Read CHAPTER XVII - LARRY’S PERIL of The Cattle-Baron's Daughter , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

One afternoon several days later, Christopher Allonby drove over to Cedar Range, and, though he endeavoured to hide his feelings, was evidently disconcerted when he discovered that Miss Schuyler and Hetty were alone.  Torrance had affairs of moment on hand just then, and was absent from Cedar Range frequently.

“One could almost have fancied you were not pleased to see us, and would sooner have talked to Mr. Torrance,” said Miss Schuyler.

The lad glanced at her reproachfully.

“Hetty knows how diffident I am, but it seems to me a lady with your observation should have seen the gratification I did not venture to express.”

“It was not remarkably evident,” said Miss Schuyler.  “In fact, when you heard Mr. Torrance was not here I fancied I saw something else.”

“I was thinking,” said Allonby, “wondering how I could be honest and, at the same time, complimentary to everybody.  It was quite difficult.  People like me generally think of the right thing afterwards, you see.”

Hetty shook her head.  “Sit down, and don’t talk nonsense, Chris,” she said.  “You shouldn’t think too much; when you’re not accustomed to it, it isn’t wise.  What brought you?”

“I had a message for your father,” said the lad, and Flora Schuyler fancied she saw once more the signs of embarrassment in his face.

“Then,” said Hetty, “you can tell it me.”

“There’s a good deal of it, and it’s just a little confusing,” said Allonby.

Flora Schuyler glanced at Hetty, and then smiled at the lad.  “That is certainly not complimentary,” she said.  “Don’t you think Hetty and I could remember anything that you can?”

Allonby laughed.  “Of course you could.  But, I had my instructions.  I was told to give Mr. Torrance the message as soon as I could, without troubling anybody.”

“Then it is of moment?”

“Yes.  That is, we want him to know, though there’s really nothing in it that need worry anybody.”

“Then, it is unfortunate that my father is away,” said Hetty.

Allonby sat silent a moment or two, apparently reflecting, and then looked up suddenly, as though he had found the solution of the difficulty.

“I could write him.”

Hetty laughed.  “That was an inspiration!  You can be positively brilliant, Chris. You will find paper and special envelopes in the office, as well as a big stick of sealing-wax.”

Allonby, who appeared unable to find a neat rejoinder, went out; and when he left Flora Schuyler smiled as she saw the carefully fastened envelope lying on Torrance’s desk, as well as something else.  Torrance was fastidiously neat, and the blotting pad from which the soiled sheets had been removed bore the impress of Christopher Allonby’s big, legible writing.  It was, however, a little blurred, and Miss Schuyler, who had her scruples, made no attempt to read it then.  It was the next afternoon, and Torrance had not yet returned, when a mounted man rode up to the Range, and was shown into the room where the girls sat together.

“Mr. Clavering will be kind of sorry Mr. Torrance wasn’t here, but he has got it fixed quite straight,” he said.

“What has he fixed?” said Hetty.

“Well,” said the man, “your father knows, and I don’t, though I’ve a kind of notion we are after one of the homestead-boys.  Any way, what I had to tell him was this.  He could ride over to the Cedar Bluff at about six this evening with two or three of the boys, if it suited him, but if it didn’t, Mr. Clavering would put the thing through.”

Hetty asked one or two leading questions, but the man had evidently nothing more to tell, and when he went out, the two girls looked at one another in silence.  Hetty’s eyes were anxious and her face more colourless than usual.

“Flo,” she said sharply, “are we thinking the same thing?”

“I don’t know,” said Miss Schuyler.  “You have not told me your notions yet.  Still, this is clear to both of us, Mr. Clavering expects to meet somebody at the Cedar Bluff, and your father is to bring two or three men with him.  The question is, what could they be wanted for?”

“No,” said Hetty, with a little quiver in her voice, “it is who they expect to meet.  You know what day this is?”

“Wednesday.”

Once more there was silence for a few seconds, but the thoughts of the two girls were unconcealed now, and when she spoke Hetty closed her hand.

“Think, Flo.  There must be no uncertainty.”  Miss Schuyler slipped out of the room and when she came back she brought an envelope, splashed with red wax, on a blotting-pad.

“There’s the key.  All is fair ­in war!” she said.

A pink tinge crept into Hetty’s cheeks, and a sparkle into her eyes as she looked at her companion.

“Don’t make me angry with you, Flo,” she said.  “We can’t read it.”

“No?” said Miss Schuyler quietly, holding up the pad.  “Now I think we can.  This is another manifestation of the superiority of the masculine mind.  Give me your hand-glass, Hetty.”

“Of course,” said Hetty, with a little gasp.  “Still ­it’s horribly mean.”

There was a slightly contemptuous hardness in Flora Schuyler’s eyes.  “If you let the man who rides by the bluff on Wednesdays fall into Clavering’s hands, it would be meaner still.”

The next moment Hetty was out of the room, and Miss Schuyler sat down with a face that had grown suddenly weary.  But it betrayed nothing when Hetty came back with the glass, and when she held up the blotter in hands that were perfectly steady, they read: 

“I have fixed it with the Sheriff.  Clavering’s boys had, as you guessed, been watching for Larry on the wrong day; but now we have found out it is Wednesday we’ll make sure of him.  If you care to come around to the bluff about six that night, you will probably see us seize him; but if you would sooner stand out in this case, it wouldn’t count.  We don’t expect any difficulty.”

Hetty flushed crimson.  “Flo,” she said, “it was the letter arranging his own arrest he brought me back.”

“That is not the point,” said Miss Schuyler sharply.  “What are you going to do?”

Hetty laughed mockingly.  “You and I are going to drive over to the Newcombes and stay the night.  You get nervous when my father is away.  But we are not going there quite straight; and you had better put your warmest things on.”

An hour later two of the best horses in Torrance’s stable drew the lightest sleigh up to the door, and Miss Schuyler turned with a smile to the remonstrating housekeeper.

“Nothing would induce me to stay here another night when Mr. Torrance was away,” she said.  “You can tell him that, if he is vexed with Hetty, and you needn’t worry.  We will be safe at Mrs. Newcombe’s before an hour is over.”

The housekeeper shook her head.  “I guess not.  It’s a league round by the bridge, and you couldn’t find the other trail in the dark.”

Miss Schuyler laughed.  “Then, look at the time, and we’ll let you know when we get there,” she said.

Hetty whipped the team, and with a whirling of dusty snow beneath the runners, they swept away.  Both sat silent, until the beat of hoofs rang amidst the trees as they swept through the gloom of the big bluff at a gallop, and Hetty laughed excitedly.

“Hold fast, Flo.  You did that very well; but we have our alibi to prove, and are not going near the bridge,” she said.

She flicked the horses, and the trees swept away behind them and the long white levels rolled back faster yet to the drumming hoofs.  The rush of cold wind stung Miss Schuyler’s face like the lash of a whip, her eyes grew hazy, and she held the furs about her as she swayed with the lurching of the sleigh.  Darkness was closing in when they came to the forking of the trail, and, with a little cry of warning, Hetty lashed the team.  The lurches grew sharper, and Miss Schuyler gasped now and then as she felt the sleigh swing rocking down a long declivity.  Scattered birches raced up out of it, and the hammering beat of hoofs swelled into a roar as it rolled along a thicker belt of trees.

They rose higher and higher, a dusky wall athwart the way, and Miss Schuyler felt for a better hold for her feet, and grasped the big strapped robe as she looked in vain for any opening.  That team had done nothing for more than a week, and there was no stinting of oats and maize at Cedar.  Hetty, however, did not attempt to hold them, but sat swaying to the jolting, leaning forward as the shadowy barrier rushed up towards them, until, before she quite realized how they got there, Miss Schuyler found herself hurled forward down what appeared to be a steadily sloping tunnel.  Dim trees swept by and drooping boughs lashed at her.  Now and then there was a sharp crackling or a sickening lurch, and still they sped on furiously, until a faint white shining appeared ahead.

“What is it?” she gasped.

“The river,” said Hetty.  “Hold fast!  There’s a piece like a toboggan-leap quite near.”

She flung herself backwards as the lace-like birch twigs smote her furs; and when one of the horses stumbled Miss Schuyler with difficulty stifled a cry.  The beast, however, picked up its stride again, there was a lurch, and the rocking sleigh appeared to leap clear of the snow.  A crash followed, and they were flying out of the shadow again across a strip of faintly shining plain with another belt of dusky trees rolling back towards them.  Beyond them, low in the soft indigo, a pale star was shining.  Hetty glanced at it as she shook the reins, and once more something in her laugh stirred Miss Schuyler.

“I know when that star comes out,” she said.  “If Larry’s only there we can warn him and make our ride on time.”

In another minute they were in among the trees, and Hetty, springing down, plodded through the loose snow at the horses’ heads, urging them with hand and voice up the incline which wound tortuously into the darkness.  Now and then, one of them stumbled, and there was a great trampling of hoofs, but the girl’s mittened hand never loosed its grasp; and it was with a little breathless run she clutched the sleigh and swung herself in when the team swept out on the level again.  Still, at least a minute had passed before she had the horses in hand.  The trail forked again somewhere in the dimness they were flashing through, and it was difficult to see the dusky smear at all.

A lurch that flung Miss Schuyler against her showed that Hetty had found the turning; and a little later, with a struggle, she checked the team, and they slid behind one of the low, rolling rises that seamed the prairie here and there.  There was no wind in the hollow behind it and a great stillness under the high vault of blue studded with twinkling stars.  The dim whiteness of a long ridge cut sharply against it, and the pale colouring and frosty glitter conveyed the suggestion of pitiless cold.  Flora Schuyler shivered, and drew the furs closer round her.

“Is this the place?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Hetty, with a little gasp.  “If we don’t meet him here he will have passed or gone by the other trail, and it will be too late to stop him.  Can you hear anything, Flo?”

Miss Schuyler strained her ears, but, though the horses were walking now, she could hear nothing.  The deep silence round them was emphasized by the soft trample of the hoofs and thin jingle of steel that seemed unreal and out of place there in the wilderness of snow and stars.

“No,” she said, in a strained voice; “I can hear nothing at all.  It almost makes one afraid to listen.”

They drove slowly for a minute or two, and then Hetty pulled up the team.  “I can’t go on, and it is worse to stand still,” she said.  “Flo, if he didn’t stop ­and he wouldn’t ­they would shoot him.  He must be coming.  Listen.  There’s a horrible buzzing in my ears ­I can’t hear at all.”

Miss Schuyler listened for what appeared an interminable time, and wondered afterwards that she had borne the tension without a sign.  The great stillness grew overwhelming now the team had stopped, and there was that in the utter cold and sense of desolation that weighed her courage down.  She felt her insignificance in the face of that vast emptiness and destroying frost, and wondered at the rashness of herself and Hetty and Larry Grant who had ventured to believe they could make any change in the great inexorable scheme of which everything that was to be was part.  Miss Schuyler was not fanciful, but during the last hour she had borne a heavy strain, and the deathly stillness of the northwestern waste under the Arctic frost is apt to leave its impress on the most unimaginative.

Suddenly very faint and far off, a rhythmic throbbing crept out of the darkness, and Flora Schuyler, who, fearing her ears had deceived her at first, dared not speak, felt her chilled blood stir when Hetty flung back her head.

“Flo ­can’t you hear it?  Tell me!”

Miss Schuyler nodded, for she could not trust her voice just then; but the sound had grown louder while she listened and now it seemed flung back by the rise.  Then, she lost it altogether as Hetty shook the reins and the sleigh went on again.  In a few minutes, however, there was an answer to the thud of hoofs, and another soft drumming that came quivering through it sank and swelled again.  By and by a clear, musical jingling broke in, and at last, when a moving object swung round a bend of the rise, a voice that rang harsh and commanding reached them.

“Pull right up there, and wait until we see who you are,” it said.

“Larry!” cried Hetty; and the second time her strained voice broke and died away.  “Larry!”

It was less than a minute later when a sleigh stopped close in front of them, and, leaving one man in it, Grant sprang stiffly down.  It took Hetty a minute or two more to make her warning plain, and Miss Schuyler found it necessary to put in a word of amplification occasionally.  Then, Grant signed to the other man.

“Will you drive Miss Schuyler slowly in the direction she was going, Breckenridge?” he said.  “Hetty, I want to talk to you, and can’t keep you here.”

Hetty was too cold to reflect, and, almost before she knew how he had accomplished it, found herself in Grant’s sleigh and the man piling the robes about her.  When he wheeled the horses she was only conscious that he was very close to her and that Breckenridge and Miss Schuyler were driving slowly a little distance in front of them.  Then, glancing up, as though under compulsion, she saw that Grant was looking down upon her.

“It is not what I meant to tell you, but doesn’t this remind you of old times, Hetty?” he said.

“I don’t want to remember them ­and what have they to do with what concerns us now?” said the girl.

There was a new note in the man’s voice that was almost exultant in its quietness.  “A good deal, I think.  Hetty, if you hadn’t driven so often beside me here, would you have done what you have to-night?”

“No,” said the girl tremulously.

“No,” Grant said.  “You have done a rash as well as a very generous thing.”

“It was rash; but what could I do?  We were, as you remind me, good friends once.”

“Yes,” he said.  “I can’t thank you, Hetty ­thanks of any kind wouldn’t be adequate ­and there is nothing else I can offer to show my gratitude, because all I had was yours already.  You have known that a long while, haven’t you?”

The girl looked away from him.  “I was not good enough to understand its value at first, and when I did I tried to make you take it back.”

“I couldn’t,” he said gently.  “It was perhaps worth very little; but it was all I had, and ­since that day by the river ­I never asked for anything in return.  It was very hard not to now and then, but I saw that you had only kindness to spare for me.”

“Then why do you talk of it again?”

“I think,” said Grant very quietly, “it is different now.  After to-night nothing can be quite the same again.  Hetty, dear, if you had missed me and I had ridden on to the bridge ­”

“Stop!” said the girl with a shiver.  “I dare not think of it.  Larry, can’t you see that just now you must not talk in that strain to me?”

“But there is a difference?” and Grant looked at her steadily.

For a moment the girl returned his gaze, her face showing very white in the faint light flung up by the snow; but she sat very straight and still, and the man’s passion suddenly fell from him.

“Yes,” she said softly, “there is.  I was only sure of it when I fancied I had missed you a few minutes ago; but that can’t affect us, Larry.  We can neither of us go back on those we belong to, and I know how mean I was when I tried to tempt you.  You were staunch, and if I were less so, you would not respect me.”

Grant sighed.  “You still believe your father right?”

“Yes,” said Hetty.  “I must hope so; and if he is wrong, I still belong to him.”

“But you can believe that I am right, too?”

“Yes,” said Hetty simply.  “I am, at least, certain you think you are.  Still, it may be a long and bitter while before we see this trouble through.  I have done too much to-night ­that is, had it been for anyone but you ­and you will not make my duty too hard for me.”

Larry’s pulses were throbbing furiously; but he had many times already checked the passionate outbreak that he knew would have banished any passing tenderness the girl had for him.

“No, my dear,” he said.  “But the trouble can’t last for ever, and when it is over you will come to me?  I have been waiting ­even when I felt it was hopeless ­year after year for you.”

Hetty smiled gravely.  “Whether I shall ever be able to do that, Larry, neither you nor I can tell; but at least I shall never listen to anyone else.  That is all I can promise; and we must go on, each of us doing what is put before us, and hoping for the best.”

Larry swept off his fur cap, and, stooping, kissed her on the cheek.  “It is the first time, Hetty.  I will wait patiently for the next; but I shall see you now and then?”

The girl showed as little sign of resentment as she did of passion.  “If I meet you; but that must come by chance,” she said.  “I want you to think the best of me, and if the time should come, I know I would be proud of you.  You have never done a mean thing since I knew you, Larry, and that means a good deal now.”

Grant pulled the team up in silence, and called to Breckenridge, who checked his horses and getting down looked straight in front of him as his comrade handed Hetty into her sleigh.  Then they stood still, saying nothing while the team swept away.

Hetty was also silent, though she drove furiously, and Flora Schuyler did not consider it advisable to ask any questions, while the rush of icy wind and rocking of the sleigh afforded scanty opportunity for conversation.  She was also very cold, and greatly relieved, when a blink of light rose out of the snow.  Five minutes later somebody handed her out of the sleigh, and she saw a man glance at the team.

“You have been sending them along.  Was it you or Hetty who drove, Miss Schuyler?” he said.

Flora Schuyler laughed.  “Hetty, of course; but I want you to remember when we came in,” she said, mentioning when they left Cedar.  “I told Mrs. Ashley we would get here inside an hour, and she wouldn’t believe me.”

“If anyone wants to know when you came in, send them to me,” said the man.  “There are not many horses that could have made it in the time.”