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   Chapter 5 THE CARAQUET ROAD AND THE WOLVES HOWL ONCE MORE

The La Chance Mine Mystery By Susan Morrow Jones Characters: 18274

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Why comest thou to ride with me?

"The road, this night, is dark."

Dost thou and thine then side with me?

"Ride on, ride on and hark!"

The Night Ride.

There she sat, anyhow, alone except for Macartney, who stood at the horses' heads. Wherever she was going, I had an idea he was as surprised about it as I was, and that he had been expostulating with her about her expedition. But, if he had, he shut up as I appeared. I could only stammer as I stared at Paulette, "You-you're not coming!"

"I seem to be," she returned placidly. And Macartney gave me the despairing glance of a sensible man who had tried his best to head off a girl's silly whim, and failed.

"It's as you like," he said-to her, not to me. "But you understand you can't get back to-night, if you go to Caraquet. And-Good heavens-you ought not to go, if you want the truth of it! There's nothing to see-and you'll get half frozen-and you mayn't get back for days, if it snows!"

Paulette Brown looked at him as if he were not there. Then she laughed. "I didn't say I was going to Caraquet! If you want to know all about my taking a chance for a drive behind a pair of good horses, Miss Wilbraham wants Billy Jones's wife to come over for a week and work for her. I'm going to stay all night with Mrs. Jones and bring her back in the morning. She'll never leave Billy unless she's fetched. So I really think you needn't worry, Mr. Macartney," she paused, and I thought I saw him wince. "I'm not going to be a nuisance either to you or Mr. Stretton," and before he had a chance to answer she started up the horses. I had just time to take a flying jump and land in the wagon beside her as she drove off.

Macartney exclaimed sharply, and I didn't wonder. If he had not jumped clear the near wheels must have struck him. I lost the angry, startled sentence he snapped out. But it could have been nothing in particular, for my dream girl only turned in her seat and smiled at him.

I had no smile as I took the reins from her. I had wanted a chance to be alone with her, and I had it: but I knew better than to think she was going to Billy Jones's for the sake of a drive with me. The only real thought I had was that behind me, in the back of the wagon, were the boxes of gold she had marked inexplicably with her blue seal, and that I had heard her say the night before that she "would have to get that gold!"

How she meant to do it was beyond me; and it was folly to think she ever could do it, with six feet of a man's strength beside her. But nevertheless, when you loved a girl for no other earthly reason than that she was your dream of a girl come true, and even though she belonged to another man, it was no thought with which to start on a lonely drive with her. I set my teeth on it and never opened them for a solid mile over the hummocky road through the endless spruce bush, behind which the sun had already sunk. I could feel my dream girl's shoulder where she sat beside me, muffled in a sable-lined coat of Dudley's: and the sweet warmth of her, the faint scent of her gold-bronze hair, made me afraid to speak, even if I had known what I wanted to say.

But suddenly she spoke to me. "Mr. Stretton, you're not angry with me for coming with you?"

"You know I'm not." But I did not know what I was. Any one who has read as far as this will know that if ever a plain, stupid fool walked this world, it was I,-Nicholas Dane Stretton. Put me in the bush, or with horses, and I'm useful enough,-but with men and women I seem to go blind and dumb. I know I never could read a detective story; the clues and complications always made me feel dizzy. I was pretty well dazed where I sat beside that girl I knew I ought to find out about, and her nearness did not help me to ask her ugly questions. If she had not been Dudley's,-but I broke the thought short off. I said to myself impersonally that it was impossible for a girl to do any monkey tricks about the La Chance gold with a man like me. Yet I wondered if she meant to try!

But she showed no sign of it. "I had to come," she said gently. "Marcia really wants Billy Jones's wife: she won't let me wait on her, and of course Charliet can't do it. You believe me, don't you? I didn't come just for a drive with you!"

I believed that well enough, and I nodded.

"Then," said my dream girl quietly, "will you please stop the horses?"

I looked round. We were miles from the mine, around a turn where the spruce bush ceased for a long stretch of swamp,-bare, featureless, and frozen. Then, for the first time, I looked at Dudley's girl that I was fool enough to love.

"What for?" I demanded. "I mean, of course, if you like," for I saw she was white to the lips, though her eyes met mine steadily, like a man's. "Do you mean you want to go back?"

She shook her head almost absently. "No: I think there's something bumping around in the back of the wagon. I"-there was a sharp, nervous catch in her voice-"want to find out what it is."

I had packed the wagon, and I knew there was nothing in it to bump. But I stopped the horses. I wondered if the girl beside me had some sort of baby revolver and thought she could hold me up with it, if I let her get out; and I knew just what I would do if she tried it. I smiled as I waited. But she did not get out. She turned in her seat and reached backwards into the back of the wagon, as if she had neither bones nor joints in her lovely body. Marcia was right when she said it was perfectly educated and trained. For a moment I could think of nothing but the marvellous grace of her movement as she slid her hand under the tarpaulin that covered the gold; then I thought I heard her catch her breath with surprise. But she turned back with an exquisite lithe grace that made me catch mine, and slid down in her seat as if she had never slid out of it.

"It's a bottle," she said lightly. But it was with a kind of startled puzzle too, as if she had sooner expected dynamite. "I can't think why; I mean, I wonder what's in it!"

"A bottle!" I jerked around to stare at a whisky bottle in her hands. It was tightly sealed and full of something colorless that looked like gin. I was just going to say I could not see where it had come from, seeing I had packed the wagon myself, and I would have gone bail there was no bottle in it. But it came over me that she might be pretending astonishment and have put the thing there herself while I was in my room getting my revolver; since there had been no one else near my wagon but Macartney, and he could not have left the horses' heads. It flashed on me that the baby beside me, being used to Dudley, might have drugged a little gin, thinking I would take various drinks on the way; and I nearly laughed out. But I said: "Back there was no place for a bottle. It's a wonder it didn't smash on the first bump!"

"Yes," said Paulette slowly. "Only I wonder-I mean I can't see--" and she paused, staring at the bottle with a thoughtful sort of frown. "I believe I'll hold it on my lap."

I was looking at the bottle too, where she held it with both fur-gloved hands; and I forgot to wonder if she were lying about it or not. For the gloves she wore were Dudley Wilbraham's, as well as the coat,-and that any of Dudley's things should be on my dream girl put me in a black, senseless fury. I wanted to take them straight off her and wrap her up in my own belongings. I grabbed at anything to say that would keep my tongue from telling her to change coats with me that instant, and the bottle in her hand was the only thing that occurred to me. It brought a sudden recollection back to me anyhow, and I opened my lips quite easily.

"Scott, that looks like some of the brew I spilled over my clothes at Skunk's Misery!"

"Skunk's Misery!" Paulette exclaimed sharply. "What on earth is Skunk's Misery?"

"A village-at least, a den-of dirt, chiefly; off this road, between Caraquet and Lac Tremblant." I was thankful to have something to think about that was neither her, or me, or Dudley. I made as long a story as I could of my stay in Skunk's Misery when I took home the half-killed boy; of the filthy stuff I had spilled on my clothes, and how I had seen a wolf carry them off. "By George, I believe he liked the smell-though I never thought of that till now!"

"What?" Paulette gave a curious start that might have been wonder, or enlightenment. "And you got the stuff at Skunk's Misery, out of a bottle like this? Oh, I ought to have guessed"-but she either checked herself, or her pause was absolutely natural-"I should have guessed you'd had some sort of a horrible time that night you came home. You looked so tired. But what I meant to say was I don't see how such poor people would have a bottle of anything. Didn't they say what it was?"

"Didn't ask! It looked like gin, and it smelt like a sulphide factory when it got on my clothes. They certainly had that bottle."

"Well, Skunk's Misery hasn't got this bottle, anyhow!" I could see no reason for the look on her face. It was not gay any more; it was stern, if a girl's face can be stern, and it wa

s white with angry suspicion. Suddenly she laughed, rather fiercely. "I'm glad I thought of it before the jolting broke it in the wagon! I want to get it safely to Billy Jones's."

The reason why beat me, since she had pretended to know nothing of it, so I said nothing. After a long silence Paulette sighed.

"You've been very kind to me, Mr. Stretton," she said, as if she had been thinking. "I wish you could see your way to-trusting me!"

"I don't know how I've been kind," I left out the trusting part. "I have hardly seen you to speak to till to-night, except," and I said it deliberately, "the first time I ever saw you, sitting by the fire at La Chance. You did speak to me then."

"Was that-the first time you saw me?" It might have been forgetfulness, or a challenge to repeat what she had said to me by the lake in the dark. But I was not going to repeat that. Something told me, as it had told me when I came on her by Dudley's fire-though it was for a different reason, now that I knew she was his and not mine-that I would be a fool to fight my own thoughts of her with explanations, even if she chose to make any. I looked directly into her face instead. All I could see was her eyes, that were just dark pools in the dusk, and her mouth, oddly grave and unsmiling. But then and there-and any one who thinks me a fool is welcome to-my ugly suspicions of her died. And I could have died of shame myself to think I had ever harbored them. If she had done things I could not understand-and she had-I knew there must be a good reason for them. For the rest, in spite of Marcia and her silly mysteries, and even though she belonged to Dudley, she was my dream girl, and I meant to stand by her.

"That was the first time I spoke to you," I said, as if there had been no pause. "After that, I picked up a seal for you, and I told you your hair was untidy before Marcia could. I think those are all the enormously kind things I've ever done for you. But, if you want kindness, you know where to come!"

"Without telling you things-and when you don't trust me!"

"Telling things never made a man trust any one," said I. "And besides," it was so dark now, as we crawled along the side of the long rocky hill that followed the swamp, that I had to look hard to see her face, "I never said I didn't trust you. And there isn't anything you could tell me that I want to know!"

"Oh," Paulette cried as sharply as if I had struck her, "do you mean you're taking me on trust-in spite of everything?"

"In spite of nothing." I laughed. I was not going to have her think I knew about Collins, much more all the stuff Marcia had said. But she turned her head and looked at me with a curious intentness.

"I'll try," she began in a smothered sort of voice, "I mean I'm not all you've been thinking I was, Mr. Stretton! Only," passionately, and it was the last thing I had expected her to say, "I wish we were at Billy Jones's with all this gold!"

I did not, whether she had astonished me or not. I could have driven all night with her beside me, and her arm touching mine when the wagon bumped over the rocks.

"We're halfway," I returned rather cheerlessly. "Why? You're not afraid we'll be held up, are you? No human being ever uses this road."

"I wasn't thinking of human beings," she returned simply. "I was thinking of wolves."

"Wolves?" I honestly gasped it. Then I laughed straight out. "I can't feel particularly agitated about wolves. I know we had some at La Chance, but we probably left them there, nosing round the bunk-house rubbish heap. And anyhow, a wolf or two wouldn't trouble us. They're cowardly things, unless they're in packs." I felt exactly as if I were comforting Red Riding Hood or some one in a fairy tale, for the Lord knows it had never occurred to me to be afraid of wolves. "What on earth put wolves in your head?"

"I-don't know! They seemed to be about, lately."

"Well, I never saw any on this road! I've a revolver, anyhow."

"I'm g-glad," said Paulette; and the word jerked out of her, and my arms jerked nearly out of me. In the dark the wagon had hit something that felt like nothing but a boulder in the middle of my decent road. The wagon stopped dead, with an up-ending lurch, and nothing holding it to the horses but the reins. Why on earth they held I don't know. For with one almighty bound my two young horses tried to get away from me,-and they would have, if the reins had not been new ones. As it was I had a minute's hard fighting before I got them under. When they stood still the girl beside me peered over the front of the wagon into the dark. "It's the whiffletree, I think," she said, as if she were used to wagons.

I peered over myself and hoped so. "Mercy if it is," said I. "If it's a wheel we're stuck here. Scott, I wonder if I've a bit of rope!"

Paulette Brown pulled out ten feet of spun yarn from under her coat; and if you come to think of it, it was a funny thing for a girl to have. It struck me, rather oddly, that she must have come prepared for accidents. "There," she said, "I expect you can patch us up if I hold the horses. Here's a knife, too, and"-I turned hot all over, for she was putting something else into my hand, just as if she knew I had been wondering about it since first we started; but she went on without a break-"here's my revolver. Put it in your pocket. I'd sooner you kept it."

I was thankful I had had the decency to trust her before she gave the weapon to me. But I was blazingly angry with myself when I got out of the wagon and saw just what had happened. Fair in the middle of my new road was a boulder that the frost must have loosened from the steep hillside that towered over us; and the front of the wagon had hit it square,-which it would not have done if I had been looking at the road instead of talking to a girl who was no business of mine, now or ever. I got the horses out of the traces and the pole straps, and let Paulette hold them while I levered the boulder out of the way, down the hillside. I was scared to do it, too, for fear they would get away from her, but she was evidently as used to horses as to wagons: Bob and Danny stood for her like lambs, while I set to work to repair damages. The pole was snapped, and the whiffletree smashed, so that the traces were useless. I did some fair jury work with a lucky bit of spruce wood, the whiffletree, and the axle, and got the pole spliced. It struck me that even so we should have to do the rest of the way to Billy Jones's at a walk, but I saw no sense in saying so. I got the horses back on the pole, and Paulette in the wagon holding the reins, still talking to the horses quietly and by name. But as I jumped up beside her the quiet flew out of her voice.

"The bottle," she all but shrieked at me. "Mind the bottle!"

But I had not noticed she had put it on my seat when she got out to hold the horses. I knocked it flying across her, and it smashed to flinders on the near fore wheel, drenching it and splashing over Danny's hind legs. I grabbed the reins from Paulette, and I thought of skunks, and a sulphide factory,-and dead skunks and rotten sulphide at that. Even in the freezing evening air the smell that came from that smashed bottle was beyond anything on earth or purgatory, excepting the stuff I had spilt over myself at Skunk's Misery. "What on earth," I began stupidly. "Why, that's that Skunk's Misery filth again!"

Paulette's hand came down on my arm with a grip that could not have been wilder if she had thought the awful smell meant our deaths. "Drive on, will you?" she said in a voice that matched it. "Let the horses go, I tell you! If there's anything left in that bottle it may save us for a-I mean," she caught herself up furiously, "it may save me from being sick. I don't know how you feel. But for heaven's sake get me out of that smell! Oh, why didn't I throw the thing away into the woods, long ago?"

I wished she had. The stuff was on Danny as well as on the wheel, and we smelt like a procession of dead whales. For after the first choking explosion of the thing it reeked of nothing but corruption. It was the Skunk's Misery brew all right, only a thousand times stronger.

"How on earth did Skunk's Misery filth get in my wagon?" I gasped. And if I had been alone I would have spat.

"I-can't tell you," said Paulette shortly. "Mr. Stretton, can't you hurry the horses? I--Oh, hurry them, please!"

I saw no particular reason why; we could not get away from the smell of the wheel, or of Danny. But I did wind them up as much as I dared with our kind of a pole,-and suddenly both of them wound themselves up, with a jerk to try any pole. I had all I could do to keep them from a dead run, and if I knew the reason I trusted the girl beside me did not. It had hardly been a sound, more the ghost of a sound. But as I thought it she flung up her head.

"What's that?" she said sharply. "Mr. Stretton, what's that?"

"Nothing," I began; and changed it. "Just a wolf or two somewhere."

For behind us, in two, three, four quarters at once rose a long wailing howl.

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