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   Chapter 8 IN THE RANGES

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17869

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A month had passed when Weston stood one morning outside the tent he scarcely expected that he or his comrade would sleep in again. It was pitched beside a diminutive strip of boggy natural prairie under the towering range, though the latter was then shrouded in sliding mist out of which the climbing firs raised here and there a ragged spire or somber branch. The smoke of the cooking-fire hung in heavy blue wreaths about the tent, and a thick rain beat into the faces of the men.

The few weeks they had spent in the wilderness had made a change in them. Grenfell had clearer eyes and skin, and was steadier on his legs, for he had slaked his thirst with river-water for some time now. Weston was a little leaner, and his face was grimmer than it had been, for the whimsical carelessness had faded out of it. Both of them were dressed largely in rags, and their stout boots were rent; and they were already very wet, though that was no great matter, as they were used to it. There are a good many rivers among those ranges, and no bridges. They were then glancing at the horse which was cropping the harsh grass of the swamp. It was of the Cayuse Indian breed, and not particularly valuable, but it could be sold for something if they succeeded in taking it back to the settlements. This, however, did not appear to Weston very probable.

"Short hobbles," suggested Grenfell. "There's grass enough to last awhile, and it's likely that we'll strike this way back. It's a long way to the settlements, and there'll be quite a load of provisions and things to pack."

They had made a cache of most of their provisions the previous night, after searching in vain for a route by which they could lead the horse over the range in front of them; but Weston shook his head.

"No," he said, "we may not come back this way after all, and a horse is pretty sure to get a hobble of any kind foul round something in the bush. I can't have the beast held up to starve."

"Well," said Grenfell, "I guess you understand what leaving it loose means?"

Weston did. He recognized that if they ever regained that valley they would have to push on for the settlements through a most difficult country, under a heavy load, and even then leave behind them many things which might have ministered to their comfort. Still, he was resolute.

"The beast could find its food somehow if we left it loose, and it's quite probable that it would work down along the back trail to the settlements when the grass round here gets scarce," he said. "In any case we'll give it a chance for its life."

Grenfell made a sign of acquiescence.

"Have it your way. If we ever come back to this cache again, and I'm played out, as I probably will be, you'll have the pleasure of packing down everything we want."

Weston did not answer, but there was a little satisfied smile in his eyes as he watched the horse wander away unhampered into the rain. After this they sat down to a very simple meal. Then they strapped their packs on their shoulders-a thick blanket each, a small bag of flour, some salt pork and green tea, and, while Grenfell carried the light ax, Weston slung a frying-pan, a kettle and a pannikin about him, as well as a rifle, for there are black-tail deer in that country, and they could not be sure that their provisions would last the journey through. The prospector soon discovers how much a man can do without, and it is a good deal more than men bred in the cities would suppose. The oddments rattled and banged about Weston's shoulders as he went up the steep slope through the thick timber; and by the time they had cleared the latter, Grenfell was visibly distressed, and both of them realized that their difficulties had commenced.

Any one unaccustomed to the country would probably have considered the devious march that they already had made arduous enough, but they had, at least for the most part, followed the valleys and crossed only a few low divides, and it was evident now that their way led close up to the eternal snow. There was a rock scarp in front of them, up part of which they went on their hands and knees. When they reached the summit of this, the slightly more level strip along which they floundered was strewn with shattered rock and gravel that had come down from the heights above with the thaw in the spring; and it was with difficulty that they made a mile an hour. The gold trail is usually long and arduous; but the prospector is content to have it so, for once it is made easier the poor man's day has gone. Then the men of the cities set up their hydraulic monitors, or drive their adits, and the free-lance who disdains to work for them rolls up his old blankets and pushes out once again into the waste.

They made supper at sunset among the last of the dwindling pines; and then lay awake shivering part of the night, for a nipping wind came down from the snow, and they were very wet and cold. It rained again the next day and most of the following one. Still, they spent the two days crawling along the farther side of the range, for when they had struggled through the snow in a rift between two peaks, a great wall of rock that fell almost sheer cut them off from the next valley. Somewhat to Weston's astonishment, Grenfell now showed little sign of flagging. He seemed intent and eager; and when they stopped, gasping, where the rock fell straight down beneath their feet to the thick timber that climbed from a thread-like river, he sat down and gazed steadily below him.

"They're hemlocks along that bend?" he asked, pointing to a ridge of somber green that rose above the water.

"Yes," said Weston, "I think they are."

Grenfell straightened himself suddenly.

"My sight's not as good as yours, but I seemed to know they must be. Can you make out any Douglas firs in the thicker timber?"

"Yes," said Weston, excitedly, "there's a spire or two higher than the rest. You recognize the place?"

His companion sat still with signs of tension in his face, and it was clear that he was racking his befogged brain. The few weeks of abstinence and healthful toil had made a change in him, but one cannot in that space of time get rid of the results of years of indulgence; and under stress of excitement the man became confused and fanciful.

"I'm not sure. I'm trying to think," he said, laying a lean, trembling hand on Weston's arm. "Did you never feel that there was something you ought to recollect about a spot which you couldn't have seen before?"

Weston was in no mood to discuss questions of that kind, though the curious sensation was not altogether unfamiliar to him.

"There's only one way you could have known there was hemlock yonder," he asserted.

Grenfell looked up at him with a dry smile.

"You have to remember that I have been up in the ranges several times. Parts of them are very much alike."

After that Weston sat very still for several minutes, though he found it exceedingly difficult. He had more than once during the last few weeks doubted that Grenfell had ever found the quartz-reef at all, for it seemed quite possible that he had, as the track-grader suggested, merely fancied that he had done so, and the man's manner had borne out that supposition. Cut off from the whisky, he had now and then fallen into fits of morbid moodiness, during which he seemed very far from sure about the gold. This had naturally occasioned Weston a good deal of anxiety. He had thrown up his occupation and sunk his last dollar in the venture, and the finding of the quartz-reef would, he commenced to realize, open up to him alluring possibilities. At length his companion spoke slowly.

"If the river runs across the valley to the opposite range a mile higher, this is the way I came down when I found the gold," he said.

Weston scrambled to his feet. Floundering in haste along the edge of the crag, he stopped some sixty yards farther on, with a little quiver running through him. From that point he could see that the river ran straight across to the opposite wall of rock. He flung up his arms with an exultant shout. Then they went on eagerly when Grenfell joined him.

"Yes," said the latter, when he had glanced below, "I must have seen it the time I struck the gold. Only then I came down the valley."

They pushed on. Toward sunset a thick rain once more came down, and filmy mists wreathed themselves about the hills and by and by filled up the valley, and the strip of mountainside along which the two lonely men plodded rose isolated from a sea of woolly vapor. They held on, however, until, when the dusk commenced to creep up the white peak above them, Weston stopped with a little start. There was a curious huddled object in a crevice of the rocks not far in front of him.

"Do you see that?" he asked. "What can it be?"

Grenfell gazed at the thing steadily, and then turned to his companion.

"I think it's V

erneille," he said.

They came a little nearer, and saw that he was right, for presently Grenfell stooped and picked up a discolored watch. It had fallen away from the moldering rags, but it had a solid case, and, when at length he succeeded in opening it, he recognized the dial. He gazed at it with a softening face, and then slipped it into his pocket.

"He was a good comrade. A man with long patience, and I think he had a good deal to bear from me," he said.

In the meanwhile Weston stood still, with the rain on his face and his battered hat in his hand. Verneille lay in a cleft of the rocks, where it seemed he had crawled when he broke down on his last weary march, but the sun and the rain had worked their will, and there was very little left of him. Indeed, part of the bony structure had rolled clear of the shreds of tattered rags. Grenfell gazed at him fixedly, and neither of the men said anything for the next minute or two. The peak above them was fading in the growing night, and the stillness of the great desolation seemed intensified by the soft patter of the rain. Then Weston roused himself with an effort, for there was something to be done.

"We can't leave him lying there," he said. "There is a little soil among the stones. It's a pity we didn't bring the shovel."

The shovel was in the cache with one or two other prospector's tools, which, as the reef they desired to find was uncovered in one place, they had not thought it worth while to carry over that high ridge; so they set to work in silence with the rifle butt and their naked hands. Fortunately, the stones were large, and the soil beneath them soft, and in about twenty minutes they were ready for the rest of their task. It was one from which they shrank, but they accomplished it, and Grenfell straightened himself wearily as they laid the last stone on the little mound.

"It's all we can do, but I should feel considerably better if I could get a hard drink now," he said.

Then he made a little forceful gesture.

"After all, he's well out of it. That man was white all through."

It was Verneille's only epitaph, pronounced most incongruously with the same breath that expressed his comrade's longing for whisky, but perhaps it was sufficient, for when one is called a white man it implies a good deal in that country. Nobody, it seemed, knew where he came from, or whether there was any one who belonged to him, but he had done his work, and they had found him sitting high on the lonely range to point the way. That might have been of no great service if it were only treasure to which the gold trail led, but in the unclaimed lands the prospector scouts a little ahead of the march of civilization. After him come the axmen, the ploughmen and the artisans, and orchards and mills and oatfields creep on a little farther into the wilderness. Civilization has its incidental drawbacks, but, in the west, at least, its advance provides those who need them with new homes and food; and, when one comes to think of it, in other respects it is usually the dead men who have pushed on in advance who point the way.

A part only of the significance of that fact occurred to Grenfell when the two men had plodded slowly on and left the little pile of stones behind, and that was naturally the part applicable to his particular case.

"This makes the thing quite certain," he said. "We're on the trail."

It was not astonishing that Weston had deduced as much already.

"Have you any idea where you separated?" he inquired.

"No," said Grenfell, wrinkling his forehead as though thinking hard. "I've often tried to remember. As I told you, we started out from the lake with scarcely any provisions left, and we couldn't find a deer. I was played out and half-dazed, but for a time we pushed on together. Then one day I found myself in the thick timber alone. Verneille must have kept the range, and I was in the valley. I was very sick when I struck the prospector's camp, and when I came round I had only the haziest memory of the journey."

"If we can find a spot where the valley dies out into the range, it will probably be where you left him," said Weston. "It would give us a point to work from. In the meanwhile we want a place to camp."

They went down to the first of the timber, and, spreading their blankets in a cranny of the rocks, built a great fire soon after darkness fell. Weston, who made the fire, filled the blackened kettle with water from the creek, and Grenfell, who crouched beside the snapping branches, also left him to prepare the supper. They had been on their feet since sunrise, and it was evident that he was very weary. He recovered a little when he had eaten, but he leaned back against the wet rock with a furrowed face when Weston took out his pipe.

"Abstinence has its drawbacks," he said, shivering in the bitter wind which whirled the stinging smoke about them. "With a very small measure of whisky one could be warm and content." He glanced back into the darkness that hid the towering peaks. "Verneille's to be envied-he's well out of it."

"You said that before," said Weston, in whose veins life ran hot and strong.

"I did," his companion replied, with a little hollow laugh. "You'll find out some day that I was right. He was dead when he fell to pieces in the wind and weather."

"Of course!" said Weston with a trace of impatience, for Grenfell's half-maudlin observations occasionally jarred on him; but the latter still looked at him with a curious smile.

"Keep clear of drugs and whisky. It's good advice," he said. "You may go a long way before you die."

"I'd feel a little more sure of it if we could find the mine. It would give you a lift up, too."

Grenfell shook his head.

"It could never lift me back to where I was," he said. "Could it give me the steady nerves and the brain I used to have? There was a time when scarcely a big mine was started in the west before they sent their specimens to me. What could success offer me now besides a few more years of indulgence and an opportunity for drinking myself into my grave in comfort and with comparative decency?"

Weston supposed that this was the effect of weariness; but his comrade straightened himself a little, and his uncertain gaze grew steadier.

"There's one thing it can do," he went on. "It can show those who remember him as he was that Grenfell the assayer and mineralogist can still look round a mineral basin and tell just where the gold should be."

Weston was no geologist, but he had seen enough of it to recognize that prospecting is an art. Men certainly strike a vein or alluvial placer by the merest chance now and then, but the trained man works from indication to indication until, though he is sometimes mistaken, he feels reasonably sure as to what waits to be uncovered by the blasting charge or shovel. Grenfell's previous account of the discovery had, however, not made quite plain the fact that he had adopted the latter course.

"You told me you found the quartz by accident when you went to drink at a creek," he said. "Any green hand might have done the same."

Grenfell laughed.

"The point is that I knew there was gold in the valley. I told you we stayed there until the provisions had almost run out. I wanted material proof-and I was satisfied when I found that little strip of outcrop."

"A little strip! You said the lead ran right back to the hill and one could follow it with an adit."

"It does, although I haven't seen it. The adit would dip a little. The thing's quite certain."

Weston once more became sensible of the misgivings that not infrequently had troubled him. His comrade, he believed, really had been a famous mineralogist, but now he was a frail and broken man with a half-muddled brain who could not be trusted to keep the fire going beneath the pots while he cooked a meal. He was also a prey to maudlin fancies, and it seemed quite possible that the mine was no more than a creation of his disordered imagination. There were only two things that partly warranted his belief in it-a fragment of quartz, and the presence of the dead man on the lonely range, though Weston admitted that there was a certain probability of Grenfell's having deluded Verneille too. He had, however, pledged himself to look for the lead, and that, at least, he meant to do. The search, in the meanwhile, was sufficient to occupy him, as he was one who escaped a good many troubles by confining his attention to the task in hand.

"Well," he said, dismissing the matter from his mind, "I'll turn out at sun-up, and when we've had breakfast we'll go on again."

He lay down near the snapping fire and, drawing up the blanket to keep the rain from his face, was sound asleep in a few minutes. Grenfell, however, sat awake for a long time, shivering in the whirling smoke, and now and then glancing curiously at his companion.

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