Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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There was something in her manner that stung the man, and he ventured upon an impertinence.

"I suppose that means that Elcot hasn't proved amenable, as usual; but it's a little rough on me that I should have to meet the bill after a long and scorching drive."

Florence laughed again, scornfully.

"Elcot," she retorted, "is accustomed to carrying his own load, and on occasion other people's too, which is a weakness with which I'd never credit you. Besides, if he'd traveled for a week to see me he wouldn't think of reminding me of it."

"You seem inclined to drag his virtues out and parade them to-day."

There was no doubt that the man was going too far, and that led Florence to wonder whether he could be driven into going any farther.

"That," she replied, "would be quite unnecessary in Elcot's case. In fact, his virtues have an almost exasperating habit of meeting you in the face, which is no doubt why it's rather pleasant to get away from them – occasionally."

"You prefer something different on the off-days?"

"Yes," Florence answered reflectively, "I like a change; but it must be admitted that I invariably feel an increased respect for Elcot after it."

Nevis winced at this. She had made it clear that it was his part to amuse her at irregular intervals and enhance her husband's finer qualities by the contrast. It was not, however, one that appealed to him, and he had a vindictive temper. As it happened, she presently gave him an opportunity for indulging it.

"I wish I'd never gone to Toronto," she said petulantly.

"Considering everything, that's quite a pity," Nevis pointed out. "The visit probably cost you a good deal of money; and" – he added this with a grim suggestiveness – "wheat is steadily going down."

Florence gazed at him with a hardening face. He evidently meant it as a reminder that she owed him money. The man was becoming intolerable.

"Is it?" she asked indifferently. "In any case, I shall no doubt manage to meet my debts when they fall due."

Nevis had reasons for believing that it would be more difficult than she seemed to anticipate, but he talked about something else, and then, finding that his companion did not favor him with very much attention, he took his leave. When he was getting into his buggy Hunter came up and stopped him.

"I'm rather busy, but I can spare you a few minutes if it's necessary," he said.

Nevis looked at him with a provocative smile.

"It isn't," he answered. "It was your wife I came to see; she entrusted me with the arranging of a little matter."

He gathered up the reins, and added, as though to explain his departure:

"There are several things I want to get through with at the bluff this evening."

"Then I won't try to keep you."

Hunter walked up on the veranda and, leaning on the balustrade, looked at his wife.

"You have had a deal of some kind with that man?"

A flush of anger swept into Florence's cheek.

"He told you that?" she exclaimed; and then added, with a harsh laugh, "As it happens, he was quite correct."

Hunter stood still with an expressionless face for a moment or two, apparently waiting in case she had anything else to say; and then, with a gesture which might have meant anything, he moved away along the veranda.

Florence's conscience accused her when he disappeared into the house; but she was most clearly sensible that she was now a little afraid of Nevis and disposed to hate him. However, she lay quietly in her basket-chair until word was brought her that supper was ready.

Two or three days later Nevis sat late one night in his office at the railroad settlement. It was situated at the back of his implement store, on the ground floor of a very ugly wooden building which had a false front that rose a little beyond the ridge of roof. One door opened directly on to the prairie; the other led into the store, from which there exuded a pungent smell of paint and varnish. A nickeled lamp hung over Nevis's head, and the little room was unpleasantly hot, so hot, indeed, that he sat in his shirt-sleeves before a table littered with papers. Not far away a small safe stood open. This contained further papers tied up in several bundles and neatly endorsed. There was nothing else in the room except a few shelves filled with account books; and there was no covering on the floor. Nevis, like most commercial men in the small western towns, wasted very little money on superfluous accessories. He found that he could employ it much more profitably.

He had, as it happened, a troublesome matter to decide on, and seeing no way out of the difficulties which complicated it, he rose at length, and, lighting a cigar, opened the outer door and stood leaning against it. It was cooler there, and he noticed that the night was unusually dark. The stream of light that flowed out past him, forcing up his figure in a sharp, black silhouette, only intensified the thick obscurity in which it was almost immediately lost. It was also very still, and he could hear his white shirt crackle at each slight movement of the hand that held the cigar. Everybody in the little wooden town was, he surmised, already asleep, though he knew that a west-bound train would stop there in half an hour or so.

He did not know how long he remained in the doorway, but by degrees the stillness became oppressive, and at last he started as a sound rose suddenly out of the darkness. It was a faint, metallic rattle, and he leaned forward a little, listening in strained attention. The noise was so unexpected that it jarred on him.

Then he recollected that some of his neighbors were addicted to dumping empty provision cans and similar refuse into a clump of willows which straggled close up to the back of the town not far away, and he decided that one of them had fallen down or rolled over. After that he went back to his table, leaving the door open for the sake of coolness, and he was once more occupied with his papers when he heard a sharp knocking at the front of the store. Pushing his chair back he took out his watch. Somebody who was going west by the train that was almost due apparently desired to see him, though it seemed a curious thing that the man had not called earlier. He rose and entered the store, where he fell against the projecting handle of a plow in the darkness. This ruffled his temper, and he spent some time impatiently fumbling for and undoing the fastenings of the outer door. Then he flung it open somewhat violently, and strode out into the darkness. There was, so far as he could see, nobody in the vicinity, and when, moving forward a few paces he called out, he got no answer.

Feeling slightly uneasy as well as astonished, he stood still for, perhaps, a minute, gazing about him. He could dimly see the houses across the street, with the tall false fronts of one or two cutting black against the sky, but there was not a light in any of them, and there was certainly no sound of footsteps. He was neither a nervous nor a fanciful man, and it scarcely seemed possible that his ears had deceived him. Swinging around suddenly, he went back into the store and fastened the outer door before he reentered his office. The door at the back of the office and the safe stood open just as he had left them. Crossing the room he looked into the safe.

As a rule, a man's possessions are as secure in a small prairie town as they would be in, for example, London or Montreal, but Nevis seldom kept much money in his safe. He usually made his collections after harvest, and remitted the proceeds to a bank in Winnipeg. A small iron cash-box, however, occupied one shelf, and it was at once evident that this had not been touched, which seemed to prove that nobody with dishonest intentions had entered the place in his absence. This was satisfactory, but a few moments later it struck him that one of the bundles of docketed papers was not lying exactly where he had last placed it. He could not be quite sure of this, though he was methodical in his habits, and he took the bundle up and examined it. The tape around it was securely tied and the papers did not seem to have been disturbed. Besides this, they were in no sense marketable securities.

He laid them down again and closed the safe. Then, locking the outer door behind him, he proceeded through the silent town toward the track. As he did so the clanging of a locomotive bell broke through a slackening clatter of wheels, and when after a smart run he reached the station, hot and somewhat breathless, the lights of the long train were just sliding out of it. He strode up to the agent, who stood in the doorway of his office shack with a lantern in his hand.

"Did anybody get on board?" he asked.

"No," replied the agent. "Nobody got off, either. Did you expect to catch up any one?"

"I fancied somebody called at the store a few minutes ago. It occurred to me that the man might want to leave some message and had forgotten it until he was going to catch the train."

"I guess it must have been a delusion," remarked the agent.

Nevis had almost arrived at the same conclusion. He waited a few minutes, and then they walked back together through the settlement. The agent left him outside the store, above which he had a room, and dismissing the matter from his mind he went tranquilly to sleep half an hour later.

CHAPTER XIX
THE MORTGAGE DEED

Alison was sitting alone in the general living-room of the Farquhar homestead about an hour after breakfast when she laid down her sewing with a start as a man whom she had not heard approaching suddenly appeared in the doorway. He stood there, looking at her with what she felt was a very suspicious curiosity, and there was no doubt that his appearance was decidedly against him. His clothing, which had been rudely patched with cotton flour-bags, was old and stained with soil; his face was hard and grim; and she grew apprehensive under his fixed scrutiny.

"Where's the rest of you?" he asked after an unpleasant silence of a few moments.

Alison felt that it would be singularly injudicious to inform him, and while she hesitated, wondering what to answer, he strode into the room and fell heavily into the nearest chair.

"You'll excuse me," he apologized. "I'm played out."

The signs of weariness were plain on him, and Alison became a little reassured. After all, she remembered, there was nothing of very much value in the homestead; and she had never as yet had any reason to fear the men she had come across upon the prairie. In fact, though one had wanted to marry her offhand, their general conduct compared very favorably with that of one or two whom she had met in English cities.

"Have you come far?" she asked.

"From the railroad – on my feet," answered the man. "I left it about midnight two nights ago, and since then I've only had a morsel of food." Then he smiled at her. "You haven't told me yet where Harry Farquhar and his wife have gone."

It was clear that he had already satisfied himself that they were out, and Alison reluctantly admitted it.

"Mrs. Farquhar has driven over to the bluff," she said. "She took her husband with her, but she was to drop him at the ravine where the birches are. He wanted to cut some poles."

The look of annoyance in the man's face further reassured her, as it implied that he regretted Farquhar's absence almost as much as she had done a few moments earlier.

"It's a sure thing I can't wait till they come back, and the trouble is I can't make Mrs. Calvert's place without a rest, either."

He paused and gazed searchingly at Alison.

"You're Miss Leigh, aren't you? I guess you could be trusted; I've heard of you."

Alison's astonishment was evident, and he smiled.

"It's quite likely," he added dryly, "that you've heard of me. My name's Jake Winthrop."

Alison sat very still, and it was a moment or two before she spoke.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"Breakfast, if it wouldn't be too much trouble. Then, as Farquhar's out, there's a piece of paper I'd like to give you. Guess it would be safer out of my hands; the police troopers are after me."

Alison set the kettle and frying-pan on the stove. She was compassionate by nature, and the man looked very jaded and weary. When she sat down again he handed her a rather bulky folded paper which appeared to be some kind of legal document.

"What am I to do with this?" she asked.

"You can give it to Farquhar, or keep it and hide it," said the man. "I guess the last would be wisest. Nobody would figure you had the thing, and I can't give it to Lucy, because Nevis would sure get after her."

"Is it very important?"

"It might be. I can't go and ask a lawyer now. Guess the man would feel it was his duty to put Slaney on my trail, and I couldn't go near the settlement in daylight without doing the same. Anyway, it's my mortgage deed, and I have a notion that it might give me a pull on Nevis if the troopers get me. If I'm right, he'll be mighty anxious to get it back again."

"I don't understand," returned Alison. "If he was afraid of your using it against him, he wouldn't have given it to you at all."

Winthrop grinned.

"He didn't. I got him out of his office late at night and crept in for it. I knew where he kept the thing because I'd seen him put it in his safe."

Alison was far from pleased with this confession, but while she considered it another point occurred to her.

"But don't people generally get a duplicate of a paper of this kind?" she asked.

"I had one, but Nevis wanted me to do something that didn't seem quite what we had agreed on, and I went over with the deed to show him he was wrong. He said I'd better leave it, and somehow or other I could never get it out of his hands again."

"Ah," said Alison softly, "I think I wouldn't mind helping you against that man. But you must tell me exactly what you mean to do."

"I'm going across to see Lucy – and out West somewhere after that. If I can get away, and strike anything that will pay me, it's quite likely that I'll leave Nevis alone. If I can't, or there's a reason for it later, I'll write you, and Farquhar or Thorne could take the deed to a lawyer and see if he could get at Nevis with it. In the meanwhile it would be wiser if you just hid the thing away. If Farquhar knows nothing about it, I guess it would save him trouble."

Alison did not answer for a moment or two. She felt that she was acting imprudently in allowing herself to be drawn into the affair, but she was sorry for the man. He was a friend of Thorne's, and that counted for a good deal in his favor. In addition to this, the idea of playing a part, and possibly a leading part, in something of the nature of a complicated drama appealed to her, and there was, half formulated at the back of her mind, the desire to prove to Thorne just what she was capable of.

"Well," she said at length, "you may leave it with me."

Then she set about getting him a meal, and a little while later he limped wearily away. He left her with the impression that it would be wise of Nevis to abandon his pursuit of him, for there was something in the man's manner which indicated that he might prove dangerous if pressed too hard. The morning had slipped away before she could get the thought of him out of her mind.

In the meanwhile, he was plodding across the white wilderness under a scorching sun. The atmosphere was crystallinely clear, and an almost intolerable brightness flooded the wide levels. A birch bluff miles away was etched in clean-cut tracery upon the horizon, but though the weary man kept his eyes sharply open he felt reasonably safe from observation, which it seemed desirable to avoid. He did not believe that any of the scattered farmers would betray him, even if some pressure should be put upon them with the view of extracting information, but it was clear that they would be better able to evade any attempts Nevis or Slaney might make to entrap them into some incautious admission if they had none to impart. Winthrop based this decision on the fact that a man certainly cannot tell what he does not know.

It was consoling to remember that the wide, open prairie is by no means a bad place to hide in. A mounted figure or a team and wagon shows up for a vast distance against the skyline, while a few grass tussocks less than a foot in height will effectually conceal a man who lies down among them with the outline of his body broken by the blades from anybody passing within two or three hundred yards of him. Winthrop was aware, however, that it would be different if he attempted to run away; and once he dropped like a stone when a buggy rose unexpectedly out of a ravine. The man who drove it was an acquaintance of his, but he seemed to gaze right at the spot where Winthrop was stretched out without seeing him. The latter was not disturbed again, but he cast rather dubious glances round him as he resumed his march. There was another long journey in front of him that night, and he did not like the signs of the weather. It struck him as ominously clear.

He was, as it happened, not the only person who noticed this, for other people who had at different times suffered severely in pocket from the vagaries of the climate had arrived at much the same opinion that afternoon, with more or less uneasiness according to their temperament. The wheat was everywhere standing tall and green, and the season had been on the whole so propitious that from bitter experience they almost expected a change. As the small cultivator has discovered, the simile of a beneficent nature is a singularly misleading one, for the stern truth was proclaimed in ages long ago that man must toil with painful effort for the bread he eats, and must subdue the earth before he can render it fruitful. In the new West he has made himself many big machines, including the great gang-plows that rip their multiple furrows through the prairie soil, but he still lies defenseless against the fickle elements.

Elcot Hunter, at least, was anxious that night as he sat in the general living-room of his homestead opposite his wife. She was not greatly interested in the book she held, and she glanced at him now and then as he sat poring over a newspaper which was noted for its crop and market reports. They afforded Hunter very little satisfaction, for they made it clear that the West would produce enough wheat that season to flood an already lifeless market.

The windows of the room were open wide, and the smell of sun-baked soil damped by the heavy dew came in with the sound made by the movements of a restless horse or two. The fall of hoofs appeared unusually distinct. The wooden house, which had lain baking under a scorching sun all day, was still very hot, but the faint puffs of air which flowed in were delightfully cool, and at length Florence, who was very lightly clad, shivered as one that was stronger than the rest lifted a sheet of Hunter's paper.

"It is positively getting cold," she remarked.

"Cold?" returned Hunter. "I wouldn't call it that."

He resumed his reading, and three or four minutes had slipped by when Florence turned to him with irritation in her manner.

"Haven't you anything to say, Elcot?" she broke out. "Are those crop statistics so very fascinating?"

Hunter looked up at her with a rather grim smile. She lay in a low cane chair beneath the lamp, with her figure falling into long sweeping lines, attired in costly fripperies lately purchased in the East, but there was not the least doubt that they became her. Indeed, with the satiny whiteness of her neck and arms half revealed beneath the gauzy draperies, and her hair gleaming lustrously about a face that had been carefully shielded from the ravages of the weather, she seemed strangely out of place in the primitively furnished room of a western homestead. The man noticed it, as he had done on other occasions, with a pang of regret. There had been a time when he had expected her to rejoice in his successes and console him in his defeats, and it had hurt when she had made it clear that any reference to his occupation only irritated her. He had got over that, as he had borne other troubles, with an uncomplaining quietness, and, though she had never suspected this, he had often felt sorry for her. Still, he was a man of somewhat unyielding character, and there was occasionally friction when he did what he considered most fitting, in spite of her protests.

"Well," he said in answer to her question, "they have, anyway, some interest to a farmer who has a good deal at stake." He threw the paper down. "Things in general aren't very promising, and I may be rather tightly fixed after the harvest. I seem to have been spending a great deal of money lately."

Florence felt guilty. After all, as she was the principal cause of his expenses, it was generous of him to put it as he had done. Indeed, she decided to make a confession about the loan from Nevis sometime when he appeared to be in an unusually favorable mood.

"You have a splendid crop, haven't you?" she asked.

"The trouble is that I may not get much for it, and a wheat crop is never quite safe until it's thrashed out. I'm uncertain about the weather."



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