The Greater Power/Chapter 10


CHAPTER x
THE CALLING CAÑON

THERE were four wet and weary men in the Siwash canoe that Nasmyth, who crouched astern, had just shot across the whirling pool with the back feathering stroke of his paddle which is so difficult to acquire. Tom from Mattawa, grasping a dripping pole, stood up in the bow. Gordon and Wheeler, the pulp-mill manager, knelt in the middle of the boat. Wheeler's hands were blistered from gripping the paddle-haft, and his knees were raw, where he had pressed them against the bottom of the craft to obtain a purchase. It was several years since he had undertaken any severe manual labour, though he was by no means unused to it, and he was cramped and aching in every limb. He had plied pole or paddle for eight hours, during which his companions had painfully propelled the craft a few miles into the cañon. He gasped with relief when Mattawa ran the bow of the canoe in upon the shingle, and then rose and stretched himself wearily. The four men stepped ashore. Curiously they looked about them, for they had had little opportunity for observation. Those who undertake to pole a canoe up the rapids of a river on the Pacific slope usually find it advisable to confine their attention strictly to the business in hand.

Immediately in front of them the river roared and seethed amid giant boulders, which rose out of a tumultuous rush of foam, but while it was clearly beyond the power of flesh and blood to drive the canoe up against the current, a strip of shingle, also strewn with boulders and broken by ledges of dripping rock, divided the water from the wall of the cañon. The cañon, a tremendous slope of rock with its dark crest overhanging them, ran up high above their heads; but they could see the pines clinging to the hillside which rose from the edge of the other wall across the river, so steep that it appeared impossible to find a foothold upon it.

The four men were down in the bottom of a great rift in the hills, and, though it would be day above for at least two hours, the light was faint in the hollow and dimmed by drifting mist. It was a spot from which a man new to that wild country might well have shrunk, and the roar of water rang through it in tremendous, nerve-taxing pulsations. Nasmyth and his companions, however, had gone there with no particular purpose—merely for relaxation—though it had cost them hours of arduous labour, and the journey had been a more or less hazardous one. Wheeler, the pulp-mill manager, was waiting for his machinery, and, Nasmyth had finished the dam. When they planned the journey for pleasure, Mattawa and Gordon had gone with them ostensibly on a shooting trip. There are game laws, which set forth when and where a man may shoot, and how many heads he is entitled to, but it must be admitted that the Bush-rancher seldom concerns himself greatly about them. When he fancies a change of diet, he goes out and kills a deer. Still, though all the party had rifles no one would have cared very much if they had not come across anything to shoot at.

Now and then a vague unrest comes upon the Bushman, and he sets off for the wilderness, and stays there while his provisions hold out. He usually calls it prospecting, but as a rule he comes back with his garments rent to tatters, and no record of any mineral claim or timber rights, but once more contentedly he goes on with his task. It may be a reawakening of forgotten instincts, half-conscious lust of adventure, or a mere desire for change, that impels him to make the journey, but it is at least an impulse with which most men who toil in those forests are well acquainted.

Nasmyth and Mattawa pulled the canoe out, and when they sat down and lighted their pipes, Wheeler grinned as he drew up his duck trousers and surveyed his knees, which were raw and bleeding. Then he held up one of his hands that his comrades might notice the blisters upon it. He was a little, wiry man with dark eyes, which had a snap in them.

"Well," he observed, "we're here, and I guess any man with sense enough to prefer whole bones to broken ones would wonder why we are. It's most twelve years since I used to head off into the Bush this way in Washington."

Gordon glanced at him with a twinkle in his eyes. "Now," he observed, "you've hit the reason the first time. When you've done it once, you'll do it again. You have to. Perhaps it's Nature's protest against your axiom that man's chief business is dollar-making. Still, I'm admitting that this is a blamed curious place for Nasmyth to figure on killing a wapiti in. Say, are you going to sleep here to-night, Derrick?"

It was very evident that none of the big wapiti—elks, as the Bushman incorrectly calls them—could have reached that spot, but Nasmyth laughed.

"I felt I'd like to see the fall—I don't know why," he said. "It's scarcely another mile, and I've been up almost that far with an Indian before. There's a ravine with young spruce in it where we could sleep."

"Then," announced Wheeler resolutely, "we're starting right now. When I pole a canoe up a place of this kind I want to see where I'm going. I once went down a big rapid with the canoe-bottom up in front of me in the dark, and one journey of that kind is quite enough."

They dumped out their camp gear, and took hold of the canoe, a beautifully modelled, fragile thing, hollowed out of a cedar log, and for the next half-hour hauled it laboriously over some sixty yards of boulders and pushed it, walking waist-deep, across rock-strewn pools. Then they went back for their wet tent, axes, rifles, blankets, and a bag of flour, and when they had reloaded the canoe, they took up the poles again. It was the hardest kind of work, and demanded strength and skill, for a very small blunder would have meant wreck upon some froth-lapped boulder, or an upset into the fierce white rush of the river, but at length they reached a deep whirling pool, round which long smears of white froth swung in wild gyrations. The smooth rock rose out of the pool without even a cranny one could slip a hand into, and the river fell tumultuously over a ledge into the head of it. The water swept out of a veil of thin white mist, and the great rift rang with a bewildering din. One felt that the vast primeval forces were omnipotent there. As the men looked about them with the spray on their wet faces and the white mist streaming by, Mattawa, who stood up forward, dropped suddenly into the bottom of the canoe.

"In poles," he said. "Paddle! Get a move on her!"

Nasmyth, who felt his pole dip into empty water, flung it in and grabbed his paddle, for the craft shot forward suddenly with the swing of the eddy towards the fall. He did not know whether the stream would sweep them under it, but he was not desirous of affording it the opportunity. For perhaps a minute they exerted themselves furiously, gasping as they strained aching arms and backs, and meanwhile, in spite of them, beneath the towering fall of rock, the canoe slid on toward the fall. It also drew a little nearer to the middle of the pool, where there was a curious bevelled hollow, round which the white foam spun. It seemed to Nasmyth that the stream went bodily down.

"Paddle," said Mattawa hoarsely. "Heave her clear of it."

They drove furiously between the white-streaked shoot of the fall and that horribly suggestive whirling; then, as they went back towards the outrush from the pool, they made another desperate, gasping effort. For several moments it seemed that they must be swept back again, and then they gained a little, and, with a few more strokes, reached the edge of the rapid. They let the canoe drive down the rapid while the boulders flashed by them, for there was the same desire in all of them, and that was to get as far as possible away from that horrible pool. At last Mattawa, standing up forward, poled the canoe in where a deep ravine rent the dark rock's side, and the party went ashore, wet and gasping. Wheeler looked back up the gorge and solemnly shook his head.

"If you want to see any more of it, you've got to do it alone. I've had enough," he declared. "A man who runs a pulp-mill has no use for paddling under that kind of fall. I'm not going back again."

Mattawa and Gordon set the tent up in the hollow of the ravine, while Wheeler hewed off spruce branches with which to make the beds; but Nasmyth did nothing to assist any of them. Thinking hard, he sat on a boulder, with his unlighted pipe in his hand. The throbbing roar of water rang about him; and it was then that the great project crept into his mind. It was rapidly growing dark in the bottom of the great rift, but he could still see the dim white flashing of the fall and the vast wall of rock and rugged hillside that ran up in shadowy grandeur, high above his head, and as he gazed at it all he felt his heart throb fast. He was conscious of a curious thrill as he watched and listened to that clash of stupendous forces. The river had spent countless ages cutting out that channel, hurling down mighty boulders and stream-driven shingle upon the living rock; but it was, it seemed to him, within man's power to alter it in a few arduous months. He sat very still, astonished at the daring of his own conception, until Wheeler strolled up to him.

"How much does the river drop at the fall?" he asked.

"About eight feet in the fall itself," answered Wheeler. "Seems to me it falls much more in the rush above. Still, I can't say I noticed it particularly—I had something else to think about."

"It's a short rapid," remarked Nasmyth reflectively. "There is, no doubt, a great deal of the hardest kind of rock under it, which is, in one or two respects, unfortunate. I suppose you don't know very much about geology?"

"I don't," confessed the pulp-miller. "Machines are my specialty."

"Well," said Nasmyth, "I'm afraid I don't either, and I believe one or two of these cañons have puzzled wiser folks than I. You see, the general notion is that the rivers made them, but it doesn't seem quite reasonable to imagine a river tilting at a solid range and splitting it through the middle. In fact, it seems to me that some of the cañons were there already, and the rivers just ran into them. One or two Indians have come down from the valley close to the fall, and they told me the river was quite deep there. The rock just holds it up at the fall. It's a natural dam—a dyke, I think they call it."

"I don't quite understand what all this is leading to," observed Wheeler.

Nasmyth laughed, though there was, as his companion noticed, a curious look in his eyes. "I'll try to make it clearer when we get into the valley. We're going there to-morrow."

It was almost dark now, and they went back together to the little fire that burned redly among the spruces in the ravine. There Mattawa and Gordon had a simple supper ready. The others stretched themselves out, rolled in their blankets, soon after they had eaten, but Nasmyth lay propped up on one elbow, wide awake, listening to the roar of water until well into the night. The stream drowned the faint rustling of the spruces in a great dominant note, and he set his lips as he recognized its depth of tone and volume. He had once more determined to pit all his strength of mind and body against the river. Still, he went to sleep at last, and awakening some time after it was dawn on the heights above, roused his comrades. When breakfast was over he started with them up the ravine to cross the range.

It was afternoon before they accomplished the climb, though the height was not great and a ravine pierced the crest, and they had rent most of their clothes to tatters when they scrambled down the slope into the valley. Those pine-shrouded hillsides are strewn with mighty fallen trees, amid which the tangled underbrush grows tall and rank, and, where the pines are less thickly spaced, there are usually matted groves of willows, if the soil is damp. They pitched camp on the edge of the valley, and Gordon and Nasmyth prepared supper, while Wheeler cut firewood and Mattawa went out to prospect for the tracks of feeding deer. The axeman came back to say there were no signs of any wapiti, though the little Bush deer were evidently about, and it was decided to try for one that night with the pitlight, a mode of shooting now and then adopted when the deer are shy.

They ate their supper, and afterwards lay down with their blankets rolled about them, for it grew very cold as darkness crept up the valley. Like most of the other valleys, this one was walled in by steep-sided, pine-shrouded hills; but in this case there were no trees in the bottom of it, which, while very narrow, appeared several miles long. It was also nearly level, and the river wound through it in deep, still bends. There are not many valleys in that country in which heavy timber fails to grow, and those within reach of a market have been seized upon; for all ranch produce is in excellent demand, and the clearing of virgin forest is a singularly arduous task. In fact, there was only one reason why this strip of natural prairie had not already been claimed. Most of it was swamp. Nasmyth, who was quieter than usual, watched the filmy mist creep about it as the soft darkness rolled down the hillsides.

Gordon rose and hooked a pitlight into his hat. This pitlight consists simply of a little open miner's-lamp, which has fixed beneath it a shield cut out of any convenient meat-can. The lamp is filled with seal oil. Once a man has fastened it upon his head, the light is cut off from his person, so that he stands invisible, and the little flame appears unsupported. Deer of any kind are endued with an inquisitiveness which frequently leads to their destruction, and when they notice the twinkling light flitting through the air they approach it to ascertain the reason for such an unusual thing. Then the rancher shoots, as soon as their shining eyes become visible.

The party divided. Gordon and Nasmyth, who kept near each other, fell over several rotting trees, and into what appeared to be crumbling drains. They floundered knee-deep through withered timothy, which is not a natural grass. For an hour or two nobody saw any deer. Then Gordon, who was cautiously skirting another drain, closed in on Nasmyth until he touched his comrade. Nasmyth heard a crackling rustle among the withered grass. Gordon made a little abrupt movement.

"If we both blaze off, we double the odds on our getting it," he said.

Nasmyth only just heard him, for his heart was beating with excitement; but as he stood knee-deep in the grass, with both hands ready to pitch the heavy rifle up, it seemed to him that Mattawa could not have been correct when he said that there were only the Bush deer about. Judging by the noise it was making, the approaching beast, he thought, must be as big as a wapiti. Then he saw two pale spots of light, which seemed curiously high above the ground.

"I'm shooting," he said, and in another moment the butt was into his shoulder.

He felt the jar of it, but, as usual in such cases, he heard no detonation, though the pale flash from Gordon's rifle was almost in his eyes. He, however, heard the thud of the heavy bullet, and a moment or two later, a floundering amidst the grass.

"That can't be a Bush deer!" he cried.

"It sounds 'way more like an elephant," said Gordon, with a gasp.

They ran forward until they stopped a few yards short of something very big and shadowy that was still struggling in the grass. Gordon cautiously crept up a little nearer.

"Those aren't deer's horns, anyway," he announced. "Plug it quick. The blamed thing's getting up."

Nasmyth flung the rifle up to his shoulder, and twice jerked a fresh cartridge into the chamber, but this time there was silence when the crash of the heavy Marlin died away among the woods. They crept forward a little further circumspectly, until Gordon stopped again with a gasp of consternation.

"Well," he said, "I guess it couldn't be either a Bush deer or a wapiti."

They were still standing there when their comrades came running up, and Mattawa, who took down his light, broke into a great hoarse laugh.

"A steer!" he said, and pointed to a mark on the hide. "One of Custer's stock. Guess he'll charge you quite a few dollars for killing it."

Nasmyth smiled somewhat ruefully, for he was by no means burdened with wealth, but he was, after all, not greatly astonished. Few of the small ranchers can feed their stock entirely on their little patches of cleared land, and it is not an unusual thing for most of the herd to run almost wild in the Bush. Now and then, the cattle acquire a somewhat perilous fondness for wrecking road-makers' and prospectors' tents, which explains why a steer occasionally fails to be found and some little community of axemen is provided with more fresh meat than can well be consumed.

"I'm afraid it's rather more than likely I'll have to pay a good price," said Nasmyth. "Do you feel anxious for any more shooting to-night, Wheeler?"

"No," said the pulp-miller, with a grin, as he surveyed his bemired clothes. "Guess it's going to prove expensive, and I've had 'most enough. I don't feel like poling that canoe any farther up-river, either. What's the matter with camping right where we are until we eat the steer?"

There was, however, as Mattawa pointed out, a good deal to be done before they could make their first meal off the beast, and none of them quite relished the task, especially as they had only an axe and a couple of moderately long knives. Still, it was done, and when they carried a portion of the meat out of the swamp, and had gone down to wash in the icy river, they went wearily back to their tent among the firs.