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The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20038

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It was about the middle of the next afternoon when Ida Stirling, walking slowly along the river-bank, came upon Weston sitting with his back to a tree. He wore no boot on one foot which was wrapped in bandages, and when he would have risen Ida checked him with a sign, and sat down not far away.

"Is it too hot in the tent?" he asked.

Ida flashed a swift glance at him. He seemed perfectly contented, and very much at his ease, and it was a little difficult to believe that this was the sharp-voiced mart who had ordered her to put on his jacket early on the previous morning. Now he was smiling languidly, and there was a graceful carelessness that was almost boyish in his manner, which made it a little easier to understand why his comrades had called him the Kid. She was rather pleased with it.

"No," she said. "At least that was not what brought me out. The major has gone fishing; Mrs. Kinnaird has gone to sleep; and Arabella appears a little cross."

Weston nodded.

"It's excusable," he said. "How is Miss Kinnaird's knee?"

"I don't think it's very bad. How is your foot? It doesn't seem to have affected your temper."

Weston laughed.

"I'd forgotten all about it. In some respects I feel a little obliged to it. You see, for once in a while, it's rather nice to have nothing to do, and know that one's wages won't immediately stop. Besides, to be waited on is a pleasant change."

Ida's eyebrows straightened a trifle as they sometimes did when she was not exactly pleased. It is by no means an unusual thing in the west for a packer or a ranch hand to converse with his employers or their friends on familiar terms, and it occurred to her that it was a trifle superfluous for him to insist on reminding her of his status when she was willing to forget it. Still, she was quite aware that this man had not always been a packer, and she was conscious of an increasing curiosity concerning his past.

"That is an unusual experience with you?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," said Weston. "Anyway, during the last few years."

She was foiled again, for she could not press the question more closely; and, sitting still in the shadow, she looked up between the dark fir branches at the line of gleaming snow and the great rock rampart beneath which they had crept.

"Were you ever up so high before?" she ventured.

"Yes," said Weston. "I believe so; but never for pleasure. In fact, I think some of the ranges we crossed on the gold trail must have been considerably higher. I told you that prospecting is one of my weaknesses."

"You did," agreed Ida. "It's one I could never understand, though I have spent some time, in this province. Every now and then it seems that the rancher must leave his clearing and wander off into the bush. As you admitted, he generally comes home dressed in rags, and very seldom brings anything with him. Why do you do it?"

Weston laughed in a rather curious fashion.

"Oh," he said, "don't you know? Did you never feel, even in winter in Montreal, when you had skating-rinks, toboggan-slides, snow-shoe meets, and sleigh-rides to keep you amused, that it was all growing tiresome and very stale? Haven't you felt that you wanted something-something you hadn't got and couldn't define-though you might recognize it when you found it?"

Once more Ida's eyebrows straightened. He was going rather deeper than she had supposed him capable, though she was not altogether unacquainted with the restlessness he had described. Weston glanced at her face, and nodded.

"Well," he said, "that's very much what happens to the rancher and the track-grader every now and then; and when it does he goes up into the bush-prospecting. Still, I think you were wrong when you said that we seldom bring back anything. Did you bring nothing down with you from the quiet and the glimmering moonlight up yonder above the timber line?"

His companion looked up across the climbing forest to the desolation of rock and snow through which she had wandered with him a little while ago. It had been her first ascent, and she now felt the thrill of achievement and remembered how she had come down that apparently endless slope in the darkness. The feat looked almost impossible, by daylight. Then she remembered also how her nerves had tingled, and the curious sense of exaltation that had come over her as she crept along the dizzy edge of the great rock scarp in the moonlight, far above the unsubstantial ghosts of climbing trees. For the time being, it had proved stronger than weariness or the sense of personal danger, and she had a vague fancy that the memory of it would always cling to her.

"Yes," she said, "I think I brought down something, or rather it attached itself to me. What is it?"

Weston spread out his hands with a boyish laugh.

"How should I know? Its glamour and mystery, perhaps. Still, though the prospector knows it, everybody can't feel it. One must have sympathy. It would make itself felt by you."

The girl's face checked him. She felt that there was a subtle bond of mutual comprehension between her and this stranger; but she was not prepared to admit it to him; and he recognized that he had, perhaps, gone further than was advisable.

"Still," he continued, "though it's plainest up on the high peaks, the bush is full of it. You can recognize it everywhere. Listen!"

Ida did so. She heard the hoarse fret of the river, and the faint elfin sighing high up in the top of the firs.

It was the old earth music, and it drowned the recollection of social conventions and caste distinctions. It was the same to camp-packer and rich contractor's daughter. As Ida listened it seemed to stir the primitive impulses of her human nature. She took alarm and stopped her ears to it.

"Is it wise to listen?" she asked. "It leads to nothing but restlessness."

"It seldom leads to any material benefit," Weston admitted. "After all, I think, one has to be a vagabond before one can properly appreciate it."

"You seem sure of that?" Ida's curiosity to know more of him would not permit her to avoid the personal application.

"I'm afraid there must be a little of the vagabond in me," said Weston, with a smile. "Once I walked into Winnipeg without a dollar, and was fortunate in hiring myself to add up figures in a big flour-mill. The people for whom I worked seemed quite pleased with the way I did it, and paid me reasonably. I lived in a big boarding-house like a rabbit-warren. Through the thin partitions I could hear the people all about me stirring in their sleep at night. I went to the mill in a crowded car every morning, and up to the office in an elevator. I stayed with it just a month, and then I broke out."

"Broke out?" said Ida.

"Threw the flour-mill people's pens across the office. You see, I was getting sick for room and air. I presented the concern with my last week's stipend, and a man at the boarding-house with my city clothes."

"What did you do then?"

"Took the trail. There was limitless prairie straight on in front of me. I walked for days, and slept at night wherever I could find a bluff. I could hear the little grasses whispering when I lay half-awake, and it was comforting to know that there were leagues and leagues of them between me and the city. I drove a team for a farmer most of that season. Then I went on to a track that they were strengthening and straightening in this province. It ran between the rock and the river, and the snow hadn't gone. We worked waist-deep in it part of the time, and thawed out every stick of giant-powder at the fire. The construction boss was a hustler, and he drove us mercilessly. We toiled raw-handed, worn-out and savage, and he drove us all the harder when one of the boys tried to brain him."

"And you never longed to be back in the office at the flour-mill?"

Weston laughed.

"Didn't you find those sleigh-rides, skating-rinks, and even the trips west in your father's private car, grow exceedingly tame?"

"Ah," said Ida, "you must remember that I have never known anything else."

"Then you have only to wait a little. It's quite certain that you won't be able to say that some day."

It seemed to Ida inadvisable to pursue the subject further, though she was not sure that he wished to do so.

"How did you expend your energy after you left the track?" she asked.

"I don't quite remember. Drove horses, went about with a thrashing outfit, hewed logs for bridges-but haven't I talked too long about myself? You have told me nothing of-Montreal."

Ida risked a chance shot.

"Don't you know that kind of life? It must be very much the same as the one your people lead in England. It doesn't count that their amusements are slightly different."

Weston foiled her again.

"Well," he said, with an air of reflection, "I don't quite think it is; but perhaps I'm prejudiced. I wheeled scrap-iron at the rolling-mills when I was in Montreal."

He leaned farther back against the tree, with a little whimsical smile. It was pleasant to appear as a modern Ulysses in the eyes of a very pretty girl, but he had, as she was quick to recognize, taken up the role unconsciously.

"Where are you going next?" she asked.

"I shall probably go off prospecting if I can raise the money. That is partly why I hope that Major Kinnaird will keep me as long as he camps out in the bush."

Ida laughed.

"I think you may count on that. He is rather pleased with you. In fact, I heard him say that if he'd had you in India he would have made a capable sergeant of you."

She saw a shadow creep into his face, and wondered what had brought it there, for she did not know that in his younger days he had thought of Sandhurst. Then, seeing that he did not answer, she rose.

"Well," she said, "Arabella is probably wanting me."

He watched her move away among the great fir trunks, and then took out his pipe with a little sigh. Still he had, or so he fancied, sense enough to refrain from allowing his th

oughts to wander in her direction too frequently, and, soothed by the murmur of the river, he presently went to sleep. When he awakened it was time to see that the Indians got supper ready.

During the evening, Stirling reached the camp; and when the Siwash who had poled his canoe up the river had drawn it out, they sat down somewhat limply on the shingle, for he had as usual traveled with feverish haste. He stayed until the next day, which was rather longer than any of them expected; and it was not by accident that he came upon Weston alone before he went away. The latter was then engaged in lighting a fire, and his employer sat down on a fir branch and quietly looked him over.

"Foot getting better?" he asked.

"I think it is," said Weston.

Stirling nodded.

"I understand that you have been of some service to these people; and they're my daughter's friends," he said. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"No," replied Weston, "I don't think there is."

The contractor looked at him steadily for a moment or two.

"Well," he said, "if anything strikes you, there's no reason why you shouldn't let me know. Feeling anxious to get back to the track?"

Weston's eyes twinkled.

"I don't think I am."

"Then you may stay right where you are, and take care of my daughter. If she wants to climb mountains or shoot rapids, it's to be done; but you'll fix things so it can be done safely. You're in charge of this outfit, and not that major man."

Stirling was never addicted to mincing matters, but Weston could not quite repress a grin.

"It would make things a little difficult if Major Kinnaird understands that," he said.

"Then you must see that he doesn't. You can fix it somehow. It's up to you."

He rose, as if there were nothing more to be said, and then as he moved away he turned and waved his hand.

"I'll have you moved up a grade on the pay-roll."

He started down the river in another half-hour, and left Weston thoughtful. He had never seen his employer before; but it was evident that the latter had made a few inquiries concerning him, and had been favorably informed.

For another fortnight Weston tactfully carried out his somewhat difficult task; and then it was with a curious sense of regret that he stood one evening in a little roadside station. Major Kinnaird was apparently counting the pile of baggage some little distance away, his wife and daughter were in the station-room, and Ida and Weston stood alone where the track came winding out of the misty pines. She glanced from him to the forest, and there was just a perceptible hint of regret in her voice.

"It has been very pleasant, and in one way I'm almost sorry we are going to Vancouver," she said. "This"-and she indicated the wall of hillside and the shadowy bush-"grows on one."

Weston nodded gravely.

"It does," he said. "You have been up among the high peaks, and you'll never quite forget them, even in the cities. Now and then you'll feel them drawing you back again."

The girl laughed, perhaps because she realized that the memory of the last few weeks would remain with her. She also remembered that he had said that the stillness among the white peaks and in the scented bush was filled with a glamour that seized on one.

"Well," she confessed, "I may come back with other friends some day; and in that case we shall certainly ask for you as guide. I want to say, as Major Kinnaird did, that we owe a good deal to you. I am only sorry that the trip is over."

Then her tone changed a little, and Weston supposed that she was unwilling to make too great an admission.

"There are so many little discomforts you have saved us."

"Yes," he agreed, a trifle dryly, "I suppose there are. However, I shall probably have gone away when you come back again."

He broke off for a moment, and then turned toward her quietly.

"Still," he said, "I seem to feel that I shall see you again some day."

His voice was perfectly steady, but, though the light was fading fast, Ida saw the glint in his eyes, and she answered conventionally.

"Of course," she said, "that would be a pleasure."

Then she spoiled it by a laugh when she saw the smile creep into her companion's eyes; for it was clear to both of them that the formal expression was in their case somewhat out of place. They realized that there was more that might have been said; and it was a slight relief when the shriek of a whistle came ringing down the track and a roar of wheels grew louder among the shadowy pines. Then the great mountain locomotive and the dusty cars came clanking into the station, stopped a few moments, and rolled away again; and Weston was left with the vision of a white-robed figure in a fluttering dress that leaned out from a car platform looking back at the gleaming snow and then turned a moment to wave a hand to him.

It was an hour later, and the big nickeled lamps were lighted, when Arabella Kinnaird looked up at her companion as she sat in a lurching car while the great train swept furiously down the Fraser gorge.

"Now," she exclaimed, "I remember! That packer has been puzzling me. His face was familiar. The same thing struck the major, as you heard him say."

"Well?" inquired Ida, a little too indifferently.

Her companion laughed.

"You overdo it. It would be wiser to admit that you are curious. The major said he'd seen him somewhere, and so he has, in a way. You remember his talking about the old North Country Hall he took for the shooting? Well, the owners had left that young man's photograph among some other odds and ends in what they probably called the library."

Ida had no doubt upon the matter, for she recalled the curious intentness of Weston's face as he sat in the firelight listening to Kinnaird's description of the house in question. Still, she was not prepared to display her interest.

"Well?" she inquired again.

Arabella Kinnaird made a sign of impatience.

"Can't you see? They wouldn't have had his photograph unless he had been a friend of the family or a relative. I wonder whether he told you his real name?"

"He didn't."

"It doesn't matter," said Miss Kinnaird. "I feel tolerably sure it is Weston, and that is the name of the people who own the place. You don't appear to understand that the fact has its significance."

"How?" asked Ida.

"You haven't been in England or you'd understand. The people who live in those old places are often very poor, but a certain number of them have something that the people who have only money would give a good deal to possess. As a matter of fact, though distinctly human in most respects, they are-different."

Ida laughed.

"Oh," she said, "I've naturally heard of that. It's quite an old notion, and didn't originate with you English people. Didn't the Roman emperors claim to have the Imperial purple in their veins? Still, out here, when we speak of a man appreciatively we say his blood is-red."

"And that's the color of packer Weston's."

A faint gleam crept into Ida's eyes as she remembered the white-faced man who had limped out of camp one morning almost too weary to drag himself along.

"Well," she said, "I think you ought to know. When he went back up the range for you he left a trail of it behind him."

Her companion had no opportunity for answering, for Major Kinnaird came back from the smoking end of the car just then, and when he spoke to Ida his daughter took up a book she had laid down.

In the meanwhile, a mountain locomotive and a train of flat cars came clanking into the station where Weston waited. Swinging himself onto one he took his place among the men who sat on the rails with which the car was loaded. Then, as the big locomotive slowly pulled them out, some of his new companions vituperated the station-agent for stopping them, and one came near braining him with a deftly-flung bottle when he retaliated. There were a good many more men perched on the other cars, and Weston concluded, from the burst of hoarse laughter that reached him through the roar of wheels, that all of them were not wholly sober. They had been recruited in Vancouver, and included a few runaway sailormen. One told him that they were going into the ranges to fill up a muskeg, and he expressed his opinion of the meanness of the company for not sending them up in a Colonist train, and offered to throw Weston off the car if he did not agree with him. He explained that he had already pitched off two of his companions.

Weston endeavored to pacify him; but, failing in this and in an attempt to crawl over the couplings into the adjoining car, he reluctantly grappled with the man and succeeded in throwing him into a corner. Then one of the others rose and stood over his prostrate comrade with a big billet of firwood that had been used to wedge the rails.

"I can't sleep with all this circus going on," he said gruffly. "Make any more trouble and off you go."

The other man apparently decided to lie still, and his comrade turned to Weston.

"Guess the construction boss isn't going to find them tally out right to-morrow," he observed, "We've lost quite a few of them coming up the line."

He went to sleep again soon afterward, and Weston was left in peace. In front of him the great locomotive snorted up the climbing track, hurling clouds of sparks aloft. Misty pines went streaming by, the chill night wind rushed past, the cars banged and clanked, and now and then odd bursts of harsh laughter or discordant singing broke through the roar of wheels. It was very different from the deep tranquillity of the wilderness and the quiet composure of the people with whom he had spent the last few weeks, but, as Ida Stirling had suggested, Weston's blood was red, and he was still young enough to find pleasure in every fresh draught of the wine of life. It was something to feel himself the equal in bodily strength and animal courage of these strong-armed men who were going to fill up the muskeg.

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