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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19739

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It was not until early morning that Courthorne awakened from the stupor he sank into soon after Winston conveyed him into his homestead. First, however, he asked for a little food, and ate it with apparent difficulty. When Winston came in he looked up from the bed where he lay, with the dust still white upon his clothing, and his face showed gray and haggard in the creeping light.

"I'm feeling a trifle better now," he said; "still, I scarcely fancy I could get up just yet. I gave you a little surprise last night?"

Winston nodded. "You did. Of course, I knew how much your promise was worth, but in view of the risks you ran, I had not expected you to turn up at the Grange."

"The risks!" said Courthorne, with an unpleasant smile.

"Yes," said Winston wearily, "I have a good deal on hand I would like to finish here and it will not take me long, but I am quite prepared to give myself up now, if it is necessary."

Courthorne laughed. "I don't think you need, and it wouldn't be wise. You see, even if you made out your innocence, which you couldn't do, you rendered yourself an accessory by not denouncing me long ago. I fancy we can come to an understanding which would be pleasanter to both of us."

"The difficulty," said Winston, "is that an understanding is useless when made with a man who never keeps his word."

"Well," said Courthorne dryly, "we shall gain nothing by paying each other compliments, and whether you believe it or otherwise, it was not by intention I turned up at the Grange. I was coming here from a place west of the settlement, and you can see that I have been ill if you look at me. I counted too much on my strength, couldn't find a homestead where I could get anything to eat, and the rest may be accounted for by the execrable brandy I had with me. Any way, the horse threw me and made off, and after lying under some willows a good deal of the day, I dragged myself along until I saw a house."

"That," said Winston, "is beside the question. What do you want of me? Money in all probability. Well, you will not get it."

"I'm afraid I'm scarcely fit for a discussion now," said Courthorne. "The fact is, it hurts me to talk, and there's an aggressiveness about you which isn't pleasant to a badly-shaken man. Wait until this evening, but there is no necessity for you to ride to the outpost before you have heard me."

"I'm not sure it would be advisable to leave you here," said Winston dryly.

Courthorne smiled ironically. "Use your eyes. Would any one expect me to get up and indulge in a fresh folly? Leave me a little brandy--I need it--and go about your work. You'll certainly find me here when you want me."

Winston, glancing at the man's face, considered this very probable, and went out. He found his cook, who could be trusted, and said to him, "The man yonder is tolerably sick, and you'll let him have a little brandy and something to eat when he asks for it. Still, you'll bring the decanter away with you, and lock him in whenever you go out."

The man nodded, and making a hasty breakfast, Winston, who had business at several outlying farms, mounted and rode away. It was evening before he returned, and found Courthorne lying in a big chair with a cigar in his hand, languidly debonair but apparently ill. His face was curiously pallid, and his eyes dimmer than they had been, but there was a sardonic twinkle in them.

"You take a look at the decanter," said the man, who went up with Winston, carrying a lamp. "He's been wanting brandy all the time, but it doesn't seem to have muddled him."

Winston dismissed the man and sat down in front of Courthorne.

"Well?" he said.

Courthorne laughed. "You ought to be a witty man, though one would scarcely charge you with that. You surmised correctly this morning. It is money I want."

"You had my answer."

"Of course. Still, I don't want very much in the meanwhile, and you haven't heard what led up to the demand, or why I came back to you. You are evidently not curious, but I'm going to tell you. Soon after I left you, I fell very sick, and lay in the saloon of a little desolate settlement for days. The place was suffocating, and the wind blew the alkali dust in. They had only horrible brandy, and bitter water to drink it with, and I lay there on my back, panting, with the flies crawling over me. I knew if I stayed any longer it would finish me, and when there came a merciful cool day I got myself into the saddle and started off to find you. I don't quite know how I made the journey, and during a good deal of it I couldn't see the prairie, but I knew you would feel there was an obligation on you to do something for me. Of course, I could put it differently."

Winston had as little liking for Courthorne as he had ever had, but he remembered the time when he had lain very sick in his lonely log hut. He also remembered that everything he now held belonged to this man.

"You made the bargain," he said, less decisively.

Courthorne nodded. "Still, I fancy one of the conditions could be modified. Now, if I wait for another three months, I may be dead before the reckoning comes, and while that probably wouldn't grieve you, I could, when it appeared advisable, send for a magistrate and make a desposition."

"You could," said Winston. "I have, however, something of the same kind in contemplation."

Courthorne smiled curiously. "I don't know that it will be necessary. Carry me on until you have sold your crop, and then make a reasonable offer, and it's probable you may still keep what you have at Silverdale. To be quite frank, I've a notion that my time in this world is tolerably limited, and I want a last taste of all it has to offer a man of my capacities before I leave it. One is a long while dead, you know."

Winston nodded, for he understood. He had also during the grim cares of the lean years known the fierce longing for one deep draught of the wine of pleasure, whatever it afterwards cost him.

"It was that which induced you to look for a little relaxation at the settlement at my expense," he said. "A trifle paltry, wasn't it?"

Courthorne laughed. "It seems you don't know me yet. That was a frolic, indulged in out of humor, for your benefit. You see, your role demanded a good deal more ability than you ever displayed in it, and it did not seem fitting that a very puritanical and priggish person should pose as me at Silverdale. The little affair was the one touch of verisimilitude about the thing. No doubt my worthy connections are grieving over your lapse."

"My sense of humor had never much chance of developing," said Winston grimly. "What is the matter with you?"

"Pulmonary hemorrhage!" said Courthorne. "Perhaps it was born in me, but I never had much trouble until after that night in the snow at the river. Would you care to hear about it? We're not fond of each other, but after the steer-drivers I've been herding with, it's a relief to talk to a man of moderate intelligence."

"Go on," said Winston.

"Well," said Courthorne, "when the trooper was close behind me, my horse went through the ice, but somehow I crawled out. We were almost across the river, and it was snowing fast, while I had a fancy that I might have saved the horse, but, as the troopers would probably have seen a mounted man, I let him go. The stream sucked him under, and, though you may not believe it, I felt very mean when I saw nothing but the hole in the ice. Then, as the troopers didn't seem inclined to cross, I went on through the snow, and, as it happened, blundered across Jardine's old shanty. There was still a little prairie hay in the place, and I lay in it until morning, dragging fresh armfuls around me as I burnt it in the stove. Did you ever spend a night, wet through, in a place that was ten to twenty under freezing?"

"Yes," said Winston dryly. "I have done it twice."

"Well," said Courthorne, "I fancy that night narrowed in my life for me, but I made out across the prairie in the morning, and as we had a good many friends up and down the country, one of them took care of me."

Winston sat silent a while. The story had held his attention, and the frankness of the man who lay panting a little in his chair had its effect on him. There was no sound from the prairie, and the house was very still.

"Why did you kill Shannon?" he asked, at length.

"Is any one quite sure of his motives?" said Courthorne. "The lad had done something which was difficult to forgive him, but I think I would have let him go if he hadn't recognized me. The world is tolerably good to the man who has no scruples, you see, and I took all it offered me, while it did not seem fitting that a clod of a trooper without capacity for enjoyment, or much more sensibility than the beast he rode, should put an end to all my opportunities. Still, it was only when he tried to warn his comrades he threw his last chance away."

Winston shivered a little at the dispassionate brutality of the speech, and then checked the anger that came upon him.

"Fate, or my own folly, has put it out of my power to denounce you without abandoning what I have set my heart upon, and after all it is not my business," he said. "I will give you five hundred dollars and you can go to Chicago or Montreal, and consult a specialist. If the money is exhausted before I send for you, I will pay your hotel bills, but every dollar will be deducted when we come to the reckoning."

Courthorne laughed a little. "You had better make it seven fifty. Five hundred dollars will not go very far with me."

"Then you will have to husband them," said Winston dryly. "I am paying you at a rate agreed upon for the use of your land and small bank balance handed me, and want all of it. The rent is a fair one in face of the fact that a good deal of the farm consisted of virg

in prairie, which can be had from the Government for nothing."

He said nothing further, and soon after he went out Courthorne went to sleep, but Winston sat by an open window with a burned-out cigar in his hand staring at the prairie while the night wore through, until he rose with a shiver in the chill of early morning to commence his task again.

A few days later he saw Courthorne safely into a sleeping car with a ticket for Chicago in his pocket, and felt that a load had been lifted off his shoulders when the train rolled out of the little prairie station. Another week had passed when, riding home one evening, he stopped at the Grange, and as it happened found Maud Barrington alone. She received him without any visible restraint, but he realized that all that had passed at their last meeting was to be tacitly ignored.

"Has your visitor recovered yet?" she asked.

"So far as to leave my place, and I was not anxious to keep him," said Winston, with a little laugh. "I am sorry he disturbed you."

Maud Barrington seemed thoughtful. "I scarcely think the man was to blame."

"No?" said Winston.

The girl looked at him curiously, and shook her head. "No," she said. "I heard my uncle's explanation, but it was not convincing. I saw the man's face."

It was several seconds before Winston answered, and then he took the bold course.

"Well?" he said.

Maud Barrington made a curious little gesture. "I knew I had seen it before at the bridge, but that was not all. It was vaguely familiar, and I felt I ought to know it. It reminded me of somebody."

"Of me?" and Winston laughed.

"No. There was a resemblance, but it was very superficial. That man's face had little in common with yours."

"These faint likenesses are not unusual," said Winston, and once more Maud Barrington looked at him steadily.

"No," she said, "of course not. Well, we will conclude that my fancies ran away with me, and be practical. What is wheat doing just now?"

"Rising still," said Winston, and regretted the alacrity with which he had seized the opportunity of changing the topic when he saw that it had not escaped the notice of his companion. "You and I and a few others will be rich this year."

"Yes, but I am afraid some of the rest will find it has only further anxieties for them."

"I fancy," said Winston, "you are thinking of one."

Maud Barrington nodded. "Yes. I am sorry for him."

"Then it would please you if I tried to straighten out things for him? It would be difficult, but I believe it could be accomplished."

Maud Barrington's eyes were grateful, but there was something that Winston could not fathom behind her smile.

"If you undertook it. One could almost believe you had the wonderful lamp," she said.

Winston smiled somewhat dryly. "Then all its virtues will be tested to-night, and I had better make a commencement while I have the courage. Colonel Barrington is in?"

Maud Barrington went with him to the door, and then laid her hand a moment on his arm. "Lance," she said, with a little tremor in her voice, "if there was a time when our distrust hurt you, it has recoiled upon our heads. You have returned it with a splendid generosity."

Winston could not trust himself to answer, but walked straight to Barrington's room, and finding the door open, went quietly in. The head of the Silverdale settlement was sitting at a littered table in front of a shaded lamp, and the light that fell upon it showed the care in his face. It grew a trifle grimmer when he saw the younger man.

"Will you sit down?" he said. "I have been looking for a visit from you for some little time. It would have been more fitting had you made it earlier."

Winston nodded as he took a chair. "I fancy I understand you, but I have nothing that you expect to hear to tell you, sir."

"That," said Barrington, "is unfortunate. Now, it is not my business to pose as a censor of the conduct of any man here, except when it affects the community, but their friends have sent out a good many young English lads, some of whom have not been too discreet in the old country, to me. They did not do so solely that I might teach them farming. A charge of that kind is no light responsibility, and I look for assistance from the men who have almost as large a stake as I have in the prosperity of Silverdale."

"Have you ever seen me do anything you could consider prejudicial to it?" asked Winston.

"I have not," said Colonel Barrington.

"And it was by her own wish Miss Barrington, who, I fancy, is seldom mistaken, asked me to the Grange?"

"It is a good plea," said Barrington. "I cannot question anything my sister does."

"Then we will let it pass, though I am afraid you will consider what I am going to ask a further presumption. You have forward wheat to deliver, and find it difficult to obtain it?"

Barrington's smile was somewhat grim. "In both cases you have surmised correctly."

Winston nodded. "Still, it is not mere inquisitiveness, sir. I fancy I am the only man at Silverdale who can understand your difficulties, and, what is more to the point, suggest a means of obviating them. You still expect to buy at lower prices before the time to make delivery comes?"

Again the care crept into Barrington's face, and he sat silent for almost a minute. Then he said, very slowly, "I feel that I should resent the question, but I will answer. It is what I hope to do."

"Well," said Winston, "I am afraid you will find prices higher still. There is very little wheat in Minnesota this year, and what there was in Dakota was cut down by hail. Millers in St. Paul and Minneapolis are anxious already, and there is talk of a big corner in Chicago. Nobody is offering grain, while you know what land lies fallow in Manitoba, and the activity of their brokers shows the fears of Winnipeg millers with contracts on hand. This is not my opinion alone. I can convince you from the papers and market reports I see before you."

Barrington could not controvert the unpleasant truth he was still endeavoring to shut his eyes to. "The demand from the East may slacken," he said.

Winston shook his head. "Russia can give them nothing. There was a failure in the Indian monsoon, and South American crops were small. Now, I am going to take a further liberty. How much are you short?"

Barrington was never sure why he told him, but he was hard pressed then, and there was a quiet forcefulness about the younger man that had its effect on him.

"That," he said, holding out a document, "is the one contract I have not covered."

Winston glanced at it. "The quantity is small. Still, money is very scarce and bank interest almost extortionate just now."

Barrington flushed a trifle, and there was anger in his face. He knew the fact that his loss on this sale should cause him anxiety was significant, and that Winston had surmised the condition of his finances tolerably correctly.

"Have you not gone quite far enough?" he said.

Winston nodded. "I fancy I need ask no more, sir. You can scarcely buy the wheat, and the banks will advance nothing further on what you have to offer at Silverdale. It would be perilous to put yourself in the hands of a mortgage broker."

Barrington stood up very grim and straight, and there were not many men at Silverdale who would have met his gaze.

"Your content is a little too apparent, but I can still resent an impertinence," he said. "Are my affairs your business?"

"Sit down, sir," said Winston. "I fancy they are, and had it not been necessary, I would not have ventured so far. You have done much for Silverdale, and it has cost you a good deal, while it seems to me that every man here has a duty to the head of the settlement. I am, however, not going to urge that point, but have, as you know, a propensity for taking risks. I can't help it. It was probably born in me. Now, I will take that contract up for you."

Barrington gazed at him in bewildered astonishment.

But you would lose on it heavily. How could you overcome a difficulty that is too great for me?"

"Well," said Winston, with a little smile, "it seems I have some ability in dealing with these affairs."

Barrington did not answer for a while, and when he spoke it was slowly. "You have a wonderful capacity for making any one believe in you."

"That is not the point," said Winston. "If you will let me have the contract, or, and it comes to the same thing, buy the wheat it calls for, and if advisable sell as much again, exactly as I tell you, at my risk and expense, I shall get what I want out of it. My affairs are a trifle complicated and it would take some little time to make you understand how this would suit me. In the meanwhile you can give me a mere I O U for the difference between what you sold at, and the price today, to be paid without interest and whenever it suits you. It isn't very formal, but you will have to trust me."

Barrington moved twice up and down the room before he turned to the younger man. "Lance," he said, "when you first came here, any deal of this kind between us would have been out of the question. Now, it is only your due to tell you that I have been wrong from the beginning, and you have a good deal to forgive."

"I think we need not go into that," said Winston, with a little smile. "This is a business deal, and if it hadn't suited me I would not have made it."

He went out in another few minutes with a little strip of paper, and just before he left the Grange placed it in Maud Barrington's hands.

"You will not ask any questions, but if ever Colonel Barrington is not kind to you, you can show him that," he said.

He had gone in another moment, but the girl, comprehending dimly what he had done, stood still, staring at the paper with a warmth in her cheeks and a mistiness in her eyes.

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