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Title: A Prairie Courtship
Author: Bindloss, Harold, 1866-1945
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Prairie Courtship" ***

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produced from scanned images of public domain material


A PRAIRIE COURTSHIP

BY HAROLD BINDLOSS

AUTHOR OF "MASTERS OF THE WHEAT-LANDS,"
"WINSTON OF THE PRAIRIE," "LORIMER OF
THE NORTHWEST," "ALTON OF SOMASCO,"
"THURSTON OF ORCHARD VALLEY," ETC.

[Illustration]

NEW YORK
FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
PUBLISHERS

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN
LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN

COPYRIGHT, 1910, BY FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY

PUBLISHED IN ENGLAND UNDER THE TITLE "ALISON'S ADVENTURE"


[Illustration: FAS Co  September, 1911]



CONTENTS

CHAPTER                                   PAGE
      I. A COLD WELCOME                      3
     II. MAVERICK THORNE                    17
    III. THE CAMP IN THE BLUFF              32
     IV. THE FARQUHAR HOMESTEAD             47
      V. THORNE GIVES ADVICE                59
     VI. THORNE CONTEMPLATES A CHANGE       72
    VII. A USEFUL FRIEND                    86
   VIII. A FIT OF TEMPER                    99
     IX. THE RAISING                       110
      X. THORNE RESENTS REPROOF            123
     XI. AN ESCAPADE                       135
    XII. HUNTER MAKES AN ENEMY             145
   XIII. NEVIS PICKS UP A CLUE             157
    XIV. WINTHROP'S LETTER                 167
     XV. ON THE TRAIL                      179
    XVI. CORPORAL SLANEY'S DEFEAT          189
   XVII. A COMPROMISE                      199
  XVIII. NEVIS'S VISITOR                   209
    XIX. THE MORTGAGE DEED                 219
     XX. HAIL                              231
    XXI. A POINT OF HONOR                  242
   XXII. ALISON SPOILS HER GLOVES          254
  XXIII. AN UNEXPECTED DISASTER            265
   XXIV. LUCY GOES TO THE RESCUE           275
    XXV. THE ONLY MEANS                    287
   XXVI. OPEN CONFESSION                   300
  XXVII. A HELPING HAND                    312
 XXVIII. THE RECKONING                     324
   XXIX. THE NEW OUTLOOK                   337



A PRAIRIE COURTSHIP



CHAPTER I

A COLD WELCOME


It was falling dusk and the long emigrant train was clattering,
close-packed with its load of somewhat frowsy humanity, through the last
of the pine forest which rolls westward north of the Great Lakes toward
the wide, bare levels of Manitoba, when Alison Leigh stood on the
platform of a lurching car. A bitter wind eddied about her, for it was
early in the Canadian spring, and there were still shattered fangs of
ice in the slacker pools of the rivers. Now and then a shower of cinders
that rattled upon the roof whirled down about her and the jolting brass
rail to which she clung was unpleasantly greasy, but the air was, at
least, gloriously fresh out there and she shrank from the vitiated
atmosphere of the stove-heated car. She had learned during the past few
years that it is not wise for a young woman who must earn her living to
be fastidious, but one has to face a good many unpleasantnesses when
traveling Colonist in a crowded train.

A gray sky without a break in it hung low above the ragged spires of the
pines; the river the track skirted, and presently crossed upon a wooden
bridge, shone in the gathering shadow with a wan, chill gleam; and the
bare rocky ridges that flitted by now and then looked grim and
forbidding. Indeed, it was a singularly desolate landscape, with no
touch of human life in it, and Alison shivered as she gazed at it with a
somewhat heavy heart and weary eyes. Her head ached from want of sleep
and several days of continuous jolting; she was physically worn out, and
her courage was slipping away from her. She knew that she would need the
latter, for she was beginning to realize that it was a rather hazardous
undertaking for a delicately brought up girl of twenty-four to set out
to seek her fortune in western Canada.

Leaning upon the greasy rails, she recalled the events which had led her
to decide on this course, or, to be more accurate, which had forced it
on her. Until three years ago, she had led a sheltered life, and then
her father, dying suddenly, had left his affairs involved. This she knew
now had been the fault of her aspiring mother, who had spent his by no
means large income in an attempt to win a prominent position in
second-rate smart society, and had succeeded to the extent of marrying
her other daughter well. The latter, however, had displayed very little
eagerness to offer financial assistance in the crisis which had followed
her father's death.

In the end Mrs. Leigh was found a scantily paid appointment as secretary
of a woman's club, while Alison was left to shift for herself, and it
came as a shock to the girl to discover that her few capabilities were
apparently of no practical use to anybody. She could paint and could
play the violin indifferently well, but she had not the gift of
imparting to others even the little she knew. A graceful manner and a
nicely modulated voice appeared to possess no market value, and the
unpalatable truth that nothing she had been taught was likely to prove
more than a drawback in the struggle for existence was promptly forced
on her.

She faced it with a certain courage, however, for her defects were the
results of her upbringing and not inherent in her nature, and she
forthwith sought a remedy. In spite of her mother's protests, her
sister's husband was induced to send her for a few months' training to a
business school, and when she left the latter there followed a
three-years' experience which was in some respects as painful as it was
varied.

Her handwriting did not please the crabbed scientist who first engaged
her as amanuensis. Her second employer favored her with personal
compliments which were worse to bear than his predecessor's sarcastic
censure; and she had afterward drifted from occupation to occupation,
sinking on each occasion a little lower in the social scale. In the
meanwhile her prosperous sister's manner became steadily chillier; her
few influential friends appeared desirous of forgetting her; and at last
she formed the desperate resolution of going out to Canada. Nobody,
however, objected to this, and her brother-in-law, who was engaged in
commerce, sent her a very small check with significant readiness, and by
some means secured her a position as typist and stenographer in the
service of a business firm in Winnipeg.

For the last three days she had lived on canned fruit and crackers in
the train, not because she liked that diet, but because the charges at
the dining-stations were beyond her means. She had now five dollars and
a few cents in her little shabby purse. That, however, did not much
trouble her, for she would reach Winnipeg on the morrow, and she
supposed that she would begin her new duties immediately. She was
wondering with some misgivings what her employers would be like, when a
girl of about her own age appeared in the doorway of the vestibule.

"Aren't you coming in? It's getting late, and I'm almost asleep," she
said.

Alison turned, and with inward repugnance followed her into the long
car. It was brilliantly lighted by big oil lamps, and it was undoubtedly
warm, for there was a stove in the vestibule, but the frowsy odors that
greeted her were almost overwhelming after the fresh night air. An aisle
ran down the middle of the car, and already men and women and peevish
children were retiring to rest. There was very little attempt at
privacy, and a few wholly unabashed aliens were partially disrobing
wherever they could find room for the operation. Some lay down upon
boards pulled forward between two seats, some upon little platforms that
let down by chains from the roof, and the car was filled with the
complaining of tired children and a drowsy murmur of voices in many
languages.

Alison sat down and glanced round at the passengers who had not yet
retired. In one corner were three young Scandinavian girls, fresh-faced
and tow-haired, of innocent and wholesome appearance, going out, as they
had unblushingly informed her in broken English, to look for husbands
among the prairie farmers. She was afterward to learn that such
marriages not infrequently turned out well. Opposite them sat a young
Englishman with a hollow face and chest, who could not stand his native
climate, and had been married, so Alison had heard, to the delicate girl
beside him the day before he sailed. They were going to Brandon on the
prairie, and had not the faintest notion what they would do when they
got there.

Close by were a group of big, blonde Lithuanians, hardened by toil, in
odoriferous garments; a black-haired Pole; a Jewess whose beauty had run
to fatness; and her greasy, ferret-eyed husband. Farther on a burly
Englishman, who had evidently laid in alcoholic refreshment farther back
down the line, was crooning a maudlin song. There was, however, an
interruption presently, for a man's head was thrust out from behind a
curtain which hung between the roof and one of the platforms above.

"Let up!" he said.

The song rose a little louder in response, and a voice with a western
intonation broke in.

"Throw a boot at the hog!"

"No, sir," replied the man above; "he might keep it; and I guess they're
most used to heaving bottles where he comes from."

The words were followed by a scuffling sound which seemed to indicate
that the speaker was fumbling about the shelf for something, and then he
added:

"This will have to do. Are you going to sleep down there, sonny?"

The Englishman paused to inform anybody who cared to listen that he
would go to sleep when he wanted and that it would take a train-load of
Canadians like the questioner, whose personal appearance he alluded to
in vitriolic terms, to prevent him from singing when he desired; after
which he resumed the maudlin ditty. Immediately there was a rustle of
snapping leaves, as a volume of the detective literature that is
commonly peddled on the trains went hurtling across the car. It struck
the woodwork behind the singer with a vicious thud, and he stood up
unsteadily.

"Now," he said, "I mean to show you what comes of insulting me."

He moved forward a pace or two, fell against a seat in an attempt to
avoid a toddling child, and, grabbing at his disturber's platform,
endeavored to clamber up to it. The chains rattled, and it seemed that
the light boards were bodily coming down when he felt with one hand
behind the curtain, part of which he rent from its fastenings. Then his
hand reappeared clutching a stockinged foot, and a bronzed-faced man in
shirt and trousers dropped from a neighboring resting-place.

"You get out!" thundered the Englishman. "Teach you to be civil when
I've done with him. Gimme time, and I'll settle the lot of you, and the
sausages"--he presumably meant the Lithuanians--"afterward."

The man above contrived to kick him in the face with his unembarrassed
foot, but he held on persistently to the other, and a general fracas
appeared imminent when the conductor strode into the car. The latter had
very little in common with the average English railway guard, for he was
a sharp-tongued, domineering autocrat, like most of his kind.

"Now," he demanded, "what's this circus about?"

The Englishman informed him that he had been insulted, and firmly
intended to wipe it out in blood. The conductor looked at him with a
faint grim smile.

"Go right back to your berth, and sleep it off," he advised.

He stood still, collectedly resolute, clothed with authority, and the
Englishman hesitated. He had doubtless pluck enough, and his blood was
up, but he had also the innate, ingrained capacity for obedience to duly
constituted power, which is not as a rule a characteristic of the
Westerner. Then the conductor spoke again:

"Get a move on! I'll dump you off into the bush if you try to make
trouble here."

It proved sufficient. The singer let the captive foot go and turned
away; and when the conductor left, peace had settled down upon the
clattering car. The little incident had, however, an unpleasant effect
on Alison, for this was not the kind of thing to which she had been
accustomed. It was a moment or two before she turned to her companion.

"I shall be very glad to get off the train to-morrow, Milly--and I
suppose you will be quite as pleased," she said.

The girl blushed. She was young and pretty in a homely fashion, and had
informed Alison, who had made her acquaintance on the steamer, that she
was to be married to a young Englishman on her arrival at Winnipeg.

"Yes," she replied; "Jim will be there waiting; I got a telegram at
Montreal. It's four years since I've seen him."

The words were simple, but there was something in the speaker's voice
and eyes which stirred Alison to half-conscious envy. It was not that
marriage in the abstract had any attraction for her, for the thought of
it rather jarred on her temperament, and it was, perhaps, not altogether
astonishing that she had of late been brought into contact chiefly with
the seamy side of the masculine character. Still, lonely and cast
adrift as she was, she envied this girl who had somebody to take her
troubles upon his shoulders and shelter her, and she was faintly stirred
by her evident tenderness for the man.

"Four years!" she said reflectively. "It's a very long time."

"Oh," declared Milly, "it wouldn't matter if it had been a dozen now.
He's the same--only a little handsomer in his last picture. Except for
that, he hasn't changed a bit--I read you some of his letters on the
steamer."

Alison could not help a smile. The girl's upbringing had clearly been
very different from her own, and the extracts from Jim's letters had
chiefly appealed to her sense of the ludicrous; but now she felt that
his badly expressed devotion rang true, and her smile slowly faded. It
must, she admitted, be something to know that through the four years,
which had apparently been ones of constant stress and toil, the man's
affection had never wavered, and that his every effort had been inspired
by the thought that the result of it would bring his sweetheart in
England so much nearer him, until at last, as the time grew rapidly
shorter, he had, as he said, worked half the night to make the rude
prairie homestead more fit for her.

"I suppose he wasn't rich when he went out?"

"No," replied Milly. "Jim had nothing until an uncle died and left him
three or four hundred pounds. When he came and told me of it I made him
go."

"You made him go?" exclaimed Alison, wondering.

"Of course! There was no chance for him in England; I couldn't keep him,
just to have him near me--always poor--and I knew that whatever he did
in Canada he would be true to me. The poor boy had trouble. His first
crop was frozen, and his plow oxen died--I think I told you he has a
little farm three or four days' ride back from the railroad." The girl's
face colored again. "I sold one or two things I had--a little gold watch
and a locket--and sent him the money. I wouldn't tell him how I got it,
but he said it saved him."

Alison sat silent for the next moment or two. She was touched by her
companion's words and the tenderness in her eyes. Alison's upbringing
had in some respects not been a good one, for she had been taught to
shut her eyes to the realities of life, and to believe that the smooth
things it had to offer were, though they must now and then be schemed
for, hers by right. It was only the last three years that had given her
comprehension and sympathy, and in spite of the clearer insight she had
gained during that time, it seemed strange to her that this girl with
her homely prettiness and still more homely speech and manners should be
capable of such unfaltering fidelity to the man she had sent to Canada,
and still more strange that she should ever have inspired him with a
passion which had given him power to break down, or endurance patiently
to undermine, the barriers that stood between them. Alison had yet to
learn a good deal about the capacities of the English rank and file,
which become most manifest where they are given free scope in a new and
fertile field.

"Well," she said, conscious of the lameness of the speech, "I believe
you will be happy."

Milly smiled compassionately, as though this expression of opinion was
quite superfluous; and then with a tact which Alison had scarcely
expected she changed the subject.

"I've talked too much about myself. You told me you had something to do
when you got to Winnipeg?"

"Yes," was the answer; "I'm to begin at once as correspondent in a big
hardware business."

"You have no friends there?"

"No," replied Alison; "I haven't a friend in Canada, except, perhaps,
one who married a western wheat-grower two or three years ago, and I'm
not sure that she would be pleased to see me. As it happens, my mother
was once or twice, I am afraid, a little rude to her."

It was a rather inadequate description of the persecution of an
inoffensive girl who had for a time been treated on a more or less
friendly footing and made use of by a certain circle of suburban society
interested in parochial philanthropy in which Mrs. Leigh had aspired to
rule supreme. Florence Ashton had been tolerated, in spite of the fact
that she earned her living, until an eloquent curate whose means were
supposed to be ample happened to cast approving eyes on her, when
pressure was judicially brought to bear. The girl had made a plucky
fight, but the odds against her were overwhelmingly heavy, and the
curate, it seemed, had not quite made up his mind. In any case, she was
vanquished, and tactfully forced out of a guild which paid her a very
small stipend for certain services; and eventually she married a
Canadian who had come over on a brief visit to the old country. How
Florence had managed it, Alison, who fancied that the phrase was in this
case justifiable, did not exactly know, but she had reasons for
believing that the girl had really liked the curate and would not
readily forgive her mother.

"Well," said Milly, "if ever you want a friend you must come to Jim and
me; and, after all, you may want one some day." She paused, and glanced
at Alison critically. "Of course, so many girls have to work nowadays,
but you don't look like it, somehow."

This was true. Although Alison's attire was a little faded and shabby,
its fit was irreproachable, and nobody could have found fault with the
color scheme. She possessed, without being unduly conscious of it, an
artistic taste and a natural grace of carriage which enabled her to wear
almost anything so that it became her. In addition to this, she was,
besides being attractive in face and feature, endued with a certain
tranquillity of manner which suggested to the discerning that she had
once held her own in high places. It was deceptive to this extent that,
after all, the places had been only very moderately elevated.

"I'm afraid that's rather a drawback than anything else," she said in
reference to Milly's last observation. "But it's a little while since
you told me that you were sleepy."

They climbed up to two adjoining shelves they drew down from the roof,
and though this entailed a rather undignified scramble, Alison wished
that her companion had refrained from a confused giggle. Then they
closed the curtains they had hired, and lay down, to sleep if possible,
on the very thin mattresses the railway company supplies to Colonist
passengers for a consideration. An attempt at disrobing would not have
been advisable, but, after all, a large proportion of the occupants of
the car were probably more or less addicted to sleeping in their
clothes.

There was a change when Alison descended early in the morning, in order
at least to dabble her hands and face in cold water, which would not
have been possible a little later. Even first-class Pullman passengers
have, as a rule, something to put up with if they desire to be clean,
and Colonist travelers are not expected to be endued with any particular
sense of delicacy or seemliness. As a matter of fact, a good many of
them have not the faintest idea of it. It was chiefly for this reason
that Alison retired to the car platform after hasty ablutions, and,
though it was very cold, she stayed there until the rest had risen.

The long train had run out of the forest in the night, and was now
speeding over a vast white level which lay soft and quaggy in the
sunshine, for the snow had lately gone. Here and there odd groves of
birches went streaming by, but for the most part there were only
leafless willow copses about the gleaming strips of water which she
afterward learned were sloos. In between, the white waste ran back,
bleached by the winter, to the far horizon. It looked strangely
desolate, for there was scarcely a house on it, but, at least, the sun
was shining, and it was the first brightness she had seen in the land of
the clear skies.

Most of the passengers were partly dressed, for which she was thankful,
when she went back into the car; and after one or two of them had kept
her waiting she was at length permitted to set on the stove the tin
kettle which was the joint property of herself and her companion. Then
they made tea, and after eating the last of their crackers and emptying
the fruit can, they set themselves to wait with as much patience as
possible until the train reached Winnipeg.

The sun had disappeared, and a fine rain was falling when at last the
long cars came clanking into the station amid the doleful tolling of the
locomotive bell. Alison, stepping down from the platform, noticed a man
in a long fur coat and a wide soft hat running toward the car. Then
there was a cry and an outbreak of strained laughter, and she saw him
lift her companion down and hold her unabashed in his arms. After that
Milly seized her by the shoulder.

"This is Jim," she announced. "Miss Alison Leigh. I told her that if
ever she wanted a home out here she was to come to us."

The man, who had a pleasant, bronzed face, laughed and held out his
hand.

"If you're a friend of Milly's we'll take you now," he said. "She ought
to have one bridesmaid, anyway. Come along and stay with her until you
get used to the country."

Milly blushed and giggled, but it was evident that she seconded the
invitation, and once more Alison was touched. The offer was frank and
spontaneous, and she fancied that the man meant it. She explained,
however, that she was beginning work on the morrow; and Jim, giving her
his address, presently turned away with Milly.

After that Alison felt very desolate as she stood alone amid the swarm
of frowsy aliens who poured out from the train. The station was cold and
sloppy; everything was strange and unfamiliar. There was a new
intonation in the voices she heard, and even the dress of the citizens
who scurried by her was different in details from that to which she had
been accustomed. In the meanwhile Jim and Milly had disappeared, and as
she had been told that the railroad people would take care of her
baggage until she produced her check, she decided to proceed at once to
her employers' establishment and inform them of her arrival.

A man of whom she made inquiries gave her a few hasty directions, and
walking out of the station she presently boarded a street-car and was
carried through the city until she alighted in front of a big hardware
store. Being sent to an office at the back of it she noticed that the
smart clerk looked at her in a curious fashion when she asked for the
manager by name.

"He's not here," he said. "Won't be back again."

Alison leaned against the counter with a sudden presage of disaster.

"How is that?" she asked.

"Company went under a few days ago. Creditors selling the stock up. I'm
acting for the liquidator."

Alison felt physically dizzy, but she contrived to ask another question
or two, and then went out, utterly cast down and desperate, into the
steadily falling rain. She was alone in the big western city, with very
little money in her purse and no idea as to what she should do.

She stood still for several minutes until she remembered having heard
that accommodation of an elementary kind was provided in buildings near
the station where emigrants just arrived could live for a time, at
least, free of charge, though they must provide their own food. As she
knew that every cent was precious now, she turned back on foot along the
miry street.



CHAPTER II

MAVERICK THORNE


Alison slept soundly that night. The blow had been so heavy and
unexpected that it had deadened her sensibility, and kindly nature had
her way. Besides, the very hard berth she occupied was at least still,
and she was not kept awake by the distressful vibration that had
disturbed her in the Colonist car. Awakening refreshed in the morning,
she sallied out to purchase provisions for the day, and was unpleasantly
astonished at the cost of them. She had yet to learn that a dollar goes
a very little way in a country where rents and wages are high.

Returning to the emigrant quarters which were provided with a
cooking-stove, she made a frugal breakfast, and then after a
conversation with an official who gave her all the information in his
power, she spent the day offering her services at stores and hotels and
offices up and down the city. Nobody, however, seemed to want her. It
was, she learned, a time of general bad trade, for the wheat harvest, on
which that city largely depends, had failed the previous year.

Day followed day with much the same result, until Alison, who never
looked back upon them afterward without a shiver, had at last parted
with most of her slender stock of garments to one of the Jew dealers who
then occupied a row of rickety wooden shacks near the station at
Winnipeg. He gave her remarkably little for them; and one night she sat
down dejectedly in the emigrant quarters to grapple with the crisis. By
and by a girl who had traveled in the same car and had spoken to her now
and then sat down beside her.

"Nothing yet?" she asked.

"No," said Alison wearily; "I have heard of nothing that I could turn my
hands to."

"Then," advised her companion, "you'll just have to do the same as the
rest of us. You're almost as good-looking as I am." She lowered her
voice a little. "I dare say you have noticed that those Norwegians have
gone?"

Alison had noticed that, and also that two or three lean and wiry men
with faces almost blackened by exposure to the frost had been hanging
about the emigrant quarters for a day or two preceding the disappearance
of the girls. The blood crept into her cheeks as she remembered it, but
her companion laughed, somewhat harshly.

"Oh," she explained, "they're married and gone off to farm; but what I
want to tell you is that I'm going to follow their example to-morrow.
It's quite straight. We're to be married in the morning. He says he's
got a nice house, and he looks as if he'd treat me decently." She laid
her hand on Alison's arm, and seemed to hesitate. "A neighbor, another
farmer, came in with him--and he hasn't found anybody yet."

Alison shrank from her, white in face now, with an almost intolerable
sense of disgust, but in another moment or two the blood surged into her
cheeks, and her companion made a half-ashamed gesture.

"Oh, well," she said, "I think you're foolish, but I won't say any more
about it. Besides, I had only a minute or two. Charley's waiting in the
street for me now."

She withdrew somewhat hastily, and Alison sat still, almost too troubled
to be capable of indignation, forcing herself to think. One thing was
becoming clear; she must escape from Winnipeg before the unpleasant
suggestion was made to her again, perhaps by some man in person, and go
on farther West. After all, she had one friend, the one her mother had
persecuted, living somewhere within reach of a station which she had
discovered was situated about three hundred miles down the line, and
Florence might take her in, for a time at least. She decided to set out
and try to find her the next day. Rising with sudden determination, she
walked across to the station to make inquiries about the train, and as
she reached it a man strode up to her. It was evident that he meant to
speak, and as there was just then no official to whom she could appeal,
she drew herself up and faced him resolutely. He was a young man, neatly
dressed in store clothes, though he did not look like an inhabitant of
the city, and he had what she could not help admitting was a pleasant
expression.

"You're Miss Leigh," he said, taking off his wide gray hat, and his
intonation betrayed him to be an Englishman.

"How did you learn my name?" Alison asked chillingly.

"I made inquiries," he confessed. "The fact is, I asked Miss Carstairs
to get me an introduction, and to tell the truth I wasn't very much
astonished when she said you wouldn't hear of it."

Alison recognized now that the man was the one her companion had alluded
to as her prospective husband's neighbor, and for a moment she felt
that she could have struck him. That feeling, however, passed. There was
a hint of deference in his attitude; he met the one indignant glance she
flashed at him, which was somehow reassuring, and since she could not
run away ignominiously she stood her ground.

"That's why I thought I'd make an attempt to plead my cause in person,"
he added.

"What do you want?" Alison asked in desperation, though she was quite
aware that this was giving him a lead.

The man's gesture seemed to beseech her forbearance.

"I'm afraid it will sound rather alarming, but in the first place I'd
better--clear the ground. The plain truth is that I want a wife."

"Oh," cried Alison, "how dare you say this to me!"

"Well," he answered quietly, "the fact that I expected you to look at it
in that way was one of the things that influenced me. A self-respecting
girl with any delicacy of feeling would naturally resent it; but I'm not
sure yet that it's altogether an insult I'm offering you. Let me own
that I've been here some little time, and that I've spent a good deal of
it in watching you." He raised his hand as he saw the indignation in her
eyes. "Give me a minute or two, and then if you think it justified you
can be angry. I want to say just this. We live in a pretty primitive
fashion on our hundred-and-sixty-acre holdings out on the prairie, and
conventions don't count for much with us. What is more to the purpose,
we are forced to make some irregular venture of this kind if we think of
marrying. Now, I have a comparatively decent place about two hundred
miles from here, and my wife would not have to work as hard as you would
certainly have to do in a hotel or store. That's to begin with. To go
on, I don't think I've ever been unkind to any one or any thing, and,
though it must seem a horrible piece of assurance, I said the day I saw
you get out of the train that you were the girl for me. I would do what
I could, everything I could, to make things smooth for you."

Alison felt that, strange as it seemed, she could believe him. The man
did not look as if he would be unkind to any one. What was more, he was
apparently a man of some education.

"Now," he added, "what I should like to do is this. I'd find you
quarters in a decent boarding-house, and just call and take you round to
show you the city for an hour or two each afternoon. I'd try to satisfy
you as to--we'll say my mode of life and character, and you could,
perhaps, form some idea of me. I don't want to form any idea of
you--I've done that already. Then if my offer appears as repugnant as
I'm afraid it does now, I'd try to take my dismissal in good part; and I
think I could find you a post in a creamery on the prairie, if you would
care for it."

He broke off, and Alison wondered at herself while he stood watching her
anxiously. Her anger and disgust had gone. She could see the ludicrous
aspect of the situation, but that was not her clearest impression, for
she felt that this most unconventional stranger was, after all, a man
one could have confidence in. Still, she had not the least intention of
marrying him.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "What you suggest is, however, quite out
of the question."

The man's face fell, and she felt, extraordinary as it seemed, almost
sorry that she had been compelled to hurt him; but once more he took off
his soft hat.

"Well," he said, "I suppose I must accept that, and--though I don't know
if it's a compliment--I shall go back alone. There's just another
matter. If you have any knowledge of business I could have you made
clerk at the creamery."

Urgent as her need was, Alison would not entertain the proposal. She
felt that it would be equally impossible to accept a favor from or to
live near him.

"No," she replied; "it is generous of you, but I am going West
to-morrow."

The man, saying nothing further, turned away, and she thought of him
long afterward with a feeling of half-amused good-will. It was the first
offer of marriage she had ever had, made in a deserted, half-lighted
station by a man to whom she had never spoken until that evening. She
was to learn, however, that the strangeness of any event naturally
depends very largely on what one has been accustomed to, and that one
meets with many things which at least appear remarkable when one
ventures out of the beaten track.

She went on with the west-bound train the next afternoon, and early in
the morning alighted at a wayside station which consisted of one wooden
shanty and a big water-tank. A cluster of little frame houses stood
beneath the huge bulk of two grain elevators beyond the unfenced track,
which ran straight as the crow flies across a bare, white waste of
prairie. As the train sped out along this and grew smaller and smaller
Alison stood forlornly beside the half-empty trunk which contained the
remnant of her few possessions. She had then just two dollars in her
pocket. It was a raw, cold morning, for spring was unusually late that
year, and a bitter wind swept across the desolate waste. In a minute or
two the station-agent came out of the shanty and looked at her with
obvious curiosity.

"I guess you've got off at the right place?" he said in a manner which
made the words seem less of a statement than an inquiry.

Alison asked him if he knew a Mr. Hunter who lived near Graham's Bluff,
and how it was possible to reach his homestead.

"I know Hunter, but the Bluff is quite a way from here," the man
replied. "The boys drive in now and then, and a freighter goes through
with a wagon about once a fortnight."

He saw the girl's face fall, and added, as though something had suddenly
struck him:

"There's a man in the settlement who said he was going that way to-day
or to-morrow, and it's quite likely that he'd drive you over. Guess you
had better ask for Maverick Thorne at the hotel."

Alison thanked him and, crossing the track, made for the rude frame
building he indicated. Her thin boots were very muddy before she reached
it, for there was no semblance of a street and the space between the
houses and elevators was torn up and deeply rutted by wagon wheels. She
now understood why a high plank sidewalk usually ran, as she had
noticed, along the front of the buildings in the smaller prairie towns.

It was with a good deal of diffidence that she walked into the hotel and
entered a long and very barely furnished room which just then was
occupied by a group of men.

Several of them wore ordinary city clothes and were, she supposed,
clerks or storekeepers in the little town; but the rest had
weather-darkened faces and their garments were flecked with sun-dried
mire and stained with soil, while the dilapidated skin coats thrown down
here and there evidently belonged to them. Some were just finishing
breakfast and the others stood lighting their pipes about a big rusty
stove. The place reeked of the smell of cooking and tobacco smoke, and
looked very comfortless with its uncovered walls and roughly boarded
floor. There was, however, no bar in it, and it was consoling to see a
very neat maid gathering up the plates.

"Is Mr. Maverick Thorne here just now?" she asked the girl.

She was unpleasantly conscious that the men had gazed at her with some
astonishment when she walked in, and it was clear that they had heard
her inquiry, because several of them smiled.

"Quit talking, Mavy. Here's a lady asking for you," said one, and a man
who had been surrounded by a laughing group moved toward her.

She glanced at him apprehensively, for after her recent experience she
was signally shy of seeking a favor from any of his kind. He was a tall
man, bronzed and somewhat lean, as most of the inhabitants of the
prairie seemed to be, and the state of his attire was not calculated to
impress a stranger in his favor. His long boots were caked with mire and
the fur was coming off the battered cap he held in one hand; his blue
duck trousers were rent at one knee and a very old jacket hung over his
coarse blue shirt. Still, his face was reassuring and he had whimsical
brown eyes.

"Mr. Thorne?" she said.

The man made her a respectful inclination, which was not what she had
expected.

"At your command," he replied.

She stood silent a moment or two, hesitating, and he watched her
unobtrusively. He saw a jaded girl in a badly creased and somewhat
shabby dress who nevertheless had an air of refinement about her which
he immediately recognized. Her face was delicately pretty and cleanly
cut, though it was weary and a little anxious then, and she had fine
hazel eyes. Still, the red-lipped mouth was somehow determined and there
was a hint of decision of character in the way she looked at him from
under straight-drawn brows. Her hair, as much as he could see of it, was
neither brown nor golden, but of a shade between, and he decided that
the contrast between the warm color in her cheeks and the creamy
whiteness of the rest of her face was a little more marked than usual,
as indeed it was, for Alison was troubled with a very natural
embarrassment just then.

"I want to go to Graham's Bluff," she said. "The man at the station told
me that you were driving there."

He did not answer immediately, and she awaited his reply in tense
anxiety. It was evident that she could not stay where she was, even if
she had been possessed of the means to pay for such rude accommodation
as the place provided, which was not the case. In the meanwhile it
occurred to the man that she looked very forlorn in the big, bare room,
and something in her expression appealed to him. He was, as it happened,
a compassionate person.

"Well," he replied, "I could take you, though as I've a round to make it
will be quite a long drive. I had thought of starting this afternoon,
but we had perhaps better get off in the next hour or so."

He turned to the girl who was gathering up the plates.

"Won't you try to get this lady some breakfast, Kristine?"

The girl said that she would see what she could do, but Alison was not
aware until afterward that it was only due to the fact that the man was
a favorite in the place that food was presently set before her. The
average Westerner gets through his breakfast in about ten minutes; and
as a rule the traveler who arrives at a prairie hotel a few minutes
after a meal is over must wait with what patience he can command until
the next is ready.

In any case, Alison was astonished when porridge and maple syrup, a thin
hard steak and a great bowl of potatoes, besides strong green tea and a
dish of desiccated apricots stewed down to pulp, were laid in front of
her. It was most unlike an English breakfast, but she was to learn that
there is very little difference between any of the three daily meals
served in that country. Its inhabitants, who rise for the most part at
sunup, do not require to be tempted by dainties, which is fortunate,
since they could not by any means obtain them, and in a land where the
liquor prohibition laws are generally applied and men work twelve and
fourteen hours daily, morning appetizers are quite unnecessary.

In the meanwhile Thorne and his companions had disappeared, for which
Alison was thankful, though they left an acrid reek of tobacco smoke
behind them; but when Kristine presently demanded fifty cents she
realized with a fresh pang of anxiety that she had now just a dollar and
a half in her possession, and she scarcely dared contemplate what might
happen if Florence Hunter should not be disposed to welcome her. Besides
this, there was the unpleasant possibility that the man might expect
more than she could pay him for driving her to Graham's Bluff, and it
was with some misgivings that she rose when he appeared an hour later to
intimate that the team was ready.

Going out with him she saw two rough-coated horses apparently
endeavoring to kick in the front of a high, four-wheeled vehicle, until
they desisted and backed it violently into the side of the hotel. There
are various rigs, as they term them--buckboards, sulkies and the humble
bob-sleds--in use in that country, but the favorite one is the narrow,
general-purpose wagon mounted on tall slender wheels, which will carry a
moderate load though light enough to go reasonably fast.

Thorne helped Alison up, and as he swung himself into the vehicle
several loungers hurled laughing questions at him.

"Aren't you going to trade that man the gramophone? You'd get him sure
in half an hour," called one.

"Webster wants a tonic that will fix his wooden leg," cried another; and
a third suggested that a Chinaman in the vicinity was open to purchase
some hair-restorer. Alison did not know then that, probably because he
wears only one tail of it, a Chinaman's hair usually grows without the
least assistance three feet long.

Thorne smiled at them and then, calling to Kristine, who was standing
near the door, he leaned down and handed her a bottle which he took from
an open case.

"I guess you haven't much use for anything of this kind, but that elixir
will make your cheeks bloom like peaches if you rub it in," he informed
her. "I sold some round Stanbury down the line not long ago and there
wasn't an unmarried girl near the place when I next came along."

"There was only two before, and one of them was cross-eyed," said a
grinning man.

Thorne, without answering this, told Alison to hold fast and flicked the
horses with the whip. They plunged forward at a mad gallop, scattering
clods of half-dried mud, and the wagon bounced violently into and out of
the ruts. It seemed to leap into the air when the wheels struck the
rails as they crossed the track, and then Thorne's arms grew rigid and
there was a further kicking and plunging as he pulled the team up
outside the little station shed. A man who appeared from within
condescended to hand Alison's light trunk up, which she did not know
then was a very great favor, and in another moment or two they were
flying out across the white waste of prairie.

It ran dead level, like a frozen sea, to where it met the crystalline
blueness that hung over it, for the grasses which had lain for months in
the grip of the iron frost shone in the sunlight a pale silvery gray.
There was not a trail of smoke or a house on it, only here and there a
formless blur that was in reality a bluff of straggling birches or a
clump of willows, and, to complete the illusion, when Alison looked
around by and by, the houses had sunk down beneath the rim and only the
bulk of the wheat elevators rose up like island crags against the sky.

It was, however, warm at last, and a wonderful fresh breeze which had
the quality of an elixir in it rippled the whitened grass. Alison felt
her heart grow lighter. The vast plain was certainly desolate, but it
had lost its forbidding grimness. It had no limit or boundary; one felt
free out there and cares and apprehensions melted in the sunshine that
flooded it. She began to understand why she had seen no pinched and
pallid faces in this new land. Its inhabitants laughed whole-heartedly,
looked one in the eyes, and walked with a quick, jaunty swing. They
seemed alert, self-confident, optimistic and quaintly whimsical. It was
hard to believe there was not some nook in it that she could fill.

In the meanwhile she was becoming more reassured about her companion.
She decided that his age was twenty-six and that he had a pleasant face.
His eyes were clear and brown and steady, his nose and lips clearly cut,
and there was a suggestive cleanness about his deeply bronzed skin which
was the result of a simple and wholesome life led out in the wind and
the sun. Alison was puzzled, however, by something in both his manner
and his voice that hinted at a careful upbringing and intelligence. It
certainly was not in keeping with his clothes or his profession, which
was apparently that of a pedler. She had already noticed the nerve and
coolness with which he controlled the half-broken team.

"I'm afraid you started before you were quite ready," she said at
length.

The man laughed.

"I might have planted a gramophone on to one of the boys and a few
bottles of general-purpose specifics among the rest. They are"--his eyes
twinkled humorously--"quite harmless. Anyway, I've no doubt I can unload
them on to somebody next time. So far, at least, I haven't any rivals in
this neighborhood."

"Then you sell things?"

"Anything to anybody. If I haven't got what the buyer wants I promise to
bring it next journey, or bewilder him with an oration until he gives
me a dollar for something he has no possible use for. That, however,
isn't a thing you can do very frequently, which is why some folks in my
profession fail disastrously. They can't realize that if you sell a man
what he doesn't want too often he's apt to turn out with a club on the
next occasion." He paused and sighed whimsically. "If I hadn't been
troubled with a conscience I could have been running a store by now.
That is, it must be added, if I had wanted to."

"You find a conscience handicaps you?" Alison inquired, for she was half
amused and half interested in him.

"I'm afraid it does. For instance, I came across a man with a badly
sprained wrist the other day and he offered me two dollars for anything
that would cure it. Now it would have been singularly easy to have
affixed a different label to my unrivaled peach-bloom cosmetic and have
supplied him with a sure-to-heal embrocation. As it was, I got my supper
at his place and recommended cold-water bandages. There was another man
I cured of a broken leg, and I resisted the temptation to brace him up
with hair-restorer."

"What remedy did you use for the broken leg?"

"Splints," said Thorne dryly, "after I'd set it."

"But isn't that a difficult thing? How did you know how to go about it?"

"Oh, I'd seen it done."

"On the prairie?"

"No," replied Thorne, with a rather curious smile; "in an Edinburgh
hospital."

Something in his manner warned her that it might not be judicious to
pursue her inquiries any further, though she was, without exactly
knowing why, a little curious upon the point. It occurred to her that if
he had been a patient in the hospital the injured man would in all
probability not have been treated in his sight, while it seemed somewhat
strange that he should now be peddling patent medicines in Canada had he
been qualifying for his diploma. He, however, said nothing more, and
they drove on in silence for a while.



CHAPTER III

THE CAMP IN THE BLUFF


They stopped in a thin grove of birches at midday for a meal which
Thorne prepared, and it was late in the afternoon when Alison, who ached
with the jolting, asked if Graham's Bluff was very much farther. It
struck her that the fact that she had not made the inquiry earlier said
a good deal for her companion's conversational powers.

"Oh, yes," he answered casually, "it's most of thirty miles."

Alison started with dismay.

"But--" she said and stopped, for it was evident that her misgivings
could not very well be expressed.

"We're not going through to-night," Thorne explained. "The team have had
about enough already, and there's a farmer ahead who'll take us in. If
we reach the Bluff by to-morrow afternoon it will be as much as one
could expect."

Alison did not care to ask whether the farmer was married, though as
there seemed to be singularly few women in the country she was afraid
that it was scarcely probable. There was, however, no doubt that she
must face the unusual and somewhat embarrassing situation.

"I had no idea it was a two days' drive," she said.

"It's possible to get through in the same day if you start early,"
Thorne replied. "I've a call to make, however, which is taking me a good
many miles off the direct trail. Anyway, if you hadn't come with me you
would have had to wait a week at the hotel."

"Do you know Mrs. Hunter?"

"Well," answered Thorne with a certain dryness, "we are certainly
acquainted. When you use the other term in England it to some extent
implies that you could be regarded as a friend of the person mentioned."

"I wonder whether you like her?" Alison was conscious that the speech
was not a very judicious one.

Thorne's eyes twinkled in a way that she had noticed already.

"I must confess that I liked her better when she first came to Canada.
She hadn't begun to remodel arrangements at her husband's homestead
then. Hunter, I understand, came into some money shortly before he
married her, and--" he paused with a little laugh--"most of my friends
are poor."

This was not very definite, but it tended to confirm the misgivings
concerning her reception which already troubled Alison. She noticed the
tact with which the man had refrained from making any inquiries as to
her business with Mrs. Hunter. Indeed, he said nothing for the next
half-hour, and then, as they reached the crest of a low rise, he pointed
to a cluster of what seemed to be ridiculously small buildings on the
wide plain below.

"That's as far as we'll go to-night," he said.

The buildings rapidly grew into clearer shape, until Alison recognized
that one was a diminutive frame house which looked as though it had been
made for dolls to live in. It rose abruptly from the prairie, without
sheltering tree or fence or garden; but near it there was a pile of
straw and two shapeless structures, which seemed to be composed of soil
or sods. Behind them the vast sweep of silvery gray grass was broken by
a narrow strip of ochre-tinted stubble.

Presently they reached the lonely homestead and a neatly dressed woman
with hard, red hands and a worn face appeared in the doorway when Thorne
helped Alison down. The girl felt sincerely pleased to see her.

"I've no doubt you'll take my companion, who's going on toward the Bluff
to-morrow, in for the night and let me camp in the barn," said Thorne.
"Is Tom anywhere around? I want to see him about a horse he talked of
selling."

The woman said that he had gone off to borrow a team of oxen and would
not be back until the next day, and then she led Alison into a little
roughly match-boarded room with an uncovered floor and very little
furniture except the big stove in the middle of it. A child was toddling
about the floor and another, a very little girl, lay with a flushed face
in a canvas chair. The woman asked Alison no questions, but set about
getting supper ready, and after a while Thorne, who had apparently been
putting up the team, came in. As he did so the child in the chair held
out her hands to him.

"Candies, Mavy," she cried. "Got some candies for me?"

Thorne picked her up and sat down with her on his knee, and taking a
parcel out of his pocket he unwrapped and handed some of its contents to
her. While she munched the sweetmeats he glanced at her mother
interrogatively.

"Yes," declared the woman, "I'm right glad you came. She's been like
this three or four days. I don't know what to do with her, or what's the
matter."

Thorne looked down at the child before he turned toward his hostess.

"Well," he said, "I have at least a notion. A little feverish, for one
thing."

He asked a question or two, and then held the child out to her mother.

"Will you take her while I get a draught mixed? I'm not sure that she'll
sit down again in her chair."

The child bore this out, for she would neither sit alone nor go to her
mother.

"If Mavy goes out I sure go along with him," she persisted.

The man got rid of her with some difficulty and, going out to where his
wagon stood, he came back with a little brass-strapped box in his hand.
He asked for some water and disappeared into an adjoining room, out of
which there presently rose the clink of glass and a slight rattling.
Then he called the woman, who gave the child to Alison, and when she
came back somewhat relieved in face she laid out the supper. It much
resembled the breakfast Alison had made at the hotel, only that strips
of untempting salt pork were substituted for the hard steak.

An hour or two later she was given a very rude bunk filled with straw
and a couple of blankets in an unoccupied room, and being tired out, she
slept soundly. Lying still when she awakened early the next morning she
heard the woman moving about the adjoining room until the outer door
opened and a man whose voice she recognized as Thorne's came in.

"I'll go through and look at the kiddie, if I may," he said.

Alison heard him cross the room, and when he came back his hostess
evidently walked toward the outer door of the house with him.

"You'll have to be careful of her for a few days, but if you give her
the stuff I left as I told you, she'll cause you no trouble then," he
said. "I'm sorry I didn't see Tom, but we'll have to get on after
breakfast."

"What am I to give you for the medicine?" the woman asked.

Alison, who listened unabashed, heard Thorne's laugh.

"Breakfast," he answered; "that will put us square. I've been selling
gramophones and little mirrors by the dozen right along the line, and
when I've struck a streak of that kind I don't rob my friends."

Though she did not know exactly why, Alison had expected such an answer,
and she remembered with a curious feeling that he had said his friends
were poor. She heard the woman thank him, and then a flush crept into
her face, for she certainly had not expected the next question.

"Are you going to quit the peddling and take up a quarter-section with
the girl?"

"No," laughed Thorne; "I don't know where you got that idea."

"She's your kind," replied his hostess, and this appeared significant to
Alison. "I've seen folks like her back in Montreal."

"It's quite likely," said Thorne. "She's going to Mrs. Hunter."

"Mrs. Hunter? Why didn't they send for her? What's her name?"

"I haven't a notion. She walked into Brown's hotel yesterday looking
played out and anxious, and said somebody had told her I was going to
the Bluff. As I felt sorry for her I started at once."

"Well," responded the woman, "I guess you couldn't help it. It's just
the kind of thing you would do."

Thorne apparently went out after this and Alison lay still for a time
while her hostess clattered about the room. She was troubled by what she
had heard, for although she recognized that she had need of it, there
was something unpleasant in the fact that she was indebted to this
stranger's charity. He had confessed that he was sorry for her. Rising a
little later she breakfasted with the others, and then, when Thorne went
out to harness his team, she diffidently asked the woman what she owed
her.

"Nothing," was the uncompromising reply.

"But--" Alison began, and the woman checked her.

"We're not running a hotel. You can stop right now."

Alison realized that expostulation would be useless, and this, as a
matter of fact, was in one respect a relief to her, for just then there
were but two silver coins in her possession. A few minutes later Thorne
helped her into the wagon and they drove away.

The prairie was flooded with sunlight, and it was no longer monotonously
level. It stretched away before her in long, billowy rises, which dipped
again to vast shallow hollows when the team plodded over the crest of
them, and here and there little specks of flowers peeped out among the
whitened grass or there was a faint sprinkling of tender green. The air
was cool yet, and exhilarating as wine. Alison, refreshed by her sound
sleep, rejoiced in it, and it was some time before she spoke to her
companion.

"I felt slightly embarrassed," she said. "That woman would let me pay
nothing for my entertainment. She can't have very much, either."

"She hasn't," replied Thorne. "Her husband had his crop hailed out last
fall. Still, you see, that kind of thing is a custom of the country.
They're a hospitable people, and, in a general way, when you are in need
of a kindness, you're most likely to get it from people who are as hard
up as you are." He paused with a whimsical smile. "One can't logically
feel hurt at the other kind for standing aside or shutting their eyes,
but when they proceed to point out that if you had only emulated their
virtues you would be equally prosperous, it becomes exasperating,
especially as it isn't true. So far as my observation goes, it isn't the
practice of the stricter virtues that leads to riches."

"Why didn't you say your experience?" Alison inquired. "It's the usual
word."

"It would suggest that I had tried the thing, and I'm afraid that I've
only watched other people. To get knowledge that way is considerably
easier. But I presume I was taking too much for granted in supposing
that you had--any reason for agreeing with my previous observation."

Alison felt that this was a question delicately put, so that if it
pleased her she could avoid a definite reply. She did not in the least
resent it, and something urged her to take this stranger into her
confidence.

"If you mean that I don't know what it is to be poor you are wrong," she
confessed. "At the present moment I'm unpleasantly close to the end of
my resources."

"But you said that you were going to Mrs. Hunter's."

"I don't know whether she will take me in. I shouldn't be astonished if
she didn't."

The man saw the warmth in her face and looked at her thoughtfully.

"Well," he said, "you have courage, and that goes quite a way out here.
I don't think you need be unduly anxious, in any case."

He flicked the team with his whip and by and by they reached a
straggling birch bluff on the crest of a steeper slope. A rutted trail
led between the trees, and as the team moved a little faster down the
dip the wagon jolted sharply. Then one of the beasts stumbled, plunged,
and recovered itself again, and Thorne, seizing Alison's arm as she was
almost flung from her seat, pulled them up and swung himself down.
Looking over the side she saw him stoop and lift one of the horse's
feet. It was a few minutes before he came back again.

"A badger hole," he explained. "Volador fell into it. An accident of
that kind makes trouble now and then."

He drove slowly for the next few miles, but, so far as Alison noticed,
the horse showed no sign of injury, and it was midday when they stopped
for a meal beside a creek which wound through a deep hollow. On setting
out again, however, the horse began to flag and Thorne, who got down
once or twice in the meanwhile, was driving at a walking pace when they
reached a birch bluff larger than the last one. He pulled the team up
and springing to the ground looked at Alison a few minutes later.

"Volador's going very lame," he said. "It would be cruelty to drive him
much farther."

Alison was conscious of a shock of dismay. Sitting in the wagon on the
crest of the rise she could look down across the birches upon a vast
sweep of prairie, and there was no sign of a house anywhere on it. It
almost seemed as if she must spend the night in the bluff.

"What is to be done?" she asked.

"Can you ride?"

Alison said she had never tried, and the man's expression hinted that
the expedient he had suggested was out of the question.

"Do you think you could walk sixteen miles?" he asked.

"I'm afraid I couldn't," Alison confessed, though if the feat had
appeared within her powers she would gladly have attempted it.

"Then you'll have to camp here in the wagon, though I can fix it up
quite comfortably."

He held up his hand.

"You may as well get down, and we'll set about making supper."

She was glad that he spoke without any sign of diffidence or hesitation,
which would have suggested that he expected her to be embarrassed by the
situation, though this was undoubtedly the case. It seemed to her that
his manner implied the possession of a certain amount of tact and
delicacy. For all that, she looked out across the prairie with her face
turned away from him when she reached the ground.

"Now," he said presently, handing down a big box, "if you will open that
and fill the kettle at the creek down there among the trees, I'll bring
some branches to make a fire."

She moved away with the kettle, and when she came back the horses had
disappeared and she could hear the thud of her companion's ax some
distance away in the bush. When he reappeared with an armful of dry
branches she had laid out a frying-pan, an enameled plate or two, a bag
of flour, a big piece of bacon, which, however, seemed to be termed pork
in that country, and a paper package of desiccated apples. She was
looking at them somewhat helplessly, for she knew very little about
cooking. Thorne made a fire between two birches which he hewed down for
the purpose, and laid several strips of pork in the frying-pan, which
she heard him call a spider. These he presently emptied out on to a
plate laid near the fire, after which he poured some water into a basin
partly filled with flour.

"Flapjacks are the usual standby in camp," he informed her. "If I'd
known we would be held up here I'd have soaked those apples. Do you mind
sprinkling this flour with a pinch or two of the yeast-powder in yonder
tin, though it's a thing a sour-dough would never come down to."

"A sour-dough?" inquired Alison, doing as he requested.

"An old-timer," explained Thorne, who splashed himself rather freely as
he proceeded to beat up the flour and water. "Sour-dough has much the
same significance as unleavened bread, only that our pioneers kept on
eating it more or less regularly in the land of promise. For all that, I
wouldn't wish for better bread than the kind still made with a
preparation of sour potatoes and boiled-down hops stirred in with the
flour. In this operation, however, the great thing is to whip fast
enough."

He splashed another white smear upon his jacket, and rubbed it with his
hand before he poured some of the mixture into the hot spider, out of
which he presently shook what appeared to be a very light pancake.
Three or four more followed in quick succession, and then he poured
water on to the green tea and handed Alison a plate containing two
flapjacks and some pork. She found them palatable. Even the desiccated
apples, which from want of soaking were somewhat leathery, did not come
amiss, and the flavor of the wood smoke failed to spoil the strong green
tea. Then Thorne poured a little hot water over the plates, and as there
was no vessel that would hold them, she overruled his objections when
she volunteered to go down and wash them thoroughly in the creek. When
she came back she found that he had made up a clear fire and spread out
a blanket as a seat for her.

"You are satisfied now?" he asked.

Alison smiled. She was astonished to find herself so much at ease with
him.

"Yes," she answered; "I felt that I could at least wash the plates. In a
way, it wasn't altogether my fault that I could do nothing else. You
see, I was never taught to cook."

"Isn't that rather a pity?" Thorne suggested.

"It's more," said Alison with what was in her case unusual warmth. "It's
an injustice. Still, there are thousands of us brought up in that way
yonder, and when some unexpected thing brings disaster we are left to
wonder what use we are to anybody. I suppose," she added, "the answer
must be--none."

Thorne expressed no opinion on this point, but presently took out his
pipe.

"You won't mind?" he asked. "I suppose they taught you something?"

"Yes," answered Alison; "accomplishments. I can play and sing
indifferently, and paint simple landscapes if there are no figures in
them--because figures imply serious study. I can follow a French
conversation if they don't speak fast, and read Italian with a
dictionary. Before any of these things will bring a girl in sixpence she
must do them excellently, and they seem very unlikely to be of the least
service in this part of Canada."

She was angry with herself for the outbreak as soon as she had spoken,
as it seemed absurd that she should supply a stranger with these
personal details; but the longing to utter some protest against the
half-education which had been merely a handicap during the last three
bitter years was too much for her. Thorne, however, made a sign of
sympathetic comprehension.

"Yes," he assented, "that kind of thing's rather a pity. Did you never
learn anything--practical?"

"Shorthand," replied Alison. "I can generally, though not always, read
what I've written, if it hasn't exceeded about eighty words a minute.
Then I can type about two-thirds as fast as one really ought to, and can
keep simple accounts so long as neatness is not insisted on. I naturally
had to learn all this after I left home. It seems to me that to bring up
English girls in such a way is downright cruelty."

Thorne laughed.

"It's not remarkably different in our case. There's a man in a town not
far along the line who used to shine at the Oxford Union and is now
uncommonly glad to earn a few dollars by his talents as an auctioneer;
that's how they estimate oratory on the prairie. There's another who
devoted most of his time at Cambridge to physical culture, and as the
result of it he gets pretty steady employment on the railroad track as a
ballast shoveler."

Then he changed his tone.

"Have you any idea as to what you will do if you don't stay with Mrs.
Hunter?"

"No," confessed Alison, somewhat ruefully.

"Well," said Thorne, "as I believe I mentioned, I don't think you need
worry about the matter. It's very probable that some of the small
wheat-growers' wives would be glad to have you."

"But I can't even sew decently."

The man's eyes twinkled.

"In a general way, they're too busy to be fastidious."

There was silence for a little after this and Alison cast one or two
swift unobtrusive glances at her companion, who lay smoking opposite her
on the other side of the fire. The sun now hung low above the great
white waste and the red light streamed in upon them both between the
leafless birches. Again she decided that he had a pleasant face and,
what was more, in spite of his attire, his whole personality seemed to
suggest a clean and wholesome virility.

She had seen that he could be gentle, in the sick child's case, and she
suspected that he could be generous, but there was something about him
that also hinted at force. Then she remembered some of the men with whom
she had been brought into unpleasant contact in the cities--many who
bore the unmistakable mark of the beast, the cheap swagger of others,
and the inane attempts at gallantries which some of the rest indulged
in. They were not all like that, she realized; there were true men
everywhere; but now that her first shrinking from the grim and lonely
land was lessening it seemed to her that it had, in some respects at
least, a more bracing influence on those who lived in it than that other
still very dear one on which she had turned her back. Then she realized
that she was, after all, appraising its inhabitants by a single
specimen. She had yet to learn that they are now and then a little too
aggressively proud of themselves in western Canada, though it must be
said that the boaster is usually ready to pour out the sweat of tensest
effort with ax and saw or ox-team to prove his vaunting warranted.

After a while the sun dipped and it grew chilly as dusk crept up from
the hazy east across the leagues of grass. Thorne brought her another
blanket to lay over her shoulders, and lying down again relighted his
pipe. There was not a breath of wind, and though she could hear the
knee-hobbled horses moving every now and then the silence became
impressive. She felt impelled to break it presently, for it seemed to
her that casual conversation would lessen the probability of the
somewhat unusual situation having too marked an effect on either of
them.

"How is it that you have so many provisions in your wagon?" she asked.

Thorne laughed.

"I live in it all summer."

"And you drive about selling things? Is it very remunerative?"

"No," admitted Thorne dryly; "I can't say that it is; but, you see, I
like it. I'm afraid that I've a rooted objection to staying in one place
very long, and while I can get a meal and the few things I need by
selling an odd bottle of cosmetic, a gramophone, or a mirror, I'm
content." He made a humorous gesture. "That's the kind of man I am."

Then he stood up.

"It's getting rather late and you'll find the wagon fixed up ready. If
you hear a doleful howling you needn't be alarmed. It will only be the
coyotes."

He disappeared into the shadows and Alison turned away toward the
wagon.



CHAPTER IV

THE FARQUHAR HOMESTEAD


When she reached the wagon Alison found it covered by a heavy waterproof
sheet which was stretched across a pole. Loose hay had been strewn
between a row of wooden cases and one side of the vehicle and the space
beneath the sheeted roof was filled with a faint aromatic odor, which
she afterward learned was the smell of the wild peppermint that grows in
the prairie grass. When she had spread one blanket on the hay the couch
felt seductively soft, and she sank into it contentedly. Tired as she
was, however, she did not go to sleep immediately, for it was the first
night she had ever spent in the open, and for a time the strangeness of
her surroundings reacted on her.

The front of the tent was open, and resting on one elbow she could see
the sinking fires still burning red among the leafless trees, and the
pale wisps of smoke that drifted among their spectral stems. At the foot
of the slope there was a wan gleam of water and beyond that in turn the
prairie rolled away, vast and dim and shadowy, with a silver half-moon
hanging low above its eastern rim. To one who had lived in the cities,
as she had done, the silence was at first so deep as to be almost
overwhelming, but by degrees she became conscious that it was broken by
tiny sounds. There was a very faint, elfin tinkle of running water, a
whispering of grasses that bent to the little cold breeze which had just
sprung up, and the softest, caressing rustle of the lace-like birch
twigs. Then, as the moon rose higher the vast sweep of wilderness and
sky gathered depth of color and became a wonderful nocturne in blue and
silver.

In the meanwhile a pleasant warmth was creeping through her wearied body
and she began to wonder with a sense of compunction how many blankets
Thorne possessed, and where he was. It was at least certain that he was
nowhere near the fire, for she had carefully satisfied herself on that
point. Then a wild, drawn-out howl drifted up to her across the faintly
gleaming prairie and she started and held her breath, until she
remembered that Thorne had said there was no reason why she should be
alarmed if she heard a coyote. He was, she felt, a man one could
believe. The beast did not howl again, but she continued to think of her
companion as her eyes grew heavy. There was no doubt that he had a
pleasant voice and a handsome face. Then her eyes closed altogether and
her yielding elbow slipped down among the hay.

The sun was where the moon had been when she opened her eyes again.
Climbing down from the wagon she saw no sign of Thorne. A bucket filled
with very cold water, however, stood beneath a tree, where she did not
remember having noticed it on the previous evening, and a towel hung
close by. A few minutes later she took down the towel and glanced at it
dubiously. It was by no means overclean and she wondered with misgivings
what the man did with it. It seemed within the bounds of possibility
that he dried the plates on it and, what was worse, that he might do so
again. In the meanwhile, however, the hair on her forehead was dripping
and the water was trickling down her neck, so she shut her eyes tight
and applied the towel, after which she concealed it carefully in the
wagon.

A quarter of an hour later Thorne appeared and she was relieved upon one
point at least. Whether he had slept with blankets or without them, he
did not look cold, and his appearance indeed suggested that he had been
in the neighboring creek. She was astonished to notice that he had
brushed himself carefully and had sewed up the rent in the knee of his
overalls. Clothes-brushes, she correctly supposed, were scarce on the
Canadian prairie, but it seemed probable that he would require a brush
of some kind to clean his horses.

"If you wouldn't mind laying out breakfast I'll make a fire and catch
the team," he said. "It's a glorious morning; but once the winter's over
we have a good many of them here."

"Yes," assented Alison; "everything is so delightfully fresh."

His eyes rested on her for a moment and she was unpleasantly conscious
that her dress was badly creased and crumpled as well as shabby; but he
did not seem to notice this.

"That," he said, "is what struck me a minute or two ago."

He busied himself about the fire, and when he strode away through the
bluff in search of the horses she heard him singing softly to himself.
She recognized the aria, and wondered a little, for it was not one that
could be considered as popular music.

They had breakfast when he came back and both laughed when she prepared
the flapjacks under his direction. She felt no restraint in this
stranger's company. Indeed, she was conscious of a pleasant sense of
camaraderie, which seemed the best name for it, though she had hired
him to drive her to Mrs. Hunter's and was very uncertain as to whether
she could pay him.

He harnessed the team when the meal was over and explained that although
Volador was still lame they might contrive to reach Graham's Bluff at
sundown by proceeding by easy stages, and Alison tactfully led him on to
talk about himself as they drove away. Though there were one or two
points on which he was reserved, he displayed very little diffidence,
which, however, is a quality not often met with among the inhabitants of
western Canada.

"Well," he said with an air of whimsical reflection in answer to one
question, "I suppose my chief complaint is an excess of individuality.
They beat it out of you with clubs in England, unless you're
rich--really rich--when you can, of course, do anything. On the other
hand, the man who is merely stodgily prosperous is hampered by more
rules than anybody else. This is, I must explain, another notion I've
arrived at by observation and not from experience."

"One supposes that a certain amount of uniformity and subordination is
necessary to progress," commented Alison.

"Oh, yes," agreed Thorne; "that's the trouble. Progress marches with
massed battalions and makes so much dust that it's not always able to
see where it's going. Perhaps it's that or the bewildering change of
leaders that renders so much countermarching unavoidable."

"Then you prefer to act with the vedettes and skirmishers?"

"No," said Thorne; "not that exactly. Some of us are more like the
camp-followers. We collect our toll on the booty and when that's too
difficult we live on the country. After all, mine's an ancient if not a
very respectable calling. There were always pilgrims, minstrels and
pedlers."

"It can't be a luxurious life."

Thorne looked amused.

"Are you quite sure you didn't mean a useful one?"

Alison felt uncomfortable, because this idea had been in her mind.

"I'll answer the question, anyway," continued Thorne. "These people and
those in the wheat-growing lands across the frontier work twelve and
fourteen hours every day. It's always the same unceasing toil with
them--they have no diversions. We go round and carry the news from place
to place, tell them the latest stories, and now and then sing to them.
We don't tax them too much either--a supper when they're poor--a dollar
for a mirror or a bottle of elixir, which it must be confessed most of
them have no possible use for."

"Did you never do anything else?" Alison inquired; "that is, in Canada?"

"Oh, yes," replied her companion. "I was clerk in an implement store
which I walked out of at its proprietor's request after an attack of
injudicious candor. You see, a rather big farmer came in one day and
spent most of the morning examining our seeders and pointing out their
defects. Then he inquired why we had the assurance to demand so much for
our implement when he could buy a very much better one several dollars
cheaper. I asked him if he was sure of that, and when he said he was I
suggested that it would be considerably wiser to go right away and buy
it instead of wasting his time and mine. The proprietor desired to know
how we expected him to make a living if we talked to customers like
that, and I pointed out that we couldn't do so anyway by answering
insane questions."

Alison laughed delightedly. She felt that this was not mere rodomontade,
but that the man was perfectly capable of doing as he had said.

"Had you any more experiences of the same kind?" she asked.

"I was shortly afterward projected out of a wheat broker's office."

"Projected?"

Thorne grinned.

"I believe that describes it. You see, they were three to one; but I
took part of the office fittings along with me. I must own that I lost
my temper and insulted them."

"But why did you do so?"

"Well," answered Thorne reflectively, "I like the Colonial, and
especially the Westerner, though he's rather fond of insisting on his
superiority over the rest of mankind. One gets used to this, but it now
and then grows galling when he compares himself with the folks who come
out from the old country. On the day in question the trouble arose from
a repetition of the usual formula that if it wasn't for the ocean they'd
have the whole scum of Europe coming over. I, however, shook hands with
the man who said it not long afterward, and he told me that after I had
gone, which was how he expressed it, they sat down and laughed until
they ached, thinking what the wheat broker, who was out on business,
would say when he saw his office."

Alison was genuinely amused and she ventured another question.

"Did you leave your situations in England in the same fashion?"

The man's face darkened for a moment.

"As it happened, I hadn't any."

Alison turned the conversation into what promised to be a safer channel,
and they drove along very slowly all morning. When they set out again
after a lengthy stop at noon Thorne asked her if she would mind walking
for a while, as Volador was becoming very lame. He added that he would
make for an outlying homestead, where they would find entertainment,
instead of Graham's Bluff, and that they should reach Mrs. Hunter's on
the following day.

It was six o'clock in the evening when they arrived at a frame house
which stood, roofed with cedar shingles, in the shelter of a big birch
bluff. There was a very rude sod-built stable, a small log barn, and a
great pile of straw, which appeared to be hollow inside and used as a
store of some kind. A middle-aged man with a good-humored look met them
at the door, and his wife greeted Alison in a kindly fashion when Thorne
explained the cause of their visit. Indeed, Alison was pleased with the
woman's face and manner, though, like many of the small wheat-growers'
wives, she looked a little worn and faded. Though the men toil
strenuously on the newly broken prairie, the heavier burden not
infrequently falls to the woman's share.

Farquhar, their host, went out to work after supper but came back a
little before dusk, and when they sat out on the stoop together, Thorne
got his banjo and sang twice at Mrs. Farquhar's request; once some
amusing jingle he had heard in Winnipeg, and afterward "Mandalay."

The song was not new to Alison, but she fancied that she had never heard
it rendered as Maverick Thorne sang it then. It was not his voice,
though that was a fine one, but the knowledge that had given him power
of expression, which held her tense and still. This man knew and had
indulged in and probably suffered for the longing for something that was
strange and different from all that his experience had touched before.
He was one of the free-lances who could not sit snugly at home; and in
her heart Alison sympathized with him.

She had never seen the glowing, sensuous East and South, but the new
West lay open before her in all its clean, pristine virility. A vast
sweep of sky that was duskily purple eastward stretched overhead, a
wonderful crystalline bluish green, until it changed far off on the
grassland's rim to a streak of smoky red. Under it the prairie rolled
back like a great silent sea. There was something that set the blood
stirring in the dew-chilled air, and the faint smell of the wood smoke
and the calling of the wild fowl on a distant sloo intensified the sense
of the new and unfamiliar. One could be free in that wide land, she
felt; and as she thought of the customs, castes, and conventions to
which one must submit at home, she wondered whether they were needed
guides and guards or mere cramping fetters. They seemed to have none of
them in western Canada.

She said "Thank you!" when Thorne laid down his banjo, and felt that the
spoken word had its limits, though she was careful not to look at him
directly just then, and soon afterward she retired. This house was
larger and much better furnished than the one she had last slept in,
though she supposed that it would have looked singularly comfortless and
almost empty in England. There was, for one thing, neither a curtain at
a window nor a carpet on the floor.

When she joined the others at breakfast the next morning her host
informed Thorne that if they could wait until noon he could lend him a
horse to replace the lame Volador. He had, he explained, sent his hired
man off with a team on the previous day for a plow which was being
repaired by a smith who lived at a distance, and he had some work for
the second pair that morning. The men went out together when breakfast
was over, and Mrs. Farquhar sat down opposite Alison after she had
cleared the table.

"Thorne tells me you are going to Mrs. Hunter's, though you don't know
yet whether you will stay with her or not," she said.

It occurred to Alison that this was a tactful way of expressing it,
though she was not sure that the delicacy was altogether Thorne's, for
she had no doubt that her hostess had once been accustomed to a much
smoother life in the Canadian cities.

"No," she replied, "I really can't tell until I get there."

"Then, in case you don't decide to stay, we should be glad to have you
here."

Alison was astonished, but in spite of her usual outward calm there was
a vein of impulsiveness in her, and she leaned forward in her chair.

"I don't suppose you know that I am quite useless at any kind of
housework," she said. "I can't wash things, I can't cook, and I can
scarcely sew."

Mrs. Farquhar smiled.

"When I first came out here from Toronto it was much the same with me,
and there was nobody to teach me. It's fortunate that men are not very
fastidious in this part of Canada. In any case I had, perhaps, better
mention that while I would be glad to pay you at the usual rate and you
would be required to help, you would live with us as one of the family.
I want a companion. With my husband at work from sunup until dark, it's
often lonely here. Besides, the arrangement would give you an
opportunity for learning a little and finding out how you like the
country."

Alison thought hard for a few moments. What she was offered was a
situation as a servant, but she decided that it would be more pleasant
here than she supposed it must generally be in England. She felt
inclined to like this woman, and her husband's manner was reassuring.
There was no doubt that they would treat her well.

"I'm afraid that in a little while you would be sorry you had suggested
it," she said.

"The question is, would you like to try?"

"I'm quite sure of that," declared Alison impulsively. "I don't suppose
you know what it is to be offered a resting-place when you arrive,
feeling very friendless and forlorn, in a new country."

Mrs. Farquhar smiled.

"Then if you don't care to stay with Mrs. Hunter you must come straight
back here. It would, perhaps, be better if you went to her in the first
instance."

"But don't you want any references?"

"I don't think I do. In this case, your face is sufficient, and from
experience we don't attach any great importance to vouchers of the other
kind. Harry sometimes says that when a man is found to be insufferable
in the old country they give him a walletful of letters of introduction,
crediting him with all the virtues, and send him out to us. Besides,
even if you were really quite dreadful, your friends wouldn't go back on
you when I wrote to them."

Alison laughed, and as the hired man appeared at noon with Farquhar's
team she drove away with Thorne soon after dinner. When they had left
the house behind she turned to him.

"You have been talking about me to Mrs. Farquhar," she said.

"Yes," admitted Thorne with a smile, "I must confess that I have. Is
there any reason why you should be angry?"

"I'm not," Alison informed him. "But why did you do it?"

"I'm far from sure that you will like Mrs. Hunter. In fact, I'd be a
little astonished if you did; and if you were a relative of mine I'd try
to make you stay with Mrs. Farquhar."

"I wonder whether that means that Mrs. Hunter doesn't like you?"

Thorne laughed good-humoredly.

"Oh, I'm much too insignificant a person to count either way. Mrs.
Hunter is what you might call _grande dame_."

"Have you any of them in western Canada?"

"Well," answered Thorne, with an air of whimsical reflection, "there are
certainly not many, and in spite of it the country gets along pretty
well. We have, however, quite a few women of excellent education and
manners who don't seem to mind making their children's dresses and
washing their husband's clothes. Anyway, if she's at home, you can form
your own opinion of Florence Hunter in an hour or two."

"Is she often away?"

"Not infrequently. Every now and then she goes off to Winnipeg, Toronto,
or Montreal."

"But what about her husband? Can he leave his farm?"

"Hunter," Thorne replied dryly, "invariably stays at home."

His manner made it clear that he intended to say no more on that
subject, and they talked about other matters while the wagon jolted on
across the sunlit prairie.



CHAPTER V

THORNE GIVES ADVICE

It was early in the evening when they drove into sight of the Hunter
homestead, and as they approached it Alison glanced about her with some
curiosity. Long rows of clods out of which rose a tangle of withered
grass tussocks stretched across the foreground. Thorne told her that
this was the breaking, land won from the prairie too late for sowing in
the previous year. Farther on, they skirted another stretch of more
friable and cleaner clods, shattered and mellowed by the frost, and then
they came to a space of charred stubble. Beyond that, a waste of yellow
straw stood almost knee-high, and Thorne said that as the latter had no
value on the prairie it was generally burned off to clear the ground for
the following crop. He added that wheat was usually grown on the same
land for several years without any attempt at fertilization.

Alison, however, knew nothing of farming, and it was the house at which
she gazed with most interest. It stood not far from a broad shallow lake
with a thin birch bluff on one side of it, a commodious two-storied
building with a wide veranda. It was apparently built of wood, but its
severity of outline was relieved by gaily picked-out scroll-work and
lattice shutters; and in front of the entrance somebody had attempted to
make a garden. The stables and barns behind it were new frame buildings,
and there were wire fences stretching back from these. After her
experience of the last few days, Alison had not expected to see anything
like it in western Canada.

Then she began to wonder whether Florence Hunter's life in the West had
made much change in her. She recollected her as a pretty but rather
pallid girl, with a manner a little too suggestive of self-confidence,
and a look of calculating tenacity in her eyes. Alison had continued to
treat her as a friend after she had incurred the hostility of Mrs.
Leigh, but she realized that it was chiefly Florence's courage and
resourcefulness that had impressed her, and not her other qualities. She
had not seen Florence's husband.

A few minutes later Thorne drove up to the front of the house, and
Alison saw a woman, who hitherto had been hidden by one of the pillars,
lying in a canvas chair on the veranda with a book in her hand. The
sunlight that streamed in upon her called up fiery gleams in her red
hair and shimmered on her long dress of soft, filmy green. Alison
promptly decided that the latter had come from New York or Montreal.
There was no doubt that Florence Hunter's appearance was striking,
though her expression even in repose seemed to indicate a dissatisfied,
exacting temperament. At length she heard the rattle of wheels, for she
rose.

"Alison, by all that's wonderful!" she cried.

There was astonishment in the exclamation, but Alison could not convince
herself that there was any great pleasure, and it was with a certain
sense of constraint that she permitted Thorne to help her down. He
walked with her up to the veranda, and acknowledged Mrs. Hunter's casual
greeting by lifting his hat.

"Sit down," said the latter to Alison, pointing to another chair. "Where
have you sprung from?"

"From Winnipeg. I came out to earn my living, and nobody seemed to want
me there."

Florence laughed.

"You earn your living! It's clear that something very extraordinary must
have happened; but we'll talk of that after supper. So you decided to
come to me?"

It was, Alison realized, merely a question and nothing more.

"I'm afraid I was a little presumptuous," she replied. "There is, of
course, no reason why you should have me."

Her companion looked at her with a curious smile.

"You are still in the habit of saying things of that kind? I suppose it
runs in the family."

Alison winced, for she remembered that her mother could on occasion be
painfully rude.

"You haven't said anything to convince me that I was wrong."

"Was it necessary?" Florence asked languidly. "I was never very
effusive, as you ought to know. Of course, you'll stay here as long as
it pleases you."

The invitation was clear enough, but there was no warmth in it; and
Alison was relieved when a man came up the steps. He was rather short in
stature, and there was nothing striking in his appearance. He had a
quiet brown face and very brown hands, and he had evidently been
working, for he wore long boots, a coarse blue shirt, and blue duck
overalls. He shook hands with Thorne cordially, and then turned toward
Alison.

"My husband," said Florence. "Miss Leigh, Elcot; I used to know her in
England. She has just arrived."

Alison noticed that Hunter favored her with a glance of grave scrutiny,
but he did not seem in the least astonished, nor did he glance at his
wife. This indicated that he was in the habit of accepting without
question anything that the latter did. Then he held out his hand.

"I'm very glad to see you, and we'll try to make you comfortable," he
said with a smile which softened the girl's heart toward him. Then he
turned to his wife.

"Is supper ready? I want to haul in another load of wood before it's
dark."

"It should have been ready now. I don't know what they're doing inside,"
was the careless reply.

It occurred to Alison that her hostess might have gone to see, but she
was half annoyed with Thorne when she noticed his badly dissembled grin.
Then Hunter inquired if she had had a comfortable journey.

"Not very," she answered. "You see, I traveled Colonist."

"How dreadful!" Florence exclaimed.

Her husband smiled at Alison.

"It depends," he said. "It's good enough if you can wait until after the
steamboat train. I used to travel that way myself once upon a time; I
had to do it then."

"Elcot," his wife explained, "is one of the most economically minded men
living. He grudges every dollar unless it's for new implements."

Hunter did not contradict her. He and Thorne left the veranda, and soon
after they returned from leading the team to the stable, a trim maid
appeared to announce that supper was ready. Hunter led Alison into a big
and very simply furnished room. A long table ran down one side, and half
a dozen men attired much as Hunter was took their places about the
uncovered lower half of it. There was a cloth on the upper portion, with
a gap of several feet between its margin and the nearest of the
teamsters' seats. It occurred to Alison, who had been told that the
hired man generally ate with his employer on the prairie, that this
compromise was rather pitiful, though she did not know that Hunter had
once or twice had words with his wife on the question. As the meal,
which was bountiful, proceeded, he now and then spoke to the men; but
Florence confined her attention to Alison, until at length she addressed
Thorne.

"To what do we owe the pleasure of seeing you?" she inquired.

"In the first place, I came to bring Miss Leigh; she hired me."

Thorne laid a very slight stress upon the hired. It seemed to indicate
that he recognized his station in relation to a guest of the house, and
Alison felt a little uncomfortable. For one thing, though that did not
quite account for her uneasiness, she remembered that she had not paid
him.

"Then," he added, "I called in the usual course of business. I have for
disposal a few tablets of very excellent English soap, a case of
peach-bloom cosmetic, and one or two other requisites of the kind."

Alison regretted that she laughed, but she felt that Florence's attitude
toward the man had rendered the thrust admissible, and she saw a faint
smile in Hunter's eyes. Her hostess, however, was equal to the occasion.

"If they're not as rubbishy as usual, I'll buy a few things and give
them to the maids. Is that the whole of your stock?"

"I've a box of new gramophone records."

Florence looked at her husband, and Alison fancied that she had noticed
and meant to punish him for his smile.

"You'll buy them, Elcot."

"You haven't tried the other lot," Hunter protested. "Besides, the
instrument seemed to have contracted bronchitis when I last had it out."

"It will do to amuse the boys when the nights get dark," replied
Florence. Then she turned to Alison. "One could hardly get a dollar out
of him with a lever."

"Doesn't it depend on the kind of lever you use?" Alison asked.

Thorne grinned, but Florence answered unhesitatingly.

"Oh, in the case of the average man it doesn't matter, so long as it's
strong enough and you have a fulcrum. We'll admit that the type can be
generous, but it's only when it throws a reflected luster on themselves.
Otherwise judicious pressure is necessary."

"Are you going to camp with us to-night?" Hunter asked Thorne.

"No," answered the latter. "I have some business at the Bluff, and I
want to get off again early to-morrow."

In a few more minutes the teamsters rose, and Hunter, making excuses to
Alison, went out with them. Florence looked after them, and then turned
to the girl with a disdainful lifting of her brows.

"Cormorants," she commented. "They've been very slow to-night. Eight
minutes is about their usual limit. I don't think they even look at
their food--it just goes down. I have once or twice suggested to Elcot
that he is wasting his money by giving them the things he does. It's
difficult, though, to make him listen to reason."

Alison said nothing, and after a while Florence rose.

"We'll have a talk on the veranda while they clear away."

She pointed to a chair when they reached the veranda, and then sank
languidly into one close by.

"Tell me all about it," she said.

It was not a pleasant task to Alison, for it entailed the mention of her
father's death and an account of the difficulties that had followed, but
she spoke for a few minutes, and her companion casually expressed her
sympathy.

"I can understand why you came out," she added with a bitter laugh.
"When I first met you I was earning just enough to keep me on the border
line between respectability and--the other thing--that is by the
exercise of the most unpleasant self-denial. What I should have done
without the extra twelve pounds your mother's guild paid me for playing
the piano twice a week at the working girls' club I don't like to think.
That is why I made no complaint when they added to my duties the
teaching of a class on another evening and the collecting of the
subscriptions to the sewing society. Your mother, I heard, informed the
committee that in her opinion twelve pounds was a good deal too much,
and I believe she added that such a rate of payment was apt to make a
young woman of my class far too independent."

Alison's cheeks burned, for she knew that Florence had been correctly
informed; but she had no thought of mentioning that she had
expostulated with her mother on the subject.

"Well," said Florence, "it was not your fault, and I'm sorry for you. I
suppose you had--difficulties--with some of your employers? No doubt one
or two of them tried to make love to you?"

Alison made a little gesture of disgust.

"Oh," laughed Florence, "I know. You probably flared out at the
offender, and either got your work found fault with or lost your
situation. I didn't. After all, a smile costs nothing, though it's a
little difficult now and then. In my case, it led to shorter hours,
higher wages, an occasional Saturday afternoon trip to the country. I
got what I could, and in due time it was generally easy to turn round
upon and get rid of the provider. Still, it was just a little
humiliating with a certain type of man, and it was a relief when Elcot
took me out of it. I try to remember that I owe him that when he gets
unusually wearisome, though one must do him the justice to admit that he
never refers to it."

Alison sat silent, shrinking from her companion. She had faced a good
many unpleasant things during the past few years, but they had wrought
but little change in her nature. The part her hostess had played would
have been a wholly hateful one to her.

"Where did you come across Thorne?" Florence asked.

Alison told her, and she looked thoughtful.

"When was that? I supposed you had come straight from the station."

"Four days ago," answered Alison unhesitatingly, though she would have
much preferred not to mention it.

"Four days! And you have been driving round the country since then with
Thorne?"

Alison felt her face grow hot, but her answer was clear and sharp.

"Of course; I couldn't help it. We should have been here earlier, only a
horse went lame. In any case, after what you have told me, I cannot see
why you should adopt that tone."

Florence raised her brows.

"My dear," she said, "I was a working woman of no account in England
when I first met you--but things are rather different now. It doesn't
exactly please me that a guest of mine should indulge in an escapade of
this description. Doesn't it strike you as hardly fitting?"

Hunter, who had come up the steps unobserved, stopped beside them just
then.

"Rubbish!" he said curtly. "It was unavoidable. I've had a talk with
Leslie; he told me exactly what delayed him."

Florence waved her hand.

"Oh," she replied, "let it go at that. I couldn't resist the temptation
of sticking a pin or two into Alison. What has brought you back?"

"We broke the wagon pole. It didn't seem worth while to put in a new one
to-night."

He moved away and left them, and Alison turned to her companion.

"Did he mean Mr. Thorne by Leslie?"

"Of course."

"But isn't his name Maverick?"

"Did you call him that?"

"I can't remember, though I suppose I must have done so. Some of the
others certainly did."

Florence looked amused.

"I suppose you haven't an idea what a maverick is?"

Alison said that she had none at all, and her companion proceeded to
inform her.

"It's a steer that won't feed and follow tamely with the herd, but goes
off or gets wild and smashes things, and generally does what's least
desirable. As you have spent some days with him you will no doubt
understand why they have fixed the name on Thorne."

Alison glanced at her with a sparkle in her eyes.

"I can only say this. I have met a few men one could look up to--after
all, there are good people in the world--but I haven't yet come across
one who showed more tact and considerate thoughtfulness than Maverick
Thorne."

Florence was evidently amused at this--indeed, to be sardonically amused
at something seemed her favorite pose.

"I shouldn't like to disturb that kind of optimism--and here he is; I'll
leave you to talk to him. As it happens, Elcot looks rather grumpy, and
the mail-carrier has just brought out a sheaf of my bills from Winnipeg
which he hasn't seen yet."

She sailed away with a rustle of elaborate draperies, and Thorne sat
down.

"I'm going on to the bluff in half an hour," he informed her.

Alison was conscious of a certain hesitation, but there was something to
be said.

"How much do I owe you?" she asked.

"Half a dollar."

Alison flushed.

"Why didn't you say four or five dollars?"

"Since you evidently mean to insist on an answer, there are several
reasons for my modesty. For one thing, you would have to borrow the
money from Mrs. Hunter, which I don't think you would like to do. For
another, if you were a Canadian I'd say--nothing--but as you're not used
to the country yet you wouldn't care to accept a favor from a stranger."

"But it would be a favor in any case."

"Then you can get rid of the obligation by giving me half a dollar."

The girl looked at him sharply as she laid the silver coin in his hand,
but he met her gaze with a whimsical smile.

"Thank you," he said. "I suppose you are going back to Mrs. Farquhar?"

"Yes," replied Alison impulsively. "I believe I am; but I may wait for a
few days."

"I think you're wise. You wouldn't find things very pleasant here."

"Why?"

"If you'll permit me to mention it, you're too pretty."

Alison straightened herself suddenly in her chair.

"You don't like Mrs. Hunter, but does that justify you in saying what
you have? You can't mean that she would be--jealous?"

"That's exactly what I do mean."

He saw the angry color mantle in the face of the girl, and raised his
hand in expostulation.

"Wait a little; I want to explain. First of all, she wouldn't have the
slightest cause for jealousy. You're not the kind to give her one, and
Elcot Hunter is one of the best and straightest men I know. In fact,
that's partly what is troubling me."

"Why should it trouble you?" Alison interrupted.

Thorne appeared to reflect, and, indignant with his presumption as she
was, the girl admitted that he did it very well.

"If you urge me for a precise answer, I'm afraid I'll have to confess
that I don't quite know. Anyway, because Hunter is the sort of man I
have described, he'd try to make things pleasant for you, and there's no
doubt that his wife would resent it. Whether she's fond of him at all,
or not, I naturally can't say, but she expects him to be entirely at her
beck and call, and I don't think she'd tolerate any little courtesies he
might show you."

Alison sat silent for a moment or two when he stopped, looking at him
with perplexed eyes, though she felt that he was right.

"It's curious, isn't it?" she said at length. "Florence must have had a
very unpleasant time in England, where she had to practise the strictest
self-denial. One would have thought it would have made her content and
compassionate now that she has everything that she could wish for."

"No," responded Thorne, "in a way, it's natural. That kind of life often
has the opposite effect. Those who lead it have so much to put up with
that if once they escape it makes them determined never even to
contemplate doing the least thing they don't like again."

"Oh," declared Alison impulsively, "I shouldn't care to think that."

"Well," said Thorne, with unmoved gravity, "I don't know whether you
have had as much to face as you say that she has, though one or two
things seem to suggest it, but it certainly hasn't spoiled you."

Then he rose.

"As I want to reach the bluff to-night, I'll get my team harnessed."

Alison watched him go down the steps with a somewhat perplexing sense of
regret. She had met the man only four days ago, but she felt that she
was parting from a friend.

A few minutes later Florence Hunter called her into the house; and she
stayed with her a week before she went to Mrs. Farquhar. She admitted
that Florence had given her no particular cause for leaving, but she at
least made no objections when Alison acquainted her with her decision.



CHAPTER VI

THORNE CONTEMPLATES A CHANGE


Alison had spent a few days with Mrs. Farquhar without finding the least
reason to regret the choice she had made, when one evening Farquhar
helped her and his wife into his wagon in front of the little hotel at
Graham's Bluff, where he had passed the last half-hour in conversation
with an implement dealer. When they had taken their places he drove
cautiously down the wide, unpaved street, which was seamed with ruts. On
either side of it, straggling and singularly unpicturesque frame houses,
destitute of paint or any attempt at adornment, rose abruptly from the
prairie, though here and there the usual plank sidewalk ran along the
front of them. Alison was convinced that she had rarely seen a more
uninteresting place, though she had discovered that its inhabitants were
not only quite satisfied with it, but firmly believed in its roseate
future. This seemed somewhat curious, as a number of them had come there
from the cities, but she did not know then that the optimistic assurance
with which they were endued is common in the West, and that it is, as a
rule, in due time justified.

Turning a corner, they came out into a wider space from which a riband
of rutted trail led out into the wilderness. Farquhar pulled up his
team. Close in front of them, a crowd had gathered about a wagon, and a
man who stood upon a box in it seemed to be addressing the assembly.
Alison could not see his face, and his voice was, for the most part,
drowned by bursts of laughter, but he was waving his hands to emphasize
his remarks, and this and his general attitude reminded her of the
itinerant auctioneers she had now and then seen in the market-place of
an English provincial town, though the crowd and the surroundings were
in this case very different.

The prairie, which was dusty white, stretched back to the soft red glow
of the far horizon, and overhead there was a wonderful blue
transparency. The light was still sharp, and the figures of the men
stood out with a curious distinctness. Most of them were picturesque in
wide, gray hats and long boots, with blue shirt and jacket hanging loose
above the rather tight, dust-smeared trousers, though there were some
who wore black hats and spruce store clothes. These, however, looked
very much out of place.

"Thorne's pitching it to the boys in great style to-night," chuckled
Farquhar. "We'll get a little nearer; I like to hear him when he has a
good head of steam up."

He started the team, but Alison was sensible of a slight shock of
displeasure. She was aware that Thorne sold things, because he had told
her so, but she had never seen him actively engaged in his profession,
and this kind of thing seemed extremely undignified. She had got rid of
a good many prejudices during the past few years, and was, for that
matter, in due time to discard some more; but it hurt her to see a
friend of hers--and she admitted that she regarded him as such--playing
the part of mountebank to amuse the inhabitants of a forlorn prairie
town.

Farquhar drew up his team again presently. Alison fancied that Mrs.
Farquhar was watching her, and she fixed her eyes upon the crowd and
Thorne. His remarks were received with uproarious laughter, but she was
quick to notice that there was nothing in what he said that any one
could reasonably take exception to.

Presently there was an interruption, for a man in white shirt and store
clothing pushed forward through the crowd, with another, who was big and
lank and hard-faced, and wore old blue duck, following close behind him.

"Now," exclaimed Farquhar expectantly, "we're going to have some fun.
That's Sergeant, the storekeeper, who sells drugs and things, and he's
been on Mavy's trail for quite a while. So far, Mavy has generally
talked him down, but to-night he's got a backer. Custer has the
reputation of being a bad man, and it's generally supposed that he owes
Sergeant a good deal of money."

"Hadn't we better drive on if there's likely to be any trouble?"
suggested his wife.

Farquhar said that Thorne would probably prove a match for his opponents
without provoking actual hostilities, and added that they could go on
later if it seemed advisable. Alison laughed when a hoarse burst of
merriment followed the orator's last sally.

"It was really witty," she said. "In fact, it's all clever. I wonder how
he learned to talk like that."

Mrs. Farquhar smiled.

"It's probably in the blood. I believe one of his close relatives is a
bishop."

"It doesn't quite follow," objected Farquhar. "I heard one of them, an
English one, in Montreal, who wasn't a patch on Mavy. Anyway, if you
want to hold the boys here you have to be clever."

Then a protesting voice broke in upon Thorne's flowing periods.

"Boys," it said, "that man has played you for suckers 'bout long enough,
and this kind of thing is rough on every decent storekeeper in the town.
We're making the place grow; we're always willing to make a deal when
you have anything to sell; and we're generally open to supply you with
better goods than he keeps, at a lower figure."

"In my case," Thorne pointed out, "you get amusing tales and sound
advice thrown in. You can at any time consult me about anything, from
the best way to make your hair curl to the easiest means of getting rid
of the mortgage man, which in most cases is to pay his bill."

"I could tell 'way funnier tales than you do when I was asleep,"
interrupted the storekeeper's friend.

Thorne disregarded this.

"I've nothing to urge against the storekeepers, boys. They're useful to
the community--it's possible that they're more useful than I am--but it
doesn't seem quite fitting to hold them up as deserving objects of your
compassion. If you have any doubt on that point you have only to look at
their clothes. I don't like to be personal, but since there are two men
here from whom I don't expect very much delicacy, I feel inclined to
wonder whether that is a brass watch and guard Mr. Sergeant is wearing."

"No, sir," snapped the other, who was evidently too disturbed in temper
to notice the simple trap, "it's English gold. Cost me most of a
hundred and twenty dollars in Winnipeg."

Thorne waved his hand.

"That's the point, boys. Mine, which was made in Connecticut, cost five.
I think you can see the inference. If you don't, I should like you to
ask him where he got the hundred and twenty dollars."

There was applauding laughter, for the men were quite aware that they
had furnished it, but Thorne proceeded:

"It's likely that I could buy things of that kind, and keep as smart a
team as our friend does, if I struck you for the interest he charges on
your held-over accounts."

"That's quite right!" somebody cried. "They don't want no pity. They've
got bonds on half our farms. Guess the usual interest's blamed robbery."

Once more the storekeeper lifted up his voice.

"You wouldn't call it that, if you'd ever tried to collect it. You stand
out of your money until harvest's in, and then when you drive round the
homestead's empty, and somebody's written on the door, 'Sorry I couldn't
pack the house off.'"

This was followed by further laughter, for, as Farquhar explained to
Alison, pack signifies the transporting of one's possessions, usually
upon the owner's back, in most of western Canada, and the notice thus
implies that the defaulting farmer had judiciously removed himself and
everything of value except his dwelling, before the arrival of his
creditor.

"You could shut down on the land, anyway," retorted one man.

"Could I?" Sergeant inquired savagely. "When it's free-grant land, and
the man hadn't broke enough to get his patent?"

The crowd, encouraged by a word or two from Thorne, seemed disposed to
drift off into a disquisition on the homestead laws, but Sergeant pulled
them up.

"We'll keep to the point," he said. "When you buy your drugs at my store
you get just what you ask for with the maker's label stuck fast on it.
Maverick keeps loose ones, and if you ask him to cure your liver it's
quite likely that he'll give you hair-restorer."

Farquhar chuckled.

"I'm afraid there's some truth in that," he admitted. "Still, it's to
Mavy's credit that when the case is serious he generally prescribes a
visit to the nearest doctor."

In the meanwhile the storekeeper had secured the attention of the
assembly.

"What I said, I'll prove!" he added vehemently. "Get up and tell them
how he played you, Custer."

His companion waved his hand.

"I'll do that, in the first place, and when I've got through I'll do a
little more. I went to Maverick most two weeks ago when my stomach was
sour, and he gives me a bottle for a dollar."

"He's perfectly correct so far, except that he hasn't produced the
dollar yet," Thorne assented. "I should like to point out that I can
cure the kind of sourness he said it was every time, but I can't do very
much when the trouble's in the man's sour nature. You took that stuff I
gave you the day you got it, Custer?"

"I did. I was powerful sick next morning."

He turned to the crowd, speaking in a tragic voice.

"Boys, he'd run out of the cure I wanted and gave me the first bottle
handy, with a wrong label on. I've no use for a man who doses you with
stuff that makes your inside feel like it was growing wool."

There were delighted cries at this, but Custer appeared perfectly
serious, and Thorne looked down at him.

"No," he drawled, "in your case it would grow bristles."

The laugh was with him now, but it was a moment or two before Custer,
who was evidently slow of comprehension, quite grasped the nature of the
compliment which had been paid him. The term hog is a particularly
offensive one in that country. Then he proceeded to clamber up into the
wagon, and Thorne addressed those among his listeners who stood nearest
it.

"Hold on to him just a moment," he cried, and two men did as he
directed. "I merely want to point out that our friend has supplied the
explanation of the trouble--he said he was sick the next morning. Well,
as my internal cure is a powerful one, there are instructions on every
bottle to take a tablespoonful every six hours, which would have carried
him on for several days. It's clear that he felt better after one dose,
which encouraged him to take the lot for the next one."

"He has probably hit it," commented Farquhar. "They do it now and then."

"Now," continued Thorne to the men below, "you can let Mr. Custer go. If
it's the only thing that will satisfy him, I'll get down."

"You'll get down sure," bawled Custer. "If you're not out when I'm
ready, I'll pitch you."

Farquhar started his team.

"I've no doubt Sergeant had the thing fixed beforehand, but I'm
inclined to fancy that Custer will be sorry before he's through. Anyway,
we'll get on."

He had driven only a few yards when his wife looked at him with a smile.

"Was it a very great self-denial, Harry?"

"Since you ask the question, I'm afraid it was," laughed Farquhar.

"Then I won't mind very much if you get down and see that they don't
impose on Mavy--I mean too many of them. I don't want him to get hurt if
it can be prevented."

Farquhar swung himself over the side of the wagon.

"It's hardly probable. The boys like Mavy, but, as Sergeant has one or
two toughs among the crowd, I'll go along."

Mrs. Farquhar smiled at Alison as she drove on.

"One mustn't expect too much," she said. "After all, if he comes home
with a swollen face it will be in a good cause."

Alison made no comment. She was slightly disgusted, and her pride was
somewhat hurt. She had made a friend of this man, perhaps, she thought,
too readily, and the fact that he had laid himself out to amuse the
crowd and had, as the result of it, been drawn into a discreditable
brawl was far from pleasant. She was compelled to confess on reflection
that he could not very well have avoided the latter, but it was equally
clear that he had not even attempted it. Indeed, she had noticed that he
jumped down from his wagon with a suspicious alacrity.

Half an hour later a fast team overtook them and Farquhar alighted from
a two-seated vehicle. He smiled at his wife as he sat down beside her.

"There was very little trouble," he announced. "Mavy's friends kept the
toughs off, and I believe he'll sell out everything he has in his
wagon."

"And Custer?"

"I don't think he can see quite as well as he could an hour ago--as one
result," replied Farquhar dryly.

Then he flicked the team, and they drove on faster into the dusk that
was creeping up across the prairie.

The next morning Alison was standing in the sunshine outside the house
when Thorne drove into sight from behind the barn which cut off the view
of one strip of prairie. He got down from his wagon and appeared
disconcerted when he saw the girl, who fancied that she understood the
reason, for he had a discolored bruise on one cheek and a lump on his
forehead.

"I want a few words with Farquhar," he explained. "I saw him at the
settlement last night, but I couldn't get hold of him."

"No," returned Alison disdainfully, "you were too busy." Then something
impelled her to add, "You don't seem a very great deal the worse for
your exploit."

Thorne leaned against the side of the wagon, though she noticed that he
first pulled the brim of his soft hat lower down over his face.

"That fact doesn't seem to cause you much satisfaction," he observed.

"Why should it?"

"We'll let that pass. On the other hand, there's just as little reason
why you should be displeased with me."

"Are you sure that I am displeased?" inquired Alison, suspecting his
intention of leading her up to some definite expression of indignation.
This would, as she realized, be tantamount to the betrayal of a greater
interest in his doings than she was prepared to show.

"Your appearance suggested it; but we'll call it disgusted, if you
like," he retorted with amusement in his eyes.

It occurred to Alison that as he had evidently taken her resentment for
granted it might after all be wiser to prove it justifiable.

"Then," she said, "a scene of the kind you figured in last night is
naturally repugnant to any one not accustomed to it."

"Did it jar on Mrs. Farquhar?"

"No," Alison admitted, "I don't think it did."

"Then she's not accustomed to such scenes either. Rows of any kind
really aren't very common in western Canada--but she seems to have more
comprehension than you have."

This was turning the tables with a vengeance, and Alison was a trifle
disconcerted, for instead of standing on his defense the man had
unexpectedly proceeded to attack.

"Do you care to explain that?" she asked.

"I'll try," Thorne replied genially. "Perhaps because she's married,
Mrs. Farquhar seems to understand that there are occasions when a man is
driven into doing things he has an aversion for. In a way, it's to his
credit when he recognizes that the alternative is out of the question.
Can you get hold of that?"

"I'm not sure. You see, you suggest that there may be an alternative."

"It's often the case. The difficulty is that now and then the
consequences of choosing it are a good deal worse than the other
thing."

Alison could grasp the gist of this. There was something to be said for
the resolution that could boldly grapple with a crisis as soon as it
arose, instead of seeking the readiest means of escape from it.

"Now," added Thorne, "I was quite sure when the storekeeper appeared on
the scene that he had hired the biggest tough in the settlement to make
trouble for me. Of course I could have backed down, or at least I could
have tried it, but the result would naturally have been to make the
opposition more determined on the next occasion. It seemed wiser to face
the situation then and there."

Again Alison felt that he was right, and she shifted her point of
attack.

"You wish to assure me that it was with very great reluctance you jumped
down from your wagon last night?"

Thorne laughed softly.

"No," he acknowledged; "if one must be honest, I can't go quite so far
as that."

The girl was a little astonished at herself. In spite of his last
confession her disgust--though she felt that was not the right
word--with his conduct had greatly lessened, and she was conscious of a
certain curiosity about his sensations during the incident.

"You were not in the least afraid?" she asked.

"No; but, after all, that's no great admission. You see, with most of us
what we call courage is largely the result of experience. Now, I knew I
was a match for Sergeant's tough. The man is big, but he has only a hazy
notion when to lead off and how to parry."

"How did you know that--from experience?"

"Oh, no," returned Thorne, smiling. "I once watched him endeavoring to
convince another man that he was utterly wrong in maintaining that the
country derived the least benefit from the liquor prohibition laws. He
succeeded because the other man didn't know any more than he did."

Alison laughed.

"After all, I don't think the subject is of very great interest. I
wonder why you went to so much trouble to explain the thing to me."

The man gazed at her a moment in somewhat natural astonishment and then
he took off his wide hat ceremoniously, though as a smile crept into his
eyes she could not be sure whether it was done in seriousness or
whimsically. In any case, he spoiled the effect by remembering his
bruised face and hastily clapping it on again.

"May I say that I should like to retain your favorable opinion if it's
possible?" he replied, and leaving his team plucking at the grass he
turned away and entered the house. As it happened, Farquhar had just
come in for dinner, which was not quite ready, and Thorne sat down
opposite him.

"If your wife has no objections, I want you to do me a favor, Harry," he
said.

His host expressed his readiness, but Mrs. Farquhar looked at him
inquiringly.

"It's just this," he explained. "You deal with Grantly at the railroad
settlement, and it's possible that he may not have formed a very
accurate opinion of my character. In fact, I shouldn't wonder if odd
things the boys have said have prejudiced him against me."

"It's quite likely," Farquhar admitted with a grin.

"Then I want you to assure him that I'm a perfectly responsible and
reliable person."

Mrs. Farquhar laughed outright.

"Aren't you asking rather more than Harry could consistently do?"

"Well," Thorne replied thoughtfully, "it might serve the purpose if he
told Grantly that I generally paid my bills. I don't ask him to
guarantee my account or back my draft. It wouldn't be reasonable."

"It wouldn't," assented Mrs. Farquhar with uncompromising decision. "Are
you going to make some new venture?"

"I have a hazy notion that I might take up a quarter-section and turn
farmer."

His hostess flashed a significant glance at her husband, who smiled.

"But why?"

"If you don't get your crop hailed out, droughted, or frozen, you can
now and then pick up a few dollars that way," Thorne explained.
"Besides, a farmer is a person of acknowledged status on the prairie."

"Have you any other reasons--more convincing ones?"

Thorne regarded his hostess with undiminished gravity.

"If I have, they may appear by and by--when, for instance, I've doubled
my holding and raised a record crop on three hundred and twenty acres."

"It isn't done in a day," warned Farquhar.

"It depends on how you begin; and commencing with a tent, a span of
oxen, and one breaker-plow doesn't appeal to me. I want a couple of
horse teams, the latest implements and the best seed I can get my hands
on."

"I guess my word alone won't induce Grantly to let you have them--still,
I'll do what I can."

Thorne spread out his hands.

"If anything more is wanted Hunter will be given an opportunity for
supplying it. I don't see any reason why I shouldn't distribute my
favors."

"And when does the rash experiment begin?"

Thorne straightened himself in his chair.

"It won't be an experiment. If I take hold, which isn't quite certain
yet, I'll stay with the thing."

Then he broke into his usual careless laugh.

"I'll take a long drive round all the outlying settlements and work off
a last frolic first."

"Yes," observed his hostess, "the carnival before Lent."

After that she proceeded to lay out dinner and they let the subject
drop, but Alison, who entered the room just then, wondered why Mrs.
Farquhar flashed a searching glance at her.



CHAPTER VII

A USEFUL FRIEND


Thorne drove away after dinner and, for it must be admitted that he
preferred other people's cookery to his own, he contrived to reach the
Hunter homestead just as supper was being laid out one evening some days
later. During the meal he announced his intention of staying all night,
but he did not explain what had brought him there until he sat with his
host and hostess on the veranda while dusk crept up across the prairie.
He felt inclined to wonder why Mrs. Hunter had favored them with her
company, for he supposed that it was not altogether for the sake of
enjoying the cool evening air. This surmise, as it happened, was quite
correct. She had another purpose in her mind, for since Alison's visit
she had taken a certain interest in the man.

"Is there anything keeping you about the bluff?" she asked at length. "I
hear you have been in the neighborhood several days."

"Four," said Thorne, "if one must be precise. For one thing, there
seemed to be a good demand for gramophones; for another, I wanted a talk
with Elcot, and somebody said he was in at the railroad yesterday."

"I suppose you want to borrow a team from him again?"

"No," Thorne replied tranquilly; "in this case my object is to borrow
money--or, at least, I want to raise it in such a way that if I don't
meet my obligations your husband will be liable."

He turned toward his host.

"Do you think you could guarantee me to the extent of, say, a thousand
dollars?"

"If it's merely a question of ability, I believe I could. Whether it
would be judicious is quite another matter. What are you going to do
with the money?"

Thorne explained his purpose much as he had done to Farquhar and Hunter
listened with quiet amusement.

"The whim might last a month, and then there'd probably be an auction of
your stock and implements, and we would get word that you had gone off
on the trail again," he said. "A quiet life wouldn't suit you. You tried
it once with Bishop and it's generally understood that you turned his
house inside out one day during the winter you spent with him."

"There's just a little truth in that," Thorne confessed. "Bishop's a
nice man, but he has the most exasperating ways, and one would need more
patience than I have to stand them. Try to imagine it--three months of
improving conversation and undeviating regularity. Breakfast to the
minute; the kettle to stand always on the same spot on the stove; the
potato pan on another. Your boots must be put in exactly the same
corner."

"It's unthinkable," laughed Mrs. Hunter. "We once had him here for a day
or two. But what was the particular cause of trouble?"

Her husband smiled.

"House cleaning, I believe. Bishop undertakes it systematically once a
month in the winter."

"Oftener," interjected Thorne. "That is, when the temperature's high
enough for him to wash the floor."

"It wasn't high enough on the day in question," Hunter proceeded; "but I
understand that he insisted on putting his furniture outside so that he
could brush the place thoroughly, and Thorne told him to get the door
open and stand carefully clear."

"Well?" Mrs. Hunter prompted.

"Thorne fired the things, you see, as quick as he could lift them; first
the chairs and table, then the whole outfit of plates and cups and pots
and pans. When he got half-way through, Bishop, who was horror-struck,
made a protest. Thorne told him he would have the things put out, and
out they were going."

Mrs. Hunter laughed and addressed her guest.

"Did you get a bump on your forehead on that occasion? Still, I suppose
one could manage it by falling out of a wagon."

"I didn't," replied Thorne. "For any further particulars about this one
I'm afraid you must apply at the settlement; but it seems to me that the
subject I'm most anxious to talk about is being tactfully avoided."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Would you expect me to live here altogether?"

Hunter made a gesture of weariness.

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

Florence favored him with a mocking smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thorne looked at him with a thoughtful face.

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

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

"And that is?"

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

"Still, you get something in return."

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

He stood up and emptied his pipe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Bills? Permit me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevis laughed good-humoredly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I haven't done so yet."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



CHAPTER VIII

A FIT OF TEMPER


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why were you driving at that breakneck pace?"

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

Nevis sat still.

"Are you open to earn a few dollars?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevis smiled.

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

"That," returned Thorne, "is just where you're wrong. I've no complaint
against human nature in general or the way this country's run. My
dislikes are concentrated on a few particularly obnoxious people who
live in it, of whom you're one. You're a discredit even to the
profession which you follow."

"It's not as dangerous to the people I deal with as yours is," Nevis
retorted.

"We'll let that pass. I've already stopped here talking with you longer
than I care about. Will you pull your buggy out of the way?"

Nevis felt a strong inclination to let the buggy remain where it stood.
It was galling to be spoken to in that fashion by a wandering pedler,
and even more annoying to be left stranded nine miles from anywhere
with a worn-out horse; but a glance at the lean, determined face of the
man on the driving-seat of the wagon decided him, and he drew his rig
aside. Then Thorne looked down again.

"There's one thing you can do, and that's to unyoke the beast and hobble
it, and then strike for Taylor's on your feet," he advised. "The walk
will probably do you good, if only by convincing you that it doesn't pay
to drive a horse to the verge of exhaustion."

He swung his whip, and the team plunged forward down the declivity with
the wagon jolting and rattling behind them. Two or three hours later he
pulled up in front of Farquhar's homestead, where, as he informed its
owner, he meant to stay the night; and when the dusk was closing in he
sat with the others on the stoop.

"Did you meet anybody on the trail?" Mrs. Farquhar asked.

"Nevis," answered Thorne genially. "I believe I insulted him. Anyway, I
meant to, but he's tough in the hide, and I'm half afraid I wasn't quite
up to my usual form."

"But why did you want to insult him?"

"Well," replied Thorne, with an air of reflection, "I think it was his
clothes that irritated me."

"His clothes?" Alison broke in.

Thorne turned to her with a smile.

"Yes," he said; "unreasonable, isn't it? Still, you see, the man was so
immaculately neat, from his tie, which was a marvel, to his very elegant
pointed shoes. I dare say he'll find them most uncomfortable before he
has walked nine miles in them."

"But why should that annoy you?"

"If you mean the thought of his limping across the prairie for miles
and getting very hot and dusty, it certainly didn't. If you mean his
apparel, too much neatness always acts as a red rag on me, and in this
case the manner in which he was got up seemed symbolical. It hinted that
only the best of everything would content him, and that he meant to get
it, no matter what it cost anybody else. There was his horse, for
instance, played out, foul with dust, and thirsty--with a creek close
by. He'd driven the poor brute almost to death the last few days sooner
than cut out a single visit to any one he wanted to see about the
creamery."

"We have got to head him off that scheme," declared Farquhar; and his
wife joined in again.

"Haven't you some other grievance against him?"

"If another one is needed, there's Langton's case," answered Thorne.
"The man's a crank, of course, which is partly why I like him, and he
has some eccentric notions about farming; but he has paid Nevis his
interest for quite a while, besides buying everything he used from him
at double prices, and now the first time the money's not forthcoming
he's sold up. Nevis turned him out, with his wife still ailing, and the
child."

Mrs. Farquhar started with a flush of indignation in her face.

"It's the first I've heard of it. Why didn't you send us word?"

"Langton's rather out of your district, and the boys have fixed him up.
They got a few things together, and he's camped in a tent on Government
land. I believe they're going to build him a sod and birchpole house."

"I suppose," interjected Farquhar, "you were somewhere about?"

"That's certain," laughed his wife. "Who went round and got the tent and
the other things you mentioned, Mavy?"

Thorne smiled.

"As soon as they heard of it, the boys brought them in."

Alison cast a quick glance at him. He was quite devoid of
self-consciousness, and it was evident that he took the thing lightly;
but she fancied that there were strong chivalrous impulses in this
humorous vagabond which would on due occasion lead him to ride a
reckless tilt against overwhelming odds in the cause of the helpless and
oppressed. Her heart warmed toward him, as it had done once or twice
before, but she said nothing, and it became evident that Mrs. Farquhar
shared the thought that was in her mind.

"Mavy," she cautioned, "I'm afraid you'll get yourself hurt some day by
doing more than is wise or needful. Nobody could find fault with you for
helping Langton, but you should have stopped at that. Insulting men like
Nevis just because they dress well, or for other reasons, is apt to lead
to trouble."

Then Farquhar broke in, and Alison recognized that he meant to follow
his wife's lead.

"It was Langton's misfortune that he wouldn't fall into line," he said.
"If he had, he wouldn't have been forced to borrow money from Nevis. For
instance, what has the electrical tension in the atmosphere he used to
fret about to do with one's harrowing, anyway, unless it brings down
rain, and why must he cut his prairie hay two or three weeks after all
his neighbors have theirs in?"

"He says he likes it thoroughly ripened," Thorne answered with a laugh.
"Still, I can't see why a man should be hounded down because he won't do
exactly what everybody else does. What do you think, Miss Leigh?"

"It's rather a pity, but I'm afraid men of that kind generally have to
pay," replied Alison. "That is, unless they're very strong and
fortunate, and then they lead. What was supposed to be a craze of theirs
becomes a desirable custom, and the others humbly copy them."

"And if the others won't?" questioned Farquhar.

"Even then, it's perhaps just as well there are a few men with the
courage of their convictions who will couch the lance in the face of any
opposition that can be brought against them, and ride right home. There
must be something in their fancies, and the stir they make clears the
air. Stagnation's unwholesome."

Mrs. Farquhar regarded her severely.

"You shouldn't encourage him. It's quite superfluous. He'd charge a
locomotive any day with pleasure," she said.

"Well," laughed Thorne, "you will no doubt be consoled to hear that I've
come into line. There are now one hundred and sixty acres of virgin
prairie recorded in my name, and I believe a carload of sawed lumber and
general fixings will arrive at the station in the next few days. When
they do, I'll borrow your wagon and hired man to haul them out, though
I'll have to camp in a tent until I get my first crop in."

Farquhar and his wife looked astonished, and both laughed when he
gravely reproached them for not believing that he would carry out the
project which he had already mentioned. Then the two men strolled away
toward the barn together, and Alison was left with Mrs. Farquhar. The
prairie was wrapped in shadow now, and a half-moon was rising above its
eastern rim. It was very still, and there was a wonderful freshness in
the chilly air. Looking out upon the vast sweep of dusky grass, it
seemed to Alison that this wide country gave one clearness of vision and
breadth of character.

"Does Thorne really mean to turn farmer?" she asked at length.

"It looks as if he does," answered Mrs. Farquhar. "Why shouldn't he?"

"I can't think of any reason," replied Alison. "Still, it isn't what I
should have anticipated. What can have influenced him?"

"I have a suspicion that he means to get married. He couldn't expect his
wife to set up housekeeping in a wagon, though, for that matter, I don't
know whether he lives in the vehicle or camps on the ground beside it."

Alison knew, however, and on the whole she was glad that it was too dark
for her companion to see her face clearly. It was, for no very
ostensible reason, not exactly pleasant to think of Thorne's getting
married at all. The idea of his being willing to contemplate marriage,
so to speak, in the abstract, as the men who went to Winnipeg for their
wives did, was repugnant to her, and the alternative possibility that he
had somebody in particular in view already afforded her no great
consolation.

"I suppose he wouldn't have very much trouble if that was his idea," she
said with a trace of disdain.

"No," responded Mrs. Farquhar; "there would be very little trouble in
Leslie Thorne's case. Whatever that man may lack it won't be the love of
women."

It occurred to Alison that there was truth in this. She could even
confess that the man's light-hearted manner, his whimsical generosity
and his daring appealed to her.

"He doesn't seem to get on very well with Florence Hunter," she said
reflectively.

Mrs. Farquhar laughed.

"I think I may tell you a secret which Mavy has never guessed. He could
have got on a good deal better with Mrs. Hunter had he been anxious to,
and she hasn't forgiven him because he didn't realize it."

Alison started, and a warmth crept into her face, but her hostess
proceeded:

"I don't mean very much by that. Mrs. Hunter merely wished
to--annex--him; to command his respectful homage, which he was quite
ready to pay her as Elcot's wife, though that wasn't quite what she
intended. There's an unpleasant streak in that woman's nature."

Alison sat silent a moment or two, for she was forced to confess that
this sounded correct.

"But Florence can have no complaint against her husband," she objected.
"He seems to indulge her and treat her generously."

"That's half the trouble," was the answer. "Some day she'll wear his
patience out, and then he'll take the other way--and they'll get on
better afterward. However, that's a matter that doesn't concern us." She
paused a moment, with a smile. "Anyway, I'm glad you decided to come to
me."

"Thank you," said Alison quietly.

She had never regretted her choice. The work she had undertaken was
certainly not what she had expected to do when she came to Canada, and
she smiled as she remembered the indignation her mother had expressed
concerning it in her last letter; but her duties were not unpleasant,
and she was growing fond of the unassuming but very sensible people with
whom she dwelt. Their view was narrowed by no prejudices, and they
disdained pretense; they toiled with cheerful courage and were as
cheerfully willing to hold out an open hand to the stranger and the
unfortunate. The latter fact was once more made evident when Farquhar,
followed by Thorne, strolled up to the door.

"I think I'll start off at sunup and drive over to see how Langton's
getting on," he said. "I couldn't very well be back the same night, but
you'll have Miss Leigh with you."

"Of course," assented his wife, smiling. "It was only yesterday that you
declared you didn't know how you were going to get through with the
sowing. I suppose you'll want to take a few things along with you?"

Thorne produced a strip of paper and handed it to her.

"I can't always trust my memory," he explained.

They went into the house, where a light was already burning, and Mrs.
Farquhar glanced at the paper with a smile.

"Well," she said, "I suppose I can manage to let you have about half of
what you ask for." Then she turned to Alison. "As soon as he mentioned
the matter I expected this."



CHAPTER IX

THE RAISING


One afternoon when the prairie was flooded with sunshine and sprinkled
with a flush of tender green, Farquhar drove his wife and Alison up to
Thorne's new holding. A tent with loose curtain flapping in the breeze
stood on a slight rise, with sundry piles of boards and framed timber
lying on the grass about it, while Thorne and a young lad stood beside a
fire above which a four-gallon coal-oil can hung boiling. His face was
smutted and there was grime on his hands; while near him smoke was
issuing from a beehive-shaped mass of soil which Mrs. Farquhar informed
Alison was an earth oven.

The girl waited behind a few moments when her companions greeted Thorne,
looking about her with some curiosity. An oblong of shattered clods,
almost hidden by the fresh green blades of oats, stretched across the
foreground, and beyond it there was the usual vast sweep of grass. On
one side of the plowed land, however, a thin birch bluff in full leaf
straggled up the rise, and a little creek of clear water wound through a
deep hollow not far away. The situation, she decided, was an attractive
one. Then she glanced at the piles of timber, which seemed to be
arranged in carefully planned order, and surmised from the quantity of
sawdust strewed among the grass that a good deal of work had been done
on it by somebody. There was also a row of birch logs, evidently
obtained from the bluff, with notches cut in them, and a heap of thin
strips of wood which had a sweet resinous smell. These were red-cedar
roofing shingles from British Columbia.

Alison strolled forward and joined the group about the fire.

"It will be a couple of hours yet before the boys turn up; and,
considering everything, it's just as well," Thorne was explaining.
"Still, the bread ought to be ready, and I'd be glad if somebody would
get it out to cool. I want the oven for the chickens."

"Where are they?" Mrs. Farquhar inquired.

Thorne suddenly stooped over the big coal-oil can.

"I was almost forgetting them; they're here. Dave should have fished
them out some time ago."

Alison glanced into the improvised cauldron and saw to her astonishment
what looked like a mass of bedraggled fowls.

"Oh," she cried, "have you boiled them with their feathers on?"

"Well," replied Thorne, somewhat ruefully, "I certainly didn't mean to.
In fact, I put them in to bring their feathers off, though I've hitherto
generally done it beneath the blow-down valve of a thrashing engine."

He turned to his young companion.

"Be quick! Fish them out!"

The lad did it with a strip of shingle, and when a number of dripping
birds were strewed upon the grass Alison was more astonished still.

"Where have their heads gone?" she exclaimed.

"I'll leave Dave to tell you that; I believe it's his first attempt at
dressing fowls," chuckled Thorne. "I just sent his employer word that I
wanted chickens, and this is how they were brought."

The lad colored, for he was very young.

"Jackson drove off as soon as he'd told Stepney and me to get them," he
explained. "We're both of us just out from Toronto, and we didn't know
how to set about the thing." He paused and looked at Alison. "I don't
mind admitting that neither of us enjoyed it, but it had to be done."

"I must add that he told me he made Stepney use the ax," laughed Thorne.

"I had to hold them, anyway--and that wasn't very much better," retorted
the lad.

Thorne turned to Farquhar.

"You'll have to pluck; I dare say Mrs. Farquhar and Miss Leigh will get
out the bread and what crockery there is. The boys will probably bring
some plates and things along with them; that is, if they're wise."

He moved away and Alison sat down on the grass and laughed.

"I believe he can cook better than I can, but he's primitive in some
respects," she commented. "Shall we all have to use the same things if
the boys don't bring the cups?"

"Oh, no," Mrs. Farquhar assured her. "He'll no doubt provide a few old
fruit cans. Anyway, you must not expect too much of him. He has been
working his fingers off for the last six weeks, and as there has been
moonlight lately it's very probable that he has cut himself down to an
hour or two's sleep. Perhaps you haven't noticed that it shows on him."

As a matter of fact, Alison had done so. She had seen very little of
Thorne for the last few weeks, and now it struck her that his face was
leaner and browner than it had been and that there were signs of tension
in his eyes. Then she glanced at the strip of plowed land and the piles
of timber.

"Has he done all that?" she asked.

"Most of it, anyway. Some of the boys helped him when they could, which
wasn't very often. I believe he has done about twice as much as Harry
considered possible. I've an idea that Mavy is going to open his
neighbors' eyes."

Alison glanced at the empty prairie and wondered where the neighbors
lived; but just them Mrs. Farquhar called her to the oven, which she
opened with a spade, and they raked out several big and somewhat
blackened loaves. After that, they proceeded to the tent and busied
themselves laying out the provisions it contained.

It was an hour or two later when the guests arrived in dusty rigs of
various kinds and different stages of decrepitude, and Alison noticed
that those who were accompanied by their wives and daughters also
brought baskets with them. They were evidently acquainted with the
limitations of bachelor housekeeping. For the most part, however, the
new arrivals were young men, deeply bronzed and wiry, though one, whom
they seemed to regard as leader, had a lined face and grizzled hair. He
gathered them round him when the horses had been unyoked and tethered.

"Boys," he said, "you haven't come here just for fun, though you're
going to get that later. In the first place you have to earn your
supper." He turned to Thorne. "Will you send us to our places and tell
us what to do?"

"No," replied Thorne; "I'd rather leave the thing to the best man on
the ground. I'll take my orders from him and stand in among the crowd."

The elder man made a sign of acquiescence, for he now knew where he
stood and etiquette was satisfied. He and Thorne walked round and
examined the piles of timber. Then he sent the men to their places; one
with a hammer here, two or three with long, steel-shod poles there,
another with a saw at a corner, and the rest spread out in a row.

"Now," he directed, "if you're ready we'll get the house on end. The
girls are watching you!"

They went at the work with a rush, and the little oblong marked out upon
the prairie sod became alive with toiling figures. Tall birch posts rose
as by magic, with struggling men thrusting with the long pike-poles
beneath them; stringers, plates and ties seemed to fly into place; and
Alison, sitting on the grass with Mrs. Farquhar, wondered as the
skeleton of the house grew moment by moment before her eyes. She had
never thought it possible that a dwelling could be built in a night; but
the men were clearly on their mettle, and they worked with an almost
bewildering activity. They were on the ground one minute, hauling
ponderous masses of timber, and the next climbing among the framing;
were standing with one foot on a slender beam, or crawling along another
on hands and knees. There was a constant thudding of ax-heads on wooden
pegs, a sharper ringing of hammers on heavy nails; curt orders broke
through the clatter of boards and the persistent crunch of saws. Still,
there seemed to be no confusion. Each man knew exactly what to do, for,
though houses are by no means invariably raised in this fashion on the
prairie, some of the men had learned their work in the bush of
Michigan, and some in Ontario. When the hammers clattered more furiously
and the skeleton became partly clothed, there were cries of
encouragement from the women.

"Jake will have that plate pinned down before your spikes are in!"
called one.

"Are you going to let the boys from across the creek get ahead of you?"
protested another.

A third ran forward with both hands full of nails.

"They're catching you up!" she shouted. "Get them in! I can't have the
laugh put on my man."

Husband, sweetheart and brother responded gallantly, and the pace became
faster still, until at length Thorne shouted and waved his hand.

"We're through. It's time to quit," he said. "You've done 'most twice as
much as I ever figured on your getting in to-night."

They had worked willingly, but it was evident that most of them were as
willing to stop. Hammers, saws, and axes were flung together, and the
men stood in groups, hot and gasping, in the early dusk. Thorne walked
up to their leader.

"I can only say 'Thank you!' though that doesn't go far enough," he
said. "What makes the thing seem more to me is that I haven't the least
call on one of you."

There was a murmur of denial and then they waited until he turned to
Mrs. Farquhar, though he addressed the company generally.

"Now," he invited, "I'll ask you to come in and look at my place."

He moved on ahead with Mrs. Farquhar, while the others fell in behind;
but it seemed that the selection he had made did not satisfy all of
them, for there was a laugh when somebody cried:

"She has got a good man already! It isn't a square deal!"

Then, and how it came about Alison was never sure, though she had a
suspicion that her employer must have connived at it, Mrs. Farquhar
either moved or was quietly pushed aside, and she and Thorne were left
to cross the threshold together at the head of the company. This
appeared to please his guests, for there was further laughter when
another voice cried:

"It's the first time. Didn't they teach you manners in the old country,
Mavy? What's the matter with giving her your arm?"

Alison was conscious of a certain embarrassment, but she moved on
quietly and shot one swift glance at Thorne. He was looking up at the
beams above him, of which she was glad, for she was wondering whether
the others attached any particular significance to the fact that she was
the first woman to enter his new house with him. Dismissing the question
as troublesome, she glanced about her and saw the roof framing cutting
black against the soft blue of the night overhead. The house, she
supposed, would eventually contain four rooms, two on the ground floor
and two above, and though only the principal supports had been placed in
position yet, she once more wondered how the man and his companions had
accomplished so much.

"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.

"I've been driving easy the last few days, and it's hardly likely the
police have a horse that could run Volador down," he said. "Besides, if
he should press me too hard, I could lose my man somehow in the big
bluff on the mountain."

They agreed with this, and proceeded to elaborate a workable scheme.
Suddenly Baxter turned to Thorne, as though a thought had just struck
him.

"Why do you want to do it?" he asked. "Jake Winthrop wasn't a partner of
yours."

Thorne broke into a whimsical smile. Now that he endeavored to analyze
his reasons calmly, he was conscious that none of them appeared
sufficient to warrant any action at all on his part. He was only certain
that he disliked Nevis, and that an anxious girl had not long ago looked
at him with an appeal in her eyes.

"Since you ask me the question, I don't quite know," he confessed.

Baxter laughed, and turned to his comrade.

"He's a daisy, sure. Anyway, I'll look round for a hat and jacket like
the one I burned. You get him a saddle, Murray."

Thorne left them presently and drove away toward a ravine some miles
from the settlement, and soon after he started Baxter saddled a horse
and rode out to an outlying farm. In the meanwhile Corporal Slaney
sauntered into the general room of the hotel, where Murray and several
others were then sitting smoking. There was a box of crackers, a
soda-water fountain, and a bottle of some highly colored syrup on one
table, but that was all the refreshment the place provided.

Seating himself in a corner, the corporal sat unobtrusively listening to
the conversation, which Murray presently turned into a particular
channel for his especial benefit. It was a hot evening, and he sat
astride a bench, clad only in blue shirt and trousers, with a glass of
soda-water in front of him and a pipe in his hand. A big tin lamp burned
unsteadily above him, for all the doors and windows were open, and a hot
smell of dust and baked earth flowed into the room. The walls were
formed of badly rent boards, and there was as usual no covering on the
roughly laid floor.

"As I've often said," he observed, "the police will never get another
man like old Sergeant Mackintyre. He ran his man down right away every
time."

Slaney pricked his ears, and another of them broke in:

"Mackintyre would have had Jake Winthrop jailed quite a while ago. The
boys aren't up to trailing now."

"Seems to me they didn't want Winthrop much," drawled Murray. "They went
prowling round the homesteads, worrying folks who didn't know anything
about him, while he hit the trail for the frontier."

A third man turned to Slaney.

"Didn't you send two of the boys off Dakota way, Corporal?"

"We did," answered Slaney shortly. "That's about all I'm open to tell
you."

"Two troopers couldn't cover a great deal of prairie," remarked another.
"Guess he might have slipped through between them; that is, if he's not
hanging round here somewhere waiting for a chance to break away."

Murray saw the gleam in the corporal's eyes, and he broke in again.

"Now," he said, "when you think of it, that's quite likely, after all.
There's three or four big bluffs a man could hide in, and if he was
stuck for a horse he wouldn't care to try the open. If he lay by a while
he might fix it up with somebody to bring him one. Of course, he might
have got away up the track, but they'd wire on to watch the stations.
Didn't you do that, Corporal?"

"We did," Slaney answered.

Murray turned to the others.

"Then, one would allow that Winthrop couldn't have cleared by train. If
he'd done that, they'd sure have got him." He paused, and, hearing a
beat of hoofs, added thoughtfully, "It looks mighty like he was still in
the neighborhood."

Something in Slaney's expression suggested that he shared this opinion;
but the drumming of hoofs was growing louder, and a man strolled toward
the doorway.

"It's Baxter," he announced.

A few minutes later Baxter came in, flushed and dusty, and helped
himself at the soda-water fountain before he turned to the others with a
cracker in his hand.

"It's powerful warm, boys, and I've had a ride for nothing," he informed
them. "Been over to Lorton's place and he wasn't in."

"He's at Cricklewood's," said Murray. "If you'd waited a little you
would have met him on the trail."

"I didn't, anyway," was Baxter's indifferent reply; "I only met a
stranger."

Corporal Slaney had no reason to suspect that the brief conversation
which had followed Baxter's arrival had been carefully prearranged for
his benefit.

"Where did you meet that stranger?" he asked.

"About two miles east of the bluff."

"Did you speak to him?"

Baxter smiled.

"I didn't; he didn't give me a chance. He was going south as fast as his
horse could lay hoofs to the ground."

"What was he like? Did you see him clearly?"

"Well," drawled Baxter, "it's only a half-moon, and the man wasn't very
close, but I think he'd a black plug hat. As most of us wear gray ones,
that kind of struck me. I've a notion that his overall jacket was
brown."

He sat down as Slaney vanished through the open door. In a few moments
there was a clatter of hoofs, and the men crowding about the entrance
saw a mounted figure riding at a gallop down the unpaved street. Then
Murray looked at his comrade with a grin.

"Must have had his horse saddled ready," he chuckled. "We've fixed the
thing."



CHAPTER XI

AN ESCAPADE


The night was still and clear when Thorne rode out of the ravine, in the
hollow of which he had left his wagon and one hobbled horse. Reaching
the level, he drew bridle and sat still in his saddle for a minute or
two looking about him. The dew was settling heavily on the short, wiry
grass, which shone faintly in the elusive light, with patches of darker
color where his horse's hoofs had passed. Ahead, the prairie rolled
away, a vast dimly lighted plain, to the soft dusky grayness which
obscured the horizon, and he knew that somewhere beyond the dip of the
latter stood the mountain, a broken stretch of higher ground covered
with birches and willows, where if Corporal Slaney held on so long he
must endeavor to evade him.

Volador seemed fit and fresh, for which he was thankful, for it was
nearly twenty miles to the mountain, and he was, after all, a little
uncertain about the speed of the policeman's horse, though the
appearance of the beast, which he had seen in the hotel stable, did not
suggest any great powers in this respect. It was, however, not the one
Slaney usually rode, which he fancied might, perhaps, be significant. At
length he leaned down and patted Volador's neck.

"You'll have to go to-night, old boy," he said.

The beast responded to his voice and a shake of the bridle, and they set
off southward at a trot. The moon already hung rather low in the
western sky, and he calculated that in another couple of hours it would
have dipped beneath the grassland's rim. By then he should reach the
mountain, and the darkness would be in his favor if he had not already
outdistanced his pursuer. It was in a singularly buoyant mood that he
rode quietly on, and it was reluctantly that he checked the horse which
once or twice attempted to gallop. After the last few months of prosaic
and unremitting toil, the prospect of a mad night ride, and the zest of
the hazard attached to it, proved strangely exhilarating to one of his
temperament. He admitted that, as Winthrop was not a particular friend
of his, there was no reason why he should have undertaken the thing at
all; but he remembered the appeal in Lucy Calvert's eyes, and that and
the lust of a frolic was sufficient for him. There are men of his kind
who, in their hearts, at least, never grow old.

He had covered two or three miles when he saw a mounted man following
the trail to the settlement, and he rode on across the trail with a wave
of his hat. He did not feel inclined for conversation, and everything
had already been arranged. The mounted figure presently sank out of
sight again, and he pulled Volador up to a slow walk. He would give
Baxter half an hour to reach the settlement and put Slaney on his trail,
and there was no use in wasting his horse's strength in the meanwhile.

It was nearly an hour later, and he was riding slowly, a lonely, moving
speck in the center of a great level waste whose boundaries steadily
receded before him, when a faint drumming of hoofs came out of the
silence. Then he pulled Volador up altogether, and sat still,
listening, for a while, until he felt sure that his pursuer, who was
apparently riding hard, would hear him. He did not wish the man to draw
too close, but it would, on the other hand, serve no purpose if he rode
south unless Slaney followed him. It seemed only reasonable to suppose
that once the police decided that Winthrop had got safely away to Dakota
they would abandon the search for him in western Canada.

Then something in the sound, which was rapidly growing louder, struck
him as curious, and he listened more closely with a frown, for it was
now becoming evident that instead of one pursuer he had two to deal
with, which was certainly not what he had desired or expected. Touching
Volador with his heels, he let him go, and for five or six minutes they
fled south at a fast gallop with a thud of hoofs on sun-baked sod
ringing far behind them. Then he pulled the horse up with a struggle,
and listened again. He was at length certain that the police had heard
him and were following as fast as possible. There was no cover until he
reached the mountain; nothing but an open wilderness, unbroken by even a
ravine or a clump of willows, and he must ride.

Once more he let Volador go, and the cool night air streamed past him,
whipping his hot face and bringing the blood to it, while long billowy
rises came back to him, looking in the uncertain moonlight like the vast
undulations of a glassy sea underrun by the swell of a distant gale.
Each time he swung over the gradual crest of one, a rhythmic staccato
drumming became sharply audible, and sank again as he dipped into the
great grassy hollows. Volador seemed fresh still, which was consoling,
for there was no doubt that the sound of the pursuit was as clear as it
had been. This was a fresh surprise.

Half an hour passed, and they swung out upon a wide, high level, where
for the first time he twisted in his saddle and looked behind him. He
could see, rather more plainly than he cared about, two dim figures,
spread out well apart on the verge of the plateau, and it was evident
that they were not dropping behind. It would, he recognized, lead to
unpleasant complications if they overtook him. He raised a quirt he had
borrowed, but, reflecting, he let his arm drop again. After all, it
might be desirable to let Volador keep a little in hand. Then he glanced
to the westward, and was pleased to see that the moon was rapidly
nearing the rim of the plain. It would be dark when he reached the
mountain.

Volador was flagging a little when at length they swept up the slope of
another rise. On crossing the top of this Thorne was conscious of a
difference in the drumming of hoofs behind. One of the pursuers was
clearly falling back, which was satisfactory, though he fancied that the
other man was still holding his own. Then he saw away in front of him a
blurred mass with an uneven crest which cut dimly black against the sky.
It stretched broad across his course, and he struck Volador with the
quirt, for he recognized it as the mountain, and knew that he must ride
in earnest now. A mounted man would make a good deal of noise descending
the ravines which seamed it and smashing through the undergrowth beneath
the birches, and it was desirable that he should reach their shelter
well ahead of the troopers.

The horse responded gallantly, but the beat of hoofs which he longed to
get away from grew no fainter, and when five minutes had flown by he
plied the quirt again. He was very hot, and somewhat anxious, but the
moon was now near the verge of the prairie. It was large and red, and
already the light was failing, though a long black shadow still fled
beside him across the dewy grass.

At last he fancied he was drawing ahead, and a mad fit came upon him as
they went flying down a rugged and broken slope to a water-course, while
the mountain rose higher and blacker ahead. Stones clattered and rattled
under them, clouds of light soil flew up, and then there was a great
splashing as the horse plunged through the creek. After that the pace
grew slower as they faced the ascent; and he swung low in the saddle
when they sped in among the birches. A branch struck him in the face and
swept his hat away, but it had done its work and he decided that he was
better rid of it.

A semblance of a trail that dipped into hollows and swung over rises led
through the mountain, though as a rule any one riding south skirted
this. Thorne had already decided that he must leave it somewhere as
quietly as possible and let Corporal Slaney go by. He could not hear the
trooper now, and this was reassuring, for he would have to stop soon and
he did not wish his pursuer to notice that the noise in front of him had
suddenly ceased.

Two or three minutes later, however, the sound he was beginning to dread
once more reached him, breaking in upon the crackle of dry sticks under
his horse's hoofs and the crash he made as he now and then blundered
into a brake or thicket. It was very dark in the bluff; he could
scarcely see the spectral trunks of the flitting trees, and to pick the
way or avoid the obstacles around which the trail here and there twisted
was out of the question. He faced the hazards as they came and rode
savagely; but the thud of pursuing hoofs and the smashing and crackling
which mingled with it sounded very close when he reached the brink of a
ravine which he understood it was almost impossible to descend on
horseback. To dismount would, however, as he realized, entail his
capture; and setting his lips tight he drove the failing horse at the
almost precipitous gully. They plunged down with soil and stones sliding
and rattling after them, splashed into a creek, and were half-way up the
opposite side when a second clatter of falling stones was followed by a
heavy downward rush of loosened soil. Then there was a dull thud and
afterward a curiously impressive silence.

Thorne pulled up his badly blown horse and, twisting in his saddle,
looked back across the ravine. He could see nothing but a shadowy mass
of trees which stood out dimly against a strip of soft blue sky. He
could feel his heart beating, and the deep silence troubled him. Indeed,
it was with difficulty that he refrained from shouting to the fallen
man, but he reflected that as he had now and then spoken to Slaney, the
latter would probably recognize his voice. Then he heard the man get up,
and the sounds which followed indicated that he was urging his horse to
rise. Thorne once more tapped Volador with his quirt.

A hoarse cry rang after him, commanding him to stop, but this was on the
whole a consolation, for it did not seem likely that Slaney was badly
hurt if he could shout, and Thorne rode on with a laugh. He scarcely
supposed the policeman's horse would be fit for much after a heavy fall,
but there was another trooper somewhere behind who might turn up at any
moment. He purposely rode through a brake or two in order that the
crackle of undergrowth might make it clear that he was going on, and
then, when some time had passed and there was no sign of any pursuit, he
turned sharply off the trail and headed into the bush. It soon became
necessary to dismount and lead his horse, and finally he looped the
bridle round a branch and sat down wearily.

He fancied that half an hour had passed when he heard an increasing
sound which suggested that two mounted men were riding cautiously along
the trail some distance away. He could hear an occasional sharp snapping
of rotten branches and the crash of trodden undergrowth as well as the
beat of hoofs. Listening carefully, he decided that the riders were
pushing straight on, and he was sure of it later, when the sound began
to die away. He sat still, however, for almost another hour, and then
succeeded with some difficulty in finding the trail. Following it back
until it led him out of the mountain, he stripped off his duck jacket
and flung it where anybody who passed that way could not well help
seeing it, and then he took out a soft gray hat he had carried rolled up
in his belt. Clad in blue shirt and trousers, he rode on slowly into the
prairie. The dawn found him some miles from the mountain and at least as
far from any trail, in the open waste. Reaching a ravine, he lay down at
the bottom of it beside a creek and ate the breakfast he had brought
with him, while Volador cropped the grass. Then he went quietly to
sleep.

It was midday when he awakened, and falling dusk when he eventually
reached the ravine near the settlement, where he had left his wagon and
the other horse. There was nothing to suggest that anybody had visited
the place in his absence, and after making an excellent supper he lay
down again inside the vehicle with a sigh of content. Everything had
gone satisfactorily, and it was most unlikely that Winthrop would be
further troubled by the police. He did not know much about the
extradition laws, but it was generally believed that when a man once got
across the frontier the troopers contented themselves with notifying the
authorities and nothing further was heard of the matter, unless the
fugitive were guilty of some very serious offense. A good deal of the
boundary then ran through an empty wilderness, and it was difficult to
trace any one who managed to reach the settlements on its southern side.
Indeed, it was seldom that a determined attempt was made.

Early on the following morning Thorne set out for his holding, and on
the day after he got there he set about cutting prairie hay. As a rule,
nobody sows artificial grasses when taking up new land, but as some
fodder for the teams is required it is generally cut in a dried-up sloo
where the water gathers in the thaw. In such places the grass grows
tall, and as it rapidly ripens and whitens in the sun all the farmer
need do is to cut it and carry it home.

Thorne was stripped to shirt and trousers, besides being grimed all over
with dust, when looking around for a moment he saw Mrs. Farquhar and
Alison in a wagon not far away. A black cloud of flies hovered about his
head and followed his plodding horses, while a thick haze of dust rose
from the grass that went down before the clanging mower. He stopped,
however, and looked around with a tranquil smile when Mrs. Farquhar
pulled up her team.

"You seem astonished to see me," he said.

Mrs. Farquhar turned and pointed to the long rows of fallen grass.

"I'm certainly astonished to see all that hay down."

"I wonder," quizzed Thorne, "if you intended that to be complimentary.
You see, I rather cling to the idea that I can do as much as other
people when I'm forced to it."

"You must have had the team out at sunup and have made the most of every
minute since," laughed Mrs. Farquhar.

"It looks like it, unless I had them out the previous evening."

"You hadn't," declared Alison, and her companion broke in again.

"She is quite right. You were not here yesterday. It was partly to
satisfy her curiosity that Harry drove round to see."

Thorne fancied that Alison was not exactly pleased with this statement,
but she made no attempt to contradict it.

"What strikes me most," she said, "is the fact that you look as if you
had never been away."

"That," returned Thorne, "is the impression I wished to give people. Now
that I've had my frolic, I want to forget it. It's a natural desire. On
the whole, I'm sorry you took the trouble to ascertain that I've just
come back."

"The question is, what have you been doing while you were absent?" asked
Mrs. Farquhar severely.

"Selling things most of the time. It's another example of what you can
do if you try. I'd given up half a case of tarnished mirrors as quite
unsalable, and somehow or other I got rid of every one of them."

"Anything else?"

"Well," replied Thorne with a thoughtful air, "I had a rather pleasant
ride. In fact, I feel so braced up by the whole trip that I expect I
shall be able to go on steadily for another few months, at least."

"And then?" Alison inquired.

Thorne looked at her with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Oh," he said, "if any of my friends make too persistent attempts to
reform me it's quite possible I shall go off on the trail again."

"I don't think you need anticipate any further trouble of that kind,"
Alison assured him.

Thorne turned to Mrs. Farquhar.

"May I drive over to supper to-morrow evening? I'd like a talk with
Harry--among other things."

"Of course," responded Mrs. Farquhar. "As a matter of fact, though I
don't suppose it would have much result, I should like a talk with you.
In the meanwhile we'll get on. It wouldn't be considerate to keep you
back when you're seized by a fit of sensible activity."

She drove away with the clang of the mower following her and a few
minutes later she smiled at Alison.

"He's very far from perfect, and that's probably why he has so many
friends," she observed. "I should very much like to hear an unvarnished
account of all his doings since he went away."

Alison, though she would not confess it, was sensible of a similar
curiosity.



CHAPTER XII

HUNTER MAKES AN ENEMY


The committee of the new creamery scheme were sitting in a room of the
Graham's Bluff Hotel one evening after supper when Nevis laid his plan
for the financing of the project before them. He had come there at their
invitation for that purpose, and when he finished speaking they looked
at one another with uncertainty in their faces. There were six of them,
including Hunter, the chairman; prairie farmers who had been chosen by
their neighbors to decide on a means of raising the necessary capital.
All of them owned a few head of stock, for they were beginning to raise
cattle as well as wheat in that district, and one or two more fortunate
than their companions had an odd thousand dollars to their credit at the
bank, which was a somewhat unusual thing in the case of men of their
calling. The venture they contemplated would not have been justified
now, for the Government has lately erected creameries where there is a
reasonable demand for them. In a few moments Nevis, a little astonished
at his companions' silence, spoke again.

"You have heard my views, gentlemen," he said. "I'm prepared to find you
half the money on the terms laid down. It remains for you to decide
whether you will bring my scheme before the next meeting--in which case
it will, no doubt, be adopted."

Still nobody said anything and he leaned on the back of a chair with a
strip of paper in one hand, watching them out of keen, dark eyes. As
usual, he was almost too neatly dressed in light, tight-fitting clothes,
and this and his white, soft-skinned hands emphasized the contrast
between him and his audience. Among the latter were one or two men of
liberal education, but their faces, like those of the others, were
darkened by exposure to stinging frosts and scorching sun and their
hands were hard and brown. They looked what they were, men who lived
very plainly and spent their days in unremitting toil. Two, indeed, wore
old, soil-stained jackets over their coarse blue shirts, and there was
no attempt at elegance in the attire of the others.

Hunter, whose appearance was wholly inconspicuous, sat at the head of
the table with a quiet face, waiting for somebody to speak, though the
reticence of his companions did not astonish him. Nevis was a power in
that district, and Hunter had grounds for believing that three of those
present were in his debt. This made it reasonably evident that they
would not care to offend a man who was generally understood to be an
exacting creditor. Hunter had their case in his mind when at length he
spoke.

"Mr. Nevis's scheme seems perfectly clear, on the face of it, and we
have now to make up our minds whether we'll support it or not. If none
of you have any questions to put we'll ask him to excuse us for a few
minutes while we consider the matter and vote on it. I would suggest a
ballot--to be decided by a simple majority."

A gleam which Hunter noticed crept into Nevis's eyes and hinted that the
suggestion did not meet with his approval. It is possible he had
expected that some of the men would not care to vote against him
openly.

"That," said one briefly, "strikes me as the squarest way; I'll second
the proposition."

"Well," assented Nevis, "I won't embarrass you if you want to talk it
over. You can send for me when you want me. I'll go down for a smoke."

There was less reserve when he withdrew, and they discussed his plan
guardedly without arriving at any decision until Hunter laid six little
strips of paper and a pencil on the table.

"We'll vote on the scheme--the words for or against will be sufficient
without your names," he said.

Each wrote on a scrap of paper and flung it into a hat in turn, but two
of them, it was noticeable, hesitated for a moment or so. Then Hunter
shook out the papers and counted them.

"It's even--three for and three against," he announced. "Since that's
the case I'll exercise my chairman's option. It's against."

There was satisfaction in some of the faces and in the others
uncertainty, which, however, scarcely suggested much regret. Then they
decided on Hunter's recommendation to raise what capital they could
among their friends, even if they had to content themselves with a
smaller outlay. Nevis, who was called in, heard the result with an easy
indifference.

"Well," he said, "I can't complain. There was a risk in the thing,
anyway, and I guess you know what you want best."

He went out again, and soon afterward the meeting broke up; but Hunter,
who remained after the others had gone, was not astonished when Nevis
presently strolled into the room. He sat down opposite Hunter and
lighted a cigar.

"I suppose I have you to thank for this," he began.

"You mean the choosing of the alternative scheme? How did you find out
that you owed it to me?"

It was a difficult question, put with a disconcerting quietness. As it
happened, none of the committee had informed Nevis that the matter had
been decided by the chairman's vote, and he was naturally reluctant to
admit that three of them were under his influence.

"I didn't find out," he answered. "I assumed it."

"On what grounds?"

This was still more troublesome to parry, as it appeared quite possible
to Nevis that if he furnished Hunter with a hint of the truth the latter
would find means of getting rid of men who might under pressure be
tempted to betray the confidence of their comrades. He was beginning to
realize that the plain, brown-faced farmer with the unwavering eyes was
a match for him, which was a fact he had not suspected hitherto, though
he had been acquainted with him for some time. Then Hunter smiled
significantly.

"We'll let it pass," he said. "I don't mind admitting that you were
correct in your surmise. The thing turned upon my vote and I gave it
against your scheme. What follows?"

It was not a conciliatory answer, but it at least furnished Nevis with
the lead he desired.

"Your decision isn't quite final yet," he declared. "You have to report
it to a general meeting, and a good deal will depend on whether you
merely lay your views before those present or urge them upon them. Now,
as my proposition isn't an unreasonable one, I'll ask you right out
what your objections to it are?"

"I haven't any--to the scheme. As you say, it's reasonable, and it would
save our raising a good deal of money."

Nevis was not particularly sensitive, but something in his companion's
manner brought the blood to his cheek.

"Then you object to me--personally. Will you explain why?"

"Since you insist," replied Hunter. "To begin with, we propose to start
the creamery for the benefit of the stock-raising farmers in this
district, and several things lead me to believe that if you once get
your grip on the management it will in process of time be run for your
benefit exclusively. That is one reason I voted against your scheme, and
I'm rather glad the decision rested with me, because"--he paused a
moment--"I, at least, don't owe you any money."

Nevis with difficulty repressed a start at this. If Hunter was not in
his debt his wife undoubtedly was, and something might be made of the
fact by and by. In the meanwhile he was keenly anxious to secure an
interest in the creamery. Once he could manage it, he apprehended no
insuperable difficulty in obtaining control; but he could not get the
necessary footing in the face of Hunter's opposition.

"It strikes me we're only working around the point and shifting ground,"
he said. "What makes you believe I don't mean to act straight?"

"What happened in Langton's and Winthrop's case?"

Nevis sat silent a moment or two. There was a vein of vindictiveness in
him, but he was avaricious first of all, and he could generally keep his
resentment in the background when it was a question of money.

"Are you a friend of either of them?" he asked.

"Not exactly; but I took a certain interest in Winthrop--I liked the
man. In fact, I helped him out of a tight place once or twice, and might
have done it again, only that I realized the one result would be to put
a few more dollars into your pocket. That"--and Hunter smiled--"didn't
seem worth while."

"It was a straight deal; I lent him the money at the usual interest. He
couldn't have got it cheaper from anybody else."

Hunter looked at him in a curious manner and Nevis wondered somewhat
uneasily how much this farmer knew. He had been correct as far as he had
gone, but he had, as he recognized, left one opening for attack when he
had foreclosed on Winthrop's stock and homestead. There are exemption
laws in parts of Canada which to some extent protect the small farmer's
possessions from seizure for debt unless he has actually mortgaged them.
Winthrop had done this, but the mortgage was not a heavy one, and Nevis
had afterward lent him further money, with the deliberate intention of
breaking him. When the value of the possessions pledged greatly exceeds
what has been advanced on them, which is generally the case, it is now
and then profitable to foreclose, even though any excess above the loan
realized at the sale must ostensibly be handed to the borrower. There,
are, however, means of preventing him from getting very much of it, and
though the process is sometimes risky this did not count for much with
Nevis.

"Well," said Hunter quietly, "I'm not sure that what you tell me has any
bearing on the matter."

This might mean anything or nothing, and Nevis, determining to force an
issue, leaned forward confidentially.

"Let's face the point," he replied. "I want a share in this creamery--I
can make it pay. There's only you who really counts against me. I may as
well own it. Now, can't we come to terms somehow? I merely want you to
abandon your opposition, and you would have no difficulty in preventing
my doing anything that appeared against the stockholders' interests."

"I've already made up my mind that it would be safer to keep you out of
it."

"That's your last word?"

"Yes. I don't mean to be offensive. It's a matter of business."

His companion took up his hat. He had failed, as indeed he had half
expected to do, but he bade Hunter good-evening tranquilly and went out
with strong resentment in his heart. Henceforward he meant to adopt an
aggressive policy, and the farmer who had thwarted him must stand upon
his guard. This decision, however, was largely prompted by business
reasons, for Nevis had now no doubt that Hunter, who was looked up to as
a leader by his neighbors, would use his influence against him in other
matters besides the creamery scheme unless something could be done to
embarrass or discredit him. The farmer, he thought, was open to attack
in two ways--through his wife and through the defaulting debtor he had
befriended.

When Hunter walked out of the hotel a few minutes afterward he also was
thinking of Winthrop. He found Thorne harnessing his team.

"Did Winthrop ever show you his mortgage deed or any other papers
relating to his deal with Nevis?" he asked.

"No," answered Thorne; "I was only in his place three or four times. Why
do you ask?"

"There's a point in connection with it that occurs to me; but I dare say
he took them with him."

Hunter paused and flashed a quick glance at his companion.

"Do you know where he is?"

"I don't. As a matter of fact, I don't want to, though it's possible
that I could find out. The trouble is that if I made inquiries it might
set other people--Nevis, for instance--on his trail."

"Yes," assented Hunter, "there's a good deal in that. On the whole, it
might be wiser if you kept carefully clear of the thing, particularly if
Corporal Slaney feels inclined to move any further in the matter. Well,
as I've a long drive before me I must be getting on."

He turned away toward the stables and Thorne grinned cheerfully. He had
a respect for the astuteness of this quiet, steady-eyed farmer, and he
was disposed to fancy that Nevis would share it before the struggle
which he forecasted was over. What was more, he was quite ready to act
in any way as Hunter's ally, and he believed that between them they
could give the plotter something to think about.

It was getting dark when Hunter reached home and found his wife waiting
for him in the general living room. She was evidently a little out of
temper.

"You are very late," she said. "I suppose you have been to one of those
creamery meetings again?"

Hunter sat down where the lamplight fell upon his face, and there was a
trace of weariness in it.

"Yes," he answered; "I had to go. On the whole, I'm glad I did."

"A crisis of some kind? You haven't been increasing your interest in the
scheme?"

"No," replied Hunter with a smile; "not in money, anyway. You will, no
doubt, be pleased to hear it."

"I am," retorted Florence. "If you had been ready to give those people
anything they asked for it wouldn't have been flattering. You're not
remarkably generous where I'm concerned."

Hunter made a gesture of protest.

"I'm not giving them anything at all. Once we make it a success I can
get back the money I'm putting into the undertaking at any time; and if
I don't I expect every bit of it to earn me something."

He looked around at her directly, for he knew where the grievance lay.

"That's a very different matter from handing you a big check for your
expenses in Toronto or Montreal."

"Oh, yes," pouted Florence; "the latter would give me pleasure."

She paused and there was a sudden change in her expression.

"Elcot," she added, "can't you realize that now and then you can lay out
money without getting anything back for it, and yet find that it pays
you well?"

The man looked at her hesitatingly. He knew what this question meant and
he was half disposed to yield. Living simply and toiling hard, he had
treated her generously in comparison with his means, which, after all,
were not large; but he remembered that he had yielded rather often of
late and that each concession had merely led to a fresh demand.

"There's a limit, Flo," he said. "Still, if three hundred dollars will
meet the case I might stretch a point. I suppose you are determined on
that visit to Toronto?"

The woman knew that any further attempt to win him round would fail,
and, this being so, it seemed a pity to waste energy on him. The three
hundred dollars would by no means suffice for the purpose. This in
itself was unpleasant, but in the fact that he could not be induced to
make what appeared to be a small sacrifice for her pleasure there lay an
extra sting. It was, perhaps, a pity that she had of late given him
small cause for suspecting anything of the kind.

"It would be better than nothing," she said coldly, and then leaned back
in her chair in a sudden fit of impatience with him and the whole
situation.

"I sometimes wonder how I stand with you!" she exclaimed.

"First," declared the man, and he spoke the simple truth; but
unfortunately he was not wise enough to content himself with the brief
assurance. "Still," he added, "I have other duties."

"To Maverick Thorne, and Winthrop, and everybody in the district
generally!"

"Well," replied Hunter, with the hint of weariness creeping back into
his expression, "I suppose that more or less fits the case. You have all
along been first with me, and I think I have done what I could to please
you--and done it willingly. Still, there are these others--I owe them
something. When I came here, a poor man, they held out their hands to
me; one lent me a team, another, when I had no mower, cut and carried in
my hay, and some came over night after night to build my log barn. I
think I should have gone under if it hadn't been for them." He looked up
at his wife with resolute eyes. "Now that I can pay them back without,
in all probability, its costing me a dollar I'm at least going to try."

Florence's lips set scornfully. She had no liking for the surrounding
farmers. They were, in her estimation, mere unlettered toilers--simple,
unimaginative, brown-faced men who thought about nothing but the seasons
and the price of wheat. What was, perhaps, as much to the purpose, she
had a suspicion that most of them were not greatly impressed in her
favor. Now her husband was, it seemed, anxious to waste his means for
their benefit.

"Elcot," she asked abruptly, "has it never occurred to you that you
could make more of your life than you are doing here?"

Hunter faced the question humorously.

"It would be astonishing if it hadn't, since you have suggested it more
than once, but the answer is in the negative. This place is paying
pretty well, and my means would certainly not keep us in Winnipeg,
Toronto or Montreal; anyway, not in the comfort with which, after all,
you have been surrounded. Of course, I might, for instance, try to run a
store, but it doesn't strike me that this would be of much benefit to
you. Would the kind of people you like welcome you as readily if your
husband were retailing hats or groceries in the neighborhood?"

Florence knew that it was most improbable, though she would not confess
it. Instead, she decided to see if it were possible to irritate him.

"After all," she retorted, "there is no great difference between a
storekeeper and a farmer. All my city friends know what you are, and I
can find no fault with the way they treat me."

Hunter laughed as he glanced down at his hard brown hands and dusty
attire.

"The point is that in your case the farmer husband does not put in an
appearance. It might be different if he did."

Florence looked at him in silence for a moment or two. Though he had
been to the creamery meeting he was very plainly dressed; his bronzed
face and battered nails told their own tale of arduous toil in the open,
and there was no doubt that he looked a prairie farmer. Yet he was, as
she realized now and then, well favored in a way; a man who might have
made his mark in a different station, widely read and quietly forceful.
Indeed, his inflexibility on certain points, though it sometimes angered
her, compelled her deference.

"Oh," she cried at length, "it doesn't cost you much self-denial to stay
behind. It's easy for you to be content. You like this life."

"Yes," returned Hunter quietly; "I'm thankful that I do. It's what I was
made for. However, I don't wish to force too much of it on you, and so
I'll give you a check for the three hundred dollars."

He crossed the room and, opening a desk, sat down at it for a minute or
two. Then he came back and laid a strip of paper on the table in front
of Florence.

"After all," she conceded, "as I was away a good deal of last winter,
it's rather liberal, Elcot."

Hunter, without answering her, went quietly out.



CHAPTER XIII

NEVIS PICKS UP A CLUE


A week had slipped by since the meeting of the creamery committee and it
was about the middle of the afternoon when Nevis lay, cigar in hand, in
the shadow of a straggling bluff. It was pleasantly cool there and
scorching sunshine beat down upon the prairie, across which he had
plodded during the last half hour, and he had still some miles to go
before he could reach the farm at which he expected to borrow a team. He
was not fond of walking, but the man who had driven him out from the
settlement, being in haste to reach Graham's Bluff, had set him down
some distance from the homestead he desired to visit. Nevis found it
advisable to look his clients up every now and then and see how they
were getting on. This enabled him to sell to those who were not too
deeply in his debt implements and stores at top prices, and to put
judicious pressure upon the ones whose payments had fallen behind.

He was, however, thinking of Hunter as he lay full length among the
grass with a frown on his face. It seemed desirable to let the man who
had deprived him of what looked like a promising opportunity for lining
his pockets feel that it would be wiser to refrain from interfering with
his affairs in future, and he fancied that if Winthrop, whom Hunter had
confessed to befriending, should be brought to trial it would convey a
useful hint. This course was also advisable for other reasons. It must
be admitted that the bondholder does not always come out on top,
especially in bad seasons, and Nevis had already decided that the arrest
of Winthrop would serve as a warning to any of his neighbors who might
feel tempted to evade their liabilities in a similar fashion. He was
still on the absconder's trail, though as yet it had not led him very
far.

By and by he heard a soft beat of hoofs and a rattle of wheels, and
looking up was pleased to see Mrs. Hunter drive around a corner of the
bluff. He had of late been conscious of a growing delight in her
company, and, what was almost as much to the purpose, he had partly
thought out a plan of attacking her husband through her. He had,
however, too much tact to force himself on her, and he lay still,
apparently unobservant of her approach until she pulled up the horse.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"Resting," replied Nevis, rising to his feet. "I'm going across to
Jordan's place. Walking's no doubt healthy, but I'm afraid I'm not fond
of it."

He waited to see whether she would take the hint, which he had made as
plain as possible, and as he did so a gleam crept into his eyes.
Florence had an eye for color and an artistic taste in dress, and she
was attired then in filmy draperies of a faint, shimmering green--the
color of clear sea-water rippling over sand. They suggested the fine
contour of her form and emphasized the shifting tones of burnished
copper in her hair and the clearness of her eyes. What she saw in his
expression did not appear, but she smiled at him.

"Then if you will get in I can drive you part of the way," she said
graciously.

Nevis did not wait for a second invitation and she turned to him when he
had taken his place at her side.

"You haven't come back to call on us."

"No," responded Nevis; "I saw your husband at one of the creamery
meetings and I'm sorry to own there were one or two matters upon which
we couldn't agree."

He watched her to see how she would receive this, but she laughed.

"I'm not responsible for all Elcot's opinions, and I must do him the
justice to say that he seldom attempts to force them on me. For all
that, I shouldn't wonder if he were right."

Nevis was far too astute to disparage the man he did not like openly to
his wife, so he made a sign of assent.

"Yes," he said thoughtfully, "it's possible that he was. In one sense,
he generally is. Elcot's what one might call altruistic; he has a finer
perception of ethical right than the rest of us, and one could fancy it
occasionally makes difficulties for him. Indeed, it's bound to when he
rubs against ordinary mortals who're content to look out for what's
going to benefit them."

His companion recognized the truth of this, and, as he had expected, it
irritated her. Deep down in her nature there was a hidden respect for
the quiet, resolute man who, though he seldom proclaimed them, lived in
what she now and then considered too strict compliance with his
principles. He recognized his duty toward her and had discharged it, in
most respects, with a conscientious thoroughness; but that accomplished,
he had also recognized his duty to others, and had unwaveringly insisted
on fulfilling this in turn. There, as Nevis had cunningly suggested, lay
the grievance. It would have been more pleasant for her, and--she
confessed this--in many little ways also for him, had she stood alone
in his eyes, instead of merely standing first. There was a marked and
often inconvenient distinction between the two things. Now and then his
point of view appealed to her, but more often her pride received a jar
and she thought of him bitterly when he befriended his neighbors, as she
tried to convince herself, at her expense. She could, she felt, have
loved the man, and perhaps have made an unconditional surrender to him,
but he must first be hers altogether and think of nobody else.

Then Nevis interrupted her thoughts with a veiled purpose, and once more
touched the tender spot.

"Most of the boys think a good deal of Elcot, and I guess it's natural.
He has given quite a few of them a lift now and then. There's Winthrop
and Thorne, for instance--he guaranteed Maverick for a thousand dollars,
somebody told me--and now he's putting a good deal more into this
creamery scheme. From experience of their habits, I should say he must
find that kind of thing expensive now and then. Perhaps, if one might
suggest it, that is why he lives as plainly as he does. In a way, it's
rather fine of him, though it wouldn't appeal to me."

There was no doubt that any self-denial on her husband's part in which
she might be compelled to share did not appeal to Florence either, but
she noticed the tact with which Nevis had refrained from supporting his
statement by a reference to his loan or the unpaid bills.

"Well," she declared, "I, at least, believe in getting the most one can
out of life."

"That," said Nevis, "is my own idea, and it leads up to the question why
you haven't gone away yet? Have your husband's benefactions made it
impossible?"

He had at last attained his object. Florence had longed for the visit,
and had resented the fact that Elcot had not been willing to indulge her
in it at any cost. He had certainly given her a check, but, while
Toronto is a cheaper place than Montreal, three hundred dollars will not
go very far in any Canadian city, at least when one is satisfied with
only the best that is obtainable.

"They have certainly helped," she replied curtly.

Nevis recognized that she would not have admitted this had she not been
disposed to treat him on a confidential footing, and it was clear that
the indignation she had displayed in her answer was directed against her
husband and had not been occasioned by his presumption.

"Then," he suggested, "if you really wish to go, there's a way in which
it could be managed; though it's an act of self-sacrifice on my part to
further such an object."

Florence swallowed the last suggestion and looked at him sharply.

"You mean?"

"I could find you the money--on the same terms as the last." He added
the explanation hastily lest her pride should take alarm.

There was silence for a moment, and during it Florence's resentment
against her husband grew stronger. She was anxious for the visit, but
had he been poor she would have given it up more or less willingly.
That, however, was not the case, for, as her companion had cunningly
hinted, he was at least rich enough to bestow his favors on men like
Winthrop, the absconder, and the pedler Thorne. Now she blamed him for
driving her into borrowing from the man at her side.

"I should be glad to have it on those conditions," she said at length.

She pulled up the horse presently while Nevis took out a fountain-pen
and his pocketbook, and when she drove on again she held a check of his
in her hand. Twenty minutes later he looked around at her as the horse
plodded more slowly up a slight rise.

"I think I'll get out here," he said. "It's only half a mile to Jordan's
place; you can see the house from the top."

There was not a great deal in the words, but Florence grasped their
hidden significance. They conveyed a delicate suggestion that it might
not be desirable for her to be seen in his company, and she was quite
aware that to fall in with it would imply that there was already
something in their relations that must be kept concealed from their
neighbors' gaze. For a moment she felt inclined to insist on driving him
up to the homestead door, and then the feel of his check in her hand
restrained her. She stopped the horse and smiled when he got down.

"Thank you again," she said.

"That's a little superfluous," returned the man. "It's a business deal;
but if you can spare a few minutes when you are in Toronto you might
manage to write a line. After all, I can, perhaps, ask that much."

"I won't promise," Florence laughed. "Still, it's possible that I may
make the effort."

She drove away and Nevis climbed the rise feeling very well satisfied.
He had got a firmer hold on Hunter now and he meant to break ground for
the next attack by picking up Winthrop's trail. In this also, fortune
favored him, for when he drew up his hired rig outside Farquhar's house
on the following evening he found that both he and his wife were out.
Alison was in, however, and when she said that they would probably reach
home shortly he got down and sat a while talking with her on the stoop,
which in the summer frequently serves the purpose of a drawing-room at a
prairie homestead. Alison had met him once or twice before and was
sensible of a slight dislike toward the man, though she could not deny
that he was an amusing companion. By and by a girl drove along the trail
two or three hundred yards away in a wagon, and he gazed rather hard at
her.

"She recognized you, didn't she?" he questioned. "I can't quite fix
her."

"Lucy Calvert," Alison informed him.

"It's rather curious that I haven't seen her before, as I should
certainly have remembered it, though I had once or twice a deal with her
father."

Alison was conscious of a slight irritation, which, indeed, any
reference to the girl in question usually aroused in her.

"Then," she said, "if Lucy has any say in the matter you are scarcely
likely to do any further business with the family."

Nevis raised his eyebrows.

"I wonder what you mean?"

"Only that it's generally supposed Miss Calvert was to have married
Winthrop. Whether she still intends to do so is more than I know."

She was puzzled by the sudden intentness of the man's face and for no
particular cause half regretted the speech.

"It's the first time I've heard of it," he said thoughtfully. Then he
smiled. "Anyway, she can't be very wise if she's anxious to marry him."

Alison, who had watched him closely, fancied that his smile was meant to
cover his interest in the information she had given him. She also
noticed how quickly he changed the subject, and they talked about other
matters until at last, as Farquhar did not make his appearance, he stood
up.

"I'll look in another time," he told her. "It's getting late, and I'm
due at the bluff to-night."

Soon after he had driven away Farquhar turned up with his wife and
Thorne, and Alison noticed the frown on the latter's face when she
informed Mrs. Farquhar of Nevis's visit.

"I'm astonished that you have him here at all," he broke out.

"Why shouldn't I?" his hostess asked.

"That question," returned Thorne, "strikes me as a little superfluous,
considering that he's an utterly unscrupulous, scoundrelly vampire.
Still, I dare say you can forgive him a good deal for the sake of his
appearance."

Mrs. Farquhar laughed.

"The last, I suppose, is after all his chief offense."

Alison saw that this shot had reached its mark by the way Thorne drew
down his brows. The man, as she had heard, had a quick temper, but she
was not displeased that he should obviously resent the fact that Nevis
had spent half an hour in her company. Then, remembering that Winthrop
was a friend of Thorne's, she felt a little guilty, and when later on
they all sauntered out across the prairie, she drew him aside.

"There's something I think I should mention," she said. "I told Nevis
that Miss Calvert was to have married Winthrop. He seemed unusually
interested."

Thorne started and looked hard at her.

"What on earth made you do that?" he asked sharply. "Did he lead up to
it?"

"No," replied Alison with some reluctance, "I don't think he did. So far
as I can remember, I volunteered the information."

There was no doubt about the man's displeasure.

"He certainly would be interested, and I'm very much afraid you have
made trouble. But you haven't told me why you did it."

"I spoke on the spur of the moment--without thinking."

"Without thinking clearly," Thorne corrected. "For all that, it's
possible you had a kind of subconscious motive. You can't deny that you
are prejudiced against Winthrop."

Alison was sensible of a certain relief, and she smiled at him. The man
had shown some insight, but he had not gone quite far enough in his
surmises, for it was not Winthrop but Lucy Calvert against whom she was
prejudiced.

"What have I done?" she asked. "If it's any harm, I'm sorry."

Her companion's face relaxed. He never cherished his anger long.

"Well," he explained, "I'm afraid you have put Nevis on Winthrop's
trail, though the thing's not certain. After all, it's possible that
there's another reason for his interest."

"And that is?"

"He's a man with a weakness for pretty faces, which will probably get
him into trouble by and by, though he's generally supposed to be a
clever--philanderer. It's not quite the thing to abuse any one you
don't like when he's absent, but in spite of that I can't help saying
that he's absolutely unprincipled and should be avoided by every
self-respecting woman."

Again Alison smiled. He had spoken strongly, though he had carefully
picked his words, and she had little difficulty in following the
workings of his mind, which on the whole were amusing. He had meant the
speech as a warning to her.

"I suppose Miss Calvert could be called good-looking?" she suggested.

"That," answered Thorne, with a trace of sharpness, "is not quite the
point. She's a girl who has a good deal to contend with and is making a
very plucky fight. Whether she's wise in being as fond of Winthrop as
she seems to be is another matter; one that doesn't concern us. Anyway,
she has difficulties enough without it. It's not easy for two women to
make a living out of a farm of the kind they're running when it's
burdened with a heavy debt."

Alison could forgive him a good deal for his chivalrous pity, though the
fact that it was Lucy Calvert who had excited it still somewhat
irritated her. It seemed, however, that he had a little more to say.

"In any case," he added, "I'm glad you told me."

Then he turned back toward the others and she had no opportunity for
further speech with him. She noticed, however, that he seemed unusually
thoughtful during the rest of the evening.



CHAPTER XIV

WINTHROP'S LETTER


After breakfast the next morning Alison sat sewing in a thoughtful mood.
She now genuinely regretted having given Nevis the information about
Lucy Calvert, and in addition to this Thorne's reserve on the previous
evening somewhat troubled her. He had not thought fit to tell her what
he meant to do, but she was convinced that he would do something, and
the most obvious course would be to warn Lucy against any attempt which
Nevis might make to trace her lover. It was possible that the man might
cunningly entrap her into some admission that would be of assistance to
him. On the other hand, Alison realized that Thorne's task was not so
simple as it appeared on the face of it. Though quick-witted, he was,
she suspected, by no means subtle, and she supposed that he would find
it difficult to put Lucy on her guard without betraying the part that
she had played in the matter. She was quite sure that nothing would
induce him to let this become apparent.

It was, however, necessary that Lucy should be warned as soon as
possible, and Alison decided that as she was the one who had made the
trouble it was she who should set it right. This would be only an act of
justice, besides which it would give her an opportunity for forming a
clearer opinion of Lucy than she had as yet been able to do. As the
result of it all, she obtained Mrs. Farquhar's permission to visit the
Calvert homestead, which was not very far away, during the afternoon.

In the meanwhile Nevis had been considering how he could best make use
of the information she had supplied him, and his mind was still occupied
with the question when he drove across the prairie that afternoon. It
was a fiercely hot day, and the wide grassland, which had turned dusty
white again, was flooded with dazzling light. The usual invigorating
breeze was still, and Nevis's horse had fallen to a walk, pursued by a
cloud of flies, when he made out the mail-carrier plodding slowly down
the rut-marked trail in front of him. Nevis was quite aware that a
prairie mail-carrier is usually more or less acquainted with the affairs
of every farmer in the district he visits, and he pulled up when he
overtook him.

"What's the matter with your horse?" he asked. "Isn't it stipulated that
you should keep one?"

"That's so," assented the man. "The trouble is that you can't get a
horse that won't go lame on a round like this. I had to leave him at
Stretton's an hour ago."

"Going far?" Nevis asked.

"Round by Mrs. Calvert's to the ravine."

Nevis decided that he was fortunate, but he carefully concealed any sign
of satisfaction.

"I can give you a lift as far as the first place, if you like to get
in."

The man was glad to do so, and Nevis presently handed him a cigar.

"Do you get letters for all the farms every round?"

"No," replied his companion; "I'm quite glad I don't; guess I'd use up
two horses if I did. It saves me a league or two when I can cut out some
of my visits."

"Yes," agreed Nevis, who had a purpose in pursuing the topic. "One can
understand that. It's the people back from the trail who will give you
most trouble. It must be a morning's ride to Boyton's or Walthew's; and
Mrs. Calvert's is almost as much off your round. Do you have to go there
often?"

The question was asked casually, with no show of interest, and the
mail-carrier evidently suspected nothing.

"Most every trip the last few weeks," he replied.

Nevis felt that the scent was getting hot. He made a sign of sympathy.

"That's rough on you; anyway, if you have to pack out any weight," he
said. "Some of these people get a good many implement catalogues and
circulars from Winnipeg, no doubt?"

"In Mrs. Calvert's case it's one blamed letter takes me most a league
off the trail."

Nevis asked no more questions; they did not seem necessary. He had
discovered that somebody wrote to Mrs. Calvert or her daughter once a
week, and he had no trouble in deciding who it must be. He also
remembered that letters bore postmarks, and he had a strong desire to
ascertain where Winthrop was then located.

"If you like, I'll hand that letter in," he offered. "I'm calling on
Mrs. Calvert anyway, and you can go straight to the next place if you
give it to me."

The man hesitated a moment, and then shook his head.

"I'm sorry it can't be done," he said. "It's safer to stick to the
regulations, and then if you have any trouble nobody can turn round on
you."

Nevis was too wise to urge the point, though he meant, if it could by
any means be managed, to get the letter into his hands.

"Well," he assented, "I guess you're right in that."

They drove on to the Calvert homestead, which was rudely built of birch
logs sawed in a neighboring bluff, and Nevis sprang down first when an
elderly woman with a careworn face appeared in the doorway. The
mail-carrier, who followed him more slowly, stood still a moment
fumbling in his bag until the woman spoke to him.

"Got something to-day, Steve?"

"I've got it all right," was the answer. "Letter for Lucy. The trouble
is to find the thing."

Nevis, standing nearer the house, waited until the man took out an
envelope. Then he stretched out his hand, as though willing to save him
the trouble of walking up to the door, but the mail-carrier either did
not notice the action or was too punctilious in the execution of his
duty to deliver the letter to him.

"Here it is, Mrs. Calvert," he said. "Thank you, Mr. Nevis."

He strode away and Nevis turned to the woman with a smile.

"May I come in?" he asked. "I'll leave the horse here; he'll stand
quietly."

Mrs. Calvert made no objections, though he noticed that she laid the
envelope on a table across the room when he sat down.

"It's two or three years since I was in this house," he began.

"Three," corrected the woman.

"I suppose it is," acknowledged Nevis, who seemed to reflect. "I got on
with your husband pleasantly, and I'm sorry in several ways that our
connection has been broken off. I don't think the thing was any fault of
mine."

Mrs. Calvert did not answer at once. Winthrop was not a great favorite
of hers, and although she had made no attempt to turn Lucy against him
she had on the other hand not altogether sympathized with the latter's
views concerning her present visitor. She remembered that her husband
had liked the man, and there was no doubt that the goods he supplied
were of excellent quality. Nevis was certainly not scrupulous, and he
had treated some of those who dealt with him with harshness, but he at
least never descended to any petty trickery over the sale of a machine.
For one thing, he was too clever; he recognized that it was not worth
his while.

"Well," he added, "I don't like for old friends to leave me, and I
decided to look you up again. Will you want a new binder or a back-set
plow this fall?"

"We'll want a binder," answered his hostess, who was a woman of somewhat
yielding nature. "Still, I guess we'll get it from Grantly."

"His things are good enough, though he stands out for the top price,"
responded Nevis, who was too wise to disparage openly a rival's goods.
"Just now, however, I'm rather loaded up, and the orders aren't coming
along, so I'm making a special cut. I'll knock an extra four dollars off
the list figure for the binder, and wait for the money until you have
hauled in your wheat."

Nobody would have suspected that he did not care in the least whether he
secured the order or not, or that he had long ago decided that any
business he was likely to do with the woman was not worth his attention.
She, however, appeared to consider the offer.

"It's cheap, and that's a fact," she said. "It's most a pity I can't buy
the thing from you."

"I suppose that trouble over Winthrop has turned Miss Calvert against
me?"

"You have got it," was the answer. "Lucy's mad with you. She runs this
place, and she deals with Grantly."

This was the lead Nevis had been waiting for, and he seized upon it.

"If she's about, I'd like a talk with her. I might reason her out of her
prejudice against me."

"It wouldn't be easy. She drove over to the bluff, but she should be
back at any time now."

Nevis had no particular desire to see Miss Calvert, but he had made up
his mind to wait for an opportunity to examine the postmark on the
letter, if it could be managed. Taking a catalogue out of his pocket, he
proceeded to talk about the machines and implements described in it,
until at length there was a rattle of wheels outside and, somewhat to
his astonishment, Alison walked in. He rose when she greeted Mrs.
Calvert, and noticed that there was something which suggested hostility
in her eyes when for a moment she let them rest on him.

"Farquhar's hired man brought me; he's going to Bagshaw's place," she
announced. "I came over to see Lucy, but she seems to be out."

Mrs. Calvert asked her to wait a little, and when she was seated Nevis
sat down again. Alison, however, noticed that he had now moved to
another chair which was nearer the table than the one he had previously
occupied, and she wondered whether he could have had any particular
motive for changing his place. Then, leaning one elbow on the table, she
looked around the room.

There was only one window in it, for even with double casements it is
difficult enough to keep a small prairie homestead warm in winter, and
the place was somewhat shadowy. The log walls were uncovered, and she
could see the chinking of moss and clay which had been driven into the
crevices in them; and there was, as usual, nothing on the very roughly
boarded floor. One bright ray of sunshine, however, streamed in, and
fell dazzlingly across the table, upon which an apparently unopened
letter lay. The white envelope which caught the light seized her
attention, and she remembered that the mail-carrier visited the district
that day. As Lucy Calvert was not in, it was reasonable to suppose that
the letter was addressed to her, which would explain why her mother had
not opened it, and this supposition carried her a little farther. The
most likely person to write to the girl was her lover, and Alison was
almost sure that it was a man who had inscribed the address on the
envelope. By and by she saw Nevis glance at the square of paper in what
did not appear to be an altogether casual fashion, and the half-formed
idea in her mind grew into definite shape. There was a reason why he
should be interested in the letter, and she decided to sit him out. She
opened a conversation with Mrs. Calvert, and some time had slipped away
when a distant rattle of wheels rose out of the prairie. Nevis, rising,
addressed his hostess.

"I guess that's Miss Calvert, and as there's a point or two about our
binder which I believe I forgot to mention, I'd like to explain the
thing before she turns up," he said. "I want to get on again as soon as
possible after I've had a word with her. No doubt Miss Leigh will excuse
us for a minute."

He moved forward toward the table with what appeared to be a photograph
of some harvesting machinery in his hand, and as he did so Alison, who
remembered that they had been laughing and speaking rather loudly during
the last three or four minutes, fancied she heard a footstep outside the
open window. She was, however, not quite sure of this, and she watched
the man with every sense strung up as he approached her hostess. It
struck her that his object was to get near enough to see the writing or
the postmark on the envelope, which would probably be impossible after
Lucy arrived.

Leaning forward a little, she rested one arm farther on the table, which
was covered with a light cloth, and drew the latter toward her with a
slight movement of her elbow until a wider strip of it overhung the
edge. She could not warn her hostess in the hearing of the man, when she
had only suspicion to act on, but she was determined that he should not
discover Winthrop's whereabouts if she could help it. Nevis's eyes, as
she noticed, were fixed on the envelope, but he was evidently still too
far off to read the postmark, and she waited another moment, watching
him with mingled disgust and anger at the means he used.

In the meanwhile it was clear that Mrs. Calvert had no suspicion of what
was going forward, for there was nothing to show that Alison's heart was
beating a good deal faster than it generally did, or that the man was
conscious of a vindictive satisfaction. His approach had been ostensibly
careless, and there was only a faintly suggestive hardness in his eyes.
The girl sat very still, and if her face was a little more intent than
usual her hostess did not notice it.

Alison fancied that she heard a sound outside the window again, but she
paid no heed to it, and as Nevis was about to lay his hand on the table
and lean over it she moved her elbow sharply. The next moment the cloth
slid down into a heap on the floor, and the letter disappeared.

Nevis closed one hand viciously, but he opened it again immediately as
he turned to Alison. The man was quick, and held himself well in hand,
and she felt a certain satisfaction in outwitting him, for it was clear
that he had not suspected her of having any motive for jerking the cloth
off.

"Am I accountable for the accident?" he asked.

"No," replied Alison; "it was my fault."

The danger, however, was not quite over. Alison quietly felt with one
little, lightly shod foot beneath the cloth, part of which had caught
and rested on her dress. Her shoe touched something that seemed harder
than the soft fabric, and she contrived to draw it toward her.

"You knocked a letter off the table," said Nevis. "It must have fallen
somewhere near. Permit me."

He stooped to pick up the cloth, and Alison saw that Mrs. Calvert was at
last uneasy. It was obvious that she did not wish Nevis to lay his hands
on the envelope. He raised the cloth, and after a glance beneath it
moved a pace or two and shook it vigorously, but nothing fell out, and
Alison quietly pushed back her chair.

"It's here beneath my skirt."

She picked it up and handed it to Mrs. Calvert, who laid it on a shelf
across the room. After that there was a moment's silence, during which
the two women looked at each other curiously, while Nevis, whose face
was expressionless, looked at them both. Then the awkward stillness was
broken by the entrance of Thorne. Ignoring Nevis completely, he turned
to Mrs. Calvert with a smile.

"I don't know whether I need an excuse for this visit, but it occurred
to me that I could drive Miss Leigh home," he explained. "I was hauling
in logs for Gillow when Farquhar's hired man came along and told me he'd
brought Miss Leigh over but wasn't sure when he could come back for her.
Lucy will be here in a minute."

He leaned on a chair, talking about the wheat crop, until the rattle of
wheels, which had been growing louder, stopped, when he moved toward the
door, saying that he would help Lucy with the team. It was some time
before he reappeared with her, and then the girl turned imperiously to
Nevis.

"You here!" she exclaimed. "What do you want?"

"I was trying to sell your mother a binder," Nevis answered blandly.

Lucy, standing very straight, looked at him with a snap in her eyes.

"Then I guess you're wasting time. While there are implements to be had
anywhere between here and Winnipeg we'll buy none from you."

Nevis favored her with a single swift glance, and then took up his hat.

"In that case I may as well get on again. I dare say your mother and
Miss Leigh will excuse me."

He did not offer to shake hands with either of them, which may have been
due to the fact that Mrs. Calvert's face was now hard and suspicious,
and Alison carefully looked away from him. There was, also, a gleam of
ironical amusement, which probably had some effect, in Thorne's eyes.
Soon after he disappeared, Mrs. Calvert asked Thorne to come out and
look at a mower which she said the hired man had had some trouble with,
and when they left the room Lucy leaned back in her chair with her eyes
fixed on Alison in a significant manner. They were of a clear blue, and
Alison admitted that, with the somewhat unusual color in her cheeks and
the light on her mass of gleaming hair, the girl was aggressively
pretty.

"I'm glad they've gone--I guess I have to thank you for what you did,"
she said. "It was right smart, and I'm not sure my mother caught on to
the thing."

"How did you know?" Alison asked in rather disturbed astonishment.

Lucy laughed.

"Mavy saw you through the window. The mail-carrier told him Nevis was
here, and it was quite easy to figure what he was after. That's why Mavy
hitched his team behind the willows and crept up quiet to see what was
going on, so he could spoil his game, but he left it to you when he saw
that you were on to it. Said he felt quite sure you could fix the man."

Alison remembered the footstep at the window, but she was curious about
another aspect of the matter.

"Why did he tell you?" she asked.

Lucy's manner changed, and there was a hint of hardness in her
expression.

"Well," she answered, "perhaps he wanted me to know what you had done,
and, anyway, he had to put me on my guard. Still, though Mavy's quick,
they're none of them very smart after all, and there was a point that
didn't seem to strike him. He wasn't clear as to why Nevis would try to
pick up Jake's trail through me."

The last words were flung sharply at the listener, and Alison made a
gesture of appeal.

"Of course," she returned, "he wouldn't tell you that."

"No," declared Lucy; "nothing would have got it out of him. That's the
kind of man he is." She paused a moment. "What made you send Nevis after
me?"

"It was done without thinking. I couldn't foresee that it might make
trouble. I was sorry afterward; I am sorry now."

Her companion looked at her with disconcerting steadiness.

"We'll let it go at that. There's just this to say--you haven't any
reason to be afraid of me. I don't know a straighter man than Mavy
Thorne--but I don't want him! Jake's quite enough for me, and there's
trouble in front of him, with Nevis on his trail."

It cost Alison an effort to retain a befitting composure. This
plain-speaking girl had obviously taken a good deal for granted, but
Alison was uneasily conscious that she had certainly arrived at the
truth. It was a relief to her when Mrs. Calvert and Thorne presently
entered the room together.



CHAPTER XV

ON THE TRAIL


Nevis was not, as a rule, easily turned aside when he had taken a task
in hand, and his failure at the Calvert homestead only made him more
determined to run Winthrop down. Besides, he had not failed altogether,
for he had at least caught a glimpse of the stamp on the letter, and he
had no doubt that it was a Canadian one. There was an appreciable
difference in the design and color of the American stamps. This
indicated that in all probability Winthrop was still in Canada, in which
case there would be no difficulty in arresting him once his whereabouts
could be discovered. The tracing of the latter promised to be less easy,
but Nevis set about it, and shortly afterward fortune once more favored
him.

His business was an extensive one; he had money laid out here and there
over a wide stretch of country, and he had already discovered that it
required a good deal of watching. As a matter of fact, the latter was
advisable, for some of the men to whom he lent it were addicted to
disappearing without leaving any address or intimation as to what they
had done with the movable portion of their hypothecated possessions. It
is true that they generally had repaid Nevis a large part of his loan,
as well as an exorbitant interest for a considerable time, but then had
abandoned the struggle in despair. From his point of view, however,
neither fact had any particular bearing on the matter. He expected a
good deal more than the value of a hundred cents when he laid down a
dollar.

One night a week or two after he called on Mrs. Calvert, he strolled out
on to the platform of a train that had been run on to a lonely
side-track beside a galvanized iron shed and a big water-tank. He was
leaning on the rails, when the conductor came out of the vestibule
behind him.

"We're not scheduled to stop," he commented.

"No, sir," replied the conductor. "Guess the company had once a notion
of making a station here, but they cut it out. It's used as a
section-depot and side-track, and now and then a freight pulls up for
water. There's a soft spring here, and you can't get good water right
along the line. Any kind won't do in a locomotive boiler."

The man was unusually loquacious for a western railroad hand, and Nevis,
who had been glancing out at the shadowy sweep of prairie, amid which
the straight track lost itself, felt inclined to talk.

"But what's holding us up?" he asked.

"Montreal express. She's on the next section, and it's quite a long one.
They side-track everything to let her through."

A thought took shape in Nevis's mind. The point that suggested itself
appeared at least worth attention, and he asked a question:

"Would a wire to anybody in the district be sent to the station ahead?"

The conductor said that it would, and added that the man in charge of
the place where they were then stopping was called up only in case of
necessity to hold a train on the side-track. He explained that although
the instruments clicked out any message sent right along the circuit
the operators, as a rule, listened only when they got their particular
signal. This had a certain significance to Nevis.

"Is there often a freight-train waiting here when you come along?" he
asked.

"That's so," said his companion. "We take the section if the Atlantic
flyer's late, and they have to cut out the pick-up freight if she's in
front of us. When she was standing yonder one night a little while back
I saw what struck me as quite a curious thing. Just as we struck the
tail switches a man dropped off a caboose coupled on behind the
freight-cars; it was good clear moonlight, and I watched him. He kept
the train between him and the shack behind you, and started out over the
prairie as fast as he could. Then we ran in behind the freight-cars, but
as soon as we were clear the engineer pulled them out, and as I looked
back the man dropped into the grass like a stone. Bill, who runs this
place, was standing outside his shack, and that may have had something
to do with it."

"It sounds strange," commented Nevis. "Can you remember when it was?"

The conductor contrived to do so, and Nevis was not astonished when he
heard the date. He decided that it would be wise to compare his
conclusion with any views his companion might have about the matter.

"It's possible it was only one of the boys stealing a ride," he
suggested.

"In that case he needn't have been so scared of Bill," was the answer.
"It's most unlikely he'd have got out on the prairie after him. Strikes
me the man was mighty anxious nobody should see him. Anyway, I thought
no more about the thing, and only remembered it to-night."

Just then the scream of a whistle came ringing up the track, and the
conductor pointed to a fan-shaped blaze of brightness which swept up out
of the prairie.

"The express; I'll have to get along. We'll be off in two or three
minutes now."

Nevis lighted a cigar as soon as he was left alone, and by the time the
great express had flashed by with a clash and clatter he felt convinced
that Corporal Slaney had erred in assuming that Winthrop had escaped
across the frontier. Having arrived at this decision, he strolled back
into the lighted car as the train crept out across the switches on to
the waste of prairie. He had now something to act upon.

In the meanwhile, a weary man, dressed in somewhat ragged duck, sat one
evening outside a tent pitched in the hollow of a prairie coulée, with a
letter in his hand. His attitude was suggestive of dejection, but he
clenched the paper in hard, brown fingers, and there was an ominous look
in his weather-darkened face. It was careworn, though he was young, and
his general appearance and expression seemed to indicate that he was a
simple man who had borne a burden too heavy for him, until at last he
had revolted in desperation against the intolerable load.

A new branch line crept along the side of the shallow coulée, which
wound deviously across the great white sea of grass, and the trestles of
a half-finished bridge rose, a gaunt skeleton of timber, above the creek
that flowed through the valley. A cluster of tents and a galvanized iron
shack, with a funnel projecting above it, crowned the crest of a
neighboring ridge, and a murmur of voices and laughter rose faintly
from the groups of men who lay about them. Winthrop, however, had
pitched his camp a little distance from the others, so as to be nearer
his work, which consisted in removing the soil from the side of the
coulée to make room for the road-bed. He had obtained a team from a
neighboring rancher, and a satisfactory rate of payment from the
railroad contractor. Indeed, during the last few weeks he had almost
fancied that he was at last leaving his troubles behind him, and then
that afternoon another blow had suddenly fallen. The letter from Lucy
Calvert contained the disturbing news that Nevis, who seemed to have
discovered that he had not left Canada, was still in pursuit of him.

Presently two of his comrades from the camp strolled up to his tent and
stretched themselves out on the harsh, white grass in front of it. They
were attired as he was, and they had toiled hard under a scorching sun
all day handling heavy rails, but one was a man of excellent education,
and the other had owned a wheat farm until the frost had reaped his crop
and ruined him.

"You're looking blue to-night," commented the latter.

"Well," acknowledged Winthrop grimly, "there's a reason. I've put quite
a lot of work in on that road-bed the last few weeks, but the trouble is
I won't get a dollar unless I stay with it and keep up to specification
until next pay-day."

"Of course!" said the man who had spoken. "Why should you want to quit?"

Winthrop glanced at the letter.

"I've had a warning. Guess I'll have to pull out again sudden one of
these days."

There was silence for a few moments after this. The men had gone on
well together, and within certain limits the toilers in a track-grading
camp make friends rapidly, but for all that there are unwritten rules of
etiquette in such places, and questions on some points are apt to be
resented.

Still, Winthrop's face was troubled, and his expression hinted that it
might be a consolation to take somebody into his confidence.

"Creditors?" one of his companions ventured to suggest.

"You've hit it first time, Drakesford. Bondholder who's been bleeding me
quite a few years now. Raked in what I made each harvest--left me not
quite enough to live on--until I began to see that I'd have to work a
lifetime to get clear of him. When I knocked a little off the debt one
good year he piled up something else on me. Then I was short last
payment, and he shut down on my farm."

Drakesford turned to his companion.

"Ever hear anything like that before, Watson?"

There was a trace of dryness in the other man's smile.

"I have," he answered; "it's not quite new on the prairie. One or two of
the boys I know have been through that mill."

He turned toward Winthrop.

"How did the blamed insect first get hold of you?"

"I'd a notion of getting married, and meant to raise a record crop. Went
along to the blood-sucker, who was quite willing to back me, and took
out a mortgage. Pledged him all the place and stock for what he let me
have."

"Probably a third of its value," interposed Drakesford.

"About that," Winthrop agreed. "A big crop might have cleared me then,
but we had frost that year, and he commenced to play me. Made me insure
stock and homestead in his company--and I guess he stuck me over that.
Then I had to buy implements and any stores he sold from him, at about
twice the usual figure; and one way or another the debt kept piling up."

"Couldn't you have gone short in your payments before it got too big,
and let him sell the place?" suggested Drakesford. "In that case,
anything over and above what he advanced would have had to be refunded
to you. Still, the man you dealt with would probably have provided for
that difficulty."

Watson grinned.

"A sure thing! He wouldn't shut down until it was a year when wheat was
cheap and farms were bringing mighty little. Then he'd sell him up and
buy the place in through a dummy, 'way down beneath its value. After
that he'd rent it out until wheat went up and he'd get twice what he
gave for it from some sucker."

It is possible that the farmer had arrived at something very near the
truth, but his companion, who still seemed thoughtful, looked at
Winthrop.

"When you got notice of foreclosure I suppose you cleared out and left
him the place," he said. "How does that give him a hold on you?"

"I sold the team and stock first," replied Winthrop grimly. "He sent the
police after me."

The man made a sign of comprehension.

"Naturally! But haven't you got some homestead exemption laws in this
part of the country?"

"They don't apply to mortgaged property," Watson broke in. Then he
looked up sharply. "But, I guess you've hit it. The debt secured by
mortgage wasn't a big one, and the man piled up more on to it afterward.
The law would exempt from seizure on that."

Winthrop considered this moodily.

"Well," he answered at length, "suppose you're right. Who's going to
take up my case, and where am I to get the money to put up a fight? The
only lawyer in the district wouldn't act against the bondholder, and I
couldn't get at my mortgage deed anyway. It's in the man's hands, and I
haven't a copy. I got out with the price of a few beasts, and left the
rest to him." He paused, and clenched a big, brown hand. "If he's wise
he'll be content with that, and quit; but you can't satisfy that man.
He's got my farm; he's made my life bitter; brought three years of
trouble on the girl I meant to marry; and now he's after me again. Seems
to me I've laid down under it about long enough!"

He broke off and sat silent a while, gazing out across the prairie
toward where the red glow of sunset burned far off on the lonely
grassland's rim. Iron shack and clustered tents stood out against it
sharply now, and the faint sound of voices that came up through the
still, clear air seemed to jar on the man.

"They can laugh," he complained. "I could, once."

Then Watson changed the subject.

"Butler had a notion he'd try a shot or two to-morrow where the road
goes through the rise, and he sent some giant-powder along. He wants you
to clinch the detonators on the fuses and put them in."

Now dynamite is not often used in prairie railroading, but Winthrop had
once handled it in another part of the country, and had mentioned the
fact to a foreman who was disposed to experiment with it.

"It's no use in that loose stuff," he pointed out.

"Butler wants to try it," answered Watson. "There's no reason why you
shouldn't let him. I dumped the magazine he sent you in the coulée. I
didn't want to lie about smoking too near the detonators."

He walked away a little distance and came back with a case, out of which
Winthrop took what looked like several yellow wax candles. Then he cut
off three or four pieces of fuse, and carefully pinched down a big
copper cap on the end of each of them. These he inserted into different
sticks of the semi-plastic giant-powder in turn, and his companions drew
a little away from him as he did so. It was getting dark now, but they
could still see his face, and it was very hard and grim. It impressed
them unpleasantly as they watched him handle the yellow rolls which
contained imprisoned within them such tremendous powers. Giant-powder is
a somewhat unstable product, as Winthrop knew from experience and the
other two had heard, and in case of a premature explosion there was very
little doubt as to what the fate of the party would be. Annihilation in
its most literal sense was the only word that would describe it, for
there was force enough in those yellow sticks to transform material
flesh and blood into unsubstantial gases. The fulminate in the
detonators he cautiously imbedded was even more terrible, and sitting
with his bent form outlined darkly against the shadowy waste of grass,
he looked curiously sinister. He finished his task at last and handed
one of them the magazine.

"Shouldn't there be another stick?" Watson asked. "Have you left it in
the grass?"

"You can look," said Winthrop curtly, as he moved aside.

Watson glanced round the place where he had been sitting.

"I can't see it, anyway. I dare say I couldn't have brought another one,
after all."

He moved away with Drakesford and looked at the latter when they were
some distance from the tent.

"It's curious about that stick," he observed. "I'm not convinced yet
that I've got as many as I brought with me."

"Why should he want to keep one?" his companion asked.

"I don't know," Watson confessed. "But there was something in his face
that didn't please me."

"Yes," agreed Drakesford; "I've once or twice seen overdriven men look
like that, and so far as I can remember there was trouble afterward."

They said nothing further, and while they proceeded along the crest of
the coulée Winthrop, still sitting beside his tent, took a stick of
giant-powder from his pocket.



CHAPTER XVI

CORPORAL SLANEY'S DEFEAT


The sun had just dipped, and there was a wonderful invigorating coolness
in the dew-chilled air. Winthrop sat in the cook-shed which was built
against the back of the iron store-shack. Outside, as he could see
through the doorway, the prairie ran back, a vast gray-white stretch, to
the horizon, beneath as vast a sweep of green transparency. The little
shed, however, was growing shadowy, and a red twinkle showed through the
front of the stove in which the sinking fire was still burning.

The cook was somewhere outside talking with the boys, and Winthrop, who
wished to beg a cotton flour-bag from him to use in mending his clothes,
sat quietly smoking while he waited until he should come back. He felt
no inclination to join the others, for he had grown anxious and morose
since Lucy's warning had reached him a week or two earlier. He was quite
aware that there was some danger in remaining at his work, but pay-day
was approaching and he meant at least to wait until he could collect the
money due him. After that he would disappear again if anything
transpired to render it necessary. Just then Watson looked into the
shed.

"I guess you'd better come right out," he said hurriedly. "There are two
strangers riding into camp."

Winthrop was on his feet in a moment, and the haste with which he rose
betrayed his anxiety. Going out, he ran forward until he could obtain an
uninterrupted view of the plain. The waste of grass was growing dim,
but two mounted figures showed up black on it. Watson indicated them
with outstretched hand.

"Notice anything interesting about them?"

"Yes," Winthrop answered grimly; "they ride like police troopers."

"That's just how it seemed to me," exclaimed Drakesford. "They're coming
from southward, and if they'd left the trunk line soon after the
Vancouver train came in they would get here about now. They could have
borrowed horses from the rancher near the station."

Winthrop watched them steadily before he spoke.

"They're troopers, sure," he said at length. "The short one looks like
Corporal Slaney, who's out after me; and they'll be in before I could
catch either of my horses. I turned them out in the soft grass some way
back in the coulée."

"You have got to do something," declared Watson, "and do it right now!"

Winthrop glanced out across the great, level plain, and his face grew
set.

"They'd sure search the coulée, and, except for that, there isn't cover
for a coyote for a league or two. It won't be dark for half an hour yet,
and they'd ride me down in three or four minutes in the open."

This was obvious, and silence followed until Winthrop spoke again.

"I haven't a gun of any kind."

"That's fortunate," said Drakesford. "What do you want a gun for,
anyway? Plugging one of the troopers wouldn't help you."

In the meanwhile, the mounted figures were rapidly drawing nearer. The
three men stood tensely watching them until Winthrop suddenly swung
round toward his companions.

"You can tell them where my tent is, and they'll waste some minutes
going there. That's all I want you to do."

Watson looked at him inquiringly, but he made a sign of impatience.

"I'm going back to the cook-shed. You can't help any. Keep out of this
trouble."

Moving away from them, he disappeared into the shadowy interior of the
shed, and his companions waited until the rest of the men came running
up as the police rode in. The latter asked a few questions which Watson
answered truthfully, and then they rode off toward Winthrop's tent.
Presently one dismounted trooper reappeared, and proceeded to search the
other tents, amid ironical banter and a few protests. This took him some
time, and darkness was not far off when he reached the iron shack, the
door of which was unusually difficult to open, though Watson, who had
visited it in the meanwhile, could have explained the cause of it. Then
the other trooper came back, and led both horses out upon the prairie.
Leaving them there, he joined his comrade, who addressed the men.

"Boys," he said, "we're holding a warrant for your partner, and we've
got to have him."

"Nobody's stopping you," one of them answered. "We haven't a place to
hide him in unless he's crawled down a gopher-hole."

As a gopher is smaller than an ordinary squirrel, the point of this was
evident, and while a laugh went up the policemen conferred together in
front of the iron shack; then, after looking in, they walked around to
the back of it. They had no doubt already noticed the cook-shed, but as
it was very small and the door stood partly open, it appeared a most
unpromising place for the fugitive to seek refuge. Now, however, they
moved close to it, and Winthrop, sitting back in the shadow, became
dimly visible.

"Come out! We've got you!" one trooper cried.

The man did not move, but he had something in his hand, which was
stretched out toward the stove. One of the pot-holes in the top of the
stove was open, and a faint glow shone upon the object he held clenched
in his fingers. It bore, as Corporal Slaney noticed, no resemblance to a
pistol.

"Come out!" he repeated. "There's no use in making trouble."

Winthrop laughed in a jarring fashion.

"I guess I'll stay a while right where I am."

Then he raised his voice.

"If you're wise you'll wait outside, Corporal."

Slaney stood still just outside the door, peering into the shed; and the
trooper behind him had his carbine ready.

"Don't be foolish, Jake. We've got you sure," he called.

He moved a pace nearer, and Winthrop leaned forward a little farther
over the pot-hole.

"See what this is?" he inquired, glancing down at the object in his
hand.

"It's not a gun, anyway," said the trooper to his superior.

"It's a stick of giant-powder. There's a detonator in it and an inch or
two of fuse. As soon as you're inside the door I drop it in the stove."

Slaney promptly recoiled a yard or two. Having had some experience in
dealing with men driven to extremities, he knew that Winthrop's warning
was not empty bluff. There was something in the man's voice that
convinced him that he meant what he said. For the next few moments he
and the trooper stood irresolutely still, wondering what they should do,
while the motionless figure quietly watched them through the doorway.
The corporal was by no means timid or overcautious, and had Winthrop
held a pistol it is highly probable that he would have attempted to rush
him. Except in the hands of a master of it, the short-barreled weapon is
singularly unreliable, and shots fired by a man disturbed by fear or
anger as a rule go wide; but the stick of dynamite meant certain death.
Slaney had not the nerve to face that, and, besides, as he rightfully
reflected, it would serve no purpose except to nip in the bud the career
of a promising police officer. Then Winthrop spoke again.

"You'll have to haul off this time, Corporal. Letting this thing drop is
quicker than shooting, even if you had me covered."

"We could plug you from a distance through the shack," Slaney pointed
out.

"That's so," Winthrop assented calmly; "I guess you could; but I'm not
sure your bosses would thank you for doing it."

There was, as the corporal recognized, some truth in this. The police
would be held blameless for shooting down a fugitive who refused to
surrender, but after all the exploit would not count to their credit
unless the man were a desperado guilty of some particularly serious
offense. It was their business to capture the person for whom they had a
warrant.

Drawing back a little farther, the corporal conferred with the trooper,
who suggested several ways of getting over the difficulty, none of
which, however, appeared altogether practicable. For one thing, he said,
they could wait, sleeping in turn, until from utter weariness Winthrop's
vigilance relaxed; but that, it was evident, would most likely take more
time than they could spare. They could also seek the assistance of the
trackgraders and arrange with them to make a diversion while they crept
up unobserved. Against this there was, however, as the corporal pointed
out, the probability that the men were more or less in sympathy with the
fugitive, and that as a result any assistance they might be commanded to
render could not be depended on. He added that he would rather wait for
daylight, and then, if it should be absolutely necessary, fire into the
shed.

In the meantime Watson was discussing the affair with Drakesford.

"That man has some kind of plan in his mind, though I can't tell you
what it is," he declared. "Anyway, it would be better that the troopers
hadn't their horses handy in case he gets out in the dark and makes a
break for the prairie."

"They're back behind the tents," observed Drakesford, pointedly.

"Picketed," grinned Watson. "They should have knee-hobbled them. A horse
will now and then pull a picket out when the soil's light."

It was too dark to see his companion's face clearly, but Drakesford
appeared to smile in a manner that suggested comprehension, and they
strolled a little nearer the corporal, who had just sent for the cook.
The corporal explained that he had ridden a long way since his dinner,
and asked for a can of coffee and some eatables, and the cook proceeded
dubiously toward the shed. He came back empty-handed in a minute or two.

"I can't get you anything," he said. "The man you're after won't let me
in."

The corporal expressed his feelings somewhat freely, but the cook
grinned.

"You want to be reasonable," he protested. "How do you expect me to get
in, when he's holding off the two of you, and you've got arms?"

Watson touched his companion's shoulder.

"It's my opinion that our friend would better get out to-night," he
whispered. "The boys are holding off in the meanwhile, but if they can't
get their breakfast there'll probably be trouble."

Drakesford agreed with this, and shortly afterward he proceeded
circuitously toward the troopers' horses.

In the meanwhile, Slaney and his subordinate sat down on the grass well
apart from each other and about sixty yards from the cook-shed, and,
rolling their blankets about them, prepared to spend the night as
comfortably as possible. It was not very dark, though there was no moon,
and a slight haze, which promised an increased obscurity, was now
creeping across the sky. They could see the black shape of the shed, and
it was evident that nobody could slip out from it without their
observation; and they had their carbines handy. Slaney would have crept
up a little nearer, only that he felt it desirable to keep outside the
striking range of the giant-powder, in case Winthrop happened to get
drowsy and drop it in the stove.

After a while the track-graders, who had sat among the grass smoking and
watching the troopers, began to drift away to their sleeping-quarters.
The drama was interesting, but they had no part in it, and they would
certainly have to rise soon after sunup to a long day's arduous toil. In
the meanwhile, their attitude could best be described as reluctantly
neutral. There were a few toughs among them who had no doubt sufficient
reason for not loving a policeman of any kind, but the rest recognized
the inadvisability of any interference with constituted authority. On
the other hand, though they did not know the rights or wrongs of the
matter, the desperate, cold-blooded courage of the hard-pressed man
appealed to them, and they decided that Corporal Slaney need not look
for any effective assistance which it might be in their power to render.
Most of them were simple men who lived and toiled in the open, and, as
is usual with their kind, their sympathies were with the weaker party.

In an hour or two the last of them had vanished, and if a few still
watched outside their tents there was, at least, nothing that suggested
their presence to Corporal Slaney. He lay resting on one elbow, with his
eyes fixed on the shed, while a little chilly breeze set the dry grasses
rustling about him. It was now slightly darker than it usually is on the
prairie in summer-time, for the haze had gradually spread across most of
the sky. The tents had faded almost out of sight, though the black shape
of the shack remained, and now and then, when the breeze sank away, the
silence grew almost oppressive. Once the corporal started as he heard a
sound in the shed, but he sank down again when he recognized the clatter
and rattle that succeeded it. Winthrop, who evidently did not mean to
neglect any precaution, was, he decided, putting more fuel into the
stove. After that the howl of a coyote came faintly up the breeze, which
grew stronger, and the low murmur of the grasses began once more.

A pearly light was growing clearer on the eastern rim of the prairie
when at length Slaney, damp with the dew, rose to his feet with a shiver
and softly called the trooper, who announced that he had heard nothing
suspicious during the night. After a brief parley they crept up
cautiously a little nearer the shed, but there was, so far as they could
make out, no sign of life within. Indeed, the stillness was becoming
suspicious. Moving nearer still, they could look into part of the shed
through the open door, and, for the light was getting clearer, it became
evident that Winthrop was no longer sitting beside the stove. This was
encouraging, because it looked as if he had fallen asleep.

Making a short detour, so as to keep to one side of the entrance, they
crept up closer, with faces set and hearts beating a good deal faster
than usual; but there was no sound except a faint crackle, apparently
from the stove. Then Slaney lay down in the grass and crawled up to the
doorway, where he rose and suddenly sprang into the shed. The next
moment his voice rang out hoarse with anger, for the place was empty. He
waited until the trooper joined him, and then pointed to a little door
in the back of the larger building.

"That explains the thing!" he exclaimed. "You looked round the shack?"

"I did," the trooper admitted, and added, somewhat tactlessly, "so did
you."

Slaney frowned at this reminder, but it was evident that a discussion as
to whose fault it was that Winthrop had got away would in no way assist
them in his capture, and they proceeded into the larger building, where
they had no trouble in finding an explanation of his escape.

Men working on the prairie or in the bush of Canada are usually boarded
by their employers at a weekly charge, and there were a good many of
them engaged on the track. As a result of it, the iron shack was partly
filled with provisions, and when Slaney and the trooper entered by the
front they had seen a pile of cases and flour-bags apparently built up
against one wall. It was, however, growing dark then, and neither of
them had noticed that there was a narrow space behind the provisions
which had been left to facilitate the entrance of the cook. Winthrop, it
was clear, had slipped out through it in the darkness, and the shack had
prevented either of the watchers from seeing him crawl away across the
prairie. It occurred to Slaney that from the position of the tents it
was scarcely likely he had got away quite unnoticed, but he had reasons
for believing that it would be difficult to elicit any reliable
information on that point from the man's comrades.

There was only one thing to be done, and that was to mount as soon as
possible and endeavor to pick up the fugitive's trail; but when they
reached the spot where they had left their horses there was no sign of
them, and it was half an hour before the trooper came upon them some
distance up the coulée. Slaney was quite convinced that neither of the
beasts had succeeded in dragging the picket out of the ground
unassisted, but this was a thing he could not prove; and when the cook
had supplied them with a hastily prepared breakfast he and the trooper
rode away across the prairie.



CHAPTER XVII

A COMPROMISE


Thorne was driving Alison home from Graham's Bluff one afternoon about a
week after Winthrop's escape when a couple of horsemen became visible on
the crest of a low rise. The girl glanced at them from under her white
parasol, which shone dazzlingly in the fierce sunlight, and then fixed
her eyes on her companion.

"They're coming this way, aren't they?" she asked.

"They seem to be," replied Thorne. "One of them looks like the corporal,
and I shouldn't wonder if he wanted a word with me."

He saw the girl's slight start, but was not greatly flattered, as he
could not be sure whether it resulted from concern on his behalf or mere
annoyance. He knew what she thought of Winthrop.

"There's no cause for alarm," he added with a laugh. "I haven't done
anything particularly unlawful for some time."

He had half expected Alison to explain that she was not alarmed at all,
but she disappointed him, and he wondered whether there was any
significance in this. He had already discovered that she did not
invariably reveal exactly what she felt.

"What can he want?" she asked.

"It probably concerns Winthrop. I don't think I told you that they
almost caught him a little while ago, though he got away again."

"You didn't. Was that because you were afraid you could not trust me?"

A tinge of deeper color crept into her companion's face, and she decided
rightly that this was due to displeasure. In the encounters which were
not altogether infrequent between them she now and then delivered a
galling thrust, but this, he thought, was striking below the guard.

"What a question, Miss Leigh!"

"It wouldn't have been unnatural if you had considered it wiser to be
reticent. What happened on the last occasion would have justified it."

"If you are referring to Nevis's visit to Mrs. Calvert, I should be
quite willing to leave you to outwit him again. The way you secured the
letter was masterly. Still, in view of the opinions you expressed about
Winthrop, I don't understand why you did it, and, so far as I can
remember, you haven't explained the thing."

"I meant his visit to the Farquhar homestead when I told him about Lucy;
but I'll try to answer you. For one reason, I wanted to make amends for
my previous--rashness."

Alison paused at the word, as she remembered that Lucy had suggested
that what she now termed rashness was jealousy.

"Well," laughed Thorne, "you were certainly rash, but I feel inclined to
wonder whether you were anything else. Your hesitation just now
was--significant."

Alison recognized that she had a quick-witted antagonist.

"I believe I have already admitted that I was prejudiced against
Winthrop."

"That," returned Thorne, "is, perhaps, from your point of view, no more
than natural. In fact, I'm not sure I could say he was right in
everything he has done." He paused a moment. "But, I shouldn't like to
think that your prejudice extends to Lucy."

Alison had not expected this, and she wondered with some resentment
exactly what he meant to imply.

"Of course," he added, "some of her ideas and some of the things she
says might jar on you, but that doesn't count for very much, after all.
The girl's staunch all through, and the way she has stuck to Winthrop in
his trouble and the way she has run the farm would compel the respect of
any one who understood what she has had to put up with."

Alison wondered whether he wished to reassure her concerning Lucy's
devotion to her lover, which, as she remembered, the girl herself had
already done; but she scarcely fancied that he would adopt such a course
as this. It would, at least, be very much out of harmony with his usual
conduct.

"I venture to believe that Lucy and I will be good friends in the
future," she said.

Slaney and the trooper were now rapidly approaching, and a minute or two
later Thorne pulled up and turned to the corporal, who reined in his
horse close beside the wagon.

"You have something to say to me?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Slaney; "it's this: Do you know where Jake Winthrop is?"

"No," answered Thorne; "on the whole, I'm glad I don't. What's more, I
haven't the least suspicion."

They looked at each other steadily, and it struck Alison that the little
gesture Slaney made was a striking testimonial to her companion's
character. It indicated that the corporal had no hesitation in taking
the word of the man with whom he was at variance. Though she and Thorne
occupied the same seat they were far enough apart for her to see his
face, and as he sat with his broad hat tilted back, smiling down at
Slaney, she recognized that in spite of the old blue duck he wore there
was a virile grace in every line of his figure. In addition to this, by
contrast with the smartly uniformed corporal, he looked, as she felt it
could most fittingly be described, thoroughbred, and there was something
in his half-whimsical manner that curiously pleased her.

"I guess you heard what happened up the track?" Slaney next inquired.

"I did. Rather amusing in some respects, wasn't it? I understand that
you and the trooper sat out most of the night watching an empty shack."

"Well," asserted Slaney grimly, "there was nothing very amusing about
the giant-powder. I tell you the man meant to drop it into the fire."

"From what I know of Winthrop, I'm inclined to believe he did. In fact,
in my opinion, it would be considerably wiser of Nevis if he left that
man alone. I'm not sure he has a very good case against him, anyway;
though, of course, that's no concern of yours or mine. You can't pick up
his trail?"

"That's a cold fact," declared the corporal. "I guess you wouldn't mind
getting down and walking along a few yards with me?"

"It's not worth while. I've no objections to Miss Leigh's hearing what
you have to say, and I'm afraid Volador wouldn't stand unless I kept the
reins. The flies are bothering him, and he doesn't seem quite easy when
you're in the neighborhood." Thorne paused and laughed. "In a way,
that's not astonishing."

Slaney disregarded the last observation.

"Then," he said, "I'm not the man to make useless trouble--anyway,
unless it's going to give me a shove up toward promotion--but you're
worrying me. The fact is, wherever I pick up Winthrop's trail I strike
yours too. Now there was a night some while back when we ran one of you
down close to the frontier."

Thorne saw Alison glance sharply at the corporal, and he smiled.

"Why should I ride for the frontier with the police after me?"

"That's what I don't exactly know, but I have my views. I want to say
that we picked up a black plug hat when we were coming back along the
trail. The point is that the thing was new. Then we found a brown duck
jacket with a tear in it, but I figured the tear had been made quite
lately."

"I don't think you could prove very much from that."

"Well," said Slaney, "I could try. It would look bad if I put the other
matter of the horse Winthrop found near your homestead alongside it. Now
I'll ask you right out--Are you going to mix yourself up with Jake's
affairs any more?"

"In return, I'd like to hear whether you have any notion of carrying
your investigations further?" Thorne parried.

They looked rather hard at each other, and then Slaney smiled.

"I guess it will depend a good deal on your answer; that is, unless
Nevis gets hold of the thing."

"Then it's my intention to drop Jake Winthrop now. There's very little
probability of his wanting any further assistance that I could render
him."

"Well, let it go at that," replied Slaney simply. "I guess it will save
you trouble. Good-day to you."

He rode away, and Alison turned to her companion when they drove on
again.

"One could have imagined that you and the corporal were making a
bargain," she suggested.

Thorne laughed.

"Well," he admitted, "I'm afraid it was quite illegal, but it amounted
to something very much like that. The bargain, however, is only a
provisional one. If Nevis chances on the truth, he may upset it by
forcing Slaney's hand."

"But, after all, you gave each other only a vague hint. It would be
difficult even to reproach the corporal if, as you say, he went back on
it."

"Oh, yes," assented Thorne dryly. "Still, I haven't the least reason for
believing that probable."

Alison made no comment, though the attitude of both men appealed to her.
They were enemies in some respects, and yet once the indefinite
understanding had been arrived at neither seemed to have the slightest
fear that the other would violate it. They were, she remembered, men who
lived in the open, who broke and rode wild horses, and who faced
exposure and strenuous toil. Why this should be conducive to reliability
of character was not very clear, but it apparently had that result. Then
she remembered what the corporal had mentioned.

"You have been doing something to help Winthrop to escape since the
night you let him have the horse?"

Thorne admitted it, and when she pressed him for the story he told it
whimsically; but this time Alison felt no anger. A few plain words
spoken by Lucy Calvert had obviated that, for it was now quite clear
that the man had been prompted by mere chivalrous pity and lust of
excitement, and had no desire to win the girl's favor.

"That was splendid!" she exclaimed.

Thorne smiled, though he looked at her in a somewhat curious fashion.
Then at her request he related how Winthrop had held off the police. As
it happened, he could tell a story with dramatic force, and both the
brief narratives had their effect on Alison. She had imagination, and
could picture the man who now sat beside her smashing furiously through
the tangled bluff in the blackness of the night, and the other sitting
grimly resolute beside the stove with the stick of giant-powder in his
hand. After all, they were, she realized, the doings of primitive men;
but charity that did not stop to count the cost, and steadfast,
unflinching valor, were rudimentary too, and all the progress of a
complex civilization had evolved nothing finer. Man could add nothing to
them. They were perfect gifts to him, though there was reason for
believing that they were not distributed broadcast.

Then they chatted about other matters, and Alison was almost sorry when
the Farquhar homestead and its barns and stables rose, girt about with a
sweep of tall green wheat, out of the prairie. Thorne stayed for supper,
and he was standing beside his team with Farquhar an hour afterward when
the latter suddenly made an excuse and moved away as his wife came out
of the doorway. Thorne grinned at this, and there was still a gleam of
amusement in his eyes when his hostess stopped beside him. He indicated
the retreating Farquhar with a wave of his hand.

"Harry remembered that he'd want the wagon to-morrow, and there's a bolt
loose," he explained. "It didn't seem to occur to him until he noticed
you. I suppose one could call it a coincidence."

"Have you any different ideas on the subject?" Mrs. Farquhar inquired.

"Since you ask the question, it looks rather like collusion."

"Well," laughed Mrs. Farquhar, "I certainly wanted a little talk with
you. To begin with, I should like to point out that we have had a good
deal of your company lately."

"That's a fact. Perhaps I'd better say that quite apart from the
pleasure of spending an evening with you and Harry there's another
reason."

"The thing has been perfectly obvious for some time; indeed, it has had
my serious consideration. You see, I hold myself responsible for Alison
to some extent."

"You feel that you stand _in loco parentis_--I believe that's the
correct phrase--but in one way it doesn't seem to apply. Nobody would
believe you were old enough to be her mother."

Mrs. Farquhar glanced at him in half-amused impatience, but his manner
swiftly changed.

"It's my intention to marry Alison as soon as things permit," he added.
"Anyway, that is what I should like to do, but whether I'll ever get any
farther is, of course, another matter. It's one on which I'd be glad to
have your opinion; and that suggests a question. Can my views have been
perfectly obvious to Alison?"

His companion looked thoughtful.

"That's a little difficult to answer; though I feel inclined to say that
they certainly ought to have been. On the other hand, it's possible
that she may believe you merely saw in her what we'll call an
intellectual equal--somebody you would have more in common with than you
would, for example, with Lucy. This seems the more likely because I
don't think that marriage in itself has any great attraction for her.
Indeed, I'm inclined to fancy that it was rather a shock to her to
discover how it is regarded by some people in this country. It's
unfortunate that she fell in with one hasty suitor who was anxious to
marry her offhand immediately on her arrival. That being the case, it
strikes me that you had better proceed cautiously and avoid anything
that may suggest a too materialistic point of view."

Thorne made a gesture of comprehensive repudiation.

"I'm thankful that nobody could call me smugly practical. But, it must
be admitted that, as she is situated, marriage seems to be her only
vocation in this country."

"If you let her see that you think that, you may as well give up your
project." Mrs. Farquhar hesitated a moment. "Have you ever tried to
formulate what you expect from Alison?"

Thorne's smile made it evident that he guessed what was in her mind.

"I can at least tell you what I don't expect. I've no hankering for a
house and domestic comforts--in my experience they're singularly apt to
pall on one. I don't want a woman to mend my clothes and prepare me
tempting meals--that way of looking at the thing strikes one as almost
unthinkable, and there never was a banquet where the fare was half as
good as what you turn out of the blackened spider in the birch bluff. I
want Alison, with her English graces and English prejudices; her only,
and nothing else."

"That is a sentiment which would no doubt appeal to her; but one has to
be practical; and you would in any case have to do a good deal before
you got her. She couldn't, for instance, dress in flour-bags and live in
the wagon. Nor do I think that Bishop would feel equal to entertaining a
married couple during the winter."

"The point of all this is that you want to be satisfied that I can give
up my vagabond habits?" suggested Thorne. "Well, I must try to convince
you, though I want to say that it was a willing sacrifice. Haven't I
gone into harness--yoked myself down to a house and land, with a
mortgage on both of them; haven't I slept for several months now under
at least a partly shingled roof? If any more proof is wanted, haven't I
come to terms with Corporal Slaney and given up the excitement of
bluffing the police; and haven't I decided, as far as it's possible for
me, to leave Nevis unmolested? Aren't all these things foreign to my
nature?"

Mrs. Farquhar laughed.

"Mavy," she asked, "do you find living in some degree of comfort, and
devoting your intelligence to a task that will probably pay you, so very
intolerable?"

Thorne smiled and made a little, confidential gesture.

"I must confess that I don't find it quite as unpleasant as I had
expected. But you haven't given me your opinion on the point that
concerns me most."

"Then," said Mrs. Farquhar, with an air of reflection, "while Alison has
naturally not said anything to me on the subject, I don't think you need
consider your case as altogether desperate."

She smiled at Thorne, who swung himself up into his wagon and drove
away.



CHAPTER XVIII

NEVIS'S VISITOR


Florence Hunter had lately returned from Toronto and was sitting on the
veranda toward the middle of the afternoon in an unusually thoughtful
mood. Among other reasons for this, there was the fact that she had
spent a good deal of money while she was away, and she was far from sure
that she had received its full value. Most of the people she had met in
Toronto appeared to be endued with irritatingly respectable,
old-fashioned views, and as a result of it they could not be induced to
forget that she was a married woman separated for a few weeks from a
self-sacrificing husband. Indeed, one or two of them went so far as to
condole with her for his absence, and their general attitude imposed on
her an unwelcome restraint. There was certainly one exception, but this
man had no tact, and the lady who stood sponsor for her openly frowned
at his too marked devotion, while some of the others laughed. Florence
at length got rid of him summarily, and then half regretted it when
nobody else aspired to fill his place.

It had, further, occurred to her in Elcot's absence that he had a number
of strong points, after all. He was quiet and steadfast, not to be moved
from his purpose by anger or cajolery, and though this was sometimes
troublesome, there was no doubt that he was a man who could be relied
upon. She had nothing to fear, except, perhaps, her own imprudence,
while she was in his care. Then, although she would hardly have
expected it before she went away, she found the spacious wooden house
pleasantly cool and quiet after the stir and rush of life in the hot
city, and Elcot's unobtrusive regard for her comfort soothing. He never
fussed, but when she wanted anything done he was almost invariably at
hand. She determined to be more gracious to him in the future, for she
was troubled with a slightly uncomfortable feeling that he might have
had something to complain of in this respect in the past.

On the whole, her thoughts were far from pleasant, and in addition to
this the temperature, which was a good deal higher than usual, had a
depressing effect on her. There was no breeze that afternoon, and the
air was still and heavy; the white prairie flung back a trying light,
even on to the shaded veranda, and she felt restless, captious and
irritable. At length, however, she took up a book and endeavored to
become engrossed in it. She so far succeeded that she did not hear a
buggy drive up, and it was with a start that she straightened herself in
her chair as Nevis walked quietly on to the veranda.

"I never expected you!" she exclaimed.

The man smiled in a deprecatory fashion.

"I heard at the station that you arrived yesterday."

Florence frowned at this. The inference was too obvious; he evidently
wished to imply that it would have been unnatural had he delayed his
visit.

"Well," she said, "you startled me. Do you generally walk into places
that way--like a pickpocket?"

Nevis laughed, and when he sat down rather close to her, uninvited, she
favored him with a gaze of careful and undisguised scrutiny. Florence
could be openly rude upon occasion, and though his visits hitherto had
afforded her some satisfaction, she now felt that she would have been
better pleased had he stayed away. He was, as usual, tastefully dressed;
there was no doubt that his clothes became him; but somehow it struck
her that, although she had not realized this earlier, the man looked
cheap, which on consideration seemed the best word for it.

"I suppose you enjoyed yourself while you were away?" he began.

"No," replied Florence; "on the whole, I don't think I did."

She broke off and added irritably:

"Why do you always come at this time? If you drove over in the evening
you would find Elcot at home."

She was genuinely provoked by her companion's smile. It so tactlessly
implied that she did not mean what she had said. His signal lack of
delicacy jarred on her now, though she remembered with faint wonder that
she had on previous occasions found a relish in his conversation.

"Well," he answered, "for one reason, I generally call here when I'm
going to the bluff. It's convenient to get there for supper."

Florence was annoyed at the opening words. The hint that there was a
stronger reason which he had not mentioned was so crude that it savored
of mere impertinence. Somehow she felt disappointed in the man. She had,
as she realized at length, expected clever compliments from him, firmly
finished, subtle boldness that would be just sufficiently apparent to
convey a pleasurable thrill, and, with the latter exception, a wholly
respectful homage. As to what he had expected she was far from clear,
but that was a point of much less account. The polish, however, seemed
suddenly to have been rubbed off him, and there was nothing into which
she cared to look beneath. Even Elcot would have been capable of
something more skilful than his too familiar inanities. What had brought
about this change in the way she regarded him she did not know, but
there was no doubt that she felt all at once disillusioned. She was in
her caprices essentially variable.

"Your supper is evidently a matter of importance to you," she said.

Nevis looked at her sharply.

"Not more than it is to most other men. In return, I wonder if I might
point out that you don't seem quite as amiable as usual to-day?"

Florence laughed.

"As a matter of fact, I'm not. Nobody could feel very pleasant at this
temperature; and I'm disappointed--with several things." She leaned back
languidly in her chair with an air of weariness. "When that happens it's
a relief to be disagreeable to anybody who comes along. Besides, you're
not in the least entertaining this afternoon."

There was something in her manner that stung the man, and he ventured
upon an impertinence.

"I suppose that means that Elcot hasn't proved amenable, as usual; but
it's a little rough on me that I should have to meet the bill after a
long and scorching drive."

Florence laughed again, scornfully.

"Elcot," she retorted, "is accustomed to carrying his own load, and on
occasion other people's too, which is a weakness with which I'd never
credit you. Besides, if he'd traveled for a week to see me he wouldn't
think of reminding me of it."

"You seem inclined to drag his virtues out and parade them to-day."

There was no doubt that the man was going too far, and that led Florence
to wonder whether he could be driven into going any farther.

"That," she replied, "would be quite unnecessary in Elcot's case. In
fact, his virtues have an almost exasperating habit of meeting you in
the face, which is no doubt why it's rather pleasant to get away from
them--occasionally."

"You prefer something different on the off-days?"

"Yes," Florence answered reflectively, "I like a change; but it must be
admitted that I invariably feel an increased respect for Elcot after
it."

Nevis winced at this. She had made it clear that it was his part to
amuse her at irregular intervals and enhance her husband's finer
qualities by the contrast. It was not, however, one that appealed to
him, and he had a vindictive temper. As it happened, she presently gave
him an opportunity for indulging it.

"I wish I'd never gone to Toronto," she said petulantly.

"Considering everything, that's quite a pity," Nevis pointed out. "The
visit probably cost you a good deal of money; and"--he added this with a
grim suggestiveness--"wheat is steadily going down."

Florence gazed at him with a hardening face. He evidently meant it as a
reminder that she owed him money. The man was becoming intolerable.

"Is it?" she asked indifferently. "In any case, I shall no doubt manage
to meet my debts when they fall due."

Nevis had reasons for believing that it would be more difficult than
she seemed to anticipate, but he talked about something else, and then,
finding that his companion did not favor him with very much attention,
he took his leave. When he was getting into his buggy Hunter came up and
stopped him.

"I'm rather busy, but I can spare you a few minutes if it's necessary,"
he said.

Nevis looked at him with a provocative smile.

"It isn't," he answered. "It was your wife I came to see; she entrusted
me with the arranging of a little matter."

He gathered up the reins, and added, as though to explain his departure:

"There are several things I want to get through with at the bluff this
evening."

"Then I won't try to keep you."

Hunter walked up on the veranda and, leaning on the balustrade, looked
at his wife.

"You have had a deal of some kind with that man?"

A flush of anger swept into Florence's cheek.

"He told you that?" she exclaimed; and then added, with a harsh laugh,
"As it happens, he was quite correct."

Hunter stood still with an expressionless face for a moment or two,
apparently waiting in case she had anything else to say; and then, with
a gesture which might have meant anything, he moved away along the
veranda. Florence's conscience accused her when he disappeared into the
house; but she was most clearly sensible that she was now a little
afraid of Nevis and disposed to hate him. However, she lay quietly in
her basket-chair until word was brought her that supper was ready.

Two or three days later Nevis sat late one night in his office at the
railroad settlement. It was situated at the back of his implement store,
on the ground floor of a very ugly wooden building which had a false
front that rose a little beyond the ridge of roof. One door opened
directly on to the prairie; the other led into the store, from which
there exuded a pungent smell of paint and varnish. A nickeled lamp hung
over Nevis's head, and the little room was unpleasantly hot, so hot,
indeed, that he sat in his shirt-sleeves before a table littered with
papers. Not far away a small safe stood open. This contained further
papers tied up in several bundles and neatly endorsed. There was nothing
else in the room except a few shelves filled with account books; and
there was no covering on the floor. Nevis, like most commercial men in
the small western towns, wasted very little money on superfluous
accessories. He found that he could employ it much more profitably.

He had, as it happened, a troublesome matter to decide on, and seeing no
way out of the difficulties which complicated it, he rose at length,
and, lighting a cigar, opened the outer door and stood leaning against
it. It was cooler there, and he noticed that the night was unusually
dark. The stream of light that flowed out past him, forcing up his
figure in a sharp, black silhouette, only intensified the thick
obscurity in which it was almost immediately lost. It was also very
still, and he could hear his white shirt crackle at each slight movement
of the hand that held the cigar. Everybody in the little wooden town
was, he surmised, already asleep, though he knew that a west-bound train
would stop there in half an hour or so.

He did not know how long he remained in the doorway, but by degrees the
stillness became oppressive, and at last he started as a sound rose
suddenly out of the darkness. It was a faint, metallic rattle, and he
leaned forward a little, listening in strained attention. The noise was
so unexpected that it jarred on him.

Then he recollected that some of his neighbors were addicted to dumping
empty provision cans and similar refuse into a clump of willows which
straggled close up to the back of the town not far away, and he decided
that one of them had fallen down or rolled over. After that he went back
to his table, leaving the door open for the sake of coolness, and he was
once more occupied with his papers when he heard a sharp knocking at the
front of the store. Pushing his chair back he took out his watch.
Somebody who was going west by the train that was almost due apparently
desired to see him, though it seemed a curious thing that the man had
not called earlier. He rose and entered the store, where he fell against
the projecting handle of a plow in the darkness. This ruffled his
temper, and he spent some time impatiently fumbling for and undoing the
fastenings of the outer door. Then he flung it open somewhat violently,
and strode out into the darkness. There was, so far as he could see,
nobody in the vicinity, and when, moving forward a few paces he called
out, he got no answer.

Feeling slightly uneasy as well as astonished, he stood still for,
perhaps, a minute, gazing about him. He could dimly see the houses
across the street, with the tall false fronts of one or two cutting
black against the sky, but there was not a light in any of them, and
there was certainly no sound of footsteps. He was neither a nervous nor
a fanciful man, and it scarcely seemed possible that his ears had
deceived him. Swinging around suddenly, he went back into the store and
fastened the outer door before he reentered his office. The door at the
back of the office and the safe stood open just as he had left them.
Crossing the room he looked into the safe.

As a rule, a man's possessions are as secure in a small prairie town as
they would be in, for example, London or Montreal, but Nevis seldom kept
much money in his safe. He usually made his collections after harvest,
and remitted the proceeds to a bank in Winnipeg. A small iron cash-box,
however, occupied one shelf, and it was at once evident that this had
not been touched, which seemed to prove that nobody with dishonest
intentions had entered the place in his absence. This was satisfactory,
but a few moments later it struck him that one of the bundles of
docketed papers was not lying exactly where he had last placed it. He
could not be quite sure of this, though he was methodical in his habits,
and he took the bundle up and examined it. The tape around it was
securely tied and the papers did not seem to have been disturbed.
Besides this, they were in no sense marketable securities.

He laid them down again and closed the safe. Then, locking the outer
door behind him, he proceeded through the silent town toward the track.
As he did so the clanging of a locomotive bell broke through a
slackening clatter of wheels, and when after a smart run he reached the
station, hot and somewhat breathless, the lights of the long train were
just sliding out of it. He strode up to the agent, who stood in the
doorway of his office shack with a lantern in his hand.

"Did anybody get on board?" he asked.

"No," replied the agent. "Nobody got off, either. Did you expect to
catch up any one?"

"I fancied somebody called at the store a few minutes ago. It occurred
to me that the man might want to leave some message and had forgotten it
until he was going to catch the train."

"I guess it must have been a delusion," remarked the agent.

Nevis had almost arrived at the same conclusion. He waited a few
minutes, and then they walked back together through the settlement. The
agent left him outside the store, above which he had a room, and
dismissing the matter from his mind he went tranquilly to sleep half an
hour later.



CHAPTER XIX

THE MORTGAGE DEED


Alison was sitting alone in the general living-room of the Farquhar
homestead about an hour after breakfast when she laid down her sewing
with a start as a man whom she had not heard approaching suddenly
appeared in the doorway. He stood there, looking at her with what she
felt was a very suspicious curiosity, and there was no doubt that his
appearance was decidedly against him. His clothing, which had been
rudely patched with cotton flour-bags, was old and stained with soil;
his face was hard and grim; and she grew apprehensive under his fixed
scrutiny.

"Where's the rest of you?" he asked after an unpleasant silence of a few
moments.

Alison felt that it would be singularly injudicious to inform him, and
while she hesitated, wondering what to answer, he strode into the room
and fell heavily into the nearest chair.

"You'll excuse me," he apologized. "I'm played out."

The signs of weariness were plain on him, and Alison became a little
reassured. After all, she remembered, there was nothing of very much
value in the homestead; and she had never as yet had any reason to fear
the men she had come across upon the prairie. In fact, though one had
wanted to marry her offhand, their general conduct compared very
favorably with that of one or two whom she had met in English cities.

"Have you come far?" she asked.

"From the railroad--on my feet," answered the man. "I left it about
midnight two nights ago, and since then I've only had a morsel of food."
Then he smiled at her. "You haven't told me yet where Harry Farquhar and
his wife have gone."

It was clear that he had already satisfied himself that they were out,
and Alison reluctantly admitted it.

"Mrs. Farquhar has driven over to the bluff," she said. "She took her
husband with her, but she was to drop him at the ravine where the
birches are. He wanted to cut some poles."

The look of annoyance in the man's face further reassured her, as it
implied that he regretted Farquhar's absence almost as much as she had
done a few moments earlier.

"It's a sure thing I can't wait till they come back, and the trouble is
I can't make Mrs. Calvert's place without a rest, either."

He paused and gazed searchingly at Alison.

"You're Miss Leigh, aren't you? I guess you could be trusted; I've heard
of you."

Alison's astonishment was evident, and he smiled.

"It's quite likely," he added dryly, "that you've heard of me. My name's
Jake Winthrop."

Alison sat very still, and it was a moment or two before she spoke.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"Breakfast, if it wouldn't be too much trouble. Then, as Farquhar's out,
there's a piece of paper I'd like to give you. Guess it would be safer
out of my hands; the police troopers are after me."

Alison set the kettle and frying-pan on the stove. She was
compassionate by nature, and the man looked very jaded and weary. When
she sat down again he handed her a rather bulky folded paper which
appeared to be some kind of legal document.

"What am I to do with this?" she asked.

"You can give it to Farquhar, or keep it and hide it," said the man. "I
guess the last would be wisest. Nobody would figure you had the thing,
and I can't give it to Lucy, because Nevis would sure get after her."

"Is it very important?"

"It might be. I can't go and ask a lawyer now. Guess the man would feel
it was his duty to put Slaney on my trail, and I couldn't go near the
settlement in daylight without doing the same. Anyway, it's my mortgage
deed, and I have a notion that it might give me a pull on Nevis if the
troopers get me. If I'm right, he'll be mighty anxious to get it back
again."

"I don't understand," returned Alison. "If he was afraid of your using
it against him, he wouldn't have given it to you at all."

Winthrop grinned.

"He didn't. I got him out of his office late at night and crept in for
it. I knew where he kept the thing because I'd seen him put it in his
safe."

Alison was far from pleased with this confession, but while she
considered it another point occurred to her.

"But don't people generally get a duplicate of a paper of this kind?"
she asked.

"I had one, but Nevis wanted me to do something that didn't seem quite
what we had agreed on, and I went over with the deed to show him he was
wrong. He said I'd better leave it, and somehow or other I could never
get it out of his hands again."

"Ah," said Alison softly, "I think I wouldn't mind helping you against
that man. But you must tell me exactly what you mean to do."

"I'm going across to see Lucy--and out West somewhere after that. If I
can get away, and strike anything that will pay me, it's quite likely
that I'll leave Nevis alone. If I can't, or there's a reason for it
later, I'll write you, and Farquhar or Thorne could take the deed to a
lawyer and see if he could get at Nevis with it. In the meanwhile it
would be wiser if you just hid the thing away. If Farquhar knows nothing
about it, I guess it would save him trouble."

Alison did not answer for a moment or two. She felt that she was acting
imprudently in allowing herself to be drawn into the affair, but she was
sorry for the man. He was a friend of Thorne's, and that counted for a
good deal in his favor. In addition to this, the idea of playing a part,
and possibly a leading part, in something of the nature of a complicated
drama appealed to her, and there was, half formulated at the back of her
mind, the desire to prove to Thorne just what she was capable of.

"Well," she said at length, "you may leave it with me."

Then she set about getting him a meal, and a little while later he
limped wearily away. He left her with the impression that it would be
wise of Nevis to abandon his pursuit of him, for there was something in
the man's manner which indicated that he might prove dangerous if
pressed too hard. The morning had slipped away before she could get the
thought of him out of her mind.

In the meanwhile, he was plodding across the white wilderness under a
scorching sun. The atmosphere was crystallinely clear, and an almost
intolerable brightness flooded the wide levels. A birch bluff miles away
was etched in clean-cut tracery upon the horizon, but though the weary
man kept his eyes sharply open he felt reasonably safe from observation,
which it seemed desirable to avoid. He did not believe that any of the
scattered farmers would betray him, even if some pressure should be put
upon them with the view of extracting information, but it was clear that
they would be better able to evade any attempts Nevis or Slaney might
make to entrap them into some incautious admission if they had none to
impart. Winthrop based this decision on the fact that a man certainly
cannot tell what he does not know.

It was consoling to remember that the wide, open prairie is by no means
a bad place to hide in. A mounted figure or a team and wagon shows up
for a vast distance against the skyline, while a few grass tussocks less
than a foot in height will effectually conceal a man who lies down among
them with the outline of his body broken by the blades from anybody
passing within two or three hundred yards of him. Winthrop was aware,
however, that it would be different if he attempted to run away; and
once he dropped like a stone when a buggy rose unexpectedly out of a
ravine. The man who drove it was an acquaintance of his, but he seemed
to gaze right at the spot where Winthrop was stretched out without
seeing him. The latter was not disturbed again, but he cast rather
dubious glances round him as he resumed his march. There was another
long journey in front of him that night, and he did not like the signs
of the weather. It struck him as ominously clear.

He was, as it happened, not the only person who noticed this, for other
people who had at different times suffered severely in pocket from the
vagaries of the climate had arrived at much the same opinion that
afternoon, with more or less uneasiness according to their temperament.
The wheat was everywhere standing tall and green, and the season had
been on the whole so propitious that from bitter experience they almost
expected a change. As the small cultivator has discovered, the simile of
a beneficent nature is a singularly misleading one, for the stern truth
was proclaimed in ages long ago that man must toil with painful effort
for the bread he eats, and must subdue the earth before he can render it
fruitful. In the new West he has made himself many big machines,
including the great gang-plows that rip their multiple furrows through
the prairie soil, but he still lies defenseless against the fickle
elements.

Elcot Hunter, at least, was anxious that night as he sat in the general
living-room of his homestead opposite his wife. She was not greatly
interested in the book she held, and she glanced at him now and then as
he sat poring over a newspaper which was noted for its crop and market
reports. They afforded Hunter very little satisfaction, for they made it
clear that the West would produce enough wheat that season to flood an
already lifeless market.

The windows of the room were open wide, and the smell of sun-baked soil
damped by the heavy dew came in with the sound made by the movements of
a restless horse or two. The fall of hoofs appeared unusually distinct.
The wooden house, which had lain baking under a scorching sun all day,
was still very hot, but the faint puffs of air which flowed in were
delightfully cool, and at length Florence, who was very lightly clad,
shivered as one that was stronger than the rest lifted a sheet of
Hunter's paper.

"It is positively getting cold," she remarked.

"Cold?" returned Hunter. "I wouldn't call it that."

He resumed his reading, and three or four minutes had slipped by when
Florence turned to him with irritation in her manner.

"Haven't you anything to say, Elcot?" she broke out. "Are those crop
statistics so very fascinating?"

Hunter looked up at her with a rather grim smile. She lay in a low cane
chair beneath the lamp, with her figure falling into long sweeping
lines, attired in costly fripperies lately purchased in the East, but
there was not the least doubt that they became her. Indeed, with the
satiny whiteness of her neck and arms half revealed beneath the gauzy
draperies, and her hair gleaming lustrously about a face that had been
carefully shielded from the ravages of the weather, she seemed strangely
out of place in the primitively furnished room of a western homestead.
The man noticed it, as he had done on other occasions, with a pang of
regret. There had been a time when he had expected her to rejoice in his
successes and console him in his defeats, and it had hurt when she had
made it clear that any reference to his occupation only irritated her.
He had got over that, as he had borne other troubles, with an
uncomplaining quietness, and, though she had never suspected this, he
had often felt sorry for her. Still, he was a man of somewhat unyielding
character, and there was occasionally friction when he did what he
considered most fitting, in spite of her protests.

"Well," he said in answer to her question, "they have, anyway, some
interest to a farmer who has a good deal at stake." He threw the paper
down. "Things in general aren't very promising, and I may be rather
tightly fixed after the harvest. I seem to have been spending a great
deal of money lately."

Florence felt guilty. After all, as she was the principal cause of his
expenses, it was generous of him to put it as he had done. Indeed, she
decided to make a confession about the loan from Nevis sometime when he
appeared to be in an unusually favorable mood.

"You have a splendid crop, haven't you?" she asked.

"The trouble is that I may not get much for it, and a wheat crop is
never quite safe until it's thrashed out. I'm uncertain about the
weather."

"The aneroid has gone up; I looked at it."

"It's gone up too much and too suddenly," said Hunter. "That sometimes
means a bad outbreak from the north."

Florence was moved by a sudden impulse. The man was bronzed and
toughened by labor, but there was, as she had noticed since she came
home, a jaded look in his face.

"Elcot," she asked, "do you think I oughtn't to have gone away?"

The man seemed to consider this.

"No," he answered, "I don't think that, so long as you were able to
manage it with the little help I could give you." He paused a moment,
and looked puzzled, for there was a suspicion of heightened color in
Florence's face. "On the whole, I'm glad you went, if you enjoyed the
visit."

"You don't seem very sure. Wasn't it rather dull for you here?"

It was, so far as he could remember, the first time she had displayed
any interest on this point, and he smiled.

"Oh, I had the place to look after, as usual. It's fortunate that it
occupies a good deal of my attention."

Florence leaned forward suddenly.

"Elcot, won't you tell me exactly how much you mean by that?"

It was a moment or two before Hunter answered.

"Well," he said gravely, "since you have suggested it, perhaps I better
had, though it means the dragging in of questions we've talked over
quite often already. I took up farming because I couldn't stand the
cities and it seemed the thing I was most fitted for. On that point I
haven't changed my opinions. Where I did wrong was in marrying you." He
checked her with a lifted hand as she was about to speak. "If you had
never met me, you would probably have taken the next man with means who
came along."

"Yes," admitted Florence, meeting his gaze. "I think that's true. Having
gone so far, hadn't you better proceed?"

"I'm trying to look at it from your standpoint; I've never been sorry on
my own account."

Florence laughed in a strained fashion.

"That's a little difficult to believe. Still, one must do you the
justice to own that you have, at least, never mentioned your regrets."

"I don't think I've often mentioned my expectations either. That's one
reason I'm speaking now. You seem--approachable--to-night."

"I suppose they were not fulfilled?"

"If they were not, it was my own fault. I took you out of the
environment you were suited to and content with."

"I wasn't," Florence declared sharply. "Things were horribly unpleasant
to me then. I was struggling desperately to earn a living, and had to
put up with a good deal from most disagreeable people."

Again a faint, grim smile crept into her husband's eyes.

"After all, perfect candor is a little painful now and then; but let me
go on. At least, I brought you into an environment with which you were
not content. The kind of life I led was irksome to you; you could not
help me in it; even to hear me talk of what I did each day was
burdensome to you. I couldn't speak of my plans for the future, or the
difficulties that must be met and faced continually. For a while I felt
it badly."

"Yes," Florence acknowledged, "it must have been hard on you, Elcot."

"It could be borne, but there was another side of the matter. It was
clear that you were longing for company, stir, gaiety--and I could not
give them to you. As I've often said, I'm not rich enough to make a mark
in any of the cities, unless I went into business, for which I've
neither the training nor inclination, and most of my money is sunk in
the land here. It's difficult to sell a farm of this size for anything
like its value unless wheat is dear. Besides, the friends you would wish
to make wouldn't take to me. That is certain; I lived among people of
their description before I met you. I couldn't in any way have helped
you to make yourself a leading place in the only kind of society that
would satisfy you. All this has stood between us--no doubt it was
unavoidable--but it made the troubles I could share with no one a
little worse to bear, and my few successes of less account to me. After
all, since I could, at least, send you to the cities now and then, it
was fortunate that I had my farm." He stopped a moment and added
deprecatingly: "Whether you will be able to get away next winter is more
than I know. As I said, the outlook is far from promising in the
meanwhile."

Florence did not answer immediately. At last, she could clearly grasp
the man's point of view. Indeed, she realized that during the few years
they had lived together she had taken all he had to offer and had given
practically nothing in return. She felt almost impelled to tell him that
her last visit to the cities had brought her very little pleasure, and
that she would be willing to spend the next winter with him at the
lonely homestead; but she could not do so. A surrender of any kind was
difficult to her, and she had by degrees built up a barrier of reserve
between them that could not immediately be thrown down. Besides, there
was in the background the memory of Nevis's loan.

"Things may look better by and by," she said lamely.

Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, and it seemed to Florence that
the room grew perceptibly colder, while once or twice a little puff of
air struck with a sudden chill upon her face. Then there was a sharp
drumming, which ceased again abruptly, upon the shingled roof, and she
followed Hunter when he strode out on the veranda. An impenetrable
darkness now overhung most of the sky, and there was a wild beat of
hoofs as three or four invisible horses dashed across the paddock.
Florence knew that the beasts were young, and understood that they were
valuable. Her husband moved toward the steps.

"I'll put them into the stable, or, if I can't manage that, turn them
out on the prairie," he said. "I'm afraid of the new fence. They're not
accustomed to it yet, and there are two barbed strands in it."

"Take one of the hired men with you," Florence called after him, but he
made no answer, and the next moment a mad beat of hoofs once more broke
out as the uneasy horses galloped furiously back across the fenced-in
space.



CHAPTER XX

HAIL


The air had grown very still again when Florence leaned on the veranda
balustrade, gazing into the darkness, which was now intense. The brief
shower of heavy rain had wet the grass, and waves of warm moisture
charged with an odor like that of a hothouse seemed to flow about her
and recede again, leaving her almost shivering in her gauzy dress, for
between whiles it was by contrast strangely cold. She could hear Hunter
calling to the horses, which apparently broke away from him now and then
in short, savage rushes, but she could see nothing of him or them.
Presently the sharp cries of one of the hired men broke in, and
Florence, who felt her nerves tingling, became conscious of an
unpleasant tension.

Then for a second, or part of it, the figures of moving men and beasts
became visible, etched hard and black against an overwhelming
brightness, as a blaze of lightning smote the prairie. The glare of it
was dazzling, and when it vanished Florence was left gripping the
balustrade, bewildered and wrapped in an intolerable darkness. After
that a drumming of hoofs and a hoarse cry broke upon her ears, but both
were drowned and lost in a deafening crash of thunder. It rolled far
back into the distance in great reverberations, and while her light
skirt fluttered about her in an icy draught another sound emerged from
them as they died away.

It grew nearer and louder in a persistent, portentous crescendo, for at
first it suggested the galloping of a squadron of horse, then a
regiment, and at length the furious approach of a division of cavalry.
Holding fast to the balustrade, she could even imagine that there were
mingled with it the crash of jolting wheels and a clamor of wild voices
as of a host behind pressing onward to the onslaught. The din was
scarcely drowned by a tremendous rumbling that twice filled the air; and
there was forced upon her a vague perception of the fact that it was a
very real attack upon the things that enabled her to have the ease she
loved. Wheat and cattle, stables and homestead must, it almost seemed,
go down, and there were, as sole and pitiful defense, two men somewhere
out in the darkness exposed to the outbreak of elemental fury. There was
now no sign of her husband or his companion. It was quite impossible to
hear any sound they made, and she stood quivering, until, loosing her
hold of the balustrade with an effort, she ran down the steps.

"Elcot!" she cried.

No answer reached her. She knew it was useless to call, but an
overmastering fear came upon her as she remembered the mad flight of the
terrified horses, and she ran on a few paces over the wet grass, crying
out again. Then she was beaten back, gasping, with her hands raised in a
futile attempt to shield her face and her dress driven flat against her,
as a merciless shower of ice broke out of the darkness. It swept the
veranda like the storm of lead from a volley, only it did not cease;
crashing upon the balustrade and lashing the front of the house, while
the very building seemed to rock in the savage blast. She staggered back
before it, too dazed and bewildered to notice where she was going,
until she struck the wall and cowered against the boards. There was a
narrow roof above her, but it did not keep off much of the wind-driven
hail, and she could not be sure that the whole of it was now standing.
The veranda was wrapped in darkness, for the lamp had blown out.

She never remembered how long she stood there. For a time, every sense
was concentrated on an effort to shelter her face from the hail which
fell upon her thinly covered arms and shoulders like a scourge of
knotted wire. Then, faint and breathless, she crept forward toward where
she supposed the door must be, and staggered into the unlighted room.
She struck a chair, and sank into it, to sit shivering and listening
appalled to the cataclysm of sound.

Then a terror which had been driven out of her mind for the last few
minutes crept back. Elcot was out amid the rush of hurtling ice; and she
knew him well enough to feel certain that he would stay in the paddock
until the horses were secured. She could picture him trying to guide the
maddened beasts out between the slip-rails, heading them off from the
perilous fence they rushed down upon at a terror-stricken gallop, or,
perhaps, lying upon the hail-swept grass with a broken limb. It was
horrible to contemplate, and she became conscious of a torturing anxiety
concerning the safety of the man for whose comfort she had scarcely
spared a thought since she married him.

Though it was difficult, she contrived to shut the door and window, and
to relight the lamp, and then she glanced round the room. Elcot's paper
had fallen to pieces and had been scattered here and there, while a
long pile of hail lay melting on the floor. She could understand now
why she felt bruised all over except where the fullness of her dress had
protected her, for she had never seen hail like this in England. The
jagged lumps were of all shapes, and most of them seemed the size of
hazelnuts. Then she became conscious that her hair was streaming about
her face and that her dress clung saturated to her limbs. This, however,
appeared of no moment, for her anxiety about her husband was becoming
intolerable.

Nerving herself for an effort, she moved toward the door. It was flung
back upon her when she lifted the latch, and she staggered beneath the
blow. Then, panting hard, she forced it to again and went back limply to
her chair. It was utterly impossible for her to face that hail. She had
the will to do so, and she was no coward, but the flesh she had pampered
and shielded failed her, which was in no way astonishing. Wheat-growers,
herders, police troopers, and, unfortunately, patient women learn that
the body must be sternly brought into subjection to the mind by long
repression before one can face wind-driven ice, snow-laden blizzard, or
the awful cold which now and then descends upon the vast spaces of
western Canada.

In a few more minutes the uproar subsided. The drumming on the walls and
roof suddenly ceased and the wind no longer buffeted the house. The
tumult receded in gradations of sinking sound, until at last there was
silence, except for the drip from the veranda eaves. It was shortly
broken by quick footsteps and Florence turned toward the door as Hunter
came in.

His face showed where the hail had beaten it, for his hat had gone; the
water ran from him, and one hand was bleeding. He looked limp and
exhausted, but what struck her most was the sternness of his expression.

"Are you hurt?" she asked.

Hunter glanced down at his reddened hand.

"Nothing to speak of. I got a rip from the fence somehow, and one leg's
a little stiff; one of the horses must have kicked me. Guess I'll know
more about it to-morrow."

"And the horses?"

"We managed to get them out. But what were you doing outside? Your dress
is dripping."

Florence hesitated. It seemed extraordinary that while she had seldom
felt the least diffidence in dealing as appeared expedient with any of
the men she had known, she was unable to inform her husband that she had
been driven into the storm by anxiety for his safety; but somehow she
could not get the words out. She recognized that it had never occurred
to him that she could have been actuated by any motive of this kind,
though she was forced to own that, considering everything, this was no
more than natural. The thought brought a half-bitter smile into her
eyes.

"I was on the steps when the hail began, and I could scarcely get back
into the house," she said. "Can it have done very much harm?"

Hunter made a gesture of dejection.

"That's a point I'm most afraid to investigate, and it can't be done
to-night. In the meanwhile, hadn't you better get those wet things off?"

His preoccupied manner indicated that he was in no mood for
conversation, and Florence left him standing moodily still. It was some
minutes before he felt chilly and went upstairs to change his clothes,
but he came back almost immediately and took some papers and a couple
of account books from a bureau. After this he lighted his pipe and sat
down to make copious extracts, with a view to discovering how he stood.
He had no great trouble in ascertaining his liabilities, for he was a
methodical man, but it was different when he came to consider what he
had to set off against them. He had counted on his wheat crop to leave
him a certain surplus, but it now seemed unfortunately probable that
there would be no harvest at all that year. Admitting this, he busied
himself with figures in an attempt to discover how far it might be
possible to convert what promised to be a crushing disaster into a
temporary defeat, and several hours slipped by before any means of doing
so occurred to him. His expenses had been unusually heavy, there were
many points to consider and balance against each other, and a gray light
was breaking low down on the rim of the prairie when at length he rose
and thrust the books back into the bureau. The night's labor had at
least convinced him that if he were to hold his own during the next
twelve months it could be only by persistent effort and stern economy,
and he had misgivings as to how his wife would regard the prospect of
the latter.

On going out on to the veranda a few minutes later he was astonished to
hear footsteps behind him, and when he turned and waited Florence came
out of the doorway.

"I heard you moving and I came down," she said. "Are you going to look
at the wheat?"

"Yes," replied Hunter. "I'm afraid there won't be very much of it to
see."

The light was growing a little clearer and Florence noticed the
weariness of his face. He seemed to hold himself slackly and she had
never seen him fall into that dejected attitude. The man was, however,
physically jaded, for a day of severe labor had preceded the struggle in
the paddock and the hours he had spent in anxious thought, and he had,
as he was quite aware, a heavy blow to face.

"May I go with you?" she asked hesitatingly.

"Why?"

The question was not encouraging, nor was his manner, and Florence felt
reluctant to explain that her request had been prompted by a desire to
share his troubles. She was conscious that a statement to this effect
would probably appear somewhat astonishing, as she had never offered to
do anything of the kind hitherto.

"If you must have a reason, I'm as anxious to see what damage the hail
has done as you are. It can't very well affect you without affecting
me."

"Yes," agreed Hunter, "that's undoubtedly the case. I'm afraid you'll
have to put up with me and the homestead for the next twelve months.
It's quite likely that there'll be very few new dresses, either."

Florence endeavored to keep her patience. It was not often that she felt
in a penitent mood, and he did not seem disposed to make it any easier
for her.

"Do you suppose new dresses are a matter of vital importance to me?" she
asked.

"Well," answered Hunter, "since you put the question, several things
almost lead me to believe it."

He turned abruptly toward the steps.

"If you are coming with me, we may as well go along."

They crossed the wet paddock together, and now and then Florence
glanced covertly at her husband's face. It was set and anxious, but
there was no sign of surrender in it. She had, however, not expected to
see the latter, for she knew that Elcot was one who could, when occasion
demanded it, make a very stubborn fight.

At length they stopped and stood looking out across what at sunset had
been a vast sea of tall, green wheat. Now it had gone down, parts of it
as before the knife of a reaper, while the rest lay crushed and flung
this way and that, as though an army had marched through it. Lush blades
and half-formed ears were smashed into the mire and the odd clusters of
battered stalks that stood leaning above the tangled chaos only served
to heighten the suggestion of widespread ruin.

Florence watched her husband, but she did not care to speak, for there
are times when expressions of sympathy are superfluous. When he walked
slowly forward along the edge of the grain she followed him, without
noticing that her thin shoes were saturated and her light skirt was
trailing in the harsh wet grass. The ground rose slightly, and stopping
when they reached the highest point he answered her inquiring glance.

"It looks pretty bad," he said. "Some of it--a very little--may fill out
and ripen and we might get the binders through it, but the thing's going
to be difficult."

"Will this hit you very hard, Elcot?"

Hunter turned and looked at her with gravely searching eyes, and she
shrank from his gaze while a warmth crept into her face.

"Oh," she broke out indignantly, "I'm not thinking--now--of what I might
have to do without. Still, I suppose it was only natural that you should
suspect it."

The man's gesture seemed to imply that this was after all a matter of
minor importance, and it jarred on her.

"Well," he answered, "I guess I can weather the trouble, though it will
mean a long, stiff pull and a general whittling down of expenses. I
spent most of last night figuring on the latter, and I've got my plans
worked out, though it was troublesome to see where I was to begin."

Florence's heart smote her. Her allowance was a liberal one, but she
knew it would only be when every other expedient had failed that he
would think of touching that. It would have been a relief to tell him he
could begin with it, but she remembered Nevis's loan. The thought of
that loan was becoming a burden, and she felt that it must be wiped off
somehow at any cost.

"Yes," she sympathized, "it must have been difficult. You don't spend
much money unnecessarily, Elcot."

He did not answer, and she glanced at his hands, which were hard and
roughened like those of a workman. There was an untended red gash which
the fence had made across the back of one. Another glance at his
clothing carried her a little farther along the same line of thought,
for his garments were old and shabby and faded by the weather.

"Anyway," he said, apparently without having heeded her last
observation, "I'm thankful I have no debts just now."

It was an unconscious thrust, but Florence winced, for it wounded her,
and she began to see how Nevis had with deliberate purpose strengthened
the barrier between her and her husband. What was more, she determined
that the man should regret it. Why she had ever encouraged him she did
not know, but there was no doubt that she was anxious to get rid of him
now. She would have made an open confession about the loan then and
there, but the time was singularly inopportune. It was out of the
question that she should add to her husband's anxiety.

"After all, it doesn't often hail," she encouraged him. "Another good
year will set you straight again."

The man seemed lost in thought, but he looked up when she spoke.

"We can make a bid for it," he replied. "I must have bigger and newer
machines. Like most of the rest, I've been too afraid of launching out
and have clung to old-fashioned means. There will have to be a change
and a clearance before next season."

It was very matter-of-fact, but Florence knew him well enough to realize
what it implied. Defeat could not crush him; it only nerved him to a
more resolute fight, for which he meant to equip himself at any
sacrifice with more efficient weapons. Again she was conscious of a
growing respect for him.

"I'm afraid I have been a drag on you, Elcot, but in this case you can
count upon my doing--what I can."

He scarcely seemed to hear her, and she realized with a trace of bitter
amusement that her assurance did not appear of any particular
consequence to him.

"I have teams enough," he continued, picking up the course of thought
where he had broken off. "Anyway, one should get something for the old
machines."

Florence set her lips as they turned back toward the house. This was a
matter in which she evidently did not count; but there was no doubt that
in the light of past events the man's attitude was justified. It would
be necessary to prove that he was wrong, and, with Nevis's loan still to
be met, that promised to be difficult.

"Elcot," she said, "I don't think I've told you yet how sorry I am."

He looked at her in a manner which implied that his mind was still busy
with his plans.

"Yes--of course," he replied.



CHAPTER XXI

A POINT OF HONOR


Florence Hunter sat in her wagon in front of the grocery store at
Graham's Bluff waiting until the man who kept it should bring out
various goods she had ordered. Though a fresh breeze swept the
surrounding prairie the little town was very hot, and it looked
singularly unattractive with the dust blowing through its one unpaved
street. In one place a gaily striped shade, which flapped and fluttered
in the wind, had been stretched above the window of an ambitious store;
but with this exception the unlovely wooden buildings boldly fronted the
weather, with the sun-glare on their thin, rent boarding and the roofing
shingles crackling overhead, as they had done when they had borne the
scourge of snow-laden gales and the almost Arctic frost. They were
square and squat, as destitute, most of them, of paint as they were of
any attempt at adornment; and in hot weather the newer ones were
permeated with a pungent, resinous smell.

Where Florence sat, however, the odors that flowed out of the store were
more diffuse, for the fragrance of perspiring cheese was mingled with
that of pork which had gained flavor and lost its stiffness in the heat,
and the aroma of what was sold as coffee at Graham's Bluff. Florence,
indeed, had been glad to escape from the store, which resembled an oven
with savory cooking going on, though after all it was not a great deal
better in the wagon. The dust was beginning to gather in the folds of
her dainty dress, the wind plucked at her veil, and the fierce sun smote
her face.

On the whole, she was displeased with things in general and inclined to
regret that she had driven into the settlement, which she had done in a
fit of compunction. Hitherto she had contented herself with sending the
storekeeper an order for goods to be supplied, without any attempt to
investigate his charges, but now, with Elcot's harvest ruined it had
appeared her duty to consider carefully the subject of housekeeping
accounts. She rather resented the fact that her first experiment had
proved unpleasant, for she had shrunk from the sight of the slabs of
half-melted pork flung down for her inspection, and having hitherto
shopped only in England and eastern Canada she had found the naïve
abruptness of the western storekeeper somewhat hard on her temper.
Retail dealers in the prairie settlements seldom defer to their
customers. If the latter do not like their goods or charges they are
generally favored with a hint that they would better go somewhere else,
and there is an end of the matter. It really did not look as if much
encouragement was held out to those who aspired to cultivate the
domestic virtues. At length the storekeeper appeared with several large
packages.

"You want to cover this one up; it's the butter," he cautioned. "Guess
you're going to have some trouble in keeping it in the wagon if the sun
gets on to it. Better bring a big can next time, same as your hired man
does."

The warning was justified, because when the inexperienced customer
brings nothing to put it in, butter is usually retailed in light baskets
made of wood, in spite of the fact that it is addicted to running out
of them in the heat of the day. The man next deposited a heavy cotton
bag in the wagon, and while a thin cloud of flour which followed its
fall descended upon Florence he laid his hands on the wheel and looked
at her confidentially.

"I guess if your husband meant to let up on that creamery scheme you
would have heard of it," he suggested.

"Yes," replied Florence; "I don't think he has any intention of doing
so."

The man made a sign of assent.

"That's just what I was telling the boys last night. There were two or
three of them from Traverse staying at the hotel, and when we got to
talking about the hail they allowed that he'd have to cut the creamery
plan out. I said that when Elcot Hunter took a thing up he stayed with
it until he put it through."

His words had their effect on Florence. This, it seemed, was what the
men who dealt with Elcot thought of him. After a few more general
observations about the creamery her companion went back into his store,
and as he did so Nevis came out of a house near by. He stopped beside
her team.

"I didn't know you were in the settlement," he said, and his manner
implied that had he been acquainted with the fact he would have sought
her out.

Florence glanced at him sharply as she gathered up the reins. The man
seemed disposed to be more amiable than he had shown himself on the last
occasion, but she now cherished two strong grievances against him. He
had cunningly saddled her with a debt which was becoming horribly
embarrassing, and he had given her husband a hint that she had dealings
of some kind with him. As the latter course was, on the face of it,
clearly not calculated to earn her gratitude, she surmised that he must
have had some ulterior object in adopting it.

"I've been buying stores," she answered indifferently.

"That's a new departure, isn't it?" Nevis suggested. "You generally
contented yourself with sending in for them."

Florence did not like his tone, and he seemed suspiciously well informed
about her habits. This indicated that he had been making inquiries about
her, and she naturally resented it. She disregarded the speech, however.

"I suppose you're here on business?"

"Yes," answered Nevis, and there was something significant in his
manner; "I thought it wiser to look up my clients after the hail we had
two nights ago. It's going to make things very tight for many of the
prairie farmers."

"And a disaster naturally brings you on the field. Rather like the
vultures, isn't it?"

She was about to drive on, but Nevis suddenly laid his hand on the rein.

"I think you ought to give me a minute or two, if only to answer that,"
he said with a laugh. "You compared me to a pickpocket not long ago, and
I'm not prepared to own that you have chosen a very fortunate simile
now."

"No? After the fact you mentioned it struck me as rather apposite; but I
may have been wrong. The point's hardly worth discussing, and I'm going
on to the hotel."

She had expected him to take the hint and drop the rein, but he showed
no intention of doing so, and it suddenly dawned on her that he meant
to keep her talking as long as possible. Everybody in the settlement who
cared to look out could see them, and she had no doubt that the women in
the place were keenly observant. It almost seemed as if he wished the
fact that they had a good deal to say to each other to attract
attention, with the idea that this might serve to give him a further
hold on her. It was an opposite policy to the one he had pursued when
she had driven him across the prairie some time ago, but the man had
become bolder and more aggressive since then.

"Will you let that rein go?" she asked directly.

Nevis did not comply, and though he made a gesture of deprecation the
look in his eyes warned her that he meant to let her feel his power.

"Won't you give me an opportunity for convincing you that I'm not like
the vultures first? You see, they gather round the carrion, and I don't
suppose you would care to apply that term to the farmers in our
vicinity. Most of them aren't more than moribund yet."

It struck Florence that he was indifferent as to whether she took
offense at this or not; and he was undoubtedly determined to stick fast
to the rein. There were already one or two loungers watching them, and,
if he persisted, she could not start the team without some highly
undesirable display of force. The man, she fancied, realized this, and
an angry warmth crept into her face. Then, somewhat to her relief, she
saw Thorne strolling down the street behind her companion. He wore a
battered, wide gray hat, a blue shirt which hung open at the neck, duck
trousers and long boots, and though he was freely sprinkled with dust he
looked distinctly picturesque. What was more to the purpose, he seemed
to be regarding Nevis with suspicion, and she knew that he was a man of
quick resource. In any case, the situation was becoming intolerable, and
she flashed a quick glance at him. She fancied that he would understand
it as an intimation that he was wanted, and the expectation was
justified, for although she had never been gracious to him he approached
a little faster. In the meanwhile Nevis, who had seen nothing of all
this, talked on.

"There are, of course," he added, "people who are prejudiced against me;
but on the other hand I have set a good many of the small farmers on
their feet again."

"Presumably you made them pay for it?"

The man had no opportunity for answering this, for just then Thorne's
hand fell heavily upon his shoulder.

"You here, Nevis?" he cried.

Nevis dropped the rein as he swung around and Florence wasted no time in
starting her team. As the wagon jolted away down the rutted street
Nevis, standing still, somewhat flushed in face, gazed at Thorne.

"Well," he demanded, "what do you want?"

Thorne leaned against the front of the store with sardonic amusement in
his eyes.

"Oh," he replied, "it merely occurred to me that Mrs. Hunter wished to
drive on. I thought I'd better point it out to you."

Nevis glanced at him savagely and then strode away, which was, indeed,
all that he could do. An altercation would serve no useful purpose, and
his antagonist was notoriously quick at repartee.

Thorne proceeded toward the wooden hotel and crossing the veranda he
entered a long roughly boarded room, where he found Alison and Mrs.
Farquhar as well as Florence Hunter waiting for supper. Mrs. Farquhar
told him that supper would be served to them before the regular
customers came in for theirs. They chatted a while and then a young lad
appeared in the doorway and stopped hesitatingly.

"I'm sorry if I'm intruding," he apologized. "I meant to have supper
with the boys, and Symonds didn't tell me there was anybody in the
room."

Thorne turned to Mrs. Farquhar, and she smiled.

"Then unless you would prefer to take it with the boys, Dave, there's no
reason why you should run away," he said.

He led the lad toward Alison when Mrs. Farquhar had spoken to him.

"I think you will remember him, Miss Leigh. He's the young man who
boiled the fowls whole at the raising."

Alison laughed and shook hands with him, but after a word or two with
her he looked at Thorne significantly and moved a few paces toward the
door.

"Did you know that Winthrop was in the neighborhood?" he whispered.

Alison still stood near them and Thorne fancied that she started
slightly, which implied that she had overheard, though why the news
should cause her concern was far from clear to him.

"I didn't," he said sharply. "It's a little difficult to believe it now.
You're quite sure?"

"I saw him," the lad persisted. "I was riding here along the trail and
I'd come to the ravine. It's quite likely the birches had hidden me, for
when I came out of them he was sitting on the edge of the sloo on the
south side, near enough for me to recognize him, eating something. The
next moment he rolled over into the grass and vanished."

"Then you didn't speak to him?"

"He was too quick. It looked as if he didn't want me to see him, and I
rode on. I had to call at Forrester's and I found Corporal Slaney there.
One or two things he said made it clear that he hadn't the faintest
notion that Winthrop was within a mile or two of him."

He was apparently about to add something further when Thorne looked at
him warningly. They were standing near the entrance, the approach to
which led through the veranda, and the next moment Nevis walked into the
room.

"Have you been picking up interesting news?" he asked. "I believe I
caught Winthrop's name."

It was spoken sharply, in the expectation, Thorne fancied, that his
companion, taken off his guard, would blurt out some fresh information;
but the lad turned toward Nevis with an air of cold resentment.

"I was talking to Mr. Thorne," he replied.

Nevis laughed, though Thorne noticed that he did not do it easily.

"Well," he said, "I'm sorry if I interrupted you."

Then he turned toward the others as if he had just noticed them.

"I didn't know that Symonds had placed the room at your disposal; I've
no doubt that will excuse me."

Nobody invited him to remain, but he withdrew gracefully, and when he
had gone Thorne led the lad out on to the veranda. It was unoccupied,
but as it stood some little height above the ground he walked to the
edge of it and looked over before he spoke.

"Now, Dave, I want you to tell me one or two things as clearly as you
can."

The lad answered his questions, and in a minute or two Thorne nodded as
if satisfied. Then he pointed to the room.

"Go in and talk to Mrs. Farquhar. Keep clear of Nevis, and ride home as
soon as you can after supper. If you feel compelled to mention the
thing, there's no reason why you shouldn't to-morrow. It won't do much
harm then."

He went down the steps and along the street, and when he came back some
time later he found Alison waiting for him on the veranda.

"So you heard what Dave told me? I thought you did," he said.

"Yes," assented Alison. "The question is whether Nevis heard him too."

"He certainly heard part, but there are one or two things he can't very
well know. For instance, it was Slaney's intention to ride in to the
railroad as soon as he'd had supper."

"Forrester's place must be at least two leagues from here," commented
Alison.

"About that," Thorne agreed with a smile. "It's far enough to make it
exceedingly probable that anybody who started from this settlement when
he'd had his supper would only get there after Winthrop had gone."

"But Nevis might send a messenger immediately."

Thorne shook his head.

"It strikes me as very unlikely that he'd get any one to go. There are
only one or two horses in the place, and I've been round to see the men
to whom they belong."

Alison's eyes sparkled approvingly.

"But suppose he goes himself?"

"He won't until after supper. Nevis is not the man to deny himself
unless it seems absolutely necessary, and he'll naturally assume that
Slaney is spending the night with Forrester. But there's a certain
probability of his setting out immediately after the meal."

"And what are you going to do about it?"

Thorne's expression became regretful.

"I'm very much afraid I can't do anything. You see,
the--arrangement--with Corporal Slaney stands in the way."

"You never thought that Winthrop would come back here when you made it,"
Alison suggested.

"No," acknowledged Thorne; "the point is that the corporal didn't
either."

Alison appeared to reflect, and he watched her with quiet amusement.

"I've changed my mind about Winthrop," she told him at length. "I want
him to get away."

Thorne made no answer, and she continued:

"Lucy Calvert is, no doubt, a good deal more anxious than I am that he
should escape, and it would be only natural if you wished to earn her
thanks. I think she could be very nice, and her eyes are wonderfully
blue."

Thorne met her inquiring gaze with one of contemplative scrutiny.

"Yours," he said, "are usually delightfully still and gray--like a pool
on a moorland stream at home under a faintly clouded sky; but now and
then they gleam with a golden light as the water does when the sun comes
through."

His companion hastily abandoned that line of attack. His defense was too
vigorous for her to follow it up.

"You feel that your hands are absolutely tied by the hint you gave
Slaney that afternoon?" she asked.

"That's how it strikes me," Thorne declared. "In this case I'm afraid
I'll have to stand aside and content myself with looking on."

"But haven't you already made it difficult for Nevis to get a
messenger?"

"I've certainly given a couple of men a hint that I'd rather they didn't
do any errand of his to-night. That may have been going too far--I can't
tell." He paused and laughed softly. "Except when it's a case of selling
patent medicines, I'm not a casuist."

Alison realized his point of view and in several ways it appealed to
her. He had treated the matter humorously, but, though so little had
been said by either of the men, it was clear that he felt he had pledged
himself to Slaney, and was not to be moved.

"Well," she urged, "somebody must stop Nevis from driving over to
Forrester's."

"It would be very desirable," Thorne admitted dryly. "The most annoying
thing is that it could have been managed with very little trouble."

"How?" Alison asked with assumed indifference.

Thorne, suspecting nothing, fell into the trap.

"Nevis's hired buggy is a rather rickety affair. It wouldn't astonish
anybody if, when he wished to start, there was a bolt short."

A look of satisfaction flashed into Alison's eyes.

"Then he will certainly have to put up with any trouble the absence of
that bolt is capable of causing. As there doesn't seem to be any other
way, I'll pull it out myself. Your scruples won't compel you to forbid
me?"

The man expostulated, but she was quietly determined.

"If you won't tell me what to do, I'll get Dave," she laughed. "I've no
doubt he'd be willing to help me."

Thorne thought it highly undesirable that they should take a third
person into their confidence, and he reluctantly yielded.

"Then," he advised, "it would be wiser to set about it while the boys
are getting supper; there'll be nobody about the back of the hotel then.
In the meanwhile, we'd better go in again and talk to the others."



CHAPTER XXII

ALISON SPOILS HER GLOVES


Mrs. Farquhar and her friends had finished supper, and the men who got
their meals there were trooping into the hotel, when Alison found Thorne
waiting on the veranda.

"You're ready, I suppose?"

"I've no intention of keeping you waiting, anyway," Thorne replied.

Alison looked at him with a hint of sharpness.

"If you would very much rather stay here, why should you come at all?
Now that you have told me what to do, it really isn't necessary."

Thorne smiled.

"Well," he said, "on the whole, it strikes me as advisable."

He walked down the steps with her, and, sauntering a few yards along the
street, they turned down an opening between the houses and stopped at
the back of the hotel. There were only two windows in that part of the
building, and the rude wooden stable would shield anybody standing close
beneath one side of it from observation. Several gigs stood there to
wait until their owners were ready to drive back to their outlying
farms, and behind them the gray-white prairie ran back into the
distance, empty and unbroken except for the riband of rutted trail.
There was no sound from the hotel, for the average Westerner eats in
silent, strenuous haste, and the two could hear only the movements of a
restless horse in the stable.

Alison walked up to a somewhat dilapidated buggy and inspected it
dubiously.

"This must be the one, and I suppose that's the bolt," she said. "There
seems to be a big nut beneath it, and I don't quite see how I'm to get
it off. Would your scruples prevent your making any suggestion?"

Thorne appeared to consider, though there was a twinkle in his eyes.

"I might go so far as to point out that if you went into the stable you
would find a spanner on the ledge behind the door. It's an instrument
that's made for screwing off nuts with."

Alison disappeared into the stable and came back with the spanner in her
hand. Thorne noticed that she had put on a pair of rather shabby light
gloves, with the object, he supposed, of protecting her fingers.
Stooping down behind the buggy she stretched out an arm beneath the
seat, and became desperately busy, to judge from the tapping and
clinking she made. Then she straightened herself and looked up at him,
hot and a trifle flushed.

"It won't go on to the nut," she complained. "Is it quite out of the
question that you should help me?"

She saw the constraint in his face, and was pleased with it. She did not
wish the man to break his pledge, and it is probable that she would have
refused his assistance; but she was, on the other hand, very human in
most respects, and she greatly desired to ascertain how strong the
temptation to help her was.

"In the first place, you might try turning the screw on the spanner a
little," he advised. "It will make the opening wider."

She did so, and had no more difficulty on that point, but the bolt was
rusty and the nut very stiff. While she struggled with it there was a
sound of footsteps, and Thorne, moving suddenly forward, snatched the
tool from her.

"Stay there until I make it possible for you to slip away!" he whispered
sharply; then he stepped swiftly back a few paces and leaned against a
wagon with the spanner in his hand.

He had scarcely done so when a man came out of the opening between the
houses, and Alison felt her heart throb unpleasantly fast. If the
newcomer should look around toward the stables it seemed impossible that
he should fail to notice Thorne. The latter, however, stood quietly
still, with his shoulders resting against the wagon wheel, and the
spanner in full view in front of him. The other man drew abreast of
them, but he did not look around, and Alison gasped with relief when he
vanished behind one of the neighboring buildings.

Then she turned impulsively to her companion.

"Oh," she cried, "you meant him to see you!"

Thorne raised his hand in expostulation.

"Hadn't you better get the thing out before somebody else comes along?"

There was no doubt that he was right in this, and Alison attacked the
nut again. In two or three more minutes she moved away from the buggy
with the bolt in her hand.

"What had I better do with it?" she asked.

"I might suggest dropping it into a thick clump of grass. If you don't
mind, we'll stroll out a little way on the prairie. There's too much
dust to be pleasant blowing down the street."

They had left the wooden buildings some distance behind when Alison next
spoke to him.

"That was a generous thing you did just now."

Thorne looked confused, but he made no attempt to evade an answer.

"It was necessary."

"If the man had seen you with the spanner, Corporal Slaney would, no
doubt, have heard of it afterward. That would have hurt you?"

"It certainly wouldn't have pleased me."

"Then why did you do what you did?"

"I think I have just told you."

"You said it was necessary," replied Alison, looking at him with eyes
which just then had what he thought a very wonderful light in them. "You
haven't convinced me that it wasn't--rather fine of you."

Thorne was manifestly more embarrassed, and embarrassment of any kind
was somewhat unusual with him.

"Then," he said, "you compel me to try. If we had remained standing as
we did when the man first came out from behind the houses and he had
noticed you, it's exceedingly probable that he would have noticed me.
Even if he hadn't, it's almost certain that several people must have
seen you leave the hotel in my company. They wouldn't have had much
trouble in figuring out the thing."

"Of course!" exclaimed Alison, a little astonished that this had not
occurred to her earlier. Then her face grew suddenly warm. "You mean
they would have recognized that I was acting--on your instructions?"

Thorne looked at her with a disconcerting steadiness.

"You haven't quite grasped the most important fact yet. They would have
wondered how I was able to get you to do it--in other words, what gave
me such a hold on you. The trouble is that there's an explanation that
would naturally suggest itself."

"Yes," murmured Alison, with her eyes turned away from him; "that would
have been unpleasant--for both of us."

Thorne did not quite know what to make of the pause, though he had a
shadowy idea that it somehow rendered her assertion less positive, and
left the point open to doubt. In any case, it set his heart beating
fast, and he had some trouble in holding himself in hand. Outwardly,
however, he was graver than usual.

"Well," he added, "I didn't think it desirable in several ways. You see,
a pedler is, after all, a person of no account in this part of Canada.
He has no particular interest in the fortune of the country; he doesn't
help its progress; his calling benefits nobody."

"But you are a farmer now," protested Alison, glancing at him covertly.

"Strictly on probation. In fact, there's very little doubt that my new
venture is generally regarded as a harmless eccentricity. It will be
some time before my neighbors realize that I'm capable of anything
that's not connected with an amusing frolic." He stopped a moment, and
smiled at her. "On the whole, I can't reasonably blame them. My
situation's a very precarious one; a frozen crop would break me."

Alison wondered what the drift of these observations could be, for she
imagined that he must have had some particular purpose in saying so
much. It was, so far as her experience went, a very unusual thing for a
man to confess that he was an object of amusement to his neighbors, or
that there was a probability of his failing to make his mark in his
profession.

"I suppose," she suggested, to help him out, "you're not content with
such a state of things?"

"That is just the point. It's my intention to alter it as soon as
possible, and a bonanza harvest this year would go a long way toward
setting me on my feet. In the meanwhile, it seems only fitting that I
should put up with popular opinion, and try to bear in mind my
disabilities."

He was far from explicit, but explicitness was, after all, not what
Alison desired, and she fancied she understood him. It had not been
without a sufficient reason that he had, to his friends' astonishment,
turned farmer, and now he meant to wait until he had made a success of
it, and had shown that he could hold his own with the best of them,
before going any farther. This naturally suggested the question as to
what he meant to do then, and she fancied that she could supply the
answer. She had already confessed to herself that she liked the man, and
this was sufficient for the time being.

"I heard that your wheat escaped, as Farquhar's did."

Thorne, glancing at her, surmised that this was a lead, and that he was
not expected to pursue the previous subject.

"Yes," he replied, "I'm thankful to say it did. Most of the grain a few
miles to the west of us was blotted out, including Hunter's--I'm sorry
for him. The storm seems to have traveled straight down into Dakota,
destroying everything in its path. My place lay just outside it, and at
present everything promises a record crop." He broke off, and glanced
down at her hands. "Have you noticed your glove?"

Alison held it up and displayed a large rusty stain across the palm and
part of the back of it.

"Yes," she answered; "I did that getting the bolt out, and I'm rather
vexed about it. Mrs. Farquhar will, no doubt, notice the stain, and I
don't feel anxious to explain how it was done."

"Then you'll have to take the glove off," advised Thorne.

Alison smiled.

"I'm not sure that simple expedient would get over the difficulty. Of
course, I might leave them behind altogether." Then she shook her head.
"No; the person who found them would see the stain and guess whose they
were. I don't think that would do, either."

"It wouldn't," Thorne agreed.

Then they began to talk of something else, and presently they turned
back together toward the hotel. When they reached it, Florence Hunter
and Mrs. Farquhar were sitting on the veranda, while two or three men
occupied the lower steps, and another group lounged about near them,
pipe in hand. A few minutes later Nevis appeared striding down the
street with his lips set and some signs of temper. He stopped in front
of the hotel, and Alison glanced at Thorne significantly when he turned
to the lounging men.

"You folks seem mighty prosperous in spite of the hail," he sneered. "I
can't find a man in this town who's open to earn a couple of dollars."

Some of them grinned, but none made any answer. His tone was offensive,
in the first place, and, while nobody is overburdened with riches on the
prairie, the average Westerner has his own ideas as to what is
becoming.

Nevis signed to one of them.

"Get my buggy, Bill!"

The man hesitated, and though he strolled off toward the stables,
Nevis's sharpness cost him several minutes' unnecessary delay.
Eventually the buggy was brought out, and nobody said anything when
Nevis got in and flicked the horse smartly with a whip, though the tilt
of the seat must have been evident to most of the lookers-on. Alison
touched Thorne's arm.

"Hadn't you better call to him?" she suggested.

The next moment the warning was rendered unnecessary, for there was a
crash, and the seat of the buggy collapsed. Nevis lurched violently
forward, but he managed to recover his balance and pull up the horse.
Then he swung himself down, and after crawling under the vehicle, stood
up with a frowning face while the loungers began to gather about him.

"There's a bolt out. I didn't notice it when I drove up," he grumbled.
"It's three-eighths by the hole, I think. Ask Bill if he's got anything
of the kind in the stable."

Bill, who had been standing near, sauntered away, and it was at least
five minutes before he came back, empty-handed.

"I've nothing that will fit," he announced.

"Then go in and see if they've got one at the hardware store," ordered
Nevis. "I ought to have thought of that earlier."

Bill was away a long while this time, and when he returned he held up an
unusually long bolt for inspection.

"Guess it won't be any use," he said. "Thread doesn't go far enough to
let the nut to the plate."

"Then what in thunder did you bring it for?" Nevis asked with rising
anger.

Alison looked at Thorne and laughed.

"Have you been giving that man a hint?" she inquired.

"No," answered Thorne, smiling; "it would have been wasted in any case.
Nevis has succeeded in riling him. He couldn't have managed the thing
better if I had prompted him."

In the meanwhile Bill languidly affected to consider Nevis's question.

"I guess I wanted to be quite sure it wouldn't fit," he replied at
length. "If it doesn't, I could see if he has got a shorter one in
another package."

Nevis flung out his arms in savage expostulation.

"Well," he cried, "I've never yet struck anybody quite as thick as you.
Couldn't you have brought the shorter one along?"

"Those bolts," Bill answered solemnly, "don't run many to the dollar,
and I'd a kind of notion I might find a big nut or some washers I could
fill up with in the stables."

"No," snapped Nevis; "you have wasted time enough! If it won't do, take
the thing back into the store and ask Bevan to cut the thread farther
along it!"

Bill strolled away at a particularly leisurely gait, and Thorne took out
his watch.

"It's highly probable that Slaney will have left Forrester's before our
friend gets off," he said. "In that case, it will no doubt be noon
to-morrow before the police make their first attempt to get on
Winthrop's trail. I wonder whether anybody except Dave can have seen
him."

"I did," Alison told him; "the morning before the hail."

Thorne turned toward her with a start.

"Where?"

"At the homestead. Farquhar and his wife were out."

"What brought Winthrop there?"

"That," smiled Alison, "I may tell you some day, but not just now. I
wonder what has kept him in the neighborhood?"

"It's easily figured out. He'd head for Mrs. Calvert's, and probably
stay an hour or two there; then he'd go on to Brayton's place--they're
friends--at night. Jardine's would be his next call, and he'd be
striking west away from the larger settlements when Dave came across
him."

This struck Alison as probable, but just then Bill came out of the store
again.

"Beavan hasn't anything shorter, and he's doing up his accounts. He
can't cut threads on bolts, anyway," he announced. "It's Pete who does
that kind of thing for him."

Judging from his face, it cost Nevis a determined effort to check an
outbreak of fury.

"Then where in thunder is Pete?" he shouted.

It appeared that the man had gone home to supper, and a quarter of an
hour passed before he came upon the scene. Then it took him quite as
long to operate on the bolt and fit it in the buggy, and Nevis's face
was very hot and red when he flung himself into the vehicle. He used the
whip savagely, and there was some derisive applause and laughter when
the horse went down the street at a gallop with the buggy jolting
dangerously in the ruts behind it.

Thorne descended the steps and disappeared. When he came back Mrs.
Farquhar's wagon was being brought out, and he walked up to Alison with
a parcel in his hand.

"I think," he said, "that's the best way of hiding the stain."

Alison opened the parcel, and was conscious of a curious thrill, in
which pleasure and embarrassment were mingled, when she found a pair of
gloves inside. It was the first gift he had made her.

"Thank you," she murmured. "They fit me, too. How did you guess the
size?"

"Oh," laughed Thorne, "it was very simple. I just asked for the smallest
pair they had in the store."

Then Mrs. Farquhar came up, and he helped her and Alison into the
wagon.



CHAPTER XXIII

AN UNEXPECTED DISASTER


Several weeks had slipped away since the evening Nevis drove out of
Graham's Bluff in search of Corporal Slaney, and there had been no news
of Winthrop, when Thorne plodded across the prairie beside his team,
hauling in a load of dressed lumber for the new creamery. Hunter had
contracted with him to convey the necessary material from the railroad,
and in the interval between sowing and reaping Thorne had found the
arrangement a profitable one. He had a use for every dollar he could
raise, and all through the heat of the summer he had worked double
tides.

It was blazing hot that afternoon, and the wide plain lay scorching
under a pitiless glare. Thorne was not sorry when the Farquhar homestead
with its encircling sea of wheat took shape ahead. The trail led past
it, and, though time was precious to him then, he felt that he could put
up with an hour or two's delay in case Mrs. Farquhar invited him to wait
for supper. It was now a fortnight since he had seen Alison.

The wooden buildings rose very slowly, though he several times urged the
jaded horses. They had made a long haul that day, and the man, who had
trudged at their head since early morning, was almost as weary. On the
odd days that they had spent in the stable he had toiled arduously on
his house and half-finished barn, beginning with the dawn and ceasing at
dark. Now he was grimed with dust and dripping with perspiration, and a
tantalizing cloud of flies hovered over him. All this was a decided
change from driving a few hours daily in a lightly loaded wagon, but
what at first had appeared an almost unexplainable liking for the
constant effort had grown upon him. He would not have abandoned it now
had that course been open to him.

By degrees the sea of grain grew nearer, its edge rising in a clean-cut
ridge above the flat white sweep of dazzling plain. It had changed from
green to pale yellow in the past few weeks, but there were here and
there vivid coppery gleams in it. It promised a bounteous yield when
thrashing was over, and he thought of his own splendid crop with the
clean pride of accomplishment. Then he noticed that a buggy was
approaching from the opposite direction, and when he reached the
homestead a man in white shirt and store clothes had just pulled up his
horse. He shook hands with Thorne, who had already recognized him as a
dealer in implements and general farming supplies from the railroad
settlement.

"Glad I met you. It will save my going on to your place," he said.

Thorne noticed that the man, who was usually optimistic and cheerful,
looked depressed.

"Did you want to see me about something, Grantly?" he asked.

"Yes. To cut it short, I'm going out of business."

The full significance of this announcement did not immediately dawn upon
Thorne.

"I expect most of the boys will regret it as much as I do," he said.
"One could rely on anything sent out from your store, and there's no
doubt that you have always treated us liberally."

"That's just the trouble. I've been too blamed easy with some of you. If
I'd kept a tighter hand on the folks who owed me money it's quite likely
I'd have been able to meet my bills."

"Is it as bad as that?" Thorne inquired with genuine sympathy.

Grantly turned to Farquhar, who had joined them in the meanwhile.

"The fact is, things have been going against me the last three years.
Nevis has been steadily cutting into my trade; but I held on somehow,
expecting that a record harvest or a high market would put me straight.
I'd have been able to get some of my money in again then. In the
meanwhile I was getting behind with the makers who supplied me, and now
one or two of them have pulled me up; I guess it was the hail that
decided them. It's a private compromise, but the point is that Nevis
takes over my liabilities."

Thorne's face suddenly hardened, and Farquhar looked grave.

"It's bad news," said the latter. "Is he paying cash?"

"Part," Grantly answered. "The rest in bills. He has Brand, of Winnipeg,
behind him, and he's good enough. In fact, I believe the man has been
backing Nevis right along." He turned to Thorne. "Anyway, I've got to
give the store up, and you'll have Nevis for a creditor instead of me.
That's really what brought me over. The note you gave me calls for a
good many dollars and it's due very soon."

Thorne endeavored to brace himself after the blow, which had been as
unexpected as it was heavy. He had obtained all his implements and most
of the materials he required for his house-building from Grantly, giving
him a claim upon his possessions as security, in addition to a promise
to pay at a date by which harvest was usually over; but owing to an
exceptionally cold spring, harvest was late that year.

"It was understood that you wouldn't press me if I should be a few weeks
behind," he reminded him.

"That's quite right," Grantly assented. "The trouble is that it was only
a verbal promise, and it won't count for much with Nevis. He's been
after you for some time, and I guess he'll stick to the date on the
note. If you're not ready with the money he'll break you."

Farquhar made a sign of concurrence.

"I'm afraid it's very probable. What are you going to do about it,
Mavy?"

Thorne stood silent for almost a minute, and the bronze faded a little
in his face, which was very grim.

"That note will have to be met. You told Grantly I was to be relied
upon, and I'm not going back on you. It's not my intention to let Nevis
do what he likes with me, either. In a general way, I'd have gone to
Hunter, and I've no doubt that he would have financed me; but that's
quite out of the question now. He has all the trouble he's fit to stand
on his hands already."

"A sure thing," Farquhar agreed.

"Well," Thorne added, "the oats are about ripe, and though I'd rather
they had stood another week or so, I'll put the binder into them at
sunup to-morrow. The wheat should be nearly ready by the time I'm
through, and I'll hire the help I could have borrowed if I had been
able to wait a while. I'll have to let up on the haulage contract and
work right on, almost without stopping, until I can get the thrashers
in; but I'll put the crop on the market before the note is due!"

"You couldn't do it, Mavy, if you worked all night."

Thorne laughed in a harsh fashion.

"Just wait and see! It has to be done! In the meanwhile, please make my
excuses to Mrs. Farquhar for not calling. I must be getting on."

"You can't do anything to-night," Farquhar objected.

"I can ride over to Hall's and get back to my place by sunup with his
team."

He called to his horses, and with a creaking of suddenly tightened
harness the wagon jolted on, but as he passed the door of the homestead
Alison came out. Thorne stopped, while the team slowly plodded forward,
and it seemed to her that there was a striking change in the man.
Nothing in his manner suggested that he had ever regarded life as a
frolic and taken his part in it with careless gaiety. His eyes were very
grave and there was a look she had never seen in them before, while his
face seemed to have set in sharper lines. He looked strangely determined
and forceful; almost, as she thought of it, dominant.

"What is the matter? You are in some trouble?" she exclaimed.

"Yes," said Thorne simply. "Farquhar will no doubt explain the thing.
There's a very tough fight in front of me. I don't think I could have
undertaken it six months ago." He spread out his hands. "It's
unthinkable that I should be beaten!"

Alison felt strangely stirred by something in his voice.

"Then," she urged, "you will have to win! You must; I want you to!"

Thorne looked at her with a gleam in his eyes that set her heart
throbbing painfully fast.

"Now," he laughed, "the thing seems almost easy!"

He turned away after his wagon, and Alison waited until Farquhar came up
with Grantly.

"What has Thorne undertaken?" she asked.

Farquhar smiled.

"I'll try to tell you after supper. In the meanwhile, I can only say
that he seems determined on breaking himself up by attempting a task
that in my opinion is beyond the power of any man on the prairie."

He went into the house with Grantly, and it was an hour or two later
before Alison was able to form a fairly accurate idea of the situation.
Then her heart grew very soft toward Thorne, and she thought of him with
a sense of pride. It was for her sake he had braced himself for this
most unequal fight, and she knew that he meant to win.

In the meanwhile Thorne was urging on his team, and dusk was closing in
when he flung down the lumber from his wagon. After that, he drove
through the soft darkness for two or three hours, and finally roused an
outlying neighbor from his well-earned slumber. The man, descending,
roundly abused him, but became a little mollified when he heard his
story.

"The thing surely can't be done, and just now you can't count on much
help, either. The Ontario boys are only just starting West, and the
first of them will be snapped up before they get to Brandon. Anyway,
I'll come along with you and do what I can." He moved toward a
cupboard. "If you left Farquhar's when you said, you couldn't have got
your supper."

"Now that you mention it," laughed Thorne, "I don't think I did."

His friend set food before him, and an hour later they drove off in the
darkness, leaving Thorne's jaded team behind them. Eventually they
reached his homestead in the early dawn, and Thorne, who had been on
foot most of the time since sunrise on the previous morning, sat down
wearily on the stoop and took out his pipe while he looked about him.
Eager as he was to get to work, he could not begin just yet, for the
night had been clear and cold, and the grain was dripping with the heavy
dew.

He had his back to the house, which was at last almost ready for
habitation, but the half-finished barn and the rude sod stable rose
before him blackly against the growing light. Beyond these, the sweep of
grain stretched back, a darker patch on the shadowy prairie, with
another dusky oblong just discernible on the short grass some distance
away. Determined as he was, his heart sank as he gazed at them. He had
undertaken a task that looked utterly beyond his powers.

Had he been content to begin on his hundred-and-sixty-acre holding on
the scale usual in the case of men with scanty means, he would probably
have had no great trouble in harvesting all the crop he could have
raised; but he had seen enough during his journeyings up and down the
prairie to convince him that there was remarkably little to be made in
this fashion. As a result he had staked boldly, breaking practically all
his land, with hired assistance and the most modern implements that
could be purchased, though this necessitated the borrowing of money. He
had, in addition, secured the use of a neighboring holding, part of
which had been under grain before, from a man who had worked it long
enough to secure his patent and had then discovered that he could earn
considerably more as a subcontractor on a new branch railroad.

In consequence of this, Thorne had a large crop to garner, and very
little time in which to do it, for he was convinced that Nevis would
press for payment immediately the note was due. It could not be met
until the grain was thrashed and sold, and he realized that any delay
would place him in the power of a man who would not fail to make the
utmost use of the opportunity. Besides this, it would render it
impossible for him to obtain any further loans, and he scarcely expected
to finance his operations unassisted for some time yet. It was only
Hunter's guarantee that had made the venture possible, and there was no
doubt in his mind that unless he could satisfy Nevis's claim his career
as a farmer would terminate abruptly before the next month was over.

Then he recalled the months of determined labor he had expended upon the
house and holding, the noonday heat in which he had toiled, and the
chilly dawns when he had gone out, aching all over after a very
insufficient sleep, to begin his task again. Sixteen and often eighteen
hours comprised his working day, and out of them he had spared very few
minutes for cookery. His clothes had gone unmended, and it must be
confessed that he had not infrequently slept in them when he was too
weary to take them off, and that they were by no means regularly washed.
In fact, once or twice when he was about to drive over to the Farquhar
homestead he remembered with a slight shock that it was several days
since he had made any attempt worth mentioning at a toilet. In the
meanwhile, he had grown leaner and harder and browner, while there had
by degrees crept into his face that curious look which one may see now
and then in the faces of monks, highly trained athletes, and even of
those who unconsciously practise asceticism from love of a calling that
makes stern demands on them; a look which, though it does not always
suggest the final triumph of the mind over the body, is never a
characteristic of full-fed, ease-loving men. His eyes were strikingly
clear and unwavering, his weather-darkened skin was singularly clean,
and his whole face had grown, as it were, refined, though the man was as
quickly moved to anger, impatience, or laughter as he had always been.
It would seem that a good many purely human impulses usually survive the
partial subjugation of the flesh, which is, after all, no doubt
fortunate.

He rose stiffly, damp with the dew, when he had smoked one pipe out, and
gazed toward where the sun was rising fiery red above the rim of the
prairie. His expression was very resolute.

"A low dawn, Hall; we'll have all the heat we want by noon," he
commented. "The oats will be drying by the time we're ready with the
team. If you'll look after them I'll oil the binder."

His companion grinned.

"It strikes me the first thing is to set the stove going. Guess if I'm
going to get on a record hustle I want my breakfast."

Thorne frowned impatiently, but he carried an armful of birch billets
into the house, and when half an hour later he called in his companion,
the latter glanced with undisguised disgust at the provisions on the
table and the contents of the frying-pan.

"Well," he ejaculated, "if you can raise steam on that kind of truck, I
most certainly can't. The first of the boys who drives by to the
settlement is going to bring us out something fit to eat, if I have to
pay for it."

"What's the matter with this?" Thorne asked indifferently.

Hall raised a fragment of half-raw pork upon his fork.

"It would be wasting time to tell you, if you can't smell it," he
retorted.

Then he took up a block of bread and banged it down on the table.

"Not a crack in it! You want to bake some more and sell it to the
railroad for locomotive brakes."

Thorne laughed.

"Send for anything you like. Hunter's hired man will probably be going
in."



CHAPTER XXIV

LUCY GOES TO THE RESCUE


About four o'clock in the afternoon of the day following the beginning
of his harvest, Thorne sat heavy-eyed in the saddle of a binder which
three horses hauled along the edge of the grain. He had been at work
since sunrise, except for a brief rest at midday, and he was wondering
whether the team could hold out until nightfall. The binder had not
quite reached its present efficiency then, and the traction was heavy.
It was fiercely hot, and there was only the faintest breeze, while a
thin cloud of dust that made his eyes smart and crept into his nostrils
eddied about him. The whirling wooden arms of the machine flashed in the
midst of it as they flung out the sheaves, and there was a sharp clash
and tinkle as the knife rasped through the tall oat stalks.

As he neared a corner, driving wearily, he turned and glanced back along
the rows of piled-up sheaves which stood blazing with light down the
belt of gleaming stubble. The latter was narrow, for although it was the
result of two days' determined labor, he had somehow accomplished less
than he had anticipated. Half the time he had spent, turn about with
Hall, in the saddle and the rest gathering up the tossed-out sheaves in
the wake of the machine. It was desirable to keep pace with the binder,
though the task is one that is beyond the strength of a single man in a
heavy crop, and it was only by toiling with a savage persistency that he
and his companion had partially accomplished it. Now, however, his
heart sank as he looked round at the sea of grain.

It rose in a great oblong, glowing with tints of ochre, silvery gray and
cadmium, relieved here and there by coppery flashes and delicate
pencilings of warm sienna, and over it there hung a cloudless vault of
blue. It looked very large, and there was another oblong yet unbroken
some distance away. Thorne's head ached, and his eyes ached, and his
back hurt him at each jolt of the machine. He had been almost worn-out
when he began the task, and since then he had lain down for only a few
hours, and then had not been able to sleep.

Beyond the grain, the prairie stretched away, intolerably white in the
sun-glare, to the horizon. Thorne fancied that he had seen a moving
object upon it some time earlier. The machine had, however, engrossed
most of his attention, and he was not sure. He reached the turning and
was proceeding away from the house when a voice hailed him, and as he
pulled up the team Lucy Calvert appeared.

"What brought you over?" he asked in dull astonishment.

Lucy smiled coquettishly.

"It's generally allowed that you and I are friends. Anyway, if you'd
rather, I can go home again."

Thorne looked at her with drawn-down brows. He was worn-out, his brain
was heavy, and he did not feel equal to any attempt at repartee.

"You had better stop for supper first," he suggested.

"I guess I'm going to," Lucy laughed. "Still, you won't want it for two
hours yet, and it looks as if there's something to be done in the
meanwhile. I didn't come over for supper or to talk to you; I met
Farquhar on the prairie, and he told me all about the thing."

She turned and pointed to a row of sheaves which were still lying prone.

"Why haven't you got those on end? Where's Hall?"

"Gone over to his place for my team."

"Then," said Lucy, "you can get off that machine right now and set the
sheaves up while I drive. I'll stay on until it's too dark to see, and
come round again first thing in the morning. We don't expect to get our
binders in for a week yet."

Thorne was touched, and his face made it plain. He needed assistance
badly, and did not know where to obtain it, for his friends whose crops
the hail had spared were either beginning their own harvest or preparing
for it. Besides, there was not the slightest doubt that Lucy was
capable.

"Get down right away!" she ordered laughingly. "I don't want thanks
from--you."

Thorne was never sure afterward whether he attempted to offer her any,
but he set to work among the sheaves when she took her place in the
saddle and the binder went clinking and clashing on again. In spite of
his efforts, it drew farther and farther away, though he toiled in
half-breathless haste and the perspiration dripped from him. As he was
facing then, the sun beat upon his back and shoulders intolerably hot.
At length, when the shadows of the stooked sheaves had lengthened across
the crackling stubble in which he floundered, Lucy stopped her team a
moment and looked back at him.

"I'll unyoke them at the corner and get supper," she said. "You get into
the shade there and lie down and smoke. If I see you move before I call
you, I'll go home again."

She drove away before he could protest, but it was, after all, a relief
to obey her, and flinging himself down with his back to a cluster of the
sheaves, he took out his pipe. It was a little cooler there, and his
eyes were closing when a summons reached him across the grain. Getting
up with an effort, he walked toward the house, and was hazily astonished
when he entered it. Exactly what Lucy had done he could not tell, but
the place looked different. For the first time it seemed comfortably
habitable. There was a cloth, which was a thing he did not possess, on
the table, and his simple crockery, which shone absolutely white, and
his indurated ware made a neat display. The provisions laid out on it
looked tempting, too; in fact, he did not think that Hall could have
found any fault with them, and it presently struck him that they
included articles which he did not remember purchasing.

He sat down when Lucy told him to, and it was pleasant to find what he
required ready at hand, instead of having to walk backward and forward
between the table and the stove. He did not remember what she said, but
they both laughed every now and then, and after the meal was over he was
content to sit still a while when she bade him. The presence of the girl
somehow changed the whole aspect of the room; but he was conscious of a
regret that it was she and not another who occupied the place opposite
him across his table. It was not Lucy Calvert he had often pictured
sitting there. At length he pointed through the doorway to the grain.

"Lucy," he said, "that crop doesn't look by any means as hard to reap as
it did an hour ago."

"I guess it's the supper," Lucy suggested cheerfully.

"I don't think it's that exactly, though there's no doubt it's the best
meal I've had for a considerable time."

Lucy leaned back in her chair.

"Well," she observed, "it's company you want, and it's quite nice being
here. You and I kind of hit it, don't we, Mavy?"

"Of course. We always did," Thorne assented, though there was a hint of
astonishment in his tone.

"Then if you'll get rid of Hall--send him off again for something--I'll
get supper for you the next two or three evenings."

"I don't see why he should be done out of his share," protested Thorne
cautiously. He felt that Lucy was more gracious than there was any
occasion for.

"Don't you, Mavy?" she asked, with lifted brows. "Now, I've a notion
that anybody else would kind of spoil things."

Until lately Thorne had seldom shrunk from any harmless gallantry, but
he did not respond just then with the readiness which the girl seemed to
expect.

"It's a relief to hear you say it," he declared. "I'm afraid I'm a dull
companion to-night."

Lucy nodded sympathetically.

"Well," she replied, "I have seen you brighter, but you're anxious and
played out. Sit nice and still for half an hour while I talk to you."

"I ought to be stooking those sheaves," Thorne answered dubiously.

"You can do it by and by," Lucy urged. "It won't be dark for quite a
while yet."

She adroitly led him on to talk, and presently bade him light his pipe.
He had always hated any unnecessary reserve and ceremony, and by
degrees his natural gaiety once more asserted itself. At length, when
they were both laughing over a narrative of his, he stretched his arm
out across the table and it happened by merest accident that their hands
met. Lucy did not draw hers away; she looked up at him with a smile.

"Mavy," she teased, "I wonder what Miss Leigh would say if she could see
you."

Thorne straightened himself somewhat hastily in his chair. Nothing in
the shape of a tactful answer occurred to him, and he grew uneasy under
his companion's smile.

"Would you like to see her walk right in just now?" she persisted.

There was no doubt that this would not have afforded the man the
slightest pleasure, but he could not admit it.

"It's scarcely likely to happen," he evaded awkwardly.

Then to his relief Lucy laughed.

"Mavy, I've sure got you fixed. The curious thing is they allow at the
settlement that you could most talk the head off any of the boys."

"I really don't see what satisfaction you expected it to afford you,"
Thorne rejoined.

"I guessed it would help to put Nevis out of your mind. I'd an idea you
wanted cheering up--and I felt a little like that myself."

The girl's manner changed abruptly as she rose, and there was only
concern in her eyes.

"I wonder," she added softly, "where Jake is and what he is doing now."

Thorne felt that he had been favored with a hint.

"You haven't heard from him?"

"He hasn't sent a line; it wouldn't have been safe. It's kind of
wearing, Mavy."

"I'm sorry," sympathized Thorne. "But it's most unlikely that the
troopers will get him."

Lucy, without answering this, went out, and when they reached the binder
Thorne turned to her with a smile.

"Lucy," he said, "I don't quite understand yet what possessed you a
little while ago."

"Did you never feel so worried that it was kind of soothing to do
something mad?"

"I'm afraid I have once or twice," Thorne confessed. "On the other hand,
my experience wouldn't justify me in advising other people to indulge in
outbreaks of the kind. Suppose I'd been--we'll say equal to the
occasion?"

Lucy laughed, but there was a snap in her eyes.

"Then," she retorted, "it's a sure thing you would never have tried to
be equal to it again. Anyway, I didn't feel anxious about you. You
looked real amusing, Mavy."

"Perhaps I did. Still, I don't quite think you need have pointed it
out."

They set to work after this, Lucy guiding the team along the edge of the
grain and Thorne stooping among the sheaves in the wake of the machine.
They were thus engaged, oblivious to everything but their task, when
Mrs. Farquhar reined in her team close beside them, and Alison gazed
with somewhat confused sensations at the pair.

Lucy had obviously made her dress herself, of the cheapest kind of
print, but it was light in hue, as was her big hat, and in addition to
falling in with the flood of vivid color through which she moved it
flowed about her in becoming lines, and when she pulled up her horses
and turned partly toward the wagon her pose was expressive of a curious
virile grace. Behind her, straight-cut along its paler upper edge, where
the feathery tassels of the oats shone with a silvery luster against the
cold blue of the sky, the yellow grain glowed in the warm evening light.
The glaring vermilion paint on the binder added to the general effect,
and it occurred to Alison that the girl, with her brown face and hands
and the signs of a splendid vitality plain upon her, was very much in
harmony with her surroundings. The lean figure of the man stooping among
the sheaves, lightly clad in blue that had lost its harshness by long
exposure to the weather, formed a fit and necessary complement of the
picture.

They were, Alison recognized, engaged upon humanity's most natural and
beneficent task, and as she remembered how she had seen that soil lying
waste, covered only with the harsh wild grasses, in the early spring, it
was borne in upon her that there could be no greater reward than the
bounteous harvest for man's arduous toil. Then she became troubled by a
vague perception of the fact that this breaking of the wilderness and
rendering the good soil fruitful was one of the sternest and most real
tests of man's efficiency. Meretricious graces, paltry accomplishments,
and the pretenses of civilization availed one nothing here. The only
things that counted were the elemental qualities: slow endurance, faith
that held fast through all the vagaries of the weather, and the power of
toughened muscle that might ache but must in spite of that yield due
obedience to the will. Alison regarded Lucy, who could play her part in
the reaping, with a troubled feeling that was not far from envy.

Then Thorne looked up, partly dazzled with the level sunrays in his
eyes, and walked toward the wagon. When he stopped beside it Mrs.
Farquhar greeted him.

"We have been across to Shafter's place," she explained. "Harry asked me
to drive round and see how you were getting on. He'll try to send you
over his hired man in a day or two."

Thorne pointed to the rows of stooked sheaves.

"Thanks; I haven't done as much as I should have liked. Hall has gone
back for my other team, and if it hadn't been for Lucy I'd have been a
good deal farther behind."

"How much has she cut?" Mrs. Farquhar asked.

Thorne was quite aware that an answer would fix the time the girl had
spent with him. Before he could speak, however, Lucy had approached the
wagon and she broke in.

"I guess Mrs. Shafter would give you supper?"

Mrs. Farquhar said that she had done so, and Lucy smiled.

"That's going to save some trouble. Mavy and I had ours together most an
hour ago and the stove's out by now."

Thorne imagined that this intimation, which struck him as a trifle
superfluous, was made with a deliberate purpose; but one of the binder
horses, tormented by the flies, began to kick just then, and he turned
away to quiet it, while Lucy, who stood beside the wagon, smiled
provocatively at Alison.

"You'll have to excuse Mavy--he's been hustling round since sunup, and
he's played out," she said. "Still, you needn't get anxious. I'll look
after him."

Mrs. Farquhar laughed, while Alison's attitude grew distinctly prim. She
considered that in taking her anxiety for granted and alluding to it
openly Lucy had gone too far. She also felt inclined to resent the
girl's last consolatory assurance.

"Can I drive you home?" Mrs. Farquhar inquired. "I suppose you will be
going soon, and it won't make a very big round."

"No," replied Lucy decisively, "you needn't trouble. I've a horse here,
and I guess Mavy's not going to make love to me. For one thing, he's too
busy. Besides, I want to cut round that other side before I go."

"Then I suppose we had better not keep you," said Mrs. Farquhar.

She waved her hand to Thorne and drove away, and when they had left the
oats behind she turned to Alison.

"Lucy," she observed, "is now and then a little outspoken, but I'm
curious as to what she meant when she said that Thorne was not likely to
make love to her. Of course, the thing's improbable, anyway, but she
spoke as if he had been offered an opportunity."

Alison's face flushed with anger.

"Leaving the fact that she's to marry Winthrop out of the question, the
girl must have some self-respect. She would surely never go so far as
you suggest."

"Well," smiled her companion, "she might go far enough to place Thorne
in an embarrassing position, purely for the sake of the amusement she
might derive from it. In fact, when I remember how she laughed, I'm far
from sure that she didn't do something of the kind."

Alison sat silent for a minute or two. There was no doubt that she was
very angry with Lucy, but she was also troubled by other sensations,
among which was a certain envy of the girl's capacity for work that was
held of high account in that country. Thorne's attitude and his weary
face as he toiled among the sheaves had been very suggestive. He was,
she knew, hard-pressed, engaged in a desperate grapple with a task that
was generally admitted to be beyond his strength, and she could only
stand aside and watch his efforts with wholly ineffective sympathy.

Then she became conscious that Mrs. Farquhar was glancing at her
curiously.

"I feel humiliated to-night!" she broke out. "There's so little that
seems of the least use to anybody here that I can do; and my abilities
scarcely got me food and shelter in England. Isn't it almost a crime
that they teach so many of us only fripperies? Were we only made to be
taken care of and petted?"

Her companion smiled.

"If it's any consolation, I may point out that we haven't found you
useless at the Farquhar homestead, and I can't see why you shouldn't be
just as useful presiding over a place of your own. After all, since you
raise the question what you were made for, that seems to be the usual
destiny, and I haven't found it an unpleasant or ignoble one."

She broke off, and for a minute or two the jolting of the wagon rendered
further conversation out of the question.

"There's another point," she added presently; "it's my opinion that an
encouraging word from you would do more to brace Mavy for the work in
front of him than the offer of half a dozen binders and teams."

Alison made no answer, and they drove on in silence across the waste,
which was beginning to grow dim and shadowy.



CHAPTER XXV

THE ONLY MEANS


Alison sat one afternoon in the shadow of a pile of sheaves in
Farquhar's harvest field. She had a little leisure, and it was
unpleasantly hot in the wooden house. There was some sewing in her hand,
but even in the shade the light was trying and she leaned back languidly
among the warm straw with half-closed eyes. Two men were talking some
distance behind her as they pitched up the rustling sheaves, and the
tramp of horses' feet among the stubble and the rattle of a binder which
she knew Farquhar was driving drew steadily nearer. Presently another
beat of hoofs broke in, and a minute or two later Hall rode past,
looking very hot, apparently without seeing her. Then the rattle of the
binder ceased and she heard the newcomer greet Farquhar.

"If you've got one of those bent-end-spanners you could let me have I'd
be glad," he said. "I've mislaid mine somehow, and there's a loose nut I
can't get at making trouble on my binder."

Farquhar sent his hired man for one and Hall referred to the grain.

"So you have made a start. Looks quite a heavy crop. Good and ripe, too,
isn't it?"

"We put the binder in yesterday," answered Farquhar. "I'd have done it
earlier only that I sent Pete over to Thorne's place for a few days
after you left him."

"I was kind of sorry I had to leave. He's surely going to be beaten. I
looked in on him yesterday."

Alison became suddenly intent. She drew her light skirt closer about
her, for she did not wish it to catch the men's eyes and betray her, as
she thought it probable that they would speak to each other unreservedly
and she would hear the actual truth about Thorne. When she had
questioned Farquhar he had answered her in general terms, avoiding any
very definite particulars, and she now strained her ears to catch his
reply to Hall.

"I was afraid of it after what Pete told me," he said. "I would have
helped him more if I could have managed it, but I can't let a big crop
like this stand over when I've bills to meet."

"That," declared Hall, "is just how I'm fixed, though I stayed with him
as long as I could. The trouble is that he hasn't been able to hire a
man since I left him. There seem to be mighty few of the Ontario boys
coming in this season, and so far they've been snapped up farther back
along the line."

"Has he tried any of the men who had their crops hailed out west of the
creek?"

"They cleared as soon as they saw they had no harvest left. Most of them
are out track-grading on the branch line, and I heard the rest went
East. Mavy's surely up against it; he was figuring last evening that
even if the weather held he'd be most a month behind."

"Then I'm afraid he'll have to give the place up. Nevis will come down
on him the day that payment's due."

"Couldn't he raise the money somehow, for a month?" Hall inquired.

"It's scarcely likely. I can't lend him any, with wheat at present
figure, and Hunter, who has already guaranteed him a thousand dollars,
is very tightly fixed. Besides Mavy couldn't expect anything more from
him. It wouldn't be much use going to a bank, either. With the bottom
dropping out of the market they're getting scared of wheat, and he has
nothing to offer them but a crop that isn't reaped, with Grantly's note
calling for most of it."

"Then I guess he has just got to quit. Hunter would no doubt have lent
him a binder and a couple of hired men, but he has them busy trying to
straighten up his hailed crop and cut patches of it."

"It's a pity," Farquhar assented in a regretful voice. "It will hurt
Mavy to give the place up."

The man arrived with the spanner and Alison heard Hall ride away. When
the clash and rattle of the binder began again she lay still for a long
time beneath the sheaves. The men's conversation had made it clear that
Thorne would shortly be involved in disaster, and that alone was painful
news, though by comparison with another aspect of the matter it was of
minor importance. The man loved her, and it was for that reason he had
undertaken this most unfortunate farming venture. Everybody seemed to
know it, though he had never told her what was in his mind, and she had
been content to wait. Now, however, she had no doubt that she loved him,
and he would, it seemed, shortly go away and vanish altogether beyond
her reach--at least, unless something should very promptly be done. She
knew he would not claim her while he was an outcast and a ruined man.

She closed one hand tight and a flush crept into her face as she made up
her mind on one point, and she was thankful while she did so that she
was on the Canadian prairie, where the thing seemed easier than it
would have done in England. In that new land time-honored prejudices and
hampering traditions did not seem to count. Men and women outgrew them
there and obeyed the impulses of human nature, which were, after all,
elemental and existent long before the invention of what were, perhaps,
in the more complex society of other lands, necessary fetters. Thorne,
the pedler, farmer, railroad hand, or whatever he might become, should
at least know that she loved him and decide with that knowledge before
him whether he would go away.

Then, growing a little more collected, she considered the second point.
Though Hall and Farquhar had cast considerable doubt upon his ability to
help, there was just a possibility that Hunter might hold out a hand,
and she would stoop to beg for any favor that might be shown her lover.
This latter decision, however, she prudently determined to keep from
Thorne in the meanwhile.

By and by she walked quietly back to the house and busied herself as
usual, though late in the afternoon she asked Mrs. Farquhar for a horse
and the buggy. Her employer did not trouble her with any questions as to
why she wanted them, though she favored her with a glance of unobtrusive
but very keen scrutiny, and soon after supper the hired man brought the
buggy to the door. Then Alison came out from her room, where she had
spent some time carefully comparing the two or three dresses she had
clung to when she had parted with the rest in Winnipeg, one after
another. She had attired herself in the one that became her best, for
she felt that there must be nothing wanting in the gift she meant to
offer her lover. She recognized that this was what her intention
amounted to. What other women did with more reserve, veiling their
advances in disguises which were after all so flimsy that nobody except
those who wished could be deceived, she would do with imperious
openness.

The days were now rapidly growing shorter, and when she reached Thorne's
homestead the sun hung low above the verge of the great white plain. The
man was not in sight, which struck her as strange, as there would be
light enough to work for some time yet, but she was not astonished that
he had evidently not heard her approach, because she had driven slowly
for the last mile, almost repenting of her rashness and wondering
whether she should not turn and go back again. Once she had set about
it, the thing she had undertaken appeared increasingly difficult.
Indeed, she knew that had the man been less severely pressed nothing
would have driven her into the action she contemplated. It was only the
fact that he was face to face with disaster, beaten down, desperate,
that warranted the sacrifice of her reserve and pride.

Getting down at length, she left the horse, which was a quiet one, and
walked toward the house. The door stood open when she reached it, and
looking in she saw the man sitting at a table, on which there lay a
strip of paper covered with figures. His face was worn and set, and
every line of his slack pose was expressive of dejection. He did not
immediately see her, and a deep pity overwhelmed her and helped to sweep
away her doubts and hesitation as she glanced round the room. It was
growing shadowy, but it looked horribly comfortless, and the few dishes
that were still scattered about the table bore the remnants of a
singularly uninviting meal. There was a portion of a loaf, blackened
outside, sad and damp within; butter that had liquefied and partly
congealed again in discolored streaks; a morsel of half-cooked pork
reposing in solid fat; and a can of flavored syrup, black with flies.
She wondered how any one coming back oppressed with anxiety from a day
of exhausting toil could eat such fare. Then she noticed a small heap of
tattered garments, which he evidently had no leisure to mend, lying on
the floor, and while it brought her no sense of repulsion, the sight of
them further troubled her. These were things which jarred on the
beneficent, home-making instincts which suddenly awoke within her
nature, and they moved her to a compassionate longing to care for and
shelter the lonely man.

Then he looked up and saw her, and she flushed at the swift elation in
his face, which, however, almost immediately grew hard again. It was as
though he had yielded for a moment to some pleasurable impulse, and had
then, with an effort, repressed it and resumed his self-control.

"Come in," he invited, rising with outstretched hand, and she suddenly
recalled how she had last crossed that threshold in his company. There
had been careless laughter in his eyes then, he had moved and spoken
with a joyous optimism, and now there was plain upon him the stamp of
defeat. Even physically the man looked different.

She sat down when he drew her out a chair, but he remained standing,
leaning with one hand on the table.

"Is Mrs. Farquhar outside?"

"No; I drove across alone."

He looked at her with a hint of astonishment and something that
suggested a natural curiosity as to the cause for the visit, which she
now found it insuperably difficult to explain.

"You haven't been at work this evening?" she asked.

"No," replied Thorne. "I rode in to the railroad early yesterday and
I've just got back after calling at two or three farms west of the
creek. It seemed possible that I might be able to hire a couple of men
I'd wired for back along the line, but I found that somebody else had
got hold of them at another station. As a matter of fact, I had expected
it."

"Then you must have made the journey almost without a rest!"

"Volador's dead played out," answered Thorne. "I had to do something,
though it seemed pretty useless in any case."

"Ah!" Alison exclaimed softly; "then you mean to go on?"

"Until I'm turned out, which will no doubt happen very shortly."

"I suppose that will hurt you?"

He looked at her for a moment with his face awry and signs of a sternly
repressed longing in his eyes.

"Yes," he answered, "it will hurt me more than anything I could have had
to face. In fact, the thought of it has been almost unbearable; but it's
now clear that I shall have to go through with it."

This was satisfactory to Alison in some respects, and she was quick to
sympathize.

"It must be very hard to give up the farm on which you have spent so
much earnest work."

"Yes," assented Thorne, with something in his tone that suggested
half-contemptuous indifference to the sacrifice; "it won't be easy to
give up even the farm."

Then for the first time it occurred to him that there was an unusual
hint of strain in her manner, and that he had never seen her dressed in
the same fashion before. She did not look daintier, for daintiness was
not quite the quality he would have ascribed to her, but more highly
cultivated, farther beyond the reach of a ruined farmer, though there
was a strange softness--it almost seemed tenderness--shining in her
eyes. He gripped the table hard and his face grew stern as he gazed at
her. He felt that it was almost impossible that he would ever have the
strength to let her go.

"What will you do then?" she asked with what seemed a merciless
persistency.

"Go away," declared Thorne. "Strike west and vanish out of sight. I've
no doubt somebody will hire me to load up railroad ballast or herd
cattle." He smiled at her harshly. "After all, it will be a relief to my
few friends. They may be a little sorry--but my absence will save their
making excuses for me."

Alison looked up at him steadily, though there was a flush of color in
her cheeks.

"You must be just to them," she said. "Why should they invent
excuses--when you have made such a fight with so much against you?
Besides, you are wrong when you say they might be--a little sorry. Can
you believe that it would be easy to let you go away?"

Thorne frowned as he met her gaze. He did not know what to make of this,
but there was a suggestiveness in her voice that was almost too much for
him.

"Is there any one who would have much difficulty in doing that?" he
asked with a quietness that cost him a determined effort.

"Yes," murmured Alison, with suddenly lowered eyes; "there is at least
one person who would feel it dreadfully."

He gazed at her, straining to cling to the resolution that had almost
deserted him, though his face was firmly set.

"It is quite true," she added, with flaming cheeks. "I must say it. I
mean myself."

He drew back a pace and stood very still, as though afraid to trust
himself.

"Don't make it all unbearable!" he cried at length. "There's only one
course open to me. It's hard enough already."

Alison faced him with a new steadiness.

"Oh," she exclaimed, "you can only look at it from your point of
view--can't you understand yet that there is another? If you had meant
to go away you should have gone--some time ago."

Thorne closed his hands firmly.

"I'm afraid you are right; but I believed that I might make a success of
this farming venture."

The girl laughed with open scorn.

"Dare you believe that would have mattered so very much to me? Do you
think I didn't know why you turned farmer, and why you have since then
done things that none of your neighbors would have been capable of?"

"It seemed necessary," explained Thorne, still with the same expressive
quietness. "I did so because I wanted you, and that is exactly what
makes defeat so bitter now."

"And you imagined that you had hidden your motive? Can you believe that
a man could change his whole mode of life and take up a burden he had
carefully avoided, as you have done, without having the woman on whose
account he did it understand why? Are we so blind or utterly foolish?
Don't you know that our perceptions and intuitions are twice as keen as
yours?"

"Then you understood what my object was all along--and it didn't strike
you as absurd and impossible?"

Alison smiled at him.

"Why should it seem absurd that I should love you, Mavy?"

He came no nearer, but stood still, looking at her with elation and
trouble curiously mingled in his face, and she realized that the fight
was but half won. He had of late sloughed off his wayward carelessness
and she knew that there had always been a depth of resolute character
beneath it. He was a man who would do what he felt was the fitting
thing, even though it hurt him.

"Well," he said, speaking slowly in a tense voice, "ever since I first
saw you I longed that this should come about. It was what I worked for,
and nothing would have been too hard that brought me nearer you, but
it's almost a cruelty that I should have succeeded--now."

"Why?" asked Alison, bracing herself for another effort, for the strain
was beginning to tell. "Is what you have won of no value to you?"

Thorne spread out his hands as if in desperation.

"It is because it is so precious that I shrink from involving you in the
disaster that is hanging over me. I am a ruined, discredited man, and in
a few more weeks I will be driven out of my homestead without a dollar.
It will be three or four years at least before I can struggle to my feet
again."

"Is that so very dreadful, Mavy?" Alison smiled. "I almost think that
in the things that count the most many of you are, after all, more bound
by traditions than we are. Your wildest flight was the driving about the
prairie with a load of patent medicines, and now your imagination is
bounded by a homestead and household comforts. You could teach a woman
to love you, and then go away, driven by some fantastic point of honor,
because you could not realize that her views might be wider than yours."

"I could hardly suppose that you would care to live in a wagon."

"I did it once--and it was not so very dreadful. I really think, if it
were needful, I could do it again."

She leaned forward toward him.

"It would be very much worse, Mavy, if you went away and left me
behind."

At length he came toward her and seized both her hands.

"Dear," he cried, "I have tried to do what I felt I ought--and now I'm
not sorry that I find I'm not strong enough. I can't tell you how I want
you--but I'm afraid you could not face what you would have to bear with
me."

"Try!" said Alison simply.

He drew her to him with an exultant laugh.

"I've done what I could, and it seems I've failed. Now let Nevis turn me
out and I'll almost thank him. After all, there are many worse places
than a camp beside the wagon in the birch bluff."

Alison was not at all convinced that it would end in that, and indeed
she did not mean it to if she could help it; but in another moment she
felt his arms about her and his lips hot upon her face, and it was half
an hour later when they left the homestead together. The sun had
dipped, and the vast dim plain stretched away before them under a vault
of fading blue, but she drove very slowly while Thorne walked beside the
buggy for almost a league.

As a result of this, it was very late when she reached the homestead,
and she was relieved when Mrs. Farquhar came out alone as she got down.
The light fell upon the girl's face as she approached the doorway, and
her companion flashed a smiling glance at her.

"I suppose you have been to Thorne's place?"

"Yes," answered Alison quietly. "I am going to marry him."

Mrs. Farquhar kissed her.

"It's very good news. Still, from what I know of Mavy and how he's
situated, I'm a little astonished that you were able to arrange it."

"Why do you put it that way?" Alison asked with a start.

Her companion laughed.

"My dear, I'm only glad that you had sense enough not to let him go.
That man would be afraid of even a cold air blowing on you. Anyway, you
have got the one husband I would most gladly have given you to."

Then she drew Alison into the house and called to Farquhar.

"Harry, take the horse in, and it isn't necessary for you to hurry
back."

She drew Alison out a chair and sat down close beside her.

"The first thing you have to do is to drive over and see Florence
Hunter. Her husband's the only person who can pull Mavy out of this
trouble."

"I had thought of that."

"I believe it's necessary. We can't let Mavy be turned out now, and if
he won't ask a favor of a man who would grant it willingly if he could,
somebody must do it for him."

Then she laid her hand caressingly on the girl's shoulder.

"I haven't been so pleased for a very long while. Keep a good courage.
We'll find some means of outwitting Nevis."



CHAPTER XXVI

OPEN CONFESSION


It was about the middle of the afternoon when Alison reached the Hunter
homestead, and she was slightly astonished when, on inquiring for
Florence, a maid informed her that the latter was busy and could not be
with her for some minutes. Alison had imagined from what she had seen on
previous visits that in the warm weather Florence invariably spent her
afternoons reclining in a canvas chair on the veranda. A couple of
chairs stood on it when she arrived, and after the maid had gone she
drew one back into the shadow, and sitting down looked out across the
great stretch of grain in front of the house.

All round the edge of it there were scattered men and teams, but they
were moving very slowly, and almost every minute the clatter of one or
another of the binders ceased and she saw stooping figures busy in front
of the machine. Though she could not make out exactly what they were
doing, the state of the harvest-field seemed to explain why the delays
were unavoidable. Great patches of the wheat lay prone; the part that
stood upright looked tangled and torn, and there were wide stretches
from which it had partially disappeared, leaving only ragged stubble
mixed with crumpled straw. Alison had, however, seen other crops that
had been wholly wiped out by the scourging hail. She waited about a
quarter of an hour before Florence appeared, looking rather hot and
dressed with unusual plainness.

"You'll have to excuse me for keeping you, but I'm glad you came," she
said. "I've been busy since seven o'clock this morning, and now that
I've a little leisure it's a relief to sit down."

A gleam of amusement crept into Alison's eyes, and her companion
evidently noticed it.

"It is rather a novelty in my case," she laughed. "On the other hand,
there's no doubt that the exertion is necessary. The waste that has been
going on in this homestead is positively alarming."

It cost Alison an effort to preserve a becoming gravity. Florence, who
had presided over the place for several years, spoke as if the fact she
mentioned, which had been patent to those who visited her for a
considerable time, had only dawned upon her very recently.

"You are trying to set things straight?" she suggested.

"It threatens to prove a difficult task, but I'm making the attempt
while I feel equal to it; and there's a certain interest even in looking
into household accounts. For instance, I had an idea this morning that
promised to save me three or four dollars a month, but when I mentioned
it to Elcot he only grinned. There are one or two respects in which I'm
afraid he's a little extravagant."

Alison laughed outright. The idea that Florence, who had hitherto
squandered money with both hands, should trouble herself about the
saving of three dollars and complain of her self-denying husband's
extravagance was irresistibly amusing.

"When did the desire to investigate affairs first get hold of you?" she
asked.

"I believe that it was when I came back from Toronto," answered
Florence thoughtfully. "Afterward we had the hail, and it became clear
at once that there would have to be some cutting down of our expenses."
Her face grew suddenly anxious as she glanced toward the grain. "That,"
she added, "ought to explain why the subject's an interesting one to
me."

Alison was somewhat puzzled. There were signs of a change in her
companion, who hitherto had, so far at least as she had noticed, taken
only a very casual interest in her husband's affairs.

"Yes," she replied, "it does. I was very sorry when I heard about it."

Florence made a little abrupt gesture, as though in dismissal of the
topic.

"What brought you over? You haven't been very often."

It was difficult to answer offhand, and Alison proceeded circuitously.

"You and I were pretty good friends in England, weren't we?"

"Of course," assented Florence. "You stood by me when your mother turned
against me, and I've always had an idea that you suffered for it. We'll
admit the fact. What comes next?"

Her manner was abrupt, but that was not infrequently the case, and
Alison, who was fighting for her lover, was not readily daunted.

"Well," she said, "I have never troubled you for any favors in return."

Florence regarded her in a rather curious fashion.

"No," she admitted, "you haven't. You made no claim on me, as, perhaps,
you were entitled to do, when you first came out here. In fact, I have
once or twice felt slightly vexed with you because you went to Mrs.
Farquhar."

Alison smiled as she remembered that her companion had not shown the
least desire to prevent her doing the thing she now resented.

"Then there's a favor that I must ask at last; but first of all I'd
better tell you that I'm going to marry Leslie Thorne."

"Mavy Thorne!" Florence gazed at her in open wonder. "I heard a whisper
or two that seemed to point to the possibility of your doing something
of the kind, but I resolutely refused to believe it."

"Why?"

Florence laughed.

"Oh, in half a dozen ways it's ludicrous. If you really mean it, you are
as absurd as he is."

Alison rose with an air of quiet dignity.

"If you are quite convinced of that, there is nothing more to be said.
You couldn't expect me to appreciate your attitude."

Her companion laid a restraining hand on her arm as she was about to
move away.

"Sit down! If I vexed you, I'm sorry; but you really shouldn't be so
quick in temper. Besides, you shouldn't have flung the news at me in
that startling fashion. After all, I've no doubt he has something to
recommend him. Most of them have a few good qualities which now and then
become evident when you don't expect them."

She paused and looked up at Alison with a smile in which there was a
hint of tenderness.

"For instance, it has been dawning on me of late that there's a good
deal that's rather nice in Elcot. Now try to be reasonable, and tell me
what the trouble is."

Alison's indignation dissipated. It was, after all, difficult to be
angry with Florence, and she supplied her with a brief account of how
Thorne was situated. Her companion listened with more interest than she
had fancied her capable of displaying, and when Alison stopped she made
a sign of comprehension.

"You want me to ask Elcot to send him over some of our men? I wish I
could--I almost feel I owe you that--but it's difficult. Elcot's trying
desperately to save the remnant of his crop. He has been very badly
hit."

Alison sat silent in tense anxiety. She could not urge Florence to do
anything that would clearly be to her husband's detriment, and she did
not see how Hunter could help Thorne without neglecting his own harvest.
Then her companion turned to her again.

"I quite realize that Thorne will be turned out unless he clears off the
loan, but you haven't mentioned the name of the creditor who wishes to
ruin him."

"It's Nevis."

An ominous sparkle crept into Florence's eyes, and her face grew hard.

"Then I'll try to explain it all to Elcot to-night, and if he can drive
off Nevis by any means that won't cost him too great a sacrifice I think
you can count on its being done."

Alison felt inclined to wonder why the mention of Nevis's part in the
affair had had such an effect on her companion, but that, after all, did
not seem a very important point, and when she drove away half an hour
later she was in an exultant mood. When she had gone, Florence
supervised the preparations for the men's supper, and after the meal
was over she stopped Hunter as he was going out again through the
veranda.

"If you can wait for a few minutes I have something to tell you," she
said. "To begin with, Alison Leigh is going to marry Thorne."

Hunter did not look much astonished.

"I think Mavy has made a wise choice, but I'm very much afraid there's
trouble in front of them," he said.

"That," returned Florence, "is exactly what I meant to speak about.
Alison was here this afternoon, and she mentioned it to me. I want to
save them as much as I can."

Hunter's face remained expressionless. It was the first time, so far as
he could remember, that Florence had concerned herself about any other
person's difficulties.

"Well," he asked gravely, "how do you propose to set about it?"

"In the first place, I thought I'd mention it to you."

A dry smile crept into Hunter's eyes.

"Then you'd better give me all the particulars in your possession. I
have some idea as to the cause of the trouble, but I haven't been over
to Mavy's place for some time, and he has sent no word to me."

Florence told him what she knew, and when she had finished he gazed at
her reflectively.

"You want me to send him all the men and binders I can spare? That's the
only useful course."

Florence hesitated, and when she spoke her manner was unusually
diffident.

"I feel it's rather shabby to promise a favor and then hand on the work
to you, but in this case I'm helpless. I should like you to get Thorne
out of his trouble, if it's only on Alison's account; but on the other
hand I don't want you to increase your own difficulties by sending men
away. You stand first with me."

Hunter made no allusion to the last assurance.

"It seems very likely that what the boys are now doing will in the end
come to much the same thing as changing a dollar and getting about
ninety cents back for it, which naturally prevents me from feeling that
I would be making very much of a sacrifice in discontinuing the
operation."

"I don't quite understand how that could be. Even if the hail has almost
spoiled the crop, you have the men, and it won't cost you any more if
you keep them busy saving as much of it as is possible."

"That," explained Hunter, "is partly why I'm doing so, and the other
reason is that I must have something that will keep me occupied just
now. On the other hand, before I can get anything for the wheat it must
be thrashed and hauled in to the elevators. Now, thrashing is usually
done by contract--at so much the bushel--in this country, and I've
reason to believe that the thrasher boys will charge me considerably
more than the average rate. Considering the state of the crop, they'll
have to do a great deal of work for a very little wheat. Besides, that
little's damaged and would bring less than the market price, which is a
particularly low one this year. Then there's the cost of haulage, which
is an item, because it would entail keeping the hired men on, and I've
the option of paying them off as soon as harvest's over."

"In short," said Florence in a troubled voice, "it would probably be
more profitable to let the whole crop rot as it stands."

"I'm afraid that's the case," Hunter agreed.

Florence sat silent for almost a minute watching him covertly. It once
more struck her that he looked very jaded, and she was touched by the
weariness in his face. Then, though the occasion seemed most
inopportune, she was carried away by a sudden impulse which compelled
her to mention Nevis's loan.

"Elcot," she blurted out, "I have made things worse for you all
along--and now there's another trouble I have brought upon you."

For a minute or two she poured out disjointed sentences, and though the
man listened gravely, almost unmoved in face, she found the making of
that confession about the most difficult thing she had ever done.

"How much did you borrow?" he inquired.

She told him; and raising himself a little from his leaning posture he
looked down upon her with an embarrassing quietness.

"I was half afraid there might be something of that kind in the
background," he said at length. "There's one point I must raise.
Presumably, you wouldn't allow a man who was to all intents and purposes
a stranger to lend you money?"

He spoke as if the matter were open to doubt, and Florence found the
situation rapidly becoming intolerable, but it was to her credit that
she recognized that half-measures would be useless then.

"No," she acknowledged.

"Then I must ask exactly what kind of interest you took in the man, and
how far your acquaintance with him went?"

Florence's face burned, but she roused herself to answer him.

"He was amusing," she said slowly, picking her words. "He came here once
or twice when you were out, and on a few occasions I met him by accident
on the prairie and at the settlement. I suppose I was--pleasant--to him,
but nobody could have called it more than that. Then there was a change
in his attitude."

"It was to be expected," Hunter interposed dryly. "Do you wish me to
understand that you were astonished?"

Florence rose and turned on him with hot anger in her eyes.

"Yes!" she exclaimed, "I was astonished and--you must believe
it--horribly mortified! He tried to make me feel that I was in his
power!"

She paused and clenched one hand tight before she cried:

"What can I do to convince you? I hate the man! I want you to crush and
humble him!"

Hunter greeted this outbreak with a smile, but he made no answer; and
growing calmer in a few moments she looked at him again.

"What are you going to do about it, Elcot?" she asked.

"In the first place, those two notes of yours must be paid when they
fall due. After that I shall act--as appears advisable."

Florence sat down with relief in her face.

"Raising the money will be another difficulty," she said. "I will give
up my allowance until it is paid off."

"That," replied Hunter, with undiminished dryness, "will no doubt have
to be done."

He turned away from her and leaned heavily on the balustrade for a
minute or two, apparently watching the hired men toiling among his
ruined wheat. Then he slowly looked around again.

"Well," he observed, "I'm glad you have told me about the thing; but I'm
somewhat surprised that you didn't realize that you could have disarmed
Nevis--and freed yourself--by mentioning it earlier."

"I was ashamed--though there was in one sense no reason why I should be.
It would have looked--so suggestive."

Hunter interrupted her with a little bitter laugh.

"No; when I asked you what interest you took in Nevis it wasn't quite
what I meant. I merely thought your answer might throw some light on his
views, which I wanted to be sure of. You are too dispassionate, and too
much alive to your own benefit, to make much of a sacrifice for the sake
of any man."

Florence winced at this, but she rose and laid her hand on his arm.

"Try me, Elcot," she begged. "I know I'm fond of ease and
luxury--perhaps it's because I had so little of them before I married
you, but now you must give me nothing for the next twelve months. Cut
the household expenses down by half and send everybody but one maid
away."

"I'm afraid you'll have to be prepared for something of the kind,"
replied Hunter quietly. "In the meanwhile, I'll take the boys and the
binders over to Thorne's place in the morning."

He moved away toward his ruined crop without another word, but Florence
did not resent the attitude he had adopted. Indeed, his uncompromising
directness had appealed to her in his favor. When, soon after their
marriage, she had by various means made it plain that he was expected
to keep his distance and leave her largely to her own devices it had
been a relief that he had fallen in with her views without protest,
though it had been evident that it had grievously hurt him. Then his
forbearance and apparent content with the situation had by degrees grown
galling, and now, when at last he seemed inclined to assert himself, she
was not displeased. It had, as she had admitted to Alison, begun to dawn
on her that she had somehow never recognized her husband's good
qualities, and that there were unexpected possibilities in the simple
farmer. Besides this, she was seized with a fit of wholly genuine
penitence.

In the meanwhile Hunter climbed into the seat of a binder which he drove
slowly through the tangled grain, and Florence, still lingering on the
veranda, noticed the carefulness with which he and his men stooked the
sheaves of wheat which might never be sold. The rows of black shadows
behind them lengthened rapidly, until at last they coalesced and the
stubble lay dim, while the western face of the grain along which the
binders crept alone glowed with a coppery radiance as the red sun
dipped. Then a wonderful exhilarating coolness crept into the air, and
there was a stillness not apparent earlier through which the clash and
clatter of the machines rang harshly distinct. They moved on with the
bent figures which grew dimmer toiling behind them for another
half-hour, and then while the others trooped off to the stables Hunter
walked slowly toward the house. Florence noticed the suggestive
slackness of his bearing and her heart smote her, for she knew it was
not mere physical weariness which had crushed the vigor out of the man.
When he came up the steps she turned to him.

"Is the wheat looking no better?"

"No," answered Hunter simply; "It's looking worse. I'm going in to write
a letter--to the bank."

He strode on and disappeared into the house, but Florence, who presently
saw a light stream out from one of the windows, sat still, though the
dew was getting heavy and it was chilly now.



CHAPTER XXVII

A HELPING HAND


Lucy Calvert came over as often as she was able; but at length she was
compelled to discontinue her visits to Thorne. Soon after she had done
so, there was a welcome change in the almost torrid weather, and grass
and grain lay still under a faintly clouded sky when he toiled among the
sheaves one clear, cool afternoon. The binder which flung them out moved
along the edge of the oats in front of him, and another man was busy
among the crackling stubble a pace or two behind, for a neighbor had
driven across to help him on the previous evening, and the station-agent
had at last sent him out a man from the railroad settlement. They had
been at work since early morning, but each time Thorne glanced at the
oblong of standing grain he realized more clearly the futility of what
he was doing.

The belt of knee-high stubble, which shone, a sweep of warm ochre
tinting, against the white and gray of the parched grass beyond it, was
widening steadily as the crop went down before the binder, but he had a
good deal yet to cut, and there was another oblong of untouched grain
running back from a deserted wooden shack some distance away. Thorne had
followed the custom of the country, sowing oats on the newly broken land
and wheat on that which had been worked before, though in the latter
case he had agreed to pay a share of the proceeds to the owner of the
soil. He had secured an option of purchasing this second holding, but
it was quite out of the question that he should exercise it now, and a
very simple calculation convinced him that at his present rate of
progress less than half the crop would be ready when Grantly's note fell
due.

There was no doubt that his activity was illogical, as it was obvious
that the result of every hour's strenuous labor would only be to put so
much more money into Nevis's pocket, but he could not force himself to
give up the fight until the last moment. He still clung to a faint
expectation that something might transpire to lessen the odds against
him. He admitted that there was nothing to warrant this view, but in
spite of it he toiled on savagely, and the stooked sheaves rose before
him in lengthening golden ranks as he floundered with bowed shoulders
and busy arms through the crackling stubble. The soil beneath the straw
was dry and parched, and the dust which rose from it crept into his eyes
and nostrils. Now and then he gasped, but he worked on with no
slackening of effort, for that part of the crop was heavy and the
sheaves were falling thick and fast in the wake of the machine. At
length, however, it stopped at a corner, and Thorne straightened his
aching back when the man who drove it got down.

"She wants a drop of oil," he explained, and looking round him pointed
out across the prairie. "Seems as if Shafter was through with his
harvest, and I guess he has to sell. Some of the storekeepers have been
putting the screw on him."

Thorne gazed toward the spot he indicated and saw two or three teams and
wagons etched upon the horizon where a low rise ran up to meet the sky.
They were so far off that they appeared stationary, and it was only
when one of the binder's arms hid the first of them a moment or two
later that he could see they moved. Then as he watched the others a hot
fit of resentment and envy came upon him. It was clear that Shafter, who
had plowed unusually early, had cut and thrashed his grain, for stacking
is seldom attempted in that country, where very few farmers have any
money in hand and storekeepers generally look for payment once the crop
is in. In the latter case it is put on the market as soon as possible,
though now and then the last of it is hauled in on the bob-sleds across
the snow. Shafter, at least, could clear off his liabilities, and though
Thorne did not grudge the man this satisfaction, the sight of his loaded
wagons crawling slowly to the elevators was bitter to him. He could have
done what Shafter was doing, and so escaped from Nevis's clutches, had
he only been allowed a little longer time.

"When you're through with that oiling, we'll get on," he said harshly.

His companion made no answer, but climbed into the saddle and the binder
moved steadily along the edge of the grain until they came to the second
corner. Turning it, the driver looked out across a stretch of prairie
which a birch bluff on one hand of them had previously hidden. Then he
pulled up his team excitedly.

"Mavy!" he cried, "there's quite a lot of teams back yonder to the
eastward, beyond the creek!"

Thorne sprang up on the binder, for where he had been standing a cluster
of sheaves obscured his view. He saw that there undoubtedly were horses
on the sweep of grass in the distance. What was more, they were moving
in his direction.

"There's one wagon," declared his second companion. "I can't quite make
out the other things. If there was hay in the sloos still I'd say they
were mowers."

Thorne's heart seemed suddenly to leap, and the man in the saddle of the
machine burst into a hoarse laugh.

"Well," he said, "nobody would figure you'd been farming, unless you use
the scythe down in Ontario. They're sure binders!"

He turned and smote Thorne encouragingly upon the shoulder.

"Mavy, it's the Hunter crowd! Guess you're going to have no trouble
getting your crop in now!"

Thorne got down and leaned against the wheel of the binder. His face had
grown paler than usual, and he felt almost limp with the relief which
was too great for him to express. It was several moments before he broke
the silence.

"They can't be here for a while. I think I'll have a smoke."

His companion nodded sympathetically.

"That's what you want, Mavy. Then you'll be fresh for a hustle; and
we'll have to move quite lively to keep ahead of the Hunter boys.
Hunter's no use for slouches and he knows how to speed up the crowd he
hires."

He called to his horses, and the other man fell to work behind him when
the machine clattered on, but Thorne sat down among the sheaves. He
could now allow himself a brief relaxation, and for once his grip was
nerveless, for his heart was overfull. His cares had suddenly vanished,
and there was, he almost thought, victory in front of him. He had some
trouble in shredding the tobacco to fill his pipe, and when the
operation was accomplished he lay resting on one elbow watching the
teams draw nearer with a satisfaction which came near to overwhelming
him. By the time he had smoked the pipe out, however, he had grown a
little calmer, and rousing himself he stood up and walked out upon the
prairie to meet the newcomers. Hunter was driving a wagon in front of
them and he stopped his team when he was a few yards away.

"We'll soon clean that crop up," he declared cheerily when Thorne had
clambered to the seat beside him. "I've brought the smartest of the boys
and the newest machines along."

"Thanks," Thorne replied simply. "Just now I can't say anything more,
except that in one way I'm sorry you were able to come."

Hunter's face grew suddenly grave.

"I can believe it, Mavy. Had things been different it's quite likely I'd
have had to keep the boys at home; I was only sure that I was throwing
my time away yesterday. Anyway, I'm thankful that one hailed crop won't
clean me out."

He dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand.

"As a matter of fact," he added, "though I'd probably come in any case,
it was really Mrs. Hunter who sent me along."

"Mrs. Hunter!" ejaculated Thorne in what afterward occurred to him was
very tactless astonishment.

"Sure!" laughed his companion. "She had a visitor shortly before she
spoke to me about it, which may have had something to do with the thing,
but the possibility of the notion's having struck Miss Leigh first
wasn't any reason why I shouldn't come across. Mavy, it's my opinion
that you're a very lucky man."

"It's mine, too," Thorne answered with a light in his eyes. "Still, I
almost felt ashamed to admit it half an hour ago. The outlook seemed
very black to me just then."

Hunter made a sign of comprehension.

"Well," he said, "from what I've seen of her, I don't think Miss Leigh
would have fallen in with your point of view, though it was a very
natural one. It strikes me there's a good deal of courage and a capacity
for making the most of things in that girl. Anyway, there ought to be
considerably fewer difficulties in front of both of you when we get this
crop in; and that brings up another matter. The thrashers are leaving
Shafter's for Tom Jordan's place to-morrow. Hadn't you better write to
them right away and arrange for them to come along as soon as we're
ready?"

Thorne recognized that this would be judicious, particularly as he
expected that a neighbor who had spoken to him that morning would pass
close by in the next hour or two. The man, who lived near Jordan, would,
he felt confident, undertake to hand on the letter. A few minutes later
he got down and entered his dwelling while Hunter drove on toward the
grain. He found, however, that his ink had almost dried up, and when he
sat down to write it was difficult to fix his thoughts on what he had to
say. The relief he had experienced a little while ago had been great
enough partly to bewilder him, and some time had passed before he
produced a fairly intelligible letter. Putting it into his pocket, he
went out again, and stopped a moment or two just outside the threshold
with a sense of exultation that sent an almost painful thrill through
him as he saw that Hunter had already got to work.

Plodding teams and machines, marshaled in careful order, were advancing
in echelon through the grain, which melted away before them. Behind
each, bowed, bare-armed figures set up the flung-out sheaves, which rose
in ranks that now lengthened reassuringly fast. The still air was filled
with the sounds of a strenuous activity; the crackle of the stubble, the
rasp and tinkle of the knives, and the rustle of falling grain. Already
there was a wide gap, which extended while he gazed at it, bitten out of
one corner of the golden oblong. Along its indented edges the arms of
the binders whirled and gleamed, half-buried in yellow straw, through
which, as most of them were new, he caught odd glimpses of streaks of
flaring vermilion and harshest green, while the dull blue garments and
bronzed skin of the men who moved on stooping showed against the sweep
of ochre and coppery hues. It was a medley of vivid color and a blending
of stirring sound, and the jaded man forgot his aches and weariness as
he gazed. The crop he had despaired of reaping was falling fast before
his eyes.

Then he saw that his own team was leading, and there was only one figure
struggling with the sheaves behind it. In another moment it became
apparent that the man in the saddle was waving to him, and he set off at
a run. When he reached the grain one of his companions glanced at him
reproachfully.

"See where that binder's got?" he grumbled. "We went in first, but
though I've most pulled my arms off they're crowding right on top of us
with the next Hunter team. Do you want the boys to put it on us that we
can't keep ahead of them?"

Thorne saw that the team of the following binder was very close behind,
and that a wide strip of stubble strewed with fallen sheaves, which had
accumulated in his absence, divided him and his companion from the
machine that belonged to him.

"Well," he said with a cheerful laugh, "there's a good deal to pull up,
but it has to be done."

They set about it vigorously, and drew away foot by foot from the men
behind. Thorne had toiled hard before, but now he felt that he could do
half as much again. After all, the grim courage of the forlorn hope
provides a feebler animus than the thrill of victory. At length,
however, his companion turned to him with a gasping expostulation.

"I guess you have me beat," he exclaimed. "We'll hook Jim off the binder
and put you on instead. I'll own up I'd rather have him along with me
just now."

They made the change, and Thorne contrived to drive a little faster than
the other man had done. Hunter's men could not let him draw too far
ahead, and everywhere the effort grew tenser still. Nobody objected
when, as the supper hour drew near, Hunter said that since the days were
shortening fast they would go on until dark fell before they made the
meal, instead of working afterward. Still, as the time slipped by, a man
here and there drew his belt tighter or stopped a moment to straighten
his aching back, and by degrees the horses moved more and more slowly
amid the falling grain. The clatter of the binders grew less insistent,
there were halts to oil or tighten something now and then; and at last,
when all the great plain was growing dim, it was with relief that the
men desisted when Hunter called to them. He and Thorne loosed their
teams, and the latter looked uneasy when they walked toward the house
together.

"There's a thing that only struck me a few minutes ago, and I'm rather
troubled about it," he confessed. "The boys have worked hard enough
already without being set to making flapjacks and cooking their supper,
while I really don't know how I'm to tide over breakfast to-morrow."

Hunter laughed.

"That's not going to prove much of a difficulty, particularly as it's
one Mrs. Hunter has provided for. As it happens, Hall looked in on us
last night, and I gathered that he hadn't a very high opinion of your
cookery and catering."

A minute or two later they came out from behind the barn into view of
the house and Thorne saw that a bountiful meal was already spread out on
the grass in front of it. A man, whose absence he had not noticed, was
carrying a kettle and a frying-pan out of the doorway. It was the climax
of a day of unexpected happenings and vanishing troubles, and when he
looked at Hunter he found it difficult to speak. The latter, however,
laughed.

"Mavy," he said, "you sit right down yonder. Supper's ready, and the
boys are waiting."

Thorne took his place among the others, who ate in such determined
fashion that in a very few minutes there was nothing left of the meal.
Then two or three of them gathered up the plates, and the others, lying
down on the grass, took out their pipes. In the meanwhile it had grown
almost dark, though a few pale streaks of saffron and green lingered low
upon the prairie's western verge. The long rows of sheaves stood out
dimly upon the stubble, but the standing crop had faded into a blurred
and shadowy mass, one edge of which alone showed with a certain
distinctness above the sweep of the darkening plain. Near the house,
however, a little fire which somebody had lighted--probably because
there was not room for all the cooking utensils on Thorne's
stove--burned redly between the two birch logs, and its flickering glow
wavered across the recumbent figures of the men.

Some of them lay propped up on one elbow, some had stretched themselves
out full-length among the grass, and now and then a brown face or
uncovered bronzed arm stood out in the uncertain radiance and vanished
again. The men spoke in low voices, lazily, wearied with the day's toil,
though at irregular intervals a hoarse laugh broke out, and once or
twice the howl of a coyote came up faint and hollow out of the waste of
prairie. A little apart from the others, Thorne and Hunter sat with
their shoulders against the front of the house, talking quietly.

"I'll see you through with the hauling in," Hunter promised. "We'll
start right away as soon as the thrashers can give us a load, and in my
opinion you should have a reasonable surplus after clearing off Nevis's
claim."

"Yes," assented Thorne with deep but languid content; "it looks almost
as if another moderately good harvest would wipe out my last obligation
and set me solidly on my feet. Once I'm free of Nevis, I don't
anticipate any trouble with the other men. So long as they get their
interest they'll hold me up for their own sakes."

"That's how it strikes me," Hunter agreed. "They don't run their
business on Nevis's lines; which reminds me that I picked up a little
information that suggested that he might have to make a change, when I
was over at Brandon a week or two ago. I may say that as I had reasons
for believing that the man hadn't a great deal of money of his own I've
been rather astonished at the way he has gone on from one thing to
another during the last few years, until Farquhar told me something
which seemed to supply the explanation. He got it from Grantly, who
declares that Brand, of Winnipeg, has been backing Nevis all along.
Well, I spent an evening with one of the big milling people in Brandon,
and he told me it was generally believed that Brand has been severely
hit by the fall in wheat. It turns out that he and a few others were at
the bottom of the late rally, which, however, only made things worse for
them. The point is that if Brand is getting shaky he'll probably call in
any money he has supplied to Nevis."

"Nobody would be sorry if he pulled him down altogether."

"It's almost too much to expect," replied Hunter, dismissing the subject
with a wave of his hand. "By the way, I had a look round your house
after supper, and it's my opinion that you only want a wagon-load of
dressed lumber and a couple of carpenters for two or three days to make
the place quite comfortable. A few simple furnishings won't cost you
much, and you can, of course, add to them as you go on."

Thorne realized that this statement covered a question, and he smiled in
a manner that indicated unalloyed satisfaction.

"I intend to consult with Alison about ordering them as soon as the
thrashing's over."

His companion rose and stretched himself.

"Well," he yawned, "if we're to start at sunup we had better get off to
rest."

He turned to the others.

"You'll find your blankets in the wagon, boys, and you can camp in the
house. If you're particular about a soft bed there's hay in the barn."



CHAPTER XXVIII

THE RECKONING


Thorne's last load of wheat had been hauled in, and he had duly met his
obligations, when he drove into Graham's Bluff early one evening. The
days were rapidly getting shorter, and though it was not yet dark there
was a chill in the air, and here and there a light blinked in the window
of a store. Odd groups of loiterers stood about the sidewalk or strolled
along the rutted street, for it was Saturday evening, and now that
harvest was generally over the outlying farmers had driven in to
purchase provisions or to gather any news that might be had, in
accordance with their usual custom. It was about their only relaxation,
and of late a supplementary mail arrived on Saturdays, which was another
excuse for the visit.

Thorne was in an unusually optimistic mood. He had left his troubles
behind him, there was an alluring prospect opening out ahead, and he
expected to meet Alison and Mrs. Farquhar at the hotel. Besides, he had
driven fast, and the swift motion had stirred his blood. He answered
with a cheerful laugh when some of the loungers called to him. As he
drove by one corner Corporal Slaney raised a greeting hand, and Thorne,
wondering what he was doing there, waved his whip. It was, as a rule,
only when he had some particular business on hand that the corporal was
seen at Graham's Bluff. Supper had been over some time when Thorne
stopped his team at the back of the hotel, and getting down handed it
over to a man who came out from the stable.

"Has the mail-carrier got in yet, Bill?" he asked.

"No; he's most an hour behind his usual time. Guess you're late, too.
They've cleared the tables quite a while ago."

"I got supper with Forrester as I came along. I suppose you haven't any
idea as to what has brought Slaney over?"

Bill grinned.

"It is my opinion that's about the one thing Slaney's not going to
explain, though he was in the stable talking, and I saw him looking kind
of curious at Lucy Calvert. She's in town, and so is Mrs. Hunter. She
came in alone, but somebody told me that Hunter had ridden round by
Hall's place and would be along by and by."

"Are there any of my other friends about?"

"I don't know if you'd call Nevis one, but he's in the hotel; when I
last saw him he looked powerful mad. Mrs. Hunter had pulled up before
the dry-goods store when he walked up and started to talk to her. I
don't know what she said to him, but it kind of struck me she'd have
liked to lay into him with the whip, and Nevis came back across the road
mighty quick. After that Mrs. Farquhar drove in with Miss Leigh and left
word that you were to wait at the hotel."

Bill paused a moment and grinned at Thorne mischievously.

"Guess they didn't want you trailing round after them in the dry-goods
store. Looks as if they'd been buying quite a lot, for it's most half an
hour since they went in. The lawyer man who came to see Miss Leigh has
gone off up the street."

"The lawyer man!" exclaimed Thorne in some astonishment, for, though he
could guess what Alison was buying, the last piece of news roused his
interest.

"Parsons--from somewhere down the line. He has been in the settlement
once or twice lately. Wanted to know where Miss Leigh was, and when
she'd be back again."

Thorne, without asking any more questions, walked round to the front of
the hotel, where he found Nevis talking to several farmers on the
veranda. He was inclined to think the man had not noticed his arrival,
and sitting down he took out his pipe without greeting him. He had
treated Nevis to a somewhat forcible expression of opinion when he had
met Grantly's note a few days earlier, and they had by no means parted
on friendly terms. Soon after he sat down Symonds, the hotel-keeper,
came out on the veranda.

"Are you going to stay here to-night, Mr. Nevis?" he inquired.

"Yes," said Nevis. "I didn't intend to when I drove in, but I think I'll
stop over until Monday morning. I'll drive on to Hunter's place after
breakfast then."

Thorne, remembering what Bill had told him, wondered how far Nevis's
meeting with Mrs. Hunter might explain his change of mind. He could
think of no very definite reason that would warrant the conjecture, but
a stream of light from the room behind the veranda fell on the man's
face and its expression suggested vindictive malice. Just then two or
three newcomers strolled on to the veranda, and a teamster, who had been
sitting at the farther side of it, moved toward Nevis.

"What do you want to go to Hunter's for?" he asked bluntly. "You and he
haven't had any dealings since he beat you out of the creamery."

Thorne watched Nevis closely, and imagined that the ominous look in his
face grew plainer still.

"Well," he said, with a jarring laugh, "Mrs. Hunter is a customer of
mine."

There was a murmur of astonishment and the men gathered round the
speaker, evidently in the expectation of hearing something more.

"Is that a cold fact?" one of them inquired.

"Certainly," answered Nevis; and Thorne joined the group.

"Even if it is, this isn't the place to discuss it!" he broke in.
"Perhaps I'd better mention that if Hunter isn't in town already he will
be very soon."

Nevis looked around at him, and Thorne fancied that the man, who was
evidently filled with savage resentment, intended, with some vindictive
purpose, to take the gathering group of bystanders into his confidence.
Several more men were ascending the steps.

"Have you any reason to doubt what I'm saying?" he asked.

"Well," drawled Thorne, "there's your general character, for one thing."

Some of the others laughed, but it occurred to Thorne that his
interference had not been particularly tactful when one of them asked a
question.

"Are you telling us that Hunter, who has plenty of money, lets his wife
go borrowing from people like you?"

"I can't say that he lets her," Nevis retorted meaningly. "I've the
best of reasons, however, for being certain that she does so."

There was an awkward silence, which indicated that all who had heard it
grasped the full significance of the last statement. Nevis smiled as he
glanced round at them.

"You mean he doesn't know anything about it?" somebody exclaimed.

"If you insist, that's about the size of it," Nevis answered. "Since her
husband cuts down her allowance to the last dollar, it's not an
altogether unnatural thing that Mrs. Hunter should borrow from her
friends without mentioning it to him."

The speech was offensive on the face of it, but there was in addition
something in the man's manner which endued it with a gross
suggestiveness. It implied that he could furnish a reason why the woman
should have no hesitation in borrowing from him. Thorne stood still
fuming. He recognized that an altercation with Nevis would in all
probability only provide the latter with an opportunity for making
further undesirable insinuations.

Just then, however, the group suddenly fell apart and another man strode
across the veranda. He carried a riding-quirt, and his face showed white
and set in the stream of light.

"It's a malicious lie!"

He raised the plaited quirt, and the hotel-keeper flung himself in front
of Nevis.

"Stop there!" he cried. "Hold on, Hunter!"

Thorne, springing forward, grasped his friend's arm. He felt it his duty
to restrain him, though it was one that he undertook most reluctantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter once more turned to the waiting men.

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

There were cries of assent.

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

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

Then Hunter raised his hand for silence.

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

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

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

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

The events of the next few moments were sudden and confusing, and Thorne
was never able to arrange them clearly in his mind. It speedily became
evident, however, that the equity of his cause does not necessarily
render a man either invincible or invulnerable. Nevis, although a person
of somewhat lethargic physical habits, appeared when forced to action
sufficiently vigorous, and Hunter was hampered by the quirt to which he
persistently clung. Though he managed to use it once or twice it was a
serious handicap when they came to grips. In the meanwhile, the dust
flew up from the uncovered floor and obscured the view of the men on the
veranda, who crowded about the window and clamored furiously to get in.
Then in the midst of the turmoil the lamp went out and Thorne felt a
hand on his shoulder.

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

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

"Head him off from the stairway!"

"Leave them to it!"

"Get a light!"

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

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

Then a cry rose sharply from somewhere below.

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

It was followed by a shout from the crowd.

"Winthrop!"

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

"Slaney!" he shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thorne nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lawyer rose.

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

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

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



CHAPTER XXIX

THE NEW OUTLOOK


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

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

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

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

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

Florence's face flushed.

"What did you do about it?"

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

"And then?"

"I paid off the loans."

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

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

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

"What do you expect to hear?"

Florence's eyes flashed.

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

Her husband's face relaxed into a grim smile.

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

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

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

"You don't find them satisfactory?"

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

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

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

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

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

The man moved nearer her and then stopped, hesitating.

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

Florence rose and laid her hands in his.

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

The man stooped and kissed her.

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

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

Then she drew away from him.

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

Hunter laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laid down the paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parsons smiled.

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

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

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

"But couldn't he have been compelled to produce it in court?" Thorne
inquired.

"Yes; if Winthrop had been ably represented. It must, however, be borne
in mind that he has no great education, and he would probably not have
set out matters clearly to any one who undertook to plead for him. He
admits that he never thought of the mortgage deed until somebody
suggested that he should try to recover it. Besides this, I'm inclined
to fancy that Nevis was influenced by the fact that what appears to be a
simple police case based upon an indisputable act--in this case the
selling of the cattle--is apt to be rather casually handled by the
court."

"Then you believe he will get off?"

"It's by no means certain yet that he will be tried."

They heard the announcement with varying astonishment, and Parsons
continued.

"I endeavored to impress the views I have laid before you on Sergeant
Williamson," he explained. "The matter, of course, does not rest with
him, but he has come over to make inquiries, and what he has to say will
be listened to. I also pointed out to him that one would expect the
police case to break down if the man who had instituted it was either
absent or reluctant to press it." He stopped a moment and looked round
with a confidential air. "You have heard that Brand, of Winnipeg, has
failed disastrously? There are reasons for believing that Nevis is
involved in his fall; in any case, his office is closed, and it is known
that he left the settlement, presumably for Winnipeg, by the last
Montreal express."

There was only satisfaction in the faces of those who heard him. Then
Mrs. Farquhar broke the silence.

"I wonder whether you could add anything to the last piece of
information?"

"Well," smiled Parsons, "prediction is generally dangerous, and in my
case it would be unprofessional, but I may confess that from one or two
things I gathered I shouldn't be greatly astonished if Nevis failed to
come back again."

Thorne laughed outright.

"After that," he said, "we'll take the thing for granted, and I haven't
the least hesitation in declaring that it's a great relief to hear it."

Then the group broke up, and Alison strolled out with Thorne across the
prairie. A half-moon hung above its eastern rim, and the great sweep of
grass ran back into the dim distance faintly touched with the pale
silvery light. It fell upon the girl's face when at length she stopped
and stood looking about her with the man's hand on her shoulder. A long
rise of ground, so slight as to be almost imperceptible, had cut off the
lights of the house, and they stood alone in the empty waste surrounded
by a deep stillness.

"It seems such a little while since I first saw the prairie, and I
shrank from it then," she said. "It looked so bare and grim and utterly
forbidding."

"And now?" Thorne prompted her.

Alison laughed, a little, happy laugh.

"Now its harshness has vanished and it has grown beautiful. When it lies
under the moonlight it is steeped in glamour and mystery. Even the tiny
grasses make elfin music when everything is still. I came out at sunrise
this morning when a faint breeze got up and listened to them."

"Ah!" exclaimed Thorne softly, "it is only a few who can hear that music
at all, and those, I think, must have it in their hearts already. It is
a sign that you belong to the wilderness and it has laid its claim on
you."

Alison smiled.

"Now that I have learned to know it, a fondness for the wilderness has
crept into my blood; but, after all, your views are narrow; you don't go
quite far enough. I think one could sometimes hear the music I spoke of
in the noisy cities. Only, as you say, it must be in one's heart
already."

Thorne looked down at her with a glow in his eyes.

"Ours are in unison."

"No," protested Alison, smilingly, "I think we should not benefit if
that were possible. The most we can look for is a complex harmony. In
the strain humanity raises there must be many different notes and many
different parts."

Thorne laughed rather strangely as, with a little instinctive movement,
he straightened himself.

"But the same insistent throb in all that is worth listening to."

"Ah!" murmured the girl; "then you recognized the note of unrest and
endeavor, though you tried to shut your ears?"

"Now I know I heard it in crowded places; in the pounding of the forges,
and the rumble of the mills. I've heard it a little plainer in the wash
beneath the liner's bows and the din the Pacific express made crossing
the silent prairie with the Empress mails. Still, as you suggested, I
wouldn't grasp its message until one night I sat in the bluff and heard
the birch twigs whispering while you rested in the wagon. Then I knew I
was an idler and a trifler; one who stood aside while the others took
their fill of the joys and pains of life."

Alison glanced up at him.

"Then you were awake that night?"

"Yes; I sat beneath a tree, and I don't know how often I smoked my pipe
out, but my mouth was parched at sunrise, and there was a new purpose
growing into shape at the bottom of my mind. You see, I realized that I
must fall into line and toil like the rest if I wanted you."

"But you had seen me for only two or three days!"

Thorne laughed softly.

"I think if I had seen you for only an hour it would have had the same
result. Anyway, I tried farming, and--though I was very nearly
beaten--you can see what I have made of it."

He stooped a little toward her.

"The house is almost ready, dear, and I want you to drive in to the
railroad with me to-morrow. A man from Winnipeg will be at the hotel
then, and I should like you to choose what you think is needed from his
lists of furnishings."

Alison looked down, for she was conscious of a warmth in her cheeks. "If
you will come over early, I'll be ready."

Thorne drew her hand within his arm and they moved on slowly in the
faint moonlight that etherealized the plain.

"It is a marvelous night!" he exclaimed. "The wilderness gripped me when
I came out, but I don't think I ever realized how wonderful it is as I
do just now. And there are people who can see in it only an empty,
wind-swept land!"

He drew her impulsively to him.

"Still, there are excuses for them. Only part of the glamour is in the
prairie. The rest of it is due to the supreme good fortune that has
fallen to me."

"You are very sure of that?" murmured Alison.

"Yes," declared Thorne, with resolute decisiveness, "it's a certainty
that will only grow deeper as the years roll on!"


THE END



Transcriber's Note: The following typographical errors present in the
original edition have been corrected.

In Chapter I, "a rather hazardout undertaking" was changed to "a rather
hazardous undertaking".

In Chapter VI, "when the storekeper appeared on the scene" was changed
to "when the storekeeper appeared on the scene".

In Chapter X, a missing quotation mark was added after "he's no doubt
ready for an outbreak."

In Chapter XI, "it might he desirable to let Volador" was changed to "it
might be desirable to let Volador".

In Chapter XII, "in which case it will, no doubt, he adopted" was
changed to "in which case it will, no doubt, be adopted".

In Chapter XIX, "when he strode out on the verenda" was changed to "when
he strode out on the veranda", and "dubious glances round him at he
resumed his march" was changed to "dubious glances round him as he
resumed his march".

Chapter XXVII, A HELPING HAND, was mislabeled "Chapter XXVI" originally.

In Chapter XXIX, "there the fact it" was changed to "there the fact is".





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Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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