The Greater Power/Chapter 23


A BITTER frost had crept down from the snow-clad heights that shut the cañon in, and the roar of the river had fallen to a lower tone, when Nasmyth stood one morning shivering close by the door of his rude log shanty at the foot of the gully. The faint grey light was growing slightly clearer, and he could see the clustering spruces, in the hollow, gleam spectrally where their dark masses were streaked with delicate silver filigree. Across the river there was a dull glimmer from the wall of rock, which the freezing spray had covered with a glassy crust. Though it had not been long exposed to the nipping morning air, Nasmyth felt his damp deer-hide jacket slowly stiffening, and the edge of the sleeves, which had been wet through the day before, commenced to rasp his raw and swollen wrists.

He stood still for a minute or two listening to the river and stretching himself wearily, for his back and shoulders ached, and there was a distressful stiffness in most of his joints that had resulted from exposure, in spray-drenched clothing, to the stinging frost. This, however, did not greatly trouble him, since he had long realized that physical discomfort must be disregarded if the work was to be carried on. Men, for the most part, toil strenuously in that wild land. Indeed, it is only by the tensest effort of which flesh and blood are capable that the wilderness is broken to man's domination, for throughout much of it costly mechanical appliances have not as yet displaced well-hardened muscle.

In most cases the Bushman who buys a forest ranch has scarcely any money left when he has made the purchase. He finds the land covered with two-hundred-feet firs, which must be felled, and sawn up, and rolled into piles for burning by his own hand, and only those who have handled trees of that kind can form any clear conception of the labour such work entails. It is a long time before the strip of cleared land will yield a scanty sustenance, and in the meanwhile the Bushman must, every now and then, hire himself out track-grading on the railroads or chopping trails to obtain the money that keeps him in tea and pork and flour. As a rule, he expects nothing else, and there are times when he does not get quite enough work. Men reared in this fashion grow hard and tireless, and Nasmyth had been called upon to lead a band of them. He had contrived to do it, so far, but it was not astonishing that the toil had left a mark on him.

He heard the drifting ice-cake crackle, as it leapt the fall, and the sharp crash of it upon the boulders in the rapid. It jarred on the duller roar of the river in intermittent detonations as each heavy mass swept down. There was, however, no other sound, and seizing a hammer, he struck a suspended iron sheet until a voice fell across the pines from the shadowy gully.

"Guess we'll be down soon as it's light enough," it said.

Then another voice rose from the shanty.

"The boys won't see to make a start for half an hour," it said. "I don't know any reason why you shouldn't shut the door and come right in. Breakfast's ready."

Nasmyth turned and went into the shanty, conscious that it would cost him an effort to get out of it again. A stove snapped and crackled in the one room, which was cosily warm. Gordon and Waynefleet sat before the two big empty cases that served for table, and Mattawa was ladling pork on to their plates from a blackened frying-pan, Nasmyth sat down and ate hastily, while the light from the lamp hanging beneath the roof-beams fell upon his face, which was gaunt and roughened by the sting of bitter spray and frost. His hands were raw and cracked.

"I want to get that rock-dump hove out of the pool before it's dark," he said. "One can't see to crawl over those ice-crusted rocks by firelight."

Gordon glanced at Mattawa, who grinned. "Well," said Mattawa, "it was only yesterday when I fell in, and I figured Charly was going right under the fall the day before. Oh, yes, I guess we'd better get the thing through while it's light."

"I have felt inclined to wonder if it wouldn't be advisable to suspend operations if this frost continues," said Waynefleet reflectively.

"Our charter lays it down that the work is to be carried on continuously," answered Gordon. "Still, on due notice being given, it permits a stoppage of not exceeding one month, owing to stress of weather or insuperable natural difficulties. As a matter of fact, even with the fire going, it's practically impossible to keep the frost out of the stone."

Nasmyth looked up sharply. "The work goes on. There will be no stoppage of any kind. We can't afford it. The thing already has cost us two or three times as much as I had anticipated."

Gordon looked amused, though he said nothing further. Nasmyth was up against it, with his back to the wall, but that fact had roused all the resolution there was in him, and he had shown no sign of flinching. It was evident that he must fight or fail ignominiously, and he had grown grimmer and more determined as each fresh obstacle presented itself while the strenuous weeks rolled on. There was silence for a few minutes, and then Mattawa grinned at Waynefleet.

"I guess you've got to keep that rock from freezing, and the fire was kind of low when I last looked out," he remarked.

With a frown of resignation Waynefleet rose wearily and went out, for it was his part to keep a great fire going day and night. This was one of the few things he could do, and, though it entailed a good deal of sturdy labour with the axe, he had, somewhat to his comrades' astonishment, accomplished it reasonably well. In another minute or two Nasmyth followed him, and when the rest of the men came clattering down from the shanty, higher up the gully, they set to work.

There was just light enough to see by, and no more, for, though the frost was bitter, heavy snow-clouds hung about the hills. Shingle and boulders were covered with frozen spray, and long spears of ice stretched out into the pool below the fall. Now and then a block of ice drove athwart them with a detonating crackle. The pool was lower than it had been in summer, and the stream frothed in angry eddies in the midst of it, where shattered masses of rock rent by the blasting charges lay as they had fallen. It was essential that the rock should be cleared away, and a great redwood log with a rounded foot let into a socket swung by wire rope guys above the pool. Another wire rope with a pair of iron claws at the end of it ran over a block at the head of the log to the winch below, and the primitive derrick and its fittings had cost Nasmyth a great deal of money, as well as a week's arduous labour.

They swung the apparatus over the pile of submerged rock, and, when the claws fell with a splash, they hove at the winch, two of them at each handle, until a mass of stone rose from the stream. Then one guy was slackened, and another hauled upon, until the rock swung over the shingle across the river, where they let it fall. Part of the growing pile would be used to build the road by which they brought supplies down the gully.

In itself the work was arduous enough, since four men alone could toil at the winch, and some of the masses they raised were ponderous. Indeed, there was scarcely room for four persons on the shelf hewn out above the tail of the pool, and the narrow strip of stone was slippery with ice. Fine spray that froze on all it touched whirled about the workers, and every now and then a heavy fragment that slipped from the claws fell with a great splash. Nasmyth's wrists grew raw from the rasp of the hide jacket, and wide cracks opened in his fingers.

"I remember it as cold as this only once before," he said. "It was during the few days I spent between the logging camp and Waynefleet's ranch."

Mattawa, who hove on the same handle, grinned. "Well," he said, "this is a tolerable sample of blame hard weather while it lasts, but we get months of it back East. Still, I guess we don't work then. No, sir, unless we're chopping, we sit tight round the stove."

Mattawa was right in this. Excepting the loggers and the Northwest Police, men do not work in the open at that temperature back East, nor would they attempt it on the Pacific Slope were the cold continuous. In the western half of British Columbia, however, long periods of severe weather are rare. It is a variable zone, swept now and then by damp, warm breezes, and men tell of sheltered valleys where flowers blow the year round, though very few of those who ramble up and down the Mountain Province ever chance upon them. But there are times when the devastating cold of the Polar regions descends upon the lonely ranges, as it had done upon the frost-bound cañon.

Those who toiled with Nasmyth were hardened men, and they held on with cracked hands clenched on the winch-handles, or they splashed through the icy shallows with the water in their boots, until, a little before their dinner-hour, when three of them stood straining by Nasmyth's side beneath the derrick as a mass of rock rose slowly to the surface of the pool. Mattawa glanced at this weight dubiously, and then up at the wire guy that gleamed with frozen spray high above his head.

"I guess we've dropped on to a big one this time," he said. "She's going to be heavier when we heave her clear of the river."

This, of course, was correct, and it was clear to Nasmyth that it was only by a strenuous effort that his comrades were raising the stone then. Still, it must be lifted, and he tightened his grasp upon the handle.

"Heave! Lift her out!" he said.

The veins rose swollen on their foreheads, and they gasped as they obeyed him, but as the stone rose dripping there was an ominous creaking overhead.

"Guess she's drawing the anchor-bolts," cried one. "We'll fetch the whole thing down. Shall I let her run?"

Nasmyth flung a sharp glance at the big iron holdfast sunk in the rock above. There would, he knew, be trouble if that or the wire guy gave way, but it was only at some hazard that anything could be done in the cañon.

"Hold on!" he said hoarsely. "Slack that guy, and let her swing."

There was a clink and jar as the clutch took the weight off them; a wire rope set up a harsh rasping, and as Gordon jerked a guiding-line across the river, the great boom swung, trailing the heavy stone just above the water. Then the ominous creak grew sharper, and one of them shouted.

"Jump!" he said. "She's going!"

Two of them sprang on the instant into the pool, and washed out with the crackling ice-cake into the rapid at the tail of it. It was precisely what most men who could swim would have done, but Nasmyth stayed, and Mattawa stayed with him. Nasmyth did not think very clearly, but he remembered subconsciously what the construction of that derrick had cost him. There was a lever which would release the load and let it run. He had his hand on it when he turned to his companion.

"Strip that handle, Tom," he said.

The iron crank that would have hurled him into the river as its span fell with a rattle, and that was one peril gone; but the lever he grasped was difficult to move, and his hands were stiff and numb. Still he persisted, and Mattawa watched him, because there was only room for one, until there was a crash above them, and the tilted top of the great boom came down. Mattawa, flattened against the rock side, held his breath as the mass of timber rushed towards the pool, and next moment saw that Nasmyth was no longer standing on the shelf. Nasmyth lay partly beneath the shattered winch, and his face was grey, except for a red scar down one side of it. His eyes, however, were open, and Mattawa gasped with relief when he heard the injured man speak.

"It cleared my body. I'm fast by the hand," said Nasmyth.

Three or four minutes had slipped by before the rest scrambled upon the ledge with handspikes, and then it cost them a determined effort before they moved the redwood log an inch or two. Gordon, kneeling by Nasmyth's side, drew the crushed arm from under it. Nasmyth raised himself on one elbow, and lifted a red and pulpy hand that hung from the wrist. With an effort that set his face awry, he straightened it.

"I can move it," he said. "I don't know how it got under the thing, or what hit me in the face."

"It doesn't matter, either," said Gordon quietly. "Can you get up?"

Nasmyth blinked at him. "Of course," he answered. "As a general thing, I walk with my legs. They're not hurt."

Nasmyth staggered to his feet, and, while Gordon grasped his shoulder, floundered over the log staging laid athwart the fall and back to the shanty. Gordon was busy with him there for some time. After the crushed hand had been bound up Gordon flung the door open and spoke to the men outside.

"It's only his hand, and there's nothing broken," he announced. "You can get your dinner. We'll see about heaving the derrick up when you've eaten."

He went back and filled Nasmyth's pipe.

"I expect it hurts," he said.

Nasmyth nodded. "Yes," he replied, "quite enough."

"Well," said Gordon, "I don't know that it's any consolation, but if you expose it at this temperature, it's going to hurt you considerably more. You can't do anything worth while with one hand, and that the one you don't generally use, either. There's a rip upon your face that may give you trouble, too. I'm going to pack you out to-morrow."

"The difficulty is that I'm not disposed to go."

"Your wishes are not going to be consulted. If there's no other way, I'll appeal to the boys. I'd let you stay if you were a reasonable man, and would lie quiet beside the stove until that hand got better; but since it's quite clear that nobody could keep you there, you're starting to-morrow for Waynefleet's ranch."

Gordon turned to Waynefleet. "We'll lay you off for a week. There's a little business waiting at the settlement, anyway, and you can see about getting the new tools and provisions in."

Waynefleet's face was expressive of a vast relief. The few bitter weeks spent in the cañon had taken a good deal of the keenness he had once displayed out of him.

"I certainly think the arrangement suggested is a very desirable one," he agreed "I am quite sure that Miss Waynefleet will have much pleasure in looking after Nasmyth."

Gordon turned to Nasmyth. "Now," he said, "you can protest just as much as you like, but still, as you'll start to-morrow if we have to tie you on to the pack-horse, it's not going to be very much use. You can nurse your hand for a week, and then go on to Victoria and see if you can pick up a boring-machine of the kind we want cheap."

Nasmyth, who was aware that the machine must be purchased before very long, submitted with the best grace he could, and, though his hand was painful, he contrived to sleep most of the afternoon. Now that he was disabled and could not work, he began to feel the strain. He set out with Waynefleet at sunrise next morning, and they passed the day scrambling over the divide, and winding in and out among withered fern and thickets as they descended a rocky valley. Here and there they found an easier pathway on the snow-sheeted reaches of a frozen stream, and only left it to plunge once more into the undergrowth when the ice crackled under them. They had a pack-horse with them, for now and then one of the men made a laborious journey to the settlement for provisions, and in places a fallen tree had been chopped through or a thicket partly hewn away. That, however, did little to relieve the difficulties of the march, for the trail was rudimentary, and the first two leagues of it would probably have severely taxed the strength of a vigorous man unaccustomed to the Bush.

But they pushed on, Waynefleet riding when it was possible, while Nasmyth plodded beside the horse's head, until a cloud of whirling snow broke upon them as they floundered through a belt of thinner Bush. The snow wrapped them in its filmy folds, gathering thick upon their garments and filling their eyes, and Nasmyth grew anxious as the daylight suddenly died out. They were in a valley, out of which they could not very well wander without knowing it, and they stumbled on, smashing into thickets and swerving round fallen trees, until they struck a clearer trail, and it was with relief that Nasmyth saw a tall split-rail fence close in front of him. He threw a strip of it down, and then turned to Waynefleet when he dimly made out a blink of light in the whirling haze of snow.

"If you will go in and tell Miss Waynefleet, I'll try to put the horse up," he said.

Waynefleet swung himself down stiffly and vanished into the snow. He was half frozen, and it did not occur to him that Nasmyth had only one hand with which to loose the harness. It is also possible that he would have made no protest if it had.

Nasmyth reached the stable, and contrived to find and to light the lantern, but he discovered that it would be difficult to do anything more. His sound hand was numbed. His fingers would not bend, and the buckles of the harness held, in spite of his efforts, but he persisted. The struggle he was waging in the cañon had stirred him curiously, and each fresh obstacle roused him to a half-savage determination. Though the action sent a thrill of pain through him, he laid his bound-up hand upon the headstall, and set his lips as he tore at a buckle. He felt that if the thing cost him hours of effort he would not be beaten.

He had, however, let his hand fall back into the bandage that hung from his neck, when the door opened and Laura Waynefleet came in. She saw him leaning against the side of the stall, with a greyness in his face, which had an angry red scar down one side of it, and her eyes shone with compassion.

"Sit down," she said. "I will do that."

Nasmyth, who straightened himself, shook his head. "I can manage it if you will loose the buckles," he said. "One feels a little awkward with only one hand."

They did it together, and then Nasmyth sat down, with his face drawn and lined. Laura stood still a moment or two with the lantern in her hand.

"The snow must be deep on the divide, and it is a very rough trail. I suppose you walked all the way?" she said.

Nasmyth contrived to smile. "As it happens, I am used to it."

There was a flash of indignation in the girl's eyes, for she had, after all, a spice of temper, and she was naturally acquainted with her father's character. Her anger had, however, disappeared next moment.

"You are looking ill," she remarked anxiously.

Nasmyth glanced down at the bandage. "I've been working rather hard of late, and this hand is painful." He made a deprecatory gesture. "I don't know what excuse to offer for troubling you. Gordon insisted on sending me."

"You fancy I require one from you?"

Nasmyth looked at her with heavy eyes. "No," he answered, "it is evident that you don't. After all, perhaps I shouldn't have wished to make any excuse. It seems only natural that when I get hurt, or find myself in any trouble, I should come to you."

He did not see the colour that crept into her face, for his perceptions were not clear then; but he rose with an effort, and together they went back to the house through the snow. There Nasmyth changed his clothes for the dry garments he had brought in a valise strapped to the pack-saddle, and an hour after supper he fell quietly asleep in his chair. Then Laura turned to her father.

"You let him walk all the way when he is worn-out and hurt!" she said accusingly.

Waynefleet waved his hand. "He insisted on it; and I would like to point out that there is nothing very much the matter with him. We have all been working very hard at the cañon; in fact, I quite fail to understand why you should be so much more concerned about him than you evidently are about me. I am, however, quite aware that there would be no use in my showing that I resented it."

Laura said nothing further. She felt that silence was wiser, for, after all, her patience now and then almost failed her.