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   Chapter 11 IN THE MOONLIGHT

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 15734

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was, as far as outward appearances went, a somewhat disreputable company that had assembled in the little station when the whistle of the Atlantic train came ringing up the track, and Weston would have been just as much pleased if the agent had provided a little less illumination. Several big lamps had just been lighted, though, there was a bright moon in the sky, and Grenfell, who was dressed for the most part in thorn-rent rags, sat on a pile of express freight amidst a cluster of his new comrades discoursing maudlin philosophy. The other man, who still clung to the hotel-keeper's ax, was recounting with dramatic force how he had once killed a panther on Vancouver Island with a similar weapon, and, when he swung the heavy blade round his head, there was a momentary scattering of the crowd of loungers, who had, as usual, gathered to see the train come in.

"Yes, sir, I split that beast right up first time," he said. "I'm a chopper. You'd have seen the pieces fly if I'd sailed into that hotel bar a little while ago."

Weston fancied that this was probable, for the man was dexterous, and there was applause when he set the bright blade whirling, and passed the haft from hand to hand. Most of the loungers could do a good deal with the ax themselves, and the lean, muscular demonstrator made rather a striking figure as he stood poised in statuesque symmetry under the lamplight with the bright steel flashing about him.

In the meantime, Weston leaned on the pile of cases and packages somewhat moodily. After paying for his ticket and Grenfell's to the station nearest the copper-mine he had about four dollars in his pocket, and he did not know what he should do if no employment were offered him when he got there. He had no doubt that he could provide for himself somehow, but Grenfell was becoming a responsibility. He felt that he could not cast the man adrift, and it seemed scarcely likely that anybody would be anxious to hire him. Still, Grenfell was his comrade, and they had borne a good deal together during their journey in the wilderness. That counted for something. There was also another matter that somewhat troubled Weston. He was not unduly careful about his personal appearance, but he had once been accustomed to the smoother side of life in England, and his clothing was now almost dropping off him. The storekeeper, whom he had interviewed that morning, had resolutely declined to part with a single garment except for money down; and, after an attempt to make at least part of the damage good with needle and thread, Weston found the effort useless and abandoned it.

Then two great locomotives came snorting out of the shadows that wrapped the climbing track, and he grasped the shoulder of his comrade, who did not appear disposed to get up. There was a little pointed badinage between those who were starting for the mine and the loungers, and in the midst of it the big cars rolled into the station. Weston started, and his face grew darkly flushed, for two white-clad figures leaned out over the guard-rail of one of the platforms, and for a moment he looked into Ida Stirling's eyes. There was no doubt that she had recognized him, and he remembered the state of his attire, and became uneasily conscious that Grenfell, who clung to his shoulder, was swaying on his feet. He knew that a man is usually judged by his company, and it was clear that nothing that she might have noticed was likely to prepossess Miss Stirling in his favor. The car, however, swept past him, and with some difficulty he got Grenfell into another farther along the train. Then, while his companions exchanged more compliments with the loungers, the big locomotives snorted and the dusty cars lurched on again.

They naturally traveled Colonist, and when Grenfell stretched himself out on a maple board it became evident that he had forgotten his blanket. Weston threw his own over him, and the old man blinked at his young companion with watery eyes.

"You stood by me. You're white," he said; and added with a little patronizing gesture, "I'm not going to desert you."

After that he apparently went to sleep, and Weston, who felt no inclination for the company of the others, went out and sat on one of the car platforms, glad for the time being to be rid of him.

There was a moon in the sky, and the silvery light streamed down on towering hillside and battalions of flitting pines. The great train swept on, clattering and clanking, and dust and fragments of ballast whirled about the lonely man. Still, the rush of the cool night wind was exhilarating, and his mind was busy, though his thoughts were not altogether pleasant. The few weeks he had spent in Ida Stirling's company had reawakened ambition in him; and that was why he had set out with Grenfell in search of the mine. Though he had not reproached his comrade, and had, indeed, only half believed in the quartz lead, the failure to find it had been a blow. There was in that country, as he knew, no great prospect of advancement for a man without a dollar; and though he realized that it had not troubled him greatly until a little while ago, he now shrank from the thought of remaining all his life a wandering railroad or ranching hand. He had also a great desire for Miss Stirling's good opinion, although he scarcely expected her to think of him, except as one who had proved a capable guide.

He knew that he could never quite forget the night they had made the hazardous descent together, and her courage and quiet composure under stress and strain had had their effect on him. The imperious anger with which she had turned on him when he forced her away from Miss Kinnaird had also stirred him curiously. He could still, when he chose, see her standing in the moonlight with a flash in her eyes, questioning his authority to prevent her from snaring her companion's peril. She was, he felt, one who would stand by her friends. He was young, and the fact that she had seen him supporting the lurching Grenfell at the station troubled him.

He had smoked his pipe out twice when he heard the vestibule door click, and he started when he looked up, for Ida Stirling stood beside him. Her light dress fluttered about her, and she stood with one hand resting on the rail. There was no doubt that she recognized him, and when he rose and took off his shapeless hat she looked at him steadily for a moment or two. He wondered whether he were right in his surmises as to why she did this; and, though his forehead grew a trifle hot, he decided that he could not blame her. Appearances had certainly been against him.

"I am going to join Mrs. Kinnaird. She is in the car behind the sleeper, and that is farther along;" she said.

Weston moved so that she might step across to the adjoining car; but she did not seem to notice this, and leaned on the rail close beside him.

"The train is very hot with the lamps lighted," she said.

Weston understood this to mean that she was disposed to stay where she was and talk to him awhile, which suggested that she was to some extent reassured about his condition.

"Yes," he returned, "it is. In fact, I felt it myself. The smell of the pines is a good deal pleasanter."

There was nothing original in the observation, and, though the roar of wheels made it a trifle difficult to hear, he was careful as to how he modulated his voice. Perhaps he was superfluously careful, for he saw a smile creep into Ida's eyes.

"You seem amused," he said, and, for they stood in the moonlight, the blood showed in his face.

"Why did you speak-like that?" his companion asked.

Weston looked at her gravely, and then made a little deprecatory gesture.

"It was very stupid, I dare say. Still, you see, you were out on the platform when the train came into the station."

There was something that puzz

led him in Ida's expression.

"Well," she admitted, "I really had my fancies for a moment or two, though I blamed myself afterward. I should have known better."

It was rather a big admission, but she said nothing else, and it was Weston who broke the silence.

"I have to thank you for the prospecting outfit," he said.

The girl flashed a quick glance at him.

"It was partly Major Kinnaird's idea. You made use of it?"

Weston smiled.

"Grenfell and I did. That explains the state of my attire. You see, we have just come down from the bush."

Then, somewhat to her astonishment, he took out his watch, and pointed to the guard. It was of plain plaited leather, and had, she fancied, probably cost about twenty-five cents.

"I don't know whether this could be considered part of a prospecting outfit, but they had a bunch of them in the store," he said. "I felt I should like some trifle that I could wear to remember our trip in the ranges. I thought you wouldn't mind."

A momentary trace of embarrassment became visible in his companion's face. The man was a bush packer, and she had seen him in somewhat disreputable company, but she was ready to admit that he had aroused her curiosity. She could be honest, and she would have admitted it as readily had she never heard from Arabella Kinnaird of his connection with the old hall in England. She looked at him, with a little laugh.

"Oh," she said, "everybody likes to be remembered, and I'm no exception in that respect. There is really no reason why you shouldn't have bought the guard."

Weston, who felt that he had gone quite far enough, merely bent his head in a manner that, as she naturally noticed, the average bush packer would not have adopted. It was she who first spoke again.

"You were successful in your search?" she asked.

Weston laughed.

"Do I look like a man who has just found a goldmine?"

"Well," said the girl, with a twinkle in her eyes, "I came across two successful prospectors in Vancouver not long ago, and there was really nothing to suggest it in their appearance. So you didn't find the mine? Won't you tell me about your journey?"

"It's quite a story. Won't the others miss you?"

Ida turned toward him suddenly.

"Don't you mean more than that?"

"Well," admitted Weston slowly, "I think I did. Perhaps it was a liberty."

"It was," said Ida, and, though she laughed, there was a little flash in her eyes. "Major Kinnaird and his wife are English, and it is quite possible that they would not be pleased to hear that I had come out to talk with you on the platform of a car. Still, in Canada we have our own notions as to what is fitting, and that I consider it perfectly natural that I should do so is quite sufficient for me. I do not defer to anybody's opinion as to how I should treat my friends. Now, unless you have any more convincing excuses, you may tell me about the search for the mine."

Weston did so, and, for the mere pleasure of having her near him, he made rather a long tale of it. She stood where the vestibule of the car in front partly sheltered her from the rush of the cold night wind, swaying lightly to the jolting of the platform as the great train sped on among the pines. Still, her light dress which gleamed white in the moonlight fluttered about her and now and then flowed against her companion. The simple tale of stress and effort borne and made was one that went well with the snorting of the big locomotives toiling up the climbing track and the rhythmic roar of wheels flung back by primeval forest or towering wall of rock. The girl had imagination enough to realize it.

"Oh," she said, "one likes to hear of such things."

Then she noticed the gauntness of his bronzed face and how lean he was.

"Still," she added, "it has left its mark on you. You failed to find the mine-it wasn't your fault-what are you going to do now?"

"Some day," said Weston, "I shall go back and search again."

He had made the resolution only that moment, but she saw the sudden glint in his eyes.

"It was in the meanwhile I meant," she said.

"I am going a little way up the track with my partner to a copper-mine."

"Ah," said the girl reflectively, "I suppose you feel that you must take that man?"

"What else could I do with him?"

Ida's eyes softened curiously. After the scene at the station she fancied that she understood the responsibility that he had taken upon himself.

"And suppose they don't want you at the mine?"

"In that case we should go on again somewhere else."

"Of course your partner, who can earn nothing, will go with you."

Then she spoke almost sharply.

"How much money have you in your joint possession?"

"Three or four dollars," said Weston.

Again she turned toward him with a flush on her face.

"Now," she said, "I think you can disregard trivial conventionalities. Won't you let me lend you some?"

"No," replied Weston quietly. "I shall not forget that you offered it, but I'm afraid it's quite out of the question."

She knew that he meant it, and, though she greatly desired to lessen his difficulties, she was, for no reason that was very apparent at the moment, pleased with his answer. Then she changed the subject.

"Can your partner cook?" she asked.

"No," answered Weston, smiling, "he certainly can't. I and a good many more of the boys know that from experience."

"Ah," said Ida reflectively, "that destroys another chance. Well, I am glad that I have seen you, but I think I must join Mrs. Kinnaird now."

She held out the hand she had laid on the rail. It happened that as she did it the train swung around a curve. The car slanted sharply, and she swayed with the effort to keep her balance. In another moment Weston's arm was around her waist. Then there was empty blackness beneath them as the cars sped out upon a slender trestle, and the roar of a torrent came up from below through the clash and clatter and clamor of the wheels. There was probably no risk at all, for there were rails on either side of them, but the girl, who had almost lost her footing, was glad of the man's steadying hand, and did not draw herself away until the big locomotives were speeding smoothly on beneath the shadowy pines again. Then she drew back a pace or two.

"Thank you," she said quietly.

Weston took off his battered hat, and, stepping across the platform, opened the door of the adjoining car. When she had passed through it, he sat down and took out his pipe, with a curious little thrill running through him and his nerves tingling.

Ida, also, felt her face grow a trifle hot, and, though she was as composed as usual when she joined Mrs. Kinnaird, her thoughts were busy for some time afterward. The man, she admitted, had done no more than was warranted, but there was no disguising the fact that his supporting grasp had had a disconcerting effect on her. Then she dismissed the thoughts of that, and remembered with compassion how lean and worn he looked. There was also something that stirred her sympathy in the idea of his saddling himself with the care of a helpless comrade who had no real claim on him, though that was, she decided, after all, the kind of thing one would expect from him. Then, recognizing that this was admitting a good deal, she endeavored to interest herself in what Mrs. Kinnaird was saying.

It was late at night when the train stopped again, and Weston did not know that when he and his companions alighted at a little desolate station among the ranges, the blind of one window in the big sleeper was drawn aside. In a few moments the train went on, but Ida Stirling did not sleep for some time afterward. She had had a momentary glimpse of a ragged man standing with the lamplight on his lean face and a hand laid reassuringly on the shoulder of his half-dazed companion.

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