Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



скачать книгу бесплатно

Shortly after this they heaved the anchor and started again, but once more the wind fell light and a couple of hours had passed and they were almost frozen when they reached the cove below the ranch. The house was dark when they crept into it and went straight to bed, while it cost Frank a determined effort to get up before daylight next morning. His clothes were still damp and he felt sore and aching, but he took his place with the others when they sat down to breakfast.

Logging seemed a particularly unpleasant task that day, but he had to go on with it, and he fancied that Mr. Oliver, with whom it was necessary to keep pace, worked harder than he usually did. Frank was completely exhausted when as darkness fell they went back to the ranch.

"Are you going out again after ducks to-night?" Mr. Oliver asked him.

"No," said Frank ruefully, "I feel as if it would take me a week to get over the last trip."

"I'm not very much astonished," Mr. Oliver answered with a soft laugh. "Still, I don't mind admitting that you stood up to your work to-day."

CHAPTER XXII
THE ULTIMATUM

The frost soon broke up, and it was raining heavily one afternoon, when the boys were at work in an excavation they had driven under a big fir stump shortly after their shooting trip. Frank, very wet and dirty, lay propped up on one elbow with his head and shoulders inside the hole, chopping awkwardly at a root. His legs and feet were in a pool of water outside and there was very little room to swing the ax, while at every blow the saturated soil fell down on him. Grubbing out a stump in wet weather is a singularly disagreeable task.

Harry crouched close beside him where he was partly sheltered from the rain by the network of roots which rose above his head. The boys had spent most of the day cutting through those which ran along the surface of the ground and digging to get at the rest, until they had been forced to drive a tunnel to reach one or two which went vertically down, for it was an unusually large stump. At last when his ax shoved through the obstacle Frank paused for breath, and, as it was getting dark in the excavation, Harry lighted a piece of candle. The light fell upon a massive shaft of wet wood which sank into the ground.

"Nobody fixed as we are could chop through that," he grumbled. "It's the big taproot, and it would take most of another day's shoveling to make room to get at it with the crosscut. It looks as if we'd have to put some giant powder in. Where's that auger?"

Frank reached out for the boring tool, which resembled a huge corkscrew, only that instead of a handle it had a hole at its upper end for the insertion of a short lever.

"I'll bore while you get things ready, if you like," he suggested. "Do you often use dynamite?"

"We never fire a shot when we can help it, though there are ranchers who get through a lot of the stuff. Giant powder's expensive, and, though labor's expensive, too, you have to figure whether a shot's going to pay.

It's worth while if it will save you grubbing most of the day. Slant the hole you bore a little upward while I go along for the magazine."

Harry crawled out of the excavation, and Frank slipped a crossbar through the hole in the auger, driving the point of the latter into the wood. It went in easily, but the work grew harder as he twisted it round and round, kneeling with his shoulders against the roots, while the candle flickered and big drops of water trickled down on him. The position was a cramping one, and his wet hands slipped upon the crossbar, but he had become accustomed to doing unpleasant things, and it was evident that one could not clear a ranch without grubbing stumps.

By and by Harry came back, and telling him to hold the light carefully, produced what looked rather like a yellow candle, and a piece of black cord with a copper cap nipped down on the end of it.

"That's the detonator," he said, pointing to the cap. "You saw one or two of them at Webster's ranch."

"I didn't feel inclined to stop and examine them then," Frank answered with a laugh.

"They're very like the caps used for guns, only, as you see, they're bigger, and it's wise to be careful how you pinch one down on the fuse. The stuff they fill the end with is mighty powerful. So's giant powder, but it's peculiar because it will only burn unless you fire it with something that makes a bang. At least, that's what it does in a general way. The trouble is you can never be quite sure of it."

He worked the soft yellow substance over the detonator, after which he thrust it gently into the auger hole and pressed a handful of soil down on it. Frank was thankful when he had finished, for having heard of the tremendous powers of the giant powder he did not care to be shut up with it among that network of roots. Then Harry, straightening the strip of black fuse which projected from the hole, took a quick glance about him.

"We'll make sure we can get out before we light it," he remarked, taking the candle and holding it to the fuse. "You don't want to stay around once the fuse is burning. Crawl back and hold those roots up out of my way."

The candle was by this time sputtering and sparkling, and Frank swung himself up out of the hole and set off madly across the clearing, shouting to Mr. Oliver and Jake, who were at work not far away. His companion, following close behind, stopped him presently.

"Hold on!" he shouted with a laugh. "You needn't run right down to the cove. Giant powder's kind of local in its action, and that charge isn't going to turn the whole clearing upside down."

They waited behind a neighboring stump, and a few minutes later Frank, who had felt himself thrilled with expectation, was grievously disappointed. He had looked for a spectacular result, but there was only a dull, heavy thud, a sound of rending and splitting, and a wisp of vapor out of which a little soil flew up.

"Now," said Harry, "we'll go along and have a look, but we'll work around the stump and come at it down the wind."

"Why?" Frank asked.

His companion snickered. "Only that it would probably knock you over, I'd let you go and see. It's wise to keep clear of the gases after firing giant powder. They haven't the same effect on everybody, but most men who get a whiff of them want to lie down for the rest of the day."

They approached the stump cautiously on its windward side, but there was not much to see. It appeared to have been split and was slightly raised, but it had certainly not been blown to fragments, as Frank had expected.

"Do you think the shot has cut the root?" he asked.

"No," said Harry with a smile, "you couldn't call it cutting. It has melted it, swallowed it, blotted it right out. You'll find very little of that root to-morrow, and there won't be any pieces lying round either."

He broke off and grabbed Frank's arm as the latter moved toward the other side of the stump.

"Come back!" he warned. "The gas is hanging about yet."

Frank noticed a rather unpleasant smell, and was conscious of a pain in his head, but it passed off as they crossed the clearing together. As it was getting too dark to work, Mr. Oliver and Jake joined them before they reached the house. They changed their clothes when they went in, and after toiling in the rain all day Frank was glad to sit down dressed in dry things at the well-spread table. The room was very cozy with its bright lamp and snapping stove, and the doleful wail of the wind and the thrashing of the rain outside emphasized its cheerfulness. He felt languidly content with himself and the simple, strenuous life he led. For the most part, though they had occasional adventures, it was an uneventful one, and some time had passed since they had heard anything of the dope runners. He wondered what had become of them, or if they had found smuggling unprofitable and had given it up.

Supper was about half finished when there was a knock at the door and the dog rose with a growl. Harry seized the animal's collar just as a man appeared in the entrance. His clothes were black with water and a trickle of it ran from the brim of the soft hat he held in one hand. He was a young man and the paleness of his face suggested that he was from the cities.

"Is it far to Carthew Creek?" he inquired.

"Eight or nine miles," Mr. Oliver replied. "The trail's very bad and you'll have some trouble in keeping it on a night like this. Have you any reason for going straight through?"

"I believe a steamboat calls to-morrow and I thought of going back with her. I've had about enough of these bush trails."

"Then we'll put you up," said Mr. Oliver obligingly. "You can get on again first thing in the morning. You're wet enough now, aren't you?"

The stranger admitted that he was, but seemed to hesitate.

"I don't want to trouble Miss Oliver," he said. "Still, as it happens, I've a message for you."

Mr. Oliver said that he would give him some dry clothes, and the two withdrew to get them. They came back a few minutes later and sat down at the table. The stranger made an excellent meal, and Mr. Oliver waited until he had finished before he asked a question:

"Have you walked in?"

"From the settlement," the other answered. "As I expected to get back by the steamboat, I left my hired horse with Porteous at the store."

"Porteous doesn't keep the store."

"The other fellow got hurt chopping a week or so ago. A log or a big branch fell on him, and they sent him off to Seattle. Porteous is running the business until he gets better."

Frank fancied that Mr. Oliver was displeased at this, but there was no change in his manner toward his visitor.

"Is he running the post office, too?" he asked.

"Oh, yes. I had to tell him something about a letter."

"You mentioned that you had some business with me. I suppose you're looking up orders for fruit trees?"

The stranger smiled. "I'm a store clerk by profession. Out of a job at present. Name's T. Graham Watkins. Now you know me."

He turned to Miss Oliver with a bow, but she made no comment, and he glanced toward the boys.

"We've got to have a talk," he added, addressing Mr. Oliver. "I'm not sure you'd want these young men or your sister to hear."

"You can tell it here," said Mr. Oliver dryly. "I can make a guess at your business, and if I'm right I've no objections to the others staying where they are."

"Then it's just this. The folks I represent aren't pleased with you. They've a notion that you've been bucking against them for the last few months and trying to find out things they'd rather keep dark."

"I presume you're referring to the dope runners. Why didn't they come themselves?"

"That's easily answered," said Mr. Watkins. "I understand you haven't seen one of them yet, and they don't want to give you an opportunity of doing so."

Harry grinned at Frank across the table unnoticed by the speaker.

"In my case it doesn't matter," the latter added. "I've merely called to give you a message."

"Aren't you rather hanging fire with it?" Mr. Oliver asked.

"I feel kind of diffident. I don't want to say anything that might alarm your sister."

Miss Oliver smiled. "You needn't hesitate. My brother generally takes me into his confidence, and I don't think either of us is very easily startled."

"Won't you send the boys away, anyhow?"

"No," said Mr. Oliver quietly, "I think I mentioned that I'd rather let them stay."

"Well," said the other, "this is the position. The gentlemen you mentioned can land their stuff near here and get it away through the bush easily; that is, if you'll lie by and take no hand against them. There are other routes, but they're longer and more difficult, and my friends would rather stick to this one if it's possible. The question is how can they make it worth your while to shut your eyes and leave them alone?"

Harry suddenly straightened himself and Frank noticed the quick flush of anger in his face, but Miss Oliver was smiling and the rancher's voice was as tranquil as usual.

"The answer's very simple," he said. "It can't be done."

Mr. Watkins appeared astonished.

"I want you to consider your position," he repeated.

"I may tell you that I considered it carefully some months ago, but there's a point I'd like to mention. Has it struck you that I might promise to fall in with your friends' views and all the same give them away?"

"It was talked about," Mr. Watkins answered. "We decided it wouldn't be in keeping with what we knew about your character, and you'd certainly be sorry you had done it afterward."

"Now we're coming to the second and more important half of the message," said Mr. Oliver.

"You're right," was the answer. "I'm to understand that when you say you won't meet my friends' views it's your last word?"

"Yes," said Mr. Oliver firmly.

"Then my message is a plain one. Let up, or look out. I want you to fix your attention on the last part of it. You have quite a nice place here, a high-class barn and homestead, and a good hay crop, and there's nobody living within some miles of you except Webster."

"Precisely!" said Mr. Oliver. "They cost me a good deal of very hard work and I shall try to keep them. Now I suppose you've said your piece?"

Mr. Watkins raised his hand as if to beg his forbearance.

"You've heard it all. I only want to add that I'm quite willing to start right now for Carthew if you wish it."

Mr. Oliver laughed naturally and easily.

"No," he said, "you're my guest for the night. After this we'll change the subject and talk about something else." He looked around. "Harry, will you bring the cigar box out?"

Mr. Watkins did not appear to be a brilliant conversationalist, but he discussed politics and railroad extension with his host, and Frank found himself wondering at and admiring the rancher's attitude. He had shown no sign of anger and had never failed in courtesy. Threats had apparently no effect on him, and he had received them with a quiet amusement which appealed in particular to the boy's fancy. It seemed ever so much finer than blustering indignation, but he thought that there would be a striking change in Mr. Oliver's manner if he were ever driven to action.

Mr. Watkins took his departure after breakfast next morning, after which Mr. Oliver wrote two letters before he called the boys.

"I want you to take the sloop and go up to the settlement," he said. "You will mail this letter there. It's to Barclay, though it isn't directly addressed to him."

Harry looked thoughtful.

"Of course," he said hesitatingly, "I'll do that if you wish it, but Porteous is a mean white, isn't he? Mightn't he open the thing?"

"It's possible," Mr. Oliver answered with a smile. "As it happens, I've no great objections to his reading it, and I'm mailing it with him as an experiment. Don't put it into the box, but hand it to him. When you have done that sail back along the beach and then head right across to Bannington's, where you'll mail this other letter. As you can't be back to-night, you had better take some provisions with you. Start as soon as you can."

The boys were off in half an hour, for the rain had stopped and there was a clear sky and a moderate breeze. As they sailed out of the cove Harry from his place at the helm glanced at his companion with a chuckle.

"When you come to understand him, dad's unique," he said. "Porteous will open that letter. He's mean enough for anything, and it's been my opinion all along that he's in with the gang."

"But won't it give your father's plans away if he reads it?"

"Not much!" said Harry. "Haven't you got hold yet? The letter's about hunting, and there's most likely an order in it for Winchester shells or something else that will put Porteous off the track. He's probably not an expert at opening envelopes, and it won't take Barclay long to tell whether anybody has been tampering with the letter. The other one will go through without being interfered with. They're white at Bannington's."

"That won't get over much of the difficulty, after all," Frank objected. "Won't your father's answer bring Watkins's friends down upon the ranch?"

"It's possible," said Harry. "I've a notion that when they come dad will be ready for them, and I fancy Barclay's nearly through with his trailing."

"You expect he'll make a new move then?"

Harry laughed. "Sure!" he said. "That little, fat man will get everything fixed up without making the least fuss. Then he'll bring his hand down once for all and smash the whole dope-running gang. I don't mind allowing that I was quite wrong about him at the beginning."

They said nothing more upon the subject, and they safely reached the cove next day after a long, cold sail.

CHAPTER XXIII
MR. OLIVER OUTWITS HIS WATCHERS

A day or two after they had got back to the ranch Mr. Oliver asked the boys if they would like another trip, and as both of them preferred it to grubbing stumps they paddled off to the canoe with him the same evening. A fresh breeze sprang up as the sun went down, and they had a fast and rather wet sail. Daylight was breaking across the scattered pines when the party left the sloop and walked up a trail within sight of a little lonely settlement.

As they approached it a harsh clanking and the tolling of a bell rose from behind the trees, and they had to wait while a locomotive and a string of freight cars jolted across the trail into a neighboring side track. When the train had passed Mr. Oliver and his companions crossed the rails and entered a desolate flag station, which consisted of a roughly boarded, iron-roofed shack and a big water tank. In front of it was an open space strewn with fir stumps, and beyond the latter three or four frame houses rose among the trees. The door of the shack was shut, and while they stood outside it the sound of an approaching train grew steadily louder and a jet of steam blew noisily from the valve of the locomotive waiting in the side track.

"A Seattle train," said Mr. Oliver. "They don't seem to be flagging her and she probably won't stop."

Frank stood looking about him with a curious stirring of his heart. There was a gaudy poster pasted up on the shack announcing cheap tickets to Seattle, with a line or two about a circus and some attraction at an opera house. In the meanwhile the scream of a whistle came ringing across the shadowy trees and the boy was troubled by the familiar sights and sounds. The wet rails, the freight cars, and the brilliant poster reminded him of the cities he had turned his back upon some time ago.

Then, though the daylight was rapidly growing clearer, a big blazing lamp broke out from among the firs with a cloud of steam streaming behind it, and a locomotive and a row of clanging cars swept through the depot. The lights from the windows flashed into Frank's face, flickered upon the shack and rows of stumps, and grew dim again, after which the din receded and came throbbing back fainter and fainter. As he listened to it, a sudden fierce longing seized the boy. He wanted to hear the clamor of the cities again, to see the big stores and the hurrying crowds. Almost a year had elapsed since he had even seen a train, and a journey of two or three hours would take him back to the stir and bustle of civilization away from the constant monotonous toil with ax and saw in the lonely bush.

He wondered what his people were doing in Boston. In the winter season there were festivities and gayety there, and he had once enjoyed them with his old companions who had most likely forgotten him. Some had gone into business, two were at Harvard, and another had entered the army; but he stood, dressed in miry long boots and old well-mended garments still damp with salt water, in a little desolate depot in the wilderness. He fancied that he was justified in feeling rather sorry for himself.

Then with an effort he drove these thoughts away. After all, his place was not in the cities. He had no money and there was nobody to give him a fair start in life, while he admitted that it was very doubtful that he had any talent for business. He might, perhaps, become a clerk or something of the kind, but it once more occurred to him that he was better off in the bush. Indeed, though he scarcely realized this, the bush had already made a striking change in him, and it is possible that his eastern friends would have had trouble in recognizing him as the pale lad they had sent away to Minneapolis. His face was bronzed and resolute, he was taller, tougher, and broader around the chest, and he could now toil all day at a task which would once have broken him down in a couple of hours. Then he started as he noticed that Mr. Oliver was looking at him with a smile.

"You seem to be thinking rather hard," the rancher remarked.

"I was," Frank admitted hesitatingly. "It was the train that put the ideas into my mind."

"I fancied it might be something of that description," said Mr. Oliver. "She'd soon have taken you up to Seattle, and nowadays it's a very short run to Chicago, where you could get on to one of the Atlantic flyers. I suppose you feel that you'd like to make the journey?"

"I did – for a minute or two," Frank confessed with an embarrassed smile. "Then, of course, I realized that it was impossible."



скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26