JOAN OF ARC OF THE NORTH WOODS
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BOOKS BY HOLMAN DAY
JOAN OF ARC OF THE NORTH WOODS WHEN EGYPT WENT BROKE ALL-WOOL MORRISON THE RIDER OF THE KING LOG THE SKIPPER AND THE SKIPPED THE RED LANE THE RAMRODDERS THE LANDLOPER WHERE YOUR TREASURE IS SQUIRE PHIN BLOW THE MAN DOWN
Harper & Brothers Publishers New York and London
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JOAN OF ARC OF THE NORTH WOODS
Author of "The Rider of the King Log," "When Egypt Went Broke," Etc.
Harper & Brothers, Publishers New York and London
Joan of Arc of the North Woods
Copyright, 1922 By Harper & Brothers Printed in the U.S.A.
First Edition H-W
Joan of Arc of the North Woods
The timber situation in the Tomah country was surcharged.
When Ward Latisan came upon Rufus Craig, one afternoon in autumn, steel struck flint and trouble's fuse was lighted.
Their meeting was on the Holeb tote road just below Hagas Falls.
Young Ward was the grandson of old John, a pioneer who was in his day a saw-log baron of the times of pumpkin pine; by heredity Ward was the foremost champion in the cause of the modern independent operators.
In his own way, Craig, the field director of the Comas Consolidated Paper Company, was the chief gladiator for an invading corporation which demanded monopoly of the Tomah timber by absorption of the independents.
Latisan tramped down the tote road from the shoulder of Holeb Mountain, where he had been cruising alone for a week on the Walpole tract, blazing timber for the choppers, marking out twitch roads and haul-downs, locating yards; his short-handled ax was in his belt, his lank haversack flapped on his back; he carried his calipers in one hand; with the other hand he fed himself raisins from his trousers pocket, munching as he went along. He had eaten the last of his scanty supply of biscuits and bacon; but, like other timber cruisers—all of them must travel light—he had his raisins to fall back on, doling them one by one, masticating them thoroughly and finding the nourishment adequate.
He had been on the go every day from sunup till dark; nights he cinched his belted jacket closely and slept as best he could, his back against a tree; he had cruised into every nook and corner of the tract, spending strength prodigally, but when he strode down the tote road his vitality enabled him to hit it off at a brisk gait; his belt was a few holes tighter, yet his fasting made him keenly awake; he was more alert to the joy of being alive in the glory of the crisp day; his cap was in his pocket, his tousled brown hair was rampant; and he welcomed the flood of sunshine on his bronzed face.
Craig was making his way along the tote road in a buckboard, with a driver. The road bristled with rocks and was pitted with hollows; the fat horses dragged their feet at a slow walk. Craig was a big man, a bit paunchy, and he grunted while he was bounced. He wore his city hard hat as if he wished by his headgear to distinguish himself from the herd of woodsmen whom he bossed.
Latisan overtook the toiling buckboard, and his stride was taking him past when Craig hailed.
"No—thank you!" The negative was sharp. Privation and toil had put an edge on the young man's temper, and the temper was not amiable where Craig was concerned.
"I've got some business to talk with you, Latisan."
"If that's so I can listen while I walk alongside."
But Craig ordered the driver to halt. Then the Comas director swung around and faced Latisan. "I'm putting it up to you again—will you and your father sell to the Comas?"
"What is it going to be—a fight to a finish?"
"If you keep your hands off us saw-log fellows, Mr. Craig, there'll be no fight. We were here first, you know!"
"That's got nothing to do with the present situation, Latisan. We've built a million-dollar paper mill on the Toban, and it's up to me to feed it with pulp stuff. We can't lug our plant off in a shawl strap if supply fails."
"Nor can the folks who have built villages around the sawmills lug away their houses if the mills are closed."
"Paper dominates in this valley nowadays, instead of lumber. Latisan, you're old-fashioned!"
The young man, feeling his temper flame, lighted his pipe, avoiding too quick retort.
"You stand to lose money in the lumber market, with conditions as they are," proceeded Craig, loftily counseling another man about his own business. The Comas director, intent on consolidation, had persistently failed to understand the loyalty, half romantic, which was actuating the old-line employers to protect faithful householders. "Let the workers move down the river to our model town."
"And live in those beehives of yours, paying big rent, competing with the riffraff help you hire from employment agencies? We can't see it that way, Mr. Craig!"
"Look here! I've got some news for you. I've just pulled five of the independents in with us—Gibson, Sprague, Tolman, Brinton, and Bodwell. The Comas now controls the timber market on the Toban. How about logs for your mills?"
Craig believed he was hitting Latisan five solid jolts to the jaw when he named the recreant operators.
However, the young man had heard rumors of what the bludgeoning methods of the Comas had accomplished; he surveyed Craig resolutely through the pipe smoke.
He had come down from the Walpole tract that day in a spirit of new confidence which put away all weariness from him. He was armed with a powerful weapon. In his exultation, fired by youth's natural hankering to vaunt success in an undertaking where his elders had failed, he was willing to flourish the weapon.
Craig waggled a thick forefinger. "What are you going to saw, Latisan?"
"Two million feet from the Walpole tract—where no ax has chipped a tree for twenty-five years."
It was a return jolt and it made the Comas man blink. "But nobody can buy the right to cut there."
"I have bought the right, Mr. Craig. An air-tight stumpage contract—passed on by the best lawyer in this county—a clear title."
"Latisan, the Comas has never been able to round up those heirs—and what we can't do with all our resources can't be done by you."
"The Latisans know this region better than the Comas folks know it, sir. Five cousins by hard hunting—two gravestones by good luck! All heirs located! Why don't you congratulate me?"
Just then the Comas director was thinking instead of talking.
In his operations he was a cocksure individual, Mr. Craig was! In his hands, by his suggestion, his New York superiors had placed all the details of business in the field of the north country. He had promised consolidation with full belief in his ability to perform; one explicit promise had been that this season would mark the end of the opposition by the independents; the Comas would secure complete control of the Toban timber and fix prices. But here were the ringleader Latisans in a way to smash the corner which Craig had manipulated by bulldozing and bribery! In the past Craig had not bothered headquarters with any minute explanations of how he accomplished results. This crusher which threatened all his plans and promises would make a monkey of him in New York, he reflected.
"I want to say a last word to you, Mr. Craig," continued Latisan, stiffly. "Probably we are now in for that fight on which you've been insisting. I don't want to fight, but I'm ready for a fair stand-up. Just a moment, please!" Craig had barked a few oaths preliminary to an outpouring of his feelings. "I'm warning you to let up on those guerrilla tactics of yours. I propose to find out whether your big men in New York are backing you. I'm telling you now to your face, so you can't accuse me later of carrying tales behind your back, of my intention to go to New York and report conditions to the president of the Comas."
"Don't you dare!"
"I do dare. I'm going. I expect you to run in ahead of me, but no matter. And speaking of tales behind a man's back——"
Craig was having difficulty in finding speech for retort; Latisan was rushing the affair. Again Craig blustered, "Don't you dare!"
"Yes, I do dare. When I went away last summer I had good reasons for keeping my plans to myself. I got back to the Toban and found slander accusing me of sporting in the city, deviling around with liquor and women. That's a damnable lie!"
Latisan delivered the accusation hotly; there was unmistakable challenge in his demeanor. "You yourself have handed around some of that slander, Mr. Craig. I get it straight from men whose word is good!"
"I only said what others were saying."
"I don't know, of course, who started those stories, but I do know that they have been used against me. They have helped you, it seems! I wanted to keep my plans under cover—but I've got to protect myself with the truth, even if the truth gives you a tip. I went away to take a special course in hydraulic engineering, so as to know more about protecting the common rights in the flowage of this river." He swung his hand to indicate the thundering falls of Hagas. "You have used your tongue to hurt my standing with some of the independents—they distrust my reliability and good faith—you have pulled in a few of them. The others will stand by me. Frankly, Mr. Craig, I don't like your style! It'll be a good thing for both of us if we have no more talk after this." He walked rapidly down the tote road, not turning his head when Craig called furiously after him.
"Pretty uppish, ain't he?" ventured the driver, touching the horses with the whip.
Craig, bouncing alone on the middle seat of the buckboard, grunted.
"Excuse me, Mr. Craig, but that's some news—what he said about getting aholt of the old Walpole tract."
The Comas boss did not comment.
The driver said nothing more for some time; he was a slouchy woodsman of numb wits; he chewed tobacco constantly with the slow jaw motion of a ruminating steer, and he looked straight ahead between the ears of the nigh horse, going through mental processes of a certain sort. "Now 't I think of it, I wish I'd grabbed in with a question to young Latisan. But he doesn't give anybody much of a chance to grab in when he's talking. Still, I'd have liked to ask him something." He maundered on in that strain for several minutes.
"Ask him what?" snapped Craig, tired of the monologue.
"Whuther he's talked with my old aunt Dorcas about the heir who went off into the West somewheres. Grandson of the old sir who was the first Walpole of the Toban—real heir, if he's still alive! My aunt Dorcas had letters about him, or from him, or something like that, only a few years ago."
"Look here!" stormed Craig. "Why haven't you said something about such letters or such an heir?"
"Nobody has ever asked me. And he's prob'ly dead, anyway. Them lawyers know everything. And he's a roving character, as I remember what my aunt said. No use o' telling anybody about him—it would cost too much to find him."
"Cost too much!" snarled the Comas director. "Oh, you——" But he choked back what he wanted to say about the man's intellect. Craig pulled out notebook and pencil and began to fire questions.
Latisan was headed for home, the old family mansion in the village of Toban Deadwater where Ward and his widowed father kept bachelor's hall, with a veteran woods cook to tend and do for them. The male cook was Ward's idea. The young man had lived much in the woods, and the ways of women about the house annoyed him; a bit of clutter was more comfortable.
It was a long tramp to the Deadwater, but he knew the blazed-trail short cuts and took advantage of the light of the full moon for the last stage of the journey. He was eager to report progress and prospects to his father.
Ward was not anticipating much in the way of practical counsel from Garry Latisan.
Old John had been a Tartar, a blustering baron of the timberlands.
Garry, his son, had taken to books and study. He was slow and mild, deprecatory and forgiving. Ward Latisan had those saving qualities in a measure, but he was conscious in himself of the avatar of old John's righteous belligerency when occasion prompted.
Ward, as he was trudging home, was trying to keep anger from clouding his judgment. When he felt old John stirring in him, young Latisan sought the mild counsel of Garry, and then went ahead on a line of action of his own; he was steering a safe course, he felt, by keeping about halfway between John's violence in performance and Garry's toleration.
Ward was the executive of the Latisan business and liked the job; his youth and vigor found zest in the adventures of the open. Old John's timber man's spirit had been handed along to the grandson. Ward finished his education at a seminary—and called it enough. His father urged him to go to college, but he went into the woods and was glad to be there, at the head of affairs.
The operations on the old tracts, thinned by many cuttings, had been keeping him closely on the job, because there were problems to be solved if profits were to be handled.
His stroke in getting hold of the Walpole tract promised profits without problems; there were just so many trees to cut down—and the river was handy!
In spite of his weariness, Ward sat till midnight on the porch with his father, going over their plans. The young man surveyed the Latisan mill and the houses of the village while he talked; the moon lighted all and the mill loomed importantly, reflected in the still water of the pond. If Craig prevailed, the mill and the homes must be left to rot, empty, idle, and worthless. As Ward viewed it, the honor of the Latisans was at stake; the spirit of old John blazed in the grandson; but he declared his intention to fight man fashion, if the fight were forced on him. He would go to the Comas headquarters in New York, he said, not to ask for odds or beg for favors, but to explain the situation and to demand that Craig be required to confine himself to the tactics of square business rivalry.
"And my course in engineering was a good investment; I can talk turkey to them about our dams and the flowage rights. I don't believe they're backing up Craig's piracy!"
Garry Latisan agreed fully with his son and expressed the wistful wish, as he did regularly in their conferences, that he could be of more real help.
"Your sympathy and your praise are help enough, father," Ward declared, with enthusiasm. "We're sure of our cut; all I'm asking from the Comas is gangway for our logs. There must be square men at the head of that big corporation!"
In New York young Latisan plunged straight at his business.
The home office of the Comas Consolidated Company was in a towering structure in the metropolis's financial district. On the translucent glass of many doors there was a big C with two smaller C's nested. In the north country everybody called the corporation The Three C's.
After a fashion, the sight of the portentous monogram made Ward feel more at home. Up where he lived the letters were familiar. Those nested C's stood for wide-flung ownership along the rivers of the north. The monogram was daubed in blue paint on the ends of countless logs; it marked the boxes and barrels and sacks of mountains of supplies along the tote roads; it designated as the property of the Comas Company all sorts of possessions from log camps down to the cant dog in the hands of the humblest Polack toiler. Those nested C's were dominant, assertive, and the folks of the north were awed by the everlasting reduplication along the rivers and in the forests.
Ward, indignantly seeking justice, resolved not to be awed in the castle of the giant. He presented himself at a gate and asked to see the president. The president could not be seen except by appointment, Latisan learned.
What was the caller's business? Latisan attempted to explain, but he was halted by the declaration that all details in the timber country were left to Rufus Craig, field manager!
When Ward insisted that his previous talks with Craig had only made matters worse for all concerned, and when he pleaded for an opportunity to talk with somebody—anybody—at headquarters, he finally won his way to the presence of a sallow man who filmed his hard eyes and listened with an air of silent protest. He also referred Latisan back to Craig. "We don't interfere with his management of details in the north."
Evidently Mr. Craig had been attending to his defenses in the home office.
Ward's temper was touched by the listener's slighting apathy. "I've come here to protest against unfair methods. Our men are tampered with—told that the Latisans are on their last legs. We are losing from our crews right along. We have been able to hire more men to take the places of those who have been taken away from us. But right now we are up against persistent reports that we shall not be able to get down our cut in the spring. Sawmill owners are demanding bonds from us to assure delivery; otherwise they will cancel their orders."
"Do you know any good reason why you can't deliver?" probed the Comas man, showing a bit of interest.
"Your Mr. Craig seems to know. I blame him for these stories."
"I'm afraid you're laboring under a delusion, Mr. Latisan. Why don't you sell out to our company? Most of the other independents have found it to their advantage—seen it in the right light."
"Mr. Craig's tactics have driven some small concerns to see it that way, sir. But my grandfather was operating in the north and supplying the sawmills with timber before the paper mills began to grab off every tree big enough to prop a spruce bud. Villages have been built up around the sawmills. If the paper folks get hold of everything those villages will die; all the logs will be run down to the paper mills."
"Naturally," said the sallow man. "Paper is king these days."
Then he received a handful of documents from a clerk who entered, again referred Ward to Mr. Craig, advised him to treat with the latter in the field, where the business belonged, and hunched a dismissing shoulder toward the caller.
Ward had not been asked to sit down; he swung on his heel, but he stopped and turned. "As to selling out, even if we can bring ourselves to that! Mr. Craig has beaten independents to their knees and has made them accept his price. It's not much else than ruin when a man sells to him."
"Persecutional mania is a dangerous hallucination," stated the sallow man. "Mr. Craig has accomplished certain definite results in the north country. We have used the word Consolidated in our corporation name with full knowledge of what we are after. We assure stable conditions in the timber industry. You must move with the trend of the times."
Latisan had been revolving in his mind certain statements which he proposed to make to the big men of the Comas. He had assorted and classified those statements before he entered the castle of the great corporation. With youth's optimism he had anticipated a certain measure of sympathy—had in some degree pictured at least one kindly man in the Comas outfit who would listen to a young chap's troubles.
Walking to the door, standing with his hand on the knob, he knew he must go back to the woods with the dolorous prospect of being obliged to fight to hold together the remnants of the Latisan business. He set his teeth and opened the door. He would have gone without further words, but the sallow man snapped a half threat which brought Ward around on his heels.
"Mr. Latisan, I hope you will carry away with you the conviction that fighting the Comas company will not get you anything."
Ward choked for a moment. Old John was stirring in him. A fettered yelp was bulging in his throat, and the skin of the back of his head tingled as if the hair were rising. But he spoke quietly when he allowed his voice to squeeze past the repressed impulse. "There's a real fight ready to break in the north country, sir."
"Do you propose to be captain?"
"I have no such ambition. But your Mr. Craig is forcing the issue. No company is big enough to buck the law in our state."
"Look here, my good fellow!" The sallow man came around in his chair. Ward immediately was more fully informed as to the personage's status. "I am one of the attorneys of this corporation. I have been attending to the special acts your legislature has passed in our behalf. We are fully protected by law."
"The question is how much you'll be protected after facts are brought out by a fight," replied Ward, stoutly. "I know the men who have been sent down to the legislature from our parts and how they were elected. But even such men get cold feet after the public gets wise."
"That'll be enough!" snapped the attorney. He turned to his desk again.
"Yes, it looks like it," agreed young Latisan; he did not bang the door after him; he closed it softly.
The attorney was obliged to look around to assure himself that his caller was not in the room. Then he pushed a button and commanded a clerk to ask if Mr. Craig was still in the president's office. Informed that Mr. Craig was there, the attorney went thither.
"I have just been bothered by that young chap, Latisan, from the Tomah region," reported Dawes, the attorney. "He threatens a fight which will rip the cover off affairs in the north country. How about what's underneath, provided the cover is ripped off, Craig?"
"Everything sweet as a nut! Any other kind of talk is bluff and blackmail. So that's young Latisan's latest move, eh?" he ejaculated, squinting appraisingly at Dawes and turning full gaze of candor's fine assumption on Horatio Marlow, the president.
"Just who is this young Latisan?" inquired Marlow.
"Oh, only the son of one of the independents who are sticking out on a hold-up against us. Did he name his price, Dawes?"
"He didn't try to sell anything," acknowledged the attorney. "Craig, let me ask you, are you moving along the lines of the law we have behind us in those special acts I steered through?"
"Sure thing!" asserted the field director, boldly.
"We've got to ask for more from the next legislature," stated the lawyer.
The president came in with a warning. "Credit is touchy these days, Mr. Craig. We're going into the market for big money for further development. It's easy for reports to be made very hurtful."
"I'm achieving results up there," insisted Craig, doggedly.
"We're very much pleased with conditions," agreed the president. "We're able to show capital a constantly widening control of properties and natural advantages. But remember Achilles's heel, Mr. Craig."
"I haven't been able to fight 'em with feathers all the time," confessed the field director. "There wasn't much law operating up there when I grabbed in. I have done the best I could, and if I have been obliged to use a club once in a while I have made the fight turn something for the corporation." He exhibited the pride of the man who had accomplished.
The attorney warned Craig again. "We can't afford to have any uproar started till we get our legislation properly cinched. Tomah seems to be attended to. But we need some pretty drastic special acts before we can go over the watershed and control the Noda waters and pull old Flagg into line. He's the last, isn't he?—the king-pin, according to what I hear."
"I'll attend to his case all right," declared Craig, with confidence. "I'll tackle the Noda basin next. Flagg must be licked before he'll sell. He's that sort. A half lunatic on this independent thing. I reckon you'll leave it to me, won't you?"
"We'll leave all the details of operation in the field to you, Craig," promised the president. "But you must play safe."
"I'll take full responsibility," affirmed Craig, whose pride had been touched.
"Then we shall continue to value you as our right bower in the north," said Marlow. "The man on the ground understands the details. We don't try to follow them here in the home office."
Craig walked out with Dawes.
"That talk has put the thing up to you square-edged, Craig."
Craig had been heartened and fortified by the president's compliments. "Leave it to me!"
Latisan had eaten his breakfast in the grill of a big hotel with a vague idea that such an environment would tune him up to meet the magnates of the Comas company.
In his present and humbler state of mind, hungry again, he went into a cafeteria.
Waiting at the counter for his meat stew and tea—familiar woods provender which appealed to his homesickness—he became aware of a young woman at his elbow; she was having difficulty in managing her tray and her belongings. There was an autumn drizzle outside and Ward had stalked along unprotected, with a woodman's stoicism in regard to wetness. The young woman had her umbrella, a small bag, and a parcel, and she was clinging to all of them, impressed by the "Not Responsible" signs which sprinkled the walls of the place. When her tray tipped at an alarming slant, as she elbowed her way from the crowded counter, Ward caught at its edge and saved a spill.
The girl smiled gratefully.
"If you don't mind," he apologized; his own tray was ready. He took that in his free hand. He gently pulled her tray from her unsteady grasp. "I'll carry it to a table."
The table section was as crowded as the counter space. He did not offer to sit opposite her at the one vacant table he found; he lingered, however, casting about himself for another seat.
"May I not exchange my hospitality for your courtesy?" inquired the girl. She nodded toward the unoccupied chair and he sat down and thanked her.
She was an extremely self-possessed young woman, who surveyed him frankly with level gaze from her gray eyes.
"You performed very nicely, getting through that crush as you did without spilling anything," she commended.
"I've had plenty of practice."
She opened her eyes on him by way of a question. "Not as a waiter," he proceeded. "But with those trays in my hand it was like being on the drive, ramming my way through the gang that was charging the cook tent."
"The drive!" she repeated. He was surprised by the sudden interest he roused in her. "Are you from the north country?" Her color heightened with her interest. She leaned forward.
Latisan, in his infrequent experiences, had never been at ease in the presence of pretty girls, even when their notice of him was merely cursory. In the region where he had toiled there were few females, and those were spouses and helpers of woods cooks, mostly.
Here was a maid of the big city showing an interest disquietingly acute—her glowing eyes and parted lips revealed her emotions. At the moment he was not able to separate himself, as a personality, from the subject which he had brought up. Just what there was about him or the subject to arouse her so strangely he did not pause to inquire of himself, for his thoughts were not coherent just then; he, too, was stirred by her nearer propinquity as she leaned forward, questioning him eagerly.
He replied, telling what he was but not who he was; he felt a twinge of disappointment because she did not venture to probe into his identity. Her questions were concerned with the north country as a region. At first her quizzing was of a general nature. Then she narrowed the field of inquiry.
"You say the Tomah waters are parallel with the Noda basin! Do you know many folks over in the Noda region?"
"Very few. I have kept pretty closely on my own side of the watershed."
"Isn't there a village in the Noda called Adonia?"
"Oh yes! It's the jumping-off place—the end of a narrow-gauge railroad."
"You have been in Adonia?"
"A few times."
"I had—there were friends of mine—they were friends of a man in Adonia. His name was—let's see!" He wondered whether the faint wrinkle of a frown under the bronze-flecked hair on her forehead was as much the expression of puzzled memory as she was trying to make it seem; there did appear something not wholly ingenuous in her looks just then. "Oh, his name is Flagg."
"Yes, that's it. My friends were very friendly with him, and I'd like to be able to tell them——" She hesitated.
"You have given me some news," he declared, bluntly; in his mood of the day he was finding no good qualities in mankind. "I never heard of Eck Flagg having any friends. Well, I'll take that back! I believe he's ace high among the Tarratine Indians up our way; they have made him an honorary chief. But it's no particular compliment to a white man's disposition to be able to qualify as an Indian, as I look at it."
This time he was not in doubt about the expression on her face; a sudden grimace like grief wreathed the red lips and there was more than a suspicion of tears in her eyes. He stared at her, frankly amazed.
"If I have stepped on toes I am sorry. I never did know how to talk to young ladies without making a mess sooner or later."
She returned no reply, and he went on with his food to cover his embarrassment.
"Do you know Mr. Flagg?" she asked, after the silence had been prolonged.
"Not very well. But I know about him."
"That he's a hard man. He never forgets or forgives an injury. Perhaps that's why he qualified so well as an Indian."
She straightened in her chair and narrowed those gray eyes. "Couldn't there have been another reason why he was chosen for such an honor?"
"I beg your pardon for passing along to you the slurs of the north country, miss——" he paused but she did not help him with her name. "It's mostly slurs up there," he went on, with bitterness, "and I get into the habit, myself. The Indians did have a good reason for giving Flagg that honor. He is the only one in the north who has respected the Indians' riparian rights, given by treaty and then stolen back. He pays them for hold-boom privileges when his logs are on their shores. They are free to come and go on his lands for birch bark and basket stuff—he's the only one who respects the old treaties. That's well known about Flagg in the north country. It's a good streak in any man, no matter what folks say about his general disposition."
"I'm glad to hear you say that much!"
She pushed back her chair slightly and began to take stock of her possessions. A sort of a panic came upon him. There were a lot of things he wanted to say, and he could not seem to lay a tongue to one of them. He stammered something about the wet day and wondered whether it would be considered impudence if he offered to escort her, holding over her the umbrella or carrying her parcel. He had crude ideas about the matter of squiring dames. He wanted to ask her not to hurry away. "Do you live here in New York—handy by?"
The cafeteria was just off lower Broadway, and she smiled. He realized the idiocy of the question.
"I work near here! You are going home to the north soon?" The polite query was in a tone which checked all his new impulses in regard to her.
"I'm headed north right now. If there's any information I can send you——"
She shook her head slowly, but even the negative was marked by an indecisive quality, as if she were repressing some importunate desire.
"I wish you a pleasant journey, sir." All her belongings were in her hands.
"It's queer—it's almost more than queer how we happened to meet—both interested in the north country," he stuttered, wanting to detain her.
He was hoping she would make something of the matter.
But she merely acknowledged the truth of his statement, adding, "There would be more such coincidences in life if folks took the trouble to interest themselves a bit in one another and compare notes."
She started to walk away; then she whirled and came back to the table and leaned over it. Her soul of longing was in her eyes—they were filled with tears. "You're going back there," she whispered. "God bless the north country! Give a friendly pat to one of the big trees for me and say you found a girl in New York who is homesick."
She turned from him before he could summon words.
He wanted to call after her—to find out more about her. He saw her gathering up her change at the cashier's wicket. The spectacle reminded him of his own check. Even love at first sight, if such could be the strange new emotion struggling within him, could not enable him to leap the barrier of the cashier's cold stare and rush away without paying scot. He hunted for his punched check. He pawed all over the marble top of the table, rattling the dishes.
A check—it was surely all of that!
The search for it checked him till the girl was gone, mingled with the street crowds. He found the little devil of a delayer in the paper napkin which he had nervously wadded and dropped on the floor. He shoved money to the cashier and did not wait for his change. He rushed out on the street and stretched up his six stalwart feet and craned his neck and hunted for the little green toque with the white quill.
It was a vain quest.
He did not know just what the matter was with him all of a sudden. He had never had any personal experience with that which he had vaguely understood was love; he had merely viewed it from a standpoint of a disinterested observer, in the case of other men. He hated to admit, as he stood there in the drizzle, his defeat by a cafeteria check.
He remained in New York for another night, his emotions aggravatingly complex. He tried to convince his soul that he had a business reason for staying. He lied to himself and said he would make another desperate sortie on the castle of the Comas company. But he did not go there the next day. Near noon he set himself to watch the entrance of the cafeteria. When he saw a table vacant near the door he went in, secured food, and posted himself where he could view all comers.
The girl did not come.
At two o'clock, after eating three meals, he did not dare to brave the evident suspicions of that baleful cashier any longer. Undoubtedly the girl had been a casual customer like himself. He gave it up and started for the north.
When Ward Latisan was home again and had laced his high boots and buttoned his belted jacket, he was wondering, in the midst of his other troubles, why he allowed the matter of a chance-met girl to play so big a part in his thoughts. The exasperating climax of his adventure with the girl, his failure to ask her name frankly, his folly of bashful backwardness in putting questions when she was at arm's length from him, his mournful certainty that he would never see her again—all conspired curiously to make her an obsession rather than a mere memory.
He had never bothered with mental analysis; his effort to untangle his ideas in this case merely added to his puzzlement; it was like one of those patent trick things which he had picked up in idle moments, allowing the puzzle to bedevil attention and time, intriguing his interest, to his disgust. He had felt particularly lonely and helpless when he came away from Comas headquarters; instinctively he was seeking friendly companionship—opening his heart; he had caught something, just as a man with open pores catches cold. He found the notion grimly humorous! But Latisan was not ready to own up that what he had contracted was a case of love, though young men had related to him their experiences along such lines.
He went into the woods and put himself at the head of the crews. He had the ability to inspire zeal and loyalty.
In the snowy avenues of the Walpole tract sounded the rick-tack of busy axes, the yawk of saws, and the crash of falling timber. The twitch roads, narrow trails which converged to centers like the strands of a cobweb, led to the yards where the logs were piled for the sleds; and from the yards, after the snows were deep and had been iced by watering tanks on sleds, huge loads were eased down the slopes to the landings close to the frozen Tomah.
Ward Latisan was not merely a sauntering boss, inspecting operations. He went out in the gray mornings with an ax in his hand. He understood the value of personal and active leadership. He was one with his men. They put forth extra effort because he was with them.
Therefore, when the April rains began to soften the March snow crusts and the spring flood sounded its first murmur under the blackening ice of Tomah, the Latisan logs were ready to be rolled into the river.
And then something happened!
That contract with the Walpole second cousins—pronounced an air-tight contract by the lawyer—was pricked, popped, and became nothing.
An heir appeared and proved his rights. He was the only grandson of old Isaac. The cousins did not count in the face of the grandson's claims.
In the past, in the Tomah region, there had been fictitious heirs who had worked blackmail on operators who took a chance with putative heirs and tax titles. But the Latisans were faced with proofs that this heir was real and right.
Why had he waited until the cut was landed?
The Latisans pressed him with desperate questions, trying to find a way out of their trouble.
He was a sullen and noncommunicative person and intimated that he had suited his own convenience in coming on from the West.
The Latisans, when the heir appeared, were crippled for ready cash, after settling with the cousin heirs for stumpage and paying the winter's costs of operating. Those cousins were needy folks and had spent the money paid to them; there was no hope of recovering any considerable portion of the amounts.
The true heir attached the logs as they lay, and a court injunction prevented the Latisans from moving a stick. The heir showed a somewhat singular disinclination to have any dealings with the Latisans. He refused their offer to share profits with him; he persistently returned an exasperating reply: he did not care to do business with men who had tried to steal his property. He said he had already traded with responsible parties. Comas surveyors came and scaled the logs and nested C's were painted on the ends of the timber.
The Latisans had "gone bump"; the word went up and down the Tomah.
"Well, go ahead and say it!" suggested Rufus Craig when he had set himself in the path of Ward Latisan, who was coming away from a last, and profitless, interview with the obstinate heir.
"I have nothing to say, sir."
Craig calculatingly chose the moment for this meeting, desiring to carry on with the policy which he had adopted. By his system the Comas had maneuvered after the python method—it crushed, it smeared, it swallowed.
The Latisans had been crushed—Craig quieted his conscience with the arguments of business necessity; he had a big salary to safeguard; he had promised boldly to deliver the goods in the north country. Though his conscience was dormant, his fears were awake. He was not relishing Latisan's manner. The repression worried him. The grandson had plenty of old John in his nature, and Craig knew it!
Craig tried to smear!
"Latisan, I'll give you a position with the Comas, and a good one."
"And the conditions are?"
"That you'll turn over your operating equipment to us at a fair price and sign a ten-year contract."
"I knew you'd name those conditions. I refuse."
"You're making a fool of yourself—and what for?"
"For a principle! I've explained it to you."
"And I've explained how our consolidated plan butts against your old-fashioned principle. Do you think for one minute you can stop the Comas development?"
"I'm still with the independents. We'll see what can be done."
"You're licked in the Toban."
"There's still good fighting ground over in the Noda Valley—and some fighters are left there."
Craig squinted irefully at the presumptuous rebel.
Latisan hid much behind a smile. "You see, Mr. Craig, I'm just as frank as I was when I said I was going to New York. You may find me in the Noda when you get there with your consolidation plans."
"Another case of David and Goliath, eh?"
"Perhaps! I'll hunt around and see what I can find in the way of a sling and pebble."
A summons sent forth by Echford Flagg, the last of the giants among the independent operators on the Noda waters, had made that day in early April a sort of gala affair in the village of Adonia.
Men by the hundred were crowded into the one street, which stretched along the river bank in front of the tavern and the stores. The narrow-gauge train from downcountry had brought many. Others had come from the woods in sledges; there was still plenty of snow in the woods; but in the village the runner irons squalled over the bare spots. Men came trudging from the mouths of trails and tote roads, their duffel in meal bags slung from their shoulders.
An observer, looking on, listening, would have discovered that a suppressed spirit of jest kept flashing across the earnestness of the occasion—grins lighting up sharp retort—just as the radiant sunshine of the day shuttled through the intermittent snow squalls which dusted the shoulders of the thronging men.
There was a dominant monotone above all the talk and the cackle of laughter; ears were dinned everlastingly by the thunder of the cataract near the village. The Noda waters break their winter fetters first of all at Adonia, where the river leaps from the cliffs into the whirlpool. The roar of the falls is a trumpet call for the starting of the drive, though the upper waters may be ice-bound; but when the falls shout their call the rivermen must be started north toward the landings where logs are piled on the rotting ice.
On that day Echford Flagg proposed to pick his crew.
To be sure, he had picked a crew every year in early April, but the hiring had been done in a more or less matter-of-fact manner.
This year the summons had a suggestion of portent. It went by word o' mouth from man to man all through the north country. It hinted at an opportunity for adventure outside of wading in shallows, carding ledges of jillpoked logs, and the bone-breaking toil of rolling timber and riffling jams.
"Eck Flagg wants roosters this year," had gone the word. Spurred roosters! Fighting gamecocks! One spur for a log and one for any hellion who should get in the way of an honest drive!
The talk among the men who shouldered one another in the street and swapped grins and gab revealed that not all of them were ready to volunteer as spurred roosters, ready for hazard. It was evident that there were as many mere spectators as there were actual candidates for jobs. Above all, ardent curiosity prevailed; in that region where events marshaled themselves slowly and sparsely men did not balk at riding or hoofing it a dozen miles or more in order to get first-hand information in regard to anything novel or worth while.
Finally, Echford Flagg stalked down the hill from his big, square house—its weather-beaten grayness matching the ledges on which it was propped. His beard and hair were the color of the ledges, too, and the seams in his hard face were like ledgerifts. His belted jacket was stone gray and it was buttoned over the torso of a man who was six feet tall—yes, a bit over that height. He was straight and vigorous in spite of the age revealed in his features. He carried a cant dog over his shoulder; the swinging iron tongue of it clanked as he strode along.
The handle of the tool was curiously striped with colors. There was no other cant dog like it all up and down the Noda waters. Carved into the wood was an emblem—it was the totem mark of the Tarratines—the sign manual by Sachem Nicola of Flagg's honorary membership in the tribe.
He was no popular hero in that section—it was easy to gather that much from the expressions of the men who looked at him when he marched through the crowd. There was no acclaim, only a grunt or a sniff. Too many of them had worked for him in days past and had felt the weight of his broad palm and the slash of his sharp tongue. Ward Latisan had truthfully expressed the Noda's opinion of Flagg in the talk with the girl in the cafeteria.
The unroofed porch of the tavern served Flagg for a rostrum that day. He mounted the porch, faced the throng, and drove down the steel-shod point of his cant dog into the splintering wood, swinging the staff out to arm's length.
"I'm hiring a driving crew to-day," he shouted. "As for men——"
"Here's one," broke in a volunteer, thrusting himself forward with scant respect for the orator's exordium.
Flagg bent forward and peered down into the face uplifted hopefully.
"I said men," he roared. "You're Larsen. You went to sleep on the Lotan ledges——"
"I had been there alone for forty-eight hours, carding 'em, and the logs——"
"You went to sleep on the Lotan ledges, I say, and let a jam get tangled, and it took twenty of my men two days to pull the snarl loose."
The man was close to the edge of the porch. Flagg set his boot suddenly against Larsen's breast and drove him away so viciously that the victim fell on his back among the legs of the crowd, ten feet from the porch.
"I never forget and I never forgive—and that's the word that's out about me, and I'm proud of the reputation," declared Flagg. "I don't propose to smirch it at this late day. And now I look into your faces and realize that what I have just said and done adds to the bunch that has come here to-day to listen and look on instead of hiring out. I'm glad I'm sorting out the sheep from the goats at the outset. It happens that I want goats—goats with horns and sharp hoofs and——"
"The word was you wanted roosters," cried somebody from the outskirts of the crowd.
There was laughter, seeking even that small excuse for vent; the hilarity was as expressive as a viva voce vote, and its volume suggested that there were more against Flagg than there were for him.
He did not lower his crest. "You all know what is happening this season. You know why I have sent out for men. The Three C's crowd has started stealing from my crews. I want men who have a grudge against the Three C's. I want men who will fight the Three C's. Rufe Craig proposes to steal the Noda as he has stolen the Tomah. He has been making his brags of what he'll do to me. He won't do it, even if I have to make a special trip to hell and hire a crew of devils. Now let me test out this crowd." He was searching faces with a keen gaze. "All proper men to the front ranks! Let me look at you!"
A slow movement began in the throng; men were pushing forward.
"Lively on the foot!" yelled Flagg. "I'm standing here judging you by the way you break this jam of the jillpokes. Walk over the cowards, you real men! Come on, you bully chaps! Come running! Hi yoop! Underfoot with 'em!"
He swung his cant dog and kept on adjuring.
The real adventurers, the excitement seekers, the scrappers, drove into the press of those who were in the way. The field became a scene of riot. The bullies were called on to qualify under the eyes of the master. There were fisticuffs aplenty because husky men who might not care to enlist with old Eck Flagg were sufficiently muscular and ugly to strike back at attackers who stamped on their feet and drove fists into their backs.
Flagg, on the porch, followed all phases of the scattered conflict, estimated men by the manner in which they went at what he had set them to do, and he surveyed them with favor when they crowded close to the edge of his rostrum, dwelling with particular interest on the faces which especially revealed that they had been up against the real thing in the way of a fight. Behind and around the gladiators who had won to the porch pressed the cordon of malcontents who cursed and threatened.
"Much obliged for favor of prompt reply to mine of day and date," said Flagg, with his grim humor. He drove his cant-dog point into the floor of the porch and left the tool waggling slowly to and fro. He leaped down among the men. He did not waste time with words. He went among them, gripping their arms to estimate the biceps, holding them off at arm's length to judge their height and weight. He also looked at their teeth, rolling up their lips, horse-trader fashion. The drive provender did not consist of tender tidbits; a river jack must be able to chew tough meat, and the man in the wilderness with a toothache would have poor grit for work in bone-chilling water after a sleepless night.
Flagg carried a piece of chalk in his right hand. When he accepted a man he autographed the initials "E F" on the back of the fellow's shirt or jacket, in characteristic handwriting. "Show your back as you go north," he proclaimed for the benefit of the strangers to his custom. "My initials are good for stage team, tote team, lodging, and meals—the bills are sent to Flagg. The sooner you start the sooner you'll get to headwaters."
A big chap followed at Flagg's back as the despot moved among the men. He was Ben Kyle, Flagg's drive boss, the first mate of the Flagg ship of state. He was writing down the names of the men as they were hired. Occasionally the master called on the mate to give in an opinion when a candidate ran close to the line between acceptance or rejection.
Flagg began to show good humor beyond his usual wont. He was finding men who suited him. Many of them growled anathema against the Three C's. They had worked for that corporation. They had been obliged to herd with roughscuff from the city employment agencies, unskilled men who were all the time coming and going and were mostly underfoot when they were on the job. One humorist averred that the Three C's had three complete sets of crews—one working, one coming in, and one going out.
Kyle began to loosen up and copy some of Flagg's good humor.
He encouraged the wag who had described the three shifts to say more about the Comas crews; he had some witticisms of his own to offer.
And so it came to pass that when he tackled one hulking and bashful sort of a chap who stuttered, Kyle was in most excellent mood to have a little fun with a butt. Even Echford Flagg ceased operations to listen, for the humor seemed to be sharp-edged enough to suit his satiric taste.
"You say you're an ox teamster!" bawled the boss. "Well, well! That's good. Reckon we'll put some oxen onto the drive this spring so as to give you a job. How much do you know about teaming oxen?"
After a great deal of mirth-provoking difficulty with b and g, the man meekly explained that he did know the butt end of a gad from the brad end.
"Who in the crowd has got an ox or two in his pocket?" queried Kyle. "We can't hire an ox teamster for the drive"—he dwelt on oxen for the drive with much humorous effect—"without being sure that he can drive oxen. It would be blasted aggravating to have our drive hung up and the oxen all willing enough to pull it along, and then find out that the teamster was no good."
Martin Brophy, tavernkeeper, was on the porch, enjoying the events that were staged in front of his place that day.
"Hey, Martin, isn't there a gad in the cultch under your office desk?"
"Most everything has been left there, from an umbrella to a clap o' thunder," admitted Brophy. "I'll look and see."
"Better not go to fooling too much, Ben," warned the master. "I've seen fooling spoil good business a lot of times."
It was rebuke in the hearing of many men who were showing keen zest in what might be going to happen; it was treating a right-hand man like a child. Kyle resented it and his tone was sharp when he replied that he knew what he was doing. He turned away from the glaring eyes of the master and took in his hand the goad which Brophy brought.
There was a sudden tautness in the situation between Flagg and Kyle, and the crowd noted it. The master was not used to having his suggestions flouted.
The boss thrust the goad into the hand of the bashful fellow. "There's a hitchpost right side of you, my man. Make believe it's a yoke of oxen. What are your motions and your style of language in getting a start. Go to it!"
The teamster swished the goad in beckoning fashion after he had rapped it against the post in imitation of knocking on an ox's nose to summon attention. His efforts to vault lingually over the first "double-u" excited much mirth. Even the corners of Flagg's mouth twitched.
"Wo, wo hysh! Gee up, Bright! Wo haw, Star!" Such was the opening command.
"They don't hear you," declared Kyle. "Whoop 'er up!"
The teamster did make a desperate effort to drive his imaginary yoke of oxen. He danced and yelled and brandished the goad as a crazy director might slash with his baton. He used up all his drive words and invective.
Kyle could not let the joke stop there after the man had thrown down the goad, wiped his forehead, and declared that it wasn't fair, trying to make him start a hitching post.
"Pick up your gad," commanded the boss. He dropped on his hands and knees. "Now you show us what you can do. I'm a yoke of oxen."
"I tell you I am. Get busy. Start your team."
"That's about enough of that!" warned Flagg, sourly. "Kyle, get up onto your feet where you belong."
But the spirit of jest made the boss reckless and willfully disobedient. He insisted doggedly on his role as a balky ox and scowled at the teamster. "If you want a job you'll have to show me!"
The teamster adjured Mr. Kyle in very polite language, and did not bring the swishing goad within two feet of the scornful nose; the candidate wanted a job and was not in a mood to antagonize a prospective boss.
"You're a hell of a teamster!" yapped Kyle. "What's your system? Do you get action by feeding an ox lollypops, kissing him on the nose and saying, 'Please,' and 'Beg your pardon'?"
The big chap began to show some spirit of his own under the lash of the laughter that was encouraging Kyle.
"I ain't getting a square deal, mister. That post wa'n't an ox; you ain't an ox."
"I am, I tell you! Start me."
"You vow and declare that you're an ox, do you, before all in hearing?"
"That's what!" Mr. Kyle was receiving the plaudits and encouragement of all his friends who enjoyed a joke, and was certain in his mind that he had that bashful stutterer sized up as a quitter. Flagg folded his arms and narrowed his eyes—his was the air of one who was allowing fate to deal with a fool who tempted it.
The candidate did not hurry matters. He spat meditatively into first one fist and then into the other. He grasped the goad in both hands. He looked calculatingly at Mr. Kyle, who was on his hands and knees, and was cocking an arch and provocative look upward, approving the grins of the men near him.
When the teamster did snap into action his manner indicated that he knew how to handle balky oxen. First he cracked Mr. Kyle smartly over the bridge of the nose. "Wo haw up!" was a command which Kyle tried to obey in a flame of ire, but a swifter and more violent blow across the nose sent him back on his heels, his eyes shut in his agony.
"Gee up into the yoke, you crumpled-horn hyampus!" The teamster welted the goad across Kyle's haunches and further encouraged the putative ox by a thrust of a full inch of the brad.
When the boss came onto his feet with a berserker howl of fury and started to attack, the ox expert yelled, "Dat rat ye, don't ye try to hook your horns into me!" Then he flailed the stick once more across Kyle's nose with a force that knocked the boss flat on his back.
Echford Flagg stepped forward and stood between the two men when Kyle struggled to his feet and started toward the teamster with the mania of blood lust in his red eyes. The master put forth a hand and thrust back the raging mate. Flagg said something, but for a time he could not be heard above the tempest of howling laughter.
It was riotous abandonment to mirth. Men hung helplessly to other men or flapped their hands and staggered about, choking with their merriment. The savageness of the punishment administered to the boastful Kyle might have shocked persons with squeamish dispositions; it was wildly humorous in the estimation of those men o' the forest. They were used to having their jokes served raw.
The roar that fairly put into the background the riot of the falling waters of the Noda was what all the region recognized as the ruination of a man's authority in the north country; it was the Big Laugh.
Flagg, when he could make himself heard by his boss, holding Kyle in his mighty grip, made mention of the Big Laugh, too. "Kyle, you've got it at last by your damn folly. You're licked forever in these parts. I warned you. You went ahead against my word to you. You're no good to me after this." He yanked the list of names from Kyle's jacket pocket.
"Let me loose! I'm going to kill that——"
"You're going to walk out—and away! You're done. You're fired. You can't boss men after this. A boss, are you?" he demanded, with bitter irony. "All up and down this river, if you tried to boss men, they'd give you the grin and call you 'Co Boss'. They'd moo after you. Look at 'em now. Listen to 'em. Get out of my sight. I don't forgive any man who goes against my word to him and then gets into trouble." He thrust Kyle away with a force that sent the man staggering. He turned to the bashful chap, who had resumed his former demeanor of deprecation. "You're hired. You've showed that you can drive oxen and I reckon you can drive logs."
The teamster was too thoroughly bulwarked by admirers to allow the rampant Kyle an opportunity to get at him. And there was Flagg to reckon with if violence should be attempted. The deposed first mate slunk away.
"That, my men," proclaimed the master, "is what the Big Laugh can do to a boss. No man can be a boss for me after he gets that laugh. I reckon I've hired my crew," he went on, looking them over critically. "Stand by to follow me north in the morning."
When the autocrat of the Noda strode away, a stalwart young man instantly obeyed Flagg's command—seizing the occasion to follow then and there. He had been standing on the outskirts of the throng, surveying the happenings with great interest. The men who were in his immediate vicinity, lumberjacks who were strangers in the Noda region, were plainly of his appanage and had obeyed his advice to keep out of the melee that had been provoked by Flagg's methods of selection.
When the big fellow hurried in pursuit of Flagg a bystander put a question to one of the strangers.
"You ought to know who he is," returned the questioned. "That's Ward Latisan."
And just then, apart from the crowd, having overtaken the autocrat, the young man was informing Flagg to that same effect.
Flagg halted, swung around, and rammed his cant dog into the ground. "You've changed from a sapling into fair-sized timber since I saw you last. You look like old John, and that's compliment enough, I reckon. How do you happen to be over in the Noda country?"
"I don't happen! I heard of the word you sent out. I came here on purpose, sir."
"To hire with you."
Flagg looked Latisan up and down and showed no enthusiasm. "Yes, I heard that you and your father had let the Three C's slam you flat. And what makes you think I want that kind of a quitter in my crew?"
Ward met the disparaging stare with a return display of undaunted challenge. "Because I belong in the crew of a man who is proposing to fight the Three C's."
Latisan kept on. "You have been hiring men because they have been parading a lot of little grouches against the Comas folks. You need a man who has a real reason for going up against that outfit. And I'm the man."
"What you think about yourself and what I may think about you are two different things," retorted Flagg, with insolence. "Looks to me like you had got the Big Laugh over in your section. You have probably noticed what I just did in a case of that sort."
"I took it all in, sir."
"Well, what then?"
"They are not laughing with us or against us over in the Tomah, Mr. Flagg. They all know what happened, and that we fought the Comas fair and square as long as we could keep on our feet. It was a trick that licked us. Craig held out the Walpole heir on us."
"I know about it; I manage to get most of the news." Flagg started to go on his way, but Ward put his clutch on the autocrat's arm.
"Pardon me, Mr. Flagg, but you're going to hear what I have to ask of you."
Mere apologetic suit would not have served with Flagg. He found this bold young man patterning after the Flagg methods in dealings with men. The boldness of the grip on his arm gained more effectively than pleading.
"Ask it. I'm in a hurry."
"You have fired Kyle. I want his place."
"Well, I'll be——"
"You needn't be, sir. I'm a Latisan and I have bossed our drives. I have brought along a bunch of my own men who have bucked white water with me and are with me now in standing up for the principle of the independents. Allow me to say that luck is with you. Here's your chance to get hold of a man who can put heart and soul into this fight you're going to make."
"And now go on and tell me how much you admire me," suggested Flagg, sarcastically.
"I can't do that, sir. I'm going to tell you frankly I don't relish what I have heard about you. It's for no love of you that I'm asking for a chance to go up against the Comas people. It's because you're hard—hard enough to suit me—hard enough to let me go to it and show the Three C's they can't get away with what they're trying to do up here through Rufus Craig."
"All right. You're hired. You've got Ben Kyle's job," stated Flagg.
Latisan was not astonished by this precipitate come-about. He was prepared for Flagg's tactics by what he had set himself to learn about the autocrat's nature—quick to adjudge, tenacious in his grudges, inflexible in his opinion, bitterly ruthless when he had set himself in the way his prejudices selected.
"You have seen what happened to Kyle. Can you govern yourself accordingly?" Flagg in his turn had set his grip on Ward's arm.
"I'll kick you out just as sudden as I kicked him if anything happens to make men give you the grin. Can you start north with me in the morning?"
"Now or in the morning; it makes no difference to me, sir."
Flagg shifted his hand from Ward's arm to the young man's shoulder and propelled him back a few paces toward the crowd in front of the tavern. "Listen, one and all! Here's my drive boss. He's old John Latisan's grandson. If that isn't introduction enough, ask questions about old John from those who remember him; this chap is like his grandfather."
Latisan went into the tavern after Flagg had marched away to the big house on the ledges. The crowd made way for the new drive boss; those in his path stared at him with interest; mumble of comment followed as the men closed in behind him. When he sat down in a corner of the tavern office and lighted his pipe his subalterns showed him deference by leaving him to himself. That isolation gave Landlord Brophy his opportunity to indulge his bent in gossip unheard by interlopers.
Brophy plucked a cigar from a box in the little case on the desk and sat down beside Ward. "I sympathize with you," he said by way of backhanded congratulation.
"I was born in this tavern; my father built it and run it before me," said Brophy, tucking his cigar through the shrubbery of his gray mustache. "And so I've had the chance to know Ech Flagg a good many years. He's a turk."
"I have heard so."
"He has always had a razor edge to his temper. Maybe you know what put the wire edge onto it?" It was query with the cock of an eyebrow accompanying.
"What I know about Mr. Flagg is only a general reputation of being a hard man. I can say that much to you because I told him the same thing. And that's as far as I care to gossip about an employer," stated Ward, stiffly.
"That's a safe stand," said Brophy, unperturbed. "Keep to it and they can't be running to him with stories about what you have said. But he don't pay me wages and I can say what I feel like saying. A new boss ought to know a few things about the man who hires him. It's my disposition to set a good chap on the right road with a tip. Whatever you may say to Flagg in the way of chat, don't you ever try to bring up the subject of his family affairs."
"I'm not at all likely to," snapped Latisan, with asperity.
"Oh, such a subject is easy out when folks get to going confidential," pursued the persistent Brophy. The suggestion that he would ever be on confidential terms with Flagg provoked an ill-tempered rebuke from Ward, but Brophy paid no attention.
"If you lose your job with him, as you probably will, Latisan, let it be in the straight way of business, as he conducts it, instead of being by some fool slip of your tongue about family matters." He puffed at his cigar complacently and still was giving no heed to Ward's manifest repugnance at being made the repository of gossip.
"Eck's wife died when the daughter Sylvia was small, and he sent the girl off to school somewheres when she was big enough to be sent. And she fell in with a dude kind of a fellow and came back home married to him. She was so much in love that she dared to do a thing like that with Eck Flagg—and that's being in love a whole lot, I'll say. Well, none of us knew what was said back and forth in the family circle, but we figured that the new husband's cheeks didn't tingle with any kisses that Eck gave him. At any rate, Eck set Kennard to work—that was the name, Alfred Kennard. Eck was never much good at ciphering. Office had been in his hip pocket, where he carried his timebook and his scale sheet. Kennard had an education and it came about that Eck let Alf do the ciphering; then he let him keep the books; then he let him handle contracts and the money; then he gave him power of attorney so that Alf wouldn't be hampered whilst Eck was away in the woods. Just handed everything over for the first and the only time in his life, figuring that it was all in the family. I guess that Alf went to figuring the same way, seeing that he was good at figures; felt that what was Eck's was his, or would be later—and Alf proceeded to cash in. Stole right and left, that was the amount of it. Prob'ly reckoned he'd rather have a sore conscience than have his feelings all ripped to pieces when he asked Eck for money.
"We all knew when Eck found out that he had been properly trimmed by the only man he had ever trusted.
"It happened in the dooryard of the big house up there, when Eck came home, wised up, and tackled Alf. Eck felt that the inside of the house might get mussed up by his language, so he stood in the yard and hollered for Alf to come out. We all went up and stood around; it seemed to be a free show, all welcome. We got the full facts in the case from Eck.
"Sylvia came out on the heels of Alf, and she had with her the little Lida, Eck's granddaughter. And after Eck had had his say to Alf and had thrown him over the fence, he gave Sylvia her choice—stay with her father or go away with Alf. Well, she had loved Alf well enough to come home and face Eck with him; she loved Alf enough to turn her back on Eck and face the world with her husband. Natural, of course! Eck tried to grab the little girl away—to save his own from the thieves, so he said. Sylvia fought him off and hung to the girl. It was a tough sight, Latisan! And he stood there and shook his fists and cast 'em all off for ever and aye. That's his nature—no allowance made if anybody does him dirt.
"I'll admit that Eck did make an allowance later, after Alf died and the news of it got back here to Adonia. Lida was grown up to around sixteen by that time. I got this from Rickety Dick. Know him?"
Latisan, relighting his pipe, shook his head with an indifferent wag.
"Well, you soon will. He cooks and waits and tends on Eck. Looks up to Eck. Loves Eck—and that's going some! Dick told me about the allowance Eck made for once in his life after I had touched Dick up by telling him that Eck Flagg never made an allowance to anybody. Eck allowed to Dick that Lida was too young to choose the right way that day in the yard. When she had grown up Eck sent old Dick to hunt for her in the city, to tell her she could come back to him, now that she was old enough to make her choice. Said Sylvia couldn't come back. Now that was a devil of a position to put a girl in. What? Hey?"
Latisan nodded, displaying faint interest.
"And Sylvia right then was in bed with her never-get-over, so Dick told me. Of course Lida wouldn't come back. And she was working her fingers to the bone to take care of her mother. Old Dick cried like a baby when he was telling me. He cries pretty easy, anyway. He never dared to give to Eck the word that Lida sent back. She's got the spirit of the Flaggs, so I judge from what Dick told me. She wouldn't even take the eggs and the truck Dick lugged down, though Dick had bought 'em with his own money; she thought the stuff came from her grandfather. Dick had to hide 'em under the table when he came away. And so Eck has crossed Lida off for ever and aye. Now that's some story, ain't it?"
"I haven't enjoyed it," said Ward, brusquely.
"Prob'ly not. I wasn't telling it thinking you'd give three cheers when I finished. But I've been warning you not to make a foolish break by stubbing your toe over the family topic. I've heard what has happened to the Latisans over Tomah way. You're our real sort, and I'm blasted sorry for you. I reckon you need a job and I'm trying to help you hold it. I like your looks, young Latisan. I hate the Comas crowd. Craig has never set down to my table but what he has growled about the grub. The cheap rowdies he hires for his operations on these waters come through here with bootleg booze and try to wreck my house. I'd like to be friends with you, young Latisan, and if you feel that way about it, put it there!"
Brophy held out a fat hand and Latisan grasped it cordially.
"In my position I hear all the news," stated the landlord. "I'll sift the wheat out of the chaff and hand you what's for your own good. And now you'll have to excuse me whilst I go and pound steak and dish up dinner and wait on the table. That's the trouble with running a tavern up here in the woods. I can't keep help of the girl kind. They either get homesick or get married."
There was an ominous crash in the dining room.
Brophy swore roundly and extricated his rotund haunches from the arms of his chair. "There goes Dirty-Shirt Sam! I have to double him as hostler and waiter. He'd smash the feed pails in the stable if they wasn't galvanized iron."
He pounded with heavy gait across the office and flung open the dining-room door, disclosing a lop-sided youth who was listlessly kicking broken dishes into a pile.
"You're fourteen dollars behind your wages, already, with dishes you've dropped and smashed," shouted Brophy. "I'd give a thousand dollars for the right kind of a girl to stay here and wait on tables if she wouldn't get married or homesick. I'll make it a standing offer." He cuffed the youth in a circle around the heap of broken crockery and went on his way to the kitchen.
Latisan smoked and reflected on the nature of Echford Flagg as Brophy had exposed it from the family standpoint.
Then he looked at the sullen youth who was sweeping up the fragments of the dishes. The whimsical notion occurred to Ward that he might post Brophy on the advantages of a cafeteria plan of operating his hostelry. But he had by these thoughts summoned the memory of one certain cafeteria, and of a handsome girl who sat across from him and who had so suddenly been swallowed up in the vortex of the city throngs—gone forever—only a memory that troubled him so much and so often that he was glad when his own Tomah men appeared to him, asking for commands and taking his mind off a constantly nagging regret.
The set-off of the Flagg expedition in the gray of early dawn had an element of picaresque adventure about it.
Latisan was making an estimate of his crew while he mixed with the men, checking them up, as they assembled again in front of the tavern of Adonia. Old Cap'n Blackbeard would have cheerfully certified to the eminent fitness of many of them for conscienceless deeds of derring-do. The nature of Flagg's wide-flung summons and his provocative method of selection must needs bring into one band most of the toughest nuts of the region, Latisan reflected, and he had brought no milk-and-water chaps from the Tomah. He had come prepared for what was to face him. He had led his willing men in more or less desperate adventures in his own region; his clan had been busy passing the word among the strangers that old John Latisan's grandson was a chief who had the real and the right stuff in him. It was plain that all the men of the crew were receiving the information with enthusiasm. Some of them ventured to pat him on the shoulder and volunteered profane promises to go with him to the limit. They did not voice any loyalty to Flagg. Flagg was not a man to inspire anything except perfunctory willingness to earn wages. The men saw real adventure ahead if they followed at the back of a heroic youth who was avenging the wrongs dealt to his family fortunes.
There were choruses of old river chanteys while the men waited for the sleds. A devil-may-care spirit had taken possession of the crew. Latisan began to feel like the brigand chief of bravos.
He was jubilantly informed by one enthusiast that they were all in luck—that Larry O'Gorman, the woods poet, had picked that crew as his own for that season on the river.
The songs of Larry O'Gorman are sung from the Mirimichi to the Megantic. He is analyst as well as bard. He makes it a point—and he still lives and sings—to attach himself only to forces which can inspire his lyre.
It was conveyed to the new boss that already was Larry busy on a new song. Ward, his attention directed, beheld the lyricist seated on the edge of the tavern porch, absorbed in composition, writing slowly on the planed side of a bit of board, licking the end of a stubby pencil, rolling his eyes as he sought inspiration.
A bit later Larry rehearsed his choristers and Latisan heard the song.
Come, all ye bold and bully boys—come lis-sun unto me! 'Tis all abowit young Latis-an, a riverman so free. White water, wet water, he never minds its roar, 'Cause he'll take and he'll kick a bubble up and ride all safe to shore. Come, all, and riffle the ledges! Come, all, and bust the jam! And for all o' the bluff o' the Comas crowd we don't give one good— Hoot, toot, and a hoorah! We don't give a tinker's dam.
Every man in the crowd was able to come in on the simple chorus.
They were singing when Echford Flagg appeared to them. He was riding on a jumper, with runners under it, and he was galloping his strapping bay horses down from the big house on the ledges. On the bare ground the runners shrieked, and he snapped his whip over the heads of the horses.
"What is this, a singing school or a driving crew?" he demanded, raucously.
"The sleds have just come, sir," explained Latisan, who had been marshaling the conveyances.
"Listen, all ye!" shouted Flagg. "Nothing but dunnage bags go on those sleds till the runners hit the woods tote road and there's good slipping on the snow. The man who doesn't hoof it till then hears from me."
He ordered Latisan to get onto the jumper seat beside him, slashed his horses with the whip, and led the way toward the north.
There was no word between the two for many a mile.
Near noon they arrived at a wayside baiting place, a log house in a clearing. They ate there and the horses were fed. There was plenty of snow in the woods and the first rains of April had iced the surface so that the slipping had been good.
As if the chewing of food had unlocked Flagg's close-set jaws, he talked a bit to Latisan after the meal and while the horses were put to the jumper.
"I'm going to swing off here and ride down to Skulltree dam. I'm hearing reports of something going on there."
They heard something very definite in the way of reports before they reached Skulltree. The sound of explosions came booming through the trees. It was dynamite. Its down-thrusting thud on the frozen ground was unmistakable.
"I knew that all those boxes of canned thunder that have been going through Adonia, with the Three C's on the lid, weren't intended to blow up log jams," vouchsafed Flagg, after a few oaths to spice his opinion of the Comas company.
Latisan knew something about the lay of the land at Skulltree, himself. When he was a young chap the Latisans had operated in a small way as a side-line on the Noda waters. There was a rift in the watershed near Skulltree. There was a canon leading down to the Tomah end, and the waters of the gorge were fed by a chain of ponds whose master source was near the Noda. The Latisans had hauled over to the pond from the Noda Valley.
When Flagg pulled his horses to a halt on the edge of a cliff which commanded a view of the Skulltree and its purlieus, he sat in silence for five minutes until he had taken in every detail of what was going on there.
Every little while there was an explosion across the river among the trees, and clotted frozen earth and rocks shot up into the air. When the horses leaped in fright Flagg slashed them and swore. It was plain that his ire was mounting as he made sure of what was taking place.
They were blasting a rude canal from the Noda across the low horseback which divided the Noda waters from Tomah ponds. It meant the diversion of flowage. It was contemptuous disregard of the Noda rights in favor of the million-dollar paper mill of the Three C's on the Tomah lower waters. Rufus Craig had said something to young Latisan about the inexpediency of picking up a million-dollar paper mill and lugging it off in a shawl strap. It would be easier to blow a hole through the earth and feed in the logs from the Noda.
"By the red-hot hinges of Tophet!" bawled Flagg, having made sure that the enormity he was viewing was not a dream. He cut his whip under the bellies of his horses, one stroke to right and the other to left, and the animals went over the cliff and down the sharp slope, skating and floundering through the snow. The descent at that place would have been impossible for horses except for the snow which trigged feet and runners in some degree; it was damp and heavy; but the frantic threshing of the plunging beasts kicked up a smother of snow none the less. It was like a thunderbolt in a nimbus—the rush of Flagg down the mountain.
Rufus Craig was in the shack at the end of Skulltree dam—his makeshift office. Somebody called to him, and from his door he beheld the last stages of Flagg's harebrained exploit, a veritable touch-and-go with death.
"There ain't much doubt about who it is that's coming for a social call," said the understrapper who had summoned the field director. "And the question is whether he's bound for hell or Skulltree."
Craig did not comment; he had the air of one who had been expecting a visitor of this sort and was not especially astonished by the mode of getting there suddenly, considering the spur for action.
Tempestuous was the rush of the horses across the narrow flats between the cliff and the end of the dam. So violently did Flagg jerk them to a standstill in front of the shack, one horse fell and dragged down the other in a tangle of harness. Flagg left them to struggle to their feet as best they were able. He leaped off the jumper and thrust with the handle of his whip in the direction of the dynamite operations.
The old man's features were contorted into an arabesque—a pattern of maniacal rage. His face was purple and its hue was deepened because it was set off against the snow which crusted his garments after his descent through the drifts. Knotted veins stood out on his forehead. There was no coherence in the noises he was making in his effort to speak words. He kept jabbing with his whip handle.
Evidently Craig's first thought was that the menace of the whip was for him; he half put up a curved arm to ward off blows. In spite of his attention to Flagg he surveyed Latisan with considerable astonishment.
Ward had not recovered his poise. A passenger is usually more perturbed than a driver in desperate situations. That crazy dash down the cliff had frightened him into speechless and numb passivity. He still clung to the jumper seat with his stiffened fingers.
"Before you do anything you'll be sorry for, Mr. Flagg, let me assure you that we have the law behind us in what we're doing," suggested Craig, with nervous haste. "The legislature extended our charter for development purposes and a special act protects us."
Flagg strode away a dozen paces and then came back with better command over his faculties of speech. "Damn your legislature! What right has it got to tamper with a landbreak that God Almighty has put between waters?"
"The act was passed, Mr. Flagg. There was an advertised hearing. If you were interested you should have been there."
"What does a legislature know about conditions up here?" demanded Flagg, with fury. "They loaf around in swing chairs and hearken to the first one who gets to 'em. They pass laws with a joker here and a trick there, and they don't know what the law is really about. You're stealing my water. By the gods! there's no law that allows a thief to operate. And if you've got a law that helps you steal I'll take my chance on keeping my own in spite of your pet and private law."
"Go ahead, Flagg," said Craig, impudently, no longer apprehensive about the whip. "I'm not your guardian to save you from trouble. There's water enough for all of us."
"You have swept the slopes so clean for your cursed pulp-wood slivers that you have dried up the brooks, and there isn't enough water any more, and you know it. Your damnation canal will suck the life out of the Noda."
"You listen to me, Flagg!" adjured Craig, getting back all his confidence as the executive of a powerful corporation. "Another special act allows us to raise this dam and conserve the water so that there'll be plenty after we use our share for the canal. You're safe and——"
"Safe!" raged the old man, and again the veins knotted on his forehead and he panted for breath. Latisan wanted to urge him to be careful. Flagg was exhibiting the dread symptoms of apoplexy. "Safe! I'll be locked into this dam by you, with sluiceway refused to me—that's what it will come to—you offering me a cut price for the logs I can't get down to the Adonia sawmills. If you can't kill one way, as you killed off the Latisans, you'll kill in another way. You're a devilish thief, Craig. I wonder if the men who hire you know what you are. Special acts, hey? That legislature has given a robber a loaded gun without knowing it. By the bald-headed jeesicks! I've got a drive coming down this river! And for fifty years, every spring, it has gone through. It's going through this year, too, and if you're underfoot here you'll be walked on. And that's just as good as your trumped-up law; it's better—it's justice."
Flagg acted like a man who did not dare to remain longer in the presence of such an enemy; his big hands were doubling into hard fists; he was shaking in all his muscles. He leaped back onto the seat of his jumper, swung his team and sent his horses leaping up a whiplash road which traversed the cliff—a road he had disdained in his wild impatience to meet his foe.
When they reached the level of the wooded country Flagg had something to say about his abrupt departure from Craig, as if the master feared that his employe might suspect that there was an element of flight in the going-away. "There's a law against killing a man, and I've got to respect that law even if I do spit on special acts that those gum-shoers have put through. I didn't go down to their legislature and fight special acts, Latisan. I found these waters running downhill as God Almighty had set 'em to running. I have used 'em for my logs. And if any man tries now to steal my water at Skulltree, or block me with a raised dam, there's going to be one devil of a fight at Skulltree and I'll be there in the middle of it. What I wanted to do to Craig to-day can well wait till then when the doing can count for full value."
Ward had been casting solicitous side glances at the empurpled face and the swollen veins. He did not dare to counsel Flagg as to his motions or his emotions. But he felt sure that an old man could not indulge in such transports without danger. He knew something about the effects of an embolism. His violent grandfather had been a victim of a fit of flaming anger in his old age.