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   Chapter 9 A FRUITLESS SEARCH

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 14855

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


They had wandered far through the ranges, and camped beside several lonely lakes, none of which, however, proved to be the one for which they were searching, when Weston rose one morning from his lair among the dewy fern. He did it reluctantly, for during the past week he had carried Grenfell's load as well as his own, and it would have pleased him to lie still a little longer. His shoulders were aching, and the constant pressure of the pack-straps had galled them cruelly; but in one respect it would not have troubled him if his burden had been heavier, for their provisions were running out rapidly. There was a river close by, but he no longer felt the least inclination for a morning swim, or, indeed, for any occupation that was not obviously necessary. He had lived very sparingly of late, and had contrived that Grenfell got rather more than his share of the cut-down rations. It was clear to him that the older man's strength was rapidly failing.

He kicked the embers of the fire together, and, after laying on a few resinous billets split the night before, placed an inch or two of pork in the frying-pan, and then carefully shook out a double handful of flour from the almost-empty bag. This he beat up with water and poured into the hot pan when the pork was done. He watched it until it hardened a little on one side, when he flung it up into the air and caught it in the pan again. There is an art in making palatable flapjacks out of nothing but flour and water. When the meager breakfast was ready, he awakened Grenfell, who sat up grumbling.

"It's time we made a start. This is our last day," said Weston.

Grenfell, who did not answer, made his toilet by buttoning his jacket and stretching himself, after which he blinked at his companion with watery eyes.

"There are no marble basins or delicately perfumed soaps in the bush," he said.

Weston laughed.

"I don't remember having seen them at the muskeg camp. In the meanwhile, breakfast's ready. I'm sorry there isn't a little more of it."

His companion glanced at the frying-pan.

"A scrap of rancid pork, and a very small flapjack-burnt at that! To think that human intelligence and man's force of will should be powerless without a sufficiency of such pitiable things. It's humiliating."

Then, with a grimace of disgust, he stretched out his hand for the blackened pannikin.

"Green tea is a beverage that never appealed to me, and I feel abject this morning. Now, if I had a little Bourbon whisky I could laugh at despondency and weariness. That golden liquid releases the mind from the thraldom of the worn-out body."

"It depends on one's knees," said Weston, with a trace of dryness. "Yours have a habit of giving out unexpectedly, and I shouldn't like to carry you up this valley. Anyway, breakfast's ready, and we have to find that lake to-day or give up the search."

They set about breakfast, and again it happened that Grenfell got rather more than his share. Then Weston, who carried also the heavy rifle, strapped the double burden on his shoulders, and they started on their march, walking wearily. The valley that they followed, like most of the others, was choked with heavy timber, and they pressed on slowly through the dim shadow of great balsams, hemlocks, and Douglas firs, among which there sprang up thickets of tall green fern that were just then dripping with the dew. The stiff fronds brushed the moisture through the rags they wore and wet them to the skin; but they were used to that. It was the fallen trees that troubled them most. These lay in stupendous ruin, with their giant branches stretching far on either side, and, where tangled thickets rendered a detour inadmissible, it now and then cost them half an hour's labor with the ax to hew a passage through. Then there were soft places choked with willows where little creeks wandered among the swamp-grass in which they sank to the knees; but they pushed on resolutely, with the perspiration dripping from them, until well on in the afternoon.

Once or twice Weston wondered why he had held on so long. It was some time since they had found Verneille lying high upon the desolate range, and this was still the only thing which seemed to bear out his comrade's story. The latter had only a few very hazy recollections to guide him, and during the last week he had not come upon anything in the shape, of a mountain spur or frothing creek that appeared to fit in with them. There was, however, a vein of tenacity in Weston, and he was quietly bent on going on to the end-that is, until there were no more provisions left than would carry them back to the cache, marching on considerably less than half rations.

They had made, perhaps, two leagues with infinite difficulty, when toward the middle of the afternoon they came upon a spur of the range that ran out into the valley. Weston decided that they could probably see some distance across the timber from the crest of it, so they climbed up painfully. They were gasping when they reached a ledge of rock a little below the summit, but that was not why they sat down. Both shrank from the first momentous glimpse into the head of the valley, for if there were no lake there they had thrown away their toil and must drag themselves back to the settlements defeated and broken men. It is hard to face defeat when one is young, and, perhaps, harder still when one is old and has nothing to fall back on. Grenfell expressed part of his thoughts when he turned to his companion.

"We shall decide the thing in a few more minutes," he said. "I suppose we couldn't risk going on a little farther to-morrow?"

Weston shook his head resolutely, though he felt the same temptation. It was in one sense curious that the older man should defer to him.

"No," said Weston, "we should have turned back several days ago. It will be a tough march to reach the cache now."

Grenfell made a little gesture.

"Well," he said, "we'll go up and see."

They went up, part of the way on their hands and knees, and then, though the slope was less steep, both of them hung back when they neared the crest of the divide. There was still a faint probability that their journey had not been futile, and they clung to it desperately. Grenfell went first, and, when he reached the crest, stood stone still with his back to Weston, who held his breath as he scrambled after him. Then Grenfell, turning a little toward him, suddenly flung out a pointing hand.

The head of the valley stretched away beneath them, but there was no gleam from a lonely lake in the midst of it. From hillside to hillside the close ranks of somber firs ran unbroken.

Weston's face grew hard and grim.

"That's the end," he said hoarsely. "There is nothing for it but to take the back trail."

Then the strength seemed to melt out of Grenfell, and he sat down limply.

"It was the belief that I should find that lake some day that has kept me on my feet the last eight years," he said. "Except for that I should have gone under long ago. Now, it's hardly likely that I shall ever get back here again."

He turned and blinked at Weston with half-closed eyes.

"You can't understand. You have the world before you," he said.

Weston fancied that he could understand in part, at least. His comrade was an old and frail and friendless man for whom nobody in that country was, as they say there, likely to have

any use, and the fact that he probably had himself to blame for it did not make things easier. Weston forgot that he also was a man without an occupation, and his face grew sympathetic; but in a few minutes Grenfell seemed to pull himself together.

"Well," he said, "we'll take the back trail."

They followed it for a week, but the distance that they covered diminished day by day. Grenfell would insist on sitting down for half an hour or so at regular intervals, and when they faced a steep ascent Weston had to drag him. The man seemed to have fallen to pieces now that the purpose that had sustained him had failed, and his comrade, who carried a double burden and undertook all that was necessary each time they made camp, grew more and more anxious every day, for, though they did not eat enough to keep the strength in them, their provisions were almost exhausted. Nor could he find a deer; and it became a momentous question whether they could reach the cache before the last handful of flour was gone. Still, they held on along the back trail, with the burst boots galling their bleeding feet, worn-out, haggard, and ragged, until, one day on the slope of the range, they lost the trail, and when evening was drawing in they held a consultation.

There was a valley; a creek came frothing down not far from them; a narrow, steep-sided cleft rent through stupendous rocks; and the white ridge high above it seemed familiar. Weston gazed at the latter thoughtfully.

"We could get up that way, and there'll be good moonlight to-night," he said. "If that snow-ridge lies where I think it does, there's a ravine running down through the neck of the high spur; and once we strike the big dip it's a straight trail to the cache. If we started now we ought to get there to-morrow."

He broke off for a moment, and opened the almost-empty bag.

"In fact we have to."

Grenfell made a sign of acquiescence, and by and by they rose and forced a passage through the timber into the ravine. Then they went up and up, through the creek and beside it, crawling over fallen trees, and dragging themselves across slippery shelves of rock, until, though still very steep, the way grew a trifle easier. It was Grenfell's last effort, and Weston had no courage left to cheer him on. At times he stumbled beside him, and then went on and sat down gasping to wait until his comrade came up with him again. It was a week since they had made more than half a meal, and much longer since they had eaten a sufficient one. They were famishing, worn-out, and a trifle fanciful, while the light was dying fast and a great wall of mountains, beyond which the cache lay, still rose in front of them.

Dusk crept up from the valley and overtook them as they climbed, then passed ahead and blotted out the battalions of somber pines. The little breeze that had sighed among the latter died away, and the hoarse clamor of the creek intensified the deep silence that wrapped dusky hillside and lonely valley. Then a half-moon sailed out above the dim white peaks, and its pale radiance gleamed on frothing water and dripping stone, and showed the two men still climbing. They drew their breath heavily; the sweat of effort dripped from them; but they toiled upward, with tense faces and aching limbs. The cache could not be very far away, and they realized that if once they lay down they might never commence the march again.

By and by the creek seemed to vanish, and its roar died away, while after that they wandered, still ascending, apparently for hours among dim spires of trees, until the path once more dipped sharply beneath their feet. They had traversed a wider, shallower valley between the spur and the parent range. Weston was afterward quite sure of that, for it had a great shadowy wall of rock on one hand of it.

"We are coming down upon the cache. We have crossed the neck," he said.

They blundered downward, walking now with half-closed eyes, and sometimes for a few moments with them shut altogether. At times they fell over boulders and into thickets of rotting branches that lay around fallen trees, but, though their senses had almost deserted them, they were certainly going down. The pines grew taller and thicker; withered twigs and needles crackled beneath their feet; though in places they plunged downward amidst a rush of slipping gravel. Still, half-dazed as he was, Weston was puzzled. It seemed to him that the gully they were descending was longer than it should have been. It ought to have led them, by that time, out on a plateau from which the hillside fell to the hollow where they had made the cache. He did not, however, mention this to Grenfell.

By degrees the dim black trees grew hazier and less material. They appeared unsubstantial shadows of firs and pines, and he resented the fact that they barred his passage, when he blundered into one or two of them. There was a creek somewhere, but it was elusive, flashing here and there in the uncertain moonlight and vanishing again. Once or twice he thought he had left it behind, and was astonished when shortly afterward he stumbled into it to the knees. He had a distressful stitch in his side, which, though he had been conscious of it for several hours, was growing almost insupportable. Sometimes he called to Grenfell, who seldom answered him, just to break the oppressive silence. It seemed to enfold and crush him in spite of the clamor of the creek which indeed he scarcely heard. No man, he fancied, had crept through those solitudes before; but several times he felt almost sure that he saw shadowy figures flitting among the trees, and Grenfell declared that he heard the clank of cowbells. Weston was not astonished, though he knew that no cattle had ever crossed that range.

At last in the gray dawn they came to a little opening where the ground was soft. It seemed familiar, and both of them stopped. They certainly had seen before something very much like the slope of rock that rose in front of them. Weston, blinking about him, discovered in the quaggy mould two foot-prints half filled with water. He called to Grenfell, who leaned on his shoulder while he stooped to see them more clearly. Then he discovered two more footprints a little farther away. They were fresh, and evidently had not been made by the man who left the others. Suddenly, he straightened himself with a harsh laugh.

"That is where we went up last night. We are back again," he said.

Grenfell gazed at him stupidly.

"But we went through the valley between the range and the spur," he insisted. "I remember it. We must have done so."

Weston's face showed drawn and grim in the creeping light.

"If you went over all the range by daylight you would never find that valley again. It will have vanished altogether, like the lake."

"But I camped beside the lake."

"Well," said Weston, "we floundered through the valley, and we have come back to where we started. That's a sure thing. What do you make of it?"

Grenfell admitted that it was beyond him.

"It doesn't count for much in any case. We can't make the cache now-and I'm going to sleep," he said.

Weston let his pack drop, and, unrolling their blankets, they stretched themselves out beneath a great black pine. They had made their last effort, and their strength was spent. There was, it seemed, no escape. In the meanwhile, mind and body craved for sleep.

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