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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 20447

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It was a hot morning when Sergeant Stimson and Corporal Payne rode towards the railroad across the prairie. The grassy levels rolled away before them, white and parched, into the blue distance, where willow grove and straggling bluff floated on the dazzling horizon, and the fibrous dust rose in little puffs beneath the horses' feet, until Stimson pulled his beast up in the shadow of the birches by the bridge, and looked back towards Silverdale. There, wooden homesteads girt about with barns and granaries rose from the whitened waste, and behind some of them stretched great belts of wheat. Then the Sergeant, understanding the faith of the men who had sown that splendid grain, nodded, for he was old and wise, and had seen many adverse seasons, and the slackness that comes, when hope has gone, to beaten men.

"They will reap this year--a handful of cents on every bushel," he said. "A fine gentleman is Colonel Barrington, but some of them will be thankful there's a better head than the one he has, at Silverdale."

"Yes, sir," said Corporal Payne, who wore the double chevrons for the first time, and surmised that his companion's observations were not without their purpose.

Stimson glanced at the bridge. "Good work," he said. "It will save them dollars on every load they haul in. A gambler built it! Do they teach men to use the ax in Montana saloons?"

The corporal smiled, and waited for what he felt would come. He was no longer the hot-blooded lad who had come out from the old country, for he had felt the bonds of discipline, and been taught restraint and silence on the lonely marches of the prairie.

"I have," he said tentatively, "fancied there was something a little unusual about the thing."

Stimson nodded, but his next observation was apparently quite unconnected with the topic. "You were a raw colt when I got you, Payne, and the bit galled you now and then, but you had good hands on a bridle, and somebody who knew his business had taught you to sit a horse in the old country. Still, you were not as handy with brush and fork at stable duty,"

The bronze seemed to deepen in the corporal's face, but it was turned steadily towards his officer. "Sir," he said, "has that anything to do with what you were speaking of?"

Stimson laughed softly. "That depends, my lad. Now, I've taught you to ride straight, and to hold your tongue. I've asked you no questions, but I've eyes in my head, and it's not without a purpose you've been made corporal. You're the kind they give commissions to, now and then--and your folks in the old country never raised you for a police trooper."

"Can you tell me how to win one?" ask the corporal, and Stimson noticed the little gleam in his eyes.

"There's one road to advancement, and you know where to find the trooper's duty laid down plain," he said, with a dry smile. "Now, you saw Lance Courthorne once or twice back there in Alberta?"

"Yes, sir, but never close to."

"And you knew farmer Winston?"

Payne appeared thoughtful. "Of course I met him a few times on the prairie, always on horseback with his big hat on, but Winston is dead--that is, I heard him break through the ice."

The men's eyes met for a moment, and Stimson smiled curiously. "There is," he said, "still a warrant out for him. Now, you know where I am going, and, while I am away, you will watch Courthorne and his homestead. If anything curious happens there, you will let me know. The new man has instructions to find you any duty that will suit you."

The corporal looked at his officer steadily, and again there was comprehension in his eyes. Then he nodded. "Yes, sir. I have wondered whether, if Shannon could have spoken another word that night, it would have been Winston the warrant was issued for."

Stimson raised a restraining hand. "My lad," he said dryly, "the police trooper who gets advancement is the one that carries out his orders and never questions them, until he can show that they are wrong. Then he uses a good deal of discretion. Now you know your duty?"

"Yes, sir," said Payne, and Stimson, shaking his bridle, cantered off across the prairie.

Then, seeing no need to waste time, the corporal rode towards Courthorne's homestead, and found its owner stripping a binder. Pieces of the machine lay all around him, and from the fashion in which he handled them it was evident that he was capable of doing what the other men at Silverdale left to the mechanic at the settlement. Payne wondered, as he watched him, who had taught the gambler to use spanner and file.

"I will not trouble you if you are busy, Mr. Courthorne, but if you would give me the returns the Bureau ask for, it would save me riding round again," he said.

"I'm afraid I can't," said Winston. "You see, I haven't had the papers."

"Trooper Bacon told me he had given them to you."

"I don't seem to remember it," said Winston.

Payne laughed. "One forgets things when he is busy. Still, you had them--because you signed for them."

Winston looked up suddenly, and in another moment smiled, but he was a trifle too late, for Payne had seen his astonishment, and that he was now on guard.

"Well," he said, "I haven't got them now. Send me a duplicate. You have, no doubt, some extra forms at the outpost."

Payne decided that the man had never had the documents, but was too clever to ask any questions or offer explanations that might involve him. It was evident he knew that somebody had personated him, and the fact sent a little thrill through the corporal; he was at least on the trail.

"I'll bring you one round the next time I'm in the neighborhood," he said, and Winston sat still with the spanner lying idle in his hand when he rode away.

He realized that Courthorne had taken the papers, and his face grew anxious as well as grim. The harvest was almost ready now, and a little while would see it in. Then his work would be over, but he had of late felt a growing fear lest something, that would prevent its accomplishment, might happen in the meanwhile. Then almost fiercely he resumed the stripping of the machine.

An hour or two later Dane rode up, and sat still in his saddle looking down on Winston with a curious smile on his face.

"I was down at the settlement, and found a curious story going round," he said. "Of course, it had its humorous aspect, but I don't know that the thing was quite discreet. You see, Barrington has once or twice had to put a stern check on the indulgence in playfulness of that kind by some of the younger men, and you are becoming an influence at Silverdale."

"You naturally believed what you heard. It was in keeping with what you have seen of me?"

Dane's eyes twinkled. "I didn't want to, and I must admit that it isn't. Still, a good many of you quiet men are addicted to occasionally astonishing your friends, and I can't help a fancy that you could do that kind of thing as well as most folks, if it pleased you. In fact, there was an artistic finish to the climax that suggested your usual thoroughness."

"It did?" said Winston grimly, remembering his recent visitor and one or two of Courthorne's Albertan escapades. "Still, as I'm afraid I haven't the dramatic instinct, do you mind telling me how?"

Dane laughed. "Well, it is probable there are other men who would have kissed the girl, but I don't know that it would have occurred to them to smash a decanter on the irate lover's head."

Winston felt his fingers tingle for a grip on Courthorne's throat. "And that's what I've been doing lately? You, of course, concluded that after conducting myself in an examplary fashion an astonishing time it was a trifling lapse?"

"Well," said Dane dryly, "as I admitted, it appeared somewhat out of your usual line, but when I heard that a man from the settlement had been ejected with violence from your homestead, what could one believe?"

"Colonel Barrington told you that!"

"No," said Dane, "you know he didn't. Still, he had a hired man riding a horse he'd bought, and I believe--though it is not my affair--Maud Barrington was there. Now, of course, one feels diffident about anything that may appear like preaching, but you see, a good many of us are following you, and I wouldn't like you to have many little lapses of that kind while I'm backing you. You and I have done with these frivolities some time ago, but there are lads here they might appeal to. I should be pleased if you could deny the story."

Winston's face was grim. "I'm afraid it would not suit me to do as much just now," he said. "Still, between you and I, do you believe it likely that I would fly at that kind of game?"

Dane laughed softly. "Well," he said, "tastes differ, and the girl is pretty, while you know, after all, they're very much the same. We have, however, got to look at the thing sensibly, and you admit you can't deny it."

"I told you it wouldn't suit me."

"Then there is a difference?"

Winston nodded. "You must make the best of that, but the others may believe exactly what they please. It will be a favor to me if you remember it."

Dane smiled curiously. "Then I think it is enough for me, and you will overlook my presumption. Courthorne, I wonder now and then when I shall altogether understand you!"

"The time will come," said Winston dryly, to hide what he felt, for his comrade's simple avowal had been wonderfully eloquent. Then Dane touched his horse with his heel and rode away.

It was two or three weeks later when Winston, being requested to do so, drove over to attend one of the assemblies at Silverdale Grange. It was dark when he reached the house, for the nights were drawing in, but because of the temperature few of the great oil lamps were lighted, and the windows were open wide. Somebody had just finished singing when he walked into the big general room, and he would have preferred another moment to make his entrance, but disdained to wait. He, however, felt a momentary warmth in his face when Miss Barrington, stately as when he had first seen her in her rustling silk and ancient laces, came forward to greet him with her usual graciousness. He knew that every eye was upon them, and guessed why she had

done so much.

What she said was of no moment, but the fact that she had received him without sign of coldness was eloquent, and the man bent very respectfully over the little white hand. Then he stood straight and square for a moment and met her eyes.

"Madam," he said, "I shall know whom to come to when I want a friend."

Afterwards he drifted towards a group of married farmers and their wives, who, except for that open warranty, might have been less cordial to him, and presently, though he was never quite sure how it came about, found himself standing beside Maud Barrington. She smiled at him, and then glanced towards one the open windows, outside which one or two of the older men were sitting.

"The room is very hot," said Winston tentatively.

"Yes," said the girl. "I fancy it would be cooler in the hall."

They passed out together into the shadowy hall, but a little gleam of light from the doorway behind them rested on Maud Barrington as she sat down. She looked inquiringly at the man as though in wait for something.

"It is distinctly cooler here," he said.

Maud Barrington laughed impatiently. "It is," she said.

"Well," said Winston, with a little smile, "I will try again. Wheat has made another advance lately."

The girl turned towards him with a little sparkle in her eyes. Winston saw it, and the faint shimmer of the pearls upon the whiteness of her neck, and then moved his head so that he looked out upon the dusky prairie.

"Pshaw!" she said. "You know why you were brought here to-night."

Winston admired her courage, but did not turn round, for there were times when he feared his will might fail him. "I fancy I know why your aunt was so gracious to me. Do you know that her confidence almost hurts me?"

"Then why don't you vindicate it and yourself? Dane would be your mouthpiece, and two or three words would be sufficient."

Winston made no answer for a space. Somebody was singing in the room behind them, and through the open window he could see the stars in the soft indigo above the great sweep of prairie. He noticed them vacantly and took a curious impersonal interest in the two dim figures standing close together outside the window. One was a young English lad, and the other a girl in a long white dress. What they were doing there was no concern of his, but any trifle that diverted his attention a moment was welcome in that time of strain, for he had felt of late that exposure was close at hand, and was fiercely anxious to finish his work before it came. Maud Barrington's finances must be made secure before he left Silverdale, and he must remain at any cost until the wheat was sold.

Then he turned slowly towards her. "It is not your aunt's confidence that hurts me the most."

The girl looked at him steadily, the color a trifle plainer in her face, which she would not turn from the light, and a growing wonder in her eyes.

"Lance," she said, "we both know that it is not misplaced. Still, your impassiveness does not please us."

Winston groaned inwardly and the swollen veins showed on his forehead. His companion had leaned forward a little so that she could see him, and one white shoulder almost touched his own. The perfume of her hair was in his nostrils, and when he remembered how cold she had once been to him, a longing that was stronger than the humiliation that came with it grew almost overwhelming. Still, because of her very trust in him, there was a wrong he could not do, and it dawned on him that a means of placing himself beyond further temptation was opening to him. Maud Barrington, he knew, would have scanty sympathy with an intrigue of the kind Courthorne's recent adventure pointed to.

"You mean, why do I not deny what you have no doubt heard?" he said. "What could one gain by that if you had heard the truth?"

Maud Barrington laughed softly. "Isn't the question useless?"

"No," said Winston, a trifle hoarsely now.

The girl touched his arm almost imperiously as he turned his head again.

"Lance," she said. "Men of your kind need not deal in subterfuge. The wheat and the bridge you built speak for you."

"Still," persisted Winston, and the girl checked him with a smile.

"I fancy you are wasting time," she said. "Now, I wonder whether, when you were in England, you ever saw a play founded on an incident in the life of a once famous actor. At the time it rather appealed to me. The hero, with a chivalric purpose assumed various shortcomings he had really no sympathy with--but while there is, of course, no similarity beyond the generous impulse, between the cases--he did not do it clumsily. It is, however, a trifle difficult to understand what purpose you could have, and one cannot help fancying that you owe a little to Silverdale and yourself."

It was a somewhat daring parallel, for Winston, who dare not look at his companion and saw that he had failed, knew the play.

"Isn't the subject a trifle difficult?" he asked.

"Then," said Maud Barrington, "we will end it. Still, you promised that I should understand--a good deal--when the time came."

Winston nodded gravely. "You shall," he said.

Then, somewhat to his embarrassment, the two figures moved further across the window, and as they were silhouetted against the blue duskiness, he saw that there was an arm about the waist of the girl's white dress. He became sensible that Maud Barrington saw it too, and then that, perhaps to save the situation, she was smiling. The two figures, however, vanished, and a minute later a young girl in a long white dress came in, and stood still, apparently dismayed when she saw Maud Barrington. She did not notice Winston, who sat further in the shadow. He, however, saw her face suddenly crimson.

"Have you been here long?" she asked.

"Yes," said Maud Barrington, with a significant glance towards the window. "At least ten minutes. I am sorry, but I really couldn't help it. It was very hot in the other room, and Allender was singing."

"Then," said the girl, with a little tremor in her voice, "you will not tell?"

"No," said Maud Barrington. "But you must not do it again."

The girl stooped swiftly and kissed her, then recoiled with a gasp when she saw the man, but Maud Barrington laughed.

"I think," she said, "I can answer for Mr. Courthorne's silence. Still, when I have an opportunity, I am going to lecture you."

Winston turned with a twinkle he could not quite repress in his eyes, and with a flutter of her dress the girl whisked away.

"I'm afraid this makes me an accessory, but I can only neglect my manifest duty, which would be to warn her mother," said Maud Barrington.

"Is it a duty?" asked Winston, feeling that the further he drifted away from the previous topic the better it would be for him.

"Some people would fancy so," said his companion, "Lily will have a good deal of money, by and by, and she is very young. Atterly has nothing but an unprofitable farm; but he is an honest lad, and I know she is very fond of him."

"And would that count against the dollars?"

Maud Barrington laughed a little. "Yes," she said quietly. "I think it would if the girl is wise. Even now such things do happen, but I fancy it is time I went back again."

She moved away, but Winston stayed where he was until the lad came in with a cigar in his hand.

"Hallo, Courthorne!" he said. "Did you notice anybody pass the window a little while ago?"

"You are the first to come in through it," said Winston dryly. "The kind of things you wear admit of climbing."

The lad glanced at him with a trace of embarrassment.

"I don't quite understand you, but I meant a man," he said. "He was walking curiously, as if he was half-asleep, but he slipped round the corner of the building and I lost him."

Winston laughed. "There's a want of finish in the tale, but you needn't worry about me. I didn't see a man."

"There is rather less wisdom than usual in your remarks to-night, but I tell you I saw him," said the lad.

He passed on, and a minute later there was a cry from the inner room. "It's there again! Can't you see the face at the window?"

Winston was in the larger room next moment, and saw, as a startled girl had evidently done, a face that showed distorted and white to ghastliness through the window. He also recognized it, and running back through the hall was outside in another few seconds. Courthorne was leaning against one of the casements as though faint with weakness or pain, and collapsed when Winston dragged him backwards into the shadow. He had scarcely laid him down when the window was opened, and Colonel Barrington's shoulders showed black against the light.

"Come outside alone, sir," said Winston.

Barrington did so, and Winston stood so that no light fell on the pallid face in the grass. "It's a man I have dealings with," he said. "He has evidently ridden out from the settlement and fallen from his horse."

"Why should he fall?" asked the Colonel.

Winston laughed. "There is a perfume about him that is tolerably conclusive. I was, however, on the point of going, and if you will tell your hired man to get my wagon out, I'll take him away quietly. You can make light of the affair to the others."

"Yes," said Barrington. "Unless you think the man is hurt, that would be best, but we'll keep him if you like."

"No, sir. I couldn't trouble you," said Winston hastily. "Men of his kind are also very hard to kill."

Five minutes later he and the hired man hoisted Courthorne into the wagon and packed some hay about him, while, soon after the rattle of wheels sank into the silence of the prairie, the girl Maud Barrington had spoken to rejoined her companion.

"Could Courthorne have seen you coming in?" he asked.

"Yes," said the girl, blushing. "He did."

"Then it can't be helped, and, after all, Courthorne wouldn't talk, even if he wasn't what he is," said the lad. "You don't know why, and I'm not going to tell you, but it wouldn't become him."

"You don't mean Maud Barrington?" asked his companion.

"No," said the lad, with a laugh. "Courthorne is not like me. He has no sense. It's quite another kind of girl, you see."

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