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   Chapter 17 CHAPTER XV

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20628

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


UNDER THE SHADOW OF DEATH

In spite of the many new hands who flocked in with the spring, the line progressed slowly. This was quite comprehensible, and when I traveled over it afterward as a passenger I wondered how we had ever built it at all. Portions were hewn out of the solid rock, of a hardness that was often too much for our most carefully tempered drills; others were underpinned with timber against the mountain side, or carried across deep ravines on open trestles; while much of it had to be roofed in by massive sheds, so that the snow-slides might not hurl it into the valley.

On several occasions we were almost checkmated in our efforts to supply and clear a way for the builders. There was, of course, no lack of timber, but the difficulty was to get it out of the forest and into position, for we often spent days building skidways or hewing roads to bring the great logs down, after which it cost us even a longer time rigging gear to lower them over dangerous ledges to those who worked below. Still, we made progress, and the free miners or forest ranchers who trudged behind their weary pack-horses down the trail that crossed the track encouraged us in their own fashion, which was at times slightly eccentric; while now and then a party of citizens from the struggling town rode over to inspect the new road they hoped would do so much for them.

Sometimes they brought small presents with them, and I remember one who watched our efforts admiringly said: 164 "You must be clearing your little pile by the way you're rustling," and looked blankly incredulous when I answered: "No; we're only trying to pay back other men their own."

Nevertheless, on occasions when the work was suspended temporarily, I made a two days' journey to Colonel Carrington's ranch, and spent a few blissful hours there beneath the cedars with his sister and Grace. Both seemed pleased to see me, and I managed to console myself for the absence of the Colonel and Ormond. They returned at sunset, when I took my departure, and even Ormond was usually disreputable of aspect. Many difficulties were connected with the development of the Day Spring mine, and when there was need for it Ormond showed himself a capable man of action. Night and day the freighters met him riding along the heavy trails, hurrying in tools and supplies, and the shaft-sinkers said that he was always foremost when there was risky work to be done. Once also, when I sat smoking in Calvert's shanty, the latter, who was freely smeared with the green mountain clay, said:

"We are none of us exactly idlers, but Geoffrey Ormond is tireless. In fact, I hardly recognize him as the same man, and it is just as well. We have sunk a good deal in this undertaking, and it will go hard with some of the Syndicate if we don't get out rich quartz. Ormond in particular invested, I think, almost recklessly. He's a distant connection of our leader's, you know, and it's probable he's hoping for Miss Carrington's hand. There's no doubt that the irascible Colonel would be glad to have him for a son-in-law, and he is really a very good fellow, but I'm not sure that Miss Carrington likes him-in that way."

Here Calvert flicked the ash off his cigar, and looked at me before he continued: "It's not my business, and perhaps I'm gossiping, but Colonel Carrington is not addicted to changing his mind, and I anticipate a dramatic climax some 165 day. In any case, she will never with his consent marry a poor man. You can take my word for it-I'm speaking feelingly."

When, after exchanging a few words of cold politeness with the Colonel, I rode homeward the next morning I wondered whether Calvert, who certainly was not given to gossiping, had intended this as a friendly warning. Every one in their own manner seemed bent on warning me, and yet, as long as Grace remained Miss Carrington, I could not give up hope, and it was that very hope that added force to every stroke of the glinting axe or another hour of toil to the weary day. And so, while spring melted into summer, I worked and waited until fate intervened.

Now between the mining town and Cedar the river loses itself in a gloomy ca?on, one of those awful gorges which are common among the mountains of British Columbia. Two great rocks partly close the entrance, and beyond this the chasm is veiled in spray, while its roar when the floods race through it can be heard several miles away. Scarcely a ray of sunlight enters its shadowy depths, and looking up from beside the entrance one can see the great pines that crown the sheer fall of rock looming against the skyline in a slender lace-like filigree. Sometimes, when frost bound fast the feeding snows, the Siwash Indians ran their light canoes through, but I never heard of a white man attempting the passage, and one glance was sufficient to show the reason. I understood it better when as by a miracle I came alive out of the ca?on.

It was a still evening, and again the afterglow flamed behind the western pines, when, holding C?sar's rein, I stood under a hemlock talking to Grace Carrington. We had been compelled to wait for more ironwork, and I made the long journey on the specious excuse of visiting a certain blacksmith who was skilled in sharpening tools. Calvert's 166 offer of hospitality was now proving an inestimable boon. Harry pointed out that we had a man in camp who could do the work equally well, but I found a temporary deafness convenient then.

"It was very kind of you to suggest it, and if you could get the things in by your supply train we should be very glad," she said. "I really do not know whom to write to, and the pack-horse freighters often wet or spoil them. Aunt and I intend to spend a few days at the Lawrences' ranch, and you could meet us with the package at the ca?on crossing on Thursday morning."

I glanced at the list she handed me, and wondered what Harry, who had to visit Vancouver, would say when he found I had pledged him to ransack the dry-goods stores for all kinds of fabrics. Still, I felt I should have faced much more than my comrades' remonstrances to please Grace Carrington then, as she stood beside me, glorified as it were by the garish sunset.

"My aunt will be especially grateful," she added. "And now, good-bye. She will never forgive you if you damage her new dress."

She spoke with a half-mocking and wholly bewitching air, for when Grace unbent she did it charmingly, holding out a shapely hand, while the light sparkled among the glossy clusters above her forehead. Grace's hair might have been intended for a net in which to catch stray sunshine. Then while I prepared to take up the challenge the slender fingers tightened on my own.

"What was that?" she asked with a start, for a wild shrill cry rang suddenly out of the stillness, and the hillside returned the sound in a doleful wailing before it died away.

"Only a loon, a water-bird!" I said, though the cry had also startled me.

Grace shivered as she answered: "I have never heard it 167 before, and it sounded so unearthly-almost like a warning of some evil. But it is growing late, and you have far to go. I shall expect you at the crossing."

She turned back toward the house, and I laughed at my momentary confusion as I rode on through the deepening shadow, for though it is strangely mournful the loon's shrill call was nothing unusual in that land. Still, mere coincidence as it was, remembering Grace's shiver it troubled me, and I should have been more uneasy had I known how we were to keep that fateful tryst.

It was a glorious morning when, with a package strapped to the saddle, I rode down between the pine trunks to the crossing. The river flashed like burnished silver below, and the sunlight made colored haloes in the filmy spray that drifted about the black mouth of the ca?on, while rising and falling in thunderous cadence the voice of many waters rang forth from its gloomy depths. The package was a heavy one, for there were many domestic sundries as well as yards of dry-goods packed within it, and Harry assured me it had taken him a whole day to procure them, adding that he was doubtful even then whether he had satisfactorily filled the bill.

I had loitered some time on the hillside until I could see the party winding down the opposite slope. Then the forest hid them, and it appeared that, perhaps because the waters were high, they were not going straight to the usual ford, but intended first to send the ladies across in a canoe which lay lower down near a slacker portion of the rapid stream. The slope on my own side was steep, but, picking my way cautiously, I was not far above the river, which boiled in a succession of white-ridged rapids, when I saw Grace seat herself in the stern of the canoe, which Ormond thrust off until it was nearly afloat. Then he returned for her aunt, while Colonel Carrington and rancher Lawrence 168 led the horses toward the somewhat risky ford up-stream. The river was swollen by melting snow, and it struck me that they would have some difficulty in crossing.

Then a hoarse shout rang out, "The canoe's adrift!" followed by another from the Colonel, "Get hold of the paddle, Grace!-for your life paddle!"

It had all happened in a moment. Doubtless some slight movement on the girl's part had set the light Indian craft afloat, and for another second or two I stared aghast upon a scene that is indelibly impressed on my memory. There was Ormond scrambling madly among the boulders, tearing off his jacket as he ran, Colonel Carrington struggling with a startled horse, and his sister standing rigid and still, apparently horror-stricken, against the background of somber pines. Then forest and hillside melted away, and while my blood grew chill I saw only a slender white-robed figure in the stern of the canoe, which was sliding fast toward the head of the tossing rapid that raced in a mad seething into the ca?on.

Then I smote the horse, gripped the rein, and we were off at a flying gallop down the declivity. A branch lashed my forehead, sweeping my hat away; for an instant something warm dimmed my vision, and as I raised one hand to dash it away a cry that had a note of agony in it came ringing down the valley.

"Make for the eddy, Grace! For heaven's s

ake, paddle!"

How C?sar kept his footing I do not know. The gravel was rattling behind us, the trunks reeled by, and the rushing water seemed flying upward toward me. Even now I do not think I had any definite plan, and it was only blind instinct that prompted me to head down-stream diagonally to cut off the approaching canoe; but I answered the Colonel's shout with an excited cry, and drove the horse headlong at a shelf of rock. I felt his hoofs slipping on 169 its mossy covering, there was a strident clang of iron on stone, and then with a sudden splash we were in the torrent together. C?sar must have felt the bottom beneath him a moment or two, for I had time to free my feet from the stirrups before he was swimming gallantly; but one cannot take a horse on board a birch-bark canoe, and the light shell shot down the green and white-streaked rush toward me even as I flung myself out of the saddle. And, staring forward with drawn-back lips and eyes wide open, I could see the white face in the stern.

Thanking Providence that I could swim well, I swung my left arm forward with hollowed palm, and shot away from the beast with head half-buried under the side-stroke's impetus, making a fierce effort to gain the center of the flow in time. Something long and dark swept past me. With an inarticulate gasp of triumph I seized it, managed to fall in head foremost over the stem, which in a tender craft of that beam is a difficult thing to do, and then, snatching the second paddle, whirled it madly. I felt the stout redwood bend at every stroke, my lungs seemed bursting, and there was a mist before my eyes, but it was borne in on me that I had come too late, and that already no earthly power could snatch us from the ca?on.

Hemlock and boulder, stream-hammered reef and pine, flitted by, closing in on one another along the half-seen shore. The river frothed white about us in steep boiling ridges as it raced down the incline, and nearer and nearer ahead tossed the ghostly spray cloud that veiled the mouth of the chasm. As we lurched broadside to the rapid each steeper liquid upheaval broke into the canoe; for every foot I won shoreward the stream swept us sideways two; and when, grasping the pole, I thrust against a submerged boulder with all my strength, the treacherous redwood snapped in half. Then there was a bewildering roar, a blinding 170 shower of spray, and we were out upon the short slide of glassy green water which divided the tail of the rapid from the mouth of the ca?on. As I flung away the broken pole and groped for the paddle I saw with eyes that were clouded by blood and sweat Grace raise her hand as though in a last farewell, and then as she faced round once more our glances met. She said no word. I could not have heard if she had, for all sound was swallowed up in one great pulsating diapason; but she afterward said that she felt impelled to look at me, and knew that I would turn my head. And so for an instant, there where the barriers of caste and wealth had melted away before the presence of death, our two souls met in a bond that should never be broken.

Now there are occasions when even the weakest seem endowed with a special strength, while a look of blind confidence from the woman he loves is capable of transforming almost any man, and I knew in the exaltation of that moment, for my own sake, I had no fear of death. If I could not save her, I felt it would be a good end to go down into the green depths attempting it.

Then the canoe lurched forward half its length clear of the water, a white haze eddied about us, the sunlight went out, and we were in the ca?on, shooting down the mad rush of a rapid toward eternity. I plied the paddle my hardest to keep the frail craft head on, that she might not roll over by sheering athwart the stream, not because I had any hope of escape, but that it seemed better to go under fighting. The work was severe enough, as, not having learned the back-feather under water, I must dip the blade on either side alternately, while each time that I dare turn my eyes backward a moment the sight of Grace kneeling with set white face in the stern further strengthened me. The pace grew a little easier as we drew out into a somewhat slacker 171 flow, and I made shift with an empty fruit-can to free the craft of water, until Grace spoke, and her words reached me brokenly through the deeper growling of the river:

"Do you think there is any chance of safety?"

"Yes," I answered stoutly, though it is probable my voice belied me. It was so strained I could hardly recognize it. "The canoe may keep afloat until we reach the other end, or perhaps we can find a bar to land on and climb up somewhere." Then I felt glad that my shoulders were turned toward her as she said:

"I am afraid it is a very small one. There is a fall and a whirlpool ahead, and no one could climb that awful precipice-look!"

The canoe was shooting onward through dim shadow very fast but more steadily, and raising my eyes from the dull green water before us-these craft are always paddled with one's face toward the bow-I looked about me hopelessly. In these days of easy travel there are doubtless many who have from a securely railed-off platform gazed down into the black depths of a Pacific Slope ca?on upon a river that seems a narrow thread in the great gulf below. These will have some idea of what I saw, but they may take the word of one who knows, which is easier than making the experiment, that such places look very much worse from the bottom. Those who have not may try to picture tremendous-and the word is used with its amplest significance-walls of slightly overhanging rock, through which aided by grinding boulders and scoring shingle, the river has widened as well as deepened its channel a little every century, while between the white welter at their feet lies a breadth of troubled green where the stream flows heaped up, as it were, in the center.

In places it roared in filmy wreaths about a broken mass of stone that cumbered the channel, but elsewhere the 172 hollowed sides, upon which the smallest clawed creature could not have found a foothold, had been worn down into a smooth slipperiness.

"It is all so horrible," said Grace, bending back her head, so that as I glanced over my shoulder I could see her firm white neck through the laces as she stared upward at the streak of blue sky so far above. Then she turned her face toward me again, and it seemed to my excited fancy that it had grown ethereal.

"We may pass the whirlpool, and-if not-death can come no harder here than in any other place," she added.

I tried to answer, and failed miserably, feeling glad that an increasing tumult covered my silence, for I could not drive out a horrible picture of that fair face with the gold bronze hair swept in long wet wisps across it washing out, frozen still forever, into the sunlit valley, or the soft hands I should have given a life to kiss clutching in a last vain agony at the cruel stones which mocked them. Then I set my teeth, clenching the paddle until each muscle swelled as though it would burst the skin, and, with something that was divided between an incoherent prayer and an imprecation upon my lips, I determined that if human flesh and blood could save her she should not perish.

The roar of water grew louder and louder, rolling in reverberations along the scarped rock's side, until it seemed as if the few dwarf pines which clung in odd crannies here and there trembled in unison, and once more the white smoke of a fall or rapid rose up close before us. Then I could see the smooth lip of the cataract held apart, as it were, by one curved glittering ripple from the tumult beneath, and I remembered having heard the Indian packers say that when shooting a low fall one has only to keep the craft straight before the current, which is not always easy, and let her go. 173

"Sit quite still, Grace," I cried. "If the canoe upsets I will at once take hold of you. We shall know the worst in another few minutes now."

Her lips moved a little, and though I heard no words I fancied it was a prayer, then I turned my head forward and prepared for the struggle. I had small skill in handling canoes, but I had more than average strength, and felt thankful for it as, lifting the light cedar at every wrenching stroke, I drove it toward the fall. Then a whirling mist shot up, there was a deep booming in my ears, the canoe leaped out as into mid-air, and I could feel her dropping bodily from beneath us. A heavy splash followed, water was flying everywhere, and a boiling wave lapped in, but the paddle bent under my hand, and breathless and half-blinded we shot out down the tail rush into daylight again. One swift glance over my shoulder showed the slanting spout of water behind Grace's pallid face. The fall apparently must have been more than a fathom in three yards or so, and I wondered how we had ever come down it alive.

Then, with labored breathing and heart that thumped painfully, I plied the paddle, while the craft swung off at a tangent across the dark green whirling which, marked by white concentric rings, swung round and round a down-sucking hollow in the center. Twice we shot past the latter, and had time to notice how a battered log of driftwood tilted endways and went down, but as on the second revolution we swept toward a jutting fang of quartz I made a fierce effort, because here the stream had piled a few yards of shingle against the foot of the rock. The craft yielded to the impulse and drove lurching among the backwash. Then there followed a sickening crash. Water poured in deep over her depressed side as she swayed downward and over, and the next moment, with one hand on the ragged quartz and another gripping Grace's arm, I was 174 struggling in the stream. Fortunately the dress fabric held, and my failing strength was equal to the strain, for I found a foothold, and crawled out upon the shingle, dragging her after me. Then rising, I lurched forward and went down headforemost with a clatter among the stones, where I lay fighting hard for breath and overcome by the revulsion of relief, though it may have been the mere physical overpressure on heart and lungs that had prostrated me.

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