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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 24057

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


For a minute, perhaps longer, John Aldous stood staring at the photograph which he held in his hand. It was the picture of Culver Rann-not once did he question that fact, and not once did the thought flash upon him that this might be only an unusual and startling resemblance. It was assuredly Culver Rann! The picture dropped from his hand to the table, and he went toward the door. His first impulse was to go to Joanne. But when he reached the door he locked it, and dropped into a chair, facing the mirror in his dresser.

The reflection of his own face was a shock to him. If he was pale, the dust and grime of his fight in the cavern concealed his pallor. But the face that stared at him from out of the glass was haggard, wildly and almost grotesquely haggard, and he turned from it with a grim laugh, and set his jaws hard. He returned to the table, and bit by bit tore the photograph into thin shreds, and then piled the shreds on his ash-tray and burned them. He opened a window to let out the smoke and smell of charring paper, and the fresh, cool air of early evening struck his face. He could look off through the fading sunshine of the valley and see the mountain where Coyote Number Twenty-eight was to have done its work, and as he looked he gripped the window-sill so fiercely that the nails of his fingers were bent and broken against the wood. And in his brain the same words kept repeating themselves over and over again. Mortimer FitzHugh was not dead. He was alive. He was Culver Rann. And Joanne-Joanne was not his wife; she was still the wife of Mortimer FitzHugh-of Culver Rann!

He turned again to the mirror, and there was another look in his face. It was grim, terribly grim-and smiling. There was no excitement, nothing of the passion and half-madness with which he had faced Quade and Rann the night before. He laughed softly, and his nails dug as harshly into the palms of his hands as they had dug into the sills of the window.

"You poor, drivelling, cowardly fool!" he said to his reflection. "And you dare to say-you dare to think that she is not your wife?"

As if in reply to his words there came a knock at the door, and from the hall Blackton called:

"Here's MacDonald, Aldous. He wants to see you."

Aldous opened the door and the old hunter entered.

"If I ain't interruptin' you, Johnny--"

"You're the one man in the world I want to see, Mac. No, I'll take that back; there's one other I want to see worse than you-Culver Rann."

The strange look in his face made old Donald stare.

"Sit down," he said, drawing two chairs close to the table. "There's something to talk about. It was a terribly close shave, wasn't it?"

"An awful close shave, Johnny. As close a shave as ever was."

Still, as if not quite understanding what he saw, old Donald was staring into John's face.

"I'm glad it happened," said Aldous, and his voice became softer. "She loves me, Mac. It all came out when we were in there, and thought we were going to die. Not ten minutes ago the minister was here, and he made us man and wife."

Words of gladness that sprang to the old man's lips were stopped by that strange, cold, tense look in the face of John Aldous.

"And in the last five minutes," continued Aldous, as quietly as before, "I have learned that Mortimer FitzHugh, her husband, is not dead. Is it very remarkable that you do not find me happy, Mac? If you had come a few minutes ago--"

"Oh, my God! Johnny! Johnny!"

MacDonald had pitched forward over the table, and now he bowed his great shaggy head in his hands, and his gaunt shoulders shook as his voice came brokenly through his beard.

"I did it, Johnny; I did it for you an' her! When I knew what it would mean for her-I couldn't, Johnny, I couldn't tell her the truth, 'cause I knew she loved you, an' you loved her, an' it would break her heart. I thought it would be best, an' you'd go away together, an' nobody would ever know, an' you'd be happy. I didn't lie. I didn't say anything. But Johnny-Johnny, there weren't no bones in the grave!"

"My God!" breathed Aldous.

"There were just some clothes," went on MacDonald huskily, "an' the watch an' the ring were on top. Johnny, there weren't nobody ever buried there, an' I'm to blame-I'm to blame."

"And you did that for us," cried Aldous, and suddenly he reached over and gripped old Donald's hands. "It wasn't a mistake, Mac. I thank God you kept silent. If you had told her that the grave was empty, that it was a fraud, I don't know what would have happened. And now-she is mine! If she had seen Culver Rann, if she had discovered that this scoundrel, this blackmailer and murderer, was Mortimer FitzHugh, her husband--"

"Johnny! John Aldous!"

Donald MacDonald's voice came now like the deep growling roar of a she-bear, and as he cried the other's name he sprang to his feet, and his eyes gleamed in their deep sockets like raging fires.

"Johnny!"

Aldous rose, and he was smiling. He nodded.

"That's it," he said. "Mortimer FitzHugh is Culver Rann!"

"An'-an' you know this?"

"Absolutely. Joanne gave me Mortimer FitzHugh's photograph to destroy. I am sorry that I burned it before you saw it. But there is no doubt. Mortimer FitzHugh and Culver Rann are the same man."

Slowly the old mountaineer turned to the door. Aldous was ahead of him, and stood with his hand on the knob.

"I don't want you to go yet, Mac."

"I-I'll see you a little later," said Donald clumsily.

"Donald!"

"Johnny!"

For a full half minute they looked steadily into each other's eyes.

"Only a week, Johnny," pleaded Donald. "I'll be back in a week."

"You mean that you will kill him?"

"He'll never come back. I swear it, Johnny!"

As gently as he might have led Joanne, Aldous drew the mountaineer back to the chair.

"That would be cold-blooded murder," he said, "and I would be the murderer. I can't send you out to do my killing, Mac, as I might send out a hired assassin. Don't you see that I can't? Good heaven, some day-very soon-I will tell you how this hound, Mortimer FitzHugh, poisoned Joanne's life, and did his worst to destroy her. It's to me he's got to answer, Donald. And to me he shall answer. I am going to kill him. But it will not be murder. Since you have come into this room I have made my final plan, and I shall follow it to the end coolly and deliberately. It will be a great game, Mac-and it will be a fair game; and I shall play it happily, because Joanne will not know, and I will be strengthened by her love.

"Quade wants my life, and tried to hire Stevens, up at Miette, to kill me. Culver Rann wants my life; a little later it will come to be the greatest desire of his existence to have me dead and out of the way. I shall give him the chance to do the killing, Mac. I shall give him a splendid chance, and he will not fail to accept his opportunity. Perhaps he will have an advantage, but I am as absolutely certain of killing him as I am that the sun is going down behind the mountains out there. If others should step in, if I should have more than Culver Rann on my hands-why, then you may deal yourself a hand if you like, Donald. It may be a bigger game than One against One."

"It will," rumbled MacDonald. "I learned other things early this afternoon, Johnny. Quade did not stay behind. He went with Rann. DeBar and the woman are with them, and two other men. They went over the Lone Cache Pass, and this minute are hurrying straight for the headwaters of the Parsnip. There are five of 'em-five men."

"And we are two," smiled Aldous. "So there is an advantage on their side, isn't there, Mac? And it makes the game most eminently fair, doesn't it?"

"Johnny, we're good for the five!" cried old Donald in a low, eager voice. "If we start now--"

"Can you have everything ready by morning?"

"The outfit's waiting. It's ready now, Johnny."

"Then we'll leave at dawn. I'll come to you to-night in the coulee, and we'll make our final plans. My brain is a little muddled now, and I've got to clear it, and make myself presentable before supper. We must not let Joanne know. She must suspect nothing-absolutely nothing."

"Nothing," repeated MacDonald as he went to the door.

There he paused and, hesitating for a moment, leaned close to Aldous, and said in a low voice:

"Johnny, I've been wondering why the grave were empty. I've been wondering why there weren't somebody's bones there just t' give it the look it should 'a' had an' why the clothes were laid out so nicely with the watch an' the ring on top!"

With that he was gone, and Aldous closed and relocked the door.

He was amazed at his own composure as he washed himself and proceeded to dress for supper. What had happened had stunned him at first, had even terrified him for a few appalling moments. Now he was superbly self-possessed. He asked himself questions and answered them with a promptness which left no room for doubt in his mind as to what his actions should be. One fact he accepted as absolute: Joanne belonged to him. She was his wife. He regarded her as that, even though Mortimer FitzHugh was alive. In the eyes of both God and man FitzHugh no longer had a claim upon her. This man, who was known as Culver Rann, was worse than Quade, a scoundrel of the first water, a procurer, a blackmailer, even a murderer-though he had thus far succeeded in evading the rather loose and poorly working tentacles of mountain law.

Not for an instant did he think of Joanne as Culver Rann's wife. She was his wife. It was merely a technicality of the law-a technicality that Joanne might break with her little finger-that had risen now between them and happiness. And it was this that he knew was the mountain in his path, for he was certain that Joanne would not break that last link of bondage. She would know, with Mortimer FitzHugh alive, that the pledge between them in the "coyote," and the marriage ceremony in the room below, meant nothing. Legally, she was no more to him now than she was yesterday, or the day before. And she would leave him, even if it destroyed her, heart and soul. He was sure of that. For years she had suffered her heart to be ground out of her because of the "bit of madness" that was in her, because of that earlier tragedy in her life-and her promise, her pledge to her father, her God, and herself. Without arguing a possible change in her because of her love for him, John Aldous accepted these things. He believed that if he told Joanne the truth he would lose her.

His determination not to tell her, to keep from her the secret of the grave and the fact that Mortimer FitzHugh was alive, grew stronger in him with each breath that he drew. He believed that it was the right thing to do, that it was the honourable and the only thing to do. Now that the first shock was over, he did not feel that he had lost Joanne, or that there was a very great danger of losing her. For a moment it occurred to him that he might turn the law upon Culver Rann, and in the same breath he laughed at this absurdity. The law could not help him. He alone could work out his own and Joanne's salvation. And what was to happen must happen very soon-up in the mountains. When it was all over, and he returned, he would tell Joanne.

His heart beat more quickly as he finished dressing. In a few minutes more he would be with Joanne, and in spite of what had happened, and what might happen, he was happy. Yesterday he had dreamed. To-day was reality-and it was a glorious reality. Joanne belonged to him. She loved him. She was his wife, and when he went to her it was with the feeling that only a serpent lay in the path of their paradise-a serpent which he would crush with as little compunction as that serpent would have destroyed her. Utterly and remorselessly his mind was made up.

The Blacktons' supper hour was five-thirty, and he was a quarter of an hour late when he tapped at Joanne's door. He felt the warmth of a strange and delightful embarr

assment flushing his face as the door opened, and she stood before him. In her face, too, was a telltale riot of colour which the deep tan partly concealed in his own.

"I-I am a little late, am I not, Joanne?" he asked.

"You are, sir. If you have taken all this time dressing you are worse than a woman. I have been waiting fifteen minutes!"

"Old Donald came to see me," he apologized. "Joanne--"

"You mustn't, John!" she expostulated in a whisper. "My face is afire now! You mustn't kiss me again-until after supper--"

"Only once," he pleaded.

"If you will promise-just once--"

A moment later she gasped:

"Five times! John Aldous, I will never believe you again as long as I live!"

They went down to the Blacktons, and Peggy and Paul, who were busy over some growing geraniums in the dining-room window, faced about with a forced and incongruous appearance of total oblivion to everything that had happened. It lasted less than ten seconds. Joanne's lips quivered. Aldous saw the two little dimples at the corners of her mouth fighting to keep themselves out of sight-and then he looked at Peggy. Blackton could stand it no longer, and grinned broadly.

"For goodness sake go to it, Peggy!" he laughed. "If you don't you'll explode!"

The next moment Peggy and Joanne were in each other's arms, and the two men were shaking hands.

"We know just how you feel," Blackton tried to explain. "We felt just like you do, only we had to face twenty people instead of two. And you're not hungry. I'll wager that. I'll bet you don't feel like swallowing a mouthful. It had that peculiar effect on us, didn't it, Peggy?"

"And I-I almost choked myself," gurgled Peggy as they took their places at the table. "There really did seem to be something thick in my throat, Joanne, dear. I coughed and coughed and coughed before all those people until I wanted to die right there! And I'm wondering--"

"If I'm going to choke, too?" smiled Joanne. "Indeed not, Peggy. I'm as hungry as a bear!"

And now she did look glorious and self-possessed to Aldous as she sat opposite him at that small round table, which was just fitted for four. He told her so when the meal was finished, and they were following the Blacktons into the front room. Blackton had evidently been carefully drilled along the line of a certain scheme which Peggy had formed, for in spite of a negative nod from her, which signified that he was to wait a while, he pulled out his watch, and said:

"It isn't at all surprising if you people have forgotten that to-morrow is Sunday. Peggy and I always do some Saturday-night shopping, and if you don't mind, we'll leave you to care for the house while we go to town. We won't be gone more than an hour."

A few minutes later, when the door had closed behind them, Aldous led Joanne to a divan, and sat down beside her.

"I couldn't have arranged it better myself, dear," he exclaimed. "I have been wondering how I could have you alone for a few minutes, and tell you what is on my mind before I see MacDonald again to-night. I'm afraid you will be displeased with me, Joanne. I hardly know how to begin. But-I've got to."

A moment's uneasiness came into her eyes as she saw how seriously he was speaking.

"You don't mean, John-there's more about Quade-and Culver Rann?"

"No, no-nothing like that," he laughed, as though amused at the absurdity of her question. "Old Donald tells me they have skipped the country, Joanne. It's not that. It's you I'm thinking of, and what you may think of me a minute from now. Joanne, I've given my word to old Donald. He has lived in my promise. I've got to keep that promise-I must go into the North with him."

She had drawn one of his hands into her lap and was fondling it with her own soft palm and fingers.

"Of course, you must, John. I love old Donald."

"And I must go-soon," he added.

"It is only fair to him that you should," she agreed.

"He-he is determined we shall go in the morning," he finished, keeping his eyes from her.

For a moment Joanne did not answer. Her fingers interweaved with his, her warm little palm stroked the rough back of his hand. Then she said, very softly:

"And why do you think that will displease me, John, dear? I will be ready!"

"You!"

Her eyes were on him, full, and dark, and glowing, and in them were both love and laughter.

"You dear silly John!" she laughed. "Why don't you come right out and tell me to stay at home, instead of-of-'beating 'round the bush'-as Peggy Blackton says? Only you don't know what a terrible little person you've got, John. You really don't. So you needn't say any more. We'll start in the morning-and I am going with you!"

In a flash John Aldous saw his whole scheme shaking on its foundation.

"It's impossible-utterly impossible!" he gasped.

"And why utterly?" she asked, bending her head so that her soft hair touched his face and lips. "John, have you already forgotten what we said in that terrible cavern-what we told ourselves we would have done if we had lived? We were going adventuring, weren't we? And we are not dead-but alive. And this will be a glorious trip! Why, John, don't you see, don't you understand? It will be our honeymoon trip!"

"It will be a long, rough journey," he argued. "It will be hard-hard for a woman."

With a little laugh, Joanne sprang up and stood before him in a glow of light, tall, and slim, and splendid, and there was a sparkle of beautiful defiance and a little of triumph in her eyes as she looked down on him.

"And it will be dangerous, too? You are going to tell me that?"

"Yes, it will be dangerous."

She came to him and rumpled up his hair, and turned his face up so that she could look into his eyes.

"Is it worse than fever, and famine, and deep swamps, and crawling jungles?" she asked. "Are we going to encounter worse things than beasts, and poisonous serpents, and murderous savages-even hunger and thirst, John? For many years we dared those together-my father and I. Are these great, big, beautiful mountains more treacherous than those Ceylon jungles from which you ran away-even you, John? Are they more terrible to live in than the Great African Desert? Are your bears worse than tigers, your wolves more terrible than lions? And if, through years and years, I faced those things with my father, do you suppose that I want to be left behind now, and by my husband?"

So sweet and wonderful was the sound of that name as it came softly from her lips, that in his joy he forgot the part he was playing, and drew her close down in his arms, and in that moment all that remained of the scheme he had built for keeping her behind crumbled in ruin about him.

Yet in a last effort he persisted.

"Old Donald wants to travel fast-very fast, Joanne. I owe a great deal to him. Even you I owe to him-for he saved us from the 'coyote.'"

"I am going, John."

"If we went alone we would be able to return very soon."

"I am going."

"And some of the mountains-it is impossible for a woman to climb them!"

"Then I will let you carry me up them, John. You are so strong--"

He groaned hopelessly.

"Joanne, won't you stay with the Blacktons, to please me?"

"No. I don't care to please you."

Her fingers were stroking his cheek.

"John?"

"Yes."

"Father taught me to shoot, and as we get better acquainted on our honeymoon trip I'll tell you about some of my hunting adventures. I don't like to shoot wild things, because I love them too well. But I can shoot. And I want a gun!"

"Great Scott!"

"Not a toy-but a real gun," she continued. "A gun like yours. And then, if by any chance we should have trouble-with Culver Rann--"

She felt him start, and her hands pressed harder against his face.

"Now I know," she whispered. "I guessed it all along. You told me that Culver Rann and the others were after the gold. They've gone-and their going isn't quite 'skipping the country' as you meant me to understand it, John Aldous! So please let's not argue any more. If we do we may quarrel, and that would be terrible. I'm going. And I will be ready in the morning. And I want a gun. And I want you to be nice to me, and I want it to be our honeymoon-even if it is going to be exciting!"

And with that she put her lips to his, and his last argument was gone.

Two hours later, when he went to the coulee, he was like one who had come out of a strange and disturbing and altogether glorious dream. He had told Joanne and the Blacktons that it was necessary for him to be with MacDonald that night. Joanne's good-night kiss was still warm on his lips, the loving touch of her hands still trembled on his face, and the sweet perfume of her hair was in his nostrils. He was drunk with the immeasurable happiness that had come to him, every fibre in him was aquiver with it-and yet, possessed of his great joy, he was conscious of a fear; a fear that was new and growing, and which made him glad when he came at last to the little fire in the coulee.

He did not tell MacDonald the cause of this fear at first. He told the story of Mortimer FitzHugh and Joanne, leaving no part of it unbared, until he could see Donald MacDonald's great gaunt hands clenching in the firelight, and his cavernous eyes flaming darkly through the gloom. Then he told what had happened when the Blacktons went to town, and when he had finished, and rose despairingly beside the fire, Donald rose, too, and his voice boomed in a sort of ecstasy.

"My Jane would ha' done likewise," he cried in triumph. "She would that, Johnny-she would!"

"But this is different!" groaned Aldous. "What am I going to do, Mac? What can I do? Don't you see how impossible it is! Mac, Mac-she isn't my wife-not entirely, not absolutely, not in the last and vital sense of being a wife by law! If she knew the truth, she wouldn't consider herself my wife; she would leave me. For that reason I can't take her. I can't. Think what it would mean!"

Old Donald had come close to his side, and at the look in the gray old mountaineer's face John Aldous paused. Slowly Donald laid his hands on his shoulders.

"Johnny," he said gently, "Johnny, be you sure of yourself? Be you a man, Johnny?"

"Good heaven, Donald. You mean--"

Their eyes met steadily.

"If you are, Johnny," went on MacDonald in a low voice, "I'd take her with me. An' if you ain't, I'd leave these mount'ins to-night an' never look in her sweet face again as long as I lived."

"You'd take her along?" demanded Aldous eagerly.

"I would. I've been thinkin' it over to-night. An' something seemed to tell me we mustn't dare leave her here alone. There's just two things to do, Johnny. You've got to stay with her an' let me go on alone or-you've got to take her."

Slowly Aldous shook his head. He looked at his watch. It was a little after ten.

"If I could make myself believe that she would not be safe here-I would take her," he said. "But I can't quite make up my mind to that, Mac. She will be in good hands with the Blacktons. I will warn Paul. Joanne is determined to go, and I know she will think it pretty indecent to be told emphatically that she can't go. But I've got to do it. I can't see--"

A break in the stillness of the night stopped him with the suddenness of a bullet in his brain. It was a scream-a woman's scream, and there followed it shriek after shriek, until the black forest trembled with the fear and agony of the cries, and John Aldous stood as if suddenly stripped of the power to move or act. Donald MacDonald roused him to life. With a roar in his beard, he sprang forth into the darkness. And Aldous followed, a hot sweat of fear in his blood where a moment before had been only a chill of wonder and horror. For in Donald's savage beastlike cry he had caught Joanne's name, and an answering cry broke from his own lips as he followed the great gaunt form that was tearing with the madness of a wounded bear ahead of him through the night.

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