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   Chapter 26 No.26

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 13668

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


They rode on into the Valley of Gold. Again MacDonald took the lead, and he rode straight into the face of the black mountain. Aldous no longer made an effort to keep Joanne in ignorance of what might be ahead of them. He put a sixth cartridge into the chamber of his rifle, and carried the weapon across the pommel of his saddle. He explained to her now why they were riding behind-that if their enemies were laying in wait for them, MacDonald, alone, could make a swift retreat. Joanne asked no questions. Her lips were set tight. She was pale.

At the end of three quarters of an hour it seemed to them that MacDonald was riding directly into the face of a wall of rock. Then he swung sharply to the left, and disappeared. When they came to the point where he had turned they found that he had entered a concealed break in the mountain-a chasm with walls that rose almost perpendicular for a thousand feet above their heads. A dark and solemn gloom pervaded this chasm, and Aldous drew nearer to MacDonald, his rifle held in readiness, and his bridle-rein fastened to his saddle-horn. The chasm was short. Sunlight burst upon them suddenly, and a few minutes later MacDonald waited for them again.

Even Aldous could not restrain an exclamation of surprise when he rode up with Joanne. Under them was another valley, a wide-sweeping valley between two rugged ranges that ran to the southwest. Up out of it there came to their ears a steady, rumbling roar; the air was filled with that roar; the earth seemed to tremble with it under their feet-and yet it was not loud. It came sullenly, as if from a great distance.

And then they saw that MacDonald was not looking out over the sweep of the valley, but down. Half a mile under them there was a dip-a valley within a valley-and through it ran the silver sheen of a stream. MacDonald spoke no word now. He dismounted and levelled his long telescope at the little valley. Aldous helped Joanne from her horse, and they waited. A great breath came at last from the old hunter. Slowly he turned. He did not give the telescope to Aldous, but to Joanne. She looked. For a full minute she seemed scarcely to breathe. Her hands trembled when she turned to give the glass to Aldous.

"I see-log cabins!" she whispered.

MacDonald placed a detaining hand on her arm.

"Look ag'in-Joanne," he said in a low voice that had in it a curious quiver.

Again she raised the telescope to her eyes.

"You see the little cabin-nearest the river?" whispered Donald.

"Yes, I see it."

"That was our cabin-Jane's an' mine-forty years ago," he said, and now his voice was husky.

Joanne's breath broke sobbingly as she gave Aldous the glass. Something seemed to choke him as he looked down upon the scene of the grim tragedy in which Donald MacDonald and Jane had played their fatal part. He saw the cabins as they had stood for nearly half a century. There were four. Three of them were small, and the fourth was large. They might have been built yesterday, for all that he could see of ruin or decay. The doors and windows of the larger cabin and two of the smaller ones were closed. The roofs were unbroken. The walls appeared solid. Twice he looked at the fourth cabin, with its wide-open door and window, and twice he looked at the cabin nearest the stream, where had lived Donald MacDonald and Jane.

Donald had moved, and Joanne was watching him tensely, when he took the glass from his eyes. Mutely the old mountaineer held out a hand, and Aldous gave him the telescope. Crouching behind a rock he slowly swept the valley. For half an hour he looked through the glass, and in that time scarce a word was spoken. During the last five minutes of that half-hour both Joanne and Aldous knew that MacDonald was looking at the little cabin nearest the stream, and with hands clasped tightly they waited in silence.

At last old Donald rose, and his face and voice were filled with a wonderful calm.

"There ain't been no change," he said softly. "I can see the log in front o' the door that I used to cut kindling on. It was too tough for them to split an' burn after we left. An' I can see the tub I made out o' spruce for Jane. It's leaning next the door, where I put it the day before we went away. Forty years ain't very long, Johnny! It ain't very long!"

Joanne had turned from them, and Aldous knew that she was crying.

"An' we've beat 'em to it, Johnny-we've beat 'em to it!" exulted MacDonald. "There ain't a sign of life in the valley, and we sure could make it out from here if there was!"

He climbed into his saddle, and started down the slope of the mountain. Aldous went to Joanne. She was sobbing. Her eyes were blinded by tears.

"It's terrible, terrible," she whispered brokenly. "And it-it's beautiful, John. I feel as though I'd like to give my life-to bring Jane back!"

"You must not betray tears or grief to Donald," said Aldous, drawing her close in his arms for a moment. "Joanne-sweetheart-it is a wonderful thing that is happening with him! I dreaded this day-I have dreaded it for a long time. I thought that it would be terrible to witness the grief of a man with a heart like Donald's. But he is not filled with grief, Joanne. It is joy, a great happiness that perhaps neither you nor I can understand-that has come to him now. Don't you understand? He has found her. He has found their old home. To-day is the culmination of forty years of hope, and faith, and prayer. And it does not bring him sorrow, but gladness. We must rejoice with him. We must be happy with him. I love you, Joanne. I love you above all else on earth or in heaven. Without you I would not want to live. And yet, Joanne, I believe that I am no happier to-day than is Donald MacDonald!"

With a sudden cry Joanne flung her arms about his neck.

"John, is it that?" she cried, and joy shone through her tears. "Yes, yes, I understand now! His heart is not breaking. It is life returning into a heart that was empty. I understand-oh, I understand now! And we must be happy with him. We must be happy when we find the cavern-and Jane!"

"And when we go down there to the little cabin that was their home."

"Yes-yes!"

They followed behind MacDonald. After a little a spur of the mountain-side shut out the little valley from them, and when they rounded this they found themselves very near to the cabins. They rode down a beautiful slope into the basin, and when he reached the log buildings old Donald stopped and dismounted. Again Aldous helped Joanne from her horse. Ahead of them MacDonald went to the cabin nearest the stream. At the door he paused and waited for them.

"Forty years!" he said, facing them. "An' there ain't been so very much change as I can see!"

Years had dropped from his shoulders in these last few minutes, and even Aldou

s could not keep quite out of his face his amazement and wonder. Very gently Donald put his hand to the latch, as though fearing to awaken some one within; and very gently he pressed down on it, and put a bit of his strength against the door. It moved inward, and when it had opened sufficiently he leaned forward so that his head and a half of his shoulders were inside; and he looked-a long time he looked, without a movement of his body or a breath that they could see.

And then he turned to them again, and his eyes were shining as they had never seen them shine before.

"I'll open the window," he said. "It's dark-dark inside."

He went to the window, which was closed with a sapling barricade that had swung on hinges; and when he swung it back the rusted hinges gave way, and the thing crashed down at his feet. And now through the open window the sun poured in a warm radiance, and Donald entered the cabin, with Joanne and Aldous close behind him.

There was not much in the cabin, but what it held was earth, and heaven, and all else to Donald MacDonald. A strange, glad cry surged from his chest as he looked about him, and now Joanne saw and understood what John Aldous had told her-for Donald MacDonald, after forty years, had come back to his home!

"Oh, my Gawd, Johnny, they didn't touch anything! They didn't touch anything!" he breathed in ecstasy. "I thought after we ran away they'd come in--"

He broke off, and his hat dropped from his hand, and he stood and stared; and what he was looking at, the sun fell upon in a great golden splash, and Joanne's hand gripped John's, and held to it tightly. Against the wall, hanging as they had hung for forty years, were a woman's garments: a hood, a shawl, a dress, and an apron that was half in tatters; and on the floor under these things were a pair of shoes. And as Donald MacDonald went to them, his arms reaching out, his lips moving, forgetful of all things but that he had come home, and Jane was here, Joanne drew Aldous softly to the door, and they went out into the day.

Joanne did not speak, and Aldous did not urge her. He saw her white throat throbbing as if there were a little heart beating there, and her eyes were big and dark and velvety, like the eyes of a fawn that had been frightened. There was a thickness in his own throat, and he found that it was difficult for him to see far out over the plain. They waited near the horses. Fifty yards from them ran the stream; a clear, beautiful stream which flowed in the direction from which the mysterious ramble of thunder seemed to come. This, Aldous knew, was the stream of gold. In the sand he saw wreckage which he knew were the ancient rockers; a shovel, thrust shaft-deep, still remained where it had last been planted.

Perhaps for ten minutes Donald MacDonald remained in the cabin. Then he came out. Very carefully he closed the door. His shoulders were thrown back. His head was held high. He looked like a monarch.

And his voice was calm.

"Everything is there, Johnny-everything but the gold," he said. "They took that."

Now he spoke to Joanne.

"You better not go with us into the other cabins," he said.

"Why?" she asked softly.

"Because-there's death in them all."

"I am going," she said.

From the window of the largest cabin MacDonald pulled the sapling shutter, and, like the other, it fell at his feet. Then they opened the door, and entered; and here the sunlight revealed the cabin's ghastly tragedy. The first thing that they saw, because it was most terrible, was a rough table, half over which lay the shrunken thing that had once been a man. A part of its clothes still remained, but the head had broken from its column, and the white and fleshless skull lay facing them. Out of tattered and dust-crumbling sleeves reached the naked bones of hands and arms. And on the floor lay another of these things, in a crumpled and huddled heap, only the back of the skull showing, like the polished pate of a bald man. These things they saw first, and then two others: on the table were a heap of age-blackened and dusty sacks, and out of the back of the crumbling thing that guarded them stuck the long buckhorn hilt of a knife.

"They must ha' died fighting," said MacDonald. "An' there, Johnny, is their gold!"

White as death Joanne stood in the door and watched them. MacDonald and Aldous went to the sacks. They were of buckskin. The years had not aged them. When Aldous took one in his hands he found that it was heavier than lead. With his knife MacDonald cut a slit in one of them, and the sun that came through the window flashed in a little golden stream that ran from the bag.

"We'll take them out and put 'em in a pannier," said MacDonald. "The others won't be far behind us, Johnny."

Between them they carried out the seven sacks of gold. It was a load for their arms. They put it in one of the panniers, and then MacDonald nodded toward the cabin next the one that had been his own.

"I wouldn't go in there, Joanne," he said.

"I'm going," she whispered again.

"It was their cabin-the man an' his wife," persisted old Donald. "An' the men was beasts, Joanne! I don't know what happened in there-but I guess."

"I'm going," she said again.

MacDonald pulled down the barricade from the window-a window that also faced the south and west, and this time he had to thrust against the door with his shoulder. They entered, and now a cry came from Joanne's lips-a cry that had in it horror, disbelief, a woman's wrath. Against the wall was a pile of something, and on that pile was the searching first light of day that had fallen upon it for nearly half a century. The pile was a man crumpled down; across it, her skeleton arms thrown about it protectingly, was a woman. This time Aldous did not go forward. MacDonald was alone, and Aldous took Joanne from the cabin, and held her while she swayed in his arms. Donald came out a little later, and there was a curious look of exultation and triumph in his face.

"She killed herself," he said. "That was her husband. I know him. I gave him the rock-nails he put in the soles of his boots-and the nails are still there."

He went alone into the remaining two cabins, while Aldous stood with Joanne. He did not stay long. From the fourth cabin he brought an armful of the little brown sacks. He returned, and brought a second armful.

"There's three more in that last cabin," he explained. "Two men, an' a woman. She must ha' been the wife of the man they killed. They were the last to live, an' they starved to death. An' now, Johnny--"

He paused, and he drew in a great breath.

He was looking to the west, where the sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains.

"An' now, Johnny, if you're ready, an' if Joanne is ready, we'll go," he said.

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