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   Chapter 22 GRENFELL GOES ON

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17373

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Weston, tired as he was, did not sleep well that night. Although they had a pack-horse he had carried two blankets and a bag of flour, and when a man has marched from sunrise until dusk under a heavy burden, his shoulders, as a rule, ache distressfully. In addition to this discomfort, Grenfell's manner throughout that day's march had roused an unsettling sense of expectation in his comrades. The man had limped wearily and continually lagged behind, but he had, in spite of it, resolutely insisted on their pushing on as fast as possible. He had also looked about him with a certain suggestive curiosity every now and then, and though he had once or twice admitted that he could not positively identify anything he saw, his air of restrained eagerness had made its impression on Weston.

A half-moon had sailed up into the eastern sky when the latter wakened and raised himself drowsily on one elbow. All round him the great burned pines towered in black and shadowy columns against the silvery light, and a stillness that was almost oppressive brooded over the valley. No sound of running water came out of it, and there was not a breath of wind. It was cool, however, and Weston drew his dusty blanket higher about his shoulders as he glanced round the camp. Devine lay close by sleeping like a log; but Grenfell was huddled at the foot of a tree, and it became evident to his comrade that he, at least, was wide awake.

"Haven't you done enough to make you sleep?" Weston asked.

Grenfell laughed softly.

"I haven't closed my eyes. I can't keep them off the range in front of us."

Weston looked up and saw a huge black rampart cutting sharp and clear against the blueness of the night.

"Don't tell me that you recognize it," he said.

"Three nicks," replied Grenfell. "After the third one, a rounded peak. I can't tell whether I remember it from another time, but that description came to me as if I'd used it, and I think I must have done so. Anyway, you can see them yonder."

He broke off for a moment, and when he went on again his manner was deprecatory.

"Since sunrise I've been troubled with a haunting sense of the familiar, though when I found the lake with Verneille we marched through no br??l??e."

"That's years ago, and this br??l??e is probably not more than twelve months old-I mean as a br??l??e," said Weston, impatiently, for the strain of the long march was telling on him. "Anyway, you've been half-recognizing places ever since we started on this search, and I'd rather you didn't make half sure of anything else. In fact, I can't stand much more of it."

Grenfell, who showed no sign of resentment, laughed again.

"As I think I told you, I've been troubled with memories that seem half dreams. I'm not sure that's quite unusual in the case of a man who has consumed as much whisky as I have. Besides, it's a little difficult to distinguish between dreams and what we look upon as realities, since the latter exist only in the perception of our senses, which may be deceptive. They agree on that point, don't they, in places as dissimilar as India and Germany?"

"Are you sure you didn't dream about the lead?" Weston asked bluntly. "It's a point that has been troubling me for a considerable time."

"Then why did you come up with me to search for the lake?"

"I was once or twice told at home that I was a persistent imbecile. That may account for it."

"Well," said Grenfell, reflectively, "your action on one or two occasions seems to warrant the observation-I mean when you stood the boys off me after I'd spoiled their supper, and the other time when you decided on my account not to stay on at the copper-mine. Still, I want to say that while I seem to know I will not make another journey on the gold trail, I've had a subconscious feeling of certainty since sunrise yesterday that the lake lies just ahead of us. I know nothing definite that justifies it, but we'll probably find out to-morrow. There's just another thing. If I leave my bones up here my share falls to you."

He seemed disinclined for any further conversation, and Weston went to sleep again. When he awakened the moon had sunk behind the range, and a faint gray light was filtering down beneath the blackened pines. It showed the pack-horse standing close by, and Devine stretched out beneath his blanket, a shadowy, shapeless figure, but there was, as far as Weston could see, no sign of Grenfell anywhere. He called out sharply as soon as he was sure of this, and his voice rang hollowly up the valley, but there was no answer until Devine slowly shook clear of his blankets.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"Grenfell's gone."

"Gone!" Devine was on his feet in a moment.

"It looks like it," said Weston, sharply. "Can you see him?"

Devine gazed into the shadows, but he saw nothing beyond the rows of dusky trunks.

"Where's he gone?"

"That," said Weston, "is naturally just what I don't know. It's up to us to find out."

Then he briefly related his conversation with Grenfell, and the two looked at each other. There was just light enough to show the anxiety in their faces.

"Well," said Devine, "it's quite clear to me that he's on the trail; and it's fortunate in one way that he's left a plain trail behind him. Whether the whole thing's a delusion on his part, or whether he did strike that lode, I don't know, but I didn't like the man's looks yesterday. He seemed badly played out, and it kind of struck me he was just holding on." He turned toward the pack-horse and pulled up the picket. "Anyway, we'll get upon his trail."

They both were men of action, and inside of five minutes they had lashed their packs together and started without breakfast. Weston led the horse, while Devine picked up Grenfell's trail. Weston was a little astonished at the ease with which his companion did this.

"It's quite simple," said the surveyor, when the other stopped a moment where the footprints seemed to break off, and questioned his decision. "He's heading straight on, and not walking like a man with much strength in him. I wish I knew just how far he is ahead of us." Then he added in explanation: "I went east for a while, but I was raised in this country, and this is 'way easier than trailing a deer."

They went on a little faster after that, for Devine had promptly picked up the trail again, and by the time the red sun had cleared the range it led them out of the br??l??e and into a waste of rock and gravel, where there were smaller firs and strips of tangled undergrowth. Here and there Devine stopped for a few minutes, but he found the trail again, though it led them through thickets, and now and then they floundered among half-rotten fallen trunks and branches. Fortunately, the horse was a Cayuse and used to that kind of work.

It rapidly grew hotter, until the perspiration streamed from them, and Weston, who had eaten very little the previous evening, became conscious of an unpleasant stitch in his side; but they pushed on without flagging, urged by a growing anxiety. At length the ground, which was a little clearer, rose sharply in front of them. Weston pulled up the pack-horse and looked significantly at Devine, who nodded.

"Yes," he assented, "he said a low divide. The lake lay just beyond it."

Then he cast about with his eyes fixed on the loose gravel over which they had scrambled, until he came to a spot where a wide patch of half-rotted needles lay beneath another belt of pines.

"He stopped here and sat down," he commented. "Seemed to have had some trouble in pulling out again. I don't like those footsteps. You and I don't walk like that."

"Get on," said Weston, sharply, and, turning, struck the horse.

The sun was overhead when they scrambled, gasping, over the crest of the divide and looked down into another long, winding hollow. Then they stopped again and looked hard at each other, for the hollow seemed filled with forest, and there was nowhere any shimmer of shining water.

"He can't be far ahead. Went through those vines in front of you," said Devine.

Then ensued an hour's wild scramble through undergrowth in shade, until they broke out, dripping with perspiration, from the gloom among the pines into a comparatively open space on the edge of a wide belt of willows. They left the horse tethered on the outskirts of the latter; and twenty minutes afterward Devine, who had scrambled up and down among the undergrowth, stopped suddenly.

"Come here," he cried with a suggestive hoarseness. "We're through with this trail."

He was standing waist-deep among the tangled brushwood, and it was a minute before Weston smashed th

rough it to his side. Then he, too, stopped and started, for he saw a huddled object in tattered duck lying face downward at his comrade's feet. The latter made a little gesture when he met Weston's eyes.

"We'll make sure," he said quietly. "Still, you see how he's lying."

Weston dropped on his knees, and with some difficulty turned the prostrate figure over. Then he took off his battered hat and looked up at Devine with it in his hand. The latter nodded.

"Yes," he said, "he has pulled out once for all. Started two or three hours ago on a trail we can't pick up yet."

They drew back a little and sat down heavily on a ledge of stone, for the sight of the huddled figure in the tattered duck troubled them. It was a minute or two before either of them spoke.

"Heart trouble of some kind," said the surveyor. "If not, it isn't going to matter."

He looked around at his companion with a little wave of his hand which seemed to deprecate the mention of the subject.

"He can't tell us now where that lode is."

Weston said nothing for a minute. After all, there was so little that could be said. Then he stretched himself wearily.

"There is something to be done, but I don't feel quite equal to it yet, and I'm parched with thirst. Willows grow only where there's water."

"These," said Devine, "look kind of sickly. You can see quite a few of them have dried up; but it's a sure thing they had water to start them. Wish I knew how to strike it. It's most three days since I had what one could call a drink."

"Did you ever hear of water-finding?"

"Yes," answered Devine. "I've read a little about the old country. Kind of old English charlatanry, isn't it?"

"Well," said Weston, simply, "I could find water once upon a time. I know that, because I've done it."

"Don't you need a hazel fork? You can't get one here."

"I don't think the hazel matters. The power is in the man. I can cut a fork out of something."

Devine made a little gesture which seemed expressive of resignation.

"Well," he said, "whether we go on or go back we have to have a drink. That's a sure thing; and I feel, like you, that I want it before we set about the work that's awaiting us."

After that they both sat still again. They had to decide whether they would go back or go on, and both of them realized what the decision would be. Their guide had left them, and the last expectation of finding the lead had melted away. At first the sight of his dead comrade had driven all other thoughts from Weston's mind, but now he was compelled to admit that he had wasted time and money on a delusion. That perhaps was no great matter in itself, but it made it clear that all he could look for was to earn food and shelter as a packer, logging-hand, or wandering laborer. Impassable barriers divided Ida Stirling from a man of that kind, and he dare no longer dream of the possibility of tearing them down. At last, and the knowledge was very bitter, he was face to face with defeat. He forgot for the moment that Grenfell lay just beyond the tangled undergrowth. He gazed straight in front of him, with a hard hand clenched and a look in his wavering eyes that puzzled his companion. At length he raised himself wearily to his feet. After all, the needs of the body would not be denied, and, as Devine had said, before they set about the task that awaited them they must drink.

"Well," he said hoarsely, "I'm going to cut a fork."

He smashed back through the undergrowth toward the pines, unlashed the ax from the horse's back, and, though he was never afterward sure whether he cut it from a young fir or a bush of juniper, Devine came upon him some time later trimming a forked twig with a short stem where the two slender branches united. The surveyor glanced at it and smiled.

"Any water that ran into this hollow must have come from the range," he said. "We'll try close beneath it and give the thing a show."

They did as he suggested, and his expression was sardonically incredulous when Weston proceeded along the foot of the hillside, where the ground was a little clearer, with a branch of the fork clutched in each hand. The pointed stem was directed almost horizontally in front of him, and it remained in that position for about twenty minutes, when he lowered it with a gesture of discouragement.

"Felt nothing yet?" Devine inquired eagerly. "There's a kind of hollow yonder running into the thicket."

Weston made no answer, but he turned in among the willows, and for half an hour or so they stumbled and floundered among the clinging branches. Still there was no deflection of the fork, and when at length they stopped again, gasping and dripping with perspiration, Devine laughed rather grimly.

"Oh, give it a rest; I guess that's what it wants," he said. "I'll hang on for another half-hour, and then I'm going prospecting on my own account. We've got to strike water."

That, at least, was evident. They were parched with thirst and it was very hot. No breath of air seemed to enter that dense thicket, and a cloud of tormenting flies hung about them. Weston's head was throbbing with the heat, and his sight seemed dazed. Both of them were dusty, ragged, grim of face, and worn with travel, and the longing for even a few drops of muddy liquid was becoming almost insupportable.

It was only by a strenuous effort that Weston went on again. He felt scarcely capable of further exertion, but he could not overcome the horrible bodily craving that seemed to grow stronger with every pulsation of his fevered blood, and he plodded on into the thicket very wearily. At length Devine saw the twig bend downward for a moment in his hands,

"You did that?" he asked sharply.

"No," said Weston in a strained voice, "I certainly did not."

"Let me take hold," said Devine, and when Weston handed the fork to him he walked back a few paces and crossed the same spot again. The fork, however, pointed straight in front of him. He threw it down and said nothing, but Weston looked at him with a little grim smile.

"I've heard it said that anybody could do it, but that's not my experience," he observed.

Devine's gesture might have expressed anything.

"Oh, we were both crazy when we started with Grenfell," he said.

Weston moved forward with the fork, and, while Devine looked on, the stem once more inclined. It wavered, tilted downward a little farther, and then slowly swung back to rest again. Still, Weston held on, and when there was a further inclination it became clear that his companion was convinced.

"The thing's picking up the trail!" he exclaimed.

For a time they wandered up and down the thicket, Weston apparently directing his course by the spasmodic movements of the fork, which now and then would lie still altogether. At length it commenced to jerk sharply, and Devine looked at his companion in a curious manner.

"It's heading right back for Grenfell," he said in a hoarse whisper.

They went on until they almost reached the spot which they had left more than an hour ago. Then the fork suddenly pointed straight downward, and Weston stopped. His face was flushed, and his voice was sharp and strained.

"Go and bring the shovel!" he said.

Devine strode into the bush, and Weston struggled through the undergrowth to where Grenfell lay, scarcely a stone's throw away. Stripping off his jacket, he laid it over the dead man to keep off the flies. Then he went back and sat down with a dazed look in his eyes until the surveyor broke out from among the trees with the shovel.

"Sit still," said Devine, "I'll go down the first foot or two, anyway."

Weary as he was he plied the shovel savagely, flinging out the mould in showers, but he was knee-deep in the hole before there was a clink as the blade struck stones.

"Gravel. The water would work right through that," he said.

He toiled on until the hole was a yard in depth, but the gravel he flung out was dry, and at length he stopped and sat on the side of the excavation, gasping.

"Nothing yet," he said. "You're sure you struck it?"

"Yes," replied Weston, quietly, "I'm sure."

Once more Devine seized the shovel, but in a moment he flung it down suddenly, with a sharp, glad cry.

"It's sluicing out!"

Weston rose and strode to the edge of the hole. There was a little water in the bottom of it, and this spread rapidly until it crept up about his comrade's boots. In one place he could see a frothing, bubbling patch with an edge that was crystal clear. Then Devine stooped and, filling his wide hat, held it up to him dripping.

"We're through with one trouble, anyway," he announced exultantly.

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