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   Chapter 25 CHAPTER XXIII

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 24173

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


ON THE GOLD TRAIL

Nothing further of moment happened for a time. Fletcher, protesting his innocence, lay awaiting trial with his accomplices, and I had been warned that I should be called on to give evidence, which I was unwilling to do; and, after consulting a solicitor, I endeavored in the meantime to forget the disagreeable affair. Then one morning, when the snow lay thick on the shingles, and the creek in the ravine was frozen almost to the bottom, the fur-wrapped postman brought me a letter from Harry.

"I have only good news," it ran. "We have piled up beams and stringers ahead of contract, and sold a number of logs a snow-slide brought us at a good profit, ready for floating down to a new sawmill in the valley. That, however, is by the way. As you know, Johnston has quartz reefs on the brain, and now fancies he is really on the track of one. There have been rumors of rich gold west of the Fraser, and one of our prospecting friends came in almost snow-blind with promising specimens. Nothing will stop Johnston, and I'm bitten myself, so the fact is we're going up to find that gold. Of course, it's the wrong time; but there'll be a rush in spite of that. In short, we want you, and I managed to secure this railroad pass."

I showed Aline the letter, and she said, "Why don't you go? I can stay with the Kenyons; they have often asked me. It would be splendid, wouldn't it, if you were to find a gold mine?" 254

I nodded rather gravely. Gold mines worth developing are singularly hard to find, and when found generally need a large capital to work them, while the company financier gets the pickings. The steady following up of one consistent plan more commended itself to me, and prospecting in mid-winter would try the strength of a giant. Still, if my partners were bent on it they would naturally expect me to humor them in the matter, and there was a hope of seeing Grace, so I answered:

"I wish they had never heard of it; but, if Mrs. Kenyon will take care of you for a few weeks, I must go."

Aline was evidently prepared to bear my absence philosophically, and, perhaps because one of Mrs. Kenyon's sons was a handsome stripling, she spent all day sewing, while I gathered up my belongings and rode over to interview that lady, who had lately come out from Ontario, and professed herself delighted to receive my sister. Thus it happened that one morning before daybreak I stood beside a burdened pack-horse with a load of forty pounds strapped about my shoulders, outside a log shanty, ready to strike out into the snow-bound northern wilderness. Johnston, who was in high spirits, held the bridle of another horse, and Harry whistled gaily as with the assistance of a prospector he strapped a heavy collection of sundries upon its back, while the owner of the shanty watched us with a fine assumption of pity.

"Lots of gold up yonder! Well, I guess there is," he said. "But maybe you'll get mighty tired before you find it, and this isn't quite the season to go sloshing round glaciers and snow-fields. Don't I wish I was coming? Can't say I do. Go slow and steady is my motto, and you'll turn more gold out of the earth with the plough than you ever will with the drill, and considerably easier, too. There's another outfit yonder ahead of you, and a third one 255 coming along. Look in this way if you come back hungry."

Johnston smote the pack-horse, and there was a clash of rifles, axes, tin pans and kettles as we moved off into the forest, which was free of undergrowth here.

"That was a sensible man," I observed. "Harry, I can't help feeling that this gold hunting is not our business, and no good will come of it."

"Then you needn't say so," Harry answered shortly. "If I were troubled with old women's presentiments I should keep them to myself. The man we have with us knows the country well, and from what the other half revealed we ought to find something. I'm wondering who got up the other expedition, unless it's Ormond. The Day Spring is doing even worse lately, and the Colonel has gone down to Vancouver to raise fresh funds or sell it to a company, which would be rough on the company. Your uncle and your cousin are wintering there."

This gave me food for thought, and I trudged on, dreamily noticing how the tramp of feet and the clatter of metal broke through the ghostly silence, while half-seen figures of man and beast appeared and vanished among the trunks, and the still woods seemed listening to our march. I knew that in the old days the feet of a multitude had worn trails through these ranges as they pressed on toward the treasure of Cassiar and Caribou, and that the bones of many were strewn broadcast across the region into which we were venturing. Perhaps it was because of the old Lancashire folk-lore I once had greedily listened to, but I could not altogether disbelieve in presentiments, and my dislike to the journey deepened until Johnston's voice rose clearly through the frosty air: "There's shining gold in heaps, I'm told, by the banks of Sacramento."

The rest was the usual forecastle gibberish, but, and it may have been that our partner being born with the wanderer's 256 spirits could give meaning to the immemorial calling that speaks to the hearts of the English through the rude chanteys of the sea, something stirred me when the refrain rose up exultantly, "Blow, boys, blow, for Californio, for there's shining gold and wealth untold on the sunny Sacramento."

"Where did he learn the trick of it?" said Harry. "There's certainly nothing in the words, and yet that song takes hold. I dare say many a poor deserter devil has marched to his death to it. The seamen came up with the vanguard when they found gold in Caribou. Wake up, and ring it out, Ralph. A tribute to the fallen. 'Hey ho, Sacramento!'"

I have heard that chantey since. On certain occasions Harry brings out its final chords on the Fairmead piano with a triumphant crash that has yet a tremble in it, and each time it conjures up a vision of spectral pines towering through the shadow that veils the earth below, while above the mists the snow lies draped in stainless purity waiting for the dawn. Then I know that Harry, who is only a tiller of the soil, had learned in the book of nature to grasp the message of that scene, and interpret it through the close of a seaman's ballad.

The full story of our journey would take long to tell, and a recital of how we struggled through choked forests, floundered amid the drifts in the passes, or crawled along the icy rock-slope's side, might prove monotonous. We left the ashes of our camp-fires in many a burnt brulée and among the boulders of lonely lakes, but though, after one pack-horse fell over a precipice, provisions ran out rapidly, we failed to find the gorge the prospector talked about; or rather, because the whole land was fissured by them, we found many gorges, but each in succession proved to be the wrong one. Then we held consultations, and the prospector 257 suggested that we should return and try again in the spring, to which Harry agreed. Johnston, however, would not hear of this, and said with a strange assurance:

"I suppose it's the gambler's spirit, but I've gone prospecting somewhat too often before, and if one only keeps on long enough the luck is bound to turn. This time I seem to know it's going to. Still, I'll fall in with the majority. Ralph, as head of the firm you have the casting vote."

Then, and I always regretted it, I said: "We should never have come at all. No sensible person goes prospecting in mid-winter; but, being here, we had better spend three days more. That means further reduced rations, but if we find nothing by the third noon we'll turn back forthwith."

The others agreed, and on the second night we lay in camp in a burnt forest. We were all tired and hungry, and-for Johnston was silent-a melancholy settled down upon the camp, while I lay nearly frozen under two blankets, watching a half-moon sail slowly above the fretted ridge of firs. At last Johnston spoke:

"To-morrow is the fatal day. Ralph has the look of an unsatisfied wolf; you are hungry, Harry; we are all hungry, and such is mortal man that at this moment my soul longs more than all things for even the most cindery flapjack that ever came out of a camp cook's frying-pan. Still, I'm not going home 'returned empty' this time, and fragments of a forgotten verse keep jingling through my head. It's an encouraging stanza, to the effect that, though often one gets weary, the long, long road has a turning, and there's an end at last. It would be particularly nice if it ended up in a quartz reef that paid for the stamping, especially when one might square up some of one's youthful misdeeds with the proceeds. Ever heard me moralizing, 258 Ralph? The question is whether one can ever square the reckoning of such foolishness."

"I haven't thought about it," I answered, remembering how when Johnston harangued the railroaders' camp, banjo in hand, he would mix up the wildest nonsense with sentiment. "But it's an axiom, isn't it, that a man must pay for his fun, and if you will go looking for gold mines in winter you can't expect to be comfortable."

"He hasn't thought about it," said Johnston. "Ralph, all things considered, you are a lucky individual. What can man want better than to win his way to fortune, and the love of a virtuous maid, tramping behind his oxen under clear sunshine down the half-mile furrow, looking only for the harvest, and sowing hope with the grain. There's a restfulness about it that appeals to me. Some men are born with a chronic desire for rest."

"I don't think you were among them," I answered irritably; "and there's precious little rest in summer on the prairie;" but Johnston continued:

"I too loved a virtuous maiden, and, stranger still, I fancy she loved me, but unfortunately there was one of the other kind too, and the result thereof was as usual-disaster. I've been trying to remedy that disaster-did you ever wonder where my dividends went to? Well, there is a reason why I'm anxious to find a mine. If we do, I'll tell you the sequel. Otherwise-and things do happen unexpectedly-there's a leather case in my pocket, and in case of accident I hope my partners will act on what they find in it. Perhaps some one in England would bless them if they did."

He ceased, and some time later a vibratory monotone commenced far up under the stars, gathering strength and volume until it rolled in long pulsations down the steep ranges' side. 259

"It's more common in spring," remarked the prospector, "but some ice bridge has busted under pressure, and the snow is coming down. There'll be most astonishing chaos in the next valley."

I cannot say how long the great harmony lasted, for we listened spellbound, unheeding the passage of time, while the cedars trembled about us as the tremendous diapason leaped from peak to peak and the valleys flung back the echoes in majestic antiphones. There was the roar of sliding gravel, the crash of rent-down forest, and the rumble of ice and snow, each mingling its own note, softened by distance, in the supernatural orchestra, until the last echoes died away and there was a breathless hush.

"We have heard great things," said Johnston; "what did the surveyor say? Not an ounce of the ruin is wasted; the lower Fraser wheat-lands are built that way. There's a theme for a master to write a Benedicite. Grinding ice chanting to the thunders of the snow, and the very cedars listening in the valleys. Well, I'll make him a free present of the fancy; we're merely gold miners, or we hope to be. Good-night, and remember the early start to-morrow."

He was up long before the late dawn, and it was still early when we waded scarcely knee-deep among the boulders of a curiously shrunken stream. Smooth-ground rocks cumbered its bed, and the muddy water that gurgled among them was stained red instead of the usual glacial green, while, as I wondered where the rest had gone, the prospector remark

ed, "These blamed rivers are low in winter, but I never saw one quite so ashamed of itself as this. It's the snow-slide we heard last night damming the valley, and there'll be a rush worth seeing when it does break through."

I had occasion afterward to learn that he was right, but meanwhile we followed the banks of the river up-stream, still looking for the gorge. Several times the prospector 260 fancied that he identified a transverse opening, and then confessed that he was not even sure of the river, because, as he said, there were so everlasting many of them. Johnston grew more and more uneasy, until, when I called a halt as the sun bore south, he looked at me appealingly, and I agreed to continue until there was just time enough left to reach our previous camp by nightfall. So we held on, and finally he turned to me.

"I've played the last game and lost it," he said. "Well, you kept your part of the bargain; I'll keep mine. It's take up the home-trail, boys, we're going back to camp."

He said it lightly, but I could tell that he felt the disappointment bitterly, while even I, who had expected nothing, wheeled the pack-horse around with an angry growl. It was toward dusk when we neared the creek we had crossed in the morning, but it was no longer shrunken. Evidently the dam of débris had given way, for it roared in full flood now, and it was with anxiety that we quickened our pace. The hillsides loomed black out of chilly mist that wrapped the serried ranks of climbing pines in their smoky folds. It was not yet dark in the valley, but the light was dying fast, and a bitter breeze swept down a darkening gorge, bringing with it the moan of an unseen forest until presently this was lost in the voice of the frothing torrent before us. There was neither fuel nor shelter on that side, and we determined to attempt the crossing, for, as Harry said, "Hunger alone is bad, but hunger and cold together are worth an effort to avoid."

The prospector waded in foremost, sounding with a long fir pole. The stream swirled in white wreaths about his waist, and Johnston turned to speak to me, standing a few yards nearer with the ripples at his knee; then I grasped the pack-horse's bridle and forced it into the water. The beast carried a heavy load, including most of our blankets, 261 and almost the entire balance of our provisions. A rusty rifle was slung behind my shoulders, besides tools and utensils, and Johnston was similarly caparisoned, so I felt my way cautiously as the ice-cold waters frothed higher about me. Near by, the creek poured into the main river, which swept with a great black swirling into the gloom of the forest.

All went well until we gained the center of the stream, and then a loose stone turned under the horse's hoof, or it sank into a deeper hollow, for there was a plunge and a flounder, and, jerked sideways by the bridle, I went down headforemost into the stream. This was a common enough accident, but the bridle slipped from my fingers, and when some seconds later I stood erect, gasping, with the torrent racing past me, the horse was swimming down-stream a dozen yards away, while Johnston struggled in that direction to intercept it.

"Let it go!" I roared. "Water's deepening; you'll be sucked out into the main river," and caught the answer, "All our provisions there!" after which there was a confused shouting, which ended in the warning, "For the Lord's sake, Johnston, look out for yourself!"

I could see that our best chance of rendering assistance would be to cross and try to overtake them from the further bank, and a few seconds later I was clattering over the shingle with the prospector close behind me. But we were already too late. When, waist-deep, I floundered down a shingle spit, the half-submerged beast, handicapped by its burden, swept past out of reach, and I caught a momentary glimpse of a wet white face and a man's uplifted arm before a tumbling ridge splashed up and hid them.

"Couldn't never overtake them, but it's running slacker in the river," the prospector said.

We smashed through a willow thicket which covered a 262 little promontory, and then, staring wide-eyed under the branches, I saw an indistinct object lurch unevenly into the froth of a rapid, and so pass the next instant out of sight. Whether it was man or horse no one could say.

"He's gone," said the grizzled prospector. "Many another has gone the same way. Find them! Of course, we'll search, but I guess it's hopeless. Don't think your partner was great on swimming, and he was loaded heavy. Come on, daylight's going."

For a moment I felt limp and abject, then in savage fury I broke through barberry branches and thorny brakes, fell into the river, and blundered down a shoaler portion of its channel, until I brought up breathless on the verge of a deep boiling pool, while even as I stared across it the last of the day went out.

"It sounds hard," said the prospector, "but you can't do nothin'. No man could make his way through this bush in the dark, and it wouldn't be any good. Your partner never got so far. We can only say we're sorry, and strike back for camp."

He was right, though I think I cursed him for cowardice then. We struggled on through a horrible chaos of tangled forest, but each time when, peering out between the dark fir branches, I cried aloud, the blackness returned no answer save the boom of angry water. So, bruised, wet, and bleeding, I struggled back toward the fatal creek, and found that my lips would not frame words to answer when Harry said:

"It was horrible, Ralph. I'd give all our hopes and prospects to have the poor fellow safe again. But there's no help for it, and somehow I fancy it was a release. You remember how he looked when he said that this was his last march?"

We lighted a fire, dried our garments and the blankets 263 that were left us, then Harry flung aside the battered camp spider, and drew out a flask.

"Ten pounds of flour, five of reistit pork-and that's what he gave his life for. No, I don't think I could eat anything to-night. Here, empty half of this, Ralph, you're shaking all over," and Harry lifted his hat as he touched the metal cup with his lips: "Good rest to you, comrade," he said.

I choked over the mouthful of spirits, which I needed badly enough, and then sat shivering wide awake beside the fire through the long bitter night, while when at daybreak I called the others, they both rose with a suspicious readiness. For hours we wandered along the river bank, but found nothing whatever beyond conclusive evidence that even the best swimmer could hardly have come out of that icy flood alive. Then dejectedly we strapped up our traps, and turned our backs on the dismal camp. We halted and looked back a moment on the crest of the divide.

"The beast was badly played out," the guide said, "the man was loaded. Thirty pounds and a rifle-and he couldn't hardly swim. He's gone out on the lonely trail, but whether there's gold at the end of it no living man can say. Maybe you'll find out some day when you follow him."

Then in mournful silence we turned away, and that night we ate our last mouthful in another valley, and forgot the gnawing hunger in broken sleep, through which a wet face persistently haunted me. When we arose there was not even a handful of caked flour in the damp bag, and during a discussion the miner, in reply to Harry's statement, said it did not follow that there were no deer or bear in the country because we had not seen them. Men tramping noisily behind shod horses do not generally chance upon the shy deer, he pointed out; while if two previous hunts 264 had proved unsuccessful, we might do better on the third. It was at least four days' march to the nearest dwelling, and I agreed with his observation that no starving men could march for four days through such a country. So, to enhance our chances, the company divided, agreeing to meet again, if they killed nothing, at the same spot by sunset.

It was with a heavy heart and my belt drawn tighter that I left the others, carrying a loaded rifle, which seemed to increase considerably in weight. Now, even well north in British Columbia, especially if near the Pacific, there are favored valleys sunk deep among the ranges and open to the west which escape the harder frost, and as this was one of them I determined to search the half-frozen muskegs for bear. The savage grizzly lives high under the ragged peaks, the even fiercer cinnamon haunts the thinly-covered slopes below, but I had no desire to encounter either of them, for the flesh of the little vegetable-feeding black bear is by no means unpalatable, especially to starving men.

So I prowled from swamp to swamp, seeing nothing but the sickly trunks which grew up out of thinly frozen slime, while no sound made by either bird or beast broke the impressive silence of the primeval solitude. At last, when the day was nearly spent, I crawled toward a larger muskeg, which spread out from a running creek, and knelt in congealed mire behind a blighted spruce, listening intently, for a sound I recognized set my heart beating. All around, dwindling in gradations as the soil grew wetter, the firs gave place to willows, and there was mud and ice cake under them. Peering hard into the deepening shadows, I saw what I had expected-a patch of shaggy fur. This was one of the small black bears, and the creature was grubbing like a hog among the decaying weed for the roots of the wild cabbage, which flourishes in such places. Some of these bears hibernate in winter, I believe, but by no 265 means all, for the bush settlers usually hunt them then for their fur. No summer peltry is worth much.

I was only a fair shot with the rifle, and the strip of black, half seen between the branches, would prove a difficult mark in an uncertain light, while it was probable that three lives might answer for the bear's escape. So I waited, aching in every joint, while my hands grew stiffer on the rifle stock, but still the beast refrained from making a target of itself, until, knowing that it would soon be too dark to shoot, I had to force the crisis. A strange sound might lead the quarry to show himself an instant before taking flight, and so I moistened my blue lips and whistled shrilly. A plump rotund body rose from the weeds, sixty yards away, I guessed, and I pitched up the rifle, dropping my left elbow well over my knee and steadying the cold barrel against the tree.

Sixty yards and a two-foot target, what need for such precautions? one hears the marksmen say, and when stalking sand-hill cranes in warm sunlight now I can agree with them. But I was nearly famished, stiff with cramp and cold, and shooting then for bare existence. With a half-articulate prayer I increased the pressure on the trigger as the fore-bead trembled-it would tremble-across the fur. The bear was clearly suspicious. He would be off the next moment, the trigger was yielding, and with a sudden stiffening of every muscle I added the final pressure as the notch in the rear-sight and the center of the body came for a moment in line. I heard no explosion-one rarely does when watching the result intently-but there was a red flash from the tilting muzzle, and the heel-plate jarred my shoulder. Then I growled with satisfaction as almost simultaneously I heard a sound there was no mistaking, the crunch of a forty-four bullet smashing through flesh and bone. The bear was down, straggling among the weed, 266 and plunging straight through the muskeg I fell upon it, and, after burning another cartridge with the muzzle against the flesh, I drove the long knife in to the hilt.

Next I rose stiffly upright, ensanguined, with wild gasps of thankfulness, and sent a hoarse cry ringing across the woods, after which I sat down on the fur and stabbed the lifeless brute twice again, for I was filled with a childish fear that even now it might escape me. This was needless, and even barbarous, but to one in my position it was natural.

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