The Greater Power/Chapter 11
THE GREAT IDEA
THE night was cold, and a frost-laden wind set the fir branches sighing as Nasmyth and his comrades sat about a snapping fire. The red light flickered upon their faces, and then grew dim again, leaving their blurred figures indistinct amid the smoke that diffused pungent, aromatic odours as it streamed by and vanished between the towering tree-trunks.
The four men were of widely different type and training, though it was characteristic of the country that they sat and talked together on terms of perfect equality. Two of them were exiles, by fault and misfortune, from their natural environment. One had forced himself upwards by daring and mechanical genius into a station to which, in one sense, he did not belong, and Mattawa, the chopper, alone, pursued the occupation which had always been familiar to him. Still, it was as comrades that they lived together in the wilderness, and, what was more, had they come across one another afterwards in the cities, they would have resumed their intercourse on exactly the same footing. After all, they were, in essentials, very much the same, and, when that is the case, the barriers men raise between themselves do not count for much in the West, at least. Wheeler, the pulp-mill builder, who had once sold oranges on the railroad cars, led up to a conversation that gave Nasmyth an opportunity for which he had been waiting.
"You and Mattawa are about through with that slashing contract," he said. "You will not net a great pile of money out of it, I suppose?"
"My share is about thirty," answered Nasmyth, with a little laugh. "My partner draws a few dollars more. He got in a week when the big log that rolled on my cut leg lamed me. I seem to have a particularly unfortunate habit of hurting myself. Are you going back to Ontario when we get that money, Mattawa?"
"No," the big axeman replied slowly; "anyway, not yet, though I was thinking of it. The ticket costs too much. They've been shoving up their Eastern rates."
"You ought to have a few dollars in hand," remarked Nasmyth, who was quite aware that this was not exactly his business. "Are you going to start a ranch?"
Mattawa appeared to smile. "I have one half cleared back in Ontario."
"Then what d'you come out here for?" Gordon broke in.
"To give the boy a show. He's quite smart, and we were figuring we might make a doctor or a surveyor of him. That costs money, and wages are 'way higher here than they are back East."
It was a simple statement, made very quietly by a simple man, but it appealed forcibly to those who heard it, for they could understand what lay behind it. Love of change or adventure, it was evident, had nothing to do with sending the grizzled Mattawa out to the forests of the West. He had, as he said, merely come there that his son might be afforded opportunities that he had never had, and this was characteristic, for it is not often that the second generation stays on the land. Though teamsters and choppers to the manner born are busy here and there, the Canadian prairie is to a large extent broken and the forest driven back by young men from the Eastern cities and by exiled Englishmen. Their life is a grim one, and when they marry they do not desire their children to continue it. Yet, they do not often marry, since the wilderness, in most cases, would crush the wives they would 111 choose. The men toil on alone, facing flood, and drought, and frost, and some hate the silence of the winter nights during which they sit beside the stove.
"Then," inquired Wheeler, "who runs the ranch?"
"The wife and the boy. That is, when the boy's not chopping or ploughing for somebody."
There were reasons why Nasmyth was stirred by what he had heard, and with his pipe he pointed to Mattawa, as the flickering firelight fell upon the old axeman's face.
"That," he said, "is the man who didn't want his wages when I offered them to him, though he knew it was quite likely he would never get them afterwards unless I built the dam. He'd been working for me two or three months then, in the flooded river, most of the while. Now, is there any sense in that kind of man?"
Mattawa appeared disconcerted, and his hard face flushed. "Well," he explained, "I felt I had to see you through." He hesitated for a moment with a gesture which seemed deprecatory of his point of view. "It seemed up to me."
"You've heard him," said Gordon dryly. "He's from the desolate Bush back East, and nobody has taught him to express himself clearly. The men of that kind are handiest with the axe and drill, but it has always seemed to me that the nations are going to sit round and listen when they get up and speak their mind some day."
He saw the smile in Nasmyth's eyes, and turned to Wheeler, who was from the State of Washington. "It's a solid fact that you, at least, can understand. It's not so very long since your folks headed West across the Ohio, and it's open to anyone to see what you have done." Then he flung his hand out towards the east. "They fancy back yonder we're still in the leading-strings, and it doesn't seem to strike them that we're growing big and strong."
It was characteristic that Wheeler did not grin, as Nasmyth certainly did. What Gordon had said was, no doubt, a trifle flamboyant, but it expressed the views of others in the West, and after all it was more or less warranted. Mattawa, however, gazed at them both as if such matters were beyond him, and Wheeler, who turned to Nasmyth, changed the subject.
"Well," he said, "what are you going to strike next?"
Nasmyth took out his pipe, and carefully filled it before he answered, for he knew that his time had come, and he desired greatly to carry his comrades along with him.
"I have," he said quietly, "a notion in my mind, or, anyway, the germ of one, for the thing will want some worrying out. It's quite a serious undertaking. To begin with, I'll ask Gordon who cut these drains we've been falling into, and what he did it for?"
"An Englishman," Gordon answered. "Nobody knew much about him. He was probably an exile, too. Anyway, he saw this valley, and it seemed to strike him that he could make a ranch in it."
"Why should he fix on this particular valley?"
"The thing's plain enough. How many years does a man usually spend chopping a clearing out of the Bush? Isn't there a demand for anything that you can eat from our miners and the men on our railroads and in our mills? Why do we bring carloads of provisions in? Can't you get hold of the fact that a man can start ranching right away on natural prairie, if he can once get the water out of it?"
"Oh, yes," assented Nasmyth. "The point is that one has to get the water out of it. I would like Mattawa and Wheeler to notice it. You can go on."
"Well," said Gordon, "that man pitched right in, and spent most of two years cutting four-foot trenches through and dyking up the swamp. He went on every day from sun-up to dark, but every time the floods came they beat him. When he walked over the range to the settlement, the boys noticed he was getting kind of worn and thin, but there was clean grit in that man. He'd taken hold of the contract, and he stayed with it. Then one day a prospector went into the valley after a big freshet and came across his wrecked shanty. The river had got him."
Wheeler nodded gravely. "It seems to me this country was made by men like that," he commented. "They're the kind they ought to put up monuments to."
There was silence for a moment or two after that, except for the sighing of the wind among the firs and the hoarse murmur that came up, softened by the distance, from the cañon. It was not an unusual story, but it appealed to those who heard it, for they had fought with rock and river and physical weariness, and they could understand the grim patience and unflinching valour of the long struggle that had resulted, as such struggles sometimes do, only in defeat. Still, the men who take those tasks in hand seldom capitulate. Gordon glanced at Nasmyth.
"Now," he said, "if you have anything to say, you can get it out."
Nasmyth raised himself on one elbow. "That Englishman put up a good fight, but he didn't start quite right," he said. "I want to point out that, in my opinion, the river has evidently just run into the cañon. It's slow and deep until you reach the fall, where it's merely held up by the ridge of rock the rapid runs across. Well, we'll call the change of level twelve to sixteen feet, and, as Gordon has suggested, a big strip of natural prairie is apt to make a particularly desirable property, once you run the water out of it. You can get rid of a lot of water when you have a fall of sixteen feet."
"How are you going to get it?" asked Wheeler.
"By cutting the strip of rock that holds the river up at the fall. I think one could do it with giant-powder."
Again there was silence for a few moments, and Nasmyth looked at his comrades quietly, with the firelight on his face and a gleam in his eyes. They sat still and stared at him, for the daring simplicity of his conception won their admiration. Mattawa slowly straightened himself.
"It's a great idea," he declared. "Seen something quite like it in Ontario; I guess it can be done." He turned to Nasmyth. "You can count me in."
Wheeler made a sign of concurrence. "It seems to me that Mattawa is right. In a general way, I'm quite open to take a share in the thing, but there's a point you have to consider. Most of the work could be done only at low water, and a man might spend several years on it."
"Well?" said Nasmyth simply.
Wheeler waved his hand. "Oh," he said, "you're like that other Englishman, but you want to look at this thing from a business point of view. Now, as you know, the men who do the toughest work on this Pacific slope are usually the ones who get the least for it. Well, if you run the river down, you'll dry out the whole valley, and you'll have every man with a fancy for ranching jumping in, or some d—— land agency's dummies grabbing every rod of it. It's Crown land. Anybody can locate a ranch on it."
"You have to buy the land," said Nasmyth. "You can't pre-empt it here."
"How does that count?" Wheeler persisted. "If you started clearing a Bush ranch, you'd spend considerably more."
Nasmyth smiled. "I fancy our views coincide. The point is that the Crown agents charge the usual figure for land that doesn't require making, which is not the case in this particular valley. Well, before I cut the first hole with the drill, they will either have to sell me all I can take up on special terms, or make me a grant for the work I do."
Gordon laughed. "Are you going to hammer your view of the matter into the Crown authorities? Did you ever hear of anyone who got them to sanction a proposition that was out of the usual run?"
"Well," said Nasmyth, "I'm going to try. If they won't hear reason, I'll start a syndicate round the settlement."
Wheeler, leaning forward, dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Count on me for a thousand dollars when you want the money." He turned and looked at Gordon. "It's your call."
"I'll raise the same amount," said Gordon, "though I'll have to put a mortgage on the ranch."
Mattawa made a little diffident gesture. "A hundred—it's the most I can do—but there's the boy," he said.
Nasmyth smiled in a curious way, for he knew this offer was, after all, a much more liberal one than those the others had made.
"You," he said severely, "will be on wages. Yet, if we put the thing through, you will certainly get your share."
He looked round at the other two, and after they had expressed their approval, they discussed the project until far into the night, and finally decided to recross the range, and look at the fall again, early next morning. It happened, however, that Mattawa, who went down to the river for water, soon after sunrise, found a Siwash canoe neatly covered with cedar branches. This was not an astonishing thing, since the Indians, who come up the rivers in the salmon season, often hew out a canoe on the spot where they require it, and leave it there until they have occasion to use it again. After considering the matter at breakfast, the four men decided to go down the cañon. They knew that one or two Indians were supposed to have made the hazardous trip, but that appeared sufficient, for they were all accustomed to handling a canoe, and an extra hazard or two is not often a great deterrent to men who have toiled in the Bush.
They had a few misgivings when the hills closed about them as they slipped into the shadowy entrance of the cañon. No ray of sunlight ever streamed down there, and the great hollow was dim and cold and filled with a thin white mist, though a nipping wind flowed through it. For a mile or two the hillsides, which rose precipitously above them, were sprinkled here and there with climbing pines, that on their far summits cut, faintly green, against a little patch of blue. By-and-by, however, the canoe left these slopes behind, and drifted into a narrow rift between stupendous walls of rock, though there was a narrow strip of shingle strewn with whitened driftwood between the side of the cañon and the river. Then this disappeared, and there was only the sliding water and the smooth rock, while the patch of sky seemed no more than a narrow riband of blue very high above.
Fortunately, the river flowed smoothly between its barriers of stone, and, sounding with two poles lashed together, the men got no bottom, and as the river swept them on, they began to wonder uneasily how they were to get back upstream. Once, indeed, Wheeler suggested something of the kind, but none of the others answered him, and he went on with his paddling.
At last a deep, pulsating roar that had been steadily growing louder, swelled suddenly into a bewildering din, and Mattawa shouted as they shot round a bend. There was a whirling haze of spray into which the white rush of a rapid led close in front of them, and for the next minute they paddled circumspectly. Then Mattawa ran the canoe in between two boulders at the head of the rapid, and they got out and stood almost knee-deep in the cold water. The whirling haze of spray which rose and sank was rent now and then as the cold breeze swept more strongly down the cañon, and it became evident that the rapid was a very short one. The walls of rock stood further apart at this point, and there was a strip of thinly-covered shingle and boulders between the fierce white rush of the flood and the worn stone. Mattawa grinned as the others looked at him.
"I'm staying here to hang on to the canoe," he said. "Guess you don't feel quite like going down that fall."
They certainly did not, and they hesitated a moment until Nasmyth suddenly moved forward.
"We came here to look at the fall, and I'm going on," he said.
They went with him, stumbling over the shingle, and now and then floundering among the boulders, with the stream that frothed about their thighs almost dragging their feet from under them. Each of them gasped with sincere relief when he scrambled out of the whirling pool. They reached a strip of uncovered rock that stretched across part of the wider hollow above the fall, and stood there drenched and shivering for several minutes, scarcely caring to speak as they gazed at the channel which the stream had cut through the midst of it. Wheeler dropped his hand on Nasmyth's shoulder.
"Well," he said—and Nasmyth could just hear him through the roar of the fall—"it seems to me the thing could be done if you have nerve enough. Still, I guess if they let you have the whole valley afterwards, you'd deserve it." Then he seemed to laugh. "I'll make my share one thousand five hundred dollars. In the meanwhile, if you have no objections, we'll get back again."