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   Chapter 19 UNDER TEST

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19334

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The prairie lay dim and shadowy in the creeping dusk when Winston sat on a redwood stringer near the head of his partly-finished bridge. There was no sound from the hollow behind him but the faint gurgle of the creek, and the almost imperceptible vibration of countless minute wings. The birches which climbed the slope to it wound away sinuously, a black wall on either hand, and the prairie lying gray and still stretched back into the silence in front of him. Here and there a smoldering fire showed dully red on the brink of the ravine, but the tired men who had lighted them were already wrapped in heavy slumber.

The prairie hay was gathered, harvest had not come, and for the last few weeks Winston, with his hired men from the bush of Ontario, had toiled at the bridge with a tireless persistency which had somewhat astonished the gentlemen farmers of Silverdale. They, however, rode over every now and then, and most cheerfully rendered what assistance they could, until it was time to return for tennis or a shooting sweepstake, and Winston thanked them gravely, even when he and his Ontario axmen found it necessary to do the work again. He could have told nobody why he had undertaken to build the bridge, which could be of no use to him, but he was in a measure prompted by instincts born in him, for he was one of the Englishmen who, with a dim recognition of the primeval charge to subdue the earth and render it fruitful, gravitate to the newer lands, and usually leave their mark upon them. He had also a half-defined notion that it would be something he could leave behind in reparation, that the men of Silverdale might remember more leniently the stranger who had imposed on them while in the strain of the mental struggle strenuous occupation was a necessity to him.

A bundle of papers it was now too dim to see lay beside him clammy with the dew, and he sat bare-headed, a pipe which had gone out in his hand, staring across the prairie with an ironical smile in his eyes. He had planned boldly and striven tirelessly, and now the fee he could not take would surely be tendered him. Wheat was growing dearer every day, and such crops as he had sown had not been seen at Silverdale. Still, the man, who had had few compunctions before he met Maud Barrington, knew now that in a little while he must leave all he had painfully achieved behind. What he would do then he did not know, for only one fact seemed certain--in another four months, or less, he would have turned his back on Silverdale.

Presently, however, the sound of horse-hoofs caught his ears, and he stood up when a mounted figure rose out of the prairie. The moon had just swung up, round and coppery, from behind a rise, and when horse and rider cut black and sharp against it his pulses throbbed faster and a little flush crept into his face, for he knew every line of the figure in the saddle. Some minutes had passed when Maud Barrington rode slowly to the head of the bridge, and pulled up her horse at the sight of him.

The moon turning silver now shone behind her head, and a tress of hair sparkled beneath her wide hat, while the man had a glimpse of the gleaming whiteness of rounded cheek and neck. Her face he could not see, but shapely shoulders, curve of waist, and sweeping line of the light habit were forced up as in a daguerreotype, and as the girl sat still looking down on him, slender, lissom, dainty, etherealized almost by the brightening radiance, she seemed to him a visionary complement of the harmonies of the night. It also appeared wiser to think of her as such than a being of flesh and blood whom he had wildly ventured to long for, and he almost regretted when her first words dispelled the illusion.

"It is dreadfully late," she said. "Pluto went very lame soon after I left Macdonald's, and I knew if I went back for another horse he would have insisted on riding home with me. I had slipped away while he was in the granary. One can cross the bridge?"

"Not mounted!" said Winston. "There are only a few planks between the stringers here and there, but, if you don't mind waiting, I can lead your horse across."

He smiled a little, for the words seemed trivial and out of place in face of the effect the girl's appearance had on him, but she glanced at him questioningly.

"No!" she said. "Now, I would have gone round by the old bridge, only that Allardyce told me you let him ride across this afternoon."

"Still," and the man stopped a moment, "it was daylight then, you see."

Maud Barrington laughed a little, for his face was visible and she understood the slowness of his answer. "Is that all? It is moonlight now."

[Illustration: Maud Barrington laughed a little.]

"No," said Winston dryly, "but one is apt to make an explanation too complete occasionally. Will you let me help you down?"

Maud Barrington held out her hands, and when he swung her down watched him tramp away with the horse, with a curious smile. A light compliment seldom afforded her much pleasure, but the man's grim reserve had now and then piqued more than her curiosity, though she was sensible that the efforts she occasionally made to uncover what lay behind it were not without their risk. Then he came back, and turned to her very gravely.

"Let me have your hand," he said.

Maud Barrington gave it to him, and hoped the curious little thrill that ran through her when his hard fingers closed upon her palm did not communicate itself to him. She also noticed that he moved his head sharply a moment, and then looked straight in front again. Then the birches seemed to fall away beneath them, and they moved out across the dim gully with the loosely-laid planking rattling under their feet, until they came to a strip scarcely three feet wide which spanned a gulf of blackness in the shadow of the trees.

"Hold fast!" said Winston, with a trace of hoarseness. "You are sure you feel quite steady?"

"Of course!" said the girl, with a little laugh, though she recognized the anxiety in his voice, and felt his hand close almost cruelly on her own. She was by no means timorous, and still less fanciful, but when they moved out into the blackness that closed about them above and beneath along the slender strip of swaying timber she was glad of the masterful grip. It seemed in some strange fashion portentous, for she felt that she would once more be willing to brave unseen perils, secure only in his guidance. What he felt she did not know, and was sensible of an almost overwhelming curiosity, until when at last well-stiffened timber lay beneath them, she contrived to drop a glove just where the moonlight smote the bridge. Winston stooped, and his face was clear in the silvery light when he rose again. Maud Barrington saw the relief in it, and compelled by some influence stood still looking at him with a little glow behind the smile in her eyes. A good deal was revealed to both of them in that instant, but the man dare not admit it, and was master of himself.

"Yes," he said, very simply, "I am glad you are across."

Maud Barrington laughed. "I scarcely fancy the risk was very great, but tell me about the bridge," she said. "You are living beside it?"

"Yes," said Winston. "In a tent. I must have it finished before harvest, you see!"

The girl understood why this was necessary, but deciding that she had on other occasions ventured sufficiently far with that topic, moved on across the bridge.

"A tent," she said, "cannot be a very comfortable place to live in, and who cooks for you?"

Winston smiled dryly. "I am used to it, and can do all the cooking that is necessary," he said. "It is the usual home for the beginner, and I lived six months in one--on grindstone bread, the tinctured glucose you are probably not acquainted with as 'drips,' and rancid pork--when I first came out to this country and hired myself, for ten dollars monthly, to another man. It is a diet one gets a little tired of occasionally, but after breaking prairie twelve hours every day one can eat almost anything, and when I afterwards turned farmer my credit was rarely good enough to provide the pork."

The girl looked at him curiously, for she knew how some of the smaller settlers lived, and once more felt divided between wonder and sympathy. She could picture the grim self-denial, for she had seen the stubborn patience in this man's face, as well as a stamp that was not born by any other man at Silverdale. Some of the crofter settlers, who periodically came near starvation in their sod hovels, and the men from Ontario who staked their little handful of dollars on the first wheat crop to be wrested from the prairie, bore it, however. From what Miss Barrington had told her, it was clear that Courthorne's first year in Canada could not have been spent in this fashion, but there was no doubt in the girl's mind as she listened. Her faith was equal to a more strenuous test.

"There is a difference in the present, but who taught you bridge-building? It takes years to learn the use of the ax," she said.

Winston laughed. "I think it took me four, but the man who has not a dollar to spare usually finds out how to do a good many things for himself, and I had working drawings of the bridge made in Winnipeg. Besides, your friends have helped me with their hands as well as their good-will. Except at the beginning, they have all been kind to me, and one could not well have expected very much from them then."

Maud Barrington colored a trifle as she remembered her own attitude towards him. "Cannot you forget it?" she said, with a curious little ring in her voice. "They would do anyt

hing you asked them now."

"One generally finds it useful to have a good memory, and I remember most clearly that, although they had very little reason for it, most of them afterwards trusted me. That made, and still makes, a great difference to me."

The girl appeared thoughtful. "Does it?" she said. "Still, do you know, I fancy that if they had tried to drive you out, you would have stayed in spite of them?"

"Yes," said Winston dryly. "I believe I would, but the fact that in a very little while they held out a friendly hand to a stranger steeped in suspicion, and gave him the chance to prove himself their equal, carries a big responsibility. That, and your aunt's goodness, puts so many things one might have done out of the question."

The obvious inference was that the prodigal had been reclaimed by the simple means of putting him on his honor, but that did not for a moment suggest itself to the girl. She had often regretted her own disbelief and once more felt the need for reparation.

"Lance," she said, very quietly, "my aunt was wiser than I was, but she was mistaken. What she gave you out of her wide charity was already yours by right."

That was complete and final, for Maud Barrington did nothing by half, and Winston recognized that she held him blameless in the past, which she could not know, as well as in the present, which was visible to her. Her confidence stung him as a whip, and when in place of answering he looked away, the girl fancied that a smothered groan escaped him. She waited, curiously expectant, but he did not speak, and just then the fall of hoofs rose from behind the birches in the bluff. Then a man's voice came through it singing a little French song, and Maud Barrington glanced at her companion.

"Lance," she said, "how long is it since you sang that song?"

"Well," said Winston, doggedly conscious of what he was doing, "I do not know a word of it, and never heard it in my life."

Maud Barrington stared at him. "Think," she said. "It seems ever so long ago, but you cannot have forgotten. Surely you remember Madame Aubert, who taught me to prattle in French, and the day you slipped into the music-room and picked up the song, while she tried in vain to teach it me. Can't you recollect how I cried, when you sang it in the billiard-room, and Uncle Geoffrey gave you the half-sovereign which had been promised to me?"

"No," said Winston, a trifle hoarsely, and with his head turned from her watched the trail.

A man in embroidered deerskin jacket was riding into the moonlight, and though the little song had ceased, and the wide hat hid his face, there was an almost insolent gracefulness in his carriage that seemed familiar to Winston. It was not the _abandon_ of the swashbuckler stock-rider from across the frontier, but something more finished and distinguished that suggested the bygone cavalier. Maud Barrington, it was evident, also noticed it.

"Geoffrey Courthorne rode as that man does," she said. "I remember hearing my mother once tell him that he had been born too late, because his attributes and tastes would have fitted him to follow Prince Rupert."

Winston made no answer, and the man rode on until he drew bridle in front of them. Then he swung his hat off, and while the moonlight shone into his face looked down with a little ironical smile at the man and woman standing beside the horse. Winston closed one hand a trifle, and slowly straightened himself, feeling that there was need of all his self-control, for he saw his companion glance at him, and then almost too steadily at Lance Courthorne.

The latter said nothing for a space of seconds, for which Winston hated him, and yet in the tension of the suspense he noticed that the signs of indulgence he had seen on the last occasion were plainer in Courthorne's face. The little bitter smile upon his lips was also not quite in keeping with the restlessness of his fingers upon the bridle.

"Is that bridge fit for crossing, farmer?" he asked.

"Yes," said Winston quietly. "You must lead your horse."

Maud Barrington had in the meanwhile stood very still, and now moved as by an effort. "It is time I rode on, and you can show the stranger across," she said. "I have kept you at least five minutes longer than was necessary."

Courthorne, Winston fancied, shifted one foot from the stirrup, but then sat still as the farmer held his hand for the girl to mount by, while when she rode away he looked at his companion with a trace of anger as well as irony in his eyes.

"Yes," said Winston. "What you heard was correct. Miss Barrington's horse fell lame coming from one of the farms, which accounts for her passing here so late. I had just led the beast across the incompleted bridge. Still, it is not on my account I tell you this. Where have you been and why have you broken one of my conditions?"

Courthorne laughed. "It seems to me you are adopting a somewhat curious tone. I went to my homestead to look for you."

"You have not answered my other question, and in the meanwhile I am your tenant, and the place is mine."

"We really needn't quibble," said Courthorne. "I came for the very simple reason that I wanted money."

"You had one thousand dollars," said Winston dryly.

Courthorne made a little gesture of resignation. "It is, however, certain that I haven't got them now. They went as dollars usually do. The fact is, I have met one or two men recently who apparently know rather more games of chance than I do, and I passed on the fame, which was my most valuable asset, to you."

"You passed me on the brand of a crime I never committed," said Winston grimly. "That, however, is not the question now. Not one dollar, except at the time agreed upon, will you get from me. Why did you come here dressed as we usually are on the prairie?"

Courthorne glanced down at the deerskin jacket and smiled as he straightened himself into a caricature of Winston's mounted attitude. It was done cleverly.

"When I ride in this fashion we are really not very unlike, you see, and I let one or two men I met get a good look at me," he said. "I meant it as a hint that it would be wise of you to come to terms with me."

"I have done so already. You made the bargain."

"Well," said Courthorne, smiling, "a contract may be modified at any time when both parties are willing."

"One is not," said Winston dryly. "You heard my terms, and nothing that you can urge will move me a hairsbreadth from them."

Courthorne looked at him steadily, and some men would have found his glance disconcerting, for now and then all the wickedness that was in him showed in his half-closed eyes. Still, he saw that the farmer was unyielding.

"Then we will let it go; in the meanwhile," he said, "take me across the bridge."

They were half-way along it when he pulled the horse up, and once more looked down on Winston.

"Your hand is a tolerably good one so long as you are willing to sacrifice yourself, but it has its weak points, and there is one thing I could not tolerate," he said.

"What is that?"

Courthorne laughed wickedly. "You wish me to be explicit? Maud Barrington is devilishly pretty, but it is quite out of the question that you should ever marry her."

Winston turned towards him with the veins on his forehead swollen. "Granting that it is so, what is that to you?"

Courthorne nodded as if in comprehension. "Well, I'm probably not consistent, but one rarely quite loses touch with everything, and if I believed that my kinswoman was growing fond of a beggarly prairie farmer, I'd venture to put a sudden stop to your love-making. This, at least, is perfectly bona fide, Winston."

Winston had borne a good deal of late, and his hatred of the man flared up. He had no definite intention, but he moved a pace forward, and Courthorne touched the horse with his heel. It backed, and then, growing afraid of the blackness about it, plunged, while Winston for the first time saw that there was a gap in the loosely-laid planking close behind it. Another plunge or flounder, and horse and rider would go down together.

For a moment he held his breath and watched. Then, as the beast resisting its rider's efforts backed again, he sprang forward and seized the bridle.

"Get your spurs in! Shove him forward for your life," he said.

There was a momentary struggle on the slippery planking, and, almost as its hind hoofs overhung the edge, Winston dragged the horse away. Courthorne swung himself out of the saddle, left the farmer the bridle, and glanced behind him at the gap. Then he turned, and the two men looked at each other steadily. Their faces were a trifle paler than usual.

"You saw it?" asked Courthorne.

"Yes, but not until you backed the beast and he commenced plunging."

"He plunged once or twice before you caught the bridle."

"Yes," said Winston quietly.

Courthorne laughed. "You are a curious man. It would have cleared the ground for you."

"No," said Winston dryly. "I don't know that you will understand me, but I scarcely think it would. It may have been a mistake of mine to do what I did, but I have a good deal on my shoulders already."

Courthorne made no answer as he led his horse across, the bridge. Then he mounted, and looked down on the farmer who stood beside him.

"I remember some things, though I don't always let them influence me to my detriment," he said. "I'm going back to the railroad, and then West, and don't quite know when you will have the pleasure of seeing me again."

Winston watched him quietly. "It would be wiser if you did not come back until I send for you."

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