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   Chapter 25 No.25

The Golden Snare By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 14001

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The Eskimos were advancing at a trot now over the open space. Philip was amazed at their number. There were at least a hundred, and his heart choked with a feeling of despair even as he pulled the trigger for his first shot. He had seen the effect of Olaf's shot, and following the Swede's instructions aimed for his man in the nearest group behind the main line. He did not instantly see the result, as a puff of smoke shut out his vision, but a moment later, aiming again, he saw a dark blotch left in the snow. From his end of the crevice Olaf had seen the man go down, and he grunted his approbation. There were five of the groups bearing tree trunks for battering-rams, and on one of these Philip concentrated the six shots in his rifle. Four of the tree-bearers went down, and the two that were left dropped their burden and joined those ahead of them. Until Philip stepped back to reload his gun he had not noticed Celie. She was close at his side, peering through the gun-hole at the tragedy out on the plain. Once before he had been astounded by the look in her face when they had been confronted by great danger, and as his fingers worked swiftly in refilling the magazine of his rifle he saw it there again. It was not fear, even now. It was a more wonderful thing than that. Her wide-open eyes glowed with a strange, dark luster; in the center of each of her cheeks was a vivid spot of color, and her lips were parted slightly, so that he caught the faintest gleam of her teeth. Wonderful as a fragile flower she stood there with her eyes upon him, her splendid courage and her faith in him flaming within her like a fire.

And then he heard Anderson's voice:

"They're behind the ridge. We got eight of them."

In half a dozen places Philip had seen where bullets had bored the way through the cabin, and leaning his gun against the wall, he sprang to Celie and almost carried her behind the bunk that was built against the logs.

"You must stay here," he cried. "Do you understand! HERE!"

She nodded, and smiled. It was a wonderful smile-a flash of tenderness telling him that she knew what he was saying, and that she would obey him. She made no effort to detain him with her hands, but in that moment-if life had been the forfeit-Philip would have stolen the precious time in which to take her in his arms. For a space he held her close to him, his lips crushed to hers, and faced the wall again with the throb of her soft breast still beating against his heart. He noticed Armin standing near the door, his hand resting on a huge club which, in turn, rested on the floor. Calmly he was waiting for the final rush. Olaf was peering through the gun-hole again. And then came what he had expected-a rattle of fire from the snow-ridge. The PIT-PIT-PIT of bullets rained against the cabin in a dull tattoo. Through the door came a bullet, sending a splinter close to Armin's face. Almost in the same instant a second followed it, and a third came through the crevice so close to Philip that he felt the hissing breath of it in his face. One of the dogs emitted a wailing howl and flopped among its comrades in uncanny convulsions.

Olaf staggered back, and faced Philip. There was no trace of the fighting grin in his face now. It was set like an iron mask.

"GET DOWN!" he shouted. "Do you hear, GET DOWN!" He dropped on his knees, crying out the warning to Armin in the other's language. "They've got enough guns to make a sieve of this kennel if their ammunition holds out-and the lower logs are heaviest. Flatten yourself out until they stop firing, with your feet toward 'em, like this," and he stretched himself out on the floor, parallel with the direction of fire.

In place of following the Swede's example Philip ran to Celie. Half way a bullet almost got him, flipping the collar of his shirt. He dropped beside her and gathered her up completely in his arms, with his own body between her and the fire. A moment later he thanked God for the protection of the bunk. He heard the ripping of a bullet through the saplings and caught distinctly the thud of it as the spent lead dropped to the floor. Celie's head was close on his breast, her eyes were on his face, her soft lips so near he could feel their breath. He kissed her, unbelieving even then that the end was near for her. It was monstrous-impossible. Lead was finding its way into the cabin like raindrops. He heard the Swede's voice again, crying thickly from the floor:

"Hug below the lower log. You've got eight inches. If you rise above that they'll get you." He repeated the warning to Armin.

As if to emphasize his words there came a howl of agony from another of the dogs.

Still closer Philip held the girl to him. Her hands had crept convulsively to his neck. He crushed his face down against hers, and waited. It came to him suddenly that Blake must be reckoning on this very protection which he was giving Celie. He was gambling on the chance that while the male defenders of the cabin would be wounded or killed Celie would be sheltered until the last moment from their fire. If that was so, the firing would soon cease until Blake learned results.

Scarcely had he made this guess when the fusillade ended. Instead of rifle-fire there came a sudden strange howl of voices and Olaf sprang to his feet. Philip had risen, when the Swede's voice came to him in a choking cry. Prepared for the rush he had expected, Olaf was making an observation through the gun-crevice. Suddenly, without turning his head, he yelled back at them:

"Good God-it's Bram-Bram Johnson!"

Even Celie realized the thrilling import of the Swede's excited words. BRAM JOHNSON! She was only a step behind Philip when he reached the wall. With him she looked out. Out of that finger of forest they were coming-Bram and his wolves! The pack was free, spreading out fan-shape, coming like the wind! Behind them was Bram-a wild and monstrous figure against the whiteness of the plain, bearing in his hand a giant club. His yell came to them. It rose above all other sound, like the cry of a great beast. The wolves came faster, and then-

The truth fell upon those in the cabin with a suddenness that stopped the beating of their hearts.

Bram Johnson and his wolves were attacking the Eskimos!

From the thrilling spectacle of the giant mad-man charging over the plain behind his ravenous beasts Philip shifted his amazed gaze to the Eskimos. They were no longer concealing themselves. Palsied by a strange terror, they were staring at the onrushing horde and the shrieking wolf-man. In those first appalling moments of horror and stupefaction not a gun was raised or a shot fired. Then there rose from the ranks of the Kogmollocks a strange and terrible cry, and in another moment the plain between the forest and the snow-ridge was alive with fleeing creatures in whose heavy brains surged the monstrous thought that they were attacked not by man and beast, but by devils. And in that same moment it

seemed that Bram Johnson and his wolves were among them. From man to man the beasts leapt, driven on by the shrieking voice of their master; and now Philip saw the giant mad-man overtake one after another of the running figures, and saw the crushing force of his club as it fell. Celie swayed back from the wall and stood with her hands to her face. The Swede sprang past her, flung back the bar to the door, and opened it. Philip was a step behind him. Prom the front of the cabin they began firing, and man after man crumpled down under their shots. If Bram and his wolves sensed the shooting in the ferocity of their blood-lust they paid no more attention to it than to the cries for mercy that rose chokingly out of the throats of their enemies. In another sixty seconds the visible part of it was over. The last of the Kogmollocks disappeared into the edge of the forest. After them went the wolf-man and his pack.

Philip faced his companion. His gun was hot-and empty. The old grin was in Olaf's face. In spite of it he shuddered.

"We won't follow," he said. "Bram and his wolves will attend to the trimmings, and he'll come back when the job is finished. Meanwhile we'll get a little start for home, eh? I'm tired of this cabin. Forty days and nights-UGH! it was HELL. Have you a spare pipeful of tobacco, Phil? If you have-let's see, where did I leave off in that story about Princess Celie and the Duke of Rugni?"

"The-the-WHAT?"

"Your tobaeco, Phil!"

In a dazed fashion Philip handed his tobacco pouch to the Swede.

"You said-Princess Celie-the Duke of Rugni-"

Olaf nodded as he stuffed his pipe bowl.

"That's it. Armin is the Duke of Rugni, whatever Rugni is. He was chased off to Siberia a good many years ago, when Celie was a kid, that somebody else could get hold of the Dukedom. Understand? Millions in it, I suppose. He says some of Rasputin's old friends were behind it, and that for a long time he was kept in the dungeons of the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, with the Neva River running over his head. The friends he had, most of them in exile or chased out of the country, thought he was dead, and some of these friends were caring for Celie. Just after Rasputin was killed, and before the Revolution broke out, they learned Armin was alive and dying by inches somewhere up on the Siberian coast. Celie's mother was Danish-died almost before Celie could remember; but some of her relatives and a bunch of Russian exiles in London framed up a scheme to get Armin back, chartered a ship, sailed with Celie on board, and-"

Olaf paused to light his pipe.

"And they found the Duke," he added. "They escaped with him before they learned of the Revolution, or Armin could have gone home with the rest of the Siberian exiles and claimed his rights. For a lot of reasons they put him aboard an American whaler, and the whaler missed its plans by getting stuck in the ice for the winter up in Coronation Gulf. After that they started out with dogs and sledge and guides. There's a lot more, but that's the meat of it, Phil. I'm going to leave it to you to learn Celie's language and get the details first-hand from her. But she's a right enough princess, old man. And her Dad's a duke. It's up to you to Americanize 'em. Eh, what's that?"

Celie had come from the cabin and was standing at Philip's side, looking up into his face, and the light which Olaf saw unhidden in her eyes made him laugh softly:

"And you've got the job half done, Phil. The Duke may go back and raise the devil with the people who put him in cold storage, but Lady Celie is going to like America. Yessir, she's going to like it better'n any other place on the face of the earth!"

It was late that afternoon, traveling slowly southward over the trail of the Coppermine, when they heard far behind them the wailing cry of Bram Johnson's wolves. The sound came only once, like the swelling surge of a sudden sweep of wind, yet when they camped at the beginning of darkness Philip was confident the madman and his pack were close behind them. Utter exhaustion blotted out the hours for Celie and himself, while Olaf, buried in two heavy Eskimo coats he had foraged from the field of battle, sat on guard through the night. Twice in the stillness of his long vigil he heard strange cries. Once it was the cry of a beast. The second time it was that of a man.

The second day, with dogs refreshed, they traveled faster, and it was this night that they camped in the edge of timber and built a huge fire. It was such a fire as illumined the space about them for fifty paces or more, and it was into this light that Bram Johnson stalked, so suddenly and so noiselessly that a sharp little cry sprang from Celie's lips, and Olaf and Philip and the Duke of Rugni stared in wide-eyed amazement. In his right hand the wolf-man bore a strange object. It was an Eskimo coat, tied into the form of a bag, and in the bottom of this improvision was a lump half the size of a water pail. Bram seemed oblivious of all presence but that of Celie. His eyes were on her alone as he advanced and with a weird sound in his throat deposited the bundle at her feet. In another moment he was gone. The Swede rose slowly from where he was sitting, and speaking casually to Celie, took the wolf-man's gift up in his hands. Philip observed the strange look in his face as he turned his back to Celie in the firelight and opened the bag sufficiently to get a look inside. Then he walked out into the darkness, and a moment later returned without the bundle, and with a laugh apologized to Celie for his action.

"No need of telling her what it was," he said to Philip then. "I explained that it was foul meat Bram had brought in as a present. As a matter of fact it was Blake's head. You know the Kogmollocks have a pretty habit of pleasing a friend by presenting him with the head of a dead enemy. Nice little package for her to have opened, eh?"

After all, there are some very strange happenings in life, and the adventurers of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police come upon their share. The case of Bram Johnson, the mad wolf-man of the Upper Country, happened to be one of them, and filed away in the archives of the Department is a big envelope filled with official and personal documents, signed and sworn to by various people. There is, for instance, the brief and straightforward deposition of Corporal Olaf Anderson, of the Fort Churchill Division, and there is the longer and more detailed testimony of Mr. and Mrs. Philip Raine and the Duke of Rugni; and attached to these depositions is a copy of an official decision pardoning Bram Johnson and making of him a ward of the great Dominion instead of a criminal. He is no longer hunted. "Let Bram Johnson alone" is the word that had gone forth to the man-hunters of the Service. It is a wise and human judgment. Bram's country is big and wild. And he and his wolves still hunt there under the light of the moon and the stars.

THE END

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