"Me," said the girl. "I wanted that West to know you weren't alone."
"Didn't you know better than to let her do it?" the officer demanded of Morse.
"He couldn't help it. He tried to keep me back. What right has he to interfere with me?" she wanted to know, stiffening.
"You'll do as I say now," the constable said crisply. "Get back of that rock there, Miss McRae, and stay there. Don't move from cover unless I tell you to."
Her dark, stormy eyes challenged his, but she moved sullenly to obey. Rebel though she was, the code of the frontier claimed and held her respect. She had learned of life that there were times when her will must be subordinated for the general good.
TOM MAKES A COLLECTION
The attackers drew back and gathered together for consultation. West's anger had stirred their own smoldering resentment at the police, had dominated them, and had brought them on a journey of vengeance. But they had not come out with any intention of storming a defended fortress. The enthusiasm of the small mob ebbed.
"I reckon we done bit off more'n we can chaw," Harvey Gosse murmured, rubbing his bristly chin. "I ain't what you might call noways anxious to have them fellows spill lead into me."
"Ten of us here. One man, an Injun, an' a breed girl over there. You lookin' for better odds, Harv?" jeered the leader of the party.
"I never heard that a feller was any less dead because an Injun or a girl shot him," the lank smuggler retorted.
"Be reasonable, Bully," urged Barney with his ingratiating whine. "We come out to fix the red-coat. We figured he was alone except for Tom, an' o' course Tom's with us. But this here's a different proposition. Too many witnesses ag'in' us. I reckon you ain't tellin' us it's safe to shoot up Angus McRae's daughter even if she is a metis."
"Forget her," the big whiskey-runner snarled. "She won't be a witness against us."
"Why won't she?"
"Hell's hinges! Do I have to tell you all my plans? I'm sayin' she won't. That goes." He flung out a gesture of scarcely restrained rage. He was not one who could reason away opposition with any patience. It was his temperament to override it.
Brad Stearns rubbed his bald head. He always did when he was working out a mental problem. West's declaration could mean only one of two things. Either the girl would not be alive to give witness or she would be silent because she had thrown in her lot with the big trader.
The old-timer knew West's vanity and his weakness for women. From Tom Morse he had heard of his offer to McRae for the girl. Now he had no doubt what the man intended.
But what of her? What of the girl he had seen at her father's camp, the heart's desire of the rugged old Scotchman? In the lightness of her step, in the lift of her head, in speech and gesture and expression of face, she was of the white race, an inheritor of its civilization and of its traditions. Only her dusky color and a certain wild shyness seemed born of the native blood in her. She was proud, passionate, high-spirited. Would she tamely accept Bully West for her master and go to his tent as his squaw? Brad didn't believe it. She would fight—fight desperately, with barbaric savagery.
Her fight would avail her nothing. If driven to it, West would take her with him into the fastnesses of the Lone Lands. They would disappear from the sight of men for months. He would travel swiftly with her to the great river. Every sweep of his canoe paddle would carry them deeper into that virgin North where they could live on what his rifle and rod won for the pot. A little salt, pemmican, and flour would be all the supplies he needed to take with them.
Brad had no intention of being a cat's-paw for him. The older man had come along to save Tom Morse from prison and for no other reason. He did not intend to be swept into indiscriminate crime.
"Don't go with me, Bully," Stearns said. "Count me out. Right here's where I head for Whoop-Up."
He turned his horse's head and rode into the darkness.
West looked after him, cursing. "We're better off without the white-livered coyote," he said at last.
"Brad ain't so fur off at that. I'd like blame well to be moseyin' to Whoop-Up my own self," Gosse said uneasily.
"You'll stay right here an' go through with this job, Harv," West told him flatly. "All you boys'll do just that. If any of you's got a different notion we'll settle that here an' now. How about it?" He straddled up and down in front of his men, menacing them with knotted fists and sulky eyes.
Nobody cared to argue the matter with him. He showed his broken teeth in a sour grin.
"Tha's settled, then," he went on. "It's my say-so. My orders go—if there's no objections."
His outthrust head, set low on the hunched shoulders, moved from right to left threateningly as his gaze passed from one to another. If there were any objections they were not mentioned aloud.
"Now we know where we're at," he continued. "It'll be thisaway. Most of us will scatter out an' fire at the rocks from the front here; the others'll sneak round an' come up from behind—get right into the rocks before this bully-puss fellow knows it. If you get a chance, plug him in the back, but don't hurt the Injun girl. Y' understand? I want her alive an' not wounded. If she gets shot up, some one's liable to get his head knocked off."
But it did not, after all, turn out quite the way West had planned it. He left out of account one factor—a man among the rocks who had been denied a weapon and any part in the fighting.
The feint from the front was animated enough. The attackers scattered and from behind clumps of brush grass and bushes poured in a fire that kept the defenders busy. Barney, with the half-breeds and the Indian at heel, made a wide circle and crept up to the red sandstone outcroppings. He did not relish the job any more than those behind him did, but he was a creature of West and usually did as he was told after a bit of grumbling. It was not safe for him to refuse.
To Tom Morse, used to Bully West and his ways, the frontal attack did not seem quite genuine. It was desultory and ineffective. Why? What trick did Bully have up his sleeve? Tom put himself in his place to see what he would do.
And instantly he knew. The real attack would come from the rear. With the firing of the first shot back there, Bully West would charge. Taken on both sides the garrison would fall easy victims.
The constable and Onistah were busy answering the fire of the smugglers. Sleeping Dawn was crouched down behind two rocks, the barrel of her rifle gleaming through a slit of open space between them. She was compromising between the orders given her and the anxiety in her to fight back Bully West. As much as she could she kept under cover, while at the same time firing into the darkness whenever she thought she saw a movement.
Morse slipped rearward on a tour of investigation. The ground here fell away rather sharply, so that one coming from behind would have to climb over a boulder field rising to the big rocks. It took Tom only a casual examination to see that a surprise would have to be launched by way of a sort of rough natural stairway.
A flat shoulder of sandstone dominated the stairway from above. Upon this Morse crouched, every sense alert to detect the presence of any one stealing up the pass. He waited, eager and yet patient. What he was going to attempt had its risk, but the danger whipped the blood in his veins to a still excitement.
Occasionally, at intervals, the rifles cracked. Except for that no other sound came to him. He could keep no count of time. It seemed to him that hours slipped away. In reality it could have been only a few minutes.
Below, from the foot of the winding stairway, there was a sound, such a one as might come from the grinding of loose rubble beneath the sole of a boot. Presently the man on the ledge heard it again, this time more distinctly. Some one was crawling up the rocks.
Tom peered into the darkness intently. He could see nothing except the flat rocks disappearing vaguely in the gloom. Nor could he hear again the crunch of a footstep on disintegrated sandstone. His nerves grew taut. Could he have made a mistake? Was there another way up from behind?
Then, at the turn of the stairway, a few feet below him, a figure rose in silhouette. It appeared with extraordinary caution, first a head, then the barrel of a rifle, finally a crouched body followed by bowed legs. On hands and knees it crept forward, hitching the weapon along beside it. Exactly opposite Morse, under the very shadow of the sloping ledge on which he lay, the figure rose and straightened.
The man stood there for a second, making up his mind to move on. He was one of the half-breeds West had brought with him. Almost into his ear came a stern whisper.
"Hands up! I've got you covered. Don't move. Don't say a word."
Two arms shot skyward. In the fingers of one hand a rifle was clenched.
Morse leaned forward and caught hold of it. "I'll take this," he said. The brown fingers relaxed. "Skirt round the edge of the rock there. Lie face down in that hollow. Got a six-shooter."
He had. Morse took it from him.
"If you move or speak one word, I'll pump lead into you," the Montanan cautioned.
The half-breed looked into his chill eyes and decided to take no chances. He lay down on his face with hands stretched out exactly as ordered.
His captor returned to the shoulder of rock above the trail. Presently another head projected itself out of the darkness. A man crept up, and like the first stopped to take stock of his surroundings.
Against the back of his neck something cold pressed.
"Stick up your hands, Barney," a voice ordered.
The little man let out a yelp. "Mother o' Moses, don't shoot."
"How many more of you?" asked Morse sharply.
The man behind the rifle collected his weapons and put Barney alongside his companion. Within five minutes he had added a third man to the collection.
With a sardonic grin he drove them before him to Beresford.
"I'm a prisoner an' not in this show, you was careful to explain to me, Mr. Constable, but I busted the rules an' regulations to collect a few specimens of my own," he drawled by way of explanation.
Beresford's eyes gleamed. The debonair impudence of the procedure appealed mightily to him. He did not know how this young fellow had done it, but he must have acted with cool nerve and superb daring.
"Where were they? And how did you get 'em without a six-shooter?"
"They was driftin' up the pass to say 'How-d'you-do?' from the back stairway. I borrowed a gun from one o' them. I asked 'em to come along with me and they reckoned they would."
The booming of a rifle echoed in the rocks to the left. From out of them Jessie McRae came flying, something akin to terror in her face.
"I've shot that West. He tried to run in on me and—and—I shot him." Her voice broke into an hysterical sob.
"Thought I told you to keep out of this," the constable said. "I seem to have a lot of valuable volunteer help. What with you and friend Morse here—" He broke off, touched at her distress. "Never mind about that, Miss McRae. He had it coming to him. I'll go out and size up the damage to him, if his friends have had enough—and chances are they have."
They had. Gosse advanced waving a red bandanna handkerchief as a flag of truce.
"We got a plenty," he said frankly. "West's down, an' another of the boys got winged. No use us goin' on with this darned foolishness. We're ready to call it off if you'll turn Morse loose."
Beresford had walked out to meet him. He answered, curtly. "No."
The long, lank whiskey-runner rubbed his chin bristles awkwardly. "We 'lowed maybe—"
"I keep my prisoners, both Morse and Barney."
"Barney!" repeated Gosse, surprised.
"Yes, we've got him and two others. I don't want them. I'll turn 'em over to you. But not Morse and Barney. They're going to the post with me for whiskey-running."
Gosse went back to the camp-fire, where the Whoop-Up men had carried their wounded leader. Except West, they were all glad to drop the battle. The big smuggler, lying on the ground with a bullet in his thigh, cursed them for a group of chicken-hearted quitters. His anger could not shake their decision. They knew when they had had enough.
The armistice concluded, Beresford and Morse walked over to the camp-fire to find out how badly West was hurt.
"Sorry I had to hit you, but you would have it, you know," the constable told him grimly.
The man snapped his teeth at him like a wolf in a trap. "You didn't hit me, you liar. It was that li'l' hell-cat of McRae. You tell her for me I'll get her right for this, sure as my name's Bully West."
There was something horribly menacing in his rage. In the jumping light of the flames the face was that of a demon, a countenance twisted and tortured by the impotent lust to destroy.
Morse spoke, looking steadily at him in his quiet way. "I'm servin' notice, West, that you're to let that girl alone."
There was a sound in the big whiskey-runner's throat like that of an infuriated wild animal. He glared at Morse, a torrent of abuse struggling for utterance. All that he could say was, "You damned traitor."
The eyes of the younger man did not waver. "It goes. I'll see you're shot like a wolf if you harm her."
The wounded smuggler's fury outleaped prudence. In a surge of momentary insanity he saw red. The barrel of his revolver rose swiftly. A bullet sang past Morse's ear. Before he could fire again, Harvey Gosse had flung himself on the man and wrested the weapon from his hand.
Hard-eyed and motionless, Morse looked down at the madman without saying a word. It was Beresford who said ironically, "Talking about those who keep faith."
"You hadn't oughta of done that, Bully," Gosse expostulated. "We'd done agreed this feud was off for to-night."
"Get your horses and clear out of here," the constable ordered. "If this man's able to fight he's able to travel. You can make camp farther down the creek."
A few minutes later the clatter of horse-hoofs died away. Beresford was alone with his prisoners and his guests.
Those who were still among the big rocks came forward to the camp-fire. Jessie arrived before the others. She had crept to the camp on the heels of Beresford and Morse, driven by her great anxiety to find out how badly West was hurt.
From the shadows of a buffalo wallow she had seen and heard what had taken place.
One glance of troubled curiosity she flashed at Morse. What sort of man was this quiet, brown-faced American who smuggled whiskey in to ruin the tribes, who could ruthlessly hold a girl to a bargain that included horsewhipping for her, who for some reason of his own fought beside the man taking him to imprisonment, and who had flung defiance at the terrible Bully West on her behalf? She hated him. She always would. But with her dislike of him ran another feeling now, born of the knowledge of new angles in him.
He was hard as nails, but he would do to ride the river with.
A CAMP-FIRE TALE
Another surprise was waiting for Jessie. As soon as Onistah came into the circle of light, he walked straight to the whiskey-smuggler.
"You save my life from Crees. Thanks," he said in English.
Onistah offered his hand.
The white man took it. He was embarrassed. "Oh, well, I kinda took a hand."
The Indian was not through. "Onistah never forget. He pay some day."
Tom waved this aside. "How's the leg? Seems to be all right now."
Swiftly Jessie turned to the Indian and asked him a question in the native tongue. He answered. They exchanged another sentence or two.
The girl spoke to Morse. "Onistah is my brother. I too thank you," she said stiffly.
"Your brother! He's not Angus McRae's son, is he?"
"No. And I'm not his daughter—really. I'll tell you about that," she said with a touch of the defensive defiance that always came into her manner when the subject of her birth was referred to.
She did, later, over the camp-fire.
It is fortunate that desire and opportunity do not always march together. The constable and Morse had both been dead men if Bully West could have killed with a wish. Sleeping Dawn would have been on the road to an existence worse than death. Instead, they sat in front of the coals of buffalo chips while the big smuggler and his companions rode away from an ignominious field of battle.
When the constable and his prisoner had first struck camp, there had been two of them. Now there were six. For in addition to Jessie McRae, the Blackfoot, and Barney, another had come out of the night and hailed them with a "Hello, the camp!" This last self-invited guest was Brad Stearns, who had not ridden to Whoop-Up as he had announced, but had watched events from a distance on the chance that he might be of help to Tom Morse.
Jessie agreed with Beresford that she must stay in camp till morning. There was nothing else for her to do. She could not very well ride the night out with Onistah on the road back to the fort. But she stayed with great reluctance.
Her modesty was in arms. Never before had she, a girl alone, been forced to make camp with five men as companions, all but one of them almost strangers to her. The experience was one that shocked her sense of fitness.
She was troubled and distressed, and she showed it. Her impulsiveness had swept her into an adventure that might have been tragic, that still held potentialities of disaster. For she could not forget the look on West's face when he had sworn to get even with her. This man was a terrible enemy, because of his boldness, his evil mind, and his lack of restraining conscience.
Yet even now she could not blame herself for what she had done. The constable's life was at stake. It had been necessary to move swiftly and decisively.
Sitting before the fire, Sleeping Dawn began to tell her story. She told it to Beresford as an apology for having ridden forty miles with Onistah to save his life. It was, if he chose so to accept it, an explanation of how she came to do so unwomanly a thing.
"Onistah's mother is my mother," she said. "When I was a baby my own mother died. Stokimatis is her sister. I do not know who my father was, but I have heard he was an American. Stokimatis took me to her tepee and I lived there with her and Onistah till I was five or six. Then Angus McRae saw me one day. He liked me, so he bought me for three yards of tobacco, a looking-glass, and five wolf pelts."
It may perhaps have been by chance that the girl's eyes met those of Morse. The blood burned beneath the tan of her dusky cheeks, but her proud eyes did not flinch while she told the damning facts about her parentage and life. She was of the metis, the child of an unknown father. So far as she knew her mother had never been married. She had been bought and sold like a negro slave in the South. Let any one that wanted to despise her make the most of all this.
So far as any expression went Tom Morse looked hard as pig iron. He did not want to blunder, so he said nothing. But the girl would have been amazed if she could have read his thoughts. She seemed to him a rare flower that has blossomed in a foul swamp.
"If Angus McRae took you for his daughter, it was because he loved you," Beresford said gently.
"Yes." The mobile face was suddenly tender with emotion. "What can any father do more than he has done for me? I learned to read and write at his knee. He taught me the old songs of Scotland that he's so fond of. He tried to make me good and true. Afterward he sent me to Winnipeg to school for two years."
"Good for Angus McRae," the young soldier said.
She smiled, a little wistfully. "He wants me to be Scotch, but of course I can't be that even though I sing 'Should auld acquaintance' to him. I'm what I am."
Ever since she had learned to think for herself, she had struggled against the sense of racial inferiority. Even in the Lone Lands men of education had crossed her path. There was Father Giguere, tall and austere and filled with the wisdom of years, a scholar who had left his dear France to serve on the outposts of civilization. And there was the old priest's devoted friend Philip Muir, of whom the story ran that he was heir to a vast estate across the seas. Others she had seen at Winnipeg. And now this scarlet-coated soldier Beresford.
Instinctively she recognized the difference between them and the trappers and traders who frequented the North woods. In her bed at night she had more than once wept herself to sleep because life had built an impassable barrier between what she was and what she wanted to be.
"To the Scot nobody is quite like a Scot," Beresford admitted with a smile. "When he wants to make you one, Mr. McRae pays you a great compliment"
The girl flashed a look of gratitude at him and went on with her story. "Whenever we are near Stokimatis, I go to see her. She has always been very fond of me. It wasn't really for money she sold me, but because she knew Angus McRae could bring me up better than she could. I was with her to-day when Onistah came in and told us what this West was going to do. There wasn't time for me to reach Father. I couldn't trust anybody at Whoop-Up, and I was afraid if Onistah came alone, you wouldn't believe him. You know how people are about—about Indians. So I saddled a horse and rode with him."
"That was fine of you. I'll never forget it, Miss McRae," the young soldier said quietly, his eyes for an instant full on hers. "I don't think I've ever met another girl who would have had the good sense and the courage to do it."
Her eyes fell from his. She felt a queer delightful thrill run through her blood. He still respected her, was even grateful to her for what she had done. No experience in the ways of men and maids warned her that there was another cause for the quickened pulse. Youth had looked into the eyes of youth and made the world-old call of sex to sex.
In a little pocket opening from the draw Morse arranged blankets for the girl's bed. He left Beresford to explain to her that she could sleep there alone without fear, since a guard would keep watch against any possible surprise attack.
When the soldier did tell her this, Jessie smiled back her reassurance. "I'm not afraid—not the least littlest bit," she said buoyantly. "I'll sleep right away."
But she did not. Jessie was awake to the finger-tips, her veins apulse with the flow of rushing rivers of life. Her chaotic thoughts centered about two men. One had followed crooked trails for his own profit. There was something in him hard and unyielding as flint. He would go to his chosen end, whatever that might be, over and through any obstacles that might rise. But to-night, on her behalf, he had thrown down the gauntlet to Bully West, the most dreaded desperado on the border. Why had he done it? Was he sorry because he had forced her father to horsewhip her? Or was his warning merely the snarl of one wolf at another?
The other man was of a different stamp. He had brought with him from the world whence he had come a debonair friendliness, an ease of manner, a smile very boyish and charming. In his jaunty forage cap and scarlet jacket he was one to catch and hold the eye by reason of his engaging personality. He too had fought her battle. She had heard him, in that casually careless way of his, try to take the blame of having wounded West. Her happy thoughts went running out to him gratefully.
Not the least cause of her gratitude was that there had not been the remotest hint in his manner that there was any difference between her and any white girl he might meet.
C.N. MORSE TURNS OVER A LEAF
The North-West Mounted Police had authority not only to arrest, but to try and to sentence prisoners. The soldierly inspector who sat in judgment on Morse at Fort Macleod heard the evidence and stroked an iron-gray mustache reflectively. As he understood it, his business was to stop whiskey-running rather than to send men to jail. Beresford's report on this young man was in his favor. The inspector adventured into psychology.
"Studied the Indians any—the effect of alcohol on them?" he asked Morse.
"Some," the prisoner answered.
"Don't you think it bad for them?"
"Perhaps you've been here longer than I. Isn't this whiskey-smuggling bad business all round?"
"Not for the smuggler. Speakin' as an outsider, I reckon he does it because he makes money," Morse answered impersonally.
"For the country, I mean. For the trapper, for the breeds, for the Indians."
"No doubt about that."
"You're a nephew of C.N. Morse, aren't you?"
"Wish you'd take him a message from me. Tell him that it's bad business for a big trading firm like his to be smuggling whiskey." The officer raised a hand to stop the young man's protest. "Yes, I know you're going to tell me that we haven't proved he's been smuggling. We'll pass that point. Carry him my message. Just say it's bad business. You can tell him if you want to that we're here to put an end to it and we're going to do it. But stress the fact that it isn't good business. Understand?"
"Very well, sir." A glint of a smile showed in the inspector's eyes. "I'll give you a Scotch verdict, young man. Not guilty, but don't do it again. You're discharged."
"Hmp! He's a horse of another color. Think we'll send him over the plains."
"Why make two bites of a cherry, sir? He can't be guilty if I'm not," the released prisoner said.
"Did I say you weren't?" Inspector MacLean countered.
"Not worth the powder, is he, sir?" Tom insinuated nonchalantly. "Rather a fathead, Barney is. If he's guilty, it's not as a principal. You'd much better send me up."
The officer laughed behind the hand that stroked the mustache. "Do you want to be judge and jury as well as prisoner, my lad?"
"Thought perhaps my uncle would understand the spirit of your message better if Barney went along with me, Inspector." The brown eyes were open and guileless.
MacLean studied the Montanan deliberately. He began to recognize unusual qualities in this youth.
"Can't say I care for your friend Barney. He's a bad egg, or I miss my guess."
"Not much taken with him myself. Thought if I'd get him to travel south with me it might save you some trouble."
"It might," the Inspector agreed. "It's his first offense so far as I know." Under bristling eyebrows he shot a swift look at this self-assured youngster. He had noticed that men matured at an early age on the frontier. The school of emergency developed them fast. But Morse struck him as more competent even than the other boyish plainsmen he had met. "Will you be responsible for him?"
The Montanan came to scratch reluctantly. He had no desire to be bear leader for such a doubtful specimen as Barney.
"Yes," he said, after a pause.
"Keep him in the States, will you?"
"Take him along, then. Wish you luck of him."
As soon as he reached Fort Benton, Tom reported to his uncle. He told the story of the whiskey cargo and its fate, together with his own adventures subsequent to that time.
The head of the trading firm was a long, loose-jointed Yankee who had drifted West in his youth. Since then he had acquired gray hairs and large business interests. At Inspector MacLean's message he grinned.
"Thinks it's bad business, does he?"
"Told me to tell you so," Tom answered.
"Didn't say why, I guess."
The old New Englander fished from a hip pocket a plug of tobacco, cut off a liberal chew, and stowed this in his cheek. Then, lounging back in the chair, he cocked a shrewd eye at his nephew.
"Wonder what he meant."
Tom volunteered no opinion. He recognized his uncle's canny habit of fishing in other people's minds for confirmation of what was in his own.
"Got any idee what he was drivin' at?" the old pioneer went on.
C.N. Morse chuckled. "Got a notion myself. Let's hear yours."
"The trade with the North-West Mounted is gonna be big for a while. The Force needs all kinds of supplies. It'll have to deal through some firm in Benton as a clearin' house. He's servin' notice that unless C.N. Morse & Company mends its ways, it can't do business with the N.W.M.P."
"That all?" asked the head of the firm.
"That's only half of it. The other half is that no firm of whiskey-runners will be allowed to trade across the line."
C.N. gave another little chirrup of mirth. "Keep your brains whittled up, don't you? Any advice you'd like to give?"
Tom was not to be drawn. "None, sir."
"No comments, son? Passin' it up to Uncle Newt, eh?"
"You're the head of the firm. I'm hired to do as I'm told."
"You figure on obeyin' orders and lettin' it go at that?"
"Not quite." The young fellow's square chin jutted out. "For instance, I'm not gonna smuggle liquor through any more. I had my eyes opened this trip. You haven't been on the ground like I have. If you want a plain word for it, Uncle Newt—"
"Speak right out in meetin', Tom. Shouldn't wonder but what I can stand it." The transplanted Yankee slanted at his nephew a quizzical smile. "I been hearin' more or less plain language for quite a spell, son."
Tom gave it to him straight from the shoulder, quietly but without apology. "Sellin' whiskey to the tribes results in wholesale murder, sir."
"Strong talk, boy," his uncle drawled.
"Not too strong. You know I don't mean anything personal, Uncle Newt. To understand this thing you've got to go up there an' see it. The plains tribes up there go crazy over fire-water an' start killin' each other. It's a crime to let 'em have it."
Young Morse began to tell stories of instances that had come under his own observation, of others that he had heard from reliable sources. Presently he found himself embarked on the tale of his adventures with Sleeping Dawn.
The fur-trader heard him patiently. The dusty wrinkled boots of the merchant rested on the desk. His chair was tilted back in such a way that the weight of his body was distributed between the back of his neck, the lower end of the spine, and his heels. He looked a picture of sleepy, indolent ease, but Tom knew he was not missing the least detail.
A shadow darkened the doorway of the office. Behind it straddled a huge, ungainly figure.
"'Lo, West! How're tricks?" C.N. Morse asked in his lazy way. He did not rise from the chair or offer to shake hands, but that might be because it was not his custom to exert himself.
West stopped in his stride, choking with wrath. He had caught sight of Tom and was glaring at him. "You're here, eh? Sneaked home to try to square yourself with the old man, did ya?" The trail foreman turned to the uncle. "I wanta tell you he double-crossed you for fair, C.N. He's got a heluva nerve to come back here after playin' in with the police the way he done up there."
"I've heard something about that," the fur-trader admitted cautiously. "You told me Tom an' you didn't exactly gee."
"He'll never drive another bull-team for me again." West tacked to his pronouncement a curdling oath.
"We'll call that settled, then. You're through bull-whackin', Tom." There was a little twitch of whimsical mirth at the corners of the old man's mouth.
"Now you're shoutin, C.N. Threw me down from start to finish, he did. First off, when the breed girl busted the casks, he took her home 'stead of bringin' her to me. Then at old McRae's camp when I was defendin' myself, he jumped me too. My notion is from the way he acted that he let on to the red-coat where the cache was. Finally when I rode out to rescue him, he sided in with the other fellow. Hadn't been for him I'd never 'a' had this slug in my leg." The big smuggler spoke with extraordinary vehemence, spicing his speech liberally with sulphurous language.
The grizzled Yankee accepted the foreman's attitude with a wave of the hand that dismissed any counterargument. But there was an ironic gleam in his eye.
"'Nough said, West. If you're that sot on it, the boy quits the company pay-roll as an employee right now. I won't have him annoyin' you another hour. He becomes a member of the firm to-day."
The big bully's jaw sagged. He stared at his lean employer as though a small bomb had exploded at his feet and numbed his brains. But he was no more surprised than Tom, whose wooden face was expressionless.
"Goddlemighty! Ain't I jus' been tellin' you how he wrecked the whole show—how he sold out to that bunch of spies the Canadian Gov'ment has done sent up there?" exploded West.
"Oh, I don't guess he did that," Morse, Senior, said lightly. "We got to remember that times are changin', West. Law's comin' into the country an' we old-timers oughta meet it halfway with the glad hand. You can't buck the Union Jack any more than you could Uncle Sam. I figure I've sent my last shipment of liquor across the line."
"Scared, are you?" sneered the trail boss.
"Maybe I am. Reckon I'm too old to play the smuggler's game. And I've got a hankerin' for respectability—want the firm to stand well with the new settlers. Legitimate business from now on. That's our motto, boys."
"What church you been j'inin', C.N.?"
"Well, maybe it'll come to that too. Think I'd make a good deacon?" the merchant asked amiably, untwining his legs and rising to stretch.
West slammed a big fist on the table so that the inkwell and the pens jumped. "All I got to say is that this new Sunday-school outfit you aim to run won't have no use for a he-man. I'm quittin' you right now."
The foreman made the threat as a bluff. He was the most surprised man in Montana when his employer called it quietly, speaking still in the slow, nasal voice of perfect good-nature.
"Maybe you're right, West. That's for you to say, of course. You know your own business best. Figure out your time an' I'll have Benson write you a check. Hope you find a good job."
The sense of baffled anger in West foamed up. His head dropped down and forward threateningly.
"You do, eh? Lemme tell you this, C.N. I don't ask no odds of you or any other guy. Jes' because you're the head of a big outfit you can't run on me. I won't stand for it a minute."
"Of course not. I'd know better'n to try that with you. No hard feelings even if you quit us." It was a characteristic of the New Englander that while he was a forceful figure in this man's country, he rarely quarreled with any one.
"That so? Well, you listen here. I been layin' off that new pardner of yours because he's yore kin. Not anymore. Different now. He's liable to have a heluva time an' don't you forget it for a minute."
The fur-trader chewed his cud imperturbably. When he spoke it Was still without a trace of acrimony.
"Guess you'll think better of that maybe, West. Guess you're a little hot under the collar, ain't you? Don't hardly pay to hold grudges, does it? There was Rhinegoldt now. Kept nursin' his wrongs an' finally landed in the pen. Bad medicine, looks like to me."
West was no imbecile. He understood the threat underneath the suave words of the storekeeper. Rhinegoldt had gone to the penitentiary because C.N. Morse had willed it so. The inference was that another lawbreaker might go for the same reason. The trail boss knew that this was no idle threat. Morse could put him behind the bars any time he chose. The evidence was in his hands.
The bully glared at him. "You try that, C.N. Jus' try it once. There'll be a sudden death in the Morse family if you do. Mebbe two. Me, I'd gun you both for a copper cent. Don't fool yourself a minute."
"Kinda foolish talk, West. Don't buy you anything. Guess you better go home an' cool off, hadn't you? I'll have your time made up to-day, unless you want your check right now."
The broken teeth of the desperado clicked as his jaw clamped. He looked from the smiling, steady-eyed trader to the brown-faced youth who watched the scene with such cool, alert attention. He fought with a wild, furious impulse in himself to go through with his threat, to clean up and head out into the wilds. But some saving sense of prudence held his hand. C.N. Morse was too big game for him.
"To hell with the check," he snarled, and swinging on his heel jingled out of the office.
The nephew spoke first. "You got rid of him on purpose."
"Looked that way to you, did it?" the uncle asked in his usual indirect way.
"Guess you'd say it was because he won't fit into the new policy of the firm. Guess you'd say he'd always be gettin' us into trouble with his overbearin' and crooked ways."
"That's true. He would."
"Maybe it would be a good idee to watch him mighty close. They say he's a bad hombre. Might be unlucky for any one he got the drop on."
Tom knew he was being warned. "I'll look out for him," he promised.
The older man changed the subject smilingly. "Here's where C.N. Morse & Company turns over a leaf, son. No more business gambles. Legitimate trade only. That the idee you're figurin' on makin' me live up to?"
"Suits me if it does you," Tom answered cheerfully, "But where do I come in? What's my job in the firm? You'll notice I haven't said 'Thanks' yet."
"You?" C.N. gave him a sly, dry smile. "Oh, all you have to do is to handle our business north of the line—buy, sell, trade, build up friendly relations with the Indians and trappers, keep friendly with the police, and a few little things like that."
"Won't have a thing to do, will I?"
TOM DUCKS TROUBLE
To Tom Morse, sitting within the railed space that served for an office in the company store at Faraway, came a light-stepping youth in trim boots, scarlet jacket, and forage cap set at a jaunty angle.
"'Lo, Uncle Sam," he said, saluting gayly.
"'Lo, Johnnie Canuck. Where you been for a year and heaven knows how many months?"
"Up Peace River, after Pierre Poulette, fellow who killed Buckskin Jerry."
Tom took in Beresford's lean body, a gauntness of the boyish face, hollows under the eyes that had not been there when first they had met. There had come to him whispers of the long trek into the frozen Lone Lands made by the officer and his Indian guide. He could guess the dark and dismal winter spent by the two alone, without books, without the comforts of life, far from any other human being. It must have been an experience to try the soul. But it had not shaken the Canadian's blithe joy in living.
"Get him?" the Montanan asked.
The answer he could guess. The North-West Mounted always brought back those they were sent for. Already the Force was building up the tradition that made them for a generation rulers of half a continent.
"Got him." Thus briefly the red-coat dismissed an experience that had taken toll of his vitality greater than five years of civilized existence. "Been back a week. Inspector Crouch sent me here to have a look-see."
"At what? He ain't suspectin' any one at Faraway of stretchin', bendin', or bustin' the laws."
Tom cocked a merry eye at his visitor. Rumor had it that Faraway was a cesspool of iniquity. It was far from the border. When sheriffs of Montana became too active, there was usually an influx of population at the post, of rough, hard-eyed men who crossed the line and pushed north to safety.
"Seems to be. You're not by any chance lookin' for trouble?"
"Duckin' it," answered Tom promptly.
The officer smiled genially. "It's knocking at your door." His knuckles rapped on the desk.
"If I ever bumped into a Santa Claus of joy—"
"Oh, thanks!" Beresford murmured.
"—you certainly ain't him. Onload your grief."
"The theme of my discourse is aborigines, their dispositions, animadversions, and propensities," explained the constable. "According to the latest scientific hypotheses, the metempsychosis—"
Tom threw up his hands. "Help! Help! I never studied geology none. Don't know this hypotenuse you're pow-wowin' about any more'n my paint hawss does. Come again in one syllables."
"Noticed any trouble among the Crees lately—that is, any more than usual?"
The junior partner of C.N. Morse & Company considered. "Why, yes, seems to me I have—heap much swagger and noise, plenty rag-chewin' and tomahawk swingin'."
"Where do they get it?"
Tom looked at the soldier quizzically. "Your guess is good as mine," he drawled.
"I'm guessing West and Whaley."
Morse made no comment. Bully West had thrown in his fortune with Dug Whaley, a gambler who had drifted from one mining camp to another and been washed by the tide of circumstance into the Northwest. Ostensibly they supplied blankets, guns, food, and other necessities to the tribes, but there was a strong suspicion that they made their profit in whiskey smuggled across the plains.
"But to guess it and to prove it are different propositions. How am I going to hang it on them? I can't make a bally fool of myself by prodding around in their bales and boxes. If I didn't find anything—and it'd be a long shot against me—West and his gang would stick their tongues in their cheeks and N.W.M.P. stock would shoot down. No, I've got to make sure, jump 'em, and tie 'em up by finding the goods on the wagons."
"Fat chance," speculated Tom.
"That's where you come in."
"Oh, I come in there, do I? I begin to hear Old Man Trouble knockin' at my door like you promised. Break it kinda easy. Am I to go up an' ask Bully West where he keeps his fire-water cached? Or what?"
"Yes. Only don't mention to him that you're asking. Your firm and his trade back and forth, don't they?"
"Forth, but not back. When they've got to have some goods—if it's neck or nothing with them—they buy from us. We don't buy from them. You couldn't exactly call us neighborly."
Beresford explained. "West's just freighted in a cargo of goods. I can guarantee that if he brought any liquor with him—and I've good reason to think he did—it hasn't been unloaded yet. To-morrow the wagons will scatter. I can't follow all of 'em. If I cinch Mr. West, it's got to be to-night."
"I see. You want me to give you my blessin'. I'll come through with a fine big large one. Go to it, constable. Hogtie West with proof. Soak him good. Send him up for 'steen years. You got my sympathy an' approval, one for the grief you're liable to bump into, the other for your good intentions."
The officer's grin had a touch of the proverbial Cheshire cat's malice. "Glad you approve. But you keep that sympathy for yourself. I'm asking you to pull the chestnut out of the fire for me. You'd better look out or you'll burn your paw."
"Just remember I ain't promisin' a thing. I'm a respectable business man now, and, as I said, duckin' trouble."
"Find out for me in which wagon the liquor is. That's all I ask."
"How can I find out? I'm no mind reader."
"Drift over casually and offer to buy goods. Poke around a bit. Keep cases on 'em. Notice the wagons they steer you away from."
Tom thought it over and shook his head. "No, I don't reckon I will."
"Any particular reason?"
"Don't look to me hardly like playin' the game. I'm ferninst West every turn of the road. He's crooked as a dog's hind laig. But it wouldn't be right square for me to spy on him. Different with you. That's what you're paid for. You're out to run him down any way you can. He knows that. It's a game of hide an' go seek between you an' him. Best man wins."
The red-coat assented at once. "Right you are, I'll get some one else." He rose to go. "See you later maybe."
Tom nodded. "Sorry I can't oblige, but you see how it is."
"Quite. I oughtn't to have asked you."
Beresford strode briskly out of the store.
Through the window Morse saw him a moment later in whispered conversation with Onistah. They were standing back of an outlying shed, in such a position that they could not be seen from the road.
THE CONSTABLE BORES THROUGH DIFFICULTIES
The early Northern dusk was falling when Beresford dropped into the store again. Except for two half-breeds and the clerk dickering at the far end of the building over half a dozen silver fox furs Morse had the place to himself.
Yet the officer took the precaution to lower his voice. "I want an auger and a wooden plug the same size. Get 'em to me without anybody knowing it."
The manager of the C.N. Morse & Company Northern Stores presently shoved across the counter to him a gunny-sack with a feed of oats. "Want it charged to the Force, I reckon?"
"Say, constable, I wancha to look at these moccasins I'm orderin' for the Inspector. Is this what he wants? Or isn't it?"
Tom led the way into his office. He handed the shoe to Beresford. "What's doin'?" he asked swiftly, between sentences.
The soldier inspected the footwear. "About right, I'd say. Thought you'd find what you were looking for. A fellow usually does when he goes at it real earnest."
The eyes in the brown face were twinkling merrily.
"Findin' the goods is one thing. Gettin' 'em's quite another," Tom suggested.
The voice of one of the trappers rose in protest. "By gar, it iss what you call dirt cheap. I make you a present. V'la!"
"Got to bore through difficulties," Beresford said. "Then you're liable to bump into disappointment. But you can't ever tell till you try."
His friend began to catch the drift of the officer's purpose. He was looking for a liquor shipment, and he had bought an auger to bore through difficulties.
Tom's eyes glowed. "Come over to the storeroom an' take a look at my stock. Want you to see I'm gonna have these moccasins made from good material."
They kept step across the corral, gay, light-hearted sons of the frontier, both hard as nails, packed muscles rippling like those of forest panthers. Their years added would not total more than twoscore and five, but life had taken hold of them young and trained them to its purposes, had shot them through and through with hardihood and endurance and the cool prevision that forestalls disaster.
"I'm in on this," the Montanan said.
"That I buy chips, take a hand, sit in, deal cards."
The level gaze of the police officer studied him speculatively. "Now why this change of heart?"
"You get me wrong. I'm with you to a finish in puttin' West and Whaley out of business. They're a hell-raisin' outfit, an' this country'll be well rid of 'em. Only thing is I wanta play my cards above the table. I couldn't spy on these men. Leastways, it didn't look quite square to me. But this is a bronc of another color. Lead me to that trouble you was promisin' a while ago."
Beresford led him to it, by way of a rain-washed gully, up which they trod their devious path slowly and without noise. From the gully they snaked through the dry grass to a small ditch that had been built to drain the camping-ground during spring freshets. This wound into the midst of the wagon train encampment.
The plainsmen crept along the dry ditch with laborious care. They advanced no single inch without first taking care to move aside any twig the snapping of which might betray them.
From the beginning of the adventure until its climax no word was spoken. Beresford led, the trader followed at his heels.
The voices of men drifted to them from a camp-fire in the shelter of the wagons. There were, Tom guessed, about four of them. Their words came clear through the velvet night. They talked the casual elemental topics common to their kind.
There was a moonlit open space to be crossed. The constable took it swiftly with long strides, reached a wagon, and dodged under it. His companion held to the cover of the ditch. He was not needed closer.
The officer lay flat on his back, set the point of the auger to the woodwork of the bed, and began to turn. Circles and half-circles of shavings flaked out and fell upon him. He worked steadily. Presently the resistance of the wood ceased. The bit had eaten its way through.
Beresford withdrew the tool and tried again, this time a few inches from the hole he had made. The pressure lessened as before, but in a second or two the steel took a fresh hold. The handle moved slowly and steadily.
A few drops of moisture dripped down, then a small stream. The constable held his hand under this and tasted the flow. It was rum.
Swiftly he withdrew the bit, fitted the plug into the hole, and pushed it home.
He crawled from under the wagon, skirted along the far side of it, ran to the next white-topped vehicle, and plumped out upon the campers with a short, sharp word of command.
"Up with your hands! Quick!"
For a moment the surprised quartette were too amazed to obey.
"What in Halifax—?"
"Shove 'em up!" came the crisp, peremptory order.
Eight hands wavered skyward.
"Is this a hold-up—or what?" one of the teamsters wanted to know sulkily.
"Call it whatever you like. You with the fur cap hitch up the mules to the second wagon. Don't make a mistake and try for a getaway. You'll be a dead smuggler."
The man hesitated. Was this red-coat alone?
Tom strolled out of the ditch, a sawed-off shotgun under his arm. "I judge you bored through your difficulties, constable," he said cheerfully.
"Through the bed of the wagon and the end of a rum keg. Stir your stumps, gentlemen of the whiskey-running brigade. We're on the way to Fort Edmonton if it suits you."
If it did not suit them, they made no audible protest of disagreement. Growls were their only comment when, under direction of Beresford, the Montanan stripped them of their weapons and kept guard on the fur-capped man—his name appeared to be Lemoine—while the latter brought the mules to the wagon pointed out by the officer.
"Hook 'em," ordered Morse curtly.
The French-Indian trapper hitched the team to the wagon. Presently it moved beyond the circle of firelight into the darkness. Morse sat beside the driver, the short-barreled weapon across his knees. Three men walked behind the wagon. A fourth, in the uniform of the North-West Mounted, brought up the rear on horseback.
SCARLET-COATS IN ACTION
When Bully West discovered that such part of the cargo of wet goods as was in wagon number two had disappeared and along with it the four mule-skinners, his mind jumped to an instant conclusion. That it happened to be the wrong one was natural enough to his sulky, suspicious mind.
"Goddlemighty, they've double-crossed us," he swore to his partner, with an explosion of accompanying profanity. "Figure on cleanin' up on the goods an' cuttin' back to the States. Tha's what they aim to do. Before I can head 'em off. Me, I'll show 'em they can't play monkey tricks on Bully West."
This explanation did not satisfy Whaley. The straight black line of the brows above the cold eyes met in frowning thought.
"I've got a hunch you're barkin' up the wrong tree," he lisped with a shrug of shoulders.
Voice and gesture were surprising in that they were expressions of this personality totally unexpected. Both were almost womanlike in their delicacy. They suggested the purr and soft padding of a cat, an odd contradiction to the white, bloodless face with the inky brows. The eyes of "Poker" Whaley could throw fear into the most reckless bull-whacker on the border. They held fascinating and sinister possibilities of evil.
"Soon see. We'll hit the trail right away after them," Bully replied.
Whaley's thin lip curled. He looked at West as though he read to the bottom of that shallow mind and meant to make the most of his knowledge.
"Yes," he murmured, as though to himself. "Some one ought to stay with the rest of the outfit, but I reckon I'd better go along. Likely you couldn't handle all of 'em if they showed fight."
West's answer was a roar of outraged vanity. "Me! Not round up them tame sheep. I'll drive 'em back with their tongues hangin' out. Understand?"
At break of day he was in the saddle. An experienced trailer, West found no difficulty in following the wagon tracks. No attempt had been made to cover the flight. The whiskey-runner could trace at a road gait the narrow tracks along the winding road.
The country through which he traveled was the border-land between the plains and the great forests that rolled in unbroken stretch to the frozen North. Sometimes he rode over undulating prairie. Again he moved through strips of woodland or skirted beautiful lakes from the reedy edges of which ducks or geese rose whirring at his approach. A pair of coyotes took one long look at him and skulked into a ravine. Once a great moose started from a thicket of willows and galloped over a hill.
West heeded none of this. No joy touched him as he breasted summits and looked down on wide sweeps of forest and rippling water. The tracks of the wheel rims engaged entirely his sulky, lowering gaze. If the brutish face reflected his thoughts, they must have been far from pleasant ones.
The sun flooded the landscape, climbed the sky vault, slid toward the horizon. Dusk found him at the edge of a wooded lake.
He looked across and gave a subdued whoop of triumph. From the timber on the opposite shore came a tenuous smoke skein. A man came to the water with a bucket, filled it, and disappeared in the woods. Bully West knew he had caught up with those he was tracking.
The smuggler circled the lower end of the lake and rode through the timber toward the smoke. At a safe distance he dismounted, tied the horse to a young pine, and carefully examined his rifle. Very cautiously he stalked the camp, moving toward it with the skill and the stealth of a Sarcee scout.
Camp had been pitched in a small open space surrounded by bushes. Through the thicket, on the south side, he picked a way, pushing away each sapling and weed noiselessly to make room for the passage of his huge body. For such a bulk of a figure he moved lightly. Twice he stopped by reason of the crackle of a snapping twig, but no sign of alarm came from his prey.
They sat hunched—the four of them—before a blazing log fire, squatting on their heels in the comfortable fashion of the outdoors man the world over. Their talk was fragmentary. None gave any sign of alertness toward any possible approaching danger.
No longer wary, West broke through the last of the bushes and straddled into the open.
"Well, boys, hope you got some grub left for yore boss," he jeered, triumph riding voice and manner heavily.
He waited for the startled dismay he expected. None came. The drama of the moment did not meet his expectation. The teamsters looked at him, sullenly, without visible fear or amazement. None of them rose or spoke.
Sultry anger began to burn in West's eyes. "Thought you'd slip one over on the old man, eh? Thought you could put over a raw steal an' get away with it. Well, lemme tell you where you get off at. I'm gonna whale every last one of you to a frazzle. With a big club. An' I'm gonna drive you back to Faraway like a bunch of whipped curs. Understand?"
Still they said nothing. It began to penetrate the thick skull of the trader that there was something unnatural about their crouched silence. Why didn't they try to explain? Or make a break for a getaway?
He could think of nothing better to say, after a volley of curses, than to repeat his threat. "A thunderin' good wallopin', first off. Then we hit the trail together, you-all an' me."
From out of the bushes behind him a voice came. "That last's a good prophecy, Mr. West. It'll be just as you say."
The big fellow wheeled, the rifle jumping to his shoulder. Instantly he knew he had been tricked, led into a trap. They must have heard him coming, whoever they were, and left his own men for bait.
From the other side two streaks of scarlet launched themselves at him. West turned to meet them. A third flash of red dived for his knees. He went down as though hit by a battering-ram.
But not to stay down. The huge gorilla-shaped figure struggled to its feet, fighting desperately to throw off the three red-coats long enough to drag out a revolver. He was like a bear surrounded by leaping dogs. No sooner had he buffeted one away than the others were dragging him down. Try as he would, he could not get set. The attackers always staggered him before he could quite free himself for action. They swarmed all over him, fought close to avoid his sweeping lunges, hauled him to his knees by sheer weight of the pack.
Lemoine flung one swift look around and saw that his captors were very busy. Now if ever was the time to take a hand in the melee. Swiftly he rose. He spoke a hurried word in French.
"One moment, s'il vous plait." From the bushes another man had emerged, one not in uniform. Lemoine had forgotten him. "Not your fight. Better keep out," he advised, and pointed the suggestion with a short-barreled shotgun.
The trapper looked at him. "Is it that this iss your fight, Mistair Morse?" he demanded.
"Fair enough. I'll keep out too."
The soldiers had West down by this time. They were struggling to handcuff him. He fought furiously, his great arms and legs threshing about like flails. Not till he had worn himself out could they pinion him.
Beresford rose at last, the job done. His coat was ripped almost from one shoulder. "My word, he's a whale of an animal," he panted. "If I hadn't chanced to meet you boys he'd have eaten me alive."
The big smuggler struggled for breath. When at last he found words, it was for furious and horrible curses.
Not till hours later did he get as far as a plain question. "What does this mean? Where are you taking me, you damned spies?" he roared.
Beresford politely gave him information. "To the penitentiary, I hope, Mr. West, for breaking Her Majesty's revenue laws."
All week Jessie and her foster-mother Matapi-Koma had been busy cooking and baking for the great occasion. Fergus had brought in a sack full of cottontails and two skunks. To these his father had added the smoked hindquarters of a young buffalo, half a barrel of dried fish, and fifty pounds of pemmican. For Angus liked to dispense hospitality in feudal fashion.
Ever since Jessie had opened her eyes at the sound of Matapi-Koma's "Koos koos kwa" (Wake up!), in the pre-dawn darkness of the wintry Northern morn, she had heard the crunch of snow beneath the webs of the footmen and the runners of the sleds. For both full-blood Crees and half-breeds were pouring into Faraway to take part in the festivities of Ooche-me-gou-kesigow (Kissing Day).
The traders at the post and their families would join in the revels. With the exception of Morse, they had all taken Indian wives, in the loose marriage of the country, and for both business and family reasons they maintained a close relationship with the natives. Most of their children used the mother tongue, though they could make shift to express themselves in English. In this respect as in others the younger McRaes were superior. They talked English well. They could read and write. Their father had instilled in them a reverence for the Scriptures and some knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments. It was his habit to hold family prayers every evening. Usually half a dozen guests were present at these services in addition to his immediate household.
With the Indians came their dogs, wolfish creatures, prick-eared and sharp-muzzled, with straight, bristling hair. It was twenty below zero, but the gaunt animals neither sought nor were given shelter. They roamed about in front of the fort stockade, snapping at each other or galloping off on rabbit hunts through the timber.
The custom was that on this day the braves of the tribe kissed every woman they met in token of friendship and good-will. To fail of saluting one, young or old, was a breach of good manners. Since daybreak they had been marching in to Angus McRae's house and gravely kissing his wife and daughter.
Jessie did not like it. She was a fastidious young person. But she could not escape without mortally offending the solemn-eyed warriors who offered this evidence of their esteem. As much as possible she contrived to be busy upstairs, but at least a dozen times she was fairly cornered and made the best of it.
At dinner she and the other women of the fort waited on their guests and watched prodigious quantities of food disappear rapidly. When the meal was ended, the dancing began. The Crees shuffled around in a circle, hopping from one foot to the other in time to the beating of a skin drum. The half-breeds and whites danced the jigs and reels the former had brought with them from the Red River country. They took the floor in couples. The men did double-shuffles and cut pigeon wings, moving faster and faster as the fiddler quickened the tune till they gave up at last exhausted. Their partners performed as vigorously, the moccasined feet twinkling in and out so fast that the beads flashed.
Because it was the largest building in the place, the dance was held in the C.N. Morse & Company store. From behind the counter Jessie applauded the performers. She did not care to take part herself. The years she had spent at school had given her a certain dignity.
A flash of scarlet caught her eye. Two troopers of the Mounted Police had come into the room and one of them was taking off his fur overcoat. The trim, lean-flanked figure and close-cropped, curly head she recognized at once with quickened pulse. When Winthrop Beresford came into her neighborhood, Jessie McRae's cheek always flew a flag of greeting.
A squaw came up to the young soldier and offered innocently her face for a kiss.
Beresford knew the tribal custom. It was his business to help establish friendly relations between the Mounted and the natives. He kissed the wrinkled cheek gallantly. A second dusky lady shuffled forward, and after her a third. The constable did his duty.
His roving eye caught Jessie's, and found an imp of mischief dancing there. She was enjoying the predicament in which he found himself. Out of the tail of that same eye he discovered that two more flat-footed squaws were headed in his direction.
He moved briskly across the floor to the counter, vaulted it, and stood beside Jessie. She was still laughing at him.
"You're afraid," she challenged. "You ran away."
A little devil of adventurous mirth was blown to flame in him. "I saw another lady, lonely and unkissed. The Force answers every call of distress."
Her chin tilted ever so little as she answered swiftly.
"He who will not when he may, When he will he shall have nay."
Before she had more than time to guess that he would really dare, the officer leaned forward and kissed the girl's dusky cheek.
The color flamed into it. Jessie flung a quick, startled look at him.
"Kissing Day, Sleeping Dawn," he said, smiling.
Instantly she followed his lead. "Sleeping Dawn hopes that the Great Spirit will give to the soldier of the Great Mother across the seas many happy kissing days in his life."
"And to you. Will you dance with me?"
"Not to-day, thank you. I don't jig in public."
"I was speaking to Miss McRae and not to Sleeping Dawn, and I was asking her to waltz with me."
She accepted him as a partner and they took the floor. The other dancers by tacit consent stepped back to watch this new step, so rhythmic, light, and graceful. It shocked a little their sense of fitness that the man's arm should enfold the maiden, but they were full of lively curiosity to see how the dance was done.
A novel excitement pulsed through the girl's veins. It was not the kiss alone, though that had something to do with the exhilaration that flooded her. Formally his kiss had meant only a recognition of the day. Actually it had held for both of them a more personal significance, the swift outreach of youth to youth. But the dance was an escape. She had learned at Winnipeg the waltz of the white race. No other girl at Faraway knew the step. She chose to think that the constable had asked her because this stressed the predominance of her father's blood in her. It was a symbol to all present that the ways of the Anglo-Saxon were her ways.
She had the light, straight figure, the sense of rhythm, the instinctively instant response of the born waltzer. As she glided over the floor in the arms of Beresford, the girl knew pure happiness. Not till he was leading her back to the counter did she wake from the spell the music and motion had woven over her.
A pair of cold eyes in a white, bloodless face watched her beneath thin black brows. A shock ran through her, as though she had been drenched with icy water. She shivered. There was a sinister menace in that steady, level gaze. More than once she had felt it. Deep in her heart she knew, from the world-old experience of her sex, that the man desired her, that he was biding his time with the patience and the ruthlessness of a panther. "Poker" Whaley had in him a power of dangerous evil notable in a country where bad men were not scarce.
The officer whispered news to Jessie. "Bully West broke jail two weeks ago. He killed a guard. We're here looking for him."
"He hasn't been here. At least I haven't heard it," she answered hurriedly.
For Whaley, in his slow, feline fashion, was moving toward them.
Bluntly the gambler claimed his right. "Ooche-me-gou-kesigow," he said.
The girl shook her head. "Are you a Cree, Mr. Whaley?"
For that he had an answer. "Is Beresford?"
"Mr. Beresford is a stranger. He didn't know the custom—that it doesn't apply to me except with Indians. I was taken by surprise."
Whaley was a man of parts. He had been educated for a priest, but had kicked over the traces. There was in him too much of the Lucifer for the narrow trail the father of a parish must follow.
He bowed. "Then I must content myself with a dance."
Jessie hesitated. It was known that he was a libertine. The devotion of his young Cree wife was repaid with sneers and the whiplash. But he was an ill man to make an enemy of. For her family's sake rather than her own she yielded reluctantly.
Though a heavy-set man, he was an excellent waltzer. He moved evenly and powerfully. But in the girl's heart resentment flamed. She knew he was holding her too close to him, taking advantage of her modesty in a way she could not escape without public protest.
"I'm faint," she told him after they had danced a few minutes.
"Oh, you'll be all right," he said, still swinging her to the music.
She stopped. "No, I've had enough." Jessie had caught sight of her brother Fergus at the other end of the room. She joined him. Tom Morse was standing by his side.
Whaley nodded indifferently toward the men and smiled at Jessie, but that cold lip smile showed neither warmth nor friendliness. "We'll dance again—many times," he said.
The girl's eyes flashed. "We'll have to ask Mrs. Whaley about that. I don't see her here to-night. I hope she's quite well."
It was impossible to tell from the chill, expressionless face of the squaw-man whether her barb had stung or not. "She's where she belongs, at home in the kitchen. It's her business to be well. I reckon she is. I don't ask her."
"You're not a demonstrative husband, then?"
"Husband!" He shrugged his shoulders insolently. "Oh, well! What's in a name?"
She knew the convenient code of his kind. They took to themselves Indian wives, with or without some form of marriage ceremony, and flung them aside when they grew tired of the tie or found it galling. There was another kind of squaw-man, the type represented by her father. He had joined his life to that of Matapi-Koma for better or worse until such time as death should separate them.
In Jessie's bosom a generous indignation burned. There was a reason why just now Whaley should give his wife much care and affection. She turned her shoulder and began to talk with Fergus and Tom Morse, definitely excluding the gambler from the conversation.
He was not one to be embarrassed by a snub. He held his ground, narrowed eyes watching her with the vigilant patience of the panther he sometimes made her think of. Presently he forced a reentry.
"What's this I hear about Bully West escaping from jail?"
Fergus answered. "Two-three weeks ago. Killed a guard, they say. He was headin' west an' north last word they had of him."
All of them were thinking the same thing, that the man would reach Faraway if he could, lie hidden till he had rustled an outfit, then strike out with a dog team deeper into the Lone Lands.
"Here's wishin' him luck," his partner said coolly.
"All the luck he deserves," amended Morse quietly.
"You can't keep a good man down," Whaley boasted, looking straight at the other Indian trader. "I wouldn't wonder but what he'll pay a few debts when he gets here."
Tom smiled and offered another suggestion. "If he gets here and has time. He'll have to hurry."
His gaze shifted across the room to Beresford, alert, gay, indomitable, and as implacable as fate.
A BUSINESS DEAL
It was thirty below zero. The packed snow crunched under the feet of Morse as he moved down what served Faraway for a main street. The clock in the store registered mid-afternoon, but within a few minutes the sub-Arctic sun would set, night would fall, and aurora lights would glow in the west.
Four false suns were visible around the true one, the whole forming a cross of five orbs. Each of these swam in perpendicular segments of a circle of prismatic colors. Even as the young man looked, the lowest of the cluster lights plunged out of sight. By the time he had reached the McRae house, darkness hung over the white and frozen land.
Jessie opened the door to his knock and led him into the living-room of the family, where also the trapper's household ate and Fergus slept. It was a rough enough place, with its mud-chinked log walls and its floor of whipsawed lumber. But directly opposite the door was a log-piled hearth that radiated comfort and cheerfulness. Buffalo robes served as rugs and upon the walls had been hung furs of silver fox, timber wolves, mink, and beaver. On a shelf was a small library of not more than twenty-five books, but they were ones that only a lover of good reading would have chosen. Shakespeare and Burns held honored places there. Scott's poems and three or four of his novels were in the collection. In worn leather bindings were "Tristram Shandy," and Smollett's "Complete History of England." Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" shouldered Butler's "Hudibras" and Baxter's "The Saint's Everlasting Rest." Into this choice company one frivolous modern novel had stolen its way. "Nicholas Nickleby" had been brought from Winnipeg by Jessie when she returned from school. The girl had read them all from cover to cover, most of them many times. Angus too knew them all, with the exception of the upstart "storybook" written by a London newspaper man of whom he had never before heard.
"I'm alone," Jessie explained. "Father and Fergus have gone out to the traps. They'll not be back till to-morrow. Mother's with Mrs. Whaley."
Tom knew that the trader's wife was not well. She was expecting to be confined in a few weeks.
He was embarrassed at being alone with the girl inside the walls of a house. His relations with Angus McRae reached civility, but not cordiality. The stern old Scotchman had never invited him to drop in and call. He resented the fact that through the instrumentality of Morse he had been forced to horsewhip the lass he loved, and the trader knew he was not forgiven his share in the episode and probably never would be. Now Tom had come only because a matter of business had to be settled one way or the other at once.
"Blandoine is leavin' for Whoop-Up in the mornin'. I came to see your father about those robes. If we buy, it'll have to be now. I can send 'em down with Blandoine," he explained.
She nodded, briskly. "Father said you could have them at your price if you'll pay what he asked for those not split. They're good hides—cows and young bulls."
[Footnote 5: A split robe was one cut down the middle and sewn together with sinews. The ones skinned from the animal in a single piece were much more valuable, but the native women usually prepared the hides the other way because of the weight in handling. One of the reasons the Indians gave the missionaries in favor of polygamy was that one wife could not dress a buffalo robe without assistance. The braves themselves did not condescend to menial labor of this kind. (W.M.R.)]
"It's a deal," the fur-trader said promptly. "Glad to get 'em, though I'm payin' all I can afford for the split ones."
"I'll get the key to the storehouse," Jessie said.
She walked out of the room with the springy, feather-footed step that distinguished her among all the women that he knew. In a few moments she was back. Instead of giving him the key, she put it down on the table near his hand.
Beneath the tan the dark blood beat into his face. He knew she had done this in order not to run the risk of touching him.
For a long moment his gaze gripped and held her. Between them passed speech without words. His eyes asked if he were outside the pale completely, if he could never wipe out the memory of that first cruel meeting. Hers answered proudly that, half-breed though she was, he was to her only a wolfer, of less interest than Black, the leader of her father's dog train.
He picked up the key and left, wild thoughts whirling through his mind. He loved her. Of what use was it trying longer to disguise it from himself. Of the inferior blood she might be, yet his whole being went out to her in deep desire. He wanted her for his mate. He craved her in every fiber of his clean, passionate manhood, as he had never before longed for a woman in his life. And she hated him—hated him with all the blazing scorn of a young proud soul whose fine body had endured degradation on his account. He was a leper, to be classed with Bully West.
Nor did he blame her. How could she feel otherwise and hold her self-respect. The irony of it brought a bitter smile to his lips. If she only knew it, the years would avenge her a hundredfold. For he had cut himself off from even the chance of the joy that might have been his.
In the sky an aurora flashed with scintillating splendor. The heavens were aglow with ever-changing bars and columns of colored fire.
Morse did not know it. Not till he had passed a dozen steps beyond a man in heavy furs did his mind register recognition of him as Whaley. He did not even wonder what business was taking the gambler toward Angus McRae's house.
Business obtruded its claims. He arranged with Blandoine to take the robes out with him and walked back to the McRae storehouse. It adjoined the large log cabin where the Scotchman and his family lived.
Blandoine and he went over the robes carefully in order that there should be no mistake as to which ones the trainmaster took. This done, Morse locked the door and handed the key to his companion.
To him there was borne the sound of voices—one low and deep, the other swift and high. He caught no words, but he became aware that a queer excitement tingled through his veins. At the roots of his hair there was an odd, prickling sensation. He could give himself no reason, but some instinct of danger rang in him like a bell. The low bass and the light high treble—they reached him alternately, cutting into each other, overriding each other, clashing in agitated dissent.
Then—a shrill scream for help!
Morse could never afterward remember opening the door of the log house. It seemed to him that he burst through it like a battering-ram, took the kitchen in two strides, and hurled himself against the sturdy home-made door which led into the living-room.
This checked him, for some one had slid into its socket the bar used as a bolt. He looked around the kitchen and found in one swift glance what he wanted. It was a large back log for the fireplace.
With this held at full length under his arm he crashed forward. The wood splintered. He charged again, incited by a second call for succor. This time his attack dashed the bolt and socket from their place. Morse stumbled into the room like a drunken man.
A BOARD CREAKS
After Morse had closed the door, Jessie listened until the crisp crunch of his footsteps had died away. She subdued an impulse to call him back and put into words her quarrel against him.
From the table she picked up a gun-cover of moose leather she was making and moved to the fireplace. Automatically her fingers fitted into place a fringe of red cloth. (This had been cut from an old petticoat, but the source of the decoration would remain a secret, not on any account to be made known to him who was to receive the gift.) Usually her hands were busy ones, but now they fell away from the work listlessly.
The pine logs crackled, lighting one end of the room and filling the air with aromatic pungency. As she gazed into the red coals her mind was active.
She knew that her scorn of the fur-trader was a fraud. Into her hatred of him she threw an energy always primitive and sometimes savage. But he held her entire respect. It was not pleasant to admit this. Her mind clung to the shadowy excuse that he had been a wolfer, although the Indians looked on him now as a good friend and a trader who would not take advantage of them. Angus McRae himself had said there was no better citizen in the Northland.
No, she could not hold Tom Morse in contempt as she would have liked. But she could cherish her animosity and feed it on memories that scorched her as the whiplash had her smooth and tender flesh. She would never forgive him—never. Not if he humbled himself in the dust.
Toward Angus McRae she held no grudge whatever. He had done only his duty as he saw it. The circumstances had forced his hand, for her word had pledged him to punishment. But this man who had walked into her life so roughly, mastered her by physical force, dragged her to the ignominy of the whip, and afterward had dared to do her a service—when she woke at night and thought of him she still burned with shame and anger. He had been both author and witness of her humiliation.
The girl's reverie stirred reflection of other men, for already she had suitors in plenty. Upon one of them her musing lingered. He had brought to her gifts of the friendly smile, of comradeship, of youth's debonair give-and-take. She did not try to analyze her feeling for Winthrop Beresford. It was enough to know that he had brought into her existence the sparkle of joy.
For life had stalked before her with an altogether too tragic mien. In this somber land men did not laugh much. Their smiles held a background of gravity. Icy winter reigned two thirds of the year and summer was a brief hot blaze following no spring. Nature demanded of those who lived here that they struggle to find subsistence. In that conflict human beings forgot that they had been brought into the world to enjoy it with careless rapture.
Somewhere in the house a board, creaked. Jessie heard it inattentively, for in the bitter cold woodwork was always snapping and cracking.
Beresford had offered her a new philosophy of life. She did not quite accept it, yet it fascinated. He believed that the duty of happiness was laid on people as certainly as the duty of honesty. She remembered that once he had said....
There had come to her no sound, but Jessie knew that some one had opened the door and was standing on the threshold watching her. She turned her head. Her self-invited guest was Whaley.
Jessie rose. "What do you want?"
She was startled at the man's silent entry, ready to be alarmed if necessary, but not yet afraid. It was as though her thoughts waited for the cue he would presently give. Some instinct for safety made her cautious. She did not tell the free trader that her father and Fergus were from home.
He looked at her, appraisingly, from head to foot, in such a way that she felt his gaze had stripped her.
"You know what I want. You know what I'm going to get ... some day," he purred in his slow, feline way.
She pushed from her mind a growing apprehension.
"Father and Fergus—if you want them—"
"Have I said I wanted them?" he asked. "They're out in the woods trappin'. I'm not lookin' for them. The two of us'll be company for each other."
"Go," she said, anger flaring at his insolence. "Go. You've no business here."
"I'm not here for business, but for pleasure, my dear."
The cold, fishy eyes in his white face gloated. Suddenly she wanted to scream and pushed back the desire scornfully. If she did, nobody would hear her. This had to be fought out one to one.
"Why didn't you knock?" she demanded.
"We'll say I did and that you didn't hear me," he answered suavely. "What's it matter among friends anyhow?"
"What do you want?" By sheer will power she kept her voice low.
"Your mother's over at the house. I dropped in to say she'll probably stay all night."
"Is your wife worse?"
He lifted the black brows that contrasted so sharply with the pallor of the face. "Really you get ahead of me, my dear. I don't recall ever getting married."
"That's a hateful thing to say," she flamed, and bit her lower lip with small white teeth to keep from telling the squaw-man what she thought of him. The Cree girl he had taken to wife was going down into the Valley of the Shadow to bear him a child while he callously repudiated her.
He opened his fur coat and came to the fireplace. "I can say nicer things—to the right girl," he said, and looked meaningly at her.
"I'll have to go get Susie Lemoine to stay with me," Jessie said hurriedly. "I didn't know Mother wasn't coming home."
She made a move toward a fur lying across the back of a chair.
He laid a hand upon her arm. "What's your rush? What are you dodgin' for, girl? I'm good as Susie to keep the goblins from gettin you."
"Don't touch me." Her eyes sparked fire.
"You're mighty high-heeled for a nitchie. I reckon you forget you're Sleeping Dawn, daughter of a Blackfoot squaw."
"I'm Jessie McRae, daughter of Angus, and if you insult me, you'll have to settle with him."
He gave a short snort of laughter. "Wake up, girl. What's the use of foolin' yourself? You're a breed. McRae's tried to forget it and so have you. But all the time you know damn well you're half Injun."
Jessie looked at him with angry contempt, then wheeled for the door.
Whaley had anticipated that and was there before her. His narrowed, covetous eyes held her while one hand behind his back slid the bolt into place.
"Let me out!" she cried.
"Be reasonable. I'm not aimin' to hurt you."
"Stand aside and let me through."
He managed another insinuating laugh. "Have some sense. Quit ridin' that high horse and listen while I talk to you."
But she was frightened by this time as much as she was incensed. A drum of dread was beating in her panicky heart. She saw in his eyes what she had never before seen on a face that looked into hers—though she was to note it often in the dreadful days that followed—the ruthless appetite of a wild beast crouching for its kill."
"Let me go! Let me go!" Her voice was shrilly out of control. "Unbar the door, I tell you!"
"I'm a big man in this country. Before I'm through. I'll be head chief among the trappers for hundreds of miles. I'm offerin' you the chance of a lifetime. Throw in with me and you'll ride in your coach at Winnipeg some day." Voice and words were soft and smooth, but back of them Jessie felt the panther couched for its spring.
She could only repeat her demand, in a cry that reached its ictus in a sob.
"If you're dreamin' about that red-coat spy—hopin' he'll marry you after he's played fast and loose with you—why, forget such foolishness. I know his kind. When he's had his fling, he'll go back to his own people and settle down. He's lookin' for a woman, not a wife."
"That's a lie!" she flung out, rage for the moment in ascendent. "Open that door or I'll—"
Swiftly his hand shot forward and caught her wrist. "What'll you do?" he asked, and triumph rode in his eyes.
She screamed. One of his hands clamped down over her mouth, the other went round her waist and drew the slim body to him. She fought, straining from him, throwing back her head in another lifted shriek for help.
As well she might have matched her strength with a buffalo bull. He was still under forty, heavy-set, bones packed with heavy muscles. It seemed to her that all the power of her vital youth vanished and left only limp and flaccid weakness. He snatched her close and kissed the dusky eyes, the soft cheeks, the colorful lips....
She became aware that he was holding her from him, listening. There was a crash of wood.
Again her call for help rang out.
Whaley flung her from him. He crouched, every nerve and muscle tense, lips drawn back in a snarl. She saw that in his hand there was a revolver.
Against the door a heavy weight was hurled. The wood burst into splinters as the bolt shot from the socket. Drunkenly a man plunged across the threshold, staggering from the impact of the shock.
A GUN ROARS
The two men glared at each other, silently, their faces distorted to gargoyles in the leaping and uncertain light. Wary, vigilant, tense, they faced each other as might jungle tigers waiting for the best moment to attack.
There was a chance for the situation to adjust itself without bloodshed. Whaley could not afford to kill and Morse had no desire to force his hand.
Jessie's fear outran her judgment. She saw the menace of the revolver trained on her rescuer and thought the gambler was about to fire. She leaped for the weapon, and so precipitated what she dreaded.
The gun roared. A bullet flew past Morse and buried itself in a log. Next instant, clinging with both hands to Whaley's wrist, Jessie found herself being tossed to and fro as the man struggled to free his arm. Flung at a tangent against the wall, she fell at the foot of the couch where Fergus slept.
Again the blaze and roar of the revolver filled the room. Morse plunged head down at his enemy, still carrying the log he had used as a battering-ram. It caught the gambler at that point of the stomach known as the solar plexus. Whaley went down and out of consciousness like an ox that has been pole-axed.
Tom picked up the revolver and dropped it into the pocket of his fur coat. He stooped to make sure that his foe was beyond the power of doing damage. Then he lifted Jessie from the corner where she lay huddled.