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The harsh shout came to them again, and with it a volley of oaths that polluted the night.
Sleeping Dawn quickened her pace. The character of Bully West was sufficiently advertised in that single outburst. She conceived him bloated, wolfish, malignant, a man whose mind traveled through filthy green swamps breeding fever and disease. Hard though this young man was, in spite of her hatred of him, of her doubt as to what lay behind those inscrutable, reddish-brown eyes of his, she would a hundred times rather take chances with him than with Bully West. He was at least a youth. There was always the possibility that he might not yet have escaped entirely from the tenderness of boyhood.
Morse followed her silently with long, tireless, strides. The girl continued to puzzle him. Even her manner of walking expressed personality. There was none of the flat-footed Indian shuffle about her gait. She moved lightly, springily, as one does who finds in it the joy of calling upon abundant strength.
She was half Scotch, of course. That helped to explain her. The words of an old song hummed themselves through his mind.
"Yestreen I met a winsome lass, a bonny lass was she, As ever climbed the mountain-side, or tripped aboon the lea; She wore nae gold, nae jewels bright, nor silk nor satin rare, But just the plaidie that a queen might well be proud to wear."
Jessie McRae wore nothing half so picturesque as the tartan. Her clothes were dingy and dust-stained. But they could not eclipse the divine, dusky youth of her. She was slender, as a panther is, and her movements had more than a suggestion of the same sinuous grace.
Of the absurdity of such thoughts he was quite aware. She was a good-looking breed. Let it go at that. In story-books there were Indian princesses, but in real life there were only squaws.
Not till they were out of the danger zone did he speak. "Where's your father's camp?"
She pointed toward the northwest. "You don't need to be afraid. He'll pay you for the damage I did."
He looked at her in the steady, appraising way she was to learn as a peculiarity of his.
"I'm not afraid," he drawled. "I'll get my pay--and you'll get yours."
Color flamed into her dusky face. When she spoke there was the throb of contemptuous anger in her voice. "It's a great thing to be a man."
"Like to crawfish, would you?"
She swung on him, eyes blazing. "No. I don't ask any favors of a wolfer."
She spat the word at him as though it were a missile. The term was one of scorn, used only in speaking of the worst of the whiskey-traders. He took it coolly, his strong white teeth flashing in a derisive smile.
"Then this wolfer won't offer any, Miss McRae."
It was the last word that passed between them till they reached the buffalo-hunter's camp. If he felt any compunctions, she read nothing of the kind in his brown face and the steady stride carrying her straight to punishment. She wondered if he knew how mercilessly twenty-year-old Fergus had been thrashed after his drunken spree among the Indians, how sternly Angus dispensed justice in the clan over which he ruled. Did he think she was an ordinary squaw, one to be whipped as a matter of discipline by her owner?
They climbed a hill and looked down on a camp of many fires in the hollow below.
"Is it you, lass?" a voice called.
Out of the shadows thrown by the tents a big bearded man came to meet them. He stood six feet in his woolen socks. His chest was deep and his shoulders tremendously broad. Few in the Lone Lands had the physical strength of Angus McRae.
His big hand caught the girl by the shoulder with a grip that was half a caress. He had been a little anxious about her and this found expression in a reproach.
"You shouldna go out by your lane for so lang after dark, Jess. Weel you ken that."
"I know, Father."
The blue eyes beneath the grizzled brows of the hunter turned upon Morse. They asked what he was doing with his daughter at that time and place.
The Montana trader answered the unspoken question, an edge of irony in his voice. "I found Miss McRae wanderin' around, so I brought her home where she would be safe and well taken care of."
There was something about this Angus did not understand. At night in the Lone Lands, among a thousand hill pockets and shoestring draws, it would be only a millionth chance that would bring a man and woman together unexpectedly. He pushed home questions, for he was not one to slough any of the responsibilities that belonged to him as father of his family.
A fat and waistless Indian woman appeared in the tent flap as the three approached the light. She gave a grunt of surprise and pointed first at Morse and then at the girl.
The trader's hands were covered with blood, his shirt-sleeve soaked in it. Stains of it were spattered over the girl's clothes and face.
The Scotchman looked at them, and his clean-shaven upper lip grew straight, his whole face stern. "What'll be the meanin' o' this?" he asked.
Morse turned to the girl, fastened his eyes on her steadily, and waited.
"Nae lees. I'll hae the truth," Angus added harshly.
"I did it--with my hunting-knife," the daughter said, looking straight at her father.
"What's that? Are ye talkin' havers, lass?"
"It's the truth, Father."
The Scotchman swung on the trader with a swift question, at the end of it a threat. "Why would she do that? Why? If you said one word to my lass--"
"No, Father. You don't understand. I found a camp of whiskey-traders, and I stole up and smashed four-five kegs. I meant to slip away, but this man caught me. When he rushed at me I was afraid--so I slashed at him with my knife. We fought."
"You fought," her father repeated.
"He didn't know I was a girl--not at first."
The buffalo-hunter passed that point. "You went to this trader's camp and ruined his goods?"
The slim girl faced her judge steadily with eyes full of apprehension. "Fergus," she said in a low voice, "and my people."
"What aboot them?"
"These traders break the law. They sell liquor to Fergus and to--"
"Gin that's true, is it your business to ram-stam in an' destroy ither folks' property? Did I bring you up i' the fear o' the Lord to slash at men wi' your dirk an' fight wi' them like a wild limmer? I've been ower-easy wi' you. Weel, I'll do my painfu' duty the nicht, lass." The Scotchman's eyes were as hard and as inexorable as those of a hanging judge.
"Yes," the girl answered in a small voice. "That's why he brought me home instead of taking me to his own camp. You're to whip me."
Angus McRae was not used to having the law and the judgment taken out of his own hands. He frowned at the young man beneath heavy grizzled eyebrows drawn sternly together. "An' who are you to tell me how to govern my ain hoose?" he demanded.
"My name's Morse--Tom Morse, Fort Benton, Montana, when my hat's hangin' up. I took up your girl's proposition, that if I didn't head in at our camp, but brought her here, you were to whip her and pay me damages for what she'd done. Me, I didn't propose it. She did."
"You gave him your word on that, Jess?" her father asked.
"Yes." She dragged out, reluctantly, after a moment: "With a horsewhip."
"Then that's the way it'll be. The McRaes don't cry back on a bargain," the dour old buffalo-hunter said. "But first we'll look at this young man's arm. Get water and clean rags, Jess."
Morse flushed beneath the dark tan of his cheeks. "My arm's all right. It'll keep till I get back to camp."
"No such thing, my lad. We'll tie it up here and now. If my lass cut your arm, she'll bandage the wound."
"She'll not. I'm runnin' this arm."
McRae slammed a heavy fist down into the palm of his hand. "I'll be showin' you aboot that, mannie."
"Hell, what's the use o' jawin'? I'm goin' to wait, I tell you."
"Don't curse in my camp, Mr. Morse, or whatever your name is." The Scotchman's blue eyes flashed. "It's a thing I do not permeet. Nor do I let beardless lads tell me what they will or won't do here. Your wound will be washed and tied up if I have to order you hogtied first. So mak the best o' that."
Morse measured eyes with him a moment, then gave way with a sardonic laugh. McRae had a full share of the obstinacy of his race.
"All right. I'm to be done good to whether I like it or not. Go to it." The trader pulled back the sleeve of his shirt and stretched out a muscular, blood-stained arm. An ugly flesh wound stretched halfway from elbow to wrist.
Jessie brought a basin, water, a towel, and clean rags. By the light of a lantern in the hands of her father, she washed and tied up the wound. Her lips trembled. Strange little rivers of fire ran through her veins when her finger-tips touched his flesh. Once, when she lifted her eyes, they met his. He read in them a concentrated passion of hatred.
Not even when she had tied the last knot in the bandage did any of them speak. She carried away the towel and the basin while McRae hung the lantern to a nail in the tent pole and brought from inside a silver-mounted riding-whip. It was one he had bought as a present for his daughter last time he had been at Fort Benton.
The girl came back and stood before him. A pulse beat fast in her brown throat. The eyes betrayed the dread of her soul, but they met without flinching those of the buffalo-hunter.
The Indian woman at the tent entrance made no motion to interfere. The lord of her life had spoken. So it would be.
With a strained little laugh Morse took a step forward. "I reckon I'll not stand out for my pound of flesh, Mr. McRae. Settle the damages for the lost liquor and I'll call it quits."
The upper lip of the Scotchman was a straight line of resolution. "I'm not thrashing the lass to please you, but because it's in the bond and because she's earned it. Stand back, sir."
The whip swung up and down. The girl gasped and shivered. A flame of fiery pain ran through her body to the toes. She set her teeth to bite back a scream. Before the agony had passed, the whip was winding round her slender body again like a red-hot snake. It fell with implacable rhythmic regularity.
Her pride and courage collapsed. She sank to her knees with a wild burst of wailing and entreaties. At last McRae stopped.
Except for the irregular sobbing breaths of the girl there was silence. The Indian woman crouched beside the tortured young thing and rocked the dark head, held close against her bosom, while she crooned a lullaby in the native tongue.
McRae, white to the lips, turned upon his unwelcome guest. "You're nae doot wearyin' to tak the road, man. Bring your boss the morn an' I'll mak a settlement."
Morse knew he was dismissed. He turned and walked into the darkness beyond the camp-fires. Unnoticed, he waited there in a hollow and listened. For along time there came to him the soft sound of weeping, and afterward the murmur of voices. He knew that the fat and shapeless squaw was pouring mother love from her own heart to the bleeding one of the girl.
Somehow that brought him comfort. He had a queer feeling that he had been a party to some horrible outrage. Yet all that had taken place was the whipping of an Indian girl. He tried to laugh away the weak sympathy in his heart.
But the truth was that inside he was a wild river of woe for her.
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