For another moment she hesitated, and then, from sheer loss of poise, reached out her hand. The dancing eyes of the cavalier lit with all the daring of conquest.
“My heart, Ma’amselle,” he said gallantly, as he pressed the fragile thing in her palm; and in another second he had stooped and kissed her, as he had kissed many another woman, lightly, delicately, in the face of the populace, joying to the depths of his careless nature in the dare of the thing.
With a cry the girl sprang back, crushing the birchbark case with its red flower into shapeless ruin. There was a muffled word, the flash of a figure, and McElroy the factor had flung himself before her. She caught the thud of a blow upon flesh and in a moment there were two men locked in deadly combat before the post gate. In less time than the telling, a circle of faces drew round, dark faces of Indians and Bois-Brules, light faces of De Courtenay’s men, and in all there leaped swift excitement as they saw the combatants. White with passion, his brilliant eyes flaming and dancing with fury, De Courtenay fought like a madman to avenge that blow in the face, while McElroy, flushed and calmer, took with his hands payment for all things,—slighted kindliness, Company thefts, and, above all else, the stolen heart of his one woman.
How it would have ended there is no telling, for these two were evenly matched—what De Courtenay lacked in weight he made up in swiftness and agility,—had it not been for the side arm that hung at his hip, one of those small pistols in use across the water where gentlemen fight at given paces and not across a frozen river or through a mile of brush.
Once, twice, he tried to reach it, and twice did McElroy snatch the groping hand away. Three times he passed swiftly for the inlaid handle and, as if there lay luck in the number, the weapon flashed in the red light.
Swift as was the draw, McElroy was swifter.
With an upward stroke he flung up the hand that held it. There was a shot, ringing down the Assiniboine and echoing in the woods, and little Francette by the stockade wall screamed. With the first flash of metal Maren Le Moyne had gripped her hands until the nails cut raw, standing where she had sprung at the stranger’s kiss.
She could no more move than the bastioned wall behind her.
For a moment there was deathly silence after that shot. Then pandemonium broke loose as Negansahima, chief of the Nakonkirhirinons, flung up his arms, the dull metal bands with their inset stones catching the crimson light, and fell into the outstretched arms of Edmonton Ridgar.
A long cry broke from his lips, the death-cry of a warrior.
For a moment the whole evening scene, red with the late light, was set in the mould of immobility. The two fighting men at sound of that cry following hard upon the shot stopped rigidly, still clasped in the grip of rage, the women staring wide-eyed from the wall, the Bois-Brules, the leaning eager faces of the wild Nakonkirhirinons, the figure of the girl in the foreground, all, all were stricken into stillness by that dirge-like cry. For only the fraction of a second it held, that tense waiting.