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   Chapter 27 No.27

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 11492

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


As they went up out of the basin into the broad meadows of the larger valley, MacDonald rode between Aldous and Joanne, and the pack-horses, led by Pinto, trailed behind.

Again old Donald said, as he searched the valley:

"We've beat 'em, Johnny. Quade an' Rann are coming up on the other side of the range, and I figger they're just about a day behind-mebby only hours, or an hour. You can't tell. There's more gold back there. We got about a hunderd pounds in them fifteen sacks, an' there was twice that much. It's hid somewhere. Calkins used to keep his'n under the floor. So did Watts. We'll find it later. An' the river, an' the dry gulches on both sides of the valley-they're full of it! It's all gold, Johnny-gold everywhere!"

He pointed ahead to where the valley rose in a green slope between two mountains half a mile away.

"That's the break," he said. "It don't seem very far now, do it, Joanne?" His silence seemed to have dropped from him like a mantle, and there was joy in what he was telling. "But it was a distance that night-a tumble distance," he continued, before she could answer. "That was forty-one years ago, coming November. An' it was cold, an' the snow was deep. It was bitter cold-so cold it caught my Jane's lungs, an' that was what made her go a little later. The slope up there don't look steep now, but it was steep then-with two feet of snow to drag ourselves through. I don't think the cavern is more'n five or six miles away, Johnny, mebby less, an' it took us twenty hours to reach it. It snowed so heavy that night, an' the wind blowed so, that our trail was filled up or they might ha' followed."

Many times Aldous had been on the point of asking old Donald a question. For the first time he asked it now, even as his eyes swept slowly and searchingly over the valley for signs of Mortimer FitzHugh and Quade.

"I've often wondered why you ran away with Jane," he said. "I know what threatened her-a thing worse than death. But why did you run? Why didn't you stay and fight?"

A low growl rumbled in MacDonald's beard.

"Johnny, Johnny, if I only ha' could!" he groaned. "There was five of them left when I ran into the cabin an' barricaded myself there with Jane. I stuck my gun out of the window an' they was afraid to rush the cabin. They was afraid, Johnny, all that afternoon-an' I didn't have a cartridge left to fire! That's why we went just as soon as we could crawl out in the dark. I knew they'd come that night. I might ha' killed one or two hand to hand, for I was big an' strong in them days, Johnny, but I knew I couldn't beat 'em all. So we went."

"After all, death isn't so very terrible," said Joanne softly, and she was riding so close that for a moment she laid one of her warm hands on Donald MacDonald's.

"No, it's sometimes-wunnerful-an' beautiful," replied Donald, a little brokenly, and with that he rode ahead, and Joanne and Aldous waited until the pack-horses had passed them.

"He's going to see that all is clear at the summit," explained Aldous.

They seemed to be riding now right into the face of that mysterious rumble and roar of the mountains. It was an hour before they all stood together at the top of the break, and here MacDonald swung sharply to the right, and came soon to the rock-strewn bed of a dried-up stream that in ages past had been a wide and rushing torrent. Steadily, as they progressed down this, the rumble and roar grew nearer. It seemed that it was almost under their feet, when again MacDonald turned, and a quarter of an hour later they found themselves at the edge of a small plain; and now all about them were cold and towering mountains that shut out the sun, and a hundred yards to their right was a great dark cleft in the floor of the plain, and up out of this came the rumble and roar that was like the sullen anger of monster beasts imprisoned deep down in the bowels of the earth.

MacDonald got off his horse, and Aldous and Joanne rode up to him. In the old man's face was a look of joy and triumph.

"It weren't so far as I thought it was, Johnny!" he cried. "Oh, it must ha' been a turrible night-a turrible night when Jane an' I come this way! It took us twenty hours, Johnny!"

"We are near the cavern?" breathed Joanne.

"It ain't more'n half a mile farther on, I guess. But we'll camp here. We're pretty well hid. They can't find us. An' from that summit up there we can keep watch in both valleys."

Knowing the thoughts that were in MacDonald's mind, and how full his heart was with a great desire, Aldous went to him when they had dismounted.

"You go on alone if there is time to-night, Mac," he said, knowing that the other would understand him. "I will make camp."

"There ain't no one in the valley," mused the old man, a little doubtfully at first. "It would be safe-quite safe, Johnny."

"Yes, it will be safe."

"And I will stand guard while John is working," said Joanne, who had come to them. "No one can approach us without being seen."

For another moment MacDonald hesitated. Then he said:

"Do you see that break over there across the plain? It's the open to a gorge. Johnny, it do seem unreasonable-it do seem as though I must ha' been dreamin'-when I think that it took us twenty hours! But the snow was to my waist in this plain, an' it was slow work-turrible slow work! I think the cavern-ain't on'y a little way up that gorge."

"You can make it before the sun is quite gone."

"An' I could hear you shout, or your gun. I could ride back in five minutes-an' I wouldn't be gone an hour."

"There is no danger," urged Aldous.

A deep breath came from old Donald's breast.

"I guess-I'll go, Johnny, if you an' Joanne don't mind."

He looked about hi

m, and then he pointed toward the face of a great rock.

"Put the tepee up near that," he said. "Pile the saddles, an' the blankets, an' the panniers around it, so it'll look like a real camp, Johnny. But it won't be a real camp. It'll be a dummy. See them thick spruce an' cedar over there? Build Joanne a shelter of boughs in there, an' take in some grub, an' blankets, an' the gold. See the point, Johnny? If anything should happen--"

"They'd tackle the bogus camp!" cried Aldous with elation. "It's a splendid idea!"

He set at once about unpacking the horses, and Joanne followed close at his side to help him. MacDonald mounted his horse and rode at a trot in the direction of the break in the mountain.

The sun had disappeared, but its reflection was still on the peaks; and after he had stripped and hobbled the horses Aldous took advantage of the last of day to scrutinize the plain and the mountain slopes through the telescope. After that he found enough dry poles with which to set up the tepee, and about this he scattered the saddles and panniers, as MacDonald had suggested. Then he cleared a space in the thick spruce, and brought to it what was required for their hidden camp.

It was almost dark when he completed the spruce and cedar lean-to for Joanne. He knew that to-night they must build no fire, not even for tea; and when they had laid out the materials for their cold supper, which consisted of beans, canned beef and tongue, peach marmalade, bread bannock, and pickles and cheese, he went with Joanne for water to a small creek they had crossed a hundred yards away. In both his hands, ready for instant action, he carried his rifle. Joanne carried the pail. Her eyes were big and bright and searching in that thick-growing dusk of night. She walked very close to Aldous, and she said:

"John, I know how careful you and Donald have been in this journey into the North. I know what you have feared. Culver Rann and Quade are after the gold, and they are near. But why does Donald talk as though we are surely going to be attacked by them, or are surely going to attack them? I don't understand it, John. If you don't care for the gold so much, as you told me once, and if we find Jane to-morrow, or to-night, why do we remain to have trouble with Quade and Culver Rann? Tell me, John."

He could not see her face fully in the gloom, and he was glad that she could not see his.

"If we can get away without fighting, we will, Joanne," he lied. And he knew that she would have known that he was lying if it had not been for the darkness.

"You won't fight-over the gold?" she asked, pressing his arm. "Will you promise me that, John?"

"Yes, I promise that. I swear it!" he cried, and so forcefully that she gave a glad little laugh.

"Then if they don't find us to-morrow, we'll go back home?" She trembled, and he knew that her heart was filled with a sudden lightness. "And I don't believe they will find us. They won't come beyond that terrible place-and the gold! Why should they, John? Why should they follow us-if we leave them everything? Oh-h-h-h!" She shuddered, and whispered: "I wish we had not brought the gold, John. I wish we had left it behind!"

"What we have is worth thirty or forty thousand dollars," he said reassuringly, as he filled his pail with water and they began to return. "We can do a great deal of good with that. Endowments, for instance," he laughed.

As he spoke, they both stopped, and listened. Plainly they heard the approaching thud of hoofs. MacDonald had been gone nearer two hours than one, and believing that it was him, Aldous gave the owl signal. The signal floated back to them softly. Five minutes later MacDonald rode up and dismounted. Until he had taken the saddle off, and had hobbled his horse, he did not speak. Neither Joanne nor Aldous asked the question that was in their hearts. But even in the darkness they felt something. It was as if not only the torrent rushing through the chasm, but MacDonald's heart as well, was charging the air with a strange and subdued excitement. And when MacDonald spoke, that which they had felt was in his voice.

"You ain't seen or heard anything, Johnny?"

"Nothing. And you-Donald?"

In the darkness, Joanne went to the old man, and her hand found one of his, and clasped it tightly; and she found that Donald MacDonald's big hand was trembling in a strange and curious way, and she could feel him quivering.

"You found Jane?" she whispered.

"Yes, I found her, little Joanne."

She did not let go of his hand until they entered the open space which Aldous had made in the spruce. Then she remembered what Aldous had said to her earlier in the day, and cheerfully she lighted the two candles they had set out, and forced Aldous down first upon the ground, and then MacDonald, and began to help them to beans and meat and bannock, while all the time her heart was crying out to know about the cavern-and Jane. The candleglow told her a great deal, for in it Donald MacDonald's face was very calm, and filled with a great peace, despite the trembling she had felt. Her woman's sympathy told her that his heart was too full on this night for speech, and when he ate but little she did not urge him to eat more; and when he rose and went silently and alone out into the darkness she held Aldous back; and when, still a little later, she went into her nest for the night, she whispered softly to him:

"I know that he found Jane as he wanted to find her, and he is happy. I think he has gone out there alone-to cry." And for a time after that, as he sat in the gloom, John Aldous knew that Joanne was sobbing like a little child in the spruce and cedar shelter he had built for her.

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