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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 19453

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


To sleep after the excitement through which he had passed, and with to-morrow's uncertainties ahead of him, seemed to Aldous a physical impossibility. Yet he slept, and soundly. It was MacDonald who roused him three hours later. They prepared a quick breakfast over a small fire, and Aldous heated water in which he soaked his face until the strips of court-plaster peeled off. The scratches were lividly evident, but, inasmuch as he had a choice of but two evils, he preferred that Joanne should see these instead of the abominable disfigurement of court-plaster strips.

Old Donald took one look at him through half-closed eyes.

"You look as though you'd come out of a tussle with a grizzly," he grinned. "Want some fresh court-plaster?"

"And look as though I'd come out of a circus-no!" retorted Aldous. "I'm invited to breakfast at the Blacktons', Mac. How the devil am I going to get out of it?"

"Tell 'em you're sick," chuckled the old hunter, who saw something funny in the appearance of Aldous' face. "Good Lord, how I'd liked to have seen you come through that window-in daylight!"

Aldous led off in the direction of the trail. MacDonald followed close behind him. It was dark-that almost ebon-black hour that precedes summer dawn in the northern mountains. The moon had long ago disappeared in the west. When a few minutes later they paused in the little opening on the trail Aldous could just make out the shadowy form of the old mountaineer.

"I lost my gun when I jumped through the window, Mac," he explained. "There's another thirty-eight automatic in my kit at the corral. Bring that, and the .303 with the gold-bead sight-and plenty of ammunition. You'd better take that forty-four hip-cannon of yours along, as well as your rifle. Wish I could civilize you, Mac, so you'd carry one of the Savage automatics instead of that old brain-storm of fifty years ago!"

MacDonald gave a grunt of disgust that was like the whoof of a bear.

"It's done business all that time," he growled good humouredly. "An' it ain't ever made me jump through any window as I remember of, Johnny!"

"Enough," said Aldous, and in the gloom he gripped the other's hand. "You'll be there, Mac-in front of the Blacktons'-just as it's growing light?"

"That means in three quarters of an hour, Johnny. I'll be there. Three saddle-horses and a pack."

Where the trail divided they separated. Aldous went directly to the Blacktons'. As he had expected, the bungalow was alight. In the kitchen he saw Tom, the Oriental cook, busy preparing breakfast. Blackton himself, comfortably dressed in duck trousers and a smoking-jacket, and puffing on a pipe, opened the front door for him. The pipe almost fell from his mouth when he saw his friend's excoriated face.

"What in the name of Heaven!" he gasped.

"An accident," explained Aldous, with a suggestive shrug of his shoulders. "Blackton, I want you to do me another good turn. Tell the ladies anything you can think of-something reasonable. The truth is, I went through a window-a window with plenty of glass in it. Now how the deuce can I explain going through a window like a gentleman?"

With folded arms, Blackton inspected him thoughtfully for a moment.

"You can't," he said. "But I don't think you went through a window. I believe you fell over a cliff and were caught in an armful of wait-a-bit bushes. They're devilish those wait-a-bits!"

They shook hands.

"I'm ready to blow up with curiosity again," said Blackton. "But I'll play your game, Aldous."

A few minutes later Joanne and Peggy Blackton joined them. He saw again the quick flush of pleasure in Joanne's lovely face when she entered the room. It changed instantly when she saw the livid cuts in his skin. She came to him quickly, and gave him her hand. Her lips trembled, but she did not speak. Blackton accepted this as the psychological moment.

"What do you think of a man who'll wander off a trail, tumble over a ledge, and get mixed up in a bunch of wait-a-bit like that?" he demanded, laughing as though he thought it a mighty good joke on Aldous. "Wait-a-bit thorns are worse than razors, Miss Gray," he elucidated further. "They're-they're perfectly devilish, you know!"

"Indeed they are," emphasized Peggy Blackton, whom her husband had given a quick look and a quicker nudge, "They're dreadful!"

Looking straight into Joanne's eyes, Aldous guessed that she did not believe, and scarcely heard, the Blacktons.

"I had a presentiment something was going to happen," she said, smiling at him. "I'm glad it was no worse than that."

She withdrew her hand, and turned to Peggy Blackton. To John's delight she had arranged her wonderful shining hair in a braid that rippled in a thick, sinuous rope of brown and gold below her hips. Peggy Blackton had in some way found a riding outfit for her slender figure, a typical mountain outfit, with short divided skirt, loose blouse, and leggings. She had never looked more beautiful to him. Her night's rest had restored the colour to her soft cheeks and curved lips; and in her eyes, when she looked at him again, there was a strange, glowing light that thrilled him. During the next half-hour he almost forgot his telltale disfigurements. At breakfast Paul and Peggy Blackton were beautifully oblivious of them. Once or twice he saw in Joanne's clear eyes a look which made him suspect that she had guessed very near to the truth.

MacDonald was prompt to the minute. Gray day, with its bars of golden tint, was just creeping over the shoulders of the eastern mountains when he rode up to the Blacktons'. The old hunter was standing close to the horse which Joanne was to ride when Aldous brought her out. Joanne gave him her hand, and for a moment MacDonald bowed his shaggy head over it. Five minutes later they were trailing up the rough wagon-road, MacDonald in the lead, and Joanne and Aldous behind, with the single pack horse between.

For several miles this wagon-trail reached back through the thick timber that filled the bottom between the two ranges of mountains. They had travelled but a short distance when Joanne drew her horse close in beside Aldous.

"I want to know what happened last night," she said. "Will you tell me?"

Aldous met her eyes frankly. He had made up his mind that she would believe only the truth, and he had decided to tell her at least a part of that. He would lay his whole misadventure to the gold. Leaning over the pommel of his saddle he recounted the occurrences of the night before, beginning with his search for Quade and the half-breed, and his experience with the woman who rode the bear. He left out nothing-except all mention of herself. He described the events lightly, not omitting those parts which appealed to him as being very near to comedy.

In spite of his effort to rob the affair of its serious aspect his recital had a decided effect upon Joanne. For some time after he had finished one of her small gloved hands clutched tightly at the pommel of her saddle; her breath came more quickly; the colour had ebbed from her cheeks, and she looked straight ahead, keeping her eyes from meeting his. He began to believe that in some way she was convinced he had not told her the whole truth, and was possibly displeased, when she again turned her face to him. It was tense and white. In it was the fear which, for a few minutes, she had tried to keep from him.

"They would have killed you?" she breathed.

"Perhaps they would only have given me a good scare," said Aldous. "But I didn't have time to wait and find out. I was very anxious to see MacDonald again. So I went through the window!"

"No, they would have killed you," said Joanne. "Perhaps I did wrong, Mr. Aldous, but I confided-a little-in Peggy Blackton last night. She seemed like a sister. I love her. And I wanted to confide in some one-a woman, like her. It wasn't much, but I told her what happened at Miette: about you, and Quade, and how I saw him at the station, and again-later, following us. And then-she told me! Perhaps she didn't know how it was frightening me, but she told me all about these men-Quade and Culver Rann. And now I'm more afraid of Culver Rann than Quade, and I've never seen him. They can't hurt me. But I'm afraid for you!"

At her words a joy that was like the heat of a fire leaped into his brain.

"For me?" he said. "Afraid-for me?"

"Yes. Why shouldn't I be, if I know that you are in danger?" she asked quietly. "And now, since last night, and the discovery of your secret by these men, I am terrified. Quade has followed you here. Mrs. Blackton told me that Culver Rann was many times more dangerous than Quade. Only a little while ago you told me you did not care for riches. Then why do you go for this gold? Why do you run the risk? Why--"

He waited. The colour was flooding back into her face in an excited, feverish flush. Her blue eyes were dark as thunder-clouds in their earnestness.

"Don't you understand?" she went on. "It was because of me that you incurred this deadly enmity of Quade's. If anything happens to you, I shall hold myself responsible!"

"No, you will not be responsible," replied Aldous, steadying the tremble in his voice. "Besides, nothing is going to happen. But you don't know how happy you have made me by taking this sort of an interest in me. It-it feels good," he laughed.

For a few paces he dropped behind her, where the overhead spruce boughs left but the space for a single rider between. Then, again, he drew up close beside her.

"I was going to tell you about this gold," he said. "It isn't the gold we're going after."

He leaned over until his hand rested on her saddle-bow.

"Loo

k ahead," he went on, a curious softness in his voice. "Look at MacDonald!"

The first shattered rays of the sun were breaking over the mountains and reflecting their glow in the valley. Donald MacDonald had lifted his face to the sunrise; out from under his battered hat the morning breeze sweeping through the valley of the Frazer tossed his shaggy hair; his great owl-gray beard swept his breast; his broad, gaunt shoulders were hunched a little forward as he looked into the east. Again Aldous looked into Joanne's eyes.

"It's not the gold, but MacDonald, that's taking me north, Ladygray. And it's not the gold that is taking MacDonald. It is strange, almost unbelievedly strange-what I am going to tell you. To-day we are seeking a grave-for you. And up there, two hundred miles in the north, another grave is calling MacDonald. I am going with him. It just happens that the gold is there. You wouldn't guess that for more than forty years that blessed old wanderer ahead of us has loved a dead woman, would you? You wouldn't think that for nearly half a century, year in and year out, winter and summer alike, he has tramped the northern mountains-a lost spirit with but one desire in life-to find at last her resting-place? And yet it is so, Ladygray. I guess I am the only living creature to whom he has opened his heart in many a long year. A hundred times beside our campfire I have listened to him, until at last his story seems almost to be a part of my own. He may be a little mad, but it is a beautiful madness."

He paused.

"Yes," whispered Joanne. "Go on-John Aldous."

"It's-hard to tell," he continued. "I can't put the feeling of it in words, the spirit of it, the wonder of it. I've tried to write it, and I couldn't. Her name was Jane. He has never spoken of her by any other name than that, and I've never asked for the rest of it. They were kids when their two families started West over the big prairies in Conestoga wagons. They grew up sweethearts. Both of her parents, and his mother, died before they were married. Then, a little later, his father died, and they were alone. I can imagine what their love must have been. I have seen it still living in his eyes, and I have seen it in his strange hour-long dreams after he has talked of her. They were always together. He has told me how they roamed the mountains hand in hand in their hunts; how she was comrade and chum when he went prospecting. He has opened his lonely old heart to me-a great deal. He's told me how they used to be alone for months at a time in the mountains, the things they used to do, and how she would sing for him beside their campfire at night. 'She had a voice sweet as an angel,' I remember he told me once. Then, more than forty years ago, came the gold-rush away up in the Stikine River country. They went. They joined a little party of twelve-ten men and two women. This party wandered far out of the beaten paths of the other gold-seekers. And at last they found gold."

Ahead of them Donald MacDonald had turned in his saddle and was looking back. For a moment Aldous ceased speaking.

"Please-go on!" said Joanne.

"They found gold," repeated Aldous. "They found so much of it, Ladygray, that some of them went mad-mad as beasts. It was placer gold-loose gold, and MacDonald says that one day he and Jane filled their pockets with nuggets. Then something happened. A great storm came; a storm that filled the mountains with snow through which no living creature as heavy as a man or a horse could make its way. It came a month earlier than they had expected, and from the beginning they were doomed. Their supplies were almost gone.

"I can't tell you the horrors of the weeks and months that followed, as old Donald has told them to me, Joanne. You must imagine. Only, when you are deep in the mountains, and the snow comes, you are like a rat in a trap. So they were caught-eleven men and three women. They who could make their beds in sheets of yellow gold, but who had no food. The horses were lost in the storm. Two of their frozen carcasses were found and used for food. Two of the men set out on snowshoes, leaving their gold behind, and probably died.

"Then the first terrible thing happened. Two men quarrelled over a can of beans, and one was killed. He was the husband of one of the women. The next terrible thing happened to her-and there was a fight. On one side there were young Donald and the husband of the other woman; on the other side-the beasts. The husband was killed, and Donald and Jane sought refuge in the log cabin they had built. That night they fled, taking what little food they possessed, and what blankets they could carry. They knew they were facing death. But they went together, hand in hand.

"At last Donald found a great cave in the side of a mountain. I have a picture of that cave in my brain-a deep, warm cave, with a floor of soft white sand, a cave into which the two exhausted fugitives stumbled, still hand in hand, and which was home. But they found it a little too late. Three days later Jane died. And there is another picture in my brain-a picture of young Donald sitting there in the cave, clasping in his arms the cold form of the one creature in the world that he loved; moaning and sobbing over her, calling upon her to come back to life, to open her eyes, to speak to him-until at last his brain cracked and he went mad. That is what happened. He went mad."

Joanne's breath was coming brokenly through her lips. Unconsciously she had clasped her fingers about the hand Aldous rested on her pommel.

"How long he remained in the cave with his dead, MacDonald has never been able to say," he resumed.

"He doesn't know whether he buried his wife or left her lying on the sand floor of the cave. He doesn't know how he got out of the mountains. But he did, and his mind came back. And since then, Joanne-for a matter of forty years-his life has been spent in trying to find that cave. All those years his search was unavailing. He could find no trace of the little hidden valley in which the treasure-seekers found their bonanza of gold. No word of it ever came out of the mountains; no other prospector ever stumbled upon it. Year after year Donald went into the North; year after year he came out as the winter set in, but he never gave up hope.

"Then he began spending winter as well as summer in that forgotten world-forgotten because the early gold-rush was over, and the old Telegraph trail was travelled more by wolves than men. And always, Donald has told me, his beloved Jane's spirit was with him in his wanderings over the mountains, her hand leading him, her voice whispering to him in the loneliness of the long nights. Think of it, Joanne! Forty years of that! Forty years of a strange, beautiful madness, forty years of undying love, of faith, of seeking and never finding! And this spring old Donald came almost to the end of his quest. He knows, now; he knows where that little treasure valley is hidden in the mountains, he knows where to find the cave!"

"He found her-he found her?" she cried. "After all those years-he found her?"

"Almost," said Aldous softly. "But the great finale in the tragedy of Donald MacDonald's life is yet to come, Ladygray. It will come when once more he stands in the soft white sand of that cavern floor, and sometimes I tremble when I think that when that moment comes I will be at his side. To me it will be terrible. To him it will be-what? That hour has not quite arrived. It happened this way: Old Donald was coming down from the North on the early slush snows this spring when he came to a shack in which a man was almost dead of the smallpox. It was DeBar, the half-breed.

"Fearlessly MacDonald nursed him. He says it was God who sent him to that shack. For DeBar, in his feverish ravings, revealed the fact that he had stumbled upon that little Valley of Gold for which MacDonald had searched through forty years. Old Donald knew it was the same valley, for the half-breed raved of dead men, of rotting buckskin sacks of yellow nuggets, of crumbling log shacks, and of other things the memories of which stabbed like knives into Donald's heart. How he fought to save that man! And, at last, he succeeded.

"They continued south, planning to outfit and go back for the gold. They would have gone back at once, but they had no food and no horses. Foot by foot, in the weeks that followed, DeBar described the way to the hidden valley, until at last MacDonald knew that he could go to it as straight as an eagle to its nest. When they reached Tête Jaune he came to me. And I promised to go with him, Ladygray-back to the Valley of Gold. He calls it that; but I-I think of it as The Valley of Silent Men. It is not the gold, but the cavern with the soft white floor that is calling us."

In her saddle Joanne had straightened. Her head was thrown back, her lips were parted, and her eyes shone as the eyes of a Joan of Arc must have shone when she stood that day before the Hosts.

"And this man, the half-breed, has sold himself-for a woman?" she said, looking straight ahead at the bent shoulders of old MacDonald.

"Yes, for a woman. Do you ask me why I go now? Why I shall fight, if fighting there must be?"

She turned to him. Her face was a blaze of glory.

"No, no, no!" she cried. "Oh, John Aldous! if I were only a man, that I might go with you and stand with you two in that Holy Sepulchre-the Cavern-- If I were a man, I'd go-and, yes, I would fight!"

And Donald MacDonald, looking back, saw the two clasping hands across the trail. A moment later he turned his horse from the broad road into a narrow trail that led over the range.

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