"Out looking after his traps, picking them up I think, for the summer. He'll be back soon. Is there—"
"No. I usually come over every day to see him, you know." Then the blue eyes lost their diffidence to become serious. "Do you remember yet who you are?"
"Less right at this minute than at any other time!" spoke Barry truthfully. "I'm out of my head entirely!" He reached for the flowers.
"Please don't joke that way. It's really serious. When I was across—army nursing—I saw a lot of just such cases as yours. Shell shock, you know. One has to be awfully careful with it."
"I know. But I'm getting the best of care. I—ouch!" His interest had exceeded his caution. The unbandaged hand had waved the flowers for emphasis and absently gripped the stems. The wild roses fluttered to the ground. "Gosh!" came dolefully, "I'm all full of thorns. Guess I'll have to pick 'em out with my teeth."
"Oh!" Then she picked up the roses and laid them gingerly aside. "You can't use your other hand, can you?"
"No. Arm's broken."
"Then—" she looked back toward Lost Wing, hunched on a stump, and Barry's heart sank. She debated a moment, at last to shake her head. "No—he'd want to dig them out with a knife. If you don't mind." She moved toward Houston and Barry thrust forth his hand.
"If you don't mind," he countered and she sat beside him. A moment later:
"I must look like a fortune teller."
"See anything in my palm besides thorns?"
"Yes. A little dirt. Ba'tiste evidently isn't a very good nurse."
"I did the best I could with one hand. But I was pretty grimy. I—I didn't know," and Barry grinned cheerfully, "I was going to be this lucky."
She pretended not to hear the sally. And in some way Barry was glad. He much rather would have her silent than making some flippant remark, much rather would he prefer to lean comfortably back on the old bench and watch the quiet, almost childish determination of her features as she sought for a grip on the tiny protuberances of the thorns, the soft brownness of the few strands of hair which strayed from beneath the boyish cap, the healthy glow of her complexion, the smallness of the clear-skinned hands, the daintiness of the trim little figure. Much rather would he be silent with the picture than striving for answers to questions that in their very naiveness were an accusation. Quite suddenly Barry felt cheap and mean and dishonest. He felt that he would like to talk about himself,—about home and his reasons for being out here; his hopes for the mill which now was a shambling, unprofitable thing; about the future and—a great many things. It was with an effort, when she queried him again concerning his memory, that he still remained Mr. Nobody. Then he shifted the conversation from himself to her.
"Do you live out here?"
"Yes. Didn't Ba'tiste tell you? My house is just over the hill—you can just see one edge of the roof through that bent aspen."
"I'd noticed that. Thought it was a house, but couldn't be sure. I thought I understood Ba'tiste to say you only came out here in the summer."
"I did that when I was going to school. Now I stay here all the year 'round."
"Isn't it lonely?"
"Out here? With a hundred kinds of birds to keep things going? With the trout leaping in the streams in the summer time, and a good gun in the hollow of your arm in the winter? Besides, there's old Lost Wing and his squaw, you know. I get a lot of enjoyment out of them when we're snowed in—in the winter. He's told me fully fifty versions of how the Battle of Wounded Knee was fought, and as for Custer's last battle—it's wonderful!"
"He knows all about it?"
"I'd hardly say that." Medaine reached under her cap for a hairpin, looked quickly at Barry as though to ask him whether he could stand pain, then pressed a recalcitrant thorn into a position where it could be extracted. "I think the best description of Lost Wing is that he's an admirable fiction writer. Ba'tiste says he has more lies than a dog has fleas."
"Then it isn't history?"
"Of course not. Just imagination. But it's well done, with plenty of gestures. He stands in front of the fire and acts it all out while his squaw sits on the floor and grunts and nods and wails at the right time, and it's really entertaining. They're about a million years old, both of them. My father got them when he first came down here from Montreal. He wanted Lost Wing as a sort of bodyguard. It was a good deal wilder in this region then than it is now, and father owned a good deal of land."
"So Ba'tiste tells me. He says that practically all of the forests around here are yours."
"They will be, next year," came simply, "when I'm—"
She stopped and laughed.
"Ba'tiste told me. Twenty-one."
"He never could keep anything to himself."
"What's wrong about that? I'm twenty-seven myself."
"Honestly? You don't look it."
"Don't I? I ought to. I've got a beard and everything. See?" He pulled his hand away for a moment to rub the two-days' growth on his face. "I tried to shave this morning. Couldn't make it. Ba'tiste said he'd play barber for me this afternoon. Next time you come over I'll be all slicked up."
Again she laughed, and once more pursued the remaining thorns.
"How do you know there'll be a next time?"
"If there isn't, I'll drive nails in myself, so you'll have to pull 'em out." Then seriously. "You do come over here often, don't you?"
"Of course—" then, the last thorn disposed of, she rose—"to see Ba'tiste. I look on him as a sort of a guardian. He knew my father. But let's talk about yourself. You seem remarkably clear in your mind to be afflicted with amnesia. Are you sure you don't remember anything—?"
"No—not now. But," and Barry hedged painfully, "I think I will. It acts to me like a momentary thing. Every once in a while I get a flash as though it were all coming back; it was just the fall, I'm sure of that. My head's all right."
"You mean your brain?"
"Yes. I don't act crazy, or anything like that, do I?"
"Well," and she smiled quizzically, "of course, I don't know you, so I have nothing to go by. But I must admit that you say terribly foolish things."
Leaving him to think over that, she turned, laughed a good-by, and with the rolling, bow-legged old Lost Wing in her wake, retraced the path to the top of the hill, there to hesitate a moment, wave her hand quickly, and then, as though hurrying away from her action, disappeared. Barry Houston sat for a long time, visualizing her there on the brow of the hill, her head with its long-visored cap tilted, her hand upraised, her trimness and her beauty silhouetted against the opalesque sky, dreaming,—and with a bit of heartache in it. For this sort of thing had been his hope in younger, fairer days. This sort of a being had been his make-believe companion of a Castle in Spain. This sort of a joking, whimsical girl had been the one who had come to him in the smoke wreaths and tantalized him and promised him—
But now, his life was gray. His heart was not his own. His life was at best only a grim, drab thing of ugly memories and angered determinations. If a home should ever come to him, it must be in company with some one to whom he owed the gratitude of friendship in time of need; not love not affection, but the paying of a debt of deepest honor. Which Barry would do, and faithfully and honestly and truthfully. As for the other—
He leaned against the bark slabs of the cabin. He closed his eyes. He grinned cheerily.
"Well," came at last, "there's no harm in thinking about it!"
It was thus that Ba'tiste found him, still dreaming. The big voice of the Canadian boomed, and he reached forward to nudge Barry on his injured shoulder.
"And who has been bringing you flowers?" he asked.
"Medaine. That is—Miss Robinette."
"Medaine? Oh, ho! You hear, Golemar?" he turned to the fawning wolf-dog. "He calls her Medaine! Oh, ho! And he say he will marry, not for love. Peuff! We shall see, by gar, we shall see! Eh, Golemar?" Then to Barry, "You have sit out here too long."
"I? Nothing of the kind. Where's the axe? I'll do some fancy one-handed woodchopping."
And while Ba'tiste watched, grinning, Barry went about his task, swinging the axe awkwardly, but whistling with the joy of work. Nor did he pause to diagnose his light-heartedness. He only knew that he was in the hills; that the streets and offices and people of the cities, and the memories that they carried, had been left behind for him that he was in a new world to make a new fight and that he was strangely, inordinately happy Time after time the axe glinted, to descend upon the chopping block, until at last the pile of stovewood had reached its proper dimensions, and old Ba'tiste came from the doorway to carry it in. Then, half an hour later, they sat down to their meal of sizzling bacon and steaming coffee,—a great, bearded giant and the younger man whom he, in a moment of impulsiveness, had all but adopted. Ba'tiste was still joking about the visit of Medaine, Houston parrying his thrusts. The meal finished, Ba'tiste went forth once more, to the hunt of a bear trap and its deadfall, dragged away by a mountain lion during the last snow. Barry sought again the bench outside the cabin, to sit there waiting and hoping,—in vain. At last came evening, and he undressed laboriously for a long rest. Something awaited him in Tabernacle,—either the opening of a book of schemes, or at least the explanation of a mystery, and that meant a walk of quite two miles, the exercise of muscles which still ached, the straining of tendons drawn by injury and pain. But when the time came, he was ready.
"Bon—good!" came from Ba'tiste, as they turned into the little village of Tabernacle the next day, skirted the two clapboarded stores forming the "main business district," and edged toward the converted box car that passed as a station. "Bon—the agent he is leaving."
Barry looked ahead, to see a man crossing an expanse of flat country toward what was evidently a boarding house. Ba'tiste nudged him.
"You will walk slowly, as though going into the station to loaf. Ba'tiste will come behind—and keep watch."
Barry obeyed. A moment more and he was within the converted box car, to find it deserted and silent, except for the constant clackle of the telegraph key, rattling off the business of a mountain railroad system, like some garrulous old woman, to any one who would listen. There was no private office, only a railing and a counter, which Barry crossed easily. A slight crunching of gravel sounded without. It was Ba'tiste, now lounging in the doorway, ready at a moment to give the alarm. Houston turned hastily toward the file hook and began to turn the pages of the original copy which hung there.
A moment of searching and he leaned suddenly forward. Messages were few from Tabernacle; it had been an easy matter for him to come upon the originals of the telegrams he sought, in spite of the fact that they had been sent more than two weeks before. Already he was reading the first of the night letters:
Barry Houston, Empire Lake Mill and Lumber Co., 212 Grand Building, Boston, Mass.
Please order six-foot saw as before. Present one broken to-day through crystallization.
F. B. THAYER.
"That's one of 'em." Houston grunted the words, rather than spoke them. "That was meant for me all right—humph!"
The second one was before him now, longer and far more interesting to the man who bent over the telegraph file, while Ba'tiste kept watch at the door. Hastily he pulled a crumpled message from his pocket and compared them,—and grunted again.
"The same thing. Identically the same thing, except for the addresses! Ba'tiste," he called softly, "what kind of an operator is this fellow?"
"No good. A boy. Just out of school. Hasn't been here long."
"That explains it." Houston was talking to himself again. "He got the two messages and—" Suddenly he bent forward and examined a notation in a strange hand:
"Missent Houston. Resent Blackburn."
It explained much to Barry Houston, that scribble of four words. It told him why he had received a telegram which meant nothing to him, yet caused suspicion enough for a two-thousand-mile trip. It explained that the operator, in sending two messages, had, through absent-mindedness, put them both on the wire to the same person, when they were addressed separately, that he later had seen his mistake and corrected it. Barry smiled grimly.
"Thanks very much, Operator," he murmured. "It isn't every mistake that turns out this lucky."
Then slowly, studiously, he compared the messages again, the one he had received, and the one on the hook which read:
J. C. Blackburn, Deal Building, Chicago, Ill.
Our friend reports Boston deal put over O. K. Everything safe. Suggest start preparations for operations in time compete Boston for the big thing. Have Boston where we want him and will keep him there.
It was the same telegram that Barry Houston had received and puzzled over in Boston, except for the address. He had been right then; the message had not been for him; instead it had been intended decidedly not for him and it meant—what? Hastily Houston crawled over the railing, and motioning to Ba'tiste, led him away from the station. Around the corner of the last store he brought forth his telegram and placed it in the big man's hands.
"That's addressed to me,—but it should have gone to some one else. Who's J. C. Blackburn of Chicago?"
"Ba'teese don't know. Try fin' out. Why?"
"Have you read that message?"
The giant traced out the words, almost indecipherable in places from creasing and handling. He looked up sharply.
"Boston? You came from Boston?"
"Yes. That must refer to me. It must mean what I've been suspecting all along,—that Thayer's been running my mill down, to help along some competitor. You'll notice that he says he has me where he wants me."
"Oui—yes. But has he? What was the deal?"
"I don't know. I haven't been in any deal that I know of, yet he must refer to me. I haven't any idea what he means by the reference to starting operations, or that sentence about the 'big thing.' There isn't another mill around here?"
"None nearer than the Moscript place at Echo Lake."
"Then what can it be?" Suddenly Houston frowned with presentiment. "Thayer's been going with Medaine a good deal, hasn't he?"
"Oui—yes. When Ba'teese can think of no way to keep him from it."
"It couldn't be that he's made some arrangement with her—about her forest lands?"
"They are not hers yet. She does not come into them until she is twenty-one."
"But they are available then?"
"Oui. And they are as good as yours."
"Practically the same thing, aren't they? How much of the lake does she own?"
"The east quarter, and the forests that front on eet, and the east bank of Hawk Creek."
"Then there would be opportunity for everything, for skidways into the lake, a flume on her side and a mill. That must be—"
"Ba'teese would have hear of eet."
"Surely. But Thayer might have—"
"Ba'teese would have hear of eet," came the repetition. "No, eet is something else. She would have ask Ba'teese and Ba'teese would have said, 'No. Take nothing and give nothing. M'sieu Thayer, he is no good.' So eet is not that. You know the way back? Bon—good. Go to the cabin. Ba'teese will try to learn who eet is, this Blackburn."
They parted, Ba'teese to lounge back into the tiny town, Houston to take the winding road which led back to the cabin. A pretty road it was, too, one which trailed along beside the stream, now clear with that sharp brilliancy which is characteristic of the mountain creek, a road fringed with whispering aspens, bright green in their new foliage, with small spruce and pine. Here and there a few flowers showed; by the side of the road the wild roses peeped up from the denser growths of foliage, and a vagrant butterfly or so made the round of blossom after blossom. It was spring-summer down here, sharp contrast indeed to the winter which lurked above and which would not fade until June had far progressed. But with it all, its beauty, its serenity, its peace and soft moistness, Houston noticed it but slightly. His thoughts were on other things: on Thayer and his duplicity, on the possibilities of the future, and the methods of combating a business enemy he felt sure was lurking in the background.
It meant more to Houston than the mere monetary value of a loss,—should a loss come. Back in the family burying ground in Boston was a mound that was fresher than others, a mound which shielded the form of a man who had died in disappointment, leaving behind an edict which his son had sworn to carry through to its fulfillment. Now there were obstacles, and ones which were shielded by the darkness of connivance and scheming. The outlook was not promising. Yet even in its foreboding, there was consolation.
"I at least know Thayer's a crook. I can fire him and run the mill myself," Barry was murmuring to himself, as he plodded along. "There may be others; I can weed them out. At least saws won't be breaking every two weeks and lumber won't warp for lack of proper handling. Maybe I can get somebody back East to look after the office there and—"
He ceased his soliloquy as he glanced ahead and noticed the trim figure of Medaine Robinette swinging along the road, old Lost Wing, as usual, trailing in her rear, astride a calico pony and leading the saddle horse which she evidently had become tired of riding. A small switch was in one hand, and she flipped it at the new leaves of the aspens and the broad-leafed mullens beside the road. As yet, she had not seen him, and Barry hurried toward her, jamming his cap into a pocket that his hand might be free to greet her. He waved airily as they came closer and called. But if she heard him, she gave no indication. Instead, she turned—swiftly, Houston thought—and mounted her horse. A moment later, she trotted past him, and again he greeted her, to be answered by a nod and a slight movement of the lips. But the eyes had been averted. Barry could see that the thinnest veneer of politeness had shielded something else as she spoke to him,—an expression of distaste, of dislike, almost loathing!
Barry Houston could not answer the self-imposed question. He could only stand and stare after her and the trotting, rolling Indian, as they moved down the road and disappeared in the shadow of the aspens at the next curve. She had seen him; there could be no doubt of that. She had recognized him; more, Houston felt sure that she had mounted her horse that she might better be able to pass him and greet him with a formal nod instead of a more friendly acknowledgment. And this was the girl who, an afternoon before, had sat beside him on the worn old bench at the side of Ba'tiste's cabin and picked thorns from the palm of his hand,—thorns from the stems of wild roses which she had brought him! The enigma was too great for Houston. He could only gasp with the suddenness of it and sink back into a dullness of outlook and viewpoint which he had lost momentarily. It was thus that old friends had passed him by in Boston; it was thus that men who had been glad to borrow money from him in other days had looked the other way when the clouds had come. A strange chill went over him.
"Thayer's told her!"
He spoke the sentence like a man repeating the words of an execution. His features suddenly had grown haggard. He stumbled slightly as he made the next rise in the road and went on slowly, silently, toward the cabin.
There Ba'tiste found him, slumped on the bench, staring out at the white and rose pinks of Mount Taluchen, yet seeing none of it. The big man boomed a greeting, and Barry, striving for a smile, answered him. The Canadian turned to his wolf-dog.
"Peuff! Golemar! Loneliness sits badly upon our friend. He is homesick. Trot over the hill and bring to him the petite Medaine! Ah oui," he laughed in immense enjoyment at his raillery, "bring to him the petite Medaine to make him laugh and be happy." Then, seeing that the man was struggling vainly for a semblance of cheeriness, he slid beside him on the bench and tousled his hair with one big hand. "Nev' min' old Ba'teese," he said hurriedly; "he joke when eet is no time. You worry, huh? So, mebbe, Ba'teese help. There are men at the boarding house."
"The Blackburn crowd?"
"So. Seven carpenters, and others. They work for Blackburn, who is in Chicago. They are here to build a mill."
"A mill?" Barry looked up now with new interest. "Where?"
"Near the lake. The mill, eet will be sawing in a month. The rest, the big plant, eet will take time for that."
"On Medaine's land then!" But Ba'tiste shook his head.
"No. Eet is on the five acres own' by Jerry Martin. He has been try' to sell eet for five year. Eet is no good—rocks and rocks—and rocks. They build eet there."
"But what can they do on five acres? Where will they get their lumber?"
The trapper shrugged his shoulders.
"Ba'teese on'y know what they tell heem."
"But surely, there must be some mistake about it. You say they are going to start sawing in a month, and that a bigger plant is going up. Do you mean a complete outfit,—planers and all that sort of thing?"
Houston shook his head.
"For the life of me, I can't see it. In the first place, I have the only timber around here with the exception of Medaine's land, and you say that she doesn't come into that until next year. But they're going to start sawing at this new mill within a month. My timber stretches back from the lake for eight miles; they either will have to go beyond that and truck in the logs for that distance, which would be ruinous as far as profits are concerned, or content themselves with scrub pine and sapling spruce. I don't see what they can make out of that. Isn't that right? All I know about it is from what I've heard. I've never made a cruise of the territory around here. But it's always been my belief that with the exception of the land on the other quarter of the lake—"
"That is all."
But again Ba'tiste shrugged his shoulders. Then he pulled long at his grizzled beard, regarding the wolf-dog which sat between his legs, staring up at him.
"Golemar," came at last. "There is something strange. Peuff! We shall fin' out, you and me and mon ami." Suddenly he turned. "M'sieu Thayer, he gone."
"Gone? You mean he's run away?"
"By gar, no. But he leave hurried. He get a telephone from long distance. Chicago."
"Ba'teese not know. M'sieu Shuler in the telephone office, he tell me. Eet is a long call, M'sieu Shuler is curious, and he listen in while they, what-you-say, chew up the rag. Eet is a woman. She say to meet her in Denver. This morning M'sieu Thayer take the train. Bon—good!"
"What you know about lumber?"
Houston shook his head.
"A lot less than I should. It wasn't my business, you know. My father started this mill out here during boom times, when it looked as though the railroad over Crestline would make the distance between Denver and Salt Lake so short that the country would build up like wild fire. He got them to put in a switch from above Tabernacle to the mill and figured on making a lot of money out of it all. But it didn't pan out, Ba'tiste. First of all, the railroad didn't go to Salt Lake and in the second—"
"The new road will," said the French-Canadian. "Peuff! When they start to build eet, blooey! Eet will be no time."
"The new road? I didn't know there was to be one."
"Ah, oui, oui, oui!" Ba'tiste became enthusiastic. "They shall make eet a road! Eet will not wind over the range like this one. Eet shall come through the mountains with a six-mile tunnel, at Carrow Peak where they have work already one, two, t'ree year. Then eet will start out straight, and peuff! Eet will cut off a hundred mile to Salt Lake. Then we will see!"
"When is all this going to happen?"
The giant shrugged his shoulders.
"When the railroad, eet is ready, and the tunnel, eet is done. When that shall be? No one know. But the survey, eet is made. The land, eet is condem'. So it must be soon. But you say you no know lumber?"
"Not more than any office man could learn in a year and a half. It wasn't my business, Ba'tiste. Father thought less and less of the mill every year. Once or twice, he was all but ready to sell it to Thayer, and would have done it, I guess, if Thayer could have raised the money. He was sick of the thing and wanted to get rid of it. I had gone into the real estate business, never dreaming but that some day the mill would be sold and off our hands. Then—then my trouble came along, and my father—left this will. Since then, I've been busy trying to stir up business. Oh, I guess I could tell a weathered scantling from a green one, and a long time ago, when I was out here, my father taught me how to scale a log. That's about all."
"Could you tell if a man cut a tree to get the greatest footage? If you should say to a lumberjack to fell a tree at the spring of the root, would you know whether he did it or not? Heh? Could you know if the sawyer robbed you of fifty feet on ever' log? No? Then we shall learn. To-morrow, we shall go to the mill. M'sieu Thayer shall not be there. Perhaps Ba'tiste can tell you much. Bien! We shall take Medaine, oui? Yes?"
"I—I don't think she'd go."
"I'd rather—" Houston was thinking of a curt nod and averted eyes. "Maybe we'd better just go alone, Ba'tiste."
"Tres bien. We shall go into the forest. We shall learn much."
And the next morning the old French-Canadian lived true to his promise. Behind a plodding pair of horses hitched to a jolting wagon, they made the journey, far out across the hills and plateau flats from Tabernacle, gradually winding into a shallow canon which led to places which Houston remembered from years long gone. Beside the road ran the rickety track which served as a spur from the main line of the railroad, five miles from camp,—the ties rotten, the plates loosened and the rails but faintly free from rust; silent testimony of the fact that cars traveled but seldom toward the market, that the hopes of distant years had not been fulfilled. Ahead of them, a white-faced peak reared itself against the sky, as though a sentinel against further progress,—Bear Mountain, three miles beyond the farthest stretch of Empire Lake. Nearer, a slight trail of smoke curled upward, and Ba'tiste pointed.
"The mill," he said. "Two mile yet."
"Yes, I remember in a hazy sort of way." Then he laughed shortly. "Things will have to happen and happen fast if I ever live up to my contract, Ba'tiste."
"Yes, I put too much confidence in Thayer. I thought he was honest. When my father died, he came back to Boston, of course, and we had a long talk. I agreed that I was not to interfere out here any more than was necessary, spending my time, instead, in rounding up business. He had been my father's manager, and I naturally felt that he would give every bit of his attention to my business. I didn't know that he had other schemes, and I didn't begin to get on to the fact until I started losing contracts. That wasn't so long ago. Now I'm out here, and if necessary, I'll stay here and be everything from manager to lumberjack, to pull through."
"Bon! My Pierre, he would talk like that." Then the old man was silent for a moment. "Old Ba'tiste, he has notice some things. He will show you. Golemar! Whee!"
In answer to the whining call of the giant, the wolf-dog, trotting beside the lazy team, swerved and nipped at the horses' heels. The pace became a jogging trot. Soon they were in view of the long, smooth mound of sawdust leading to the squat, rambling saw shed. A moment more and the bunk house, its unpainted clapboards blackened by the rain and sun and snows, showed ahead. A half-mile, then Ba'tiste left the wagon and, Barry following him, walked toward the mill and its whining, groaning saws.
"Watch close!" he ordered. "See ever'thing they do. Then remember. Ba'tiste tell you about it when we come out."
Within they went, where hulking, strong-shouldered men were turning the logs from the piles without, along the skidways and to the carriage of the mill, their cant hooks working in smooth precision, their muscles bulging as they rolled the great cylinders of wood into place, steadied them, then stood aside until the carriages should shunt them toward the sawyer and the tremendous, revolving wheel which was to convert them into "board feet" of lumber. Hurrying "off-bearers", or slab-carriers, white with sawdust, scampered away from the consuming saw, dragging the bark and slab-sides to a smaller blade, there to be converted into boiler fuel and to be fed to the crackling fire of the stationary engine, far at one end of the mill. Leather belts whirred and slapped; there was noise everywhere, except from the lips of men. For they, these men of the forest, were silent, almost taciturn.
To Barry, it all seemed a smooth-working, perfectly aligned thing: the big sixteen-foot logs went forward, rough, uncouth things, to be dragged into the consuming teeth of the saw; then, through the sheer force of the blade, pulled on until brownness became whiteness, the cylindrical shape a lopsided thing with one long, glaring, white mark; to be shunted back upon the automatic carriage, notched over for a second incision, and started forward again, while the newly sawn boards traveled on to the trimmers and edgers, and thence to the drying racks.
Log after log skidded upon the carriage and was brought forward, while Houston, fascinated, watched the kerf mark of the blade as it tore away a slab-side. Then a touch on the arm and he followed Ba'tiste without. The Canadian wandered thoughtfully about a moment, at last to approach a newly stacked pile of lumber and lean against it. A second more and he drew something to his side and stared at it.
"Oh, ho!" came at last. "M'sieu Houston, he will, what-you-say, fix the can on the sawyer."
"First," said Ba'tiste quietly, "he waste a six-inch board on each slab-side he take off. Un'stand? The first cut—when the bark, eet is sliced off. He take too much. Eet is so easy. And then—look." He drew his hand from its place of concealment, displaying a big thumb measuring upon a small ruler. "See? Eet is an inch and a quarter. Too thick."
"I know that much at least. Lumber should be cut at the mill an inch and an eighth thick to allow for shrinkage to an inch—but not an inch and a quarter."
"Bon!" Ba'tiste grinned. "Eet make a difference on a big log. Eight cuts of the saw and a good board, eet is gone."
"No wonder I don't make money."
"There is much more. The trimmer and the edger, they take off too much. They make eight-inch boards where there should be ten, and ten where there should be twelve. You shall have a new crew."
"And a new manager," Houston said it quietly. The necessity for his masquerade was fading swiftly now.
"And new men on the kilns. See!"
Far to one side, a great mass of lumber reared itself against the sky, twisted and warped, the offal of the drying kilns. Ba'tiste shrugged his shoulders.
"So! When the heat, eet is made too quick, the lumber twist. Eet is so easy—when one wants some one to be tired and quit!"
To quit! It was all plain to Barry Houston now. Thayer had tried to buy the mill when the elder Houston was alive. He had failed. Now, he was striving for something else to make Houston the newcomer, Houston, who was striving to succeed without the fundamentals of actual logging experience, disgusted with the business and his contract with the dead. The first year and a half of the fight had passed,—a losing proposition; Barry could see why now, in warped lumber and thick-cut boards, in broken machinery and unfulfilled contracts. Thayer wanted him to quit; his father's death had tied up the mill proper to such an extent that it could neither be leased nor sold for a long time. But the timber could be bought on a stumpage basis, the lake and flume leased, and with a new mill—
"I understand the whole thing now!" There was excitement in the tone. "They can't get this mill—on account of the way the will reads. I can't dispose of it. But they know that with the mill out of the way, and the whole thing a disappointment, that I should be willing to contract my timber to them and lease the flume. Then they can go ahead with their own plans and their own schemes. It's the lake and flume and timber that counts, anyway; this mill's the cheapest part of it all."
"Ah, oui!" The big man wagged his head in sage approval. "But it shall not be, eh?"
Houston's lips went into a line,
"Not until the last dog dies!"
"Ah, oui!" Evidently Ba'tiste liked the expression. "Eet shall not be until—what-you-say—the last dog, eet is dead. Come! We will go into the forest. Ba'tiste will show you things you should know."
And to the old wagon again they went, to trail their way up the narrow road along the bubbling, wooden flume which led from the lake, to swerve off at the dam and turn into the hills again. Below them, the great expanse of water ruffled and shimmered in the May sun; away off at the far end, a log slid down a skidway, and with a booming splash struck the water, to bury itself for a hundred feet, only to rise at last, and bobbing, go to join others of its kind, drifting toward the dam with the current of the stream which formed the lake. In the smoother spaces, trout splashed; the reflections of the hills showed in the great expanse as the light wind lessened, allowing the surface to become glass-like, revealing also the twisted roots and dead branches of trees long inundated in forming the big basin of water.
Evidently only a few men were working in the hills; the descent of the logs was a thing spaced by many minutes, and the booming of the splash struck forth into the hills to be echoed and re-echoed. Houston stared gloomily at the skid, at the lake and the small parcel of logs drifting there.
"All for nothing," came at last. "It takes about three logs to make one—the way they're working."
"Oui! But M'sieu Houston shall learn."
Barry did not answer. He had learned a great deal already. He knew enough to realize that his new effort must be a clean sweep,—from the manager down. Distrust had enveloped him completely; even to the last lumberjack must the camp be cleaned, and the start made anew with a crew upon whom he could depend for honesty, at least. How the rest of the system was to work out, he did not know. How he was to sell the lumber which he intended milling, how he was to look after both the manufacturing and the disposing of his product was something beyond him, just at this moment. But there would be a way; there must be. Besides, there was Ba'tiste, heavy-shouldered, giant Ba'tiste, leaning over the side of the wagon, whistling and chiding the faithful old Golemar, and some way Houston felt that he would be an ally always.
The wagon had turned into the deeper forest now redolent with the heavy odor of the coniferous woods, and Ba'tiste straightened. Soon he was talking and pointing,—now to describe the spruce and its short, stubby, upturned needles; the lodgepole pines with their straighter, longer leaves and more brownish, scaly bark; the Englemann spruce; the red fir and limber pine; each had its characteristic, to be pointed out in the simple words of the big Canadian, and to be catalogued by the man at his side. A moment before, they had been only pines, only so many trees. Now each was different, each had its place in the mind of the man who studied them with a new interest and a new enthusiasm, even though they might fall, one after another, into the maw of the saw for the same purpose.
"They are like people, oui!" Old Ba'tiste was gesticulating. "They have their, what-you-say, make-ups. The lodgepole, he is like the man who runs up and looks on when the crowd, eet gathers about some one who has been hurt. He waits until there had been a fire, and then he comes in and grows first, along with the aspens, so he can get all the room he wants. The spruce, he is like a woman, yes, oui. He looks better than the rest—but he is not. Sometime, he is not so good. Whoa!"
The road had narrowed to a mere trail; Ba'tiste tugged on the reins, and motioning to Barry, left the wagon, pulling forth an axe and heavy, cross-cut saw as he did so. A half-hour later, Golemar preceding them, they were deep in the forest. Ba'tiste stopped and motioned toward a tall spruce.
"See?" he ordered, as he nicked it with his axe, "you cut heem as far above the ground as he is thick through. Now, first, the undercut."
"Looks like an overcut to me."
"Oh, ho! Ah, oui, so eet is! But eet is called the undercut. Eet makes the tree fall the way you want heem!"
The axe gleamed in blow after blow. A deep incision appeared in the trunk of the tree, and at the base of it Ba'tiste started the saw, Barry working on the other end with his good arm. Ten minutes of work and they switched to the other side. Here no "undercut" was made; the saw bit into the bark and deep toward the heart of the tree in a smooth, sharp line that progressed farther, farther—
A crackling sound had come from above. Ba'tiste abandoned the saw, and with one great leap caught Houston and pulled him far to one side, as with a roar, the spruce seemed to veritably disintegrate, its trunk spreading in great, splintered slabs, and the tree proper crashing to the ground in the opposite direction to which it should have fallen, breaking as it came. A moment Ba'tiste stood, with his arm still about the younger man, waiting for the dead branches, severed from other trees, to cease falling, and the disturbed needles and dust of the forest to settle. Then, pulling his funny little knit cap far down over his straggly hair, he came forth, to stand in meditation upon the largest portion of the shattered tree.
"Eet break up like an ice jam!" came at last. "That tree, he is not made of wood. Peuff! He is of glass!"
Barry joined him, studying the splintered fragments of the spruce, suddenly to bend forward in wonderment.
"That's queer. Here's a railroad spike driven clear into the heart."
"Huh? What's that?" Ba'tiste bent beside him to examine the rusty spike, then hurried to a minute examination of the rest of the tree. "And another," came at last. "And more!"
Four heavy spikes had revealed themselves now, each jutting forth at a place where the tree had split. Ba'tiste straightened.
"Ah, oui! Eet is no wonder! See? The spike, they have been in the tree for mebbe one, two, t'ree year. And the tree, he is not strong. When the winter come, last year, he split inside, from the frost, where the spike, he spread the grain. But the split, he does not show. When we try to cut heem down and the strain come, blooey, he, what-you-say, bust!"
"But why the spikes?"
"Wait!" Ba'tiste, suddenly serious, turned away into the woods, to go slowly from tree to tree, to dig at them with his knife, to squint and stare, to shin a few feet up a trunk now and then, examining every protuberance, every round, bulbous scar. At last he shouted, and Houston hurried to him, to find the giant digging excitedly at a lodgepole. "I have foun' another!"
The knife, deep in the tree, had scratched on metal. Five minutes more and they had discovered a third one, farther away. Then a fourth, a fifth; soon the number had run to a score, all within a small radius. Ba'tiste, more excited than ever, ranged off into the woods, leaving Barry to dig at the trees about him and to discover even more metal buried in the hearts of the standing lumber. For an hour he was gone, to return at last and stand staring about him.
"The spike, they are all in this little section," he said finally. "I have cruise' all about here—there are no more."
"But why should trees grow spikes?"
"Ah, why? So that saws will break at the right time! Eet is easy for the iron hunter at the mill to look the other way—eef he knows what the boss want. Eet is easy for the sawyer to step out of the way while the blade, he hit a spike!"
A long whistle traveled over Houston's lips. This was the explanation of broken saws, just at the crucial moment!
"Simple, isn't it?" he asked caustically. "Whenever it's necessary for an 'accident' to happen, merely send out into the woods for a load of timber from a certain place."
"Then the iron hunter—the man who look for metal in the wood—he look some other place. Beside," and Ba'tiste looked almost admiringly at a spike-filled tree. "Eet is a good job. The spike, they are driven deep in the wood, they are punched away in, so the bark, eet will close over them. If the iron hunter is not, what-you-say, full of pepper, and if he is lazy, then he not find heem, whether he want to or not. M'sieu Thayer, he have a head on him."
"But why? He was the only man on the job out here. He didn't have to fill a whole section of a forest full of spikes when he wanted to break a saw or cause me trouble."
"Ah, no. But M'sieu—that is, whoever did eet—maybe he figure on the time when you yourself try to run the mill. Eh?"
"Well, if he did," came sharply, "he's figured on this exact moment. I've seen enough, Ba'tiste. I'm going to Denver and contract myself an entirely new crew. Then I'm coming back to drop this masquerade I've been carrying on—and if you'll help me—run this place myself. Thayer's out—from the minute I can get a new outfit. I'm not going to take any chances. When he goes, the whole bunch here goes with him!"
"Ah, oui!" Ba'tiste grinned with enthusiasm. "You said a what-you-say—large bite! Now," he walked toward the saw, "we shall fell a tree that shall not split."
"If you don't mind, I'd rather go back and look around the place. I want to get lined up on everything before I start to Denver."
"Ah, oui." Together, led by the wolf-dog, they made their way to the wagon again, once more to skirt the lake and to start down the narrow roadway leading beside the flume. A half-hour more and there came the sound of hammers and of saws. They stopped, and staring through the scraggly trees, made out the figures of half a dozen men busily at work upon the erection of a low, rambling building. All about them were vast piles of lumber, two-by-fours, scantlings, boardings, shingles,—everything that possibly could be needed in the building of not one, but many structures. Ba'tiste nodded.
"The new mill."
"Yes. Probably being built out of my lumber. It's a cinch they didn't transport it all the way from Tabernacle."
"Nor pay M'sieu Houston. Many things can happen when one is the manager."
Barry made no answer. For another mile they drove in silence, at last to come into the clearing of Barry's mill, with its bunk house, its cook house, its diminutive commissary, its mill and kilns and sheds. Houston leaped from the wagon to start a census and to begin his preparations for a cleaning-out of the whole establishment. But at the door of the commissary he whirled, staring. A buggy was just coming over the brow of the little hill which led to the mill property. Some one had called to him,—-a woman whose voice had caused him to start, then, a second later, to go running forward.
She was beside Thayer in the buggy, leaning forth, one hand extended as Barry hurried toward her, her black eyes flashing eagerness, her full, yet cold lips parted, her olive-skinned cheeks enlivened by a flush of excitement as Houston came to her, forgetful of the sneer of the man at her side, forgetful of the staring Ba'tiste in the background, forgetful of his masquerade, of everything.
"Agnes!" he gasped. "Why did you—"
"I thought—" and the drawling voice of Fred Thayer had a suddenly sobering effect on Houston, "that you weren't hurt very bad. Your memory came back awful quick, didn't it? I thought she'd bring you to your senses!"
Houston pretended not to hear the remark. The woman in the buggy was holding forth her hands to him and he assisted her to the ground.
"Well," she asked, in a sudden fawning manner, "aren't you glad to see me, Barry? Aren't you going to kiss me?"
"Of course." He took her in his arms. "I—I was so surprised, Agnes. I never thought of you—"
"Naturally you didn't." It was Thayer again. "That's why I sent for her. Thought you'd get your memory back when—"
"I've had my memory for long enough—" Houston had turned upon him coldly—"to know that from now on I'll run this place. You're through!"
"Barry!" The woman had grasped his arm. "Don't talk like that. You don't know what you're saying!"
"Let him rave, if that's the way he wants to repay faithfulness."
"Wait until I've talked to you, Barry. You haven't had time to think. You've jumped at conclusions. Fred just thought that I could—"
"This hasn't anything to do with you, Agnes. There hasn't been anything wrong with me. My brain's been all right; I've known every minute what I've been doing. This man's crooked, and I know he's crooked. I needed time, and I shammed forgetfulness. I've gotten the information I need now—and I'm repeating that he's through! And every one else in this camp goes with him!"
"I'm not in the habit of taking insults! I—"
Thayer moved forward belligerently, one hand reaching toward a cant hook near by. But suddenly he ceased. Ba'tiste, quite naturally, had strolled between them.
"M'sieu Houston have a broke' arm," had come very quietly. Thayer grunted.
"Maybe that's the reason he thinks he can insult every one around here."
Ba'tiste looked down upon him, as a Newfoundland would look upon a snapping terrier.
"M'sieu Houston insult nobody."
The voice of the big man rose to a roar.
"Ba'teese say, M'sieu Houston insult nobody. Un'stan'? Ba'teese say that! Ba'teese got no broke' arm!"
"Who is this man?" The woman had turned angrily toward Barry; "What right has he to talk this way? The whole thing's silly, as far as I can see, Barry. This man, whoever he is, has been stuffing you full of stories. There—"
"This man, Agnes," and Barry Houston's voice carried a quality he never before had used with Agnes Jierdon, "is the best friend I ever had. You'll realize it before long. He not only has saved my life, but he's going to help me save my business. I want you to know him and to like him."
A quick smile flashed over the full lips.
"I didn't know, Barry. Pardon me."
Houston turned to the introduction, while Agnes Jierdon held forth a rather limp hand and while Ba'tiste, knit cap suddenly pulled from straggly gray hair, bent low in acknowledgment. Thayer, grumbling under his breath, started away. Houston went quickly toward him.
"You understood me?"
"Perfectly. I'm fired. I was good enough for your father, but you know more than he did. I was—"
"We won't go into that."
"There's nothing about it that I'm ashamed of."
Still the sneer was there, causing Barry's bandaged arm to ache for freedom and strength. "I don't have to go around hiding my past."
Houston bit down a retort and forced himself to the question:
"How long will it take you to get out of here?"
"I'll be out to-night. I don't stay where I'm not wanted. Needn't think I'll hang around begging you for a job. There are plenty of 'em, for men like me."
"One that I know of, in particular. I asked you when you could get out."
"An hour, if you're so impatient about it. But I want my check first."
"You'll get it, and everybody else connected with you. So you might as well give the word."
For a moment, Thayer stared at him in malignant hate, his gnarled hands twisting and knotting. Then, with a sudden impulse, he turned away toward the mill. A moment later the whistle blew and the saws ceased to snarl. Barry turned back to Agnes and Ba'tiste. The woman caught impulsively at his arm.
"Where on earth am I going to live, Barry?" she questioned. "I don't want to go back to town. And I can't stay in this deserted place, if every one is leaving it."
"I'll keep the cook. She can fix you a room in one of the cottages and stay there with you. However, it would be best to go back."
"But I won't." She shook her head with an attempt at levity. "I've come all this distance, worried to death every moment over you, and now I'm going to stay until I'm sure that everything's all right. Besides, Barry," she moved close to him, "you'll need me. Won't you? Haven't I always been near you when you've needed me? And aren't you taking on the biggest sort of job now?"
Houston smiled at her. True, she had always been near in time of trouble and it was only natural that now—
"Of course," came his answer. "Come, I'll have you made comfortable in the cottage." Then, as he started away, "May I see you, Ba'tiste, sometime to-night?"
"Ah, oui." The Canadian was moving toward his wagon and the waiting dog. "In the cabin."
Three hours later, the last of the men paid off, Agnes installed in the best of three little cottages in care of the motherly old cook, Barry Houston approached the door of Ba'tiste's cabin, the wolf-dog, who had picked him up a hundred yards away, trotting beside him. There was a light within; in the shadows by the grave, a form moved,—old Lost Wing. Medaine was there, then. Barry raised his hand to knock,—and halted. His name had been mentioned angrily; then again,—followed by the voice of the girl:
"I don't know what it is, Ba'tiste. Fred wouldn't tell me, except that it was something too horrible for me to know. And I simply can't do what you say. I can't be pleasant to him when I feel this way."
"Oh, I know. I want to be fair, and I try to be. I speak to him when I meet him; isn't that enough? We're not old friends; we're hardly even acquaintances. And if there is something in his past to be ashamed of, isn't it best that we simply remain that way? I—"
Then she ceased. Houston had knocked on the door. A second later, he entered the cabin, to return Medaine Robinette's cool but polite greeting in kind, and to look apprehensively toward Ba'tiste Renaud. But the old man's smile was genuine.
"We have been talk' about you, oui, yes!" he said. "Eh, Medaine?"
It was one of his thrusts. The girl colored, then turned toward the door.
"I'm afraid I've stayed longer than I intended," she apologized. "It's late. Good night."
Then she was gone. Houston looked at Ba'tiste, but the old French-Canadian merely waved a big hand.
"Woman," he said airily, "peuff! She is strange. Eet is nothing. Eet will pass. Now," as though the subject had been dismissed, "what mus' Ba'teese do?"
"At the mill? I wish, if you don't mind, that you'd guard it for me. I'm going to Denver on the morning train to hire a new crew. I don't want Thayer to do anything to the mill in my absence."
"Ah, oui. It shall be. You will sleep here?"
"If you don't mind? It's nearer Tabernacle."
"Bon—good! Golemar!" And the dog scratched at the door. "Come, we shall go to the mill. We are the watchmen, yes?"
"But I didn't mean for you to start to-night. I just thought—"
"There is no time like the minute," answered the Canadian quietly. "To-night, you shall be Ba'teese, oui, yes. Ba'teese shall be you."
Pulling his knit cap on his head, he went out into the darkness and to the guardianship of the mill that belonged—to a man who looked like his Pierre. As for Houston, the next morning found him on the uncomfortable red cushions of the smoking car as the puffing train pulled its weary, way through the snowsheds of Crestline Mountain, on the way over the range. Evening brought him to Denver, and the three days which followed carried with them the sweaty smell of the employment offices and the gathering of a new crew. Then, tired, anxious with an eagerness that he never before had known, he turned back to the hills.
Before, in the days agone, they had been only mountains, reminders of an eruptive time in the cooling of the earth,—so many bumpy places upon a topographical railroad map. But now,—now they were different. They seemed like home. They were the future. They were the housing place of the wide spaces where the streams ran through green valleys, where the sagebrush dotted the plateau plains, and where the world was a thing with a rim about it; hills soft blue and brown and gray and burning red in the sunlight, black, crumpled velvet beneath the moon and stars; hills where the pines grew, where his life awaited him, a new thing to be remolded nearer to his own desires, and where lived Ba'tiste, Agnes—and Medaine.
Houston thought of her with a sudden cringing.
In that moment as he stood outside the door of Ba'tiste's cabin, he had heard himself sealed and delivered to oblivion as far as she was concerned. He was only an acquaintance—one with a grisly shadow in his past—and it was best that he remain such. Grudgingly, Barry admitted the fact to himself, as he sat once more in the red-plush smoking car, surrounded by heavy-shouldered, sodden-faced men, his new crew, en route to Empire Lake. It was best. There was Agnes, with her debt of gratitude to be paid and with her affection for him, which in its blindness could not discern the fact that it was repaid only as a sense of duty. There was the fight to be made,—and the past. Houston shuddered with the thought of it. Things were only as they should be; grimly he told himself that he had erred in even thinking of happiness such as comes to other men. His life had been drab and gray; it must remain so.
Past the gleaming lakes and eternal banks of snow the train crawled to the top of the world at Crestline, puffed and clattered through the snowsheds, then clambered down the mountain side to Tabernacle. With his dough-faced men about him, Houston sought transportation, at last to obtain it, then started the journey to the mill.
Into the canon and to the last rise. Then a figure showed before him, a gigantic form, running and tumbling through the underbrush at one side of the road, a dog bounding beside him. It was Ba'tiste, excited, red-faced, his arms waving like windmills, his voice booming even from a distance:
"M'sieu Houston! M'sieu Houston! Ba'teese have fail! Ba'teese no good! He watch for you—he is glad you come! Ba'teese ashame'! Ashame'!"
He had reached the wagon now, panting, still striving to talk and failing for lack of breath, his big hands seeking to fill in the spaces where words had departed. Houston leaned toward him, gripping him by a massive shoulder.
"What's happened? What's—"
"Ba'teese ashame'!" came again between puffs of the big lungs. "Ba'teese watch one, two, t'ree night. Nothin' happen. Ba'teese think about his lost trap. He think mebbe there is one place where he have not look'. He say to Golemar he will go for jus' one, two hour. Nobody see, he think. So he go. And he come back. Blooey! Eet is done! Ba'teese have fail!"
"But what, Ba'tiste? It wasn't your fault. Don't feel that way about it? Has anything happened to Agnes?"
"No. The mill."
They had reached the top of the rise. Below them lay something which caused Barry Houston to leap to his feet unmindful of the jolting wagon, to stand weaving with white-gripped hands, to stare with suddenly deadened eyes—
Upon a blackened, smoldering mass of charred timbers and twisted machinery. The remainder of all that once had been his mill!
Words would not come for a moment. Houston could only stare and realize that his burden had become greater than ever. In the wagons behind him were twenty men, guaranteed at least a month of labor, and now there was nothing to provide it. The mill was gone; the blade was still hanging in its sockets, a useless, distempered thing; the boiler was bent and blackened, the belting burned; the carriages and muley saws and edgers and trimmers were only so much junk. He turned at last to Ba'tiste, to ask tritely what he knew could not be answered:
"But how did it happen, Ba'tiste? Didn't any one see?"
The Canadian shrugged his shoulders.
"Ba'teese come back. Eet is done."
"Let's see Agnes. Maybe she can tell us something."
But the woman, her arms about Houston's neck, could only announce hysterically that she had seen the mill burning, that she had sought help and had failed to find it.
"Then you noticed no one around the place?"
"But that was an hour or so before."
The big French-Canadian had moved away, to stand in doleful contemplation of the charred mass. The voice of Agnes Jierdon sank low:
"I don't know, Barry. I don't want to accuse—"
"You don't mean—"
"All I know is that I saw him leave the place and go over the hill. Fifteen minutes later, I saw the mill burning and ran down there. All about the place rags were burning and I could smell kerosene. That's all I saw. But in the absence of any one else, what should a person think?"
Houston's lips pressed tight. He turned angrily, the old grip of suspicion upon him,—suspicion that would point in time of stress to every one about him, suspicion engendered by black days of hopelessness, of despair. But in an instant, it all was gone; the picture of Ba'tiste Renaud, standing there by the embers, the honesty of his expression of sorrow, the slump of his shoulders, while the dog, unnoticed, nuzzled its cold nose in a limp hand, was enough to wipe it all out forever. Houston's eyes went straight to those of Agnes Jierdon and centered there.
"Agnes," came slowly, "I want to ask a favor. No matter what may happen, no matter what you may think personally, there is one man who trusts me as much as you have trusted me, and whom I shall trust in return. That man is Ba'tiste Renaud, my friend. I hope you can find a friend in him too; but if you can't, please, for me, never mention it."
"Why, of course not, Barry." She laughed in an embarrassed manner and drew away from him. "I just thought I'd tell you what I knew. I didn't have any idea you were such warm comrades. We'll forget the whole incident."
"Thank you." Then to Ba'tiste he went, to bang him on the shoulder, and with an effort to whirl him about. "Well!" he demanded, in an echo of Ba'tiste's own thundering manner, "shall we stand here and weep? Or—"
"Eet was my fault!" The French-Canadian still stared at the ruins. "Eet is all Ba'teese' fault—"
"I thought you were my friend, Ba'tiste."
"Sacre! I am."
"Then show it! We'll not be able to make a case against the firebugs—even though you and I may be fairly sure who did it. Anyway, it isn't going to break us. I've got about fifteen thousand in the bank. There's enough lumber around here to build a new saw-shed of a sort, and money to buy a few saws, even if we can't have as good a place as we had before. We can manage. And I need help—I won't be able to move without you. But—"
"But," and Barry smiled at him, "if you ever mention any responsibility for this thing again—you're fired. Do we understand each other?"
Very slowly the big trapper turned and looked down into the frank, friendly eyes of the younger man. He blinked slightly, and then one tremendous arm encircled Houston's shoulder for just a moment. At last a smile came, to grow stronger. The grip about the shoulders tightened, suddenly to give way to a whanging blow, as Batiste, jovial now, drew away, pulled back his shoulders and squared himself as though for some physical encounter.
"Ah, oui!" He bellowed. "Oui, oui, oui! Bon—good! Ba'teese, he un'stan'. Now what you want me to do?"
"Take this bunch of men and turn to at clearing away this wreckage. Then," and he smiled his confidence at Renaud, "make your plans for the building of a saw-shed. That is—if you really want to go through with it?"
"Ah, oui—oui!" The Canadian waved his arms excitedly and summoned his men. For a moment, Barry stood watching, then returning to Agnes, escorted her toward her cottage.
"Don't you think," he asked, as they walked along, "that you'd better be going back? This isn't just the place for a woman, Agnes."
"Because—well for one thing, this is a man's life out here, not a woman's. There's no place for you—nothing to interest you or hold you. I can't guarantee you any company except that of a cook—or some one like that."
"But Mr. Thayer—" and Houston detected a strange tone in the voice—"spoke of a very dear friend of yours, in whom I might be greatly interested."
"A friend of mine?"
"Yes—a Miss Robinette. Fred said that she was quite interested in you."
"She is—by the inverse ratio. So much, in fact, that she doesn't care to be anywhere near me. She knows—" and he sobered, "that there's something—back there."
"Indeed?" They had reached the cottage and the subject was discontinued. Agnes lingered a moment on the veranda. "I suppose I'm never to see anything of you?"
"That's just it, Agnes. It makes me feel like a cad to have you out here—and then not to be able to provide any entertainment for you. And, really, there's no need to worry about me. I'm all right—with the exception of this broken arm. And it'll be all right in a couple of weeks. Besides, there's no telling what may happen. You can see from the burning of this mill that there isn't any love lost between Thayer and myself."
"Why, Barry! You don't think he had anything to do with it?"
"I know he did. Directly or indirectly, he was back of it. I haven't had much of a chance to talk to you, Agnes, but this much is a certainty: Thayer is my enemy, for business reasons. I know of no other. He believes that if he can make the going rough enough for me that I'll quit, lease him my stumpage, and let him go into business for himself. So far, he hasn't had much luck—except to tie me up. He may beat me; I don't know. Then again, he may not. But in the meanwhile, you can see, Agnes, that the battlefield is going to be no place for a woman."
"But, Barry, you're wrong. I think you've done an injustice to—"
"Please don't tell me that, Agnes. I put so much faith in your beliefs. But in this case, I've heard it from his own lips—I've seen his telegrams. I know!"
The woman turned quickly. For a moment she examined, in an absent sort of way, the blossoms of a climbing rose, growing, quite uninvited, up the porch pillar of the cottage. Then:
"Maybe you're right, Barry. Probably I will go away. But I want to be sure that you're all right first."
"Would you care to go to the village to-night? There's a picture show there—and we could at least get a dish of ice cream and some candy."
"I think not," came the answer in a tired voice. "It's so far; besides, all this excitement has given me a headache. Go back to your work and forget about me. I think that I'll go to bed immediately I've had something to eat."
"You're not ill?"
"Only a headache—and with me, bed is always the best place for that. I suppose you'll go to Denver in the morning for new saws?"
"Then I'll wait until you return before I make up my mind. Good-by." She bent forward to be kissed, and Barry obeyed the command of her lips with less of alacrity than ever before. Nor could he tell the reason. Five minutes more and he was back at the mill, giving what aid he could with his uninjured arm.
Night, and he traveled with Ba'tiste to his cabin, only to fret nervously about the place and at last to strike out once more, on foot, for the lumber camp. He was worried, nervous; in a vague way he realized that he had been curt, almost brusque, with a woman for whom he felt every possible gratitude and consideration. Nor had he inquired about her when work had ended for the day. Had the excuse of a headache been made only to cover feelings that had been deeply injured? Or had it meant a blind to veil real, serious illness? For three years, Barry Houston had known Agnes Jierdon in day-to-day association. But never had he remembered her in exactly the light that he had seen her to-day. There had been a strangeness about her, a sharpness that he could not understand.
He stopped just at the entrance to the mill clearing and looked toward the cottage. It was darkened. Barry felt that without at least the beckoning of a light to denote the wakefulness of the cook, he could not in propriety go there, even for an inquiry regarding the condition of the woman whom he felt that some day he would marry. Aimlessly he wandered about, staring in the moonlight at the piled-up remains of his mill, then at last he seated himself on a stack of lumber, to rest a moment before the return journey to Ba'tiste's cabin. But suddenly he tensed. A low whistle had come from the edge of the woods, a hundred yards away, and Barry listened attentively for its repetition, but it did not come. Fifteen minutes he waited, then rose, the better to watch two figures that had appeared for just a moment silhouetted in the moonlight at the bald top of a small hill. A man and a woman were walking close together,—the woman, it seemed, with her head against the man's shoulder; the man evidently with his arm about her.
There was no time for identities. A second more and they had faded into the shadows. Barry rose and started toward the darkened cottage, only to turn again into the road.
"Foolishness!" he chided himself as he plodded along. "She doesn't know any one but Thayer—and what if she does? It's none of my business. She's the one who has the claim on me; I have none on her!"
And with this decision he walked on. A mile—two. Then a figure came out of the woods just ahead of him, cut across the road and detoured into the scraggly hills on the other side, without noticing the approaching Houston in the shadows. But Barry had been more fortunate. The moonlight had shown full on the man's lean face and gangling form; it was undoubtedly Fred Thayer. He was still in the neighborhood, then.
Had he been the man in the woods,—the one who had stood silhouetted on the hill top? Barry could only guess. Again he chided himself for his inquisitiveness and walked on. Almost to Ba'tiste's cabin he went; at last to turn from the road at the sound of hoofbeats, then to stare as Medaine Robinette, on horseback, passed him at a trot, headed toward her home, the shadowy Lost Wing, on his calico pony, straggling along in the rear. The next morning he went to Denver, still wondering, as he sought to make himself comfortable on the old red plush seats, wondering whether the girl he had seen in the forest with the man he now felt sure was Fred Thayer had been Agnes Jierdon or Medaine Robinette, whom, in spite of her coldness to him, in spite of her evident distaste and revulsion that was so apparent in their meetings, had awakened within him a thing he had believed, in the drabness of his gray, harassed life, could never exist,—the thrill and the yearnings of love.
It was a question which haunted him during the days in which he cut into his bank account with the purchase of the bare necessities of a sawmill. It was a question which followed him back to Tabernacle, thence across country to camp. But it was one that was not to be answered. Things had happened again.
Ba'tiste was not at the mill, where new foundations had appeared in Houston's absence. A workman pointed vaguely upward, and Barry hurried on toward the lake, clambering up the hill nearest the clearing, that he might take the higher and shorter road.
He found no Ba'tiste but there was something else which held Houston's interest for a moment and which stopped him, staring wonderingly into the distance. A new skidway had made its appearance on the side of the jutting mountain nearest the dam. Logs were tumbling downward in slow, but steady succession, to disappear, then to show themselves, bobbing jerkily outward toward the center of the lake. That skidway had not been there before. Certainly, work at the mill had not progressed to such an extent that Ba'tiste could afford to start cutting timber already. Houston turned back toward the lower camp road, wondering vaguely what it all could mean, striving to figure why Ba'tiste should have turned to logging operations instead of continuing to stress every workman's ability on the rebuilding of the burned structure. A mile he went—two—then halted.
A thunderous voice was booming belligerently from the distance:
"You lie—un'stan'? Ba'teese say you lie—if you no like eet, jus'—what-you-say—climb up me! Un'stan'? Climb up me!"
Houston broke into a run, racing along the flume with constantly increasing speed as he heard outburst after outburst from the giant trapper, interjected by the lesser sounds of argumentative voices in reply. Faintly he heard a woman's voice, then Ba'tiste's in sudden command:
"Go on—you no belong here. Ba'tiste, he handle this. Go 'long!"
Faster than ever went Barry Houston, at last to make the turn of the road as it followed the flume, and to stop, breathless, just in time to escape colliding with the broad back of the gigantic Canadian, squared as he was, half across the road. Facing him were five men with shovels and hammers, workmen of the Blackburn camp, interrupted evidently in the building of some sort of contraption which led away into the woods. Houston looked more closely, then gasped. It was another flume; they were making a connection with his own; already water had been diverted from the main flume and was flowing down the newly boarded conduit which led to the Blackburn mill. A lunge and he had taken his place beside Renaud.
"What's this mean?" he demanded angrily, to hear his words echoed by the booming voice of his big companion:
"Ah, oui! Yes—what this mean? Huh?"
The foreman looked up caustically.
"I've told you about ten times," he answered, addressing himself to Ba'tiste. "We're building a connection on our flume."
"Our flume?" Houston gasped the words. "Where do you get that 'our' idea? I own this flume and this lake and this flume site—"
"If your name's Houston, I guess you do," came the answer. "But if you can read and write, you ought to know that while you may own it, you don't use it. That's our privilege from now on, in cold black and white. As far as the law is concerned, this is our flume, and our water, and our lake, and our woods back there. And we're going to use all of 'em, as much as we please—and it's your business to stay out of our way!"
The statement took Houston off his feet for a moment; but recovery came just as quickly, a recoil with the red splotches of anger blazing before his eyes, the surge of hot blood sweeping through his veins, the heat of conflict in his brain. His good hand clenched. A leap and he had struck the foreman on the point of the chin, sending him reeling backward, while the other men rushed to his assistance.
"That's my answer to you!" shouted Houston. "This is my flume and—"
"Run tell Thayer!" shouted the foreman, and then with recovering strength, he turned for a cant hook. But Ba'tiste seized it first, and with a great wrench, threw it far out of the way. Then, like some great, human trip hammer, he swung into action, spinning Houston out of the way as he went forward, his big fists churning, his voice bellowing his call of battle:
"Climb up me! Climb up me!"
The foreman stooped for a club,—and rose just in time to be lifted even higher, at the point of Ba'tiste's right fist then to drop in a lump. Then they were all about him, seeking for an opening, fists pounding, heavy shoes kicking at shins, while in the rear, Houston, scrambling around with his one arm, almost happy with the enthusiasm of battle, swung hard and often at every opportunity, then swerved and covered until he could bring his fist into action again.
The fight grew more intense with a last spurt, then died out, as Ba'tiste, seizing the smallest of the men, lifted him bodily and swinging him much after the fashion of a sack of meal, literally used him as a battering ram against the rest of the attacking forces. For a last time, Houston hit a skirmisher and was hit in return. Then Ba'tiste threw his human weapon from him, straight into the mass of men whom he had driven back for a second, tumbling them all in a scrambling, writhing heap at the edge of the flume.
"Climb up me!" he bellowed, as they struggled to their feet. "Ah, oui?" And the big arms moved threateningly. "Climb up me!"
But the invitation was not accepted. Bloody, eyes discolored, mouth and nose steadily swelling, the foreman moved away with his battered crew, finally to disappear in the forest. Ba'tiste reached for the cant hook, and balancing it lightly in one hand, sought a resting place on the edge of the flume. Houston sat beside him.
"What on earth can it all mean?" he asked, after a moment of thought.
"They go back—get more men. Mebbe they think they whip us, oui? Yes? Ba'teese use this, nex' time." He balanced the cant hook, examining it carefully as though for flaws which might cause it to break in contact with a human target. Barry went on:
"I was talking about the flume. You heard what that fellow said—that they had the woods, the lake and the flume to use as they pleased? How—"
"Mebbe they think they jus' take it."
"Which they can't. I'm going back to the camp and get more men."
"No." Ba'tiste grinned. "We got enough—you an' Ba'teese. I catch 'em with this. You take that club. If they get 'round me, you, what-you-say, pickle 'em off."
But the expected attack did not come. An hour they waited, and a hour after that. Still no crowd of burly men came surging toward them from the Blackburn camp, still no attempt was made to wrest from their possession the waterway which they had taken over as their rightful property.
Houston studied the flume.
"We'll have to get some men up here and rip out this connection," came at last. "They've broken off our end entirely."
"Ah, oui! But we will stay here. By'm'by, Medaine come. We will send her for men."
"Medaine? That was she I heard talking?"
"Oui. She had come to ask me if she should bring me food. She was riding. Ba'teese sen' her away. But she say she come back to see if Ba'teese is all right."
Houston shook his head.
"That's good. But I'm afraid that you won't find her doing anything to help me out."
"She will help Ba'teese," came simply from the big man, as the iron-bound cant hook was examined for the fiftieth time. "Why they no come, huh?"
"Search me. Do you suppose they've given it up? It's a bluff on their part, you know, Ba'tiste. They haven't any legal right to this land or flume or anything else; they just figured that my mill was burned and that I wouldn't be in a position to fight them. So they decided to take over the flume and try to force us into letting them have it."
"Here comes somebody!" Ba'tiste's grip tightened about the cant hook and he rose, squaring himself. Houston seized the club and stood waiting a few feet in the rear, in readiness for any one who might evade the bulwark of blows which Ba'tiste evidently intended to set up. Far in the woods showed the shadowy forms of three men, approaching steadily and apparently without any desire for battle. Ba'tiste turned sharply. "Your eye, keep heem open. Eet may be a blind."
But Houston searched the woods in vain. There were no supporters following the three men, no deploying groups seeking to flank them. A moment more, and Ba'tiste, with a sudden exclamation, allowed his cant hook to drop to the ground.
"Who?" Houston came closer.
"Eet is Thayer and Wade, the sheriff from Montview, and his deputy. Peuff! Have he fool heem too?"
Closer they came, and the sheriff waved a hand in friendly greeting. Ba'tiste returned the gesture. Thayer, scowling, black-faced, dropped slightly to the rear, allowing the two officials to take the lead—and evidently do the talking. The sheriff grinned as he noticed the cant hook on the ground. Then he looked up at Ba'tiste Renaud.
"What's been going on here?"
"This man," Ba'tiste nodded grudgingly toward the angular form of Fred Thayer, "heem a what-you-say a big bomb. This my frien', M'sieu Houston. He own this flume. This Thayer's men, they try to jump it."
"From the looks of them," chuckled the sheriff, "you jumped them. They've got a young hospital over at camp. But seriously, Ba'tiste, I think you're on the wrong track. Thayer and Blackburn have a perfect right to this flume and to the use of the lake and what stumpage they want from the Houston woods."
"A right?" Barry went forward. "What right? I haven't given them—"
"You're the owner of the land, aren't you?"
"Yes, in a way. It was left to me conditionally."
"You can let it out and sell the stumpage if you want to?"
"Then, what are you kicking about?"
"I—simply on account of the fact that these men have no right to be on the land, or to use it in any way. I haven't given them permission."
"That's funny," the sheriff scratched his head; "they've just proved in court that you have."
"In court? I—?"
"Yeh. I've got an injunction in my pocket to prevent you from interfering with them. Judge Bardley gave it in Montview about an hour ago, and we came over by automobile."
"Why?" the sheriff stared at him. "When you give a man a lease, you have to live up to it in this country."
"But I've given no one—"
"Oh, show it to him, sheriff." Thayer came angrily forward. "No use to let him stand there and lie."
"That's what I want to see!" Houston squared himself grimly. "If you've got a lease, or anything else, I want to look at it."
"You know your own writing, don't you?" The sheriff was fishing in his pockets.
"You'd admit it if you saw it?"
"I'm not trying to hide anything. But I know that I've not given any lease, and I've not sold any stumpage and—"
"Then, what's this?" The sheriff had pulled two legal documents from his pocket, and unfolding them, had shown Houston the bottom of each. Barry's eyes opened wide.
"That's—that's my signature," came at last.
"This one's the same, isn't it?" The second paper was shoved forward.
"Then I don't see what you're kicking about. Do you know any one named Jenkins, who is a notary public?"
"He works in my office in Boston."
"That's his writing, isn't it?"
"And his seal."
"I suppose so." Bewildered, Houston was looking at the papers with glazed eyes. "It looks like it."
"Then," and the sheriff's voice went brusque, "what right have you to try to run these men off of property for which you've given them a bona-fide lease, and to which you've just admitted your signature as genuine?"
"I've—I've given no lease. I—"
"Then look 'em over. If that isn't a lease to the lake and flume and flume site, and if the second one isn't a contract for stumpage at a dollar and a half a thousand feet,—well, then, I can't read."
"But I'm telling you that I didn't give it to them." Houston had reached for the papers with a trembling hand. "There's a fraud about it somewhere!"
"I don't see where there can be any fraud when you admit your signature, and there's a notary's seal attached."
"But there is! I can't tell you why—but—"
"Statements like that don't count in law. There are the papers and they're duly signed and you've admitted your signature. If there's any fraud about it, you've got the right to prove it. But in the meanwhile, the court's injunction stands. You've leased this land to these men, and you can't interfere with them. Understand?"
"All right." Houston moved hazily back, away from the flume site. Ba'tiste stood staring glumly, wondering, at the papers which had been returned to the sheriff. "But I know this, that it's a fakery—somehow—and I'll prove it. I have absolutely no memory of ever signing any such papers as that, or of even talking to any one about selling stumpage at a figure that you should know is ridiculous. Why, you can't even buy the worst kind of timber from the government at that price! I don't remember—"
"Didn't I tell you?" Thayer had turned to the sheriff. "There he goes pulling that loss of memory stunt again. That's one of his best little bets," he added sneering, "to lose his memory."
"I've never lost it yet!"
"No—then you can forget things awfully easy. Such as coming out here and pretending not to know who you were. Guess you forgot your identity for a minute, didn't you? Just like you forgot signing this lease and stumpage contract! Yeh, you're good at that—losing your memory. You never remember anything that happens. You can't even remember the night you murdered your own cousin, can you?"
"See, sheriff? His memory's bad." All the malice and hate of pent-up enmity was in Fred Thayer's voice now. One gnarled hand went forward in accusation. "He can't even remember how he killed his own cousin. But if he can't, I can. Ask him about the time when he slipped that mallet in his pocket at a prize fight and then went on out with his cousin. Ask him what became of Tom Langdon after they left that prize fight. He won't be able to tell you, of course. He loses his memory; all he will be able to remember is that his father spent a lot of money and hired some good lawyers and got him out of it. He won't be able to tell you a thing about how his own cousin was found with his skull crushed in, and the bloody wooden mallet lying beside him—the mallet that this fellow had stolen the night before at a prize fight! He won't—"
White-hot with anger, Barry Houston lurched forward, to find himself caught in the arms of the sheriff and thrown back. He whirled,—and stopped, looking with glazed, deadened eyes into the blanched, horrified features of a girl who evidently had heard the accusation, a girl who stood poised in revulsion a moment before she turned, and, almost running, hurried to mount her horse and ride away. And the strength of anger left the muscles of Barry Houston. The red flame of indignation turned to a sodden, dead thing. He could only realize that Medaine Robinette now knew the story. That Medaine Robinette had heard him accused without a single statement given in his own behalf; that Medaine, the girl of his smoke-wreathed dreams, now fully and thoroughly believed him—a murderer!
Dully Houston turned back to the sheriff and to the goggle-eyed Ba'tiste, trying to fathom it all. Weakly he motioned toward Thayer, and his words, when they came, were hollow and expressionless:
"That's a lie, Sheriff. I'll admit that I have been accused of murder. I was acquitted. You say that nothing counts but the court action—and that's all I have to say in my behalf. The jury found me not guilty. In regard—to this, I'll obey the court order until I can prove to the judge's satisfaction that this whole thing is a fraud and a fake. In the meanwhile—" he turned anxiously, almost piteously, "do you care to go with me, Ba'tiste?"
Heavily, silently, the French-Canadian joined him, and together they walked down the narrow road to the camp. Neither spoke for a long time. Ba'tiste walked with his head deep between his shoulders, and Houston knew that memories were heavy upon him, memories of his Julienne and the day that he came home to find, instead of a waiting wife, only a mound beneath the sighing pines and a stalwart cross above it. As for Houston, his own life had gone gray with the sudden recurrence of the past. He lived again the first days of it all, when life had been one constant repetition of questions, then solitude, questions and solitude, as the homicide squad brought him up from his cell to inquire about some new angle that they had come upon, to question him regarding his actions on the night of the death of Tom Langdon, then to send him back to "think it over" in the hope that the constant tangle of questions might cause him to change his story and give them an opening wedge through which they could force him to a confession. He lived again the black hours in the dingy courtroom, with its shadows and soot spots brushing against the window, the twelve blank-faced men in the jury box, and the witnesses, one after another, who went to the box in an effort to swear his life away. He went again through the agony of the new freedom—the freedom of a man imprisoned by stronger things than mere bars and cells of steel—when first he had gone into the world to strive to fight back to the position he had occupied before the pall of accusation had descended upon him, and to fight seemingly in vain. Friends had vanished, a father had gone to his grave, believing almost to the last that it had been his money and the astuteness of his lawyers that had obtained freedom for a guilty son, certainly not a self-evidence of innocence that had caused the twelve men to report back to the judge that they had been unable to force their convictions "beyond the shadow of a doubt." A nightmare had it been and a nightmare it was again, as drawn-featured, stoop-shouldered, suddenly old and haggard, Barry Houston walked down the logging road beside a man whose mind also had been recalled to thoughts of murder. A sudden fear went over the younger man; he wondered whether this great being who walked at his side had believed, and at last in desperation, he faced him.
"Well, Ba'tiste," came in strained tones, "I might as well hear it now as at any other time. They've about got me whipped, anyway, so you'll only be leaving a sinking ship."
"What you mean?" The French-Canadian stopped.
"Just the plain facts. I'm about at the end of my rope; my mill's all but gone, my flume is in the hands of some one else, my lake is leased, and Thayer can make as many inroads on my timber as he cares to, as long as he appeases the court by paying me the magnificent sum of a dollar and a half a thousand for it. So, you see, there isn't much left for me."
"What you do?"
"That depends entirely on you—and what effect that accusation made. If you're with me, I fight. If not—well frankly—I don't know."
"'Member the mill, when he burn down?"
"You no believe Ba'teese did heem. Oui, yes? Well, now I no believe either!"
"Honestly, Ba'tiste?" Houston had gripped the other man's arm. "You don't believe it? You don't—"
"Ba'teese believe M'sieu Houston. You look like my Pierre. My Pierre, he could do no wrong. Ba'teese satisfy."
It sent a new flow of blood through the veins of Barry Houston,—that simple, quiet statement of the old trapper. He felt again a surge of the fighting instinct, the desire to keep on and on, to struggle until the end, and to accept nothing except the bitterest, most absolute defeat. He quickened his pace, the French-Canadian falling in with him. His voice bore a vibrant tone, almost of excitement:
"I'm going back to Boston to-night. I'm going to find out about this. I can get a machine at Tabernacle to take me over the range; it may save me time in catching a train at Denver. There's some fraud, Ba'tiste. I know it.—and I'll prove it if I can get back to Boston. We'll stop by the cottage down here and see Miss Jierdon; then I'm gone!"
"She no there. She, what-you-say, smash up 'quaintance with Medaine. She ask to go there and stay day or two."
"Then she'll straighten things out, Ba'tiste. I'm glad of it. She knows the truth about this whole thing—every step of the way. Will you tell her?"
"Oui. Ba'teese tell her—about the flume and M'sieu Thayer, what he say. But Ba'teese—"
The trapper was silent a moment. At last:
"You like her, eh?"
"A great deal, Ba'teese. She has meant everything to me; she was my one friend when I was in trouble. She even went on the stand and testified for me. What were you going to say?"
"Nothing," came the enigmatical reply. "Ba'teese will wait here. You go Boston to-night?"
And that night, in the moonlight, behind the rushing engine of a motor car, Barry Houston once more rode the heights where Mount Taluchen frowned down from its snowy pinnacles, where the road was narrow and the turns sharp, and where the world beneath was built upon a scale of miniature. But this time, the drifts had faded from beside the highway; nodding flowers showed in the moonlight; the snow flurries were gone. Soon the downward grade had come and after that the straggling little town of Dominion. Early morning found Houston in Denver, searching the train schedules. That night he was far from the mountains, hurrying half across the continent in search of the thing that would give him back his birthright.
Weazened, wrinkle-faced little Jenkins met him at the office, to stare in apparent surprise, then to rush forward with well-simulated enthusiasm.
"You're back, Mr. Houston! I'm so glad. I didn't know whether to send the notice out to you in Colorado, or wire you. It just came yesterday."
"The notice? Of what?"
"The M. P. & S. L. call for bids. You've heard about it."
But Houston shook his head. Jenkins stared.
"I thought you had. The Mountain, Plains and Salt Lake Railroad. I thought you knew all about it."
"The one that's tunneling Carrow Peak? I've heard about the road, but I didn't know they were ready for bids for the western side of the mountain yet. Where's the notice?"
"Right on your desk, sir."
Abstractedly, Houston picked it up and glanced at the specifications,—for railroad ties by the million, for lumber, lathes, station-house material, bridge timbers, and the thousands of other lumber items that go into the making of a road. Hastily he scanned the printed lines, only at last to place it despondently in a pocket.
"Millions of dollars," he murmured. "Millions—for somebody!"
And Houston could not help feeling that it was for the one man he hated, Fred Thayer. The specifications called for freight on board at the spurs at Tabernacle, evidently soon to have competition in the way of railroad lines. And Tabernacle meant just one thing, the output of a mill which could afford to put that lumber at the given point cheaper then any other. The nearest other camp was either a hundred miles away, on the western side, or so far removed over the range in the matter of altitude that the freight rates would be prohibitive to a cheaper bid. Thayer, with his ill-gotten flume, with his lake, with his right to denude Barry Houston's forests at an insignificant cost, could out-bid the others. He would land the contract, unless—
"Jenkins!" Houston's voice was sharp, insistent. The weazened man entered, rubbing his hands.
"Yes, sir. Right here, sir."
"What contracts have we in the files?"
"Several, sir. One for mining timber stulls, logs, and that sort of thing, for the Machol Mine at Idaho Springs; one for the Tramway company in Denver for two thousand ties to be delivered in June; one for—"
"I don't mean that sort. Are there any stumpage contracts?"
"Only one, sir."
"The one you signed, sir, to Thayer and Blackburn, just a week or so before you started out West. Don't you remember, sir; you signed it, together with a lease for the flume site and lake?"
"I signed nothing of the sort!"
"But you did, sir. I attested it. I'll show it to you in just a moment, sir. I have the copy right here."
A minute later, Barry Houston was staring down at the printed lines of a copy of the contract and lease which had been shown him, days before, out in the mountains of Colorado. Blankly he looked toward the servile Jenkins, awaiting the return of the documents, then toward the papers again.
"And I signed these, did I?"
"You certainly did, sir. It was about five o'clock in the afternoon. I remember it perfectly."
"I don't lie, sir. I attested the signature and saw you read both contracts. Pardon, sir, but if any one's lying, sir—it's yourself!"
Ten minutes after that, Barry Houston was alone in his office. Jenkins was gone, discharged; and Houston felt a sort of relief in the knowledge that he had departed. The last of the Thayer clan, he believed, had been cleaned out of his organization—and it was like lightening a burden to realize it.
That the lease and stumpage contract were fraudulent, Barry Houston was certain. Surely he had seen neither of them; and the signing must have been through some sort of trickery of which he was unaware. But would such a statement hold in court? Houston learned, a half-hour later, that it wouldn't, as he faced the family attorney, in his big, bleak, old-fashioned office.
"It's all right, Barry, for you to tell me that you didn't sign it," came the edict. "I'd believe you—because I feel sure you wouldn't lie to me. But it would be pretty thin stuff to tell to a jury. There is the contract and the lease in black and white. Both bear your signature which, you have declared in the presence of witnesses, to be genuine. Even when a man signs a paper while insane, it's a hard job to pull it back; and we certainly wouldn't have any witnesses who could swear that you had lost your reason."
"Nope," he concluded, giving the papers a flip, as though disposing of the whole matter, "somebody has just worked the old sewing-machine racket on you—with trimmings. This is an adaptation of a game that is as old as the hills—the one where the solicitors would go up to a farmhouse, sell a man a sewing-machine or a cream separator at a ridiculous figure, let him sign what he thought was a contract to pay a certain amount a month for twelve months—and then take the promissory note which he really had signed down to the bank and discount it. Instead of a promissory note, they made this a contract and a lease. And just to make it good, they had their confederate, a legalized notary public, put his seal upon it as a witness. You can't remember when all this happened?"
"According to Jenkins—who put the notary seal on there—the whole thing was put over about a week or so before I left for the West. That's the date on them too. About that time, I remember, I had a good many papers to sign. A lot of legal stuff, if you'll remember, came up about father's estate, in which my signature was more of a form than anything else. I naturally suspected nothing, and in one or two instances signed without reading."
"And signed away your birthright—to this contract and lease. You did it with no intention of giving your land and flume and flume site away, that's true. If one of the men would be willing to confess to a conspiracy, it would hold water in court. Otherwise not. You've been bunked, and your signature is as legal and as binding as though you had read that contract and lease-form a hundred times over. So I don't see anything to do but to swallow your medicine with as little of a wry face as possible."
It was with this ultimatum that Houston turned again for the West, glad to be out of Boston, glad to be headed back once more for the mountains, in spite of the fact that the shadows of his life had followed him even there, that the ill luck which seemed to have been perched continuously on his shoulders for the past two years still hovered, like a vulture, above him. What he was going to do, how he could hope to combat the obstacles which had arisen was more than he could tell. He had gone into the West, believing, at worst, that he would be forced to become the general factotum of his own business. Now he found there was not even a business; his very foundations had been swept from beneath him, leaving only the determination, the grim, earnest resolution to succeed where all was failure and to fight to victory—but how?
Personally, he could not answer the question, and he longed for the sight of the shambling little station at Tabernacle, with Ba'tiste, in answer to the telegram he had sent from Chicago, awaiting him with the buggy from camp. And Ba'tiste was there, to boom at him, to call Golemar's attention to the fact that a visit to a physician in Boston had relieved the bandaged arm of all except the slightest form of a splint, and to literally lift Houston into the buggy, tossing his baggage in after him, then plump in beside him with excited happiness.
"Bon!" he rumbled. "It is good you are back. Ba'teese, he was lonely. Ba'teese, he was so excite' when he hear you come. He have good news!"
"The railroad. They are near' through with the tunnel. Now they shall start upon the main road to Salt Lake. And they shall need timbers—beaucoup! Ties and beams and materials! They have ask for bids. Ah, oui. Eet is, what-you-say, the swollen chance! M'sieu Houston shall bid lower than—"
"How, Ba'tiste?" Houston asked the question with a dullness that caused the aged trapper to turn almost angrily upon him.
"How? Is eet putty that you are made of? Is eet—but no, Ba'teese, he, what-you-say, misplace his head. You think there is no chance, eh? Mebbe not. Me'bbe—"