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The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18630

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The men from the settlement had been three weeks in camp. Saunders sat with his back to a big fir and a little hammer in his hand. There was a pile of shattered quartz at one side of him and another smaller heap of fragments of the same material lying on an empty flour-bag at his feet. Devine, who had just announced that dinner was almost ready, leaned against a neighboring fir, looking on with a suggestive grin; and a big, gaunt, old-time prospector, with a grim, bronzed face, was carefully poising one of the quartz lumps in a horny hand. Saunders, who had been at work since daylight that morning, had paid the latter six dollars for his services, and admitted that he was highly satisfied with the result. He was then engaged in manufacturing specimens.

There was already a change in the forest surrounding the lonely camp. The willows had been hewn down, great firs lay in swaths, with some of their mighty branches burnt, and a track of ruin stretched back from Saunders' tent to the side of the range. The Grenfell Consolidated Mine, three separate claims, occupied what was supposed to be the richest of the land. It was certainly the most accessible portion, for payable milling ore was already being extracted from an open cut. It was not the fault of Saunders that the Consolidated did not occupy the whole of it, but the law allows each free miner only so many feet of frontage, and the Gold Commissioner had shown himself proof against the surveyor's reasoning that, as Grenfell had found the mine, a fourth location should be recorded in the name of his executors. A dead man, as the Commissioner pointed out, could not record a mineral claim.

The men from the settlement had, however, promptly staked off every remaining rod of ground along the lead, and, though the spot was remote from anywhere, another band was busily engaged in an attempt to trace it back across the dried-up lake. How they had heard of it at all was not very evident, but as the eagles gather round the carcass and the flies about the fallen deer, so men with shovels and axes appear as by enchantment when gold is struck. Distance counts as nothing, and neither thundering rivers nor waterless deserts can deter them.

Saunders listened with great contentment to the ringing of the axes and the sharp clink of the drills. Men who labor strenuously from dawn to dark in the invigorating mountain air consume provisions freely, and, as the storekeeper was quite aware, those engaged on that lode would be compelled to purchase their pork and tea and flour from him.

"It was quite a smart idea to give Jim a commission on the sales, though I was kind of wondering if he'd have the sense to stay where he is and run the store," he said. "If he hasn't been fool enough to outfit the boys on credit he must have been raking in money."

Then he took up the lump of stone the prospector handed him and knocked most of it to pieces with the hammer; after which he handed one or two of the fragments to Devine, who grinned more broadly.

"Since Weston wants more specimens I guess he's got to have them," he explained. "I don't know any reason why we shouldn't send him the best we can. This lot should assay out, anyway, several ounces to the ton."

The prospector made a little grave sign of agreement, for this was a game to which he was more or less accustomed. Lode ore now and then is of somewhat uniform quality, but at times it varies in richness in a rather striking manner; and the storekeeper had spent six or seven hours picking out the most promising specimens. From these he had trimmed off every fragment in which, as far as he could discern, the precious metal was not present, with the result that any mineralogist to whom they might be handed could certify to the richness of the Grenfell Consolidated. Saunders was a business man, and quite aware that the vendor of any kind of goods, when asked for samples, does not, as a rule, submit indifferent ones.

"I guess," he added, probably referring to prospective investors, "this lot ought to fetch them. You asked the boys to come along, Devine?"

Devine said he had done so, and in a few more minutes several little groups of men, in dilapidated long boots and somewhat ragged duck, who had ceased work for their mid-day meal, gathered round the fir. They waited mildly curious when Saunders rose and made a sign that he required their attention, which they were perhaps the more willing to give because they were all his customers, and bills are apt to run up in a bush ranching community.

"Boys," said Saunders, "I want to point out that instead of owning gold-mines most of you would now be shoveling on the railroads or humping fir trees at the sawmills, if it hadn't been for me."

Some of them laughed, and some of them admitted that there was a certain truth in this, for the bush rancher who buys uncleared land usually spends several years in very strenuous labor before it produces enough for him to live on, and in the meanwhile he must either go away and endeavor to earn a few dollars every now and then or else fall into the hands of the nearest storekeeper.

"Our friend is a philanthropist," said one of them, who spoke clean, colloquial English. "We all admit his favors, but he doesn't mention that he puts them in the bill."

"And he doesn't charge anything extra for insects in his flour," said another man.

There was a little laughter, but Saunders gazed at them reproachfully.

"If you think it's easy making money out of the kind of crowd you are, all you have to do is to start a store and see. But that wasn't quite what I meant to say," he explained. "Anyway, I put the whole of you right on to this lead."

"You were quite a long while doing it," interjected one of the audience.

Saunders waved his hand.

"Am I a blame fool?" he asked. "I've no use for an inquisitive, grasping crowd worrying round my gold-mine until I've got things securely fixed. Still, you drove off those jumpers, for which you have my thanks; and I want in due time to get back the money most of you owe me."

"You can count on that, boys," said another of them. "It's a dead sure thing."

The storekeeper disregarded this.

"Well," he continued, "we'll get to the point of it. It's kind of easy finding a gold-mine when you've a friend of my kind to put you on to it, but it's quite often a blame hard thing to keep it. Now, you'll have men from the cities wanting to buy you up, offering you a few hundred dollars for the claims you've struck, and if you're fools you'll take it. If not, you'll hold off until the Grenfell Consols go up on the market and then give us first call on buying the lot. If we can't take the deal you'll get six or eight times as much in Vancouver as you would if you let go now."

One of the men who had spoken broke in again.

"Boys," he said, "when Saunders makes a proposition of that kind it's because he sees how he's going to get something out of it. But for all that, I guess it's sound advice he's giving you."

There was a little consultation among the men, and then one of them asked a question that evidently met with the favor of his companions.

"How are we going to live in the meanwhile?"

"That's quite easy," said the storekeeper, with a smile. "I'll supply you with pork and flour, drills and giant-powder, at bed-rock figure, while you get in your assessment work, and while you live on your ranches afterward until you make a deal. All I ask is that you won't sell until the Grenfell's floated, and that you'll give us first call then. It's a cold fact that if I had the money I'd buy you all up now."

There was truth in his last assurance, which was at the same time a highly diplomatic one, for it occurred to most of the audience that if there was anything to be made by waiting they might as well have it as anybody else; and after a further consultation they gave him their promise. Then they trooped away to prepare their dinner, and Saunders turned to Devine with a contented smile.

"I guess," he said, "we've headed those company men right off this lode, and, what's most as much to the purpose, the boys will have to trade with me if anybody comes up and starts another store. Just now I'd feel quite happy if I knew how Jim was running things."

He was soon to learn, for he had scarcely risen from a meal of salt pork, somewhat blackened in the frying-pan, and grindstone bread indifferently baked by Devine, when Jim and several strangers plodded into camp. He was very ragged, and apparently very weary, but he displayed no diffidence in accounting for his presence.

"It was kind of lonesome down there, and I figured I'd come along," he said.

Saunders gazed at him for a moment in mute indignation before his feelings found relief in words.

"And you raking in money by the shovelful!" he gasped.

"No," said Jim, decisively, "I wasn't quite doing that. Anyway, it was your money. I got only a share of it; and you didn't figure I'd stay back there weighing out flour and sugar when there was a gold strike on?"

Saunders contrived to master his anger, and merely made a little gesture of resignation. He was acquainted with the restlessness which usually impels the average westerner to throw up ranch or business and

strike into the bush when word of a new mineral find comes down, though much is demanded of those who take the gold trail, and, as a rule, their gains are remarkably small.

"Whom did you leave to run the store?" asked Saunders.

"Nobody," said Jim. "Except two Siwash, there was nobody in the settlement; and, anyway, the store was most empty when the boys came along." He indicated the strangers with a wave of his hand. "As they hadn't a dollar between them I told them I'd give them credit, and they could pack up with them anything they could find in the place."

Saunders appeared to find some difficulty in preserving a befitting self-restraint, but he accomplished it.

"What did you do with the money you'd taken already?" was his next question.

"Wrapped it up in a flour-bag," said the man from Okanagan, cheerfully. "Then I pitched the thing into an empty sugar-keg. Wrote up what the boys owed you, and put the book into the keg too. Anyway, I wrote up as much as I could remember."

Saunders looked at Devine, who stood by, and there was contempt beyond expression in his eyes.

"That," he said, "is just the kind of blamed fool he is."

Then he turned to Jim.

"If I were to talk until to-morrow I couldn't quite tell you what I think of you."

Jim only grinned, and, sitting down by the fire, set about preparing a meal, while Saunders, who appeared lost in reflection, presently turned again to Devine.

"I guess I'll go down this afternoon," he said. "We'll have a fresh crowd pouring in, and they'll want provisions. Anyway, I've headed off those company men, and if it's necessary I can go through to the railroad and get hold of Weston by the wires."

Devine admitted that this might be advisable, and Saunders, who was a man of action, took the back trail in the next half-hour. He had held his own in one phase of the conflict which it was evident must be fought before the Grenfell Consolidated could be floated, and it was necessary that somebody should go down to despatch the specimens to Weston.

They were duly delivered to the latter; and the day after he got them it happened that he sat with Ida on a balcony outside a room on the lower floor, at the rear of Stirling's house. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon and very hot, but a striped awning was stretched above their heads, and a broad-leafed maple growing close below flung its cool shadow across them. Looking out beneath the roof of greenery they could see the wooded slope of the mountain cutting against a sky of cloudless blue, while the stir of the city came up to them faintly. Weston had already, at one time or another, spent several pleasant hours on that balcony. They had been speaking of nothing in particular, when at length Ida turned to him.

"Have you ever heard anything further from Scarthwaite?" she asked.

Weston fumbled in his pocket.

"I had a letter only a few days ago."

He took it out and handed it to her, with a little smile which he could not help, though he rather blamed himself for indulging in it.

"As you know the place and met my sister, you may enjoy reading it. Julia's unusually communicative. It almost seems as if I were a person of some consequence to them now."

Ida took the letter, and her face hardened as she read. Then she looked at him with a suggestive straightening of her brows.

"Isn't that only natural? You have found a mine," she said.

"The same idea occurred to me," laughed Weston; "but, after all, perhaps I shouldn't have shown you the letter. It wasn't quite the thing."

"Still, you felt just a little hurt, and that I could respect a confidence?"

Ida looked at him as if she expected an answer, and it occurred to Weston that she was very alluring in her long white dress, though the same thought had been uppermost in his mind for the last half-hour.

"Yes," he admitted, "I suppose that was it."

He could have answered more explicitly, but he felt that it would not be safe, for it seemed very probable that if he once gave his feelings rein they would run away with him; and this attitude, as the girl naturally had noticed on other occasions, tended to make their conversation somewhat difficult.

"What are you going to do about one very tactfully-worded suggestion?" she asked.

"You mean the hint that I should make a few shares in the Grenfell Consolidated over to my English relatives? After all, considering everything, it's not an unnatural request. I shall endeavor to fall in with it."

Ida's face did not soften. The man was her lover, for, though he had not declared himself, she was quite aware of that, and she was his partisan and very jealous of his credit. It was difficult to forgive those who had injured him, and these people in England had shown him scant consideration, and had spoken of him slightingly to her, a stranger. He noticed her expression and changed the subject.

"I have fancied now and then that you must have said something remarkably in my favor that day at Scarthwaite," he said. "I never quite understood what brought up the subject, but Julia once referred to a picture."

Ida laughed softly.

"I'm afraid I wasn't very tactful, and I shouldn't be astonished if your people still regard me as a partly-civilized Colonial. Anyway, there was a picture-a rather striking one. Do you remember Arabella's' making a sketch of you with the ax?"

"I certainly do. She wasn't complimentary in some of her remarks. She called me wooden. But the picture?"

"Would you like to see it before you go?"

Weston glanced at her sharply, and she nodded, while a faint trace of color crept into her face.

"Yes," she said. "I have it here. I made Arabella give it to me."

She saw the man set his lips, for it seemed scarcely probable to him that a young woman who begged for the picture of a man would do so merely because she desired to possess it as a work of art. Besides, he felt, and in this he was to some extent correct, that she had intended the admission to be provocative. He was, however, a man with a simple code which forbade his making any attempt to claim this woman's love while it was possible that in a few months he might once more become a wandering outcast. He sat still for a moment or two, and it seemed to Ida, who watched him quietly, that he had worn much the same look when he stood beside the helpless Grenfell, gripping the big ax. This was really the fact, though he now entered upon a sterner struggle than he had been ready to engage in then. Once more he was endeavoring to do what it seemed to him right.

"Miss Kinnaird would have been better employed if she had painted the big snow peak with the lake at its feet," he said at length.

Ida abandoned the attempt to move him. She had yielded to a momentary impulse, but she was too proud to persist.

"Well," she said, "that peak certainly was rather wonderful. You remember it?"

"Yes," said Weston with injudicious emphasis; "I remember everything about that camp. I can see the big black firs towering above the still water-and you were sitting where the light came slanting in between them. You wore that gray fishing suit with the belt round it, and you had your hat off. The light made little gold gleams in your hair that matched the warm red glow on the redwood behind you-and you had burst the strap of one little shoe."

"Haven't you overlooked Arabella?" suggested Ida, who realized that his memory was significantly clear.

"Miss Kinnaird?" said Weston. "Of course, she was with you-but it's rather curious that she's quite shadowy. I don't quite seem to fix her, though I have a notion that she didn't fit in. She was out of key."

"That," laughed Ida, "was probably the result of wearing a smart English skirt. Do you remember the day you fell down and broke her parasol, and what you said immediately afterward about women's fripperies?"

"I didn't know that I had an audience," explained Weston, with his eyes twinkling. "I certainly remember that when you fancied that I had hurt myself you would have carried half the things over the portage if I had let you. We went fishing that evening. There was one big trout that broke you in the pool beneath the rapid. The scent of the firs was wonderful."

She led him on with a few judicious questions and suggestions, and for half an hour they talked of thundering rivers, still lakes and shadowy bush. He remembered everything, and, without intending to do so, he made it clear that in every vivid memory she was the prominent figure. It was here she had hooked a big trout, and there she had, under his directions, run a canoe down an easy rapid. She had enjoyed all that the great cities had to offer, but as she listened to him she sighed for the silence of the pine-scented bush.

At last he rose with a deprecatory smile.

"I'm afraid I've rather abused your patience," he said; "and I have to call on Wannop about the mine."

"You have told me nothing about it," said Ida. "How is it getting on?"

A shadow crept into Weston's face.

"There isn't very much to tell, and it was a relief to get it out of my mind for an hour or so. As a matter of fact, it's by no means getting on as we should like it."

Then, after another word or two, he took up his hat and left her.

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