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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 10154

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

At last Joanne realized that the explosion was not to come, that Blackton and his men were working to save them. And now, as she listened with him, her breath began to come in sobbing excitement between her lips-for there was no mistaking that sound, that steady beat-beat-beat that came from beyond the cavern wall and seemed to set strange tremors stirring in the air about their ears. For a few moments they stood stunned and silent, as if not yet quite fully comprehending that they had come from out of the pit of death, and that men were fighting for their rescue. They asked themselves no questions-why the "coyote" had not been fired? how those outside knew they were in the cavern. And, as they listened, there came to them a voice. It was faint, so faint that it seemed to whisper to them through miles and miles of space-yet they knew that it was a voice!

"Some one is shouting," spoke Aldous tensely. "Joanne, my darling, stand around the face of the wall so flying rock will not strike you and I will answer with my pistol!"

When he had placed her in safety from split lead and rock chips, he drew his automatic and fired it close up against the choked tunnel. He fired five times, steadily, counting three between each shot, and then he placed his ear to the mass of stone and earth and listened. Joanne slipped to him like a shadow. Her hand sought his, and they held their breaths. They no longer heard sounds-nothing but the crumbling and falling of dust and pebbles where the bullets had struck, and their own heart-beats. The picks and rock-hammers had ceased.

Tighter and tighter grew the clasp of Joanne's fingers, and a terrible thought flashed into John's brain. Perhaps a, rock from the slide had cut a wire, and they had found the wire-had repaired it! Was that thought in Joanne's mind, too? Her finger-nails pricked his flesh. He looked at her. Her eyes were closed, and her lips were tense and gray. And then her eyes shot open-wide and staring. They heard, faintly though it came to them-once, twice, three times, four, five-the firing of a gun!

John Aldous straightened, and a great breath fell from his lips.

"Five times!" he said. "It is an answer. There is no longer doubt."

He was holding out his arms to her, and she came into them with a choking cry; and now she sobbed like a little child with her head against his breast, and for many minutes he held her close, kissing her wet face, and her damp hair, and her quivering lips, while the beat of the picks and the crash of the rock-hammers came steadily nearer.

Where those picks and rock-hammers fell a score of men were working like fiends: Blackton, his arms stripped to the shoulders; Gregg, sweating and urging the men; and among them-lifting and tearing at the rock like a madman-old Donald MacDonald, his shirt open, his great hands bleeding, his hair and beard tossing about him in the wind. Behind them, her hands clasped to her breast-crying out to them to hurry, hurry-stood Peggy Blackton. The strength of five men was in every pair of arms. Huge boulders were rolled back. Men pawed earth and shale with their naked hands. Rock-hammers fell with blows that would have cracked the heart of a granite obelisk. Half an hour-three quarters-and Blackton came back to where Peggy was standing, his face black and grimed, his arms red-seared where the edges of the rocks had caught them, his eyes shining.

"We're almost there, Peggy," he panted. "Another five minutes and--"

A shout interrupted him. A cloud of dust rolled out of the mouth of the tunnel, and into that dust rushed half a dozen men led by old Donald. Before the dust had settled they began to reappear, and with a shrill scream Peggy Blackton darted forward and flung her arms about the gold-shrouded figure of Joanne, swaying and laughing and sobbing in the sunshine. And old Donald, clasping his great arms about Aldous, cried brokenly:

"Oh, Johnny, Johnny-something told me to foller ye-an' I was just in time-just in time to see you go into the coyote!"

"God bless you, Mac!" said Aldous, and then Paul Blackton was wringing his hands; and one after another the others shook his hand, but Peggy Blackton was crying like a baby as she hugged Joanne in her arms.

"MacDonald came just in time," explained Blackton a moment later; and he tried to speak steadily, and tried to smile. "Ten minutes more, and--"

He was white.

"Now that it has turned out like this I thank God that it happened, Paul," said Aldous, for the engineer's ears alone. "We thought we were facing death, and so-I told her. And in there, on our knees, we pledged ourselves man and wife. I want the minister-as quick as you can get him, Blackton. Don't say anything to Joanne, but bring him to the house right away, will you?"

"Within half an hour," replied Blackton. "There comes Tony with the buckboard. We'll hustle up to the house and I'll have the preacher there in a jiffy."

As they went to the wagon, Aldous looked about for MacDonald. He had disappeared. Requesting Gregg to hunt him up and s

end him to the bungalow, he climbed into the back seat, with Joanne between him and Peggy. Her little hand lay in his. Her fingers clung to him. But her hair hid her face, and on the other side of her Peggy Blackton was laughing and talking and crying by turns.

As they entered the bungalow, Aldous whispered to Joanne:

"Will you please go right to your room, dear? I want to say something to you-alone."

When she went up the stair, Peggy caught a signal from her husband. Aldous remained with them. In two minutes he told the bewildered and finally delighted Peggy what was going to happen, and as Blackton hustled out for the minister's house he followed Joanne. She had fastened her door behind her. He knocked. Slowly she opened it.


"I have told them, dear," he whispered happily. "They understand. And, Joanne, Paul Blackton will be back in ten minutes-with the minister. Are you glad?"

She had opened the door wide, and he was heading out his arms to her again. For a moment she did not move, but stood there trembling a little, and deeper and sweeter grew the colour in her face, and tenderer the look in her eyes.

"I must brush my hair," she answered, as though she could think of no other words. "I-I must dress."

Laughing joyously, he went to her and gathered the soft masses of her hair in his hands, and piled it up in a glorious disarray about her face and head, holding it there, and still laughing into her eyes.

"Joanne, you are mine!"

"Unless I have been dreaming-I am, John Aldous!"

"Forever and forever."

"Yes, forever-and ever."

"And because I want the whole world to know, we are going to be married by a minister."

She was silent.

"And as my wife to be," he went on, his voice trembling with his happiness, "you must obey me!"

"I think that I shall, John."

"Then you will not brush your hair, and you will not change your dress, and you will not wash the dust from your face and that sweet little beauty-spot from the tip of your nose," he commanded, and now he drew her head close to him, so that he whispered, half in her hair: "Joanne, my darling, I want you wholly as you came to me there, when we thought we were going to die. It was there you promised to become my wife, and I want you as you were then-when the minister comes."

"John, I think I hear some one coming up the front steps!"

They listened. The door opened. They heard voices-Blackton's voice, Peggy's voice, and another voice-a man's voice.

Blackton's voice came up to them very distinctly.

"Mighty lucky, Peggy," he said. "Caught Mr. Wollaver just as he was passing the house. Where's--"

"Sh-h-hh!" came Peggy Blackton's sibilant whisper.

Joanne's hands had crept to John's face.

"I think," she said, "that it is the minister, John."

Her warm lips were near, and he kissed them.

"Come, Joanne. We will go down."

Hand in hand they went down the stair; and when the minister saw Joanne, covered in the tangle and glory of her hair; and when he saw John Aldous, with half-naked arms and blackened face; and when, with these things, he saw the wonderful joy shining in their eyes, he stood like one struck dumb at sight of a miracle descending out of the skies. For never had Joanne looked more beautiful than in this hour, and never had man looked more like entering into paradise than John Aldous.

Short and to the point was the little mountain minister's service, and when he had done he shook hands with them, and again he stared at them as they went back up the stair, still hand in hand. At her door they stopped. There were no words to speak now, as her heart lay against his heart, and her lips against his lips. And then, after those moments, she drew a little back, and there came suddenly that sweet, quivering, joyous play of her lips as she said:

"And now, my husband, may I dress my hair?"

"My hair," he corrected, and let her go from his arms.

Her door closed behind her. A little dizzily he turned to his room. His hand was on the knob when he heard her speak his name. She had reopened her door, and stood with something in her hand, which she was holding toward him. He went back, and she gave him a photograph.

"John, you will destroy this," she whispered. "It is his photograph-Mortimer FitzHugh's. I brought it to show to people, that it might help me in my search. Please-destroy it!"

He returned to his room and placed the photograph on his table. It was wrapped in thin paper, and suddenly there came upon him a most compelling desire to see what Mortimer FitzHugh had looked like in life. Joanne would not care. Perhaps it would be best for him to know.

He tore off the paper. And as he looked at the picture the hot blood in his veins ran cold. He stared-stared as if some wild and maddening joke was being played upon his faculties. A cry rose to his lips and broke in a gasping breath, and about him the floor, the world itself, seemed slipping away from under his feet.

For the picture he held in his hand was the picture of Culver Rann!

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