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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 11919

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Half an hour later Blackton had shown Aldous to his room and bath. It was four o'clock when he rejoined the contractor in the lower room, freshly bathed and shaven and in a change of clothes. He had not seen Joanne, but half a dozen times he had heard her and Peggy Blackton laughing and talking in Mrs. Blackton's big room at the head of the stairs, and he heard them now as they sat down to smoke their cigars. Blackton was filled with enthusiasm over the accomplishment of his latest work, and Aldous tried hard not to betray the fact that the minutes were passing with gruelling slowness while he waited for Joanne. He wanted to see her. His heart was beating like an excited boy's. He could hear her footsteps over his head, and he distinguished her soft laughter, and her sweet voice when she spoke. There was something tantalizing in her nearness and the fact that she did not once show herself at the top of the stair. Blackton was still talking about "coyotes" and dynamite when, an hour later, Aldous looked up, and his heart gave a big, glad jump.

Peggy Blackton, a plump little golden-haired vision of happiness, was already half a dozen steps down the stairs. At the top Joanne, for an instant, had paused. Through that space, before the contractor had turned, her eyes met those of John Aldous. She was smiling. Her eyes were shining at him. Never had he seen her look at him in that way, he thought, and never had she seemed such a perfect vision of loveliness. She was dressed in a soft, clinging something with a flutter of white lace at her throat, and as she came down he saw that she had arranged her hair in a marvellous way. Soft little curls half hid themselves in the shimmer of rich coils she had wreathed upon her head, and adorable little tendrils caressed the lovely flush in her cheeks, and clung to the snow-whiteness of her neck.

For a moment, as Peggy Blackton went to her husband, he stood very close to Joanne, and into his eyes she was smiling, half laughing, her beautiful mouth aquiver, her eyes glowing, the last trace of their old suspense and fear vanished in a new and wondrous beauty. He would not have said she was twenty-eight now. He would have sworn she was twenty.

"Joanne," he whispered, "you are wonderful. Your hair is glorious!"

"Always-my hair," she replied, so low that he alone heard. "Can you never see beyond my hair, John Aldous?"

"I stop there," he said. "And I marvel. It is glorious!"

"Again!" And up from her white throat there rose a richer, sweeter colour. "If you say that again now, John Aldous, I shall never make curls for you again as long as I live!"

"For me--"

His heart seemed near bursting with joy. But she had left him, and was laughing with Peggy Blackton, who was showing her husband where he had missed a stubbly patch of beard on his cheek. He caught her eyes, turned swiftly to him, and they were laughing at him, and there came a sudden pretty upturn to her chin as he continued to stare, and he saw again the colour deepening in her face. When Peggy Blackton led her husband to the stair, and drove him up to shave off the stubbly patch, Joanne found the opportunity to whisper to him:

"You are rude, John Aldous! You must not stare at me like that!"

And as she spoke the rebellious colour was still in her face, in spite of the tantalizing curve of her red lips and the sparkle in her eyes.

"I can't help it," he pleaded. "You are-glorious!"

During the next hour, and while they were at supper, he could see that she was purposely avoiding his eyes, and that she spoke oftener to Paul Blackton than she did to him, apparently taking the keenest interest in his friend's enthusiastic descriptions of the mighty work along the line of steel. And as pretty Peggy Blackton never seemed quite so happy as when listening to her husband, he was forced to content himself by looking at Joanne most of the time, without once receiving her smile.

The sun was just falling behind the western mountains when Peggy and Joanne, hurried most incontinently by Blackton, who had looked at his watch, left the table to prepare themselves for the big event of the evening.

"I want to get you there before dusk," he explained. "So please hurry!"

They were back in five minutes. Joanne had slipped on a long gray coat, and with a veil that trailed a yard down her back she had covered her head. Not a curl or a tress of her hair had she left out of its filmy prison, and there was a mischievous gleam of triumph in her eyes when she looked at Aldous.

A moment later, when they went ahead of Blackton and his wife to where the buckboard was waiting for them, he said:

"You put on that veil to punish me, Ladygray?"

"It is a pretty veil," said she.

"But your hair is prettier," said he.

"And you embarrassed me very much by staring as you did, John Aldous!"

"Forgive me. It is-I mean you are-so beautiful."

"And you are sometimes-most displeasing," said she. "Your ingenuousness, John Aldous, is shocking!"

"Forgive me," he said again.

"And you have known me but two days," she added.

"Two days-is a long time," he argued. "One can be born, and live, and die in two days. Besides, our trails have crossed for years."

"But-it displeases me."

"What I have said?"

"Yes."

"And the way I have looked at you?"

"Yes."

Her voice was low and quiet now, her eyes were serious, and she was not smiling.

"I know-I know," he groaned, and there was a deep thrill in his voice. "It's been only two days after all, Ladygray. It seems like-like a lifetime. I don't want you to think badly of me. God knows I don't!"

"No, no. I don't," she said quickly and gently. "You are the finest gentleman I ever knew, John Aldous. Only-it embarrasses me."

"I will cut out my tongue and put out my eyes--"

"Nothing so terrible," she laughed softly. "Will you help me into the wagon? They are coming."

She gave him her hand

, warm and soft; and Blackton forced him into the seat between her and Peggy, and Joanne's hand rested in his arm all the way to the mountain that was to be blown up, and he told himself that he was a fool if he were not supremely happy. The wagon stopped, and he helped her out again, her warm little hand again close in his own, and when she looked at him he was the cool, smiling John Aldous of old, so cool, and strong, and unemotional that he saw surprise in her eyes first, and then that gentle, gathering glow that came when she was proud of him, and pleased with him. And as Blackton pointed out the mountain she unknotted the veil under her chin and let it drop back over her shoulders, so that the last light of the day fell richly in the trembling curls and thick coils of her hair.

"And that is my reward," said John Aldous, but he whispered it to himself.

They had stopped close to a huge flat rock, and on this rock men were at work fitting wires to a little boxlike thing that had a white button-lever. Paul Blackton pointed to this, and his face was flushed with excitement.

"That's the little thing that's going to blow it up, Miss Gray-the touch of your finger on that little white button. Do you see that black base of the mountain yonder?-right there where you can see men moving about? It's half a mile from here, and the 'coyote' is there, dug into the wall of it."

The tremble of enthusiasm was in his voice as he went on, pointing with his long arm: "Think of it! We're spending a hundred thousand dollars going through that rock that people who travel on the Grand Trunk Pacific in the future will be saved seven minutes in their journey from coast to coast! We're spending a hundred thousand there, and millions along the line, that we may have the smoothest roadbed in the world when we're done, and the quickest route from sea to sea. It looks like waste, but it isn't. It's science! It's the fight of competition! It's the determination behind the forces-the determination to make this road the greatest road in the world! Listen!"

The gloom was thickening swiftly. The black mountain was fading slowly away, and up out of that gloom came now ghostly and far-reaching voices of men booming faintly through giant megaphones.

"Clear away! Clear away! Clear away!" they said, and the valley and the mountain-sides caught up the echoes, until it seemed that a hundred voices were crying out the warning. Then fell a strange and weird silence, and the echoes faded away like the voices of dying men, and all was still save the far-away barking of a coyote that answered the mysterious challenges of the night. Joanne was close to the rock. Quietly the men who had been working on the battery drew back.

"It is ready!" said one.

"Wait!" said Blackton, as his wife went to speak, "Listen!"

For five minutes there was silence. Then out of the night a single megaphone cried the word:

"Fire!"

"All is clear," said the engineer, with a deep breath. "All you have to do, Miss Gray, is to move that little lever from the side on which it now rests to the opposite side. Are you ready?"

In the darkness Joanne's left hand had sought John's. It clung to his tightly. He could feel a little shiver run through her.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Then-if you please-press the button!"

Slowly Joanne's right hand crept out, while the fingers of her left clung tighter to Aldous. She touched the button-thrust it over. A little cry that fell from between her tense lips told them she had done the work, and a silence like that of death fell on those who waited.

A half a minute-perhaps three quarters-and a shiver ran under their feet, but there was no sound; and then a black pall, darker than the night, seemed to rise up out of the mountain, and with that, a second later, came the explosion. There was a rumbling and a jarring, as if the earth were convulsed under foot; volumes of dense black smoke shot upward, and in another instant these rolling, twisting volumes of black became lurid, and an explosion like that of a thousand great guns rent the air. As fast as the eye could follow sheets of flame shot up out of the sea of smoke, climbing higher and higher, in lightning flashes, until the lurid tongues licked the air a quarter of a mile above the startled wilderness. Explosion followed explosion, some of them coming in hollow, reverberating booms, others sounding as if in midair. Unseen by the watchers, the heavens were filled with hurtling rocks; solid masses of granite ten feet square were thrown a hundred feet away; rocks weighing a ton were hurled still farther, as if they were no more than stones flung by the hands of a giant; chunks that would have crashed from the roof to the basement of a skyscraper dropped a third of a mile away. For three minutes the frightful convulsions continued, and the tongues of flame leaped into the night. Then the lurid lights died out, shorter and shorter grew the sullen flashes, and then again fell-silence!

During those appalling moments, unconscious of the act, Joanne had shrank close to Aldous, so that he felt the soft crush of her hair and the swift movement of her bosom. Blackton's voice brought them back to life.

He laughed, and it was the laugh of a man who had looked upon work well done.

"It has done the trick," he said. "To-morrow we will come and see. And I have changed my plans about Coyote Number Twenty-eight. Hutchins, the superintendent, is passing through in the afternoon, and I want him to see it." He spoke now to a man who had come up out of the darkness. "Gregg, have Twenty-eight ready at four o'clock to-morrow afternoon-four o'clock-sharp!"

Then he said:

"Dust and a bad smell will soon be settling about us. Come, let's go home!"

And as they went back to the buckboard wagon through the gloom John Aldous still held Joanne's hand in his own, and she made no effort to take it from him.

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