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   Chapter 23 SERGEANT STIMSON CONFIRMS HIS SUSPICIONS

Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19126

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was late in the afternoon when Colonel Barrington drove up to Winston's homestead. He had his niece and sister with him, and when he pulled up his team, all three were glad of the little breeze that came down from the blueness of the north and rippled the whitened grass. It had blown over leagues of sun-bleached prairie, and the great desolation beyond the pines of the Saskatchewan, but had not wholly lost the faint, wholesome chill it brought from the Pole.

There was no cloud in the vault of ether, and slanting sun-rays beat fiercely down upon the prairie, until the fibrous dust grew fiery and the eyes ached from the glare of the vast stretch of silvery gray. The latter was, however, relieved by stronger color in front of the party, for blazing gold on the dazzling stubble, the oat sheaves rolled away in long rows that diminished and melted into each other, until they cut the blue of the sky in a delicate filigree. Oats had moved up in value in sympathy with wheat, and the good soil had most abundantly redeemed its promise that year. Colonel Barrington, however, sighed a little as he looked at them, and remembered that such a harvest might have been his.

"We will get down and walk towards the wheat," he said. "It is a good crop and Lance is to be envied."

"Still," said Miss Barrington, "he deserved it, and those sheaves stand for more than the toil that brought them there."

"Of course!" said the Colonel, with a curious little smile. "For rashness, I fancied, when they showed the first blade above the clod, but I am less sure of it now. Well, the wheat is even finer."

A man who came up took charge of the horses, and the party walked in silence towards the wheat. It stretched before them in a vast parallelogram, and while the oats were the pale gold of the austral, there was the tint of the ruddier metal of their own Northwest in this. It stood tall and stately, murmuring as the sea does, until it rolled before a stronger puff of breeze in waves of ochre, through which the warm bronze gleamed when its rhythmic patter swelled into deeper-toned harmonies. There was that in the elfin music and blaze of color which appealed to the sensual ear and eye, and something which struck deeper still, as it did in the days men poured libations on the fruitful soil, and white-robed priests blessed it, when the world was young.

Maud Barrington felt it vaguely, but she recognized more clearly, as her aunt had done, the faith and daring of the sower. The earth was very bountiful, but that wheat had not come there of itself; and she knew the man who had called it up and had done more than bear his share of the primeval curse which, however, was apparently more or less evaded at Silverdale. Even when the issue appeared hopeless, the courage that held him resolute in the face of others' fears, and the greatness of his projects, had appealed to her, and it almost counted for less that he had achieved success. Then glancing further across the billowing grain she saw him--still, as it seemed it had always been with him, amid the stress and dust of strenuous endeavor.

Once more, as she had seen them when the furrows were bare at seed time, and there was apparently only ruin in store for those who raised the Eastern people's bread, lines of dusty teams came plodding down the rise. They advanced in echelon, keeping their time and distance with a military precision, but in place of the harrows, the tossing arms of the binders flashed and swung. The wheat went down before them, their wake was strewn with gleaming sheaves, and one man came foremost swaying in the driving-seat of a rattling machine. His face was the color of a Blackfeet's, and she could see the darkness of his neck above the loose-fronted shirt, and a bare blackened arm that was raised to hold the tired beasts to their task. Their trampling, and the crash and rattle that swelled in slow crescendo, drowned the murmur of the wheat, until one of the machines stood still, and the leader, turning a moment in his saddle, held up a hand. Then those that came behind swung into changed formation, passed, and fell into indented line again, while Colonel Barrington nodded with grim approval.

"It is very well done," he said. "The best of harvesters! No newcomers yonder. They're capable Manitoba men. I don't know where he got them, and, in any other year, one would have wondered where he would find the means of paying them. We have never seen farming of this kind at Silverdale."

He seemed to sigh a little while his hand closed on the bridle, and Maud Barrington fancied she understood his thoughts just then.

"Nobody can be always right, and the good years do not come alone," she said. "You will plow every acre next one."

Barrington smiled dryly. "I'm afraid that will be a little late, my dear. Any one can follow, but since, when everybody's crop is good, the price comes down, the man who gets the prize is the one who shows the way."

"He was content to face the risk," said Miss Barrington.

"Of course," said the Colonel quietly. "I should be the last to make light of his foresight and courage. Indeed, I am glad I can acknowledge it, in more ways than one, for I have felt lately that I am getting an old man. Still, there is one with greater capacities ready to step into my shoes, and though it was long before I could overcome my prejudice against him, I think I should now be content to let him have them. Whatever Lance may have been, he was born a gentleman, and blood is bound to tell."

Maud Barrington, who was of patrician parentage, and would not at one time have questioned this assertion, wondered why she felt less sure of it just then.

"But if he had not been, would not what he has done be sufficient to vouch for him?" she said.

Barrington smiled a little, and the girl felt that her question was useless as she glanced at him. He sat very straight in his saddle, immaculate in dress, with a gloved hand on his hip, and a stamp which he had inherited, with the thinly-covered pride that usually accompanies it from generations of a similar type, on his clean-cut face. It was evidently needless to look for any sympathy with that view from him.

"My dear," he said, "there are things at which the others can beat us; but, after all, I do not think they are worth the most, and while Lance has occasionally exhibited a few undesirable characteristics, no doubt acquired in this country, and has not been always blameless, the fact that he is a Courthorne at once covers and accounts for a good deal."

Then Winston recognized them, and made a sign to one of the men behind him as he hauled his binder clear of the wheat. He had dismounted in another minute, and came towards them, with the jacket he had not wholly succeeded in struggling into, loose about his shoulders.

"It is almost time I gave my team a rest," he said, "Will you come with me to the house?"

"No," said Colonel Barrington. "We only stopped in passing. The crop will harvest well."

"Yes," said Winston, turning with a little smile to Miss Barrington. "Better than I expected, and prices are still moving up. You will remember, madam, who it was wished me good fortune. It has undeniably come!"

"Then," said the white-haired lady, "next year I will do as much again, though it will be a little unnecessary, because you have my good wishes all the time. Still, you are too prosaic to fancy they can have anything to do with--this."

She pointed to the wheat, but, though Winston smiled again, there was a curious expression in his face as he glanced at her niece.

"I certainly do, and your good-will has made a greater difference than you realize to me," he said.

Miss Barrington looked at him steadily. "Lance," she said, "there is something about you and your speeches that occasionally puzzles me. Now, of course, that was the only rejoinder you could make, but I fancied you meant it." "I did," said Winston, with a trace of grimness in his smile. "Still, isn't it better to tell any one too little rather than too much?"

"Well," said Miss Barrington, "you are going to be franker with me by and by. Now, my brother has been endeavoring to convince us that you owe your success to qualities inherited from bygone Courthornes."

Winston did not answer for a moment, and then he laughed. "I fancy Colonel Barrington is wrong," he said. "Don't you think there are latent capabilities in every man, though only one here and there gets an opportunity of using them? In any case, wouldn't it be pleasanter for any one to feel that his virtues were his own and not those of his family?"

Miss Barrington's eyes twinkled, but she shook her head. "That," she said, "would be distinctly wrong of him, but I fancy it is time we were getting on."

In another few minutes Colonel Barrington took up the reins, and as they drove slowly past the wheat, his niece had another view of the toiling teams. They were moving on tirelessly with their leader in front of them, and the rasp of the knives, trample of hoofs, and clash of the binders' wooden arms once more stirred her. She had heard those sounds often before, and attached no significance to them, but now she knew a little of the stress and effort that preceded them, she could hear through the turmoil the exultant note of victory.

Then the wagon rolled more slowly up the rise, and had passed from view behind it, when a mounted man rode up to Winston with an envelope in his hand.

"Mr. Macdonald was in at the settlement and t

he telegraph clerk gave it him," he said. "He told me to come along with it."

Winston opened the message, and his face grew grim as he read, "Send me five hundred dollars. Urgent."

Then he thrust it into his pocket, and went on with his harvesting when he had thanked the man. He also worked until dusk was creeping up across the prairie before he concerned himself further about the affair, and then the note he wrote was laconic.

"Enclosed you will find fifty dollars, sent only because you may be ill. In case of necessity you can forward your doctor's or hotel bills," it ran.

It was with a wry smile he watched a man ride off towards the settlement with it. "I shall not be sorry when the climax comes," he said. "The strain is telling."

In the meanwhile Sergeant Stimson had been quietly renewing his acquaintance with certain ranchers and herders of sheep scattered across the Albertan prairie some six hundred miles away. They found him more communicative and cordial than he used to be, and with one or two he unbent so far as, in the face of the regulations, to refresh himself with whisky which had contributed nothing to the Canadian revenue. Now the lonely ranchers have as a rule few opportunities of friendly talk with anybody, and as they responded to the sergeant's geniality, he became acquainted with a good many facts, some of which confirmed certain vague suspicions of his, though others astonished him. In consequence of this he rode out one night with two or three troopers of a Western squadron.

His apparent business was somewhat prosaic. Musquash, the Blackfeet, in place of remaining quietly on his reserve, had in a state of inebriation reverted to the primitive customs of his race, and taking the trail, not only annexed some of his white neighbors' ponies and badly frightened their wives, but drove off a steer with which he feasted his people. The owner following came upon the hide, and Musquash, seeing it was too late to remove the brand from it, expressed his contrition, and pleaded in extenuation that he was rather worthy of sympathy than blame, because he would never have laid hands on what was not his had not a white man sold him deleterious liquor. As no white man is allowed to supply an Indian with alcohol in any form, the wardens of the prairie took a somewhat similar view of the case, and Stimson was, from motives which he did not mention, especially anxious to get his grip upon the other offender.

The night when they rode out was very dark, and they spent half of it beneath a birch bluff, seeing nothing whatever, and only hearing a coyote howl. It almost appeared there was something wrong with the information supplied them respecting the probable running of another load of prohibited whisky, and towards morning Stimson rode up to the young commissioned officer.

"The man who brought us word has either played their usual trick and sent us here while his friends take the other trail, or somebody saw us ride out and went south to tell the boys," he said. "Now, you might consider it advisable that I and one of the troopers should head for the ford at Willow Hollow, sir."

"Yes," said the young officer, who was quite aware that there were as yet many things connected with his duties he did not know. "Now I come to think of it, Sergeant, I do. We'll give you two hours, and then, if you don't turn up, ride over after you; it's condemnably shivery waiting for nothing here."

Stimson saluted and shook his bridle, and rather less than an hour later faintly discerned a rattle of wheels that rose from a long way off across the prairie. Then he used the spur, and by and by it became evident that the drumming of their horses' feet had carried far, for, though the rattle grew a little louder, there was no doubt that whoever drove the wagon had no desire to be overtaken. Still, two horses cannot haul a vehicle over a rutted trail as fast as one can carry a man, and when the wardens of the prairie raced towards the black wall of birches that rose higher in front of them, the sound of wheels seemed very near. It, however, ceased suddenly, and was followed by a drumming that could only have been made by a galloping horse.

"One beast!" said the Sergeant. "Well, they'd have two men, any way, in that wagon. Get down and picket. We'll find the other fellow somewhere in the bluff."

They came upon him within five minutes endeavoring to cut loose the remaining horse from the entangled harness in such desperate haste that he did not hear them until Stimson grasped his shoulder.

"Hold out your hands," he said. "You have your carbine ready, trooper?"

The man made no resistance, and Stimson laughed when the handcuffs were on.

"Now," he said, "where's your partner?"

"I don't know that I mind telling you," said the prisoner. "It was a low down trick he played on me. We got down to take out the horses when we saw we couldn't get away from you, and I'd a blanket girthed round the best of them, when he said he'd hold him while I tried what I could do with the other. Well, I let him, and the first thing I knew he was off at a gallop, leaving me with the other kicking devil two men couldn't handle. You'll find him rustling south over the Montana trail."

"Mount and ride!" said Stimson, and when his companion galloped off, turned once more to his prisoner.

"You'll have a lantern somewhere, and I'd like a look at you," he said. "If you're the man I expect, I'm glad I found you."

"It's in the wagon," said the other dejectedly.

Stimson got a light, and when he had released and picketed the plunging horse, held it so that he could see his prisoner. Then he nodded with evident contentment.

"You may as well sit down. We've got to have a talk," he said.

"Well," said the other, "I'd help you to catch Harmon if I could, but I can prove he hired me to drive him over to Kemp's in the wagon, and you'd find it difficult to show I knew what there was in the packages he took along."

Stimson smiled dryly. "Still," he said, "I think it could be done, and I've another count against you. You had one or two deals with the boys some little while ago."

"I'm not afraid of your fixing up against me anything I did then," said the other man.

"No?" said Stimson. "Now, I guess you're wrong, and it might be a good deal more serious than whisky-running. One night a man crawled up to your homestead through the snow, and you took him in."

He saw the sudden fear in his companion's face before he turned it from the lantern.

"It has happened quite a few times," said the latter. "We don't turn any stranger out in this country."

"Of course!" said the Sergeant gravely, though he felt a little thrill of content as he saw the shot, he had been by no means sure of, had told. "That man, however, had lost his horse in the river, and it was the one he got from you that took him out of the country. Now, if we could show you knew what he had done, it might go as far as hanging somebody."

The man was evidently not a confirmed law breaker, but merely one of the small farmers who were willing to pick up a few dollars by assisting the whisky-runners now and then, and he abandoned all resistance.

"Sergeant," he said, "it was 'most a week before I knew, and if anybody had told me at the time, I'd have turned him out to freeze before I'd have let him have a horse of mine."

"That wouldn't go very far if we brought the charge against you," said Stimson grimly. "If you'd sent us word when you did know, we'd have had him."

"Well," said the man, "he was across the frontier by that time, and I don't know that most folks would have done it, if they'd had the warning the boys sent me."

Stimson appeared to consider for almost a minute, and then gravely rapped his companion's arm.

"It seems to me that the sooner you and I have an understanding, the better it will be for you," he said.

They were some time arriving at it, and the Sergeant's superiors might not have been pleased with all he promised during the discussion. Still, he was flying at higher game, and had to sacrifice a little, while he knew his man.

"We'll fix it up without you, as far as we can, but if we want you to give evidence that the man who lost his horse in the river was not farmer Winston, we'll know where to find you," he said. "You'll have to take your chance of being tried with him if we find you're trying to get out of the country."

It was half an hour later when the rest of the troopers arrived and Stimson had some talk with their officer aside.

"A little out of the usual course, isn't it?" said the latter. "I don't know that I'd have countenanced it, so to speak, off my own bat at all, but I had a tolerably plain hint that you were to use your discretion over this affair. After all, one has to stretch a point or two occasionally."

"Yes, sir," said Stimson. "A good many now and then."

The officer smiled a little and went back to the rest. "Two of you will ride after the other rascal," he said. "Now, look here, my man, the first time my troopers, who'll call round quite frequently, don't find you about your homestead, you'll land yourself in a tolerably serious difficulty. In the meanwhile, I'm sorry we can't bring a charge of whisky-running against you, but another time be careful who you hire your wagon to."

Then there was a rapid drumming of hoofs as two troopers went off at a gallop, while when the rest turned back towards the outpost. Stimson rode with them quietly content.

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