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The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16698

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It was a hot afternoon, and Ida, who was tired of fishing, sat carefully in the middle of a fragile birch canoe. Her rod lay unjointed beside her, and two or three big trout gleamed in the bottom of the craft, while Weston, who knelt astern, leisurely dipped the single-bladed paddle. Dusky pines hung over the river, wrapping it in grateful shadow, through which the water swirled crystal clear, and the canoe moved slowly down-stream across the slack of an eddy. Farther out, the stream frothed furiously among great boulders and then leaped in a wild white rush down a rapid, though here and there a narrow strip of green water appeared in the midst of the latter. The deep roar it made broke soothingly through the drowsy heat, and Ida listened languidly while she watched the pines slide past.

"I wonder what has become of the major," she said at length, with a little laugh. "It is too hot for fine casting, and he probably has had enough of it. After all, it really doesn't matter that the fish won't rise."

She saw Weston's smile, which made it evident that he was equally content to drift quietly through the cool shadow with the sound of frothing water in his ears. Then she wondered whether that was his only cause for satisfaction, and recognized that, if this were not the case, she had given him a lead. He did not, however, seem very eager to make the most of it.

"We might get another fish in the broken water," he suggested. "Would you like to try?"

"No," said Ida, "I wouldn't."

She was a trifle displeased with him. The man, she felt, might at least have ventured to agree with her, and there was, after all, no reason why he should insist on reminding her, in one way or another, that he was merely her canoe attendant, when she was willing to overlook that fact. She had once or twice, when it was evident that he did not know that she was watching him, seen something creep into his eyes when he glanced in her direction. He was, however, for the most part, almost unduly cautious in his conversation, and she now and then wondered whether his reticence cost him anything.

"It's a pity it isn't always summer afternoon," she said.

Weston looked at her rather curiously, though for the next few moments his lips remained set. There was a good deal he could have said in that connection, but he suppressed it, as he had done more than once already when similarly tempted. He felt that if he once allowed his sentiments audible expression they might run away with him.

"Oh, yes," he said, "I suppose it is."

Ida wondered whether he was quite insensible to temptation, or absurdly diffident, for she had now given him two openings, and he had answered with only the tritest of remarks. She knew he was not stupid, but there were times when, for no apparent reason, he seemed suddenly to retire into his shell. She did not know that on these occasions he had laid a somewhat stern restraint upon himself.

"This land is not quite as grand as British Columbia, but I think I almost like it better," she said. "Still, we spent a very pleasant time in the ranges."

"Those ranges could hardly be beaten," said Weston.

He paddled a little more strenuously after this, and Ida abandoned the attempt to extract any expression of opinion from him. She had made sufficient advances, and she would go no further.

"Well," she said, "I don't care to fish any longer. Can't we shoot that rapid?"

Weston's answer was given without hesitation. It requires nerve and judgment to shoot a frothing rapid. Just then, however, the task promised to be a relief to him. His companion was very alluring, and very gracious now and then, and that afternoon he found it remarkably difficult to remember that she was the daughter of his employer, and that there were a good many barriers between her and himself.

"Yes," he said, "I think it would be safe enough if you'll sit quite still."

Three or four strokes of the paddle drove the canoe out into the stream, and after that, all he had to do was to hold her straight. This was, however, not particularly easy, for the mad rush of water deflected by the boulders swung her here and there, and the channel was studded with foam-lapped masses of stone. Gazing forward, intent and strung-up, he checked her now and then with a feathering backstroke of the paddle, while the boulders flashed up toward her out of the spray, and the pines ashore reeled by. The foam stood high about the hollowed, upswept bow, and at times boiled a handbreadth above the depressed waist, but, while the canoe swept on like a toboggan, none came in. There was more than a spice of risk in it, and Ida, who knew what the result would be if her companion's nerve momentarily deserted him, now and then glanced over her shoulder. When she did so, he smiled reassuringly, leaning forward with wet hands clenched hard on the flashing paddle. She felt that he was to be relied on.

Then she abandoned herself to the exhilaration of the furious descent, watching boulder and eddy stream by, while the spray that whirled about her brought the crimson to her face. At length the pace grew a little slacker, and Weston drove the canoe into an eddy where a short rapid divided them from the smooth green strip of water that poured over what could almost be called a fall. Then she turned toward him with glowing face.

"That was splendid!" she exclaimed. "Can't we go right on down the fall?"

Weston ran the canoe in upon the shingle before he answered her.

"No," he said, though it cost him an effort not to do as she wished, "I'm sorry I can't take you down."

Ida glanced at the slide of silky green water that leaped out over a shelf of rock and fell through a haze of spray into a whirling pool. It did not look altogether attractive, and now that she could see it more clearly she rather shrank from it; but she was accustomed to having exactly what she wished, and her companion had not shown himself quite as ready to meet her views that day as she would have liked. An impulse that she did not altogether understand impelled her to persist.

"The Indians go down now and then," she said.

"Yes," admitted Weston, "I believe they do."

"Then why can't you?"

Weston appeared a trifle embarrassed.

"It wouldn't be quite safe."

"You mean to you?"

The man's face flushed a little. He had done a good deal of river work, and none of his companions had accused him of lack of nerve, but, though he had an excellent reason for knowing that the thing was possible, he had no intention of shooting the fall.

"Well," he said, "if you like to look at it in that way."

Ida rose and stepped ashore without taking his proffered hand. Then she leaned on a boulder while Weston sat still in the canoe, and for a moment or two they looked at each other. The situation was a somewhat novel one to the girl, for, in spite of the fact that she desired it, the packer evidently did not mean to go. This alone was sufficient to vex her, but there was another cause, which she subconsciously recognized, that made her resentment deeper. It was that this particular man should prove so unwilling to do her bidding.

"It is quite a long way to the lake, and the trail is very rough," she said.

"It is," admitted Weston, who was glad to find a point on which he could agree with her. "In fact it's a particularly wretched trail. Still, you have managed it several times, and we have generally left the canoe here."

"This time," said Ida, "we will take it down to the lake. I may want it to-morrow. You will have a difficult portage unless you go down the fall."

Weston recognized that this was correct enough, for the river was shut in by low crags for the next half-mile at least, and he remembered the trouble he had had dragging the canoe when he brought it up. He had also had Grenfell with him then.

"Well," he said, "if you would rather not walk back, it must be managed."

"I told you I wanted the canoe on the lake tomorrow," said the girl.

Weston was quite aware that there was another canoe which would serve any reasonable purpose already on the beach, but he merely made a little sign of comprehension and waited for her to go. Somewhat to his annoyance, however, she stood still, and he proceeded to drag out the canoe. The craft was not parti

cularly heavy, but it was long, and he had trouble when he endeavored to get it upon his back. He had more than once carried the Siwash river-canoes over a portage in this fashion, but there is a trick in it, and the birch craft was larger and of a different shape. He felt that he could have managed it had there been nobody to watch him, but to do it while the girl noticed every movement with a kind of sardonic amusement was quite a different matter. He was very hot when, after a struggle of several minutes, he got the craft upon his shoulders; and then, after staggering a few paces, he rammed the bow of it into a tree. The shock was too much for him, and he went down head-foremost, with the canoe upon him, and it felt quite heavy enough then. As the man who attempts the feat has his hands spread out above him, that fall is, as a rule, a very awkward one. It was a moment or two before he crawled out from under the craft, gasping, red in face, and somewhat out of temper, and he was not consoled by his companion's laugh.

"I am sorry you fell down, but you looked absurdly like a tortoise," she observed.

Weston glanced at the canoe disgustedly.

"Miss Stirling," he said, "I can't carry this thing while you stand there watching me. Do you mind walking on into the bush?"

Ida was not in a very complaisant mood, and she glanced at him coldly.

"If my presence annoys you, I can, of course, go on," she said.

She felt that it was a little paltry when she walked on into the bush, but her action had been dictated at least as much by curiosity as by petulance. She fancied that she had set the man a task that was almost beyond his strength, and, knowing that she could release him from it at any time, she was anxious to see what he would do. She walked on some distance, and then sat down to wait until he came up with her, and when half an hour had slipped by and he failed to appear, she strolled toward the edge of the wall of rock.

The river swept furiously down a long declivity just there, and the strip of deeper water flown which one could run a canoe was on the opposite shore. It would, she fancied, be almost impossible to reach it from the foot of the rock on which she stood. Then, to her astonishment, she saw Weston letting the canoe drive down before him close beneath the rock. There was a short rope made fast to it, and he alternately floundered almost waist-deep through the pools behind the craft and dragged it over some thinly-covered ledge. He was very wet, and looked savage, for his face was set, while by the way he moved she fancied for the first time that he had hurt himself in his fall. She could not understand how he had got the canoe down to the river; and for that matter Weston, who had attempted it in a fit of anger, was never very sure. Then she became conscious of a certain compunction. The thing, she felt, had gone quite far enough, and when he drew level with her she called to him.

"You needn't take any more trouble. I can go on by the trail, after all," she said.

Weston looked up.

"There's no reason why you should do that," he replied. "I can't leave the canoe here, anyway, and I can take you in a little lower down."

He went on without waiting for an answer, and though the trail was very rough she had no difficulty in keeping abreast of him along the bank. Indeed, she felt that when he reached the spot where she could join him, he would have gone quite far enough, in view of the progress he was making. Once or twice he floundered furiously as the stream swept his feet from under him, and there were times when it seemed to require all his strength to prevent the canoe from being rolled over in the white rush of water that poured across some slippery ledge; but he slowly plodded on, and, though she did not know why, she was glad that he did so. It was, she was conscious, not altogether because he was executing her command.

At length she joined him where the river flowed deep and smooth beneath the pines again; and, when she had taken her place and he dipped the paddle, she turned to him.

"How did you get the canoe down to the water? The rock is very steep."

"I'm not quite sure," answered Weston. "I think I let it slide. Anyway, I shoved it over the edge. It went down too quickly for me to remember exactly what it did. I'm afraid there are a few rather big scratches on it."

"But how did you get down?"

The man smiled dryly.

"I believe I slid with it."

It occurred to Ida, who was commencing to feel a little ashamed of having exerted her authority in such a manner, that she could afford to be generous.

"I'm sorry I put you to so much trouble," she said. "But why didn't you tell me it would be difficult?"

Weston ceased paddling a moment, and looked at her steadily.

"It's my place to do what I'm told. Besides, you said that you didn't want to go back by the trail."

A slight flush crept into Ida's face.

"Wouldn't it have been better if you had done as I wanted, and shot the fall?"

"No," said Weston resolutely, "it wouldn't have been safe."

There was silence for a minute or two, and then Ida spoke again.

"I must admit that I knew the portage would be a little difficult when you were by yourself, but I didn't think it would give you quite as much trouble as it has," she said. "Still, I think you should have told me. After all"-and she seemed to have some difficulty in finding the right words-"we have never asked you to do anything unreasonable."

Weston understood that what she meant was that she, at least, had not treated him as a mere camp-packer, and, as she was quick to notice, the blood crept into his face. Her manner, which was not conciliatory, had, also, an unsteadying effect on him.

"Well," he said, with a little laugh, "there are naturally two or three of my duties which I don't find particularly agreeable, but that's a very common thing, and you wouldn't expect me to point it out. They're all in the bargain-and the others make up for them."

She noticed his swift change of expression, and did not urge him to explain what he meant.

"Anyway, what I have to do is a good deal nicer than handling heavy rails," he added, with a rather grim smile.

Ida fancied that this was a clumsy attempt to qualify his previous statement, and she said nothing further until they reached the camp. Mrs. Kinnaird kept her occupied for the next hour or two; and that evening when she was sitting on the veranda she heard Grenfell speaking to his comrade not far away.

"Why did you bring that canoe down?" he asked.

"Miss Stirling wanted it," said Weston.

"What did she want with it, anyway?"

It was evident from Weston's voice that he was not anxious to pursue that subject.

"I don't know," he said. "It paddles easier than the other one."

"Well," said Grenfell, "you and I are going to have trouble taking the blame thing up the river again. It's quite different from coming down. I suppose you shot the fall?"

"I didn't."

Grenfell's tone suggested astonishment.

"You hauled the canoe over the portage! What made you do that, when you have twice come down the fall?"

Ida started at this, and leaned forward eagerly to catch Weston's answer.

"I fancied there might be a little risk in it, and I had Miss Stirling with me."

Ida felt her face grow warm as she remembered that she had twitted him with having less nerve than the Indians; but Grenfell apparently was not yet satisfied.

"You could have sent the girl on, and then have shot the fall," he said. "It would have saved you quite a lot of trouble."

"Oh, yes," agreed Weston, who appeared to resent his curiosity. "Still, I didn't."

Grenfell moved away, and Ida recognized now that, in spite of a good deal of provocation, Weston had acted with laudable delicacy. It was clear that his obduracy in the matter of taking her down the fall had been due to a regard for her safety. He had also saddled himself with a laborious task to prevent this fact from becoming apparent. She fancied that, had she been in his place, she could have arranged the thing more neatly; but, after all, that did not detract from the delicacy of his purpose, and she sat very still, with a rather curious expression in her face, until Grenfell came to announce that supper was ready.

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