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The Greater Power/Chapter 1

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CHAPTER I
OVERBURDENED

IT was winter in the great coniferous forest which rolls about the rocky hills and shrouds the lonely valleys of British Columbia. A bitter frost had dried the snow to powder and bound the frothing rivers; it had laid its icy grip upon the waters suddenly, and the sound of their turmoil died away in the depths of the rock-walled cañons, until the rugged land lay wrapped in silence under a sky of intense, pitiless blueness that seemed frozen too. Man and beast shrink from the sudden cold snaps, as they call them, in that country, and the rancher, who has sheep to lose, sits shivering in his log house through the long forenights with a Marlin rifle handy, while the famished timber wolves prowl about his clearing. Still, it is the loggers toiling in the wilderness who feel the cold snaps most, for the man who labours under an Arctic frost must be generously fed, or the heat and strength die out of him, and, now and then, it happens that provisions become scanty when no canoe can be poled up the rivers and the trails are blocked with snow.

There were four loggers at work in a redwood forest, one January afternoon, rolling a great log with peevies and handspikes out of a chaos of fallen trunks. The Bush, a wall of sombre green, spangled here and there with frost, and impressively still, closed in about the little gap they had made. Not a sound came out of the shadowy avenues between the tremendous colonnades of towering trunks, and the topmost sprays of the cedars and Douglas firs cut motionless against the blue high above. There was no wind, and the men's breath went straight up, a thin white vapour, into the biting air. Still, they were warm and comparatively well fed, which was a good deal to be thankful for, and three of them toiled contentedly, with now and then a glance at their companion, who realized at length that he was beaten. In fact, it was only by calling up all the resolution that was in him that this fourth man, Derrick Nasmyth, had held himself to his task since early morning, for there is no occupation which demands from man more muscular effort and physical courage than logging, as it is generally carried on in the forest of Western Canada.

Nasmyth was a tall man, apparently under thirty, and leanly muscular, as were his companions, for those who swing the axe from dawn to dusk in that wilderness seldom put on flesh. His bronzed face was also lean, and a trifle worn. Considering his occupation, it was, perhaps, too finely chiselled, and there was a certain elusive suggestion of refinement in it. He had clear blue eyes, and the hair beneath his battered fur cap was brown. For the rest, he wore a black leather jacket with several rents in it, ragged duck trousers, and long boots. His companions were the usual Bush choppers—simple, strong-armed men of kindly nature—and Nasmyth was quite aware that they had undertaken most of his share in the work during the last few hours.

"Another heave!" said one of the woodsmen. "Hit her hard, boys, and away she goes!"

They strained sinewy backs and splendid arms. The great log rolled a trifle farther, canted, as one of them slipped a handspike under the butt of it, and landed on the skids, which were laid like railway sleepers down the slope of a steep declivity. The snow was ground down and rammed back about the skids, and the worn-out hollow gleamed a faint blue-grey in the shadow of the firs. The men made another strenuous effort as the log started, but in another moment it rushed away, and, like a toboggan, sped downwards through the forest to the river-ice below. The skids screamed beneath it, the snow flew up like smoke, and then there was a thunderous crash and stillness again. Nasmyth gasped heavily, and dropped his handspike.

"Boys," he said, "I'm used up. I'll go along to the shanty and get my time."

He generally expressed himself much as his comrades did, but now his clean English intonation was a little more noticeable than usual. One of the others nodded sympathetically, as he answered:

"Well, I guess I've seen the trouble trailing you for quite a while. Got to let up or play out. It's one I've been up against myself." He made a vague gesture. "A little rough on you."

Then he and one of his comrades took up a big crosscut saw, while the other swung a gleaming axe. Nasmyth walked back wearily through the silent Bush towards the camp. His back ached, his head ached, and he felt a trifle dazed. The strength seemed to have gone out of him, and he fancied that he was not very far from a physical collapse. He was glad when he reached the shanty, where, after he had shaken the snow from his dilapidated boots, he sat down by the glowing stove, and smiled wryly as he looked about him. The shed was rudely built of logs, and a row of bunks packed with swamp-grass and spruce-twigs, from some of which there hung portions of greasy blankets, ran down one side of it. It smelt horribly of acrid tobacco and cookery, but at least, it was warm, which counted for much, and, during the last few months, Nasmyth had grown to look on it as home. He knew, also, that it would cost him something to leave it now, especially as he had nowhere else to go.

Lying back listlessly in a lounge an ingenious chopper had made out of a few branches and a couple of sacks, Nasmyth vaguely recalled the comfort of his London chambers and the great pillared smoking-room of a certain exclusive club, for he was a man acquainted with the smoother side of life. He had various gifts which were apparently of no account in British Columbia, and he had enjoyed an education that had, it seemed, unfitted him for anything strictly utilitarian. There are a great many men of his description chopping trees and driving cattle in Western Canada. Indeed, his story was one which, with slight variations, may be heard frequently in that country. Financial disaster had overtaken his family. Friends in high places had regarded him coldly, and he had been too proud to ask for favours, or to profit by those that were grudgingly offered him. That was why he had gone out to Canada and spent several years there earning his board, and, now and then, a few dollars as well, by bodily labour, until he went up into the Bush with the loggers.

For a time he had somehow contrived to hold his own with the other workers, though logging in heavy timber is one of the tasks one could almost fancy that man was never meant for, and the logger, whose overtaxed muscle fails him for a moment, is very likely to have the life crushed out of him by some ponderous, slipping trunk. Perhaps, his lack of endurance was due to the excessive strain, or the ill-cooked food, but during the last few weeks he had been conscious that a slackness was creeping over him. Once or twice the handspike or peevie had been torn from his grasp, and the lives of his comrades had been placed in peril. He had found it more and more difficult to drag himself out to his work each morning, but he had held on until that afternoon when his strength had suddenly failed him.

Nasmyth was half-asleep when the cook and the leader of the gang came in. The latter, who was a big, gaunt man with grizzled hair, stopped close by the stove and looked at him.

"Well," said the gang leader, "what do you figure you're doing here?"

Nasmyth explained with some difficulty, for in the Bush, men acquire a certain pride in their physical manhood, and it is never a pleasant thing to own oneself defeated. The logger, however, nodded comprehendingly. He was a reticent, grim-faced person from Ontario, where they breed hard men, though some have, also, kindly hearts in them.

"That's quite right. I've noticed it myself," he commented. "In fact, I've been figuring on asking you to get out the last week or two."

Nasmyth smiled. Like other men of his description in that country, he had become accustomed to hearing such remarks addressed to him.

"I wonder," he answered reflectively, "why you didn't."

The logger appeared to consider. It was characteristic of him and the stock he sprang from that he would never have admitted that he had borne with Nasmyth as long as possible out of kindness. The thing would have hurt him.

"Well," he said, "it seemed to me we might start you teaming, if I could have got a span or two of oxen in, but I'm most afraid I can't get them at my figure." He changed the subject abruptly. "Where are you heading for?"

"I don't quite know, though I shall probably land in Victoria sooner or later. I might strike something a little easier than logging there. Still, it would be most of a week's march before I could reach the railroad, and there's not a ranch anywhere near the trail."

The logger nodded. "Well," he said, "I'd head West instead. There'll be nothing going on along the railroad just now, and the mines are running easy, while you ought to fetch the settlement south of Butte Lake on the third day. Guess you might pick up a dollar or two in that neighbourhood, and, any way, there's a steamer running down the West Coast to Victoria. Seems to me quite likely one of those Bush-ranchers would take you in a while, even if he didn't exactly want a hired man; but they don't do that kind of thing in the city."

Nasmyth smiled. Experience had already taught him that, as a rule, the stranger who is welcomed in the cities arrives there with money in his pockets, and that it is the hard-handed men with the axes from whom the wanderer in that country is most likely to receive a kindness. Still, though he was naturally not aware of it, a great deal was to depend upon the fact that he followed the advice of the logger, who traced out a diagram on the bench upon which they sat.

"There's an Indian trail up the river for the first four leagues," said the logger. "Then you strike southwest, across the divide—here—and you come to the Butte River. She's running in a little cañon, and you can't get over 'cept where a prospector or somebody has chopped a big fir."

The log span across a stream is an old device, and was probably primitive man's first attempt at bridge-building, though it is one frequently adopted on the Pacific slope, where a giant tree grows conveniently close to an otherwise impassable river. It was, however, important that Nasmyth should be able to find the tree.

"You know exactly where that fir is?" he asked.

"Southwest of the highest ridge of the divide. Once you're over, you'll fetch the Butte Lake in a long day's march. When d'you figure you'll start?"

"To-night," said Nasmyth, "after supper. If there's sickness of any kind hanging round me—and I feel like it—you don't want me here, and I dare say they'd take me into the hospital at Victoria. Walking's easier than logging, anyway, and it seems wiser to try for that fir in daylight."

The logger nodded as if he concurred in this, and, taking a little book from his pocket, he turned it over, wrinkling his brows while Nasmyth watched him with a smile.

"Well," he said at length, "we'll count you full time to-day, but there's the four days off when you got crushed by that redwood, and the week when you chopped your leg. Then, counting the amount for your board, that's thirty-six dollars I'm due to you."

"Not quite," answered Nasmyth. "There was the day or two after I fell through the ice and had the shivers. I'd sooner you knocked off the few dollars."

The logger was said to be a hard man, and in some respects this was certainly the case; but a faint flush crept into his grim face. Perhaps he had noticed the weariness in Nasmyth's voice or the hollowness of his cheeks.

"All right," he said awkwardly. "Jake will put you up grub for four days, and we'll call it square."

He counted out the money, which Nasmyth slipped into the receptacle inside his belt. When the logger moved away the weary man crossed over to his bunk. Nasmyth had brought his few possessions up in a canoe, and now, knowing that he could not take them all away, he turned them over with a curious smile. There were one or two ragged pairs of duck trousers stained with soil, a few old tattered shirts, and a jacket of much the same description. He remembered that he had once been fastidious about his tailoring, as he wondered when he would be able to replace the things that he left behind. Then he rolled up some of the garments and his two blankets into a pack that could be strapped upon his shoulders, and, as he did this, his comrades came trooping in, stamping to shake the snow off their leggings.

There were about a dozen of them—simple, strenuous, brown-faced Bush-ranchers for the most part—and they ate in haste, voraciously, when the abundant but rudely served supper was laid out. Nasmyth had not much appetite, and the greasy salt pork, grindstone bread, desiccated apples, flavoured molasses, and flapjacks hot from the pan, did not tempt him. He preferred to watch his companions, and now and then his glance was a trifle wistful. He had worked and eaten with them; they had slept about him, and he knew he had their rude good-will. When his strength had begun to give way, some of them had saddled themselves with more than their share of the tasks they were engaged in, and he knew that it was possible he might not fall in with comrades of their kind again. Now that the time had come, he, who had once been welcomed at brilliant London functions, felt that it would cost him an effort to part with these rough comrades. Perhaps this was not so astonishing, for, after all, strenuous, valiant manhood and rude kindliness count for much.

The shanty was cheerfully lighted and cosily warm. Nasmyth had slept soundly there on the springy spruce-twigs, and there was at least abundance when the mealtimes came round. Now he was about to be cast adrift again to face a three days' march in the open, under the bitter frost, and what might await him at the end of it he did not know. At length, the meal was cleared away, and when the pipes were lighted, he told his comrades that he was going. They were not demonstrative in their expressions of regret, but they thrust upon him little plugs of tobacco, which could not well be replaced there, and several of them told him that, if he struck nothing he liked better, all he had to do was to present himself at this ranch or the other beside blue lake or frothing river when they went back in the spring. What was more to the purpose, they meant it.

Among those Western pines men are reared who, in point of primitive vigour, slow endurance, and the dogged courage that leads them to attempt, and usually to accomplish, the apparently impossible, are a match for any in the world, and no wanderer who limps up to their lonely ranches is turned away. Those who have no claim on them are honoured with their hospitality, and now and then one new to that country looks with wonder on their handiwork. Down all the long Pacific coast, from lonely Wrangel, wrapped in the Northern snow, to Shasta in the South, it is written on hewn-back forest, rent hillside, and dammed river. The inhabitants are subduing savage Nature; but, as time will surely show, their greatest achievement is the rearing of fearless men.

Though it cost him an effort, Nasmyth contrived to smile as he shook hands with the loggers. Then he set his lips tight as, with his pack strapped on his shoulders, he opened the door and looked out at the dimly shining snow. It was only natural that he hesitated for a moment. After all, brutal as the toil had been, he at least knew what he was leaving behind, and his heart sank as he drew the door to. The cold struck through him to the bone, though there was not a breath of air astir, and the stillness was almost overwhelming. The frost cramped his muscles and drove the courage out of him, and, as he plodded down the trail, he heard Jacques, the French-Canadian cook, tuning his battered fiddle. A little burst of laughter broke through the twanging of the strings, and Nasmyth closed one hand hard as he strode on faster into the darkness. There was as much of the animal in him as there is in most of us, and he longed for the cheerful light and the warmth of the stove, while one learns the value of human companionship when the Frost King lays his grip on that lonely land. He was once more homeless—an outcast—and it was almost a relief to him when at length the twanging of the fiddle was lost in the silence of the pines.

The trees rose about him, towering high into the soft darkness in serried ranks, and the snow gleamed a cold blue-grey under them. Not a twig stirred; the tall spires were black, and motionless, and solemn, and he felt that their stateliness emphasized his own feebleness and inconsequence. In the meanwhile, though the snow was loose and frost-dried, it was not much above his ankles, and the trail was comparatively good. It seemed to him advisable to push on as fast as possible, for he had only four days' provisions, and he was not sure of his strength. There was no doubt as to what the result would be if it failed him in the wilderness that lay between him and the settlement.