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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18210

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It was late when Winston reached his log-built house, but he set out once more with his remaining horse before the lingering daylight crept out of the east to haul the wagon home. He also spent most of the day in repairing it, because occupation of any kind that would keep him from unpleasant reflections appeared advisable, and to allow anything to fall out of use was distasteful to him, although as the wagon had been built for two horses he had little hope of driving it again. It was a bitter, gray day with a low, smoky sky, and seemed very long to Winston, but evening came at last, and he was left with nothing between him and his thoughts.

He lay in a dilapidated chair beside the stove, and the little bare room through which its pipe ran was permeated with the smell of fresh shavings, hot iron, and the fumes of indifferent tobacco. A carpenter's bench ran along one end of it, and was now occupied by a new wagon pole the man had fashioned out of a slender birch. A Marlin rifle, an ax, and a big saw hung beneath the head of an antelope on the wall above the bench, and all of them showed signs of use and glistened with oil. Opposite to them a few shelves were filled with simple crockery and cooking utensils, and these also shone spotlessly. There was a pair of knee boots in one corner with a patch partly sewn on to one of them, and the harness in another showed traces of careful repair. A bookcase hung above them, and its somewhat tattered contents indicated that the man who had chosen and evidently handled them frequently, possessed tastes any one who did not know that country would scarcely have expected to find in a prairie farmer. A table and one or two rude chairs made by their owner's hands completed the furniture, but while all hinted at poverty, it also suggested neatness, industry and care, for the room bore the impress of its occupier's individuality as rooms not infrequently do.

It was not difficult to see that he was frugal, though possibly from necessity rather than taste, not sparing of effort, and had a keen eye for utility, and if that suggested the question why with such capacities he had not attained to greater comfort the answer was simple. Winston had no money, and the seasons had fought against him. He had done his uttermost with the means at his disposal, and now he knew he was beaten.

A doleful wind moaned about the lonely building, and set the roof shingles rattling overhead. Now and then the stove crackled, or the lamp flickered, and any one unused to the prairie would have felt the little loghouse very desolate and lonely. There was no other human habitation within a league, only a great waste of whitened grass relieved about the homestead by the raw clods of the fall plowing, for, while his scattered neighbors for the most part put their trust in horses and cattle, Winston had been among the first to realize the capacities of that land as a wheat-growing country.

Now, clad in well-worn jean trousers and an old deerskin jacket, he looked down at the bundle of documents on his knee, accounts unpaid, a banker's intimation that no more checks would be honored, and a mortgage deed. They were not pleasant reading, and the man's face clouded as he penciled notes on some of them, but there was no weakness or futile protest in it. Defeat was plain between the lines of all he read, but he was going on stubbornly until the struggle was ended, as others of his kind had done, there at the western limit of the furrows of the plow and in the great province farther east which is one of the world's granaries. They went under and were forgotten, but they showed the way, and while their guerdon was usually six feet of prairie soil, the wheatfields, mills, and railroads came, for it is written plainly on the new Northwest that no man may live and labor for himself alone, and there are many who realizing it instinctively ask very little and freely give their best for the land that but indifferently shelters them.

Presently, however, there was a knocking at the door, and though this was most unusual Winston only quietly moved his head when a bitter blast came in, and a man wrapped in furs stood in the opening.

"I'll put my horse in the stable while I've got my furs on. It's a bitter night," he said.

Winston nodded. "You know where the lantern is," he said. "There's some chop in the manger, and you needn't spare the oats in the bin. At present prices it doesn't pay to haul them in."

The man closed the door silently, and it was ten minutes before he returned and, sloughing off his furs, dropped into a chair beside the stove. "I got supper at Broughton's, and don't want anything but shelter tonight," he said. "Shake that pipe out, and try one of these instead."

He laid a cigar case on the table, and though well worn it was of costly make with a good deal of silver about it, while Winston, who lighted one, knew that the cigars were good. He had no esteem for his visitor, but men are not censorious upon the prairie, and Western hospitality is always free.

"Where have you come from, Courthorne?" he said quietly.

The other man laughed a little. "The long trail," he said. "The Dakotas, Colorado, Montana. Cleaned up one thousand dollars at Regent, and might have got more, but some folks down there seemed tired of me. The play was quite regular, but they have apparently been getting virtuous lately."

"And now?" said Winston, with polite indifference.

Courthorne made a little gesture of deprecation.

"I'm back again with the rustlers."

Winston's nod signified comprehension, for the struggle between the great range-holders across the frontier and the smaller settlers who with legal right invaded their cattle runs was just over. It had been fought out bitterly with dynamite and rifles, and when at last with the aid of the United States cavalry peace was made, sundry broken men and mercenaries who had taken the pay of both parties, seeing their occupation gone, had found a fresh scope for their energies in smuggling liquor, and on opportunity transferring cattle, without their owner's sanction, across the frontier. That was then a prohibition country, and the profits and risks attached to supplying it and the Blackfeet on the reserves with liquor were heavy.

"Business this way?" said Winston.

Courthorne appeared to consider a moment, and there was a curious little glint in his eyes which did not escape his companion's attention, but he laughed.

"Yes, we're making a big run," he said, then stopped and looked straight at the rancher. "Did it ever strike you, Winston, that you were not unlike me?"

Winston smiled, but made a little gesture of dissent as he returned the other's gaze. They were about the same height and had the same English type of face, while Winston's eyes were gray and his companion's an indefinite blue that approached the former color, but there the resemblance, which was not more than discernible, ended. Winston was quietly-spoken and somewhat grim, a plain prairie farmer in appearance, while a vague but recognizable stamp of breeding and distinction still clung to Courthorne. He would have appeared more in place in the States upon the southern Atlantic seaboard, where the characteristics the Cavalier settlers brought with them are not extinct, than he did upon the Canadian prairie. His voice had even in his merriment a little imperious ring, his face was refined as well as sensual, and there was a languid gracefulness in his movements and a hint of pride in his eyes. They, however, lacked the steadiness of Winston's, and there were men who had seen the wild devil that was born in Courthorne look out of them. Winston knew him as a pleasant companion, but surmised from stories he had heard that there were men, and more women, who bitterly rued the trust they had placed in him.

"No," he said dryly. "I scarcely think I am like you, although only last night Nettie at the settlement took me for you. You see, the kind of life I've led out here has set its mark on me, and my folks in the old country were distinctly middle-class people. There is something in heredity."

Courthorne did not parry the unexpressed question. "Oh yes," he said, with a little sardonic smile. "I know. The backbone of the nation--solemn, virtuous and slow. You're like them, but my folks were different, as you surmise. I don't think they had many estimable qualities from your point of view, but if they all didn't go quite straight they never went slow, and they had a few prejudices, which is why I found it advisable to leave the old country. Still, I've had my fill of all that life can offer most folks out here, while you scarcely seem to have found virtue pay you. They told me at the settlement things were bad with you."

Winston, who was usually correct in his deductions, surmised that his companion had an object, and expected something in return for this confidence. There was also no need for reticence when every farmer in the district knew all about his affairs, while something urged him to fol

low Courthorne's lead.

"Yes," he said quietly. "They are. You see, when I lost my cattle in the blizzard, I had to sell out or mortgage the place to the hilt, and during the last two years I haven't made the interest. The loan falls due in August, and they're going to foreclose on me."

"Then," said Courthorne, "what is keeping you here when the result of every hour's work you put in will go straight into another man's pocket?"

Winston smiled a little. "In the first place, I've nowhere else to go, and there's something in the feeling that one has held on to the end. Besides, until a few days ago I had a vague hope that by working double tides, I might get another crop in. Somebody might have advanced me a little on it because the mortgage only claims the house and land."

Courthorne looked at him curiously. "No. We are not alike," he said. "There's a slow stubborn devil in you, Winston, and I think I'd be afraid of you if I ever did you an injury. But go on."

"There's very little more. My team ran away down the ravine, and I had to put one beast out of its misery. I can't do my plowing with one horse, and that leaves me stranded for the want of the dollars to buy another with. It's usually a very little thing that turns the scale, but now the end has come, I don't know that I'm sorry. I've never had a good time, you see, and the struggle was slowly crushing the life out of me."

Winston spoke quietly, without bitterness, but Courthorne, who had never striven at all but stretched out his hand and taken what was offered, the more willingly when it was banned alike by judicial and moral law, dimly understood him. He was a fearless man, but he knew his courage would not have been equal to the strain of that six years' struggle against loneliness, physical fatigue, and adverse seasons, during which disaster followed disaster. He looked at the bronzed farmer as he said, "Still, you would do a little in return for a hundred dollars that would help you to go on with the fight?"

A faint sparkle crept into Winston's eyes. It was not hope, but rather the grim anticipation of the man offered a better weapon when standing with his back to the wall.

"Yes," he said slowly. "I would do almost anything."

"Even if it was against the law?"

Winston sat silent for almost a minute, but there was no indecision in his face, which slightly perplexed Courthorne. "Yes," he said. "Though I kept it while I could, the law was made for the safe-guarding of prosperous men, but with such as I am it is every man for his own hand and the devil to care for the vanquished. Still, there is a reservation."

Courthorne nodded. "It's unlawful, but not against the unwritten code."

"Well," said Winston quietly. "When you tell me what you want I should have a better opinion."

Courthorne laughed a little, though there was something unpleasant in his eyes. "When I first came out to this country I should have resented that," he said. "Now, it seems to me that I'm putting too much in your hands if I make the whole thing clear before you commit yourself in any way."

Winston nodded. "In fact, you have got to trust me. You can do so safely."

"The assurance of the guileless is astonishing and occasionally hard to bear," said Courthorne. "Why not reverse the position?"

Winston's gaze was steady, and free from embarrassment. "I am," he said, "waiting for your offer."

"Then," said Courthorne dryly, "here it is. We are running a big load through to the northern settlements and the reserves to-morrow, and while there's a good deal of profit attached to the venture, I have a notion that Sergeant Stimson has had word of it. Now, the Sergeant knows just how I stand with the rustlers though he can fasten no charge on me, and he will have several of his troopers looking out for me. Well, I want one of them to see and follow me south along the Montana trail. There's no horse in the Government service can keep pace with that black of mine, but it would not be difficult to pull him and just keep the trooper out of carbine-shot behind. When he finds he can't overtake the black, he'll go off for his comrades, and the boys will run our goods across the river while they're picking up the trail."

"You mentioned the horse, but not yourself," said Winston quietly.

Courthorne laughed. "Yes," he said. "I will not be there. I'm offering you one hundred dollars to ride the black for me. You can put my furs on, and anybody who saw you and knew the horse would certify it was me."

"And where will you be?"

"Here," said Courthorne dryly. "The boys will have no use for me until they want a guide, but they'll leave an unloaded pack horse handy, and, as it wouldn't suit any of us to make my connection with them too plain, it will be a night or two later when I join them. In the meanwhile your part's quite easy. No trooper could ride you down unless you wanted him to, and you'll ride straight on to Montana--I've a route marked out for you. You'll stop at the places I tell you, and the testimony of anybody who saw you on the black would be quite enough to clear me if Stimson's men are too eleven for the boys."

Winston sat still a moment, and it was not avarice which prompted him when he said, "Considering the risk one hundred dollars is very little."

"Of course," said Courthorne. "Still, it isn't worth any more to me, and there will be your expenses. If it doesn't suit you, I will do the thing myself and find the boys another guide."

He spoke indifferently, but Winston was not a fool, and knew that he was lying.

"Turn your face to the light," he said sharply.

A little ominous glint became visible in Courthorne's eyes, and there was just a trace of darker color in his forehead, but Winston saw it and was not astonished. Still, Courthorne did not move.

"What made you ask me that?" he said.

Winston watched him closely, but his voice betrayed no special interest as he said, "I fancied I saw a mark across your cheek. It seemed to me that it had been made by a whip."

The deeper tint was more visible on Courthorne's forehead, where the swollen veins showed a trifle, and he appeared to swallow something before he spoke. "Aren't you asking too many questions? What has a mark on my face to do with you?"

"Nothing," said Winston quietly. "Will you go through the conditions again?"

Courthorne nodded. "I pay you one hundred dollars--now," he said. "You ride south to-morrow along the Montana trail and take the risk of the troopers overtaking you. You will remain away a fortnight at my expense, and pass in the meanwhile for me. Then you will return at night as rancher Winston, and keep the whole thing a secret from everybody."

Winston sat silent and very still again for more than a minute. He surmised that the man who made the offer had not told him all and there was more behind, but that was, after all, of no great importance. He was prepared to do a good deal for one hundred dollars, and his bare life of effort and self-denial had grown almost unendurable. He had now nothing to lose, and while some impulse urged him to the venture, he felt that it was possible fate had in store for him something better than he had known in the past. In the meanwhile the cigar he held went out, and the striking of a match as Courthorne lighted another roused him suddenly from the retrospect he was sinking into. The bitter wind still moaned about the ranch, emphasizing its loneliness, and the cedar shingles rattled dolefully overhead, while it chanced that as Winston glanced towards the roof his eyes rested on the suspended piece of rancid pork which, with a little flour and a few potatoes, had during the last few months provided him with sustenance. It was of course a trifle, but it tipped the beam, as trifles often do, and the man who was tired of all it symbolized straightened himself with a little mirthless laugh.

"On your word of honor there is nothing beyond the risk of a few days' detention which can affect me?" he said.

"No," said Courthorne solemnly, knowing that he lied. "On my honor. The troopers could only question you. Is it a deal?"

"Yes," said Winston simply, stretching out his hand for the roll of bills the other flung down on the table, and, while one of the contracting parties knew that the other would regret it bitterly, the bargain was made. Then Courthorne laughed in his usual indolent fashion as he said, "Well, it's all decided, and I don't even ask your word. To-morrow will see the husk sloughed off and for a fortnight you'll be Lance Courthorne. I hope you feel equal to playing the role with credit, because I wouldn't entrust my good fame to everybody."

Winston smiled dryly. "I fancy I shall," he said, and long afterwards recalled the words. "You see, I had ambitions in my callow days, and it's not my fault that hitherto I've never had a part to play."

Rancher Winston was, however, wrong in this. He had played the part of an honest man with the courage which had brought him to ruin, but there was now to be a difference.

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