Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"When you're through with that oiling, we'll get on," he said harshly.

His companion made no answer, but climbed into the saddle and the binder moved steadily along the edge of the grain until they came to the second corner. Turning it, the driver looked out across a stretch of prairie which a birch bluff on one hand of them had previously hidden. Then he pulled up his team excitedly.

"Mavy!" he cried, "there's quite a lot of teams back yonder to the eastward, beyond the creek!"

Thorne sprang up on the binder, for where he had been standing a cluster of sheaves obscured his view. He saw that there undoubtedly were horses on the sweep of grass in the distance. What was more, they were moving in his direction.

"There's one wagon," declared his second companion. "I can't quite make out the other things. If there was hay in the sloos still I'd say they were mowers."

Thorne's heart seemed suddenly to leap, and the man in the saddle of the machine burst into a hoarse laugh.

"Well," he said, "nobody would figure you'd been farming, unless you use the scythe down in Ontario. They're sure binders!"

He turned and smote Thorne encouragingly upon the shoulder.

"Mavy, it's the Hunter crowd! Guess you're going to have no trouble getting your crop in now!"

Thorne got down and leaned against the wheel of the binder. His face had grown paler than usual, and he felt almost limp with the relief which was too great for him to express. It was several moments before he broke the silence.

"They can't be here for a while. I think I'll have a smoke."

His companion nodded sympathetically.

"That's what you want, Mavy. Then you'll be fresh for a hustle; and we'll have to move quite lively to keep ahead of the Hunter boys. Hunter's no use for slouches and he knows how to speed up the crowd he hires."

He called to his horses, and the other man fell to work behind him when the machine clattered on, but Thorne sat down among the sheaves. He could now allow himself a brief relaxation, and for once his grip was nerveless, for his heart was overfull. His cares had suddenly vanished, and there was, he almost thought, victory in front of him. He had some trouble in shredding the tobacco to fill his pipe, and when the operation was accomplished he lay resting on one elbow watching the teams draw nearer with a satisfaction which came near to overwhelming him. By the time he had smoked the pipe out, however, he had grown a little calmer, and rousing himself he stood up and walked out upon the prairie to meet the newcomers. Hunter was driving a wagon in front of them and he stopped his team when he was a few yards away.

"We'll soon clean that crop up," he declared cheerily when Thorne had clambered to the seat beside him. "I've brought the smartest of the boys and the newest machines along."

"Thanks," Thorne replied simply. "Just now I can't say anything more, except that in one way I'm sorry you were able to come."

Hunter's face grew suddenly grave.

"I can believe it, Mavy.

Had things been different it's quite likely I'd have had to keep the boys at home; I was only sure that I was throwing my time away yesterday. Anyway, I'm thankful that one hailed crop won't clean me out."

He dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand.

"As a matter of fact," he added, "though I'd probably come in any case, it was really Mrs. Hunter who sent me along."

"Mrs. Hunter!" ejaculated Thorne in what afterward occurred to him was very tactless astonishment.

"Sure!" laughed his companion. "She had a visitor shortly before she spoke to me about it, which may have had something to do with the thing, but the possibility of the notion's having struck Miss Leigh first wasn't any reason why I shouldn't come across. Mavy, it's my opinion that you're a very lucky man."

"It's mine, too," Thorne answered with a light in his eyes. "Still, I almost felt ashamed to admit it half an hour ago. The outlook seemed very black to me just then."

Hunter made a sign of comprehension.

"Well," he said, "from what I've seen of her, I don't think Miss Leigh would have fallen in with your point of view, though it was a very natural one. It strikes me there's a good deal of courage and a capacity for making the most of things in that girl. Anyway, there ought to be considerably fewer difficulties in front of both of you when we get this crop in; and that brings up another matter. The thrashers are leaving Shafter's for Tom Jordan's place to-morrow. Hadn't you better write to them right away and arrange for them to come along as soon as we're ready?"

Thorne recognized that this would be judicious, particularly as he expected that a neighbor who had spoken to him that morning would pass close by in the next hour or two. The man, who lived near Jordan, would, he felt confident, undertake to hand on the letter. A few minutes later he got down and entered his dwelling while Hunter drove on toward the grain. He found, however, that his ink had almost dried up, and when he sat down to write it was difficult to fix his thoughts on what he had to say. The relief he had experienced a little while ago had been great enough partly to bewilder him, and some time had passed before he produced a fairly intelligible letter. Putting it into his pocket, he went out again, and stopped a moment or two just outside the threshold with a sense of exultation that sent an almost painful thrill through him as he saw that Hunter had already got to work.

Plodding teams and machines, marshaled in careful order, were advancing in echelon through the grain, which melted away before them. Behind each, bowed, bare-armed figures set up the flung-out sheaves, which rose in ranks that now lengthened reassuringly fast. The still air was filled with the sounds of a strenuous activity; the crackle of the stubble, the rasp and tinkle of the knives, and the rustle of falling grain. Already there was a wide gap, which extended while he gazed at it, bitten out of one corner of the golden oblong. Along its indented edges the arms of the binders whirled and gleamed, half-buried in yellow straw, through which, as most of them were new, he caught odd glimpses of streaks of flaring vermilion and harshest green, while the dull blue garments and bronzed skin of the men who moved on stooping showed against the sweep of ochre and coppery hues. It was a medley of vivid color and a blending of stirring sound, and the jaded man forgot his aches and weariness as he gazed. The crop he had despaired of reaping was falling fast before his eyes.

Then he saw that his own team was leading, and there was only one figure struggling with the sheaves behind it. In another moment it became apparent that the man in the saddle was waving to him, and he set off at a run. When he reached the grain one of his companions glanced at him reproachfully.

"See where that binder's got?" he grumbled. "We went in first, but though I've most pulled my arms off they're crowding right on top of us with the next Hunter team. Do you want the boys to put it on us that we can't keep ahead of them?"

Thorne saw that the team of the following binder was very close behind, and that a wide strip of stubble strewed with fallen sheaves, which had accumulated in his absence, divided him and his companion from the machine that belonged to him.

"Well," he said with a cheerful laugh, "there's a good deal to pull up, but it has to be done."

They set about it vigorously, and drew away foot by foot from the men behind. Thorne had toiled hard before, but now he felt that he could do half as much again. After all, the grim courage of the forlorn hope provides a feebler animus than the thrill of victory. At length, however, his companion turned to him with a gasping expostulation.

"I guess you have me beat," he exclaimed. "We'll hook Jim off the binder and put you on instead. I'll own up I'd rather have him along with me just now."

They made the change, and Thorne contrived to drive a little faster than the other man had done. Hunter's men could not let him draw too far ahead, and everywhere the effort grew tenser still. Nobody objected when, as the supper hour drew near, Hunter said that since the days were shortening fast they would go on until dark fell before they made the meal, instead of working afterward. Still, as the time slipped by, a man here and there drew his belt tighter or stopped a moment to straighten his aching back, and by degrees the horses moved more and more slowly amid the falling grain. The clatter of the binders grew less insistent, there were halts to oil or tighten something now and then; and at last, when all the great plain was growing dim, it was with relief that the men desisted when Hunter called to them. He and Thorne loosed their teams, and the latter looked uneasy when they walked toward the house together.

"There's a thing that only struck me a few minutes ago, and I'm rather troubled about it," he confessed. "The boys have worked hard enough already without being set to making flapjacks and cooking their supper, while I really don't know how I'm to tide over breakfast to-morrow."

Hunter laughed.

"That's not going to prove much of a difficulty, particularly as it's one Mrs. Hunter has provided for. As it happens, Hall looked in on us last night, and I gathered that he hadn't a very high opinion of your cookery and catering."

A minute or two later they came out from behind the barn into view of the house and Thorne saw that a bountiful meal was already spread out on the grass in front of it. A man, whose absence he had not noticed, was carrying a kettle and a frying-pan out of the doorway. It was the climax of a day of unexpected happenings and vanishing troubles, and when he looked at Hunter he found it difficult to speak. The latter, however, laughed.

"Mavy," he said, "you sit right down yonder. Supper's ready, and the boys are waiting."

Thorne took his place among the others, who ate in such determined fashion that in a very few minutes there was nothing left of the meal. Then two or three of them gathered up the plates, and the others, lying down on the grass, took out their pipes. In the meanwhile it had grown almost dark, though a few pale streaks of saffron and green lingered low upon the prairie's western verge. The long rows of sheaves stood out dimly upon the stubble, but the standing crop had faded into a blurred and shadowy mass, one edge of which alone showed with a certain distinctness above the sweep of the darkening plain. Near the house, however, a little fire which somebody had lighted – probably because there was not room for all the cooking utensils on Thorne's stove – burned redly between the two birch logs, and its flickering glow wavered across the recumbent figures of the men.

Some of them lay propped up on one elbow, some had stretched themselves out full-length among the grass, and now and then a brown face or uncovered bronzed arm stood out in the uncertain radiance and vanished again. The men spoke in low voices, lazily, wearied with the day's toil, though at irregular intervals a hoarse laugh broke out, and once or twice the howl of a coyote came up faint and hollow out of the waste of prairie. A little apart from the others, Thorne and Hunter sat with their shoulders against the front of the house, talking quietly.

"I'll see you through with the hauling in," Hunter promised. "We'll start right away as soon as the thrashers can give us a load, and in my opinion you should have a reasonable surplus after clearing off Nevis's claim."

"Yes," assented Thorne with deep but languid content; "it looks almost as if another moderately good harvest would wipe out my last obligation and set me solidly on my feet. Once I'm free of Nevis, I don't anticipate any trouble with the other men. So long as they get their interest they'll hold me up for their own sakes."

"That's how it strikes me," Hunter agreed. "They don't run their business on Nevis's lines; which reminds me that I picked up a little information that suggested that he might have to make a change, when I was over at Brandon a week or two ago. I may say that as I had reasons for believing that the man hadn't a great deal of money of his own I've been rather astonished at the way he has gone on from one thing to another during the last few years, until Farquhar told me something which seemed to supply the explanation. He got it from Grantly, who declares that Brand, of Winnipeg, has been backing Nevis all along. Well, I spent an evening with one of the big milling people in Brandon, and he told me it was generally believed that Brand has been severely hit by the fall in wheat. It turns out that he and a few others were at the bottom of the late rally, which, however, only made things worse for them. The point is that if Brand is getting shaky he'll probably call in any money he has supplied to Nevis."

"Nobody would be sorry if he pulled him down altogether."

"It's almost too much to expect," replied Hunter, dismissing the subject with a wave of his hand. "By the way, I had a look round your house after supper, and it's my opinion that you only want a wagon-load of dressed lumber and a couple of carpenters for two or three days to make the place quite comfortable. A few simple furnishings won't cost you much, and you can, of course, add to them as you go on."

Thorne realized that this statement covered a question, and he smiled in a manner that indicated unalloyed satisfaction.

"I intend to consult with Alison about ordering them as soon as the thrashing's over."

His companion rose and stretched himself.

"Well," he yawned, "if we're to start at sunup we had better get off to rest."

He turned to the others.

"You'll find your blankets in the wagon, boys, and you can camp in the house. If you're particular about a soft bed there's hay in the barn."

CHAPTER XXVIII
THE RECKONING

Thorne's last load of wheat had been hauled in, and he had duly met his obligations, when he drove into Graham's Bluff early one evening. The days were rapidly getting shorter, and though it was not yet dark there was a chill in the air, and here and there a light blinked in the window of a store. Odd groups of loiterers stood about the sidewalk or strolled along the rutted street, for it was Saturday evening, and now that harvest was generally over the outlying farmers had driven in to purchase provisions or to gather any news that might be had, in accordance with their usual custom. It was about their only relaxation, and of late a supplementary mail arrived on Saturdays, which was another excuse for the visit.

Thorne was in an unusually optimistic mood. He had left his troubles behind him, there was an alluring prospect opening out ahead, and he expected to meet Alison and Mrs. Farquhar at the hotel. Besides, he had driven fast, and the swift motion had stirred his blood. He answered with a cheerful laugh when some of the loungers called to him. As he drove by one corner Corporal Slaney raised a greeting hand, and Thorne, wondering what he was doing there, waved his whip. It was, as a rule, only when he had some particular business on hand that the corporal was seen at Graham's Bluff. Supper had been over some time when Thorne stopped his team at the back of the hotel, and getting down handed it over to a man who came out from the stable.

"Has the mail-carrier got in yet, Bill?" he asked.

"No; he's most an hour behind his usual time. Guess you're late, too. They've cleared the tables quite a while ago."

"I got supper with Forrester as I came along. I suppose you haven't any idea as to what has brought Slaney over?"

Bill grinned.

"It is my opinion that's about the one thing Slaney's not going to explain, though he was in the stable talking, and I saw him looking kind of curious at Lucy Calvert. She's in town, and so is Mrs. Hunter. She came in alone, but somebody told me that Hunter had ridden round by Hall's place and would be along by and by."

"Are there any of my other friends about?"

"I don't know if you'd call Nevis one, but he's in the hotel; when I last saw him he looked powerful mad. Mrs. Hunter had pulled up before the dry-goods store when he walked up and started to talk to her. I don't know what she said to him, but it kind of struck me she'd have liked to lay into him with the whip, and Nevis came back across the road mighty quick. After that Mrs. Farquhar drove in with Miss Leigh and left word that you were to wait at the hotel."

Bill paused a moment and grinned at Thorne mischievously.

"Guess they didn't want you trailing round after them in the dry-goods store. Looks as if they'd been buying quite a lot, for it's most half an hour since they went in. The lawyer man who came to see Miss Leigh has gone off up the street."

"The lawyer man!" exclaimed Thorne in some astonishment, for, though he could guess what Alison was buying, the last piece of news roused his interest.

"Parsons – from somewhere down the line. He has been in the settlement once or twice lately. Wanted to know where Miss Leigh was, and when she'd be back again."

Thorne, without asking any more questions, walked round to the front of the hotel, where he found Nevis talking to several farmers on the veranda. He was inclined to think the man had not noticed his arrival, and sitting down he took out his pipe without greeting him. He had treated Nevis to a somewhat forcible expression of opinion when he had met Grantly's note a few days earlier, and they had by no means parted on friendly terms. Soon after he sat down Symonds, the hotel-keeper, came out on the veranda.

"Are you going to stay here to-night, Mr. Nevis?" he inquired.

"Yes," said Nevis. "I didn't intend to when I drove in, but I think I'll stop over until Monday morning. I'll drive on to Hunter's place after breakfast then."

Thorne, remembering what Bill had told him, wondered how far Nevis's meeting with Mrs. Hunter might explain his change of mind. He could think of no very definite reason that would warrant the conjecture, but a stream of light from the room behind the veranda fell on the man's face and its expression suggested vindictive malice. Just then two or three newcomers strolled on to the veranda, and a teamster, who had been sitting at the farther side of it, moved toward Nevis.

"What do you want to go to Hunter's for?" he asked bluntly. "You and he haven't had any dealings since he beat you out of the creamery."

Thorne watched Nevis closely, and imagined that the ominous look in his face grew plainer still.

"Well," he said, with a jarring laugh, "Mrs. Hunter is a customer of mine."

There was a murmur of astonishment and the men gathered round the speaker, evidently in the expectation of hearing something more.

"Is that a cold fact?" one of them inquired.

"Certainly," answered Nevis; and Thorne joined the group.

"Even if it is, this isn't the place to discuss it!" he broke in. "Perhaps I'd better mention that if Hunter isn't in town already he will be very soon."

Nevis looked around at him, and Thorne fancied that the man, who was evidently filled with savage resentment, intended, with some vindictive purpose, to take the gathering group of bystanders into his confidence. Several more men were ascending the steps.

"Have you any reason to doubt what I'm saying?" he asked.

"Well," drawled Thorne, "there's your general character, for one thing."

Some of the others laughed, but it occurred to Thorne that his interference had not been particularly tactful when one of them asked a question.

"Are you telling us that Hunter, who has plenty of money, lets his wife go borrowing from people like you?"

"I can't say that he lets her," Nevis retorted meaningly. "I've the best of reasons, however, for being certain that she does so."

There was an awkward silence, which indicated that all who had heard it grasped the full significance of the last statement. Nevis smiled as he glanced round at them.

"You mean he doesn't know anything about it?" somebody exclaimed.

"If you insist, that's about the size of it," Nevis answered. "Since her husband cuts down her allowance to the last dollar, it's not an altogether unnatural thing that Mrs. Hunter should borrow from her friends without mentioning it to him."

The speech was offensive on the face of it, but there was in addition something in the man's manner which endued it with a gross suggestiveness. It implied that he could furnish a reason why the woman should have no hesitation in borrowing from him. Thorne stood still fuming. He recognized that an altercation with Nevis would in all probability only provide the latter with an opportunity for making further undesirable insinuations.

Just then, however, the group suddenly fell apart and another man strode across the veranda. He carried a riding-quirt, and his face showed white and set in the stream of light.

"It's a malicious lie!"

He raised the plaited quirt, and the hotel-keeper flung himself in front of Nevis.

"Stop there!" he cried. "Hold on, Hunter!"

Thorne, springing forward, grasped his friend's arm. He felt it his duty to restrain him, though it was one that he undertook most reluctantly.



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