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   Chapter 4 ROD FOLLOWS THE MAN-FOOTED BEAR

The Gold Hunters / A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 15568

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"I must wait until it is lighter," he said. He tried to control himself, to fortify himself with the assurance which he no longer felt.

"We will have breakfast," suggested Wabi. "We have cold meat and there will be no need of a fire."

Finishing before the others, Rod grasped his rifle and walked out from among the trees. Wabi made a movement as if to follow, but Mukoki held him back. There was a shrewd light in his eyes.

"He do better-alone," he warned.

The red glow of the sun was rising above the forest and Rod could now see far about him. He had come out from the cedars, like this, on the afternoon that he had gone to hunt and had found Minnetaki's trail. A mile away he saw the snow-covered ridge where he had hunted for moose. That ridge was his first guide, and he hurried toward it while Mukoki and Wabigoon followed far behind him with the dogs and the sledge. He was breathless when he reached the top. Eagerly he gazed into the North. It was in that direction he had gone on the afternoon of his discovery of the strange trail. But nothing that he recognized met his eyes now, no familiar landmark or tree to guide him again over his wandering footsteps of that day. Vainly he sought along the ridge for some slight sign of his former presence there. But everything was gone. The sun had destroyed his last hope.

He was glad that Mukoki and Wabigoon were at the foot of the ridge, for he knew that his despair almost brought tears to his eyes, Minnetaki's fate was in his hands-and he had failed. He dreaded to tell his companions, to let them see his face. For once in his life, though he was as courageous a youth as ever lived, Roderick Drew almost wished that he was dead.

Suddenly, as in their hopeless search for some familiar object Rod's eyes traveled again over the endless waste of snow, he saw, far away, something that glittered in the morning sun like a pane of glass, and from his lips there fell a low exultant cry. He remembered now that he had seen that strange gleam before, that he had gone straight to it from the ridge and had found it to be a sheet of crystal ice frozen to the side of a rock from above which the water of a spring gushed forth. Without waiting for his companions he hurried down the ridge and sped like a deer across the narrow plain at its foot. A five-minute run brought him to the rock, and for a moment he paused, his heart almost choking him in its excitement. Just beyond this he had first encountered the strange trail. There were no signs of it left in the snow, but he saw other things which led him on: a huge rock thrusting itself out of the chaos of white, a dead poplar which stood in his path, and at last, half a mile ahead, the edge of a dense forest.

He turned and waved his arms wildly to Mukoki and Wabigoon, who were far behind. Then he ran on, and when he reached the forest he waved his arms again, and his joy was flung back in a thrilling shout to his comrades. There was the log on which Minnetaki had been forced to sit while awaiting the pleasure of her savage captors; he found the very spot where her footprint had been in the snow, close to a protruding stub! The outlaw Indians and their captives had rested here for a brief spell, and had built a fire, and so many feet had beaten the snow about it that their traces still remained.

He pointed to these signs as Mukoki and Wabigoon joined him.

For several minutes no one of the three spoke a word. Crouched over until his eyes were within a foot of the snow the old pathfinder examined every inch of the little clearing in which the Woongas had built their fire, and when at last he drew himself erect his face betrayed the utmost astonishment.

The boys saw that in those faint marks in the snow he had discovered something of unusual if not startling significance.

"What is it, Muky?" asked the young Indian.

Mukoki made no reply, but returning to the charred remains of the fire he again fell upon his hands and knees and repeated his strange scrutiny of the snow even more closely than before. When he arose a second time the astonishment had grown deeper in his face.

"Only six!" he exclaimed. "Two guides from Post-four Woongas!"

"But the wounded driver told us that there were at least a dozen

Woongas in the attacking party," said Wabi.

The old warrior chuckled, and for a moment his face twisted itself into a ludicrous grimace.

"Driver lie!" he declared. "He run when fight begin. Shot in back while heem run!"

He pointed into the cold depths of the forest.

"No sun there! Follow trail easy!"

There was no uneasiness in Mukoki's manner now. His eyes gleamed, but it was with the fire of battle and resolution, not with excitement. Once before Rod had seen that look in the old warrior's face, when they two had fought to save Wabigoon's life as they were now about to fight to save Minnetaki. And he knew what it meant. Cautiously they penetrated the forest, their eyes and ears alert, and, as Mukoki had predicted, the trail of the retreating savages was quite distinct. They had taken both of the captured sledges, and Rod knew that on one of these Minnetaki was being carried. Hardly had the three progressed a hundred paces when Mukoki, who was in the lead, stopped short with a huge grunt. Squarely across the trail lay the body of a dead man. A glance at the upturned face showed that it was one of the two drivers from Wabinosh House.

"Head split," said Mukoki, as he led the team around the body. "Shot, mebby-then killed with ax."

The dogs sniffed and cringed as they passed the slain man, and Rod shuddered. Involuntarily he thought of what might have happened to Minnetaki, and he noticed that after passing this spectacle of death Mukoki doubled his speed. For an hour the pursuit continued without interruption. The Woongas were traveling in a narrow trail, single file, with the two sledges between their number. At the end of that hour the three came upon the remains of another camp-fire near which were built two cedar-bough shelters. Here the tracks in the snow were much fresher; in places they seemed to have been but lately made. Still there were no evidences of the captured girl. The boys could see that Mukoki himself had found no explanation for the sudden freshness of the trail and for the absence of Minnetaki's footprints among the tracks. Again and again the shrewd old pathfinder went over the camp. Not a sign escaped his eyes, not a mark or a broken stick but that was examined by him. Rod knew that Minnetaki's capture must have occurred at least three days before, and yet the tracks about this camp were not more than a day old, if they were that. What did it mean?

The very mystery of the thing filled him with a nameless fear. Why had not the outlaw Woongas continued their flight? Why this delay so near the scene of their crime? He glanced at Wabi, but the Indian youth was as bewildered as himself. In his eyes, too, there was the gleam of a fear which he could not have named.

Mukoki was beside the charred remains of the fire. He had buried his hand deep among them, and when he rose be made a sign toward Rod's watch.

"Eight o'clock, Mukoki."

"Woonga here las' night," declared the old Indian slowly. "Leave camp four hour ago!"

What did it mean?

Had Minnetaki been hurt, so dangerously hurt that her captors had not dared to move her?

Rod asked himself no more questions. But he was trembling. And Mukoki and Wabigoon went on with strange, unnatural faces and breathed not the whisper of a word between them. The mystery was beyond them all. But one thing they realized, whatever had happened they were close upon the heels of the savages. And each step brought them nearer, for with every mile the fresh

ness of the trail increased. Then came another great surprise.

The trail divided!

At the edge of a small opening the Indians had separated themselves into two parties. The trail of one sledge led into the northeast, that of the other into the northwest!

With which sledge was Minnetaki? They looked at one another in bewilderment.

Mukoki pointed to the trail into the northeast.

"We must fin' sign-sign of Minnetaki. You take that-I take this!"

Rod started off at a dog trot over the easternmost trail. At the farther side of the opening, where the sledge had plunged into a clump of hazel, he suddenly stopped, and for a second time that morning a thrilling cry escaped his lips. On a projecting thorny twig, glistening full in the sun, there fluttered a long, silken strand of hair. He reached out for it, but Wabi caught his hand, and in another moment Mukoki had joined them. Gently he took the raven tress between his fingers, his deep-set eyes glaring like red coals of fire. It was a strand of Minnetaki's beautiful hair, not for a moment did one of them doubt that; but what held them most, what increased the horror in their eyes, was the quantity of it! Suddenly Mukoki gave it a gentle pull and the tress slipped free of the twig.

In the next breath he uttered the only expression of supreme disgust in his vocabulary a long-drawn, hissing sound which he used only in those moments when his command of English was entirely inadequate to the situation.

"Minnetaki on other sledge!"

He showed the end of the strand to his young companions.

"See-hair been cut! No pulled out by, twig. Woonga hang heem there-make us think wrong."

He waited for no reply, but darted back to the other trail, with Wabi and Rod close behind him. A quarter of a mile farther on the old pathfinder paused and pointed in exultant silence at a tiny footprint close beside the path of the sledge. At almost regular intervals now there appeared this sign of Minnetaki's moccasin. Her two guards were running ahead of the sledge, and it was apparent to the pursuers that Wabi's sister was taking advantage of her opportunities to leave these signs behind for those whom she knew would make an attempt at her rescue. And yet, as they left farther and farther behind them the trail which ran into the northeast, an inexplicable feeling of uneasiness began to steal over Rod. What if Mukoki had made a mistake? His confidence in the old warrior's judgment and sagacity was usually absolute, but it occurred to him, like an ugly humor to stir up his fears, that if the Woongas could cut off a bit of the girl's hair they could also take off one of her shoes! Several times he was on the point of giving audible voice to his suspicions but refrained from doing so when he saw the assurance with which both Wabi and Mukoki followed the trail.

Finally he could hold himself no longer.

"Wabi, I'm going back," he cried softly, forging alongside his companion. "I'm going back and follow the other trail. If I don't find anything in a mile or so I'll return on the double-quick and overtake you!"

Wabi's efforts to dissuade him were futile, and a few minutes later Rod was again at the clearing. What presentiment was it that caused his heart to beat faster and his breath to come in tense excitement as he stole through the bushes where they had found the silken tress of hair? What something was it, away down in his soul, that kept urging him on and on, even after he had gone a mile, and then two miles, in fruitless search? Rod could not have answered these questions had he stopped to ask them of himself. He was not superstitious. He did not believe in dreams. And yet each moment, without apparent reason added to his conviction that Mukoki had made a mistake, and that Minnetaki was on the sledge ahead of him.

The country into which he was penetrating grew wilder. Rocky ridges rose before him, split by rifts and gullies through which the water must have rushed in torrents in the spring. He listened, and proceeded more cautiously; and through his mind there flashed a memory of his thrilling exploration of the mysterious chasm of a few weeks before, when, in his lonely night camp, he had dreamed of the skeletons. He was thinking of this when he came around the end of a huge rock which lay as big as a house in his path. Upon the snow, almost at his feet, was a sight that froze the blood in his veins. For the second time that day he gazed upon the distorted features of a dead man. Squarely across the trail, as the other had lain, was the body of an Indian, his arms outstretched, his twisted face turned straight up to the clear sky, the snow about his head glistening a sickening red in the sun. For a full minute Rod gazed in silent horror on the scene. There was no sign of a struggle, there were no footprints in the snow. The man had been killed while upon the sledge, and the only mark he had made was when he had fallen off.

Who had killed him?

Had Minnetaki saved herself by taking her captor's life?

For a moment Rod was almost convinced that this was so. He examined the stains in the snow and found that they were still damp and unfrozen. He was sure that the tragedy had occurred less than an hour before. More cautiously, and yet swifter than before, he followed the trail of the sledge, his rifle held in readiness for a shot at any moment. The path became wilder and in places it seemed almost inaccessible. But between the tumbled mass of rock the sledge had found its way, its savage driver not once erring in his choice of the openings ahead. Gradually the trail ascended until it came to the summit of a huge ridge. Hardly had Rod reached the top when another trail cut across that of the sledge.

Deeply impressed in the softening snow were the footprints of a big bear!

The first warm sunshine, thought Rod, had aroused the beast from his winter sleep, and he was making a short excursion from his den. From where the bear had crossed the trail the sledge turned abruptly in the direction from which the bear had come.

Without giving a thought to his action, Rod began his descent of the ridge in the trail made by the bear, at the same time keeping his eyes fixed upon the sledge track and the distant forest. At the foot of the ridge the great trunk of a fallen tree lay in his path, and as he went to climb over it he stopped, a cry of amazement stifling itself in his throat. Over that tree the bear had scrambled, and upon it, close to the spot where the animal had brushed off the snow in his passage, was the imprint of a human hand!

For a full minute Rod stood as motionless as if he had been paralyzed, scarcely breathing in his excitement. The four fingers and thumb of the hand had left their impressions with startling clearness. The fingers were long and delicately slender, the palm narrow. The imprint had assuredly not been made by the hand of a man!

Recovering himself, Rod looked about him. There were no marks in the snow except those of the bear. Was it possible that he was mistaken? He scrutinized the mysterious handprint again. As he gazed an uncanny chill crept through him, and when he raised his head he knew that he was trembling in spite of his efforts to control himself. Turning about he swiftly followed the trail to the top of the ridge, recrossed the sledge track, and descended again into the wildness of the gorge on the other side. He had not progressed twenty rods when without a sound he dropped behind a rock. He had seen no movement ahead of him. He had heard nothing. Yet in that moment he was thrilled as never before in his life.

For the bear trail had ceased.

And ahead of him, instead of the tracks of a beast, there continued the footprints of a man!

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