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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 14177

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


As John Aldous stood hidden in the darkness, listening for the sound of a footstep, Joanne's words still rang in his ears. "I believe he is out there-waiting for you," she had said; and, chuckling softly in the gloom, he told himself that nothing would give him more satisfaction than an immediate and material proof of her fear. In the present moment he felt a keen desire to confront Quade face to face out there in the lantern-glow, and settle with the mottled beast once for all. The fact that Quade had seen Joanne as the guest of the Blacktons hardened him in his determination. Quade could no longer be in possible error regarding her. He knew that she had friends, and that she was not of the kind who could be made or induced to play his game and Culver Rann's. If he followed her after this--

Aldous gritted his teeth and stared up and down the black trail. Five minutes passed and he heard nothing that sounded like a footstep, and he saw no moving shadow in the gloom. Slowly he continued along the road until he came to where a narrow pack-trail swung north and east through the thick spruce and balsam in the direction of Loon Lake. Remembering MacDonald's warning, he kept his pistol in his hand. The moon was just beginning to rise over the shoulder of a mountain, and after a little it lighted up the more open spaces ahead of him. Now and then he paused, and turned to listen. As he progressed with slowness and caution, his mind worked swiftly. He knew that Donald MacDonald was the last man in the world to write such a message as he had sent him through Blackton unless there had been a tremendous reason for it. But why, he asked himself again and again, should Culver Rann want to kill him? Rann knew nothing of Joanne. He had not seen her. And surely Quade had not had time to formulate a plot with his partner before MacDonald wrote his warning. Besides, an attempt had been made to assassinate the old mountaineer! MacDonald had not warned him against Quade. He had told him to guard himself against Rann. And what reason could this Culver Rann have for doing him injury? The more he thought of it the more puzzled he became. And then, in a flash, the possible solution of it all came to him.

Had Culver Rann discovered the secret mission on which he and the old mountaineer were going into the North? Had he learned of the gold-where it was to be found? And was their assassination the first step in a plot to secure possession of the treasure?

The blood in Aldous' veins ran faster. He gripped his pistol harder. More closely he looked into the moonlit gloom of the trail ahead of him. He believed that he had guessed the meaning of MacDonald's warning. It was the gold! More than once thought of the yellow treasure far up in the North had thrilled him, but never as it thrilled him now. Was the old tragedy of it to be lived over again? Was it again to play its part in a terrible drama of men's lives, as it had played it more than forty years ago? The gold! The gold that for nearly half a century had lain with the bones of its dead, alone with its terrible secret, alone until Donald MacDonald had found it again! He had not told Joanne the story of it, the appalling and almost unbelievable tragedy of it. He had meant to do so. But they had talked of other things. He had meant to tell her that it was not the gold itself that was luring him far to the north-that it was not the gold alone that was taking Donald MacDonald back to it.

And now, as he stood for a moment listening to the low sweep of the wind in the spruce-tops, it seemed to him that the night was filled with whispering voices of that long-ago-and he shivered, and held his breath. A cloud had drifted under the moon. For a few moments it was pitch dark. The fingers of his hand dug into the rough bark of a spruce. He did not move. It was then that he heard something above the caressing rustle of the wind in the spruce-tops.

It came to him faintly, from full half a mile deeper in the black forest that reached down to the bank of the Frazer. It was the night call of an owl-one of the big gray owls that turned white as the snow in winter. Mentally he counted the notes in the call. One, two, three, four-and a flood of relief swept over him. It was MacDonald. They had used that signal in their hunting, when they had wished to locate each other without frightening game. Always there were three notes in the big gray owl's quavering cry. The fourth was human. He put his hands to his mouth and sent back an answer, emphasizing the fourth note. The light breeze had died down for a moment, and Aldous heard the old mountaineer's reply as it floated faintly back to him through the forest. Continuing to hold his pistol, he went on, this time more swiftly.

MacDonald did not signal again. The moon was climbing rapidly into the sky, and with each passing minute the night was becoming lighter. He had gone half a mile when he stopped again and signalled softly. MacDonald's voice answered, so near that for an instant the automatic flashed in the moonlight. Aldous stepped out where the trail had widened into a small open spot. Half a dozen paces from him, in the bright flood of the moon, stood Donald MacDonald.

The night, the moon-glow, the tense attitude of his waiting added to the weirdness of the picture which the old wanderer of the mountains made as Aldous faced him. MacDonald was tall; some trick of the night made him appear almost unhumanly tall as he stood in the centre of that tiny moonlit amphitheatre. His head was bowed a little, and his shoulders drooped a little, for he was old. A thick, shaggy beard fell in a silvery sheen over his breast. His hair, gray as the underwing of the owl whose note he forged, straggled in uncut disarray from under the drooping rim of a battered and weatherworn hat. His coat was of buckskin, and it was short at the sleeves-four inches too short; and the legs of his trousers were cut off between the knees and the ankles, giving him a still greater appearance of height.

In the crook of his arm MacDonald held a rifle, a strange-looking, long-barrelled rifle of a type a quarter of a century old. And Donald MacDonald, in the picture he made, was like his gun, old and gray and ghostly, as if he had risen out of some graveyard of the past to warm himself in the yellow splendour of the moon. But in the grayness and gauntness of him there was something that was mightier than the strength of youth. He was alert. In the crook of his arm there was caution. His eyes were as keen as the eyes of an animal. His shoulders spoke of a strength but little impaired by the years. Ghostly gray beard, ghostly gray hair, haunting eyes that gleamed, all added to the strange and weird impressiveness of the man as he stood before Aldous. And when he spoke, his voice had in it the deep, low, cavernous note of a partridge's drumming.

"I'm glad you've come, Aldous," he said. "I've been waiting ever since the train come in. I was afraid you'd go to the cabin!"

Aldous stepped forth and gripped the old mo

untaineer's outstretched hand. There was intense relief in Donald's eyes.

"I got a little camp back here in the bush," he went on, nodding riverward. "It's safer 'n the shack these days. Yo're sure-there ain't no one following?"

"Quite certain," assured Aldous. "Look here, MacDonald-what in thunder has happened? Don't continue my suspense! Who shot you? Why did you warn me?"

Deep in his beard the old hunter laughed.

"Same fellow as would have shot you, I guess," he answered. "They made a bad job of it, Johnny, an awful bad job, an' mebby there'd been a better man layin' for you!"

He was pulling Aldous in the bush as he spoke. For ten minutes he dived on ahead through a jungle in which there was no trail. Suddenly he turned, led the way around the edge of a huge mass of rock, and paused a moment later before a small smouldering fire. Against the face of a gigantic boulder was a balsam shelter. A few cooking utensils were scattered about. It was evident that MacDonald had been living here for several days.

"Looks as though I'd run away, don't it, Johnny?" he asked, laughing in his curious, chuckling way again. "An' so I did, boy. From the mountain up there I've been watching things through my telescope-been keepin' quiet since Doc pulled the bullet out. I've been layin' for the Breed. I wanted him to think I'd vamoosed. I'm goin' to kill him!"

He had squatted down before the fire, his long rifle across his knees, and spoke as quietly as though he was talking of a partridge or a squirrel instead of a human being. He wormed a hand into one of his pockets and produced a small dark object which he handed to Aldous The other felt an uncanny chill as it touched his fingers. It was a mis-shapened bullet.

"Doc gave me the lead," continued MacDonald coolly, beginning to slice a pipeful of tobacco from a tar-black plug. "It come from Joe's gun. I've hunted with him enough to know his bullet. He fired through the window of the cabin. If it hadn't been for the broom handle-just the end of it stickin' up"-he shrugged his gaunt shoulders as he stuffed the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe-"I'd been dead!" he finished tersely.

"You mean that Joe--"

"Has sold himself to Culver Rann!" exclaimed MacDonald. He sprang to his feet. For the first time he showed excitement. His eyes blazed with repressed rage. A hand gripped the barrel of his rifle as if to crush it. "He's sold himself to Culver Rann!" he repeated. "He's sold him our secret. He's told him where the gold is, Johnny! He's bargained to guide Rann an' his crowd to it! An' first-they're goin' to kill us!"

With a low whistle Aldous took off his hat. He ran a hand through his blond-gray hair. Then he replaced his hat and drew two cigars from his pocket. MacDonald accepted one. Aldous' eyes were glittering; his lips were smiling.

"They are, are they, Donald? They're going to kill us?"

"They're goin' to try," amended the old hunter, with another curious chuckle in his ghostly beard. "They're goin' to try, Johnny. That's why I told you not to go to the cabin. I wasn't expecting you for a week. To-morrow I was goin' to start on a hike for Miette. I been watching through my telescope from the mountain up there. I see Quade come in this morning on a hand-car. Twice I see him and Rann together. Then I saw Blackton hike out into the bush. I was worrying about you an' wondered if he had any word. So I laid for him on the trail-an' I guess it was lucky. I ain't been able to set my eyes on Joe. I looked for hours through the telescope-an' I couldn't find him. He's gone, or Culver Rann is keeping him out of sight."

For several moments Aldous looked at his companion in silence. Then he said:

"You're sure of all this, are you, Donald? You have good proof-that Joe has turned traitor?"

"I've been suspicious of him ever since we come down from the North," spoke MacDonald slowly. "I watched him-night an' day. I was afraid he'd get a grubstake an' start back alone. Then I saw him with Culver Rann. It was late. I heard 'im leave the shack, an' I followed. He went to Rann's house-an' Rann was expecting him. Three times I followed him to Culver Rann's house. I knew what was happening then, an' I planned to get him back in the mountains on a hunt, an' kill him. But I was too late. The shot came through the window. Then he disappeared. An'-Culver Rann is getting an outfit together! Twenty head of horses, with grub for three months!"

"The deuce! And our outfit? Is it ready?"

"To the last can o' beans!"

"And your plan, Donald?"

All at once the old mountaineer's eyes were aflame with eagerness as he came nearer to Aldous.

"Get out of Tête Jaune to-night!" he cried in a low, hissing voice that quivered with excitement. "Hit the trail before dawn! Strike into the mountains with our outfit-far enough back-and then wait!"

"Wait?"

"Yes-wait. If they follow us-fight!"

Slowly Aldous held out a hand. The old mountaineer's met it. Steadily they looked into each other's eyes.

Then John Aldous spoke:

"If this had been two days ago I would have said yes. But to-night-it is impossible."

The fingers that had tightened about his own relaxed. Slowly a droop came into MacDonald's shoulders. Disappointment, a look that was almost despair settled in his eyes. Seeing the change, Aldous held the old hunter's hand more firmly.

"That doesn't mean we're not going to fight," he said quickly. "Only we've got to plan differently. Sit down, Donald. Something has been happening to me. And I'm going to tell you about it."

A little back from the fire they seated themselves, and Aldous told Donald MacDonald about Joanne.

He began at the beginning, from the moment his eyes first saw her as she entered Quade's place. He left nothing out. He told how she had come into his life, and how he intended to fight to keep her from going out of it. He told of his fears, his hopes, the mystery of their coming to Tête Jaune, and how Quade had preceded them to plot the destruction of the woman he loved. He described her as she had stood that morning, like a radiant goddess in the sun; and when he came to that he leaned nearer, and said softly:

"And when I saw her there, Donald, with her hair streaming about her like that, I thought of the time you told me of that other woman-the woman of years and years ago-and how you, Donald, used to look upon her in the sun, and rejoice in your possession. Her spirit has been with you always. You have told me how for nearly fifty years you have followed it over these mountains. And this woman means as much to me. If she should die to-night her spirit would live with me in that same way. You understand, Donald. I can't go into the mountains to-night. God knows when I can go-now. But you--"

MacDonald had risen. He turned his face to the black wall of the forest. Aldous thought he saw a sudden quiver pass through the great, bent shoulders.

"And I," said MacDonald slowly, "will have the horses ready for you at dawn. We will fight this other fight-later."

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