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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 15313

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A moment later some one came surging through the crowd, and called Aldous by name. It was Blackton. His thin, genial face with its little spiked moustache rose above the sea of heads about him, and as he came he grinned a welcome.

"A beastly mob!" he exclaimed, as he gripped his friend's hand. "I'm sorry I couldn't bring my wife nearer than the back platform."

Aldous turned to Joanne. He was still half in a daze. His heart was choking him with its swift and excited beating. Even as he introduced her to Blackton the voice kept crying in his brain that she had expected to find some one in this crowd whom she knew. For a space it was as if the Joanne whom he had known had slipped away from him. She had told him about the grave, but this other she had kept from him. Something that was almost anger surged up in him. His face bore marks of the strain as he watched her greet Blackton. In an instant, it seemed to him, she had regained a part of her composure. Blackton saw nothing but the haggard lines about her eyes and the deep pallor in her face, which he ascribed to fatigue.

"You're tired, Miss Gray," he said. "It's a killing ride up from Miette these days. If we can get through this mob we'll have supper within fifteen minutes!"

With a word to Aldous he began worming his long, lean body ahead of them. An instant Joanne's face was very close to Aldous', so close that he felt her breath, and a tendril of her hair touched his lips. In that instant her eyes looked into his steadily, and he felt rush over him a sudden shame. If she was seeking and expecting, it was to him more than ever that she was now looking for protection. The haunting trouble in her eyes, their entreaty, their shining faith in him told him that, and he was glad that she had not seen his sudden fear and suspicion. She clung more closely to him as they followed Blackton. Her little fingers held his arm as if she were afraid some force might tear him from her. He saw that she was looking quickly at the faces about them with that same questing mystery in her search.

At the thin outer edge of the crowd Blackton dropped back beside them. A few steps more and they came to the end of the platform, where a buckboard was waiting in the dim light of one of the station lamps. Blackton introduced Joanne, and assisted her into the seat beside his wife.

"We'll leave you ladies to become acquainted while we rustle the baggage," he said. "Got the checks, Aldous?"

Joanne had given Aldous two checks on the train, and he handed them to Blackton. Together they made their way to the baggage-room.

"Thought Miss Gray would have some luggage, so I had one of my men come with another team," he explained. "We won't have to wait. I'll give him the checks."

Before they returned to the buckboard, Aldous halted his friend.

"I couldn't say much in that telegram," he said. "If Miss Gray wasn't a bit tired and unstrung I'd let her explain. I want you to tell Mrs. Blackton that she has come to Tête Jaune on a rather unpleasant mission, old man. Nothing less than to attend to the grave of a-a near relative."

"I regret that-I regret it very much," replied Blackton, flinging away the match he had lighted without touching it to his cigar. "I guessed something was wrong. She's welcome at our place, Aldous-for as long as she remains in Tête Jaune. Perhaps I knew this relative. If I can assist you-or her--"

"He died before the steel came," said Aldous. "FitzHugh was his name. Old Donald and I are going to take her to the grave. Miss Gray is an old friend of mine," he lied boldly. "We want to start at dawn. Will that be too much trouble for you and your wife?"

"No trouble at all," declared Blackton. "We've got a Chinese cook who's more like an owl than a human. How will a four o'clock breakfast suit you?"

"Splendidly!"

As they went on, the contractor said:

"I carried your word to MacDonald. Hunted him down out in the bush. He is very anxious to see you. He said he would not be at the depot, but that you must not fail him. He's kept strangely under cover of late. Curious old ghost, isn't he?"

"The strangest man in the mountains," said Aldous "And, when you come to know him, the most lovable. We're going North together."

This time it was Blackton who stopped, with a hand on his companion's arm. A short distance from them they could see the buckboard in the light of the station lamp.

"Has old Donald written you lately?" he asked.

"No. He says he hasn't written a letter in twenty years."

Blackton hesitated.

"Then you haven't heard of his-accident?"

The strange look in the contractor's face as he lighted a cigar made John Aldous catch him sharply by the arm.

"What do you mean?"

"He was shot. I happened to be in Dr. Brady's office when he dragged himself in, late at night. Doc got the bullet out of his shoulder. It wasn't a bad wound. The old man swore it was an accident, and asked us to say nothing about it. We haven't. But I've been wondering. Old Donald said he was careless with his own pistol. But the fact is, Aldous-he was shot from behind!"

"The deuce you say!"

"There was no perforation except from behind. In some way the bullet had spent itself before it reached him. Otherwise it would have killed him."

For a moment Aldous stared in speechless amazement into Blackton's face.

"When did this happen?" he asked then.

"Three days ago. Since then I have not seen old Donald until to-night. Almost by accident I met him out there in the timber. I delivered the telegram you sent him. After he had read it I showed him mine. He scribbled something on a bit of paper, folded it, and pinned it with a porcupine quill. I've been mighty curious, but I haven't pulled out that quill. Here it is."

From his pocket he produced the note and gave it to Aldous.

"I'll read it a little later," said Aldous. "The ladies may possibly become anxious about us."

He dropped it in his pocket as he thanked Blackton for the trouble he had taken in finding MacDonald. As he climbed into the front seat of the buckboard his eyes met Joanne's. He was glad that in a large measure she had recovered her self-possession. She smiled at him as they drove off, and there was something in the sweet tremble of her lips that made him almost fancy she was asking his forgiveness for having forgotten herself. Her voice sounded more natural to him as she spoke to Mrs. Blackton. The latter, a plump little blue-eyed woman with dimples and golden hair, was already making her feel at home. She leaned over and placed a hand on her husband's shoulder.

"Let's drive home by way of town, Paul," she suggested. "It's only a little farther, and I'm quite sure Miss Gray will be interested in our Great White Way of the mountains. And I'm crazy to see that bear you were telling me about," she added.

Nothing could have suited Aldous more than this suggestion. He was sure that Quade, following his own and Culver Rann's old methods, had already prepared stories about Joanne, and he not only wanted Quade's friends-but all of Tête Jaune as well-to see Joanne in the company of Mrs. Paul Blackton and her husband. And this was a splendid opportunity, for the night carnival was already beginning.

"The bear is worth seeing," said Blackton, turning his team in the direction of the blazing light of the half-mile street that was the Broadway of Tête Jaune. "And the woman who rides him is worth seeing, too," he chuckled. "He's a big fellow-and she plays the Godiva act. Rides him up and down the street with her hair down, collecting dimes and quarters and half dollars a

s she goes."

A minute later the length of the street swept out ahead of them. It is probable that the world had never before seen a street just like this Broadway in Tête Jaune-the pleasure Mecca of five thousand workers along the line of steel. There had been great "camps" in the building of other railroads, but never a city in the wilderness like this-a place that had sprung up like magic and which, a few months later, was doomed to disappear as quickly. For half a mile it blazed out ahead of them, two garishly lighted rows of shacks, big tents, log buildings, and rough board structures, with a rough, wide street between.

To-night Tête Jaune was like a blazing fire against the darkness of the forest and mountain beyond. A hundred sputtering "jacks" sent up columns of yellow flame in front of places already filled with the riot and tumult of the night. A thousand lamps and coloured lanterns flashed like fireflies along the way, and under them the crowd had gathered, and was flowing back and forth. It was a weird and fantastic sight-this one strange and almost uncanny street that was there largely for the play and the excitement of men.

Aldous turned to Joanne. He knew what this town meant. It was the first and the last of its kind, and its history would never be written. The world outside the mountains knew nothing of it. Like the men who made up its transient life it would soon be a forgotten thing of the past. Even the mountains would forget it. But more than once, as he had stood a part of it, his blood had warmed at the thought of the things it held secret, the things that would die with it, the big human drama it stood for, its hidden tragedies, its savage romance, its passing comedy. He found something of his own thought in Joanne's eyes.

"There isn't much to it," he said, "but to-night, if you made the hunt, you could find men of eighteen or twenty nationalities in that street."

"And a little more besides," laughed Blackton. "If you could write the complete story of how Tête Jaune has broken the law, Aldous, it would fill a volume as big as Peggy's family Bible!"

"And after all, it's funny," said Peggy Blackton. "There!" she cried suddenly. "Isn't that funny?"

The glare and noisy life were on both sides of them now. Half a dozen phonographs were going. From up the street came the softer strains of a piano, and from in between the shrieking notes of bagpipe. Peggy Blackton was pointing to a brilliantly lighted, black-tarpaulined shop. Huge white letters on its front announced that Lady Barbers were within. They could see two of them at work through the big window. And they were pretty. The place was crowded with men. Men were waiting outside.

"Paul says they charge a dollar for a haircut and fifty cents for a shave," explained Peggy Blackton. "And the man over there across the street is going broke because he can't get business at fifteen cents a shave. Isn't it funny?"

As they went on Aldous searched the street for Quade. Several times he turned to the back seat, and always he found Joanne's eyes questing in that strange way for the some one whom she expected to see. Mrs. Blackton was pointing out lighted places, and explaining things as they passed, but he knew that in spite of her apparent attention Joanne heard only a part of what she was saying. In that crowd she hoped-or feared-to find a certain face. And again Aldous told himself that it was not Quade's face.

Near the end of the street a crowd was gathering, and here, for a moment, Blackton stopped his team within fifty feet of the objects of attraction. A slim, exquisitely formed woman in shimmering silk was standing beside a huge brown bear. Her sleek black hair, shining as if it had been oiled, fell in curls about her shoulders. Her rouged lips were smiling. Even at that distance her black eyes sparkled like diamonds. She had evidently just finished taking up a collection, for she was fastening the cord of a silken purse about her neck. In another moment she bestrode the bear, the crowd fell apart, and as the onlookers broke into a roar of applause the big beast lumbered slowly up the street with its rider.

"One of Culver Rann's friends," said Blackton sotto voce, as he drove on. "She takes in a hundred a night if she makes a cent!"

A slim, exquisitely formed woman in shimmering silk was standing beside a huge brown bear. In another moment she bestrode the bear, and the big beast lumbered up the street with its rider.

Blackton's big log bungalow was close to the engineers' camp half a mile distant from the one lighted street and the hundreds of tents and shacks that made up the residential part of the town. Not until they were inside, and Peggy Blackton had disappeared with Joanne for a few moments, did Aldous take old Donald MacDonald's note from his pocket. He pulled out the quill, unfolded the bit of paper, and read the few crudely written words the mountain man had sent him. Blackton turned in time to catch the sudden amazement in his face. Crushing the note in his hand, Aldous looked at the other, his mouth tightening.

"You must help me make excuses, old man," he said quietly. "It will seem strange to them if I do not stay for supper. But-it is impossible. I must see old Donald as quickly as I can get to him."

His manner more than his words kept Blackton from urging him to remain. The contractor stared at him for a moment, his own eyes growing harder and more direct.

"It's about the shooting," he said. "If you want me to go with you, Aldous--"

"Thanks. That will be unnecessary."

Peggy Blackton and Joanne were returning. Aldous turned toward them as they entered the room. With the note still in his hand he repeated to them what he had told Blackton-that he had received word which made it immediately urgent for him to go to MacDonald. He shook hands with the Blacktons, promising to be on hand for the four o'clock breakfast.

Joanne followed him to the door and out upon the veranda. For a moment they were alone, and now her eyes were wide and filled with fear as he clasped her hands closely in his own.

"I saw him," she whispered, her fingers tightening convulsively. "I saw that man-Quade-at the station. He followed us up the street. Twice I looked behind-and saw him. I am afraid-afraid to let you go back there. I believe he is somewhere out there now-waiting for you!"

She was frightened, trembling; and her fear for him, the fear in her shining eyes, in her throbbing breath, in the clasp of her fingers, sent through John Aldous a joy that almost made him free her hands and crush her in his arms in the ecstasy of that wonderful moment. Then Peggy Blackton and her husband appeared in the door. He released her hands, and stepped out into the gloom. The cheery good-nights of the Blacktons followed him. And Joanne's good-night was in her eyes-following him until he was gone, filled with their entreaty and their fear.

A hundred yards distant, where the trail split to lead to the camp of the engineers, there was a lantern on a pole. Here Aldous paused, out of sight of the Blackton bungalow, and in the dim light read again MacDonald's note.

In a cramped and almost illegible hand the old wanderer of the mountains had written:

Don't go to cabin. Culver Rann waiting to kill you. Don't show yorself in town. Cum to me as soon as you can on trail striking north to Loon Lake. Watch yorself. Be ready with yor gun.

DONALD MacDONALD.

Aldous shoved the note in his pocket and slipped back out of the lantern-glow into deep shadow. For several minutes he stood silent and listening.

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