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   Chapter 12 THE COPPER-MINE

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 15468

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The red sun had risen above the dusky firs on a shoulder of the range when Weston and his companions reached the copper-mine. It consisted of an opening in the forest which clothed the hillside with the black mouth of an adit in the midst of it, and a few big mounds of debris, beside which stood a rude log shanty. The men who had just come out of the latter gazed at the strangers with undemonstrative curiosity, and when, saying nothing, they, trooped away to work, the new arrivals sat down to wait until the mining captain should make his appearance. In the meanwhile one of them amused himself by throwing stones at a smaller log building with a galvanized roof which stood among the firs. He looked at the others for applause when he succeeded in hitting it.

"Let up," said a comrade. "The boss lives in there."

The man flung another stone, a larger one, which rang upon the iron roof.

"Well," he said, "I guess that ought to fetch him."

It evidently did so, for the door of the shanty opened, and a man attired in shirt and trousers came out. He was a big, lean man, somewhat hard of face, and he favored the assembly with a glance of quiet scrutiny, for he was, as it happened, acquainted with the habits of the free companions.

"Getting impatient, boys?" he asked, and his voice, which was curiously steady, had in it a certain unmistakable ring. It suggested that he was one accustomed to command. "Well, what do you want?"

"A job," said one of Weston's companions.

The man looked at him with no great favor.

"Quite sure it isn't money? You can't have one without the other here."

Then Grenfell rose and waved his hand.

"The explanation, I may observe, is unnecessary. In this country you don't get money anywhere without first doing a good deal for it. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that you don't get it then."

"How long is it since you did anything worth counting?" asked the captain.

One of Grenfell's companions pulled him down before he had a chance to reply.

"Now you sit right down before you spoil things," he said. "You can't put up a bluff on that kind of man. You don't know enough."

The miner glanced at them again, with a little grim smile.

"Well," he said, "you may stay there until I've started the boys in the adit. Then I will come back and talk to you."

He moved away, and one of those he left relieved his feelings by hurling another stone which crashed upon the iron roof of the shanty.

"That's a hustler-a speeder-up," he said. "You can't monkey with him."

They waited for about an hour before the man came back, and, sitting down on a fir stump, called them up one by one. Weston was reassured to see that each was despatched in turn to the log building where he presumed the tools were kept; but he and Grenfell were left to the last, and he was somewhat anxious when he walked toward the stump. The man who sat there glanced at his attire.

"Been up against it lately?" he inquired.

Weston admitted that this was the case; and the other smiled dryly.

"Can you chop and shovel?" he asked.

Weston said that he could; and the miner appeared to consider.

"Well," he said, "I'll put you on at--," mentioning terms which Weston fancied were as favorable as he was likely to get. "Still, you'll have to hustle, and we charge usual tariff for board. You may start in."

Weston glanced toward Grenfell, who was still sitting where he had left him.

"You see," he said, "there's my partner. We go together."

"I can't help that. You have my offer. I can't have that kind of man on our pay-roll."

Weston stood silent for a moment or two. He had arrived at the wooden hotel too late for supper the previous evening, and, as a rule, neither blandishments nor money will secure the stranger a meal at an establishment of that kind after the appointed hour. As the result, he had eaten nothing since noon, when the sawmill hands had offered him a share of their dinner; and, having assisted Grenfell along an infamous trail most of the night, he was jaded and very hungry. Now work and food were offered him, and there was not a settlement within several leagues of the spot. He had, however, already decided that he could not cast his comrade adrift.

"Well," he said, "perhaps there's a way out of it. If you'll let him camp with the boys, I'll be responsible for his board."

"Any relation of yours?"

"No," replied Weston simply, "he's just my partner."

The other man looked at him curiously, and then made what Weston fancied was an unusual concession.

"Well," he said, "we'll fix it. You may go along and drill with the boys yonder in the open cut."

Weston did as he was bidden, and spent the rest of the morning alternately holding the jarring drill and swinging a hammer. It was strenuous work which demanded close attention, for the hammer was heavy, and it is far from easy to hit a drill neatly on the head, while the man who fails to do so runs the risk of smashing the fingers of the comrade who holds it. It was not much more pleasant when he gripped the drill in turn, for, though the other man stood on a plank inserted in a crevice, Weston had to kneel on a slippery slope of rock and twist the drill each time the hammer descended. The concussion jarred his stiffened hands and arms. The distressful stitch also was coming back into his side, and once or twice his companion cast an expostulating glance at him.

"You want to speed up," he said. "Guess that boss of ours knows just how much the most is that a man can drill, and he has to do it or get out."

Though it cost him an effort, Weston contrived to keep his companion going until the dinner hour arrived, and he found the work a little easier when he had eaten. Still, he was perplexed about Grenfell, who did not understand what arrangement he had arrived at with the mine captain. Grenfell spent the afternoon mending his own and some of Weston's clothes, which badly needed it, and the evening meal was over when the latter sat with the others outside the shanty wearing a jacket which his companion had sewed. Grenfell, however, was not with them just then. By and by the man who had desired to wreck the hotel bar turned to Weston.

"What are you going to do with your partner?" he asked.

"I don't quite know," said Weston. "In the meanwhile he'll stay here."

"How's he going to raise his board?"

"That's not quite your business," said Weston quietly.

The man laughed good-humoredly.

"Well," he replied, "in one way I guess it isn't. Still, if you pay your partner's board you're going to have mighty little money left. Mended that jacket, didn't he? Won't you take it off?"

Weston wondered a little at this request, but he complied; and the man passed the garment around to' the others, who gravely inspected the sewed-up rents and the patches inserted in it.

"Quite neat, isn't it?" he commented.

They admitted that it was; and the chopper, handing the garment back to Weston, smiled as though satisfied.

"I've an idea, boys," he announced.

His companions appeared dubious, but he nodded quietly.

"I've got one sure," he said. "Now, in a general way, if there's a store handy, I've no use for mending clothes; but you have to wash them now and then, and it never struck me as quite comfortable to put them on with half the stitching rubbed out of them. Well, washing's a thing I'm not fond of either, and it's kind of curious that when one man starts in at it everybody wants the coal-oil can."

They murmured languid concurrence, for, as he said, clothes must be washed and mended now and then, and the man who has just finished a long day's arduous toil seldom feels any great inclinatio

n for the task. It usually happens, however, that when one sets about it his companions do the same, and there is sometimes trouble as to who has the prior claim on the big kerosene can in which the garments are generally boiled.

"Well," said the chopper, "I've a proposition to make. There are quite a few of us, and a levy of thirty or forty cents a week's not going to hurt anybody while there's a man round here who can't chop or shovel. Guess he has to live, and it's a blame hard country, boys, to that kind of man. Now, it's my notion we make the fellow mender and washer to the camp."

There was a murmur of applause, for, when they own any money, which, however, is not frequently the case, the free companions are usually open-handed men, and Weston was not astonished at their readiness to do what they could for his companion. He had been in that land long enough to learn that it is the hard-handed drillers and axmen from whom the wanderer and even the outcast beyond the pale is most likely to receive a kindness. Their wide generosity is exceeded only by the light-hearted valor with which they plunge into some tremendous struggle with flood and rock and snow.

"Make it half a dollar anyway," said one of them.

Then Weston stood up, with a little flush on his face and a curious look in his eyes.

"Thank you, boys, but I have to move an objection," he said. "This is a thing that concerns me."

"Sit down," commanded one of them sharply. "It's a cold business proposition."

They silenced his objections, and sent for Grenfell, who appeared disconcerted for a moment when he heard what they had to say. Then he laughed somewhat harshly.

"Well," he said, "I'll be glad to do it, and I don't mind admitting that the offer is a relief to me."

They strolled away by and by, and Grenfell made a little grimace as he looked at Weston.

"When I can tell how the ore should pan out by a glance at the dump, and plot just how the vein should run, it's disconcerting to find that the only way I can earn a living is by washing and mending," he said. "In fact," and he spread out his hands, "the thing's humiliating."

To a certain extent Weston sympathized with him. The man, it seemed, had been a famous assayer, and now the one capability which was of any use to him was that of neatly mending holes in worn-out garments. He undertook the task cheerfully, however, and things went smoothly for a week or two. Then a stranger, who appeared to be a man of authority, arrived at the camp. He was a young man, who looked opinionative, and when he first appeared was dressed in city clothes. Soon after his arrival he strolled around the workings with the man whom Weston hitherto had regarded as the manager. When he spoke sharply to one or two of the men, the driller who worked with Weston snorted expressively.

"Colvin puts the work through, but that's the top boss," he said. "You can see it all over him. Learned all about mining back east in the cities, and couldn't sink a hole for a stick of giant-powder to save his life. Been down at Vancouver fixing up with the directors what they're going to tell the stockholders. Still, I guess he's not going to run this company's stock up very much."

"How's that?" Weston asked.

The man lowered his voice confidentially.

"Well," he said, "there's a good deal in mining that you can't learn from books, and a little you can't learn at all. It has to be given you when you're born. Colvin's a hustler, but that's 'bout all he is, and I've a kind of notion they aren't going to bottom on the richest of this vein. Anyway, it's not my call. They wouldn't listen to me."

Weston's gesture might have expressed anything. He naturally had been favored with hints of this kind while he followed other somewhat similar occupations, for it is not an uncommon thing for the men who toil with the drill and shovel to feel more or less convinced that those set over them are not going about the work in the right way. He had also more than once seen this belief proved warranted. His companion's suggestions, however, were borne out when he sat smoking with Grenfell in the bush after supper.

"I've been in the adit this afternoon," observed the latter. "Colvin sent me along to where they are putting in the heavy timbering." He laughed softly. "Well, they're throwing away most of their money."

"You're sure?" inquired Weston.

"Am I sure!" expostulated his comrade. "I need only point out that I ought to be."

"Then," said Weston, reflectively, "unless they ask your opinion, which isn't very probable, I'd say nothing about it. Some people don't take kindly to being told they're wrong. The thing doesn't affect you, anyway."

He was a little astonished at the change in his companion, for a sparkle crept into Grenfell's watery eyes, and his voice grew sharper.

"You haven't the miner's or the engineer's instinct; it's the same as the artist's," he said. "He can see the unapproachable, beautiful simplicity of perfection, and bad work hurts him. I don't know that it's a crime to throw away money, but it is to waste intelligence and effort that could accomplish a good deal properly directed. Why was man given the power to understand the structure of this material world? I may be a worn-out whisky wreck, but I could tell them how to strike the copper."

"Still," said Weston, dryly, "I'd very much rather you didn't. I don't think that it would be wise."

His companion left him shortly afterward, and it was some days later when the subject was reopened. Then Grenfell came to him with a rueful face.

"I've had an interview with the manager," he explained.

"Well," said Weston, sharply, "what did he say?"

Grenfell shrugged his shoulder.

"Told me to get out of camp right away."

Just then Colvin approached them, and his manner was for once slightly deprecatory.

"It doesn't pay to know more than the boss," he said; and then he looked at Weston. "He has to get out. What are you going to do?"

He had Weston's answer immediately.

"Ask you for my time."

"Well," said Colvin, with a gesture of expostulation, "I guess you know your own business. Still, I'm quite willing to keep you."

Weston thanked him, and then went with him to his shanty where he was handed a few bills, and in another hour he and Grenfell had once more strapped their packs upon their shoulders. He did not know where he was going, or what he would do, but he struck into the trail to the railroad, and it was dusk when they reached a little wooden settlement. He went into the post-office to make a few inquiries before he decided whether he should stay there that night, and the woman who kept it, recognizing him as a man from the mine, handed him a letter. When he opened it he saw, somewhat to his astonishment, that it was from Stirling. It was very terse, but it informed him that Miss Stirling and her friends purposed camping among the islands of one of the eastern lakes, which was then a rather favorite means of relaxation with the inhabitants of Toronto and Montreal. Stirling desired him to accompany the party, on terms which appeared very satisfactory, and added that if he were acquainted with another man likely to make an efficient camp attendant he could bring him along.

Weston started a little when he reached the last suggestion, for he fancied that it was Miss Stirling who had made it. He leaned on the counter for several minutes, thinking hard; and then, though he was not sure that he acted wisely, he started for the station to despatch a telegram, as Stirling had directed. The next morning the agent handed him tickets for himself and Grenfell, and they set out on the Atlantic train.

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