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   Chapter 6 THE SHADOW OF DEATH

The Gold Hunters / A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 12113

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Rod was hardly conscious of what passed during the next half-hour. The excitement of the sudden entrance of Minnetaki's brother and the old Indian set his head reeling, and he sank back upon the blankets, from which he had partly raised himself, fainting and weak. The last that he heard was Minnetaki's warning voice, and then he felt something cool upon his face. It seemed a long time before he heard sound again, and when he stirred himself, struggling toward consciousness, there came a whisper in his ear urging him to be quiet. It was Minnetaki, and he obeyed.

After a little he heard low voices, and then movement, and opened his eyes. He could feel Minnetaki's gentle hand stroking his face and hair, as if weaning him to sleep, and at his feet he saw Mukoki, the old warrior, crouching like a lynx, his beady eyes glaring at him. The glare fascinated Roderick. He had seen it in Mukoki's eyes before, when the Indian believed that injury had come to those he loved; and when the white boy saw it now, bent upon himself, he knew that he, too, had become more than a friend to this savage pathfinder of the wilderness. Minnetaki's caressing hand and the fearful anxiety in the crouching posture of the old hunter thrilled him, and two words fell from his lips before they knew that he had come back into life.

"Hello, Muky!"

Instantly the old Indian was at his side, kneeling there silent, trembling, his face twitching with joy, his eyes gleaming, and where he had crouched a moment before there came Wabigoon, smiling down upon Rod in his own bursting happiness, which was only held in check by Minnetaki's hand and the almost inaudible "Sh-h-h-h!" that fell from her lips.

"You right-me wrong," the white boy heard Mukoki saying. "You save

Minnetaki-kill Woonga. Very much dam'-dam'-dam'-brave man!"

Mukoki was pressed back by Wabi's sister before he could say more, and a cool drink of spring water was placed to Roderick's lips. He felt feverish and the water gave him new strength. He turned his face to Minnetaki, and she smiled at him. Then he saw that the dead outlaw had been removed from the cabin. When he made an effort to raise himself a little the girl helped him, and rolled a blanket under his shoulders.

"You're not so badly hurt as I thought you were, Rod," she said. "That is, you're not dangerously hurt. Mukoki has dressed your wound, and you will be better soon." Wabigoon, coming nearer, put both arms around his lovely little sister and kissed her again and again.

"Rod, you're a hero!" he cried softly, gripping his comrade's hand.

"God bless you!"

Rod blushed, and to restrain further effusions closed his eyes. During the next quarter of an hour Minnetaki prepared some coffee and meat, while both Mukoki and Wabi cared for the sledge-dogs outside.

"To-morrow, if you are stronger, we're going to take you on to Kenegami House," the girl said to him. "Then you can tell me all about your adventures during the winter. Wabi has told me just enough about your battles with the Indians and about the old skeletons and the lost gold-mine to set me wild. Oh, I wish you would take me with you on your hunt for gold!"

"By George, I wish we could!" exclaimed Rod with enthusiasm. "Coax

Wabi, Minnetaki-coax him hard."

"You'll coax him, too, won't you, Rod? But then, I don't suppose it will do any good. And father and mother wouldn't listen to it for a moment. All of them are so afraid that some harm is going to befall me. That's why they sent me from Wabinosh House just before you boys returned. You see the Indians were more hostile than ever, and they thought I would be safer at Kenegami House. How I do wish they'd let me go! I'd love to hunt bears, and wolves, and moose, and help you find the gold. Please coax him hard, Roderick!"

And that very day, when he was strong enough to sit up, Rod did plead with his half-Indian comrade that Minnetaki might be allowed to accompany them. But Wabi stanchly refused even to consider the proposition, and Mukoki, when he learned of the girl's desire, grinned and chuckled in his astonishment for the next half-hour.

"Minnetaki ver' brave-ver' brave girl," he confided to Rod, "but she die up there, I guess so! You want Minnetaki die?"

Rod assured him that he did not, and the subject was dropped.

That day and night in the old cabin was one of the pleasantest within Rod's memory, despite the youth's wound. A cheerful fire of dry pine and poplar burned in the stone fireplace, and when Minnetaki announced that the evening meal was ready Rod was for the first time allowed to leave his bunk. For the greater part of the day Wabi and Mukoki had searched in the chasm and along the mountains for signs of the outlaw Indian's band, but their search had revealed nothing to arouse their fears. As mysterious and unaccountable as the fact seemed, there was no doubt that the old cabin was a retreat known only to Woonga himself, and as the four sat in the warm glow of the fire, eating and drinking, the whole adventure was gone over again and again until there seemed no part of it left in doubt. Minnetaki described her capture and explained the slowness of their flight after the massacre. Woonga was ill and had refused to move far from the scene of the slaughter until he had fully regained his strength.

"But why did Woonga kill the Indian back on the trail?" asked Rod.

Minnetaki shuddered as she thought of the terrible scene that had been enacted before her eyes.

"I heard them quarreling," she said, "but I couldn't understand. I know that it was about me. We had gone but a short distance after the sledges separated when Woonga, who was ahead of me, turned about and shot the other in the breast. It was terrible! And then he drove on as coolly as though nothing had happened."

"I'm curious to know how he used the bear's feet," exclaimed Rod.

"They were huge pads into which he slipped his feet, moccasins and all," explained Minnetaki. "He told me that the dogs would go on to Kenegami House, an

d that if pursuers followed us they would follow the sledge trail and never give a thought to the bear tracks."

Mukoki chuckled deep down in his throat.

"He no fool Rod," he said. "Nobody fool Rod!"

"Especially when he's on Minnetaki's trail," laughed Wabi happily.

"Wasn't it Rod who discovered the secret of the lost gold, after you had given up all hope?" retorted Minnetaki.

The lost gold!

How those three words, falling clearly from the girl's lips, thrilled the hearts of Mukoki and the young adventurers. Night had closed in, and only the fitful flashes of the fire illumined the interior of the old cabin. The four had finished eating, and as they drew themselves close about the fire there fell a strange silence among them. The lost gold. Rod gazed across at Wabigoon, whose bronzed face was half hid in the dancing shadows, and then at Mukoki, whose wrinkled visage shone like dull copper as he stared like some watchful animal into the flame glow. But it was Minnetaki who sent the blood in a swift rush of joy and pride through his veins. He caught her eyes upon him, shining like stars from out of the gloom, and he knew that she was looking at him in that way because he was her hero.

For many minutes no one broke the stillness. The fire burned down, and with its slow dying away the gloom in the corners of the old cabin thickened, and the faces became more and more like ghostly shadows, until they reminded Rod of his first vision of the ancient skeletons in that other old cabin many miles away. Then came Wabigoon's voice, as he stirred the coals and added fresh fuel.

"Yes, it was Rod. This is the map he found, Minnetaki."

He kneeled close beside his sister and drew forth his copy of the precious secret which the skeletons had guarded. With a little cry of excitement the girl took the map in her hands, and step by step, adventure by adventure, was gone over the thrilling story of the Wolf Hunters, until the late hours of night had changed into the first of morning. Twice did Minnetaki insist on having repeated to her the story of Rod's wild adventure in the mysterious chasm, and when he came to the terrors of that black night and its strange sounds Rod felt a timid little hand come close to him, and as Wabigoon continued the narration, and told of the map in the skeleton hand, and of the tale of murder and tragedy it revealed, Minnetaki's breath came in quick, tense eagerness.

"And you are going back in the spring?" she asked.

"In the spring," replied Rod.

Again Wabigoon urged Rod, as he had done at the Post, to send down to civilization for his mother instead of going for her himself. Time would be saved, he argued. They could set out on their search for the gold within a few weeks. But Rod was firm.

"It would not be fair to mother," he declared. "I must go home first, even if I have to arrange for a special sledge at Kenegami House to take me down to civilization."

But even while he was stoutly declaring what it was his intention to do, fate was stealthily at work weaving another of her webs of destiny for Roderick Drew, and his friends' anxious eyes saw the first signs of it when they bade him good night. For fever had laid its hand on the white youth, the fever that foreshadows death unless a surgeon is near, the fever of a wound going bad. Even Mukoki, graduated by Nature, taught by half a century's battle with life in this great desolation of the North, knew that his own powers were now of no avail.

So Roderick was bundled in blankets, and the race for life to Kenegami House was begun. It was a race of which Rod could only guess the import, for he did not know that Death was running a fierce pursuit behind. Many days and nights of delirium followed. One morning he seemed to awaken from a terrible dream, in which he was constantly burning and roasting, and when he opened his eyes he knew for the first time that it was Minnetaki who sat close beside him, and that it was her hand that was gently stroking his forehead. From that day on he gained strength rapidly, but it was a month before he could sit up, and another two weeks before he could stand. And so it happened that it was full two months after he had made his assertion in the old cabin before Rod was in good health again.

One day Minnetaki had a tremendous surprise in store for him. Rod had never seen her look quite so pretty, or quite so timid, as she did on this particular morning.

"Will you forgive me for-for-keeping something from you, Rod?" she asked. She did not wait for the boy's reply, but went on. "When you were so sick, and we thought you might die, I wrote to your mother and we sent the letter down by a special sledge. And-and-oh, Rod, I just can't keep it in any longer, no matter if you do scold me! Your mother has come-and she is at Wabinosh House now!"

For a moment Rod stood like one struck dumb. Then he found his voice in a series of war-whoops which quickly brought Wabi in, only to see his friend dancing around Minnetaki like one gone crazy.

"Forgive you!" he shouted again and again. "Minnetaki, you're a brick-you certainly are a brick!"

As soon as Wabi was made acquainted with the cause of Roderick's excitement he also joined in the other's wild rejoicing, and their antics startled half the house of Kenegami. Mukoki shared their joy, and Wabi hugged and kissed his sister until her pretty face was like a wild rose.

"Hurrah!" shouted Wabi for the twentieth time. "That means we start on our hunt for the lost gold-mine within a fortnight!"

"It means-" began Roderick.

"It means-" interrupted Minnetaki, "it means that you're all happy but me-and I'm glad for Rod's sake, and I want to know his mother. But you're all going-and I'm to be left behind!"

There was no laughter in her voice, and Rod and Wabigoon became suddenly quiet as she turned away.

"I'm sorry," said Wabi. "But-we can't help it."

Mukoki broke the tension.

"How bright the sun shine!" he exclaimed. "Snow an' ice go.

Spring-heem here!"

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