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The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19281

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The contractor lay back in an easy-chair when he had lighted a cigar, and watched Weston, who glanced with evident interest around the room. Its furniture consisted of very little besides a roll-top desk and a couple of chairs, but the walls were hung with drawings of machines and large-scale maps, which had projected railroad routes traced across them. An Englishman, as a rule, endeavors, with a success which varies in accordance with his temperament, to leave his business behind him when he goes home, but across the Atlantic the man of affairs usually thinks and talks of nothing else. As one result of this he has very little time to discuss the concerns of other people, which is apt to become a habit of those who have very few of their own. Stirling was, however, for private reasons willing to make an exception of Weston in this respect, and when he noticed how the latter's eyes rested on two or three models of machines which stood on a shelf near him, he took down one of them.

"I bought up the patent rights of that thing," he said. "As you see, it's a power excavator, and, while it works all right in loose stuff and gravel, the two I have on the Mule Deer road have been giving me trouble."

Weston, who was deeply interested, laid the machine on his knee and spun it round once or twice.

"The elevator buckets are the weak point," he said. "They won't deliver stiff, wet spoil freely."

Stirling's nod was very expressive, in that it suggested that he had expected his companion to locate the cause of trouble.

"You've hit it," he said, and opening the desk took out a little model of an excavator bucket, beautifully made in burnished copper, and another one more rudely fashioned out of bent card. He handed Weston the former.

"That's a rather famous man's idea," he added, with a little dry smile. "I had to leave the thing to my secretary when I was west. I've tried it on the Mule Deer road, and I'm not quite satisfied. The other's one that I've been thinking over."

Weston looked at both the models, and then, taking up the card one, unfolded it, and, after paring part of it away with his knife, bent it into a slightly different shape.

"I think that should meet the purpose. I once worked under the engineer of a very similar machine for a month or two," he said.

Stirling picked up the model and examined it carefully before he replaced it in the roll-top desk, which he shut with a snap.

"Do you feel like taking a hundred dollars for the notion?" he asked.

"I'd rather make you a present of it," said Weston, quietly.

"Well," laughed Stirling, "I'll take it. My secretary paid the other man a good deal more than that for the copper one, and it won't do quite what is wanted. If that man had run an excavator in the mud and rain I guess he'd have made it different. He sits tight in a smart office, and tries to remember what they taught him twenty years ago in the erecting shop."

It seemed to Weston that there was a good deal to be said for this point of view, though it was a matter which did not concern him. His companion's manner was friendly, and to some extent familiar, but Weston had already had an uneasy feeling in his presence that he was being carefully weighed, or measured, by an astonishingly accurate standard. His only defense, he decided, was to be perfectly natural, and in this he was judicious, as the assumption of any knowledge or qualities he did not possess would in all probability have been promptly detected. He said nothing, which is a very excellent rule when one does not know what to say, and Stirling changed the subject when he spoke again.

"So you have found the mine and come here to sell it," he observed. "I guess you have had the usual experience?"

"I don't quite know what is usual," said Weston, with a smile. "Still, I've been round this city with a bag of what people admit are rather promising specimens of milling ore, and I certainly haven't succeeded in selling the mine yet."

"The trouble is that the specimens might have been obtained from anywhere," said Stirling, dryly.

"There's one concern anyway in whose case the objection does not apply. I got a telegram from my partner, the storekeeper, to the effect that the Hogarth Combine had sent up Van Staten from Vancouver to inspect the lode. I gather that one of the boys spotted him, though he meant to do it quietly. The fact that he didn't announce his name is rather suggestive. You can read the message."

He took it from his pocket and handed it to Stirling, who wrinkled his brows.

"Well," he observed, "what Van Staten says goes. Very few of the big concerns would hesitate to purchase when he was satisfied with the thing. That storekeeper seems quite a smart man. The Hogarth people have, no doubt, made you an offer since then?"

"Four thousand dollars, all rights, and they'll meet expenses while I put in the assessment work and do all that's necessary to get title from the Crown. They were kind enough to say that it was rather a hazardous venture, but they wanted another workable reef to round up their mineral properties. The reason seemed a little vague."

Stirling smiled rather grimly. "They want everything they can get their hands on in the shape of a mineral property, as long as it costs them 'most nothing. What did you tell them?"

"That they'd have to go up six times, anyway, before I considered the thing, and then I'd want half payment in ordinary stock. They asked if I meant to stick to that, and I said I did."

"Then," asserted Stirling, "you're going to have some trouble in keeping that mine. The Hogarth people have frozen out more than one little man who didn't want to part with his property. They're said to be quite smart at it, and there are various ways of getting hold of you."

He studied Weston's face and saw it harden, which, as a matter of fact, rather pleased him. The stubbornness which had sent this young man back up the range, aching in every limb, with one boot full of blood-and Stirling had heard that story-was now, it seemed, impelling him into a struggle with a group of remarkably clever and powerful mining financiers. The successful contractor appreciated ability, especially when it was of the practical order, but perhaps he was right in rating character higher.

"Yes," said Weston quietly, "I quite expect that will be the case."

"Have you had any other offer?"

"Wannop made me a conditional one. Pending investigation, he talks of floating a company here or in London. After the success of the Hazleton and Long Divide concern, he says they're disposed to regard British Columbian ventures favorably yonder. If it goes through, I'd have to take most of the vendor's payment in shares, which I'm quite ready to do. That's a rough sketch of the scheme, sir, but in the meanwhile it's only tentative."

Stirling perused the paper handed him with close attention; and before he answered he lighted another cigar.

"Wannop's straight, but he and his friends are little men," he said at length. "You'd have the Hogarth Combine right on to you in London. One or two of their subsidiary concerns are registered there. Now, I don't know whether they really want your mine, but supposing they do, and you won't sell out to them, I guess you have some idea of what their game would be?"

"I'm afraid I haven't, sir."

"Well," said Stirling, "you'll be fortunate if you get half your authorized capital applied for, and it would be quite an easy thing for the Hogarth people to send somebody on to the market to sell your stock down. That would freeze off any other investors from coming in, and scare those who had applied for stock into selling. You can't put up a crushing and reducing plant without a pile of money, and dams and flumes for water-power would cost 'most as much; but you'd have to have them, for you could never pack your ore out to a smelter through the kind of country you have described to me. Now, unless you could get money enough to start clear with, the concern is bound to cave in. Then somebody acting for the Combine would quietly buy it up."

He broke off for a moment and looked hard at Weston.

"Suppose those people let you feel their hand and then make you a rather higher offer? What are you going to do?"

"Disregard it," said Weston, quietly.

Stirling nodded in a manner which suggested that this was what he had expected.

"Well," he said, "I guess that's the course most likely to appeal to a man constituted as you seem to be. But the question is, are you tough enough to see it through? It's one that may cost you a good deal."

"I don't know," said Weston. "I can only find out by trying."

It appeared from his companion's manner that the answer pleased him.

"Now," he said, "are you open to take advice or help from me?"

Weston met his gaze, which was now unpleasantly steady.

"Advice, sir," he answered. "I'm afraid I couldn't take help."

"From me?" said Stirling, dryly, with an emphasis on the last word which brought the blood to Weston's cheek. "Well, you can come for the advice on any matter of detail when you feel like it. In a general way I can only throw out one suggestion now, and it's at variance with the views you seem to hold. Go over to the Hogarth people, and make the most reasonable terms you can with them."

"That's what you would do in my place?" Weston asked, with a twinkle in his eyes.

"I've been a blame fool once or twice in my time," Stirling admitted. "It's curious that it didn't cost me quite as much as most people expected. Still, what I've given you is

excellent advice."

He waved his hand as though to indicate that he had closed the subject, but when Weston took his departure half an hour later the contractor looked remarkably thoughtful.

"If he weren't up against the Hogarth Combine he and Wannop might put that scheme through," he mused. "As it is, I guess one way or another I've got to help him out."

Then he rose and descended to the room where his daughter was.

"I've had an interesting talk with Mr. Weston," he said indifferently. "That's quite a smart young man, but I guess one could call him a little obstinate."

Ida smiled at this, though she suspected her father's observation was not quite as casual as it seemed.

"Yes," she said, "in some respects I think he is. But how has he made that clear to you?"

Stirling, sitting down opposite her, laughed.

"He's had an offer for his mine that most of the bush prospectors would have jumped at, and if he'd played his cards judiciously the people who made it would no doubt have doubled it. I suggested that course to him, but it wasn't any use. Mr. Weston is one of the men who can't make a compromise."

"Isn't that a reasonable attitude? He presumably wants his rights."

"The little man," observed Stirling, "has no rights that he isn't prepared to hold on to in a rather uneven fight. With Weston it's all or nothing, and just now I don't quite know which he'll get. He and his partners will have to stake everything they own on a very uncertain game."

"Hasn't everybody who goes into business speculations to do that now and then?"

"No," said Stirling, reflectively, "I don't think they have. Quite often the people who deal with them have to face part of the hazard. In a general way they've something to fall back on if they're men of position: the money they've settled on their wives, a name that would get them credit on the market, or friends who'd give them a lift if they came down with a bang. Now, that young man has nothing. If he fails, he won't have a dollar to get out of this city with, for the mine won't count. He can't even hold it unless he puts in his assessment work on it, and he couldn't do that without something to live on in the meanwhile. He hasn't a friend in Canada from whom he could borrow a dollar."

Ida said nothing, and Stirling added, as if in explanation:

"I might be willing to give him a lift if it were absolutely necessary, but it seems that he's quite determined not to take a favor from me. He didn't offer me any reason for adopting that attitude."

He looked at the girl rather curiously, and she noticed the significance of his last sentence. Stirling had not said that he was unacquainted with Weston's reason, but he seemed to be waiting for her to make a suggestion, and she found the situation embarrassing.

"Well," she said, "he probably has one that seems sufficient to him."

Stirling said nothing further on the subject, and presently went out and left her; but her expression changed when he had done so, and she sat very still, with one hand tightly closed, for she now realized what the cost of her lover's defeat might be. In his case it would not mean a grapple with temporary difficulties, or a curtailing of unnecessary luxuries, but disaster complete and irretrievable, perhaps for years. If he failed, he would vanish out of her life; and it was becoming rapidly clear that, however hard pressed he might be, there was, after all, no way in which she could help him. The unyielding pride or stubbornness which animated him at length appeared an almost hateful thing.

Ida did not sleep particularly well that night, and when she went down to breakfast rather late the next morning there was a letter beside her plate. She looked up at her father when she had opened it.

"Susan Frisingham is coming here from Toronto for a day or two before she goes back to New York," she said. "She suggests taking me back with her."

"Ah!" said Stirling, with a barely perceptible trace of dryness. "You don't want to go just now?"

Ida flashed another glance at him, and noticed the faint twinkle in his eyes. She felt almost disconcerted, for it suggested comprehension, and she certainly did not want to go. She could, it seemed, do nothing to help the man she loved, and, for that matter, she could scarcely encourage or sympathize with him openly, but she would not seek pleasure elsewhere while he fought out the unequal struggle alone.

"No," she said, "I should much rather stay here."

"As you like," said Stirling, who shortly afterward departed for the city.

Mrs. Frisingham was a rich widow and a distant connection of Stirling's. She arrived that day, and on the following day contrived to spend a few minutes alone with Stirling when he came home from business.

"I wanted to take Ida back with me, and I'm a little astonished that she won't hear of it," she said.

"In that case, I'm afraid the notion can't be carried out," said Stirling.

"Isn't it rather a pity?" suggested the lady.

Stirling seemed to consider this. The two were old friends, in spite of the fact that Mrs. Frisingham, who now and then spent a few weeks in Montreal, had made several determined attempts to regulate the contractor's domestic affairs. She described him to her friends as pig-headed, and added that if it had not been for his daughter she would have given up all idea of making him listen to reason. Stirling, on his part, said that she no doubt had excellent intentions, but so had a good many people who contrived to make a considerable amount of unnecessary trouble.

"I wonder why you want her at New York?" he asked.

He had, as his companion was aware, a somewhat Unpleasant habit of going straight to the point, but on this occasion she was disposed to meet him.

"Do you mind telling me what you mean to do with the girl?"

"No," said Stirling. "I want to keep her with me just as long as she's willing to stay; but I suppose I can stand it if she marries somebody by and by."

"That," said the lady, "is just the point. You would naturally prefer him to be an eligible person. Now, if you let me have her for a while I could promise that she would meet nobody who didn't answer that description."

Stirling laughed. He had suspected her intention all along, and surmised that her offer was prompted partly by good-nature and partly by a recognition of the fact that the presence of a young woman of considerable wealth, who was beautiful as well as otherwise gifted, would increase the popularity of the receptions over which she was fond of presiding.

"I'm not quite sure her views and yours would coincide," he said. "Anyway, she has been in New York before-and in England, for that matter."

Mrs. Frisingham adroitly shifted her point of attack, and it almost appeared, though Stirling could not tell how, that she had heard of the camp-packer.

"Don't you think there's a certain danger of her going through the wood and choosing the crooked stick after all?" she asked.

Stirling smiled. "I don't know that you could call New York or London a wood. A hothouse would be nearer it," he said with an air of reflection. "Still, to fall in with the simile, there are no doubt plenty of sticks in both places, just as there are right here in this city. In fact," and his eyes twinkled suspiciously, "I'm not quite sure that isn't an excellent name for them. Quite a few are nicely varnished, and in a general way they've hall-marked gold or silver tops. The hallmark, however, guarantees only the trimmings, and from one or two specimens that I've come across I've a suspicion that in some cases the timber's rotten. When you choose a stick you want a sound one-one that you can lean on when you face a hill, and I guess that's a thing my girl will have to do now and then."

His tone had grown a trifle graver as he went on, but his companion waited, feeling that he had a little more to say, and that he might offer her a hint of some kind, as, in fact, he presently did.

"The sound sticks don't grow in stove-warmed houses, but out in the wind and sun," he said.

That was sufficient for Mrs. Frisingham, who had rather more than a suspicion that Stirling already had in his mind somebody who had not been bred in the city. An unknown man who built new railroad bridges in the wilderness, or a bush rancher, it seemed most probable.

"Well," she said, "I might perhaps warn you that the right choice is a rather serious matter, and that, after all, it's wiser to consider the opinions-call them prejudices if you like-of your own order."

"When my daughter chooses," said the contractor, smiling, "she'll choose wisely, and I'm going to be satisfied. I've had the pleasure of reassuring another lady on that point already. As to the other matter, the opinions of people of the station to which I now belong don't count for much with me. For quite a long while they were dead against my getting here at all; but I did work that this country wanted done, and I'm where I am. You don't expect me to alter my views out of deference to them?"

He broke off for a moment, and nodded to her pleasantly as he went on again.

"We're old friends, Susan, and I guess you mean to be kind; but I've been warned before, and it didn't affect me much," he said. "If Ida wants to go back with you she may, but we'll leave it at that."

He turned away, and, strolling into his own room, he took out the card model of the excavator bucket which Weston had altered, and examined it critically.

"Yes," he said, "it will do its work. I guess that's characteristic of the man."

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