Read CHAPTER XXI - CLAVERING APPEARS RIDICULOUS of The Cattle-Baron's Daughter , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

There was silence in the log-house when the men drove away, and Clavering, who sat in a corner, found the time pass heavily.  A clock ticked noisily upon the wall, and the stove crackled when the draughts flowed in; but this, he felt, only made the stillness more exasperating.  The big, hard-faced bushman sat as motionless as a statue and almost as expressionless, with a brown hand resting on the rifle across his knees, in front of a row of shelves which held Miss Muller’s crockery.  Clavering felt his fingers quiver in a fit of anger as he watched the man, but he shook it from him, knowing that he would gain nothing by yielding to futile passion.

“I guess I can smoke,” he said flinging his cigar-case on the table.  “Take one if you feel like it.”

The swiftness with which the man’s eyes followed the first move of his prisoner’s hand was significant, but he shook his head deliberately.

“I don’t know any reason why you shouldn’t, but you can keep your cigars for your friends,” he said.

He drawled the words out, but the vindictive dislike in his eyes made them very expressive, and Clavering, who saw it, felt that any attempt to gain his jailer’s goodwill would be a failure.  As though to give point to the speech, the man took out a pipe and slowly filled it with tobacco from a little deerskin bag.

“What are you going to do with me?” asked Clavering, partly to hide his anger, and partly because he was more than a little curious on the subject.

“Well,” said the man reflectively.  “I don’t quite know.  Keep you here until Larry comes, any way.  It wouldn’t take long to fix it so you’d be sorry you had worried poor folks if the boys would listen to me.”

This was even less encouraging; but there were still points on which Clavering desired enlightenment.

“Will Muller bring Miss Torrance and her companion here?” he asked.

The bushman nodded.  “I guess he will.  It’s quite a long way to Allonby’s, and they’ll be ’most frozen after waiting in the bluff.  Now, I’m not anxious for any more talk with you.”

A little flush crept into Clavering’s forehead; but it was not the man’s contemptuous brusqueness which brought it there, though that was not without its effect.  It was evident that the most he could hope for was Larry’s clemency, and that would be difficult to tolerate.  But there was another ordeal before him.  Hetty was also coming back, and would see him a prisoner in the hands of the men he had looked down upon with ironical contempt.  Had the contempt been assumed, his position would have been less intolerable; but it was not, and the little delicately venomous jibes he seldom lost an opportunity of flinging at the homesteaders expressed no more than he felt, and were now and then warranted.

Clavering, of course, knew that to pose as a prisoner as the result of his efforts on her behalf would stir Hetty’s sympathy, and his endurance of persecution at the hands of the rabble for his adherence to the principles he fancied she held would further raise him in her estimation; but he had no desire to acquire her regard in that fashion.  He would have preferred to take the chances of a rifle-shot, for while he had few scruples he had been born with a pride which, occasionally at least, prevented his indulgence in petty knavery; and, crushing down his anger, he set himself to consider by what means he could extricate himself.

None, however, were very apparent.  The homesteader showed no sign of drowsiness or relaxed vigilance, but sat tranquilly alert, watching him through the curling smoke.  It was also some distance to the door, which, from where Clavering sat, appeared to be fastened and he knew the quick precision with which the bushman can swing up a rifle, or if it suits him fire from the hip.  A dash for liberty could, he fancied, have only one result; it was evident that he must wait.

Now waiting is difficult to most men, and especially to those in whose veins there flows the hot Southern blood, and Clavering felt the taste of the second excellent cigar grow bitter in his mouth.  He sat very still, with half-closed eyes, and a little ironical smile upon his lips when his grim companion glanced at him.  In the meantime the stove crackled less noisily and the room grew steadily colder.  But Clavering scarcely felt the chill, even when the icy draughts whirled the cigar-smoke about him, for he began to see that an opportunity would be made for him, and waited, strung up and intent.  When he thought he could do so unobserved, he glanced at the clock whose fingers now moved with a distressful rapidity, knowing that his chance would be gone if the bob-sled arrived before the cold grew too great for his jailer.

Ten minutes dragged by, then another five, and still the man sat smoking tranquilly, while Clavering realized that, allowing for all probable delays, Muller and Miss Torrance should arrive before the half-hour was up.  Ten more minutes fled by, and Clavering, quivering in an agony of impatience, found it almost impossible to sit still; but at last the bushman stood up and laid his rifle on the table.

“You will stop right where you are,” he said.  “I’m going to put a few billets in the stove.”

Clavering nodded, for he dared not trust himself to speak, and the man, who took up an armful of the billets, dropped a few of them through the open top of the stove.  One, as it happened, jammed inside it, so that he could get no more in, and he laid hold of an iron scraper to free it with.  He now stood with his back to Clavering, but the rifle still lay within his reach upon the table.

Clavering rose up, and, though his injured foot was painful, moved forward a pace or two noiselessly in his soft moccasins.  A billet had rolled in his direction, and swaying lithely from the waist, with his eyes fixed upon the man, he seized it.  The homesteader was stooping still, and he made another pace, crouching a trifle, with every muscle hardening.

Then, the man turned sharply, and hurled the scraper straight at Clavering.  It struck him on the face, but he launched himself forward, and, while the homesteader grabbed at his rifle, fell upon him.  He felt the thud of the billet upon something soft, but the next moment it was torn from him, the rifle fell with a clatter, and he and the bushman reeled against the stove together.  Then, they fell against the shelves and with a crash they and the crockery went down upon the floor.

Clavering was supple and wiry and just then consumed with an almost insensate fury.  He came down uppermost but his adversary’s leg was hooked round his knee, and the grip of several very hard fingers unpleasantly impeded his respiration.  Twice he struck savagely at a half-seen brown face, but the grip did not relax, and the knee he strove to extricate began to pain him horribly.  The rancher possessed no mean courage and a traditional belief in the prowess of his caste, was famed for proficiency in most manly sports; but that did not alter the fact that the other man’s muscle, hardened by long use of the axe, was greater than his own, and the stubborn courage which had upheld the homesteader in his struggle with adverse seasons and the encroaching forest was at least the equal of that born in Clavering.

So the positions were slowly reversed, until at last Clavering lay with his head amidst a litter of broken cups and plates, and the homesteader bent over him with a knee upon his chest.

“I guess you’ve had ’bout enough,” he said.  “Will you let up, or do you want me to pound the life out of you?”

Clavering could not speak, but he managed to make a movement with his head, and the next moment the man had dragged him to his feet and flung him against the table.  He caught at it, gasping, while his adversary picked up the rifle.

“You will be sorry for this night’s work yet,” he said.

The homesteader laughed derisively.  “Well,” he said, “I guess you’re sorry now.  Anyone who saw you would think you were.  Get right back to the chair yonder and stay there.”

It was at least five minutes before Clavering recovered sufficiently to survey himself, and then he groaned.  His deerskin jacket was badly rent, there was a great burn on one side of it, and several red scratches defaced his hands.  From the splotches on them after he brushed back his ruffled hair he also had a suspicion that his head was cut, and the tingling where the scraper had struck him suggested a very visible weal.  He felt dizzy and shaken, but his physical was less than his mental distress.  Clavering was distinguished for his artistic taste in dress and indolent grace; but no man appears dignified or courtly with discoloured face, tattered garments, and dishevelled hair.  He thought he heard the bob-sled coming and in desperation glanced at his jailer.

“If you would like ten dollars you have only got to let me slip into that other room,” he said.

The bushman grinned sardonically, and Clavering’s fears were confirmed.  “You’re that pretty I wouldn’t lose sight of you for a hundred,” he said.  “No, sir; you’re going to stop where you are.”

Clavering anathematized him inwardly, knowing that the beat of hoofs was unmistakable ­he must face what he dreaded most.  A sword-cut, or even a rifle-shot, would, he fancied, have entitled him to sympathy, not untinged with admiration, but he was unpleasantly aware that a man damaged in an encounter with nature’s weapons is apt to appear either brutal or ludicrous, and he had noticed Miss Torrance’s sensibility.  He set his lips, and braced himself for the meeting.

A few minutes later the door opened, and, followed by the fraeulein Muller, Hetty and Miss Schuyler came in.  They did not seem to have suffered greatly in the interval, which Clavering knew was not the case with him, and he glanced at the homesteader with a little venomous glow in his eyes when Hetty turned to him.

“Oh!” she said with a gasp, and her face grew pale and stern as closing one hand she, too, looked at the bushman.

Clavering took heart at this; but his enemy’s vindictiveness was evidently not exhausted, for he nodded comprehendingly.

“Yes,” he said, “he’s damaged.  He got kind of savage a little while ago, and before I could quiet him he broke up quite a lot of crockery.”

The imperious anger faded out of Hetty’s face, and Flora Schuyler understood why it did so as she glanced at Clavering.  There was nothing that could appeal to a fastidious young woman’s fancy about him just then; he reminded Miss Schuyler of a man she had once seen escorted homewards by his drunken friends after a fracas in the Bowery.  At the same time it was evident that Hetty recognized her duty, and was sensible, if not of admiration, at least of somewhat tempered sympathy.

“I am dreadfully sorry, Mr. Clavering ­and it was all my fault,” she said.  “I hope they didn’t hurt you very much.”

Clavering, who had risen, made her a little inclination; but he also set his lips, for Hetty had not expressed herself very tactfully, and just then Muller and another man came in and stood staring at them.  The rancher endeavoured to smile, with very small success for he was consumed with an unsatisfied longing to destroy the bushman.

“I don’t think you need be, Miss Torrance,” he said.  “I am only sorry I could not come back for you; but unfortunately ­circumstances ­prevented me.”

“You have done enough,” said Hetty impulsively, apparently forgetting the presence of the rest.  “It was splendid of you.”

Then the bushman looked up again with an almost silent chuckle.  “I guess if it had been your plates he sat on, you wouldn’t be quite so sure of it ­and the circumstance was me,” he said.

Hetty turned from the speaker, and glanced at the rest.  Muller was standing near the door, with his spectacles down on his nose and mild inquiry in his pale blue eyes, and a big bronzed Dakota man beside him was grinning visibly.  The fraeulein was kneeling despairingly amidst her shattered china, while Flora Schuyler leaned against the table with her lips quivering and a most suspicious twinkle in her eyes.

“Flo,” said Hetty half-aloud.  “How can you?”

“I don’t know,” said Miss Schuyler, with a little gasp.  “Don’t look at me, Hetty.  I really can’t help it.”

Hetty said no more, but she glanced at the red-cheeked fraeulein, who was gazing at a broken piece of crockery with tearful eyes, and turned her head away.  Clavering saw the effort it cost her to keep from laughing, and writhed.

“Well,” said the man who had come with Muller, pointing to the wreck, “what started you smashing up the house?”

“It’s quite simple,” said the bushman.  “Mr. Clavering and I didn’t quite agree.  He had a billet in his hand when he crept up behind me, and somehow we fell into the crockery.  I didn’t mean to damage him, but he wanted to get away, you see.”

Hetty swung round towards Muller.  “You haven’t dared to make Mr. Clavering a prisoner?”

Muller was never very quick at speech, and the American by his side answered for him.  “Well, we have got to keep him until Larry comes.  He’ll be here ’most directly.”

“Flo,” said Hetty, with relief in her face, “Larry is coming.  We need not worry about anything now.”

The fraeulein had risen in the meanwhile, and was busy with the kettle and a frying-pan.  By and by, she set a steaming jug of coffee and a hot cornmeal cake before her guests for whom Muller had drawn out chairs.  They were glad of the refreshment, and still more pleased when Grant and Breckenridge came in.  When Larry shook hands with them, Hetty contrived to whisper in his ear: 

“If you want to please me, get Clavering away.”

Grant glanced at her somewhat curiously, but both were sensible that other eyes were upon them, and with a just perceptible nod he passed on with Muller into the adjoining room.  Clavering and the two Americans followed him with Breckenridge, and Grant who had heard something of what had happened from the fraeulein, asked a few questions.

“You can go when it pleases you, Clavering,” he said.  “I am sorry you have received some trifling injury, but I have an idea that you brought it upon yourself.  In the face of your conduct to them it seems to me that my friends were warranted in detaining you until they made sure of the correctness of your story.”

Clavering flushed, for there was a contemptuous incisiveness in Grant’s voice which stung his pride.

“I don’t know that I am very grateful,” he said angrily, “and you are probably doing this because it suits you.  In any case, your friends dare not have offered violence to me.”

Grant smiled grimly.  “I wouldn’t try them too far.  But I don’t quite catch your meaning.  I can gain nothing by letting you go.”

“It should be tolerably plain.  I fancied you desired to please some friends at Cedar who send money to you.”

There was a murmur of astonishment from the rest and Clavering saw that the shot had told.

“I guess he’s lying, Larry,” said one of them.

Grant stood still a moment with his eyes fixed on Clavering.  “I wonder,” he said, “if you are hazarding a guess.”

“No,” said Clavering, “I don’t think I am.  I know you got a wallet of dollars ­though I don’t know who sent them.  Are you prepared to deny it?”

“I’m not prepared to exchange any words with you,” said Grant.  “Go while the door is open, and it would not be advisable for you to fall into our hands again.  We hanged a friend of yours who, I fancy, lived up to, at least, as high a standard as you seem to do.”

When Clavering had left the room, the others turned to Grant.  “You have something to tell us?”

“No,” said Grant quietly.  “I don’t think I have.”

The men looked at each other, and one of them said, “That fellow’s story sounded kind of ugly.  What were you taking dollars from the cattle-men for, Larry?”

Grant saw the growing distrust in their eyes, but his own were resolute.

“I can’t help that,” he said.  “I am with you, as I have always been, but there are affairs of mine I can’t have anybody inquiring into.  That is all I can tell you.  You will have to take me on trust.”

“You’re making it hard,” said the man who had spoken first.

Before Grant could answer, Clavering returned ready for his ride, but Grant gave him no opportunity to address Hetty and Miss Schuyler.  “It is too far to drive to Allonby’s in the sled,” he said to them.  “My sleigh is at your service.  Shall I drive you?”

Hetty, for a moment, looked irresolute, but she saw Clavering’s face, and remembered what was due to him and what he had apparently suffered for her sake.

“It wouldn’t be quite fair to dismiss Mr. Clavering in that fashion,” she said.

Grant glanced at her, and the girl longed for an opportunity of making him understand what influenced her.  But this was out of the question.

“Then, if he will be surety for their safety, the team is at Mr. Clavering’s disposal,” he said.

Clavering said nothing to Grant, but he thrust his hand into his pocket and laid a five-dollar bill on the table.

“I am very sorry I helped to destroy some of your crockery, fraeulein, and this is the only amend I can make,” he said.  “If I knew how to replace the broken things I wouldn’t have ventured to offer it to you.”

The little deprecatory gesture was graceful, and Hetty flashed an approving glance at him; but she also looked at Grant, as if to beseech his comprehension, when she went out.  Larry, however, did not understand her, and stood gravely aside as she passed him.  He said nothing, but when he was fastening the fur robe round her in the sleigh Hetty spoke.

“Larry,” she said softly, “can’t you understand that one has to do the square thing to everybody?”

Then, Clavering, who could not hear what she was saying, flicked the horses and the sleigh slid away into the darkness.

A moment or two later, while the men still lingered talking without and Larry stood putting on his furs in the room, Breckenridge saw Miss Muller, who had been gazing at the money rise, and as though afraid her resolution might fail her, hastily thrust it into the stove.

“You are right,” he said.  “That was an abominably unfair shot of Clavering’s, Larry.  Of course, you couldn’t answer him or tell anybody, but it’s horribly unfortunate.  The thing made the impression he meant it to.”

“Well,” said Larry bitterly, “I have got to bear it with the rest.  I can’t see any reason for being pleased with anything to-night.”

Breckenridge nodded, but once more a little twinkle crept into his eyes.  “I scarcely think you need worry about one trifle, any way,” he said.  “If you think Miss Torrance or Miss Schuyler wanted Clavering to drive them, you must be unusually dense.  They only asked him to because they have a sense of fairness, and I’d stake a good many dollars on the fact that when Miss Schuyler first saw him she was convulsed with laughter.”

“Did Miss Torrance seem amused?” Grant asked eagerly.

“Yes,” said Breckenridge decisively.  “She did though she tried to hide it.  Miss Torrance has, of course, a nice appreciation of what is becoming.  In fact, her taste is only slightly excelled by Miss Schuyler’s.”

Grant stared at him for a moment, and then for the first time, during several anxious months, broke into a great peal of laughter.