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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Golden Snare - Chapter 5
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The Golden Snare - Chapter 5 Post by :JuvioSuccess Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3073

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The Golden Snare - Chapter 5


The night was so bright that the spruce trees cast vivid shadows on the snow. Overhead there were a billion stars in a sky as dear as an open sea, and the Great Dipper shone like a constellation of tiny suns. The world did not need a moon. At a distance of three hundred yards Philip could have seen a caribou if it had passed. He sat close to his fire, with the heat of it reflected from the blackened face of a huge rock, finishing the snare which had taken him an hour to weave. For a long time he had been conscious of the curious, hissing monotone of the Aurora, the "music of the skies," reaching out through the space of the earth with a purring sound that was at times like the purr of a cat and at others like the faint hum of a bee. Absorbed in his work he did not, for a time, hear the other sound. Not until he had finished, and was placing the golden snare in his wallet, did the one sound individualize and separate itself from the other.

He straightened himself suddenly, and listened. Then he jumped to his feet and ran through fifty feet of low scrub to the edge of the white plain.

It was coming from off there, a great distance away. Perhaps a mile. It might be two. The howling of wolves!

It was not a new or unusual sound to him. He had listened to it many times during the last two years. But never had it thrilled him as it did now, and he felt the blood leap in sudden swiftness through his body as the sound bore straight in his direction. In a flash he remembered all that Pierre Breault had said. Bram and his pack hunted like that. And it was Bram who was coming. He knew it.

He ran back to his tent and in what remained of the heat of the fire he warmed for a few moments the breech of his rifle. Then he smothered the fire by kicking snow over it. Returning to the edge of the plain, he posted himself near the largest spruce he could find, up which it would be possible for him to climb a dozen feet or so if necessity drove him to it. And this necessity bore down upon him like the wind. The pack, whether guided by man or beast, was driving straight at him, and it was less than a quarter of a mile away when Philip drew himself up in the spruce. His breath came quick, and his heart was thumping like a drum, for as he climbed up the slender refuge that was scarcely larger in diameter than his arm he remembered the time when he had hung up a thousand pounds of moose meat on cedars as thick as his leg, and the wolves had come the next night and gnawed them through as if they had been paper. From his unsteady perch ten feet off the ground he stared out into the starlit Barren.

Then came the other sound. It was the swift chug, chug, chug of galloping feet--of hoofs breaking through the crust of the snow. A shape loomed up, and Philip knew it was a caribou running for its life. He drew an easier breath as he saw that the animal was fleeing parallel with the projecting finger of scrub in which he had made his camp, and that it would strike the timber a good mile below him. And now, with a still deeper thrill, he noted the silence of the pursuing wolves. It meant but one thing. They were so close on the heels of their prey that they no longer made a sound. Scarcely had the caribou disappeared when Philip saw the first of them--gray, swiftly moving shapes, spread out fan-like as they closed in on two sides for attack, so close that he could hear the patter of their feet and the blood-curdling whines that came from between their gaping jaws. There were at least twenty of them, perhaps thirty, and they were gone with the swiftness of shadows driven by a gale.

From his uncomfortable position Philip lowered himself to the snow again. With its three or four hundred yard lead he figured that the caribou would almost reach the timber a mile away before the end came. Concealed in the shadow of the spruce, he waited. He made no effort to analyze the confidence with which he watched for Bram. When he at last heard the curious ZIP--ZIP--ZIP of snowshoes approaching his blood ran no faster than it had in the preceding minutes of his expectation, so sure had he been that the man he was after would soon loom up out of the starlight. In the brief interval after the passing of the wolves he had made up his mind what he would do. Fate had played a trump card into his hand. From the first he had figured that strategy would have much to do in the taking of Bram, who would be practically unassailable when surrounded by the savage horde which, at a word from him, had proved themselves ready to tear his enemies into pieces. Now, with the wolves gorging themselves, his plan was to cut Bram off and make him, a prisoner.

From his knees he rose slowly to his feet, still hidden in the shadow of the spruce. His rifle he discarded. In his un-mittened hand he held his revolver. With staring eyes he looked for Bram out where the wolves had passed. And then, all at once, came the shock. It was tremendous. The trickery of sound on the Barren had played an unexpected prank with his senses, and while he strained his eyes to pierce the hazy starlight of the plain far out, Bram himself loomed up suddenly along the edge of the bush not twenty paces away.

Philip choked back the cry on his lips, and in that moment Bram stopped short, standing full in the starlight, his great lungs taking in and expelling air with a gasping sound as he listened for his wolves. He was a giant of a man. A monster, Philip thought. It is probable that the elusive glow of the night added to his size as he stood there. About his shoulders fell a mass of unkempt hair that looked like seaweed. His beard was short and thick, and for a flash Philip saw the starlight in his eyes--eyes that were shining like the eyes of a cat. In that same moment he saw the face. It was a terrible, questing face--the face of a creature that was hunting, and yet hunted; of a creature half animal and half man. So long as he lived he knew that he would never forget it; the wild savagery of it, the questing fire that was in the eyes, the loneliness of it there in the night, set apart from all mankind; and with the face he would never forget that other thing that came to him audibly--the throbbing, gasping heartbeat of the man's body.

In this moment Philip knew that the time to act was at hand. His fingers gripped tighter about the butt of his revolver as he stepped forward out of the shadow.

Bram would have seen him then, but in that same instant he had flung back his head and from his throat there went forth a cry such as Philip had never heard from man or beast before. It began deep in Bram's cavernous chest, like the rolling of a great drum, and ended in a wailing shriek that must have carried for miles over the open plain--the call of the master to his pack, of the man-beast to his brothers. It may be that even before the cry was finished some super-instinct had warned Bram Johnson of a danger which he had not seen. The cry was cut short. It ended in a hissing gasp, as steam is cut off by a valve. Before Philip's startled senses had adjusted themselves to action Bram was off, and as his huge strides carried him swiftly through the starlight the cry that had been on his lips was replaced by the strange, mad laugh that Pierre Breault had described with a shiver of fear.

Without moving, Philip called after him:

"Bram--Bram Johnson--stop! In the name of the King--"

It was the old formula, the words that carried with them the majesty and power of Law throughout the northland. Bram heard them. But he did not stop. He sped on more swiftly, and again Philip called his name.

"Bram--Bram Johnson--"

The laugh came back again. It was weird and chuckling, as though Bram was laughing at him.

In the starlight Philip flung up his revolver. He did not aim to hit. Twice he fired over Bram's head and shoulders, so close that the fugitive must have heard the whine of the bullets.

"Bram--Bram Johnson!" he shouted a third time.

His pistol arm relaxed and dropped to his side, and he stood staring after the great figure that was now no more than a shadow in the gloom. And then it was swallowed up entirely. Once more he was alone under the stars, encompassed by a world of nothingness. He felt, all at once, that he had been a very great fool. He had played his part like a child; even his voice had trembled as he called out Bram's name. And Bram--even Bram--had laughed at him.

Very soon he would pay the price of his stupidity--of his slowness to act. It was thought of that which quickened his pulse as he stared out into the white space into which Bram had gone. Before the night was over Bram would return, and with him would come the wolves.

With a shudder Philip thought of Corporal Lee as he turned back through the scrub to the big rock where he had made his camp.

The picture that flashed into his mind of the fate of the two men from Churchill added to the painful realization of his own immediate peril--a danger brought upon himself by an almost inconceivable stupidity. Philip was no more than the average human with good red blood in his veins. A certain amount of personal hazard held a fascination for him, but he had also the very great human desire to hold a fairly decent hand in any game of chance he entered. It was the oppressive conviction that he had no chance now that stunned him. For a few minutes he stood over the spot where his fire had been, a film of steam rising into his face, trying to adjust his mind to some sort of logical action. He was not afraid of Bram. He would quite cheerfully have gone out and fought open-handedly for his man, even though he had seen that Bram was a giant. This, much he told himself, as he fingered the breech of his rifle, and listened.

But it was not Bram who would fight. The wolves would come. He probably would not see Bram again. He would hear only his laugh, or his great voice urging on his pack, as Corporal Lee and the other man had heard it.

That Bram would not return for vengeance never for a moment entered his analysis of the situation. By firing after his man Philip had too clearly disclosed his identity and his business; and Bram, fighting for his own existence, would be a fool not to rid himself of an immediate and dangerous enemy.

And then, for the first time since he had returned from the edge of the Barren, Philip saw the man again as he had seen him standing under the white glow of the stars. And it struck him, all at once, that Bram had been unarmed. Comprehension of this fact, slow as it had been, worked a swift and sudden hope in him, and his eyes took in quickly the larger trees about him. From a tree he could fight the pack and kill them one by one. He had a rifle and a revolver, and plenty of ammunition. The advantage would lay all with him. But if he was treed, and Bram happened to have a rifle--

He put on the heavy coat he had thrown off near the fire, filled his pockets with loose ammunition, and hunted for the tree he wanted. He found it a hundred yards from his camp. It was a gnarled and wind-blown spruce six inches in diameter, standing in an open. In this open Philip knew that he could play havoc with the pack. On the other hand, if Bram possessed a rifle, the gamble was against him. Perched in the tree, silhouetted against the stars that made the night like day, he would be an easy victim. Bram could pick him off without showing himself. But it was his one chance, and he took it.

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CHAPTER VIAn hour later Philip looked at his watch. It was close to midnight. In that hour his nerves had been keyed to a tension that was almost at the breaking point. Not a sound came from off the Barren or from out of the scrub timber that did not hold a mental and physical shock for him. He believed that Bram and his pack would come up quietly; that he would not hear the man's footsteps or the soft pads of his beasts until they were very near. Twice a great snow owl fluttered over his head. A third time

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CHAPTER IVThe next morning the tail of the storm was still sweeping bitterly over the edge of the Barren, but Philip set out, with Pierre Breault as his guide, for the place where the half-breed had seen Bram Johnson and his wolves in camp. Three days had passed since that exciting night, and when they arrived at the spot where Bram had slept the spruce shelter was half buried in a windrow of the hard, shot like snow that the blizzard had rolled in off the open spaces.From this point Pierre marked off accurately the direction Bram had taken the morning