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   Chapter 6 CHAPTER V

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 16865

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


We returned the horse with a note of sarcastic thanks, and flattered ourselves that we had heard the last of the matter. Several days later, however, when, grimed with oil and rust, I was overhauling a binder, a weather-beaten man wearing a serviceable cavalry uniform rode in, and explaining that he was a sergeant of the Northwest Police added that he had come in the first case to investigate a charge of assault and robbery brought against one Ralph Lorimer by Coombs. I told him as clearly as I could just what had happened, and I fancied that his face relaxed, while his eyes twinkled suspiciously as he patted the fidgeting horse, which did not like the binder.

Then sitting rigidly erect, the same man who afterward rode through an ambush of cattle-stealing rustlers who were determined to kill him, he said, "I'm thinking ye acted imprudently-maist imprudently, but I'm not saying ye could have got your wages otherwise oot o' Coombs. Weel, I'll take Jasper's security for it that ye'll be here, and away back to report to my superior. Don't think ye'll be wanted at Regina, Mr. Lorimer. Good-morning til ye, Jasper."

"Get down, Sergeant Angus," said Jasper, grasping his rein. "If you have run all decent whiskey off the face of the prairie, I've still got some hard cider to offer you. Say, don't you think you had better ride round and lock up that blamed old Coombs?"

There was less hard cider in the homestead when Sergeant Angus Macfarlane rode out again, and our presence was 47 never requested by the Northwest Police. Nevertheless, it became evident that either Coombs or his wife was of inquiring as well as revengeful disposition, and had read some of the letters I left about, for some time later, when the snowdrifts raced across the prairie I received the following epistle from Martin Lorimer:

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"I return the last letter sent your cousin, and until the present cloud is lifted from your name I must forbid your writing her. Neither do I desire any more communications from you. We all have our failings, and there is much I could have forgiven you, but that you should have used your position in the mill to ruin that foolish girl Minnie Lee is more than I can overlook. The story has roused a very bitter feeling, even among my own hands, who are not particularly virtuous, and now that we are on the eve of the elections some of the other side's pettifoggers are using it freely. Still, I should gladly have faced all that, but for my own shame, knowing it is true. Her father is a half-mad religious fanatic of some sort; he came in to call down vengeance upon me, and I laughed at him, as I insulted the first man who told me, for his trouble. Then I remembered how by chance I once heard her arrange to meet you in Winnipeg. I understand the father is going out especially to look for you, and you had better beware of him. Further, I have a letter from a man called Coombs who brings a charge of robbery against you, saying it appeared his duty to advise me. This I returned endorsed, 'A lie,' because none of the Lingdale Lorimers ever stole anything back to the time of Hilary, who was hanged like a Jacobite gentleman for taking despatches sword in hand from two of Cumberland's dragoons. If you are ever actually in want you can let me know. If not, I am sorry to say it, I do not wish to hear from you." 48

Hot with rage I flung down the letter, and, though how it got there never transpired, a tiny slip of paper fluttered out from it, on which I read the words, "There is a shameful story told about you, Ralph, but even in spite of my dislike at mentioning it I must tell you that I do not believe a word of it. Go on, trust in a clean conscience, and the truth will all come out some day."

"God bless her for her sweet charity," I said; then sat staring moodily across the frozen prairie until Harry touched me on the arm.

"I hope you have no bad news from home," he said.

I have suffered at times from speaking too frankly, but I had full trust in Harry, and told him all, adding as I held out the letter:

"He ought to know me better; it's cruel and unjust. I'll write by the next mail to Winnipeg and send back the confounded money he gave me when I came out. Read that!"

Harry did so leisurely, wrinkling his brows; then he said: "I think I sympathize with your uncle-no, wait a little. That letter was written by a man who would much more gladly have defended you-you can recognize regret running through every line of it-forced to believe against his wish by apparently conclusive evidence. Otherwise, he would have ended with the first sentences. I should like him from this letter, and should be pleased to meet your cousin. In any case, apart from the discourtesy, you can't send the money back; from what you told me you are not certain even that it was a present. Better write and explain the whole thing, then if he doesn't answer leave it to time."

I can still see Harry standing wrapped in his long fur coat looking down at me with kindly eyes. In due time I learned that he gave me very good counsel, though it was much against my wishes that I followed it. 49

We worked hard for Jasper that harvest from the clear cold dawning until long after the broad red moon swung up above the prairie. Day by day the tinkling knives of the binders rasped through the flinty stems, and the tossing wooden arms caught up the tall wheat that went down before them and piled it in golden sheaves upon the prairie. This one machine has done great things for the Western Dominion, for without it when wheat is cheap and labor dear many a crop that would not pay for the cutting would rot where it grew. Jasper, however, possessed one of the antiquated kind which bound the sheaves with wire, and occasionally led to wild language when a length of springy steel got mixed up with the thrasher. Every joint and sinew ached, there were times when we were almost too tired to sleep, but-and this was never the case with Coombs-wherever the work was hardest the master of the homestead did two men's share, and his cheery encouragement put heart into the rest.

Then, drawn by many sturdy oxen, the big thrasher rolled in, and the pace grew faster still. The engine, like others in use thereabout, shed steam and hot water round it from every leaky joint, and kept Harry busy feeding it with birch billets and liquid from the well. There were sheaves to pitch to the separator, grain bags to be filled and hauled to the straw-pile granary, while between times we drove wagon-loads of chaff and straw bouncing behind the bronco teams to complete that altogether western structure. Its erection is simple. You drive stout birch poles into the sod, wattle them with willow branches, and lash on whatever comes handiest for rafters; then pile the straw all over it several fathoms thick, and leave the wind and snow to do the rest. When it has settled into shape and solidity it is both frost and rain proof, and often requires a hay-knife to get into it. 50

So, under a blue cloud of wood smoke, and amid blinding fibrous dust, panting men, jolting wagons, and the musical whir of the separator, the work went on, until the thrashers departed, taking their pay with them. Then, in the light box-wagons which first rolled across the uneven prairie on groaning wheels, and then slid in swift silence on runners over the snow, we hauled the grain to the railroad forty miles away. It was done at last, and Harry and I sat by the stove one bitter night considering our next move, when Jasper came in shaking the white crystals from his furs. He saw we were plotting something, and laughed as he said:

"Making up your bill? We'll square it at the fifteen dollars to the day you hauled in the last load. Now I heard you talking of taking up land, and I've been thinking some. Nothing to earn a dollar at before the spring, and it will cost you considerable to board at Regina or Brandon. Is there anything the matter with stopping here? If you are particular we'll make it a deal and cut in three the grocery bill. Meantime you can chop building lumber ready to start your house in spring. No, it isn't any favor; I'll be mighty glad of your company."

It was a frank offer; we accepted it as frankly, and lived like three brothers while the prairie lay white and silent month after month under the Arctic frost. Also we found that a

young Englishman who lived twenty miles to the west was anxious to dispose of his homestead and one hundred and sixty acres of partly broken land at a bargain. We rode over to make inquiries, and learned that he had lost several successive crops. Jasper, however, said this was because he spent most of his time in shooting, while the man who wished to succeed in that region must start his work in grim earnest and stay right with it. Now he was going out to a berth in India, and would take the equivalent 51 of four hundred pounds sterling for the buildings and land, with the implements and a team of oxen thrown in-at least one hundred and fifty pounds down, and the rest to run at eight per cent. on mortgage. It was dirt cheap at the money, but there was no one to buy it, he said, and Jasper, who acted as our adviser, agreed with this.

"Got to make a plunge some time, and risking nothin' you never win," he said. "Figuring all round, it will fit you better than breaking virgin prairie, and you'll pay a pile of that mortgage off if you get a good crop next fall. Then one of you can take up the next quarter-section free land. More working beasts? I'll trade you my kicking third team at a valuation, and you can pay me after harvest. If the crop fails? Well, I'll take my chances."

We spent one night in calculations beside the glowing stove while the shingles crackled above us under the bitter cold, and found that by staking everything we could just manage it.

"I dare say I could raise a last hundred from my admiring relatives by hinting that without it I had serious thoughts of returning home," said Harry. "I don't know why, but they're particularly anxious to keep me away."

There was a ring of bitterness in his tone, and when in due time Harry got money he did not seem by any means grateful for it. It was long afterward before he told me much about his affairs, and even then I did not understand them fully, though it seemed probable that somebody had robbed him of his patrimony. Nobody, however, troubles about his comrade's antecedents in the West, where many men have a somewhat vivid history. The new land accepts them for what they are in the present, leaving the past to the mother country. So a bargain was made, and the vendor received his first instalments; and as that winter sped I looked forward, half-fearful, half-exultant, to what 52 the coming year should bring. Our feet at least were set on the long road which leads to success, and it was well that we could not see the flints and thorns that should wound them cruelly.

It was a clear spring morning, one of those mornings which on the wide grass-lands fill one's heart with hope and stir the frost-chilled blood, when Harry and I stood beside our teams ready to drive the first furrow. A warm breeze from the Pacific, crossing the snow-barred Rockies, set the dry grasses rippling; and the prairie running northward league after league was dappled with moving shadow by the white cloudlets that scudded across the great vault of blue. Behind us straggling silver-stemmed birches sheltered the little log-house of Fairmead, which nestled snugly among them, with its low sod-built stable further among the slender branches behind. Trees are scarce in that region, and the settlers make the most of them. The white prairie was broken by a space of ashes and black loam, with a fire still crackling in crimson tongues among the stubble at the further end of it. Straw is worth nothing there, so a little is cut with the ear, and the rest burned off in spring, while the grasses growing and rotting for countless centuries have added to the rich alluvial left by some inland sea which covered all the prairie when the world was young. Nature, as those who love her know, is never in a hurry, and very slowly, little by little, working on through forgotten ages, she had stored her latent wealth under the matted sod against the time when the plowshare should convert it into food for man and beast. There is no wheat soil on the surface of the earth to beat that of Assiniboia and Manitoba.

Harry leaned on the plow-stilts with a smile on his handsome sun-bronzed face, and I smiled at him, for we were young and hope was strong within us.

"Ralph, I feel a hankering after some old heathen ceremonial, 53 a pouring of wine upon it, or a garlanded priest to bless the fruitful earth," he said, "but we put our trust in science and automatic binders now, and disregard the powers of infinity until they smite the crop down with devastating hail. Well, here's the first stroke for fortune. Get up! Aw there, Stonewall!"

He tapped the big red ox with a pointed stick, the two beasts settled their massive shoulders to the collar, and with a soft greasy swish and a crackle of half-burnt stubble the moldboard rolled aside the loam. I too felt that this was a great occasion. At last I was working my own land; with the plowshare I was opening the gate of an unknown future; and my fingers tingled as I jerked the lines. Then while the coulter sheared its guiding line, and the trampling of hoofs mingled with the soft curl of clods, they seemed by some trick of memory to hammer out words I had last heard far away in the little weathered church under Starcross Moor, "And preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth so as in due time we may enjoy them."

There was a two-hours' rest at noonday, when we fared frugally on fried potatoes and the usual reistit pork, while Harry's oxen waded deep into a sloo, which is a lake formed by melting snow. Neither would they come out for either threats or blandishments until he went in too, with a pike; while Jasper's broncos, which were considerably less than half-tamed, backed round and round in rings when I attempted to re-harness them. Still, with laughter and banter we started again, and worked on until daylight faded and the stars twinkled out one by one above the dewy prairie. The scent of wild peppermint hung heavy in the cool air, which came out of the north exhilarating like wine, while the birch twigs sang strange songs to us as we drove the teams to the stable through the litter of withered leaves. An hour's work followed before we had made all straight 54 there, and it was with a proud feeling of possession that at last I patted the neck of one of the horses, while the nervous creature looking up at me with understanding eyes rubbed its head against my shoulder.

When the stove was lighted we drank green tea and ate more flapjacks which Harry had badly burned. I remember that when he handed me the first cup he said, "We haven't got champagne, and we don't want whiskey, but this is a great day for both of us. Well, here's luck to the plowing and increase to the seed, and, whether it's success or failure, what we have started we'll see through together!"

Half ashamed of display of sentiment, I clinked the cracked cup against his own, and Harry leaned forward toward me with a smile that could not hide the light of youthful enthusiasm in his eyes, graceful, in spite of the mold of the plowing on his fretted garments. Then he choked and spluttered, for the hot fluid scalded him, and a roar of laughter saved the situation. Made as it was over a cup of very smoky tea, that compact was carried out faithfully under parching heat and bitter cold, in the biting dust of alkali and under the silence of the primeval bush. For an hour we lounged smoking and chatting in ox-hide chairs, watching the red glow from the range door flicker upon the guns and axes on the wall, or the moonlight broaden across the silent grass outside each time it faded, until the mournful coyotes began to wail along the rim of the prairie and we crawled up a ladder into the little upper room, where in ten minutes we were fast asleep on hard wooden couches covered with skins. I remember that just before I sank into oblivion a vision of a half-mile length of golden wheat floated before my heavy eyes, with Grace Carrington standing, sickle in hand, beside it. Her dress was of the color of the ear-bent stems, her eyes as the clear ether above, and the sickle was brighter than any crescent 55 moon. Then it all changed. Powdery snow eddied through the withered stubble, and, against a background of somber firs that loomed above it, there was only the tall forbidding figure of Colonel Carrington. Afterward I often remembered that dream.

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