Read CHAPTER XII - THE SPROUTING OF THE SEED of The Cattle-Baron's Daughter , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

Late in the afternoon of a bitter day Grant drove into sight of the last of the homesteaders’ dwellings that lay within his round.  It rose, a shapeless mound of white, from the wilderness that rolled away in billowy rises, shining under the sunlight that had no warmth in it.  The snow that lay deep about its sod walls and upon the birch-branch roof hid its squalidness, and covered the pile of refuse and empty cans, but Grant knew what he would find within it, and when he pulled up his team his face grew anxious.  It was graver than it had been a year ago, for Larry Grant had lost a good deal of his hopefulness since he heard those footsteps at the depot.

The iron winter, that was but lightly felt in the homes of the cattle-barons, had borne hardly on the men huddled in sod-hovel, and birch-log shanty, swept by the winds of heaven at fifty degrees below.  They had no thick furs to shelter them, and many had very little food, while on those who came from the cities the cold of the Northwest set its mark, numbing the half-fed body and unhinging the mind.  The lean farmers from the Dakotas who had fought with adverse seasons, and the sinewy axe-men from Michigan clearings, bore it with grim patience, but there were here and there a few who failed to stand the strain, and, listening to the outcasts from the East, let passion drive out fortitude and dreamed of anarchy.  They had come in with a pitiful handful of dollars to build new homes and farm, but the rich men, and in some cases their own supineness, had been too strong for them; and while they waited their scanty capital melted away.  Now, with most of them it had almost gone, and they were left without the means to commence the fight in spring.

Breckenridge saw the shadow in Grant’s face, and touched his arm.  “I’ll go in and give the man his dollars, Larry,” he said.  “You have had about as much worry as is good for you to-day.”

Grant shook his head.  “I’ve no use for shutting my eyes so I can’t see a thing when I know it’s there.”

He stepped out of the sleigh and went into the shanty.  The place had one room, and, though a stove stood in the midst of it and the snow that kept some of the frost out was piled to the windows, it was dank and chill.  Only a little dim light crept in, and it was a moment or two before Grant saw the man who sat idle by the stove with a clotted bandage round his leg.  He was gaunt, and clad in jean patched with flour-bags, and his face showed haggard under his bronze.  Behind him on a rude birch-branch couch covered with prairie hay a woman lay apparently asleep beneath a tattered fur coat.

“What’s the matter with her?” Grant asked.

“I don’t quite know.  She got sick ’most two weeks ago, and talks of a pain that only leaves her when she’s sleeping.  One of the boys drove in to the railroad for the doctor, but he’s busy down there.  Any way, it would have taken him ’most a week to get here and back, and I guess he knew I hadn’t the dollars to pay him with.”

Grant recognized the hopeless evenness of the tone, but Breckenridge, who was younger, did not.

“But you can’t let her lie here without help of any kind,” he said.

“Well,” said the man slowly, “what else can I do?”

Breckenridge could not tell him, and appealed to his comrade.  “We have got to take this up, Larry.  She looks ill.”

Grant nodded.  “I have friends down yonder who will send that doctor out,” he said.  “Here are your dollars from the fund.  Ten of them this time.”

The man handed him one of the bills back.  “If you want me to take more than five you’ll have to show your book,” he said.  “I’ve been finding out how you work these affairs, Larry.”

Grant only laughed, but Breckenridge turned to the speaker with an assumption of severity that was almost ludicrous in his young face.

“Now, don’t you make yourself a consumed ass,” he said.  “You want those dollars considerably more than we do, and we’ve got quite a few of them doing nothing in the bank.  That is, Larry has.”

Grant’s eyes twinkled.  “It’s no use, Breckenridge.  I know the kind of man he is.  I’m going to send Miss Muller here, and we’ll come round and pound the foolishness out of you if you try to send back anything she brings with her.  This place is as cold as an ice-store.  What’s the matter with your stove?”

“The stove’s all right,” and the man pointed to his leg.  “The trouble is that I’ve very little wood.  Axe slipped the last time I went chopping in the bluff, and the frost got into the cut.  I couldn’t make three miles on one leg, and pack a load of billets on my back.”

“But you’d freeze when those ran out, and they couldn’t last you two days,” said Breckenridge, glancing at the little pile of fuel.

“Yes,” said the man grimly.  “I guess I would, unless one of the boys came along.”

“Anything wrong with your oxen?” asked Grant.

“Well,” said the man drily, “we’ve been living for ’most two months on one of them.  I salted a piece of him; the rest’s frozen.  I had to sell the other to a Dutchman.  Since the cattle-boys stopped me ploughing I hadn’t much use for them, any way.”

“Then,” said Breckenridge, “why the devil did you bring a woman out to this forsaken country?”

Perhaps the man understood what prompted the question, for he did not resent it.  “Where was I to take her to?  I’m a farmer without dollars, and I had to go somewhere when I’d lost three wheat crops in Dakota.  Somebody told me you had room for small farmers, and when I heard the land was to be opened for homesteading, I sold out everything, and came on here to begin again.  Never saw a richer soil, and there’s only one thing wrong with the country.”

“The men in it?” asked Breckenridge.

The farmer nodded, and a little glow crept into his eyes.  “Yes,” he said fiercely.  “The cattle-barons ­and there’ll be no room for anyone until we’ve done away with them.  We’ve no patience for more fooling.  It has got to be done.”

“That’s the executive’s business,” said Grant.

The man rose, with a little quiver of his lean frame and a big hand clenched.  “No,” he said, “it’s our business, and the business of every honest citizen.  If you don’t tackle it right off, other men will put the contract through.”

“You’ll have to talk plainer,” said Grant.

“Well,” said the farmer, “that’s easy.  It was you and some of the others brought us in, and now we’re here we’re starving.  There’s land to feed a host of us, and every citizen is entitled to enough to make a living on.  But while the cattle-men keep hold, how’s he going to get it?  Oh, yes, we’ve cut their fences and broken a few acres here and there; but how are we going to put through our ploughing when every man who drives a furrow has to whip up six of his neighbours to keep the cow-boys off him?  Well, there’s just one answer.  We’re going to pull those men down.”

“You’re going to sit tight until your leaders tell you to move,” Grant informed him.

The man laughed harshly.  “No,” he said.  “Unless they keep ahead of us we’re going to trail them along.  You’re a straight man, Larry, but you don’t see all you’ve done.  You set this thing going, and now you can’t step out if it goes too far for you.  No, sir, you’ve got to keep the pace and come along, and it’s going to be quite lively now some of the Chicago anarchy boys are chipping in.”

Grant’s face was very stern.  “When they’re wanted, your leaders will be there,” he said.  “They’ve got hold, and they’ll keep it, if they have to whip the sense into some of you.  Now give me that axe of yours, and we’ll get some wood.  I don’t want to hear any more wild talking.”

He went out, taking Breckenridge with him, and an hour later returned with a sleigh-load of birch branches, which he flung down before the shanty.  Then, he turned the team towards Fremont ranch, and his face was grave as he stared over the horses’ heads at the smear of trail that wound away, a blue-grey riband, before the gliding sleigh.

“I wonder if that fellow meant to give us a hint,” said Breckenridge.

Grant nodded.  “I think he did ­and he was right about the rest.  Two years ago I was a prosperous rancher, proud of the prairie I belonged to, and without a care; but I could see what this country was meant to be, and when the others started talking about the homestead movement I did my share.  Folks seemed keen to listen; we got letters from everywhere, and we told the men who wrote them just what the land could do.  It was sowing blindfold, and now the crop’s above the sod it ’most frightens me.  No man can tell what it will grow to be before it’s ready for the binder, and while we’ve got the wheat we’ve got the weeds as well.”

“Wasn’t it always like that?  At least, it seems so from reading a little history.  I don’t know that I envy you, Larry.  In the tongue of this country, it’s a hard row you have to hoe.  Of course, there are folks who would consider they had done enough in planting it.”

“Yes,” Grant agreed, “we have quite a few of them over here; but, if more than we’ve planted has come up, I’m going right through.”

Breckenridge said nothing further, and there was silence until the lights of Fremont rose out of the snowy wilderness.  When they reached it they found a weary man lying in a big chair; he pointed to the litter of plates on the table as he handed Grant a letter.

“I haven’t eaten since sun up, and drove most of sixty miles, so I didn’t wait,” he said.  “Our executive boss, who told me to lose no time, seemed kind of worried about something.”

Grant opened the letter, which was terse.  “Look out,” he read.  “We had to put the screw on a crazy Pole who has been making wild speeches here, and as he lit out I have a notion he means to see what he can do with the discontented in your district.  We couldn’t have him raising trouble round this place, any way.  It’s taking us both hands to hold the boys in already.”

“Bad news?” said Breckenridge sympathetically.

“Yes,” Grant said wearily.  “Get your supper and sleep when you can.  You’ll be driving from sun up until after it’s dark to-morrow.”

They ate almost in silence, but, though the messenger and Breckenridge retired shortly after the meal, Grant sat writing until late in the night.  Then, he stretched his arms wearily above his head, and his face showed worn and almost haggard in the flickering lamplight.

“It has put Hetty further from me than ever, and cost me the goodwill of every friend I had; while the five thousand dollars I’ve lost as well don’t count for very much after that,” he said.

Early next morning Breckenridge and the messenger drove away, and rather more than a week later Fraeulein Muller, whom the former had taken to attend on the homesteader’s wife, arrived one night at Fremont ranch.  She came in, red-cheeked, unconcerned, and shapeless, in Muller’s fur coat, and quietly brushed the dusty snow from her dress before she sat down as far as possible from the stove.

“I a message from Mrs. Harper bring,” she said.  “Last night two men to Harper’s house have come, and one now and then will to the other talk in our tongue.  He is one, I think, who will destroy everything.  Then they talk with Harper long in the stable, and to-day Harper with his rifle rides away.  Mrs. Harper, who has fears for her husband, would have you know that to-night, or to-morrow he will go with other men to the Cedar Ranch.”

Grant was on his feet in a moment, and nodded to Breckenridge, who rose almost as quickly and glanced at him as he moved towards the door.

“Yes,” he said, “there’s some tough hoeing to be done now.  You’ll drive Miss Muller back to Harper’s, and then turn out the boys.  They’re to come on to Cedar as fast as they can.”

“And you?” said Breckenridge quietly.

“I’m going there now.”

“You know the cattle-men would do almost anything to get their hands on you.”

“Oh, yes,” Grant said wearily.  “Aren’t you wasting time?”

Breckenridge was outside the next moment, but before he had the sleigh ready Grant lead a saddled horse out of the stable, and vanished at a gallop down the beaten trail.  It rang dully beneath the hoofs, but the frost that had turned its surface dusty lessened the chance of stumbling, and it was not until the first league had been left behind and he turned at the forking beneath a big birch bluff that he tightened his grip on the bridle.  There it was different, for the trail no longer led wide and trampled hard across the level prairie, but wound, an almost invisible riband, through tortuous hollow and over swelling rise, so narrow that in places the hoofs broke with a sharp crackling through the frozen crust of snow.  That, Larry knew, might, by crippling the beast he rode, stop him then and there, and he pushed on warily, dazzled at times by the light of the sinking moon which the glistening white plain flung back into his eyes.

It was bitter cold, and utterly still for the birds had gone south long ago, and there was no beast that ventured from his lair to face the frost that night.  Dulled as the trample of hoofs was, it rang about him stridently, and now and then he could hear it roll repeated along the slope of a rise.  The hand upon the bridle had lost all sense of feeling, his moccasined feet tingled painfully, and a white fringe crackled under his hand when, warned by the nipping of his ears, he drew the big fur cap down further over them.  It is not difficult to lose the use of one’s members for life by incautiously exposing them to the cold of the prairie, while a frost that may be borne by the man covered to the chin with great sleigh robes, is not infrequently insupportable to the one on horseback.

Grant, however, took precautions, as it were mechanically, for his mind was too busy to feel in its full keenness the sting of the frost, and while his eyes were fixed on the blur of the trail his thoughts were far away, and it was by an almost unconscious effort he restrained the impatient horse.  Because speed was essential, he dare risk no undue haste.  He was not the only rider out on the waste that night, and the shiver that went through him was not due to the cold as he pictured the other horsemen pressing on towards Cedar Ranch.  Of the native-born he had little fear, and he fancied but few of them would be there.  There was even less to dread from any of English birth, but he feared the insensate alien, and still more the human vultures that had gathered about the scene of strife.  They had neither race, nor creed, nor aspirations, but only an unhallowed lust for the fruits of rapine.

He could also picture Hetty, sitting slight and dark-eyed at the piano, as he had often seen her, and Torrance listening with a curious softening of his lean face to the voice that had long ago wiled Larry’s heart away from him.  That led him back to the days when, loose-tressed and flushed in face, Hetty had ridden beside him in the track of the flying coyote, and he had seen her eyes glisten at his praise.  There were other times when, sitting far apart from any of their kind, with the horses tethered beside them in the shadow of a bluff, she had told him of her hopes and ambitions, but half-formed then, and to silence his doubts sung him some simple song.  Larry had travelled through Europe, to look about him, as he naively said, but it was what reminded him of that voice he had found most pleasure in when he listened to famous sopranos and great cathedral choirs.

Still, he had expected little, realizing, as he had early done, that Hetty was not for him.  It was enough to be with her when she had any need of him and to dream of her when absent, while it was only when he heard she had found her hopes were vain that he clutched at the very faint but alluring possibility that now her heart might turn to him.  Then, had come the summons of duty, and when he had to choose which side he would take, Larry, knowing what it would cost him, had with the simple loyalty which had bound him as Hetty’s servant without hope of reward, decided on what he felt was right.  He was merely one of the many quiet, steadfast men whom the ostentatious sometimes mistake for fools, until the nation they form the backbone of rises to grapple with disaster or emergency.  They are not confined to any one country; for his comrade, Muller, the placid, unemphatic Teuton, had been at Worth and Sedan.

Though none of these memories delayed him a second, he brushed them from him when the moon dipped.  Darkness swooped down on the prairie, and it is the darkness that suits rapine best; now, that he could see the trail no longer, he shook the bridle, and the pace grew faster.  The powdery snow whirled behind him, the long, dim levels flitted past, until at last, with heart thumping, he rode up a rise from whose crest he could see Cedar Range.  A great weight lifted from him ­the row of windows were blinking beside the dusky bluff!  But even as he checked the horse the ringing of a rifle came portentously out of the stillness.  With a gasp he drove in his heels and swept at a furious gallop down the slope.