Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"When you have so many friends up and down the prairie, why did you come to Elcot?"

"Your husband," explained Thorne unblushingly, "has the most money. Each will, however, be provided with an opportunity for contributing according to his ability. I'll borrow a team from one and a plow from another; the man who can't spare either can lend me a mower. In addition to this I'll have to arrange a second loan."

"Do you mean to stay with it?" Hunter asked.

"Give me a show and I'll convince you," Thorne assured him with a sudden intentness in his eyes. "I'm dead serious now."

Hunter looked at him quietly for a minute or two before he answered.

"Then," he said, "I'll guarantee you for a thousand dollars, payable after harvest."

Thorne thanked him and presently strolled away to get something out of his wagon. When he disappeared Florence turned to her husband.

"Elcot," she protested, "you are going to throw every dollar of that money away."

"I'm far from sure of it," returned Hunter quietly.

"In any case, it's only a few days since you told me you couldn't face the expense when I said that I wanted to spend a month in Toronto this spring."

"I should like to point out that you spent a good deal of the winter in Montreal."

"Would you expect me to live here altogether?"

Hunter made a gesture of weariness.

"I did expect something of that kind once upon a time; I'm sorry you have made it clear that I was wrong."

Florence favored him with a mocking smile.

"After all, you have stood it rather well. It's only during the last few months you have been getting bitter; but that's beside the question. Why are you so willing to waste on that man the money you can't spare for me?"

"To begin with, I'm by no means certain that I'll have to pay it. There's good stuff in him, and I want to give him an opportunity for becoming a useful citizen. In the next place, the line must be drawn somewhere, and the crop I'm putting in wouldn't stand the cost of a spring in Toronto, if it's to be anything like the winter in Montreal."

Florence saw that he meant it and changed the subject, for there were times when she realized that it was not advisable to drive her husband too far. After a while he strolled away toward the stables in search of Thorne, and a few minutes later they sat down together on the summit of a low rise. Hunter lighted his pipe and, resting one elbow in the grass, lay smoking thoughtfully for a while before he spoke to his companion.

"Mavy," he said, "you are going to do what would be the wisest thing in the case of the average man – but I'm not wholly sure it would be that in yours. After all, there's a good deal to be said for the life you lead."

"It will hurt a little to give it up," Thorne acknowledged. "But isn't there something to be said for – the other kind?"

Hunter pointed with his pipe to where the rise ran into the birches.

"I spent my first summer as a farmer in a tent yonder, and in several ways it was the happiest one I've ever known.

I couldn't cook, and as a rule when I unyoked my oxen after the day's work I was too played out to light a fire. I lived on messes that would probably kill me now, and my clothes went to bits before the summer was half-way through, but I was bubbling over with aspirations and a whole-hearted optimism then. I had scarcely a dollar, but I had what seemed better – an unwavering belief in the future. It was just as good then to lie down, healthily tired, and listen to the little leaves whispering in the cool of the dusk as it was to get up with the dawn without a care, fit and ready for what must be done."

"Oh, yes," assented Thorne, "I know. They never cast a stove in a foundry that would give you the same warmth as the red fire in the birch bluff, and the finest tea that goes to Russia wouldn't taste as good as what you drink flavored with wood smoke out of a blackened can. Then there's the empty prairie with the long trail leading on to something you feel will be better still beyond the horizon. Silence, space, liberty. How they get hold of you!"

"Then, what do you expect instead of them when you give them up?"

"It strikes me that you should be able to tell me."

Hunter smiled in a rather weary fashion and glanced back toward his house.

"Well," he said, "I've a place that's generally supposed to be the smartest one within sixty miles, and some status in the country, whatever it may be worth – my wife sees to that. The Grits would make me a leader if I cared for politics."

"Then why don't you? Your wife would like it."

"I think you ought to know. We both escaped from the cities, and while you drive your wagon I follow the plow. Men like you and I have nothing to do with wire-pullers' tricks, juggling committees, and shouting crowds. It's my part to make a little more wheat grow."

Thorne looked at him with a thoughtful face.

"I wonder," he said, "why you want to prevent me from doing the same?"

"I don't. I only want to warn you that if you make a success of it you can't own a house and land and teams without facing the cost."

"And that is?"

"Unconditional surrender. In a little while they'll own you. It's probable that you'll add a wife to them, and then, unless she's a woman of unusual courage, you'll find yourself shackled down to half the formulas you have run away from."

"Still, you get something in return."

"Yes," assented Hunter slowly. "I'm optimist enough to believe that – but it's an elusive quantity. I suppose it depends largely on what you expect."

He stood up and emptied his pipe.

"It's getting late and I have to start again at six to-morrow."

They went back to the house together and Thorne drove away early the next morning. Soon after midday Hunter set out for Graham's Bluff, where he had some business. When he had gone Florence carried a bundle of papers out to a little table placed in the shadow on the veranda, and sitting down before it looked at them with a frown. Most of them were bills, which she had once half thought of showing to her husband, though she had not done so, chiefly because the bankbook which she had recently sent up to be balanced revealed the fact that there was then just eighty dollars standing to her credit. As Florence seldom filled in the counterfoils of the checks she drew, this information had been a painful shock to her. It was evident that she had spent a good deal more money in Montreal than she had supposed, and that she could not pay the bills, and there was no doubt that her husband would be signally displeased.

As a rule he was very patient. She was willing to own that, though she now and then did so with a certain illogical irritation at his complacency; but when it was a question of money he could be inflexible. He had, however, treated her liberally, and to save her the necessity of applying to him he paid so many dollars into her bank twice a year and within that limit left her to control the domestic expenses as she pleased. This, indeed, was what chiefly troubled her, for there should have been enough to her credit to carry her on until harvest, when the next payment would be made. This, however, was unfortunately not the case. There was no doubt that she had to grapple with a financial crisis.

She added up the bills several times and signally failed to make them any less, though it was now perfectly clear that it would not be advisable to show them to her husband. Thrusting them aside, she leaned back in her chair and presently decided, with the renewal of an existing grievance, that the situation was the result of Elcot's absurd retiring habits. If he would only go about with her now and then, or bring a few smart people out in the summer, she might be able to take pleasure in less costly diversions and, to some extent at least, avoid extravagance. On the other hand, however, there were, as she had already realized, one or two reasons why it seemed just as well that Elcot should stay at home. He now looked very much like a farmer, though he had not been reared as one, and she fancied that his rather grim reserve, which was broken now and then by attacks of sardonic candor, was scarcely likely to be appreciated in the world she visited. As a matter of fact, his own relatives with whom she sometimes stayed were in the habit of smiling significantly when they mentioned him. He had, it seemed, flung up excellent prospects when, in spite of his family's protests, he went West with very inadequate means as a prairie farmer. That he had succeeded was, she understood, largely due to the fact that an eccentric relative who agreed with him had subsequently died and left him a few hundred dollars.

In the meanwhile these reflections brought her no nearer a solution of the difficulty. There was a big deficit, and she had no idea how she was to meet it. Then she remembered that when she was married Elcot had among other things settled a certain strip of land on her. He had failed to interest her in its management, though she was pleased to receive the proceeds of its cultivation, which he handed her after each harvest. They were sowing again now, and she had heard that it was possible to sell a crop, or at least to raise money on it in some way, beforehand. She determined to question Nevis, who carried on a general business at the railroad settlement, about the matter when he next drove over, which he had said he would probably do during the next day or two. He might even turn up that afternoon and, as Elcot was out of the way, she wished he would. He was a man of prepossessing appearance and easy manners, and he had now and then paid her a deferential homage which was not unpleasant. Indeed, she had once or twice contrasted him with Elcot, and the comparison had not been altogether in the latter's favor.

Half an hour later he drove up in a light buggy and handed the horse over to one of the teamsters. Then he walked up on the veranda, where Florence was still sitting with the bills before her. Turning around when he had greeted her, he pointed to the plodding teams which moved down the long furrows that ran back from the house.

"I didn't see Elcot at work with the boys as I drove by," he said.

"He is away and probably will not be back until after supper."

"I'm sorry I can't wait so long," Nevis replied, taking the chair to which she pointed. "Anyway, it isn't a matter of much importance, and I'll try to call again."

Florence sent for some tea, though it is seldom that refreshments of any kind are provided between the regular meals on the prairie, and then leaned back in her chair watching him while he sat with his cup in his hand. He was, as she had decided on other occasions, a well-favored man, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and, as usual, he was artistically dressed. The hat he had laid on a neighboring chair was a genuine Panama, such as Mexican half-breeds spend months in weaving; his rather tight, light-colored clothes were excellently cut; and once more it struck her with a sense of injury that it was a pity Elcot insisted on attiring himself as his teamsters did.

"I had half expected to find you gone," he said; "you mentioned a visit to Toronto when I last saw you. After all, if your husband can spare you, it must be nice to get away. You must feel that you are rather wasted here."

This was a point on which Florence was convinced already and she did not in the least object to his mentioning it.

"Elcot," she replied dryly, "has his farm."

"Well," responded Nevis, "I'm glad you haven't gone. The rest of us can badly spare the one bright light which shines upon our primitive obscurity."

His hostess did not check him. The man was usually rather daring, and she seldom resented a speech of this kind, no matter from whom it came.

"In any case, I am not going," she informed him. "That" – she pointed to the bundle of papers – "is the reason."

"Bills? Permit me."

Before she could prevent it he took them up and flicked them over. Then he turned and looked at her with a smile in his dark eyes.

"On examination of them I'm inclined to think the reason's a good one."

Florence recognized that he had ventured further in the last few minutes than Elcot would have done in a month before he married her, and, though she was not greatly displeased, she changed the subject, for a time.

"What did you want to see my husband about?" she asked.

"I'm anxious to disarm his opposition to the part I feel like taking in the Bluff Creamery scheme. I'm willing to back the experiment on reasonable terms, but I understand that Elcot's dubious about permitting it; and Thorne has been advising the boys to have nothing to do with me. Rough on a man who's ready to finance them, isn't it?"

Florence did not care whether it was rough or not. Except that she would have liked to spend double her husband's income, financial questions seldom interested her.

"I suppose you wish to do it to encourage them – out of philanthropy?" she suggested with a yawn.

Nevis laughed good-humoredly.

"You can put that question to your husband or Thorne. I'm willing to confess that in these affairs I'm out for business pure and simple, though that doesn't prevent my taking an interest in my friends' difficulties now and then." He tapped the bills with his fingers. "You are at present short of three hundred dollars?"

"I'm short of nine hundred," corrected Florence with candor.

The next question was difficult. In fact, it was one that could not well be put directly, and the man's voice became judiciously sympathetic.

"Wheat sold badly last fall, and Elcot has, no doubt, his share of worries?" he suggested. "You naturally wouldn't like to add to them?"

They looked at each other and Florence was quite aware that he would go a little farther as soon as he had ascertained whether she had any intention of mentioning the deficit to her husband. She also recognized that the fact that she had drawn his attention to the bills would make this seem improbable.

"I'm not sure that I'm so unselfish," she said with a laugh. "In any case, I'm independent; I don't care to bother other people with my troubles."

The man leaned forward, looking at her as though begging a favor.

"I suppose it hasn't occurred to you that such a course might be a little rough on some of them. Do you never make an exception?"

"I haven't done so yet."

"Then," said Nevis eagerly, "if you'll try it in this instance I'll tell you what I'll do. The thing's in my line of business and I'll find those nine hundred dollars for you."

Florence sat silent, watching him for a few moments. She meant to agree, and though she quite realized that general opinion would have regarded this as tantamount to placing herself in the man's power, that did not trouble her. She had never yet been in any man's power and she did not intend to be.

"Well," she consented at length; "but it mustn't be a favor."

Nevis tactfully declared that it could be done on a purely business footing, with which object he suggested, after a few judicious questions, that she should give him an order for the delivery of so many bushels of wheat after harvest, which she did. That the document was most informal and merely scribbled on a half-sheet of note-paper did not seem to concern him. Then he wrote her out a check.

"I don't mind saying that I'm going to make eight per cent. out of you, which is enough to content me," he explained. "You see, I never let an opportunity go by."

Florence made no comment. Whether or not he would continue to be content with the mere interest on the money was a question with which she would be competent to deal when it arose.

In a few minutes he prepared to take his departure. He bowed over her hand in a manner that was not common on the prairie, and she watched him with a meaning smile when he drove away.

CHAPTER VIII
A FIT OF TEMPER

It was two days later that Nevis led his worn-out horse up the side of one of the deep ravines which every here and there wind through the prairie. It was then about the middle of the afternoon and almost unpleasantly hot in the sheltered hollow. The crest of it shut out the wind that swept the open levels, and the sunshine struck down between the birches, which were just then unfolding lace-like streamers of tiny leaves. There were no other trees except the willows wrapped in a bright emerald flush along the banks of a little creek.

Nevis felt unpleasantly weary. Although a man of fine proportions, he did not care for physical exertion and avoided it as far as possible; but the commercial instinct was strong in him and he had driven a long way in pursuit of money during the last few days. It was supposed that he picked up a good deal of it in the most unlikely as well as the more obvious places, for he was troubled by few scruples and was endued with the faculty of getting money. He was a young man, evidently of excellent education, though nobody seemed to know where he had received it or where he came from. Beginning as an implement dealer and general mortgage broker on a humble scale two or three years earlier, he had extended his field of operations rapidly.

It appears to be an unfortunate fact that the grip of the money-lender is firmly fastened on the small agriculturalist in many countries, and, strange to say, perhaps more particularly in those where the soil he tills is his own. In the new wheat-lands of the West the possessions of the small farmers and ranchers on both sides of the frontier are as a rule mortgaged to the hilt, or at least they were a few years ago. They lived, and no more, for when the seasons vouchsafed them a bountiful harvest, storekeeper, land agency man, or mortgage jobber usually swept the proceeds into his coffer. It must, nevertheless, be said that many a man would be forced to abandon the struggle after an untimely frost in fall without the money-lender's help, and that the latter has often to face a serious hazard which varies with the weather.

Nevis was half-way up the slope when his jaded horse refused to go on, and he sat down on a fallen birch, wondering where he could borrow another one or, if this were not possible, how he could reach the settlement. He was then, he supposed, eight or nine miles from the nearest farm, and it seemed very probable that even if he succeeded in reaching it every horse would be engaged in plowing. He had no provisions with him, and he had eaten nothing since breakfast that morning. He was unpleasantly conscious of this fact, for he usually lived well.

A few minutes later a drumming of hoofs fell across the birches from the plain above, and he saw a team swing over the brink of the declivity. For a moment or two the horses disappeared among the trees, but by the rapid beat of hoofs which mingled with the rattle of wheels they seemed to be coming down at a gallop. Nevis was aware that the prairie farmers as a rule wasted very little time in breaking young horses, but harnessed them to plow or wagon as soon as they were amenable to any control at all.

As the team above broke out furiously from among the trees a hoarse shout reached him directing him to pull his buggy clear; but he decided to let it stay exactly where it was. He fancied that the driver, who could not get by, could stop his team if he made a determined effort, and this surmise proved correct, for a minute or two later Thorne, braced backward on the driving-seat, looked down at him with a wrathful face.

"What did you stop me for? Couldn't you get out of the way?" he asked.

"Why were you driving at that breakneck pace?"

"A jack-rabbit bolted right under Volador's feet. I'll get on again if you'll move your buggy."

Nevis sat still.

"Are you open to earn a few dollars?"

"It depends," replied Thorne, "on what I'm expected to do and whom they're coming from."

"I'm anxious to get hold of somebody who'll drive me to the settlement. This horse is played out."

"In that case I'm not open. I'm too busy."

"I'll give you your own price for your time. It will probably pay you better than – selling mirrors."

Thorne noticed the half-contemptuous stress upon the last words.

"You should have been content with the reason I offered," he retorted. "As you were not, I'll give you another; I'm not a very particular person, but I shouldn't like to touch your money."

Nevis stood up with a laugh of half-veiled malevolence.

"Do you think that kind of thing is wise?"

"I haven't troubled to ask myself the question. I've never been remarkably prudent, and when I saw that you meant to hold me up my first impulse was to drive smash into your buggy. It was only out of regard for the horses that I didn't do so."

"Is there any particular reason for this gratuitous insolence?"

"There are two," explained Thorne. "In the first place, I don't like being stopped on an open trail; and in the next, I've spent the last few days borrowing things for a friend of mine whom you pitched out on to the prairie with his wife and child."

Nevis smiled.

"I might have guessed it was something of that kind. You're rudimentary and haven't the crudest notion of what you have up against you. It would be about as sensible for one of your horses to start kicking because it didn't like your style of driving."



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