Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"I've been driving easy the last few days, and it's hardly likely the police have a horse that could run Volador down," he said. "Besides, if he should press me too hard, I could lose my man somehow in the big bluff on the mountain."

They agreed with this, and proceeded to elaborate a workable scheme. Suddenly Baxter turned to Thorne, as though a thought had just struck him.

"Why do you want to do it?" he asked. "Jake Winthrop wasn't a partner of yours."

Thorne broke into a whimsical smile. Now that he endeavored to analyze his reasons calmly, he was conscious that none of them appeared sufficient to warrant any action at all on his part. He was only certain that he disliked Nevis, and that an anxious girl had not long ago looked at him with an appeal in her eyes.

"Since you ask me the question, I don't quite know," he confessed.

Baxter laughed, and turned to his comrade.

"He's a daisy, sure. Anyway, I'll look round for a hat and jacket like the one I burned. You get him a saddle, Murray."

Thorne left them presently and drove away toward a ravine some miles from the settlement, and soon after he started Baxter saddled a horse and rode out to an outlying farm. In the meanwhile Corporal Slaney sauntered into the general room of the hotel, where Murray and several others were then sitting smoking. There was a box of crackers, a soda-water fountain, and a bottle of some highly colored syrup on one table, but that was all the refreshment the place provided.

Seating himself in a corner, the corporal sat unobtrusively listening to the conversation, which Murray presently turned into a particular channel for his especial benefit. It was a hot evening, and he sat astride a bench, clad only in blue shirt and trousers, with a glass of soda-water in front of him and a pipe in his hand. A big tin lamp burned unsteadily above him, for all the doors and windows were open, and a hot smell of dust and baked earth flowed into the room. The walls were formed of badly rent boards, and there was as usual no covering on the roughly laid floor.

"As I've often said," he observed, "the police will never get another man like old Sergeant Mackintyre. He ran his man down right away every time."

Slaney pricked his ears, and another of them broke in:

"Mackintyre would have had Jake Winthrop jailed quite a while ago. The boys aren't up to trailing now."

"Seems to me they didn't want Winthrop much," drawled Murray. "They went prowling round the homesteads, worrying folks who didn't know anything about him, while he hit the trail for the frontier."

A third man turned to Slaney.

"Didn't you send two of the boys off Dakota way, Corporal?"

"We did," answered Slaney shortly. "That's about all I'm open to tell you."

"Two troopers couldn't cover a great deal of prairie," remarked another. "Guess he might have slipped through between them; that is, if he's not hanging round here somewhere waiting for a chance to break away."

Murray saw the gleam in the corporal's eyes, and he broke in again.

"Now," he said, "when you think of it, that's quite likely, after all.

There's three or four big bluffs a man could hide in, and if he was stuck for a horse he wouldn't care to try the open. If he lay by a while he might fix it up with somebody to bring him one. Of course, he might have got away up the track, but they'd wire on to watch the stations. Didn't you do that, Corporal?"

"We did," Slaney answered.

Murray turned to the others.

"Then, one would allow that Winthrop couldn't have cleared by train. If he'd done that, they'd sure have got him." He paused, and, hearing a beat of hoofs, added thoughtfully, "It looks mighty like he was still in the neighborhood."

Something in Slaney's expression suggested that he shared this opinion; but the drumming of hoofs was growing louder, and a man strolled toward the doorway.

"It's Baxter," he announced.

A few minutes later Baxter came in, flushed and dusty, and helped himself at the soda-water fountain before he turned to the others with a cracker in his hand.

"It's powerful warm, boys, and I've had a ride for nothing," he informed them. "Been over to Lorton's place and he wasn't in."

"He's at Cricklewood's," said Murray. "If you'd waited a little you would have met him on the trail."

"I didn't, anyway," was Baxter's indifferent reply; "I only met a stranger."

Corporal Slaney had no reason to suspect that the brief conversation which had followed Baxter's arrival had been carefully prearranged for his benefit.

"Where did you meet that stranger?" he asked.

"About two miles east of the bluff."

"Did you speak to him?"

Baxter smiled.

"I didn't; he didn't give me a chance. He was going south as fast as his horse could lay hoofs to the ground."

"What was he like? Did you see him clearly?"

"Well," drawled Baxter, "it's only a half-moon, and the man wasn't very close, but I think he'd a black plug hat. As most of us wear gray ones, that kind of struck me. I've a notion that his overall jacket was brown."

He sat down as Slaney vanished through the open door. In a few moments there was a clatter of hoofs, and the men crowding about the entrance saw a mounted figure riding at a gallop down the unpaved street. Then Murray looked at his comrade with a grin.

"Must have had his horse saddled ready," he chuckled. "We've fixed the thing."

CHAPTER XI
AN ESCAPADE

The night was still and clear when Thorne rode out of the ravine, in the hollow of which he had left his wagon and one hobbled horse. Reaching the level, he drew bridle and sat still in his saddle for a minute or two looking about him. The dew was settling heavily on the short, wiry grass, which shone faintly in the elusive light, with patches of darker color where his horse's hoofs had passed. Ahead, the prairie rolled away, a vast dimly lighted plain, to the soft dusky grayness which obscured the horizon, and he knew that somewhere beyond the dip of the latter stood the mountain, a broken stretch of higher ground covered with birches and willows, where if Corporal Slaney held on so long he must endeavor to evade him.

Volador seemed fit and fresh, for which he was thankful, for it was nearly twenty miles to the mountain, and he was, after all, a little uncertain about the speed of the policeman's horse, though the appearance of the beast, which he had seen in the hotel stable, did not suggest any great powers in this respect. It was, however, not the one Slaney usually rode, which he fancied might, perhaps, be significant. At length he leaned down and patted Volador's neck.

"You'll have to go to-night, old boy," he said.

The beast responded to his voice and a shake of the bridle, and they set off southward at a trot. The moon already hung rather low in the western sky, and he calculated that in another couple of hours it would have dipped beneath the grassland's rim. By then he should reach the mountain, and the darkness would be in his favor if he had not already outdistanced his pursuer. It was in a singularly buoyant mood that he rode quietly on, and it was reluctantly that he checked the horse which once or twice attempted to gallop. After the last few months of prosaic and unremitting toil, the prospect of a mad night ride, and the zest of the hazard attached to it, proved strangely exhilarating to one of his temperament. He admitted that, as Winthrop was not a particular friend of his, there was no reason why he should have undertaken the thing at all; but he remembered the appeal in Lucy Calvert's eyes, and that and the lust of a frolic was sufficient for him. There are men of his kind who, in their hearts, at least, never grow old.

He had covered two or three miles when he saw a mounted man following the trail to the settlement, and he rode on across the trail with a wave of his hat. He did not feel inclined for conversation, and everything had already been arranged. The mounted figure presently sank out of sight again, and he pulled Volador up to a slow walk. He would give Baxter half an hour to reach the settlement and put Slaney on his trail, and there was no use in wasting his horse's strength in the meanwhile.

It was nearly an hour later, and he was riding slowly, a lonely, moving speck in the center of a great level waste whose boundaries steadily receded before him, when a faint drumming of hoofs came out of the silence. Then he pulled Volador up altogether, and sat still, listening, for a while, until he felt sure that his pursuer, who was apparently riding hard, would hear him. He did not wish the man to draw too close, but it would, on the other hand, serve no purpose if he rode south unless Slaney followed him. It seemed only reasonable to suppose that once the police decided that Winthrop had got safely away to Dakota they would abandon the search for him in western Canada.

Then something in the sound, which was rapidly growing louder, struck him as curious, and he listened more closely with a frown, for it was now becoming evident that instead of one pursuer he had two to deal with, which was certainly not what he had desired or expected. Touching Volador with his heels, he let him go, and for five or six minutes they fled south at a fast gallop with a thud of hoofs on sun-baked sod ringing far behind them. Then he pulled the horse up with a struggle, and listened again. He was at length certain that the police had heard him and were following as fast as possible. There was no cover until he reached the mountain; nothing but an open wilderness, unbroken by even a ravine or a clump of willows, and he must ride.

Once more he let Volador go, and the cool night air streamed past him, whipping his hot face and bringing the blood to it, while long billowy rises came back to him, looking in the uncertain moonlight like the vast undulations of a glassy sea underrun by the swell of a distant gale. Each time he swung over the gradual crest of one, a rhythmic staccato drumming became sharply audible, and sank again as he dipped into the great grassy hollows. Volador seemed fresh still, which was consoling, for there was no doubt that the sound of the pursuit was as clear as it had been. This was a fresh surprise.

Half an hour passed, and they swung out upon a wide, high level, where for the first time he twisted in his saddle and looked behind him. He could see, rather more plainly than he cared about, two dim figures, spread out well apart on the verge of the plateau, and it was evident that they were not dropping behind. It would, he recognized, lead to unpleasant complications if they overtook him. He raised a quirt he had borrowed, but, reflecting, he let his arm drop again. After all, it might be desirable to let Volador keep a little in hand. Then he glanced to the westward, and was pleased to see that the moon was rapidly nearing the rim of the plain. It would be dark when he reached the mountain.

Volador was flagging a little when at length they swept up the slope of another rise. On crossing the top of this Thorne was conscious of a difference in the drumming of hoofs behind. One of the pursuers was clearly falling back, which was satisfactory, though he fancied that the other man was still holding his own. Then he saw away in front of him a blurred mass with an uneven crest which cut dimly black against the sky. It stretched broad across his course, and he struck Volador with the quirt, for he recognized it as the mountain, and knew that he must ride in earnest now. A mounted man would make a good deal of noise descending the ravines which seamed it and smashing through the undergrowth beneath the birches, and it was desirable that he should reach their shelter well ahead of the troopers.

The horse responded gallantly, but the beat of hoofs which he longed to get away from grew no fainter, and when five minutes had flown by he plied the quirt again. He was very hot, and somewhat anxious, but the moon was now near the verge of the prairie. It was large and red, and already the light was failing, though a long black shadow still fled beside him across the dewy grass.

At last he fancied he was drawing ahead, and a mad fit came upon him as they went flying down a rugged and broken slope to a water-course, while the mountain rose higher and blacker ahead. Stones clattered and rattled under them, clouds of light soil flew up, and then there was a great splashing as the horse plunged through the creek. After that the pace grew slower as they faced the ascent; and he swung low in the saddle when they sped in among the birches. A branch struck him in the face and swept his hat away, but it had done its work and he decided that he was better rid of it.

A semblance of a trail that dipped into hollows and swung over rises led through the mountain, though as a rule any one riding south skirted this. Thorne had already decided that he must leave it somewhere as quietly as possible and let Corporal Slaney go by. He could not hear the trooper now, and this was reassuring, for he would have to stop soon and he did not wish his pursuer to notice that the noise in front of him had suddenly ceased.

Two or three minutes later, however, the sound he was beginning to dread once more reached him, breaking in upon the crackle of dry sticks under his horse's hoofs and the crash he made as he now and then blundered into a brake or thicket. It was very dark in the bluff; he could scarcely see the spectral trunks of the flitting trees, and to pick the way or avoid the obstacles around which the trail here and there twisted was out of the question. He faced the hazards as they came and rode savagely; but the thud of pursuing hoofs and the smashing and crackling which mingled with it sounded very close when he reached the brink of a ravine which he understood it was almost impossible to descend on horseback. To dismount would, however, as he realized, entail his capture; and setting his lips tight he drove the failing horse at the almost precipitous gully. They plunged down with soil and stones sliding and rattling after them, splashed into a creek, and were half-way up the opposite side when a second clatter of falling stones was followed by a heavy downward rush of loosened soil. Then there was a dull thud and afterward a curiously impressive silence.

Thorne pulled up his badly blown horse and, twisting in his saddle, looked back across the ravine. He could see nothing but a shadowy mass of trees which stood out dimly against a strip of soft blue sky. He could feel his heart beating, and the deep silence troubled him. Indeed, it was with difficulty that he refrained from shouting to the fallen man, but he reflected that as he had now and then spoken to Slaney, the latter would probably recognize his voice. Then he heard the man get up, and the sounds which followed indicated that he was urging his horse to rise. Thorne once more tapped Volador with his quirt.

A hoarse cry rang after him, commanding him to stop, but this was on the whole a consolation, for it did not seem likely that Slaney was badly hurt if he could shout, and Thorne rode on with a laugh. He scarcely supposed the policeman's horse would be fit for much after a heavy fall, but there was another trooper somewhere behind who might turn up at any moment. He purposely rode through a brake or two in order that the crackle of undergrowth might make it clear that he was going on, and then, when some time had passed and there was no sign of any pursuit, he turned sharply off the trail and headed into the bush. It soon became necessary to dismount and lead his horse, and finally he looped the bridle round a branch and sat down wearily.

He fancied that half an hour had passed when he heard an increasing sound which suggested that two mounted men were riding cautiously along the trail some distance away. He could hear an occasional sharp snapping of rotten branches and the crash of trodden undergrowth as well as the beat of hoofs. Listening carefully, he decided that the riders were pushing straight on, and he was sure of it later, when the sound began to die away. He sat still, however, for almost another hour, and then succeeded with some difficulty in finding the trail. Following it back until it led him out of the mountain, he stripped off his duck jacket and flung it where anybody who passed that way could not well help seeing it, and then he took out a soft gray hat he had carried rolled up in his belt. Clad in blue shirt and trousers, he rode on slowly into the prairie. The dawn found him some miles from the mountain and at least as far from any trail, in the open waste. Reaching a ravine, he lay down at the bottom of it beside a creek and ate the breakfast he had brought with him, while Volador cropped the grass. Then he went quietly to sleep.

It was midday when he awakened, and falling dusk when he eventually reached the ravine near the settlement, where he had left his wagon and the other horse. There was nothing to suggest that anybody had visited the place in his absence, and after making an excellent supper he lay down again inside the vehicle with a sigh of content. Everything had gone satisfactorily, and it was most unlikely that Winthrop would be further troubled by the police. He did not know much about the extradition laws, but it was generally believed that when a man once got across the frontier the troopers contented themselves with notifying the authorities and nothing further was heard of the matter, unless the fugitive were guilty of some very serious offense. A good deal of the boundary then ran through an empty wilderness, and it was difficult to trace any one who managed to reach the settlements on its southern side. Indeed, it was seldom that a determined attempt was made.

Early on the following morning Thorne set out for his holding, and on the day after he got there he set about cutting prairie hay. As a rule, nobody sows artificial grasses when taking up new land, but as some fodder for the teams is required it is generally cut in a dried-up sloo where the water gathers in the thaw. In such places the grass grows tall, and as it rapidly ripens and whitens in the sun all the farmer need do is to cut it and carry it home.

Thorne was stripped to shirt and trousers, besides being grimed all over with dust, when looking around for a moment he saw Mrs. Farquhar and Alison in a wagon not far away. A black cloud of flies hovered about his head and followed his plodding horses, while a thick haze of dust rose from the grass that went down before the clanging mower. He stopped, however, and looked around with a tranquil smile when Mrs. Farquhar pulled up her team.

"You seem astonished to see me," he said.

Mrs. Farquhar turned and pointed to the long rows of fallen grass.

"I'm certainly astonished to see all that hay down."

"I wonder," quizzed Thorne, "if you intended that to be complimentary. You see, I rather cling to the idea that I can do as much as other people when I'm forced to it."

"You must have had the team out at sunup and have made the most of every minute since," laughed Mrs. Farquhar.

"It looks like it, unless I had them out the previous evening."

"You hadn't," declared Alison, and her companion broke in again.

"She is quite right. You were not here yesterday. It was partly to satisfy her curiosity that Harry drove round to see."

Thorne fancied that Alison was not exactly pleased with this statement, but she made no attempt to contradict it.

"What strikes me most," she said, "is the fact that you look as if you had never been away."

"That," returned Thorne, "is the impression I wished to give people. Now that I've had my frolic, I want to forget it. It's a natural desire. On the whole, I'm sorry you took the trouble to ascertain that I've just come back."

"The question is, what have you been doing while you were absent?" asked Mrs. Farquhar severely.

"Selling things most of the time. It's another example of what you can do if you try. I'd given up half a case of tarnished mirrors as quite unsalable, and somehow or other I got rid of every one of them."

"Anything else?"

"Well," replied Thorne with a thoughtful air, "I had a rather pleasant ride. In fact, I feel so braced up by the whole trip that I expect I shall be able to go on steadily for another few months, at least."

"And then?" Alison inquired.

Thorne looked at her with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Oh," he said, "if any of my friends make too persistent attempts to reform me it's quite possible I shall go off on the trail again."

"I don't think you need anticipate any further trouble of that kind," Alison assured him.

Thorne turned to Mrs. Farquhar.

"May I drive over to supper to-morrow evening? I'd like a talk with Harry – among other things."

"Of course," responded Mrs. Farquhar. "As a matter of fact, though I don't suppose it would have much result, I should like a talk with you. In the meanwhile we'll get on. It wouldn't be considerate to keep you back when you're seized by a fit of sensible activity."

She drove away with the clang of the mower following her and a few minutes later she smiled at Alison.



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