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HOME > Short Stories > The Timber Treasure > CHAPTER XI FIRE AND WATER
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 The raft was now nearing the northwestern shore of the lake, and luckily its course seemed to carry it into a wide bay, where it would be somewhat sheltered from the weather. The wind was lessening a little, it seemed. It had done deadly work, however. The raft seemed to have lost a third of its area, and all around could be seen floating masses of the soft-wood cribs, which had mostly spilled their walnut loose. But Tom looked at it almost indifferently. His whole thought was concentrated on his father, who still lay unconscious, with a deathlike face.  
Big Joe came up and looked down sorrowfully at the boss.
“I guess the raft’s all right now,” he remarked. “She’s going to float right behind that headland, and I’ll have the boys build a boom around her as soon as she gets there. It’ll break the waves. I don’t believe we’ve lost such a lot, after all.
“Don’t you worry, boy,” he added. “Your father’ll be all right. I’ve seen men knocked out a heap worse’n that; you don’t know the rough knocks that lumber-jacks get. We’ll get him ashore just as soon as we get into quieter water.”
It would indeed have been risky to try to get the wounded man into a boat while they were still on those plunging waves, and it was still more than an hour before the raft slowly headed its way behind the long rocky peninsula. Here the water was less broken. They brought one of the boats around to the forward end, carried Mr. Jackson into it with infinite care, and ferried him across the hundred feet of water to the land. Here they constructed a rough stretcher with saplings and boughs, and Tom, Lynch, and two other men set out with it toward camp. The rest of the men remained to make the raft fast and gather up what scattered drift timber they could salvage.
A quarter of a mile down the shore they came upon a crib that had grounded without entirely breaking up. The track of a man’s heavy boots led from it into the woods, and Tom guessed that Harrison had come ashore on those logs. It relieved his mind somewhat, for he did not want to consider himself responsible for the man’s death, but he had not much thought just then to spare on Harrison. Still further down, they sighted a canoe, Charlie’s canoe, which McLeod must have stolen, and in which he had fled from the raft. It had been run ashore roughly, and was badly split down the bow. But, like Harrison, McLeod had left nothing but tracks behind him, and Tom sincerely hoped that he would never see anything more of him.
Arriving at the camp, they put Mr. Jackson to bed in his tent. He seemed partly to revive; his eyes half opened; he muttered something and then sank into unconsciousness again. But even this symptom of returning life was encouraging.
“The nearest doctor’s at Ormond,” said Tom. “I’m going after him at once.”
“Send Charlie down to Oakley,” Lynch suggested. “There’s a doctor there. You might go out to Ormond too, if you like. Maybe one of ’em will be away, and if they both come, no harm done. But say, you’ve got to eat and rest a bit, boy. You look done up.”
Tom indeed felt the strain of the hard night, and his head once more ached splittingly. He summoned Charlie and sent him up the lake to get his canoe. It would have to be calked or patched where it was cracked, and meanwhile Tom swallowed a little breakfast and lay down with the intention of resting half an hour.
He fell into a dead sleep, and was awakened at last by Joe Lynch.
“A fellow’s just come in from Ormond with a telegram for the boss.”
Tom took the yellow envelope and sat up in a daze. Gathering his wits, he opened the message:
Assigned to Erie Bank. Creditors’ meeting Wednesday night. Letter follows. Wire further instructions.
Wednesday night! It flashed upon Tom that to-day was Wednesday. He jumped out, bolted from the tent, and confronted the messenger. The telegram had been sent on Saturday, and was directed to the Royal Victoria Hotel.
“Why didn’t this get here sooner?” he demanded angrily.
“We didn’t get it till yesterday. I started out with it as soon as I could, but I tried to take a short cut and got turned around. Had to stay in the bush all night.”
Tom stifled an exclamation of impatience and despair. Armstrong had given up hope and made an assignment after all, unaware of all the wealth they had been accumulating in the north. Tom did some hard thinking in that moment. If the bankruptcy went through they might pay a hundred cents on the dollar, but it would leave nothing else. If it could be averted, the walnut would float the business with ease, with a prospect of better fortune.
“How long was I asleep? How’s father?” he demanded.
“You slept more’n an hour. Didn’t like to rouse you,” said Joe. “The boss kinder roused up once and said something, but then went off again. But I reckon he’s better.”
Tom went to look at Mr. Jackson, who looked slightly less deadlike, he thought. He would have given almost anything to be able to consult with him for just five minutes. But at this crisis of the whole affair Tom was forced to shoulder the entire responsibility.
If it was humanly possible he would have to get to Toronto in time to stop that creditors’ meeting that night. The assignment could be withdrawn. As yet probably nothing irrevocable had been done, but by to-morrow the arrangements for liquidation would have been made, and it might be too late.
He could, indeed, send a telegram to Mr. Armstrong if he could reach the wire in time; but he doubted whether that would be enough. The situation needed a personal explanation.
He knew that a stage left Oakley, connecting with the morning train going down.
“What’s the shortest way to the railroad?” he demanded. “I’ve got to get to the city by evening.”
“Well, there’s the morning train down from Ormond,” said the messenger. “But you can’t make it. It’ll take you ’most all day to get to Ormond.”
“That’s mebbe the shortest way, but it ain’t nohow the quickest,” remarked Lynch. “Leastways, if you’ve got a canoe. I reckon Charlie’s got his pretty near patched up by this time.”
“How do you mean?” Tom demanded.
“Why, paddle down to the foot of Little Coboconk, and then right down the river, for mebbe fifteen or sixteen miles. You’ve been that way. You remember where a little creek runs out through a big swamp and into the river? Well, you land on the side opposite the creek, and the railway ain’t much more’n five miles straight west, right across the bush. It’ll be rough traveling, maybe, but you ought to make it in three or four hours.”
Tom glanced at his watch. It was just after seven o’clock. The train left Ormond at ten-thirty. He could surely make it. A moment later Charlie came up for instructions, having finished the repairs to his canoe.
“Hold on, Charlie! I’m going with you,” Tom exclaimed. “I’ll try it, Lynch. Are you sure the raft’s safe?”
“Safe as if she was in the sawmill. You can trust her to me. Trust the boss to us, too. Charlie can go on to Oakley and bring back the doctor.”
“And mind you telegraph me what he says,” Tom insisted. “Here’s my Toronto address. But I’ll be back here in three or four days, I hope.”
It did not occur to Tom to change into his city clothes. He hastened to get into the canoe, taking the bow paddle while Charlie sat at the stern; and they started down the lake, almost in the face of the wind, which still blew strongly.
It was rough, breathless paddling, though they hugged the shelter of the shore as much as possible. They made slow time on that stage of the journey, but when they reached the river things went more easily. The river ran swiftly and was rather shallow now, but there was always plenty of water for the canoe, and the faster the current the better. Down the stream they shot, past the old trail to Uncle Phil’s ranch, around the wide curves bordered by the incessant green of the spruces, silently and swiftly, with a speed that filled Tom with renewed hope. He was in fine physical condition; the hour’s rest had restored him, and the rough and sleepless night behind him had left only a nervous tension that for the time being actually stimulated his sinews.
At half-past eight by his watch he felt sure that they must have come nearly ten miles. He suddenly smelled smoke, and was alarmed.
“What’s that, Charlie? Fire?” he called over his shoulder.
The Ojibway sniffed.
“Fire—sure. Long piece from here, though,” he answered.
Smoke certainly smelled strong in the air, coming up on the wind, but no fire was anywhere in sight. The river grew wider and deeper, running with a strength that almost outstripped the paddles. The miles reeled off swiftly. Tom was keeping a close watch on the shore, and it was not much after nine o’clock when he shouted to Charlie and pointed ashore.
On the left bank a great tamarac swamp came down to the water, and just opposite them a small creek flowed sluggishly into the river, oozing through a jungle of evergreen and fern.
“Hold on!” he cried, and the steersman guided the canoe ashore. He looked at the landmarks more carefully. It must be the place Lynch had meant. Somewhere about five miles to the west lay the railway.
“I stop here, Charlie,” he said hurriedly. “You go on to Oakley as fast as you can paddle, and get the doctor. I’ll be back soon.”
Charlie had already been provided with a note for the doctor, tucked safely inside his felt hat. He nodded impassively.
“Sure, I go quick, Tom,” he said. “I watch for you come back.”
He put Tom ashore, and went on down the stream with quick paddle-strokes, not once glancing back. Tom did not stay to watch him, either. He glanced at the compass on his watch-chain and struck straight in from the river.
The train was due at half-past ten. He had an hour, and long-distance running had been his speciality in track athletics. It was only five miles, and, however rough the country might be, he felt quite confident of being able to cover the distance in time.
For a little way he had to go slowly, pushing his path through a dense tangle of spruce and tamarac, but, once well away from the river, the woods opened out. He went up and down one rolling ridge after another, splashed through a rock-strewn brook or two, crossed a strip of level forest, and then had to slow down for a last year’s burned slash, where the ground was terribly encumbered with dead, charred logs and jagged spikes of branches and roots.
A smell of smoke seemed to hang about the place still, he fancied, and then a veering gust brought him a whiff of smoke that was certainly fresh. He was afraid to swerve from the compass bee-line, but he felt extremely uneasy. He passed the old “burn” and entered a region of jack-pine, and presently there was no mistaking the bluish haze and the odor of ashes and smoke that filled the air. Then the woods ceased all at once, and he found himself on the edge of a great ruined slash that fire had made within two or three days, at the most.
He halted, despairingly. There seemed no end to the burned strip, north or south, and he could get no clear notion of its width, for the air was full of smoke and clouds of fine ashes that drove in whirls before the wind. It might not be very wide, but it looked too dangerous to cross. Yet he felt sure that he must be near the railroad; he had surely come three or four miles, and as he stood irresolute he heard the long blast of a locomotive far away through the trees.
He thought it was miles up toward Ormond. The railway must be only a short distance ahead, and he plunged desperately into the smoky belt.
The fire was really entirely burned out, as he discovered immediately, but at the first steps he went ankle-deep in ashes, and felt the heat strike through his boot-soles. The ground was still hot, and beds of embers smoldered here and there beneath the ashes.
His heart almost failed him again. He might step into a mass of hot coals that would scorch and cripple him. But there was no way around; he had to cross this barrier or give up, and he went on again, moving in long leaps to touch the ground as little as possible. Wherever he could, he paused on a log to gain breath and lay his course.
The ground was cumbered with masses of fallen trees, charred, spiky, a continual chevaux-de-frise of tangled stubs and roots. They lay at every possible angle, and Tom had to edge his way round them, climb over, or squeeze through. It was like the “burn” he had already crossed, but this one was fresh and hot. By sheer good luck he escaped stepping into any spots of fire, but the ground burned under his feet, and the ashes rose in smothering clouds as he plowed through them.
The ground was treacherous under its thick gray covering. It was mined with holes and strewn with hidden entanglements. Two or three times Tom tripped and went headlong, almost choked in the ashes. His eyes grew filled with the fine powder; he could not see clearly nor make sure of his directions, and he had a terrible feeling that his strength was failing.
He heard the locomotive whistle again, and much nearer. It spoke failure, he thought. He could never reach the station now in time for the train. To his blurred eyes his watch seemed to mark half-past ten already. He was desperately tired, and burning with thirst. He thought that he might a............
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