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   Chapter 5 ROD'S FIGHT FOR LIFE

The Gold Hunters / A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 12417

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was some time before Roderick moved from his concealment behind the rock. It was not fear that held him there, but a knowledge within him that he needed to think, to collect his senses as he would have expressed it if Wabi had been with him. For a brief spell he was stunned by the succession of surprises which he had encountered, and he felt that now, if ever in his life, he needed control of himself. He did not attempt to solve the mystery of the trail beyond the fact that it was not made by a bear and that the handprint on the log was not made by a man. But he was certain of one thing. In some way Minnetaki was associated with both.

When he continued his pursuit he made his way with extreme caution. At each new turn in the trail he fell behind some rock or clump of bushes and scanned the gorge as far as he could see ahead of him. But each moment these distances of observation became shorter. The ridge on his left became almost a sheer wall; on his right a second ridge closed in until the gorge had narrowed to a hundred feet in width, choked by huge masses of rock thrown there in some mighty upheaval of past ages. It was very soon apparent to Rod that the mysterious person whom he was pursuing was perfectly at home in the lonely chasm. As straight as a drawn whip-lash his trail led from one break in the rocky chaos to another. Never did he err. Once the tracks seemed to end squarely against a broad face of rock, but there the young hunter found a cleft in the granite wall scarcely wider than his body, through which he cautiously wormed his way. Where this cleft opened into the chasm again the fugitive had rested for a few moments, and had placed some burden upon the snow at his feet. A single glance disclosed what this burden had been, for in the snow was that same clearly-defined impression of a human hand!

There was no longer a doubt in Roderick's mind. He was on the trail of Minnetaki's captor, and the outlaw was carrying his victim in his arms! Minnetaki was injured! Perhaps she was dead. The fear gripped at his heart until he looked again at the imprint in the snow-the widely spread fingers, the flat, firm palm. Only a living hand would have left its mark in that manner.

As on that autumn day in the forest, when he had fought for Minnetaki's life, so now all hesitation and fear left him. His blood leaped with anticipation rather than excitement, and he was eager for the moment when he would once more throw his life in the balance in behalf of Wabi's sister. He was determined to take advantage of the Woonga fighting code and fire upon his enemy from ambush if the opportunity offered, but at the same time he had no dread at the thought of engaging in a closer struggle if this should be necessary. He looked well to his rifle, loosened his big army revolver in its holster, and saw that his hunting-knife did not stick in its scabbard. A short distance from the cleft in the wall of rock the outlaw had rested again; and this time, when he continued his flight, Minnetaki had walked beside him.

A peculiarity in the new trail struck Rod, and for some moments he was at a loss to account for it. One of the girl's dainty feet left its moccasin imprint very distinctly; the mark of the other was no more than a formless blotch in the snow. Then the youth thought of the footprints that were leading on Mukoki and Wabigoon, and despite his desperate situation he could not repress a smile. He had been right. The Woongas had taken off one of Minnetaki's moccasins and were using it to make a false trail into the northwest. Those formless tracks ahead of him meant that one of the Indian maiden's feet was wrapped with a bit of cloth or fur to protect it from the cold.

Rod soon perceived that the flight of the outlaw and his captive was now much more rapid, and he quickened his own pace. The chasm grew wilder. At times it appeared impassable, but always the trail of the fugitives led straight to some hidden cleft through which the boy followed, holding his breath in tense expectancy of what might happen at any instant.

Suddenly Rod stopped. From ahead of him he was sure that he had heard a sound. He scarcely breathed while he listened. But there came no repetition of the noise. Had some animal, a fox or a wolf, perhaps, set a stone rolling down one of the precipitous walls of the chasm? He went on slowly, listening, watching. A few paces more and he stopped again. There was a faint, suspicious odor in the air; a turn around the end of a huge mass of rock and his nostrils were filled with it, the pungent odor of smoke mingled with the sweet scent of burning cedar!

There was a fire ahead of him. More than that, it was not a gunshot away!

For a space of sixty seconds he stood still, nerving himself for the final step. His resolution was made. He would creep upon the outlaw and shoot him down. There would be no warning, no quarter, no parley. Foot by foot he advanced, as stealthily as a fox. The odor of smoke came to him more plainly; over his head he saw thin films of it floating lazily up the chasm. It came from beyond another of those walls of rock which seemed to bar his way, creeping up over it as though the fire were just on the other side. With his rifle half to his shoulder Rod stole through the break in this wall. At its farther end he peered out cautiously, exposing his face an inch at a time. Wider and wider became his vision. There was no trail ahead. The outlaw and his captive were behind the rock!

With his rifle now full to his shoulder Rod stepped boldly forth and whirled to the left. Twenty feet away, almost entirely concealed among the tumbled masses of boulders, was a small cabin. About it there were no signs of life with the exception of a thin wreath of smoke rising like a ghostly spiral up the side of the chasm wall; from it there came no sound. Rod's index finger quivered on the trigger of his rifle. Should he wait-until the outlaw came forth? Half a minute he stood there, a minute, two minutes, and still he heard nothing, saw nothing. He advanced a step, then another, and still another, until he saw the open door of the cabin. And as he stood there, his rifle le

veled, there came to him a faint, sobbing cry, a cry that reached out and caught him like a strong hand and brought him in a single desperate leap to the door itself.

Inside the cabin was Minnetaki, alone! She was crouched upon the floor, her beautiful hair tumbling in disheveled masses over her shoulders and into her lap, her face, as white as death, staring wildly at the youth who had appeared like an apparition before her.

In an instant Rod was at her side, upon his knees. For that brief moment he had lost his caution, and only a terrible cry from the girl turned him back again, half upon his feet, to the door. Standing there, about to spring upon him, was one of the most terrifying figures he had ever seen. In a flash he saw the huge form of an Indian, a terrible face, the gleam of an uplifted knife. In such a crisis one's actions are involuntary, machine-like, as if life itself, hovering by a thread, protects itself in its own manner without thought or reasoning on the part of the human creature it animates. Rod neither thought nor reasoned; without any motive on his own part, he flung himself face downward upon the cabin floor. And the move saved him. With a guttural cry the savage leaped toward him, struck out with his knife and missed, stumbled over the boy's prostrate form and fell beside him.

Months of hardship and adventure in the wilderness had made Rod as lithe as a forest cat, his muscles like steel. Without rising he flung himself upon his enemy, his own knife raised in gleaming death above the savage's breast. But the Woonga was as quick. Like a flash he struck up with one of his powerful arms and the force of the blow that was descending upon him fell to the earth floor. In another instant his free arm had encircled Rod's neck, and for a few brief moments the two were locked in a crushing embrace, neither being able to use the weapon in his hand without offering an advantage to the other.

In that respite, which only death could follow, Rod's brain worked with the swiftness of fire. He was lying face downward upon his enemy; the Woonga was flat upon his back, the latter's knife hand stretched out behind his head with Rod's knife hand locking it. For either to strike a blow both of their fighting hands must be freed. In the first instant of that freedom, the savage, with his arm already extended, could deliver a blow sooner than his antagonist, who would have to raise his arm as well as strike. In other words, by the time Rod's knife was poised his enemy's would be buried in his breast. With a curious thrill the white youth saw the fearful odds against him in their position. If he remained clutched in the Indian's embrace there would be only one end. He would die, and Minnetaki would be more than ever in the power of her captor.

There was only one chance now, and that was to break away, at least to free himself enough to get hold of his revolver. He was nerving himself for the strain when, turning his head a trifle sidewise, he saw Minnetaki. The girl had risen to her feet, and Rod saw that her hands were bound behind her. She, too, realized the disadvantage of Rod's position in the contest, and now with a thrilling cry she sprang to the outlaw's head and stepped with all her weight upon his extended arm.

"Quick, Rod-quick!" she cried. "Strike! Strike!"

With a terrible yell the powerful savage wrenched his arm free; in a last superhuman effort he swung his knife upward as Rod's blade sank to the hilt in his breast, and the blow fell with a sickening thud under Rod's arm. With a sharp cry the young hunter staggered to his feet, and the Indian's knife fell from him, red with blood. Making an effort to control himself he picked up the knife and loosed the captive girl's arms.

There came over him then a strange dizziness, a weakness in his limbs. He was conscious that his head was sinking, and he knew, too, that a pair of arms was about him, and that from what seemed to be a great, great distance a voice was calling to him, calling his name. And then he seemed to be sinking into a deep and painless sleep.

When he regained consciousness his eyes were first turned to the door, which was still open, and through which he caught the white gleam of the snow. A hand was pressed gently upon his face.

"Rod-"

Minnetaki spoke in a whisper, a whisper that trembled with gladness, with relief. Rod smiled. Weakly he lifted a hand and touched the sweet, white face above him.

"I'm glad to see you-Minnetaki-" he breathed.

The girl quickly put a cup of cold water to his lips.

"You mustn't try to move," she said softly, her eyes glowing. "It isn't a very bad wound, and I've dressed it nicely. But you mustn't move-or talk-or it may begin bleeding again."

"But I'm so glad to see you, Minnetaki," persisted the youth. "You don't know how disappointed I was to find you gone when we returned to Wabinosh House from our hunting trip. Wabi and Mukoki-"

"Sh-h-h-h!"

Minnetaki placed her hand upon his lips.

"You must keep quiet, Roderick. Don't you know how curious I am to know how you are here? But you must not tell me-now. Let me do the talking. Will you? Please!"

Involuntarily the young girl's eyes left his face, and Rod, weakly following her gaze, saw that a blanket had been spread over a huddled heap in the middle of the floor. He shuddered, and feeling the sudden tremor in his hand Minnetaki turned to him quickly, her cheeks whiter than before, but her eyes shining like stars.

"It is Woonga," she whispered. In her voice was a thrilling tremble.

"It is Woonga, and he is dead!"

Rod understood the look in her face now. Woonga, the Nemesis of her people, the outlaw chief who had sworn vengeance on the house of Wabinosh, and whose murderous hand had hovered for years like a threatening cloud over the heads of the factor and his wife and children, was dead! And he, Roderick Drew, who once before had saved Minnetaki's life, had killed him. In his weakness and pain he smiled, and said,

"I am glad, Minne-"

He did not finish. There had come a stealthy, crumbling step to the door, and in another moment Mukoki and Wabigoon were in the little cabin.

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