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THE SILVER LAKE PANIC

BY RAYMOND S. SPEARS
AUTHOR OF "A PEARL OF PRICE," ETC.

ILLUSTRATED BY J. N. MARCHAND

JOE CORTE, trapper, woodsman and hunter, had always regarded the Silver Lake country as his own neck of the woods. His first winter trapping was from a little camp on Silver Popple Lake when he was seventeen years of age; and from that time, winter and summer, he had hunted, fished, and trapped around the chain of lakes, and over the neighboring range of mountains, till he believed he had a squatter claim on them.

For more than twenty years he had taken hunting-parties and fishing-parties to those woods, drawing pay as guide and provider; and when the hunting season closed, he would continue to follow the trails and blazed lines, tending traps. The virgin mountain forest held many marten, and along the streams were mink and otter. Occasionally he killed a bear, and he knew the fishers by the tracks they made in the snow.

Then the county weekly newspaper, for which Corte subscribed, carried for four consecutive weeks a notice announcing that William A. Treefall warned all persons against trespassing on Township 92 and the north half of Township 72, since these lands were reserved for forest conservation and the propagation of fish and game. Corte read the advertisement, and a cold streak traced goose pimples along his back-bone. All his chain of lakes and a large part of his range of mountains were embraced in the forty thousand acres of the area named.

"That's just a bluff!" Corte said to himself, after a while. "A man can't stop everybody hunting like that! Deer b'longs to everybody, and that's where I gets my living—trapping and guiding. The law don't allow a man to take my living away that way!"

Corte was sure that he was right. At the opening of the lake fishing, as soon as the ice was out, he went to Silver Oak Lake to occupy his little camp there and catch a good lake trout or two. He noticed a new tin trespass sign nailed to a tree beside the trail; and at the lake he found his little camp burned to the ground. The embers were still smoking, and facing the ruins were two new trespass signs.

"That means me, I guess," Corte said to himself in a dazed sort of way. "Only one of them preserve-makers would burn a man's camp, with his blankets and stove and cooking things, that way!"

A new sense of caution suddenly born in his breast, Corte slipped away from the ruins of the camp and sat down on a log in a clump of hemlock beside the lake. Here he could stare across the forbidden waters unseen. He sat there all the afternoon, turning over in his mind the condition that faced him.

He was not a man to be hasty. He could think quickly enough to shoot a deer the third jump it made. He could plan for weeks a campaign against some sly old otter, setting traps in the fall to catch it in the spring. Once he worked methodically all summer, making ready to shoot a huge bear whose trail he found in the last snow.

He regarded Treefall, the great Wall Street speculator, as an animal who was making trouble, and who must be taught his place. Corte's first thought was his rifle, A rifle is a sure means of opening a private preserve, but Corte did not want to kill anybody—anyhow, not yet.

The woodsman retreated up the mountainside to a place where he could pass the night under a leaning rock. Toward dusk he heard some one chopping down at the foot of the lake. He decided that it was the men who were posting signs and burning camps. The fall of the tree resounded through the woods.

By climbing a rock ledge and looking down the lake, Corte could see the new white tent pitched at the foot of the lake. The tent was on a rocky point, and there, doubtless, the preserve-maker would build a camp—a three-story house lighted by electricity and costing at least two barrels of money.

Corte gritted his teeth at the thought. If he had brought a rifle instead of fishing-tackle, there might have been a tragedy, but Corte was unprepared—unarmed. He slept little that night.

The following day he went to Silver Maple Lake and caught a basketful of trout. He was just unjointing his rod when two men came out of the spring-damp woods behind him. He felt rather than heard them, and turned, surprised.

"Well, here's a man'll do for the first example!" one of the two said.

Facing him, Corte recognized the man who had made a private preserve of the Silver Lakes—a tall, slender man, with broad shoulders and a dry, brownish yellow face, somewhat wrinkled. Treefall's lips turned down at the corners in anything but drollery, and he was of the race of chisel-chins.

Corte said nothing, looking the man in the eye, and continuing to pack his rod. When it was in the canvas case, he heaved his little pack basket to his shoulders, slipped his arms through the straps, and stepped sharply over the back of the rock from which he had been fishing toward the woods, and past the two men who had caught him.

"Hold on there!" Treefall said, "We want you!"

"No, you don't!" Corte answered. "It's somebody else you want!"

Something in the tone, the gesture, and the look of the woodsman made the preserve-maker pause; and a minute later Corte was swinging with rapid steps through the woods out of his enemies' sight.


II

Corte went home, and two days later he was arrested on a warrant charging trespass. He was taken to the county seat, and there confronted a hawk-faced justice of the peace who "let him off easy," as the newspaper which printed the preserve's advertisement said. It was ten dollars and costs, or fifteen days in jail. Corte paid. He paid the price of a good rifle to learn the trespass law.

Treefall, as a witness, was in court, and he saw the money handed over. He started to smile, but the glance Corte gave him blistered the smile. The unshaven woodsman, in two-dollar trousers and a forty-five-cent shirt, had the look of the wolf in his eyes—the look of a frightened but unwhipped wolf.

From that day, Corte was under surveillance of a kind. Many ears listened for him to talk, but he made no comment on his fine. He seemed to be ashamed, in a way. He avoided men with whom he had been friendly. Toward others he maintained an impenetrable reserve.

He took parties into the woods, but he avoided the Silver Lake country. Sometimes, however, he went alone into the woods, taking fish-rod and rifle. An attempt was made to get evidence proving that he shot at one of the Silver Lake preserve-watchers, but nothing came of this, not even an arrest.

Corte's view-point changed during the summer months. If the Wall Street man had at first seemed an intruder, he had deftly compelled the woodsman to feel that he himself was the intruder. Fight as he might against this thought, Corte was unable to overcome it. Never before had he dreamed of feeling out of place in the deep woods; now he did feel so.

His thought turned to the world of which Treefall was a part—to the great city, to Wall Street, to things of which Corte had never dreamed. There came to his mind the possibility that if Treefall was able to oust him from the woods, where he knew all the trails, then perhaps a woodsman could somehow get back at Treefall in the speculator's own natural environment. It was a curious thought, but it appealed to the woodsman.

Corte had never wasted his money; his only extravagance was good tobacco. Year after year, from an income of about six hundred dollars for furs and five hundred dollars as a guide, he had saved more than half. This money was drawing interest in banks. For the first time, Corte reckoned it up; and he was surprised to find himself with an income, from the interest, of three hundred dollars a year. His little rainy-day nest-egg had become a whole hennery of producers.

He bought a ticket to New York, and walked down Broadway. He found Wall Street by using a compass and a map, and on Wall Street he stopped in front of the huge pile in which Treefall & Co. had their offices. A messenger-boy saw him; and pretty soon a number of people were standing around the woodsman, looking at him with almost as much interest as he had in staring at the towering buildings of the financial district.

A reporter, with a Wall Street "local color" assignment, saw the increasing crowd, and pushed his way to the nucleus of interest. Corte was just the man he was looking for; the reporter was one of the men Corte could use, too. The reporter wanted a story, and Corte wanted to know. So the woodsman was hustled up to a Park Row saloon, and talked out.

"I'm Bill Kelp," Corte told the reporter. "I'm from Beaver River. I guessed I'd come down and see Wall Street, and here I be."

With that for a starter, the reporter stepped to the telephone. It wasn't long before the woodsman met an artist, and the artist and the reporter took him back to Wall Street, and showed him the ways and scenes thereof. What he said the reporter noted, and how he looked the artist recorded in swift sketches. What the newspaper men said, Corte remembered.

It was a great day for all three. When they parted, Corte was loaded with mining prospectuses, Wall Street editions, half a mile of tape, and so many statistical tables, circulars on short-term investments, newsletters, and various "free on requests," that he had to buy a dollar suit-case to carry them all.


III

He took the literature to his little cabin at Woodsport and read it word by word. When he had read it all, he subscribed for two papers, one devoted to the interests of Wall Street and one to exposing Wall Street. He was so much interested in the things he read that his catch of fur fell off one-half that winter; but what he learned was compensating. He knew something about Treefall and Treefall's ways. He also realized the depths of his own ignorance regarding the fundamentals of Wall Street.

In the spring he began all over again. He wrote to the several brokerage houses advertising from Wall Street, and the postmaster at Woodsport preserved a soap-box for Corte's mail.

Then Corte went to New York again. He had guided a Wall Street broker several summers, and he now went to the man's office. It was in a building across the street from the Treefall offices.

When Corte was jerked up to the seventeenth floor, and shoved into a marble hall, he spun around three times, he was so dizzy; but after a time he found his bearings, and Mr. Dougal Croupes was surprised and genuinely delighted to see the woodsman come in grinning.

"Yes," Corte said, "I expected I'd come down and see this here place. I was down last year, but I never thought of you. I kind o' wanted to talk to you. You see, I got a little money I'd like to put away."

It was a thousand dollars to invest, and Corte didn't want any margin buy. He had been reading conservative financial literature to some purpose. He told Croupes to buy ten shares of five-per-cent railroad stock.

His friend was interested. He wanted to know what started Corte to thinking about Wall Street. Corte hesitated for a long time, but finally he told the story—told how Treefall had beaten him out of his hunting-grounds, and how Corte, in turn, wanted to know Treefall's home country.

The broker looked across the street at the Treefall windows, and then at the woodsman. Then he looked back across the street.

"You're out for revenge against Treefall—on Wall Street?" he said, wondering whether he ought to smile or feel sorry.

"Yes, that's the size of it."

"You want to buck him in the market with that thousand of yours?"

"That ain't all—that's just learning money," Corte answered.

"What? What?" the broker exclaimed. "You've got more to fight with—a lot more?"

"Yes," Corte said, hesitating. "I got more—quite a lot more."

"Whew!" Croupes half whispered, and, then facing Corte fairly, he said: "What's your game? I'm in, if you've got the goods!"

Corte looked across and down to the sign of Treefall & Co., printed in gilt on many windows.

"There's two ends to it," Corte said; "down here and up there." He nodded toward the North Woods. "Treefall's big in the market, ain't he? He's mighty important, ain't he?"

Croupes nodded his head.

"How'd he buy his stocks? He's got a raft of 'em, ain't he?"

"Yes, millions."

"On margin? He's tied up—a lot of it?"

Croupes nodded.

"S'posin' somethin' happened—s'posin' he dropped dead, or somethin'?"

"Gad! You wouldn't murder him!"

Corte shook his head.

"Why—why—" The broker was cautious. "If he—he should drop out, suddenly, there'd be a smash all right!"

"He's goin' into the woods nex' week," Corte said.

The broker stared at the woodsman. He licked his lips. His eyes narrowed, and hard lines showed deeper in his face.

"I guessed you'd know what I'd orter do, s'posin' I knowed somethin' might happen to Treefall," Corte said in a low voice. "Treefall's robbed me, an' I reckoned—I reckoned I wanted to fix him!"

The broker hesitated. He had seen many things happen on Wall Street, but not just such a piracy as this backwoodsman seemed to suggest. He glanced toward the closed door, and then toward the woodsman, who understood.

"I don't expect he'd git killed," Corte said. "That ain't much good, and—"

"How then? What are you up to anyhow?"

"I jes' wanted to see the market drap, then jump up ag'in—that's all."

"And you?"

"I wish—here's five thousand more—I wish you'd fix it so when the market draps, nex' week, I git some money, and when it comes up ag'in, I'll make some more—when it comes up after she's went down, is the way I mean."

"But what—how—" Croupes began.

The woodsman stood up to go.

"What folks don't know won't hurt 'em any, so I guess I'd better go. Good-by! When you come up, I know where there's some mighty good cold-bed fishin'—rift-fishin's most over with now."

"Er—you say the market drops next week—is that it?"

"I guess so, if old Treefall's as big as they say he is down here. He is, ain't he?"

"Yes, he's loaded up to the muzzle with stocks, but the market's going up for him, all right."

The woodsman, turning his toes in a bit, softly strode away, and the next time Mr. Dougal Croupes heard from him, something was doing.


IV

Corte returned home, and a day later he went to the Silver Lakes, arriving in the Treefall preserve soon after dusk. When he emerged, three days later, he was ready for Mr. Treefall's week-end on the Silver Lake preserve.

Corte knew many things about Treefall. His most valuable information was the fact that Treefall enjoyed long walks alone over the trails of his preserve. The trail that led toward the highest knob in the Silver Lake range was a favorite, but Corte knew that the man had not as yet climbed the peak. He knew, moreover, that two of the preserve's guides had built a little lean-to camp beside the highest spring of water on the mountain, and that it was too small a camp to be meant for more than one man. The only man likely to use it was Treefall.

In fact, one of the guides told Corte about the preserve-owner's lone journeys through the woods, and said that this camp was to be occupied by Treefall on his next trip into the mountains.

Treefall left the market in a satisfactory condition on Friday, the 23d. Prices were steady, and all that one had to do was to get the public interested and lift the market out of its doldrums by showing profits on the bull side. Treefall was carrying a big line of stocks. Months later, he would sell at higher figures, and take the profits earned by his foresight of bumper crops and a business uprising.

Corte saw Treefall arrive at Woodsport, and head away for the Silver Lake preserve. Corte followed that night, and when Treefall started for the little camp on the mountain, Corte was hastening through the woods toward the border of the great preserve. Nightfall found the two men on the same mountain—one sitting facing the western sky, admiring the sunset, and proud of his forest domain; the other lurking in the low spruces and watching the lonely money-maker.

In the last twilight, Treefall drew a long breath and turned down to his little camp on the mountainside. He lighted a fire against a big boulder in front of the lean-to, and piled on it some green yellow birch cut by his guides. Then he sat on his pneumatic mattress sleeping-bag, staring into the bright flames.

Corte could watch his face and note its changing expressions. Dreamy love of the wild woods and sharp antagonism with greedy men seemed to alternate in the features of the great speculator. Once or twice he straightened up uneasily and glanced into the surrounding gloom as if he felt the woodsman's stare; but his fire-dimmed eyes discovered nothing.

Long after dark Treefall stretched out on his sleeping-bag, and at last crawled into it. He drew the covering up over him, and pulled the head-flap down over his shoulders, so that he was only a bundle in the fading firelight. He was asleep when Corte crept up to the camp with a long rope coiled over his shoulder.

Corte was grinning. His chance in life was at hand. He crept in beside Treefall, and over the sleeping-bag he slipped a noose, which he hauled taut with a mighty yank. Then, quickly, he threw half a dozen half-hitches around the wriggling figure, and tied it fast.

"Jest you keep still!" Corte said, as Treefall tried to cry out for help. "If you don't, I'll drap you down the ledge!"

The woodsman shoved his hand in under Treefall's air pillow and drew out the automatic revolver which the bound arms of his prisoner could not reach. Then Corte took his deer-pack straps, and fastened them to the human bundle. Many a hundred-and-seventy-pound buck had been carried in those straps, and a hundred-and-thirty-pound man was no impossible load for the broad back and stout limbs of a mountain guide.

Corte went over the stone top of the mountain, where his moccasins left no mark on the rocks, and down the far side of the ridge, careful to feel his way down the grade, lighting his footsteps with a jack-lantern. When he stopped to rest, he talked soothingly to the Wall Street man.

"You're an awful load!" Corte said. "You're a bigger load on my back than you are on all them Wall Street fellers, I guess. What you s'pose'll happen down there when they hears you is turned up missing? And what you s'pose'll become of this here private preserve of yourn? I guess you'll feel you's cotched cold, layin' out in this here mountain!"

Sometimes Treefall started to shout, but Corte struck his fist through the sleeping-bag cover, and the muffled yells subsided into grunts of pain. Then the woodsman would travel on again. Having reached the foot of the mountain, he began to cross the ridges beyond, taking the easiest routes. Dawn found him still stumbling along, with the owner of the Silver Lake preserve strapped to his back. It was far back in the wilderness, and the beginning of a long rain-storm was at hand.

Luck was with Corte. He tramped on, stopping only to rest, or to feed his captive or himself on pieces of jerked venison.

"You'd better eat some," he told the man, poking pieces into the sleeping-bag. "It's nice private preserve jerk, that is!"

Far up a narrow, rock-sided ravine, Corte came to a little shelter which he had built there. In front of this he dropped his burden on the ground, and sat down to rest.

"About to-morrow," Corte said, "folks'll begin to wonder where you are. Next day, they'll begin to look. You'll make a darned interestin' mystery, disappearin' this way!"

He untied the sleeping-bag, and ordered Treefall to hold out both hands. This done, he wound a cross-haul log-chain around the speculator's slender wrists, and locked them fast with a small snap lock.

"Now you can come out," Corte said; "but leave my face alone."

Wriggling and twisting, Treefall made his way out of the sleeping-bag. He was sore from head to foot, and his face war5 pale with the utmost wrath he had ever felt.

"You'll pay for this, let me tell you—you'll go up for twenty years for this!" he exclaimed to the masked figure before him. "You'll—"

"Hold on!" Corte exclaimed. "You're paying me for spoilin' these here woods with trespass signs. You ain't all settled yet, either, understand that!"

The menace of the disguised woodsman reached the heart of the preserve-owner. The ugly little automatic pistol in the woodsman's hands was pointed close to him. Treefall glanced down the narrow ravine, whose sides seemed to rise into an overhanging wilderness of evergreen trees. The little hollow was a mere split in the eternal granite, and it looked as if at any moment the overarching forest and rock might give way and fill up the crack.

Treefall had never been there before, and he knew that it was the inmost of the wilderness places. He sat down, overcome with the unhappy sense of weakness that strong men feel when they find themselves utterly in the power of another.

"You can yell, if you want to," Corte said. "Listen!"

Corte called, and the sound was banked in the ravine. If it went any distance, it was straight up into the tiny patch of sky high overhead, in which the stars were faintly visible, as from the bottom of a deep well.

"I got you, old man! Now you stay here. There's some grub, such as it is, and you won't starve. Of course, if I fall an' break my neck gettin' out of this, you'll have lots of time to repent of your sins before you die—thinking how you stole other folks' good times huntin' an' fishin' in the Silver Lakes. Good-by!"

He slipped away and silently vanished in the wet gloom of the forest depths. The other end of the cross-haul chain was locked around a birch-tree just outside the shelter. It gave Treefall a thirty-foot radius of action, and there was a trickling spring of water, several pounds of jerked venison, two or three pound cakes of maple sugar, and a peck of dried corn. He wouldn't starve to death; on the other hand, he wouldn't be likely to overeat. A Wall Street bull was never more securely corralled than William A. Treefall.

Joe Corte, pausing to glance back at the little shack, which he had used to trap from, felt sure that it was a safe place. Satisfied, he tucked his mask under a log, where it would be handy when he returned. He climbed the mountainside, swung around its steep shoulders, and finally came down into the open hardwood farthest from the Silver Lake preserve. He waded down two or three brooks, as a precaution, and then swung around into his home country. At midnight he was in his cabin. He stewed a broth of swamp ash-bark whittlings.

At ten o'clock the following morning, when Superintendent Hopple, of the Silver Lake private preserve, came storming into his cabin, to turn out men to find the missing Wall Street man, Corte was doubled up on his bed, white as a sheet, suffering from cramps and nausea.

"I can't help you," Corte groaned. "I've been sick three days here!"

"Heavens, man! You're the only one knows all that country—it'll be worth a heap of money to—"

"I don't want no money," Corte answered; "but when a man's lost—I can't stand that!"

Corte staggered to his feet, took a drink of blackberry brandy, and limped away after the superintendent to the rig. At the post-office, however, he collapsed.

"I can't go!" he cried. "I'm too weak. You say he was alone on the mountain? Like as not he walked in his sleep. Circle around the mountain—they's a lot of cracks and holes into it, and maybe he's in one of them."

Away went half a hundred men to the sacred precincts of the Silver Lake private preserve. They climbed in a long line, side by side, to the top of the mountain, and came down the sides of it, yelling as only woodsmen can yell.


V

A whisper reached Wall Street that morning that all was not well with William A. Treefall, king of the bull herd. A shiver ran through the market, and prices began to flutter. The noon edition of the Whoop announced in large capitals:

TREEFALL LOST IN THE WILDERNESS!

Treefall's specialties dropped three points in the next hour.

That night the reporters who arrived at Woodsport, hungering for information, found a broad-shouldered woodsman sitting on the post-office steps.

"My name's Joe Corte," he said to the reporters. "I wouldn't be here—I'd be looking for that feller that's los'—only I was sick."

He told what he had heard, however, and described the anxious superintendent, and the wagon-loads of woodsmen hurrying off to the private preserve. Then he described the Silver Lake mountains, and vividly pictured the loneliness of the forest in which Treefall was lost, and the perils that might confront the missing speculator.

The morning newspapers were not reassuring to Wall Street. Early in the day Mr. Dougal Croupes covered Joe Corte's shorts, and later, when prices rallied, he went short again. It looked as if Treefall was going to be sold out on his margins, for the banks were worrying about their loans.

"I wish that confounded woodsman would put me wise!" Croupes muttered, and then he regretted that he knew as much as he did.

There was no telling what a fool man from the mountains would do. Croupes tried to get Corte on the telephone, but the woodsman was gone.

Next day, when the reporters had reached the scene of the man-hunt, and every newspaper had six or seven columns of reading matter and pictures, Corte came to Wall Street and walked into Croupes's office.

"I reckon," he said, "you'd better buy stock pretty quick now."

"They're going to take Treefall over to-day—going to sell him out—his margin's about done for."

"All right! Jest you buy some stocks for me—all that you can get with the money you've made for me."

Corte slipped away, and went back to the woods. He dropped off the train on the dark side, and once more, moccasined, he ran into the mountains over his own trails, guided by the stars and the lay of the land.

When he came to the edge of the Silver Lake preserve, he could hear the distant shouts of two hundred men who were pounding through the woods, carrying lanterns. From a mountainside, Corte looked down into the valley of search. It was as if fireflies were flickering through the forest.

"Only five miles out the way!" Corte muttered to himself.

He tramped on through the hardwood to the mountain of the ravine. He arrived at his little cabin at dawn. It was very quiet. A shout brought forth no answer.

Surprised, Corte became cautious. Going down to the cabin, he found the chain still fast to the birch-tree. The other end ran to a boulder in front of the cabin. The wrist loop was there, but not the prisoner. Treefall had worked himself loose!

Corte examined the ground, and circled. He found where Treefall had climbed the side of the ravine. He followed the man's tracks by the packed moss and scuffled dirt, but lost them in the woods above the ravine.

"Well, he's having a nice walk in his stocking feet!" Corte said to himself. He wound up the forty pounds of chain and sank it in a hole in the rocks. He ate a stick of jerked venison and a handful of parched corn; then he turned homeward again. When he arrived at the post-office, he found Superintendent Hopple paying off the searchers with yellow-back bills.

"Look what I told you!" Hopple said to Corte. "If you hadn't be'n sick, you'd had some, too."

Corte shook his head.

"You found him, then?"

"Nope. He come out, though, over Spruce Hill country."

"Good! He's all right, then?"

Hopple hesitated, glancing at a reporter, and one of the searchers answered for him:

"He's out, but"—the speaker tapped his forehead—"scared to death, I guess!"

"That so? What's he say?"

"Oh, he's got off a long lingo about somebody catching him and tying him up in his sleeping-bag, and chaining him to a tree, and all that. You know how men do when they're lost and scared in the woods. Golly, though, but he must have had a dream! Said a masked man done it."

Corte laughed.

When he went down to settle up with Croupes the next day, the broker shut two doors behind them.

"Gad," he said, "if Treefall ever gets on to this!"

"This" was a memorandum representing Corte's account with Croupes's firm. The woodsman's savings had been multiplied five times on the market slump and several times more on the rise. In a few days, the broker said, he would receive stock certificates that would mean a comfortable annual income.

"I reckon I don't care about huntin' on the Silver Lake preserve any more," Corte said. "I'll go to Canada and shoot moose!"

Corte started to go.

"Say," the broker almost whispered, "what's that Treefall said about being chained to a tree, eh?"

"That? Oh, he had a bad dream, and walked in his sleep, that's all. That's what I bet on."

"What? You bet on him walking in his sleep? That's nerve!"

"Sure! That's what you got to have, to win on Wall Street!"

 

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.