Harold Bindloss.

A Prairie Courtship



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"What you have done is really astonishing!" she exclaimed. "I suppose you had everything ready, but even then you are not a carpenter or a builder."

Thorne laughed.

"The fact that I can sell patent medicines to people who haven't the least use for them ought to be a guaranty of my ability to do anything in reason."

"He's not quite right," interposed Farquhar, appearing from behind them. "In a general way, the man who's smart at business is good at nothing else. Most of those who are couldn't hammer a nail in. Anyway, Mavy hasn't the least bit of the true commercial instinct in him."

"Haven't I?" Thorne appealed to Mrs. Farquhar. "Is there another man round here who could start off for a month's drive and sell out most of a wagonload of mirrors and gramophones?"

"No," laughed Mrs. Farquhar; "I don't think there is; but that's not quite the point. The proof of commercial ability lies not in the sales but in the margin after them, and you never seemed to get much richer by your efforts. You don't sell your things because you're a smart business man, but because the boys like you."

The rest had evidently heard her, for there were cries of assent, and Alison was conscious of a little thrill of sympathy when Thorne turned to his other guests.

"I should be a proud man if I were quite convinced that that is right."

They assured him of it, and there was no doubt about their sincerity. A few minutes later they trooped out again, when somebody announced that supper was ready. There were neither chairs nor tables, and though the dew was falling they sat down on the grass, while a full moon that had sailed half-way up the heavens poured down a silver light on them. The crockery proved insufficient, and husbands and wives or sweethearts shared each other's cups, but they made an astonishing feast, for the inhabitants of that land eat with the same strenuous vigor with which they work and live.

In the meanwhile Alison became interested in watching the women. They were not very numerous, and one and all were dressed in garments that were obviously the work of their own fingers. They were not bronzed like the men, and even in the moonlight it struck her that their faces lacked the delicate bloom of the average Englishwoman's skin. Their hands were hard, and in most cases reddened; but for all that there was a brightness in their eyes and an optimistic cheerfulness in their manner which she fancied would hardly have characterized such an assembly in the old country.

Then she noticed that one young woman sat at Thorne's side not far away, and that they seemed to be talking confidentially. She could not be sure that they had not one cup between them, and this possibility irritated her. The girl, she confessed, was not ungraceful, although slighter and generally straighter in figure than most young Englishwomen, and she had rather fine hair. It shone lustrously in the moonlight, and there were golden gleams in it.

There was also no doubt that she had fine eyes. Alison could think of no reason why Thorne should not talk to whom he liked, but she was, in spite of this, not pleased with what she had noticed.

After a while somebody tuned a fiddle, and when they began dancing on the grass, Alison realized that most of them danced very well. Thorne led her out once, but he seemed preoccupied, and soon afterward he and the girl she had already noticed once more drew apart from the rest. Alison watched them sitting out two dances in the shadow of the house, and she felt curious as to what they had to say to each other. As a matter of fact, Thorne was looking at his companion very thoughtfully just then.

"Lucy," he said, "I'm afraid what Jake has done is going to get him into trouble."

"I tried to make him see that, but he said as they'd seized his homestead he couldn't stay here, and he allowed that, one way or another, he'd paid off all he owed," the girl replied. "Nevis put up all kinds of charges on him and bled him dry the past few years."

"Of course he did," assented Thorne. "Still, that's not likely to count for a great deal in his favor. The trouble is that they could jail him for selling off those cattle after he got notice of foreclosure. What made him do it?"

Lucy looked down.

"You may not have heard that we were to have been married most three years ago, but my father said Jake must wipe off his mortgage first. When he died he left us nothing but the teams and implements, and mother and I tried to run the place with a hired man, but we've been going back ever since, and Jake was getting deeper in debt all the while."

Thorne made a sign of sympathy.

"Now that Nevis has shut down on him, I suppose he's going away to work on the new branch line until he can get hold of another place farther West and send for you."

"Yes," returned Lucy slowly, "now you understand the thing, or, anyway, most of it. Only – " and she looked up at him with appealing eyes – "Jake hasn't got very far yet, and we had word that the police troopers are out after him."

"Where is he?"

Lucy turned and pointed toward the bluff.

"Yonder."

Thorne started, but he sat still again, rather grim in face, and his companion went on:

"He hasn't a horse. He got out in a hurry with no provisions, and if he went into the settlement for some it would put the troopers on to his trail." She laid a hand on Thorne's arm. "Mavy, you're sure not going to let them get him."

"If I'd a grain of sense that's just what I would do; as I haven't, I suppose I must try to get him off. Well, it would be better for several reasons that Jake shouldn't see me, but if you'll stuff a basket with eatables I'll quietly drive a horse round toward the bluff. While you're getting the things together I'll have another dance."

He led out a flushed matron, and when at length he left her breathless, only Alison and one other person saw him slip away over the edge of the hollow through which the creek flowed. There was something in the way he moved that aroused Alison's curiosity, and she walked forward a few yards until she reached the crest of the slope, from which she saw him saddle one of the two hobbled horses that browsed apart from the rest. She wondered why he did so, but it was some relief to notice that the girl he had spoken to was not with him, and when he moved on again toward the bluff she turned back to where the others were.

He reappeared a few minutes later and claimed a dance, which she gave him, and some time had passed when a drumming of hoofs grew rapidly louder and two shadowy figures materialized out of the prairie. Then the music stopped as a couple of mounted police drew bridle in front of the astonished guests. One who carried a carbine across his saddle threw up his hand commandingly.

"Is Jake Winthrop here?" he asked.

"No," answered Thorne, who strode forward; "he certainly is not, Corporal Slaney."

"Have you seen him to-night?"

"I haven't," was the quiet answer.

"Then," said the corporal, "you may be surprised to hear that he was seen heading for this bluff two or three hours ago, and that we struck his trail where he crossed the creek not a mile back."

He turned in his saddle and looked at the others.

"Can you give me any information?"

Their faces were clear in the moonlight, and Alison felt that they at least had nothing to conceal; but the corporal did not look quite satisfied with the assurances they offered him. Addressing two or three, one after another, he interrogated them sharply.

"I'll have to trouble you to lead up your horses, boys," he said at length.

They did it with some grumbling, and when the corporal was convinced that not a beast was missing, he turned to Thorne.

"You keep a team here, don't you?"

"Oh, yes," replied Thorne carelessly, though he had dreaded this question.

The corporal swung round and looked at his companion, who had quietly slipped away for a few minutes when they first rode in.

"There's one beast hobbled by the creek," announced the trooper. "I can see no sign of the other."

The corporal looked at Thorne.

"Do you feel like making any explanation?"

"No. If you have anything against me I'll leave you to prove it."

The corporal then turned to one of the guests.

"You rode in. Where did you put your saddle?"

"On the ground with the rest."

"Can you produce it?"

"No," admitted the man; "I may as well allow that I can't, if the trooper has been round counting them."

The corporal looked at him steadily.

"Well," he said, "what we have to do first of all is to pick up Winthrop's trail. It's quite likely we'll have a word for Thorne and you later."

He spoke to his companion and they rode out across the prairie. When they disappeared, Thorne called to the fiddler to strike up another tune, and the dance went on again.

CHAPTER X
THORNE RESENTS REPROOF

Farquhar was sitting with his wife and Alison on the stoop in the cool of the evening a week or two after the house-raising, when Thorne rode up out of the prairie, leading a second horse. He tethered the two beasts to a fence before he approached the house, and Alison noticed that he looked very lean and jaded. He sat down wearily and flung off his hat when he had greeted the party.

"I've come to borrow your mower, Farquhar," he announced. "I suppose I may as well get some hay in."

"You don't seem very sure about it," remarked Farquhar.

"As a matter of fact, I'm not enthusiastic about cutting that hay. I've been putting in sixteen hours a day lately, and I expect I'm getting a little stale. Among other things, I'd got most of the shingles on the house when one of the boys came along and told me I'd fixed them wrong. Then the police have been round again worrying me."

"Have you got your horse back?" asked Mrs. Farquhar.

"Yes," replied Thorne, with a soft laugh. "It was found near the railroad a day or two after it disappeared, and a friend of mine sent it along. I understand, however, that Corporal Slaney has failed to pick up Winthrop's trail."

Mrs. Farquhar regarded him severely.

"Why did you mix yourself up in that affair?"

"The thing rather appealed to me," declared Thorne. "I believe Jake was justified ethically; and anybody who takes a way that's not the recognized one has my sympathy."

"Now you've reached the point," Farquhar laughed. "On the whole, the fact you mention is unfortunate."

"I'm not sure," Thorne answered moodily. "Plodding along the lauded beaten track now and then palls on one, and it isn't the least bit easier than the other. Anyway, I only did what I had to; Lucy said she had counted on me."

This last confession, which he seemed to make in a moment of forgetfulness, stirred Alison to a sense of irritation that astonished her a little.

"Were you compelled to help a defaulting debtor escape?" she demanded. "I understand that is what Winthrop is."

"If you knew the whole story you would hardly call him that," Thorne retorted with an indignant sparkle in his eyes.

"But he borrowed money on his cattle, among other things, didn't he, and then sold them, and ran away when the man who lent it to him wanted it back?"

"He did," Thorne assented with some dryness. "I'm sorry I must confess it, because a baldly correct statement of the kind you have just made which leaves out all extenuating details is often a most misleading thing."

"How can a statement of fact be misleading?"

Farquhar smiled and Thorne made a grimace.

"The aspect of any fact varies with one's point of view. You evidently can't get away from the conventional one."

Alison was growing angry, though subsequent reflection convinced her that this was not due to his last observation. She had sympathized with his attitude when he had in the first instance mentioned his dislike of Nevis; and his willingness to side with the injured against the oppressor had certainly pleased her. In the abstract, it appeared wholly commendable; but, in particular, that it should have led him to take up the cause of a girl against whom for no very clear reason she felt prejudiced was a different thing.

"Well," she responded, "it has by degrees become evident to society in general that it can only look at certain matters in a certain way; and if you insist on doing the opposite, you must expect to get into trouble. I'm not sure you don't deserve it, too."

"That," returned Thorne, grimly, "is their idea in England, and I must do them the justice to own that they act up to it. I had, however, expected a little more liberality – from you. Anyway, I'm not in the least sorry for what I've done."

He rose and turned toward his host.

"Hadn't we better get that mower, Farquhar?"

They strolled away, Thorne leading his team, and Mrs. Farquhar laughed.

"Mavy's very young in some respects. I'm almost afraid you have succeeded in setting him off again."

"Is the last remark warranted?"

Mrs. Farquhar nodded.

"He has been sticking to what he probably finds a very uninteresting task with a patience I hardly thought was in him. Just now he's no doubt ready for an outbreak."

"An outbreak?"

"I'll say a frolic. It won't be anything very shocking, though I should expect it to be distinctly original."

Alison made a sign of impatience.

"Isn't it absurd that he should fly off in this unbalanced fashion because of a few words?"

"One mustn't expect perfection; and it wasn't altogether what you said – that merely fired the train. Mavy has been going steady for an unusual time, and as a rule it doesn't take a great deal to drive him into some piece of rashness. For instance, he was quite willing to involve himself in trouble with the police at a word from Lucy Calvert."

She fancied from Alison's expression that this was where the grievance lay, but the girl made no comment, and they sat silent for a while until Farquhar came back alone.

"Mavy's gone off with the mower – he wouldn't come back," he explained. "In fact he seemed a little out of temper."

Farquhar was correct in this surmise. Thorne was somewhat erratic by nature, and any insistence on the strictly conventional point of view, even when it was backed by sound sense, usually acted upon him as a red rag. After all, he could not help his nature, and he had been reared in an atmosphere of straight-laced respectability which had imposed on him an intolerable restraint. What was, perhaps, more to the purpose, he had been demanding too much of his bodily strength during the last two months, and had been living in a Spartan fashion on badly cooked and very irregular meals, until at length his nervous system began to feel the strain. That being so, he felt himself justified in resenting Alison's censorious attitude; though it was not the mere fact that she had disagreed with what he had done that he found most irritating. It was, he knew, because she had disappointed him. He had regarded her as a broad-minded, clear-sighted girl, emancipated from the petty prejudices and traditions which were the bane of most young Englishwomen, and now he had discovered that she was as exasperatingly narrow as the rest of them.

It was late when he reached his homestead, and after sleeping a few hours he rose with the dawn, and lighting a fire, left the kettle to boil while he clambered to the roof to nail on cedar shingles. He could not, however, get them to lie as he wanted them, and, being very dry, they split every now and then as he drove in the nails. Besides this, it was difficult to work upon the narrow rafters, and when at length he descended for breakfast he found that the fire had gone out in the meanwhile. He surveyed it and the kettle disgustedly, with brows drawn down; and then, restraining a strong desire to fling the vessel into the birches, he sat down and fished out of the congealed fat in the frying-pan a piece of cold pork left over from the previous day. This, with a piece of bread that had acquired a rocky texture from being left uncovered, formed his breakfast, and when he had eaten it he went back moodily to the roof. He had for some time in a most determined manner concentrated his energies on a task generally regarded as a commendable one in that country, but there was no doubt whatever that it was beginning to pall on him.

He lay up on the rafters for several hours with a hot sun blazing down on his neck and shoulders while he nailed on shingles; but in spite of every effort, things would go wrong. Nails slipped through his fingers; he dropped his hammer and had to climb down for it; while every now and then a shingle he had just secured rent from top to bottom. Finally, in a state of exasperation, he struck a vicious blow at a nail which had evaded his previous attacks, and hit his thumb instead. This was the climax, and he savagely hurled the hammer as far as he could throw it out upon the prairie. Then he swung himself down, and, walking resolutely to his tent, dragged out a box containing about a dozen small cheap mirrors. There were a few gramophone records in another box; and after putting both cases, a blanket or two and a bag of flour into his wagon, he drove away across the sweep of grass at a gallop. The horses, which had done nothing worth mentioning for the last few weeks, seemed as pleased with the change as he did.

The next morning a man who was passing Farquhar's homestead pulled up his team to deliver its owner a note.

"Mavy sent you this," he said with a grin. "Guess he's out on the trail again. He had the boys sitting up half last night at the Bluff Hotel."

Farquhar read the note, which was curt.

"Thanks for the mower. Better go for it if you want the thing," it ran. "I'm off for a change of air, and haven't the least notion when I'm coming back. I've discovered that one has to get seasoned to a quiet life."

Going back into the house, he handed the note to his wife, who was sitting with Alison at breakfast, and she gave it to the girl in turn when she had read it.

"It's too bad, though I must say I expected it," she remarked, regarding her with reproachful eyes.

"If he has a singularly unbalanced nature, can I help it?" Alison asked.

Her companion appeared to consider.

"I don't know which to be most vexed with; you or Lucy. He would be quietly cutting prairie hay now if you had both left him alone."

Farquhar watched them with a smile.

"Mavy," he observed, "will in all probability require a good deal of breaking in; but that's no reason why one should despair of him. I've known a young horse turn out an excellent hauler and go steady as a rock in double harness, after in the first place kicking in the whole front of the wagon."

"Why double harness?" his wife inquired with a twinkle in her eyes.

"Well," replied Farquhar, "perhaps I was anticipating things."

He lounged out, and Alison went on with her breakfast with an expressionless face, though Mrs. Farquhar noticed that she seemed preoccupied after that.

Three or four days later Thorne sat on the veranda of a little wooden hotel after supper. A couple of men lounged near him smoking, and in front of them a double row of unpicturesque frame-houses straggled beside the trail that led straight as the crow flies into a waste of prairie.

"I've had a notion that Jake Winthrop would look in here," Thorne remarked presently.

One of his companions glanced round toward the house, but there did not seem to be anybody within hearing just then.

"He did," he confided. "Baxter once worked with him on the railroad, and Jake crawled up to the back of his shack at night. Baxter gave him a different hat and a jacket."

"That's quite right," said the other man. "I figured the troopers would know what he was wearing. I drove him quite a piece toward the railroad early in the morning, and I've a notion he got off with a freight-train that was taking a crowd of boys from down East to do something farther on up the track. If he did, he must have jumped off quietly when they stopped to let the Pacific express by. Next thing, two or three troopers turned up, and I guess they heard about the train and wired up the line; but they haven't got Winthrop yet. Corporal Slaney, who sent two of them south, is in the settlement now. He's plumb sure that Jake's hanging round here waiting to make a break for the U. S. boundary."

"What had he on when he first struck you?" Thorne inquired.

Baxter told him, and he laughed.

"Then," he declared, "Slaney's trailing a man with an old black plug hat and a brown duck jacket; the latter would certainly fix him, as blue's much more common. Now if he saw that man riding south at night he'd probably call off the troopers, and they'd work the trail right down to the frontier. As they wouldn't get their man, they'd no doubt give the thing up, deciding he'd already slipped across."

"But how's he going to see him, when Jake's up the track?"

"It strikes me there ought to be a black plug hat and a brown duck jacket somewhere in this settlement," drawled Thorne. "I'll leave you to find them."

A light broke in upon his companions, and they laughed; but one of them pointed out that Thorne might find himself unpleasantly situated if Corporal Slaney overtook him. Thorne, however, smiled at this.



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