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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 11
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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 11 Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1196

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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 11


Where 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 for something. Across the front of this shack Dirty Fingers had built a porch to protect himself from the rain in springtime, from the sun in Summer time, and from the snow in the months of Winter. For it was here that Dirty Fingers sat out all of that part of his life which was not spent in bed.

Up and down two thousand miles of the Three Rivers was Dirty Fingers known, and there were superstitious ones who believed that little gods and devils came to sit and commune with him in the front of the tar-papered shack. No one was so wise along those rivers, no one was so satisfied with himself, that he would not have given much to possess the many things that were hidden away in Dirty Fingers' brain. One would not have suspected the workings of that brain by a look at Dirty Fingers on the porch of his Good Old Queen Bess. He was a great soft lump of a man, a giant of flabbiness. Sitting in his smooth-worn, wooden armchair, he was almost formless. His head was huge, his hair uncut and scraggy, his face smooth as a baby's, fat as a cherub's, and as expressionless as an apple. His folded arms always rested on a huge stomach, whose conspicuousness was increased by an enormous watch-chain made from beaten nuggets of Klondike gold, and Dirty Fingers' thumb and forefinger were always twiddling at this chain. How he had come by the name of Dirty Fingers, when his right name was Alexander Toppet Fingers, no one could definitely say, unless it was that he always bore an unkempt and unwashed appearance.

Whatever the quality of the two hundred and forty-odd pounds of flesh in Dirty Fingers' body, it was the quality of his brain that made people hold him in a sort of awe. For Dirty Fingers was a lawyer, a wilderness lawyer, a forest bencher, a legal strategist of the trail, of the river, of the great timber-lands.

Stored away in his brain was every rule of equity and common law of the great North country. For his knowledge he went back two hundred years. He knew that a law did not die of age, that it must be legislated to death, and out of the moldering past he had dug up every trick and trap of his trade. He had no law-books. His library was in his head, and his facts were marshaled in pile after pile of closely-written, dust-covered papers in his shack. He did not go to court as other lawyers; and there were barristers in Edmonton who blessed him for that.

His shack was his tabernacle of justice. There he sat, hands folded, and gave out his decisions, his advice, his sentences. He sat until other men would have gone mad. From morning until night, moving only for his meals or to get out of heat or storm, he was a fixture on the porch of the Good Old Queen Bess. For hours he would stare at the river, his pale eyes never seeming to blink. For hours he would remain without a move or a word. One constant companion he had, a dog, fat, emotionless, lazy, like his master. Always this dog was sleeping at his feet or dragging himself wearily at his heels when Dirty Fingers elected to make a journey to the little store where he bartered for food and necessities.

It was Father Layonne who came first to see Kent in his cell the morning after Kent's unsuccessful attempt at flight. An hour later it was Father Layonne who traveled the beaten path to the door of Dirty Fingers' shack. If a visible emotion of pleasure ever entered into Dirty Fingers' face, it was when the little missioner came occasionally to see him. It was then that his tongue let itself loose, and until late at night they talked of many things of which other men knew but little. This morning Father Layonne did not come casually, but determinedly on business, and when Dirty Fingers learned what that business was, he shook his head disconsolately, folded his fat arms more tightly over his stomach, and stated the sheer impossibility of his going to see Kent. It was not his custom. People must come to him. And he did not like to walk. It was fully a third of a mile from his shack to barracks, possibly half a mile. And it was mostly upgrade! If Kent could be brought to him--

In his cell Kent waited. It was not difficult for him to hear voices in Kedsty's office when the door was open, and he knew that the Inspector did not come in until after the missioner had gone on his mission to Dirty Fingers. Usually he was at the barracks an hour or so earlier. Kent made no effort to figure out a reason for Kedsty's lateness, but he did observe that after his arrival there was more than the usual movement between the office door and the outside of the barracks. Once he was positive that he heard Cardigan's voice, and then he was equally sure that he heard Mercer's. He grinned at that. He must be wrong, for Mercer would be in no condition to talk for several days. He was glad that a turn in the hall hid the door of the detachment office from him, and that the three cells were in an alcove, safely out of sight of the curious eyes of visitors. He was also glad that he had no other prisoner for company. His situation was one in which he wanted to be alone. To the plan that was forming itself in his mind, solitude was as vital as the cooperation of Alexander Toppet Fingers.

Just how far he could win that cooperation was the problem which confronted him now, and he waited anxiously for the return of Father Layonne, listening for the sound of his footsteps in the outer hall. If, after all, that inspirational thought of last night came to nothing, if Fingers should fail him--

He shrugged his shoulders. If that happened, he could see no other chance. He would have to go on and take his medicine at the hands of a jury. But if Fingers played up to the game--

He looked out on the river again, and again it was the river that seemed to answer him. If Fingers played with him, they would beat Kedsty and the whole of N Division! And in winning he would prove out the greatest psychological experiment he had ever dared to make. The magnitude of the thing, when he stopped to think of it, was a little appalling, but his faith was equally large. He did not consider his philosophy at all supernatural. He had brought it down to the level of the average man and woman.

He believed that every man and woman possessed a subliminal consciousness which it was possible to rouse to tremendous heights if the right psychological key was found to fit its particular lock, and he believed he possessed the key which fitted the deeply-buried and long-hidden thing in Dirty Fingers' remarkable brain. Because he believed in this metaphysics which he had not read out of Aristotle, he had faith that Fingers would prove his salvation. He felt growing in him stronger than ever a strange kind of elation. He felt better physically than last night. The few minutes of strenuous action in which he had half killed Mercer had been a pretty good test, he told himself. It had left no bad effect, and he need no longer fear the reopening of his wound.

A dozen times he had heard a far door open and close. Now he heard it again, and a few moments later it was followed by a sound which drew a low cry of satisfaction from him. Dirty Fingers, because of overweight and lack of exercise, had what he called an "asthmatic wind," and it was this strenuous working of his lungs that announced his approach to Kent. His dog was also afflicted and for the same reasons, so that when they traveled together there was some rivalry between them.

"We're both bad put out for wind, thank God," Dirty Fingers would say sometimes. "It's a good thing, for if we had more of it, we'd walk farther, and we don't like walking."

The dog was with Fingers now, also Father Layonne, and Pelly. Pelly unlocked the cell, then relocked it again after Fingers and the dog entered. With a nod and a hopeful look the missioner returned with Pelly to the detachment office. Fingers wiped his red face with a big handkerchief, gasping deeply for breath. Togs, his dog, was panting as if he had just finished the race of his life.

"A difficult climb," wheezed Fingers. "A most difficult climb."

He sat down, rolling out like a great bag of jelly in the one chair in the cell, and began to fan himself with his hat. Kent had already taken stock of the situation. In Fingers' florid countenance and in his almost colorless eyes he detected a bit of excitement which Fingers was trying to hide. Kent knew what it meant. Father Layonne had found it necessary to play his full hand to lure Fingers up the hill, and had given him a hint of what it was that Kent had in store for him. Already the psychological key had begun to work.

Kent sat down on the edge of his cot and grinned sympathetically. "It hasn't always been like this, has it, Fingers?" he said then, leaning a bit forward and speaking with a sudden, low-voiced seriousness. "There was a time, twenty years ago, when you didn't puff after climbing a hill. Twenty years make a big difference, sometimes."

"Yes, sometimes," agreed Fingers in a wheezy whisper.

"Twenty years ago you were--a fighter."

It seemed to Kent that a deeper color came into Dirty Fingers' pale eyes in the few seconds that followed these words.

"A fighter," he repeated. "Most men were fighters in those days of the gold rushes, weren't they, Fingers? I've heard a lot of the old stories about them in my wanderings, and some of them have made me thrill. They weren't afraid to die. And most of them were pretty white when it came to a show-down. You were one of them, Fingers. I heard the story one Winter far north. I've kept it to myself, because I've sort of had the idea that you didn't want people to know or you would have told it yourself. That's why I wanted you to come to see me, Fingers. You know the situation. It's either the noose or iron bars for me. Naturally one would seek for assistance among those who have been his friends. But I do not, with the exception of Father Layonne. Just friendship won't save me, not the sort of friendship we have today. That's why I sent for you. Don't think that I am prying into secrets that are sacred to you, Fingers. God knows I don't mean it that way. But I've got to tell you of a thing that happened a long time ago, before you can understand. You haven't forgotten--you will never forget--Ben Tatman?"

As Kent spoke the name, a name which Dirty Fingers had heard no lips but his own speak aloud in nearly a quarter of a century, a strange and potent force seemed suddenly to take possession of the forest bencher's huge and flabby body. It rippled over and through him like an electrical voltaism, making his body rigid, stiffening what had seemed to be fat into muscle, tensing his hands until they knotted themselves slowly into fists. The wheeze went out of his breath, and it was the voice of another man who answered Kent.

"You have heard--about--Ben Tatman?"

"Yes. I heard it away up in the Porcupine country. They say it happened twenty years ago or more. This Tatman, so I was told, was a young fellow green from San Francisco--a bank clerk, I think-- who came into the gold country and brought his wife with him. They were both chuck-full of courage, and the story was that each worshiped the ground the other walked on, and that the girl had insisted on being her husband's comrade in adventure. Of course neither guessed the sort of thing that was ahead of them.

"Then came that death Winter in Lost City. You know better than I what the laws were in those days, Fingers. Food failed to come up. Snow came early, the thermometer never rose over fifty below zero for three straight months, and Lost City was an inferno of starvation and death. You could go out and kill a man, then, and perhaps get away with it, Fingers. But if you stole so much as a crust of bread or a single bean, you were taken to the edge of the camp and told to go! And that meant certain death--death from hunger and cold, more terrible than shooting or hanging, and for that reason it was the penalty for theft.

"Tatman wasn't a thief. It was seeing his young wife slowly dying of hunger, and his horror at the thought of seeing her fall, as others were falling, a victim to scurvy, that made him steal. He broke into a cabin in the dead of night and stole two cans of beans and a pan of potatoes, more precious than a thousand times their weight in gold. And he was caught. Of course, there was the wife. But those were the days when a woman couldn't save a man, no matter how lovely she was. Tatman was taken to the edge of camp and given his pack and his gun--but no food. And the girl, hooded and booted, was at his side, for she was determined to die with him. For her sake Tatman had lied up to the last minute, protesting his innocence.

"But the beans and the potatoes were found in his cabin, and that was evidence enough. And then, just as they were about to go straight out into the blizzard that meant death within a few hours, then--"

Kent rose to his feet, and walked to the little window, and stood there, looking out. "Fingers, now and then a superman is born on earth. And a superman was there in that crowd of hunger-stricken and embittered men. At the last moment he stepped out and in a loud voice declared that Tatman was innocent and that he was guilty. Unafraid, he made a remarkable confession. He had stolen the beans and the potatoes and had slipped them into the Tatman cabin when they were asleep. Why? Because he wanted to save the woman from hunger! Yes, he lied, Fingers. He lied because he loved the wife that belonged to another man--lied because in him there was a heart as true as any heart God ever made. He lied! And his lie was a splendid thing. He went out into that blizzard, strengthened by a love that was greater than his fear of death, and the camp never heard of him again. Tatman and his wife returned to their cabin and lived. Fingers--" Kent whirled suddenly from the window. "Fingers--"

And Fingers, like a sphynx, sat and stared at Kent.

"You were that man," Kent went on, coming nearer to him. "You lied, because you loved a woman, and you went out to face death because of that woman. The men at Lost City didn't know it, Fingers. The husband didn't know it. And the girl, that girl-wife you worshiped in secret, didn't dream of it! But that was the truth, and you know it deep down in your soul. You fought your way out. You lived! And all these years, down here on your porch, you've been dreaming of a woman, of the girl you were willing to die for a long time ago. Fingers, am I right? And if I am, will you shake hands?"

Slowly Fingers had risen from his chair. No longer were his eyes dull and lifeless, but flaming with a fire that Kent had lighted again after many years. And he reached out a hand and gripped Kent's, still staring at him as though something had come back to him from the dead.

"I thank you, Kent, for your opinion of that man," he said. "Somehow, you haven't made me--ashamed. But it was only the shell of a man that won out after that day when I took Tatman's place. Something happened. I don't know what. But--you see me now. I never went back into the diggings. I degenerated. I became what I am."

"And you are today just what you were when you went out to die for Mary Tatman," cried Kent. "The same heart and the same soul are in you. Wouldn't you fight again today for her?"

A stifled cry came from Fingers' lips. "My God, yes, Kent--I would!"

"And that's why I wanted you, of all men, to come to me, Fingers," Kent went on swiftly. "To you, of all the men on earth, I wanted to tell my story. And now, will you listen to it? Will you forgive me for bringing up this memory that must be precious to you, only that you might more fully understand what I am going to say? I don't want you to think of it as a subterfuge on my part. It is more than that. It is--Fingers, is it inspiration? Listen, and tell me."

And for a long time after that James Kent talked, and Fingers listened, the soul within him writhing and dragging itself back into fierce life, demanding for the first time in many years the something which it had once possessed, but which it had lost. It was not the lazy, mysterious, silent Dirty Fingers who sat in the cell with Kent. In him the spirit of twenty years ago had roused itself from long slumber, and the thrill of it pounded in his blood. Two-Fisted Fingers they had called him then, and he was Two-Fisted Fingers in this hour with Kent. Twice Father Layonne came to the head of the cell alcove, but turned back when he heard the low and steady murmur of Kent's voice. Nothing did Kent keep hidden, and when he had finished, something that was like the fire of a revelation had come into Fingers' face.

"My God!" he breathed deeply. "Kent, I've been sitting down there on my porch a long time, and a good many strange things have come to me, but never anything like this. Oh, if it wasn't for this accursed flesh of mine!"

He jumped from his chair more quickly than he had moved in ten years, and he laughed as he had not laughed in all that time. He thrust out a great arm and doubled it up, like a prizefighter testing his muscle. "Old? I'm not old! I was only twenty-eight when that happened up there, and I'm forty-eight now. That isn't old. It's what is in me that's grown old. I'll do it, Kent! I'll do it, if I hang for it!"

Kent fairly leaped upon him. "God bless you!" he cried huskily. "God bless you, Fingers! Look! Look at that!" He pulled Fingers to the little window, and together they looked out upon the river, shimmering gloriously under a sun-filled sky of blue. "Two thousand miles of it," he breathed. "Two thousand miles of it, running straight through the heart of that world we both have known! No, you're not old, Fingers. The things you used to know are calling you again, as they are calling me, for somewhere off there are the ghosts of Lost City, ghosts--and realities!"

"Ghosts--and hopes," said Fingers.

"Hopes make life," softly whispered Kent, as if to himself. And then, without turning from the window, his hand found Fingers' and clasped it tight. "It may be that mine, like yours, will never come true. But they're fine to think about, Fingers. Funny, isn't it, that their names should be so strangely alike--Mary and Marette? I say, Fingers--"

Heavy footsteps sounded in the hall. Both turned from the window as Constable Pelly came to the door of the cell. They recognized this intimation that their time was up, and with his foot Fingers roused his sleeping dog.

It was a new Fingers who walked back to the river five minutes later, and it was an amazed and discomfited dog who followed at his heels, for at times the misshapen and flesh-ridden Togs was compelled to trot for a few steps to keep up. And Fingers did not sink into the chair on the shady porch when he reached his shack. He threw off his coat and waistcoat and rolled up his sleeves, and for hours after that he was buried deep in the accumulated masses of dust-covered legal treasures stored away in hidden corners of the Good Old Queen Bess.

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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 12 The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 12

The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 12
CHAPTER XIIThat morning Kent had heard wild songs floating up from the river, and now he felt like shouting forth his own joy and exultation in song. He wondered if he could hide the truth from the eyes of others, and especially from Kedsty if he came to see him. It seemed that some glimmer of the hope blazing within him must surely reveal itself, no matter how he tried to hold it back. He felt the vital forces of that hope more powerful within him now than in the hour when he had crept from the hospital window with freedom

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

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