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   Chapter 25 No.25

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 7772

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Donald MacDonald's startling assertion that Mortimer FitzHugh had been in the camp, and that Joanne's dream was not a dream, but reality, brought a gasp of astonishment and disbelief from Aldous. Before he had recovered sufficiently from his amazement to speak, MacDonald was answering the question in his mind.

"I woke quicker'n you, Johnny," he said. "She was just coming out of the tepee, an' I heard something running off through the brush. I thought mebby it was a wolverine, or a bear, an' I didn't move until she cried out your name an' you jumped up. If she had seen a bear in the fire-glow she wouldn't have thought it was Mortimer FitzHugh, would she? It's possible, but it ain't likely, though I do say it's mighty queer why he should be in this camp alone. It's up to us to watch pretty close until daylight."

"He wouldn't be here alone," asserted Aldous. "Let's get out of the light, Mac. If you're right, the whole gang isn't far away!"

"They ain't in rifle-shot," said MacDonald. "I heard him running a hundred yards out there. That's the queer thing about it! Why didn't they jump on us when they had the chance?"

"We'll hope that it was a dream," replied Aldous. "If Joanne was dreaming of FitzHugh, and while still half asleep saw something in camp, she might easily imagine the rest. But we'll keep watch. Shall I move out there?"

MacDonald nodded, and the two men separated. For two hours they patrolled the darkness, waiting and listening. With dawn Aldous returned to camp to arouse Joanne and begin breakfast. He was anxious to see what effect the incident of the night had on her. Her appearance reassured him. When he referred to the dream, and the manner in which she had come out into the night, a lovely confusion sent the blushes into her face. He kissed her until they grew deeper, and she hid her face on his neck.

And then she whispered something, with her face still against his shoulder, that drove the hot blood into his own cheeks.

"You are my husband, John, and I don't suppose I should be ashamed to let you see me in my bare feet. But, John-you have made me feel that way, and I am-your wife!"

He held her head close against him so that she could not see his face.

"I wanted to show you-that I loved you-'that much," he said, scarcely knowing what words he was speaking. "Joanne, my darling--"

A soft hand closed his lips.

"I know, John," she interrupted him softly. "And I love you so for it, and I'm so proud of you-oh, so proud, John!"

He was glad that MacDonald came crashing through the bush then. Joanne slipped from his arms and ran into the tepee.

In MacDonald's face was a grim and sullen look.

"You missed your chance, all right, Johnny," he growled. "I found where a horse was tied out there. The tracks lead to a big slide of rock that opens a break in the west range. Whoever it was has beat it back into the other valley. I can't understand, s'elp me God, I can't, Johnny! Why should FitzHugh come over into this valley alone? And he rode over! I'd say the devil couldn't do that!"

He said nothing more, but went out to lead in the hobbled horses, leaving Aldous in half-stunned wonderment to finish the preparation of breakfast. Joanne reappeared a little later, and helped him. It was six o'clock before breakfast was over and they were ready to begin their day's journey. As they were throwing the hitch over the last pack, MacDonald said in a low voice to Aldous:

"Everything may happen to-day, Johnny. I figger we'll reach the end by sundown. An' what don't happen there may happen along the trail. Keep a rifle-shot behind with Joanne. If there's unexpected shooting, we want what you might call a reserve force in the rear. I figger I can see danger, if there is any, an' I can do it best alone."

Aldous knew that in these last hours Donald MacDonald's judgment must be final

, and he made no objection to an arrangement which seemed to place the old hunter under a more hazardous risk than his own. And he realized fully that these were the last hours. For the first time he had seen MacDonald fill his pockets with the finger-long cartridges for his rifle, and he had noted how carefully he had looked at the breech of that rifle. Without questioning, he had followed the mountaineer's example. There were fifty spare cartridges in his own pockets. His .303 was freshly cleaned and oiled. He had tested the mechanism of his automatic. MacDonald had watched him, and both understood what such preparations meant as they set out on this last day's journey into the North. They had not kept from Joanne the fact that they would reach the end before night, and as they rode the prescribed distance behind the old hunter Aldous wondered how much she guessed, and what she knew. They had given her to understand that they were beating out the rival party, but he believed that in spite of all their efforts there was in Joanne's mind a comprehension which she did not reveal in voice or look. To-day she was no different than yesterday, or the day before, except that her cheeks were not so deeply flushed, and there was an uneasy questing in her eyes. He believed that she sensed the nearness of tragedy, that she was conscious of what they were now trying to hide from her, and that she did not speak because she knew that he and MacDonald did not want her to know. His heart throbbed with pride. Her courage inspired him. And he noticed that she rode closer to him-always at his side through that day.

Early in the afternoon MacDonald stopped on the crest of a swell in the valley and waited for them. When they came up he was facing the north. He did not look at them. For a few moments he did not speak. His hat was pulled low, and his beard was twitching.

They looked ahead. At their feet the valley broadened until it was a mile in width. Half a mile away a band of caribou were running for the cover of a parklike clump of timber. MacDonald did not seem to notice them. He was still looking steadily, and he was gazing at a mountain. It was a tremendous mountain, a terrible-looking, ugly mountain, perhaps three miles away. Aldous had never seen another like it. Its two huge shoulders were of almost ebon blackness, and glistened in the sunlight as if smeared with oil. Between those two shoulders rose a cathedral-like spire of rock and snow that seemed to tip the white fleece of the clouds.

MacDonald did not turn when he spoke. His voice was deep and vibrant with an intense emotion. Yet he was not excited.

"I've been hunting for that mount'in for forty years, Johnny!"

"Mac!"

Aldous leaned over and laid a hand on the old mountaineer's shoulder. Still MacDonald did not look at him.

"Forty years," he repeated, as if speaking to himself. "I see how I missed it now, just as DeBar said. I hunted from the west, an' on that side the mount'in ain't black. We must have crossed this valley an' come in from the east forty years ago, Johnny--"

He turned now, and what Joanne and Aldous saw in his face was not grief; it was not the sorrow of one drawing near to his beloved dead, but a joy that had transfigured him. The fire and strength of the youth in which he had first looked upon this valley with Jane at his side burned again in the sunken eyes of Donald MacDonald. After forty years he had come into his own. Somewhere very near was the cavern with the soft white floor of sand, and for a moment Aldous fancied that he could hear the beating of MacDonald's heart, while from Joanne's tender bosom there rose a deep, sobbing breath of understanding.

And MacDonald, facing the mountain again, pointed with a long, gaunt arm, and said:

"We're almost there, Johnny. God ha' mercy on them if they've beat us out!"

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