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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 20267

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


For an hour after Donald MacDonald had pledged himself to accompany Joanne and Aldous on their pilgrimage to the grave in the Saw Tooth Range the two men continued to discuss the unusual complications in which they had suddenly become involved, and at the same time prepared themselves a supper of bacon and coffee over the fire. They agreed upon a plan of action with one exception. Aldous was determined to return to the town, arguing there was a good strategic reason for showing himself openly and without fear. MacDonald opposed this apprehensively.

"Better lay quiet until morning," he expostulated. "You'd better listen to me, an' do that, Johnny. I've got something in my shoulder that tells me you'd better!"

In the face of the old hunter's misgiving, Aldous prepared to leave. It was nearly ten o'clock when he set back in the direction of Tête Jaune, Donald accompanying him as far as the moonlit amphitheatre in the forest. There they separated, and Aldous went on alone.

He believed that Joanne and the Blacktons would half expect him to return to the bungalow after he had seen MacDonald. He was sure that Blackton, at least, would look for him until quite late. The temptation to take advantage of their hospitality was great, especially as it would bring him in the company of Joanne again. On the other hand, he was certain that this first night in Tête Jaune held very large possibilities for him. The detective instinct in him was roused, and his adventurous spirit was alive for action. First of all, he wanted proof of what MacDonald had told him. That an attempt had been made to assassinate the old mountaineer he did not for an instant doubt. But had Joe DeBar, the half-breed, actually betrayed them? Had he sold himself to Culver Rann, and did Rann hold the key to the secret expedition they had planned into the North? He did not, at first, care to see Rann. He made up his mind that if he did meet him he would stop and chat casually with him, as though he had heard and seen nothing to rouse his suspicions. He particularly wanted to find DeBar; and, next to DeBar, Quade himself.

The night carnival was at its height when Aldous re-entered the long, lighted street. From ten until eleven was the liveliest hour of the night. Even the restaurants and soup-kitchens were crowded then. He strolled slowly down the street until he came to a little crowd gathered about the bear equestrienne. The big canvas dance-hall a few doors away had lured from her most of her admirers by this time, and Aldous found no difficulty in reaching the inner circle. He looked first for the half-breed. Failing to find him, he looked at the woman, who stood only a few feet from him. Her glossy black curls were a bit dishevelled, and the excitement of the night had added to the vivid colouring of her rouged lips and cheeks. Her body was sleek and sinuous in its silken vesture; arms and shoulders were startlingly white; and when she turned, facing Aldous, her black eyes flashed fires of deviltry and allurement.

For a moment he stared into her face. If he had not been looking closely he would not have caught the swift change that shot into the siren-like play of her orbs. It was almost instantaneous. Her slow-travelling glance stopped as she saw him. He saw the quick intake of her breath, a sudden compression of her lips, the startled, searching scrutiny of a pair of eyes from which, for a moment, all the languor and coquetry of her trade were gone. Then she passed him, smiling again, nodding, sweeping a hand and arm effectively through her handsome curls as she flung a shapely limb over the broad back of the bear. In a garish sort of way the woman was beautiful, and this night, as on all others, her beauty had nearly filled the silken coin-bag suspended from her neck. As she rode down the street Aldous recalled Blackton's words: She was a friend of Culver Rann's. He wondered if this fact accounted for the strangeness of the look she had given him.

He passed on to the dance-hall. It was crowded, mostly with men. But here and there, like so many faces peering forth from living graves, he saw the Little Sisters of Tête Jaune Cache. Outnumbered ten to one, their voices rang out in shrill banter and delirious laughter above the rumble of men. At the far end, a fiddle, a piano, and a clarinet were squealing forth music. The place smelled strongly of whisky. It always smelled of that, for most of the men who sought amusement here got their whisky in spite of the law. There were rock-hogs from up the line, and rock-hogs from down the line, men of all nationalities and of almost all ages; teamsters, trail-cutters, packers, and rough-shod navvies; men whose daily task was to play with dynamite and giant powder; steel-men, tie-men, and men who drilled into the hearts of mountains. More than once John Aldous had looked upon this same scene, and had listened to the trample and roar and wild revelry of it, marvelling that to-morrow the men of this saturnalia would again be the builders of an empire. The thin, hollow-cheeked faces that passed and repassed him, rouged and smiling, could not destroy in his mind the strength of the picture. They were but moths, fluttering about in their own doom, contending with each other to see which should quickest achieve destruction.

For several minutes Aldous scanned the faces in the big tent-hall, and nowhere did he see DeBar. He dropped out, and continued leisurely along the lighted way until he came to Lovak's huge black-and-white striped soup-tent. At ten o'clock, and until twelve, this was as crowded as the dance-hall. Aldous knew Lovak, the Hungarian.

Through Lovak he had found the key that had unlocked for him many curious and interesting things associated with that powerful Left Arm of the Empire Builders-the Slav. Except for a sprinkling of Germans, a few Italians, and now and then a Greek or Swiss, only the Slavs filled Lovak's place!--Slavs from all the Russias and the nations south: the quick and chattering Polak; the thick-set, heavy-jowled Croatian; the silent and dangerous-eyed Lithuanian. All came in for Lovak's wonderful soup, which he sold in big yellow bowls at ten cents a bowl-soup of barley, rice, and cabbage, of beef and mutton, of everything procurable out of which soup could be made, and, whether of meat or vegetable, smelling to heaven of garlic.

Fifty men were eating when Aldous went in, devouring their soup with the utter abandon and joy of the Galician, so that the noise they made was like the noise of fifty pigs at fifty troughs. Now and then DeBar, the half-breed, came here for soup, and Aldous searched quickly for him. He was turning to go when his friend, Lovak, came to him. No, Lovak had not seen DeBar. But he had news. That day the authorities-the police-had confiscated twenty dressed hogs, and in each porcine carcass they had found four-quart bottles of whisky, artistically imbedded in the leaf-lard fat. The day before those same authorities had confiscated a barrel of "kerosene." They were becoming altogether too officious, Lovak thought.

Aldous went on. He looked in at a dozen restaurants, and twice as many soft-drink emporiums, where phonographs were worked until they were cracked and dizzy. He stopped at a small tobacco shop, and entered to buy himself some cigars. There was one other customer ahead of him. He was lighting a cigar, and the light of a big hanging lamp flashed on a diamond ring. Over his sputtering match his eyes met those of John Aldous. They were dark eyes, neither brown nor black, but dark, with the keenness and strange glitter of a serpent's. He wore a small, clipped moustache; his hands were white; he was a man whom one might expect to possess the sang froid of a devil in any emergency. For barely an instant he hesitated in the operation of lighting his cigar as he saw Aldous. Then he nodded.

"Hello, John Aldous," he said.

"Good evening, Culver Rann," replied Aldous.

For a moment his nerves had tingled-the next they were like steel. Culver Rann's teeth gleamed. Aldous smiled back. They were cold, hard, rapierlike glances. Each understood now that the other was a deadly enemy, for Quade's enemies were also Culver Rann's. Aldous moved carelessly to the glass case in which were the cigars. With the barest touch of one of his slim white hands Culver Rann stopped him.

"Have one of mine, Aldous," he invited, opening a silver case filled with cigars. "We've never had the pleasure of smoking together, you know."

"Never," said Aldous, accepting one of the cigars. "Thanks."

As he lighted it, their eyes met again. Aldous turned to the case.

"Half a dozen 'Noblemen,'" he said to the man behind the counter; then, to Rann: "Will you have one on me?"

"With pleasure," said Rann. He added, smiling straight into the other's eyes, "What are you doing up here, Aldous? After local colour?"

"Perhaps. The place interests me."

"It's a lively town."

"Decidedly. And I understand that you've played an important part in the making of it," replied Aldous carelessly.

For a flash Rann's eyes darkened, and his mouth hardened, then his white teeth gleamed again. He had caught the insinuation, and he had scarcely been able to ward off the shot.

"I've tried to do my small share," he admitted. "If you're after local colour for your books, Aldous, I possibly may be able to assist you-if you're in town long."

"Undoubtedly you could," said Aldous. "I think you could tell me a great deal that I would like to know, Rann. But-will you?"

There was a direct challenge in his coldly smiling eyes.

"Yes, I think I shall be quite pleased to do so," said Rann. "Especially-if you are long in town." There was an odd emphasis on those last words.

He moved toward the door.

"And if you are here very long," he added, his eyes gleaming significantly, "it is possible you may have experiences of your own which would make very interesting reading if they ever got into print. Good-night, Aldous!"

For two or three minutes after Rann had gone Aldous loitered in the tobacco shop

. Then he went out. All at once it struck him that he should have kept his eyes on Quade's partner. He should have followed him. With the hope of seeing him again he walked up and down the street. It was eleven o'clock when he went into Big Ben's pool-room. Five minutes later he came out just as a woman hurried past him, carrying with her a strong scent of perfume. It was the Lady of the Bear. She was in a street dress now, her glossy curls still falling loose about her-probably homeward bound after her night's harvest. It struck Aldous that the hour was early for her retirement, and that she seemed somewhat in a hurry.

The woman was going in the direction of Rann's big log bungalow, which was built well out of town toward the river. She had not seen him as he stood in the pool-room doorway, and before she had passed out of sight he was following her. There were a dozen branch trails and "streets" on the way to Rann's, and into the gloom of some one of these the woman disappeared, so that Aldous lost her entirely. He was not disappointed when he found she had left the main trail.

Five minutes later he stood close to Rann's house. From the side on which he had approached it was dark. No gleam of light showed through the windows. Slowly he walked around the building, and stopped suddenly on the opposite side. Here a closely drawn curtain was illuminated by a glow from within. Cautiously Aldous made his way along the log wall of the house until he came to the window. At one side the curtain had caught against some object, leaving perhaps a quarter of an inch of space through which the light shone. Aldous brought his eyes on a level with this space.

A half of the room came within his vision. Directly in front of him, lighted by a curiously shaped iron lamp suspended from the ceiling, was a dull red mahogany desk-table. At one side of this, partly facing him, was Culver Rann. Opposite him sat Quade.

Rann was speaking, while Quade, with his bullish shoulders hunched forward and his fleshy red neck, rolling over the collar of his coat, leaned across the table in a tense and listening attitude. With his eyes glued to the aperture, Aldous strained his ears to catch what Rann was saying. He heard only the low and unintelligible monotone of his voice. A mocking smile was accompanying Rann's words. To-night, as at all times, this hawk who preyed upon human lives was immaculate. In all ways but one he was the antithesis of the beefy scoundrel who sat opposite him. On the hand that toyed carelessly with the fob of his watch flashed a diamond; another sparkled in his cravat. His dark hair was sleek and well brushed; his bristly little moustache was clipped in the latest fashion. He was not large. His hands, as he made a gesture toward Quade, were of womanish whiteness. Casually, on the street or in a Pullman, Aldous would have taken him for a gentleman. Now, as he stared through the narrow slit between the bottom of the curtain and the sill, he knew that he was looking upon one of the most dangerous men in all the West. Quade was a villain. Culver Rann, quiet and cool and suave, was a devil. Behind his depravity worked the brain which Quade lacked, and a nerve which, in spite of that almost effeminate immaculateness, had been described to Aldous as colossal.

Suddenly Quade turned, and Aldous saw that he was flushed and excited. He struck the desk a blow with his fist. Culver Rann leaned back and smiled. And John Aldous slipped away from the window.

His nerves were quivering; in the darkness he unbuttoned the pocket that held his automatic. Through the window he had seen an open door behind Rann, and his blood thrilled with the idea that had come to him. He was sure the two partners in crime were discussing himself and MacDonald-and Joanne. To hear what they were saying, to discover their plot, would be three quarters of the fight won, if it came to a fight. The open door was an inspiration.

Swiftly and silently he went to the rear of the house. He tried the door and found it unlocked. Softly he opened it, swinging it inward an inch at a time, and scarcely breathing as he entered. It was dark, and there was a second closed door ahead of him. From beyond that he heard voices. He closed the outer door so that he would not be betrayed by a current of air or a sound from out of the night. Then, even more cautiously and slowly, he began to open the second door.

An inch at first, then two inches, three inches-a foot-he worked the door inward. There was no light in this second room, and he lay close to the floor, head and shoulders thrust well in. Through the third and open door he saw Quade and Culver Rann. Rann was laughing softly as he lighted a fresh cigar. His voice was quiet and good humoured, but filled with a banter which it was evident Quade was not appreciating.

"You amaze me," Rann was saying. "You amaze me utterly. You've gone mad-mad as a rock-rabbit, Quade! Do you mean to tell me you're on the square when you offer to turn over a half of your share in the gold if I help you to get this woman?"

"I do," replied Quade thickly. "I mean just that! And we'll put it down in black an' white-here, now. You fix the papers, same as any other deal, and I'll sign!"

For a moment Culver Rann did not reply. He leaned back in his chair, thrust the thumbs of his white hands in his vest, and sent a cloud of smoke above his head. Then he looked at Quade, a gleam of humour in his eyes.

"Nothing like a woman for turning a man's head soft," he chuckled. "Nothing in the world like it, 'pon my word, Quade. First it was DeBar. I don't believe we'd got him if he hadn't seen Marie riding her bear. Marie and her curls and her silk tights, Quade-s'elp me, it wouldn't have surprised me so much if you'd fallen in love with her! And over this other woman you're as mad as Joe is over Marie. At first sight he was ready to sell his soul for her. So-I gave Marie to him. And now, for some other woman, you're just as anxious to surrender a half of your share of what we've bought through Marie. Good heaven, man, if you were in love with Marie--"

"Damn Marie!" growled Quade. "I know the time when you were bugs over her yourself, Rann. It wasn't so long ago. If I'd looked at her then--"

"Of course, not then," interrupted Rann smilingly. "That would have been impolite, Quade, and not at all in agreement with the spirit of our brotherly partnership. And, you must admit, Marie is a devilish good-looking girl. I've surrendered her only for a brief spell to DeBar. After he has taken us to the gold-why, the poor idiot will probably have been sufficiently happy to--"

He paused, with a suggestive shrug of his shoulders.

"-go into cold storage," finished Quade.

"Exactly."

Again Quade leaned over the table, and for a moment there was silence, a silence in which Aldous thought the pounding of his heart must betray him. He lay motionless on the floor. The nails of his fingers dug into the bare wood. Under the palm of his right hand lay his automatic.

Then Quade spoke. There must have been more in his face than was spoken in his words, for Culver Rann took the cigar from between his lips, and a light that was deadly serious slowly filled his eyes.

"Rann, we'll talk business!" Quade's voice was harsh, deep, and quivering. "I want this woman. I may be a fool, but I'm going to have her. I might get her alone, but we've always done things together-an' so I made you that proposition. It ain't a hard job. It's one of the easiest jobs we ever had. Only that fool of a writer is in the way-an' he's got to go anyway. We've got to get rid of him on account of the gold, him an' MacDonald. We've got that planned. An' I've showed you how we can get the woman, an' no one ever know. Are you in on this with me?"

Culver Rann's reply was as quick and sharp as a pistol shot.

"I am."

For another moment there was silence. Then Quade asked:

"Any need of writin', Culver?"

"No. There can't be a written agreement in this deal because-it's dangerous. There won't be much said about old MacDonald. But questions, a good many of them, will be asked about this man Aldous. As for the woman--" Rann shrugged his shoulders with a sinister smile. "She will disappear like the others," he finished. "No one will ever get on to that. If she doesn't make a pal like Marie-after a time, why--"

Again Aldous saw that peculiar shrug of his shoulders.

Quade's head nodded on his thick neck.

"Of course, I agree to that," he said. "After a time. But most of 'em have come over, ain't they, Culver? Eh? Most of 'em have," he chuckled coarsely. "When you see her you won't call me a fool for going dippy over her, Culver. And she'll come round all right after she's gone through what we've got planned for her. I'll make a pal of her!"

In that moment, as he listened to the gloating passion and triumph in Quade's brutal voice, something broke in the brain of John Aldous. It filled him with a fire that in an instant had devoured every thought or plan he had made, and in this madness he was consumed by a single desire-the desire to kill. And yet, as this conflagration surged through him, it did not blind or excite him. It did not make him leap forth in animal rage. It was something more terrible. He rose so quietly that the others did not see or hear him in the dark outer room. They did not hear the slight metallic click of the safety on his pistol.

For the space of a breath he stood and looked at them. He no longer sensed the words Quade was uttering. He was going in coolly and calmly to kill them. There was something disagreeable in the flashing thought that he might kill them from where he stood. He would not fire from the dark. He wanted to experience the exquisite sensation of that one first moment when they would writhe back from him, and see in him the presence of death. He would give them that one moment of life-just that one. Then he would kill.

With his pistol ready in his hand he stepped out into the lighted room.

"Good evening, gentlemen!" he said.

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