Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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In the meanwhile Thorne was urging on his team, and dusk was closing in when he flung down the lumber from his wagon. After that, he drove through the soft darkness for two or three hours, and finally roused an outlying neighbor from his well-earned slumber. The man, descending, roundly abused him, but became a little mollified when he heard his story.

"The thing surely can't be done, and just now you can't count on much help, either. The Ontario boys are only just starting West, and the first of them will be snapped up before they get to Brandon. Anyway, I'll come along with you and do what I can." He moved toward a cupboard. "If you left Farquhar's when you said, you couldn't have got your supper."

"Now that you mention it," laughed Thorne, "I don't think I did."

His friend set food before him, and an hour later they drove off in the darkness, leaving Thorne's jaded team behind them. Eventually they reached his homestead in the early dawn, and Thorne, who had been on foot most of the time since sunrise on the previous morning, sat down wearily on the stoop and took out his pipe while he looked about him. Eager as he was to get to work, he could not begin just yet, for the night had been clear and cold, and the grain was dripping with the heavy dew.

He had his back to the house, which was at last almost ready for habitation, but the half-finished barn and the rude sod stable rose before him blackly against the growing light. Beyond these, the sweep of grain stretched back, a darker patch on the shadowy prairie, with another dusky oblong just discernible on the short grass some distance away. Determined as he was, his heart sank as he gazed at them. He had undertaken a task that looked utterly beyond his powers.

Had he been content to begin on his hundred-and-sixty-acre holding on the scale usual in the case of men with scanty means, he would probably have had no great trouble in harvesting all the crop he could have raised; but he had seen enough during his journeyings up and down the prairie to convince him that there was remarkably little to be made in this fashion. As a result he had staked boldly, breaking practically all his land, with hired assistance and the most modern implements that could be purchased, though this necessitated the borrowing of money. He had, in addition, secured the use of a neighboring holding, part of which had been under grain before, from a man who had worked it long enough to secure his patent and had then discovered that he could earn considerably more as a subcontractor on a new branch railroad.

In consequence of this, Thorne had a large crop to garner, and very little time in which to do it, for he was convinced that Nevis would press for payment immediately the note was due. It could not be met until the grain was thrashed and sold, and he realized that any delay would place him in the power of a man who would not fail to make the utmost use of the opportunity. Besides this, it would render it impossible for him to obtain any further loans, and he scarcely expected to finance his operations unassisted for some time yet.

It was only Hunter's guarantee that had made the venture possible, and there was no doubt in his mind that unless he could satisfy Nevis's claim his career as a farmer would terminate abruptly before the next month was over.

Then he recalled the months of determined labor he had expended upon the house and holding, the noonday heat in which he had toiled, and the chilly dawns when he had gone out, aching all over after a very insufficient sleep, to begin his task again. Sixteen and often eighteen hours comprised his working day, and out of them he had spared very few minutes for cookery. His clothes had gone unmended, and it must be confessed that he had not infrequently slept in them when he was too weary to take them off, and that they were by no means regularly washed. In fact, once or twice when he was about to drive over to the Farquhar homestead he remembered with a slight shock that it was several days since he had made any attempt worth mentioning at a toilet. In the meanwhile, he had grown leaner and harder and browner, while there had by degrees crept into his face that curious look which one may see now and then in the faces of monks, highly trained athletes, and even of those who unconsciously practise asceticism from love of a calling that makes stern demands on them; a look which, though it does not always suggest the final triumph of the mind over the body, is never a characteristic of full-fed, ease-loving men. His eyes were strikingly clear and unwavering, his weather-darkened skin was singularly clean, and his whole face had grown, as it were, refined, though the man was as quickly moved to anger, impatience, or laughter as he had always been. It would seem that a good many purely human impulses usually survive the partial subjugation of the flesh, which is, after all, no doubt fortunate.

He rose stiffly, damp with the dew, when he had smoked one pipe out, and gazed toward where the sun was rising fiery red above the rim of the prairie. His expression was very resolute.

"A low dawn, Hall; we'll have all the heat we want by noon," he commented. "The oats will be drying by the time we're ready with the team. If you'll look after them I'll oil the binder."

His companion grinned.

"It strikes me the first thing is to set the stove going. Guess if I'm going to get on a record hustle I want my breakfast."

Thorne frowned impatiently, but he carried an armful of birch billets into the house, and when half an hour later he called in his companion, the latter glanced with undisguised disgust at the provisions on the table and the contents of the frying-pan.

"Well," he ejaculated, "if you can raise steam on that kind of truck, I most certainly can't. The first of the boys who drives by to the settlement is going to bring us out something fit to eat, if I have to pay for it."

"What's the matter with this?" Thorne asked indifferently.

Hall raised a fragment of half-raw pork upon his fork.

"It would be wasting time to tell you, if you can't smell it," he retorted.

Then he took up a block of bread and banged it down on the table.

"Not a crack in it! You want to bake some more and sell it to the railroad for locomotive brakes."

Thorne laughed.

"Send for anything you like. Hunter's hired man will probably be going in."

CHAPTER XXIV
LUCY GOES TO THE RESCUE

About four o'clock in the afternoon of the day following the beginning of his harvest, Thorne sat heavy-eyed in the saddle of a binder which three horses hauled along the edge of the grain. He had been at work since sunrise, except for a brief rest at midday, and he was wondering whether the team could hold out until nightfall. The binder had not quite reached its present efficiency then, and the traction was heavy. It was fiercely hot, and there was only the faintest breeze, while a thin cloud of dust that made his eyes smart and crept into his nostrils eddied about him. The whirling wooden arms of the machine flashed in the midst of it as they flung out the sheaves, and there was a sharp clash and tinkle as the knife rasped through the tall oat stalks.

As he neared a corner, driving wearily, he turned and glanced back along the rows of piled-up sheaves which stood blazing with light down the belt of gleaming stubble. The latter was narrow, for although it was the result of two days' determined labor, he had somehow accomplished less than he had anticipated. Half the time he had spent, turn about with Hall, in the saddle and the rest gathering up the tossed-out sheaves in the wake of the machine. It was desirable to keep pace with the binder, though the task is one that is beyond the strength of a single man in a heavy crop, and it was only by toiling with a savage persistency that he and his companion had partially accomplished it. Now, however, his heart sank as he looked round at the sea of grain.

It rose in a great oblong, glowing with tints of ochre, silvery gray and cadmium, relieved here and there by coppery flashes and delicate pencilings of warm sienna, and over it there hung a cloudless vault of blue. It looked very large, and there was another oblong yet unbroken some distance away. Thorne's head ached, and his eyes ached, and his back hurt him at each jolt of the machine. He had been almost worn-out when he began the task, and since then he had lain down for only a few hours, and then had not been able to sleep.

Beyond the grain, the prairie stretched away, intolerably white in the sun-glare, to the horizon. Thorne fancied that he had seen a moving object upon it some time earlier. The machine had, however, engrossed most of his attention, and he was not sure. He reached the turning and was proceeding away from the house when a voice hailed him, and as he pulled up the team Lucy Calvert appeared.

"What brought you over?" he asked in dull astonishment.

Lucy smiled coquettishly.

"It's generally allowed that you and I are friends. Anyway, if you'd rather, I can go home again."

Thorne looked at her with drawn-down brows. He was worn-out, his brain was heavy, and he did not feel equal to any attempt at repartee.

"You had better stop for supper first," he suggested.

"I guess I'm going to," Lucy laughed. "Still, you won't want it for two hours yet, and it looks as if there's something to be done in the meanwhile. I didn't come over for supper or to talk to you; I met Farquhar on the prairie, and he told me all about the thing."

She turned and pointed to a row of sheaves which were still lying prone.

"Why haven't you got those on end? Where's Hall?"

"Gone over to his place for my team."

"Then," said Lucy, "you can get off that machine right now and set the sheaves up while I drive. I'll stay on until it's too dark to see, and come round again first thing in the morning. We don't expect to get our binders in for a week yet."

Thorne was touched, and his face made it plain. He needed assistance badly, and did not know where to obtain it, for his friends whose crops the hail had spared were either beginning their own harvest or preparing for it. Besides, there was not the slightest doubt that Lucy was capable.

"Get down right away!" she ordered laughingly. "I don't want thanks from – you."

Thorne was never sure afterward whether he attempted to offer her any, but he set to work among the sheaves when she took her place in the saddle and the binder went clinking and clashing on again. In spite of his efforts, it drew farther and farther away, though he toiled in half-breathless haste and the perspiration dripped from him. As he was facing then, the sun beat upon his back and shoulders intolerably hot. At length, when the shadows of the stooked sheaves had lengthened across the crackling stubble in which he floundered, Lucy stopped her team a moment and looked back at him.

"I'll unyoke them at the corner and get supper," she said. "You get into the shade there and lie down and smoke. If I see you move before I call you, I'll go home again."

She drove away before he could protest, but it was, after all, a relief to obey her, and flinging himself down with his back to a cluster of the sheaves, he took out his pipe. It was a little cooler there, and his eyes were closing when a summons reached him across the grain. Getting up with an effort, he walked toward the house, and was hazily astonished when he entered it. Exactly what Lucy had done he could not tell, but the place looked different. For the first time it seemed comfortably habitable. There was a cloth, which was a thing he did not possess, on the table, and his simple crockery, which shone absolutely white, and his indurated ware made a neat display. The provisions laid out on it looked tempting, too; in fact, he did not think that Hall could have found any fault with them, and it presently struck him that they included articles which he did not remember purchasing.

He sat down when Lucy told him to, and it was pleasant to find what he required ready at hand, instead of having to walk backward and forward between the table and the stove. He did not remember what she said, but they both laughed every now and then, and after the meal was over he was content to sit still a while when she bade him. The presence of the girl somehow changed the whole aspect of the room; but he was conscious of a regret that it was she and not another who occupied the place opposite him across his table. It was not Lucy Calvert he had often pictured sitting there. At length he pointed through the doorway to the grain.

"Lucy," he said, "that crop doesn't look by any means as hard to reap as it did an hour ago."

"I guess it's the supper," Lucy suggested cheerfully.

"I don't think it's that exactly, though there's no doubt it's the best meal I've had for a considerable time."

Lucy leaned back in her chair.

"Well," she observed, "it's company you want, and it's quite nice being here. You and I kind of hit it, don't we, Mavy?"

"Of course. We always did," Thorne assented, though there was a hint of astonishment in his tone.

"Then if you'll get rid of Hall – send him off again for something – I'll get supper for you the next two or three evenings."

"I don't see why he should be done out of his share," protested Thorne cautiously. He felt that Lucy was more gracious than there was any occasion for.

"Don't you, Mavy?" she asked, with lifted brows. "Now, I've a notion that anybody else would kind of spoil things."

Until lately Thorne had seldom shrunk from any harmless gallantry, but he did not respond just then with the readiness which the girl seemed to expect.

"It's a relief to hear you say it," he declared. "I'm afraid I'm a dull companion to-night."

Lucy nodded sympathetically.

"Well," she replied, "I have seen you brighter, but you're anxious and played out. Sit nice and still for half an hour while I talk to you."

"I ought to be stooking those sheaves," Thorne answered dubiously.

"You can do it by and by," Lucy urged. "It won't be dark for quite a while yet."

She adroitly led him on to talk, and presently bade him light his pipe. He had always hated any unnecessary reserve and ceremony, and by degrees his natural gaiety once more asserted itself. At length, when they were both laughing over a narrative of his, he stretched his arm out across the table and it happened by merest accident that their hands met. Lucy did not draw hers away; she looked up at him with a smile.

"Mavy," she teased, "I wonder what Miss Leigh would say if she could see you."

Thorne straightened himself somewhat hastily in his chair. Nothing in the shape of a tactful answer occurred to him, and he grew uneasy under his companion's smile.

"Would you like to see her walk right in just now?" she persisted.

There was no doubt that this would not have afforded the man the slightest pleasure, but he could not admit it.

"It's scarcely likely to happen," he evaded awkwardly.

Then to his relief Lucy laughed.

"Mavy, I've sure got you fixed. The curious thing is they allow at the settlement that you could most talk the head off any of the boys."

"I really don't see what satisfaction you expected it to afford you," Thorne rejoined.

"I guessed it would help to put Nevis out of your mind. I'd an idea you wanted cheering up – and I felt a little like that myself."

The girl's manner changed abruptly as she rose, and there was only concern in her eyes.

"I wonder," she added softly, "where Jake is and what he is doing now."

Thorne felt that he had been favored with a hint.

"You haven't heard from him?"

"He hasn't sent a line; it wouldn't have been safe. It's kind of wearing, Mavy."

"I'm sorry," sympathized Thorne. "But it's most unlikely that the troopers will get him."

Lucy, without answering this, went out, and when they reached the binder Thorne turned to her with a smile.

"Lucy," he said, "I don't quite understand yet what possessed you a little while ago."

"Did you never feel so worried that it was kind of soothing to do something mad?"

"I'm afraid I have once or twice," Thorne confessed. "On the other hand, my experience wouldn't justify me in advising other people to indulge in outbreaks of the kind. Suppose I'd been – we'll say equal to the occasion?"

Lucy laughed, but there was a snap in her eyes.

"Then," she retorted, "it's a sure thing you would never have tried to be equal to it again. Anyway, I didn't feel anxious about you. You looked real amusing, Mavy."

"Perhaps I did. Still, I don't quite think you need have pointed it out."

They set to work after this, Lucy guiding the team along the edge of the grain and Thorne stooping among the sheaves in the wake of the machine. They were thus engaged, oblivious to everything but their task, when Mrs. Farquhar reined in her team close beside them, and Alison gazed with somewhat confused sensations at the pair.

Lucy had obviously made her dress herself, of the cheapest kind of print, but it was light in hue, as was her big hat, and in addition to falling in with the flood of vivid color through which she moved it flowed about her in becoming lines, and when she pulled up her horses and turned partly toward the wagon her pose was expressive of a curious virile grace. Behind her, straight-cut along its paler upper edge, where the feathery tassels of the oats shone with a silvery luster against the cold blue of the sky, the yellow grain glowed in the warm evening light. The glaring vermilion paint on the binder added to the general effect, and it occurred to Alison that the girl, with her brown face and hands and the signs of a splendid vitality plain upon her, was very much in harmony with her surroundings. The lean figure of the man stooping among the sheaves, lightly clad in blue that had lost its harshness by long exposure to the weather, formed a fit and necessary complement of the picture.

They were, Alison recognized, engaged upon humanity's most natural and beneficent task, and as she remembered how she had seen that soil lying waste, covered only with the harsh wild grasses, in the early spring, it was borne in upon her that there could be no greater reward than the bounteous harvest for man's arduous toil. Then she became troubled by a vague perception of the fact that this breaking of the wilderness and rendering the good soil fruitful was one of the sternest and most real tests of man's efficiency. Meretricious graces, paltry accomplishments, and the pretenses of civilization availed one nothing here. The only things that counted were the elemental qualities: slow endurance, faith that held fast through all the vagaries of the weather, and the power of toughened muscle that might ache but must in spite of that yield due obedience to the will. Alison regarded Lucy, who could play her part in the reaping, with a troubled feeling that was not far from envy.

Then Thorne looked up, partly dazzled with the level sunrays in his eyes, and walked toward the wagon. When he stopped beside it Mrs. Farquhar greeted him.

"We have been across to Shafter's place," she explained. "Harry asked me to drive round and see how you were getting on. He'll try to send you over his hired man in a day or two."

Thorne pointed to the rows of stooked sheaves.

"Thanks; I haven't done as much as I should have liked. Hall has gone back for my other team, and if it hadn't been for Lucy I'd have been a good deal farther behind."

"How much has she cut?" Mrs. Farquhar asked.

Thorne was quite aware that an answer would fix the time the girl had spent with him. Before he could speak, however, Lucy had approached the wagon and she broke in.

"I guess Mrs. Shafter would give you supper?"

Mrs. Farquhar said that she had done so, and Lucy smiled.

"That's going to save some trouble. Mavy and I had ours together most an hour ago and the stove's out by now."

Thorne imagined that this intimation, which struck him as a trifle superfluous, was made with a deliberate purpose; but one of the binder horses, tormented by the flies, began to kick just then, and he turned away to quiet it, while Lucy, who stood beside the wagon, smiled provocatively at Alison.

"You'll have to excuse Mavy – he's been hustling round since sunup, and he's played out," she said. "Still, you needn't get anxious. I'll look after him."

Mrs. Farquhar laughed, while Alison's attitude grew distinctly prim. She considered that in taking her anxiety for granted and alluding to it openly Lucy had gone too far. She also felt inclined to resent the girl's last consolatory assurance.

"Can I drive you home?" Mrs. Farquhar inquired. "I suppose you will be going soon, and it won't make a very big round."

"No," replied Lucy decisively, "you needn't trouble. I've a horse here, and I guess Mavy's not going to make love to me. For one thing, he's too busy. Besides, I want to cut round that other side before I go."

"Then I suppose we had better not keep you," said Mrs. Farquhar.

She waved her hand to Thorne and drove away, and when they had left the oats behind she turned to Alison.



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