Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"If she's about, I'd like a talk with her. I might reason her out of her prejudice against me."

"It wouldn't be easy. She drove over to the bluff, but she should be back at any time now."

Nevis had no particular desire to see Miss Calvert, but he had made up his mind to wait for an opportunity to examine the postmark on the letter, if it could be managed. Taking a catalogue out of his pocket, he proceeded to talk about the machines and implements described in it, until at length there was a rattle of wheels outside and, somewhat to his astonishment, Alison walked in. He rose when she greeted Mrs. Calvert, and noticed that there was something which suggested hostility in her eyes when for a moment she let them rest on him.

"Farquhar's hired man brought me; he's going to Bagshaw's place," she announced. "I came over to see Lucy, but she seems to be out."

Mrs. Calvert asked her to wait a little, and when she was seated Nevis sat down again. Alison, however, noticed that he had now moved to another chair which was nearer the table than the one he had previously occupied, and she wondered whether he could have had any particular motive for changing his place. Then, leaning one elbow on the table, she looked around the room.

There was only one window in it, for even with double casements it is difficult enough to keep a small prairie homestead warm in winter, and the place was somewhat shadowy. The log walls were uncovered, and she could see the chinking of moss and clay which had been driven into the crevices in them; and there was, as usual, nothing on the very roughly boarded floor. One bright ray of sunshine, however, streamed in, and fell dazzlingly across the table, upon which an apparently unopened letter lay. The white envelope which caught the light seized her attention, and she remembered that the mail-carrier visited the district that day. As Lucy Calvert was not in, it was reasonable to suppose that the letter was addressed to her, which would explain why her mother had not opened it, and this supposition carried her a little farther. The most likely person to write to the girl was her lover, and Alison was almost sure that it was a man who had inscribed the address on the envelope. By and by she saw Nevis glance at the square of paper in what did not appear to be an altogether casual fashion, and the half-formed idea in her mind grew into definite shape. There was a reason why he should be interested in the letter, and she decided to sit him out. She opened a conversation with Mrs. Calvert, and some time had slipped away when a distant rattle of wheels rose out of the prairie. Nevis, rising, addressed his hostess.

"I guess that's Miss Calvert, and as there's a point or two about our binder which I believe I forgot to mention, I'd like to explain the thing before she turns up," he said. "I want to get on again as soon as possible after I've had a word with her. No doubt Miss Leigh will excuse us for a minute."

He moved forward toward the table with what appeared to be a photograph of some harvesting machinery in his hand, and as he did so Alison, who remembered that they had been laughing and speaking rather loudly during the last three or four minutes, fancied she heard a footstep outside the open window.

She was, however, not quite sure of this, and she watched the man with every sense strung up as he approached her hostess. It struck her that his object was to get near enough to see the writing or the postmark on the envelope, which would probably be impossible after Lucy arrived.

Leaning forward a little, she rested one arm farther on the table, which was covered with a light cloth, and drew the latter toward her with a slight movement of her elbow until a wider strip of it overhung the edge. She could not warn her hostess in the hearing of the man, when she had only suspicion to act on, but she was determined that he should not discover Winthrop's whereabouts if she could help it. Nevis's eyes, as she noticed, were fixed on the envelope, but he was evidently still too far off to read the postmark, and she waited another moment, watching him with mingled disgust and anger at the means he used.

In the meanwhile it was clear that Mrs. Calvert had no suspicion of what was going forward, for there was nothing to show that Alison's heart was beating a good deal faster than it generally did, or that the man was conscious of a vindictive satisfaction. His approach had been ostensibly careless, and there was only a faintly suggestive hardness in his eyes. The girl sat very still, and if her face was a little more intent than usual her hostess did not notice it.

Alison fancied that she heard a sound outside the window again, but she paid no heed to it, and as Nevis was about to lay his hand on the table and lean over it she moved her elbow sharply. The next moment the cloth slid down into a heap on the floor, and the letter disappeared.

Nevis closed one hand viciously, but he opened it again immediately as he turned to Alison. The man was quick, and held himself well in hand, and she felt a certain satisfaction in outwitting him, for it was clear that he had not suspected her of having any motive for jerking the cloth off.

"Am I accountable for the accident?" he asked.

"No," replied Alison; "it was my fault."

The danger, however, was not quite over. Alison quietly felt with one little, lightly shod foot beneath the cloth, part of which had caught and rested on her dress. Her shoe touched something that seemed harder than the soft fabric, and she contrived to draw it toward her.

"You knocked a letter off the table," said Nevis. "It must have fallen somewhere near. Permit me."

He stooped to pick up the cloth, and Alison saw that Mrs. Calvert was at last uneasy. It was obvious that she did not wish Nevis to lay his hands on the envelope. He raised the cloth, and after a glance beneath it moved a pace or two and shook it vigorously, but nothing fell out, and Alison quietly pushed back her chair.

"It's here beneath my skirt."

She picked it up and handed it to Mrs. Calvert, who laid it on a shelf across the room. After that there was a moment's silence, during which the two women looked at each other curiously, while Nevis, whose face was expressionless, looked at them both. Then the awkward stillness was broken by the entrance of Thorne. Ignoring Nevis completely, he turned to Mrs. Calvert with a smile.

"I don't know whether I need an excuse for this visit, but it occurred to me that I could drive Miss Leigh home," he explained. "I was hauling in logs for Gillow when Farquhar's hired man came along and told me he'd brought Miss Leigh over but wasn't sure when he could come back for her. Lucy will be here in a minute."

He leaned on a chair, talking about the wheat crop, until the rattle of wheels, which had been growing louder, stopped, when he moved toward the door, saying that he would help Lucy with the team. It was some time before he reappeared with her, and then the girl turned imperiously to Nevis.

"You here!" she exclaimed. "What do you want?"

"I was trying to sell your mother a binder," Nevis answered blandly.

Lucy, standing very straight, looked at him with a snap in her eyes.

"Then I guess you're wasting time. While there are implements to be had anywhere between here and Winnipeg we'll buy none from you."

Nevis favored her with a single swift glance, and then took up his hat.

"In that case I may as well get on again. I dare say your mother and Miss Leigh will excuse me."

He did not offer to shake hands with either of them, which may have been due to the fact that Mrs. Calvert's face was now hard and suspicious, and Alison carefully looked away from him. There was, also, a gleam of ironical amusement, which probably had some effect, in Thorne's eyes. Soon after he disappeared, Mrs. Calvert asked Thorne to come out and look at a mower which she said the hired man had had some trouble with, and when they left the room Lucy leaned back in her chair with her eyes fixed on Alison in a significant manner. They were of a clear blue, and Alison admitted that, with the somewhat unusual color in her cheeks and the light on her mass of gleaming hair, the girl was aggressively pretty.

"I'm glad they've gone – I guess I have to thank you for what you did," she said. "It was right smart, and I'm not sure my mother caught on to the thing."

"How did you know?" Alison asked in rather disturbed astonishment.

Lucy laughed.

"Mavy saw you through the window. The mail-carrier told him Nevis was here, and it was quite easy to figure what he was after. That's why Mavy hitched his team behind the willows and crept up quiet to see what was going on, so he could spoil his game, but he left it to you when he saw that you were on to it. Said he felt quite sure you could fix the man."

Alison remembered the footstep at the window, but she was curious about another aspect of the matter.

"Why did he tell you?" she asked.

Lucy's manner changed, and there was a hint of hardness in her expression.

"Well," she answered, "perhaps he wanted me to know what you had done, and, anyway, he had to put me on my guard. Still, though Mavy's quick, they're none of them very smart after all, and there was a point that didn't seem to strike him. He wasn't clear as to why Nevis would try to pick up Jake's trail through me."

The last words were flung sharply at the listener, and Alison made a gesture of appeal.

"Of course," she returned, "he wouldn't tell you that."

"No," declared Lucy; "nothing would have got it out of him. That's the kind of man he is." She paused a moment. "What made you send Nevis after me?"

"It was done without thinking. I couldn't foresee that it might make trouble. I was sorry afterward; I am sorry now."

Her companion looked at her with disconcerting steadiness.

"We'll let it go at that. There's just this to say – you haven't any reason to be afraid of me. I don't know a straighter man than Mavy Thorne – but I don't want him! Jake's quite enough for me, and there's trouble in front of him, with Nevis on his trail."

It cost Alison an effort to retain a befitting composure. This plain-speaking girl had obviously taken a good deal for granted, but Alison was uneasily conscious that she had certainly arrived at the truth. It was a relief to her when Mrs. Calvert and Thorne presently entered the room together.

CHAPTER XV
ON THE TRAIL

Nevis was not, as a rule, easily turned aside when he had taken a task in hand, and his failure at the Calvert homestead only made him more determined to run Winthrop down. Besides, he had not failed altogether, for he had at least caught a glimpse of the stamp on the letter, and he had no doubt that it was a Canadian one. There was an appreciable difference in the design and color of the American stamps. This indicated that in all probability Winthrop was still in Canada, in which case there would be no difficulty in arresting him once his whereabouts could be discovered. The tracing of the latter promised to be less easy, but Nevis set about it, and shortly afterward fortune once more favored him.

His business was an extensive one; he had money laid out here and there over a wide stretch of country, and he had already discovered that it required a good deal of watching. As a matter of fact, the latter was advisable, for some of the men to whom he lent it were addicted to disappearing without leaving any address or intimation as to what they had done with the movable portion of their hypothecated possessions. It is true that they generally had repaid Nevis a large part of his loan, as well as an exorbitant interest for a considerable time, but then had abandoned the struggle in despair. From his point of view, however, neither fact had any particular bearing on the matter. He expected a good deal more than the value of a hundred cents when he laid down a dollar.

One night a week or two after he called on Mrs. Calvert, he strolled out on to the platform of a train that had been run on to a lonely side-track beside a galvanized iron shed and a big water-tank. He was leaning on the rails, when the conductor came out of the vestibule behind him.

"We're not scheduled to stop," he commented.

"No, sir," replied the conductor. "Guess the company had once a notion of making a station here, but they cut it out. It's used as a section-depot and side-track, and now and then a freight pulls up for water. There's a soft spring here, and you can't get good water right along the line. Any kind won't do in a locomotive boiler."

The man was unusually loquacious for a western railroad hand, and Nevis, who had been glancing out at the shadowy sweep of prairie, amid which the straight track lost itself, felt inclined to talk.

"But what's holding us up?" he asked.

"Montreal express. She's on the next section, and it's quite a long one. They side-track everything to let her through."

A thought took shape in Nevis's mind. The point that suggested itself appeared at least worth attention, and he asked a question:

"Would a wire to anybody in the district be sent to the station ahead?"

The conductor said that it would, and added that the man in charge of the place where they were then stopping was called up only in case of necessity to hold a train on the side-track. He explained that although the instruments clicked out any message sent right along the circuit the operators, as a rule, listened only when they got their particular signal. This had a certain significance to Nevis.

"Is there often a freight-train waiting here when you come along?" he asked.

"That's so," said his companion. "We take the section if the Atlantic flyer's late, and they have to cut out the pick-up freight if she's in front of us. When she was standing yonder one night a little while back I saw what struck me as quite a curious thing. Just as we struck the tail switches a man dropped off a caboose coupled on behind the freight-cars; it was good clear moonlight, and I watched him. He kept the train between him and the shack behind you, and started out over the prairie as fast as he could. Then we ran in behind the freight-cars, but as soon as we were clear the engineer pulled them out, and as I looked back the man dropped into the grass like a stone. Bill, who runs this place, was standing outside his shack, and that may have had something to do with it."

"It sounds strange," commented Nevis. "Can you remember when it was?"

The conductor contrived to do so, and Nevis was not astonished when he heard the date. He decided that it would be wise to compare his conclusion with any views his companion might have about the matter.

"It's possible it was only one of the boys stealing a ride," he suggested.

"In that case he needn't have been so scared of Bill," was the answer. "It's most unlikely he'd have got out on the prairie after him. Strikes me the man was mighty anxious nobody should see him. Anyway, I thought no more about the thing, and only remembered it to-night."

Just then the scream of a whistle came ringing up the track, and the conductor pointed to a fan-shaped blaze of brightness which swept up out of the prairie.

"The express; I'll have to get along. We'll be off in two or three minutes now."

Nevis lighted a cigar as soon as he was left alone, and by the time the great express had flashed by with a clash and clatter he felt convinced that Corporal Slaney had erred in assuming that Winthrop had escaped across the frontier. Having arrived at this decision, he strolled back into the lighted car as the train crept out across the switches on to the waste of prairie. He had now something to act upon.

In the meanwhile, a weary man, dressed in somewhat ragged duck, sat one evening outside a tent pitched in the hollow of a prairie coul?e, with a letter in his hand. His attitude was suggestive of dejection, but he clenched the paper in hard, brown fingers, and there was an ominous look in his weather-darkened face. It was careworn, though he was young, and his general appearance and expression seemed to indicate that he was a simple man who had borne a burden too heavy for him, until at last he had revolted in desperation against the intolerable load.

A new branch line crept along the side of the shallow coul?e, which wound deviously across the great white sea of grass, and the trestles of a half-finished bridge rose, a gaunt skeleton of timber, above the creek that flowed through the valley. A cluster of tents and a galvanized iron shack, with a funnel projecting above it, crowned the crest of a neighboring ridge, and a murmur of voices and laughter rose faintly from the groups of men who lay about them. Winthrop, however, had pitched his camp a little distance from the others, so as to be nearer his work, which consisted in removing the soil from the side of the coul?e to make room for the road-bed. He had obtained a team from a neighboring rancher, and a satisfactory rate of payment from the railroad contractor. Indeed, during the last few weeks he had almost fancied that he was at last leaving his troubles behind him, and then that afternoon another blow had suddenly fallen. The letter from Lucy Calvert contained the disturbing news that Nevis, who seemed to have discovered that he had not left Canada, was still in pursuit of him.

Presently two of his comrades from the camp strolled up to his tent and stretched themselves out on the harsh, white grass in front of it. They were attired as he was, and they had toiled hard under a scorching sun all day handling heavy rails, but one was a man of excellent education, and the other had owned a wheat farm until the frost had reaped his crop and ruined him.

"You're looking blue to-night," commented the latter.

"Well," acknowledged Winthrop grimly, "there's a reason. I've put quite a lot of work in on that road-bed the last few weeks, but the trouble is I won't get a dollar unless I stay with it and keep up to specification until next pay-day."

"Of course!" said the man who had spoken. "Why should you want to quit?"

Winthrop glanced at the letter.

"I've had a warning. Guess I'll have to pull out again sudden one of these days."

There was silence for a few moments after this. The men had gone on well together, and within certain limits the toilers in a track-grading camp make friends rapidly, but for all that there are unwritten rules of etiquette in such places, and questions on some points are apt to be resented.

Still, Winthrop's face was troubled, and his expression hinted that it might be a consolation to take somebody into his confidence.

"Creditors?" one of his companions ventured to suggest.

"You've hit it first time, Drakesford. Bondholder who's been bleeding me quite a few years now. Raked in what I made each harvest – left me not quite enough to live on – until I began to see that I'd have to work a lifetime to get clear of him. When I knocked a little off the debt one good year he piled up something else on me. Then I was short last payment, and he shut down on my farm."

Drakesford turned to his companion.

"Ever hear anything like that before, Watson?"

There was a trace of dryness in the other man's smile.

"I have," he answered; "it's not quite new on the prairie. One or two of the boys I know have been through that mill."

He turned toward Winthrop.

"How did the blamed insect first get hold of you?"

"I'd a notion of getting married, and meant to raise a record crop. Went along to the blood-sucker, who was quite willing to back me, and took out a mortgage. Pledged him all the place and stock for what he let me have."

"Probably a third of its value," interposed Drakesford.

"About that," Winthrop agreed. "A big crop might have cleared me then, but we had frost that year, and he commenced to play me. Made me insure stock and homestead in his company – and I guess he stuck me over that. Then I had to buy implements and any stores he sold from him, at about twice the usual figure; and one way or another the debt kept piling up."

"Couldn't you have gone short in your payments before it got too big, and let him sell the place?" suggested Drakesford. "In that case, anything over and above what he advanced would have had to be refunded to you. Still, the man you dealt with would probably have provided for that difficulty."

Watson grinned.

"A sure thing! He wouldn't shut down until it was a year when wheat was cheap and farms were bringing mighty little. Then he'd sell him up and buy the place in through a dummy, 'way down beneath its value. After that he'd rent it out until wheat went up and he'd get twice what he gave for it from some sucker."

It is possible that the farmer had arrived at something very near the truth, but his companion, who still seemed thoughtful, looked at Winthrop.

"When you got notice of foreclosure I suppose you cleared out and left him the place," he said. "How does that give him a hold on you?"

"I sold the team and stock first," replied Winthrop grimly. "He sent the police after me."



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