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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 19781

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was in the blood of John Aldous to kill Quade. He ran with the quickness of a hare around the end of the cabin, past the window, and then stopped to listen, his automatic in his hand, his eye piercing the gloom for some moving shadow. He had not counted on an instant's hesitation. He would shoot Quade, for he knew why the mottled beast had been at the window. Stevens' boy had been right. Quade was after Joanne. His ugly soul was disrupted with a desire to possess her, and Aldous knew that when roused by passion he was more like a devil-fish than a man-a creeping, slimy, night-seeking creature who had not only the power of the underworld back of him, but wealth as well. He did not think of him as a man as he stood listening, but as a beast. He was ready to shoot. But he saw nothing. He heard no sound that could have been made by a stumbling foot or a moving body. An hour later, the moon would have been up, but it was dark now except for the stars. He heard the hoot of an owl a hundred yards away. Out in the river something splashed. From the timber beyond Buffalo Prairie came the yapping bark of a coyote. For five minutes he stood as silent as one of the rocks behind him. He realized that to go on-to seek blindly for Quade in the darkness, would be folly. He went back, tapped at the door, and re?ntered the cabin when Joanne threw back the lock.

She was still pale. Her eyes were bright.

"I was coming-in a moment," she said, "I was beginning to fear that--"

"-he had struck me down in the dark?" added Aldous, as she hesitated. "Well, he would like to do just that, Joanne." Unconsciously her name had slipped from him. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to call her Joanne now. "Is it necessary for me to tell you what this man Quade is-why he was looking through the window?"

She shuddered.

"No-no-I understand!"

"Only partly," continued Aldous, his face white and set. "It is necessary that you should know more than you have guessed, for your own protection. If you were like most other women I would not tell you the truth, but would try to shield you from it. As it is you should know. There is only one other man in the Rocky Mountains more dangerous than Bill Quade. He is Culver Rann, up at Tête Jaune. They are partners-partners in crime, in sin, in everything that is bad and that brings them gold. Their influence among the rougher elements along the line of rail is complete. They are so strongly entrenched that they have put contractors out of business because they would not submit to blackmail. The few harmless police we have following the steel have been unable to touch them. They have cleaned up hundreds of thousands, chiefly in three things-blackmail, whisky, and women. Quade is the viler of the two. He is like a horrible beast. Culver Rann makes me think of a sleek and shining serpent. But it is this man Quade--"

He found it almost impossible to go on with Joanne's blue eyes gazing so steadily into his.

"-whom we have made our enemy," she finished for him.

"Yes-and more than that," he said, partly turning his head away. "You cannot go on to Tête Jaune alone, Joanne. You must go nowhere alone. If you do--"

"What will happen?"

"I don't know. Perhaps nothing would happen. But you cannot go alone. I am going to take you back to Mrs. Otto now. And to-morrow I shall go on to Tête Jaune with you. It is fortunate that I have a place up there to which I can take you, and where you will be safe."

As they were preparing to go, Joanne glanced ruefully at the table.

"I am ashamed to leave the dishes in that mess," she said.

He laughed, and tucked her hand under his arm as they went through the door. When they had passed through the little clearing, and the darkness of the spruce and balsam walls shut them in, he took her hand.

"It is dark and you may stumble," he apologized. "This isn't much like the shell plaza in front of the Cape Verde, is it?"

"No. Did you pick up any of the little red bloodshells? I did, and they made me shiver. There were strange stories associated with them."

He knew that she was staring ahead into the blank wall of gloom as she spoke, and that it was not thought of the bloodshells, but of Quade, that made her fingers close more tightly about his own. His right hand was gripping the butt of his automatic. Every nerve in him was on the alert, yet she could detect nothing of caution or preparedness in his careless voice.

"The bloodstones didn't trouble me," he answered. "I can't remember anything that upset me more than the snakes. I am a terrible coward when it comes to anything that crawls without feet. I will run from a snake no longer than your little finger-in fact, I'm just as scared of a little grass snake as I am of a python. It's the thing, and not its size, that horrifies me. Once I jumped out of a boat into ten feet of water because my companion caught an eel on his line, and persisted in the argument that it was a fish. Thank Heaven we don't have snakes up here. I've seen only three or four in all my experience in the Northland."

She laughed softly in spite of the uneasy thrill the night held for her.

"It is hard for me to imagine you being afraid," she said. "And yet if you were afraid I know it would be of just some little thing like that. My father was one of the bravest men in the world, and a hundred times I have seen him show horror at sight of a spider. If you were afraid of snakes, why did you go up the Gampola, in Ceylon?"

"I didn't know the snakes were there," he chuckled. "I hadn't dreamed there were a half so many snakes in the whole world as there were along that confounded river. I slept sitting up, dressed in rubber wading boots that came to my waist, and wore thick leather gloves. I got out of the country at the earliest possible moment."

When they entered the edge of the Miette clearing and saw the glow of lights ahead of them, Aldous caught the sudden upturn of his companion's face, laughing at him in the starlight.

"Kind, thoughtful John Aldous!" she whispered, as if to herself. "How nice of you it was to talk of such pleasant things while we were coming through that black, dreadful swamp-with a Bill Quade waiting for us on the side!"

A low ripple of laughter broke from her lips, and he stopped dead in his tracks, forgetting to put the automatic back in his pocket. At sight of it the amusement died in her face. She caught his arm, and one of her hands seized the cold steel of the pistol.

"Would he-dare?" she demanded.

"You can't tell," replied Aldous, putting the gun in his pocket. "And that was a creepy sort of conversation to load you down with, wasn't it, Ladygray? I imagine you'll catch me in all sorts of blunders like that." He pointed ahead. "There's Mrs. Otto now. She's looking this way and wondering with all her big heart if you ought not to be at home and in bed."

The door of the Otto home was wide open, and silhouetted in the flood of light was the good-natured Scotchwoman. Aldous gave the whistling signal which she and her menfolk always recognized, and hurried on with Joanne.

Before they had quite reached the tent-house, Joanne put a detaining hand on his arm.

"I don't want you to go back to the cabin to-night," she said. "The face at the window-was terrible. I am afraid. I don't want you to be there alone."

Her words sent a warm glow through him.

"Nothing will happen," he assured her. "Quade will not come back."

"I don't want you to return to the cabin," she persisted. "Is there no other place where you can stay?"

"I might go down and console Stevens, and borrow a couple of his horse blankets for a bed if that will please you."

"It will," she cried quickly. "If you don't return to the cabin you may go on to Tête Jaune with me to-morrow. Is it a bargain?"

"It is!" he accepted eagerly. "I don't like to be chased out, but I'll promise not to sleep in the cabin to-night."

Mrs. Otto was advancing to meet them. At the door he bade them good-night, and walked on in the direction of the lighted avenue of tents and shacks under the trees. He caught a last look in Joanne's eyes of anxiety and fear. Glancing back out of the darkness that swallowed him up, he saw her pause for a moment in the lighted doorway, and look in his direction. His heart beat faster. Joyously he laughed under his breath. It was strangely new and pleasing to have some one thinking of him in that way.

He had not intended to go openly into the lighted avenue. From the moment he had plunged out into the night after Quade, his fighting blood was roused. He had subdued it while with Joanne, but his determination to find Quade and have a settlement with him had grown no less. He told himself that he was one of the few men along the line whom it would be difficult for Quade to harm in other than a physical way. He had no business that could be destroyed by the other's underground methods, and he had no job to lose. Until he had seen Joanne enter the scoundrel's red-and-white striped tent he had never hated a man as he now hated Quade. He had loathed him before, and had evaded him because the sight of him was unpleasant; now he wanted to grip his fingers around his thick red throat. He had meant to come up behind Quade's tent, but changed his mind and walked into the lighted trail between the two rows of tents and shacks, his hands thrust carelessly into his trousers pockets. The night carnival of the railroad builders was on. Coarse laughter, snatches of song, the click of pool balls and the chink of glasses mingled with the thrumming of three or four musical instruments along the lighted way. The phonograph in Quade's place was going incessantly. Half a dozen times Aldous paused to greet men whom he knew. He noted that there was nothing new or different in their man

ner toward him. If they had heard of his trouble with Quade, he was certain they would have spoken of it, or at least would have betrayed some sign. For several minutes he stopped to talk with MacVeigh, a young Scotch surveyor. MacVeigh hated Quade, but he made no mention of him. Purposely he passed Quade's tent and walked to the end of the street, nodding and looking closely at those whom he knew. It was becoming more and more evident to him that Quade and his pals were keeping the affair of the afternoon as quiet as possible. Stevens had heard of it. He wondered how.

Aldous retraced his steps. As though nothing had happened, he entered Quade's place. There were a dozen men inside, and among them he recognized three who had been there that afternoon. He nodded to them. Slim Barker was in Quade's place behind the counter. Barker was Quade's right-hand man at Miette, and there was a glitter in his rat-like eyes as Aldous leaned over the glass case at one end of the counter and asked for cigars. He fumbled a bit as he picked out half a dollar's worth from the box. His eyes met Slim's.

"Where is Quade?" he asked casually.

Barker shrugged his shoulders.

"Busy to-night," he answered shortly. "Want to see him?"

"No, not particularly. Only-I don't want him to hold a grudge."

Barker replaced the box in the case and turned away. After lighting a cigar Aldous went out. He was sure that Quade had not returned from the river. Was he lying in wait for him near the cabin? The thought sent a sudden thrill through him. In the same breath it was gone. With half a dozen men ready to do his work, Aldous knew that Quade would not redden his own hands or place himself in any conspicuous risk. During the next hour he visited the places where Quade was most frequently seen. He had made up his mind to walk over to the engineers' camp, when a small figure darted after him out of the gloom of the trees.

It was Stevens' boy.

"Dad wants to see you down at the camp," he whispered excitedly. "He says right away-an' for no one to see you. He said not to let any one see me. I've been waiting for you to come out in the dark."

"Skip back and tell him I'll come," replied Aldous quickly. "Be sure you mind what he says-and don't let any one see you!"

The boy disappeared like a rabbit. Aldous looked back, and ahead, and then dived into the darkness after him.

A quarter of an hour later he came out on the river close to Stevens' camp. A little nearer he saw Stevens squatted close to a smouldering fire about which he was drying some clothes. The boy was huddled in a disconsolate heap near him. Aldous called softly, and Stevens slowly rose and stretched himself. The packer advanced to where he had screened himself behind a clump of bush. His first look at the other assured him that he was right in using caution. The moon had risen, and the light of it fell in the packer's face. It was a dead, stonelike gray. His cheeks seemed thinner than when Aldous had seen him a few hours before and there was despair in the droop of his shoulders. His eyes were what startled Aldous. They were like coals of fire, and shifted swiftly from point to point in the bush. For a moment they stood silent.

"Sit down," Stevens said then. "Get out of the moonlight. I've got something to tell you."

They crouched behind the bush.

"You know what happened," Stevens said, in a low voice. "I lost my outfit."

"Yes, I saw what happened, Stevens."

The packer hesitated for a moment. One of his big hands reached out and gripped John Aldous by the arm.

"Let me ask you something before I go on," he whispered. "You won't take offence-because it's necessary. She looked like an angel to me when I saw her up at the train. But you know. Is she good, or-- You know what we think of women who come in here alone. That's why I ask."

"She's what you thought she was, Stevens," replied Aldous. "As pure and as sweet as she looks. The kind we like to fight for."

"I was sure of it, Aldous. That's why I sent the kid for you. I saw her in your cabin-after the outfit went to hell. When I come back to camp, Quade was here. I was pretty well broken up. Didn't talk to him much. But he seen I had lost everything. Then he went on down to your place. He told me that later. But I guessed it soon as he come back. I never see him look like he did then. I'll cut it short. He's mad-loon mad-over that girl. I played the sympathy act, thinkin' of you-an' her. He hinted at some easy money. I let him understand that at the present writin' I'd be willing to take money most any way, and that I didn't have any particular likin' for you. Then it come out. He made me a proposition."

Stevens lowered his voice, and stopped to peer again about the bush.

"Go on," urged Aldous. "We're alone."

Stevens bent so near that his tobacco-laden breath swept his companion's cheek.

"He said he'd replace my lost outfit if I'd put you out of the way some time day after to-morrow!"

"Kill me?"

"Yes."

For a few moments there was a silence broken only by their tense breathing. Aldous had found the packer's hand. He was gripping it hard.

"Thank you, old man," he said. "And he believes you will do it?"

"I told him I would-day after to-morrow-an' throw your body in the Athabasca."

"Splendid, Stevens! You've got Sherlock Holmes beat by a mile! And does he want you to do this pretty job because I gave him a crack on the jaw?"

"Not a bit of it!" exclaimed Stevens quickly. "He knows the girl is a stranger and alone. You've taken an interest in her. With you out of the way, she won't be missed. Dammit, man, don't you know his system? And, if he ever wanted anything in his life he wants her. She's turned that poison-blood of his into fire. He raved about her here. He'll go the limit. He'll do anything to get her. He's so crazy I believe he'd give every dollar he's got. There's just one thing for you to do. Send the girl back where she come from. Then you get out. As for myself-I'm goin' to emigrate. Ain't got a dollar now, so I might as well hit for the prairies an' get a job on a ranch. Next winter I guess me 'n the kid will trap up on the Parsnip River."

"You're wrong-clean wrong," said Aldous quietly. "When I saw your outfit going down among the rocks I had already made up my mind to help you. What you've told me to-night hasn't made any difference. I would have helped you anyway, Stevens. I've got more money than I know what to do with right now. Roper has a thirty-horse outfit for sale. Buy it to-morrow. I'll pay for it, and you needn't consider yourself a dollar in debt. Some day I'll have you take me on a long trip, and that will make up for it. As for the girl and myself-we're going on to Tête Jaune to-morrow."

Aldous could see the amazed packer staring at him in the gloom. "You don't think I'm sellin' myself, do you, Aldous?" he asked huskily. "That ain't why you're doin' this-for me 'n the kid-is it?"

"I had made up my mind to do it before I saw you to-night," repeated Aldous. "I've got lots of money, and I don't use but a little of it. It sometimes accumulates so fast that it bothers me. Besides, I've promised to accept payment for the outfit in trips. These mountains have got a hold on me, Stevens. I'm going to take a good many trips before I die."

"Not if you go on to Tête Jaune, you ain't," replied Stevens, biting a huge quid from a black plug.

Aldous had risen to his feet. Stevens stood up beside him.

"If you go on to Tête Jaune you're a bigger fool than I was in tryin' to swim the outfit across the river to-day," he added. "Listen!" He leaned toward Aldous, his eyes gleaming. "In the last six months there's been forty dead men dragged out of the Frazer between Tête Jaune an' Fort George. You know that. The papers have called 'em accidents-the 'toll of railroad building.' Mebby a part of it is. Mebby a half of them forty died by accident. The other half didn't. They were sent down by Culver Rann and Bill Quade. Once you go floatin' down the Frazer there ain't no questions asked. Somebody sees you an' pulls you out-mebby a Breed or an Indian-an' puts you under a little sand a bit later. If it's a white man he does likewise. There ain't no time to investigate floaters over-particular in the wilderness. Besides, you git so beat up in the rocks you don't look like much of anything. I know, because I worked on the scows three months, an' helped bury four of 'em. An' there wasn't anything, not even a scrap of paper, in the pockets of two of 'em! Is that suspicious, or ain't it? It don't pay to talk too much along the Frazer. Men keep their mouths shut. But I'll tell you this: Culver Rann an' Bill Quade know a lot."

"And you think I'll go in the Frazer?"

"Egzactly. Quade would rather have you in there than in the Athabasca. And then--"

"Well?"

Stevens spat into the bush, and shrugged his shoulders. "This beautiful lady you've taken an interest in will turn up missing, Aldous. She'll disappear off the face of the map-just like Stimson's wife did. You remember Stimson?"

"He was found in the Frazer," said Aldous, gripping the other's arm in the darkness.

"Egzactly. An' that pretty wife of his disappeared a little later. Up there everybody's too busy to ask where other people go. Culver Rann an' Bill Quade know what happened to Stimson, an' they know what happened to Stimson's wife. You don't want to go to Tête Jaune. You don't want to let her go. I know what I'm talking about. Because--"

There fell a moment's silence. Aldous waited. Stevens spat again, and finished in a whisper:

"Quade went to Tête Jaune to-night. He went on a hand-car. He's got something he wants to tell Culver Rann that he don't dare telephone or telegraph. An' he wants to get that something to him ahead of to-morrow's train. Understand?"

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