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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 27140

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Stevens, dreaming of twenty horses plunging to death among the rocks in the river, slept uneasily. He awoke before it was dawn, but when he dragged himself from his tepee, moving quietly not to awaken his boy, he found John Aldous on his knees before a small fire, slicing thin rashers of bacon into a frying-pan. The weight of his loss was in the tired packer's eyes and face and the listless droop of his shoulders. John Aldous, with three hours between the blankets to his credit, was as cheery as the crackling fire itself. He had wanted to whistle for the last half-hour. Seeing Stevens, he began now.

"I wasn't going to rouse you until breakfast was ready," he interrupted himself to say. "I heard you groaning, Stevens. I know you had a bad night. And the kid, too. He couldn't sleep. But I made up my mind you'd have to get up early. I've got a lot of business on to-day, and we'll have to rouse Curly Roper out of bed to buy his pack outfit. Find the coffee, will you? I couldn't."

For a moment Stevens stood over him.

"See here, Aldous, you didn't mean what you said last night, did you? You didn't mean-that?"

"Confound it, yes! Can't you understand plain English, Stevens? Don't you believe a man when he's a gentleman? Buy that outfit! Why, I'd buy twenty outfits to-day, I'm-I'm feeling so fine, Stevens!"

For the first time in forty-eight hours Stevens smiled.

"I was wondering if I hadn't been dreaming," he said. "Once, a long time ago, I guess I felt just like you do now."

With which cryptic remark he went for the coffee.

Aldous looked up in time to see the boy stagger sleepily out of the tepee. There was something pathetic about the motherlessness of the picture, and he understood a little of what Stevens had meant.

An hour later, with breakfast over, they started for Curly's. Curly was pulling on his boots when they arrived, while his wife was frying the inevitable bacon in the kitchen.

"I hear you have some horses for sale, Curly," said Aldous.

"Hi 'ave."

"How many?"

"Twenty-nine, 'r twenty-eight-mebby twenty-seven."

"How much?"

Curly looked up from the task of pulling on his second boot.

"H'are you buying 'orses or looking for hinformation?" he asked.

"I'm buying, and I'm in a hurry. How much do you want a head?"

"Sixty, 'r six--"

"I'll give you sixty dollars apiece for twenty-eight head, and that's just ten dollars apiece more than they're worth," broke in Aldous, pulling a check-book and a fountain pen from his pocket. "Is it a go?"

A little stupefied by the suddenness of it all, Curly opened his mouth and stared.

"Is it a go?" repeated Aldous. "Including blankets, saddles, pack-saddles, ropes, and canvases?"

Curly nodded, looking from Aldous to Stevens to see if he could detect anything that looked like a joke.

"Hit's a go," he said.

Aldous handed him a check for sixteen hundred and eighty dollars.

"Make out the bill of sale to Stevens," he said. "I'm paying for them, but they're Stevens' horses. And, look here, Curly, I'm buying them only with your agreement that you'll say nothing about who paid for them. Will you agree to that?"

Curly was joyously looking at the check.

"Gyve me a Bible," he demanded. "Hi'll swear Stevens p'id for them! I give you the word of a Hinglish gentleman!"

Without another word Aldous opened the cabin door and was gone, leaving Stevens quite as much amazed as the little Englishman whom everybody called Curly, because he had no hair.

Aldous went at once to the station, and for the first time inquired into the condition that was holding back the Tête Jaune train. He found that a slide had given way, burying a section of track under gravel and rock. A hundred men were at work clearing it away, and it was probable they would finish by noon. A gang boss, who had come back with telegraphic reports, said that half a dozen men had carried Quade's hand-car over the obstruction about midnight.

It was seven o'clock when Aldous left for the Miette bottom. He believed that Joanne would be up. At this season of the year the first glow of day usually found the Ottos at breakfast, and for half an hour the sun had been shining on the top of Pyramid Mountain. He was eager to tell her what had passed between him and Keller. He laughed softly when he confessed to himself how madly he wanted to see her.

He always liked to come up to the Otto home very early of a morning, or in the dusk of evening. Very frequently he was filled with a desire to stand outside the red-and-white striped walls of the tent-house and listen unseen. Inside there was always cheer: at night the crackle of fire and the glow of light, the happy laughter of the gentle-hearted Scotchwoman, and the affectionate banter of her "big mountain man," who looked more like a brigand than the luckiest and most contented husband in the mountains-the luckiest, quite surely, with the one exception of his brother Clossen, who had, by some occult strategy or other, induced a sweet-faced and aristocratic little woman to look upon his own honest physiognomy as the handsomest and finest in the world. This morning Aldous followed a narrow path that brought him behind the tent-house. He heard no voices. A few steps more and he emerged upon a scene that stopped him and set his heart thumping.

Less than a dozen paces away stood Mrs. Otto and Joanne, their backs toward him. They were gazing silently and anxiously in the direction of the thick, low bush across the clearing, through which led the trail to his cabin. He did not look toward the bush. His eyes were upon Joanne. Her slender figure was full in the golden radiance of the morning sun, and Aldous felt himself under the spell of a joyous wonder as he looked at her. For the first time he saw her hair as he had pictured it-as he had given it to that other Joanne in the book he had called "Fair Play." She had been brushing it in the sun when he came, but now she stood poised in that tense and waiting attitude-silent-gazing in the direction of the bush, with that marvellous mantle sweeping about her in a shimmering silken flood. He would not have moved, nor would he have spoken, until Joanne herself broke the spell. She turned, and saw him. With a little cry of surprise she flung back her hair. He could not fail to see the swift look of relief and gladness that had come into her eyes. In another instant her face was flushing crimson.

"I beg your pardon for coming up like an eavesdropper," he apologized. "I thought you would just about be at breakfast, Mrs. Otto."

The Scotchwoman heaved a tremendous sigh of relief.

"Goodness gracious, but I'm glad to see you!" she exclaimed thankfully. "Jack and Bruce have just gone out to see if they could find your dead body!"

"We thought perhaps something might have happened," said Joanne, who had moved nearer the door. "You will excuse me, won't you, while I finish my hair?"

Without waiting for him to answer, she ran into the tent. No sooner had she disappeared than the good-natured smile left Mrs. Otto's face. There was a note of alarm in her low voice as she whispered:

"Jack and Bruce went to the barn last night, and she slept with me. She tried to be quiet, but I know she didn't sleep much. And she cried. I couldn't hear her, but the pillow was wet. Once my hand touched her cheek, and it was wet. I didn't ask any questions. This morning, at breakfast, she told us everything that happened, all about Quade-and your trouble. She told us about Quade looking in at the window, and she was so nervous thinking something might have happened to you last night that the poor dear couldn't even drink her coffee until Jack and Bruce went out to hunt for you. But I don't think that was why she cried!"

"I wish it had been," said Aldous. "It makes me happy to think she was worried about-me."

"Good Lord!" gasped Mrs. Otto.

He looked for a moment into the slow-growing amazement and understanding in her kind eyes.

"You will keep my little secret, won't you, Mrs. Otto?" he asked. "Probably you'll think it's queer. I've only known her a day. But I feel-like that. Somehow I feel that in telling this to you I am confiding in a mother, or a sister. I want you to understand why I'm going on to Tête Jaune with her. That is why she was crying-because of the dread of something up there. I'm going with her. She shouldn't go alone."

Voices interrupted them, and they turned to find that Jack and Bruce Otto had come out of the bush and were quite near. Aldous was sorry that Joanne had spoken of his trouble with Quade. He did not want to discuss the situation, or waste time in listening to further advice. He was anxious to be alone again with Joanne, and tell her what he had learned from Peter Keller. For half an hour he repressed his uneasiness. The brothers then went on to their corral. A few minutes later Joanne was once more at his side, and they were walking slowly over the trail that led to the cabin on the river.

He could see that the night had made a change in her. There were circles under her eyes which were not there yesterday. When she looked at him their velvety blue depths betrayed something which he knew she was struggling desperately to keep from him. It was not altogether fear. It was more a betrayal of pain-a torment of the soul and not of the body. He noticed that in spite of the vivid colouring of her lips her face was strangely pale. The beautiful flush that had come into it when she first saw him was gone.

Then he began to tell her of his visit to Peter Keller. His own heart was beating violently when he came to speak of the grave and the slab over it that bore the name of FitzHugh. He had expected that what he had discovered from Keller would create some sort of a sensation. He had even come up to the final fact gradually, so that it would not appear bald and shocking. Joanne's attitude stunned him. She looked straight ahead. When she turned to him he did not see in her eyes what he had expected to see. They were quiet, emotionless, except for that shadow of inward torture which did not leave them.

"Then to-morrow we can go to the grave?" she asked simply.

Her voice, too, was quiet and without emotion.

He nodded. "We can leave at sunrise," he said. "I have my own horses at Tête Jaune and there need be no delay. We were to start into the North from there."

"You mean on the adventure you were telling me about?"

She had looked at him quickly.

"Yes. Old Donald, my partner, has been waiting for me a week. That's why I was so deuced anxious to rush the book to an end. I'm behind Donald's schedule, and he's growing nervous. It's rather an unusual enterprise that's taking us north this time, and Donald can't understand why I should hang back to write the tail end of a book. He has lived sixty years in the mountains. His full name is Donald MacDonald. Sometimes, back in my own mind, I've called him History. He seems like that-as though he'd lived for ages in these mountains instead of sixty years. If I could only write what he has lived-even what one might imagine that he has lived! But I cannot. I have tried three times, and have failed. I think of him as The Last Spirit-a strange wandering ghost of the mighty ranges. His kind passed away a hundred years ago. You will understand-when you see him."

She put her hand on his arm and let it rest there lightly as they walked. Into her eyes had returned some of the old warm glow of yesterday.

"I want you to tell me about this adventure," she entreated softly. "I understand-about the other. You have been good-oh! so good to me! And I should tell you things; you are expecting me to explain. It is only fair and honest that I should. I know what is in your mind, and I only want you to wait-until to-morrow. Will you? And I will tell you then, when we have found the grave."

Involuntarily his hand sought Joanne's. For a single moment he felt the warm, sweet thrill of it in his own as he pressed it more closely to his arm. Then he freed it, looking straight ahead. A soft flush grew in Joanne's cheeks.

"Do you care a great deal for riches?" he asked. "Does the golden pot at the end of the rainbow hold out a lure for you?" He did not realize the strangeness of his question until their eyes met. "Because if you don't," he added, smiling, "this adventure of ours isn't going to look very exciting to you."

She laughed softly.

"No, I don't care for riches," she replied. "I am quite sure that just as great education proves to one how little one knows, so great wealth brings one face to face with the truth of how little one can enjoy. My father used to say that the golden treasure at the end of the rainbow in every human life was happiness, and that is something which you cannot buy. So why crave riches, then? But please don't let my foolish ideas disappoint you. I'll promise to be properly excited."

She saw his face suddenly aflame with enthusiasm.

"By George, but you're a-a brick, Joanne!" he exclaimed. "You are! And I-I--" He was fumbling in his breast pocket. He brought out his wallet and extracted from it the bit of paper Stevens had given him. "You dropped that, and Stevens found it," he explained, giving it to her. "I thought those figures might represent your fortune-or your income. Don't mind telling you I went over 'em carefully. There's a mistake in the third column. Five and four don't make seven. They make nine. In the final, when you come to the multiplication part of i

t, that correction will make you just thirty-two thousand five hundred dollars richer."

"Thanks," said Joanne, lowering her eyes, and beginning to tear the paper into small pieces. "And will it disappoint you, Mr. John Aldous, if I tell you that all these figures stand for riches which some one else possesses? And won't you let me remind you that we're getting a long way from what I want to know-about your trip into the North?"

"That's just it: we're hot on the trail," chuckled Aldous, deliberately placing her hand on his arm again. "You don't care for riches. Neither do I. I'm delighted to know we're going tandem in that respect. I've never had any fun with money. It's the money that's had fun with me. I've no use for yachts and diamonds and I'd rather travel afoot with a gun over my shoulder than in a private car. Half the time I'm doing my own cooking, and I haven't worn a white shirt in a year. My publishers persist in shoving more money my way than I know what to do with.

"You see, I pay only ten cents a plug for my smoking tobacco, and other things accordingly. Somebody has said something about the good Lord sitting up in Heaven and laughing at the jokes He plays on men. Well, I'm sitting back and laughing now and then at the tussle between men and money over all creation. There's a whole lot of humour in the way men and women fight and die for money, if you only take time to stand out on the side and look on. There's nothing big or dramatic about it. I may be a heathen, but to my mind the funniest of all things is to see the world wringing its neck for a dollar. And Donald-old History-needs even less money than I. So that puts the big element of humour in this expedition of ours. We don't want money, particularly. Donald wouldn't wear more than four pairs of boots a year if he was a billionaire. And yet--"

He turned to Joanne. The pressure of her hand was warmer on his arm. Her beautiful eyes were glowing, and her red lips parted as she waited breathlessly for him to go on.

"And yet, we're going to a place where you can scoop gold up with a shovel," he finished. "That's the funny part of it."

"It isn't funny-it's tremendous!" gasped Joanne. "Think of what a man like you could do with unlimited wealth, the good you might achieve, the splendid endowments you might make--"

"I have already made several endowments," interrupted Aldous. "I believe that I have made a great many people happy, Ladygray-a great many. I am gifted to make endowments, I think, above most people. Not one of the endowments I have made has failed of complete success."

"And may I ask what some of them were?"

"I can't remember them all. There have been a great, great many. Most conspicuous among them were three endowments which I made to some very worthy people at various times for seven salted mines. I suppose you know what a salted mine is, Ladygray? At other times I have endowed railroad stocks which were very much in need of my helping mite, two copper companies, a concern that was supposed to hoist up pure asbestos from the stomach of Popocatapetl, and a steamship company that never steamed. As I said before, they were all very successful endowments."

"And how many of the other kind have you made?" she asked gently, looking down the trail. "Like-Stevens', for instance?"

He turned to her sharply.

"What the deuce--"

"Did you succeed in getting the new outfit from Mr. Curly?" she asked.

"Yes. How did you know?"

She smiled at the amazement which had gathered in his face. A glad, soft light shone in her eyes.

"I guess Mrs. Otto has been like a mother to that poor little boy," she explained. "When you and Mr. Stevens went up to buy the outfit this morning Jimmy ran over to tell her the news. We were all there-at breakfast. He was so excited he could scarcely breathe. But it all came out, and he ran back to camp before you came because he thought you wouldn't want me to know. Wasn't that funny? He told me so when I walked a little way up the path with him."

"The little reprobate!" chuckled Aldous. "He's the best publicity man I ever had, Ladygray. I did want you to know about this, and I wanted it to come to you in just this way, so that I wouldn't be compelled to tell you myself of the big and noble act I have done. It was my hope and desire that you, through some one else, would learn of it, and come to understand more fully what a generous and splendid biped I am. I even plotted to give this child of Stevens' a silver dollar if he would get the news to you in some one of his innocent ways. He's done it. And he couldn't have done it better-even for a dollar. Ah, here we are at the cabin. Will you excuse me while I pick up a few things that I want to take on to Tête Jaune with me?"

Between two trees close to the cabin he had built a seat, and here he left Joanne. He was gone scarcely five minutes when he reappeared with a small pack-sack over his shoulders, locked the door, and rejoined her.

"You see it isn't much of a task for me to move," he said, as they turned back in the direction of the Ottos'. "I'll wash the dishes when I come back next October."

"Five months!" gasped Joanne, counting on her fingers. "John Aldous, do you mean--"

"I do," he nodded emphatically. "I frequently leave dishes unwashed for quite a spell at a time. That's the one unpleasant thing about this sort of life-washing dishes. It's not so bad in the rainy season, but it's fierce during a dry spell. When it rains I put the dishes out on a flat rock, dirty side up, and the good Lord does the scrubbing."

He looked at Joanne, face and eyes aglow with the happiness that was sweeping in a mighty tumult within him. Half an hour had worked a transformation in Joanne. There was no longer a trace of anguish or of fear in her eyes. Their purity and limpid beauty made him think of the rock violets that grew high up on the mountains. Her lips and cheeks were flushed, and the soft pressure of her hand again resting on his arm filled him with the exquisite thrill of possession and joy. He did not speak of Tête Jaune again until they reached the Otto tent-house, and then only to assure her that he would call for her half an hour before the train was ready to leave.

As soon as possible after that he went to the telegraph office and sent a long message to MacDonald. Among other things he told him to prepare their cabin for a lady guest. He knew this would shock the old mountain wanderer, but he also knew that Donald would follow his instructions in spite of whatever alarm he might have. There were other women at Tête Jaune, the wives of men he knew, to whom he might have taken Joanne. Under the conditions, however, he believed his own cabin would be her best refuge, at least for a day or so. In that time he could take some one into his confidence, probably Blackton and his wife. In fact, as he thought the circumstances over, he saw the necessity of confiding in the Blacktons that very night.

He left the station, growing a bit nervous. Was it right for him to take Joanne to his cabin at all? He had a tremendous desire to do so, chiefly on account of Quade. The cabin was a quarter of a mile in the bush, and he was positive if Joanne was there that Quade, and perhaps Culver Rann, would come nosing about. This would give him the opportunity of putting into execution a plan which he had already arranged for himself and old MacDonald. On the other hand, was this arrangement fair to Joanne, even though it gave him the chance to square up accounts with Quade?

He stopped abruptly, and faced the station. All at once there swept upon him a realization of how blind he had been, and what a fool he had almost made of himself. Blackton was one of the contractors who were working miracles in the mountains. He was a friend who would fight for him if necessary. Mrs. Blackton, who preferred to be on the firing line with her husband than in her luxurious city home, was the leader of all that was decent and womanly in Tête Jaune. Why not have these friends meet them at the train and take Joanne direct to their house? Such recognition and friendship would mean everything to Joanne. To take her to his cabin would mean--

Inwardly he swore at himself as he hurried back to the station, and his face burned hotly as he thought of the chance such a blunder on his part would have given Quade and Culver Rann to circulate the stories with which they largely played their scoundrelly game. He sent another and longer telegram. This time it was to Blackton.

He ate dinner with Stevens, who had his new outfit ready for the mountains. It was two o'clock before he brought Joanne up to the station. She was dressed now as he had first seen her when she entered Quade's place. A veil covered her face. Through the gray film of it he caught the soft warm glow of her eyes and the shimmer of gold-brown tendrils of her hair. And he knew why she wore that veil. It set his heart beating swiftly-the fact that she was trying to hide from all eyes but his own a beauty so pure and wonderful that it made her uncomfortable when under the staring gaze of the Horde.

The hand that rested on his arm he pressed closer to his side as they walked up the station platform, and under his breath he laughed softly and joyously as he felt the thrill of it. He spoke no word. Not until they were in their seat in the coach did Joanne look at him after that pressure of her hand, and then she did not speak. But in the veiled glow of her eyes there was something that told him she understood-a light that was wonderfully gentle and sweet. And yet, without words, she asked him to keep within his soul the things that were pounding madly there for speech.

As the train rolled on and the babble of voices about them joined the crunching rumble of the wheels, he wanted to lean close to her and tell her how a few hours had changed the world for him. And then, for a moment, her eyes turned to him again, and he knew that it would be a sacrilege to give voice to the things he wanted to say. For many minutes he was silent, gazing with her upon the wild panorama of mountain beauty as it drifted past the car window. A loud voice two seats ahead of them proclaimed that they were about to make Templeton's Curve. The man was talking to his companion.

"They shot up a hundred thousand pounds of black powder an' dynamite to make way for two hundred feet of steel on that curve," he explained in a voice heard all over the car. "They say you could hear the explosion fifty miles away. Jack Templeton was near-sighted, an' he didn't see a rock coming down on him that was half as big as a house. I helped scrape up what was left of 'im an' we planted him at this end of the curve. It's been Templeton's Curve ever since. You'll see his grave-with a slab over it!"

It was there almost as he spoke, marked by a white-painted cross in a circle of whitewashed stones. John Aldous felt a sudden shiver pass through his companion. She turned from the window. Through her veil he saw her lips tighten. Until he left the car half an hour later the man in the second seat ahead talked of Templeton's grave and a dozen other graves along the right of way. He was a rock-hog, and a specialist on the subject of graves. Inwardly Aldous cursed him roundly. He cursed him all the way to Tête Jaune, for to him he attributed the change which had again come over Joanne.

This change she could only partly conceal from him under her veil. She asked him many questions about Tête Jaune and the Blacktons, and tried to take an interest in the scenery they were passing. In spite of this he could see that she was becoming more and more nervous as they progressed toward the end of their journey. He felt the slow dampening of his own joy, the deadening clutch of yesterday at his heart. Twice she lifted her veil for a moment and he saw she was pale and the tense lines had gathered about her mouth again. There was something almost haggard in her look the second time.

In the early dusk of evening they arrived at Tête Jaune. Aldous waited until the car had emptied itself before he rose from his seat. Joanne's hand clutched at his arm as they walked down the aisle. He felt the fierce pressure of her fingers in his flesh. On the car platform they paused for a moment, and he felt her throbbing beside him. She had taken her hand from his arm, and he turned suddenly. She had raised her veil. Her face was dead white. And she was staring out over the sea of faces under them in a strange questing way, and her breath came from between her slightly parted lips as if she had been running. Amazed for the moment, John Aldous did not move. Somewhere in that crowd Joanne expected to find a face she knew! The truth struck him dumb-made him inert and lifeless. He, too, stared as if in a trance. And then, suddenly, every drop of blood in his body blazed into fierce life.

In the glow of one of the station lamps stood a group of men. The faces of all were turned toward them. One he recognized-a bloated, leering face grinning devilishly at them. It was Quade!

A low, frightened cry broke from Joanne's lips, and he knew that she, too, had seen him. But it was not Quade that she had looked for. It was not his face that she had expected to see nor because of him that she had lifted her veil for the mob!

He stepped down from the car and gave her his hand. Her fingers clutched his convulsively. And they were cold as the fingers of the dead.

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