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   Chapter 7 GRENFELL’S MINE

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 15596

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It was Saturday evening, and Weston sat on a ledge of the hillside above the silent construction camp, endeavoring to mend a pair of duck trousers that had been badly torn in the bush. He held several strips of a cotton flour-bag in one hand, and was considering how he could best make use of them without unduly displaying the bold lettering of the brand, though in the bush of that country it was not an unusual thing for a man to go about labeled "Early Riser," or somebody's "Excelsior." His companions had trooped off to the settlement about a league away, and a row of flat cars stood idle on the track which now led across the beaten muskeg. On the farther side of the latter, the tall pines lay strewn in rows, but beyond the strip of clearing the bush closed in again, solemn, shadowy, and almost impenetrable. There was a smell of resinous wood-smoke in the air, but save for the distant sound of the river everything was very still.

Weston looked up sharply as a patter of approaching footsteps rose out of the shadows behind him. Some of the men were evidently coming back from the settlement earlier than he had expected. In a few minutes three or four of them appeared among the trees, and he recognized them as some of his friends, small ranchers who had, as often happens on the Pacific Slope, been forced to leave their lonely, half-cleared holdings and go out to earn the money that would keep them through the winter. Two of them were apparently assisting another man along between them, and when they drew nearer Weston saw that the latter was Grenfell, the cook.

"Guess it's 'bout time somebody else took care of you," said one, when they came up. "Sit right down," he added, neatly shaking Grenfell off his feet and depositing him unceremoniously at Weston's side.

Another of the men sat down close by, and Grenfell waved his hand to the others as they moved away.

"Bless you! You're good boys," he said.

The man who remained grinned at Weston.

"We've packed the blame old deadbeat 'most three miles. If Tom hadn't promised to see him through I'd have felt tempted to dump him into the river. The boys were trying to fill him up at the Sprotson House."

Grenfell, who did not appear to hear him, thrust a hand into his pocket, and pulling out a few silver coins counted them deliberately.

"Two-four-six," he said. "Six dollars to face an unkind world with. It isn't very much."

He sighed and turned to Weston.

"You know I've got to quit?"

"That's right," interposed the other man. "Cassidy's had 'most enough of him. He never could cook, anyway, and the boys are getting thin. Last thing he did was to put the indurated plates on the stove to warm. Filled the thing right up and left them. When he came back the plates had gone."

Weston, who had been sent to work some distance from the camp that day and had not heard of this mishap, felt sorry for Grenfell. The man evidently had always been somewhat frail, and now he was past his prime; indulgence in deleterious whisky had further shaken him. He could not chop or ply the shovel, and it was with difficulty that his companions had borne his cooking, while it seemed scarcely likely that anybody would have much use for him in a country that is run by the young and strong. He sat still regarding the money ruefully.

"Six of them-and they charge you one for a meal and a drink or two," he said. "If I hadn't known where there was quartz streaked right through with wire gold I might have felt discouraged." Then he straightened himself resolutely. "Seems to me it's time I went up and looked for it again."

"How can you know where it is when you have to look for it?" the other man inquired.

Grenfell glanced at him severely.

"I'm not drunk-it's my knees," he pointed out. "Don't cast slurs on me. I was once Professor of-mineralogical chemist and famous assayer too. Biggest mining men in the country consulted me."

The track-grader nodded as he glanced at Weston.

"I guess he was," he said. "We had a man from back east on this section who had heard of him."

Then he turned to Grenfell.

"Go ahead and explain about the mine."

"I'm not sure that that's quite straight," Weston objected. "If he does know anything of the kind--"

"Oh," said his companion, "I'm not on. If he ever did know I guess he has forgotten it long ago. He has been forgetting right along whether he put salt in the hash or not, and each time he wasn't sure he did it again. That's one of the things that made the trouble."

Grenfell stopped him with a gesture.

"I'm going to talk. Don't interrupt. Mr. Weston was once or twice a good friend to me, and you have seen me through a few times lately. Now I know a quartz lead that's run through with wire gold quite rich enough to mill at a profit, but I can't go up and look for it in the bush myself. When I walk any distance my knees get shaky. Make you firm offer-even shares to come up with me."

"Where is it?"

Grenfell turned and glanced toward the dim line of snow that gleamed high up above the forests in the north.

"There's a lake-the Lake of the Shadows-Verneille called it that," he said dreamily. "It lies in a hollow of the range with the black firs all round. There's a creek at one side, with a clear pool where it bends, and I came there one day very hot and hungry with the boots worn off me. I think"-and by his tense face he seemed to be trying earnestly to remember something-"we were quite a few days crossing that range, and our provisions were running put when we hit the valley."

"Well?" prompted the track-grader when he stopped.

"I crawled down to the pool to drink. There were pebbles in it and a ledge above. There were specks in the pebbles, and specks that showed plainer in the ledge. The stones were shot with the metal when I broke one or two of those I took out."

He fumbled inside his pocket and produced a little bag from which he extracted a few broken bits of rock. Weston, to whom he passed them, could see that little threads of metal ran through them. "You're quite sure it's gold?" the other man inquired.

"Am I sure!"

Grenfell smiled compassionately.

"I was Professor-but guess I've told you that already."

"The lead?" inquired the other man.

"Outcrop, a few yards of it. Then it dips on a slight inclination, and evidently runs back toward the range. An easy drive for an adit. Stayed there two days, Verneille and I. Quite sure about that gold."

Weston's face grew intent.

"You recorded it?"

"We staked a claim, and started back; but Verneille couldn't find a deer, and when we first hit the valley provisions were running out. There was a mist in the ranges, and whichever way we headed we brought up on crags and precipices. Then we went up to look for another way across and got into the snow. I never knew how I got out-or where Verneille went, but when I struck a prospector's camp-he wasn't with me."

The track-grader nodded. He had been born among the ranges, and knew that the prospectors who went out on the gold trail did not invariably come back. He had heard of famishing men staggering along astonishing distances half-asleep or too dazed to notice where they were going. He and Weston had done so themselves, for that matter.

"You told the prospector about the lead?" Weston inquired.

"If I did he never found the mine. I was scarcely sensible when I reached his camp, and I lay there very ill until he went on and left me with half a deer he'd shot. After that I nearly gave out again making the settlements."

"Well," said the track-grader, "where's the lake?"

Grenfell spread out his hands.

"I don't know. I went up to look for it three or four times several years ago."

He broke off abruptly, and there was

silence for a minute or two. Strange as the thing appeared, it was not altogether an unusual story. All the way from California to the frozen north one now and then may hear of men who struck a rich quartz or silver lead in the wilderness, and, coming down to record it, signally failed to find it again. What is stranger still, there are mines that have been discovered several times by different men, none of whom was ever afterward able to retrace his steps. At any rate, if one accomplished it, he never came back to tell of his success, for the bones of many prospectors lie unburied in the wilderness. Indeed, when the wanderers who know it best gather for the time being in noisy construction camp or beside the snapping fire where the new wagon road cleaves the silent bush, they tell tales of lost quartz-reefs and silver leads as fantastic as those of the genii-guarded treasures of the East, and the men who have been out on the gold trail generally believe them.

On the surface Grenfell's task seemed easy. He had to find a lonely lake cradled in a range; and there are, as the maps show, three great ranges running roughly north and south in the Pacific Province. Still, in practice, it is difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, for that wild land has been aptly termed a sea of mountains. They seem piled on one another, peak on peak; and spur on spur, and among their hollows lie lonely lakes and frothing rivers almost without number, while valley and hill-slopes are usually shrouded in tremendous forest to the line where the dwindling pines meet the gleaming snow. Weston was, of course, aware of this, and he felt, somewhat naturally, that it complicated the question.

Then Grenfell turned to him and his companion.

"I've made you my offer-a third-share each," he said. "Are you coming?"

The track-grader shook his head.

"No," he replied, "I guess not. I'm making good wages here. So long as I can keep from riling Cassidy they're sure." Then he grinned at Weston. "It's your call."

Weston sat silent for a full minute, but his heart was beating faster than usual, and he glanced up from the piles of gravel and blackened fir stumps by the track to the gleaming snow. A sudden distaste for the monotonous toil with the shovel came upon him, and he felt the call of the wilderness. Besides, he was young enough to be sanguine, although, for that matter, older men, worn by disappointments and toilsome journeys among the hills, have set out once more on the gold trail with an optimistic faith that has led them to their death. Ambition awoke in him, and he recognized now that the week or two spent in Kinnaird's camp had rendered it impossible for him to remain a track-grader. At length he turned to Grenfell.

"Well," he said, "if you're still in the same mind to-morrow I'll come. Still, if you think better of it, you can cry off then."

His sense of fairness demanded that; for he would not bind a man whose senses were, it seemed reasonable to suppose, not particularly clear. Grenfell evidently understood him, and drew himself up with an attempt at dignity.

"My head's quite right when I'm sitting down; it's my knees," he said. "Want to put the thing through now-half-share each. We'll call it a bargain."

The track-grader nodded to Weston.

"I guess you needn't stand off," he said. "He knows what he's doing."

They shook hands on it, and then proceeded to discuss ways and means. It was clear that they might be some time in the wilderness, and would need provisions, new boots, blankets, a rifle, and a tent; and all of these things are dear in that country. They recognized that it would be advisable also to take a horse or mule. Weston did not think that any of the bush ranchers would hire them one, as horses are not always brought back from such journeys. This would render it necessary to buy one; and to meet this expenditure Grenfell had six dollars and Weston not very much more.

While they were considering what items they could leave out, two or three men came up the trail from the settlement, which led close by, and one of them threw Weston a couple of letters.

"Mail-carrier rode in before we left, and I guessed I'd bring them along," he said.

There was scarcely light enough to see by, and Weston had some little difficulty in reading the letters. One was from Stirling and ran:

"Start on Monday for Winnipeg. I want a talk with you and may make a proposition. Enclose order that will frank you over the C.P.R."

Weston gazed at it with a thoughtful face. Winnipeg was a very long way off, and it was tolerably clear that Stirling, perhaps influenced by something his daughter or Major Kinnaird had said, meant to offer him promotion. Still, though he did not know exactly why, he shrank from accepting any favor from Miss Stirling's father, and, besides that, he had already pledged himself to Grenfell. He laid down the letter and opened the second one. Out of this he took an order on one of the H.B.C. settlement stores, dated at the Vancouver station. It was marked duplicate, and read:

"To Agent, Anson's Forks station:

"Provide Mr. Weston with whatever he may require in the shape of blankets, provisions, and any sundries in your stock for a prospecting trip."

A sheet of paper had been laid beside it, and Weston's face flushed as he read, "Won't you accept this with the good wishes of your late companions?"

It was evidently from Miss Stirling, for it was a woman's writing, and he did not think an Englishwoman would have said "Won't you," as she had done. He could recognize the delicacy with which she had refrained from offering him money, or even stipulating any definite sum in the order, and it was evident that she had taken some trouble to arrange the matter with the H. B. C. agent at Vancouver. The thing had been done in kindness, and yet it hurt him. He could have accepted it more readily from anybody else. On the other hand, he remembered that she had known him only as a track-grader, and that he was, as a matter of fact, nothing else. He could not send the order back without appearing ungracious or disposed to assert that he was of her own station. Then another thought struck him.

"I don't think they knew my name. They called me Clarence," he said. "Somebody must have thought it worth while to write Cassidy."

He had forgotten his companions, and when Grenfell looked at him inquiringly, he laughed.

"It's something I was thinking of," he said, handing the order across. Grenfell gazed at it with unqualified satisfaction.

"This straightens everything out," he said.

"I'm not quite sure it does," returned Weston, dryly. "In fact in some respects it rather complicates the thing. That, however, is a point that doesn't concern you."

His companion, who appeared to concur in this, glanced with evident regret at the six dollars which still lay beside him.

"If I'd known that the order was in the mail, the boys would have had to carry me every rod of the way back to camp," he said. "It's not the first time that I've been sorry I practiced economy."

Weston left him shortly afterward, and went back with the other man toward the shanty.

"The chances seem too steep for you?" suggested Weston.

"Well, I guess he did strike that gold; but I shouldn't be too sure of it. It's quite likely that he fancied the whole thing. You can't count on the notions of that kind of man."

He broke off for a moment, and appeared to consider.

"There's another point. The old tank has no nerves left, and he's no use on his legs. Guess, you'll have to carry him over the range."

Weston fancied that this was probable, and the track-grader, who turned away to speak to another man, left him in a thoughtful mood.

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