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  • 1922
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narrowed eyes watching her with the vigilant patience of the panther he sometimes made her think of. Presently he forced a reentry.

“What’s this I hear about Bully West escaping from jail?”

Fergus answered. “Two-three weeks ago. Killed a guard, they say. He was headin’ west an’ north last word they had of him.”

All of them were thinking the same thing, that the man would reach Faraway if he could, lie hidden till he had rustled an outfit, then strike out with a dog team deeper into the Lone Lands.

“Here’s wishin’ him luck,” his partner said coolly.

“All the luck he deserves,” amended Morse quietly.

“You can’t keep a good man down,” Whaley boasted, looking straight at the other Indian trader. “I wouldn’t wonder but what he’ll pay a few debts when he gets here.”

Tom smiled and offered another suggestion. “If he gets here and has time. He’ll have to hurry.”

His gaze shifted across the room to Beresford, alert, gay, indomitable, and as implacable as fate.

CHAPTER XVI

A BUSINESS DEAL

It was thirty below zero. The packed snow crunched under the feet of Morse as he moved down what served Faraway for a main street. The clock in the store registered mid-afternoon, but within a few minutes the sub-Arctic sun would set, night would fall, and aurora lights would glow in the west.

Four false suns were visible around the true one, the whole forming a cross of five orbs. Each of these swam in perpendicular segments of a circle of prismatic colors. Even as the young man looked, the lowest of the cluster lights plunged out of sight. By the time he had reached the McRae house, darkness hung over the white and frozen land.

Jessie opened the door to his knock and led him into the living-room of the family, where also the trapper’s household ate and Fergus slept. It was a rough enough place, with its mud-chinked log walls and its floor of whipsawed lumber. But directly opposite the door was a log-piled hearth that radiated comfort and cheerfulness. Buffalo robes served as rugs and upon the walls had been hung furs of silver fox, timber wolves, mink, and beaver. On a shelf was a small library of not more than twenty-five books, but they were ones that only a lover of good reading would have chosen. Shakespeare and Burns held honored places there. Scott’s poems and three or four of his novels were in the collection. In worn leather bindings were “Tristram Shandy,” and Smollett’s “Complete History of England.” Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” shouldered Butler’s “Hudibras” and Baxter’s “The Saint’s Everlasting Rest.” Into this choice company one frivolous modern novel had stolen its way. “Nicholas Nickleby” had been brought from Winnipeg by Jessie when she returned from school. The girl had read them all from cover to cover, most of them many times. Angus too knew them all, with the exception of the upstart “storybook” written by a London newspaper man of whom he had never before heard.

“I’m alone,” Jessie explained. “Father and Fergus have gone out to the traps. They’ll not be back till to-morrow. Mother’s with Mrs. Whaley.”

Tom knew that the trader’s wife was not well. She was expecting to be confined in a few weeks.

He was embarrassed at being alone with the girl inside the walls of a house. His relations with Angus McRae reached civility, but not cordiality. The stern old Scotchman had never invited him to drop in and call. He resented the fact that through the instrumentality of Morse he had been forced to horsewhip the lass he loved, and the trader knew he was not forgiven his share in the episode and probably never would be. Now Tom had come only because a matter of business had to be settled one way or the other at once.

“Blandoine is leavin’ for Whoop-Up in the mornin’. I came to see your father about those robes. If we buy, it’ll have to be now. I can send ’em down with Blandoine,” he explained.

She nodded, briskly. “Father said you could have them at your price if you’ll pay what he asked for those not split. They’re good hides–cows and young bulls.”[5]

[Footnote 5: A split robe was one cut down the middle and sewn together with sinews. The ones skinned from the animal in a single piece were much more valuable, but the native women usually prepared the hides the other way because of the weight in handling. One of the reasons the Indians gave the missionaries in favor of polygamy was that one wife could not dress a buffalo robe without assistance. The braves themselves did not condescend to menial labor of this kind. (W.M.R.)]

“It’s a deal,” the fur-trader said promptly. “Glad to get ’em, though I’m payin’ all I can afford for the split ones.”

“I’ll get the key to the storehouse,” Jessie said.

She walked out of the room with the springy, feather-footed step that distinguished her among all the women that he knew. In a few moments she was back. Instead of giving him the key, she put it down on the table near his hand.

Beneath the tan the dark blood beat into his face. He knew she had done this in order not to run the risk of touching him.

For a long moment his gaze gripped and held her. Between them passed speech without words. His eyes asked if he were outside the pale completely, if he could never wipe out the memory of that first cruel meeting. Hers answered proudly that, half-breed though she was, he was to her only a wolfer, of less interest than Black, the leader of her father’s dog train.

He picked up the key and left, wild thoughts whirling through his mind. He loved her. Of what use was it trying longer to disguise it from himself. Of the inferior blood she might be, yet his whole being went out to her in deep desire. He wanted her for his mate. He craved her in every fiber of his clean, passionate manhood, as he had never before longed for a woman in his life. And she hated him–hated him with all the blazing scorn of a young proud soul whose fine body had endured degradation on his account. He was a leper, to be classed with Bully West.

Nor did he blame her. How could she feel otherwise and hold her self-respect. The irony of it brought a bitter smile to his lips. If she only knew it, the years would avenge her a hundredfold. For he had cut himself off from even the chance of the joy that might have been his.

In the sky an aurora flashed with scintillating splendor. The heavens were aglow with ever-changing bars and columns of colored fire.

Morse did not know it. Not till he had passed a dozen steps beyond a man in heavy furs did his mind register recognition of him as Whaley. He did not even wonder what business was taking the gambler toward Angus McRae’s house.

Business obtruded its claims. He arranged with Blandoine to take the robes out with him and walked back to the McRae storehouse. It adjoined the large log cabin where the Scotchman and his family lived.

Blandoine and he went over the robes carefully in order that there should be no mistake as to which ones the trainmaster took. This done, Morse locked the door and handed the key to his companion.

To him there was borne the sound of voices–one low and deep, the other swift and high. He caught no words, but he became aware that a queer excitement tingled through his veins. At the roots of his hair there was an odd, prickling sensation. He could give himself no reason, but some instinct of danger rang in him like a bell. The low bass and the light high treble–they reached him alternately, cutting into each other, overriding each other, clashing in agitated dissent.

Then–a shrill scream for help!

Morse could never afterward remember opening the door of the log house. It seemed to him that he burst through it like a battering-ram, took the kitchen in two strides, and hurled himself against the sturdy home-made door which led into the living-room.

This checked him, for some one had slid into its socket the bar used as a bolt. He looked around the kitchen and found in one swift glance what he wanted. It was a large back log for the fireplace.

With this held at full length under his arm he crashed forward. The wood splintered. He charged again, incited by a second call for succor. This time his attack dashed the bolt and socket from their place. Morse stumbled into the room like a drunken man.

CHAPTER XVII

A BOARD CREAKS

After Morse had closed the door, Jessie listened until the crisp crunch of his footsteps had died away. She subdued an impulse to call him back and put into words her quarrel against him.

From the table she picked up a gun-cover of moose leather she was making and moved to the fireplace. Automatically her fingers fitted into place a fringe of red cloth. (This had been cut from an old petticoat, but the source of the decoration would remain a secret, not on any account to be made known to him who was to receive the gift.) Usually her hands were busy ones, but now they fell away from the work listlessly.

The pine logs crackled, lighting one end of the room and filling the air with aromatic pungency. As she gazed into the red coals her mind was active.

She knew that her scorn of the fur-trader was a fraud. Into her hatred of him she threw an energy always primitive and sometimes savage. But he held her entire respect. It was not pleasant to admit this. Her mind clung to the shadowy excuse that he had been a wolfer, although the Indians looked on him now as a good friend and a trader who would not take advantage of them. Angus McRae himself had said there was no better citizen in the Northland.

No, she could not hold Tom Morse in contempt as she would have liked. But she could cherish her animosity and feed it on memories that scorched her as the whiplash had her smooth and tender flesh. She would never forgive him–never. Not if he humbled himself in the dust.

Toward Angus McRae she held no grudge whatever. He had done only his duty as he saw it. The circumstances had forced his hand, for her word had pledged him to punishment. But this man who had walked into her life so roughly, mastered her by physical force, dragged her to the ignominy of the whip, and afterward had dared to do her a service–when she woke at night and thought of him she still burned with shame and anger. He had been both author and witness of her humiliation.

The girl’s reverie stirred reflection of other men, for already she had suitors in plenty. Upon one of them her musing lingered. He had brought to her gifts of the friendly smile, of comradeship, of youth’s debonair give-and-take. She did not try to analyze her feeling for Winthrop Beresford. It was enough to know that he had brought into her existence the sparkle of joy.

For life had stalked before her with an altogether too tragic mien. In this somber land men did not laugh much. Their smiles held a background of gravity. Icy winter reigned two thirds of the year and summer was a brief hot blaze following no spring. Nature demanded of those who lived here that they struggle to find subsistence. In that conflict human beings forgot that they had been brought into the world to enjoy it with careless rapture.

Somewhere in the house a board, creaked. Jessie heard it inattentively, for in the bitter cold woodwork was always snapping and cracking.

Beresford had offered her a new philosophy of life. She did not quite accept it, yet it fascinated. He believed that the duty of happiness was laid on people as certainly as the duty of honesty. She remembered that once he had said….

There had come to her no sound, but Jessie knew that some one had opened the door and was standing on the threshold watching her. She turned her head. Her self-invited guest was Whaley.

Jessie rose. “What do you want?”

She was startled at the man’s silent entry, ready to be alarmed if necessary, but not yet afraid. It was as though her thoughts waited for the cue he would presently give. Some instinct for safety made her cautious. She did not tell the free trader that her father and Fergus were from home.

He looked at her, appraisingly, from head to foot, in such a way that she felt his gaze had stripped her.

“You know what I want. You know what I’m going to get … some day,” he purred in his slow, feline way.

She pushed from her mind a growing apprehension.

“Father and Fergus–if you want them–“

“Have I said I wanted them?” he asked. “They’re out in the woods trappin’. I’m not lookin’ for them. The two of us’ll be company for each other.”

“Go,” she said, anger flaring at his insolence. “Go. You’ve no business here.”

“I’m not here for business, but for pleasure, my dear.”

The cold, fishy eyes in his white face gloated. Suddenly she wanted to scream and pushed back the desire scornfully. If she did, nobody would hear her. This had to be fought out one to one.

“Why didn’t you knock?” she demanded.

“We’ll say I did and that you didn’t hear me,” he answered suavely. “What’s it matter among friends anyhow?”

“What do you want?” By sheer will power she kept her voice low.

“Your mother’s over at the house. I dropped in to say she’ll probably stay all night.”

“Is your wife worse?”

He lifted the black brows that contrasted so sharply with the pallor of the face. “Really you get ahead of me, my dear. I don’t recall ever getting married.”

“That’s a hateful thing to say,” she flamed, and bit her lower lip with small white teeth to keep from telling the squaw-man what she thought of him. The Cree girl he had taken to wife was going down into the Valley of the Shadow to bear him a child while he callously repudiated her.

He opened his fur coat and came to the fireplace. “I can say nicer things–to the right girl,” he said, and looked meaningly at her.

“I’ll have to go get Susie Lemoine to stay with me,” Jessie said hurriedly. “I didn’t know Mother wasn’t coming home.”

She made a move toward a fur lying across the back of a chair.

He laid a hand upon her arm. “What’s your rush? What are you dodgin’ for, girl? I’m good as Susie to keep the goblins from gettin you.”

“Don’t touch me.” Her eyes sparked fire.

“You’re mighty high-heeled for a nitchie. I reckon you forget you’re Sleeping Dawn, daughter of a Blackfoot squaw.”

“I’m Jessie McRae, daughter of Angus, and if you insult me, you’ll have to settle with him.”

He gave a short snort of laughter. “Wake up, girl. What’s the use of foolin’ yourself? You’re a breed. McRae’s tried to forget it and so have you. But all the time you know damn well you’re half Injun.”

Jessie looked at him with angry contempt, then wheeled for the door.

Whaley had anticipated that and was there before her. His narrowed, covetous eyes held her while one hand behind his back slid the bolt into place.

“Let me out!” she cried.

“Be reasonable. I’m not aimin’ to hurt you.”

“Stand aside and let me through.”

He managed another insinuating laugh. “Have some sense. Quit ridin’ that high horse and listen while I talk to you.”

But she was frightened by this time as much as she was incensed. A drum of dread was beating in her panicky heart. She saw in his eyes what she had never before seen on a face that looked into hers–though she was to note it often in the dreadful days that followed–the ruthless appetite of a wild beast crouching for its kill.”

“Let me go! Let me go!” Her voice was shrilly out of control. “Unbar the door, I tell you!”

“I’m a big man in this country. Before I’m through. I’ll be head chief among the trappers for hundreds of miles. I’m offerin’ you the chance of a lifetime. Throw in with me and you’ll ride in your coach at Winnipeg some day.” Voice and words were soft and smooth, but back of them Jessie felt the panther couched for its spring.

She could only repeat her demand, in a cry that reached its ictus in a sob.

“If you’re dreamin’ about that red-coat spy–hopin’ he’ll marry you after he’s played fast and loose with you–why, forget such foolishness. I know his kind. When he’s had his fling, he’ll go back to his own people and settle down. He’s lookin’ for a woman, not a wife.”

“That’s a lie!” she flung out, rage for the moment in ascendent. “Open that door or I’ll–“

Swiftly his hand shot forward and caught her wrist. “What’ll you do?” he asked, and triumph rode in his eyes.

She screamed. One of his hands clamped down over her mouth, the other went round her waist and drew the slim body to him. She fought, straining from him, throwing back her head in another lifted shriek for help.

As well she might have matched her strength with a buffalo bull. He was still under forty, heavy-set, bones packed with heavy muscles. It seemed to her that all the power of her vital youth vanished and left only limp and flaccid weakness. He snatched her close and kissed the dusky eyes, the soft cheeks, the colorful lips….

She became aware that he was holding her from him, listening. There was a crash of wood.

Again her call for help rang out.

Whaley flung her from him. He crouched, every nerve and muscle tense, lips drawn back in a snarl. She saw that in his hand there was a revolver.

Against the door a heavy weight was hurled. The wood burst into splinters as the bolt shot from the socket. Drunkenly a man plunged across the threshold, staggering from the impact of the shock.

CHAPTER XVIII

A GUN ROARS

The two men glared at each other, silently, their faces distorted to gargoyles in the leaping and uncertain light. Wary, vigilant, tense, they faced each other as might jungle tigers waiting for the best moment to attack.

There was a chance for the situation to adjust itself without bloodshed. Whaley could not afford to kill and Morse had no desire to force his hand.

Jessie’s fear outran her judgment. She saw the menace of the revolver trained on her rescuer and thought the gambler was about to fire. She leaped for the weapon, and so precipitated what she dreaded.

The gun roared. A bullet flew past Morse and buried itself in a log. Next instant, clinging with both hands to Whaley’s wrist, Jessie found herself being tossed to and fro as the man struggled to free his arm. Flung at a tangent against the wall, she fell at the foot of the couch where Fergus slept.

Again the blaze and roar of the revolver filled the room. Morse plunged head down at his enemy, still carrying the log he had used as a battering-ram. It caught the gambler at that point of the stomach known as the solar plexus. Whaley went down and out of consciousness like an ox that has been pole-axed.

Tom picked up the revolver and dropped it into the pocket of his fur coat. He stooped to make sure that his foe was beyond the power of doing damage. Then he lifted Jessie from the corner where she lay huddled.

“Hurt?” he asked.

The girl shuddered. “No. Is he–is he killed?”

“Wind knocked out of him. Nothing more.”

“He didn’t hit you?”

There was the ghost of a smile in his eyes. “No, I hit him.”

“He was horrid. I–I–” Again a little shiver ran through her body. She felt very weak at the knees and caught for a moment at the lapel of his coat to steady herself. Neither of them was conscious of the fact that she was in his arms, clinging to him while she won back self-control.

“It’s all right now. Don’t worry. Lucky I came back to show Blandoine which furs to take.”

“If you hadn’t–” She drew a ragged breath that was half a sob.

Morse loved her the more for the strain of feminine hysteria that made her for the moment a soft and tender child to be comforted. He had known her competent, savage, disdainful, one in whom vital and passionate life flowed quick. He had never before seen the weakness in her reaching out to strength. That by sheer luck it was _his_ power to which she clung filled him with deep delight.

He began to discount his joy lest she do it instead. His arm fell away from her waist.

“I ‘most wrecked the house,” he said with a humorous glance at the door. “I don’t always bring one o’ the walls with me when I come into a room.”

“He bolted the door,” she explained rather needlessly. “He wouldn’t let me out.”

“I heard you call,” he answered, without much more point.

She glanced at the man lying on the floor. “You don’t think he might be–” She stopped, unwilling to use the word.

Tom knelt beside him and felt his heart.

“It’s beating,” he said. And added quickly, “His eyes are open.”

It was true. The cold, fishy eyes had flickered open and were taking stock of the situation. The gambler instantly chose his line of defense. He spoke, presently.

“What in the devil was bitin’ you, Morse? Just because I was jokin’ the girl, you come rampagin’ in and knock me galley west with a big club. I’ll not stand for that. Soon as I’m fit to handle myself, you and I’ll have a settlement.”

“Get up and get out,” ordered the younger man.

“When I get good and ready. Don’t try to run on me, young fellow. Some other fools have found that dangerous.”

Whaley sat up, groaned, and pressed his hands upon the abdomen at the point where he had been struck.

The reddish-brown glint in the eyes of Morse advertised the cold rage of the Montanan. He caught the gambler by the collar and pulled him to his feet.

“Get out, you yellow wolf!” he repeated in a low, savage voice.

The white-faced trader was still wobbly on his feet. He felt both sore and sick at the pit of his stomach, in no mood for any further altercation with this hard-hitting athlete. But he would not go without saving his face.

“I don’t know what business you’ve got to order me out–unless–” His gaze included the girl for a moment, and the insult of his leer was unmistakable.

Morse caught him by the scruff of the neck, ran him out of the room, and flung him down the steps into the road. The gambler tripped on the long buffalo coat he was wearing and rolled over in the snow. Slowly he got to his feet and locked eyes with the other.

Rage almost choked his words. “You’ll be sorry for this one o’ these days, Morse. I’ll get you right. Nobody has ever put one over on Poker Whaley and nobody ever will. Don’t forget that.”

Tom Morse wasted no words. He stood silently on the steps, a splendid, supple figure of menacing power, and watched his foe pass down the road. There was in him a cruel and passionate desire to take the gambler and break him with his hands, to beat him till he crawled away a weak and wounded creature fit for a hospital. He clamped his teeth hard and fought down the impulse.

Presently he turned and walked slowly back into the house. His face was still set and his hands clenched. He knew that if Whaley had hurt Jessie, he would have killed him with his naked fingers.

“You can’t stay here. Where do you want me to take you?” he asked, and his cold hardness reminded her of the Tom Morse who had led her to the whip one other night.

She did not know that inside he was a caldron of emotion and that it was only by freezing himself he could keep down the volcanic eruption.

“I’ll go to Susie Lemoine’s,” she said in a small, obedient voice.

With his hands in his pockets he stood and let he find a fur coat and slip into it. He had a sense of frustration. He wanted to let go of himself and tell all that was in his torrid heart. Instead, he encased himself in ice and drove her farther from him.

They walked down the road side by side, neither of them speaking. She too was a victim of chaotic feeling. It would be long before she could forget how he had broken through the door and saved her.

But she could not find the words to tell him so. They parted at the door of Lemoine’s cabin with a chill “Good-night” that left them both unhappy and dissatisfied.

CHAPTER XIX

“D’YOU WONDER SHE HATES ME?”

To Morse came Angus McRae with the right hand of friendship the day after the battle in the log house.

Eyes blue as Highland lochs fastened to those of the fur-trader. “Lad, I canna tell ye what’s in my heart. ‘The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.'”

Tom, embarrassed, made light of the affair. “Lucky I was Johnnie-on-the-Spot.”

The old Scot shook his head. “No luck sent ye back to hear the skreigh o’ the lass, but the whisper of the guid Father withoot whose permission not even a sparrow falls to the ground. He chose you as the instrument. I’ll never be forgettin’ what you did for my dawtie, Tom Morse. Jess will have thankit you, but I add mine to hers.”

In point of fact Jessie had not thanked him in set words. She had been in too great an agitation of spirit to think of it. But Morse did not say so.

“Oh, that’s all right. Any one would have done it. Mighty glad I was near enough. Hope she doesn’t feel any worse for the shock.”

“Not a bit. I’m here to ask ye to let bygones be bygones. I’ve nursed a grudge, but, man, it’s clean, washed oot o’ my heart. Here’s my hand, if you’ll tak it.”

Tom did, gladly. He discovered at the same moment that the sun was striking sparks of light from a thousand snow crystals. It was a good world, if one only looked for the evidence of it.

“The latchstring is always oot for you at the hame of Angus McRae. Will you no’ drap in for a crack the nicht?” asked the trapper.

“Not to-night. Sometime. I’ll see.” Tom found himself in the position of one who finds open to him a long-desired pleasure and is too shy to avail himself of it immediately. “Have you seen Whaley yet to-day?” he asked, to turn the subject.

The hunter’s lip grew straight and grim. “I have not. He’s no’ at the store. The clerk says a messenger called for him early this mornin’ and he left the clachan at once. Will he be hidin’ oot, do you think?”

Tom shook his head. “Not Whaley. He’ll bluff it through. The fellow’s not yellow. Probably he’ll laugh it off and say he was only stealin’ a kiss an’ that Miss Jessie was silly to make a fuss about it.”

“We’ll let it go at that–after I’ve told him publicly what I think o’ him.”

Where Whaley had been nobody in Faraway knew. When he returned at sunset, he went direct to the store and took off his snowshoes. He was knocking the packed and frozen slush from them at the moment Angus McRae confronted him.

The trader laughed, from the lips, just as Tom had prophesied he would do. “I reckon I owe you an apology, McRae,” he said. “That li’l’ wild-cat of yours lost her head when I jollied her and Morse broke the door down like the jackass he is.”

The dressing-down that Angus McRae gave Whaley is still remembered by one or two old-timers in the Northwest. In crisp, biting words he freed his mind without once lapsing into profanity. He finished with a warning. “Tak tent you never speak to the lass again, or you an’ me’ll come to grips.”

The storekeeper heard him out, a sneering smile on his white face. Inside, he raged with furious anger, but he did not let his feelings come to the surface. He was a man who had the patience to wait for his vengeance. The longer it was delayed, the heavier would it be. A characteristic of his cold, callous temperament was that he took fire slowly, but, once lit, his hate endured like peat coals in a grate. A vain man, his dignity was precious to him. He writhed at the defeat Morse had put upon him, at his failure with Jessie, at the scornful public rebuke of her father. Upon all three of these some day he would work a sweet revenge. Like all gamblers, he followed hunches. Soon, one of these told him, his chance would come. When it did he would make all three of them sweat blood.

Beresford met Tom Morse later in the day. He cocked a whimsical eye at the fur-trader.

“I hear McRae’s going to sue you for damages to his house,” he said.

“Where did you hear all that?” asked his friend, apparently busy inspecting a half-dozen beaver furs.

“And Whaley, for damages to his internal machinery. Don’t you know you can’t catapult through a man’s tummy with a young pine tree and not injure his physical geography?” the constable reproached.

“When you’re through spoofin’ me, as you subjects of the Queen call it,” suggested Tom.

“Why, then, I’ll tell you to keep an eye on Whaley. He doesn’t love you a whole lot for what you did, and he’s liable to do you up first chance he gets.”

“I’m not lookin’ for trouble, but if Whaley wants a fight–“

“He doesn’t–not your kind of a fight. His idea will be to have you foul before he strikes. Walk with an eye in the back of your head. Sleep with it open, Don’t sit at windows after lamps are lit–not without curtains all down. Play all your cards close.” The red-coat spoke casually, slapping his boot with a small riding-switch. He was smiling. None the less Tom knew he was in dead earnest.

“Sounds like good advice. I’ll take it,” the trader said easily. “Anything more on your chest?”

“Why, yes. Where did Whaley go to-day? What called him out of town on a hurry-up trip of a few hours?”

“Don’t know. Do you?”

“No, but I’m a good guesser.”

“Meanin’?”

“Bully West. Holed up somewhere out in the woods. A fellow came in this morning and got Whaley, who snowshoed back with him at once.”

Tom nodded agreement. “Maybeso. Whaley was away five or six hours. That means he probably traveled from eight to ten miles out.”

“Question is, in what direction? Nobody saw him go or come–at least, so as to know that he didn’t circle round the town and come in from the other side.”

“He’ll go again, with supplies for West. Watch him.”

“I’ll do just that.”

“He might send some one with them.”

“Yes, he might do that,” admitted Beresford. “I’ll keep an eye on the store and see what goes out. We want West. He’s a cowardly murderer–killed the man who trusted him–shot him in the back. This country will be well rid of him when he’s hanged for what he did to poor Tim Kelly.”

“He’s a rotten bad lot, but he’s dangerous. Never forget that,” warned the fur-buyer. “If he ever gets the drop on you for a moment, you’re gone.”

“Of course we may be barking up the wrong tree,” the officer reflected aloud. “Maybe West isn’t within five hundred miles of here. Maybe he headed off another way. But I don’t think it. He had to get back to where he was known so as to get an outfit. That meant either this country or Montana. And the word is that he was seen coming this way both at Slide Out and crossing Old Man’s River after he made his getaway.”

“He’s likely figurin’ on losin’ himself in the North woods.”

“My notion, too. Say, Tom, I have an invitation from a young lady for you and me. I’m to bring you to supper, Jessie McRae says. To-night. Venison and sheep pemmican–and real plum pudding, son. You’re to smoke the pipe of peace with Angus and warm yourself in the smiles of Miss Jessie and Matapi-Koma. How’s the programme suit you?”

Tom flushed. “I don’t reckon I’ll go,” he said after a moment’s deliberation.

His friend clapped an affectionate hand on his shoulder. “Cards down, old fellow. Spill the story of this deadly feud between you and Jessie and I’ll give you an outside opinion on it.”

The Montanan looked at him bleakly. “Haven’t you heard? If you haven’t, you’re the only man in this country that hasn’t.”

“You mean–about the whipping?” Beresford asked gently.

“That’s all,” Morse answered bitterly. “Nothing a-tall. I merely had her horsewhipped. You wouldn’t think any girl would object to that, would you?”

“I’d like to hear the right of it. How did it happen?”

“The devil was in me, I reckon. We were runnin’ across the line that consignment of whiskey you found and destroyed near Whoop-Up. She came on our camp one night, crept up, and smashed some barrels. I caught her. She fought like a wild-cat.” Morse pulled up the sleeve of his coat and showed a long, ragged scar on the arm. “Gave me that as a lil’ souvenir to remember her by. You see, she was afraid I’d take her back to camp. So she fought. You know West. I wouldn’t have taken her to him.”

“What did you do?”

“After I got her down, we came to terms. I was to take her to McRae’s camp and she was to be horsewhipped by him. My arm was hurtin’ like sin, and I was thinkin’ her only a wild young Injun.”

“So you took her home?”

“And McRae flogged her. You know him. He’s Scotch–and thorough. It was a sickening business. When he got through, he was white as snow. I felt like a murderer. D’you wonder she hates me?”

Beresford’s smile was winning. “Is it because she hates you that she wants you to come to supper to-night?”

“It’s because she’s in debt to me–or thinks she is, for of course she isn’t–and wants to pay it and get rid of it as soon as she can. I tell you, Win, she couldn’t bear to touch my hand when she gave me the key to the storehouse the other night–laid it down on the table for me to pick up. It has actually become physical with her. She’d shudder if I touched her. I’m not going to supper there. Why should I take advantage of a hold I have on her generosity? No, I’ll not go.”

And from that position Beresford could not move him.

After supper the constable found a chance to see Jessie alone. She was working over the last touches of the gun-case.

“When it’s finished who gets it?” he asked, sitting down gracefully on the arm of a big chair.

She flashed a teasing glance at him. “Who do you think deserves it?”

“I deserve it,” he assured her at once. “But it isn’t the deserving always who get the rewards in this world. Very likely you’ll give it to some chap like Tom Morse.”

“Who wouldn’t come to supper when we asked him.” She lifted steady, inquiring eyes. “What was the real reason he didn’t come?”

“Said he couldn’t get away from the store because–“

“Yes, I heard that. I’m asking for the real reason, Win.”

He gave it. “Tom thinks you hate him and he won’t force himself on your generosity.”

“Oh!” She seemed to be considering that.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Hate him.”

She felt a flush burning beneath the dusky brown of her cheeks. “If you knew what he’d done to me–“

“Perhaps I do,” he said, very gently.

Her dark eyes studied him intently. “He told you?”

“No, one hears gossip. He hates himself because of it. Tom’s white, Jessie.”

“And I’m Indian. Of course that does make a difference. If he’d had a white girl whipped, you couldn’t defend him,” she flamed.

“You know I didn’t mean that, little pal.” His sunny smile was disarming. “What I mean is that he’s sorry for what he did. Why not give him a chance to be friends?”

“Well, we gave him a chance to-night, didn’t we? And he chose not to take it. What do you want me to do–go and thank him kindly for having me whipped?”

Beresford gave up with a shrug. He knew when he had said enough. Some day the seed he had dropped might germinate.

“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to work a W.B. on that case?” he asked with friendly impudence. “Then if I lost it, whoever found it could return it.”

“I don’t give presents to people who lose them,” she parried.

Her dancing eyes were very bright as they met his. She loved the trim lines of his clean beautiful youth and the soul expressed by them.

Matapi-Koma waddled into the room and the Mounted Policeman transferred his attention to her. She weighed two hundred twelve pounds, but was not sensitive on the subject. Beresford claimed anxiously that she was growing thin.

The Indian woman merely smiled on him benignantly. She liked him, as all women did. And she hoped that he would stay in the country and marry Sleeping Dawn.

CHAPTER XX

ONISTAH READS SIGN

McRae fitted Jessie’s snowshoes.

“You’ll be hame before the dark, lass,” he said, a little anxiously.

“Yes, Father.”

The hunter turned to Onistah. “She’s in your care, lad. Gin the weather changes, or threatens to, let the traps go and strike for the toon. You’re no’ to tak chances.”

“Back assam weputch (very early),” promised the Blackfoot.

He was proud of the trust confided to him. To him McRae was a great man. Among many of the trappers and the free traders the old Scot’s word was law. They came to him with their disputes for settlement and abided by his decisions. For Angus was not only the patriarch of the clan, if such a loose confederation of followers could be called a clan; he was esteemed for his goodness and practical common sense.

Onistah’s heart swelled with an emotion that was more than vanity. His heart filled with gladness that Jessie should choose him as guide and companion to snowshoe with her out into the white forests where her traps were set. For the young Indian loved her dumbly, without any hope of reward, in much the same way that some of her rough soldiers must have loved Joan of Arc. Jessie was a mistress whose least whim he felt it a duty to obey. He had worshiped her ever since he had seen her, a little eager warm-hearted child, playing in his mother’s wigwam. She was as much beyond his reach as the North Star. Yet her swift tender smile was for him just as it was for Fergus.

They shuffled out of the village into the forest that crept up to the settlement on all sides. Soon they were deep in its shadows, pushing along the edge of a muskeg which they skirted carefully in order not to be hampered by its treacherous boggy footing.

Jessie wore a caribou-skin capote with the fur on as a protection against the cold wind. Her moccasins were of smoked moose-skin decorated with the flower-pattern bead embroidery so much in use among the French half-breeds of the North. The socks inside them were of duffle and the leggings of strouds, both materials manufactured for the Hudson’s Bay Company for its trappers.

The day was comparatively warm, but the snow was not slushy nor very deep. None the less she was glad when they reached the trapping ground and Onistah called a halt for dinner. She was tired, from the weight of the snow on her shoes, and her feet were blistered by reason of the lacings which cut into the duffle and the tender flesh inside.

Onistah built a fire of poplar, which presently crackled like a battle front and shot red-hot coals at them in an irregular fusillade. Upon this they made tea, heated pemmican and bannocks, and thawed a jar of preserves Jessie had made the previous summer of service berries and wild raspberries. Before it they dried their moccasins, socks, and leggings.

Afterward they separated to make a round of the traps, agreeing to meet an hour and a half later at the place of their dinner camp.

The Blackfoot found one of the small traps torn to pieces, probably by a bear, for he saw its tracks in the snow. He rebuilt the snare and baited it with parts of a rabbit he had shot. In one trap he discovered a skunk and in another a timber wolf. When he came in sight of the rendezvous, he was late.

Jessie was not there. He waited half an hour in growing anxiety before he went to meet her. Night would fall soon. He must find her while it was still light enough to follow her tracks. The disasters that might have fallen upon her crowded his mind. A bear might have attacked her. She might be lost or tangled in the swampy muskeg. Perhaps she had accidentally shot herself.

As swiftly as he could he snowshoed through the forest, following the plain trail she had left. It carried him to a trap from which she had taken prey, for it was newly baited and the snow was sprinkled with blood. Before he reached the second gin, the excitement in him quickened. Some one in snowshoes had cut her path and had deflected to pursue. Onistah knew that the one following was a white man. The points of the shoes toed out. Crees toed in, just the same on webs as in moccasins.

His imagination was active. What white man had any business in these woods? Why should he leave that business to overtake Jessie McRae? Onistah did not quite know why he was worried, but involuntarily he quickened his pace.

Less than a quarter of a mile farther on, he read another chapter of the story written in the trampled snow. There had been a struggle. His mistress had been overpowered. He could see where she had been flung into a white bank and dragged out of it. She had tried to run and had got hardly a dozen yards before recapture. From that point the tracks moved forward in a straight line, those of the smaller webs blotted out by the ones made by the larger. The man was driving the girl before him.

Who was he? Where was he taking her? For what purpose? Onistah could not guess. He knew that McRae had made enemies, as any forceful character on the frontier must. The Scotchman had kicked out lazy ne’er-do-wells from his camp. As a free trader he had matched himself against the Hudson’s Bay Company. But of those at war with him few would stoop to revenge themselves on his daughter. The Blackfoot had not heard of the recent trouble between Whaley and the McRaes, nor had the word reached him that Bully West was free again. Wherefore he was puzzled at what the signs on the snow told him.

Yet he knew he had read them correctly. The final proof of it to him was that Jessie broke trail and not the man. If he were a friend he would lead the way. He was at her heels because he wanted to make sure that she did not try to escape or to attack him.

The tracks led down into the muskeg. It was spitting snow, but he had no difficulty in seeing where the trail led from hummock to hummock in the miry earth. The going here was difficult, for the thick moss was full of short, stiff brush that caught the webbed shoes and tripped the traveler. It was hard to find level footing. The mounds were uneven, and more than once Onistah plunged knee-deep from one into the swamp.

He crossed the muskeg and climbed an ascent into the woods, swinging sharply to the right. There was no uncertainty as to the direction of the tracks in the snow. If they veered for a few yards, it was only to miss a tree or to circle down timber. Whoever he might be, the man who had taken Jessie prisoner knew exactly where he was going.

The Blackfoot knew by the impressions of the webs that he was a large, heavy man. Once or twice he saw stains of tobacco juice on the snow. The broken bits of a whiskey-bottle flung against a tree did not tend to reassure him.

He saw smoke. It came from a tangle of undergrowth in a depression of the forest. Very cautiously, with the patience of his race, he circled round the cabin through the timber and crept up to it on hands and knees. Every foot of the way he took advantage of such cover as was to be had.

The window was a small, single-paned affair built in the end opposite the door. Onistah edged close to it and listened. He heard the drone of voices, one heavy and snarling, another low and persuasive.

His heart jumped at the sound of a third voice, a high-pitched treble. He would have known it among a thousand. It had called to him in the swirl of many a wind-swept storm. He had heard it on the long traverse, in the stillness of the lone night, at lakeside camps built far from any other human being. His imagination had heard it on the summer breeze as he paddled across a sun-drenched lake in his birch-bark canoe.

The Blackfoot raised his head till he could look through the window.

Jessie McRae sat on a stool facing him. Two men were in the room. One strode heavily up and down while the other watched him warily.

CHAPTER XXI

ON THE FRONTIER OF DESPAIR

The compulsion of life had denied Jessie the niceness given girls by the complexities of modern civilization. She had been brought up close to raw stark nature. The habits of animals were familiar to her and the vices of the biped man.

A traveler in the sub-Arctic is forced by the deadly cold of the North into a near intimacy of living with his fellows. Jessie had more than once taken a long sled journey with her father. On one occasion she had slept in a filthy Indian wigwam with a dozen natives all breathing the same foul, unventilated air. Again she had huddled up against the dogs, with her father and two French half-breeds, to keep in her the spark of life a blizzard’s breath was trying to blow out.

On such a trip some of the common decencies of existence are dropped. The extreme low temperature makes it impossible for one to wash either face or hands without the skin chapping and breaking. Food at which one would revolt under other circumstances is devoured eagerly.

Jessie was the kind of girl such a life had made her, with modifications in the direction of fineness induced by McRae’s sturdy character, her schooling at Winnipeg, and the higher plane of the family standard. As might have been expected, she had courage, energy, and that quality of decisive action bred by primitive conditions.

But she had retained, too, a cleanness of spirit hardly to be looked for in such a primeval daughter of Eve. Her imagination and her reading had saved the girl’s sweet modesty. A certain detachment made it possible for her to ignore the squalor of the actual and see it only as a surface triviality, to let her mind dwell in inner concepts of goodness and beauty while bestiality crossed the path she trod.

So when she found in one of the gins a lynx savage with the pain of bruised flesh and broken bone snapped by the jaws of the trap, the girl did what needed to be done swiftly and with a minimum of reluctance.

She was close to the second trap when the sound of webs slithering along the snow brought her up short. Her first thought was that Onistah had changed his mind and followed her, but as soon as the snowshoer came out of the thick timber, she saw that he was not an Indian.

He was a huge man, and he bulked larger by reason of the heavy furs that enveloped him. His rate of travel was rapid enough, but there was about the gait an awkward slouch that reminded her of a grizzly. Some sullenness of temperament seemed to find expression in the fellow’s movements.

The hood of his fur was drawn well forward over the face. He wore blue glasses, as a protection against snow-blindness apparently. Jessie smiled, judging him a tenderfoot; for except in March and April there is small danger of the sun glare which destroys sight. Yet he hardly looked like a newcomer to the North. For one thing he used the web shoes as an expert does. Before he stopped beside her, she was prepared to revise a too hasty opinion.

Jessie recoiled at the last moment, even before she recognized him. It was too late to take precautions now. He caught her by the wrist and tore off his glasses, at the same time shaking back the hood.

“Glad to death to meet up with you, missie,” he grinned evilly through broken, tobacco-stained teeth.

The blood drenched out of her heart. She looked at the man, silent and despairing. His presence here could mean to her nothing less than disaster. The girl’s white lips tried to frame words they could not utter.

“Took by surprise, ain’t you?” he jeered. “But plumb pleased to see old Bully West again, eh? It’s a damn long lane that ain’t got a crook in it somewheres. An’ here we are at the turn together, jus’ you’n’ me, comfy, like I done promised it would be when I last seen you.”

She writhed in a swift, abortive attempt to break his hold.

He threw back his head in a roar of laughter, then with a twist of his fingers brought his captive to the knees.

Sharp teeth flashed in a gleam of white. He gave a roar of pain and tore away his hand. She had bit him savagely in the wrist, as she had once done with another man on a memorable occasion.

“Goddlemighty!” he bellowed. “You damn li’l’ hell-cat!”

She was on her feet and away instantly. But one of the snowshoes had come off in the struggle. At each step she took the left foot plunged through the white crust and impeded progress.

In a dozen strides he had reached her. A great arm swung round and buffeted the runner on the side of the head. The blow lifted the girl from her feet and flung her into a drift two yards away.

She looked up, dazed from the shock. The man was standing over her, a huge, threatening, ill-shaped Colossus.

“Get up!” he ordered harshly, and seized her by the shoulder.

She found herself on her feet, either because she had risen or because he had jerked her up. A ringing in the head and a nausea made for dizziness.

“I’ll learn you!” he exploded with curses. “Try that again an’ I’ll beat yore head off. You’re Bully West’s woman, un’erstand? When I say ‘Come!’ step lively. When I say ‘Go!’ get a move on you.”

“I’ll not.” Despite her fear she faced him with spirit. “My friends are near. They’ll come and settle, with you for this.”

He put a check on his temper. Very likely what she said was true. It was not reasonable to suppose that she was alone in the forest many miles from Faraway. She had come, of course, to look at the traps, but some one must have accompanied her. Who? And how many? The skulking caution of his wild-beast nature asserted itself. He had better play safe. Time enough to tame the girl when he had her deep in the Lone Lands far from any other human being except himself. Just now the first need was to put many miles between them and the inevitable pursuit.

“Come,” he said. “We’ll go.”

She started back for the snowshoe that had been torn off. Beside it lay her rifle. If she could get hold of it again–

The great hulk moved beside her, his thumb and fingers round the back of her neck. Before they reached the weapon, he twisted her aside so cruelly that a flame of pain ran down her spine. She cried out.

He laughed as he stooped for the gun and the web. “Don’ play none o’ yore monkey tricks on Bully West. He knew it all ‘fore you was born.”

The pressure of his grip swung Jessie to the left. He gave her a push that sent her reeling and flung at her the snowshoe.

“Hump yoreself now.”

She knelt and adjusted the web. She would have fought if there had been the least chance of success. But there was none. Nor could she run away. The fellow was a callous, black-hearted ruffian. He would shoot her down rather than see her escape. If she became stubborn and refused to move, he would cheerfully torture her until she screamed with agony. There was nothing he would like better. No, for the present she must take orders.

“Hit the trail, missie. Down past that big tree,” he snapped.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Don’t ask me questions. Do like I tell you.”

The girl took one look at his heavy, brutal face and did as she was told. Onistah would find her. When she did not show up at the rendezvous, he would follow her trail and discover that something was amiss. Good old Onistah never had failed her. He was true as tried steel and in all the North woods there was no better tracker.

There would be a fight. If West saw him first, he would shoot the Blackfoot at sight. She did not need to guess that. He would do it for two reasons. The first was the general one that he did not want any of her friends to know where he was. The more specific one was that he already had a grudge against the young Indian that he would be glad to pay once for all.

Jessie’s one hope was that Onistah would hasten to the rescue. Yet she dreaded the moment of his coming. He was a gentle soul, one of Father Giguere’s converts. It was altogether likely that he would walk into the camp of the escaped convict openly and become a victim of the murderer’s guile. Onistah did not lack courage. He would fight if he had to do so. Indeed, she knew that he would go through fire to save her. But bravery was not enough. She could almost have wished that her foster-brother was as full of devilish treachery as the huge ape-man slouching at her heels. Then the chances of the battle would be more even.

The desperado drove her down into the muskeg, directing the girl’s course with a flow of obscene and ribald profanity.

It is doubtful if she heard him. As her lithe, supple limbs carried her from one moss hump to another, she was busy with the problem of escape. She must get away soon. Every hour increased the danger. The sun would sink shortly. If she were still this ruffian’s prisoner when the long Arctic night fell, she would suffer the tortures of the damned. She faced the fact squarely, though her cheeks blanched at the prospect and the heart inside her withered.

From the sloping side of a hummock her foot slipped and she slid into the icy bog to her knees. Within a few minutes duffles and leggings were frozen and she was suffering at each step.

Out of the muskeg they came into the woods. A flake of snow fell on Jessie’s cheek and chilled her blood. For she knew that if it came on to snow before Onistah took the trail or even before he reached the place to which West was taking her, the chances of a rescue would be very much diminished. A storm would wipe out the tracks they had made.

“Swing back o’ the rock and into the brush,” West growled. Then, as she took the narrow trail through the brush that had grown up among half a dozen small down trees, he barked a question: “Whadjasay yore Injun name was?”

“My name is Jessie McRae,” she answered with a flash of angry pride. “You know who I am–the daughter of Angus McRae. And if you do me any harm, he’ll hunt you down and kill you like a wolf.”

He caught her by the arm and whirled the girl round. His big yellow canines snapped like tusks and he snarled at her through clenched jaws. “Did you hear yore master’s voice? I said, what was yore squaw name?”

She almost shrieked from the pain of his fingers’ savage clutch into her flesh. The courage died out of her arteries.

“Sleeping Dawn they called me.”

“Too long,” he pronounced. “I’ll call you Dawn.” The sight of her terror of him, the foretaste of the triumph he was to enjoy, restored him for a moment to a brutal good-humor. “An’ when I yell ‘Dawn’ at you o’ mornin’s, it’ll be for you to hump yoreself an’ git up to build the fires and rustle breakfast. I’ll treat you fine if you behave, but if you git sulky, you’ll taste the dog-whip. I’m boss. You’ll have a heluva time if you don’t come runnin’ when I snap my fingers. Un’erstand?”

She broke down in a wailing appeal to whatever good there was in him. “Let me go back to Father! I know you’ve broke prison. If you’re good to me, he’ll help you escape. You know he has friends everywhere. They’ll hide you from the red-coats. He’ll give you an outfit to get away–money–anything you want. Oh, let me go, and–and–“

He grinned, and the sight of his evil mirth told her she had failed.

“Didn’t I tell you I’d git you right some day? Didn’t I promise Angus McRae I’d pay him back aplenty for kickin’ me outa his hide camp? Ain’t you the lil’ hell-cat that busted my whiskey-kegs, that ran to the red-coat spy an’ told him where the cache was, that shot me up when I set out to dry-gulch him, as you might say? Where do you figure you got a license to expect Bully West to listen to Sunday-school pap about being good to you? You’re my squaw, an’ lucky at that you got a real two-fisted man. Hell’s hinges! What’s eatin’ you?”

“Never!” she cried. “It’s true what I told you once. I’d rather die. Oh, if you’ve got a spark of manhood in you, don’t make me kill myself. I’m just a girl. If I ever did you wrong, I’m sorry. I’ll make it right. My father–“

“Listen.” His raucous voice cut through her entreaties. “I’ve heard more’n plenty about McRae. All I want o’ him is to get a bead on him once with a rifle. Get me? Now this other talk–about killin’ yoreself–nothin’ to it a-tall. Go to it if tha’s how you feel. Yore huntin’-knife’s right there in yore belt.” He reached forward and plucked it from its sheath, then handed it to her blade first, stepping back a pace at once to make sure she did not use it on him. “You got yore chance now. Kill away. I’ll stand right here an’ see nobody interferes with you.”

She shifted the knife and gripped the handle. A tumult seethed in her brain. She saw nothing but that evil, grinning face, hideous and menacing. For a moment murder boiled up in her, red-hot and sinister. If she could kill him now as he stood jeering at her–drive the blade into that thick bull neck….

The madness passed. She could not do it even if it were within her power. The urge to kill was not strong enough. It was not overwhelming. And in the next thought she knew, too, that she could not kill herself either. The blind need to live, the animal impulse of self-preservation, at whatever cost, whatever shame, was as yet more powerful than the horror of the fate impending.

She flung the knife down into the snow in a fury of disgust and self-contempt.

His head went back in a characteristic roar of revolting mirth. He had won. Bully West knew how to conquer ’em, no matter how wild they were.

With feet dragging, head drooped, and spirits at the zero hour, Jessie moved down a ravine into sight of a cabin. Smoke rose from the chimney languidly.

“Home,” announced West.

To the girl, at the edge of desperation, that log house appeared as the grave of her youth. All the pride and glory and joy that had made life so vital a thing were to be buried here. When next she came out into the sunlight she would be a broken creature–the property of this horrible caricature of a man.

Her captor opened the door and pushed the girl inside.

She stood on the threshold, eyes dilating, heart suddenly athrob with hope.

A man sitting on a stool before the open fire turned his head to see who had come in.

CHAPTER XXII

“MY DAMN PRETTY LI’L’ HIGH-STEPPIN’ SQUAW”

The man on the stool was Whaley.

One glance at the girl and one at West’s triumphant gargoyle grin was enough. He understood the situation better than words could tell it.

To Jessie, at this critical moment of her life, even Whaley seemed a God-send. She pushed across the room awkwardly, not waiting to free herself of the webs packed with snow. In the dusky eyes there was a cry for help.

“Save me from him!” she cried simply, as a child might have done. “You will, won’t you?”

The black eyebrows in the cold, white face drew to a line. The gambler’s gaze, expressionless as a blank wall, met hers steadily.

“Why don’t you send for your friend Morse?” he asked. “He’s in that business. I ain’t.”

It was as though he had struck her in the face. The eyes that clung to his we’re horror-filled. Did there really live men so heartless that they would not lift a hand to snatch a child from a ferocious wolf?

West’s laughter barked out, rapacious and savage. “She’s mine, jus’ like I said she’d be. My damn pretty li’l’ high-steppin’ squaw.”

His partner looked at him bleakly. “Oh, she’s yours, is she?”

“You bet yore boots. I’ll show her–make her eat outa my hand,” boasted the convict.

“Will you show McRae too–and all his friends, as well as the North-West Mounted? Will you make ’em all eat out of your hands?”

“Whadjamean?”

“Why, I had a notion you were loaded up with trouble and didn’t need to hunt more,” sneered the gambler. “I had a notion the red-coats were on your heels to take you across the plains to hang you.”

“I’ll learn ’em about that,” the huge fugitive bragged. “They say I’m a killer. Let it ride. I’ll sure enough let ’em see they’re good guessers.”

Whaley shrugged his shoulders and looked at him with cold contempt. “You’ve got a bare chance for a getaway if you travel light and fast. I’d want long odds to back it,” he said coolly.

“Tha’s a heluva thing to tell a friend,” West snarled.

“It’s the truth. Take it or leave it. But if you try to bull this through your own way and don’t let me run it, you’re done for.”

“How done for?”

The gambler did not answer. He turned to Jessie. “Unless you want your feet to freeze, you’d better get those duffles off.”

The girl took off her mits and tried to unfasten the leggings after she had kicked the snowshoes from her feet. But her stiff fingers could not loosen the knots.

The free trader stooped and did it for her while West watched him sulkily. Jessie unwound the cloth and removed moccasins and duffles. She sat barefooted before the fire, but not too close.

“If they’re frozen I’ll get snow,” Whaley offered.

“They’re not frozen, thank you,” she answered.

“Whadjamean done for?” repeated West.

His partner’s derisive, scornful eye rested on him. “Use your brains, man. The Mounted are after you hot and heavy. You know their record. They get the man they go after. Take this fellow Beresford, the one that jugged you.”

The big ruffian shook a furious fist in the air. “Curse him!” he shouted, and added a dozen crackling oaths.

“Curse him and welcome,” Whaley replied. “But don’t fool yourself about him. He’s a go-getter. Didn’t he go up Peace River after Pierre Poulette? Didn’t he drag him back with cuffs on ‘most a year later? That’s what you’ve got against you, three hundred red-coats like him.”

“You tryin’ to scare me?” demanded West sullenly.

“I’m trying to hammer some common sense into your head. Your chance for a safe getaway rests on one thing. You’ve got to have friends in the Lone Lands who’ll hide you till you can slip out of the country. Can you do that if the trappers–friends of McRae, nearly all of ’em–carry the word of what you did to this girl?”

“I’m gonna take her with me.” West stuck doggedly to his idea. He knew what he wanted. His life was forfeit, anyhow. He might as well go through to a finish.

From where she sat before the great fire Jessie’s whisper reached Whaley. “Don’t let him, please.” It was an ineffective little wail straight from the heart.

Whaley went on, as though he had not heard. “It’s your deal, not mine. I’m just telling you. Take this girl along, and your life’s not worth a plugged nickel.”

“Hell’s hinges! In two days she’ll be crazy about me. Tha’s how I am with women.”

“In two days she’ll hate the ground you walk on, if she hasn’t killed herself or you by that time.”

Waves of acute pain were pricking into Jessie’s legs from the pink toes to the calves. She was massaging them to restore circulation and had to set her teeth to keep from crying.

But her subconscious mind was wholly on what passed between the men. She knew that Whaley was trying to reestablish over the other the mental dominance he had always held. It was a frail enough tenure, no doubt, likely to be upset at any moment by vanity, suspicion, or heady gusts of passion. In it, such as it was, lay a hope. Watching the gambler’s cold, impassive face, the stony look in the poker eyes, she judged him tenacious and strong-willed. For reasons of his own he was fighting her battle. He had no intention of letting West take her with him.

Why? What was the motive in the back of his mind? She acquitted the man of benevolence. If his wishes chanced to march with hers, it was because of no altruism. He held a bitter grudge against Angus McRae and incidentally against her for the humiliation of his defeat at the hands of Morse. To satisfy this he had only to walk out of the house and leave her to an ugly fate. Why did he not do this? Was he playing a deep game of his own in which she was merely a pawn?

She turned the steaming duffles over on the mud hearth to dry the other side. She drew back the moccasins and the leggings that the heat might not scorch them. The sharp pain waves still beat into her feet and up her limbs. To change her position she drew up a stool and sat on it. This she had pushed back to a corner of the fireplace.

For Bully West was straddling up and down the room, a pent volcano ready to explode. He knew Whaley’s advice was good. It would be suicide to encumber himself with this girl in his flight. But he had never disciplined his desires. He wanted her. He meant to take her. Passion, the lust for revenge, the bully streak in him that gloated at the sight of some one young and fine trembling before him: all these were factors contributing to the same end. By gar, he would have what he had set his mind on, no matter what Whaley said.

Jessie knew the fellow was dangerous as a wounded buffalo bull in a corral. He would have his way if he had to smash and trample down any one that opposed him. Her eyes moved to Whaley’s black-browed, bloodless face. How far would the gambler go in opposition to the other?

As her glance shifted back to West, it was arrested at the window. The girl’s heart lost a beat, then sang a paean of joy. For the copper-colored face of Onistah was framed in the pane.

CHAPTER XXIII

A FORETASTE OF HELL

Jessie’s eyes flew to West and to Whaley. As yet neither of them had seen the Blackfoot. She raised a hand and pretended to brush back a lock of hair.

The Indian recognized it as a signal that she had seen him. His head disappeared.

Thoughts in the girl’s mind raced. If Winthrop Beresford or Tom Morse had been outside instead of Onistah, she would not have attempted to give directions. Either of them would have been more competent than she to work out the problem. But the Blackfoot lacked initiative. He would do faithfully whatever he was told to do, but any independent action attempted by him was likely to be indecisive. She could not conceive of Onistah holding his own against two such men as these except by slaughtering them from the window before they knew he was there. He had not in him sufficient dominating ego.

Whaley was an unknown quantity. It was impossible to foresee how he would accept the intrusion of Onistah. Since he was playing his own game, the chances are that he would resent it. In West’s case there could be no doubt. If it was necessary to his plans, he would not hesitate an instant to kill the Indian.

Reluctantly, she made up her mind to send him back to Faraway for help. He would travel fast. Within five hours at the outside he ought to be back with her father or Beresford. Surely, with Whaley on her side, she ought to be safe till then.

She caught sight of Onistah again, his eyes level with the window-sill. He was waiting for instructions.

Jessie gave them to him straight and plain. She spoke to Whaley, but for the Blackfoot’s ear.

“Bring my father here. At once. I want him. Won’t you, please?”

Whaley’s blank poker stare focused on her. “The last word I had from Angus McRae was to keep out of your affairs. I can take a hint without waiting for a church to fall on me. Get some one else to take your messages.”

“If you’re going back to town I thought–perhaps–you’d tell him how much I need him,” she pleaded. “Then he’d come–right away.”

Onistah’s head vanished. He knew what he had to do and no doubt was already on the trail. Outside it was dark. She could hear the swirling of the wind and the beat of sleet against the window-pane. A storm was rising. She prayed it might not be a blizzard. Weather permitting, her father should be here by eight or nine o’clock.

West, straddling past, snarled at her. “Get Angus McRae outa yore head. Him an’ you’s come to the partin’ o’ the ways. You’re travelin’ with me now. Un’erstand?”

His partner, sneering coldly, offered a suggestion. “If you expect to travel far you’d better get your webs to hitting snow. This girl wasn’t out looking at the traps all by herself. Her trail leads straight here. Her friends are probably headed this way right now.”

“Tha’s right.” West stopped in his stride. His slow brain stalled. “What d’ you reckon I better do? If there’s only one or two we might–“

“No,” vetoed Whaley. “Nothing like that. Your play is to get out. And keep getting out when they crowd you. No killing.”

“Goddlemighty, I’m a wolf, not a rabbit. If they crowd me, I’ll sure pump lead,” the desperado growled. Then, “D’ you mean light out to-night?”

“To-night.”

“Where’ll I go?”

“Porcupine Creek, I’d say. There’s an old cabin there Jacques Perritot used to live in. The snow’ll blot out our tracks.”

“You goin’ too?”

“I’ll see you that far,” Whaley answered briefly.

“Better bring down the dogs from the coulee, then.”

The gambler looked at him with the cool insolence that characterized him. “When did I hire out as your flunkey, West?”

The outlaw’s head was thrust forward and down. He glared at his partner, who met this manifestation of anger with hard eyes into which no expression crept. West was not insane enough to alienate his last ally. He drew back sullenly.

“All right. I’ll go, since you’re so particular.” As his heavy body swung round awkwardly, the man’s eyes fell on Jessie. She had lifted one small foot and was starting to pull on one of the duffle stockings. He stood a moment, gloating over the beautifully shaped ankle and lower limb, then slouched forward and snatched her up from the stool into his arms.

His savage, desirous eyes had given her an instant’s warning. She was half up before his arms, massive as young trees, dragged her into his embrace.

“But before I go I’ll have a kiss from my squaw,” he roared. “Just to show her that Bully West has branded her and claims ownership.”

She fought, fiercely, desperately, pushing against his rough bearded face and big barrel chest with all the force in her lithe young body. She was as a child to him. His triumphant laughter pealed as he crushed her warm soft trunk against his own and buried her in his opened coat. With an ungentle hand he forced round the averted head till the fear-filled eyes met his.

“Kiss yore man,” he ordered.

The girl said nothing. She still struggled to escape, using every ounce of strength she possessed.

The fury of her resistance amused him. He laughed again, throwing back the heavy bristling jaw in a roar of mirth.

“Yore man–yore master,” he amended.

He smothered her with his foul kisses, ravished her lips, her eyes, the soft hot cheeks, the oval of the chin, and the lovely curve of the throat. She was physically nauseated when he flung her from him against the wall and strode from the room with another horrible whoop of exultation.

She clung to the wall, panting, eyes closed. A shocking sense of degradation flooded her soul. She felt as though she were drowning in it, fathoms deep. Her lids fluttered open and she saw the gambler. He was still sitting on the stool. A mocking, cynical smile was in the eyes that met Jessie’s.

“And Tom Morse–where, oh, where is he?” the man jeered.

A chill shook her. Dry sobs welled up in her throat. She was lost. For the first time she knew the cold clutch of despair at her heart. Whaley did not intend to lift a hand for her. He had sat there and let West work his will.

“Angus McRae gave me instructions aplenty,” he explained maliciously. “I was to keep my hands off you. I was to mind my own business. When you see him again–if you ever do–will you tell him I did exactly as he said?”

She did not answer. What was there to say? In the cabin was no sound except that of her dry, sobbing breath.

Whaley rose and came across the room. He had thrown aside the gambler’s mask of impassivity. His eyes were shining strangely.

“I’m going–now–out into the storm. What about you? If you’re here when West comes back, you know what it means. Make your choice. Will you go with me or stay with him?”

“You’re going home?”

“Yes.” His smile was enigmatic. It carried neither warmth nor conviction.

The man had played his cards well. He had let West give her a foretaste of the hell in store for her. Anything rather than that, she thought. And surely Whaley would take her home. He was no outlaw, but a responsible citizen who must go back to Faraway to live. He had to face her father and Winthrop Beresford of the Mounted–and Tom Morse. He would not harm her. He dared not.

But she took one vain precaution. “You promise to take me to my father. You’ll not–be like him.” A lift of the head indicated the man who had just gone out.

“He’s a fool. I’m not. That’s the difference.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Make your own choice. If you’d rather stay here–“

But she had made it. She was getting hurriedly into her furs and was putting on her mittens. Already she had adjusted the snowshoes.

“We’d better hurry,” she urged. “He might come back.”

“It’ll be bad luck for him if he does,” the gambler said coolly. “You ready?”

She nodded that she was.

In another moment they were out of the warm room and into the storm. The wind was coming in whistling gusts, carrying with it a fine sleet that whipped the face and stung the eyeballs. Before she had been out in the storm five minutes, Jessie had lost all sense of direction.

Whaley was an expert woodsman. He plunged into the forest, without hesitation, so surely that she felt he must know where he was going. The girl followed at his heels, head down against the blast.

Before this day she had not for months taken a long trip on webs. Leg muscles, called into use without training, were sore and stiff. In the darkness the soft snow piled up on the shoes. Each step became a drag. The lacings and straps lacerated her tender flesh till she knew her duffles were soaked with blood. More than once she dropped back so far that she lost sight of Whaley. Each time he came back with words of encouragement and good cheer.

“Not far now,” he would promise. “Across a little bog and then camp. Keep coming.”

Once he found her sitting on the snow, her back to a tree.

“You’d better go on alone. I’m done,” she told him drearily.

He was not angry at her. Nor did he bully or browbeat.

“Tough sledding,” he said gently. “But we’re ‘most there. Got to keep going. Can’t quit now.”

He helped Jessie to her feet and led the way down into a spongy morass. The brush slapped her face. It caught in the meshes of her shoes and flung her down. The miry earth, oozing over the edges of the frames, clogged her feet and clung to them like pitch.

Whaley did his best to help, but when at last she crept up to the higher ground beyond the bog every muscle ached with fatigue.

They were almost upon it before she saw a log cabin looming out of the darkness.

She sank on the floor exhausted. Whaley disappeared into the storm again. Sleepily she wondered where he was going. She must have dozed, for when her eyes next reported to the brain, there was a brisk fire of birch bark burning and her companion was dragging broken bits of dead and down timber into the house.

“Looks like she’s getting her back up for a blizzard. Better have plenty of fuel in,” he explained.

“Where are we?” she asked drowsily.

“Cabin on Bull Creek,” he answered. “Better get off your footwear.”

While she did this her mind woke to activity. Why had he brought her here? They had no food. How would they live if a blizzard blew up and snowed them in? And even if they had supplies, how could she live alone for days with this man in a cabin eight by ten?

As though he guessed what was in her mind, he answered plausibly enough one of the questions.

“No chance to reach Faraway. Too stormy. It was neck or nothing. Had to take what we could get.”

“What’ll we do if–if there’s a blizzard?” she asked timidly.

“Sit tight.”

“Without food?”

“If it lasts too long, I’ll have to wait for a lull and make a try for Faraway. No use worrying. We can’t help what’s coming. Got to face the music.”

Her eyes swept the empty cabin. No bed. No table. One home-made three-legged stool. A battered kettle. It was an uninviting prospect, even if she had not had to face possible starvation while she was caged with a stranger who might any minute develop wolfish hunger for her as he had done only forty-eight hours before.

He did not look at her steadily. His gaze was in the red glow of the fire a good deal. She talked, and he answered in monosyllables. When he looked at her, his eyes glowed with the hot red light reflected from the fire, Live coals seemed to burn in them.

In spite of the heat a little shiver ran down her spine.

Silence became too significant. She was afraid of it. So she talked, persistently, at times a little hysterically. Her memory was good. If she liked a piece of poetry, she could learn it by reading it over a few times. So, in her desperation, she “spoke pieces” to this man whose face was a gray mask, just as the girls had done at her school in Winnipeg.

Often, at night camps, she had recited for her father. If she had no dramatic talent, at least she had a sweet, clear voice, an earnestness that never ranted, and some native or acquired skill in handling inflections.

“Do you like Shakespeare?” she asked. “My father’s very fond of him. I know parts of several of the plays. ‘Henry V’ now. That’s good. There’s a bit where he’s talking to his soldiers before they fight the French. Would you like that?”

“Go on,” he said gruffly, sultry eyes on the fire.

With a good deal of spirit she flung out the gallant lines. He began to watch her, vivid, eager, so pathetically anxious to entertain him with her small stock of wares.

“But, if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.”

There was about her a quality very fine and taking. He caught it first in those two lines, and again when her full young voice swelled to English Harry’s prophecy.

“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers: For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

As he watched her, old memories stirred in him. He had come from a good family in the Western Reserve, where he had rough-and-tumbled up through the grades into High School. After a year here he had gone to a Catholic School, Sacred Heart College, and had studied for the priesthood. He recalled his mother, a gentle, white-haired old lady, with fond pride in him; his father, who had been the soul of honor. By some queer chance she had lit on the very lines that he had learned from the old school reader and recited before an audience the last day prior to vacation.

He woke from his reveries to discover that she was giving him Tennyson, that fragment from “Guinevere” when Arthur tells her of the dream her guilt has tarnished. And as she spoke there stirred in him the long-forgotten aspirations of his youth.

“… for indeed I knew
Of no more subtle master under heaven Than is the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man, But teach high thought and amiable words And courtliness, and the desire of fame, And love of truth, and all that makes a man.”

His eyes were no longer impassive. There was in them, for the moment at least, a hunted, haggard look. He saw himself as he was, in a blaze of light that burned down to his very soul.

And he saw her too transformed–not a half-breed, the fair prey of any man’s passion, but a clean, proud, high-spirited white girl who lived in the spirit as well as the flesh.

“You’re tired. Better lie down and sleep,” he told her, very gently.

Jessie looked at him, and she knew she was safe. She might sleep without fear. This man would not harm her any more than Beresford or Morse would have done. Some chemical change had occurred in his thoughts that protected her. She did not know what it was, but her paean of prayer went up to heaven in a little rush of thanksgiving.

She did not voice her gratitude to him. But the look she gave him was more expressive than words.

Out of the storm a voice raucous and profane came to them faintly.

“Ah, crapaud Wulf, pren’ garde. Yeu-oh! (To the right!) Git down to it, Fox. Sacre demon! Cha! Cha! (To the left!)”

Then the crack of a whip and a volley of oaths.

The two in the cabin looked at each other. One was white to the lips. The other smiled grimly. It was the gambler that spoke their common thought.

“Bully West, by all that’s holy!”

CHAPTER XXIV

WEST MAKES A DECISION

Came to those in the cabin a string of oaths, the crack of a whip lashing out savagely, and the yelps of dogs from a crouching, cowering team.

Whaley slipped a revolver from his belt to the right-hand pocket of his fur coat.

The door burst open. A man stood on the threshold, a huge figure crusted with snow, beard and eyebrows ice-matted. He looked like the storm king who had ridden the gale out of the north. This on the outside, at a first glance only. For the black scowl he flung at his partner was so deadly that it seemed to come red-hot from a furnace of hate and evil passion.

“Run to earth!” he roared. “Thought you’d hole up, you damned fox, where I wouldn’t find you. Thought you’d give Bully West the slip, you’n’ that li’l’ hell-cat. Talk about Porcupine Creek, eh? Tried to send me mushin’ over there while you’n’ her–“

What the fellow said sent a hot wave creeping over the girl’s face to the roots of her hair. The gambler did not speak, but his eyes, filmed and wary, never lifted from the other’s bloated face.

“Figured I’d forget the ol’ whiskey cache, eh? Figured you could gimme the double-cross an’ git away with it? Hell’s hinges, Bully West’s no fool! He’s forgot more’n you ever knew.”

The man swaggered forward, the lash of the whip trailing across the puncheon floor. Triumph rode in his voice and straddled in his gait. He stood with his back to the fireplace absorbing heat, hands behind him and feet set wide. His eyes gloated over the victims he had trapped. Presently he would settle with both of them.

“Not a word to say for yoreselves, either one o’ you,” he jeered. “Good enough. I’ll do what talkin’ ‘s needed, then I’ll strip the hide off’n both o’ you.” With a flirt of the arm he sent the lash of the dog-whip snaking out toward Jessie.

She shrank back against the wall, needlessly. It was a threat, not an attack; a promise of what was to come.

“Let her alone.” They were the first words Whaley had spoken. In his soft, purring voice they carried out the suggestion of his crouched tenseness. If West was the grizzly bear, the other was the forest panther, more feline, but just as dangerous.

The convict looked at him, eyes narrowed, head thrust forward and down. “What’s that?”

“I said to let her alone.”

West’s face heliographed amazement. “Meanin’–?”

“Meaning exactly what I say. You’ll not touch her.”

It was a moment before this flat defiance reached the brain of the big man through the penumbra of his mental fog. When it did, he strode across the room with the roar of a wild animal and snatched the girl to him. He would show whether any one could come between him and his woman.

In three long steps Whaley padded across the floor. Something cold and round pressed against the back of the outlaw’s tough red neck.

“Drop that whip.”

The order came in a low-voiced imperative. West hesitated. This man–his partner–would surely never shoot him about such a trifle. Still–

“What’s eatin’ you?” he growled. “Put up that gun. You ain’t fool enough to shoot.”

“Think that hard enough and you’ll never live to know better. Hands off the girl.”

The slow brain of West functioned. He had been taken wholly by surprise, but as his cunning mind Worked the situation out, he saw how much it would be to Whaley’s profit to get rid of him. The gambler would get the girl and the reward for West’s destruction. He would inherit his share of their joint business and would reinstate himself as a good citizen with the Mounted and with McRae’s friends.

Surlily the desperado yielded. “All right, if you’re so set on it.”

“Drop the whip.”

The fingers of West opened and the handle fell to the floor. Deftly the other removed a revolver from its place under the outlaw’s left armpit.

West glared at him. That moment the fugitive made up his mind that he would kill Whaley at the first good opportunity. A tide of poisonous hatred raced through his veins. Its expression but not its virulence was temporarily checked by wholesome fear. He must be careful that the gambler did not get him first.

His voice took on a whine intended for good-fellowship. “I reckon I was too pre-emtory. O’ course I was sore the way you two left me holdin’ the sack. Any one would ‘a’ been now, wouldn’t they? But no use friends fallin’ out. We got to make the best of things.”

Whaley’s chill face did not warm. He knew the man with whom he was dealing. When he began to butter his phrases, it was time to look out for him. He would forget that his partner had brought him from Faraway a dog-team with which to escape, that he was supplying him with funds to carry him through the winter. He would remember only that he had balked and humiliated him.

“Better get into the house the stuff from the sled,” the gambler said. “And we’ll rustle wood. No telling how long this storm’ll last.”

“Tha’s right,” agreed West. “When I saw them sun dogs to-day I figured we was in for a blizzard. Too bad you didn’t outfit me for a longer trip.”

A gale was blowing from the north, carrying on its whistling breath a fine hard sleet that cut the eyeballs like powdered glass. The men fought their way to the sled and wrestled with the knots of the frozen ropes that bound the load. The lumps of ice that had gathered round these had to be knocked off with hammers before they could be freed. When they staggered into the house with their packs, both men were half-frozen. Their hands were so stiff that the fingers were jointless.

They stopped only long enough to limber up the muscles. Whaley handed to Jessie the revolver he had taken from West.

“Keep this,” he said. His look was significant. It told her that in the hunt for wood he might be blinded by the blizzard and lost. If he failed to return and West came back alone, she would know what to do with it.

Into the storm the two plunged a second time. They carried ropes and an axe. Since West had arrived, the gale had greatly increased. The wind now was booming in deep, sullen roars and the temperature had fallen twenty degrees already. The sled dogs were nowhere to be seen or heard. They had burrowed down into the snow where the house would shelter them from the hurricane as much as possible.

The men reached the edge of the creek. They struggled in the frozen drifts with such small dead trees as they could find. In the darkness