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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Golden Snare - Chapter 24
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The Golden Snare - Chapter 24 Post by :rlscott Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2709

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The Golden Snare - Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV

The shock of the discovery that Blake had escaped brought Philip half to his knees before he thought of Celie. In an instant the girl was awake. His arm had tightened almost fiercely about her. She caught the gleam of his revolver, and in another moment she saw the empty space where their prisoner had been. Swiftly Philip's eyes traveled over the moonlit spaces about them. Blake had utterly disappeared. Then he saw the rifle, and breathed easier. For some reason the outlaw had not taken that, and it was a moment or two before the significance of the fact broke upon him. Blake must have escaped just as he was making that last tremendous fight to rouse himself. He had had no more than time to slink away into the shadows of the night, and had not paused to hazard a chance of securing the weapon that lay on the snow close to Celie. He had evidently believed that Philip was only half asleep, and in the moonlight he must have seen the gleam of the big revolver leveled over his captor's knee.

Leaving Celie huddled in her furs, Philip rose to his feet and slowly approached the snow hummock against which he had left his prisoner. The girl heard the startled exclamation that fell from his lips when he saw what had happened. Blake had not escaped alone. Running straight out from behind the hummock was a furrow in the snow like the trail made by an otter. He had seen such furrows before, where Eskimos had wormed their way foot by foot within striking distance of dozing seals. Assistance had come to Blake in that manner, and he could see where--on their hands and knees--two men instead of one had stolen back through the moonlight.

Celie came to his side now, gripping the rifle in her hands. Her eyes were wide and filled with frightened inquiry as she looked from the tell-tale trails in the snow into Philip's face. He was glad that she could not question him in words. He slipped the Colt into its holster and took the rifle from her hands. In the emergency which he anticipated the rifle would be more effective. That something would happen very soon he was positive. If one Eskimo had succeeded in getting ahead of his comrades to Blake's relief others of Upi's tribe must be close behind. And yet he wondered, as he thought of this, why Blake and the Kogmollock had not killed him instead of running away. The truth he told frankly to Celie, thankful that she could not understand.

"It was the gun," he said. "They thought I had only closed my eyes, and wasn't asleep. If something hadn't kept that gun leveled over my knee--" He tried to smile, knowing that with every second the end might come for them from out of the gray mist of moonlight and shadow that shrouded the shore. "It was a one-man job, sneaking out like that, and there's sure a bunch of them coming up fast to take a hand in the game. It's up to us to hit the high spots, my dear--an' you might pray God to give us time for a start."

If he had hoped to keep from her the full horror of their situation, he knew, as he placed her on the sledge, that he had failed. Her eyes told him that. Intuitively she had guessed at the heart of the thing, and suddenly her arms reached up about his neck as he bent over her and against his breast he heard the sobbing cry that she was trying hard to choke back. Under the cloud of her hair her warm, parted lips lay for a thrilling moment against his own, and then he sprang to the dogs.

They had already roused themselves and at his command began sullenly to drag their lame and exhausted bodies into trace formation. As the sledge began to move he sent the long lash of the driving whip curling viciously over the backs of the pack and the pace increased. Straight ahead of them ran the white trail of the Coppermine, and they were soon following this with the eagerness of a team on the homeward stretch. As Philip ran behind he made a fumbling inventory of the loose rifle cartridges in the pocket of his coat, and under his breath prayed to God that the day would come before the Eskimos closed in. Only one thing did he see ahead of him now--a last tremendous fight for Celie, and he wanted the light of dawn to give him accuracy. He had thirty cartridges, and it was possible that he could put up a successful running fight until they reached Armin's cabin. After that fate would decide. He was already hatching a scheme in his brain. If he failed to get Blake early in the fight which he anticipated he would show the white flag, demand a parley with the outlaw under pretense of surrendering Celie, and shoot him dead the moment they stood face to face. With Blake out of the way there might be another way of dealing with Upi and his Kogmollocks. It was Blake who wanted Celie. In Upi's eyes there were other things more precious than a woman. The thought revived in him a new thrill of hope. It recalled to him the incident of Father Breault and the white woman nurse who, farther west, had been held for ransom by the Nanamalutes three years ago. Not a hair of the woman's head had been harmed in nine months of captivity. Olaf Anderson had told him the whole story. There had been no white man there--only the Eskimos, and with the Eskimos he believed that he could deal now if he succeeded in killing Blake. Back at the cabin he could easily have settled the matter, and he felt like cursing himself for his shortsightedness.

In spite of the fact that he had missed his main chance he began now to see more than hope in a situation that five minutes before had been one of appalling gloom. If he could keep ahead of his enemies until daybreak he had a ninety percent chance of getting Blake. At some spot where he could keep the Kogmollocks at bay and scatter death among them if they attacked he would barricade himself and Celie behind the sledge and call out his acceptance of Blake's proposition to give up Celie as the price of his own safety. He would demand an interview with Blake, and it was then that his opportunity would come.

But ahead of him were the leaden hours of the gray night! Out of that ghostly mist of pale moonlight through which the dogs were traveling like sinuous shadows Upi and his tribe could close in on him silently and swiftly, unseen until they were within striking distance. In that event all would be lost. He urged the dogs on, calling them by the names which he had heard Blake use, and occasionally he sent the long lash of his whip curling over their backs. The surface of the Coppermine was smooth and hard. Now and then they came to stretches of glare ice and at these intervals Philip rode behind Celie, staring back into the white mystery of the night out of which they had come. It was so still that the click, dick, click of the dogs' claws sounded like the swift beat of tiny castanets on the ice. He could hear the panting breath of the beasts. The whalebone runners of the sledge creaked with the shrill protest of steel traveling over frozen snow. Beyond these sounds there were no others, with, the exception of his own breath and the beating of his own heart. Mile after mile of the Coppermine dropped behind them. The last tree and the last fringe of bushes disappeared, and to the east, the north, and the west there was no break in the vast emptiness of the great Arctic plain. Ever afterward the memory of that night seemed like a grotesque and horrible dream to him. Looking back, he could remember how the moon sank out of the sky and utter darkness closed them in and how through that darkness he urged on the tired dogs, tugging with them at the lead-trace, and stopping now and then in his own exhaustion to put his arms about Celie and repeat over and over again that everything was all right.

After an eternity the dawn came. What there was to be of day followed swiftly, like the Arctic night. The shadows faded away, the shores loomed up and the illimitable sweep of the plain lifted itself into vision as if from out of a great sea of receding fog. In the quarter hour's phenomenon between the last of darkness and wide day Philip stood straining his eyes southward over the white path of the Coppermine. It was Celie, huddled close at his side, who turned her eyes first from the trail their enemies would follow. She faced the north, and the cry that came from her lips brought Philip about like a shot. His first sensation was one of amazement that they had not yet passed beyond the last line of timber. Not more than a third of a mile distant the river ran into a dark strip of forest that reached in from the western plain like a great finger. Then he saw what Celie had seen. Close up against the timber a spiral of smoke was rising into the air. He made out in another moment the form of a cabin, and the look in Celie's staring face told him the rest. She was sobbing breathless words which he could not understand, but he knew that they had won their race, and that it was Armin's place. And Armin was not dead. He was alive, as Blake had said--and it was about breakfast time. He had held up under the tremendous strain of the night until now-- and now he was filled with an uncontrollable desire to laugh. The curious thing about it was that in spite of this desire no sound came from his throat. He continued to stare until Celie turned to him and swayed into his arms. In the moment of their triumph her strength was utterly gone. And then the thing happened which brought the life back into him again with a shock. From far up the black finger of timber where it bellied over the horizon of the plain there floated down to them a chorus of sound. It was a human sound--the yapping, wolfish cry of an Eskimo horde closing in on man or beast. They had heard that same cry close on the heels of the fight in the clearing. Now it was made by many voices instead of two or three. It was accompanied almost instantly by the clear, sharp report of a rifle, and a moment later the single shot was followed by a scattering fusillade. After that there was silence.

Quickly Philip bundled Celie on the sledge and drove the dogs ahead, his eyes on a wide opening in the timber three or four hundred yards above the river. Five minutes later the sledge drew up in front of the cabin. In that time they heard no further outcry or sound of gunfire, and from the cabin itself there came no sign of life, unless the smoke meant life. Scarcely had the sledge stopped before Celie was on her feet and running to the door. It was locked, and she beat against it excitedly with her little fists, calling a strange name. Standing close behind her, Philip heard a shuffling movement beyond the log walls, the scraping of a bar, and a man's voice so deep that it had in it the booming note of a drum. To it Celie replied with almost a shriek. The door swung inward, and Philip saw a man's arms open and Celie run into them. He was an old man. His hair and beard were white. This much Philip observed before he turned with a sudden, thrill toward the open in the forest. Only he had heard the cry that had come from that direction, and now, looking back, he saw a figure running swiftly over the plain toward the cabin. Instantly he knew that it was a white man. With his revolver in his hand he advanced to meet him and in a brief space they stood face to face.

The stranger was a giant of a man. His long, reddish hair fell to his shoulders. He was bare-headed, and panting as if hard run, and his face was streaming with blood. His eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets as he stared at Philip. And Philip, almost dropping his revolver in his amazement, gasped incredulously:

"My God, is it you--Olaf Anderson!"

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