The party broke up shortly afterward, and George rode home, wondering why he had allowed himself to become involved in what might prove to be a troublesome matter. His ideas on the subject were not very clear, but he felt that Flora Grant had expected him to take a part. Then he had been impressed in Hardie’s favor; the man was in earnest, ready to court popular hostility, but he was nevertheless genial and free from dogmatic narrow-mindedness. Behind all this, there was in George a detestation of vicious idleness and indulgence, and a respect for right and order. Since he had been warned that the badly-kept hotel sheltered a gang of loafers plotting mischief and willing to prey upon men who toiled strenuously, he was ready for an attempt to turn them out. He agreed with Grant: the gang must be put down.
Dusk was closing in when George and the hired man whom Grant had sent with him reached the bluff and tethered their horses where they would be hidden among the trees. This done, George stood still for a few moments, looking about. A dark, cloud-barred sky hung over the prairie, which was fast fading into dimness; the wood looked desolate and forbidding in the dying light. He did not think any one could have seen him and his companion enter it. Then he and the man floundered through the undergrowth until they reached the sloo, where they hid themselves among the grass at some distance from the case, which had not been removed.
There was no moon, and a fresh breeze swept through the wood, waking eerie sounds and sharp rustlings among the trees. Once or twice George started, imagining that somebody was creeping through the bushes behind him, but he was glad of the confused sounds, because they would cover his movements when the time for action came. His companion, a teamster born on the prairie, lay beside him amid the tall harsh grass that swayed to and fro with a curious dry clashing. He broke into a soft laugh when George suddenly raised his head.
“Only a cottontail hustling through the brush. Whoever’s coming will strike the bluff on the other side,” he said. “Night’s kind of wild; pity it won’t rain. Crops on light soil are getting badly cut.”
George glanced up at the patch of sky above the dark mass of trees. Black and threatening clouds drove across it; but during the past few weeks he had watched them roll up from the west a little after noon almost every day. For a while, they shadowed the prairie, promising the deluge he eagerly longed for; and then, toward evening, they cleared away, and pitiless sunshine once more scorched the plain. Grain grown upon the stiff black loam withstood the drought, but the light soil of the Marston farm was lifted by the wind, and the sharp sand in it abraded the tender stalks. It might cut them through if the dry weather and strong breeze continued; and then the crop which was to cover his first expenses would yield him nothing.