Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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Ingleby stopped beside the windlass and rolled the sleeves of his blue shirt to the elbow as he looked into the shadow beneath him.

"Exactly what is down there I don't know, and it seems a little astonishing now that I didn't ask Tomlinson when I bought the mine," he said. "There should be a thousand dollars, anyway. Tom, are you going to stand shares with me?"

Leger looked at the shaft, and for no very apparent reason became sensible of unpleasant misgivings.

"No," he said. "You hold only a third-share, anyway, and I'm not sure that if you split it up there would be enough for two. Still, I'll stay with you until this evening. You should have some notion how the thing will work out by then."

They went down and toiled steadily for several hours in the short heading Tomlinson had driven. Then Leger ascended and hove up the bucket Ingleby filled, after which they transported the debris to the rocker at the adjacent creek. Tomlinson's flume, which would bring the water to the mine, was not finished yet. By the time this was done the dinner hour had come, and Leger looked at Ingleby as he took up his axe.

"Would you like to go on?" he asked.

"No," said Ingleby, with a little harsh laugh. "There was a time when if I'd had no food since yesterday I should not have stopped, but one gets over that. Besides, I almost fancy we shall know quite soon enough what a third-share in the Tomlinson mine is worth."

Leger made a fire, and Sewell appeared while they ate.

"I have made the record. How have you got on?" he inquired.

Ingleby pointed to the pile of soil and stones and sand. "So far. We are not going any farther until after dinner. It is not very long since I turned prospector, but I have twice bottomed on gold and had to let it go. The last occasion was only two or three hours ago – and I'm not quite sure I've got over it yet."

Sewell nodded sympathetically. "There is gold here – though it's remarkable that nobody seems to know how much," he said. "Tomlinson apparently was not communicative."

"That," said Ingleby, "is, of course, the question. If there is not a good deal a third-share is scarcely likely to recompense me for leaving the other claim, especially when there is a thousand dollars to come out of this one. That's one reason I'm getting dinner before I go any further. I bought a pig in a poke, you see, and now I'm almost afraid to open it."

"I wonder why you made the bargain, especially in view of the fact that Tomlinson told you the chances of striking gold on your own claim were good."

Ingleby appeared a trifle confused. "Well," he said, "Tomlinson had found gold while I hadn't then – and one naturally prefers a certainty. The man was in a difficulty, too."

"Tomlinson, in fact, made use of the old woman back in Oregon somewhat artistically."

Ingleby flushed a trifle. He was one who, though he had, formerly, at least, proclaimed his views, nervously concealed his charities.

"Tomlinson never meant to wrong me of a dollar.

He isn't that kind of man," he said.

"No," said Sewell, with a little laugh, "I scarcely think he did. Well, are we to help you with the wash-up?"

They toiled for awhile knee-deep in very cold water while the rocker clashed and rattled, and Ingleby, whose face grew a trifle grim as the time wore on, washed out the residue of its contents in a little pan. Then, for the others insisted, when there was a good deal of the pile left, they went back to the mine; and the hour of supper had crept round again when Ingleby came out of the stream carrying the result of all that they had done in a little pan. He stood still a moment in the shadow of the pines, and his lips were set and his eyes unusually grave as he looked at Sewell.

"If your new claim turns out dirt equal to what we found this morning you will go South rich," he said. "I would sooner you had it than anybody else – and I don't think I grudge it you."

Sewell took the pan from him and glanced into it. "I'm sorry," he said simply. "The thing is done now, and I can't make you a partner unless you let Tomlinson's claim go, which I presume you don't mean to do."

"That is, of course, quite out of the question. Tomlinson went out believing it was safe with me."

"Then we come back to the other suggestion. I still fancy you are entitled to sell me what one might consider your option on the claim. There are men in the valley who would have willingly handed you their bill for a thousand dollars for the information you supplied me."

Ingleby looked at him steadily, with his head held back a little.

"It already belonged to the Crown," he said. "Have I ever done anything that would lead my friends to believe they could bestow alms on me?"

Sewell smiled. "I fancy there are one or two of them who advocate a community of property!"

It occurred to Leger that it might be advisable to change the subject. "I'm afraid we usually stop there," he said, with a grin. "It has seemed to me lately that there are two difficulties in the way of bringing an equitable division, about, though most people only recognize the obvious one, which is, however, serious enough. I mean inducing the people who have anything worth having to part with it."

"And the other?"

"The other," said Leger reflectively, "would consist in inducing the people who have very little to receive it. There are a few of them who wouldn't be willing to do so – at least, in the Colonies. They want to reap only what they have sown."

"It isn't quite clear that they will be permitted."

Leger smiled drily, though he looked hard at Sewell. "Well," he said, "I almost fancy one could leave it to them. It would be an unfortunate thing for the men who insisted on getting in the way of the sickle."

Then he turned to Ingleby, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "It might be worse," he said.

"Yes," answered Ingleby, who laughed a little, though it cost him an effort, "considerably. The man who has what is evidently a very good living in his hands really doesn't deserve very much sympathy. Still, you see, I twice threw away what looked like a fortune. Any one would find the reflection apt to worry him."

They went away and left him sitting on a blackened cedar stump in the desolate clearing. The clink of the shovels no longer rose from beyond the sombre trees, and there was deep stillness in the hollow. The gaps in the forest grew duskier, and a peak across the valley flung a cold blue shadow athwart the gleaming snow. The dew was settling heavily; but Ingleby sat still, grave in face, seeing nothing, until he rose with a little resolute shake of his shoulders and, slipping down from the stump, took up his axe.

He had twice thrown away a fortune, and with it, for a time, at least, the prospect of realizing a very precious hope; but fortunes are now and then retrieved suddenly in that country; and, in any case, a man who would work must eat.

XXII
ALISON'S SAULT

Some weeks had passed since Ingleby took over Tomlinson's claim, when one lowering evening Grace Coulthurst pulled up her cayuse pony in the depths of the Green River valley. Leaden cloud had veiled the peaks since early morning, and now the pines were wailing dolefully beneath a bitter breeze. A little dust of snow, fine and dry as flour, whirled about her, and the trail was hard as adamant beneath her pony's feet. The beast pricked its ears and stamped impatiently, for it had been bred in the wilderness and knew what was coming.

Grace, whose fingers were growing stiff, relaxed her grasp on the bridle, and looked about her observantly, but without uneasiness. She was some distance from home, and daylight was dying out unusually early, while few horses unaccustomed to the mountains could have scrambled over either of the trails. There were two of them, foot-wide tracks which climbed up and down steep hollows and twisted round great fallen trees, and she had stopped at the forking, though there was, she knew, very little to choose between them.

The bush was a little thinner just there, but she could see nothing beyond dim colonnades of towering trunks that were rapidly fading into the gloom. The cold was nipping, and she shivered when the breeze dropped a moment. The silence was startling, and she felt it almost a relief when a low crescendo murmur like the sound of distant surf rose from the pines as the wind awoke again. Then a puff of powdery snow stung her tingling cheeks, and she shook the bridle and turned the cayuse into the lower trail.

She had ridden to the mines at the head of the valley early in the afternoon, while her father walked by her stirrup, which, considering the nature of the trail, he had no difficulty in doing. Indeed, he had led, and now and then dragged, the horse up parts of it. There had, as not infrequently happened, been a dispute concerning the boundaries of a placer claim, and the commissioner had gone over to adjudicate. He was not a brilliant man, but he showed no one favour, and the whimsically expressed decisions which he apparently blundered upon gave general satisfaction and are still remembered in the Green River valley. It was also characteristic of him that he had saved more than one difficult situation, in which a logical exposition of the mining laws would probably have been unavailing, by a little free badinage.

In the meanwhile his daughter, whom he had bidden ride home, realized without any undue anxiety that it might be advisable to reach there as soon as she could. She was at home in the saddle, and rightly thought herself secure from any difficulty that might not be occasioned by the weather. The free miner is a somewhat chivalrous person, which is going far enough by way of appreciation, since the epithet which might suggest itself to those acquainted with his characteristics has little meaning in the land to which he belongs, where men have outgrown the need of meretricious titles. Still, when a thin white haze blotted out the dim colonnades and obscured the firs beside the trail she strove to quicken the cayuse's pace a trifle. The beast was apparently already doing what it could, clambering up slopes of gravel, sliding down them amidst a great clatter of stones, and turning and twisting amidst tangled undergrowth.

Now and then a drooping branch whipped the girl as she went by or shook the snow that was gathering on it into her face, and the withered fern smote smears of white powder across her skirt. Winter was closing in earlier than any one had expected, and that night an Arctic cold descended suddenly upon the lonely valley. Her hands grew numb on the bridle, all sense of feeling seemed to go out of the foot in the stirrup, and at last it was with difficulty she pulled up the cayuse, which appeared as anxious to get home as she was. They had floundered round the spreading branches of a great fallen tree, and now there no longer appeared to be a trail beneath them.

Grace shivered all through as she looked about her. The pines were roaring in the sliding haze; the air was thick with dust, not flakes, of snow. Here and there she could dimly see a tree, but the white powder obscured her sight and stung her face when she lifted it. She could not remember having passed that fallen tree when riding out, nor could she recall how long it was since she had seen the narrow trail in front of her. Where it was now she did not know, but there was, at least, the sound of the river on one side of her, when she could hear it across the moaning of the trees. In heading for it she would probably strike the trail again, and once more she spoke to the cayuse and shook the bridle. She was becoming distinctly anxious now.

Then a hazy object appeared suddenly a few yards in front of her, and stopped at her cry, while in another moment Ingleby was standing by her stirrup, and her apprehensions melted away. It was significant that she was by no means astonished. She felt that it was only fitting that when she wanted him he should be there. The mere sight of his face, of which she caught a faint glimpse, was reassuring.

"Do you know that I am very glad I met you? Where is the trail?" she said.

Ingleby did not protest that it afforded him an equal gratification, and if he had done so it would probably not have pleased her. Grace was critical, and rather liked the reticence which was, it seemed, in harmony with his character – that is, since he had, fortunately, grown out of the evil habit of discussing social economics.

"I don't think it can be far away. In fact, I was Just trying to cut off a bend of it," he said, with a little laugh.

"It isn't exactly a pleasant night for a stroll through the bush," said Grace suggestively.

"No," replied Ingleby, who fell into the snare. "Still, you see, they were expecting me at the bakery."

Grace was by no means pleased at this. Certain observations Esmond had once let fall with a purpose had not been without their effect on her, and she remembered that the girl at the bakery was, it had to be admitted, pretty. It also appeared likely that she was what is now and then termed forward. Grace's displeasure, which she did not, of course, express, might, however, have been greater had there been any delay in the man's answer.

"Then if you will show me the trail I will not keep you. I am getting cold," she said.

Ingleby took the bridle, and he and the cayuse floundered through what appeared to be a horrible maze of fallen branches and tangled undergrowth. In fact, Grace fancied she heard her skirt rip as they struggled in it. Then the bush became a little clearer, and they went on more briskly, up and down steep slopes and past dim blurs of trees, while soil and gravel alike rang beneath the cayuse's feet. How long this continued Grace did not exactly know, nor had she any notion as to where they were. The only reassuring thing was the glimpse she had of Ingleby plodding on beside her horse's head, which was, however, quite sufficient. Still, civility demanded something, and at last she bade him stop.

"I'm afraid I must be taking you away from the bakery," she said.

Ingleby laughed. "I am, of course, not going there now."

That should have been sufficient, but Grace was not quite contented. Compliments on her beauty seldom pleased her, but she liked to feel the hold she had upon those she attracted, and was not averse to having it explained to her.

"No?" she said. "Then where are you going?"

Ingleby appeared a trifle astonished, as though he considered the question quite unnecessary, which was naturally gratifying.

"To the Gold Commissioner's residence," he said.

"With my permission?" and Grace laughed.

Ingleby did not look at her. He was apparently staring at the forest, which loomed through the whirling haze a faint blur of vanishing trees, and he flung the answer over his shoulder.

"I think I would venture to go without it to-night," he said.

This was significant, but although the snow was certainly getting thicker and the cold struck through her like an icy knife, Grace no longer felt any apprehension. She was not unaccustomed to physical discomfort and peril, and there could be, she felt, no doubt of her reaching home safely while Ingleby plodded at the horse's head. He was young, and by no means assertive, but there were men in the Green River valley who shared her confidence in him. Still, the rough flounder through the brushwood was becoming irksome, and where the trees were smaller she could not avoid all the drooping branches by swaying in the saddle, and at last she bade him pull up again.

"We are a long while striking the trail," she said.

"Yes," said Ingleby, without turning towards her.

Grace leaned down and touched him. "Why haven't we found it? I mean you to tell me."

The man made a little gesture, for he recognized that tone.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "We have struck it, and didn't recognize it. In fact, we must have gone straight across and left it behind us."

Grace sat still and looked at him. She could not see his face; he was no more than a blurred shadowy shape in the haze of sliding snow. Still, she could make out that he was standing very straight with slightly tilted head, and she knew the intentness of gaze and look of tenacity in the hidden face which usually accompanied that attitude. His answer also pleased her. There was no attempt at concealing unpleasant probabilities, for the man spoke frankly as to one whom he regarded as his equal in courage and everything except, perhaps, bodily strength. In the meanwhile, however, they were alone in the wilderness, cut off from all hope of succour by anything but their own resources in a haze of snow, with their limbs slowly stiffening under the Arctic cold.

"Then what are we to do?" she asked.

"Push on," said Ingleby. "The river must be close at hand to the right of us. That is why I'm keeping to the higher ground. I don't want to strike until we have passed Alison's Sault."

He wrenched at the bridle; but Grace had faint misgivings as they floundered on again. Sault in that country implies a fall or rapid, and the one in question was called after a prospector who had drowned himself and a comrade there. It swept down to the mouth of the ca?on in a wild white rush, studded with great boulders that bruised and scarred the pines the flood hurled down on them; and what made it more perilous in the dark was the fact that the trail dipped to the brink of the smaller rapids at the tail of it. Indeed, it was often necessary to splash knee-deep through the slack of them along the shore; and Alison had come by his death through mistaking the big sault for one of the smaller ones on a black night. The man who fished him out of an eddy a week later said that Alison looked very much as though he had been put through a threshing mill.

It was, Grace fancied, half an hour later when they floundered down a declivity, with the roar of the river growing louder in their ears. It was with difficulty she kept in the saddle, and she was vaguely conscious that her skirt was rent to tatters, though she was too stiff and cold to trouble about that now. Even in the thicker timber the snow was almost bewildering, and it was only now and then she could see Ingleby scrambling and floundering in front of her. He was evidently making his course by sound, for there was nothing that she could discern to guide him.

Then somehow they slid down a bank, and there was a splash that told her the cayuse was in the water. Ingleby seemed to be struggling with the beast, but she could not make out why he did so. Nor did it seem of any moment. She was dazed and bewildered and intolerably cold. There was a further splashing, a plunge, and a flounder; the water rose to her stirrup, and for a few horrible moments she felt that the beast was going downstream with her. It was evident by the depth that they were in the Sault. She fancied she cried out in her terror and that Ingleby shouted in answer, but the roar of the river drowned the sound. In another few seconds, however, the horse apparently struck rock with its hoofs again; then the water that had lapped about her skirt seemed to fall away, and in a frantic scrambling Ingleby dragged the pony up the bank. The cayuse stood still, trembling, at the top of it, and Ingleby was apparently quivering, too, for his voice shook a little as he answered her half-coherent questions.

"Alison's Sault!" he said hoarsely. "It should have been behind us. I never recognized it until the river swept my feet from under me. I suppose I was dazed by the snow."

Grace sat silent a moment. She knew that they had looked death in the face, for nothing made of flesh and blood could carry the life in it through the mad turmoil of rock and flood in Alison's Sault. The roar of the river was very impressive now, and the man's voice had shown that he was shaken by some strong emotion which was not personal fear. Then, as the crash of a great pine against a stream-swept stone rang through the deep reverberations, she bent down and touched his shoulder. The contact was momentary, but she felt a little quiver run through him.

"Nobody could have recognized it on such a night. It was not your fault," she said.

"I can't forgive myself. The cayuse got out of hand – I couldn't hold him. He was heading out into the stream. If that ledge hadn't been there – "

He stopped with a gasp, and Grace was glad to recognize that of the two she was the one who showed less concern. She guessed what he was feeling, but could not restrain the desire to make certain.

"Well," she said. "If the shelf of rock had not been there?"

Ingleby turned and seemed to be listening to the river. Perhaps he did it unconsciously, but the hoarse roar of the flood among the boulders was sufficient answer.

"You were not cumbered with a horse that had lost its head. There is a little slack close to the bank," she said.

The man turned and seemed by his attitude to be gazing at her in astonishment.

"You can't suppose I should have scrambled out alone?" he said.

There was a suggestion of anger in his voice which Grace recognized as wholly genuine. She had met and formed her own opinion of the protestations of not a few young men in her time, and it was evident to her that, while Ingleby's attitude became him, he did not recognize the fact.



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