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   Chapter 14 A FAIR ADVOCATE

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16485

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Thanks to the fashion in which the hotel keeper managed the affair, the gambler left the settlement without personal injury, but very little richer than when he entered it. The rest of those who were present at his meeting with Winston were also not desirous that their friends should know that they had been victimized, and because Dane was discreet news of what had happened might never have reached Silverdale had not one of the younger men ridden in to the railroad a few days later. Odd scraps of conversation overheard led him to suspect that something unusual had taken place, but as nobody seemed to be willing to supply details, he returned to Silverdale with his curiosity unsatisfied. As it happened, he was shortly afterwards present at a gathering of his neighbors at Macdonald's farm and came across Ferris there.

"I heard fragments of a curious story at the settlement," he said. "There was trouble of some kind in which a professional gambler figured last Saturday night, and though nobody seemed to want to talk about it, I surmised that somebody from Silverdale was concerned in it."

He had perhaps spoken a trifle more loudly than he had intended, and there were a good many of the Silverdale farmers with a few of their wives and daughters whose attention was not wholly confined to the efforts of Mrs. Macdonald at the piano in the long room just then. In any case a voice broke through the silence that followed the final chords.

"Ferris could tell us if he liked. He was there that night."

Ferris, who had cause for doing so, looked uncomfortable, and endeavored to sign to the first speaker that it was not desirable to pursue the topic.

"I have been in tolerably often of late. Had things to attend to," he said.

The other man was, however, possessed by a mischievous spirit or did not understand him. "You may just as well tell us now as later, because you never kept a secret in your life," he said.

In the meantime, several of the others had gathered about them, and Mrs. Macdonald, who had joined the group, smiled as she said, "There is evidently something interesting going on. Mayn't I know, Gordon?"

"Of course," said the man who had visited the settlement. "You shall know as much as I do, though that is little, and if it excites your curiosity, you can ask Ferris for the rest. He is only anxious to enhance the value of his story by being mysterious. Well, there was a more or less dramatic happening, of the kind our friends in the old country unwarrantably fancy is typical of the West, in the saloon of the settlement not long ago. Cards, pistols, a professional gambler, and the unmasking of foul play, don't you know. Somebody from Silverdale played the leading role."

"How interesting!" said a young English girl. "Now, I used to fancy something of that kind happened here every day before I came out to the prairie. Please tell us, Mr. Ferris! One would like to find there is just a trace of reality in our picturesque fancies of debonair desperadoes and big-hatted cavaliers."

There was a curious expression in Ferris's face, but as he glanced around at the rest, who were regarding him expectantly, he did not observe that Maud Barrington and her aunt had just come in and stood close behind him.

"Can't you see there's no getting out of it, Ferris?" said somebody.

"Well," said the lad in desperation, "I can only admit that Gordon is right. There was foul play and a pistol drawn, but I'm sorry that I can't add anything further. In fact, it wouldn't be quite fair of me."

"But the man from Silverdale?" asked Mrs. Macdonald.

"I'm afraid," said Ferris, with the air of one shielding a friend, "I can't tell you anything about him."

"I know Mr. Courthorne drove in that night," said the young English girl, who was not endued with very much discretion.

"Courthorne," said one of the bystanders, and there was a momentary silence that was very expressive. "Was he concerned in what took place, Ferris?"

"Yes," said the lad with apparent reluctance. "Mrs. Macdonald, you will remember that they dragged it out of me, but I will tell you nothing more whatever."

"It seems to me you have told us quite sufficient and perhaps a trifle too much," said somebody.

There was a curious silence. All of those present were more or less acquainted with Courthorne's past history, and the suggestion of foul play coupled with the mention of a professional gambler had been significant. Ferris, while committing himself in no way, had certainly said sufficient. Then there was a sudden turning of heads as a young woman moved quietly into the midst of the group. She was ominously calm, but she stood very straight, and there was a little hard glitter in her eyes, which reminded one or two of the men who noticed it of those of Colonel Barrington. The fingers of one hand were also closed at her side. "I overheard you telling a story, Ferris, but you have a bad memory and left rather too much out," she said.

"They compelled me to tell them what I did, Miss Barrington," said the lad, who winced beneath her gaze. "Now there is really nothing to be gained by going any further into the affair. Shall I play something for you, Mrs. Macdonald?"

He turned as he spoke and would have edged away, but that one of the men at a glance from the girl laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Don't be in a hurry, Ferris. I fancy Miss Barrington has something more to tell you," he said dryly.

The girl thanked him with a gesture. "I want you to supply the most important part," she said, and the lad, saying nothing, changed color under the glance she cast upon him. "You do not seem willing. Then perhaps I had better do it for you. There were two men from Silverdale directly concerned in the affair, and one of them at no slight risk to himself did a very generous thing. That one was Mr. Courthorne. Did you see him lay a single stake upon a card, or do anything that led you to suppose he was there for the purpose of gambling that evening?"

"No," said the lad, seeing she knew the truth, and his hoarse voice was scarcely audible.

"Then," said Maud Barrington, "I want you to tell us what you did see him do."

Ferris said nothing, and though the girl laughed a little as she glanced at the wondering group, her voice was icily disdainful.

"Well," she said, "I will tell you. You saw him question a professional gambler's play to save a man who had no claim on him from ruin, and, with only one comrade to back him, drive the swindler, who had a pistol, from the field. He had, you admit, no interest of any kind in the game."

Ferris had grown crimson again, and the veins on his forehead showed swollen high. "No," he said almost abjectly.

Maud Barrington turned from him to her hostess as she answered, "That will suffice, in the meanwhile, until I can decide whether it is desirable to make known the rest of the tale. I brought the new song Evelyn wanted, Mrs. Macdonald, and I will play it for her, if she would care to try it."

She moved away with the elder lady, and left the rest astonished to wonder what had become of Ferris, who was seen no more that evening, while presently Winston came in.

His face was a trifle weary, for he had toiled since the sun rose above the rim of the prairie and when the arduous day was over and those who worked for him were glad to rest their aching limbs, had driven two leagues to Macdonald's. Why he had done so, he was not willing to admit, but he glanced around the long room anxiously as he came in, and his eyes brightened as they rested on Maud Barrington. They were, however, observant eyes, and he noticed that there was a trifle more color than usual in the girl's pale-tinted face, and signs of suppressed curiosity about some of the rest. When he had greeted his hostess he turned to one of the men.

"It seems to me you are either trying not to see something, Gordon, or to forget it as soon as you can," he said.

Gordon laughed at little. "You are not often mistaken, Courthorne. That is precisely what we are doing. I presume you haven't heard what occurred here an hour ago?"

"No!" said Winston. "I'm not very curious if it does not concern me."

Gordon looke

d at him steadily. "I fancy it does. You see that young fool Ferris was suggesting that you had been mixed up in something not very creditable at the settlement lately. As it happened, Maud Barrington overheard him and made him retract before the company. She did it effectively, and if it had been any one else, the scene would have been almost theatrical. Still, you know nothing seems out of place when it comes from the Colonel's niece. Nor if you had heard her would you have wanted a better advocate."

For a moment the bronze deepened in Winston's forehead, and there was a gleam in his eyes, but though it passed as rapidly as it came, Gordon had seen it and smiled when the farmer moved away.

"That's a probability I never counted on," he thought, "Still, I fancy if it came about, it would suit everybody but the Colonel."

Then he turned as Mrs. Macdonald came up to him. "What are you doing here alone when I see there is nobody talking to the girl from Winnipeg?"

The man laughed a little. "I was wondering whether it is a good sign or otherwise when a young woman is, so far as she can decently be, uncivil to a man who desires her good-will."

Mrs. Macdonald glanced at him sharply, and then shook her head. "The question is too deep for you--and it is not your affair. Besides, haven't you seen that indiscreet freedom of speech is not encouraged at Silverdale?"

In the meanwhile Winston, crossing the room, took a vacant place at Maud Barrington's side. She turned her head a moment and looked at him.

Winston nodded. "Yes, I heard," he said. "Why did you do it?"

Maud Barrington made a little gesture of impatience. "That is quite unnecessary. You know I sent you."

"Yes," said Winston, a trifle dryly, "I see. You would have felt mean if you hadn't defended me?"

"No," said the girl, with a curious smile. "That was not exactly the reason, but we cannot talk too long here. Dane is anxious to take us home in his new buggy, but it would apparently be a very tight fit for three. Will you drive me over?"

Winston only nodded, for Mrs. Macdonald approached in pursuit of him, but he spent the rest of the evening in a state of expectancy, and Maud Barrington fancied that his hard hands were suspiciously unresponsive as she took them when he helped her into the Silverdale wagon--a vehicle a strong man could have lifted, and in no way resembling its English prototype. The team was mettlesome, the lights of Macdonald's homestead soon faded behind them, and they were racing with many a lurch and jolt straight as the crow flies across the prairie.

There was no moon, but the stars shone far up in the soft indigo, and the grasses whirled back in endless ripples to the humming wheels, dimmed to the dusky blue that suffused the whole intermerging sweep of earth and sky. The sweetness of wild peppermint rose through the coolness of the dew, and the voices of the wilderness were part of the silence that was but the perfect balance of the nocturnal harmonies. The two who knew and loved the prairie could pick out each one of them. Nor did it seem that there was any need of speech on such a night, but at last Winston turned with a little smile to his companion, as he checked the horses on the slope of a billowy rise.

"One feels diffident about intruding on this great quietness," he said. "Still, I fancy you had a purpose in asking me to drive you home."

"Yes," said the girl, with a curious gentleness. "In the first place, though I know it isn't necessary with you, I want to thank you. I made Dane tell me, and you have done all I wished--splendidly."

Winston laughed. "Well, you see, it naturally came easy to me."

Maud Barrington noticed the trace of grimness in his voice. "Please try to overlook our unkindness," she said. "Is it really needful to keep reminding me? And how was I to know what you were, when I had only heard that wicked story?"

Winston felt a little thrill run through him, for which reason he looked straight in front of him and shifted his grasp on the reins. Disdainful and imperious as she was at times, he knew there was a wealth of softer qualities in his companion now. Her daintiness in thought and person, and honesty of purpose, appealed to him, while that night her mere physical presence had an effect that was almost bewildering. For a moment he wondered vaguely how far a man might dare to go, with what fate had thrust upon him, and then with a little shiver saw once more the barrier of deceit and imposture.

"You believe it was not a true one?" he asked.

"Of course," said Maud Barrington. "How could it be? And you have been very patient under our suspicions. Now, if you still value the good-will you once asked for, it is yours absolutely."

"But you may still hear unpleasant stories about me," said Winston, with a note the girl had not heard before in his voice.

"I should not believe them," she said.

"Still," persisted Winston, "if the tales were true?"

Maud Barrington did nothing by halves. "Then I should remember that there is always so much we do not know which would put a different color on any story, and I believe they could never be true again."

Winston checked a little gasp of wonder and delight, and Maud Barrington looked away across the prairie. She was not usually impulsive and seldom lightly bestowed gifts that were worth the having, and the man knew that the faith in him she had confessed to was the result of a conviction that would last until he himself shattered it. Then, in the midst of his elation, he shivered again and drew the lash across the near horse's back. The wonder and delight he felt had suddenly gone.

"Few would venture to predict as much. Now and then I feel that our deeds are scarcely contrived by our own will, and one could fancy our parts had been thrust upon us in a grim joke," he said. "For instance, isn't it strange that I should have a share in the rousing of Silverdale to a sense of its responsibilities? Lord, what I could make of it, if fate had but given me a fair opportunity!"

He spoke almost fiercely, but the words did not displease the girl. The forceful ring in his voice set something thrilling within her, and she knew by this time that his assertions seldom went beyond the fact.

"But you will have the opportunity, and we need you here," she said.

"No," said Winston slowly. "I am afraid not. Still, I will finish the work I see in front of me. That at least--one cannot hope for the unattainable."

Maud Barrington was sensible of a sudden chill. "Still, if one has strength and patience, is anything quite unattainable?"

Winston looked out across the prairie, and for a moment the demons of pride and ambition rioted within him. He knew there were in him the qualities that compel success, and the temptation to stretch out a daring hand and take all he longed for grew almost overmastering. Still, he also knew how strong the innate prejudices of caste and tradition are in most women of his companion's station, and she had never hidden one aspect or her character from him. It was with a smothered groan he realized that if he flung the last shred of honor aside and grasped the forbidden fruit it would turn to bitterness in his mouth.

"Yes," he said very slowly. "There is a limit which only fools would pass."

Then there was silence for a while, until, as they swept across the rise, Maud Barrington laughed as she pointed to the lights that blinked in the hollow, and Winston realized that the barrier between them stood firm again.

"Our views seldom coincide for very long, but there is something else to mention before we reach the Grange," she said. "You must have paid out a good many dollars for the plowing of your land and mine, and nobody's exchequer is inexhaustible at Silverdale. Now I want you to take a check from me."

"It is necessary that I should?"

"Of course," said the girl, with a trace of displeasure.

Winston laughed. "Then I shall be prepared to hand you my account whenever you demand it."

He did not look at his companion again, but with a tighter grip than there was any need for on the reins, sent the light wagon jolting down the slope to Silverdale Grange.

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