Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"He's very far from perfect, and that's probably why he has so many friends," she observed. "I should very much like to hear an unvarnished account of all his doings since he went away."

Alison, though she would not confess it, was sensible of a similar curiosity.

CHAPTER XII
HUNTER MAKES AN ENEMY

The committee of the new creamery scheme were sitting in a room of the Graham's Bluff Hotel one evening after supper when Nevis laid his plan for the financing of the project before them. He had come there at their invitation for that purpose, and when he finished speaking they looked at one another with uncertainty in their faces. There were six of them, including Hunter, the chairman; prairie farmers who had been chosen by their neighbors to decide on a means of raising the necessary capital. All of them owned a few head of stock, for they were beginning to raise cattle as well as wheat in that district, and one or two more fortunate than their companions had an odd thousand dollars to their credit at the bank, which was a somewhat unusual thing in the case of men of their calling. The venture they contemplated would not have been justified now, for the Government has lately erected creameries where there is a reasonable demand for them. In a few moments Nevis, a little astonished at his companions' silence, spoke again.

"You have heard my views, gentlemen," he said. "I'm prepared to find you half the money on the terms laid down. It remains for you to decide whether you will bring my scheme before the next meeting – in which case it will, no doubt, be adopted."

Still nobody said anything and he leaned on the back of a chair with a strip of paper in one hand, watching them out of keen, dark eyes. As usual, he was almost too neatly dressed in light, tight-fitting clothes, and this and his white, soft-skinned hands emphasized the contrast between him and his audience. Among the latter were one or two men of liberal education, but their faces, like those of the others, were darkened by exposure to stinging frosts and scorching sun and their hands were hard and brown. They looked what they were, men who lived very plainly and spent their days in unremitting toil. Two, indeed, wore old, soil-stained jackets over their coarse blue shirts, and there was no attempt at elegance in the attire of the others.

Hunter, whose appearance was wholly inconspicuous, sat at the head of the table with a quiet face, waiting for somebody to speak, though the reticence of his companions did not astonish him. Nevis was a power in that district, and Hunter had grounds for believing that three of those present were in his debt. This made it reasonably evident that they would not care to offend a man who was generally understood to be an exacting creditor. Hunter had their case in his mind when at length he spoke.

"Mr. Nevis's scheme seems perfectly clear, on the face of it, and we have now to make up our minds whether we'll support it or not.

If none of you have any questions to put we'll ask him to excuse us for a few minutes while we consider the matter and vote on it. I would suggest a ballot – to be decided by a simple majority."

A gleam which Hunter noticed crept into Nevis's eyes and hinted that the suggestion did not meet with his approval. It is possible he had expected that some of the men would not care to vote against him openly.

"That," said one briefly, "strikes me as the squarest way; I'll second the proposition."

"Well," assented Nevis, "I won't embarrass you if you want to talk it over. You can send for me when you want me. I'll go down for a smoke."

There was less reserve when he withdrew, and they discussed his plan guardedly without arriving at any decision until Hunter laid six little strips of paper and a pencil on the table.

"We'll vote on the scheme – the words for or against will be sufficient without your names," he said.

Each wrote on a scrap of paper and flung it into a hat in turn, but two of them, it was noticeable, hesitated for a moment or so. Then Hunter shook out the papers and counted them.

"It's even – three for and three against," he announced. "Since that's the case I'll exercise my chairman's option. It's against."

There was satisfaction in some of the faces and in the others uncertainty, which, however, scarcely suggested much regret. Then they decided on Hunter's recommendation to raise what capital they could among their friends, even if they had to content themselves with a smaller outlay. Nevis, who was called in, heard the result with an easy indifference.

"Well," he said, "I can't complain. There was a risk in the thing, anyway, and I guess you know what you want best."

He went out again, and soon afterward the meeting broke up; but Hunter, who remained after the others had gone, was not astonished when Nevis presently strolled into the room. He sat down opposite Hunter and lighted a cigar.

"I suppose I have you to thank for this," he began.

"You mean the choosing of the alternative scheme? How did you find out that you owed it to me?"

It was a difficult question, put with a disconcerting quietness. As it happened, none of the committee had informed Nevis that the matter had been decided by the chairman's vote, and he was naturally reluctant to admit that three of them were under his influence.

"I didn't find out," he answered. "I assumed it."

"On what grounds?"

This was still more troublesome to parry, as it appeared quite possible to Nevis that if he furnished Hunter with a hint of the truth the latter would find means of getting rid of men who might under pressure be tempted to betray the confidence of their comrades. He was beginning to realize that the plain, brown-faced farmer with the unwavering eyes was a match for him, which was a fact he had not suspected hitherto, though he had been acquainted with him for some time. Then Hunter smiled significantly.

"We'll let it pass," he said. "I don't mind admitting that you were correct in your surmise. The thing turned upon my vote and I gave it against your scheme. What follows?"

It was not a conciliatory answer, but it at least furnished Nevis with the lead he desired.

"Your decision isn't quite final yet," he declared. "You have to report it to a general meeting, and a good deal will depend on whether you merely lay your views before those present or urge them upon them. Now, as my proposition isn't an unreasonable one, I'll ask you right out what your objections to it are?"

"I haven't any – to the scheme. As you say, it's reasonable, and it would save our raising a good deal of money."

Nevis was not particularly sensitive, but something in his companion's manner brought the blood to his cheek.

"Then you object to me – personally. Will you explain why?"

"Since you insist," replied Hunter. "To begin with, we propose to start the creamery for the benefit of the stock-raising farmers in this district, and several things lead me to believe that if you once get your grip on the management it will in process of time be run for your benefit exclusively. That is one reason I voted against your scheme, and I'm rather glad the decision rested with me, because" – he paused a moment – "I, at least, don't owe you any money."

Nevis with difficulty repressed a start at this. If Hunter was not in his debt his wife undoubtedly was, and something might be made of the fact by and by. In the meanwhile he was keenly anxious to secure an interest in the creamery. Once he could manage it, he apprehended no insuperable difficulty in obtaining control; but he could not get the necessary footing in the face of Hunter's opposition.

"It strikes me we're only working around the point and shifting ground," he said. "What makes you believe I don't mean to act straight?"

"What happened in Langton's and Winthrop's case?"

Nevis sat silent a moment or two. There was a vein of vindictiveness in him, but he was avaricious first of all, and he could generally keep his resentment in the background when it was a question of money.

"Are you a friend of either of them?" he asked.

"Not exactly; but I took a certain interest in Winthrop – I liked the man. In fact, I helped him out of a tight place once or twice, and might have done it again, only that I realized the one result would be to put a few more dollars into your pocket. That" – and Hunter smiled – "didn't seem worth while."

"It was a straight deal; I lent him the money at the usual interest. He couldn't have got it cheaper from anybody else."

Hunter looked at him in a curious manner and Nevis wondered somewhat uneasily how much this farmer knew. He had been correct as far as he had gone, but he had, as he recognized, left one opening for attack when he had foreclosed on Winthrop's stock and homestead. There are exemption laws in parts of Canada which to some extent protect the small farmer's possessions from seizure for debt unless he has actually mortgaged them. Winthrop had done this, but the mortgage was not a heavy one, and Nevis had afterward lent him further money, with the deliberate intention of breaking him. When the value of the possessions pledged greatly exceeds what has been advanced on them, which is generally the case, it is now and then profitable to foreclose, even though any excess above the loan realized at the sale must ostensibly be handed to the borrower. There, are, however, means of preventing him from getting very much of it, and though the process is sometimes risky this did not count for much with Nevis.

"Well," said Hunter quietly, "I'm not sure that what you tell me has any bearing on the matter."

This might mean anything or nothing, and Nevis, determining to force an issue, leaned forward confidentially.

"Let's face the point," he replied. "I want a share in this creamery – I can make it pay. There's only you who really counts against me. I may as well own it. Now, can't we come to terms somehow? I merely want you to abandon your opposition, and you would have no difficulty in preventing my doing anything that appeared against the stockholders' interests."

"I've already made up my mind that it would be safer to keep you out of it."

"That's your last word?"

"Yes. I don't mean to be offensive. It's a matter of business."

His companion took up his hat. He had failed, as indeed he had half expected to do, but he bade Hunter good-evening tranquilly and went out with strong resentment in his heart. Henceforward he meant to adopt an aggressive policy, and the farmer who had thwarted him must stand upon his guard. This decision, however, was largely prompted by business reasons, for Nevis had now no doubt that Hunter, who was looked up to as a leader by his neighbors, would use his influence against him in other matters besides the creamery scheme unless something could be done to embarrass or discredit him. The farmer, he thought, was open to attack in two ways – through his wife and through the defaulting debtor he had befriended.

When Hunter walked out of the hotel a few minutes afterward he also was thinking of Winthrop. He found Thorne harnessing his team.

"Did Winthrop ever show you his mortgage deed or any other papers relating to his deal with Nevis?" he asked.

"No," answered Thorne; "I was only in his place three or four times. Why do you ask?"

"There's a point in connection with it that occurs to me; but I dare say he took them with him."

Hunter paused and flashed a quick glance at his companion.

"Do you know where he is?"

"I don't. As a matter of fact, I don't want to, though it's possible that I could find out. The trouble is that if I made inquiries it might set other people – Nevis, for instance – on his trail."

"Yes," assented Hunter, "there's a good deal in that. On the whole, it might be wiser if you kept carefully clear of the thing, particularly if Corporal Slaney feels inclined to move any further in the matter. Well, as I've a long drive before me I must be getting on."

He turned away toward the stables and Thorne grinned cheerfully. He had a respect for the astuteness of this quiet, steady-eyed farmer, and he was disposed to fancy that Nevis would share it before the struggle which he forecasted was over. What was more, he was quite ready to act in any way as Hunter's ally, and he believed that between them they could give the plotter something to think about.

It was getting dark when Hunter reached home and found his wife waiting for him in the general living room. She was evidently a little out of temper.

"You are very late," she said. "I suppose you have been to one of those creamery meetings again?"

Hunter sat down where the lamplight fell upon his face, and there was a trace of weariness in it.

"Yes," he answered; "I had to go. On the whole, I'm glad I did."

"A crisis of some kind? You haven't been increasing your interest in the scheme?"

"No," replied Hunter with a smile; "not in money, anyway. You will, no doubt, be pleased to hear it."

"I am," retorted Florence. "If you had been ready to give those people anything they asked for it wouldn't have been flattering. You're not remarkably generous where I'm concerned."

Hunter made a gesture of protest.

"I'm not giving them anything at all. Once we make it a success I can get back the money I'm putting into the undertaking at any time; and if I don't I expect every bit of it to earn me something."

He looked around at her directly, for he knew where the grievance lay.

"That's a very different matter from handing you a big check for your expenses in Toronto or Montreal."

"Oh, yes," pouted Florence; "the latter would give me pleasure."

She paused and there was a sudden change in her expression.

"Elcot," she added, "can't you realize that now and then you can lay out money without getting anything back for it, and yet find that it pays you well?"

The man looked at her hesitatingly. He knew what this question meant and he was half disposed to yield. Living simply and toiling hard, he had treated her generously in comparison with his means, which, after all, were not large; but he remembered that he had yielded rather often of late and that each concession had merely led to a fresh demand.

"There's a limit, Flo," he said. "Still, if three hundred dollars will meet the case I might stretch a point. I suppose you are determined on that visit to Toronto?"

The woman knew that any further attempt to win him round would fail, and, this being so, it seemed a pity to waste energy on him. The three hundred dollars would by no means suffice for the purpose. This in itself was unpleasant, but in the fact that he could not be induced to make what appeared to be a small sacrifice for her pleasure there lay an extra sting. It was, perhaps, a pity that she had of late given him small cause for suspecting anything of the kind.

"It would be better than nothing," she said coldly, and then leaned back in her chair in a sudden fit of impatience with him and the whole situation.

"I sometimes wonder how I stand with you!" she exclaimed.

"First," declared the man, and he spoke the simple truth; but unfortunately he was not wise enough to content himself with the brief assurance. "Still," he added, "I have other duties."

"To Maverick Thorne, and Winthrop, and everybody in the district generally!"

"Well," replied Hunter, with the hint of weariness creeping back into his expression, "I suppose that more or less fits the case. You have all along been first with me, and I think I have done what I could to please you – and done it willingly. Still, there are these others – I owe them something. When I came here, a poor man, they held out their hands to me; one lent me a team, another, when I had no mower, cut and carried in my hay, and some came over night after night to build my log barn. I think I should have gone under if it hadn't been for them." He looked up at his wife with resolute eyes. "Now that I can pay them back without, in all probability, its costing me a dollar I'm at least going to try."

Florence's lips set scornfully. She had no liking for the surrounding farmers. They were, in her estimation, mere unlettered toilers – simple, unimaginative, brown-faced men who thought about nothing but the seasons and the price of wheat. What was, perhaps, as much to the purpose, she had a suspicion that most of them were not greatly impressed in her favor. Now her husband was, it seemed, anxious to waste his means for their benefit.

"Elcot," she asked abruptly, "has it never occurred to you that you could make more of your life than you are doing here?"

Hunter faced the question humorously.

"It would be astonishing if it hadn't, since you have suggested it more than once, but the answer is in the negative. This place is paying pretty well, and my means would certainly not keep us in Winnipeg, Toronto or Montreal; anyway, not in the comfort with which, after all, you have been surrounded. Of course, I might, for instance, try to run a store, but it doesn't strike me that this would be of much benefit to you. Would the kind of people you like welcome you as readily if your husband were retailing hats or groceries in the neighborhood?"

Florence knew that it was most improbable, though she would not confess it. Instead, she decided to see if it were possible to irritate him.

"After all," she retorted, "there is no great difference between a storekeeper and a farmer. All my city friends know what you are, and I can find no fault with the way they treat me."

Hunter laughed as he glanced down at his hard brown hands and dusty attire.

"The point is that in your case the farmer husband does not put in an appearance. It might be different if he did."

Florence looked at him in silence for a moment or two. Though he had been to the creamery meeting he was very plainly dressed; his bronzed face and battered nails told their own tale of arduous toil in the open, and there was no doubt that he looked a prairie farmer. Yet he was, as she realized now and then, well favored in a way; a man who might have made his mark in a different station, widely read and quietly forceful. Indeed, his inflexibility on certain points, though it sometimes angered her, compelled her deference.

"Oh," she cried at length, "it doesn't cost you much self-denial to stay behind. It's easy for you to be content. You like this life."

"Yes," returned Hunter quietly; "I'm thankful that I do. It's what I was made for. However, I don't wish to force too much of it on you, and so I'll give you a check for the three hundred dollars."

He crossed the room and, opening a desk, sat down at it for a minute or two. Then he came back and laid a strip of paper on the table in front of Florence.

"After all," she conceded, "as I was away a good deal of last winter, it's rather liberal, Elcot."

Hunter, without answering her, went quietly out.

CHAPTER XIII
NEVIS PICKS UP A CLUE

A week had slipped by since the meeting of the creamery committee and it was about the middle of the afternoon when Nevis lay, cigar in hand, in the shadow of a straggling bluff. It was pleasantly cool there and scorching sunshine beat down upon the prairie, across which he had plodded during the last half hour, and he had still some miles to go before he could reach the farm at which he expected to borrow a team. He was not fond of walking, but the man who had driven him out from the settlement, being in haste to reach Graham's Bluff, had set him down some distance from the homestead he desired to visit. Nevis found it advisable to look his clients up every now and then and see how they were getting on. This enabled him to sell to those who were not too deeply in his debt implements and stores at top prices, and to put judicious pressure upon the ones whose payments had fallen behind.

He was, however, thinking of Hunter as he lay full length among the grass with a frown on his face. It seemed desirable to let the man who had deprived him of what looked like a promising opportunity for lining his pockets feel that it would be wiser to refrain from interfering with his affairs in future, and he fancied that if Winthrop, whom Hunter had confessed to befriending, should be brought to trial it would convey a useful hint. This course was also advisable for other reasons. It must be admitted that the bondholder does not always come out on top, especially in bad seasons, and Nevis had already decided that the arrest of Winthrop would serve as a warning to any of his neighbors who might feel tempted to evade their liabilities in a similar fashion. He was still on the absconder's trail, though as yet it had not led him very far.

By and by he heard a soft beat of hoofs and a rattle of wheels, and looking up was pleased to see Mrs. Hunter drive around a corner of the bluff. He had of late been conscious of a growing delight in her company, and, what was almost as much to the purpose, he had partly thought out a plan of attacking her husband through her. He had, however, too much tact to force himself on her, and he lay still, apparently unobservant of her approach until she pulled up the horse.



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