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   Chapter 11 CHAPTER X

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 21620

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


A FORWARD POLICY

Grace and I met often again before the thaw in spring put an end to all thoughts of amusement. Each time she seemed to place me on a more friendly footing, and I laid myself out to cultivate the good-will of the Carrington settlers, in the hope of meeting her at their gatherings, for they at least enjoyed themselves during the winter. Some of the younger gallants regarded me with evident hostility; but I could afford to smile at them, because, though the heiress of Carrington was gracious to all, she seemed to find more pleasure in my company than in their attentions. Still, at last even Harry grumbled when, half-frozen and with a worn-out team, I reached Fairmead at dawn. "We'll want another pair of horses if this is to continue," he said. "Ralph, it's not my business, but I'm afraid you are laying up trouble for yourself."

There were, however, disappointments, for now and then I drove long leagues through whirling snow or bitter frost only to find that Grace was not present, and it was on one of these occasions that I betrayed my secret to her aunt, Miss Carrington. She had been visiting an outlying farm, and though there were others upon whom the duty devolved I insisted on driving her home. In my case it was an inestimable privilege, for by good fortune Grace might be waiting to welcome her. I had been silent all evening, and when with a hissing beneath the steel runners and a rhythmic beat of hoofs we swept on under radiant 106 moonlight, Miss Carrington made some jesting comment upon it. Perhaps the exhilarating rush through the cold, still air had stirred me into undue frankness, for I answered:

"Grace was not there, and nothing seems the same without her. She brings an atmosphere of brightness with her, and one learns to miss it. What would this prairie look like if a cloud obscured the moon?"

Miss Carrington smiled a little, glancing at me keenly, as she said: "A pretty simile! It was more than I expected after your rueful looks to-night. But you are not singular. There are others in the Carrington settlement who think the same-young men with many rich acres and wealthy kinsfolk behind them at home."

Her voice changed, and I think the last part was intended to have its meaning, but a sudden impulse overcame my reason, and I answered rashly:

"That may well be, but there are none among them who would work or starve for her as I should. I am only a poor settler, but with one purpose always before him a determined man may accomplish much. However, I didn't mean to tell you or any one this until-my partner and I have accomplished something; and yet perhaps I have said too much not to finish."

Miss Carrington moved in her wrappings so that she could meet my eyes, but when I returned her gaze steadily it was a relief to find sympathy rather than anger in her face.

"I think you have," she said, with gentleness.

So, tightening my grip on the reins, I continued doggedly: "Then, even at the risk of seeming a presumptuous fool, you shall hear it all. This new land is for the strong and enterprising, who will stake their best on success within it, and with the hope I have before me I must succeed. So 107 while brain and sinew hold out neither drought, nor frost, nor hardship shall turn me aside until-until I am more equal in worldly possessions with Colonel Carrington. Others have risen from obscurity to hold many acres, and somehow I feel that I shall do so too. But if I owned half the Dominion it would be little to offer Miss Carrington, and without her my present holding would content me." Then I ended slowly, "I wonder whether, even in that case, there would be any chance for me?"

My companion's face was grave under the moonlight, but she touched my arm with a friendly gesture, as she answered: "Those are a young man's words, and I suppose some would call them foolish; but though I am old I like the spirit in them. After all, even in these days, we have not done with romance, and a stout heart is often better than land and property. Grace is like you in many ways; she takes life seriously, and I fancy she sees, as I do, that some of us are spending our best on pleasure in Carrington. My brother is a stern, proud man, and yet, as you say, the good things come to those who can fight and wait for them. More I cannot tell you."

"Thank you, Miss Carrington," I answered, feeling that for ever afterward she had made me her servant. "Now, please forget it all until some day I say the same thing to Colonel Carrington; and forgive me for ever telling you," but her eyes were troubled as she turned her face away.

We reached the manor safely, but I caught no glimpse of Grace, and Colonel Carrington hardly troubled to thank me, while Harry pitied the team when I led it into our stable. A few days afterward, when we spent all of one afternoon discussing finances and our program for spring, he agreed with me when, contrary to my usual caution, I suggested that we should make a plunge that year by purchasing a gang-plow and hiring more horses, then, giving a 108 bond on the homestead and expected crop, sink the last dollar we could raise in sowing the utmost acreage and breaking more sod on the free land we had pre-empted. There was a sporting instinct in Harry which made him willing to run risks that I generally should have avoided.

Now, however, I was bent on playing a bold game, trusting in the axiom that those who nothing venture cannot expect to win. Also, on the prairie the credit system is universal, and though some abuse it, it has its advantages. For instance, the settler may obtain seed, implements, and provisions on a promise to pay with interest after harvest, and thus he is enabled to break an extra quantity of virgin soil. If the crop is good all benefit alike-dealer, maker of implements, and grower of wheat; while if the grain fails, instead of one man to bear it there are several to divide the loss.

So we pledged our credit up to the hilt, and, though at times I grew grave as I wondered what would happen if there should be hail or frost, we commenced work in earnest with the first of the thaw, and drilled in grain enough to leave us an ample profit if all went well. Then we would double our sowing next year, and, so Harry said, in a few seasons rise to affluence. It was a simple program, and fortunes have been made in that way; but, as we were to find, it also leads occasionally to disaster.

It was a gray day in spring, and a cold wind swept the grasses as I stood beside the double yoke of oxen and the great breaker-plow, when Colonel Carrington, who was passing that way, rode toward me across the prairie. While I wondered what his errand might be, I saw two mounted figures outlined against the somber sky on the crest of a distant rise, whom I recognized as Grace and Captain Ormond. The Colonel rode a splendid bay horse, and after the first greeting he sat looking down at me ironically 109 awhile, erect, soldierly, and immaculately neat down to the burnished stirrups and the toes of his speckless boots. In no circumstances did the Colonel forget that he once commanded a famous regiment, and now ruled drastically over Carrington, while I must have appeared a sufficiently homely object, in battered slouch hat and torn blue overalls, with the mire clinging to my leggings.

"You are staking heavily on the weather this year; I wonder what for," he said, glancing down the long furrows, and I felt there was a warning in it, for this man seldom wasted words. "The last time I passed it struck me that you had better, as they say here, go slow and not risk a surety on the chance of what you can never attain. It takes capital to farm on a large scale, you know. By the way, I came to tell you that we will not want the disc-harrows, so you can keep them until your work is finished, and as Miss Carrington-Miss Grace Carrington-is going to England shortly we shall be occupied with preparation for some time. This will save you from wasting precious hours riding over just now in the busy season. Well, I must join the others. Good-day to you."

He wheeled his horse with a parting salutation, a slender figure waved a hand to me from the crest of the rise before it sank below the skyline, and that was the last I saw of Grace Carrington for many a day, while breathing hard I watched the horseman grow smaller across the prairie. Her father sometimes delighted to speak in metaphor, and I could not fail to recognize that it was a plain hint he had, perhaps in grim kindness, given me. For a moment I wondered whether I should have made him listen in turn, and I was glad I had not, for his words stung me like a whip, and it would not have helped matters if I had spoken my mind to him. Then, shaking myself together, I called to the oxen, reflecting that many a formerly poor 110 man had married the daughter of even a greater man than Colonel Carrington, while if it were a matter of land and money that divided us, every extra furrow brought me so much nearer to her. Still, I was graver than usual, even until the plowing was done, and Harry, not knowing the reason, commented satirically upon it.

The thaw came early that year, and the latter snow had been light, while steady dry weather followed it, and there were times when I felt that I should have given several years of my life for rain. It came, and, though there was not much of it, as if by magic tender grain stood a handbreadth above the black loam, while I watched it lengthen daily with my heart in my eyes, and I grew feverishly anxious about the weather. Many things depended on the success of that crop. Then suddenly it was summer, the hottest summer for ten seasons, our neighbors said, and I wondered how we would manage to cut hay for our own beasts, and the teams we had purchased conditionally, because long grass was scanty. Assistance was equally scarce, for, seeing us reach out toward prosperity, our friends evidently considered that we were now well able to help ourselves.

It was done somehow, though often for a week together we worked all day and most of the night, until there was only an hour or two left before the dawn, and I lay wide awake, too overstrung and fatigued to sleep. Once, too, in the burning heat of noon I fell from the wagon in a state of limp collapse, and there were occasions when Harry, with a paler color than usual, lay for long spaces gasping in the shade. We could spare little time for cooking, or a tedious journey to bring in provisions, so when one thing ran out we made shift with the rest. Still, we observed Sunday, and once Harry laughed as he said: "I'm thankful there is a Fourth Commandment, for without it we should 111 have caved in utterly. Do you know we've been living on

potatoes, tea, and porridge every meal for the last ten days? It's doubtful whether we can hold out until harvest, and you'll remember it's then that the pace grows killing."

For the first time I noticed that his face was very thin under the sun-burn, and perhaps he read my thoughts, for he laughed.

"We have taken on too big a contract, Ralph," he said, "but once in we'll carry it through. Still, I wish I had been born with the frame of a bullock, like you."

I lay in a hide chair ten hours together that Sunday, only moving to light the stove for Harry, or to consume another pint of strong green tea, which is generally our sole indulgence on the prairie. It might not, however, have suited fastidious palates, because the little squirrel-like gophers which abounded everywhere, burrowing near by, fell into the well by scores, and we had no leisure to fish them out. Neither is there any mistaking the flavor of gopher extract. Meantime it grew hotter and drier, and I had to admit to myself that the crop might have been better, while Harry, to hide his misgivings, talked cheerfully about higher prices, until at last the crisis came.

I awoke one morning with an unusual feeling of chilliness, sprang upright, and saw that the first rays of the red sun scintillated upon something that was not dew among the grass. With a cry I strode over to Harry's berth. Even half-asleep he could read the fear in my face.

"What is it?" he asked.

I scarcely knew my own voice as I answered hoarsely: "Frost!"

We ran out half-dressed, and when we stood by the edge of the tall wheat, which was already turning yellow, we knew that the destroyer had breathed upon our grain, and that every stately head contained its percentage of 112 shriveled berries. Still, it might yet sell under a lower grading-if there were no more frost. But the frost came twice again-and on the third sunrise I stood staring across the blighted crop with despairing eyes, while my hands would tremble in spite of my will. Few men had labored as Harry and I had done; indeed, it was often only the hope of winning Grace Carrington that sustained me, while now I was poorer far than when first I landed in Canada. Neither dare I contemplate what the result of my folly would be to Harry. But Harry, who seldom thought of himself, laid his hand affectionately on my shoulder.

"Poor old Ralph!" he said. "Well, we did our best, and there's room for us somewhere in this wide country. I suppose it is-hopeless-absolutely?"

"Quite!" I answered, trying to steady my voice. "We can leave it with a clear conscience to the gophers. However, we might earn a little with the teams to feed us through the winter, and strike out next spring for British Columbia. The new railroad people are open to let track-grading contracts, you know. Lend me your double-barrel; I'm in no mood for talking, and an all-day tramp after prairie-chicken may help to steady me."

I took down the old weapon-it was a muzzle-loader-and called our little English terrier Grip. He was rather a nuisance than otherwise when stalking prairie-fowl, but he was an affectionate beast, and I felt glad of his company. Then for several hours I strode on across the prairie, hardly seeing the clattering coveys at which Grip barked furiously, and I might have wandered on until midnight but that when skirting a grove of willows he must most foolishly follow the trail of a coyote. Now, the prairie-wolf, though timorous enough where a man is concerned, is generally willing to try conclusions with even a powerful dog, and when presently a great snarling commenced I burst at 113 full speed through the willows. It was high time, for the coyote had pinned the terrier down, and there was barely opportunity to pitch up the gun and take a snapshot at its shoulder before my pet's struggles would have ended.

Then I ran in through the smoke to find that the wounded beast still held the hapless dog, and as the other barrel was empty I swung the butt aloft and brought it down crashing on its head. However, the coyote was not quite vanquished yet, for I felt its teeth almost meet in my leg, and I stumbled head foremost over it, after which for a few moments there was a mixed-up scuffle, until with one hand closing on the hairy throat I got another chance to bring down the gun-butt. Then the beast lay still, flecked all over with blood and foam, while my hands and clothes were torn, and there were crimson patches about me. Grip whined and licked my bleeding fingers when I lifted all that seemed left of him, and he presented a sorry spectacle. Nevertheless, for some curious reason that struggle had done me good, and, carrying the dog, I limped home with a wound in my leg, considerably more cheerful than when I started out. I even laughed as Harry, meeting me in the doorway, said, "Good heavens, Ralph, what have you been doing? You look like a butcher."

"It's a case of inherent savagery, a return to the instincts of barbaric days," I answered. "I've been killing a coyote with my hands, and I feel better for it. But don't ask questions; I'm almost famished."

We fared well that evening, for there was no need of hurry now, and when the meal was over we sat talking long in the little room. Already the nights were closing in and the coolness outside invigorated like wine, but we felt that the sight of the blighted wheat would not improve our spirits. So I stated my views as clearly as I could, ending with forced cheerfulness, though I meant every syllable of it: 114

"We are not beaten yet, and if we must go under we'll make at least another tough fight of it."

Meanwhile Harry covered several sheets of paper with figures.

"You are perfectly right," he said at last. "The homestead, stock, and implements will have to go; but I think we'll ask our largest creditors to give us time while we see what we can do at the track-grading. It's possible, but not likely, that we might earn enough to make some arrangement to commence again. However, to consider the probable, there'll be a meeting of creditors, and perhaps enough after the sale to buy us a Colonist ticket to British Columbia. Anyway, we'll ride out to-morrow and call on the road surveyor."

It may have been because we were young, or the suspense had brought its own reaction, but a faint hope commenced to spring up within us, and now, when at least we knew the worst, we were both more tranquil than we had been for the last three days, while I slept peacefully until Harry roused me with the news that breakfast was ready. We started at noon, and before the sun crossed the meridian the next day we found the surveyor busy beside the new steel road which stretched out across the prairie from the trunk line so many fathoms daily. He was a native Canadian, emphatic in gesture, curt in speech, with, as we say here, a snap about him, and he looked us over critically as I explained that we were willing to work for him. I fancied there was satisfaction in his gaze, and this was not unlikely, for we were both lean, hard, and bronzed, while our old stained canvas garments told their own tale of sturdy toil.

"Guess I could let you a track-grading contract," he said meditatively. "We find the scoops, you find the teams and take all risks, but it's pay up when you're 115 through. We've no use on this road for the men who when they strike a hard streak just throw up their contract."

"What we begin we'll finish," I answered with emphasis, while Harry smiled and raised a warning hand unseen by the surveyor. "Neither hard work nor hard luck is new to us, and if it weren't for the latter we shouldn't be here."

"Glad to hear it," said the surveyor, dryly, "you look like that. Well, here's the schedule; glance through it; then you can come back to-morrow and we'll sign the agreement. You'll have to rustle, though, and keep the rail-bed ready; this road's going right through to Green Lake before the winter."

I ran my eye down the list of stipulations respecting the work to be done at so much per rod, with allowance for extra depth scooped out through the rises per cubic ton, saw there should be a profit in it from what little I knew, and tossed the sheet to Harry, answering:

"Our time is precious, and if my partner is willing we'll sign it now. As to what we look like, I'll thank you to remember that has nothing to do with you."

"I apologize; meant it as a compliment," said our future employer, who was grimed thick with sweat and dust, and Harry answered lightly, "We are much obliged to you; my partner is quick in temper. However, you know that you can't get teams or men for love or money now when harvest's coming on, and so we're going to strike you for another two cents per measure."

"Might stretch that far," said the other after more figuring, "but somehow we'll take it out of you. Here, fill your distinguished names into this, and if you like to take it there's another lot-it's hauling in birch logs for stump piles and fencing purposes."

We signed both papers, and on leaving the surveyor we 116 found a man in old blue overalls, whose appearance suggested the Briton, waiting for us near the construction train which had just come up with its load of rails and rail-layers.

"Did you get the grading contract?" he asked; and, when Harry nodded, he continued: "Then as a preliminary I'll introduce myself, Ellsworthy Johnston, one-time barrister, and, as the surveyor classified me, general roustabout. Had a bush ranch in British Columbia and came to grief over it by fooling time away gold prospecting. Rode in and asked yonder eloquent autocrat for a contract, but he didn't see it. Said, and he explained it wasn't flattery, I looked too much of a gentleman, and in consequence if I liked I could shovel ballast at one dollar seventy-five daily. Now shoveling ballast grows monotonous, and one gets a confounded back-ache over it, so if you're agreeable I'll fling in a small sum and my services as junior partner."

"We're not too rich," said Harry, "and we'll talk it over."

"Get a move on there, Sam Johnsing, before the flies eat you! Guess the rails are growing rusty while you're resting," called somebody in authority, and with a smile of whimsical resignation our new acquaintance hurried away.

We made a bargain with him that evening, to the satisfaction of all concerned, and the next morning Harry rode away to divide our few head of stock among our neighbors and hire if possible one or two among those whose crops had also suffered from frost. The latter, like the devastating hail, performs its work erratically, wiping out one man's grain and sparing his neighbors'. Meanwhile I found plenty to do making arrangements to commence our work on the track.

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