They faced each other and the factor stopped in his tracks.
“Quick, M’sieu!” begged Francette at his side, but he put out a commanding hand and ceased to breathe.
“Hold!” said the tall young woman at last, and her voice cut cold and clear in the sun-filled morning. “No more! You have whipped the dog enough.”
The red face of the trapper flamed into purple and his lips opened for an oath. Quick as the heat lightning that flutters on the waters of Winipigoos in the hot summers the cruel club came down. McElroy heard its dull impact, and the husky crumpled like a broken reed.
With stern face the factor started forward, while the little maid covered her pretty eyes and whimpered.
But quicker than his stride retribution leaped to meet DesCaut.
He saw the woman’s arm shoot out and her strong hand, smooth and tawny as finest tanned buckskin, double itself hard and leap in where the jaw turns downward into the curve of the throat.
The stroke of a man it was, clean and sharp and well delivered, and DesCaut, catching his heel on a buried stone’s sharp jut, went backward with his head in the young grass of the sloping shore.
For a moment she stood as it had left her, leaning forward, and there was a shine of satisfaction in her eyes.
Then as the man essayed to rise there was a mighty laughter from the two youths on the river bank and the spell was broken.
McElroy went forward.
“DesCaut,” he said sharply, and his words cut like the lash of the long dog-whips, “you deserves death but you have been beaten by a woman. Go, and boast of your strength. It is sufficient.”
DesCaut stood a moment swaying drunkenly with the force of passion within him, his lips snarling back from his teeth and his eyes measuring the factor unsteadily then he snatched off the little cap he wore and hurled it at him.
Turning on his heel he swung down toward the gate and the two voyageurs now standing and still laughing merrily.
One look at his bloodshot eyes sobered their mirth, and Pierre Garcon reached involuntarily for the knife in his sash.
But Bois DesCaut, savage to silence, swung past them into the fort.
McElroy watched him until he disappeared, fearing he knew not what.
Then he faced the little scene again.
Down on her knees little Francette had lifted the heavy head with its dull eyes and pitiful hanging tongue, lifted it to her breast, weeping and smoothing the short ears deaf to her soft words, and sat rocking to and fro in an ecstasy of grief. Beyond she stood, that tall woman, stood silent and frowning, looking down upon the two, and the factor saw with a strange thrill that the hand, yet doubled, was flecked with blood.
“Ma’amselle,” he said, “is of the new people who arrived last night from Portage la Prairie?”
Then they were lifted for the first time to his face, those dark eyes smouldering like banked fires, and he saw their marvellous beauty.