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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 6. The Fight
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 6. The Fight Post by :sbeard Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1078

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 6. The Fight

CHAPTER VI. THE FIGHT

There was a smile for Deane on Isobel's lips as she struggled through the spruce, knee-deep in snow, the dogs tugging at the sledge behind her. And then in a moment she saw MacVeigh, and the smile froze into a look of horror on her face. She was not twenty feet distant when she emerged into the little opening, and Billy heard the rattling cry in her throat. She stopped, and her hands went to her breast. Deane had half raised himself, his pale, thin face smiling encouragingly at her; and with a wild cry Isobel rushed to him and flung herself upon her knees at his side, her hands gripping fiercely at the steel bands about his wrists. Billy turned away. He could hear her sobbing, and he could hear the low, comforting voice of the injured man. A groan of anguish rose to his own lips, and he clenched his hands hard, dreading the terrible moment when he would have to face the woman he loved above all else on earth.

It was her voice that brought him about. She had risen to her feet, and she stood before him panting like a hunted animal, and Billy saw in her face the thing which he had feared more than the sting of death. No longer were her blue eyes filled with the sweetness and faith of the angel who had come to him from out of the Barren. They were hard and terrible and filled with that madness which made him think she was about to leap upon him. In those eyes, in the quivering of her bare throat, in the sobbing rise and fall of her breast were the rage, the grief, and the fear of one whose faith had turned suddenly into the deadliest of all emotions; and Billy stood before her without a word on his lips, his face as cold and as bloodless as the snow under his feet.

"And so you-- you followed-- after-- that!"

It was all she said, and yet the voice, the significance of the choking words, hurt him more than if she had struck him. In them there was none of the passion and condemnation he had expected. Quietly, almost whisperingly uttered, they stung him to the soul. He had meant to say to her what he had said to Deane-- even more. But the crudeness of the wilderness had made him slow of tongue, and while his heart cried out for words Isobel turned and went to her husband. And then there came the thing he had been expecting. Down the ridge there raced a flurry of snow and a yelping of dogs. He loosened the revolver in his holster, and stood in readiness when Bucky Smith ran a few paces ahead of his men into the camp. At sight of his enemy's face, torn between rage and disappointment, all of Billy's old coolness returned to him.

With a bound Bucky was at Scottie Deane's side. He looked down at his manacled hands and at the woman who was clasping them in her own, and then he whirled on Billy with the quickness of a cat.

"You're a liar and a sneak!" he panted. "You'll answer for this at headquarters. I understand now why you let 'em go back there. It was her! She paid you-- paid you in her own way-- to free him! But she won't pay you again--"

At his words Deane had started as if stung by a wasp. Billy saw Isobel's whitened face. The meaning of Buck's words had gone home to her as swiftly as a lightning flash, and for an instant her eyes had turned to him! Bucky got no further than those last words. Before he could add another syllable Billy was upon him. His fist shot out-- once, twice-- and the blows that fell sent Bucky crashing through the fire. Billy did not wait for him to regain his feet. A red light blazed before his eyes. He forgot the presence of Deane and Walker and Conway. His one thought was that the scoundrel he had struck down had flung at Isobel the deadliest insult that a man could offer a woman, and before either Conway or Walker could make a move he was upon Bucky. He did not know how long or how many times he struck, but when at last Conway and Walker succeeded in dragging him away Bucky lay upon his back in the snow, blood gushing from his mouth and nose. Walker ran to him. Panting for breath, Billy turned toward Isobel and Deane. He was almost sobbing. He made no effort to speak. But he saw that the thing he had dreaded was gone. Isobel was looking at him again-- and there was the old faith in her eyes. At last-- she understood! Dean's handcuffed hands were clenched. The light of brotherhood shone in his eyes, and where a moment before there had been grief and despair in Billy's heart there came now a warm glow of joy. Once more they had faith in him!

Walker had raised Bucky to a sitting posture, and was wiping the blood from his face when Billy went to them. The corporal's hand made a limp move toward his revolver. Billy struck it away and secured the weapon. Then he spoke to Walker.

"There is no doubt in your mind that I hold a sergeancy in the service, is there, Walker?" he asked.

His tone was no longer one of comradeship. In it there was the ring of authority. Walker was quick to understand.

"None, sir!"

"And you are familiar with our laws governing insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer of the service?"

Walker nodded.

"Then, as a superior officer and in the name of his Majesty the King, I place Corporal Bucky Smith under arrest, and commission you, under oath of the service, to take him under your guard to Churchill, along with the letter which I shall give you for the officer in charge there. I shall appear against him a little later with the evidence that will outlaw him from the service. Put the handcuffs on him!"

Stunned by the sudden change in the situation, Walker obeyed without a word. Billy turned to Conway, the driver.

"Deane is too badly injured to travel," he explained, " Put up your tent for him and his wife close to the fire. You can take mine in exchange for it as you go back."

He went to his kit and found a pencil and paper. Fifteen minutes later he gave Walker the letter in which he described to the commanding officer at Churchill certain things which he knew would hold Bucky a prisoner until he could personally appear against him. Meanwhile Conway had put up the tent and had assisted Deane into it. Isobel had accompanied him. Billy then had a five-minute confidential talk with Walker, and when the constable gave instructions for Conway to prepare the dogs for the return trip there was a determined hardness in his eyes as he looked at Bucky. In those five minutes he had heard the story of Rousseau, the young Frenchman down at Norway House, and of the wife whose faithlessness had killed him. Besides, he hated Bucky Smith, as all men hated him. Billy was confident that he could rely upon him.

Not until dogs and sledge were ready did Bucky utter a word. The terrific beating he had received had stunned him for a few minutes; but now he jumped to his feet, not waiting for the command from Walker, and strode up close to Billy. There was a vengeful leer on his bloody face and his eyes blazed almost white, but his voice was so low that Conway and Walker could only hear the murmur of it. His words were meant for Billy alone.

"For this I'm going to kill you, MacVeigh," he said; and in spite of Billy's contempt for the man there was a quality in the low voice that sent a curious shiver through him. "You can send me from the service, but you're going to die for doing it!"

Billy made no reply, and Bucky did not wait for one. He set off at the head of the sledge, with Conway a step behind them. Billy followed with Walker until they reached the foot of the ridge. There they shook hands, and Billy stood watching them until they passed over the cap of the ridge.

He returned to the camp slowly. Deane had emerged from the tent, supported by Isobel. They waited for him, and in Deane's face he saw the look that had filled it after he had struck down Bucky Smith. For a moment he dared not look at Isobel. She saw the change in him, and her cheeks flushed. Deane would have extended his hands, but she was holding them tightly in her own.

"You'd better go into the tent and keep quiet," advised Billy. "I haven't had time yet to see if you're badly hurt."

"It's not bad," Deane assured him. "I bumped into a rock sliding down the ridge, and it made me sick for a few minutes."

Billy knew that Isobel's eyes were on him, and he could almost feel their questioning. He began to take wood from the sledge she had loaded and throw it on the fire. He wished that Scottie and she had remained in the tent for a little longer. His face burned and his blood seemed like fire when he caught a glimpse of the steel cuffs about Deane's wrists. Through the smoke he saw Isobel still clasping her husband. He could see one of her little hands gripping at the steel band, and suddenly he sprang across and faced them, no longer fearing to meet Isobel's eyes or Deane's. Now his face was aflame, and he half held out his arms to them as he spoke, as though he would clasp them both to him in this moment of sacrifice and self-abnegation and the dawning of new life.

"You know-- you both know why I've done this!" he cried, "You heard what I said back there, Deane-- when you was in the box; an' all I said was true. She came to me out of that storm like an angel-- an' I'll think of her as an angel all my life. I don't know much about God-- not the God they have down there, where they take an eye for an eye an' a tooth for a tooth and kill because some one else has killed. But there's something up here in the big open places, something that makes you think and makes you want to do what's right and square; an' she's got all I know of God in that little Bible of mine-- the blue flower. I gave the blue flower to her, an' now an' forever she's my blue flower. I ain't ashamed to tell you, Deane, because you've heard it before, an' you know I'm not thinking it in a sinful way. It 'll help me if I can see her face an' hear her voice and know there's such love as yours after you're gone. For I'm going to let you go, Deane, old man. That's what I came for, to save you from the others an' give you back to her. I guess mebbe you'll know-- now-- how I feel--"

His voice choked him. Isobel's glorious eyes were looking into his soul, and he looked straight back into them and saw all his reward there. He turned to Deane. His key clicked in the locks to the handcuffs, and as they fell into the snow the two men gripped hands, and in their strong faces was that rarest of all things-- love of man for man.

"I'm glad you know," said Billy, softly. "It wouldn't be fair if you didn't, Scottie. I can think of her now, an' it won't be mean and low. And if you ever need help-- if you're down in South America or Africa-- anywhere-- I'll come if you send word. You'd better go to South America. That's a good place. I'll report to headquarters that you died-- from the fall. It's a lie, but blue flower would do it, and so will I. Sometimes, you know, the friend who lies is the only friend who's true-- and she'd do it-- a thousand times-- for you."

"And for you," whispered Isobel.

She was holding out her hands, her blue eyes streaming with tears of happiness, and for a moment Billy accepted one of them and held it in his own. He looked over her head as she spoke.

"God will bless you for this-- some day," she said; and a sob broke in her voice. "He will bring you happiness-- happiness-- in what you have dreamed of. You will find a blue flower-- sweet and pure and loyal-- and then you will know, even more fully, what life means to me with him."

And then she broke down, sobbing like a child, and with her face buried in her hands turned into the tent.

"Gawd!" whispered Billy, drawing a deep breath.

He looked Deane in the eyes; and Deane smiled, a rare and beautiful smile.

For a quarter of an hour they talked alone, and then Billy drew a wallet from his pocket.

"You'll need money, Scottie," he said. "I don't want you to lose a minute in getting out of the country. Make for Vancouver. I've got three hundred dollars here. You've got to take it or I'll shoot you!"

He thrust the money into Deane's hands as Isobel came out of the tent. Her eyes were red, but she was smiling; and she held something in her hand. She showed it to the two men. It was the blue flower Billy had given her. But now its petals were torn apart, and nine of them lay in the palm of her hand.

"It can't go with one." She spoke softly and the smile died on her lips. "There are nine petals, three for each of us."

She gave three to her husband and three to Billy, and for a moment the men stared at them as they lay in their rough and calloused palms. Then Billy drew out the bit of buckskin in which he had placed the strands of Isobel's hair and slipped the blue petals in with them. Deane had drawn a worn envelope from his pocket. Billy spoke low to Deane.

"I want to be alone for a while-- until dinner-time. Will you go into the tent-- with her ?"

When they were gone Billy went to the spot where he had dropped his pack before crawling up on Deane. He picked it up and slipped it over his shoulders as he walked. He went swiftly back over his old trail, and this time it was with a heart leaden with a deep and terrible loneliness. When he reached the ridge he tried to whistle, but his lips seemed thick, and there was something in his throat that choked him. From the cap of the ridge he looked down. A thin mist of smoke was rising from out of the spruce. It blurred before his eyes, and a sobbing break came in his low cry of Isobel's name. Then he turned once more back into the loneliness and desolation of his old life.

"I'm coming, Pelly," he laughed, in a strained, hard way. "I haven't given you exactly a square deal, old man, but I'll hustle and make up for lost time!"

A wind was beginning to moan in the spruce tops again. He was glad of that. It promised storm. And a storm would cover up all trails.

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