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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20903

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

There was, considering the latest price of wheat, a somewhat astonishing attendance in the long room of the hotel at the railroad settlement one Saturday evening. A big stove in the midst of it diffused a stuffy and almost unnecessary heat, gaudy nickeled lamps an uncertain brilliancy, and the place was filled with the drifting smoke of indifferent tobacco. Oleographs, barbaric in color and drawing, hung about the roughly-boarded walls, and any critical stranger would have found the saloon comfortless and tawdry.

It was, however, filled that night with bronzed-faced men who expected nothing better. Most of them wore jackets of soft black leather or embroidered deerskin, and the jean trousers and long boots of not a few apparently stood in need of repairing, though the sprinkling of more conventional apparel and paler faces showed that the storekeepers of the settlement had been drawn together, as well as the prairie farmers who had driven in to buy provisions or take up their mail. There was, however, but little laughter, and their voices were low, for boisterousness and assertion are not generally met with on the silent prairie. Indeed, the attitude of some of the men was mildly deprecatory, as though they felt that in assisting in what was going forward they were doing an unusual thing. Still, the eyes of all were turned towards the table where a man, who differed widely in appearance from most of them, dealt out the cards.

He wore city clothes, and a white shirt with a fine diamond in the front of it, while there was a keen intentness behind the half-ironical smile in his somewhat colorless face. The whiteness of his long nervous fingers and the quickness of his gestures would also have stamped his as a being of different order from the slowly-spoken prairie farmers, while the slenderness of the little pile of coins in front of him testified that his endeavors to tempt them to speculation on games of chance had met with no very marked success as yet. Gambling for stakes of moment is not a popular amusement in that country; where the soil demands his best from every man in return; for the scanty dollars it yields him, but the gamester had chosen his time well, and the men who had borne the dreary solitude of winter in outlying farms, and now only saw another adverse season opening before them, were for once in the mood to clutch at any excitement that would relieve the monotony of their toilsome lives.

A few were betting small sums with an apparent lack of interest which did not in the least deceive the dealer, and when he handed a few dollars out he laughed a little as he turned to the barkeeper.

"Set them up again. I want a drink to pass the time," he said. "I'll play you at anything you like to put a name to, boys, if this game don't suit you, but you'll have to give me the chance of making my hotel bill. In my country I've seen folks livelier at a funeral."

The glasses were handed around, but when the gambler reached out towards the silver at his side, a big, bronze-skinned rancher stopped him.

"No," he drawled. "We're not sticking you for a locomotive tank, and this comes out of my treasury. I'll call you three dollars, and take my chances on the draw."

"Well," said the dealer, "that's a little more encouraging. Anybody wanting to make it better?"

A young lad in elaborately-embroidered deerskin with a flushed face leaned upon the table. "Show you how we play cards in the old country," he said. "I'll make it thirty--for a beginning."

There was a momentary silence, for the lad had staked heavily and lost of late, but one or two more bets were made. Then the cards were turned up, and the lad smiled fatuously as he took up his winnings.

"Now I'll let you see," he said. "This time we'll make it fifty."

He won twice more in succession, and the men closed in about the table, while, for the dealer knew when to strike, the glasses went around again, and in the growing interest nobody quite noticed who paid for the refreshment. Then, while the dollars began to trickle in, the lad flung a bill for a hundred down.

"Go on," he said, a trifle huskily. "To-night you can't beat me!"

Once more he won, and just then two men came quietly into the room. One of them signed to the hotel keeper.

"What's going on? The boys seem kind of keen," he said.

The other man laughed a little. "Ferris has struck a streak of luck, but I wouldn't be very sorry if you got him away, Mr. Courthorne. He has had as much as he can carry already, and I don't want anybody broke up in my house. The boys can look out for themselves, but the Silverdale kid has been losing a good deal lately, and he doesn't know when to stop."

Winston glanced at his companion, who nodded. "The young fool!" he said.

They crossed towards the table in time to see the lad take up his winnings again, and Winston laid his hand quietly upon his shoulder.

"Come along and have a drink while you give the rest a show," he said. "You seem to have done tolerably well, and it's usually wise to stop while the chances are going with you."

The lad turned and stared at him with languid insolence in his half-closed eyes, and, though he came of a lineage that had been famous in the old country, there was nothing very prepossessing in his appearance. His mouth was loose, his face weak in spite of its inherited pride, and there was little need to tell either of the men, who noticed his nervous fingers and muddiness of skin, that he was one who in the strenuous early days would have worn the woolly crown.

"Were you addressing me?" he asked.

"I was," said Winston quietly. "I was in fact inviting you to share our refreshment. You see we have just come in."

"Then," said the lad, "it was condemnable impertinence. Since you have taken this fellow up, couldn't you teach him that it's bad taste to thrust his company upon people who don't want it, Dane?"

Winston said nothing, but drew Dane, who flushed a trifle, aside, and when they sat down the latter smiled dryly.

"You have taken on a big contract, Courthorne. How are you going to get the young ass out?" he said.

"Well," said Winston, "it would gratify me to take him by the neck, but as I don't know that it would please the Colonel if I made a public spectacle of one of his retainers, I fancy I'll have to tackle the gambler. I don't know him, but as he comes from across the frontier it's more than likely he has heard of me. There are advantages in having a record like mine, you see."

"It would, of course, be a kindness to the lad's people--but the young fool is scarcely worth it, and it's not your affair," said Dane reflectively.

Winston guessed the drift of the speech, but he could respect a confidence, and laughed a little. "It's not often I have done any one a good turn, and the novelty has its attractions."

Dane did not appear contented with this explanation, but he asked nothing further, and the two sat watching the men about the table, who were evidently growing eager.

"That's two hundred the kid has let go," said somebody.

There was a murmur of excited voices, and one rose hoarse and a trifle shaky in the consonants above the rest.

"Show you how a gentleman can stand up, boys. Throw them out again. Two hundred this time on the game!"

There was silence and the rustle of shuffled cards; then once more the voices went up. "Against him! Better let up before he takes your farm. Oh, let him face it and show his grit--the man who slings around his hundreds can afford to lose!"

The lad's face showed a trifle paler through the drifting smoke, though a good many of the cigars had gone out now, and once more there was the stillness of expectancy through which a strained voice rose.

"Going to get it all back. I'll stake you four hundred!"

Winston rose and moved forward quietly, with Dane behind him, and then stood still where he could see the table. He had also very observant eyes, and was free from the excitement of those who had a risk on the game. Still, when the cards were dealt, it was the gambler's face he watched. For a brief space nobody moved, and then the lad flung down his cards and stood up with a grayness in his cheeks and his hands shaking.

"You've got all my money now," he said. "But I'll play you doubles if you'll take my paper."

The gambler nodded and flung down a big pile of bills. "I guess I'll trust you. Mine are here."

The bystanders waited motionless, and none of them made a bet, for any stakes they could offer would be trifles now; but they glanced at the lad, who stood tensely still, while Winston watched the face of the man at the table in front of him. For a moment he saw a flicker of triumph in his eyes, and that decided him. Again, one by one, the cards went down, and then while everybody waited in strained expectancy the lad seemed to grow limp suddenly and groaned.

"You can let up," he said hoarsely. "I've gone down!"

Then a hard brown hand was laid upon the table, and while the rest stared in astonishment, a voice which had a little stern ring in it said, "Turn the whole pack up, and hand over the other one."

In an instant the gambler's hand swept beneath his jacket, but it was a mistaken move, for as swiftly the other hard brown fingers closed upon the pile of bills, and the men, too astonished to murmur, saw Winston leaning very grim in face across the table. Then it tilted over beneath him and the cards were on the gambler's knees, while, as the two men rose and faced each other, something glinted in the hands of one of them.

It is more than probable that the man did not intend to use it, and trusted to its moral effect, for the display of pistols is not regarded with much toleration on the Canadian prairie. In any case, he had not the opportunity, for in another moment Winston's right hand had closed upon his wrist and the gambler was struggling fruitlessly to extricate it. He was a muscular man, with, doubtless, a sufficiency of nerve, but he had not toiled with his arms and led a Spartan life for eight long years. Before another few seconds had passed he was wondering whether he would ever use that wrist again, while Dane picked up the fallen pistol and put it in his pocket with the bundle of bills Winston handed him.

"Now," said the latter, "I want to do the square thing. If you'll let us strip you and turn out your pockets, we'l

l see you get any winnings you're entitled to when we've straightened up the cards."

The gambler was apparently not willing, for, though it is possible he would have found it advisable to play an honest game across the frontier, he had evidently surmised that there was less risk of detection among the Canadian farmers. He probably knew they would not wait long for his consent, but in the first stages of the altercation it is not as a rule insuperably difficult for a fearless man to hold his own against an indignant company who have no definite notion of what they mean to do, and it was to cover his retreat he turned to Winston.

"And who the ---- are you?" he asked.

Winston smiled grimly. "I guess you have heard of me. Any way, there are a good many places in Montana where they know Lance Courthorne. Quite sure I know a straight game when I see it!"

The man's resistance vanished, but he had evidently been taught the necessity of making the best of defeat in his profession, and he laughed as he swept his glance around at the angry faces turned upon him.

"If you don't there's nobody does," he said. "Still, as you've got my pistol and 'most dislocated my wrist, the least you can do is to get a partner out of this."

There was an ominous murmur, and the lad's face showed livid with fury and humiliation, but Winston turned quietly to the hotel keeper.

"You will take this man with you into your side room and stop with him there," he said. "Dane, give him the bills. The rest of you had better sit down here and make a list of your losses, and you'll get whatever the fellow has upon him divided amongst you. Then, because I ask you, and you'd have had nothing but for me, you'll put him in his wagon and turn him out quietly upon the prairie."

"That's sense, and we don't want no circus here," said somebody.

A few voices were raised in protest, but when it became evident that one or two of the company were inclined to adopt more Draconic measures, Dane spoke quietly and forcibly, and was listened to. Then Winston reached out and grasped the shoulder of the English lad, who made the last attempt to rouse his companions.

"Let them alone, Ferris, and come along. You'll get most of what you lost back to-morrow, and we're going to take you home," he said.

Ferris turned upon him hoarse with passion, flushed in face, and swaying a trifle on his feet, while Winston noticed that he drew one arm back.

"Who are you to lay hands on a gentleman?" he asked. "Keep your distance. I'm going to stay here, and, if I'd had my way, we'd have kicked you out of Silverdale."

Winston dropped his hand, but the next moment the ornament of a distinguished family was seized by the neck, and the farmer glanced at Dane.

"We've had enough of this fooling, and he'll be grateful to me to-morrow," he said.

Then his captive was thrust, resisting strenuously, out of the room, and with Dane's assistance conveyed to the waiting wagon, into which he was flung almost speechless with indignation.

"Now," said Dane quietly, "you've given us a good deal more trouble than you're worth, Ferris, and if you attempt to get out again I'll break your head for you. Tell Courthorne how much that fellow got from you."

In another ten minutes they had jolted across the railroad track and were speeding through the silence of the lonely prairie. Above them the clear stars flung their cold radiance down through vast distances of liquid indigo, and the soft beat of hoofs was the only sound that disturbed the solemn stillness of the wilderness. Dane drew in a great breath of the cool night air, and laughed quietly.

"It's a good deal more wholesome here in several ways," said he. "If you're wise, you'll let up on card playing and hanging around the settlement, Ferris, and stick to farming. Even if you lose almost as many dollars over it, it will pay you considerably better. Now, that's all I'm going to tell you, but I know what I'm speaking of, because I've had my fling--and it's costing me more than I care to figure out still. You, however, can pull up, because by this time you have no doubt found out a good deal, if you're not all a fool. Curiosity's at the bottom of half our youthful follies, isn't it, Courthorne? We want to know what the things forbidden actually taste like."

"Well," said Winston dryly, "I don't quite know. You see, I had very little money in the old country and still less leisure here to spend either on that kind of experimenting. Where to get enough to eat was the one problem that worried me."

Dane turned a trifle sharply. "We are, I fancy, tolerably good friends. Isn't it a little unnecessary for you to adopt that tone with me?"

Winston laughed, but made no answer, and their companion said nothing at all. Either the night wind had a drowsy effect on him, or he was moodily resentful, for it was not until Winston pulled up before the homestead whose lands he farmed indifferently under Barrington's supervision, that he opened his mouth.

"You have got off very cheaply to-night, and if you're wise you'll let that kind of thing alone in future," said Winston quietly.

The lad stepped down from the wagon and then stood still. "I resent advice from you as much as I do your--uncalled for insolence an hour or two ago," he said. "To lie low until honest men got used to him would be considerably more becoming to a man like you."

"Well," said Winston, stung into forgetfulness, "I'm not going to offend in that fashion again, and you can go to the devil in the way that most pleases you. In fact, I only pulled you out of the pit to-night because a lady, who apparently takes a quite unwarranted interest in you, asked me to."

Ferris stared up at him, and his face showed almost livid through the luminous night.

"She asked you to!" he said. "By the Lord, I'll make you sorry for this."

Winston said nothing, but shook the reins, and when the wagon lurched forward Dane looked at him.

"I didn't know that before," he said.

"Well," said Winston dryly, "if I hadn't lost my temper with the lad, you wouldn't have known now."

Dane smiled. "You miss the point of it. Our engaging friend made himself the laughing-stock of the colony by favoring Maud Barrington with his attentions when he came out. In fact, I fancy the lady in desperation had to turn her uncle loose on him before he could be made to understand that they were not appreciated. I'd keep my eye on him, Courthorne, for the little beast has shown himself abominably vindictive occasionally, though I have a notion he's scarcely to be held accountable. It's a case of too pure a strain and consanguinity. Two branches of the family--marriage between land and money, you see."

"It will be my heel if he gets in my way," said Winston grimly.

It was late when they reached his homestead, where Dane was to stay the night, and when they went in a youthful figure in uniform rose up in the big log-walled hall. For a moment Winston's heart almost stood still, and then holding himself in hand by a strenuous effort, he moved forward and stood where the light of a lamp did not shine quite fully upon him. He knew that uniform, and he had also seen the lad who wore it, once or twice before, at an outpost six hundred miles away across the prairie. He knew the risk he took was great, but it was evident to him that if his identity escaped detection at first sight, use would do the rest, and while he had worn a short-pointed beard on the Western prairie, he was cleanly shaven now.

The lad stood quite still a moment staring at him, and Winston returning his gaze steadily felt his pulses throb.

"Well, trooper, what has brought you here?" he said.

"Homestead visitation, sir," said the lad, who had a pleasant English voice. "Mr. Courthorne, I presume--accept my regrets if I stared too hard at you--but for a moment you reminded me of a man I knew. They've changed us round lately, and I'm from the Alberta squadron just sent into this district. It was late when I rode in, and your people were kind enough to put me up."

Winston laughed. "I have been taken for another man before. Would you like anything to drink, or a smoke before you turn in, trooper?"

"No, sir," said the lad. "If you'll sign my docket to show I've been here, I'll get some sleep. I've sixty miles to ride to-morrow."

Winston did as he was asked, and the trooper withdrew, while when they sat down to a last cigar it seemed to Dane that his companion's face was graver than usual.

"Did you notice the lad's astonishment when you came in?" he asked. "He looked very much as if he had seen a ghost."

Winston smiled. "I believe he fancied he had. There was a man in the district he came from, who some folks considered resembled me. In reality, I was by no means like him, and he's dead now."

"Likenesses are curious things, and it's stranger still how folks alter," said Dane. "Now, they've a photograph at Barrington's of you as a boy, and while there is a resemblance in the face, nobody with any discernment would have fancied that lad would grow into a man like you. Still, that's of no great moment, and I want to know just how you spotted the gambler. I had a tolerably expensive tuition in most games of chance in my callow days, and haven't forgotten completely what I was taught then, but though I watched the game, I saw nothing that led me to suspect crooked play."

Winston laughed. "I watched his face, and what I saw there decided me to try a bluff, but it was not until he turned the table over I knew I was right."

"Well," said Dane dryly, "you don't need your nerves toned up. With only a suspicion to go upon, it was a tolerably risky game. Still, of course, you had advantages."

"I have played a more risky one, but I don't know that I have cause to be very grateful for anything I acquired in the past," said Winston with a curious smile.

Dane stood up and flung his cigar away. "It's time I was asleep," he said. "Still, since our talk has turned in this direction, I want to tell you that, as you have doubtless seen, there is something about you that puzzles me occasionally. I don't ask your confidence until you are ready to give it me--but if ever you want anybody to stand behind you in a difficulty, you'll find me rather more than willing."

He went out, and Winston sat still, very grave in face, for at least another hour.

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