Read CHAPTER V - MORSE JUMPS UP TROUBLE of Man Size, free online book, by William MacLeod Raine, on ReadCentral.com.

“Threw me down, didn’t you?” snarled West out of the corner of his mouth.  “Knew all the time she did it an’ never let on to me.  A hell of a way to treat a friend.”

Tom Morse said nothing.  He made mental reservations about the word friend, but did not care to express them.  His somber eyes watched the big man jerk the spade bit cruelly and rowel the bronco when it went into the air.  It was a pleasure to West to torture an animal when no human was handy, though he preferred women and even men as victims.

“Whad he mean when he said you could tell me how he’d settled with her?” he growled.

“He whipped her last night when I took her back to camp.”

“Took her back to camp, did you?  Why didn’t you bring her to me?  Who’s in charge of this outfit, anyhow, young fellow, me lad?”

“McRae’s too big a man for us to buck.  Too influential with the half-breeds.  I figured it was safer to get her right home to him.”  The voice of the younger man was mild and conciliatory.

You figured!” West’s profanity polluted the clear, crisp morning air.  “I got to have a run in with you right soon.  I can see that.  Think because you’re C.N.  Morse’s nephew, you can slip yore funny business over on me.  I’ll show you.”

The reddish light glinted for a moment in the eyes of Morse, but he said nothing.  Young though he was, he had a capacity for silence.  West was not sensitive to atmospheres, but he felt the force of this young man.  It was not really in his mind to quarrel with him.  For one thing he would soon be a partner in the firm of C.N.  Morse & Company, of Fort Benton, one of the biggest trading outfits in the country.  West could not afford to break with the Morse interests.

With their diminished cargo the traders pushed north.  Their destination was Whoop-Up, at the junction of the Belly and the St. Mary’s Rivers.  This fort had become a rendezvous for all the traders within hundreds of miles, a point of supply for many small posts scattered along the rivers of the North.

Twelve oxen were hitched to each three-wagon load.  Four teams had left Fort Benton together, but two of them had turned east toward Wood Mountain before the party was out of the Assiniboine country.  West had pushed across Lonesome Prairie to the Sweet Grass Hills and from there over the line into Canada.

Under the best of conditions West was no pleasant traveling companion.  Now he was in a state of continual sullen ill-temper.  For the first time in his life he had been publicly worsted.  Practically he had been kicked out of the buffalo camp, just as though he were a drunken half-breed and not one whose barroom brawls were sagas of the frontier.

His vanity was notorious, and it had been flagrantly outraged.  He would never be satisfied until he had found a way to get his revenge.  More than once his simmering anger leaped out at the young fellow who had been a witness of his defeat.  In the main he kept his rage sulkily repressed.  If Tom Morse wanted to tell of the affair with McRae, he could lessen the big man’s prestige.  West did not want that.

The outfit crossed the Milk River, skirted Pakoghkee Lake, and swung westward in the direction of the Porcupine Hills.  Barney had been a trapper in the country and knew where the best grass was to be found.  In many places the feed was scant.  It had been cropped close by the great herds of buffalo roaming the plains.  Most of the lakes were polluted by the bison, so that whenever possible their guide found camps by running water.  The teams moved along the Belly River through the sand hills.

Tom Morse was a crack shot and did the hunting for the party.  The evening before the train reached Whoop-Up, he walked out from camp to try for an antelope, since they were short of fresh meat.  He climbed a small butte overlooking the stream.  His keen eyes swept the panorama and came to rest on a sight he had never before seen and would never forget.

A large herd of buffalo had come down to the river crossing.  They were swimming the stream against a strong current, their bodies low in the water and so closely packed that he could almost have stepped from one shaggy head to another.  Not fifty yards from him they scrambled ashore and went lumbering into the hazy dusk.  Something had frightened them and they were on a stampede.  Even the river had not stopped their flight.  The earth shook with their tread as they found their stride.

That wild flight into the gathering darkness was symbolic, Morse fancied.  The vast herds were vanishing never to return.  Were they galloping into the Happy Hunting Ground the Indians prayed for?  What would come of their flight?  When the plains knew them no more, how would the Sioux and the Blackfeet and the Piegans live?  Would the Lonesome Lands become even more desolate than they were now?

“I wonder,” he murmured aloud.

It is certain that he could have had no vision of the empire soon to be built out of the desert by himself and men of his stamp.  Not even dimly could he have conceived a picture of the endless wheat-fields that would stretch across the plains, of the farmers who would pour into the North by hundreds of thousands, of the cities which would rise in the sand hills as a monument to man’s restless push of progress and his indomitable hope.  No living man’s imagination had yet dreamed of the transformation of this terra incognita into one of the world’s great granaries.

The smoke of the traders’ camp-fire was curling up and drifting away into thin veils of film before the sun showed over the horizon hills.  The bull-teams had taken up their steady forward push while the quails were still flying to and from their morning water-holes.

“Whoop-Up by noon,” Barney predicted.

“Yes, by noon,” Tom Morse agreed.  “In time for a real sure-enough dinner with potatoes and beans and green stuff.”

“Y’ bet yore boots, an’ honest to gosh gravy,” added Brad Stearns, a thin and wrinkled little man whose leathery face and bright eyes defied the encroachment of time.  He was bald, except for a fringe of grayish hair above the temples and a few long locks carefully disposed over his shiny crown.  But nobody could have looked at him and called him old.

They were to be disappointed.

The teams struck the dusty road that terminated at the fort and were plodding along it to the crackling accompaniment of the long bull-whips.

“Soon now,” Morse shouted to Stearns.

The little man nodded.  “Mebbe they’ll have green corn on the cob.  Betcha the price of the dinner they do.”

“You’ve made a bet, dad.”

Stearns halted the leaders.  “What’s that?  Listen.”

The sound of shots drifted to them punctuated by faint, far yells.  The shots did not come in a fusillade.  They were intermittent, died down, popped out again, yielded to whoops in distant crescendo.

“Injuns,” said Stearns.  “On the peck, looks like.  Crees and Blackfeet, maybe, but you never can tell.  Better throw off the trail and dig in.”

West had ridden up.  He nodded.  “Till we know where we’re at.  Get busy, boys.”

They drew up the wagons in a semicircle, end to end, the oxen bunched inside, partially protected by a small cottonwood grove in the rear.

This done, West gave further orders.  “We gotta find out what’s doin’.  Chances are it’s nothin’ but a coupla bunches of braves with a cargo of redeye aboard, Tom, you an’ Brad scout out an’ take a look-see.  Don’t be too venturesome.  Soon’s you find out what the rumpus is, hot-foot it back and report, y’ understand.”  The big wolfer snapped out directions curtly.  There was no more competent wagon boss in the border-land than he.

Stearns and Morse rode toward the fort.  They deflected from the road and followed the river-bank to take advantage of such shrubbery as grew there.  They moved slowly and cautiously, for in the Indian country one took no unnecessary chances.  From the top of a small rise, shielded by a clump of willows, the two looked down on a field of battle already decided.  Bullets and arrows were still flying, but the defiant, triumphant war-whoops of a band of painted warriors slowly moving toward them showed that the day was won and lost.  A smaller group of Indians was retreating toward the swamp on the left-hand side of the road.  Two or three dead braves lay in the grassy swale between the foes.

“I done guessed it, first crack,” Brad said.  “Crees and Blackfeet.  They sure enough do mix it whenever they get together.  The Crees ce’tainly got the jump on ’em this time.”

It was an old story.  From the northern woods the Crees had come down to trade at the fort.  They had met a band of Blackfeet who had traveled up from the plains for the same purpose.  Filled with bad liquor, the hereditary enemies had as usual adjourned to the ground outside for a settlement while the traders at the fort had locked the gates and watched the battle from the loopholes of the stockade.

“Reckon we better blow back to camp,” suggested the old plainsman.  “Mr. Cree may be feelin’ his oats heap much.  White man look all same Blackfeet to him like as not.”

“Look.”  Morse pointed to a dip in the swale.

An Indian was limping through the brush, taking advantage of such cover as he could find.  He was wounded.  His leg dragged and he moved with difficulty.

“He’ll be a good Injun mighty soon,” Stearns said, rubbing his bald head as it shone in the sun.  “Not a chance in the world for him.  They’ll git him soon as they reach the coulee.  See.  They’re stoppin’ to collect that other fellow’s scalp.”

At a glance Morse had seen the situation.  This was none of his affair.  It was tacitly understood that the traders should not interfere in the intertribal quarrels of the natives.  But old Brad’s words, “good Injun,” had carried him back to a picture of a brown, slim girl flashing indignation because Americans treated her race as though only dead Indians were good ones.  He could never tell afterward what was the rational spring of his impulse.

At the touch of the rein laid flat against its neck, the cow-pony he rode laid back its ears, turned like a streak of light, and leaped to a hand gallop.  It swept down the slope and along the draw, gathering speed with every jump.

The rider let out a “Hi-yi-yi” to attract the attention of the wounded brave.  Simultaneously the limping fugitive and the Crees caught sight of the flying horseman who had obtruded himself into the fire zone.

An arrow whistled past Morse.  He saw a bullet throw up a spurt of dirt beneath the belly of his horse.  The Crees were close to their quarry.  They closed in with a run.  Tom knew it would be a near thing.  He slackened speed slightly and freed a foot from the stirrup, stiffening it to carry weight.

The wounded Indian crouched, began to run parallel with the horse, and leaped at exactly the right instant.  His hand caught the sleeve of his rescuer at the same time that the flat of his foot dropped upon the white man’s boot.  A moment, and his leg had swung across the rump of the pony and he had settled to the animal’s back.

So close was it that a running Cree snatched at the bronco’s tail and was jerked from his feet before he could release his hold.

As the cow-pony went plunging up the slope, Morse saw Brad Stearns silhouetted against the sky-line at the summit.  His hat was gone and his bald head was shining in the sun.  He was pumping bullets from his rifle at the Crees surging up the hill after his companion.

Stearns swung his horse and jumped it to a lope.  Side by side with Morse he went over the brow in a shower of arrows and slugs.

“Holy mackerel, boy!  What’s eatin’ you?” he yelled.  “Ain’t you got any sense a-tall?  Don’t you know better ’n to jump up trouble thataway?”

“We’re all right now,” the younger man said.  “They can’t catch us.”

The Crees were on foot and would be out of range by the time they reached the hilltop.

“Hmp!  They’ll come to our camp an’ raise Cain.  Why not?  What business we got monkeyin’ with their scalping sociables?  It ain’t neighborly.”

“West won’t like it,” admitted Morse.

“He’ll throw a cat fit.  What do you aim to do with yore friend Mighty-Nigh-Lose-His-Scalp?  If I know Bully - and you can bet a silver fox fur ag’in’ a yard o’ tobacco that I do - he won’t give no glad hand to him.  Not none.”

Morse did not know what he meant to do with him.  He had let an impulse carry him to quixotic action.  Already he was half-sorry for it, but he was obstinate enough to go through now he had started.

When he realized the situation, Bully West exploded in language sulphurous.  He announced his determination to turn the wounded man over to the Crees as soon as they arrived.

“No,” said Morse quietly.

“No what?”

“I won’t stand for that.  They’d murder him.”

“That any o’ my business - or yours?”

“I’m makin’ it mine.”

The eyes of the two men crossed, as rapiers do, feeling out the strength back of them.  The wounded Indian, tall and slender, stood straight as an arrow, his gaze now on one, now on the other.  His face was immobile and expressionless.  It betrayed no sign of the emotions within.

“Show yore cards, Morse,” said West.  “What’s yore play?  I’m goin’ to tell the Crees to take him if they want him.  You’ll go it alone if you go to foggin’ with a six-shooter.”

The young man turned to the Indian he had rescued.  He waved a hand toward the horse from which they had just dismounted.  “Up!” he ordered.

The Indian youth caught the point instantly.  Without using the stirrups he vaulted to the saddle, light as a mountain lion.  His bare heels dug into the sides of the animal, which was off as though shot out of a gun.

Horse and rider skirted the cottonwoods and disappeared in a depression beyond.