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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 4. The Man-Hunters
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 4. The Man-Hunters Post by :best4you Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3207

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 4. The Man-Hunters

CHAPTER IV. THE MAN-HUNTERS

Like one dazed by a blow Billy read once more the words which Isobel Deane had left for him. He made no sound after that first cry that had broken from his lips, but stood looking into the crackling flames of the fire until a sudden lash of the wind whipped the note from between his fingers and sent it scurrying away in a white volley of fine snow. The loss of the note awoke him to action. He started to pursue the bit of paper, then stopped and laughed. It was a short, mirthless laugh, the kind of a laugh with which a strong man covers pain. He returned to the tent again and looked in. He flung back the tent flaps so that the light could enter and he could see into the box. A few hours before that box had hidden Scottie Deane, the murderer. And she was his wife ! He turned back to the fire, and he saw again the red bakneesh hanging over his tent flap, and the words she had scrawled with the end of a charred stick, "In honor of the living." That meant him. Something thick and uncomfortable rose in his throat, and a blur that was not caused by snow or wind filled his eyes. She had made a magnificent fight. And she had won. And it suddenly occurred to him that what she had said in the note was true, and that Scottie Deane could easily have killed him. The next moment he wondered why he had not done that. Deane had taken a big chance in allowing him to live. They had only a few hours' start of him, and their trail could not be entirely obliterated by the storm. Deane would be hampered in his flight by the presence of his wife. He could still follow and overtake them. They had taken his weapons, but this would not be the first time that he had gone after his man without weapons.

Swiftly the reaction worked in him. He ran beyond the fire, and circled quickly until he came upon the trail of the outgoing sledge. It was still quite distinct. Deeper in the forest it could be easily followed. Something fluttered at his feet. It was Isobel Deane's note. He picked it up, and again his eyes fell upon those last words that she had written: But you would not follow. I know that. For you know what it means to love a woman, and so you know what life means to a woman when she loves a man. That was why Scottie Deane had not killed him. It was because of the woman. And she had faith in him! This time he folded the note and placed it in his pocket, where the blue flower had been. Then he went slowly back to the fire.

"I told you I'd give him back his life-- if I could," he said. "And I guess I'm going to keep my word." He fell into his old habit of talking to himself-- a habit that comes easily to one in the big open spaces-- and he laughed as he stood beside the fire and loaded his pipe. "If it wasn't for her!" he added, thinking of Scottie Deane. "Gawd-- if it wasn't for her!"

He finished loading his pipe, and lighted it, staring off into the thicker spruce forest into which Scottie and his wife had fled. The entire force was on the lookout for Scottie Deane. For more than a year he had been as elusive as the little white ermine of the woods. He had outwitted the best men in the service, and his name was known to every man of the Royal Mounted from Calgary to Herschel Island. There was a price on his head, and fame for the man who captured him. Those who dreamed of promotions also dreamed of Scottie Deane; and as Billy thought of these things something that was not the man-hunting instinct rose in him and his blood warmed with a strange feeling of brotherhood. Scottie Deane was more than an outlaw to him now, more than a mere man. Hunted like a rat, chased from place to place, he must be more than those things for a woman like Isobel Deane still to cling to. He recalled the gentleness of her voice, the sweetness of her face, the tenderness of her blue eyes, and for the first time the thought came to him that such a woman could not love a man who was wholly bad. And she did love him. A twinge of pain came with that truth, and yet with it a thrill of pleasure. Her loyalty was a triumph-- even for him. She had come to him like an angel out of the storm, and she had gone from him like an angel. He was glad. A living, breathing reality had taken the place of the dream vision in his heart, a woman who was flesh and blood, and who was as true and as beautiful as the blue flower he had carried against his breast. In that moment he would have liked to grip Scottie Deane by the hand, because he was her husband and because he was man enough to make her love him. Perhaps it was Deane who had hung the wreath of bakneesh on his tent and who had scribbled the words in charcoal. And Deane surely knew of the note his wife had written. The feeling of brotherhood grew stronger in Billy, and thought of their faith in him filled him with a strange elation.

The fire was growing low, and he turned to add fresh fuel. His eyes caught sight of the box in the tent, and he dragged it out. He was about to throw it on the fire when he hesitated and examined it more closely. How far had they come, he wondered? It must have been from the other side of the Barren, for Deane had built the box to protect Isobel from the fierce winds of the open. It was built of light, dry wood, hewn with a belt ax, and the corners were fastened with babiche cord made of caribou skin in place of nails. The balsam that had been placed in it for Isobel was still in the box, and Billy's heart beat a little more quickly as he drew it out. It had been Isobel's bed. He could see where the balsam was thicker, where her head had rested. With a sudden breathless cry he thrust the box on the fire.

He was not hungry, but he made himself a pot of coffee and drank it. Until now he had not observed that the storm was growing steadily worse. The thick, low-hanging spruce broke the force of it. Beyond the shelter of the forest he could hear the roar of it as it swept through the thin scrub and open spaces of the edge of the Barren. It recalled him once more to Pelliter. In the excitement of Isobel's presence and the shock and despair that had followed her flight he had been guilty of partly forgetting Pelliter. By the time he reached the Eskimo igloos there would be two days lost. Those two days might mean everything to his sick comrade. He jumped to his feet, felt in his pocket to see that the letters were safe, and began to arrange his pack. Through the trees there came now fine white volleys of blistering snow. It was like the hardest granulated sugar. A sudden blast of it stung his eyes; and, leaving his pack and tent, he made his way anxiously toward the more open timber and scrub. A few hundred yards from the camp he was forced to bow his head against the snow volleys and pull the broad flaps of his cap down over his cheeks and ears. A hundred yards more and he stopped, sheltering himself behind a gnarled and stunted banskian. He looked out into the beginning of the open. It was a white and seething chaos into which he could not see the distance of a pistol shot. The Eskimo igloos were twenty miles across the Barren, and Billy's heart sank. He could not make it. No man could live in the storm that was sweeping straight down from the Arctic, and he turned back to the camp. He had scarcely made the move when he was startled by a strange sound coming with the wind. He faced the white blur again, a hand dropping to his empty pistol holster. It came again, and this time he recognized it. It was a shout, a man's voice. Instantly his mind leaped to Deane and Isobel. What miracle could be bringing them back?

A shadow grew out of the twisting blur of the storm. It quickly separated itself into definite parts-- a team of dogs, a sledge, three men. A minute more and the dogs stopped in a snarling tangle as they saw Billy. Billy stepped forth. Almost instantly he found a revolver leveled at his breast.

"Put that up, Bucky Smith," he called. "If you're looking for a man you've found the wrong one!"

The man advanced. His eyes were red and staring. His pistol arm dropped as he came within a yard of Billy.

"By-- It's you, is it, Billy MacVeigh!" he exclaimed. His laugh was harsh and unpleasant. Bucky was a corporal in the service, and when Billy had last heard of him he was stationed at Nelson House. For a year the two men had been in the same patrol, and there was bad blood between them. Billy had never told of a certain affair down at Norway House, the knowledge of which at headquarters would have meant Bucky's disgraceful retirement from the force. But he had called Bucky out in fair fight and had whipped him within an inch of his life. The old hatred burned in the corporal's eyes as he stared into Billy's face. Billy ignored the look, and shook hands with the other men. One of them was a Hudson's Bay Company's driver, and the other was Constable Walker, from Churchill.

"Thought we'd never live to reach shelter," gasped Walker, as they shook hands. "We're out after Scottie Deane, and we ain't losing a minute. We're going to get him, too. His trail is so hot we can smell it. My God, but I'm bushed!"

The dogs, with the company man at their head, were already making for the camp. Billy grinned at the corporal as they followed.

"Had a pretty good chance to get me, if you'd been alone, didn't you, Bucky?" he asked, in a voice that Walker did not hear. "You see, I haven't forgotten your threat."

There was a steely hardness behind his laugh. He knew that Bucky Smith was a scoundrel whose good fortune was that he had never been found out in some of his evil work. In a flash his mind traveled back to that day at Norway House when Rousseau, the half Frenchman, had come to him from a sick-bed to tell him that Bucky had ruined his young wife. Rousseau, who should have been in bed with his fever, died two days later. Billy could still hear the taunt in Bucky's voice when he had cornered him with Rousseau's accusation, and the fight had followed. The thought that this man was now close after Isobel and Deane filled him with a sort of rage, and as Walker went ahead he laid a hand on Bucky's arm.

"I've been thinking about you of late, Bucky," he said. "I've been thinking a lot about that affair down at Norway, an' I've been lacking myself for not reporting it. I'm going to do it-- unless you cut a right-angle track to the one you're taking. I'm after Scottie Deane myself!"

In the next breath he could have cut out his tongue for having uttered the words. A gleam of triumph shot into Bucky's eyes.

"I thought we was right," he said. "We sort of lost the trail in the storm. Glad we found you to set us right. How much of a start of us has he and that squaw that's traveling with him got ?"

Billy's mittened hands clenched fiercely. He made no reply, but followed quickly after Walker. His mind worked swiftly. As he came in to the fire he saw that the dogs had already dropped down in their traces and that they were exhausted. Walker's face was pinched, his eyes half closed by the sting of the snow. The driver was half stretched out on the sledge, his feet to the fire. In a glance he had assured himself that both dogs and men had gone through a long and desperate struggle in the storm. He looked at Bucky, and this time there was neither rancor nor threat in his voice when he spoke.

"You fellows have had a hard time of it," he said. "Make yourselves at home. I'm not overburdened with grub, but if you'll dig out some of your own rations I'll get it ready while you thaw out."

Bucky was looking curiously at the two tents.

"Who's with you?" he asked.

Billy shrugged his shoulders. His voice was almost affable.

"Hate to tell you who was with me, Bucky," he laughed, "I came in late last night, half dead, and found a half-breed camped here-- in that silk tent. He was quite chummy-- mighty fine chap. Young fellow, too-- almost a kid. When I got up this morning--" Billy shrugged his shoulders again and pointed to his empty pistol holster. "Everything was gone-- dogs, sledge, extra tent, even my rifle and automatic. He wasn't quite bad, though, for he left me my grub. He was a funny cuss, too. Look at that!" He pointed to the bakneesh wreath that still hung to the front of his tent. "'In honor of the living,' " he read, aloud, "Just a sort of reminder, you know, that he might have hit me on the head with a club if he'd wanted to." He came nearer to Bucky, and said, good-naturedly: "I guess you've got me beat this time, Bucky. Scottie Deane is pretty safe from me, wherever he is. I haven't even got a gun!"

"He must have left a trail," remarked Bucky, eying him shrewdly.

"He did-- out there!"

As Bucky went to examine what was left of the trail Billy thanked Heaven that Deane had placed Isobel on the sledge before he left camp. There was nothing to betray her presence. Walker had unlaced their outfit, and Billy was busy preparing a meal when Bucky returned. There was a sneer on his lips.

"Didn't know you was that easy," he said. "Wonder why he didn't take his tent! Pretty good tent, isn't it?"

He went inside. A minute later he appeared at the flap and called to Billy.

"Look here!" he said, and there was a tremble of excitement in his voice. His eyes were blazing with an ugly triumph. "Your half-breed had pretty long hair, didn't he?"

He pointed to a splinter on one of the light tent-poles. Billy's heart gave a sudden jump. A tress of Isobel's long, loose hair had caught in the splinter, and a dozen golden-brown strands had remained to give him away. For a moment he forgot that Bucky Smith was watching him. He saw Isobel again as she had last entered the tent, her beautiful hair flowing in a firelit glory about her, her eyes still filled with tender gratitude. Once more he felt the warmth of her lips, the touch of her hand, the thrill of her presence near him. Perhaps these emotions covered any suspicious movement or word by which he might otherwise have betrayed himself. By the time they were gone he had recovered himself, and he turned to his companion with a low laugh.

"It's a woman's hair, all right, Bucky. He told me all sorts of nice things about a girl 'back home.' They must have been true."

The eyes of the two men met unflinchingly. There was a sneer on Buck's lips; Billy was smiling.

"I'm going to follow this Frenchman after we've had a little rest," said the corporal, trying to cover a certain note of excitement and triumph in his voice. "There's a woman traveling with Scottie Deane, you know-- a white woman-- and there's only one other north of Churchill. Of course, you're anxious to get back your stolen outfit?"

"You bet I am," exclaimed Billy, concealing the effect of the bull's-eye shot Bucky had made. "I'm not particularly happy in the thought of reporting myself stripped in this sort of way. The breed will hang to thick cover, and it won't be difficult to follow his trail."

He saw that Bucky was a little taken aback by his ready acquiescence, and before the other could reply he hurried out to join Walker in the preparation of breakfast. He made a gallon of tea, fried some bacon, and brought out and toasted his own stock of frozen bannock. He made a second kettle of tea while the others were eating, and shook out the blankets in his own tent. Walker had told him that they had traveled nearly all night.

"Better have an hour or two of sleep before you go on," he invited.

The driver's name was Conway. He was the first to accept Billy's invitation. When he had finished eating, Walker followed him into the tent. When they were gone Bucky looked hard at Billy.

"What's your game?" he asked.

"The Golden Rule, that's all," replied Billy, proffering his tobacco. "The half-breed treated me square and made me comfortable, even if he did take his pay afterward. I'm doing the same."

"And what do you expect to take-- afterward?"

Billy's eyes narrowed as he returned the other's searching look.

"Bucky, I didn't think you were quite a fool," he said. "You've got a little decency in your hide, haven't you? A man might as well be in jail as up here without a gun. I expect you to contribute one-- when you go after the half-breed-- you or Walker. He'll do it if you won't. Better go in with the others. I'll keep up the fire."

Bucky rose sullenly. He was still suspicious of Billy's hospitality, but at the same time he could see the strength of Billy's argument and the importance of the price he was asking. He joined Walker and Conway. Fifteen minutes later Billy approached the tent and looked in. The three men were in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Instantly Billy's actions changed. He had thrown his pack outside the tent to make more room, and he quickly slipped a spare blanket in with his provisions. Then he entered the other tent, and a flush spread over his face, and he felt his blood grow warmer.

"You may be a fool, Billy MacVeigh," he laughed, softly. "You may be a fool, but we're going to do it!"

Gently he disentangled the long silken strands of golden brown from the tent-pole. He wound the hair about his fingers, and it made a soft and shining ring. It was all that he would ever possess of Isobel Deane, and his breath came more quickly as he pressed it for a moment to his rough and storm-beaten face. He put it in his pocket, carefully wrapped in Isobel's note, and then once more he went back to the tent in which the three men were sleeping. They had not moved. Walker's holster was within reach of his hand. For a moment the temptation to reach out and pluck the gun from it was strong. He pulled himself away. He would win in this fight with Bucky as surely as he had won in the other, and he would win without theft. Quickly he threw his pack over his shoulder and struck the trail made by Deane in his flight. On his snow-shoes he followed it in a long, swift pace. A hundred yards from the camp he looked back for an instant. Then he turned, and his face was grim and set.

"If you've got to be caught, it's not going to be by that outfit back there, Mr. Scottie Deane," he said to himself. "It's up to yours truly, and Billy MacVeigh is the man who can do the trick, if he hasn't got a gun!"

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