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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 17470

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


There was no doubt in the mind of John Aldous now. The attempt upon Joanne left him but one course to pursue: he must take her with him, in spite of the monumental objections which he had seen a few hours before. He realized what a fight this would mean for him, and with what cleverness and resource he must play his part. Joanne had not given herself to him as she had once given herself to Mortimer FitzHugh. In the "coyote," when they had faced death, she had told him that were there to be a to-morrow in life for them she would have given herself to him utterly and without reservation. And that to-morrow had dawned. It was present. She was his wife. And she had come to him as she had promised. In her eyes he had seen love and trust and faith-and a glorious happiness. She had made no effort to hide that happiness from him. Consciousness of it filled him with his own great happiness, and yet it made him realize even more deeply how hard his fight was to be. She was his wife. In a hundred little ways she had shown him that she was proud of her wifehood. And again he told himself that she had come to him as she had promised, that she had given into his keeping all that she had to give. And yet-she was not his wife!

He groaned aloud, and his fingers dug into the flesh of his knees as he thought of that. Could he keep that terrible truth from her? If she went with him into the North, would she not guess? And, even though he kept the truth from her until Mortimer FitzHugh was dead, would he be playing fair with her? Again he went over all that he had gone over before. He knew that Joanne would leave him to-morrow, and probably forever, if he told her that FitzHugh was alive. The law could not help him, for only death-and never divorce-would free her. Within himself he decided for the last time. He was about to do the one thing left for him to do. And it was the honourable thing, for it meant freedom for her and happiness for them both. To him, Donald MacDonald had become a man who lived very close to the heart and the right of things, and Donald had said that he should take her. This was the greatest proof that he was right.

But could he keep Joanne from guessing? Could he keep her from discovering the truth until it was time for her to know that truth? In this necessity of keeping her from suspecting that something was wrong he saw his greatest fight. Compared with it, the final settlement with Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh sank into a second importance. He knew what would happen then. But Joanne-Joanne on the trail, as his wife--

He began pacing back and forth in his room, clouding himself in the smoke of his pipe. Frequently Joanne's mind had filled him with an exquisite delight by its quickness and at times almost magic perceptiveness, and he realized that in these things, and the fineness of her woman's intuition, now lay his greatest menace. He was sure that she understood the meaning of the assault upon her that night, though she had apparently believed what he and Blackton had told them-that it had been the attack of irresponsible and drunken hoodlums. Yet he was certain that she had already guessed that Quade had been responsible.

He went to bed, dreading what questions and new developments the morning might bring forth. And when the morning came, he was both amazed and delighted. The near tragedy of the previous night might never have happened in so far as he could judge from Joanne's appearance. When she came out of her room to meet him, in the glow of a hall lamp, her eyes were like stars, and the colour in her cheeks was like that of a rose fresh from its slumber in dew.

"I'm so happy, and what happened last night seems so like a bad dream," she whispered, as he held her close to him for a few moments before descending the stairs. "I shall worry about Peggy, John. I shall. I don't understand how her husband dares to bring her among savages like these. You wouldn't leave me among them, would you?" And as she asked the question, and his lips pressed hers, John Aldous still believed that in her heart she knew the truth of that night attack.

If she did know, she kept her secret from him all that day. They left Tête Jaune before sunrise with an outfit which MacDonald had cut down to six horses. Its smallness roused Joanne's first question, for Aldous had described to her an outfit of twenty horses. He explained that a large outfit made travel much more difficult and slow, but he did not tell her that with six horses instead of twenty they could travel less conspicuously, more easily conceal themselves from enemies, and, if necessary, make quick flight or swift pursuit.

They stopped to camp for the night in a little basin that drew from Joanne an exclamation of joy and wonder. They had reached the upper timber-line, and on three sides the basin was shut in by treeless and brush-naked walls of the mountains. In the centre of the dip was a lake fed by a tiny stream that fell in a series of ribbonlike cataracts a sheer thousand feet from the snow-peaks that towered above them. Small, parklike clumps of spruce dotted the miniature valley; over it hung a sky as blue as sapphire and under their feet was a carpet of soft grass sprayed with little blue forget-me-nots and wild asters.

"I have never seen anything a half so beautiful as this!" cried Joanne, as Aldous helped her from her horse.

As her feet touched the ground she gave a little cry and hung limply in his arms.

"I'm lame-lame for life!" she laughed in mock humour. "John, I can't stand. I really can't!"

Old Donald was chuckling in his beard as he came up.

"You ain't nearly so lame as you'll be to-morrow," he comforted her. "An' you won't be nearly so lame to-morrow as you'll be next day. Then you'll begin to get used to it, Mis' Joanne."

"Mrs. Aldous, Donald," she corrected sweetly. "Or-just Joanne."

At that Aldous found himself holding her so closely that she gave a little gasp.

"Please don't," she expostulated. "Your arms are terribly strong, John!"

MacDonald had turned away, still chuckling, and began to unpack. Joanne looked behind her, then quickly held up her softly pouted lips. Aldous kissed her, and would have kissed her again but she slipped suddenly from his arms and going to Pinto began to untie a dishpan that was fastened to the top of his pack.

"Get to work, John Aldous!" she commanded.

MacDonald had camped before in the basin, and there were tepee poles ready cut, as light and dry as matchwood. Joanne watched them as they put up the tent, and when it was done, and she looked inside, she cried delightedly:

"It's the snuggest little home I ever had, John!"

After that she busied herself in a way that was a constantly growing pleasure to him. She took possession at once of pots and pans and kettles. She lost no time in impressing upon both Aldous and MacDonald the fact that while she was their docile follower on the trail she was to be at the head of affairs in camp. While they were straightening out the outfit, hobbling the horses, and building a fire, she rummaged through the panniers and took stock of their provisions. She bossed old Donald in a manner that made him fairly glow with pleasure. She bared her white arms to the elbows and made biscuits for the "reflector" instead of bannock, while Aldous brought water from the lake, and MacDonald cut wood. Her cheeks were aflame. Her eyes were laughing, joyous, happy. MacDonald seemed years younger. He obeyed her like a boy, and once Aldous caught him looking at her in a way that set him thinking again of those days of years and years ago, and of other camps, and of another woman-like Joanne.

MacDonald had thought of this first camp-and there were porterhouse steaks for supper, which he had brought packed in a kettle of ice. When they sat down to the meal, Joanne was facing a distant snow-capped ridge that cut the skyline, and the last of the sun, reflected from the face of the mountain on the east, had set brown-and-gold fires aglow in her hair. They were partly through when her eyes rested on the distant snow-ridge. Aldous saw her looking steadily. Suddenly she pointed beyond him.

"I see something moving over the snow on that mountain!" she cried a little excitedly. "It is hurrying toward the summit-just under the skyline! What is it?"

Aldous and MacDonald looked toward the ridge. Fully a mile away, almost even with the skyline now, a small dark object was moving over the white surface of the snow.

"It ain't a goat," said MacDonald, "because a goat is white, and we couldn't see it on the snow. It ain't a sheep, 'cause it's too dark, an' movin' too slow. It must be a bear, but why in the n

ame o' sin a bear would be that high, I don't know!"

He jumped up and ran for his telescope.

"A grizzly," whispered Joanne tensely. "Would it be a grizzly, John?"

"Possibly," he answered. "Indeed, it's very likely. This is a grizzly country. If we hurry you can get a look at him through the telescope."

MacDonald was already studying the object through his long glass when they joined him.

"It's a bear," he said.

"Please-please let me look at him," begged Joanne.

The dark object was now almost on the skyline. Half A minute more and it would pass over and out of sight. MacDonald still held his eye to the telescope, as though he had not heard Joanne. Not until the moving object had crossed the skyline, and had disappeared, did he reply to her.

"The light's bad, an' you couldn't have made him out very well," he said. "We'll show you plenty o' grizzlies, an' so near you won't want a telescope. Eh, Johnny?"

As he looked at Aldous there was a strange look in his eyes, and during the remainder of the supper he was restless, and ate hurriedly. When he had finished he rose and picked up his long rifle.

"There's sheep somewhere near this basin, Johnny," he explained. "An' I reckon Joanne'll scold us if we don't keep her in fresh meat. I'm goin' to bring in some mutton if there's any to be got, an' I probably won't be back until after dark."

Aldous knew that he had more to say, and he went with him a few steps beyond the camp.

And MacDonald continued in a low, troubled voice:

"Be careful, Johnny. Watch yo'rself. I'm going to take a look over into the next valley, an' I won't be back until late. It wasn't a goat, an' it wasn't a sheep, an' it wasn't a bear. It was two-legged! It was a man, Johnny, an' he was there to watch this trail, or my name ain't Donald MacDonald. Mebby he came ahead of us last night, an' mebby he was here before that happened. Anyway, be on your guard while I look over into the next range."

With that he struck off in the direction of the snow-ridge, and for a few moments Aldous stood looking after the tall, picturesque figure until it disappeared behind a clump of spruce. Swiftly he was telling himself that it was not the hunting season, and that it was not a prospector whom they had seen on the snow-ridge. As a matter of caution, there could be but one conclusion to draw. The man had been stationed there either by Quade or FitzHugh, or both, and had unwittingly revealed himself.

He turned toward Joanne, who had already begun to gather up the supper things. He could hear her singing happily, and as he looked she pressed a finger to her lips and threw a kiss to him. His heart smote him even as he smiled and waved a hand in response. Then he went to her. How slim and wonderful she looked in that glow of the setting sun, he thought. How white and soft were her hands, how tender and fragile her lovely neck! And how helpless-how utterly helpless she would be if anything happened to him and MacDonald! With an effort he flung the thought from him. On his knees he wiped the dishes and pots and pans for Joanne. When this was done, he seized an axe and showed her how to gather a bed. This was a new and delightful experience for Joanne.

"You always want to cut balsam boughs when you can get them," he explained, pausing before two small trees. "Now, this is a cedar, and this is a balsam. Notice how prickly and needlelike on all sides these cedar branches are. And now look at the balsam. The needles lay flat and soft. Balsam makes the best bed you can get in the North, except moss, and you've got to dry the moss."

For fifteen minutes he clipped off the soft ends of the balsam limbs and Joanne gathered them in her arms and carried them into the tepee. Then he went in with her, and showed her how to make the bed. He made it a narrow bed, and a deep bed, and he knew that Joanne was watching him, and he was glad the tan hid the uncomfortable glow in his face when he had finished tucking in the end of the last blanket.

"You will be as cozy as can be in that," he said.

"And you, John?" she asked, her face flushing rosily. "I haven't seen another tent for you and Donald."

"We don't sleep in a tent during the summer," he said. "Just our blankets-out in the open."

"But-if it should rain?"

"We get under a balsam or a spruce or a thick cedar."

A little later they stood beside the fire. It was growing dusk. The distant snow-ridge was swiftly fading into a pale and ghostly sheet in the gray gloom of the night. Up that ridge Aldous knew that MacDonald was toiling.

Joanne put her hands to his shoulders.

"Are you sorry-so very, very sorry that you let me come, John?"

"I didn't let you come," he laughed softly, drawing her to him. "You came!"

"And are you sorry?"

"No."

It was deliciously sweet to have her tilt up her head and put her soft lips to his, and it was still sweeter when her tender hands stroked his cheeks, and eyes and lips smiled their love and gladness. He stood stroking her hair, with her face laying warm and close against him, and over her head he stared into the thickening darkness of the spruce and cedar copses. Joanne herself had piled wood on the fire, and in its glow they were dangerously illuminated. With one of her hands she was still caressing his cheek.

"When will Donald return?" she asked.

"Probably not until late," he replied, wondering what it was that had set a stone rolling down the side of the mountain nearest to them. "He hunted until dark, and may wait for the moon to come up before he returns."

"John--"

"Yes, dear?--" And mentally he measured the distance to the nearest clump of timber between them and the mountain.

"Let's build a big fire, and sit down on the pannier canvases."

His eyes were still on the timber, and he was wondering what a man with a rifle, or even a pistol, might do at that space. He made a good target, and MacDonald was probably several miles away.

"I've been thinking about the fire," he said. "We must put it out, Joanne. There are reasons why we should not let it burn. For one thing, the smoke will drive any game away that we may hope to see in the morning."

Her hands lay still against his cheek.

"I-understand, John," she replied quickly, and there was the smallest bit of a shudder in her voice. "I had forgotten. We must put it out!"

Five minutes later only a few glowing embers remained where the fire had been. He had spread out the pannier canvases, and now he seated himself with his back to a tree. Joanne snuggled close to him.

"It is much nicer in the dark," she whispered, and her arms reached up about him, and her lips pressed warm and soft against his hand. "Are you just a little ashamed of me, John?"

"Ashamed? Good heaven--"

"Because," she interrupted him, "we have known each other such a very short time, and I have allowed myself to become so very, very well acquainted with you. It has all been so delightfully sudden, and strange, and I am-just as happy as I can be. You don't think it is immodest for me to say these things to my husband, John-even if I have only known him three days?"

He answered by crushing her so closely in his arms that for a few moments afterward she lay helplessly on his breast, gasping for breath. His brain was afire with the joyous madness of possession. Never had woman come to man more sweetly than Joanne had come to him, and as he felt her throbbing and trembling against him he was ready to rise up and shout forth a challenge to a hundred Quades and Culver Ranns hiding in the darkness of the mountains. For a long time he held her nestled close in his arms, and at intervals there were silences between them, in which they listened to the glad tumult of their own hearts, and the strange silence that came to them from out of the still night.

It was their first hour alone-of utter oblivion to all else but themselves; to Joanne the first sacrament hour of her wifehood, to him the first hour of perfect possession and understanding. In that hour their souls became one, and when at last they rose to their feet, and the moon came up over a crag of the mountain and flooded them in its golden light, there was in Joanne's face a tenderness and a gentle glory that made John Aldous think of an angel. He led her to the tepee, and lighted a candle for her, and at the last, with the sweet demand of a child in the manner of her doing it, she pursed up her lips to be kissed good-night.

And when he had tied the tent-flap behind her, he took his rifle and sat down with it across his knees in the deep black shadow of a spruce, and waited and listened for the coming of Donald MacDonald.

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