Chapter XV
 

By virtue of their logging-contract with Pennington, the Cardigans and their employees were transported free over Pennington's logging railroad; hence, when Bryce Cardigan resolved to wait upon Jules Rondeau in the matter of that murdered Giant, it was characteristic of him to choose the shortest and most direct route to his quarry, and as the long string of empty logging-trucks came crawling off the Laguna Grande Lumber Company's log-dump, he swung over the side, quite ignorant of the fact that Shirley and her precious relative were riding in the little caboose in the rear.

At twelve-ten the train slid in on the log landing of the Laguna Grande Lumber Company's main camp, and Bryce dropped off and approached the engineer of the little donkey-engine used for loading the logs.

"Where's Rondeau?" he asked.

The engineer pointed to a huge, swarthy man approaching across the clearing in which the camp was situated. "That's him," he replied. And without further ado, Bryce strode to meet his man.

"Are you Jules Rondeau?" he demanded as he came up to the woods-boss. The latter nodded. "I'm Bryce Cardigan," his interrogator announced, "and I'm here to thrash you for chopping that big redwood tree over in that little valley where my mother is buried."

"Oh!" Rondeau smiled. "Wiz pleasure, M'sieur." And without a moment's hesitation he rushed. Bryce backed away from him warily, and they circled.

"When I get through with you, Rondeau," Bryce said distinctly, "it'll take a good man to lead you to your meals. This country isn't big enough for both of us, and since you came here last, you've got to go first."

Bryce stepped in, feinted for Rondeau's jaw with his right, and when the woods-boss quickly covered, ripped a sizzling left into the latter's midriff. Rondeau grunted and dropped his guard, with the result that Bryce's great fists played a devil's tattoo on his countenance before he could crouch and cover.

"This is a tough one," thought Bryce. His blows had not, apparently, had the slightest effect on the woods-boss. Crouched low and with his arms wrapped around his head, Rondeau still came on unfalteringly, and Bryce was forced to give way before him; to save his hands, he avoided the risk of battering Rondeau's hard head and sinewy arms.

Already word that the woods-boss was battling with a stranger had been shouted into the camp dining room, and the entire crew of that camp, abandoning their half-finished meal, came pouring forth to view the contest. Out of the tail of his eye Bryce saw them coming, but he was not apprehensive, for he knew the code of the woodsman: "Let every man roll his own hoop." It would be a fight to a finish, for no man would interfere; striking, kicking, gouging, biting, or choking would not be looked upon as unsportsmanlike; and as Bryce backed cautiously away from the huge, lithe, active, and powerful man before him, he realized that Jules Rondeau was, as his father had stated, "top dog among the lumberjacks."

Rondeau, it was apparent, had no stomach for Bryce's style of combat. He wanted a rough-and-tumble fight and kept rushing, hoping to clinch; if he could but get his great hands on Bryce, he would wrestle him down, climb him, and finish the fight in jig-time. But a rough-and-tumble was exactly what Bryce was striving to avoid; hence when Rondeau rushed, Bryce side-stepped and peppered the woodsman's ribs. But the woods-crew, which by now was ringed around them, began to voice disapproval of this style of battle.

"Clinch with him, dancing-master," a voice roared.

"Tie into him, Rondeau," another shouted.

"It's a fair match," cried another, "and the red one picked on the main push. He was looking for a fight, an' he ought to get it; but these fancy fights don't suit me. Flop him, stranger, flop him."

"Rondeau can't catch him," a fourth man jeered. "He's a foot-racer, not a fighter."

Suddenly two powerful hands were placed between Bryce's shoulders, effectually halting his backward progress; then he was propelled violently forward until he collided with Rondeau. With a bellow of triumph, the woods-boss's gorilla-like arms were around Bryce, swinging him until he faced the man who had forced him into that terrible grip. This was no less a personage than Colonel Seth Pennington, and it was obvious he had taken charge of what he considered the obsequies.

"Stand back, you men, and give them room," he shouted. "Rondeau will take care of him now. Stand back, I say. I'll discharge the man that interferes."

With a heave and a grunt Rondeau lifted his antagonist, and the pair went crashing to the earth together, Bryce underneath. And then something happened. With a howl of pain, Rondeau rolled over on his back and lay clasping his left wrist in his right hand, while Bryce scrambled to his feet.

"The good old wrist-lock does the trick," he announced; and stooping, he grasped the woods-boss by the collar with his left hand, lifted him, and struck him a terrible blow in the face with his right. But for the arm that upheld him, Rondeau would have fallen. To have him fall, however, was not part of Bryce's plan. Jerking the fellow toward him, he passed his arm around Rondeau's neck, holding the latter's head as in a vise with the crook of his elbow. And then the battering started. When it was finished, Bryce let his man go, and Rondeau, bloody, sobbing, and semi-conscious, sprawled on the ground.

Bryce bent over him. "Now, damn you," he roared, "who felled that tree in Cardigan's Redwoods?"

"I did, M'sieur. Enough--I confess!" The words were a whisper.

"Did Colonel Pennington suggest it to you?"

"He want ze burl. By gar, I do not want to fell zat tree--"

"That's all I want to know." Stooping, Bryce seized Rondeau by the nape of the neck and the slack of his overalls, lifted him shoulder- high and threw him, as one throws a sack of meal, full at Colonel Pennington.

"You threw me at him. Now I throw him at you. You damned, thieving, greedy, hypocritical scoundrel, if it weren't for your years and your gray hair, I'd kill you."

The helpless hulk of the woods-boss descended upon the Colonel's expansive chest and sent him crashing earthward. Then Bryce, war-mad, turned to face the ring of Laguna Grande employees about him.

"Next!" he roared. "Singly, in pairs, or the whole damned pack!"

"Mr. Cardigan!"

He turned. Colonel Pennington's breath had been knocked out of his body by the impact of his semi-conscious woods-boss, and he lay inert, gasping like a hooked fish. Beside him Shirley Sumner was kneeling, her hands clasping her uncle's, but with her violet eyes blazing fiercely on Bryce Cardigan.

"How dare you?" she cried. "You coward! To hurt my uncle!"

He gazed at her a moment, fiercely, defiantly, his chest rising and falling from his recent exertions, his knotted fists gory with the blood of his enemy. Then the light of battle died, and he hung his head. "I'm sorry," he murmured, "not for his sake, but yours. I didn't know you were here. I forgot--myself."

"I'll never speak to you again so long as I live," she burst out passionately.

He advanced a step and stood gazing down upon her. Her angry glance met his unflinchingly; and presently for him the light went out of the world.

"Very well," he murmured. "Good-bye." And with bowed head he turned and made off through the green timber toward his own logging-camp five miles distant.