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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 21573

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Dane overtook the wagon close by the birch bluff at Silverdale Grange. It was late then, but there were lights in the windows that blinked beyond the trees, and, when the wagon stopped, Barrington stood in the entrance with one or two of his hired men. Accidents are not infrequent on the prairie, where surgical assistance is not always available, and there was a shutter ready on the ground beside him, for the Colonel had seen the field hospital in operation.

"Unhook the tailboard," he said sharply. "Two of you pick up the shutter. Four more here. Now, arms about his shoulders, hips, and knees. Lift and lower--step off with right foot, leading bearer, with your left in the rear!"

It was done in a few moments, and when the bearers passed into the big hall that rang with their shuffling steps, Maud Barrington shivered as she waited with her aunt in an inner room. That trampling was horribly suggestive, and she had seen but little of sickness and grievous wounds. Still, the fact scarcely accounted for the painful throbbing of her heart, and the dizziness that came upon her. Then the bearers came in, panting, with Barrington and Dane behind them, and the girl was grateful to her aunt, who laid a hand upon her arm when she saw the singed head, and blackened face that was smeared with a ruddier tint, upon the shutter. "Lower!" said Colonel Barrington. "Lift, as I told you," and the huddled object was laid upon the bed. Then there was silence until the impassive voice rose again.

"We shall not want you, Maud. Dane, you and I will get these burnt things off him."

The girl went out, and while she stood, feeling curiously chilly in an adjoining room, Barrington bent over his patient.

"Well put together!" he said thoughtfully. "Most of his people were lighter in the frame. Well, we can only oil the burns, and get a cold compress about his head. All intact, so far as I can see, and I fancy he'd pull through a good deal more than has happened to him. I am obliged for your assistance, but I need not keep you."

The men withdrew, and when a rattle of wheels rose from the prairie, Maud Barrington waylaid her uncle in the hall. Her fingers were trembling, and, though her voice was steady, the man glanced at her curiously as she asked, "How is he?"

"One can scarcely form an opinion yet," he said slowly. "He is burned here and there, and his head is badly cut, but it is the concussion that troubles me. A frantic horse kicks tolerably hard you know, but I shall be able to tell you more when the doctor comes to-morrow. In the meanwhile you had better rest, though you could look in and see if your aunt wants anything in an hour or two."

Maud Barrington passed an hour in horrible impatience, and then stole quietly into the sick-room. The windows were open wide, and the shaded lamp burned unsteadily as the cool night breeze flowed in. Its dim light just touched the man who lay motionless with a bandage round his head, and the drawn pallor of his face once more sent a shiver through the girl. Then Miss Barrington rose and lifted a warning hand.

"Quite unconscious still," she said softly. "I fancy he was knocked down by one of the horses and trampled on, but your uncle has hopes of him. He has evidently led a healthy life."

The girl was a little less serene than usual then, and drew back into the shadow.

"Yes," she said. "We did not think so once."

Miss Barrington smiled curiously. "Are you very much astonished, Maud? Still, there is nothing you can do for me, and we shall want you to-morrow."

Realizing that there was no need for her, the girl went out, and when the door closed behind her the little white-haired lady bent down and gazed at her patient long and steadily. Then she shook her head, and moved back to the seat she had risen from with perplexity in her face.

In the meanwhile, Maud Barrington sat by the open window in her room staring out into the night. There was a whispering in the birch bluff, and the murmuring of leagues of grasses rose from the prairie that stretched away beyond it. Still, though the wind fanned her throbbing forehead with a pleasant coolness, the nocturnal harmonies awoke no response in her. Sleep was out of the question, for her brain was in a whirl of vague sensations, through which fear came uppermost every now and then. Why anything which could befall this man who had come out of the obscurity, and was, he had told her, to go back into it again, should disturb her, Maud Barrington did not know; but there was no disguising the fact that she would feel his loss grievously, as others at Silverdale would do. Then with a little tremor she wondered whether they must lose him, and rising stood tensely still, listening for any sound from the room where the sick man lay.

There was nothing but the sighing of the grasses outside and the murmur of the birches in the bluff, until the doleful howl of a coyote stole faintly out of the night. Again the beast sent its cry out upon the wind, and the girl trembled as she listened. The unearthly wail seemed charged with augury, and every nerve in her thrilled.

Then she sank down into her chair again, and sat still, hoping, listening, fearing, and wondering when the day would come, until at last her eyes grew heavy, and it was with a start she roused herself when a rattle of wheels came up out of the prairie in the early morning. Then a spume-flecked team swept up to the house, a door swung open, there was a murmur of voices and a sound of feet that moved softly in the hall, after which, for what seemed an interminable time, silence reigned again. At last, when the stealthy patter of feet recommenced, the girl slipped down the stairway and came upon Barrington. Still, she could not ask the question that was trembling on her lips.

"Is there anything I can do?" she said.

Barrington shook his head. "Not now! The doctor is here, and does not seem very anxious about him. The concussion is not apparently serious, and his other injuries will not trouble him much."

Maud Barrington said nothing and turned away, sensible of a great relief, while her aunt entering her room an hour later found her lying fast asleep, but still dressed as she had last seen her. Then, being a discerning woman, she went out softly with a curious smile, and did not at any time mention what she had seen.

It was that evening, and Barrington had departed suddenly on business to Winnipeg, when Dane rode up to the Grange. He asked for Miss Barrington and her niece, and when he heard that his comrade was recovering sensibility, sat down looking very grave.

"I have something to tell you, but Courthorne must not know until he is better, while I'm not sure that we need tell him then," he said. "In the meanwhile, I am also inclined to fancy it would be better kept from Colonel Barrington on his return. It is the first time anything of the kind has happened at Silverdale, and it would hurt him horribly, which decided us to come first to you."

"You must be more concise," said Miss Barrington; quietly, and Dane trifled with the hat in his hand.

"It is," he said, "a most unpleasant thing, and is known to three men only, of whom I am one. We have also arranged that nobody else will chance upon what we have discovered. You see, Ferris is unfortunately connected with you, and his people have had trouble enough already."

"Ferris?" said Maud Barrington, with a sudden hardening of her face. "You surely don't mean----"

Dane nodded. "Yes," he said reluctantly. "I'm afraid I do. Now, if you will listen to me for a minute or two."

He told his story with a grim, convincing quietness, and the blood crept into the girl's cheeks as she followed his discoveries step by step. Glancing at her aunt, she saw that there was horror as well as belief in the gentle lady's face.

"Then," she said, with cold incisiveness, "Ferris cannot stay here, and he shall be punished."

"No," said Dane. "We have no room for a lad of his disposition at Silverdale--but I'm very uncertain in regard to the rest. You see, it couldn't be done without attracting attention--and I have the honor of knowing his mother. You will remember how she lost another son. That is why I did not tell Colonel Barrington. He is a trifle--precipitate--occasionally."

Miss Barrington glanced at him gratefully. "You have done wisely," she said. "Ethel Ferris has borne enough, and she has never been the same since the horrible night they brought Frank home, for she knew how he came by his death, though the coroner brought it in misadventure. I also fancy my brother would be implacable in a case like this, though how far I am warranted in keeping the facts from him I do not know."

Dane nodded gravely. "We leave that to you. You will, however, remember what happened once before. We cannot go through what we did then again."

Miss Barrington recalled the formal court-martial that had once been held in the hall of the Grange, when every man in the settlement had been summoned to attend, for there were offenses in regard to which her brother was inflexible. When it was over and the disgraced man went forth an outcast, a full account of the proceedings had been forwarded to those at home who had hoped for much from him.

"No," she said. "For the sake of the woman who sent him here we must stop short of that."

Then Maud Barrington looked at them both. "There is one person you do not seem to consider at all, and that is the man who lies here in peril through Ferris's fault," she said. "Is there nothing due to him?"

Dane noticed the sternness in her eyes, and glanced as if for support towards Miss Barrington. "I fancy he would be the last to claim it if he knew what we do. Still, in the meanwhile, I leave the affair to your aunt and you. We would like to have your views before doing anything further."

He rose as he spoke, and when he had gone out, Maud Barrington sat down at a writing-table. "Aunt," she said quietly, "I will ask Ferris to come here at once."

It was next day when Ferris came, evidently ill at ease, though he greeted Miss Barrington with elaborate courtesy, and would have done the same with her niece, but the girl turned from him with visible disdain.

"Sit down," she said coldly. "Colonel Barrington is away, but his sister will take his place, and after him I have the largest stake in the welfare of Silverdale. Now, a story has come to our ears which if it had not been substantiated would have appeared incredible. Shall Miss Barrington tell it you?"

Ferris, who was a very young man, flushed, but the color faded and left his cheeks a trifle gray. He was not a very prepossessing lad, for it requires a better physique than he was endowed with

to bear the stamp of viciousness that is usually most noticeable on the feeble, but he was distinguished by a trace of arrogance that not infrequently served him as well as resolution.

"If it would not inconvenience Miss Barrington, it would help me to understand a good deal I can find no meaning for now," he said.

The elder lady's face grew sterner, and very quietly but remorselessly she set forth his offense, until no one who heard the tale could have doubted the origin of the fire.

"I should have been better pleased, had you, if only when you saw we knew everything, appeared willing to confess your fault and make amends," she said.

Ferris laughed as ironically as he dared under the eyes which had lost their gentleness. "You will pardon me for telling you that I have no intention of admitting it now. That you should be so readily prejudiced against me is not gratifying, but, you see, nobody could take any steps without positive proof of the story, and my word is at least as credible as that of the interloper who told it you."

Maud Barrington raised her head suddenly, and looked at him with a curious light in her eyes, but the elder lady made a little gesture of deprecation.

"Mr. Courthorne has told us nothing," she said. "Still, three gentlemen whose worth is known at Silverdale are willing to certify every point of it. If we lay the affair before Colonel Barrington, you will have an opportunity of standing face to face with them."

The lad's assurance, which, so far and no further, did duty for courage, deserted him. He was evidently not prepared to be made the subject of another court-martial, and the hand he laid on the table in front of him trembled a little.

"Madam," he said hoarsely, "if I admit everything what will you do?"

"Nothing," said Maud Barrington coldly. "On condition that within a month you leave Silverdale."

Ferris stared at her. "You can't mean that. You see, I'm fond of farming, and nobody would give me what the place cost me. I couldn't live among the outside settler fellows."

The girl smiled coldly. "I mean exactly what you heard, and, if you do not enlighten them, the settlers would probably not object to you. Your farm will be taken over at what you gave for it."

Ferris stood up. "I am going to make a last appeal. Silverdale's the only place fit for a gentleman to live in in Canada, and I want to stay here. You don't know what it would cost me to go away, and I'd do anything for reparation--send a big check to a Winnipeg hospital and starve myself to make up for it if that would content you. Only, don't send me away."

His tone grew almost abject as he proceeded, and while Miss Barrington's eyes softened, her niece's heart grew harder because of it, as she remembered that he had brought a strong man down.

"No," she said dryly. "That would punish your mother and sisters from whom you would cajole the money. You can decide between leaving Silverdale, and having the story, and the proof of it, put into the hands of Colonel Barrington."

She sat near an open window regarding him with quiet scorn, and the light that shone upon her struck a sparkle from her hair and set the rounded cheek and neck gleaming like ivory. The severity of her pose became her, and the lad's callow desire that had driven him to his ruin stirred him to impotent rage in his desperation. There were gray patches in his cheeks, and his voice was strained and hoarse.

"You have no mercy on me because I struck at him," he said. "The one thing I shall always be sorry for is that I failed, and I would go away with pleasure if the horse had trampled the life out of him. Well, there was a time when you could have made what you wished of me, and now, at least, I shall not see the blackleg you have showered your favors on drag you down to the mire he came from."

Maud Barrington's face had grown very colorless, but she said nothing, and her aunt rose and raised the hammer of a gong.

"Ferris," she said. "Do you wish to be led out by the hired men?"

The lad laughed, and the hideous merriment set the white-haired lady's nerves on edge. "Oh, I am going now, but, for once, let us be honest. It was for her I did it, and if it had been any other man I had injured, she would have forgiven me."

Then with an ironical farewell he swung out of the room, and the two women exchanged glances when the door closed noisily behind him. Miss Barrington was flushed with anger, but her niece's face was paler than usual.

"Are there men like him?" she said.

Miss Barrington shook off her anger, and rising, laid a gentle hand on her niece's shoulder. "Very few, I hope," she said. "Still, it would be better if we sent word to Dane. You would not care for that tale to spread?"

For a moment the girl's cheeks flamed, then she rose quietly and crossed the room.

"No," she said, and her aunt stood still, apparently lost in contemplation, after the door swung softly to. Then she sat down at the writing table. There was very little in the note, but an hour after Dane received it that night, a wagon drew up outside Ferris's farm. Two men went quietly in and found the owner of the homestead sitting with a sheaf of papers scattered about the table in front of him.

"Come back to-morrow. I can't be worried now," he said. "Well, why the devil don't you go?"

Dane laid a hand on his shoulder. "We are waiting for you. You are coming with us!"

Ferris turned, and stared at them. "Where to?"

"To the railroad," Dane said dryly. "After that you can go just where it pleases you. Now, there's no use, whatever, making a fuss, and every care will be taken of your property until you can arrange to dispose of it. Hadn't you better get ready?"

The grim quietness of the voice was sufficient, and Ferris, who saw that force would be used if it was necessary, decided that it was scarcely likely his hired men would support him.

"I might have expected it!" he said. "Of course, it was imprudent to speak the truth to our leader's niece. You know what I have done?"

"I know what you did the night Courthorne nearly lost his life," said Dane. "One would have fancied that would have contented you."

"Well," said Ferris, "if you would like to hear of a more serious offense, I'll oblige you."

Dane's finger closed on his arm. "If you attempt to tell me, I'll break your head for you."

Next moment Ferris was lifted from his chair, and in less than ten minutes Dane thrust him into the wagon, where another man, who passed a hand through his arm, sat beside him. It was a very long drive to the railroad, but few words were exchanged during it, and when they reached the settlement one of Ferris's companions mounted guard outside the hotel he found accommodation in, until the Montreal express crawled up above the rim of the prairie. Then both went with him to the station, and as the long cars rolled in Dane turned quietly to the lad.

"Now, I am quite aware that we are incurring some responsibility, so you need not waste your breath," he said. "There are, however, lawyers in Winnipeg, if you fancy it is advisable to make use of them, and you know where I and Macdonald are, if you want us. In the meanwhile, your farm will be run better than ever if was in your hands, until you dispose of it. That is all I have to tell you, except that if any undesirable version of the affair gets about, Courthorne or I will assuredly find you."

Then there was a scream of the whistle, and the train rolled away with Ferris standing white with fury on the platform of a car.

In the meanwhile Maud Barrington spent a sleepless night. Ferris's taunt had reached its mark, and she realized with confusion that it was the truth he spoke. The fact that brought the blood to her cheeks would no longer be hidden, and she knew it was a longing to punish the lad who had struck down the man she loved that had led to her insistence on the former leaving Silverdale. It was a difficult admission, but she made it that night. The outcast who had stepped out of the obscurity, and into her peaceful life, had shown himself a man that any woman might be proud to mate with, and, though he had said very little, and now and then his words were bitter, she knew that he loved her. Whatever he had done, and she felt against all the teachings of her reason that it had not been evil, he had shown himself the equal of the best at Silverdale, and she laughed as she wondered which of the men there she could set in the balance against him. Then she shivered a little, remembering that there was a barrier whose extent he alone realized between them, and wondered vaguely what the future would bring.

It was a week or two before Winston was on his feet again, and Maud Barrington was one of the first to greet him when he walked feebly into the hall. She had, however, decided on the line of conduct that would be most fitting, and there was no hint of more than neighborly kindliness in her tone. They had spoken about various trifles when Winston turned to her.

"You and Miss Barrington have taken such good care of me that if I consulted my inclinations I would linger in convalescence a long while," he said. "Still, I must make an effort to get away to-morrow."

"We cannot take the responsibility of letting you go under a week yet," said Maud Barrington. "Have you anything especially important to do?"

"Yes," said Winston, and the girl understood the grimness of his face. "I have."

"It concerns the fire?"

Winston looked at her curiously. "I would sooner you did not ask me that question, Miss Barrington."

"I scarcely fancy it is necessary," said the girl, with a little smile. "Still, I have something to tell you, and a favor to ask. Ferris has left Silverdale, and you must never make any attempt to discover what caused the fire."

"You know?"

"Yes," said Maud Barrington. "Dane, Macdonald, and Hassal know, too, but you will not ask them, and if you did they would not tell you."

"I can refuse you nothing," said Winston with a laugh, though his voice betrayed him. "Still, I want a _quid pro quo_. Wait until Ferris's farm is in the sale list and then take it with the growing crop."

"I could not. There are reasons," said the girl.

Winston gazed at her steadily, and a little color crept to his forehead, but he answered unconcernedly, "They can be over-ridden. It may be the last favor I shall ever ask of you."

"No," said Maud Barrington. "Anything else you wish, but not that. You must believe, without wondering why, that it is out of the question!"

Winston yielded with a curious little smile. "Well," he said, "we will let it drop. I ask no questions. You have accepted so much already without understanding it."

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