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   Chapter 23 THE LODE

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17392

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Weston, sitting down on the pile of gravel, took the hat from his comrade, and the trickle from the brim of it splashed refreshingly upon his hot and grimy face when he tilted it to drink. It was shapeless, greasy, and thick with dust, and few men who fare daintily in the cities would have considered it a tempting cup. That, however, did not occur to Weston, but another thought flashed into his mind as he glanced toward the undergrowth behind which the man who had led them there lay. He lowered the hat a moment and rose wearily.

"A few drops of this might have saved our partner," he said. "Now he has gone on; may the trail he has taken be a smooth and easy one."

Then he drank, standing, a deep, invigorating draught, which seemed to cool his fevered blood and put new life in him. He gasped for a moment or so, and drank again, and then, flinging wide the splashes upon hot earth and leaves, sat down heavily. As he fumbled for his pipe, Devine, who had drunk in the meanwhile, turned to him.

"No," he said reflectively, "I don't quite think you're right. It wasn't thirst that brought Grenfell to his end. He had more water than either of us-you saw to that-and, though it wouldn't have been pleasant, you and I could have held out another day."

"What was it then?" asked Weston.

"The strain of the journey on a played-out constitution, and, as I think I suggested, the effect of excitement on a diseased heart. The man was under a high tension the last day or two. It's a sure thing he had something on his mind. After all, I guess it was a delusion."

Weston said nothing, but lay still with his pipe in his hand. There was before him a task from which he shrank, but he was worn-out and could not nerve himself to undertake it yet, and in the meanwhile he thought of his dead comrade with a certain regretful tenderness. The man had had no claim on him, and there had been much that was dissimilar in their natures, but they had, after all, borne many hardships together, and that counted for a good deal. Still, in one way he could not be sorry that Grenfell had gone on, for life, as he had said, had very little to offer this outcast. It was clear that the same thing held true in his own case, and he remembered with a little wry smile that Grenfell had said his share was to go to him if they found the mine. They had not found it, and there was no prospect of their doing so, for his faith in the project had vanished now that Grenfell was dead. It remained for them only to go back to the settlements, defeated.

At length Devine broke in upon his reflections.

"I don't know whether you remember that we've had nothing since supper last night," he said. "Anyway, I don't feel equal to undertaking what's before us as I am. Seems to me the pack-horse would like a drink, too."

Weston felt a little guilty, for the events of the past hour had driven all thought of the beast out of his mind. Going back for it, he led it to the water, after which they made a simple meal. When it was over, Devine stood up resolutely.

"Now," he said, "there's a thing that must be done."

They set about it, and in another hour had laid to rest the man who had brought them there. Then Devine put down his shovel and turned to Weston.

"This thing has had its effect on me, and I guess you feel it too. He was your partner quite a while," he said. "We want to get a move on and work this depression out of us. Well, you can make camp-a little farther back-while I crawl along between the willows and the range. I want to see what's back of them. There's an idea in my mind."

Weston, who did not ask him what it was, fell in with the suggestion, and, when his comrade floundered away through the willows, proceeded to pitch the camp and build a fire ready for lighting among a few straggling firs a little back from the water. Then he went to sleep, and when the horse awakened him as it strove to pull out its picket to get another drink, he was a little astonished to see that the sun now hung low down above one range, and that Devine had not come back. He lay still, however, in the blissful content that only the worn-out know when, for a few hours, they can cease from toil. Presently he heard the willows rustle, and, though it cost him an effort, he stood up when Devine strode into camp. The latter glanced toward the hole they had dug to reach the water.

"You've let the horse break the sides down and stand in it," he said. "We'll clean it down to the gravel and pitch the soil out."

"Is it worth while?" Weston asked.

"Yes," said Devine, dryly, "as we'll probably be here a day or two, I guess it is. I'll tell you about it when we get supper."

Weston might have noticed that there was something curious in his manner, but he was very weary, and his mind was a little hazy then. He took the shovel, and toiled for some few minutes before a strip of stone he was endeavoring to wrench out broke beneath the blade. He flung the fragments out of the hole, and one of them caught Devine's eye.

"Pitch me up that big round stone," he said sharply.

Weston did as he was bidden, and his comrade, falling upon his knee, smashed the fragments into little lumps, and then, clutching some of them tight in one hand, stood up with a hoarse, exultant laugh.

"We've struck the lode!" he exclaimed.

Weston was beside him in a moment, and Devine poured the crushed fragments into his hand.

"Look!" he said.

Weston did so, and while his heart thumped painfully the blood crept to his face. The little lumps he gazed at were milky white, and through them ran what seemed to be very fine yellow threads.

"That is wire gold?"

"It is," said Devine. "A sure thing."

Then the surveyor swept off his battered hat and swung round toward the willows, a grotesque ragged figure with his hands spread out.

"You weren't crazy, partner. You brought us up out of the swamps and sloos of poverty, and planked us down right on to the lode," he said.

Weston said nothing. After all, he was English, and to some extent reticent, but he felt that his comrade's dramatic utterance was more or less warranted, for the irony and pathos of the situation was clear to him. Grenfell had found the mine at last, but the gold he had sought so persistently was not for him. Men great in the mining world had smiled compassionately at his story, others with money to invest had coldly turned their backs on him, and it had been given to a railroad hand and a surveyor, who had longed for an opportunity for splitting roofing shingles in return for enough to eat, to prove that, after all, the skill he had once been proud of had not deserted him. He had patiently borne defeat, and now the thrill of the long-deferred triumph had crushed him out of existence.

In a moment or two Devine spoke again in a different tone.

"Well, we'll get supper. You want to cool off and quiet down."

Weston felt that this was true, and it was a relief to start the fire and prepare the meal, for he had found the rush of emotion which had swept over him almost overwhelming. It was, however, not until the meal was ready that he was quite master of himself, and they ate it before they said anything further about the matter. Then Devine took out his pipe, and lying with his back against a fir, turned to his comrade as the soft dusk settled.

"Whether Grenfell knew where he was going when he started out last night, or was led by some blind impulse or subconscious memory, is more than I can tell, and, anyway, it's not a point that greatly matters now," he said. "The cold fact is that you struck the water on the creek where, as he told you, he once got a drink."

"But things don't fit in," objected Weston.

"Oh," said his companion, "you let me talk. You've been in this country a few years. I was raised in it. He said that a creek ran from the range, and, though there's mighty little water in it, I guess it does that now. There's rock, milling rock shot with gold, under it, and a small flow of water will filter a long way through gravel."

"But he described it as an ordinary open creek," persisted Weston.

"That's easy," said Devine. "It was, quite a while ago, and nature handles these mountains mighty roughly, as you ought to know. She sweeps them with cloudbursts that wash half a hillside into the valleys, and now and then with snowslides and tremendous falls of rock. One of them filled up that creek, and, as far as I can figure, it did rather more. It filled up the gully through which the creek flowed high up on the range, and, while a little water still creeps through, most of the melted snow goes down another creek. As

I took the trouble to ascertain, it splits right through the lower slopes and comes out most a league away."

This seemed reasonable. Most of the streams among those ranges originate, as Weston knew, in the melting snow, but there was still a point his comrade had left unexplained.

"Then where's the lake?" he asked.

Devine laughed.

"You're sitting right beside it now."

Weston gazed at him in blank astonishment, and then a light broke in on him.

"The willows?" he said. "The water in that creek would no doubt spread underground, and this is evidently an unusually dry season. Still, Grenfell spoke of a mile or two of water. Where has it gone?"

"That," explained Devine, "seems the simplest thing of all. Anyway, I'll give you my theory. When I crawled along the edge of the willows this afternoon, I found the outlet of an old creek and a beaver-dam. Now we're assuming that the creek I've mentioned once ran into the lake just here, that is, before a snowslide filled up the ravine with debris and diverted the creek into the other gully, the mouth of which is-below-the beaver-dam."

"You have explained how the water got here, not how it got away," said Weston, impatiently.

"No," replied Devine. "I haven't explained either of them yet; but we'll get on a little. Once, and I don't think it was very long ago, there was a little water with a creek flowing out of it in this hollow. A colony of beavers came along and put up their dam across that creek, and that backed the water up a foot or two. If you'd skirted this hollow you'd have seen that it's tolerably level, and a foot rise would spread the water quite a way. I want to say that it was probably a swamp with only grass on it when the creek ran through it. Well, the beavers liked the place, and piled up their dam, while the water went farther and farther back across the swamp. Finally, the beavers either died off or something drove them out. It was probably after that that the dam broke down and the water ran off. Then the snowslide cut off the creek, and as the hollow dried out the willows spread across it."

Weston could find no fault with this train of reasoning, which made comparatively plain Grenfell's long and unsuccessful search.

"Yes," he admitted, "it's logical, and I think it's correct. I believe, from what Grenfell once said, that he crossed the range to the east of us, not far away, some years ago with another man, and he must have noticed this valley. Further, I now feel reasonably sure that he and I once stood on the shoulder of the big peak in the southwest and looked right up the hollow." He smiled rather grimly. "We naturally saw nothing. We were looking for a lake that had dried out."

He lay still for a minute or two, and then broached the subject that both had held in abeyance.

"Well," he said, "what's to be done?"

"Stay here two days," advised Devine. "Gather up a load of specimens and try to trace the vein. Then we'll put in our stakes, and start right off for the settlement, to record as many feet of frontage as the law will allow us. After that, you, as holding the larger share, will see what can be done about handing it over to a company, while I come back with provisions and get the assessment work put in. You're going to have mighty little trouble about raising the money when people see those specimens."

He broke off for a moment and glanced back toward the willows.

"In a way," he added, "it's rough on Grenfell."

"Ah," said Weston, quietly, "neither you nor I can be sure of that."

After that there was silence, and it seemed to both of them that the shadows crept in closer about their flickering fire, and that the little wind which sighed among the pine-tops had grown colder. The camp seemed strangely empty, and, glancing around from force of habit once or twice, they realized with a little start that there was now no third figure sitting beside the blaze. The man who had made that weary march with them had taken the unmarked trail.

It was two days later when they started south. Reaching a little desolate settlement in due time, without misadventure, they limped into it, ragged and dusty, leading the pack-horse, which was very lame. They stopped outside a little wooden store which had a kind of rude veranda in front of it, where the loungers sat on hot afternoons, and a man in a white shirt and store trousers came out and leaned on the railing. He had a hard face, and it grew a trifle more grim as he looked at them, for the light had not quite gone, although it was late in the evening.

"Where's Grenfell?" he asked.

"Dead," said Weston.

The man made a gesture of resignation. He had acquired his money with some difficulty, and there was no great trade in that neighborhood, while it not infrequently happened that his customers failed to pay him when the Government became economical and voted no money for the making of roads, which is the small bush rancher's chief source of support.

"Well," he said, "I'm sorry. You're broke?"

They certainly looked it, and for a moment Weston said nothing. He was aware that there was a spice of cruelty in this, but he was curious to see what the man would do. It became evident that he could, at least, face an unpleasant situation with equanimity.

"Anyway," he said, "you can come right in, and I'll get you some supper. You can put the horse in Musgrave's stable yonder."

Then, while Devine laughed softly, Weston strode up to the veranda and thrust a heavy bag into the storekeeper's hand.

"Get a light," he said, "and look at them."

It was ten minutes later when they sat around a little table in the back store, which smelt unpleasantly of salt pork and coffee. A big kerosene lamp hung above their heads, and the storekeeper gazed with almost incredulous eyes at the litter of broken stones in front of him.

"Oh, yes," he said, "it's high-grade milling ore. You'll say nothing to the boys, and get your record in to-morrow. Then what's your program?"

"I'll go on to Vancouver and see about getting a well-known mining man to go up and certify my statements," said Weston. "Then I'll try to raise sufficient money to make a start with. I ought to get it there or in Victoria."

"No," said the storekeeper, "you go on to Montreal. They've more money yonder, and it's good policy to strike for the place you're likely to get the most."

"One understands that it's difficult for the little man who has a claim to sell to get much for it anywhere," said Weston, with a smile.

The storekeeper straightened himself resolutely in his chair.

"That's a cold fact, but in this case it has to be done. I got my money hard." In proof of it he held up one hand from which three fingers were missing. "That was the result of working sixteen hours right off in a one-horse sawmill. We had one light above the bench, and when I was too played out to see quite what I was doing I got my hand drawn in. I made the rest of my pile-it's a mighty little one-much the same way, and now I'm holding tight to what is mine. I provided your outfit, for, crazy as it seemed, I believed Grenfell's tale, and I figured that you were straight men; but I know what generally happens when the little man goes around the city with a mine to sell."

He brought his hand down upon the table with a bang.

"You're going right into Montreal-I'll find the money-and you'll stand off just as long as it seems advisable for the biggest figure. When this thing's floated, we're going to get our share."

Weston, who sat on a packing-case because there was only one chair, glanced around the store. Its walls were of undressed pine logs, and it was roofed with cedar shingles hand-split. There were a few dozen bags of somebody's "Early Riser" flour standing upon what appeared to be kegs of nails, and across the room odd cases of canned goods, lumps of salt pork, and a few bags of sugar apparently had been flung together any way. Building and stock were of the crudest description, and there was certainly nothing about either that suggested any degree of prosperity. Then he glanced at his companions: the storekeeper, dressed in shirt and trousers of a kind that no fastidious man would think of wearing, and Devine, who had worn-out boots and was suggestively ragged and lean. They did not look the kind of men who were likely to pit themselves successfully against opulent financiers and stock-jobbers in Montreal, but something in their grim faces suggested that at least they meant to fight.

"Well," he said, "I'll start to-morrow, and do what I can. It's quite likely that before we put the thing through we'll have trouble."

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