THE MAN IN THE TWILIGHT
G.P. Putnam's Sons New York and London The Knickerbocker Press
BY RIDGWELL CULLUM
THE DEVIL'S KEG THE HOUND FROM THE NORTH THE BROODING WILD THE NIGHT RIDERS THE WATCHERS OF THE PLAINS THE COMPACT THE TRAIL OF THE AXE THE ONE WAY TRAIL THE SHERIFF OF DYKE HOLE TWINS OF SUFFERING CREEK THE GOLDEN WOMAN THE WAY OF THE STRONG THE LAW BREAKERS THE SON OF HIS FATHER THE MEN WHO WROUGHT THE PURCHASE PRICE THE TRIUMPH OF JOHN KARS THE LAW OF THE GUN THE HEART OF UNAGA
TO MY NEPHEW GEOFFREY FREDERICK BURGHARD THIS BOOK IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED
THE AUTHOR TO THE READER
The story of the Sachigo wood-pulp mills, told in this book, is entirely a work of imagination. But as I have had to draw very largely on my knowledge of the wood-pulp trade of Eastern Canada, and the conditions under which it is carried on, I desire it to be clearly understood that this story contains no portraiture of any person or persons, living or dead, and contains no representation of any business organisation connected with the trade.
I.—THE CRISIS II.—THE MAN WITH THE MAIL III.—IDEPSKI IV.—THE "YELLOW STREAK" V.—NANCY MCDONALD VI.—NATHANIEL HELLBEAM
EIGHT YEARS LATER
I.—BULL STERNFORD II.—FATHER ADAM III.—BULL LEARNS CONDITIONS IV.—DRAWING THE NET V.—THE PROGRESS OF NANCY VI.—THE LONELY FIGURE VII.—THE SKANDINAVIA MOVES VIII.—AN AFFAIR OF OUTPOSTS IX.—ON THE OPEN SEA X.—IN QUEBEC XI.—DRAWN SWORDS XII.—AT THE CHATEAU XIII.—DEEPENING WATERS XIV.—THE PLANNING OF CAMPAIGN XV.—THE SAILING OF THE Empress XVI.—ON BOARD THE Empress XVII.—THE LONELY FIGURE AGAIN XVIII.—BULL STERNFORD'S VISION OF SUCCESS XIX.—THE HOLD-UP XX.—ON THE HOME TRAIL XXI.—THE MAN IN THE TWILIGHT XXII.—DAWN XXIII.—NANCY XXIV.—THE COMING OF SPRING XXV.—NANCY'S DECISION XXVI.—THE MESSAGE XXVII.—LOST IN THE TWILIGHT
THE MAN IN THE TWILIGHT
They sat squarely gazing into each other's eyes. Bat Marker had only one mood to express. It was a mood that suggested determination to fight to a finish, to fight with the last ounce of strength, the last gasp of breath. He was sitting at the desk, opposite his friend and employer, Leslie Standing, and his small grey eyes were shining coldly under his shaggy, black brows. His broad shoulders were squared aggressively.
There was far less display in the eyes of Leslie Standing. They were wide with a deep pre-occupation. But then Standing was of very different type. His pale face, his longish black hair, brushed straight back from an abnormally high forehead, suggested the face of a student, even a priest. Harker was something of the roused bull-dog, strong, rugged, furious; a product of earth's rough places.
"Give us that last bit again."
Bat's tone matched his attitude. It was abrupt, forceful, and he thrust out a hand pointing at the letter from which the other had been reading.
Standing's eyes lit with a shadow of a smile as he turned again to the letter.
"There's just one thing more. It's less pleasant, so I've kept it till the last. Hellbeam is in Quebec. So is his agent—the man Idepski. My informant tells me he saw the latter leaving the steam-packet office. It suggests things are on the move your way again. However, my man is keeping tab. I'll get warning through at the first sign of danger."
Standing looked up. His half smile had gone. There was doubt in his eyes, and the hand grasping the letter was not quite steady. But when he spoke his tone was a flat denial of the physical sign that Bat had been quick to observe.
"Charlie Nisson's as keen as a needle," Standing said. "His whisper's a sight more than another fellow's shout."
Bat regarded the letter. He watched the other lay it aside on a pile of papers. He was thinking, thinking hard. And his thought was mostly of the man whose shaking hand betrayed him. Suddenly an explosive movement brought his clenched fist down on the table with a thud.
"Hell!" he cried, in a fury of impatience. "What's the use? The danger sign's hoisted. I know it. You know it. Nisson knows it. Well? Say, Hellbeam's been in Quebec a score of times since—since—. That don't worry a thing. No. He's got big finance in the Skandinavia bunch in Quebec. We know all about that. It's Idepski. Idepski ain't visiting the packet office for his health. He ain't figgerin' on a joy trip up the Labrador coast. No. That's the signal, sure. Idepski at the packet office. Their darn mud-scow mostly runs here, to Sachigo, and there ain't a thing along the way to interest Idepski—but Sachigo. We'll be getting word from Charlie Nisson in some hurry."
"Yes, we'll get it in a hurry."
Standing nodded. He was transparently perturbed. Bat watched him closely. Then, in a moment, his mind was made up.
"See right here, Les," he cried, in a tone he vainly endeavoured to restrain. "I've figgered right along this thing would need to happen sometime. You can't beat a feller like Hellbeam all the time and leave him without a kick. It don't need me to tell you that. But I want to get a square eye on the whole darn game. Maybe you don't get all you did to that guy when you cleaned him out of ten million dollars on Wall Street seven years ago.
"Say, you were a mathematical professor at a Scottish University before you reckoned to buck the game on Wall Street, weren't you?" he went on, more moderately. He forced a grin into eyes that were scarcely accustomed. "One of those guys who mostly make two and two into four, and by no sort of imagination can cypher 'em into five. I know. You figgered out that Persian Oil gamble to suit yourself, and forgot to figger that Hellbeam was at the other end of it. No. The other feller don't cut any ice with you while you're playing around with figgers. It's only afterwards you find that figgers ain't the whole game, and wrostling ten million dollars out of one of the biggest railroad kings and bank presidents in America has something to it liable to hand you nightmare. Well, you got that nightmare. So did I. You've had it for most the whole of the last seven years. But it ain't a nightmare now. It's dead real, which is only a way of sayin' Hellbeam's set his dogs on a hot trail, and we're the poor darn gophers huntin' our holes right up here on the Labrador coast.
"Oh, yes. I know what you'd say. You've said it all before. Hellbeam hasn't a kick comin'. You were both operators on Wall Street. You were both playing the financial game as all the world knows it. You beat him on a straight financial fight. It was just a matter of the figgers which it's your job to play around with.
"Now I'm just going to say the thing that's in my mind," he went on, his tone changing again to something clumsily persuasive. "You can take it easy from me. You see, you picked me up when I was down and out. You passed me a hand when there wasn't a hope left me but a stretch of penitentiary. I fought that darn lumber-jack to a finish, which is mostly my way in things. And it was plumb bad luck that he went out by accident. Well, it don't matter. It was you who got me clear away when they'd got the penitentiary gates wide open waiting for me, and it's a thing I can't never forget. I'm out for you all the time, and I want you to know it when I'm telling you the things in my mind. Hellbeam's got a mighty big kick coming. It's the biggest kick any feller of his sort can have. He's the money power of Sweden. He's one of the big money powers of the States. He lives for money and the power it hands him. Well? This is how I figger. Just how you played him up I can't say. But it's his job to juggle around with figgers same as it's yours, and if you beat him out of ten million dollars you must have played a slicker hand than him. All of which says you must have got more to windward of the law than him—and he knows it. Why, it's easy. The feller who has the money power to hold the crown jewels of Sweden from falling into the hands of yahoo politicians out to grab the things they haven't the brains to come by honestly, is mostly powerful enough to buy up the justice he needs, or any other old thing. Hellbeam means to get his hands on you. He's going to get you across the darn American border. And when he's got you there he's going to send you down, by hook or crook, to the worst hell an American penitentiary can show you. It's seven years since you hurt him. But that ain't a circumstance. If it takes him seventy-seven he'll never quit your trail."
Bat paused, and, for a moment, turned from the wide black eyes he had held seemingly fascinated while he was talking. It almost seemed that the emotions stirring in his broad bosom were too overpowering for him, and he needed respite from their pressure. But he came again. He was bound to. It was his nature to drive to the end at whatever cost to himself.
"I'm handing you this stuff, Les, because I got to," he went on. "It ain't because I'm liking it. No, sir. And if you've the horse sense I reckon you have, you'll locate my object easy. Those words of Nisson's have told us plain we got to fight. We got to fight like hell. And the time's right now. Oh, yes, we're going to fight. You an' me, just the same as we've fought a heap of times before. There ain't a feller I know who's got more fight in him than you—when you feel that way. But—well, say, you just need a boost to make you feel like it. You ain't like me who wants to fight most all the time. No. Well—I'm going to hand you that boost."
Standing's unruffled interrogation was in sharp contrast with the other's earnestness. There was a calm tolerance in it. The tolerance of a temperament given to philosophy rather than passion. Perhaps it was a mask. Perhaps it was real. Whatever it was, Bat's next words sent the hot fire of a man's soul leaping into his eyes.
"When your boy's born, what then?"
Bat's fists clenched at the sound of the other's ejaculation. It was the nervous clenching at a sound that threatened danger. Swift as a shot he followed up his challenge.
"Your pore gal's down there in Quebec hopin' and prayin' to hand you that boy child you reckon Providence is going to send you. Well, when he gets along, and Hellbeam's around—and—"
Bat broke off. Standing had risen from his chair. He had moved swiftly, his lean figure propelled towards the window by long, nervous strides. His voice came back to the man at the table, while his eyes gazed down upon the waters of Farewell Cove, over the widespread roofs of the great groundwood mill, the building of which was the result of his seven years' sojourn on the Labrador coast.
"You've handed it me, Bat," he said, in a quick, nervous way. "I'll fight. I know. You guess I'm scared at Nisson's news. Maybe I am, I don't know. I'm not a man of iron guts. Maybe I never shall be. It's hell to me to feel a shadow dogging my every step. Yes, you're right. It's been a nightmare, and now—why, now it's real. But get your mind at rest. I'm going to fight Hellbeam all I know. And with the thought of Nancy, and the boy she's going to give me, I don't need a thing else. No."
"That's how I figgered."
Bat's delight softened his hard eyes for the moment, and his attitude relaxed as Standing went on.
"You reckon I've no imagination," he said. "You reckon I'm just a calculating machine that can juggle figures better than any other machine." He shook his dark head. "I guess you don't do me full justice. When I quit the university on the other side it was because I had built myself up a big dream. I crossed to the United States with my imagination full of the things I hoped to do. It was the chance I looked for. And I found it in Hellbeam, and the Persian Oils it was his hobby to manipulate. I jumped in and grabbed it with both hands. And, as you say, I beat him at his own game. But that was only part of my dream. The next part you also know, though you choose to think it was only as a refuge from Hellbeam that I came here to Sachigo. I admit circumstances have modified my original dream, but then I dreamed my first dream as a man unmarried. Now I have added to it in the thought of the son my wife's going to present me with. After beating Hellbeam and making the fortune I desired, I didn't flee here to the coast of Labrador as a mere refuge from the man you tell me I robbed. No. This place served its purpose that way, it's true. But it was the place I selected long since for the fulfilment of the second part of my dream.
"Bat—Bat, old friend. It isn't I who lack imagination. It's you, with your bull-dog, fighting nature. Years ago, way back there in my rooms at the university, I took up a study that interested me mightily. It was when the European war was on, and was doing its best to unship the brains of half the world. I took it up to relieve myself of the strain of things. And it inspired me with a desire to achieve something that looked well-nigh impossible. I was watching the Swedes, the Skandinavians generally, and I saw them getting fat and rich by holding the rest of the world to ransom for paper and wood pulp—the stuff we call here groundwood. It was then that my dream was born. Oh, yes, it's changed a bit since then. But not so much. All I learned at that time told me there was only one country in the world that was due to hold the world's paper industry, and that country was yours—Canada. The illimitable forests of the country are one of the most amazing features of it. The water power—yes, and even the climate. But I saw all Skandinavia's advantage. Hitherto they've had a complete monopoly. Geographically they were in the thick of the world. The whole darn thing was in their lap. But they have a weakness which you could never find in this country. Their forests are being eaten into. Their lumber is receding farther and farther from their mills. Their labour is difficult. Well, I set to work with a map and those figures which you guess are my strong point. I played around with all the information of Quebec and Labrador I could get hold of. Then, after worrying around awhile, I realised that, with only eighteen hundred sea miles dividing Britain from Labrador, given the cheapness of power, sufficiently extensive plant and forest limits and adequate shipping, I could put groundwood on the European market in favourable competition with Skandinavia. By this means I could build up an industry which means the wealth of Canada for the Canadians, and establish the paper industry of the world within the heart of our British Empire. So it was Farewell Cove and Sachigo on the coast of Labrador for me. And the locality had nothing to do with the man who guesses I robbed him."
It was Bat who was held silent now. He nodded his head at the narrow back that remained turned on him.
"Well, since then," Standing went on, "seven years have passed. Circumstances have forced modifications on my plans. Hellbeam is the circumstance. You say we are the gophers hunting our holes. Maybe you're right. Anyway Hellbeam's shadow is haunting me. It's haunting me in that I know—I feel—that the fulfilment of this dream is not for me. Why?"
He turned abruptly from the window. His pale face was even paler under the excitement burning in his dark eyes. He thrust out a hand, a delicate, long-fingered hand pointing at his friend and faithful servant.
"Say, you reckon I've no imagination. Listen. I see the time coming when all you say of Hellbeam's purpose will be fulfilled, and my dream shattered and tumbling about my head. If Hellbeam succeeds, can I let this thing happen? Can I sacrifice this great purpose in such a personal disaster? No. My hope is in my little wife, that dear woman who's given herself to me with the full knowledge of the threat hanging over my future. She and I have dreamed a fresh dream. And she's even now fulfilling her part of that dream. Yes, you're right. I'm going to fight for our dream with every ounce that's in me. I know my failings. I'm at heart a coward. But I'm out to fight though the gates of hell are agape waiting for me. And when I'm beaten, and Hellbeam's satisfied his kick, my boy, my little son, will step into my shoes and carry on the work till it's complete. Oh, yes, I say 'my son.' Nancy will see to it that she gives me a son. And, by God, how I will fight for him!"
Bat was silent before the tide of his friend's passion. He listened to the strange mixture of clear thinking and unreasoning faith with a feeling of something like awe of a man whom he had long since given up attempting to fathom. He was a rough lumberman, a mill-boss, who, by sheer force, had raised himself from the dregs of a lumber camp to a position where his skill and capacity had full play. And in his utter lack of education it was impossible that he should be able to fathom a nature so complex, so far removed from his sphere of culture.
His devotion to the ex-university professor was based on a splendid gratitude such as only the native generosity of his temper could bestow. The man had once served him in his extremity. Even to this day he never quite realised how the thing had come about, and Leslie Standing refused to talk of it. All he knew was that as mill-boss of an obscure mill, far in the interior of Quebec, away down south of Sachigo, he had fought one of those sudden battles with a lumber-jack which seem to spring up without any apparent reason. And in the desperateness of it, in the fierce height to which his battling temper had arisen, he had killed his man. Even so, these things were sufficiently common for little notice of the matter to have been taken. But it so happened that the dead man was the hero of the workers of the mill, and Bat Harker was their well-hated boss. Forthwith, in their numbers, the workers at once determined that Bat should pay the penalty. They seized and imprisoned him, while they sent down country to get him duly tried and condemned. It was then the miracle happened.
It happened in the night, with the appearance of a lean, tall man, with a high forehead, and smooth black hair, and the clothes of civilisation to which Bat Harker was little enough accustomed. He entered his prison room seemingly without question. He told Bat that if he cared to get away he had the means awaiting him outside. And the prisoner who had visions of hanging, or at best, a long term of imprisonment, snatched at the helping hand held out. And Leslie Standing had brought him in safety straight to Farewell Cove, where together, with the vast capital which the former had wrung from the Swedish financier, Nathaniel Hellbeam, they had undertaken the creation of the great mill of Sachigo.
Bat, in his wonder at the apparent ease of his rescue, had sought information. But little enough had been forthcoming. Leslie Standing had only smiled in his pensive fashion.
"Money," he had said calmly. "Just money. It can do most things."
That was all. And thenceforward the subject had been taboo. Even after seven years of intimate relations, Bat was still mystified on the subject, he was still guessing.
Now, as he listened to his friend's expressions of faith, so strangely jumbled with calculated purpose, he sat at the table groping helplessly. Suppose—suppose that faith were to be shattered. What then? His mind was concerned, deeply concerned. And he dared not put his fears into words.
Standing came back to his chair.
"Here, we've talked these things enough," he said. "You've got my word. Just don't worry a thing. If Hellbeam's dogs get around, well—we're here first. All I want is news of Nancy. And that'll be along any old time now. When I get that—."
The door of the office was thrust open, and an olive-hued face appeared. It was the clerk who worked in direct contact with the owner of the Sachigo mill. He was one-third nigger, another French Canadian, and the rest of him was Indian. It was a combination that appealed to the man who employed him.
"They've 'phoned it through from the wireless at the headland, Boss," the man said without preamble, pushing a sheet of paper into Leslie Standing's hand.
He had gone as swiftly and silently as he came, and the door was closed softly behind him.
Standing was gazing across at Bat. He had not even glanced at the message.
"I'd like to bet," he cried, his eyes alight with a smiling excitement. Then he shook his head. "No. I wouldn't bet on it. It's too sacred. Nancy—my Nancy—."
He broke off, and glanced down at the paper. In a moment the smile fell from his eyes. When he looked up it was to flash a keen glance at the rugged face beyond the desk.
"Here, listen," he cried, with a sharp intake of breath.
"Watch Lizzie for U.G.P. Signed—Nisson."
"U.G.P. That's Union Great Peninsular Railroad. That's Hellbeam's. It means—."
"It means Hellbeam's men are aboard. The packet Lizzie is due at our quay in less than an hour."
Standing tore the message into small fragments and dropped them into the wastepaper basket beside him. Only was his emotion displayed in the deliberate care with which he reduced the paper to the smallest possible fragments.
THE MAN WITH THE MAIL
The calm waters of Farewell Cove lay a-shimmer under the slanting rays of the sun. A wealth of racing white cloud filled the dome of the summer sky, speeding under the pressure of a strong top wind. Even the harsh world of Labrador was smiling under the beneficence of the brief summer season.
Leslie Standing stood for a moment before passing down the winding woodland trail on his way to the water-front below. The view of it all was irresistible to him in his present mood, and he feasted his eyes hungrily while the resolve he had taken yielded an inflexible hardening.
Bat Harker was less affected by the things spread out before him. He was concerned only for the mood of the man beside him. So he waited with such patience as his hasty nature could summon.
"It's all good, Bat, old friend," Standing said, after a moment's silent contemplation. "It's too good to lose. It's too good for us to stand for interference from—Nathaniel Hellbeam."
Bat grunted some sort of acquiescence. He was gazing steadily out over the spruce belt which covered the lower slopes of the hillside. His keen deep-set eyes were on the shipping lying out in the cove, watching the fussy approach of the bluff packet boat.
It was a scene of amazing natural splendour which the works of man had no power to destroy. Farewell Cove was a perfect natural harbour, deep-set amidst surrounding, lofty, forest-clad hills. It was wide and deep, a veritable sea-lake, backing inland some fifteen miles behind the wide headland gateway to the East, which guarded its entrance from the storming Atlantic. Its shores were of virgin forest, peopled with the delicate-hued spruce, and all the many other varieties of soft, white, long-fibred timber demanded in the manufacture of the groundwood pulp needed for the world's paper industry.
Far as the eye could see, in every direction, it was the same; forest and hill. And, in the heart of it all, the great watercourse of the Beaver River debouched upon the cove which linked it with the ocean beyond. It was a world of forest, seeming of limitless extent.
But the feast that had inspired Leslie Standing's words was less the banquet which Nature had spread than the things which expressed the labours he and his companion had expended during the past seven years. He was concerned for the endless forests. He appreciated the great waterfall to the west, where the Beaver River fell off the highlands of the interior and precipitated itself into the cove below. These were the two things in Nature he had demanded to make his work possible. For the rest, the rugged immensity of scenery, the mighty contours of the aged land about him, the vastness of the harsh primordial world, so inhospitable, so forbidding under the fierce climate which Nature had imposed, made no appeal. It served, and so it was sufficient. The lights and shades under the summer sunlight were full of splendour. No artist eye could have gazed upon it all and missed its appeal. But these men lived amidst it the year round, and they had learned something of the fear which the ruthless northland inspires. To them the beauty of the open season was a mockery, a sham, the cruel trap of a heartless mistress.
It was on the wide southern foreshore, just below where the falls of the Beaver River thundered into the chasm which the centuries of its flood had hewn in the granite rock, that Standing had founded his great mill. It lay there, in full view from the hillside, amidst a tangle of stoutly made roads, where seven years ago not even a game track had existed. He had set it up beside his water-power, and had given it the name which belonged to the ruined trading post he had found on the southern headland of the cove when first he had explored the region. Sachigo. A native, Labrador word which meant "Storm." The trading post had since been re-built into a modern wireless station, and so had become no longer the landmark it once had been. But Standing's whim had demanded the necessity for preserving the name, if only for the sake of its meaning.
In seven years the translation of the wilderness had been well-nigh complete. Its vast desolation remained. That could never change under human effort. It was one of the oldest regions of the earth's land, driven and beaten and desolated under a climate beyond words in its merciless severity. But now the place was peopled. Now human dwellings dotted the forest foreshore of the cove. And the latter were the homes of the workers who had come at the mill-owner's call to share in his great adventure.
Then there was shipping in the cove. A fleet of merchant shipping awaiting cargoes. There was a built inner harbour, with quays, and warehouses. There were travelling cranes, and every appliance for the loading of the great freighters with all possible dispatch. There were light railways running in every direction. There were sheltering "booms" in the river mouth crammed with logs, and dealt with by an army of river men equipped with their amazing peavys with which they thrust, and rolled, and shepherded the vast mass of hewn timber towards the slaughterhouse of saws. Then, immediately surrounding the mill, there was a veritable town of storehouses and offices and machine shops of every description. There were power-houses, there were buildings in the process of construction, and the laid foundations of others projected. It was a world of active human purpose lost in the heart of an immense solitude which it was nevertheless powerless to disturb.
"Yes, it's all too good to have things happen, Bat," Standing went on presently. "Hark at the roar of the falls. What is it? Five hundred thousand horsepower of water, summer and winter. Listen to the drone of the grinders." He shook his head. "It's a great song, boy, and they never get tired of singing it. There's only thirty-six of 'em at present. Thirty-six. We'll have a hundred and thirty-six some day. Look down there at the booms." He stood pointing, a tall, lean figure on the hillside. "Tens of thousands of logs, and hundreds of men. We'll multiply those again and again—one day. It's fine. The freighters lying at anchor awaiting their cargoes. Some day we'll have our own ships—a big fleet of 'em. See the smoke pennants floating from our smoke stacks. They're the triumphant pennants of successful industry, eh? We can't have too many such flags flying. One day we'll have trolley cars running along the shores of the cove to bring the workers in to the mill. It'll be like a veritable Atlantic City. Oh, it's a great big dream. There's nothing amiss. No."
"Only the Lizzie getting in."
Bat was without apparent appreciation. He was thinking only of the message they had received, and the threat it contained.
Standing glanced round at the sturdy figure beside him. A half smile lit his sallow features. Then he turned again and sought out the tubby vessel approaching the wharf below. But it was only for a moment. Some subtle thought impelled him, and he glanced back at the house on the hillside he had just left, the house he had erected for the woman whose devotion had taught him the real meaning of life.
It was a long, low, rambling, gabled building. It was an extensive timber-built home with a wide verandah and those many vanities and conceits of building that would never have been permitted had it been intended for bachelordom. He remembered how Nancy and he had designed it together. He remembered the delight with which they had looked forward to its completion, and ultimately their boundless joy in the task of its furnishing. He remembered how Nancy had insisted that it should contain not only their home, but his own private office, from which he could control the great work he had set his hand to. It had been her ardent desire to be always near him, always there to support him under the burden of his immense labours. And remembering these things a fierce desire leapt within him, and he turned again to the man at his side.
"Yes, she's getting in, Bat," he said. "But I just wanted to get a peek at things. Well, I've seen all I want, old friend. Now I'm ready. Fight? Oh, yes, I'm ready to fight. Come on." And he laughed as he hurried down the woodland trail to the water-side.
* * * * *
The two men had reached the quay-side, which was lined with bales of wood-pulp stacked ready for shipment. Farther down its length the cranes were rattling their chains, swinging their burdens out over the holds of the vessel taking in its moist cargo. The stevedores were vociferously busy, working against time. For, in the brief open season, time was the very essence of the success demanded for the mills. The noise, the babel of it all was usually the choicest music to Standing and his manager.
But just now they were less heeding. Their eyes were turned upon the small steamer plugging its deliberate way over the water towards them. It was a small, heavily-built tub of a vessel calculated to survive the worst Atlantic storms.
Bat's face was without any expression of undue emotion. But the hard lines about his clean-shaven mouth were sharply set. Standing was asurge with an excitement that fired his dark eyes. His wide-brimmed hat was thrust back from his forehead, and he stood with his hands thrust deeply in the pockets of his moleskin trousers. His nervous fingers were playing with loose coins and keys which they found irresistible.
The Lizzie came steadily on.
"We'll know the whole game in minutes now."
Standing could keep silent no longer. Bat nodded.
Orders from the bridge of the packet boat rang out over the water. Then Standing went on.
"I want to find Idepski aboard," he said. He was scarcely addressing his companion. "It would be good to get Master Walter here, fifty-three degrees north." A short, hard laugh punctuated his words. Then he turned abruptly. "Who's running No. 10 camp?"
Just for an instant Bat withdrew his gaze from the approaching vessel. He flashed a keen look of enquiry into the eyes of the questioner.
"Ole Porson," he said.
"I thought so. He's a good boy. He'll do."
Standing nodded. The cold significance of his tone was not lost on his companion. Maybe Bat understood the thing that was passing in the other's mind. At any rate he turned again to the broad-beamed tub steaming so busily towards them.
"I see old Hardy on the bridge," Standing went on a moment later. Then he added: "Fancy navigating the Labrador coast for forty years. No, I couldn't do it. I wouldn't have the—guts."
Bat still remained silent. He understood. The other was talking because it was impossible for him to refrain.
"They're standing ready to make fast," Standing said sharply. He drew a quick breath. Then his manner changed and his words came pensively. "Say, it's a queer life—a hell of a life. The sea folk, I mean. It's about the worst on earth. Think of it, cooped within those timbers that are never easy till they lie at anchor in the shelter of a harbour. I'd just hate it. Their life? What is it? It's not life at all. Hard work, hard food, hard times, and hard drinking—when they're ashore—most of them. I think I can understand. They surely need something to drown the memory of the threat they're always living under. No, they don't live. They exist. Here, let's stand clear. They're coming right in."
* * * * *
The bustle of landing was in full swing. Even with so small a craft as the Lizzie there was commotion. Orders flew from lip to lip. Creaking cables strained at unyielding bollards. Gangways clattered out from deck, and ran down on to the quay with a crash. Hatches were flung open and the steam winches rattled incessantly.
Standing and Harker were looking on from a vantage point well clear of the work of unloading. The captain of the vessel, "Old Man" Hardy, was with them. The seaman was beaming with that satisfaction which belongs to the master when his vessel is safely in port.
"Oh, I guess it ain't been too bad a trip," he was saying. "Takin' the 'ins' with the 'outs,' I'd say it was a fairish passage, which is mostly as it should be, seein' it's my last voyage in the old barge. Y'see, you folks are kind of robbing me of this blessed old kettle," he explained, with a grin that lit up the whole of his mahogany features. "Y'see we're loaded well-nigh rail under with stuff for your mill, which don't leave a dog's chance for the other folks along the coast. The Company guesses they got to put on a two thousand tonner. The Myra. I haven't a kick comin'. She's all a seaboat. Still, I'm kind of sorry, don't you know. I've known the Lizzie since she came off the stocks, which is mostly forty years, and we're mighty good friends, which ain't allus the way. I'd say, too, I'm getting old for a change. Still—."
Standing shook his head.
"What do they say? 'Hardy' by name, 'Hardy' by nature. The toughest and best sailorman on the Labrador coast! Well, I'm sorry you don't feel good about it. But," he added with a smile, "it means a good deal to us getting a bigger packet."
Captain Hardy nodded.
"Thankee kindly. It's good to know folks reckon a fellow something more than just part of a kettle of scrap like this old packet. But I'd have been glad to finish my job with her. Still, times don't stand around even in Labrador." He finished up with something in the nature of a sigh.
The work going forward was full of interest. But it was not the work that held Standing, or the watchful eyes of Bat Harker. Their sole interest was in the personality of the crew and the five passengers, mostly "drummers," from the great business houses of Quebec and Montreal, who were struggling to land their trunks of samples and get them off to the offices of the mill so as to complete their trade before the Lizzie put to sea again. Not one of these escaped their observation.
"You seem to keep much the same crew right along, Hardy," Standing said pleasantly. "I suppose they like shipping with a good skipper. I seem to recognise most of their faces."
"Oh, yes. They're mostly the same boys," Hardy agreed, obviously appreciating the compliment. "But I guess I lost four boys this trip. They skipped half an hour before putting to sea. It happens that way now and then, if they're only soused enough when they get aboard. They're a crazy lot with rye under their belts. I just had to replace 'em with some dockside loafers, or lie alongside another day."
Standing nodded. A man was moving down the gangway bearing a large, grey, official-looking sack on his shoulders. He was a slight, dark man with a curiously foreign cast about his features.
"The mail?" he enquired. And a curious sharpness flavoured his demand. Then he added, with studied indifference. "One of your—dockside loafers?"
Captain Hardy laughed. He continued to laugh as he watched the unhandiness of the man staggering down the gangway under his burden.
"Yep. The mail," he said. "And I'd hate to set that feller to work on a seaman's job. He's about as unhandy as a doped Chinaman. I'd say Masters is playing safe keeping him from messing up the running gear while we're discharging. Say, get a look at it."
A great laugh accompanied the old man's words as the foreign-looking creature tripped on the gangway, and only saved himself from a bad fall by precipitating his burden upon the quay. There was no responsive laughter in Standing. And Bat Harker's features remained rigidly unsmiling. Standing turned sharply.
"Maybe you can spare that boy to run those mails up to my office," he said. "It's a good healthy pull up the hill for him, and my folks are full to the neck with things. I'd be glad."
"Sure he can." Captain Hardy was only too delighted to be able to oblige so important a customer of his company. He promptly shouted at the landing officer.
"Ho, you! Masters! Just let that darn Dago tote them mails right up to Mr. Standing's office. He ain't no sort of use out of hell down here—anyway."
The mate's reply came back with an appreciative grin.
"Ay, sir," he cried, and forthwith hurled the order at the mail carrier with a plentiful accompaniment of appropriate adjectives.
"Thanks," Standing turned away. His smiling luminous eyes were shining. "I'll get right along up, Captain. There's liable to be things need seeing to in that mail before you pull out. You'd best come along, too, Bat," he added pointedly.
Standing hurried away. A sudden fierce passion was surging through his veins. Nisson was right. He knew it—now. And in a fever of impatience he was yearning to come to grips with those who would rob him of the hopes in which his whole being was bound up.
The two men reached the office on the hillside minutes before the mail carrier. They took the hill direct, passing hurriedly through the aisles of scented woods which shadowed its face. The other, the stranger, was left with no alternative but the roadway, zigzagging at an easier incline.
Standing passed into the house. His confidential man of many races looked up from his work. The quick, black eyes were questioning. He was perhaps startled at the swift return of the man whom he regarded above all others.
Standing spoke coldly, emphatically.
"There's a man coming along up. He's a sailorman, and he's dressed in dirty dungaree, and he's carrying a sack of mail. Now see and get this clearly, Loale. It's important. It's so important I can't stand for any sort of mistake. When he comes you've got to send him right into my room with the mail-bag. I want him to take it in himself. You get that?"
The half-breed's eyes blinked. It was rather the curious attitude of an attentive dog. But that was always his way when the master of the Sachigo Mill spoke to him.
Pete Loale was quite an unusual creature. He looked unkempt and unclean, with his yellow, pock-marked skin, and his clothes that would have disgraced a second-hand dealer's stores of waste. But for all his lack in these directions there was that in the man which was more than worth while. Out of his black eyes looked a world of intelligence. There was also a resource and initiative in him that Standing fully appreciated.
"Sure I get that," he said simply. Then he repeated in the manner of a child determined to make no mistake. "He's to take that mail-bag right into your office—himself."
"That's it. Don't knock on my door. Don't let him think there's a soul inside that room. Just boost him right in. You get that?"
The half-breed nodded.
"I'll just say: 'Here you! Just push that darn truck right inside that room, an' don't worry me with it, I'm busy.' That how?" The man hunched his slim shoulders into a shrug.
"See you do it—just that way," Standing said. Then he turned to Bat. "We'll get inside," he went on. "He'll be right along."
They passed into the office. The door closed behind them and Standing moved over to his seat at the crowded desk.
Bat was still standing. He failed to grasp his friend's purpose. His wit was unequal to the rapid process of the other's swiftly calculating mind.
Standing littered his writing-pad with papers. He picked up a pen and jabbed it in the inkwell. Then he flung it aside and adopted a fountain-pen which he drew from his waistcoat pocket. His eyes lit with a half-smile as he finally raised them to the rugged face before him.
"You sit right over there by that window, Bat," he said easily. "If you get a look out of it you'll be amazed at the number of things to interest you." He nodded as Bat moved away with a grin and took the chair indicated. "That's it. Just sit around, and you won't see or even hear the fellow with the mail fall in through the door. And maybe, sitting there, you'll want to smoke your foul old pipe. Sort of pipe of peaceful meditation. Yes, I'd smoke that pipe, old friend, but you can cut out the peaceful meditation. You need to be ready to act quick when I pass the word. It's going to be easy. So easy I almost feel sorry for—Idepski."
"It is—Idepski?" Bat filled and lit his pipe.
"It surely is. No other. And—I'm glad. Now we'll quit talk, old friend. Just smoke, and look out of that window, and—think like hell."
Bat's understanding of his friend was well founded. The extreme nervous tension in Standing was obvious. It was in the wide, dark eyes. It was in the constant shifting of the feet which the table revealed. For the time, at least, the cowardice Standing claimed for himself was entirely swamped. He was stirred by the headlong excitement of battle in a manner that left Bat more than satisfied.
Once Bat turned from his contemplation of the piled-up country beyond the valley. It was at the sound of Standing's fiercely scratching pen. And his quick gaze took in the luxury of the setting for the little drama he felt was about to be enacted.
It was a wide, pleasant room, built wholly of red pine, and polished as only red pine will polish. There was a thick oriental carpet on the floor, and all the mahogany furniture was upholstered in red morocco. There were a few carefully selected pictures upon the walls, hung with an eye to the light upon each. But it was not an extravagant room. It suggested the homeland of Scotland, from which the owner of it all hailed. The Canadian atmosphere only found expression in the great steel stove which stood in one corner, and the splendid timber of which the walls of the room were built.
But Bat's eyes swiftly returned to their allotted task, and his reeking pipe did its duty with hearty goodwill. There was the sound of strident voices in the outer room, and the rattle of the door handle turning with a wrench.
The door swung open. The next moment there was the sound of a sack pitched upon the soft pile of the carpet. And through the open doorway the harsh voice of Loale pursued the intruder in sharp protest.
"Say, do you think you're stowing cargo in your darn, crazy old barge?" he cried. "If you fancy throwing things around you best get out an' do it. Guess you ain't used to a gent's office, you darn sailorman—"
But the door was closed with a slam and the rest of the protest was cut off. Bat swung about in his chair to discover a picture not easily to be forgotten.
Standing had left his desk. He was there with his back against the closed door, and his lean figure towered over the shorter sailorman in dungaree, who stood gazing up at him questioningly. The sight appealed to the grim humour of the manager. He wanted to laugh. But he refrained, though his eyes lit responsively as he watched the smile of irony that gleamed in the mill-owner's eyes.
"Well, well." Standing's tone lost none of the aggravation of his smile. "Say, I'd never have recognised you, Idepski, if it hadn't been that I was warned you'd shipped on the Lizzie." He laughed outright. "I can't help it. You wouldn't blame me laughing if you could see yourself. Last time I had the pleasure of encountering you was in Detroit. That's years ago. How many? Nearly seven. It seems to me I remember a bright-looking 'sleuth,' neat, clean, spruce, with a crease to his pant-legs like a razor edge, a fellow more concerned for his bath than his religion. Say, where did you raise all that junk? From old man Hardy's slop-chest? Hellbeam makes you work for your money when you're driven to wallowing in a muck-hole like the Lizzie. It isn't worth it. You see, you've run into the worst failure you've made in years. But I only wish you could see the sorry sort of sailorman you look."
Standing's right hand was behind him, and Bat heard the key turn in the lock of the door. He waited. But the trapped agent never opened his lips.
Idepski had seen Standing and the other down at the quay-side. He had left them there when he started up the hill. Yet—A bitter fury was driving him. He realised the trap that had been laid. He realised something of the deadly purpose lying behind it. So he remained silent under the scourge that was intended to hurt.
For all the filthy dungarees tucked into the clumsy legs of high leather sea boots, the dirty-coloured handkerchief knotted about his neck, the curious napless cloth cap with its peak pulled down over one eye, that curious cap which seems to be worn by no one else in the world but seafaring men, it was easy enough for Bat to visualise the dapper picture, that other picture of Walter Idepski that Standing had described. The man possessed a well-knit, sinuous figure which his dungarees could not disguise. His alert eyes were good-looking. And, cleaned of the black, stubbly growth of beard and whisker, an amazing transformation in his looks would surely have been achieved. But Bat's interest was less with these things than with the possible reaction the man might contemplate.
For the moment, however, the situation was entirely dominated by Standing, who displayed no sign of relaxing his hold upon it. He flung out a pointing hand, and Bat saw it was grasping the door key.
"You'd best take that chair, Idepski," he ordered. "You've opened war on me, but there's no need to keep you standing for it. You'll take that seat against my writing table. But first, Bat, here, is going to relieve you of the useless weapons I see you've got on you. Get those, Bat! There's a gun and a sheath knife, and they're clumsily showing their shape under his dungarees."
It was the word the mill-manager had awaited. He was on his feet in an instant. Idepski stirred to action. He turned to meet him.
"Keep your darn hands off!" he cried fiercely. "By—"
His hand had flown to his hip. But he was given no time. Bat was on him like an avalanche, an avalanche of furious purpose. The fighting spirit in him yearned, and in a moment his victim was caught up in a crushing embrace. There was a short, fierce struggle. But Idepski was no match for the super lumber-jack.
While Bat held on, the tenacious hands of Standing tore the weapons he had discovered from their hiding places. Then in a moment Idepski found himself sprawling in the chair he had been invited to take.
Standing's appreciation was evident as he watched the man draw a gold cigarette case from the breast pocket of his overalls as though nothing had occurred. It was an act of studied coolness that did not for a moment deceive, but it pleased. However, his next effrontery pleased the mill-owner still more.
"Say, boys," Idepski observed quietly, as he opened the case and extracted a cigarette. "I guess I'm kind o' glad you left me this. But I don't figger you're out for loot, anyway." Then he glanced up at the man watching him so interestedly. "Maybe you'll oblige me with a light," he demanded, and cocked up the cigarette he had thrust between his lips with an exaggerated impertinence.
The action was quite irresistible and Standing nodded.
"Sure," he said smilingly, and picked up the matchbox lying on his table.
He struck a match and held it while the other obtained the required light. Then he passed round the desk to the seat he had originally occupied.
Idepski leant back in his chair, and luxuriated in a deep inhalation of smoke. Bat watched him from his place at the window. Standing placed the revolver and sheath knife he had taken possession of in a drawer in the desk, and closed it carefully.
"Well, what's the play?" Idepski addressed himself solely to Standing. "I guess you've said a deal calculated to rile, and your pardner's done more," he went on. "Still—anyway we're mostly men and not school-kids. What's the play?"
Standing, too, was leaning back in his chair.
"It's easy," he said, after a moment's thoughtful regard. Suddenly he drew his chair up to the table, and, leaning forward, folded his arms upon the littered blotting pad in front of him. "It's seven years since Hellbeam—blazed the war trail," he said deliberately. "I know he's persistent. He's angry. And he's the sort of man who doesn't cool down easily. But it's taken him seven years to locate me here. And during all that time I've been looking on, watching his every move." He shook his head. "He's badly served, for all his wealth. He was badly served from the start. You should never have let me beat you in that first race across the border. I got away with every cent of the stuff, and—you shouldn't have let me. You certainly were at fault. However, it doesn't matter."
Idepski removed his cigarette from his lips and dropped the ash of it in the waste basket.
"No. It doesn't matter, because I'll get you—in the end," he retorted coldly.
Standing shrugged. But there was no indifference in his eyes. The acid sharpness of Idepski's retort had driven straight home. If the agent failed to detect it, the watchful eyes of Bat missed nothing. To him the danger signal lay in the curious flicker of his friend's eyelids. The sight impelled him. He jumped in and took up the challenge in the blunt fashion he best understood.
"Guess you've got nightmare, boy," he said, with a sneering laugh. "I ain't much at figgers, but it seems to me if it's taken you seven years to locate us here, it's going to take you seventy-seven gettin' Standing back across that border. Work it out."
Idepski had no intention of being drawn. He replied without turning.
"You think that?" he said easily. "Say, don't worry a thing; I'm satisfied. Just as sure as the sun'll rise to-morrow, Hellbeam'll get Leslie Martin, or Standing as he chooses to call himself now, just where he needs him. And if I know Hellbeam that'll be in the worst penitentiary the United States can produce. Guess you're going to wish you hadn't, Mister—Standing."
Perhaps Idepski knew his man, and understood the weakness of which Bat was so painfully aware. Perhaps he was just fencing, or even putting up a bluff in view of his own position. Whatever his purpose the effect of his added threat was instant.
Standing's luminous eyes hardened. The muscles of his jaws gripped. He sat up, and his whole attitude expressed again that fighting mood in which Bat rejoiced.
"That's all right," he said sharply. "That's just talk. You've come a hell of a long way with those boys of yours down at the Lizzie to worry out some body-snatching. That's all right. I don't just see how you've figgered to do it. But that's your affair. The point is, I'm going to do the body-snatching instead of you. And it's quite clear to me how I intend doing it. You're going a trip—right off. And it's a trip from which you won't get a chance of getting back to Quebec under this time next year. You see, winter's closing down in a month, and Labrador and Northern Quebec aren't wholesome territory for any man to set out to beat the trail in winter, especially with folks around anxious to stop him. You reckon I'm to pass a while in a States penitentiary. Well, meanwhile you're going to try what this country can show you in the way of a—prison ground. And you're going to try it for at least a year. You'll be treated white. But you'll need to work for your grub like other folks, and if you don't feel like working you won't eat. We're fifty-three degrees north here, and our ways are the tough ways of the tough country we live in. There's no sort of mercy in this country. Bat, here, is going to see you on your trip, and, if you take my advice, you won't rile Bat. He's got it in him, and in his hands, to make things darn unpleasant for you. You've a goodish nerve, and maybe you've goodish sense. You'll need 'em both for the next twelve months. After that it's up to you. But if you try kicking between now and then, why—God help you."
Standing beckoned Bat from his seat at the window. He held up the door key.
"You best take this," he said. "No. 10. And he starts out right away. He needs to be well on the road before the Lizzie puts to sea."
Bat took the key. He moved away and unlocked the door, and remained beside it grimly regarding the man who had listened without comment to the sentence passed on him, without the smallest display of emotion. Idepski was smoking his second cigarette.
"No. 10. I s'pose that's one of your lumber camps." Idepski looked up from his contemplation of the cigarette. His dark eyes were levelled at the man across the writing table. "A tough place, eh? or you wouldn't be sending me there." He laughed in a fashion that left his eyes coldly enquiring.
Standing inclined his head. He was without mercy, without pity.
"It's a tough camp in a tough country," he said deliberately. "It's a camp where you'll get just as good a time as you choose to earn. The boy who runs it learnt his job in the forests of Quebec, and you'll likely understand what that means. Well, you're going right off now. But there's this I want to tell you before I see the last of you—for a year. I know you, Idepski. I know you for all you are, and all you're ever likely to be. You're an unscrupulous blackmailer and crook. You're a parasite battening yourself on the weakness of human nature, taking your toll from whichever side of a dispute will pay you best. You're taking Hellbeam's money in the dispute between him and me, and you'll go on taking it till you pull off the play he's asking, or get broken in the work of it. That's all right as far as I'm concerned. You've nerve, you've courage, or you wouldn't be the crook you are. I guess you'll go on because I've no intention of competing with Hellbeam for your services. But I want you to understand clearly you've jumped into a mighty big fight. This is a country where a fight can go on without the prying eyes of the laws of civilisation peeking into things. And by that I take it you'll understand I reckon to make war to the knife. You came here prepared to use force. That's all right. We shan't hesitate to use force on our side. And we're going to use it to the limit. If peace is only to be gained at the cost of your life you're going to pay that cost—if it suits me. That's all I've to say at the moment. For the present, for a year, you'll be safely muzzled. You see, I don't need to worry with those boys you brought with you. You best go along with Bat now. He'll fix things ready for your trip."
The dismissal was complete, and Bat was prompt to accept his cue. He moved towards the man smoking at the table, much in the fashion of a warder advancing to take possession of his prisoner after sentence of the court.
It was at that moment that the cold mask of indifference fell from the agent. Hardy as he was, the contemplation of his momentary failure, which was about to cost him twelve months of hardship in one of the roughest lumber camps in Labrador, robbed him of something of that nerve which was his chief asset. He glanced for the first time at the burly figure of Bat. He contemplated the rugged features of the man whose battling instinct was his strongest characteristic. He read the purpose in the grim set of the square jaws, and in the unyielding light of the grey eyes peering out from under shaggy brows. And that which he read reduced him to a feeling of impotence. He flung a look of fury and hate at the man behind the desk.
"Maybe that's all you've to say," he cried, his jaws snapping viciously over his words, his eyes fiercely alight. "You think you've won when you've only gained a moment's respite. You can't win. You don't know. Oh, yes. I guess you can send me along out of the way. You can do just all you reckon. And if it suits you, you can shoot me up or any other old thing. You forget Hellbeam. You tell me I'm a crook and a blackmailer, you give me credit for nerve and courage. That's all right. You think these things, and I don't have to worry. But you've robbed Hellbeam. You've robbed him like any common 'hold-up'—of millions. It's not for you to talk of crooks and blackmailers. The laws of the States are going to find you the crook, and Hellbeam'll see they don't err for leniency. Hellbeam'll get you as sure as God. You've got months to think it over, and when you've done I reckon you won't fancy shouting. Well, I'm ready for this joy spot you call No. 10. I'm not going to kick. I've sense enough to know when the drop's on me. But you'll see me again. Oh, yes, you'll see me again because you're not going to shoot me up. For all your talk you haven't the nerve. You'll see me again, and when you do—well, don't forget Hellbeam's at the other end of this business. Guess I'm ready."
The man stood up. And as he stood his eyes looked squarely into those of Bat.
"Get on with it," he cried, and flung the remains of his lighted cigarette on the pile of the carpet, and trod it viciously underfoot with his heavy sea boot.
* * * * *
Standing was alone. He was alone with the thoughts his encounter with Idepski had inspired. Judging by the expression of his reflective eyes they were scarcely those of a man confident of victory. Had Bat been there to witness, the task he was at that moment engaged upon would surely have been robbed of half its satisfaction.
But Bat had gone. And with him had gone the man who was to learn the rigours of a Labrador winter under conditions of hardship he had not yet realised. Meanwhile Standing was free to think as his emotions guided him, with no watchful eyes to observe.
"You'll see me again, and when you do—well, don't forget Hellbeam's at the other end of this business."
The words haunted. The threat of them appealed to an imagination that was a-riot.
After a time Standing stirred restlessly. He sat up and brushed the litter of paper aside. Then he leant back in his chair and his fine eyes were lit with an agony of doubt and disquiet. The poisonous seed of the agent's retort had fallen upon fruitful soil.
But after awhile the tension seemed to relax, and his gaze wandered from the grey daylight beyond the window and was suddenly caught and held by the mail bag, still lying where the man had flung it. It was like the swift passing of a summer storm. The man's whole expression underwent a complete transformation. The mail! The mail from Quebec—unopened!
He sprang to his feet. For the moment Idepski, Hellbeam, everything was forgotten. His thought had bridged the miles between Farewell Cove and the ancient city of the early French, Nancy! That woman—that devoted wife who was striving with all the power of a frail body to serve him. There would be a letter in that mail from Nisson, telling him—Yes. There might even be a letter from Nancy herself.
The sack was in his hands. He had broken the seals. He shook out the contents upon the floor. A packet of less than half a hundred letters, and the rest was an assortment of parcels of all shapes and sizes. It was the letter packet that interested him, and he untied the string that held it.
A swift search produced the expected. Standing looked for the handwriting of Charles Nisson, the shrewd, obscure lawyer in the country town of Abercrombie. He had never yet failed him. He would not be likely to. A bulky letter remained in his hand. The others lay scattered broadcast upon the desk.
For some moments he held the letter unopened. The lean fingers felt the bulk of the envelope, while feverish eyes surveyed, and read over and over the address in the familiar small, cramped handwriting. The impulse of the moment was to tear open the letter forthwith, to snatch at the tidings he felt it to contain. But something deterred. Something left him doubting, hesitating. It was what Bat had called his "yellow streak." Suppose—suppose—But with all his might he thrust his fears aside. He tore off the outer cover and unfolded the closely written pages.
Long, silent moments passed, broken only by the shuffling of the sheets of the letter as he turned them. Not once did he look up from his reading. Right through to the end, the dreadful, bitter end, he read the hideous news his loyal friend had to impart. Twice, during the reading, the sharp intake of breath, that almost whistled in the silence of the room, told of an emotion he had no power to repress, and at the finish of it all the mechanically re-folded page's fell from shaking, nerveless fingers upon the littered desk.
His eyes remained lowered gazing at the fallen letter. His hands remained poised where the letter had fallen from them. His face had lost its healthful hue. It was grey, and drawn, and the lips that parted as he muttered had completely blanched.
"Dead!" he whispered without consciousness of articulation. "Dead! Nancy! My boy! Both! Oh, God!"
THE "YELLOW STREAK"
The grey, evening light was significant of the passing season. A chilly breeze whipped about the faces of the men at the fringe of the woods. They were resting after a long tramp of inspection through the virgin forests. It was on a ledge, high up on the hillside of the northern shore of the cove, where the ground dropped away in front of them several hundreds of feet to the waters below. Behind them was a backing of standing timber which sheltered them from the full force of the biting wind.
It was nearly a week since Bat Harker had returned from his mission to No. 10 Camp. He had returned full of satisfaction at the completion of his task, and comforted by the knowledge that the horizon of the mill had been cleared of threatening clouds for at least the period of a year. Then he encountered the ricochet of the blow which Fate had dealt his friend and employer.
It had been within half an hour of his return, while yet the stains and dust of his journey remained upon him, while yet he was yearning for that rest for his body to which it was entitled.
Bat had concluded the report of his journey, and the two men were closeted together in the office on the hillside. The lumberman had had no suspicion of the thing that had happened in his absence, and Standing had given no indication. Standing seemed unchanged. There had been the customary smile of welcome in his eyes. There had been the cordial handshake of friendship. Maybe Standing had talked less, and the searching questions usual in him had not been forthcoming. Maybe there was a curiously tired, strained look in his eyes. But that was all.
At the conclusion of his report Bat had bent eagerly forward over the desk which stood between them. His hard eyes were smiling. His whole manner was that of a man anticipating something pleasant.
"Say, Les," he cried, "guess you've maybe some news for me, too. It's more than a month since—and you were expecting—Things all right?"
Standing reached towards the drawer beside him, and as he did so there was a sound. It was a curious, inarticulate sound that Bat interpreted into a laugh. The other opened the drawer and drew out the folded pages of a letter. These he passed across the table, and his eyes were without a shadow of the laugh which Bat thought he had heard.
"Best read it," he said. "Take your time. I'll just finish these figures I'm working on."
It was the curious, cold tone that stirred Bat to his first misgiving.
He took the letter. There were pages of it. He set them in order and commenced to read. And meanwhile Standing remained apparently engrossed in his figures.
He read the letter through. He read it slowly, carefully. Then, like the other had done, the man to whom it was addressed, he read it a second time. And as he read every vestige of his previous satisfaction passed from him. A cold constriction seemed to fasten upon his strong heart. And a terrible realisation of the tragedy of it all took possession of him. At the end of his second reading he handed the letter back to its owner without comment of any sort, without a word, but with a hand that, for once in his life, was unsteady.
"That was in the mail Idepski brought," Standing said, as he returned the letter to its place, and shut and locked the drawer.
"You remember?" he went on, pointing. "He flung it down there. Just by the door. Yes, it was just there, because I stood against the door, and was only just clear of it."
He paused and his hand remained pointing at the spot where the mail bag had lain. It was as if the spot held him fascinated. Then his arm lowered slowly, and his hand came to rest on the edge of the table, gripping it with unnecessary force.
"Seems queer," he went on, after a while. Then he shook his head. "Think of it. Nancy—my Nancy. Dead! She died giving birth to my boy. And he—he was stillborn. Why? I—I can't seem to realize it. I—don't—" He paused, and a strained, hunted look grew in his eyes. "No. It's easy. It's just Fate. That's it. There's no escape."
He drew a deep breath and one lean hand smoothed back his shining black hair. Then his eyes came back to the face of the man opposite, and the agony in them was beyond words. After a moment their terrible expression became lost as he bent over his work. "I'm glad you're back, Bat," he said, without looking up.
"There's a hell of a lot of orders to get out. We're running close up to winter."
The lumberman understood. At a single blow this man's every hope had been smashed and ground under the heel of an iron fate. The wife, the woman he had worshipped, had given her life to serve him, and with her had gone the man-child, about whom had been woven the entire network of a father's hopes and desires.
A week had passed since Bat had witnessed the voiceless agony of his friend. A week of endless labour and unspoken fears. He knew Standing as it is given to few to know the heart of another. His sympathy was real. It was of that quality which made him desire above all things to render the heartbroken man real physical and moral help. But no opening had been given him, and he feared to probe the wound that had been inflicted. During those first seven days Standing seemed to be obsessed with a desire to work, to work all day and every night, as though he dared not pause lest his disaster should overwhelm him.
Now it was Sunday. Night and day the work had gone on. No less than ten freighters had been loaded and dispatched since Bat's return, and only that morning two vessels had cast off, laden to the water-line, and passed down on the tide for the mouth of the cove. At the finish of the midday meal Standing had announced his intentions for the afternoon.
"We need to get a look into the lumber on the north side, Bat," he said. "You'd best come along with me. How do you think?"
And Bat had agreed on the instant.
"Sure," he said. "There's a heap to be done that way if we're to start layin' the penstocks down on that side next year."
So they had spent the hours before dusk in a prolonged tramp through the forests of the Northern shore. And never for one moment was their talk and apparent interest allowed to drift from the wealth of long-fibred timber they were inspecting.
But somehow to Bat the whole thing was unreal. It meant nothing. It could mean nothing. He felt like a man walking towards a precipice he could not avoid. He felt disaster, added disaster, was in the air and was closing in upon them. He knew in his heart that this long, weary inspection, all the stuff they talked, all the future plans they were making for the mill was the merest excuse. And he wondered when Standing would abandon it and reveal his actual purpose. The man, he knew, was consumed by a voiceless grief. His soul was tortured beyond endurance. And there was that "yellow streak," which Bat so feared. When, when would it reveal itself? How?
Now, at last, as they rested on the ledge overlooking the mill and the waters of the cove, he felt the moment of its revelation had arrived. He was propped against the stump of a storm-thrown tamarack. Standing was stretched prone upon the fallen trunk itself. Neither had spoken for some minutes. But the trend of thought was apparent in each. Bat's deep-set, troubled eyes were regarding the life and movement going on down at the mill, whose future was the greatest concern of his life. Standing, too, was gazing out over the waters. But his darkly brooding eyes were on the splendid house he had set up on the opposite hillside. It was the home about which his every earthly hope had centred. And even now, in his despair, it remained a magnet for his hopeless gaze.
Winter was already in the bite of the air and in the absence of the legions of flies and mosquitoes as well as in the chilly grey of the lapping waters below them. It was doubtless, too, searching the heart of these men whose faces gave no indication of the sunlight of summer shining within.
The lumberman turned sharply. He spat out a stream of tobacco juice and waited.
"Bat, old friend, it's no use." Standing had swung himself into a sitting posture. He was leaning forward on the tree-trunk with his forearms folded across his knees. "We've done a lot of talk, and we've searched these forests good. And it's all no use. None at all. There's going to be no penstocks set up this side of the water next year—as far as I'm concerned. I've done. Finished. Plumb finished. I'm quitting. Quitting it all."
The lumberman ejected a masticated chew and took a fresh one.
"You see, old friend, I'll go crazy if I stop around," Standing went on. "I've been hit a pretty desperate punch, and I haven't the guts to stand up to it. When it came I set my teeth. I wanted to keep sane. I reminded myself of all I owed to the folks working for us. I thought of you. And I tried to bolster myself with the schemes we had for beating the Skandinavians out of this country's pulp-wood trade. Yes, I tried. God, how I tried! But my guts are weak, and I know what lies ahead. For nearly six weeks I've been working things out, and for a week I've been wondering how I should tell you. I brought you here to tell you.
"I want you to understand it good," he went on, after the briefest pause. "I can't stand to live on in the house that Nancy and I built up. Every room is haunted by her. By her happy laugh, and by memories of the hours we sat and talked of the boy-child we'd both set our hearts on. I just can't do it without going stark, staring, raving mad. I can't."
"That's how I figgered. I've watched it in you, Les. Tell me the rest."
Bat chewed steadily. It was a safety-valve for his feelings.
"The rest?" Standing turned to gaze out at the house across the water. "If it weren't for you, Bat, I'd close right down. I'd leave everything standing and—get out," he went on slowly. "The whole thing's a nightmare. Look at it. Look around. The forests of soft wood. The township we've set up. The harnessed water power. That—that house of mine. It's all nightmare, and I don't want it. I'm afraid. I'm scared to death of it."
Bat moved away from the stump he had been propped against. He passed across to the edge of the ledge and stood gazing down on the scenes below.
"You needn't worry for me," he said. "It don't matter a cuss where or how I hustle my dry hash. I was born that way. Fix things the way you feel. Cut me right out."
The man's generosity was a simple expression of his rugged nature. His love of that great work below him, in the creation of which he had taken so great a part, was nothing to him at that moment. He was concerned only for the man, who had held out a succouring hand, and led him, in his darkest moments, to safety and prosperity.
Standing shook his head at the broad back squared against the grey, wintry sky.
"I didn't mean it that way, old friend," he said.
Bat swung around. His grey eyes were wide. His face seemed to have softened out of its usual harsh cast.
"But I do, Les," he cried. "You don't need to figger a thing about me. You're hurt, boy. You're hurt mighty sore. Cut me right out of your figgers, and do the things that's goin' to heal that sore. If there's a thing I can do to help you, why, I guess I'd be glad to know it."
For a few moments Standing remained silent. Perhaps he was pondering upon what he had to say. Perhaps he was simply gaining time to suppress the emotions which the selflessness of the other had inspired.
"Here," he cried at last, "I best tell you the whole story that's in my mind. I told you I've been figuring it out. Well, it's figured to the last decimal. You think you know me. Maybe you do. Maybe you know only part of the things I know about myself. If you knew them all I'd hate to think of the contempt you'd have to hand me. You see, Bat, I'm a coward, a terrible moral coward. Oh, I'm not scared of any man living when it comes to a fight. But my mind's full of ghosts and nightmares ready to jump at me with every doubt, every new effort where I can't figure the end. Years ago, when I was a youngster, I yearned for fortune. And I realised that I had it in me to get it quick by means of that crazy talent for figures you reckon is so wonderful. I got the chance and jumped, for it. But every step I took left me scared to the verge of craziness. When I hit up against Hellbeam I got a desire to beat him that was irresistible, and I jumped into the fight with my heart in my mouth. It was easy—so easy. Hellbeam was a babe in my hands. I could play with him as a spider plays with its victim, and when, like a spider, I'd bound him with my figures, hand and foot, I was free to suck his blood till I was satiated. I did all that, and then my nightmare descended upon me again. You know how I fled with Hellbeam's hounds on my heels. I was terrified at the enormity of the thing I'd done. I could have stood my ground and beaten him—and them. But moral cowardice overwhelmed me and drove me to these outlands. God, what I suffered! And after all I haven't the certainty that I deserved it."
Bat came back to his stump and stood against it while Standing passed a weary hand across his forehead.
"The happenings since then you know as well as I do. I don't need to talk of them. I mean, how I met and married Nancy, when she was widow of that no-account McDonald feller, the editor of The Abercrombie Herald!"
"Yes, sure, I know, Les. When you married Nancy an' made her thirteen-year-old daughter—your daughter."
"Yes. I'd almost forgotten. Yes, there's her girl, Nancy. She's still at school. Well, anyway, you know, these things, all of 'em. But what you don't know is that you—you Bat, old friend, are solely responsible for all the work that's being done here. You, old friend, are responsible that I've enjoyed seven years of something approaching peace of mind. You, you with your bulldog fighting spirit, you with your hell-may-care manner of shouldering responsibility, and facing every threat, have been the staunch pillar on which I have always leant. Without you I'd have gone under years ago, a victim of my own mental ghosts. No, no, Bat," he went on quickly, as the lumberman shook his head in sharp denial, "it's useless. I know. Leaning on you I've built up around me the reality of that original dream, with the other things I've now lost, and with every ounce in me I've worked for its fulfilment.
"Well, what's the logic of it all?" he continued, after a moment's pause. "Yes, it is the logic of it. You may argue that for seven years I've been doing a big work and there's no reason, in spite of what's happened, that I should now abandon it all. But there is. And in your strong old heart you'll know the thing I say is true—if cowardly. During seven years, or part of them, I've known a happiness that's compensated for every terror I've endured. Nancy's been my guardian angel, and the boy, that was to be born, was the beacon light of my life. My poor little wife has gone, and that beacon light, the son we yearned for, has been snuffed right out. And in the shadows left I see only the groping hand of Hellbeam reaching out towards me. In the end that hand will get me, and crush the remains of my miserable life out. I know. Just as sure as God, Hellbeam's going to get me."
The sweat of terror stood on the man's high forehead, and he wiped it away.
Bat flung a clenched fist down upon the tree stump.
"You're wrong, Les. You're plumb wrong. If it means murder I swear before God Hellbeam'll never lay hands on you. Hellbeam? Gee! Let him set his nose north of 'fifty' and I'll promise him a welcome so hot that'll leave hell like a glacier. As for his darn agents? Why, say, I want to feel sorry for 'em 'fore they start. Idepski's hating himself right—"
"I know," cried Standing impatiently. "I know it all. Everything you've said you mean, but—it won't save me. But we can leave all that. There's the other things. Why should I go on living here, working, slaving, haunted by the terror of Hellbeam? With my boy, my wife, to fight for it was worth all the agony. But without them—why? Why in the name of sanity should I go on? To beat the Skandinavians out of Canada's trade, and claim it all for a country that doesn't care a curse? To build up a great name that in the end must be dragged in the mire of public estimation? Not on your life, Bat. No, no. I'm going to cut adrift. I'm going to quit. I'm going to lose myself in these forests, and live the remaining years of my life free to run to earth at the first shot of the hunter's gun. It's all that's left me—as I see it."
"And all this?" Bat said, reaching out one great hand in the direction of the Cove. "An' that school gal 'way down at Abercrombie, learning her knitting, an' letters, an' crying her dandy eyes out for the mother who had to leave her there when she passed over to you? Say, Les, you best go on. Jest go right on an' I'll say my piece after."
Standing sat up. A deep earnestness was in the dark eyes that looked fearlessly into Bat's. He took the other at his word and went on. He had nothing to conceal.
"The mill? Why, I want to pass it over to your care, Bat," he said, permitting one swift regretful glance in the direction of the grey waters below them. Then he spoke almost feverishly. "Here's the proposition. I'm going to hand you full powers—through Charles Nisson. You'll run this thing on the lines laid down. If you fancy carrying on the original proposition of extension, well and good. If not, just carry on and leave the rest for—later. You'll be manager for me through Nisson. I shan't remove one cent of capital. I don't want Hellbeam's money beyond the barest grub stake. It'll remain under Nisson's guardianship for your use in running this mill. You'll simply satisfy Nisson. For the rest I shan't interfere. You're drawing a big salary now. Well, seeing I go out of the work, that salary will be doubled. That's for the immediate. Then there's the future. I've a notion. Maybe it's a crazy notion. But it's mine and I mean to test it. Here. We reckon to build up this enterprise for one great, big purpose. It was my dream to break the Skandinavian ring governing the groundwood trade of this country. It was work that appealed to my imagination. I wanted to build this great thing and pass it on to my boy. It seemed to me fine. Worth while. It was a man's work, and it seemed to me a life well spent. I had the guts then—with your support, and the support the thought of my son gave me. I haven't the guts now. The notion fired you, too. It fired you, and it'll grieve you desperately to see it abandoned. It shan't be abandoned. Once in the woods of this queer country I found a man—such a man as is rarely found. He was a man into whose hands I could put my life. And I guess there's no greater trust one man can have in another. He was a man of immense capacity. A man of intellect for all he had no schooling but the schooling of Quebec's rough woods. That man was you, Bat. I'd like to say to you: 'Here's the property. You know the scheme. Go on. Carry it through.' But I can't. I can't because one man can't do it. Well, the woods gave me one man, and they're going to give me another to take the place of the weak-gutted creature who intends to 'rat.' I'm going to find you a partner, a man with brain and force like yourself. A man of iron guts. And when I've found him I'm going to send him on to you. And if you approve him he shall be full partner with you in this concern the day that sees the Canadian Groundwood Trust completed, and the breaking of the Skandinavian ring. Do you follow it all? You and this man will be equal partners in the mill, and every available cent of its capital—the capital I made Hellbeam provide. It'll be yours and his, solely and alone. I—I shall pass right out of it. Hellbeam has no score against you. He has no penitentiary preparing for you. You are not concerned with him. Whatever he may have in store for me he can do nothing to you, and the money I beat him out of will have passed beyond his reach."
"And this man you figger to locate? You reckon to take a chance on your judgment?"
Bat's challenge came on the instant.
"On mine, and—yours." Standing's eyes were full of a keen confidence. And Bat realised something of the sanity lying behind a seemingly mad proposition. "He'll own nothing until he and you have completed the work as we see it. To own his share in the thing he must prove his capacity. He'll be held by the tightest and strongest contract Charles Nisson can draw up."
Bat spat out his chew. He replaced it with a pipe, and prepared to flake off its filling from a plug of tobacco. Standing watched him with the anxious eyes of a prisoner awaiting sentence. With the cutting of the first flakes of tobacco, Bat looked up.
"And this little gal-child, with the same name as the mother who just meant the whole of everything life could hand you? This kiddie with her mother's blood running in innocent veins? She's your Nancy's daughter and I guess your marriage made her yours."
"She's another man's child."
Standing's retort was instant. And the tone of it cut like a knife.
Bat regarded him keenly. His knife had ceased from its work on the plug.
"That's so," he said after a while. Then his gaze drifted in the direction of the house across the water, and the expression in the grey depths of his eyes became lost to the man who could not forget that the remaining child of his wife was the offspring of another man. "It seems queer," he went on reflectively. "That woman, your Nancy, was about the best loved wife, a fellow could think of. She was all sorts of a woman to you. Guess she was mostly the sun, moon, an' stars of your life. Yet her kiddie, a pore, lonesome kiddie, was toted right off to school so she couldn't butt in on you. You've never seen her, have you? And she was blood of the woman that set you nigh crazy. Only her father was another feller. No, Les." He shook his head, and went on filling his pipe. "No, Les, this mill and all about it can go hang if that pore, lone kiddie is wiped out of your reckoning. Maybe I'm queer about things. Maybe I'm no account anyway when it comes to the things of life mostly belonging to Sunday School. But I'd as lief go back to the woods I came from, as handle a proposition for you that don't figger that little gal in it. You best take that as all I've to say. There's a heap more I could say. But it don't matter. You're feelin' bad. Things have hit you bad. And you reckon they're going to hit you worse. Maybe you're right. Maybe you're wrong. Anyway these things are for you, though I'd be mighty thankful to help you. You want to go out of it all. You want to follow up some queer notion you got. You reckon it's going to give you peace. I hope so. I do sure. The thing you've said goes with me without shouting one way or the other. It grieves me bad. But that's no account anyway. But there's that gal standing between us, and she's going to stand right there till you've finished the things you're maybe going to say."
For a moment the men looked into each other's eyes. It was a tense moment of sudden crisis between them.
Bat's unyielding interrogation came sharply. Standing nodded.
"I hadn't thought, Bat," he said. Then he drew a deep breath. "I surely hadn't, but I guess you're right. She's my stepdaughter. And I've a right to do the thing you say. Yes. It's queer when I think of it," he went on musingly. "When I married her mother the girl didn't seem to come into our reckoning. She was at school, and I never even saw her. Then her mother wanted her left there, anyway till her schooling was through. Everything was paid. I saw to that. But—yes, I guess you're right. It's up to me, and I'll fix it."
"She shall have equal share when the time comes."
"When the whole work's put through?"
"Yes. And meanwhile she'll be amply provided for." Standing spread out his hands deprecatingly. "You see, we did things in a hurry, Bat. There was always Hellbeam. And my Nancy understood that. I wonder—"
Bat smoked on thoughtfully, and presently the other roused himself from the pre-occupation into which he had fallen.
"Does that satisfy?" he demanded.
"I'll do the darnedest I know, Les," he said in his sturdy fashion. "Fix that pore gal right. Hand her the share she's a right to—when the time comes along. Do that an' I'll not rest till the Skandinavians are left hollerin'. That kid's your daughter, for all she ain't flesh and blood of yours, an' you ain't ever see her. And anyway she's flesh of your Nancy, which seems to me hands her even a bigger claim."
He moved away from his leaning post and his back was turned to hide that which looked out of his eyes.
"I'm grieved," he went on, in his simple fashion, "I'm so grieved about things I can't tell you, Les. I always guessed to drive this thing through with you. I always reckoned to make good to you for that thing you did by me. Well, there's no use in talkin'. You reckon this notion of yours'll make you feel better, it's goin' to hand you—peace. That goes with me. Oh, yes, all the time, seein' you feel that way. But—say, we best get right home—or I'll cry like a darn-fool kid."
Charles Nisson was standing at the window. His eyes were deeply reflective as he watched the gently falling snow outside. He was a sturdy creature in his well-cut, well-cared-for black suit. For all he was past middle life there was little about him to emphasise the fact unless it were his trim, well-brushed snow-white hair, and the light covering of whisker and beard of a similar hue. He looked to be full of strength of purpose and physical energy.
His back was turned on the pleasant dining-room of his home in Abercrombie, a remote town in Ontario, where he and his wife had only just finished breakfast. Sarah Nisson was sitting beside the anthracite stove which radiated its pleasant warmth against the bitter chill of winter reigning outside. She was still consuming the pages of her bulky mail.