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   Chapter 29 THE FIRE

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 15712

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The shack was full of smoke when Weston awakened, coughing, and drowsily looked about him. Somebody else was spluttering close by, and in a moment or two he heard Devine relieve himself with a few expletives. Then Weston got up from his lair of spruce twigs fully dressed, for the night was chilly and the shack had only three sides to it, while the men who live in such places not infrequently take off their clothes to work and put them on when they go to bed.

"The wind has evidently dropped, and the smoke's drifting back. I can't stand much more of this," said Weston.

Devine, it seemed, had lost his temper.

"Then why don't you get out, instead of worrying people?" he asked. "Anyway, it's only one of the little luxuries that Saunders and I are quite accustomed to. I've been eaten by mosquitoes, sandflies, and other insects of various kinds. You've 'most smashed my ankle, besides sticking a grub-hoe into me, and Saunders must work out a big stone just when I was under it. We've been living most of two months on his rancid pork and grindstone bread, and now you make a circus about a little smoke!"

He broke off in another fit of spluttering, and the storekeeper's voice rose out of the vapor which seemed to be rapidly thickening.

"The wind's not dropped. It's shifted, and the fire's working back," he said.

In another moment Weston stood gasping in the doorway. A little chilly breeze, such as often draws down from the ranges in early morning, met him in the face, and the air was thick with drifting smoke. Hoarse shouts rose out of it and a patter of running feet, and it became evident that most of the men were departing hastily for the range or the remoter forest. Weston, however, could not see them, and it was, indeed, a few seconds before he saw anything except a confused glimmering behind a dusky pall of vapor. Then, as the smoke thinned, a bewildering glare shot up, and ranks of trees were silhouetted against a sea of fire that flung itself upon the rearmost of them and ran aloft from spray to spray, while the snapping of the smaller branches resembled volleys of riflery. After that the smoke drove down again and blotted out everything.

Weston, however, was not unduly alarmed. He concerned himself most about the possibility of their work being delayed during the next day or two. As a rule, an active man has little difficulty in avoiding a forest fire, unless it is of unusual extent, or is driven by a strong wind, and there was a wide space already burned clear to which they could remove their possessions. It appeared advisable to set about the latter task at once, for the conflagration was by this time uncomfortably close to them.

"Hand me the big flour-bag," he said.

Saunders hoisted it on his shoulders, and he stumbled away with it, coughing in the smoke, until he could deposit it in the cleared track where the fire had passed the previous afternoon. Then he went back for another load, and had some difficulty in reaching the shack, for the vapor filled his eyes and almost suffocated him. He fell down once or twice among the half-burned branches as he retraced his steps with his burden; but pork and flour and picks and drills were precious commodities in the bush, and he made a third journey, upsetting Saunders as he plunged into the shack. In the meanwhile, the other also had been busy, and at length they sat down gasping beside the pile of blankets, clothing, tools and provisions, with several other men who had hastily removed their possessions from adjacent claims.

"Where are the rest of the boys?" Saunders asked one of them.

"Some of them are in the workings, some of them on the range, but I guess it was for Vancouver the Fraser crowd started out. Seemed to me they meant to get there before they stopped."

Just then a shower of sparks fell about them and charred a hole or two in Devine's clothes, while they had a momentary vision of the front of the conflagration. It was not a reassuring spectacle, for the rolling sea of fire flung itself aloft in glittering spray to the tops of the highest firs, and the valley rang with the roar it made.

"Well," said Saunders, reflectively, "I don't know that I blame the Fraser crowd, and one of the boys was telling me not long ago that the settlement he came from was burned out. A thing of that kind makes a man cautious. Anyway, it's quite hot enough here, and we'll hump this truck along to the adit."

The others agreed that it would be advisable, but most of the things were heavy, and it was some little time later when Weston lighted a fish-oil lamp in the heading and held it up. The narrow tunnel seemed half-full of rolled-up blankets, flour-bags and slabs of pork, and a group of men, some of whose faces were blackened, sat among them.

"Our lot came in first. Have you got it all?" Weston asked.

They found the flour and pork, the tea and Saunders' rifle, as well as a couple of hammers and several drills; but Weston did not seem satisfied.

"Where are my clothes?" he asked.

None of them seemed to know, though it became evident that his city garments were, at least, not in the adit.

"Guess they'll be frizzled quite out of fashion if you left them in the shack," said one of the men. "A miner has no use for getting himself up like a bank clerk anyway."

Weston held up the lamp so the rest could see him. His face was black, and the sleeve of his duck jacket had several big holes in it. His trousers were rent in places, and one of his long boots was burst, while Devine's hat, which was too big for him, hung shapeless and dotted with charred holes on his head.

"I'm going back to Montreal in a day or two. Can I call on big stock-jobbers and company floaters like this?"

"Guess you can buy new ones in Montreal," said the miner.

"You can," agreed Weston, "when you have the money. The trouble is, I haven't. Saunders, I'm going back for those clothes."

They went with him to the mouth of the adit and saw the shack outlined against a dazzling blaze. It did not seem to be burning yet, but none of Weston's companions believed that it would be possible for him to reach it. The smoke had risen, and now rolled among the tops of the firs, but, though they stood at some distance from the fire, the air scorched their faces. Weston's showed up in the lurid radiance worn and very grim, and it was evident to Devine that the curious moodiness which had troubled him since he came back from the city was at least as strong as it had been.

"You can't get them now," he expostulated.

"Give me your jacket," said Weston, sharply. "It's thicker than the thing I have on."

The surveyor hesitated. He could see the sparks and blazing fragments stream past the shack, and he had no wish to encourage his comrade in the rashness he contemplated.

"Well," said Weston, "I'll go as I am."

Then Saunders remembered something, and seized him by the shoulder.

"Hold on!" he cried. "Did either of you bring the giant-powder and detonators along?"

Weston glanced at Devine, who shook his head.

"I didn't, anyway," he said.

For a moment or two there was a silence that was expressive of dismay, as they realized that in the haste and confusion they had saved only the things that could be replaced. The result of this might prove disastrous, for giant-powder and detonators are comparatively dear in that country, and in any case are not obtainable in the bush. To hire labor was in the meanwhile out of the question, and the progress two men could make cutting through hard rock with only the pick and drill was, as they were quite aware, likely to be remarkably small. Saunders made a little dejected gesture.

"Then," he said, "they're still in the lean-to behind the shack; and it would be kind of wiser to crawl back into the adit. The case

of detonators was lying bang up against the giant-powder."

This was a significant statement, for it must be explained that although giant-powder, as dynamite is generally called in the west, as a rule merely burns more or less violently when ignited by a flame, it is still a somewhat unstable product, and now and then explodes with appalling results on apparently quite insufficient provocation. In use it is fired with a detonator, a big copper cap charged with a fulminate of the highest power, and when lighted in this fashion the energies unloosed by the explosion, though limited in their area, are stupendous. The detonator is almost as dangerous, for a few grains of the fulminate contained in it are sufficient to reduce a man to his component gases. At least, this was the case a few years ago.

Several men besides its owners had sought shelter from the heat and sparks in the adit, and they evidently agreed with Saunders that it was advisable to crawl back into shelter as soon as possible; but Weston stood still. He had for the past few weeks been looking disaster in the face, and this had produced in him a certain savage desperation which is not altogether unusual in the case of hard-pressed men who feel that they have everything against them. In his mood, which was not a pleasant one, each fresh blow stirred him to a grimmer effort, made with a curious quiet fury from which his comrades now and then almost shrank. Turning abruptly, he shook himself free from Saunders' grip.

"Well," he said, "I'm going to bring out that powder."

In a moment he had scrambled up the pile of shattered rock, and was running across the open space like a deer. It was strewn with half-burned branches, and here and there with little piles of glowing fragments, but he went straight through them without a stumble; and it must be admitted that his comrades stood still and watched him with consternation before it dawned on them that it was scarcely fitting to let him go alone. Then Saunders climbed up to the level ground somewhat deliberately.

"I guess," he said, "we've got to go after the blame fool!"

They set out; but Saunders, who had been keeping store for some years, was not remarkably agile; and one could hardly blame Devine for proceeding with a certain caution. However, they reached the outside of the shack soon after Weston had disappeared in it, and they stopped gasping. The air which scorched their faces seemed to frizzle their hair, and the smoke, which once more had descended, whirled about them. They could hear nothing but the roar of the fire.

Then a half-seen figure reeled out of the shack, and Devine, who was nearest it, laughed discordantly when his comrade thrust upon him a bundle of clothes. The thing seemed altogether incongruous, but he turned and set off toward the adit with his arms full of the garments, which got loose and flopped about him, until he flung them to another man who had ventured part of the distance.

"General Jackson!" exclaimed the miner. "He went back for his clothes!"

Devine did not stop to sympathize with his astonishment, but ran back to the shack, and Weston flung him a partly-filled flour-bag as he approached it. It fell close beside a glowing fragment, and the surveyor felt a little shiver run through him as he whipped it up, for he had some knowledge of the vagaries of giant-powder. He flung the bag over his shoulder as gently as possible, and once more started for the adit, though he proceeded with caution. He was desperately anxious to get rid of his burden, but he had no desire to shake it up unduly. Giant-powder will now and then go off without any very apparent cause.

In the meanwhile Saunders clutched at Weston as he turned back toward the hut. One had to enter it before gaining admission to the smaller shed in which they kept the giant-powder.

"You're not going in again? We've got one bag," he said.

"The other one is still inside," was the hoarse reply.

Saunders did not waste his breath in expostulation, but grappled with him, and he had rent part of Weston's jacket off his back in the effort to detain him when Devine came running up. Then Weston, wriggling around, struck the storekeeper in the face, and plunged back into the smoke as the latter dropped his hand.

They lost sight of him for almost a minute, and then he reeled out of the shack as the smoke drove away. A stream of sparks whirled past it, and close above him the roof was blazing, but he held another flour-bag in his hands, and his comrades, who had reasonably steady nerves, were almost appalled when he poised himself to throw it. There was only a thin strip of cotton fabric between the flying sparks and the plastic yellow rolls of powder. Still, the bag was thrown, and Saunders set off with it, while Weston stood gasping a moment and looked at Devine.

"There's the bag of detonators yet," he said, and, swinging around, disappeared again.

Devine remembered that there was no lid to the iron box in which they kept the detonators, and that they were intended to be ignited by the sparking of a fuse. He stood some little distance from the shack, and it did not occur to him that, as one person could carry the box readily, he was serving no purpose in waiting. Indeed, he was only conscious of a suspense that made it impossible for him to go away. He did not know how long he waited, but in the meanwhile the smoke whirled lower, and he could see nothing for a moment or two. Then it lifted, and the shack stood out in the midst of a lurid blaze. There was a horrible crackling, and Weston suddenly sprang into sight, black against the brightness, with the iron box, which had deer-hide straps attached to it, slung upon his back. The sparks rained about him, but he plunged through the midst of them, while the box banged against him. Then Devine turned and ran.

They reached the mouth of the adit safely, and when they crawled into it, Weston sat down and gasped heavily for a while before he turned to the others and pointed to the two bags of giant-powder lying on the floor. His duck jacket was burned in patches, and there were several red spots, apparently where sparks had fallen, on his blackened face and hands.

"Haven't you sense enough to take that open lamp farther away from those bags?" he asked.

There was a roar of hoarse laughter as his companions recognized the incongruity of the question; and Weston blinked at them, as though puzzled by it, until a light broke in on him.

"Perhaps it wasn't quite in keeping with the other thing, boys," he admitted. "Give me some tobacco, one of you. Mine seems to have gone, and I feel I'd like to sit quiet a minute or two."

The hand he thrust into his pocket came out through the bottom of it, for the lower part of the jacket was torn and burned; but one of the others produced a plug of tobacco, and when he had lighted his pipe Weston leaned back somewhat limply against the side of the adit.

"Well," he said, "I suppose it was rather a crazy trick, but if we'd been sensible we'd certainly have let the Grenfell Consolidated fall into the hands of those city men."

Then he turned to the storekeeper with a deprecatory gesture.

"I'm sorry, Saunders, but you would try to hold me. You ought to have known that you can't reason with a man in the mood that I was in then."

Saunders grinned. "I wouldn't worry about the thing. If there isn't a club handy the next time you feel like doing anything of that kind I'm going to leave you severely alone."

Then, through the roar and crackle of the fire, they heard a heavy crash, and one of the men nearest the mouth of the adit glanced at Weston significantly.

"It's kind of fortunate you got through when you did," he said. "A big branch has fallen right across your shack and broken it up."

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