The Greater Power/Chapter 28
A PAINFUL DUTY
THREE months had slipped away since the evening on which Wheeler had discussed the subject of shingle-splitting with his companions. Nasmyth stood outside the shanty in the drenching rain. He was very wet and miry, and his face was lined and worn, for the three months of unremitting effort had left their mark on him. Wheeler had secured the timber rights in question, and that was one difficulty overcome, but Nasmyth had excellent reasons for believing that the men who had cast covetous eyes upon the valley had by no means abandoned the attempt to get possession of at least part of it.
He had had flood and frost against him, and his money was rapidly running out. A wild flood swept through the cañon. The heading was filled up, so that no one could even see the mouth of it, and half the rock he had piled upon the shingle had been swept into the rapid, where it had formed a dam among the boulders that could be removed only at a heavy expenditure of time and powder when the water fell. He was worn out in body, and savage from being foiled by the swollen river at each attempt he made, but while the odds against him were rapidly growing heavier he meant to fight.
A Siwash Indian whom he had hired as messenger between the cañon and the settlement had just arrived, and Gordon, who stood in the doorway of the shanty, took a newspaper out of the wet packet he had brought. Gordon turned to Nasmyth when he opened it.
"Wheeler's getting ahead," he said. "Here's his announcement that his concern is turning out a high-grade cedar shingle. That's satisfactory so far as it goes. I don't quite know how we'd have held out if it hadn't been for the money we got from him for running the logs down." Then his voice grew suddenly eager. "Try to get hold of the significance of this, Derrick: 'We have got it on reliable authority that certain propositions for the exploitation of the virgin forest-belt beyond the Butte Divide will shortly be laid before the Legislature. It is expected that liberal support will be afforded to a project for the making of new waggon-roads, and we believe that if the scheme is adopted certain gentlemen in this city will endeavour to inaugurate a steamboat service with the Western inlets.'" He waved his hand. "When this particular paper makes an assertion of that kind, there's something going on," he added. "It's a sure thing that if those roads are made, it will put another thirty or forty cents on to every dollar's worth of land we're holding."
"Exactly," replied Nasmyth, whose tense face did not relax. "That is, it would, if we had run the water out of the valley; but, as it happens, we haven't cut down very much of the fall yet, and this thing is going to make the men we have against us keener than ever. They're probably plotting how to strike us now. Get those letters open."
There was anxiety in his voice, and Gordon started when he had ripped open one or two of the envelopes.
"This looks like business," he remarked, as he glanced at a letter from a lawyer who had once or twice handled Nasmyth's affairs in the city. "It's from Phelps. He says he has been notified that, unless an agreement can be arrived at, proceedings will be taken by a man called Hames, who claims to hold one hundred acres on the western side of the valley, to restrain you from altering the river level. Atterly—he's the man we've heard from already—it seems, is taking action, too."
"Hames?" repeated Nasmyth. "I've never heard of him. Any way, he can't hold land on the western side. We haven't sold an acre." He stopped a moment, and looked hard at Gordon. "That is, I haven't sanctioned it, and I believe there's nobody holding a share in the project who would go back on us."
Gordon made a gesture indicating his doubt in the subject, and they looked at each other for half a minute.
"I'm afraid I can't go quite as far as that," he replied, and laughed harshly. "As it stands recorded, the land could be transferred to anyone by Waynefleet. Any way, it seems to be in his block. Phelps cites the boundary-posts."
Nasmyth closed one hand tight. Waynefleet, who had found the constant wetting too much for him, had left the cañon a week or two before this morning, on which it was evident a crisis of some sort was near. He had complained of severe pains in his back and joints, and had sent them no word after his departure.
"Is there anything from him?" asked Nasmyth.
Gordon picked out an envelope and opened it. "Here's a note from Miss Waynefleet. She desires you to ride across at once."
With a troubled face Nasmyth stood still in the rain another minute.
"I'll take the pack-horse and start now," he said after a brief silence. "When I have seen Miss Waynefleet, I'll go right on to Victoria." He turned and gazed at the river. "If one could get into the heading by any means, I'd fire every stick of giant-powder in it first. Unfortunately, the thing is out of the question."
In a few moments he was scrambling up the gully, and Gordon, who went into the shanty and lighted his pipe, sat gazing at the letters very thoughtfully. They had no money to spare for any legal expenses. Indeed, he was far from sure they had enough to supply them with powder and provisions until their task was accomplished. During the long grim fight in the cañon they had borne almost all that could be expected of flesh and blood, and it was unthinkable that the city man, who sat snug in his office and plotted, should lay grasping hands upon the profit. Still, that seemed possible now that somebody had betrayed them.
Meantime, Nasmyth had swung himself into the pack-saddle, and, in the rain, was scrambling up the rocky slopes of the divide. He had not changed his clothing, and it would have availed him little if he had, since there was a long day's ride before him. The trail was a little easier than it had been, for each man who led the pack-horse along it had hewn through some obstacle, but it was still sufficiently difficult, and every here and there a frothing torrent swept across it. There were slopes of wet rock to be scrambled over, several leagues of dripping forest thick with undergrowth that clung about the narrow trail to be floundered through, and all the time the great splashes from the boughs or torrential rain beat upon him. In places he led the pack-horse, in places he rode, and dusk was closing in when he saw a blink of light across Waynefleet's clearing. In another few minutes he had led the jaded horse into the stable, and then, splashed with mire, and with the water running from his clothes, had limped to the homestead door.
Nasmyth opened the door and saw Laura Waynefleet sitting by the stove. She started as he came in.
"I have been expecting you," she said. She gave him her hand and her eyes met his with a look of anxiety. She noticed his appearance of weariness and the condition of his clothing. "I can get you something dry to put on," she added.
"No," said Nasmyth, "you must not trouble. I would be quite as wet again, soon after I leave here. If I can borrow a horse, I must push on to the railroad in an hour."
"To-night?" asked Laura. "After riding in from the cañon, it's out of the question. Besides, you could never get through the Willow Ford. Listen to the rain."
Nasmyth sank wearily into the nearest chair, and heard the deluge lash the shingled roof.
"I'm afraid it must be done," he declared.
Laura laid supper upon the table, and insisted that he should eat before she made any reference to the object she had in hand. Then, while he sat beside the stove with his clothes steaming, she looked at him steadily, and a little colour crept into her face.
"I wonder if you can guess why I sent for you?" she said.
"Where is your father?" Nasmyth asked abruptly.
"In Victoria. He left six days ago. I suppose he sent you no word that he was going."
"No," answered Nasmyth very dryly, "he certainly didn't. I don't think I could have expected it from him."
He sat silent for almost a minute, looking at her with a troubled air, and though Laura was very quiet, her manner was vaguely suggestive of tension. It was Nasmyth who broke the silence.
"I believe you have something to tell me, Miss Waynefleet," he said. "Still, I would sooner you didn't, if it will hurt you. After all, it's rather more than possible that I can arrive at the information by some other means."
The tinge of colour grew plainer in Laura's face, but it was evident that she laid a firm restraint upon herself. "Ah!" she cried, "it has hurt me horribly already. I can't get over the shame of it. But that isn't what I meant to speak of. I feel"—and her voice grew tense and strained—"I must try to save you and the others from a piece of wicked treachery."
She straightened herself, and there was a flash in her eyes, but Nasmyth raised one hand.
"No," he protested, almost sternly, "I can't let you do this. You would remember it ever afterwards with regret."
The girl seemed to nerve herself for an effort, and when she spoke her voice was impressively quiet.
"You must listen and try to understand," she said.
"It is not only because it would hurt me to see you and the others tricked out of what you have worked so hard for that I feel I must tell you. If there was nothing more than that, I might, perhaps, never have told you, after all. I want to save my father from a shameful thing." Her voice broke away, and the crimson flush on her face deepened as she went on again. "He has been offering to sell land that can't belong to him," she asserted accusingly.
Nasmyth felt sorry for her, and he made an attempt to offer her a grain of consolation.
"A few acres are really his," he said. "I made them over to him."
"To be his only if he did his share, and when the scheme proved successful," Laura interrupted. "I know, if he has sold them, what an opportunity of harassing you it will give the men who are plotting against you. Still, now you know, you can, perhaps, break off the bargain. I want you to do what you can"—and she glanced at him with a tense look in her eyes—"if it is only to save him."
"That," replied Nasmyth quietly, "is, for quite another reason, the object I have in view. I would like you to understand that I have guessed that he had failed us already. It may be some little consolation. Now, perhaps, you had better tell me exactly what you know."
Laura did so, and it proved to be no more than Nasmyth had suspected. Letters had passed between Waynefleet and somebody in Victoria, and the day after he left for that city two men, who had evidently crossed him on the way, arrived at the ranch. One said his name was Hames, and his conversation suggested that he supposed the girl was acquainted with her father's affairs. In any case, what he said made it clear that he had either purchased, or was about to purchase from Waynefleet, certain land in the valley. After staying half an hour, the men had, Laura understood, set out again for Victoria.
When she had told him this, Nasmyth sat thoughtfully silent a minute or two. Her courage and hatred of injustice had stirred him deeply, for he knew what it must have cost her to discuss the subject of her father's wrongdoing with him. He was also once more overwhelmingly sorry for her. There was nobody she could turn to for support or sympathy, and it was evident that if he succeeded in foiling Hames, it would alienate her from her father. Waynefleet, he felt, was not likely to forgive her for the efforts she had made to save him from being drawn into an act of profitable treachery.
"Well," he said after a moment's thought, "I am going on to Victoria to see what can be done, but there is another matter that is troubling me. I wonder if it has occurred to you that your father will find it very difficult to stay on at the ranch when the part he has played becomes apparent. I am almost afraid the boys will be vindictive."
"I believe he has not expected to carry on the ranch much longer. It is heavily mortgaged, and he has been continually pressed for money."
"Has he any plans?"
Laura smiled wearily. "He has always plans. I believe he intends to go to one of the towns on Puget Sound, and start a land agency." She made a dejected gesture. "I don't expect him to succeed in it, but perhaps I could earn a little."
Nasmyth set his lips tight, and there was concern in his face. She looked very forlorn, and he knew that she was friendless. He could hardly bring himself to contemplate the probability of her being cast adrift, saddled with a man who, it was evident, would only involve her in fresh disasters, and, he fancied, reproach her as the cause of them. A gleam of anger crept into his eyes.
"If your father had only held on with us, I could have saved you this," he observed.
There was a great sadness in Laura's smile.
"Still," she replied, "he didn't, and perhaps you couldn't have expected it of him. He sees only the difficulties, and I am afraid never tries to face them."
Nasmyth felt his self-control deserting him. He was conscious of an almost overwhelming desire to save the girl from the results of her father's dishonesty and folly, and he could see no way in which it could be done. Then it was borne in upon him that in another moment or two he would probably say or do something that he would regret afterwards, and she would resent, and, rising stiffly, he held out his hand.
"I must push on to the railroad," he said, and he held the hand she gave him in a firm clasp. "Miss Waynefleet, you saved my life, and I believe I owe you quite as much in other ways. It's a fact that neither of us can attempt to disregard. I want you to promise that you will, at least, not leave the ranch without telling me."
Laura flashed a quick glance at him, and perhaps she saw more than he suspected in his insistent gaze, for she strove to draw her hand away. He held it fast, however, while his nerves thrilled and his heart beat furiously. He remembered Violet Hamilton vaguely, but there came upon him a compelling desire to draw this girl to whom he owed so much into his arms and comfort her. They both stood very still a moment, and Nasmyth heard the snapping of the stove with a startling distinctness. Then—and it cost him a strenuous effort—he let her hand go.
"You will promise," he insisted hoarsely.
"Yes," answered Laura, "before I go away I will tell you."
Nasmyth went out into the blackness and the rain, while Laura sat trembling until she heard the beat of his horse's hoofs. Then she sank lower, a limp huddled figure, in the canvas chair. The stove snapped noisily, and the pines outside set up a doleful wailing, but, except for that, it was very still in the desolate ranch.
Nasmyth rode on until he borrowed a fresh horse from a man who lived a few miles along the trail. There was a cheerful light from the windows as he rode into a little settlement, and the trail to the railroad led through dripping forest and over a towering range, but he did not draw bridle. He was aching all over, and the water ran from his garments, but he scarcely seemed to feel his weariness then, and he pushed on resolutely through the rain up the climbing trail.
He remembered very little of that ride afterwards, or what he thought about during it. The strain of the last few minutes he had passed at Waynefleet's ranch had left him dazed, and part of his numbness, at least, was due to weariness. Several times he was almost flung from the saddle as the horse scrambled down a slope of rock. Willow-branches lashed him as he pushed through the thickets, and in one place it was only by a grim effort that he drove the frightened beast to ford a flooded creek. Then there was a strip of hillside to be skirted, where the slope was almost sheer beneath the edge of the winding trail, and the rain that drove up the valley beat into his eyes. Still he held on, and two hours after sunrise rode half asleep into the little mining town. There was a train in the station, and, turning the horse over to a man he met, he climbed, dripping as he was, into a car.