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   Chapter 14 CHAPTER XII

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17600

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE UNEXPECTED

On the first opportunity we paid off the most pressing of our creditors, and continued our labor with greater cheerfulness, working double tides when there was moonlight, scooping out the line along the sides of the coulée, though we lost more than I cared to calculate on every yard of it. As we did so the days grew shorter and shorter, and often in the mornings there was a keen frost in the air. It was a losing game, but we had given our bond and played it out stubbornly, while Johnston, who worked as hard as either now, cheered us with witty anecdote and quaint philosophy after each especially disappointing day. Then one evening when the surveyor sat with us, as he did occasionally, a man approached the tent.

"There's a curious critter hunting round for you," he said, "looks most like a low-down played-out Britisher. He's wanting Contractor Lorimer, and won't lie down until he finds him."

"Adam Lee of Stoney Clough for a dollar; I've been expecting him," said Harry, with a low whistle. "You needn't go, surveyor. Have you been fascinating any more young damsels, Ralph? Larry, will you be kind enough to show his reverence in."

The man grinned as he went out, and presently Lee stood before us. He looked a little stronger than when I last saw him, but there was trouble in his face, and, when I explained to the rest who he was, he sat down and commenced 129 his story. Life is generally hard to such as he, and living close packed together in the hive of a swarming town, with their few joys and many sorrows open for every eye to see, they lose the grace of reticence.

"I set up a stitching shop in a shed against Tom Fletcher's house," he said. "There were none of my kin left in the wide world but Minnie, and, if I wasn't a burden, I wanted to live near her. They brought me saddles and harness to sew, and I earned a little, but I was main anxious for Thomas Fletcher. The lust of strong drink was in him, and he had sinful fits of temper, raging like one demented when I told him to cast out the devil. 'I'll cast out thee an' thy preaching into perdition,' he said. Then Minnie must tell me if I was too good for her husband, and only making trouble, they did not want me there, and I saw that sometimes Tom Fletcher scowled with angry eyes at her after I had spoken to him faithfully. So, because it is an ill thing to cause strife between man and wife, I left my daughter-and I had come half across the world to find her. They told me there were lots of men and horses working on the new railway, and I wondered if there was anything I could do that would keep me. They said Ralph Lorimer was a big contractor-an' there was doubt between us, but I have forgiven thee."

"Very kind of you, I'm sure!" said Harry. "The question is, however, what can you do?" and the old man answered eagerly:

"Anything, if it's saddles or harness or mending shoes. I can cut things in hardwood and sharpen saws too, and I'll work for a trial for nothing but my keep."

I looked down at him compassionately, for he was old and broken in spirit, and would plainly starve if turned adrift on the prairie, while as I did so the surveyor broke in: 130

"You had better take him!"

Then, deciding that perhaps he could help us in some small degree, and that we might spare a few dollars to give him, even if he only kept us in whole shoes, I answered: "Well, well see what you can do, and you can camp in the other tent. There's a set of worn-out harness for a beginning to-morrow; and if you go right across you'll just be in time for supper."

He thanked us with effusion, and when he went out Harry said lightly: "We have made a very bad bargain, of course, but I dare say we can manage to raise all he will cost us. Naturally, I feel inclined to do something for the old man, but that confounded Fletcher exasperates me. His shadow has been over you ever since you started in this country, and, I suppose it's foolish, but I feel that some day he'll do you a greater injury. However, at present I almost sympathize with his action. It isn't cheerful to have a future state of brimstone held up before one continually."

"When I said you had better take him, I didn't mean at your own expense," interposed the surveyor, "but that in the circumstances it would come better so. I guess we'll squeeze him somehow on to the pay-roll of the Company. Heard all about the whole thing from some one. Who?-oh, General Jackson, how should I remember? Kind of religio-political crank, isn't he? Well, I've seen some inventive geniuses among the species, and while we're driving straight ahead we can find use for a man if he's honest and handy finicking round the chores. Still, that has nothing to do with what I'm coming to. We have room for straight live men on this road, and I've been watching you two. Guess you've been losing heavy, and you stuck right down to it. Now, this branch is going to be froze up presently, and they've sent for me to finish a mining loop among the mountains of British Columbia; when some 131 one else has fooled a tough job they generally do. They listen at headquarters when I get up to talk, and the question is, will you bring along your outfit and haul rocks and lumber in the ranges for me? This time we'll try to make the deal a better one for you. We'll square up and pay off on what you've done so far; it will cut the loss, because there's more of the coulée, and there'll be hard frost before you're out on the prairie. Now, I've been talking straight-what have you to say?"

I looked around at the others. Harry beamed approval, Johnston nodded indifferently, and I felt a thrill of satisfaction as I turned to the railroad autocrat.

"We will come," I said simply.

"That's good," was the laconic answer. "Don't think you'll regret it," and with a nod to each of us the man who in a few moments had made a great change in our destiny was gone.

"On the up-grade now!" said Johnston, "but don't lose your heads. The great man paid you a tremendous compliment, Ralph, and that kind of thing isn't usual with him; but take it coolly. More people get badly busted, as they say in this benighted country, by sudden success than by hard luck!"

It was good to lounge in the tent door that evening, and remember that there would be no more dreary awakenings to a day of profitless labor; but perhaps it was the cool night wind and the frosty glitter of the stars that helped to check the rush of hot, hopeful fancies through my brain. I had learned already to distrust any untested offer of prosperity.

For another week nothing of moment happened, and then we spent an hour one morning with the surveyor and a gray-haired gentleman from Winnipeg. He differed from the former in many ways, and spoke with a deliberate 132 urbanity, but I felt that he also spoke with authority and was quietly taking stock of us. We signed several papers, a receipt among them, and it was only then that I realized what that unfortunate coulée had cost us, while, when at last we went out, the surveyor said:

"You have made a good impression, and that man's favorable opinion may mean great things to you. I shouldn't wonder if you cashed a good many big pay drafts before we have finished with you."

"I hope so," I answered grimly. "At present we are rather poorer than when we commenced the work, and whomever the new railroad benefits it has done only harm to us. That, however, is in no way your fault, and having started we're going on to see the end of it."

"Good man!" said the surveyor with a significant smile. "I shouldn't be too previous. You have six days to straighten up your business;" and after a brief conference with Harry I departed for Fairmead and Winnipeg.

Our few cattle were thriving among the herds of our neighbors, to whom we made over our stock of prairie hay. The homestead would doubtless take care of itself until we were ready to return there, as prairie homesteads often have to do; while, whether it was owing to Jasper's eloquence or to other causes, I found our remaining creditors both reasonable and willing to meet us as far as they could. So I came back with a satisfactory report, and the same evening we gathered those who worked for us about the tent, and when we had handed each a roll of dollar bills Harry laid the position before them.

"We sunk all that was left in this contract," he said, "and now when we are transferred to British Columbia we set out almost empty-handed, with the wrong kind of balance. It seems only fair I should tell you this frankly. If you decide to come with us we will, if all goes well, 133 pay at present rates for the services of men and teams. On the other hand, if there is any unforeseen difficulty we may have nothing to pay wi

th, and if any one wishes to go back to his holding I should only say he's sensible. We, however, shall hold on as long as we have a dollar left."

"It's a toss-up," added Johnston. "You take your chances, and get what you can, facing the music pleasantly like the rest of us if you get nothing, which seems quite probable. Now don't jump over the edge of a ravine like the giddy antelope, but put your heads together and think about it."

There was a laugh from one of the men, who conferred apart, and another said: "We're coming along. There's no work for men or horses here in winter, and we've neither money nor credit to sow in spring. Besides, we've taken your money, you have treated us fairly, and it strikes us as mean to back down on you now. So we're open to take the chances, and all we ask is that the chances should figure either way. If you're cleaned out, we get nothing; if you win we want to come in. No; we've no use for a sliding scale to fight each other on, and I guess we'll take Contractor Lorimer's word he'll do the square thing."

"I give it," I said simply.

"We thank you;" and when they went away I felt the weight of a double responsibility.

"I congratulate you on your leadership of the hard-up company," said Johnston lightly. "This is the kind of thing that appeals to me-nothing to lose and all to win, and determined men who can do anything with axe and saw and horseflesh to back one. So it's loose guy, up peg, on saddle, and see what future waits us in the garden of the Pacific slope-in mid-winter."

It was seven days later, and many things had been done, when with our working beasts and few other possessions 134 lurching before us in a couple of cattle-cars, we went clattering through the Rockies at the tail of a big freight train. It was just breaking day, and Harry leaned beside me over the platform rails of a car hooked on for our accommodation, while Lee sat on the step close by wrapped in an old skin coat Harry had given him. A shrill whistle came ringing out of the stirred-up dust ahead, then the roar of wheels grew louder, rolling back repeated and magnified from the rocks above, while half-seen through the mist that rose from a river spectral pines reeled by, and an icy blast lashed my cheeks like a whip as, with throttle wide open and the long cars bouncing behind, the great mountain locomotive thundered down a declivity.

"Steve's letting her go," said the surveyor, who came out from the car. "Got to rush her through for the side-track ahead of the west-bound mail. Say, the light is growing; stay just where you are, for presently there'll be unrolled the most gorgeous panorama that ever delighted a sinful mortal's eye, and you'll see the first of what some day is going to be of all lands on this wide green earth the greatest country."

I looked up, and already the mist was rolling back like a curtain from the great slopes of rock above, sliding in smoky wreaths across the climbing pines, while as the brightness increased we could see the torrent, whose voice now almost drowned the clash of couplings and the clamor of wheels, frothing green and white-streaked among mighty boulders in the gorge below. Then as we swung giddily over a gossamer-like timber bridge, the walls of quartz and blue grit fell back on either hand; and, for the first time, I gazed in rapt silence upon the cold unsullied whiteness of eternal snow, undefiled from the beginning by any foot of man. It stretched in a glimmering saw-edge high above us athwart the brightening east, and, below, smooth-scarped 135 slopes of rock polished to a steely luster by endless ages of grinding ice, slid down two, or it may have been four, thousand feet, to the stately pines on the hillsides below.

There were peaks like castles, spires like the fretted stonework of Indian minarets, wrought by the hand of nature out of an awful cold purity, and mountains which resembled nothing I had ever seen or dreamed of, banded white with broken edges of green by winding glaciers; while sombered forests, every trunk in which the surveyor said exceeded two hundred feet in height, were wrapped about their knees. It was a scene of plutonic grandeur, weirdly impressive under the first of the light, with a stamp upon it of unearthly glory, and we drew in our breath when a great peak behind us glowed for a moment rosy red and then faded into saffron, just before a long shaft of radiance turned the whiteness on its shoulders into incandescence.

"What do you think of that, Lee?" Harry asked.

The old man, staring about him with a great wonder in his eyes, answered, with half-coherent solemnity: "It's the Almighty's handiwork made manifest;" and as we swept across a trestle and the trembling timber flung back the vibratory din, I caught the disjointed phrases, "The framing of the everlastin' hills; a sign an' a token while the earth shall last-an' there are many who will not see it."

"Just so," said the surveyor, smiling across at me. "Now, I'm a mechanic, and look at it in a practical way. To me it's a tremendous display of power, which is irresistible, even though it works mighty slowly. Sun, wind, and frost, all doing their share in rubbing out broad valleys and wearing down the hills, and, with the débris, the rivers are spreading new lands for wheat and fruit west into the sea. 'Wild nature run riot, chaotic desolation!' it says in the guide. No, sir; this is a great scheme, and I guess 136 there's neither waste nor riot. Well, that is not our business; it's our part to make a way to take out ore and produce, and bring in men-this is going to be an almighty great country. Timber for half the world, gold and silver, iron, lead, coal, and copper, rivers to give you power for nothing wherever you like to tap one with a dynamo, and a coast that's punctuated with ready-made harbors! All we want is men and railroads, and we mean to get them. I figure that if sometime our children-I'm thankful I've got none-move the greatest Empire's center West, they'll leave Montreal and Ottawa rusting, and locate it here between the Rockies and the sea. But I guess I'm talking nonsense, and there's a little in the flask-here's to the New Westminster, and blank all annexationists!"

Harry nodded as he passed the flask on to me, while Lee groaned deprecatingly, and then, brushing the gray hair back from his forehead with thin crooked fingers, said: "An' by then there'll be no more cold homes and hunger for the poor in England. It's coming, the time we've been waiting, starving, and some of us praying for so long, an' if they get their own by law, or take it tramplin' through the blood of the oppressor, they'll live and speak free Englishmen, spread out on all the good lands the Almighty intended for them."

I did not answer, though Harry said aside that he did not know the whole earth was made for Englishmen. There was occasionally much in what Lee said that commanded sympathy, but he had a habit of relapsing into vague prophetic utterance, which was perhaps acquired when he ran the Stoney Clough chapel. Still, as hour by hour we went clattering through solemn forests almost untouched by the axe, or rending apart the silence that hung over great lonely lakes, and past wide rivers, while the whole air was filled with the fragrance of pines and cedars, I wondered 137 whether either his or the surveyor's forecast would come true, and decided if that were so England would have cause to be proud of this rich country. For the rest, Harry and I never found our interest slacken, and looked on in silence as that most gorgeous panorama of snow-peak, forest, and glacier unwound itself league after league before us, until at last amid a grinding of brakes the long freight train ran onto a side track. She was only just in time, for with the ballast trembling beneath, and red cinders flying from the funnel of the mammoth mountain engine ahead, the Atlantic mail went by. Then, as we stepped down on the track the same thought was evidently uppermost in each of us, for Harry said:

"Ralph, this land approaches one's wildest fancies of a terrestrial paradise, and if in spite of our efforts we fail at Fairmead it's comforting to think we can always bring up here. If I had the choice I'd like to be buried in the heart of those forests. What do you say, Johnston?"

Johnston smiled a little, but his tone was not the usual one as he answered: "I think I shall. You'll say it sounds like old woman's talk, but I fancy I'll never recross those Rockies. Anyway, it won't worry the rest of humanity very much if I don't, and I dare say we'll get some small excitement track-grading in the meantime. This country doesn't lay itself out to favor railroad building, especially in winter."

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