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The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 9943

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


They passed down an aisle through the tall trees, on each side of which faced the vari-coloured and many-shaped architecture of the little town. It was chiefly of canvas. Now and then a structure of logs added an appearance of solidity to the whole. The girl did not look too closely. She knew that they passed places in which there were long rows of cots, and that others were devoted to trade. She noticed signs which advertised soft drinks and cigars-always "soft drinks," which sometimes came into camp marked as "dynamite," "salt pork," and "flour." She was conscious that every one stared at them as they passed. She heard clearly the expressions of wonder and curiosity of two women and a girl who were spreading out blankets in front of a rooming-tent. She looked at the man at her side. She appreciated his courtesy in not attempting to force an acquaintanceship. In her eyes was a ripple of amusement.

"This is all strange and new to me-and not at all uninteresting," she said. "I came expecting-everything. And I am finding it. Why do they stare at me so? Am I a curiosity?"

"You are," he answered bluntly. "You are the most beautiful woman they have ever seen."

His eyes encountered hers as he spoke. He had answered her question fairly. There was nothing that was audacious in his manner or his look. She had asked for information, and he had given it. In spite of herself the girl's lips trembled. Her colour deepened. She smiled.

"Pardon me," she entreated. "I seldom feel like laughing, but I almost do now. I have encountered so many curious people and have heard so many curious things during the past twenty-four hours. You don't believe in concealing your thoughts out here in the wilderness, do you?"

"I haven't expressed my thoughts," he corrected. "I was telling you what they think."

"Oh-h-h-I beg your pardon again!"

"Not at all," he answered lightly, and now his eyes were laughing frankly into her own. "I don't mind informing you," he went on, "that I am the biggest curiosity you will meet between this side of the mountains and the sea. I am not accustomed to championing women. I allow them to pursue their own course without personal interference on my part. But-I suppose it will give you some satisfaction if I confess it-I followed you into Bill's place because you were more than ordinarily beautiful, and because I wanted to see fair play. I knew you were making a mistake. I knew what would happen."

They had passed the end of the street, and entered a little green plain that was soft as velvet underfoot. On the farther side of this, sheltered among the trees, were two or three tents. The man led the way toward these.

"Now, I suppose I've spoiled it all," he went on, a touch of irony in his voice. "It was really quite heroic of me to follow you into Bill's place, don't you think? You probably want to tell me so, but don't quite dare. And I should play up to my part, shouldn't I? But I cannot-not satisfactorily. I'm really a bit disgusted with myself for having taken as much interest in you as I have. I write books for a living. My name is John Aldous."

With a little cry of amazement, his companion stopped. Without knowing it, her hand had gripped his arm.

"You are John Aldous-who wrote 'Fair Play,' and 'Women!'" she gasped.

"Yes," he said, amusement in his face.

"I have read those books-and I have read your plays," she breathed, a mysterious tremble in her voice. "You despise women!"

"Devoutly."

She drew a deep breath. Her hand dropped from his arm.

"This is very, very funny," she mused, gazing off to the sun-capped peaks of the mountains. "You have flayed women alive. You have made them want to mob you. And yet--"

"Millions of them read my books," he chuckled.

"Yes-all of them read your books," she replied, looking straight into his face. "And I guess-in many ways-you have pointed out things that are true."

It was his turn to show surprise.

"You believe that?"

"I do. More than that-I have always thought that I knew your secret-the big, hidden thing under your work, the thing which you do not reveal because you know the world would laugh at you. And so-you despise me!"

"Not you."

"I am a woman."

He laughed. The tan in his cheeks burned a deeper red.

"We are wasting time," he warned her. "In Bill's place I heard you say you were going to leave on the Tête Jaune train. I am going to take you to a real dinner. And now-I should let those good people know your name."

A moment-unflinching and steady-she looked into his face.

"It is Joanne, the name you have made famous as the dreadfulest woman in fiction. Joanne Gray."

"I am sorry," he said, and bowed low. "Come. If I am not mistaken I smell new-baked bread."

As they moved on he suddenly touched her arm. She felt for a moment the firm clasp of his fingers. There was a new light in his eyes, a glow of enthusiasm.

"I have it!" he cried. "You have brought

it to me-the idea. I have been wanting a name for her-the woman in my new book. She is to be a tremendous surprise. I haven't found a name, until now-one that fits. I shall call her Ladygray!"

He felt the girl flinch. He was surprised at the sudden startled look that shot into her eyes, the swift ebbing of the colour from her cheeks. He drew away his hand at the strange change in her. He noticed how quickly she was breathing-that the fingers of her white hands were clasped tensely.

"You object," he said.

"Not enough to keep you from using it," she replied in a low voice. "I owe you a great deal." He noted, too, how quickly she had recovered herself. Her head was a little higher. She looked toward the tents. "You were not mistaken," she added. "I smell new-made bread!"

"And I shall emphasize the first half of it-Ladygray," said John Aldous, as if speaking to himself. "That diminutizes it, you might say-gives it the touch of sentiment I want. You can imagine a lover saying 'Dear little Ladygray, are you warm and comfy?' He wouldn't say Ladygray as if she wore a coronet, would he?"

"Smell-o'-bread-fresh bread!" sniffed Joanne Gray, as if she had not heard him. "It's making me hungry. Will you please hurry me to it, John Aldous?"

They were approaching the first of the three tent-houses, over which was a crudely painted sign which read "Otto Brothers, Guides and Outfitters." It was a large, square tent, with weather-faded red and blue stripes, and from it came the cheerful sound of a woman's laughter. Half a dozen trampish-looking Airedale terriers roused themselves languidly as they drew nearer. One of them stood up and snarled.

"They won't hurt you," assured Aldous. "They belong to Jack Bruce and Clossen Otto-the finest bunch of grizzly dogs in the Rockies." Another moment, and a woman had appeared in the door. "And that is Mrs. Jack Otto," he added under his breath. "If all women were like her I wouldn't have written the things you have read!"

He might have added that she was Scotch. But this was not necessary. The laughter was still in her good-humoured face. Aldous looked at his companion, and he found her smiling back. The eyes of the two women had already met.

Briefly Aldous explained what had happened at Quade's, and that the young woman was leaving on the Tête Jaune train. The good-humoured smile left Mrs. Otto's face when he mentioned Quade.

"I've told Jack I'd like to poison that man some day," she cried. "You poor dear, come in, I'll get you a cup of tea."

"Which always means dinner in the Otto camp," added Aldous.

"I'm not so hungry, but I'm tired-so tired," he heard the girl say as she went in with Mrs. Otto, and there was a new and strangely pathetic note in her voice. "I want to rest-until the train goes."

He followed them in, and stood for a moment near the door.

"There's a room in there, my dear," said the woman, drawing back a curtain. "Make yourself at home, and lie down on the bed until I have the tea ready."

When the curtain had closed behind her, John Aldous spoke in a low voice to the woman.

"Will you see her safely to the train, Mrs. Otto?" he asked. "It leaves at a quarter after two. I must be going."

He felt that he had sufficiently performed his duty. He left the tent, and paused for a moment outside to touzle affectionately the trampish heads of the bear dogs. Then he turned away, whistling. He had gone a dozen steps when a low voice stopped him. He turned. Joanne had come from the door.

For one moment he stared as if something more wonderful than anything he had ever seen had risen before him. The girl was bareheaded, and she stood in a sun mellowed by a film of cloud. Her head was piled with lustrous coils of gold-brown hair that her hat and veil had hidden. Never had he looked upon such wonderful hair, crushed and crumpled back from her smooth forehead; nor such marvellous whiteness of skin and pure blue depths of eyes! In her he saw now everything that was strong and splendid in woman. She was not girlishly sweet. She was not a girl. She was a woman-glorious to look at, a soul glowing out of her eyes, a strength that thrilled him in the quiet and beautiful mystery of her face.

"You were going without saying good-bye," she said. "Won't you let me thank you-a last time?"

Her voice brought him to himself again. A moment he bent over her hand. A moment he felt its warm, firm pressure in his own. The smile that flashed to his lips was hidden from her as he bowed his blond-gray head.

"Pardon me for the omission," he apologized. "Good-bye-and may good luck go with you!"

Their eyes met once more. With another bow he had turned, and was continuing his way. At the door Joanne Gray looked back. He was whistling again. His careless, easy stride was filled with a freedom that seemed to come to her in the breath of the mountains. And then she, too, smiled strangely as she re?ntered the tent.

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