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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 12013

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

For a space of perhaps twenty seconds after John Aldous announced himself there was no visible sign of life on the part of either Quade or Culver Rann. The latter sat stunned. Not the movement of a finger broke the stonelike immobility of his attitude. His eyes were like two dark coals gazing steadily as a serpent's over Quade's hunched shoulders and bowed head. Quade seemed as if frozen on the point of speaking to Rann. One hand was still poised a foot above the table. It was he who broke the tense and lifeless tableau.

Slowly, almost as slowly as Aldous had opened the door, Quade turned his head, and stared into the coldly smiling face of the man whom he had plotted to kill, and saw the gleaming pistol in his hand. A curious look overcame his pouchy face, a look not altogether of terror-but of shock. He knew Aldous had heard. He accepted in an instant, and perceptibly, the significance of the pistol in his hand. But Culver Rann sat like a rock. His face expressed nothing. Not for the smallest part of a second had he betrayed any emotion that might be throbbing within him. In spite of himself Aldous admired the man's unflinching nerve.

"Good evening, gentlemen!" he repeated.

Then Rann leaned slowly forward over the table. One hand rose to his moustache. It was his right hand. The other was invisible. Quade pulled himself together and stepped to the end of the table, his two empty hands in front of him. Aldous, still smiling, faced Rann's glittering eyes and covered him with his automatic. Culver Rann twisted the end of his moustache, and smiled back.

"Well?" he said. "Is it checkmate?"

"It is," replied Aldous. "I've promised you scoundrels one minute of life. I guess that minute is about up."

The last word was scarcely out of his mouth when the room was in darkness-a darkness so complete and sudden that for an instant his hand faltered, and in that instant he heard the overturning of a chair and the falling of a body. Twice his automatic sent a lightning-flash of fire where Culver Rann had sat; twice it spat threadlike ribbons of flame through the blackness where Quade had stood. He knew what had happened, and also what to expect if he lost out now. The curiously shaped iron lamp had concealed an electric bulb, and Rann had turned off the switch-key under the table. He had no further time to think. An object came hurtling through the thick gloom and fell with terrific force on his outstretched pistol arm. His automatic flew from his hand and struck against the wall. Unarmed, he sprang back toward the open door-full into the arms of Quade!

Aldous knew that it was Quade and not Culver Rann, and he struck out with all the force he could gather in a short-arm blow. His fist landed against Quade's thick neck. Again and again he struck, and Quade's grip loosened. In another moment he would have reached the door if Rann had not caught him from behind. Never had Aldous felt the clutch of hands like those of the womanish hands of Culver Rann. It was as if sinuous fingers of steel were burying themselves in his flesh. Before they found his throat he flung himself backward with all his weight, and with a tremendous effort freed himself.

Both Quade and Culver Rann now stood between him and the door. He could hear Quade's deep, panting breath. Rann, as before, was silent as death. Then he heard the door close. A key clicked in the lock. He was trapped.

"Turn on the light, Billy," he heard Rann say in a quiet, unexcited voice. "We've got this house-breaker cornered, and he's lost his gun. Turn on the light-and I'll make one shot do the business!"

Aldous heard Quade moving, but he was not coming toward the table. Somewhere in the room was another switch connected with the iron lamp, and Aldous felt a curious chill shoot up his spine. Without seeing through that pitch darkness of the room he sensed the fact that Culver Rann was standing with his back against the locked door, a revolver in his hand. And he knew that Quade, feeling his way along the wall, held a revolver in his hand. Men like these two did not go unarmed. The instant the light was turned on they would do their work. As he stood, silent as Culver Rann, he realized the tables were turned. In that moment's madness roused by Quade's gloating assurance of possessing Joanne he had revealed himself like a fool, and now he was about to reap the whirlwind of his folly. Deliberately he had given himself up to his enemies. They, too, would be fools if they allowed him to escape alive.

He heard Quade stop. His thick hand was fumbling along the wall. Aldous guessed that he was feeling for the switch. He almost fancied he could see Rann's revolver levelled at him through the darkness. In that thrilling moment his mind worked with the swiftness of a powder flash. One of his hands touched the edge of the desk-table, and he knew that he was standing directly opposite the curtained window, perhaps six feet from it. If he flung himself through the window the curtain would save him from being cut to pieces.

No sooner had the idea of escape come to him than he had acted. A flood of light filled the room as his body crashed through the glass. He heard a cry-a single shot-as he struck the ground. He gathered himself up and ran swiftly. Fifty yards away he stopped, and looked back. Quade and Rann were in the window. Then they disappeared, and a moment later the room was again in gloom.

For a second time Aldous hurried in the direction of MacDonald's camp. He knew that, in spite of the protecting curtain, the glass had cut him. He felt the warm blood dripping over his face; both hands were wet with it, The arm on which he had received the blow from the unseen object in the room gave him considerable pain, and he had slightly sprained an ankle in his leap through the window, so that he limped a little. But his mind was clear-so clear that in the face of his physical discomfort he caught himself laughing once or twice as he made hi

s way along the trail.

Aldous was not of an ordinary type. To a curious and superlative degree he could appreciate a defeat as well as a triumph. His adventures had been a part of a life in which he had not always expected to win, and in to-night's game he admitted that he had been hopelessly and ridiculously beaten. Tragedy, to him, was a first cousin of comedy; to-night he had set out to kill, and, instead of killing, he had run like a jack-rabbit for cover. Also, in that same half-hour Rann and Quade had been sure of him, and he had given them the surprise of their lives by his catapultic disappearance through the window. There was something ludicrous about it all-something that, to him, at least, had turned a possible tragedy into a very good comedy-drama.

Nor was Aldous blind to the fact that he had made an utter fool of himself, and that the consequences of his indiscretion might prove extremely serious. Had he listened to the conspirators without betraying himself he would have possessed an important advantage over them. The knowledge he had gained from overhearing their conversation would have made it comparatively easy for MacDonald and him to strike them a perhaps fatal blow through the half-breed DeBar. As the situation stood now, he figured that Quade and Culver Rann held the advantage. Whatever they had planned to do they would put into quick execution. They would not lose a minute.

It was not for himself that Aldous feared. Neither did he fear for Joanne. Every drop of red fighting blood in him was ready for further action, and he was determined that Quade should find no opportunity of accomplishing any scheme he might have against Joanne's person. On the other hand, unless they could head off DeBar, he believed that Culver Rann's chances of reaching the gold ahead of them would grow better with the passing of each hour. To protect Joanne from Quade he must lose no time. MacDonald would be in the same predicament, while Rann, assisted by as many rascals of his own colour as he chose to take with him, would be free to carry out the other part of the conspirators' plans.

The longer he thought of the mess he had stirred up the more roundly Aldous cursed his imprudence. And this mess, as he viewed it in these cooler moments, was even less disturbing than the thought of what might have happened had he succeeded in his intention of killing both Quade and Rann. Twenty times as he made his way through the darkness toward MacDonald's camp he told himself that he must have been mad. To have killed Rann or Quade in self-defence, or in open fight, would have been playing the game with a shadow of mountain law behind it. But he had invaded Rann's home. Had he killed them he would have had but little more excuse than a house-breaker or a suspicious husband might have had. Tête Jaune would not countenance cold-blooded shooting, even of criminals. He should have taken old Donald's advice and waited until they were in the mountains. An unpleasant chill ran through him as he thought of the narrowness of his double escape.

To his surprise, John Aldous found MacDonald awake when he arrived at the camp in the thickly timbered coulee. He was preparing a midnight cup of coffee over a fire that was burning cheerfully between two big rocks. Purposely Aldous stepped out into the full illumination of it. The old hunter looked up. For a moment he stared into the blood-smeared face of his friend; then he sprang to his feet, and caught him by the arm.

"Yes, I got it," nodded Aldous cheerfully. "I went out for it, Mac, and I got it! Get out your emergency kit, will you? I rather fancy I need a little patching up."

MacDonald uttered not a word. From the balsam lean-to he brought out a small rubber bag and a towel. Into a canvas wash-basin he then turned a half pail of cold water, and Aldous got on his knees beside this. Not once did the old mountaineer speak while he was washing the blood from Aldous' face and hands. There was a shallow two-inch cut in his forehead, two deeper ones in his right cheek, and a gouge in his chin. There were a dozen cuts on his hands, none of them serious. Before he had finished MacDonald had used two thirds of a roll of court-plaster.

Then he spoke.

"You can soak them off in the morning," he said. "If you don't, the lady'll think yo're a red Indian on the warpath. Now, yo' fool, what have yo' gone an' done?"

Aldous told him what had happened, and before MacDonald could utter an expression of his feelings he admitted that he was an inexcusable idiot and that nothing MacDonald might say could drive that fact deeper home.

"If I'd come out after hearing what they had to say, we could have got DeBar at the end of a gun and settled the whole business," he finished. "As it is, we're in a mess."

MacDonald stretched his gaunt gray frame before the fire. He picked up his long rifle, and fingered the lock.

"You figger they'll get away with DeBar?"

"Yes, to-night."

MacDonald threw open the breech of his single-loader and drew out a cartridge as long as his finger. Replacing it, he snapped the breech shut.

"Don't know as I'm pertic'lar sad over what's happened," he said, with a curious look at Aldous. "We might have got out of this without what you call strenu'us trouble. Now-it's fight! It's goin' to be a matter of guns an' bullets, Johnny-back in the mountains. You figger Rann an' the snake of a half-breed'll get the start of us. Let 'em have a start! They've got two hundred miles to go, an' two hundred miles to come back. Only-they won't come back!"

Under his shaggy brows the old hunter's eyes gleamed as he looked at Aldous.

"To-morrow we'll go to the grave," he added. "Yo're cur'ous to know what's goin' to happen when we find that grave, Johnny. So am I. I hope--"

"What do you hope?"

MacDonald shook his great gray head in the dying firelight.

"Let's go to bed, Johnny," he rumbled softly in his beard. "It's gettin' late."

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