The Greater Power/Chapter 31
THE LAST SHOT
LAURA WAYNEFLEET was preparing breakfast, and the door of the ranch stood open, when she heard the sharp clatter of the flung-down slip-rails in the fence across the clearing jar upon the stillness of the surrounding woods. It was early in the morning, and since it was evident that, if the strangers who were approaching came from the settlement, they must have set out as soon as it was light, she decided that their business was probably urgent. Laying down the frying-pan in which she was making flapjacks, she moved toward the door, and stood watching two men ride across the clearing in the direction of the house. They did not belong to the settlement, for she had never seen either of them before, a fact which made it clear that they had not ridden in from the cañon. She had quick eyes, and she noticed that, although they could not have ridden very far that morning, their horses appeared jaded, which suggested that they had made a long journey the previous day. The men appeared weary, too, and she imagined that they were not accustomed to the Bush.
As she watched them she wondered with a trace of uneasiness what their business could be, and decided that it was, perhaps, as well that her father was busy in the stable, where he could not hear them arrive. Since Gordon usually called at the ranch when he went down to the settlement, she was more or less acquainted with what was being done at the cañon and with Nasmyth's affairs, and she was on her guard when one of the strangers pulled his horse up close in front of her.
"Can we hire a couple of horses here?" he asked. "Ours are played out."
There was then a cayuse pony in Waynefleet's stable, but it belonged to a neighbouring rancher, and Laura had no intention of handing it over to the strangers.
"I'm afraid not," she answered. "The only horse on the ranch does not belong to us, and I wouldn't care to hire it out unless I had permission. Besides, I may want it myself. You could have obtained horses at the settlement hotel."
"We didn't put up there."
"But you must have come through the settlement. You have evidently ridden in from the railroad."
The man laughed. "Well," he admitted, "we certainly did, but we got off the trail last night, and they took us in at Bullen's ranch. Soon after we started out a chopper told us we could save a league by riding up the valley instead of by the settlement. Does the man you said the horse belonged to live in the neighbourhood?"
Laura did not answer immediately. She was quick-witted, and she recognized that, while the man's explanation was plausible, there were weak points in it. For one thing, the previous night had not been dark, and it was difficult to understand how anyone could have wandered off the wide trail to the settlement into the one which led through thick undergrowth to Bullen's ranch. She guessed that the strangers must have had an object in not visiting the settlement. Then there was, it seemed to her, something suggestive in the fact that Bullen, who had a share in Nasmyth's project, and owned several horses, had not seized upon the opportunity to aid the travellers, for, if he had not been willing to lend his horses, it could only have been because he was a little dubious about the strangers.
"The man who owns the horse lives at least an hour's ride away," she informed the stranger. "You are going on into the Bush?"
"Yes," answered the man. "Can you tell us the easiest way to reach the cañon?"
Laura was glad that he had asked for the easiest route, for soon after the snow had gone, Nasmyth had broken out a shorter and somewhat perilous trail over the steepest part of the divide. Only the pack-horses now went round by the longer way. She thought hard for a moment or two, and then told the man how to find the old trail.
He rode away with his companion, and Laura's face was thoughtful when she sat down again. She made a hasty breakfast, and went out to the stable. Waynefleet was still busy when she reached it, and she took down the side-saddle before she turned to him.
"I have left your breakfast ready, but you must excuse me," she announced; "I am going to the cañon."
Waynefleet raised his brows and looked at her with his most precise air, but, seeing that had no effect, he made a gesture of resignation.
"Very well," he said. "I presume you do not, as usual, think it worth while to acquaint me with your object."
Laura laughed. "I'm not exactly sure of it myself. I may tell you a little more when I come back."
She led the horse out, and, crossing the clearing, rode hard for a league or so, and then made sure by the prints of their horses' feet that the strangers had followed her instructions before she struck into the shorter trail. It was scarcely wide enough to ride along, and for a while dense thickets of fern and undergrowth closed in on it. Further on, it skirted a quaggy swamp, and led through several rapid creeks, while here and there great fallen trees compelled her to turn aside, and there were groves of willows to be painfully struggled through. The cayuse she rode was, however, more or less accustomed to that kind of work, and she made tolerable progress until she reached the foot of the big divide. There she dismounted, and led the cayuse up a steep gully through which a torrent poured. They stumbled amidst big boulders and over slippery shingle until they reached the head of the gully, and then there were almost precipitous slopes of rock to be faced. They climbed for a couple of hours, and Laura gasped with relief when at last she stood upon the crest of the divide.
The descent was perilous, but already the sun hung low above the western hills, and she went down in the saddle with the cayuse slipping and stumbling horribly, until the roar of the river came faintly up to her. Then she drew bridle, and glanced ruefully at her attire. Her skirt was rent in places, and one little shoe had burst. A branch that had torn her hat off had loosened a coil of gleaming hair, and, anxious as she was, she stopped for several minutes to set these matters straight as far as it was possible. There was, she felt, after all, no reason why Nasmyth should see her in that state. Then she rode on, and a little later a man appeared among the pines at the head of the gully. She was very weary when she got down beside him.
"Have two strangers arrived here yet?" she asked.
"They haven't," answered the man.
Laura was glad she had undertaken the journey when she saw the sudden intentness of his face.
"Two of them are on the trail?" he inquired sharply.
"Yes," said Laura. "They have gone round by the pack-horse trail. I rode in by the new one."
The man was astonished that she had accomplished the trip, and she saw that he was troubled.
"Well," he advised, "you had better go right on and tell Nasmyth as quick as you can. It's my business to see no strangers get in, or I'd go with you."
Laura left the horse with him, and, descending the gully, found an unusual number of men busy beside the river. In fact, she believed that all those who had been at work in the valley must have crossed the range to the cañon. It was also evident from their faces that most of them were in a state of eager expectation. Something out of the usual course was clearly going on. She asked for Nasmyth, and a few moments later he came scrambling towards her along the log staging. There was, she was quick to notice, a strained look in his eyes, but he shook hands with her, and then, remembering the state of her attire, she coloured a little.
"Do you expect two men from the city to-night?" she asked.
Nasmyth started. "I have, at least, been wondering when they would turn up," he answered. "There are two men of that kind on the trail?"
His voice was sharp and insistent, and Laura told him hastily about the men who had called at the ranch.
"From what you say, they can't well be here for another hour or two," he said, and there was a determined glint in his eyes. "I fancy we'll be through by then."
He swung around, and raised a hand to the men. "Boys, you'll get the last holes filled with giant-powder as quick as you can, and couple up the firing battery. We'll lift that rock right out when you're ready."
He turned again to Laura. "I'm not sure you understand all that you have done," he said. "For one thing, I think, you have saved us from being beaten when what we have fought for was almost in our hand."
He paused for a moment, and then his voice became hoarse as he indicated the clustering men with a little forceful gesture.
"They have come in to see the last shot fired. We had arranged to put in a few more sticks of powder, and then lower the river once for all in another hour or two. Some of the boys are now getting a big supper ready to celebrate the occasion, but if you hadn't brought us the warning, it's scarcely likely that any of us would have felt much inclined for festivity. In all probability, those strangers are bringing an order to restrain me from going any further. Once it was in my hands, I could not have fired the shot. All we have done would have been thrown away."
"Ah!" cried Laura, "that would be intolerable!"
Nasmyth laughed significantly.
"Any way," he declared, "until the papers are served on me, my charter stands. We'll have scattered the last strip of rock when those men ride in."
He made her a grave little bow. "You set us to work," he said. "It is only fitting that you should once more hold the firing battery."
He moved away abruptly from her and crawled into the heading. It was half an hour later when he came back, and almost every man who had a share in the undertaking gathered upon the strip of shingle. Nobody spoke, however, and there was tense expectancy in the bronzed faces. Nasmyth beckoned to Laura and moved forward with Gordon, and Wheeler, who carried the battery. Nasmyth swung his battered hat off as he held out his hand, and Laura, clinging to him, climbed to a shelf of rock where she stood still a moment or two, looking about her.
In front the white spray of the fall whirled beneath the tremendous wall of rock, and about her stood groups of hard-handed men, who had driven the heading with strenuous, insistent toil. She knew what the work had cost them, and could understand the look in their steady eyes. They had faced the river in the depths of the tremendous rift, borne with the icy winter, and patiently grappled with obstacle after obstacle. Their money had not sufficed to purchase them costly machines. They had pitted steadfast courage and hardened muscle against the vast primeval forces of untrammelled Nature. Laura felt deeply stirred as she glanced at them. They were simple men, but they had faced and beaten roaring flood and stinging frost, caring little for the hazard to life or limb as they played their part in that tremendous struggle with axe and drill.
Suddenly Laura became conscious that Nasmyth, who held up a little box from which trailed a couple of wires, was speaking.
"Our last dollars bought that powder. Wish us good luck," he said.
Laura stretched out her hands for the box, and standing upon the rock shelf, with one shoe burst and her skirt badly rent, raised her voice as she had done in that spot once before.
"Boys," she said, "you have stood fast against very heavy odds. May all that you can wish for—orchards, oat-fields, wheat, and cattle—be yours. The prosperity of this country is founded on such efforts as you have made."
With a little smile in her eyes, she fitted in the firing-plug, and in another moment a streak of flame that seemed to expand into a bewildering brilliancy flashed through the spray of the fall. The flash of light was lost in rolling smoke and a tremendous eruption of flying rock that rang with deafening detonations against the side of the cañon. The smoke rolled higher, and still great shattered fragments came whirling out of it, striking boulder and shingle with a heavy crash, until the roar of the liberated river rose in tumultuous clamour and drowned all other sound.
A great foaming wave swept forward, washing high along the bank, and poured seething down the rapid. Shingle and boulder were lost in it. It drove on tumultuously, and a mad turgid flood came on behind. Then it slowly fell away again, and a man, clambering out, in peril of being swept away, beneath the dripping rock, flung up a hand. His voice rang harsh and exultant through the sinking roar of the beaten river.
"We've cut the last ledge clean away," he said.
A great shout went up, and Nasmyth held out his hand to Laura.
"I owe it all to you," he said with a curious gleam in his eyes.
The men trooped about them both, and, though they were not as a rule effusive, some of them thumped Nasmyth's shoulder and some wrung his hand. Half an hour had slipped by before he was free of them.
He and Laura went slowly back up the climbing gully. It was growing dark, but a light still streamed down between the pines, and Nasmyth, who pointed to a tree that had fallen, stood close by, looking down upon the girl.
"I will ride back with you presently, but you must rest first; and I have something to say, though if we had not beaten the river I think I should never have had courage enough," he said. "When you found me lying in the snow, you took me in; you nursed me back to life, gave me a purpose, and set me on my feet again."
He paused for a moment. A flush dyed his worn face, and his voice was strained when he went on again.
"One result was that I went back to the world I once belonged to—it was really you who sent me—and you know what befell me there," he said. "I don't think I quite forgot what I owed to you, but I was carried away. Still, she recognized her folly and discarded me."
He stopped again, and Laura looked at him steadily with a tinge of colour in her face.
"Well," he continued, "that was when I commenced to understand exactly what you had been all along to me. I don't know what came upon me at Bonavista; but though the thing must seem preposterous, I believe I was in love with you then. Now I have nothing to bring you. You know all my weak points, and I could not complain if you would not listen to me. But I have come back to you again."
"Ah!" answered Laura very softly, "after all, it was fortunate that you went away. I think it was a relief to me when Wisbech took you to the city."
Nasmyth looked at her in surprise, and she smiled at him. "Derrick," she said, "once or twice when you were building the dam you fancied that you loved me. I, however, didn't want you to fancy. That was only going far enough to hurt me."
Nasmyth stooped toward her. "In the height of my folly I had an uneasy consciousness that I belonged to you. Afterwards I was sure. It was a very real thing, but I naturally shrank from coming to you. I don't quite know how I have gathered the courage now."
Laura sat still, and he laid a hand on her shoulder. Then she turned and looked up at him.
"Well," she confessed very simply, "I think I loved you in the days when you were building the dam."
He bent down and kissed her, and neither of them ever remembered exactly what they said.
A few minutes later there was a clatter in the shadow above them, and two men came scrambling down, each leading a jaded horse. Nasmyth rose and turned toward them when they stopped close in front of him.
"You have some business with me?" he inquired.
One of them handed him a sealed paper, and he opened it with deliberation.
"I may as well tell you that I expected this," he said. He glanced at Laura. "I am summoned to attend in Victoria and show cause why I should not be restrained from injuring the holding of a rancher at the head of the valley. In the meantime I am instructed to carry on the operations in the cañon no further."
He turned to the men. "You should have come along an hour or two ago. I don't propose to do anything further in the cañon; in fact, I have accomplished the purpose I had in hand."
As his meaning dawned on them, the men gazed at each other in evident consternation, until one of them turned to Laura.
"Well," he commented, "in that case I guess it's quite a pity we didn't, but I begin to understand the thing. This is the young lady who told us the trail. She must have taken a shorter way."
Laura smiled at him. "You," she reminded him, "seemed anxious to go by the easiest one."
The other man looked at Nasmyth. "I'm acting for Hutton, and it seems you have got ahead of him," he observed. "Still, we're both out on business, and I don't bear you any ill-will. In fact, if you're open to make any arrangement, I should be glad to talk to you."
Nasmyth smiled as he answered: "You can at least come and get some supper. I expect the boys will fix you and your horses for the night."
They went down the gully together, and a few minutes later walked into the flickering light of a great fire, near which a rudely bountiful supper had been laid out. Nasmyth pointed to the strangers.
"Boys," he said, "these are the men we expected, but I don't think they mean to worry us now, and they've had a long ride." He turned to the strangers. "Won't you sit down?"
There was a great burst of laughter, and one of the strangers smiled.
"We're in your hands, but I don't know any reason why you shouldn't be generous, boys," he said.
He sat down, but for a moment or two Nasmyth and Laura stood still in the glare of the fire, and the eyes of everyone were fixed upon them. Laura's face was flushed, but Nasmyth was calm with a new dignity.
"We have a little more to do, boys, but we have left the toughest of our troubles behind," Nasmyth spoke in confident tones. "We'll have another supper when we're through with it, and I'll expect every one of you at the biggest event in my life."
There was a great shout that rang through the roar of the rapid and far across the climbing pines. Then the men sat down, and it was a little while later when their leader and the girl quietly slipped away from them. Those who noticed this said nothing, and the men still sat round the snapping fire when Nasmyth and Laura crossed the ridge of the divide.
There was a moon above them, and the night was soft and clear, while the Bush rolled away beneath, shadowy and still. Only the turmoil of the river came faintly up to them. The muffled sound sent a curious thrill through both of them, but they were silent as they went down the long slope among the climbing pines. Laura sat in the saddle, looking out on the silent forest with eyes that shone softly in the moonlight, and Nasmyth walked beside her, with his hand on the pack-horse's bridle. They had both borne the stress and strain, but now as the pack-horse plodded on they were conscious only of a deep contentment.