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   Chapter 24 No.24

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 21054

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


For an hour after Joanne had gone into her tent Aldous sat silent and watchful. From where he had concealed himself he could see over a part of the moonlit basin, and guard the open space between the camp and the clump of timber that lay in the direction of the nearest mountain. After Joanne had blown out her candle the silence of the night seemed to grow deeper about him. The hobbled horses had wandered several hundred yards away, and only now and then could he hear the thud of a hoof, or the clank of a steel shoe on rock. He believed that it was impossible for any one to approach without ears and eyes giving him warning, and he felt a distinct shock when Donald MacDonald suddenly appeared in the moonlight not twenty paces from him. With an ejaculation of amazement he jumped to his feet and went to him.

"How the deuce did you get here?" he demanded.

"Were you asleep, Johnny?"

"I was awake-and watching!"

The old hunter chuckled.

"It was so still when I come to those trees back there that I thought mebby something had 'appened," he said.

"So, I sneaked up, Johnny."

"Did you see anything over the range?" asked Aldous anxiously.

"I found footprints in the snow, an' when I got to the top I smelled smoke, but couldn't see a fire. It was dark then." MacDonald nodded toward the tepee. "Is she asleep, Johnny?"

"I think so. She must be very tired."

They drew back into the shadow of the spruce. It was a simultaneous movement of caution, and both, without speaking their thoughts, realized the significance of it. Until now they had had no opportunity of being alone since last night.

MacDonald spoke in a low, muffled voice:

"Quade an' Culver Rann are goin' the limit, Johnny," he said. "They left men on the job at Tête Jaune, and they've got others watching us. Consequently, I've hit on a scheme-a sort of simple and unreasonable scheme, mebby, but an awful good scheme at times."

"What is it?"

"Whenever you see anything that ain't a bear, or a goat, or a sheep, don't wait to change the time o' day-but shoot!" said MacDonald.

Aldous smiled grimly.

"If I had any ideas of chivalry, or what I call fair play, they were taken out of me last night, Mac," he said. "I'm ready to shoot on sight!"

MacDonald grunted his satisfaction.

"They can't beat us if we do that, Johnny. They ain't even ordinary cut-throats-they're sneaks in the bargain; an' if they could walk in our camp, smilin' an' friendly, and brain us when our backs was turned, they'd do it. We don't know who's with them, and if a stranger heaves in sight meet him with a chunk o' lead. They're the only ones in these mountains, an' we won't make any mistake. See that bunch of spruce over there?"

The old hunter pointed to a clump fifty yards beyond the tepee toward the little lake. Aldous nodded.

"I'll take my blankets over there," continued MacDonald. "You roll yourself up here, and the tepee'll be between us. You see the system, Johnny? If they make us a visit during the night we've got 'em between us, and there'll be some real burying to do in the morning!"

Back under the low-hanging boughs of the dwarf spruce Aldous spread out his blanket a few minutes later. He had made up his mind not to sleep, and for hours he lay watchful and waiting, smoking occasionally, with his face close to the ground so that the odour of tobacco would cling to the earth. The moon rose until it was straight overhead, flooding the valley in a golden splendour that he wished Joanne might have seen. Then it began sinking into the west; slowly at first, and then more swiftly, its radiance diminished. He looked at his watch before the yellow orb effaced itself behind the towering peak of a distant mountain. It was a quarter of two.

With deepening darkness, his eyes grew heavier. He closed them for a few moments at a time; and each time the interval was longer, and it took greater effort to force himself into wakefulness. Finally he slept. But he was still subconsciously on guard, and an hour later that consciousness was beating and pounding within him, urging him to awake. He sat up with a start and gripped his rifle. An owl was hooting-softly, very softly. There were four notes. He answered, and a little later MacDonald came like a shadow out of the gloom. Aldous advanced to meet him, and he noticed that over the eastern mountains there was a break of gray.

"It's after three, Johnny," MacDonald greeted him. "Build a fire and get breakfast. Tell Joanne I'm out after another sheep. Until it's good an' light I'm going to watch from that clump of timber up there. In half an hour it'll be dawn."

He moved toward the timber, and Aldous set about building a fire. He was careful not to awaken Joanne. The fire was crackling cheerily when he went to the lake for water. Returning he saw the faint glow of candlelight in Joanne's tepee. Five minutes later she appeared, and all thought of danger, and the discomfort of his sleepless night, passed from him at sight of her. Her eyes were still a little misty with sleep when he took her in his arms and kissed her, but she was deliciously alive, and glad, and happy. In one hand she had brought a brush and in the other a comb.

"You slept like a log," he cried happily. "It can't be that you had very bad dreams, little wife?"

"I had a beautiful dream, John," she laughed softly, and the colour flooded up into her face.

She unplaited the thick silken strands of her braid and began brushing her hair in the firelight, while Aldous sliced the bacon. Some of the slices were thick, and some were thin, for he could not keep his eyes from her as she stood there like a goddess, buried almost to her knees in that wondrous mantle. He found himself whistling with a very light heart as she braided her hair, and afterward plunged her face in a bath of cold water he had brought from the lake. From that bath she emerged like a glowing Naiad. Her eyes sparkled. Her cheeks were pink and her lips full and red. Damp little tendrils of hair clung adorably about her face and neck. For another full minute Aldous paused in his labours, and he wondered if MacDonald was watching them from the clump of timber. The bacon was sputtering when Joanne ran to it and rescued it from burning.

Dawn followed quickly after that first break of day in the east, but not until one could see a full rifle-shot away did MacDonald return to the camp. Breakfast was waiting, and as soon as he had finished the old hunter went after the horses. It was five o'clock, and bars of the sun were shooting over the tops of the mountains when once more they were in the saddle and on their way.

Most of this day Aldous headed the outfit up the valley. On the pretext of searching for game MacDonald rode so far in advance that only twice during the forenoon was he in sight. When they stopped to camp for the night his horse was almost exhausted, and MacDonald himself showed signs of tremendous physical effort. Aldous could not question him before Joanne. He waited. And MacDonald was strangely silent.

The proof of MacDonald's prediction concerning Joanne was in evidence this second night. Every bone in her body ached, and she was so tired that she made no objection to going to her bed as soon as it was dark.

"It always happens like this," consoled old Donald, as she bade him good-night. "To-morrow you'll begin gettin' broke in, an' the next day you won't have any lameness at all."

She limped to the tepee with John's arm snugly about her slim waist. MacDonald waited patiently until he returned. He motioned Aldous to seat himself close at his side. Both men lighted their pipes before the mountaineer spoke.

"We can't both sleep at once to-night, Johnny," he said. "We've got to take turns keeping watch."

"You've discovered something to-day?"

"No. It's what I haven't discovered that counts. There weren't no tracks in this valley, Johnny, from mount'in to mount'in. They haven't travelled through this range, an' that leaves just two things for us to figger on. They're behind us-or DeBar is hitting another trail into the north. There isn't no danger ahead right now, because we're gettin' into the biggest ranges between here an' the Yukon. If Quade and Rann are in the next valley they can't get over the mount'ins to get at us. Quade, with all his flesh, couldn't climb over that range to the west of us inside o' three days, if he could get over it at all. They're hikin' straight for the gold over another trail, or they're behind us, an' mebby both."

"How-both?" asked Aldous.

"Two parties," explained MacDonald, puffing hard at his pipe. "If there's an outfit behind us they were hid in the timber on the other side of the snow-ridge, and they're pretty close this minute. Culver Rann-or FitzHugh, as you call him-is hustling straight on with DeBar. Mebby Quade is with him, an' mebby he ain't. Anyway, there's a big chance of a bunch behind us with special instructions from Quade to cut our throats and keep Joanne."

That day Aldous had been turning a question over in his own mind. He asked it now.

"Mac, are you sure you can go to the valley of gold without DeBar?"

For a long half minute MacDonald looked at him, and then his voice rumbled in a low, exultant laugh in his beard.

"Johnny," he said, with a strange quiver in his voice, "I can go to it now straighter an' quicker than DeBar! I know why I never found it. DeBar helped me that much. The trail is mapped right out in my brain now, Johnny. Five years ago I was within ten miles of the cavern-an' didn't know it!"

"And we can get there ahead of them?"

"We could-if it wasn't for Joanne. We're makin' twenty miles a day. We could make thirty."

"If we could beat them to it!" exclaimed Aldous, clenching his hands. "If we only could, Donald-the rest would be easy!"

MacDonald laid a heavy hand on his knee.

"You remember what you told me, Johnny, that you'd play the game fair, and give 'em a first chance? You ain't figgerin' on that now, be you?"

"No, I'm with you now, Donald. It's--"

"Shoot on sight!"

"Yes."

Aldous rose from his seat as he spoke.

"You turn in, Mac," he said. "You're about bushed after the work you've done to-day. I'll keep first watch. I'll conceal myself fifty or sixty yards from camp, and if we have visitors before midnight the fun will all be mine."

He knew that MacDonald was asleep within fifteen minutes after he had stationed himself at his post. In spit

e of the fact that he had had almost no sleep the preceding night, he was more than usually wakeful. He was filled with a curious feeling that events were impending. Yet the hours passed, the moon flooded the valley again, the horses grazed without alarm, and nothing happened. He had planned not to awaken old Donald at midnight, but MacDonald roused himself, and came to take his place a little before twelve. From that hour until four Aldous slept like the dead. He was tremendously refreshed when he arose, to find that the candle was alight in Joanne's tepee, and that MacDonald had built a fire. He waited for Joanne, and went with her to the tiny creek near the camp, where both bathed their faces in the snow-cold water from the mountain tops. Joanne had slept soundly for eight hours, and she was as fresh and as happy as a bird. Her lameness was almost gone, and she was eager for the day's journey.

As they filed again up the valley that morning, with the early sun transfiguring the great snow-topped ranges about them into a paradise of colour and warmth, Aldous found himself mentally wondering if it were really possible that a serious danger menaced them. He did not tell MacDonald what was in his mind. He did not confess that he was about ready to believe that the man on the snow-ridge had been a hunter or a prospector returning to his camp in the other valley, and that the attack in Tête Jaune was the one and only effort Quade would make to secure possession of Joanne. While a few hours before he had almost expected an immediate attack, he was now becoming more and more convinced that Quade, to a large extent, had dropped out of the situation. He might be with Mortimer FitzHugh, and probably was-a dangerous and formidable enemy to be accounted for when the final settlement came.

But as an immediate menace to Joanne, Aldous was beginning to fear him less as the hours passed. Joanne, and the day itself, were sufficient to disarm him of his former apprehension. In places they could see for miles ahead and behind them. And Joanne, each time that he looked at her, was a greater joy to him. Constantly she was pointing out the wonders of the mountains to him and MacDonald. Each new rise or fall in the valley held fresh and delightful surprises for her; in the craggy peaks she pointed out castlements, and towers, and battlemented strongholds of ancient princes and kings. Her mind was a wild and beautiful riot of imagination, of wonder, and of happiness, and in spite of the grimness of the mission they were on even MacDonald found himself rejoicing in her spirit, and he laughed and talked with them as they rode into the North.

They were entering now into a hunter's paradise. For the first time Joanne saw white, moving dots far up on a mountain-side, which MacDonald told her were goats. In the afternoon they saw mountain sheep feeding on a slide half a mile away, and for ten breathless minutes Joanne watched them through the telescope. Twice caribou sped over the opens ahead of them. But it was not until the sun was settling toward the west again that Joanne saw what she had been vainly searching the sides of the mountains to find. MacDonald had stopped suddenly in the trail, motioning them to advance. When they rode up to him he pointed to a green slope two hundred yards ahead.

"There's yo'r grizzly, Joanne," he said.

A huge, tawny beast was ambling slowly along the crest of the slope, and at sight of him Joanne gave a little cry of excitement.

"He's hunting for gophers," explained MacDonald.

"That's why he don't seem in a hurry. He don't see us because a b'ar's eyes are near-sighted, but he could smell us half a mile away if the wind was right."

He was unslinging his long rifle as he spoke. Joanne was near enough to catch his arm.

"Don't shoot-please don't shoot!" she begged. "I've seen lions, and I've seen tigers-and they're treacherous and I don't like them. But there's something about bears that I love, like dogs. And the lion isn't a king among beasts compared with him. Please don't shoot!"

"I ain't a-goin' to," chuckled old Donald. "I'm just getting ready to give 'im the proper sort of a handshake if he should happen to come this way, Joanne. You know a grizzly ain't pertic'lar afraid of anything on earth as I know of, an' they're worse 'n a dynamite explosion when they come head-on. There-he's goin' over the slope!"

"Got our wind," said Aldous.

They went on, a colour in Joanne's face like the vivid sunset. They camped two hours before dusk, and MacDonald figured they had made better than twenty miles that day. The same precautions were observed in guarding the camp as the night before, and the long hours of vigil were equally uneventful. The next day added still more to Aldous' peace of mind regarding possible attack from Quade, and on the night of this day, their fourth in the mountains, he spoke his mind to MacDonald.

For a few moments afterward the old hunter smoked quietly at his pipe. Then he said:

"I don't know but you're right, Johnny. If they were behind us they'd most likely have tried something before this. But it ain't in the law of the mount'ins to be careless. We've got to watch."

"I agree with you there, Mac," replied Aldous. "We cannot afford to lose our caution for a minute. But I'm feeling a deuced sight better over the situation just the same. If we can only get there ahead of them!"

"If Quade is in the bunch we've got a chance of beating them," said MacDonald thoughtfully. "He's heavy, Johnny-that sort of heaviness that don't stand up well in the mount'ins; whisky-flesh, I call it. Culver Rann don't weigh much more'n half as much, but he's like iron. Quade may be a drag. An' Joanne, Lord bless her!--she's facing the music like an' 'ero, Johnny!"

"And the journey is almost half over."

"This is the fourth day. I figger we can make it in ten at most, mebby nine," said old Donald. "You see we're in that part of the Rockies where there's real mount'ins, an' the ranges ain't broke up much. We've got fairly good travel to the end."

On this night Aldous slept from eight until twelve. The next, their fifth, his watch was from midnight until morning. As the sixth and the seventh days and nights passed uneventfully the belief that there were no enemies behind them became a certainty. Yet neither Aldous nor MacDonald relaxed their vigilance.

The eighth day dawned, and now a new excitement took possession of Donald MacDonald. Joanne and Aldous saw his efforts to suppress it, but it did not escape their eyes. They were nearing the tragic scenes of long ago, and old Donald was about to reap the reward of a search that had gone faithfully and untiringly through the winters and summers of forty years. He spoke seldom that day. There were strange lights in his eyes. And once his voice was husky and strained when he said to Aldous:

"I guess we'll make it to-morrow, Johnny-jus' about as the sun's going down."

They camped early, and Aldous rolled himself in his blanket when Joanne extinguished the candle in her tent. He found that he could not sleep, and he relieved MacDonald at eleven o'clock.

"Get all the rest you can, Mac," he urged. "There may be doings to-morrow-at about sundown."

There was but little moonlight now, but the stars were clear. He lighted his pipe, and with his rifle in the crook of his arm he walked slowly up and down over a hundred-yard stretch of the narrow plain in which they had camped. That night they had built their fire beside a fallen log, which was now a glowing mass without flame. Finally he sat down with his back to a rock fifty paces from Joanne's tepee. It was a splendid night. The air was cool and sweet. He leaned back until his head rested against the rock, and there fell upon him the fatal temptation to close his eyes and snatch a few minutes of the slumber which had not come to him during the early hours of the night. He was in a doze, oblivious to movement and the softer sounds of the night, when a cry pierced the struggling consciousness of his brain like the sting of a dart. In an instant he was on his feet.

In the red glow of the log stood Joanne in her long white night robe. She seemed to be swaying when he first saw her. Her hands were clutched at her bosom, and she was staring-staring out into the night beyond the burning log, and in her face was a look of terror. He sprang toward her, and out of the gloom beyond her rushed Donald MacDonald. With a cry she turned to Aldous and flung herself shivering and half-sobbing into his arms. Gray-faced, his eyes burning like the smouldering coals in the fire, Donald MacDonald stood a step behind them, his long rifle in his hands.

"What is it?" cried Aldous. "What has frightened you, Joanne?"

She was shuddering against his breast.

"It-it must have been a dream," she said. "It-it frightened me. But it was so terrible, and I'm-I'm sorry, John. I didn't know what I was doing."

"What was it, dear?" insisted Aldous.

MacDonald had drawn very close.

Joanne raised her head.

"Please let me go back to bed, John. It was only a dream, and I'll tell it to you in the morning, when there's sunshine-and day."

Something in MacDonald's tense, listening attitude caught Aldous' eyes.

"What was the dream?" he urged.

She looked from him to old Donald, and shivered.

"The flap of my tepee was open," she said slowly. "I thought I was awake. I thought I could see the glow of the fire. But it was a dream-a dream, only it was horrible! For as I looked I saw a face out there in the light, a white, searching face-and it was his face!"

"Whose face?"

"Mortimer FitzHugh's," she shuddered.

Tenderly Aldous led her back to the tent.

"Yes, it was surely an unpleasant dream, dear," he comforted her. "Try and sleep again. You must get all the rest you can."

He closed the flap after her, and turned back toward MacDonald. The old hunter had disappeared. It was ten minutes before he came in from out of the darkness. He went straight to Aldous.

"Johnny, you was asleep!"

"I'm afraid I was, Mac-just for a minute."

MacDonald's fingers gripped his arm.

"Jus' for a minute, Johnny-an' in that minute you lost the chance of your life!"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean"-and old Donald's voice was filled with a low, choking tremble that Aldous had never heard in it before-"I mean that it weren't no dream, Johnny! Mortimer FitzHugh was in this camp to-night!"

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