THE GOLD TRAIL
Author of The Cattle Baron's Daughter, The Greater Power, Winston of the Prairie, Etc.
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
Copyright, 1910, by Frederick A. Stokes Company All rights reserved May, 1910
I. BOTTOMLESS SWAMP II. THE PACKER III. THE MODEL IV. IDA'S FIRST ASCENT V. IDA'S CONFIDENCE VI. KINNAIRD STRIKES CAMP VII. GRENFELL'S MINE VIII. IN THE RANGES IX. A FRUITLESS SEARCH X. THE HOTEL-KEEPER XI. IN THE MOONLIGHT XII. THE COPPER-MINE XIII. STIRLING LETS THINGS SLIDE XIV. IDA ASSERTS HER AUTHORITY XV. THE ROCK POOL XVI. ON THE LAKE XVII. SCARTHWAITE-IN-THE-FOREST XVIII. WESTON'S ADVOCATE XIX. ILLUMINATION XX. IDA CLAIMS AN ACQUAINTANCE XXI. THE BRULEE XXII. GRENFELL GOES ON XXIII. THE LODE XXIV. A QUALIFIED SUCCESS XXV. STIRLING GIVES ADVICE XXVI. THE JUMPERS XXVII. SAUNDERS TAKES PRECAUTIONS XXVIII. WESTON STANDS FAST XXIX. THE FIRE XXX. DEFEAT XXXI. HIGH-GRADE ORE XXXII. GRENFELL'S GIFT
THE GOLD TRAIL
It was Construction Foreman Cassidy who gave the place its name when he answered his employer's laconic telegram. Stirling, the great contractor, frequently expressed himself with forcible terseness; but when he flung the message across to his secretary as he sat one morning in his private room in an Ottawa hotel, the latter raised his eyebrows questioningly. He knew his employer in all his moods; and he was not in the least afraid of him. There was, though most of those who did business with him failed to perceive it, a vein of almost extravagant generosity in Stirling's character.
"Well," said the latter, "isn't the thing plain enough?"
The secretary smiled.
"Oh, yes," he said. "Still, I'm not sure they'll send it over the wires in quite that form."
His employer agreed to the modification he suggested, and the message as despatched to Cassidy read simply, "Why are you stopping?"
After that the famous contractor busied himself about other matters until he got the answer, "No bottom to this swamp."
Then his indignation boiled over, as it sometimes did, for Stirling was a thick-necked, red-faced man with a fiery temper and an indomitable will. He had undertaken a good deal of difficult railroad work in western Canada and never yet had been beaten. What was more to the purpose, he had no intention of being beaten now, or even delayed, by a swamp that had no bottom. He had grappled with hard rock and sliding snow, had overcome professional rivals, and had made his influence felt by politicians; and, though he had left middle-age behind, he still retained his full vigor of body and freedom of speech. When he had explained what he thought of Cassidy he turned again to his secretary.
"Arrange for a private car," he said. "I'll go along to-morrow and make them jump."
The secretary, who fancied there would be trouble in the construction camp during the next few days, felt inclined to be sorry for Cassidy as he went out to make the necessary arrangements for his employer's journey west.
Stirling had spent a busy morning when he met his daughter Ida and her friends at lunch. He did not belong to Ottawa. His offices were in Montreal; but as Ottawa is the seat of the government he had visited it at the request of certain railroad potentates and other magnates of political influence. With him he had brought his daughter and three of her English friends, for Ida had desired to show them the capital. He had no great opinion of the man and the two women in question. He said that they made him tired, and sometimes in confidence to his secretary he went rather further than that; but at the same time he was willing to bear with them, if the fact that he did so afforded Ida any pleasure. Ida Stirling was an unusually fortunate young woman, in so far, at least, as that she had only to mention any desire that it was in her father's power to gratify. He was a strenuous man, whose work was his life; subtle where that work was concerned when force, which he preferred, was not advisable, but crudely direct and simple as regards almost everything else.
"I'm going west across the Rockies to-morrow," he said. "We'll have a private car on the Pacific express. You'd better bring these folk along and show them the Mountain Province."
Ida was pleased with the idea; and Stirling and his party started west on the morrow.
In the meanwhile, Construction Foreman Cassidy was spending an anxious time. He was red-haired and irascible, Canadian by adoption and Hibernian by descent, a man of no ideas beyond those connected with railroad building, which was, however, very much what one would have expected, for the chief attribute of the men who are building up the western Dominion is their power of concentration. Though there were greater men above Cassidy who would get the credit, it was due chiefly to his grim persistency that the branch road had been blasted out of the mountainside, made secure from sliding snow, and flung on dizzy trestles over thundering rivers, until at last it reached the swamp which, in his own simple words, had no bottom.
There are other places like it in the Mountain Province of British Columbia. Giant ranges, whose peaks glimmer with the cold gleam of never-melting snow, shut in the valley. Great pine forests clothe their lower slopes, and a green-stained river leaps roaring out of the midst of them. The new track wound through their shadow, a double riband of steel, until it broke off abruptly where a creek that poured out of the hills had spread itself among the trees. The latter dwindled and rotted, and black depths of mire lay among their crawling roots, forming what is known in that country as a muskeg. There was a deep, blue lake on the one hand, and on the other scarped slopes of rock that the tract could not surmount; and for a time Cassidy and his men had floundered knee-deep, and often deeper, among the roots while they plied the ax and saw. Then they dumped in carload after carload of rock and gravel; but the muskeg absorbed it and waited for more. It was apparently insatiable; and, for Cassidy drove them savagely, the men's tempers grew shorter under the strain, until some, who had drawn a sufficient proportion of their wages to warrant it, rolled up their blankets and walked out reviling him. Still, most of them stayed with the task and toiled on sullenly in the mire under a scorching heat, for it was summer in the wilderness.
Affairs were in this condition when Clarence Weston crawled out of the swamp one evening and sat down on a cedar log before he followed his comrades up the track, though he supposed that supper would shortly be laid out in the sleeping-shanty. The sunlight that flung lurid flecks of color upon the western side of the fir trunks beat upon his dripping face, which, though a little worn and grim just then, was otherwise a pleasant face of the fair English type. In fact, though he had been some years in the country, Englishman was unmistakably stamped upon him. He was attired scantily and simply in a very old blue shirt, and trousers, which also had once been blue, of duck; and just then he was very weary, and more than a little lame.
He had cut himself about the ankle when chopping a week earlier, and though the wound had partly healed his foot was still painful. There were also a good many other scars and bruises upon his body, for the cost of building a western railroad is usually heavy. Still, he had an excellent constitution, and was, while not particularly brilliant as a rule, at least whimsically contented in mind. His comrades called him the Kid, or the English Kid, perhaps on account of a certain delicacy of manner and expression which he had somehow contrived to retain, though he had spent several years in logging camps, and his age was close onto twenty-five.
While he sat there with the shovel that had worn his hands hard lying at his feet, Cassidy, who had not recovered from the interview he had had with Stirling that morning, strode by, hot and out of temper, and then stopped and swung round on him.
"Too stiff to get up hustle before the mosquitoes eat you, when supper's ready?" he said.
Weston glanced down at his foot.
"I was on the gravel bank all afternoon. It's steep. Seemed to wrench the cut."
"Well," said Cassidy, "I've no kind of use for a man who doesn't know enough to keep himself from getting hurt. You have got to get that foot better right away or get out."
He shook a big, hard fist at the swamp.
"How'm I going to fill up that pit with a crowd of stiffs and deadbeats like those I'm driving now? You make me tired!"
He did not wait for an answer to the query, but plodded away; and Weston sat still a few minutes longer, with a wry smile in his eyes. He resented being over-driven, though he was more or less used to it, and now and then he found his superior's vitriolic comments upon his efforts almost intolerably galling. Still he had sense enough to realize that the remedy open to him was a somewhat hazardous one, because, while it would be easy to walk out of the construction camp, industrial activity just then was unusually slack in the Mountain Province. Besides, he was willing to admit that there were excuses for Cassidy, and there was a certain quiet tenacity in him. He was also aware that the man with little money has generally a good deal to bear, for Weston was one who could learn by experience, though that faculty was not one that hitherto had characterized the family from which he sprang.
None of the Westons had ever been remarkable for genius—a fact of which they were rather proud than otherwise. They had for several generations been content to be men of local importance in a secluded nook of rural England, which is not the kind of life that is conducive to original thought or enterprising action. They had chosen wives like themselves from among their neighbors, and it was perhaps in several respects not altogether fortunate for Clarence Weston that his mother had been ultra-conservative in her respect for traditions, since he had inherited one side of her nature. Still, in her case, at least, the respect had been idealistic, and the traditions of the highest; and though she had died when he was eighteen she had instilled into him a certain delicacy of sentiment and a simple, chivalrous code that had somewhat hampered him in the rough life he had led in the Canadian Dominion.
As a very young man he had quarreled with his father over a matter trifling in itself, but each had clung to his opinions with the obstinacy of men who have few ideas to spare, and Clarence had gone out to seek his fortune in western Canada. He had naturally failed to find it, and the first discovery that there was apparently nobody in that wide country who was ready to appraise either his mental attainments or his bodily activity at the value of his board was a painful shock to the sanguine lad. That first year was a bad one to him, but he set his teeth and quietly bore all that befell him; the odd, brutal task, paid for at half the usual wages, the frequent rebuffs, the long nights spent shelterless in the bush, utter weariness, and often downright hunger. It was a hard school, but it taught him much, and he graduated as a man, strong and comely of body, and resolute of mind. What was more, he had, though he scarcely realized it, after all, only left behind in England a cramped life embittered by a steady shrinkage in the rent roll and as steady an increase in taxation and expenses. His present life was clean, and governed by a code of crude and austere simplicity. His mother's spirit was in him, and, being what he was, there were things he could not do. He did not attempt to reason about them. The knowledge was borne in upon him instinctively.
He rose, by and by, and, for he was hungry, limped on to the sleeping-shanty of the construction gang. It was built of logs and roofed with rough cedar shingles hand-split on the spot. The sun beat hot upon them, and they diffused a faint aromatic fragrance, refreshing as the scent of vinegar, into the long, unfloored room, which certainly needed something of the kind. It reeked with stale tobacco-smoke, the smell of cookery, and the odors of frowsy clothes. A row of bunks, filled with spruce twigs and old brown blankets, ran down one side of it, a very rude table down the other, and a double row of men with bronzed faces, in dusty garments, sat about the latter, eating voraciously. Fifteen minutes was, at the outside, the longest time they ever wasted on a meal.
That evening, however, they were singularly short of temper, for Cassidy had driven them mercilessly all day, and, though not usually fastidious, the supper was not to their liking. The hash was burnt; the venison, for one of them had shot a deer, had been hung too long; while the dessert, a great pie of desiccated fruits, had been baked to a flinty hardness. That was the last straw; for in the Mountain Province the lumber and railroad gangs as a rule work hard and live well; and when the cans of green tea had been emptied the growls culminated in a call for the cook.
He came forward and stood before them, a little, shaky, gray-haired wreck of a man, with the signs of indulgence plain upon him. Whisky is scarce in that country, but it is obtainable, and Grenfell generally procured a good deal of it. The man was evidently in a state of apprehension, and he shrank back a little when a big, grim-faced chopper ladled out a great plateful of the burnt stew from a vessel on the stove.
"Now," he said, "you've been spoiling supper too often lately, and I guess we've got to teach you plain, cookery. Sit right down and get that hash inside you."
The man protested that he had had his supper before they came in; whereupon the other seized him by the shoulders and thrust him down roughly into a seat at the table.
"Well," he said, "you've got to have a little more. If it's good enough for us, boys, it's not going to hurt him."
There was a murmur of concurrence when he looked around at the rest; and the cook, seeing no help for it, made a valiant attempt to eat a little of the greasy mess. Then he revolted from it and glanced at his companions supplicatingly.
"I can't do it, boys. You'll let me off?" he pleaded.
None of the rest showed any sign of relenting. They were inclined to be pitiless then, and the rude justice of the chopper's idea appealed to them.
"When you've cleaned up that plate," said one.
The victim made a second futile attempt, and, after waiting some minutes for him to proceed, they decided that it was too hot in the shed, so, conveying him outside, they seated him on a great fir stump sawed off several feet above the ground, with the plate beside him. Then they took out their pipes and sat around to enjoy the spectacle. As a rule there is very little cruelty in men of their kind; but they were very human, and the cook had robbed them of a meal somewhat frequently of late. Besides, they had smarted all day under Cassidy's bitter tongue, and they felt that they must retaliate upon somebody. No one said anything for several minutes, and then the big chopper once more approached his victim.
"Now," he said, "since you have to go through with it, you may as well start in. If you don't, I'll put the blame stuff down your throat."
It was, perhaps, no more than justice, for the cook was paid well; but there was one man in the assembly to whom this did not altogether appeal. The victim was frail and helpless, a watery-eyed, limp bundle of nerves, with, nevertheless, a pitiful suggestion of outward dignity still clinging to him, though his persecutors would have described him aptly as a whisky tank. The former fact was sufficient for Weston, who did not stop to think out the matter, but rose and strode quietly toward the fir stump.
"I think this thing has gone far enough, boys. You'll have to let him off," he said.
"No, sir," said the big chopper. "He's going right through. Anyway, it's not your trouble. Light out before we rope you in too."
Weston did not move until three or four more strode forward hastily, when he stooped for an ax that lay handy and swung it round his head. It came down with a crash on the plate, and the hash was scattered over the withered redwood twigs. Then, while a growl expressive of astonishment as well as anger went up, the chopper scraped up part of the stew with red soil and fir twigs mixed in it.
"He has got to eat it, and then I'll tend to you. You'll see that they don't get away, boys," he said.
Weston clearly had no intention of attempting to do so, and the cook would have found it hopeless, for the rest closed round the stump in a contracting ring. While they knew that Cassidy had been summoned to Stirling's car, they were unaware that there were other spectators of the little drama. Two young women had, however, just emerged from among the towering firs that hemmed in the muskeg. One was attired elaborately in light garments and a big hat that appeared very much out of place in that aisle of tremendous forest, but there was a difference between her and her companion. The latter knew the bush, and was dressed simply in a close-fitting robe of gray. She held herself well, and there was something that suggested quiet imperiousness in her attitude and expression. This was, perhaps, not altogether unnatural, for hitherto when Ida Stirling desired anything that her father's money could obtain her wish was gratified. She laid her hand warningly on her companion's arm, and drew her back into the shadow of the firs.
"I really don't think we need go away," she said. "They won't notice us, and you will probably see something that is supposed to be characteristically western, though I'm not sure that it really is."
The meaning of the scene was tolerably plain to both of them. The little cleared space formed a natural amphitheater walled in by somber ranks of pines; and, standing higher, they could see over the heads of the clustering men. There was no difficulty in identifying the victim, the persecutor and the champion, for Weston stood stripped to blue shirt and trousers, with the big ax in his hand and his head thrown back a trifle, gazing with curiously steady eyes at the expectant faces before him. Then as two or three of the men drew in closer he raised his free hand.
"This thing lies between Jake and me, and I'm open to deal with him," he said. "Still, I've got the ax here if more of you stand in."
The man scarcely raised his voice, but it was clear that he was quietly and dangerously resolute. Indeed, his attitude rather pleased some of the rest, for there was a fresh murmuring, and a cry of, "Give the Kid a show!"
Then, and nobody was afterward quite certain who struck first, the trial by combat suddenly commenced. There are very few rules attached to it in that country, where men do not fight by formula but with the one purpose of deciding the matter in the quickest way possible; and in another moment the two had clinched. They fell against the tree stump and reeled clear again, swaying, gasping, and striking when they could. It is probable that the Canadian was the stronger man, but, as it happened, his antagonist had been born among the dales of northern England, where wrestling is still held as an art. In a few minutes he hurled the chopper off his feet, and a hoarse clamor went up, through which there broke a shout:
"The Kid has him!"
Then the two men went down together, heavily, and rolled over and over, until Cassidy came running down the track and burst through the ring of onlookers. In one hand he carried a peevie, a big wooden lever with an iron hook on it, such as men use in rolling fir logs. He belabored the pair with it impartially, and it was evident that he was not in the least particular as to whether he hurt them or not. Loosing their hold on each other they staggered to their feet with the red dust thick on their flushed faces.
Cassidy flourished the peevie.
"Now," he cried, "is it fighting ye want?"
There was a burst of laughter; and the assembly broke up when Cassidy hustled the chopper off the field. The cook, with commendable discretion, had slipped away quietly in the meanwhile, and the two young women, whom nobody had noticed, turned back among the firs. The girl in the elaborate draperies laughed.
"I suppose it was a little brutal, and we shouldn't have stayed," she said. "Still, in a sense the attitude of the one they called the Kid was rather fine. I could have made quite a striking sketch of him."
Ida Stirling made no direct reply to this, but, as she found afterward, the scene had fixed itself on her memory. Still it was not the intent men or the stately clustering pines that she recalled most clearly; it was the dominant central figure, standing almost statuesque, with head tilted slightly backward, and both hands clenched on the big ax haft.
"The man they were tormenting must have done something to vex them. They really are not quarrelsome," she said.
Weston was engaged with several others flinging gravel into a flat car with a long-hafted shovel the next morning when Cassidy strode up the track; and, though the men already had been working hard, they quickened the pace a little when they saw him. He could tell at a glance whether a man were doing his utmost, and nothing less would satisfy him. He knew also exactly how many cubic yards of soil or gravel could be handled by any particular gang. If the quantity fell short, there was usually trouble. However, he said nothing to the others that morning, but beckoned Weston aside, and stood a moment or two looking at him, with a grimly whimsical twinkle in his eyes.
Weston had not suffered greatly during the struggle of the previous evening, but there was a discolored bruise on one of his cheeks and a big lump on his forehead. He was glad to stand still a moment, for he had been shoveling gravel for several hours, and that is an occupation that conduces to an unpleasant stiffness about the waist. He was, however, somewhat puzzled by the red-haired Cassidy's sardonic grin.
"Well," said the latter, with an air of reflection, "I guess you might do if you got a piece of raw steak from the cook and tied it around your face."
"For what?" asked Weston, sharply.
"For a packer. The boss's friends are going camping in the bush."
Weston did not answer immediately, for in that country, where roads are still singularly scarce, packing usually means the transporting of heavy loads upon one's back. The smaller ranchers are as a rule adept at it, and when it is necessary, as it sometimes is, will cheerfully walk over a mountain range with a big sack of flour or other sundries bound upon their shoulders. Four or five leagues is not considered too great a distance to pack a bushel or two of seed potatoes, or even a table for the ranch, and Weston, who had reasons for being aware that work of the kind is at least as arduous as shoveling gravel, did not feel greatly tempted by the offer. Cassidy seemed to guess what he was thinking.
"It's a soft thing I'm putting you on to, as a special favor," he explained. "It will be up-river most of the way, and I've got a couple of Siwash to pole the canoes. All you have to do is the cooking, make camp, and tend to Miss Stirling's friends when they go fishing." He waved his hand, and added, as though to clinch the argument, "I've known people of that kind to give a man that pleased them ten dollars."
Weston's face flushed a little, but he said he would go; and the next day the party started up-river in two Indian canoes. Besides Weston and the dark-skinned Siwash packers, it consisted of four: a tall, elderly man called Kinnaird, with the stamp of a military training plain upon him; his little, quiet wife; his daughter, who was somewhat elaborately dressed; and Ida Stirling. Kinnaird and his daughter traveled in the larger canoe with the Indians and the camp gear, and Mrs. Kinnaird and Miss Stirling with Weston in the other.
Though Weston was more or less accustomed to the work, he found the first few hours sufficiently arduous. It is not an easy matter to propel a loaded canoe against a strong stream with a single paddle, and it is almost as difficult to pole her alone; while there were two long portages to make, when the craft and everything in them had to be hauled painfully over a stretch of very rough boulders. Kinnaird took his share in it, and Weston was quite willing to permit him to do so; but the latter was floundering toward the canoes alone, with a heavy load on his shoulders, when he came to a sharply sloped and slippery ledge of rock. It was very hot in the deep valley, and the white stones and flashing river flung up a blaze of light into his eyes; while he limped a little under his burden, for his foot was still painful. He had no idea that anybody was watching him; and, when he slipped and, falling heavily, rolled down part of the slope, scattering the packages about him, he relieved his feelings with a few vitriolic comments upon the luxurious habits of the people who had compelled him to carry so many of their superfluous comforts through the bush. Then he set about gathering up the sundries he had dropped. First of all he came upon a lady's parasol, white outside and lined with green. He regarded it with a rueful smile when he had tried and failed to open it.
"Trouble ahead," he commented. "It cost eight or nine dollars anyway, and now it's broken."
Then he came to a rather big valise, which swung open and poured out part of its contents when he lifted it by the handle. They seemed to consist of voluminous folds of delicate fabric and lace, and he was gazing at them and wondering how they were to be got back into the bag when he heard a voice behind him.
"Will you kindly put that down?" it said.
Weston dropped the bag in his astonishment; and, swinging around suddenly, he saw Miss Stirling standing in the shadow of a great cedar. He had been too busy during the journey up the river to pay much attention to her; but now it occurred to him that she was not only pretty but very much in harmony with her surroundings. The simple, close-fitting gray dress which, though he did not know this, had cost a good many dollars, displayed a pretty and not over-slender figure, and fitted in with the neutral tinting of the towering fir trunks and the sunlit boulders, while the plain white hat with bent-down brim formed an appropriate setting for the delicately-colored face beneath it. Still, Weston scarcely noticed any particular points in Miss Stirling's appearance just then, for he was subconsciously impressed by her personality as a whole. There was something in her dress and manner that he would have described vaguely as style, though it was a style he had not often come across in the west, where he had for the most part lived in the bush. She was evidently a little younger than himself, but she had the quiet air of one accustomed to command, which, as a matter of fact, was the case.
Then he wondered with a slight uneasiness whether she had heard all that he said when he fell down. He fancied that she had, for there was the faintest trace of amusement in her eyes. They met his own steadily, though he was not sure whether they were gray or blue, or a very light brown. Indeed, he was never quite sure of this, for they changed curiously with the light.
Then she came toward him and looked at the valise.
"It was locked when I gave it to you," she said, with a trace of severity.
"Well," answered Weston, "it doesn't seem to be locked now. I think I remember noticing that you left the key in it; but it's gone. It must have fallen out. I'll look for it."
He looked for some time, and, failing to find it, walked back to the girl.
"I'm afraid it's in the river," he said. "Still, you see, the bag is open."
"That," replied Miss Stirling, "is unfortunately evident. I want it shut."
Weston glanced at the protruding garments with which she seemed to be busy.
"I'm very sorry," he said. "I dare say I could squeeze these things back into it."
He was going to do so when Miss Stirling took the bag away from him.
"No," she said a trifle quickly, "I don't think you could."
Then it occurred to Weston that his offer had, perhaps, not been altogether tactful, and he was sensible of a certain confusion, at which he was slightly astonished. He did not remember having been readily subject to fits of embarrassment when in England, though there he had never served as porter to people of his own walk in life. Turning away, he collected a waterproof carry-all, a big rubber ground sheet, another parasol, a sketching stool, and a collapsible easel, which also appeared to be damaged. Then as he knelt down and roped them and the valise together he looked at the girl.
"I'm afraid Miss Kinnaird will be a little angry, for I think that easel thing won't open out," he said. "I'm awfully sorry."
Now "awfully sorry" is not a western colloquialism, and the girl looked at him attentively. She liked his voice, and she rather liked his face, which, since he had not been called the Kid for nothing, was ingenuous. She laughed a little. Then she remembered something she had noticed.
"Well," she observed, "I suppose you couldn't help it. That load was too heavy; and aren't you a little lame?"
"Not always," said Weston. "I cut my foot a little while ago. If it hadn't been for that I shouldn't have fallen down and broken Miss Kinnaird's things."
"And yours," admitted Weston. "As I said, I'm particularly sorry. Still, if you will let me have the bag afterward I can, perhaps, mend the lock. You see, I assisted a general jobbing mechanic."
Ida Stirling flashed a quick glance at him. He had certainly a pleasant voice, and his manner was whimsically deferential.
"Why didn't you stay with him?" she asked. "Mending plows and wagons must have been easier than track-grading."
Weston's eyes twinkled.
"He said I made him tired; and the fact is I mended a clock. That is, I tried—it was rather a good one when I got hold of it."
The girl laughed, and the laugh set them on good terms with each other. Then she said:
"That load is far too heavy for you to climb over these boulders with when you have an injured foot. You can give me the valise, at least."
"No," said Weston, resolutely, "this is a good deal easier than shoveling gravel, as well as pleasanter; and the foot really doesn't trouble me very much. Besides, if I hadn't cut it, Cassidy wouldn't have sent me here."
He was, however, mistaken in supposing that the construction foreman had been influenced only by a desire to get rid of a man who was to some extent incapacitated. As a matter of fact, Miss Stirling, who had been rather pleased with the part he had played two days ago, had, when her father insisted on her taking a white man as well as the Indians, given Cassidy instructions that he should be sent. Still, she naturally did not mention this, and indeed said nothing of any account while they went on to the canoes.
It was slacker water above the rapid; and all afternoon they slid slowly up on deep, winding reaches of the still, green river. Sometimes it flashed under dazzling sunshine, but at least as often they moved through the dim shadow of towering pines that rolled, rank on rank, somber and stately, up the steep hillside, while high above them all rose tremendous ramparts of eternal snow. Then, as the sun dipped behind the great mountain wall, the clean, aromatic fragrance of pine and fir and cedar crept into the cooling air, and a stillness so deep that it became almost oppressive descended upon the lonely valley. The splash of pole or paddle broke through it with a startling distinctness, and the faint gurgle at the bows became curiously intensified. The pines grew slower, blacker and more solemn; filmy trails of mist crawled out from among the hollows of the hills; and the still air was charged with an elixir-like quality when Weston ran his canoe ashore.
While he and the Indians set about erecting a couple of tents, he saw Miss Kinnaird standing near him and gazing up across the misty pines toward the green transparency that still hung above the blue-white gleam of snow.
"This," she said to Miss Stirling, "is really wonderful. One can't get hold of it at once. It's tremendous."
The smallest of the pines rose two hundred feet above her; and they ran up until they dwindled to insignificance far aloft at the foot of a great scarp of rock that rose beyond them for a thousand feet or so and then gave place in turn to climbing fields of snow.
The girl, who was an artist, drew in her breath.
"Switzerland and Norway. It's like them both—and yet it grips you harder than either," she added. "I suppose it's because there are no hotels, or steamers. Probably very few white people have ever been here before."
"I really don't think many have," said Ida Stirling.
Then Miss Kinnaird laughed softly as she glanced at her attire.
"I must take off these fripperies. They're out of key," she said. "One ought to wear deerskins, or something of that kind here."
Weston heard nothing further, and remembered that, after all, the girl's sentiments were no concern of his. It was his business to prepare the supper and wait on the party; and he set about it. Darkness had descended upon the valley when he laid the plates of indurated ware on a strip of clean white shingle, and then drawing back a few yards sat down beneath the first of the pines in case they needed anything further. A fire blazed and crackled between two small logs felled for the purpose and rolled close together, and its flickering light fell upon him and those who sat at supper, except at times when it faded suddenly and the shadows closed in again. He was then attired picturesquely in a fringed deerskin jacket dressed by some of the Blackfeet across the Rockies. Kinnaird, who had once or twice glanced in his direction, gazed hard at him.
"Have you ever been in India?" he asked.
"No, sir," said Weston in a formal manner, though "sir" is not often used deferentially in western Canada.
Kinnaird appeared thoughtful.
"Well," he said, "I can't help thinking that I have come across you somewhere before. I have a good memory for faces, and yours is familiar."
"I have never seen you until to-day," said Weston. "I don't remember your name, either."
"The curious thing," persisted Kinnaird, "is that while I can't quite locate you I am almost sure I am right. What makes me feel more certain is that, though you were younger then, you have grown into the man I should have expected you to." Then he laughed. "Anyway, it's clear that you don't remember me."
He turned to the others, and Miss Kinnaird asked for more coffee, after which Weston, who brought it, sat still again to wait until he could take away the plates. It was evident that his presence placed no restraint on the conversation. At length he became suddenly intent. Kinnaird was contrasting Canada and England for Miss Stirling's benefit.
"Of course," he said, "we have nothing like this, but in the north, at least, we have odd bits of rugged grandeur where the wildness of the hills about one is emphasized by the green fertility of the valleys. There is a typical place where we spent a few months last year that I should like you to see. If you come back with us, as you half promised, we will take you there."
Weston leaned forward a little, for he had still a curious tenderness for the land of the fells and dales in which he had been born. He did not know that Ida Stirling, who had watched him closely when Kinnaird addressed him, had now fixed her eyes on him again. The latter turned to her as he proceeded.
"The old house," he said, "would make a picture in itself with its little stone-ribbed windows, and the much older square tower and curtain wall that form one wing. There is a terraced garden in front, and a stream comes frothing out of a wooded ghyll at the foot of it."
Weston started, for there was no doubt that the house Kinnaird described was the one in which he had been born. As it happened, the firelight fell upon his intent face as he waited for the answer, when Miss Stirling, who had missed his start, asked a question:
"The people who owned it were friends of yours?"
"No," said Kinnaird, "I never saw them. I took the place through an agency for the rough shooting and as a change from London. They had to let it and live in a neighboring town. The result of slack management and agricultural depression, I believe."
Weston set his lips. He had written home once rejecting a proposition made him, and his people had afterward apparently forgotten him. He had made up his mind that he would not trouble them again, at least while he toiled as a track-grader or a hired man; but now, when it seemed that trouble had come upon them, he regretted many things.
Kinnaird signed to him that he might take away the plates, and he gathered them up, scarcely conscious of what he was doing, and then stumbled and dropped the pile of them. Though made of indurated fiber, they fell with a startling clatter, and Kinnaird looked at him sharply as he picked them up; but in another few moments he had vanished beyond the range of the firelight into the shadows of the bush.
Ida Stirling had, however, noticed enough to arouse a young woman's curiosity, especially as there was a suggestion of romance in it, and before she went to sleep she thought a good deal about the man she had never seen until two days ago.
The morning broke clear and still across the scented bush, and Miss Kinnaird and Ida Stirling, who had been awakened early by the wonderful freshness in the mountain air, strolled some distance out of camp. For a time they wandered through shadowy aisles between the tremendous trunks, breathing in sweet resinous odors, and then, soon after the first sunrays came slanting across a mountain shoulder, they came out upon a head of rock above the river. A hemlock had fallen athwart it, and they sat down where they could look out upon a majestic panorama of towering rock and snow.
Arabella Kinnaird gazed at it intently when she had shaken some of the dew from the frills and folds of her rather bedraggled skirt.
"It will never be quite the same again," she observed, evidently in reference to the latter, and then waved one hand as though to indicate the panorama, for she was usually voluble and disconnected in her conversation. "This, as I said last night, is wonderful—in fact, it almost oppresses one. It makes one feel so little, and I'm not sure that I like that, though no doubt it does one good."
Her companion smiled.
"Aren't you going to paint it?" she asked.
Miss Kinnaird pursed up her face, which was a trick she had.
"Oh," she said, "I don't know. After all, portraiture is my specialty, and this silent grandeur is a little beyond my interpretation."
She paused, and added the next few words in an authoritative manner, as though she had a truth of some consequence to deliver:
"The difficulty is that you really can't interpret anything until you are quite sure what it means. You see, I'm feverishly restless by temperament, and accustomed to indulge in all kinds of petty, purposeless activities. They are petty, though the major calls them duties—social duties—and being, I'm afraid, a rather frivolous person in spite of my love of art, they appeal to me."
Ida said nothing. It was not necessary, and as a rule not advisable, to encourage Arabella Kinnaird when she commenced, as she sometimes described it, to talk seriously; and she rattled on:
"My dear, I'm all appreciation, and graciously pleased with the wonders that you are showing me; but still this valley strikes me as being short of something. It's too calm and quiet. Even Eden was not complete until man appeared in it, though, as usual, he made trouble shortly afterward. It is a thing he has kept on doing ever since."
"I'm not sure you're sticking to historical facts," she said.
"Facts," returned her companion, "don't count for much with me. I deal in impressions; and sometimes I feel full of them. I could astonish everybody if I could get them out; but that, of course, is the difficulty. Feeling, unfortunately, isn't quite the same thing as power of expression. Still, you asked me what I thought about these mountains, and I'm trying to tell you. You have brought it on yourself, you see. The key-tone of this place is an almost overwhelming tranquillity. One rather shrinks from that kind of thing when one is not used to it, and longs to do something to disturb it. It's a natural impulse. When you see a smooth sheet of ice you generally look for a big stone with which to smash it."
She swung around and favored her companion with a glance of critical scrutiny; and there was no reason why Ida Stirling should shrink from it. She sat leaning forward, looking out at the mountains with steady eyes that had a half-smile in them. Her attitude was reposeful and her face quiet; but there was something in both that faintly suggested a decided character.
"I don't think I'm readily disturbed," she said.
"No," answered her companion reflectively, "but the disturbance will no doubt come. You're in harmony with the key-tone of this valley; but too much serenity isn't good for me; and it's probable that nobody ever retains it very long. There's always the disturbing element in a world that's full of men. It was, as I remarked, man who brought trouble into Paradise."
Miss Kinnaird was addicted to talking a good deal of nonsense, and she frequently wearied her listeners; but there was a certain shrewdness in her, and at times she got near the truth. Indeed, her companion afterward decided that she had done so in this case. Ida Stirling had met many rising young men, and some who had made their mark, but none of them had aroused in her the faintest thrill of unrest or passion. So far, the depths of her nature had remained wholly unstirred. One could almost have told it from her laugh as she answered her companion's last observation.
"I thought it was woman's curiosity," she said; and then remembered suddenly that on the previous evening she had certainly been a trifle curious about the strange packer from the railroad gang.
Miss Kinnaird made no reply to this; but in a moment she stretched out a pointing hand.
"Now," she said, "the disturbing element is obtruding itself."
Farther down the river there was a flash of something white amidst the pale green shimmer of the flood. Ida rose, but her companion beckoned her to sit down again.
"Oh," she said, a trifle impatiently, "don't be prudish. He's ever so far off, and I've never had an opportunity to study anybody swimming."
It was, of course, Weston, who supposed himself far enough from camp not to be troubled by spectators, swimming with a powerful side-stroke upstream. Ida sat down again, and both of them watched him as he drew a little nearer. So many times every minute his left arm swept out into the sunlight as he flung it forward with far-stretched palm. It fell with the faintest splash, and there was a little puff of spray as his head dipped and the water washed across his lips. Then the white limbs flashed amidst the green shining of the river, and the long, lithe form contracted, gleaming as a salmon gleams when it breaks the surface with the straining line. The still river rippled, and a sun-bronzed face shot half-clear again. Miss Kinnaird watched the swimmer's progress with open appreciation.
"Dancing," she said didactically, "isn't to be compared with that! It's the essence of rhythmic movement! I must certainly study swimming. I wish he'd come right on."
Ida was not sure that she agreed with her; and, just then, Weston, swinging suddenly around, went down into the green depths, and, shooting up with white shoulders high above the water, swept away again down-stream. Miss Kinnaird rose as he did so, and turned back toward the camp.
"That packer is rather fine, considered as a muscular animal," she said.
Ida smiled at this, somewhat sardonically.
"In your country you wouldn't think of regarding him as anything else. Doesn't being an artist emancipate one from the conventional point of view?"
"No," replied Miss Kinnaird reflectively, "it doesn't, that is, when you do not paint for your living—which, of course, alters everything."
Then her eyes twinkled as she favored her companion with a passable imitation of her father's didactic tone and manner.
"As the major says, social distinctions are necessary safeguards, and cannot lightly be disregarded. If they were not, they could not have existed as long as they have."
"In the case of a man who has inherited his station and his possessions," she added, "it is a very natural and comfortable creed."
"Ah," said Ida, "my father worked in a sawmill."
She spoke quietly, but there was something in her voice that warned her companion that there were subjects upon which they might have a clash of opinion. In the east there is pride of possession; but the pride of achievement, which is, perhaps, more logical, is more common in the west.
It was an hour later when Weston laid breakfast before them; and Ida, who regarded him unobtrusively with careful attention, decided that Arabella Kinnaird was right. The packer, with his lean, symmetrical litheness, his pleasant English face, his clear eyes, and his clean, bronzed skin, was certainly well-favored physically, and she began to wonder whether her companion could not have gone further in her comments; until she remembered again that the commencement of a good many troubles is probably woman's curiosity.
The canoes were launched after breakfast, and it was afternoon when they pitched camp beside a still, blue lake. Then Major Kinnaird strolled away with a trout-rod to a neighboring rapid, and Mrs. Kinnaird went to sleep in a hammock. Her daughter got out her sketch-book, and sitting down among the boulders bade Ida summon Weston. He came, and stood looking at them inquiringly, picturesque in his wide hat and his fringed deerskin jacket. Miss Kinnaird pursed up her face.
"I want to make a sketch of you. You have rather a good head," she said.
Weston gazed at her a moment in astonishment, and then a twinkle crept into his eyes. Her matter-of-fact brusqueness, which made it perfectly plain that his views in the matter did not count, might have roused a sense of opposition in some men, but he had acquired a wide toleration in western Canada.
"Shall I stand here, miss?" he asked.
"No," said the girl, "a little farther to the right, where the sunlight falls upon the trunks behind you; but you mustn't look wooden. That will do. Still, you'll have to take off that jacket. It's frippery."
The suspicion of a flush crept into Weston's face; but, after all, a loose blue shirt and duck trousers are considered dress enough in the bush of the Pacific Slope, and he discarded the offending jacket. Miss Kinnaird, however, was not quite satisfied.
"Can't you take up that ax and look as if you were ready to use it?" she said. "Oh, no! That is far too much like a waxwork! Hold up your head a little! Now, don't move any more than you can help! I think that will do."
Weston stood as he was for the best part of an hour. He felt inclined to wonder why he did it, as he had not found shoveling gravel anything like so difficult. Then Miss Kinnaird informed him that, as she desired to make a study of the background, she would not keep him any longer; and he strolled away to the waterside, where, after stretching himself wearily, he lay down and took out his pipe. He had not been there long when Ida, who came out from among the trees, sat down on one of the boulders not far from him.
"You must have been horribly cramped, but it didn't strike Miss Kinnaird, or she wouldn't have kept you there so long," she said.
"No," answered Weston, reflectively, "I don't think it would strike Miss Kinnaird. She's English, isn't she?"
"Of course. But aren't you English, too?"
Weston's eyes twinkled.
"I am. Still, I don't want you to think that it's merely because Miss Kinnaird comes from the same country that I do that I didn't expect her to realize that to stand posed for an hour or so is apt to cramp one."
Ida laughed. It evidently was clear to him that Miss Kinnaird regarded him as a packer and nothing else, and had decided that he had probably grown used to physical discomfort. Ida was, however, rather pleased to see that he accepted the fact good-humoredly and did not resent it. She was in no way astonished that he should answer her as he had, for, in the west, a man may speak naturally to any young woman who addresses him, without feeling called on to remember the distinctions of caste.
"I wonder," she said, "whether you would tell me what caused the trouble you were mixed up in two or three nights ago."
Weston's face grew slightly flushed, for he was still in certain respects somewhat ingenuous; but he told her simply what had led up to the affray.
"After all you could hardly blame the boys," he added. "They had had a hard day, and it was not the first time Grenfell had done them out of their supper."
"Still, he had spoiled your supper, too," said Ida. "If you couldn't blame them, why did you interfere?"
It was rather a difficult question. Weston could not very well tell her, even had he quite realized it, that there was in him a vein of rudimentary chivalry that had been carefully fostered by his mother. The males of the Weston line had clung to traditions, but they had for the most part been those of the Georgian days, when very little refinement of sentiment was expected from the country gentleman. The traditions Agnes Weston had held by, however, went back to an earlier age. She had been High Church and imaginative, a woman of impracticable as well as somewhat uncomfortable ideals, and finding her husband proof against them she had done what she could with her son. The result was a somewhat happy one, for in the Kid, as his comrades termed him, her fantasies and extravagances had been toned down by the very prosaic common sense of the Weston male line. They were full-fleshed, hard-riding Englishmen who lived on beef and beer. Though Weston was naturally not aware of it, there were respects in which Ida Stirling was like his mother. Ida, however, usually kept her deeper thoughts to herself, which Mrs. Weston had seldom done, but she shaped her life by them, and they were wholesome.
"Well," he said diffidently, "it was quite a humiliating situation for the old man. He was a person of some consequence once—a rather famous assayer and mineralogist—and I think he felt it."
"That is not what I asked you," said Ida, with a trace of dryness.
Weston spread out his hands as though to excuse himself.
"Then," he said, "they were all against him, and I think Jake—I mean the big chopper—would have forced the stuff down his throat. It was horribly burnt. There are," and he hesitated, "things one really has to do."
His companion nodded. She liked his diffidence, which, while very evident, was wholly genuine, and the faint color in his face gave him an appearance of boyish candor.
"Even when the odds against you are quite steep?" she said. "In the case we are discussing the result was no doubt that bruise on your face." Then she changed the subject. "If he was a famous mineralogist, why is he cooking in a railroad camp?"
"Everybody knows," said Weston. "The usual trouble—whisky."
The girl made a little gesture of comprehension that had in it also a hint of disgust, and then seeing that he would say nothing further until she gave him a lead she spoke again.
"What brought you out here?" she inquired.
Weston had been asked the same question several times before, and had never answered it. In fact, he did not know why he did so now.
"I quarreled with my people. In one respect, anyway, I don't regret it. It's rather a beautiful country."
He sat, with his wide hat tilted back and the sun on his face, looking out upon the blue lake between the towering pines. Their shadows floated in it, and tremendous slopes of rock ran up toward the gleaming snow on the farther side. The bush lay very silent under the scorching sun, and it was filled with the heavy odors of the firs, in which there was a clogging, honey-like sweetness.
"It's a little difficult to understand why you seem to be content with track-grading. One would fancy it to be unusually hard work," said the girl.
"Oh, yes," agreed Weston, laughing. "Still, you see, I don't intend to remain a track-grader indefinitely."
"No?" said Ida, inquiringly. "What do you mean to do?"
Weston saw that she was interested, and he was still young enough to be willing to discuss his own plans and projects—though for that matter one comes across older men who can talk of nothing else.
"This country is full of gold and silver," he said. "Other men strike it now and then, and I really don't see why I shouldn't."
"When they do, haven't they usually to sell it for almost nothing to somebody who gets up a company? Besides, do you know anything about prospecting?"
"A little. It's my one dissipation; and it's rather an expensive one. You have to work for months to save enough to buy a camp outfit and provisions, and if you mean to stay any time in the ranges you have to hire a horse. Then you come back in rags with a bagful of specimens that prove to be of no use at all; and you go to work again."
"You have done that often?"
"Three or four times."
"Then," asked Ida, "isn't it foolish to go back again?"
Weston looked at her a moment hesitatingly, and then made a little gesture of deprecation.
"It sounds absurd, of course, but I have a fancy that if I keep it up long enough I shall strike gold. You see I'm a water-finder, anyway."
"It's an old English idea. Water evidently used to be scarcer there, and even now there are places where good wells aren't plentiful. You go along with a hazel twig, and it dips when you cross water running underground. That is, if you have the gift in you. Anybody can't do it. You think that quite foolish, don't you?"
Ida really did, though she did not seem to admit it.
"Have you ever tried the gift out here?" she asked.
"On the prairie, quite often. A good deal of it is burnt up and dry. I generally found water."
"You turned the—power—to account? I mean—you made—money out of it?"
There was a sudden change in Weston's face.
"No," he said, "I never took a cent."
"Well," replied the man slowly, "my mother had some old-world belief, and she said it was a special gift. She knew I had it. She said a thing of that kind should never be used for money."
"But haven't all those who claimed special powers—priests, magicians, medicine-men—always been willing to sell them?"
Her companion's eyes twinkled.
"Well, I dare say they have. Still, you see, it's possible that they never really had the gifts they claimed at all. Now I—can—find water, and I have a notion that I can find the precious metals too. Quite absurd, isn't it?"
Ida thought it was, but the quiet confidence behind his whimsical manner appealed to her. He was, it seemed, a man of simple character and few ideas, but she knew that he had nerve and vigor, and, after all, the western Dominion is the land of strenuous, all-daring, simple men. Besides, she had watched the resolution flash into his young face when he stood facing the angry crowd of track-graders with the ax in his hand, and she had seen very much the same tenacity and steadfastness stamped on the faces of successful men. Her father was one, and he was a man who had scarcely been educated, and was certainly devoid of any complexity of character. Stirling had made his mark by smashing down opposition, and, when that was not possible, grimly holding on and bearing the blows dealt him. There was, as she recognized, something to be said in favor of that kind of man.
Then Kinnaird came up through the bush with his rod and a few troutlings, dry-shod and immaculate in a jacket that fitted him like a uniform, and Ida went back to camp with him. She fancied, however, that her father or Weston, who sat still and filled his pipe again, would have come back with a heavy fish, or at least thorn-rent and dripping wet.
IDA'S FIRST ASCENT
The party had spent another day or two beside the lake when, one drowsy afternoon, Kinnaird, who sat on the hot, white shingle by the water's edge, with a pair of glasses in his hand, sent for Weston. Miss Kinnaird and Ida Stirling were seated among the boulders not far away.
"I understand that the river bends around the range, and the crest of the first rise seems no great height," he said. "There is evidently—a bench I think you call it—before you come to the snow, and the ascent should be practicable for a lady. Take these glasses and look at it."
Weston, who took the glasses, swept them along the hillside across the lake. It rose very steeply from the water's edge, but the slope was uniform, and as a good deal of it consisted apparently of lightly-covered rock and gravel the pines were thinner, and there was less undergrowth than usual. Far above him the smooth ascent broke off abruptly, and, though he could not see beyond the edge, there certainly appeared to be a plateau between it and the farther wall of rock and snow.
"I think one could get up so far without very much trouble, sir," he said.
"That," replied Kinnaird, "is how it strikes me. My daughter is rather a good mountaineer, and Miss Stirling is just as anxious to make the ascent. I may say that we have had some experience in Switzerland, not to mention the hills among the English lakes. Do you know anything about climbing?"
"No, sir," said Weston; "not as it is understood in Switzerland, anyway. I don't suppose there's an ice-ax in the country, and I never saw a party roped. Still, I have been up seven or eight thousand feet several times."
"What were you doing?" asked Miss Kinnaird.
Weston saw the faint twinkle in Ida Stirling's eyes, and fancied that he understood it. Very few of the inhabitants of that country climb for pleasure, and it is difficult to obtain any of the regulation mountaineering paraphernalia there; but when the wandering prospector finds a snow-crested range in his way he usually scrambles over it and carries his provisions and blankets along with him. The fact that there are no routes mapped out, and no chalets or club shelters to sleep in, does not trouble men of that kind.
"Once or twice we were on the gold trail," he said. "Another time I packed for a couple of Englishmen who were looking for mountain goats."
"Get any?" Kinnaird asked sharply.
"No, sir. We didn't even see one," said Weston; and again he noticed Miss Stirling's smile.
"Well," said Kinnaird, "we are breaking camp tomorrow, and my idea is that Mrs. Kinnaird should go on with the baggage in the canoes. The rest of us will follow the bench, and after working around the head of the big spur yonder come down again to the water by the other slope. You are, of course, willing to make the ascent with us?"
"I am under your orders," said Weston. "Still, I shouldn't advise it."
It was rather difficult to answer. Weston could not tell the major that he considered him a little too old for that work, or that he was dubious about his daughter's stamina and courage. He had seen self-confident strangers come down from those mountains dressed in rags, with their boots torn off their bleeding feet. Besides, he felt reasonably sure that, as he was not a professional guide, any advice that he might feel it wise to offer would not be heeded.
"I have heard that there is thick timber on the other slope," he said. "It's generally rather bad to get through."
Kinnaird, who never had been in really thick timber, dismissed the matter with a smile.
"We will start at six to-morrow, and endeavor to get down to camp again on the other side in the afternoon. You will arrange about provisions."
Weston said that he would do so, but he was not exactly pleased when he watched the major climb the hillside immediately behind them, with his glasses, to plot out the route. It seemed very probable that once he had fixed on one he would adhere to it at any cost, and, perhaps, the more persistently if the course in question appeared inadvisable to his companions. Weston did not pretend to be a great judge of character, but Kinnaird, who, it seemed, had held command in India, struck him as that kind of man. His wife was a little, placid lady, whose bodily vigor and any resolution of character she might once have possessed had apparently evaporated under the Indian sun, and, as far as Weston had noticed, she invariably agreed with whatever was said. When he waited on them at supper their talk was of the easier ascents in Switzerland, and in the mountains of his own land, whose names rang like music in his ears—the Striding Edge, the Great Gable Needle, and Saddleback Crags. The Needle was certainly difficult to climb, but the Striding Edge on a still day was a secure promenade compared with some of the ledges along which he had seen western prospectors struggle with a month's supplies.
Supper, which as usual was prepared about six o'clock, had been over an hour or two, when, after waiting for an opportunity, he found Ida alone beside the lake.
"Can't you persuade these people not to go, Miss Stirling?" he asked.
The girl smiled.
"No," she said, "I think you ought to recognize that."
"Then can't you make some excuse, for stopping behind with Mrs. Kinnaird?"
Weston made a little gesture.
"It will probably be a tough climb. I'd rather you didn't go."
Dusk was creeping up the hillside, but there was still a little light among the misty pines, and the girl flashed a quick glance at him. He seemed diffident, but it was evident that he did not wish her to go, and once more she felt that he aroused her curiosity.
"That," she observed, "is not exactly an answer. Why should I stay below?"
Weston was relieved at this, for it seemed preferable to him that she should be the one to raise the personal side of the question.
"Well," he said, "for one thing my employer is your father."
It occurred to the girl that the qualification might as well have been left out. It was too suggestive, since it conveyed the impression that the fact he had mentioned was not the only one that influenced him; but she had noticed already that Weston was not a finished diplomatist. She became more curious as to why he was especially concerned about her safety, though, as a matter of fact, he could not have told her, because he did not know.
"Major and Miss Kinnaird are his guests," she observed.
Weston recognized the reproof in this, and stood silent a moment or two until she spoke again.
"Are you afraid my nerve may not prove equal to Miss Kinnaird's?" she asked.
Weston smiled and answered without reflection.
"No," he said, "that certainly wasn't troubling me. When the pinch comes you could be relied on."
He was conscious that he had gone too far, and, as often happens in such cases, immediately went further.
"There is something about you that makes me sure of it."
"Well," said Ida, coldly, "it is very probable that the pinch won't come at all."
She turned away and left him; and Weston frowned at the supper dishes he had carried down to the lake.
"I dare say that looked very much like a gratuitous impertinence from—the packer," he observed.
He awakened at four the next morning; and the mists were steaming among the pines when the Indians ferried the party across the lake. Then for a couple of hours they went up steadily, between apparently endless ranks of climbing pines, with odd streams of loose gravel sliding down beneath their feet. Kinnaird led the way; the girls came behind him climbing well; and Weston brought up the rear with an ample supply of provisions and a couple of big blankets strapped on his shoulders. He explained that the blankets would do to sit on, but, knowing a little about those mountains, he was somewhat dubious about their getting down again that afternoon. The load was heavy, and by and by his injured foot commenced to grow painful.
Then they left the last of the dwindling pines behind, and pushed on along a slope that was strewn with shattered rock and debris which made walking arduous. Then they reached a scarp of rock ground smooth by the slipping down of melting snow, and when they had crossed that their difficulties began. The scarp broke off on the verge of an almost precipitous rift, and a torrent that seemed drawn out into silk-like threads roared in the depths of it. A few pines were sprinkled about the slopes of the gully, and one or two of them which had fallen lay athwart the creek.
They stopped for a few minutes upon a dizzy ledge of rock, from which they looked far down across battalions of somber trees upon the gleaming lake below. Here Weston was guilty of an indiscretion. He admitted afterward that he ought to have known that a man used to command in India, who claimed some acquaintance with Alpine climbing, was not likely to be advised by him.
"I believe we could get down, sir, and there are several logs across the creek," he said. "We must get over it somehow, and the gully will probably run into a canon lower down."
"That," remarked Kinnaird, dryly, "is perfectly evident. It is, however, my intention to follow up the gully."
Weston was conscious that Ida Stirling was glancing at him, but his face remained expressionless; and as he suggested nothing further, they went on again. The mountain slope had been steadily growing steeper beneath them, and they had not yet reached the bench. They went up for another hour, and then came out upon the expected strip of plateau in the midst of which the gully died out. The plateau, however, lay on the northern side of a great peak, and was covered with slushy snow. Kinnaird looked somewhat dubiously at the latter, which seemed deep in the hollows.
"The snow will have gone once we get around the western shoulders," he said. "It must be almost as near to get down from that side, and the canoes will have gone on by now. Still, it's rather a long time since breakfast."
He glanced at the girls, and appeared relieved when Ida said:
"I think we would better push on a little further before we stop for lunch."
They plunged into a snow-drift to the knees, and when they had floundered through it for thirty yards or so Weston sank suddenly well over his waist. He flung himself forward, and with the help of Kinnaird wriggled clear, but when they looked down there was empty blackness beneath the hole he had made.
"It's a snow-bridge, I think, sir," he said. "The creek's running under it. Anyway, I didn't touch anything solid with my feet."
Kinnaird's face grew graver.
"If you're right," he observed, "it would be wiser to work around."
They spent an hour doing it, and then, crossing knee-deep, they sat down on a ledge of jutting rock while Weston laid out a simple meal. It was very cold in the shadow of the peak, and a bitter wind that seemed to be gathering strength whistled eerily about the desolation of rock and snow. They were wet to the knees, and Weston fancied that the girls' cheerfulness was a trifle forced. He was ready to admit that he was somewhat stiff and weary, for he had carried the provisions and the heavy blankets that the girls had now tucked round them.
The latter commenced to flag when they started again; and, as it happened, the strip of bench they followed rapidly narrowed in and grew rougher until it became little more than a sloping ledge with the hillside dropping almost sheer away from it. It was strewn with great fragments that had fallen from the wall of rock above, and banks of snow lay packed between them in the hollows. Every now and then one or another of the party sank deep on stepping down from some ledge of slippery stone. They were on the northern side of a spur of the higher range, though they were approaching the angle where it broke off and fell in a steep declivity facing west. This point they had to turn before they reached the spot from which Kinnaird purposed descending to the river. They made very slow progress, while the shadow of the peaks grew blacker and longer across the hills. At length, when they had almost reached the corner, Kinnaird stopped to consider, and the girls sat down with evident alacrity. This time he looked at Weston, and his manner implied that he was willing to consider any views that he or the others might express.
"I'm afraid that I have been a little at fault," he admitted. "In fact, I quite expected that we would be down again by this time. It is now well on in the afternoon, and, as we have probably covered about two-thirds of the distance, it would not be advisable to go back as we came up."
"That," said Arabella Kinnaird decisively, "is unthinkable."
She turned to Weston, who nodded.
"Anyway, the canoes have gone on, which means that there would be nothing to eat until we came up with them," he said. "It must be eight or nine miles, by water, from our last camp to where they are to wait for us, and the ladies couldn't go so far through the thick timber in the valley."
Kinnaird looked beneath him.
"Well, I don't think anybody could get straight down from here," he said.
It was clearly beyond the power of those who were with him, as they quite realized. A few yards away, the hillside fell almost precipitously for perhaps a thousand feet to the tops of the pines below. Part of it was smooth rock, but long banks of gravel lay resting in the hollows at so steep a slope that it was evident that a footstep would be sufficient to dislodge them. Indeed, without that, every now and then some of them broke away and plunged down into the valley. Close behind the party a wall of crags rose sheer for a hundred feet at least. Kinnaird glanced up at them with a frown.
"I fancy we should find another level strip above," he said; "but since we can't get up the only thing to do is to push on. From what I saw through my glasses when I went up the lake, there is certainly an easier slope once we get around the corner."
They went on, wearily, with the wall of rock creeping out nearer and nearer to the edge of the declivity, and it became quite clear to Weston that the girls' strength was rapidly failing. Still, he quietly urged them on, for it was now becoming a somewhat momentous question whether they could get down before darkness fell; and as a rule the white mists settle heavily upon those ranges with the dusk. Then the margin between rock and declivity almost disappeared, and Weston, looking down on the somber tree-tops, felt reasonably certain that there was now another wall of crags between the foot of the slope and them.
"I suppose you are quite sure, sir, that the face of the hill is less steep around the corner in front of us?" he asked.
"I am," replied Kinnaird. "I traced out the route with my glasses from the head of the lake. Where I was wrong was in not heading for higher level. The bench I intended to follow is clearly above us."
Weston glanced at Ida, and noticed that her face was very weary and a trifle gray, but she smiled at him reassuringly; and they floundered on until the wall of rock pushed them right out to the edge of the declivity. They clung to it here and there with their hands while they felt for a foothold among the banks of gravel. Suddenly, Ida slipped and clutched at Weston. Her hand fell upon the package of provisions that he had slung behind his shoulders with a strip of deerhide, and, for she was of full stature and not particularly slender, it broke away. Then there was a roar of sliding stones, and Weston, dropping on his knees, flung an arm about the girl. She fell as he did it, and they slid down together a yard or so before he drove one foot deep into the gravel and brought himself up. Then he risked a glance at her.
"Don't look down!" he commanded sharply.
Her face was set and white, but she met his gaze, and in her eyes there was something that suggested confidence in him. He felt that he could be sure of her nerve, but whether her strength or his would suffice for the scramble back was another matter, and he was horribly afraid. Kinnaird, lying flat down, held out his hand, and in a moment or two Weston and the girl stood with the others close beneath the rock. He did not know how they got there. He was quivering all through, and the perspiration of tense effort dripped from him. While he stood there gasping, the packet of provisions, which had apparently rested for a few moments among the gravel dislodged by his efforts to climb up, rolled down the slope, and he watched it rush downward until he turned his eyes away. It was too horribly suggestive; but his gaze was drawn back again against his will, and he saw the package vanish suddenly. That made it quite clear that the slope ended in another wall of crags.
He did not remember whether Ida or the others said anything to him; but they crept on again, almost immediately, clinging to the rock, and scarcely venturing to glance down at the climbing forest which now appeared to lie straight beneath them but very far away. A cold wind stung their faces, the rocks above rose higher, but there was, at least, no snow beneath their feet, and they moved on yard by yard, scarcely daring to breathe at times, until at length Kinnaird cried out in a voice that was hoarse with exultation:
"We are over the worst!"
Then Weston gasped with sincere relief, for it was clear that they had crept around the perilous corner. The wall of rock receded, and the slope became less steep in front of them. It was, however, strewn with massy fragments and debris carried down by the snow, and the sun that flung a warm light upon it hung just clear of the peaks across the valley. There was no doubt that his companions were worn out, and he fancied that the girls could scarcely drag themselves along, but they had now no provisions and it was clearly advisable to get down, at least as far as the timber, where one could make a fire, before darkness fell; and they pushed on. Arabella Kinnaird, scrambling over a pile of ragged stones, came down heavily. She cried out as she did so, and then rising with some difficulty, immediately sat down again with her face awry.
"It's my knee," she said faintly.
Kinnaird scrambled toward her, but she waved him back.
"Go on with the packer," she said.
Kinnaird and Weston proceeded a little farther down the slope, which was practicable, though very steep; and when Ida called them back, Arabella smiled ruefully.
"It's horribly bruised, and I'm afraid I've twisted a ligament or something of that kind," she said. "At least, I can't put any weight on it."
There was an expressive silence for the next few moments, and Kinnaird gazed down into the valley with consternation in his eyes. The sun had dipped behind the peaks by this time, and the great hollow was growing dim and hazy. The river was blotted out, and even the climbing forest seemed indistinct.
"Could you get along on my arm?" he asked.
"No," said Arabella sharply, "I don't think I could put my foot on the ground."
Weston said nothing, though he realized that the situation was becoming serious. They had had no more than one hasty meal since early morning, and they were worn out. It was also, as he knew, very cold up on the hills at night. While he considered the matter, Kinnaird stretched out a pointing hand.
"Look!" he said.
A trail of filmy vapor crawled out athwart the lower pines and covered them as it rolled rapidly upward. While they watched it the depths of the valley were filled and became a dim white plain that extended its borders as it ascended. Long billows of vapor rolled out from its edges and slid up the hollows, blotting out the somber ranks of climbing pines one by one until all had gone and rock scarp and rugged peak rose isolated from a vast sweep of mist. It crawled up the slope where they sat, and then stopped and came no higher, leaving the rampart of rock and snow behind them to glimmer coldly blue and gray against the clear green radiance of the evening sky. Kinnaird looked at Weston as if willing to entertain any suggestion.
"It's clear that we can't get down," he said.
"I fancy that I could reach the timber, sir," he said. "I'll bring up a load of branches to make a fire."
He loosed the blankets from his shoulders, and floundering down the slope was lost in the vapor.
An hour passed, and it was growing dark when Weston scrambled up the hillside empty-handed.
"There's a slope between us and the timber, sir, that's too steep to get down," he announced. "I worked along the edge of it until the light failed me and the mist got very thick."
"You did quite right to come back," said Kinnaird. "We shall have to stay here. What do you suggest?"
Weston looked around him carefully.
"There's a little hollow under the ledge yonder. You should keep fairly warm there close together with the blankets over you."
Kinnaird demurred to this, but Weston, drawing him aside, spoke forcibly, and at length he made a sign of acquiescence.
"Well," he said, "no doubt you're right. After all, the great thing is to keep the warmth in us. Where are you going?"
"I'll find a burrow somewhere within call," said Weston quietly.
He was busy for some little time scraping stones out from the hollow beneath the ledge, and then he built a rough wall of the larger ones on two sides of it. After that they got Miss Kinnaird there with some difficulty, and when she and the others had crept into the shelter and wrapped the blankets round them, he turned away and stretched himself out beneath the largest stone he could find. For an hour he lay there smoking, and then put his pipe away. He had not much tobacco, and it occurred to him that he might want the little that remained on the morrow.
In the meanwhile it had grown bitterly cold, and one never feels the cold so much as when a day's arduous exertion has exhausted the natural heat of the body. Weston was also very hungry, and after beating his numbed hands he thrust them inside his deerskin jacket. They had probably reached no great height, but summer was only commencing, and it was evidently freezing. Indeed, the nights had been cold enough when he lay well wrapped up in the sheltered valley. Still, the mist, at least, climbed no higher. The stars were twinkling frostily, and opposite him across the valley a great gray-white rampart ran far up into the dusky blue. He watched it for a while, and then it seemed to grow indistinct and hazy, and when some time afterward he opened his eyes again he saw that there was no mist about the slopes beneath.
Then, as he looked about him, stiff with cold, he noticed that a half-moon had sailed up above the peaks. Its elusive light lay upon the slope, but ledge and stone seemed less distinct than their shadows, which were black as ebony. After that he commenced a struggle with himself, for, numbed as he was, he did not want to move, which is one of the insidious effects of cold. It cramps its victim's volition as well as his body, and makes him shrink from any attempt at the muscular effort which would make it easier for him to resist it. After all, the endurance of bitter frost is rather a question of moral than physical strength, as every prospector who has crossed the snow-bound altitudes on the gold trail knows.
He forced himself to get up, and stood still, shivering in every limb, while a bitter wind struck through him as he gathered his resolution together. Then, stripping off his deerskin jacket, he flung it over one arm as he turned toward his companions' shelter. Kinnaird was awake, and his daughter cried out drowsily when Weston stood looking down at him.
"It's clearing, and I think I could get down," he said. "It would be better if Miss Stirling came with me."
"Yes," said Kinnaird reflectively, "I think she ought to go."
There was, however, a difficulty when Ida rose to her feet, and stood looking about her half awake. She could not speak distinctly, but she seemed bent on staying. Then Kinnaird made a sign to Weston, who quietly slipped his arm within the girl's and drew her away. She went with him some little distance, too dazed to resist, and then, snatching her arm free, turned upon him white with cold and anger.
"What right have you or Major Kinnaird——" she began, but Weston checked her with a little forceful gesture.
"I, at least, have none at all," he admitted. "In a way, however, I suppose I'm responsible for the safety of the whole party. Could you have done Miss Kinnaird any good by staying?"
Cold and half dazed as she was, a moment's reflection convinced Ida that she could have done very little beyond helping to keep her companion warm. Weston, who did not wait for her answer, went on:
"Now," he said severely, "do you feel as comfortable as usual, or are you almost too cold to move?"
The girl admitted that the latter was the case, and Weston spread out his hands.
"Well," he said, "it will be at least another six hours before the first sunlight falls on that ledge. Besides, as you may remember, you have had only one meal since early yesterday morning, and I shall be especially fortunate if I can get back here with the Indians by noon. Major Kinnaird and his daughter must stay, but that doesn't apply to you. Are you still quite sure you have any cause to be angry with me?"
Ida looked at him with a little flash in her eyes.
"Oh," she said, "I suppose you're right. Still, is it necessary to make the thing so very plain?"
"I just want you to realize that you are in my hands until we reach level ground," he replied. "In the meanwhile I should like you to put on this jacket."
He held out the warm deerhide garment, and the girl flashed a covert glance at him. He stood close by her in loose blue shirt and thin duck trousers, and, as far as she could see by the moonlight, his face was pinched and blue with cold.
"I won't," she said.
Weston pursed up his face whimsically. He seldom shone where diplomacy was advisable. As a rule, he endeavored to bring about the end he had in view by the most direct means available. In the present instance he felt very compassionate toward his companion, and recognized only the necessity of getting her back to camp, where there was food and shelter, as soon as possible. Still, it not infrequently happened that his severely simple procedure proved successful.
"Well," he said, "since I don't intend to wear it we'll leave it here. I'll leave you for a minute or two while I prospect for an easier route than the one by which I came up."
He flung down the jacket, and, striding away, disappeared, while Ida shivered as she glanced about her. She could no longer see the shelter she had left, and she stood alone in the midst of a tremendous desolation of rock and snow, with the valley yawning, a vast dusky pit, beneath her feet. It was appallingly lonely, and she was numb with cold, while, since she was sure that she could not climb back to her companions unassisted, there was only one person on whom she could rely, and that was the packer, who had insisted on her doing what he thought fit. When he came back she had put on the jacket, but he had sense enough to make no sign of having noticed it.
"I can see our way for the next few hundred feet," he said.
The way did not prove an easy one, but they went down, with the gravel sliding beneath them, and now and then a mass of debris they had loosened rushing past. It occurred to Ida that Weston limped somewhat awkwardly, and once or twice she fancied that she saw his face contract as they scrambled over some shelf of jutting stone; but they pushed on cautiously until they came to a precipitous descent. Ida sat down gasping, when her companion stopped, and gazed with an instinctive shrinking into the gulf below. She could now see the climbing pines, black beneath the moon, and the river shining far away in the midst of them, but they seemed to go straight down. She was very weary, and scarcely felt able to get up again, but in a minute or two Weston held out his hand.
"I fancy that this ridge dies out somewhere to the left. We'll follow the crest of it until we can get around the end," he said.
They went on very cautiously, though there were times when Ida held her breath and was glad of the firm grasp that her companion laid on her arm. She would not look down into the valley, and when she glanced aside at all it was up at the gleaming snow on the opposite side of it. She seemed to be walking in mid-air, cut off from the comfortable security of the solid earth below, and she found the clamor of falling water that came faintly up to her vaguely reassuring. There had been an almost appalling silence where she had left her companions beneath the frozen peaks, but now one could hear the hoarse fret of a rapid on the river, and this was a familiar sound that she welcomed.
Still her weariness gained on her, and her limbs grew heavier, until she could scarcely drag herself along. Weston's limp became more perceptible too, but he went on with an almost cruel persistency, and forced her forward with his hand on her arm. Sometimes he spoke to her, and, though his voice was strained, his words were cheering and compassionate.
At length, the descent they skirted became less steep, and scrambling down over a broken slope they presently reached the timber—straggling juniper, and little scattered firs that by and by grew taller and closer together; and, though the peril was over, it was then that their real difficulties commenced. The slope was so steep that they could scarcely keep a footing, and now and then they fell into the trees. There were places where these grew so close together that they could scarcely force a passage through, and others where they had gone down before a screaming gale and lay piled in a tangled chaos over which it was almost impossible to flounder. It was dark in the timber, and they could not see the broken ends of the branches that rent their clothing; but they went on somehow, down and down, until, when they reached a clearer space where the moonlight shone through, Ida sank down limply on a fallen tree. Her skirt was rent to tatters, and one shoe had been torn almost to pieces.
"I simply can't go on," she said.
Weston leaned against a neighboring fir, looking down at her very compassionately, though she noticed that his face, on which the moonlight fell, was somewhat drawn and gray.
"Try to think," he said.
"I can't," replied Ida, "I only want to sleep."
Her companion moved forward and quietly laid his hand on her arm as though to urge her to rise.
"Don't you understand how it is? Your friends are up yonder in the frost with nothing to eat. I have to take the Indians back for them."
"Then you must go on," the girl said faintly.
Weston shook his head.
"No," he declared, "not without you. That's out of the question. If there were no other reason, we should have to come back here for you, and I expect that in the daylight we shall find a shorter way up. It will be noon anyway before we get there, and you wouldn't wish to keep your friends waiting longer."
Ida rose with an effort, and clung heavily to his arm when they crept downward again; but the light grew a little clearer as they proceeded, and the sound of the river rang louder in their ears. Then, in the gray of the morning, they staggered out upon the bank of the river. Walking, half awake, Ida floundered among the boulders and through a horrible maze of whitened driftwood cast up by the stream. Farther on they fortunately found stretches of smooth sand, and they plodded over these and through little pools, though she afterward fancied that Weston carried her across some of the deeper ones.
The sun was high when they saw the two canoes drawn up on the bank, and a few moments later Mrs. Kinnaird appeared among the firs. She ran toward them, stumbling in a ludicrous fashion amidst the boulders, and then stopped a few yards away and gazed at Ida. The girl could scarcely stand from weariness, and her dress clung about her, wet with the river-water and rent to tatters. There was fear in the little lady's eyes.
"Where are they?" she asked.
Weston stepped forward limping, and his face was set and gray.
"Up yonder, and quite safe," he said. "Miss Kinnaird has hurt her knee. Nothing serious, but it hurts her to walk. I came for the Indians to help her down again."
He raised his hand restrainingly.
"There is no cause for alarm. Get Miss Stirling something to eat, and leave the rest to me."
He turned away abruptly, and limped past them toward the camp. When Mrs. Kinnaird and Ida reached it, he was hastily getting together provisions, and the Indians were already hewing down two slender firs. When they stood waiting, each with a stout fir pole on his shoulder, he turned to the anxious lady, who seemed bent on going with him.
"It's quite out of the question for you to undertake that climb. We'll be back again in a few hours with the major and Miss Kinnaird," he said.
Ida went up to him and touched his arm, and, for no very evident reason, the color crept into her face when he looked at her inquiringly.
"Can't the Indians find the way themselves?" she asked. "You are scarcely fit to go."
Weston shook his head.
"I must manage it somehow," he said. "They have nothing to eat up yonder, and the Indians might not find them until it's dark again."
He broke off for a moment with a forced smile.
"Try to reassure Mrs. Kinnaird, and then go to sleep as soon as you can."
In another minute he had limped away, and Mrs. Kinnaird found the girl looking down with a very curious expression at a little smear of blood on a smooth white stone. There were further red spots on the shingle, and they led forward in the direction in which the rescue party had gone.
"Oh," she said, "he told me he had cut his foot, and he couldn't have waited long enough to eat anything."
Then she gasped once or twice, for she was worn out to the verge of a break-down, and Mrs. Kinnaird, who saw how white her face was growing, slipped an arm about her and led her back toward the tent.
The afternoon passed very slowly with the little, anxious lady, and every now and then she crept softly out of the tent and gazed expectantly up the steep hillside. Still, each time she did it, there was nothing that she could see except the long ranks of somber firs, and the oppressive silence was broken only by the sound of the river.
Then she slipped back quietly into the tent where Ida lay in a restless sleep. Now and then the girl moved a little, and once or twice she murmured unintelligibly. It was very hot, for the sunrays struck down upon the canvas between the firs, whose clogging, honey-like sweetness was heavy in the air.
By and by, however, it grew a little cooler, as the shadow of the great dark branches crept across the tent. Then they moved out upon the dazzling river and slowly covered it. Mrs. Kinnaird, rising once more in an agony of impatience, stumbled against one of the tent supports. The crutch and ridge-poles rattled, and Ida opened her eyes.
"Oh," she said drowsily, "you needn't be anxious. He is quite sure to bring them back."
She apparently tried to rouse herself, and, failing, went to sleep again; but she left Mrs. Kinnaird a little comforted. The latter was observant, and she felt that Ida Stirling had a reason for her confidence which, she fancied, was not lightly given.
The sunlight had, however, faded off the valley when she rose for the last time from the seat she had found outside the tent, for there was no doubt now that a faint patter of feet on stones mingled with the clamor of the river. Almost as she did so, a few plodding figures appeared beneath the firs, and she saw that two of them carried a litter between them. Then she saw her husband walking very wearily, and she ran forward with a little cry. She grasped one of the poles between which a sagging blanket hung, and Weston, who held the ends of them, looked at her.
"Miss Kinnaird isn't hurt much," he said harshly. "Don't stop us now!"
Then she heard her daughter's voice bearing out this assurance, and she went back with the plodding men, while her husband stumbled along wearily at her side. In a minute or two Weston, calling to one of the Indians, laid down his end of the poles, and, staggering away, sat down heavily. None of them troubled themselves about him, and Ida, who had risen when she heard their voices, helped to convey Miss Kinnaird into the tent. In the meanwhile one of the Indians growled to his comrade when he found the fire out, and stolidly proceeded to relight it, while Weston lay with his back against a fir and watched him with half-closed eyes. The Siwash, however, proved that he was capable of preparing a meal, and when it was finished, Arabella, who appeared much fresher than the major, proceeded to relate her adventures to Ida and her mother.
"It was rather horrible up on the range, and I was almost afraid they wouldn't get me down," she said. "I don't know how they did it, I'm sure. Parts of the way were simply awful. They had to cut the little trees down for yards at a time to get my blanket litter through, and there were places so steep that they could scarcely crawl down. The Indians, of course, had to be relieved now and then, and my father and the packer took turns with them."
She looked at the major with a smile.
"When it was especially steep, I preferred an Indian and the packer. Once, you know, you dropped me; but nothing seemed to disconcert that young man. He must have been horribly worn out, for he had been up twice, but he was so steady and reassuringly quiet. I suppose a man of his kind would appreciate twenty dollars. He really deserves it."
Ida frowned, and remembered the trail of blood on the white stones when the packer had started. Kinnaird made a little abrupt movement.
"I'm afraid that I was forgetting all about the man in my relief at getting you safely down," he said. "We owe him a good deal, and I'll go out presently and thank him; but there's another matter. Your knee ought to be attended to."
That commenced a discussion, but Arabella persisted that she would get over the injury if she didn't walk for a few days.
Then Kinnaird summoned one of the Indians to clear away the meal. The brown-skinned, dark-haired man appeared in the entrance of the tent and spoke haltingly in English.
"They wait," he said, pointing to the supper plates. "Want piece shirt—handkerchief. Packer man's boot full of blood."
Those he addressed looked at one another, and Kinnaird, rising, went out hastily.
KINNAIRD STRIKES CAMP
It was about the middle of the next afternoon when Ida Stirling, walking slowly along the river-bank, came upon Weston sitting with his back to a tree. He wore no boot on one foot which was wrapped in bandages, and when he would have risen Ida checked him with a sign, and sat down not far away.
"Is it too hot in the tent?" he asked.
Ida flashed a swift glance at him. He seemed perfectly contented, and very much at his ease, and it was a little difficult to believe that this was the sharp-voiced mart who had ordered her to put on his jacket early on the previous morning. Now he was smiling languidly, and there was a graceful carelessness that was almost boyish in his manner, which made it a little easier to understand why his comrades had called him the Kid. She was rather pleased with it.
"No," she said. "At least that was not what brought me out. The major has gone fishing; Mrs. Kinnaird has gone to sleep; and Arabella appears a little cross."
"It's excusable," he said. "How is Miss Kinnaird's knee?"
"I don't think it's very bad. How is your foot? It doesn't seem to have affected your temper."
"I'd forgotten all about it. In some respects I feel a little obliged to it. You see, for once in a while, it's rather nice to have nothing to do, and know that one's wages won't immediately stop. Besides, to be waited on is a pleasant change."
Ida's eyebrows straightened a trifle as they sometimes did when she was not exactly pleased. It is by no means an unusual thing in the west for a packer or a ranch hand to converse with his employers or their friends on familiar terms, and it occurred to her that it was a trifle superfluous for him to insist on reminding her of his status when she was willing to forget it. Still, she was quite aware that this man had not always been a packer, and she was conscious of an increasing curiosity concerning his past.
"That is an unusual experience with you?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," said Weston. "Anyway, during the last few years."
She was foiled again, for she could not press the question more closely; and, sitting still in the shadow, she looked up between the dark fir branches at the line of gleaming snow and the great rock rampart beneath which they had crept.