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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 19364

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


From the hour in which she had listened to the story of old MacDonald a change seemed to have come over Joanne. It was as if she had risen out of herself, out of whatever fear or grief she might have possessed in her own heart. John Aldous knew that there was some deep significance in her visit to the grave under the Saw Tooth Mountain, and that from the beginning she had been fighting under a tremendous mental and physical strain. He had expected this day would be a terrible day for her; he had seen her efforts to strengthen herself for the approaching crisis that morning. He believed that as they drew nearer to their journey's end her suspense and uneasiness, the fear which she was trying to keep from him, would, in spite of her, become more and more evident. For these reasons the change which he saw in her was not only delightfully unexpected but deeply puzzling. She seemed to be under the influence of some new and absorbing excitement. Her cheeks were flushed. There was a different poise to her head; in her voice, too, there was a note which he had not noticed before.

It struck him, all at once, that this was a new Joanne-a Joanne who, at least for a brief spell, had broken the bondage of oppression and fear that had fettered her. In the narrow trail up the mountain he rode behind her, and in this he found a pleasure even greater than when he rode at her side. Only when her face was turned from him did he dare surrender himself at all to the emotions which had transformed his soul. From behind he could look at her, and worship without fear of discovery. Every movement of her slender, graceful body gave him a new and exquisite thrill; every dancing light and every darkening shadow in her shimmering hair added to the joy that no fear or apprehension could overwhelm within him now. Only in those wonderful moments, when her presence was so near, and yet her eyes did not see him, could he submerge himself completely in the thought of what she had become to him and of what she meant to him.

During the first hour of their climb over the break that led into the valley beyond they had but little opportunity for conversation. The trail was an abandoned Indian path, narrow, and in places extremely steep. Twice Aldous helped Joanne from her horse that she might travel afoot over places which he considered dangerous. When he assisted her in the saddle again, after a stiff ascent of a hundred yards, she was panting from her exertion, and he felt the sweet thrill of her breath in his face. For a space his happiness obliterated all thoughts of other things. It was MacDonald who brought them back.

They had reached the summit of the break, and through his long brass telescope the old mountaineer was scanning the valley out of which they had come. Under them lay Tête Jaune, gleaming in the morning sun, and it dawned suddenly upon Aldous that this was the spot from which MacDonald had spied upon his enemies. He looked at Joanne. She was breathing quickly as she looked upon the wonder of the scene below them. Suddenly she turned, and encountered his eyes.

"They might-follow?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"No danger of that," he assured her.

MacDonald had dismounted, and now he lay crouched behind a rock, with his telescope resting over the top of it. He had leaned his long rifle against the boulder; his huge forty-four, a relic of the old Indian days, hung at his hip. Joanne saw these omens of preparedness, and her eyes shifted again to Aldous. His .303 swung from his saddle. At his waist was the heavy automatic. She smiled. In her eyes was understanding, and something like a challenge. She did not question him again, but under her gaze Aldous flushed.

A moment later MacDonald closed his telescope and without a word mounted his horse. Where the descent into the second valley began he paused again. To the north through the haze of the morning sun gleamed the snow-capped peaks of the Saw Tooth Range. Apparently not more than an hour's ride distant rose a huge red sandstone giant which seemed to shut in the end of the valley MacDonald stretched forth a long arm in its direction.

"What we're seekin' is behind that mountain," he said. "It's ten miles from here." He turned to the girl. "Are you gettin' lame, Mis' Joanne?"

Aldous saw her lips tighten.

"No. Let us go on, please."

She was staring fixedly at the sombre red mass of the mountain. Her eyes did not take in the magnificent sweep of the valley below. They saw nothing of the snow-capped peaks beyond. There was something wild and unnatural in their steady gaze. Aldous dropped behind her as they began the gradual descent from the crest of the break and his own heart began to beat more apprehensively; the old question flashed back upon him, and he felt again the oppression that once before had held him in its grip. His eyes did not leave Joanne. And always she was staring at the mountain behind which lay the thing they were seeking! It was not Joanne herself that set his blood throbbing. Her face had not paled. Its colour was like the hectic flush of a fever. Her eyes alone betrayed her; their strange intensity-the almost painful steadiness with which they hung to the distant mountain, and a dread of what was to come seized upon him. Again he found himself asking himself questions which he could not answer. Why had Joanne not confided more fully in him? What was the deeper significance of this visit to the grave, and of her mission in the mountains?

Down the narrow Indian trail they passed into the thick spruce timber. Half an hour later they came out into the grassy creek bottom of the valley. During that time Joanne did not look behind her, and John Aldous did not speak. MacDonald turned north, and the sandstone mountain was straight ahead of them. It was not like the other mountains. There was something sinister and sullen about it. It was ugly and broken. No vegetation grew upon it, and through the haze of sunlight its barren sides and battlemented crags gleamed a dark and humid red after the morning mists, as if freshly stained with blood. Aldous guessed its effect upon Joanne, and he determined to put an end to it. Again he rode up close beside her.

"I want you to get better acquainted with old Donald," he said. "We're sort of leaving him out in the cold, Ladygray. Do you mind if I tell him to come back and ride with you for a while?"

"I've been wanting to talk with him," she replied. "If you don't mind--"

"I don't," he broke in quickly. "You'll love old Donald, Ladygray. And, if you can, I'd like to have you tell him all that you know about-Jane. Let him know that I told you."

She nodded. Her lips trembled in a smile.

"I will," she said.

A moment later Aldous was telling MacDonald that Joanne wanted him. The old mountaineer stared. He drew his pipe from his mouth, beat out its half-burned contents, and thrust it into its accustomed pocket.

"She wants to see me?" he asked. "God bless her soul-what for?"

"Because she thinks you're lonesome up here alone, Mac. And look here"-Aldous leaned over to MacDonald-"her nerves are ready to snap. I know it. There's a mighty good reason why I can't relieve the strain she is under. But you can. She's thinking every minute of that mountain up there and the grave behind it. You go back, and talk. Tell her about the first time you ever came up through these valleys-you and Jane. Will you, Mac? Will you tell her that?"

MacDonald did not reply, but he dropped behind. Aldous took up the lead. A few minutes later he looked back, and laughed softly under his breath. Joanne and the old hunter were riding side by side in the creek bottom, and Joanne was talking. He looked at his watch. He did not look at it again until the first gaunt, red shoulder of the sandstone mountain began to loom over them. An hour had passed since he left Joanne. Ahead of him, perhaps a mile distant, was the cragged spur beyond which-according to the sketch Keller had drawn for him at the engineers' camp-was the rough canyon leading back to the basin on the far side of the mountain. He had almost reached this when MacDonald rode up.

"You go back, Johnny," he said, a singular softness in his hollow voice. "We're a'most there."

He cast his eyes over the western peaks, where dark clouds were shouldering their way up in the face of the sun, and added:

"There's rain in that. I'll trot on ahead with Pinto and have a tent ready when you come. I reckon it can't be more'n a mile up the canyon."

"And the grave, Mac?"

"Is right close to where I'll pitch the tent," said MacDonald, swinging suddenly behind the pack-horse Pinto, and urging him into a trot. "Don't waste any time, Johnny."

Aldous rode back to Joanne.

"It looks like rain," he explained. "These Pacific showers come up quickly this side of the Divide, and they drench you in a jiffy. Donald is going on ahead to put up a tent."

By the time they reached the mouth of the canyon MacDonald was out of sight. A little creek that was a swollen torrent in spring time trickled out of the gorge. Its channel was choked with a chaotic confusion of sandstone rock and broken slate, and up through this Aldous carefully picked his way, followed closely by Joanne. The sky continued to darken above them, until at last the sun died out, and a thick and almost palpable gloom began to envelop them. Low thunder rolled through the mountains in sullen, rumbling echoes. He looked back at Joanne, and was amazed to see her eyes shining, and a smile on her lips as she nodded at him.

"It makes me think of Henrik Hudson and his ten-pin players," she

called softly. "And ahead of us-is Rip Van Winkle!"

The first big drops were beginning to fall when they came to an open place. The gorge swung to the right; on their left the rocks gave place to a rolling meadow of buffalo grass, and Aldous knew they had reached the basin. A hundred yards up the slope was a fringe of timber, and as he looked he saw smoke rising out of this. The sound of MacDonald's axe came to them. He turned to Joanne, and he saw that she understood. They were at their journey's end. Perhaps her fingers gripped her rein a little more tightly. Perhaps it was imagination that made him think there was a slight tremble in her voice when she said:

"This-is the place?"

"Yes. It should be just above the timber. I believe I can see the upper break of the little box canyon Keller told me about."

She rode without speaking until they entered the timber. They were just in time. As he lifted her down from her horse the clouds opened, and the rain fell in a deluge. Her hair was wet when he got her in the tent. MacDonald had spread out a number of blankets, but he had disappeared. Joanne sank down upon them with a little shiver. She looked up at Aldous. It was almost dark in the tent, and her eyes were glowing strangely. Over them the thunder crashed deafeningly. For a few minutes it was a continual roar, shaking the mountains with mighty reverberations that were like the explosions of giant guns. Aldous stood holding the untied flap against the beat of the rain. Twice he saw Joanne's lips form words. At last he heard her say:

"Where is Donald?"

He tied the flap, and dropped down on the edge of the blankets before he answered her.

"Probably out in the open watching the lightning, and letting the rain drench him," he said. "I've never known old Donald to come in out of a rain, unless it was cold. He was tying up the horses when I ran in here with you."

He believed she was shivering, yet he knew she was not cold. In the half gloom of the tent he wanted to reach over and take her hand.

For a few minutes longer there was no break in the steady downpour and the crashing of the thunder. Then, as suddenly as the storm had broken, it began to subside. Aldous rose and flung back the tent-flap.

"It is almost over," he said. "You had better remain in the tent a little longer, Ladygray. I will go out and see if MacDonald has succeeded in drowning himself."

Joanne did not answer, and Aldous stepped outside. He knew where to find the old hunter. He had gone up to the end of the timber, and probably this minute was in the little box canyon searching for the grave. It was a matter of less than a hundred yards to the upper fringe of timber, and when Aldous came out of this he stood on the summit of the grassy divide that separated the tiny lake Keller had described from the canyon. It was less than a rifle shot distant, and on the farther side of it MacDonald was already returning. Aldous hurried down to meet him. He did not speak when they met, but his companion answered the question in his eyes, while the water dripped in streams from his drenched hair and beard.

"It's there," he said, pointing back. "Just behind that big black rock. There's a slab over it, an' you've got the name right. It's Mortimer FitzHugh."

Above them the clouds were splitting asunder. A shaft of sunlight broke through, and as they stood looking over the little lake the shaft broadened, and the sun swept in golden triumph over the mountains. MacDonald beat his limp hat against his knee, and with his other hand drained the water from his beard.

"What you goin' to do?" he asked.

Aldous turned toward the timber. Joanne herself answered the question. She was coming up the slope. In a few moments she stood beside them. First she looked down upon the lake. Then her eyes turned to Aldous. There was no need for speech. He held out his hand, and without hesitation she gave him her own. MacDonald understood. He walked down ahead of them toward the black rock. When he came to the rock he paused. Aldous and Joanne passed him. Then they, too, stopped, and Aldous freed the girl's hand.

With an unexpectedness that was startling they had come upon the grave. Yet not a sound escaped Joanne's lips. Aldous could not see that she was breathing. Less than ten paces from them was the mound, protected by its cairn of stones; and over the stones rose a weather-stained slab in the form of a cross. One glance at the grave and Aldous riveted his eyes upon Joanne. For a full minute she stood as motionless as though the last breath had left her body. Then, slowly, she advanced. He could not see her face. He followed, quietly, step by step as she moved. For another minute she leaned over the slab, making out the fine-seared letters of the name. Her body was bent forward; her two hands were clenched tightly at her side. Even more slowly than she had advanced she turned toward Aldous and MacDonald. Her face was dead white. She lifted her hands to her breast, and clenched them there.

"It is his name," she said, and there was something repressed and terrible in her low voice. "It is his name!"

She was looking straight into the eyes of John Aldous, and he saw that she was fighting to say something which she had not spoken. Suddenly she came to him, and her two hands caught his arm.

"It is terrible-what I am going to ask of you," she struggled. "You will think I am a ghoul. But I must have proof! I must-I must!"

She was staring wildly at him, and all at once there leapt fiercely through him a dawning of the truth. The name was there, seared by hot iron in that slab of wood. The name! But under the cairn of stones--

Behind them MacDonald had heard. He towered beside them now. His great mountain-twisted hands drew Joanne a step back, and strange gentleness was in his voice as he said:

"You an' Johnny go back an' build a fire, Mis' Joanne. I'll find the proof!"

"Come," said Aldous, and he held out his hand again.

MacDonald hurried on ahead of them. When they reached the camp he was gone, so that Joanne did not see the pick and shovel which he carried back. She went into the tent and Aldous began building a fire where MacDonald's had been drowned out. There was little reason for a fire; but he built it, and for fifteen minutes added pitch-heavy fagots of storm-killed jack-pine and spruce to it, until the flames leapt a dozen feet into the air. Half a dozen times he was impelled to return to the grave and assist MacDonald in his gruesome task. But he knew that MacDonald had meant that he should stay with Joanne. If he returned, she might follow.

He was surprised at the quickness with which MacDonald performed his work. Not more than half an hour had passed when a low whistle drew his eyes to a clump of dwarf spruce back in the timber. The mountaineer was standing there, holding something in his hand. With a backward glance to see that Joanne had not come from the tent, Aldous hastened to him. What he could see of MacDonald's face was the lifeless colour of gray ash. His eyes stared as if he had suffered a strange and unexpected shock. He went to speak, but no words came through his beard. In his hand he held his faded red neck-handkerchief. He gave it to Aldous.

"It wasn't deep," he said. "It was shallow, turribly shallow, Johnny-just under the stone!"

His voice was husky and unnatural.

There was something heavy in the handkerchief, and a shudder passed through Aldous as he placed it on the palm of his hand and unveiled its contents. He could not repress an exclamation when he saw what MacDonald had brought. In his hand, with a single thickness of the wet handkerchief between the objects and his flesh, lay a watch and a ring. The watch was of gold. It was tarnished, but he could see there were initials, which he could not make out, engraved on the back of the case. The ring, too, was of gold. It was one of the most gruesome ornaments Aldous had ever seen. It was in the form of a coiled and writhing serpent, wide enough to cover half of one's middle finger between the joints. Again the eyes of the two men met, and again Aldous observed that strange, stunned look in the old hunter's face. He turned and walked back toward the tent, MacDonald following him slowly, still staring, his long gaunt arms and hands hanging limply at his side.

Joanne heard them, and came out of the tent. A choking cry fell from her lips when she saw MacDonald. For a moment one of her hands clutched at the wet canvas of the tent, and then she swayed forward, knowing what John Aldous had in his hand. He stood voiceless while she looked. In that tense half-minute when she stared at the objects he held it seemed to him that her heart-strings must snap under the strain. Then she drew back from them, her eyes filled with horror, her hands raised as if to shut out the sight of them, and a panting, sobbing cry broke from between her pallid lips.

"Oh, my God!" she breathed. "Take them away-take them away!"

She staggered back to the tent, and stood there with her hands covering her face. Aldous turned to the old hunter and gave him the things he held.

A moment later he stood alone where the three had been, staring now as Joanne had stared, his heart beating wildly.

For Joanne, in entering the tent, had uncovered her face; it was not grief that he saw there, but the soul of a woman new-born. And as his own soul responded in a wild rejoicing, MacDonald, going over the summit and down into the hollow, mumbled in his beard:

"God ha' mercy on me! I'm doin' it for her an' Johnny, an' because she's like my Jane!"

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