The Greater Power/Chapter 8


CHAPTER VIII
BY COMBAT


NASMYTH'S partner condescended, as she said, to give him another show, but he escaped from that dance with only a few abrasions, and, though he failed to obtain another with Laura, he contrived to enjoy himself. All his Bush friends were not primitive. Some of them had once played their parts in much more brilliant functions. They had cultivated tastes, and he had learned to recognize the strong points of those who had not. After all, kindly hearts count for much, and it was not unnatural that, like other exiles who have plodded up and down that rugged land, he should think highly of the hard-handed men and patient women who willingly offer a night's shelter and a share of their dried apples, salt pork, and grindstone bread to the penniless wanderer.

What was more to the purpose, a number of the guests at the dance had swung the axe by his side, and fought the river with him when the valley was filled with the roar of water.

They had done their work gallantly, when it seemed out of the question that they would ever receive the money he had promised them, from sheer pride in their manhood, and to keep their word, and now they danced as determinedly.

There are no cramping conventions and very few shams—and the shams in those forests, it must be confessed, are as a rule imported ones. In fact, there was that evening, among all those in the pulp-mill, only one man who seemed to disassociate himself from the general good-will. That man was Waynefleet. He wore his old velvet jacket as a cloak of superciliousness—or, at least, that was how it seemed to the Bush-ranchers, who recognized and resented an effete pride in the squeak of his very ancient lacquered shoes. It is possible that he did not mean to make himself in any way offensive, and merely desired to indicate that he was graciously willing to patronize their bucolic festivities. There would have been something almost pathetic in his carefully preserved dignity had it not been so obtrusively out of place; and when they stood watching him for a moment or two, Gordon expressed Nasmyth's thoughts.

"How a man of that kind ever came to be Laura Waynefleet's father is more than I can figure out!" he said. "It's a question that worries me every time I look at him. Guess she owes everything to her mother; and Mrs. Waynefleet must have been a mighty patient woman."

Nasmyth smiled, but Gordon went on reflectively: "You folks show your sense when you dump your freaks into this country," he said. "It never seems to strike you that it's a little rough on us. What's the matter with men like Waynefleet is that you can't teach them sense. I'd have told him what I thought of him once or twice when I saw the girl doing his work up at the ranch if I'd figured it would have made any impression."

"I expect it would have been useless," remarked Nasmyth. "After all, I'm not sure that it's exactly your business."

Gordon watched Laura Waynefleet as she swung through a waltz on the arm of a sinewy rancher, and his eyes softened curiously.

"Only on the girl's account," he admitted. "I'm sorry for her. Still, the blamed old image isn't actively unkind."

Then he saw the sudden contraction of Nasmyth's face, and turned toward him. "Now," he said, "I want you to understand this thing. If it would be any comfort to her, I'd let Miss Waynefleet wipe her boots on me, and in one way that's about all I'm fit for. I know enough to realize that she'd never waste a moment thinking of a man like me, even if I hadn't in another way done for myself already."

"Still," Nasmyth replied quietly, "some women can forgive a good deal."

Gordon's face hardened, and he seemed to straighten himself. "Well, there are men—any way, in this country—who have too much grit in them to go crawling, broken, to any woman's feet, and to expect her to pick them up and mend them. Now you have heard me, and I guess you understand."

Nasmyth merely made a little gesture of sympathy. After all, he had the average Englishman's reticence, and the free speech of that country still jarred upon him now and then. He knew what Gordon had meant to impress on him, and he was touched by generosity of the motive, but for all that he felt relieved when Gordon abruptly moved away. He danced another dance, and then sauntered towards the dynamo room, where the manager had set up a keg or two of heady Ontario cider. Several men were refreshing themselves there, but they did not see him when he approached the door.

"The only thing that's out of tone about this show is Waynefleet," said one of them who had once worked for the rancher. "What do we want that blamed old dead-beat round here for, when he can't speak to anyone but the Crown land-agent and the mill manager?"

One of the others laughed, but Nasmyth saw venomous hatred in the big axeman's face. It was, however, not his business, and Waynefleet was a man for whom he had no great liking. He was about to turn away when the chopper went on again.

"Waynefleet's a blamed old thief, as everybody knows," he said. "Him being what he is, I guess you couldn't blame his daughter——"

Nasmyth, whom they had not noticed yet, could not quite hear what followed; but when somebody flung a sharp, incredulous question at the speaker, he stood fast in the doorway, with one hand clenched.

"Well," said the man, with a suggestive grin, "what I mean's quite plain. Is there any other girl, round this settlement who'd make up to that dam-builder as she's doing, and slip quietly into his shanty alone?"

Nasmyth never learned what grievance against Waynefleet or his daughter had prompted this virulence, nor did it appear to matter. There was just sufficient foundation for the man's insinuation to render it perilous if it was once permitted to pass unchallenged, and Nasmyth realized that any attempt to handle the affair delicately was not likely to be successful. He was afterwards greatly astonished that he could think clearly and impose a certain command upon himself; but he understood exactly what it was most advisable for him to do, and he set about it with a curious cold quietness which served his purpose well.

There was a gasp of astonishment from one of the group as he stepped forward into the light and looked with steady eyes at the man who had spoken.

"Jake," he said, "you are a d—— liar."

It was what the others had expected, and they rose and stood back a little from the pair, watching expectantly; for they recognized that the affair was serious, and, though Nasmyth had their sympathy, an impartial attitude was the correct one now. Jake was tall and lean and muscular; but perhaps the dam-builder's quietness disconcerted him, or his bitterness had only extended to the rancher.

"Now," Jake growled, "you light out of this. I don't know that I've anything against—you."

Nasmyth had his back to the door, and he did not see the grizzled Mattawa, who was supposed to be one of the strongest choppers about the settlement, standing a little behind him, and watching him and Jake attentively. Still, one of the others did, and made a sign to Mattawa that any support he might feel disposed to offer his employer would not be tolerated in the meanwhile. Nasmyth, however, realized that there was only one course open to him, and he drew back one hand as he met the uneasy eyes of the man in front of him.

"You are going to back down on what you said?" he asked, with incisive quietness.

"Not a d—— word," the other man assured him.

"Then," said Nasmyth, "you must take the consequences."

He swung forward on his left foot, and there was a thud as his scarred knuckles landed heavily in the middle of the detractor's face. He struck with an unexpected swiftness and all the force that was in him, for he had learned that the rules of the trial by combat are by no means so hard and fast in British Columbia as they are in England. As a matter of fact, it is not very frequently resorted to there; but when men do fight, their one object is to disable their opponents as soon as possible and by any means available.

Jake reeled backwards a pace or two, and the spectators said afterwards there was no reason why Nasmyth should have permitted him to recover himself, as he did. Two axes which the carpenters had been using stood against the wall, and Jake caught up the nearest of them. He swung the gleaming blade high, while the blood trickled from his cut lips and the swollen veins rose on his forehead. This, however, was going further than the others considered admissible, and there was a protesting 83 shout, while one sturdy fellow cautiously slid along the wall to get in behind the man who had the axe.

Still, for a second or two, which might have proved fatal to him, Nasmyth had only his own resources to depend upon, and he did the one thing that was possible. The Canadian axe-haft is long, and he sprang straight in at the man. As he did so, the big blade came down, and flashed by a hand's breadth behind his shoulders. He felt a burning pain on the outside of his thigh, but that did not seem to matter, and he was clutching at his opponent's throat when he was bodily flung aside. Then, as he fell against the log wall, he had a momentary glimpse of Jake bent backwards in Mattawa's arms. There was a brief floundering scuffle as the two men reeled towards the black opening in the wall, and after that a splash in the darkness outside, and Mattawa stepped back into the room alone.

"The d—— hog is in the flume," he said.

That did not appear to trouble any of the others. The sluice was not deep, and, though it was certainly running hard, it was scarcely likely that a stalwart Bushman would suffer greatly from being washed along it.

"Guess it will cool him off," said one of them. "If it doesn't, and he comes back to make a fuss, we'll heave him in again."

Then they turned and looked at Nasmyth, who sat down somewhat limply on a cider keg. The blood, which was running down his leg, made a little pool at his feet. Mattawa, who crossed over to him, asked for a knife, and when a man produced one, he slit Nasmyth's trousers up to the hip. Then he nodded.

"Boys," he said, "one of you will slip out kind of quiet and bring Mr. Gordon along. Two more of you will stand in the door there and not let anybody in."

They obeyed him, and Mattawa looked down at Nasmyth again.

"I guess the thing's not serious," he commented.

"Well," said Nasmyth ruefully, "in one way, I think it is. You see, store clothes are dear, and this is the only pair of trousers I've got."

There was a little laugh from the others, and he knew he had done wisely, when they clumsily expressed their satisfaction at his escape. He had, at least, discredited Jake, and it was evident that if the man made any more assertions of a similar nature, which was very unlikely, no one would listen to them.

In the meanwhile, nobody else seemed to be aware that anything unusual was going on. All had happened in a minute or two, and the clanging of the fiddle and the patter of the dancers' feet had drowned any sound that rose from the dynamo-room. Nasmyth had not long to wait before Gordon stepped in and quietly set about his surgical work, after someone had dipped up a little water from the sluice.

"Yes," said Gordon, "it's quite a nice clean slice, and I guess it's not going to trouble you much, though you won't walk very far for a week or two. As soon as we can get you to the dam, I'll put a proper dressing on." Then he looked up sharply. "In the meanwhile, I don't quite see how you cut yourself like that."

"As a matter of fact, I didn't," said Nasmyth, with evident reluctance. "I suppose you will have to be told." He looked round at the others. "Boys, I particularly don't want this thing to go any further."

He related what had happened, and one of the men stood up. "I wouldn't worry over that," he replied. "We're not going to talk, and if Jake does, one of us will pound a little sense into him. Now I'll slip out and get Highton's team."

After that they gave Nasmyth some cider, and a few minutes later he limped out through the opening in the wall and across the plank they laid above the sluice to the waiting waggon. It was not far to the dam, and before very long Gordon was back again at the mill. It naturally happened, though he was anxious to avoid her, that Laura Waynefleet was the first person who accosted him.

"Have you seen Mr. Nasmyth?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," said Gordon. "I saw him a little while ago. You are wanting him?"

Laura laughed. "I believed I promised him another dance. It's a little curious he hasn't come for it."

"In one way it's deplorably bad taste."

The girl was quick to notice that his gaze was not quite frank, and he winced when for a moment she laid her hand upon his arm, for he saw the veiled anxiety in her eyes.

"Something has been going on," she said. "You don't want to tell me where Mr. Nasmyth is."

"He has just gone back to the dam. He got hurt—a trifling cut—nothing more than that. Still, I insisted on tying it up."

"Ah," cried Laura sharply, "you evidently don't wish me to know how he got it!"

"It is just what I don't mean to do. Any way, it's not worth while troubling about. Nasmyth's injury isn't in the least serious."

"It doesn't seem to strike you that I could ask him myself."

Gordon would have liked to warn her to keep away from the dam, but he did not see how it could be done unless he offered some reason, and that was a thing he shrank from.

"Oh, yes," he said, "you certainly could." Then he glanced down at her hands. "Those are unusually pretty gloves you have on."

His answer was, as it happened, almost as injudicious as he could have rendered it, since it left the girl determined to sift the matter thoroughly. She, however, only smiled just then.

"I think there isn't a nicer pair of gloves in Canada than these," she said.

Gordon took himself away, wondering what she could have meant by that; and Laura waited until next day, when, although there was, as usual, a good deal to be done about the ranch, she went down to find out what was the matter with Nasmyth.

The injured man was sitting in his shanty, with his foot upon a chair, but he rose when she came in, and stood leaning rather hard upon the table.

"It is very kind of you to come," he said, taking her hand. He made shift to limp to the door, whence he called for Mattawa.

"Bring those two chairs out, Tom, and put them in the sun," he said.

The old axeman shook his head severely. "You sit right down again. What in the name of wonder are you on your legs for, any way?" he asked. Then he saw Laura, and made a little gesture of resignation. "Well, I guess it will have to be done."

The sudden change in his attitude was naturally not lost upon the girl, but she kept her astonishment to herself, and waited until Mattawa had made Nasmyth as comfortable as possible. Then she turned to him.

"I am very sorry you are hurt," she said. "I understand it was an axe cut. How did it happen?"

Nasmyth appeared to reflect. "Well," he answered, "I suppose I was a little careless—in fact, I must have been. You see, some of the building gang had left their axes in the dynamo-room."

"That," said Laura dryly, "certainly accounts for the axe being there. I'm not sure it goes very much further."

"It really wasn't very much of a cut." Nasmyth's desire to escape from the topic was a trifle too plain, as he added, "Isn't it nice out here?"

It occurred to Laura that it was uncomfortably cold, for there was a nip of frost in the air, though the sun hung coppery red above the sombre pines.

"I almost fancied you were not overjoyed to see me," she remarked.

Nasmyth appeared momentarily embarrassed, but his expression suddenly changed, and Laura felt a faint thrill when he laid his hand upon her arm.

"That," he said, "is a fancy you must never entertain again."

In one respect Laura was fully satisfied, and, though there was still a great deal upon which she meant to be enlightened, she talked about other matters for almost half an hour, and then rose with a little shiver.

"I must get back to the settlement, where I have left the team," she said, and glanced down at him for a moment with solicitude in her eyes. "You will be very careful."

Nasmyth let her go, but he did not know that she signed to Mattawa, who was then busy hewing out a big redwood log. The axeman strolled after her into the Bush, and then stopped to look hard at her as he uttered an inquiring, "Well?"

"Tom," said the girl, "can't you understand that it would be very much wiser if somebody told me exactly how Mr. Nasmyth got hurt?"

The axeman nodded. "Yes," he admitted, with a wink, "that's just how it strikes me, and I'm going to. The boss has no more arms and legs than he's a use for anyway."

Laura gazed at him in bewilderment, but the man's expression was perfectly grave. "Now," he added, "I guess one can talk straight sense to you, and the fact is I can't have you coming round here again. Just listen 88 about two minutes, and I'll try to make the thing clear to you."

He did so with a certain graphic force that she had not expected from him, and the colour crept into her cheeks. Then, to Mattawa's astonishment, she smiled.

"Thank you," she said simply. "But the other man?"

"Well," replied Mattawa, "if he goes round talking, somebody will 'most pound the life out of him."

Then he swung round abruptly, for he was shrewd, and had his primitive notions of delicacy; and Laura went on through the stillness of the Bush, with a curious softness in her eyes. Mattawa had been terse, and, in some respects, his observations had not been tactful, but nobody could have impressed her more in Nasmyth's favour. Indeed, at the moment, she scarcely remembered how the aspersions Jake had made might affect herself. As it happened, she met Gordon near the settlement, and he stopped a moment. He had come upon her suddenly, and had looked at her with a suggestive steadiness, but she smiled.

"Yes," she said, "I have been to the dam. After the way in which you made it evident that you didn't want me to go there, it was, perhaps, no more than you could have expected."

"Ah!" rejoined Gordon, with a look of anxiety, "you probably got hold of Mattawa. Well, after all, I guess he has done the wise thing." Then after a pause he observed, "There is very little the matter with your courage."

"I fancy," observed Laura half wistfully, "that is, in several respects, fortunate."

Then she went on again, and though Gordon felt exceedingly compassionate, he frowned and closed one hand.

"It's a sure thing I'll have to tell Waynefleet what kind of a man he is," he said.