Morse knew he was dismissed. He turned and walked into the darkness beyond the camp-fires. Unnoticed, he waited there in a hollow and listened. For along time there came to him the soft sound of weeping, and afterward the murmur of voices. He knew that the fat and shapeless squaw was pouring mother love from her own heart to the bleeding one of the girl.
Somehow that brought him comfort. He had a queer feeling that he had been a party to some horrible outrage. Yet all that had taken place was the whipping of an Indian girl. He tried to laugh away the weak sympathy in his heart.
But the truth was that inside he was a wild river of woe for her.
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.