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   Chapter 1 BOTTOMLESS SWAMP

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20181

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was Construction Foreman Cassidy who gave the place its name when he answered his employer's laconic telegram. Stirling, the great contractor, frequently expressed himself with forcible terseness; but when he flung the message across to his secretary as he sat one morning in his private room in an Ottawa hotel, the latter raised his eyebrows questioningly. He knew his employer in all his moods; and he was not in the least afraid of him. There was, though most of those who did business with him failed to perceive it, a vein of almost extravagant generosity in Stirling's character.

"Well," said the latter, "isn't the thing plain enough?"

The secretary smiled.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Still, I'm not sure they'll send it over the wires in quite that form."

His employer agreed to the modification he suggested, and the message as despatched to Cassidy read simply, "Why are you stopping?"

After that the famous contractor busied himself about other matters until he got the answer, "No bottom to this swamp."

Then his indignation boiled over, as it sometimes did, for Stirling was a thick-necked, red-faced man with a fiery temper and an indomitable will. He had undertaken a good deal of difficult railroad work in western Canada and never yet had been beaten. What was more to the purpose, he had no intention of being beaten now, or even delayed, by a swamp that had no bottom. He had grappled with hard rock and sliding snow, had overcome professional rivals, and had made his influence felt by politicians; and, though he had left middle-age behind, he still retained his full vigor of body and freedom of speech. When he had explained what he thought of Cassidy he turned again to his secretary.

"Arrange for a private car," he said. "I'll go along to-morrow and make them jump."

The secretary, who fancied there would be trouble in the construction camp during the next few days, felt inclined to be sorry for Cassidy as he went out to make the necessary arrangements for his employer's journey west.

Stirling had spent a busy morning when he met his daughter Ida and her friends at lunch. He did not belong to Ottawa. His offices were in Montreal; but as Ottawa is the seat of the government he had visited it at the request of certain railroad potentates and other magnates of political influence. With him he had brought his daughter and three of her English friends, for Ida had desired to show them the capital. He had no great opinion of the man and the two women in question. He said that they made him tired, and sometimes in confidence to his secretary he went rather further than that; but at the same time he was willing to bear with them, if the fact that he did so afforded Ida any pleasure. Ida Stirling was an unusually fortunate young woman, in so far, at least, as that she had only to mention any desire that it was in her father's power to gratify. He was a strenuous man, whose work was his life; subtle where that work was concerned when force, which he preferred, was not advisable, but crudely direct and simple as regards almost everything else.

"I'm going west across the Rockies to-morrow," he said. "We'll have a private car on the Pacific express. You'd better bring these folk along and show them the Mountain Province."

Ida was pleased with the idea; and Stirling and his party started west on the morrow.

In the meanwhile, Construction Foreman Cassidy was spending an anxious time. He was red-haired and irascible, Canadian by adoption and Hibernian by descent, a man of no ideas beyond those connected with railroad building, which was, however, very much what one would have expected, for the chief attribute of the men who are building up the western Dominion is their power of concentration. Though there were greater men above Cassidy who would get the credit, it was due chiefly to his grim persistency that the branch road had been blasted out of the mountainside, made secure from sliding snow, and flung on dizzy trestles over thundering rivers, until at last it reached the swamp which, in his own simple words, had no bottom.

There are other places like it in the Mountain Province of British Columbia. Giant ranges, whose peaks glimmer with the cold gleam of never-melting snow, shut in the valley. Great pine forests clothe their lower slopes, and a green-stained river leaps roaring out of the midst of them. The new track wound through their shadow, a double riband of steel, until it broke off abruptly where a creek that poured out of the hills had spread itself among the trees. The latter dwindled and rotted, and black depths of mire lay among their crawling roots, forming what is known in that country as a muskeg. There was a deep, blue lake on the one hand, and on the other scarped slopes of rock that the tract could not surmount; and for a time Cassidy and his men had floundered knee-deep, and often deeper, among the roots while they plied the ax and saw. Then they dumped in carload after carload of rock and gravel; but the muskeg absorbed it and waited for more. It was apparently insatiable; and, for Cassidy drove them savagely, the men's tempers grew shorter under the strain, until some, who had drawn a sufficient proportion of their wages to warrant it, rolled up their blankets and walked out reviling him. Still, most of them stayed with the task and toiled on sullenly in the mire under a scorching heat, for it was summer in the wilderness.

Affairs were in this condition when Clarence Weston crawled out of the swamp one evening and sat down on a cedar log before he followed his comrades up the track, though he supposed that supper would shortly be laid out in the sleeping-shanty. The sunlight that flung lurid flecks of color upon the western side of the fir trunks beat upon his dripping face, which, though a little worn and grim just then, was otherwise a pleasant face of the fair English type. In fact, though he had been some years in the country, Englishman was unmistakably stamped upon him. He was attired scantily and simply in a very old blue shirt, and trousers, which also had once been blue, of duck; and just then he was very weary, and more than a little lame.

He had cut himself about the ankle when chopping a week earlier, and though the wound had partly healed his foot was still painful. There were also a good many other scars and bruises upon his body, for the cost of building a western railroad is usually heavy. Still, he had an excellent constitution, and was, while not particularly brilliant as a rule, at least whimsically contented in mind. His comrades called him the Kid, or the English Kid, perhaps on account of a certain delicacy of manner and expression which he had somehow contrived to retain, though he had spent several years in logging camps, and his age was close onto twenty-five.

While he sat there with the shovel that had worn his hands hard lying at his feet, Cassidy, who had not recovered from the interview he had had with Stirling that morning, strode by, hot and out of temper, and then stopped and swung round on him.

"Too stiff to get up hustle before the mosquitoes eat you, when supper's ready?" he said.

Weston glanced down at his foot.

"I was on the gravel bank all afternoon. It's steep. Seemed to wrench the cut."

"Well," said Cassidy, "I've no kind of use for a man who doesn't know enough to keep himself from getting hurt. You have got to get that foot better right away or get out."

He shook a big, hard fist at the swamp.

"How'm I going to fill up that pit with a crowd of stiffs and deadbeats like those I'm driving now? You make me tired!"

He did not wait for an answer to the query, but plodded away; and Weston sat still a few minutes longer, with a wry smile in his eyes. He resented being over-driven, though he was more or less used to it, and now and then he found his superior's vitriolic comments upon his efforts almost intolerably galling. Still he had sense enough to realize that the remedy open to him was a somewhat hazardous one, because, while it would be easy to walk out of the construction camp, industrial activity just then was unusually slack in the Mountain Province. Besides, he was willing to admit that there were excuses for Cassidy, and there was a certain quiet tenacity in him. He was also aware that the man with little money has generally a good deal to bear, for Weston was one who could learn by experience, though that faculty was not one that hitherto had characterized the family from which he sprang.

None of the Westons had ever been remarkable for genius-a fact of which they were rather proud than otherwise. They had for several generations been content to be men of local importance in a secluded nook of rural England, which is not the kind of life that is conducive to original thought or enterprising action. They had chosen wives like themselves from among their neighbors, and it was perhaps in several respects not altogether fortunate for Clarence Weston that his mother had been ultra-conservative in her respect for traditions, since he had inherited one side of her nature. Still, in her case, at least, the respect had been idealistic, and the traditions of the highest; and though she had died when he was eighteen she had instilled into him a certain delicacy of sentiment and a simple, chivalrous code that had somewhat hampered him in the rough life he had led in the Canadian Dominion.

As a very young man he had quarreled with his father over a matter trifling in itself, but each had clung to his opinions with the obstinacy of men who have few ideas to spare, and Clarence had gone out to seek his fortune in western Canada. He had naturally failed to find it, and the first discovery that there was apparently nobody in that wide country who was ready to appraise either his mental attainments or his bodily activity at the value of his board was a painful shock to the sanguine lad. That first year was a bad one to him, but he set his teeth and quietly bore all that befell him; the odd, brut

al task, paid for at half the usual wages, the frequent rebuffs, the long nights spent shelterless in the bush, utter weariness, and often downright hunger. It was a hard school, but it taught him much, and he graduated as a man, strong and comely of body, and resolute of mind. What was more, he had, though he scarcely realized it, after all, only left behind in England a cramped life embittered by a steady shrinkage in the rent roll and as steady an increase in taxation and expenses. His present life was clean, and governed by a code of crude and austere simplicity. His mother's spirit was in him, and, being what he was, there were things he could not do. He did not attempt to reason about them. The knowledge was borne in upon him instinctively.

He rose, by and by, and, for he was hungry, limped on to the sleeping-shanty of the construction gang. It was built of logs and roofed with rough cedar shingles hand-split on the spot. The sun beat hot upon them, and they diffused a faint aromatic fragrance, refreshing as the scent of vinegar, into the long, unfloored room, which certainly needed something of the kind. It reeked with stale tobacco-smoke, the smell of cookery, and the odors of frowsy clothes. A row of bunks, filled with spruce twigs and old brown blankets, ran down one side of it, a very rude table down the other, and a double row of men with bronzed faces, in dusty garments, sat about the latter, eating voraciously. Fifteen minutes was, at the outside, the longest time they ever wasted on a meal.

That evening, however, they were singularly short of temper, for Cassidy had driven them mercilessly all day, and, though not usually fastidious, the supper was not to their liking. The hash was burnt; the venison, for one of them had shot a deer, had been hung too long; while the dessert, a great pie of desiccated fruits, had been baked to a flinty hardness. That was the last straw; for in the Mountain Province the lumber and railroad gangs as a rule work hard and live well; and when the cans of green tea had been emptied the growls culminated in a call for the cook.

He came forward and stood before them, a little, shaky, gray-haired wreck of a man, with the signs of indulgence plain upon him. Whisky is scarce in that country, but it is obtainable, and Grenfell generally procured a good deal of it. The man was evidently in a state of apprehension, and he shrank back a little when a big, grim-faced chopper ladled out a great plateful of the burnt stew from a vessel on the stove.

"Now," he said, "you've been spoiling supper too often lately, and I guess we've got to teach you plain, cookery. Sit right down and get that hash inside you."

The man protested that he had had his supper before they came in; whereupon the other seized him by the shoulders and thrust him down roughly into a seat at the table.

"Well," he said, "you've got to have a little more. If it's good enough for us, boys, it's not going to hurt him."

There was a murmur of concurrence when he looked around at the rest; and the cook, seeing no help for it, made a valiant attempt to eat a little of the greasy mess. Then he revolted from it and glanced at his companions supplicatingly.

"I can't do it, boys. You'll let me off?" he pleaded.

None of the rest showed any sign of relenting. They were inclined to be pitiless then, and the rude justice of the chopper's idea appealed to them.

"When you've cleaned up that plate," said one.

The victim made a second futile attempt, and, after waiting some minutes for him to proceed, they decided that it was too hot in the shed, so, conveying him outside, they seated him on a great fir stump sawed off several feet above the ground, with the plate beside him. Then they took out their pipes and sat around to enjoy the spectacle. As a rule there is very little cruelty in men of their kind; but they were very human, and the cook had robbed them of a meal somewhat frequently of late. Besides, they had smarted all day under Cassidy's bitter tongue, and they felt that they must retaliate upon somebody. No one said anything for several minutes, and then the big chopper once more approached his victim.

"Now," he said, "since you have to go through with it, you may as well start in. If you don't, I'll put the blame stuff down your throat."

It was, perhaps, no more than justice, for the cook was paid well; but there was one man in the assembly to whom this did not altogether appeal. The victim was frail and helpless, a watery-eyed, limp bundle of nerves, with, nevertheless, a pitiful suggestion of outward dignity still clinging to him, though his persecutors would have described him aptly as a whisky tank. The former fact was sufficient for Weston, who did not stop to think out the matter, but rose and strode quietly toward the fir stump.

"I think this thing has gone far enough, boys. You'll have to let him off," he said.

"No, sir," said the big chopper. "He's going right through. Anyway, it's not your trouble. Light out before we rope you in too."

Weston did not move until three or four more strode forward hastily, when he stooped for an ax that lay handy and swung it round his head. It came down with a crash on the plate, and the hash was scattered over the withered redwood twigs. Then, while a growl expressive of astonishment as well as anger went up, the chopper scraped up part of the stew with red soil and fir twigs mixed in it.

"He has got to eat it, and then I'll tend to you. You'll see that they don't get away, boys," he said.

Weston clearly had no intention of attempting to do so, and the cook would have found it hopeless, for the rest closed round the stump in a contracting ring. While they knew that Cassidy had been summoned to Stirling's car, they were unaware that there were other spectators of the little drama. Two young women had, however, just emerged from among the towering firs that hemmed in the muskeg. One was attired elaborately in light garments and a big hat that appeared very much out of place in that aisle of tremendous forest, but there was a difference between her and her companion. The latter knew the bush, and was dressed simply in a close-fitting robe of gray. She held herself well, and there was something that suggested quiet imperiousness in her attitude and expression. This was, perhaps, not altogether unnatural, for hitherto when Ida Stirling desired anything that her father's money could obtain her wish was gratified. She laid her hand warningly on her companion's arm, and drew her back into the shadow of the firs.

"I really don't think we need go away," she said. "They won't notice us, and you will probably see something that is supposed to be characteristically western, though I'm not sure that it really is."

The meaning of the scene was tolerably plain to both of them. The little cleared space formed a natural amphitheater walled in by somber ranks of pines; and, standing higher, they could see over the heads of the clustering men. There was no difficulty in identifying the victim, the persecutor and the champion, for Weston stood stripped to blue shirt and trousers, with the big ax in his hand and his head thrown back a trifle, gazing with curiously steady eyes at the expectant faces before him. Then as two or three of the men drew in closer he raised his free hand.

"This thing lies between Jake and me, and I'm open to deal with him," he said. "Still, I've got the ax here if more of you stand in."

The man scarcely raised his voice, but it was clear that he was quietly and dangerously resolute. Indeed, his attitude rather pleased some of the rest, for there was a fresh murmuring, and a cry of, "Give the Kid a show!"

Then, and nobody was afterward quite certain who struck first, the trial by combat suddenly commenced. There are very few rules attached to it in that country, where men do not fight by formula but with the one purpose of deciding the matter in the quickest way possible; and in another moment the two had clinched. They fell against the tree stump and reeled clear again, swaying, gasping, and striking when they could. It is probable that the Canadian was the stronger man, but, as it happened, his antagonist had been born among the dales of northern England, where wrestling is still held as an art. In a few minutes he hurled the chopper off his feet, and a hoarse clamor went up, through which there broke a shout:

"The Kid has him!"

Then the two men went down together, heavily, and rolled over and over, until Cassidy came running down the track and burst through the ring of onlookers. In one hand he carried a peevie, a big wooden lever with an iron hook on it, such as men use in rolling fir logs. He belabored the pair with it impartially, and it was evident that he was not in the least particular as to whether he hurt them or not. Loosing their hold on each other they staggered to their feet with the red dust thick on their flushed faces.

Cassidy flourished the peevie.

"Now," he cried, "is it fighting ye want?"

There was a burst of laughter; and the assembly broke up when Cassidy hustled the chopper off the field. The cook, with commendable discretion, had slipped away quietly in the meanwhile, and the two young women, whom nobody had noticed, turned back among the firs. The girl in the elaborate draperies laughed.

"I suppose it was a little brutal, and we shouldn't have stayed," she said. "Still, in a sense the attitude of the one they called the Kid was rather fine. I could have made quite a striking sketch of him."

Ida Stirling made no direct reply to this, but, as she found afterward, the scene had fixed itself on her memory. Still it was not the intent men or the stately clustering pines that she recalled most clearly; it was the dominant central figure, standing almost statuesque, with head tilted slightly backward, and both hands clenched on the big ax haft.

"The man they were tormenting must have done something to vex them. They really are not quarrelsome," she said.

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