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   Chapter 30 No.30

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 18195

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

In that chaotic night in which he was drifting, light as a feather floating on the wind, John Aldous experienced neither pain nor very much of the sense of life. And yet, without seeing or feeling, he seemed to be living, All was dead in him but that last consciousness, which is almost the spirit; he might have been dreaming, and minutes, hours, or even years might have passed in that dream. For a long time he seemed to be sinking through the blackness; and then something stopped him, without jar or shock, and he was rising. He could hear nothing. There was a vast silence about him, a silence as deep and as unbroken as the abysmal pit in which he seemed to be softly floating.

After a time Aldous felt himself swaying and rocking, as though tossed gently on the billows of a sea. This was the first thought that took shape in his struggling brain-he was at sea; he was on a ship in the heart of a black night, and he was alone. He tried to call out, but his tongue seemed gone. It seemed a very long time before day broke, and then it was a strange day. Little needles of light pricked his eyes; silver strings shot like flashes of weblike lightning through the darkness, and after that he saw for an instant a strange glare. It was gone in one big, powderlike flash, and he was in night again. These days and nights seemed to follow one another swiftly now, and the nights grew less dark, and the days brighter. He was conscious of sounds and buffetings, and it was very hot.

Out of this heat there came a cool, soft breeze that was continually caressing his face, and eyes, and head. It was like the touch of a spirit hand. It became more and more real to him. It caressed him into a dark and comfortable oblivion. Out of this oblivion a still brighter day roused him. His brain seemed clear. He opened his eyes. A white cloud was hovering over them; it fell softly; it was cool and gentle. Then it rose again, and it was not a cloud, but a hand! The hand moved away, and he was looking into a pair of wide-open, staring, prayerful eyes, and a little cry came to him, and a voice.


He was drifting again, but now he knew that he was alive. He heard movement. He heard voices. They were growing nearer and more distinct. He tried to cry out Joanne's name, and it came in a whispering breath between his lips. But Joanne heard; and he heard her calling to him; he felt her hands; she was imploring him to open his eyes, to speak to her. It seemed many minutes before he could do this, but at last he succeeded. And this time his vision was not so blurred. He could see plainly. Joanne was there, hovering over him, and just beyond her was the great bearded face of Donald MacDonald. And then, before words had formed on his lips, he did a wonderful thing. He smiled.

"O my God, I thank Thee!" he heard Joanne cry out, and then she was on her knees, and her face was against his, and she was sobbing.

He knew that it was MacDonald who drew her away.

The great head bent over him.

"Take this, will 'ee, Johnny boy?"

Aldous stared.

"Mac, you're-alive," he breathed.

"Alive as ever was, Johnny. Take this."

He swallowed. And then Joanne hovered over him again, and he put up his hands to her face, and her glorious eyes were swimming seas as she kissed him and choked back the sobs in her throat. He buried his fingers in her hair. He held her head close to him, and for many minutes no one spoke, while MacDonald stood and looked down on them. In those minutes everything returned to him. The fight was over. MacDonald had come in time to save him from Quade. But-and now his eyes stared upward through the sheen of Joanne's hair-he was in a cabin! He recognized it. It was Donald MacDonald's old home. When Joanne raised her head he looked about him without speaking. He was in the wide bunk built against the wall. Sunlight was filtering through a white curtain at the window, and in the open door he saw the anxious face of Marie.

He tried to lift himself, and was amazed to find that he could not. Very gently Joanne urged him back on his pillow. Her face was a glory of life and of joy. He obeyed her as he would have obeyed the hand of the Madonna. She saw all his questioning.

"You must be quiet, John," she said, and never had he heard in her voice the sweetness of love that was in it now. "We will tell you everything-Donald and I. But you must be quiet. You were terribly beaten among the rocks. We brought you here at noon, and the sun is setting-and until now you have not opened your eyes. Everything is well. But you must be quiet. You were terribly bruised by the rocks, dear."

It was sweet to lie under the caresses of her hand. He drew her face down to him.

"Joanne, my darling, you understand now-why I wanted to come alone into the North?"

Her lips pressed warm and soft against his.

"I know," she whispered, and he could feel her arras trembling, and her breath coming quickly. Gently she drew away from him. "I am going to make you some broth," she said then.

He watched her as she went out of the cabin, one white hand lifted to her throat.

Old Donald MacDonald seated himself on the edge of the bunk. He looked down at Aldous, chuckling in his beard; and Aldous, with his bruised and swollen face and half-open eyes, grinned like a happy fiend.

"It was a wunerful, wunerful fight, Johnny!" said old Donald.

"It was, Mac. And you came in fine on the home stretch!"

"What d'ye mean-home stretch?" queried Donald leaning over.

"You saved me from Quade."

Donald fairly groaned.

"I didn't, Johnny-I didn't! DeBar killed 'im. It was all over when I come. On'y-Johnny-I had a most cur'ous word with Culver Rann afore he died!"

In his eagerness Aldous was again trying to sit up when Joanne appeared in the doorway. With a little cry she darted to him, forced him gently back, and brushed old Donald off the edge of the bunk.

"Go out and watch the broth, Donald," she commanded firmly. Then she said to Aldous, stroking back his hair, "I forbade you to talk. John, dear, aren't you going to mind me?"

"Did Quade get me with the knife?" he asked.

"No, no."

"Am I shot?"

"No, dear."

"Any bones broken?"

"Donald says not."

"Then please give me my pipe, Joanne-and let me get up. Why do you want me to lie here when I'm strong like an ox, as Donald says?"

Joanne laughed happily.

"You are getting better every minute," she cried joyously. "But you were terribly beaten by the rocks, John. If you will wait until you have the broth I will let you sit up."

A few minutes later, when he had swallowed his broth, Joanne kept her promise. Only then did he realize that there was not a bone or a muscle in his body that did not have its own particular ache. He grimaced when Joanne and Donald bolstered him up with blankets at his back. But he was happy. Twilight was coming swiftly, and as Joanne gave the final pats and turns to the blankets and pillows, MacDonald was lighting half a dozen candles placed around the room.

"Any watch to-night, Donald?" asked Aldous.

"No, Johnny, there ain't no watch to-night," replied the old mountaineer.

He came and seated himself on a bench with Joanne. For half an hour after that Aldous listened to a recital of the strange things that had happened-how poor marksmanship had saved MacDonald on the mountain-side, and how at last the duel had ended with the old hunter killing those who had come to slay him. When they came to speak of DeBar, Joanne leaned nearer to Aldous.

"It is wonderful what love will sometimes do," she spoke softly. "In the last few hours Marie has bared her soul to me, John. What she has been she has not tried to hide from me, nor even from the man she loves. She was one of Mortimer FitzHugh's tools. DeBar saw her and loved her, and she sold herself to him in exchange for the secret of the gold. When they came into the North the wonderful thing happened. She loved DeBar-not in the way of her kind, but as a woman in whom had been born a new heart and a new soul and a new joy. She defied FitzHugh; she told DeBar how she had tricked him.

"This morning FitzHugh attempted his old familiarity with her, and DeBar struck him down. The act gave them excuse for what they had planned to do. Before her eyes Marie thought they had killed the man she loved. She flung herself on his breast, and she said she could not feel his heart beat, and his blood flowed warm against her hands and face. Both she and DeBar had determined to warn us if they could. Only a few minutes before DeBar was stabbed he had let off his rifle-an accident, he said. But it was not an accident. It was the shot Donald heard in the cavern. It saved us, John! And Marie, waiting her opportunity, fled to us in the plain. DeBar was not killed. He says my screams brought him back to life. He came out-and killed Quade with a knife. Then he fell at our feet. A few minutes later Donald came. DeBar is in another cabin. He is not fatally hurt, and Marie is happy."

She was stroking his hand when she fini

shed. The curious rumbling came softly in MacDonald's beard and his eyes were bright with a whimsical humour.

"I pretty near bored a hole through poor Joe when I come up," he chuckled. "But you bet I hugged him when I found what he'd done, Johnny! Joe says their camp was just over the range from us that night FitzHugh looked us up, an' Joanne thought she'd been dreamin'. He didn't have any help, but his intention was to finish us alone-murder us asleep-when Joanne cried out. Joe says it was just a devil's freak that took 'im to the top of the mountain alone that night. He saw our fire an' came down to investigate."

A low voice was calling outside the door. It was Marie. As Joanne went to her a quick gleam came into old Donald's eyes. He looked behind him cautiously to see that she had disappeared, then he bent over Aldous, and whispered hoarsely:

"Johnny, I had a most cur'ous word with Rann-or FitzHugh-afore he died! He wasn't dead when I went to him. But he knew he was dyin'; an' Johnny, he was smilin' an' cool to the end. I wanted to ask 'im a question, Johnny. I was dead cur'ous to know why the grave were empty! But he asked for Joanne, an' I couldn't break in on his last breath. I brought her. The first thing he asked her was how people had took it when they found out he'd poisoned his father! When Joanne told him no one had ever thought he'd killed his father, FitzHugh sat leanin' against the saddles for a minit so white an' still I thought he 'ad died with his eyes open. Then it came out, Johnny. He was smilin' as he told it. He killed his father with poison to get his money. Later he came to America. He didn't have time to tell us how he come to think they'd discovered his crime. He was dyin' as he talked. It came out sort o' slobberingly, Johnny. He thought they'd found 'im out. He changed his name, an' sent out the report that Mortimer FitzHugh had died in the mount'ins. But Johnny, he died afore I could ask him about the grave!"

There was a final note of disappointment in old Donald's voice that was almost pathetic.

"It was such a cur'ous grave," he said. "An' the clothes were laid out so prim an' nice."

Aldous laid his hand on MacDonald's.

"It's easy, Mac," he said, and he wanted to laugh at the disappointment that was still in the other's face. "Don't you see? He never expected any one to dig into the grave. And he put the clothes and the watch and the ring in there to get rid of them. They might have revealed his identity. Why, Donald--"

Joanne was coming to them again. She laid a cool hand on his forehead and held up a warning finger to MacDonald.

"Hush!" she said gently, "Your head is very hot, dear, and there must be no more talking. You must lie down and sleep. Tell John good-night, Donald!"

Like a boy MacDonald did as she told him, and disappeared through the cabin door. Joanne levelled the pillows and lowered John's head.

"I can't sleep, Joanne," he protested.

"I will sit here close at your side and stroke your face and hair," she said gently.

"And you will talk to me?"

"No, I must not talk. But, John--"

"Yes, dear."

"If you will promise to be very, very quiet, and let me be very quiet--"


"I will make you a pillow of my hair."

"I-will be quiet," he whispered.

She unbound her hair, and leaned over so that it fell in a flood on his pillow. With a sigh of contentment he buried his face in the rich, sweet masses of it. Gently, like the cooling breeze that had come to him in his hours of darkness, her hand caressed him. He closed his eyes; he drank in the intoxicating perfume of her tresses; and after a little he slept.

For many hours Joanne sat at his bedside, sleepless, and rejoicing.

When Aldous awoke it was dawn in the cabin. Joanne was gone. For a few minutes he continued to lie with his face toward the window. He knew that he had slept a long time, and that the day was breaking. Slowly he raised himself. The terrible ache in his body was gone; he was still lame, but no longer helpless. He drew himself cautiously to the edge of the bunk and sat there for a time, testing himself before he got up. He was delighted at the result of the experiments. He rose to his feet. His clothes were hanging against the wall, and he dressed himself. Then he opened the door and walked out into the morning, limping a little as he went. MacDonald was up. Joanne's tepee was close to the cabin. The two men greeted each other quietly, and they talked in low voices, but Joanne heard them, and a few moments later she ran out with her hair streaming about her and went straight into the arms of John Aldous.

This was the beginning of the three wonderful days that yet remained for Joanne and John Aldous in Donald MacDonald's little valley of gold and sunshine and blue skies. They were strange and beautiful days, filled with a great peace and a great happiness, and in them wonderful changes were at work. On the second day Joanne and Marie rode alone to the cavern where Jane lay, and when they returned in the golden sun of the afternoon they were leading their horses, and walking hand in hand. And when they came down to where DeBar and Aldous and Donald MacDonald were testing the richness of the black sand along the stream there was a light in Marie's eyes and a radiance in Joanne's face which told again that world-old story of a Mary Magdalene and the dawn of another Day. And now, Aldous thought, Marie had become beautiful; and Joanne laughed softly and happily that night, and confided many things into the ears of Aldous, while Marie and DeBar talked for a long time alone out under the stars, and came back at last hand in hand, like two children. Before they went to bed Marie whispered something to Joanne, and a little later Joanne whispered it to Aldous.

"They want to know if they can be married with us, John," she said. "That is, if you haven't grown tired of trying to marry me, dear," she added with a happy laugh. "Have you?"

His answer satisfied her. And when she told a small part of it to Marie, the other woman's dark eyes grew as soft as the night, and she whispered the words to Joe.

The third and last day was the most beautiful of all. Joe's knife wound was not bad. He had suffered most from a blow on the head. Both he and Aldous were in condition to travel, and plans were made to begin the homeward journey on the fourth morning. MacDonald had unearthed another dozen sacks of the hidden gold, and he explained to Aldous what must be done to secure legal possession of the little valley. His manner of doing this was unnatural and strained. His words came haltingly. There was unhappiness in his eyes. It was in his voice. It was in the odd droop of his shoulders. And finally, when they were alone, he said to Aldous, with almost a sob in his voice:

"Johnny-Johnny, if on'y the gold were not here!"

He turned his eyes to the mountain, and Aldous took one of his big gnarled hands in both his own.

"Say it, Mac," he said gently. "I guess I know what it is."

"It ain't fair to you, Johnny," said old Donald, still with his eyes on the mountains. "It ain't fair to you. But when you take out the claims down there it'll start a rush. You know what it means, Johnny. There'll be a thousand men up here; an' mebby you can't understand-but there's the cavern an' Jane an' the little cabin here; an' it seems like desecratin' her."

His voice choked, and as Aldous gripped the big hand harder in his own he laughed.

"It would, Mac," he said. "I've been watching you while we made the plans. These cabins and the gold have been here for more than forty years without discovery, Donald-and they won't be discovered again so long as Joe DeBar and John Aldous and Donald MacDonald have a word to say about it. We'll take out no claims, Mac. The valley isn't ours. It's Jane's valley and yours!"

Joanne, coming up just then, wondered what the two men had been saying that they stood as they did, with hands clasped. Aldous told her. And then old Donald confessed to them what was in his mind, and what he had kept from them. At last he had found his home, and he was not going to leave it again. He was going to stay with Jane. He was going to bring her from the cavern and bury her near the cabin, and he pointed out the spot, covered with wild hyacinths and asters, where she used to sit on the edge of the stream and watch him while he worked for gold. And they could return each year and dig for gold, and he would dig for gold while they were away, and they could have it all. All that he wanted was enough to eat, and Jane, and the little valley. And Joanne turned from him as he talked, her face streaming with tears, and in John's throat was a great lump, and he looked away from MacDonald to the mountains.

So it came to pass that on the fourth morning, when they went into the south, they stopped on the last knoll that shut out the little valley from the larger valley, and looked back. And Donald MacDonald stood alone in front of the cabin waving them good-bye.


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