"I'll be in the middle of it, a club in each hand," promised Flagg. And his molten ponderings kept alight the fires in his face.
They halted for the night at one of the Flagg store depots and were lodged in the office camp, reserved sacred to the master and his boss.
Latisan slept in the bunk above the master.
Flagg had been silent all the evening, poring over the accounts that the storekeeper had turned over.
He sighed frequently; he seemed to be weary. After a time he kicked off his larrigans and rolled into his bunk, ready dressed as he had stood. He seemed to lack the volition to remove his clothing.
He was snoring calmly when Latisan went to sleep.
Sometime in the night the young man awoke. The sounds which he heard below him were not the snores of a man who was sleeping peacefully. There was something ominous about the spasmodic and stertorous breathing.
Latisan slipped to the floor and lighted a lamp. He found the wide eyes of Flagg staring from the gloom of the bunk.
"What is it, Mr. Flagg? What is the matter?" he asked, with solicitude.
Flagg slowly reached with his left hand, picked up his right hand, and when he released it the hand fell as helplessly as so much dead flesh. "That's it," he said, without apparent emotion. "It's a shock." He employed the colloquial name for a stroke of paralysis. "My mother was that way. I've been afraid of it—have expected it, as you might say. Mother lived ten years after her shock. I hope to God I won't. For it has taken me just when I'm ready to put up my best fight—and it's my good right hand, Latisan, my right hand!"
That was Flagg's reiterated lament on the journey back to Adonia. "It's my right hand, Latisan!"
Ward had insisted on being the charioteer for the stricken master, promising to rush back to headwaters and take charge of the crew. He tried to console the old man by urging that getting in touch as soon as possible with capable doctors might restore his strength. "It may be only a clot in the brain, sir. Such cases have been helped."
"It's my right hand. It's like my mother's. She never could lift it again."
They had started before dawn; a gibbous moon shed enough light on the tote road to serve Latisan. Flagg was couched on a sled, his blanket propped up by hay. His scepter, the curiously marked cant dog, lay beside him. He had made sure of that before he allowed the team to start.
"I propose to be your right hand in so far as I'm able, Mr. Flagg," declared Latisan, at last, pricked by the repeatedly iterated plaint. "You can depend on me just as far as I can stretch my ability."
"But you told me you didn't like me for myself. You said you were joining drives with me because I was proposing to fight. Now I can't fight. No man will do my fighting for me unless he likes me for myself."
"I'll do it for you, sir," insisted Ward, determinedly. "It's right in line with my plans. I'll take your orders. I'll come to you regularly at Adonia. You shall know every move. I'll be merely your right hand to do what you want done."
"I'm a hard man with my help, Latisan. You have agreed with me on that point. I shall be ugly when I'm chained up. I shall say something to you, and then you'll quit."
Latisan had been looking the situation squarely in the eye on his own account. He was confronted by something wholly outside all his calculations. He had enlisted merely as a lieutenant and had never considered that he would be called on to assume authority as chief in the field. He had been led to serve with Flagg because the old man was the personification of permanency in the north country—seemed to be something that could not be shaken by the assaults of the Comas—a man who impressed all as being above the hazards of death and accident. Somehow, after all the years and because he had been there as a fixture through so many changes, Echford Flagg was viewed as something perennial—as sure as sunrise, as solid and everlasting as the peak of Jerusalem Knob, which overshadowed the big house on the ledges at Adonia; he was a reality to tie to in a fight against a common foe.
But right then he was a whimpering old man who plucked and fumbled at a dead right hand.
He was as helpless as a little man whom Latisan had plucked from a brutal clutch of an assailant in front of a bulletin board. Craig was still able enough. Craig was man size. Craig would be even more vicious when the news of Flagg's condition reached him; he would perceive his opportunity.
"It's sort of the code up where I come from. There's no objection to a clean fight. But if you don't pick your bigness you must expect that your bigness will offer himself mighty sudden." Latisan was not recollecting what he had said to the chaps of Tech; he was putting before his mind one of his fundamental principles as he listened to the laments of the stricken giant and urged the horses down the tote road. Craig would keep on fighting; but Flagg was no longer of Craig's bigness. There was only one thing for Latisan to do—so that was why he put so much of determination and warmth into his pledges to a man whom he did not like from a personal standpoint. Flagg could not understand why this stranger should be loyal; the old man's wits were numbed along with his body.
"I'll be ripping at you with my tongue, because it's been my style—and I'll be worse when I'm penned up." Flagg could not seem to hope for any reform in himself. He was accepting his nature as something forged permanently in the fires of his experience, not to be remolded.
"I'm not thin-skinned, sir. If you can't keep from abusing me about business details, go ahead and abuse. It will ease your feelings and the abuse will not hurt me, because I don't propose to do anything knowingly to justify abuse. Twitting on real facts is what hurts. You hired me because you knew I had good reasons for fighting the Comas on account of the principle involved in the stand of the independents; you know that I still have the reasons, no matter how much your tongue may run away with you about foolish details."
He was looking forward to an opportunity to place himself even more definitely on record in the hearing of Flagg. After the sun was up Latisan expected to be able to grasp that opportunity at almost any turn of the tote road. He knew he would meet the upcoming crew. Flagg's horses on the trip north had made twice the speed of the plodding woods teams, and the crew had been ordered to spend the night at any camp where darkness overtook them.
Latisan heard, long before he came in sight of them, the shrill yells with which sled load interchanged repartee with sled load; everlastingly there was the monotone of the singers. It was plain that the same spirit of gay adventure was inspiring the men.
The tote road was a one-track thoroughfare; Latisan picked a cleared knoll at one side for his turnout switch and swung his horses up there in order to give the heavy sleds passage.
"How the hell can they come singing? Stop 'em," moaned Flagg.
There were half a dozen sleds in close procession, and Ward's upflung hand halted them when the leading sled came abreast.
By his own efforts Flagg propped himself into a sitting posture, braced by his left arm.
Men leaped off the sleds and crowded forward in a phalanx, cupping with their ranks the sledge where their master was couched. Voices were hushed and eyes were wide.
"I've been hit a wallop, boys," quavered the old man. "Overnight it has hit me. Shock. It ain't surprising at my age. Mother had the same."
For that moment Flagg had put aside the shell of his nature; he found instant sympathy in the gaze which rough men of the forest bestowed on a stricken one of their ilk. He was responding to that sympathy. There were tears in his eyes.
"Men, I'm hurrying Mr. Flagg home where he can be looked after by the doctors. I'm sure he'll soon be all right again," Latisan assured them, lying for the good of the cause. "In the meantime I'm saying to him for myself that I'm standing by for every ounce that's in me. What do you say to him?"
"The same!" they yelled, in a ragged chorus.
"Fact is," went on Ward, as spokesman for all, "to make up for your not being with us, Mr. Flagg, we've got to put in twice as many licks because you're not on the job, and you can depend on us. What, boys?"
They bellowed promises and shrieked a pledge.
"Get along to headwaters and start to rolling the jackstraws onto the ice," shouted Latisan. "Have the dynamite warmed when I get back there. If we have to do it, well beat the April rains to the job."
They went on their way, cheering.
"You've heard us. It ought to help some," stated Ward, urging his team along toward Adonia.
"The songs of the angels never will sound any better, and the angels will never look any better than those men did just now," declared the old man, still in his softened mood.
Latisan turned about and grinned at the master.
"I know what you mean," averred Flagg. "Of course I know. I was after pirates and I've got the toughest gang in the north country. Feed 'em raw meat, Latisan!"
Over the snow, which was slushy under the April sun of midday, and finally into Adonia over the rutted grit that the evening chill had frozen, the baron of the Noda was driven to the door of his mansion on the ledges.
Latisan had picked up men at the tavern as helpers.
A hail brought out a little old man whose white, close beard and fluffy hair gave his face the appearance of a likeness set into a frame of cotton batting. It was Rickety Dick; Brophy had told Latisan about him. He flung his hands above his head; it was his involuntary action when deep emotion stirred him; and his customary ejaculation was, "Praise the Lord!" It was possible that he would have shouted those words even then without regard to their irrelevance; but he was not able to utter a sound when Brophy and Latisan and the other men came bearing Flagg into the house.
The master stoutly refused to be laid in his bed. There was his big armchair in the middle of the sitting room; he commanded that he be placed there. "I can't fight lying down. If I can't stand up, I can sit up."
"Praise the Lord!" cried old Dick, finding an opportunity to interject his thanksgiving phrase.
"I'll come to you often, Mr. Flagg," promised Ward, taking leave. "I'll not neglect matters up the river, of course. But I want you to feel that I'm merely your right hand, moving according to your orders."
He went away with a thrill of sympathy inspiring his new resolution in behalf of the master's interests. The spectacle that he closed the door on had pathos in it. The tyrant of the Noda was shut away from the woods where he had ruled—away from the rush of white water under the prow of his great bateau; he could hear only the tantalizing summons of the cataract whose thunder boomed above the village of Adonia.
Latisan had promised to send for the best doctors in the city—he had a messenger already on the way. But he knew well enough that Echford Flagg, if he lived, was doomed to sit in that big chair and wield his scepter vicariously. And Latisan knew, too, what sort of the torments of perdition Flagg would endure on that account.
In the office of Brophy's tavern Rufus Craig, apparently a casual wayfarer, was sitting when Latisan entered after leaving the big house on the ledges.
Craig either felt or assumed contrite concern. "Excuse me, Latisan, but is it true that Mr. Flagg has suffered a stroke of paralysis?"
"It is true, sir."
"I'm sorry. I'm not on pleasant terms with him, or with you, for that matter. But I hate to see a good fighter struck down."
Latisan went to the desk and wrote his name on a leaf of the dog-eared register. He proposed to stay the night at Brophy's and start north in the morning.
"Go up and take Number Ten," said Brophy, who had been called as a helper and who had walked down from the mansion with Latisan.
When Craig plodded heavily along the upper corridor, on his way to bed a little later, the door of Number Ten was open for ventilation; Latisan was smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper which he had picked up in the tavern office. His stare, directed at Craig over the top of the newspaper, was inhospitable when the Comas man stopped and leaned against the door jamb.
"Latisan, I'm presuming on that frankness of yours; you have bragged about it in the past."
"That was before my experience with you in the Walpole matter, sir. But go ahead! What do you want?"
"You're over here in the Noda region, according to your threat. You may be willing to inform me as to your status in the Flagg proposition, now the old man is on his back."
"Mr. Flagg has put me in full charge of his drive."
"Has he delegated to you any authority to compromise?"
"There ought to be an opportunity to compromise, now that he's down and out."
"I just left Mr. Flagg sitting in his chair, and he says he intends to keep sitting there. Therefore, he isn't down."
"Is his mind clear for business?"
"I should say so—yes!"
Craig tipped his hat and scratched the side of his head. "Then I'm afraid there isn't much use in my going to him to talk compromise," he confessed.
"That's your affair, Mr. Craig."
"And your affair—where he's concerned——"
"Is to bring down his drive."
"He has threatened a big fight at Skulltree. You heard him."
"And if he gives his orders to blow hell out of the bottom of the river, I suppose you'll obey, eh?"
"He has ordered me to bring his logs into the hold-boom here at Adonia. I have promised to do so. I see no need of going into details of how I'm to do it." Latisan raised the shield of his newspaper in front of his face.
But Craig persisted. He had promised the Noda to his superiors; he had not been sure how he could maneuver to deliver, but his past success had impelled him to go on with his cocksure pledges of performance; he was spurred by a hint of a raise in salary, a gift of Comas common stock; he had depended on the situation at Skulltree as his principal weapon, if bravado backed the special legislative act. But that act had been juggled, just as Echford Flagg had asserted. The thing was ticklish, and Craig knew it. Anger and apprehensiveness were working twin leverage on the Comas executive.
"Latisan, by coming over here into the Noda and grabbing in where you have no timber interests of your own, you have shown your animus. You have made it a personal matter between you and me."
"There's a lot of truth in what you say," admitted Ward, lowering his shield. "Let's exchange accusations! You held that Walpole heir up your sleeve till we had our cut on the landings. If you had worked such a trick on my grandfather he wouldn't be sitting on this chair, as I'm doing. He'd be kicking you around this tavern. I'll save my strength for the Flagg drive."
"I've got some frankness of my own, Latisan. I'm at a point where my future with the Comas is in the balance, and I'm going to fight for that future. I'm not asking you to lie down. But you have it in your power—the circumstances being as they are—to swing the Flagg interests in with ours to mutual advantage. Why isn't that better than a fight?"
"It would be better!"
But Latisan added: "For your interests! You're afraid of a fight—at Skulltree!"
"Yes, I am," blurted Craig, trying candor. "Let's arrange a hitch-up!"
"Now the trouble with that plan is this," returned Latisan, quietly, slowly. "It can't be done, not with a man like you've shown yourself to be. Hold in your temper, Mr. Craig! You're coming round now to ask square men to deal with you. You can't appeal on the ground of friendship—you haven't tried to make any friends up here. You have played too many tricks. We're all doubtful in regard to your good faith, no matter what the proposition may be. We can't deal with you. It's all your own doing. You are paying the penalty."
"Much obliged for the sermon!"
"I could say a lot more, but it wouldn't amount to anything in your case."
"Then it has settled into a personal fight between you and me, has it?"
"Bluntly speaking, yes!"
"You have accused me of playing tricks!" Craig's rage burst bounds. "You young hick, you have never seen real tricks yet! You don't think I'm coming after you with fists or a cant dog, do you?"
"I wish you were younger and would try it!"
"I'm from the city. In the city we use our brains. Latisan, I have tried to show you in the past that the Comas means business. If you'll go back to the Toban, where you belong, I'll do something for you on that Walpole matter, now that I've taught you a lesson."
"The Latisans are not out after charity, Mr. Craig."
"You're out after punishment—a damnation good smashing, personally, and you're going to get it!"
Latisan leaped from his chair and slammed the door suddenly and violently; expecting an attack. Craig leaped back and saved his fingers from a jamming.
From behind his curtain in the morning he saw Latisan drive the Flagg team into the tavern yard.
"I'll be coming down often, Brophy, to see Mr. Flagg. I'll depend on you to save out a room for me."
"Number Ten is yours if it suits."
Craig grunted with the satisfaction of one who had received interesting information; knowledge that Latisan would be regularly in Adonia helped some plans which the director had been revolving.
Latisan lashed his horses away toward the north.
Craig took the forenoon train down over the narrow-gauge, headed for New York. He was seeking that aid of which he had boasted—city brains. In handling certain affairs of his in the past he had found the Vose-Mern Detective Agency both crafty and active—and the roundabout method of craft, he decided, was the proper way to get at Latisan, without involving the Comas folks in any scandal.
Not cattishly, but with patronizing pity, Miss Leigh, bookkeeper, remarked to Miss Javotte, filing clerk, that if Miss Kennard did not change that green toque with the white quill to something else pretty soon, she could be identified by her hat better than by her fingerprints.
Miss Leigh had been showing one of her new spring hats to Miss Javotte; she was able to express a sotto voce opinion about Miss Kennard's toque because Miss Kennard, stenographer, was rattling her typewriter full tilt. Miss Javotte agreed, spreading her fingers fan shape and inspecting certain rings with calm satisfaction. "And not even a rock—only that same old-fashioned cameo thing—speaking of fingers."
"I was speaking of fingerprints," said Miss Leigh, tartly, frowning at the display of rings, perfectly well aware that they were not bought on the installment plan out of a filing clerk's wages.
It was quite natural for Miss Leigh to speak of fingerprints. She was an employe in the Vose-Mern offices. "Vose-Mern Bureau of Investigation" was the designation on the street corridor directory board of a building in the purlieus of New York City Hall. On the same board other parties frankly advertised themselves as detectives. The Vose-Mern agency called its men and women by the name of operatives. The scope of its activities was unlimited. It broke strikes, put secret agents into manufacturing concerns to stimulate efficiency, or calculatingly and in cold blood put other agents in to wreck a concern in the interests of a rival. It was a matter of fees. Mern could defend the ethics of such procedure with interesting arguments; he had been an inspector of police and held ironic views of human nature; he had invented an anticipatory system, so he called it, by which he "hothoused" criminal proclivities in a person in order to show the person's latent possibilities up to an employer before damage had been wrought to the employer's business or funds. That is to say—and this for the proper understanding of Mr. Mern's code in his operations as he moved in the special matters of which this tale treats—his agency deliberately set women of the type well hit off by the name "vamps"; "sicked" those women onto bank clerks and others who could get a hand into a till, and if the women were able to cajole the victim to the point of stealing or of grabbing in order to make a get-away to foreign parts with the temptress, the trick was considered legitimate work of the "anticipatory" sort. The operative would order the treasure cached, would appoint the day and hour for the get-away—and a plain-clothes man would be waiting at the cache! The Vose-Mern system thus nabbed the culprit, who had revealed his lack of moral fiber by reason of the hothouse forcing of the situation; Mern insisted that if the germ were there it should be forced. By his plan the loot was pulled back and returned to the owner.
Mern had broken the big paper-mill strike for the Comas Consolidated; he calmly assured his clients that he could furnish a thousand men as well as one. When he did a thing it was expensive—for he had bands of picked men always on call, and the men must be paid during their loafing intervals, waiting for other strikes.
Craig had been close to Mern during the strike. Mern stated that the ethics of the law allowed a lawyer to defend and extricate, if he could, a criminal whom he knew was hideously guilty; the lawyer's smartness was applauded if he won by law against justice. Mern excused on the same lines his willingness to accept any sort of a commission. It was a heartless attitude—Mern admitted that it was and said that he didn't pose as a demon. He seemed to get a lot of comfort out of declaring that if the fellow he was chasing had the grit and smartness to turn around and do Mern up, Mern would heartily give the fellow three cheers. Thus did Mern put his remarkable business on the plane of a man-to-man fight by his argument, not admitting that there was any baseness in his plots and his persecution.
Miss Lida Kennard, as confidential stenographer, was deep into the methods of Mern. It was Mern's unvarying custom to have Miss Kennard in to listen to and take down all that a client had to state. She was extremely shocked in the first stages of her association with the Vose-Mern agency by the nature of the commissions undertaken. But it was the best position she had secured, after climbing the ladder through the offices of more or less impecunious attorneys. She needed the good pay because her mother was an invalid; she continued to need the pay after her mother died. There were bills to be settled. She had grown used to setting the installments on those bills ahead of new hats, and the cameo ring which had been her mother's keepsake was for the sake of memory, not adornment.
By dint of usage, the Vose-Mern business had come to seem to her like a real business. Certainly some big men came and solicited Mern's aid and appeared to think that his methods were proper. In course of time, listening to Mern's ethics, she came to accept matters at their practical value and ceased to analyze them for the sake of seeking for nice balances of right and wrong. She was in and of the Vose-Mern organization! She sat in on conferences, wrote down placidly plots for doing up men who had not had the foresight to hire Mern—Vose had been merely an old detective, and he was dead—and she sometimes entertained a vague ambition to be an operative herself. She liked pretty hats and handsome rings—though she was scornfully averse to the Leigh-Javotte system as she was acquainted with it by the chance remarks the associates dropped. As to operatives—Miss Kennard had heard—well, she had heard Miss Elsham, for instance, a crack operative, reveal what the rewards of the regular work were; and, the way Miss Elsham looked at it, a girl did not have to lower her self-respect.
In the midst of these thoughts, getting a side glance at the new hat which Miss Leigh was showing to Miss Javotte, Miss Kennard was called to conference; the buzzer summoned her.
Mern introduced her to the client of the day; the chief made that his custom; it always seemed to put the client more at his ease because an introduction made her an important member of the party—and Mern stressed the "confidential secretary" thing.
The client was Director Craig of the Comas company.
He rose with a haste which betrayed a natural susceptibility to the charms of pretty women. He cooed at her rather than spoke, altering his natural tone, smoothing out all the harshness; it was that clumsy gallantry by which coarse men strive to pay court to charm.
The girl warranted the approving gaze which Mr. Craig gave to her. He looked from her frank eyes to her copper-bronze hair, which seemed to have a glint of sunshine in its waves. He liked the uplift of that round chin—he remembered that it had seemed to indicate spirit—and he liked spunk in a girl. He had enjoyed the conferences of the days of the strike-breaking when he could survey her profile as she busied herself with her writing, admiring the beauty curve of her lips.
Now he was thrilled by her manner of recognition; he had not expected that much.
"I remember you, Mr. Craig," she assured the big man, her fingers as firm in the grip as were his. "You were in here so much on the strike matter two years ago."
"That's a long time for a New York young lady to remember a man from the north woods."
"To save myself from seeming like a flatterer, I must say it's because of the woods feature that I remember you so well. The forest interests me. I'm afraid I'm inclined to be very foolish about the woods. Why, in a cafeteria—last fall—there was——"
But she checked herself and flushed. She turned to Mern. "I beg your pardon. I'm ready." She sat down and opened her notebook.
"But what about it?" quizzed Craig.
"A mere chance meeting with a man from the north country. I really don't understand why I mentioned it. My interest in the woods—the thought of the woods—tripped my tongue." She nodded to the stolid Mern as if to remind him of the business in hand, and Mern ducked his square head at Craig.
It was the habit of Mern to go thoroughly over a case with a client before calling in Miss Kennard. At the second going-over in her presence the topic was better shaken down, was in a more solidified form for her notebook. The Comas director had already told his story once to the chief.
Craig leaned back in his chair and gazed up at the ceiling, again collecting his data in his mind. He had dictated before to Miss Kennard and knew how Mern wanted his names and his facts. "Subject, the spring drives on the Noda water. Object, hanging up or blocking the independent drive of Echford Flagg and——"
Miss Kennard's pencil slipped somehow. It fell from her fingers, bounced from the floor on its rubber tip, and ticked off the sharpened lead when it hit the floor again.
Lida darted for it, picked it up, and ran out of the room. "I'm going for another," she explained.
She was gone for some time. Craig glanced out of the window into the slaty sky, from which rain was falling. It was a day unseasonably warm and humid for early spring. "I hope it's raining in the Noda. But it's just as liable to be snow. Latisan can't do much yet awhile." He looked at his watch as if starting the Noda drives was a matter of minutes. He was showing some impatience when Miss Kennard returned. She went to the window, and sat in a chair there, her face turned from them. "If you don't mind," she apologized. "It's on account of the light. I can hear perfectly from here."
She heard then that the Comas wanted to put Echford Flagg down and out as an operator, now that paralysis had stricken him. She had Craig's assurance delivered to Mern that, without a certain Ward Latisan old Flagg would not be able to bring his drive down. The Comas director declared that an ordinary boss could never get along with the devils who made up the crew. He declared further that Latisan was of a sort to suit desperadoes and had put into the crew some kind of fire which made the men dangerous to vested interests on the river. He devoted himself to Latisan with subdued profanity, despite the presence of the young woman. He averred that Latisan himself had no love for Flagg—nobody up-country gave a tinker's hoot for Flagg, anyway. He insisted, desperate in spite of certain modifying private convictions, that Latisan could be pried off the job if some kind of a tricky influence could be brought to bear or if his interest in the fight, as just a fight, could be dulled or shifted to something else or side-tracked by a ruse. He pictured Flagg as a man for whom nobody would stand up in his present state, now that he was sick and out of the game.
"I hate to kick a cripple, even in my business," demurred Mern. "I have flashes of decency," he continued, dryly. "You seem to be particularly set on getting to the lumberjack, Latisan. Can't you do him up, and then let Flagg have half a show for this season—probably his last?"
"Now you're talking of violence to Latisan, aren't you?"
"Let the plug-ugly have what he seems to be looking for," advised Mern. "That is, if I get it straight from you what his nature is."
"He's all of that—what I have said," reaffirmed Craig, venomously. "But look here, Mern, you can't go up into that region, where everything is wide open to all men, and kill a man or abduct him. I'm obliged to gum-shoe. I have to keep my own executive details away from the home office, even. We're waiting on the courts for law and on the legislature for more favors." Craig was sweating copiously, and he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "It's touchy business. If I can pull old Flagg into camp, it's my biggest stroke outside of nailing the Latisans in the Tomah. A monopoly will give us settled prices and control of the flowage. But I insist on doing the job through Latisan. I'm after him! Now do some thinking for me. No violence, however—nothing which can be traced to the Three C's."
In the silence Miss Kennard asked, "How do you spell Latisan, Mr. Craig?"
He told her. "First name Ward. He's the grandson of old John of the Tomah."
"I'm trying to get the facts straight for Mr. Mern. Do I understand you to say that the Latisans have failed in their business?"
"They're down and out. I gave the young fool a good tip to save the remnants, but he wouldn't take it. The only thing I'll give him after this is poison—if it can't be traced to me or my company."
Mern had swung about in his chair, his vacant stare on the murky sky, doing the thinking to which he had been exhorted by his client. "Suppose I slip a picked crowd of my operatives into his crew?"
"He's too wise to take on strangers. And while he's on the job with the crew the men are so full of that hell-whoop spirit that they can't be tampered with. Mern, he's got to be cut out of the herd."
"What's his particular failing?"
Craig, if his sour rage against Latisan had been less intense, might have been less ready to believe that Latisan had taken several months off as a prodigal son. But Craig wanted to believe that the young man had been doing what scandal said he had done. That belief strengthened Craig's hopes. He affected to believe in the reports. He told Mern that Latisan had been leading a sporting life in the city until the family money gave out.
"How about bumping him on his soft spot?"
Craig asked questions with his eyes, blinking away the perspiration.
"With a girl," Mern explained. "With one who looks as if she had been picked right out of the rosy middle of the big bouquet he was attracted by in the city. With the background of the woods, a single bloomer will surely hold his attention."
Craig showed interest; he had been obliged to pass up violence, bribery, bluster. This new plan promised subtlety and subterfuge that would let out the Three C's. "Got her?"
"Call Miss Elsham on the phone, Miss Kennard! You may do it from the other room. Ask her to hurry down."
The girl, her face hidden from them, paused at the door. "Are there more notes? Shall I come back?" She was having difficulty with her voice, but the men were now talking eagerly about the new plan, and her discomposure was not remarked.
"I think not," said Mern. "Write out what you have. Make especially full characterizations of Flagg and Latisan as you have gathered facts about them from our talk." He had found Miss Kennard to be especially apt in that work. Not only did she deduce character from descriptions, but she worked in many valuable suggestions as to how men of a certain nature should be handled. She seemed to understand the vagaries of men's dispositions very well indeed.
"What's the matter with Ken?" muttered Miss Javotte, nudging the bookkeeper.
Lida had flung her arms across the frame of her typewriter and had hidden her face in her hands.
"Headache," returned Miss Leigh, sapiently. "That toque has struck into the brain. No girl ought to take chances that way."
However, by the time Miss Marguerite Elsham—having given full attention to her person and attire—arrived at the office, Miss Kennard had completed her manuscript and the sheets were lying at Mern's elbow on his desk.
In order to bridge a part of the gap of waiting Mern had given his client some information about Miss Elsham and her ability.
"Very competent on the coax, Mr. Craig. Last job was a paying teller. He had twenty thousand in his jeans when he stepped out of the taxi that had taken him and Elsham to the steamer dock. Tickets for Rio! Crowley, our pinch artist, nabbed him and bawled out Elsham, who was weeping in the cab. Crowley and Elsham work well together. You understand that if she goes to the woods Crowley must go along on the side. They won't appear as knowing each other. But Crowley may be called on to shove his mitt between Elsham and trouble."
"I don't care how many are on pay—if you achieve results," said Craig.
The field director, introduced to Miss Elsham when she entered breezily, termed her in his thoughts as being at least a 1925 model. He wondered just what words he would find in the way of advice about toning down her style for north country operations.
She took her seat sideways on the edge of Mern's desk, thus testifying to her sure standing in the establishment, her tightly drawn skirt displaying an attractive contour. For a fleeting moment—hating Latisan so venomously—Craig rather envied Latisan his prospects as a victim.
Miss Elsham produced a silver cigarette case, lighted up, and exhaled twin streams of smoke from a shapely nose. "Shoot!" she counseled.
Mern, after his slow fashion, fumbled with the sheets of Miss Kennard's manuscript.
Miss Elsham thriftily utilized the moments allowed her by Mern's hesitation. She always tried to impress a client favorably. "I don't presume to pick and choose when it comes to cases," she informed Craig. "I'm an All-for-the-good-cause Anne! But I hope—I'm allowed to hope, I suppose—I do hope that my next one is going to remember some of the lessons he learned at mother's knee. The last one had forgotten everything. I was dragged through cafes till at the present time a red-shaded table lamp and a menu card make me want to bite holes in any man with a napkin over his arm. I've danced to jazz and listened to cabaret——"
Mern was trying to say something, but she rattled on: "And that flask on his hip—he must have done all his breathing while he was asleep; he never allowed time enough between drinks while he was awake."
"The next one is different," stated Mern.
"Much obliged! But of course it's cafes again and——"
Mern sliced off her complaints, chopping his flat hand to and fro in the air. "Nothing to it, sis! It's a tall-timber job, this time."
"In the woods—the real woods," supplemented Craig.
"Great!" indorsed Miss Elsham, accustomed to meeting all phases of action with agility. "I've just seen a movie with that kind of a girl in it. Leggings and knicks. I can see myself. Great!"
Director Craig surveyed her and nodded approvingly.
"We'll decide on what part you'll play before we measure you for a rig," objected the chief, with his official caution. "Listen to the size-up of your man." He began to read from Miss Kennard's manuscript. "'Ward Latisan. Young woodsman. Has lived and worked among rough men and has no particular amount of moral stamina, a fact shown by his desertion of his father in time of need in order to indulge in orgies in the city.'"
"Oh, it's to go and set my hook and fish him out of the woods, and then he and I lean on our elbows across from each other—the cafes some more," said Miss Elsham, pouting.
Mern suspended, for a moment, his reading and addressed Craig. "Miss Kennard, of course, is sizing up according to what you have said of Latisan. You're sure about his weakness for dames, are you? We don't want to give Miss Elsham any wrong tips."
Craig hung tenaciously to his estimate of Latisan, in no mood to uproot the opinion which gossip had implanted and hatred had watered. And at the end of his arraignment he attempted an awkward compliment. "And even if he could have stood out against the Queen of Sheba up till now, I'll say he'll——" Craig gazed with humid indorsement of Miss Elsham's attractions and waved his hand in the way of a mute completion of the sentence.
Miss Elsham smiled broadly and patted together her manicured thumbnails. "Loud applause!" she cried. "Pardon me if I don't blush, sir. I have used up my stock. The last case was oozing with flattery—after the flask had got in its work."
Mern went on with his reading, portraying the character of Latisan as Miss Kennard had gathered and assimilated data. She had even gone to the extent of giving Latisan a black mustache and evil eyes.
"Hold on," objected Craig. "Nothing was said about his looks. She's picking that up because I was strong on how he had acted. He doesn't look as savage as he is; he fools a lot of folks that way," stated Craig, in surly tones.
"Well, how will I know when I meet up with him in the woods?"
"You go to the Adonia tavern and make your headquarters, and you won't miss him. How does the thing look to you as a proposition?" demanded Craig, solicitously. "You ought to know pretty well what you can do with men, by this time."
Miss Elsham tossed away her cigarette butt and referred mutely to Mern by a wave of her hand.
"She always gets 'em—gets the better of the best of 'em. Rest easy," said the chief.
"And it must be worked easy," warned Craig, catching at the word. "That's why you're in it, Miss Elsham, instead of its being a man's fight up there. We can't afford to let Latisan slam that drive down through our logs, as he threatens to do. If he does it—if we turn on Flagg and sue for damages, as we can do, of course—court action will only bring out a lot of stuff that better be kept covered. I want the agency to understand fully, Mern!"
"I'm achieving results without showing all the details to the home office. And I'm not a pirate. You spoke of kicking a cripple, Mern. We'll take over Flagg's logs as soon as he gets reasonable. His fight is only an old notion about the independents sticking on. Sawmills are in our way these days. Flagg is done, anyway. He ought to be saved from himself. I'm after Latisan. He's ready to fight and to ruin Flagg," declared Mr. Craig, with a fine assumption of righteous desire to aid a fallen foe, "just to carry out his grudge against me—using Flagg's property as his tool. It'll be too bad. So get busy, Miss Elsham—and keep him busy—off the drive."
"Read on, Chief," she implored Mern. "I'm seeing as quick as this just how I'll do it."
The conference continued.
When Miss Elsham departed she stopped in the main office on her way out. "Good-by, girls! I'm off for the big sticks. I'll bring each of you a tree."
She went to a mirror, taking out her vanity case. Beside the mirror were hooks for hats and outer garments. "Perfect dream!" she commented, examining a hat. "Whose?"
"Mine," said Miss Leigh.
Miss Elsham took the hat in admiring hands, dislodging a green toque, which fell upon the floor. She did not notice the mishap to the toque and left it where it had fallen. She touched up her countenance and went away.
"Your hat is on the floor," Miss Leigh informed Miss Kennard. The girl did not reply; she was looking down upon the keys of her typewriter, and her demeanor suggested that her heart was on the floor, too.
When Lida sat by the open window of her room that evening her depression had become doleful to the point of despair.
The night was unseasonably warm with enervating humidity; in that atmosphere the dormant germs of the girl's general disgust with the metropolis and all its affairs were incubated. Breathing the heavy air which sulked at the window, she pondered on the hale refreshment of the northern forests. But it seemed to her that there was no honesty in the woods any more. That day, fate searching her out at last, she had been dragged in as a party in a plot against her stricken grandfather. She indulged her repugnance to her employment; it had become hateful beyond all endurance. Her association with the cynical business of the agency and her knowledge of the ethics of Mern had been undermining the foundations of her own innate sense of what was inherently right, she reflected, taking account of stock.
Dispassionately considered, it was not right for her to use her acquired knowledge of the plot against Echford Flagg in order to circumvent the plans of an employer who trusted her. But after a while she resolutely broke away from the petty business of weighing the right and the wrong against each other; she was bold enough to term it petty business in her thoughts and realized fully, when she did so, that her Vose-Mern occupation had damaged her natural rectitude more than she had apprehended.
But there was something more subtle, on that miasmatic metropolitan night, something farther back than the new determination to break away from Mern and all his works of mischief. It was not merely a call of family loyalty, a resolve to stand by the grandfather who had disowned his kin. She was not sure how much she did care for the hard old man of the woods. But right then, without her complete realization of what the subtle feeling was, the avatar of the spirit of the Open Places was rising in her. She longed avidly for the sight and the sound of many soughing trees. She was urged to go to her own in some far place where her feet could touch the honest earth instead of being insulated by the pavements which were stropped glossy by the hurry of the multitude.
That urge really was just as insistent as consideration of the personal elements involved, though she did not admit it, not being able to analyze her emotions very keenly right then. Family affection needs propinquity and service to develop it. Her sentiments in regard to Echford Flagg were vague. This Latisan, whoever he was, was plainly a rough character with doubtful morals who was loyal to a grudge instead of to her grandfather. She knew what the Elsham girl had been able to with other men, in the blase city; it stood to reason that in the woods, having no rivals to divert the attentions of a victim, Elsham would be still more effective.
At last, having kept her thoughts away from an especial topic because of the shame that still dwelt with her, Lida faced what she knew was the real and greater reason for her growing determination to step between Echford Flagg and his enemies. Alfred Kennard had stolen money from Echford Flagg. Sylvia Kennard had grieved her heart out over the thing. There were the bitter letters which Lida had found among her mother's papers after Sylvia died. The mother had torn the name from the bottoms of those letters; it was as if she had endeavored to shield Echford Flagg from the signed proof of utter heartlessness.
The debt to Echford Flagg had not been canceled. Could the daughter of Alfred Kennard repay in some degree for the sake of the father? That sense of duty surmounted all qualms involved in the betrayal of an employer, if it could be called betrayal, considering the ethics that had been adopted and preached by Mern.
It was midnight when she reached her firm decision. She would go to the north country. She would do her best, single-handed, as opportunity might present itself. She would fight without allowing her grandfather to know her identity. Perhaps she might tell him when it was all over, if she won. The debt was owed by the father; it might help if it was known that the daughter had paid. Then she would go away; it was not in her mind to gain any favor for herself. If she merely ran to him, tattling an exposure of the plot, Echford Flagg, if her well-grounded estimate of his character were correct, might repudiate her as a mere tale-bearer; she remembered enough to know that he was a square fighter. She felt that she had some of the Flagg spirit of that sort in her. She had been fighting her battle with the world without asking odds of anybody or seeking favors from her only kin.
She would go north and do her best, for her own, according to the code she had laid down.
She was conscious then, having made up her mind, of the subtle longing that was back of the fierce impatience to repay her father's debt: the woods of the north and the hale spirit of the Open Places were calling her home again.
She would not admit to herself that she was engaged in a quixotic enterprise, and in order to keep herself from making that admission she resolutely turned her thoughts away from plans. To ponder on plans would surely sap her courage. She could not foresee what would confront her in the north country and she was glad because her ideas on that point were hazy. It was not in her mind to hide herself from the other operatives of the Vose-Mern agency when she was at the scene; her experience had acquainted her with the efficacy of guile in working with human nature, and she was well aware that her bold presence where the operatives were making their campaign would prove such a mixture of honesty and guile that Miss Elsham and Crowley, and even Mern, himself, when he learned, would be obliged to expend a portion of their energy on guessing.
She did not know how or whether one girl could prevail against the organization threatening her grandfather and Latisan, but she was fully determined to find out.
She served the agency dutifully for one more day. She learned that the two operatives had started for the north.
A day later she departed from New York on their trail. She did not inform Chief Mern that she was leaving.
Adonia, terminus of the narrow-gauge, has one train arrival per day, in the late afternoon. That arrival always attracts the populace of the village. The train brings freight and mail and passengers.
Ward Latisan had come down from the headwaters of the Noda and was at the station, waiting for the train. He had ordered more dynamite for the drive and proposed to take especial charge of the consignment. The drive was starting off slowly. There was ice in the gorges; the first logs through would have the freshet head of water. Latisan had heard more threats and he had definitely detected the trigs which the river bosses of the Three C's were laying—and he had ordered more dynamite!
The arriving train dragged slowly into the station and Latisan kept pace with the freight car which was attached next behind the locomotive.
The conductor swung off the steps of the coach before the train halted. He hailed Latisan, calling the name loudly. He beckoned with vigor and the drive master swung around and walked back to meet the trainman.
"I did my best, Latisan, to have your shipment loaded from the freight car on the main line, but they wouldn't let me."
"Our super. He was acting under orders from higher up. There was a special officer on hand to see that the orders were obeyed. Law says that explosives shall not be conveyed on a mixed train."
"I know all about that law," retorted Latisan. "But it has been eased up on in these parts because you pull a passenger coach on every train."
"But law is law; it has been jammed down on us!"
"You mean that Craig has put the twist ring into your snout," shouted the drive master. "And he's leading your railroad by the nose like he's leading a good many others in the Noda country."
"I'm only a hired man——"
"And the Three C's will have everybody in this section hired if the money holds out, and that's the hell of it!"
"Look here, Latisan, you're on railroad property, and that's no kind of talk to have over in front of passengers."
The train was at a standstill; the new arrivals were on the platform.
Latisan, well advertised by the name the conductor had bawled, glanced around and perceived that he was the center of observation. Especially was he concerned with the direct stare of a young woman; she continued to regard him steadfastly and he allowed his attention to be engaged with her for a moment.
Latisan had his own mental tags for womankind; this was "a lady." He had set himself back to the plane of the woods and his rough associates. He felt a woodsman's naive embarrassment in the presence of a lady. Her survey of him was rebuke for his language, he was sure. There could be no other reason why "a lady" should look at a man who was fresh down from the drive, unshaven and roughly garbed. She was from town, he could see that. Those sparkling eyes seemed like something that was aimed at him; he was in a helpless, hands-up sort of mood!
He pulled off his cap. He had the courageous frankness of sincere manhood, at any rate. "I'm sorry! I was expecting dynamite. It didn't come. I blew up just the same."
The lady smiled.
Then she turned and started away.
A stout man had been standing close behind her. Nobody among the loungers at the railroad station entertained any doubt whatever as to just what this stranger was. His clothes, his sample case, his ogling eyes, his hat cockily perched on one side of his head proclaimed him "a fresh drummer," according to Adonia estimates.
He leaped forward and caught step with the girl. "Pardon! But I'm going your way! Allow me!" He set his hand on her traveling case.
She halted and frowned. "I thank you. I can carry it myself!"
"But I heard you asking the conductor the way to the hotel. I'm going right there!"
"So am I, sir! But not in your company."
"Oh, come on and be sociable! We're the only two of our kind up among these bushwhackers."
Miss Elsham's fellow operative was stressing his play; he grabbed away her bag. "We may as well get a quick rise out of him," muttered Crowley. It was a plan they had devised in case their man should help their luck by being at the railroad station.
"I'll call an officer!" she threatened.
"You don't need to," Latisan informed her. He had followed the couple. "Besides, there isn't any. The only place they need officers is in a city where a rab like this is let run loose." He leaped to the stout chap and yanked away the girl's bag. "I'll carry it if you're going to the tavern."
She accepted his proffer with another smile—a smile into which she put a touch of understanding comradeship. They walked along together.
There was no conversation. The spring flood of the Noda tumbled past the village in a series of falls, and the earth was jarred, and there was an everlasting grumble in the air. The loungers stared with great interest when the drive master and the girl went picking their way along the muddy road.
The volunteer squire delivered the traveling bag into the hand of Martin Brophy, who was on the porch of the tavern, his eye cocked to see what guests the train had delivered into his net. Mr. Brophy handled the bag gingerly and was greatly flustered when the self-possessed young lady demanded a room with a bath.
Latisan did not wait to listen to Brophy's apologies in behalf of his tavern's facilities. He touched his cap to the discomposing stranger and marched up to the big house on the ledges; he was not approaching with alacrity what was ahead of him.
He had arrived in Adonia from headwaters the previous evening, and had spent as much of that evening as his endurance would allow, listening to Echford Flagg, sitting in his big chair and cursing the fetters of fate and paralysis. Unable to use his limbs, he exercised his tongue all the more.
That forenoon and again in the afternoon Latisan had gone to the big house and had submitted himself to unreasonable complaints when he reported on what was going forward at headwaters. He had ventured to expostulate when the master told him how the thing ought to be done.
"No two drive bosses operate the same, sir. And the whole situation is different this season."
"It was your offer to be my right hand, young Latisan—and I'm drive boss still! You move as I order and command."
Ward was wondering how long the Latisan temperament could be restrained. In the matter of Craig at the tavern the scion of old John had been afforded disquieting evidence that the temperament was not to be trusted too far.
He entered the mansion without knocking; it was the custom.
Flagg was reading aloud from a big Bible for which Rickety Dick had rigged props on the arm of the chair. Dick was sitting on a low stool, the sole auditor of the master's declamation. The old servitor was peeling onions from a dish between his knees; therefore, his tears of the moment were of questionable nature.
The caller stood for a time outside the open door of the room, averse to tempting the hazard of Flagg's temper by an interruption of what seemed to be absorbing all the attention of the old man.
"'My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones. He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. He hath set me in dark places as they that be dead of old. He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out: he hath made my chain heavy.'"
Flagg halted and looked up from the page. "Lamentations—lamentations, Dick! The best of 'em have whined when the smash came. It's human nature to let out a holler. Jeremiah did it. I'm in good company; it ain't crying baby; it's putting up a real man holler. It's——"
Latisan stepped through the doorway.
Flagg instantly grabbed at a wooden spill that made a marker in the volume and nipped back the pages. He shook aloft his clinched left hand. He raised his voice and boomed. "'And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.'"
Flagg beat his knotted fist on the open page. "Do you hear that, Latisan? That's for you. I hunted it up. I haven't had time till now to read the Bible like I should. Plenty of good stuff in it—but in the Old Testament, mind you! Too much turn-your-cheek stuff in the New Testament. 'Eye for an eye.' Do you know who said that?"
"No, sir. I'm sorry to admit it, but——"
"God Almighty said it. Said it to Moses on the mount. First straight-arm orders from God to man. It ought to be good enough for you and me, hadn't it? Take it for rule o' conduct, and if Rufe Craig says anything to you on the drive refer him here—to headquarters!" Again he beat his fist on the page.
"I don't know what part of the Bible Craig ought to study, sir, but some of it ought to be good for him. I'm just from the train. They wouldn't load our dynamite at the junction. Craig is behind that!"
"Wouldn't haul our dynamite?" raged Flagg. "And he has been shipping his canned thunder through here for Skulltree by the carload! Latisan, you're falling down on the job. When I, myself, was attending to it, my dynamite was loaded for Adonia all right enough!"
The drive master did not reply to that amazing shifting of blame to him.
"Did you say what ought to be said to that conductor?"
"When I started to say something he bawled me out for using that kind of language on railroad property."
Flagg lifted the useless right hand with his left, let it fall again, and groaned. "How many times, and where, did you hit him? And then what did you say?"
"I did not hit him, sir. I said nothing more. And there was a lady present."
Flagg choked and struggled with words before he could speak. "Do you mean to tell me you're allowing any ladee"—he put exquisite inflection of sarcasm on the word—"to stand betwixt you and your duty, when that duty is plain? Latisan, they tell me that you're a sapgag where women are concerned. I'm told that you have been down to the city and——"
"Mr. Flagg, we'll stick to the subject of the dynamite!" broke in the young man, sharply.
"Women are the same thing and belong in the talk."
"Then we'll stick to the dynamite that comes in boxes." Latisan was just as peremptory as the master and was hurrying his business; he felt the dog of the Latisan temperament slipping neck from the leash. "You may have been able to make 'em haul dynamite for you, in spite of the law. I can't make 'em, it seems. I'm here merely to report, and to say that I'll have the dynamite up from the junction just the same." He started for the door.
"By tote team—three times the cost! My Gawd! why ain't I out and around?" lamented the Adonia Jeremiah.
Latisan wanted to say that he would pay the extra cost of transportation out of his own pocket, if that would save argument, but he did not dare to trust himself. He hurried out of the big house and slammed the door.
On his way down the hill he was obliged to marshal a small host of reasons for hanging on to his job; the desire to quit then and there was looming large, potent, imperative.
He was still scowling when he tramped into the office of the tavern where many loafers were assembled. Through the haze of tobacco smoke he saw Martin Brophy beckoning, and went to the desk. Brophy ran his smutted finger along under a name; "Mrs. Dana Haines Everett, New York City."
"She has been asking for you. Matter o' business, she says. I've had to give her the front parlor for her room. Say, she's the kind that gets what she goes after, I reckon. Is eating her supper served in there private. Never was done in my tavern before."
"Business—with me?" demanded Latisan. "Brophy, what's her own business in these parts?"
"Can't seem to find out," admitted the landlord, and the young man bestowed on Brophy an expansive grin which was a comment on the latter's well-known penchant for gimleting in search of information. "Will say, however, that she's a widder—grass if I ain't much mistook—believes that a woman is equal to a man and should have all a man's privileges about going around by her lonesome if she so feels."
"Well, you seem to have extracted a fair amount of information, considering that she's hardly got her feet planted."
"Oh," confessed Brophy, "it came out because I made her mad when I hinted that it was kind of queer for a woman to be traveling around alone up here. Well, now that they're voting, you can look for 'most anything. What shall I tell her from you when I take in her pie?"
"I'll wait on the lady after I eat my supper."
When the drive master was ushered into the parlor-presence by the landlord, the lady was sitting in front of an open Franklin stove, smoking a cigarette. She had made a change in attire since her arrival, the new garb suggesting that she proposed to suit herself to the nature of the region to which she had come. She was in knickerbocker costume, had tipped back her chair, one foot on the hearth and the other foot propped on her knee, and she asked Latisan to sit down, pointing to a chair beside her. She offered a cigarette with a real masculine offhandedness. The caller faltered something about a pipe. She insisted that he smoke his pipe. "It rather puts strangers at their ease, don't you think, a little tobacco haze in the room?"
Latisan, packing the bowl of his briar, agreed.
"I take it that you're well acquainted with this region?"
"Fairly so, though I know the Tomah country better."
"You're a guide, I understand."
"I don't understand where you got that information, madam," replied the drive master, a bit pricked.
"I don't remember that anybody did tell me that in so many words. Somehow it was my impression. But no matter. Please listen a moment." She smiled on him, checking his attempt at a statement regarding himself; she had conned her little speech and used her best vocabulary to impress this woodsman. "No doubt you have something very important in the way of occupation. A man of your bearing is bound to. You needn't thank me for a compliment—I'm very frank. That's the way to get on and accomplish things quickly. So I'm frank enough to say it's my habit to meet men on the plane of man to man. Please do not regard me as a woman—that sort of stuff is old-fashioned in these days. I vote and pay taxes. Yet if I were merely a woman you gave evidence on the station platform to-day that you know how to protect one from insults. I was attracted by that trait in you—and afterwards minded your own business quite after my heart. I need outdoor life. I'm up here early for the first fishing. I want to tour the woods. I may invest in timberlands. Putting out of your mind all this foolish sex matter—as I have explained my man-to-man theory—will you go with me? I'll have a cook, of course. Pardon my sudden reference to pay—I'll pay you twice what you're getting now—providing you're working for wages."
"I am working for wages. And I can't leave the work."
"What is it?"
"I'm the master of the Flagg drive on these waters."
"And you prefer to boss rough men and endure hardship rather than to come with me?"
The bitterness of the last interview with Flagg was still with Latisan. "If it was a matter of preference—but that isn't the way of it!" He returned her gaze and flushed. In spite of his resolve to go on with the battle that was ahead, he was tempted, and acknowledged to himself the fact; but Flagg was trying him cruelly.
"You have been the drive master here for a long time—that's why you cannot be spared?" She tossed away her cigarette and gave him earnest attention.
"I'm just beginning my work with Flagg."
"Then of course you're not vital. Let the man who used to be master——"
"That was Flagg, himself. He's laid up with paralysis."
"Oh!" she drawled, provokingly. "A matter of conscientiousness—loyal devotion—champion of the weak—or a young man's opportunity to be lord of all for the future!"
"He's an old devil to work for, and the job promises no future," blurted Latisan, his manner leaving no doubt as to his feelings.
"Then come with me," she invited. "If I get to own timberlands, who knows?"
He shook his head. "There are reasons why I can't quit—not this season."
"I hoped I'd seem to you like a good and sufficient reason," she returned, insinuatingly; in her anxiety to make a quick job of it, in her cynical estimate of men as she had been finding them out in the city, she was venturing to employ her usual methods as a temptress, naturally falling into the habit of past procedure.
She found it difficult to interpret the sudden look he gave her, but her perspicacity warned her that she was on the wrong tack with this man of the north country.
"I'm afraid you're finding me a peculiar person, Mr. Latisan," she hastened to say. "I am. I'm quick to judge and quick to decide. Your gallantry at the railroad station influenced me in your behalf. I like your manners. And I know now what's in your mind! You think it will be very easy for me to find somebody else as a guide—and you're quite sure that you can't give up your responsibility for a woman's whim."
The drive master owned to himself that she had called the turn.
"I'll continue with my frankness, Mr. Latisan. It's rather more than a guide I'm looking for on that man-to-man plane I have mentioned. You can readily understand. I need good advice about land. Therefore, mine is not exactly a whim, any more than your present determination to go on with your job is a whim. This matter has come to us very suddenly. Suppose we think it over. We'll have another talk. At any rate, you can advise me in regard to other men."
She rose and extended her hand. "We can be very good friends, I trust."
He took her hand in a warm clasp. "I'll do what I can—be sure of that."
"I feel very much alone all of a sudden. I'm depending on you. You're not going back to the drive right away, are you?" she asked, anxiously.
"I'll be held here for a day or so." The matter of the dynamite was on his mind.
"Good!" she said, and patted his arm when he turned to leave the room.
Latisan took the forenoon train down from Adonia to the junction the next day. He was keeping his own counsel about his intent.
He had done some busy thinking during the evening after he left the new star boarder in her parlor. In spite of his efforts to confine his attention, in his thoughts, to business, he could not keep his mind wholly off her attractive personality and her peculiar proposition. He was obliged to whip up his wrath in order to get solidly down to the Flagg affairs.
By the time he went to sleep he knew that he was determinedly ugly. There was the slur of Flagg about his slack efficiency in meeting the schemes of Craig. There was the ireful consciousness that the narrow-gauge folks were giving him a raw deal on that dynamite matter. They had hauled plenty of explosive for the Comas—for Craig. To admit at the outset of his career on the Noda that he could not get what the Three C's folks were getting—to advertise his impotency by making a twenty-mile tote trip over slushy and rutted roads—was a mighty poor send-off as a boss, he told himself. He knew what sort of tattle would pursue him.
The stout young man—that "drummer"—was at the station. Latisan was uncomfortably conscious that this person had been displaying more or less interest in him. In the dining room at breakfast, in the office among the loafers, and now at the railroad station the stranger kept his eyes on Latisan.
The drive master was just as ugly as he had been when he went to sleep. He was keeping his temper on a wire edge for the purposes of the job of that day, as he had planned the affair. He did not go up to the impertinent drummer and cuff his ears, but the stranger did not know how narrowly he escaped that visitation of resentment.
The fellow remained on the platform when the train pulled out; it occurred to Latisan that the fresh individual maybe wished to make sure of a clear field in order to pursue his crude tactics with the lady of the parlor.
After the arrival at the junction Latisan had matters which gave him no time to ponder on the possible plight of the lady.
As he had ascertained by cautious inquiry, the crew of the narrow-gauge train left it on its spur track unattended while they ate at a boarding house. There were workmen in the yard of a lumber mill near the station, loafing after they had eaten their lunches from their pails. The Flagg dynamite was in a side-tracked freight car of the standard gauge. Latisan promptly learned that the lumber-yard chaps were ready and willing to earn a bit of change during their nooning. He grabbed in with them; the boxes of dynamite were soon transferred to the freight car of the narrow-gauge and stacked in one end of the car. Latisan paid off his crew and posted himself on top of the dynamite. In one hand he held a coupling pin; prominently displayed in the other hand was a fuse.
"I'm in here—the dynamite is here," he informed the conductor when that official appeared at the door of the car, red-faced after hearing the news of the transfer. "I'm only demanding the same deal you have given the Three C's. You know you're wrong. Damn the law! I'm riding to Adonia with this freight. What's that? Go ahead and bring on your train crew." He brandished coupling pin and fuse. "If you push me too far you'll have a week's job picking up the splinters of this train."
Bravado was not doing all the work for Latisan in that emergency. The conductor's conscience was not entirely easy; he had made an exception in the case of the Three C's—and Craig, attending to the matter before he went to New York, had borne down hard on the need of soft-pedal tactics. The conductor was not prepared to risk things with canned thunder in boxes and an explosive young man whose possession just then was nine points and a considerable fraction.
Latisan was left to himself.
At last the train from downcountry rumbled in, halted briefly, and went on its way. From his place in the end of the freight car Latisan could command only a narrow slice of outdoors through the open side door. Persons paraded past on their way to the coach of the narrow-gauge. He could see their backs only. There had been a thrill for him in the job he had just performed; he promptly got a new and more lively thrill even though he ridiculed his sensations a moment later. Among the heads of the arrivals he got a glimpse of an object for which he had stretched his neck and strained his eyes—the anxious soul of him in his eyes—on the street in New York City. He saw a green toque with a white quill.
As though a girl—such a girl as he judged her to be—would still be wearing the same hat, all those months later! But that hat and the very cock of the angle of the quill formed, in a way, the one especially vivid memory of his life. However, he had a vague, bachelor notion that women's hats resembled their whims—often changed and never twice alike, and he based no hopes on what he had seen.
Whoever she was, she was on the train. But there were stations between the junction and Adonia—not villages, but the mouths of roads which led far into remote regions where a green toque could not be traced readily. He acutely desired to inform himself regarding the face under that hat. But he had made possession the full ten points of his law, sitting on that load of dynamite. What if he should allow that train crew an opening and give Echford Flagg complete confirmation of the report that his drive master was a sapgag with women?
After the intenseness of the thrill died out of him he smiled at the idea that a chance meeting in New York could be followed up in this fashion in the north country. At any rate, he had something with which to busy his thoughts during the slow drag of the train up to Adonia, and he was able to forget in some measure that he was sitting on dynamite and would face even more menacing explosives of another kind when the drive was on its way.
He posted himself in the side door of the car when the train rolled along beside the platform at Adonia. He had ordered men of the Flagg outfit to be at the station with sleds, waiting for the train; they were on hand, and he shouted to them, commanding them to load the boxes and start north.
There was a man displaying a badge on the platform—a deputy sheriff who had his eye out for bootleggers headed toward the driving crews; the conductor ran to the officer and reported that Latisan had broken the law relating to the transportation of explosives; the trainman proposed to shift the responsibility, anticipating that the sheriff might give official attention to the cargo.
Just then Latisan spied the green toque; the face was concealed because the head was bowed to enable the toque's wearer to pick her way down the steps of the coach.
The drive master leaped from the door of the car and his men scrambled past him to enter.
"About that dynamite——"
Latisan elbowed aside the questioning sheriff, and looked straight past the officer. "If you go after me on that point you'll have to go after Craig and the Three C's, too—and I'll put the thing up to the county attorney myself. Right now I'm busy."
The men were lugging out the boxes. "If anybody gets in your way, boys, drop a box on his toes," he shouted, starting up the platform.
"Leave it to us, Mr. Latisan," bawled one of the crew.
The drive master had his eyes on the girl who was walking ahead of him. He could hardly believe that the voicing of his name attracted her attention. She did not know his name! But she stopped and whirled about and stared at him.
It was surely the girl of the cafeteria!
She plainly shared Latisan's amazement, but there was in her demeanor something more than the frank astonishment which was actuating him.
He pulled off his cap and hurried to her and put out his hand. "I saw you—I mean I saw your hat. I thought it might be you—but I looked for you in New York—for that hat——" He knew he was making a fool of himself by his excitement and incoherence. "I have been thinking about you——" He was able to check himself, for her eyes were showing surprise of another sort. Her manner suggested to Latisan that she, at any rate, had not been thinking especially about him during the months. She had recovered her composure.
"It is not surprising about the hat, Mr.—I believe I heard somebody call your name—Mr. Latisan?" There was an inflection of polite query, and he bowed. "My sarcastic friends are very explicit about this hat serving as my identifier."
"I didn't mean it that way. I don't know anything about girls' hats. But to see you away up here——"
She forced a flicker of a smile.
"It seems quite natural to find you here in the woods, though I believe you did tell me that your home is over Tomah way."
He was not able to understand the strange expression on her countenance. And she, on her part, was not able to look at him with complete composure; she remembered the character given to this man by Craig, and she had ventured to give him something else in her report—the swagger of a roue and a black mustache!
There was an awkward moment and he put his cap back on his head. He looked about as if wondering if she expected friends. He had treasured every word of hers in the cafeteria. She had spoken of the woods as if her home had been there at one time.
"I'm not expecting anybody to meet me—here—to-day," she informed him, understanding his side glances. She was showing incertitude, uneasiness—as if she were slipping back into a former mood after the prick of her surprise. "There's a hotel here, I suppose."
He took her traveling case from her hand, muttering a proffer to assist her. They walked away together. For the second time the loafers at Adonia saw Latisan escorting a strange woman along the street, and this one, also, was patently from the city, in spite of her modest attire.
"Seems to be doing quite a wholesale business, importing dynamite and wimmen," observed a cynic.
"According to the stories in Tomah, he has put in quite a lot of time looking over the market in regard to that last-named," agreed another detractor.
"And when Eck Flagg gets the news I'd rather take my chances with the dynamite than with the wimmen," stated the cynic.
"I guess I talked to you like an idiot at first," said Latisan, when he and his companion were apart from the persons on the station platform. "I'm getting control of my surprise. I remember you told me you were homesick for the woods. That's why you're up here, I suppose."
"It's one reason, Mr. Latisan."
"I'm sorry it isn't a better time of year. I'd like to—to—If you aren't going to be tied up too much with friends, I could show you around a little. But right now I'm tied up, myself. I'm drive master for Echford Flagg—you remember about speaking of him."
"Yes; but I shall not trouble Mr. Flagg," she hastened to say. "He will not be interested in me simply on account of my friends. You are very busy on the drive, are you?" she questioned, earnestly.
"Oh yes. I've got to start for headwaters in the morning." There was doleful regret in his tones.
He was rather surprised to find so much pleased animation in her face; truly, this girl from the city acted as if she were delighted by the news of his going away; she even seemed to be confessing it. "I'm glad!" she cried. Then she smoothed matters after a glance at his grieved and puzzled face. "I'm glad to hear a man say that he's devoted to his work. So many these days don't seem to take any interest in what they're doing—they only talk wages. Yours must be a wonderful work—on the river—the excitement and all!"
"Yes," he admitted, without enthusiasm.
The street was muddy and they went slowly; he hung back as if he wanted to drag out the moments of their new companionship.
He cast about for a topic; he did not feel like expatiating on the prospects ahead of him in his work. "If you're going to make much of a stop here——"
She did not take advantage of his pause; he hoped she would indicate the proposed length of her stay, and he was worrying himself into a panic for fear she would not be in Adonia on his next visit to report to Flagg.
"I wish we had a better hotel here, so that you'd stay all contented for a time—and—and enjoy the country hereabouts."
"Isn't the hotel a fit place for a woman who is unaccompanied?"
"Oh, that isn't it! It's the slack way Brophy runs it. The help question! Martin does the best he knows how, but he finds it hard to keep table girls here in the woods. Has to keep falling back on his nephew, and the nephew isn't interested in the waiter job. Wants to follow his regular line."
"And what's that?" she asked, holding to a safe topic.
"Running Dave's stable. Nephew says the horses can't talk back."
She stopped and faced him. "Do you think the landlord would hire me as a waitress?" She had come to Adonia in haste, leaving her plans to hazard. Now she was obeying sudden inspiration.
If she had slapped him across the face she could not have provoked more astonishment and dismay than his countenance showed.
"I have done much waiting at tables." She grimly reflected on the cafes where she had sought the most for her money. "I'm not ashamed to confess it."
He stammered before he was able to control his voice. "It isn't that. You ought to be proud to work. I mean I'm glad—no, what I mean is I don't understand why—why——"
"Why I have come away up here for such a job?"
"I haven't the grit to ask any questions of you!" he confessed, plaintively, his memory poignant on that point.
The stout "drummer" had been trailing them from the station. When they halted he passed them slowly, staring wide-eyed at the girl, asking her amazed questions with his gaze. She flung the Vose-Mern operative a look of real fury; she had come north in a fighting mood.
"I have left the city to escape just such men as that—men who aren't willing to let a girl have a square chance. I lost my last position because I slapped a cheap insulter's face in a hotel dining hall." She looked over Latisan's head when she twisted the truth. "I came north, to the woods, just as far as that railroad would take me. I hate a city!" Then she looked straight at him, and there was a ring of sincerity in her tone. "I'm glad to be where those are!" She pointed to the trees which thatched the slopes of the hills.
"You're speaking of friends of mine!"
They had stopped, facing each other. Crowley, lashed by looks from the girl and Latisan, had hurried on toward the tavern.
Lida knew that the drive master was having hard work to digest the information she had given him.
"They are standing up straight and are honest old chaps," he went on. He was looking into her eyes and his calm voice had a musing tone. "I like to call them my friends."
He was trying hard to down the queer notions that were popping up. He would not admit that he was suspecting this girl of deceit. But she was so manifestly not what she claimed that she was! Still, there were reverses that might——
"I am alone in a strange land—nobody to back my word about myself. I must call on a reliable witness. You know the witness." She put up her hand and touched her hat. Then came laughter—first from her and then from Latisan—to relieve the situation. "You saw me wearing it more than six months ago. What better proof of my humble position in life do you want?"
"I don't dare to tell you what you ought to be, Miss——"
"Patsy Jones," she returned, glibly; his quest for her name could not be disregarded.
"But what you are right now is good enough because it's honest work."
"Do you think I can get the job?"
"I am a witness of Martin Brophy's standing offer to give one thousand dollars for a table girl who won't get homesick or get married."
"Take me in and collect the reward, Mr. Latisan. I'm a safe proposition, both ways."
"I hope not!" he blurted—and then marched on with the red flooding beneath his tan.
And though he strove to put all his belief in her word about herself, he was conscious of a persistent doubt, and was angered by it.
"If you please, I'll do the talking to Mr. Brophy—is that his name?—when we reach the hotel," said the girl. "You really do not know me." There was a flash of honesty, she felt, in that statement, and she wanted to be as honest as she could—not wholly a compound of lies in her new role. "It might seem queer, my presenting myself under your indorsement, as if we had been acquainted somewhere else. Gossip up here is easily started, isn't it?"
He surrendered her bag to her at the porch, as if his services had been merely the cursory politeness of one who was traveling her way. It was in Latisan's mind to go along to the big house on the ledges and inform Flagg what had been done that day, and glory in the boast that there was a new man in the region who could make a way for himself in spite of Flagg's opinions as to the prowess of an old man.
Latisan was feeling strangely exhilarated. She had come there to stay! Martin Brophy was in the desperate state of need to chain a girl like that one to a table leg in his desire to keep her. And she had announced her own feelings in the matter! She was in the Noda—the girl who had stepped out of his life never to enter it again, so he had feared in his lonely ponderings. He was in the mood of a real man at last! He was resolved to take no more of Echford Flagg's contumely. He was heartsick at the thought of starting north and leaving her in the tavern, to be the object of attentions such as that cheap drummer man bestowed when he passed them on the street.
The plea of the lady of the tavern parlor had made merely a ripple in his resolves. He had not thought of her or her proposition during that busy day.
Now he was wondering whether the fight for Flagg—the struggle against Craig, even for vengeance, was worth while.
Lida was having no difficulty in locating the landlord. He stood just beyond the dining-room door and was proclaiming that he was the boss and was shaking his fist under the nose of a surly youth who had allowed several dishes to slide off a tray and smash on the floor.
"Do you want to hire a waitress from the city?" she demanded.
"You bet a tin dipper I do," snapped back Brophy.
"I'm ready to begin work at once. If you'll show me my room——"
"You go up one flight, by them stairs there, and you pick out the best room you can find—the one that suits you! That's how much I'm willing to cater to a city waitress. And you needn't worry about wages."
"I shall not worry, sir." She hurried up the stairs.
The hostler-waiter slammed down the tray with an ejaculation of thankfulness. Brophy picked up the tray and banged it over the youth's head. "You ain't done with the hash-wrassling till she has got her feet placed. Sweep up that litter, stand by to do the heavy lugging, and take your orders from her and cater to her—cater!"
Latisan, lingering on the porch, had hearkened and observed. He caught a glimpse of himself in the dingy glass of the door. He scrubbed his hand doubtfully over his beard. Then he turned and hurried away.
The single barber shop of Adonia was only a few yards from the door of the tavern. There was one chair in the corner of a pool room.
Latisan overtook a man in the doorway and yanked him back and entered ahead.
"I'm next!" shouted the supplanted individual.
"Yes, after me!" declared Latisan, grimly. He threw himself into the chair. "Shave and trim! Quick!"
The barber propped his hands on his hips. "What's the newfangled idea of shedding whiskers before the drive is down?"
"Shave!" roared Latisan. "And if you're more than five minutes on the job I'll carve my initials in you with your razor."
So constantly did he apostrophize the barber to hurry, wagging a restless jaw, that blood oozed from several nicks when the beard had been removed.
"I've got a pride in my profession, just the same as you have in your job," stormed the barber when Latisan refused to wait for treatment for the cuts. "And I don't propose to have you racing out onto the streets——"
But the drive master was away, obsessed by visions of that fresh drummer presuming further in his tactics with the new waitress. The barber, stung to defense of his art, grabbed a towel and a piece of alum and pursued Latisan along the highway and into the tavern office, cornered the raging drive master, and insisted on removing the evidences which publicly discredited good workmanship. The affair was in the nature of a small riot.