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   Chapter 4 IDA’S FIRST ASCENT

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20509

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The party had spent another day or two beside the lake when, one drowsy afternoon, Kinnaird, who sat on the hot, white shingle by the water's edge, with a pair of glasses in his hand, sent for Weston. Miss Kinnaird and Ida Stirling were seated among the boulders not far away.

"I understand that the river bends around the range, and the crest of the first rise seems no great height," he said. "There is evidently-a bench I think you call it-before you come to the snow, and the ascent should be practicable for a lady. Take these glasses and look at it."

Weston, who took the glasses, swept them along the hillside across the lake. It rose very steeply from the water's edge, but the slope was uniform, and as a good deal of it consisted apparently of lightly-covered rock and gravel the pines were thinner, and there was less undergrowth than usual. Far above him the smooth ascent broke off abruptly, and, though he could not see beyond the edge, there certainly appeared to be a plateau between it and the farther wall of rock and snow.

"I think one could get up so far without very much trouble, sir," he said.

"That," replied Kinnaird, "is how it strikes me. My daughter is rather a good mountaineer, and Miss Stirling is just as anxious to make the ascent. I may say that we have had some experience in Switzerland, not to mention the hills among the English lakes. Do you know anything about climbing?"

"No, sir," said Weston; "not as it is understood in Switzerland, anyway. I don't suppose there's an ice-ax in the country, and I never saw a party roped. Still, I have been up seven or eight thousand feet several times."

"What were you doing?" asked Miss Kinnaird.

Weston saw the faint twinkle in Ida Stirling's eyes, and fancied that he understood it. Very few of the inhabitants of that country climb for pleasure, and it is difficult to obtain any of the regulation mountaineering paraphernalia there; but when the wandering prospector finds a snow-crested range in his way he usually scrambles over it and carries his provisions and blankets along with him. The fact that there are no routes mapped out, and no chalets or club shelters to sleep in, does not trouble men of that kind.

"Once or twice we were on the gold trail," he said. "Another time I packed for a couple of Englishmen who were looking for mountain goats."

"Get any?" Kinnaird asked sharply.

"No, sir. We didn't even see one," said Weston; and again he noticed Miss Stirling's smile.

"Well," said Kinnaird, "we are breaking camp tomorrow, and my idea is that Mrs. Kinnaird should go on with the baggage in the canoes. The rest of us will follow the bench, and after working around the head of the big spur yonder come down again to the water by the other slope. You are, of course, willing to make the ascent with us?"

"I am under your orders," said Weston. "Still, I shouldn't advise it."

"Why?"

It was rather difficult to answer. Weston could not tell the major that he considered him a little too old for that work, or that he was dubious about his daughter's stamina and courage. He had seen self-confident strangers come down from those mountains dressed in rags, with their boots torn off their bleeding feet. Besides, he felt reasonably sure that, as he was not a professional guide, any advice that he might feel it wise to offer would not be heeded.

"I have heard that there is thick timber on the other slope," he said. "It's generally rather bad to get through."

Kinnaird, who never had been in really thick timber, dismissed the matter with a smile.

"We will start at six to-morrow, and endeavor to get down to camp again on the other side in the afternoon. You will arrange about provisions."

Weston said that he would do so, but he was not exactly pleased when he watched the major climb the hillside immediately behind them, with his glasses, to plot out the route. It seemed very probable that once he had fixed on one he would adhere to it at any cost, and, perhaps, the more persistently if the course in question appeared inadvisable to his companions. Weston did not pretend to be a great judge of character, but Kinnaird, who, it seemed, had held command in India, struck him as that kind of man. His wife was a little, placid lady, whose bodily vigor and any resolution of character she might once have possessed had apparently evaporated under the Indian sun, and, as far as Weston had noticed, she invariably agreed with whatever was said. When he waited on them at supper their talk was of the easier ascents in Switzerland, and in the mountains of his own land, whose names rang like music in his ears-the Striding Edge, the Great Gable Needle, and Saddleback Crags. The Needle was certainly difficult to climb, but the Striding Edge on a still day was a secure promenade compared with some of the ledges along which he had seen western prospectors struggle with a month's supplies.

Supper, which as usual was prepared about six o'clock, had been over an hour or two, when, after waiting for an opportunity, he found Ida alone beside the lake.

"Can't you persuade these people not to go, Miss Stirling?" he asked.

The girl smiled.

"No," she said, "I think you ought to recognize that."

"Then can't you make some excuse, for stopping behind with Mrs. Kinnaird?"

"Why?"

Weston made a little gesture.

"It will probably be a tough climb. I'd rather you didn't go."

Dusk was creeping up the hillside, but there was still a little light among the misty pines, and the girl flashed a quick glance at him. He seemed diffident, but it was evident that he did not wish her to go, and once more she felt that he aroused her curiosity.

"That," she observed, "is not exactly an answer. Why should I stay below?"

Weston was relieved at this, for it seemed preferable to him that she should be the one to raise the personal side of the question.

"Well," he said, "for one thing my employer is your father."

It occurred to the girl that the qualification might as well have been left out. It was too suggestive, since it conveyed the impression that the fact he had mentioned was not the only one that influenced him; but she had noticed already that Weston was not a finished diplomatist. She became more curious as to why he was especially concerned about her safety, though, as a matter of fact, he could not have told her, because he did not know.

"Major and Miss Kinnaird are his guests," she observed.

Weston recognized the reproof in this, and stood silent a moment or two until she spoke again.

"Are you afraid my nerve may not prove equal to Miss Kinnaird's?" she asked.

Weston smiled and answered without reflection.

"No," he said, "that certainly wasn't troubling me. When the pinch comes you could be relied on."

He was conscious that he had gone too far, and, as often happens in such cases, immediately went further.

"There is something about you that makes me sure of it."

"Well," said Ida, coldly, "it is very probable that the pinch won't come at all."

She turned away and left him; and Weston frowned at the supper dishes he had carried down to the lake.

"I dare say that looked very much like a gratuitous impertinence from-the packer," he observed.

He awakened at four the next morning; and the mists were steaming among the pines when the Indians ferried the party across the lake. Then for a couple of hours they went up steadily, between apparently endless ranks of climbing pines, with odd streams of loose gravel sliding down beneath their feet. Kinnaird led the way; the girls came behind him climbing well; and Weston brought up the rear with an ample supply of provisions and a couple of big blankets strapped on his shoulders. He explained that the blankets would do to sit on, but, knowing a little about those mountains, he was somewhat dubious about their getting down again that afternoon. The load was heavy, and by and by his injured foot commenced to grow painful.

Then they left the last of the dwindling pines behind, and pushed on along a slope that was strewn with shattered rock and debris which made walking arduous. Then they reached a scarp of rock ground smooth by the slipping down of melting snow, and when they had crossed that their difficulties began. The scarp broke off on the verge of an almost precipitous rift, and a torrent that seemed drawn out into silk-like threads roared in the depths of it. A few pines were sprinkled about the slopes of the gully, and one or two of them which had fallen lay athwart the creek.

They stopped for a few minutes upon a dizzy ledge of rock, from which they looked far down across battalions of somber trees upon the gleaming lake below. Here Weston was guilty of an indiscretion. He admitted afterward that he ought to have known that a man used to command in India, who claimed some acquaintance with Alpine climbing, was not likely to be advised by him.

"I believe we could get down, sir, and there are several logs across the creek," he said. "We must get over it somehow, and the gully will probably run into a canon lower down."

"That," remarked Kinnaird, dryly, "is perfectly evident. It is, however, my intention to follow up the gully."

Weston was conscious that Ida Stirling was glancing at him, but his face remained expressionless; and as he suggested nothing further, they went on again. The mountain slope had been steadily growing steeper beneath them, and they had not yet reached the bench. They went up for another hour, and then came out upon the expected strip of plateau in the midst of which the gully died out. The plateau, however, lay on the northern side of a great peak, and was covered with slushy snow. Kinnaird looked somewhat dubiously at the latter, which seemed deep in the hollows.

"The snow will have gone once we get around the western shoulders," he said. "It must be almost as near to get down from that side, and the canoes will have gone on by now. Still, it's rather a long time since breakfast."

He glanced at the girls, and appeared relieved when Ida said:

"I think we would better push on a little further before we stop for lunch."

They plunged into a snow-drift to the kn

ees, and when they had floundered through it for thirty yards or so Weston sank suddenly well over his waist. He flung himself forward, and with the help of Kinnaird wriggled clear, but when they looked down there was empty blackness beneath the hole he had made.

"It's a snow-bridge, I think, sir," he said. "The creek's running under it. Anyway, I didn't touch anything solid with my feet."

Kinnaird's face grew graver.

"If you're right," he observed, "it would be wiser to work around."

They spent an hour doing it, and then, crossing knee-deep, they sat down on a ledge of jutting rock while Weston laid out a simple meal. It was very cold in the shadow of the peak, and a bitter wind that seemed to be gathering strength whistled eerily about the desolation of rock and snow. They were wet to the knees, and Weston fancied that the girls' cheerfulness was a trifle forced. He was ready to admit that he was somewhat stiff and weary, for he had carried the provisions and the heavy blankets that the girls had now tucked round them.

The latter commenced to flag when they started again; and, as it happened, the strip of bench they followed rapidly narrowed in and grew rougher until it became little more than a sloping ledge with the hillside dropping almost sheer away from it. It was strewn with great fragments that had fallen from the wall of rock above, and banks of snow lay packed between them in the hollows. Every now and then one or another of the party sank deep on stepping down from some ledge of slippery stone. They were on the northern side of a spur of the higher range, though they were approaching the angle where it broke off and fell in a steep declivity facing west. This point they had to turn before they reached the spot from which Kinnaird purposed descending to the river. They made very slow progress, while the shadow of the peaks grew blacker and longer across the hills. At length, when they had almost reached the corner, Kinnaird stopped to consider, and the girls sat down with evident alacrity. This time he looked at Weston, and his manner implied that he was willing to consider any views that he or the others might express.

"I'm afraid that I have been a little at fault," he admitted. "In fact, I quite expected that we would be down again by this time. It is now well on in the afternoon, and, as we have probably covered about two-thirds of the distance, it would not be advisable to go back as we came up."

"That," said Arabella Kinnaird decisively, "is unthinkable."

She turned to Weston, who nodded.

"Anyway, the canoes have gone on, which means that there would be nothing to eat until we came up with them," he said. "It must be eight or nine miles, by water, from our last camp to where they are to wait for us, and the ladies couldn't go so far through the thick timber in the valley."

Kinnaird looked beneath him.

"Well, I don't think anybody could get straight down from here," he said.

It was clearly beyond the power of those who were with him, as they quite realized. A few yards away, the hillside fell almost precipitously for perhaps a thousand feet to the tops of the pines below. Part of it was smooth rock, but long banks of gravel lay resting in the hollows at so steep a slope that it was evident that a footstep would be sufficient to dislodge them. Indeed, without that, every now and then some of them broke away and plunged down into the valley. Close behind the party a wall of crags rose sheer for a hundred feet at least. Kinnaird glanced up at them with a frown.

"I fancy we should find another level strip above," he said; "but since we can't get up the only thing to do is to push on. From what I saw through my glasses when I went up the lake, there is certainly an easier slope once we get around the corner."

They went on, wearily, with the wall of rock creeping out nearer and nearer to the edge of the declivity, and it became quite clear to Weston that the girls' strength was rapidly failing. Still, he quietly urged them on, for it was now becoming a somewhat momentous question whether they could get down before darkness fell; and as a rule the white mists settle heavily upon those ranges with the dusk. Then the margin between rock and declivity almost disappeared, and Weston, looking down on the somber tree-tops, felt reasonably certain that there was now another wall of crags between the foot of the slope and them.

"I suppose you are quite sure, sir, that the face of the hill is less steep around the corner in front of us?" he asked.

"I am," replied Kinnaird. "I traced out the route with my glasses from the head of the lake. Where I was wrong was in not heading for higher level. The bench I intended to follow is clearly above us."

Weston glanced at Ida, and noticed that her face was very weary and a trifle gray, but she smiled at him reassuringly; and they floundered on until the wall of rock pushed them right out to the edge of the declivity. They clung to it here and there with their hands while they felt for a foothold among the banks of gravel. Suddenly, Ida slipped and clutched at Weston. Her hand fell upon the package of provisions that he had slung behind his shoulders with a strip of deerhide, and, for she was of full stature and not particularly slender, it broke away. Then there was a roar of sliding stones, and Weston, dropping on his knees, flung an arm about the girl. She fell as he did it, and they slid down together a yard or so before he drove one foot deep into the gravel and brought himself up. Then he risked a glance at her.

"Don't look down!" he commanded sharply.

Her face was set and white, but she met his gaze, and in her eyes there was something that suggested confidence in him. He felt that he could be sure of her nerve, but whether her strength or his would suffice for the scramble back was another matter, and he was horribly afraid. Kinnaird, lying flat down, held out his hand, and in a moment or two Weston and the girl stood with the others close beneath the rock. He did not know how they got there. He was quivering all through, and the perspiration of tense effort dripped from him. While he stood there gasping, the packet of provisions, which had apparently rested for a few moments among the gravel dislodged by his efforts to climb up, rolled down the slope, and he watched it rush downward until he turned his eyes away. It was too horribly suggestive; but his gaze was drawn back again against his will, and he saw the package vanish suddenly. That made it quite clear that the slope ended in another wall of crags.

He did not remember whether Ida or the others said anything to him; but they crept on again, almost immediately, clinging to the rock, and scarcely venturing to glance down at the climbing forest which now appeared to lie straight beneath them but very far away. A cold wind stung their faces, the rocks above rose higher, but there was, at least, no snow beneath their feet, and they moved on yard by yard, scarcely daring to breathe at times, until at length Kinnaird cried out in a voice that was hoarse with exultation:

"We are over the worst!"

Then Weston gasped with sincere relief, for it was clear that they had crept around the perilous corner. The wall of rock receded, and the slope became less steep in front of them. It was, however, strewn with massy fragments and debris carried down by the snow, and the sun that flung a warm light upon it hung just clear of the peaks across the valley. There was no doubt that his companions were worn out, and he fancied that the girls could scarcely drag themselves along, but they had now no provisions and it was clearly advisable to get down, at least as far as the timber, where one could make a fire, before darkness fell; and they pushed on. Arabella Kinnaird, scrambling over a pile of ragged stones, came down heavily. She cried out as she did so, and then rising with some difficulty, immediately sat down again with her face awry.

"It's my knee," she said faintly.

Kinnaird scrambled toward her, but she waved him back.

"Go on with the packer," she said.

Kinnaird and Weston proceeded a little farther down the slope, which was practicable, though very steep; and when Ida called them back, Arabella smiled ruefully.

"It's horribly bruised, and I'm afraid I've twisted a ligament or something of that kind," she said. "At least, I can't put any weight on it."

There was an expressive silence for the next few moments, and Kinnaird gazed down into the valley with consternation in his eyes. The sun had dipped behind the peaks by this time, and the great hollow was growing dim and hazy. The river was blotted out, and even the climbing forest seemed indistinct.

"Could you get along on my arm?" he asked.

"No," said Arabella sharply, "I don't think I could put my foot on the ground."

Weston said nothing, though he realized that the situation was becoming serious. They had had no more than one hasty meal since early morning, and they were worn out. It was also, as he knew, very cold up on the hills at night. While he considered the matter, Kinnaird stretched out a pointing hand.

"Look!" he said.

A trail of filmy vapor crawled out athwart the lower pines and covered them as it rolled rapidly upward. While they watched it the depths of the valley were filled and became a dim white plain that extended its borders as it ascended. Long billows of vapor rolled out from its edges and slid up the hollows, blotting out the somber ranks of climbing pines one by one until all had gone and rock scarp and rugged peak rose isolated from a vast sweep of mist. It crawled up the slope where they sat, and then stopped and came no higher, leaving the rampart of rock and snow behind them to glimmer coldly blue and gray against the clear green radiance of the evening sky. Kinnaird looked at Weston as if willing to entertain any suggestion.

"It's clear that we can't get down," he said.

Weston nodded.

"I fancy that I could reach the timber, sir," he said. "I'll bring up a load of branches to make a fire."

He loosed the blankets from his shoulders, and floundering down the slope was lost in the vapor.

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