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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 10
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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 10 Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1823

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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

What a terrible and inexcusable madness had possessed him, Kent realized the instant he rose from Mercer's prostrate body. Never had his brain flamed to that madness before. He believed at first that he had killed Mercer. It was neither pity nor regret that brought him to his senses. Mercer, a coward and a traitor, a sneak of the lowest type, had no excuse for living. It was the thought that he had lost his chance to reach the river that cleared his head as he swayed over Mercer.

He heard running feet. He saw figures approaching swiftly through the starlight. And he was too weak to fight or run. The little strength he had saved up, and which he had planned to use so carefully in his flight, was gone. His wound, weeks in bed, muscles unaccustomed to the terrific exertion he had made in these moments of his vengeance, left him now panting and swaying as the running footsteps came nearer.

His head swam. For a space he was sickeningly dizzy, and in the first moment of that dizziness, when every drop of blood in his body seemed rushing to his brain, his vision was twisted and his sense of direction gone. In his rage he had overexerted himself. He knew that something had gone wrong inside him and that he was helpless. Even then his impulse was to stagger toward the inanimate Mercer and kick him, but hands caught him and held him. He heard an amazed voice, then another--and something hard and cold shut round his wrists like a pair of toothless jaws.

It was Constable Carter, Inspector Kedsty's right-hand man about barracks, that he saw first; then old Sands, the caretaker at Cardigan's place. Swiftly as he had turned sick, his brain grew clear, and his blood distributed itself evenly again through his body. He held up his hands. Carter had slipped a pair of irons on him, and the starlight glinted on the shining steel. Sands was bending over Mercer, and Carter was saying in a low voice:

"It's too bad, Kent. But I've got to do it. I saw you from the window just as Mercer screamed. Why did you stop for him?"

Mercer was getting up with the assistance of Sands. He turned a bloated and unseeing face toward Kent and Carter. He was blubbering and moaning, as though entreating for mercy in the fear that Kent had not finished with him. Carter pulled Kent away.

"There's only one thing for me to do now," he said. "It isn't pleasant. But the law says I must take you to barracks."

In the sky Kent saw the stars clearly again, and his lungs were drinking in the cool air as in the wonderful moments before his encounter with Mercer.

He had lost. And it was Mercer who had made him lose. Carter felt the sudden tightening of his muscles as he walked with a hand on his arm. And Kent shut his teeth close and made no answer to what Carter had said, except that Carter heard something which he thought was a sob choked to death in the other's throat.

Carter, too, was a man bred of the red blood of the North, and he knew what was in Kent's heart. For only by the breadth of a hair had Kent failed in his flight.

Pelly was on duty at barracks, and it was Pelly who locked him in one of the three cells behind the detachment office. When he was gone, Kent sat down on the edge of his prison cot and for the first time let the agony of his despair escape in a gasping breath from between his lips. Half an hour ago the world had reached out its arms to him, and he had gone forth to its welcome, only to have the grimmest tragedy of all his life descend upon him like the sword of Damocles. For this was real tragedy. Here there was no hope. The tentacles of the law had him in their grip, and he could no longer dream of escape.

Ghastly was the thought that it was he, James Kent, who had supervised the building of these cells! Acquainted with every trick and stratagem of the prisoner plotting for his freedom, he had left no weak point in their structure. Again he clenched his hands, and in his soul he cursed Mercer as he went to the little barred window that overlooked the river from his cell. The river was near now. He could hear the murmur of it. He could see its movement, and that movement, played upon by the stars, seemed now a writhing sort of almost noiseless laughter taunting him in his folly.

He went back to his cot, and in his despair buried his face in his hands. In the half-hour after that he did not raise his head. For the first time in his life he knew that he was beaten, so utterly beaten that he no more had the desire to fight, and his soul was dark with the chaos of the things he had lost.

At last he opened his eyes to the blackness of his prison room, and he beheld a marvelous thing. Across the gloom of the cell lay a shaft of golden fire. It was the light of the rising moon coming through his little, steel-barred window. To Kent it had crept into his cell like a living thing. He watched it, fascinated. His eyes followed it to the foot-square aperture, and there, red and glorious as it rose over the forests, the moon itself filled the world. For a space he saw nothing but that moon crowding the frame of his window. And as he rose to his feet and stood where his face was flooded in the light of it, he felt stirring within him the ghosts of his old hopes. One by one they rose up and came to life. He held out his hands, as if to fill them with the liquid glow; his heart beat faster in that glory of the moonrise. The taunting murmur of the river changed once more into hopeful song, his fingers closed tightly around the bars, and the fighting spirit rose in him again. As that spirit surged stronger, beating down his despair, driving the chaos out of his brain, he watched the moon as it climbed higher, changing from the red of the lower atmosphere to the yellow gold of the greater heights, marveling at the miracle of light and color that had never failed to stir him.

And then he laughed. If Pelly or Carter had heard him, they would have wondered if he was mad. It was madness of a sort--the madness of restored confidence, of an unlimited faith, of an optimism that was bound to make dreams come true. Again he looked beyond the bars of his cell. The world was still there; the river was there; all the things that were worth fighting for were there. And he would fight. Just how, he did not try to tell himself now. And then he laughed again, softly, a bit grimly, for he saw the melancholy humour of the fact that he had built his own prison.

He sat down again on the edge of his cot, and the whimsical thought struck him that all those he had brought to this same cell, and who had paid the first of their penance here, must be laughing at him now in the spirit way. In his mental fancy a little army of faces trooped before him, faces dark and white, faces filled with hatred and despair, faces brave with the cheer of hope and faces pallid with the dread of death. And of these ghosts of his man-hunting prowess it was Anton Fournet's face that came out of the crowd and remained with him. For he had brought Anton to this same cell--Anton, the big Frenchman, with his black hair, his black beard, and his great, rolling laugh that even in the days when he was waiting for death had rattled the paper- weights on Kedsty's desk.

Anton rose up like a god before Kent now. He had killed a man, and like a brave man he had not denied it. With a heart in his great body as gentle as a girl's, Anton had taken pride in the killing. In his prison days he sang songs to glorify it. He had killed the white man from Chippewyan who had stolen his neighbor's wife! Not HIS wife, but his neighbor's! For Anton's creed was, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," and he had loved his neighbor with the great forest love of man for man. His neighbor was weak, and Anton was strong with the strength of a bull, so that when the hour came, it was Anton who had measured out vengeance. When Kent brought Anton in, the giant had laughed first at the littleness of his cell, then at the unsuspected strength of it, and after that he had laughed and sung great, roaring songs every day of the brief tenure of life that was given him. When he died, it was with the smiling glory in his face of one who had cheaply righted a great wrong.

Kent would never forget Anton Fournet. He had never ceased to grieve that it had been his misfortune to bring Anton in, and always, in close moments, the thought of Anton, the stout-hearted, rallied him back to courage. Never would he be the man that Anton Fournet had been, he told himself many times. Never would his heart be as great or as big, though the Law had hanged Anton by the neck until the soul was choked out of his splendid body, for it was history that Anton Fournet had never harmed man, woman, or child until he set out to kill a human snake and the Law placed its heel upon him and crushed him.

And tonight Anton Fournet came into the cell again and sat with Kent on the cot where he had slept many nights, and the ghosts of his laughter and his song filled Kent's ears, and his great courage poured itself out in the moonlit prison room so that at last, when Kent stretched himself on the cot to sleep, it was with the knowledge that the soul of the splendid dead had given him a strength which it was impossible to have gained from the living. For Anton Fournet had died smiling, laughing, singing--and it was of Anton Fournet that he dreamed when he fell asleep. And in that dream came also the vision of a man called Dirty Fingers--and with it inspiration.

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CHAPTER XIWhere a bit of the big river curved inward like the tongue of a friendly dog, lapping the shore at Athabasca Landing, there still remained Fingers' Row--nine dilapidated, weather-worn, and crazily-built shacks put there by the eccentric genius who had foreseen a boom ten years ahead of its time. And the fifth of these nine, counting from either one end or the other, was named by its owner, Dirty Fingers himself, the Good Old Queen Bess. It was a shack covered with black tar paper, with two windows, like square eyes, fronting the river as if always on the watch
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CHAPTER IXThat morning Kent ate a breakfast that would have amazed Doctor Cardigan and would have roused a greater caution in Inspector Kedsty had he known of it. While eating he strengthened the bonds already welded between himself and Mercer. He feigned great uneasiness over the condition of Mooie, who he knew was not fatally hurt because Mercer had told him there was no fracture. But if he should happen to die, he told Mercer, it would mean something pretty bad for them, if their part in the affair leaked out.As for himself, it would make little difference, as he was
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