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   Chapter 24 AN UNEXPECTED ALLY

Thurston of Orchard Valley By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16768

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Winter was drawing towards its close at last, when, on the evening of a day in which the result of a heavy blasting charge had exceeded his utmost expectations, Geoffrey Thurston stood beside his foreman in his workmen's mess shanty. Tin lamps hung from the beams blackened with smoke, and sturdy men were finishing their six o'clock supper beneath them. The men were the pick of the province, for, until tempted by the contractor's high wages, most of them had been engaged in laying the foundations of its future greatness by wresting new spaces for corn and cattle from the forest. They ate, as they worked, heroically. The supper was varied and bountiful, for Geoffrey, who was conscious of a thrill of pride as he glanced down the long rows of weather-beaten faces, fed his workmen well. They had served him faithfully through howling gale and long black night, under scorching sun and bitter frost, and now that the result of that day's operations had brought the end of the work in sight, there was satisfaction in the knowledge that he had led such men.

"They're a fine crowd, Tom, and I'll be sorry to part with them," he said. "It's hard to believe, after all we have struggled with, that less than three weeks will see us through, but I'd give many dollars for every hour we can reduce the time by. Send for a keg of the hardest cider and I'll tell them so."

There was applause when the keg was lifted to the table with its head knocked in. Geoffrey, who had filled a tin dipper, said: "Here's my best thanks for the way you have backed me, boys. Since they carried the railroad across Beaver Creek, few men in the province have grappled as you have with a task like this; but it's sometimes just possible to go a little better than what looks like one's best, and I'm asking as a favor from all of you that you will redouble your efforts. I estimate that we'll finish this tough section in eighteen days from now, but I want the work done in less time, and accordingly I'll promise a bonus to every man if we can fire the last big shot a fortnight from to-day."

"Stan' by!" shouted a big section foreman, as he hove himself upright. "Fill every can up an' wait until I've finished. Now, Mr. Thurston, I'm talking for the rest. You've paid us good wages, an' we've earned them, every cent, though that wasn't much to our credit, for Tom from Mattawa saw we did. Still, even dollars won't buy everything, and what you can't pay us for we're ready to give. If flesh an' blood can do it, a fortnight will see us through, an' the next contract you take, if it's to wipe out the coast range or run off the Pacific, we're coming along with you. I've nailed you to the bargain, boys, an' here's-The Boss, victorious, an' to -- with his bonus!"

The long shanty rang to the roar that followed, and, when it died away, Geoffrey, who set down his can, turned to his foreman.

"Who is the little man next to Walla Jake?" he asked.

"An old partner of his from Oregon. Came in one day when you were away, and, as Jake allowed he was a square man, I took him on. Found him worth his money, and fancied I'd told you."

"You did not," said Geoffrey. "Jake's quite trustworthy, but watch the stranger well. No doubt he's honest, but I'm getting nervous now we're so near the end."

The foreman answered reassuringly, and Geoffrey, who turned away, rode beneath the snow-sprinkled firs to Savine's ranch. It was late when he reached it, but his partner and Helen were expecting him. Savine sighed with satisfaction when Geoffrey said:

"In all probability we shall fire the decisive shot a fortnight from to-day."

"It is great news," replied Julius Savine. "As I have said already, it was a lucky day for me-and mine-when I first fell in with you. Two more anxious weeks and then the suspense will be over and I can contentedly close my career. Lord! it will be well worth the living for-the consummation of the most daring scheme ever carried out in the Mountain Province. I won't see your next triumph, Geoffrey, but it can hardly be greater than this you have won for me."

"You exaggerate, sir," said Geoffrey. "It was you who won the concession and overcame all the initial difficulties, while we would never have gone so far without your assistance. Such a task would have been far beyond me alone."

"No-though it is good of you to say so. There were times when I tried to fancy I was running the contract, but that was just a sick man's craze. You have played out the game well and bravely, Geoffrey, as only a true man could. Perhaps Helen will thank you-just now I don't feel quite equal to it."

Savine's voice broke a little, and he glanced at Helen, who sat very still with downcast eyes. Geoffrey also looked at her for a second, and his elation was tinged with bitterness. He could see that she was troubled, and, with a pang of sudden misgiving, he watched her anxiously. Without the one prize he had striven for, the victory would be barren to him. Still, he desired to save her embarrassment, and when she raised her head to obey her father, he broke in:

"Miss Savine can place me under an obligation by firing the fateful charge instead. It was her first commission which brought good luck to me, and it is only fitting she should complete the result of it by turning the firing key."

Helen's eyes expressed her gratitude, as, consenting, she turned them upon the speaker. Geoffrey rising to the occasion, said:

"Did you ever hear the story of the first contract I undertook in British Columbia, sir? May I tell it to your father, Miss Savine?"

Helen was quick to appreciate his motive, and allowed him to see it. While, seizing the opportunity to change the subject, Geoffrey told the story whimsically. Humor was not his strong point, but he was capable of brilliancy just then. Julius Savine laughed heartily, and when the tale was finished all had settled down to their normal manner. When Geoffrey took his leave, however, Helen followed him to the veranda, and held out her hand. She stood close to him with the moonlight full upon her, and it was only by an effort that the man who gripped the slender fingers, conquered his desire to draw her towards him. Helen never had looked so desirable. Then he dropped her hand, and stood impassively still, waiting for what she had to say.

"I could not thank you before my father, but neither could I let you go without a word," she said, with a quiet composure which, because she must have guessed at the struggle within him, was the badge of courage. "You have won my undying gratitude, and--"

"That is a great deal, very well worth the winning," he responded. "It will be one pleasant memory to carry away with me."

"To carry with you! You are not going away?" asked Helen, with an illogical sense of dismay, which was not, however, in the least apparent. She knew that any sign of feeling would provoke the crisis from which she shrank.

"Yes," declared Geoffrey. "Once this work is completed, I shall seek another field."

"You must not!" Though her voice was strained, Helen, who dared not do otherwise, looked him steadily in the eyes. "You must not go. Now, when, if you stay in the Province, fame and prosperity lie within your grasp you will not overwhelm me by adding to the knowledge of all I have robbed you of. It is hard for me to express myself plainly-but I dare not take this from you, too."

"Can you not guess how hard it all is for me?" He strode a few paces apart from her while the words fell from his lips. Then he halted again and turned towards her.

"I had not meant to distress you-but how can I go on seeing you so near me, hearing your voice, when every word and smile stir up a longing that at times almost maddens me? What I have done I did for you, and did it gladly, but this new command I cannot obey. Fame and prosperity! What are either worth to me when the one thing I would sell my life for is, you have told me, not to be attained?"

"I am sorry," faltered Helen, whose breath came faster. "More sorry than I can well express. I dare not ruin a bright future for you. Is there nothing I can say that will prevent you?"

"Only one thing," Geoffrey moving nearer looked down upon her until his gaze impelled Helen to lift her eyes. There was no longer any trace of passion in his face, which in spite of its firm lines ha

d grown gentle.

"Only one thing," he repeated. "Please listen-it is necessary, even if it hurts you. I cannot blame you for my own folly, but my love is incurable. You are a dutiful daughter, with an almost exaggerated idea of justice, and I know the power circumstances give me. Still, I am so covetous that I must have all or nothing; I love you so that I dare not use the advantage chance has given me. Nevertheless, I will not despair even yet, and some day when, perhaps, absence has hidden some of my many shortcomings, I will come back and beg speech with you."

"You are very generous." The words vibrated with sincerity. "Once-always-I have cruelly wronged you--" but here Geoffrey raised his hand and looked at the girl with a wry smile that had no mirth in it.

"You have never wronged me, Miss Savine. Once you spoke with a marvelous accuracy, and I am not generous, only so unusually wise that you must have inspired me. I cannot be content with less than the best, and what that is-again, if I am brutal you must remember I cannot help my nature-I will tell you."

He stooped, and, before she realized his intentions, deftly caught Helen's hands in each of his own, tightening his grip on them masterfully, until he forced her to look up at him. Helen trembled as she met his eyes. The man had spoken no more than the truth when he said he could not help his nature, and, suddenly transformed, it was the former Geoffrey Thurston she had shrunk from who held her fast.

"Yes, I am wise. I know I could bend you to my will now, and that afterwards you would hate me for it," he told her. "I-I would not take you so, not if you came to me. Further, for we have dropped all disguises, and face the naked truth, I have striven, and starved, and suffered for you, risked my life often-and you shall not cheat me of my due, which alone is why, because my time is not come yet, I shall go away. The one reward that will satisfy me is this, that of your own will you will once more hold my hands and say, 'I love you, Geoffrey Thurston,' and I can wait with patience-for you will come to me thus some day."

He bent his head; and Helen felt her heart leap; but it was only her fingers upon which his lips burned hot. The next moment he had gone, while leaning breathless against the balustrade she gazed after him.

Geoffrey did not glance behind him until, when some distance from the ranch, he reined his horse in, and wiped his forehead. He had yielded at last to an uncontrollable impulse which was perhaps part of his inheritance from the old moss troopers, who had carried off their brides on the crupper. As he walked his horse, a muffled beat of hoofs came up the trail, and he fancied he heard a voice say: "The twentieth-I'll be ready."

Then a mounted figure appearing for a moment, vanished among the firs. Geoffrey, turning back to camp, noticed that beside the hollows the hoofs had made, there was the print of human feet in the powdery snow.

"There is nothing to bring any rancher down this way, and a man must have walked beside the rider," he speculated. "Who on earth could it be?" Dismissing the incident from his mind, he went on his way. It was only afterwards that the significance of the footprints became apparent.

There was a light in Geoffrey's quarters when at last he approached them, and the foreman met him at the door. "That blame waster, Black, has come back. Rode in quietly after dark, and none of the boys have set eyes on him," he said; and, noting his master's surprise, he added with a chuckle, "I put him in there for safety, and waited right here to take care of him."

Geoffrey went into the shanty, carefully closed the door, and turned somewhat sternly upon the visitor. Black's outer appearance suggested a degree of prosperity, but his face was anxious as he said, "I guess you're surprised to see me?"

"I am," was the answer. "In view of the fact that it is my duty to hand you over to the nearest magistrate, my surprise is hardly astonishing."

"No," agreed Black, "it is not. Still, I don't think you'll surrender me. Anyway, you've got to listen to a little story first. You didn't hear the whole of it last time. I figure I can trust you to do the square thing."

"Be quick, then." Geoffrey leaned against the table while his visitor began:

"You've heard of the Blue Bird mine, and how one of the men who relocated the lapsed claim was found in the river with a gash, which a rock might have made, in the back of his head? Of course you have. Well, it was me and Bob Morgan who located the Blue Bird. Morgan was a good prospector, but the indications were hazy, and he got drunk when he could. I knew mighty little of minerals, and we done nothing with it until the time to put in our legal improvements was nearly up. Then Morgan struck rich pay ore, and we worked night and day. But we weren't quite quick enough-one night two jumpers pulled our stakes up. Oh, yes, they had the law behind them, for says the Crown, 'Unless you've developed your claim within the legal limit, it lapses; and any free miner can relocate.'"

"Come to the point," said Thurston. "I'm sleepy."

"I'm coming," Black continued; "Morgan had no grit. He got on to the whiskey, and talked about shooting himself. I swore I'd shoot the first of the other crowd who set foot on the claim instead, and half the boys who started driving pegs all round us heard me. There was a doubt as to whether the jumpers had hit the time putting their stakes in, and the boys were most for me, but as usual the thieves had a man with money behind them. His name was Shackleby."

"Ah! I begin to understand things now," said Geoffrey.

"I was sitting alone in my tent at night when one of them jumpers came in," Black went on, unheeding. "All the rest were sleeping, and the bush was very still. He'd a roll of dollar bills to give me if I'd light out quietly. Said I'd nothing to stand on, but the man behind him didn't want to figure in the papers if it went to court. Well, I wouldn't take the money, and ran him out of my tent. When he touched his pistol, I had an ax in my hand, and it was a poor man's luck that one of the boys must come along. When he'd slouched off, I began to hanker for the money, went after the jumper to see if I could raise his price, missed him and came back again, but I struck his tracks in the mud beside a creek, with another man's hoof-marks behind them. Well, next morning that jumper was found in the river with no money in his wallet, and the boys looked black at me until I had an interview with Mr. Shackleby. He'd fixed the whole thing up good enough to hang me, and nailed me down to blame hard terms as the price of my liberty. You're getting tired-no? Shackleby got the Blue Bird, and kept his claws on me until his man, Leslie, sent me up to bust your machines; but Shackleby has worn me thin, until I'm ready to stand my trial sooner than run any more of his mean jobs for him; and now, to cut the long end off, do you believe me?"

"I think I do," replied Geoffrey. "What made you bolt from here, and what do you want from me? Is it the same promise as before?"

Black related the incidents of his abduction. He raised his right hand with a dramatic gesture as he concluded:

"As I have been a liar, this is gospel truth, s'help me. Whoever killed that jumper-and I figure Shackleby knows-it wasn't me. The night you fished me out of the river I said, 'Here's a man with sand enough to stand right up to Shackleby,' and I'll make a deal with you."

"The terms?" said Geoffrey.

"Rather better than before. On your part, a smart lawyer to take my case if Shackleby sets the police on me. On mine-with you behind me, I can tell a story that will bring two Companies down on Shackleby. What brought me to the scratch now was, that I read in The Colonist that you'd be through shortly, and I guessed Shackleby's insect, Leslie, would have another shot at you. I'm open to take my chances of hanging to get even with them."

The mingled fear and hatred in the speaker's face was certainly genuine, and Geoffrey said briefly: "If I thought you guilty, I'd slip irons on to you. As it is, I'm willing to close that deal. You'll have to take my word and lie quiet, until you're wanted, where I hide you."

"I guess that is good enough for me," Black declared exultantly.

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