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   Chapter 29 No.29

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 21563

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Sheer amazement made Aldous hold his fire in that first moment. Marie had said that two men were after MacDonald. He had heard three shots nearly a mile away, and she was still sobbing that DeBar was dead. That accounted for three. He had expected to see only Quade, and FitzHugh, and one other behind the tepee. And there were six! He counted them as they came swiftly out from the shelter of the rocks to the level of the plain. He was about to fire when he thought of Joanne and Marie. They were still behind him, crouching upon the ground. To fire from where he stood would draw a fusillade of bullets in their direction, and with another warning cry to Joanne, he sped twenty paces to one side so that they would not be within range. Not until then did the attacking party see him.

At a hundred and fifty yards he had no time to pick out Quade or Mortimer FitzHugh. He fired first at a group of three, and one of the three crumpled down as though his skull had been crushed from above. A rifle spat back at him and the bullet sang like a ripping cloth close over his head. He dropped to his knees before he fired again, and a bullet clove the air where he had stood. The crack of rifles did not hurry him. He knew that he had six cartridges, and only six, and he aimed deliberately. At his second shot the man he had fired at ran forward three or four steps, and then pitched flat on his face. For a flash Aldous thought that it was Mortimer FitzHugh. Then, along his gun barrel, he saw FitzHugh-and pulled the trigger. It was a miss.

Two men had dropped upon their knees and were aiming more carefully. He swung his sight to the foremost, and drove a bullet straight through his chest. The next moment something seemed to have fallen upon him with crushing weight. A red sea rose before his eyes. In it he was submerged; the roar of it filled his ears; it blinded him; and in the suffocating embrace of it he tried to cry out. He fought himself out of it, his eyes cleared, and he could see again. His rifle was no longer in his hands, and he was standing. Twenty feet away men were rushing upon him. His brain recovered itself with the swiftness of lightning. A bullet had stunned him, but he was not badly hurt. He jerked out his automatic, but before he could raise it, or even fire from his hip, the first of his assailants was upon him with a force that drove it from his hand. They went down together, and as they struggled on the bare rock Aldous caught for a fraction of a second a scene that burned itself like fire in his brain. He saw Mortimer FitzHugh with a revolver in his hand. He had stopped; he was staring like one looking upon the ghost of the dead, and as he stared there rose above the rumbling roar of the chasm a wild and terrible shriek from Joanne.

Aldous saw no more then. He was not fighting for his life, but for her, and he fought with the mad ferocity of a tiger. As he struck, and choked, and beat the head of his assailant on the rock, he heard shriek after shriek come from Joanne's lips; and then for a flash he saw them again, and Joanne was struggling in the arms of Quade!

He struggled to his knees, and the man he was fighting struggled to his knees; and then they came to their feet, locked in a death-grip on the edge of the chasm. From Quade's clutch he saw Joanne staring at Mortimer FitzHugh; then her eyes shot to him, and with another shriek she fought to free herself.

For thirty seconds of that terrible drama Mortimer FitzHugh stood as if hewn out of rock. Then he sprang toward the fighters.

In the arms of John Aldous was the strength of ten men. He twisted the head of his antagonist under his arm; he braced his feet-in another moment he would have flung him bodily into the roaring maelstrom below. Even as his muscles gathered themselves for the final effort he knew that all was lost. Mortimer FitzHugh's face leered over his shoulder, his demoniac intention was in his eyes before he acted. With a cry of hatred and of triumph he shoved them both over the edge, and as Aldous plunged to the depths below, still holding to his enemy, he heard a last piercing scream from Joanne.

As the rock slid away from under his feet his first thought was that the end had come, and that no living creature could live in the roaring maelstrom of rock and, flood into which he was plunging. But quicker than he dashed through space his mind worked. Instinctively, without time for reasoning, he gripped at the fact that his one chance lay in the close embrace of his enemy. He hung to him. It seemed to him that they turned over and over a hundred times in that distance of fifty feet. Then a mass of twisting foam broke under him, and up out of it shot the head of one of the roaring monsters of rock that he and Joanne had looked upon. They struck it fairly, and Aldous was uppermost. He felt the terrific impact of the other's body. The foam boiled upward again, and they slipped off into the flood.

Still Aldous held to his enemy. He could feel that he was limp now; he no longer felt the touch of the hands that had choked him, or the embrace of the arms that had struggled with him. He believed that his antagonist was dead. The fifty-foot fall, with the rock splitting his back, had killed him. For a moment Aldous still clung to him as they sank together under the surface, torn and twisted by the whirling eddies and whirlpools. It seemed to him that they would never cease going down, that they were sinking a vast distance.

Dully he felt the beat of rocks. Then it flashed upon him that the dead man was sinking like a weighted thing. He freed himself. Fiercely he struggled to bring himself to the surface. It seemed an eternity before he rose to the top. He opened his mouth and drew a great gulp of air into his lungs. The next instant a great rock reared like a living thing in his face; he plunged against it, was beaten over it, and again he was going down-down-in that deadly clutch of maelstrom and undertow. Again he fought, and again he came to the surface. He saw a black, slippery wall gliding past him with the speed of an express train. And now it seemed as though a thousand clubs were beating him. Ahead of him were rocks-nothing but rocks.

He shot through them like a piece of driftwood. The roaring in his ears grew less, and he felt the touch of something under his feet. Sunlight burst upon him. He caught at a rock, and hung to it. His eyes cleared a little. He was within ten feet of a shore covered with sand and gravel. The water was smooth and running with a musical ripple. Waist-deep he waded through it to the shore, and fell down upon his knees, with his face buried in his arms. He had been ten minutes in the death-grip of the chasm. It was another ten minutes before he staggered to his feet and looked about him.

His face was beaten until he was almost blind. His shirt had been torn from his shoulders and his flesh was bleeding. He advanced a few steps. He raised one arm and then the other. He limped. One arm hurt him when he moved it, but the bone was sound. He was terribly mauled, but he knew that no bones were broken, and a gasp of thankfulness fell from his lips. All this time his mind had been suffering even more than his body. Not for an instant, even as he fought for life between the chasm walls, and as he lay half unconscious on the rock, had he forgotten Joanne. His one thought was of her now. He had no weapon, but as he stumbled in the direction of the camp in the little plain he picked up a club that lay in his path.

That MacDonald was dead, Aldous was certain. There would be four against him-Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh and the two men who had gone to the mountain. His brain cleared swiftly as a part of his strength returned, and it occurred to him that if he lost no time he might come upon Joanne and her captors before the two men came from killing old Donald. He tried to run. Not until then did he fully realize the condition he was in. Twice in the first hundred yards his legs doubled under him and he fell down among the rocks. He grew steadily stronger, though each time he tried to run or spring a distance of a few feet his legs doubled under him like that. It took him twenty minutes to get back to the edge of the plain, and when he got there it was empty. There was no sign of Quade or FitzHugh, or of Joanne and Marie; and there was no one coming from the direction of the mountain.

He tried to run again, and he found that over the level floor of the valley he could make faster time than among the rocks. He went to where he had dropped his rifle. It was gone. He searched for his automatic. That, too, was gone. There was one weapon left-a long skinning-knife in one of the panniers near the tepee. As he went for this, he passed two of the men whom he had shot. Quade and FitzHugh had taken their weapons, and had turned them over to see if they were alive or dead. They were dead. He secured the knife, and behind the tepee he passed the third body, its face as still and white as the others. He shuddered as he recognized it. It was Slim Barker. His rifle was gone.

More swiftly now he made his way into the break out of which his assailants had come a short time before. The thought came to him again that he had been right, and that Donald MacDonald, in spite of all his years in the mountains, had been fatally wrong. Their enemies had come down from the north, and this break led to their hiding-place. Through it Joanne must have been taken by her captors. As he made his way over the rocks, gaining a little more of his strength with each step, his mind tried to picture the situation that had now arisen between Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh. How would Quade, who was mad for possession of Joanne, accept FitzHugh's claim of ownership? Would he believe his partner? Would he even believe Joanne if, to save herself from him, she told him FitzHugh was her husband? Even if he believed them, would he give her up? Would Quade allow Mortimer FitzHugh to stand between him and the object for which he was willing to sacrifice everything?

As Aldous asked himself these questions his blood ran hot and cold by turns. And the answer to them drew a deep breath of fear and of anguish from him as he tried again to run among the rocks. There could be but one answer: Quade would fight. He would fight like a madman, and if this fight had happened and FitzHugh had been killed Joanne had already gone utterly and helplessly into his power. He believed that FitzHugh had not revealed to Quade his relationship to Joanne while they were on the plain, and the thought still more terrible came to him that he might not reveal it at all, that he might repudiate Joanne even as she begged upon her knees for

him to save her. What a revenge it would be to see her helpless and broken in the arms of Quade! And then, both being beasts--

He could think no farther. The sweat broke out on his face as he hobbled faster over a level space. The sound of the water between the chasm walls was now a thunder in his ears. He could not have heard a rifle-shot or a scream a hundred yards away. The trail he was following had continually grown narrower. It seemed to end a little ahead of him, and the fear that he had come the wrong way after all filled him with dread. He came to the face of the mountain wall, and then, to his left, he saw a crack that was no wider than a man's body. In it there was sand, and the, sand was beaten by footprints! He wormed his way through, and a moment later stood at the edge of the chasm. Fifty feet above him a natural bridge of rock spanned the huge cleft through which the stream was rushing. He crossed this, exposing himself openly to a shot if it was guarded. But it was not guarded. This fact convinced him that MacDonald had been killed, and that his enemies believed he was dead. If MacDonald had escaped, and they had feared a possible pursuit, some one would have watched the bridge.

The trail was easy to follow now. Sand and grassy earth had replaced rock and shale; he could make out the imprints of feet-many of them-and they led in the direction of a piece of timber that apparently edged a valley running to the east and west. The rumble of the torrent in the chasm grew fainter as he advanced. A couple of hundred yards farther on the trail swung to the left again; it took him around the end of a huge rock, and as he appeared from behind this, his knife clutched in his hand, he dropped suddenly flat on his face, and his heart rose like a lump in his throat. Scarcely fifty yards above him was the camp of his enemies! There were two tepees and piles of saddles and panniers and blankets about them, but not a soul that he could see. And then, suddenly, there rose a voice bellowing with rage, and he recognized it as Quade's. It came from beyond the tepee, and he rose quickly from where he had thrown himself and ran forward, with the tepee between him and those on the other side. Close to the canvas he dropped on his knees and crawled out behind a pile of saddles and panniers. From here he could see.

So near that he could almost have touched them were Joanne and Marie, seated on the ground, with their backs toward him. Their hands were tied behind them. Their feet were bound with pannier ropes. A dozen paces beyond them were Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh.

The two men were facing each other, a yard apart. Mortimer FitzHugh's face was white, a deadly white, and he was smiling. His right hand rested carelessly in his hunting-coat pocket. There was a sneering challenge on his lips; in his eyes was a look that Aldous knew meant death if Quade moved. And Quade was like a great red beast ready to spring. His eyes seemed bulging out on his cheeks; his great hands were knotted; his shoulders were hunched forward, and his mottled face was ablaze with passion. In that moment's dramatic tableau Aldous glanced about swiftly. The men from the mountain had not returned. He was alone with Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh.

Then FitzHugh spoke, very quietly, a little laughingly; but his voice trembled, and Aldous knew what the hand was doing in the hunting-coat pocket.

"You're excited, Billy," he said. "I'm not a liar, as you've very impolitely told me. And I'm not playing you dirt, and I haven't fallen in love with the lady myself, as you seem to think. But she belongs to me, body and soul. If you don't believe me-why, ask the lady herself, Billy!"

As he spoke, he turned his sneering eyes for the fraction of a second toward Joanne. The movement was fatal. Quade was upon him. The hand in the coat pocket flung itself upward, there followed a muffled report, but the bullet flew wide. In all his life Aldous had never heard a sound like the roar that came from Quade's throat then. He saw Mortimer FitzHugh's hand appear with a pistol in it, and then the pistol was gone. He did not see where it went to. He gripped his knife and waited, his heart beating with what seemed like smothered explosions as he watched for the opportunity which he knew would soon come. He expected to see FitzHugh go down under Quade's huge bulk. Instead of that, a small, iron fist shot upward and Quade's head went back as if broken from his neck.

FitzHugh sprang a step backward, and in the movement his heel caught the edge of a pack-saddle. He stumbled, almost fell, and before he could recover himself Quade was at him again. This time there was something in the red brute's hand. It rose and fell once-and Mortimer FitzHugh reeled backward with a moaning cry, swayed for a second or two on his feet, and fell to the ground. Quade turned. In his hand was a bloody knife. Madness and passion and the triumphant joy of a demon were in his face as he glared at his helpless prey. As Aldous crouched lower his shoulder touched one of the saddles. It slipped from the pile, one of the panniers followed it, and Quade saw him. There was no longer reason for concealment, and as Quade stood paralyzed for a moment Aldous sprang forth into the space between him and Joanne. He heard the cry that broke strangely from her lips but he did not turn his head. He advanced upon Quade, his head lowered, the long skinning-knife gleaming in his hand.

John Aldous knew that words would avail nothing in these last few minutes between him and Quade. The latter had already hunched himself forward, the red knife in his hand poised at his waistline. He was terrible. His huge bulk, his red face and bull neck, his eyes popping from behind their fleshy lids, and the dripping blade in the shapeless hulk of his hand gave him the appearance as he stood there of some monstrous gargoyle instead of a thing of flesh and blood. And Aldous was terrible to look at, but in a way that wrung a moaning cry from Joanne. His face was livid from the beat of the rocks; it was crusted with blood; his eyes were partly closed, and what remained of his shirt was drenched with blood that still ran from the deep cuts in his arms and shoulders. But it was he who advanced, and Quade who stood and waited.

Aldous knew little or nothing of knife-fighting; and he realized, also, that there was a strange weakness in his arms and body caused by his battle with the maelstroms in the chasm. But he had wrestled a great deal with the Indians of the north, who fought as their half-wolf sledgedogs fought, and he employed their methods now. Slowly and deliberately he began to circle around Quade, so that Quade became the pivot of that circle, and as he circled he drew nearer and nearer to his enemy, but never in a frontal advance. He edged inward, with his knife-arm on the outside. His deadly deliberateness and the steady glare of his eyes discomfited Quade, who suddenly took a step backward.

It was always when the Indian made this step that his opponent darted in; and Aldous, with this in mind, sprang to the attack. Their knives clashed in midair. As they met, hilt to hilt, Aldous threw his whole weight against Quade, darted sidewise, and with a terrific lunge brought the blade of his knife down between Quade's shoulders. A straight blade would have gone from back to chest through muscle and sinew, but the knife which Aldous held scarcely pierced the other's clothes.

Not until then did he fully realize the tremendous odds against him. The curved blade of his skinning-knife would not penetrate! His one hope was to cut with it. He flung out his arm before Quade had fully recovered, and blind luck carried the keen edge of the knife across his enemy's pouchy cheek. The blood came in a spurt, and with a terrible cry Quade leaped back toward the pile of saddles and panniers. Before Aldous could follow his advantage the other had dropped his knife and had snatched up a four-foot length of a tepee pole. For a moment he hesitated while the blood ran in a hot flood down his thick neck. Then with a bellow of rage he rushed upon Aldous.

It was no time for knife-work now. As the avalanche of brute strength descended upon him Aldous gathered himself for the shock. He had already measured his own weakness. Those ten minutes among the rocks of the chasm had broken and beaten him until his strength was gone. He was panting from his first onset with Quade, but his brain was working. And he knew that Quade was no longer a reasoning thing. He had ceased to think. He was blind with the passion of the brute, and his one thought was to crush his enemy down under the weight of the club in his huge hands. Aldous waited. He heard Joanne's terrified scream when Quade was almost upon him-when less than five feet separated them. The club was descending when he flung himself forward, straight for the other's feet. The club crashed over him, and with what strength he had he gripped Quade at the knees. With a tremendous thud Quade came to earth. The club broke from the grip of his hands. For a moment he was stunned, and in that moment Aldous was at his throat.

He would have sold the best of his life for the skinning-knife. But he had lost it in gripping Quade. And now he choked-with every ounce of strength in him he choked at the thick red neck of his enemy. Quade's hands reached for his own throat. They found it. And both choked, lying there gasping and covered with blood! while Joanne struggled vainly to free herself, and scream after scream rang from her lips. And John Aldous knew that at last the end had come. For there was no longer strength in his arms, and there was something that was like a strange cramp in his fingers, while the clutch at his own throat was turning the world black. His grip relaxed. His hands fell limp. The last that he realized was that Quade was over him, and that he must be dying.

Then it was, as he lay within a final second or two of death, no longer conscious of physical attack or of Joanne's terrible cries, that a strange and unforeseen thing occurred. Beyond the tepee a man had risen from the earth. He staggered toward them, and it was from Marie that the wildest and strangest cry of all came now. For the man was Joe DeBar! In his hand he held a knife. Swaying and stumbling he came to the fighters-from behind. Quade did not see him, and over Quade's huge back he poised himself. The knife rose; for the fraction of a second it trembled in midair. Then it descended, and eight inches of steel went to the heart of Quade.

And as DeBar turned and staggered toward Joanne and Marie, John Aldous was sinking deeper and deeper into a black and abysmal night.

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