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   Chapter 12 SPEED THE PLOW

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 17148

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Winter had fled back beyond the barrens to the lonely North at last, and though here and there a little slushy snow still lay soaking the black loam in a hollow, a warm wind swept the vast levels, when one morning Colonel Barrington rode with his niece and sister across the prairie. Spring comes suddenly in that region, and the frost-bleached sod was steaming under an effulgent sun, while in places a hardy flower peeped through. It was six hundred miles to the forests on the Rockies' eastern slope, and as far to the Athabascan pines, but it seemed to Maud Barrington that their resinous sweetness was in the glorious western wind, which awoke a musical sighing from the sea of rippling grass. It rolled away before her in billows of lustrous silver-gray, and had for sole boundary the first upward spring of the arch of cloudless blue, across which the vanguard of the feathered host pressed on, company by company, towards the Pole.

The freshness of it all stirred her blood like wine, and the brightness that flooded the prairie had crept into her eyes, for those who bear the iron winter of that lonely land realize the wonder of the reawakening, which in a little space of days dresses the waste, that has lain for long months white and silent as the dead, in living green. It also has its subtle significance that the grimmest toiler feels, and the essence of it is hope eternal and triumphant life. The girl felt the thrill of it, and gave thanks by an answering brightness, as the murmuring grasses and peeping flowerets did, but there was behind her instinctive gladness a vague wonder and expectancy. She had read widely, and seen the life of the cities with understanding eyes, and now she was to be provided with the edifying spectacle of the gambler and outcast turned farmer.

Had she been asked a few months earlier whether the man who had, as Courthorne had done, cast away his honor and wallowed in the mire, could come forth again and purge himself from the stain, her answer would have been coldly skeptical, but now with the old familiar miracle and what it symbolized before her eyes, the thing looked less improbable. Why this should give her pleasure she did not know, or would not admit that she did, but the fact remained that it was so.

Trotting down the slope of the next rise, they came upon him, as he stood by a great breaker plow with very little sign of dissolute living upon him. In front of him, the quarter-mile furrow led on beyond the tall sighting poles on the crest of the next rise, and four splendid horses, of a kind not very usual on the prairie, were stamping the steaming clods at his side. Bronzed by frost and sun, with his brick-red neck and arch of chest revealed by the coarse blue shirt that, belted at the waist, enhanced his slenderness, the repentant prodigal was at least a passable specimen of the animal man, but it was the strength and patience in his face that struck the girl, as he turned towards her, bareheaded, with a little smile in his eyes. She also noticed the difference he presented with his ingrained hands and the stain of the soil upon him, to her uncle, who sat his horse, immaculate as usual, with gloved hand on the bridle, for the Englishmen at Silverdale usually hired other men to do their coarser work for them.

"So you are commencing in earnest in face of my opinion?" said Barrington. "Of course, I wish you success, but that consummation appears distinctly doubtful."

Winston laughed as he pointed to a great machine which, hauled by four horses, rolled towards them, scattering the black clods in its wake. "I'm doing what I can to achieve it, sir," he said. "In fact, I'm staking somewhat heavily. That team with the gang plows and cultivators cost me more dollars than I care to remember."

"No doubt," said Barrington dryly. "Still, we have always considered oxen good enough for breaking prairie at Silverdale."

Winston nodded. "I used to do so, sir, when I could get nothing better, but after driving oxen for eight years one finds out their disadvantages."

Barrington's face grew a trifle stern. "There are times when you tax our patience, Lance," he said. "Still, there is nothing to be gained by questioning your assertion. What I fail to see, is where your reward for all this will come from, because I am still convinced that the soil will, so to speak, give you back eighty cents for every dollar you put into it. I would, however, like to look at those implements. I have never seen better ones."

He dismounted and helped his companion down, for Winston made no answer. The farmer was never sure what actuated him, but, save in an occasional fit of irony, he had not attempted by any reference to make his past fall into line with Courthorne's since he had first been accepted as the latter at Silverdale. He had taken the dead man's inheritance for a while, but he would stoop no further, and to speak the truth, which he saw was not credited, brought him a grim amusement and also flung a sop to his pride. Presently, however, Miss Barrington turned to him, and there was a kindly gleam in her eyes as she glanced at the splendid horses and widening strip of plowing.

"You have the hope of youth, Lance, to make this venture when all looks black--and it pleases me," she said. "Sometimes I fancy that men had braver hearts than they have now, when I was young."

Winston flushed a trifle, and stretching out an arm swept his hand round the horizon. "All that looked dead a very little while ago, and now you can see the creeping greenness in the sod," he said. "The lean years cannot last forever, and, even if one is beaten again, there is a consolation in knowing that one has made a struggle. Now, I am quite aware that you are fancying a speech of this kind does not come well from me."

Maud Barrington had seen his gesture, and something in the thought that impelled it, as well as the almost statuesque pose of his thinly-clad figure, appealed to her. Courthorne as farmer, with the damp of clean effort on his forehead and the stain of the good soil that would faithfully repay it on his garments, had very little in common with the profligate and gambler. Vaguely she wondered whether he was not working out his own redemption by every wheat furrow torn from the virgin prairie, and then again the doubt crept in. Could this man have ever found pleasure in the mire?

"You will plow your holding, Lance?" asked the elder lady, who had not answered his last speech yet, but meant to later.

"Yes," said the man. "All I can. It's a big venture, and, if it fails, will cripple me, but I seem to feel, apart from any reason I can discern, that wheat is going up again, and I must go through with this plowing. Of course, it does not sound very sensible."

Miss Barrington looked at him gravely, for there was a curious and steadily-tightening bond between the two. "It depends upon what you mean by sense. Can we reason out all we feel, and is there nothing, intangible but real, behind the impulses which may be sent to us?"

"Well," said Winston, with a little smile, "that is a trifle too deep for me, and it's difficult to think of anything but the work I have to do. But you were the first at Silverdale to hold out a hand to me--and I have a feeling that your good wishes would go a long way now. Is it altogether fantastic to believe that the good-will of my first friend would help to bring me prosperity?"

The white-haired lady's eyes grew momentarily soft, and, with a gravity that did not seem out of place, she moved forward and laid her hand on a big horse's neck, and smiled when the dumb beast responded to her gentle touch.

"It is a good work," she said. "Lance, there is more than dollars, or the bread that somebody is needing, behind what you are doing, and because I loved your mother I know how her approval would have followed you. And now sow in hope, and God speed your plow!"

She turned away almost abruptly, and Winston stood still with one hand closed tightly and a little deeper tint in the bronze of his face, sensible at once of an unchanged resolution and a horrible degradation. Then he saw that the Colonel had helped Miss Barrington into the saddle and her niece was speaking.

"I have something to ask Mr. Courthorne and will overtake you," she said.

The others rode on, and the girl turned to Winston. "I made you a promise and did my best to keep it, but I find it harder than I fancied it would be," she said. "I want you to release me."

"I should like to hear your reaso

ns," said Winston.

The girl made a faint gesture of impatience. "Of course, if you insist."

"I do," said Winston quietly.

"Then I promised you to have my holding sown this year, and I am still willing to do so, but though my uncle makes no protest, I know he feels my opposition very keenly, and it hurts me horribly. Unspoken reproaches are the worst to bear, you know, and now Dane and some of the others are following your lead, it is painful to feel that I am taking part with them against the man who has always been kind to me."

"And you would prefer to be loyal to Colonel Barrington, even if it costs you a good deal?"

"Of course!" said Maud Barrington. "Can you ask me?"

Winston saw the sparkle in her eyes and the half-contemptuous pride in the poise of the shapely head. Loyalty, it was evident, was not a figure of speech with her, but he felt that he had seen enough and turned his face aside.

"I knew it would be difficult when I asked," he said. "Still, I cannot give you back that promise. We are going to see a great change this year, and I have set my heart on making all I can for you."

"But why should you?" asked Maud Barrington, somewhat astonished that she did not feel more angry.

"Well," said Winston gravely, "I may tell you by and by, and in the meanwhile you can set it down to vanity. This may be my last venture at Silverdale, and I want to make it a big success."

The girl glanced at him sharply, and it was because the news caused her an unreasonable concern that there was a trace of irony in her voice.

"Your last venture! Have we been unkind to you, or does it imply that, as you once insinuated, an exemplary life becomes monotonous?"

Winston laughed. "No. I should like to stay here--a very long while," he said, and the girl saw he spoke the truth, as she watched him glance wistfully at the splendid teams, great plows, and rich black soil. "In fact, strange as it may appear, it will be virtue, given the rein for once, that drives me out when I go away."

"But where are you going to?"

Winston glanced vaguely across the prairie, and the girl was puzzled by the look in his eyes. "Back to my own station," he said softly, as though to himself, and then turned with a little shrug of his shoulders. "In the meanwhile there is a good deal to do, and once more I am sorry I cannot release you."

"Then, there is an end of it. You cannot expect me to beg you to, so we will discuss the practical difficulty. I cannot under the circumstances borrow my uncle's teams, and I am told I have not sufficient men or horses to put a large crop in."

"Of course!" said Winston quietly. "Well, I have now the best teams and machines on this part of the prairies, and I am bringing Ontario men in--I will do the plowing--and, if it will make it easier for you, you can pay me for the services."

There was a little flush on the girl's face. "It is all distasteful, but as you will not give me back my word, I will keep it to the letter. Still, it almost makes me reluctant to ask you a further favor."

"This one is promised before you ask it," said Winston quietly.

It cost Maud Barrington some trouble to make her wishes clear, and Winston's smile was not wholly one of pleasure as he listened. One of the young English lads, who was, it appeared, a distant connection of the girl's, had been losing large sums of money at a gaming table, and seeking other equally undesirable relaxations at the railroad settlement. For the sake of his mother in England, Miss Barrington desired him brought to his senses, but was afraid to appeal to the Colonel, whose measures were occasionally more Draconic than wise.

"I will do what I can," said Winston. "Still, I am not sure that a lad of the kind is worth your worrying over, and I am a trifle curious as to what induced you to entrust the mission to me?"

The girl felt embarrassed, but she saw that an answer was expected. "Since you ask, it occurred to me that you could do it better than anybody else," she said.

"Please don't misunderstand me, but I fancy it is the other man who is leading him away."

Winston smiled somewhat grimly. "Your meaning is quite plain, and I am already looking forward to the encounter with my fellow-gambler. You believe that I will prove a match for him."

Maud Barrington, to her annoyance, felt the blood creep to her forehead, but she looked at the man steadily, noticing the quiet forcefulness beneath his somewhat caustic amusement.

"Yes," she said, simply; "and I shall be grateful."

In another few minutes she was galloping across the prairie, and when she rejoined her aunt and Barrington, endeavored to draw out the latter's opinion respecting Courthorne's venture by a few discreet questions.

"Heaven knows where he was taught it, but there is no doubt that the man is an excellent farmer," he said. "It is a pity that he is also to all intents and purposes mad."

Miss Barrington glanced at her niece, and both of them smiled, for the Colonel usually took for granted the insanity of any one who questioned his opinions.

In the meanwhile Winston sat swaying on the driving-seat, mechanically guiding the horses, and noticing how the prairie sod rolled away in black waves beneath the great plow. He heard the crackle of fibers beneath the triple shares, and the swish of greasy loam along the moldboard's side, but his thoughts were far away, and when he raised his head, he looked into the dim future beyond the long furrow that cut the skyline on the rise.

It was shadowy and uncertain, but one thing was clear to him, and that was that he could not stay at Silverdale. At first, he had almost hoped he might do this, for the good land and the means of efficiently working it had been a great temptation. That was before he reckoned on Maud Barrington's attractions, but of late he had seen what these were leading him to, and all that was good in him recoiled from an attempt to win her. Once he had dared to wonder whether it could be done, for his grim life had left him self-centered and bitter, but that mood had passed, and it was with disgust he looked back upon it. Now he knew that the sooner he left Silverdale the less difficult it would be to forget her, but he was still determined to vindicate himself by the work he did, and make her affairs secure. Then, with or without a confession, he would slip back into the obscurity he came from.

While he worked the soft wind rioted about him, and the harbingers of summer passed north in battalions overhead--crane, brant-goose, and mallard, in crescents, skeins, and wedges, after the fashion of their kind. Little long-tailed gophers whisked across the whitened sod, and when the great plow rolled through the shadows of a bluff, jack rabbits, pied white and gray, scurried amidst the rustling leaves. Even the birches were fragrant in that vivifying air, and seemed to rejoice as all animate creatures did, but the man's face grew more somber as the day of toil wore on. Still, he did his work with the grim, unwavering diligence that had already carried him, dismayed but unyielding, through years of drought and harvest hail, and the stars shone down on the prairies when at last he loosed his second team.

Then, standing in the door of his lonely homestead, he glanced at the great shadowy granaries and barns, and clenched his hand as he saw what he could do if the things that had been forced upon him were rightfully his. He knew his own mettle, and that he could hold them if he would, but the pale, cold face of a woman rose up in judgment against him, and he also knew that because of the love of her, that was casting its toils about him, he must give them up.

Far back on the prairie a lonely coyote howled, and a faint wind, that was now like snow-cooled wine, brought the sighing of limitless grasses out of the silence. There was no cloud in the crystalline ether, and something in the vastness and stillness that spoke of infinity, brought a curious sense of peace to him. Impostor though he was, he would leave Silverdale better than he found it, and afterwards it would be of no great moment what became of him. Countless generations of toiling men had borne their petty sorrows before him, and gone back to the dust they sprang from, but still, in due succession, harvest followed seed-time, and the world whirled on. Then, remembering that, in the meanwhile, he had much to do which would commence with the sun on the morrow, he went back into the house and shook the fancies from him.

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