Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"Thrashing him wouldn't be an answer," he insisted. "After what he has just said, it would be very much better if you gave us your account of the thing."

There was a murmur of approval from the assembly. The men had heard the accusation cunningly conveyed, and although the prospect of a sensational climax in which the riding-quirt should figure appealed to them, they felt it only fitting that they should also hear it proved or withdrawn.

"I'll do that – first," consented Hunter, very grimly. "I have just this to say. I'm perfectly aware that Mrs. Hunter borrowed from this man on two occasions, and to bear it out I'll state the fact that the loans fall due on Tuesday."

Nevis made no attempt to deny it, and one of the bystanders spoke.

"We can let it go at that, boys; Nevis said he was going over to Hunter's place on Monday."

"In that case," continued Hunter, "he will have the notes my wife gave him in his pocket. I'll mention what the amounts are, and afterward ask Nevis to produce the papers, and Symonds will tell you if I'm correct."

"Then if he doesn't want us to strip him he had better trot them out!" cried another man.

Nevis, who saw no help for it, produced two papers, which the hotel-keeper seized. The latter made a sign of agreement when Hunter spoke again.

"Yes," he confirmed; "you have given the figures right."

Hunter once more turned to the waiting men.

"I think I've made out my case. Are you convinced that he's a dangerous liar, boys?"

There were cries of assent.

"Lay into the hog with the quirt!" somebody added.

Thorne chuckled at the sight of Nevis's face. It was suffused with blood and dark with baffled malevolence. The man evidently recognized that he was discredited and would get no further hearing now. It occurred to Thorne, however, that his friend had succeeded better than he could reasonably have expected, for, after all, he had not disproved the fact that his wife had, in the first place at least, borrowed the money without his knowledge. The others, he thought, had not noticed that point.

Then Hunter raised his hand for silence.

"I'll ask Symonds and Thorne to come into the room with Nevis and me," he said. "I want a table to write at, for one thing."

It did not look as if Nevis were particularly anxious to accompany them, but Symonds, who was a powerful man, hustled him forward, and Thorne took his place with his back to the door to keep out the others, who seemed desirous of following them. Hunter, sitting down at a table, wrote out a check and pocketed the papers Nevis gave him in exchange for it. Then he rose and took up the strongly plaited quirt.

"Now," he said, addressing Nevis, "I'll ask you to walk out on to the veranda and inform our friends outside that you wish to express your regret for the malicious statements you have lately made, and that you declare they were completely unjustified."

"I'll see you damned first!" muttered Nevis with a dangerous glitter in his eyes.

The events of the next few moments were sudden and confusing, and Thorne was never able to arrange them clearly in his mind.

It speedily became evident, however, that the equity of his cause does not necessarily render a man either invincible or invulnerable. Nevis, although a person of somewhat lethargic physical habits, appeared when forced to action sufficiently vigorous, and Hunter was hampered by the quirt to which he persistently clung. Though he managed to use it once or twice it was a serious handicap when they came to grips. In the meanwhile, the dust flew up from the uncovered floor and obscured the view of the men on the veranda, who crowded about the window and clamored furiously to get in. Then in the midst of the turmoil the lamp went out and Thorne felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Let them out!" the hotel-keeper cried.

As Thorne was forcibly driven away from the door, it swung open and a man sprang out on to the veranda with another close behind, while confused cries went up.

"Head him off from the stairway!"

"Leave them to it!"

"Get a light!"

In a few moments, Bill pushed through the crowd with a lantern in his hand, but before he crossed the veranda another light sprang up again in the room and streamed out through the door and window. It fell upon the waiting men and the two dominant figures in the narrow clear space in front of them – Nevis, standing still, looking about him savagely with a darkly suffused face, and Hunter, gripping his quirt, very quiet and very grim. He was, however, breathing heavily, and signs of the conflict were plain on both of them.

There was an impressive silence, and everybody stood tensely expectant, until it was suddenly broken by a murmur and a movement of those nearest the steps. They drew back, and Mrs. Farquhar and Mrs. Hunter, with Alison and Lucy Calvert, came up on the veranda. Moving forward a few paces they stopped in very natural surprise, and the stillness grew deeper when Hunter suddenly flung down his quirt. This was a change in the situation which nobody had anticipated.

Then a cry rose sharply from somewhere below.

"Miss Leigh! Get back there! Let me up!"

It was followed by a shout from the crowd.

"Winthrop!"

The next moment a man came scrambling up the steps. He was hot and dusty and apparently in desperate haste, but to Thorne's astonishment he ran toward Alison. As he did so, Nevis sprang toward the veranda rails.

"Slaney!" he shouted.

He was still almost breathless from the struggle, and it scarcely seemed possible that his hoarse voice would carry far, but Winthrop turning suddenly, grabbed up a shotgun that lay on a chair. One of the outlying farmers had brought it with him, for there were duck about just then.

"Call out again and I'll plug you sure!" he threatened, and the look in his face suggested that he fully meant it. "You've hounded me from place to place up and down the prairie; you've got my money, more than you lent, and that wouldn't satisfy you. Two weeks ago I was working quietly when you put the blamed police on my trail again. Now I guess I've got you, and we're going to straighten things."

He broke off as Lucy stepped forward and laid her hand on the gun, and Thorne noticed that she placed it with deliberate purpose over the muzzle.

"Let me have it, Jake! The boys will see that he doesn't call out."

There was a murmur of assent from the crowd, and Thorne seized Winthrop's arm.

"What do you want Miss Leigh for, anyway?" Lucy asked Winthrop.

The instinct which had prompted the question seemed so natural to Thorne that, strung up and intent as he was, he smiled; but just then Winthrop lowered the gun and turned to Alison.

"Have you got that mortgage deed and shown it to the lawyer man?" he asked.

"It's here," said Alison. "Mr. Parsons is in the settlement; I expect to see him in the next few minutes."

It struck Thorne that Nevis started, but before any of those most concerned could speak there was a rapid thud of horse-hoofs approaching down the street. Then a man on the steps cried out:

"Here's Slaney and a trooper! You've got to quit, Jake!"

Winthrop plunged into the lighted room and the door closed behind him with a crash; a moment or two later another door banged somewhere below and the men poured tumultuously down the steps. Lucy followed them, and almost immediately the veranda was deserted except for Thorne and Alison and Hunter, who remained there with his wife, though he did not speak to her. Mrs. Farquhar had apparently been hustled down the steps by the others in their haste, and Nevis had also vanished. Nobody had noticed what became of him in the confusion that succeeded Winthrop's flight.

The thud of hoofs, which had ceased for a moment, almost immediately began again. Once the corporal's voice rose sharply, and then there were disconnected cries, a sound of running feet, and a clamor that rapidly receded down the street. When it grew very faint Thorne turned to Alison.

"Haven't you got something to explain?" he asked.

"It's very simple," said Alison. "Winthrop gave me his mortgage deed some time ago; he said it would be wiser not to hand it to Lucy. Nevis had got it from him by an excuse, but he crept into his office for it late one night. I understand it proves that Nevis hadn't an indisputable claim to the cattle he sold. About a fortnight ago, Winthrop wrote to me that the police were on his trail again and I was to show the deed to a lawyer and see if it would clear him. I don't know why he came here, unless it was because the troopers had cut off any other means of escape and he fancied some of his friends would hide him; and it's also possible that he took the risk of being arrested because of his anxiety to find out what the lawyer thought."

Thorne nodded.

"That probably accounts for it; though there are still one or two points which are far from clear."

A few minutes later, a distant clamor broke out again, and by degrees confused voices and a sound of footsteps drew nearer. Then while Thorne and Alison leaned over the balustrade a crowd poured past in front of the hotel with a mounted figure showing above the shoulders of those about it. Thorne looked round at the girl.

"They've got him at last," he said.

Hunter crossed the veranda and drew him into the adjoining room, and Alison was left alone with Mrs. Hunter. The latter said nothing to her and she sat silent for some time until the lawyer walked up the steps.

"I was told that I should find Miss Leigh here."

Alison said that was her name, and the man, drawing a chair forward, sat down opposite her.

"I understand that you have Winthrop's mortgage deed in your possession. He now desires you to hand it to me."

"I shall be very glad to get rid of it," declared Alison, taking the document out of a pocket in her light jacket. "Will you be able to get him off with it?"

"That's a matter on which I can't very well express an opinion until I have read the deed and had a talk with Winthrop. I've no doubt you have heard that he has just been arrested while endeavoring to escape, but I contrived to get a word or two with him and Corporal Slaney. The latter considers it advisable to get his prisoner out of the settlement as soon as possible, and I understand he means to spend the night at a homestead a few miles away. He has promised me an opportunity for speaking to Winthrop when he gets there."

"I should very much like to hear what you decide," Alison informed him.

The lawyer rose.

"It's probable that I may find it necessary to make a few inquiries in connection with the affair, and I have another piece of business which will keep me a day or two in the neighborhood. If Winthrop has no objections, I could no doubt call on you at the Farquhar homestead on Monday."

Alison thanked him, and soon after he withdrew Hunter came out of the hotel with Thorne. Alison accompanied Thorne down to the street in search of Mrs. Farquhar. Then Hunter turned toward his wife.

"If you have nothing more to do here, we may as well be getting home," he said.

CHAPTER XXIX
THE NEW OUTLOOK

It was unusually dark when Florence Hunter drove out of the settlement with her husband riding beside the wagon, and the roughness of the trail made conversation difficult. Florence was, on the whole, glad of this, because, although she felt that there was a good deal to be said, she could not express herself befittingly while her attention was concentrated on the team. Besides, she wanted to see the man and watch his face when she spoke to him.

She was accordingly content that he should ride in silence except for an occasional disconnected observation about the horses or the trail, to which she merely made a casual answer. It was late when they reached the homestead, and though a light or two was burning nobody seemed to be about, which was, however, only what she had expected. Hunter led the horses away toward the stables, and entering the house she sat down to wait for him somewhat anxiously, though she realized that the possibility of his being angry would not have troubled her a little while ago.

He came in at length and stood looking down at her. Now that the light was better than it had been on the veranda of the hotel, she noticed that his lips were cut and that there was a bruise above one cheekbone. His jacket was also torn and there was no doubt that, taking it all round, his appearance was far from reputable. That, however, did not trouble her, for she had seen enough at the hotel to realize that the man had been injured while fighting in her cause. Still, she was wise enough not to begin by pitying him.

"Elcot," she said, "I want you to tell me exactly what happened at the settlement."

"I hadn't arrived at the beginning of it," the man replied. "I had a talk with Thorne afterward, however, and he confirmed my conclusion that Nevis had been informing anybody who cared to hear that you were in the habit of borrowing money from him. This was objectionable in itself, but he added in my hearing that I knew nothing about your action, and the way in which he said it was insufferable."

Florence's face flushed.

"What did you do about it?"

"First of all, I denied the most damaging statement – that I knew nothing about the thing. It seemed necessary to prove the contrary, which I did, though I had to admit the borrowing."

"And then?"

"I paid off the loans."

Hunter paused, and taking out two strips of paper threw them on the table.

"Here are your notes. I feel compelled to say that unless you get my consent beforehand you must never incur a liability of the kind again."

"I shall never wish to," Florence answered penitently. "We'll talk about that afterward; I want you to go on. You haven't told me the whole of it yet."

"What do you expect to hear?"

Florence's eyes flashed.

"I should like to hear that you had thrashed the man until he could scarcely stand!"

Her husband's face relaxed into a grim smile.

"Well, I'm afraid I didn't go as far as that, though it wasn't because the desire to do so failed me. As it happens, there's a good deal more courage in the fellow than I ever gave him credit for, and it's unfortunate that virtuous indignation doesn't make up for an inequality in muscular weight." He stopped a moment and laughed outright. "Still, I believe I got in once or twice with the quirt, which is consoling to remember, and I dare say I should have left another mark or two on him if the lamp hadn't suddenly been put out. On taxing Symonds with it afterward, he admitted that he was afraid his wife would make trouble if the room should be wrecked."

"Would it please you, Elcot, if I were to say that I'm very proud of that cut on your lip – though I'm horribly ashamed of being the cause of it? In any case, it's the simple truth."

"We'll take it for granted," replied Hunter, looking at her searchingly. "The trouble is that this matter has forced on a crisis. It's evident that our relations can't remain as they are just now."

"You don't find them satisfactory?"

"No." Hunter broke into a harsh laugh. "I don't know how I have borne with them as long as I have, though I've resolutely tried to fall in with your point of view. Anyway, I can't go on living with, and at the same time utterly apart from, you. It might have been possible if I had never been fond of you."

"Nobody could have blamed you if you had grown out of that regard for me," Florence suggested.

"The difficulty is that I haven't done so," Hunter declared more quietly, though there was still a trace of harshness in his tone. "As you imply, it's perhaps unreasonable of me, but there the fact is. The question is, What am I going to do?"

Florence stretched out her hands and her voice was very soft.

"Elcot," she murmured, "I really must have tried your patience very hard now and then, but just now I'm glad you find this state of things unbearable. Would it be very difficult to go back a few years and begin again – differently?"

The man moved nearer her and then stopped, hesitating.

"I'm afraid," he answered slowly, "there are respects in which I can't change. To begin with, I don't see how I am to provide for you as I should like if I abandon the life you chafe at and give up the farm. I have told you this often; but, even if it stands between us, it's a truth that must still be faced."

Florence rose and laid her hands in his.

"Then it's fortunate that a change is not impossible to me – in fact, I think I've changed a good deal already. It rather hurt me, Elcot, that you didn't seem to notice it."

The man stooped and kissed her.

"I noticed it," he said; "but I was almost afraid."

"Afraid it wouldn't last?" Florence reproached him. "Well, I suppose that is not so very astonishing – but I think this change will go on, and grow greater steadily. Anyway, I want it to."

Then she drew away from him.

"You're rather a reserved person, Elcot, and it will no doubt be a relief to you if we become severely practical. Besides, I want to show you how determined I am. Now that you have paid off my debts, we'll get out the account-books, and you shall decide how I'm to carry on the homestead."

Hunter laughed.

"No accounts to-night. It's beginning to strike me that both of us might have been happier if I hadn't thought about them so much. After all, I dare say it isn't wise to give economic questions the foremost place."

"Ah!" exclaimed Florence, "it's a pity it has taken you so long to learn that truth. I suppose I'm fond of money – at least, I'm fond of the things I used to fancy it could buy, but by degrees I found out that it can't buy those that are really worth the most. Now it almost looks as if I could get them at home – without any cost."

She paused while she sat down, and then once more she smiled up at him.

"Well," she continued, "I'll probably embarrass you if I go on in this strain – you seem to get uneasy when you venture ever so little out of your shell. For a change, you can read me the paper you brought from the settlement, and I won't grumble if it's about the markets and the price of wheat."

Hunter took up the paper. He was, where his deeper feelings were concerned, a singularly reticent man, which was, perhaps, an excuse for Florence and one explanation of the coldness that had grown up between them. Now he felt that there was to be a change, and because the prospect brought him a fervent satisfaction he refrained from speaking of it. He had, however, scarcely opened the paper when he started.

"Here's a piece of striking news!" he exclaimed. "Brand, of Winnipeg, has gone down – a disastrous smash. The fall in wheat has broken him. It appears that his liabilities are enormous, and there's practically nothing to meet them with."

He laid down the paper.

"I wonder," he added, "if Nevis could have heard of it before he left the settlement – though I think he must have done so, for the mail was already in. Anyway, when I was getting your team Bill told me that the man had driven off a few minutes earlier as fast as he could go."

"But how could the failure in Winnipeg affect Nevis?"

"Brand has been backing him, finding him the money to carry on his business, and now that he has gone under it may pull him down. The creditors will at once try to call in all outstanding loans, and I expect Nevis has his money so scattered that he can't immediately get hold of it. It's possible that the failure may drive him out of this part of the country."

They talked over the matter at some length, and the man was slightly astonished at the acumen his wife displayed. When at last he rose, it was with a deep content. He felt that a vista of happier days was opening up before them both.

On the following Monday he drove over to the Farquhar homestead, where Thorne was already waiting to hear what the lawyer had to tell. The latter, however, did not arrive until the evening, and Farquhar took him into the general-room where the others were sitting.

"You can, of course, speak to Miss Leigh privately, if you prefer," he said. "On the other hand, we are all of us acquaintances of Winthrop's, and, what is as much to the purpose, nobody you see here is very fond of Nevis."

Parsons smiled.

"As a matter of fact, I have Winthrop's permission to tell his friends anything they desire to learn, and he mentioned you and Mr. Thorne particularly. To begin with, I must excuse myself for the delay, but I found it necessary to go on to the railroad to meet Sergeant Williamson, and I had to call at Mrs. Calvert's. To proceed, after considering Winthrop's mortgage deed, it's my opinion that if he can substantiate his statements he has no cause for serious anxiety about the result in the event of his being brought to trial."

"It would be difficult to get over the fact that he sold the cattle," contested Farquhar.

"It would be impossible," Parsons corrected him. "Still, there's very little doubt that Nevis went farther than the homestead laws permit, and while our friend would very likely be found guilty of the offense there's so much to mitigate it that I'm inclined to believe it would be regarded very leniently. In fact, it's scarcely reasonable to suppose that Nevis would have proceeded to extremities unless he had counted on being able to retain possession of the mortgage deed."



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