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   Chapter 2 MINNETAKI IN THE HANDS OF THE OUTLAWS

The Gold Hunters / A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 11677

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


For a brief time Roderick believed that life had indeed passed from the body of his young friend. So still did Wabi lie and so terrifying was the strange pallor in his face that the white boy found himself calling on his comrade in a voice filled with choking sobs. The driver of the dog mail dropped on his knees beside the two young hunters. Running his hand under Wabi's thick shirt he held it there for an instant, and said, "He's alive!"

Quickly drawing a small metal flask from one of his pockets he unscrewed the top, and placing the mouthpiece to the Indian youth's lips forced a bit of its contents down his throat. The liquor had almost immediate effect, and Wabigoon opened his eyes, gazed into the rough visage of the courier, then closed them again. There was relief in the courier's face as he pointed to the dogs from Wabinosh House. The exhausted animals were lying stretched upon the snow, their heads drooping between their forefeet. Even the presence of a rival team failed to arouse them from their lethargy. One might have thought that death had overtaken them upon the trail were it not for their panting sides and lolling tongues.

"He's not hurt!" exclaimed the driver, "see the dogs! He's been running-running until he dropped in his tracks!"

The assurance brought but little comfort to Rod. He could feel the tremble of returning life in Wabi's body now, but the sight of the exhausted and bleeding dogs and the memory of his comrade's last words had filled him with a new and terrible fear. What had happened to Minnetaki? Why had the factor's son come all this distance for him? Why had he pursued the mail until his dogs were nearly dead, and he himself had fallen unconscious in his tracks? Was Minnetaki dead? Had the Woongas killed Wabi's beautiful little sister?

Again and again he implored his friend to speak to him, until the courier pushed him back and carried Wabi to the mail sled.

"Hustle up there to that bunch of spruce and build a fire," he commanded. "We've got to get something hot into him, and rub him down, and roll him in furs. This is bad enough, bad enough!"

Rod waited to hear no more, but ran to the clump of spruce to which the courier had directed him. Among them he found a number of birch trees, and stripping off an armful of bark he had a fire blazing upon the snow by the time the dog mail drew up with its unconscious burden. While the driver was loosening Wabi's clothes and bundling him in heavy bearskins Rod added dry limbs to the fire until it threw a warm glow for a dozen paces around. Within a few minutes a pot of ice and snow was melting over the flames and the courier was opening a can of condensed soup.

The deathly pallor had gone from Wabi's face, and Rod, kneeling close beside him, was rejoiced to see the breath coming more and more regularly from between his lips. But even as he rejoiced the other fear grew heavier at his heart. What had happened to Minnetaki? He found himself repeating the question again and again as he watched Wabi slowly returning to life, and, so quickly that it had passed in a minute or two, there flashed through his mind a vision of all that had happened the last few months. For a few moments, as his mind traveled back, he was again in Detroit with his widowed mother; he thought of the day he had first met Wabigoon, the son of an English factor and a beautiful Indian princess, who had come far down into civilization to be educated; of the friendship that had followed, of their weeks and months together in school, and then of those joyous days and nights in which they had planned a winter of thrilling adventure at Wabi's home in the far North.

And what adventures there had been, when, as the Wolf Hunters, he and Wabi and Mukoki had braved the perils of the frozen solitudes! As Wabigoon's breath came more and more regularly he thought of that wonderful canoe trip from the last bit of civilization up into the wilds; of his first sight of moose, the first bear he had killed, and of his meeting with Minnetaki.

His eyes became blurred and his heart grew cold as he thought of what might have happened to her. A vision of the girl swept between him and Wabi's face, in which the glow of life was growing warmer and warmer, a vision of the little half-Indian maiden as he had first seen her, when she came out to meet them in her canoe from Wabinosh House, the sun shining on her dark hair, her cheeks flushed with excitement, her eyes and teeth sparkling in glad welcome to her beloved brother and the white youth of whom she had heard so much-the boy from civilization-Roderick Drew. He remembered how his cap had blown off into the water, how she had rescued it for him. In a flash all that passed after that came before him like a picture; the days that he and Minnetaki had rambled together in the forest, the furious battle in which, single-handed, he had saved her from those fierce outlaw Indians of the North, the Woongas; and after that he thought of the weeks of thrilling adventure they three-Mukoki, Wabigoon and himself-had spent in the wilderness far from the Hudson Bay Post, of their months of trapping, their desperate war with the Woongas, the discovery of the century-old cabin and its ancient skeletons, and their finding of the birch-bark map between the bones of one of the skeleton's fingers, on which, dimmed by age, was drawn the trail to a land of gold.

Instinctively, as for an instant this map came into his mental picture, he thrust a hand into one of his inside pockets to feel that his own copy of that map was there, the map which was to have brought him back into this wilderness a few weeks hence, when they three would set out on the romantic quest for the gold to which the skeletons in the old cabin had given them the key.

The vision left him as he

saw a convulsive shudder pass through Wabigoon. In another moment the Indian youth had opened his eyes, and as he looked up into Rod's eager face he smiled feebly. He tried to speak, but words failed him, and his eyes closed again. There was a look of terror in Roderick's face as he turned to the courier, who came to his side. Less than twenty-four hours before he had left Wabigoon in the full strength of his splendid youth at Wabinosh House, a lithe young giant, hardened by their months of adventure, quivering with buoyant life, anxious for the spring that they might meet again to take up another trail into the unexplored North.

And now what a change! The glimpse he had caught of Wabi's bloodshot eyes, the terrible thinness of the Indian youth's face, the chilling lifelessness of his hands, made him shiver with dread. Was it possible that a few short hours could bring about that remarkable transformation? And where was Mukoki, the faithful old warrior from whose guardianship Wabigoon and Minnetaki were seldom allowed to escape?

It seemed an hour before Wabi opened his eyes again, and yet it was only a few minutes. This time Rod lifted him gently in his arms and the courier placed a cup of the hot soup to his lips. The warmth of the liquid put new life into the famished Indian youth. He drank slowly of it at first, then eagerly, and when he had finished the cup he made an effort to sit up.

"I'll take another," he said faintly. "It's mighty good!"

He drank the second cup with even greater relish. Then he sat bolt upright, stretched out his arms, and with his companion's assistance staggered to his feet. His bloodshot eyes burned with a strange excitement as he looked at Rod.

"I was afraid-I wouldn't-catch you!"

"What is it, Wabi? What has happened? You say-Minnetaki-"

"Has been captured by the Woongas. Chief Woonga himself is her captor, and they are taking her into the North. Rod, only you can save her!"

"Only-I-can-save-her?" gasped Rod slowly. "What do you mean?"

"Listen!" cried the Indian boy, clutching him by the arm. "You remember that after our fight with the Woongas and our escape from the chasm we fled to the south, and that the next day, while you were away from camp hunting for some animal that would give us fat for Mukoki's wound, you discovered a trail. You told us that you followed the sledge tracks, and that after a time the party had been met by others on snow-shoes, and that among the imprints in the snow was one that made you think of Minnetaki. When we reached the Post we learned that Minnetaki and two sledges had gone to Kenegami House and at once concluded that those snow-shoe trails were made by Kenegami people sent out to meet her. But they were not! They were made by Woongas!

"One of the guides, who escaped with a severe wound, brought the news to us last night, and the doctor at the Post says that his hurt is fatal and that he will not live another day. Everything depends on you. You and the dying guide are the only two who know where to find the place where the attack was made. It has been thawing for two days and the trail may be obliterated. But you saw Minnetaki's footprints. You saw the snow-shoe trails. You-and you alone-know which way they went!"

Wabi spoke rapidly, excitedly, and then sank down on the sledge, weakened by his exertion.

"We have been chasing you with two teams since dawn," he added, "and pretty nearly killed the dogs. As a last chance we doubled up the teams and I came on alone. I left Mukoki a dozen miles back on the trail."

Rod's blood had turned cold with horror at the knowledge that Minnetaki was in the clutches of Woonga himself. The terrible change in Wabi was no longer a mystery. Both Minnetaki and her brother had told him more than once of the relentless feud waged against Wabinosh House by this bloodthirsty savage and during the last winter he had come into personal contact with it. He had fought, had seen people die, and had almost fallen a victim to Woonga's vengeance.

But it was not of these things that he thought just now. It was of the reason for the feud, and something rose in his throat and choked him until he made no effort to speak. Many years before, George Newsome, a young Englishman, had come to Wabinosh House, and there he had met and fallen in love with a beautiful Indian princess, who loved him in turn, and became his wife. Woonga, chief of a warlike tribe, had been his rival, and when the white man won in the battle for love his fierce heart blazed with the fire of hatred and revenge. From that day the relentless strife against the people of Wabinosh House began. The followers of Woonga turned from trappers and hunters to murderers and outlaws, and became known all over that wilderness country as the Woongas. For years the feud had continued. Like a hawk Woonga watched his opportunities, killing here, robbing there, and always waiting a chance to rob the factor of his wife or children. Only a few weeks before Rod had saved Minnetaki in that terrible struggle in the forest. And now, more hopelessly than before, she had fallen into the clutches of her enemies, and alone with Woonga was being carried into the far North country, into those vast unexplored regions from which she would probably never return!

Rod turned to Wabi, his hands clenched, his eyes blazing.

"I can find the trail, Wabi! I can find the trail-and we'll follow it to the North Pole if we have to! We beat the Woongas in the chasm-we'll beat them now! We'll find Minnetaki if it takes us until doomsday!"

From far back in the forest there came the faint pistol-like cracks of a whip, the distant hallooing of a voice.

For a few moments the three stood listening.

The voice came again.

"It's Mukoki," said Wabigoon, "Mukoki and the other dogs!"

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