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The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 9989

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


To John Aldous Joanne's appearance at this moment was like an anti-climax. It plunged him headlong for a single moment into what he believed to be the absurdity of a situation. He had a quick mental picture of himself out on the dead spruce, performing a bit of mock-heroism by dragging in a half-drowned colt by one ear. In another instant this had passed, and he was wondering why Joanne Gray was not on her way to Tête Jaune.

"It was splendid!" she was saying again, her eyes glowing at him. "I know men who would not have risked that for a human!"

"Perhaps they would have been showing good judgment," replied Aldous.

He noticed now that she was holding with one hand the end of a long slender sapling which a week or two before he had cut and trimmed for a fish-pole. He nodded toward it, a half-cynical smile on his lips.

"Were you going to fish me out-or the colt?" he asked.

"You," she replied. "I thought you were in danger." And then she added, "I suppose you are deeply grateful that fate did not compel you to be saved by a woman."

"Not at all. If the spruce had snapped, I would have caught at the end of your sapling like any drowning rat-or man. Allow me to thank you."

She had stepped down to the level strip of sand on which the colt was weakly struggling to rise to its feet. She was breathing quickly. Her face was still pale. She was without a hat, and as she bent for a moment over the colt Aldous felt his eyes drawn irresistibly to the soft thick coils of her hair, a glory of colour that made him think of the lustrous brown of a ripe wintelberry. She looked up suddenly and caught his eyes upon her.

"I came quite by accident," she explained quickly. "I wanted to be alone, and Mrs. Otto said this path would lead to the river. When I saw you I was about to turn back. And then I saw the other-the horses coming down the stream. It was terrible. Are they all drowned?"

"All that you saw. It wasn't a pretty sight, was it?" There was a suggestive inquiry in his voice as he added, "If you had gone to Tête Jaune you would have missed the unpleasantness of the spectacle."

"I would have gone, but something happened. They say it was a cave-in, a slide-something like that. The train cannot go on until to-morrow."

"And you are to stay with the Ottos?"

She nodded.

Quick as a flash she had seemed to read his thoughts.

"I am sorry," she added, before he could speak. "I can see that I have annoyed you. I have literally projected myself into your work, and I am afraid that I have caused you trouble. Mrs. Otto has told me of this man they call Quade. She says he is dangerous. And I have made him your enemy."

"I am, not afraid of Quade. The incident was nothing more than an agreeable interruption to what was becoming a rather monotonous existence up here. I have always believed, you know, that a certain amount of physical excitement is good oil for our mental machinery. That, perhaps, was why you caught me hauling at His Coltship's ear."

He had spoken stiffly. There was a hard note in his voice, a suggestion of something that was displeasing in his forced laugh. He knew that in these moments he was fighting against his inner self-against his desire to tell her how glad he was that something had held back the Tête Jaune train, and how wonderful her hair looked in the afternoon sun. He was struggling to keep himself behind the barriers he had built up and so long maintained in his writings. And yet, as he looked, he felt something crumbling into ruins. He knew that he had hurt her. The hardness of his words, the coldness of his smile, his apparently utter indifference to her had sent something that was almost like a quick, physical pain into her eyes. He drew a step nearer, so that he caught the soft contour of her cheek. Joanne Gray heard him, and lowered her head slightly, so that he could not see. She was a moment too late. On her cheek Aldous saw a single creeping drop-a tear.

In an instant he was at her side. With a quick movement she brushed the tear away before she faced him.

"I've hurt you," he said, looking her straight in the eyes. "I've hurt you, and God knows I'm a brute for doing it. I've treated you as badly as Quade-only in a different way. I know how I've made you feel-that you've been a nuisance, and have got me into trouble, and that I don't want to have anything more to do with you. Have I made you feel that?"

"I am afraid-you have."

He reached out a hand, and almost involuntarily her own came to it. She saw the change in his face, regret, pain, and then that slow-coming, wonderful laughter in his eyes.

"That's just how I set out to make you feel," he confessed, the warmth of her hand sending a thrill through him. "I might as well be frank, don't you think? Until you came I had but one desire, and that was to finish my book. I had planned great work for to-day. And you spoiled it. I couldn't get you out of my mind. And it made me-ugly."

"And t

hat was-all?" she whispered, a tense waiting in her eyes. "You didn't think--"

"What Quade thought," he bit in sharply. The grip of his fingers hurt her hand. "No, not that. My God, I didn't make you think that?"

"I'm a stranger-and they say women don't go to Tête Jaune alone," she answered doubtfully.

"That's true, they don't-not as a general rule. Especially women like you. You're alone, a stranger, and too beautiful. I don't say that to flatter you. You are beautiful, and you undoubtedly know it. To let you go on alone and unprotected among three or four thousand men like most of those up there would be a crime. And the women, too-the Little Sisters. They'd blast you. If you had a husband, a brother or a father waiting for you it would be different. But you've told me you haven't. You have made me change my mind about my book. You are of more interest to me just now than that. Will you believe me? Will you let me be a friend, if you need a friend?"

To Aldous it seemed that she drew herself up a little proudly. For a moment she seemed taller. A rose-flush of colour spread over her cheeks. She drew her hand from him. And yet, as she looked at him, he could see that she was glad.

"Yes, I believe you," she said. "But I must not accept your offer of friendship. You have done more for me now than I can ever repay. Friendship means service, and to serve me would spoil your plans, for you are in great haste to complete your book."

"If you mean that you need my assistance, the book can wait."

"I shouldn't have said that," she cut in quickly, her lips tightening slightly. "It was utterly absurd of me to hint that I might require assistance-that I cannot take care of myself. But I shall be proud of the friendship of John Aldous."

"Yes, you can take care of yourself, Ladygray," said Aldous softly, looking into her eyes and yet speaking as if to himself. "That is why you have broken so curiously into my life. It's that-and not your beauty. I have known beautiful women before. But they were-just women, frail things that might snap under stress. I have always thought there is only one woman in ten thousand who would not do that-under certain conditions. I believe you are that one in ten thousand. You can go on to Tête Jaune alone. You can go anywhere alone-and care for yourself."

He was looking at her so strangely that she held her breath, her lips parted, the flush in her cheeks deepening.

"And the strangest part of it all is that I have always known you away back in my imagination," he went on. "You have lived there, and have troubled me. I could not construct you perfectly. It is almost inconceivable that you should have borne the same name-Joanne. Joanne, of 'Fair Play.'"

She gave a little gasp.

"Joanne was-terrible," she cried. "She was bad-bad to the heart and soul of her!"

"She was splendid," replied Aldous, without a change in his quiet voice. "She was splendid-but bad. I racked myself to find a soul for her, and I failed. And yet she was splendid. It was my crime-not hers-that she lacked a soul. She would have been my ideal, but I spoiled her. And by spoiling her I sold half a million copies of the book. I did not do it purposely. I would have given her a soul if I could have found one. She went her way."

"And you compare me to-her?"

"Yes," said Aldous deliberately. "You are that Joanne. But you possess what I could not give to her. Joanne of 'Fair Play' was splendid without a soul. You have what she lacked. You may not understand, but you have come to perfect what I only partly created."

The colour had slowly ebbed from Joanne's face. There was a mysterious darkness in her eyes.

"If you were not John Aldous I would-strike you," she said. "As it is-yes-I want you as a friend."

She held out her hand. For a moment he felt its warmth again in his own. He bowed over it. Her eyes rested steadily on his blond head, and again she noted the sprinkle of premature gray in his hair. For a second time she felt almost overwhelmingly the mysterious strength of this man. Perhaps each took three breaths before John Aldous raised his head. In that time something wonderful and complete passed between them. Neither could have told the other what it was. When their eyes met again, it was in their faces.

"I have planned to have supper in my cabin to-night," said Aldous, breaking the tension of that first moment. "Won't you be my guest, Ladygray?"

"Mrs. Otto--" she began.

"I will go to her at once and explain that you are going to eat partridges with me," he interrupted. "Come-let me show you into my workshop and home."

He led her to the cabin and into its one big room.

"You will make yourself at home while I am gone, won't you?" he invited. "If it will give you any pleasure you may peel a few potatoes. I won't be gone ten minutes."

Not waiting for any protest she might have, Aldous slipped back through the door and took the path up to the Ottos'.

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