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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18098

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Supper was cooking when Lance Courthorne sat beside the glowing stove in the comfortless general room of a little wooden hotel in a desolate settlement of Montana. He had a good many acquaintances in the straggling town, where he now and then ran a faro game, though it was some months since he had last been there, and he had ridden a long way to reach it that day. He was feeling comfortably tired after the exposure to the bitter frost, and blinked drowsily at the young rancher who sat opposite him across the stove. The latter, who had come out some years earlier from the old country, was then reading a somewhat ancient English newspaper.

"What has been going on here lately?" asked Courthorne.

The other man laughed. "Does anything ever happen in this place? One would be almost thankful if a cyclone or waterspout came along, if it were only to give the boys something to talk about. Still, one of the girls here is going to get married. I'm not sure old man Clouston finds it helps his trade quite as much as he fancied it would when he fired his Chinamen and brought good-looking waitresses in. This is the third of them who has married one of the boys and left him."

"What could he expect!" and Courthorne yawned. "Who's the man, and have I seen the girl?"

"I don't think you have. So far as I remember, she came since you were here last, and that must be quite a while ago. Nobody seems to know where Clouston got her from, and she's by no means communicative about her antecedents; but she's pretty enough for any man, and Potter is greatly stuck on her. He sold out a week or two ago--got quite a pile for the ranch, and I understand he's going back to the old country. Any way, the girl has a catch. Potter's a straight man, and most of us like him."

He turned over his paper with a little laugh. "It doesn't interest you? Well, if you had lived out at Willow six years as I have you'd be glad of anything to talk about, if it was only the affairs of one of Clouston's waitresses."

Courthorne yawned again openly and took from his pocket a letter that he had received the day before at another little town to which, in accordance with directions given, it had been forwarded him. It was from one of his whisky-running comrades and had somewhat puzzled him.

"There's about one hundred dollars due you, and we're willing to pay up," it ran. "Still, now we hear you're going back east to the Silverdale settlement it's quite likely you won't want them as much as the rest of us do. It's supposed to be quite a big farm you have come into."

Courthorne was a little troubled, as well as perplexed. He had certainly not gone to Silverdale and had no notion of doing so, though he had distant relatives there, while, so far as he knew, nobody had left him a farm of any kind. He had promised the whisky runners a guide on the night of Trooper Shannon's death, and as it was dark when, muffled in Winston's furs, he met the men--who were, as it happened, for the most part new adherents, it seemed probable that they had not recognized him or had any reason to believe it was not Winston himself who was responsible for the trooper's death. It was not a very unusual thing for one of the smaller farmers to take a part in a smuggling venture now and then. Still, the letter left him with an unpleasant uncertainty.

By and by his companion looked up from his paper again.

"You came from my part of the old country, I think?" he said, "I see a man of your name has died there lately, and he seems to have left a good deal of property. Here's a list of the bequests."

He stopped a moment, and with another glance at it handed Courthorne the paper. "I notice your own name among them, and it's not a common one."

Courthorne stretched out his hand for the paper, and his face became intent as he read: "It is with regret many of our readers will hear of the death of Mr. Geoffrey Courthorne, well known in this vicinity as a politician with Imperialistic views and a benefactor of charitable schemes. Among the bequests are . . .and one of the farms in the Silverdale colony he established in Western Canada to Lance Courthorne."

He laid down the paper and sat rigidly still for a minute or two, while his companion glanced at him curiously.

"Then," said the latter, "it's you!"

"It is," said Courthorne dryly. "I'm much obliged to you for showing me the thing, but I'd be still more obliged if you wouldn't worry me with any questions just now."

His companion made a little gesture of comprehension as he moved away, and Courthorne leaned back in his chair with his eyes half-closed. He could now understand his whisky-smuggling comrade's letter, for it was evident that Winston was going to Silverdale. Indeed, Courthorne could not see what other course was open to the rancher, if he wished to preserve his safety. Still, Courthorne was aware that farming, as carried on at Silverdale, was singularly unprofitable, and he had a somewhat curious confidence in the honesty of the man he had deceived. Winston, he decided, no doubt believed that he was drowned the night Trooper Shannon died, and had been traced as Courthorne by some Winnipeg lawyer acting for the executors.

Then Clouston came in to announce that supper was ready, and Courthorne took his place among the rest. The men were store-keepers of the settlement, though there were among them frost-bronzed ranchers and cattle-boys who had come in for provisions or their mail, and some of them commenced rallying one of their comrades who sat near the head of the table on his approaching wedding. The latter bore it good-humoredly, and made a sign of recognition when Courthorne glanced at him. He was a big man, with pleasant blue eyes and a genial, weather-darkened face, though he was known as a daring rider and successful breaker of vicious horses.

Courthorne sat at the bottom of the table, at some distance from him, while by and by the man at his side laughed when a girl with a tray stopped behind them. She was a very pretty girl with big black eyes, in which, however, there lurked a somewhat curious gravity.

"Fresh pork or steak? Fried potatoes," she said.

Courthorne, who could not see her as he was sitting, started involuntarily. The voice was, at least, very like one he had often listened to, and the resemblance brought him a little shock of disgust as well as uneasiness. Gambler and outcast as he was, there was a certain fastidiousness in him, and it did not seem fitting that a girl with a voice like the one he remembered should have to ask whether one would take pork or steak in a little fourth-rate hotel.

"Take them right along, Ailly," said the man next to him. "Why don't you begin at the top where Potter's waiting?"

Then Courthorne looked around and for a moment; set his lips tight, while the girl would have dropped the tray had he not stretched out a hand and seized it. A dark flush swept into her face and then as suddenly faded out of it, leaving her very pale. She stood gazing at him, and the fingers of one hand quivered on the tray, which he still held. He was, as it happened, the first to recover himself, and there was a little sardonic gleam in his eyes as he lifted down one of the plates.

"Well," he said, "I guess Potter will have to wait. I'll take steak."

The others had their backs to the girl, and by the time one or two of them turned round she was quietly helping Courthorne's companion; but it was a moment or two before Courthorne commenced to eat, for the waitress was certainly Ailly Blake. It was as certain that she had recognized him, which was, however, by no means astonishing, and this promised another complication, for he was commencing to realize that since Winston had gone to Silverdale it would be convenient that Courthorne as such should cease to exist. He fancied that should any of the men he was acquainted with happen to come across Winston at Silverdale--which was, however, most unlikely--they might be deceived by the resemblance between himself and the farmer; but it was hardly to be expected that Ailly Blake would fail to be sure of him in any circumstances and anywhere. He accordingly decided that he must have an interview with her as soon as possible, and, since he had been in many tight places before, in the meanwhile went on tranquilly with his supper.

The meal was over, and the men clustered around the stove when he gathered up one or two of the plates and laid them ready as the girl moved along the table. She glanced at him for a moment, with startled eyes. A spot of crimson showed in her cheek.

"I want a word with you," he said.

Ailly Blake flashed a swift glance round the room, and Courthorne noticed with a little smile that it was one man in particular her gaze rested on; but neither Potter nor any of the others seemed to be observing them at that moment.

"Then open the second door down the corridor in about twenty minutes," she said.

She moved away and left him to join the others abou

t the stove, until the time she mentioned had elapsed, when he sauntered out of the room and opened the door she had indicated. It led into a little room apparently used as a household store. Here Ailly Blake was standing, while a litter of forks, spoons, and nickeled knives showed what her occupation had been. Courthorne sat down on a table and looked at her with a little smile, though she stood intent, and quivering a little.

"Well," she said, almost harshly, "what is it you want?"

Courthorne laughed. "Need you ask? Is it astonishing that I was anxious to see you? I don't think it's necessary to point out that you are quite as good to look at as ever."

The girl's lips trembled a little, and it was evident that she put a constraint upon herself.

"You haven't changed either," she said bitterly. "You have still the smooth tongue and the laugh in your eyes that should warn folks against it. I listened to it once, and it brought me black shame and sorrow."

"I almost fancy, Ailly, that if I wanted you to very much you would listen again."

The girl shrank from him a little and then straightened herself suddenly and faced him with a flash in her eyes.

"No," she said. "Once I would have put my hand in the fire for you; but when you left me in that dance house I knew all there was to know of you,--and I hoped you might never come in my way again. Shamed as I am, I could not fall so low as you did then."

"I don't know that I'm very proud of the part I played," and though Courthorne smiled there was a faint flush in his face. "Still, you see, I hadn't a dollar then, and what could I do? Any way, that's done with, and I was wondering if you would let me congratulate you. Potter seems to be a general favorite."

He saw the apprehension once more creep into the girl's eyes and noticed the little tremor in her voice as she said, "You have heard of it? Of course, you would. What do you mean to do?"

"Nothing," and Courthorne smiled reassuringly. "Why should I do anything? After all, I owe you a little reparation. Silence is easy and in our case, I think, advisable. Presumably you are as fond of the worthy Potter as you were of me, and there is no doubt that he is considerably more deserving of affection."

His good-humored acquiescence was in one respect almost brutal, and the girl winced under it, in spite of her evident relief.

"Lance," she said, with a curious forceful gravity, "Frank Potter is such a man as you could never be. There can't be many like him. As I said, there was a time when I would have slaved for you and starved with you cheerfully; but you threw me off,--and, now this man who is big and strong enough to forget what you brought me to has given me a chance to wipe out the past, I do not think I need be afraid of you. At first I was a little so, but it wasn't altogether for myself. I want to warn you. If you try to make mischief he will kill you."

"Ah," said Courthorne quietly. "Well, it wouldn't be very astonishing if he attempted it, and nobody would blame him; but I have, as it happens, no intention of provoking him. After all, it was my fault, and you were too good for me, Ailly."

He stopped a moment and smiled, for there was in him a certain half-whimsical cruelty. "Still, perhaps, it's a little rough on the excellent Potter, though from what you said one would think that you had told him--something."

The crimson crept into the girl's cheek. "He knows everything--except who you are. That is why I am afraid. If he found out, I think one of you would never leave this place."

Courthorne shrugged his shoulders. "I believe I owe you enough to go away to-morrow. It would be wiser. I am not, as you know, a model of discretion, and it's, perhaps, natural that, now you have given me up, you appear rather more attractive than ever. In fact, I almost feel tempted to stay to see if I'm not a match for Potter. Still, I'll go away. I suppose you haven't heard from Larry lately?"

He saw the returning fear in her face give place to pain and bitterness as he concluded, and he made a little sign of comprehension.

"Well, perhaps, one couldn't blame him. You are going back to England with Potter after the wedding?"

His companion said she was, and Courthorne sat silent a moment or two, for the news was at once a relief to him and a cause of thoughtfulness. Ailly Blake, who would never be deceived by the resemblance between him and Winston, was a standing menace while she remained anywhere near the frontier of Canada. He had discovered that it is usually the last thing one expects or desires that happens, and it was clearly advisable for Lance Courthorne to efface himself very shortly, while the easiest way to do it was to merge his identity with that of the man who had gone in his name to Silverdale. Winston had, so far as everybody else knew, been drowned, and he must in the meanwhile, at least, not be compelled to appear again. It would simplify everything if Ailly Blake, who evidently did not know of Trooper Shannon's death, went away.

"Well," he said, "I'm glad to hear it, and I'm leaving this country, too. I'm going east to-morrow to Silverdale. I wonder if I could be permitted to send you a wedding present."

The girl turned to him with a crimson spot in her cheek, and there was a little hoarse thrill in her voice that made its impression even on him.

"Once I thought I'd have every little thing you gave me buried with me," she said. "I felt I couldn't part with them, and now I'll remember you often when I should forget,--but whatever you send I'll burn. I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I can't help it. Perhaps it's mad, foolish, but I want you to think well of me still."

She stopped and caught her breath with a little gasp, while her voice grew strained and broken as she went on.

"Lance," she said passionately, "can't you understand? It's my one chance to creep back to where I was before you came my way--and Potter's kind to me. At least, I can be straight with him, and I pray I'll never see your face, or hear your name again. Now go--go--I can't bear any more from you."

Courthorne stood still, looking at her, for almost a minute, while the wild reckless devil that was in him awoke. Clever as he was, he was apt now and then to fling prudence to the winds, and he was swayed by an almost uncontrollable impulse to stay beside the girl who, he realized, though she recognized his worthlessness, loved him still. That he did not love her, and, perhaps, never had done so, did not count with him. It was in his nature to find pleasure in snatching her from a better man. Then some faint sense of the wantonness and cruelty of it came upon him, and by a tense effort he made her a little inclination that was not ironical.

"Well," he said, "if they are worth anything my good wishes go with you. At least, they can't hurt you."

He held his hand out, but Ailly Blake shrank away from him and pointed to the door.

"Go," she said hoarsely. "Go now."

Courthorne made a little gesture that might have meant anything, and then he swung round abruptly without another look at her. When the door dosed behind him he went down the corridor with a little wry smile in his eyes.

"After all, it's the gambler first," he said. "A little rough on the straight man--as usual."

Then he sat down beside the stove in the bare general room and thoughtfully smoked a cigar. Ailly was going to England, Winston, to save his neck, had gone as Courthorne to Silverdale, and in another day or two the latter would have disappeared. He could not claim his new possessions without forcing facts better left unmentioned upon everybody's attention, since Winston would doubtless object to jeopardize himself to please him, and the land at Silverdale could not in any case be sold without the consent of Colonel Barrington. Winston was also an excellent farmer and a man he had confidence in, one who could be depended on to subsidize the real owner, which would suit the gambler a good deal better than farming. When he had come to this decision he threw his cigar end away and strolled towards the bar.

"Boys," he said to the loungers, "I want you to have a drink with me. Somebody has left me land and property in the very select colony of Silverdale on the Canadian prairie, and I'm going back there to take possession first thing to-morrow."

Most of them joined him, and the second time his glass was filled he lifted it and glanced at Potter.

"Long life to you and the prettiest girl on either side of the frontier!" he said.

They drank the toast with acclamation, and Courthorne, who strolled away, retired early and started for the railroad before daylight next morning. He laughed softly as he glanced back a moment at the lights of the settlement.

"There are a good many places on this side of the frontier that will suit me better than Silverdale," he said. "In fact, it's probable that most of his friends have seen the last of Lance Courthorne."

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