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   Chapter 26 THE JUMPERS

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 22508

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Saunders, the storekeeper, lay outside the little tent, with the pungent pine-wood smoke drifting past him and his feet toward the fire, while dusk crept up the range and a wonderful stillness settled down upon the lonely valley. His hands were badly blistered, and he was aching in every limb, while some of his knuckles had the flesh torn off them, for Devine had brought a heavy hammer down on them several times that day instead of on the drill. For all that, he lay beside the fire in the drowsy state of physical content which is not infrequently experienced by those who have just enjoyed an ample meal after a long day of strenuous labor in the open air. However, as Saunders had reasons for believing that the result of the latter would in due time prove to be eminently satisfactory, the sensation was in his case perhaps a little more pronounced than usual.

He was not more than healthfully weary, and there was an exhilarating quality in the sweet, cool air, which was heavy with the smell of the firs, while the wonderful green transparency generally to be seen after sunset among the mountains of that land still glimmered behind the peaks on one side of the valley. The rest of the hollow was wrapped in creeping shadow against which the nearest pines stood out in dusky ranks. Saunders raised himself on one elbow and gazed at them reflectively before he turned to Devine, who was sitting near him. They had been hard at work on the mineral claims of the Grenfell Consolidated for the last few days.

"This camping in the woods would be quite nice if one could prowl round with the rifle instead of pounding the drill," he said, and then paused to glance ruefully at one of his battered hands. "Anyway, I don't know that I shouldn't just as soon do that as to hold it."

"Sorry," said Devine. "Still, you've done some shooting. We brought up a box of cartridges and now we haven't one. What you want is a single-shot rifle, or a deer that will stand still."

Saunders turned and pointed to the dismembered carcass that hung from a fir branch close at hand.

"I got that one on the run, and there was a time when I'd have had one for every ca'tridge, instead of plugging Marlin bullets into trees. It was a sport I was meant for." He paused and sighed. "I've had to be a sawmill hand and a storekeeper."

Devine grinned at this.

"Well," he said, "you've raked more money out of pork and sugar than I have out of surveying. For that matter, you've got most of mine; and you're better off than I am, because the store's still running."

"Oh, yes," said his companion, with a sardonic smile, "it's being run by Jim from Okanagan, and he'll have the boys round in the back store evenings sampling cheese and eating crackers while they help him. They're kind of curious insects, and it's a blame pity I never remembered to put those Vancouver invoices where they wouldn't lay hands on them, for there'll sure be trouble when I get back again. You have got to strike people for full prices when they don't always meet their bills. Anyway, the man who spreads himself out on jobs that don't strictly belong to him is bound to find it cost him something."

It was significant that he spoke of going back; but both he and Devine admitted that possibility. The mine was theirs, and they certainly meant to keep it if they could, though they recognized that this might be difficult. As a matter of fact, a reef or lode mine is of almost as much immediate use to a poor man as a sewing-machine would be to a naked savage. He cannot get out the ore without sinking a shaft or driving an adit, which, in the general way, means the hiring of labor and the purchase of costly machines. Then, when that is done, he must put up a stamp-mill and reducing plant, or arrange for transport by pack-horse to somebody who has one, which is a very expensive matter in a mountainous land where roads have still to be cut. As the result of this, he must in the first place go round and beg the assistance of men with money to spare; and the latter, as a rule, insist on his handing over the mine before parting with any of their money. There are also means of putting pressure on the reluctant seller, and the usual code of morals does not seem to be considered as strictly applicable to a mining deal.

"Well," said Devine, at length, "we have still a good deal of drilling to do, and unless you're smarter with the hammer than I am we'll want new hands before we're through."

"We hold three claims, and that means quite a lot of assessment work for you and me to put in," Saunders said. "Besides, you'll have to go down and straighten up things with the Gold Commissioner."

Devine made a sign of concurrence. When he had staked off the claims with Weston he had been more concerned about tracing the lode than anything else, and it had not occurred to him that they might be contested, as it certainly should have done. As the result of this, he had neglected one or two usual precautions, and when he filed his record he had not been as exact as was advisable in supplying bearings that would fix the precise limits of the holdings.

"Yes," he said, "now that I've made a second survey, I'll take the back trail in a day or two. The stakes are planted just where they should be, but the description I gave the Commissioner wasn't quite as precise as I should have made it; and, as the thing stands, I'm not sure we'd have much to go upon if anybody pulled up our stakes and swung our claim a little off the lode. Anyway, I don't quite see why the Commissioner shouldn't pass my survey to count for assessment work."

The firelight fell on Saunders' face, and he looked thoughtful. Though the thing is by no means common, claims have been jumped in that country-that is, occupied by men who surreptitiously or forcibly oust the rightful owner on the ground that he has not done the work required by law, or has been inaccurate in his record.

"I guess you'd better go down to-morrow when the boys come up," he said. "It's a fact that Van Staten went over to Cedar to see the Gold Commissioner, and from what one of the boys told me he had quite a long talk with him. Van Staten's straight, but it would be part of his duty to examine our record and mention it to the people who sent him up to investigate." He paused and spread out his hands. "I wouldn't stake my last dollar on the honesty of any of them."

"The boys would start when they got the news you sent them," said Devine.

Saunders smiled ruefully. He felt reasonably certain that every man in the settlement would abandon his occupation when he heard the message they had sent by an Indian they met on the trail soon after they started. Saunders, it must be admitted, had not sent it until Devine insisted on his doing so, for, as he shrewdly said, there was not a great deal of the lode that could be economically worked available, and he wanted to make quite sure that the Grenfell properties were on the richest of it, while the boys would be better employed working on their ranches and buying things from him than worrying over profitless claims. He added that if the latter broke them he would in all probability never recover what they owed him.

"They'll be here, sure, bringing as much of my pork and flour as they can pack along," he said. "It's quite likely Jim won't have raised thirty dollars among the crowd of them."

"Well," said Devine, "if I'm to take the trail tomorrow I'm going right under my blanket now."

He rolled it round him and lay down on a pile of spruce twigs outside the tent. The dew was rather heavy, but he was young and strong, and it is a luxury to sleep in the open in that elixir-like mountain air. He went to sleep at once, and it was evidently early morning when Saunders awakened him, for the moon, which had not cleared the eastern peaks when he lay down, was now high in the heavens. He sprang to his feet, and stood a moment or two shivering a little as he looked about him. It was very cold, and the little open space where the tent stood was flooded with silvery light, though here and there the shadows of the firs fell athwart it black as ink and sharp as a fretwork cut in ebony. Then he saw Saunders close beside him, fumbling with the magazine of his repeating-rifle.

"Not a blame ca'tridge left! You'd better take the ax along," he said.

"The ax?" queried Devine, who was a little startled as well as puzzled.

Saunders pointed to the shadowy bush.

"Sure," he said. "It's jumpers!"

That was enough for Devine. He flashed a glance at his companion. Saunders possessed the huckster's heart, and took pleasure in selling indifferent pork and third-grade flour at the highest prices he could possibly extort. The clink of the dollar was music to him; but it was perfectly clear that he could hold his own, on occasion, with a very tenacious hand. The man was resolutely quiet and evidently quite ready to meet the jumpers with an empty rifle.

For the next few moments Devine stood listening with strained attention. At first he could hear nothing except a little breeze that sighed among the tops of the firs, but by and by he became sensible of a stealthy rustling somewhere in the shadows. Then a branch snapped with a sharp distinctness that set his heart beating a good deal faster than was comfortable. Making a sign to Saunders, he strode back to the tent and picked up the ax.

After that they set out together down the little trail that led past the willows to the lode, slipping as silently as possible through the shadows, though now and then a stone clinked beneath their feet, or a stick or twig snapped as they passed, with a sound that seemed startlingly loud. Nobody, however, seemed to hear them, and at last they sank down amidst a brake of tall fern near a little, neatly-squared stake which had been driven into the soil. The brake was in black shadow, but a broad patch of moonlight fell on the green carpet of wineberries a yard or two away. The rustling had ceased, and they could hear nothing for several anxious minutes; then it commenced again. A man floundering through that kind of bush makes considerable noise, even when it is daylight and he can see where he is going. Then one of the jumpers, who apparently had fallen into a clump of thorns, broke out into half-smothered expletives, and there was a soft laugh, evidently from a comrade.

"Looking for the stake," said Saunders with a rather grim chuckle. "They mean to put the work through before they come round to call on us. As far as I can figure, there can't be more than four of them."

That appeared to Devine quite enough, but he recognized the necessity for a determined opposition. He knew that he had framed his record before the Gold Commissioner, and that it would not be difficult for the men who pulled up that stake to swing his claim a little off the richest of the lead. This would give them an opportunity for staking off a good deal of the strip he meant to hold, and once they took possession it would be a case of proving them wrong; and when it came to testimony, they were two to one. He felt sincerely sorry that Saunders had not sent the boys word of his discovery a little ear

lier.

In the meanwhile the rustling had ceased once more, and Devine felt the silence react upon his nerves. What the strangers were doing he could not tell, but he fancied that they must be consulting together somewhere among the trees. He felt that it would be a vast relief if he could only see them; and he glanced around at Saunders. The latter crouched among the dewy fern, impassively still, a blurred, shadowy object, with the rifle across his knees.

Then the crackling of undergrowth commenced again, and Devine fancied that he could distinguish the movements of four men. He heard the fern rustle close behind him, and saw that his companion had raised himself a trifle. The latter appeared to be gazing into the bush, and looking around sharply the surveyor started as a figure materialized out of the gloom where the moonlight streamed down between the trees not far away. The man stood amidst the silvery radiance, and Devine was relieved to notice that he had nothing in his hand. Then he turned partly around, and his voice reached the pair who watched him.

"Have you struck it yet?" he asked.

An invisible man replied that he had not yet found whatever he was searching for; and in another moment a sharp snapping suggested that a third stranger was floundering through the bush. He came into sight close by the first and stopped.

"I can't strike that post," he said. "The bush down that way is black as pitch. Guess I'll have to look for a pine-knot and get a light."

"They'd hear you chopping," said the man who had appeared first. "The tent's just back there among the firs. We have got to have that post shifted before they know we are about."

There was no doubt as to who it was that he referred to, and Devine saw Saunders hitch himself forward a little.

"If I'd only three or four ca'tridges!" he said half aloud.

Devine sympathized with him. His comrade was a very indifferent shot, but it would have been a relief to feel that they had something besides the ax to fall back on as a last resort. Firearms, as he was aware, are seldom made use of in a dispute in British Columbia, but, for all that, men have now and then been rather badly injured during an altercation over a mineral claim. At close quarters a shovel or a big hammer is apt to prove an effective weapon.

Then, and neither was afterward quite sure how it happened, Saunders lost his balance and fell forward amidst the fern. He did not do it noiselessly, and one of the two jumpers sprang backward a pace.

"Somebody in that clump of fern," he said, and then apparently recovered a little from his alarm. "It's that blame fool Charley."

There was no longer any possibility of concealment, and Saunders suddenly stood up in the moonlight which had crept close up to the brake, a tall, gaunt figure with the rifle glinting at his hip.

"It's not," he said laconically. "It's going to be a funeral unless you light out of this."

The men did not stop to consider, but vanished on the instant, and Devine, breaking into a little laugh from sheer relief, fancied that they had jumped behind adjacent trees. Saunders, who stood gazing into the shadows, waved his hand.

"You'll stop right where you are, boys, if you're wise," he said. "There'll sure be trouble if you come out again."

The men did not come out, but there was a smashing of undergrowth as two more came running up. They were visible for a moment as they sprang out into the open space between the willows and the first of the firs, and then apparently they saw Saunders, for they plunged back among the trees. The storekeeper sank down behind the fern.

"It's quite a good light, and one of them might have a pistol," he explained half aloud.

Devine considered this very probable; and when there was no sign of their opponents during the next few minutes he once more became conscious that his heart was beating unpleasantly fast. The jumpers apparently had vanished altogether, but he fancied that they were considering some plan of attack. By and by, a voice came out of the shadows.

"There's the post close up against the fern," it said.

"That," remarked Saunders, dryly, "is going to put a hustle on to some of them."

He was right, for a moment later a man stepped out into the moonlight.

"Put down your gun. We want to talk," he said.

"Then," replied Saunders, who did not stand up, "go ahead; but you'll stop in the light; and if you feel like sending any of your partners to work a traverse round this bunch of fern, you can remember that I've got the forehead plumb on-you."

The man's gesture indicated that he understood the situation, and, though he had jumped for cover a little earlier, as most men in his place would have done, it was evident that he was a courageous rogue.

"I want to tell you that there are four of us, and we've come up quite a way to shift that post for you," he said. "There's no use making trouble, for it has to be done."

Saunders touched his companion's shoulder.

"Chip in," he said softly. "Talk like a land agent trying to sell a ranch. We've got to keep this crowd quiet. The boys can't be far off."

Devine agreed with his last statement. The moonlight was bright enough for one to travel by, at least in the br??l??e, and he was sufficiently acquainted with western human nature to feel certain that every man in the settlement would have started when he heard of their discovery, and, what was more to the purpose, would not waste a moment on the journey. Men going up to a new gold strike do not, as a rule, trouble themselves about want of sleep or weariness. On the other hand, he did not think they could possibly arrive before morning, which meant that he must keep the jumpers talking for several hours. It appeared very doubtful whether their patience or his conversational powers would hold out, but he meant to do what he could.

"I'm not quite as sure that you're going to move that post as you seem to be; and, anyway, I don't quite see why you want to do it," he said. "You can't take possession of a duly recorded claim."

The jumper laughed.

"Your record won't hold. You should have made it clearer; given two-point bearings, or blazed your line on trees."

"Why?" asked Devine. "This post fixes the key boundary."

"Trouble is that we're going to move that post," said the other man.

He did not appear impatient, and Devine deduced two things from the fact that he was willing to discuss the matter. One was that the jumper, who evidently had not met the Indian, was unaware that the men from the settlement were then in all probability pushing on as fast as possible through the br??l??e, and the other that the man had no desire to proceed to extremities. This was reassuring as far as it went, but it must be admitted that the surveyor was afterward a little astonished at his collectedness and perspicacity.

"Why don't you want to move all the posts?" he asked.

"We couldn't square that with your record," was the candid answer. "Moving one will swing you across instead of along the lead, and will let in our new location. I'm telling you this, because you'll probably be reasonable now that you understand the thing. Light out and don't make trouble, and you'll still hold quite a strip on the lead."

"Give us a minute or two to think it over," said Devine.

"In the meanwhile you'll stop just where you are," Saunders broke in.

The man waved his hand as though he conceded that point, and Devine turned to his companion.

"I've only one excuse to make. When I staked off the claims, I was in a feverish hurry to prove the lead and get down and record," he said. "Now, that's not an educated man, but he's got the hang of this thing as clearly as a surveyor could have done. It's evident that the man who hired him has drilled it into him, and, what is more, has warned him that he's to make no unnecessary trouble. We're to be bounced out of rather more than half our claim, but it's to be done as quietly as possible. He explained the matter in the expectation that we'd pull out and leave the field to them."

"You've hit it," said Saunders. "Don't answer. Let him speak again. We've got to gain time."

They waited several minutes in tense anxiety, for, after all, it was conceivable that, diplomacy failing, the jumper would adopt more forcible means. Then the man waved his hand.

"You've got to decide what you're going to do," he said.

Devine proceeded to urge every reason he could think of, and held him in play a little longer, until finally the jumper lost his patience.

"Oh," he said, "you make me tired! Light out and be done with it! We're going to pull up that post."

Saunders thrust forward the rifle barrel so that the moonlight sparkled on it.

"Then," he said grimly, "come right along and shift it."

Instead of doing so, the man jumped back into the shadow, which was perhaps a very natural proceeding. Then there was oppressive silence for a few minutes. Devine, who could not hear anything, felt horribly anxious as to what their opponents might be doing. Suddenly there was a fresh rustling among the undergrowth, and Saunders thrust the rifle into his companion's hands.

"Crawling in at the back of us! Let them see you on the opposite side!" he said.

Devine wriggled through the fern, and, though he knew that this was rash, stood up where the moonlight fell upon him, with the long barrel glinting in front of him. He fancied, though he could not be certain, that he saw a shadowy figure flit back among the trees, and in any case the rustling died away again. After that he crawled back to Saunders, for, as he admitted afterward, he did not like standing on the other side of that thicket alone.

He subsequently repeated the maneuver several times, and Saunders once or twice answered the jumpers' warnings with a sardonic invitation to remove the post. Neither of them afterward was sure how long the horrible tension lasted, though they agreed that a very little more of it would probably have broken down their nerve; but at length a faint sound came out of the shadows down the valley. It rapidly grew louder, and when it resolved itself into such a smashing of undergrowth as might have been made by a body of men, Saunders sprang up and waved his rifle toward where he supposed the jumpers to be.

"You'd better git," he said. "The boys from the settlement will head you off inside five minutes."

There was no answer, and it appeared that the jumpers had already departed as silently as possible. A little later the men from the settlement came limping in, and the foremost of them clustered round Devine, who sat just outside the fern, while Saunders, whose face showed a trifle drawn in the moonlight, stood still clutching the rifle.

"What's the matter? You're not looking pert, the pair of you," said one of them.

"Give me a cigar, if you've got one," said Devine. "Saunders will tell you about the thing. I've done quite enough talking for one night."

Saunders told the story tersely, and afterward snapped the magazine of his rifle up and down with a dramatic gesture.

"Held them off with that, and not a blame ca'tridge in the thing," he said.

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