MoboReader> Literature > The Gold Trail

   Chapter 13 STIRLING LETS THINGS SLIDE

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20322

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was early evening when Weston swung himself down from the platform of the Colonist car in a little roadside station shut in by the pine bush of Ontario. There was a wooden hotel beside the track, and one or two stores; but that was all, and the fact that nobody except the station-agent had appeared to watch the train come in testified to the industry, or, more probably, the loneliness of the district. While Weston stood looking about him a man came out of the office, and he was somewhat astonished to find himself face to face with his employer.

The smart straw hat and light summer suit did not become the contractor. He was full-fleshed and red of face, and the artistically cut garments striped in soft colors conveyed a suggestion of ease and leisure which seemed very much out of place on him. One could not imagine this man lounging on a sunlit beach, or discoursing airily on a cool veranda.

"Got here," he said abruptly, and then swung around and looked at Grenfell. "This is the other man? Well, he can stay and bring along the baggage. There's most a freight-car full. They'll give him a wagon and team at the hotel."

He indicated a great pile of trunks and cases with a wave of his hand, and, seeing Weston's astonishment, added with a twinkle in his eyes:

"My daughter and her friends are camping. They have to have these things."

Weston understood his employer's smile. This, he recognized, was a man who could be content with essential things, and in all probability had at one time esteemed himself fortunate when he succeeded in obtaining them.

"Hadn't I better help him load them up?" he asked.

"No," said Stirling, with a curtness at which Weston could not take offense. "He can put in the evening that way if it's necessary. It will supple him, and I guess he needs it. I have a rig ready. You're coming along with me."

Weston took his place in the light, four-wheeled vehicle, and found it difficult to keep it, for the trail was villainous, and Stirling drove rapidly. Their way led between shadowy colonnades of towering firs, and the fragile, two-seated frame bounced and lurched into and out of deep ruts, and over the split trees that had been laid flat-side downward in the quaggy places-like a field gun going into action was the best comparison Weston could think of. The horses, however, kept their feet, and the wheels held fast. Once, when a jolt nearly pitched him from his seat, Stirling laughed.

"After the city it's a relief to let them out," he said. "I did this kind of thing for a living once. The mine was way back in the bush, leagues from anywhere, and I hired out as special store and despatch carrier. There was red-hot trouble unless I got through on time when the mail came in."

He drove the team furiously at an unguarded log bridge which was barely wide enough to let the wheels pass.

"It's quite a way to the lake yet, and we want to make the camp before it's dark," he explained. "Know anything about sailing a boat?"

Weston said that he did, and Stirling nodded.

"That's good," he observed somewhat dryly, "so does the major man."

Weston ventured to smile at this, and once more his employer's eyes twinkled.

"Some of you people from the old country are quite hard to amuse; though I'm open to admit that we have a few of the same kind on this side," he said. "My daughter seemed to fancy they wouldn't find a lake camp quite right without a boat, so I sent along and bought one at Toronto. Had her put on a flat car, and hired half the teams in the district to haul her to the lake. Now, I guess there are men in this country who, if they wanted a boat, would just take an ax and whipsaw and build one out of the woods."

Weston laughed. He was commencing to understand the man better, for he had met other men of Stirling's description in Canada. As a matter of fact, they are rather common in the Dominion, men who have had very little bestowed on them beyond the inestimable faculty of getting what they want at the cost of grim self-denial and tireless labor. Still, as it was in Stirling's case, some of them retain a whimsical toleration for those of weaker fiber.

"It's a bush camp?" Weston asked.

Stirling smiled good-humoredly.

"They call it that," he said. "It cost me quite a few dollars. You'll see when you get there."

Weston was somewhat relieved when they safely accomplished the first stage of the journey, and, turning the team over to a man by the waterside, paddled off to a big, half-decked boat beautifully built and fitted in Toronto. Stirling, who admitted that he knew nothing about such matters, sat down aft and lighted a cigar, while Weston proceeded to get the tall gall mainsail and big single headsail up. He was conscious that his companion was watching him closely, and when he let go the moorings and seated himself at the tiller the latter pointed up the lake.

"About a league yet-round that long point," he said.

A moderately fresh breeze came down across the pines, and when Weston, getting in the sheet, headed her close up to it, the boat, slanting sharply, leaped forward through the smooth water. He sat a little farther to windward, and the slant of deck decreased slightly when Stirling did the same.

"You can't head there straight?" the latter asked.

"No," said Weston, "not with the wind as it is. She'll lie no higher."

"Well," observed Stirling, "she's going, anyway. That pleases me. It helps one to get rid of the city. We'll have a talk, in the meanwhile. I sent for you before. Why didn't you come?"

It was somewhat difficult to answer, and Weston wrinkled his forehead, stiffening his grasp on the tiller.

"I was fortunate enough to be of some little service to Miss Stirling's friends on the range, and I fancied that because of it you meant to offer me promotion of some kind," he said.

"Well?" queried Stirling, with his eyes fixed on his companion's face.

Weston hesitated. He could not very well tell this man that a vein of probably misguided pride rendered him unwilling to accept a favor from Ida Stirling's father.

"I don't think there was any obligation, sir," he said.

"That," remarked Stirling dryly, "is a kind of feeling that may trip you up some day. Still, you came this time."

"I did," said Weston. "You see, the case was rather different. You offered to hire me to do a thing I'm accustomed to. It's my occupation."

His companion made a little sign of comprehension, though there was a faintly whimsical smile in his eyes.

"Now, you're wondering why I brought you back east all this way?"

Weston admitted it, and the contractor fixed his eyes on him.

"Well," he said, "it seems that there's fishing and sailing to be done, and I'm not quite sure about that major man. Guess he's always had people to wait on him, and that doesn't tend to smartness in any one. When my daughter and her friends go out on the lake, or up the river, you'll go along with them."

This was, perhaps, a little hard on Major Kinnaird, but Weston to some extent sympathized with his employer's point of view. The contractor was not a sportsman as the term is generally understood, but he was a man who could strip a gun, make or mend harness, or break a horse. When he had gone shooting in his younger days it was usually to get something to eat, and, as a rule, he obtained it, though he rent his clothes or got wet to the waist in the process. He could not sail a boat, but if he had been able to do so he would also in all probability have been capable of building one. Stirling was a man who had never depended very much on others, and could, if occasion arose, dispense with their services. He recognized something of the same resourcefulness in Weston, and, because of it, took kindly to him.

In the meanwhile the breeze had freshened, and the boat, slanting more sharply, commenced to throw the spray all over her as she left the shelter of the woods behind. She met the short, splashing head sea with streaming bow, and the sliding froth crept farther and farther up her lee deck as she smashed through it. Then as the water found its way over the coaming and poured down into her, Stirling glanced at his companion.

"Got all the sail she wants?" he asked. "Is she fit to stand much more of it?"

"She should be safe with another plank in, but I was thinking of taking some of the canvas off her now," said Weston.

Stirling hitched his twelve stone of flesh farther up to windward.

"Then," he said, "until she puts that plank in you can let her go."

A wisp of spray struck him in the face, but Weston, who saw the smile in his eyes, was curiously satisfied. It suggested, in the first place, an ample confidence in him, which was naturally gratifying, and in the second, that Stirling in spite of his years could take a keen pleasure in that particular form of the conflict between the great material forces and man's nerve and skill. It is a conflict that goes on everywhere in the newer lands.

For another half-hour Weston kept the staggering over-canvased craft on her feet by a quick thrust of the tiller or a slackening of the sheet, and his companion appeared oblivious of the fact that he was getting wetter and wetter. She was fast, and she went through the little curling ridges with an exhilarating rush, while the foam swirled higher up her depressed deck, and the water flung up by her streaming bows beat in between her shrouds in showers. Then, when half the deck dipped under, Weston thrust down his helm, and the craft, rising upright, lay with her big mainsail thrashing furiously above her.

For ten minutes Weston was very busy with it, and, when he had hoisted it again with a strip along the foot of it rolled up, he crouched forward in the spray struggling with the big single headsail, which was a much more difficult matter. Once or twice he went in bodily when the hove-down bowsprit put which he crawled, dipped under, but he succeeded in tying up the foot of that sail too, and scrambled aft again breathless and gasping. He noticed that his employer, who did not seem to mind it, was almost

as wet as he was.

"I'm sorry, but you told me I could let her go," he apologized.

Stirling smiled somewhat dryly.

"I'm not blaming you; but you don't quite finish. Wondering why I did it, aren't you?"

Weston did not admit it, but perhaps his face betrayed him, for his companion nodded.

"Well," he said, "you told me that you could sail a boat, and I wanted to make sure of it. Seems to me anybody could hold the tiller when she's going easy in smooth water. Know how I used to choose when I wanted a chopper, in the days when I worked along with the boys? Well, I gave the man an ax, set him up in front of the biggest tree I could find, and made him chop."

There could be no doubt about the efficiency of that simple test, and Weston recognized that it was very much in keeping with his employer's character, though he fancied that it was one which, if rigorously applied everywhere, would leave a good many men without an occupation. He only laughed, however; and nothing more was said until the boat reached in shoreward on another tack. It carried her round the long point, and a deep, sheltered bay with dark pine forest creeping close down to the strip of white shingle which fringed the water's edge opened up. Then, as the trees slid past one another, a little clearing in the midst of them grew rapidly wider, and Weston was somewhat astonished to see a very pretty wooden house grow into shape. He glanced at Stirling.

"Yes," said the latter, with a suggestion of grim amusement, "that's the camp."

Once more Weston understood him, and, as their eyes met, man and master smiled. Both of them knew there were hosts of strenuous, hard-handed men growing wheat and raising cattle in that country who would have looked on that camp as a veritable mansion. They were, however, men who had virgin soil to break or stupendous forests to grapple with, tasks of which many would reap the benefit, and they very seldom troubled much about their personal comfort.

After a while, Weston, lowering the headsail, dropped the anchor over close to the beach, and Major Kinnaird paddled a canoe off gingerly. He was, as usual, immaculately neat, and Weston noticed the contrast between him and Stirling, whose garments had apparently grown smaller with the wetting. The latter pitched his valise into the canoe without waiting for Weston to see to it, and then stood up endeavoring to squeeze some of the water from his jacket.

"It's the only one I've got," he said to Kinnaird. "Anyway, I guess the thing will dry, and I've had a sail that has made me feel young again."

Then they went ashore, and Weston, who was very wet, was left shivering in the wind to straighten up the gear, until a bush rancher, who had been engaged to wait on the party until he arrived, paddled off for him. The rancher had prepared a satisfactory supper; and some time after it was over, Stirling and Mrs. Kinnaird sat together on the veranda. There was, at the time, nobody in the house. The breeze had fallen lighter, though a long ripple still lapped noisily upon the beach, and a half-moon had just sailed up above the clustering pines. Their ragged tops rose against the sky black as ebony, but the pale radiance they cut off from the beach stretched in a track of faint silvery brightness far athwart the lake.

Mrs. Kinnaird, however, was not watching the ripple flash beneath the moon, for her eyes were fixed on two dusky figures that moved through the shadow toward the water's edge. By and by there was a rattle of shingle, and presently the black shape of a canoe slid down into the moonlight. It rose and dipped with the languid ripple, and the two figures in it were silhouetted against the silvery gleam. One was a man in a wide hat who knelt and dipped the flashing paddle astern, and the other a girl. The craft crossed the strip of radiance and vanished round the point, after which Mrs. Kinnaird flashed a keen glance at her companion. He sat still, and his face, on which the moonlight fell, was almost expressionless, but Mrs. Kinnaird fancied he had noticed as much as she had, and that he had possibly grasped its significance. In case he had not done the latter, she felt it her duty to make the matter clear to him.

"I suppose that is Ida in the canoe," she said.

"It seems quite likely," replied her companion. "It couldn't have been your daughter, because she went along the beach not long ago with the major, and I don't think there's another young lady in the vicinity."

"Then the other must be-the packer."

The pause and the slight change of inflection as she said "the packer" had not quite the effect she had intended. Stirling himself had once labored with his hands, and, what was more, afterward had a good deal to bear on that account. He was not particularly vindictive, but he remembered it.

"Yes, it's Weston," he said, and his companion felt herself corrected; but she was, at least where Major Kinnaird was not concerned, in her quiet way a persistent woman. Besides, Miss Stirling, who was going with her to England, would some day come into considerable possessions, and she had a son who found it singularly difficult to live on the allowance his father made him.

"Is it altogether advisable that she should go out with him?" she asked.

Stirling smiled somewhat dryly, for there was a vein of combativeness in him, and she had stirred it.

"You mean, is it safe? Well, I guess she's quite as safe as she would be with me or the major."

"Major Kinnaird was a flag officer of a rather famous yacht club," said the lady, who, while she fancied that her companion meant to avoid the issue, could not let this pass. She was, however, mistaken in one respect, for Stirling usually was much more ready to plunge into a controversy than to back out of it.

"Well," he said reflectively, "the other man has earned his living handling sail and people, which is quite a different thing."

Then he leaned toward her, with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Madam," he added, "wouldn't you better tell me exactly what you meant?"

Mrs. Kinnaird had a certain courage, and she was endeavoring to do her duty as she understood it.

"That packer," she said, "is rather a good-looking man, and girls of Ida's age are sometimes a trifle-impressionable."

Then, somewhat to her astonishment, Stirling quietly agreed with her.

"Yes," he said, "that's so. Seems to me it was intended that they should be. It's part of the scheme."

He made a little gesture.

"We'll let that point slide. Anything strike you as being wrong with Weston?"

"No," said the somewhat startled lady, "the man is of course reliable, well-conducted, and attentive; but, after all, when one says that--"

"When you said reliable you hit it. It's a word that means a good deal; but couldn't you say a little more than well-conducted? From something your daughter learned by chance, his relatives are people of position in the old country. That counts for a little, though perhaps it shouldn't."

Once more Mrs. Kinnaird's astonishment was very evident.

"It shouldn't?"

"That's just what I meant. If a man is clean of character, and has grit and snap in him, I don't know that one could reasonably look for anything further. I can't see how the fact that his grandfather was this or that is going to affect him. The man we're talking of has grit. I offered him promotion, and he wouldn't take it."

"Ah," said his companion, "didn't that strike you as significant?"

Stirling looked thoughtful.

"Well," he admitted slowly, "as a matter of fact, it didn't; but it does now."

He sat silent for almost a minute, with wrinkled forehead, while Mrs. Kinnaird watched him covertly. Then, feeling the silence embarrassing, she made another effort.

"Supposing that my fancies concerning what might perhaps come about are justified?" she suggested.

Stirling faced the question.

"Well," he said, "whether they're justified or not is a thing we don't know yet; but I want to say this. I have never had reason to worry over my daughter, and it seems to me a sure thing that she's not going to give me cause for it now. When she chooses her husband, she'll choose the right one, and she'll have her father's money; it won't matter very much whether he's rich or not. All I ask is that he should be straight and clean of mind, and nervy, and I guess Ida will see to that. When she tells me that she is satisfied, I'll just try to make the most of him."

He broke off for a moment, and laughed softly.

"I guess it wouldn't matter if I didn't. My girl's like her mother, and she's like-me. When she comes across the right man she'll hold fast by him with everything against her, if it's necessary, as her mother did with me."

He rose and leaned against a pillar, with a curious look in his face.

"The struggle that her mother and I made has left its mark on me. The friends we left in the rut behind us looked for my failure, and it seemed then that all the men with money had leagued themselves together to stop me from going on. Somehow I beat them, one by one-big engineers, financiers, financiers' syndicates, corporations-working late and working early, sinking every dollar made in another venture, and living any way. There were no amenities in that fight until those we had against us found that it was wiser to keep clear of me."

Then, with a little forceful gesture, he took off his hat.

"What I am, in part, at least, my girl's mother made me. She's asleep at last, and because of what she bore it's up to me to make things smoother for her daughter. Madam," he added, turning to his companion with a smile, "I have to thank you for doing what you must have figured was your duty; but in the meanwhile we'll-let things slide."

He turned away and left her before she could answer, astonished but a little touched by what she had heard. Still, the gentler impression vanished, and when she informed Major Kinnaird of what had been said she was once more somewhat angry with Stirling.

"It is really useless to reason with him," she said. "The man has wholly preposterous views."

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