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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 7764

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Not until they had rushed up out of the coulee and had reached the pathlike trail did the screaming cease. For barely an instant MacDonald paused, and then ran on with a speed that taxed Aldous to keep up. When they came to the little open amphitheatre in the forest MacDonald halted again. Their hearts were thumping like hammers, and the old mountaineer's voice came husky and choking when he spoke.

"It wasn't far-from here!" he panted.

Scarcely had he uttered the words when he sped on again. Three minutes later they came to where the trail crossed the edge of a small rock-cluttered meadow, and with a sudden spurt Aldous darted ahead of MacDonald into this opening, where he saw two figures in the moonlight. Half a dozen feet from them he stopped with a cry of horror. They were Paul and Peggy Blackton! Peggy was dishevelled and sobbing, and was frantically clutching at her husband. It was Paul Blackton who dragged the cry from his lips. The contractor was swaying. He was hatless; his face was covered with blood, and his eyes were only half open, as if he were fighting to pull himself back into consciousness after a terrible blow. Peggy's hair was down, her dress was torn at the throat, and she was panting so that for a moment she could not speak.

"They've got-Joanne!" she cried then. "They went-there!"

She pointed, and Aldous ran where she pointed-into the timber on the far side of the little meadow. MacDonald caught his arm as they ran.

"You go straight in," he commanded. "I'll swing-to right-toward river--"

For two minutes after that Aldous tore straight ahead. Then for barely a moment he stopped. He had not paused to question Peggy Blackton. His own fears told him who Joanne's abductors were. They were men working under instructions from Quade. And they could not be far away, for scarcely ten minutes had passed since the first scream. He listened, and held his breath so that the terrific beating of his heart would not drown the sound of crackling brush. All at once the blood in him was frozen by a fierce yell. It was MacDonald, a couple of hundred yards to his right, and after that yell came the bellowing shout of his name.

"Johnny! Johnny! Oh, Johnny!"

He dashed in MacDonald's direction, and a few moments later heard the crashing of bodies in the undergrowth. Fifty seconds more and he was in the arena. MacDonald was fighting three men in a space over which the spruce-tops grew thinly. The moon shone upon them as they swayed in a struggling mass, and as Aldous sprang to the combat one of the three reeled backward and fell as if struck by a battering-ram. In that same moment MacDonald went down, and Aldous struck a terrific blow with the butt of his heavy Savage. He missed, and the momentum of his blow carried him over MacDonald. He tripped and fell. By the time he had regained his, feet the two men had disappeared into the thick shadows of the spruce forest. Aldous whirled toward the third man, whom he had seen fall. He, too, had disappeared. A little lamely old Donald brought himself to his feet. He was smiling.

"Now, what do 'ee think, Johnny?"

"Where is she? Where is Joanne?" demanded Aldous.

"Twenty feet behind you, Johnny, gagged an' trussed up nice as a whistle! If they hadn't stopped to do that work you wouldn't ha' seen her ag'in, Johnny-s'elp me, God, you wouldn't! They was hikin' for the river. Once they had reached the Frazer, and a boat--"

He broke off to lead Aldous to a clump of dwarf spruce. Behind this, white and still in the moonlight, but with eyes wide open and filled with horror, lay Joanne. Hands and feet were bound, and a big handkerchief was tied over her mouth. Twenty seconds later Aldous held her shivering and sobbing and laughing hysterically by turns in his arms, while MacDonald's voice brought Paul and Peggy Blackton to them. Blackton had recovere

d from the blow that had dazed him. Over Joanne's head he stared at Aldous. And MacDonald was staring at Blackton. His eyes were burning a little darkly.

"It's all come out right," he said, "but it ain't a special nice time o' night to be taking a' evening walk in this locality with a couple o' ladies!"

Blackton was still staring at Aldous, with Peggy clutching his arm as if afraid of losing him.

It was Peggy who answered MacDonald.

"And it was a nice time of night for you to send a message asking us to bring Joanne down the trail!" she cried, her voice trembling.

"We--" began Aldous, when he saw a sudden warning movement on MacDonald's part, and stopped. "Let us take the ladies home," he said.

With Joanne clinging to him, he led the way. Behind them all MacDonald growled loudly:

"There's got t' be something done with these damned beasts of furriners. It's gettin' so no woman ain't safe at night!"

Twenty minutes later they reached the bungalow. Leaving Joanne and Peggy inside, now as busily excited as two phoebe birds, and after Joanne had insisted upon Aldous sleeping at the Blacktons' that night, the two men accompanied MacDonald a few steps on his way back to camp.

As soon as they were out of earshot Blackton began cursing softly under his breath.

"So you didn't send that damned note?" he asked. "You haven't said so, but I've guessed you didn't send it!"

"No, we didn't send a note."

"And you had a reason-you and MacDonald-for not wanting the girls to know the truth?"

"A mighty good reason," said Aldous. "I've got to thank MacDonald for closing my mouth at the right moment. I was about to give it away. And now, Blackton, I've got to confide in you. But before I do that I want your word that you will repeat nothing of what I say to another person-even your wife."

Blackton nodded.

"Go on," he said. "I've suspected a thing or two, Aldous. I'll give you my word. Go on."

As briefly as possible, and without going deeply into detail, Aldous told of Quade and his plot to secure possession of Joanne.

"And this is his work," he finished. "I've told you this, Paul, so that you won't worry about Peggy. You can see from to-night's events that they were not after her, but wanted Joanne. Joanne must not learn the truth. And your wife must not know. I am going to settle with Quade. Just how and where and when I'm going to settle with him I don't care to say now. But he's going to answer to me. And he's going to answer soon."

Blackton whistled softly.

"A boy brought the note," he said. "He stood in the dark when he handed it to me. And I didn't recognize any one of the three men who jumped out on us. I didn't have much of a chance to fight, but if there's any one on the face of the earth who has got it over Peggy when it comes to screaming, I'd like to know her name! Joanne didn't have time to make a sound. But they didn't touch Peggy until she began screaming, and then one of the men began choking her. They had about laid me out with a club, so I was helpless. Good God--"

He shuddered.

"They were river men," said MacDonald. "Probably some of Tomman's scow-men. They were making for the river."

A few minutes later, when Aldous was saying good-night to MacDonald, the old hunter said again, in a whisper:

"Now what do 'ee think, Johnny?"

"That you're right, Mac," replied Aldous in a low voice. "There is no longer a choice. Joanne must go with us. You will come early?"

"At dawn, Johnny."

He returned to the bungalow with Blackton, and until midnight the lights there burned brightly while the two men answered a thousand questions about the night's adventure, and Aldous told of his and Joanne's plans for the honeymoon trip into the North that was to begin the next day.

It was half-past twelve when be locked the door of his and sat down to think.

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