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All week Jessie and her foster-mother Matapi-Koma had been busy cooking and baking for the great occasion. Fergus had brought in a sack full of cottontails and two skunks. To these his father had added the smoked hindquarters of a young buffalo, half a barrel of dried fish, and fifty pounds of pemmican. For Angus liked to dispense hospitality in feudal fashion.
Ever since Jessie had opened her eyes at the sound of Matapi-Koma's "Koos koos kwa" (Wake up!), in the pre-dawn darkness of the wintry Northern morn, she had heard the crunch of snow beneath the webs of the footmen and the runners of the sleds. For both full-blood Crees and half-breeds were pouring into Faraway to take part in the festivities of Ooche-me-gou-kesigow (Kissing Day).
The traders at the post and their families would join in the revels. With the exception of Morse, they had all taken Indian wives, in the loose marriage of the country, and for both business and family reasons they maintained a close relationship with the natives. Most of their children used the mother tongue, though they could make shift to express themselves in English. In this respect as in others the younger McRaes were superior. They talked English well. They could read and write. Their father had instilled in them a reverence for the Scriptures and some knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments. It was his habit to hold family prayers every evening. Usually half a dozen guests were present at these services in addition to his immediate household.
With the Indians came their dogs, wolfish creatures, prick-eared and sharp-muzzled, with straight, bristling hair. It was twenty below zero, but the gaunt animals neither sought nor were given shelter. They roamed about in front of the fort stockade, snapping at each other or galloping off on rabbit hunts through the timber.
The custom was that on this day the braves of the tribe kissed every woman they met in token of friendship and good-will. To fail of saluting one, young or old, was a breach of good manners. Since daybreak they had been marching in to Angus McRae's house and gravely kissing his wife and daughter.
Jessie did not like it. She was a fastidious young person. But she could not escape without mortally offending the solemn-eyed warriors who offered this evidence of their esteem. As much as possible she contrived to be busy upstairs, but at least a dozen times she was fairly cornered and made the best of it.
At dinner she and the other women of the fort waited on their guests and watched prodigious quantities of food disappear rapidly. When the meal was ended, the dancing began. The Crees shuffled around in a circle, hopping from one foot to the other in time to the beating of a skin drum. The half-breeds and whites danced the jigs and reels the former had brought with them from the Red River country. They took the floor in couples. The men did double-shuffles and cut pigeon wings, moving faster and faster as the fiddler quickened the tune till they gave up at last exhausted. Their partners performed as vigorously, the moccasined feet twinkling in and out so fast that the beads flashed.
Because it was the largest building in the place, the dance was held in the C.N. Morse & Company store. From behind the counter Jessie applauded the performers. She did not care to take part herself. The years she had spent at school had given her a certain dignity.
A flash of scarlet caught her eye. Two troopers of the Mounted Police had come into the room and one of them was taking off his fur overcoat. The trim, lean-flanked figure and close-cropped, curly head she recognized at once with quickened pulse. When Winthrop Beresford came into her neighborhood, Jessie McRae's cheek always flew a flag of greeting.
A squaw came up to the young soldier and offered innocently her face for a kiss.
Beresford knew the tribal custom. It was his business to help establish friendly relations between the Mounted and the natives. He kissed the wrinkled cheek gallantly. A second dusky lady shuffled forward, and after her a third. The constable did his duty.
His roving eye caught Jessie's, and found an imp of mischief dancing there. She was enjoying the predicament in which he found himself. Out of the tail of that same eye he discovered that two more flat-footed squaws were headed in his direction.
He moved briskly across the floor to the counter, vaulted it, and stood beside Jessie. She was still laughing at him.
"You're afraid," she challenged. "You ran away."
A little devil of adventurous mirth was blown to flame in him. "I saw another lady, lonely and unkissed. The Force answers every call of distress."
Her chin tilted ever so little as she answered swiftly.
"He who will not when he may, When he will he shall have nay."
Before she had more than time to guess that he would really dare, the officer leaned forward and kissed the girl's dusky cheek.
The color flamed into it. Jessie flung a quick, startled look at him.
"Kissing Day, Sleeping Dawn," he said, smiling.
Instantly she followed his lead. "Sleeping Dawn hopes that the Great Spirit will give to the soldier of the Great Mother across the seas many happy kissing days in his life."
"And to you. Will you dance with me?"
"Not to-day, thank you. I don't jig in public."
"I was speaking to Miss McRae and not to Sleeping Dawn, and I was asking her to waltz with me."
She accepted him as a partner and they took the floor. The other dancers by tacit consent stepped back to watch this new step, so rhythmic, light, and graceful. It shocked a little their sense of fitness that the man's arm should enfold the maiden, but they were full of lively curiosity to see how the dance was done.
A novel excitement pulsed through the girl's veins. It was not the kiss alone, though that had something to do with the exhilaration that flooded her. Formally his kiss had meant only a recognition of the day. Actually it had held for both of them a more personal significance, the swift outreach of youth to youth. But the dance was an escape. She had learned at Winnipeg the waltz of the white race. No other girl at Faraway knew the step. She chose to think that the constable had asked her because this stressed the predominance of her father's blood in her. It was a symbol to all present that the ways of the Anglo-Saxon were her ways.
She had the light, straight figure, the sense of rhythm, the instinctively instant response of the born waltzer. As she glided over the floor in the arms of Beresford, the girl knew pure happiness. Not till he was leading her back to the counter did she wake from the spell the music and motion had woven over her.
A pair of cold eyes in a white, bloodless face watched her beneath thin black brows. A shock ran through her, as though she had been drenched with icy water. She shivered. There was a sinister menace in that steady, level gaze. More than once she had felt it. Deep in her heart she knew, from the world-old experience of her sex, that the man desired her, that he was biding his time with the patience and the ruthlessness of a panther. "Poker" Whaley had in him a power of dangerous evil notable in a country where bad men were not scarce.
The officer whispered news to Jessie. "Bully West broke jail two weeks ago. He killed a guard. We're here looking for him."
"He hasn't been here. At least I haven't heard it," she answered hurriedly.
For Whaley, in his slow, feline fashion, was moving toward them.
Bluntly the gambler claimed his right. "Ooche-me-gou-kesigow," he said.
The girl shook her head. "Are you a Cree, Mr. Whaley?"
For that he had an answer. "Is Beresford?"
"Mr. Beresford is a stranger. He didn't know the custom--that it doesn't apply to me except with Indians. I was taken by surprise."
Whaley was a man of parts. He had been educated for a priest, but had kicked over the traces. There was in him too much of the Lucifer for the narrow trail the father of a parish must follow.
He bowed. "Then I must content myself with a dance."
Jessie hesitated. It was known that he was a libertine. The devotion of his young Cree wife was repaid with sneers and the whiplash. But he was an ill man to make an enemy of. For her family's sake rather than her own she yielded reluctantly.
Though a heavy-set man, he was an excellent waltzer. He moved evenly and powerfully. But in the girl's heart resentment flamed. She knew he was holding her too close to him, taking advantage of her modesty in a way she could not escape without public protest.
"I'm faint," she told him after they had danced a few minutes.
"Oh, you'll be all right," he said, still swinging her to the music.
She stopped. "No, I've had enough." Jessie had caught sight of her brother Fergus at the other end of the room. She joined him. Tom Morse was standing by his side.
Whaley nodded indifferently toward the men and smiled at Jessie, but that cold lip smile showed neither warmth nor friendliness. "We'll dance again--many times," he said.
The girl's eyes flashed. "We'll have to ask Mrs. Whaley about that. I don't see her here to-night. I hope she's quite well."
It was impossible to tell from the chill, expressionless face of the squaw-man whether her barb had stung or not. "She's where she belongs, at home in the kitchen. It's her business to be well. I reckon she is. I don't ask her."
"You're not a demonstrative husband, then?"
"Husband!" He shrugged his shoulders insolently. "Oh, well! What's in a name?"
She knew the convenient code of his kind. They took to themselves Indian wives, with or without some form of marriage ceremony, and flung them aside when they grew tired of the tie or found it galling. There was another kind of squaw-man, the type represented by her father. He had joined his life to that of Matapi-Koma for better or worse until such time as death should separate them.
In Jessie's bosom a generous indignation burned. There was a reason why just now Whaley should give his wife much care and affection. She turned her shoulder and began to talk with Fergus and Tom Morse, definitely excluding the gambler from the conversation.
He was not one to be embarrassed by a snub. He held his ground, narrowed eyes watching her with the vigilant patience of the panther he sometimes made her think of. Presently he forced a reentry.
"What's this I hear about Bully West escaping from jail?"
Fergus answered. "Two-three weeks ago. Killed a guard, they say. He was headin' west an' north last word they had of him."
All of them were thinking the same thing, that the man would reach Faraway if he could, lie hidden till he had rustled an outfit, then strike out with a dog team deeper into the Lone Lands.
"Here's wishin' him luck," his partner said coolly.
"All the luck he deserves," amended Morse quietly.
"You can't keep a good man down," Whaley boasted, looking straight at the other Indian trader. "I wouldn't wonder but what he'll pay a few debts when he gets here."
Tom smiled and offered another suggestion. "If he gets here and has time. He'll have to hurry."
His gaze shifted across the room to Beresford, alert, gay, indomitable, and as implacable as fate.
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