MoboReader > Literature > The Gold Trail


The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18471

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

An hour passed, and it was growing dark when Weston scrambled up the hillside empty-handed.

"There's a slope between us and the timber, sir, that's too steep to get down," he announced. "I worked along the edge of it until the light failed me and the mist got very thick."

"You did quite right to come back," said Kinnaird. "We shall have to stay here. What do you suggest?"

Weston looked around him carefully.

"There's a little hollow under the ledge yonder. You should keep fairly warm there close together with the blankets over you."

Kinnaird demurred to this, but Weston, drawing him aside, spoke forcibly, and at length he made a sign of acquiescence.

"Well," he said, "no doubt you're right. After all, the great thing is to keep the warmth in us. Where are you going?"

"I'll find a burrow somewhere within call," said Weston quietly.

He was busy for some little time scraping stones out from the hollow beneath the ledge, and then he built a rough wall of the larger ones on two sides of it. After that they got Miss Kinnaird there with some difficulty, and when she and the others had crept into the shelter and wrapped the blankets round them, he turned away and stretched himself out beneath the largest stone he could find. For an hour he lay there smoking, and then put his pipe away. He had not much tobacco, and it occurred to him that he might want the little that remained on the morrow.

In the meanwhile it had grown bitterly cold, and one never feels the cold so much as when a day's arduous exertion has exhausted the natural heat of the body. Weston was also very hungry, and after beating his numbed hands he thrust them inside his deerskin jacket. They had probably reached no great height, but summer was only commencing, and it was evidently freezing. Indeed, the nights had been cold enough when he lay well wrapped up in the sheltered valley. Still, the mist, at least, climbed no higher. The stars were twinkling frostily, and opposite him across the valley a great gray-white rampart ran far up into the dusky blue. He watched it for a while, and then it seemed to grow indistinct and hazy, and when some time afterward he opened his eyes again he saw that there was no mist about the slopes beneath.

Then, as he looked about him, stiff with cold, he noticed that a half-moon had sailed up above the peaks. Its elusive light lay upon the slope, but ledge and stone seemed less distinct than their shadows, which were black as ebony. After that he commenced a struggle with himself, for, numbed as he was, he did not want to move, which is one of the insidious effects of cold. It cramps its victim's volition as well as his body, and makes him shrink from any attempt at the muscular effort which would make it easier for him to resist it. After all, the endurance of bitter frost is rather a question of moral than physical strength, as every prospector who has crossed the snow-bound altitudes on the gold trail knows.

He forced himself to get up, and stood still, shivering in every limb, while a bitter wind struck through him as he gathered his resolution together. Then, stripping off his deerskin jacket, he flung it over one arm as he turned toward his companions' shelter. Kinnaird was awake, and his daughter cried out drowsily when Weston stood looking down at him.

"It's clearing, and I think I could get down," he said. "It would be better if Miss Stirling came with me."

"Yes," said Kinnaird reflectively, "I think she ought to go."

There was, however, a difficulty when Ida rose to her feet, and stood looking about her half awake. She could not speak distinctly, but she seemed bent on staying. Then Kinnaird made a sign to Weston, who quietly slipped his arm within the girl's and drew her away. She went with him some little distance, too dazed to resist, and then, snatching her arm free, turned upon him white with cold and anger.

"What right have you or Major Kinnaird--" she began, but Weston checked her with a little forceful gesture.

"I, at least, have none at all," he admitted. "In a way, however, I suppose I'm responsible for the safety of the whole party. Could you have done Miss Kinnaird any good by staying?"

Cold and half dazed as she was, a moment's reflection convinced Ida that she could have done very little beyond helping to keep her companion warm. Weston, who did not wait for her answer, went on:

"Now," he said severely, "do you feel as comfortable as usual, or are you almost too cold to move?"

The girl admitted that the latter was the case, and Weston spread out his hands.

"Well," he said, "it will be at least another six hours before the first sunlight falls on that ledge. Besides, as you may remember, you have had only one meal since early yesterday morning, and I shall be especially fortunate if I can get back here with the Indians by noon. Major Kinnaird and his daughter must stay, but that doesn't apply to you. Are you still quite sure you have any cause to be angry with me?"

Ida looked at him with a little flash in her eyes.

"Oh," she said, "I suppose you're right. Still, is it necessary to make the thing so very plain?"

Weston laughed.

"I just want you to realize that you are in my hands until we reach level ground," he replied. "In the meanwhile I should like you to put on this jacket."

He held out the warm deerhide garment, and the girl flashed a covert glance at him. He stood close by her in loose blue shirt and thin duck trousers, and, as far as she could see by the moonlight, his face was pinched and blue with cold.

"I won't," she said.

Weston pursed up his face whimsically. He seldom shone where diplomacy was advisable. As a rule, he endeavored to bring about the end he had in view by the most direct means available. In the present instance he felt very compassionate toward his companion, and recognized only the necessity of getting her back to camp, where there was food and shelter, as soon as possible. Still, it not infrequently happened that his severely simple procedure proved successful.

"Well," he said, "since I don't intend to wear it we'll leave it here. I'll leave you for a minute or two while I prospect for an easier route than the one by which I came up."

He flung down the jacket, and, striding away, disappeared, while Ida shivered as she glanced about her. She could no longer see the shelter she had left, and she stood alone in the midst of a tremendous desolation of rock and snow, with the valley yawning, a vast dusky pit, beneath her feet. It was appallingly lonely, and she was numb with cold, while, since she was sure that she could not climb back to her companions unassisted, there was only one person on whom she could rely, and that was the packer, who had insisted on her doing what he thought fit. When he came back she had put on the jacket, but he had sense enough to make no sign of having noticed it.

"I can see our way for the next few hundred feet," he said.

The way did not prove an easy one, but they went down, with the gravel sliding beneath them, and now and then a mass of debris they had loosened rushing past. It occurred to Ida that Weston limped somewhat awkwardly, and once or twice she fancied that she saw his face contract as they scrambled over some shelf of jutting stone; but they pushed on cautiously until they came to a precipitous descent. Ida sat down gasping, when her companion stopped, and gazed with an instinctive shrinking into the gulf below. She could now see the climbing pines, black beneath the moon, and the river shining far away in the midst of them, but they seemed to go straight down. She was very weary, and scarcely felt able to get up again, but in a minute or two Weston held out his hand.

"I fancy that this ridge dies out somewhere to the left. We'll follow the crest of it until we can get around the end," he said.

They went on very cautiously, though there were times when Ida held her breath and was glad of the firm grasp that her companion laid on her arm. She would not look down into the valley, and when she glanced aside at all it was up at the gleaming snow on the opposite side of it. She seemed to be walking in mid-air, cut off from the comfortable security of the solid earth below, and she found the clamor of falling water that came faintly up to her vaguely reassuring. There had been an almost appalling silence where she had left her companions beneath the frozen peaks, but now one could hear the hoarse fret of a rapid on the river, and this was a familiar sound that she welcomed.

Still her weariness gained on her, and her limbs grew heavier, until she could scarcely drag herself along. Weston's limp became more perceptible too, but he went on with an almost cruel persistency, and forced her forward with his hand on her arm. Sometimes he spoke to her, and, though his voice was strained, his words were cheering and compassionate.

At length, the descent they skirted became less steep, and scrambling down over a broken slope they presently reached the timber-straggling juniper, and little scattered firs that by and by grew taller and closer together; and, though the peril was over, it was then that

their real difficulties commenced. The slope was so steep that they could scarcely keep a footing, and now and then they fell into the trees. There were places where these grew so close together that they could scarcely force a passage through, and others where they had gone down before a screaming gale and lay piled in a tangled chaos over which it was almost impossible to flounder. It was dark in the timber, and they could not see the broken ends of the branches that rent their clothing; but they went on somehow, down and down, until, when they reached a clearer space where the moonlight shone through, Ida sank down limply on a fallen tree. Her skirt was rent to tatters, and one shoe had been torn almost to pieces.

"I simply can't go on," she said.

Weston leaned against a neighboring fir, looking down at her very compassionately, though she noticed that his face, on which the moonlight fell, was somewhat drawn and gray.

"Try to think," he said.

"I can't," replied Ida, "I only want to sleep."

Her companion moved forward and quietly laid his hand on her arm as though to urge her to rise.

"Don't you understand how it is? Your friends are up yonder in the frost with nothing to eat. I have to take the Indians back for them."

"Then you must go on," the girl said faintly.

Weston shook his head.

"No," he declared, "not without you. That's out of the question. If there were no other reason, we should have to come back here for you, and I expect that in the daylight we shall find a shorter way up. It will be noon anyway before we get there, and you wouldn't wish to keep your friends waiting longer."

Ida rose with an effort, and clung heavily to his arm when they crept downward again; but the light grew a little clearer as they proceeded, and the sound of the river rang louder in their ears. Then, in the gray of the morning, they staggered out upon the bank of the river. Walking, half awake, Ida floundered among the boulders and through a horrible maze of whitened driftwood cast up by the stream. Farther on they fortunately found stretches of smooth sand, and they plodded over these and through little pools, though she afterward fancied that Weston carried her across some of the deeper ones.

The sun was high when they saw the two canoes drawn up on the bank, and a few moments later Mrs. Kinnaird appeared among the firs. She ran toward them, stumbling in a ludicrous fashion amidst the boulders, and then stopped a few yards away and gazed at Ida. The girl could scarcely stand from weariness, and her dress clung about her, wet with the river-water and rent to tatters. There was fear in the little lady's eyes.

"Where are they?" she asked.

Weston stepped forward limping, and his face was set and gray.

"Up yonder, and quite safe," he said. "Miss Kinnaird has hurt her knee. Nothing serious, but it hurts her to walk. I came for the Indians to help her down again."

He raised his hand restrainingly.

"There is no cause for alarm. Get Miss Stirling something to eat, and leave the rest to me."

He turned away abruptly, and limped past them toward the camp. When Mrs. Kinnaird and Ida reached it, he was hastily getting together provisions, and the Indians were already hewing down two slender firs. When they stood waiting, each with a stout fir pole on his shoulder, he turned to the anxious lady, who seemed bent on going with him.

"It's quite out of the question for you to undertake that climb. We'll be back again in a few hours with the major and Miss Kinnaird," he said.

Ida went up to him and touched his arm, and, for no very evident reason, the color crept into her face when he looked at her inquiringly.

"Can't the Indians find the way themselves?" she asked. "You are scarcely fit to go."

Weston shook his head.

"I must manage it somehow," he said. "They have nothing to eat up yonder, and the Indians might not find them until it's dark again."

He broke off for a moment with a forced smile.

"Try to reassure Mrs. Kinnaird, and then go to sleep as soon as you can."

In another minute he had limped away, and Mrs. Kinnaird found the girl looking down with a very curious expression at a little smear of blood on a smooth white stone. There were further red spots on the shingle, and they led forward in the direction in which the rescue party had gone.

"Oh," she said, "he told me he had cut his foot, and he couldn't have waited long enough to eat anything."

Then she gasped once or twice, for she was worn out to the verge of a break-down, and Mrs. Kinnaird, who saw how white her face was growing, slipped an arm about her and led her back toward the tent.

The afternoon passed very slowly with the little, anxious lady, and every now and then she crept softly out of the tent and gazed expectantly up the steep hillside. Still, each time she did it, there was nothing that she could see except the long ranks of somber firs, and the oppressive silence was broken only by the sound of the river.

Then she slipped back quietly into the tent where Ida lay in a restless sleep. Now and then the girl moved a little, and once or twice she murmured unintelligibly. It was very hot, for the sunrays struck down upon the canvas between the firs, whose clogging, honey-like sweetness was heavy in the air.

By and by, however, it grew a little cooler, as the shadow of the great dark branches crept across the tent. Then they moved out upon the dazzling river and slowly covered it. Mrs. Kinnaird, rising once more in an agony of impatience, stumbled against one of the tent supports. The crutch and ridge-poles rattled, and Ida opened her eyes.

"Oh," she said drowsily, "you needn't be anxious. He is quite sure to bring them back."

She apparently tried to rouse herself, and, failing, went to sleep again; but she left Mrs. Kinnaird a little comforted. The latter was observant, and she felt that Ida Stirling had a reason for her confidence which, she fancied, was not lightly given.

The sunlight had, however, faded off the valley when she rose for the last time from the seat she had found outside the tent, for there was no doubt now that a faint patter of feet on stones mingled with the clamor of the river. Almost as she did so, a few plodding figures appeared beneath the firs, and she saw that two of them carried a litter between them. Then she saw her husband walking very wearily, and she ran forward with a little cry. She grasped one of the poles between which a sagging blanket hung, and Weston, who held the ends of them, looked at her.

"Miss Kinnaird isn't hurt much," he said harshly. "Don't stop us now!"

Then she heard her daughter's voice bearing out this assurance, and she went back with the plodding men, while her husband stumbled along wearily at her side. In a minute or two Weston, calling to one of the Indians, laid down his end of the poles, and, staggering away, sat down heavily. None of them troubled themselves about him, and Ida, who had risen when she heard their voices, helped to convey Miss Kinnaird into the tent. In the meanwhile one of the Indians growled to his comrade when he found the fire out, and stolidly proceeded to relight it, while Weston lay with his back against a fir and watched him with half-closed eyes. The Siwash, however, proved that he was capable of preparing a meal, and when it was finished, Arabella, who appeared much fresher than the major, proceeded to relate her adventures to Ida and her mother.

"It was rather horrible up on the range, and I was almost afraid they wouldn't get me down," she said. "I don't know how they did it, I'm sure. Parts of the way were simply awful. They had to cut the little trees down for yards at a time to get my blanket litter through, and there were places so steep that they could scarcely crawl down. The Indians, of course, had to be relieved now and then, and my father and the packer took turns with them."

She looked at the major with a smile.

"When it was especially steep, I preferred an Indian and the packer. Once, you know, you dropped me; but nothing seemed to disconcert that young man. He must have been horribly worn out, for he had been up twice, but he was so steady and reassuringly quiet. I suppose a man of his kind would appreciate twenty dollars. He really deserves it."

Ida frowned, and remembered the trail of blood on the white stones when the packer had started. Kinnaird made a little abrupt movement.

"I'm afraid that I was forgetting all about the man in my relief at getting you safely down," he said. "We owe him a good deal, and I'll go out presently and thank him; but there's another matter. Your knee ought to be attended to."

That commenced a discussion, but Arabella persisted that she would get over the injury if she didn't walk for a few days.

Then Kinnaird summoned one of the Indians to clear away the meal. The brown-skinned, dark-haired man appeared in the entrance of the tent and spoke haltingly in English.

"They wait," he said, pointing to the supper plates. "Want piece shirt-handkerchief. Packer man's boot full of blood."

Those he addressed looked at one another, and Kinnaird, rising, went out hastily.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top