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Two in the village bathed that day. The other was Tom Morse. He discarded his serviceable moccasins, his caribou-skin capote with the fur on, his moose-skin trousers, and his picturesque blanket shirt. For these he substituted the ungainly clothes of civilization, a pair of square-toed boots, a store suit, a white shirt.
This was not the way Faraway dressed for gala occasions, but in several respects the trader did not choose to follow the habits of the North. At times he liked to remind himself that he was an American and not a French half-breed born in the woods.
As he had promised, he was at the McRaes' by the appointed hour. Jessie opened to his knock.
The girl almost took his breath. He had not realized how attractive she was. In her rough outdoor costumes she had a certain naive boyishness, a very taking quality of vital energy that was sexless. But in the house dress she was wearing now, Jessie was wholly feminine. The little face, cameo-fine and clear-cut, the slender body, willow-straight, had the soft rounded curves that were a joy to the eye. He had always thought of her as dark, but to his surprise he found her amazingly fair for one of the metis blood.
A dimpled smile flashed him welcome. "You did come, then?"
"Is it the wrong night? Weren't you expectin' me?" he asked in pretended alarm.
"I was and I wasn't. It wouldn't have surprised me if you had decided you were too busy to come."
"Not when Miss Jessie McRae invites me."
"She invited you once before," the girl reminded him.
"Then she asked me because she thought she ought. Is that why I'm asked this time?"
She laughed. "You mustn't look a gift dinner in the mouth."
They were by this time in the big family room. She relieved him of his coat. He walked over to the couch upon which Onistah lay.
"How goes it? Tough sleddin'?" he asked.
The bronze face of the Blackfoot was immobile. He must still have been in great pain from the burnt feet, but he gave no sign of it.
"Onistah find good friends," he answered simply.
Tom looked round the room, and again there came to him the sense of home. Logs roared and snapped in the great fireplace. The table, set with the dishes and the plated silver McRae had imported from the States, stirred in him a pleasure that was almost poignant. The books, the organ, the quaint old engravings Angus had brought with him when he crossed the ocean: all of these touched the trader nearly. He was in exile, living a bachelor life under the most primitive conditions. The atmosphere of this house penetrated to every fiber of his being. It filled him with an acute hunger. Here were love and friendly intercourse and all the daily, homely routine that made life beautiful.
And here was the girl that he loved, vivid, vital, full of charm. The swift deftness and grace of her movements enticed him. The inflections of her warm, young voice set his pulses throbbing as music sometimes did. An ardent desire of her flooded him. She was the most winsome creature under heaven--but she was not for him.
Matapi-Koma sat at the head of the table, a smiling and benignant matron finished in copper. She had on her best dress, a beaded silk with purple satin trimmings, brought by a Red River cart from Winnipeg, accompanied with a guarantee from the trader that Queen Victoria had none better. The guarantee was worth what it was worth, but Matapi-Koma was satisfied. Never had she seen anything so grand. That Angus McRae could afford to buy it for her proved him a great chief.
Jessie waited on the table herself. She set upon it such a dinner as neither of her guests had eaten in years. Venison broiled to a turn, juicy, succulent mallard ducks from the cold storage of their larder, mashed potatoes with gravy, young boiled onions from Whoop-Up, home-made rubaboo of delicious flavor, hot biscuits and wild-strawberry jam! And finally, with the tea, a brandy-flavored plum pudding that an old English lady at Winnipeg had taught Jessie how to make.
Onistah ate lying on the couch. Afterward, filled to repletion, with the sense of perfect contentment a good dinner brings, the two young men stuffed their pipes and puffed strata of smoke toward the log rafters of the room. Jessie cleared the table, then sat down and put the last stitches in the gun-case she had been working at intermittently for a month. It was finished, but she had not till now stitched the initials into the cloth.
As the swift fingers of the girl flashed back and forth, both men watched, not too obviously, the profile shadowed by the dark, abundant, shining hair. The picture of her was an intimate one, but Tom's tricky imagination tormented him with one of still nearer personal association. He saw her in his own house, before his own fireside, a baby clinging to her skirt. Then, resolutely, he put the mental etching behind him. She loved his friend Beresford, a man out of a thousand, and of course he loved her. Had he not seen her go straight to his arms after her horrible experience with West?
Matapi-Koma presently waddled out of the room and they could hear the clatter of dishes.
"I told her I'd help her wash them if she'd wait," explained Jessie. "But she'd rather do them now and go to bed. My conscience is clear, anyhow." She added with a little bubble of laughter, "And I don't have to do the work. Is that the kind of a conscience you have, Mr. Morse?"
"If I were you my conscience would tell me that I couldn't go and leave my guests," he answered.
She raked him with a glance of merry derision. "Oh, I know how yours works. I wouldn't have it for anything. It's an awf'lly bossy one. It's sending you out to the Barrens with Win Beresford just because he's your friend."
"Not quite. I have another reason too," he replied.
"Yes, I know. You don't like West. Nobody does. My father doesn't--or Fergus--or Mr. Whaley--but they're not taking the long trail after him as you are. You can't get out of it that way."
She had not, of course, hit on the real reason for going that supplemented his friendship for the constable and he did not intend that she should.
"It doesn't matter much why I'm going. Anyhow, it'll be good for me. I'm gettin' soft and fat. After I've been out in the deep snows a month or so, I'll have taken up my belt a notch or two. It's time I wrestled with a blizzard an' tried livin' on lean rabbit."
[Footnote 7: Rabbit is about the poorest meat in the North. It is lean and stringy, furnishes very little nourishment and not much fat, and is not a muscle-builder. In a country where, oil and grease are essentials, such food is not desirable. The Indians ate great quantities of them. (W.M.R.)]
Her gaze swept his lean, hard, compact body. "Yes, you look soft," she mocked. "Father said something of that sort when he looked at that door there you came through."
Tom had been watching her stitching. He offered a comment now, perhaps, to change the subject. It is embarrassing for a modest man to talk about himself.
"You're workin' that 'W' upside down," he said.
"Am I? Who said, it was a 'W'?"
"I guessed it might be."
"You're a bad guesser. It's an 'M.' 'M' stands for McRae, doesn't it?"
"Yes, and 'W' for Winthrop," he said with a little flare of boldness.
A touch of soft color flagged her cheeks. "And 'I' for impudence," she retorted with a smile that robbed the words of offense.
He was careful not to risk outstaying his welcome. After an hour he rose to go. His good-bye to Matapi-Koma and Onistah was made in the large living-room.
Jessie followed him to the outside door.
He gave her a word of comfort as he buttoned his coat, "Don't you worry about Win. I'll keep an eye on him."
"Thank you. And he'll keep one on you, I suppose."
He laughed. That reversal of the case was a new idea to him. The prettiest girl in the North was not holding her breath till he returned safely. "I reckon," he said. "We'll team together fine."
"Don't be foolhardy, either of you," she cautioned.
"No," he promised, and held out his hand. "Good-bye, if I don't see you in the mornin'."
He did not know she was screwing up her courage and had been for half an hour to do something she had never done before. She plunged at it, a tide of warm blood beating into her face beneath the tan.
"'M' is for Morse too, and 'T' for Tom," she said.
With the same motion she thrust the gun-case into his hand and him out of the door.
He stood outside, facing a closed door, the bit of fancy-work in his mittens. An exultant electric tingle raced through his veins. She had given him a token of friendship he would cherish all his life.
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