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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19176

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

There was bitter frost in the darkness outside when two young men stood talking in the stables of a little outpost lying a long ride back from the settlement in the lonely prairie. One leaned against a manger with a pipe in his hand, while the spotless, softly-gleaming harness hung up behind him showed what his occupation had been. The other stood bolt upright with lips set, and a faint grayness which betokened strong emotion showing through his tan. The lantern above them flickered in the icy draughts, and from out of the shadows beyond its light came the stamping of restless, horses and the smell of prairie hay which is pungent with the odors of wild peppermint.

The two lads, and they were very little more, were friends, in spite of the difference in their upbringing, for there are few distinctions between caste and caste in that country where manhood is still esteemed the greatest thing, and the primitive virtues count for more than wealth or intellect. Courage and endurance still command respect in the new Northwest, and that both the lads possessed them was made evident by the fact that they were troopers of the Northwest police, a force of splendid cavalry whose duty it is to patrol the wilderness at all seasons and in all weathers, under scorching sun and in blinding snow.

The men who keep the peace of the prairie are taught what heat and thirst are, when they ride in couples through a desolate waste wherein there is only bitter water, parched by pitiless sunrays and whitened by the intolerable dust of alkali. They also discover just how much cold the human frame can endure, when they lie down with only the stars above them, long leagues from the nearest outpost, in a trench scooped in the snow, and they know how near one may come to suffocation and yet live through the grass fires' blinding smoke. It happens now and then that two who have answered to the last roster in the icy darkness do not awaken when the lingering dawn breaks across the great white waste, and only the coyote knows their resting-place, but the watch and ward is kept, and the lonely settler dwells as safe in the wilderness as he would in an English town.

Trooper Shannon was an Irishman from the bush of Ontario; Trooper Payne, English, and a scion of a somewhat distinguished family in the old country, but while he told nobody why he left it suddenly, nobody thought of asking him. He was known to be a bold rider and careful of his beast, and that was sufficient for his comrades and the keen-eyed Sergeant Stimson. He glanced at his companion thoughtfully as he said, "She was a pretty girl. You knew her in Ontario?"

Shannon's hands trembled a little. "Sure," he said. "Larry's place was just a mile beyont our clearing, an' there was never a bonnier thing than Ailly Blake came out from the old country--but is it need there is for talking when ye've seen her? There was once I watched her smile at ye with the black eyes that would have melted the heart out of any man. Waking and sleeping they're with me still."

Three generations of the Shannons had hewn the lonely clearing further into the bush of Ontario and married the daughters of the soil, but the Celtic strain, it was evident, had not run out yet. Payne, however, came of English stock, and expressed himself differently.

"It was a--shame," he said. "Of course he flung her over. I think you saw him, Pat?"

Shannon's face grew grayer, and he quivered visibly as his passion shook him, while Payne felt his own blood pulse faster as he remembered the graceful dark-eyed girl who had given him and his comrade many a welcome meal when their duty took them near her brother's homestead. That was, however, before one black day for Ailly and Larry Blake when Lance Courthorne also rode that way.

"Yes," said the lad from Ontario, "I was driving in for the stores when I met him in the willow bluff, an' Courthorne pulls his divil of a black horse up with as little ugly smile on the lips of him when I swung the wagon right across the trail.

"'That's not civil, trooper,' says he.

"'I'm wanting a word,' says I, with the black hate choking me at the sight of him. 'What have ye done with Ailly?'

"'Is it anything to you?' says he.

"'It's everything,' says I. 'And if ye will not tell me I'll tear it out of ye.'

"Courthorne laughs a little, but I saw the divil in his eyes. 'I don't think you're quite man enough,' says he, sitting very quiet on the big black horse. 'Any way, I can't tell you where she is just now because she left the dancing saloon she was in down in Montana when I last saw her.'

"I had the big whip that day, and I forgot everything as I heard the hiss of it round my shoulder. It came home across the ugly face of him, and then I flung it down and grabbed the carbine as he swung the black around with one hand fumbling in his jacket. It came out empty, an' we sat there a moment, the two of us, Courthorne white as death, his eyes like burning coals, and the fingers of me trembling on the carbine. Sorrow on the man that he hadn't a pistol or I'd have sent the black soul of him to the divil it came from."

The lad panted, and Payne, who had guessed at his hopeless devotion to the girl who had listened to Courthorne, made a gesture of disapproval that was tempered by sympathy. It was for her sake, he fancied, Shannon had left the Ontario clearing and followed Larry Blake to the West.

"I'm glad he hadn't, Pat," said Payne. "What was the end of it?"

"I remembered," said the other with a groan, "remembered I was Trooper Shannon, an' dropped the carbine into the wagon. Courthorne wheels the black horse round, an' I saw the red line across the face of him."

"'You'll be sorry for this, my lad,' says he."

"He's a dangerous man," Payne said, thoughtfully. "Pat, you came near being a ---- ass that day. Any way, it's time we went in, and as Larry's here I shouldn't wonder if we saw Courthorne again before the morning."

The icy cold went through them to the bone as they left the stables, and it was a relief to enter the loghouse which was heated to fustiness by the glowing stove. A lamp hung from a rough birch beam, and its uncertain radiance showed motionless figures wrapped in blankets in the bunks round the walls. Two men were, however, dressing, and one already in uniform sat at a table talking to another swathed in furs, who was from his appearance a prairie farmer. The man at the table was lean and weather-bronzed, with grizzled hair and observant eyes. They were fixed steadily upon the farmer, who knew that very little which happened upon the prairie escaped the vigilance of Sergeant Stimson.

"It's straight talk you're giving me, Larry? What do you figure on making by it?" he said.

The farmer laughed mirthlessly, "Not much, any way, beyond the chance of getting a bullet in me back; or me best steer lifted one dark night, 'Tis not forgiving the rustlers are, and Courthorne's the divil," he said. "But listen now, Sergeant, I've told ye where he is, and if ye're not fit to corral him I'll ride him down meself."

Sergeant Stimson wrinkled his forehead. "If anybody knows what they're after, it should be you," he said, watching the man out of the corner of his eyes. "Still, I'm a little worried as to why, when you'll get nothing for it, you're anxious to serve the State."

The farmer clenched a big hand. "Sergeant, you that knows everything, will ye drive me mad--an' to ---- with the State!" he said. "Sure, it's gospel I'm telling ye, an', as you're knowing well, it's me could tell where the boys who ride at midnight drop many a keg. Well, if ye will have your reason, it was Courthorne who put the black shame on me an' mine."

Sergeant Stimson nodded, for he had already suspected this.

"Then," he said dryly, "we'll give you a chance of helping us to put the handcuffs on him. Now, because they wouldn't risk the bridge, and the ice is not thick yet everywhere, there are just two ways they could bring the stuff across, and I figure we'd be near the thing if we fixed on Graham's Pool. Still, Courthorne's no kind of fool, and just because that crossing seems the likeliest he might try the other one. You're ready for duty, Trooper Payne?"

The lad stood straight. "I can turn out in ten minutes, sir," he said.

"Then," and Sergeant Stimson raised his voice a trifle, "you will ride at once to the rise a league outside the settlement, and watch the Montana trail. Courthorne will probably be coming over from Winston's soon after you get there, riding the big black, and you'll keep out of sight and follow him. If he heads for Carson's Crossing, ride for Graham's at a gallop, where you'll find me with the rest. If he makes for the bridge, you will overtake him if you can and find out what he's after. It's quite likely he'll tell you nothing, and you will not arrest him, but bearing in mind that every minute he spends there will be a loss to the rustlers you'll keep him as long as you can. Trooper Shannon, you'll ride at once to the bluff above Graham's Pool and watch the trail. Stop any man who rides that way, and if it's Courthorne keep him until the rest of the boys come up with me. You've got your duty quite straight, both of you?"

The lads saluted, and went out, while the sergeant smiled a little as he glanced at the farmer and the men who were dressing.

"It's steep chances we'll have Mr. Courthorne's company to-morrow, boys," he said. "Fill up the kettle, Tom, and serve out a pint of coffee. There are reasons why we shouldn't turn

out too soon. We'll saddle in an hour or so."

Two of the men went out, and the stinging blast that swept in through the open door smote a smoky smear across the blinking lamp and roused a sharper crackling from the stove. Then one returned with the kettle and there was silence, when the fusty heat resumed its sway. Now and then a tired trooper murmured in his sleep, or there was a snapping in the stove, while the icy wind moaned about the building and the kettle commenced a soft sibilation, but nobody moved or spoke. Three shadowy figures in uniform sat just outside the light, soaking in the grateful warmth while they could, for they knew that they might spend the next night unsheltered from the arctic cold of the wilderness. The Sergeant sat with thoughtful eyes and wrinkled forehead, where the flickering radiance forced up his lean face and silhouetted his spare outline on the rough boarding behind him, and close by the farmer sucked silently at his pipe, waiting with a stony calm that sprang from fierce impatience the reckoning with the man who had brought black shame upon him.

It was about this time when Winston stood shivering a little with the bridle of a big black horse in his hand just outside the door of his homestead. A valise and two thick blankets were strapped to the saddle, and he had donned the fur cap and coat Courthorne usually wore. Courthorne himself stood close by smiling at him sardonically.

"If you keep the cap down and ride with your stirrups long, as I've fixed them, anybody would take you for me," said he. "Go straight through the settlement, and let any man you come across see you. His testimony would come in useful if Stimson tries to fix a charge on me. You know your part of the bargain. You're to be Lance Courthorne for a fortnight from to-day."

"Yes," said Winston dryly. "I wish I was equally sure of yours."

Courthorne laughed. "I'm to be rancher Winston until to-morrow night, any way. Don't worry about me. I'll borrow those books of yours and improve my mind. Possible starvation is the only thing that threatens me, and it's unfortunate you've left nothing fit to eat behind you."

Winston swung himself into the saddle, a trifle awkwardly, for Courthorne rode with longer stirrup leathers than he was accustomed to, then he raised one hand, and the other man laughed a little as he watched him sink into the darkness of the shadowy prairie. When the drumming of hoofs was lost in the moaning of the wind he strode towards the stable, and taking up the lantern surveyed Winston's horse thoughtfully.

"The thing cuts with both edges, and the farmer only sees one of them," he said. "That beast's about as difficult to mistake as my black is."

Then he returned to the loghouse, and presently put on Winston's old fur coat and tattered fur cap. Had Winston seen his unpleasant smile as he did it, he would probably have wheeled the black horse and returned at a gallop, but the farmer was sweeping across the waste of whitened grass at least a league away by this time. Now and then a half-moon blinked down between wisps of smoky cloud, but for the most part gray dimness hung over the prairie, and the drumming of hoofs rang stridently through the silence. Winston knew a good horse, and had bred several of them--before a blizzard which swept the prairie killed off his finest yearlings as well as their pedigree sire--and his spirits rose as the splendid beast swung into faster stride beneath him.

For two weeks at least he would be free from anxiety, and the monotony of his life at the lonely homestead had grown horribly irksome. Winston was young, and now, when for a brief space he had left his cares behind, the old love of adventure which had driven him out from England once more awakened and set his blood stirring. For the first time in six years of struggle he did not know what lay before him, and he had a curious, half-instinctive feeling that the trait he was traveling would lead him farther than Montana. It was borne in upon him that he had left the old hopeless life behind, and stirred by some impulse he broke into a little song he had sung in England and long forgotten. He had a clear voice, and the words, which were filled with the hope of youth, rang bravely through the stillness of the frozen wilderness until the horse blundered, and Winston stopped with a little smile.

"It's four long years since I felt as I do to-night," he said.

Then he drew bridle and checked the horse as the lights of the settlement commenced to blink ahead, for the trail was rutted deep and frozen into the likeness of adamant, but when the first frame houses flung tracks of yellow radiance across the whitened grass he dropped his left arm a trifle, and rode in at a canter as he had seen Courthorne do. Winston did not like Courthorne, but he meant to keep his bargain.

As he passed the hotel more slowly a man who came out called to him. "Hello, Lance! Taking the trail?" he said. "Well, it kind of strikes me it's time you did. One of Stimson's boys was down here, and he seemed quite anxious about you."

Winston knew the man, and was about to urge the horse forward, but in place of it drew bridle, and laughed with a feeling that was wholly new to him as he remembered that his neighbors now and then bantered him about his English, and that Courthorne only used the Western colloquialism when it suited him.

"Sergeant Stimson is an enterprising officer, but there are as keen men as he is," he said. "You will, in case he questions you, remember when you met me."

"Oh, yes," said the other. "Still, I wouldn't fool too much with him--and where did you get those mittens from? That's the kind of outfit that would suit Winston."

Winston nodded, for though he had turned his face from the light the hand he held the bridle with was visible, and his big fur gloves were very old.

"They are his. The fact is, I've just come from his place," he said. "Well, you can tell Stimson you saw me starting out on the Montana trail."

He shook the bridle, laughed softly as the frame houses flitted by, and then grew intent when the darkness of the prairie once more closed down. It was, he knew, probable that some of Stimson's men would be looking out for him, and he had not sufficient faith in Courthorne's assurances to court an encounter with them.

The lights had faded, and the harsh grass was crackling under the drumming hoofs when the blurred outline of a mounted man showed up on the crest of a rise, and a shout came down.

"Hello! Pull up there a moment, stranger."

There was nothing alarming in the greeting, but Winston recognized the ring of command, as well as the faint jingle of steel which had preceded it, and pressed his heels home. The black swung forward faster, and Winston glancing over his shoulder saw the dusky shape was now moving down the incline. Then the voice rose again more commandingly.

"Pull up, I want a talk with you."

Winston turned his head a moment, and remembering Courthorne's English flung back the answer, "Sorry I haven't time."

The faint musical jingle grew plainer, there was a thud of hoofs behind, and the curious exhilaration returned to Winston as the big black horse stretched out at a gallop. The soil was hard as granite, but the matted grasses formed a covering that rendered fast riding possible to a man who took the risks, and Winston knew there were few horses in the Government service to match the one he rode. Still, it was evident that the trooper meant to overtake him, and recollecting his compact he tightened his grip on the bridle. It was a long way to the ranch where he was to spend the night, and he knew that the further he drew the trooper on, the better it would suit Courthorne.

So they swept on through the darkness over the empty waste, the trooper who was riding hard slowly creeping up behind. Still, Winston held the horse in until a glance over his shoulder showed him that there was less than a hundred yards between them, and he fancied he heard a portentous rattle as well as the thud of hoofs. It was not unlike that made by a carbine flung across the saddle. This suggested unpleasant possibilities, and he slackened his grip on the bridle. Then a breathless shout rang out, "Pull up or I'll fire."

Winston wondered if the threat was genuine or what is termed "bluff" in that country, but, as he had decided objections to being shot in the back to please Courthorne, sent his heels home. The horse shot forward beneath him, and, though no carbine flashed, the next backward glance showed him that the distance between him and the pursuer was drawing out, while when he stared ahead again the dark shape of willows or birches cut the sky-line. As they came back to him the drumming of hoofs swelled into a staccato roar, while presently the trail grew steep, and dark boughs swayed above him. In another few minutes something smooth and level flung back a blink of light, and the timbers of a wooden bridge rattled under his passage. Then he was racing upwards through the gloom of wind-dwarfed birches on the opposite side listening for the rattle behind him on the bridge, and after a struggle with the horse pulled him up smoking when he did not hear it.

There was a beat of hoofs across the river, but it was slower than when he had last heard it and grew momentarily less audible, and Winston laughed as he watched the steam of the horse and his own breath rise in a thin white cloud.

"The trooper has given it up, and now for Montana," he said.

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