Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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It was very matter-of-fact, but Florence knew him well enough to realize what it implied. Defeat could not crush him; it only nerved him to a more resolute fight, for which he meant to equip himself at any sacrifice with more efficient weapons. Again she was conscious of a growing respect for him.

"I'm afraid I have been a drag on you, Elcot, but in this case you can count upon my doing – what I can."

He scarcely seemed to hear her, and she realized with a trace of bitter amusement that her assurance did not appear of any particular consequence to him.

"I have teams enough," he continued, picking up the course of thought where he had broken off. "Anyway, one should get something for the old machines."

Florence set her lips as they turned back toward the house. This was a matter in which she evidently did not count; but there was no doubt that in the light of past events the man's attitude was justified. It would be necessary to prove that he was wrong, and, with Nevis's loan still to be met, that promised to be difficult.

"Elcot," she said, "I don't think I've told you yet how sorry I am."

He looked at her in a manner which implied that his mind was still busy with his plans.

"Yes – of course," he replied.

CHAPTER XXI
A POINT OF HONOR

Florence Hunter sat in her wagon in front of the grocery store at Graham's Bluff waiting until the man who kept it should bring out various goods she had ordered. Though a fresh breeze swept the surrounding prairie the little town was very hot, and it looked singularly unattractive with the dust blowing through its one unpaved street. In one place a gaily striped shade, which flapped and fluttered in the wind, had been stretched above the window of an ambitious store; but with this exception the unlovely wooden buildings boldly fronted the weather, with the sun-glare on their thin, rent boarding and the roofing shingles crackling overhead, as they had done when they had borne the scourge of snow-laden gales and the almost Arctic frost. They were square and squat, as destitute, most of them, of paint as they were of any attempt at adornment; and in hot weather the newer ones were permeated with a pungent, resinous smell.

Where Florence sat, however, the odors that flowed out of the store were more diffuse, for the fragrance of perspiring cheese was mingled with that of pork which had gained flavor and lost its stiffness in the heat, and the aroma of what was sold as coffee at Graham's Bluff. Florence, indeed, had been glad to escape from the store, which resembled an oven with savory cooking going on, though after all it was not a great deal better in the wagon. The dust was beginning to gather in the folds of her dainty dress, the wind plucked at her veil, and the fierce sun smote her face.

On the whole, she was displeased with things in general and inclined to regret that she had driven into the settlement, which she had done in a fit of compunction.

Hitherto she had contented herself with sending the storekeeper an order for goods to be supplied, without any attempt to investigate his charges, but now, with Elcot's harvest ruined it had appeared her duty to consider carefully the subject of housekeeping accounts. She rather resented the fact that her first experiment had proved unpleasant, for she had shrunk from the sight of the slabs of half-melted pork flung down for her inspection, and having hitherto shopped only in England and eastern Canada she had found the na?ve abruptness of the western storekeeper somewhat hard on her temper. Retail dealers in the prairie settlements seldom defer to their customers. If the latter do not like their goods or charges they are generally favored with a hint that they would better go somewhere else, and there is an end of the matter. It really did not look as if much encouragement was held out to those who aspired to cultivate the domestic virtues. At length the storekeeper appeared with several large packages.

"You want to cover this one up; it's the butter," he cautioned. "Guess you're going to have some trouble in keeping it in the wagon if the sun gets on to it. Better bring a big can next time, same as your hired man does."

The warning was justified, because when the inexperienced customer brings nothing to put it in, butter is usually retailed in light baskets made of wood, in spite of the fact that it is addicted to running out of them in the heat of the day. The man next deposited a heavy cotton bag in the wagon, and while a thin cloud of flour which followed its fall descended upon Florence he laid his hands on the wheel and looked at her confidentially.

"I guess if your husband meant to let up on that creamery scheme you would have heard of it," he suggested.

"Yes," replied Florence; "I don't think he has any intention of doing so."

The man made a sign of assent.

"That's just what I was telling the boys last night. There were two or three of them from Traverse staying at the hotel, and when we got to talking about the hail they allowed that he'd have to cut the creamery plan out. I said that when Elcot Hunter took a thing up he stayed with it until he put it through."

His words had their effect on Florence. This, it seemed, was what the men who dealt with Elcot thought of him. After a few more general observations about the creamery her companion went back into his store, and as he did so Nevis came out of a house near by. He stopped beside her team.

"I didn't know you were in the settlement," he said, and his manner implied that had he been acquainted with the fact he would have sought her out.

Florence glanced at him sharply as she gathered up the reins. The man seemed disposed to be more amiable than he had shown himself on the last occasion, but she now cherished two strong grievances against him. He had cunningly saddled her with a debt which was becoming horribly embarrassing, and he had given her husband a hint that she had dealings of some kind with him. As the latter course was, on the face of it, clearly not calculated to earn her gratitude, she surmised that he must have had some ulterior object in adopting it.

"I've been buying stores," she answered indifferently.

"That's a new departure, isn't it?" Nevis suggested. "You generally contented yourself with sending in for them."

Florence did not like his tone, and he seemed suspiciously well informed about her habits. This indicated that he had been making inquiries about her, and she naturally resented it. She disregarded the speech, however.

"I suppose you're here on business?"

"Yes," answered Nevis, and there was something significant in his manner; "I thought it wiser to look up my clients after the hail we had two nights ago. It's going to make things very tight for many of the prairie farmers."

"And a disaster naturally brings you on the field. Rather like the vultures, isn't it?"

She was about to drive on, but Nevis suddenly laid his hand on the rein.

"I think you ought to give me a minute or two, if only to answer that," he said with a laugh. "You compared me to a pickpocket not long ago, and I'm not prepared to own that you have chosen a very fortunate simile now."

"No? After the fact you mentioned it struck me as rather apposite; but I may have been wrong. The point's hardly worth discussing, and I'm going on to the hotel."

She had expected him to take the hint and drop the rein, but he showed no intention of doing so, and it suddenly dawned on her that he meant to keep her talking as long as possible. Everybody in the settlement who cared to look out could see them, and she had no doubt that the women in the place were keenly observant. It almost seemed as if he wished the fact that they had a good deal to say to each other to attract attention, with the idea that this might serve to give him a further hold on her. It was an opposite policy to the one he had pursued when she had driven him across the prairie some time ago, but the man had become bolder and more aggressive since then.

"Will you let that rein go?" she asked directly.

Nevis did not comply, and though he made a gesture of deprecation the look in his eyes warned her that he meant to let her feel his power.

"Won't you give me an opportunity for convincing you that I'm not like the vultures first? You see, they gather round the carrion, and I don't suppose you would care to apply that term to the farmers in our vicinity. Most of them aren't more than moribund yet."

It struck Florence that he was indifferent as to whether she took offense at this or not; and he was undoubtedly determined to stick fast to the rein. There were already one or two loungers watching them, and, if he persisted, she could not start the team without some highly undesirable display of force. The man, she fancied, realized this, and an angry warmth crept into her face. Then, somewhat to her relief, she saw Thorne strolling down the street behind her companion. He wore a battered, wide gray hat, a blue shirt which hung open at the neck, duck trousers and long boots, and though he was freely sprinkled with dust he looked distinctly picturesque. What was more to the purpose, he seemed to be regarding Nevis with suspicion, and she knew that he was a man of quick resource. In any case, the situation was becoming intolerable, and she flashed a quick glance at him. She fancied that he would understand it as an intimation that he was wanted, and the expectation was justified, for although she had never been gracious to him he approached a little faster. In the meanwhile Nevis, who had seen nothing of all this, talked on.

"There are, of course," he added, "people who are prejudiced against me; but on the other hand I have set a good many of the small farmers on their feet again."

"Presumably you made them pay for it?"

The man had no opportunity for answering this, for just then Thorne's hand fell heavily upon his shoulder.

"You here, Nevis?" he cried.

Nevis dropped the rein as he swung around and Florence wasted no time in starting her team. As the wagon jolted away down the rutted street Nevis, standing still, somewhat flushed in face, gazed at Thorne.

"Well," he demanded, "what do you want?"

Thorne leaned against the front of the store with sardonic amusement in his eyes.

"Oh," he replied, "it merely occurred to me that Mrs. Hunter wished to drive on. I thought I'd better point it out to you."

Nevis glanced at him savagely and then strode away, which was, indeed, all that he could do. An altercation would serve no useful purpose, and his antagonist was notoriously quick at repartee.

Thorne proceeded toward the wooden hotel and crossing the veranda he entered a long roughly boarded room, where he found Alison and Mrs. Farquhar as well as Florence Hunter waiting for supper. Mrs. Farquhar told him that supper would be served to them before the regular customers came in for theirs. They chatted a while and then a young lad appeared in the doorway and stopped hesitatingly.

"I'm sorry if I'm intruding," he apologized. "I meant to have supper with the boys, and Symonds didn't tell me there was anybody in the room."

Thorne turned to Mrs. Farquhar, and she smiled.

"Then unless you would prefer to take it with the boys, Dave, there's no reason why you should run away," he said.

He led the lad toward Alison when Mrs. Farquhar had spoken to him.

"I think you will remember him, Miss Leigh. He's the young man who boiled the fowls whole at the raising."

Alison laughed and shook hands with him, but after a word or two with her he looked at Thorne significantly and moved a few paces toward the door.

"Did you know that Winthrop was in the neighborhood?" he whispered.

Alison still stood near them and Thorne fancied that she started slightly, which implied that she had overheard, though why the news should cause her concern was far from clear to him.

"I didn't," he said sharply. "It's a little difficult to believe it now. You're quite sure?"

"I saw him," the lad persisted. "I was riding here along the trail and I'd come to the ravine. It's quite likely the birches had hidden me, for when I came out of them he was sitting on the edge of the sloo on the south side, near enough for me to recognize him, eating something. The next moment he rolled over into the grass and vanished."

"Then you didn't speak to him?"

"He was too quick. It looked as if he didn't want me to see him, and I rode on. I had to call at Forrester's and I found Corporal Slaney there. One or two things he said made it clear that he hadn't the faintest notion that Winthrop was within a mile or two of him."

He was apparently about to add something further when Thorne looked at him warningly. They were standing near the entrance, the approach to which led through the veranda, and the next moment Nevis walked into the room.

"Have you been picking up interesting news?" he asked. "I believe I caught Winthrop's name."

It was spoken sharply, in the expectation, Thorne fancied, that his companion, taken off his guard, would blurt out some fresh information; but the lad turned toward Nevis with an air of cold resentment.

"I was talking to Mr. Thorne," he replied.

Nevis laughed, though Thorne noticed that he did not do it easily.

"Well," he said, "I'm sorry if I interrupted you."

Then he turned toward the others as if he had just noticed them.

"I didn't know that Symonds had placed the room at your disposal; I've no doubt that will excuse me."

Nobody invited him to remain, but he withdrew gracefully, and when he had gone Thorne led the lad out on to the veranda. It was unoccupied, but as it stood some little height above the ground he walked to the edge of it and looked over before he spoke.

"Now, Dave, I want you to tell me one or two things as clearly as you can."

The lad answered his questions, and in a minute or two Thorne nodded as if satisfied. Then he pointed to the room.

"Go in and talk to Mrs. Farquhar. Keep clear of Nevis, and ride home as soon as you can after supper. If you feel compelled to mention the thing, there's no reason why you shouldn't to-morrow. It won't do much harm then."

He went down the steps and along the street, and when he came back some time later he found Alison waiting for him on the veranda.

"So you heard what Dave told me? I thought you did," he said.

"Yes," assented Alison. "The question is whether Nevis heard him too."

"He certainly heard part, but there are one or two things he can't very well know. For instance, it was Slaney's intention to ride in to the railroad as soon as he'd had supper."

"Forrester's place must be at least two leagues from here," commented Alison.

"About that," Thorne agreed with a smile. "It's far enough to make it exceedingly probable that anybody who started from this settlement when he'd had his supper would only get there after Winthrop had gone."

"But Nevis might send a messenger immediately."

Thorne shook his head.

"It strikes me as very unlikely that he'd get any one to go. There are only one or two horses in the place, and I've been round to see the men to whom they belong."

Alison's eyes sparkled approvingly.

"But suppose he goes himself?"

"He won't until after supper. Nevis is not the man to deny himself unless it seems absolutely necessary, and he'll naturally assume that Slaney is spending the night with Forrester. But there's a certain probability of his setting out immediately after the meal."

"And what are you going to do about it?"

Thorne's expression became regretful.

"I'm very much afraid I can't do anything. You see, the – arrangement – with Corporal Slaney stands in the way."

"You never thought that Winthrop would come back here when you made it," Alison suggested.

"No," acknowledged Thorne; "the point is that the corporal didn't either."

Alison appeared to reflect, and he watched her with quiet amusement.

"I've changed my mind about Winthrop," she told him at length. "I want him to get away."

Thorne made no answer, and she continued:

"Lucy Calvert is, no doubt, a good deal more anxious than I am that he should escape, and it would be only natural if you wished to earn her thanks. I think she could be very nice, and her eyes are wonderfully blue."

Thorne met her inquiring gaze with one of contemplative scrutiny.

"Yours," he said, "are usually delightfully still and gray – like a pool on a moorland stream at home under a faintly clouded sky; but now and then they gleam with a golden light as the water does when the sun comes through."

His companion hastily abandoned that line of attack. His defense was too vigorous for her to follow it up.

"You feel that your hands are absolutely tied by the hint you gave Slaney that afternoon?" she asked.

"That's how it strikes me," Thorne declared. "In this case I'm afraid I'll have to stand aside and content myself with looking on."

"But haven't you already made it difficult for Nevis to get a messenger?"

"I've certainly given a couple of men a hint that I'd rather they didn't do any errand of his to-night. That may have been going too far – I can't tell." He paused and laughed softly. "Except when it's a case of selling patent medicines, I'm not a casuist."

Alison realized his point of view and in several ways it appealed to her. He had treated the matter humorously, but, though so little had been said by either of the men, it was clear that he felt he had pledged himself to Slaney, and was not to be moved.

"Well," she urged, "somebody must stop Nevis from driving over to Forrester's."

"It would be very desirable," Thorne admitted dryly. "The most annoying thing is that it could have been managed with very little trouble."

"How?" Alison asked with assumed indifference.

Thorne, suspecting nothing, fell into the trap.

"Nevis's hired buggy is a rather rickety affair. It wouldn't astonish anybody if, when he wished to start, there was a bolt short."

A look of satisfaction flashed into Alison's eyes.

"Then he will certainly have to put up with any trouble the absence of that bolt is capable of causing. As there doesn't seem to be any other way, I'll pull it out myself. Your scruples won't compel you to forbid me?"

The man expostulated, but she was quietly determined.

"If you won't tell me what to do, I'll get Dave," she laughed. "I've no doubt he'd be willing to help me."

Thorne thought it highly undesirable that they should take a third person into their confidence, and he reluctantly yielded.

"Then," he advised, "it would be wiser to set about it while the boys are getting supper; there'll be nobody about the back of the hotel then. In the meanwhile, we'd better go in again and talk to the others."

CHAPTER XXII
ALISON SPOILS HER GLOVES

Mrs. Farquhar and her friends had finished supper, and the men who got their meals there were trooping into the hotel, when Alison found Thorne waiting on the veranda.

"You're ready, I suppose?"

"I've no intention of keeping you waiting, anyway," Thorne replied.

Alison looked at him with a hint of sharpness.

"If you would very much rather stay here, why should you come at all? Now that you have told me what to do, it really isn't necessary."

Thorne smiled.

"Well," he said, "on the whole, it strikes me as advisable."

He walked down the steps with her, and, sauntering a few yards along the street, they turned down an opening between the houses and stopped at the back of the hotel. There were only two windows in that part of the building, and the rude wooden stable would shield anybody standing close beneath one side of it from observation. Several gigs stood there to wait until their owners were ready to drive back to their outlying farms, and behind them the gray-white prairie ran back into the distance, empty and unbroken except for the riband of rutted trail. There was no sound from the hotel, for the average Westerner eats in silent, strenuous haste, and the two could hear only the movements of a restless horse in the stable.

Alison walked up to a somewhat dilapidated buggy and inspected it dubiously.

"This must be the one, and I suppose that's the bolt," she said. "There seems to be a big nut beneath it, and I don't quite see how I'm to get it off. Would your scruples prevent your making any suggestion?"

Thorne appeared to consider, though there was a twinkle in his eyes.

"I might go so far as to point out that if you went into the stable you would find a spanner on the ledge behind the door. It's an instrument that's made for screwing off nuts with."

Alison disappeared into the stable and came back with the spanner in her hand. Thorne noticed that she had put on a pair of rather shabby light gloves, with the object, he supposed, of protecting her fingers. Stooping down behind the buggy she stretched out an arm beneath the seat, and became desperately busy, to judge from the tapping and clinking she made. Then she straightened herself and looked up at him, hot and a trifle flushed.

"It won't go on to the nut," she complained. "Is it quite out of the question that you should help me?"

She saw the constraint in his face, and was pleased with it. She did not wish the man to break his pledge, and it is probable that she would have refused his assistance; but she was, on the other hand, very human in most respects, and she greatly desired to ascertain how strong the temptation to help her was.



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