The Greater Power/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER XXI
THE MEN OF THE BUSH

A COOL shadow fell upon the descending trail that wound in among the towering firs, and Nasmyth checked his jaded horse as he entered on the last league of his long ride from the railroad. The red dust had settled thick upon his city clothes, and for the first time he found the restraint of them irksome. The band of his new hat had tightened unpleasantly about his forehead, and in scrambling up the side of the last high ridge which he had crossed, one neatly-fitting boot had galled his foot, while he smiled with somewhat sinister amusement as he felt the grip of the tight jacket on his shoulders. These were, as he recognized, petty troubles, and he was rather astonished that he should resent them, as he certainly did. He remembered that a little while before he had made no complaint against the restraints of civilization, and had, indeed, begun to shrink from the prospect of going back to the untrammelled life of the wilderness.

But, as he straightened himself in his saddle and gazed down the deep valley through which the trail twisted, he felt the shrinking melt away. After all, there was something in the wilderness that appealed to him. There was vigour in the clean smell of it, and the little breeze that fanned his face was laden with the scent of the firs. The trees rolled away before him in sombre battalions that dwindled far up the rocky sides of the enfolding hills, and here and there a flood of sunlight that struck in through the openings fell in streams of burning gold upon their tremendous trunks. Beyond them the rugged heights rose, mass on mass, against the western sky.

He rode into the shadow, and, though he thought of her, it was curious that Violet Hamilton seemed to become less real to him as he pushed on down the valley. He vaguely felt that he could not carry her with him into the wilderness. She was a part of the civilization upon which he had once more, for a time at least, turned his back, and he could not fit her into the environment of that wild and rugged land. Indeed, he remembered with a compassionate tenderness how she had shrunk from it and clung to him—a forlorn, bedraggled object, in her tattered dress—the day they floundered through the dripping Bush, and he subconsciously braced himself for conflict as he thought of it. The sooner his work was over, the sooner he could go back to her; but there was, as he remembered, a great deal to be accomplished first.

Wrapped in thought as he was, he was surprised when he saw a faint blue cloud of wood-smoke trailing out athwart the sombre firs in the hollow beneath him. Then two figures became visible, moving upwards along the strip of the trail, and he drove the jaded horse forward as he recognized them. He He lost sight of them for a few minutes as he turned aside to avoid a swampy spot, but when he had left it behind they were close ahead in the middle of the trail, and it was with a thrill of pleasure that he swung himself stiffly from the saddle.

With a smile on his bronzed face, Gordon stood looking at him. Gordon was dressed in soil-stained garments of old blue duck, with a patch cut from a cotton flour-bag on one of them. Laura Waynefleet stood a little nearer, and there was also a welcome in her eyes. Nasmyth noticed how curiously at home she seemed amidst that tremendous colonnade of towering trunks. He shook hands with her, but it was Gordon who spoke first.

"You have come back to us. We have been expecting you," he said. "After all, store clothes and three well-laid meals a day are apt to pall on one."

Nasmyth turned to Laura. "I should like to point out that this is the man who urged me to go," he said. "One can't count on him."

"Oh, yes," admitted Gordon, "I certainly did urge you, but I guess I knew what the result would be. It was the surest way of quieting you. Anyway, you don't seem sorry to be back again?"

Nasmyth glanced at Laura.

"No," he said; "in some respects I'm very glad."

He became suddenly self-conscious as he saw Gordon's significant smile. It suggested that he had, perhaps, made too great an admission, and he wondered for the first time, with a certain uneasiness, whether Gordon had mentioned Miss Hamilton to Laura, and, if that was the case, what Miss Waynefleet thought about the subject.

Laura talked to him in her old friendly fashion as they walked on towards the settlement, until Gordon broke in.

"I've called the boys together, as you suggested, and fixed up the meeting for to-night," he said. "They'll be ready to give you a hearing, after supper, in the hotel."

Laura left them on the outskirts of the settlement, and Gordon, stopping a moment, looked hard at Nasmyth.

"I suppose you pledged yourself to that girl at Bonavista before you came away?" he said.

"I did," Nasmyth admitted.

Gordon was silent for a moment or two. "Of course, I partly expected it," he observed. "In fact, when I was talking to Miss Waynefleet about you, I ventured to predict something of the kind."

The two men looked at each other for a moment, and then Nasmyth smiled.

"You haven't anything else to say," he suggested.

"No," answered Gordon,—"at least, nothing that's very material. Anyway, until we're through with the business we have on hand, you'll have to put that girl right out of your mind."

They went on towards the little wooden hotel, and Nasmyth felt unusually thoughtful as he walked beside his jaded horse. He recognized that his comrade's last observation was more or less warranted, and it was to some extent a relief to him when they reached the veranda stairway and Gordon led the horse away toward the stables.

It was rather more than an hour later when a specially invited company of men who had, as they said, a stake in the district assembled in the big general room of the hotel. There was about a dozen of them, men of different birth and upbringing, though all had the same quiet brown faces and steadiness of gaze. For the most part, they were dressed in duck, though Waynefleet and the hotel-keeper wore city clothes. The room was barely furnished, and panelled roughly with cedar-boards; but it had wide casements, from which those who sat in it could look out upon a strip of frothing river and the sombre forest that rolled up the rocky hills. The windows were wide open, and the smell of wood-smoke and the resinous odours of the firs flowed in. A look of expectancy crept into the men's faces, and the murmur of their conversation suddenly fell away, when Nasmyth sat down at the head of the long table with Gordon at one side of him.

"Boys," said Nasmyth, "one or two of you know why Gordon asked you here to meet me, but I had better roughly explain my project before I go any further. I'll ask you to give me your close attention for the next three or four minutes."

When he stopped speaking there was a very suggestive silence for a moment. Those who heard him had not the quick temperament of the men of the Western cities. They lived in the stillness of the Bush, and thought before they undertook anything, though, when they moved, it was usually to some purpose. One of the men stood up with a deprecatory gesture.

"Well," he declared, "it's a great idea. Boys, wouldn't you call us blame fools for not thinking of it before?"

He sat down suddenly, before anybody answered him, and the men were still again until another of them rose.

"Nasmyth's not quite through yet," he said. "We'll ask him to go ahead."

Gordon leaned forward, and touched his comrade's arm.

"Pitch it to them strong. You're getting hold," he whispered encouragingly.

For another five minutes Nasmyth spoke as he felt that he had never spoken before. He was intent and strung up, and he knew that a great deal depended upon the effect he could make. He had failed with the men of the cities, who wanted all the profit. He felt sure that he would henceforward have one or two of them against him, and it was clear that he must either abandon his project or win over these hard-handed men of the Bush. With them behind him, there was, he felt, little that he need shrink from attempting. A ring crept into his voice as he went on, for he knew that he was getting hold as he saw their lips set and the resolute expression of their eyes. They were men who, by strenuous toil, wrung a bare living out of the forest, and now there was laid before them a scheme that in its sheer daring seized upon their attention.

"Boys," Nasmyth concluded, "I am in your hands. This thing is too big for me to go into alone. Still, it's due to you to say that, while I meant to give you an option of standing in, it seemed to me it would simplify the thing if I raised most of the money before I came to you. Money is usually scarce in the Bush."

"That's a fact," agreed the shrewd-faced hotel-keeper, who also conducted the store. "Anyway, when you have to trade with folks who take twelve months to square up their bills in."

Nobody seemed to heed him, and Nasmyth added:

"Well, I found I couldn't do it—that is, if I wanted to keep anything for myself. I want you to come in, and as soon as I hear you're ready to give it your attention, I'll lay a proposition before you."

He sat looking at them, in a state of tense anxiety, until one of them rose to his feet.

"I guess you can count upon every one of us," he announced.

A reassuring murmur ran along the double row of men, and Nasmyth felt a thrill of exultation.

"Thank you, boys," he said with evident gratitude. "Now, there are difficulties to be grappled with. To begin with, the Crown authorities would sooner have leased the valley to me, and it was some time before they decided that as a special concession they would sell it in six hundred and forty acre lots at the lowest figure for first-class lands. The lots are to be laid off in rectangular blocks, and as the valley is narrow and winding, that takes in a proportion of heavy timber on the hill bench, and will not include quite a strip of natural prairie, which remains with the Crown. The cost of the land alone runs close on twenty thousand dollars, of which, one way or another, I can raise about eight thousand."

He looked at Wheeler, who sat near the lower end of the table, and he nodded.

"My offer stands," he said.

"You want another twelve thousand dollars," said the hotel-keeper dubiously. "It's quite a pile of money."

There was a little laughter from the men. "Well," said one of them, "I guess we can raise it somehow among us, but it's going to be a pull."

"Then," said Nasmyth, "we have provided for the cost of the land, but before we lower the fall and cut the drainage trenches in the valley we will run up a big bill—that is, if we hire hands. My notion is that we undertake the work ourselves, and credit every man with his share in it to count as a mortgage on the whole land that belongs to us."

Waynefleet stood up and waved his hand. "I want to point out that this is very vague," he objected. "The question will arise where the labour is to be applied. It would, for instance, be scarcely judicious to give a man a claim on everybody else for draining his own land."

He would have said more, but that Tom of Mattawa laid a hard hand on his shoulder and jerked him back into his chair.

"Now," Tom admonished, "you just sit down. When Nasmyth takes this thing in hand he'll put it through quite straight. What you'd do in a month wouldn't count for five dollars, anyway."

Everybody laughed, and Wheeler spoke again. "We'll get over that trouble by cutting so many big trenches only for the general benefit. In the meanwhile Mr. Nasmyth said something about trustees."

"I did," said Nasmyth. "The Crown will sell in rectangular six hundred and forty acre blocks. My proposition is that we take them up in three separate names. You have to understand that the man who registers in the Crown deed is legal owner."

"Then we're sure of two of them," declared the hotel-keeper. "Nasmyth takes the first block, and Wheeler the other."

Wheeler laughed. "I guess I stand out. As a United States citizen, I'm not sure I'm eligible to record Crown lands. Still, since Nasmyth and I are putting up a good many of the dollars, I'll nominate Gordon."

As one man they decided on that, but there appeared to be a difficulty about the third trustee until Nasmyth turned to them.

"As you don't seem sure about him, I would like to suggest Mr. Waynefleet, boys," he said. "He is a man who has an extensive acquaintance with business and legal affairs."

There was dead silence for several moments, and the men looked at one another uneasily. It was evident that the suggestion was unwelcome to most of them, and Nasmyth was quite aware that he was doing an unpopular thing. In the meanwhile dusk had crept up the valley, and the room was growing dim. Perhaps Waynefleet could not see his companions' faces very well, but it is also possible that, had he been able to do so, he would not have troubled himself about the hesitation in most of them. There are men of his kind who appear incapable of recognizing the fact that they are not regarded with general favour.

Finally one of the men spoke. "Seeing that the scheme is Nasmyth's, I guess it's only reasonable to fall in with his views as far as we can," he said. "We'll fix on Waynefleet."

There was a murmur of very dubious agreement, and Waynefleet, who stood up, smiled on the assembly patronizingly. His manner suggested that he was about to confer a favour.

"Our friend was warranted in mentioning that I have been accustomed to handling affairs of a somewhat similar nature, but of considerably greater magnitude," he said. "I have pleasure in placing what abilities I possess at your disposal, gentlemen."

Though it was growing dark, Nasmyth saw the amused light in Gordon's eyes. "I'm with you in this," said Gordon. "Still, I scarcely figured the boys would have stood him."

They discussed the scheme at length, and when the assembly broke up, Waynefleet approached the table where Gordon, Nasmyth and Wheeler sat under a big lamp.

"There is a point I did not mention at the time. It seemed to me it was one that could, perhaps, be arranged," said Waynefleet. "It is, of course, usual for a director of any kind to hold a certain financial interest in the scheme."

He looked at Nasmyth, and made a significant gesture. "Unfortunately there are not at the moment more than a very few dollars at my disposal. The fact, you will recognize, is likely to hamper my efforts in an administrative capacity."

"Precisely!" said Nasmyth. "It is a matter I have provided for. You will be placed in possession of a holding of the size the others fixed upon as convenient when the blocks are divided off."

"No larger?"

"No," answered Nasmyth; "I am afraid you will have to be content with that."

Waynefleet went out, and Gordon turned to Nasmyth. "It's going to cost you something," he said. "You can't charge it on the scheme. I'll divide it with you."

There was a slight restraint in Nasmyth's manner. "I'm afraid I can't permit it. It will be charged against my claim. Considering everything, it was a thing I felt I had to do."

Then Wheeler, who had been quietly watching them, broke in.

"What did you put that image up for, anyway?" he asked.

Gordon smiled in a significant fashion. "It's our friend's affair, and I guess he's not going to tell you why he did it. Still, in one sense, I 'most think it was up to him."

Wheeler let the matter drop, and in a few more minutes they went out, and Nasmyth and Gordon turned into the trail that led to Gordon's ranch.