The Hunted Woman by James Oliver Curwood

The Hunted Woman by James Oliver Curwood.jpg

CHAPTER I

It was all new—most of it singularly dramatic and even appalling to the woman who sat with the pearl-gray veil drawn closely about her face. For eighteen hours she had been a keenly attentive, wide-eyed, and partly frightened bit of humanity in this onrush of “the horde.” She had heard a voice behind her speak of it as “the horde”—a deep, thick, gruff voice which she knew without looking had filtered its way through a beard. She agreed with the voice. It was the Horde—that horde which has always beaten the trails ahead for civilization and made of its own flesh and blood the foundation of nations. For months it had been pouring steadily into the mountains—always in and never out, a laughing, shouting, singing, blaspheming Horde, every ounce of it toughened sinew and red brawn, except the Straying Angels. One of these sat opposite her, a dark-eyed girl with over-red lips and hollowed cheeks, and she heard the bearded man say something to his companions about “dizzy dolls” and “the little angel in the other seat.” This same voice, gruffened in its beard, had told her that ten thousand of the Horde had gone up ahead of them. Then it whispered something that made her hands suddenly tighten and a hot flush sweep through her. She lifted her veil and rose slowly from her seat, as if to rearrange her dress. Casually she looked straight into the faces of the bearded man and his companion in the seat behind. They stared. After that she heard nothing more of the Straying Angels, but only a wildly mysterious confabulation about “rock hogs,” and “coyotes” that blew up whole mountains, and a hundred and one things about the “rail end.” She learned that it was taking five hundred steers a week to feed the Horde that lay along the Grand Trunk Pacific between Hogan’s Camp and the sea, and that there were two thousand souls at Tête Jaune Cache, which until a few months before had slumbered in a century-old quiet broken only by the Indian and his trade. Then the train stopped in its twisting trail, and the bearded man and his companion left the car. As they passed her they glanced down. Again the veil was drawn close. A shimmering tress of hair had escaped its bondage; that was all they saw.

The veiled woman drew a deeper breath when they were gone. She saw that most of the others were getting off. In her end of the car the hollow-cheeked girl and she were alone. Even in their aloneness these two women had not dared to speak until now. The one raised her veil again, and their eyes met across the aisle. For a moment the big, dark, sick-looking eyes of the “angel” stared. Like the bearded man and his companion, she, too, understood, and an embarrassed flush added to the colour of the rouge on her cheeks. The eyes that looked across at her were blue—deep, quiet, beautiful. The lifted veil had disclosed to her a face that she could not associate with the Horde. The lips smiled at her—the wonderful eyes softened with a look of understanding, and then the veil was lowered again. The flush in the girl’s cheek died out, and she smiled back.

“You are going to Tête Jaune?” she asked.

“Yes. May I sit with you for a few minutes? I want to ask questions—so many!”

The hollow-cheeked girl made room for her at her side.

“You are new?”

“Quite new—to this.”

The words, and the manner in which they were spoken, made the other glance quickly at her companion.

“It is a strange place to go—Tête Jaune,” she said. “It is a terrible place for a woman.”

“And yet you are going?”

“I have friends there. Have you?”

“No.”

The girl stared at her in amazement. Her voice and her eyes were bolder now.

“And without friends you are going—there?” she cried. “You have no husband—no brother——”

“What place is this?” interrupted the other, raising her veil so that she could look steadily into the other’s face. “Would you mind telling me?”

“It is Miette,” replied the girl, the flush reddening her cheeks again. “There’s one of the big camps of the railroad builders down on the Flats. You can see it through the window. That river is the Athabasca.”

“Will the train stop here very long?”

The Little Angel shrugged her thin shoulders despairingly.

“Long enough to get me into The Cache mighty late to-night,” she complained. “We won’t move for two hours.”

“I’d be so glad if you could tell me where I can go for a bath and something to eat. I’m not very hungry—but I’m terribly dusty. I want to change some clothes, too. Is there a hotel here?”

Her companion found the question very funny. She had a giggling fit before she answered.

“You’re sure new,” she explained. “We don’t have hotels up here. We have bed-houses, chuck-tents, and bunk-shacks. You ask for Bill’s Shack down there on the Flats. It’s pretty good. They’ll give you a room, plenty of water, and a looking-glass—an’ charge you a dollar. I’d go with you, but I’m expecting a friend a little later, and if I move I may lose him. Anybody will tell you where Bill’s place is. It’s a red an’ white striped tent—and it’s respectable.”

The stranger girl thanked her, and turned for her bag. As she left the car, the Little Angel’s eyes followed her with a malicious gleam that gave them the strange glow of candles in a sepulchral cavern. The colours which she unfurled to all seeking eyes were not secret, and yet she was filled with an inward antagonism that this stranger with the wonderful blue eyes had dared to see them and recognize them. She stared after the retreating form—a tall, slim, exquisitely poised figure that filled her with envy and a dull sort of hatred. She did not hear a step behind her. A hand fell familiarly on her shoulder, and a coarse voice laughed something in her ear that made her jump up with an artificial little shriek of pleasure. The man nodded toward the end of the now empty car.

“Who’s your new friend?” he asked.

“She’s no friend of mine,” snapped the girl. “She’s another one of them Dolly Dimples come out to save the world. She’s that innocent she wonders why Tête Jaune ain’t a nice place for ladies without escort. I thought I’d help eggicate her a little an’ so I sent her to Bill’s place. Oh, my Lord, I told her it was respectable!”

She doubled over the seat in a fit of merriment, and her companion seized the opportunity to look out of the window.

The tall, blue-eyed stranger had paused for a moment on the last step of the car to pin up her veil, fully revealing her face. Then she stepped lightly to the ground, and found herself facing the sunlight and the mountains. She drew a slow, deep breath between her parted lips, and turned wonderingly, for a moment forgetful. It was the first time she had left the train since entering the mountains, and she understood now why some one in the coach had spoken of the Miette Plain as Sunshine Pool. Where-ever she looked the mountains fronted her, with their splendid green slopes reaching up to their bald caps of gray shale and reddish rock or gleaming summits of snow. Into this “pool”—this pocket in the mountains—the sun descended in a wonderful flood. It stirred her blood like a tonic. She breathed more quickly; a soft glow coloured her cheeks; her eyes grew more deeply violet as they caught the reflection of the blue sky. A gentle wind fretted the loose tendrils of brown hair about her face. And the bearded man, staring through the car window, saw her thus, and for an hour after that the hollow-cheeked girl wondered at the strange change in him.

The train had stopped at the edge of the big fill overlooking the Flats. It was a heavy train, and a train that was helping to make history—a combination of freight, passenger, and “cattle.” It had averaged eight miles an hour on its climb toward Yellowhead Pass and the end of steel. The “cattle” had already surged from their stifling and foul-smelling cars in a noisy inundation of curiously mixed humanity. They were of a dozen different nationalities, and as the girl looked at them it was not with revulsion or scorn but with a sudden quickening of heartbeat and a little laugh that had in it something both of wonder and of pride. This was the Horde, that crude, monstrous thing of primitive strength and passions that was overturning mountains in its fight to link the new Grand Trunk Pacific with the seaport on the Pacific. In that Horde, gathered in little groups, shifting, sweeping slowly toward her and past her, she saw something as omnipotent as the mountains themselves. They could not know defeat. She sensed it without ever having seen them before. For her the Horde now had a heart and a soul. These were the builders of empire—the man-beasts who made it possible for Civilization to creep warily and without peril into new places and new worlds. With a curious shock she thought of the half-dozen lonely little wooden crosses she had seen through the car window at odd places along the line of rail.

And now she sought her way toward the Flats. To do this she had to climb over a track that was waiting for ballast. A car shunted past her, and on its side she saw the big, warning red placards—Dynamite. That one word seemed to breathe to her the spirit of the wonderful energy that was expending itself all about her. From farther on in the mountains came the deep, sullen detonations of the “little black giant” that had been rumbling past her in the car. It came again and again, like the thunderous voice of the mountains themselves calling out in protest and defiance. And each time she felt a curious thrill under her feet and the palpitant touch of something that was like a gentle breath in her ears. She found another track on her way, and other cars slipped past her crunchingly. Beyond this second track she came to a beaten road that led down into the Flats, and she began to descend.

Tents shone through the trees on the bottom. The rattle of the cars grew more distant, and she heard the hum and laughter of voices and the jargon of a phonograph. At the bottom of the slope she stepped aside to allow a team and wagon to pass. The wagon was loaded with boxes that rattled and crashed about as the wheels bumped over stones and roots. The driver of the team did not look at her. He was holding back with his whole weight; his eyes bulged a little; he was sweating, in his face was a comedy of expression that made the girl smile in spite of herself. Then she saw one of the bobbing boxes and the smile froze into a look of horror. On it was painted that ominous word—DYNAMITE!

Two men were coming behind her.

“Six horses, a wagon an’ old Fritz—blown to hell an’ not a splinter left to tell the story,” one of them was saying. “I was there three minutes after the explosion and there wasn’t even a ravelling or a horsehair left. This dynamite’s a dam’ funny thing. I wouldn’t be a rock-hog for a million!”

“I’d rather be a rock-hog than Joe—drivin’ down this hill a dozen times a day,” replied the other.

The girl had paused again, and the two men stared at her as they were about to pass. The explosion of Joe’s dynamite could not have startled them more than the beauty of the face that was turned to them in a quietly appealing inquiry.

“I am looking for a place called—Bill’s Shack,” she said, speaking the Little Sister’s words hesitatingly. “Can you direct me to it, please?”

The younger of the two men looked at his companion without speaking. The other, old enough to regard feminine beauty as a trap and an illusion, turned aside to empty his mouth of a quid of tobacco, bent over, and pointed under the trees.

“Can’t miss it—third tent-house on your right, with canvas striped like a barber-pole. That phonnygraff you hear is at Bill’s.”

“Thank you.”

She went on.

Behind her, the two men stood where she had left them. They did not move. The younger man seemed scarcely to breathe.

“Bill’s place!” he gasped then. “I’ve a notion to tell her. I can’t believe——”

“Shucks!” interjected the other.

“But I don’t. She isn’t that sort. She looked like a Madonna—with the heart of her clean gone. I never saw anything so white an’ so beautiful. You call me a fool if you want to—I’m goin’ on to Bill’s!”

He strode ahead, chivalry in his young and palpitating heart. Quickly the older man was at his side, clutching his arm.

“Come along, you cotton-head!” he cried. “You ain’t old enough or big enough in this camp to mix in with Bill. Besides,” he lied, seeing the wavering light in the youth’s eyes, “I know her. She’s going to the right place.”

At Bill’s place men were holding their breath and staring. They were not unaccustomed to women. But such a one as this vision that walked calmly and undisturbed in among them they had never seen. There were half a dozen lounging there, smoking and listening to the phonograph, which some one now stopped that they might hear every word that was spoken. The girl’s head was high. She was beginning to understand that it would have been less embarrassing to have gone hungry and dusty. But she had come this far, and she was determined to get what she wanted—if it was to be had. The colour shone a little more vividly through the pure whiteness of her skin as she faced Bill, leaning over his little counter. In him she recognized the Brute. It was blazoned in his face, in the hungry, seeking look of his eyes—in the heavy pouches and thick crinkles of his neck and cheeks. For once Bill Quade himself was at a loss.

“I understand that you have rooms for rent,” she said unemotionally. “May I hire one until the train leaves for Tête Jaune Cache?”

The listeners behind her stiffened and leaned forward. One of them grinned at Quade. This gave him the confidence he needed to offset the fearless questioning in the blue eyes. None of them noticed a newcomer in the door. Quade stepped from behind his shelter and faced her.

“This way,” he said, and turned to the drawn curtains beyond them.

She followed. As the curtains closed after them a chuckling laugh broke the silence of the on-looking group. The newcomer in the doorway emptied the bowl of his pipe, and thrust the pipe into the breast-pocket of his flannel shirt. He was bareheaded. His hair was blond, shot a little with gray. He was perhaps thirty-eight, no taller than the girl herself, slim-waisted, with trim, athletic shoulders. His eyes, as they rested on the still-fluttering curtains, were a cold and steady gray. His face was thin and bronzed, his nose a trifle prominent. He was a man far from handsome, and yet there was something of fascination and strength about him. He did not belong to the Horde. Yet he might have been the force behind it, contemptuous of the chuckling group of rough-visaged men, almost arrogant in his posture as he eyed the curtains and waited.

What he expected soon came. It was not the usual giggling, the usual exchange of badinage and coarse jest beyond the closed curtains. Quade did not come out rubbing his huge hands, his face crinkling with a sort of exultant satisfaction. The girl preceded him. She flung the curtains aside and stood there for a moment, her face flaming like fire, her blue eyes filled with the flash of lightning. She came down the single step. Quade followed her. He put out a hand.

“Don’t take offence, girly,” he expostulated. “Look here—ain’t it reasonable to s’pose——”

He got no farther. The man in the door had advanced, placing himself at the girl’s side. His voice was low and unexcited.

“You have made a mistake?” he said.

She took him in at a glance—his clean-cut, strangely attractive face, his slim build, the clear and steady gray of his eyes.

“Yes, I have made a mistake—a terrible mistake!”

“I tell you it ain’t fair to take offence,” Quade went on. “Now, look here——”

In his hand was a roll of bills. The girl did not know that a man could strike as quickly and with as terrific effect as the gray-eyed stranger struck then. There was one blow, and Quade went down limply. It was so sudden that he had her outside before she realized what had happened.

“I chanced to see you go in,” he explained, without a tremor in his voice. “I thought you were making a mistake. I heard you ask for shelter. If you will come with me I will take you to a friend’s.”

“If it isn’t too much trouble for you, I will go,” she said. “And for that—in there—thank you!”

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Categories: English Literature

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