside him in unspeakable anxiety. The men were working afresh to secure the cribs they had cut apart, but for the moment Tom had lost his concern for the raft. Mr. Jackson did not “come to,” as they had hoped. He breathed, but seemed in a heavy stupor, from which he could not rouse. Tom feared his skull might be fractured, and there was no doctor nearer than Ormond.
The other boat came back with three men and more supplies, and the whole crew worked more furiously than ever. Whenever any of them passed the center of the raft they paused to ask after the “boss” and hurried on again. The raft still held together, but Tom gave it only scant thought; and as he sat by his father’s side he saw at last the grayness of dawn begin to spread over the lake.
FIRE AND WATER
The raft was now nearing the northwestern shore of the lake, and luckily its course seemed to carry it into a wide bay, where it would be somewhat sheltered from the weather. The wind was lessening a little, it seemed. It had done deadly work, however. The raft seemed to have lost a third of its area, and all around could be seen floating masses of the soft-wood cribs, which had mostly spilled their walnut loose. But Tom looked at it almost indifferently. His whole thought was concentrated on his father, who still lay unconscious, with a deathlike face.
Big Joe came up and looked down sorrowfully at the boss.
“I guess the raft’s all right now,” he remarked. “She’s going to float right behind that headland, and I’ll have the boys build a boom around her as soon as she gets there. It’ll break the waves. I don’t believe we’ve lost such a lot, after all.
“Don’t you worry, boy,” he added. “Your father’ll be all right. I’ve seen men knocked out a heap worse’n that; you don’t know the rough knocks that lumber-jacks get. We’ll get him ashore just as soon as we get into quieter water.”
It would indeed have been risky to try to get the wounded man into a boat while they were still on those plunging waves, and it was still more than an hour before the raft slowly headed its way behind the long rocky peninsula. Here the water was less broken. They brought one of the boats around to the forward end, carried Mr. Jackson into it with infinite care, and ferried him across the hundred feet of water to the land. Here they constructed a rough stretcher with saplings and boughs, and Tom, Lynch, and two other men set out with it toward camp. The rest of the men remained to make the raft fast and gather up what scattered drift timber they could salvage.
A quarter of a mile down the shore they came upon a crib that had grounded without entirely breaking up. The track of a man’s heavy boots led from it into the woods, and Tom guessed that Harrison had come ashore on those logs. It relieved his mind somewhat, for he did not want to consider himself responsible for the man’s death, but he had not much thought just then to spare on Harrison. Still further down, they sighted a canoe, Charlie’s canoe, which McLeod must have stolen, and in which he had fled from the raft. It had been run ashore roughly, and was badly split down the bow. But, like Harrison, McLeod had left nothing but tracks behind him, and Tom sincerely hoped that he would never see anything more of him.
Arriving at the camp, they put Mr. Jackson to bed in his tent. He seemed partly to revive; his eyes half opened; he muttered something and then sank into unconsciousness again. But even this symptom of returning life was encouraging.
“The nearest doctor’s at Ormond,” said Tom. “I’m going after him at once.”
“Send Charlie down to Oakley,” Lynch suggested. “There’s a doctor there. You might go out to Ormond too, if you like. Maybe one of ’em will be away, and if they both come, no harm done. But say, you’ve got to eat and rest a bit, boy. You look done up.”
Tom indeed felt the strain of the hard night, and his head once more ached splittingly. He summoned Charlie and sent him up the lake to get his canoe. It would have to be calked or patched where it was cracked, and meanwhile Tom swallowed a little breakfast and lay down with the intention of resting half an hour.
He fell into a dead sleep, and was awakened at last by Joe Lynch.
“A fellow’s just come in from Ormond with a telegram for the boss.”
Tom took the yellow envelope and sat up in a daze. Gathering his wits, he opened the message:
Assigned to Erie Bank. Creditors’ meeting Wednesday night. Letter follows. Wire further instructions.
Wednesday night! It flashed upon Tom that to-day was Wednesday. He jumped out, bolted from the tent, and confronted the messenger. The telegram had been sent on Saturday, and was directed to the Royal Victoria Hotel.
“Why didn’t this get here sooner?” he demanded angrily.
“We didn’t get it till yesterday. I started out with it as soon as I could, but I tried to take a short cut and got turned around. Had to stay in the bush all night.”
Tom stifled an exclamation of impatience and despair. Armstrong had given up hope and made an assignment after all, unaware of all the wealth they had been accumulating in the north. Tom did some hard thinking in that moment. If the bankruptcy went through they might pay a hundred cents on the dollar, but it would leave nothing else. If it could be averted, the walnut would float the business with ease, with a prospect of better fortune.
“How long was I asleep? How’s father?” he demanded.
“You slept more’n an hour. Didn’t like to rouse you,” said Joe. “The boss kinder roused up once and said something, but then went off again. But I reckon he’s better.”
Tom went to look at Mr. Jackson, who looked slightly less deadlike, he thought. He would have given almost anything to be able to consult with him for just five minutes. But at this crisis of the whole affair Tom was forced to shoulder the entire responsibility.
If it was humanly possible he would have to get to Toronto in time to stop that creditors’ meeting that night. The assignment could be withdrawn. As yet probably nothing irrevocable had been done, but by to-morrow the arrangements for liquidation would have been made, and it might be too late.
He could, indeed, send a telegram to Mr. Armstrong if he could reach the wire in time; but he doubted whether that would be enough. The situation needed a personal explanation.
He knew that a stage left Oakley, connecting with the morning train going down.
“What’s the shortest way to the railroad?” he demanded. “I’ve got to get to the city by evening.”
“Well, there’s the morning train down from Ormond,” said the messenger. “But you can’t make it. It’ll take you ’most all day to get to Ormond.”
“That’s mebbe the shortest way, but it ain’t nohow the quickest,” remarked Lynch. “Leastways, if you’ve got a canoe. I reckon Charlie’s got his pretty near patched up by this time.”
“How do you mean?” Tom demanded.
“Why, paddle down to the foot of Little Coboconk, and then right down the river, for mebbe fifteen or sixteen miles. You’ve been that way. You remember where a little creek runs out through a big swamp and into the river? Well, you land on the side opposite the creek, and the railway ain’t much more’n five miles straight west, right across the bush. It’ll be rough traveling, maybe, but you ought to make it in three or four hours.”
Tom glanced at his watch. It was just after seven o’clock. The train left Ormond at ten-thirty. He could surely make it. A moment later Charlie came up for instructions, having finished the repairs to his canoe.
“Hold on, Charlie! I’m going with you,” Tom exclaimed. “I’ll try it, Lynch. Are you sure the raft’s safe?”
“Safe as if she was in the sawmill. You can trust her to me. Trust the boss to us, too. Charlie can go on to Oakley and bring back the doctor.”
“And mind you telegraph me what he says,” Tom insisted. “Here’s my Toronto address. But I’ll be back here in three or four days, I hope.”
It did not occur to Tom to change into his city clothes. He hastened to get into the canoe, taking the bow paddle while Charlie sat at the stern; and they started down the lake, almost in the face of the wind, which still blew strongly.
It was rough, breathless paddling, though they hugged the shelter of the shore as much as possible. They made slow time on that stage of the journey, but when they reached the river things went more easily. The river ran swiftly and was rather shallow now, but there was always plenty of water for the canoe, and the faster the current the better. Down the stream they shot, past the old trail to Uncle Phil’s ranch, around the wide curves bordered by the incessant green of the spruces, silently and swiftly, with a speed that filled Tom with renewed hope. He was in fine physical condition; the hour’s rest had restored him, and the rough and sleepless night behind him had left only a nervous tension that for the time being actually stimulated his sinews.
At half-past eight by his watch he felt sure that they must have come nearly ten miles. He suddenly smelled smoke, and was alarmed.
“What’s that, Charlie? Fire?” he called over his shoulder.
The Ojibway sniffed.
“Fire—sure. Long piece from here, though,” he answered.
Smoke certainly smelled strong in the air, coming up on the wind, but no fire was anywhere in sight. The river grew wider and deeper, running with a strength that almost outstripped the paddles. The miles reeled off swiftly. Tom was keeping a close watch on the shore, and it was not much after nine o’clock when he shouted to Charlie and pointed ashore.
On the left bank a great tamarac swamp came down to the water, and just opposite them a small creek flowed sluggishly into the river, oozing through a jungle of evergreen and fern.
“Hold on!” he cried, and the steersman guided the canoe ashore. He looked at the landmarks more carefully. It must be the place Lynch had meant. Somewhere about five miles to the west lay the railway.
“I stop here, Charlie,” he said hurriedly. “You go on to Oakley as fast as you can paddle, and get the doctor. I’ll be back soon.”
Charlie had already been provided with a note for the doctor, tucked safely inside his felt hat. He nodded impassively.
“Sure, I go quick, Tom,” he said. “I watch for you come back.”
He put Tom ashore, and went on down the stream with quick paddle-strokes, not once glancing back. Tom did not stay to watch him, either. He glanced at the compass on his watch-chain and struck straight in from the river.
The train was due at half-past ten. He had an hour, and long-distance running had been his speciality in track athletics. It was only five miles, and, however rough the country might be, he felt quite confident of being able to cover the distance in time.
For a little way he had to go slowly, pushing his path through a dense tangle of spruce and tamarac, but, once well away from the river, the woods opened out. He went up and down one rolling ridge after another, splashed through a rock-strewn brook or two, crossed a strip of level forest, and then had to slow down for a last year’s burned slash, where the ground was terribly encumbered with dead, charred logs and jagged spikes of branches and roots.
A smell of smoke seemed to hang about the place still, he fancied, and then a veering gust brought him a whiff of smoke that was certainly fresh. He was afraid to swerve from the compass bee-line, but he felt extremely uneasy. He passed the old “burn” and entered a region of jack-pine, and presently there was no mistaking the bluish haze and the odor of ashes and smoke that filled the air. Then the woods ceased all at once, and he found himself on the edge of a great ruined slash that fire had made within two or three days, at the most.
He halted, despairingly. There seemed no end to the burned strip, north or south, and he could get no clear notion of its width, for the air was full of smoke and clouds of fine ashes that drove in whirls before the wind. It might not be very wide, but it looked too dangerous to cross. Yet he felt sure that he must be near the railroad; he had surely come three or four miles, and as he stood irresolute he heard the long blast of a locomotive far away through the trees.
He thought it was miles up toward Ormond. The railway must be only a short distance ahead, and he plunged desperately into the smoky belt.
The fire was really entirely burned out, as he discovered immediately, but at the first steps he went ankle-deep in ashes, and felt the heat strike through his boot-soles. The ground was still hot, and beds of embers smoldered here and there beneath the ashes.
His heart almost failed him again. He might step into a mass of hot coals that would scorch and cripple him. But there was no way around; he had to cross this barrier or give up, and he went on again, moving in long leaps to touch the ground as little as possible. Wherever he could, he paused on a log to gain breath and lay his course.
The ground was cumbered with masses of fallen trees, charred, spiky, a continual chevaux-de-frise of tangled stubs and roots. They lay at every possible angle, and Tom had to edge his way round them, climb over, or squeeze through. It was like the “burn” he had already crossed, but this one was fresh and hot. By sheer good luck he escaped stepping into any spots of fire, but the ground burned under his feet, and the ashes rose in smothering clouds as he plowed through them.
The ground was treacherous under its thick gray covering. It was mined with holes and strewn with hidden entanglements. Two or three times Tom tripped and went headlong, almost choked in the ashes. His eyes grew filled with the fine powder; he could not see clearly nor make sure of his directions, and he had a terrible feeling that his strength was failing.
He heard the locomotive whistle again, and much nearer. It spoke failure, he thought. He could never reach the station now in time for the train. To his blurred eyes his watch seemed to mark half-past ten already. He was desperately tired, and burning with thirst. He thought that he might as well rest a little; he longed more than anything to sink down in the ashes, anywhere, and sleep.
Still he kept doggedly moving, driven by he hardly knew what force. The rest of the journey was a kind of nightmare, whose details he could never quite remember. Hours seemed to pass in the torment of that suffocating atmosphere—hours of intense heat, of stumbling, of terrible thirst, and of overwhelming exhaustion. Then he seemed to see trees ahead. They were charred evergreens, but the carpet of hot ash ceased, and a little beyond he saw the cool, blessed green of living spruces.
Stimulated now by the consciousness that he had come through, he made a last spurt, and in a few minutes he emerged suddenly upon the railway. He stopped, confusedly; and then perceived, a hundred yards down the track, a red-painted wooden station and the smoke of a locomotive.
He rushed toward it. The place was no more than a flag-station with a log house or two in the background; and this was not a passenger-train that stood there. It was not even a mixed train; it was a long freight-train, engaged just then in coupling up a few flat-cars loaded with fresh-cut ties.
The conductor was standing on the platform, talking leisurely with the station agent, and they both stared in amazement as Tom dashed up, blackened, ash-smeared, and wild-eyed.
“Give me a ticket to Toronto!” he exclaimed. “Am I in time? Has the train—”
“The morning train went down half an hour ago,” said the agent. “There’s no other till six-fifteen to-night. What’s the matter—anything happened?”
“What time does that night train reach Toronto?”
“At ten, when she’s on time.”
That would be hours too late. Tom’s heart went down like lead. He had lost the race after all. He felt discouraged and utterly played out, but a last resource occurred to him.
“Can’t you fix me up to go down on this freight?” he pleaded.
“It’s against the rules to carry any passengers on freight-trains,” said the agent. “Can’t be done, I’m afraid. Besides, this freight only goes to Bala Junction, forty miles down.”
Tom turned away, tears rising irrepressibly in his eyes. This time he seemed to have reached a barrier which there was no passing. He saw the agent and the conductor looking curiously after him, as he walked down to the end of the platform. It occurred to him that he ought to telegraph at any rate; and he went into the station and wrote a rather long message for Mr. Armstrong and another to the manager of the Erie Bank.
The agent came in to take the messages. Tom had money in his pocket; he paid for them, and went out to the platform again, where the freight conductor watched the manipulation of his train. It was going to Bala Junction, and Bala Junction, Tom remembered, was on the main line north from Toronto. Many trains passed that point daily. If he could get there, he could surely make a connection for the city that afternoon. The conductor looked good-natured, and Tom ventured to approach him.
“Look here, can’t you let me ride as far as Bala Junction?” he entreated. “It’s an important matter—almost life and death. I’ll pay fare,—double fare, if you like,—but I’ve got to get to the city by seven o’clock.”
“My boy,” returned the conductor, not unkindly. “You heard what the agent said. I’m not allowed to carry any passengers at all—might get into trouble if I did. But,” he added, “there’s an empty box-car half-way up the train, and I’d never know whether there was anybody in it or not. We get to the Junction half an hour before the south-bound express arrives.”
Tom burst out with a grateful ejaculation, but the conductor winked at him, and then turned and looked rigidly in the other direction. The boy rushed down the track alongside the train, found the open door of the box-car, and swung himself into it. He sat down on the floor in a corner, and almost instantly lapsed into a sort of stupor of weariness, from which he was roused by the violent shock and crash of the train’s getting under way. He saw the station slide past the open door; the endless line of spruce trunks succeeded it. The train gathered speed; he was really started for the city at last.
It was not a comfortable ride. The freight-cars jolted and pitched, crashing together with shattering jolts as the train slackened or increased speed. Despite this, however, Tom dozed during a good deal of the forty miles to Bala, arousing fully only at the occasional halts. No one came near him, and nobody appeared to see him when he slipped out of his box-car at the Junction, and made haste to buy his ticket for Toronto on the express.
The express was late, and he filled in the time by endeavoring to brush and clean himself a little, with imperfect success. He obtained something to eat at the lunch-counter, and paced up and down the platform counting the minutes. The express arrived at last, and he was the only passenger to get aboard. He longed to take a sleeper berth, but he was so disreputable-looking that he dared not attempt it. He feared even to enter the first-class coaches, and dropped into a seat in the smoker.
The hard part of the journey was over. Everything depended now on the train, and he resigned himself to chance, with a dull fatalism. He had done all he could, and he was too deadly weary to speculate any more upon his chances of winning. He slept through most of the journey, and came out, dazed and confused, upon the platform of the Union Station, to see the big illuminated face of the clock indicating eight.
It stung him again to desperate anxiety. He hastened to a telephone booth in the waiting-room and called Mr. Armstrong’s office. Central was unable to get any answer. The office must be closed. He then rang up the lawyer’s house. A woman’s voice answered.
“Mr. Armstrong is downtown, attending a business meeting at the King Edward Hotel. Is there any message?”
Tom dropped the receiver into the hook. He knew well what that business meeting was. They were holding it at the King Edward, then. Luckily, the hotel was not far from the depot, and a direct street-car line carried him there in five minutes.
The throng of well-dressed people about the door of the big hotel stared at the grimed, smoky, ragged young man who burst in, and the outraged door-porter made an ineffectual grab to stop him. Few such disreputable figures had ever passed that portal. Tom cast a rapid glance around the leather chairs of the marble lobby, failed to spy the face he sought, and hurried up to the desk.
“Mr. Henry Armstrong—the lawyer—is he here?”
“Haven’t seen him,” returned the clerk, eyeing Tom with indignation, and he beckoned privately to a porter, indicating that the young man should be removed.
Tom glanced over the lobby again. He would have to wait. He dropped into one of the big easy-chairs, but the porter laid a hard hand on his shoulder.
“Come now, you can’t sit here. You’ve got to get out.”
Tom rose, confused and humiliated. He was aware of scores of curious and amused faces looking at him. The porter was edging him toward the exit, when somebody touched his arm.
“Bless my soul, Tom Jackson! I saw you come in, but didn’t know you. What in the world have you been doing to yourself?”
Tom almost gasped with deep relief. It was Mr. Armstrong himself, who had been in conversation with a small, alert-looking man with a gray mustache.
“Where’s your father? I got your telegram, but couldn’t make out what you were driving at,” pursued the lawyer.
“Father’s badly hurt. The meeting—is it over yet?” Tom exclaimed, choking with excitement.
“The meeting? No, it hasn’t started yet. We’re waiting for one of the important men. This is Mr. Laforce, of the Erie Bank. He says he had a telegram from you, too.”
“Of course I wired him!” cried Tom. “You must call the meeting off. We’re not bankrupt. We’re all right now. We’ve got upward of fifty thousand feet of good black walnut, worth three hundred dollars a thousand—as good as cash—”
Mr. Laforce gave Tom a keen glance.
“You have, eh? Your wire sounded mysterious. Something in this, Armstrong?”
“I think it’s worth looking into,” said Mr. Armstrong, laughing.
“If you’ve got all that, I guess the bank can carry you,” continued the financier. “Of course we don’t want to push Matt Jackson into bankruptcy. I guess anyway we’d better call the meeting postponed.”
That meeting was never held. Tom held a long conference with the lawyer and the banker that evening, going home at last to his deserted house, to tumble into bed and sleep like one dead till the middle of the next forenoon. Late that day a telegram arrived from the north:
Boss waked up and doing good. Doctor says no danger. Raft safe.
Tom had another long talk over a dinner-table with Armstrong that evening, finding the lawyer more human than he had ever considered him before. The next morning he left for the Coboconk lakes again, accompanied by a representative of the Erie Bank.
They found Mr. Jackson conscious and much recovered, weak indeed, but eager to be out again. The skull had not been fractured; he had suffered merely a concussion, and had been half drowned into the bargain, and when Tom and his companion arrived he insisted on sitting up and talking business.
The big raft still lay behind its boom in the northern bay, and was an imposing sight, even after all the damage it had suffered. Nearly a third of it had broken away in the storm. Some of the cribs had remained afloat; some had gone ashore; and Lynch had been energetically picking up everything that could be salvaged. Much of the walnut had been spilled off the loose cribs, but altogether Lynch estimated that they still had a good hundred and twenty thousand feet.
At any rate the sight of the timber so impressed the bank representative that he willingly agreed to “carry” the business a little longer. All that remained was to get the timber out. Mr. Jackson had originally thought of sawing it up at Oakley, but finally decided to team the logs out from that place and ship it to Toronto, where the precious wood could be more carefully handled.
They had to wait several days for a north wind to enable the raft to go down the lake, and during this time, to Tom’s immense surprise, appeared his cousin Dave. With some embarrassment Dave explained that the “gold boom” had turned out a disappointment. He had staked some claims, but there was nothing in them. He looked over the raft with amazement and some chagrin.
“To think that I spent two years within a mile of all that and never knew it!” he commented.
“We’ll give you a job as Lynch’s lieutenant—four dollars a day and board,” Tom suggested, laughing.
Dave declined. He was needed on the farm, but he gladly accepted the return of the fifteen dollars that Tom had borrowed at that critical moment in the woods.
The raft went down to Oakley without mishap, a timely rainfall having swollen the river to a good depth, and it aroused great excitement at that town. Here they broke it up, and for a long time the heavy logging teams were busy, slowly hauling the timber out to the railway.
Two dozen logs or so vanished mysteriously between Oakley and Toronto, but the rest of the timber was stored safely in Mr. Jackson’s yards to dry out thoroughly. It was then carefully sawed up. It sold somewhat slowly but at a high price, and not a scrap of it was wasted. Altogether, the walnut brought a gross sum of $44,000, besides several hundred dollars obtained from the rough spruce and jack-pine of the floats, which was left at Oakley.
Charlie followed the raft down to Oakley and hung about till the last load was teamed out. Tom looked forward with genuine regret to saying good-by to this companion who had stood by him through so many adventures. By way of deadening the farewell, he sent to Toronto for a magnificent repeating-rifle with a stock of ammunition, a new canoe, a miscellaneous camp outfit, and a set of traps, and presented this unexpected wealth to Charlie just before he left.
“If you ever need anything, Charlie,” he said, “if the trapping turns out bad or you have any trouble, you go to my uncle Phil Jackson. You know where he lives. He’ll give you anything you want.”
The Ojibway looked over the new outfit, which would make him the envy of all his tribe, and raised his eyes to Tom’s, full of a deep glow.
“You good fellow, Tom,” he said. “You come back some time, mebbe. I watch for you.”
“Sure I’ll come back, Charlie,” Tom promised. “We’ll go trapping together yet.”
Thus far, however, Tom has not gone back. He reëntered the university that autumn, with renewed ambition to finish his studies; and, without altogether neglecting collegiate athletics, he spent most of his spare time in his father’s office and yards.
The forty-odd thousand dollars was not a fortune, but it carried the business over a bad time, and was enough to set Mr. Jackson on his feet again. Though, as he says, the lumber trade is no longer what it used to be, the Jackson establishment seems to be prospering. After Tom’s graduation, however, the office stationery bore the new heading:
MATTHEW JACKSON & SON.
Perhaps the change brought luck.