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   Chapter 31 HIGH-GRADE ORE

The Gold Trail By Harold Bindloss Characters: 14088

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Stirling waited until the door closed before he turned to Weston.

"Sit down. We've got to have a straight talk," he said.

Weston complied, feeling that he had to face the most unpleasant few minutes he had ever spent in his life. He had given way to his passion in a moment of desperation, and he fancied that he could make no defense which would appear reasonable to such a man as his companion. In spite of this, he was filled with a certain reckless exultation. Ida Stirling loved him.

"What Miss Stirling told you was correct," he said. "At least, I intend to marry her if ever-things are propitious; but, as far as I can remember, she did not bind herself."

"There are occasions when one's memory gets a little confused," said Stirling, dryly. "You have made the situation quite clear; but there are one or two points to consider, and, so far, you haven't troubled to ascertain my views on the matter."

"That remark," said Weston, "is quite warranted. I have only this to say. When I entered your house half an hour ago I hadn't the faintest notion that I should permit my feelings to run away with me."

"Then this thing has been going on for quite a time?"

Stirling's tone was coldly even, but Weston did not like the question. The form of it rather jarred on him. He realized, however, that he was on his defense, and would probably have to put up with a good deal more than that.

"I have had a strong regard for Miss Stirling since I first met her in British Columbia," he said. "That, however, is all I can admit. I do not know how she thought of me, and I have, at least, never knowingly, until this evening, spoken a word which could show her what my feelings were."

"Oh," said Stirling, "you've lived in the woods. If you hadn't, you'd have found out by now that young women possess a certain faculty of putting things together. Anyway," he added enigmatically, "I don't know that the bush isn't as good a place to raise a man in as the hothouse Susan Frisingham talked about."

Weston gazed at him in some astonishment, but the contractor made a little gesture with his hand.

"Well," he said, "you meant to keep the thing to yourself?"

"Until I had made the Grenfell Consolidated a success, when I should have come to you."

"Quite the proper course," commented Stirling. "It's kind of a pity you didn't stick to it. When you had arrived at that wise decision, why did you come here to talk to my daughter?"

It was a shrewd question, and perfectly warranted, but Weston answered it candidly.

"I think I came because I could not stay away," he said.

"Then it never occurred to you that my daughter might fall in love with you?"

A flush crept into Weston's face.

"At least," he said, "I never came here with the intention of profiting by that possibility."

Stirling laughed in a rather dry fashion.

"Then she was to do it all at once, when you intimated that she had permission to?"

"It almost looks like that," Weston admitted, with an embarrassment that surpassed anything he had expected. "I'm afraid," and he made a deprecatory gesture, "that I've made a deplorable mess of the whole affair."

"You have," said Stirling. "As it happens, however, that's in your favor. If you'd shown yourself a cleverer man in this matter, it might have occurred to me that it was Miss Stirling's money that you had your eyes on."

Weston turned and gazed at him with the blood in his forehead.

"I wish with all my heart that Miss Stirling's money were at the bottom of the sea!" he said passionately. "There's just another thing I have to say. I came to your house in a fit of desperation a little while ago, so shaken by what I had just had to face that I was off my guard. When I told Miss Stirling what I felt for her it was a folly-but I did it-and I have no excuse to make."

Then, to Weston's astonishment, the contractor's manner changed suddenly, and he leaned forward with a smile.

"Well," he said, "it's possible that she could find one or two for you. But we have to face the situation. It seems that you love my daughter, and there is reason for believing that she is fond of you. Now, Ida has been accustomed to every luxury, and the only thing you count on is a share in the Grenfell mine, which I guess you will admit may go under at any time. What do you propose to do?"

"I don't know," replied Weston, simply. "It's a question that has been driving me to desperation lately."

"Well," said Stirling, "I could find a way out of the difficulty. Are you open to place yourself in my hands, do what I tell you, and take what I may think fit to offer you?"

"No," answered Weston. "I'm sorry-but I can't do that."

"Then, if the Grenfell goes under, you'd rather go back to the bush and chop trees for the ranchers or shovel on the railroads?"

Weston sat very still a moment, with his face awry. Then he looked up resolutely.

"Yes," he said. "I think that, by and by, Miss Stirling would be glad I did it. She would not have her husband her father's pensioner. After all," he added, "one meets with sudden changes of fortune in the west."

Then Stirling suddenly stretched out his hand and laid it on his companion's shoulder.

"I've been twice warned by short-sighted women that my daughter might make an injudicious marriage, and on each occasion I pointed out that when she chose her husband she would choose just right," he said. "Now it seems that she has done it, and I'm satisfied."

He let his hand fall, and, while Weston gazed at him in bewilderment, smiled reassuringly.

"Go back to the mine when you like," he added. "You admitted that you would take advice from me, and all I suggest now is that you hold fast to every share you hold, and make no arrangements of any kind until after next settling day. In the meanwhile, if you'll go along to the first room in the corridor it's quite likely that you'll find Ida there. I've no doubt that she'll be anxious to hear what I've said to you."

Weston could never remember what answer he made, but he went out with his heart beating furiously and a light in his eyes; and when he entered the other room Ida stretched out her hands to him when she saw his face.

"Then it isn't disaster?" she said. "You will stay with me?"

Weston drew her toward him.

"Dear, I must still go away to-morrow, but we have, at least, this evening."

It was all too short for them, but Weston left in a state of exultation, with fresh courage in his heart, and it was in an optimistic frame of mind that he started west the next day. For several weeks he toiled strenuously under the blinking fish-oil lamps in the shadowy adit, but there was now, as his companions noticed, a change in his mood. The grimness which had characterized him had vanished. In place of toiling in savage silence he laughed cheerfully when there was any cause for it, and showed some consideration for his personal safety. He handled the sticks of giant-powder with due circumspection, and no longer exposed him

self to any unnecessary hazard from falling stones. The man was softer, more human, and on occasion whimsical.

For all that, the work was pushed on as determinedly as before, and both Saunders and Devine experienced the same difficulty in keeping pace with their comrade's efforts, though they had grown hard and lean and their hands were deeply scarred. Yard by yard the adit crept on along the dipping lode, and one evening they stood watching Weston, who was carefully tamping a stick of giant-powder in a hole drilled in the stone. The ore had shown signs of getting richer the last few days, but their powder was rapidly running out, and they had not decided yet where they were to obtain a fresh supply. His directors had sent him neither the promised machines nor the money with which to hire labor, and he chafed at the fact that, as it was a long and arduous journey to the nearest station where he could reach the wires, he could not ascertain the cause of the delay.

The storekeeper nodded when at length Weston carefully clamped down a big copper cap on a length of snaky fuse and inserted it in another hole.

"Well," he said, "I guess this shot will settle whether there's high-grade ore in front of us."

He struck a sputtering sulphur match and touched the fuses.

"Now," he said, "we'll get out just as quickly as possible."

They ran down the adit, with Devine in front swinging a blinking lamp, and crawled out, gasping, into the cold evening air as dusk was closing down. Then they sat around and waited until there was a crash and a muffled rumbling. Weston stood up, but Saunders made a sign of expostulation.

"You just sit down again and take a smoke," he said. "We've got to give her quite a while yet."

There was a reason for this. The fumes of giant-powder are apt to prove overpowering in a confined space, and in case of some men the distressful effects they produce last for several hours; but when Weston filled his pipe he scattered a good deal of the tobacco he had shredded upon the ground. A strike of really rich ore would, he knew, send the Grenfell Consolidated up, and he had worked since morning in a state of tense anticipation, for the signs had been propitious. He contrived to sit still for some minutes, and then stood up resolutely.

"You may wait as long as you like," he said. "I'm going back to the adit now."

They went with him, Saunders expostulating and Devine carrying the lamp. Thin vapor that turned them dizzy met them as they floundered into the dark tunnel. The lamp burned uncertainly, but they crept on by the feeble ray of light over masses of fallen rock, until they reached a spot where the adit was blocked with the debris. Weston, dropping on hands and knees, tore out several smaller fragments, and held up one of them; but as he did it there was a faint, hoarse cry, and sudden darkness, as Devine fell forward upon the lamp.

"Get me out! Quick!" he gasped.

Weston felt for the lamp, and contrived to light it, though he wasted several matches in the attempt; but he felt greatly tempted to disregard the dictates of humanity when he hooked it in his hat.

"Well," he said reluctantly, "I suppose we'll have to take him out."

They did it with some difficulty, and left him unceremoniously when they had deposited him, limp and almost helpless, in the open air; for miners who meet with unpleasantness of that kind recover, and one does not make a discovery that promises to put thousands of dollars into one's pockets very frequently. They went back, and, though Weston felt faint and dizzy, he flung himself down among the smaller stones, and thrust one or two of them into Saunders' hands.

"Feel them-and look at the break!" he exclaimed.

Saunders poised one of the stones carefully, and then glanced at the rent where it had been torn from the rock.

"Yes," he said, "we've struck it this time, sure. Guess we'll get out of this and make supper."

"Make supper!" Weston gazed at him incredulously. "I don't stir out of here until sun-up!"

Then he tore off his tattered shirt and stood up, stripped to the waist.

"Get hold of the drill," he said, hoarsely. "You've got to work to-night."

Saunders remembered that night long afterward. For the first half-hour he was troubled by a distressful faintness; and when that passed off, as the air grew clearer, his back and arms commenced to ache unpleasantly. He already had toiled since soon after sunrise; but Weston, too, had done so, and he, at least, seemed impervious to fatigue. So intent was he that every now and then he swung the heavy hammer long after his turn had run out, without asking for relief; and Saunders judiciously permitted him to undertake the more arduous task. By and by, however, Devine crept back to join them, and, when at length morning broke and the mouth of the adit glimmered faintly, Weston glanced at his bleeding hands as he flung down the hammer.

"I suppose we'll have to let up for an hour or two," he said reluctantly.

Saunders staggered when they reached the open air, and Weston seemed to have some difficulty in straightening himself, but they got breakfast, and afterward lay smoking beside the fire, almost too stiff to move. It was getting cold among the ranges now, and they were glad of the warmth from the blaze.

"We'll go on for two or three days," said Weston. "Then we'll pack every load of ore out to the New Passage smelter and get them to reduce it. Devine and I will take it down to the railroad over the Dead Pine trail. The freighter from the settlement should be in with his pack-train by the time we're ready."

"Nobody ever brought a pack-beast in or out by Dead Pine, and there'll be deep snow in the pass," Saunders expostulated.

"Then," said Weston, curtly, "I'm going to do it now. If we can't raise a stamp and reducing plant, we have got to prove that we can make a trail to the railroad by which we can get our ore out without spending a small fortune on packing. If we can get over Dead Pine divide it should shorten the present trail by half; and I'm under the impression that if we spend a few thousand dollars on making a road up the big gully it could be done."

Saunders looked at Devine, who made a little sign.

"Oh," he said, "he means to try it. I guess we've got to let him."

They went back to work by and by; and a few days later Weston and Devine and a grizzled freighter breakfasted in haste beside a sputtering fire. A row of loaded pack-horses stood close by in the rain, and a cluster of dripping men gathered round when at length Weston rose to his feet. The freighter waved his hand to them with a little, dry smile.

"We're going to blaze you out a new road, boys, and it will save me some in horses if it can be done," He said. "Guess you'll be sorry when you see what the next man strikes you for, if we don't come back again."

There was some laughter; and rude good wishes followed the three wet men as they plodded away beside the loaded beasts into the rain.

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