Read CHAPTER XXI - ON THE FRONTIER OF DESPAIR of Man Size, free online book, by William MacLeod Raine, on ReadCentral.com.

The compulsion of life had denied Jessie the niceness given girls by the complexities of modern civilization.  She had been brought up close to raw stark nature.  The habits of animals were familiar to her and the vices of the biped man.

A traveler in the sub-Arctic is forced by the deadly cold of the North into a near intimacy of living with his fellows.  Jessie had more than once taken a long sled journey with her father.  On one occasion she had slept in a filthy Indian wigwam with a dozen natives all breathing the same foul, unventilated air.  Again she had huddled up against the dogs, with her father and two French half-breeds, to keep in her the spark of life a blizzard’s breath was trying to blow out.

On such a trip some of the common decencies of existence are dropped.  The extreme low temperature makes it impossible for one to wash either face or hands without the skin chapping and breaking.  Food at which one would revolt under other circumstances is devoured eagerly.

Jessie was the kind of girl such a life had made her, with modifications in the direction of fineness induced by McRae’s sturdy character, her schooling at Winnipeg, and the higher plane of the family standard.  As might have been expected, she had courage, energy, and that quality of decisive action bred by primitive conditions.

But she had retained, too, a cleanness of spirit hardly to be looked for in such a primeval daughter of Eve.  Her imagination and her reading had saved the girl’s sweet modesty.  A certain detachment made it possible for her to ignore the squalor of the actual and see it only as a surface triviality, to let her mind dwell in inner concepts of goodness and beauty while bestiality crossed the path she trod.

So when she found in one of the gins a lynx savage with the pain of bruised flesh and broken bone snapped by the jaws of the trap, the girl did what needed to be done swiftly and with a minimum of reluctance.

She was close to the second trap when the sound of webs slithering along the snow brought her up short.  Her first thought was that Onistah had changed his mind and followed her, but as soon as the snowshoer came out of the thick timber, she saw that he was not an Indian.

He was a huge man, and he bulked larger by reason of the heavy furs that enveloped him.  His rate of travel was rapid enough, but there was about the gait an awkward slouch that reminded her of a grizzly.  Some sullenness of temperament seemed to find expression in the fellow’s movements.

The hood of his fur was drawn well forward over the face.  He wore blue glasses, as a protection against snow-blindness apparently.  Jessie smiled, judging him a tenderfoot; for except in March and April there is small danger of the sun glare which destroys sight.  Yet he hardly looked like a newcomer to the North.  For one thing he used the web shoes as an expert does.  Before he stopped beside her, she was prepared to revise a too hasty opinion.

Jessie recoiled at the last moment, even before she recognized him.  It was too late to take precautions now.  He caught her by the wrist and tore off his glasses, at the same time shaking back the hood.

“Glad to death to meet up with you, missie,” he grinned evilly through broken, tobacco-stained teeth.

The blood drenched out of her heart.  She looked at the man, silent and despairing.  His presence here could mean to her nothing less than disaster.  The girl’s white lips tried to frame words they could not utter.

“Took by surprise, ain’t you?” he jeered.  “But plumb pleased to see old Bully West again, eh?  It’s a damn long lane that ain’t got a crook in it somewheres.  An’ here we are at the turn together, jus’ you’n’ me, comfy, like I done promised it would be when I last seen you.”

She writhed in a swift, abortive attempt to break his hold.

He threw back his head in a roar of laughter, then with a twist of his fingers brought his captive to the knees.

Sharp teeth flashed in a gleam of white.  He gave a roar of pain and tore away his hand.  She had bit him savagely in the wrist, as she had once done with another man on a memorable occasion.

“Goddlemighty!” he bellowed.  “You damn li’l’ hell-cat!”

She was on her feet and away instantly.  But one of the snowshoes had come off in the struggle.  At each step she took the left foot plunged through the white crust and impeded progress.

In a dozen strides he had reached her.  A great arm swung round and buffeted the runner on the side of the head.  The blow lifted the girl from her feet and flung her into a drift two yards away.

She looked up, dazed from the shock.  The man was standing over her, a huge, threatening, ill-shaped Colossus.

“Get up!” he ordered harshly, and seized her by the shoulder.

She found herself on her feet, either because she had risen or because he had jerked her up.  A ringing in the head and a nausea made for dizziness.

“I’ll learn you!” he exploded with curses.  “Try that again an’ I’ll beat yore head off.  You’re Bully West’s woman, un’erstand?  When I say ‘Come!’ step lively.  When I say ‘Go!’ get a move on you.”

“I’ll not.”  Despite her fear she faced him with spirit.  “My friends are near.  They’ll come and settle, with you for this.”

He put a check on his temper.  Very likely what she said was true.  It was not reasonable to suppose that she was alone in the forest many miles from Faraway.  She had come, of course, to look at the traps, but some one must have accompanied her.  Who?  And how many?  The skulking caution of his wild-beast nature asserted itself.  He had better play safe.  Time enough to tame the girl when he had her deep in the Lone Lands far from any other human being except himself.  Just now the first need was to put many miles between them and the inevitable pursuit.

“Come,” he said.  “We’ll go.”

She started back for the snowshoe that had been torn off.  Beside it lay her rifle.  If she could get hold of it again -

The great hulk moved beside her, his thumb and fingers round the back of her neck.  Before they reached the weapon, he twisted her aside so cruelly that a flame of pain ran down her spine.  She cried out.

He laughed as he stooped for the gun and the web.  “Don’ play none o’ yore monkey tricks on Bully West.  He knew it all ’fore you was born.”

The pressure of his grip swung Jessie to the left.  He gave her a push that sent her reeling and flung at her the snowshoe.

“Hump yoreself now.”

She knelt and adjusted the web.  She would have fought if there had been the least chance of success.  But there was none.  Nor could she run away.  The fellow was a callous, black-hearted ruffian.  He would shoot her down rather than see her escape.  If she became stubborn and refused to move, he would cheerfully torture her until she screamed with agony.  There was nothing he would like better.  No, for the present she must take orders.

“Hit the trail, missie.  Down past that big tree,” he snapped.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Don’t ask me questions.  Do like I tell you.”

The girl took one look at his heavy, brutal face and did as she was told.  Onistah would find her.  When she did not show up at the rendezvous, he would follow her trail and discover that something was amiss.  Good old Onistah never had failed her.  He was true as tried steel and in all the North woods there was no better tracker.

There would be a fight.  If West saw him first, he would shoot the Blackfoot at sight.  She did not need to guess that.  He would do it for two reasons.  The first was the general one that he did not want any of her friends to know where he was.  The more specific one was that he already had a grudge against the young Indian that he would be glad to pay once for all.

Jessie’s one hope was that Onistah would hasten to the rescue.  Yet she dreaded the moment of his coming.  He was a gentle soul, one of Father Giguere’s converts.  It was altogether likely that he would walk into the camp of the escaped convict openly and become a victim of the murderer’s guile.  Onistah did not lack courage.  He would fight if he had to do so.  Indeed, she knew that he would go through fire to save her.  But bravery was not enough.  She could almost have wished that her foster-brother was as full of devilish treachery as the huge ape-man slouching at her heels.  Then the chances of the battle would be more even.

The desperado drove her down into the muskeg, directing the girl’s course with a flow of obscene and ribald profanity.

It is doubtful if she heard him.  As her lithe, supple limbs carried her from one moss hump to another, she was busy with the problem of escape.  She must get away soon.  Every hour increased the danger.  The sun would sink shortly.  If she were still this ruffian’s prisoner when the long Arctic night fell, she would suffer the tortures of the damned.  She faced the fact squarely, though her cheeks blanched at the prospect and the heart inside her withered.

From the sloping side of a hummock her foot slipped and she slid into the icy bog to her knees.  Within a few minutes duffles and leggings were frozen and she was suffering at each step.

Out of the muskeg they came into the woods.  A flake of snow fell on Jessie’s cheek and chilled her blood.  For she knew that if it came on to snow before Onistah took the trail or even before he reached the place to which West was taking her, the chances of a rescue would be very much diminished.  A storm would wipe out the tracks they had made.

“Swing back o’ the rock and into the brush,” West growled.  Then, as she took the narrow trail through the brush that had grown up among half a dozen small down trees, he barked a question:  “Whadjasay yore Injun name was?”

“My name is Jessie McRae,” she answered with a flash of angry pride.  “You know who I am - the daughter of Angus McRae.  And if you do me any harm, he’ll hunt you down and kill you like a wolf.”

He caught her by the arm and whirled the girl round.  His big yellow canines snapped like tusks and he snarled at her through clenched jaws.  “Did you hear yore master’s voice?  I said, what was yore squaw name?”

She almost shrieked from the pain of his fingers’ savage clutch into her flesh.  The courage died out of her arteries.

“Sleeping Dawn they called me.”

“Too long,” he pronounced.  “I’ll call you Dawn.”  The sight of her terror of him, the foretaste of the triumph he was to enjoy, restored him for a moment to a brutal good-humor.  “An’ when I yell ‘Dawn’ at you o’ mornin’s, it’ll be for you to hump yoreself an’ git up to build the fires and rustle breakfast.  I’ll treat you fine if you behave, but if you git sulky, you’ll taste the dog-whip.  I’m boss.  You’ll have a heluva time if you don’t come runnin’ when I snap my fingers.  Un’erstand?”

She broke down in a wailing appeal to whatever good there was in him.  “Let me go back to Father!  I know you’ve broke prison.  If you’re good to me, he’ll help you escape.  You know he has friends everywhere.  They’ll hide you from the red-coats.  He’ll give you an outfit to get away - money - anything you want.  Oh, let me go, and - and - ”

He grinned, and the sight of his evil mirth told her she had failed.

“Didn’t I tell you I’d git you right some day?  Didn’t I promise Angus McRae I’d pay him back aplenty for kickin’ me outa his hide camp?  Ain’t you the lil’ hell-cat that busted my whiskey-kegs, that ran to the red-coat spy an’ told him where the cache was, that shot me up when I set out to dry-gulch him, as you might say?  Where do you figure you got a license to expect Bully West to listen to Sunday-school pap about being good to you?  You’re my squaw, an’ lucky at that you got a real two-fisted man.  Hell’s hinges!  What’s eatin’ you?”

“Never!” she cried.  “It’s true what I told you once.  I’d rather die.  Oh, if you’ve got a spark of manhood in you, don’t make me kill myself.  I’m just a girl.  If I ever did you wrong, I’m sorry.  I’ll make it right.  My father - ”

“Listen.”  His raucous voice cut through her entreaties.  “I’ve heard more’n plenty about McRae.  All I want o’ him is to get a bead on him once with a rifle.  Get me?  Now this other talk - about killin’ yoreself - nothin’ to it a-tall.  Go to it if tha’s how you feel.  Yore huntin’-knife’s right there in yore belt.”  He reached forward and plucked it from its sheath, then handed it to her blade first, stepping back a pace at once to make sure she did not use it on him.  “You got yore chance now.  Kill away.  I’ll stand right here an’ see nobody interferes with you.”

She shifted the knife and gripped the handle.  A tumult seethed in her brain.  She saw nothing but that evil, grinning face, hideous and menacing.  For a moment murder boiled up in her, red-hot and sinister.  If she could kill him now as he stood jeering at her - drive the blade into that thick bull neck....

The madness passed.  She could not do it even if it were within her power.  The urge to kill was not strong enough.  It was not overwhelming.  And in the next thought she knew, too, that she could not kill herself either.  The blind need to live, the animal impulse of self-preservation, at whatever cost, whatever shame, was as yet more powerful than the horror of the fate impending.

She flung the knife down into the snow in a fury of disgust and self-contempt.

His head went back in a characteristic roar of revolting mirth.  He had won.  Bully West knew how to conquer ’em, no matter how wild they were.

With feet dragging, head drooped, and spirits at the zero hour, Jessie moved down a ravine into sight of a cabin.  Smoke rose from the chimney languidly.

“Home,” announced West.

To the girl, at the edge of desperation, that log house appeared as the grave of her youth.  All the pride and glory and joy that had made life so vital a thing were to be buried here.  When next she came out into the sunlight she would be a broken creature - the property of this horrible caricature of a man.

Her captor opened the door and pushed the girl inside.

She stood on the threshold, eyes dilating, heart suddenly athrob with hope.

A man sitting on a stool before the open fire turned his head to see who had come in.