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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 1
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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 1 Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1269

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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 1

CHAPTER I

In the mind of James Grenfell Kent, sergeant in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, there remained no shadow of a doubt. He knew that he was dying. He had implicit faith in Cardigan, his surgeon friend, and Cardigan had told him that what was left of his life would be measured out in hours--perhaps in minutes or seconds. It was an unusual case. There was one chance in fifty that he might live two or three days, but there was no chance at all that he would live more than three. The end might come with any breath he drew into his lungs. That was the pathological history of the thing, as far as medical and surgical science knew of cases similar to his own.

Personally, Kent did not feel like a dying man. His vision and his brain were clear. He felt no pain, and only at infrequent intervals was his temperature above normal. His voice was particularly calm and natural.

At first he had smiled incredulously when Cardigan broke the news. That the bullet which a drunken half-breed had sent into his chest two weeks before had nicked the arch of the aorta, thus forming an aneurism, was a statement by Cardigan which did not sound especially wicked or convincing to him. "Aorta" and "aneurism" held about as much significance for him as his perichondrium or the process of his stylomastoid. But Kent possessed an unswerving passion to grip at facts in detail, a characteristic that had largely helped him to earn the reputation of being the best man- hunter in all the northland service. So he had insisted, and his surgeon friend had explained.

The aorta, he found, was the main blood-vessel arching over and leading from the heart, and in nicking it the bullet had so weakened its outer wall that it bulged out in the form of a sack, just as the inner tube of an automobile tire bulges through the outer casing when there is a blowout.

"And when that sack gives way inside you," Cardigan had explained, "you'll go like that!" He snapped a forefinger and thumb to drive the fact home.

After that it was merely a matter of common sense to believe, and now, sure that he was about to die. Kent had acted. He was acting in the full health of his mind and in extreme cognizance of the paralyzing shock he was contributing as a final legacy to the world at large, or at least to that part of it which knew him or was interested. The tragedy of the thing did not oppress him. A thousand times in his life he had discovered that humor and tragedy were very closely related, and that there were times when only the breadth of a hair separated the two. Many times he had seen a laugh change suddenly to tears, and tears to laughter.

The tableau, as it presented itself about his bedside now, amused him. Its humor was grim, but even in these last hours of his life he appreciated it. He had always more or less regarded life as a joke--a very serious joke, but a joke for all that--a whimsical and trickful sort of thing played by the Great Arbiter on humanity at large; and this last count in his own life, as it was solemnly and tragically ticking itself off, was the greatest joke of all. The amazed faces that stared at him, their passing moments of disbelief, their repressed but at times visible betrayals of horror, the steadiness of their eyes, the tenseness of their lips --all added to what he might have called, at another time, the dramatic artistry of his last great adventure.

That he was dying did not chill him, or make him afraid, or put a tremble into his voice. The contemplation of throwing off the mere habit of breathing had never at any stage of his thirty-six years of life appalled him. Those years, because he had spent a sufficient number of them in the raw places of the earth, had given him a philosophy and viewpoint of his own, both of which he kept unto himself without effort to impress them on other people. He believed that life itself was the cheapest thing on the face of all the earth. All other things had their limitations.

There was so much water and so much land, so many mountains and so many plains, so many square feet to live on and so many square feet to be buried in. All things could be measured, and stood up, and catalogued--except life itself. "Given time," he would say, "a single pair of humans can populate all creation." Therefore, being the cheapest of all things, it was true philosophy that life should be the easiest of all things to give up when the necessity came.

Which is only another way of emphasizing that Kent was not, and never had been, afraid to die. But it does not say that he treasured life a whit less than the man in another room, who, a day or so before, had fought like a lunatic before going under an anesthetic for the amputation of a bad finger. No man had loved life more than he. No man had lived nearer it.

It had been a passion with him. Full of dreams, and always with anticipations ahead, no matter how far short realizations fell, he was an optimist, a lover of the sun and the moon and the stars, a worshiper of the forests and of the mountains, a man who loved his life, and who had fought for it, and yet who was ready--at the last--to yield it up without a whimper when the fates asked for it.

Bolstered up against his pillows, he did not look the part of the fiend he was confessing himself to be to the people about him. Sickness had not emaciated him. The bronze of his lean, clean-cut face had faded a little, but the tanning of wind and sun and campfire was still there. His blue eyes were perhaps dulled somewhat by the nearness of death. One would not have judged him to be thirty-six, even though over one temple there was a streak of gray in his blond hair--a heritage from his mother, who was dead. Looking at him, as his lips quietly and calmly confessed himself beyond the pale of men's sympathy or forgiveness, one would have said that his crime was impossible.

Through his window, as he sat bolstered up in his cot, Kent could see the slow-moving shimmer of the great Athabasca River as it moved on its way toward the Arctic Ocean. The sun was shining, and he saw the cool, thick masses of the spruce and cedar forests beyond, the rising undulations of wilderness ridges and hills, and through that open window he caught the sweet scents that came with a soft wind from out of the forests he had loved for so many years.

"They've been my best friends," he had said to Cardigan, "and when this nice little thing you're promising happens to me, old man, I want to go with my eyes on them."

So his cot was close to the window.

Nearest to him sat Cardigan. In his face, more than in any of the others, was disbelief. Kedsty, Inspector of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, in charge of N Division during an indefinite leave of absence of the superintendent, was paler even than the girl whose nervous fingers were swiftly putting upon paper every word that was spoken by those in the room. O'Connor, staff-sergeant, was like one struck dumb. The little, smooth-faced Catholic missioner whose presence as a witness Kent had requested, sat with his thin fingers tightly interlaced, silently placing this among all the other strange tragedies that the wilderness had given up to him. They had all been Kent's friends, his intimate friends, with the exception of the girl, whom Inspector Kedsty had borrowed for the occasion. With the little missioner he had spent many an evening, exchanging in mutual confidence the strange and mysterious happenings of the deep forests, and of the great north beyond the forests. O'Connor's friendship was a friendship bred of the brotherhood of the trails. It was Kent and O'Connor who had brought down the two Eskimo murderers from the mouth of the Mackenzie, and the adventure had taken them fourteen months. Kent loved O'Connor, with his red face, his red hair, and his big heart, and to him the most tragic part of it all was that he was breaking this friendship now.

But it was Inspector Kedsty, commanding N Division, the biggest and wildest division in all the Northland, that roused in Kent an unusual emotion, even as he waited for that explosion just over his heart which the surgeon had told him might occur at any moment. On his death-bed his mind still worked analytically. And Kedsty, since the moment he had entered the room, had puzzled Kent. The commander of N Division was an unusual man. He was sixty, with iron-gray hair, cold, almost colorless eyes in which one would search long for a gleam of either mercy or fear, and a nerve that Kent had never seen even slightly disturbed. It took such a man, an iron man, to run N Division according to law, for N Division covered an area of six hundred and twenty thousand square miles of wildest North America, extending more than two thousand miles north of the 70th parallel of latitude, with its farthest limit three and one-half degrees within the Arctic Circle. To police this area meant upholding the law in a country fourteen times the size of the state of Ohio. And Kedsty was the man who had performed this duty as only one other man had ever succeeded in doing it.

Yet Kedsty, of the five about Kent, was most disturbed. His face was ash-gray. A number of times Kent had detected a broken note in his voice. He had seen his hands grip at the arms of the chair he sat in until the cords stood out on them as if about to burst. He had never seen Kedsty sweat until now.

Twice the Inspector had wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. He was no longer Minisak--"The Rock"--a name given to him by the Crees. The armor that no shaft had ever penetrated seemed to have dropped from him. He had ceased to be Kedsty, the most dreaded inquisitor in the service. He was nervous, and Kent could see that he was fighting to repossess himself.

"Of course you know what this means to the Service," he said in a hard, low voice. "It means--"

"Disgrace," nodded Kent. "I know. It means a black spot on the otherwise bright escutcheon of N Division. But it can't be helped. I killed John Barkley. The man you've got in the guard-house, condemned to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, is innocent. I understand. It won't be nice for the Service to let it be known that a sergeant in His Majesty's Royal Mounted is an ordinary murderer, but--"

"Not an ORDINARY murderer," interrupted Kedsty. "As you have described it, the crime was deliberate--horrible and inexcusable to its last detail. You were not moved by a sudden passion. You tortured your victim. It is inconceivable!"

"And yet true," said Kent.

He was looking at the stenographer's slim fingers as they put down his words and Kedsty's. A bit of sunshine touched her bowed head, and he observed the red lights in her hair. His eyes swept to O'Connor, and in that moment the commander of N Division bent over him, so close that his face almost touched Kent's, and he whispered, in a voice so low that no one of the other four could hear,

"KENT--YOU LIE!"

"No, it is true," replied Kent.

Kedsty drew back, again wiping the moisture from his forehead.

"I killed Barkley, and I killed him as I planned that he should die," Kent went on. "It was my desire that he should suffer. The one thing which I shall not tell you is WHY I killed him. But it was a sufficient reason."

He saw the shuddering tremor that swept through the shoulders of the girl who was putting down the condemning notes.

"And you refuse to confess your motive?"

"Absolutely--except that he had wronged me in a way that deserved death."

"And you make this confession knowing that you are about to die?"

The flicker of a smile passed over Kent's lips. He looked at O'Connor and for an instant saw in O'Connor's eyes a flash of their old comradeship.

"Yes. Dr. Cardigan has told me. Otherwise I should have let the man in the guard-house hang. It's simply that this accursed bullet has spoiled my luck--and saved him!"

Kedsty spoke to the girl. For half an hour she read her notes, and after that Kent wrote his name on the last page. Then Kedsty rose from his chair.

"We have finished, gentlemen," he said.

They trailed out, the girl hurrying through the door first in her desire to free herself of an ordeal that had strained every nerve in her body. The commander of N Division was last to go. Cardigan hesitated, as if to remain, but Kedsty motioned him on. It was Kedsty who closed the door, and as he closed it he looked back, and for a flash Kent met his eyes squarely. In that moment he received an impression which he had not caught while the Inspector was in the room. It was like an electrical shock in its unexpectedness, and Kedsty must have seen the effect of it in his face, for he moved back quickly and closed the door. In that instant Kent had seen in Kedsty's eyes and face a look that was not only of horror, but what in the face and eyes of another man he would have sworn was fear.

It was a gruesome moment in which to smile, but Kent smiled. The shock was over. By the rules of the Criminal Code he knew that Kedsty even now was instructing Staff-Sergeant O'Connor to detail an officer to guard his door. The fact that he was ready to pop off at any moment would make no difference in the regulations of the law. And Kedsty was a stickler for the law as it was written. Through the closed door he heard voices indistinctly. Then there were footsteps, dying away. He could hear the heavy thump, thump of O'Connor's big feet. O'Connor had always walked like that, even on the trail.

Softly then the door reopened, and Father Layonne, the little missioner, came in. Kent knew that this would be so, for Father Layonne knew neither code nor creed that did not reach all the hearts of the wilderness. He came back, and sat down close to Kent, and took one of his hands and held it closely in both of his own. They were not the soft, smooth hands of the priestly hierarchy, but were hard with the callosity of toil, yet gentle with the gentleness of a great sympathy. He had loved Kent yesterday, when Kent had stood clean in the eyes of both God and men, and he still loved him today, when his soul was stained with a thing that must be washed away with his own life.

"I'm sorry, lad," he said. "I'm sorry."

Something rose up in Kent's throat that was not the blood he had been wiping away since morning. His fingers returned the pressure of the little missioner's hands. Then he pointed out through the window to the panorama of shimmering river and green forests.

"It is hard to say good-by to all that, Father," he said. "But, if you don't mind, I'd rather not talk about it. I'm not afraid of it. And why be unhappy because one has only a little while to live? Looking back over your life, does it seem so very long ago that you were a boy, a small boy?"

"The time has gone swiftly, very swiftly."

"It seems only yesterday--or so?"

"Yes, only yesterday--or so."

Kent's face lit up with the whimsical smile that long ago had reached the little missioner's heart. "Well, that's the way I'm looking at it, Father. There is only a yesterday, a today, and a tomorrow in the longest of our lives. Looking back from seventy years isn't much different from looking back from thirty-six WHEN you're looking back and not ahead. Do you think what I have just said will free Sandy McTrigger?"

"There is no doubt. Your statements have been accepted as a death- bed confession."

The little missioner, instead of Kent, was betraying a bit of nervousness.

"There are matters, my son--some few matters--which you will want attended to. Shall we not talk about them?"

"You mean--"

"Your people, first. I remember that once you told me there was no one. But surely there is some one somewhere."

Kent shook his head. "There is no one now. For ten years those forests out there have been father, mother, and home to me."

"But there must be personal affairs, affairs which you would like to entrust, perhaps, to me?"

Kent's face brightened, and for an instant a flash of humor leaped into his eyes. "It is funny," he chuckled. "Since you remind me of it, Father, it is quite in form to make my will. I've bought a few little pieces of land here. Now that the railroad has almost reached us from Edmonton, they've jumped up from the seven or eight hundred dollars I gave for them to about ten thousand. I want you to sell the lots and use the money in your work. Put as much of it on the Indians as you can. They've always been good brothers to me. And I wouldn't waste much time in getting my signature on some sort of paper to that effect."

Father Layonne's eyes shone softly. "God will bless you for that, Jimmy," he said, using the intimate name by which he had known him. "And I think He is going to pardon you for something else, if you have the courage to ask Him."

"I am pardoned," replied Kent, looking out through the window. "I feel it. I know it, Father."

In his soul the little missioner was praying. He knew that Kent's religion was not his religion, and he did not press the service which he would otherwise have rendered. After a moment he rose to his feet, and it was the old Kent who looked up into his face, the clean-faced, gray-eyed, unafraid Kent, smiling in the old way.

"I have one big favor to ask of you, Father," he said. "If I've got a day to live, I don't want every one forcing the fact on me that I'm dying. If I've any friends left, I want them to come in and see me, and talk, and crack jokes. I want to smoke my pipe. I'll appreciate a box of cigars if you'll send 'em up. Cardigan can't object now. Will you arrange these things for me? They'll listen to you--and please shove my cot a little nearer the window before you go."

Father Layonne performed the service in silence. Then at last the yearning overcame him to have the soul speak out, that his God might be more merciful, and he said: "My boy, you are sorry? You repent that you killed John Barkley?"

"No, I'm not sorry. It had to be done. And please don't forget the cigars, will you, Father?"

"No, I won't forget," said the little missioner, and turned away.

As the door opened and closed behind him, the flash of humor leaped into Kent's eyes again, and he chuckled even as he wiped another of the telltale stains of blood from his lips. He had played the game. And the funny part about it was that no one in all the world would ever know, except himself--and perhaps one other.

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