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   Chapter 28 WESTON STANDS FAST

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 15666

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Business called Weston to Winnipeg a few days after his interview with Ida, and, as it happened, he met Stirling at the head of the companionway when the big lake steamer steamed out into Georgian Bay. Neither of them had any other acquaintance on board, and they sat together in the shade of a deckhouse as the steamer ploughed her way smoothly across Lake Huron a few hours later. Weston had arranged to meet a Chicago stock-jobber who had displayed some interest in the mine, and he had chosen to travel up the lakes because it was more comfortable than in the cars in the hot weather, besides being somewhat cheaper, which was a consideration with him. Stirling, it seemed, was going to inspect the route for a railroad which an iron-mining company contemplated building. He lay in a deck-chair, with a cigar in his hand, apparently looking out at the shining water which stretched away before them, a vast sheet of turquoise, to the far horizon.

"Well," he asked at length, "how's the Grenfell Consolidated progressing?"

"It seems to be making most progress backward," said Weston. "Still, I suppose the fact that somebody evidently considered it worth while to send up men to jump our claim might be considered encouraging."

He briefly related what had taken place at the mine, as far as Saunders' letter had acquainted him with the facts, and Stirling listened thoughtfully.

"It's a crude maneuver, so crude that, as you've nothing but suspicions to go upon, it would be wiser not to mention them to anybody else," he said. "After all, the jumpers may have been acting on their own account."

"You believe they were?"

Stirling smiled. "I naturally don't know enough about the matter to decide; but, in a general way, when I come across anything that seems to the discredit of any gentleman of importance, or big combine with which I may happen to be at variance, I keep it judiciously quiet until I have the proofs in hand. I find it an excellent rule." Then he added in a suggestive manner: "You probably have had another rather more favorable offer since those jumpers failed?"

Weston admitted that this was the case and said that he had ignored the offer. He further stated that, as he had found the mine, he meant to keep it until he could dispose of it on satisfactory terms.

"That," said Stirling, dryly, "is a very natural wish, but one now and then has some trouble in carrying out views of that kind. I've seen your prospectus. Any applications for your shares?"

"They're by no means numerous." And a flush of anger crept into Weston's face. "If that were the result of a depressed market or of investors' indifference I shouldn't mind so much, but we are evidently being subjected to almost every kind of unwarranted attack."

"Any mode of attack's legitimate in this kind of deal, and there's a rather effective one your friends don't seem to have tried yet. Quite sure it wouldn't be wiser to make what terms you can and let them have the mine?"

"I'm afraid I haven't considered the wisdom of the course I mean to adopt. Anyway, it's a simple one. If those people want that mine they must break us first."

"Well," Stirling said, "I guess if I were you I'd allot very few of those shares to what one might call general applicants. Locate them among your friends and Wannop's clerks."

"There are uncommonly few general applicants, and my friends are not the kind of men who have money to invest. The same thing probably applies to Wannop's clerks. It's quite certain that nobody connected with the Grenfell Consolidated could make them a present of the shares."

"Considering everything, that's unfortunate, for, as I once pointed out, the next move will probably be to sell your stock down. It's a game that contains a certain hazard in the case of a small concern, because the stock is generally in few hands; but I've no doubt your friends will try it."

"Then we're helpless," said Weston. "We must raise sufficient money among the general investors, or give up the mine."

"The situation," said Stirling, dryly, "seems unpleasant, but it's the kind of one in which a little man who will neither make terms with a big concern nor let his friends help him might expect to find himself."

Weston sat silent awhile, gazing at the steamer's smoke trail which stretched far back, a dingy smear on the blueness, across the shining lake; and the contractor watched him with a certain sympathy which, however, he carefully refrained from expressing. There had been a time in his career when it had seemed that every man of influence in his profession and all the powers of capital had been arrayed against him. He had been tricked into taking contracts the bigger men would not touch; his accounts had been held over until long after the convenanted settling day, and he had been compelled to submit to every deduction that perverted ingenuity could suggest. He had, however, hardened his heart, and toiled the more assiduously, planning half the night and driving machine or plying shovel himself by day, whenever a few dollars could be saved by doing so. He had lived on the plainest fare, but he had, without borrowing or soliciting favors from any man, borne the shrewd blows dealt him and struggled on inch by inch uphill in spite of them. Now it seemed to him that this young Englishman was bent on doing much the same. At length Weston turned to him with a wry smile.

"It's quite possible that you're right, and the thing is too big for me, but I have got to see it out," he said.

Stirling made a little sign of comprehension. His companion's quietness pleased him, and he felt that, though the man must fight with indifferent weapons and with formidable powers against him, he would not easily be beaten. What was more to the purpose, the contractor did not mean him to be beaten at all, if he could prevent it, though this was a point that he did not consider it advisable to mention.

"Well," he said reassuringly, "no one can tell exactly how a game of this kind will go. All you can do is to hold tight and keep your eyes open."

They changed the subject, and nothing more was said about the mine during the rest of the journey.

In due time Stirling went ashore at a way port, and Weston met the man from Chicago in Winnipeg a day or two later. The latter asked a good many questions about the mine, but he contented himself with stating that the matter would require investigation, and Weston, who gave him a small bag of specimens, spent another day in Winnipeg in a very dejected mood. He felt the hideous cruelty of the system which, within certain rather ample limits, made it a legitimate thing to crush the little man and rob him of his few possessions by any means available. There was, it seemed, no mercy shown to weaklings in the arena he had rashly entered with none of the weapons that the command of money supplied to those pitted against him; but in place of shrinking from the conflict a slow, smoldering rage crept into his heart.

He remembered the weary marches made in scorching heat and stinging frost, how his shoulders had been rubbed raw by the pack-straps, and how his burst boots had galled his bleeding feet. There had been long nights of misery when he had lain, half-fed and too cold to sleep, wrapped in dripping blankets beside a feeble, sputtering fire, while the deluge thrashed the roaring pines. The bustle of the city jarred on him that afternoon, and he wandered out of it, but the march, parched with thirst, through the feathery ashes of the br??l??e, rose up in his memory as he walked aimlessly toward the prairie, and he recalled Grenfell lying beside the lode he had died to find. It became a grim duty to hold his own, and once more he determined that his enemies should crush him before they laid their

grasping hands on the mine. He shrank, however, from going back to Montreal and waiting there in suspense, and by the time he retraced his steps to his hotel he had decided that this was out of the question. He wrote a few lines to Wannop and started for the bush with the next day's train.

It was dark when he reached the camp, after an arduous journey, and found Devine and Saunders sitting beside the fire. The latter, it transpired, had engaged a clerk in Vancouver to take charge of his store, and he smiled when Weston inquired whether he expected the man to remain at the settlement any longer than his predecessor had done when he heard that there was a new gold find in reach of him.

"I guess I've fixed that," he said. "I took some trouble to get one who was very lame."

Neither of the pair, however, appeared cheerful, and Weston's face grew hard when he heard what they had to say about the mine.

"As you'd see by the specimens, we were turning out high-grade milling ore a little while ago," Devine observed.

"Well?"

The surveyor's gesture was expressive. "We're not in it now. Ore's turned spotty, and it's running deeper. I think I remember your telling me that Grenfell figured that the lode takes an inclination?"

"He certainly did."

"It's another proof that you could count on what he said. There's no doubt about that inclination. We can't get out ore that will pay for crushing with an open cut much longer."

"Then," said Weston, "we can follow it with an adit."

He looked at Saunders, who smiled in a rather grim fashion.

"Adits cost money to drive," observed the latter. "You have brought some along?"

Weston said that this was not the case, and Saunders spread out his hands.

"Well," he said, "I'm broke. Half the men on this location are owing me quite a pile, and it's clear that I'll never get a dollar out of them unless they strike it rich, or the Grenfell Consols go up with a bang. That's how Jim from Okanagan fixed the thing. Now I've got credit from a Vancouver wholesaler who takes a share in the store, and that will keep us in pork and flour, but the giant-powder and detonators in the shack yonder represent this syndicate's available capital. I bought a big supply when I was in Vancouver, but there'll be no more to be had when they run out."

"We'll go on until they do," said Weston, doggedly.

The next morning he laid his city clothes carefully aside, and borrowed from his comrades garments more adapted to the bush. They certainly did not fit him, but that was a matter of no account, and when he had put them on he commenced work in very grim earnest. He was hard pressed-up against it, as they say in that country-and every crashing blow he struck upon the drill was a relief to him. Indeed, he worked with curious cold-blooded fury that wore out his comrades long before night came. Saunders had invested the proceeds of several years of Spartan self-denial in the precarious venture, but that was as nothing compared with Weston's stake. He must succeed or relinquish all idea of winning the woman, who, he ventured to think, might listen to him when he had accomplished his task; and when he desisted at sunset his hands were bleeding and he had partly lamed Devine by an incautious stroke of the pick. That, however, was a matter about which the surveyor protested less than the hazards his comrade quietly took. He rammed the giant-powder into the holes with reckless haste, and, though the cheapest fuses are seldom to be relied on, he allowed his companions scanty time to get out of the mine when he lighted them.

It was the same the next day, and for most of the next three weeks. Indeed, Saunders and Devine were never sure how they contrived to keep pace with him; but they did it for the credit of their manhood, which would not allow them to be beaten by a Britisher. At nights their hands and backs were distressfully sore, but the adit they drove crept on steadily along the dip of the lode. Though they had worked reasonably hard already, their faces grew gaunter and harder under the strain, and as yet they had come upon little sign of any richer ore. In the meanwhile it was very hot, and all day the withering sprays of the fallen firs emitted heavy, honey-like odors under the scorching sun.

Then it occurred to some of the others that, as there had been several weeks of fierce dry weather, it would be a favorable opportunity to burn off the slashing, or clear away the branches of the felled trees, which is usually done before the great logs, which do not readily burn, are attacked with the saw; and one day, when the wind promised to drive the conflagration away from the camp, fires were kindled here and there among the tindery undergrowth. The attempt proved successful, and in a few hours the fire had spread into the surrounding forest. It crept on through the latter steadily, springing up the towering trunks from spray to spray, until the dark firs were garlanded with climbing flame. Beneath them the brushwood crackled furiously, and every now and then a mighty limb fell amidst a shower of sparks, while half-charred logs and rows of blackened stumps marked out the lode. The smoke obscured the sun until the workings were wrapped in a haze, and it crept into the adit where Weston and his comrades toiled; but they held on with their fish-oil lamps burning until the light outside grew dim, and then, crawling back, sore all over, to the wooden shack which had now replaced the tent, they lay down outside it when supper was over.

It was an impressive spectacle that they gazed upon. The conflagration was still not far from them, for, as a rule, a forest fire does not move very rapidly. Across the valley hung a dusky pall of smoke, and beneath it all trunks stripped to bare spires stood out black against a sea of flame. The latter, however, was of no very great extent from wing to wing, and, now that the wind had almost dropped, it made very little progress, though it crept on down the valley in a confined belt, rising and falling in pulsations with the sharp crackle of licked-up undergrowth breaking through the deep-toned roar. Saunders, lying propped up on one elbow, watched it meditatively.

"It's a high-class burn," he said. "Going to save somebody quite a lot of chopping. But if that breeze whipped round there'd sure be trouble."

As the men at work on the lode lived either in tents or rude shelters of bark and logs, this seemed very probable; but Weston was not in the mood to concern himself about the matter then.

"How much giant-powder have we got in hand?" he asked.

"Almost enough to last another three weeks with fuse and detonators to match. You'll have to find the next lot when that runs out."

Weston laughed.

"I've just sufficient money to take me back to Montreal, traveling Colonist, and I must go back to see how Wannop's getting on before very long. What are you going to do then?"

Devine looked at Saunders, who smiled at him.

"Push the adit right on, if we have to cut every foot of it with the drill," he said. "Before we let up, we'll rip the rock out with our naked hands."

It was a characteristic answer, but Weston was satisfied with it. He had discovered that if the men of the Pacific Slope were occasionally a trifle assertive and what he called flamboyant in their conversation, they nevertheless, as a rule, meant just what they said. It is, of course, not unusual for an imaginative person to describe what he intends to do in dramatic periods, but while some people are wisely content with that, the western bushman generally can be depended on to carry out the purpose.

They said nothing further, and presently went to sleep, with the crackle of the undergrowth through which the fire crawled ringing in their ears.

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