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   Chapter 10 AN ARMISTICE

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 26655

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The dismal afternoon was drawing in when Winston, driving home from the railroad, came into sight of a lonely farm. It lifted itself out of the prairie, a blur of huddled buildings on the crest of a long rise, but at first sight Winston scarcely noticed it. He was gazing abstractedly down the sinuous smear of trail which unrolled itself like an endless ribbon across the great white desolation, and his brain was busy. Four months had passed since he came to Silverdale, and they had left their mark on him.

At first there had been the constant fear of detection, and when that had lessened and he was accepted as Lance Courthorne, the latter's unfortunate record had met him at every turn. It accounted for the suspicions of Colonel Barrington, the reserve of his niece, and the aloofness of some of his neighbors, while there had been times when Winston found Silverdale almost unendurable. He was, however, an obstinate man, and there was on the opposite side the gracious kindliness of the little gray-haired lady, who had from the beginning been his champion, and the friendship of Dane, and one or two of the older men. Winston had also proved his right to be listened to, and treated, outwardly at least, with due civility, while something in his resolute quietness rendered an impertinence impossible. He knew by this time that he could hold his own at Silverdale, and based his conduct on the fact, but that was only one aspect of the question, and he speculated as to the consummation.

It was, however, evident that in the meanwhile he must continue to pose as Courthorne, and he felt, rightly or wrongly, that the possession of his estate was, after all, a small reparation for the injury the outlaw had done him, but the affair was complicated by the fact that, in taking Courthorne's inheritance, he had deprived Maud Barrington of part of hers. The girl's coldness stung him, but her unquestionable beauty and strength of character had not been without their effect, and the man winced as he remembered that she had no pity for anything false or mean. He had decided only upon two things, first that he would vindicate himself in her eyes, and, since nobody else could apparently do it, pull the property that should have been hers out of the ruin it had been drifting into under her uncle's guardianship. When this had been done, and the killing of Trooper Shannon forgotten, it would be time for him to slip back into the obscurity he came from.

Then the fact that the homestead was growing nearer forced itself upon his perceptions, and he glanced doubtfully across the prairie as he approached the forking of the trail. A gray dimness was creeping across the wilderness and the smoky sky seemed to hang lower above the dully gleaming snow, while the moaning wind flung little clouds of icy dust about him. It was evident that the snow was not far away, and it was still two leagues to Silverdale, but Winston, who had been to Winnipeg, had business with the farmer, and had faced a prairie storm before. Accordingly he swung the team into the forking trail and shook the reins. There was, he knew, little time to lose, and in another five minutes he stood, still wearing his white-sprinkled furs, in a room of the birch-log building.

"Here are your accounts, Macdonald, and while we've pulled up our losses, I can't help thinking we have just got out in time," he said. "The market is but little stiffer yet, but there is less selling, and before a few months are over we're going to see a sharp recovery."

The farmer glanced at the documents, and smiled with contentment as he took the check. "I'm glad I listened to you," he said. "It's unfortunate for him and his niece that Barrington wouldn't--at least, not until he had lost the opportunity."

"I don't understand," said Winston.

"No," said the farmer, "you've been away. Well, you know it takes a long while to get an idea into the Colonel's head, but once it's in, it's even harder to get it out again. Now Barrington looked down on wheat jobbing, but money's tight at Silverdale, and when he saw what you were making, he commenced to think. Accordingly, he's going to sell, and, as he seems convinced that wheat will not go up again, let half the acreage lie fallow this season. The worst of it is, the others will follow him, and he controls Maud Barrington's property as well as his own."

Winston's face was grave. "I heard In Winnipeg that most of the smaller men, who had lost courage, were doing the same thing. That means a very small crop of western hard, and millers paying our own prices. Somebody must stop the Colonel."

"Well," said Macdonald dryly, "I wouldn't like to be the man, and after all, it's only your opinion. As you have seen, the small men here and in Minnesota are afraid to plow."

Winston laughed softly. "The man who makes the dollars is the one who sees farther than the crowd. Any way, I found the views of one or two men who make big deals were much the same as mine, and I'll speak to Miss Barrington."

"Then, if you wait a little, you will have an opportunity. She is here, you see."

Winston looked disconcerted. "She should not have been. Why didn't you send her home? There'll be snow before she reaches Silverdale."

Macdonald laughed. "I hadn't noticed the weather, and, though my wife wished her to stay, there is no use in attempting to persuade Miss Barrington to do anything when she does not want to. In some respects she is very like the Colonel."

The farmer led the way into another room, and Winston flushed a little when the girl returned his greeting in a fashion which he fancied the presence of Mrs. Macdonald alone rendered distantly cordial. Still, a glance through the windows showed him that delay was inadvisable.

"I think you had better stay here all night, Miss Barrington," he said. "There is snow coming."

"I am sorry our views do not coincide," said the girl. "I have several things to attend to at the Grange."

"Then Macdonald will keep your team, and I will drive you home," said Winston. "Mine are the best horses at Silverdale, and I fancy we will need all their strength."

Miss Barrington looked up sharply. There had been a little ring in Winston's voice, but there was also a solicitude in his face which almost astonished her, and when Macdonald urged her to comply she rose leisurely.

"I will be ready in ten minutes," she said.

Winston waited at least twenty, very impatiently, but when at last the girl appeared, handed her with quiet deference into the sleigh, and then took his place, as far as the dimensions of the vehicle permitted, apart from her. Once he fancied she noticed it with faint amusement, but the horses knew what was coming, and it was only when he pulled them up to a trot again on the slope of a rise that he found speech convenient.

"I am glad we are alone, though I feel a little diffidence in asking a favor of you because unfortunately when I venture to recommend anything you usually set yourself against it," he said. "This is, in the language of this country, tolerably straight."

Maud Barrington laughed. "I could find no fault with it on the score of ambiguity."

"Well," said Winston, "I believe your uncle is going to sell wheat for you, and let a good deal of your land go out of cultivation. Now, as you perhaps do not know, the laws which govern the markets are very simple and almost immutable, but the trouble is that a good many people do not understand their application."

"You apparently consider yourself an exception," said the girl.

Winston nodded. "I do just now. Still, I do not wish to talk about myself. You see, the people back there in Europe must be fed, and the latest news from wheat-growing countries does not promise more than an average crop, while half the faint-hearted farmers here are not going to sow much this year. Therefore when the demand comes for Western wheat there will be little to sell."

"But how is it that you alone see this? Isn't it a trifle egotistical?"

Winston laughed. "Can't we leave my virtues, or the reverse, out of the question? I feel that I am right, and want you to dissuade your uncle. It would be even better if, when I return to Winnipeg, you would empower me to buy wheat for you."

Maud Barrington looked at him curiously. "I am a little perplexed as to why you should wish me to."

"No doubt," said Winston. "Still, is there any reason why I should be debarred the usual privilege of taking an interest in my neighbor's affairs?"

"No," said the girl slowly. "But can you not see that it is out of the question that I should intrust you with this commission?"

Winston's hands closed on the reins, and his face grew a trifle grim as he said, "From the point of view you evidently take, I presume it is."

A flush of crimson suffused the girl's cheeks. "I never meant that, and I can scarcely forgive you for fancying I did. Of course I could trust you with--you have made me use the word--the dollars, but you must realize that I could not do anything in public opposition to my uncle's opinion."

Winston was sensible of a great relief, but it did not appear advisable to show it. "There are so many things you apparently find it difficult to forgive me--and we will let this one pass," he said. "Still, I cannot help thinking that Colonel Barrington will have a good deal to answer for."

Maud Barrington made no answer, but she was sensible of a respect which appeared quite unwarranted for the dryly-spoken man, who, though she guessed her words stung him now and then, bore them without wincing. While she sat silent, shivering under her furs, darkness crept down. The smoky cloud dropped lower, the horizon closed in as the gray obscurity rolled up to meet them across a rapidly-narrowing strip of snow. Then she could scarcely see the horses, and the muffled drumming of their hoofs was lost in a doleful wail of wind. It also seemed to her that the cold, which was already almost insupportable, suddenly increased, as it not infrequently does in that country before the snow. Then a white powder was whirled into her face, filling her eyes and searing the skin, while the horses were plunging at a gallop through a filmy haze, and Winston, whitened all over, leaned forward with lowered head hurling hoarse encouragement at them. His voice reached her fitfully through the roar of wind, until sight and hearing were lost alike as the white haze closed about them, and it was not until the wild gust had passed she heard him again. He was apparently shouting, "Come nearer."

Maud Barrington was not sure whether she obeyed him or he seized and drew her towards him. She, however, felt the furs piled high about her neck and that there was an arm round her shoulder, and for a moment was sensible of an almost overwhelming revulsion from the contact. She was proud and very dainty, and fancied she knew what this man had been, while now she was drawn in to his side, and felt her chilled blood respond to the warmth of his body. Indeed she grew suddenly hot to the neck, and felt that henceforward she could never forgive him or herself, but the mood passed almost as swiftly, for again the awful blast shrieked about them and she only remembered her companion's humanity, as the differences of sex and character vanished under that destroying cold. They were no longer man and woman, but only beings of flesh and blood, clinging desperately to the life that was in them, for the first rush of the Western snowstorm has more than a physical effect, and man exposed to its fury loses all but his animal instincts in the primitive struggle with the elements.

Then, while the snow folded them closely in its white embrace during a lull, the girl recovered herself, and her strained voice was faintly audible.

"This is my fault. Why don't you tell me so?" she said.

A hoarse laugh seemed to issue from the whitened object beside her, and she was drawn closer to it again. "We needn't go into that just now. You have one thing to do, and that is to keep warm."

One of the horses stumbled, the grasp that was around her became relaxed and she heard the swish of the whip followed by hoarse expletives, and did not resent it. The man, it seemed, was fighting for her life as well as his own, and even brutal virility was necessary. After that, there was a space of oblivion while the storm raged about them, until, when the wind fell a trifle, it became evident that the horses had left the trail.

"You are off the track, and will never make the Grange unless you find it," she said.

Winston seemed to nod. "We are not going there," he said, and if he added anything, it was lost in the scream of a returning gust.

Again Maud Barrington's reason reasserted itself, and remembering the man's history she became sensible of a curious dismay, but it also passed and left her with the vague realization that he and she were actuated alike only by the desire to escape extinction. Presently she became sensible that the sleigh had stopped beside a formless mound of white and the man was shaking her.

"Hold those furs about you while I lift you down," he said.

She did his bidding, and did not shrink when she felt his arms about her, while next moment she was standing kn

ee-deep in the snow and the man shouting something she did not catch. Team and sleigh seemed to vanish, and she saw her companion dimly for a moment before he was lost in the sliding whiteness, too. Then a horrible fear came upon her.

It seemed a very long while before he reappeared, and thrust her in through what seemed to be a door. Then there was another waiting before the light of a lamp blinked out, and she saw that she was standing in a little log-walled room with bare floor and a few trusses of straw in a comer. There was also a rusty stove, and a very small pile of billets beside it. Winston, who had closed the door, stood looking at them with a curious expression.

"Where is the team?" she gasped.

"Heading for a birch bluff or Silverdale, though I scarcely think they will get there," said the man. "I have never stopped here, and it wasn't astonishing they fancied the place a pile of snow. While I was getting the furs out, they slipped from me."

Miss Barrington now knew where they were. The shanty was used by the remoter settlers as a half-way house where they slept occasionally on their long journey to the railroad, and as there was a birch bluff not far away, it was the rule that whoever occupied it should replace the fuel he had consumed. The last man had, however, not been liberal.

"But what are we to do?" she asked, with a little gasp of dismay.

"Stay here until the morning," said Winston quietly. "Unfortunately, I can't even spare you my company. The stable has fallen in, and it would be death to stand outside, you see. In the meanwhile, pull out some of the straw and put it in the stove."

"Can you not do that?" asked Miss Barrington, feeling that she must commence at once, if she was to keep this man at a befitting distance.

Winston laughed. "Oh, yes, but you will freeze if you stand still, and these billets require splitting. Still, if you have special objections to doing what I ask you, you can walk up and down rapidly."

The girl glanced at him a moment and then lowered her eyes. "Of course I was wrong. Do you wish to hear that I am sorry?"

Winston, answering nothing, swung an ax round his head, and the girl kneeling beside the stove noticed the sinewy suppleness of his frame and the precision with which the heavy blade cleft the billets. The ax, she knew, is by no means an easy tool to handle. At last the red flame crackled, and, though she had not intended the question to be malicious, there was a faint trace of irony in her voice as she asked, "Is there any other thing you wish me to do?"

Winston flung two bundles of straw down beside the stove, and stood looking at her gravely. "Yes," he said. "I want you to sit down and let me wrap this sleigh robe about you."

The girl submitted, and did not shrink visibly from his touch, when he drew the fur robe about her shoulders and packed the end of it round her feet. Still, there was a faint warmth in her face, and she was grateful for his unconcernedness.

"Fate or fortune has placed me in charge of you until to-morrow, and if the position is distasteful to you, it is not my fault," he said. "Still, I feel the responsibility, and it would be a little less difficult if you would accept the fact tacitly."

Maud Barrington would not have shivered if she could have avoided it, but the cold was too great for her, and she did not know whether she was vexed or pleased at the gleam of compassion in the man's gray eyes. It was more eloquent than anything of the kind she had ever seen, but it had gone, and he was only quietly deferent, when she glanced at him again.

"I will endeavor to be good," she said, and then flushed with annoyance at the adjective. Half-dazed by the cold as she was, she could not think of a more suitable one. Winston, however, retained his gravity.

"Now, Macdonald gave you no supper, and he has dinner at noon," he said. "I brought some eatables along, and you must make the best meal you can."

He opened a packet, and laid it with a little silver flask upon her knee.

"I cannot eat all this--and it is raw spirit," said Maud Barrington.

Winston laughed. "Are you not forgetting your promise? Still, we will melt a little snow into the cup." An icy gust swept in when he opened the door, and it was only by a strenuous effort he closed it again, while when he came back panting with the top of the flask a little color crept into Maud Barrington's face. "I am sorry," she said. "That at least is your due."

"I really don't want my due," said Winston, with a deprecatory gesture, as he laid the silver cup upon the stove. "Can't we forget we are not exactly friends, just for to-night? If so, you will drink this and commence at once on the provisions--to please me."

Maud Barrington was glad of the reviving draught, for she was very cold, but presently she held out the packet.

"One really cannot eat many crackers at once, will you help me?"

Winston laughed as he took one of the biscuits. "If I had expected any one would share my meal, I would have provided a better one. Still, I have been glad to feast upon more unappetizing things occasionally."

"When were you unfortunate?" said the girl.

Winston smiled somewhat dryly. "I was unfortunate for six years on end."

He was aware of the blunder when he had spoken, but Maud Barrington appeared to be looking at the flask thoughtfully.

"The design is very pretty," she said. "You got it in England?"

The man knew that it was the name F. Winston his companion's eyes rested on, but his face was expressionless. "Yes," he said. "It is one of the things they make for presentation in the old country."

Maud Barrington noticed the absence of any attempt at explanation, and having considerable pride of her own, was sensible of a faint approval. "You are making slow progress," she said, with a slight but perceptible difference in her tone. "Now, you can have eaten nothing since breakfast."

Winston said nothing, but by and by poured a little of the spirit into a rusty can, and the girl, who understood why he did so, felt that it covered several of his offenses. "Now," she said graciously, "you may smoke if you wish to."

Winston pointed to the few billets left and shook his head. "I'm afraid I must get more wood."

The roar of wind almost drowned his voice, and the birch logs seemed to tremble under the impact of the blast, while Maud Barrington shivered as she asked, "Is it safe?"

"It is necessary," said Winston, with the little laugh she had already found reassuring.

He had gone out in another minute, and the girl felt curiously lonely as she remembered stories of men who had left their homesteads during a blizzard to see to the safety of the horses in a neighboring stable, and were found afterwards as still as the snow that covered them. Maud Barrington was not unduly timorous, but the roar of that awful icy gale would have stricken dismay into the hearts of most men, and she found herself glancing with feverish impatience at a diminutive gold watch and wondering whether the cold had retarded its progress. Ten minutes passed very slowly, lengthened to twenty more slowly still, and then it flashed upon her that there was at least something she could do, and scraping up a little of the snow that sifted in, she melted it in the can. Then she set the flask top upon the stove, and once more listened for the man's footsteps very eagerly.

She did not hear them, but at last the door swung open, and carrying a load of birch branches Winston staggered in. He dropped them, strove to close the door and failed, then leaned against it, gasping, with a livid face, for there are few men who can withstand the cold of a snow-laden gale at forty degrees below.

How Maud Barrington closed the door she did not know, but it was with a little imperious gesture she turned to the man.

"Shake those furs at once," she said, and drawing him towards the stove held up the steaming cup. "Now sit there, and drink it."

Winston stooped and reached out for the can, but the girl swept it off the stove. "Oh, I know the silver was for me," she said. "Still, is this a time for trifles such as that?"

Worn out by a very grim struggle, Winston did as he was bidden, and looked up with a twinkle in his eyes, when with the faintest trace of color in her cheeks the girl sat down close to him and drew part of the fur robe about him.

"I really believe you were a little pleased to see me come back just now," he said.

"Was that quite necessary?" asked Maud Barrington. "Still, I was."

Winston made a little deprecatory gesture. "Of course," he said. "Now, we can resume our former footing to-morrow, but in the meanwhile I would like to know why you are so hard upon me, Miss Barrington, because I really have not done much harm to any one at Silverdale. Your aunt,"--and he made a little respectful inclination of his head which pleased the girl--"is at least giving me a fair trial."

"It is difficult to tell you--but it was your own doing," said Maud Barrington. "At the beginning you prejudiced us when you told us you could only play cards indifferently. It was so unnecessary, and we knew a good deal about you!"

"Well," said Winston quietly, "I have only my word to offer, and I wonder if you will believe me now, but I don't think I ever won five dollars at cards in my life."

Maud Barrington watched him closely, but his tone carried conviction, and again she was glad that he attempted no explanation. "I am quite willing to take it," she said. "Still, you can understand----"

"Yes," said Winston. "It puts a strain upon your faith, but some day I may be able to make a good deal that puzzles you quite clear."

Maud Barrington glanced at the flask. "I wonder if that is connected with the explanation, but I will wait. Now, you have not lighted your cigar."

Winston understood that the topic was dismissed, and sat thoughtfully still while the girl nestled against the birch logs close beside him under the same furs, for the wind went through the building and the cold was unbearable a few feet from the stove. The birch rafters shook above their heads, and every now and then it seemed that a roaring gust would lift the roof from them. Still the stove glowed and snapped, and close in about it there was a drowsy heat, while presently the girl's eyes grew heavy. Finally, for there are few who can resist the desire for sleep in the cold of the Northwest, her head sank back, and Winston, rising very slowly, held his breath as he piled the furs about her. That done, he stooped and looked down upon her while the blood crept to his face. Maud Barrington lay very still, the long dark lashes resting on her cold tinted cheek, and the patrician serenity of her face was even more marked in her sleep. Then he turned away feeling like one who had committed a desecration, knowing that he had looked too long already upon the sleeping girl who believed he had been an outcast and yet had taken his word, for it was borne in upon him that a time would come when he would try her faith even more severely. Moving softly he paced up and down the room.

Winston afterwards wondered how many miles he walked that night, for though the loghouse was not longer than thirty feet, the cold bit deep; but at last he heard a sigh as he glanced towards the stove, and immediately swung round again. When he next turned, Miss Barrington stood upright, a little flushed in face but otherwise very calm, and the man stood still, shivering in spite of his efforts and blue with cold. The wind had fallen, but the sting of the frost that followed it made itself felt beside the stove.

"You had only your deerskin jacket--and you let me sleep under all the furs," she said.

Winston shook his head, and hoped he did not look as guilty as he felt, when he remembered that it must have been evident to his companion that the furs did not get into the position they had occupied themselves.

"I only fancied you were a trifle drowsy and not inclined to talk," he said, with an absence of concern, for which Miss Barrington, who did not believe him, felt grateful. "You see,"--and the inspiration was a trifle too evident--"I was too sleepy to notice anything myself. Still, I am glad you are awake now, because I must make my way to the Grange."

"But the snow will be ever so deep, and I could not come," said Maud Barrington.

Winston shook his head. "I'm afraid you must stay here, but I will be back with Colonel Barrington in a few hours at latest."

The girl deemed it advisable to hide her consternation. "But you might not find the trail," she said. "The ravine would lead you to Graham's homestead."

"Still," said Winston slowly, "I am going to the Grange."

Then Maud Barrington remembered, and glanced aside from him. It was evident this man thought of everything, and she made no answer when Winston, who thrust more billets into the stove, turned to her with a little smile.

"I think we need remember nothing when we meet again, beyond the fact that you will give me a chance of showing that the Lance Courthorne whose fame you know has ceased to exist."

Then he went out, and the girl stood with flushed cheeks looking down at the furs he had left behind him.

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