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   Chapter 2 THE PACKER

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16713

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Weston was engaged with several others flinging gravel into a flat car with a long-hafted shovel the next morning when Cassidy strode up the track; and, though the men already had been working hard, they quickened the pace a little when they saw him. He could tell at a glance whether a man were doing his utmost, and nothing less would satisfy him. He knew also exactly how many cubic yards of soil or gravel could be handled by any particular gang. If the quantity fell short, there was usually trouble. However, he said nothing to the others that morning, but beckoned Weston aside, and stood a moment or two looking at him, with a grimly whimsical twinkle in his eyes.

Weston had not suffered greatly during the struggle of the previous evening, but there was a discolored bruise on one of his cheeks and a big lump on his forehead. He was glad to stand still a moment, for he had been shoveling gravel for several hours, and that is an occupation that conduces to an unpleasant stiffness about the waist. He was, however, somewhat puzzled by the red-haired Cassidy's sardonic grin.

"Well," said the latter, with an air of reflection, "I guess you might do if you got a piece of raw steak from the cook and tied it around your face."

"For what?" asked Weston, sharply.

"For a packer. The boss's friends are going camping in the bush."

Weston did not answer immediately, for in that country, where roads are still singularly scarce, packing usually means the transporting of heavy loads upon one's back. The smaller ranchers are as a rule adept at it, and when it is necessary, as it sometimes is, will cheerfully walk over a mountain range with a big sack of flour or other sundries bound upon their shoulders. Four or five leagues is not considered too great a distance to pack a bushel or two of seed potatoes, or even a table for the ranch, and Weston, who had reasons for being aware that work of the kind is at least as arduous as shoveling gravel, did not feel greatly tempted by the offer. Cassidy seemed to guess what he was thinking.

"It's a soft thing I'm putting you on to, as a special favor," he explained. "It will be up-river most of the way, and I've got a couple of Siwash to pole the canoes. All you have to do is the cooking, make camp, and tend to Miss Stirling's friends when they go fishing." He waved his hand, and added, as though to clinch the argument, "I've known people of that kind to give a man that pleased them ten dollars."

Weston's face flushed a little, but he said he would go; and the next day the party started up-river in two Indian canoes. Besides Weston and the dark-skinned Siwash packers, it consisted of four: a tall, elderly man called Kinnaird, with the stamp of a military training plain upon him; his little, quiet wife; his daughter, who was somewhat elaborately dressed; and Ida Stirling. Kinnaird and his daughter traveled in the larger canoe with the Indians and the camp gear, and Mrs. Kinnaird and Miss Stirling with Weston in the other.

Though Weston was more or less accustomed to the work, he found the first few hours sufficiently arduous. It is not an easy matter to propel a loaded canoe against a strong stream with a single paddle, and it is almost as difficult to pole her alone; while there were two long portages to make, when the craft and everything in them had to be hauled painfully over a stretch of very rough boulders. Kinnaird took his share in it, and Weston was quite willing to permit him to do so; but the latter was floundering toward the canoes alone, with a heavy load on his shoulders, when he came to a sharply sloped and slippery ledge of rock. It was very hot in the deep valley, and the white stones and flashing river flung up a blaze of light into his eyes; while he limped a little under his burden, for his foot was still painful. He had no idea that anybody was watching him; and, when he slipped and, falling heavily, rolled down part of the slope, scattering the packages about him, he relieved his feelings with a few vitriolic comments upon the luxurious habits of the people who had compelled him to carry so many of their superfluous comforts through the bush. Then he set about gathering up the sundries he had dropped. First of all he came upon a lady's parasol, white outside and lined with green. He regarded it with a rueful smile when he had tried and failed to open it.

"Trouble ahead," he commented. "It cost eight or nine dollars anyway, and now it's broken."

Then he came to a rather big valise, which swung open and poured out part of its contents when he lifted it by the handle. They seemed to consist of voluminous folds of delicate fabric and lace, and he was gazing at them and wondering how they were to be got back into the bag when he heard a voice behind him.

"Will you kindly put that down?" it said.

Weston dropped the bag in his astonishment; and, swinging around suddenly, he saw Miss Stirling standing in the shadow of a great cedar. He had been too busy during the journey up the river to pay much attention to her; but now it occurred to him that she was not only pretty but very much in harmony with her surroundings. The simple, close-fitting gray dress which, though he did not know this, had cost a good many dollars, displayed a pretty and not over-slender figure, and fitted in with the neutral tinting of the towering fir trunks and the sunlit boulders, while the plain white hat with bent-down brim formed an appropriate setting for the delicately-colored face beneath it. Still, Weston scarcely noticed any particular points in Miss Stirling's appearance just then, for he was subconsciously impressed by her personality as a whole. There was something in her dress and manner that he would have described vaguely as style, though it was a style he had not often come across in the west, where he had for the most part lived in the bush. She was evidently a little younger than himself, but she had the quiet air of one accustomed to command, which, as a matter of fact, was the case.

Then he wondered with a slight uneasiness whether she had heard all that he said when he fell down. He fancied that she had, for there was the faintest trace of amusement in her eyes. They met his own steadily, though he was not sure whether they were gray or blue, or a very light brown. Indeed, he was never quite sure of this, for they changed curiously with the light.

Then she came toward him and looked at the valise.

"It was locked when I gave it to you," she said, with a trace of severity.

"Well," answered Weston, "it doesn't seem to be locked now. I think I remember noticing that you left the key in it; but it's gone. It must have fallen out. I'll look for it."

He looked for some time, and, failing to find it, walked back to the girl.

"I'm afraid it's in the river," he said. "Still, you see, the bag is open."

"That," replied Miss Stirling, "is unfortunately evident. I want it shut."

Weston glanced at the protruding garments with which she seemed to be busy.

"I'm very sorry," he said. "I dare say I could squeeze these things back into it."

He was going to do so when Miss Stirling took the bag away from him.

"No," she said a trifle quickly, "I don't think you could."

Then it occurred to Weston that his offer had, perhaps, not been altogether tactful, and he was sensible of a certain confusion, at which he was slightly astonished. He did not remember having been readily subject to fits of embarrassment when in England, though there he had never served as porter to people of his own walk in life. Turning away, he collected a waterproof carry-all, a big rubber ground sheet, another parasol, a sketching stool, and a collapsible easel, which also appeared to be damaged. Then as he knelt down and roped them and the valise together he looked at the girl.

"I'm afraid Miss Kinnaird will be a little angry, for I think that easel thing won't open out," he said. "I'm awfully sorry."

Now "awfully sorry" is not a western colloquialism, and the girl looked at him attentively. She liked his voice, and she rather liked his face, which, since he had not been called the Kid for nothing, was ingenuous. She laughed a little. Then she remembered something she had noticed.

"Well," she observed, "I suppose you couldn't help it. That lo

ad was too heavy; and aren't you a little lame?"

"Not always," said Weston. "I cut my foot a little while ago. If it hadn't been for that I shouldn't have fallen down and broken Miss Kinnaird's things."

"And mine!"

"And yours," admitted Weston. "As I said, I'm particularly sorry. Still, if you will let me have the bag afterward I can, perhaps, mend the lock. You see, I assisted a general jobbing mechanic."

Ida Stirling flashed a quick glance at him. He had certainly a pleasant voice, and his manner was whimsically deferential.

"Why didn't you stay with him?" she asked. "Mending plows and wagons must have been easier than track-grading."

Weston's eyes twinkled.

"He said I made him tired; and the fact is I mended a clock. That is, I tried-it was rather a good one when I got hold of it."

The girl laughed, and the laugh set them on good terms with each other. Then she said:

"That load is far too heavy for you to climb over these boulders with when you have an injured foot. You can give me the valise, at least."

"No," said Weston, resolutely, "this is a good deal easier than shoveling gravel, as well as pleasanter; and the foot really doesn't trouble me very much. Besides, if I hadn't cut it, Cassidy wouldn't have sent me here."

He was, however, mistaken in supposing that the construction foreman had been influenced only by a desire to get rid of a man who was to some extent incapacitated. As a matter of fact, Miss Stirling, who had been rather pleased with the part he had played two days ago, had, when her father insisted on her taking a white man as well as the Indians, given Cassidy instructions that he should be sent. Still, she naturally did not mention this, and indeed said nothing of any account while they went on to the canoes.

It was slacker water above the rapid; and all afternoon they slid slowly up on deep, winding reaches of the still, green river. Sometimes it flashed under dazzling sunshine, but at least as often they moved through the dim shadow of towering pines that rolled, rank on rank, somber and stately, up the steep hillside, while high above them all rose tremendous ramparts of eternal snow. Then, as the sun dipped behind the great mountain wall, the clean, aromatic fragrance of pine and fir and cedar crept into the cooling air, and a stillness so deep that it became almost oppressive descended upon the lonely valley. The splash of pole or paddle broke through it with a startling distinctness, and the faint gurgle at the bows became curiously intensified. The pines grew slower, blacker and more solemn; filmy trails of mist crawled out from among the hollows of the hills; and the still air was charged with an elixir-like quality when Weston ran his canoe ashore.

While he and the Indians set about erecting a couple of tents, he saw Miss Kinnaird standing near him and gazing up across the misty pines toward the green transparency that still hung above the blue-white gleam of snow.

"This," she said to Miss Stirling, "is really wonderful. One can't get hold of it at once. It's tremendous."

The smallest of the pines rose two hundred feet above her; and they ran up until they dwindled to insignificance far aloft at the foot of a great scarp of rock that rose beyond them for a thousand feet or so and then gave place in turn to climbing fields of snow.

The girl, who was an artist, drew in her breath.

"Switzerland and Norway. It's like them both-and yet it grips you harder than either," she added. "I suppose it's because there are no hotels, or steamers. Probably very few white people have ever been here before."

"I really don't think many have," said Ida Stirling.

Then Miss Kinnaird laughed softly as she glanced at her attire.

"I must take off these fripperies. They're out of key," she said. "One ought to wear deerskins, or something of that kind here."

Weston heard nothing further, and remembered that, after all, the girl's sentiments were no concern of his. It was his business to prepare the supper and wait on the party; and he set about it. Darkness had descended upon the valley when he laid the plates of indurated ware on a strip of clean white shingle, and then drawing back a few yards sat down beneath the first of the pines in case they needed anything further. A fire blazed and crackled between two small logs felled for the purpose and rolled close together, and its flickering light fell upon him and those who sat at supper, except at times when it faded suddenly and the shadows closed in again. He was then attired picturesquely in a fringed deerskin jacket dressed by some of the Blackfeet across the Rockies. Kinnaird, who had once or twice glanced in his direction, gazed hard at him.

"Have you ever been in India?" he asked.

"No, sir," said Weston in a formal manner, though "sir" is not often used deferentially in western Canada.

Kinnaird appeared thoughtful.

"Well," he said, "I can't help thinking that I have come across you somewhere before. I have a good memory for faces, and yours is familiar."

"I have never seen you until to-day," said Weston. "I don't remember your name, either."

"The curious thing," persisted Kinnaird, "is that while I can't quite locate you I am almost sure I am right. What makes me feel more certain is that, though you were younger then, you have grown into the man I should have expected you to." Then he laughed. "Anyway, it's clear that you don't remember me."

He turned to the others, and Miss Kinnaird asked for more coffee, after which Weston, who brought it, sat still again to wait until he could take away the plates. It was evident that his presence placed no restraint on the conversation. At length he became suddenly intent. Kinnaird was contrasting Canada and England for Miss Stirling's benefit.

"Of course," he said, "we have nothing like this, but in the north, at least, we have odd bits of rugged grandeur where the wildness of the hills about one is emphasized by the green fertility of the valleys. There is a typical place where we spent a few months last year that I should like you to see. If you come back with us, as you half promised, we will take you there."

Weston leaned forward a little, for he had still a curious tenderness for the land of the fells and dales in which he had been born. He did not know that Ida Stirling, who had watched him closely when Kinnaird addressed him, had now fixed her eyes on him again. The latter turned to her as he proceeded.

"The old house," he said, "would make a picture in itself with its little stone-ribbed windows, and the much older square tower and curtain wall that form one wing. There is a terraced garden in front, and a stream comes frothing out of a wooded ghyll at the foot of it."

Weston started, for there was no doubt that the house Kinnaird described was the one in which he had been born. As it happened, the firelight fell upon his intent face as he waited for the answer, when Miss Stirling, who had missed his start, asked a question:

"The people who owned it were friends of yours?"

"No," said Kinnaird, "I never saw them. I took the place through an agency for the rough shooting and as a change from London. They had to let it and live in a neighboring town. The result of slack management and agricultural depression, I believe."

Weston set his lips. He had written home once rejecting a proposition made him, and his people had afterward apparently forgotten him. He had made up his mind that he would not trouble them again, at least while he toiled as a track-grader or a hired man; but now, when it seemed that trouble had come upon them, he regretted many things.

Kinnaird signed to him that he might take away the plates, and he gathered them up, scarcely conscious of what he was doing, and then stumbled and dropped the pile of them. Though made of indurated fiber, they fell with a startling clatter, and Kinnaird looked at him sharply as he picked them up; but in another few moments he had vanished beyond the range of the firelight into the shadows of the bush.

Ida Stirling had, however, noticed enough to arouse a young woman's curiosity, especially as there was a suggestion of romance in it, and before she went to sleep she thought a good deal about the man she had never seen until two days ago.

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