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HOME > Short Stories > The Timber Treasure > CHAPTER IV BURNED OUT
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 Tom gave a loud hurrah, and whacked Charlie on the shoulder. Nothing could have delighted him more than this reinforcement, just when the air was full of trouble.  
“You’ve come at the right time, Charlie!” he exclaimed. “I needed you. But say!” he added anxiously, “have you got any grub?”
“Got flour, pork, tea,” answered the wild boy. “Beans, sugar too. Sure, we eat heap. Ketch plenty fish, shoot plenty deer, rabbit.”
“Shoot maybe more than rabbit,” said Tom, sitting down on the other side of the fire. “There’s trouble, Charlie. I’m on the warpath.”
Charlie fixed bright black eyes on him with an interested grunt, and Tom endeavored to explain briefly that enemies were trying to dislodge him from his position, which he intended to hold, by force if needful.
“Sure, I help you, Tom,” he agreed. “We fight him if he come. You watch for him—I hunt grub—then we fight. We do firs’ rate.”
To Charlie’s aboriginal mind it perhaps seemed a reduction of life to the natural and simple elements of fighting the enemy and getting something to eat; but Tom was not able to take it so easily. He was greatly cheered by Charlie’s companionship, however, and he knew that the Indian boy’s woodcraft would make him most useful as a provider of game. It would be needed. Tom had none too much provision, and the two youthful appetites made deadly inroads on the supplies.
In fact, Charlie went out before dawn the very next morning and killed a deer—a feat which Tom had not yet performed. It was out of season, of course; but Charlie, being an Indian, was exempt from the game-laws, and they would need the meat.
It secured their food supply for a long time, and the Ojibway busied himself in cutting the venison in strips and drying it over a slow, smoky fire. It made a curiously tasteless mess when boiled, but Tom’s stomach was grown hardened to unsavory fare, and Charlie could eat and digest anything, and was anxious only that there should be enough of it.
From that time Charlie took charge of the provisioning, and spent most of the time prowling in the woods, almost always coming back with a hare, a duck, or some other game. He caught trout; he found an early nest of wild duck’s eggs, which he robbed without scruple. He hunted with an old, inferior, muzzle-loading shot-gun, and was a far worse shot than Tom; but he made up for it by craft, and he could have lived well in a country where the white boy would have starved.
Meanwhile Tom did little hunting. He had lost interest in the growing grass of the beaver meadow and in the planted rye of the last year’s field. His thought was concentrated on the quarry claim, for he felt not the slightest doubt that this was the valuable point—worth more than all the grain and hay the farm could grow for years. If he could put through a contract for that gravel and go back to Toronto with a profit of a few thousand dollars to show his father he would feel that he had redeemed all his dignity and laid the basis for a new life. But for the moment he could do nothing whatever, and it was maddening to feel his inability. He was afraid to leave the claim. He expected an attack from some direction, but he did not know where to look for it. Every day he went down to the lake and looked over the water, but he never saw any sign of a canoe or camp.
A week later Charlie had started to the spring for water before breakfast, when he stopped, stooped, scrutinized the ground, and came back hurriedly.
“Somebody been here las’ night!” he announced.
Tom went to look. He was unable to make out anything where the Indian boy pointed, nothing but a shapeless indentation in the dry earth.
“Yes—you look hard!” Charlie insisted, pointing to one spot after another; and at last with a cry of triumph he indicated the clear imprint of a moccasined foot in soft earth just below the spring.
“An Indian?” said Tom, bending over it.
“White man,” corrected the trailer. “Indian walk straight; white man turn out toes like bird.”
He pointed to his own feet and to Tom’s for confirmation, and proceeded to follow up the trail with what seemed to Tom a super-natural acuteness.
“Him stop here—see—set down gun,” Charlie went on with his eyes on the ground. “Go on again, close up to cabin. Stop here—long time—look—listen. Mebbe think steal something. Then him turn round—go back. Let’s see where him go.”
But the earth was hard and dry with the long, hot spell, and even Charlie’s eyes failed to keep the trail more than a hundred yards from the barn. After breakfast they cast about in a wide circle. They did not pick up the trail again, but on the shore of the little river they found a place where a canoe had recently been beached. Moccasined tracks led away from it and returned.
There was no way to tell whether the canoe had gone up-stream or down. Getting into Tom’s canoe, the boys paddled down to the lake, reconnoitered, and then went up the river for a couple of miles, without being able to discover any trace of a landing.
The thought of that mysterious prowler in the dark preyed on Tom’s mind. He felt sure it must have been McLeod, scouting for a chance to “run him off.” He decided that a guard ought to be kept, and for the next two nights he did lie awake till long after midnight, when sleep overcame him. But there was no further sign of any visitor.
It might have been, after all, only some stray voyageur or Indian, attracted by the camp-fire; though in that case he would almost surely have come in openly. But the effect of the incident wore off, and the boys settled again to their steady watchfulness, hunting and scouting.
The hot, dry weather showed signs of breaking up. The sky clouded; a strong wind rose a few days later from the northwest.
“No good hunt to-day,” said Charlie, looking at the sky; but he went out nevertheless immediately after breakfast, leaving Tom at the camp.
He had been gone no more than half an hour when Tom’s nose caught the smell of cedar smoke. It was coming down the wind, a sharp, aromatic odor, growing stronger momentarily. He could not see any smoke, however, and did not pay much attention until in another half-hour he perceived a dark cloud rising over the woods in the west and driving across the tree-tops.
The wind would carry it straight toward the old barn, but even now he did not feel much uneasiness, for a spring fire in the woods seldom burns long or does much damage. But the smoke continued to increase in volume, and the smell of burning to grow more pronounced. Tom wondered that Charlie did not come back. At last he went over to the river, carried his canoe up past the rapid, and paddled up the stream to look at the fire.
In half a mile the smoke made him stop. It was chokingly dense, seeming to fill all the woods in front of him. He saw not a flash of flame, though ashes and live sparks were falling thick, and he could see them driving in swirls overhead on the gale.
At this rate it might go clear over the barn and burn him out. It dawned upon Tom that perhaps McLeod had fired the woods. At that time of year a casual spark could hardly have started so wide a blaze. He let the canoe drop down-stream for a few hundred yards and then rushed into the woods to see if there was any chance of the fire being checked.
The smoke of green wood and cedar leaves was still choking and blinding. He was well in front of the fire now, but a great wisp of flaming bark dropped from the air almost at his side into a tangle of half-dead spruces. It flashed up with a roar. Flames drove out streaming into the green shrubbery, and the resinous leaves of the evergreens sizzled and burned like paper. He had to draw back again. A fresh center of conflagration was started; and he realized that under this roaring gale the fire was bound to sweep unchecked through the woods, burning whatever would burn, jumping spots too green or too damp; and nothing was likely to stop it until it reached the lake.
He tore back to the river—just in time to save his canoe, for a cedar bush had caught fire close beside it. Jumping in, he shot down-stream. He would have to try to save the barn—save his supplies, at any rate. But he had hopes that the beaver meadow would act as a fire-break.
Down the stream he shot, through smoke so dense that he could scarcely see to avoid the rocks and turns of the channel. He lost time by having to portage around the rapid where Charlie had come to grief. Arriving at the usual landing, he observed that Charlie’s canoe was gone. The Indian had evidently returned, secured his canoe, and fled.
Tom rushed across to the barn. Even here the smoke was growing thick, and hot ashes and sparks were flying far overhead. Back in the woods fire and wind roared together. A hasty glance into the barn showed that the blankets were gone, most of the food, the kettles, his own dunnage sack. Charlie had salvaged the place already.
Tom crammed a few small loose articles into his pockets and hesitated. If he had water, if he could keep the roof wet, it might be possible to save the barn. But the nearest water was fifty yards away, and he had nothing to carry it in. Sparks were falling every moment more thickly. The barn would have to take its chance; he would better try to rejoin Charlie; and he ran back to the river and paddled down toward the lake.
Waves were running high and white-capped over Little Coboconk in the strong wind, and so dense a haze lay over the water that it was impossible to see the other shore. Tom lay close to the river mouth for some time, disliking to venture out upon the rough water. Smoke began to roll heavily over the trees along the shore, and at last he paddled out, up through the shelter of the narrow water neck joining the lakes, and into Big Coboconk.
Here the smoke was heavier still, and the wind seemed even more dangerous. He could see nothing at any distance. The gale was driving him offshore and toward the center of the lake, when he thought he heard a shout. He paddled toward the sound. A long object appeared floating on the choppy waves in the smoke. It was a capsized canoe, with a man astride its keel, clinging with arms and legs. Tom thought it was Charlie; he drove up to it, but the face that looked up to him was white. It was Harrison, the “fish sharp.”
“What, you—?” Tom exclaimed; and then shut his mouth and, frowning, steered his canoe alongside for a rescue. It is a ticklish business to transfer a man from one canoe to another. Tom threw his weight far over the stern, and Harrison managed to climb into the bow without another upset, though shipping several bucketfuls of water in the process.
Tom immediately turned his canoe before the wind and paddled toward the other shore. The capsized craft vanished in the haze. The boy’s heart was savage within him. He laid the responsibility of the forest fire on Harrison and his guide, who had no doubt been hanging about the lake for days, awaiting their opportunity.
There was no chance to talk then. It took all his attention to keep the canoe straight and to prevent it from being swamped by the wind and water. The other shore loomed up dimly through the smoke. He could not pick a landing; he had to drive straight ahead. The canoe grounded heavily. He heard a smash of the delicate wood; then they both jumped overboard in the shallows and dragged the craft safely up above the wash of the waves.
“Made it!” said Harrison breathlessly. “Good thing you came up when you did. I upset when I was fifty yards from land. I’m not much of a canoeman.”
“Where’s your partner?” Tom demanded. “Where’s McLeod? Starting fires back in the woods, isn’t he? You nearly got caught in your own trap.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” retorted Harrison. “We didn’t start any fires. I thought this started from your own camp. I don’t know where McLeod is. He went up the river this morning.”
“Don’t bluff any longer, Harrison,” said Tom. “I know what you are after. You’re not up here to study fish. You want to run me off this place. I know all about the gravel quarry. You’ve got a contract for the concrete work at Oakley, I expect, and you can get the gravel down from here cheaper than any other way.”
Harrison stared, and then suddenly began to laugh.
“Gravel?” he exclaimed. “Why, the Oakley contracts were all let months ago. I haven’t got any of them. They’re hauling the gravel from a pit only three miles out of the town. Float it down from here? And keep a steamboat to haul the barges back empty? You’d better learn a little about construction work.”
Tom was taken aback by this convincing denial.
“What did you want this land for, then?” he muttered.
“I told you. For a fishing camp. I don’t know that I do want it now, anyway. It’ll be nothing but ashes and burnt logs after this. I guess nobody will try to take it from you.”
Tom was silenced but not convinced. He dropped the subject, and examined his canoe, which had a good-sized hole punched in the bottom from collision with a rock as they came ashore. It was beyond repair.
“We’ve got nothing to eat,” he remarked, “and no way of getting anywhere—unless your partner comes back, or unless I can locate mine.”
“I saw somebody that looked like that Indian youngster of yours,” said Harrison, “just before I started out. He was paddling pretty fast up the lake in a loaded canoe. If he’s got away with all your outfit you’ll never see him back again.”
Tom had more confidence in Charlie, but the surface of Big Coboconk was shrouded in whirling vapor, and it would be impossible for anybody to find anything, except by chance. The fire had burned down close to the other shore now and seemed to be working down toward the narrows. Ashes and sparks sifted down even where they stood, but there was not much danger of the fire jumping the lake. In the hope of sighting either Charlie or McLeod, they established themselves on the point of a rocky promontory and stared through the bluish smoke drift, but without sighting any canoe. Harrison seemed to hold no grudge for Tom’s suspicions and talked easily, but Tom could not rid himself of a sense of hostility. He felt beaten. His barn was certainly burned; the beaver-meadow hay would be scorched and probably ruined; the whole homestead was uninhabitable now. He would have to find another or go home. As for the gravel quarry, Harrison’s words had sounded only too genuine. Probably the gravel was really of no value, after all.
They both grew very hungry, with nothing to eat. So far as they could judge, the fire seemed to be burning down along Little Coboconk, over a wide area, but the wind was perceptibly falling. Toward the middle of the afternoon Tom was startled by a prolonged, sullen reverberation that seemed to come from overhead.
“Thunder!” exclaimed Harrison. “Can it be going to rain? It’s too good to be true.”
Above the smoke clouds the sky was invisible, but within fifteen minutes the rain did begin to sprinkle and then came in torrents. It lasted three quarters of an hour, and then the thunderstorm seemed to move away westward, though the rain continued to fall in a steady soaking drizzle.
The two castaways sheltered themselves under a great thick spruce, which the rain scarcely penetrated. The rain made the smoke hang lower, and it seemed to be mixed with steam—an impenetrable, reeking gray smother over the whole lake and the forest. But it was certain that the fire would go no further, with the wind falling and the woods wet.
For an hour or so they stood wretchedly under the big spruce. The fine drizzle penetrated the leaves at last, but it did not make much difference, as both of them were wet already to the skin. Harrison’s spirits flagged at last, and they said little, gazing out into the ghostly white drift of smoke and steam and rain.
“This won’t do,” Harrison exclaimed at last. “We’ve got to have something to eat—got to have a canoe. My canoe must have drifted ashore somewhere, and there was a package of grub tied in it. It’ll be soaked, but we can make something out of it. Let’s look for it.”
Tom agreed. Anything was better than standing there any longer hungry and shivering. They separated, Harrison going down toward the narrows, and Tom toward the upper end of the lake, and whoever discovered the canoe was to paddle in search of the other.
Tom discovered the lost canoe within a hundred yards, lying stranded upside down on the shore gravel. If they had only known it they might have left the place at any time that day. The food was gone, though. Only a string loop and the soaked relic of a paper package was left, greatly to Tom’s disappointment. But with the canoe he felt sure of being able to locate Charlie, who must have plenty of supplies with him.
Tom righted and launched the canoe, and shouted for Harrison, but the man was out of hearing. A spare paddle was lashed in the canoe, and Tom got aboard and struck out. It occurred to him that he might as well scout about for Charlie before rejoining Harrison, and he paddled out into the wet reek that overhung the lake.
He followed up the shore a little way and then struck straight across. At intervals he shouted, but got no answer. The other shore of the lake presently loomed up mistily, a desolation of wet ashes, tangles of half-burned thickets and steaming, smoking spruces. He half expected to find Charlie searching for him along this shore, and he paddled downward, looking out sharply for a canoe.
Nothing like a canoe showed, either on the water or ashore. Growing more anxious, for he was desperately hungry, Tom followed the shore down till he came to the narrows connecting the two lakes. At one time, not so long ago, these two lakes had been one, and the land about the narrows was low and sandy, cut with swampy hollows and densely overgrown with small evergreens. But the fire had swept over it, and the spruces and jack-pines were only stubs and skeletons with all their twigs and leafage burned away, leaving only the damp trunks standing amid sand, ashes, and ancient logs half buried in the earth.
As he came up Tom thought he dimly spied a canoe drawn ashore, and paddled up to it. But it was only a great log, laid bare by the burning off of the thickets. He drew up alongside it and stared about. Harrison was nowhere within his restricted area of vision, nor Charlie either, and it was hardly likely that the Indian boy would have gone down into the lower lake.
Tom sat there for a minute, discouraged, absently contemplating the scattered logs. Half consciously he realized that there were a great many of them, mostly showing above ground, that the ends of all of them were sawed square across, as if they had been cut by lumbermen. On the end of the log nearest him he noticed that the letters “D W” had been roughly cut with a tool.
What could “D W” stand for? The name of Daniel Wilson floated into his mind, but for a moment the name conveyed nothing to him, and he did not know where he had heard it. And then he remembered.
It was the Daniel Wilson Lumber Company that had cut the black walnut raft that had been lost on the lake, as the story said.
It struck Tom like an electric flash. He jumped out of the canoe, almost trembling, weariness and hunger forgotten. There were perhaps a hundred logs in sight, on the surface or almost covered by sand and mud, and “D W” was cut on the ends of all of them.
They were blackened by the fire and smoke, but not charred. Between black of fire and the wearing of age it was impossible to make out the kind of wood, but Tom whipped out his knife. Chipping off the outer skin, he saw the unmistakable rich, dark, hard grain. It was walnut. He had discovered the lost raft—or part of it, at all events.
Here it must have sunk in the shallow water near the shore where it had been driven that stormy night twenty-eight years ago. This point had formed part of the lake bottom then. Later the water had receded; the narrows had been formed. A crop of evergreens springing up quickly had concealed the visible part of the scattered raft from the few men who ever passed that way. It might have lain there forever if the fire had not laid it bare.
Tom tried to remember all he had heard of the loss of the raft. Walnut had never been a plentiful timber in that part of the country; but the Wilson Lumber Company, of which Wilson himself was sole owner, had discovered and cut a small tract of it—five or six hundred thousand feet, report said. At that time nobody regarded black walnut as extremely valuable. A market was lacking, and the rich timber was used for firewood and fence-rails, but Wilson had got a government contract for wood for gun-stocks for the army.
The timber was brought out to the head of Coboconk Lake and the raft built there, to be floated down to Oakley, where at that time there was a sawmill and nothing else. But the start of the raft was, for some unknown reason, delayed till too late in the autumn. It was November when it was finally put together, with plenty of pine logs to keep it afloat, and launched down the lake. There is a gentle drift from north to south, and the lumbermen helped with huge sweeps.
When they were half-way down the lake a strong northwest wind sprang up; it turned cold and began to snow. It was then late in the afternoon. The wind continued to rise, and toward midnight the huge raft began to go to pieces. The men aboard had to take to their bateaux and row ashore in a howling storm of wind and snow.
A blinding blizzard blew all the next day, and when it cleared there was nothing to be seen of the raft. A search of the shore revealed a good deal of the pine framework, but all the walnut timber was finally judged to have broken loose and gone to the bottom.
That storm marked the opening of a very early winter. In another day the lake was freezing over. Nothing more could be done, and in the spring no trace could be found of the lost raft. But the story became a local tradition, and for years spasmodic efforts were made to locate it, but never with any success. The lumbermen were by no means sure just where the raft had been when it broke up in that dark night; the lake is large, and it had generally come to be believed that the timber must be sunk too deep in the mud to be recovered.
But the change in the level of the lake had brought some of the former shallows above water. Some of the timber, at any rate, was there in sight, and it was impossible that it was anything else than the wreckage of the old-time raft. Glancing over the scattered logs, Tom thought that there must be thirty or forty thousand feet along that shore, and there was more, perhaps, buried at a little depth. Walnut was then worth, in logs, about three hundred dollars a thousand feet; but if the wood were cut up and dressed in his father’s Toronto yards it would fetch three or four times that price. It was a fortune, and not a small one, that was in sight.
Then suddenly the question of the ownership of the raft struck him. He was the finder, but, after all, not necessarily the owner. Daniel Wilson was dead, and his company long since dissolved. The timber lay on land belonging to his uncle, or his cousin; all the timber on that land belonged to them, whether standing or lying, and this would surely cover driftwood. But was this, after all, Uncle Phil’s homestead; or had he abandoned it; or might it be filed on by the first comer?
Tom did not know. It was the problem of the gravel quarry again, with tenfold intensity. He turned the question over in his mind. In any event he was determined to cling to this treasure-trove if it took the last drop of his blood. And at that moment, glancing up, he perceived Harrison on the other side of the narrows, looking silently at him across the channel.
Tom jumped up almost guiltily. Harrison instantly shouted and waved at him.
“Have you got the canoe? Come over.”
Tom got into the canoe. He felt perfectly certain that Harrison had been watching him for some time—that he knew very well what Tom had discovered—that he had previously discovered it himself. For a moment the boy half hesitated to cross over to the enemy; but after all he had his rifle, and Harrison was unarmed, and moreover he did not think Harrison was a man to resort to open violence.
“What were you doing over there, digging up the ground? Find any grub?” said Harrison with a sharp glance as Tom paddled up beside him.
“I thought I’d seen another canoe there, and I went to look. No, the grub’s all washed away, I’m afraid,” returned Tom.
“Too bad. Well, we’ll just have to put in a hungry night, I guess, but we can get out of here in the morning anyhow.”
He made no further reference to Tom’s prospecting, and they went up the lake to the place where they had spent most of the day, where Tom’s own canoe had been wrecked. It was growing dusk already, and the rain had ceased. The wind had stilled, and the air was thick and fogged with smoke and damp.
With difficulty they collected a little dry kindling from the interior of hollow logs, and managed to start a fire. Fortunately it was a warm night for the season, since they had no blankets, and the only possible camping preparations were to pull off armfuls of damp spruce twigs for a softer couch than the bare ground.
Harrison was silent, busying himself in drying out a piece of plug tobacco which he had found in his pocket, and trying to smoke it. Finally he settled himself back on his sapin and appeared to sleep. But Tom was determined not to close an eye that night.
He was afraid of some treachery; he did not know what. He settled back on his spruce boughs, with his rifle close beside him, and tried to think out a course of action. Harrison was after the same thing as himself, and he must know now that Tom knew it. Which of them had the better legal right, or whether either of them had any legal right at all, Tom had no idea. He would have given anything for his father’s advice. He thought of making a bolt for Oakley and sending out a telegram to Mr. Jackson to come immediately. But he dared not leave the place, and besides his father would very likely disregard the wire as a piece of boy’s foolishness.
Time passed. It had grown very dark. Harrison snored from his couch. Tom himself was growing very weary, but he was resolved not to let himself sleep.
He was desperately hungry besides, faint and miserable. He got up quietly and built up the fire, feeling chilled. At moments a nervous panic swept over him. Fifty thousand derelict dollars lay by that lake, and the gain or loss of them hung on his single wit and skill. Thinking it over he felt that Uncle Phil or Dave held the key of the problem. They must be the owners of this land—hence the owners of the timber. If that was the case, Tom knew well that he would get his rightful share. But this could not be settled without locating them. Greatly he regretted now that he had not made more searching inquiries at Oakley.
Harrison turned over uneasily and appeared to sleep again. Tom envied him his rest. His own eyes were desperately heavy, and he felt worn out with physical and mental fatigue. He must have dozed then, for presently he roused with a start and saw that the fire had burned low. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was after midnight.
Harrison did not appear to have stirred. Tom got up and replenished the fire again. Lying down, he tried to keep his eyes open, once more turning over the heavy problem in his mind. An owl was calling dismally from a tree-top not far away. The soft wailing note mingled with his confused thoughts, growing more and more confused till they melted into something dreamlike.
He awoke next with daylight in his eyes. With a rush of panic he sat up. The fire was burning brightly. A figure was squatting beside it—not Harrison. Harrison was nowhere to be seen, but Tom looked into the dark face of Ojibway Charlie.
“Charlie!” he stammered, jumping up. “Where did you come from? Where’s that man? Where’s Harrison?”
“No see um,” returned Charlie, stolidly. “I see your smoke—come here. You sleep—nobody else here.”
With an exclamation, Tom rushed down to the lake. Charlie’s canoe was there, piled with salvaged outfit from the old barn; but Harrison’s canoe was gone, and Tom’s own canoe with the hole in the bottom now lay capsized with almost the whole bottom smashed out of her. The “fish sharp” had vanished.

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