Read CHAPTER XX - HETTY’S OBSTINACY of The Cattle-Baron's Daughter , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

It was very cold, the red sun hung low above the prairie’s western rim, and Clavering, who sat behind Hetty and Miss Schuyler in the lurching sleigh, glanced over his shoulder anxiously.

“Hadn’t you better pull up and let me have the reins, Miss Torrance?” he said.

Hetty laughed.  “Why?” she asked, “I haven’t seen the horse I could not drive.”

“Well,” said Clavering drily, “this is the first time you have either seen or tried to drive Badger, and I not infrequently get out and lead the team down the slope in front of you when I cross the creek.  It has a very awkward bend in it.”

Hetty looked about her, and, as it happened, the glare of sunlight flung back from the snow was in her eyes.  Still, she could dimly see the trail dip over what seemed to be the edge of a gully close ahead, and she knew the descent to the creek in its bottom was a trifle perilous.  She was, however, fearless and a trifle obstinate, and Clavering had, unfortunately, already ventured to give her what she considered quite unnecessary instructions as to the handling of the team.  There had also been an indefinite change in his attitude towards her during the last week or two, which the girl, without exactly knowing why, resented and this appeared a fitting opportunity for checking any further presumption.

“You can get down now if you wish,” she said.  “We will stop and pick you up when we reach the level again.”

Clavering said nothing further, for he knew that Miss Torrance was very like her father in some respects, and Hetty shook the reins.  The next minute they had swept over the brink, and Flora Schuyler saw the trail dip steeply but slantwise to lessen the gradient to the frozen creek.  The sinking sun was hidden by the high bank now and the snow had faded to a cold blue-whiteness, through which the trail ran, a faint line of dusky grey.  It was difficult to distinguish at the pace the team were making, and the ground dropped sharply on one side of it.

“Let him have the reins, Hetty,” she said.

Unfortunately Clavering, who was a trifle nettled and knew that team, especially the temper of Badger the near horse better than Hetty did, laughed just then.

“Hold fast, Miss Schuyler, and remember that if anything does happen, the right-hand side is the one to get out from,” he said.

“Now,” said Hetty, “I’m not going to forgive you that.  You sit quite still, and we’ll show him something, Flo.”

She touched the horses with the lash, and Badger flung up his head; another moment and he and the other beast had broken into a gallop.  Hetty threw herself backwards with both hands on the reins, but no cry escaped her, and Clavering, who had a suspicion that he could do no more than she was doing now, even if he could get over the back of the seat in time, which was out of the question, set his lips as he watched the bank of snow the trail twisted round rush towards them.  The sleigh bounced beneath him in another second or two, there was a stifled scream from Flora Schuyler, and leaning over he tore the robe about the girls from its fastenings.  Then, there was a bewildering jolting and a crash, and he was flung out head foremost into dusty snow.

When he scrambled to his feet again Hetty was sitting in the snow close by him, and Flora Schuyler creeping out of a wreath of it on her hands and knees.  The sleigh lay on one side, not far away, with the Badger rolling and kicking amidst a tangle of harness, though the other horse was still upon its feet.

Clavering was pleased to find all his limbs intact, and almost as gratified to see only indignant astonishment in Hetty’s face.  She rose before he could help her and in another moment or two Flora Schuyler also stood upright, clinging to his arm.

“No,” she said, with a little gasp, “I don’t think I’m killed, though I felt quite sure of it at first.  Now I only feel as though I’d been through an earthquake.”

Hetty turned and looked at Clavering, with a little red spot in either cheek.  “Why don’t you say something?” she asked.  “Are you waiting for me?”

“I don’t know that anything very appropriate occurs to me.  You know I’m devoutly thankful you have both escaped injury,” said the man, who was more shaken than he cared to admit.

“Then I’ll have to begin,” and Hetty’s eyes sparkled.  “It was my fault, Mr. Clavering, and, if it is any relief to you, I feel most horribly ashamed of my obstinacy.  Will that satisfy you?”

Clavering turned his head away, for he felt greatly inclined to laugh, but he knew the Torrance temper.  Hetty had been very haughty during that drive, but she had not appeared especially dignified when she sat blinking about her in the snow, nor had Miss Schuyler, and he felt that they realized it; and in feminine fashion blamed him for being there.  It was Miss Schuyler who relieved the situation.

“Hadn’t you better do something for the horse?  It is apparently trying to hang itself ­and I almost wish it would.  It deserves to succeed.”

Clavering could have done very little by himself, but in another minute Hetty was kneeling on the horse’s head, while, at more than a little risk from the battering hoofs, he loosed some of the harness.  Then, the Badger was allowed to flounder to his feet, and Clavering proceeded to readjust his trappings.  A buckle had drawn, however, and a strap had burst.

“No,” said Hetty sharply.  “Not that way.  Don’t you see you’ve got to lead the trace through.  It is most unfortunate Larry isn’t here.”

Clavering glanced at Miss Schuyler, and both of them laughed, while Hetty frowned.

“Well,” she said, “he would have fixed the thing in half the time, and we can’t stay here for ever.”

Clavering did what he could; but repairing harness in the open under twenty or thirty degrees of frost is a difficult task for any man, especially when he has no tools to work with and cannot remove his mittens, and it was at least twenty minutes before he somewhat doubtfully announced that all was ready.  He handed Miss Schuyler into the sleigh, and then passed the reins to Hetty, who stood with one foot on the step, apparently waiting for something.

“I don’t think he will run away again,” he said.

The girl glanced at him sharply.  “I am vexed with myself.  Don’t make me vexed with you,” she said.

Clavering said nothing, but took the reins and they slid slowly down into the hollow, and, more slowly still, across the frozen creek and up the opposite ascent.  After awhile Hetty touched his shoulder.

“I really don’t want to meddle; but, while caution is commendable, it will be dark very soon,” she said.

“Something has gone wrong,” Clavering said gravely.  “I’m afraid I’ll have to get down.”

He stood for several minutes looking at the frame of the sleigh and an indented line ploughed behind it in the snow, and then quietly commenced to loose the horses.

“Well,” said Hetty sharply, “what are you going to do?”

“Take them out,” said Clavering.

“Why?”

Clavering laughed.  “They are not elephants and have been doing rather more than one could expect any horse to do.  It is really not my fault, you know, but one of the runners has broken, and the piece sticks into the snow.”

“Then, whatever are we to do?”

“I am afraid you and Miss Schuyler will have to ride on to Allonby’s.  I can fix the furs so they’ll make some kind of saddle, and it can’t be more than eight miles or so.”

Miss Schuyler almost screamed.  “I can’t,” she said.

“Don’t talk nonsense, Flo,” said Hetty.  “You’ll just have to.”

Clavering’s fingers were very cold, and the girls’ still colder, before he had somehow girthed a rug about each of the horses and ruthlessly cut and knotted the reins.  The extemporized saddles did not look very secure, but Hetty lightly swung herself into one, though Miss Schuyler found it difficult to repress a cry, and was not sure that she quite succeeded, when Clavering lifted her to the other.

“I’m quite sure I shall fall off,” she said.

Hetty was evidently very much displeased at something, for she seemed to forget Clavering was there.  “If you do I’ll never speak to you again,” she said.  “You might have been fond of him, Flo.  There wasn’t the least necessity to put your arm right around his neck.”

Clavering wisely stooped to do something to one of his moccasins, for he saw an ominous sparkle in Miss Schuyler’s eyes, but he looked up prematurely and the smile was still upon his lips when he met Hetty’s gaze.

“How are you going to get anywhere?” she asked.

“Well,” said Clavering, “it is quite a long while now since I was able to walk alone.”

Hetty shook her bridle, and the Badger started at a trot; but when Miss Schuyler followed, Clavering, who fancied that her prediction would be fulfilled, also set off at a run.  He was, however, not quite fast enough, for when he reached her Miss Schuyler was sitting in the snow.  She appeared to be unpleasantly shaken and her lips were quivering.  Clavering helped her to her feet, and then caught the horse.

“The wretched thing turned round and slid me off,” she said, when he came back with it, pointing to the rug.

Clavering tugged at the extemporized girth.  “I am afraid you can only try again.  I don’t think it will slip now,” he said.

Miss Schuyler, who had evidently lost her nerve, mounted with difficulty and after trotting for some minutes pulled up once more, and was sitting still looking about her hopelessly when Clavering rejoined her.

“I am very sorry, but I really can’t hold on,” she said.

Clavering glanced at the prairie, and Hetty looked at him.  Nothing moved upon all the empty plain which was fading to a curious dusky blue.  Darkness crept up across it from the east, and a last faint patch of orange was dying out on its western rim, while with the approaching night there came a stinging cold.

“It might be best if you rode on, Miss Torrance, and sent a sleigh back for us,” he said.  “Walk your horse, Miss Schuyler, and I’ll keep close beside you.  If you fell I could catch you.”

Hetty’s face was anxious, but she shook her head.  “No, it was my fault, and I mean to see it through,” she said.  “You couldn’t keep catching her all the time, you know.  I’m not made of eider-down, and she’s a good deal heavier than me.  It really is a pity you can’t ride, Flo.”

“Nevertheless,” said Miss Schuyler tartly, “I can’t ­without a saddle ­and I’m quite thankful I can’t drive.”

Hetty said nothing, and they went on in silence, until when a dusky bluff appeared on the skyline, Clavering, taking the bridle, led Miss Schuyler’s horse into a forking trail.

“This is not the way to Allonby’s,” said Hetty.

“No,” said Clavering quietly.  “I’m afraid you would be frozen before you got there.  The homestead-boys who chop their fuel in the bluff have, however, some kind of shelter, and I’ll make you a big fire.”

“But ­” said Hetty.

Clavering checked her with a gesture.  “Please let me fix this thing for you,” he said.  “It is getting horribly cold already.”

They went on a trifle faster without another word, and presently, with crackle of dry twigs beneath them, plodded into the bush.  Dim trees flitted by them, branches brushed them as they passed, and the stillness and shadowiness affected Miss Schuyler uncomfortably.  She started with a cry when there was a sharp patter amidst the dusty snow; but Clavering’s hand was on the bridle as the horse, snorting, flung up its head.

“I think it was only a jack-rabbit; and I can see the shelter now,” he said.

A few moments later he helped Miss Schuyler down, and held out his hand to Hetty, who sprang stiffly to the ground.  Then, with numbed fingers, he broke off and struck a sulphur match, and the feeble flame showed the refuge to which he had brought them.  It was just high enough to stand in, and had three sides and a roof of birch logs, but the front was open and the soil inside it frozen hard as adamant.  An axe and a saw stood in a corner, and there was a hearth heaped ready with kindling chips.

“If you will wait here I’ll try to get some wood,” he said.

He went out and tethered the horses, and when his footsteps died away, Miss Schuyler shivering crept closer to Hetty, who flung an arm about her.

“It’s awful, Flo ­and it’s my fault,” she said.  Then she sighed.  “It would all be so different if Larry was only here.”

“Still,” said Flora Schuyler, “Mr. Clavering has really behaved very well; most men would have shown just a little temper.”

“I almost wish he had ­it would have been so much easier for me to have kept mine and overlooked it graciously.  Flo, I didn’t mean to be disagreeable, but it’s quite hard to be pleasant when one is in the wrong.”

It was some time before Clavering came back with an armful of birch branches, and a suspiciously reddened gash in one of his moccasins ­for an axe ground as the Michigan man grinds it is a dangerous tool for anyone not trained to it to handle in the dark.  In ten minutes he had a great fire blazing, and the shivering girls felt their spirits revive a little under the cheerful light and warmth.  Then, he made a seat of the branches close in to the hearth and glanced at them anxiously.

“If you keep throwing wood on, and sit there with the furs wrapped round you, you will be able to keep the cold out until I come back,” he said.

“Until you come back!” said Hetty, checking a little cry of dismay.  “Where are you going?”

“To bring a sleigh.”

“But Allonby’s is nearly eight miles away.  You could not leave us here three hours.”

“No,” said Clavering gravely.  “You would be very cold by then.  Still, you need not be anxious.  Nothing can hurt you here; and I will come, or send somebody for you, before long.”

Hetty sat very still while he drew on the fur mittens he had removed to make the fire.  Then, she rose suddenly.

“No,” she said.  “It was my fault ­and we cannot let you go.”

Clavering smiled.  “I am afraid your wishes wouldn’t go quite as far in this case as they generally do with me.  You and Miss Schuyler can’t stay here until I could get a sleigh from Allonby’s.”

He turned as he spoke, and was almost out of the shanty before Hetty, stepping forward, laid her hand upon his arm.

“Now I know,” she said.  “It is less than three miles to Muller’s, but the homestead-boys would make you a prisoner if you went there.  Can’t you see that would be horrible for Flo and me?  It was my wilfulness that made the trouble.”

Clavering very gently shook off her grasp, and Miss Schuyler almost admired him as he stood looking down upon her companion with the flickering firelight on his face.  It was a striking face, and the smile in the dark eyes became it.  Clavering had shaken off his furs, and the close-fitting jacket of dressed deerskin displayed his lean symmetry, for he had swung round in the entrance to the shanty and the shadows were black behind him.

“I think the fault was mine.  I should not have been afraid of displeasing you, which is what encourages me to be obstinate now,” he said.  “One should never make wild guesses, should they, Miss Schuyler?”

He had gone before Hetty could speak again, and a few moments later the girls heard a thud of hoofs as a horse passed at a gallop through the wood.  They stood looking at each other until the sound died away, and only a little doleful wind that sighed amidst the birches and the snapping of the fire disturbed the silence.  Then, Hetty sat down and drew Miss Schuyler down beside her.

“Flo,” she said, with a little quiver in her voice, “what is the use of a girl like me?  I seem bound to make trouble for everybody.”

“It is not an unusual complaint, especially when one is as pretty as you are,” said Miss Schuyler.  “Though I must confess I don’t quite understand what you are afraid of, Hetty.”

“No?” said Hetty.  “You never do seem to understand anything, Flo.  If he goes to Muller’s the homestead-boys, who are as fond of him as they are of poison, might shoot him, and he almost deserves it.  No, of course, after what he is doing for us, I don’t mean that.  It is the meanness that is in me makes me look for faults in everybody.  He was almost splendid ­and he has left his furs for us ­but he mayn’t come back at all.  Oh, it’s horrible!”

Hetty’s voice grew indistinct, and Flora Schuyler drew the furs closer about them, and slipped an arm round her waist.  She began to feel the cold again, and the loneliness more, while, even when she closed her eyes, she could not shut out the menacing darkness in front of her.  Miss Schuyler was from the cities, and it was not her fault that, while she possessed sufficient courage of a kind, she shrank from the perils of the wilderness.  She would have found silence trying, but the vague sounds outside, to which she could attach no meaning, were more difficult to bear.  So she started when a puff of wind set the birch twigs rattling or something stirred the withered leaves, and once or twice a creaking branch sent a thrill of apprehension through her and she almost fancied that evil faces peered at her from the square gap of blackness.  Now and then, a wisp of pungent smoke curled up and filled her eyes, and little by little she drew nearer to the fire with a physical craving for the warmth of it and an instinctive desire to be surrounded by its brightness, until Hetty shook her roughly by the arm.

“Flo,” she said, “you are making me almost as silly as you are, and that capote ­it’s the prettiest I have seen you put on ­is burning.  Sit still, or I’ll pinch you ­hard.”

Hetty’s grip had a salutary effect, and Miss Schuyler, shaking off her vague terrors, smiled a trifle tremulously.

“I wish you would,” she said.  “Your fingers are real, any way.  I can’t help being foolish, Hetty ­and is the thing actually burning?”

Hetty laughed.  “I guessed that would rouse you ­but it is,” she said.  “I have made my mind up, Flo.  If he doesn’t come in an hour or so, we’ll go to Muller’s, too.”

Miss Schuyler was by no means sure that this would please her, but she said nothing and once more there was a silence she found it difficult to bear.

In the meanwhile, Clavering, whose foot pained him, was urging the Badger to his utmost pace.  He rode without saddle or stirrups, which, however, was no great handicap to anyone who had spent the time he had in the cattle country, and, though it was numbingly cold and he had left his furs behind him, scarcely felt the frost, for his brain was busy.  He knew Hetty Torrance, and that what he had done would count for much with her; but that was not what had prompted him to make the somewhat perilous venture.  Free as he was in his gallantries, he was not without the chivalrous daring of the South his fathers came from, and Hetty was of his own caste.  She, at least, would have been sure of deference from him, and, perhaps, have had little cause for complaint had he married her.  Of late the admiration he felt for her was becoming tinged with a genuine respect.

He knew that the homesteaders, who had very little cause to love him, were in a somewhat dangerous mood just then, but that was of no great moment to him.  He had a cynical contempt for them, and a pride which would have made him feel degraded had he allowed any fear of what they might do to influence him.  He had also, with less creditable motives, found himself in difficult positions once or twice already, and his quickly arrogant fearlessness had enabled him to retire from them without bodily hurt or loss of dignity.

The lights of Muller’s homestead rose out of the prairie almost before he expected to see them, and a few minutes later he rode at a gallop up to the door.  It opened before he swung himself down, for the beat of hoofs had carried far, and when he stood in the entrance, slightly dazed by the warmth and light, there was a murmur of wonder.

“Clavering!” said somebody, and a man he could not clearly see laid a hand on his shoulder.

He shook the grasp off contemptuously, moved forward a pace or two, and then sat down blinking about him.  Muller sat by the stove, a big pipe in hand, looking at him over his spectacles.  His daughter stood behind him knitting tranquilly, though there was a shade more colour than usual in her cheeks, and a big, grim-faced man stood at the end of the room with one hand on a rifle that hung on the wall.  Clavering instinctively glanced over his shoulder, and saw that another man now stood with his back to the door.

“You have come alone?” asked the latter.

“Oh, yes,” said Clavering unconcernedly.  “You might put my horse in, one of you.  If I could have helped it, I would not have worried you, but my sleigh got damaged and Miss Torrance and another lady are freezing in the Bitter Creek bluff, and I know you don’t hurt women.”

“No,” said the man dropping his hand from the rifle, with a little unpleasant laugh.  “We haven’t got that far yet, though your folks are starving them.”

“Well,” said Clavering, “I’m going to ask you to send a sledge and drive them back to Cedar or on to Allonby’s.”

The men exchanged glances.  “It’s a trick,” said one.

“So!” said Muller.  “Der ambuscade.  Lotta, you ride to Fremont, und Larry bring.  I show you how when we have drubbles mit der franc tireurs we fix der thing.”

Clavering exclaimed impatiently.  “You have no time for fooling when there are two women freezing in the bluff.  Would I have come here, knowing you could do what you liked with me, if I had meant any harm to you?”

“That’s sense, any way,” said one of the men.  “I guess if he was playing any trick, one of us would be quite enough to get even with him.  You’ll take Truscott with you, Muller, and get out the bob-sled.”

Muller nodded gravely.  “I go,” he said.  “Lotta, you der big kettle fill before you ride for Larry.  We der bob-sled get ready.”

“You are not going to be sorry,” said Clavering.  “This thing will pay you better than farming.”

The man by the door turned with a hard laugh.  “Well,” he said, “I guess we’d feel mean for ever if we took a dollar from you!”

Clavering ignored the speech.  “Do you want me?” he said, glancing at Muller.

“No,” said the man, who now took down the rifle from the wall.  “Not just yet.  You’re going to stop right where you are.  The boys can do without me, and I’ll keep you company.”

Ten minutes later the others drove away, and, with a significant gesture, Clavering’s companion laid the rifle across his knees.