When the man re-appeared he was armed with a sturdy "gee-pole," and at his belt was coiled a heavy-thonged, short-stocked driving whip.
Without a word he thrust the pole under the front of the sled runners, and a sharp command broke from his lips. The effect was instantaneous. Each dog sprang at his "tug." The man heaved on his pole. There was a moment of straining, then the holding ice gave up its grip, and the sled shot forward.
The man stood for a moment beating his mitted hands. Then he took his place on the sled, buried his legs and feet under the heavy seal robes set ready, and so the long-waited command to "mush" was hurled at the waiting beasts.
The dogs leapt at their work and the sled swept forward with a rush. A blinding flurry of snow dust rose in its wake, enveloping it, and the dogs raced on, yelping with the joy of activity. Their great muscles were aquiver with the eager spirit which is bred of the wild. And so they would continue to run, for their load was light, and the heavy-thonged whip was playing in skilful hands, and they knew, and feared, and obeyed its constant threat.
The way lay across the frozen bosom of a great lake, no less than an inland sea, and a hundred miles must be travelled before night, or the snow, overtook them. It was a hard run. But it must be accomplished. Failure? But failure must not be considered. No man could contemplate failure and face the winter trail in the barren desolation of the lofty interior of Labrador's untracked wild.
The austerity of the country was well-nigh overwhelming. The nakedness of it all suggested a skeleton world robbed of everything that could make existence possible. It suggested a world that was sick, and aged, and too unfruitful to harbour aught but the fierce elemental storms of the northern winter. And the cold of it ate into the bones of the lonely figure passing through the great silence like a ghost.
* * * * *
The night was deathly still. A thermometer would have registered something colder than sixty degrees below zero. Not a breath of wind stirred. The only sound that came was the doleful note of a prowling wolf in the forest belt near by, and the booming protest of the trees against the bitterness of winter.
The sky was ablaze with a myriad jewels in a velvet setting. And a cold wealth of aurora lit the northern heavens. Camp had been pitched well wide of the nearby forests, and three men sat crouching over the fire. There was little enough to differentiate between them. They were white men, and all were clad, from their heads to the soles of their seal hide moccasins, in heavy furs. The dark outlines of two sleds showed up a few yards away, but the dogs, themselves, were not visible. Weary with their day's run they had betaken themselves to their nightly snow burrows to dream over past battles, past labours.
The men were talking earnestly in the low, slow tones which the silence of the forests seems to inspire. Three pairs of bare hands were outheld to the welcome blaze of the fire. Three pairs of clear gazing eyes searched the heart of it. None were smoking. It would have been a burden to keep the pipe stem from freezing even in the vicinity of the fire, and none of them were in any mood to accept any added burden.
A blue-eyed, beardless youth shifted his gaze to the dark face directly opposite him beyond the fire.
"Oh, we got that guy—good," he said. There was laughter in his eyes but not in his tone. "We got him plumb at the game. He was chock full of kerosene and tinder, and he'd fired the patch in several places. We were on it quick. We beat the fire in seconds. As for him, why, I guess his Ma's going to forget him right away. Leastways I hope so. He went out like the snuff of a lucifer, and his body's likely handed plenty feed to any wolf straying around."
The dark man across the fire nodded.
"Did he hand a squeal before—he went?"
"Not a word. Hadn't time. Peter here didn't ast a thing either."
The youth laughed softly, and the man called Peter took up the story.
"Tain't no use arguin' with a feller loaded with kerosene in these forests," he said, in a low grumbling way. Then he reached down and snatched a brand from the fire and flung it out on the snow. His action was followed swiftly by a wolfish howl of dismay. Then he again turned his grizzled, whiskered face to the dark man beyond the fire. "You see, Father, it's our job keeping these forests from fire, an' it ain't easy. It don't much concern us who's out to fire 'em. That's for other folks. The feller with kerosene in these forests is goin' to get the stuff we ken hand him. That's all. Bob an' me got our own way fer actin'."
"We sure have," he said. "But we don't allers pull it off. No. We've had ten fires on our range in two weeks. We've beat the fires, but we ain't smashed the 'bugs' that set 'em."
"Would they be all one feller? The feller that got it?" The dark man's eyes were serious. His tone was troubled.
Peter shook his head.
"No, sir. There's more'n one, sure. An' from the things I've heerd tell from the boys on the neighbourin' ranges it's happening all along through our limits. They tell me there's queer things doin' an' no one seems to locate the meaning right."
"What sort of things?"
The dark man spoke sharply. Peter's reply came after profound deliberation.
"Oh, things," he said. Then he thrust a gnarled brown hand up under his fur hood, and scratched his head. "There's our forest 'phones. They're bein' cut. It's the same everywhere. There's most always things to break 'em happenin', but a break aint a cut. No. They're cut. Who's cuttin' 'em, and why? Fire-bugs. It ain't grouchy jacks. No. I've heerd the jacks are on the buck in parts, but that ain't their play. There ain't a jack who'd see these forests afire, or do a thing to help that way. You see, it's their living, it's their whole life. We got so we can't depend a thing on the 'phones. An' cut our forests 'phones and we're gropin' like blind men."
The leaping flames were dropping, and Bob moved out to the store of fuel. He returned laden, and packed the wood carefully to give the maximum blaze. Then he squatted again, and again his hands were thrust out to the warmth which meant luxury.
Peter had no more to add. His grey eyes searched the heart of the fire as he reflected on the things which were agitating his mind.
"I want to get word down, but I can't depend on the 'phones," he said presently. "If they ain't cut I can't tell who's gettin' the message anyway. Maybe the wires are bein' tapped."
The man across the fire nodded.
"I'm going down," he said.
"I'm glad." Peter's acknowledgment came with an air of relief. "I'll hand you a written report before you pull out."
"It's best that way."
The fire was leaping again. Its beneficent warmth was very pleasant. Bob turned his eyes skyward.
"You'll get a good trip, Father," he said. "That snow's cleared out of the sky. It 'ud ha' been hell if it had caught you out on the lake."
"Yes. I wouldn't have made here. I wouldn't have made anywhere if that had happened." The dark man laughed.
Peter shook his head.
"No. You took a big chance."
"I had to."
"Yes. I had to get through. There's a big piece of trouble coming."
"To do with these fires?"
"I guess so."
Peter's comment was full of understanding. After awhile the other looked up.
"Guess I need a big sleep," he said. "I've got to pull out with daylight. Anything you want besides that written report passed on down?"
Peter shook his head and sat on awhile blinking silently at the firelight. Then the dark man scrambled to his feet. He stood for a moment, very tall, very bulky in his fur clothing, and nodded down at the others.
"So long," he said. And he moved off to his sleeping bag which was laid out to receive his tired body.
* * * * *
The man stood just within the shelter of the twilit forests. He was a powerful creature of sturdy build, hall-marked with the forest craft which was his life. He was clad in tough buckskin from head to foot. Even his hands, which he frequently beat in a desire for warmth, were similarly clad. His weatherbeaten face was hard set, and his eyes were narrowed to confront the merciless snow fog which the rage of the blizzard outside hurled at him.
The cold was almost unendurable even here in the wooded shelter. Outside, where the storm raged unrestrainedly over its fierce playground, only blind hopelessness prevailed.
There was nothing to be done. He could only wait.
He could only wait, and hope, or abandon his vigil, and return to his camp which was far back in the heart of the forests. Away out there, somewhere lost in the blinding fog of the blizzard, which had only sprung up within the last hour, a lonely fellow creature was making for the shelter in which he stood. He was driving headlong towards him. Oh, yes. He knew that. He had seen the moving outfit far off, several miles away, over the snowy plains, before the storm had arisen. Now—where was he? He could not tell. He could not even guess at what might have happened. Blinded, freezing, weary, how long could the lonely traveller endure and retain any sense of direction?
To the forest man the position was well-nigh tragic. Had he not experience of the terror of a northern blizzard? Had he not many a time had to grope his way along a life-line lest the slightest deviation in direction should carry him out into the storm to perish of cold, blinded and lost? Oh, yes. This understanding was the alphabet of his life.
As he stood there watching and wiping the snow from his eyes, he reminded himself not only of his own experience but of every story of disaster in a blizzard he had ever listened to. And so he saw no hope for the poor wretch he had seen struggling to make the shelter.
But he could not bring himself to abandon his post. How could he with a fellow creature out there in peril? Besides, there was other reason, although it needed none. He had urgent news for this man, news which must be imparted without delay, news which his employers must hear at the earliest possible moment.
His trouble grew as he waited. He searched his mind for anything calculated to aid the doomed traveller. He could find nothing. He thought to call out, to burst his lungs in a series of shouts on the chance of being heard in the chaos of the storm. But he realised the uselessness of it all, and abandoned the impulse. No puny human voice could hope to make impression on the din of the elemental battle being fought out on the plain. No. His only service must be to stand there beating life into his numbing hands, ready to act on the instant should opportunity serve.
He was eaten up by anxiety, and so took no cognisance of time. He had forgotten the passing of daylight. Therefore sudden realisation flung him into headlong panic. The forest about him was growing dark. The snow fog outside had changed to a deeper hue. Night was coming on. The man in the storm was beyond all aid, human or otherwise.
The impulse of the moment was irresistible. He moved. He passed out from behind the long limbs of his leafless shelter. He went at a run shouting with all the power of his lungs. Again and again his prolonged cry went up. And with each effort he waited listening, listening, only to receive the mocking reply of the howling storm. But he persisted. He persisted for the simple human reason that his desire outran his power to serve. And in the end exhaustion forced him to abandon his hopeless task.
It was then the miracle happened. Far away, it seemed, a sound like the faintest echo of his own voice came back to him, but it came from a direction all utterly unexpected. For a moment he hesitated, bewildered, uncertain. Then he sent up another shout, and waited listening. Yes. There it was. Again came the faintly echoing cry through the trees. It came not from the open battle ground of the storm, but from the shelter of the forests somewhere away to the north of him.
* * * * *
A tall, fur-clad figure stood nearby to the sled which was already partly unloaded. A yard or two away a fire had been kindled, and it blazed comfortingly in the growing dusk of the forest. It was the moment when the forest man came up somewhat breathlessly and flung out a mitted hand in greeting.
"I guessed you were makin' your last run for shelter, Father," he cried. "I just hadn't a hope you'd make through that storm. You beat it—fine."
The tall man nodded. His dark eyes were smiling a cordiality no less than the other's.
"I guessed that way, too," he said quietly. "Then I didn't." He shrugged his fur-clad shoulders. "No. It's not a northern trail that's going to see the end of me. But it's your yarn I need to hear. How is it?"
The two men looked squarely into each others eyes, and the gravity of the forest man was intense. The man who had just come out of the storm was no less serious, but presently he turned away, and for a second his gaze rested on the group of sprawling dogs. The beasts looked utterly spent as they blinked at the fire which they were never permitted to approach. He indicated the fire.
"Let's sit," he said. "It's cold—damnably cold."
The other needed no second invitation. They both moved back to the fire and squatted over it, and the forest man pointed at the dogs.
"Beat?" he said.
"Yes. But they hauled me through. They're a great outfit. I fed 'em right away and now they need rest. They'll be ready for the trail again by morning. Anyway I can't delay."
"No. You've got to get through quick."
Both were holding outspread hands to the fire. Both were luxuriating in the friendly warmth.
"Well?" The tall man turned his head so that his dark eyes searched the other's face again. "You'd best tell it me, Jean. If the storm lets up I pull out with daylight. I've come through every camp, and this is the last. Maybe I know the stuff you've got to tell. It's been the same most all the way."
Jean looked up from the heart of the fire.
"Trouble?" he enquired.
"Every sort." The tall man's eyes were smiling. "There's jacks quitting and pulling out, and nobody seems to know how they're getting, seeing it's winter. Others are going slow. There's others grumbling for things you never heard tell of before. There's fire-bugs at work, and the forest 'phones are being cut or otherwise tampered with all the time. We've lost hundreds of acres by fire already."
"My yarn's the same." Jean nodded and turned back to the fire. "Say," he went on, "have you heard of the things going on? The thing that's happening?"
"You mean the outfit working it?"
"Yes. It's a political labour gang. Leastways that's the talk of 'em. They call 'em 'Bolshies,' whatever that means. They're chasing these forests through. They make the camps by night, and get hold of the boys right away. They throw a hurricane of hot air at them, preachin' the sort of dope that sets those darn fools lyin' around when they need to be makin' the winter cut. And when they're through, and started the bug the way they want it, they pull out right away before the daylight comes. We never get a chance at 'em. Our boys are all plumb on the buck. I was just crazy for you to come along, Father. Guess you're the one man to fix the boys right. An' when I see you caught up in that darn storm—"
"I'll do the thing I know," the dark man replied. "I've been doing it right along. But it's not enough. That's why I'm chasing down to the coast. We've got to lay this spook that worries the boys at night. It's no Bolshie outfit." He shook his head. "Anyway if it is it's got another thing behind it. It's the Skandinavia."
He sat on for a few minutes in silence. He squatted there, hugging his knees. He was weary. He was weary almost to death with the incessant travel that had already occupied him weeks.
Quite abruptly his hands parted and he stood up. Jean followed his movements with anxious eyes.
"You goin' down to talk to the boys?" he asked at last.
The man nodded.
"Yes. Right away. I'll do all I know."
"They'll listen to you."
The other smiled.
"Yes. Till the spook comes back."
Jean brushed the icicles from about his eyes.
"That's just it," he said. "An' meanwhile the cut's right plumb down. If this thing don't quit the mill's going to starve when the ice breaks. I've lost nigh three weeks' full cut already. It's—it's hell!"
The dark man moved away, and Jean sat on over the fire. But his troubled eyes watched the curious figure as it passed over to its outfit. He saw the man stoop over the litter of his goods. He saw him disentangle some garment from the rest. When he came back the furs he had been clad in were either abandoned or hidden under fresh raiment. The man towered an awesome figure in the firelight. He was clad in black from head to foot, and his garment possessed the flowing skirts of a priest.
"I'm going right down to the boys now," he said. "You best stop around here. Just have an eye to the dogs. It's best you not being with me."
Jean nodded. He understood. Accompanied by the camp boss this man's influence with the boys would have been seriously affected. Alone he was well-nigh all powerful.
"Good," he said. "For God's sake do what you can, Father," he cried. "I'll stop right here till you get back. So long."
BULL STERNFORD'S VISION OF SUCCESS
"I'd say it's best story I've listened to since—since—Say, those fellers are pretty big. They surely are."
Bat Harker stirred. He shifted his feet on the rail of the stove, where the heavy leather soles of his boots were beginning to burn.
Bull's shining eyes were raised to his.
"Big?" he echoed. "I tell you that feller, Leader, has the widest vision of any man I know."
He leant back in his chair and imitated his companion's luxurious attitude. And so they sat silent, each regarding the thing between them from his own angle.
It was the night of Bull's return from his journey to England. He had completed the final stage only that afternoon. He had travelled overland from the south headland, where he had been forced to disembark from the Myra under stress of weather. It was storming outside now, one of those fierce wind storms of Labrador's winter, liable to blow for days or only for a few hours.
He and Harker were closeted together in the warm comfort of the office on the hill. Here, without fear of interruption, in the soft lamplight, lounging at their ease, they were free to talk of those things so dear to them, and upon which hung the destiny of their enterprise.
Winter was more than half spent. Christmas and New Year were already seasons which only helped to swell the store of memory. Labrador was frozen to the bone, and would remain so. But there were still two months and more of snow and ice, and storm, to be endured before the flies and mosquitoes did their best to make life unendurable.
Bull's return home had been a time of great looking forward. Life to him had become full of every alluring possibility. He saw the approaching fulfilment of his hopes and aims. The contemplation of the pending war with the Skandinavia only afforded his fighting instincts satisfaction. Then there was that other. That great, new sensation which stirred him so deeply—Nancy McDonald. So he had returned home full of enthusiasm and ready to tackle any and every problem that presented itself.
He had just completed the telling of the story he had brought back with him. It was a story of success that had stirred even the cast-iron emotions of Bat Harker. Nor had it lost anything in the telling, for Bull was more deeply moved than he knew.
The recounting of his dealings in London with the man, Sir Frank Leader, had been coloured by the enthusiasm with which the Englishman had inspired him. Sir Frank Leader was known as the uncrowned king of the world's pulp-wood trade. But Bull felt, and declared, that the appellation did not come within measurable distance of expressing the man's real genius. Then there were those others: Stanton Brothers, and Lord Downtree, and the virile, youthful creature, Ray Birchall. All of them were strong pillars of support for the ruling genius of the house of Leader & Company. But it was the man himself, the head of it, who claimed all Bull's admiration for his intensity of national spirit, and the wide generosity of his enterprise.
The story he had had to tell was simple in its completeness. Before setting out on his journey he had spent months in preparation of the ground by means of voluminous correspondence and documentary evidence. It was a preparation that left it only necessary to convince through personal appeal on his arrival in London. This had been achieved in the broad fashion that appealed to the men he encountered. His "hand" had been laid down. Every card of it was offered for their closest scrutiny, even to the baring of the last reservation which his intimate knowledge of the merciless climate of Labrador might have inspired.
The appeal of this method had been instant to Sir Frank Leader. And the appeal had been as much the man himself as the thing he offered. The result of it all was Bull's early return home with the man's whole organisation fathering his enterprise, and with a guarantee of his incomparable fleet of freighters being flung into the pool. Leader had swept up the whole proposition into his widely embracing arms, and taken it to himself. Subject to Ray Birchall's ultimate report, after personal inspection on the spot of the properties involved, the flotation was to be launched for some seventy million dollars, and thus the consummation of Sachigo's original inspiration would be achieved.
Bat had listened to the story almost without comment. He had missed nothing of it. Neither had he failed to observe the man telling it. The story itself was all so tremendous, so far removed from the work that pre-occupied him that he had little desire to probe deeper into it. But the success of it all stirred him. Oh, yes. It had stirred him deeply, and his mind had immediately flown to that other who had laboured for just this achievement and had staggered under the burden of it all.
Bull removed his pipe and gazed across the stove.
"And now for your news, Bat," he said, like a man anticipating a pleasant continuation of his own good news.
Bat shook his head decidedly.
"No," he said, in his brusque fashion. "Not to-night, boy. Guess I ain't got a thing to tell to match your stuff. We just carried on, and we've worked big. We're in good shape for the darn scrap with the Skandinavia you told me about. Guess I'll hand you my stuff to-morrow, when I'm goin' to show you things. This night's your night—sure."
His twinkling eyes were full of kindly regard, for all the brusqueness of his denial. And Bull smiled back his content.
"Well, it's your 'hand' Bat," he said easily. "You'll play it your way."
His eyes turned to the comforting stove again, as the howl of the storm outside shook the framing of the house.
Presently the other raised a pair of smiling eyes.
"You know, boy," the lumberman said, ejecting a worn-out chew of tobacco, "all this means one mighty big thing your way. You see, you got life before you. Maybe I've years to run, too. But it ain't the same. No," he shook his grizzled head, "you can't never make nuthin' of me but a lumber-boss. You'll never be a thing but a college-bred fighter all your life. There's a third share in this thing for both of us. Well, that's goin' to be one a' mighty pile. I was wonderin'. Shall you quit? Shall you cut right out with the boodle? What'll you do?"
Bull sat up and laughed. And his answer came on the instant.
"Why, marry," he said.
"That's queer," he said. "I guessed you'd answer that way."
Bat folded his arms across his broad chest.
"You're young," he replied.
Bull laughed again.
"Better say it," he cried. "An' darn foolish."
"No, I hadn't that in mind. No, Bull. If I had your years I guess I'd feel that way, too. I wonder—"
"You're guessing to know who I'd marry, eh?" Bull's pipe was knocked out into the cuspidore. Then he sat up again and his eyes were full of reckless delight. "Here," he cried, "I guess it's mostly school-kids who shout the things they reckon to do—or a fool man. It doesn't matter. Maybe I'm both. Anyway, I'm just crazy for—for—"
"Red hair, an'—an' a pair of mighty pretty eyes?"
Bat nodded. A deep satisfaction stirred him.
"I reckoned that way, ever since—Say, I'm glad."
But Bull's mood had sobered.
"She's in the enemy camp though," he demurred.
"It'll hand you another scrap—haulin' her out."
Bat rose from his chair and stretched his trunk-like body.
"Well," he said, "it's me for the blankets." Then he emitted a deep-throated chuckle. "You get at it, boy," he went on. "An' if you're needin' any help I can pass, why, count on it. If you mean marryin' I'd sooner see you hook up team with that red-haired gal than anything in the world I ever set two eyes on. Guess I'll hand you my stuff in the morning if the storm quits."
* * * * *
The dynamos were revolving at terrific speed. There were some eighteen in all, and their dull roar was racking upon ears unused. Bat was regarding them without enthusiasm. All he knew was the thing they represented. Skert Lawton had told him. They represented the harnessing of five hundred thousand horse power of the Beaver River water. The engineer had assured him, in his unsmiling fashion, that he had secured enough power to supply the whole Province of Quebec with electricity. All of which, in Bat's estimation, seemed to be an unnecessary feat.
Bull was gazing in frank wonder on the engineer's completed work. It was his first sight of it. The place had been long in building. But the sight of it in full running, the sense of enormous power, the thought and labour this new power-house represented, filled him with nothing but admiration for the author of it all.
Bat hailed one of the electricians serving the machines.
"Where's Mr. Lawton?" he shouted.
"He went out. He ain't here," the man shouted back.
Bat regarded the man for a moment without favour. Then he turned away. He beckoned Bull to follow, and moved over to the sound-proof door which shut off the engineer's office. They passed to the quiet beyond it.
It was quite a small room without any elaborate pretensions. There was a desk supporting a drawing board, with a chair set before it. There was also a rocker-chair which accommodated the lean body of Skert Lawton at such infrequent moments as it desired repose. Beyond that there was little enough furniture. The place was mainly bare boards and bare walls. Bat sat himself at the desk and left Bull the rocker-chair.
"I'd fixed it so Skert was to meet us here," he said. "All this is his stuff. I couldn't tell you an' amp from a buck louse."
"That's all right," he said. "Maybe he's held up down at the mill. He'll get—"
The lumberman was angry. But his anger was not at the failure of his arrangements. Back of his head he was wondering at the thing that claimed the engineer. He felt that only real urgency would have kept him from his appointment. And he knew that urgency just now had a more or less ugly meaning.
"Lawton's a pretty bright boy—" Bull began. But the other caught him up roughly.
"Bright? That don't say a thing," Bat cried. "Guess he's a whole darn engineering college rolled into the worst shape of the ghost of a man it's been my misfortune ever to locate. He's a highbrow of an elegant natur'. He calls this thing 'co-ordination,' which is another way of sayin' he's beat nigh a hundred thousand dollars out of our bank roll to hand us more power than we could use if we took in Broadway, New York, at night. But it's elegant plannin' and looks good to me. Your folks over the water'll maybe see things in it, too. It's them blast furnaces we set up for him last year made this play possible. Them, and the swell outfit of machine shops he squeezed us for. He figgers to raise all sorts of hell around. An' his latest notion's to build every darn machine from rough-castin' to a shackle pin, so we don't have to worry with the world outside. He's got a long view of things. But—"
He pulled out his timepiece, and the clouds of volcanic anger swept down again upon his rugged brow. But it was given no play. The door of the office was thrust open, and the lean figure of the engineer, clad in greasy overalls, came hurriedly into the room.
Bat challenged him on the instant.
"What's the trouble, boy?" he demanded in his uncompromising fashion.
"Trouble?" Skert's eyes were wide, and his tone was savage. "That's just it. I reckoned to show Sternford all this stuff," he went on, indicating the machine hall with a jerk of his head. "But we'll have to let it pass. Say," he glanced from one to the other, his expression developing to something like white fury. "They started. It's business this time. I got a message up they were stopping the grinders. It's the 'heads' gave the order. Oh, they're all in it. They got a meeting on in that darn recreation parliament place of theirs, and every mother's son on the machines was called to it. They've shut down! You get that? There isn't even a greaser left at the machines. It's set me with a feeling I'm plumb crazy. I've been down, and they're right there crowding out that hall. And—"
"I guessed something that way," Bat interrupted with ominous calm. He turned to Bull, who was closely regarding his lieutenants.
"It's mutiny first and then a sheer strike," he said. "Here, listen. I'll hand you just what's happenin'. There's been Bolshie agitators workin' the boys months, and I guess they got a holt on 'em good. It started with us openin' the new mill on this north shore. We were forced to collect our labour just where we could. An' they got in like the miser'ble rats they are. Gee! It makes me hot—hot as hell! The leaders of this thing ain't workers. I don't guess they done a day's work with anything but their yahoo mouths in their dirty lives. They're part of the crowd that's paid from Europe to get around and heave up this blazin' world of ours just anyway they know. The only thing I don't get is their coming along here, which is outside most all the rest of the world. If Labrador can hand 'em loot I'd like to know the sort it is. And it's just loot they're out for. If I'm a judge there's one hell of a scrap comin,' and if we're beat it looks like leaving Sachigo a thing forgotten."
Bull stood up. He laughed without the least mirth.
"It's the Skandinavia," he said decidedly. "War's begun. I'm going right down to that meeting."
Bat leapt to his feet.
"No," he said. "This is for Skert an' me—"
Bull brushed his protest aside almost fiercely. Then he turned as the door opened and a small man hurried in. The fellow snatched his cap from his head and his eyes settled on Skert Lawton, the man he knew best.
"It ees a document," he cried, in the broken English of a French Canadian. "They sign him, oh, yes. You no more are the boss. They say the mill it ees for the 'worker.' All dis big mill, all dis big money. Oh, yes. Dey sign him."
"Who's this?" Bull demanded.
"One of my machine-minders. He's a good boy," the engineer explained.
"That's all right We want all we can get of his sort." He turned to Bat. "Are there others? I mean boys we can trust?"
"Quite a bunch."
"Can we get them together?"
"Right. This is going to be the real thing. The sort of thing I'd rather have it."
He turned to Skert who stood by, watching the light of battle in his chief's eyes.
"Here, shut down the dynamos. Set them clean out of action. Do you get me? Leave the machines for the time being so they're just so much scrap. Then, if you got the bunch you can rely on, leave 'em guard. We'll get on down, an' sign that damned document for 'em."
* * * * *
The recreation room was crowded to suffocation. Men of every degree in the work of the mill had foregathered. A hubbub of talk was going on. Voices were raised. There was anger. There was argument, harsh-voiced argument which mainly expressed feeling. At the far end of the hall, on the raised platform designed for those who fancied their vocal attainments, a group of men were gathered about a table upon which was outspread the folios of an extensive document. The men at the table were talking eagerly.
The gathering had listened to the furious oratory of a pale-faced man, with long black hair and a foreign accent. It had listened, and agreed, and applauded. For he had talked Communism, and the overthrow of the Capitalists, and the possession of the wealth creating mills for those who operated them. It had listened to an appeal to the latent instinct in every human creature, freedom from everything that could be claimed as servitude, freedom, and possession, and independence for those who would once and for all rid themselves of the shackles which the pay-roll and time-sheet imposed upon them.
They had been called together to witness the iniquity of spending their lives in the degrading operation of filling the pockets of those who laboured not, by the toil in which their lives were spent. They had been told every flowery fairy tale of the modern communistic doctrine, which possesses as much truth and sanity in it as is to be found in an asylum for the mentally deficient. And they had swallowed the bait whole. The talk had been by the tongue of a skilled fanatic, who was well paid for his work, and who kept in the forefront of his talk that alluring promise of ease, and affluence, and luxury, which never fails in its appeal to those who have never known it.
But something approaching an impasse had been reached when the would-be benefactors passed over the demand that their deluded victims should sign the roll of Communal Brotherhood. The bait that had been offered had been all to the taste of these rough creatures who had never known better than an existence with a threat of possible unemployment overshadowing their lives. But in the signature to the elaborate document they scented the concealed poison in the honeyed potion. There was hesitation, reluctance. There was argument in a confusion of tongues well-nigh bewildering. A surge of voices filled the great building.
The agents were at work, men who posed as workers to attain their ends. And the pale, long-haired creature and his satellites waited at the table. They understood. It was their business to understand. They knew the minds they were dealing with, and their agents were skilled in their craft. The process they relied on was the unthinking stupidity of the sheep. Every man that could be persuaded had his friends, and each friend had his friend. They knew friend would follow friend well-nigh blindly, and, having signed, native obstinacy and fear of ridicule would hold them fast to their pledge.
Presently the signing began. It began with a burly river-jack who laughed stupidly to cover his doubt. He was followed by a machine-minder, who hurled taunts at those who still held back. Then came others, others whose failure to think for themselves left them content to follow the lead of their comrades.
The stream of signatures grew. A pale youth, whose foolish grin revealed only his fitness for the heavy, unskilled work he was engaged upon, came up. The pen was handed him, and the name of Adolph Mars was scrawled on the sheet. The long-haired man at the table looked up at him. He smiled with his lips, and patted the boy's hand. Then something happened.
It was movement. Sudden movement on the platform. The babel in the body of the hall went on. But the long-haired man and his supporters at the table turned with eyes that were concerned and anxious. A dozen men had entered swiftly through the door in rear of the platform. Bull Sternford led them. And he moved over to the table, with the swift, noiseless strides of a panther, and looked into the unwholesome face of the Bolshevist leader.
It was only for the fraction of a second. The man made a movement which needed no interpretation. His hand went to a hip pocket. Instantly Bull's great hands descended. The man was picked up like a child. He was lifted out of his seat and raised aloft. He was borne towards the window where he was held while the master of the mill crashed a foot against its wooden sash. The next moment the black-clothed body was hurled with terrific force out into the snowdrift waiting to receive it. It was all so swiftly done. The whole thing was a matter of seconds only. Then Bull Sternford was back at the table, while his comrades, Bat and Lawton, and the men of loyalty they relied on, lined the platform.
As Bull snatched up the document and held it aloft, a deathly silence reigned throughout the hall, and every eye was turned angrily upon the intruders. Bull yielded not a moment for those witless minds to recover from their shock. His voice rang out fiercely.
"Here," he cried, "d'you know what you're doing, listening to that fool guy I've thrown through that window, and signing this crazy paper he's set out for you? No. You don't unless you're just as crazy yourselves. You're declaring war. You're starting a great fight to steal the property that hands you your living. You reckon you've got all you need of our brains, and your own brute force and darnation foolishness can run these great mills which are to hand you the big money you reckon it hands us. That means war. Maybe you fancy it's the one-sided war you'd like to have it. Maybe you fancy there's about a dozen of us, and we're going to be made to work for the wage you figger to hand us. You're dead wrong. It's going to be a hell of a war if you swallow the dope these fellows hand you. You've begun it, and we're taking up the challenge. We've fired the first shot, too. It's not gun-play yet. No. Maybe it'll come to that and you'll find we can hand you shot for shot. No. We're quicker than that. The mill's closed down! Wages have ceased! And all power has been cut off! There's not a spark of light or heat, for the whole of Sachigo. The vital parts of the power station have been removed, and you can't get 'em back. I've only to give the word and the penstocks on the river will be cut so you can't repair them. It's forty degrees below Zero out there, where I've shot that crazy Bolshie, and so you know just how you stand here on Labrador with no means of gettin' away until the thaw comes. You and your wives and kiddies'll have to pay in the cold for the crime of theft you reckon to put through. We're ready for you, whether it's gun-play or any other sort of war you want to start. That's the thing I've come here to tell you."
He paused for a moment to watch the effect of his words. It was there on the instant. A furious hubbub arose. There was not a man in the room who did not understand the dire threat which the coup of the master mind imposed. Power cut off! Light! Heat! Power! Forty degrees below Zero! The terror of the Labrador winter was in every man's mind. Life would be unendurable without heat. There were the forests. Oh, yes. They could get heat of sorts. The sort of heat which the men on a winter trail were accustomed to. Their electrically-heated houses were without stoves in which they could burn wood.
Bull listened to the babel of tongues while his men watched for any act that might come. Every man on the platform was armed ready.
Bull's voice rang out again, but he was interrupted.
A man shouted at him from the back of the hall.
"Who the hell are you, anyway? You ain't the guy owning these mills. We know where you come from—"
Like lightning Bull took him up.
"Do you?" he shouted back. "Then we know where you come from. The man who knew me before I became boss here must belong to the Skandinavia. That's the only place any lumber-jack could have known me. Here. Come up here. Stand out. Show yourself. And I'll hand the boys your pedigree. It'll be easy. It's the trouble with us just now, we've got too many stiffs from the Skandinavia, and you've got our own good boys paralysed. They haven't the guts to stand on the notions that have handed them the best wages in the pulp trade these fifteen years. Guess you've persuaded them they ain't got swell houses, and good food, and cheap heat and light, and, instead are living like all sorts of swine in their hogpens. It's the way of the Skandinavia just now. The Skandinavia's out for our blood. They want to smash us. Do you know why? Because they're an alien firm who wants to steal these forests from the Canadians to fill their own pockets with our wealth. We're for the Canadians, and we've built up a proposition that's going to beat the foreigner right out into the sea. But that don't matter now. These guys, these long-haired, unwashed guys, that reckon to hand you boys these mills, are sent by the Skandinavia to wreck us. Well, go right over to 'em. Help 'em. Sign every darn document they hand you. They'll be your own death warrants, anyway. You want war. You can have it. I'm here to fight. Meanwhile you best get home to your cold houses, for the mills are closed down. You're locked out."
He turned without waiting a second and passed through the back door by which he had entered. And his men followed on his heels.
* * * * *
Bull was in his office. For all the storm of the morning the rest of the day had passed quietly. Now it was late at night. His stove was radiating a luxurious heat. He was quite unconcerned that the electrically-heated steam radiators were cold. He was alone. Harker and the engineer were still down at the mill. He was awaiting the report they would bring him later.
He had passed some time in reading the pledge of Communal Brotherhood which he had brought away with him from the recreation room, and he had read the signatures that had been affixed to it. The latter were few, and every name inscribed was of foreign origin. But it was the document itself which concerned him most. If it were honest he felt that its authors were wild people who should be kept under restraint. If it were not honest, then hanging or shooting was far too lenient a fate to be meted out to them. It was Communism in its wildest, most unrestrained form.
In his final disgust he flung the papers on his desk. And as he did so a sound reached him from the outer office, which had long since been closed for the night by the half-breed, Loale.
He leapt to his feet. Without a second thought he moved over to the door and flung it wide.
"What the—?" He broke off. "Good God!" he cried. "You, Father?" He laughed. "Why I thought it was some of the Bolshies from down at the mill."
He withdrew the gun from his coat pocket in explanation. Then he stood aside.
"Will you come right in?"
The man Bull had discovered made no answer. But as he stood aside, tall, clad in heavy fur from head to foot, Father Adam strode into the room.
Bull watched him with questioning eyes. Then he closed the door and his visitor turned confronting him in the yellow lamplight.
"I've made more than a hundred miles to get you to-night," Father Adam said.
Then he flung back the fur hood from his head, and ran a hand over his long black hair, smoothing it thoughtfully.
Bull's eyes were still questioning.
"Won't you shed your furs and sit?" he went on. "The Chink's abed, but I'll dig him out. You must get food."
The other glanced round the pleasant office, and his eyes paused for a moment at the chair at the desk.
"Food don't worry, thanks," he said, his mildly smiling eyes coming back to his host's face. "I've eaten—ten miles back. I rested the dogs there, too. I've maybe a ha'f hour to tell you the thing I came for. There's trouble in the woods. Bad trouble. If it's not straightened out, why, it looks like all work at your mills'll quit, and you're going to get your forest limits burnt out stark."
Ole Porson took a final glance round his shanty. The last of the daylight was rapidly fading. There was still sufficient penetrating the begrimed double window, however, to reveal the littered, unswept condition of the place. But he saw none of it. It was the place he knew and understood. It was at once his office, and his living quarters; a shanty with a tumbled sleeping bunk, a wood stove, and a table littered with the books and papers of his No. 10 camp. He was a rough creature, as hard of soul as he was of head, who could never have found joy in surroundings of better condition.
He solemnly loaded the chambers of a pair of heavy guns. Then he bestowed them in the capacious pockets of his fur pea-jacket. He also dropped in beside them a handful of spare cartridges. In his lighter moments he was apt to say that these weapons were his only friends. And those who knew him best readily agreed. Drawing up the storm-collar about his face, he passed out into the snow which was falling in flakes the size of autumn leaves. There was not a breath of wind to disturb the deathly stillness of the winter night.
Minutes later he was lounging heavily against the rough planked counter of Abe Risdon's store. He was talking to the suttler over a deep "four-fingers" of neat Rye, while his searching eyes scanned the body of the ill-lit room. The place was usually crowded with drinkers when the daylight passed, but just now it was almost empty.
"Who's that guy in the tweed pea-jacket an' looks like a city man?" he asked his host in an undertone, pointing at one of the tables where a stranger sat surrounded by four of the forest men.
Abe's powerful arms were folded as he leant on the counter.
"Blew in about noon," he said. "Filled his belly with good hash an' sat around since."
"He's a bunch o' the boys about him now, anyway. An' I guess he's talking quite a lot, an' they're doing most o' the listening. Seems like he's mostly enjoying hisself."
Abe shrugged. But the glance he flung at the man sitting at the far-off table was without approval.
"It's mostly that way now," he said, with an air of indifference his thoughtful eyes denied. "There's too many guys come along an' sell truck, an' set around, an' talk, an' then pass along. Things are changing around this lay out, an' I don't get its meanin'. Time was I had a bunch of boys ready most all the time to hand me the news going round. Time was you'd see a stranger once in a month come along in an' buy our food. Time was they mostly had faces we knew by heart, and we knew their business, and where they came from. Tain't that way now. You couldn't open the boys' faces fer news of the forest with a can-opener. These darn guys are always about now. They come, an' feed the boys' drink, an' talk with 'em most all the time. An' they're mostly strangers, an' the boys mostly sit around with their faces open like fool men listenin' to fairy tales. How's the cut goin'?"
Porson laughed. There was no light in his hard eyes.
"At a gait you couldn't change with a trail whip."
The other nodded.
'"That's how 'nigger' Pilling said. He guessed the cut was down by fifty. What is it? A buck? Wages?"
Porson's hand was fingering one of the guns in his pocket. His eyes were snapping.
"Curse 'em," he cried at last. "I just don't get it. They're goin' slow."
He pushed his empty glass at the suttler who promptly re-filled it.
"Young Pete Cust," Abe went on confidentially, "handed me a good guess only this mornin'. He'd had his sixth Rye before startin' out to work. Maybe he was rattled and didn't figger the things he said. He was astin' fer word up from the mills. I didn't worry to think, and just said I hadn't got. I ast 'why'? The boy took a quick look round, kind o' scared. He said, 'jest nothin'.' He reckoned he'd a dame somewhere around Sachigo. She'd wrote him things wer' kind of bad with the mills. They were beat fer dollars, and looked like a crash. He'd heard the same right there, an' it had him rattled. He thought of quittin' and goin' over to the Skandinavia. Maybe it's the sort o' talk that's got 'em all rattled. Maybe they're goin' slow on the cut, worryin' for their pay-roll. You can't tell. They don't say a thing. Seems to me we want Sternford right here to queer these yarns. Father Adam's around an' talked some. But—"
Porson drank down his liquor, and his glass hit the counter with angry force.
"They're mush-faced hoodlams anyway," he cried fiercely. "Ther' ain't a thing wrong with the mills. I'd bet a million on it."
He stood up from the counter and thrust his hands deep in the pockets of his coat. He was a powerful figure with legs like the tree trunks it was his work to see cut. Quite abruptly he moved away, and Abe's questioning eyes followed him.
He strode down amongst the scattered tables and came to a halt before the tweed-coated stranger. All the men looked up, and their talk died out.
"Say, what's your bizness around here?"
Ole Person's manner was threatening as he made his demand. The stranger dived at the bag lying on the floor beside his chair. He picked it up and flung it open.
"Why, I got right here the dandiest outfit of swell jewellery," he cried, grinning amiably up at the man's threatening eyes. "There's just everything here," he went on, with irrepressible volubility, "to suit you gents of the forest, an' make you the envy of every jack way down at Sachigo. Here, there's a be-autiful Prince Albert for your watch. This ring. It's full o' diamonds calculated to set Kimberly hollerin'. Maybe you fancy a locket with it. It'll take a whole bunch of your dame's—"
"You'll light right out of this camp with daylight to-morrow!"
The tone of the camp-boss banished the last shadow of the pedlar's cast-iron smile.
"Oh, yes?" he said, his eyes hardening.
"That's wot I said. This camp's private property an' you'll light out. You get that? Daylight. If you don't, we've a way of dealing with Jew drummers that'll likely worry you. Get it. An' get it good."
For a moment they looked into each other's eyes. There was not the flicker of an eyelid between them. Then Porson turned and strode away.
He passed down the store re-fastening his coat. He paused at the door as a chorus of rough laughter reached him from the little gathering at the table. But it was only for an instant. He looked back. No face was turned in his direction. So he passed out.
* * * * *
The night outside was inky black. The heavy falling snow made progress almost a blind groping. But Porson knew every inch of the way. He passed down the lines of huts and paused outside each bunkhouse. His reason was obvious. There was a question in his mind as to the whereabouts of the crowd of his men who usually thronged the liquor store at this hour of the evening.
It was at the last bunkhouse he paused longest. He stood for quite a while listening under the double glassed window. Then he passed on and stood beside the tightly closed storm-door. The signs and sounds he heard were apparently sufficient. For, after a while, he turned back and set out to return to his quarters.
For many minutes he groped his way through the blinding snow, his mind completely given up to the things his secret watch had revealed. His brutish nature, being what it was, left him concerned only for the forceful manner by which he could restore that authority which he felt to be slipping away from him under the curious change which had come over the camp. His position depended on the adequate output of his winter's cut and on nothing else. That, he knew, was desperately falling, and—
But in a moment, all concern was swept from his mind. A sound leapt at him out of the stillness of the night. It was the whimper of dogs and the sharp command of a man's voice. He shouted a challenge and waited. And presently a dog train pulled up beside him.
* * * * *
Bull Sternford was standing before the wood stove in the camp-boss's shanty. He had removed his snow-laden fur coat. He had kicked the damp snow from his moccasins. Now he was wiping the moisture out of his eyes, and the chill in his limbs was easing under the warmth which the stove radiated.
Ole Porson's grim face was alight with a smile of genuine welcome, as he stood surveying his visitor across the roaring stove.
"It's surely the best thing happened in years, Mr. Sternford," he was saying. "I'm more glad you made our camp this night than any other. Maybe I'd ha' got through someways, but I don't know just how. We're down over fifty on our cut, an', by the holy snakes, I can't hand you why."
Bull put his coloured handkerchief away, and removed the pea-jacket which he had worn under his furs.
"Don't worry," he said with apparent unconcern. "I can hand it you. That's why I'm here."
The camp-boss waited. He eyed his chief with no little anxiety. He had looked for an angry outburst.
Bull pulled up a chair. He flung the litter of books it supported on to the already crowded table and sat down. Then he filled his pipe and lit it with a hot coal from the stove.
"Here," he said, "I'll tell you. I've been the round of four camps. I've been over a month on the trail, and I've heard just the same tale from every camp-boss we employ. I've three more camps to visit besides yours, and when I've made them maybe I'll get the sleep I'm about crazy for. Night and day I've been on the dead jump for a month following the trail of a red-hot gang that's going through our forests. If I come up with them there's going to be murder."
He spoke quietly without a sign of emotion. But the light in his hot eyes was almost desperate.
"I want to hand you the story so you'll get it all clear," he went on after a moment. "So I'll start by telling you how we stand at the mill. Get this, an' hold it tight in your head, and the rest'll come clear as day. Sachigo's right on top. We've boosted it sky high on to the top of the world's pulp trade. In less than twelve months we'll have grabbed well-nigh the whole of this country's pulp industry, and we'll beat the foreigners right back over the sea to their own country. The Skandinavia folk are rattled. They know all about us and they've done their best to buy us out of the game. We turned 'em down cold, and they're mad—mad as hell. It means they're in for the fight of their lives. So are we. And we know Peterman an' his gang well enough to know what that means. It's 'rough an' tough.' Everything goes. If they can't gouge our eyes they'll do their best to chew us to small meat. But we've got 'em every way. This forest gang is sent by the Skandinavia. If they can't smash us by fire or labour trouble next year'll see us floated into a seventy million dollar corporation with the whole Canadian wood-pulp industry lying right in the palms of our hands. That's the reason for the things doing."
He paused, and the camp-boss nodded his rough head. It was a story he could clearly understand. Then there were those figures. Seventy million dollars! They swept the last shadow of doubt from his mind.
"That's the position," Bull went on. "Now for the trouble as it is in the forests right now. The thing that's had me travelling night an' day for a month. There's an outfit going right through these forests. I can't locate its extent. Only the way it works. There's two objects in view. One is to fire our limits. The other reckons to paralyse our cut. So far these folks have failed against the fire-guard organisation, and I guess they'll likely miss most of their fire-bugs when they call the roll. The other's different."
Bull knocked out his pipe on the stove and gazed thoughtfully at the streak of brilliant light under the edge of the front damper.
"I've a notion there's an outfit of pedlars at work, as well as others," he went on presently.
The camp-boss nodded.
"Sure," he said.
Bull looked up.
"You think that way?" he asked. Then he nodded. "Yes, I guess we're right. They're handing the boys dope to keep 'em guessing—worrying. They're telling 'em we're on the edge of a big smash at Sachigo. That we can't see the winter through. We're cleaned out for cash, and the mill folk are shouting for their wages and starting in to riot. It's a swell yarn. It's the sort of yarn I'd tell 'em myself if I was working for the Skandinavia. It's the sort of dope these crazy forest-jacks are ready to swallow the same as if it was Rye. Do you see? These fools are being told they won't get their pay for their winter's cut. So, being what they are, the boys are going slow. They're going slow, and drawing goods at the store against each cord they cut. Well, do you see what's going to happen if the game succeeds? With our forests ablaze, and our cut fifty down, and the whole outfit on the buck, when spring comes, Skandinavia reckons our British financiers, when they come along to look our land over will turn the whole proposition of the flotation down, and quit us cold. But that's not just all. No, sir. Elas Peterman isn't the boy to leave it that way. He's handing out the story that when Sachigo smashes the Skandinavia's going to jump right in and collect the wreckage cheap. Then they'll start up the mill, and sign on all hands on their own pay-roll, only stipulating that they won't pay one single cent of what Sachigo owes for their cut. So, if they're such almighty fools as to cut, it's going to be their dead loss and the Skandinavia's gain. Do you get it? It's smart. I guess there's a bigger brain behind it than Peterman's."
The camp-boss spat into the stove. It was his one expression of disgust.
Bull rose from his chair.
"Here, I need food. So does my boy out there with the dogs. We'll take it after I'm through with the men. It's snowing like hell, but I pull out two hours from now. You see, I'm on a hot trail, an' don't fancy losing a minute."
"You're goin' to talk to 'em—the boys?" Porson's eyes lit with a gleam of satisfaction. "Can you—twist 'em?"
Bull thrust a hand into his breast pocket and drew out a sealed packet. He held it up before the other's questioning eyes.
"I haven't failed yet," he said quietly. "In nine of our camps back on the river the work's running full already. I've a whole big yarn for our boys. But right here I've got what's better. It's the only thing that'll clinch the yarn I'm going to hand 'em. This," he went on, indicating the parcel in his hand, "is the bunch of dollars representing the price of this camp's full winter cut, and the price of a bonus for making up all leeway already lost. I'm going to have the boys count it. Then I'm going to have them hand it right over to Abe Risdon to set in his safe, with a written order from me to pay out in full the moment the winter cut is complete. Is it good? Can the Skandinavia's junk stand in face of it? No, sir. And so I've proved right along. I don't hold much of a brief for the intelligence of the forest-jack, but his belly rules him all the time. You see, he's human, and no more dishonest than the rest of us. Have him guessing and worried and you'll get trouble right along. Show him the lies the Skandinavia's been doping him with, and he'll work out of sheer spite to beat their game. You get right out and collect the gang."
* * * * *
The snowfall had ceased. And with its passing the temperature had fallen to something far below its average winter level. The clouds had vanished miraculously, and in their place was a night sky ablaze with the light of myriad stars, and the soft splendour of a brilliant moon.
It was a scene of frigid desolation. Away on the southern horizon lay the black line which marked the tremendous forest limits of the Beaver River. For the rest it was a world of snow that hid up the rugged undulations of a sterile territory.
The dog train was moving at a reckless gait over the untracked, hardening snow. The man Gouter was driving under imperative orders such as he loved. Bull Sternford had told him when he left the shelter of No. 10 Camp: "Get there! Get there quick! There's dogs and to spare at all our camps, and I don't care a curse if you run the outfit to death."
To a man of Gouter's breed the order was sufficient. Half Eskimo, half white man, he was a savage of the wild, born and bred to the fierce northern trail, one of Labrador's hereditary fur hunters by sea and land. Speed on the fiercest trail was the dream of his vanity. Relays of dogs, such as he could never afford, and something accomplished which he could tell of over the camp fire to his less fortunate brethren. So he accepted the white man's order and drove accordingly.
Bull Sternford sat huddled in the back of the sled under the fur robes which alone made life possible. His work at No. 10 Camp had left him satisfied, but every nerve in his body was alert for the final coup he contemplated. He was weary in mind as well as body. And in his heart he knew that the need of his physical resources was not so very far off. But he was beyond care. He had said he was crazy for sleep, but the words gave no indication of his real condition. His eyes ached. His head throbbed. There were moments, even, when the things he beheld, the things he thought became distorted. But he knew that somewhere ahead a ghostly outfit of strangers was pursuing its evil work against him, and he meant to come up with it, and to wreak his vengeance in merciless, summary fashion. His purpose had become an obsession in the long sleepless days and nights he had endured.
It was war. It was bitter ruthless war on the barren hinterland of Labrador, where civilisation was unknown. Mercy? Nature never designed that terrible wilderness as a setting for mercy.
The dogs had been running for hours when Gouter's voice came sharply back over his shoulder.
"Dog!" he cried, in the laconic fashion habitual to him.
Bull knelt up. His movement suggested the nervous strain he was enduring. It was almost electrical.
"Where?" he demanded, peering out into the shining night over the man's furry shoulder.
The half-breed raised a pointing whip ahead and to the south.
"Sure," he said. "I hear him."
Bull had heard nothing. Nothing but the hiss of the snow under their own runners, and the whimper of their own dogs.
"It wouldn't be a wolf or fox?" he demurred.
The half-breed clucked his tongue. His vanity was outraged.
Bull gazed intently in the direction the whip had pointed. He could see only the far-off forest line, and the soft whiteness of the world of snow.
The half-breed again held up his whip. This time it was for attention. Bull listened. Still he could hear nothing, nothing at all but the sounds of their own progress.
"Man! Him speak with dog. Oh, yes."
Gouter had turned. His beady black eyes were shining with a smile of triumph into the white man's face.
"By the forest?"
"Then in God's name swing over and run to head them off!"
Gouter obeyed with alacrity. He had impressed his white chief. It was good. A series of unintelligible ejaculations and the dogs swung away to the south. Then the whip rolled out and fell with cruel accuracy. The rawhide tugs strained under a mighty effort, as the great dogs were set racing with their lean bellies low to the ground.
Bull wiped the icicles from about his mouth and nose.
"Now have your guns ready," he cried. "The driver of that team is your man. The other's mine. If he shows fight kill him. There's five hundred dollars for you if you get 'em."
"I get 'em."
The half-breed's confidence was supreme. Bull dropped back into the sled. He sat with a pair of automatic pistols ready to his hand and gazed out over the sled rail.
It was a terrific race and all feeling of weariness had passed under the excitement of it. The dogs were silent now. Every nerve in their muscular bodies were straining. The pace seemed to increase with every passing moment, and up out of the horizon the dark line of the forest leapt at them, deepening and broadening as it came.
For some time the less practised white man saw and heard nothing of his enemies. He was forced to rely on the half-breed. He observed the man closely. He noted his every sign and read it as best he could. Presently Gouter leant forward peering. Then he straightened up and his voice came back triumphantly.
"I see dem," he exclaimed. And pointed almost abreast. "Dogs. One—two—five. Yes. Two man. Now we get him sure."
Down fell the whip on the racing dogs. The man shouted his jargon at them. The sled lurched and swayed with the added spurt, and Bull held fast to the rail. A glad thrill surged through his senses.
It was a moment of tremendous uplift. Bull had yearned for it for weeks. But the short days and long nights of deferred hope had had their effect. He had almost come to feel that this thing that was now at hand was something impossible.
Yes. There was the outfit growing plainer and plainer with every moment. He could see it clearly. He could even count its details as the other's sharper eyes had counted them minutes before. There were five dogs. And they were running hard. They, too, were being flogged, and the man driving them was shouting furiously in his urgency.
Suddenly there was a leap of flame and a shot rang out. It came from the driver of the fleeing dog train. It was replied to on the instant by Gouter who lost not a second. His own shot sped even as the enemy's bullet whistled somewhere past his head. He fired again. A third shot split the air. And with that last shot the enemy's sled seemed to leap in the air. There was a moment of hideous confusion. Then the wreckage dropped away behind the pursuers, sprawled and still in the snow.
A fierce shout from Gouter and his dogs swung round. The sled under him heeled over, and took a desperate chance on a single runner. But the half-breed's skill saved them from catastrophe. It righted itself, and the dogs slowed to a trot. Then they halted. And the occupants of the sled flung themselves prone, with their guns ready for the first sign of movement in the tangled mass of their adversary's outfit.
* * * * *
Two of the dogs lay buried under the overturned sled. Three others were sprawling at the end of their rawhide tugs. They were alive. They were unhurt. They lay there taking full advantage of the situation for rest.
But for the moment interest centred round the body of a white man lying some yards away. A groan of pain came up to the two men standing over him.
Bull dropped on his knees. He reached down and turned the body over. The eyes of the man were visible between the sides of his fur hood. But that was all.
There was a moment of silent contemplation. Then the injured man struggled desperately to rise.
"Sternford?" he ejaculated
Gouter was on him in a moment. He heard the tone of voice, and interpreted the man's movement in his own savage fashion. He knew the man to be the driver of the team, whom his boss had told him was his man. So he threw him back and held him.
Bull stood up. The man's voice told him all he wanted to know.
"Laval, eh?" he said quietly. "A second time. I didn't expect it. No."
Then he laughed and turned away. And the sound of his laugh possessed something terribly mocking in the night silence of the wilderness.
He passed back to the sled. There had been two men in it. He had seen that for himself.
The wreckage looked hopeless. The sled was completely overturned and its gleaming runners caught and reflected the white rays of the moon. It had been thrown by reason of the fallen bodies of the dogs which lay under it, pinned by its weight, and additionally held fast by their own tangled harness.
Bull had no thought for anything but the purpose in his mind. So he reached out and caught the steel runners in his mitted hands and flung the vehicle aside.
Yes, it was there in the midst of a confusion of baggage and lying cheek by jowl with the mangled remains of the dogs. He cleared the debris, and dragged the dogs aside. Then he stood and gazed down at the figure that remained.
It was clad in a voluminous beaver coat. It was hooded, as was every man who faced the fierce Labrador trail. But—
The figure moved. It stirred, and deliberately sat up. Bull's hands had been on his guns at the first movement. But he released them, as the hood fell back from the face which was ghastly pale in the moonlight.
He flung himself on his knees, and tenderly supported the swaying figure.
"God in Heaven!" he cried. "Nancy! You?"
ON THE HOME TRAIL
Nancy's eyes were desperately troubled as she gazed out across the great valley of the Beaver River. Somewhere behind her, in the shelter of the woods, a mid-day camp had been pitched, and the men who had captured her red-hand in the work of their enemies were preparing the, rough food of the trail. But she was beyond all such concern.
Far out on every hand lay the amazing panorama of the splendid valley, but she saw none of it. The mighty frozen waterway, the depths of virgin snow, the far-reaching woodlands its gaping lips embraced; they were things of frigid beauty for her eyes to gaze upon, but their meaning was lost upon a mind tortured with the vivid, hateful pictures it was powerless to escape.
From the moment of that dreadful night when she had witnessed the ruthless climax of the work to which she had given herself she had known no peace. It was no thought of her failure, her capture, that inspired her trouble. She could have been thankful enough for that. It was the only mercy, she felt, that had been vouchsafed to her.
No, long before her capture, a deep undermining of regret had set in. She had been without realisation of it, perhaps. But it had been there. In yielding to the demands of those she served, in her self-confidence she had forgotten the woman in her. She had forgotten everything but the crazy ambition which had blinded her to all consequences. Yes, even in the excitement of the work itself she had forgotten everything but the achievement she desired. But through it all, under it all, the woman in her had been slowly awakening, and an unadmitted regret at the destruction of work which meant the whole life of another had been stirring. Then, when the leading tongues of the guns had flashed out, and human life, even the life of dogs, had yielded to the demand of her cause, the last vestige of her dreaming had been swept away, and she told herself it was murder, murder at her bidding!
Now her soul was afire with the bitterness of repentance, with passionate self-accusation. Murder had been done through her. Murder! The horror of it all had driven her well-nigh demented when she gazed from the distance while the two men disposed of Arden Laval's body under the snow. The dogs? They had been left where they fell. The living had been cut loose from their trappings to roam the forests at their will, while the dead had remained to satisfy the fierce hunger of the savage forest creatures. Even the sled had been destroyed, and its wood used to make fire that the living might endure on those pitiless northern heights. The memory of it all was days old now, but its horror showed no abatement. The agony was still with her. She felt that never again could she know peace.
So she had moved away out from camp, as she had done at every stopping they had made on the long journey from the highlands down to Sachigo. Somehow it seemed to her impossible to do otherwise. She felt she must hide herself from the sight of those others who were her captors, and who, in their hearts, she felt, must deeply abhor the presence of so vile a creature in their camp.
How long she had been standing there, while the men prepared the mid-day meal, she did not know. It was a matter of no sort of consequence to her anyway. Nothing really seemed of any consequence now. Her jaded mind was obsessed by a horror she could not shake off. There was nothing, nothing in the world to do but nurse the anguish driving her.
"You'll come right along and eat, Nancy?"
The girl almost jumped at the gentle tones of the man's voice, and glanced round at Bull Sternford in an agony of sudden terror.
"I—I—" she stammered. Then composure returned to her. "If you wish it," she said submissively. "But I don't need food."
Bull regarded the averted face for moments. Sympathy and love were in his clear gazing eyes. He understood something of the thing she was enduring, and the tone of his voice had been a real expression of his feelings. This girl, with the courage of twenty men, with her radiant beauty, and in her pitiful, heartbroken condition, was far more precious to him than any victory he had set himself to achieve. He knew that the world held nothing half so precious.
He came a step nearer.
"I wonder if you'll listen to me, Nancy," he said, with a hesitation and doubt utterly foreign, to him. "You know, for all that's happened, for all we're mixed up against each other in this war, I'm the same man you found me on the Myra and in Quebec. I—"
The girl flung out her hands in a piteous appeal. And Bull recognised the hysteria lying behind the movement.
"I know," she cried. "Oh, I know. But—don't you understand? You must know what I am. It's my doing that Laval has gone to his death. I'm responsible, just as surely as if I'd fired the gun that robbed him of his life. Oh, why, why didn't I refuse the work? Why did they send me? And those dogs. Those poor helpless dogs. They, too. I must have been mad—mad. How can you come near me? How can you stand there summoning me to eat food—with you? It's useless. It's—I who sent that man to his death—I who—"
"Why, I thought it was Gouter."
Bull's manner had suddenly changed. The danger signal in the girl's eyes had determined him. So he smiled, and there was laughter in his challenge.
"Say," he went on rapidly, "if you told that to Gouter he'd be crazy mad. He's the boss running shot on Labrador, and if you claimed responsibility for the killing of Laval you'd be dead up against it with him." He shook his head. "No, he's sort of grieved he didn't drop him plumb on the instant as it is. It won't do you talking that way with him around."
He watched for the effect of his words and realised a slight relaxing of the strained look in the hazel eyes. Forthwith he plunged into the thing he contemplated.
"I'm going to make a big talk with you before we eat," he said. "You see, I've wanted to right along, Nancy, but—Well, I want to tell you you're no more responsible for Laval's life, and the lives of those dogs, than I am. We're each playing our little parts in the things of life like the puppets we are. Our hands are clean enough, but it's not that way with the skunks that could send you, a girl, almost a child, to do the work, and live the life that boys like Gouter hardly know how to get through. That man, Peterman, is going to get it one day from me if I have luck. And I won't call it murder when I get my hands on his dirty alien throat. But never mind that. I want to ease that poor aching head of yours. I want to try and get you some peace of mind. That's why I tell you you've nothing to chide yourself for, nothing at all. It's true. You've played the game like the loyal adversary you are. And, for the moment, I'm top dog. You've handed me a bad nightmare by the wonderful courage and grit you've well-nigh shamed me, as a man, with. True, true you haven't a thing to blame yourself with. You've fought a mighty big fight I'd have been pleased to fight. It's just circumstances pitched you into the muss up, and let you see the thing your folks have brought about. It's that that's worrying. Think, Nancy, think hard. This is their fight. Not yours. The blood of Laval is on Elas Peterman's head. His, and those other creatures who are ready to commit any crime to steal our country from us. Oh, I'm not preaching just my side. It's true, true. We at Sachigo were content to compete openly, honestly. Peterman and those others saw disaster in our competition. And so they got ready to murder—if necessary. It's the soulless crime of a gang of unscrupulous foreigners, and those hounds of hell have left you to suffer for it just as sure as if they'd seared your poor gentle heart with a red hot iron. Say, Nancy," he went on, with persuasive earnestness, "put it all out of your mind. Forget it all. You're out of the fight now. And it just hurts me to see your eyes troubled, and that poor tender heart of yours all broken up. Won't you?"
The girl had turned away to the gaping valley again. But she answered him. And her tone was less dull, and it was without the dreadful passion of moments ago.
"I—I've tried to tell myself something of that," she said, with the pathetic helplessness of a child.
"Then try some more."
Bull had drawn nearer. He laid one hand gently on her shoulder. It moved down and took possession of the soft arm under her furs. Nancy shook her head. But there was no decision in the movement.
"Oh, I wish—" she began.
But she could get no further. Suddenly she buried her face in her hands, and broke into a passion of weeping.
Bull stood helplessly by. He gazed upon the shaking woman while great sobs racked her whole body. There was nothing he could do, nothing he dared do. He knew that. His impulse was to take her in his arms and protect her with his body against the things which gave her pain. But—somehow he felt that perhaps it was good for her to weep. Perhaps it would help her. So he waited.
Slowly the violence of the girl's grief subsided. And after a while she turned to him and gazed at him through her tears.
But Bull shook his head.
"Come. Shall we go and eat?"
He still retained his hold upon her arm. And as he spoke he led her unresistingly away towards the camp.
THE MAN IN THE TWILIGHT
Bat Harker passed out of the house on the hillside. Muffled in heavy furs he stood for a moment filling up the storm doorway, gazing out over a desolate prospect, a scene of grave-like, significant stillness.
The mills he loved were completely idle. But that was not all. He knew them to be at the mercy of an army of men who had abandoned their work at the call of wanton political and commercial agitators. It was disaster, grievous disaster. And he told himself he was about to beat a retreat like some hard-pressed general, hastily retiring in face of the enemy from a position no longer tenable.
There was no yielding in the lumberman. But to a man of his forcefulness and headstrong courage the thought of retreat was maddening. He was yearning to fight in any and every way that offered. He knew that he was going to fight this thing out, that his present retreat was purely strategic. He knew that the whole campaign was only just beginning. But it galled his spirit that his first move must be a—retreat.
The late winter day was fiercely threatening, fit setting for the disaster that had befallen. The cold was bitterly intense, but no more bitter than the lumberman's present mood. There down below were the deserted quays with their mountains of baled wood-pulp buried deep under white drifts of snow. And the voiceless mills were similarly half buried. Look where he would the scene was dead and deserted. There was not one single stirring human figure to break up the desolation of it all.
It was a sad, white, desolate world, which for over fifteen years he had known only as a busy hive. Roadways should have been clear. Traffic should have been speeding, every service, even in the depth of winter, should have been in full running. The mills—those wonderful mills—should have been droning out their chorus of human achievement in a world set out for Nature's fiercest battle ground.
From the moment of that first encounter in the recreation hall Bat had known the strike to be inevitable. Bull's swift action at the outset had had its effect. For the moment it had checked the movement, and reduced it to a simmer. Heat and power had been restored, and work had been resumed, and outwardly there had been peace. But it was artificial, and the lumberman and the engineer had been aware that this was so.
Brief as was the respite it was valuable time to the men in control, and they used it to the uttermost. The leaders of the strike had been robbed of the advantage they had sought from a lightning strike. But they were by no means defeated. It was only that they had lost a move in the game they had prepared.
At the end of a week Bat awoke one morning to find the mills and all traffic at a standstill, and the workers skulking within the shelter of their own homes.
Then it was that the benefit of a week's respite was made plain. Every plan that had been prepared was forthwith put into operation. Power and heat were again cut off. The loyalists, which included a large number of the engineering staff, and the staff of the executive offices, were equipped with such weapons as would serve, and set guard over the food and liquor stores, and the essentials of the mills. And the power house was fortified for siege.
But the strikers gave no sign. There was no attempt at violence. There was no picketing, and no apparent attempt at coercion of the loyalists. It almost seemed as if the objects of the leaders had been achieved by the simple cessation of work.
This silent condition of the strike had gone on for days with exasperating effect upon the defenders. Bat endeavoured by every means in his power to bring the leaders of the movement into the open to discuss the situation. But every effort ended negatively. The men would not contemplate the conference table, and finally, in headlong mood, the lumberman had committed the grave mistake of provocation. He threatened to cut off food supplies if the leaders continued in their refusal to confer.
Two weeks elapsed before his threat reacted. Two weeks of continued silence and apparent inaction by the strike leaders. The men's first terror at the loss of heat and power seemed to have passed. As Bull had suggested they had resorted to the methods of the trail, and day and night mighty beacon fires burned along the fore-shores of the cove upon which their homes were built. The men and women came and went peaceably but silently between the food stores and their homes, purchasing such provisions as they needed. And the manner of it all, the cold silence, should have served a warning of the iron hand in exercise behind the strike.
The bombshell came at the end of the third week. It came in the form of a message crouched in the flamboyant phraseology beloved of the Communist fraternity. It was conveyed by a small youth some ten years of age, as though its authors were fearful lest a full grown bearer should be made to suffer for the temerity.
Bat had received it at the office, and his manner had been characteristic.
"Fer me, laddie?" he had said, as he took possession of the official-looking envelope. Then he gently patted the boy's shoulder. "All right, sonny," he added. "You get right back to your folks. Pore little bit."
With the boy's departure he had lost no time in reading the ultimatum the message contained.
"A Soviet has been formed. The Workers will not submit to inteference with the food supplies of the people such as has been threatened by men who have no right over the life and death of their fellows. In view of this threat, the Soviet of the Workers has determined to possess itself of the mills and all properties pertaining thereto. The whole territories and properties hither controlled under a capitalist organisation will in future be administered by the Soviet or the Workers. You are required, therefore, to hand over forthwith all accountings, administration, and all funds, all legal documentary titles such as are held by you of freeholds and forestry rights relating to Sachigo. Furthermore, it is required of you to restore intact the machinery of the new power station, and to hand over the whole premises in full running order. One week's grace will be permitted for the execution of this order. Failing absolute compliance, the ruling Soviet of the Workers reserves to itself the right of adopting such measures to enforce the Will of the Workers as it may deem necessary.
"On behalf of the Soviet of the Workers,
At the finish of his reading Bat had looked up into the dark face of Pete Loale who was standing by.
"Leo Murko?" he said, in an ominously restrained tone. "Ther' ain't no guy o' that name on our pay-roll. Guess he'll be that feller Bull dropped out into the snow." Then with a sudden explosive force: "In God's name why in hell didn't he break that skunk's neck?"
The week's grace had expired. It had been a week of further hasty preparations. Every day had been used to the uttermost, and even far into the night the work had gone on. The office on the hill, as well as the executive offices down at the mill, had been cleared out. Documents, cash, books, safe. Everything of real importance had been removed to the citadel power house. The mining of the penstocks had been completed, and left ready to be blown sky high at a moment's notice. Whatever befell, the men who had given their lives to the building of the mills were determined that only a useless husk should fall into the hands of the strikers.
Now had come the Communists' final declaration of war. The message had been brought less than an hour ago by the same youth, who had again departed with Bat's smiling expression of pity. The letter was ominously brief.
"The Order of the Soviet of the Workers will be enforced forthwith. No mercy will be shown in the event of resistance."
Bat's fury had blazed as he read the message. Again it was signed "Leo Murko." How he hated that name. He had been alone in the office when the letter came, and had seized the 'phone and called up the engineer at the power house, and read the message to him. Skert Lawton's reply was as instant as it was characteristic.
"That's all right," he said. "We're fixed for the scrap. Just come right over."
It was this last act that Bat contemplated now. And he hated it. He knew well enough he must go. There was no sane alternative. The power station was the prepared fortress. It had everything in it that must be guarded and fought for. But his fierce regret was none the less for the knowledge.
Then, too, his regret was for something else. It was at the absence of Bull Sternford. This was no expression of weakness. It was simply he desired the man's companionship. They had worked together. They had planned and built together. And, now, in the moment of battle, it seemed to him they should still be together.
But he knew that was impossible. When Bull's call to the forest had come in the night there had been no opportunity for explanation. He, Bat, had been engaged down at the mill, and the other had been rushed in his preparations. Bull had made his farewell to him in a great hurry. He had outlined briefly the thing happening in the forests. That had been all. That and a few words on the affairs of the mill.
How the news had reached Bull, and who the messenger, had never transpired between them. Perhaps Bull had forgotten to mention it. Perhaps, in the hurry of it all, Bat had forgotten to ask. Perhaps, even, the messenger himself had impressed secrecy for his visit, which had been timed for the dead of night. At any rate Bat knew none of these things, and was in no way concerned for them. All he was concerned for was the absence of the man who was something more to him than a mere partner.
Thinking of him now Bat remembered the other's final words, and the memory stirred him deeply.
"Remember, old friend," he had said, "young Ray Birchall will be over from England at the break of winter. On his report to his people depends the whole thing we've built up. We've got to have these mills running full when that boy gets around. There's not a darn thing else matters."
It was the final spur. The mills running full. Bat spat out his chew, and turned and locked the door behind him. Then he moved away hurriedly, gazing straight in front of him as though he dared not even think of the place he was leaving.
* * * * *
On the foreshore of the Cove, out towards the guarding headlands, half a hundred fires were burning. They were immense beacon fires of monstrous proportions. Belching columns of smoke clouded the whole region till the water-front looked to be in the grip of a forest fire.
Men, and women, and children were gathered about them. They were basking in a moderation of temperature such as their homes could no longer afford them. But it was a curious, silent gathering, indifferent to everything but the feeding of the fires on which they felt their very existence depended.
The forests which supplied the fuel came down to the edge of the now idle trolley track. Already acres and acres had been felled to feed the insatiable fires. The woodland decimated, and the devastation was going on in every direction.