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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18454

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Vance Courthorne had lightly taken a good many risks in his time, for he usually found a spice of danger stimulating, and there was in him an irresponsible daring that not infrequently served him better than a well-laid plan. There are also men of his type, who for a time, at least, appear immune from the disasters which follow the one rash venture the prudent make, and it was half in frolic and half in malice he rode to Silverdale dressed as a prairie farmer in the light of day, and forgot that their occupation sets a stamp he had never worn upon the tillers of the soil. The same spirit induced him to imitate one or two of Winston's gestures for the benefit of his cook, and afterwards wait for a police trooper, who apparently desired to overtake him when he had just left the homestead.

He pulled his horse up when the other man shouted to him, and trusting in the wide hat that hid most of his face, smiled out of half-closed eyes when he handed a packet.

"You have saved me a ride, Mr. Courthorne. I heard you were at the bridge," the trooper said. "If you'll sign for those documents I needn't keep you."

He brought out a pencil, and Courthorne scribbled on the paper handed him. He was quite aware that there was a risk attached to this, but if Winston had any communications with the police, it appeared advisable to discover what they were about. Then he laughed, as riding on again he opened the packet.

"Agricultural Bureau documents," he said. "This lot to be returned filled in! Well, if I can remember, I'll give them to Winston."

As it happened, he did not remember, but he made a worse mistake just before his departure from the railroad settlement. He had spent two nights at a little wooden hotel, which was not the one where Winston put up when he drove into the place, and to pass the time commenced a flirtation with the proprietor's daughter. The girl was pretty, and Courthorne a man of different type from the wheat-growers she had been used to. When his horse was at the door, he strolled into the saloon where he found the girl alone in the bar.

"I'm a very sad man, to-day, my dear," he said, and his melancholy became him.

The girl blushed prettily. "Still," she said, "whenever you want to, you can come back again."

"If I did would you be pleased to see me?"

"Of course!" said the girl. "Now, you wait a minute, and I'll give you something to remember me by. I don't mix this up for everybody."

She busied herself with certain decanters and essences, and Courthorne held the glass she handed him high.

"The brightest eyes and the reddest lips between Winnipeg and the Rockies!" he said. "This is nectar, but I would like to remember you by something sweeter still!"

Their heads were not far apart when he laid down his glass, and before the girl quite knew what was happening, an arm was round her neck. Next moment she had flung the man backwards, and stood very straight, quivering with anger and crimson in face, for Courthorne, as occasionally happens with men of his type, assumed too much, and did not always know when to stop. Then, she called sharply, "Jake!"

There was a tramp of feet outside, and when a big grim-faced man looked in at the door, Courthorne decided it was time for him to effect his retreat while it could be done with safety. He knew already that there were two doors to the saloon, and his fingers closed on the neck of a decanter. Next moment it smote the new-comer on the chest, and while he staggered backwards with the fluid trickling from him, Courthorne departed through the opposite entrance. Once outside, he mounted leisurely, but nobody came out from the hotel, and shaking the bridle with a little laugh he cantered out of the settlement.

In the meanwhile the other man carefully wiped his garments, and then turned to his companion.

"Now what's all this about?" he asked.

The girl told him, and the man ruminated for a minute or two. "Well, he's gone, and I don't know that I'm sorry there wasn't a circus here," he said. "I figured there was something not square about that fellow any way. Registered as Guyler from Minnesota, but I've seen somebody like him among the boys from Silverdale. Guess I'll find out when I ride over about the horse, and then I'll have a talk with him quietly."

In the meanwhile, the police trooper who had handed him the packet returned to the outpost, and, as it happened, found the grizzled Sergeant Stimson, who appeared astonished to see him back so soon, there.

"I met Courthorne near his homestead, and gave him the papers, sir," he said.

"You did?" said the Sergeant. "Now that's kind of curious, because he's at the bridge."

"It couldn't have been anybody else, because he took the documents and signed for them," said the trooper.

"Big bay horse?"

"No, sir," said the trooper. "It was a bronco, and a screw at that."

"Well," said Stimson dryly, "let me have your book. If Payne has come in, tell him I want him."

The trooper went out, and when his comrade came in, Stimson laid a strip of paper before him. "You have seen Courthorne's writing," he said: "would you call it anything like that?"

"No, sir," said Trooper Payne. "I would not!"

Stimson nodded. "Take a good horse, and ride round by the bridge. If you find Courthorne there, as you probably will, head for the settlement and see if you can come across a man who might pass for him. Ask your questions as though the answer didn't count, and tell nobody what you hear but me."

Payne rode out, and when he returned three days later, Sergeant Stimson made a journey to confer with one of his superiors. The officer was a man who had risen in the service somewhat rapidly, and when he heard the tale, said nothing while he turned over a bundle of papers a trooper brought him. Then he glanced at Stimson thoughtfully.

"I have a report of the Shannon shooting case here," he said. "How did it strike you at the time?"

Stimson's answer was guarded. "As a curious affair. You see, it was quite easy to get at Winston's character from anybody down there, and he wasn't the kind of man to do the thing. There were one or two other trifles I couldn't quite figure out the meaning of."

"Winston was drowned?" said the officer.

"Well," said Stimson, "the trooper who rode after him heard him break through the ice, but nobody ever found him, though a farmer came upon his horse."

The officer nodded. "I fancy you are right, and the point is this. There were two men, who apparently bore some resemblance to each other, engaged in an unlawful venture, and one of them commits a crime nobody believed him capable of, but which would have been less out of keeping with the other's character. Then the second man comes into an inheritance, and leads a life which seems to have astonished everybody who knows him. Now, have you ever seen these two men side by side?"

"No, sir," said Stimson. "Courthorne kept out of our sight when he could, in Alberta, and I don't think I or any of the boys, except Shannon, ever saw him for more than a minute or two. Now and then we passed Winston on the prairie or saw him from the trail, but I think I only once spoke to him."

"Well," said the officer, "it seems to me I had better get you sent back to your old station, where you can quietly pick up the threads again. Would the trooper you mentioned be fit to keep an eye on things at Silverdale?"

"No one better, sir," said Stimson.

"Then it shall be done," said the officer. "The quieter you keep the affair the better."

It was a week or two later when Winston returned to his homestead from the bridge, which was almost completed. Dusk was closing in, but as he rode down the rise he could see the wheat roll in slow ripples back into the distance. The steady beat of its rhythmic murmur told of heavy ears, and where the stalks stood waist-high on the rise, the last flush of saffron in the northwest was flung back in a dull bronze gleam. The rest swayed athwart the shadowy hollow, dusky indigo and green, but that flash of gold and red told that harvest was nigh again.

Winston had seen no crop to compare with it during the eight years he had spent in the dominion. There had been neither drought nor hail that year, and now, when the warm western breezes kept sweet and wholesome the splendid ears they fanned, there was removed from him the terror of the harvest frost, which not infrequently blights the fairest prospects in one bitter night. Fate, which had tried him hardly hitherto, denying the seed its due share of fertilizing rain, sweeping his stock from existence with icy blizzard, and mowing down the tall green corn with devastating hail, was now showering favors on him when it was too late. Still, though he felt the irony of it, he was glad, for others had followed his lead, and while the lean years had left a lamentable scarcity of dollars at Silverdale, wealth would now pour in to every man who had had the faith to sow.

He dismounted beside the oats which he would harvest first, and listened with a curious stirring of his pulses to their musical patter. It was not the full-toned song of the wheat, but there was that in the qu

icker beat of it which told that each graceful tassel would redeem its promise. He could not see the end of them, but by the right of the producer they were all his. He knew that he could also hold them by right of conquest, too, for that year a knowledge of his strength had been forced upon him. Still, from something he had seen in the eyes of a girl and grasped in the words of a white-haired lady, he realized that there is a limit beyond which man's ambition may not venture, and a right before which even that of possession must bow.

It had been shown him plainly that no man of his own devices can make the wheat grow, and standing beside it in the creeping dusk he felt in a vague, half-pagan fashion that there was, somewhere behind what appeared the chaotic chances of life, a scheme of order and justice immutable, which would in due time crush the too presumptuous human atom who opposed himself to it. Regret and rebellion were, it seemed, equally futile, and he must go out from Silverdale before retribution overtook him. He had done wrong, and, though he had made what reparation he could, knew that he would carry his punishment with him.

The house was almost dark when he reached it, and as he went in, his cook signed to him. "There's a man in here waiting for you," he said. "He doesn't seem in any way friendly or civil."

Winston nodded as he went on, wondering with a grim expectancy whether Courthorne had returned again. If he had, he felt in a mood for very direct speech with him. His visitor was, however, not Courthorne. Winston could see that at a glance, although the room was dim.

"I don't seem to know you, but I'll get a light in a minute," he said.

"I wouldn't waste time," said the other. "We can talk just as straight in the dark, and I guess this meeting will finish up outside on the prairie. You've given me a good deal of trouble to trail you, Mr. Guyler."

"Well," said Winston dryly, "it seems to me that you have found the wrong man."

The stranger laughed unpleasantly. "I was figuring you'd take it like that, but you can't bluff me. Well now, I've come round to take it out of you for slinging that decanter at me, and if there is another thing we needn't mention it."

Winston stared at the man, and his astonishment was evident, but the fact that he still spoke with an English accentuation, as Courthorne did, was against him.

"To the best of my recollection, I have never suffered the unpleasantness of meeting you in my life," he said. "I certainly never threw a decanter or anything else at you, though I understand that one might feel tempted to."

The man rose up slowly, and appeared big and heavy-shouldered as he moved athwart the window. "I guess that is quite enough for me," he said. "What were you condemned Englishmen made for, any way, but to take the best of what other men worked for, until the folks who've got grit enough run you out of the old country! Lord, why don't they drown you instead of dumping you and your wickedness on to us? Still, I'm going to show one of you, as I've longed to do, that you can't play your old tricks with the women of this country."

"I don't see the drift of a word of it," said Winston. "Hadn't you better come back to-morrow, when you've worked the vapors off?"

"Come out!" said the other man grimly. "There's scarcely room in here. Well then, have it your own way, and the devil take care of you!"

"I think there's enough," said Winston, and as the other sprang forward, closed with him.

He felt sick and dizzy for a moment, for he had laid himself open and the first blow got home, but he had decided that if the grapple was inevitable, it was best to commence it and end it speedily. A few seconds later there was a crash against the table, and the stranger gasped as he felt the edge of it pressed into his backbone. Then he felt himself borne backwards until he groaned under the strain, and heard a hoarse voice say: "If you attempt to use that foot again, I'll make the leg useless all your life to you. Come right in here, Tom."

A man carrying a lantern came in, and stared at the pair as he set it down. "Do you want me to see a fair finish-up?" he asked.

"No," said Winston. "I want you to see this gentleman out with me. Nip his arms behind his back, he can't hurt you."

It was done with a little difficulty, and there was a further scuffle in the hall, for the stranger resisted strenuously, but a minute later the trio reeled out of the door just as a buggy pulled up. Then, as the evicted man plunged forward alone, Winston, straightening himself suddenly, saw that Colonel Barrington was looking down on him, and that his niece was seated at his side. He stood still, flushed and breathless, with his jacket hanging rent half-way up about him, and the Colonel's voice was quietly ironical.

"I had a question or two to ask you, but can wait," he said. "No doubt I shall find you less engaged another time."

He flicked the horse, and as the buggy rolled away the other man walked up to Winston.

"While I only wanted to get rid of you before, I feel greatly tempted to give you your wish now," said the latter.

The stranger laughed dryly. "I guess you needn't worry. I don't fight because I'm fond of it, and you're not the man."

"Not the man?" said Winston.

"No, sir," said the other. "Not like him, now I can see you better. Well, I'm kind of sorry I started a circus here."

A suspicion of the truth flashed upon Winston. "What sort of a man was the one you mistook for me?"

"Usual British waster. Never done a day's work in his life, and never wanted to, too tired to open his eyes more than half-way when he looked at you, but if he ever fools round the saloon again, he'll know what he is before I'm through with him."

Winston laughed. "I wouldn't be rash or you may get another astonishment," he said. "We really know one or two useful things in the old country, but you can't fetch the settlement before morning, and we'll put you up if you like."

"No, sir," said the other dryly. "I'm not fond of Englishmen, and we might get arguing, while I've had 'bout enough of you for one night."

He rode away, and Winston went back into the house very thoughtfully, wondering whether he would be called upon to answer for more of Courthorne's doings.

It was two or three days later when Maud Barrington returned with her aunt from a visit to an outlying farm, where, because an account of what took place in the saloon had by some means been spread about, she heard a story brought in from the settlement. It kept her silent during the return journey, and Miss Barrington said nothing, but when the Colonel met them in the hall, he glanced at his niece.

"I see Mrs. Carndall has been telling you both a tale," he said. "It would have been more fitting if she had kept it to herself."

"Yes," said Maud Barrington. "Still, you do not credit it?"

Barrington smiled a trifle dryly. "I should very much prefer not to, my dear, but what we saw the other night appears to give it probability. The man Courthorne was dismissing somewhat summarily is, I believe, to marry the lady in question. You will remember I asked you once before whether the leopard can change his spots."

The girl laughed a little. "Still, are you not presuming when you take it for granted that there are spots to change?"

Colonel Barrington said nothing further, and it was late that night when the two women reopened the subject.

"Aunt," said Maud Barrington, "I want to know what you think about Mrs. Carndall's tale."

The little lady shook her head. "I should like to disbelieve it if I could."

"Then," said Maud Barrington, "why don't you?"

"Can you give me any reasons? One must not expect too much from human nature, my dear."

The girl sat silent a while, remembering the man who she had at first sight, and in the moonlight, fancied was like her companion at the time. It was not, however, the faint resemblance that had impressed her, but a vague something in his manner, his grace, his half-veiled insolence, his poise in the saddle. She had only seen Lance Courthorne on a few occasions when she was very young, but she had seen others of his race, and the man reminded her of them. Still, she felt half-instinctively that as yet it would be better that nobody should know this, and she stooped over some lace on the table as she answered the elder lady.

"I only know one, and it is convincing. That Lance should have done what he is credited with doing, is quite impossible."

Miss Barrington smiled. "I almost believe so, too, but others of his family have done such things somewhat frequently. Do you know that Lance has all along been a problem to me, for there is a good deal in my brother's question. Although it seems out of the question, I have wondered whether there could be two Lance Courthornes in Western Canada."

The girl looked at her aunt in silence for a space, but each hid a portion of her thoughts. Then Maud Barrington laughed.

"The Lance Courthorne now at Silverdale is as free from reproach as any man may be," she said. "I can't tell you why I am sure of it--but I know I am not mistaken."

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