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Winston of the Prairie By Harold Bindloss Characters: 18395

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The silence in the big room had grown oppressive, when Barrington raised his head and sat stiffly upright.

"What has happened has been a blow to me, and I am afraid I am scarcely equal to entertaining you tonight," he said. "I should, however, like Dane and Macdonald, and one or two of the older men to stay a while. There is still, I fancy, a good deal for us to do."

The others turned towards the door, but as they passed Winston, Miss Barrington turned and touched his shoulder. The man, looking up suddenly, saw her and her niece standing close beside her.

"Madam," he said hoarsely, though it was Maud Barrington he glanced at, "the comedy is over. Well, I promised you an explanation, and now you have it you will try not to think too bitterly of me. I cannot ask you to forgive me."

The little white-haired lady pointed to the ears of wheat which stood gleaming ruddy bronze in front of him.

"That," she said, very quietly, "will make it easier."

Maud Barrington said nothing, but every one in the room saw her standing a moment beside the man, with a little flush on her face and no blame in her eyes. Then she passed on, but short as it was the pause had been very significant, for it seemed that whatever the elders of the community might decide, the two women, whose influence was supreme at Silverdale, had given the impostor absolution.

The girl could not analyze her feelings, but through them all a vague relief was uppermost, for whatever he had been it was evident the man had done one wrong only, and daringly, and that was a good deal easier to forgive than several incidents in Courthorne's past would have been. Then she was conscious that Miss Barrington's eyes were upon her.

"Aunt," she said, with a little tremor in her voice, "It is almost bewildering. Still, one seemed to feel that what that man has done could never have been the work of Lance Courthorne."

Miss Barrington made no answer, but her face was very grave, and just then those nearest it drew back a little from the door. A trooper stood outside it, his carbine glinting in the light, and another was silhouetted against the sky, sitting motionless in his saddle further back on the prairie.

"The police are still here," said somebody. One by one they passed out under the trooper's gaze, but there was the usual delay in harnessing and saddling, and the first vehicle had scarcely rolled away, when again the beat of hoofs and thin jingle of steel came portentously out of the silence. Maud Barrington shivered a little as she heard it.

In the meanwhile, the few who remained had seated themselves about Colonel Barrington. When there was quietness again, he glanced at Winston, who still sat at the foot of the table.

"Have you anything more to tell us?" he asked. "These gentlemen are here to advise me if necessary."

"Yes," said Winston quietly. "I shall probably leave Silverdale before morning, and have now to hand you a statement of my agreement with Courthorne and the result of my farming here, drawn up by a Winnipeg accountant. Here is also a document in which I have taken the liberty of making you and Dane my assigns. You will, as authorized by it, pay to Courthorne the sum due to him, and with your consent, which you have power to withhold, I purpose taking one thousand dollars only of the balance that remains to me. I have it here now, and in the meanwhile surrender it to you. Of the rest, you will make whatever use that appears desirable for the general benefit of Silverdale. Courthorne has absolutely no claim upon it."

He laid a wallet on the table, and Dane glanced at Colonel Barrington, who nodded when he returned it unopened.

"We will pass it without counting. You accept the charge, sir?" he said.

"Yes," said Barrington gravely. "It seems it is forced on me. Well, we will glance through the statement."

For at least ten minutes nobody spoke, and then Dane said. "There are prairie farmers who would consider what he is leaving behind him a competence."

"If this agreement, which was apparently verbal, is confirmed by Courthorne, the entire sum rightfully belongs to the man he made his tenant," said Barrington, and Macdonald smiled gravely as he glanced at Winston.

"I think we can accept the statement that it was made without question, sir," he said.

Winston shook his head. "I claim one thousand dollars as the fee of my services, and they should be worth that much, but I will take no more."

"Are we not progressing a little too rapidly, sir?" said Dane. "It seems to me we have yet to decide whether it is necessary that the man who has done so much for us should leave Silverdale."

Winston smiled a trifle grimly. "I think," he said, "that question will very shortly be answered for you."

Macdonald held his hand up, and a rapid thud of hoofs came faintly through the silence.

"Troopers! They are coming here," he said.

"Yes," said Winston. "I fancy they will relieve you from any further difficulty."

Dane strode to one of the windows, and glanced at Colonel Barrington as he pulled back the catch. Winston, however, shook his head, and a little flush crept into Dane's bronzed face.

"Sorry. Of course you are right," he said. "It will be better that they should acquit you."

No one moved for a few more minutes, and then with a trooper behind him Sergeant Stimson came in, and laid his hand on Winston's shoulder.

"I have a warrant for your apprehension, farmer Winston," he said. "You probably know the charge against you."

"Yes," said Winston simply. "I hope to refute it. I will come with you."

He went out, and Barrington stared at the men about him. "I did not catch the name before. That was the man who shot the police trooper in Alberta?"

"No, sir," said Dane, very quietly. "Nothing would induce me to believe it of him!"

Barrington looked at him in bewilderment. "But he must have done--unless," he said, and ended with a little gasp. "Good Lord! There was the faint resemblance, and they changed horses--it is horrible."

Dane's eyes were very compassionate as he laid his hand gently on his leader's shoulder.

"Sir," he said, "you have our sympathy, and I am sorry that to offer it is all we can do. Now, I think we have stayed too long already."

They went out, and left Colonel Barrington sitting alone with a gray face at the head of the table.

It was a minute or two later when Winston swung himself into the saddle at the door of the Grange. All the vehicles had not left as yet, and there was a little murmur of sympathy when the troopers closed in about him. Still, before they rode away one of the men wheeled his horse aside, and Winston saw Maud Barrington standing bareheaded by his stirrup. The moonlight showed that her face was impassive but curiously pale.

"We could not let you go without a word, and you will come back to us with your innocence made clear," she said.

Her voice had a little ring in it that carried far, and her companions heard her. What Winston said they could not hear, and he did not remember it, but he swung his hat off, and those who saw the girl at his stirrup recognized with confusion that she alone had proclaimed her faith, while they had stood aside from him. Then the Sergeant raised his hand and the troopers rode forward with their prisoner.

In the meanwhile, Courthorne was pressing south for the American frontier, and daylight was just creeping across the prairie when the pursuers, who had found his trail and the ranch he obtained a fresh horse at, had sight of him. There were three of them, riding wearily, grimed with dust, when a lonely mounted figure showed for a moment on the crest of a rise. In another minute, it dipped into a hollow, and Corporal Payne smiled grimly.

"I think we have him now. The creek can't be far away, and he's west of the bridge," he said. "While we try to head him off you'll follow behind him, Hilton."

One trooper sent the spurs in, and, while the others swung off, rode straight on. Courthorne was at least a mile from them, but they were nearer the bridge, and Payne surmised that his jaded horse would fail him if he essayed to ford the creek and climb the farther side of the deep ravine it flowed through. They saw nothing of him when they swept across the rise, for here and there a grove of willows stretched out across the prairie from the sinuous band of trees in front of them. These marked the river hollow, and Payne, knowing that the chase might be ended in a few more minutes, did not spare the spur. He also remembered, as he tightened his grip on the bridle, the white face of Trooper Shannon flecked with the drifting snow.

The bluff that rose steadily higher came back to them, willow and straggling birch flashed by, and at last Payne drew bridle where a rutted trail wound down between the trees to the bridge in the hollow. A swift glance showed him that a mounted man could scarcely make his way between them, and he smiled dryly as he signed to his companion.

"Back your horse clear of the trail," he said, and there was a rattle as he flung his carbine across the saddle. "With Hilton behind him, he'll ride

straight into our hands."

He wheeled his horse in among the birches, and then sat still, with fingers that quivered a little on the carbine-stock, until a faint drumming rose from the prairie.

"He's coming!" said the trooper. "Hilton's hanging on to him."

Payne made no answer, and the sound that rang more loudly every moment through the grayness of the early daylight was not pleasant to hear. Man's vitality is near its lowest about that hour, and the troopers had ridden furiously the long night through, while one of them, who knew Lance Courthorne, surmised that there was grim work before him. Still, though he shivered as a little chilly wind shook the birch twigs, he set his lips, and once more remembered the comrade who had ridden far and kept many a lonely vigil with him.

Then a mounted man appeared in the space between the trees. His horse was jaded, and he rode loosely, swaying once or twice in his saddle, but he came straight on, and there was a jingle and rattle as the troopers swung out into the trail. The man saw them, for he glanced over his shoulder, as if at the rider who appeared behind, and then sent the spurs in again.

"Pull him up," cried Corporal Payne, and his voice was a little strained. "Stop right where you are before we fire on you!"

The man must have seen the carbines, for he raised himself a trifle, and Payne saw his face under the flapping hat. It was drawn and gray, but there was no sign of yielding or consternation in the half-closed eyes. Then he lurched in his saddle as from exhaustion or weariness, and straightened himself again with both hands on the bridle. Payne saw his heels move and the spurs drip red, and slid his left hand further along the carbine stock. The trail was steep and narrow. A horseman could scarcely turn in it, and the stranger was coming on at a gallop.

"He will have it," said the trooper hoarsely. "If he rides one of us down he may get away."

"We have got to stop him," said Corporal Payne.

Once more the swaying man straightened himself, flung his head back, and with a little breathless laugh drove his horse furiously at Payne. He was very close now, and his face showed livid under the smearing dust, but his lips were drawn up in a little bitter smile as he rode straight upon the leveled carbines. Payne, at least, understood it, and the absence of flung-up hand or cry. Courthorne's inborn instincts were strong to the end.

There was a hoarse shout from the trooper, and no answer, and a carbine flashed. Then Courthorne loosed the bridle, reeled sideways from the saddle, rolled half round with one foot in the stirrup and his head upon the ground, and was left behind, while the riderless horse and pursuer swept past the two men who, avoiding them by a hairsbreadth, sat motionless a moment in the thin drifting smoke.

Then Corporal Payne swung himself down, and, while the trooper followed, stooped over the man who lay, a limp huddled object, in the trail. He blinked up at them out of eyes that were almost closed.

"I think you have done for me," he said.

Payne glanced at his comrade. "Push on to the settlement," he said. "They've a doctor there. Bring him and Harland the magistrate out."

The trooper seemed glad to mount and ride away, and Payne once more bent over the wounded man.

"Very sorry," he said. "Still, you see, you left me no other means of stopping you. Now, is there anything I can do for you?"

A little wry smile crept into Courthorne's face. "Don't worry," he said. "I had no wish to wait for the jury, and you can't get at an injury that's inside me."

He said nothing more, and it seemed a very long while to Corporal Payne, and Trooper Hilton, who rejoined him, before a wagon with two men in it beside the trooper came jolting up the trail. They got out, and one of them who was busy with Courthorne for some minutes nodded to Payne.

"Any time in the next twelve hours. He may last that long," he said. "Nobody's going to worry him now, but I'll see if I can revive him a little when we get him to Adamson's. It can't be more than a league away."

They lifted Courthorne, who appeared insensible, into the wagon, and Payne signed to Trooper Hilton. "Take my horse, and tell Colonel Barrington. Let him understand there's no time to lose. Then you can bring Stimson."

The tired lad hoisted himself into his saddle, and groaned a little as he rode away, but he did his errand, and late that night Barrington and Dane drove up to a lonely homestead. A man led them into a room where a limp figure was lying on a bed.

"Been kind of sleeping most of the day, but the doctor has given him something that has wakened him," he said.

Barrington returned Payne's greeting, and sat down with Dane close beside him, while, when the wounded man raised his head, the doctor spoke softly to the magistrate from the settlement a league or two away.

"I fancy he can talk to you, but you had better be quick if you wish to ask him anything," he said.

Courthorne seemed to have heard him, for he smiled a little as he glanced at Barrington. "I'm afraid it will hurt you to hear what I have to tell this gentleman," he said. "Now, I want you to listen carefully, and every word put down. Doctor, a little more brandy."

Barrington apparently would have spoken, but, while the doctor held a glass to the bloodless lips, the magistrate, who took up a strip of paper, signed to him.

"We'll have it in due form. Give him that book, doctor," he said. "Now repeat after me, and then we'll take your testimony."

It was done, and a flicker of irony showed in Courthorne's half-closed eyes.

"You feel more sure of me after that?" he said, in a voice that was very faint and strained. "Still, you see, I could gain nothing by deviating from the truth now. Well, I shot Trooper Shannon. You'll have the date in the warrant. Don't know if it will seem strange to you, but I forget it. I borrowed farmer Winston's horse and rifle without his knowledge, though I had paid him a trifle to personate me and draw the troopers off the whisky-runners. That was Winston's only complicity. The troopers, who fancied they were chasing him, followed me until his horse which I was riding went through the ice, but Winston was in Montana at the time, and did not know that I was alive until a very little while ago. Now, you can straighten that up and read it out to me."

The magistrate's pen scratched noisily in the stillness of the room, but, before he had finished, Sergeant Stimson, hot and dusty, came in. Then he raised his hand, and for a while his voice rose and fell monotonously, until Courthorne nodded.

"That's all right," he said. "I'll sign."

The doctor raised him a trifle, and moistened his lips with brandy as he gave him the pen. It scratched for a moment or two, and then fell from his relaxing fingers, while the man who took the paper wrote across the foot of it, and then would have handed it to Colonel Barrington, but that Dane quietly laid his hand upon it.

"No," he said. "If you want another witness take me."

Barrington thanked him with a gesture, and Courthorne, looking round, saw Stimson.

"You have been very patient, Sergeant, and it's rough on you that the one man you can lay your hands upon is slipping away from you," he said. "You'll see by my deposition that Winston thought me as dead as the rest of you did."

Stimson nodded to the magistrate. "I heard what was read, and it is confirmed by the facts I have picked up," he said.

Then Courthorne turned to Barrington. "I sympathize with you, sir," he said. "This must be horribly mortifying, but, you see, Winston once stopped my horse backing over a bridge into a gully when just to hold his hand would have rid him of me. You will not grudge me the one good turn I have probably done any man, when I shall assuredly not have the chance of doing another."

Barrington winced a little, for he recognized the irony in the failing voice, but he rose and moved towards the bed.

"Lance," he said, a trifle hoarsely, "it is not that which makes what has happened horrible to me, and I am only glad that you have righted this man. Your father had many claims on me, and things might have gone differently if, when you came out to Canada, I had done my duty by his son."

Courthorne smiled a little, but without bitterness. "It would have made no difference, sir, and, after all, I led the life that suited me. By and by you will be grateful to me. I sent you a man who will bring prosperity to Silverdale."

Then he turned to Stimson, and his voice sank almost beyond hearing as he said, "Sergeant, remember, Winston fancied I was dead."

He moved his head a trifle, and the doctor stooping over him signed to the rest, who went out except Barrington.

It was some hours later, and very cold, when Barrington came softly into the room where Dane lay half-asleep in a big chair. The latter glanced at him with a question in his eyes, and the Colonel nodded very gravely.

"Yes," he said. "He has slipped out of the troopers' hands and beyond our reproaches--but I think the last thing he did will count for a little."

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