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   Chapter 10 THE HOTEL-KEEPER

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18522

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The sun was high in the heavens when Weston awakened, ravenous, with an almost intolerable stitch in his side. He rose with a stagger, and then sat down again, while his face went awry, and took out his pipe. He had still a very little tobacco left, and he fancied that it might deaden the pangs of hunger. Then he glanced at Grenfell, who lay fast asleep close by, with his blanket falling away from him. The man's face was half buried among the withered needles which were thick in his unkempt hair, and he lay huddled together, grotesque and unsightly in ragged disarray. Weston vacantly noticed the puffiness of his cheeks, and the bagginess beneath his eyes. The stamp of indulgence was very plain upon him, and the younger man, who had led a simple, strenuous life, was sensible of a certain repulsion from him.

He realized also that were he alone it was just possible that, before his strength failed him altogether, he might reach the spot where they had cached their provisions, and for several minutes he grappled with the question whether he should make the attempt. Then he brushed aside the arguments that seemed to warrant it, and admitted that in all probability Grenfell would have succumbed before he could get back again. After all, this outcast who had led him into the wilderness on a fruitless search was his comrade, and they had agreed to share and share alike. That Grenfell had at the most only a few years of indulgence still in front of him did not affect the question. The specious reasons which seemed to prove that he would be warranted in deserting his comrade would not fit in with his simple code, which, avoiding all side issues, laid down very simply the things one could not do.

Rising stiffly, he laid the flour-bag, which he had not shaken absolutely empty, by Grenfell's side; and, taking from his pocket an indelible pencil that he happened to have with him, he moistened the point of it and scrawled a message across a piece of the almost-empty package in which they had carried their tea.

"Gone to look for a deer," it read, and he laid a stone on it where Grenfell could not fail to see it.

Then he took up the repeating rifle, and lurching down-hill plunged into the forest. Both the black-tail deer and the mule-deer are to be met with in that country, but, somewhat strange to say, they are, as a rule, more plentiful round the smaller settlements than in the wilderness, and they are always singularly difficult to see. The inexperienced sportsman cannot invariably discern one when it is pointed out to him, and the bush deer very seldom stand silhouetted against the sky. Their pale tinting blends with that of the fir trunks and the tall fern, and they seem to recognize the desirability of always having something near them that breaks their continuity of outline. Besides, to hunt in the thick bush needs the keenest powers of observation of both ear and eye, and an infinite patience, of which a worn-out, famishing white man is very rarely capable. When one steps on a dry twig, or sets a thicket crackling, it is necessary to lie still for minutes, or to make a long detour before again taking up the line of approach to a likely spot; and that morning Weston blundered noisily into many an obstacle. His eyes were unusually bright and fiercely keen, but his worn-out limbs would not quite obey him.

He lay still among the undergrowth about the rocky places where the deer come out to sun themselves clear of the dew-wet fern, and crawled into quaggy swamps where the little black bear feeds, but he could find no sign of life. When he strained his ears to listen there was only the sound of falling water or the clamor of a hidden creek. Sight was of almost as little service among those endless rows of towering trunks, between which the tall fern and underbrush sprang up. There was no distance, scarcely even an alternation of light and shadow. The vision was narrowed in and confused by the unchanging sameness of the great gray colonnade.

Still, Weston persisted in his search; though it was not patience but the savageness of desperation that animated him. He would not go back empty-handed, if he struggled on until he dropped.

It was late in the afternoon before his search was rewarded. He had reached a strip of slightly clearer ground when he heard a faint rustle, and he stiffened suddenly in strung-up attention. There was, he remembered, a great hemlock close behind him, but he recognized that any movement might betray his presence, and, standing very still, he slowly swept his eyes across the glade. A curious, hard glint crept into them when they rested on one spot where something that looked very much like a slender, forked branch rose above a thicket. Then a small patch of slightly different color from the thicket appeared close beneath, and, though he knew that this might send the deer off, he sank slowly down until he could sit on his drawn-back right foot. He could not be sure of the steadiness of his hands, and he wanted a support for the rifle. Though every nerve in him seemed to thrill, it was done deliberately, and he found that he could see almost as clearly from the lower level.

Then he waited, with the rifle in his left hand, and that elbow on his knee, until there was a faint crackling, and a slightly larger patch of fur emerged from the thicket. He held his breath as he stiffened his left fingers on the barrel and dropped his cheek on the butt. There would, he knew, be only one shot, a long one, and, while it was not particularly easy to get the sight on that little patch, it was considerably handier to keep it there. Besides, he was not sure that the rear slide was high enough, for the light was puzzling. It might very well throw him a foot out in the elevation.

He crouched, haggard, ragged, savage-eyed, steadying himself with a strenuous effort, while the little bead of foresight wavered. It moved upward and back again half an inch or so while his finger slowly contracted on the trigger. Then, as it swung across the middle of the patch, he added the last trace of pressure. He saw a train of sparks leap from the jerking muzzle, and felt the butt jar upon his shoulder. Still, as is almost invariably the case with a man whose whole force of will is concentrated on holding the little sight on a living mark, he heard no detonation. He recognized, however, the unmistakable thud of the bullet smashing through soft flesh, and that was what he listened for.

As he sprang to his feet, jerking another cartridge from the magazine, there was a sharp crackling amidst the thicket and a rustling of the fern. A blurred shape that moved with incredible swiftness sailed into the air, and vanished as he fired again. The smoke blew back into his eyes, and there was a low rustling that rapidly grew fainter. He ran to the thicket, and found what he had expected-a few red splashes among the leaves. Where the deer was hit he did not know, but he braced himself for an effort, for he fancied that he could follow the trail.

It proved a long and difficult one, but as he worked along it, smashing through thickets and crawling over fallen trees, the red sprinkle still showed among the leaves, and it did not seem possible that the deer could go very far. Still, by this time the light was growing dim, and he pressed on savagely with the perspiration dripping from him in an agony of suspense. Even his weariness was forgotten, though he reeled now and then.

At length, when he reached the head of a slope, there was a crackling amidst the underbrush, and once more a half-seen shape rose out of it. The rifle went to his shoulder, and, though he had scarcely expected the shot to be successful, the object in front of him collapsed amidst the fern. He could no longer see it, but, whipping out the big knife that he carried in his belt, he ran toward the spot where it had appeared. The ground seemed to be falling sharply, and he recognized that there was a declivity not far away.

The deer rose once more, and, though only a yard or two away, he could scarcely see it. His eyes seemed clouded, and he was gasping heavily. Whether he dropped the rifle with intent or stumbled and let it slip he never knew, but in another moment he had flung himself upon the deer with the long knife in his hand. Then his feet slipped, and he and the beast rolled down a slope together. The blade he gripped struck soil and stones, but at length he knew that it had gone in to the hilt in yielding flesh, and with a tense effort he buried it again. After that he staggered clear, half-dazed, but exultant, with a broad crimson stain on the rags he wore. The beast's limbs and body quivered once or twice, and then it lay very still.

Weston took out his pipe and lay down with his back against a tree, for all the power seemed to have gone out of him, and he did not seem able to think of anything. The pipe was empty before it dawned on him that his comrade was famishing, and there was still a task in hand. He set about it, and, though it was far from heavy, he had some difficulty in getting the dressed deer upon his shoulders. How he reached camp with it he never knew, but he fell down several times before he did so,

and the soft darkness had crept up from the valley when he staggered into the flickering glow of a fire. His face was drawn and gray, and there was blood and soil on his tattered clothing. He dropped the deer, and collapsed beside the fire.

"Now," he said hoarsely, "it's up to you to do the rest."

Grenfell set about it in wolfish haste, hacking off great strips of flesh with patches of hide still attached to them; and it was only when he flung them half-raw out of the frying-pan that Weston roused himself. Fresh bush venison is not a delicacy even when properly cooked, and there are probably very few civilized men who would care to consume much of it. The muscular fiber resembles cordage; and strong green tea is no doubt not the most desirable beverage to accompany it; but Grenfell and Weston ate it in lumps and were asleep within five minutes after they lay down gorged to repletion beside the sinking fire. It is generally understood that a famishing person should be supplied with nourishment sparingly, but in the wilderness the man in that condition eats as much as he conveniently can, and usually sleeps for about twelve hours afterward. In any case, the sun was high the next day when Weston awoke, feeling, except for his muscular weariness, as fresh as he had ever felt in his life. He roused Grenfell with his foot.

"Get up," he said, "we have to consider what to do."

Grenfell blinked at him, with a grin.

"Consider!" he ejaculated. "I know. The first thing is to eat breakfast. Then we'll lie down again until it's time for supper."

They did as he suggested, for there was meat enough to last until they found the cache. This they managed to do two days later. Somewhat to Weston's astonishment they found, also, the horse still feeding on the strip of natural prairie; and, as the beast and the buried camp gear it could now carry back represented their whole worldly wealth, this was a source of gratification to both of them. The man without an occupation or a dollar in his pocket does not, as a rule, find life very easy.

They made the first settlement on the railroad safely; and Weston, hearing that a new sawmill had been started in a neighboring valley, set out the next morning in search of it, leaving Grenfell to dispose, of the camp gear and the horse. The manager of the sawmill was, however, marking trees in the bush, and, as Weston had to wait some time before he learned that no more hands were wanted, it was evening before he reached the little wooden hotel where he had left his comrade. It had a veranda in front of it, and he stopped when he reached the steps, for it was evident from the hoarse clamor and bursts of laughter which came out of the open windows that something quite unusual was going on. Then a man came down the steps chuckling, and Weston, who stopped him, inquired the cause of the commotion.

"Two or three of the boys we have no great use for are going out to-night to the copper vein the Dryhurst people are opening up," said the stranger. "Your partner has been setting up the drinks for them."

Weston was not pleased at this, but the other piece of information the man gave him was interesting.

"Are they taking on men?" he asked.

"Anybody who can shovel. Sent down to Vancouver for men a day or two ago."

"Then," said Weston, "why didn't this hotel-keeper tell me, instead of sending me across to the sawmill?"

His informant laughed.

"Jake," he said, "is most too mean to live. He strikes you a dollar for your breakfast and another for supper, though anybody else would give you a square meal for a quarter. Guess that may have something to do with it."

Weston nodded.

"It's very probable," he said. "They're evidently getting angry about something inside there. What's the trouble?"

"Guess it's your partner," said the other man, with a grin. "It seems Jake bought a horse from him; but you'd better go in and see. I decided to pull out when one of them got an ax. Struck me it would be kind of safer in my shanty."

He went down the stairway; and as Weston went up a raucous voice reached him.

"The money!" it said. "The money or the horse! You hear me! Hand out the blame money!"

Weston pushed open the door and stopped just inside it. The room was big, and, as usual, crudely furnished, with uncovered walls and floor, and a stove in the midst of it. A bar ran along part of one side, and a man in a white shirt was just then engaged in hastily removing the bottles from it. Another man, in blue shirt and duck trousers, stood beside the stove, and he held a big ax which he swung suggestively. It was evident that several of the others were runaway sailormen, who have, since the days of Caribou, usually been found in the forefront when there were perilous wagon bridges or dizzy railroad trestles to be built in the Mountain Province. There was, however, nothing English in their appearance.

"He wants his horse! Oh, bring it out!" sang the man with the ax.

There was a howl of approval from the cluster of men who sat on a rough fir table; but the man behind the bar raised an expostulating hand.

"Boys," he said, "you have got to be reasonable. I bought that horse. If the deadbeat who made the deal with me wants it back, all he has to do is to produce the money."

Then Grenfell, who leaned on the table, drew himself up, and made a gesture of protest. He was as ragged and unkempt as ever.

"I've been called a deadbeat, and I want it taken back," he said. "It's slander. I'm a celebrated mineralogist and assayer. Tell you how the deep leads run; analyze you anything. For example, we'll proceed to put this hotel-keeper in the crucible, and see what we get. It's thirty parts hoggish self-sufficiency, and ten parts ignorance. Forty more rank dishonesty, and ten of insatiable avarice. Ten more of go-back-when-you-get-up-and-face-him. Can't even bluff a drunken man. I've no use for him."

There was a burst of applause, but Weston fancied that the hotel-keeper's attitude was comprehensible in view of the fact that the drunken man had a big ax in his hand. Crossing the room, he seized Grenfell's shoulder.

"Sit down," he said sternly. "Have you sold that man my horse?"

"He has, sure," said one of the others. "Set us up the drinks afterward. We like him. He's a white man."

"How much?" Weston asked.

"Twenty dollars."

Then the man with the ax, who appeared to feel that he was being left out of it, swung the heavy blade.

"We want our horse!" he said. "Trot the blame thing out!"

One of the others thereupon raised a raucous voice and commenced a ditty of the deep sea which was quite unquotable. Weston silenced him with some difficulty and turned to the rest.

"Boys," he said, "has the man yonder spent twenty dollars on drinks to-day?"

They were quite sure that he had not. He had, they admitted, set up a round or two, but they were not the boys to impose upon a stranger, and in proof of this several of them asked the hotel-keeper what he had received from them. Then Weston turned to the latter.

"Now," he said, "we'll try to straighten this thing out, but I've no intention of being victimized. It's quite clear that the boys don't seem in a humor to permit that either."

"You've got us solid," one of them assured him. "All you have to do is to sail right ahead. Burn up the blame hotel. Sling him out of the window. Anything you like."

"Well," said Weston, addressing the hotel-keeper, "while I don't know what your tariff is, it's quite evident to me, after what the others have said, that my partner couldn't very well have spent more than five or six dollars. We'll call it eight to make more certain, and I'll pacify him if you'll hand me twelve."

"Twelve dollars," sang the axman, "or the horse! Bring them out!"

"It's worse than holding up a train," complained the hotel-keeper. "Still, I'll part with it for the pleasure of getting rid of you."

He did so; and when Weston, who pocketed the money, inquired when the next east-bound train left, one of the others recollected that it was in rather less than half an hour. Some of them got up with a little difficulty, and Grenfell looked at Weston deprecatingly.

"You mustn't hurry me," he observed, "my knees have given out again."

They set out in a body, two of them assisting Grenfell, who smiled at the men assembled in the unpaved street to witness their departure. There were eight of them altogether, including the man who still carried the ax, which, it transpired later, belonged to the hotel-keeper. The soft darkness fell, and the white mists crawled up the hillside as, laughing harshly, they plodded through the little wooden town. They were wanderers and vagabonds, but they were also men who had faced the stinging frost on the ranges and the blinding snow. They had held their lives lightly as they flung the tall wooden bridges over thundering ca?±ons, or hewed room for the steel track out of their black recesses with toil incredible. Flood and frost, falling trees, and giant-powder that exploded prematurely, had as yet failed to crush the life out of them, and, after all, it is, perhaps, men of their kind who have set the deepest mark upon the wilderness.

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