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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 21403

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


If John Aldous had betrayed no visible sign of inward vanquishment he at least was feeling its effect. For years his writings had made him the target for a world of women, and many men. The men he had regarded with indifferent toleration. The women were his life-the "frail and ineffective creatures" who gave spice to his great adventure, and made his days anything but monotonous. He was not unchivalrous. Deep down in his heart-and this was his own secret-he did not even despise women. But he had seen their weaknesses and their frailties as perhaps no other man had ever seen them, and he had written of them as no other man had ever written. This had brought him the condemnation of the host, the admiration of the few. His own personal veneer of antagonism against woman was purely artificial, and yet only a few had guessed it. He had built it up about him as a sort of protection. He called himself "an adventurer in the mysteries of feminism," and to be this successfully he had argued that he must destroy in himself the usual heart-emotions of the sex-man and the animal.

How far he had succeeded in this he himself did not know-until these last moments when he had bid good-bye to Joanne Gray. He confessed that she had found a cleft in his armour, and there was an uneasy thrill in his blood. It was not her beauty alone that had affected him. He had trained himself to look at a beautiful woman as he might have looked at a beautiful flower, confident that if he went beyond the mere admiration of it he would find only burned-out ashes. But in her he had seen something that was more than beauty, something that for a flashing moment had set stirring every molecule in his being. He had felt the desire to rest his hand upon her shining hair!

He turned off into a winding path that led into the thick poplars, restraining an inclination to look back in the direction of the Otto camp. He pulled out the pipe he had dropped into his shirt pocket, filled it with fresh tobacco, and began smoking. As he smoked, his lips wore a quizzical smile, for he was honest enough to give Joanne Gray credit for her triumph. She had awakened a new kind of interest in him-only a passing interest, to be sure-but a new kind for all that. The fact amused him. In a large way he was a humourist-few guessing it, and he fully appreciated the humour of the present situation-that he, John Aldous, touted the world over as a woman-hater, wanted to peer out through the poplar foliage and see that wonderful gold-brown head shining in the sun once more!

He wandered more slowly on his way, wondering with fresh interest what his friends, the women, would say when they read his new book. His title for it was "Mothers." It was to be a tremendous surprise.

Suddenly his face became serious. He faced the sound of a distant phonograph. It was not the phonograph in Quade's place, but that of a rival dealer in soft drinks at the end of the "street." For a moment Aldous hesitated. Then he turned in the direction of the camp.

Quade was bolstered up on a stool, his back against the thin partition, when John Aldous sauntered in. There was still a groggy look in his mottled face. His thick bulk hung a bit limply. In his heavy-lidded eyes, under-hung by watery pouches of sin and dissipation, there was a vengeful and beastlike glare. He was surrounded by his friends. One of them was taking a wet cloth from his head. There were a dozen in the canvas-walled room, all with their backs to the door, their eyes upon their fallen and dishonoured chief. For a moment John Aldous paused in the door. The cool and insolent smile hovered about his lips again, and little crinkles had gathered at the corners of his eyes.

"Did I hit you pretty hard, Bill?" he asked.

Every head was turned toward him. Bill Quade stared, his mouth open. He staggered to his feet, and stood dizzily.

"You-damn you!" he cried huskily.

Three or four of the men had already begun to move toward the stranger. Their hands were knotted, their faces murderously dark.

"Wait a minute, boys," warned Aldous coolly. "I've got something to say to you-and Bill. Then eat me alive if you want to. Do you want to be square enough to give me a word?"

Quade had settled back sickly on his stool. The others had stopped, waiting. The quiet and insolently confident smile had not left Aldous' lips.

"You'll feel better in a few minutes, Bill," he consoled. "A hard blow on the jaw always makes you sick at the pit of the stomach. That dizziness will pass away shortly. Meanwhile, I'm going to give you and your pals a little verbal and visual demonstration of what you're up against, and warn you to bait no traps for a certain young woman whom you've lately seen. She's going on to Tête Jaune. And I know how your partner plays his game up there. I'm not particularly anxious to butt into your affairs and the business of this pretty bunch that's gathered about you, but I've come to give you a friendly warning for all that. If this young woman is embarrassed up at Tête Jaune you're going to settle with me."

Aldous had spoken without a tremor of excitement in his voice. Not one of the men noticed his speaking lips, his slim hands, or his careless posture as he leaned in the door. They were looking straight into his eyes, strangely scintillating and deadly earnest. In such a man mere bulk did not count.

"That much-for words," he went on. "Now I'm going to give you the visual demonstration. I know your game, Bill. You're already planning what you're going to do. You won't fight fair-because you never have. You've already decided that some morning I'll turn up missing, or be dug out from under a fall of rock, or go peacefully floating down the Athabasca. See! There's nothing in that hand, is there?"

He stretched out an empty hand toward them, palm up.

"And now!"

A twist of the wrist so swift their eyes could not follow, a metallic click, and the startled group were staring into the black muzzle of a menacing little automatic.

"That's known as the sleeve trick, boys," explained Aldous with his imperturbable smile. "It's a relic of the old gun-fighting days when the best man was quickest. From now on, especially at night, I shall carry this little friend of mine just inside my wristband. There are eleven shots in it, and I shoot fairly straight. Good-day!"

Before they had recovered from their astonishment he was gone.

He did not follow the road along which Joanne had come a short time before, but turned again into the winding trail that led riverward through the poplars. Where before he had been a little amused at himself, he was now more seriously disgusted. He was not afraid of Quade, who was perhaps the most dangerous man along the line of rail. Neither was he afraid of the lawless men who worked his ends. But he knew that he had made powerful enemies, and all because of an unknown woman whom he had never seen until half an hour before. It was this that disturbed his equanimity-the woman of it, and the knowledge that his interference had been unsolicited and probably unnecessary. And now that he had gone this far he found it not easy to recover his balance. Who was this Joanne Gray? he asked himself. She was not ordinary-like the hundred other women who had gone on ahead of her to Tête Jaune Cache. If she had been that, he would soon have been in his little shack on the shore of the river, hard at work. He had planned work for himself that afternoon, and he was nettled to discover that his enthusiasm for the grand finale of a certain situation in his novel was gone. Yet for this he did not blame her. He was the fool. Quade and his friends would make him feel that sooner or later.

His trail led him to a partly dry muskeg bottom. Beyond this was a thicker growth of timber, mostly spruce and cedar, from behind which came the rushing sound of water. A few moments more and he stood with the wide tumult of the Athabasca at his feet. He had chosen this spot for his little cabin because the river ran wild here among the rocks, and because pack-outfits going into the southward mountains could not disturb him by fording at this point. Across the river rose the steep embankments that shut in Buffalo Prairie, and still beyond that the mountains, thick with timber rising billow on billow until trees looked like twigs, with gray rock and glistening snow shouldering the clouds above the last purple line. The cabin in which he had lived and worked for many weeks faced the river and the distant Saw Tooth Range, and was partly hidden in a clump of jack-pines. He opened the door and entered. Through the window to the south and west he could see the white face of Mount Geikie, and forty miles away in that wilderness of peaks, the sombre frown of Hardesty; through it the sun came now, flooding his work as he had left it. The last page of manuscript on which he had been working was in his typewriter. He sat down to begin where he had left off in that pivotal situation in his masterpiece.

He read and re-read the last two or three pages of the manuscript, struggling to pick up the threads where he had dropped them. With each reading he became more convinced that his work for that afternoon was spoiled. And by whom? By what? A little fiercely he packed his pipe with fresh tobacco. Then he leaned back, lighted it, and laughed. More and more as the minutes passed he permitted himself to think of the strange young woman whose beauty and personality had literally projected themselves into his workshop. He marvelled at the crudity of the questions which he asked himself, and yet he persisted in asking them. Who was she? What could be her mission at Tête Jaune Cache? She had repeated to him what she had said to the girl in the coach-that at Tête Jaune she had no friends. Beyond that, and her name, she had offered no enlightenment.

In the brief space that he had been with her he had mentally tabulated her age as twenty-eight-no older. Her beauty alone, the purity of her eyes, the freshness of her lips, and the slender girlishness of her figure, might have made him say twenty, but with those things he had found the maturer poise of the woman. It had been a flashlight picture, but one that he was sure of.

Several times during the next hour he turned to his work, and at last gave up his efforts entirely. From a peg in the wall he took down a little rifle. He had found it convenient to do much of his own cooking, and he had broken a few laws. The partridges were out of season, but temptingly fat and tender. With a brace of young broilers in mind for supper, he left the cabin and followed the narrow foot-t

rail up the river. He hunted for half an hour before he stirred a covey of birds. Two of these he shot. Concealing his meat and his gun near the trail he continued toward the ford half a mile farther up, wondering if Stevens, who was due to cross that day, had got his outfit over. Not until then did he look at his watch. He was surprised to find that the Tête Jaune train had been gone three quarters of an hour. For some unaccountable reason he felt easier. He went on, whistling.

At the ford he found Stevens standing close to the river's edge, twisting one of his long red moustaches in doubt and vexation.

"Damn this river," he growled, as Aldous came up. "You never can tell what it's going to do overnight. Look there! Would you try to cross?"

"I wouldn't," replied Aldous. "It's a foot higher than yesterday. I wouldn't take the chance."

"Not with two guides, a cook, and a horse-wrangler on your pay-roll-and a hospital bill as big as Geikie staring you in the face?" argued Stevens, who had been sick for three months. "I guess you'd pretty near take a chance. I've a notion to."

"I wouldn't," repeated Aldous.

"But I've lost two days already, and I'm taking that bunch of sightseers out for a lump sum, guaranteeing 'em so many days on the trail. This ain't what you might call on the trail. They don't expect to pay for this delay, and that outfit back in the bush is costing me thirty dollars a day. We can get the dunnage and ourselves over in the flat-boat. It'll make our arms crack-but we can do it. I've got twenty-seven horses. I've a notion to chase 'em in. The river won't be any lower to-morrow."

"But you may be a few horses ahead."

Stevens bit off a chunk of tobacco and sat down. For a few moments he looked at the muddy flood with an ugly eye. Then he chuckled, and grinned.

"Came through the camp half an hour ago," he said. "Hear you cleaned up on Bill Quade."

"A bit," said Aldous.

Stevens rolled his quid and spat into the water slushing at his feet.

"Guess I saw the woman when she got off the train," he went on. "She dropped something. I picked it up, but she was so darned pretty as she stood there looking about I didn't dare go up an' give it to her. If it had been worth anything I'd screwed up my courage. But it wasn't-so I just gawped like the others. It was a piece of paper. Mebby you'd like it as a souvenir, seein' as you laid out Quade for her."

As he spoke, Stevens fished a crumpled bit of paper from his pocket and gave it to his companion. Aldous had sat down beside him. He smoothed the page out on his knee. There was no writing on it, but it was crowded thick with figures, as if the maker of the numerals had been doing some problem in mathematics. The chief thing that interested him was that wherever monetary symbols were used it was the "pound" and not the "dollar" sign. The totals of certain columns were rather startling.

"Guess she's a millionaire if that's her own money she's been figgering," said Stevens. "Notice that figger there!" He pointed with a stubby forefinger. "Pretty near a billion, ain't it?"

"Seven hundred and fifty thousand," said Aldous.

He was thinking of the "pound" sign. She had not looked like the Englishwomen he had met. He folded the slip of paper and put it in his pocket.

Stevens eyed him seriously.

"I was coming over to give you a bit of advice before I left for the Maligne Lake country," he said. "You'd better move. Quade won't want you around after this. Besides--"

"What?"

"My kid heard something," continued the packer, edging nearer. "You was mighty good to the kid when I was down an' out, Aldous. I ought to tell you. It wasn't an hour ago the kid was behind the tent an' he heard Quade and Slim Barker talking. So far as I can find from the kid, Quade has gone nutty over her. He's ravin'. He told Slim that he'd give ten thousand dollars to get her in his hands. What sent the boy down to me was Quade tellin' Slim that he'd get you first. He told Slim to go on to Tête Jaune-follow the girl!"

"The deuce you say!" cried Aldous, clutching the other's arm suddenly. "He's done that?"

"That's what the kid says."

Aldous rose to his feet slowly. The careless smile was playing about his mouth again. A few men had learned that in those moments John Aldous was dangerous.

"The kid is undoubtedly right," he said, looking down at Stevens. "But I am quite sure the young woman is capable of taking care of herself. Quade has a tremendous amount of nerve, setting Slim to follow her, hasn't he? Slim may run up against a husband or a brother."

Stevens haunched his shoulders.

"It's not the woman I'm thinking about. It's you. I'd sure change my location."

"Why wouldn't it be just as well if I told the police of his threat?" asked Aldous, looking across the river with a glimmer of humour in his eyes.

"Oh, hell!" was the packer's rejoinder.

Slowly he unwound his long legs and rose to his feet.

"Take my advice-move!" he said. "As for me, I'm going to cross that cussed river this afternoon or know the reason why."

He stalked away in the direction of his outfit, chewing viciously at his quid. For a few moments Aldous stood undecided. He would liked to have joined the half-dozen men he saw lounging restfully a distance beyond the grazing ponies. But Stevens had made him acutely aware of a new danger. He was thinking of his cabin-and the priceless achievement of his last months of work, his manuscript. If Quade should destroy that--

He clenched his hands and walked swiftly toward his camp. To "burn out" an enemy was one of Quade's favourite methods of retaliation. He had heard this. He also knew that Quade's work was done so cleverly that the police had been unable to call him to account.

Quade's status had interested Aldous from the beginning. He had discovered that Quade and Culver Rann, his partner at Tête Jaune, were forces to be reckoned with even by the "powers" along the line of rail. They were the two chiefs of the "underground," the men who controlled the most dangerous element from Miette to Fort George. He had once seen Culver Rann, a quiet, keen-eyed, immaculately groomed man of forty-the cleverest scoundrel that had ever drifted into the Canadian west. He had been told that Rann was really the brain of the combination, and that the two had picked up a quarter of a million in various ways. But it was Quade with whom he had to deal now, and he began to thank Stevens for his warning. He was filled with a sense of relief when he reached his cabin and found it as he had left it. He always made a carbon copy of his work. This copy he now put into a waterproof tin box, and the box he concealed under a log a short distance back in the bush.

"Now go ahead, Quade," he laughed to himself, a curious, almost exultant ring in his voice. "I haven't had any real excitement for so long I can't remember, and if you start the fun there's going to be fun!"

He returned to his birds, perched himself behind a bush at the river's edge, and began skinning them. He had almost finished when he heard hoarse shouts from up the river. From his position he could see the stream a hundred yards below the ford. Stevens had driven in his horses. He could see them breasting the first sweep of the current, their heads held high, struggling for the opposite shore. He rose, dropped his birds, and stared.

"Good God, what a fool!" he gasped.

He saw the tragedy almost before it had begun. Still three hundred yards below the swimming horses was the gravelly bar which they must reach on the opposite side. He noted the grayish strip of smooth water that marked the end of the dead-line. Three or four of the stronger animals were forging steadily toward this. The others grouped close together, almost motionless in their last tremendous fight, were left farther and farther behind. Then came the break. A mare and her yearling colt had gone in with the bunch. Aldous saw the colt, with its small head and shoulders high out of the water, sweep down like a chip with the current. A cold chill ran through him as he heard the whinneying scream of the mother-a warning cry that held for him the pathos and the despair of a creature that was human. He knew what it meant. "Wait-I'm coming-I'm coming!" was in that cry. He saw the mare give up and follow resistlessly with the deadly current, her eyes upon her colt. The heads behind her wavered, then turned, and in another moment the herd was sweeping down to its destruction.

Aldous felt like turning his head. But the spectacle fascinated him, and he looked. He did not think of Stevens and his loss as the first of the herd plunged in among the rocks. He stood with white face and clenched hands, leaning over the water boiling at his feet, cursing softly in his helplessness. To him came the last terrible cries of the perishing animals. He saw head after head go under. Out of the white spume of a great rock against which the flood split itself with the force of an avalanche he saw one horse pitched bodily, as if thrown from a huge catapault. The last animal had disappeared when chance turned his eyes upstream and close in to shore. Here flowed a steady current free of rock, and down this-head and shoulders still high out of the water-came the colt! What miracle had saved the little fellow thus far Aldous did not stop to ask. Fifty yards below it would meet the fate of the others. Half that distance in the direction of the maelstrom below was the dead trunk of a fallen spruce overhanging the water for fifteen or twenty feet. In a flash Aldous was racing toward it. He climbed out on it, leaned far over, and reached down. His hand touched the water. In the grim excitement of rescue he forgot his own peril. There was one chance in twenty that the colt would come within his reach, and it did. He made a single lunge and caught it by the ear. For a moment after that his heart turned sick. Under the added strain the dead spruce sagged down with a warning crack. But it held, and Aldous hung to his grip on the ear. Foot by foot he wormed his way back, until at last he had dragged the little animal ashore.

And then a voice spoke behind him, a voice that he would have recognized among ten thousand, low, sweet, thrilling.

"That was splendid, John Aldous!" it said. "If I were a man I would want to be a man like you!"

He turned. A few steps from him stood Joanne Gray. Her face was as white as the bit of lace at her throat. Her lips were colourless, and her bosom rose and fell swiftly. He knew that she, too, had witnessed the tragedy. And the eyes that looked at him were glorious.

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