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   Chapter 16 FACING THE FLAME

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 23565

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Courthorne rode away next morning, and some weeks had passed when Maud Barrington came upon Winston sitting beside his mower in a sloo. He did not at first see her, for the rattle of the machines in a neighboring hollow drowned the muffled beat of hoofs, and the girl, reining her horse in, looked down on him. The man was sitting very still, which was unusual for him, hammer in his hand, gazing straight before him, as though he could see something beyond the shimmering heat that danced along the rim of the prairie.

Summer had come, and the grass, which grew scarcely ankle-deep on the great levels, was once more white and dry, but in the hollows that had held the melting snow it stood waist-high, scented with peppermint, harsh and wiry, and Winston had set out with every man he had to harvest it. Already a line of loaded wagons crawled slowly across the prairie, and men and horses moved half-seen amid the dust that whirled about another sloo. Out of it came the trampling of hoofs and the musical tinkle of steel.

Suddenly Winston looked up, and the care which was stamped upon it fled from his face when he saw the girl. The dust that lay thick upon his garments had spared her, and as she sat, patting the restless horse, with a little smile on her face which showed beneath the big white hat, something in her dainty freshness reacted upon the tired man's fancy. He had long borne the stress and the burden, and as he watched her a longing came upon him, as it had too often for his tranquillity since he had been at Silverdale, to taste, for a short space of time at least, a life of leisure and refinement. This woman who had been born to it could, it seemed to him, lift the man she trusted beyond the sordid cares of the turmoil to her own high level, and as he waited for her to speak, a fit of passion shook him. It betrayed itself only by the sudden hardening of his face.

"It is the first time I have surprised you idle. You were dreaming," she said.

Winston smiled a trifle mirthlessly. "I was, but I am afraid the fulfillment of the dreams is not for me. One is apt to be pulled up suddenly when he ventures overfar."

"We are inquisitive, you know," said Maud Barrington; "can't you tell me what they were?"

Winston did not know what impulse swayed him, and afterwards blamed himself for complying, but the girl's interest compelled him, and he showed her a little of what was in his heart.

"I fancied I saw Silverdale gorging the elevators with the choicest wheat," he said. "A new bridge flung level across the ravine where the wagons go down half-loaded to the creek; a dam turning the hollow into a lake, and big turbines driving our own flouring mill. Then there were herds of cattle fattening on the strippings of the grain that wasteful people burn, our products clamored for, east in the old country and west in British Columbia--and for a back-ground, prosperity and power, even if it was paid for with half the traditions of Silverdale. Still, you see it may all be due to the effect of the fierce sunshine on an idle man's fancy."

Maud Barrington regarded him steadily, and the smile died out of her eyes. "But," she said slowly, "is all that quite beyond realization. Could you not bring it about?"

Winston saw her quiet confidence and something of her pride. There was no avarice in this woman, but the slight dilation of the nostrils and the glow in her eyes told of ambition, and for a moment his soul was not his own.

"I could," he said, and Maud Barrington, who watched the swift straightening of his shoulders and lifting of his head, felt that he spoke no more than the truth. Then with a sudden access of bitterness, "But I never will."

"Why?" she asked, "Have you grown tired of Silverdale, or has what you pictured no charm for you?"

Winston leaned, as it were wearily, against the wheel of the mower. "I wonder if you could understand what my life has been. The crushing poverty that rendered every effort useless from the beginning, the wounds that come from using imperfect tools, and the numb hopelessness that follows repeated failure. They are tolerably hard to bear alone, but it is more difficult to make the best of them when the poorly-fed body is as worn out as the mind. To stay here would be--paradise--but a glimpse of it will probably have to suffice. Its gates are well guarded, and without are the dogs, you know."

Something in Maud Barrington thrilled in answer to the faint hoarseness in Winston's voice, and she did not resent it. She was a woman with all her sex's instinctive response to passion and emotion, though as yet the primitive impulses that stir the hearts of men had been covered if not wholly hidden from her by the thin veneer of civilization. Now, at least, she felt in touch with them, and for a moment she looked at the man with a daring that matched his own shining in her eyes.

"And you fear the angel with the sword?" she said. "There is nothing so terrible at Silverdale."

"No," said Winston. "I think it is the load I have to carry I fear the most."

For the moment Maud Barrington had flung off the bonds of conventionality. "Lance," she said, "you have proved your right to stay at Silverdale, and would not what you are doing now cover a great deal in the past?"

Winston smiled wryly. "It is the present that is difficult," he said. "Can a man be pardoned and retain the offense?"

He saw the faint bewilderment in the girl's face give place to the resentment of frankness unreturned and with a little shake of his shoulders shrank into himself. Maud Barrington, who understood it, once more put on the becoming reticence of Silverdale.

"We are getting beyond our depth, and it is very hot," she said. "You have all this hay to cut!"

Winston laughed as he bent over the mower's knife. "Yes," he said, "It is really more in my line, and I have kept you in the sun too long."

In another few moments Maud Barrington was riding across the prairie, but when the rattle of the machine rose from the sloo behind her, she laughed curiously.

"The man knew his place, but you came perilously near making a fool of yourself this morning, my dear," she said.

It was a week or two later, and very hot, when, with others of his neighbors, Winston sat in the big hall at Silverdale Grange. The windows were open wide and the smell of hot dust came in from the white waste which rolled away beneath the stars. There was also another odor in the little puffs of wind that flickered in, and far off where the arch of indigo dropped to the dusky earth, wavy lines of crimson moved along the horizon. It was then the season when fires that are lighted by means which no man knows creep up and down the waste of grass, until they put on speed and roll in a surf of flame before a sudden breeze. Still, nobody was anxious about them, for the guarding furrows that would oppose a space of dusty soil to the march of the flame had been plowed round every homestead at Silverdale.

Maud Barrington was at the piano and her voice was good, while Winston, who had known what it is to toil from red dawn to sunset without hope of more than daily food, found the simple song she had chosen chime with his mood. "All day long the reapers."

A faint staccato drumming that rose from the silent prairie throbbed through the final chords of it, and when the music ceased, swelled into the gallop of a horse. It seemed in some curious fashion portentous, and when there was a rattle and jingle outside other eyes than Winston's were turned towards the door. It swung open presently and Dane came in. There was quiet elation and some diffidence in his bronzed face as he turned to Colonel Barrington.

"I could not get away earlier from the settlement, sir, but I have great news," he said. "They have awoke to the fact that stocks are getting low in the old country. Wheat moved up at Winnipeg, and there was almost a rush to buy yesterday."

There was a sudden silence, for among those present were men who remembered the acres of good soil they had not plowed, but a little grim smile crept into their leader's face.

"It is," he said quietly, "too late for most of us. Still, we will not grudge you your good fortune, Dane. You and a few of the others owe it to Courthorne."

Every eye was on the speaker, for it had become known among his neighbors that he had sold for a fall; but Barrington could lose gracefully. Then both his niece and Dane looked at Winston with a question in their eyes.

"Yes," he said very quietly, "it is the turning of the tide."

He crossed over to Barrington, who smiled at him dryly as he said, "It is a trifle soon to admit that I was wrong."

Winston made a gesture of almost impatient deprecation. "I was wondering how far I might presume, sir. You have forward wheat to deliver?"

"I have," said Barrington, "unfortunately a good deal. You believe the advance will continue?"

"Yes," said Winston simply. "It is but the beginning, and there will be a reflux before the stream sets in. Wait a little, sir, and then telegraph your broker to cover all your contracts when the price drops again."

"I fancy it would be wiser to cut my losses now," said Barrington dryly.

Then Winston did a somewhat daring thing, for he raised his voice a trifle, in a fashion that seemed to invite the attention of the rest of the company.

"The more certain the advance seems to be, the fiercer will be the bears' last attack," he said. "They have to get from under, and will take heavy chances to force prices back. As yet they may contrive to check or turn the stream, and then every wise man who has sold down will try to cover, but no one can tell how far it may carry us, once it sets strongly in!"

The men understood, as did Colonel Barrington, that they were being warned, as it were, above their leader's head, and his niece, while resenting the slight, admitted the courage of the man. Barrington's face was sardonic, and a less resolute man would have winced under the implication as he said:

"This is, no doubt, intuition. I fancy you told us you had no dealings on the markets at Winnipeg."

Winston looked steadily at the speaker, and the girl noticed with a curious approval that he smiled.

"Perhaps it is, but I believe events will prove me right. In any case, what I had the honor of telling you and Miss Barrington was the fact," he said.

Nobody spoke, and the girl was wondering by what means the strain could be relieved, which, though few heard what Barrington said, all seemed to feel, when out of the darkness came a second beat of hoofs, and by and by a man swaying on the driving-seat of a jolting wagon swept into the light from the windows. Then, there were voices outside, and a breathless lad came in.

"A big grass fire coming right down on Courthorne's farm!" he said. "It was tolerably close when I got away."

In an instant there was commotion, and every man in Silverdale Grange was on his feet. For the most part, they took life lightly, and looked upon their farming as an attempt to combine the making of dollars with gentlemanly relaxation; but there were no laggards among them when there was perilous work to be done, and they went out to meet the fire joyously. Inside five minutes scarcely a horse remained in the stables, and the men were flying at a gallop across the dusky prairie laughing at the risk of a stumble in a deadly badger-hole. Yet, in the haste of saddling, they found time to arrange a twenty-dollar sweepstake and the allowance for weight.

Up the long rise, and down the back of it, they swept, stirrup by stirrup and neck by neck, while the roar of the hoofs reft the silence of the prairie like the roll of musketry. Behind ca

me the wagons, lurching up the slope, and the blood surged to the brave young faces as the night wind smote them and fanned into brightness the crimson smear on the horizon. They were English lads of the stock that had furnished their nation's fighting line, and not infrequently counted no sacrifice too great that brought their colors home first on the racing turf. Still, careless to the verge of irresponsibility as they were in most affairs that did not touch their pride, the man who rode with red spurs and Dane next behind him, a clear length before the first of them, asked no better allies in what was to be done.

Then the line drew out as the pace began to tell, though the rearmost rode grimly, knowing the risks the leaders ran, and that the chance of being first to meet the fire might yet fall to them. There was not one among them who would not have killed his best horse for that honor, and for further incentive the Colonel's niece, in streaming habit, flitted in front of them. She had come up from behind them, and passed them on a rise, for Barrington disdained to breed horses for dollars alone, and there was blood well known on the English turf in the beast she rode.

By and by, a straggling birch bluff rose blackly across their way, but nobody swung wide. Swaying low while the branches smote them, they went through, the twigs crackling under foot, and here and there the red drops trickling down a flushed, scarred face, for the slanting rent of a birch bough cuts like a knife. Dim trees whirled by them, undergrowth went down, and they, were out on the dusty grass again, while, like field guns wanted at the front, the bouncing wagons went through behind. Then the fire rose higher in front of them, and when they topped the last rise the pace grew faster still. The slope they thundered down was undermined by gophers and seamed by badger-holes, but they took their chances gleefully, sparing no effort of hand and heel, for the sum of twenty dollars and the credit of being first man in. Then the smoke rolled up to them, and when eager hands drew bridle at last, a youthful voice rose breathlessly out of it:

"Stapleton a good first, but he'll go back on weight. It used to be black and orange when he was at home."

There was a ripple of hoarse laughter, a gasping cheer, and then silence, for now their play was over, and it was with the grim quietness, which is not unusual with their kind, the men of Silverdale turned towards the fire. It rolled towards the homestead, a waving crimson wall, not fast, but with remorseless persistency, out of the dusky prairie, and already the horses were plunging in the smoke of it. That, however, did not greatly concern the men, for the bare fire furrows stretched between themselves and it; but there was also another blaze inside the defenses, and, unless it was checked, nothing could save house and barns and granaries, rows of costly binders, and stock of prairie hay. They looked for a leader, and found one ready, for Winston's voice came up through the crackle of the fire:

"Some of you lead the saddle-horses back to the willows and picket them. The rest to the stables and bring out the working beasts. The plows are by the corral, and the first team that comes up is to be harnessed to each in turn. Then start in, and turn over a full-depth furrow a furlong from the fire."

There was no confusion, and already the hired men were busy with two great machines until Winston displaced two of them.

"How that fire passed the guards I don't know, but there will be time to find out later," he said to Dane. "Follow with the big breaker--it wants a strong man to keep that share in--as close as you can."

Then they were off, a man at the heads of the leading horses harnessed to the great machines, and Winston sitting very intent in the driving-seat of one, while the tough sod crackled under the rending shares. Both the man and the reins were needed when the smoke rolled down on them, but it was for a moment torn aside again, and there roared up towards the blurred arch of indigo a great rush of flame. The heat of it smote into prickliness the uncovered skin, and in spite of all that Winston could do, the beasts recoiled upon the machine behind them. Then they swung round wrenching the shares from the triplex furrow, and for a few wild minutes man and terrified beast fought for the mastery. Breathless half-strangled objurgations, the clatter of trace and swivel, and the thud of hoofs, rose muffled through the roar of the fire, for, while swaying, plunging, panting, they fought with fist and hoof, it was rolling on, and now the heat was almost insupportable. The victory, however, was to the men, and when the great machine went on again, Maud Barrington, who had watched the struggle with the wife of one of her neighbors, stood wide-eyed, half-afraid and yet thrilled in every fiber.

"It was splendid," she said. "They can't be beaten."

Her companion seemed to shiver a little. "Yes," she said, "perhaps it was, but I wish it was over. It would appeal to you differently, my dear, if you had a husband at one of those horses' heads."

For a moment Maud Barrington wondered whether it would, and then, when a red flame flickered out towards the team, felt a little chill of dread. In another second the smoke whirled about them, and she moved backward choking with her companion. The teams, however, went on, and came out, frantic with fear, on the farther side. The men who led them afterwards wondered how they kept their grip on the horses' heads. Then it was that while the machines swung round and other men ran to help, Winston, springing from the driving-seat, found Dane amid the swaying, plunging medley of beasts and men.

"If you can't find hook or clevis, cut the trace," he said. "It can't burn the plow, and the devils are out of hand now. The fire will jump these furrows, and we've got to try again."

In another minute four maddened beasts were careering across the prairie with portions of their trappings banging about them, while one man who was badly kicked sat down gray in face and gasping, and the fire rolled up to the ridge of loam, checked, and then sprang across it here and there.

"I'll take one of those lad's places," said Dane. "That fellow can't hold the breaker straight, Courthorne."

It was a minute or two later when he flung a breathless lad away from his plow, and the latter turned upon him hoarse with indignation.

"I raced Stapleton for it. Loose your hold, confound you. It's mine," he said.

Dane turned and laughed at him as he signed to one of the Ontario hired men to take the near horse's head.

"You're a plucky lad, and you've done what you could," he said. "Still, if you get in the way of a grown man now, I'll break your head for you."

He was off in another moment, crossed Winston, who had found fresh beasts, in his furrow, and had turned and doubled it before the fire that had passed the other barrier came close upon them. Once more the smoke grew blinding, and one of Dane's beasts went down.

"I'm out of action now," he said. "Try back. That team will never face it, Courthorne."

Winston's face showed very grim under the tossing flame. "They've got to. I'm going through," he said. "If the others are to stop it behind there, they must have time."

Then he and the husband of the woman who had spoken to Maud Barrington passed on with the frantic team into the smoke that was streaked with flame.

"Good Lord!" said Dane, and added more as sitting on the horse's head he turned his tingling face from the fire.

It was some minutes before he and the hired man who came up loosed the fallen horse, and led it and its fellow back towards the last defenses the rest had been raising, while the first furrows checked but did not stay the conflagration. There he presently came upon the man who had been with Winston.

"I don't know where Courthorne is," he said. "The beasts bolted with us just after we'd gone through the worst of it, and I fancy they took the plow along. Any way, I didn't see what became of them, and don't fancy anybody would have worried much about them after being trampled on by a horse in the lumbar region."

Dane saw that the man was limping and white in face, and asked no more questions. It was evident to him that Courthorne would be where he was most needed, and he did what he could with those who were adding furrow to furrow across the path of the fire. It rolled up to them roaring, stopped, flung a shower of burning filaments before it, sank and swept aloft again, while the sparks rained down upon the grass before the draught it made.

Blackened men with smoldering clothes were, however, ready, and they fought each incipient blaze with soaked grain bags, and shovels, some of them also, careless of blistered arms, with their own wet jackets. As fast as each fire was trampled out another sprang into life, but the parent blaze that fed them sank and died, and at last there was a hoarse cheer. They had won, and the fire they had beaten passed on divided across the prairie, leaving the homestead unscathed between.

Then they turned to look for their leader, and did not find him until a lad came up to Dane.

"Courthorne's back by the second furrows, and I fancy he's badly hurt," he said. "He didn't appear to know me, and his head seems all kicked in."

It was not apparent how the news went round, but in a few more minutes Dane was kneeling beside a limp, blackened object stretched amid the grass, and while his comrades clustered behind her, Maud Barrington bent over him. Her voice was breathless as she asked, "You don't believe him dead?"

Somebody had brought a lantern, and Dane felt inclined to gasp when he saw the girl's white face, but what she felt was not his business then.

"He's of a kind that is very hard to kill. Hold that lantern so I can see him," he said.

The rest waited silent, glad that there was somebody to take a lead, and in a few moments Dane looked round again.

"Ride in to the settlement, Stapleton, and bring that Doctor fellow out if you bring him by the neck. Stop just a moment. You don't know where you're to bring him to."

"Here, of course," said the lad, breaking into a run.

"Wait," and Dane's voice stopped him. "Now, I don't fancy that would do. It seems to me that this is a case in which a woman to look after him would be necessary."

Then, before any of the married men or their wives who had followed them could make an offer, Maud Barrington touched his shoulder.

"He is coming to the Grange," she said.

Dane nodded, signed to Stapleton, then spoke quickly to the men about him and turned to Maud Barrington.

"Ride on at a gallop and get everything ready. I'll see he comes to no harm," he said.

The girl felt curiously grateful as she rode out with her companion, and Dane, who laid Winston carefully in a wagon, drew two of the other men aside when it rolled away towards the Grange.

"There is something to be looked into. Did you notice anything unusual about the affair?" he said.

"Since you asked me, I did," said one of the men. "I, however, scarcely cared to mention it until I had time for reflection, but while I fancy the regulation guards would have checked the fire on the boundaries without our help, I don't quite see how one started in the hollow inside them."

"Exactly," said Dane, very dryly. "Well, we have got to discover it, and the more quickly we do it the better. I fancy, however, that the question who started it is what we have to consider."

The men looked at one another, and the third of them nodded.

"I fancy it comes to that--though it is horribly unpleasant to admit it," he said.

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