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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Iron Trail - Chapter 12. How Gordon Failed In His Cunning
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The Iron Trail - Chapter 12. How Gordon Failed In His Cunning Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :3018

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The Iron Trail - Chapter 12. How Gordon Failed In His Cunning

CHAPTER XII. HOW GORDON FAILED IN HIS CUNNING

The so-called canon of the Salmon River lies just above the twin glaciers. Scenically, these are by far the more impressive, and they present a more complex engineering problem; yet the canon itself was the real strategic point in the struggle between the railroad-builders. The floor of the valley immediately above Garfield glacier, though several miles wide, was partly filled with detritus which had been carried down from the mother range on the east, and this mass of debris had forced the stream far over against the westward rim, where it came roaring past the foot wall in a splendid cataract some three miles long. To the left of the river, looking up-stream at this point, the mountains slanted skyward like a roof, until lost in the hurrying scud four thousand feet above. To the right, however, was the old moraine, just mentioned, consisting of a desolate jumble of rock and gravel and silt overlaying the ice foot. On account of its broken character and the unstable nature of its foundation this bank was practically useless for road-building, and the only feasible route for steel rails was along the steep west wall.

O'Neil on his first reconnaissance had perceived that while there was room for more than one bridge across the Salmon between the upper and the lower ice masses, there was not room for more than one track alongside the rapids, some miles above that point. He knew, moreover, that once he had established his title to a right-of-way along the west rim of the cataract, it would be difficult for a rival to oust him, or to parallel his line without first crossing back to the east bank--an undertaking at once hazardous and costly. He had accordingly given Dan Appleton explicit instructions to be very careful in filing his survey, that no opportunity might be left open for a later arrival. The engineer had done his work well, and O'Neil rested secure in the belief that he held possession of the best and least expensive route through to the open valleys above. He had had no cause to fear a clash with the Heidlemann forces, for they had shown a strict regard for his rights and seemed content to devote themselves to developing their terminus before trying to negotiate the canon. They were wise in taking this course, for their success would mean that O'Neil's project would fall of its own weight. Kyak was nearer Seattle, by many miles, than Omar; it was closer to the coal and copper fields, and the proven permanence of their breakwater would render useless further attempts to finance the S. R. & N.

But in the entrance of Curtis Gordon into the field O'Neil recognized danger. Gordon was swayed by no such business scruples as the Heidlemanns; he was evidently making a desperate effort to secure a footing at any cost. In purchasing the McDermott holdings he had executed a coup of considerable importance, for he had placed himself on equal footing with the Trust and in position to profit by its efforts at harbor-building without expense to himself. If, therefore, he succeeded in wresting from O'Neil the key to that upper passageway, he would be able to block his personal enemy and to command the consideration of his more powerful rival.

No one, not even the Trust, had taken the McDermott enterprise seriously, but with Curtis Gordon in control the "wildcat" suddenly became a tiger.

In view of all this, it was with no easy mind that O'Neil despatched Appleton to the front, and it was with no small responsibility upon his shoulders that the young engineer set out in charge of those wooden boxes of dynamite. Murray had told him frankly what hung upon his success, and Dan had vowed to hold the survey at any cost.

Steam was up and the locomotive was puffing restlessly when he returned from his farewell to Eliza. A moment later and the single flat car carrying his party and its dangerous freight was being whirled along the shores of Omar Lake. On it rushed, shrieking through the night, out from the gloomy hills and upon the tangent that led across the delta. Ten minutes after it had rolled forth upon the trestle at the "lower crossing" the giant powder had been transferred to poling-boats and the long pull against the current had begun.

O'Neil had picked a crew for Dan, men upon whom he could depend. They were on double pay, and as they had worked upon the North Pass & Yukon, Appleton had no doubt of their loyalty.

The events of that trip were etched upon the engineer's mind with extraordinary vividness, for they surpassed in peril and excitement all his previous experiences. The journey resembled nothing but the mad scramble of a gold stampede. The stubborn boats with their cargoes which had to be so gently handled, the ever-increasing fury of the river, the growing menace of those ghastly, racing icebergs, the taut-hauled towing-lines, and the straining, sweating men in the loops, all made a picture hard to forget. Then, too, the uncertainty of the enterprise, the crying need of haste, the knowledge of those other men converging upon the same goal, lent a gnawing suspense to every hour. It was infinitely more terrible than that first expedition when he and Tom Slater and O'Neil had braved the unknown. It was vastly more trying than any of the trips which had followed, even with the winter hurricane streaming out of the north as from the mouth of a giant funnel.

Dan had faced death in various forms upon this delta during the past year and a half. He had seen his flesh harden to marble whiteness under the raging north wind; his eyes and lungs had been drifted full of sand in summer storms which rivaled those of the Sahara. With transit on his back he had come face to face with the huge brown grizzly. He had slept in mud, he had made his bed on moss which ran water like a sponge; he had taken danger and hardship as they came--yet never had he punished himself as on this dash.

Through his confusion of impressions, his intense preoccupation with present dangers and future contingencies, the thought of Natalie floated now and then vaguely but comfortingly. He had seen her for a moment, before leaving--barely long enough to explain the nature of his mission--but her quick concern, her unvoiced anxiety, had been very pleasant, and he could not believe that it was altogether due to her interest in the fortunes of O'Neil.

Dan knew that Mellen's crew was camped at the upper crossing, busied in drilling for the abutments and foundations of the bridge; but he reasoned that they would scarcely suspect the object of Gordon's party and that, in any case, they were not organized or equipped to resist it. Moreover, the strategic point was four miles above the bridge site, and the surveying corps would hardly precipitate a clash, particularly since there was ample room for them to select a crossing-place alongside.

It was after midnight of the second day when he and his weary boatmen stumbled into sight of the camp. Appleton halted his command and stole forward, approaching the place through the tangled alders which flanked it. He had anticipated that the rival party would be up to this point by now, if not even farther advanced, and he was both angered and relieved to sight the tops of other tents pitched a few hundred yards beyond Mellen's outfit. So they were here! He had arrived in time, after all! A feeling of exultation conquered the deathly fatigue that slowed his limbs. Although he still had to pass the invader's camp and establish himself at the canon, the certainty that he had made good thus far was ample reward for his effort.

A dog broke into furious barking as he emerged from cover, and he had a moment's anxiety lest it serve as warning to the enemy; but a few quick strides brought him to the tent of Mellen's foreman. Going in, he roused the man, who was sleeping soundly.

"Hello!" cried the foreman, jumping up and rubbing his eyes, "I thought Curtis Gordon had taken possession."

"Hush! Don't wake them up," Dan cautioned.

"Oh, there's no danger of disturbing them with this infernal cannonading going on all the time." The night resounded to a rumbling crash as some huge mass of ice split off, perhaps two miles away.

"When did they arrive?"

"Night before last. They've located right alongside of us. Gee! we were surprised when they showed up. They expect to break camp in the morning." He yawned widely.

"Hm-m! They're making tracks, aren't they? Were they friendly?"

"Oh, sure! So were we. There was nothing else to do, was there? We had no orders."

"I have two dozen men and four boatloads of dynamite with me. I'm going to hold that mountainside."

"Then you're going to fight!" All vestige of drowsiness had fled from the man's face.

"Not if we can help it. Who is in charge of this crew?"

"Gordon himself."

"Gordon!"

"Yes! And he's got a tough gang with him."

"Armed?"

"Sure! This is a bear country, you know."

"Listen! I want you to tell him, as innocently as you can, that we're on the job ahead of him. Tell him we've been there for a week and have loaded that first rock shoulder and expect to shoot it off as soon as possible. You can tell him, too, that I'm up there and he'd better see me before trying to pass through."

"I've got you! But that won't stop him."

"Perhaps! Now have you any grub in camp?"

"No."

"We threw ours overboard, to make time. Send up anything you can spare; we're played out."

"It'll be nothing but beans, and they're moldy."

"We can fight on beans, and we'll eat the paper off those giant cartridges if we have to. Don't fail to warn Gordon that the hillside is mined, and warn him loud enough for his swampers to hear."

Appleton hastened back to his boats, where he found his men sprawled among the boulders sleeping the sleep of complete exhaustion. They were drenched, half numbed by the chill air of the glacier, and it was well that he roused them.

"Gordon's men are camped just above," he told them. "But we must get through without waking them. No talking, now, until we're safe."

Silently the crew resumed their tow-lines, fitting them to their aching shoulders; gingerly the boats were edged out into the current.

It was fortunate that the place was noisy, and that the voice of the river and the periodic bombardment from the glaciers drowned the rattle of loose stones dislodged by their footsteps. But it was a trying half-hour that followed. Dan did not breathe easily until his party had crossed the bar and were safely out upon the placid waters of the lake, with the last stage of the journey ahead of them.

About mid-forenoon of the following day Curtis Gordon halted his party at the lower end of the rapids and went on alone. To his right lay the cataract and along the steep slope against which it chafed wound a faint footpath scarcely wide enough in places for a man to pass. This trail dipped in and out, wound back and forth around frowning promontories. It dodged through alder thickets or spanned slides of loose rock, until, three miles above, it emerged into the more open country back of the parent range. It had been worn by the feet of wild animals and it followed closely the right-of-way of the S. R. & N. To the left the hills rose swiftly in great leaps to the sky; to the right, so close that a false step meant disaster, roared the cataract, muddy and foam- flecked.

As Gordon neared the first bluff he heard, above the clamor of the flood, a faint metallic "tap-tap-tap," as of hammer and drill, and, drawing closer, he saw Dan Appleton perched upon a rock which commanded a view in both directions. Just around the shoulder, in a tiny gulch, or gutter from the slopes above, were pitched several tents, from one of which curled the smoke of a cook-stove. Close at hand were moored four battered poling- boats.

"Look out!" Appleton shouted from on high.

Gordon flushed angrily and kept on, scanning the surroundings with practised eye.

"Hey, you!" Dan called, for a second time. "Keep back! We're going to shoot."

Still heedless of the warning, Gordon held stubbornly to his stride. He noted the heads of several men projecting from behind boulders, and his anger rose. How dared this whipper-snapper shout at him! He felt inclined to toss the insolent young scoundrel into the rapids. Then suddenly his resentment gave place to a totally different emotion. The slanting bank midway between him and Appleton lifted itself bodily in a chocolate- colored upheaval, and the roar of a dynamite blast rolled out across the river. It was but a feeble echo of the majestic reverberations from the glacier across the lake, but it was impressive enough to send Curtis Gordon scurrying to a place of safety. He wheeled in his tracks, doubling himself over, and his long legs began to thresh wildly. Reaching the shelter of a rock crevice, he hurled himself into it, while over his place of refuge descended a shower of dirt and rocks and debris. When the rain of missiles had subsided he stepped forth, his face white with fury, his big hands twitching. His voice was hoarse as he shouted his protest.

Appleton scrambled carefully down from his perch in the warm sunshine and approached with insolent leisure.

"Say! Do you want to get your fool self killed?" he cried; then in an altered tone: "Oh! Is it you, Gordon?"

"You knew very well it was I." Gordon swallowed hard and partially controlled his wrath. "What do you mean by such carelessness?" he demanded. "You ought to be hung for a thing like that." He brushed the dirt from his expensive hunting-suit.

"I yelled my head off! You must be deaf."

"You saw me coming! Don't say you didn't. Fortunately I wasn't hurt." In a tone of command he added, "You'll have to stop blasting until I go through with my party."

"Sorry! Every day counts with us." Appleton grinned. "You know how it is--short season, and all that."

"Come, come! Don't be an idiot. I have no time to waste,"

"Then you'll have to go around," said Dan. "This isn't a public road, you know."

Gordon had come to argue, to pacify, to gain his ends by lying, if necessary, but this impudent jackanapes infuriated him. His plans had gone smoothly so far, and the unexpected threat of resistance momentarily provoked him beyond restraint.

"You scoundrel," he cried. "You'd have blown me into the river if you could. But I'll go through this canon--"

"Go as far and as fast as you like," Dan interrupted with equal heat, "only take your own chances, and have a net spread at the lower end of the rapids to catch the remains."

They eyed each other angrily; then Gordon said, more quietly:

"This is ridiculous. You can't stop me."

"Maybe I can't and maybe I can, I'm under orders to rush this work and I don't intend to knock off to please you. I've planted shots at various places along our right-of-way and I'll set 'em off when it suits me. If you're so anxious to go up-river, why don't you cross over to the moraine? There's a much better trail on that side. You'll find better walking a few miles farther up, and you'll run no danger of being hurt."

"I intend to run a survey along this hillside."

"There isn't room; we beat you to it."

"The law provides--"

"Law? Jove! I'd forgotten there is such a thing. Why don't you go to law and settle the question that way? We'll have our track laid by the time you get action, and I'm sure Mr. O'Neil wouldn't place any obstacles in the way of your free passage back and forth. He's awfully obliging about such things."

Gordon ground his fine, white, even teeth. "Don't you understand that I'm entitled to a right-of-way through here under the law of common user?" he asked, with what patience he could command.

"If you're trying to get a legal opinion on the matter why don't you see a lawyer? I'm not a lawyer, neither am I a public speaker nor a piano-tuner, nor anything like that--I'm an engineer."

"Don't get funny. I can't send my men in here if you continue blasting."

"So it seems to me, but you appear to be hell bent on trying it."

Dan was enjoying himself and he deliberately added to the other's anger by inquiring, as if in the blinding light of a new idea:

"Why don't you bridge over and go up the other side?" He pointed to the forbidding, broken country which faced them across the rapids.

Gordon snorted. "How long do you intend to maintain this preposterous attitude?" he asked.

"As long as the powder lasts--and there's a good deal of it."

The promoter chewed his lip for a moment in perplexity, then said with a geniality he was far from feeling:

"Appleton, you're all right! I admire your loyalty, even though it happens to be for a mistaken cause. I always liked you. I admire loyalty--It's something I need in my business. What I need I pay for, and I pay well."

"So your man Linn told us."

"I never really discharged you. In fact, I intended to re-employ you, for I need you badly. You can name your own salary and go to work any time."

"In other words, you mean you'll pay me well to let you through."

"Fix your own price and I'll double it."

"Will you come with me up this trail a little way?" Dan inquired.

"Certainly."

"There's a spot where I'd like to have you stand. I'll save you the trouble of walking back to your men--you'll beat the echo."

There was a pause while Gordon digested this. "Better think it over," he said at length. "I'll never let O'Neil build his road, not if it breaks me, and you're merely laying yourself open to arrest by threatening me."

"Please come with me!" urged Appleton. "You'll never know what hit you."

With a curse the promoter wheeled and walked swiftly down the trail by which he had come.

"Get ready to shoot," Dan ordered when he had returned to his vantage-point. A few moments later he saw the invading party approach, but he withheld his warning shout until it was close at hand. Evidently Gordon did not believe he would have the reckless courage to carry out his threat, and had determined to put him to the test.

The engineer gauged his distance nicely, and when the new-comers had fairly passed within the danger zone he gave the signal to fire.

A blast heavier than the one which had discouraged Gordon's advance followed his command, and down upon the new-comers rained a deluge which sent them scurrying to cover. Fortunately no one was injured.

An hour later the invaders had pitched camp a mile below, and after placing a trusted man on guard Appleton sent his weary men to bed.

It was Curtis Gordon himself who brought O'Neil the first tidings of this encounter, for, seeing the uselessness of an immediate attempt to overcome Dan's party by force, he determined to make formal protest. He secured a boat, and a few hours later the swift current swept him down to the lower crossing, where McKay put a locomotive at his disposal for the trip to Omar. By the time he arrived there he was quite himself again, suave, self- possessed, and magnificently outraged at the treatment he had received. O'Neil met him with courtesy.

"Your man Appleton has lost his head," Gordon began. "I've come to ask you to call him off."

"He is following instructions to the letter."

"Do you mean that you refuse to allow me to run my right-of-way along that hillside? Impossible!" His voice betokened shocked surprise.

"I am merely holding my own survey. I can't quit work to accommodate you."

"But, my dear sir, I must insist that you do."

O'Neil shrugged.

"Then there is but one way to construe your refusal--it means that you declare war."

"You saved me that necessity when you sent Linn to hire my men away."

Gordon ignored this reference. "You must realize, O'Neil," said he, "that I am merely asking what is mine. I have the right to use that canonside--the right to use your track at that point, in fact, if it proves impracticable to parallel it--under the law of common user. You are an experienced contractor; you must be familiar with that law."

"Yes. I looked it up before beginning operations, and I found it has never been applied to Alaska."

Gordon started. "That's a ridiculous statement."

"Perhaps, but it's true. Alaska is not a territory, it's a district, and it has its own code. Until the law of common user has been applied here you'll have to use the other side of the river."

"That would force me to bridge twice in passing the upper glacier. We shall see what the courts have to say." "Thanks! I shall be grateful for the delay."

Gordon rose with a bow. The interview had been short and to the point. O'Neil put an engine at his service for the return trip, and after a stiff adieu the visitor departed, inwardly raging.

It was his first visit to Omar, and now that he was here he determined to see it all. But first another matter demanded his attention--a matter much in his mind of late, concerning which he had reached a more or less satisfactory decision during his journey.

He went directly to the new hotel and inquired for Gloria Gerard.

Beneath the widow's coldness when she came to meet him he detected an uncertainty, a frightened indecision which assured him of success, and he set himself to his task with the zest he always felt in bending another to his will.

"It has been the greatest regret of my life that we quarreled," he told her when their strained greeting was over. "I felt that I had to come and see with my own eyes that you are well."

"I am quite well."

"Two people who have been to each other as much as we have been cannot lightly separate; their lives cannot be divided without a painful readjustment." He paused, then reflecting that he could afford a little sentimental extravagance, added, "Flowers cannot easily be transplanted, and love, after all, is the frailest of blooms."

"I--think it is perennial. Have you--missed me?" Her dark eyes were strained and curious.

"My dear, you can never know how much, nor how deeply distressing this whole affair has been to me." He managed to put an affecting pathos into words sufficiently banal, for he was an excellent actor. "I find that I am all sentiment. Under the shell of the hard-headed business man beats the heart of a school-boy. The memory of the hours we have spent together, the places we have seen, the joys and discouragements we have shared, haunts me constantly. Memory can glean but never renew: 'joy's recollection is no longer joy while sorrow's memory is sorrow still.'"

The spell of his personality worked strongly upon her. "Recollection is the only paradise from which we cannot be turned out," she said. "You read that to me once, but I didn't dream that my own happiness would some day consist of recollection."

"Why should it, Gloria? Hope is ready to welcome you. Your home stands open; my arms are outstretched."

"No!" she exclaimed, with a shake of her dark head. "There is some one besides myself to consider. Natalie is happy here; no one seems to know or to care what I have done."

"But surely you are not satisfied with this."

He ran his eye critically over the garish newness of the little hotel parlor. It was flimsy, cheap, fresh with paint, very different from the surroundings he had given her at Hope. "I wonder that he presumed to offer you this after what you have had. A hotel-keeper! A landlady!"

"I was glad to get even this, for I have no pride now," she returned, coldly. "At least the house is honest, and the men who come here are the same. Mr. O'Neil is especially kind to Natalie, and she thinks a great deal of him."

"I presume he wants to marry her."

"I pray that he will. I don't intend her to make the mistake I did."

Gordon received this announcement with grim satisfaction. It was what he had suspected, and it fitted perfectly into his plans.

"I sha'n't allow this to continue, Gloria," he said. "Our difference has gone far enough, and I sha'n't permit O'Neil to put me in his debt. We have come to a final understanding, he and I. While my views on the holiness of the marriage relation have not changed in the least, still I am ready to follow your wishes."

"You--mean it?" she queried, breathlessly.

"I do. Come home, Gloria."

"Wait! I must tell Natalie." She rose unsteadily and left the room, while he reflected with mingled scorn and amusement upon the weakness of human nature and the gullibility of women.

A moment later mother and daughter appeared, arm in arm, both very pale.

"Is this true?" Natalie demanded.

"Quite true. You and Gloria seem to think I owe something; I never shirk a debt." Mrs. Gerard's fingers tightened painfully upon her daughter's arm as he continued: "There is only one condition upon which I insist: you must both return to Hope at once and have done with this--this man."

Natalie hesitated, but the look in her mother's eyes decided her. With some difficulty she forced herself to acquiesce, and felt the grip upon her arm suddenly relax. "When will the wedding take place?" she asked.

"At the earliest possible moment," Gordon declared, with well- feigned seriousness. "Once we return to God's country--"

"No!" cried Natalie. "We can't go back to Hope until she is married; it would be scandalous."

"Why more scandalous to accept my protection than that of a stranger? Do you care what these people think?" he demanded, with an air of fine scorn.

"Yes! I care very much."

"Is there any--reason for waiting?" Mrs. Gerard inquired.

"Many! Too many to enumerate. It is my condition that you both leave Omar at once."

Gloria Gerard looked at her daughter in troubled indecision, but Natalie answered firmly:

"We can't do that."

"So! You have your own plans, no doubt, and it doesn't trouble you that you are standing in the way of your mother's respectability!" His voice was harsh, his sneer open. "Bless my soul! Is the generosity to be all on my side? Or has this man O'Neil forbidden you to associate with me?"

"I don't trust you." Natalie flared up. "I'm afraid you are trying--"

"It is my condition, and I am adamant. Believe me, O'Neil knows of your disgrace, or will learn of it in time. It would be well to protect your name while you can." Turning to the other woman, he said loudly: "Gloria, the girl is ready to sacrifice you to her own ends."

"Wait!" Natalie's nerves were tingling with dislike of the man, but she said steadily: "I shall do exactly as mother wishes."

Be it said to the credit of Gloria Gerard that she did not hesitate.

"I shall be here when you are ready," she told him.

With an exclamation of rage Gordon rose and strode out of the room.

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