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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 8
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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 8 Post by :mrtwist Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2591

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The Valley Of Silent Men: A Story Of The Three River Country - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

For some time after the door to Kent's room had closed upon the ominous visitation of the Law, young Mercer remained standing in the hall, debating with himself whether his own moment had not arrived. In the end he decided that it had, and with Kent's fifty dollars in his pocket he made for the shack of the old Indian trailer, Mooie. It was an hour later when he returned, just in time to see Kent's door open again. Doctor Cardigan and Father Layonne reappeared first, followed in turn by the blonde stenographer, the magistrate, and Constables Pelly and Brant. Then the door closed.

Within the room, sweating from the ordeal through which he had passed, Kent sat bolstered against his pillows, facing Inspector Kedsty with blazing eyes.

"I've asked for these few moments alone with you, Kedsty, because I wanted to talk to you as a man, and not as my superior officer. I am, I take it, no longer a member of the force. That being the case, I owe you no more respect than I owe to any other man. And I am pleased to have the very great privilege of calling you a cursed scoundrel!"

Kedsty's face was hot, but as his hands clenched slowly, it turned redder. Before he could speak, Kent went on.

"You have not shown me the courtesy or the sympathy you have had for the worst criminals that ever faced you. You amazed every man that was in this room, because at one time--if not now--they were my friends. It wasn't what you said. It was how you said it. Whenever there was an inclination on their part to believe, you killed it--not honestly and squarely, by giving me a chance. Whenever you saw a chance for me to win a point, you fell back upon the law. And you don't believe that I killed John Barkley. I know it. You called me a liar the day I made that fool confession. You still believe that I lied. And I have waited until we were alone to ask you certain things, for I still have something of courtesy left in me, if you haven't. What is your game? What has brought about the change in you? Is it--"

His right hand clenched hard as a rock as he leaned toward Kedsty.

"Is it because of the girl hiding up at your bungalow, Kedsty?"

Even in that moment, when he had the desire to strike the man before him, it was impossible for him not to admire the stone-like invulnerability of Kedsty. He had never heard of another man calling Kedsty a scoundrel or dishonest. And yet, except that his faced burned more dully red, the Inspector was as impassively calm as ever. Even Kent's intimation that he was playing a game, and his direct accusation that he was keeping Marette Radisson in hiding at his bungalow, seemed to have no disturbing effect on him. For a space he looked at Kent, as if measuring the poise of the other's mind. When he spoke, it was in a voice so quiet and calm that Kent stared at him in amazement.

"I don't blame you, Kent," he said. "I don't blame you for calling me a scoundrel, or anything else you want to. I think I should do the same if I were in your place. You think it is incredible, because of our previous association, that I should not make every effort to save you. I would, if I thought you were innocent. But I don't. I believe you are guilty. I cannot see where there is a loophole in the evidence against you, as given in your own confession. Why, man, even if I could help to prove you innocent of killing John Barkley--"

He paused and twisted one of his gray mustaches, half facing the window for a moment. "Even if I did that," he went on, "you would still have twenty years of prison ahead of you for the worst kind of perjury on the face of the earth, perjury committed at a time when you thought you were dying! You are guilty, Kent. If not of one thing, then of the other. I am not playing a game. And as for the girl--there is no girl at my bungalow."

He turned to the door; and Kent made no effort to stop him. Words came to his lips and died there, and for a space after Kedsty had gone he stared out into the green forest world beyond his window, seeing nothing. Inspector Kedsty, quietly and calmly, had spoken words that sent his hopes crashing in ruin about him. For even if he escaped the hangman, he was still a criminal--a criminal of the worst sort, perhaps, next to the man who kills another. If he proved that he had not killed John Barkley, he would convict himself, at the same time, of having made solemn oath to a lie on what he supposed was his death-bed. And for that, a possible twenty years in the Edmonton penitentiary! At best he could not expect less than ten. Ten years--twenty years--in prison! That, or hang.

The sweat broke out on his face. He did not curse Kedsty now. His anger was gone. Kedsty had seen all the time what he, like a fool, had not thought of. No matter how the Inspector might feel in that deeply buried heart of his, he could not do otherwise than he was doing. He, James Kent, who hated a lie above all the things on the earth, was kin-as-kisew--the blackest liar of all, a man who lied when he was dying.

And for that lie there was a great punishment. The Law saw with its own eyes. It was a single-track affair, narrow-visioned, caring nothing for what was to the right or the left. It would tolerate no excuse which he might find for himself. He had lied to save a human life, but that life the Law itself had wanted. So he had both robbed and outraged the Law, even though a miracle saved him the greatest penalty of all.

The weight of the thing crushed him. It was as if for the first time a window had opened for him, and he saw what Kedsty had seen. And then, as the minutes passed, the fighting spirit in him rose again. He was not of the sort to go under easily. Personal danger had always stirred him to his greatest depths, and he had never confronted a danger greater than this he was facing now. It was not a matter of leaping quickly and on the spur of the moment. For ten years his training had been that of a hunter of men, and the psychology of the man hunt had been his strong point. Always, in seeking his quarry, he had tried first to bring himself into a mental sympathy and understanding with that quarry. To analyze what an outlaw would do under certain conditions and with certain environments and racial inheritances behind him was to Kent the premier move in the thrilling game. He had evolved rules of great importance for himself, but always he had worked them out from the vantage point of the huntsman. Now he began to turn them around. He, James Kent, was no longer the hunter, but the hunted, and all the tricks which he had mastered must now be worked the other way. His woodcraft, his cunning, the fine points he had learned of the game of one-against-one would avail him but little when it came to the witness chair and a trial.

The open window was his first inspiration. Adventure had been the blood of his life. And out there, behind the green forests rolling away like the billows of an ocean, lay the greatest adventure of all. Once in those beloved forests covering almost the half of a continent, he would be willing to die if the world beat him. He could see himself playing the game of the hunted as no other man had ever played it before. Let him once have his guns and his freedom, with all that world waiting for him--

Eagerness gleamed in his eyes, and then, slowly, it died out. The open window, after all, was but a mockery. He rolled sideways from his bed and partly balanced himself on his feet. The effort made him dizzy. He doubted if he could have walked a hundred yards after climbing through the window. Instantly another thought leaped into his brain. His head was clearing. He swayed across the room and back again, the first time he had been on his feet since the half-breed's bullet had laid him out. He would fool Cardigan. He would fool Kedsty. As he recovered his strength, he would keep it to himself. He would play sick man to the limit, and then some night he would take advantage of the open window!

The thought thrilled him as no other thing in the world had ever thrilled him before. For the first time he sensed the vast difference between the hunter and the hunted, between the man who played the game of life and death alone and the one who played it with the Law and all its might behind him. To hunt was thrilling. To be hunted was more thrilling. Every nerve in his body tingled. A different kind of fire burned in his brain. He was the creature who was at bay. The other fellow was the hunter now.

He went back to the window and leaned far out. He looked at the forest and saw it with new eyes. The gleam of the slowly moving river held a meaning for him that it had never held before. Doctor Cardigan, seeing him then, would have sworn the fever had returned. His eyes held a slumbering fire. His face was flushed. In these moments Kent did not see death. He was not visioning the iron bars of a prison. His blood pulsed only to the stir of that greatest of all adventures which lay ahead of him. He, the best man-hunter in two thousand miles of wilderness, would beat the hunters themselves. The hound had turned fox, and that fox knew the tricks of both the hunter and the hunted. He would win! A world beckoned to him, and he would reach the heart of that world. Already there began to flash through his mind memory of the places where he could find safety and freedom for all time. No man in all the Northland knew its out-of-the-way corners better than he--its unmapped and unexplored places, the far and mysterious patches of terra incognita, where the sun still rose and set without permission of the Law, and God laughed as in the days when prehistoric monsters fed from the tops of trees no taller than themselves. Once through that window, with the strength to travel, and the Law might seek him for a hundred years without profit to itself.

It was not bravado in his blood that stirred these thoughts. It was not panic or an unsound excitement. He was measuring things even as he visioned them. He would go down-river way, toward the Arctic. And he would find Marette Radisson! Yes, even though she lived at Barracks at Fort Simpson, he would find her! And after that? The question blurred all other questions in his mind. There were many answers to it.

Knowing that it would be fatal to his scheme if he were found on his feet, he returned to his bed. The flush of his exertion and excitement was still in his face when Doctor Cardigan came half an hour later.

Within the next few minutes he put Cardigan more at his ease than he had been during the preceding day and night. It was, after all, an error which made him happier the more he thought about it, he told the surgeon. He admitted that at first the discovery that he was going to live had horrified him. But now the whole thing bore a different aspect for him. As soon as he was sufficiently strong, he would begin gathering the evidences for his alibi, and he was confident of proving himself innocent of John Barkley's murder.

He anticipated ten years in the Edmonton penitentiary. But what were ten years there as compared with forty or fifty under the sod? He wrung Cardigan's hand. He thanked him for the splendid care he had given him. It was he, Cardigan, who had saved him from the grave, he said--and Cardigan grew younger under his eyes.

"I thought you'd look at it differently, Kent," he said, drawing in a deep breath. "My God, when I found I had made that mistake--"

"You figured you were handing me over to the hangman," smiled Kent. "It's true I shouldn't have made that confession, old man, if I hadn't rated you right next to God Almighty when it came to telling whether a man was going to live or die. But we all make slips. I've made 'em. And you've got no apology to make. I may ask you to send me good cigars now and then while I'm in retirement at Edmonton, and I shall probably insist that you come to smoke with me occasionally and tell me the news of the rivers. But I'm afraid, old chap, that I'm going to worry you a bit more here. I feel queer today, queer inside me. Now it would be a topping joke if some other complication should set in and fool us all again, wouldn't it?"

He could see the impression he was making on Cardigan. Again his faith in the psychology of the mind found its absolute verification. Cardigan, lifted unexpectedly out of the slough of despond by the very man whom he expected to condemn him, became from that moment, in the face of the mental reaction, almost hypersympathetic. When finally he left the room, Kent was inwardly rejoicing. For Cardigan had told him it would be some time before he was strong enough to stand on his feet.

He did not see Mercer all the rest of that day. It was Cardigan who personally brought his dinner and his supper and attended him last at night. He asked not to be interrupted again, as he felt that he wanted to sleep. There was a guard outside his door now.

Cardigan scowled when he volunteered this information. It was sheer nonsense in Kedsty taking such a silly precaution. But he would give the guard rubber-soled shoes and insist that he make no sound that would disturb him. Kent thanked him, and grinned exultantly when he was gone.

He waited until his watch told him it was ten o'clock before he began the exercise which he had prescribed for himself. Noiselessly he rolled out of bed. There was no sensation of dizziness when he stood on his feet this time. His head was as clear as a bell. He began experimenting by inhaling deeper and still deeper breaths and by straightening his chest.

There was no pain, as he had expected there would be. He felt like crying out in his joy. One after the other he stretched up his arms. He bent over until the tips of his fingers touched the floor. He crooked his knees, leaned from side to side, changed from one attitude to another, amazed at the strength and elasticity of his body. Twenty times, before he returned to his bed, he walked back and forth across his room.

He was sleepless. Lying with his back to the pillows he looked out into the starlight, watching for the first glow of the moon and listening again to the owls that had nested in the lightning- shriven tree. An hour later he resumed his exercise.

He was on his feet when through his window he heard the sound of approaching voices and then of running feet. A moment later some one was pounding at a door, and a loud voice shouted for Doctor Cardigan. Kent drew cautiously nearer the window. The moon had risen, and he saw figures approaching, slowly, as if weighted under a burden. Before they turned out of his vision, he made out two men bearing some heavy object between them. Then came the opening of a door, other voices, and after that an interval of quiet.

He returned to his bed, wondering who the new patient could be.

He was breathing easier after his exertion. The fact that he was feeling keenly alive, and that the thickening in his chest was disappearing, flushed him with elation. An unbounded optimism possessed him. It was late when he fell asleep, and he slept late. It was Mercer's entrance into his room that roused him. He came in softly, closed the door softly, yet Kent heard him. The moment he pulled himself up, he knew that Mercer had a report to make, and he also saw that something upsetting had happened to him. Mercer was a bit excited.

"I beg pardon for waking you, sir," he said, leaning close over Kent, as though fearing the guard might be listening at the door. "But I thought it best for you to hear about the Indian, sir."

"The Indian?"

"Yes, sir--Mooie, sir. I am quite upset over it, Mr. Kent. He told me early last evening that he had found the scow on which the girl was going down-river. He said it was hidden in Kim's Bayou."

"Kim's Bayou! That was a good hiding-place, Mercer!"

"A very good place of concealment indeed, sir. As soon as it was dark, Mooie returned to watch. What happened to him I haven't fully discovered, sir. But it must have been near midnight when he staggered up to Crossen's place, bleeding and half out of his senses. They brought him here, and I watched over him most of the night. He says the girl went aboard the scow and that the scow started down-river. That much I learned, sir. But all the rest he mumbles in a tongue I can not understand. Crossen says it's Cree, and that old Mooie believes devils jumped on him with clubs down at Kim's Bayou. Of course they must have been men. I don't believe in Mooie's devils, sir."

"Nor I," said Kent, the blood stirring strangely in his veins. "Mercer, it simply means there was some one cleverer than old Mooie watching that trail."

With a curiously tense face Mercer was looking cautiously toward the door. Then he leaned still lower over Kent.

"During his mumblings, when I was alone with him, I heard him speak a name, sir. Half a dozen times, sir--and it was--KEDSTY!"

Kent's fingers gripped the young Englishman's hand.

"You heard THAT, Mercer?"

"I am sure I could not have been mistaken, sir. It was repeated a number of times."

Kent fell back against his pillows. His mind was working swiftly. He knew that behind an effort to appear calm Mercer was uneasy over what had happened.

"We mustn't let this get out, Mercer," he said. "If Mooie should be badly hurt--should die, for instance--and it was discovered that you and I--"

He knew he had gone far enough to give effect to his words. He did not even look at Mercer.

"Watch him closely, old man, and report to me everything that happens. Find out more about Kedsty, if you can. I shall advise you how to act. It is rather ticklish, you know--for you! And"--he smiled at Mercer--"I'm unusually hungry this morning. Add another egg, will you, Mercer? Three instead of two, and a couple of extra slices of toast. And don't let any one know that my appetite is improving. It may be best for both of us--especially if Mooie should happen to die. Understand, old man?"

"I--I think I do, sir," replied Mercer, paling at the grimly smiling thing he saw in Kent's eyes. "I shall do as you say, sir."

When he had gone, Kent knew that he had accurately measured his man. True to a certain type, Mercer would do a great deal for fifty dollars--under cover. In the open he was a coward. And Kent knew the value of such a man under certain conditions. The present was one of those conditions. From this hour Mercer would be a priceless asset to his scheme for personal salvation.

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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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CHAPTER VIIFrom the window, the glorious day outside, and the vision he had made for himself of Marette Radisson, Kent turned at the sound of a hand at his door and saw it slowly open. He was expecting it. He had read young Mercer like a book. Mercer's nervousness and the increased tightening of the thing in his chest had given him warning. The thing was going to happen soon, and Father Layonne had come. He tried to smile, that he might greet his wilderness friend cheerfully and unafraid. But the smile froze when the door opened and he saw the
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