A Prairie Courtship
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"In the first place, you might try turning the screw on the spanner a little," he advised. "It will make the opening wider."
She did so, and had no more difficulty on that point, but the bolt was rusty and the nut very stiff. While she struggled with it there was a sound of footsteps, and Thorne, moving suddenly forward, snatched the tool from her.
"Stay there until I make it possible for you to slip away!" he whispered sharply; then he stepped swiftly back a few paces and leaned against a wagon with the spanner in his hand.
He had scarcely done so when a man came out of the opening between the houses, and Alison felt her heart throb unpleasantly fast. If the newcomer should look around toward the stables it seemed impossible that he should fail to notice Thorne. The latter, however, stood quietly still, with his shoulders resting against the wagon wheel, and the spanner in full view in front of him. The other man drew abreast of them, but he did not look around, and Alison gasped with relief when he vanished behind one of the neighboring buildings.
Then she turned impulsively to her companion.
"Oh," she cried, "you meant him to see you!"
Thorne raised his hand in expostulation.
"Hadn't you better get the thing out before somebody else comes along?"
There was no doubt that he was right in this, and Alison attacked the nut again. In two or three more minutes she moved away from the buggy with the bolt in her hand.
"What had I better do with it?" she asked.
"I might suggest dropping it into a thick clump of grass. If you don't mind, we'll stroll out a little way on the prairie. There's too much dust to be pleasant blowing down the street."
They had left the wooden buildings some distance behind when Alison next spoke to him.
"That was a generous thing you did just now."
Thorne looked confused, but he made no attempt to evade an answer.
"It was necessary."
"If the man had seen you with the spanner, Corporal Slaney would, no doubt, have heard of it afterward. That would have hurt you?"
"It certainly wouldn't have pleased me."
"Then why did you do what you did?"
"I think I have just told you."
"You said it was necessary," replied Alison, looking at him with eyes which just then had what he thought a very wonderful light in them. "You haven't convinced me that it wasn't – rather fine of you."
Thorne was manifestly more embarrassed, and embarrassment of any kind was somewhat unusual with him.
"Then," he said, "you compel me to try. If we had remained standing as we did when the man first came out from behind the houses and he had noticed you, it's exceedingly probable that he would have noticed me. Even if he hadn't, it's almost certain that several people must have seen you leave the hotel in my company. They wouldn't have had much trouble in figuring out the thing."
"Of course!" exclaimed Alison, a little astonished that this had not occurred to her earlier.Then her face grew suddenly warm. "You mean they would have recognized that I was acting – on your instructions?"
Thorne looked at her with a disconcerting steadiness.
"You haven't quite grasped the most important fact yet. They would have wondered how I was able to get you to do it – in other words, what gave me such a hold on you. The trouble is that there's an explanation that would naturally suggest itself."
"Yes," murmured Alison, with her eyes turned away from him; "that would have been unpleasant – for both of us."
Thorne did not quite know what to make of the pause, though he had a shadowy idea that it somehow rendered her assertion less positive, and left the point open to doubt. In any case, it set his heart beating fast, and he had some trouble in holding himself in hand. Outwardly, however, he was graver than usual.
"Well," he added, "I didn't think it desirable in several ways. You see, a pedler is, after all, a person of no account in this part of Canada. He has no particular interest in the fortune of the country; he doesn't help its progress; his calling benefits nobody."
"But you are a farmer now," protested Alison, glancing at him covertly.
"Strictly on probation. In fact, there's very little doubt that my new venture is generally regarded as a harmless eccentricity. It will be some time before my neighbors realize that I'm capable of anything that's not connected with an amusing frolic." He stopped a moment, and smiled at her. "On the whole, I can't reasonably blame them. My situation's a very precarious one; a frozen crop would break me."
Alison wondered what the drift of these observations could be, for she imagined that he must have had some particular purpose in saying so much. It was, so far as her experience went, a very unusual thing for a man to confess that he was an object of amusement to his neighbors, or that there was a probability of his failing to make his mark in his profession.
"I suppose," she suggested, to help him out, "you're not content with such a state of things?"
"That is just the point. It's my intention to alter it as soon as possible, and a bonanza harvest this year would go a long way toward setting me on my feet. In the meanwhile, it seems only fitting that I should put up with popular opinion, and try to bear in mind my disabilities."
He was far from explicit, but explicitness was, after all, not what Alison desired, and she fancied she understood him. It had not been without a sufficient reason that he had, to his friends' astonishment, turned farmer, and now he meant to wait until he had made a success of it, and had shown that he could hold his own with the best of them, before going any farther. This naturally suggested the question as to what he meant to do then, and she fancied that she could supply the answer. She had already confessed to herself that she liked the man, and this was sufficient for the time being.
"I heard that your wheat escaped, as Farquhar's did."
Thorne, glancing at her, surmised that this was a lead, and that he was not expected to pursue the previous subject.
"Yes," he replied, "I'm thankful to say it did. Most of the grain a few miles to the west of us was blotted out, including Hunter's – I'm sorry for him. The storm seems to have traveled straight down into Dakota, destroying everything in its path. My place lay just outside it, and at present everything promises a record crop." He broke off, and glanced down at her hands. "Have you noticed your glove?"
Alison held it up and displayed a large rusty stain across the palm and part of the back of it.
"Yes," she answered; "I did that getting the bolt out, and I'm rather vexed about it. Mrs. Farquhar will, no doubt, notice the stain, and I don't feel anxious to explain how it was done."
"Then you'll have to take the glove off," advised Thorne.
"I'm not sure that simple expedient would get over the difficulty. Of course, I might leave them behind altogether." Then she shook her head. "No; the person who found them would see the stain and guess whose they were. I don't think that would do, either."
"It wouldn't," Thorne agreed.
Then they began to talk of something else, and presently they turned back together toward the hotel. When they reached it, Florence Hunter and Mrs. Farquhar were sitting on the veranda, while two or three men occupied the lower steps, and another group lounged about near them, pipe in hand. A few minutes later Nevis appeared striding down the street with his lips set and some signs of temper. He stopped in front of the hotel, and Alison glanced at Thorne significantly when he turned to the lounging men.
"You folks seem mighty prosperous in spite of the hail," he sneered. "I can't find a man in this town who's open to earn a couple of dollars."
Some of them grinned, but none made any answer. His tone was offensive, in the first place, and, while nobody is overburdened with riches on the prairie, the average Westerner has his own ideas as to what is becoming.
Nevis signed to one of them.
"Get my buggy, Bill!"
The man hesitated, and though he strolled off toward the stables, Nevis's sharpness cost him several minutes' unnecessary delay. Eventually the buggy was brought out, and nobody said anything when Nevis got in and flicked the horse smartly with a whip, though the tilt of the seat must have been evident to most of the lookers-on. Alison touched Thorne's arm.
"Hadn't you better call to him?" she suggested.
The next moment the warning was rendered unnecessary, for there was a crash, and the seat of the buggy collapsed. Nevis lurched violently forward, but he managed to recover his balance and pull up the horse. Then he swung himself down, and after crawling under the vehicle, stood up with a frowning face while the loungers began to gather about him.
"There's a bolt out. I didn't notice it when I drove up," he grumbled. "It's three-eighths by the hole, I think. Ask Bill if he's got anything of the kind in the stable."
Bill, who had been standing near, sauntered away, and it was at least five minutes before he came back, empty-handed.
"I've nothing that will fit," he announced.
"Then go in and see if they've got one at the hardware store," ordered Nevis. "I ought to have thought of that earlier."
Bill was away a long while this time, and when he returned he held up an unusually long bolt for inspection.
"Guess it won't be any use," he said. "Thread doesn't go far enough to let the nut to the plate."
"Then what in thunder did you bring it for?" Nevis asked with rising anger.
Alison looked at Thorne and laughed.
"Have you been giving that man a hint?" she inquired.
"No," answered Thorne, smiling; "it would have been wasted in any case. Nevis has succeeded in riling him. He couldn't have managed the thing better if I had prompted him."
In the meanwhile Bill languidly affected to consider Nevis's question.
"I guess I wanted to be quite sure it wouldn't fit," he replied at length. "If it doesn't, I could see if he has got a shorter one in another package."
Nevis flung out his arms in savage expostulation.
"Well," he cried, "I've never yet struck anybody quite as thick as you. Couldn't you have brought the shorter one along?"
"Those bolts," Bill answered solemnly, "don't run many to the dollar, and I'd a kind of notion I might find a big nut or some washers I could fill up with in the stables."
"No," snapped Nevis; "you have wasted time enough! If it won't do, take the thing back into the store and ask Bevan to cut the thread farther along it!"
Bill strolled away at a particularly leisurely gait, and Thorne took out his watch.
"It's highly probable that Slaney will have left Forrester's before our friend gets off," he said. "In that case, it will no doubt be noon to-morrow before the police make their first attempt to get on Winthrop's trail. I wonder whether anybody except Dave can have seen him."
"I did," Alison told him; "the morning before the hail."
Thorne turned toward her with a start.
"At the homestead. Farquhar and his wife were out."
"What brought Winthrop there?"
"That," smiled Alison, "I may tell you some day, but not just now. I wonder what has kept him in the neighborhood?"
"It's easily figured out. He'd head for Mrs. Calvert's, and probably stay an hour or two there; then he'd go on to Brayton's place – they're friends – at night. Jardine's would be his next call, and he'd be striking west away from the larger settlements when Dave came across him."
This struck Alison as probable, but just then Bill came out of the store again.
"Beavan hasn't anything shorter, and he's doing up his accounts. He can't cut threads on bolts, anyway," he announced. "It's Pete who does that kind of thing for him."
Judging from his face, it cost Nevis a determined effort to check an outbreak of fury.
"Then where in thunder is Pete?" he shouted.
It appeared that the man had gone home to supper, and a quarter of an hour passed before he came upon the scene. Then it took him quite as long to operate on the bolt and fit it in the buggy, and Nevis's face was very hot and red when he flung himself into the vehicle. He used the whip savagely, and there was some derisive applause and laughter when the horse went down the street at a gallop with the buggy jolting dangerously in the ruts behind it.
Thorne descended the steps and disappeared. When he came back Mrs. Farquhar's wagon was being brought out, and he walked up to Alison with a parcel in his hand.
"I think," he said, "that's the best way of hiding the stain."
Alison opened the parcel, and was conscious of a curious thrill, in which pleasure and embarrassment were mingled, when she found a pair of gloves inside. It was the first gift he had made her.
"Thank you," she murmured. "They fit me, too. How did you guess the size?"
"Oh," laughed Thorne, "it was very simple. I just asked for the smallest pair they had in the store."
Then Mrs. Farquhar came up, and he helped her and Alison into the wagon.