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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.
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