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   Chapter 23 CHAPTER XXI

Lorimer of the Northwest By Harold Bindloss Characters: 19061

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


THE STOLEN CATTLE

I had broken a further strip of virgin prairie, besides ploughing, with hired assistance, part of the already cultivated land, before the Indian summer passed. All day pale golden sunlight flooded the whitened grass, which sometimes glittered with frostwork in early morning, while as the nights grew longer, the wild fowl came down from the north. Aline took a strange interest in watching them sail slowly in endless succession across the blue, and would often sit hidden beside me at twilight among the tall reeds of the creek until with a lucky shot from the Marlin I picked up a brant-goose, or, it might be, a mallard which had rested on its southward journey, somewhat badly shattered by the rifle ball. Then, when frost bound fast the sod and ploughing was done, she would ride with me toward a distant bluff, where I hewed stouter logs than grew near us for winter fuel. Already she had grown fuller in shape and brighter in color with the pure prairie air.

Jasper paid us frequent visits, and seemed to enjoy being badly defeated in a verbal encounter with Aline, after which he would confine his talk to cattle-raising, which of late had commenced to command increased attention on the prairie.

"This is too much a one-crop country. Stake all on your wheat yield, and when you lose it you're busted," he said, soon after my return. "Now what's the matter with running more cattle? They'll feed themselves in the 232 summer; and isn't there hay enough in the sloos if you want to keep them?-while one can generally get a good fall profit in Winnipeg. I've been picking up cheap lots all year, and if you have any money to spare I'll let you in reasonably."

"You speak like an oracle, Mr. Jasper," said Aline. "My brother is what you might call a single-crop man. One thing at one time is enough for him. Ralph, why don't you try a deal in cattle?"

The same thing had been running through my own mind, and the result was that I wrote Harry, who, being of a speculative disposition, arranged for an interim payment, and sent me a remittance, which was duly invested in a joint transaction with Jasper, who had rather over-purchased.

"I'm a little pressed for payments just now," he said. "Want to hold my wheat, and can't afford eight per cent. interest. The beasts are fattening all the time, and there'll be a high-class demand in Winnipeg presently for shipment to Europe."

He was right; and I began to have a respect for Aline's judgment when the papers reported that prices were rising fast, and stock-salesman firms sent circulars to this effect into the districts. But, when I conferred with Jasper, he advised me to hold on. "The figures are climbing," he said, "and they'll reach high-water mark just before the ice closes direct shipment."

At last the frost commenced in earnest, and I prepared to settle down for the winter. There were improvements to be made to the granary, implements, harness, and stables, in anticipation of the coming year's campaign, besides alterations in the house; for I felt that many things might happen before next autumn, and I desired that Fairmead should be more nearly ready if wanted to receive its new mistress. 233

Again, however, fate intervened, for, instead of a round of monotonous work, many stirring events were crowded into that winter. The first happened, as usual, unexpectedly, and came nearly ruining our cattle-trade venture. To understand it satisfactorily it is necessary to commence the narrative at the beginning.

It was a chilly night after a warm day. I sat beside the stove mending harness, while Aline criticized the workmanship and waxed the twine for me. The last mail had brought good news from Harry, and I felt in unusual spirits as I passed the awl through the leather, until there was a creak of wagon wheels outside, followed by a pounding on the door.

"It's too bad," said Aline. "We are both tired after our ride, and I was looking forward to a chance for giving you good advice, and a cozy evening. Now some one is coming to upset it all."

She was not mistaken, for when I opened the door a neighbor said, "I've brought you Mrs. Fletcher. Met her walking to Fairmead across the prairie. No; I guess I'm in a hurry, and won't get down."

It was with no great feeling of pleasure that I led the visitor into the house; and it is curious that as I helped her down from the wagon something should recall Harry's warning: "That fellow Fletcher will bring more trouble on you some day."

He had done enough in that direction already, and though I did not wish Aline to hear the story, I was glad she was there, for preceding events had taught me caution. So, making the best of it, I placed a chair beside the stove, for Minnie Fletcher explained who she was, and then, while Aline sat still looking at her with an apparent entire absence of curiosity which in no way deceived me I waited impatiently. Minnie had not improved since I last saw 234 her. Her face was thin and anxious, her dress-and even in the remoter corners of the prairie this was unusual-was torn and shabby, and she twisted her fingers nervously before she commenced to speak.

"I had expected to find you alone, Ralph," she said; and though I pitied her, I felt glad that she had been disappointed in this respect. "However, I must tell you; and it may be a warning to your sister. Tom has fallen into bad ways again. He is my husband, Miss Lorimer, and I am afraid not a very good one."

I could not turn Aline out on the prairie, and could only answer, "I am very sorry. Please go on," though it would have relieved me to make my own comments on the general conduct of Thomas Fletcher.

"It was not all his fault," she added. "The boys would give him whisky to tell them stories when he went to Brandon for the creamery, and at last he went there continually. He fell in with some men from Winnipeg who lent him money, and I think they gambled in town-lots, for Tom took the little I had saved, and used to come home rambling about a fortune. Then he would stay away for days together, until they dismissed him from the creamery, and all summer he had never a dollar to give me. But I worked at the butter-packing and managed to feed him when he did come home, until-Miss Lorimer, I am sorry you must hear this-he used to beat me when I had no more money to give him."

Aline looked at her with a pity that was mingled with scorn: "I have heard of such things, and I have seen them too," she said. "But why did you let him? I think I should kill the man who struck me."

Minnie sighed wearily. "You don't understand, and I hope you never will. Ralph, I have tried to bear it, but the life is killing me, and I have grown horribly afraid 235 of him. Moran, a friend of the creamery manager, offered me a place at another station down the line, but I have no money to get there and I cannot go like this. Tom is coming back to-night, and I dare not tell him, so I wondered whether you would help me."

"Of course he will," said Aline, "and if your husband comes here making inquiries I hope I shall have an opportunity for answering him."

I had the strongest disinclination to be mixed up in such an affair, but I could see no escape from it. There were even marks of bruises on the poor woman's face, and when, promising assistance, I went out to see to the horses and think it over, Minnie Fletcher burst into hysterical sobbing as Aline placed an arm protectingly around her. She had retired before I returned, for I fancied that Aline could dispense with my presence and I found something to detain me.

"Ralph, you are a genius," Aline said when I told her that I did not hurry back, "I have arranged to lend her enough to buy a few things, and to-morrow I'm going to drive her in to the store and the station. No, you need not come; I know the way. Oh, don't begin to ask questions; just try to think a little instead."

I allowed her to have her own way. Indeed, Aline generally insisted on this, while with many protestations of gratitude Minnie Fletcher departed the next morning, and I hoped that the affair was ended. In this I was disappointed, for, returning with Jasper the next day from an outlying farm, I found Aline awaiting me in a state of suppressed excitement. She was paler than usual, and moved nervously, and the Marlin rifle lay on the table with the hammer drawn back.

When Jasper volunteered to lead the horses in she dropped limply into a chair.

"I have spent a terrible afternoon, Ralph. In fact, 236 though I feel ashamed of myself, I have not got over it yet."

I eased the spring of the rifle and inquired whether some wandering Blackfoot had frightened her.

"No," Aline answered, "The Indians are in their own way gentlemen. It was an Englishman. Mr. Thomas Fletcher called to inquire for his wife, and-and-he didn't call sober."

Aline choked back something between a laugh and a sob before she continued: "He came in a wagon with another little dark man with a cunning face, and walked into the room before I could stop him. 'I want my runaway wife, and I mean to find her. Who the deuce are you-another of them?' he said."

I found it hard work to keep back the words that seemed most suitable, and perhaps I was not altogether successful, while Aline's forehead turned crimson and she clenched her hand viciously as she added:

"I told him that I was your sister, and he laughed as he said-he didn't believe me. Then he swore horribly, and said-oh

, I can't tell you what he said, but he intended to ruin you, and would either shoot his wife or thrash her to death, while the man in the wagon sat still, smiling wickedly, and I grew horribly frightened."

The rattle of harness outside increased, and turning I saw Jasper striding away from the wagon, which stood near the open doorway, while Aline drew in her breath as she continued: "Then Fletcher said he would make me tell where his wife was, and I determined that he should kill me first. He came toward me like a wild beast, for there were little red veins in his eyes, and I moved backward round the table, feeling perfectly awful, because he reeked of liquor. Then I saw the rifle and edged away until I could reach it, and he stopped and said more fearful things, until the 237 man jumped out of the wagon and dragged him away. I think Fletcher was afraid of the other man. So I just sat down and cried, and wondered whether I should have dared shoot him, until I found there wasn't a cartridge at all in the rifle."

After this Aline wept copiously again and while, feeling both savage and helpless, I patted her shoulder, calling her a brave girl, Jasper looked in.

"I won't stop and worry Miss Lorimer now," he said shortly. "I'm borrowing a saddle, and will see you to-morrow. Good evening."

He kept his promise, for the next morning, when Aline was herself again, he rode up to the door and came in chuckling.

"I guess I have a confession to make," he said, "Couldn't help hearing what your sister said, though I kept banging the harness to let you know I was there, so I figured as to their probable trail and lit out after them. Came up with the pair toward nightfall by the big sloo, and invited Mr. Fletcher to an interview. Fletcher didn't seem to see it. He said he wouldn't get down, but mentioned several things-they're not worth repeating-about his wife and you, with a word of your sister that settled me.

"'I'm a friend of Miss Lorimer's. Are you coming down now,' says I.

"'I'm not,' says Thomas Fletcher; so I just yanked him right out on to the prairie, and started in with the new whip to skin him. Asked the other man if he'd any objections, but if he had he didn't raise them. Then I hove all that was left of Fletcher right into the sloo, and rode home feeling considerably better."

He laughed a big hearty laugh, and then started as Aline came out of an inner room.

"I want to thank you, Mr. Jasper," she said. "There 238 are people with whom one cannot argue, and I think that thrashing will do him good. I hope that you did it thoroughly."

Jasper swung down his broad hat, fidgeted, and said awkwardly, "I didn't figure on telling you, but if ever that man comes round here again, or there's any one else scares you, you won't forget to let me know."

Aline glanced straight into the eyes of the speaker, who actually blushed with pleasure as she said: "I will certainly promise, and I shouldn't desire a better champion, but there is at present no necessity to send you out spreading devastation upon the prairie."

Jasper looked idiotically pleased at this, and for a time we heard no more of Thomas Fletcher, who nevertheless had not forgotten the incident. As the former had anticipated, the demand for shipping cattle still increased, and when it was announced that several large steamers were awaiting the last load before the St. Lawrence was frozen fast, Jasper rode west to try to pick up a few more head, and informed me that he would either telegraph or visit Winnipeg to arrange for the sale before returning. News travels in its own way on the prairie, and we afterward decided that Fletcher, who had returned to his deserted home, must have heard of this. Jasper had been gone several days when a man in city attire rode up to Fairmead with two assistants driving a band of stock. He showed me a cattle-salesman's card, and stated that he had agreed with Jasper to dispose of our beasts on commission, and as the latter was waiting in Winnipeg, he asked me to ride over to his homestead to obtain delivery. This I did, and afterward accompanied him to the railroad, where I saw the cattle put safely on board a stock train, and early the next morning I returned, feeling that I had done a good stroke of business. 239

The same afternoon, while Aline prepared a meal, I sat writing a letter to Harry, telling him with much satisfaction how well our investment had resulted. Aline listened with a smile to my running comments, and then remarked dryly:

"I think you have forgotten your usual caution for once, Ralph. You should have gone with them, and seen the sale. I didn't like that man, and once or twice I caught him looking at you in a way that struck me as suspicious. I suppose you are sure the firm he represented is good?"

"It's as good as a bank," I answered, and then grew almost vexed with her, for Aline had an irritating way of damping one's enthusiasm. "Now try to say something pleasant, and I'll buy you a pair of the best fur mittens in Winnipeg when we get the money."

"Then I hope you will get it," said Aline, "for I should like the gloves. Here is another cattleman going south."

She placed more plates on the table, while, throwing down the pen, I looked out of the window. Here and there the dry grasses were buried in snow, and a glance at the aneroid suggested that we might have to accommodate the visitor all night, for the appearance of the weather was not promising. He came on at good pace, wrapped in a short fur coat, and I noticed that he did not ride altogether like the prairie-born. When he dismounted I led his horse into the stable before I ushered him into the room. The meal was almost ready, and we expected him to join us as a matter of course. He was a shrewd-looking young man with a pleasant face, and bowed gracefully to Aline as he said in a straightforward way:

"I thank you for your kindness, madam, and must introduce myself-James Heysham, of Ross & Grant, high-class cattle-salesmen. Best market prices, immediate settlements guaranteed, reasonable commission, and all the rest 240 of it. Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Lorimer; here's our card. I rode over from the railroad on the way to Jasper's, to see if I could make a deal with you. Now's the time to realize on your stock, and Ross & Grant the best firm to entrust them to. Don't want to accept your hospitality under false pretenses, and there are still a few prejudiced Englishmen who look down on the drummer. Once waited on a man called Carrington-and he wasn't even civil."

"Sit down," I said, laughing. "This is my sister, and at least we can offer you a meal, but you are too late to sell our stock. I have just returned from shipping Jasper's as well as my own under charge of a new partner of Gardner's."

Heysham looked puzzled. "It's a reliable firm-almost as good as our own," he said. "You must not smile, Miss Lorimer; when one earns a living by that talk it's hard to get out of it. But they're conservative, and never send drummers around. Besides, there's only Gardner and his brother-they haven't a partner. Now I wonder whether"-and the last words were unintelligible.

An uneasy feeling commenced to grow on me, and our guest looked thoughtful.

"You suspect something, Mr. Heysham," said Aline, "and you ought to tell us what it is. I want to know exactly what you meant when you added 'Confidence men.'"

Then I started, and Heysham bowed as he answered: "You are evidently new to the wicked ways of this country, Miss Lorimer. I meant that some unprincipled person has, I fear, unfortunately taken your brother in. I have suspicions. Was he a little dark man, or perhaps it was another, rather stout and red-faced? Still I'm puzzled as to how they acquired the local knowledge and learned enough about your business to fool you." 241

"No," I answered with a gleam of hope, "he was neither;" but Aline broke in:

"The man you mention drove here in a wagon some weeks earlier, and I know how he got the local knowledge-the other, with the red face, was Thomas Fletcher. He lived on the prairie, Mr. Heysham, and there must have been three in the plot."

I rose from the table, flinging back my chair, but Heysham nodded gravely.

"Exactly; there are three of them. Your sister has made it all clear," he said. "I know the party-they've been engineering various shady deals in estate and produce, and now, when Winnipeg is getting uncomfortably warm, this is evidently a last coup before they light out across the boundary. The dark man was a clerk in the stock trade-turned out for embezzlement-once, you see. Still, they can't sell until to-morrow, and we might get the night train. No chance of trade hereabout, you say; then, for the credit of our market, if you'll lend me a fresh horse, I'm going right back to Winnipeg with you. Sit down, and finish your dinner; you'll want it before you're through."

I looked at Aline, who was equal to the occasion. "You must certainly go," she said. "Even if there is a blizzard, I shall be safe enough."

So presently she buttoned the skin coat about me, slipped a flask of spirits into the pocket; and just before we started kissed me, saying, "Take care of yourself, and do your utmost. There are all poor Jasper's cattle besides our own. Mr. Heysham, I thank you, and whenever you pass this way remember there's a hearty welcome for you at Fairmead."

"I am repaid already, madam," said Heysham as we rode away.

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