"How—both?" asked Aldous.
"Two parties," explained MacDonald, puffing hard at his pipe. "If there's an outfit behind us they were hid in the timber on the other side of the snow-ridge, and they're pretty close this minute. Culver Rann—or FitzHugh, as you call him—is hustling straight on with DeBar. Mebby Quade is with him, an' mebby he ain't. Anyway, there's a big chance of a bunch behind us with special instructions from Quade to cut our throats and keep Joanne."
That day Aldous had been turning a question over in his own mind. He asked it now.
"Mac, are you sure you can go to the valley of gold without DeBar?"
For a long half minute MacDonald looked at him, and then his voice rumbled in a low, exultant laugh in his beard.
"Johnny," he said, with a strange quiver in his voice, "I can go to it now straighter an' quicker than DeBar! I know why I never found it. DeBar helped me that much. The trail is mapped right out in my brain now, Johnny. Five years ago I was within ten miles of the cavern—an' didn't know it!"
"And we can get there ahead of them?"
"We could—if it wasn't for Joanne. We're makin' twenty miles a day. We could make thirty."
"If we could beat them to it!" exclaimed Aldous, clenching his hands. "If we only could, Donald—the rest would be easy!"
MacDonald laid a heavy hand on his knee.
"You remember what you told me, Johnny, that you'd play the game fair, and give 'em a first chance? You ain't figgerin' on that now, be you?"
"No, I'm with you now, Donald. It's——"
"Shoot on sight!"
Aldous rose from his seat as he spoke.
"You turn in, Mac," he said. "You're about bushed after the work you've done to-day. I'll keep first watch. I'll conceal myself fifty or sixty yards from camp, and if we have visitors before midnight the fun will all be mine."
He knew that MacDonald was asleep within fifteen minutes after he had stationed himself at his post. In spite of the fact that he had had almost no sleep the preceding night, he was more than usually wakeful. He was filled with a curious feeling that events were impending. Yet the hours passed, the moon flooded the valley again, the horses grazed without alarm, and nothing happened. He had planned not to awaken old Donald at midnight, but MacDonald roused himself, and came to take his place a little before twelve. From that hour until four Aldous slept like the dead. He was tremendously refreshed when he arose, to find that the candle was alight in Joanne's tepee, and that MacDonald had built a fire. He waited for Joanne, and went with her to the tiny creek near the camp, where both bathed their faces in the snow-cold water from the mountain tops. Joanne had slept soundly for eight hours, and she was as fresh and as happy as a bird. Her lameness was almost gone, and she was eager for the day's journey.
As they filed again up the valley that morning, with the early sun transfiguring the great snow-topped ranges about them into a paradise of colour and warmth, Aldous found himself mentally wondering if it were really possible that a serious danger menaced them. He did not tell MacDonald what was in his mind. He did not confess that he was about ready to believe that the man on the snow-ridge had been a hunter or a prospector returning to his camp in the other valley, and that the attack in Tete Jaune was the one and only effort Quade would make to secure possession of Joanne. While a few hours before he had almost expected an immediate attack, he was now becoming more and more convinced that Quade, to a large extent, had dropped out of the situation. He might be with Mortimer FitzHugh, and probably was—a dangerous and formidable enemy to be accounted for when the final settlement came.
But as an immediate menace to Joanne, Aldous was beginning to fear him less as the hours passed. Joanne, and the day itself, were sufficient to disarm him of his former apprehension. In places they could see for miles ahead and behind them. And Joanne, each time that he looked at her, was a greater joy to him. Constantly she was pointing out the wonders of the mountains to him and MacDonald. Each new rise or fall in the valley held fresh and delightful surprises for her; in the craggy peaks she pointed out castlements, and towers, and battlemented strongholds of ancient princes and kings. Her mind was a wild and beautiful riot of imagination, of wonder, and of happiness, and in spite of the grimness of the mission they were on even MacDonald found himself rejoicing in her spirit, and he laughed and talked with them as they rode into the North.
They were entering now into a hunter's paradise. For the first time Joanne saw white, moving dots far up on a mountain-side, which MacDonald told her were goats. In the afternoon they saw mountain sheep feeding on a slide half a mile away, and for ten breathless minutes Joanne watched them through the telescope. Twice caribou sped over the opens ahead of them. But it was not until the sun was settling toward the west again that Joanne saw what she had been vainly searching the sides of the mountains to find. MacDonald had stopped suddenly in the trail, motioning them to advance. When they rode up to him he pointed to a green slope two hundred yards ahead.
"There's yo'r grizzly, Joanne," he said.
A huge, tawny beast was ambling slowly along the crest of the slope, and at sight of him Joanne gave a little cry of excitement.
"He's hunting for gophers," explained MacDonald.
"That's why he don't seem in a hurry. He don't see us because a b'ar's eyes are near-sighted, but he could smell us half a mile away if the wind was right."
He was unslinging his long rifle as he spoke. Joanne was near enough to catch his arm.
"Don't shoot—please don't shoot!" she begged. "I've seen lions, and I've seen tigers—and they're treacherous and I don't like them. But there's something about bears that I love, like dogs. And the lion isn't a king among beasts compared with him. Please don't shoot!"
"I ain't a-goin' to," chuckled old Donald. "I'm just getting ready to give 'im the proper sort of a handshake if he should happen to come this way, Joanne. You know a grizzly ain't pertic'lar afraid of anything on earth as I know of, an' they're worse 'n a dynamite explosion when they come head-on. There—he's goin' over the slope!"
"Got our wind," said Aldous.
They went on, a colour in Joanne's face like the vivid sunset. They camped two hours before dusk, and MacDonald figured they had made better than twenty miles that day. The same precautions were observed in guarding the camp as the night before, and the long hours of vigil were equally uneventful. The next day added still more to Aldous' peace of mind regarding possible attack from Quade, and on the night of this day, their fourth in the mountains, he spoke his mind to MacDonald.
For a few moments afterward the old hunter smoked quietly at his pipe. Then he said:
"I don't know but you're right, Johnny. If they were behind us they'd most likely have tried something before this. But it ain't in the law of the mount'ins to be careless. We've got to watch."
"I agree with you there, Mac," replied Aldous. "We cannot afford to lose our caution for a minute. But I'm feeling a deuced sight better over the situation just the same. If we can only get there ahead of them!"
"If Quade is in the bunch we've got a chance of beating them," said MacDonald thoughtfully. "He's heavy, Johnny—that sort of heaviness that don't stand up well in the mount'ins; whisky-flesh, I call it. Culver Rann don't weigh much more'n half as much, but he's like iron. Quade may be a drag. An' Joanne, Lord bless her!—she's facing the music like an' 'ero, Johnny!"
"And the journey is almost half over."
"This is the fourth day. I figger we can make it in ten at most, mebby nine," said old Donald. "You see we're in that part of the Rockies where there's real mount'ins, an' the ranges ain't broke up much. We've got fairly good travel to the end."
On this night Aldous slept from eight until twelve. The next, their fifth, his watch was from midnight until morning. As the sixth and the seventh days and nights passed uneventfully the belief that there were no enemies behind them became a certainty. Yet neither Aldous nor MacDonald relaxed their vigilance.
The eighth day dawned, and now a new excitement took possession of Donald MacDonald. Joanne and Aldous saw his efforts to suppress it, but it did not escape their eyes. They were nearing the tragic scenes of long ago, and old Donald was about to reap the reward of a search that had gone faithfully and untiringly through the winters and summers of forty years. He spoke seldom that day. There were strange lights in his eyes. And once his voice was husky and strained when he said to Aldous:
"I guess we'll make it to-morrow, Johnny—jus' about as the sun's going down."
They camped early, and Aldous rolled himself in his blanket when Joanne extinguished the candle in her tent. He found that he could not sleep, and he relieved MacDonald at eleven o'clock.
"Get all the rest you can, Mac," he urged. "There may be doings to-morrow—at about sundown."
There was but little moonlight now, but the stars were clear. He lighted his pipe, and with his rifle in the crook of his arm he walked slowly up and down over a hundred-yard stretch of the narrow plain in which they had camped. That night they had built their fire beside a fallen log, which was now a glowing mass without flame. Finally he sat down with his back to a rock fifty paces from Joanne's tepee. It was a splendid night. The air was cool and sweet. He leaned back until his head rested against the rock, and there fell upon him the fatal temptation to close his eyes and snatch a few minutes of the slumber which had not come to him during the early hours of the night. He was in a doze, oblivious to movement and the softer sounds of the night, when a cry pierced the struggling consciousness of his brain like the sting of a dart. In an instant he was on his feet.
In the red glow of the log stood Joanne in her long white night robe. She seemed to be swaying when he first saw her. Her hands were clutched at her bosom, and she was staring—staring out into the night beyond the burning log, and in her face was a look of terror. He sprang toward her, and out of the gloom beyond her rushed Donald MacDonald. With a cry she turned to Aldous and flung herself shivering and half-sobbing into his arms. Gray-faced, his eyes burning like the smouldering coals in the fire, Donald MacDonald stood a step behind them, his long rifle in his hands.
"What is it?" cried Aldous. "What has frightened you, Joanne?"
She was shuddering against his breast.
"It—it must have been a dream," she said. "It—it frightened me. But it was so terrible, and I'm—I'm sorry, John. I didn't know what I was doing."
"What was it, dear?" insisted Aldous.
MacDonald had drawn very close.
Joanne raised her head.
"Please let me go back to bed, John. It was only a dream, and I'll tell it to you in the morning, when there's sunshine—and day."
Something in MacDonald's tense, listening attitude caught Aldous' eyes.
"What was the dream?" he urged.
She looked from him to old Donald, and shivered.
"The flap of my tepee was open," she said slowly. "I thought I was awake. I thought I could see the glow of the fire. But it was a dream—a dream, only it was horrible! For as I looked I saw a face out there in the light, a white, searching face—and it was his face!"
"Mortimer FitzHugh's," she shuddered.
Tenderly Aldous led her back to the tent.
"Yes, it was surely an unpleasant dream, dear," he comforted her. "Try and sleep again. You must get all the rest you can."
He closed the flap after her, and turned back toward MacDonald. The old hunter had disappeared. It was ten minutes before he came in from out of the darkness. He went straight to Aldous.
"Johnny, you was asleep!"
"I'm afraid I was, Mac—just for a minute."
MacDonald's fingers gripped his arm.
"Jus' for a minute, Johnny—an' in that minute you lost the chance of your life!"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean"—and old Donald's voice was filled with a low, choking tremble that Aldous had never heard in it before—"I mean that it weren't no dream, Johnny! Mortimer FitzHugh was in this camp to-night!"
Donald MacDonald's startling assertion that Mortimer FitzHugh had been in the camp, and that Joanne's dream was not a dream, but reality, brought a gasp of astonishment and disbelief from Aldous. Before he had recovered sufficiently from his amazement to speak, MacDonald was answering the question in his mind.
"I woke quicker'n you, Johnny," he said. "She was just coming out of the tepee, an' I heard something running off through the brush. I thought mebby it was a wolverine, or a bear, an' I didn't move until she cried out your name an' you jumped up. If she had seen a bear in the fire-glow she wouldn't have thought it was Mortimer FitzHugh, would she? It's possible, but it ain't likely, though I do say it's mighty queer why he should be in this camp alone. It's up to us to watch pretty close until daylight."
"He wouldn't be here alone," asserted Aldous. "Let's get out of the light, Mac. If you're right, the whole gang isn't far away!"
"They ain't in rifle-shot," said MacDonald. "I heard him running a hundred yards out there. That's the queer thing about it! Why didn't they jump on us when they had the chance?"
"We'll hope that it was a dream," replied Aldous. "If Joanne was dreaming of FitzHugh, and while still half asleep saw something in camp, she might easily imagine the rest. But we'll keep watch. Shall I move out there?"
MacDonald nodded, and the two men separated. For two hours they patrolled the darkness, waiting and listening. With dawn Aldous returned to camp to arouse Joanne and begin breakfast. He was anxious to see what effect the incident of the night had on her. Her appearance reassured him. When he referred to the dream, and the manner in which she had come out into the night, a lovely confusion sent the blushes into her face. He kissed her until they grew deeper, and she hid her face on his neck.
And then she whispered something, with her face still against his shoulder, that drove the hot blood into his own cheeks.
"You are my husband, John, and I don't suppose I should be ashamed to let you see me in my bare feet. But, John—you have made me feel that way, and I am—your wife!"
He held her head close against him so that she could not see his face.
"I wanted to show you—that I loved you—'that much," he said, scarcely knowing what words he was speaking. "Joanne, my darling——"
A soft hand closed his lips.
"I know, John," she interrupted him softly. "And I love you so for it, and I'm so proud of you—oh, so proud, John!"
He was glad that MacDonald came crashing through the bush then. Joanne slipped from his arms and ran into the tepee.
In MacDonald's face was a grim and sullen look.
"You missed your chance, all right, Johnny," he growled. "I found where a horse was tied out there. The tracks lead to a big slide of rock that opens a break in the west range. Whoever it was has beat it back into the other valley. I can't understand, s'elp me God, I can't, Johnny! Why should FitzHugh come over into this valley alone? And he rode over! I'd say the devil couldn't do that!"
He said nothing more, but went out to lead in the hobbled horses, leaving Aldous in half-stunned wonderment to finish the preparation of breakfast. Joanne reappeared a little later, and helped him. It was six o'clock before breakfast was over and they were ready to begin their day's journey. As they were throwing the hitch over the last pack, MacDonald said in a low voice to Aldous:
"Everything may happen to-day, Johnny. I figger we'll reach the end by sundown. An' what don't happen there may happen along the trail. Keep a rifle-shot behind with Joanne. If there's unexpected shooting, we want what you might call a reserve force in the rear. I figger I can see danger, if there is any, an' I can do it best alone."
Aldous knew that in these last hours Donald MacDonald's judgment must be final, and he made no objection to an arrangement which seemed to place the old hunter under a more hazardous risk than his own. And he realized fully that these were the last hours. For the first time he had seen MacDonald fill his pockets with the finger-long cartridges for his rifle, and he had noted how carefully he had looked at the breech of that rifle. Without questioning, he had followed the mountaineer's example. There were fifty spare cartridges in his own pockets. His .303 was freshly cleaned and oiled. He had tested the mechanism of his automatic. MacDonald had watched him, and both understood what such preparations meant as they set out on this last day's journey into the North. They had not kept from Joanne the fact that they would reach the end before night, and as they rode the prescribed distance behind the old hunter Aldous wondered how much she guessed, and what she knew. They had given her to understand that they were beating out the rival party, but he believed that in spite of all their efforts there was in Joanne's mind a comprehension which she did not reveal in voice or look. To-day she was no different than yesterday, or the day before, except that her cheeks were not so deeply flushed, and there was an uneasy questing in her eyes. He believed that she sensed the nearness of tragedy, that she was conscious of what they were now trying to hide from her, and that she did not speak because she knew that he and MacDonald did not want her to know. His heart throbbed with pride. Her courage inspired him. And he noticed that she rode closer to him—always at his side through that day.
Early in the afternoon MacDonald stopped on the crest of a swell in the valley and waited for them. When they came up he was facing the north. He did not look at them. For a few moments he did not speak. His hat was pulled low, and his beard was twitching.
They looked ahead. At their feet the valley broadened until it was a mile in width. Half a mile away a band of caribou were running for the cover of a parklike clump of timber. MacDonald did not seem to notice them. He was still looking steadily, and he was gazing at a mountain. It was a tremendous mountain, a terrible-looking, ugly mountain, perhaps three miles away. Aldous had never seen another like it. Its two huge shoulders were of almost ebon blackness, and glistened in the sunlight as if smeared with oil. Between those two shoulders rose a cathedral-like spire of rock and snow that seemed to tip the white fleece of the clouds.
MacDonald did not turn when he spoke. His voice was deep and vibrant with an intense emotion. Yet he was not excited.
"I've been hunting for that mount'in for forty years, Johnny!"
Aldous leaned over and laid a hand on the old mountaineer's shoulder. Still MacDonald did not look at him.
"Forty years," he repeated, as if speaking to himself. "I see how I missed it now, just as DeBar said. I hunted from the west, an' on that side the mount'in ain't black. We must have crossed this valley an' come in from the east forty years ago, Johnny——"
He turned now, and what Joanne and Aldous saw in his face was not grief; it was not the sorrow of one drawing near to his beloved dead, but a joy that had transfigured him. The fire and strength of the youth in which he had first looked upon this valley with Jane at his side burned again in the sunken eyes of Donald MacDonald. After forty years he had come into his own. Somewhere very near was the cavern with the soft white floor of sand, and for a moment Aldous fancied that he could hear the beating of MacDonald's heart, while from Joanne's tender bosom there rose a deep, sobbing breath of understanding.
And MacDonald, facing the mountain again, pointed with a long, gaunt arm, and said:
"We're almost there, Johnny. God ha' mercy on them if they've beat us out!"
They rode on into the Valley of Gold. Again MacDonald took the lead, and he rode straight into the face of the black mountain. Aldous no longer made an effort to keep Joanne in ignorance of what might be ahead of them. He put a sixth cartridge into the chamber of his rifle, and carried the weapon across the pommel of his saddle. He explained to her now why they were riding behind—that if their enemies were laying in wait for them, MacDonald, alone, could make a swift retreat. Joanne asked no questions. Her lips were set tight. She was pale.
At the end of three quarters of an hour it seemed to them that MacDonald was riding directly into the face of a wall of rock. Then he swung sharply to the left, and disappeared. When they came to the point where he had turned they found that he had entered a concealed break in the mountain—a chasm with walls that rose almost perpendicular for a thousand feet above their heads. A dark and solemn gloom pervaded this chasm, and Aldous drew nearer to MacDonald, his rifle held in readiness, and his bridle-rein fastened to his saddle-horn. The chasm was short. Sunlight burst upon them suddenly, and a few minutes later MacDonald waited for them again.
Even Aldous could not restrain an exclamation of surprise when he rode up with Joanne. Under them was another valley, a wide-sweeping valley between two rugged ranges that ran to the southwest. Up out of it there came to their ears a steady, rumbling roar; the air was filled with that roar; the earth seemed to tremble with it under their feet—and yet it was not loud. It came sullenly, as if from a great distance.
And then they saw that MacDonald was not looking out over the sweep of the valley, but down. Half a mile under them there was a dip—a valley within a valley—and through it ran the silver sheen of a stream. MacDonald spoke no word now. He dismounted and levelled his long telescope at the little valley. Aldous helped Joanne from her horse, and they waited. A great breath came at last from the old hunter. Slowly he turned. He did not give the telescope to Aldous, but to Joanne. She looked. For a full minute she seemed scarcely to breathe. Her hands trembled when she turned to give the glass to Aldous.
"I see—log cabins!" she whispered.
MacDonald placed a detaining hand on her arm.
"Look ag'in—Joanne," he said in a low voice that had in it a curious quiver.
Again she raised the telescope to her eyes.
"You see the little cabin—nearest the river?" whispered Donald.
"Yes, I see it."
"That was our cabin—Jane's an' mine—forty years ago," he said, and now his voice was husky.
Joanne's breath broke sobbingly as she gave Aldous the glass. Something seemed to choke him as he looked down upon the scene of the grim tragedy in which Donald MacDonald and Jane had played their fatal part. He saw the cabins as they had stood for nearly half a century. There were four. Three of them were small, and the fourth was large. They might have been built yesterday, for all that he could see of ruin or decay. The doors and windows of the larger cabin and two of the smaller ones were closed. The roofs were unbroken. The walls appeared solid. Twice he looked at the fourth cabin, with its wide-open door and window, and twice he looked at the cabin nearest the stream, where had lived Donald MacDonald and Jane.
Donald had moved, and Joanne was watching him tensely, when he took the glass from his eyes. Mutely the old mountaineer held out a hand, and Aldous gave him the telescope. Crouching behind a rock he slowly swept the valley. For half an hour he looked through the glass, and in that time scarce a word was spoken. During the last five minutes of that half-hour both Joanne and Aldous knew that MacDonald was looking at the little cabin nearest the stream, and with hands clasped tightly they waited in silence.
At last old Donald rose, and his face and voice were filled with a wonderful calm.
"There ain't been no change," he said softly. "I can see the log in front o' the door that I used to cut kindling on. It was too tough for them to split an' burn after we left. An' I can see the tub I made out o' spruce for Jane. It's leaning next the door, where I put it the day before we went away. Forty years ain't very long, Johnny! It ain't very long!"
Joanne had turned from them, and Aldous knew that she was crying.
"An' we've beat 'em to it, Johnny—we've beat 'em to it!" exulted MacDonald. "There ain't a sign of life in the valley, and we sure could make it out from here if there was!"
He climbed into his saddle, and started down the slope of the mountain. Aldous went to Joanne. She was sobbing. Her eyes were blinded by tears.
"It's terrible, terrible," she whispered brokenly. "And it—it's beautiful, John. I feel as though I'd like to give my life—to bring Jane back!"
"You must not betray tears or grief to Donald," said Aldous, drawing her close in his arms for a moment. "Joanne—sweetheart—it is a wonderful thing that is happening with him! I dreaded this day—I have dreaded it for a long time. I thought that it would be terrible to witness the grief of a man with a heart like Donald's. But he is not filled with grief, Joanne. It is joy, a great happiness that perhaps neither you nor I can understand—that has come to him now. Don't you understand? He has found her. He has found their old home. To-day is the culmination of forty years of hope, and faith, and prayer. And it does not bring him sorrow, but gladness. We must rejoice with him. We must be happy with him. I love you, Joanne. I love you above all else on earth or in heaven. Without you I would not want to live. And yet, Joanne, I believe that I am no happier to-day than is Donald MacDonald!"
With a sudden cry Joanne flung her arms about his neck.
"John, is it that?" she cried, and joy shone through her tears. "Yes, yes, I understand now! His heart is not breaking. It is life returning into a heart that was empty. I understand—oh, I understand now! And we must be happy with him. We must be happy when we find the cavern—and Jane!"
"And when we go down there to the little cabin that was their home."
They followed behind MacDonald. After a little a spur of the mountain-side shut out the little valley from them, and when they rounded this they found themselves very near to the cabins. They rode down a beautiful slope into the basin, and when he reached the log buildings old Donald stopped and dismounted. Again Aldous helped Joanne from her horse. Ahead of them MacDonald went to the cabin nearest the stream. At the door he paused and waited for them.
"Forty years!" he said, facing them. "An' there ain't been so very much change as I can see!"
Years had dropped from his shoulders in these last few minutes, and even Aldous could not keep quite out of his face his amazement and wonder. Very gently Donald put his hand to the latch, as though fearing to awaken some one within; and very gently he pressed down on it, and put a bit of his strength against the door. It moved inward, and when it had opened sufficiently he leaned forward so that his head and a half of his shoulders were inside; and he looked—a long time he looked, without a movement of his body or a breath that they could see.
And then he turned to them again, and his eyes were shining as they had never seen them shine before.
"I'll open the window," he said. "It's dark—dark inside."
He went to the window, which was closed with a sapling barricade that had swung on hinges; and when he swung it back the rusted hinges gave way, and the thing crashed down at his feet. And now through the open window the sun poured in a warm radiance, and Donald entered the cabin, with Joanne and Aldous close behind him.
There was not much in the cabin, but what it held was earth, and heaven, and all else to Donald MacDonald. A strange, glad cry surged from his chest as he looked about him, and now Joanne saw and understood what John Aldous had told her—for Donald MacDonald, after forty years, had come back to his home!
"Oh, my Gawd, Johnny, they didn't touch anything! They didn't touch anything!" he breathed in ecstasy. "I thought after we ran away they'd come in——"
He broke off, and his hat dropped from his hand, and he stood and stared; and what he was looking at, the sun fell upon in a great golden splash, and Joanne's hand gripped John's, and held to it tightly. Against the wall, hanging as they had hung for forty years, were a woman's garments: a hood, a shawl, a dress, and an apron that was half in tatters; and on the floor under these things were a pair of shoes. And as Donald MacDonald went to them, his arms reaching out, his lips moving, forgetful of all things but that he had come home, and Jane was here, Joanne drew Aldous softly to the door, and they went out into the day.
Joanne did not speak, and Aldous did not urge her. He saw her white throat throbbing as if there were a little heart beating there, and her eyes were big and dark and velvety, like the eyes of a fawn that had been frightened. There was a thickness in his own throat, and he found that it was difficult for him to see far out over the plain. They waited near the horses. Fifty yards from them ran the stream; a clear, beautiful stream which flowed in the direction from which the mysterious ramble of thunder seemed to come. This, Aldous knew, was the stream of gold. In the sand he saw wreckage which he knew were the ancient rockers; a shovel, thrust shaft-deep, still remained where it had last been planted.
Perhaps for ten minutes Donald MacDonald remained in the cabin. Then he came out. Very carefully he closed the door. His shoulders were thrown back. His head was held high. He looked like a monarch.
And his voice was calm.
"Everything is there, Johnny—everything but the gold," he said. "They took that."
Now he spoke to Joanne.
"You better not go with us into the other cabins," he said.
"Why?" she asked softly.
"Because—there's death in them all."
"I am going," she said.
From the window of the largest cabin MacDonald pulled the sapling shutter, and, like the other, it fell at his feet. Then they opened the door, and entered; and here the sunlight revealed the cabin's ghastly tragedy. The first thing that they saw, because it was most terrible, was a rough table, half over which lay the shrunken thing that had once been a man. A part of its clothes still remained, but the head had broken from its column, and the white and fleshless skull lay facing them. Out of tattered and dust-crumbling sleeves reached the naked bones of hands and arms. And on the floor lay another of these things, in a crumpled and huddled heap, only the back of the skull showing, like the polished pate of a bald man. These things they saw first, and then two others: on the table were a heap of age-blackened and dusty sacks, and out of the back of the crumbling thing that guarded them stuck the long buckhorn hilt of a knife.
"They must ha' died fighting," said MacDonald. "An' there, Johnny, is their gold!"
White as death Joanne stood in the door and watched them. MacDonald and Aldous went to the sacks. They were of buckskin. The years had not aged them. When Aldous took one in his hands he found that it was heavier than lead. With his knife MacDonald cut a slit in one of them, and the sun that came through the window flashed in a little golden stream that ran from the bag.
"We'll take them out and put 'em in a pannier," said MacDonald. "The others won't be far behind us, Johnny."
Between them they carried out the seven sacks of gold. It was a load for their arms. They put it in one of the panniers, and then MacDonald nodded toward the cabin next the one that had been his own.
"I wouldn't go in there, Joanne," he said.
"I'm going," she whispered again.
"It was their cabin—the man an' his wife," persisted old Donald. "An' the men was beasts, Joanne! I don't know what happened in there—but I guess."
"I'm going," she said again.
MacDonald pulled down the barricade from the window—a window that also faced the south and west, and this time he had to thrust against the door with his shoulder. They entered, and now a cry came from Joanne's lips—a cry that had in it horror, disbelief, a woman's wrath. Against the wall was a pile of something, and on that pile was the searching first light of day that had fallen upon it for nearly half a century. The pile was a man crumpled down; across it, her skeleton arms thrown about it protectingly, was a woman. This time Aldous did not go forward. MacDonald was alone, and Aldous took Joanne from the cabin, and held her while she swayed in his arms. Donald came out a little later, and there was a curious look of exultation and triumph in his face.
"She killed herself," he said. "That was her husband. I know him. I gave him the rock-nails he put in the soles of his boots—and the nails are still there."
He went alone into the remaining two cabins, while Aldous stood with Joanne. He did not stay long. From the fourth cabin he brought an armful of the little brown sacks. He returned, and brought a second armful.
"There's three more in that last cabin," he explained. "Two men, an' a woman. She must ha' been the wife of the man they killed. They were the last to live, an' they starved to death. An' now, Johnny——"
He paused, and he drew in a great breath.
He was looking to the west, where the sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains.
"An' now, Johnny, if you're ready, an' if Joanne is ready, we'll go," he said.
As they went up out of the basin into the broad meadows of the larger valley, MacDonald rode between Aldous and Joanne, and the pack-horses, led by Pinto, trailed behind.
Again old Donald said, as he searched the valley:
"We've beat 'em, Johnny. Quade an' Rann are coming up on the other side of the range, and I figger they're just about a day behind—mebby only hours, or an hour. You can't tell. There's more gold back there. We got about a hunderd pounds in them fifteen sacks, an' there was twice that much. It's hid somewhere. Calkins used to keep his'n under the floor. So did Watts. We'll find it later. An' the river, an' the dry gulches on both sides of the valley—they're full of it! It's all gold, Johnny—gold everywhere!"
He pointed ahead to where the valley rose in a green slope between two mountains half a mile away.
"That's the break," he said. "It don't seem very far now, do it, Joanne?" His silence seemed to have dropped from him like a mantle, and there was joy in what he was telling. "But it was a distance that night—a tumble distance," he continued, before she could answer. "That was forty-one years ago, coming November. An' it was cold, an' the snow was deep. It was bitter cold—so cold it caught my Jane's lungs, an' that was what made her go a little later. The slope up there don't look steep now, but it was steep then—with two feet of snow to drag ourselves through. I don't think the cavern is more'n five or six miles away, Johnny, mebby less, an' it took us twenty hours to reach it. It snowed so heavy that night, an' the wind blowed so, that our trail was filled up or they might ha' followed."
Many times Aldous had been on the point of asking old Donald a question. For the first time he asked it now, even as his eyes swept slowly and searchingly over the valley for signs of Mortimer FitzHugh and Quade.
"I've often wondered why you ran away with Jane," he said. "I know what threatened her—a thing worse than death. But why did you run? Why didn't you stay and fight?"
A low growl rumbled in MacDonald's beard.
"Johnny, Johnny, if I only ha' could!" he groaned. "There was five of them left when I ran into the cabin an' barricaded myself there with Jane. I stuck my gun out of the window an' they was afraid to rush the cabin. They was afraid, Johnny, all that afternoon—an' I didn't have a cartridge left to fire! That's why we went just as soon as we could crawl out in the dark. I knew they'd come that night. I might ha' killed one or two hand to hand, for I was big an' strong in them days, Johnny, but I knew I couldn't beat 'em all. So we went."
"After all, death isn't so very terrible," said Joanne softly, and she was riding so close that for a moment she laid one of her warm hands on Donald MacDonald's.
"No, it's sometimes—wunnerful—an' beautiful," replied Donald, a little brokenly, and with that he rode ahead, and Joanne and Aldous waited until the pack-horses had passed them.
"He's going to see that all is clear at the summit," explained Aldous.
They seemed to be riding now right into the face of that mysterious rumble and roar of the mountains. It was an hour before they all stood together at the top of the break, and here MacDonald swung sharply to the right, and came soon to the rock-strewn bed of a dried-up stream that in ages past had been a wide and rushing torrent. Steadily, as they progressed down this, the rumble and roar grew nearer. It seemed that it was almost under their feet, when again MacDonald turned, and a quarter of an hour later they found themselves at the edge of a small plain; and now all about them were cold and towering mountains that shut out the sun, and a hundred yards to their right was a great dark cleft in the floor of the plain, and up out of this came the rumble and roar that was like the sullen anger of monster beasts imprisoned deep down in the bowels of the earth.
MacDonald got off his horse, and Aldous and Joanne rode up to him. In the old man's face was a look of joy and triumph.
"It weren't so far as I thought it was, Johnny!" he cried. "Oh, it must ha' been a turrible night—a turrible night when Jane an' I come this way! It took us twenty hours, Johnny!"
"We are near the cavern?" breathed Joanne.
"It ain't more'n half a mile farther on, I guess. But we'll camp here. We're pretty well hid. They can't find us. An' from that summit up there we can keep watch in both valleys."
Knowing the thoughts that were in MacDonald's mind, and how full his heart was with a great desire, Aldous went to him when they had dismounted.
"You go on alone if there is time to-night, Mac," he said, knowing that the other would understand him. "I will make camp."
"There ain't no one in the valley," mused the old man, a little doubtfully at first. "It would be safe—quite safe, Johnny."
"Yes, it will be safe."
"And I will stand guard while John is working," said Joanne, who had come to them. "No one can approach us without being seen."
For another moment MacDonald hesitated. Then he said:
"Do you see that break over there across the plain? It's the open to a gorge. Johnny, it do seem unreasonable—it do seem as though I must ha' been dreamin'—when I think that it took us twenty hours! But the snow was to my waist in this plain, an' it was slow work—turrible slow work! I think the cavern—ain't on'y a little way up that gorge."
"You can make it before the sun is quite gone."
"An' I could hear you shout, or your gun. I could ride back in five minutes—an' I wouldn't be gone an hour."
"There is no danger," urged Aldous.
A deep breath came from old Donald's breast.
"I guess—I'll go, Johnny, if you an' Joanne don't mind."
He looked about him, and then he pointed toward the face of a great rock.
"Put the tepee up near that," he said. "Pile the saddles, an' the blankets, an' the panniers around it, so it'll look like a real camp, Johnny. But it won't be a real camp. It'll be a dummy. See them thick spruce an' cedar over there? Build Joanne a shelter of boughs in there, an' take in some grub, an' blankets, an' the gold. See the point, Johnny? If anything should happen——"
"They'd tackle the bogus camp!" cried Aldous with elation. "It's a splendid idea!"
He set at once about unpacking the horses, and Joanne followed close at his side to help him. MacDonald mounted his horse and rode at a trot in the direction of the break in the mountain.
The sun had disappeared, but its reflection was still on the peaks; and after he had stripped and hobbled the horses Aldous took advantage of the last of day to scrutinize the plain and the mountain slopes through the telescope. After that he found enough dry poles with which to set up the tepee, and about this he scattered the saddles and panniers, as MacDonald had suggested. Then he cleared a space in the thick spruce, and brought to it what was required for their hidden camp.
It was almost dark when he completed the spruce and cedar lean-to for Joanne. He knew that to-night they must build no fire, not even for tea; and when they had laid out the materials for their cold supper, which consisted of beans, canned beef and tongue, peach marmalade, bread bannock, and pickles and cheese, he went with Joanne for water to a small creek they had crossed a hundred yards away. In both his hands, ready for instant action, he carried his rifle. Joanne carried the pail. Her eyes were big and bright and searching in that thick-growing dusk of night. She walked very close to Aldous, and she said:
"John, I know how careful you and Donald have been in this journey into the North. I know what you have feared. Culver Rann and Quade are after the gold, and they are near. But why does Donald talk as though we are surely going to be attacked by them, or are surely going to attack them? I don't understand it, John. If you don't care for the gold so much, as you told me once, and if we find Jane to-morrow, or to-night, why do we remain to have trouble with Quade and Culver Rann? Tell me, John."
He could not see her face fully in the gloom, and he was glad that she could not see his.
"If we can get away without fighting, we will, Joanne," he lied. And he knew that she would have known that he was lying if it had not been for the darkness.
"You won't fight—over the gold?" she asked, pressing his arm. "Will you promise me that, John?"
"Yes, I promise that. I swear it!" he cried, and so forcefully that she gave a glad little laugh.
"Then if they don't find us to-morrow, we'll go back home?" She trembled, and he knew that her heart was filled with a sudden lightness. "And I don't believe they will find us. They won't come beyond that terrible place—and the gold! Why should they, John? Why should they follow us—if we leave them everything? Oh-h-h-h!" She shuddered, and whispered: "I wish we had not brought the gold, John. I wish we had left it behind!"
"What we have is worth thirty or forty thousand dollars," he said reassuringly, as he filled his pail with water and they began to return. "We can do a great deal of good with that. Endowments, for instance," he laughed.
As he spoke, they both stopped, and listened. Plainly they heard the approaching thud of hoofs. MacDonald had been gone nearer two hours than one, and believing that it was him, Aldous gave the owl signal. The signal floated back to them softly. Five minutes later MacDonald rode up and dismounted. Until he had taken the saddle off, and had hobbled his horse, he did not speak. Neither Joanne nor Aldous asked the question that was in their hearts. But even in the darkness they felt something. It was as if not only the torrent rushing through the chasm, but MacDonald's heart as well, was charging the air with a strange and subdued excitement. And when MacDonald spoke, that which they had felt was in his voice.
"You ain't seen or heard anything, Johnny?"
"Nothing. And you—Donald?"
In the darkness, Joanne went to the old man, and her hand found one of his, and clasped it tightly; and she found that Donald MacDonald's big hand was trembling in a strange and curious way, and she could feel him quivering.
"You found Jane?" she whispered.
"Yes, I found her, little Joanne."
She did not let go of his hand until they entered the open space which Aldous had made in the spruce. Then she remembered what Aldous had said to her earlier in the day, and cheerfully she lighted the two candles they had set out, and forced Aldous down first upon the ground, and then MacDonald, and began to help them to beans and meat and bannock, while all the time her heart was crying out to know about the cavern—and Jane. The candleglow told her a great deal, for in it Donald MacDonald's face was very calm, and filled with a great peace, despite the trembling she had felt. Her woman's sympathy told her that his heart was too full on this night for speech, and when he ate but little she did not urge him to eat more; and when he rose and went silently and alone out into the darkness she held Aldous back; and when, still a little later, she went into her nest for the night, she whispered softly to him:
"I know that he found Jane as he wanted to find her, and he is happy. I think he has gone out there alone—to cry." And for a time after that, as he sat in the gloom, John Aldous knew that Joanne was sobbing like a little child in the spruce and cedar shelter he had built for her.
If MacDonald slept at all that night Aldous did not know it. The old mountaineer watched until a little after twelve in the deep shadow of a rock between the two camps.
"I can't sleep," he protested, when Aldous urged him to take his rest. "I might take a little stroll up the plain, Johnny—but I can't sleep."
The plain lay in a brilliant starlight at this hour; they could see the gleam of the snow-peaks—the light was almost like the glow of the moon.
"There'll be plenty of sleep after to-morrow," added MacDonald, and there was a finality in his voice and words which set the other's blood stirring.
"You think they will show up to-morrow?"
"Yes. This is the same valley the cabins are in, Johnny. That big mountain runs out an' splits it, an' it curves like a horseshoe. From that mount'in we can see them, no matter which way they come. They'll go straight to the cabins. There's a deep little run under the slope. You didn't see it when we came out, but it'll take us within a hunderd yards of 'em. An' at a hunderd yards——"
He shrugged his shoulders suggestively in the starlight, and there was a smile on his face.
"It seems almost like murder," shuddered Aldous.
"But it ain't,'" replied MacDonald quickly. "It's self-defence! If we don't do it, Johnny—if we don't draw on them first, what happened there forty years ago is goin' to happen again—with Joanne!"
"A hundred yards," breathed Aldous, his jaws setting hard. "And there are five!"
"They'll go into the cabins," said MacDonald. "At some time there will be two or three outside, an' we'll take them first. At the sound of the shots the others will run out, and it will be easy. Yo' can't very well miss a man at a hunderd yards, Johnny?"
"No, I won't miss."
"I'm goin' to take a little stroll, Johnny."
For two hours after that Aldous was alone. He knew why old Donald could not sleep, and where he had gone, and he pictured him sitting before the little old cabin in the starlit valley communing with the spirit of Jane. And during those two hours he steeled himself for the last time to the thing that was going to happen when the day came.
It was nearly three o'clock when MacDonald returned. It was four o'clock before he roused Joanne; and it was five o'clock when they had eaten their breakfast, and MacDonald prepared to leave for the mountain with his telescope. Aldous had observed Joanne talking to him for several minutes alone, and he had also observed that her eyes were very bright, and that there was an unusual eagerness in her manner of listening to what the old man was saying. The significance of this did not occur to him when she urged him to accompany MacDonald.
"Two pairs of eyes are better than one, John," she said, "and I cannot possibly be in danger here. I can see you all the time, and you can see me—if I don't run away, or hide." And she laughed a little breathlessly. "There is no danger, is there, Donald?"
The old hunter shook his head.
"There's no danger, but—you might be lonesome," he said.
Joanne put her pretty mouth close to Aldous' ear.
"I want to be alone for a little while, dear," she whispered, and there was that mystery in her voice which kept him from questioning her, and made him go with MacDonald.
In three quarters of an hour they had reached the spur of the mountain from which MacDonald had said they could see up the valley, and also the break through which they had come the preceding afternoon. The morning mists still hung low, but as these melted away under the sun mile after mile of a marvellous panorama spread out swiftly under them, and as the distance of their vision grew, the deeper became the disappointment in MacDonald's face. For half an hour after the mists had gone he neither spoke nor lowered the telescope from his eyes. A mile away Aldous saw three caribou crossing the valley. A little later, on a green slope, he discerned a moving hulk that he knew was a bear. He did not speak until old Donald lowered the glass.
"I can see for eight miles up the valley, an' there ain't a soul in sight," said MacDonald in answer to his question. "I figgered they'd be along about now, Johnny."
A dozen times Aldous had looked back at the camp. Twice he had seen Joanne. He looked now through the telescope. She was nowhere in sight. A bit nervously he returned the telescope to MacDonald.
"And I can't see Joanne," he said.
MacDonald looked. For five minutes he levelled the glass steadily at the camp. Then he shifted it slowly westward, and a low exclamation broke from his lips as he lowered the glass, and looked at Aldous.
"Johnny, she's just goin' into the gorge! She was just disappearin' when I caught her!"
"Going into—the gorge!" gasped Aldous, jumping to his feet. "Mac——"
MacDonald rose and stood at his side. There was something reassuring in the rumbling laugh that came from deep in his chest.
"She's beat us!" he chuckled. "Bless her, she's beat us! I didn't guess why she was askin' me all them questions. An' I told her, Johnny—told her just where the cavern was up there in the gorge, an' how you wouldn't hardly miss it if you tried. An' she asked me how long it would take to walk there, an' I told her half an hour. An' she's going to the cavern, Johnny!"
He was telescoping his long glass as he spoke, and while Aldous was still staring toward the gorge in wonderment and a little fear, he added:
"We'd better follow. Quade an' Rann can't get here inside o' two or three hours, an' we'll be back before then." Again he rumbled with that curious chuckling laugh. "She beat us, Johnny, she beat us fair! An' she's got spirrit, a wunnerful spirrit, to go up there alone!"
Aldous wanted to run, but he held himself down to MacDonald's stride. His heart trembled apprehensively as they hurriedly descended the mountain and cut across the plain. He could not quite bring himself to MacDonald's point of assurance regarding Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh. The old mountaineer was positive that the other party was behind them. Aldous asked himself if it were not possible that Quade and FitzHugh were ahead of them, and already waiting and watching for their opportunity. He had suggested that they might have swung farther to the west, with the plan of descending upon the valley from the north, and MacDonald had pointed out how unlikely this was. In spite of this, Aldous was not in a comfortable frame of mind as they hurried after Joanne. She had half an hour's start of them when they reached the mouth of the gorge, and not until they had travelled another half-hour up the rough bed of the break between the two mountains, and MacDonald pointed ahead, and said: "There's the cavern!" did he breathe easier.
They could see the mouth of the cavern when they were yet a couple of hundred yards from it. It was a wide, low cleft in the north face of the chasm wall, and in front of it, spreading out like the flow of a stream, was a great spatter of white sand, like a huge rug that had been spread out in a space cleared of its chaotic litter of rock and broken slate. At first glance Aldous guessed that the cavern had once been the exit of a subterranean stream. The sand deadened the sound of their footsteps as they approached. At the mouth of the cave they paused. It was perhaps forty or fifty feet deep, and as high as a nine-foot room. Inside it was quite light. Halfway to the back of it, upon her knees, and with her face turned from them, was Joanne.
They were very close to her before she heard them. With a startled cry she sprang to her feet, and Aldous and MacDonald saw what she had been doing. Over a long mound in the white sand still rose the sapling stake which Donald had planted there forty years before; and about this, and scattered over the grave, were dozens of wild asters and purple hyacinths which Joanne had brought from the plain. Aldous did not speak, but he took her hand, and looked down with her on the grave. And then something caught his eyes among the flowers, and Joanne drew him a step nearer, her eyes shining like velvet stars, while his heart beat faster when he saw what the object was. It was a book, open in the middle, and it lay face downward on the grave. It was old, and looked as though it might have fallen into dust at the touch of his finger. Joanne's voice was low and filled with a whispering awe.
"It was her Bible, John!"
He turned a little, and noticed that Donald had gone to the mouth of the cavern, and was looking toward the mountain.
"It was her Bible," he heard Joanne repeating; and then MacDonald turned toward them, and he saw in his face a look that seemed strange and out of place in this home of his dead. He went to him, and Joanne followed.
MacDonald had turned again—was listening—and holding his breath. Then he said, still with his face toward the mountain and the valley:
"I may be mistaken, Johnny, but I think I heard—a rifle-shot!"
For a full minute they listened.
"It seemed off there," said MacDonald, pointing to the south. "I guess we'd better get back to camp, Johnny."
He started ahead of them, and Aldous followed as swiftly as he could with Joanne. She was panting with excitement, but she asked no questions. MacDonald began to spring more quickly from rock to rock; over the level spaces he began to run. He reached the edge of the plain four or five hundred yards in advance of them, and was scanning the valley through his telescope when they came up.
"They're not on this side," he said. "They're comin' up the other leg of the valley, Johnny. We've got to get to the mount'in before we can see them."
He closed the glass with a snap and swung it over his shoulder. Then he pointed toward the camp.
"Take Joanne down there," he commanded. "Watch the break we came through, an' wait for me. I'm goin' up on the mount'in an' take a look!"
The last words came back over his shoulder as he started on a trot down the slope. Only once before had Aldous seen MacDonald employ greater haste, and that was on the night of the attack on Joanne. He was convinced there was no doubt in Donald's mind about the rifle-shot, and that the shot could mean but one thing—the nearness of Mortimer FitzHugh and Quade. Why they should reveal their presence in that way he did not ask himself as he hurried down into the plain with Joanne. By the time they reached the camp old Donald had covered two thirds of the distance to the mountain. Aldous looked at his watch and a curious thrill shot through him. Only a little more than an hour had passed since they had left the mountain to follow Joanne, and in that time it would have been impossible for their enemies to have covered more than a third of the eight-mile stretch of valley which they had found empty of human life under the searching scrutiny of the telescope! He was right—and MacDonald was wrong! The sound of the shot, if there had been a shot, must have come from some other direction!
He wanted to shout his warning to MacDonald, but already too great a distance separated them. Besides, if he was right, MacDonald would run into no danger in that direction. Their menace was to the north—beyond the chasm out of which came the rumble and roar of the stream. When Donald had disappeared up the slope he looked more closely at the rugged walls of rock that shut them in on that side. He could see no break in them. His eyes followed the dark streak in the floor of the plain, which was the chasm. It was two hundred yards below where they were standing; and a hundred yards beyond the tepee he saw where it came out of a great rent in the mountain. He looked at Joanne. She had been watching him, and was breathing quickly.
"While Donald is taking his look from the mountain, I'm going to investigate the chasm," he said.
She followed him, a few steps behind. The roar grew in their ears as they advanced. After a little solid rock replaced the earth under their feet, and twenty paces from the precipice Aldous took Joanne by the hand. They went to the edge and looked over. Fifty feet below them the stream was caught in the narrow space between the two chasm walls, and above the rush and roar of it Aldous heard the startled cry that came from Joanne. She clutched his hand fiercely. Fascinated she gazed down. The water, speeding like a millrace, was a lather of foam; and up through this foam there shot the crests of great rocks, as though huge monsters of some kind were at play, whipping the torrent into greater fury, and bellowing forth thunderous voices. Downstream Aldous could see that the tumult grew less; from the rent in the mountain came the deeper, more distant-rolling thunder that they had heard on the other side of the range. And then, as he looked, a sharper cry broke from Joanne, and she dragged him back from the ledge, and pointed toward the tepee.
Out from among the rocks had appeared a human figure. It was a woman. Her hair was streaming wildly about her, and in the sun it was black as a crow's wing. She rushed to the tepee, opened the flap, and looked in. Then she turned, and a cry that was almost a scream rang from her lips. In another moment she had seen Aldous and Joanne, and was running toward them. They advanced to meet her. Suddenly Aldous stopped, and with a sharp warning to Joanne he threw his rifle half to his shoulder, and faced the rocks from which the speeding figure had come. In that same instant they both recognized her. It was Marie, the woman who had ridden the bear at Tete Jaune, and with whom Mortimer FitzHugh had bought Joe DeBar!
She staggered up to them, panting, exhausted, her breath coming in gulping sobs. For a moment she could not speak. Her dress was torn; her waist was ripped so that it exposed her throat and shoulder; and the front of the waist and her face were stained with blood. Her black eyes shone like a madwoman's. Fiercely she fought to get her breath, and all the time she clung to Joanne, and looked at Aldous. She pointed toward the rocks—the chaotic upheaval that lay between the tepee and the chasm—and words broke gaspingly from her lips.
"They're coming!—coming!" she cried. "They killed Joe—murdered him—and they're coming—to kill you!" She clutched a hand to her breast, and then pointed with it to the mountain where MacDonald had gone. "They saw him go—and they sent two men to kill him; and the rest are coming through the rocks!" She turned sobbingly to Joanne. "They killed Joe," she moaned. "They killed Joe, and they're coming—for you!"
The emphasis on that final word struck like a blow in the ears of John Aldous.
"Run for the spruce!" he commanded. "Joanne, run!"
Marie had crumpled down in a moaning heap at Joanne's feet, and sat swaying with her face in her hands.
"They killed him—they murdered my Joe!" she was sobbing. "And it was my fault—my fault! I trapped him! I sold him! And, oh, my God, I loved him—I loved him!"
"Run, Joanne!" commanded Aldous a second time. "Run for the spruce!"
Instead of obeying him, Joanne knelt down beside Marie.
He went to speak again, but there came an interruption—a thing that was like the cold touch of lead in his own heart. From up on the mountain where the old mountaineer had walked into the face of death there came the sharp, splitting report of a rifle; and in that same instant it was followed by another and still a third—quick, stinging, whiplike reports—and he knew that not one of them had come from the gun of Donald MacDonald!
And then he saw that the rocks behind the tepee had become suddenly alive with men!
Sheer amazement made Aldous hold his fire in that first moment. Marie had said that two men were after MacDonald. He had heard three shots nearly a mile away, and she was still sobbing that DeBar was dead. That accounted for three. He had expected to see only Quade, and FitzHugh, and one other behind the tepee. And there were six! He counted them as they came swiftly out from the shelter of the rocks to the level of the plain. He was about to fire when he thought of Joanne and Marie. They were still behind him, crouching upon the ground. To fire from where he stood would draw a fusillade of bullets in their direction, and with another warning cry to Joanne, he sped twenty paces to one side so that they would not be within range. Not until then did the attacking party see him.
At a hundred and fifty yards he had no time to pick out Quade or Mortimer FitzHugh. He fired first at a group of three, and one of the three crumpled down as though his skull had been crushed from above. A rifle spat back at him and the bullet sang like a ripping cloth close over his head. He dropped to his knees before he fired again, and a bullet clove the air where he had stood. The crack of rifles did not hurry him. He knew that he had six cartridges, and only six, and he aimed deliberately. At his second shot the man he had fired at ran forward three or four steps, and then pitched flat on his face. For a flash Aldous thought that it was Mortimer FitzHugh. Then, along his gun barrel, he saw FitzHugh—and pulled the trigger. It was a miss.
Two men had dropped upon their knees and were aiming more carefully. He swung his sight to the foremost, and drove a bullet straight through his chest. The next moment something seemed to have fallen upon him with crushing weight. A red sea rose before his eyes. In it he was submerged; the roar of it filled his ears; it blinded him; and in the suffocating embrace of it he tried to cry out. He fought himself out of it, his eyes cleared, and he could see again. His rifle was no longer in his hands, and he was standing. Twenty feet away men were rushing upon him. His brain recovered itself with the swiftness of lightning. A bullet had stunned him, but he was not badly hurt. He jerked out his automatic, but before he could raise it, or even fire from his hip, the first of his assailants was upon him with a force that drove it from his hand. They went down together, and as they struggled on the bare rock Aldous caught for a fraction of a second a scene that burned itself like fire in his brain. He saw Mortimer FitzHugh with a revolver in his hand. He had stopped; he was staring like one looking upon the ghost of the dead, and as he stared there rose above the rumbling roar of the chasm a wild and terrible shriek from Joanne.
Aldous saw no more then. He was not fighting for his life, but for her, and he fought with the mad ferocity of a tiger. As he struck, and choked, and beat the head of his assailant on the rock, he heard shriek after shriek come from Joanne's lips; and then for a flash he saw them again, and Joanne was struggling in the arms of Quade!
He struggled to his knees, and the man he was fighting struggled to his knees; and then they came to their feet, locked in a death-grip on the edge of the chasm. From Quade's clutch he saw Joanne staring at Mortimer FitzHugh; then her eyes shot to him, and with another shriek she fought to free herself.
For thirty seconds of that terrible drama Mortimer FitzHugh stood as if hewn out of rock. Then he sprang toward the fighters.
In the arms of John Aldous was the strength of ten men. He twisted the head of his antagonist under his arm; he braced his feet—in another moment he would have flung him bodily into the roaring maelstrom below. Even as his muscles gathered themselves for the final effort he knew that all was lost. Mortimer FitzHugh's face leered over his shoulder, his demoniac intention was in his eyes before he acted. With a cry of hatred and of triumph he shoved them both over the edge, and as Aldous plunged to the depths below, still holding to his enemy, he heard a last piercing scream from Joanne.
As the rock slid away from under his feet his first thought was that the end had come, and that no living creature could live in the roaring maelstrom of rock and, flood into which he was plunging. But quicker than he dashed through space his mind worked. Instinctively, without time for reasoning, he gripped at the fact that his one chance lay in the close embrace of his enemy. He hung to him. It seemed to him that they turned over and over a hundred times in that distance of fifty feet. Then a mass of twisting foam broke under him, and up out of it shot the head of one of the roaring monsters of rock that he and Joanne had looked upon. They struck it fairly, and Aldous was uppermost. He felt the terrific impact of the other's body. The foam boiled upward again, and they slipped off into the flood.
Still Aldous held to his enemy. He could feel that he was limp now; he no longer felt the touch of the hands that had choked him, or the embrace of the arms that had struggled with him. He believed that his antagonist was dead. The fifty-foot fall, with the rock splitting his back, had killed him. For a moment Aldous still clung to him as they sank together under the surface, torn and twisted by the whirling eddies and whirlpools. It seemed to him that they would never cease going down, that they were sinking a vast distance.
Dully he felt the beat of rocks. Then it flashed upon him that the dead man was sinking like a weighted thing. He freed himself. Fiercely he struggled to bring himself to the surface. It seemed an eternity before he rose to the top. He opened his mouth and drew a great gulp of air into his lungs. The next instant a great rock reared like a living thing in his face; he plunged against it, was beaten over it, and again he was going down—down—in that deadly clutch of maelstrom and undertow. Again he fought, and again he came to the surface. He saw a black, slippery wall gliding past him with the speed of an express train. And now it seemed as though a thousand clubs were beating him. Ahead of him were rocks—nothing but rocks.
He shot through them like a piece of driftwood. The roaring in his ears grew less, and he felt the touch of something under his feet. Sunlight burst upon him. He caught at a rock, and hung to it. His eyes cleared a little. He was within ten feet of a shore covered with sand and gravel. The water was smooth and running with a musical ripple. Waist-deep he waded through it to the shore, and fell down upon his knees, with his face buried in his arms. He had been ten minutes in the death-grip of the chasm. It was another ten minutes before he staggered to his feet and looked about him.
His face was beaten until he was almost blind. His shirt had been torn from his shoulders and his flesh was bleeding. He advanced a few steps. He raised one arm and then the other. He limped. One arm hurt him when he moved it, but the bone was sound. He was terribly mauled, but he knew that no bones were broken, and a gasp of thankfulness fell from his lips. All this time his mind had been suffering even more than his body. Not for an instant, even as he fought for life between the chasm walls, and as he lay half unconscious on the rock, had he forgotten Joanne. His one thought was of her now. He had no weapon, but as he stumbled in the direction of the camp in the little plain he picked up a club that lay in his path.
That MacDonald was dead, Aldous was certain. There would be four against him—Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh and the two men who had gone to the mountain. His brain cleared swiftly as a part of his strength returned, and it occurred to him that if he lost no time he might come upon Joanne and her captors before the two men came from killing old Donald. He tried to run. Not until then did he fully realize the condition he was in. Twice in the first hundred yards his legs doubled under him and he fell down among the rocks. He grew steadily stronger, though each time he tried to run or spring a distance of a few feet his legs doubled under him like that. It took him twenty minutes to get back to the edge of the plain, and when he got there it was empty. There was no sign of Quade or FitzHugh, or of Joanne and Marie; and there was no one coming from the direction of the mountain.
He tried to run again, and he found that over the level floor of the valley he could make faster time than among the rocks. He went to where he had dropped his rifle. It was gone. He searched for his automatic. That, too, was gone. There was one weapon left—a long skinning-knife in one of the panniers near the tepee. As he went for this, he passed two of the men whom he had shot. Quade and FitzHugh had taken their weapons, and had turned them over to see if they were alive or dead. They were dead. He secured the knife, and behind the tepee he passed the third body, its face as still and white as the others. He shuddered as he recognized it. It was Slim Barker. His rifle was gone.
More swiftly now he made his way into the break out of which his assailants had come a short time before. The thought came to him again that he had been right, and that Donald MacDonald, in spite of all his years in the mountains, had been fatally wrong. Their enemies had come down from the north, and this break led to their hiding-place. Through it Joanne must have been taken by her captors. As he made his way over the rocks, gaining a little more of his strength with each step, his mind tried to picture the situation that had now arisen between Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh. How would Quade, who was mad for possession of Joanne, accept FitzHugh's claim of ownership? Would he believe his partner? Would he even believe Joanne if, to save herself from him, she told him FitzHugh was her husband? Even if he believed them, would he give her up? Would Quade allow Mortimer FitzHugh to stand between him and the object for which he was willing to sacrifice everything?
As Aldous asked himself these questions his blood ran hot and cold by turns. And the answer to them drew a deep breath of fear and of anguish from him as he tried again to run among the rocks. There could be but one answer: Quade would fight. He would fight like a madman, and if this fight had happened and FitzHugh had been killed Joanne had already gone utterly and helplessly into his power. He believed that FitzHugh had not revealed to Quade his relationship to Joanne while they were on the plain, and the thought still more terrible came to him that he might not reveal it at all, that he might repudiate Joanne even as she begged upon her knees for him to save her. What a revenge it would be to see her helpless and broken in the arms of Quade! And then, both being beasts——
He could think no farther. The sweat broke out on his face as he hobbled faster over a level space. The sound of the water between the chasm walls was now a thunder in his ears. He could not have heard a rifle-shot or a scream a hundred yards away. The trail he was following had continually grown narrower. It seemed to end a little ahead of him, and the fear that he had come the wrong way after all filled him with dread. He came to the face of the mountain wall, and then, to his left, he saw a crack that was no wider than a man's body. In it there was sand, and the, sand was beaten by footprints! He wormed his way through, and a moment later stood at the edge of the chasm. Fifty feet above him a natural bridge of rock spanned the huge cleft through which the stream was rushing. He crossed this, exposing himself openly to a shot if it was guarded. But it was not guarded. This fact convinced him that MacDonald had been killed, and that his enemies believed he was dead. If MacDonald had escaped, and they had feared a possible pursuit, some one would have watched the bridge.
The trail was easy to follow now. Sand and grassy earth had replaced rock and shale; he could make out the imprints of feet—many of them—and they led in the direction of a piece of timber that apparently edged a valley running to the east and west. The rumble of the torrent in the chasm grew fainter as he advanced. A couple of hundred yards farther on the trail swung to the left again; it took him around the end of a huge rock, and as he appeared from behind this, his knife clutched in his hand, he dropped suddenly flat on his face, and his heart rose like a lump in his throat. Scarcely fifty yards above him was the camp of his enemies! There were two tepees and piles of saddles and panniers and blankets about them, but not a soul that he could see. And then, suddenly, there rose a voice bellowing with rage, and he recognized it as Quade's. It came from beyond the tepee, and he rose quickly from where he had thrown himself and ran forward, with the tepee between him and those on the other side. Close to the canvas he dropped on his knees and crawled out behind a pile of saddles and panniers. From here he could see.
So near that he could almost have touched them were Joanne and Marie, seated on the ground, with their backs toward him. Their hands were tied behind them. Their feet were bound with pannier ropes. A dozen paces beyond them were Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh.
The two men were facing each other, a yard apart. Mortimer FitzHugh's face was white, a deadly white, and he was smiling. His right hand rested carelessly in his hunting-coat pocket. There was a sneering challenge on his lips; in his eyes was a look that Aldous knew meant death if Quade moved. And Quade was like a great red beast ready to spring. His eyes seemed bulging out on his cheeks; his great hands were knotted; his shoulders were hunched forward, and his mottled face was ablaze with passion. In that moment's dramatic tableau Aldous glanced about swiftly. The men from the mountain had not returned. He was alone with Quade and Mortimer FitzHugh.
Then FitzHugh spoke, very quietly, a little laughingly; but his voice trembled, and Aldous knew what the hand was doing in the hunting-coat pocket.
"You're excited, Billy," he said. "I'm not a liar, as you've very impolitely told me. And I'm not playing you dirt, and I haven't fallen in love with the lady myself, as you seem to think. But she belongs to me, body and soul. If you don't believe me—why, ask the lady herself, Billy!"
As he spoke, he turned his sneering eyes for the fraction of a second toward Joanne. The movement was fatal. Quade was upon him. The hand in the coat pocket flung itself upward, there followed a muffled report, but the bullet flew wide. In all his life Aldous had never heard a sound like the roar that came from Quade's throat then. He saw Mortimer FitzHugh's hand appear with a pistol in it, and then the pistol was gone. He did not see where it went to. He gripped his knife and waited, his heart beating with what seemed like smothered explosions as he watched for the opportunity which he knew would soon come. He expected to see FitzHugh go down under Quade's huge bulk. Instead of that, a small, iron fist shot upward and Quade's head went back as if broken from his neck.
FitzHugh sprang a step backward, and in the movement his heel caught the edge of a pack-saddle. He stumbled, almost fell, and before he could recover himself Quade was at him again. This time there was something in the red brute's hand. It rose and fell once—and Mortimer FitzHugh reeled backward with a moaning cry, swayed for a second or two on his feet, and fell to the ground. Quade turned. In his hand was a bloody knife. Madness and passion and the triumphant joy of a demon were in his face as he glared at his helpless prey. As Aldous crouched lower his shoulder touched one of the saddles. It slipped from the pile, one of the panniers followed it, and Quade saw him. There was no longer reason for concealment, and as Quade stood paralyzed for a moment Aldous sprang forth into the space between him and Joanne. He heard the cry that broke strangely from her lips but he did not turn his head. He advanced upon Quade, his head lowered, the long skinning-knife gleaming in his hand.
John Aldous knew that words would avail nothing in these last few minutes between him and Quade. The latter had already hunched himself forward, the red knife in his hand poised at his waistline. He was terrible. His huge bulk, his red face and bull neck, his eyes popping from behind their fleshy lids, and the dripping blade in the shapeless hulk of his hand gave him the appearance as he stood there of some monstrous gargoyle instead of a thing of flesh and blood. And Aldous was terrible to look at, but in a way that wrung a moaning cry from Joanne. His face was livid from the beat of the rocks; it was crusted with blood; his eyes were partly closed, and what remained of his shirt was drenched with blood that still ran from the deep cuts in his arms and shoulders. But it was he who advanced, and Quade who stood and waited.
Aldous knew little or nothing of knife-fighting; and he realized, also, that there was a strange weakness in his arms and body caused by his battle with the maelstroms in the chasm. But he had wrestled a great deal with the Indians of the north, who fought as their half-wolf sledgedogs fought, and he employed their methods now. Slowly and deliberately he began to circle around Quade, so that Quade became the pivot of that circle, and as he circled he drew nearer and nearer to his enemy, but never in a frontal advance. He edged inward, with his knife-arm on the outside. His deadly deliberateness and the steady glare of his eyes discomfited Quade, who suddenly took a step backward.
It was always when the Indian made this step that his opponent darted in; and Aldous, with this in mind, sprang to the attack. Their knives clashed in midair. As they met, hilt to hilt, Aldous threw his whole weight against Quade, darted sidewise, and with a terrific lunge brought the blade of his knife down between Quade's shoulders. A straight blade would have gone from back to chest through muscle and sinew, but the knife which Aldous held scarcely pierced the other's clothes.
Not until then did he fully realize the tremendous odds against him. The curved blade of his skinning-knife would not penetrate! His one hope was to cut with it. He flung out his arm before Quade had fully recovered, and blind luck carried the keen edge of the knife across his enemy's pouchy cheek. The blood came in a spurt, and with a terrible cry Quade leaped back toward the pile of saddles and panniers. Before Aldous could follow his advantage the other had dropped his knife and had snatched up a four-foot length of a tepee pole. For a moment he hesitated while the blood ran in a hot flood down his thick neck. Then with a bellow of rage he rushed upon Aldous.
It was no time for knife-work now. As the avalanche of brute strength descended upon him Aldous gathered himself for the shock. He had already measured his own weakness. Those ten minutes among the rocks of the chasm had broken and beaten him until his strength was gone. He was panting from his first onset with Quade, but his brain was working. And he knew that Quade was no longer a reasoning thing. He had ceased to think. He was blind with the passion of the brute, and his one thought was to crush his enemy down under the weight of the club in his huge hands. Aldous waited. He heard Joanne's terrified scream when Quade was almost upon him—when less than five feet separated them. The club was descending when he flung himself forward, straight for the other's feet. The club crashed over him, and with what strength he had he gripped Quade at the knees. With a tremendous thud Quade came to earth. The club broke from the grip of his hands. For a moment he was stunned, and in that moment Aldous was at his throat.
He would have sold the best of his life for the skinning-knife. But he had lost it in gripping Quade. And now he choked—with every ounce of strength in him he choked at the thick red neck of his enemy. Quade's hands reached for his own throat. They found it. And both choked, lying there gasping and covered with blood! while Joanne struggled vainly to free herself, and scream after scream rang from her lips. And John Aldous knew that at last the end had come. For there was no longer strength in his arms, and there was something that was like a strange cramp in his fingers, while the clutch at his own throat was turning the world black. His grip relaxed. His hands fell limp. The last that he realized was that Quade was over him, and that he must be dying.
Then it was, as he lay within a final second or two of death, no longer conscious of physical attack or of Joanne's terrible cries, that a strange and unforeseen thing occurred. Beyond the tepee a man had risen from the earth. He staggered toward them, and it was from Marie that the wildest and strangest cry of all came now. For the man was Joe DeBar! In his hand he held a knife. Swaying and stumbling he came to the fighters—from behind. Quade did not see him, and over Quade's huge back he poised himself. The knife rose; for the fraction of a second it trembled in midair. Then it descended, and eight inches of steel went to the heart of Quade.
And as DeBar turned and staggered toward Joanne and Marie, John Aldous was sinking deeper and deeper into a black and abysmal night.
In that chaotic night in which he was drifting, light as a feather floating on the wind, John Aldous experienced neither pain nor very much of the sense of life. And yet, without seeing or feeling, he seemed to be living, All was dead in him but that last consciousness, which is almost the spirit; he might have been dreaming, and minutes, hours, or even years might have passed in that dream. For a long time he seemed to be sinking through the blackness; and then something stopped him, without jar or shock, and he was rising. He could hear nothing. There was a vast silence about him, a silence as deep and as unbroken as the abysmal pit in which he seemed to be softly floating.
After a time Aldous felt himself swaying and rocking, as though tossed gently on the billows of a sea. This was the first thought that took shape in his struggling brain—he was at sea; he was on a ship in the heart of a black night, and he was alone. He tried to call out, but his tongue seemed gone. It seemed a very long time before day broke, and then it was a strange day. Little needles of light pricked his eyes; silver strings shot like flashes of weblike lightning through the darkness, and after that he saw for an instant a strange glare. It was gone in one big, powderlike flash, and he was in night again. These days and nights seemed to follow one another swiftly now, and the nights grew less dark, and the days brighter. He was conscious of sounds and buffetings, and it was very hot.
Out of this heat there came a cool, soft breeze that was continually caressing his face, and eyes, and head. It was like the touch of a spirit hand. It became more and more real to him. It caressed him into a dark and comfortable oblivion. Out of this oblivion a still brighter day roused him. His brain seemed clear. He opened his eyes. A white cloud was hovering over them; it fell softly; it was cool and gentle. Then it rose again, and it was not a cloud, but a hand! The hand moved away, and he was looking into a pair of wide-open, staring, prayerful eyes, and a little cry came to him, and a voice.
He was drifting again, but now he knew that he was alive. He heard movement. He heard voices. They were growing nearer and more distinct. He tried to cry out Joanne's name, and it came in a whispering breath between his lips. But Joanne heard; and he heard her calling to him; he felt her hands; she was imploring him to open his eyes, to speak to her. It seemed many minutes before he could do this, but at last he succeeded. And this time his vision was not so blurred. He could see plainly. Joanne was there, hovering over him, and just beyond her was the great bearded face of Donald MacDonald. And then, before words had formed on his lips, he did a wonderful thing. He smiled.
"O my God, I thank Thee!" he heard Joanne cry out, and then she was on her knees, and her face was against his, and she was sobbing.
He knew that it was MacDonald who drew her away.
The great head bent over him.
"Take this, will 'ee, Johnny boy?"
"Mac, you're—alive," he breathed.
"Alive as ever was, Johnny. Take this."
He swallowed. And then Joanne hovered over him again, and he put up his hands to her face, and her glorious eyes were swimming seas as she kissed him and choked back the sobs in her throat. He buried his fingers in her hair. He held her head close to him, and for many minutes no one spoke, while MacDonald stood and looked down on them. In those minutes everything returned to him. The fight was over. MacDonald had come in time to save him from Quade. But—and now his eyes stared upward through the sheen of Joanne's hair—he was in a cabin! He recognized it. It was Donald MacDonald's old home. When Joanne raised her head he looked about him without speaking. He was in the wide bunk built against the wall. Sunlight was filtering through a white curtain at the window, and in the open door he saw the anxious face of Marie.
He tried to lift himself, and was amazed to find that he could not. Very gently Joanne urged him back on his pillow. Her face was a glory of life and of joy. He obeyed her as he would have obeyed the hand of the Madonna. She saw all his questioning.
"You must be quiet, John," she said, and never had he heard in her voice the sweetness of love that was in it now. "We will tell you everything—Donald and I. But you must be quiet. You were terribly beaten among the rocks. We brought you here at noon, and the sun is setting—and until now you have not opened your eyes. Everything is well. But you must be quiet. You were terribly bruised by the rocks, dear."
It was sweet to lie under the caresses of her hand. He drew her face down to him.
"Joanne, my darling, you understand now—why I wanted to come alone into the North?"
Her lips pressed warm and soft against his.
"I know," she whispered, and he could feel her arras trembling, and her breath coming quickly. Gently she drew away from him. "I am going to make you some broth," she said then.
He watched her as she went out of the cabin, one white hand lifted to her throat.
Old Donald MacDonald seated himself on the edge of the bunk. He looked down at Aldous, chuckling in his beard; and Aldous, with his bruised and swollen face and half-open eyes, grinned like a happy fiend.
"It was a wunerful, wunerful fight, Johnny!" said old Donald.
"It was, Mac. And you came in fine on the home stretch!"
"What d'ye mean—home stretch?" queried Donald leaning over.
"You saved me from Quade."
Donald fairly groaned.
"I didn't, Johnny—I didn't! DeBar killed 'im. It was all over when I come. On'y—Johnny—I had a most cur'ous word with Culver Rann afore he died!"
In his eagerness Aldous was again trying to sit up when Joanne appeared in the doorway. With a little cry she darted to him, forced him gently back, and brushed old Donald off the edge of the bunk.
"Go out and watch the broth, Donald," she commanded firmly. Then she said to Aldous, stroking back his hair, "I forbade you to talk. John, dear, aren't you going to mind me?"
"Did Quade get me with the knife?" he asked.
"Am I shot?"
"Any bones broken?"
"Donald says not."
"Then please give me my pipe, Joanne—and let me get up. Why do you want me to lie here when I'm strong like an ox, as Donald says?"
Joanne laughed happily.
"You are getting better every minute," she cried joyously. "But you were terribly beaten by the rocks, John. If you will wait until you have the broth I will let you sit up."
A few minutes later, when he had swallowed his broth, Joanne kept her promise. Only then did he realize that there was not a bone or a muscle in his body that did not have its own particular ache. He grimaced when Joanne and Donald bolstered him up with blankets at his back. But he was happy. Twilight was coming swiftly, and as Joanne gave the final pats and turns to the blankets and pillows, MacDonald was lighting half a dozen candles placed around the room.
"Any watch to-night, Donald?" asked Aldous.
"No, Johnny, there ain't no watch to-night," replied the old mountaineer.
He came and seated himself on a bench with Joanne. For half an hour after that Aldous listened to a recital of the strange things that had happened—how poor marksmanship had saved MacDonald on the mountain-side, and how at last the duel had ended with the old hunter killing those who had come to slay him. When they came to speak of DeBar, Joanne leaned nearer to Aldous.
"It is wonderful what love will sometimes do," she spoke softly. "In the last few hours Marie has bared her soul to me, John. What she has been she has not tried to hide from me, nor even from the man she loves. She was one of Mortimer FitzHugh's tools. DeBar saw her and loved her, and she sold herself to him in exchange for the secret of the gold. When they came into the North the wonderful thing happened. She loved DeBar—not in the way of her kind, but as a woman in whom had been born a new heart and a new soul and a new joy. She defied FitzHugh; she told DeBar how she had tricked him.
"This morning FitzHugh attempted his old familiarity with her, and DeBar struck him down. The act gave them excuse for what they had planned to do. Before her eyes Marie thought they had killed the man she loved. She flung herself on his breast, and she said she could not feel his heart beat, and his blood flowed warm against her hands and face. Both she and DeBar had determined to warn us if they could. Only a few minutes before DeBar was stabbed he had let off his rifle—an accident, he said. But it was not an accident. It was the shot Donald heard in the cavern. It saved us, John! And Marie, waiting her opportunity, fled to us in the plain. DeBar was not killed. He says my screams brought him back to life. He came out—and killed Quade with a knife. Then he fell at our feet. A few minutes later Donald came. DeBar is in another cabin. He is not fatally hurt, and Marie is happy."
She was stroking his hand when she finished. The curious rumbling came softly in MacDonald's beard and his eyes were bright with a whimsical humour.
"I pretty near bored a hole through poor Joe when I come up," he chuckled. "But you bet I hugged him when I found what he'd done, Johnny! Joe says their camp was just over the range from us that night FitzHugh looked us up, an' Joanne thought she'd been dreamin'. He didn't have any help, but his intention was to finish us alone—murder us asleep—when Joanne cried out. Joe says it was just a devil's freak that took 'im to the top of the mountain alone that night. He saw our fire an' came down to investigate."
A low voice was calling outside the door. It was Marie. As Joanne went to her a quick gleam came into old Donald's eyes. He looked behind him cautiously to see that she had disappeared, then he bent over Aldous, and whispered hoarsely:
"Johnny, I had a most cur'ous word with Rann—or FitzHugh—afore he died! He wasn't dead when I went to him. But he knew he was dyin'; an' Johnny, he was smilin' an' cool to the end. I wanted to ask 'im a question, Johnny. I was dead cur'ous to know why the grave were empty! But he asked for Joanne, an' I couldn't break in on his last breath. I brought her. The first thing he asked her was how people had took it when they found out he'd poisoned his father! When Joanne told him no one had ever thought he'd killed his father, FitzHugh sat leanin' against the saddles for a minit so white an' still I thought he 'ad died with his eyes open. Then it came out, Johnny. He was smilin' as he told it. He killed his father with poison to get his money. Later he came to America. He didn't have time to tell us how he come to think they'd discovered his crime. He was dyin' as he talked. It came out sort o' slobberingly, Johnny. He thought they'd found 'im out. He changed his name, an' sent out the report that Mortimer FitzHugh had died in the mount'ins. But Johnny, he died afore I could ask him about the grave!"