The Greater Power/Chapter 26


CHAPTER XXVI
ONE NIGHT'S TASK

DAYLIGHT was dying out in a flurry of whirling snow, when Nasmyth, who led a jaded horse, floundered down from the steep rock slopes of the divide into the shelter of the dark pines about the head of the gully. It was a little warmer there, and he was glad of it, for he was chilled, in spite of the toilsome climb. The dark boughs wailed above him, tossing athwart his path a haze of sliding snow, but he caught a faint and reassuring clink of drills, and straightened himself as he clambered down between the trees. The sound had a bracing effect on him, and he felt a curious little thrill as the clamour of the river came up to him in long pulsations. The sound of the waters was growing louder when Gordon, with a big axe in his hand, materialized out of the shadows, and strode forward impulsively at the sight of him.

"Hand better? We're glad to see you; but you might have stayed another day or two," he said.

Nasmyth laughed. "Well," replied he, "perhaps it's a little curious, considering everything, but I was impatient to get back again. In fact, I feel more at home each time I scramble down from the divide."

He glanced round through the sliding snow at the dim white range and ranks of towering pines, and, as he did so, the roar of the river and the wail of trees that swayed beneath a fierce wind filled the rock-walled hollow. Then the persistent clink of drills and thud of axes broke out again, while here and there the blurred white figure of a toiling man emerged from the snow. It was a picture that a man unused to the wilderness might have shrunk from, but Gordon understood his comrade. They were engaged in a great struggle, with the powers of savage Nature arrayed against them; but it was with a curious quickening of all the strength that was in them, mental and physical, that they braced themselves for the conflict.

"I have a thing or two to tell you, but we'll get into the shanty and have supper first. The boys are just quitting work," remarked Gordon.

They clambered down over a practicable trail, though part of it was covered deep with snow, crept in and out among the boulders by the light of a great fire that blazed above the fall, and found Mattawa laying a meal out when they reached the shanty. Neither Nasmyth nor Gordon said anything of consequence until after the meal, and then Nasmyth, who had put on his deer-hide jacket and duck trousers, flung himself down in an empty packing-case that was stuffed with soft spruce twigs, and looked about him with a smile of contentment. A lamp hung above him, and its light gleamed upon axes, drills, iron wedges, and crosscut saws, and made a chequered pattern of brightness and shadow on the rude log walls. A glowing stove diffused a cosy warmth, and the little room was filled with the odours of tobacco and drying boots and clothes.

"I suppose you saw Wisbech?" observed Gordon. "Miss Waynefleet told one of the boys, who was through at the settlement, that she had a note from him asking if she'd get a letter he or Acton had written into your hands as soon as possible. He seems to be making quite a stay in this country."

"He has stayed several months longer than he intended," replied Nasmyth. "I believe he did it on my account; but he's going on again in a week or two. I saw him at Bonavista. Where's Waynefleet?"

"I guess he's in Victoria."

"I didn't come across him. What took him there?"

Gordon laughed. "He said it was business. Wanted to see if we couldn't get our tools and powder cheaper. As a matter of fact, it would be a relief if that could be done. Any way, he has been working quite hard, and has hung on rather longer than I expected. Administration's his strong point. He doesn't like chopping." Gordon's face grew grave. "In one way it's rather a pity he's fond of talking. I'm 'most afraid somebody may start him discoursing on what we're doing over a glass of wine and a cigar. I like a man of that kind where I can put my hand on him. He's one of our weak spots."

Nasmyth nodded. "I'm sorry I didn't know he was in the city," he said. "How are you getting on?"

"Satisfactorily, so far as the work goes. We have pushed the blasting heading well under the fall, but there's a thing that has been worrying me. I'd gone across the range to see what the boys in the valley had done, when a man came in. It appears he resented our trying to lower the river. Mattawa saw him."

Mattawa looked up with a grin. "He said he'd a claim up at the head of the valley, and we had got to quit work right away. If we didn't he'd get the Crown people or the court to stop us. He liked plenty of water round his ranch. Some of the boys got a little riled with him, and they took him up the gully and put him on his horse."

"I never heard of a claim up yonder," declared Nasmyth gravely.

"Well," said Gordon, "I believe there is one. Somebody recorded it a long while ago, and did nothing on it, but, as it was bought land, his title stands. Potter says he understood the man was dead. It may be an attempt to get some money out of us."

Nasmyth sat thoughtfully silent a moment or two.

"One of the Crown people hinted at something of the kind," he said. "Now I scarcely think any of the boys would go back on us by selling out his land?"

"Not one. Any way, I guess they could hardly do it without the consent of the trustees. You and I are not likely to give ours." He paused for a moment. "Well," he added, "I guess Waynefleet could be depended on."

Nasmyth said nothing for almost a minute, and both recognized that the silence was significant. Then he rose abruptly.

"In one shape or other the trouble you suggested is one we will have to face," he commented. "That's why I'm going to fire a big charge in the blasting heading to-night. You can bring the giant-powder along, Tom."

Mattawa appeared to be amazed, and Gordon stared at his comrade curiously.

"If you fire that charge now, you'll naturally make an end of the heading, and I understood your notion was to drive right under the fall and blow the whole ledge out at one time," objected Gordon. "Guess if you just rip the top of the rock off, as far as we have gone, it will take us quite a while to make another tunnel, and money, as I needn't remind you, is running out."

"Exactly!" agreed Nasmyth. "That extra work will have to be faced, but if I can get a big charge in to-night I can cut down the ridge a foot or two. Two feet less water will count for something in the valley, and I'm going to make sure of it. It seems certain that somebody will try to stop us by-and-by."

Gordon noticed the hard glint in Nasmyth's eyes, and knew that now when he was being pushed back to the wall he meant to fight, and would not shrink from a sacrifice. They had driven that uncompleted heading at a heavy cost, cutting at first an open gallery in the face of the rock, drenched with the spray of the fall. Then they had crawled into the dripping tunnel hewn out by sheer force of muscle, for it was seldom that powder could be used, and they had only a worn-out machine, and had toiled crouching with scarcely room to bring a hammer down on wedge or to hold the drill, while from odd fissures the icy river poured in on them. Now, it seemed, all that severe effort was to be practically thrown away, but he recognized that his comrade was right. It was wiser to make sure of two feet than to wait until somebody set the law in motion and stopped the work.

"Yes," he assented simply; "I guess it has to be done."

Mattawa entered with the magazine, and Nasmyth laid out several sticks of giant-powder near the stove. There was a certain risk in this, but giant-powder freezes, and when that happens one must thaw it out. It is a singularly erratic compound of nitro-glycerine, which requires to be fired by a powerful detonator, and, if merely ignited, burns harmlessly. One can warm it at a stove, or even flatten it with a hammer, without stirring it to undesired activity—that is, as a rule—but now and then a chance tap with a pick-handle or a little jolt suffices to loose its tremendous potentialities. In such cases the men nearest it are usually not shattered, but dissolved into their component gases.

Nasmyth was quite aware of this as he sat by the stove kneading the detonators into the sticks that he held up to warm. His lips were set, but his scarred hands were steady, for another risk more or less did not count for very much in the cañon. Once, however, Mattawa ventured a protest.

"I guess that stick's quite hot enough," he observed.

Nasmyth said nothing, but went on with his work, until at length he laid the sticks and fuses in the magazine, and signalling to the others, moved towards the door. The snow beat into their faces when they went outside, and the glare of the fire above the fall emphasized the obscurity. Now the flames flung an evanescent flash of radiance across the whirling pool and the dark rock's side, and then sank again to a dim smear of yellow brightness while a haze of vapour whirled amidst the snow, for a high wind swept through the cañon. Sometimes they could see the boulders among which they stumbled, and the river frothing at their feet, but for the most part they saw nothing, and groped onward with dazzled eyes, until at last Nasmyth swung himself up on the narrow staging that overhung the pool beneath the fall, and Gordon heard the sticks of giant-powder jolt against the side of the magazine. That alone would have sufficed to indicate the state of his comrade's temper, for so far as it is possible, men handle giant-powder very tenderly.

There was no rail to the narrow staging, which was glazed with frozen spray, and when Gordon was half-way along it, the fire flung out a gush of radiance and sank suddenly. Then thick smoke whirled about him, and for a moment or two he stopped and gasped, feeling for the rock with a cautious hand. He was aware that the man who slipped from the staging would be whirled round with the eddy and drawn down beneath the fall. A harsh voice came out of the darkness.

"Am I to wait here half the night?" it asked.

Gordon went on circumspectly, bruising his numbed fingers now and then upon the stone, until once more a blaze broke out, and he saw Nasmyth floundering in haste over a pile of shattered rock. The magazine was slung over his shoulder, and now and then it struck his back or the side of the rock. While Gordon would have been relieved had his comrade acted more circumspectly, he was not surprised. There were, he knew, times when men under strain broke out into an unreasoning fury. He had seen one hewing savagely on the perilous side of a tremendous tottering tree, and another grimly driving the bolts that could not save it into the stringers of a collapsing wooden bridge. It was, as he recognized, not exactly courage that they had displayed, but the elemental savagery that in the newer countries, at least, now and then seizes on hard-driven men ground down by mortgage-holders, or ruined by flood and frost. With man and Nature against them they would make their last grim protest before they were crushed. Gordon once or twice had been conscious of the same fierce desire. He could sympathize with Nasmyth, but, after all, he wished he would not bang the giant-powder about in that unceremonious fashion.

"Leave the magazine yonder, and we'll bring it along," he cried.

Nasmyth made no answer, but he waited until Gordon and Mattawa joined him, and they lowered themselves down from a rock shelf on to a pile of broken rock, about which the eddy swirled. The spray of the fall beat upon them, and the roar of it was bewildering, but the noise was softened when they crawled into the entrance of a narrow tunnel. Mattawa, with considerable difficulty, struck a match, and a pale light streamed out from the little metal lamp he fastened in his hat. The light showed the ragged roof of the tunnel and the rivulet of icy water that flowed in the bottom of it. They crawled forward through the water for a few yards, vainly trying to avoid the deluge which broke upon them from the fissures, and finally sat down dripping on a pile of broken rock. Nasmyth took out his pipe, and was lighting it when Gordon drew the magazine away from him.

"You might just as well have done that before you opened the thing," he remarked. "Anyway, if you merely want to sit down, it would have been quite as comfortable in the shanty."

Nasmyth was silent for several moments; then he turned to the other two men with a wry smile.

"I don't quite know how we drove this heading with the tools we had, but I can't think of any means of saving it," he said. "There are men with money—Martial, and more of them—in the cities waiting to take away from us what we expect to get, and since we have to fight them, it seems to me advisable to strike where it's possible." He laughed harshly. "There'll be two feet less water in the valley before the morning."

"But no heading," cried Mattawa.

"Well," replied Nasmyth simply, "we'll start another one. I notice two holes yonder. We'll drill a third one, Tom."

Nasmyth had been in the saddle since sunrise, in bitter frost and whirling snow, but he picked up a hammer, and Mattawa seized a drill. There was no room to swing the hammer, and Nasmyth struck half crouching, while, chilly as the heading was, the perspiration dripped from him, and the veins rose swollen on his forehead. He was up against it, and a man strikes hardest when he is pressed back to the wall. Gordon sat and watched them, but—for the rock rang with each jarring thud—he wrapped the magazine in his wet jacket, and it was a relief to him when Nasmyth finally dropped the hammer.

"Now," said Nasmyth, "we'll fill every hole ram to the top."

Mattawa placed the giant-powder in the holes, and they crawled back, trailing a couple of thin wires after them, until they reached the strip of shingle near the gully, when Nasmyth made the connection with the firing-plug.

A streak of vivid flame leapt out of the rock, and the detonation was followed by the roar of the river pouring through the newly opened gap. Nasmyth turned without a word and plodded back to the shanty. A group of men who had scrambled down the gully met him.

"You were a little astonished to see me, boys?" he said with a question in his voice. Then he laughed. "I've fired a big charge, and I guess you'll have to start another heading as soon as it's sun-up."

It was evident that the men were disconcerted, and an expostulatory murmur rose from them. It ceased, however, when Nasmyth waved his hand.

"I had to do it, boys," he declared.

It had cost them strenuous toil to drive that heading, but one could have fancied that they were satisfied with the terse assurance he offered them. He had proved himself fit to lead them, and they had a steadfast confidence in him.

"Well," commented one of the men, "in that case, I guess all we have to do is to start right off at the other one."

Nasmyth opened the door of the shanty. "I felt you'd look at it that way, boys," he said. "I'll explain the thing later. I'm a little played out to-night."

The men plodded away up the gully, and in another few minutes Nasmyth was sound asleep.