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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Golden Snare - Chapter 8
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The Golden Snare - Chapter 8 Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3543

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The Golden Snare - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

It must have been fully half a minute that Bram stood like a living creature turned suddenly into dead stone. His eyes had left Philip's face and were fixed on the woven tress of shining hair. For the first time his thick lips had fallen agape. He did not seem to breathe. At the end of the thirty seconds his hand unclenched from about the whip and the club and they fell into the snow. Slowly, his eyes still fixed on the snare as if it held for him an overpowering fascination, he advanced a step, and then another, until he reached out and took from Philip the thing which he held. He uttered no word. But from his eyes there disappeared the greenish fire. The lines in his heavy face softened and his thick lips lost some of their cruelty as he held up the snare before his eyes so that the light played on its sheen of gold. It was then that Philip saw that which must have meant a smile in Bram's face.

Still this strange man made no spoken sound as he coiled the silken thread around one of his great fingers and then placed it somewhere inside his coat. He seemed, all at once, utterly oblivious of Philip's presence. He picked up the revolver, gazed heavily at it for a moment, and with a grunt which must have reflected his mental decision hurled it far out over the plain. Instantly the wolves were after it in a mad rush. The knife followed the revolver; and after that, as coolly as though breaking firewood, the giant went to Philip's rifle, braced it across his knee, and with a single effort snapped the stock off close to the barrel.

"The devil!" growled Philip.

He felt a surge of anger rise in him, and for an instant the inclination to fling himself at Bram in the defense of his property. If he had been helpless a few minutes before, he was utterly so now. In the same breath it flashed upon him that Bram's activity in the destruction of his weapons meant that his life was spared, at least for the present. Otherwise Bram would not be taking these precautions.

The futility of speech kept his own lips closed. At last Bram looked at him, and pointed to his snowshoes where he had placed them last night against the snow dune. His invitation for Philip to prepare himself for travel was accompanied by nothing more than a grunt.

The wolves were returning, sneaking in watchfully and alert. Bram greeted them with the snap of his whip, and when Philip was ready motioned him to lead the way into the north. Half a dozen paces behind Philip followed Bram, and twice that distance behind the outlaw came the pack. Now that his senses were readjusting themselves and his pulse beating more evenly Philip began to take stock of the situation. It was, first of all, quite evident that Bram had not accepted him as a traveling companion, but as a prisoner; and he was equally convinced that the golden snare had at the last moment served in some mysterious way to save his life.

It was not long before he saw how Bram had out-generaled him. Two miles beyond the big drift they came upon the outlaw's huge sledge, from which Bram and his wolves had made a wide circle in order to stalk him from behind. The fact puzzled him. Evidently Bram had expected his unknown enemy to pursue him, and had employed his strategy accordingly. Why, then, had he not attacked him the night of the caribou kill?

He watched Bram as he got the pack into harness. The wolves obeyed him like dogs. He could perceive among them a strange comradeship, even an affection, for the man-monster who was their master. Bram spoke to them entirely in Eskimo--and the sound of it was like the rapid CLACK--CLACK--CLACK of dry bones striking together. It was weirdly different from the thick and guttural tones Bram used in speaking Chippewyan and the half-breed patois.

Again Philip made an effort to induce Bram to break his oppressive silence. With a suggestive gesture and a hunch of his shoulders he nodded toward the pack, just as they were about to start.

"If you thought I tried to kill you night before last why didn't you set your wolves after me, Bram--as you did those other two over on the Barren north of Kasba Lake? Why did you wait until this morning? And where--WHERE in God's name are we going?"

Bram stretched out an arm.

"There!"

It was the one question he answered, and he pointed straight as the needle of a compass into the north. And then, as if his crude sense of humor had been touched by the other thing Philip had asked, he burst into a laugh. It made one shudder to see laughter in a face like Bram's. It transformed his countenance from mere ugliness into one of the leering gargoyles carven under the cornices of ancient buildings. It was this laugh, heard almost at Bram's elbow, that made Philip suddenly grip hard at a new understanding--the laugh and the look in Bram's eyes. It set him throbbing, and filled him all at once with the desire to seize his companion by his great shoulders and shake speech from his thick lips. In that moment, even before the laughter had gone from Bram's face, he thought again of Pelletier. Pelletier must have been like this--in those terrible days when he scribbled the random thoughts of a half-mad man on his cabin door.

Bram was not yet mad. And yet he was fighting the thing that had killed Pelletier. Loneliness. The fate forced upon him by the law because he had killed a man.

His face was again heavy and unemotional when with a gesture he made Philip understand that he was to ride on the sledge. Bram himself went to the head of the pack. At the sharp clack of his Eskimo the wolves strained in their traces. Another moment and they were off, with Bram in the lead.

Philip was amazed at the pace set by the master of the pack. With head and shoulders hunched low he set off in huge swinging strides that kept the team on a steady trot behind him. They must have traveled eight miles an hour. For a few minutes Philip could not keep his eyes from Bram and the gray backs of the wolves. They fascinated him, and at the same time the sight of them--straining on ahead of him into a voiceless and empty world--filled him with a strange and overwhelming compassion. He saw in them the brotherhood of man and beast. It was splendid. It was epic. And to this the Law had driven them!

His eyes began to take in the sledge then. On it was a roll of bear skins--Bram's blankets. One was the skin of a polar bear. Near these skins were the haunches of caribou meat, and so close to him that he might have reached out and touched it was Bram's club. At the side of the club lay a rifle. It was of the old breech-loading, single-shot type, and Philip wondered why Bram had destroyed his own modern weapon instead of keeping it in place of this ancient Company relic. It also made him think of night before last, when he had chosen for his refuge a tree out in the starlight.

The club, even more than the rifle, bore marks of use. It was of birch, and three feet in length. Where Bram's hand gripped it the wood was worn as smooth and dark as mahogany. In many places the striking end of the club was dented as though it had suffered the impact of tremendous blows, and it was discolored by suggestive stains. There was no sign of cooking utensils and no evidence of any other food but the caribou flesh. On the rear of the sledge was a huge bundle of pitch-soaked spruce tied with babiche, and out of this stuck the crude handle of an ax.

Of these things the gun and the white bear skin impressed Philip most. He had only to lean forward a little to reach the rifle, and the thought that he could scarcely miss the broad back of the man ahead of him struck him all at once with a sort of mental shock. Bram had evidently forgotten the weapon, or was utterly confident in the protection of the pack. Or--had he faith in his prisoner? It was this last question that Philip would liked to have answered in the affirmative. He had no desire to harm Bram. He had even a less desire to escape him. He had forgotten, so far as his personal intentions were concerned, that he was an agent of the Law--under oath to bring in to Divisional Headquarters Bram's body dead or alive. Since night before last Bram had ceased to be a criminal for him. He was like Pelletier, and through him he was entering upon a strange adventure which held for him already the thrill and suspense of an anticipation which he had never experienced in the game of man-hunting.

Had the golden snare been taken from the equation--had he not felt the thrill of it in his fingers and looked upon the warm fires of it as it lay unbound on Pierre Breault's table, his present relation with Bram Johnson he would have considered as a purely physical condition, and he might then have accepted the presence of the rifle there within his reach as a direct invitation from Providence.

As it was, he knew that the master of the wolves was speeding swiftly to the source of the golden snare. From the moment he had seen the strange transformation it had worked in Bram that belief within him had become positive. And now, as his eyes turned from the inspection of the sledge to Bram and his wolves, he wondered where the trail was taking him. Was it possible that Bram was striking straight north for Coronation Gulf and the Eskimo? He had noted that the polar bear skin was only slightly worn--that it had not long been taken from the back of the animal that had worn it. He recalled what he could remember of his geography. Their course, if continued in the direction Bram was now heading, would take them east of the Great Slave and the Great Bear, and they would hit the Arctic somewhere between Melville Sound and the Coppermine River. It was a good five hundred miles to the Eskimo settlements there. Bram and his wolves could make it in ten days, possibly in eight.

If his guess was correct, and Coronation Gulf was Bram's goal, he had found at least one possible explanation for the tress of golden hair.

The girl or woman to whom it had belonged had come into the north aboard a whaling ship. Probably she was the daughter or the wife of the master. The ship had been lost in the ice--she had been saved by the Eskimo--and she was among them now, with other white men. Philip pictured it all vividly. It was unpleasant--horrible. The theory of other white men being with her he was conscious of forcing upon himself to offset the more reasonable supposition that, as in the case of the golden snare, she belonged to Bram. He tried to free himself of that thought, but it clung to him with a tenaciousness that oppressed him with a grim and ugly foreboding. What a monstrous fate for a woman! He shivered. For a few moments every instinct in his body fought to assure him that such a thing could not happen. And yet he knew that it COULD happen. A woman up there--with Bram! A woman with hair like spun gold--and that giant half-mad enormity of a man!

He clenched his hands at the picture his excited brain was painting for him. He wanted to jump from the sledge, overtake Bram, and demand the truth from him. He was calm enough to realize the absurdity of such action. Upon his own strategy depended now whatever answer he might make to the message chance had sent to him through the golden snare.

For an hour he marked Bram's course by his compass. It was straight north. Then Bram changed the manner of his progress by riding in a standing position behind Philip. With his long whip he urged on the pack until they were galloping over the frozen level of the plain at a speed that must have exceeded ten miles an hour. A dozen times Philip made efforts at conversation. Not a word did he get from Bram in reply. Again and again the outlaw shouted to his wolves in Eskimo; he cracked his whip, he flung his great arms over his head, and twice there rolled out of his chest deep peals of strange laughter. They had been traveling more than two hours when he gave voice to a sudden command that stopped the pack, and at a second command--a staccato of shrill Eskimo accompanied by the lash of his whip--the panting wolves sank upon their bellies in the snow.

Philip jumped from the sledge, and Bram went immediately to the gun. He did not touch it, but dropped on his knees and examined it closely. Then he rose to his feet and looked at Philip, and there was no sign of madness in his heavy face as he said,

"You no touch ze gun, m'sieu. Why you no shoot when I am there--at head of pack?"

The calmness and directness with which Bram put the question after his long and unaccountable silence surprised Philip.

"For the same reason you didn't kill me when I was asleep, I guess," he said. Suddenly he reached out and caught Bram's arm. "Why the devil don't you come across!" he demanded. "Why don't you talk? I'm not after you--now. The Police think you are dead, and I don't believe I'd tip them off even if I had a chance. Why not be human? Where are we going? And what in thunder--"

He did not finish. To his amazement Bram flung back his head, opened his great mouth, and laughed. It was not a taunting laugh. There was no humor in it. The thing seemed beyond the control of even Bram himself, and Philip stood like one paralyzed as his companion turned quickly to the sledge and returned in a moment with the gun. Under Philip's eyes he opened the breech. The chamber was empty. Bram had placed in his way a temptation--to test him!

There was saneness in that stratagem--and yet as Philip looked at the man now his last doubt was gone. Bram Johnson was hovering on the borderland of madness.

Replacing the gun on the sledge, Bram began hacking off chunks of the caribou flesh with a big knife. Evidently he had decided that it was time for himself and his pack to breakfast. To each of the wolves he gave a portion, after which he seated himself on the sledge and began devouring a slice of the raw meat. He had left the blade of his knife buried in the carcass--an invitation for Philip to help himself. Philip seated himself near Bram and opened his pack. Purposely he began placing his food between them, so that the other might help himself if he so desired. Bram's jaws ceased their crunching. For a moment Philip did not look up. When he did he was startled. Bram's eyes were blazing with a red fire. He was staring at the cooked food. Never had Philip seen such a look in a human face before.

He reached out and seized a chunk of bannock, and was about to bite into it when with the snarl of a wild beast Bram dropped his meat and was at him. Before Philip could raise an arm in defense his enemy had him by the throat. Back over the sledge they went. Philip scarcely knew how it happened--but in another moment the giant had hurled him clean over his head and he struck the frozen plain with a shock that stunned him. When he staggered to his feet, expecting a final assault that would end him, Bram was kneeling beside his pack. A mumbling and incoherent jargon of sound issued from his thick lips as he took stock of Philip's supplies. Of Philip himself he seemed now utterly oblivious. Still mumbling, he dragged the pile of bear skins from the sledge, unrolled them, and revealed a worn and tattered dunnage bag. At first Philip thought this bag was empty. Then Bram drew from it a few small packages, some of them done up in paper and others in bark. Only one of these did Philip recognize--a half pound package of tea such as the Hudson's Bay Company offers in barter at its stores. Into the dunnage bag Bram now put Philip's supplies, even to the last crumb of bannock, and then returned the articles he had taken out, after which he rolled the bag up in the bear skins and replaced the skins on the sledge.

After that, still mumbling, and still paying no attention to Philip, he reseated himself on the edge of the sledge and finished his breakfast of raw meat.

"The poor devil!" mumbled Philip.

The words were out of his mouth before he realized that he had spoken them. He was still a little dazed by the shock of Bram's assault, but it was impossible for him to bear malice or thought of vengeance. In Bram's face, as he had covetously piled up the different articles of food, he had seen the terrible glare of starvation--and yet he had not eaten a mouthful. He had stored the food away, and Philip knew it was as much as his life was worth to contend its ownership.

Again Bram seemed to be unconscious of his presence, but when Philip went to the meat and began carving himself off a slice the wolf-man's eyes shot in his direction just once. Purposely he stood in front of Bram as he ate the raw steak, feigning a greater relish than he actually enjoyed in consuming his uncooked meal. Bram did not wait for him to finish. No sooner had he swallowed the last of his own breakfast than he was on his feet giving sharp commands to the pack. Instantly the wolves were alert in their traces. Philip took his former position on the sledge, with Bram behind him.

Never in all the years afterward did he forget that day. As the hours passed it seemed to him that neither man nor beast could very long stand the strain endured by Bram and his wolves. At times Bram rode on the sledge for short distances, but for the most part he was running behind, or at the head of the pack. For the pack there was no rest. Hour after hour it surged steadily onward over the endless plain, and whenever the wolves sagged for a moment in their traces Brain's whip snapped over their gray backs and his voice rang out in fierce exhortation. So hard was the frozen crust of the Barren that snowshoes were no longer necessary, and half a dozen times Philip left the sledge and ran with the wolf-man and his pack until he was winded. Twice he ran shoulder to shoulder with Bram.

It was in the middle of the afternoon that his compass told him they were no longer traveling north--but almost due west. Every quarter of an hour after that he looked at his compass. And always the course was west.

He was convinced that some unusual excitement was urging Bram on, and he was equally certain this excitement had taken possession of him from the moment he had found the food in his pack. Again and again he heard the strange giant mumbling incoherently to himself, but not once did Bram utter a word that he could understand.

The gray world about them was darkening when at last they stopped.

And now, strangely as before, Bram seemed for a few moments to turn into a sane man.

He pointed to the bundle of fuel, and as casually as though he had been conversing with him all the day he said to Philip:

"A fire, m'sieu."

The wolves had dropped in their traces, their great shaggy heads stretched out between their paws in utter exhaustion, and Bram went slowly down the line speaking to each one in turn. After that he fell again into his stolid silence. From the bear skins he produced a kettle, filled it with snow, and hung it over the pile of fagots to which Philip was touching a match. Philip's tea pail he employed in the same way.

"How far have we come, Bram?" Philip asked.

"Fift' mile, m'sieu," answered Bram without hesitation.

"And how much farther have we to go?"

Bram grunted. His face became more stolid. In his hand he was holding the big knife with which he cut the caribou meat. He was staring at it. From the knife he looked at Philip.

"I keel ze man at God's Lake because he steal ze knife--an' call me lie. I keel heem--lak that!"--and he snatched up a stick and broke it into two pieces.

His weird laugh followed the words. He went to the meat and began carving off chunks for the pack, and for a long time after that one would have thought that he was dumb. Philip made greater effort than ever to rouse him into speech. He laughed, and whistled, and once tried the experiment of singing a snatch of the Caribou Song which he knew that Bram must have heard many times before. As he roasted his steak over the fire he talked about the Barren, and the great herd of caribou he had seen farther east; he asked Bram questions about the weather, the wolves, and the country farther north and west. More than once he was certain that Bram was listening intently, but nothing more than an occasional grunt was his response.

For an hour after they had finished their supper they continued to melt snow for drinking water for themselves and the wolves. Night shut them in, and in the glow of the fire Bram scooped a hollow in the snow for a bed, and tilted the big sledge over it as a roof. Philip made himself as comfortable as he could with his sleeping bag, using his tent as an additional protection. The fire went out. Bram's heavy breathing told Philip that the wolf-man was soon asleep. It was a long time before he felt a drowsiness creeping over himself.

Later he was awakened by a heavy grasp on his arm, and roused himself to hear Bram's voice close over him.

"Get up, m'sieu."

It was so dark he could not see Bram when he got on his feet, but he could hear him a moment later among the wolves, and knew that he was making ready to travel. When his sleeping-bag and tent were on the sledge he struck a match and looked at his watch. It was less than a quarter of an hour after midnight.

For two hours Bram led his pack straight into the west. The night cleared after that, and as the stars grew brighter and more numerous in the sky the plain was lighted up on all sides of them, as on the night when Philip had first seen Bram. By lighting an occasional match Philip continued to keep a record of direction and time. It was three o'clock, and they were still traveling west, when to his surprise they struck a small patch of timber. The clump of stunted and wind-snarled spruce covered no more than half an acre, but it was conclusive evidence they were again approaching a timber-line.

From the patch of spruce Bram struck due north, and for another hour their trail was over the white Barren. Soon after this they came to a fringe of scattered timber which grew steadily heavier and deeper as they entered into it. They must have penetrated eight or ten miles into the forest before the dawn came. And in that dawn, gray and gloomy, they came suddenly upon a cabin.

Philip's heart gave a jump. Here, at last, would the mystery of the golden snare be solved. This was his first thought. But as they drew nearer, and stopped at the threshold of the door, he felt sweep over him an utter disappointment. There was no life here. No smoke came from the chimney and the door was almost buried in a huge drift of snow. His thoughts were cut short by the crack of Bram's whip. The wolves swept onward and Bram's insane laugh sent a weird and shuddering echo through the forest.

From the time they left behind them the lifeless and snow- smothered cabin Philip lost account of time and direction. He believed that Bram was nearing the end of his trail. The wolves were dead tired. The wolf-man himself was lagging, and since midnight had ridden more frequently on the sledge. Still he drove on, and Philip searched with increasing eagerness the trail ahead of them.

It was eight o'clock--two hours after they had passed the cabin-- when they came to the edge of a clearing in the center of which was a second cabin. Here at a glance Philip saw there was life. A thin spiral of smoke was rising from the chimney. He could see only the roof of the log structure, for it was entirely shut in by a circular stockade of saplings six feet high.

Twenty paces from where Bram stopped his team was the gate of the stockade. Bram went to it, thrust his arm through a hole even with his shoulders, and a moment later the gate swung inward. For perhaps a space of twenty seconds he looked steadily at Philip, and for the first time Philip observed the remarkable change that had come into his face. It was no longer a face of almost brutish impassiveness. There was a strange glow in his eyes. His thick lips were parted as if on the point of speech, and he was breathing with a quickness which did not come of physical exertion. Philip did not move or speak. Behind him he heard the restless whine of the wolves. He kept his eyes on Bram, and as he saw the look of joy and anticipation deepening in the wolf-man's face the appalling thought of what it meant sickened him. He clenched his hands. Bram did not see the act. He was looking again toward the cabin and at the spiral of smoke rising out of the chimney.

Then he faced Philip, and said,

"M'sieu, you go to ze cabin."

He held the gate open, and Philip entered. He paused to make certain of Bram's intention. The wolf-man swept an arm about the enclosure.

"In ze pit I loose ze wolve, m'sieu."

Philip understood. The stockade enclosure was Bram's wolf-pit, and Bram meant that he should reach the cabin before he gave the pack the freedom of the corral. He tried to conceal the excitement in his face as he turned toward the cabin. From the gate to the door ran a path worn by many footprints, and his heart beat faster as he noted the smallness of the moccasin tracks. Even then his mind fought against the possibility of the thing. Probably it was an Indian woman who lived with Bram, or an Eskimo girl he had brought down from the north.

He made no sound as he approached the door. He did not knock, but opened it and entered, as Bram had invited him to do.

From the gate Bram watched the cabin door as it closed behind him, and then he threw back his head and such a laugh of triumph came from his lips that even the tired beasts behind him pricked up their ears and listened.

And Philip, in that same moment, had solved the mystery of the golden snare.

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