The Greater Power/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII
ON THE TRESTLE

IT was with difficulty that Wisbech reached the railroad track upon which Laura Waynefleet had told him Nasmyth was occupied. From the winding waggon-road, he was forced to scramble down several hundred feet through tangled undergrowth, and over great fallen logs. Then he had to walk along the ties, which were spaced most inconveniently apart, neither far enough for a long stride nor close enough for a short one. It is, in fact, unless one is accustomed to it, a particularly wearying thing to walk any distance along a Western railroad track; since local ticket rates are usually high on the Pacific slope, and roads of any other kind are not always available, the smaller ranchers and other impecunious travellers frequently tramp miles upon the ties.

Wisbech, however, had not very far to go, and, though it entailed an occasional stumble, he endeavoured to look about him. He was progressing along the side of the wonderful Fraser gorge, which is the great channel clearly provided by Nature for the commerce of the mountain province, and he was impressed by the spectacle upon which he gazed. In front of him rose great rocky ramparts, with here and there a snow-tipped peak cutting coldly white against the glaring blue. Beneath these the climbing pines rolled down in battalions to the brink of a vast hollow, in the black depths of which the river roared far below. Wisps of gauzy mist clung to the hillside, and out of them the track came winding down, a sinuous gleaming riband that links the nations with a band of steel. There were, as he knew, fleet steamers ready at either end of it, in Vancouver Inlet, and at Montreal, two thousand four hundred odd miles away, for this was the all-British route round half the world from London to Yokohama and Hong-Kong.

That fact had its effect on Wisbech as he plodded painfully along the ties. He had Democratic notions, but he was an Imperialist, too, which was, perhaps, after all, not surprising, for he knew something of England's great dependencies. There are a good many men with similar views in the Dominion, and they have certainly lived up to them. Men undoubtedly work for money in Western Canada, but one has only to listen to their conversation in saloon and shanty to recognize the clean pride in their manhood, and their faith in the destiny of the land to which they belong. They have also proved their faith by pitting their unshrinking courage and splendid physical strength against savage Nature, and, among their other achievements, that track blown out of the living rock, flung over roaring rivers, and driven through eternal snow, supplies a significant hint of what they can bear and do. They buried mangled men in roaring cañon and by giddy trestle, but the rails crept always on.

Wisbech came to the brink of a gorge which rent the steep hillside. He could not tell how deep it was, but it made him dizzy to look down upon the streak of frothing water far below. The gorge was spanned by the usual Western trestle bridge, an openwork fabric of timber just wide enough to carry the single track rising out of the chasm on tapering piers that looked ethereally fragile in that wilderness of towering trees and tremendous slopes of rock. The chunk of axes and ringing of hammers jarred through the roar of the stream, and he could see men clinging in mid-air to little stages slung about the piers, and moving among the pines below. A man in a ragged duck suit strode by him with an axe on his shoulder, and Wisbech half-diffidently ventured to inquire if he could tell where Derrick Nasmyth could be found. The man, who paid no attention to him, stopped close by, and shouted to some of his comrades below.

"You ought to get that beam fixed before the fast freight comes through, boys. There's no sign of her yet," he called in a loud voice.

Somebody answered him, and the man turned to Wisbech.

"Now, sir," he replied tardily, "you were asking for Nasmyth?"

Wisbech said he wished to see Derrick Nasmyth, and the man nodded.

"Well," said he, "you'll have to wait a few minutes, I guess he's busy. There's a log they want to put into the trestle before the train comes along. It's not his particular business, but we're rather anxious to get through with our contract."

"Ah," returned Wisbech, "then I fancy I know who you must be. In fact, I'm rather glad I came across you. You are evidently the man who looked after my nephew when he was ill, and from what Miss Waynefleet told me, Derrick owes you a good deal."

Gordon looked at Wisbech with a little smile, as he recalled what Nasmyth had said about the man who had sent him the draft.

"Well," he remarked, as he pointed to the hillside, "it would be quite hard to fancy there was very much the matter with him now."

Wisbech agreed with Gordon when he saw a man, who was running hard, beside four brawny oxen that were hauling a great dressed fir-log by a chain. They came from an opening between the pines, and rushed along the rude trail, which had a few skids across it. The trail led downhill just there, and man and oxen went down the slope furiously in the attempt to keep ahead of the big log that jolted over the skids behind them. Wisbech had never seen cattle of any kind progress in that fashion before, but he naturally did not know that the Bush-bred ox can travel at a headlong pace up and down hills and amidst thickets a man would cautiously climb or painfully crawl through. As they approached the level at the foot of the slope, the man who drove them ran back, and slipping his handspike under it, swung the butt of the log round an obstacle. Wisbech gazed at his nephew with astonishment when Nasmyth came up with the beasts again. His battered wide hat was shapeless, his duck trousers were badly rent, and the blue shirt, which was all he wore above the waist, hung open half-way down his breast. He was flushed and gasping, but the men upon the trestle were evidently urging him to fresh exertion.

"Oh, hit her hard!" shouted one of them; and a comrade clinging to a beam high above the river broke in: "We're waiting. Get a hump on. Bring her right along."

It was evident that Nasmyth was already doing all that reasonably could have been expected of him, and in another moment or two, four more men, who ran out of the Bush, fell upon the log with handspikes, as the beasts came to a long upward slope. They went up it savagely, and Wisbech was conscious of a growing amazement as he watched the floundering oxen and gasping men.

"Do you always work—like this?" he asked.

Gordon laughed. "Well," he answered, "it isn't the bosses' fault when we don't. As it happens, however, a good many of us are putting a contract through, and the boys want to get that beam fixed before the fast freight comes along. If they don't, it's quite likely she'll shake it loose or pitch some of them off the bridge. It has stood a few years, and wants stiffening."

"A few years!" said Wisbech. "There are bridges in England that have existed since the first railways were built. I believe they don't require any great stiffening yet."

"Oh, yes," said Gordon. "It's quite what one would expect. We do things differently. We heave our rails down and fill up the country with miners and farmers while you'd be worrying over your parliamentary bills. We strengthen our track as we go along, and we'll have iron bridges over every river just as soon as they're wanted."

Wisbech smiled. It seemed to him that these men would probably get exactly what they set their minds upon in spite of every obstacle.

"Why don't they stop the train while they get the beam into place?" he inquired.

"Nothing short of a big landslip is allowed to hold that fast freight up," Gordon replied. "It's up to every divisional superintendent between here and Winnipeg to rush her along as fast as possible. Half the cars are billed through to the Empress liner that goes out to-morrow."

In the meanwhile the men and oxen had conveyed the big log up the slope, and, while Nasmyth drove the beasts back along the skidded track, it swung out over the chasm at the end of a rope. Men leaning out from fragile stages clutched at and guided it, and when one of them shouted, Nasmyth cast the chain to which the rope was fastened loose from his oxen. Then little lithe figures crawled out along the beams of the trestle, and there was a ringing of hammers. Gordon, who gazed up the track, swung his arm up in warning.

"You've got to hump yourselves, boys," he admonished.

The faint hoot of a whistle came ringing across the pines, and a little puff of white smoke broke out far up the track from among their sombre masses. It grew rapidly larger, and the clang of the hammers quickened, while Wisbech watched the white trail that swept along the steep hillside until there was a sudden shouting. Then he turned and saw his nephew running across the bridge.

"Somebody has forgotten a bolt or a big spike," said Gordon.

Wisbech felt inclined to hold his breath as he watched Nasmyth climb down the face of the trestle, but in another minute or two he was clambering up again with several other men behind him. There was another hoot of the whistle, and, as Wisbech glanced up the track, a great locomotive broke out from among the pines. It was veiled in whirling dust and flying fragments of ballast, and smoke that was grey instead of white, for the track led down-grade, and the engineer had throttled the steam. The engine was a huge one, built for mountain hauling, and the freight cars that lurched out of the forest behind it were huger still. Wisbech could see them rock, and the roar which they made and which the pines flung back grew deafening. Most of the cars had been coupled up in the yards at Montreal, and were covered thick with the dust that had whirled about them along two thousand four hundred miles of track, and they were still speeding on through the forests of the West, as they had done through those of far-off Ontario.

It seemed to Wisbech as he gazed at the cars that they ran pigmy freight trains in the land he came from, and he was conscious of something that had a curious stirring effect on him in the clang and clatter of that giant rolling stock, as the engineer hurled his great train furiously down-grade. It was man's defiance of the wilderness, a symbol of his domination over all the great material forces of the world. The engineer, who glanced out once from his dust-swept cab, held them bound and subject in the hollow of the grimy hand he clenched upon the throttle. With a deafening roar, the great train leapt across the trestle, which seemed to rock and reel under it, and plunged once more into the forest. A whistle sounded—a greeting to the men upon the bridge—and then the uproar died away in a long diminuendo among the sombre pines.

It was in most respects a fortuitous moment for Wisbech's nephew to meet him, and the older man smiled as Nasmyth strode along the track to grasp his outstretched hand.

"I'm glad to see you, Derrick," said Wisbech, who drew back a pace and looked at his nephew critically.

"You have changed since I last shook hands with you in London, my lad," he continued. "You didn't wear blue duck, and you hadn't hands of that kind then."

Nasmyth glanced at his scarred fingers and broken nails.

"I've been up against it, as they say here, since those days," he replied.

"And it has done you a world of good!"

Nasmyth laughed. "Well," he said, "perhaps it has. Any way, that's not a point we need worry over just now. Where have you sprung from?"

Wisbech told him, and added that there were many things he would like to talk about, whereupon Nasmyth smiled in a deprecatory manner.

"I'm afraid you'll have to wait an hour or two," he said. "You see, there are several more big logs ready for hauling down, and I have to keep the boys supplied. I'll be at liberty after supper, and you can't get back to-night. In the meanwhile you might like to walk along to where we're getting the logs out."

Wisbech went with him and Gordon, and was impressed when he saw how they and the oxen handled the giant trunks. He, however, kept his thoughts to himself, and, quietly smoking, sat on a redwood log, a little, unobtrusive, grey-clad figure, until Gordon, who had disappeared during the last hour, announced that supper was ready. Then Wisbech followed Nasmyth and Gordon to their quarters, which they had fashioned out of canvas, a few sheets of corrugated iron, and strips of bark, for, as their work was on the hillside, they lived apart from the regular railroad gang. The little hut was rudely comfortable, and the meal Gordon set out was creditably cooked. Wisbech liked the resinous scent of the wood smoke that hung about the spot, and the faint aromatic odour of the pine-twig beds and roofing-bark. When the meal was over, they sat a while beneath the hanging-lamp, smoking and discussing general topics, until Nasmyth indicated the canvas walls of the hut and the beds of spruce twigs with a wave of his hand.

"You will excuse your quarters. They're rather primitive," he said.

Wisbech's eyes twinkled. "I almost think I shall feel as much at home as I did when you last entertained me at your club, and I'm not sure that I don't like your new friends best," he said. "The others were a trifle patronizing, though, perhaps, they didn't mean to be. In fact, it was rather a plucky thing you did that day."

A faint flush crept into Nasmyth's bronzed face, but Wisbech smiled reassuringly as he glanced about the hut.

"The question is what all this is leading to," he observed with inquiry in his tone.

Gordon rose. "I'll go along and talk to the boys," he announced. "I won't be back for an hour or two."

Nasmyth glanced at Wisbech before he turned to his comrade.

"I would sooner you stayed where you are," he said. Then he answered Wisbech. "In the first place, if we are reasonably fortunate, it should lead to the acquisition of about a couple of hundred dollars."

"Still," said Wisbech, "that will not go very far. What will be the next thing when you have got the money?"

"In a general way, I should endeavour to earn a few more dollars by pulling out fir-stumps for somebody or clearing land."

Wisbech nodded. "No doubt they're useful occupations, but one would scarcely fancy them likely to prove very remunerative," he said. "You have, it seems to me, reached an age when you have to choose. Are you content to go on as you are doing now?"

Nasmyth's face flushed as he saw the smile in Gordon's eyes, for it was evident that Wisbech and Laura Waynefleet held much the same views concerning him. They appeared to fancy that he required a lot of what might be termed judicious prodding. This was in one sense not exactly flattering, but he did not immediately mention his great project for drying out the valley. He would not hasten to remove a wrong impression concerning himself.

"Well," resumed Wisbech, seeing he did not answer, "if you care to go back and take up your profession in England again, I think I can contrive to give you a fair start. You needn't be diffident. I can afford it, and the thing is more or less my duty."

Nasmyth sat silent. There was no doubt that the comfort and refinement of the old life appealed to one side of his nature, and there were respects in which his present surroundings jarred on him. It is also probable that, had the offer been made him before he had had a certain talk with Laura Waynefleet, he would have profited by it, but she had roused something that was latent in him, and at the same time endued him with a vague distrust of himself, the effect of which was largely beneficial. He had realized then his perilous propensity for what she had called drifting, and, after all, men of his kind are likely to drift fastest when everything is made pleasant for them. It was characteristic that he looked inquiringly at Gordon, who nodded.

"I think you ought to go, if it's only for a year or two," said Gordon. "It's the life you were born to. Give it another trial. You can come back to the Bush again if you find it fails."

Nasmyth appeared to consider this, and the two men watched him intently, Wisbech with a curious expression in his shrewd eyes. Then, somewhat to their surprise, Nasmyth broke into a little harsh laugh.

"That there is a possibility of my failing seems sufficient," he said. "Here I must fight. I am, as we say, up against it." He turned to Wisbech. "Now if you will listen, I will tell you something."

For the next few minutes he described his project for running the water out of the valley, and when he sat silent again there was satisfaction in Wisbech's face.

"Well," said Wisbech, "I am going to give you your opportunity. It's a thing I insist upon, and, as it happens, I'm in a position to do it more or less effectually. I have letters to folks of some importance in Victoria—Government men among others—and you'll go down there and live as you would have done in England just as long as appears advisable while you try to put the project through. It is quite evident that you will have to get one of the land exploitation concerns to back you, and no doubt a charter or concession of some kind will have to be obtained from the Crown authorities. The time you spend over the thing in Victoria should make it clear where your capacities lie—if it's handling matters of this kind in the cities, or leading your workmen in the Bush. I purpose to take a share in your venture, and I'm offering you an opportunity of making sure which is the kind of life you're most fitted for."

"I guess you ought to go," remarked Gordon quietly.

Nasmyth smiled. "That," he agreed, "is my own opinion."

"Then we'll consider it as decided," said Wisbech. "It seems to me I could spend a month or two in this province very satisfactorily, and we'll go down to Victoria together, as soon as you have carried out this timber-cutting contract."

They talked of other matters, while now and then men from the railroad gang dropped in and made themselves pleasant to the stranger. It must be admitted that there are one or two kinds of wandering Englishmen, who would not have found them particularly friendly, but the little quiet man with the twinkling eyes was very much at home with them. He had been endued with the gift of comprehension, and rock-cutter and axeman opened their minds to him. In fact, he declared his full satisfaction with the entertainment afforded him before he lay down upon his bed of springy spruce twigs.