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   Chapter 7 WINSTON'S DECISION

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 23343

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Farmer Winston crossed the frontier without molestation and spent one night in a little wooden town, where several people he did not speak to apparently recognized him. Then he pushed on southwards, and passed a week in the especially desolate settlement he had been directed to. A few dilapidated frame houses rose out of the white wilderness beside the broad beaten trail, and, for here the prairie rolled south in long rises like the waves of a frozen sea, a low wooden building on the crest of one cut the skyline a league away. It served as outpost for a squadron of United States cavalry, and the troopers daily maligned the Government which had sent them into that desolation on police duty.

There was nothing else visible but a few dusky groves of willows and the dazzling snow. The ramshackle wooden hotel was rather more than usually badly-kept and comfortless, and Winston, who had managed to conciliate his host, felt relieved one afternoon when the latter flung down the cards disgustedly.

"I guess I've had enough," he said. "Playing for stakes of this kind isn't good enough for you!"

Winston laughed a little to hide his resentment, as he said, "I don't quite understand."

"Pshaw!" said the American, with a contemptuous gesture. "Three times out of four I've spoiled your hand, and if I didn't know that black horse I'd take you for some blamed Canadian rancher. You didn't handle the pictures that way when you stripped the boys to the hide at Regent, Mr. Courthorne."

"Regent?" said Winston.

The hotel-keeper laughed. "Oh, yes," he said. "I wouldn't go back there too soon, any way. The boys don't seem quite contented, and I don't figure they would be very nice to you. Well, now, I've no use for fooling with a man who's too proud to take my dollars, and I've a pair of horses just stuffed with wickedness in the stable. There's not much you don't know about a beast, any way, and you can take them out a league or two if you feel like it."

Winston, who had grown very tired of his host, was glad of any distraction, especially as he surmised that while the man had never seen Courthorne, he knew rather more than he did himself about his doings. Accordingly, he got into the sleigh that was brought out by and by, and enjoyed the struggle with the half-tamed team, which stood with ears laid back, prepared for conflict. Oats had been very plentiful, and prices low that season. Winston, who knew at least as much about a horse as Lance Courthorne, however, bent them to his will, and the team were trotting quietly through the shadow of a big birch bluff a league from town, when he heard a faint clip-clop coming down the trail behind him. It led straight beneath the leafless branches, and was beaten smooth and firm, while Winston, who had noticed already that whenever he strayed any distance from the hotel there was a mounted cavalryman somewhere in the vicinity, shook the reins.

The team swung into faster stride, the cold wind whistled past him, and the snow whirled up from beneath the runners, but while he listened, the rhythmic drumming behind him also quickened a little. Then a faintly musical jingle of steel accompanied the beat of hoofs, and Winston glanced about him with a little laugh of annoyance. The dusk was creeping across the prairie, and a pale star or two growing into brilliancy in the cloudless sweep of indigo.

"It's getting a trifle tiresome. I'll find out what the fellow wants," he said.

Wheeling the team he drove back the way he came, and, when a dusky object materialized out of the shadows beneath the birches, swung the horses right across the trail. The snow lay deep on either side of it just there, with a sharp crust upon its surface, which rendered it inadvisable to take a horse round the sleigh. The mounted man accordingly drew bridle, and the jingle and rattle betokened his profession, though it was already too dark to see him clearly.

"Hallo!" he said. "Been buying this trail up, stranger?"

"No," said Winston quietly, though he still held his team across the way. "Still, I've got the same right as any other citizen to walk or drive along it without anybody prowling after me, and just now I want to know if there is a reason I should be favored with your company."

The trooper laughed a little. "I guess there is. It's down in the orders that whoever's on patrol near the settlement should keep his eye on you. You see, if you lit out of here we would want to know just where you were going to."

"I am," said Winston, "a Canadian citizen, and I came out here for quietness."

"Well," said the other, "you're an American, too. Any way, when you were in a tight place down in Regent there, you told the boys so. Now, no sensible man would boast of being a Britisher unless it was helping him to play out his hand."

Winston kept his temper. "I want a straight answer. Can you tell me what you and the boys are trailing me for?"

"No," said the trooper. "Still, I guess our commander could. If you don't know of any reason, you might ask him."

Winston tightened his grip on the reins. "I'll ride back with you to the outpost now."

The trooper shook his bridle, and trotted behind the sleigh, while, as it swung up and down over the billowy rises of the prairie, Winston became sensible of a curious expectancy. The bare, hopeless life he had led seemed to have slipped behind him, and though he suspected that there was no great difference between his escort and a prisoner's guard, the old love of excitement he once fancied he had outgrown forever, awoke again within him. Anything that was different from the past would be a relief, and the man who had for eight long years of strenuous toil practiced the grimmest self-denial wondered with a quickening of all his faculties what the future, that could not be more colorless, might have in store for him.

It was dark, and very cold, when they reached the wooden building, but Winston's step was lighter, and his spirits more buoyant than they had been for some months, when, handing the sleigh over to an orderly, he walked into the guard-room, where bronzed men in uniform glanced at him curiously. Then he was shown into a bare log-walled hall, where a young man in blue uniform, with a weather-darkened face was writing at a table.

"I've been partly expecting a visit," he said. "I'm glad to see you, Mr. Courthorne."

Winston laughed with a very good intimation of the outlaw's recklessness, and wondered the while because it cost him no effort. He, who had, throughout the last two adverse seasons, seldom smiled at all, and then but grimly, experienced the same delight in an adventure that he had done when he came out to Canada.

"I don't know that I can return the compliment just yet," he said. "I have one or two things to ask you."

The young soldier smiled good-humoredly, as he flung a cigar case on the table. "Oh, sit down and shake those furs off," he said. "I'm not a worrying policeman, and we're white men, any way. If you'd been twelve months in this forsaken place, you'd know what I'm feeling. Take a smoke, and start in with your questions when you feel like it."

Winston lighted a cigar, flung himself down in a hide chair, and stretched out his feet towards the stove. "In the first place, I want to know why your boys are shadowing me. You see, you couldn't arrest me unless our folks in the Dominion had got their papers through."

The officer nodded. "No. We couldn't lay hands on you, and we only had orders to see where you went to when you left this place, so the folks there could corral you if they got the papers. That's about the size of it at present, but, as I've sent a trooper over to Regent, I'll know more to-morrow."

Winston laughed. "It may appear a little astonishing, but I haven't the faintest notion why the police in Canada should worry about me. Is there any reason you shouldn't tell me?"

The officer looked at him thoughtfully. "Bluff? I'm quite smart at it myself," he said.

"No," and Winston shook his head. "It's a straight question. I want to know."

"Well," said the other, "it couldn't do much harm if I told you. You were running whisky a little while ago, and, though the folks didn't seem to suspect it, you had a farmer or a rancher for a partner--it appears he has mixed up things for you."

"Winston?" and the farmer turned to roll the cigar which did not need it between his fingers.

"That's the man," said his companion. "Well, though I guess it's no news to you, the police came down upon your friends at a river-crossing, and farmer Winston put a bullet into a young trooper, Shannon, I fancy."

Winston sat upright, and the blood that surged to his forehead sank from it suddenly, and left his face gray with anger.

"Good Lord!" he said hoarsely. "He killed him?"

"Yes, sir," said the officer. "Killing's not quite the word, because one shot would have been enough to free him of the lad, and the rancher fired twice into him. They figured, from the way the trooper was lying and the footprints, that he meant to finish him."

The farmer's face was very grim as he said, "They were sure it was Winston?"

"Yes," and the soldier watched him curiously. "Any way, they were sure of his horse, and it was Winston's rifle. Another trooper nearly got him, and he left it behind him. It wasn't killing, for the trooper don't seem to have had a show at all, and I'm glad to see it makes you kind of sick. Only that one of the troopers allows he was trailing you at a time which shows you had no hand in the thing, you wouldn't be sitting there smoking that cigar."

It was almost a minute before Winston could trust his voice. Then he said slowly, "And what do they want me for?"

"I guess they don't quite know whether they do or not," said the officer. "They crawl slow in Canada. In the meanwhile they wanted to know where you were, so they could take out papers if anything turned up against you."

"And Winston?" said the farmer.

"Got away with a trooper close behind him. The rest of them had headed him off from the prairie, and he took to the river. Went through the ice and drowned himself, though as there was a blizzard nobody quite saw the end of him, and in case there was any doubt they've got a warrant out. Farmer Winston's dead, and if he isn't he soon will be, for the troopers have got their net right across the prairie, and the Canadians don't fool time away as we do when it comes to hanging anybody. The tale seems to have worried you."

Winston sat rigidly still and silent for almost a minute. Then he rose up with a curious little shake of his shoulders.

"And farmer Winston's dead. Well, he had a hard life. I knew him rather well," he said. "Thank you for the story. On my word this is the first time I've heard it, and now it's time I was going."

The officer laughed a little. "Sit right down again. Now, there's something about you that makes me like you, and as I can't talk to the boys, I'll give you the best supper we can raise in the whole forsaken country, and you can camp here until to-morrow. It's an arrangement that will meet the views of everybody, because I'll know whether the Canadians want you or not, in the morning."

Winston did not know what prompted him to agree, but it all seemed part of a purpose that impelled him against his reasoning will, and he sat still beside the stove, while his host went out to give orders respecting supper and the return of the sleigh. He was also glad to be alone a while, for now and then a fit of anger shook him as he saw how he had been duped by Courthorne. He had heard Shann

on's story, and, remembering it, could fancy that Courthorne had planned the trooper's destruction with a devilish cunning that recognized by what means the blame could be laid upon a guiltless man. Winston's face became mottled with gray again as he realized that if he revealed his identity he had nothing but his word to offer in proof of his innocence.

Still, it was anger and not fear that stirred him, for nobody could arrest a man who was dead, and there was no reason that would render it undesirable for him to remain so. His farm would when sold realize the money borrowed upon it, and the holder of the mortgage had received a profitable interest already. Had the unforeseen not happened, Winston would have held out to the end of the struggle, but now he had no regret that this was out of the question. Fate had been too strong for him as farmer Winston, but it might deal more kindly with him as the outlaw Courthorne. He could also make a quick decision, and when the officer returned to say that supper was ready, he rose with a smile.

They sat down to a meal that was barbaric in its simplicity and abundance, for men live and eat in Homeric fashion in the Northwest, and when the green tea was finished and the officer pushed the whisky across, his guest laughed as he filled his glass.

"Here's better fortune to farmer Winston!" he said.

The officer stared at him. "No, sir," he said. "If the old folks taught me right, Winston's in----"

A curious smile flickered in the farmer's eyes. "No," he said slowly. "He was tolerably near it once or twice when he was alive, and, because of what he went through then, there may be something better in store for him."

His companion appeared astonished, but said nothing further until he brought out the cards. They played for an hour beside the snapping stove, and then, when, Winston flung a trump away, the officer groaned.

"I guess," he said disgustedly, "you're not well tonight or something is worrying you."

Winston looked up with a little twinkle in his eyes. "I don't know that there's very much wrong with me."

"Then," said the officer decisively, "if the boys down at Regent know enough to remember what trumps are, you're not Lance Courthorne. Now, after what I'd heard of you, I'd have put up fifty dollars for the pleasure of watching your game--and it's not worth ten cents when I've seen it."

Winston laughed. "Sit down and talk," he said. "One isn't always in his usual form, and there are folks who get famous too easily."

They talked until nearly midnight, sitting close to the stove, while a doleful wind that moaned without drove the dust of snow pattering against the windows, and the shadows grew darker in the corners of the great log-walled room each time the icy draughts set the lamp flickering. Then the officer, rising, expressed the feelings of his guest as he said, "It's a forsaken country, and I'm thankful one can sleep and forget it."

He had, however, an honorable calling, and a welcome from friend and kinsman awaiting him when he went East again, to revel in the life of the cities, but the man who followed him silently to the sleeping-room had nothing but a half-instinctive assurance that the future could not well be harder or more lonely than the past had been. Still, farmer Winston was a man of courage with a quiet belief in himself, and in ten minutes he was fast asleep.

When he came down to breakfast his host was already seated with a bundle of letters before him, and one addressed to Courthorne lay unopened by Winston's plate. The officer nodded when he saw him.

"The trooper has come in with the mail, and your friends in Canada are not going to worry you," he said. "Now, if you feel like staying here a few days, it would be a favor to me."

Winston had in the meanwhile opened the envelope. He knew that when once the decision was made, there could only be peril in half-measures, and his eyes grew thoughtful as he read. The letter had been written by a Winnipeg lawyer from a little town not very far away, and requested Courthorne to meet and confer with him respecting certain suggestions made by a Colonel Barrington. Winston decided to take the risk.

"I'm sorry, but I have got to go into Annerly at once," he said.

"Then," said the officer, "I'll drive you. I've some stores to get down there."

They started after breakfast, but it was dusk next day when they reached the little town, and Winston walked quietly into a private room of the wooden hotel, where a middle-aged man with a shrewd face sat waiting him. The big nickeled lamp flickered in the draughts that found their way in, and Winston was glad of it, though he was outwardly very collected. The stubborn patience and self-control with which he had faced the loss of his wheat crops and frozen stock stood him in good stead now. He fancied the lawyer seemed a trifle astonished at his appearance, and sat down wondering whether he had previously spoken to Courthorne, until the question was answered for him.

"Although I have never had the pleasure of meeting you before, I have acted as Colonel Barrington's legal adviser ever since he settled at Silverdale, and am, therefore, well posted as to his affairs, which are, of course, connected with those of your own family," said the lawyer. "We can accordingly talk with greater freedom, and I hope without the acerbity which in your recent communications somewhat annoyed the Colonel."

"Well," said Winston, who had never heard of Colonel Barrington, "I am ready to listen."

The lawyer drummed on the table. "It might be best to come to the point at once," he said. "Colonel Barrington does not deem it convenient that you should settle at Silverdale, and would be prepared to offer you a reasonable sum to relinquish your claim."

"My claim?" said Winston, who remembered having heard of the Silverdale Colony which lay several hundred miles away.

"Of course," said the lawyer. "The legacy lately left you by Roger Courthorne. I have brought you a schedule of the wheat in store, and amounts due to you on various sales made. You will also find the acreage, stock, and implements detailed at a well-known appraiser's valuation, which you could of course confirm, and Colonel Barrington would hand you a check for half the total now. He, however, asks four years to pay the balance in, which would carry bank interest in the meanwhile."

Winston, who was glad of the excuse, spent at least ten minutes studying the paper, and realized that it referred to a large and well-appointed farm, though it occurred to him that the crop was a good deal smaller than it should have been. He noticed this as it were instinctively, for his brain was otherwise very busy.

"Colonel Barrington seems somewhat anxious to get rid of me," he said. "You see, this land is mine by right."

"Yes," said the lawyer. "Colonel Barrington does not dispute it, though I am of opinion that he might have done so under one clause of the will. I do not think we need discuss his motives."

Winston moistened his lips with his tongue, and his lips quivered a little. He had hitherto been an honest man, and now it was impossible for him to take the money. It, however, appeared equally impossible to reveal his identity and escape the halter, and he felt that the dead man had wronged him horribly. He was entitled at least to safety by way of compensation, for by passing as Courthorne he would avoid recognition as Winston.

"Still I do not know how I have offended Colonel Barrington," he said.

"I would sooner," said the lawyer, "not go into that. It is, I fancy, fifteen years since Colonel Barrington saw you, but he desired me to find means of tracing your Canadian record, and did not seem pleased with it. Nor, at the risk of offending you, could I deem him unduly prejudiced."

"In fact," said Winston dryly, "this man who has not seen me for fifteen years is desirous of withholding what is mine from me at almost any cost."

The lawyer nodded. "There is nothing to be gained by endeavoring to controvert it. Colonel Barrington is also, as you know, a somewhat determined gentleman."

Winston laughed, for he was essentially a stubborn man, and felt little kindliness towards any one connected with Courthorne, as the Colonel evidently was.

"I fancy I am not entirely unlike him in that respect," he said. "What you have told me makes me the more determined to follow my own inclination. Is there any one else at Silverdale prejudiced against me?"

The lawyer fell into the trap. "Miss Barrington, of course, takes her brother's view, and her niece would scarcely go counter to them. She must have been a very young girl when she last saw you, but from what I know of her character I should expect her to support the Colonel."

"Well," said Winston, "I want to think over the thing. We will talk again to-morrow. You would require me to establish my identity, any way?"

"The fact that a famous inquiry agent has traced your movements down to a week or two ago, and told me where to find you, will render that simple," said the lawyer dryly.

Winston sat up late that night turning over the papers the lawyer left him and thinking hard. It was evident that in the meanwhile he must pass as Courthorne, but as the thought of taking the money revolted him, the next step led to the occupation of the dead man's property. The assumption of it would apparently do nobody a wrong, while he felt that Courthorne had taken so much from him that the farm at Silverdale would be a very small reparation. It was not, he saw, a great inheritance, but one that in the right hands could be made profitable, and Winston, who had fought a plucky fight with obsolete and worthless implements and indifferent teams, felt that he could do a great deal with what was, as it were, thrust upon him at Silverdale. It was not avarice that tempted him, though he knew he was tempted now, but a longing to find a fair outlet for his energies, and show what, once given the chance that most men had, he could do. He had stinted himself and toiled almost as a beast of burden, but now he could use his brains in place of wringing the last effort out of overtaxed muscle. He had also during the long struggle lost to some extent his clearness of vision, and only saw himself as a lonely man fighting for his own hand with fate against him. Now, when prosperity was offered him, it seemed but folly to stand aside when he could stretch out a strong hand and take it.

During the last hour he sat almost motionless, the issue hung in the balance, and he laid himself down still undecided. Still, he had lived long in primitive fashion in close touch with the soil, and sank, as most men would not have done, into restful sleep. The sun hung red above the rim of the prairie when he awakened, and going down to breakfast found the lawyer waiting for him.

"You can tell Colonel Barrington I'm coming to Silverdale," he said.

The lawyer looked at him curiously. "Would there be any use in asking you to reconsider?"

Winston laughed. "No," he said. "Now, I rather like the way you talked to me, and, if it wouldn't be disloyalty to the Colonel, I should be pleased if you would undertake to put me in due possession of my property."

He said nothing further, and the lawyer sat down to write Colonel Barrington.

"Mr. Courthorne proves obdurate," he said. "He is, however, by no means the type of man I expected to find, and I venture to surmise that you will eventually discover him to be a less undesirable addition to Silverdale than you are at present inclined to fancy."

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