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   Chapter 12 CHAPTER XI

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17995

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


ON THE RAILROAD

It was a hot autumn morning when we prepared to commence our task of railroad building, the last forlorn hope between ourselves and ruin. Harry and I stood each beside our teams, which were harnessed to a great iron scoop or scraper designed to tear out a heavy load of soil at each traverse. This we would pile in the slight hollows, so that, sinking a few feet through the rises and raised slightly above each depression, the road-bed might run straight and level across the prairie. A group of sinewy, dusty men waited about the line of flat cars loaded with rails close behind, while a plume of black smoke curled aloft from the huge locomotive in a dingy column against the blue of the sky. This, with the cluster of tents and shanties, was all that broke the white grass-land's empty monotony.

The surveyor, who was perhaps dustier than any, leaned against the engine's buffer-frame close beside me, mopping his face, which was also smeared with soot, and surveyed us complacently, for with our assistants we formed, as far as outward appearances went, a workmanlike if somewhat disreputable company. Water was scarce that season and too precious to waste in superfluous washing, while we had little leisure to spare on even much-needed repairs to our garments. Still, we were alert, hard and eager, while after the preceding anxiety it was with improved spirits that we found definite work before us, with, what was better still, definite pay at the end of it. 118

"Well, they've finished the line posts; I guess you can start in," said the surveyor. "You look as if you could keep those scoops from rusting. Good luck go with you! Stir round and heave those rails down, boys!"

Then with a crack of whips we started, and it was with satisfaction that I heard the trampling of hoofs bite into the sod and the bright steel edges rip through the matted roots. Soft earth and tangled grasses filled the iron scoop behind, the air vibrated with the strident clang of rails, and the locomotive engineer performed an inspiriting solo upon his whistle, while the rest of our party followed to finish the wake we left with their shovels. Somewhat improved appliances are used in railroad building now, but though it had limitations the scraper did excellent work in its day. All went well and smoothly for at least a month, and our hearts grew lighter every day, while each time the big locomotive came clattering up we had another length of road-bed ready for the rails, and the surveyor commented on our progress with frank approval. He also did so to some purpose in his reports to Winnipeg, as subsequently transpired, while occasionally, when we lounged languidly contented under the dew-damped canvas at nights, Harry would figure with the end of a pencil how much we had already placed to our credit.

"We are doing well, Ralph," he said the last time it happened, with a smile that lighted his sunny face. "There's enough now to pay off those people in Brandon, and with luck we'll manage to settle with the worst of the rest before the frost comes. It's almost a pity we didn't try the railroad sooner, but"-and here he glanced at me with a twinkle in his eye-"we came out to work our own land, and it's your intention to add acre to acre until Fairmead's one of the biggest farms in the Territories, isn't it?" 119

"Yes," I answered soberly. "God willing, if health and strength hold out," and in his own expressive way Harry shook hands with me. Harry's hand harmonized with the rest of him, and hands as well as faces are characteristic of their owners' temperament. It was small and shapely, one might call it almost feminine, but its touch conveyed the subtle impression of courage and nervous energy, while I wondered what the woman who reared him would think if she saw those toughened and ingrained fingers now. Neither were words needed, for Harry's actions had each their meaning, and that grasp seemed to say that in this I was leader and whatever happened he would loyally follow me. Then he added softly:

"Yes-with your reservation-we will do it."

Uninterrupted good fortune seldom lasts long, however, or at least it seldom did with us, and presently the line ran into a big coulée which wound through what we call hills on the prairie-that is to say, a ridge of slightly higher levels swelling into billowy rises. In the Western Dominion the rivers, instead of curving round the obstacles they encounter, generally go through, though whether they find the gorges or fret them out is beyond me. In the latter case, judging from what one sees in British Columbia, they must have worked hard for countless centuries. The hollow as usual was partly filled with birches and willows, which hampered us, for they must be cut down and the roots grubbed up; and when at last we had scooped a strip of road-bed out of the slanting side it seemed as if disaster again meant to overtake us.

Autumn had melted into Indian summer, but it was still hot. With the perspiration dripping from me one afternoon, I whirled and drove the keen axe into a silver birch's side, seldom turning my eyes from the shower of white chips, because looking up between the slender stems one 120 could see the black smoke of a thrasher streaking the prairie. The crops of the man who employed it had escaped damage, and as those of many had been spoiled by frost I knew he would reap a handsome profit on every bushel. I did not grudge it him, but the contrast with our failure troubled me. My throat was parched and dried up, for we had finished all the water they brought us in by train, and no man could drink of the shrunken creek, which was alkaline. It flowed down from one of those curious lakes to be found on the Western prairie, where clouds of biting dust which smarts one's eyes and nostrils intolerably rise up like smoke from the white crust about the margin of the waters, whose color is a vivid greenish blue.

I stepped aside a moment to let the construction train with its load of rails roll past, and stood leaning on the axe wiping the perspiration out of my eyes until Harry's shout rang out warningly. Then through the strident scream of brakes and the roar of blown-off steam an ominous rumbling commenced round a bend; there was a rush of flying footsteps, and Harry shouted again. I ran forward down the newly-laid track, and when I halted breathless, my first sensation was one of thankfulness followed by dismay. Harry was struggling to hold an excited team not far away. It was evident that he and the rest were safe, but it was also equally plain that we must gather our courage to meet another blow. In no circumstances could much, if any, profit have been made on that portion of the line which traversed the coulée, but we took it with the rest; and now the road-bed we had painfully scooped out had been swept away and lay a chaotic mass of débris, some sixty yards below, for, loosened by the excavation, the side of the ravine had slipped down bodily.

"I'm glad you and the teams are safe," was all I could 121 find to say when Harry met me, for I struggled against an inclination to do either of two things. One was to sit down and groan despairingly, and the other to abuse everything on the Canadian prairie.

Harry at first said nothing. He was panting heavily, but another man answered for him:

"I guess you might be, and only for your partner's grit the teams wouldn't have been saved. When we saw the whole blame ravine tumbling in the only thing that struck us was to light out quick, and we did it in a hurry, not stopping to think. Something else struck your partner, too, a devastatin' load of dirt coming down on the teams, and he went back for them. Cut the traces of one scraper-you can see the blame thing busted in the bottom there; then there was a roar and she came down solid with a rush, while we did the shouting when he brought them safe at a gallop out of the dust."

"That's a side issue," said Harry very gravely, "and the main one is serious. Ralph, if all this slope is going to slip down it means disaster to us. You see, after what was said when we took the contract, we couldn't well back out of it, even if we wanted to. Hallo, here's his majesty the surveyor on his trolley."

With a clatter of wheels the light frame raced down the slight incline, and unloaded its occupants violently when it ran into the back of the construction train which they had stopped just in time. We did not, however, follow it, because we wanted time to think; and both our faces were anxious when the surveyor returned.

"I'm afraid it's a hard case-one of those things no man can figure on ahead-give you my word we never expected this," he said. "That bank looked solid enough, but there's more of it just waiting to go, and the whole track will 122 have to be set back several yards or so. Anyway, it's particularly hard on you. Remembering what I told you, have you settled yet what you are going to d

o?"

"Yes," I answered slowly. "We made the agreement, and we mean to keep it. We'll hire more men and teams if what we have won't do. Somehow we've got to finish our bargain, and get our money back, and we'll come to the end of the ravine some day. Isn't that your view, Harry?"

"Of course!" said Harry, as the surveyor turned in his direction. By this time we had fallen into our respective parts. When there was need of judicious speech or care in matters financial it was Harry's tact or calculations that solved the difficulty, while when it came to a hard grapple with natural difficulties I led the way. Again the surveyor glanced from one to the other before he said:

"There's grit in both of you. After all, what you think does not affect the question; a contract's a contract, and we hold the whip hand over you, but I'm glad to see you take it that way."

The surveyor, as we were to learn, was a man of discernment, and he may have been making an experiment, but my blood was up, and I answered stiffly:

"The whip hand has nothing to do with it. We will carry out our agreement, because we pledged ourselves to do so; if we hadn't, ten railroad companies would not make us, and we're open to defy any man in the Dominion, director or surveyor, to force an injustice upon us."

The autocrat was not in the least angry, and smiled dryly as he said: "I believe you. Well, I make no promises, but if you're not above all assistance I guess I might help you. You can lay off and rest your teams for two days anyway, while I turn loose the shovelers; then you'll want all the energy that's in you."

In different circumstances we might have enjoyed that 123 holiday. As it was, I lay still in the sunshine all day, disconsolately staring across the prairie down the track that was apparently going to complete our discomfiture, and smoking until my mouth was blistered. Where Harry went to I did not know. On the second evening, however, our new partner, who had been back to the main line for supplies, came in, and listened with apparent unconcern while we explained matters to him. Acting under impulse, I even suggested that we might release him from his unfortunate bargain, but he laughed as he answered:

"You're generous, but it can't be done. Experiences of this kind are not new to me, and I'm a Jonah, as I warned you. Still, when bad luck follows one everywhere-floods on the Fraser, cattle-sickness, snow coming heavy just when one is finding signs of gold-you know there's no earthly use running away from it, and it's wisest to laugh at fortune and stay right where you are. Dare say we'll come out on the right side yet; and if we don't, in fifty years it won't make much difference. Now try to look less like guests at a funeral, and talk of something cheerful."

I made some moody answer and envied him his way of taking things, while Harry tried to smile, and Johnston, lifting down a banjo, commenced a plantation ditty, which he sang with so much spirit that presently he had most of the shovel gang for an appreciative audience. Then there were roars of laughter when he stood in the entrance of the tent and, with the utmost solemnity, made them a ridiculous speech. After this they went away to their canvas dwellings, and I knew that Ellsworthy Johnston was one of those born soldiers of fortune who extract the utmost brightness from an arduous life, and, meeting each reverse with a smiling face, cheerfully bear their ill-rewarded share in the development of Greater Britain beyond the seas. One may find a good many of them on the Western prairie. 124

We recommenced work the next morning, and, under the delicious still coolness of the Indian summer, we increased the strain on nerve and muscle and cut down the grocery bill, though I insisted on feeding the horses even better than before. It is never economy to stint one's working cattle, especially when one demands the utmost from them, besides being a procedure which is distasteful to any merciful man. However, though we had to hire more horses, wondering how we would ever pay for them when the contract was finished, the track crept on along the treacherous slope, where we scooped out a double width as basis, winding among the birches in glistening, sinuous curves, while the end of the valley grew nearer every day. Again Harry and I lapsed into the excitement of a race against adversity, because unless we were well out on the open prairie before winter bound the sod into the likeness of concrete there could be no hope of even partly recouping our loss. Even Johnston seemed infected with our spirit; but while we generally worked in dogged silence, he had ever a jest on his lips.

One evening-and the days were shortening all too rapidly-when I sat tired and dejected on an empty provision case, a rail-layer brought in several letters, and, as usual, they were all for me. Harry stood bare-armed, with the dust still thick upon him, just outside the entrance of the tent, holding a spider over our little stove, and glanced half regretfully toward the budget. No one ever seemed to write to Harry. The first was from Jasper. He had visited Brandon and Winnipeg on business, and wrote in his usual off-hand style.

"I've been in to see those dealers, taking my best broker along, to convince them that we only raised solid men in this section," it ran. "Thought I'd enlighten them about you, and the broker laid himself out to back me. He gets all 125 my business-see?-while you can't beat a Winnipeg broker at real tall talking. I should say we impressed them considerably; or perhaps it was the big cigars and the spread at the hotel. Said they'd sense enough to know a straight man when they saw him, and they'd give you plenty time to pay in. So all you've got to do is to sail right on with the track-grading. The boys were saying down to Elktail that Fletcher and his father-in-law don't get on, and there's going to be trouble there presently. I think the old man started in to reform him, and Fletcher don't like unlimited reform."

"Just like Jasper," said Harry. "A woman's heart, and the strength of three ordinary men. Still, when Jasper starts in with a rush no man can say where he'll finish, and we may hear next that he has been all round Winnipeg on our account borrowing money."

Then the new partner, who was splitting firewood close by, laid down his axe as he said: "Hope you'll introduce me to Jasper some day. From what you say, he is a man worth knowing."

There were two more letters, and the next-my fingers trembled as I opened it-was from Grace. It was dated from Starcross House, in Lancashire, and written in frank friendliness, expressing regret for our misfortune, which, it seemed, she had heard about, and ending: "But by this time you will have learned that there are ups and downs in every country, and I know you both have the courage to face the latter. So go on with a stout heart, believing that I and all your other friends look for your ultimate success." To this there was a postscript: "I met your cousin, Miss Lorimer, the other day, and was sorry to find her very pale and thin. She had just recovered from a serious illness, and seemed troubled when I told her how you had lost your harvest." 126

I placed the thin sheets reverently in an inside pocket, and read them afterward over and over again, because I might not answer them. She had written out of kindly sympathy when the news of our trouble first reached her, and that was all; while I felt I could not write a mere formal note of thanks-and more than this was out of the question now. Nevertheless, I was thankful for her good wishes, and then I stood silent under the starlight, staring down the misty coulée and thinking of Cousin Alice as mechanically I stripped the envelope from the next letter. She had always been ailing, even in the days when we were almost as brother and sister; and now I longed that I might comfort her as in my periodical fits of restlessness she used to soothe me. That, however, was impossible, for my cousin was part of the sheltered life I had left behind across the sea, and I was in Western Canada with a very uncertain future before me.

Then, moving back into the light of the lamp, I read the last letter. With a gasp of astonishment, I handed it to Harry, saying: "I can make nothing of this. Who in the wide world can have sent the money?"

He laid down the spider, and, bending until the glow from the tent door fell on the paper, read:

"Mr. Ralph Lorimer, of Fairmead.

Sir,-We have received the sum of one thousand dollars, from a correspondent whose identity we are not at liberty to reveal, to place to your credit. If you prefer, you may regard this amount as an unsecured loan and repay it with current interest on opportunity. Otherwise it is unconditionally at your disposal, and we will have pleasure in honoring your drafts to that extent.

---- ----

Agent for the Bank of Montreal."

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