The Greater Power/Chapter 3


CHAPTER III
WAYNEFLEET'S RANCH

Thoughhe afterwards endeavoured to recall them, Nasmyth had never more than a faint and shadowy recollection of the next few days. During most of the time, he fancied he was back in England, and the girl he had left there seemed to be hovering about him. Now and then, she would lay gentle hands upon him, and her soothing touch would send him off to sleep again; but there was a puzzling change in her appearance. He remembered her as slight in figure—sylph-like he had sometimes called her—fastidious and dainty, and always artistically dressed. Now, however, she seemed to have grown taller, stronger, more reserved, and, as he vaguely realized, more capable, while her garments were of a different and coarser fashion. What was still more curious, she did not seem to recognize her name, though he addressed her by it now and then. He pondered over the matter drowsily once or twice, and then ceased to trouble himself about it. There were several other things that appeared at least as incomprehensible.

After a long time, however, his senses came back to him, and one evening, as he lay languidly looking about him in his rude wooden bunk, he endeavoured to recall what had passed since he left the loggers' camp. The little room was comfortably warm, and a plain tin lamp burned upon what was evidently a home-made table. There was nothing, except a rifle, upon the rough log walls, and nothing upon the floor, which was, as usual, rudely laid with split boards, for dressed lumber is costly in the Bush. Looking through the open door into the general living-room, which was also lighted, he could see a red twinkle beneath the register of the stove, beside which a woman was sitting sewing. She was a hard-featured, homely person in coarsely fashioned garments, which did not seem to fit her well, and Nasmyth felt slightly disconcerted when he glanced at her, for she was not the woman whom he had expected to see. Then his glance rested on a man, who had also figured in his uncertain memories, and now sat not far away from him. The man, who was young, was dressed in plain blue duck, and, though Nasmyth noticed that his hands were hard, and that he had broken nails, there was something in his bronzed face that suggested mental capacity.

"I suppose," the sick man said, "you are the doctor who has evidently taken care of me?"

He was not quite himself yet, and he spoke clean colloquial English, without any trace of the Western accentuation he usually considered it advisable to adopt, though, as a matter of fact, the accent usually heard on the Pacific slope is not unduly marked. The other man naturally noticed it, and laughed somewhat curiously.

"I have some knowledge of medicine and surgery," Gordon answered. "Now and then I make use of it, though I don't, as a rule, get a fee." Then he looked rather hard at Nasmyth. "Quite a few of us find it advisable to let our professions go when we come to this country."

Nasmyth nodded, for this was a thing he had discovered already. Many of the comrades he had made there were outcasts—men outside the pale—and they were excellent comrades, too.

"Well," he said, "I have evidently been very sick. How did I get here? I don't seem to remember."

"Miss Waynefleet found you lying in the snow in the clearing."

"Ah!" said Nasmyth—"a tall girl with a quiet voice, big brown eyes, and splendid hair?"

Gordon smiled. "Well," he said, "that's quite like her."

"Where is she now?" asked Nasmyth; and though he was very feeble still, there was a certain expectancy in his manner.

"In the barn, I believe. The working oxen have to be fed. It's very probable that you will see her in the next half-hour. As to your other question—you were very sick indeed—pneumonia. Once or twice it seemed a sure thing that you'd slip through our fingers. Where were you coming from when you struck the clearing?"

Nasmyth, who had no reason for reticence, and found his mind rapidly growing clearer, briefly related what had led him to set out on his journey through the Bush, and his companion nodded.

"It's very much as I expected," he said. "They paid you off before you left that logging camp?"

"They did," said Nasmyth, who was pleased to recall the fact. "I had thirty-two dollars in my belt."

His companion looked at him steadily. "When you came here you hadn't a belt on. There was not a dollar in your pockets, either."

This was naturally a blow to Nasmyth. He realized that it would probably be several weeks at least before he was strong enough to work again, and he had evidently been a charge upon these strangers for some little time. Still, he did not for a moment connect any of them with the disappearance of his belt. He was too well acquainted with the character of the men who are hewing the clearings out of the great forests of the Pacific slope. As a matter of fact, he never did discover what became of his belt.

"Well," he said, "I suppose I forgot to put it on, one of those mornings on the march. Still, it's not very astonishing that the thing should worry me. I can't expect to stay on at this ranch. When do you think I can get up and set out again?"

"How long have you been out here?"

"Been out?"

Gordon laughed. "You're from the Old Country—that's plain enough."

"Several years."

"In that case I'm not going to tell you we're not likely to turn you out until you have some strength in you. I believe I'm speaking for Miss Waynefleet now."

Nasmyth lay still and considered this. It was, at least, quite evident that he could not get up yet, but there were one or two other points that occurred to him.

"Does the ranch belong to Miss Waynefleet?" he inquired. "She can't live here alone."

"She runs the concern. She has certainly a father, but you'll understand things more clearly when you see him. He's away in Victoria, which is partly why Mrs. Custer from the settlement is now in yonder room. Her husband is at present building a trestle on the Dunsmore track. I come up here for only an hour every day."

Nasmyth afterwards discovered that this implied a journey of three or four miles either way over a very indifferent trail, but at the moment he was thinking chiefly of Miss Waynefleet, who had given him shelter.

"You practise at the settlement?" he asked.

"Yes," said his companion dryly, "chopping big trees. I've a ranch there. Still, I don't know that you could exactly call it practising. By this time, I've acquired a certain proficiency in the thing."

Nasmyth fancied that he must have gone to sleep soon after this, for when he opened his eyes again there was no sign of the doctor, and a girl was quietly moving about the room. She sat down, when she saw that he was awake, and looked at him with a little smile, and it was only natural that Nasmyth should also look at her. It struck him once more that she had wonderful hair. In the lamp-light, it seemed to glow with curious red-gold gleams. She had also quiet brown eyes, and a face that was a trifle darkened by sun and wind. He guessed that she was tall. She looked so as she moved about the room with a supple gracefulness that had a suggestion of strength in it. That was all he noticed in detail, for he was chiefly conscious of the air of quiet composure that characterized her. He was a trifle fanciful that night, and, while he looked her, he felt as he had sometimes felt when he stood at sunset in the silence of the shadowy Bush, or gazed down into the depths of some still river pool. Only her gleaming red-gold hair and her full red lips slightly counteracted this impression. There was in them at least a hint of fire and passion.

"You are much better," she said, and her softly modulated voice fell pleasantly on his ears. He contrived to raise himself a trifle.

"I believe I am," he answered, "In any case, I know I owe it to you that I'm alive at all. Still"—and he hesitated—"I can't help feeling a bit uncomfortable. You see, I have really no claim on you."

Laura Waynefleet laughed. "Did you expect me to leave you out in the snow?"

"If you had, I couldn't have complained. There wasn't the least obligation upon you to look after a penniless stranger."

"Ah!" said the girl, with a little smile which was curiously expressive, "after all, many of us are in one sense strangers in the Bush."

Nasmyth pondered over this, for, in view of what he had noticed in her voice and manner, he fancied he understood her meaning.

"Well," he said, "it's evident that I can do nothing in return for all your kindness, except take myself off your hands as soon as possible. That's partly why I'm particularly anxious to get better."

He stopped a moment, with a faint flush in his hollow face. "It sounds very ungracious, doesn't it? But, after all, it's sense. Besides, I scarcely feel up to expressing myself very neatly."

The girl moved across the room, and gently pressed him down again on the pillow.

"Go to sleep again at once," she said.

Nasmyth did as he was bidden, which, since he felt that he wanted to lie awake and watch her, was in one way significant. As a matter of fact, what Laura Waynefleet considered advisable was usually done. Nasmyth's head was clearer next morning, and, during the week that followed, he grew stronger rapidly, until one night, as he sat beside the stove, he realized that he could, in all probability, set out again on his journey in a day or two. While he talked to Laura Waynefleet, there were footsteps outside, and she ran towards the door as a man came into the room. Nasmyth fancied the newcomer was her father, for he was grey-haired and elderly, but he did not look in the least like a Bush-rancher. Beneath the fur coat, which he flung off when he had kissed his daughter, he was dressed as one who lived in the cities, though his garments were evidently far from new. He was tall, but his spareness suggested fragility, and his face, which emphasized this impression, had a hint of querulous discontent in it.

"I didn't expect to get through until to-morrow, but they've altered the running of the stage," he said. "Wiston drove me up from the settlement, and said he'd send my things across to-morrow. I was glad to get out of Victoria. The cooking and accommodation at the hotel I stayed at were simply disgusting."

Nasmyth glanced at the speaker in amused astonishment, for the Bush-ranchers of the Pacific slope are not, as a rule, particular. They can live on anything, and sleep more or less contentedly among dripping fern, or even in a pool of water, as, indeed, they not infrequently have to do, when they go up into the forests surveying, or undertake a road-making contract. Laura Waynefleet directed her father's attention to her convalescent guest.

"This is Mr. Nasmyth," she said. "You will remember I mentioned him in my letter."

Waynefleet made the young man a little inclination that was formally courteous. "I am glad to see you are evidently recovering," he said. "I hope they have made you at home here." Then he turned to his daughter. "If you could get me some supper——"

Laura busied herself about the stove, while Waynefleet sat down and talked to Nasmyth about generalities. Waynefleet appeared to be a politician, and he criticized the Government, which, in his opinion, was neglecting the Bush-ranchers shamefully. It was evident that he considered it the duty of the Government to contribute indirectly towards the support of settlers. Then the supper was laid out. As he ate fastidiously, he made a few faintly sardonic observations about the cookery, and, after the girl had brought in a pot of coffee, he frowned at the cup he put down.

"There is one place in Victoria where you can get coffee, as it ought to be, but this is merely roasted wheat," he said. "You will excuse me from drinking any more of it. As you have probably discovered, Mr. Nasmyth, one has to put up with a good deal in this country. It is in many respects a barbarous land."

Nasmyth saw the faint flush in Laura Waynefleet's face, and said nothing. He fancied that he knew the establishment in Victoria to which Waynefleet referred, but it was not one which he had ever visited, or which the smaller Bush-ranchers usually frequented.

Soon after supper, Nasmyth withdrew to the bed, which he had insisted on preparing for himself in the loft above the stables, and it was next day when he spoke to Laura Waynefleet alone.

"I can't abuse your kindness any longer," he said. "I must go away."

The girl looked at him quietly. "You are far from strong yet, and—it must be mentioned—there was not a dollar in your pockets."

"That is certainly the case;" and Nasmyth flushed a little. "Still, I can get as far as the settlement, and I dare say somebody, who won't be too hard on me at first, may want a hand. I am really rather a good chopper."

Laura smiled as she glanced at his face, but it was not its hollowness she was thinking of. Nasmyth had not the appearance of the average chopper.

"Well," she said, "perhaps you had better see my father. I think he has something to say to you."

She left him, and, half an hour later, Waynefleet came up to Nasmyth, who was sunning himself outside the ranch-house. Like many other houses in that country, it stood beneath a few great firs on the edge of a desolate clearing, round which the primeval forest rose in an unbroken wall. Behind it, and a little farther back among the trees, was the rude barn, built of big notched logs, and roofed with cedar shingles. In front there lay some twenty acres of cleared land, out of which rose the fir-stumps, girdled with withered fern, for a warm wind from the Pacific had swept the snow away. Beyond that, in turn, and outside the split-rail fence, rows of giant trunks lay piled in the tremendous ruin usually called the "slashing." Some day, these would be sawn up and burnt, and the clearing driven farther back into the Bush. The little gap into which the sunlight shone, however, had been hewn out at the cost of several years of strenuous labour, and Nasmyth, who was aware of this, felt inclined to smile as the man who owned it strolled up to him. It was a little difficult to imagine that he had had any great share in the making of that clearing.

Waynefleet was dressed in duck, but it was whole and unsoiled, and Nasmyth made his own deductions from a glance at the delicate hands. As a rule, Waynefleet's expression was discontented and querulous, but for the time being his manner was gracious. In fact, he was generally more or less courteous to Nasmyth.

"Miss Waynefleet tells me you are thinking of going away," said the owner of the ranch.

Nasmyth replied that he intended to leave the ranch, and was explaining that he felt he had already abused his host's kindness, when Waynefleet cut him short.

"We have been glad to have you here," he said; "in fact, I have been wondering if you might feel disposed to stay. It is probably evident to you that I cannot do all that is necessary about this place with one pair of hands."

Nasmyth knew, from what he had seen on other and larger ranches, that one man could do the work, though he felt that it was more than one could reasonably have expected from Waynefleet. It was, however, clear that somebody did a great deal, and he fancied that it was the rancher's daughter.

"Well," continued Waynefleet, "I am disposed to spend a little upon the ranch. They are talking of building a pulp-mill near the settlement. That will make land more valuable, and probably lead to a demand for produce. With that in view, I wish to raise a larger crop, and I'm open to hire somebody." He made a little gesture. "My strength scarcely permits me to undertake any severe physical effort, and I may confess that my faculty is rather that of administration. Now I will make you an offer."

Nasmyth considered it gravely. As it happened, he was feeling sorry for the rancher's daughter, and it was this fact chiefly which led him to come to terms with the man, since it seemed to him that there were tasks the girl must shrink from—tasks of which he could relieve her. Though he was quite aware that when his strength came back, he could probably earn more than Waynefleet offered him, he accepted the chance to stay at the ranch. Moreover, the varied work was likely to be much easier than logging.

"It's a bargain. I'll make a start now, and haul one or two of those logs out with the oxen," he said. "Still, I'm afraid you must not expect too much from me for a week or two."

Waynefleet made no objections. There was, as a matter of fact, a great deal to be done, and Nasmyth went back to his new quarters over the stable almost too weary to hold himself upright that night. He, however, gathered strength rapidly, and a few days later he was chopping a great tree, standing on a narrow plank notched into the trunk of it several feet from the ground as he swung the axe, when the man who had instructed Miss Waynefleet how to nurse him came up the trail. Gordon sat down on a log close by, and looked at Nasmyth.

"I was coming round to make sure I was quite through with your case, but it's tolerably evident you have no more use for me," he said. "Stopping here?"

Nasmyth said he was, and Gordon nodded.

"Well," he said, "in several ways I'm rather glad. It's going to make things easier for Miss Waynefleet. Guess you understand what I meant when I said she ran the ranch?"

Nasmyth said he thought he did, and then, with a certain diffidence, he changed the subject.

"You must have spent a good deal of time looking after men—professionally," he said.

Gordon laughed in a somewhat curious fashion. "We'll let that go. In one sense, I've dropped my profession. I had to, and it's scarcely likely that I shall take it up again."

"I wonder," said Nasmyth reflectively, "if it's admissible for me to mention that I had fancied something of the kind. You see, in the Bush, I have naturally come across a good many men who have turned their backs upon the cities."

Gordon made a little gesture. "It's a sure thing you'll hear a good deal about me at the settlement, where, though the boys don't cast it up to me, I'm credited with having killed somebody back East, and as I've had an idea that I could hit it rather well with you, I'd sooner tell you the thing myself. Well, I was making my mark in a big city, several years ago, when I lost my head. When success comes too quickly, it's a thing you're rather apt to do. The trouble is that you have usually to face the results of it."

He broke off for a moment with a little wry smile. "In my case they were serious. There was a woman of hysterical temperament with a diseased imagination. I was overworked and a trifle overwrought, and had a glass of brandy too much at a certain committee lunch. Then there was a rather delicate operation in a hospital, and though I'm not sure yet that I blundered, it was suggested that I did, and the thing was complicated by what the woman said when the committee took it up. It didn't matter that the patient recovered, for when he took action against the woman, the thing made a sensation in the Eastern papers."

He looked at Nasmyth with a question in his eyes.

"Now," he said, "you more or less understand my reasons for ranching here. How's it going to affect you?"

Nasmyth gazed reflectively towards the East. "I think," he replied, "there are more of us who have left a good deal behind back yonder. Perhaps it's fortunate that the thing is possible."

Then he swung his axe again, and Gordon, who saw Waynefleet approaching, strolled away towards the ranch-owner.