A Prairie Courtship
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Farquhar drew up his team again presently. Alison fancied that Mrs. Farquhar was watching her, and she fixed her eyes upon the crowd and Thorne. His remarks were received with uproarious laughter, but she was quick to notice that there was nothing in what he said that any one could reasonably take exception to.
Presently there was an interruption, for a man in white shirt and store clothing pushed forward through the crowd, with another, who was big and lank and hard-faced, and wore old blue duck, following close behind him.
"Now," exclaimed Farquhar expectantly, "we're going to have some fun. That's Sergeant, the storekeeper, who sells drugs and things, and he's been on Mavy's trail for quite a while. So far, Mavy has generally talked him down, but to-night he's got a backer. Custer has the reputation of being a bad man, and it's generally supposed that he owes Sergeant a good deal of money."
"Hadn't we better drive on if there's likely to be any trouble?" suggested his wife.
Farquhar said that Thorne would probably prove a match for his opponents without provoking actual hostilities, and added that they could go on later if it seemed advisable. Alison laughed when a hoarse burst of merriment followed the orator's last sally.
"It was really witty," she said. "In fact, it's all clever. I wonder how he learned to talk like that."
Mrs. Farquhar smiled.
"It's probably in the blood. I believe one of his close relatives is a bishop."
"It doesn't quite follow," objected Farquhar. "I heard one of them, an English one, in Montreal, who wasn't a patch on Mavy. Anyway, if you want to hold the boys here you have to be clever."
Then a protesting voice broke in upon Thorne's flowing periods.
"Boys," it said, "that man has played you for suckers 'bout long enough, and this kind of thing is rough on every decent storekeeper in the town. We're making the place grow; we're always willing to make a deal when you have anything to sell; and we're generally open to supply you with better goods than he keeps, at a lower figure."
"In my case," Thorne pointed out, "you get amusing tales and sound advice thrown in. You can at any time consult me about anything, from the best way to make your hair curl to the easiest means of getting rid of the mortgage man, which in most cases is to pay his bill."
"I could tell 'way funnier tales than you do when I was asleep," interrupted the storekeeper's friend.
Thorne disregarded this.
"I've nothing to urge against the storekeepers, boys. They're useful to the community – it's possible that they're more useful than I am – but it doesn't seem quite fitting to hold them up as deserving objects of your compassion. If you have any doubt on that point you have only to look at their clothes. I don't like to be personal, but since there are two men here from whom I don't expect very much delicacy, I feel inclined to wonder whether that is a brass watch and guard Mr.Sergeant is wearing."
"No, sir," snapped the other, who was evidently too disturbed in temper to notice the simple trap, "it's English gold. Cost me most of a hundred and twenty dollars in Winnipeg."
Thorne waved his hand.
"That's the point, boys. Mine, which was made in Connecticut, cost five. I think you can see the inference. If you don't, I should like you to ask him where he got the hundred and twenty dollars."
There was applauding laughter, for the men were quite aware that they had furnished it, but Thorne proceeded:
"It's likely that I could buy things of that kind, and keep as smart a team as our friend does, if I struck you for the interest he charges on your held-over accounts."
"That's quite right!" somebody cried. "They don't want no pity. They've got bonds on half our farms. Guess the usual interest's blamed robbery."
Once more the storekeeper lifted up his voice.
"You wouldn't call it that, if you'd ever tried to collect it. You stand out of your money until harvest's in, and then when you drive round the homestead's empty, and somebody's written on the door, 'Sorry I couldn't pack the house off.'"
This was followed by further laughter, for, as Farquhar explained to Alison, pack signifies the transporting of one's possessions, usually upon the owner's back, in most of western Canada, and the notice thus implies that the defaulting farmer had judiciously removed himself and everything of value except his dwelling, before the arrival of his creditor.
"You could shut down on the land, anyway," retorted one man.
"Could I?" Sergeant inquired savagely. "When it's free-grant land, and the man hadn't broke enough to get his patent?"
The crowd, encouraged by a word or two from Thorne, seemed disposed to drift off into a disquisition on the homestead laws, but Sergeant pulled them up.
"We'll keep to the point," he said. "When you buy your drugs at my store you get just what you ask for with the maker's label stuck fast on it. Maverick keeps loose ones, and if you ask him to cure your liver it's quite likely that he'll give you hair-restorer."
"I'm afraid there's some truth in that," he admitted. "Still, it's to Mavy's credit that when the case is serious he generally prescribes a visit to the nearest doctor."
In the meanwhile the storekeeper had secured the attention of the assembly.
"What I said, I'll prove!" he added vehemently. "Get up and tell them how he played you, Custer."
His companion waved his hand.
"I'll do that, in the first place, and when I've got through I'll do a little more. I went to Maverick most two weeks ago when my stomach was sour, and he gives me a bottle for a dollar."
"He's perfectly correct so far, except that he hasn't produced the dollar yet," Thorne assented. "I should like to point out that I can cure the kind of sourness he said it was every time, but I can't do very much when the trouble's in the man's sour nature. You took that stuff I gave you the day you got it, Custer?"
"I did. I was powerful sick next morning."
He turned to the crowd, speaking in a tragic voice.
"Boys, he'd run out of the cure I wanted and gave me the first bottle handy, with a wrong label on. I've no use for a man who doses you with stuff that makes your inside feel like it was growing wool."
There were delighted cries at this, but Custer appeared perfectly serious, and Thorne looked down at him.
"No," he drawled, "in your case it would grow bristles."
The laugh was with him now, but it was a moment or two before Custer, who was evidently slow of comprehension, quite grasped the nature of the compliment which had been paid him. The term hog is a particularly offensive one in that country. Then he proceeded to clamber up into the wagon, and Thorne addressed those among his listeners who stood nearest it.
"Hold on to him just a moment," he cried, and two men did as he directed. "I merely want to point out that our friend has supplied the explanation of the trouble – he said he was sick the next morning. Well, as my internal cure is a powerful one, there are instructions on every bottle to take a tablespoonful every six hours, which would have carried him on for several days. It's clear that he felt better after one dose, which encouraged him to take the lot for the next one."
"He has probably hit it," commented Farquhar. "They do it now and then."
"Now," continued Thorne to the men below, "you can let Mr. Custer go. If it's the only thing that will satisfy him, I'll get down."
"You'll get down sure," bawled Custer. "If you're not out when I'm ready, I'll pitch you."
Farquhar started his team.
"I've no doubt Sergeant had the thing fixed beforehand, but I'm inclined to fancy that Custer will be sorry before he's through. Anyway, we'll get on."
He had driven only a few yards when his wife looked at him with a smile.
"Was it a very great self-denial, Harry?"
"Since you ask the question, I'm afraid it was," laughed Farquhar.
"Then I won't mind very much if you get down and see that they don't impose on Mavy – I mean too many of them. I don't want him to get hurt if it can be prevented."
Farquhar swung himself over the side of the wagon.
"It's hardly probable. The boys like Mavy, but, as Sergeant has one or two toughs among the crowd, I'll go along."
Mrs. Farquhar smiled at Alison as she drove on.
"One mustn't expect too much," she said. "After all, if he comes home with a swollen face it will be in a good cause."
Alison made no comment. She was slightly disgusted, and her pride was somewhat hurt. She had made a friend of this man, perhaps, she thought, too readily, and the fact that he had laid himself out to amuse the crowd and had, as the result of it, been drawn into a discreditable brawl was far from pleasant. She was compelled to confess on reflection that he could not very well have avoided the latter, but it was equally clear that he had not even attempted it. Indeed, she had noticed that he jumped down from his wagon with a suspicious alacrity.
Half an hour later a fast team overtook them and Farquhar alighted from a two-seated vehicle. He smiled at his wife as he sat down beside her.
"There was very little trouble," he announced. "Mavy's friends kept the toughs off, and I believe he'll sell out everything he has in his wagon."
"I don't think he can see quite as well as he could an hour ago – as one result," replied Farquhar dryly.
Then he flicked the team, and they drove on faster into the dusk that was creeping up across the prairie.
The next morning Alison was standing in the sunshine outside the house when Thorne drove into sight from behind the barn which cut off the view of one strip of prairie. He got down from his wagon and appeared disconcerted when he saw the girl, who fancied that she understood the reason, for he had a discolored bruise on one cheek and a lump on his forehead.
"I want a few words with Farquhar," he explained. "I saw him at the settlement last night, but I couldn't get hold of him."
"No," returned Alison disdainfully, "you were too busy." Then something impelled her to add, "You don't seem a very great deal the worse for your exploit."
Thorne leaned against the side of the wagon, though she noticed that he first pulled the brim of his soft hat lower down over his face.
"That fact doesn't seem to cause you much satisfaction," he observed.
"Why should it?"
"We'll let that pass. On the other hand, there's just as little reason why you should be displeased with me."
"Are you sure that I am displeased?" inquired Alison, suspecting his intention of leading her up to some definite expression of indignation. This would, as she realized, be tantamount to the betrayal of a greater interest in his doings than she was prepared to show.
"Your appearance suggested it; but we'll call it disgusted, if you like," he retorted with amusement in his eyes.
It occurred to Alison that as he had evidently taken her resentment for granted it might after all be wiser to prove it justifiable.
"Then," she said, "a scene of the kind you figured in last night is naturally repugnant to any one not accustomed to it."
"Did it jar on Mrs. Farquhar?"
"No," Alison admitted, "I don't think it did."
"Then she's not accustomed to such scenes either. Rows of any kind really aren't very common in western Canada – but she seems to have more comprehension than you have."
This was turning the tables with a vengeance, and Alison was a trifle disconcerted, for instead of standing on his defense the man had unexpectedly proceeded to attack.
"Do you care to explain that?" she asked.
"I'll try," Thorne replied genially. "Perhaps because she's married, Mrs. Farquhar seems to understand that there are occasions when a man is driven into doing things he has an aversion for. In a way, it's to his credit when he recognizes that the alternative is out of the question. Can you get hold of that?"
"I'm not sure. You see, you suggest that there may be an alternative."
"It's often the case. The difficulty is that now and then the consequences of choosing it are a good deal worse than the other thing."
Alison could grasp the gist of this. There was something to be said for the resolution that could boldly grapple with a crisis as soon as it arose, instead of seeking the readiest means of escape from it.
"Now," added Thorne, "I was quite sure when the storekeeper appeared on the scene that he had hired the biggest tough in the settlement to make trouble for me. Of course I could have backed down, or at least I could have tried it, but the result would naturally have been to make the opposition more determined on the next occasion. It seemed wiser to face the situation then and there."
Again Alison felt that he was right, and she shifted her point of attack.
"You wish to assure me that it was with very great reluctance you jumped down from your wagon last night?"
Thorne laughed softly.
"No," he acknowledged; "if one must be honest, I can't go quite so far as that."
The girl was a little astonished at herself. In spite of his last confession her disgust – though she felt that was not the right word – with his conduct had greatly lessened, and she was conscious of a certain curiosity about his sensations during the incident.
"You were not in the least afraid?" she asked.
"No; but, after all, that's no great admission. You see, with most of us what we call courage is largely the result of experience. Now, I knew I was a match for Sergeant's tough. The man is big, but he has only a hazy notion when to lead off and how to parry."
"How did you know that – from experience?"
"Oh, no," returned Thorne, smiling. "I once watched him endeavoring to convince another man that he was utterly wrong in maintaining that the country derived the least benefit from the liquor prohibition laws. He succeeded because the other man didn't know any more than he did."
"After all, I don't think the subject is of very great interest. I wonder why you went to so much trouble to explain the thing to me."
The man gazed at her a moment in somewhat natural astonishment and then he took off his wide hat ceremoniously, though as a smile crept into his eyes she could not be sure whether it was done in seriousness or whimsically. In any case, he spoiled the effect by remembering his bruised face and hastily clapping it on again.
"May I say that I should like to retain your favorable opinion if it's possible?" he replied, and leaving his team plucking at the grass he turned away and entered the house. As it happened, Farquhar had just come in for dinner, which was not quite ready, and Thorne sat down opposite him.
"If your wife has no objections, I want you to do me a favor, Harry," he said.
His host expressed his readiness, but Mrs. Farquhar looked at him inquiringly.
"It's just this," he explained. "You deal with Grantly at the railroad settlement, and it's possible that he may not have formed a very accurate opinion of my character. In fact, I shouldn't wonder if odd things the boys have said have prejudiced him against me."
"It's quite likely," Farquhar admitted with a grin.
"Then I want you to assure him that I'm a perfectly responsible and reliable person."
Mrs. Farquhar laughed outright.
"Aren't you asking rather more than Harry could consistently do?"
"Well," Thorne replied thoughtfully, "it might serve the purpose if he told Grantly that I generally paid my bills. I don't ask him to guarantee my account or back my draft. It wouldn't be reasonable."
"It wouldn't," assented Mrs. Farquhar with uncompromising decision. "Are you going to make some new venture?"
"I have a hazy notion that I might take up a quarter-section and turn farmer."
His hostess flashed a significant glance at her husband, who smiled.
"If you don't get your crop hailed out, droughted, or frozen, you can now and then pick up a few dollars that way," Thorne explained. "Besides, a farmer is a person of acknowledged status on the prairie."
"Have you any other reasons – more convincing ones?"
Thorne regarded his hostess with undiminished gravity.
"If I have, they may appear by and by – when, for instance, I've doubled my holding and raised a record crop on three hundred and twenty acres."
"It isn't done in a day," warned Farquhar.
"It depends on how you begin; and commencing with a tent, a span of oxen, and one breaker-plow doesn't appeal to me. I want a couple of horse teams, the latest implements and the best seed I can get my hands on."
"I guess my word alone won't induce Grantly to let you have them – still, I'll do what I can."
Thorne spread out his hands.
"If anything more is wanted Hunter will be given an opportunity for supplying it. I don't see any reason why I shouldn't distribute my favors."
"And when does the rash experiment begin?"
Thorne straightened himself in his chair.
"It won't be an experiment. If I take hold, which isn't quite certain yet, I'll stay with the thing."
Then he broke into his usual careless laugh.
"I'll take a long drive round all the outlying settlements and work off a last frolic first."
"Yes," observed his hostess, "the carnival before Lent."
After that she proceeded to lay out dinner and they let the subject drop, but Alison, who entered the room just then, wondered why Mrs. Farquhar flashed a searching glance at her.