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   Chapter 4 CHAPTER III

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16743

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


"THE LAND OF PROMISE"

It was a dismal afternoon in early spring when I lounged disconsolately about the streets of Winnipeg. The prairie metropolis had not then attained its present magnitude, but it was busy and muddy enough; for when the thaw comes the mire of a Western town is indescribable. Also odd showers of wet snow came down, and I shivered under my new skin coat, envying the busy citizens who, with fur caps drawn low down, hurried to and fro. One and all wore the stamp of prosperity, and their voices had a cheerful ring that grated on me, for I of all that bustling crowd seemed idle and without a purpose. So, feeling utterly forlorn, a stranger in a very strange and, at first sight, a forbidding land, I trudged up and down, waiting for the evening train which was to bear me west, and pondering over all that had happened during the past few weeks.

There was the parting with my uncle, who laid a strong hand on my shoulder and lapsed into the speech of the country as he said, "I need not tell thee to set thy teeth and hang on through the first few years, lad. Thy father played out a losing game only too staunchly; and it's stey work at the beginning. I mind when I started the mill-but that's an old story. It's the man who can grin and bear it, coming up smiling after each fall, who wins in the end. And thou hast all the world before thee. Still, remember there are staunch friends behind thee here in Lancashire." 26

I think his fingers shook a little, but Martin Lorimer was not addicted to much display of sentiment, and with a cough he hurried away; though I remember that the old cashier, who had served him since he started, putting a sealed envelope in my hand, said:

"It's a draft for one hundred pounds on the Bank of Montreal, and it's a secret; but I'm not debiting the estate with it. Thou'rt a gradely fool for thy trouble, Ralph Lorimer. But I knew thy father, and, like him, thou mun go thy own way. Well, maybe it's for the best; and good luck go with thee."

Next came my farewell from cousin Alice, who blushed as, laying before me a fine Winchester repeating rifle, which must have cost her some trouble to obtain in England then, she said:

"It's only a little keepsake, but I thought you would like it-and you will remember your cousin when you use it. Ralph, you have chosen to work out your own destiny, and for many a night your uncle fumed over it until at last he said that the child who fought for scraps in the gutter grew to be worth any two of the spoon-fed. You know how fond he is of forcible simile, and he frowned when I suggested that Canada was not a gutter. Still, it is too late to consider whether you did well, and I ask, as a last favor, if you are ever unfortunate, if only for the sake of old times, you will let us know. And now I wish you all prosperity. Good-bye, Ralph dear, and God bless you."

Her eyes were dim, and she looked so small and fragile that I stooped and kissed her, while though she drew herself suddenly away with the crimson mantling upward from her neck, I felt that whatever happened I had a friend for life in Alice Lorimer.

Now all of that had faded into the past that I had left behind across the sea, and henceforward I knew there must 27 be no more glancing back. I had chosen my own path, and must press forward with eyes turned steadfastly ahead, although at present I could see no further than the prairie station that I would reach some time before dawn the next day. A wheat-grower's dwelling thirty miles back from the railroad was registered as wanting assistance, the immigration officer said. Slowly, with more snow and a freshening of the bitter wind, the afternoon wore itself away, and I was glad when that evening I boarded the west-bound train. It was thronged with emigrants of many nationalities, and among them were Scandinavian maidens, tow-haired and red-cheeked, each going out to the West to be married. Their courtship would be brief and unromantic, but, as I was afterward to learn, three-fourths of the marriages so made turned out an unqualified success. Still, I found a corner in the smoking end of a long Colonist car, and, with the big bell clanging and a storm of voices exchanging farewells in many tongues, the great locomotive hauled us out into the whirling snow.

Thick flakes beat on the windows, and icy draughts swept through the car, while the big stove in a boxed-in corner hummed with a drowsy roar. With half-closed eyes I leaned back against the hard maple while the preceding scenes of the long journey rolled like a panorama before me. Twelve days it took the ancient steamer, which swarmed like a hive, to thrash through mist and screaming gale across the Atlantic, while fifteen hundred emigrants below wished themselves dead. Then there followed an apparently endless transit in the lurching cars, where we slept as best we could on uncushioned seats and floor, through dark pine forests, with only an occasional tin-roofed hamlet to break the monotony. After that there were wooden cities in Ontario very much like the hamlets of a larger growth; and when at last sickened by the vibration, we sped out on to the long-expected 28 prairie, the prospect was by no means inviting. Spring, I was told, was very late that year, and the plains rolled before us to the horizon a dreary white wilderness streaked by willow-swale, with at first many lonely lakes rippling a bitter steely-blue under the blasts, while crackling ice fringed their shores. Then several of my companions, who were young and romantic Britons with big revolvers strapped about them under their jackets, grew suspiciously quiet, and said no more about the strange adventures they had looked for in the West. There was nothing romantic about this land, which lacked even the clear skies Grace Carrington spoke of. It looked a hard country, out of which only a man with the power of stubborn endurance could wrest a living.

So with a rhythmic beat of whirring wheels, and now and again a clash of couplings as we slid down some hollow of the track, we rolled on through the night, while the scream of wind grew louder outside the rattling cars. I was nearly asleep when there came a sudden shock, and the conductor's voice rang out warning us to leave the train. At slackened speed we had run into a snow block, and the wedge-headed plow was going, so he said, to plug the drifts under a full pressure, and butt her right straight through.

Shivering to the backbone, I dropped from the platform into two feet of snow, and after floundering through it I halted among a group of excited men behind the two huge locomotives. For a newcomer it was a striking scene. The snow had ceased, and watery moonlight lit up the great white plain, in the midst of which, with the black smoke of the engines drifting across under a double column of roaring steam, stood the illuminated train. There was nothing else to show that man had ever been there before, except the spectral row of telegraph posts that dwindled in long perspective to the horizon. Ahead a billowy drift which 29 filled a hollow rose level with the wedge-shape framing on the snow-plow front. They run both better plows and more luxurious Colonist cars now.

"Will they get through?" I asked a tall man in fur robes with whom I had chatted.

"Oh, yes, you just bet they will," he answered cheerfully. "Jim Grant and Number Sixty are a very bad pair to beat; he'll either jump the track or rush her through it. He's backing her out now for the first lead."

With a clang of the bell to warn us off the line, the coupled engines slowly shoved the long train back the way they had come. Then the roar of blown-off steam grew still, and with loud blasts from the funnels that rapidly quickened they swept again down the slight grade like snorting giants, the huge head-lamp casting a blaze of radiance before them. It went out suddenly; I heard the thud of a soft but heavy shock, and long waves of whiteness curled up, while above it there was a hurling aloft of red sparks from the twin funnels. Then the tail-light glimmered more brightly as it returned again, and we looked into the steep hollow with rammed-back slopes out of which the engines backed slowly.

"She'll do it sure next time," said the passenger. "Grant's going right back to Winnipeg to get on speed

enough;" and under an eddying blast of steam the massive locomotives charged past us once more, while I felt a thrill as I watched them, and envied Grant, the engineer. It was something to hold that power in the hollow of one's hand. Thick white powder whirled aloft like smoke before them, a filmy wavy mass that seemed alive rolled aside, while presently the whistle boomed in triumph, and there was an exultant shout from the passengers, for steam had vanquished the snow, and the road lay open before us. Blundering down the gap they had made I climbed on board the train, 30 colder than ever. As my new friend seemed a native of the neighborhood, I asked him whether he knew the farmer to whom I was going to offer my services.

He laughed as he answered: "I ought to. Beat me badly over a deal in stock he did. Old Coombs is a Britisher, and a precious low-grade specimen. Dare say he'll take you, but stick him for half as much again as he offers you, and bargain ex harvest-you'll get double wages anywhere then-see? How does this great country strike you-don't think much of it?-well, go slow and steady and it will grow on you. It's good enough for me, and I was raised on the best land in Ontario."

This was not encouraging, but I knew that most beginnings are unpleasant, and I went shivering to sleep until in the gray twilight of what might have been a mid-winter dawn a blast of the whistle awakened me and the brakes began to scream. The train ran slowly past an edifice resembling a sod stable with one light in it, stopped, and the conductor strode into the car. Even now the Western railroad conductor is a personage, but he might have been an emperor then, and this particular specimen had lorded it over the Colonist passengers in a manner that for several days had made me long to rebuke him. It was foolish, of course, but I was as yet new to the ways of the country, and I fear we were always a somewhat combative family.

"Any one for Elktail? Jump off; we can't wait all night with the west-bound mail," he said. "Say you," looking at me, "you had an Elktail ticket. Why aren't you getting off?"

"It's Vermont I am bound for," I answered sleepily. "You will see it on my ticket if you look in your wallet;" but this, of course, the magnate refused to do, and when another hoot of the whistle announced the engineer's impatience he called a brakeman, saying: 31

"You are bound for Elktail, and we've no time for fooling. Won't get off? Well, we'll soon put you," and, grasping my shoulder, he hustled me toward the platform of the car.

Now, though Martin Lorimer sometimes gave way to outbreaks of indignation, he was fond of impressing the fact on me that if forced into a quarrel one should take the first steps deliberately. Also, even then I remembered that Coombs' homestead lay almost as near Elktail, and a happy thought struck me. So I offered but little resistance until, as we stood on the platform, the brakeman or some one waved a lantern; then, while with a shock of couplings the cars commenced to move, I gripped the guard-rail with one hand and held the other ready, for I had determined if I left that train before I reached Vermont the conductor should certainly leave it too.

"Off with you!" he shouted, and shook me by the shoulder; but I seized him by the waist-the cars were moving faster now-and then flung myself off backward into the snow. I fell softly for as it happened the conductor fell under me, and, profiting by experience hardly earned in several colliery disputes, I took the precaution of sitting on him before he could get up.

"It won't be my fault if you get hurt because you don't keep still," I said.

Then there was a roar of laughter close by, and staring breathless down the track I saw the tail-light of the train grow dimmer across the prairie until it stopped and came swinging toward us again.

"I'd rather have lost five dollars than missed that," said my new friend, rubbing his hands. "Not bad for a raw Britisher-put the boss conductor off his own train and held up the Vancouver mail! Say, what are you going to do with him, sonny?" 32

"He can get up, and learn to be civil," I answered grimly; and when the man did so, sullenly, the other said:

"Well, I don't want any mess-up with the brakeman, so we may as well walk out now that they're coming back for him. Only one man in this shanty, and he wouldn't turn out unless it were a director. Leave your baggage where they dumped it-can't move it until daylight-and come along with me!"

I did so somewhat regretfully, for I felt just then that if this was the way they welcomed the emigrant in that country it would be a relief to do battle with the whole of them. Afterward I learned that when one understands his ways, which is difficult to do at first, there are many good qualities in the Western railroad-man. Still, I always wondered why the friendless newcomer should be considered a fair mark for petty hostility, especially by those who formerly were poor themselves-all of which applies only to city-bred men who hold some small office, for those who live by hard labor in forest and prairie would share their last crust with the stranger.

We trudged away from the station, with a square block of wooden houses rising nakedly in front of us from the prairie, and two gaunt elevators flanking it to left and right beside the track, which is one's usual first impression of a Western town. The rambling wooden building which combined the callings of general store and hotel was all in darkness, for the owner expected no guests just then, and would not have got up for any one but my companion if he had. So, after pounding long on the door, a drowsy voice demanded, with many and vivid expletives, who was there, and then added:

"Oh, it's you, Jasper; what in the name of thunder are you making all that row about? And what are you doing waking up a man this time o' night! Hold on! You're an 33 obstinate man, and I guess you'll bust my door unless I let you in."

The speaker did so, and when he had ushered us into a long bare room with a stove still twinkling in the midst of it, he explained that his subordinates would not serve an ambassador before the regulation breakfast hour, and lighting a kerosene lamp immediately withdrew. Jasper, however, took it all as a matter of course, and when, rolled in his long coat, he stretched himself on a settee and went to sleep, I followed suit. Still they gave us a good breakfast-porridge, steak, potatoes, corn-cakes and molasses-at which I wondered, because I had not discovered as yet that there is no difference on the prairie between any of the three meals of the day.

When it was finished, my companion, who gave me directions as to how to find Coombs' homestead, added:

"Remember what I told you about harvest, and, if you strike nothing better, when the wheat is ripe come straight back to me. I'm Long Jasper of Willow Creek, and every one knows me. I like your looks, and I'll give you double whatever Coombs pays you. Guess he'll have taught you something, and I'm not speculating much when I stake on that. You'll fetch Jackson's crossing on the flat; go in and borrow a horse from him. Tell him Jasper sent you. Your baggage? When the station agent feels energetic he'll dump it into his shed, but I guess there's nothing that would hurry him until he does. Now strike out; it's only thirty miles, and if you go on as you've begun you'll soon feel at home in this great country!"

I thanked him sincerely and departed; and, as I passed the station, I saw that the agent evidently had not felt energetic yet, for my two boxes lay just where they had been flung out beside the track. As a preliminary experience it was all somewhat daunting, and the country forbidding, 34 raw, even more unfinished than smoke-blackened Lancashire, and very cold; but I had found that every one seemed contented, and many of them proud of that new land, and I could see no reason why I too should not grow fond of it. At least I had not seen a hungry or a ragged person since I landed in Canada. Besides, Carrington Manor was less than fifty miles away, though it was evident now that a great gulf lay between Ralph Lorimer, the emigrant seeking an opportunity to learn his business as farm-servant, and the heiress of Carrington.

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