E-text prepared by Al Haines
WINSTON OF THE PRAIRIE
Author of Alton of Somasco, The Cattle-Baron's Daughter, The Dust of Conflict, etc.
Illustrated by W. Herbert Dunton
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York
[Frontispiece: Floundering on foot beside them he urged the team through the powdery drifts.]
I. RANCHER WINSTON II. LANCE COURTHORNE III. TROOPER SHANNON'S QUARREL IV. IN THE BLUFF V. MISS BARRINGTON COMES HOME VI. ANTICIPATIONS VII. WINSTON'S DECISION VIII. WINSTON COMES TO SILVERDALE IX. COURTHORNE DISAPPEARS X. AN ARMISTICE XI. MAUD BARRINGTON'S PROMISE XII. SPEED THE PLOW XIII. MASTERY RECOGNIZED XIV. A FAIR ADVOCATE XV. THE UNEXPECTED XVI. FACING THE FLAME XVII. MAUD BARRINGTON IS MERCILESS XVIII. WITH THE STREAM XIX. UNDER TEST XX. COURTHORNE BLUNDERS XXI. THE FACE AT THE WINDOW XXII. COLONEL BARRINGTON IS CONVINCED XXIII. SERGEANT STIMSON CONFIRMS HIS SUSPICIONS XXIV. THE REVELATION XXV. COURTHORNE MAKES REPARATION XXVI. WINSTON RIDES AWAY XXVII. REINSTATEMENT
FLOUNDERING ON FOOT BESIDE THEM HE URGED THE TEAM THROUGH THE POWDERY DRIFTS . . . . . Frontispiece
MAUD BARRINGTON LAUGHED A LITTLE
HE COULD SEE THE WHEAT ROLL IN SLOW RIPPLES BACK INTO THE DISTANCE
[Transcriber's note: The "He could see..." illustration was missing from the book used to prepare this e-text.]
It was a bitter night, for the frost had bound the prairie in its iron grip, although as yet there was no snow. Rancher Winston stood shivering in a little Canadian settlement in the great lonely land which runs north from the American frontier to Athabasca. There was no blink of starlight in the murky sky, and out of the great waste of grass came a stinging wind that moaned about the frame houses clustering beside the trail that led south over the limited levels to the railroad and civilization. It chilled Winston, and his furs, somewhat tattered, gave him little protection. He strode up and down, glancing expectantly into the darkness, and then across the unpaved street, where the ruts were plowed a foot deep in the prairie sod, towards the warm red glow from the windows of the wooden hotel. He knew that the rest of the outlying farmers and ranchers who had ridden in for their letters were sitting snug about the stove, but it was customary for all who sought shelter there to pay for their share of the six o'clock supper, and the half-dollar Winston had then in his pocket was required for other purposes.
He had also retained through all his struggles a measure of his pride, and because of it strode up and down buffeted by the blasts until a beat of horsehoofs came out of the darkness and was followed by a rattle of wheels. It grew steadily louder, a blinking ray of brightness flickered across the frame houses, and presently dark figures were silhouetted against the light on the hotel veranda as a lurching wagon drew up beneath it. Two dusky objects, shapeless in their furs, sprang down, and one stumbled into the post office close by with a bag, while the other man answered the questions hurled at him as he fumbled with stiffened fingers at the harness.
"Late? Well, you might be thankful you've got your mail at all," he said. "We had to go round by Willow Bluff, and didn't think we'd get through the ford. Ice an inch thick, any way, and Charley talked that much he's not said anything since, even when the near horse put his foot into a badger hole."
Rude banter followed this, but Winston took no part in it. Hastening into the post office, he stood betraying his impatience by his very impassiveness while a sallow-faced woman tossed the letters out upon the counter. At last she took up two of them, and the man's fingers trembled a little as he stretched out his hand when she said:
"That's all there are for you."
Winston recognized the writing on the envelopes, and it was with difficulty he held his eagerness in check, but other men were waiting for his place, and he went out and crossed the street to the hotel where there was light to read by. As he entered it a girl bustling about a long table in the big stove-warmed room turned with la little smile.
"It's only you!" she said. "Now I was figuring it was Lance Courthorne."
Winston, impatient as he was, stopped and laughed, for the hotel-keeper's daughter was tolerably well-favored and a friend of his.
"And you're disappointed?" he said. "I haven't Lance's good looks, or his ready tongue."
The room was empty, for the guests were thronging about the post office then, and the girl's eyes twinkled as she drew back a pace and surveyed the man. There was nothing in his appearance that would have aroused a stranger's interest, or attracted more than a passing glance, as he stood before her in a very old fur coat, with a fur cap that was in keeping with it held in his hand.
His face had been bronzed almost to the color of a Blackfeet Indian's by frost and wind and sun, but it was of English type from the crisp fair hair above the broad forehead to the somewhat solid chin. The mouth was hidden by the bronze-tinted mustache, and the eyes alone were noticeable. They were gray, and there was a steadiness in them which was almost unusual even in that country where men look into long distances. For the rest, he was of average stature, and stood impassively straight, looking down upon the girl, without either grace or awkwardness, while his hard brown hands suggested, as his attire did, strenuous labor for a very small reward.
"Well," said the girl, with Western frankness, "there's a kind of stamp on Lance that you haven't got. I figure he brought it with him from the old country. Still, one might take you for him if you stood with the light behind you, and you're not quite a bad-looking man. It's a kind of pity you're so solemn."
Winston smiled. "I don't fancy that's astonishing after losing two harvests in succession," he said. "You see there's nobody back there in the old country to send remittances to me."
The girl nodded with quick sympathy. "Oh, yes. The times are bad," she said. "Well, you read your letters, I'm not going to worry you."
Winston sat down and opened the first envelope under the big lamp. It was from a land agent and mortgage broker, and his face grew a trifle grimmer as he read, "In the present condition of the money market your request that we should carry you over is unreasonable, and we regret that unless you can extinguish at least half the loan we will be compelled to foreclose upon your holding."
There was a little more of it, but that was sufficient for Winston, who knew it meant disaster, and it was with the feeling of one clinging desperately to the last shred of hope he tore open the second envelope. The letter it held was from a friend he had made in a Western city, and once entertained for a month at his ranch, but the man had evidently sufficient difficulties of his own to contend with.
"Very sorry, but it can't be done," he wrote. "I'm loaded up with wheat nobody will buy, and couldn't raise five hundred dollars to lend any one just now."
Winston sighed a little, but when he rose and slowly straightened himself nobody would have suspected he was looking ruin in the face. He had fought a slow losing battle for six weary years, holding on doggedly though defeat appeared inevitable, and now when it had come he bore it impassively, for the struggle which, though he was scarcely twenty-six, had crushed all mirth and brightness out of his life, had given him endurance in place of them. Just then a man came bustling towards him, with the girl, who bore a tray, close behind.
"What are you doing with that coat on?" he said. "Get it off and sit down right there. The boys are about through with the mail and supper's ready."
Winston glanced at the steaming dishes hungrily, for he had passed most of the day in the bitter frost, eating very little, and there was still a drive of twenty miles before him.
"It is time I was taking the trail," he said.
He was sensible of a pain in his left side, which, as other men have discovered, not infrequently follows enforced abstinence from food, but he remembered what he wanted the half-dollar in his pocket for. The hotel-keeper had possibly some notion of the state of affairs, for he laughed a little.
"You've got to sit down," he said. "Now, after the way you fixed me up when I stopped at your ranch, you don't figure I'd let you go before you had some supper with me?"
Winston may have been unduly sensitive, but he shook his head. "You're very good, but it's a long ride, and I'm going now," he said. "Good-night, Nettie."
He turned as he spoke, with the swift decision that was habitual with him, and when he went out the girl glanced at her father reproachfully.
"You always get spoiling things when you put your hand in," she said. "Now that man's hungry, and I'd have fixed it so he'd have got his supper if you had left it to me."
The hotel-keeper laughed a little. "I'm kind of sorry for Winston because there's grit in him, and he's never had a show," he said. "Still, I figure he's not worth your going out gunning after, Nettie."
The girl said nothing, but there was a little flush in her face which had not been there before, when she busied herself with the dishes.
In the meanwhile Winston was harnessing two bronco horses to a very dilapidated wagon. They were vicious beasts, but he had bought them cheap from a man who had some difficulty in driving them, while the wagon had been given him, when it was apparently useless, by a neighbor. The team had, however, already covered thirty miles that day, and started homewards at a steady trot without the playful kicking they usually indulged in. Here and there a man sprang clear of the rutted road, but Winston did not notice him or return his greeting. He was abstractedly watching the rude frame houses flit by, and wondering, while the pain in his side grew keener, when he would get his supper, for it happens not infrequently that the susceptibilities are dulled by a heavy blow, and the victim finds a distraction that is almost welcome in the endurance of a petty trouble.
Winston was very hungry, and weary alike in body and mind. The sun had not risen when he left his homestead, and he had passed the day under a nervous strain, hoping, although it seemed improbable, that the mail would bring him relief from his anxieties. Now he knew the worst, he could bear it as he had borne the loss of two harvests, and the disaster which followed in the wake of the blizzard that killed off his stock; but it seemed unfair that he should endure cold and hunger too, and when one wheel sank into a rut and the jolt shook him in every stiffened limb, he broke out with a hoarse expletive. It was his first protest against the fate that was too strong for him, and almost as he made it he laughed.
"Pshaw! There's no use kicking against what has to be, and I've got to keep my head just now," he said.
There was no great comfort in the reflection, but it had sustained him before, and Winston's head was a somewhat exceptional one, though there was as a rule nothing in any way remarkable about his conversation, and he was apparently merely one of the many quietly-spoken, bronze-faced men who are even by their blunders building up a great future for the Canadian dominion. He accordingly drew his old rug tighter round him, and instinctively pulled his fur cap lower down when the lights of the settlement faded behind him and the creaking wagon swung out into the blackness of the prairie. It ran back league beyond league across three broad provinces, and the wind that came up out of the great emptiness emphasized its solitude. A man from the cities would have heard nothing but the creaking of the wagon and the drumming fall of hoofs, but Winston heard the grasses patter as they swayed beneath the bitter blasts stiff with frost, and the moan of swinging boughs in a far-off willow bluff. It was these things that guided him, for he had left the rutted trail, and here and there the swish beneath the wheels told of taller grass, while the bluff ran black athwart the horizon when that had gone. Then twigs crackled beneath them as the horses picked their way amidst the shadowy trees stunted by a ceaseless struggle with the wind, and Winston shook the creeping drowsiness from him when they came out into the open again, for he knew it is not advisable for any man with work still to do to fall asleep under the frost of that country.
Still, he grew a trifle dazed as the miles went by, and because of it indulged in memories he had shaken oft at other times. They were blurred recollections of the land he had left eight years ago, pictures of sheltered England, half-forgotten music, the voices of friends who no longer remembered him, and the smiles in a girl's bright eyes. Then he settled himself more firmly in the driving seat, and with numbed fingers sought a tighter grip of the reins as the memory of the girl's soft answer to a question he had asked brought his callow ambitions back.
He was to hew his way to fortune in the West, and then come back for her, but the girl who had clung to him with wet cheeks when he left her had apparently grown tired of waiting, and Winston sent back her letters in return for a silver-printed card. That was six years ago, and now none of the dollars he had brought into the country remained to him. He realized, dispassionately and without egotism, that this was through no fault of his, for he knew that better men had been crushed and beaten.
It was, however, time he had done with these reflections, for while he sat half-dazed and more than half-frozen the miles had been flitting by, and now the team knew they were not very far from home. Little by little their pace increased, and Winston was almost astonished to see another bluff black against the night ahead of him. As usual in that country, the willows and birches crawled up the sides and just showed their heads above the sinuous crest of a river hollow. It was very dark when the wagon lurched in among them, and it cost the man an effort to discern the winding trail which led down into the blackness of the hollow. In places the slope was almost precipitous, and it behooved him to be careful of the horses, which could not be replaced. Without them he could not plow in spring, and his life did not appear of any especial value in comparison with theirs just then.
The team, however, were evidently bent on getting home as soon as possible, and Winston's fingers were too stiff to effectively grasp the reins. A swinging bough also struck one of the horses, and when it plunged and flung up its head the man reeled a little in his seat. Before he recovered the team were going down-hill at a gallop. Winston flung himself bodily backwards with tense muscles and the reins slipping a trifle in his hands, knowing that though he bore against them with all his strength the team were leaving the trail. Then the wagon jolted against a tree, one horse stumbled, picked up its stride, and went on at a headlong gallop. The man felt the wind rush past him and saw the dim trees whirl by, but he could only hold on and wonder what would take place when they came to the bottom. The bridge the trail went round by was some distance to his right, and because the frost had just set in he knew the ice on the river would not bear the load even if the horses could keep their footing.
He had not, however, long to wonder. Once more a horse stumbled, there was a crash, and a branch hurled Winston backwards into the wagon, which came to a standstill suddenly. When he rose something warm was running down his face, and there was a red smear on the hand he lighted the lantern with. When that was done he flung himself down from the wagon dreading what he would find. The flickering radiance showed him that the pole had snapped, and while one bronco still stood trembling on its feet the other lay inert amidst a tangle of harness. The man's face grew a trifle grimmer as he threw the light upon it, and then stooping glanced at one doubled leg. It was evident that fate which did nothing by halves had dealt him a crushing blow. The last faint hope he clung to had vanished now.
He was, however, a humane man, and considerate of the beasts that worked for him, and accordingly thrust his hand inside the old fur coat when he had loosed the uninjured horse, and drew out a long-bladed knife. Then he knelt, and setting down the lantern, felt for the place to strike. When he found it his courage almost deserted him, and meeting the eyes that seemed to look up at him with dumb appeal, turned his head away. Still, he was a man who would not shirk a painful duty, and shaking off the sense of revulsion turned again and stroked the beast's head.
"It's all I can do for you," he said.
Then his arm came down and a tremor ran through the quivering frame, while Winston set his lips tightly as his hand grew warm. The thing was horrible to him, but the life he led had taught him the folly of weakness, and he was too pitiful to let his squeamishness overcome him.
Still, he shivered when it was done, and rubbing the knife in the withered leaves, rose, and made shift to gird a rug about the uninjured horse. Then he cut the reins and tied them, and mounting without stirrups rode towards the bridge. The horse went quietly enough now, and the man allowed it to choose its way. He was going home to find shelter from the cold, because his animal instincts prompted him, but otherwise almost without volition, in a state of dispassionate indifference. Nothing more, he fancied, could well befall him.
It was late when Winston reached his log-built house, but he set out once more with his remaining horse before the lingering daylight crept out of the east to haul the wagon home. He also spent most of the day in repairing it, because occupation of any kind that would keep him from unpleasant reflections appeared advisable, and to allow anything to fall out of use was distasteful to him, although as the wagon had been built for two horses he had little hope of driving it again. It was a bitter, gray day with a low, smoky sky, and seemed very long to Winston, but evening came at last, and he was left with nothing between him and his thoughts.
He lay in a dilapidated chair beside the stove, and the little bare room through which its pipe ran was permeated with the smell of fresh shavings, hot iron, and the fumes of indifferent tobacco. A carpenter's bench ran along one end of it, and was now occupied by a new wagon pole the man had fashioned out of a slender birch. A Marlin rifle, an ax, and a big saw hung beneath the head of an antelope on the wall above the bench, and all of them showed signs of use and glistened with oil. Opposite to them a few shelves were filled with simple crockery and cooking utensils, and these also shone spotlessly. There was a pair of knee boots in one corner with a patch partly sewn on to one of them, and the harness in another showed traces of careful repair. A bookcase hung above them, and its somewhat tattered contents indicated that the man who had chosen and evidently handled them frequently, possessed tastes any one who did not know that country would scarcely have expected to find in a prairie farmer. A table and one or two rude chairs made by their owner's hands completed the furniture, but while all hinted at poverty, it also suggested neatness, industry and care, for the room bore the impress of its occupier's individuality as rooms not infrequently do.
It was not difficult to see that he was frugal, though possibly from necessity rather than taste, not sparing of effort, and had a keen eye for utility, and if that suggested the question why with such capacities he had not attained to greater comfort the answer was simple. Winston had no money, and the seasons had fought against him. He had done his uttermost with the means at his disposal, and now he knew he was beaten.
A doleful wind moaned about the lonely building, and set the roof shingles rattling overhead. Now and then the stove crackled, or the lamp flickered, and any one unused to the prairie would have felt the little loghouse very desolate and lonely. There was no other human habitation within a league, only a great waste of whitened grass relieved about the homestead by the raw clods of the fall plowing, for, while his scattered neighbors for the most part put their trust in horses and cattle, Winston had been among the first to realize the capacities of that land as a wheat-growing country.
Now, clad in well-worn jean trousers and an old deerskin jacket, he looked down at the bundle of documents on his knee, accounts unpaid, a banker's intimation that no more checks would be honored, and a mortgage deed. They were not pleasant reading, and the man's face clouded as he penciled notes on some of them, but there was no weakness or futile protest in it. Defeat was plain between the lines of all he read, but he was going on stubbornly until the struggle was ended, as others of his kind had done, there at the western limit of the furrows of the plow and in the great province farther east which is one of the world's granaries. They went under and were forgotten, but they showed the way, and while their guerdon was usually six feet of prairie soil, the wheatfields, mills, and railroads came, for it is written plainly on the new Northwest that no man may live and labor for himself alone, and there are many who realizing it instinctively ask very little and freely give their best for the land that but indifferently shelters them.
Presently, however, there was a knocking at the door, and though this was most unusual Winston only quietly moved his head when a bitter blast came in, and a man wrapped in furs stood in the opening.
"I'll put my horse in the stable while I've got my furs on. It's a bitter night," he said.
Winston nodded. "You know where the lantern is," he said. "There's some chop in the manger, and you needn't spare the oats in the bin. At present prices it doesn't pay to haul them in."
The man closed the door silently, and it was ten minutes before he returned and, sloughing off his furs, dropped into a chair beside the stove. "I got supper at Broughton's, and don't want anything but shelter tonight," he said. "Shake that pipe out, and try one of these instead."
He laid a cigar case on the table, and though well worn it was of costly make with a good deal of silver about it, while Winston, who lighted one, knew that the cigars were good. He had no esteem for his visitor, but men are not censorious upon the prairie, and Western hospitality is always free.
"Where have you come from, Courthorne?" he said quietly.
The other man laughed a little. "The long trail," he said. "The Dakotas, Colorado, Montana. Cleaned up one thousand dollars at Regent, and might have got more, but some folks down there seemed tired of me. The play was quite regular, but they have apparently been getting virtuous lately."
"And now?" said Winston, with polite indifference.
Courthorne made a little gesture of deprecation.
"I'm back again with the rustlers."
Winston's nod signified comprehension, for the struggle between the great range-holders across the frontier and the smaller settlers who with legal right invaded their cattle runs was just over. It had been fought out bitterly with dynamite and rifles, and when at last with the aid of the United States cavalry peace was made, sundry broken men and mercenaries who had taken the pay of both parties, seeing their occupation gone, had found a fresh scope for their energies in smuggling liquor, and on opportunity transferring cattle, without their owner's sanction, across the frontier. That was then a prohibition country, and the profits and risks attached to supplying it and the Blackfeet on the reserves with liquor were heavy.
"Business this way?" said Winston.
Courthorne appeared to consider a moment, and there was a curious little glint in his eyes which did not escape his companion's attention, but he laughed.
"Yes, we're making a big run," he said, then stopped and looked straight at the rancher. "Did it ever strike you, Winston, that you were not unlike me?"
Winston smiled, but made a little gesture of dissent as he returned the other's gaze. They were about the same height and had the same English type of face, while Winston's eyes were gray and his companion's an indefinite blue that approached the former color, but there the resemblance, which was not more than discernible, ended. Winston was quietly-spoken and somewhat grim, a plain prairie farmer in appearance, while a vague but recognizable stamp of breeding and distinction still clung to Courthorne. He would have appeared more in place in the States upon the southern Atlantic seaboard, where the characteristics the Cavalier settlers brought with them are not extinct, than he did upon the Canadian prairie. His voice had even in his merriment a little imperious ring, his face was refined as well as sensual, and there was a languid gracefulness in his movements and a hint of pride in his eyes. They, however, lacked the steadiness of Winston's, and there were men who had seen the wild devil that was born in Courthorne look out of them. Winston knew him as a pleasant companion, but surmised from stories he had heard that there were men, and more women, who bitterly rued the trust they had placed in him.
"No," he said dryly. "I scarcely think I am like you, although only last night Nettie at the settlement took me for you. You see, the kind of life I've led out here has set its mark on me, and my folks in the old country were distinctly middle-class people. There is something in heredity."
Courthorne did not parry the unexpressed question. "Oh yes," he said, with a little sardonic smile. "I know. The backbone of the nation—solemn, virtuous and slow. You're like them, but my folks were different, as you surmise. I don't think they had many estimable qualities from your point of view, but if they all didn't go quite straight they never went slow, and they had a few prejudices, which is why I found it advisable to leave the old country. Still, I've had my fill of all that life can offer most folks out here, while you scarcely seem to have found virtue pay you. They told me at the settlement things were bad with you."
Winston, who was usually correct in his deductions, surmised that his companion had an object, and expected something in return for this confidence. There was also no need for reticence when every farmer in the district knew all about his affairs, while something urged him to follow Courthorne's lead.
"Yes," he said quietly. "They are. You see, when I lost my cattle in the blizzard, I had to sell out or mortgage the place to the hilt, and during the last two years I haven't made the interest. The loan falls due in August, and they're going to foreclose on me."
"Then," said Courthorne, "what is keeping you here when the result of every hour's work you put in will go straight into another man's pocket?"
Winston smiled a little. "In the first place, I've nowhere else to go, and there's something in the feeling that one has held on to the end. Besides, until a few days ago I had a vague hope that by working double tides, I might get another crop in. Somebody might have advanced me a little on it because the mortgage only claims the house and land."
Courthorne looked at him curiously. "No. We are not alike," he said. "There's a slow stubborn devil in you, Winston, and I think I'd be afraid of you if I ever did you an injury. But go on."
"There's very little more. My team ran away down the ravine, and I had to put one beast out of its misery. I can't do my plowing with one horse, and that leaves me stranded for the want of the dollars to buy another with. It's usually a very little thing that turns the scale, but now the end has come, I don't know that I'm sorry. I've never had a good time, you see, and the struggle was slowly crushing the life out of me."
Winston spoke quietly, without bitterness, but Courthorne, who had never striven at all but stretched out his hand and taken what was offered, the more willingly when it was banned alike by judicial and moral law, dimly understood him. He was a fearless man, but he knew his courage would not have been equal to the strain of that six years' struggle against loneliness, physical fatigue, and adverse seasons, during which disaster followed disaster. He looked at the bronzed farmer as he said, "Still, you would do a little in return for a hundred dollars that would help you to go on with the fight?"
A faint sparkle crept into Winston's eyes. It was not hope, but rather the grim anticipation of the man offered a better weapon when standing with his back to the wall.
"Yes," he said slowly. "I would do almost anything."
"Even if it was against the law?"
Winston sat silent for almost a minute, but there was no indecision in his face, which slightly perplexed Courthorne. "Yes," he said. "Though I kept it while I could, the law was made for the safe-guarding of prosperous men, but with such as I am it is every man for his own hand and the devil to care for the vanquished. Still, there is a reservation."
Courthorne nodded. "It's unlawful, but not against the unwritten code."
"Well," said Winston quietly. "When you tell me what you want I should have a better opinion."
Courthorne laughed a little, though there was something unpleasant in his eyes. "When I first came out to this country I should have resented that," he said. "Now, it seems to me that I'm putting too much in your hands if I make the whole thing clear before you commit yourself in any way."
Winston nodded. "In fact, you have got to trust me. You can do so safely."
"The assurance of the guileless is astonishing and occasionally hard to bear," said Courthorne. "Why not reverse the position?"
Winston's gaze was steady, and free from embarrassment. "I am," he said, "waiting for your offer."
"Then," said Courthorne dryly, "here it is. We are running a big load through to the northern settlements and the reserves to-morrow, and while there's a good deal of profit attached to the venture, I have a notion that Sergeant Stimson has had word of it. Now, the Sergeant knows just how I stand with the rustlers though he can fasten no charge on me, and he will have several of his troopers looking out for me. Well, I want one of them to see and follow me south along the Montana trail. There's no horse in the Government service can keep pace with that black of mine, but it would not be difficult to pull him and just keep the trooper out of carbine-shot behind. When he finds he can't overtake the black, he'll go off for his comrades, and the boys will run our goods across the river while they're picking up the trail."
"You mentioned the horse, but not yourself," said Winston quietly.
Courthorne laughed. "Yes," he said. "I will not be there. I'm offering you one hundred dollars to ride the black for me. You can put my furs on, and anybody who saw you and knew the horse would certify it was me."
"And where will you be?"
"Here," said Courthorne dryly. "The boys will have no use for me until they want a guide, but they'll leave an unloaded pack horse handy, and, as it wouldn't suit any of us to make my connection with them too plain, it will be a night or two later when I join them. In the meanwhile your part's quite easy. No trooper could ride you down unless you wanted him to, and you'll ride straight on to Montana—I've a route marked out for you. You'll stop at the places I tell you, and the testimony of anybody who saw you on the black would be quite enough to clear me if Stimson's men are too eleven for the boys."
Winston sat still a moment, and it was not avarice which prompted him when he said, "Considering the risk one hundred dollars is very little."
"Of course," said Courthorne. "Still, it isn't worth any more to me, and there will be your expenses. If it doesn't suit you, I will do the thing myself and find the boys another guide."
He spoke indifferently, but Winston was not a fool, and knew that he was lying.
"Turn your face to the light," he said sharply.
A little ominous glint became visible in Courthorne's eyes, and there was just a trace of darker color in his forehead, but Winston saw it and was not astonished. Still, Courthorne did not move.
"What made you ask me that?" he said.
Winston watched him closely, but his voice betrayed no special interest as he said, "I fancied I saw a mark across your cheek. It seemed to me that it had been made by a whip."
The deeper tint was more visible on Courthorne's forehead, where the swollen veins showed a trifle, and he appeared to swallow something before he spoke. "Aren't you asking too many questions? What has a mark on my face to do with you?"
"Nothing," said Winston quietly. "Will you go through the conditions again?"
Courthorne nodded. "I pay you one hundred dollars—now," he said. "You ride south to-morrow along the Montana trail and take the risk of the troopers overtaking you. You will remain away a fortnight at my expense, and pass in the meanwhile for me. Then you will return at night as rancher Winston, and keep the whole thing a secret from everybody."
Winston sat silent and very still again for more than a minute. He surmised that the man who made the offer had not told him all and there was more behind, but that was, after all, of no great importance. He was prepared to do a good deal for one hundred dollars, and his bare life of effort and self-denial had grown almost unendurable. He had now nothing to lose, and while some impulse urged him to the venture, he felt that it was possible fate had in store for him something better than he had known in the past. In the meanwhile the cigar he held went out, and the striking of a match as Courthorne lighted another roused him suddenly from the retrospect he was sinking into. The bitter wind still moaned about the ranch, emphasizing its loneliness, and the cedar shingles rattled dolefully overhead, while it chanced that as Winston glanced towards the roof his eyes rested on the suspended piece of rancid pork which, with a little flour and a few potatoes, had during the last few months provided him with sustenance. It was of course a trifle, but it tipped the beam, as trifles often do, and the man who was tired of all it symbolized straightened himself with a little mirthless laugh.
"On your word of honor there is nothing beyond the risk of a few days' detention which can affect me?" he said.
"No," said Courthorne solemnly, knowing that he lied. "On my honor. The troopers could only question you. Is it a deal?"
"Yes," said Winston simply, stretching out his hand for the roll of bills the other flung down on the table, and, while one of the contracting parties knew that the other would regret it bitterly, the bargain was made. Then Courthorne laughed in his usual indolent fashion as he said, "Well, it's all decided, and I don't even ask your word. To-morrow will see the husk sloughed off and for a fortnight you'll be Lance Courthorne. I hope you feel equal to playing the role with credit, because I wouldn't entrust my good fame to everybody."
Winston smiled dryly. "I fancy I shall," he said, and long afterwards recalled the words. "You see, I had ambitions in my callow days, and it's not my fault that hitherto I've never had a part to play."
Rancher Winston was, however, wrong in this. He had played the part of an honest man with the courage which had brought him to ruin, but there was now to be a difference.
TROOPER SHANNON'S QUARREL
There was bitter frost in the darkness outside when two young men stood talking in the stables of a little outpost lying a long ride back from the settlement in the lonely prairie. One leaned against a manger with a pipe in his hand, while the spotless, softly-gleaming harness hung up behind him showed what his occupation had been. The other stood bolt upright with lips set, and a faint grayness which betokened strong emotion showing through his tan. The lantern above them flickered in the icy draughts, and from out of the shadows beyond its light came the stamping of restless, horses and the smell of prairie hay which is pungent with the odors of wild peppermint.
The two lads, and they were very little more, were friends, in spite of the difference in their upbringing, for there are few distinctions between caste and caste in that country where manhood is still esteemed the greatest thing, and the primitive virtues count for more than wealth or intellect. Courage and endurance still command respect in the new Northwest, and that both the lads possessed them was made evident by the fact that they were troopers of the Northwest police, a force of splendid cavalry whose duty it is to patrol the wilderness at all seasons and in all weathers, under scorching sun and in blinding snow.
The men who keep the peace of the prairie are taught what heat and thirst are, when they ride in couples through a desolate waste wherein there is only bitter water, parched by pitiless sunrays and whitened by the intolerable dust of alkali. They also discover just how much cold the human frame can endure, when they lie down with only the stars above them, long leagues from the nearest outpost, in a trench scooped in the snow, and they know how near one may come to suffocation and yet live through the grass fires' blinding smoke. It happens now and then that two who have answered to the last roster in the icy darkness do not awaken when the lingering dawn breaks across the great white waste, and only the coyote knows their resting-place, but the watch and ward is kept, and the lonely settler dwells as safe in the wilderness as he would in an English town.
Trooper Shannon was an Irishman from the bush of Ontario; Trooper Payne, English, and a scion of a somewhat distinguished family in the old country, but while he told nobody why he left it suddenly, nobody thought of asking him. He was known to be a bold rider and careful of his beast, and that was sufficient for his comrades and the keen-eyed Sergeant Stimson. He glanced at his companion thoughtfully as he said, "She was a pretty girl. You knew her in Ontario?"
Shannon's hands trembled a little. "Sure," he said. "Larry's place was just a mile beyont our clearing, an' there was never a bonnier thing than Ailly Blake came out from the old country—but is it need there is for talking when ye've seen her? There was once I watched her smile at ye with the black eyes that would have melted the heart out of any man. Waking and sleeping they're with me still."
Three generations of the Shannons had hewn the lonely clearing further into the bush of Ontario and married the daughters of the soil, but the Celtic strain, it was evident, had not run out yet. Payne, however, came of English stock, and expressed himself differently.
"It was a—shame," he said. "Of course he flung her over. I think you saw him, Pat?"
Shannon's face grew grayer, and he quivered visibly as his passion shook him, while Payne felt his own blood pulse faster as he remembered the graceful dark-eyed girl who had given him and his comrade many a welcome meal when their duty took them near her brother's homestead. That was, however, before one black day for Ailly and Larry Blake when Lance Courthorne also rode that way.
"Yes," said the lad from Ontario, "I was driving in for the stores when I met him in the willow bluff, an' Courthorne pulls his divil of a black horse up with as little ugly smile on the lips of him when I swung the wagon right across the trail.
"'That's not civil, trooper,' says he.
"'I'm wanting a word,' says I, with the black hate choking me at the sight of him. 'What have ye done with Ailly?'
"'Is it anything to you?' says he.
"'It's everything,' says I. 'And if ye will not tell me I'll tear it out of ye.'
"Courthorne laughs a little, but I saw the divil in his eyes. 'I don't think you're quite man enough,' says he, sitting very quiet on the big black horse. 'Any way, I can't tell you where she is just now because she left the dancing saloon she was in down in Montana when I last saw her.'
"I had the big whip that day, and I forgot everything as I heard the hiss of it round my shoulder. It came home across the ugly face of him, and then I flung it down and grabbed the carbine as he swung the black around with one hand fumbling in his jacket. It came out empty, an' we sat there a moment, the two of us, Courthorne white as death, his eyes like burning coals, and the fingers of me trembling on the carbine. Sorrow on the man that he hadn't a pistol or I'd have sent the black soul of him to the divil it came from."
The lad panted, and Payne, who had guessed at his hopeless devotion to the girl who had listened to Courthorne, made a gesture of disapproval that was tempered by sympathy. It was for her sake, he fancied, Shannon had left the Ontario clearing and followed Larry Blake to the West.
"I'm glad he hadn't, Pat," said Payne. "What was the end of it?"
"I remembered," said the other with a groan, "remembered I was Trooper Shannon, an' dropped the carbine into the wagon. Courthorne wheels the black horse round, an' I saw the red line across the face of him."
"'You'll be sorry for this, my lad,' says he."
"He's a dangerous man," Payne said, thoughtfully. "Pat, you came near being a —— ass that day. Any way, it's time we went in, and as Larry's here I shouldn't wonder if we saw Courthorne again before the morning."
The icy cold went through them to the bone as they left the stables, and it was a relief to enter the loghouse which was heated to fustiness by the glowing stove. A lamp hung from a rough birch beam, and its uncertain radiance showed motionless figures wrapped in blankets in the bunks round the walls. Two men were, however, dressing, and one already in uniform sat at a table talking to another swathed in furs, who was from his appearance a prairie farmer. The man at the table was lean and weather-bronzed, with grizzled hair and observant eyes. They were fixed steadily upon the farmer, who knew that very little which happened upon the prairie escaped the vigilance of Sergeant Stimson.
"It's straight talk you're giving me, Larry? What do you figure on making by it?" he said.
The farmer laughed mirthlessly, "Not much, any way, beyond the chance of getting a bullet in me back; or me best steer lifted one dark night, 'Tis not forgiving the rustlers are, and Courthorne's the divil," he said. "But listen now, Sergeant, I've told ye where he is, and if ye're not fit to corral him I'll ride him down meself."
Sergeant Stimson wrinkled his forehead. "If anybody knows what they're after, it should be you," he said, watching the man out of the corner of his eyes. "Still, I'm a little worried as to why, when you'll get nothing for it, you're anxious to serve the State."
The farmer clenched a big hand. "Sergeant, you that knows everything, will ye drive me mad—an' to —— with the State!" he said. "Sure, it's gospel I'm telling ye, an', as you're knowing well, it's me could tell where the boys who ride at midnight drop many a keg. Well, if ye will have your reason, it was Courthorne who put the black shame on me an' mine."
Sergeant Stimson nodded, for he had already suspected this.
"Then," he said dryly, "we'll give you a chance of helping us to put the handcuffs on him. Now, because they wouldn't risk the bridge, and the ice is not thick yet everywhere, there are just two ways they could bring the stuff across, and I figure we'd be near the thing if we fixed on Graham's Pool. Still, Courthorne's no kind of fool, and just because that crossing seems the likeliest he might try the other one. You're ready for duty, Trooper Payne?"
The lad stood straight. "I can turn out in ten minutes, sir," he said.
"Then," and Sergeant Stimson raised his voice a trifle, "you will ride at once to the rise a league outside the settlement, and watch the Montana trail. Courthorne will probably be coming over from Winston's soon after you get there, riding the big black, and you'll keep out of sight and follow him. If he heads for Carson's Crossing, ride for Graham's at a gallop, where you'll find me with the rest. If he makes for the bridge, you will overtake him if you can and find out what he's after. It's quite likely he'll tell you nothing, and you will not arrest him, but bearing in mind that every minute he spends there will be a loss to the rustlers you'll keep him as long as you can. Trooper Shannon, you'll ride at once to the bluff above Graham's Pool and watch the trail. Stop any man who rides that way, and if it's Courthorne keep him until the rest of the boys come up with me. You've got your duty quite straight, both of you?"
The lads saluted, and went out, while the sergeant smiled a little as he glanced at the farmer and the men who were dressing.
"It's steep chances we'll have Mr. Courthorne's company to-morrow, boys," he said. "Fill up the kettle, Tom, and serve out a pint of coffee. There are reasons why we shouldn't turn out too soon. We'll saddle in an hour or so."
Two of the men went out, and the stinging blast that swept in through the open door smote a smoky smear across the blinking lamp and roused a sharper crackling from the stove. Then one returned with the kettle and there was silence, when the fusty heat resumed its sway. Now and then a tired trooper murmured in his sleep, or there was a snapping in the stove, while the icy wind moaned about the building and the kettle commenced a soft sibilation, but nobody moved or spoke. Three shadowy figures in uniform sat just outside the light, soaking in the grateful warmth while they could, for they knew that they might spend the next night unsheltered from the arctic cold of the wilderness. The Sergeant sat with thoughtful eyes and wrinkled forehead, where the flickering radiance forced up his lean face and silhouetted his spare outline on the rough boarding behind him, and close by the farmer sucked silently at his pipe, waiting with a stony calm that sprang from fierce impatience the reckoning with the man who had brought black shame upon him.
It was about this time when Winston stood shivering a little with the bridle of a big black horse in his hand just outside the door of his homestead. A valise and two thick blankets were strapped to the saddle, and he had donned the fur cap and coat Courthorne usually wore. Courthorne himself stood close by smiling at him sardonically.
"If you keep the cap down and ride with your stirrups long, as I've fixed them, anybody would take you for me," said he. "Go straight through the settlement, and let any man you come across see you. His testimony would come in useful if Stimson tries to fix a charge on me. You know your part of the bargain. You're to be Lance Courthorne for a fortnight from to-day."
"Yes," said Winston dryly. "I wish I was equally sure of yours."
Courthorne laughed. "I'm to be rancher Winston until to-morrow night, any way. Don't worry about me. I'll borrow those books of yours and improve my mind. Possible starvation is the only thing that threatens me, and it's unfortunate you've left nothing fit to eat behind you."
Winston swung himself into the saddle, a trifle awkwardly, for Courthorne rode with longer stirrup leathers than he was accustomed to, then he raised one hand, and the other man laughed a little as he watched him sink into the darkness of the shadowy prairie. When the drumming of hoofs was lost in the moaning of the wind he strode towards the stable, and taking up the lantern surveyed Winston's horse thoughtfully.
"The thing cuts with both edges, and the farmer only sees one of them," he said. "That beast's about as difficult to mistake as my black is."
Then he returned to the loghouse, and presently put on Winston's old fur coat and tattered fur cap. Had Winston seen his unpleasant smile as he did it, he would probably have wheeled the black horse and returned at a gallop, but the farmer was sweeping across the waste of whitened grass at least a league away by this time. Now and then a half-moon blinked down between wisps of smoky cloud, but for the most part gray dimness hung over the prairie, and the drumming of hoofs rang stridently through the silence. Winston knew a good horse, and had bred several of them—before a blizzard which swept the prairie killed off his finest yearlings as well as their pedigree sire—and his spirits rose as the splendid beast swung into faster stride beneath him.
For two weeks at least he would be free from anxiety, and the monotony of his life at the lonely homestead had grown horribly irksome. Winston was young, and now, when for a brief space he had left his cares behind, the old love of adventure which had driven him out from England once more awakened and set his blood stirring. For the first time in six years of struggle he did not know what lay before him, and he had a curious, half-instinctive feeling that the trait he was traveling would lead him farther than Montana. It was borne in upon him that he had left the old hopeless life behind, and stirred by some impulse he broke into a little song he had sung in England and long forgotten. He had a clear voice, and the words, which were filled with the hope of youth, rang bravely through the stillness of the frozen wilderness until the horse blundered, and Winston stopped with a little smile.
"It's four long years since I felt as I do to-night," he said.
Then he drew bridle and checked the horse as the lights of the settlement commenced to blink ahead, for the trail was rutted deep and frozen into the likeness of adamant, but when the first frame houses flung tracks of yellow radiance across the whitened grass he dropped his left arm a trifle, and rode in at a canter as he had seen Courthorne do. Winston did not like Courthorne, but he meant to keep his bargain.
As he passed the hotel more slowly a man who came out called to him. "Hello, Lance! Taking the trail?" he said. "Well, it kind of strikes me it's time you did. One of Stimson's boys was down here, and he seemed quite anxious about you."
Winston knew the man, and was about to urge the horse forward, but in place of it drew bridle, and laughed with a feeling that was wholly new to him as he remembered that his neighbors now and then bantered him about his English, and that Courthorne only used the Western colloquialism when it suited him.
"Sergeant Stimson is an enterprising officer, but there are as keen men as he is," he said. "You will, in case he questions you, remember when you met me."
"Oh, yes," said the other. "Still, I wouldn't fool too much with him—and where did you get those mittens from? That's the kind of outfit that would suit Winston."
Winston nodded, for though he had turned his face from the light the hand he held the bridle with was visible, and his big fur gloves were very old.
"They are his. The fact is, I've just come from his place," he said. "Well, you can tell Stimson you saw me starting out on the Montana trail."
He shook the bridle, laughed softly as the frame houses flitted by, and then grew intent when the darkness of the prairie once more closed down. It was, he knew, probable that some of Stimson's men would be looking out for him, and he had not sufficient faith in Courthorne's assurances to court an encounter with them.
The lights had faded, and the harsh grass was crackling under the drumming hoofs when the blurred outline of a mounted man showed up on the crest of a rise, and a shout came down.
"Hello! Pull up there a moment, stranger."
There was nothing alarming in the greeting, but Winston recognized the ring of command, as well as the faint jingle of steel which had preceded it, and pressed his heels home. The black swung forward faster, and Winston glancing over his shoulder saw the dusky shape was now moving down the incline. Then the voice rose again more commandingly.
"Pull up, I want a talk with you."
Winston turned his head a moment, and remembering Courthorne's English flung back the answer, "Sorry I haven't time."
The faint musical jingle grew plainer, there was a thud of hoofs behind, and the curious exhilaration returned to Winston as the big black horse stretched out at a gallop. The soil was hard as granite, but the matted grasses formed a covering that rendered fast riding possible to a man who took the risks, and Winston knew there were few horses in the Government service to match the one he rode. Still, it was evident that the trooper meant to overtake him, and recollecting his compact he tightened his grip on the bridle. It was a long way to the ranch where he was to spend the night, and he knew that the further he drew the trooper on, the better it would suit Courthorne.
So they swept on through the darkness over the empty waste, the trooper who was riding hard slowly creeping up behind. Still, Winston held the horse in until a glance over his shoulder showed him that there was less than a hundred yards between them, and he fancied he heard a portentous rattle as well as the thud of hoofs. It was not unlike that made by a carbine flung across the saddle. This suggested unpleasant possibilities, and he slackened his grip on the bridle. Then a breathless shout rang out, "Pull up or I'll fire."
Winston wondered if the threat was genuine or what is termed "bluff" in that country, but, as he had decided objections to being shot in the back to please Courthorne, sent his heels home. The horse shot forward beneath him, and, though no carbine flashed, the next backward glance showed him that the distance between him and the pursuer was drawing out, while when he stared ahead again the dark shape of willows or birches cut the sky-line. As they came back to him the drumming of hoofs swelled into a staccato roar, while presently the trail grew steep, and dark boughs swayed above him. In another few minutes something smooth and level flung back a blink of light, and the timbers of a wooden bridge rattled under his passage. Then he was racing upwards through the gloom of wind-dwarfed birches on the opposite side listening for the rattle behind him on the bridge, and after a struggle with the horse pulled him up smoking when he did not hear it.
There was a beat of hoofs across the river, but it was slower than when he had last heard it and grew momentarily less audible, and Winston laughed as he watched the steam of the horse and his own breath rise in a thin white cloud.
"The trooper has given it up, and now for Montana," he said.
IN THE BLUFF
It was very dark amid the birches where Trooper Shannon sat motionless in his saddle gazing down into the denser blackness of the river hollow. The stream ran deep below the level of the prairie, as the rivers of that country usually do, and the trees which there alone found shelter from the winds straggled, gnarled and stunted, up either side of the steep declivity. Close behind the trooper a sinuous trail seamed by ruts and the print of hoofs stretched away across the empty prairie. It forked on the outskirts of the bluff, and one arm dipped steeply to the river where, because the stream ran slow just there and the bottom was firm, a horseman might cross when the water was low, and heavy sledges make the passage on the ice in winter time. The other arm twisted in and out among the birches towards the bridge, but that detour increased the distance to any one traveling north or south by two leagues or so.
The ice, however, was not very thick as yet, and Shannon, who had heard it ring hollowly under him, surmised that while it might be possible to lead a laden horse across, there would be some risk attached to the operation. For that very reason, and although his opinion had not been asked, he agreed with Sergeant Stimson that the whisky-runners would attempt the passage. They were men who took the risks as they came, and that route would considerably shorten the journey it was especially desirable for them to make at night, while it would, Shannon fancied, appear probable to them that if the police had word of their intentions they would watch the bridge. Between it and the frozen ford the stream ran faster, and the trooper decided that no mounted man could cross the thinner ice.
It was very cold as well as dark, for although the snow which usually precedes the frost in that country had not come as yet, it was evidently not far away, and the trooper shivered in the blasts from the pole which cut through fur and leather with the keenness of steel. The temperature had fallen steadily since morning, and now there was a presage of a blizzard in the moaning wind and murky sky. If it broke and scattered its blinding whiteness upon the roaring blast there would be but little hope for any man or beast caught shelterless in the empty wilderness, for it is beyond the power of anything made of flesh and blood to withstand that cold.
Already a fine haze of snow swirled between the birch twigs every now and then, and stung the few patches of the trooper's unprotected skin as though they had been pricked with red-hot needles. It, however, seldom lasted more than a minute, and when it whirled away, a half-moon shone down for a moment between smoky clouds. The uncertain radiance showed the thrashing birches rising from the hollow, row on row, struck a faint sparkle from the ice beneath them, and then went out leaving the gloom intensified. It was evident to Shannon that his eyes would not be much use to him that night, for which reason he kept his ears uncovered at the risk of losing them, but though he had been born in the bush and all the sounds of the wilderness had for him a meaning, hearing did not promise to be of much assistance. The dim trees roared about him with a great thrashing of twigs, and when the wilder gusts had passed there was an eery moaning through which came the murmur of leagues of tormented grasses. The wind was rising rapidly, and it would, he fancied, drown the beat of approaching hoofs as well as any cry from his comrades.
Four of them were hidden amidst the birches where the trail wound steeply upwards through the bluff across the river, two on the nearer side not far below, and Trooper Shannon's watch would serve two purposes. He was to let the rustlers pass him if they rode for the ford, and then help to cut off the retreat of any who escaped the sergeant, while if they found the ice too thin for loaded beasts or rode towards the bridge, a flash from his carbine would bring his comrades across in time to join the others who were watching that trail. It had, as usual with Stimson's schemes, all been carefully thought out, and the plan was eminently workable, but unfortunately for the grizzled sergeant a better brain than his had foreseen the combination.
In the meanwhile the lad felt his limbs grow stiff and almost useless, and a lethargic numbness blunt the keenness of his faculties as the heat went out of him. He had more than usual endurance, and utter cold, thirst, and the hunger that most ably helps the frost, are not infrequently the portion of the wardens of the prairie, but there is a limit to what man can bear, and the troopers who watched by the frozen river that night had almost reached it. Shannon could not feel the stirrups with his feet. One of his ears was tingling horribly as the blood that had almost left it resumed its efforts to penetrate the congealing flesh, while the mittened hands he beat upon his breast fell solidly on his wrappings without separate motion of the fingers. Once or twice the horse stamped fretfully, but a touch of hand and heel quieted him, for though the frozen flesh may shrink, unwavering obedience is demanded equally from man and beast enrolled in the service of the Northwest police.
"Stiddy, now," said the lad, partly to discover if he still retained the power of speech. "Sure ye know the order that was given me, and if it's a funeral that comes of it the Government will bury ye."
He sighed as he beat his hands upon his breast again, and when a flicker of moonlight smote a passing track of brightness athwart the tossing birches his young face was very grim. Like many another trooper of the Northwest police, Shannon had his story, and he remembered the one trace of romance that had brightened his hard bare life that night as he waited for the man who had dissipated it.
When Larry Blake moved West from Ontario, Shannon, drawn by his sister's dark eyes, followed him, and took up a Government grant of prairie sod. His dollars were few, but he had a stout heart and two working oxen, and nothing seemed impossible while Ailly Blake smiled on him, and she smiled tolerably frequently, for Shannon was a well-favored lad. He had worked harder than most grown men could do, won one good harvest, and had a few dollars in the bank when Courthorne rode up to Blake's homestead on his big black horse. After that, all Shannon's hopes and ambitions came down with a crash; and the day he found Blake gray in face with shame and rage, he offered Sergeant Stimson his services. Now he was filled with an unholy content that he had done so, for he came of a race that does not forget an injury and has sufficient cause for a jealous pride in the virtue of its women. He and Larry might have forgiven a pistol shot, but they could not forget the shame.
Suddenly he stiffened to attention, for though a man of the cities would probably have heard nothing but the wailing of the wind, he caught a faint rhythmic drumming which might have been made by a galloping horse. It ceased, and he surmised, probably correctly, that it was trooper Payne returning. It was, however, his business to watch the forking of the trail, and when he could only hear the thrashing of the birches, he moved his mittened hand from the bridle, and patted the restive horse. Just then the bluff was filled with sound as a blast that drove a haze of snow before it roared down. It was followed by a sudden stillness that was almost bewildering, and when a blink of moonlight came streaming down, Trooper Shannon grabbed at his carbine, for a man stood close beside him in the trail. The lad, who had neither seen nor heard him come, looked down on the glinting barrel of a Marlin rifle and saw a set white face behind it.
"Hands up!" said a hoarse voice. "Throw that thing down."
Trooper Shannon recognized it, and all the fierce hate he was capable of flamed up. It shook him with a gust of passion, and it was not fear that caused his stiffened fingers to slip upon the carbine. It fell with a rattle, and while he sat still, almost breathless and livid in face, the man laughed a little.
"That's better, get down," he said.
Trooper Shannon flung himself from the saddle, and alighted heavily as a flung-off sack would have done, for his limbs refused to bend. Still it was not from lack of courage that he obeyed, and during one moment he had clutched the bridle with the purpose of riding over his enemy. He had, however, been taught to think for himself swiftly and shrewdly from his boyhood up, and realized instinctively that if he escaped scathless the ringing of the rifle would warn the rustlers who he surmised were close behind. He was also a police trooper broken to the iron bond of discipline, and if a bullet from the Marlin was to end his career, he determined it should if possible also terminate his enemy's liberty. The gust of rage had gone and left him with the cold vindictive cunning the Celt who has a grievous injury to remember is also capable of, and there was contempt but no fear in his voice as he turned to Courthorne quietly.
"Sure it's your turn now," he said. "The last time I put my mark on the divil's face of ye."
Courthorne laughed wickedly. "It was a bad day's work for you. I haven't forgotten yet," he said. "I'm only sorry you're not a trifle older, but it will teach Sergeant Stimson the folly of sending a lad to deal with me. Well, walk straight into the bush, and remember that the muzzle of the rifle is scarcely three feet behind you!"
Trooper Shannon did so with black rage in his heart, and his empty hands at his sides. He was a police trooper, and a bushman born, and knew that the rustlers' laden horses would find some difficulty in remounting the steep trail and could not escape to left or right, once they were entangled amidst the trees. Then it would be time to give the alarm, and go down with a bullet in his body, or by some contrivance evade the deadly rifle and come to grips with his enemy. He also knew Lance Courthorne, and remembering how the lash had seamed his face, expected no pity. One of them is was tolerably certain would have set out on the long trail before the morning, but they breed grim men in the bush of Ontario, and no other kind ride very long with the wardens of the prairie.
"Stop where you are," said Courthorne, presently. "Now then, turn round. Move a finger or open your lips, and I'll have great pleasure in shooting you. In the meanwhile you can endeavor to make favor with whatever saint is honored by the charge of you."
Shannon smiled in a fashion that resembled a snarl as once more a blink of moonlight shone down upon them, and in place of showing apprehension, his young white face, from which the bronze had faded, was venomous.
"And my folks were Orange, but what does that matter now?" said he. "There'll be one of us in—to-morrow, but for the shame ye put on Larry ye'll carry my mark there with ye."
Courthorne looked at him with a little glow in his eyes. "You haven't felt mine yet," he said. "You will probably talk differently when you do."
It may have been youthful bravado, but Trooper Shannon laughed. "In the meanwhile," he said, "I'm wondering why you're wearing an honest man's coat and cap. Faith, if he saw them on ye, Winston would burn them."
Courthorne returned no answer, and the moonlight went out, but they stood scarcely three feet apart, and one of them knew that any move he made would be followed by the pressure of the other's finger on the trigger. He, however, did not move at all, and while the birches roared about them they stood silently face to face, the man of birth and pedigree with a past behind him and blood already upon his head, and the raw lad from the bush, his equal before the tribunal that would presently judge their quarrel.
In the meanwhile Trooper Shannon heard a drumming of hoofs that grew steadily louder before Courthorne apparently noticed the sound, and his trained ears told him that the rustlers' horses were coming down the trail. Now they had passed the forking, and when the branches ceased roaring again he knew they had floundered down the first of the declivity, and it would be well to wait a little until they had straggled out where the trail was narrow and deeply rutted. No one could turn them hastily there, and the men who drove them could scarcely escape the troopers who waited them, if they blundered on through the darkness of the bush. So five breathless minutes passed, Trooper Shannon standing tense and straight with every nerve tingling as he braced himself for an effort, Courthorne stooping a little with forefinger on the trigger, and the Marlin rifle at his hip. Then through a lull there rose a clearer thud of hoofs. It was lost in the thrashing of the twigs as a gust roared down again, and Trooper Shannon launched himself like a panther upon his enemy.
He might have succeeded, and the effort was gallantly made, but Courthorne had never moved his eyes from the shadowy object before him, and even as it sprang, his finger contracted further on the trigger. There was a red flash, and because he fired from the hip the trigger guard gashed his mitten. He sprang sideways scarcely feeling the bite of the steel, for the lad's hand brushed his shoulder. Then there was a crash as something went down heavily amidst the crackling twigs. Courthorne stooped a little, panting in the smoke that blew into his eyes, jerked the Marlin lever, and, as the moon came through again, had a blurred vision of a white drawn face that stared up at him, still with defiance in its eyes. He looked down into it as he drew the trigger once more.
Shannon quivered a moment, and then lay very still, and it was high time for Courthorne to look to himself, for there was a shouting in the bluff, and something came crashing through the undergrowth. Even then his cunning did not desert him, and flinging the Marlin down beside the trooper, he slipped almost silently in and out among the birches and swung himself into the saddle of a tethered horse. Unlooping the bridle from a branch, he pressed his heels home, realizing as he did it that there was no time to lose, for it was evident that one of the troopers was somewhat close behind him, and others were coming across the river. He knew the bluff well, and having no desire to be entangled in it was heading for the prairie, when a blink of moonlight showed him a lad in uniform riding at a gallop between him and the crest of the slope. It was Trooper Payne, and Courthorne knew him for a very bold horseman.
Now, it is possible that had one of the rustlers, who were simple men with primitive virtues as well as primitive passions, been similarly placed, he would have joined his comrades and taken his chance with them, but Courthorne kept faith with nobody unless it suited him, and was equally dangerous to his friends and enemies. Trooper Shannon had also been silenced forever, and if he could cross the frontier unrecognized, nobody would believe the story of the man he would leave to bear the brunt in place of him. Accordingly he headed at a gallop down the winding trail, while sharp orders and a drumming of hoofs grew louder behind him, and hoarse cries rose in front. Trooper Payne was, it seemed, at least keeping pace with him, and he glanced over his shoulder as he saw something dark and shadowy across the trail. It was apparently a horse from which two men were struggling to loose its burden.
Courthorne guessed that the trail was blocked in front of it by other loaded beasts, and he could not get past in time, for the half-seen trooper was closing with him fast, and another still rode between him and the edge of the bluff, cutting off his road to the prairie. It was evident he could not go on, while the crackle of twigs, roar of hoofs, and jingle of steel behind him, made it plain that to turn was to ride back upon the carbines of men who would be quite willing to use them. There alone remained the river. It ran fast below him, and the ice was thin, and for just a moment he tightened his grip on the bridle.
"We've got you!" a hoarse voice reached him. "You're taking steep chances if you go on."
Courthorne swung off from the trail. There was a flash above him, something whirred through the twigs above his head, and the horse plunged as he drove his heels in.
"One of them gone for the river," another shout rang out, and Courthorne was crashing through the undergrowth straight down the declivity, while thin snow whirled about him, and now and then he caught the faint glimmer flung back by the ice beneath.
Swaying boughs lashed him, his fur cap was whipped away, and he felt that his face was bleeding, but there was another crackle close behind him, for Trooper Payne was riding as daringly, and he carried a carbine. Had he desired it Courthorne could not turn. The bronco he bestrode was madly excited and less than half-broken, and it is probable no man could have pulled him up just then. It may also have been borne in upon Courthorne, that he owed a little to those he had left behind him in the old country, and he had not lost his pride. There was, it seemed, no escape, but he had at least a choice of endings, and with a little breathless laugh he rode straight for the river.
It was with difficulty Trooper Payne pulled his horse up on the steep bank a minute later. A white haze was now sliding down the hollow between the two dark walls of trees, and something seemed to move in the midst of it while the ice rang about it. Then as the trooper pitched up his carbine there was a crash that was followed by a horrible floundering and silence again. Payne sat still shivering a little in his saddle until the snow that whirled about him blotted out all the birches, and a roaring blast came down.
He knew there was now nothing that he could do, The current had evidently sucked the fugitive under, and, dismounting, he groped his way up the slope, leading the horse by the bridle, and only swung himself into the saddle when he found the trail again. A carbine flashed in front of him, two dim figures went by at a gallop, and a third one flung an order over his shoulder as he passed.
"Go back. The Sergeant's hurt and Shannon has got a bullet in him."
Trooper Payne had surmised as much already, and went back as fast as he could ride, while the beat of hoofs grew fainter down the trail. Ten minutes later, he drew bridle close by a man who held a lantern, and saw Sergeant Stimson sitting very grim in face on the ground. It transpired later that his horse had fallen and thrown him, and it was several weeks before he rode again.
"You lost your man?" he said. "Get down."
Payne dismounted. "Yes, sir, I fancy he is dead," he said. "He tried the river, and the ice wouldn't carry him. I saw him ride away from here just after the first shot, and fancied he fired at Shannon. Have you seen him, sir?"
The other trooper moved his lantern, and Payne gasped as he saw a third man stooping, with the white face of his comrade close by his feet. Shannon appeared to recognize him, for his eyes moved a little and the gray lips fell apart. Then Payne turned his head aside while the other trooper nodded compassionately in answer to his questioning glance.
"I've sent one of the boys to Graham's for a wagon," said the Sergeant. "You saw the man who fired at him?"
"Yes, sir," said Trooper Payne.
"You knew him?" and there was a ring in the Sergeant's voice.
"Yes, sir," said the trooper. "At least he was riding Winston's horse, and had on the old long coat of his."
Sergeant Stimson nodded, and pointed to the weapon lying with blackened muzzle at his feet. "And I think you could recognize that rifle? There's F. Winston cut on the stock of it."
Payne said nothing, for the trooper signed to him. "I fancy Shannon wants to talk to you," he said.
The lad knelt down, slipped one arm about his comrade's neck, and took the mittened hand in his own. Shannon smiled up at him feebly.
"Winston's horse, and his cap," he said, and then stopped, gasping horribly.
"You will remember that, boys," said the Sergeant.
Payne could say nothing. Trooper Shannon and he had ridden through icy blizzard and scorching heat together, and he felt his manhood melting as he looked down into his dimming eyes. There was a curious look in them which suggested a strenuous endeavor and an appeal, and the lips moved again.
"It was," said Shannon, and moved his head a little on Payne's arm, apparently in an agony of effort.
Then the birches roared about them, and drowned the feeble utterance, while when the gust passed all three, who had not heard what preceded it, caught only one word, "Winston."
Trooper Shannon's eyes closed, and his head fell back while the snow beat softly into his upturned face, and there was a very impressive silence intensified by the moaning of the wind, until the rattle of wheels came faintly down the trail.
MISS BARRINGTON COMES HOME
The long train was slackening speed and two whistles rang shrilly through the roar of wheels when Miss Barrington laid down the book with which she had beguiled her journey of fifteen hundred miles, and rose from her seat in a corner of the big first-class car. The car was sumptuously upholstered and its decorations tasteful as well as lavish, but just then it held no other passenger, and Miss Barrington smiled curiously as she stood, swaying a little, in front of the mirror at one end of it, wrapping her furs about her. There was, however, a faint suggestion of regret in the smile, and the girl's eyes grew grave again, for the soft cushions, dainty curtains, gleaming gold and nickel, and equable temperature formed a part of the sheltered life she was about to leave behind her, and there would, she knew, be a difference in the future. Still, she laughed again, as, drawing the little fur cap well down upon her broad white forehead, she nodded at her own reflection.
"One cannot have everything, and you might have stayed there and reveled in civilization if you had liked," she said.
Crossing to the door of the portico she stood a moment with fingers on its handle, and once more looked about her. The car was very cosy, and Maud Barrington had all the average young woman's appreciation of the smoother side of life, although she had also the capacity, which is by no means so common, for extracting the most it had to give from the opposite one. Still, it was with a faint regret she prepared to complete what had been a deed of renunciation. Montreal, with its gayeties and luxuries, had not seemed so very far away while she was carried west amid all the comforts artisans who were also artists could provide for the traveler, but once that door closed behind her she would be cut adrift from it all, and left face to face with the simple, strenuous life of the prairie.
Maud Barrington had, however, made her mind up some weeks ago, and when the lock closed with a little crack that seemed to emphasize the fact that the door was shut, she had shaken the memories from her, and was quietly prepared to look forward instead of back. It also needed some little courage, for, as she stood with the furs fluttering about her on the lurching platform, the cold went through her like a knife, and the roofs of a little prairie town rose up above the willows the train was now crawling through. The odors that greeted her nostrils were the reverse of pleasant, and glancing down with the faintest shiver of disgust, her eyes rested on the litter of empty cans, discarded garments, and other even more unsightly things which are usually dumped in the handiest bluff by the citizens of a springing Western town. They have, for the most part, but little appreciation of the picturesque, and it would take a good deal to affect their health.
Then the dwarfed trees opened out, and flanked by two huge wheat elevators and a great water tank, the prairie city stood revealed. It was crude and repellant, devoid of anything that could please the most lenient eye, for the bare frame houses rose, with their rough boarding weathered and cracked by frost and sun, hideous almost in their simplicity, from the white prairie. Paint was apparently an unknown luxury, and pavement there was none, though a rude plank platform straggled some distance above the ground down either side of the street, so that the citizens might not sink knee-deep in the mire of the spring thawing. Here and there a dilapidated wagon was drawn up in front of a store. With a clanging of the big bell the locomotive rolled into the little station, and Maud Barrington looked down upon a group of silent men who had sauntered there to enjoy the one relaxation the desolate place afforded them.
There was very little in their appearance to attract the attention of a young woman of Miss Barrington's upbringing. They had grave bronzed faces, and wore, for the most part, old fur coats stained here and there with soil, and their mittens and moccasins were not in good repair; but there was a curious steadiness in their gaze which vaguely suggested the slow stubborn courage that upheld them through the strenuous effort and grim self-denial of their toilsome lives. They were small wheat-growers who had driven in to purchase provisions or inquire the price of grain, and here and there a mittened hand was raised to a well-worn cap, for most of them recognized Miss Barrington of Silverdale Grange. She returned their greetings graciously, and then swung herself from the platform, with a smile in her eyes, as a man came hastily and yet as it were with a certain deliberation in her direction.
He was elderly, but held himself erect, while his furs, which were good, fitted him in a fashion which suggested a uniform. He also wore boots which reached half-way to the knee, and were presumably lined to resist the prairie cold, which few men at that season would do, and scarcely a speck of dust marred their lustrous exterior, while as much of his face as was visible beneath the great fur cap was lean and commanding. Its salient features were the keen and somewhat imperious gray eyes and long straight nose, while something in the squareness of the man's shoulders and his pose set him apart from the prairie farmers, and suggested the cavalry officer. He was in fact Colonel Barrington, founder and autocratic ruler of the English community of Silverdale, and he had been awaiting his niece somewhat impatiently. Colonel Barrington was invariably punctual, and resented the fact that the train had come in an hour later than it should have done.
"So you have come back to us. We have been longing for you, my dear," he said. "I don't know what we should have done had they kept you in Montreal altogether."
Maud Barrington smiled, though there was a brightness in her eyes and a faint warmth in her cheek, for the sincerity of her uncle's welcome was evident.
"Yes," she said, "I have come back. It was very pleasant in the city, and they were all kind to me, but I think, henceforward, I would sooner stay with you on the prairie."