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   Chapter 1 RANCHER WINSTON

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16425

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was a bitter night, for the frost had bound the prairie in its iron grip, although as yet there was no snow. Rancher Winston stood shivering in a little Canadian settlement in the great lonely land which runs north from the American frontier to Athabasca. There was no blink of starlight in the murky sky, and out of the great waste of grass came a stinging wind that moaned about the frame houses clustering beside the trail that led south over the limited levels to the railroad and civilization. It chilled Winston, and his furs, somewhat tattered, gave him little protection. He strode up and down, glancing expectantly into the darkness, and then across the unpaved street, where the ruts were plowed a foot deep in the prairie sod, towards the warm red glow from the windows of the wooden hotel. He knew that the rest of the outlying farmers and ranchers who had ridden in for their letters were sitting snug about the stove, but it was customary for all who sought shelter there to pay for their share of the six o'clock supper, and the half-dollar Winston had then in his pocket was required for other purposes.

He had also retained through all his struggles a measure of his pride, and because of it strode up and down buffeted by the blasts until a beat of horsehoofs came out of the darkness and was followed by a rattle of wheels. It grew steadily louder, a blinking ray of brightness flickered across the frame houses, and presently dark figures were silhouetted against the light on the hotel veranda as a lurching wagon drew up beneath it. Two dusky objects, shapeless in their furs, sprang down, and one stumbled into the post office close by with a bag, while the other man answered the questions hurled at him as he fumbled with stiffened fingers at the harness.

"Late? Well, you might be thankful you've got your mail at all," he said. "We had to go round by Willow Bluff, and didn't think we'd get through the ford. Ice an inch thick, any way, and Charley talked that much he's not said anything since, even when the near horse put his foot into a badger hole."

Rude banter followed this, but Winston took no part in it. Hastening into the post office, he stood betraying his impatience by his very impassiveness while a sallow-faced woman tossed the letters out upon the counter. At last she took up two of them, and the man's fingers trembled a little as he stretched out his hand when she said:

"That's all there are for you."

Winston recognized the writing on the envelopes, and it was with difficulty he held his eagerness in check, but other men were waiting for his place, and he went out and crossed the street to the hotel where there was light to read by. As he entered it a girl bustling about a long table in the big stove-warmed room turned with la little smile.

"It's only you!" she said. "Now I was figuring it was Lance Courthorne."

Winston, impatient as he was, stopped and laughed, for the hotel-keeper's daughter was tolerably well-favored and a friend of his.

"And you're disappointed?" he said. "I haven't Lance's good looks, or his ready tongue."

The room was empty, for the guests were thronging about the post office then, and the girl's eyes twinkled as she drew back a pace and surveyed the man. There was nothing in his appearance that would have aroused a stranger's interest, or attracted more than a passing glance, as he stood before her in a very old fur coat, with a fur cap that was in keeping with it held in his hand.

His face had been bronzed almost to the color of a Blackfeet Indian's by frost and wind and sun, but it was of English type from the crisp fair hair above the broad forehead to the somewhat solid chin. The mouth was hidden by the bronze-tinted mustache, and the eyes alone were noticeable. They were gray, and there was a steadiness in them which was almost unusual even in that country where men look into long distances. For the rest, he was of average stature, and stood impassively straight, looking down upon the girl, without either grace or awkwardness, while his hard brown hands suggested, as his attire did, strenuous labor for a very small reward.

"Well," said the girl, with Western frankness, "there's a kind of stamp on Lance that you haven't got. I figure he brought it with him from the old country. Still, one might take you for him if you stood with the light behind you, and you're not quite a bad-looking man. It's a kind of pity you're so solemn."

Winston smiled. "I don't fancy that's astonishing after losing two harvests in succession," he said. "You see there's nobody back there in the old country to send remittances to me."

The girl nodded with quick sympathy. "Oh, yes. The times are bad," she said. "Well, you read your letters, I'm not going to worry you."

Winston sat down and opened the first envelope under the big lamp. It was from a land agent and mortgage broker, and his face grew a trifle grimmer as he read, "In the present condition of the money market your request that we should carry you over is unreasonable, and we regret that unless you can extinguish at least half the loan we will be compelled to foreclose upon your holding."

There was a little more of it, but that was sufficient for Winston, who knew it meant disaster, and it was with the feeling of one clinging desperately to the last shred of hope he tore open the second envelope. The letter it held was from a friend he had made in a Western city, and once entertained for a month at his ranch, but the man had evidently sufficient difficulties of his own to contend with.

"Very sorry, but it can't be done," he wrote. "I'm loaded up with wheat nobody will buy, and couldn't raise five hundred dollars to lend any one just now."

Winston sighed a little, but when he rose and slowly straightened himself nobody would have suspected he was looking ruin in the face. He had fought a slow losing battle for six weary years, holding on doggedly though defeat appeared inevitable, and now when it had come he bore it impassively, for the struggle which, though he was scarcely twenty-six, had crushed all mirth and brightness out of his life, had given him endurance in place of them. Just then a man came bustling towards him, with the girl, who bore a tray, close behind.

"What are you doing with that coat on?" he said. "Get it off and sit down right there. The boys are about through with the mail and supper's ready."

Winston glanced at the steaming dishes hungrily, for he had passed most of the day in the bitter frost, eating very little, and there was still a drive of twenty miles before him.

"It is time I was taking the trail," he said.

He was sensible of a pain in his left side, which, as other men have discovered, not infrequently follows enforced abstinence from food, but he remembered what he wanted the half-dollar in his pocket for. The hotel-keeper had possibly some notion of the state of affairs, for he laughed a little.

"You've got to sit down," he said. "Now, after the way you fixed me up when I stopped at your ranch, you don't figure I'd let you go before you had some supper with me?"

Winston may have been unduly sensitive, but he shook his head. "You're very good, but it's a long ride, and I'm going now," he said. "Good-night, Nettie."

He turned as he spoke, with the swift decision that was habitual with him, and when he went out the girl glanced at her father reproachfully.

"You always get spoiling things when you put your hand in," she said. "Now that man's hungry, and I'd have fixed it so he'd have got his supper if you had left it to me."

The hotel-keeper laughed a little. "I'm kind of sorry for Winston because there's grit in him, and he's never had a show," he said. "Still, I figure he's not worth your going out gunning after, Nettie."

The girl said nothing, but there was a little flush in her face which had not been there before, when she busied herself with the dishes.

In the meanwhile Winston was harnessing two bronco horses to a very dilapidated wagon. They were vicious beasts, but he had bought them cheap from a man who had some difficulty in driving them, while the wagon had been given

him, when it was apparently useless, by a neighbor. The team had, however, already covered thirty miles that day, and started homewards at a steady trot without the playful kicking they usually indulged in. Here and there a man sprang clear of the rutted road, but Winston did not notice him or return his greeting. He was abstractedly watching the rude frame houses flit by, and wondering, while the pain in his side grew keener, when he would get his supper, for it happens not infrequently that the susceptibilities are dulled by a heavy blow, and the victim finds a distraction that is almost welcome in the endurance of a petty trouble.

Winston was very hungry, and weary alike in body and mind. The sun had not risen when he left his homestead, and he had passed the day under a nervous strain, hoping, although it seemed improbable, that the mail would bring him relief from his anxieties. Now he knew the worst, he could bear it as he had borne the loss of two harvests, and the disaster which followed in the wake of the blizzard that killed off his stock; but it seemed unfair that he should endure cold and hunger too, and when one wheel sank into a rut and the jolt shook him in every stiffened limb, he broke out with a hoarse expletive. It was his first protest against the fate that was too strong for him, and almost as he made it he laughed.

"Pshaw! There's no use kicking against what has to be, and I've got to keep my head just now," he said.

There was no great comfort in the reflection, but it had sustained him before, and Winston's head was a somewhat exceptional one, though there was as a rule nothing in any way remarkable about his conversation, and he was apparently merely one of the many quietly-spoken, bronze-faced men who are even by their blunders building up a great future for the Canadian dominion. He accordingly drew his old rug tighter round him, and instinctively pulled his fur cap lower down when the lights of the settlement faded behind him and the creaking wagon swung out into the blackness of the prairie. It ran back league beyond league across three broad provinces, and the wind that came up out of the great emptiness emphasized its solitude. A man from the cities would have heard nothing but the creaking of the wagon and the drumming fall of hoofs, but Winston heard the grasses patter as they swayed beneath the bitter blasts stiff with frost, and the moan of swinging boughs in a far-off willow bluff. It was these things that guided him, for he had left the rutted trail, and here and there the swish beneath the wheels told of taller grass, while the bluff ran black athwart the horizon when that had gone. Then twigs crackled beneath them as the horses picked their way amidst the shadowy trees stunted by a ceaseless struggle with the wind, and Winston shook the creeping drowsiness from him when they came out into the open again, for he knew it is not advisable for any man with work still to do to fall asleep under the frost of that country.

Still, he grew a trifle dazed as the miles went by, and because of it indulged in memories he had shaken oft at other times. They were blurred recollections of the land he had left eight years ago, pictures of sheltered England, half-forgotten music, the voices of friends who no longer remembered him, and the smiles in a girl's bright eyes. Then he settled himself more firmly in the driving seat, and with numbed fingers sought a tighter grip of the reins as the memory of the girl's soft answer to a question he had asked brought his callow ambitions back.

He was to hew his way to fortune in the West, and then come back for her, but the girl who had clung to him with wet cheeks when he left her had apparently grown tired of waiting, and Winston sent back her letters in return for a silver-printed card. That was six years ago, and now none of the dollars he had brought into the country remained to him. He realized, dispassionately and without egotism, that this was through no fault of his, for he knew that better men had been crushed and beaten.

It was, however, time he had done with these reflections, for while he sat half-dazed and more than half-frozen the miles had been flitting by, and now the team knew they were not very far from home. Little by little their pace increased, and Winston was almost astonished to see another bluff black against the night ahead of him. As usual in that country, the willows and birches crawled up the sides and just showed their heads above the sinuous crest of a river hollow. It was very dark when the wagon lurched in among them, and it cost the man an effort to discern the winding trail which led down into the blackness of the hollow. In places the slope was almost precipitous, and it behooved him to be careful of the horses, which could not be replaced. Without them he could not plow in spring, and his life did not appear of any especial value in comparison with theirs just then.

The team, however, were evidently bent on getting home as soon as possible, and Winston's fingers were too stiff to effectively grasp the reins. A swinging bough also struck one of the horses, and when it plunged and flung up its head the man reeled a little in his seat. Before he recovered the team were going down-hill at a gallop. Winston flung himself bodily backwards with tense muscles and the reins slipping a trifle in his hands, knowing that though he bore against them with all his strength the team were leaving the trail. Then the wagon jolted against a tree, one horse stumbled, picked up its stride, and went on at a headlong gallop. The man felt the wind rush past him and saw the dim trees whirl by, but he could only hold on and wonder what would take place when they came to the bottom. The bridge the trail went round by was some distance to his right, and because the frost had just set in he knew the ice on the river would not bear the load even if the horses could keep their footing.

He had not, however, long to wonder. Once more a horse stumbled, there was a crash, and a branch hurled Winston backwards into the wagon, which came to a standstill suddenly. When he rose something warm was running down his face, and there was a red smear on the hand he lighted the lantern with. When that was done he flung himself down from the wagon dreading what he would find. The flickering radiance showed him that the pole had snapped, and while one bronco still stood trembling on its feet the other lay inert amidst a tangle of harness. The man's face grew a trifle grimmer as he threw the light upon it, and then stooping glanced at one doubled leg. It was evident that fate which did nothing by halves had dealt him a crushing blow. The last faint hope he clung to had vanished now.

He was, however, a humane man, and considerate of the beasts that worked for him, and accordingly thrust his hand inside the old fur coat when he had loosed the uninjured horse, and drew out a long-bladed knife. Then he knelt, and setting down the lantern, felt for the place to strike. When he found it his courage almost deserted him, and meeting the eyes that seemed to look up at him with dumb appeal, turned his head away. Still, he was a man who would not shirk a painful duty, and shaking off the sense of revulsion turned again and stroked the beast's head.

"It's all I can do for you," he said.

Then his arm came down and a tremor ran through the quivering frame, while Winston set his lips tightly as his hand grew warm. The thing was horrible to him, but the life he led had taught him the folly of weakness, and he was too pitiful to let his squeamishness overcome him.

Still, he shivered when it was done, and rubbing the knife in the withered leaves, rose, and made shift to gird a rug about the uninjured horse. Then he cut the reins and tied them, and mounting without stirrups rode towards the bridge. The horse went quietly enough now, and the man allowed it to choose its way. He was going home to find shelter from the cold, because his animal instincts prompted him, but otherwise almost without volition, in a state of dispassionate indifference. Nothing more, he fancied, could well befall him.

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