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   Chapter 15 THE UNEXPECTED

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 21485

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The sun beat down on the prairie, which was already losing its flush of green, but it was cool where Maud Barrington and her aunt stood in the shadow of the bluff by Silverdale Grange. The birches, tasseled now with whispering foliage, divided the homestead front the waste which would lie white and desolate under the parching heat, and that afternoon it seemed to the girl that the wall of green shut out more than the driving dust and sun-glare from the Grange, for where the trees were thinner she could see moving specks of men and horses athwart the skyline.

They had toiled in the sun-baked furrow since the first flush of crimson streaked the prairie's rim, and the chill of dusk would fall upon the grasses before their work was done. Those men who bore the burden and heat of the day were, the girl knew, helots now, but there was in them the silent vigor and something of the somberness of the land of rock and forest they came from, and a time would come when others would work for them. Winning slowly, holding grimly, they were moving on, while secure in its patrician tranquillity; Silverdale stood still, and Maud Barrington smiled curiously as she glanced down at the long white robe that clung very daintily about her and then towards her companions in the tennis field. Her apparel had cost many dollars in Montreal, and there was a joyous irresponsibility in the faces of those she watched.

"It is a little unequal, isn't it, aunt?" she said. "One feels inclined to wonder what we have done that we should have exemption from the charge laid upon the first tiller of the soil that we, and the men who are plodding through the dust there, are descended from."

Miss Barrington laughed a little as she glanced with a nod of comprehension at the distant toilers, and more gravely towards the net. Merry voices came up to her through the shadows of the trees as English lad and English maiden, lissom and picturesque in many-hued jackets and light dresses, flitted across the little square of velvet green. The men had followed the harrow and seeder a while that morning. Some of them, indeed, had for a few hours driven a team, and then left the rest to the hired hands, for the stress and sweat of effort that was to turn the wilderness into a granary was not for such as they.

"Don't you think it is all made up to those others?" she asked.

"In one sense--yes," said the girl. "Of course, one can see that all effort must have its idealistic aspect, and there may be men who find their compensation in the thrill of the fight, and the knowledge of work well done when they rest at night. Still, I fancy most of them only toil to eat, and their views are not revealed to us. We are, you see, women--and we live at Silverdale."

Her aunt smiled again. "How long is it since the plow crossed the Red River, and what is Manitoba now? How did those mile furrows come there, and who drove the road that takes the wheat out through the granite of the Superior shore? It was more than their appetites that impelled those men, my dear. Still, it is scarcely wise to expect too much when one meets them, for though one could feel it is presumptuous to forgive its deficiencies, the Berserk type of manhood is not conspicuous for its refinement."

For no apparent reason Maud Barrington evaded her aunt's gaze. "You," she said dryly, "have forgiven one of that type a good deal already, but, at least, we have never seen him when the fit was upon him."

Miss Barrington laughed. "Still, I have no doubt that, sooner or later, you will enjoy the spectacle."

Just then, a light wagon came up behind them, and when one of the hired men helped them in they swept out of the cool shade into the dust and glare of the prairie, and when some little time later, with the thud of hoofs and rattle of wheels softened by the bleaching sod, they rolled down a rise, there was spread out before them evidence of man's activity.

Acre by acre, gleaming chocolate brown against the gray and green of the prairie, the wheat loam rolled away, back to the ridge, over it, and on again. It was such a breadth of sowing as had but once, when wheat was dear, been seen at Silverdale, but still across the foreground, advancing in echelon, came lines of dusty teams, and there was a meaning in the furrows they left behind them, for they were not plowing where the wheat had been. Each wave of lustrous clods that rolled from the gleaming shares was so much rent from the virgin prairie, and a promise of what would come when man had fulfilled his mission and the wilderness would blossom. There was a wealth of food stored, little by little during ages past counting, in every yard of the crackling sod to await the time when the toiler with the sweat of the primeval curse upon his forehead should unseal it with the plow. It was also borne in upon Maud Barrington that the man who directed those energies was either altogether without discernment, or one who saw further than his fellows and had an excellent courage, when he flung his substance into the furrows while wheat was going down. Then as the hired man pulled up the wagon she saw him.

A great plow with triple shares had stopped at the end of the furrow, and the leading horses were apparently at variance with the man who, while he gave of his own strength to the uttermost, was asking too much from them. Young and indifferently broken, tortured by swarming insects, and galled by the strain of the collar, they had laid back their ears, and the wickedness of the bronco strain shone in their eyes. One rose almost upright amid a clatter of harness, its mate squealed savagely, and the man who loosed one hand from the head-stall flung out an arm. Then he and the pair whirled round together amid the trampled clods in a blurred medley of spume-flecked bodies, soil-stained jean, flung-up hoofs, and an arm that swung and smote again. Miss Barrington grew a trifle pale as she watched, but a little glow crept into her niece's eyes.

The struggle, however, ended suddenly, and hailing a man who plodded behind another team, Winston picked up his broad hat, which was trampled into shapelessness, and turned towards the wagon. There was dust and spume upon him, a rent in the blue shirt, and the knuckles of one hand dripped red, but he laughed as he said, "I did not know we had an audience, but this, you see, is necessary."

"Is it?" asked Miss Barrington, who glanced at the plowing. "When wheat is going down?"

Winston nodded. "Yes," he said. "I mean, to me; and the price of wheat is only one part of the question."

Miss Barrington stretched out her hand, though her niece said nothing at all. "Of course, but I want you to help us down. Maud has an account you have not sent in to ask you for."

Winston first turned to the two men who now stood by the idle machine. "You'll have to drive those beasts of mine as best you can, Tom, and Jake will take your team. Get them off again now. This piece of breaking has to be put through before we loose again."

Then he handed his visitors down, and Maud Barrington fancied as he walked with them to the house that the fashion in which the damaged hat hung down over his eyes would have rendered most other men ludicrous. He left them a space in his bare sitting-room, which suggested only grim utility, and Miss Barrington smiled when her niece glanced at her.

"And this is how Lance, the profligate, lives!" said she.

Maud Barrington shook her head. "No," she said. "Can you believe that this man was ever a prodigal?"

Her aunt was a trifle less astonished than she would once have been, but before she could answer Winston, who had made a trifling change in his clothing, came in.

"I can give you some green tea, though I am afraid it might be a good deal better than it is, and our crockery is not all you have been used to," he said. "You see, we have only time to think of one thing until the sowing is through."

Miss Barrington's eyes twinkled. "And then?"

"Then," said Winston, with a little laugh, "there will be prairie hay to cut, and after that the harvest coming on."

"In the meanwhile, it was business that brought me here, and I have a check with me," said Maud Barrington. "Please let us get it over first of all."

Winston sat down at a table and scribbled on a strip of paper. "That," he said gravely, "is what you owe me for the plowing."

There was a little flush in his face as he took the check the girl filled in, and both felt somewhat grateful for the entrance of a man in blue jean with the tea. It was of very indifferent quality, and he had sprinkled a good deal on the tray, but Winston felt a curious thrill as he watched the girl pour it out at the head of the bare table. Her white dress gleamed in the light of a dusty window, and the shadowy cedar boarding behind her forced up each line of the shapely figure. Again the maddening temptation took hold of him, and he wondered whether he had betrayed too much when he felt the elder lady's eyes upon him. There was a tremor in his brown fingers as he took the cup held out to him, but his voice was steady.

"You can scarcely fancy how pleasant this is," he said. "For eight years, in fact ever since I left England, no woman has ever done any of these graceful little offices for me."

Miss Barrington glanced at her niece, and both of them knew that, if the lawyer had traced Courthorne's past correctly, this could not be true. Still, there was no disbelief in the elder lady's eyes, and the girl's faith remained unshaken.

"Eight years," she said, with a little smile, "is a very long while."

"Yes," said Winston, "horribly long, and one year at Silverdale is worth them all--that is, a year like this one, which is going to be remembered by all who have sown wheat on the prairie, and that leads up to something. When I have plowed all my own holding, I shall not be content, and I want to make another bargain. Give me the use of your unbroken land, and I will find horses, seed, and men, while we will share what it yields us when the harvest is in."

The girl was astonished. This, she knew, was splendid audacity, for the man had already staked very heavily on the crop he had sown, and while the daring of it stirred her she sat silent a moment.

"I could lose nothing, but you will have to bring out a host of men, and have risked so much," she said. "Nobody but you and me and three or four others in all the province is plowing more than half his holdings."

The suggestion of comradeship set Winston's blood tingling, but it was with a little laugh he turned over the pile of papers on the table, and then took them up in turn.

"'Very little plowing has bee

n done in the tracts of Minnesota previously alluded to. Farmers find wheat cannot be grown at present prices, and there is apparently no prospect of a rise,'" he read. "'The Dakota wheat-growers are mostly fallowing. They can't quite figure how they would get eighty cents for the dollar's worth of seeding this year. Milling very quiet in Winnipeg. No inquiries from Europe coming in, and Manitoba dealers, generally, find little demand for harrows or seeders this year. Reports from Assiniboia seem to show that the one hope this season will be mixed farming and the neglect of cereals.'"

"There is only one inference," he said. "When the demand comes, there will be nothing to meet it with."

"When it comes," said Maud Barrington quietly. "But you who believe it will stand alone."

"Almost," said Winston. "Still, there are a few much cleverer men who feel as I do. I can't give you all my reasons, or read you the sheaf of papers from the Pacific slope, London, New York, Australia, but while men lose hope, and little by little the stocks run down, the world must be fed. Just as sure as the harvest follows the sowing, it will wake up suddenly to the fact that it is hungry. They are buying cotton and scattering their money in other nation's bonds in the old country now, for they and the rest of Europe forget their necessities at times, but is it impossible to picture them finding their granaries empty and clamoring for bread?"

It was a crucial test of faith, and the man knew it, as the woman did. He stood alone, with the opinions of the multitude against him, but there was, Maud Barrington felt, a great if undefinable difference between his quiet resolution and the gambler's recklessness. Once more the boldness of his venture stirred her, and this time there was a little flash in her eyes as she bore witness to her perfect confidence.

"You shall have the land, every acre of it, to do what you like with, and I will ask no questions whether you win or lose," she said.

Then Miss Barrington glanced at him in turn. "Lance, I have a thousand dollars I want you to turn into wheat for me."

Winston's fingers trembled, and a darker hue crept into his tan. "Madam," he said, "I can take no money from you."

"You must," said the little, white-haired lady. "For your mother's sake, Lance. It is a brave thing you are doing, and you are the son of one who was my dearest friend."

Winston turned his head away, and both women wondered when he looked round again. His face seemed a trifle drawn, and his voice was strained.

"I hope," he said slowly, "it will in some degree make amends for others I have done. In the meanwhile, there are reasons why your confidence humiliates me."

Miss Barrington rose and her niece after her. "Still, I believe it is warranted, and you will remember there are two women who have trusted you, hoping for your success. And now, I fancy we have kept you too long."

Winston stood holding the door open a moment, with his head bent, and then suddenly straightened himself.

"I can at least be honest with you in this venture," he said with a curious quietness.

Nothing further was said, but when his guests drove away Winston sat still a while and then went back very grim in face to his plowing. He had passed other unpleasant moments of that kind since he came to Silverdale, and long afterwards the memory of them brought a flush to his face. The excuses he had made seemed worthless when he strove to view what he had done, and was doing, through those women's eyes.

It was dusk when he returned to the homestead, worn, out in body but more tranquil in mind, and stopped a moment in the doorway to look back on the darkening sweep of the plowing. He felt with no misgivings that his time of triumph would come, and in the meanwhile the handling of this great farm with all the aids that money could buy him was a keen joy to him; but each time he met Maud Barrington's eyes he realized the more surely that the hour of his success must also see accomplished an act of abnegation, which he wondered with a growing fear whether he could find the strength for. Then as he went in a man who cooked for his hired assistants came to meet him.

"There's a stranger inside waiting for you," he said. "Wouldn't tell me what he wanted, but sat right down as if the place was his, and helped himself without asking to your cigars. Wanted something to drink, too, and smiled at me kind of wicked when I brought him the cider."

The room was almost dark when Winston entered it, and stood still a moment staring at a man who sat, cigar in hand, quietly watching him. His appearance was curiously familiar, but Winston could not see his face until he moved forward another step or two. Then he stopped once more, and the two saying nothing looked at one another. It was Winston who spoke first, and his voice was very even.

"What do you want here?" he asked.

The other man laughed. "Isn't that a curious question when the place is mine? You don't seem overjoyed to see me come to life again."

Winston sat down and slowly lighted a cigar. "We need not go into that. I asked you what you want."

"Well," said Courthorne dryly, "it is not a great ideal. Only the means to live in a manner more befitting a gentleman than I have been able to do lately."

"You have not been prospering?" and Winston favored his companion with a slow scrutiny.

"No," and Courthorne laughed again. "You see, I could pick up a tolerable living as Lance Courthorne, but there is very little to be made at my business when you commence in new fields as an unknown man."

"Well," said Winston coldly, "I don't know that it wouldn't be better to face my trial than stay here at your mercy. So far as my inclinations go, I would sooner fight than have any further dealings with a man like you."

Courthorne shook his head. "I fixed up the thing too well, and you would be convicted. Still, we'll not go into that, and you will not find me unreasonable. A life at Silverdale would not suit me, and you know by this time that it would be difficult to sell the place, while I don't know where I could find a tenant who would farm it better than you. That being so, it wouldn't be good policy to bleed you too severely. Still, I want a thousand dollars in the meanwhile. It's mine, you see."

Winston sat still a minute. He was sensible of a fierce distrust and hatred of the man before him, but he felt he must at least see the consummation of his sowing.

"Then you shall have it on condition that you go away, and stay away, until harvest is over. After that, I will send for you and shall have more to tell you. If in the meantime you come back here, or hint that I am Winston, I will surrender to the police, or decide our differences in another fashion."

Courthorne nodded. "That is direct," he said. "One knows where he is when he deals with a man who talks as you do. Now, are you not curious as to the way I cheated both the river and the police?"

"No," said Winston grimly, "not in the least. We will talk business together when it is necessary, but I can only decline to discuss anything else with you."

Courthorne laughed. "There's nothing to be gained by pretending to misunderstand you, but it wouldn't pay me to be resentful when I'm graciously willing to let you work for me. Still, I have been inclined to wonder how you were getting on with my estimable relatives and connections. One of them has, I hear, unbent a trifle towards you, but I would like to warn you not to presume on any small courtesy shown you by the younger Miss Barrington."

Winston stood up and set his back to the door. "You heard my terms, but if you mention that lady again in connection with me, it would suit me equally well to make good all I owe you very differently."

Courthorne did not appear in any way disconcerted, but, before he could answer, a man outside opened the door.

"Here's Sergeant Stimson and one of his troopers wanting you," he said.

Winston looked at Courthorne, but the latter smiled. "The visit has nothing to do with me. It is probably accidental, but I fancy Stimson knows me, and it wouldn't be advisable for him to see us both together. Now, I wonder whether you could make it fifteen hundred dollars."

"No," said Winston. "Stay if it pleases you."

Courthorne shook his head. "I don't know that it would. You don't do it badly, Winston."

He went out by another door, almost as the grizzled sergeant came in and stood still, looking at the master of the homestead.

"I haven't seen you since I came here, Mr. Courthorne, and now you remind me of another man I once had dealings with," he said.

Winston laughed a little. "I scarcely fancy that is very civil, Sergeant."

"Well," said the prairie-rider, "there is a difference, when I look at you more closely. Let me see, I met you once or twice back there in Alberta?"

He appeared to be reflecting, but Winston was on his guard. "More frequently, I fancy, but you had nothing definite against me, and the times have changed. I would like to point that out to you civilly. Your chiefs are also on good terms with us at Silverdale, you see."

The sergeant laughed. "Well, sir, I meant no offense, and called round to requisition a horse. One of the Whitesod boys has been deciding a quarrel with a neighbor with an ax, and while I fancy they want me at once, my beast got his foot in a badger-hole."

"Tell Tom in the stables to let you have your choice," said Winston. "If you like them, there's no reason you shouldn't take some of these cigars along."

The sergeant went out, and when the beat of hoofs sank into the silence of the prairie, Winston called Courthorne in. "I have offered you no refreshment, but the best in the house is at your service," he said.

Courthorne looked at him curiously, and for the first time Winston noticed that the life he had led was telling upon his companion.

"As your guest?" he asked.

"Yes," said Winston. "I am tenant here, and, that I may owe you nothing, purpose paying you a second thousand dollars when the crop is in, as well as bank-rate interest on the value of the stock and machines and the money I have used, as shown in the documents handed me by Colonel Barrington. With wheat at its present price nobody would give you more for the land. In return, I demand the unconditional use of the farm until within three months from harvest. I have the elevator warrants for whatever wheat I raise, which will belong to me. If you do not agree, or remain here after sunrise to-morrow, I shall ride over to the outpost and make a declaration."

"Well," said Courthorne slowly, "you can consider it a deal."

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