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   Chapter 6 MOSTLY WOLVES AND A GIRL

The La Chance Mine Mystery By Susan Morrow Jones Characters: 17076

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Oh, what was that drew screaming breath?

"A wolf that slashed at me!"

Oh, who was that cried out in death?

"A man who struck at thee!"

The Night Ride.

The sound might have come from a country hound or two baying for sheer melancholy, or after a cat: only there were neither hounds nor cats on the Caraquet road. I felt Paulette stiffen through all her supple body. She whispered to herself sharply, as if she were swearing-only afterwards I knew better, and put the word she used where it belonged: "The devil! Oh, the devil!"

I made no answer. I had enough business holding in the horses, remembering that spliced pole. Paulette remembered it too, for she spoke abruptly. "How fast do you dare go?"

"Oh, not too fast," my thoughts were still on the pole. "They're not after us, if you're worrying about those wolves."

But she took no notice. "How far are we from Billy Jones's?"

We were a good way. But I said, "Oh, a few miles!"

"Well, we've got to make it!" I could still feel her queerly rigid against my arm; perhaps it was only because she was listening. But-quick, like life, or death, or anything else sudden as lightning-she had no need to listen; nor had I. A burst of ravening yells, gathering up from all sides of us except in front, came from the dark bush. And I yelled myself, at Bob and Danny, to keep them off the dead run.

It was rot, of course, but I had a queer feeling that wolves were after us, and that it was just that Skunk's Misery stuff that had started them, as it had drawn the wolf that had taken my clothes. I could hear the yelping of one after another grow into the full-throated chorus of a pack. The woods were full of them.

"I didn't think he'd dare," Paulette exclaimed, as if she came out of her secret thoughts.

But it did not bring me out of mine, even to remember that young devil Collins. I had pulled out my gun to scare the wolves with a shot or two,-and there were no cartridges in it! I could not honestly visualize myself filling it up the night before, but I was sure I had filled it, just as I was sure I had never troubled to look at it since. But of course I could not have, or it would not have been empty now. I inquired absently, because I was rummaging my pockets for cartridges, "Who'd dare? Whoa, Bob! What he?"

"They," Paulette corrected sharply. "I meant the wolves. I thought they were cowards, but-they don't sound cowardly! I-Mr. Stretton, I believe I'm worried!"

So was I, with a girl to take care of, a tied-on pole and whiffletree, and practically no gun; for there was not a single loose cartridge in my pockets. I had been so mighty secure about the Caraquet road I had never thought of them. I cursed inside while I said disjointedly, "Quiet, Bob, will you?-There's nothing to be afraid of; you'll laugh over this to-night!" Because I suddenly hoped so-if the pole held to the Halfway-for the infernal clamor behind us had dropped abruptly to what might have been a distant dog fight. But at a sudden note in it the sweat jumped to my upper lip.

"Dunn and Collins!" I thought. They had been missing when we left. Paulette had said she did not trust Collins, and since he had had the nous to get hold of the Skunk's Misery wolf dope, he or Dunn could easily have stowed it in my wagon in the night, and been caught by it themselves where they had started out to waylay us by the boulder they put in my road. But all I said was, "The wolves have stopped!"

"Not they," Paulette retorted, and suddenly knocked me silly with surprise. "Oh, I haven't done you a bit of good by coming, Mr. Stretton! I thought if I were with you I might be some use, and I'm not."

I stared stupidly. "D'ye mean you came to fight wolves?"

"No! I came--" but she stopped. "I was afraid-I mean I hated your going alone with all that gold, and Marcia really wanted Mrs. Jones."

Any other time I would have rounded on her and found out what she was keeping back, but I was too busy thinking. The horses had calmed to a flying trot up the long hill along whose side we had been crawling when the pole went. Once over the crest of it we should have done two miles since we heard the first wolf howl; which meant we were nearer to Billy Jones's than I had remembered. If the pole held to get us down the other side of the long hill there was nothing before us but a mile of corduroy road through a jungle-thick swamp of hemlock, and then the one bit of really excellent going my road could boast,-three clear miles, level as a die, straight to the Halfway stables.

"We haven't far now," said I shortly. "And it doesn't matter why you came; you've been useful enough! I couldn't have held the horses and patched the wagon too." I omitted to say I could have tied them to a wheel. "But if you're nervous now, there's one thing we could do. Can you ride?"

"Ride?" I thought she laughed. "Yes! Why?"

"We could cut the horses loose and ride them in to the Halfway."

"What? And leave the gold out here, as we were m--" I knew she cut off "meant to." "I won't do it!"

"Wolves wouldn't eat it-and there's no one to steal it," I returned matter-of-factly-because if Collins had meant to, the sinister flurry behind us had decided me his career was closed. "However, it would be wasting trouble to leave the stuff; there's no sign of any pack after us now." And a ravening yell cut the words off my tongue.

The brutes must have scoured after us in silence, hunting us in the dark for the last mile. For as we stood out, a black blot on the hilltop against the night sky, they broke out in chorus just behind us, for all the world like a pack of hounds who had treed a wildcat; and too close for any fool lying to occur to me.

"Paulette," I blurted, "there's not a cartridge in my gun! Yours is so little I'm afraid of it. But it may scare them. Take these reins!"

But she turned in her seat and knelt there, looking behind us. If I could have got her on Danny's back and let her run clear five minutes ago it was impossible now. No human being could have pulled up Bob or him.

"See them?" I snapped. "By heaven, I wish the brutes would stop that yelling; they're driving the horses crazy! See them?"

"No. But-yes, yes," her voice flashed out sharp as a knife. "They're on us! Give me the revolver, quick! I can shoot; and I've cartridges. You couldn't do any good with it: it throws low-and it's too small for your hand. And I wouldn't dare drive. I might get off the road, and we'd be done."

It was so true that I did not even turn my head as I shoved over her little gun. I had no particular faith in her shooting; my trust was in the horses' speed. We were getting down the hill like a Niagara of galloping hoofs and wheels over a road I had all I could do to see; with that crazy pole I dared not check the horses to put an ounce on. I stood up and drove for all I was worth, and the girl beside me shot,-and hit! For a yell and a screaming flurry rose with every report of her revolver. It was a beastly noise, but it rejoiced me; till suddenly I heard her pant out a sickened sentence that made me gasp, because it was such a funny thing to say.

"My heavens, I never thought I could be cruel to animals-like this. But I've got to do it. I"-her voice rose in sudden disjointed triumph-"Mr. Stretton, I believe I've stopped them!"

"I believe you have," I swore blankly,-and one leapt out of the dark by the fore wheel as I spoke, and she shot it.

But it was the last; she had stopped them. And if I had not known that to have turned even one eye from my horses as we tore down that hill would have meant we were smashed up on one side of it, I would have been more ashamed than I was of being fought for by a girl. "You're a wonder-just a marvellous wonder," I got out thickly. "We're clear-and it's thanks to you!" And ahead of us, in the jungle-thick hemlock that crowded the sides of the narrow road I had corduroyed through the swamp for a ricketty mile, a single wolf howled.

It had a different, curious note, a dying note, if I had known it; but I did not realize it then. I thought, "We're done! They've headed us!" I said, "Look out ahead for all you're worth. If we can keep going, we'll be through this thicket in a minute."

But Paulette cut out my thought. "We are done, if they throw the horses!" And instantly, amazingly, she stood up in the bumping, swaying wagon as if she were on a dancing floor and shed Dudley Wilbraham's coat. She leaned toward me, and I felt rather than saw that

she was in shirt and knickerbockers like a boy. "Keep the horses going as steady as you can, and whatever you do, don't try to stop them. I'm going to do something. Mind, keep them galloping!"

I would have grabbed her; only before I knew what she was going to do she was past me, out over the dashboard, and running along the smashed pole between Bob and Danny in the dark.

It was nothing to do in daylight. I've done it myself before now, and so have most men. But for a girl, in the dark and on a broken pole, with wolves heading the horses,-I was so furiously afraid for her that the blood stopped running in my legs, and it was a minute before I saw what she was after. She had not slipped; she was astride Danny-ducking under his rein neatly, for I had not felt the sign of a jerk-but only God knew what might happen to her if he fell. And suddenly I knew what she had run out there to do. She was shooting ahead of the horses, down the road; then to one side and the other of it impartially, covering them. Only what knocked me was that there was no sign of a wolf either before or beside us on the narrow, black-dark highway,-and that she was shooting into the jungle-thick swamp hemlocks on each side of it at the breast height of a man!

And at a single ghastly, smothered cry I burst out, "By gad, it is men!" For I knew she had shot one. I listened, over the rattling roll of the wheels on the corduroy, but there was no second cry. There was only what seemed dead silence after the thunder of the wheels on the uneven logs, as we swept out on the level road that led straight to the Halfway stable. It was light, too, after the dead blackness of the narrow swamp road. I saw the girl turn on Danny carelessly, as if she were in a saddle, and wave her hand forward for me to keep going. But the only thought I had was to get her back into the wagon. Not because I was afraid of a smash, for if the mended pole had held in that crazy, tearing gallop from the top of the hill it would hold till the Halfway. I just wanted her safe beside me. I had had enough of seeing a girl do stunts that stopped my blood. "Come back out of that," I shouted at her; "I'm going to stop the horses-and you come here!"

She motioned forward, crying out something unintelligible. But before I could pull up the horses, before I even guessed what she meant to do, I saw her stand up on Danny's back, spring from his rump, and,-land lightly in the wagon!

It may be true that I damned her up in heaps from sheer fright; I know I asked fiercely if she wanted to kill herself. She said no, quite coolly. Only that that pole would not bear any more running on it, or the jerk of a sudden stop either: it was that she had called out to me.

"Neither can I bear any more-of tricks that might lose your life to save me and my miserable gold," I said angrily. "Sit down this minute and wrap that coat round you." I had ceased to care that it was Dudley's. "It's bitter cold. And there's the light at the Halfway!"

"What I did wasn't anything-for me," my dream girl retorted oddly. "And I don't know that it was altogether to save you, Mr. Stretton, or your gold either, that you thought I meant to steal. I was pretty afraid for myself, with those wolves!"

I was too raging with myself to answer. Of course it had not been she who had meant to steal my gold; and no matter how she had known some one meant to get at me, with wolves or anything else. It had been just Collins-and the sheer gall of it jammed my teeth-Collins and Dunn, two ne'er-do-well brats in our own mine. I had realized already that they had been missing from La Chance quite early enough for me to thank them for the boulder on my good road, and Collins--But I hastily revised my conviction that it was Collins I had heard the wolves chop in the bush as hounds chop a fox: Collins had too much sense. It had more likely been Dunn; he was the kind to get eaten! Collins must have legged it early for my corduroy road, where Paulette had expected him enough to shoot at him; while Dunn stayed round La Chance to put the wolf bait in my wagon and got caught by it himself on his way to join Collins.

As for the genesis of the wolf dope, its history came to me coherently as letters spelling a word, beginning with the bottle of mixed filth I had spilt on myself at Skunk's Misery. The second I and my smelly clothes reached shore the night I returned to La Chance, a wolf had scented me and howled; had followed me to the shack and howled again while I was talking to Marcia about Paulette Brown; and another had carried off those very clothes under my own eyes where I stood by my window, as if the smell on them had been some kind of bait it could not resist. Wherever Dunn and Collins had got it, the smell from the broken bottle had been exactly the same, only twenty times stronger: and it had been meant to smash at the boulder on my road and turn me into a living bait for wolves!

The theory may sound crazy, but it happens to be sane. There is a wolf dope, made of heaven knows what, except that it contains certain ingredients that have to be put in bottles and ripened in the sun for a month. Two Frenchmen were jailed this last June in Quebec province for using it around a fish and game club, and endangering people's lives. That same wolf bait had been put in my wagon by somebody,-and the human cry out of the swamp at Paulette's shot suddenly repeated itself in my ears. I was biting my lip, or I would have grinned. Paulette had hit the man who was to have put me out of business, if the wolves failed when that bottle smashed and the boulder crippled my wagon. Collins, who, laid up in the swamp, was to have reaped my gold and me if I got through! The cheek of him made me blaze again, and I turned on Paulette abruptly.

"Look here, do you know you shot a man in the swamp?"

"I hope I killed him," returned that same girl who had disliked being cruel to wolves,-and instantly saw what I was after. "That's nonsense, though! There couldn't have been any man there, Mr. Stretton. The wolves would have eaten him!"

"Only one wolf got by you," I suggested drily.

She shrugged her shoulders. "They'd have shot at us-men, I mean!"

I made no answer. It struck me forcibly that Collins certainly would have; unless he was not out for shooting, but merely waiting to remove the gold from my wagon as soon as the wolves had disposed of my horses and me. Even then I did not see why he had held his fire, unless he had no gun. But the whole thing was a snarl it was no good thinking about till the girl beside me owned how much she knew about it. I wondered sharply if it had been just that knowledge she was trying to give Dudley the night I stopped her. The lights at the Halfway were very close as I turned to her.

"If I've helped you at all, why can't you tell me all the trouble, instead of Dudley?" I asked, very low.

"I don't know anything," but I thought she checked a sob, "that I-can tell. I just thought there might be trouble to-night, but I imagined it would happen before you started. That was why I marked that gold. Don't take any, ever, out of the safe, if it hasn't my seal on it."

"You can't prevent Collins from changing the boxes-forever," I said deliberately; because, unless he were dead, as I hoped, she couldn't. But Paulette stared at me, open-lipped, as we drove into the Halfway yard, and Billy Jones ran out with a lantern.

"Collins?" she repeated, as if she had never heard his name, much less met him secretly in the dark. "I don't know anything about any Collins, nor any one I could-put a name to! I tell you I don't know who was in the swamp!"

She had not said she did not know who was responsible for the bottle in my wagon. But if I am Indian-dark I can be Indian-silent too. I said nothing about that. "Well, it doesn't matter who did anything," I exclaimed suddenly, "so long as there's trust between you and me!" Because I forgot Dudley and everything but my dream girl who had fought for me, and I suddenly wondered if she had not forgotten Dudley, too. For Bob and Danny stood still, played out and sweating, and Paulette Brown sat staring at me with great eyes, instead of moving.

But she had forgotten nothing. "You're very kind-to me, and Dudley," she said quietly, and slipped out of the wagon before I could lift her down. A sudden voice kept me from jumping after her.

"By golly," said Billy Jones, sniffing at my fore wheel. "Have you run over a hundred skunks?"

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