Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
When Tom Morse reached camp he found Bully West stamping about in a heady rage. The fellow was a giant of a man, almost muscle-bound in his huge solidity. His shoulders were rounded with the heavy pack of knotted sinews they carried. His legs were bowed from much riding. It was his boast that he could bend a silver dollar double in the palm of his hand. Men had seen him twist the tail rod of a wagon into a knot. Sober, he was a sulky, domineering brute with the instincts of a bully. In liquor, the least difference of opinion became for him a cause of quarrel.
Most men gave him a wide berth, and for the sake of peace accepted sneers and insults that made the blood boil.
"Where you been all this time?" he growled.
"Ploughin' around over the plains."
"Didn't you hear me callin'?"
"D'you call? I've been quite a ways from camp. Bumped into Angus McRae's buffalo-hunting outfit. He wants to see us to-morrow."
"Something about to-night's business. Seems he knows who did it. Offers to settle for what we lost."
Bully West stopped in his stride, feet straddled, head thrust forward. "What's that?"
"Like I say. We're to call on him to-morrow for a settlement, you 'n' me."
"Did McRae bust our barrels?"
"He knows something about it. Didn't have time to talk long with him. I hustled right back to tell you."
"He can come here if he wants to see me," West announced.
This called for no answer and Tom gave it none. He moved across to the spot where the oxen were picketed and made sure the pins were still fast. Presently he rolled his blanket round him and looked up into a sky all stars. Usually he dropped asleep as soon as his head touched the seat of the saddle he used as a pillow. But to-night he lay awake for hours. He could not get out of his mind the girl he had met and taken to punishment. A dozen pictures of her rose before him, all of them mental snapshots snatched from his experience of the night. Now he was struggling to hold her down, his knees clamped to her writhing, muscular torso. Again he held her by the strong, velvet-smooth arms while her eyes blazed fury and defiance at him. Or her stinging words pelted him as she breasted the hill slopes with supple ease. Most vivid of all were the ones at her father's camp, especially those when she was under the torture of the whip.
No wonder she hated him for what he had done to her.
He shook himself into a more comfortable position and began to count stars.... Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven.... What was the use of stressing the affair, anyhow? She was only a half-breed. In ten years she would be fat, shapeless, dirty, and repellent. Her conversation would be reduced to grunts. The glance he had had at her mother was illuminating.
Where was he?... One hundred eleven, twelve, thirteen.... Women had not obtruded much into his life. He had lived in the wind and the sun of the outdoors, much of the time in the saddle. Lawless he was, but there was a clean strain in his blood. He had always felt an indifferent contempt for a squaw-man. An American declassed himself when he went in for that sort of thing, even if he legalized the union by some form of marriage. In spite of her magnificent physical inheritance of health and vitality, in spite of the quick and passionate spirit that informed her, she would be the product of her environment and ancestry, held close to barbarism all her life. The man who mated with her would be dragged down to her level.
Two hundred three, four, five.... How game she had been! She had played it out like a thoroughbred, even to telling her father that he was to use the horsewhip in punishing her. He had never before seen a creature so splendid or so spirited. Squaw or no squaw, he took off his hat to her.
The sun had climbed the hilltop when Morse wakened.
"Come an' get it!" Barney the cook was yelling at him.
Bully West had changed his mind about not going to the buffalo-hunter's camp.
"You 'n' Brad'll stay here, Barney, while me 'n' Tom are gone," he gave orders. "And you'll keep a sharp lookout for raiders. If any one shows up that you're dubious of, plug him and ask questions afterward. Un'erstand?"
"I hear ye," replied Barney, a small cock-eyed man with a malevolent grin. "An' we'll do just that, boss."
Long before the traders reached it, the camp of the buffalo-hunters advertised its presence by the stench of decaying animal matter. Hundreds of hides were pegged to the ground. Men and women, squatting on their heels, scraped bits of fat from the drying skins. Already a train of fifty Red River carts stood ready for the homeward start, loaded with robes tied down by means of rawhide strips to stand the jolting across the plains. Not far away other women were making pemmican of fried buffalo meat and fat, pounded together and packed with hot grease in skin bags. This food was a staple winter diet and had too a market value for trade to the Hudson's Bay Company, which shipped thousands of sacks yearly to its northern posts on the Peace and the Mackenzie Rivers.
[Footnote 3: The Red River cart was a primitive two-wheeled affair, made entirely of wood, without nails or metal tires. It was usually drawn by an ox. (W.M.R.)]
The children and the sound of their laughter gave the camp a domestic touch. Some of the brown, half-naked youngsters, their skins glistening in the warm sun, were at work doing odd jobs. Others, too young to fetch and carry, played with a litter of puppies or with a wolf cub that had been caught and tamed.
The whole bustling scene was characteristic of time and place. A score of such outfits, each with its Red River carts and its oxen, its dogs, its women and children, traveled to the plains each spring to hunt the bison. They killed thousands upon thousands of them, for it took several animals to make a sack of pemmican weighing one hundred fifty pounds. The waste was enormous, since only the choicest cuts of meat were used.
Already the buffalo were diminishing in numbers. Vast hordes still roamed the plains. They could be killed by scores and hundreds. But the end was near. It had been several years since Colonel Dodge reported that he had halted his party of railroad builders two days to let a herd of over half a million bison pass. Such a sight was no longer possible. The pressure of the hunters had divided the game into the northern and the southern herds. Within four or five years the slaughter was to be so great that only a few groups of buffalo would be left.
The significance of this extermination lay largely in its application to the Indians. The plains tribes were fed and clothed and armed and housed by means of the buffalo. Even the canoes of the lake Indians were made from buffalo skins. The failure of the supply reduced the natives from warriors to beggars.
McRae came forward to meet the traders, the sleeves of his shirt rolled to the elbows of his muscular brown arms. He stroked a great red beard and nodded gruffly. It was not in his dour honest nature to pretend that he was glad to see them when he was not.
"Well, I'm here," growled West, interlarding a few oaths as a necessary corollary of his speech. "What's it all about, McRae? What do you know about the smashing of our barrels?"
"I'll settle any reasonable damage," the hunter said.
Bully West frowned. He spread his legs deliberately, folded his arms, and spat tobacco juice upon a clean hide drying in the sun. "Hold yore hawsses a minute. The damage'll be enough. Don't you worry about that. But first off, I aim to know who raided our camp. Then I reckon I'll whop him till he's wore to a frazzle."
Under heavy, grizzled brows McRae looked long at him. Both were outstanding figures by reason of personality and physique. One was a constructive force, the other destructive. There was a suggestion of the gorilla in West's long arms matted with hair, in the muscles of back and shoulders so gnarled and knotted that they gave him almost a deformed appearance. Big and broad though he was, the Scot was the smaller. But power harnessed and controlled expressed itself in every motion of the body. Moreover, the blue eyes that looked straight and hard out of the ruddy face told of coordination between mind and matter.
Angus McRae was that rare product, an honest, outspoken man. He sought to do justice to all with whom he had dealings. Part of West's demand was fair, he reflected. The trader had a right to know all the facts in the case. But the old Hudson's Bay trapper had a great reluctance to tell them. His instinct to protect Jessie was strong.
"I've saved ye the trouble, Mr. West. The guilty yin was o' my ain family. Your young man will tell ye I've done a' the horsewhippin' that's necessary."
The big trail boss looked blackly at his helper. He would settle with Morse at the proper time. Now he had other business on hand.
"Come clean, McRae. Who was it? There'll be nothin' doin' till I know that," he growled.
West glared at him, for once astonished out of profanity.
"My daughter Jessie."
"Goddlemighty, d'ja mean to tell me a girl did it?" He threw back his head in a roar of Homeric laughter. "Ever hear the beat of that? A damn li'l' Injun squaw playin' her tricks on Bully West! If she was mine I'd tickle her back for it."
The eyes in the Scotchman's granite face flashed. "Man, can you never say twa-three words withoot profanity? This is a God-fearin' camp. There's nae place here for those who tak His name in vain."
"Smashed 'em with her own hands--is that what you mean? I'll give it to her that she's a plucky li'l' devil, even if she is a nitchie."
McRae reproved him stiffly. "You'll please to remember that you're talking of my daughter, Mr. West. I'll allow no such language aboot her. You're here to settle a business matter. What do ye put the damage at?"
They agreed on a price, to be paid in hides delivered at Whoop-Up. West turned and went straddling to the place where he and Morse had left their horses. On the way he came face to face with a girl, a lithe, dusky young creature, Indian brown, the tan of a hundred summer suns and winds painted on the oval of her lifted chin. She was carrying a package of sacks to the place where the pemmican was being made.
West's eyes narrowed. They traveled up and down her slender body. They gloated on her.
After one scornful glance which swept over and ignored Morse, the girl looked angrily at the man barring her way. Slowly the blood burned into her cheeks. For there was that in the trader's smoldering eyes that would have insulted any modest maiden.
"You Jessie McRae?" he demanded, struck of a sudden with an idea.
"You smashed my whiskey-barrels?"
"My father has told you. If he says so, isn't that enough?"
He slapped an immense hand on his thigh, hugely diverted. "You damn li'l' high-steppin' filly! Why? What in hell 'd I ever do to you?"
Angus McRae strode forward, eyes blazing. He had married a Cree woman, had paid for her to her father seven ponies, a yard of tobacco, and a bottle of whiskey. His own two-fisted sons were metis. The Indian in them showed more plainly than the Celt. Their father accepted the fact without resentment. But there was in his heart a queer feeling about the little lass he had adopted. Her light, springing step, the lift of the throat and the fearlessness of the eye, the instinct in her for cleanliness of mind and body, carried him back forty years to the land of heather, to a memory of the laird's daughter whom he had worshiped with the hopeless adoration of a red-headed gillie. It had been the one romance of his life, and somehow it had reincarnated itself in his love for the half-breed girl. To him it seemed a contradiction of nature that Jessie should be related to the flat-footed squaws who were slaves to their lords. He could not reconcile his heart to the knowledge that she was of mixed blood. She was too fine, too dainty, of too free and imperious a spirit.
"Your horses are up the hill, Mr. West," he said pointedly.
It is doubtful whether the trader heard. He could not keep his desirous eyes from the girl.
"Is she a half or a quarter-breed?" he asked McRae.
"That'll be her business and mine, sir. Will you please tak the road?" The hunter spoke quietly, restraining himself from an outbreak. But his voice carried an edge.
"By Gad, she's some clipper," West said, aloud to himself, just as though the girl had not been present.
"Will you leave my daughter oot o' your talk, man?" warned the Scotchman.
"What's ailin' you?" West's sulky, insolent eyes turned on the buffalo-hunter. "A nitchie's a nitchie. Me, I talk straight. But I aim to be reasonable too. I don't like a woman less because she's got the devil in her. Bully West knows how to tame 'em so they'll eat outa his hand. I've took a fancy to yore girl. Tha's right, McRae."
"You may go to the tent, Jessie," the girl's father told her. He was holding his temper in leash with difficulty.
"Wait a mo." The big trader held out his arm to bar the way. "Don't push on yore reins, McRae. I'm makin' you a proposition. Me, I'm lookin' for a wife, an' this here breed girl of yours suits me. Give her to me an' I'll call the whole thing square. Couldn't say fairer than that, could I?"
The rugged hunter looked at the big malformed border ruffian with repulsion. "Man, you gi'e me a scunner," he said. "Have done wi' this foolishness an' be gone. The lass is no' for you or the like o' you."
"Hell's hinges, you ain't standin' there tellin' me that a Cree breed is too good for Bully West, are you?" roared the big whiskey-runner.
"A hundred times too good for you. I'd rather see the lass dead in her coffin than have her life ruined by you," McRae answered in dead earnest.
"You don't get me right, Mac," answered the smuggler, swallowing his rage. "I know yore religious notions. We'll stand up before a sky pilot and have this done right. I aim to treat this girl handsome."
Jessie had turned away at her father's command. Now she turned swiftly upon the trader, eyes flashing. "I'd rather Father would drive a knife in my heart than let me be married to a wolfer!" she cried passionately.
His eyes, untrammeled by decency, narrowed to feast on the brown immature beauty of her youth.
"Tha' so?" he jeered. "Well, the time's comin' when you'll go down on yore pretty knees an' beg me not to leave you. It'll be me 'n' you one o' these days. Make up yore mind to that."
"Never! Never! I'd die first!" she exploded.
Bully West showed his broken, tobacco-stained teeth in a mirthless grin. "We'll see about that, dearie."
"March, lass. Your mother'll be needin' you," McRae said sharply.
The girl looked at West, then at Morse. From the scorn of that glance she might have been a queen and they the riffraff of the land. She walked to the tent. Not once did she look back.
"You've had your answer both from her and me. Let that be an end o' it," McRae said with finality.
The trader's anger ripped out in a crackle of obscene oaths. They garnished the questions that he snarled. "Wha's the matter with me? Why ain't I good enough for yore half-breed litter?"
It was a spark to gunpowder. The oaths, the insult, the whole degrading episode, combined to drive McRae out of the self-restraint he had imposed on himself. He took one step forward. With a wide sweep of the clenched fist he buffeted the smuggler on the ear. Taken by surprise, West went spinning against the wheel of a cart.
The man's head sank between his shoulders and thrust forward. A sound that might have come from an infuriated grizzly rumbled from the hairy throat. His hand reached for a revolver.
Morse leaped like a crouched cat. Both hands caught at West's arm. The old hunter was scarcely an instant behind him. His fingers closed on the wrist just above the weapon.
"Hands off," he ordered Morse. "This is no' your quarrel."
The youngster's eyes met the blazing blue ones of the Scot. His fingers loosened their hold. He stepped back.
The two big men strained. One fought with every ounce of power in him to twist the arm from him till the cords and sinews strained; the other to prevent this and to free the wrist. It was a test of sheer strength.
Each labored, breathing deep, his whole energy centered on cooerdinated effort of every muscle. They struggled in silence except for the snarling grunts of the whiskey-runner.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the wrist began to turn from McRae. Sweat beads gathered on West's face. He fought furiously to hold his own. But the arm turned inexorably.
The trader groaned. As the cords tightened and shoots of torturing pain ran up the arm, the huge body of the man writhed. The revolver fell from his paralyzed fingers. His wobbling knees sagged and collapsed.
McRae's fingers loosened as the man slid down and caught the bull-like throat. His grip tightened. West fought savagely to break it. He could as soon have freed himself from the clamp of a vice.
The Scotchman shook him till he was black in the face, then flung him reeling away.
"Get oot, ye yellow wolf!" he roared. "Or fegs! I'll break every bone in your hulkin' body. Oot o' my camp, the pair o' you!"
West, strangling, gasped for air, as does a catfish on the bank. He leaned on the cart wheel until he was able to stand. The help of Morse he brushed aside with a sputtered oath. His eyes never left the man who had beaten him. He snarled hike a whipped wolf. The hunter's metaphor had been an apt one. The horrible lust to kill was stamped on his distorted, grinning face, but for the present the will alone was not enough.
McRae's foot was on the revolver. His son Fergus, a swarthy, good-looking youngster, had come up and was standing quietly behind his father. Other hunters were converging toward their chief.
The Indian trader swore a furious oath of vengeance. Morse tried to lead him away.
"Some day I'll get yore squaw girl right, McRae, an' then God help her," he threatened.
The bully lurched straddling away.
Morse, a sardonic grin on his lean face, followed him over the hill.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.