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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 5. Billy Follows Isobel
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 5. Billy Follows Isobel Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2429

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 5. Billy Follows Isobel


From the first Billy could see the difficulty with which Deane and his dogs had made their way through the soft drifts of snow piled up by the blizzard. In places where the trees had thinned out Deane had floundered ahead and pulled with the team. Only once in the first mile had Isobel climbed from the sledge, and that was where traces, toboggan, and team had all become mixed up in the snow-covered top of a fallen tree. The fact that Deane was compelling his wife to ride added to Billy's liking for the man. It was probable that Isobel had not gone to sleep at all after her hard experience on the Barren, but had lain awake planning with her husband until the hour of their flight. If Isobel had been able to travel on snow-shoes Billy reasoned that Deane would have left the dogs behind, for in the deep, soft snow he could have made better time without them, and snow-shoe trails would have been obliterated by the storm hours ago. As it was, he could not lose them. He knew that he had no time to lose if he made sure of beating out Bucky and his men. The suspicious corporal would not sleep long. While he had the advantage of being comparatively fresh, Billy's snow-shoes were smoothing and packing the trail, and the others, if they followed, would be able to travel a mile or two an hour faster than himself. That Bucky would follow he did not doubt for a moment. The corporal was already half convinced that Scottie Deane had made the trail from camp and that the hair he had found entangled in the splinter on the tent-pole belonged to the outlaw's wife. And Scottie Deane was too big a prize to lose.

Billy's mind worked rapidly as he bent more determinedly to the pursuit. He knew that there were only two things that Bucky could do under the circumstances. Either he would follow after him with Walker and the driver or he would come alone. If Walker and Conway accompanied him the fight for Scottie Deane's capture would be a fair one, and the man who first put manacles about the outlaw's wrists would be the victor. But if he left his two companions in camp and came after him alone--

The thought was not a pleasant one. He was almost sorry that he had not taken Walker's gun. If Bucky came alone it would be with but one purpose in mind-- to make sure of Scottie Dean by "squaring up" with him first. Billy was sure that he had measured the man right, and that he would not hesitate to carry out his old threat by putting a bullet into him at the first opportunity. And here would be opportunity. The storm would cover up any foul work he might accomplish, and his reward would be Scottie Deane-- unless Deane played too good a hand for him.

At thought of Deane Billy chuckled. Until now he had not taken him fully into consideration, and suddenly it dawned upon him that there was a bit of humor as well as tragedy in the situation. He cheerfully conceded to himself that for a long time Deane had proved himself a better man than either Bucky or himself, and that, after all, he was the man who held the situation well in hand even now. He was well armed. He was as cautions as a fox, and would not be caught napping. And yet this thought filled Billy with satisfaction rather than fear. Deane would be more than a match for Bucky alone if he failed in beating out the corporal. But if he did beat him out--

Billy's lips set grimly, and there was a hard light in his eyes as he glanced back over his shoulder. He would not only beat him out, but he would capture Scottie Deane. It would be a game of fox against fox, and he would win. No one would ever know why he was playing the game as he had planned to play it. Bucky would never know. Down at headquarters they would never know. And yet deep down in his heart he hoped and believed that Isobel would guess and understand. To save Deane, to save Isobel, he must keep them out of the hands of Bucky Smith, and to do that he must make them his own prisoners. It would be a terrible ordeal at first. A picture of Isobel rose before him, her faith and trust in him broken, her face white and drawn with grief and despair, her blue eyes flashing at him-- hatred. But he felt now that he could stand those things. One moment-- the fatal moment, when she would understand and know that he had remained true-- would repay him for what he might suffer.

He traveled swiftly for an hour, and paused then to get his wind where the partly covered trail dipped down into a frozen swamp. Here Isobel had climbed from the sledge and had followed in the path of the toboggan. In places where the spruce and balsam were thick overhead Billy could make out the imprints of her moccasins. Deane had led the dogs in the darkness of the storm, and twice Billy found the burned ends of matches, where he had stopped to look at his compass. He was striking a course almost due west. At the farther edge of the swamp the trail struck a lake, and straight across this Deane had led his team. The worst of the storm was over now. The wind was slowly shifting to the south and east, and the fine, steely snow had given place to a thicker and softer downfall. Billy shuddered as he thought of what this lake must have been a few hours before, when Isobel and Deane had crossed it in the thick blackness of the blizzard that had swept it like a hurricane.

It was half a mile across the lake, and here, fifty yards from shore, the trail was completely covered. Billy lost no time by endeavoring to find signs of it in the open, but struck directly for the opposite timber field and swung along in the shelter of the scrub forest. He picked up the trail easily. Half an hour later he stopped. Spruce and balsam grew thick about him, shutting out what was left of the wind. Here Scottie Deane had stopped to build a fire. Close to the charred embers was a mass of balsam boughs on which Isobel had rested. Scottie had made a pot of boiling tea and had afterward thrown the grounds on the snow. The warm bodies of the dogs had made smooth, round pits in the snow, and Billy figured that the fugitives had rested for a couple of hours. They had traveled eight miles through the blizzard without a fire, and his heart was filled with a sickening pain as he thought of Isobel Deane and the suffering he had brought to her. For a few moments there swept over him a revulsion for that thing which he stood for-- the Law. More than once in his experience he had thought that its punishment had been greater than the crime. Isobel had suffered, and was suffering, far more than if Deane had been captured a year before and hanged. And Deane himself had paid a penalty greater than death in being a witness of the suffering of the woman who had remained loyal to him. Billy's heart went out to them in a low, yearning cry as he looked at the balsam bed and the black char of the fire. He wished that he could give them, life and freedom and happiness, and his hands clenched tightly as he thought that he was willing to surrender everything, even to his own honor, for the woman he loved.

Fifteen minutes after he had struck the shelter of the camp he was again in pursuit. His blood leaped a little excitedly when he found that Scottie Deane's trail was now almost as straight as a plumb-line and that the sledge no longer became entangled in hidden windfalls and brush. It was proof that it was light when Deane and Isobel had left their camp. Isobel was walking now, and their sledge was traveling faster. Billy encouraged his own pace, and over two or three open spaces he broke into a long, swinging run. The trail was comparatively fresh, and at the end of another hour he knew that they could not be far ahead of him. He had followed through a thin swamp and had climbed to the top of a rough ridge when he stopped. Isobel had reached the bald cap of the ridge exhausted. The last twenty yards he could see where Deane had assisted her; and then she had dropped down in the snow, and he had placed a blanket under her. They had taken a drink of tea made back over the fire, and a little of it had fallen into the snow. It had not yet formed ice, and instinctively he dropped behind a rock and looked down into the wooded valley at his feet. In a few moments he began to descend.

He had almost reached the foot of the ridge when he brought himself short with a sudden low cry of horror. He had reached a point where the side of the ridge seemed to have broken off, leaving a precipitous wall. In a flash he realized what had happened. Deane and Isobel had descended upon a "snow trap," and it had given way under their weight, plunging them to the rocks below. For no longer than a breath he stood still, and in that moment there came a sound from far behind that sent a strange thrill through him. It was the howl of a dog. Bucky and his men were in close pursuit, and they were traveling with the team.

He swung a little to the left to escape the edge of the trap and plunged recklessly to the bottom. Not until he saw where Scottie Deane and the team had dragged themselves from the snow avalanche did he breathe freely again. Isobel was safe! He laughed in his joy and wiped the nervous sweat from his face as he saw the prints of her moccasins where Deane had righted the sledge. And then, for the first time, he observed a number of small red stains on the snow. Either Isobel or Deane had been injured in the fall, perhaps slightly. A hundred yards from the "trap" the sledge had stopped again, and from this point it was Deane who rode and Isobel who walked!

He followed more cautiously now. Another hundred yards and he stopped to sniff the air. Ahead of him the spruce and balsam grew close and thick, and from that shelter he was sure that something was coming to him on the air. At first he thought it was the odor of the balsam. A moment later he knew that it was smoke.

Force of habit brought his hand for the twentieth time to his empty pistol holster. Its emptiness added to the caution with which he approached the thick spruce and balsam ahead of him. Taking advantage of a mass of low snow-laden bushes, he swung out at a right angle to the trail and began making a wide circle. He worked swiftly. Within half or three-quarters of an hour Bucky would reach the ridge. Whatever he accomplished must be done before then. Five minutes after leaving the trail he caught his first glimpse of smoke and began to edge in toward the fire. The stillness oppressed him. He drew nearer and nearer, yet he heard no sound of voice or of the dogs. At last he reached a point where he could look out from behind a young ground spruce and see the fire. It was not more than thirty feet away. He held his breath tensely at what he saw. On a blanket spread out close to the fire lay Scottie Deane, his head pillowed on a pack-sack. There was no sign of Isobel, and no sign of the sledge and dogs. Billy's heart thumped excitedly as he rose to his feet. He did not stop to ask himself where Isobel and the dogs had gone. Deane was alone, and lay with his back toward him. Fate could not have given him a better opportunity, and his moccasined feet fell swiftly and quietly in the snow. He was within six feet of Scottie before the injured man heard him, and scarcely had the other moved when he was upon him. He was astonished at the ease with which he twisted Deane upon his back and put the handcuffs about his wrists. The work was no sooner done than he understood. A rag was tied about Deane's head, and it was stained with blood. The man's arms and body were limp. He looked at Billy with dulled eyes, and as he slowly realized what had happened a groan broke from his lips.

In an instant Billy was on his knees beside him. He had seen Deane twice before, over at Churchill, but this was the first time that he had ever looked closely into his face. It was a face worn by hardship and mental torture. The cheeks were thinned, and the steel-gray eyes that looked up into Billy's were reddened by weeks and months of fighting against storm. It was the face, not of a criminal, but of a man whom Billy would have trusted-- blonde-mustached, fearless, and filled with that clean-cut strength which associates itself with fairness and open fighting. Hardly had he drawn a second breath when Billy realized why this man had not killed him when he had the chance. Deane was not of the sort to strike in the dark or from behind. He had let Billy live because he still believed in the manhood of man, and the thought that he had repaid Deane's faith in him by leaping upon him when he was down and wounded filled Billy with a bitter shame. He gripped one of Deane's hands in his own.

"I hate to do this, old man," he cried, quickly. "It's hell to put those things on a man who's hurt. But I've got to do it. I didn't mean to come-- no, s'elp me God, I didn't-- if Bucky Smith and two others hadn't hit your trail back at the old camp. They'd have got you-- sure. And she wouldn't have been safe with them. Understand ? She wouldn't have been safe! So I made up my mind to beat on ahead and take you myself. I want you to understand. And you do know, I guess. You must have heard, for I thought you were sure-enough dead in the box, an' I swear to Heaven I meant all I said then. I wouldn't have come. I was glad you two got away. But this Bucky is a skunk and a scoundrel-- and mebbe if I take you-- I can help you-- later on. They'll be here in a few minutes."

He spoke quickly, his voice quivering with the emotion that inspired his words, and not for an instant did Scottie Deane allow his eyes to shift from Billy's face. When Billy stopped he still looked at him for a moment, judging the truth of what he had heard by what he saw in the other's face. And then Billy felt his hand tighten for an instant about his own.

"I guess you're pretty square, MacVeigh," he said, "and I guess it had to come pretty soon, too. I'm not sorry that it's you-- and I know you'll take care of her."

"I'll do it-- if I have to fight-- and kill!"

Billy had withdrawn his hand, and both were clenched. Into Deane's eyes there leaped a sudden flash of fire.

"That's what I did," he breathed, gripping his fingers hard. "I killed-- for her. He was a skunk-- and a scoundrel-- too. And you'd have done it!" He looked at Billy again. "I'm glad you said what you did-- when I was in the box," he added. "If she wasn't as pure and as sweet as the stars I'd feel different. But it's just sort of in my bones that you'll treat her like a brother. I haven't had faith in many men. I've got it in you."

Billy leaned low over the other. His face was flushed, and his voice trembled.

"God bless you for that, Scottie!" he said.

A sound from the forest turned both men's eyes.

"She took the dogs and went out there a little way for a load of wood," said Deane. "She's coming back."

Billy had leaped to his feet, and turned his face toward the ridge. He, too, had heard a sound-- another sound, and from another direction. He laughed grimly as he turned to Deane.

"And they're coming, too, Scottie," he replied. "They're climbing the ridge. I'll take your guns, old man. It's just possible there may be a fight!"

He slipped Deane's revolver into his holster and quickly emptied the chamber of the rifle that stood near.

"Where's mine?" he asked.

"Threw 'em away," said Deane. "Those are the only guns in the outfit."

Billy waited while Isobel Deane came through low-hanging spruce with the dogs.

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CHAPTER IV. THE MAN-HUNTERSLike 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