Read CHAPTER XIX - THE MYSTERY OF THE MILL of The Rival Campers Ashore The Mystery of the Mill , free online book, by Ruel Perley Smith, on

Henry Burns, slipping quietly away from the farmhouse on the hill, tramped joyously through the snowdrifts to the highway, “caught a ride” on a sledge going in to Benton and started homeward. He had not ridden far, however, when a double-seated sleigh appeared in sight, which seemed even at a distance to be familiar. It became more so when, at length, he made out clearly a white horse belonging to Tom Harris’s father, and, occupying the two seats, his friends Tom and Bob, Jack Harvey and George Warren.

Perhaps they didn’t give three cheers and a tiger when they espied Henry Burns! Jack Harvey and George Warren, struggling down the road through the storm of the afternoon before, had worried not a little about him, and would have gone back to his aid, if they could have done so. But the wind and snow had been too fierce; and they could only plod on, hoping that his usual luck and cleverness would not desert him, and that he would gain shelter in time.

They seized Henry Burns now and tumbled him into the sleigh, in rough and hearty fashion; and they turned about and drove back to Benton at the very best pace that the big horse could make through the snow. Henry Burns told the story of the night, as they proceeded.

“Say, that’s like a story out of the library,” remarked George Warren. “Just think of it! Little Bess a sister of the Ellison fellows. What did they say, Henry, when you told them?”

“Nothing,” replied Henry Burns. “I didn’t give ’em a chance. I got out quick.”

“Well, I’m mighty glad for her,” exclaimed Jack Harvey, heartily. “She’s the pluckiest little thing I ever saw. I’m glad she’s got a good home at last.”

It was some time before Henry Burns spoke again. He seemed to be considering something soberly. Finally he said, “Yes, and they need the mill now, more than ever, with her to care for. I wonder if they’ll ever get it.”

The mill passed out of mind, however, for some time, when there fell still another great snow on the following day, heavier than the preceding storm. It piled drift upon drift, and made the roads about Benton, for miles in every direction, impassible. It shut each farmhouse in upon itself; the Ellisons in their home; Colonel Witham and Granny Thornton alone in the Half Way House. The old mill was silent for a whole week.

Then there came a magazine to Tom Harris, bringing a timely suggestion to the boys of Benton. It told of the snowshoe of the Norwegians, the ski, with which a runner could travel through the deep drifts of loose snow, and coast down the steep hills, as easily as on a toboggan. Soon, working in spare hours, each youth had fashioned himself a pair. They got the long, thin strips of hard wood, steamed the ends and curled them like sled runners, sand-papered and polished them, and put on the straps of leather to hold the toe.

They learned how to go through the drifts with these, sliding the shoe along through the loose snow, instead of lifting the foot, as with the Canadian snowshoe. They got each a long pole, to steady one’s self with, and practised sliding down the terraces of Tom Harris’s garden, standing erect and doing their best to keep on their feet.

When they had had their preliminary tumbles, and were proficient in the sport, they started off one day and went along up stream; tried the steep banks that led down on to that, and found it more exciting than tobogganning.

Tim Reardon used his skis to get up above the dams, where the spring-holes in the stream were. And, through the Christmas holidays, he made his headquarters at the cabin that belonged to the canoeists, which he kept hot by a rousing fire. Day after day, he set out from there, skiing his way up stream, dragging after him a toboggan on which was loaded a pail half filled with water. In this swam his live bait, winnows that he had caught through the ice in the brook. Also he carried an axe, a borrowed ice chisel, some lines and other stuff.

One might have seen him there, through the afternoons, watching sharply the five lines that he tended, and varying the monotony of waiting by an occasional ski slide down the neighbouring bank.

He had five holes chopped through the ice, and a line set in each, baited with a live minnow. This line was attached to a strong, limber switch of birch, set up slant-wise over the hole, with the butt stuck fast in a hole chopped in the ice and banked with snow. And this switch flew a little streamer of coloured calico; so that Tim had only to see the streamer bobbing up and down, at any distance, to know that there was a pickerel fast on the hook.

He had famous sport there for ten days or more, for the fish were hungry, and bigger ones came to the bait than in summer. Every third day he went back in to Benton with his catch, which he had kept packed in snow, sold them at the market, and was fairly rolling in wealth; and when, one afternoon, he hooked and landed an eight-pound fish, and travelled to town with it, and saw it set up in the market, with a sign on it to the effect that it had been caught by Timothy Reardon of Benton, he was the proudest boy to be found anywhere.

Then, just following Christmas, there was a glorious dinner up at the Ellison farm for Henry Burns and his friends, in honour of Little Bess. Tim got an invitation to that, too, through his loyal friends, Henry Burns and Jack Harvey; and he and Joe Warren ate more than any four others, and Young Joe, who had absconded with the most of a huge mince pie, left over from the dinner, was found afterward groaning on the kitchen sofa, and had to be dosed with ginger and peppermint, so that he could partake of cornballs and maple candy later on.

And there was Bess Ellison Bess Thornton no longer looking remarkably pretty and uncommonly mischievous, dressed no more in dingy gingham, but in the best Mrs. Ellison could buy and make up for her; and she held out her hand to Henry Burns and took him in to Mrs. Ellison, who said something to him that made him come very near blushing, and nearly lose his customary self-control.

There was Benny Ellison, also, who was dragged in by Bess, and made to shake hands with Henry Burns, and call old scores off; so that even he warmed into enthusiasm, and enjoyed himself with the others.

Then, somewhere about that time, there was a lawyer’s visit to the Half Way House, where there were certain papers drawn up, and signed by Granny Thornton, with a trembling hand; which made it sure that Little Bess would no more be uncertain of her home and her parentage, but would remain where she belonged, up at the big farmhouse.

So the winter passed and the spring came in. Its days of thaw made the old stream groan and crack, as the great ice fields split here and there, and seams opened. There were nights when the water, that had overflowed at the edge of the ice fields, close by the shore, and formed a narrow stream on either side, froze fast again; so that there was a glare thoroughfare for miles and miles up the stream into the country, of ice just thick enough to bear the boys of Benton.

They made excursions far up along shore this way, skating at furious speed; pausing now and then to set fire to the bunches of tall dried grasses and reeds, that protruded through the ice in the midst of the stream. These flamed fiercely at the mere touch of a match.

Then, as it grew later, this overflow at the edges of the ice field froze no more; but lay, several feet deep of clear water, over that part of the ice. They could get on to the stream then only at certain points, where the ledges made out, or by throwing planks across. Soon the water began to pour with a louder and louder roar over the old Ellison dam, and a stretch of clear, swift-flowing water opened up for some distance back of it.

It became rare and dangerous sport, in these days, to get out on the ice field and work at a seam with planks and poles, prying loose a great sheet of the still thick ice, and watch it go over the dam. It had a most spectacular and awe-inspiring way of making the plunge. A great block of the ice, several yards square, would drift swiftly down, shoot far over the edge, then break apart of its own weight, the huge chunks falling with a mighty splash and commotion into the boiling pool below. Down they would go, like monsters of the sea, borne by the momentum of their plunge from the height. Then they would shoot upward, lift themselves out with a dull roar amid the seething mass of water and smaller ice, rise above the surface, fall again, and, caught in the embrace of the swift current, go tossing and crunching down toward Benton.

Little Tim’s sheer delight in this sport exceeded that of all others. He displayed a recklessness that brought upon him the assertion by Jack Harvey that he was “a double-dyed little idiot;” and Henry Burns gave him solemn warning that some day he would go over the dam, if he didn’t stop taking chances. But they couldn’t check Tim’s ardour. He was the hardest worker, with ice-chisel or pole, and the last to leave a sheet of ice that had broken loose and started down stream. For, not always did the ice sever at the point where they were working, but sometimes above them; so that a sharp watch had to be kept against the danger of being caught on an ice patch, and carried along with it.

Then, through the days of working thus at the field, and by the natural wearing away with the spring thaw, the water gained its freedom more and more; so that there was now a quarter of a mile of black open water between the dam and the edge of the ice.

There came, then, a memorable afternoon, which had been preceded by a day of rain, loosening up the bands of winter far and wide, raising the water in the stream by the inrush of countless little brooks all along its course; whereby the whole ice jam, and in some places, fields of logs that had been stored shingle-fashion for the winter, creaked and groaned and snapped, and the whole valley of the stream was filled with the noise of the dissolution. Farmers and mill men eyed the scene with some apprehension, and talked of freshet. Tim Reardon eyed it with delight, forecasting days of warmth and fishing in store.

The boys from Benton were upon the stream, that afternoon, though they knew, deep in their hearts, they had no business there; that it was dangerous; that the whole ice field was shaky. They worked at the ice with might and main, and cheered lustily when some great cake went tumbling over the dam.

Then, of a sudden, there came a cry, that started somewhere on shore, ran all along the banks of the stream and came down to the boys at their play a cry of alarm and warning. They looked about quickly. What was the danger? Persons on shore were pointing far up stream. The next instant, they discerned the whole great ice field, as far as they could see, in motion; crumbling about the shores and heaving up into hummocks here and there. Then they felt the ice beneath their feet moving. The deliverance of the stream from winter was at hand. The ice was going out.

The wild scramble for shore was a thing not to be forgotten. Some of the boys had travelled away up beyond the vicinity of the dam, where the logs were stored within a boom. It was perilous footing across these, for the few moments that it took to regain the shore. The water opened here and there, in which the logs churned and slipped dangerously.

It was every one for himself, then, and lucky to gain the bank without bruises, or a ducking or worse. It was all so sudden, so terrifying, so confusing, that no one paused to see who else was in danger.

But when Henry Burns and Jack Harvey and George Warren, Tom and Bob and John Ellison had gained the shore, a cry came in that turned them. Away over toward the other shore, they espied Little Tim and Bess Ellison scrambling desperately. Where the girl had come from, they did not know only that she was there now, and in peril.

There was no hope of their regaining the farther shore. Already the ice had opened up to such an extent that a great gap of running water lay between the two and that bank. Would they be able to make the flight across?

A cry of horror went up from shore now; for, even as the boy and girl seemed to be nearing safety, a part of the field on which they stood separated from the rest, and began its journey down stream. But, with this, there was added to the dread and dismay of those who gazed the fact that the sheet of ice held two more captives. Henry Burns and Harvey had rushed across the ice to the rescue, only in time to be trapped with Tim and Bess.

They could all swim, but the attempt must have been fatal. The open water that now lay between them and the shore was filled with small blocks of ice, ground by the larger masses. One could not make headway through that. Was there any chance? Little Tim saw one.

Grasping Harvey by an arm, he pointed to a seam in the ice. “Chop there, Jack!” he cried. “Here, Henry, take my ice-chisel; you’re stronger than I am. If we can cut loose, perhaps we can work in shore on the small piece.”

They saw the chance a desperate one and took it. Holding in his hands the chisel he had been working with, Harvey began chopping furiously at the seam in the ice. Henry Burns, with Tim’s chisel, did likewise. A few moments’ work sufficed. The section on which they stood, already half broken away, yielded to the efforts of the two. It cracked, severed from the larger part, teetered dangerously and drifted away. The four were floating on a junk of ice that would just support them.

The cry went up to get a rope; and John Ellison and George Warren darted down along shore toward the mill. Using the blades of the heavy long-handled chisels, as best they could, for paddles, Henry Burns and Harvey strove to force the heavy block of ice toward shore. They succeeded in a measure, but they were going steadily and surely down stream.

It seemed ages before John Ellison and George Warren emerged from the mill. They had encountered Colonel Witham there, just as they had gathered up a long coil of light rope. He, anxious for the fate of his mill in the impending freshet, had not heard the cries farther up shore, and knew nothing of what was going on. He darted after them, as he saw them hurrying toward the door, demanding to know what they would do with his rope. They had no time to explain. Colonel Witham found himself shouldered out of the way, and sent spinning, by John Ellison; and when he caught himself they were rods away.

Standing now upon the shore, opposite the drifting cake, John Ellison handed one end of the rope to George Warren. Taking the other end, he separated the line into two coils, whirled one about his head and threw it far out. It fell short, splashing into the water. He tried again, and failed.

The ice raft, with its four prisoners, was driving faster now, caught by the swifter water. It was nearing the dam.

“Let me try once,” said George Warren, as they shifted their places farther down shore, following the ice.

He went at it more carefully; took time to arrange the coils so they would run free through the air; gave a hard swing to the coil in his right hand and let it fly. Henry Burns, reaching far forward to meet the rope, was almost on the point of grasping it; but it seemed to recede as it fell, losing force and splashing into the water a few feet away. The next moment, Henry Burns was overboard, in the icy water, seizing the end before it sank, upborne as it was by floating ice.

He fought his way back, and Harvey and Tim dragged him to safety, chilled, and his teeth chattering. Then the four grasped the rope and held hard. George Warren, with a sailor’s instinct, had found a stout bush by the bank and taken a few turns of the rope about that.

The cake of ice, arrested in its course, brought up, while the swift running current overflowed it. The four were ankle deep in water. But the rope held. Slowly, but surely, the ice raft yielded to the strain. It came in, out of the rush of the current, into quieter water. It touched the shore and the yawning brink of the dam was only a few rods away.

They were ashore now and running for the mill, where there was a fire that would warm them. They were half frozen, with the chilling of the water and with the fright. Even Colonel Witham, mindful now of the situation, was there to let them in and allow them the warmth of the fire.

“You’re soaking wet,” he said to Henry Burns. “There’s some old clothes that Jim Ellison left, hanging in that closet on the floor above. They’ll swallow you, but they’re dry.”

Henry Burns darted up the stairs.

As he did so, the stairs trembled and shook beneath his feet. The whole mill seemed to be quivering on its foundations. At the same moment, a cry went up from the outside that the dam had given way. The crowd gathered on the bank saw a piece of the dam suddenly collapse, through which aperture a mass of logs, grinding blocks of ice and debris from up stream tore its way.

Then screams came from the mill. Terrified, the crowd, gazing, saw one side of it totter and sway. The sound of wrenching timbers, collapsing frame-work and the twisting of iron filled the air.

Henry Burns, clutching a window frame, saw the panorama of the stream in tumult, of the shattered dam, and of the distant shore, suddenly open up before his eyes, as a great mass of the mill, its foundations torn away, sagged off and plunged into the waters. He, on the upper floor, and his companions on the floor below, found themselves at once upon the brink of the swift-running waters of the stream, saved, as by a miracle, by the other half of the mill remaining firm.

Looking now upon the wreck, Henry Burns espied a strange thing. Three pair of the huge grinding stones had gone with the destruction of that part of the mill. One pair alone remained, just before him. It was that pair upon which, on one occasion, James Ellison had placed his foot, in satisfaction, and remarked that all was safe; stones that had ground no grist for years before James Ellison’s death, but which had been disconnected from the shafting.

Now they were half upset, and one lay wrenched from the steel thread that had held it down close to the lower one. Thus there was disclosed a space cut in the lower stone, that held a small tin box, such as merchants use for papers.

Henry Burns stared, for one brief moment, in amazement. Then, crawling cautiously over, he seized the box and darted back to the window. He swung himself out on to a small roof that covered the door below; hung from that for a moment, and dropped into a heap of snow that had been shovelled into a pile there. At the same moment, the little party on the lower floor rushed forth into safety.

What they found in this box, a half-hour later, when it was opened before all, in the Ellison dining-room, fairly took their breaths away; fairly made the old house creak with the whoops that filled it; made Mrs. Ellison weep a flood of joyous tears; nearly set John and James Ellison clear out of their wits.

The old mill wrecked to be sure, but valuable still, and easily to be restored, with the rebuilding of the dam the old mill was theirs. There was the deed from Colonel Witham back to James Ellison, to prove it. There were the deeds to the lands all theirs now; no longer Colonel Witham’s. And more, and greater still the surprise. The old inn, the Half Way House, was not Colonel Witham’s, at all. It had been James Ellison’s, and there were the papers to show that. It was theirs now, and all the land for acres around it. They were no longer poor. James Ellison’s bank had been found at last. The old mill’s secret had been torn from hiding by the freshet.

Some days later, following a protracted visit on the part of Lawyer Estes to the Half Way House, there emerged from the doorway of the same, at evening, a portly person that could not be mistaken. He brought out the horse from the barn, harnessed it to a carriage, and drove away down the road at a furious pace.

The next day, Colonel Witham was missing from the inn and from Benton.

“Have him arrested?” responded John Ellison, in answer to his brother’s query; “I don’t care about that. He’s gone, and good riddance. Hello, there come Henry Burns and Jack Harvey. Let’s all go down and take a look at what’s left of the mill.”

“Poor gran’,” said Bess to Mrs. Ellison, half timidly, “what will become of her now?”

“We’ll bring her up here, dear,” said that motherly woman, “and take care of her during the little life she has left. We can’t leave her all alone down there.” And Bess danced gaily away to join the boys, her last trouble gone and nothing but joy ahead.