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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGod's Country And The Woman - Chapter 11
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God's Country And The Woman - Chapter 11 Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3159

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God's Country And The Woman - Chapter 11

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Scarcely had he crossed the threshold when an exclamation of surprise rose to Philip's lips. A few minutes before he had left his room even uncomfortably warm. A cold draught of air struck his face now, and the light was out. He remembered that he had left the lamp burning. He groped his way through the darkness to the table before he lighted a match.

As he touched the flame to the wick he glanced toward the window. It was open. A film of snow had driven through and settled upon the rug under it. Replacing the chimney, he took a step or two toward the window. Then he stopped, and stared at the floor. Some one had entered his room through the open window and had gone to the door opening into the hall. At each step had fallen a bit of snow, and close to the door was a space of the bare floor soppy and stained. At that point the intruder had stood for some moments without moving.

For several seconds Philip stared at the evidences of a prowling visitor without making a move himself. It was not without a certain thrill of uneasiness that he went to the window and closed it. It did not take him long to assure himself that nothing in the room had been touched. He could find no other marks of feet except those which led directly from the window to the door, and this fact was sufficient proof that whoever had visited his room had come as a listener and a spy and not as a thief.

It occurred to Philip now that he had found his door unlatched and slightly ajar when he entered. That the eavesdropper had seen them in the hall and had possibly overheard a part of their conversation he was quite certain from the fact that the window had been left open in a hurried flight.

For some time the impulse was strong in him to acquaint both Josephine and her father with what had happened, and with Jean Croisset's apparent treachery. He did not need to ask himself if it was the half-breed who had stolen into his room. He was as certain of that as he was of the identity of the face he had seen at the window some time before. And yet something held him from communicating these events of the night to the master of Adare House and the girl. He was becoming more and more convinced that there existed an unaccountable and mysterious undercurrent of tragic possibilities at Adare House of which Josephine was almost ignorant, and her father entirely so. Josephine's motherhood and the secret she was guarding were not the only things that were clouding his mental horizon now. There was something else. And he believed that Jean was the key to the situation.

He felt a clammy chill creep over him as he asked himself how closely Jean Jacques Croisset himself was associated with the girl he loved. It was a thought that almost made him curse himself for giving it birth. And yet it clung to him like a grim and haunting spectre that he would have crushed if he could. Josephine's confession of motherhood had not made him love her less. In those terrible moments when she had bared her soul to him, his own soul had suffered none of the revulsion with which he might have sympathized in others. It was as if she had fallen at his feet, fluttering in the agony of a terrible wound, a thing as pure as the heavens, hurt for him to cherish in his greater strength--such was his love. And the thought that Jean loved her, and that a jealousy darker than night was burning all that was human out of his breast, was a possibility which he found unpleasant to admit to himself.

So deeply was he absorbed in these thoughts that he forgot any immediate danger that might be threatening himself. He passed and repassed the window, smoking his pipe, and fighting with himself to hit upon some other tangible reason for Jean's unexpected change of heart. He could not forget his first impression of the dark-faced half-breed, nor the grip in which they had pledged their fealty. He had accepted Jean as one of ten thousand--a man he would have trusted to the ends of the earth, and yet he recalled moments now when he had seen strange fires smouldering far back in the forest man's eyes. The change in Jean alone he felt that he might have diagnosed, but almost simultaneously with his discovery of this change he had met Adare's wife--and she had puzzled him even more than the half-breed.

Restlessly he moved to his door again, opened it, and looked down the hall. The door of Josephine's room was closed, and he reentered his room. For a moment he stood facing the window. In the same instant there came the report of a rifle and the crashing of glass. A shower of shot-like particles struck his face. He heard a dull smash behind him, and then a stinging, red-hot pain shot across his arm, as if a whiplash had seared his naked flesh. He heard the shot, the crashing glass, the strike of the bullet behind him before he felt the pain--before he reeled back toward the wall. His heel caught in a rug and he fell. He knew that he was not badly hurt, but he crouched low, and with his right hand drew his automatic and levelled it at the window.

Never in his life had his blood leaped more quickly through his body than it did now. It was not merely excitement--the knowledge that he had been close to death, and had escaped. From out of the darkness Jean Croisset had shot at him like a coward. He did not feel the burn of the scratch on his arm as he jumped to his feet. Once more he ran swiftly through the hall. At the end door he looked back. Apparently the shot had not alarmed the occupants of Josephine's room, to whom the report of a rifle--even at night-- held no special significance.

Another moment and Philip was outside. It had stopped snowing, and the clouds were drifting away from under the moon. Crouched low, his pistol level at his side, he ran swiftly in the direction from which the shot must have come. The moon revealed the dark edge of the forest a hundred yards away, and he was sure that his attempted murderer had stood somewhere between Adare House and the timber when he fired. He was not afraid of a second shot. Even caution was lost in his mad desire to catch Jean red-handed and choke a confession of several things from his lips. If Jean had suddenly risen out of the snow he would not have used his pistol unless forced to do so. He wanted to be hand to hand with the treacherous half-breed, and his breath came in panting eagerness as he ran.

Suddenly he stopped short. He had struck the trail. Here Croisset had stood, fifty yards from his window, when he fired. The snow was beaten down, and from the spot his retreating footsteps led toward the forest. Like a dog Philip followed the trail. The first timber was thinned by the axe, and the moon lighted up the white spaces ahead of him. He was half across the darker wall of the spruce when his heart gave a sudden jump. He had heard the snarl of a dog, the lash of a whip, a man's low voice cursing the beast he was striking. The sounds came from the dense cover of the spruce, and told him that Jean was not looking for immediate pursuit. He slipped in among the shadows quietly, and a few steps brought him to a smaller open space where a few trees had been cut. In this little clearing a slim dark figure of a man was straightening out the tangled traces of a sledge-team.

Philip could not see his face, but he knew that it was Jean. It was Jean's figure, Jean's movement, his low, sharp voice as he spoke to the dogs. Man and huskies were not twenty steps from him. With a tense breath Philip replaced his pistol in its holster. He did not want to kill, and he possessed a proper respect for the hair-trigger mechanism of his automatic. In the fight he anticipated with Jean the weapon would be safer in its holster than in his hand. Jean was at present unarmed, except for his hunting-knife. His rifle leaned against a tree, and in another moment Philip was between the gun and the half-breed.

One of the sledge dogs betrayed him. At its low and snarling warning the half-breed whirled about with the alertness of a lynx, and he was half ready when Philip launched himself at his throat. They went down free of the dogs, the forest man under. One of Philip's hands had reached his enemy's throat, but with a swift movement of his arm the half-breed wrenched it off and slipped out from under his assailant with the agility of an eel. Both were on their feet in an instant, facing each other in the tiny moonlit arena a dozen feet from the silent and watchful dogs.

Even now Philip could not see the half-breed's features because of a hood drawn closely about his face. The "breed" had made no effort to draw a weapon, and Philip flung himself upon him again. Thus in open battle his greater physical strength and advantage of fifty pounds in weight would have won for Philip. But the forest man's fighting is filled with the elusive ermine's trickery and the lithe quickness of the big, fur-padded cat of the trap-lines.

The half-breed made no effort to evade Philip's assault. He met the shock of attack fairly, and went down with him. But this time his back was to the watchful semicircle of dogs, and with a sharp, piercing command he pitched back among them, dragging Philip with him. Too late Philip realized what the cry meant. He tried to fling himself out of reach of the threatening fangs, and freed one hand to reach for his pistol. This saved him from the dogs, but gave the half-breed his opportunity. Again he was on his feet, the butt of his dog whip in his hand. As the moonlight glinted on the barrel of the automatic, he brought the whip down with a crash on Philip's head--and then again and again, and Philip pitched backward into the snow.

He was not wholly unconscious. He knew that as soon as he had fallen the half-breed had turned again to the dogs. He could hear him as he straightened out the traces. In a subconscious sort of way, Philip wondered why he did not take advantage of his opportunity and finish what he had failed to do with the bullet through the window. Philip heard him run back for his gun, and tried to struggle to his knees. Instead of the shot he half expected there came the low "Hoosh--hoosh--marche!" of the forest man's voice. Dogs and sledge moved. He fought himself up and swayed on his knees, staring after the retreating shadows. He saw his automatic in the snow and crawled to it. It was another minute before he could stand on his feet, and then he was dizzy. He staggered to a tree and for a space leaned against it.

It was some minutes before he was steady enough to walk, and by that time he knew that it would be futile to pursue the half-breed and his swift-footed dogs, weakened and half dressed as he was. Slowly he returned to Adare House, cursing himself for not having used his pistol to compel Jean's surrender. He acknowledged that he had been a fool, and that he had deserved what he got. The hall was still empty when he reentered it. His adventure had roused no one, and with a feeling of relief he went to his room.

If the walls had fallen about his ears he could not have received a greater shock than when he entered through the door.

Seated in a chair close to the table, looking at him calmly as he entered, was Jean Jacques Croisset!

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CHAPTER TWELVEUnable to believe that what he saw was not an illusion, Philip stood and stared at the half-breed. No word fell from his lips. He did not move. And Jean met his eyes calmly, without betraying a tremor of excitement or of fear. In another moment Philip's hand went to his pistol. As he half drew it his confused brain saw other things which made him gasp with new wonder.Croisset showed no signs of the fight in the forest which had occurred not more than ten minutes before. He was wearing a pair of laced Hudson's Bay boots. In the
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CHAPTER TENNot until the sound of approaching steps grew near did Josephine make an effort to free herself from Philip's arms. Unresisting she had given him her lips to kiss; for one rapturous moment he had felt the pressure of her arms about his shoulders; in the blue depths of her eyes he had caught the flash of wonderment and disbelief, and then the deeper, tenderer glow of her surrender to him. In this moment he forgot everything except that she had bared her secret to him, and in baring it had given herself to him. Even as her hands pressed
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