James Oliver Curwood.

The Courage of Captain Plum online

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of those stronger than herself. He hoped now for that which at first had
filled him with despair - that Strang had hidden Marion away from the
terror and suffocation of this multitude that fought for its breath
within the temple. Freeing himself of the crowd he ran to the farther
side of the building. A fourth fire blazed in his face. But on this side
there was no cannon; scarcely a score of men were guarding the rear of
the temple.

For a full minute he stood concealed in the gloom. He realized now that
it would be useless to return to Obadiah. The old councilor could
probably have told him all that he had discovered for himself; that
Marion had gone to the castle - that Strang intended to make her his
bride that night. But did Obadiah know that the castle had been
abandoned? Did he know that the king's wives had sought refuge in the
temple, and did he know where Marion was hidden? Nathaniel could assure
himself but one answer; Obadiah, struck down by his strange madness, was
more ignorant than he himself of what had occurred at St. James.

While he paused a heavy noise arose that quickened his heart-beats and
sent the blood through his veins in wild excitement. From far down by
the shore there came the roar of a cannon. It was closely followed by a
second and a third, and hardly was the night shaken by their thunder
than a mighty cheering of men swept up from the fire-rimmed coast. The
battle had begun! Nathaniel leaped out into the glow of the great
blazing fire beyond the temple; he heard a warning shout as he darted
past the men; for an instant he saw their white faces staring at him
from the firelight - heard a second shout, which he knew was a
command - and was gone. Half a dozen rifles cracked behind him and a yell
of joyful defiance burst from his throat as the bullets hissed over his
head. The battle had begun! Another hour and the Mormon kingdom would be
at the mercy of the avenging host from the mainland - and Marion would be
his own for ever! He heard again the deep rumble of a heavy gun and from
its sullen detonation he knew that it was fired from a ship at sea. A
nearer crash of returning fire turned him into a deserted street down
which he ran wildly, on past the last houses of the town, until he came
to the foot of a hill up which he climbed more slowly, panting like a
winded animal.

From its top he could look down upon the scene of battle. To the
eastward stretched the harbor line with its rim of fires. A glance
showed him that the fight was not to center about these. They had served
their purpose, had forced the mainlanders to seek a landing farther down
the coast. The light of dawn had already begun to disperse the thick
gloom of night and an eighth of a mile below Nathaniel the Mormon forces
were creeping slowly along the shore. The pale ghostly mistiness of the
sea hung like a curtain between him and what was beyond, and even as he
strained his eyes to catch a glimpse of the avenging fleet a vivid light
leaped out of the white distance, followed by the thunder of a cannon.
He saw the head of the Mormon line falter. In an instant it had been
thrown into confusion. A second shot from the sea - a storm of cheering
voices from out of that white chaos of mist - and the Mormons fell back
from the shore in a panic-stricken, fleeing mob. Were those frightened
cowards the fierce fighters of whom he had heard so much? Were they the
men who had made themselves masters of a kingdom in the land of their
enemies - whose mere name carried terror for a hundred miles along the
coast? He was stupefied, bewildered. He made no effort to conceal
himself as they approached the hill, but drew his pistol, ready to fire
down upon them as they came. Suddenly there was a change. So quickly
that he could scarcely believe his eyes the flying Mormons had
disappeared. Not a man was visible upon that narrow plain between the
hill and the sea. Like a huge covey of quail they had dropped to the
ground, their rifles lost in that ghostly gloom through which the voices
of the mainlanders came in fierce cries of triumph. It was magnificent!
Even as the crushing truth of what it all meant came to him, the
fighting blood in his veins leaped at the sight of it - the pretended
effect of the shots from sea, the sham confusion, the disorderly
flight, the wonderful quickness and precision with which the rabble of
armed men had thrown itself into ambush!

Would the mainlanders rush into the trap? Had some keen eye seen those
shadowy forms dropping through the mist? Each instant the ghostly pall
that shut out vision seaward seemed drifting away. Nathaniel's staring
eyes saw a vague shape appear in it, an indistinct dirt-gray blotch, and
he knew that it was a boat. Another followed, and then another; he heard
the sound of oars, the grinding of keels upon the sand, and where the
Mormons had been a few moments before the beach was now alive with
mainlanders. In the growing light he could make out the king's men below
him, inanimate spots in the middle of the narrow plain. Helpless he
stood clutching his pistol, the horror in him growing with each breath.
Could he give no warning? Could he do nothing - nothing - At least he
could join in the fight! He ran down the hill, swinging to the left of
the Mormons. Half way, and he stopped as a thundering cheer swept up
from the shore. The mainlanders had started toward the hill! Without
rank, without order - shouting their triumph as they came they were
rushing blindly into the arms of the ambush! A shriek of warning left
Nathaniel's lips. It was drowned in a crash of rifle fire. Volley after
volley burst from that shadowy stretch of plain. Before the furious fire
the van of the mainlanders crumpled into ruin. Like chaff before a wind
those behind were swept back. Apparently they were flying without
waiting to fire a shot! Nathaniel dashed down into the plain. Ahead of
him the Mormons were charging in a solid line, and in another moment the
shore had become a mass of fighting men. Far to the left he saw a group
of the mainlanders running along the beach toward the conflict. If he
could only intercept them - and bring them into the rear! Like the wind
he sped to cut them off, shouting and firing his pistol.

He won by a hundred yards and stood panting as they came toward him.
Dawn had dispelled the mist-gloom and as the mainlanders drew nearer he
discerned in their lead a figure that brought a cry of joy from his
lips.

"Neil!" he shouted. "Neil - "

He turned as Marion's brother darted to his side.

"This way - from behind!"

The two led the way, side by side, followed by a dozen men. A glance
told Nathaniel that nothing much less than a miracle could turn the tide
of battle. Half of the mainlanders were fighting in the water. Others
were struggling desperately to get away in the boats. Foot by foot the
Mormons were crushing them back, their battle cries now turned into
demoniac yells of victory. Into the rear of the struggling mass, firing
as they ran, charged the handful of men behind Captain Plum and Neil.
For a little space the king's men gave way before them and with wild
cheers the powerful fishermen from the coast fought their way toward
their comrades. Many of them were armed with long knives; some had
pistols; others used their empty rifles as clubs. A dozen more men and
they would have split like a wedge through the Mormon mass. Above the
din of battle Nathaniel's voice rose in thundering shouts to the men in
the sea, and close beside him he heard Neil shrieking out a name between
his blows. Like demons they fought straight ahead, slashing with their
knives. The Mormon line was thinning. The mainlanders had turned and
were fighting their way back, gaining foot by foot what they had lost.
Suddenly there came a terrific cheer from the plain and the hope that
had flamed in Nathaniel's breast died out as he heard it. He knew what
it meant - that the Mormons at St. James had come to reinforce their
comrades. He fought now to reach the boats, calling to Neil, whom he
could no longer see. Even in that moment he thought of Marion. His only
chance was to escape with the others, his only hope of wresting her from
the kingdom lay in his own freedom. He had waited too long. A crushing
blow fell upon him from behind and with a last cry to Neil he sank under
the trampling feet. Indistinctly there came to him the surging shock of
the fresh body of Mormons. The din about him became fainter and fainter
as though he was being carried rapidly away from it; shouting voices
came to him in whispers, and deadened sounds, like the quick tapping of
a finger on his forehead, were all that he heard of the steady rifle
fire that pursued the defeated mainlanders in their flight.

After a little he began struggling back into consciousness. There was a
splitting pain somewhere in his head and he tried to reach his hand to
it.

"You won't have to carry him," he heard a voice say. "Give him a little
water and he'll walk."

He felt the dash of the water in his face and it put new life into him.
Somebody had raised him to a sitting posture and was supporting him
there while a second person bound a cloth about his head. He opened his
eyes and the light of day shot into them like a stinging, burning charge
of needle-points, and he closed them again with a sharp cry of pain.
That second's glance had shown him that it was a woman who was binding
his head. He had not seen her face. Beyond her he had caught a half
formed vision of many people and the glistening edge of the sea, and as
he lay with closed eyes the murmur of voices came to him. The support at
his back was taken away, slowly, as if the person who held him feared
that he would fall. Nathaniel stiffened himself to show his returning
strength and opened his eyes again. This time the pain was not so great.
A few yards away he saw a group of people and among them were women;
still farther away, so far that his brain grew dizzy as he looked, there
was a black moving crowd. He was among the wounded. The Mormon women
were here. Down there along the shore - among the dead - had assembled the
population of St. James.

A strange sickness overpowered him and he sank back against his
supporter. A cool hand passed over his face. It was a soothing, gentle
touch - the hand of the woman. He felt the sweep of soft hair against his
cheek - a breath whispering in his ear.

"You will be better soon."

His heart stood still.

"You will be better - "

Against his rough cheek there fell the soft pressure of a woman's lips.

Nathaniel pulled himself erect, every drop of blood in him striving for
the mastery of his body, his vision, his strength. He tried to turn, but
strong arms seized him from behind. A man's voice spoke to him, a man's
strength held him. In an agony of appeal Marion's name burst from his
lips.

"Sh-h-!" warned the voice behind him. "Are you crazy?"

The arms relaxed their hold and Nathaniel dragged himself to his knees.
The woman was gone. As far as he could see there were people - scores of
them, hundreds of them - multiplied into thousands and millions as he
looked, until there was only a black cloud about him. He staggered to
his feet and a strong hand kept him from falling while his brain slowly
cleared. The millions and thousands and hundreds of people dissolved
themselves into the day until only a handful was left where he had seen
multitudes. He turned his face weakly to the man beside him.

"Where did she go?" he asked.

It was a boyish face into which his pleading eyes gazed, a face white
with the strain of battle, reddened a little on one cheek with a smear
of blood, and there was a startled, frightened look in it that did not
come of the strife that had passed.

"Who? What are you talking about?"

"The woman," whispered Nathaniel. "The woman - Marion - who kissed - me - "

The young fellow's hand gripped his arm in a sudden fierce clutch.

"You've been dreaming!" he exclaimed in a threatening voice. "Shut up!"
He spoke the words loudly. Then quickly dropping his voice to a whisper
he added, "For God's sake don't betray her! They saw her with
us - everybody knows that it was the king's wife with you!"

The king's wife! Nathaniel was too weak to analyze the words beyond the
fact that they carried the dread truth of his fears deep into his soul.
Who would have come to him but Marion? Who else would have kissed him?
It was her voice that had whispered in his ear - the thrill of her hand
that had passed over his face. And this man had said that she was the
wife of the king! He heard the voices of other men near him but did not
understand what they were saying. He knew that after a moment there was
a man on each side of him holding him by the arms, and mechanically he
moved his legs, knowing that they wanted him to walk. They did not guess
how weak he was - how he struggled to keep from becoming too great a
weight on their hands. Once or twice they stopped in their agonizing
climb up the hill. On its top the cool sea air swept into Nathaniel's
face and it was like water to a parched throat.

After a time - it seemed a day of terrible work and pain to him - they
came to the streets of the town, and in a half conscious sort of way he
cursed at the rabble trailing at their heels. They passed close to the
temple, dirt and blood and a burning torment shutting the vision of it
from his eyes, and beyond this there was another crowd. An aisle opened
for them, as it had opened for others ahead of them. In front of the
jail they stopped. Nathaniel's head hung heavily upon his breast and he
made no effort to raise it. All ambition and desire had left him, all
desire but one, and that was to drop upon the ground and lie there for
endless, restful years. What consciousness was left in him was ebbing
swiftly; he saw black, fathomless night about him and the earth seemed
slipping from under his feet.

A voice dragged him back into life - a voice that boomed in his ears like
rolling thunder and set every fiber in him quivering with emotion. He
drew himself erect with the involuntary strength of one mastering the
last spasm of death and as they dragged him through the door he saw
there within an arm's reach of him the great, living face of Strang,
gloating at him as if from out of a mist - red eyed, white fanged, filled
with the vengefulness of a beast.

The great voice rumbled in his ears again.

"Take that man to the dungeon!"




CHAPTER X

WINNSOME'S VERDICT OF DEATH


The voice - the condemning words - followed Nathaniel as he staggered on
between his two guards; it haunted him still as the cold chill of the
rotting dungeon walls struck in his face; it remained with him as he
stood swaying alone in the thick gloom - the voice rumbling in his ears,
the words beating against his brain until the shock of them sickened
him, until he stretched out his arms and there fell from him such a cry
as had never tortured his lips before.

Strang was alive! He had left the spark of life in him, and the woman
who loved him had fanned it back into full flame.

Strang was alive! And Marion - Marion was his wife!

The voice of the king taunted him from the black chaos that hid the
dungeon walls. The words struck at him, filling his head with shooting
pain, and he tottered back and sank to the ground to get away from them.
They followed, and that vengeful leer of the king was behind them,
urging them on, until they beat his face into the sticky earth, and
smothered him into what he thought was death.

There came rest after that, a long silent rest. When Nathaniel slowly
climbed up out of the ebon shadows again the first consciousness that
came to him was that the word-demons had stopped their beating against
his brain and that he no longer heard the voice of the king. His relief
was so great that he breathed a restful sigh. Something touched him
then. Great God! were they coming back? Were they still
there - waiting - waiting -

It was a wonderfully familiar voice that spoke to him.

"Hello there, Nat! Want a drink?"

He gulped eagerly at the cool liquid that touched his lips.

"Neil," he whispered.

"It's me, Nat. They chucked me in with you. Hell's hole, isn't it?"

Nathaniel sat up, Neil's strong arm at his back. There was a light in
the room now and he could see his companion's face, smiling at him
encouragingly. The sight of it was like an elixir to him. He drank again
and new life coursed through him.

"Yes - hell of a hole!" he repeated drowsily. "Sorry for you - Neil - " and
he seemed to sleep again.

Neil laughed as he wiped his companion's face with a wet cloth.

"I'm used to it, Nat. Been here before," he said. "Can you get up?
There's a bench over here - not long enough to stretch you out on or I
would have made you a bed of it, but it's better than this mud to sit
on."

He put his arms about Nathaniel and helped him to his feet. For a few
moments the wounded man stood without moving.

"I'm not very bad, I guess," he said, taking a slow step. "Where is the
seat, Neil? I'm going to walk to it. What sort of a bump have I got on
the head?"

"Nothing much," assured Neil. "Suspicious, though," he grinned
cheerfully. "Looks as though you were running and somebody came up and
tapped you from behind!"

Nathaniel's strength returned to him quickly. The pain had gone from his
head and his eyes no longer hurt him. In the dim candle-light he could
distinguish the four walls of the dungeon, glistening with the water and
mold that reeked from between their rotting logs. The floor was of wet,
sticky earth which clung to his boots, and the air that he breathed
filled his nostrils and throat with the uncomfortable thickness of a
night fog at sea. Through it the candle burned in a misty halo. Near the
candle, which stood on a shelf-like table against one of the walls, was
a big dish which caught Nathaniel's eyes.

"What's that?" he asked pointing toward it.

"Grub," replied Neil. "Hungry?"

He went to the table and got the plate of food. There were chunks of
boiled meat, unbuttered bread, and cold potatoes. For several minutes
they ate in silence. Now that Nathaniel was himself again Neil could no
longer keep up his forced spirits. Both realized that they had played
their game and that it had ended in defeat. And each believed that it
was in his individual power to alleviate to some extent the other's
misery. To Neil what was ahead of them held no mystery. A few hours more
and then - death. It was only the form in which it would come that
troubled him, that made him think. Usually the victims of this dungeon
cell were shot. Sometimes they were hanged. But why tell Nathaniel? So
he ate his meat and bread without words, waiting for the other to speak,
as the other waited for him. And Nathaniel, on his part, kept to himself
the secret of Marion's fate. After they had done with the meat and the
bread and the cold potatoes he pulled out his beloved pipe and filled it
with the last scraps of his tobacco, and as the fumes of it clouded
round his head, soothing him in its old friendship, he told of his fight
with Strang and his killing of Arbor Croche.

"I'm glad for Winnsome's sake," said Neil, after a moment. "Oh, if you'd
only killed Strang!"

Nathaniel thought of what Marion had said to him in the forest.

"Neil," he said quietly, "do you know that Winnsome loves you - not as
the little girl whom you toted about on your shoulders - but as a woman?
Do you know that?" In the other's silence he added, "When I last saw
Marion she sent this message to you - 'Tell Neil that he must go, for
Winnsome's sake. Tell him that her fate is shortly to be as cruel as
mine - tell him that Winnsome loves him and that she will escape and come
to him on the mainland.'" Like words of fire they had burned themselves
in his brain and as Nathaniel repeated them he thought of that other
broken heart that had sobbed out its anguish to him in the castle
chamber. "Neil, a man can die easier when he knows that a woman loves
him!"

He had risen to his feet and was walking back and forth through the
thick gloom.

"I'm glad!" Neil's voice came to him softly, as though he scarcely dared
to speak the words aloud. After a moment he added, "Have you got a
pencil, Nat? I would like to leave a little note for Winnsome."

Nathaniel found both pencil and paper in one of his pockets and Neil
dropped upon his knees in the mud beside the table. Ten minutes later he
turned to Nathaniel and a great change had come into his face.

"She always seemed like such a little child to me that I never
dared - to - tell her," he faltered. "I've done it in this."

"How will you get the note to her?"

"I know the jailer. Perhaps when he comes to bring us our dinner I can
persuade him to send it to her."

Nathaniel thrust his hands into his pockets. His fingers dug into
Obadiah's gold.

"Would this help?" he asked.

He brought out a shimmering handful of it and counted the pieces upon
the table.

"Two hundred dollars - if he will deliver that note," he said.

Neil stared at him in amazement.

"If he won't take it for that - I've got more. I'll go a thousand!"

Neil stood silent, wondering if his companion was mad. Nathaniel saw the
look in his face and his own flushed with sudden excitement.

"Don't you understand?" he cried. "That note means Heaven or hell for
Winnsome - it means life - her whole future! And you know what this cell
means for us," he said more calmly. "It means that we're at the end of
our rope, that the game is up, that neither of us will ever see Marion
or Winnsome again. That note is the last word in life from us - from you.
It's a dying prayer. Tell Winnsome your love, tell her that it is your
last wish that she go out into the big, free world - away from this
hell-hole, away from Strang, away from the Mormons, and live as other
women live! And commanded by your love - she will go!"

"I've told her that!" breathed Neil.

"I knew you would!"

Nathaniel threw another handful of gold on the table.

"Five hundred!" he exclaimed. "It's cheap enough for a woman's soul!"

He motioned for Neil to put the money in his pocket. The pain was coming
back into his head, he grew dizzy, and hastened to the bench. Neil came
and sat beside him.

"So you think it's the end?" he asked. He was glad that his companion
had guessed the truth.

"Don't you?"

"Yes."

There was a minute's dark silence. The ticking of Nathaniel's watch
sounded like the tapping of a stick.

"What will happen?"

"I don't know. But whatever it may be it will come to us soon. Usually
it happens at night."

"There is no hope?"

"Absolutely none. The whole mainland is at the mercy of Strang. He fears
no retribution now, no punishment for his crimes, no hand stronger than
his own. He will not even give us the pretense of a hearing. I am a
traitor, a revolutionist - you have attempted the life of the king. We
are both condemned - both doomed."

Neil spoke calmly and his companion strove to master the terrible pain
at his heart as he thought of Marion. If Neil could go to the end like a
martyr he would at least make an attempt to do as much. Yet he could not
help from saying:

"What will become of Marion?"

He felt the tremor that passed through his companion's body.

"I have implored Winnsome to do all that she can to get her away,"
replied Neil. "If Marion won't go - " He clenched his hands with a
moaning curse and sprang to his feet, again pacing back and forth
through the gloomy dungeon. "If she won't go I swear that Strang's
triumph will be short!" he cried suddenly. "I can not guess the terrible
power that the king possesses over her, but I know that once his wife
she will not endure it long. The moment she becomes that, her bondage is
broken. I know it. I have seen it in her eyes. She will kill herself!"

Nathaniel rose slowly from the bench and came to his side.

"She won't do that!" he groaned. "My God - she won't do that!"

Neil's face was blanched to the whiteness of paper.

"She will," he repeated quietly. "Her terrible pact with Strang will
have been fulfilled. And I - I am glad - glad - "

He raised his arms to the dripping blackness of the dungeon ceiling, his
voice shaking with a cold, stifled anguish. Nathaniel drew back from
that tall, straight figure, step by step, as though to hide beyond the
flickering candle glow the betrayal that had come into his face, the
blazing fire that seemed burning out his eyes. If what Neil had said was
true -

Something choked him as he dropped alone upon the bench.

If it was true - Marion was dead!

He dropped his head in his hands and sat for a long time in silence,


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Online LibraryJames Oliver CurwoodThe Courage of Captain Plum → online text (page 9 of 12)