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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Golden Snare - Chapter 6
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The Golden Snare - Chapter 6 Post by :mrtwist Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1467

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The Golden Snare - Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

An 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 it pounced down upon a white hare back in the shrub, and for an instant Philip thought the time had come. The little white foxes, curious as children, startled him most. Half a dozen times they sent through him the sharp thrill of anticipation, and twice they made him climb his tree.

After that hour the reaction came, and with the steadying of his nerves and the quieter pulse of his blood Philip began to ask himself if he was going to escape the ordeal which a short time before he had accepted as a certainty. Was it possible that his shots had frightened Bram? He could not believe that. Cowardice was the last thing he would associate with the strange man he had seen in the starlight. Vividly he saw Bram's face again. And now, after the almost unbearable strain he had been under, a mysterious SOMETHING that had been in that face impinged itself upon him above all other things. Wild and savage as the face had been, he had seen in it the unutterable pathos of a creature without hope. In that moment, even as caution held him listening for the approach of danger, he no longer felt the quickening thrill of man on the hunt for man. He could not have explained the change in himself--the swift reaction of thought and emotion that filled him with a mastering sympathy for Bram Johnson.

He waited, and less and less grew his fear of the wolves. Even more clearly he saw Bram as the time passed; the hunted look in the man's eyes, even as he hunted--the loneliness of him as he had stood listening for a sound from the only friends he had--the padded beasts ahead. In spite of Bram's shrieking cry to his pack, and the strangeness of the laugh that had floated back out of the white night after the shots, Philip was convinced that he was not mad. He had heard of men whom loneliness had killed. He had known one--Pelletier, up at Point Fullerton, on the Arctic. He could repeat by heart the diary Pelletier had left scribbled on his cabin door. It was worse than madness. To Pelletier death had come at last as a friend. And Bram had been like that--dead to human comradeship for years. And yet--

Under it all, in Philip's mind, ran the thought of the woman's hair. In Pierre Breault's cabin he had not given voice to the suspicion that had flashed upon him. He had kept it to himself, and Pierre, afraid to speak because of the horror of it, had remained as silent as he. The thought oppressed him now. He knew that human hair retained its life and its gloss indefinitely, and that Bram might have had the golden snare for years. It was quite reasonable to suppose that he had bartered for it with some white man in the years before he had become an outlaw, and that some curious fancy or superstition had inspired him in its possession. But Philip had ceased to be influenced by reason alone. Sharply opposed to reason was that consciousness within him which told him that the hair had been freshly cut from a woman's head. He had no argument with which to drive home the logic of this belief even with himself, and yet he found it impossible not to accept that belief fully and unequivocally. There was, or HAD been, a woman with Bram--and as he thought of the length and beauty and rare texture of the silken strand in his pocket he could not repress a shudder at the possibilities the situation involved. Bram--and a woman! And a woman with hair like that!

He left his tree after a time. For another hour he paced slowly back and forth at the edge of the Barren, his senses still keyed to the highest point of caution. Then he rebuilt his fire, pausing every few moments in the operation to listen for a suspicious sound. It was very cold. He noticed, after a little, that the weird sound of the lights over the Pole had become only a ghostly whisper. The stars were growing dimmer, and he watched them as they seemed slowly to recede farther and farther away from the world of which he was a part. This dying out of the stars always interested him. It was one of the miracles of the northern world that lay just under the long Arctic night which, a few hundred miles beyond the Barren, was now at its meridian. It seemed to him as though ten thousand invisible hands were sweeping under the heavens extinguishing the lights first in ones and twos and then in whole constellations. It preceded by perhaps half an hour the utter and chaotic blackness that comes before the northern dawn, and it was this darkness that Philip dreaded as he waited beside his fire.

In the impenetrable gloom of that hour Bram might come. It was possible that he had been waiting for that darkness. Philip looked at his watch. It was four o'clock. Once more he went to his tree, and waited. In another quarter of an hour he could not see the tree beside which he stood. And Bram did not come. With the beginning of the gray dawn Philip rebuilt his fire for the third time and prepared to cook his breakfast. He felt the need of coffee--strong coffee--and he boiled himself a double ration. At seven o'clock he was ready to take up the trail.

He believed now that some mysterious and potent force had restrained Bram Johnson from taking advantage of the splendid opportunity of that night to rid himself of an enemy. As he made his way through the scrub timber along the edge of the Barren it was with the feeling that he no longer desired Bram as a prisoner. A thing more interesting than Bram had entered into the adventure. It was the golden snare. Not with Bram himself, but only at the end of Bram's trail, would he find what the golden snare stood for. There he would discover the mystery and the tragedy of it, if it meant anything at all. He appreciated the extreme hazard of following Bram to his long hidden retreat. The man he might outwit in pursuit and overcome in fair fight, if it came to a fight, but against the pack he was fighting tremendous odds.

What this odds meant had not fully gripped him until he came cautiously out of the timber half an hour later and saw what was left of the caribou the pack had killed. The bull had fallen within fifty yards of the edge of the scrub. For a radius of twenty feet about it the snow was beaten hard by the footprints of beasts, and this arena was stained red with blood and scattered thickly with bits of flesh, broken bones and patches of hide. Philip could see where Bram had come in on the run, and where he had kicked off his snowshoes. After that his great moccasin tracks mingled with those of the wolves. Bram had evidently come in time to save the hind quarters, which had been dragged to a spot well out of the red ring of slaughter. After that the stars must have looked down upon an amazing scene. The hungry horde had left scarcely more than the disemboweled offal. Where Bram had dragged his meat there was a small circle worn by moccasin tracks, and here, too, were small bits of flesh, scattered about--the discarded remnants of Bram's own feast.

The snow told as clearly as a printed page what had happened after that. Its story amazed Philip. From somewhere Bram had produced a sledge, and on this sledge he had loaded what remained of the caribou meat. From the marks in the snow Philip saw that it had been of the low ootapanask type, but that it was longer and broader than any sledge he had ever seen. He did not have to guess at what had happened. Everything was too clear for that. Far back on the Barren Bram had loosed his pack at sight of the caribou, and the pursuit and kill had followed. After that, when beasts and man had gorged themselves, they had returned through the night for the sledge. Bram had made a wide detour so that he would not again pass near the finger of scrub timber that concealed his enemy, and with a curious quickening of the blood in his veins Philip observed how closely the pack hung at his heels. The man was master--absolutely. Later they had returned with the sledge, Bram had loaded his meat, and with his pack had struck out straight north over the Barren. Every wolf was in harness, and Bram rode on the sledge.

Philip drew a deep breath. He was learning new things about Bram Johnson. First he assured himself that Bram was not afraid, and that his disappearance could not be called a flight. If fear of capture had possessed him he would not have returned for his meat. Suddenly he recalled Pierre Breault's story of how Bram had carried off the haunches of a bull upon his shoulders as easily as a child might have carried a toy gun, and he wondered why Bram-- instead of returning for the meat this night--had not carried the meat to his sledge. It would have saved time and distance. He was beginning to give Bram credit for a deeply mysterious strategy. There was some definite reason why he had not made an attack with his wolves that night. There was a reason for the wide detour around the point of timber, and there was a still more inexplicable reason why he had come back with his sledge for the meat, instead of carrying his meat to the sledge. The caribou haunch had not weighed more than sixty or seventy pounds, which was scarcely half a burden for Bram's powerful shoulders.

In the edge of the timber, where he could secure wood for his fire, Philip began to prepare. He cooked food for six days. Three days he would follow Bram out into that unmapped and treeless space--the Great Barren. Beyond that it would be impossible to go without dogs or sledge. Three days out, and three days back--and even at that he would be playing a thrilling game with death. In the heart of the Barren a menace greater than Bram and his wolves would be impending. It was storm.

His heart sank a little as he set out straight north, marking the direction by the point of his compass. It was a gray and sunless day. Beyond him for a distance the Barren was a white plain, and this plain seemed always to be merging not very far ahead into the purple haze of the sky. At the end of an hour he was in the center of a vast amphitheater which was filled with the gloom and the stillness of death. Behind him the thin fringe of the forest had disappeared. The rim of the sky was like a leaden thing, widening only as he advanced. Under that sky, and imprisoned within its circular walls, he knew that men had gone mad; he felt already the crushing oppression of an appalling loneliness, and for another hour he fought an almost irresistible desire to turn back. Not a rock or a shrub rose to break the monotony, and over his head--so low that at times it seemed as though he might have flung a stone up to them--dark clouds rolled sullenly from out of the north and east.

Half a dozen times in those first two hours he looked at his compass. Not once in that time did Bram diverge from his steady course into the north. In the gray gloom, without a stone or a tree to mark his way, his sense of orientation was directing him as infallibly as the sensitive needle of the instrument which Philip carried.

It was in the third hour, seven or eight miles from the scene of slaughter, that Philip came upon the first stopping place of the sledge. The wolves had not broken their traveling rank, and for this reason he guessed that Bram had paused only long enough to put on his snowshoes. After this Philip could measure quite accurately the speed of the outlaw and his pack. Bram's snow-shoe strides were from twelve to sixteen inches longer than his own, and there was little doubt that Bram was traveling six miles to his four.

It was one o'clock when Philip stopped to eat his dinner. He figured that he was fifteen miles from the timber-line. As he ate there pressed upon him more and more persistently the feeling that he had entered upon an adventure which was leading toward inevitable disaster for him. For the first time the significance of Bram's supply of meat, secured by the outlaw at the last moment before starting out into the Barren, appeared to him with a clearness that filled him with uneasiness. It meant that Bram required three or four days' rations for himself and his pack in crossing this sea of desolation that reached in places to the Arctic. In that time, if necessity was driving him, he could cover a hundred and fifty miles, while Philip could make less than a hundred.

Until three o'clock in the afternoon he followed steadily over Bram's trail. He would have pursued for another hour if a huge and dome-shaped snowdrift had not risen in his path. In the big drift he decided to make his house for the night. It was an easy matter --a trick learned of the Eskimo. With his belt-ax he broke through the thick crust of the drift, using care that the "door" he thus opened into it was only large enough for the entrance of his body. Using a snowshoe as a shovel he then began digging out the soft interior of the drift, burrowing a two foot tunnel until he was well back from the door, where he made himself a chamber large enough for his sleeping-bag. The task employed him less than an hour, and when his bed was made, and he stood in front of the door to his igloo, his spirits began to return. The assurance that he had a home at his back in which neither cold nor storm could reach him inspirited him with an optimism which he had not felt at any time during the day.

From the timber he had borne a precious bundle of finely split kindlings of pitch-filled spruce, and with a handful of these he built himself a tiny fire over which, on a longer stick brought for the purpose, he suspended his tea pail, packed with snow. The crackling of the flames set him whistling. Darkness was falling swiftly about him. By the time his tea was ready and he had warmed his cold bannock and bacon the gloom was like a black curtain that he might have slit with a knife. Not a star was visible in the sky. Twenty feet on either side of him he could not see the surface of the snow. Now and then he added a bit of his kindling to the dying embers, and in the glow of the last stick he smoked his pipe, and as he smoked he drew from his wallet the golden snare. Coiled in the hollow of his hand and catching the red light of the pitch-laden fagot it shone with the rich luster of rare metal. Not until the pitch was burning itself out in a final sputter of flame did Philip replace it in the wallet.

With the going of the fire an utter and chaotic blackness shut him in. Feeling his way he crawled through the door of his tunnel, over the inside of which he had fastened as a flap his silk service tent. Then he stretched himself out in his sleeping-bag. It was surprisingly comfortable. Since he had left Breault's cabin he had not enjoyed such a bed. And last night he had not slept at all. He fell into deep sleep. The hours and the night passed over him. He did not hear the wailing of the wind that came with the dawn. When day followed dawn there were other sounds which he did not hear. His inner consciousness, the guardian of his sleep, cried for him to arouse himself. It pounded like a little hand in his brain, and at last he began to move restlessly, and twist in his sleeping-bag. His eyes shot open suddenly. The light of day filled his tunnel. He looked toward the "door" which he had covered with his tent.

The tent was gone.

In its place was framed a huge shaggy head, and Philip found himself staring straight into the eyes of Bram Johnson.

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