WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE
THE BIG-TOWN ROUND UP,
OH, YOU TEX! ETC
CAPTAIN SIR CECIL E. DENNY, BART.
OF THE FIRST THREE HUNDRED RIDERS OF THE PLAINS
WHO CARRIED LAW INTO THE LONE LANDS
AND MADE THE SCARLET AND GOLD
A SYNONYM FOR
JUSTICE, INTEGRITY, AND INDOMITABLE PLUCK
I. IN THE DANGER ZONE
II. THE AMAZON
III. ANGUS McRAE DOES HIS DUTY
IV. THE WOLFERS
V. MORSE JUMPS UP TROUBLE
VI. "SOMETHING ABOUT THESE GUYS"
VII. THE MAN IN THE SCARLET JACKET
VIII. AT SWEET WATER CREEK
IX. TOM MAKES A COLLECTION
X. A CAMP-FIRE TALE
XI. C.N. MORSE TURNS OVER A LEAF
XII. TOM DUCKS TROUBLE
XIII. THE CONSTABLE BORES THROUGH DIFFICULTIES
XIV. SCARLET-COATS IN ACTION
XV. KISSING DAY
XVI. A BUSINESS DEAL
XVII. A BOARD CREAKS
XVIII. A GUN ROARS
XIX. "D' YOU WONDER SHE HATES ME?"
XX. ONISTAH READS SIGN
XXI. ON THE FRONTIER OF DESPAIR
XXII. "MY DAMN PRETTY LI'L' HIGH-STEPPIN' SQUAW"
XXIII. A FORETASTE OF HELL
XXIV. WEST MAKES A DECISION
XXV. FOR THE WEE LAMB LOST
XXVI. A RESCUE
XXVII. APACHE STUFF
XXVIII. "IS A' WELL WI' YOU, LASS?"
XXIX. NOT GOING ALONE
XXX. "M" FOR MORSE
XXXI. THE LONG TRAIL
XXXII. A PICTURE IN A LOCKET
XXXIII. INTO THE LONE LAND
XXXIV. THE MAN-HUNTERS READ SIGN
XXXVI. THE WILD BEAST LEAPS
XXXVII. NEAR THE END OF A LONG CROOKED TRAIL
XXXVIII. OVER A ROTTING TRAIL
XXXIX. A CREE RUNNER BRINGS NEWS
XL. "MALBROUCK S'EN VA-T-EN GUERRE"
XLI. SENSE AND NONSENSE
XLII. THE IMPERATIVE URGE
IN THE DANGER ZONE
She stood on the crown of the hill, silhouetted against a sky-line of deepest blue. Already the sun was sinking in a crotch of the plains which rolled to the horizon edge like waves of a great land sea. Its reflected fires were in her dark, stormy eyes. Its long, slanted rays were a spotlight for the tall, slim figure, straight as that of a boy.
The girl's gaze was fastened on a wisp of smoke rising lazily from a hollow of the crumpled hills. That floating film told of a camp-fire of buffalo chips. There was a little knitted frown of worry on her forehead, for imagination could fill in details of what the coulee held: the white canvas tops of prairie schooners, some spans of oxen grazing near, a group of blatant, profane whiskey-smugglers from Montana, and in the wagons a cargo of liquor to debauch the Bloods and Piegans near Fort Whoop-Up.
Sleeping Dawn was a child of impulse. She had all youth's capacity for passionate indignation and none of the wisdom of age which tempers the eager desire of the hour. These whiskey-traders were ruining her people. More than threescore Blackfeet braves had been killed within the year in drunken brawls among themselves. The plains Indians would sell their souls for fire-water. When the craze was on them, they would exchange furs, buffalo robes, ponies, even their wives and daughters for a bottle of the poison.
In the sunset glow she stood rigid and resentful, one small fist clenched, the other fast to the barrel of the rifle she carried. The evils of the trade came close to her. Fergus McRae still carried the gash from a knife thrust earned in a drunken brawl. It was likely that to-morrow he would cut the trail of the wagon wheels and again make a bee-line for liquor and trouble. The swift blaze of revolt found expression in the stamp of her moccasined foot.
As dusk fell over the plains, Sleeping Dawn moved forward lightly, swiftly, toward the camp in the hollow of the hills. She had no definite purpose except to spy the lay-out, to make sure that her fears were justified. But through the hinterland of her consciousness rebellious thoughts were racing. These smugglers were wholly outside the law. It was her right to frustrate them if she could.
Noiselessly she skirted the ridge above the coulee, moving through the bunch grass with the wary care she had learned as a child in the lodges of the tribe.
Three men crouched on their heels in the glow of a camp-fire well up the draw. A fourth sat at a little distance from them riveting a stirrup leather with two stones. The wagons had been left near the entrance of the valley pocket some sixty or seventy yards from the fire. Probably the drivers, after they had unhitched the teams, had been drawn deeper into the draw to a spot more fully protected from the wind.
While darkness gathered, Sleeping Dawn lay in the bunch grass with her eyes focused on the camp below. Her untaught soul struggled with the problem that began to shape itself. These men were wolfers, desperate men engaged in a nefarious business. They paid no duty to the British Government. She had heard her father say so. Contrary to law, they brought in their vile stuff and sold it both to breeds and tribesmen. They had no regard whatever for the terrible injury they did the natives. Their one intent was to get rich as soon as possible, so they plied their business openly and defiantly. For the Great Lone Land was still a wilderness where every man was a law to himself.
The blood of the girl beat fast with the racing pulse of excitement. A resolution was forming in her mind. She realized the risks and estimated chances coolly. These men would fire to kill on any skulker near the camp. They would take no needless hazard of being surprised by a band of stray Indians. But the night would befriend her. She believed she could do what she had in mind and easily get away to the shelter of the hill creases before they could kill or capture her.
A shadowy dog on the outskirt of the camp rose and barked. The girl waited, motionless, tense, but the men paid little heed to the warning. The man working at the stirrup leather got to his feet, indeed, carelessly, rifle in hand, and stared into the gloom; but presently he turned on his heel and sauntered back to his job of saddlery. Evidently the hound was used to voicing false alarms whenever a coyote slipped past or a skunk nosed inquisitively near.
Sleeping Dawn followed the crest of the ridge till it fell away to the mouth of the coulee. She crept up behind the white-topped wagon nearest the entrance.
An axe lay against the tongue. She picked it up, glancing at the same time toward the camp-fire. So far she had quite escaped notice. The hound lay blinking into the flames, its nose resting on crossed paws.
With her hunting-knife the girl ripped the canvas from the side of the top. She stood poised, one foot on a spoke, the other on the axle. The axe-head swung in a half-circle. There was a crash of wood, a swift jet of spouting liquor. Again the axe swung gleaming above her head. A third and a fourth time it crashed against the staves.
A man by the camp-fire leaped to his feet with a startled oath. "What's that?" he demanded sharply.
From the shadows of the wagons a light figure darted. The man snatched up a rifle and fired. A second time, aimlessly, he sent a bullet into the darkness.
The silent night was suddenly alive with noises. Shots, shouts, the barking of the dog, the slap of running feet, all came in a confused medley to Sleeping Dawn.
She gained a moment's respite from pursuit when the traders stopped at the wagons to get their bearings. The first of the white-topped schooners was untouched. The one nearest the entrance to the coulee held four whiskey-casks with staves crushed in and contents seeping into the dry ground.
Against one of the wheels a rifle rested. The girl flying in a panic had forgotten it till too late.
The vandalism of the attack amazed the men. They could have understood readily enough some shots out of the shadows or a swoop down upon the camp to stampede and run off the saddle horses. Even a serious attempt to wipe out the party by a stray band of Blackfeet or Crees was an undertaking that would need no explaining. But why should any one do such a foolish, wasteful thing as this, one to so little purpose in its destructiveness?
They lost no time in speculation, but plunged into the darkness in pursuit.
The dog darted into the bunch grass and turned sharply to the right. One of the men followed it, the others took different directions.
Up a gully the hound ran, nosed the ground in a circle of sniffs, and dipped down into a dry watercourse. Tom Morse was at heel scarcely a dozen strides behind.
The yelping of the dog told Morse they were close on their quarry. Once or twice he thought he made out the vague outline of a flying figure, but in the night shadows it was lost again almost at once.
They breasted the long slope of a low hill and took the decline beyond. The young plainsman had the legs and the wind of a Marathon runner. His was the perfect physical fitness of one who lives a clean, hard life in the dry air of the high lands. The swiftness and the endurance of the fugitive told him that he was in the wake of youth trained to a fine edge.
Unexpectedly, in the deeper darkness of a small ravine below the hill spur, the hunted turned upon the hunter. Morse caught the gleam of a knife thrust as he plunged. It was too late to check his dive. A flame of fire scorched through his forearm. The two went down together, rolling over and over as they struggled.
Startled, Morse loosened his grip. He had discovered by the feel of the flesh he was handling so roughly that it was a woman with whom he was fighting.
She took advantage of his hesitation to shake free and roll away.
They faced each other on their feet. The man was amazed at the young Amazon's fury. Her eyes were like live coals, flashing at him hatred and defiance. Beneath the skin smock she wore, her breath came raggedly and deeply. Neither of them spoke, but her gaze did not yield a thousandth part of an inch to his.
The girl darted for the knife she had dropped. Morse was upon her instantly. She tried to trip him, but when they struck the ground she was underneath.
He struggled to pin down her arms, but she fought with a barbaric fury. Her hard little fist beat upon his face a dozen times before he pegged it down.
Lithe as a panther, her body twisted beneath his. Too late the flash of white teeth warned him. She bit into his arm with the abandon of a savage.
"You little devil!" he cried between set teeth.
He flung away any scruples he might have had and pinned fast her flying arms. The slim, muscular body still writhed in vain contortions till he clamped it fast between knees from which not even an untamed cayuse could free itself.
She gave up struggling. They glared at each other, panting from their exertions. Her eyes still flamed defiance, but back of it he read fear, a horrified and paralyzing terror. To the white traders along the border a half-breed girl was a squaw, and a squaw was property just as a horse or a dog was.
For the first time she spoke, and in English. Her voice came bell-clear and not in the guttural of the tribes.
"Let me up!" It was an imperative, urgent, threatening.
He still held her in the vice, his face close to her flaming eyes. "You little devil," he said again.
"Let me up!" she repeated wildly. "Let me up, I tell you."
"Like blazes I will. You're through biting and knifing me for one night." He had tasted no liquor all day, but there was the note of drunkenness in his voice.
The terror in her grew. "If you don't let me up—"
"You'll do what?" he jeered.
Her furious upheaval took him by surprise. She had unseated him and was scrambling to her feet before he had her by the shoulders.
The girl ducked her head in an effort to wrench free. She could as easily have escaped from steel cuffs as from the grip of his brown fingers.
"You'd better let me go!" she cried. "You don't know who I am."
"Nor care," he flung back. "You're a nitchie, and you smashed our kegs. That's enough for me."
"I'm no such thing a nitchie," she denied indignantly.
[Footnote 1: In the vernacular of the Northwest Indians were "nitchies." (W.M.R.)]
The instinct of self-preservation was moving in her. She had played into the hands of this man and his companions. The traders made their own laws and set their own standards. The value of a squaw of the Blackfeet was no more than that of the liquor she had destroyed. It would be in character for them to keep her as a chattel captured in war.
"The daughter of a squaw-man then," he said, and there was in his voice the contempt of the white man for the half-breed.
"I'm Jessie McRae," she said proudly.
Among the Indians she went by her tribal name of Sleeping Dawn, but always with the whites she used the one her adopted father had given her. It increased their respect for her. Just now she was in desperate need of every ounce that would weigh in the scales.
"Daughter of Angus McRae?" he asked, astonished.
"His woman's a Cree?"
"His wife is," the girl corrected.
"What you doin' here?"
"Father's camp is near. He's hunting hides."
"Did he send you to smash our whiskey-barrels?"
"Angus McRae never hides behind a woman," she said, her chin up.
That was true. Morse knew it, though he had never met McRae. His reputation had gone all over the Northland as a fearless fighting man honest as daylight and stern as the Day of Judgment. If this girl was a daughter of the old Scot, not even a whiskey-trader could safely lay hands on her. For back of Angus was a group of buffalo-hunters related to him by blood over whom he held half-patriarchal sway.
"Why did you do it?" Morse demanded.
The question struck a spark of spirit from her. "Because you're ruining my people—destroying them with your fire-water."
He was taken wholly by surprise. "Do you mean you destroyed our property for that reason?"
She nodded, sullenly.
"But we don't trade with the Crees," he persisted.
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that she was of the Blackfoot tribe and not of the Crees, but again for reasons of policy she was less than candid. Till she was safely out of the woods, it was better this man should not know she was only an adopted daughter of Angus McRae. She offered another reason, and with a flare of passion which he was to learn as a characteristic of her.
"You make trouble for my brother Fergus. He shot Akokotos (Many Horses) in the leg when the fire-water burned in him. He was stabbed by a Piegan brave who did not know what he was doing. Fergus is good. He minds his own business. But you steal away his brains. Then he runs wild. It was you, not Fergus, that shot Akokotos. The Great Spirit knows you whiskey-traders, and not my poor people who destroy each other, are the real murderers."
Her logic was feminine and personal, from his viewpoint wholly unfair. Moreover, one of her charges did not happen to be literally true.
"We never sold whiskey to your brother—not our outfit. It was Jackson's, maybe. Anyhow, nobody made him buy it. He was free to take it or leave it."
"A wolf doesn't have to eat the poisoned meat in a trap, but it eats and dies," she retorted swiftly and bitterly.
Adroitly she had put him on the defensive. Her words had the sting of barbed darts.
"We're not talking of wolves."
"No, but of Blackfeet and Bloods and Sarcees," she burst out, again with that flare of feminine ferocity so out of character in an Indian woman or the daughter of one. "D'you think I don't know how you Americans talk? A good Indian is a dead Indian. No wonder we hate you all. No wonder the tribes fight you to the death."
He had no answer for this. It was true. He had been brought up in a land of Indian wars and he had accepted without question the common view that the Sioux, the Crows, and the Cheyennes, with all their blood brothers, were menaces to civilization. The case for the natives he had never studied. How great a part broken pledges and callous injustice had done to drive the tribes to the war-path he did not know. Few of the actual frontiersmen were aware of the wrongs of the red men.
The young man's hands fell from her arms. Hard-eyed and grim, he looked her over from head to foot. The short skirt and smock of buckskin, the moccasins of buffalo hide, all dusty and travel-stained, told of life in a primitive country under the simplest and hardest conditions.
Yet the voice was clear and vibrant, the words well enunciated. She bloomed like a desert rose, had some quality of vital life that struck a spark from his imagination.
What manner of girl was she? Not by any possibility would she fit into the specifications of the cubby-hole his mind had built for Indian women. The daughters even of the boisbrules had much of the heaviness and stolidity of their native mothers. Jessie McRae was graceful as a fawn. Every turn of the dark head, every lift of the hand, expressed spirit and verve. She must, he thought, have inherited almost wholly from her father, though in her lissom youth he could find little of McRae's heavy solidity of mind and body.
"Your brother is of the metis. He's not a tribesman. And he's no child. He can look out for himself," Morse said at last.
[Footnote 2: The half-breeds were known as "metis." The word means, of course, mongrel. (W.M.R.)]
His choice of a word was unfortunate. It applied as much to her as to Fergus. Often it was used contemptuously.
"Yes, and the metis doesn't matter," she cried, with the note of bitterness that sat so strangely on her hot-blooded, vital youth. "You can ride over him as though you're lords of the barren lands. You can ruin him for the money you make, even if he's a subject of the Great Mother and not of your country. He's only a breed—a mongrel."
He was a man of action. He brushed aside discussion. "We'll be movin' back to camp."
Instantly her eyes betrayed the fear she would not put into words. "No—no! I won't go."
His lids narrowed. The outthrust of his lean jaw left no room for argument. "You'll go where I say."
She knew it would be that way, if he dragged her by the hair of the head. Because she was in such evil case she tamed her pride to sullen pleading.
"Don't take me there! Let me go to father. He'll horsewhip me. I'll have him do it for you. Isn't that enough? Won't that satisfy you?"
Red spots smoldered like fire in his brown eyes. If he took her back to the traders' camp, he would have to fight Bully West for her. That was certain. All sorts of complications would rise. There would be trouble with McRae. The trade with the Indians of his uncle's firm, of which he was soon to be a partner, would be wrecked by the Scotchman. No, he couldn't take her back to the camp in the coulee. There was too much at stake.
"Suits me. I'll take you up on that. He's to horsewhip you for that fool trick you played on us and to make good our loss. Where's his camp?"
From the distance of a stone-throw a heavy, raucous voice called, "'Lo, Morse!"
The young man turned to the girl, his lips set in a thin, hard line. "Bully West. The dog's gone back and is bringin' him here, I reckon. Like to meet him?"
She knew the reputation of Bully West, notorious as a brawler and a libertine. Who in all the North did not know of it? Her heart fluttered a signal of despair.
"I—I can get away yet—up the valley," she said in a whisper, eyes quick with fear.
He smiled grimly. "You mean we can."
"Hit the trail."
She turned and led the way into the darkness.
ANGUS McRAE DOES HIS DUTY
The harsh shout came to them again, and with it a volley of oaths that polluted the night.
Sleeping Dawn quickened her pace. The character of Bully West was sufficiently advertised in that single outburst. She conceived him bloated, wolfish, malignant, a man whose mind traveled through filthy green swamps breeding fever and disease. Hard though this young man was, in spite of her hatred of him, of her doubt as to what lay behind those inscrutable, reddish-brown eyes of his, she would a hundred times rather take chances with him than with Bully West. He was at least a youth. There was always the possibility that he might not yet have escaped entirely from the tenderness of boyhood.
Morse followed her silently with long, tireless, strides. The girl continued to puzzle him. Even her manner of walking expressed personality. There was none of the flat-footed Indian shuffle about her gait. She moved lightly, springily, as one does who finds in it the joy of calling upon abundant strength.
She was half Scotch, of course. That helped to explain her. The words of an old song hummed themselves through his mind.
"Yestreen I met a winsome lass, a bonny lass was she, As ever climbed the mountain-side, or tripped aboon the lea; She wore nae gold, nae jewels bright, nor silk nor satin rare, But just the plaidie that a queen might well be proud to wear."
Jessie McRae wore nothing half so picturesque as the tartan. Her clothes were dingy and dust-stained. But they could not eclipse the divine, dusky youth of her. She was slender, as a panther is, and her movements had more than a suggestion of the same sinuous grace.
Of the absurdity of such thoughts he was quite aware. She was a good-looking breed. Let it go at that. In story-books there were Indian princesses, but in real life there were only squaws.
Not till they were out of the danger zone did he speak. "Where's your father's camp?"
She pointed toward the northwest. "You don't need to be afraid. He'll pay you for the damage I did."
He looked at her in the steady, appraising way she was to learn as a peculiarity of his.
"I'm not afraid," he drawled. "I'll get my pay—and you'll get yours."
Color flamed into her dusky face. When she spoke there was the throb of contemptuous anger in her voice. "It's a great thing to be a man."
"Like to crawfish, would you?"
She swung on him, eyes blazing. "No. I don't ask any favors of a wolfer."
She spat the word at him as though it were a missile. The term was one of scorn, used only in speaking of the worst of the whiskey-traders. He took it coolly, his strong white teeth flashing in a derisive smile.
"Then this wolfer won't offer any, Miss McRae."
It was the last word that passed between them till they reached the buffalo-hunter's camp. If he felt any compunctions, she read nothing of the kind in his brown face and the steady stride carrying her straight to punishment. She wondered if he knew how mercilessly twenty-year-old Fergus had been thrashed after his drunken spree among the Indians, how sternly Angus dispensed justice in the clan over which he ruled. Did he think she was an ordinary squaw, one to be whipped as a matter of discipline by her owner?
They climbed a hill and looked down on a camp of many fires in the hollow below.
"Is it you, lass?" a voice called.
Out of the shadows thrown by the tents a big bearded man came to meet them. He stood six feet in his woolen socks. His chest was deep and his shoulders tremendously broad. Few in the Lone Lands had the physical strength of Angus McRae.
His big hand caught the girl by the shoulder with a grip that was half a caress. He had been a little anxious about her and this found expression in a reproach.
"You shouldna go out by your lane for so lang after dark, Jess. Weel you ken that."
"I know, Father."
The blue eyes beneath the grizzled brows of the hunter turned upon Morse. They asked what he was doing with his daughter at that time and place.
The Montana trader answered the unspoken question, an edge of irony in his voice. "I found Miss McRae wanderin' around, so I brought her home where she would be safe and well taken care of."
There was something about this Angus did not understand. At night in the Lone Lands, among a thousand hill pockets and shoestring draws, it would be only a millionth chance that would bring a man and woman together unexpectedly. He pushed home questions, for he was not one to slough any of the responsibilities that belonged to him as father of his family.
A fat and waistless Indian woman appeared in the tent flap as the three approached the light. She gave a grunt of surprise and pointed first at Morse and then at the girl.
The trader's hands were covered with blood, his shirt-sleeve soaked in it. Stains of it were spattered over the girl's clothes and face.
The Scotchman looked at them, and his clean-shaven upper lip grew straight, his whole face stern. "What'll be the meanin' o' this?" he asked.
Morse turned to the girl, fastened his eyes on her steadily, and waited.
"Nae lees. I'll hae the truth," Angus added harshly.
"I did it—with my hunting-knife," the daughter said, looking straight at her father.
"What's that? Are ye talkin' havers, lass?"
"It's the truth, Father."
The Scotchman swung on the trader with a swift question, at the end of it a threat. "Why would she do that? Why? If you said one word to my lass—"
"No, Father. You don't understand. I found a camp of whiskey-traders, and I stole up and smashed four-five kegs. I meant to slip away, but this man caught me. When he rushed at me I was afraid—so I slashed at him with my knife. We fought."
"You fought," her father repeated.
"He didn't know I was a girl—not at first."
The buffalo-hunter passed that point. "You went to this trader's camp and ruined his goods?"
The slim girl faced her judge steadily with eyes full of apprehension. "Fergus," she said in a low voice, "and my people."
"What aboot them?"
"These traders break the law. They sell liquor to Fergus and to—"
"Gin that's true, is it your business to ram-stam in an' destroy ither folks' property? Did I bring you up i' the fear o' the Lord to slash at men wi' your dirk an' fight wi' them like a wild limmer? I've been ower-easy wi' you. Weel, I'll do my painfu' duty the nicht, lass." The Scotchman's eyes were as hard and as inexorable as those of a hanging judge.
"Yes," the girl answered in a small voice. "That's why he brought me home instead of taking me to his own camp. You're to whip me."
Angus McRae was not used to having the law and the judgment taken out of his own hands. He frowned at the young man beneath heavy grizzled eyebrows drawn sternly together. "An' who are you to tell me how to govern my ain hoose?" he demanded.
"My name's Morse—Tom Morse, Fort Benton, Montana, when my hat's hangin' up. I took up your girl's proposition, that if I didn't head in at our camp, but brought her here, you were to whip her and pay me damages for what she'd done. Me, I didn't propose it. She did."
"You gave him your word on that, Jess?" her father asked.
"Yes." She dragged out, reluctantly, after a moment: "With a horsewhip."
"Then that's the way it'll be. The McRaes don't cry back on a bargain," the dour old buffalo-hunter said. "But first we'll look at this young man's arm. Get water and clean rags, Jess."
Morse flushed beneath the dark tan of his cheeks. "My arm's all right. It'll keep till I get back to camp."
"No such thing, my lad. We'll tie it up here and now. If my lass cut your arm, she'll bandage the wound."
"She'll not. I'm runnin' this arm."
McRae slammed a heavy fist down into the palm of his hand. "I'll be showin' you aboot that, mannie."
"Hell, what's the use o' jawin'? I'm goin' to wait, I tell you."
"Don't curse in my camp, Mr. Morse, or whatever your name is." The Scotchman's blue eyes flashed. "It's a thing I do not permeet. Nor do I let beardless lads tell me what they will or won't do here. Your wound will be washed and tied up if I have to order you hogtied first. So mak the best o' that."
Morse measured eyes with him a moment, then gave way with a sardonic laugh. McRae had a full share of the obstinacy of his race.
"All right. I'm to be done good to whether I like it or not. Go to it." The trader pulled back the sleeve of his shirt and stretched out a muscular, blood-stained arm. An ugly flesh wound stretched halfway from elbow to wrist.
Jessie brought a basin, water, a towel, and clean rags. By the light of a lantern in the hands of her father, she washed and tied up the wound. Her lips trembled. Strange little rivers of fire ran through her veins when her finger-tips touched his flesh. Once, when she lifted her eyes, they met his. He read in them a concentrated passion of hatred.
Not even when she had tied the last knot in the bandage did any of them speak. She carried away the towel and the basin while McRae hung the lantern to a nail in the tent pole and brought from inside a silver-mounted riding-whip. It was one he had bought as a present for his daughter last time he had been at Fort Benton.
The girl came back and stood before him. A pulse beat fast in her brown throat. The eyes betrayed the dread of her soul, but they met without flinching those of the buffalo-hunter.
The Indian woman at the tent entrance made no motion to interfere. The lord of her life had spoken. So it would be.
With a strained little laugh Morse took a step forward. "I reckon I'll not stand out for my pound of flesh, Mr. McRae. Settle the damages for the lost liquor and I'll call it quits."
The upper lip of the Scotchman was a straight line of resolution. "I'm not thrashing the lass to please you, but because it's in the bond and because she's earned it. Stand back, sir."
The whip swung up and down. The girl gasped and shivered. A flame of fiery pain ran through her body to the toes. She set her teeth to bite back a scream. Before the agony had passed, the whip was winding round her slender body again like a red-hot snake. It fell with implacable rhythmic regularity.
Her pride and courage collapsed. She sank to her knees with a wild burst of wailing and entreaties. At last McRae stopped.
Except for the irregular sobbing breaths of the girl there was silence. The Indian woman crouched beside the tortured young thing and rocked the dark head, held close against her bosom, while she crooned a lullaby in the native tongue.
McRae, white to the lips, turned upon his unwelcome guest. "You're nae doot wearyin' to tak the road, man. Bring your boss the morn an' I'll mak a settlement."
Morse knew he was dismissed. He turned and walked into the darkness beyond the camp-fires. Unnoticed, he waited there in a hollow and listened. For along time there came to him the soft sound of weeping, and afterward the murmur of voices. He knew that the fat and shapeless squaw was pouring mother love from her own heart to the bleeding one of the girl.
Somehow that brought him comfort. He had a queer feeling that he had been a party to some horrible outrage. Yet all that had taken place was the whipping of an Indian girl. He tried to laugh away the weak sympathy in his heart.
But the truth was that inside he was a wild river of woe for her.
When Tom Morse reached camp he found Bully West stamping about in a heady rage. The fellow was a giant of a man, almost muscle-bound in his huge solidity. His shoulders were rounded with the heavy pack of knotted sinews they carried. His legs were bowed from much riding. It was his boast that he could bend a silver dollar double in the palm of his hand. Men had seen him twist the tail rod of a wagon into a knot. Sober, he was a sulky, domineering brute with the instincts of a bully. In liquor, the least difference of opinion became for him a cause of quarrel.
Most men gave him a wide berth, and for the sake of peace accepted sneers and insults that made the blood boil.
"Where you been all this time?" he growled.
"Ploughin' around over the plains."
"Didn't you hear me callin'?"
"D'you call? I've been quite a ways from camp. Bumped into Angus McRae's buffalo-hunting outfit. He wants to see us to-morrow."
"Something about to-night's business. Seems he knows who did it. Offers to settle for what we lost."
Bully West stopped in his stride, feet straddled, head thrust forward. "What's that?"
"Like I say. We're to call on him to-morrow for a settlement, you 'n' me."
"Did McRae bust our barrels?"
"He knows something about it. Didn't have time to talk long with him. I hustled right back to tell you."
"He can come here if he wants to see me," West announced.
This called for no answer and Tom gave it none. He moved across to the spot where the oxen were picketed and made sure the pins were still fast. Presently he rolled his blanket round him and looked up into a sky all stars. Usually he dropped asleep as soon as his head touched the seat of the saddle he used as a pillow. But to-night he lay awake for hours. He could not get out of his mind the girl he had met and taken to punishment. A dozen pictures of her rose before him, all of them mental snapshots snatched from his experience of the night. Now he was struggling to hold her down, his knees clamped to her writhing, muscular torso. Again he held her by the strong, velvet-smooth arms while her eyes blazed fury and defiance at him. Or her stinging words pelted him as she breasted the hill slopes with supple ease. Most vivid of all were the ones at her father's camp, especially those when she was under the torture of the whip.
No wonder she hated him for what he had done to her.
He shook himself into a more comfortable position and began to count stars.... Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven.... What was the use of stressing the affair, anyhow? She was only a half-breed. In ten years she would be fat, shapeless, dirty, and repellent. Her conversation would be reduced to grunts. The glance he had had at her mother was illuminating.
Where was he?... One hundred eleven, twelve, thirteen.... Women had not obtruded much into his life. He had lived in the wind and the sun of the outdoors, much of the time in the saddle. Lawless he was, but there was a clean strain in his blood. He had always felt an indifferent contempt for a squaw-man. An American declassed himself when he went in for that sort of thing, even if he legalized the union by some form of marriage. In spite of her magnificent physical inheritance of health and vitality, in spite of the quick and passionate spirit that informed her, she would be the product of her environment and ancestry, held close to barbarism all her life. The man who mated with her would be dragged down to her level.
Two hundred three, four, five.... How game she had been! She had played it out like a thoroughbred, even to telling her father that he was to use the horsewhip in punishing her. He had never before seen a creature so splendid or so spirited. Squaw or no squaw, he took off his hat to her.
The sun had climbed the hilltop when Morse wakened.
"Come an' get it!" Barney the cook was yelling at him.
Bully West had changed his mind about not going to the buffalo-hunter's camp.
"You 'n' Brad'll stay here, Barney, while me 'n' Tom are gone," he gave orders. "And you'll keep a sharp lookout for raiders. If any one shows up that you're dubious of, plug him and ask questions afterward. Un'erstand?"
"I hear ye," replied Barney, a small cock-eyed man with a malevolent grin. "An' we'll do just that, boss."
Long before the traders reached it, the camp of the buffalo-hunters advertised its presence by the stench of decaying animal matter. Hundreds of hides were pegged to the ground. Men and women, squatting on their heels, scraped bits of fat from the drying skins. Already a train of fifty Red River carts stood ready for the homeward start, loaded with robes tied down by means of rawhide strips to stand the jolting across the plains. Not far away other women were making pemmican of fried buffalo meat and fat, pounded together and packed with hot grease in skin bags. This food was a staple winter diet and had too a market value for trade to the Hudson's Bay Company, which shipped thousands of sacks yearly to its northern posts on the Peace and the Mackenzie Rivers.
[Footnote 3: The Red River cart was a primitive two-wheeled affair, made entirely of wood, without nails or metal tires. It was usually drawn by an ox. (W.M.R.)]
The children and the sound of their laughter gave the camp a domestic touch. Some of the brown, half-naked youngsters, their skins glistening in the warm sun, were at work doing odd jobs. Others, too young to fetch and carry, played with a litter of puppies or with a wolf cub that had been caught and tamed.
The whole bustling scene was characteristic of time and place. A score of such outfits, each with its Red River carts and its oxen, its dogs, its women and children, traveled to the plains each spring to hunt the bison. They killed thousands upon thousands of them, for it took several animals to make a sack of pemmican weighing one hundred fifty pounds. The waste was enormous, since only the choicest cuts of meat were used.
Already the buffalo were diminishing in numbers. Vast hordes still roamed the plains. They could be killed by scores and hundreds. But the end was near. It had been several years since Colonel Dodge reported that he had halted his party of railroad builders two days to let a herd of over half a million bison pass. Such a sight was no longer possible. The pressure of the hunters had divided the game into the northern and the southern herds. Within four or five years the slaughter was to be so great that only a few groups of buffalo would be left.
The significance of this extermination lay largely in its application to the Indians. The plains tribes were fed and clothed and armed and housed by means of the buffalo. Even the canoes of the lake Indians were made from buffalo skins. The failure of the supply reduced the natives from warriors to beggars.
McRae came forward to meet the traders, the sleeves of his shirt rolled to the elbows of his muscular brown arms. He stroked a great red beard and nodded gruffly. It was not in his dour honest nature to pretend that he was glad to see them when he was not.
"Well, I'm here," growled West, interlarding a few oaths as a necessary corollary of his speech. "What's it all about, McRae? What do you know about the smashing of our barrels?"
"I'll settle any reasonable damage," the hunter said.
Bully West frowned. He spread his legs deliberately, folded his arms, and spat tobacco juice upon a clean hide drying in the sun. "Hold yore hawsses a minute. The damage'll be enough. Don't you worry about that. But first off, I aim to know who raided our camp. Then I reckon I'll whop him till he's wore to a frazzle."
Under heavy, grizzled brows McRae looked long at him. Both were outstanding figures by reason of personality and physique. One was a constructive force, the other destructive. There was a suggestion of the gorilla in West's long arms matted with hair, in the muscles of back and shoulders so gnarled and knotted that they gave him almost a deformed appearance. Big and broad though he was, the Scot was the smaller. But power harnessed and controlled expressed itself in every motion of the body. Moreover, the blue eyes that looked straight and hard out of the ruddy face told of coordination between mind and matter.
Angus McRae was that rare product, an honest, outspoken man. He sought to do justice to all with whom he had dealings. Part of West's demand was fair, he reflected. The trader had a right to know all the facts in the case. But the old Hudson's Bay trapper had a great reluctance to tell them. His instinct to protect Jessie was strong.
"I've saved ye the trouble, Mr. West. The guilty yin was o' my ain family. Your young man will tell ye I've done a' the horsewhippin' that's necessary."
The big trail boss looked blackly at his helper. He would settle with Morse at the proper time. Now he had other business on hand.
"Come clean, McRae. Who was it? There'll be nothin' doin' till I know that," he growled.
West glared at him, for once astonished out of profanity.
"My daughter Jessie."
"Goddlemighty, d'ja mean to tell me a girl did it?" He threw back his head in a roar of Homeric laughter. "Ever hear the beat of that? A damn li'l' Injun squaw playin' her tricks on Bully West! If she was mine I'd tickle her back for it."
The eyes in the Scotchman's granite face flashed. "Man, can you never say twa-three words withoot profanity? This is a God-fearin' camp. There's nae place here for those who tak His name in vain."
"Smashed 'em with her own hands—is that what you mean? I'll give it to her that she's a plucky li'l' devil, even if she is a nitchie."
McRae reproved him stiffly. "You'll please to remember that you're talking of my daughter, Mr. West. I'll allow no such language aboot her. You're here to settle a business matter. What do ye put the damage at?"
They agreed on a price, to be paid in hides delivered at Whoop-Up. West turned and went straddling to the place where he and Morse had left their horses. On the way he came face to face with a girl, a lithe, dusky young creature, Indian brown, the tan of a hundred summer suns and winds painted on the oval of her lifted chin. She was carrying a package of sacks to the place where the pemmican was being made.
West's eyes narrowed. They traveled up and down her slender body. They gloated on her.
After one scornful glance which swept over and ignored Morse, the girl looked angrily at the man barring her way. Slowly the blood burned into her cheeks. For there was that in the trader's smoldering eyes that would have insulted any modest maiden.
"You Jessie McRae?" he demanded, struck of a sudden with an idea.
"You smashed my whiskey-barrels?"
"My father has told you. If he says so, isn't that enough?"
He slapped an immense hand on his thigh, hugely diverted. "You damn li'l' high-steppin' filly! Why? What in hell 'd I ever do to you?"
Angus McRae strode forward, eyes blazing. He had married a Cree woman, had paid for her to her father seven ponies, a yard of tobacco, and a bottle of whiskey. His own two-fisted sons were metis. The Indian in them showed more plainly than the Celt. Their father accepted the fact without resentment. But there was in his heart a queer feeling about the little lass he had adopted. Her light, springing step, the lift of the throat and the fearlessness of the eye, the instinct in her for cleanliness of mind and body, carried him back forty years to the land of heather, to a memory of the laird's daughter whom he had worshiped with the hopeless adoration of a red-headed gillie. It had been the one romance of his life, and somehow it had reincarnated itself in his love for the half-breed girl. To him it seemed a contradiction of nature that Jessie should be related to the flat-footed squaws who were slaves to their lords. He could not reconcile his heart to the knowledge that she was of mixed blood. She was too fine, too dainty, of too free and imperious a spirit.
"Your horses are up the hill, Mr. West," he said pointedly.
It is doubtful whether the trader heard. He could not keep his desirous eyes from the girl.
"Is she a half or a quarter-breed?" he asked McRae.
"That'll be her business and mine, sir. Will you please tak the road?" The hunter spoke quietly, restraining himself from an outbreak. But his voice carried an edge.
"By Gad, she's some clipper," West said, aloud to himself, just as though the girl had not been present.
"Will you leave my daughter oot o' your talk, man?" warned the Scotchman.
"What's ailin' you?" West's sulky, insolent eyes turned on the buffalo-hunter. "A nitchie's a nitchie. Me, I talk straight. But I aim to be reasonable too. I don't like a woman less because she's got the devil in her. Bully West knows how to tame 'em so they'll eat outa his hand. I've took a fancy to yore girl. Tha's right, McRae."
"You may go to the tent, Jessie," the girl's father told her. He was holding his temper in leash with difficulty.
"Wait a mo." The big trader held out his arm to bar the way. "Don't push on yore reins, McRae. I'm makin' you a proposition. Me, I'm lookin' for a wife, an' this here breed girl of yours suits me. Give her to me an' I'll call the whole thing square. Couldn't say fairer than that, could I?"
The rugged hunter looked at the big malformed border ruffian with repulsion. "Man, you gi'e me a scunner," he said. "Have done wi' this foolishness an' be gone. The lass is no' for you or the like o' you."
"Hell's hinges, you ain't standin' there tellin' me that a Cree breed is too good for Bully West, are you?" roared the big whiskey-runner.
"A hundred times too good for you. I'd rather see the lass dead in her coffin than have her life ruined by you," McRae answered in dead earnest.
"You don't get me right, Mac," answered the smuggler, swallowing his rage. "I know yore religious notions. We'll stand up before a sky pilot and have this done right. I aim to treat this girl handsome."
Jessie had turned away at her father's command. Now she turned swiftly upon the trader, eyes flashing. "I'd rather Father would drive a knife in my heart than let me be married to a wolfer!" she cried passionately.
His eyes, untrammeled by decency, narrowed to feast on the brown immature beauty of her youth.
"Tha' so?" he jeered. "Well, the time's comin' when you'll go down on yore pretty knees an' beg me not to leave you. It'll be me 'n' you one o' these days. Make up yore mind to that."
"Never! Never! I'd die first!" she exploded.
Bully West showed his broken, tobacco-stained teeth in a mirthless grin. "We'll see about that, dearie."
"March, lass. Your mother'll be needin' you," McRae said sharply.
The girl looked at West, then at Morse. From the scorn of that glance she might have been a queen and they the riffraff of the land. She walked to the tent. Not once did she look back.
"You've had your answer both from her and me. Let that be an end o' it," McRae said with finality.
The trader's anger ripped out in a crackle of obscene oaths. They garnished the questions that he snarled. "Wha's the matter with me? Why ain't I good enough for yore half-breed litter?"
It was a spark to gunpowder. The oaths, the insult, the whole degrading episode, combined to drive McRae out of the self-restraint he had imposed on himself. He took one step forward. With a wide sweep of the clenched fist he buffeted the smuggler on the ear. Taken by surprise, West went spinning against the wheel of a cart.
The man's head sank between his shoulders and thrust forward. A sound that might have come from an infuriated grizzly rumbled from the hairy throat. His hand reached for a revolver.
Morse leaped like a crouched cat. Both hands caught at West's arm. The old hunter was scarcely an instant behind him. His fingers closed on the wrist just above the weapon.
"Hands off," he ordered Morse. "This is no' your quarrel."
The youngster's eyes met the blazing blue ones of the Scot. His fingers loosened their hold. He stepped back.
The two big men strained. One fought with every ounce of power in him to twist the arm from him till the cords and sinews strained; the other to prevent this and to free the wrist. It was a test of sheer strength.
Each labored, breathing deep, his whole energy centered on cooerdinated effort of every muscle. They struggled in silence except for the snarling grunts of the whiskey-runner.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the wrist began to turn from McRae. Sweat beads gathered on West's face. He fought furiously to hold his own. But the arm turned inexorably.
The trader groaned. As the cords tightened and shoots of torturing pain ran up the arm, the huge body of the man writhed. The revolver fell from his paralyzed fingers. His wobbling knees sagged and collapsed.
McRae's fingers loosened as the man slid down and caught the bull-like throat. His grip tightened. West fought savagely to break it. He could as soon have freed himself from the clamp of a vice.
The Scotchman shook him till he was black in the face, then flung him reeling away.
"Get oot, ye yellow wolf!" he roared. "Or fegs! I'll break every bone in your hulkin' body. Oot o' my camp, the pair o' you!"
West, strangling, gasped for air, as does a catfish on the bank. He leaned on the cart wheel until he was able to stand. The help of Morse he brushed aside with a sputtered oath. His eyes never left the man who had beaten him. He snarled hike a whipped wolf. The hunter's metaphor had been an apt one. The horrible lust to kill was stamped on his distorted, grinning face, but for the present the will alone was not enough.
McRae's foot was on the revolver. His son Fergus, a swarthy, good-looking youngster, had come up and was standing quietly behind his father. Other hunters were converging toward their chief.
The Indian trader swore a furious oath of vengeance. Morse tried to lead him away.
"Some day I'll get yore squaw girl right, McRae, an' then God help her," he threatened.
The bully lurched straddling away.
Morse, a sardonic grin on his lean face, followed him over the hill.
MORSE JUMPS UP TROUBLE
"Threw me down, didn't you?" snarled West out of the corner of his mouth. "Knew all the time she did it an' never let on to me. A hell of a way to treat a friend."
Tom Morse said nothing. He made mental reservations about the word friend, but did not care to express them. His somber eyes watched the big man jerk the spade bit cruelly and rowel the bronco when it went into the air. It was a pleasure to West to torture an animal when no human was handy, though he preferred women and even men as victims.
"Whad he mean when he said you could tell me how he'd settled with her?" he growled.
"He whipped her last night when I took her back to camp."
"Took her back to camp, did you? Why didn't you bring her to me? Who's in charge of this outfit, anyhow, young fellow, me lad?"
"McRae's too big a man for us to buck. Too influential with the half-breeds. I figured it was safer to get her right home to him." The voice of the younger man was mild and conciliatory.
"You figured!" West's profanity polluted the clear, crisp morning air. "I got to have a run in with you right soon. I can see that. Think because you're C.N. Morse's nephew, you can slip yore funny business over on me. I'll show you."
The reddish light glinted for a moment in the eyes of Morse, but he said nothing. Young though he was, he had a capacity for silence. West was not sensitive to atmospheres, but he felt the force of this young man. It was not really in his mind to quarrel with him. For one thing he would soon be a partner in the firm of C.N. Morse & Company, of Fort Benton, one of the biggest trading outfits in the country. West could not afford to break with the Morse interests.
With their diminished cargo the traders pushed north. Their destination was Whoop-Up, at the junction of the Belly and the St. Mary's Rivers. This fort had become a rendezvous for all the traders within hundreds of miles, a point of supply for many small posts scattered along the rivers of the North.
Twelve oxen were hitched to each three-wagon load. Four teams had left Fort Benton together, but two of them had turned east toward Wood Mountain before the party was out of the Assiniboine country. West had pushed across Lonesome Prairie to the Sweet Grass Hills and from there over the line into Canada.
Under the best of conditions West was no pleasant traveling companion. Now he was in a state of continual sullen ill-temper. For the first time in his life he had been publicly worsted. Practically he had been kicked out of the buffalo camp, just as though he were a drunken half-breed and not one whose barroom brawls were sagas of the frontier.
His vanity was notorious, and it had been flagrantly outraged. He would never be satisfied until he had found a way to get his revenge. More than once his simmering anger leaped out at the young fellow who had been a witness of his defeat. In the main he kept his rage sulkily repressed. If Tom Morse wanted to tell of the affair with McRae, he could lessen the big man's prestige. West did not want that.
The outfit crossed the Milk River, skirted Pakoghkee Lake, and swung westward in the direction of the Porcupine Hills. Barney had been a trapper in the country and knew where the best grass was to be found. In many places the feed was scant. It had been cropped close by the great herds of buffalo roaming the plains. Most of the lakes were polluted by the bison, so that whenever possible their guide found camps by running water. The teams moved along the Belly River through the sand hills.
Tom Morse was a crack shot and did the hunting for the party. The evening before the train reached Whoop-Up, he walked out from camp to try for an antelope, since they were short of fresh meat. He climbed a small butte overlooking the stream. His keen eyes swept the panorama and came to rest on a sight he had never before seen and would never forget.
A large herd of buffalo had come down to the river crossing. They were swimming the stream against a strong current, their bodies low in the water and so closely packed that he could almost have stepped from one shaggy head to another. Not fifty yards from him they scrambled ashore and went lumbering into the hazy dusk. Something had frightened them and they were on a stampede. Even the river had not stopped their flight. The earth shook with their tread as they found their stride.
That wild flight into the gathering darkness was symbolic, Morse fancied. The vast herds were vanishing never to return. Were they galloping into the Happy Hunting Ground the Indians prayed for? What would come of their flight? When the plains knew them no more, how would the Sioux and the Blackfeet and the Piegans live? Would the Lonesome Lands become even more desolate than they were now?
"I wonder," he murmured aloud.
It is certain that he could have had no vision of the empire soon to be built out of the desert by himself and men of his stamp. Not even dimly could he have conceived a picture of the endless wheat-fields that would stretch across the plains, of the farmers who would pour into the North by hundreds of thousands, of the cities which would rise in the sand hills as a monument to man's restless push of progress and his indomitable hope. No living man's imagination had yet dreamed of the transformation of this terra incognita into one of the world's great granaries.
The smoke of the traders' camp-fire was curling up and drifting away into thin veils of film before the sun showed over the horizon hills. The bull-teams had taken up their steady forward push while the quails were still flying to and from their morning water-holes.
"Whoop-Up by noon," Barney predicted.
"Yes, by noon," Tom Morse agreed. "In time for a real sure-enough dinner with potatoes and beans and green stuff."
"Y' bet yore boots, an' honest to gosh gravy," added Brad Stearns, a thin and wrinkled little man whose leathery face and bright eyes defied the encroachment of time. He was bald, except for a fringe of grayish hair above the temples and a few long locks carefully disposed over his shiny crown. But nobody could have looked at him and called him old.
They were to be disappointed.
The teams struck the dusty road that terminated at the fort and were plodding along it to the crackling accompaniment of the long bull-whips.
"Soon now," Morse shouted to Stearns.
The little man nodded. "Mebbe they'll have green corn on the cob. Betcha the price of the dinner they do."
"You've made a bet, dad."
Stearns halted the leaders. "What's that? Listen."
The sound of shots drifted to them punctuated by faint, far yells. The shots did not come in a fusillade. They were intermittent, died down, popped out again, yielded to whoops in distant crescendo.
"Injuns," said Stearns. "On the peck, looks like. Crees and Blackfeet, maybe, but you never can tell. Better throw off the trail and dig in."
West had ridden up. He nodded. "Till we know where we're at. Get busy, boys."
They drew up the wagons in a semicircle, end to end, the oxen bunched inside, partially protected by a small cottonwood grove in the rear.
This done, West gave further orders. "We gotta find out what's doin'. Chances are it's nothin' but a coupla bunches of braves with a cargo of redeye aboard, Tom, you an' Brad scout out an' take a look-see. Don't be too venturesome. Soon's you find out what the rumpus is, hot-foot it back and report, y' understand." The big wolfer snapped out directions curtly. There was no more competent wagon boss in the border-land than he.
Stearns and Morse rode toward the fort. They deflected from the road and followed the river-bank to take advantage of such shrubbery as grew there. They moved slowly and cautiously, for in the Indian country one took no unnecessary chances. From the top of a small rise, shielded by a clump of willows, the two looked down on a field of battle already decided. Bullets and arrows were still flying, but the defiant, triumphant war-whoops of a band of painted warriors slowly moving toward them showed that the day was won and lost. A smaller group of Indians was retreating toward the swamp on the left-hand side of the road. Two or three dead braves lay in the grassy swale between the foes.
"I done guessed it, first crack," Brad said. "Crees and Blackfeet. They sure enough do mix it whenever they get together. The Crees ce'tainly got the jump on 'em this time."
It was an old story. From the northern woods the Crees had come down to trade at the fort. They had met a band of Blackfeet who had traveled up from the plains for the same purpose. Filled with bad liquor, the hereditary enemies had as usual adjourned to the ground outside for a settlement while the traders at the fort had locked the gates and watched the battle from the loopholes of the stockade.
"Reckon we better blow back to camp," suggested the old plainsman. "Mr. Cree may be feelin' his oats heap much. White man look all same Blackfeet to him like as not."
"Look." Morse pointed to a dip in the swale.
An Indian was limping through the brush, taking advantage of such cover as he could find. He was wounded. His leg dragged and he moved with difficulty.
"He'll be a good Injun mighty soon," Stearns said, rubbing his bald head as it shone in the sun. "Not a chance in the world for him. They'll git him soon as they reach the coulee. See. They're stoppin' to collect that other fellow's scalp."
At a glance Morse had seen the situation. This was none of his affair. It was tacitly understood that the traders should not interfere in the intertribal quarrels of the natives. But old Brad's words, "good Injun," had carried him back to a picture of a brown, slim girl flashing indignation because Americans treated her race as though only dead Indians were good ones. He could never tell afterward what was the rational spring of his impulse.
At the touch of the rein laid flat against its neck, the cow-pony he rode laid back its ears, turned like a streak of light, and leaped to a hand gallop. It swept down the slope and along the draw, gathering speed with every jump.
The rider let out a "Hi-yi-yi" to attract the attention of the wounded brave. Simultaneously the limping fugitive and the Crees caught sight of the flying horseman who had obtruded himself into the fire zone.
An arrow whistled past Morse. He saw a bullet throw up a spurt of dirt beneath the belly of his horse. The Crees were close to their quarry. They closed in with a run. Tom knew it would be a near thing. He slackened speed slightly and freed a foot from the stirrup, stiffening it to carry weight.
The wounded Indian crouched, began to run parallel with the horse, and leaped at exactly the right instant. His hand caught the sleeve of his rescuer at the same time that the flat of his foot dropped upon the white man's boot. A moment, and his leg had swung across the rump of the pony and he had settled to the animal's back.
So close was it that a running Cree snatched at the bronco's tail and was jerked from his feet before he could release his hold.
As the cow-pony went plunging up the slope, Morse saw Brad Stearns silhouetted against the sky-line at the summit. His hat was gone and his bald head was shining in the sun. He was pumping bullets from his rifle at the Crees surging up the hill after his companion.
Stearns swung his horse and jumped it to a lope. Side by side with Morse he went over the brow in a shower of arrows and slugs.
"Holy mackerel, boy! What's eatin' you?" he yelled. "Ain't you got any sense a-tall? Don't you know better 'n to jump up trouble thataway?"
"We're all right now," the younger man said. "They can't catch us."
The Crees were on foot and would be out of range by the time they reached the hilltop.
"Hmp! They'll come to our camp an' raise Cain. Why not? What business we got monkeyin' with their scalping sociables? It ain't neighborly."
"West won't like it," admitted Morse.
"He'll throw a cat fit. What do you aim to do with yore friend Mighty-Nigh-Lose-His-Scalp? If I know Bully—and you can bet a silver fox fur ag'in' a yard o' tobacco that I do—he won't give no glad hand to him. Not none."
Morse did not know what he meant to do with him. He had let an impulse carry him to quixotic action. Already he was half-sorry for it, but he was obstinate enough to go through now he had started.
When he realized the situation, Bully West exploded in language sulphurous. He announced his determination to turn the wounded man over to the Crees as soon as they arrived.
"No," said Morse quietly.
"I won't stand for that. They'd murder him."
"That any o' my business—or yours?"
"I'm makin' it mine."
The eyes of the two men crossed, as rapiers do, feeling out the strength back of them. The wounded Indian, tall and slender, stood straight as an arrow, his gaze now on one, now on the other. His face was immobile and expressionless. It betrayed no sign of the emotions within.
"Show yore cards, Morse," said West. "What's yore play? I'm goin' to tell the Crees to take him if they want him. You'll go it alone if you go to foggin' with a six-shooter."
The young man turned to the Indian he had rescued. He waved a hand toward the horse from which they had just dismounted. "Up!" he ordered.
The Indian youth caught the point instantly. Without using the stirrups he vaulted to the saddle, light as a mountain lion. His bare heels dug into the sides of the animal, which was off as though shot out of a gun.
Horse and rider skirted the cottonwoods and disappeared in a depression beyond.
"SOMETHING ABOUT THESE GUYS"
West glared at Morse, his heavy chin outthrust, his bowed legs wide apart. "You've done run on the rope long enough with me, young feller. Here's where you take a fall hard."
The younger man said nothing. He watched, warily. Was it to be a gun-play? Or did the big bully mean to manhandle him? Probably the latter. West was vain of his reputation as a two-fisted fighter.
"I'm gonna beat you up, then turn you over to the Crees," the infuriated man announced.
"You can't do that, West. He's a white man same as you," protested Stearns.
"This yore put-in, Brad?" West, beside himself with rage, swung on the little man and straddled forward a step or two threateningly.
"You done said it," answered the old-timer, falling back. "An' don't you come closter. I'm liable to get scared, an' you'd ought not to forget I'm as big as you behind a six-shooter."
"Here they come—like a swarm o' bees!" yelled Barney.
The traders forgot, for the moment, their quarrel in the need of common action. West snatched up a rifle and dropped a bullet in front of the nearest Indian. The warning brought the Crees up short. They held a long consultation and one of them came forward making the peace sign.
In pigeon English he expressed their demands.
"He's gone—lit right out—stole one of our broncs. You can search the camp if you've a mind to," West replied.
The envoy reported. There was another long pow-wow.
Brad, chewing tobacco complacently behind a wagon wheel, commented aloud. "Can't make up their minds whether to come on an' massacree us or not. They got a right healthy fear of our guns. Don't blame 'em a bit."
Some of the Crees were armed with bows and arrows, others with rifles. But the trade guns sold the Indians of the Northern tribes were of the poorest quality.
[Footnote 4: These flintlock muskets were inaccurate. They would not carry far. Their owners were in constant danger of having fingers or a hand blown off in explosions. The price paid for these cheap firearms was based on the length of them. The butt was put on the floor and the gun held upright. Skins laid flat were piled beside it till they reached the muzzle. The trader exchanged the rifle for the furs. (W.M.R.)]
The whites, to the contrary, were armed with the latest repeating Winchesters. In a fight with them the natives were at a terrible disadvantage.
The Crees realized this. A delegation of two came forward to search the camp. West pointed out the tracks of the horse upon which their tribal enemy had ridden away.
They grunted, "Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!"
Overbearing though he was, West was an embryonic diplomat. He filled a water-bucket with whiskey and handed it, with a tin cup, to the wrinkled old brave nearest him.
"For our friends the Crees," he said. "Tell your chief my young man didn't understand. He thought he was rescuing a Cree from the Blackfeet."
"Ugh! Ugh!" The Indians shuffled away with their booty.
There was more talk, but the guttural protests died away before the temptation of the liquor. The braves drank, flung a few shots in bravado toward the wagons, and presently took themselves off.
The traders did not renew their quarrel. West's reasons for not antagonizing the Morse family were still powerful as ever. He subdued his desire to punish the young man and sullenly gave orders to hitch up the teams.
It was mid-afternoon when the oxen jogged into Whoop-Up. The post was a stockade fort, built in a square about two hundred yards long, of cottonwood logs dovetailed together. The buildings on each side of the plaza faced inward. Loopholes had been cut in the bastions as a protection against Indians.
In the big stores was a large supply of blankets, beads, provisions, rifles, and clothing. The adjacent rooms were half-empty now, but in the spring they would be packed to the eaves with thousands of buffalo robes and furs brought in from outlying settlements by hunters. Later these would be hauled to Fort Benton and from there sent down the Missouri to St. Louis and other points.
Morse, looking round, missed a familiar feature.
"Where's the liquor?" he asked.
"S-sh!" warned the clerk with whom he was talking. "Haven't you heard? There's a bunch of police come into the country from Winnipeg. The lid's on tight." His far eye drooped to the cheek in a wise wink. "If you've brought in whiskey, you'd better get it out of the fort and bury it."
"That's up to West. I wouldn't advise any police to monkey with a cargo of his."
"You don't say." The clerk's voice was heavy with sarcasm. "Well, I'll just make a li'l' bet with you. If the North-West Mounted start to arrest Bully West or to empty his liquor-kegs, they'll go right through with the job. They're go-getters, these red-coats are."
"Red-coats? Not soldiers, are they?"
"Well, they are and they ain't. They're drilled an' in companies. But they can arrest any one they've a mind to, and their officers can try and sentence folks. They don't play no favorites either. Soon as they hear of this mix-up between the Crees and the Blackfeet they'll be right over askin' whyfors, and if they find who gave 'em the booze some one will be up to the neck in trouble and squawkin' for help."
West had been talking in whispers with Reddy Madden, the owner of the place. He stepped to the door.
"Don't onhook, Brad. We're travelin' some more first," he called to Stearns.
The oxen plodded out of the stockade and swung to the left. A guide rode beside West and Morse. He was Harvey Gosse, a whiskey-runner known to both of them. The man was a long, loose-limbed fellow with a shrewd eye and the full, drooping lower lip of irresolution. It had been a year since either of the Fort Benton men had been in the country. Gosse told them of the change that was taking place in it.
"Business ain't what it was, an' that ain't but half of it," the lank rider complained regretfully. "It ain't ever gonna be any more. These here red-coats are plumb ruinin' trade. Squint at a buck cross-eyed, whisper rum to him, an' one o' these guys jumps a-straddle o' yore neck right away."
"How many of these—what is it you call 'em, Mounted Police?—well, how many of 'em are there in the country?" asked West.
"Not so many. I reckon a hundred or so, far as I've heard tell."
West snorted scornfully. "And you're lettin' this handful of tenderfeet buffalo you! Hell's hinges! Ain't none of you got any guts?"
Gosse dragged slowly a brown hand across an unshaven chin. "I reckon you wouldn't call 'em tenderfeet if you met up with 'em, Bully. There's something about these guys—I dunno what it is exactly—but there's sure something that tells a fellow not to prod 'em overly much."
"Quick on the shoot?" the big trader wanted to know.
"No, it ain't that. They don't hardly ever draw a gun. They jest walk in kinda quiet an' easy, an' tell you it'll be thisaway. And tha's the way it is every crack outa the box."
"Hmp!" West exuded boastful incredulity. "I reckon they haven't bumped into any one man-size yet."
The lank whiskey-runner guided the train, by winding draws, into the hills back of the post. Above a small gulch, at the head of it, the teams were stopped and unloaded. The barrels were rolled downhill into the underbrush where they lay cached out of sight. From here they would be distributed as needed.
"You boys'll take turn an' turn about watching till I've sold the cargo," West announced. "Arrange that among yoreselves. Tom, I'll let you fix up how you'll spell each other. Only thing is, one of you has to be here all the time, y' understand."
Morse took the first watch and was followed by Stearns, who in turn gave place to Barney. The days grew to a week. Sometimes West appeared with a buyer in a cart or leading a pack-horse. Then the cached fire-water would be diminished by a keg or two.
It was a lazy, sleepy life. There was no need for a close guard. Nobody knew where the whiskey was except themselves and a few tight-mouthed traders. Morse discovered in himself an inordinate capacity for sleep. He would throw himself down on the warm, sundried grass and fall into a doze almost instantly. When the rays of the sun grew too hot, it was easy to roll over into the shade of the draw. He could lie for hours on his back after he wakened and watch cloud-skeins elongate and float away, thinking of nothing or letting thoughts happen in sheer idle content.
He had never had a girl, to use the word current among his fellows. His scheme of life would, he supposed, include women by and by, but hitherto he had dwelt in a man's world, in a universe of space and sunshine and blowing wind, under primitive conditions that made for tough muscles and a clean mind trained to meet frontier emergencies. But now, to his disgust, he found slipping into his reveries pictures of a slim, dark girl, arrow-straight, with eyes that held for him only scorn and loathing. The odd thing about it was that when his brain was busy with her a strange exultant excitement tingled through his veins.
One day a queer thing happened. He had never heard of psychic phenomena or telepathy, but he opened his eyes from a day-dream of her to see Jessie McRae looking down at him.
She was on an Indian cayuse, round-bellied and rough. Very erect she sat, and on her face was the exact expression of scornful hatred he had seen in his vision of her.
He jumped to his feet. "You—here!"
A hot color flooded her face with anger to the roots of the hair. Without a word, without another glance at him, she laid the bridle rein to the pony's neck and swung away.
Unprotesting, he let her go. The situation had jumped at him too unexpectedly for him to know how to meet it. He stood, motionless, the red light in his eyes burning like distant camp-fires in the night. For the first time in his life he had been given the cut direct by a woman.
Yet she wasn't a woman after all. She was a maid, with that passionate sense of tragedy which comes only to the very young.
It was in his mind to slap a saddle on his bronco and ride after her. But why? Could he by sheer dominance of will change her opinion of him? She had grounded it on good and sufficient reasons. He was associated in her mind with the greatest humiliation of her life, with the stinging lash that had cut into her young pride and her buoyant courage as cruelly as it had into her smooth, satiny flesh. Was it likely she would listen to any regrets, any explanations? Her hatred of him was not a matter for argument. It was burnt into her soul as with a red-hot brand. He could not talk away what he had done or the thing that he was.
She had come upon him by chance while he was asleep. He guessed that Angus McRae's party had reached Whoop-Up and had stopped to buy supplies and perhaps to sell hides and pemmican. The girl had probably ridden out from the stockade to the open prairie because she loved to ride. The rest needed no conjecture. In that lone land of vast spaces travelers always exchanged greetings. She had discovered him lying in the grass. He might be sick or wounded or dead. The custom of the country would bring her straight across the swales toward him to find out whether he needed help.
Then she had seen who he was—and had ridden away.
A sardonic smile of self-mockery stamped for a moment on his brown boyish face the weariness of the years.
THE MAN IN THE SCARLET JACKET
Morse ambled out at a road gait to take his turn at guard duty. He was following the principle that the longest way round is the shortest road to a given place. The reason for this was to ward off any suspicion that might have arisen if the watchers had always come and gone by the same trail. Therefore they started for any point of the compass, swung round in a wide detour, and in course of time arrived at the cache.
There wasn't any hurry anyhow. Each day had twenty-four hours, and a fellow lived just as long if he didn't break his neck galloping along with his tail up like a hill steer on a stampede.
To-day Morse dropped in toward the cache from due west. His eyes were open, even if the warmth of the midday sun did make him sleepy. Something he saw made him slip from the saddle, lead his horse into a draw, and move forward very carefully through the bunch grass.
What he had seen was a man crouched behind some brush, looking down into the little gorge where the whiskey cache was—a man in leather boots, tight riding-breeches, scarlet jacket, and jaunty forage cap. It needed no second glance to tell Tom Morse that the police had run down the place where they had hidden their cargo.
From out of the little canon a man appeared. He was carrying a keg of whiskey. The man was Barney. West had no doubt sent word to him that he would shortly bring a buyer with him to the rendezvous.
The man in the scarlet jacket rose and stepped out into the open. He was a few feet from Barney. In his belt there was a revolver, but he did not draw it.
Barney stopped and stared at him, his mouth open, eyes bulging. "Where in Heligoland you come from?" he asked.
"From Sarnia, Ontario," the red-coat answered. "Glad to meet you, friend. I've been looking for you several days."
"For me!" said Barney blankly.
"For you—and for that keg of forty-rod you're carrying. No, don't drop it. We can talk more comfortably while both your hands are busy." The constable stepped forward and picked from the ground a rifle. "I've been lying in the brush two hours waiting for you to get separated from this. Didn't want you making any mistakes in your excitement."
"Mistakes!" repeated Barney.
"Yes. You're under arrest, you know, for whiskey-smuggling."
"You're one of these here border police." Barney used the rising inflection in making his statement.
"Constable Winthrop Beresford, North-West Mounted, at your service," replied the officer jauntily. He was a trim, well-set-up youth, quick of step and crisp of speech.
"What you gonna do with me?"
"Take you to Fort Macleod."
It was perhaps because his eyes were set at not quite the right angles and because they were so small and wolfish that Barney usually aroused distrust. He suggested now, with an ingratiating whine in his voice, that he would like to see a man at Whoop-Up first.
"Jes' a li'l' matter of business," he added by way of explanation.
The constable guessed at his business. The man wanted to let his boss know what had taken place and to give him a chance to rescue him if he would. Beresford's duty was to find out who was back of this liquor running. It would be worth while knowing what man Barney wanted to talk with. He could afford to take a chance on the rescue.
"Righto," he agreed. "You may put that barrel down now."
Barney laid it down, end up. With one sharp drive of the rifle butt the officer broke in the top of the keg, He kicked the barrel over with his foot.
This was the moment Morse chose for putting in an appearance.
"Hello! What's doin'?" he asked casually.
Beresford, cool and quiet, looked straight at him. "I'll ask you that."
"Kinda expensive to irrigate the prairie that way, ain't it?"
"Doesn't cost me anything. How about you?"
Morse laughed at the question fired back at him so promptly. This young man was very much on the job. "Not a bean," the Montanan said.
"Good. Then you'll enjoy the little show I'm putting on—five thousand dollars' worth of liquor spilt all at one time."
"Holy Moses! Where is this blind tiger you're raidin'?"
"Down in the gully. Lucky you happened along just by chance. You'll be able to carry the good news to Whoop-Up and adjacent points."
"You're not really aimin' to spill all that whiskey."
"That's my intention. Any objections?" The scarlet-coated officer spoke softly, without any edge to his voice. But Tom began to understand why the clerk at the trading-post had called the Mounted Police go-getters. This smooth-shaven lad, so easy and carefree of manner, had a gleam in his eye that meant business. His very gentleness was ominous.
Tom Morse reflected swiftly. His uncle's firm had taken a chance of this very finale when it had sent a convoy of liquor into forbidden territory. Better to lose the stock than to be barred by the Canadian Government from trading with the Indians at all. This officer was not one to be bribed or bullied. He would go through with the thing he had started.
"Why, no! How could I have any objections?" Morse said.
He shot a swift, slant look at Barney, a look that told the Irishman to say nothing and know nothing, and that he would be protected against the law.
"Glad you haven't," Constable Beresford replied cheerfully—so very cheerfully in fact that Morse suspected he would not have been much daunted if objections had been mentioned. "Perhaps you'll help me with my little job, then."
The trader grinned. He might as well go the limit with the bluff he was playing. "Sure. I'll help you make a fourth o' July outa the kegs. Lead me to 'em."
"You don't know where they are, of course?"
"In the gully, you said," Morse replied innocently
"So I did. Righto. Down you go, then." The constable turned to Barney. "You next, friend."
A well-defined trail led down the steep side of the gulch. It ended in a thick growth of willow saplings. Underneath the roof of this foliage were more than a score of whiskey-casks.
After ten minutes with the rifle butt there was nothing to show for the cache but broken barrels and a trough of wet sand where the liquor had run down the bed of the dry gully.
It was time, Morse thought, to play his own small part in the entertainment.
"After you, gentlemen," Beresford said, stepping aside to let them take the trail up.
Morse too moved back to let Barney pass. The eyes of the two men met for a fraction of a second. Tom's lips framed silently one word. In that time a message was given and received.
The young man followed Barney, the constable at his heels. Morse stumbled, slipped to all fours, and slid back. He flung out his arms to steady himself and careened back against the constable. His flying hands caught at the scarlet coat. His bent head and shoulders thrust Beresford back and down.
Barney started to run.
The officer struggled to hold his footing against the awkward incubus, to throw the man off so that he could pursue Barney. His efforts were vain. Morse, evidently trying to regain his equilibrium, plunged wildly at him and sent him ploughing into the willows. The Montanan landed heavily on top, pinned him down, and smothered him.
The scarlet coat was a center of barrel hoops, bushes, staves, and wildly jerking arms and legs.
Morse made heroic efforts to untangle himself from the clutter. Once or twice he extricated himself almost, only to lose his balance on the slippery bushes and come skating down again on the officer just as he was trying to rise.
It was a scene for a moving-picture comedy, if the screen had been a feature of that day.
When at last the two men emerged from the gulch, Barney was nowhere to be seen. With him had vanished the mount of Beresford.
The constable laughed nonchalantly. He had just lost a prisoner, which was against the unwritten law of the Force, but he had gained another in his place. It would not be long till he had Barney too.
"Pretty work," he said appreciatively. "You couldn't have done it better if you'd done it on purpose, could you?"
"Done what?" asked Morse, with bland naivete.
"Made a pillow and a bed of me, skated on me, bowled me over like a tenpin."
"I ce'tainly was awkward. Couldn't get my footin' at all, seemed like. Why, where's Barney?" Apparently the trader had just made a discovery.
"Ask of the winds, 'Oh, where?'" Beresford dusted off his coat, his trousers, and his cap. When he had removed the evidence of the battle of the gulch, he set his cap at the proper angle and cocked an inquiring eye at the other. "I suppose you know you're under arrest."
"Why, no! Am I? What for? Which of the statues, laws, and ordinances of Queen Vic have I been bustin' without knowin' of them?"
"For aiding and abetting the escape of a prisoner."
"Did I do all that? And when did I do it?"
"While you were doing that war-dance on what was left of my manhandled geography."
"Can you arrest a fellow for slippin'?"
"Depends on how badly he slips. I'm going to take a chance on arresting you, anyhow."
"Gonna take away my six-shooter and handcuff me?"
"I'll take your revolver. If necessary, I'll put on the cuffs."
Morse looked at him, not without admiration. The man in the scarlet jacket wasted nothing. There was about him no superfluity of build, of gesture, of voice. Beneath the close-fitting uniform the muscles rippled and played when he moved. His shoulders and arms were those of a college oarsman. Lean-flanked and clean-limbed, he was in the hey-day of a splendid youth. It showed in the steady eyes set wide in the tanned face, in the carriage of the close-cropped, curly head, in the spring of the step. The Montanan recognized in him a kinship of dynamic force.
"Just what would I be doing?" the whiskey-runner asked, smiling.
Beresford met his smile. "I fancy I'll find that out pretty soon. Your revolver, please." He held out his hand, palm up.
"Let's get this straight. We're man to man. What'll you do if I find I've got no time to go to Fort Macleod with you?"
"Take you with me."
"Dead or alive?"
"And if I won't go?" asked Morse.
"Oh, you'll go." The officer's bearing radiated a quiet, imperturbable confidence. His hand was still extended, "If you please."
"No hurry. Do you know what you're up against? When I draw this gun I can put a bullet through your head and ride away?"
"Unless, of course, you plug me first."
"Can't do that. Against the regulations."
"Much obliged for that information. You've got only a dead man's chance then—if I show fight."
"Better not. Game hardly worth the candle. My pals would run you down," the constable advised coolly.
"You still intend to arrest me?"
As Morse looked at him, patient as an animal of prey, steady, fearless, an undramatic Anglo-Saxon who meant to go through with the day's work, he began to understand the power that was to make the North-West Mounted Police such a force in the land. The only way he could prevent this man from arresting him was to kill the constable; and if he killed him, other jaunty red-coated youths would come to kill or be killed. It came to him that he was up against a new order which would wipe Bully West and his kind from the land.
He handed his revolver to Beresford. "I'll ride with you."
"Good. Have to borrow your horse till we reach Whoop-Up. You won't mind walking?"
"Not at all. Some folks think that's what legs were made for," answered Morse, grinning.
As he strode across the prairie beside the horse, Morse was still puzzling over the situation. He perceived that the strength of the officer's position was wholly a moral one. A lawbreaker was confronted with an ugly alternative. The only way to escape arrest was to commit murder. Most men would not go that far, and of those who would the great majority would be deterred because eventually punishment was sure. The slightest hesitation, the least apparent doubt, a flicker of fear on the officer's face, would be fatal to success. He won because he serenely expected to win, and because there was back of him a silent, impalpable force as irresistible as the movement of a glacier.
Beresford must have known that the men who lived at Whoop-Up were unfriendly to the North-West Mounted. Some of them had been put out of business. Their property had been destroyed and confiscated. Fines had been imposed on them. The current whisper was that the whiskey-smugglers would retaliate against the constables in person whenever there was a chance to do so with impunity. Some day a debonair wearer of the scarlet coat would ride out gayly from one of the forts and a riderless horse would return at dusk. There were outlaws who would ask nothing better than a chance to dry-gulch one of these inquisitive riders of the plains.
But Beresford rode into the stockade and swung from the saddle with smiling confidence. He nodded here and there casually to dark, sullen men who watched his movements with implacably hostile eyes.
His words were addressed to Reddy Madden. "Can you let me have a horse for a few days and charge it to the Force? I've lost mine."
Some one sniggered offensively. Barney had evidently reached Whoop-Up and was in hiding.
"Your horse came in a while ago, constable," Madden said civilly. "It's in the corral back of the store."
"Did it come in without a rider?" Beresford asked.
The question was unnecessary. The horse would have gone to Fort Macleod and not have come to Whoop-Up unless a rider had guided it here. But sometimes one found out things from unwilling witnesses if one asked questions.
"Didn't notice. I was in the store myself."
"Thought perhaps you hadn't noticed," the officer said. "None of you other gentlemen noticed either, did you?"
The "other gentlemen" held a dogged, sulky silence. A girl cantered through the gate of the stockade and up to the store. At sight of Morse her eyes passed swiftly to Beresford. His answered smilingly what she had asked. It was all over in a flash, but it told the man from Montana who the informer was that had betrayed to the police the place of the whiskey cache.
To the best of her limited chance, Jessie McRae was paying an installment on the debt she owed Bully West and Tom Morse.
AT SWEET WATER CREEK
Before a fire of buffalo chips Constable Beresford and his prisoner smoked the pipe of peace. Morse sat on his heels, legs crossed, after the manner of the camper. The officer lounged at full length, an elbow dug into the sand as a support for his head. The Montanan was on parole, so that for the moment at least their relations were forgotten.
"After the buffalo—what?" asked the American. "The end of the Indian—is that what it means? And desolation on the plains. Nobody left but the Hudson's Bay Company trappers, d'you reckon?"
The Canadian answered in one word. "Cattle."
"Some, maybe," Morse assented. "But, holy Moses, think of the millions it would take to stock this country."
"Bet you the country's stocked inside of five years of the time the buffalo are cleared out. Look at what the big Texas drives are doing in Colorado and Wyoming and Montana. Get over the idea that this land up here is a desert. That's a fool notion our school geographies are responsible for. Great American Desert? Great American fiddlesticks! It's a man's country, if you like; but I've yet to see the beat of it."
Morse had ceased to pay attention. His head was tilted, and he was listening.
"Some one ridin' this way," he said presently. "Hear the hoofs click on the shale. Who is it? I wonder. An' what do they want? When folks' intentions hasn't been declared it's a good notion to hold a hand you can raise on."
Without haste and without delay Beresford got to his feet. "We'll step back into the shadow," he announced.
"Looks reasonable to me," agreed the smuggler.
They waited in the semi-darkness back of the camp-fire.
Some one shouted. "Hello, the camp!" At the sound of that clear, bell-like voice Morse lifted his head to listen better.
The constable answered the call.
Two riders came into the light. One was a girl, the other a slim, straight young Indian in deerskin shirt and trousers. The girl swung from the saddle and came forward to the camp-fire. The companion of her ride shadowed her.
Beresford and his prisoner advanced from the darkness.
"Bully West's after you. He's sworn to kill you," the girl called to the constable.
"How do you know?"
"Onistah heard him." She indicated with a wave of her hand the lithe-limbed youth beside her. "Onistah was passing the stable—behind it, back of the corral. This West was gathering a mob to follow you—said he was going to hang you for destroying his whiskey."
"He is, eh?" Beresford's salient jaw set. His light blue eyes gleamed hard and chill. He would see about that.
"They'll be here soon. This West was sure you'd camp here at Sweet Water Creek, close to the ford." A note of excitement pulsed in the girl's voice. "We heard 'em once behind us on the road. You'd better hurry."
The constable swung toward the Montanan. His eyes bored into those of the prisoner. Would this man keep his parole or not? He would find out pretty soon.
"Saddle up, Morse. I'll pack my kit. We'll hit the trail."
"Listen." Jessie stood a moment, head lifted. "What's that?"
Onistah moved a step forward, so that for a moment the firelight flickered over the copper-colored face. Tom Morse made a discovery. This man was the Blackfoot he had rescued from the Crees.
"Horses," the Indian said, and held up the fingers of both hands to indicate the numbers. "Coming up creek. Here soon."
"We'll move back to the big rocks and I'll make a stand there," the officer told the whiskey-runner. "Slap the saddles on without cinching. We've got no time to lose." His voice lost its curtness as he turned to the girl. "Miss McRae, I'll not forget this. Very likely you've saved my life. Now you and Onistah had better slip away quietly. You mustn't be seen here."
"Why mustn't I?" she asked quickly. "I don't care who sees me."
She looked at Morse as she spoke, head up, with that little touch of scornful defiance in the quivering nostrils that seemed to express a spirit free and unafraid. The sense of superiority is generally not a lovely manifestation in any human being, but there are moments when it tells of something fine, a disdain of actions low and mean.
Morse strode away to the place where the horses were picketed. He could hear voices farther down the creek, caught once a snatch of words.
"... must be somewheres near, I tell you."
Noiselessly he slipped on the saddles, pulled the picket-pins, and moved toward the big rocks.
The place was a landmark. The erosion of the ages had played strange tricks with the sandstone. The rocks rose like huge red toadstools or like prehistoric animals of vast size. One of them was known as the Three Bears, another as the Elephant.
Among these boulders Morse found the party he had just left. The officer was still trying to persuade Jessie McRae to attempt escape. She refused, stubbornly.
"There are three of us here. Onistah is a good shot. So am I. For that matter, if anybody is going to escape, it had better be you," she said.
"Too late now," Morse said. "See, they've found the camp-fire."
Nine or ten riders had come out of the darkness and were approaching the camping-ground. West was in the lead. Morse recognized Barney and Brad Stearns. Two of the others were half-breeds, one an Indian trailer of the Piegan tribe.
"He must 'a' heard us comin' and pulled out," Barney said.
"Then he's back in the red rocks," boomed West triumphantly.
"Soon find out." Brad Stearns turned the head of his horse toward the rocks and shouted. "Hello, Tom! You there?"
No answer came from the rocks.
"Don't prove a thing," West broke out impatiently. "This fellow's got Tom buffaloed. Didn't he make him smash the barrels? Didn't he take away his six-gun from him and bring him along like he hadn't any mind of his own? Tom's yellow. Got a streak a foot wide."
"Nothin' of the kind," denied Stearns, indignation in his voice. "I done brought up that boy by hand—learned him all he knows about ridin' and ropin'. He'll do to take along."
"Hmp! He always fooled you, Brad. Different here. I'm aimin' to give him the wallopin' of his life when I meet up with him. And that'll be soon, if he's up there in the rocks. I'm goin' a-shootin'." Bully West drew his revolver and rode forward.
The constable had disposed of his forces so that behind the cover of the sandstone boulders they commanded the approach. He had tried to persuade Jessie that this was not her fight, but a question from her had silenced him.
"If that Bully West finds me here, after he's killed you, d' you think I can get him to let me go because it wasn't my fight?"
She had asked it with flashing eyes, in which for an instant he had seen the savagery of fear leap out. Beresford was troubled. The girl was right enough. If West went the length of murder, he would be an outlaw. Sleeping Dawn would not be safe with him after she had ridden out to warn his enemy that he was coming. The fellow was a primeval brute. His reputation had run over the whole border country of Rupert's Land.
Now he appealed to Morse. "If they get me, will you try to save Miss McRae? This fellow West is a devil, I hear."
The officer caught a gleam of hot red eyes. "I'll 'tend to that. We'll mix first, him 'n' me. Question now is, do I get a gun?"
"Didn't you hear him make his brags about what he was gonna do to me? If there's shootin' I'm in on it, ain't I?"
"No. You're a prisoner. I can't arm you unless your life is in danger."
West pulled up his horse about sixty yards from the rocks. He shouted a profane order. The purport of it was that Beresford had better come out with his hands up if he didn't want to be dragged out by a rope around his neck. The man's speech crackled with oaths and obscenity.
The constable stepped into the open a few yards. "What do you want?" he asked.
"You." The whiskey-runner screamed it in a sudden gust of passion. "Think you can make a fool of Bully West? Think you can bust up our cargo an' get away with it? I'll show you where you head in at."
"Don't make any mistake, West," advised the officer, his voice cold as the splash of ice-water. "Three of us are here, all with rifles, all dead shots. If you attack us, some of you are going to get killed."
"Tha's a lie. You're alone—except for Tom Morse, an' he ain't fool enough to fight to go to jail. I've got you where I want you." West swung from the saddle and came straddling forward. In the uncertain light he looked more like some misbegotten ogre than a human being.
"That's far enough," warned Beresford, not a trace of excitement in manner or speech. His hands hung by his sides. He gave no sign of knowing that he had a revolver strapped to his hip ready for action.
The liquor smuggler stopped to pour out abuse. He was working himself up to a passion that would justify murder. The weapon in his hand swept wildly back and forth. Presently it would focus down to a deadly concentration in which all motion would cease.
The torrent of vilification died on the man's lips. He stared past the constable with bulging eyes. From the rocks three figures had come. Two of them carried rifles. All three of them he recognized. His astonishment paralyzed the scurrilous tongue. What was McRae's girl doing at the camp of the officer?
It was characteristic of him that he suspected the worst of her. Either Tom Morse or this red-coat had beaten him to his prey. Jealousy and outraged vanity flared up in him so that discretion vanished.
The barrel of his revolver came down and began to spit flame.
Beresford gave orders. "Back to the rocks." He retreated, backward, firing as he moved.
The companions of West surged forward. Shots, shouts, the shifting blur of moving figures, filled the night. Under cover of the darkness the defenders reached again the big rocks.
The constable counted noses. "Everybody all right?" he asked. Then, abruptly, he snapped out: "Who was responsible for that crazy business of you coming out into the open?"