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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Danger Trail - Chapter 9. The Tryst
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The Danger Trail - Chapter 9. The Tryst Post by :Ndoki Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1130

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The Danger Trail - Chapter 9. The Tryst


It still lacked nearly an hour of the appointed time when Howland came to the secluded spot in the trail where he was to meet Meleese. Concealed in the deep shadows of the bushes he seated himself on the end of a fallen spruce and loaded his pipe, taking care to light it with the flare of the match hidden in the hollow of his hands. For the first time since his terrible experience in the coyote he found himself free to think, and more than ever he began to see the necessity of coolness and of judgment in what he was about to do. Gradually, too, he fought himself back into his old faith in Meleese. His blood was tingling at fever heat in his desire for vengeance, for the punishment of the human fiends who had attempted to blow him to atoms, and yet at the same time there was no bitterness in him toward the girl. He was sure that she was an unwilling factor in the plot, and that she was doing all in her power to save him. At the same time he began to realize that he should no longer be influenced by her pleading. He had promised--in return for her confidence this night--to leave unpunished those whom she wished to shield. He would take back that promise. Before she revealed anything to him he would warn her that he was determined to discover those who had twice sought to kill him.

It was nearly midnight when he looked at his watch again. Was it possible that Meleese would not come? He could not bring himself to believe that she knew of his imprisonment in the coyote--of this second attempt on his life. And yet--if she did--

He rose from the log and began pacing quickly back and forth in the gloom, his thoughts racing through his brain with increasing apprehension. Those who had imprisoned him had learned of his escape an hour ago. Many things might have happened in that time. Perhaps they were fleeing from the camp. Frightened by their failure, and fearing the punishment which would be theirs if discovered, it was not improbable that even now they were many miles from the Wekusko, hurrying deeper into the unknown wilderness to the north. And Meleese would be with them!

Suddenly he heard a step, a light, running step, and with a recognizing cry he sprang out into the starlight to meet the slim, panting, white-faced figure that ran to him from between the thick walls of forest trees.

"Meleese?" he exclaimed softly.

He held out his arms and the girl ran straight into them, thrusting her hands against his breast, throwing back her head so that she looked up into his face with great, staring, horror-filled eyes.

"Now--now--" she sobbed, "_now will you go?"

Her hands left his breast and crept to his shoulders; slowly they slipped over them, and as Howland pressed her closer, his lips silent, she gave an agonized cry and dropped her head against his shoulder, her whole body torn in a convulsion of grief and terror that startled him.

"You will go?" she sobbed again and again. "You will go--you will go--"

He ran his fingers through her soft hair, crushing his face close to hers.

"No, I am not going, dear," he replied in a low, firm voice. "Not after what happened to-night."

She drew away from him as quickly as if he had struck her, freeing herself even from the touch of his hands.

"I heard--what happened--an hour ago," she said, her voice choking her. "I overheard--them--talking." She struggled hard to control herself. "You must leave the camp--to-night."

In the gloom she saw Howland's teeth gleaming. There was no fear in his smile; he laughed gently down into her eyes as he took her face between his hands again.

"I want to take back the promise that I gave you last night, Meleese. I want to give you a chance to warn any whom you may wish to warn. I shall not return into the South. From this hour begins the hunt for the cowardly devils who have tried to murder me. Before dawn every man on the Wekusko will be in the search, and if we find them there shall be no mercy. Will you help me, or--"

She struck his hands from her face, springing back before he had finished. He saw a sudden change of expression; her lips grew tense and firm; from the death whiteness of her face there faded slowly away the look of soft pleading, the quivering lines of fear. There was a strangeness in her voice when she spoke--something of the hard determination which Howland had put in his own, and yet the tone of it lacked his gentleness and love.

"Will you please tell me the time?" The question was almost startling. Howland held the dial of his watch to the light of the stars.

"It is a quarter past midnight."

The faintest shadow of a smile passed over the girl's lips.

"Are you certain that your watch is not fast?" she asked.

In speechless bewilderment Howland stared at her.

"Because it will mean a great deal to you and to me if it is not a quarter past midnight," continued Meleese, a growing glow in her eyes. Suddenly she approached him and put both of her warm hands to his face, holding down his arms with her own. "Listen," she whispered. "Is there nothing--nothing that will make you change your purpose, that will take you back into the South--to-night?"

The nearness of the sweet face, the gentle touch of the girl's hands, the soft breath of her lips, sent a maddening impulse through Howland to surrender everything to her. For an instant he wavered.

"There might be one--just _one thing that would take me away to-night," he replied, his voice trembling with the great love that thrilled him. "For you, Meleese, I would give up everything--ambition, fortune, the building of this road. If I go to-night will you go with me? Will you promise to be my wife when we reach Le Pas?"

A look of ineffable tenderness came into the beautiful eyes so near to his own.

"That is impossible. You will not love me when you know what I am--what I have done--"

He stopped her.

"Have you done wrong--a great wrong?"

For a moment her eyes faltered; then, hesitatingly, there fell from her lips, "I--don't--know. I believe I have. But it's not that--it's not _that!_"

"Do you mean that--that I have no right to tell you I love you?" he asked. "Do you mean that it is wrong for you to listen to me? I--I--took it for granted that you were a--girl--that--"

"No, no, it is not that," she cried quickly, catching his meaning. "It is not wrong for you to love me." Suddenly she asked again, "Will you please tell me what time it is--now?"

He looked again.

"Twenty-five minutes after midnight."

"Let us go farther up the trail," she whispered. "I am afraid here."

She led the way, passing swiftly beyond the path that branched out to his cabin. Two hundred yards beyond this a tree had fallen on the edge of the trail, and seating herself on it Meleese motioned for him to sit down beside her. Howland's back was to the thick bushes behind them. He looked at the girl, but she had turned away her face. Suddenly she sprang from the log and stood in front of him.

"Now!" she cried. "Now!" and at that signal Howland's arms were seized from behind, and in another instant he was struggling feebly in the grip of powerful arms which had fastened themselves about him like wire cable, and the cry that rose to his lips was throttled by a hand over his mouth. For an instant he caught a glimpse of the girl's white face as she stood in the trail; then strong hands pulled him back, while others bound his wrists and still others held his legs. Everything had passed in a few seconds. Helplessly bound and gagged he lay on his back in the snow, listening to the low voices that came faintly to him from beyond the bushes. He could understand nothing that they said--and yet he was sure that he recognized among them the voice of Meleese.

The voices became fainter; he heard retreating footsteps, and at last they died away entirely. Through a rift in the trees straight above him the white, cold stars of the night gleamed down on him, and Howland stared up at them fixedly until they seemed to be hopping and dancing about in the skies. He wanted to swear--yell--fight. In these moments that he lay on his back in the freezing snow a million demons were born in his blood. The girl had betrayed him again! This time he could find no excuse--no pardon for her. She had accepted his love--had allowed him to kiss her, to hold her in his arms--while beneath that hypocrisy she had plotted his downfall a second time. Deliberately she had given the signal for attack, and now--

He heard again the quick, running step that he had recognized on the trail. The bushes behind him parted, and in the white starlight Meleese fell on her knees at his side, her glorious face bending over him in a grief that he had never seen in it before, her eyes shining on him with a great love. Without speaking she lifted his head in the hollow of her arm and crushed her own down against it, kissing him, and softly sobbing his name.

"Good-by," he heard her breathe. "Good-by--good-by--"

He struggled to cry out as she lowered his head back on the snow, to free his hands, to hold her with him--but he saw her face only once more, bending over him; felt the warm pressure of her lips to his forehead, and then again he could hear her footsteps hurrying away through the forest.

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