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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Golden Snare - Chapter 16
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The Golden Snare - Chapter 16 Post by :Dusty13 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :931

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The Golden Snare - Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

His first impulse, after those few appalling seconds following their escape from the fire, was to save something from the cabin. Still talking to Celie he dropped on his knees and tucked her up warmly in the bearskin, with her back to a tree. He thanked God that it was a big skin and that it enveloped her completely. Leaving her there he ran back through the gate. He no longer feared the wolves. If they had not already escaped into the forest he knew they would not attack him in that hot glare of the one thing above all others they feared--fire. For a space thought of the Eskimos, and the probability of the fire bringing them from wherever they had sought shelter from the storm, was secondary to the alarming necessity which faced him. Because of his restlessness and his desire to be ready for any emergency he had not undressed when he threw himself on his bunk that night, but he was without a coat or cap. And Celie! He cried out aloud in his anguish when he stopped just outside the deadline of the furnace of flame that was once the cabin, and standing there with clenched hands he cursed himself for the carelessness that had brought her face to face with a peril deadlier than the menace of the Eskimos or Bram Johnson's wolves. He alone was responsible. His indiscretion in overfilling the stove had caused the fire, and in that other moment--when he might have snatched up more than the bearskin--his mind had failed to act.

In the short space he stood there helplessly in the red heat of the fire the desperateness of the situation seared itself like the hot flame itself in his brain. As prisoners in Bram's cabin, guarded by the wolves and attacked by the Eskimos, they still had shelter, food, clothing--a chance to live, at least the chance to fight. And now--

He put a hand to his bare head and faced the direction of the storm. With the dying away of the wind snow had begun to fall, and with this snow he knew there would come a rising temperature. It was probably twenty degrees below zero, and unless the wind went down completely his ears would freeze in an hour or two. Then he thought of the thick German socks he wore. One of them would do for a cap. His mind worked swiftly after that. There was, after all, a tremendous thrill in the thought of fighting the odds against him, and in the thought of the girl waiting for him in the bearskin, her life depending upon him utterly now. Without him she could not move from the tree where he had left her unless her naked feet buried themselves in the snow. If something happened to him--she would die. Her helplessness filled him suddenly with a wild exultation, the joy of absolute possession that leapt for an instant or two above his fears. She was something more--now--than the woman he loved. She was a little child, to be carried in his arms, to be sheltered from the wind and the cold until the last drop of blood had ceased to flow in his veins. His was the mighty privilege now to mother her until the end came for them both--or some miracle saved them. The last barrier was gone from between them. That he had met her only yesterday was an unimportant incident now. The world had changed, life had changed, a long time had passed. She belonged to him as utterly as the stars belonged to the skies. In his arms she would find life--or death.

He was braced for the fight. His mind, riding over its first fears, began to shape itself for action even as he turned back toward the edge of the forest. Until then he had not thought of the other cabin--the cabin which Bram and he had passed on their way in from the Barren. His heart rose up suddenly in his throat and he wanted to shout. That cabin was their salvation! It was not more than eight or ten miles away, and he was positive that he could find it.

He ran swiftly through the increasing circle of light made by the burning logs. If the Eskimos had not gone far some one of them would surely see the red glow of the fire, and discovery now meant death. In the edge of the trees, where the shadows were deep, he paused and looked back. His hand fumbled where the left-pocket of his coat would have been, and as he listened to the crackling of the flames and stared into the heart of the red glow there smote him with sudden and sickening force a realization of their deadliest peril. In that twisting inferno of burning pitch was his coat, and in the left-hand pocket of that coat WERE HIS MATCHES!

Fire! Out there in the open a seething, twisting mass of it, taunting him with its power, mocking him as pitiless as the mirage mocks a thirst-crazed creature of the desert. In an hour or two it would be gone. He might keep up its embers for a time--until the Eskimos, or starvation, or still greater storm put an end to it. The effort, in any event, would be futile in the end. Their one chance lay in finding the other cabin, and reaching it quickly. When it came to the point of absolute necessity he could at least try to make fire as he had seen an Indian make it once, though at the time he had regarded the achievement as a miracle born of unnumbered generations of practice.

He heard the glad note of welcome in Celie's throat when he returned to her. She spoke his name. It seemed to him that there was no note of fear in her voice, but just gladness that he had come back to her in that pit of darkness. He bent down and tucked her snugly in the big bear-skin before he took her up in his arms again. He held her so that her face was snuggled close against his neck, and he kissed her soft mouth again, and whispered to her as he began picking his way through the forest. His voice, whispering, made her understand that they must make no sound. She was tightly imprisoned in the skin, but all at once he felt one of her hands work its way out of the warmth of it and lay against his cheek. It did not move away from his face. Out of her soul and body there passed through that contact of her hand the confession that made him equal to fighting the world. For many minutes after that neither of them spoke. The moan of the wind was growing less and less in the treetops, and once Philip saw a pale break where the clouds had split asunder in the sky. The storm was at an end-- and it was almost dawn. In a quarter of an hour the shot like snow of the blizzard had changed to big soft flakes that dropped straight out of the clouds in a white deluge. By the time day came their trail would be completely hidden from the eyes of the Eskimos. Because of that Philip traveled as swiftly as the darkness and the roughness of the forest would allow him. As nearly as he could judge he kept due east. For a considerable time he did not feel the weight of the precious burden in his arms. He believed that they were at least half a mile from the burned cabin before he paused to rest. Even then he spoke to Celie in a low voice. He had stopped where the trunk of a fallen tree lay as high as his waist, and on this he seated the girl, holding her there in the crook of his arm. With his other hand he fumbled to see if the bearskin protected her fully, and in the investigation his hand came in contact again with one of her bare feet. Celie gave a little jump. Then she laughed, and he made sure that the foot was snug and warm before he went on.

Twice in the nest half mile he stopped. The third time, a full mile from the cabin, was in a dense growth of spruce through the tops of which snow and wind did not penetrate. Here he made a nest of spruce-boughs for Celie, and they waited for the day. In the black interval that precedes Arctic dawn they listened for sounds that might come to them. Just once came the wailing howl of one of Bram's wolves, and twice Philip fancied that he heard the distant cry of a human voice. The second time Celie's fingers tightened about his own to tell him that she, too, had heard.

A little later, leaving Celie alone, Philip went back to the edge of the spruce thicket and examined closely their trail where it had crossed a bit of open. It was not half an hour old, yet the deluge of snow had almost obliterated the signs of their passing. His one hope was that the snowfall would continue for another hour. By that time there would not be a visible track of man or beast, except in the heart of the thickets. But he knew that he was not dealing with white men or Indians now. The Eskimos were night-trackers and night-hunters. For five months out of every twelve their existence depended upon their ability to stalk and kill in darkness. If they had returned to the burning cabin it was possible, even probable, that they were close on their heels now.

For a second time he found himself a stout club. He waited, listening, and straining his eyes to penetrate the thick gloom; and then, as his own heart-beats came to him audibly, he felt creeping over him a slow and irresistible foreboding--a premonition of something impending, of a great danger close at hand. His muscles grew tense, and he clutched the club, ready for action.

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