MoboReader> Literature > The Hunted Woman

   Chapter 8 No.8

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 14738

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


John Aldous confessed to himself that he did not quite understand, in spite of the effort Stevens had made to impress upon him, the importance of not going to Tête Jaune. He was bewildered over a number of things, and felt that he needed to be alone for a time to clear his mind. He left Stevens, promising to return later to share a couple of blankets and a part of his tepee, for he was determined to keep his promise to Joanne, and not return to his own cabin, even though Quade had left Miette. He followed a moonlit trail along the river to an abandoned surveyors' camp, knowing that he would meet no one, and that in this direction he would have plenty of unbroken quiet in which to get some sort of order out of the chaotic tangle of events through which he had passed that day.

Aldous had employed a certain amount of caution, but until he had talked with Stevens he had not believed that Quade, in his twofold desire to avenge himself and possess Joanne, would go to the extraordinary ends predicted by the packer. His point of view was now entirely changed. He believed Stevens. He knew the man was not excitable. He was one of the coolest heads in the mountains. And he had abundant nerve. Thought of Stimson and Stimson's wife had sent the hot blood through Aldous like fire. Was Stevens right in that detail? And was Quade actually planning the same end for him and Joanne? Why had Quade stolen on ahead to Tête Jaune? Why had he not waited for to-morrow's train?

He found himself walking swiftly along the road, where he had intended to walk slowly-a hundred questions pounding through his brain. Suddenly a thought came to him that stopped him in the trail, his unseeing eyes staring down into the dark chasm of the river. After all, was it so strange that Quade would do these things? Into his own life Joanne had come like a wonderful dream-creature transformed into flesh and blood. He no longer tried to evade the fact that he could not think without thinking of Joanne. She had become a part of him. She had made him forget everything but her, and in a few hours had sent into the dust of ruin his cynicism and aloneness of a lifetime. If Joanne had come to him like this, making him forget his work, filling him more and more with the thrilling desire to fight for her, was it so very strange that a beast like Quade would fight-in another way?

He went on down the trail, his hands clenched tightly. After all, it was not fear of Quade or of what he might attempt that filled him with uneasiness. It was Joanne herself, her strange quest, its final outcome. With the thought that she was seeking for the man who was her husband, a leaden hand seemed gripping at his heart. He tried to shake it off, but it was like a sickness. To believe that she had been the wife of another man or that she could ever belong to any other man than himself seemed like shutting his eyes forever to the sun. And yet she had told him. She had belonged to another man; she might belong to him even now. She had come to find if he was alive-or dead.

And if alive? Aldous stopped again, and looked down into the dark pit through which the river was rushing a hundred feet below him. It tore in frothing maelstroms through a thousand rocks, filling the night with a low thunder. To John Aldous the sound of it might have been a thousand miles away. He did not hear. His eye saw nothing in the blackness. For a few moments the question he had asked himself obliterated everything. If they found Joanne's husband alive at Tête Jaune-what then? He turned back, retracing his steps over the trail, a feeling of resentment-of hatred for the man he had never seen-slowly taking the place of the oppressive thing that had turned his heart sick within him. Then, in a flash, came the memory of Joanne's words-words in which, white-faced and trembling, she had confessed that her anxiety was not that she would find him dead, but that she would find him alive. A joyous thrill shot through him as he remembered that. Whoever this man was, whatever he might have been to her once, or was to her now, Joanne did not want to find him alive! He laughed softly to himself as he quickened his pace. The tense grip of his fingers loosened. The grim, almost ghastly part of it did not occur to him-the fact that deep in his soul he was wishing a man dead and in his grave.

He did not return at once to the scenes about Quade's place, but went to the station, three quarters of a mile farther up the track. Here, in a casual way, he learned from the little pink-faced Cockney Englishman who watched the office at night that Stevens had been correct in his information. Quade had gone to Tête Jaune. Although it was eleven o'clock, Aldous proceeded in the direction of the engineers' camp, still another quarter of a mile deeper in the bush. He was restless. He did not feel that he could sleep that night. The engineers' camp he expected to find in darkness, and he was surprised when he saw a light burning brightly in Keller's cabin.

Keller was the assistant divisional engineer, and they had become good friends. It was Keller who had set the first surveyor's line at Tête Jaune, and it was he who had reported it as the strategic point from which to push forward the fight against mountain and wilderness, both by river and rail. He was, in a way, accountable for the existence of Tête Jaune just where it did exist, and he knew more about it than any other man in the employ of the Grand Trunk Pacific. For this reason Aldous was glad that Keller had not gone to bed. He knocked at the door and entered without waiting for an invitation.

The engineer stood in the middle of the floor, his coat off, his fat, stubby hands thrust into the pockets of his baggy trousers, his red face and bald cranium shining in the lamplight. A strange fury blazed in his eyes as he greeted his visitor. He began pacing back and forth across the room, puffing volumes of smoke from a huge bowled German pipe as he motioned Aldous to a chair.

"What's the matter, Peter?"

"Enough-an' be damned!" growled Peter. "If it wasn't enough do you think I'd be out of bed at this hour of the night?"

"I'm sure it's enough," agreed Aldous. "If it wasn't you'd be in your little trundle over there, sleeping like a baby. I don't know of any one who can sleep quite as sweetly as you, Peter. But what the devil is the trouble?"

"Something that you can't make me feel funny over. You haven't heard-about the bear?"

"Not a word, Peter."

Keller took his hands from his pockets and the big, bowled pipe from his mouth.

"You know what I did with that bear," he said. "More than a year ago I made friends with her up there on the hill instead of killing her. Last summer I got her so she'd eat out of my hands. I fed her a barrel of sugar between July and November. We used to chum it an hour at a time, and I'd pet her like a dog. Why, damn it, man, I thought more of that bear than I did of any human in these regions! And she got so fond of me she didn't leave to den up until January. This spring she came out with two cubs, an' as soon as they could waddle she brought 'em out there on the hillside an' waited for me. We were better chums than ever. I've got another half barrel of sugar-lump sugar-on the way from Edmonton. An' now what do you think that damned C.N.R. gang h

as done?"

"They haven't shot her?"

"No, they haven't shot her. I wish to God they had! They've blown her up!"

The little engineer subsided into a chair.

"Do you hear?" he demanded. "They've blown her up! Put a stick of dynamite under some sugar, attached a battery wire to it, an' when she was licking up the sugar touched it off. An' I can't do anything, damn 'em! Bears ain't protected. The government of this province calls 'em 'pests.' Murder 'em on sight, it says. An' those fiends over there think it's a good joke on me-an' the bear!"

Keller was sweating. His fat hands were clenched, and his round, plump body fairly shook with excitement and anger.

"When I went over to-night they laughed at me-the whole bunch," he went on thickly. "I offered to lick every man in the outfit from A to Z, an' I ain't had a fight in twenty years. Instead of fighting like men, a dozen of them grabbed hold of me, chucked me into a blanket, an' bounced me for fifteen minutes straight! What do you think of that, Aldous? Me-assistant divisional engineer of the G.T.P.-bounced in a blanket!"

Peter Keller hopped from his chair and began pacing back and forth across the room again, sucking truculently on his pipe.

"If they were on our road I'd-I'd chase every man of them out of the country. But they're not. They belong to the C.N.R. They're out of my reach." He stopped, suddenly, in front of Aldous. "What can I do?" he demanded.

"Nothing," said Aldous. "You've had something like this coming to you, Peter. I've been expecting it. All the camps for twenty miles up and down the line know what you thought of that bear. You fired Tibbits because, as you said, he was too thick with Quade. You told him that right before Quade's face. Tibbits is now foreman of that grading gang over there. Two and two make four, you know. Tibbits-Quade-the blown-up bear. Quade doesn't miss an opportunity, no matter how small it is. Tibbits and Quade did this to get even with you. You might report the blanket affair to the contractors of the other road. I don't believe they would stand for it."

Aldous had guessed correctly what the effect of associating Quade's name with the affair would be. Keller was one of Quade's deadliest enemies. He sat down close to Aldous again. His eyes burned deep back. It was not Keller's physique, but his brain, and the fearlessness of his spirit, that made him dangerous.

"I guess you're right, Aldous," he said. "Some day-I'll even up on Quade."

"And so shall I, Peter."

The engineer stared into the other's eyes.

"You--"

Aldous nodded.

"Quade left for Tête Jaune to-night, on a hand-car. I follow him to-morrow, on the train. I can't tell you what's up, Peter, but I don't think it will stop this side of death for Quade and Culver Rann-or me. I mean that quite literally. I don't see how more than one side can come out alive. I want to ask you a few questions before I go on to Tête Jaune. You know every mountain and trail about the place, don't you?"

"I've tramped them all, afoot and horseback."

"Then perhaps you can direct me to what I must find-a man's grave."

Peter Keller paused in the act of relighting his pipe. For a moment he stared in amazement.

"There are a great many graves up at Tête Jaune," he said, at last. "A great many graves-and many of them unmarked. If it's a Quade grave you're looking for, Aldous, it will be unmarked."

"I am quite sure that it is marked-or was at one time," said Aldous. "It's the grave of a man who had quite an unusual name, Peter, and you might remember it-Mortimer FitzHugh."

"FitzHugh-FitzHugh," repeated Keller, puffing out fresh volumes of smoke. "Mortimer FitzHugh--"

"He died, I believe, before there was a Tête Jaune, or at least before the steel reached there," added Aldous. "He was on a hunting trip, and I have reason to think that his death was a violent one."

Keller rose and fell into his old habit of pacing back and forth across the room, a habit that had worn a path in the bare pine boards of the floor.

"There's graves an' graves up there, but not so many that were there before Tête Jaune came," he began, between puffs. "Up on the side of White Knob Mountain there's the grave of a man who was torn to bits by a grizzly. But his name was Humphrey. Old Yellowhead John-Tête Jaune, they called him-died years before that, and no one knows where his grave is. We had five men die before the steel came, but there wasn't a FitzHugh among 'em. Crabby-old Crabby Tompkins, a trapper, is buried in the sand on the Frazer. The last flood swept his slab away. There's two unmarked graves in Glacier Canyon, but I guess they're ten years old if a day. Burns was shot. I knew him. Plenty died after the steel came, but before that--"

Suddenly he stopped. He faced Aldous. His breath came in quick jerks.

"By Heaven, I do remember!" he cried. "There's a mountain in the Saw Tooth Range, twelve miles from Tête Jaune-a mountain with the prettiest basin you ever saw at the foot of it, with a lake no bigger than this camp, and an old cabin which Yellowhead himself must have built fifty years ago. There's a blind canyon runs out of it, short an' dark, on the right. We found a grave there. I don't remember the first name on the slab. Mebby it was washed out. But, so 'elp me God, the last name was FitzHugh!"

With a sudden cry, Aldous jumped to his feet and caught Keller's arm.

"You're sure of it, Peter?"

"Positive!"

It was impossible for Aldous to repress his excitement. The engineer stared at him even harder than before.

"What can that grave have to do with Quade?" he asked. "The man died before Quade was known in these regions."

"I can't tell you now, Peter," replied Aldous, pulling the engineer to the table. "But I think you'll know quite soon. For the present, I want you to sketch out a map that will take me to the grave. Will you?"

On the table were pencil and paper. Keller seated himself and drew them toward him.

"I'm damned if I can see what that grave can have to do with Quade," he said; "but I'll tell you how to find it!"

For several minutes they bent low over the table, Peter Keller describing the trail to the Saw Tooth Mountain as he sketched it, step by step, on a sheet of office paper. When it was done, Aldous folded it carefully and placed it in his wallet.

"I can't go wrong, and-thank you, Keller!"

After Aldous had gone, Peter Keller sat for some time in deep thought.

"Now I wonder what the devil there can be about a grave to make him so happy," he grumbled, listening to the whistle that was growing fainter down the trail.

And Aldous, alone, with the moon straight above him as he went back to the Miette Plain, felt, in truth, this night had become brighter for him than any day he had ever known. For he knew that Peter Keller was not a man to make a statement of which he was not sure. Mortimer FitzHugh was dead. His bones lay under the slab up in that little blind canyon in the shadow of the Saw Tooth Mountain. To-morrow he would tell Joanne. And, blindly, he told himself that she would be glad.

Still whistling, he passed the Chinese laundry shack on the creek, crossed the railroad tracks, and buried himself in the bush beyond. A quarter of an hour later he stole quietly into Stevens' camp and went to bed.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares