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   Chapter 26 CHAPTER XXIV

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 22099

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE BRINK OF ETERNITY

A shout came down from the range side, and when the others joined me even Harry surveyed the bear with wolfish eyes, while it did not take long to perform what the French-Canadians call the éventrer, and, smeared red all over, we bore the dismembered carcass into camp. We feasted like wild beasts-we were frankly animal then-and it was not until hunger was satisfied that we remembered the empty place. Then we drew closer together, and, though it was mere fancy, the gloom of the forest seemed to thicken round the circle of fading firelight, as Harry said:

"He was the life of the party at either work or feast. Ralph, we shall miss him sorely; a sound sleep to him!"

No one spoke again, and, drawing the two remaining blankets across the three, we sank into our couches of spruce twigs and slept soundly. It was after midnight, by the altitude of the moon, when the prospector roused me, and I sat up with chattering teeth, for there was a bitter wind.

"Don't you hear it?-there-again!" he said.

I was not quite awake, and, when a tramp of footsteps came faintly out of the obscurity, at first I felt only elation. Johnston had escaped and followed our trail, I thought. This was short-lived, and was replaced by superstitious dread, for there could be no human being within leagues of us, and yet the ghostly footsteps drew steadily nearer and nearer. Even the miner, who had spent half his life in the 268 ranges seemed uneasy, for he stretched out his hand for the rifle, and Harry started upright as a challenge rang through the stillness.

"Stop there, and call out what you want, whoever you are!"

There was no answer from the silence, only the footsteps still approaching, and Harry looked at me curiously when the miner called again.

"Keep back-tell us who you are before we fire on you!"

Then a hoarse voice reached us: "If you have nothing to eat it won't matter much if you do. We are three starving men, and past doing anybody an injury."

"Come forward," I shouted. "We have food here," and three figures staggered into the glow of the fire. The foremost seemed familiar, and I could not repress a start when the red blaze leaped up, for Geoffrey Ormond stood before us leaning heavily on a rifle. His face was thin and furrowed, his coat badly rent, and his very attitude spoke of utter weariness.

"Lorimer, by all that's wonderful!" he exclaimed. "You were not exactly friendly the last time we met. In fact, I almost fancied you wished to ride over me. I hope we're not intruding, but we're most confoundedly hungry."

The last words were unnecessary, for the way the men behind him glanced at the meat showed it plainly enough.

"I must apologize for a fit of temper," I said, holding out my hand, "but it happened near the settlements, and old quarrels don't hold up here. We have food to give you, and we hope that you will consider yourselves welcome."

They certainly did so, for more bear steaks were laid on the embers, and while one of the newcomers, stripping a cartridge, rubbed powder grains into the flesh another produced a few of the fern roots which in times of scarcity 269 the Siwash Indians eat. When at last they had finished, one of the party, pushing back his fur cap, turned to me.

"You ought to remember me, Lorimer," he said.

"Of course I do, Calvert. Didn't you hire my horses, once?" I replied. "You must take my meaning the right way when I say that I'm pleased to see you here. But what brought you and the others into this desolation?"

Calvert's eyes twinkled. "The same thing that brought you-stories of unlimited treasure. When I heard them I left my few machines-they were not working well, and humbly craved the autocratic president of the Day Spring mine's permission to join this expedition. The Day Spring was not prospering in such a degree that we could afford to ignore the rumors-eh, Geoffrey?"

"You may put it so," said Ormond quietly. "But Colonel Carrington is your acknowledged chief, and you owe him due respect."

"Well," the narrator continued, "we came up, six sanguine men and one despondent mule, which showed its wisdom by breaking its tether and deserting. I gather that these expeditions are generally rough on cattle. Then we lost our way, and, provisions growing scanty, divided the party, three returning and three holding on, Geoffrey and I, unfortunately, among the latter. We got lost worse than ever on the return journey, and were steering south, we hoped, at the last gasp, so to speak, when we found you. That's about all, but, if it's a fair question, did you find any sign of gold?"

"Not a sign," I answered.

"Yours was a triple combination," Ormond said. "Where's your cheerful partner; I liked him. Ah, excuse an unfortunate question-a difference of opinion most probably?"

"No," I answered. "We never had a difference of opinion since poor Johnston joined us. He lies somewhere 270 in a nameless river-we lost him crossing a treacherous ford two days ago."

Ormond looked startled for a moment, then he bent his head and answered with a kindly glance toward me: "He was a good comrade, and you have my deep sympathy. May I say that sometimes I fancied your friend could tell a painful story, and in endeavoring to forget it made the most of the present."

"You are probably right," said Harry. "He hinted as much, but no one will learn that story now. He took his secret with him, and the river guards it."

"It's an old tale," said Ormond gravely. "The way into this country was opened by the nameless unfortunate. After all, where could a man rest better than among the ranges through which he had found a pathway. Are not these dark pines grander than any monument? Poor Johnston! Lorimer, I wonder, if we knew all, whether we should pity him?"

His face grew somber as he spoke, but it was Ormond who presently dissipated the gloom by a humorous narrative of the doings of the vanished mule, after which we went to sleep again. A pale blink of sunshine shone down when we started south the next day, for we had agreed to march in company, but the weary leagues lengthened indefinitely, and there was still no sign of the eagerly expected trail leading to Macdonald's Crossing, until, when we almost despaired of finding it, one of the party assured us that we should reach it before the second nightfall. During the morning Ormond and I lagged behind the others as we wound with much precaution along the sides of an almost precipitous descent. He limped from some small injury to his foot, made worse by exposure, and as it happened a passing mention of Colonel Carrington stirred up the old bitterness.

Why should this man enjoy so much while I had so 271 little, I thought. I was handicapped by poverty, and his wealth lay like an impassable barrier between Grace and myself. Then, though I tried hard, I could not drive out the reflection that all would have been different if he had not found our camp. Our partner had gone down in the black pool; we could not save him, but chance had made it easy to succor the one man who could bring me sorrow in his necessity. Then, as I struggled to shake off the feeling of sullen resentment, Ormond perhaps noticed my preoccupation, for he remarked:

"In other circumstances how we should enjoy this prospect, Lorimer!"

We halted a few minutes, and I agreed with him as I glanced about me. A great slope of snow ran upward above us, and as far as eye could see there was a white confusion of glittering ranges. The footprints of our comrades wound in zig-zags among deep drifts and outcrops of ice-touched rock across the foreground, and perhaps twenty feet below the ledge on which we stood a smooth slide of frozen snow dropped steeply toward the edge of a precipice, through a gully in which we could see the tops of the climbing pines far beneath. A few small clumps of bushes and spruce rose out of this snow.

"It's an awkward place for a lame man, but if we wait much longer we will lose the others," said Ormond, pointing to the distant figures struggling across the dazzling incline.

He moved a few steps, then there was a stumble and a sudden cry. I saw him for a moment slipping down the slanted surface of the rock, and when I reached the edge he hung apparently with one foot on a slippery stone, and his left hand clawing wildly at the snow, which yielded under it. I think his other fingers were in a crevice. The fall might not be dangerous in itself, but it seemed impossible 272 that anybody launched upon that declivity could escape a glissade over the precipice. This struck me in an instant and, grasping a shrub which grew in a crevice, I held out my right hand toward him.

"Get hold, lift yourself with your foot, and I'll drag you up!" I said.

He made a desperate effort, for I could see the veins swell on his forehead, but it was the injured foot which had found hold, and when his chest was level with the edge, still clawing at the treacherous covering, he commenced to slip back again.

"Can't do it. Let go, before I pull you over too!" he gasped.

One reads that in cases of imminent peril men's memories have been quickened and past events rise up before them, but nothing of this kind happened to me, for as far as recollection serves I was conscious only that I could not recover my own balance now, and that there were great beads of sweat on the forehead of the man struggling for his life below who stared up with starting eyes, while my right arm seemed slowly being drawn out of its socket. So I fought for breath, and held on, while I fancy Ormond choked out again: "You fool, let go!" and then, with slow rending, the roots of the shrub gave way, and we plunged downward together.

Ormond was undermost, and he must have struck an uncovered rock heavily, for I heard a thudding shock, and the next moment, driving my heels into the snow, I swept down the incline at a speed which threatened to drive the little sense left in me completely away. Nevertheless, I noticed that Ormond rushed downward head foremost several yards away, and there was a loud crash when he charged through a juniper thicket, and then struck violently against a spruce, which brought him up almost on the verge 273 of the gully. By good luck I slid into a clump of stout saplings, and presently rose to my knees, blinking about me in a dazed fashion. One thing, however, was evident-any rash move would launch me over the sheer fall. Ormond lay still against the slender trunk, and several minutes passed before he raised his head. There was a red stain on the snow beside him, and his voice was uneven.

"You are not a judicious man, Lorimer," he said. "I'm infinitely obliged to you, but no one would have blamed you for letting go."

"We'll let that pass," I answered shortly. "I'm glad I did not. We are in an awkward place, and the first thing is to decide how to get out of it."

There was a wry smile on Ormond's face when he spoke again: "It's certainly a perilous po

sition, and a somewhat unusual one. You and I-of all men-to be hung up here together on the brink of eternity. Still I, at least, am doubtful whether I'll ever get out again; there's something badly broken inside of me."

The hot blood surged to my forehead, for I understood what he meant, but that was a side issue, and, answering nothing, I scanned the slope for some way of ascent. There was none, and nothing without wings could have gained the valley. Ormond, too, realized this.

"All we can do, Lorimer," he said, "is to wait until our friends assist us. In the meantime you might fire your rifle to suggest that they hurry!"

He spoke very thickly. I scraped the snow from the slung weapon's muzzle, for this will sometimes burst a gun, and then a red flash answered the ringing report from the opposite slope, and presently a cry reached us from the foremost of the clambering figures. "Hold on! We're coming to get you out!" it said.

Now most luckily we had brought several stout hide 274 ropes with us, which was a rather unusual procedure. The British Columbian mountaineer will carry a flour bag over moraine and glacier trusting only to the creeper spikes on his heels, and in objecting to the extra weight our guide said derisively: "We've quite enough to pack already, and I guess you don't want to dress us up with a green veil, a crooked club with a spike in the end of it, and fathoms of spun hemp, like them tourist fellows bring out to sit in the woods with."

Nevertheless, I insisted, and now we were thankful for the coupled lariats. They could not lower them directly toward me because of a tree, and when the end lay resting on the snow several yards away I braced myself to attempt the risky traverse. The slope was pitched as steeply as the average roof, and there was ice beneath the frost-dried powder that slid along it. Leaving the rifle behind, I drove the long blade of my knife deep down for a hand-hold before the first move.

"Lie flat and wriggle!" called a man above. "Jam the steel into the hard cake beneath!" and with the cold sweat oozing from my hair I proceeded to obey him. How long I took to cover the distance we could not afterward agree, but once I lay prone for minutes together, with both arms buried in the treacherous snow, which was slipping under me, and the end of the lariat a foot or two away. Then with a snake-like wriggle I grasped it, and there was a cry of relief from the watchers. I got a bight around Ormond's shoulders, and after some difficulty fastened it. One cannot use ordinary knots on hide. Ready hands gathered in the slack, and my rival was drawn up swiftly, while they guided him diagonally around instead of under the jutting shelf from which we had fallen.

Then the end came down again, and with it fast about my shoulders I went back for the rifle, after which they 275 hauled me up, filling my neck and both sleeves with snow in the process. Though Harry laughed, his voice trembled when, as I gained the platform, he exclaimed:

"Well done, partner! You fought gamely, and if you had eaten another bear we should never have landed you."

Harry, I think, had been at one time a trout fisher. Ormond, however, after making an effort to rise, lay limply in the snow.

"I'm very sorry to trouble you, but I can't get up," he said. "Something gone wrong internally and my leg's broken. I'm much afraid you will have to carry me."

It was an arduous undertaking, and even before starting it was necessary to lash his limbs together with a rifle between them by way of splint. After this we spent two hours traversing the next mile or so, and my shoulders ached when with intense satisfaction we found firm earth beneath our feet once more. Ormond was distinctly heavy, and that region is sufficiently difficult to traverse even by a wholly unburdened man, while, hampered by his weight, the two days' march to the crossing might be lengthened indefinitely. Still, we could not leave him there, and, framing two spruce poles with branches between them into a litter, we struggled forward under our burden. We were five partly fed and worn-out men in all, and we carried the litter alternately by twos and fours, finding the task a trying one either way. Probably we could never have accomplished it except under pressure of necessity.

The bronze already had faded in the sufferer's face, his cheeks had fallen in, but though the jolting must have caused him severe pain at times he rarely complained. Instead, he would smile at us encouragingly, or make some pitiful attempt at a jest, and I think it was chiefly to please us that he choked down a few spoonfuls of the very untempting 276 stew we forced on him. Once, too, when I tried to feed him his eyes twinkled, though his lips were blanched, as he said:

"We are playing out our parts in a most unconventional fashion. Ralph Lorimer, are you sure that it is not poison you are giving me?"

Perhaps he would have said more if I had followed his lead, but I did not do so, and these two veiled references were all that passed between us on the subject that most concerned us until almost the end. It was late one night, but there was a beaten trail beneath us and we knew we were running a race for Ormond's life, when at last a glimmer of light appeared among the trunks and the sound of hurrying water increased in volume. We quickened our dragging pace, and when Harry pounded violently on the door of a log building an old man with bent shoulders and long white hair stood before us.

"Ye'll come in, and very welcome," he said. "I heard ye coming down the trail. Four men with a load between them-where are the lave o' ye? The best that's in Hector's shanty is waiting ye."

There was an air of dignity about him which struck me, and I had heard prospectors and surveyors talk about mad Hector of the crossing. When we carried our burden in he knelt and laid back Ormond's under jacket of deerskin before he saw to the broken leg with a dexterity that evinced a knowledge of elementary surgery.

"Is this going to be the end of me?" asked Ormond languidly, and the old man, turning his head, glanced toward me in warning as he answered: "That's as the Lord wills. Yere friends will need to be careful. The leg's no set that ill, but I'm suspecting trouble inside o' ye. With good guidance ye should get over it. Lay him gently yonder while I slip on a better lashing." 277

He crammed the stove with fuel until the hot pipe trembled to the draught, and soon set a bounteous meal before us-fresh venison and smoked salmon with new bread and dried berries-while he also prepared a broth for Ormond, who drank a little greedily, and then lapsed into slumber. I was for pushing on after a brief rest, but Hector thought differently.

"Neither man nor horse has been drowned while I kept this crossing," he said, "and by the help o' Providence no man will. Can ye no hear the river roaring to the boulders, and would ye have her wash ye out mangled out o' human image into the bottomless pool? Maybe ye'll no like the passage in the light o' dawn, but ye cannot cross till then."

He spoke with a tone of certainty, and knowing that only those who live by them can predict the eccentric rise and fall of these torrents I was glad to defer to his judgment. It was only for Ormond's sake that we desired to press on at all, and Harry observed truthfully, "It wouldn't do the poor fellow any good to drown him."

It was late, but we still loitered about the stove, and when once the old man stood in the open doorway glancing toward the foaming rush of the river that I could see beyond him, as though to gauge its force by the roar which now filled the room, one of the party remarked: "Old Hector's a curious critter, with a kink inside his brain, but there's many a free miner owes a big debt to him. He knows each trick of the river; the Siwash say it talks to him, and when he says clear passage I guess you can cross. I've heard that the Roads and Trails Authorities allow him a few dollars subsidy, but he doesn't stay here for that. He was mixed up in some ugly doings in the gold days, and reckons he's squaring it by keeping the crossing. And I guess he comes pretty near doing it, too, for there's a good 278 many lives to his credit, if that counts for anything, and I'm figuring it does."

He ceased as our host returned and said, "She's falling half-a-foot an hour, an' for the sake of the sick man I'll see ye over with the break of dawn. Got hurt on the gold trail-ye need not tell me. There's no a sand bar or gully from Fraser till Oominica Hector did not travel thirty years ago. They came up in their thousands then, an' only the wolf an' eagle ken where the maist o' them lie."

"That's true," said the grizzled prospector. "I was in the last of it when Caribou was played out and we struck for the Peace country and Cassiar," and Hector stared past him through the smoke wreaths with vacant eyes that seemed to look far back into bygone years.

"There was red gold to be had for the seeking then," he said. "We won it lightly, an' we spent it ill. Ay wine an' cards, an' riot' when they brought the painted women in, until the innocent blood was spilt, and Hector came down from Quesnelle with the widow's black curse upon him-but it was his partner shot Cassell in the back. The widow's curse; and that's maybe why Mary Macdonal' lies long years her lone among the hills o' Argyle."

"Tell us how you cleaned out the Hydraulic Company, Hector," said the prospector, and added aside to me, "I'm switching him off onto another track. He's not cheerful on this one, and it's hardly fair play to listen while he gives himself away."

Then we heard true stories of the old mad days, tales of grim burlesque and sordid tragedy, which have never been written, and would not be credited if they were, though their faint echoes may still be heard between the Willow River and Ashcroft on the Thompson. Long afterward when Harry and I discussed that experience he said, 279 "Say little about Hector; one must know these mountains well to understand him. I never saw any one quite like him. He spoke like a Hebrew prophet, and we obeyed him as though he were an emperor."

I slept in a splendid dry blanket under a bearskin which Hector spread over me, and a dim light was in the eastern sky when the old man roused me, saying, "If ye are stout at the paddle we'll try the river noo."

The others were growling drowsily as they rose to their feet, and I saw that Ormond's gaze was fixed on me meaningly.

"You'll take me over now won't you, Lorimer?" he said as I bent over him. "I feel that each hour is precious, and I'm longing above all things to see Miss Carrington before I go. It is for her own sake partly."

I had forgotten our rivalry, and my voice was thick as I promised, while Ormond sighed before he answered faintly:

"It might have been different, Lorimer. It's a pity we didn't know each other better three years ago."

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