Read CHAPTER X - A CAMP-FIRE TALE of Man Size, free online book, by William MacLeod Raine, on ReadCentral.com.

Another surprise was waiting for Jessie.  As soon as Onistah came into the circle of light, he walked straight to the whiskey-smuggler.

“You save my life from Crees.  Thanks,” he said in English.

Onistah offered his hand.

The white man took it.  He was embarrassed.  “Oh, well, I kinda took a hand.”

The Indian was not through.  “Onistah never forget.  He pay some day.”

Tom waved this aside.  “How’s the leg?  Seems to be all right now.”

Swiftly Jessie turned to the Indian and asked him a question in the native tongue.  He answered.  They exchanged another sentence or two.

The girl spoke to Morse.  “Onistah is my brother.  I too thank you,” she said stiffly.

“Your brother!  He’s not Angus McRae’s son, is he?”

“No.  And I’m not his daughter - really.  I’ll tell you about that,” she said with a touch of the defensive defiance that always came into her manner when the subject of her birth was referred to.

She did, later, over the camp-fire.

It is fortunate that desire and opportunity do not always march together.  The constable and Morse had both been dead men if Bully West could have killed with a wish.  Sleeping Dawn would have been on the road to an existence worse than death.  Instead, they sat in front of the coals of buffalo chips while the big smuggler and his companions rode away from an ignominious field of battle.

When the constable and his prisoner had first struck camp, there had been two of them.  Now there were six.  For in addition to Jessie McRae, the Blackfoot, and Barney, another had come out of the night and hailed them with a “Hello, the camp!” This last self-invited guest was Brad Stearns, who had not ridden to Whoop-Up as he had announced, but had watched events from a distance on the chance that he might be of help to Tom Morse.

Jessie agreed with Beresford that she must stay in camp till morning.  There was nothing else for her to do.  She could not very well ride the night out with Onistah on the road back to the fort.  But she stayed with great reluctance.

Her modesty was in arms.  Never before had she, a girl alone, been forced to make camp with five men as companions, all but one of them almost strangers to her.  The experience was one that shocked her sense of fitness.

She was troubled and distressed, and she showed it.  Her impulsiveness had swept her into an adventure that might have been tragic, that still held potentialities of disaster.  For she could not forget the look on West’s face when he had sworn to get even with her.  This man was a terrible enemy, because of his boldness, his evil mind, and his lack of restraining conscience.

Yet even now she could not blame herself for what she had done.  The constable’s life was at stake.  It had been necessary to move swiftly and decisively.

Sitting before the fire, Sleeping Dawn began to tell her story.  She told it to Beresford as an apology for having ridden forty miles with Onistah to save his life.  It was, if he chose so to accept it, an explanation of how she came to do so unwomanly a thing.

“Onistah’s mother is my mother,” she said.  “When I was a baby my own mother died.  Stokimatis is her sister.  I do not know who my father was, but I have heard he was an American.  Stokimatis took me to her tepee and I lived there with her and Onistah till I was five or six.  Then Angus McRae saw me one day.  He liked me, so he bought me for three yards of tobacco, a looking-glass, and five wolf pelts.”

It may perhaps have been by chance that the girl’s eyes met those of Morse.  The blood burned beneath the tan of her dusky cheeks, but her proud eyes did not flinch while she told the damning facts about her parentage and life.  She was of the metis, the child of an unknown father.  So far as she knew her mother had never been married.  She had been bought and sold like a negro slave in the South.  Let any one that wanted to despise her make the most of all this.

So far as any expression went Tom Morse looked hard as pig iron.  He did not want to blunder, so he said nothing.  But the girl would have been amazed if she could have read his thoughts.  She seemed to him a rare flower that has blossomed in a foul swamp.

“If Angus McRae took you for his daughter, it was because he loved you,” Beresford said gently.

“Yes.”  The mobile face was suddenly tender with emotion.  “What can any father do more than he has done for me?  I learned to read and write at his knee.  He taught me the old songs of Scotland that he’s so fond of.  He tried to make me good and true.  Afterward he sent me to Winnipeg to school for two years.”

“Good for Angus McRae,” the young soldier said.

She smiled, a little wistfully.  “He wants me to be Scotch, but of course I can’t be that even though I sing ‘Should auld acquaintance’ to him.  I’m what I am.”

Ever since she had learned to think for herself, she had struggled against the sense of racial inferiority.  Even in the Lone Lands men of education had crossed her path.  There was Father Giguere, tall and austere and filled with the wisdom of years, a scholar who had left his dear France to serve on the outposts of civilization.  And there was the old priest’s devoted friend Philip Muir, of whom the story ran that he was heir to a vast estate across the seas.  Others she had seen at Winnipeg.  And now this scarlet-coated soldier Beresford.

Instinctively she recognized the difference between them and the trappers and traders who frequented the North woods.  In her bed at night she had more than once wept herself to sleep because life had built an impassable barrier between what she was and what she wanted to be.

“To the Scot nobody is quite like a Scot,” Beresford admitted with a smile.  “When he wants to make you one, Mr. McRae pays you a great compliment”

The girl flashed a look of gratitude at him and went on with her story.  “Whenever we are near Stokimatis, I go to see her.  She has always been very fond of me.  It wasn’t really for money she sold me, but because she knew Angus McRae could bring me up better than she could.  I was with her to-day when Onistah came in and told us what this West was going to do.  There wasn’t time for me to reach Father.  I couldn’t trust anybody at Whoop-Up, and I was afraid if Onistah came alone, you wouldn’t believe him.  You know how people are about - about Indians.  So I saddled a horse and rode with him.”

“That was fine of you.  I’ll never forget it, Miss McRae,” the young soldier said quietly, his eyes for an instant full on hers.  “I don’t think I’ve ever met another girl who would have had the good sense and the courage to do it.”

Her eyes fell from his.  She felt a queer delightful thrill run through her blood.  He still respected her, was even grateful to her for what she had done.  No experience in the ways of men and maids warned her that there was another cause for the quickened pulse.  Youth had looked into the eyes of youth and made the world-old call of sex to sex.

In a little pocket opening from the draw Morse arranged blankets for the girl’s bed.  He left Beresford to explain to her that she could sleep there alone without fear, since a guard would keep watch against any possible surprise attack.

When the soldier did tell her this, Jessie smiled back her reassurance.  “I’m not afraid - not the least littlest bit,” she said buoyantly.  “I’ll sleep right away.”

But she did not.  Jessie was awake to the finger-tips, her veins apulse with the flow of rushing rivers of life.  Her chaotic thoughts centered about two men.  One had followed crooked trails for his own profit.  There was something in him hard and unyielding as flint.  He would go to his chosen end, whatever that might be, over and through any obstacles that might rise.  But to-night, on her behalf, he had thrown down the gauntlet to Bully West, the most dreaded desperado on the border.  Why had he done it?  Was he sorry because he had forced her father to horsewhip her?  Or was his warning merely the snarl of one wolf at another?

The other man was of a different stamp.  He had brought with him from the world whence he had come a debonair friendliness, an ease of manner, a smile very boyish and charming.  In his jaunty forage cap and scarlet jacket he was one to catch and hold the eye by reason of his engaging personality.  He too had fought her battle.  She had heard him, in that casually careless way of his, try to take the blame of having wounded West.  Her happy thoughts went running out to him gratefully.

Not the least cause of her gratitude was that there had not been the remotest hint in his manner that there was any difference between her and any white girl he might meet.