It was a clear day in September. The boisterous winds which had swept the wide Canadian plain all summer had fallen and only a faint breeze stirred the yellowing leaves of the poplars. Against the glaring blue of the northern sky the edge of the prairie cut in a long, straight line; above the southern horizon rounded cloud-masses hung, soft and white as wool. Far off, the prairie was washed with tints of delicate gray, but as it swept in to the foreground the color changed, growing in strength, to brown and ocher with streaks of silvery brightness where the withered grass caught the light. To the east the view was broken, for the banks of a creek that wound across the broad level were lined with timber – birches and poplars growing tall in the shelter of the ravine and straggling along its crest. Their pale-colored branches glowed among the early autumn leaves.
In a gap between the trees two men stood resting on their axes, and rows of logs and branches and piles of chips were scattered about the clearing. The men were dressed much alike, in shirts that had once been blue but were now faded to an indefinite color, old brown overalls, and soft felt hats that had fallen out of shape. Their arms were bare to the elbows, the low shirt-collars left their necks exposed, showing skin that had weathered, like their clothing, to the color of the soil. Standing still, they were scarcely distinguishable from their surroundings.
Harding was thirty years old, and tall and strongly built. He looked virile and athletic, but his figure was marked by signs of strength rather than grace. His forehead was broad, his eyes between blue and gray, and his gaze gravely steady. He had a straight nose and a firm mouth; and although there was more than a hint of determination in his expression, it indicated, on the whole, a pleasant, even a magnetic, disposition.
Devine was five years younger and of lighter build. He was the handsomer of the two, but he lacked that indefinite something about his companion which attracted more attention.
"Let's quit a few minutes for a smoke," suggested Devine, dropping his ax. "We've worked pretty hard since noon."
He sat down on a log and took out an old corncob pipe. When it was filled and lighted he leaned back contentedly against a friendly stump.
Harding remained standing, his hand on the long ax-haft, his chin slightly lifted, and his eyes fixed on the empty plain. Between him and the horizon there was no sign of life except that a flock of migrating birds were moving south across the sky in a drawn-out wedge. The wide expanse formed part of what was then the territory of Assiniboia, and is now the province of Saskatchewan. As far as one could see, the soil was thin alluvial loam, interspersed with the stiff "gumbo" that grows the finest wheat; but the plow had not yet broken its surface. Small towns were springing up along the railroad track, but the great plain between the Saskatchewan and the Assiniboine was, for the most part, still a waste, waiting for the tide of population that had begun to flow.
Harding was a born pioneer, and his expression grew intent as he gazed across the wilderness.
"What will this prairie be like, Fred, when those poplars are tall enough to cut?" he said gravely, indicating some saplings beside him. "There's going to be a big change here."
"That's true; and it's just what I'm counting on. That's what made me leave old Dakota. I want to be in on the ground-floor!"
Harding knit his brows, and his face had a concentrated look. He was not given to talking at large, but he had a gift of half-instinctive prevision as well as practical, constructive ability, and just then he felt strangely moved. It seemed to him that he heard in the distance the march of a great army of new home-builders, moving forward slowly and cautiously as yet. He was one of the advance skirmishers, though the first scouts had already pushed on and vanished across the skyline into the virgin West.
"Well," he said, "think what's happening! Ontario's settled and busy with manufactures; Manitoba and the Dakotas, except for the sand-belts, are filling up. The older States are crowded, and somebody owns all the soil that's worth working in the Middle West. England and Germany are overflowing, and we have roughly seven hundred miles of country here that needs people. They must come. The pressure behind will force them."
"But think what that will mean to the price of wheat! It's bringing only a dollar and a half now. We can't raise it at a dollar."
"It will break the careless," Harding said, "but dollar wheat will come. The branch railroads will follow the homesteads; you'll see the elevators dotting the prairie, and when we've opened up this great tableland between the American border and the frozen line, the wheat will pour into every settlement faster than the cars can haul it out. Prices will fall until every slack farmer has mortgaged all he owns."
"Then what good will it do? If the result is to be only mortgages?"
"Oh, but I said every slack farmer. It will clear out the incompetent, improve our methods. The ox-team and the grass trail will have to go. We'll have steam gang-plows and graded roads. We'll have better machines all round."
Harding's eyes sparkled.
"Afterward? Then the men with brains and grit who have held on – the fittest, who have survived – will come into such prosperity as few farmers have ever had. America, with her population leaping up, will have less and less wheat to ship; England will steadily call for more; we'll have wheat at a price that will pay us well before we're through. Then there'll be no more dug-outs and log-shacks, but fine brick homesteads, with all the farms fenced and mechanical transport on the roads. It's coming, Fred! Those who live through the struggle will certainly see it."
Harding laughed and lifted his ax.
"But enough of that! If we're to get our homesteads up before the frost comes, we'll have to hustle."
The big ax flashed in the sunshine and bit deep into a poplar trunk; but when a few more logs had been laid beside the rest the men stopped again, for they heard a beat of hoofs coming toward them across the prairie. The trees cut off their view of the rider, but when he rounded a corner of the bluff and pulled up his horse, they saw a young lad, picturesquely dressed in a deerskin jacket of Indian make, decorated with fringed hide and embroidery, cord riding-breeches, and polished leggings. His slouch hat was pushed back on his head, showing a handsome face that had in it a touch of imperiousness.
"Hello!" he said, with a look of somewhat indignant surprise. "What are you fellows doing here?"
Harding felt amused at the tone of superiority in the youngster's voice; yet he had a curious, half-conscious feeling that there was something he recognized about the boy. It was not that he had met him before, but that well-bred air and the clean English intonation were somehow familiar.
"If you look around you," Harding smiled, "you might be able to guess that we're cutting down trees."
The boy gave an imperious toss of his head.
"What I meant was that you have no right on this property."
"It belongs to us. And logs large enough for building are scarce enough already. As a matter of fact, we're not allowed to cut these ourselves without the Colonel's permission."
"Haven't met him yet," said Devine dryly. "Who's he?"
"Colonel Mowbray, of Allenwood Grange."
"And who's Colonel Mowbray? And where's Allenwood Grange?"
The boy seemed nettled by the twinkle in Devine's eyes, but Harding noticed that pride compelled him to hide his feelings.
"You can't cut this lumber without asking leave! Besides, you're spoiling one of our best coyote covers."
"Kyotes!" exclaimed Devine. "What do you do with 'em?"
The youngster stared at him a moment in disdain.
"We have a pack of hounds at the Grange," he then condescended to answer.
"Hunt them! Well, now, that's mighty strange. I'd have thought you'd find arsenic cheaper. Then if you were to lie out round the chicken-house with a gun – "
The boy cut him short.
"If you want these logs, you must ask for them. Shall I tell the Colonel you are coming to do so?"
"Well, sonny," drawled Devine, "you just run along home and send somebody grown-up. We might talk to him."
"As it happens," the boy said with great dignity, "Kenwyne is in the bluff. I must warn you not to touch a tree until you see him."
Without another word he turned and rode off.
During the conversation Harding had been studying him closely. The well-bred reserve in his manner, which, while peremptory, was somehow free from arrogance, compelled the man's admiration.
"From the Old Country," he said with a laugh, "and a bit high-handed, but there's sand in him. Do you know anything about Allenwood?"
"Not much, but I heard the boys talking about it at the railroad store. It's a settlement of high-toned Britishers with more money than sense. They play at farming and ride round the country on pedigree horses."
"The horse the boy rode was certainly a looker!" Harding commented, swinging his ax once more.
As it sliced out a chip with a ringing thud, and another, and yet another, the boy returned, accompanied by a well-mounted older man with a sallow face and very dark eyes and a languidly graceful air. The man was plainly dressed but he wore the stamp Harding had noticed on the youngster; and again there flashed through Harding's mind the half-indistinct thought that these people were familiar to him.
"I understand that you insist upon cutting this timber," Kenwyne began.
"Yes," Harding replied. "And I was surprised when your friend here said it belonged to Colonel Mowbray."
"He went too far, but it does belong to him in a sense. The Colonel founded the settlement when very few other people thought of leaving Manitoba, and he had the usual option of cutting all the wood he wanted on unoccupied land. We have always got it here, and as we have done all the road-making and general improvements in the neighborhood, we have come to look upon it as our own."
"Is that your bridge across the creek?"
"Yes; and it's not a bad job, I think. We had a good deal of trouble digging out the grade in the ravine."
"Well, interfering with bridges is not a habit of mine; so we'll let your trail stand. But I could make you divert it to the proper road reserve."
"Ah!" exclaimed Kenwyne. "That sounds significant."
"Precisely. This bluff and the section it stands on belong to me; the transfer was registered at the land office a week ago."
"Then I think there's nothing more to be said."
"Oh," Harding responded with a smile, "you might tell your Colonel that when he wants any lumber he may cut it if he'll let me know!"
"Thanks!" he said. "It's a generous offer, but I can't promise that Colonel Mowbray will avail himself of your permission. I wish you good afternoon."
He rode away with his companion, and an hour later Harding and Devine threw their axes on their shoulders and struck out across the prairie. The sun had dipped, the air was getting cool, and on the clean-cut western horizon a soft red flush faded beneath a band of vivid green.
At the foot of a low rise the men stopped.
"I'll be around the first thing in the morning," Devine said.
"Then you're not coming to supper?"
"No," Devine answered reluctantly; "I guess not. I've been over twice this week, and Hester has enough to do without extra cooking for me."
"As you wish," said Harding, and they separated in a friendly manner.
When he was alone Harding went on briskly, walking with an elastic step and looking far ahead across the shadowy plain. It was a rich land that stretched away before him, and a compact block of it belonged to him. It was virgin soil, his to do with as he liked. He thought that he could make good use of it; but he had no illusions; he knew all about prairie farming, and was prepared for a hard struggle.
Crossing the rise, he headed for a glow of light that flickered in the gloom of a small birch bluff, and presently stopped at a tent pitched among the trees. Two big red oxen were grazing by the edge of the bluff, a row of birch logs lay among the grass beside a pile of ship-lap boards, and some more of the boards had been roughly built into a pointed shack. In front of this a young girl bent over a fire that burned between two logs. All round, except where the wood broke the view, the wilderness rolled away, dim and silent.
Hester Harding looked up with a smile when her brother stopped. She resembled him, for she had his direct, thoughtful glance and fine proportions. Her face and hands were browned by sun and wind, but, although she had worked hard from childhood, she wore no coarsening stamp of toil. Her features were good, and the plain print dress she had made in her scanty spare time became her.
"Tired, Craig?" she asked in a pleasant voice.
"Not quite as fresh as I was at sun-up," Harding smiled. "We got through a good deal of work to-day and I'll soon be able to make a start with the house. We'll have to rush the framing to get finished before the frost."
While they ate their simple supper they talked about his building plans, and he answered her questions carefully; for Hester had keen intelligence, and had shared his work and ambitions for the past few years. For the most part, their life had been hard and frugal. Until Craig reached the age of eighteen, he had helped his father to cultivate his patch of wheat-soil in an arid belt of North Dakota. Then the father had died, leaving about a thousand dollars besides his land and teams, and the lad had courageously taken up the task of supporting his mother and sister. Two years afterward, Mrs. Harding died, and Craig, at the age of twenty, set himself to consider the future.
During his management of the farm he had made more money than his father had ever made, but the land was poor and incapable of much improvement. On the other hand, Dakota was getting settled and homesteads were becoming valuable, and Craig determined to sell out and invest the money in a larger holding in a thinly populated part of Manitoba. Hester went with him to Canada; and when the advancing tide of settlement reached their new home, Craig sold out again, getting much more than he had paid for his land, and moved west ahead of the army of prairie-breakers which he knew would presently follow him. It was a simple plan, but it needed courage and resourcefulness. He spoke of it to Hester when he lighted his pipe after the meal.
"It was a notion of Father's that one should try to anticipate a big general movement," he remarked. "'Keep a little in front; the pioneers get the pickings,' he once told me. 'If you follow the main body, you'll find the land swept bare.' He had a way of saying things like that; I learned a good deal from him."
"He knew a good deal," said Hester thoughtfully. "He was more clever than you are, Craig, but he hadn't your habit of putting his ideas into practise. I've sometimes thought he must have lost heart after some big trouble long ago, and only made an effort now and then for Mother's sake. It's strange that we know nothing about him except that he came from the Old Country."
Craig had often wondered about his father, for the man had been somewhat of an enigma to him. Basil Harding had lived like his neighbors, who were plain tillers of the soil, and he never spoke of his English origin, but now and then he showed a breadth of thought and refinement of manner that were not in keeping with his environment. Mrs. Harding was the daughter of a Michigan farmer, a shrewd but gentle woman of practical turn of mind.
"I wonder," Craig said, "how much Mother knew?"
"She must have known something. Once or twice, near the end, I think she meant to tell us, for there was something troubling her, but the last stroke came so suddenly, and she never spoke." Hester paused, as if lost in painful memories, and then went on: "It was very strange about that money you got."
Craig nodded. When he was twenty-one a Winnipeg lawyer had turned over to him five thousand dollars on condition that he remain in Canada, and make no attempt to communicate with his father's relatives.
"Yes," he said. "And something happened this afternoon that puzzled me."
He told Hester about his meeting with the men from Allenwood.
"The curious thing about it," he added, "is that as I watched the boy sitting on his fine blooded horse and heard him speak, I felt as if I'd once lived among high-toned English people and could somehow understand what he was thinking. But of course I never had a horse like his, and we were born in a rough shack on a poor Dakota farm. Can one inherit one's ancestors' feelings and memories?"
"It's very strange," mused Hester.
"Well, anyway, I'm a farmer," he said. "I stand upon my own feet – regardless of ancestors. What I am is what I make of myself!"
He moved off toward the tent.
"It's getting late," he called back to her.
But for a long time Hester sat beside the sinking fire. Her brother, whom she loved and admired, differed slightly, but noticeably in one or two respects, from any of the prairie farmers she had known. Though it was hard to procure books, he had read widely and about other subjects than agriculture. Odd tricks of thought and speech also suggested the difference; but she knew that nobody else except her mother had noticed it, for, to all intents, Craig was merely a shrewd, hard-working grower of wheat.
Then the girl's face grew gentle as she thought of Fred Devine. He had proved very constant and had several times made what was then a long and adventurous journey to see her. Now, when his father had given him a few hundred dollars, he had followed Craig, and she was ready to marry him as soon as he could make a home for her. At present he was living in a dug-out in a bank, and must harvest his first crop before he could think about a house.
When the fire had died down to a few smoldering coals, Hester got up and looked about her. The moon hung, large and red, above the prairie's rim; the air was sharp and wonderfully exhilarating. Behind the tent the birch leaves rustled softly in the bluff, and in the distance a coyote howled. There was no other sound; it was all very still and strangely lonely; but the girl felt no shrinking. On her mother's side she sprang from a race of pioneers, and her true work was to help in the breaking of the wilderness.
The moon was above the horizon when Kenwyne pulled up his horse to a walk opposite Allenwood Grange. The view from this point always appealed to the artist in Kenwyne. The level plain was broken here by steep, sandy rises crowned with jack-pines and clumps of poplar, and a shallow lake reached out into the open from their feet. A short distance back from its shore, the Grange stood on a gentle slope, with a grove of birches that hid the stables and outbuildings straggling up the hill behind.
As Kenwyne saw it in the moonlight across the glittering water, the house was picturesque. In the center rose a square, unpretentious building of notched logs; but from this ship-lap additions, showing architectural taste, stretched out in many wings, so that, from a distance, the homestead with its wooded back-ground had something of the look of an old English manor house. It was this which made the colonists of Allenwood regard it with affection. Now it was well lighted, and the yellow glow from its windows shone cheerfully across the lake.
The foundations of the place had been laid in unsettled times, after the Hudson Bay fur-traders had relinquished their control of the trackless West, but before the Dominion Government had established its authority. The farmers were then spreading cautiously across the Manitoban plain, in some fear of the Metis half-breeds, and it was considered a bold adventure when the builder of the Grange pushed far out into the prairies of the Assiniboine. He had his troubles, but he made his holding good, and sold it to Colonel Mowbray, who founded the Allenwood settlement.
On the whole, the colony had succeeded, but Kenwyne saw that it might become an anachronism in changing times. He had noted the advance of the hard-bitten homesteaders who were settling wherever the soil was good, and who were marked by sternly utilitarian methods and democratic ideas. Before long Allenwood must cast off its aristocratic traditions and compete with these newcomers; but Kenwyne feared that its founder was not the man to change.
As he rode slowly past the lake, a man came toward him with a gun and a brace of prairie-chickens.
"Hello, Ralph!" he said. "Have you forgotten that it's council night?"
"I'm not likely to forget after the rebuke I got for missing the last meeting," Kenwyne replied. "Do you happen to know what kind of temper the Colonel is in, Broadwood?"
"My opinion is that it might be better. Gerald Mowbray has turned up again, and I've noticed that the old man is less serene than usual when his son's about. In fact, as we have to bear the consequences, I wish the fellow would stay away."
While Broadwood and Kenwyne were discussing him on the hillside, Colonel Mowbray sat in his study at the Grange, talking to the elder of his two sons. The room was small and plainly furnished, with a map of the territory on the matchboarded wall, a plain table on which lay a few bundles of neatly docketed papers, and a stove in one corner. Account-books filled a shelf, and beneath there was a row of pigeonholes. The room had an air of austere simplicity with which Colonel Mowbray's appearance harmonized.
He was tall, but spare of flesh, with an erect carriage and an autocratic expression. His hair was gray, his eyes were dark and keen, and his mouth was unusually firm; but the hollowness of his face and the lines on his forehead showed advancing age. He was a man of some ability, with simple tastes, certain unchangeable convictions, and a fiery temper. Leaving the army with a grievance which he never spoke about, and being of too restless a character to stay at home, he had founded Allenwood for the purpose of settling young Englishmen upon the land. He demanded that they be well born, have means enough to make a fair start, and that their character should bear strict investigation. Though the two latter conditions were not invariably complied with, his scheme had prospered. Mowbray was generous, and had taken the sons of several old friends who did not possess the capital required; while the discipline he enforced had curbed the wayward. For the most part, the settlers regarded him with affection as well as respect; but he had failed most signally with his own son, who now stood rather awkwardly before him.
After serving for a year or two in India as an engineer lieutenant, Gerald Mowbray met with an accident which forced him to leave the army. He made an unsuccessful start on another career, and had of late been engaged upon a Government survey of the rugged forest-belt which runs west to the confines of the Manitoban plain. He was a handsome, dark-complexioned man, but looked slacker and less capable than his father.
"I think five hundred pounds would clear me," he said in an apologetic tone. "If I could pay off these fellows, it would be a great relief, and I'd faithfully promise to keep clear of debt in future."
"It seems to me I've heard something of the kind on previous occasions," Mowbray returned dryly. "There's a weak strain in you, Gerald, though I don't know where you got it. I suppose a thousand pounds would be better?"
Gerald's eyes grew eager; but the next moment his face fell, for he knew his father's methods, and saw his ironical smile.
"Well," he said cautiously, "I could straighten things out if I had five hundred."
"With what you got from your mother!"
Gerald winced. His mother never refused him, even though he knew that it often meant sacrifice on her part.
"To save our name," Mowbray said sternly, "and for that reason only, I am going to let you have three hundred pounds. But I warn you, it's the last you'll get. You may as well know that it is hard to spare this."
Gerald looked his surprise.
"I thought – "
Mowbray interrupted him.
"My affairs are not so prosperous as they seem; but I rely on you not to mention the fact. Now you may go. But, remember – there's to be no more money thrown away!"
When Gerald closed the door, Mowbray took down one of his account-books, and sat still for a long time studying it. He had never been rich, but he had had enough, and as the settlement grew up he had felt justified in selling to newcomers, at moderate prices, land which he had got as a free grant. Now, however, the land was nearly all taken up. For a time he bred cattle, but this had scarcely paid; then the development of the milling industry and the building of elevators rendered wheat-growing possible, and though the grain had to be hauled a long way, Mowbray made a small profit. Prices, however, were falling, and land nearer the railroad was coming into cultivation.
With a gloomy air, Mowbray closed the book and went down to preside over the council which was held periodically and, as a rule, ended in an evening of social amusement.
The hall was large and square, with matchboarded walls and a pointed roof. In an open hearth a log fire burned cheerily, although two large windows were opened wide to let in the September air. Bunches of wheat and oats of unusual growth hung upon the walls, suggesting the settlers' occupation; but it was significant that the grain was surmounted by a row of the heads of prairie antelope, as well as moose and caribou from the North. They were farmers at Allenwood, but they were sportsmen first.
About a dozen men were sitting round a table when Mowbray entered, but they rose and waited until he took his place. They varied in age from twenty to forty, and in their easy manners and natural grace one recognized the stamp of birth. Evening dress was not the rule at Allenwood, and while some wore white shirts and city clothes, others were attired picturesquely in red-laced blue vests and fringed deerskin. Their brown faces and athletic figures indicated a healthy life in the open, but they had too gallant and careless an air for toilers.
A few suggestions for the improvement of the trails were made and discussed; and then Mowbray turned to Kenwyne, who had spent the afternoon looking for suitable logs for the bridge-stringers.
"Did you and Lance find anything?" Mowbray asked.
Kenwyne was waiting for this opening to make what he felt was an important announcement.
"We went to the bluff," he said. "What we found was two homesteaders cutting down all the best trees."
Mowbray frowned and the others looked interested.
"You warned them off, of course!"
"Lance did. But one of the fellows retorted that the timber was his."
"Impossible!" Mowbray said sharply. "The nearest preemption is six miles off – and that's too close!"
"It appears that the man has just bought the section on our western range-line. He referred me to the land register, if I had any doubt. I'm afraid you must take it for granted, sir, that we are going to have neighbors."
"Never!" Mowbray brought his fist down on the table with a resounding blow. "We may not be able to turn out these intruders, but I decline to consider them neighbors of ours." He turned to the others. "You must see that this is disturbing news. We came here to live in accordance with the best English traditions, and although we had to put up with some hardships, there were compensations – abundant sport, space, and freedom. In a sense, the country was ours, with its wood and water, as far as we cared to ride. Now every homestead that is built restricts what we have regarded, with some justice, as our rights. We took heavy risks in settling here when people believed it was economically impossible to farm at Allenwood."
There was a murmur of approval.
"These fellows will put an end to our running range horses and cattle," one man said. "If many of them come into the district, we may have to put down the coyote hounds, and ask permission before we course a jack-rabbit. Then they could make us divert our trails to the road reserves."
"Something of that kind may happen," Kenwyne interposed. "But the fellow I met seemed inclined to be friendly. Said he'd let our trail stand and we might cut what wood we wanted, provided we get his permission."
Mowbray drew himself up haughtily.
"Although you recognize the lesser drawbacks," he said, "I'm afraid you miss the most important point. I must remind you that this settlement was founded to enable a certain stamp of Englishmen to enjoy a life that was becoming more difficult without large means at home. A man with simple tastes could find healthy occupation out of doors, keep a good horse, and get as much shooting as he wanted. So long as his farming covered, or nearly covered, his expenses, that was all that was required. We have not discouraged the making of money, but I must frankly say that this was not our object. Now I see threats of change. We may be brought into contact, and perhaps into opposition, with men whose motives are different. Their coming here has to me a sinister meaning."
"Allenwood has been a success," said Broadwood; "one can't deny it – but I think we owe a good deal to our having settled in a new and undeveloped country. The experiment turned out well because we got the land cheap and wheat was dear. Now I foresee a sharp fall in prices, and it seems to me that we may have to revise our methods to suit the times. In future, we may find it difficult to live upon our farms unless we work them properly. I'm afraid we can't stand still while Canada moves on – and I'm not sure that it's a great misfortune."
"Do you admire modern methods?" somebody asked. "If you do, you'd better study what things are coming to in America and England. There is not a hired man at Allenwood who is not on first-rate terms with his master; do you want to under-pay and over-drive them or, on the other hand, to have them making impossible demands, and playing the mischief by a harvest strike? I agree with our respected leader that we don't want to change."
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