Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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The man made a sign of comprehension.

"Naturally! But haven't you got some homestead exemption laws in this part of the country?"

"They don't apply to mortgaged property," Watson broke in. Then he looked up sharply. "But, I guess you've hit it. The debt secured by mortgage wasn't a big one, and the man piled up more on to it afterward. The law would exempt from seizure on that."

Winthrop considered this moodily.

"Well," he answered at length, "suppose you're right. Who's going to take up my case, and where am I to get the money to put up a fight? The only lawyer in the district wouldn't act against the bondholder, and I couldn't get at my mortgage deed anyway. It's in the man's hands, and I haven't a copy. I got out with the price of a few beasts, and left the rest to him." He paused, and clenched a big, brown hand. "If he's wise he'll be content with that, and quit; but you can't satisfy that man. He's got my farm; he's made my life bitter; brought three years of trouble on the girl I meant to marry; and now he's after me again. Seems to me I've laid down under it about long enough!"

He broke off and sat silent a while, gazing out across the prairie toward where the red glow of sunset burned far off on the lonely grassland's rim. Iron shack and clustered tents stood out against it sharply now, and the faint sound of voices that came up through the still, clear air seemed to jar on the man.

"They can laugh," he complained. "I could, once."

Then Watson changed the subject.

"Butler had a notion he'd try a shot or two to-morrow where the road goes through the rise, and he sent some giant-powder along. He wants you to clinch the detonators on the fuses and put them in."

Now dynamite is not often used in prairie railroading, but Winthrop had once handled it in another part of the country, and had mentioned the fact to a foreman who was disposed to experiment with it.

"It's no use in that loose stuff," he pointed out.

"Butler wants to try it," answered Watson. "There's no reason why you shouldn't let him. I dumped the magazine he sent you in the coul?e. I didn't want to lie about smoking too near the detonators."

He walked away a little distance and came back with a case, out of which Winthrop took what looked like several yellow wax candles. Then he cut off three or four pieces of fuse, and carefully pinched down a big copper cap on the end of each of them. These he inserted into different sticks of the semi-plastic giant-powder in turn, and his companions drew a little away from him as he did so. It was getting dark now, but they could still see his face, and it was very hard and grim. It impressed them unpleasantly as they watched him handle the yellow rolls which contained imprisoned within them such tremendous powers. Giant-powder is a somewhat unstable product, as Winthrop knew from experience and the other two had heard, and in case of a premature explosion there was very little doubt as to what the fate of the party would be.

Annihilation in its most literal sense was the only word that would describe it, for there was force enough in those yellow sticks to transform material flesh and blood into unsubstantial gases. The fulminate in the detonators he cautiously imbedded was even more terrible, and sitting with his bent form outlined darkly against the shadowy waste of grass, he looked curiously sinister. He finished his task at last and handed one of them the magazine.

"Shouldn't there be another stick?" Watson asked. "Have you left it in the grass?"

"You can look," said Winthrop curtly, as he moved aside.

Watson glanced round the place where he had been sitting.

"I can't see it, anyway. I dare say I couldn't have brought another one, after all."

He moved away with Drakesford and looked at the latter when they were some distance from the tent.

"It's curious about that stick," he observed. "I'm not convinced yet that I've got as many as I brought with me."

"Why should he want to keep one?" his companion asked.

"I don't know," Watson confessed. "But there was something in his face that didn't please me."

"Yes," agreed Drakesford; "I've once or twice seen overdriven men look like that, and so far as I can remember there was trouble afterward."

They said nothing further, and while they proceeded along the crest of the coul?e Winthrop, still sitting beside his tent, took a stick of giant-powder from his pocket.

CHAPTER XVI
CORPORAL SLANEY'S DEFEAT

The sun had just dipped, and there was a wonderful invigorating coolness in the dew-chilled air. Winthrop sat in the cook-shed which was built against the back of the iron store-shack. Outside, as he could see through the doorway, the prairie ran back, a vast gray-white stretch, to the horizon, beneath as vast a sweep of green transparency. The little shed, however, was growing shadowy, and a red twinkle showed through the front of the stove in which the sinking fire was still burning.

The cook was somewhere outside talking with the boys, and Winthrop, who wished to beg a cotton flour-bag from him to use in mending his clothes, sat quietly smoking while he waited until he should come back. He felt no inclination to join the others, for he had grown anxious and morose since Lucy's warning had reached him a week or two earlier. He was quite aware that there was some danger in remaining at his work, but pay-day was approaching and he meant at least to wait until he could collect the money due him. After that he would disappear again if anything transpired to render it necessary. Just then Watson looked into the shed.

"I guess you'd better come right out," he said hurriedly. "There are two strangers riding into camp."

Winthrop was on his feet in a moment, and the haste with which he rose betrayed his anxiety. Going out, he ran forward until he could obtain an uninterrupted view of the plain. The waste of grass was growing dim, but two mounted figures showed up black on it. Watson indicated them with outstretched hand.

"Notice anything interesting about them?"

"Yes," Winthrop answered grimly; "they ride like police troopers."

"That's just how it seemed to me," exclaimed Drakesford. "They're coming from southward, and if they'd left the trunk line soon after the Vancouver train came in they would get here about now. They could have borrowed horses from the rancher near the station."

Winthrop watched them steadily before he spoke.

"They're troopers, sure," he said at length. "The short one looks like Corporal Slaney, who's out after me; and they'll be in before I could catch either of my horses. I turned them out in the soft grass some way back in the coul?e."

"You have got to do something," declared Watson, "and do it right now!"

Winthrop glanced out across the great, level plain, and his face grew set.

"They'd sure search the coul?e, and, except for that, there isn't cover for a coyote for a league or two. It won't be dark for half an hour yet, and they'd ride me down in three or four minutes in the open."

This was obvious, and silence followed until Winthrop spoke again.

"I haven't a gun of any kind."

"That's fortunate," said Drakesford. "What do you want a gun for, anyway? Plugging one of the troopers wouldn't help you."

In the meanwhile, the mounted figures were rapidly drawing nearer. The three men stood tensely watching them until Winthrop suddenly swung round toward his companions.

"You can tell them where my tent is, and they'll waste some minutes going there. That's all I want you to do."

Watson looked at him inquiringly, but he made a sign of impatience.

"I'm going back to the cook-shed. You can't help any. Keep out of this trouble."

Moving away from them, he disappeared into the shadowy interior of the shed, and his companions waited until the rest of the men came running up as the police rode in. The latter asked a few questions which Watson answered truthfully, and then they rode off toward Winthrop's tent. Presently one dismounted trooper reappeared, and proceeded to search the other tents, amid ironical banter and a few protests. This took him some time, and darkness was not far off when he reached the iron shack, the door of which was unusually difficult to open, though Watson, who had visited it in the meanwhile, could have explained the cause of it. Then the other trooper came back, and led both horses out upon the prairie. Leaving them there, he joined his comrade, who addressed the men.

"Boys," he said, "we're holding a warrant for your partner, and we've got to have him."

"Nobody's stopping you," one of them answered. "We haven't a place to hide him in unless he's crawled down a gopher-hole."

As a gopher is smaller than an ordinary squirrel, the point of this was evident, and while a laugh went up the policemen conferred together in front of the iron shack; then, after looking in, they walked around to the back of it. They had no doubt already noticed the cook-shed, but as it was very small and the door stood partly open, it appeared a most unpromising place for the fugitive to seek refuge. Now, however, they moved close to it, and Winthrop, sitting back in the shadow, became dimly visible.

"Come out! We've got you!" one trooper cried.

The man did not move, but he had something in his hand, which was stretched out toward the stove. One of the pot-holes in the top of the stove was open, and a faint glow shone upon the object he held clenched in his fingers. It bore, as Corporal Slaney noticed, no resemblance to a pistol.

"Come out!" he repeated. "There's no use in making trouble."

Winthrop laughed in a jarring fashion.

"I guess I'll stay a while right where I am."

Then he raised his voice.

"If you're wise you'll wait outside, Corporal."

Slaney stood still just outside the door, peering into the shed; and the trooper behind him had his carbine ready.

"Don't be foolish, Jake. We've got you sure," he called.

He moved a pace nearer, and Winthrop leaned forward a little farther over the pot-hole.

"See what this is?" he inquired, glancing down at the object in his hand.

"It's not a gun, anyway," said the trooper to his superior.

"It's a stick of giant-powder. There's a detonator in it and an inch or two of fuse. As soon as you're inside the door I drop it in the stove."

Slaney promptly recoiled a yard or two. Having had some experience in dealing with men driven to extremities, he knew that Winthrop's warning was not empty bluff. There was something in the man's voice that convinced him that he meant what he said. For the next few moments he and the trooper stood irresolutely still, wondering what they should do, while the motionless figure quietly watched them through the doorway. The corporal was by no means timid or overcautious, and had Winthrop held a pistol it is highly probable that he would have attempted to rush him. Except in the hands of a master of it, the short-barreled weapon is singularly unreliable, and shots fired by a man disturbed by fear or anger as a rule go wide; but the stick of dynamite meant certain death. Slaney had not the nerve to face that, and, besides, as he rightfully reflected, it would serve no purpose except to nip in the bud the career of a promising police officer. Then Winthrop spoke again.

"You'll have to haul off this time, Corporal. Letting this thing drop is quicker than shooting, even if you had me covered."

"We could plug you from a distance through the shack," Slaney pointed out.

"That's so," Winthrop assented calmly; "I guess you could; but I'm not sure your bosses would thank you for doing it."

There was, as the corporal recognized, some truth in this. The police would be held blameless for shooting down a fugitive who refused to surrender, but after all the exploit would not count to their credit unless the man were a desperado guilty of some particularly serious offense. It was their business to capture the person for whom they had a warrant.

Drawing back a little farther, the corporal conferred with the trooper, who suggested several ways of getting over the difficulty, none of which, however, appeared altogether practicable. For one thing, he said, they could wait, sleeping in turn, until from utter weariness Winthrop's vigilance relaxed; but that, it was evident, would most likely take more time than they could spare. They could also seek the assistance of the trackgraders and arrange with them to make a diversion while they crept up unobserved. Against this there was, however, as the corporal pointed out, the probability that the men were more or less in sympathy with the fugitive, and that as a result any assistance they might be commanded to render could not be depended on. He added that he would rather wait for daylight, and then, if it should be absolutely necessary, fire into the shed.

In the meantime Watson was discussing the affair with Drakesford.

"That man has some kind of plan in his mind, though I can't tell you what it is," he declared. "Anyway, it would be better that the troopers hadn't their horses handy in case he gets out in the dark and makes a break for the prairie."

"They're back behind the tents," observed Drakesford, pointedly.

"Picketed," grinned Watson. "They should have knee-hobbled them. A horse will now and then pull a picket out when the soil's light."

It was too dark to see his companion's face clearly, but Drakesford appeared to smile in a manner that suggested comprehension, and they strolled a little nearer the corporal, who had just sent for the cook. The corporal explained that he had ridden a long way since his dinner, and asked for a can of coffee and some eatables, and the cook proceeded dubiously toward the shed. He came back empty-handed in a minute or two.

"I can't get you anything," he said. "The man you're after won't let me in."

The corporal expressed his feelings somewhat freely, but the cook grinned.

"You want to be reasonable," he protested. "How do you expect me to get in, when he's holding off the two of you, and you've got arms?"

Watson touched his companion's shoulder.

"It's my opinion that our friend would better get out to-night," he whispered. "The boys are holding off in the meanwhile, but if they can't get their breakfast there'll probably be trouble."

Drakesford agreed with this, and shortly afterward he proceeded circuitously toward the troopers' horses.

In the meanwhile, Slaney and his subordinate sat down on the grass well apart from each other and about sixty yards from the cook-shed, and, rolling their blankets about them, prepared to spend the night as comfortably as possible. It was not very dark, though there was no moon, and a slight haze, which promised an increased obscurity, was now creeping across the sky. They could see the black shape of the shed, and it was evident that nobody could slip out from it without their observation; and they had their carbines handy. Slaney would have crept up a little nearer, only that he felt it desirable to keep outside the striking range of the giant-powder, in case Winthrop happened to get drowsy and drop it in the stove.

After a while the track-graders, who had sat among the grass smoking and watching the troopers, began to drift away to their sleeping-quarters. The drama was interesting, but they had no part in it, and they would certainly have to rise soon after sunup to a long day's arduous toil. In the meanwhile, their attitude could best be described as reluctantly neutral. There were a few toughs among them who had no doubt sufficient reason for not loving a policeman of any kind, but the rest recognized the inadvisability of any interference with constituted authority. On the other hand, though they did not know the rights or wrongs of the matter, the desperate, cold-blooded courage of the hard-pressed man appealed to them, and they decided that Corporal Slaney need not look for any effective assistance which it might be in their power to render. Most of them were simple men who lived and toiled in the open, and, as is usual with their kind, their sympathies were with the weaker party.

In an hour or two the last of them had vanished, and if a few still watched outside their tents there was, at least, nothing that suggested their presence to Corporal Slaney. He lay resting on one elbow, with his eyes fixed on the shed, while a little chilly breeze set the dry grasses rustling about him. It was now slightly darker than it usually is on the prairie in summer-time, for the haze had gradually spread across most of the sky. The tents had faded almost out of sight, though the black shape of the shack remained, and now and then, when the breeze sank away, the silence grew almost oppressive. Once the corporal started as he heard a sound in the shed, but he sank down again when he recognized the clatter and rattle that succeeded it. Winthrop, who evidently did not mean to neglect any precaution, was, he decided, putting more fuel into the stove. After that the howl of a coyote came faintly up the breeze, which grew stronger, and the low murmur of the grasses began once more.

A pearly light was growing clearer on the eastern rim of the prairie when at length Slaney, damp with the dew, rose to his feet with a shiver and softly called the trooper, who announced that he had heard nothing suspicious during the night. After a brief parley they crept up cautiously a little nearer the shed, but there was, so far as they could make out, no sign of life within. Indeed, the stillness was becoming suspicious. Moving nearer still, they could look into part of the shed through the open door, and, for the light was getting clearer, it became evident that Winthrop was no longer sitting beside the stove. This was encouraging, because it looked as if he had fallen asleep.

Making a short detour, so as to keep to one side of the entrance, they crept up closer, with faces set and hearts beating a good deal faster than usual; but there was no sound except a faint crackle, apparently from the stove. Then Slaney lay down in the grass and crawled up to the doorway, where he rose and suddenly sprang into the shed. The next moment his voice rang out hoarse with anger, for the place was empty. He waited until the trooper joined him, and then pointed to a little door in the back of the larger building.

"That explains the thing!" he exclaimed. "You looked round the shack?"

"I did," the trooper admitted, and added, somewhat tactlessly, "so did you."

Slaney frowned at this reminder, but it was evident that a discussion as to whose fault it was that Winthrop had got away would in no way assist them in his capture, and they proceeded into the larger building, where they had no trouble in finding an explanation of his escape.

Men working on the prairie or in the bush of Canada are usually boarded by their employers at a weekly charge, and there were a good many of them engaged on the track. As a result of it, the iron shack was partly filled with provisions, and when Slaney and the trooper entered by the front they had seen a pile of cases and flour-bags apparently built up against one wall. It was, however, growing dark then, and neither of them had noticed that there was a narrow space behind the provisions which had been left to facilitate the entrance of the cook. Winthrop, it was clear, had slipped out through it in the darkness, and the shack had prevented either of the watchers from seeing him crawl away across the prairie. It occurred to Slaney that from the position of the tents it was scarcely likely he had got away quite unnoticed, but he had reasons for believing that it would be difficult to elicit any reliable information on that point from the man's comrades.

There was only one thing to be done, and that was to mount as soon as possible and endeavor to pick up the fugitive's trail; but when they reached the spot where they had left their horses there was no sign of them, and it was half an hour before the trooper came upon them some distance up the coul?e. Slaney was quite convinced that neither of the beasts had succeeded in dragging the picket out of the ground unassisted, but this was a thing he could not prove; and when the cook had supplied them with a hastily prepared breakfast he and the trooper rode away across the prairie.



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