The Gold Trail/Chapter XXI
Chapter XXI: The Brulee
Stirling, who hitherto, like a wise man, had carefully avoided wild-cat mining schemes, and, indeed, ventures of any kind outside his own profession, had for once thrust his prudence into the background and done what he could to further Weston's project, for a reason which he would not have admitted to anybody else. He was not famous as a charitable person, but he had, for all that, unobtrusively held out a helping hand to a good many struggling men in need of it during his career, and there were now certain conjectures and suspicions lying half-formulated at the back of his mind. He had acted on them with the impulsive promptness which usually characterized him, and it was not his fault that his efforts proved fruitless, for Weston, as it happened, neither revisited Vancouver nor communicated with Norris & Lander.
A week after he left Montreal, Weston met Grenfell in a little British Columbian settlement shut in by towering ranges and leagues of shadowy bush, where they were fortunate enough to find a storekeeper who seemed inclined to place more credence in their story than any of the company promoters had done. What was more to the purpose, he offered to provide them with a horse, camp-gear and provisions, in exchange for a certain share in the mine should their search prove successful. The share was rather a large one, but, as the man pointed out, it was very probable that they might not strike the lode at all. They also made the acquaintance of a young surveyor who had set up in the wooden settlement several months earlier and had done very little business since. He was quite willing to give them the benefit of his professional services on somewhat similar terms to those the storekeeper had made.
The result of this was that early one morning they set out once more on the gold trail. When they made their first camp at sunset in a grove of towering pines they held a council. It was almost dark amidst the serried rows of tremendous trunks, but the light of the snapping fire fell upon their faces, which were all a trifle grave. In the case of two of the party, at least, their faces were stamped with a certain quiet resolution and a hint of the forcefulness which comes of rigid and continuous self-denial. Men discover in the bush that abstention from most of the little comforts and amenities of life not infrequently tends to vigor of body and clarity of mind. This, however, is a fact that has been accepted long ago, for it is not, as a rule, the full-fleshed, self-indulgent man who does anything worth while. Their skin was clear and bronzed, their nerves steady, and, though Grenfell differed from them in these respects, their eyes were very keen, with a snap in the depths of them. They were eyes that could look peril and defeat squarely in the face without flinching.
Devine, the young surveyor, laughed as he flung his empty enameled plate aside.
"It's quite a long time since I had a meal of that kind," he said. "After all, there is a certain satisfaction in the feeling that you couldn't eat very much more even if you had it, though that's an opportunity to which I've not been accustomed lately. I've made my supper rather frequently on half of a stale flapjack, and had the other half for breakfast the next day. Having admitted that, suppose we turn our attention to the proposition in front of us. You were heading south when you separated from Verneille, Grenfell?"
"About south. I can't be sure."
"That," observed the surveyor, "may mean anything between southeast and southwest; and if we take the spot where you found your partner afterward, and make a sweep with a forty-mile radius, which is what we've concluded was the distance he probably covered, it gives us quite a big tract of country to search. Still, we ought to find a lake that's a mile or two across."
Weston laughed softly.
"It's my third attempt, and I don't know how often Grenfell has tried. One could almost fancy that the lake has vanished. That sounds a little absurd, doesn't it?"
"Well," said Devine, with an air of reflection, "we won't admit that it's an impossibility. If you can take that for granted, it simplifies the thing."
Grenfell, who lay with his back against a fir trunk, roused himself suddenly.
"I never thought of it in that way," he said. "Still, lakes as big as that one don't vanish."
"Anyway, mines seem to do so. The woods are full of them, if all one hears is true."
"It isn't," said Weston dryly, "though I've no doubt there are a few lost mines. Are you sure you haven't done a crazy thing in joining us in the hunt for this one? Of course, I've tried to put that aspect of the matter squarely before you already."
Devine, who was a young man, flushed slightly.
"The cold fact is that I was only afraid you wouldn't take me. It's a big inducement to know that one has a reasonable supply of provisions in hand."
"You've evidently been up against it, like the rest of us," Grenfell suggested.
"I've lived for three months on the proceeds of the only job I got; and it's quite likely I shouldn't have held out if I hadn't been broken into the thing while I got through with my studies in Toronto. I don't quite know now how I did that, but I had to hire out between whiles, teaming and dredging up building stone from the lake, to make my fees, and now and then I lived on one meal a day to spin out the money. It would have been easier at the settlement, but I had a lesson soon after I put up my sign. Two city men sent up by a syndicate to look for a pulp-mill site and timber rights came along one hot day and found me splitting cedar shingles, with mighty few clothes on. The result was that while I might have made a small pile of money out of them, they sent back to Vancouver for another man and paid him twice as much, though they didn't locate the mill. I felt I had to tell you this."
It was not at all an uncommon story in that country, and when Weston looked at Grenfell with a smile, the latter waved his hand.
"Oh," he said, "we're a most worshipful company of broken deadbeats, fed on credit, and out on a forlorn hope; but it seems to me that the storekeeper who supplied us with provisions is the craziest of all the crowd."
"It was the broken men who made this country," said Devine.
There was a certain truth in this observation, as the rest of them knew, for, after all, it was the outcast and the desperate who first pushed grimly on into the wilderness, up tremendous defiles and over passes choked with snow, and afterward played a leading part in the Titanic struggle with nature in the strongholds where she had ruled supreme. The wilderness is merciless; the beaten men died, but the rest held on, indomitable; and now those who from the security of a railroad observation-car gaze upon orchard and oat-field, awful gorge and roaring torrent, can dimly realize what the making of that province cost the pioneers who marched into it with famine-worn faces and bleeding feet. That the valor of that army has not yet abated all are sure who know what the vanguard of the last host had to face on the trail to Klondyke a few years ago.
It is unpleasant to sleep in half-thawed slush around a sulky fire, or to grip canoe pole or paddle until one's swollen fingers will not straighten and the palms are raw. There is an exhilaration in plunging down a roaring rapid through a haze of spray, but it loses something of its charm when each movement required to keep the canoe straight causes the man who holds the paddle agony from the wounds the floor of the craft has rubbed on his knees; and a portage through tangled brushwood and over slippery rock around a fall forms a tolerably arduous task when he is stiff from constant immersion in very cold water and has had little to eat for a week or so. It is a little difficult to convey a clear impression of the sensation experienced during the execution of these and similar tasks, though they are undertaken somewhat frequently in that country, and, as it happens, the men most qualified to speak are not as a rule gifted with descriptive powers.
In any case, nobody answered Devine, and instead of moralizing they presently went to sleep. They were up at sunrise the next day, and started soon afterward on a march that led them through tangled pine bush, the tall grass of natural swamp prairies, rotting muskegs, and over stony hill-slopes. It was repeated with no great variation for several weeks, except that now and then they swam or ferried themselves on logs over very cold and rapid rivers. Still, thanks to the surveyor's professional skill, they were quartering the country systematically, and, though now and then they had to leave the horse at a base camp under Grenfell's charge, they had to grapple with no insuperable difficulty.
A good many leagues of range and forest had been traversed when they reached a tract where they had trouble in finding water. There was snow above them, but it either soaked down through the strata, or the drainage from it descended on the other side of the divide. It was also, though not quite summer yet, unusually hot weather, and the season had been exceptionally dry, and they had contented themselves for a week with the little muddy fluid they scraped up here and there from oozy pools that were lined with pine needles and rotting leaves, when they came to a big brulee.
It filled a deep valley that was hemmed in by almost precipitous crags, and though charred logs and branches lay here and there, most of the burned forest was still standing. As a matter of fact, a fire in this region very seldom brings the trees down. It merely strips them. As the men pushed wearily on, endless ranks of blackened trunks moved steadily back before them. There was not a branch left. The trees were tremendous, half-calcined columns, and, for it was evident that any wild wind seldom entered the deep hollow, they might have stood in that condition a year or more. The trouble in traversing a brulee is that one cannot tell when, from some cause or other, one of them may come down.
It was about noon, and they had with some difficulty dined on grindstone bread and canned stuff without a drink of any kind, when Weston, who was leading the horse, pulled it up suddenly. He was thirsty and short of temper, and in a mood that would have made it easier for him to smash through an obstacle instead of stopping, but he fancied that he saw a great blackened trunk close in front of him lean over a trifle. He was sure of it in another moment, and he urged the horse aside, for the towering column swayed and oscillated as though it strove to recover its equipoise, and then suddenly rushed earthward. He felt the wind it made strike cold upon his cheek, and then there was a deafening crash, and a cloud of fine black dust rose up. It whirled and eddied about him like the smoke of a great gun, and the powder that settled thick upon him clogged his eyelashes and filled his nostrils. The horse plunged viciously and came near dragging him off his feet.
After that there was for a few seconds a silence that seemed oppressive by contrast, until it was suddenly broken by another startling crash. It was repeated here and there, as though when each tree fell the concussion brought down another, and the brulee was filled with shocks of sound that rang in tremendous reverberations along the steep rocks. In the meanwhile the men stood fast with tense, blackened faces peering at the eddying dust out of half-blinded eyes, until the crashes grew less frequent and there was deep silence again.
Then Weston, who patted the trembling horse, sat down and pointed to the great, shapeless pile of half-burned wood and charcoal close in front of him.
"A near thing. I think I'll have a smoke," he said.
"A smoke!" gasped Grenfell. "With your mouth and tongue like an ash-pit! I'd much sooner have a sherry cobbler, as they used to make it with a big lump of ice swimming in it, at the--it's the club, I mean. That is," he added, with a sigh, "if I could get it."
"You can't," observed Devine, dryly. "I'd be content with water. But didn't you break off rather suddenly in one place?"
"You're young," said Grenfell, looking at him solemnly. "If you weren't, I should regard that observation as an impertinence. I said the club, which is sufficient. They used to make you really excellent sherry cobblers there."
"Well," said Devine, with his eyes twinkling, "I guess it is, and the name was half out when you stopped. I was naturally never inside the place in question, but I've been in Montreal. It's kind of curious, isn't it, to find a man who talks about such things leading a forlorn hope, as you call it?"
"No," said Grenfell, "it isn't curious at all. There are cases in which a fondness for sherry cobblers provides a sufficient explanation for greater incongruities."
It was apparently a relief to talk of something, for there was no doubt that all of them had felt the tension of the last few minutes; but Weston cut short the discussion.
"We must get water to-morrow, anyway," he said. "Had you any trouble about it, Grenfell, the time you struck the lake?"
Grenfell sat down on a fragment of the charred log and seemed to consider.
"No," he said slowly. "That is, we didn't quite run out of it, though once or twice for several days we came across only a small creek or two. There were signs that in some seasons it would be a dry country."
He broke off and looked up at the range, while the faces of the others grew intent as they watched him.
"In a way all that's familiar," he said; "but I've felt the same thing in other places, and I can't be sure."
"Anyway," remarked Weston, "if there was a lake up yonder, the creek would naturally flow through the valley. It must have an outlet, and we're going up-grade."
"The creek," said Grenfell, sharply, "went down the other side. The lake lies just over a low divide."
Weston started a little and put away his pipe.
"Boys," he said, "we'll get on again."
They went on, and the memory of that afternoon long remained with them. They were grimed with black dust and ashes, and the ranks of charred trunks cast only thin strips of shade, while a scorching sun poured down an almost intolerable heat into the deep valley. The ground was ankle-deep in dust and charcoal, and, as they floundered through it, feathery ash rose in clouds. Their clothing grew crusted with it, and it worked through and irritated their heated skin; while every now and then one of them was compelled to stop and splutter. Their throats, as Grenfell remarked, certainly felt very much like ash-heaps. None of them had drunk anything since supper the night before, and then only a very little water that tasted alkaline.
Still, except for the loose deposit that made walking difficult, the ground was comparatively clear, and they pushed on, making a detour only now and then around a fallen tree, or waiting for Grenfell, who lagged behind and limped, until the slanting rays beat pitilessly into their faces and their aching eyes were dazzled by the burning glow. Then Grenfell sat down rather frequently.
"We're going northwest," said Weston once, while they waited for him. "You said that was how you headed the day before you struck the lake."
"Yes," said Grenfell, with an air of trying to recall something. "It was summer, and at sunset the light was in our eyes. There was a very rugged strip on the range--not unlike that one yonder. Still, I can't be sure."
Nothing more was said. It was quite clear that Grenfell's memory was not to be trusted, and they were in no mood for talking. They went on a little more slowly, but Grenfell lagged again, and it was a vast relief to all of them when the glare that hurt their eyes died out suddenly as the red sun dipped behind a wall of rock. Half an hour later the heat of the brulee seemed to dissipate, and a wondrous invigorating coolness crept in with the dusk, when they made their camp and picketed the jaded horse. It did not seem worth while to light a fire, as they had no water to use for tea; and, after eating a little grindstone bread and salt pork cooked the previous day, they lay down rolled in their blankets.