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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe River's End - Chapter 17
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The River's End - Chapter 17 Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :901

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The River's End - Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

Keith lost no time in heading for Shan Tung's. He was like a man playing chess, and the moves were becoming so swift and so intricate that his mind had no rest. Each hour brought forth its fresh necessities and its new alternatives. It was McDowell who had given him his last cue, perhaps the surest and safest method of all for winning his game. The iron man, that disciple of the Law who was merciless in his demand of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, had let him understand that the world would be better off without Shan Tung. This man, who never in his life had found an excuse for the killer, now maneuvered subtly the suggestion for a killing.

Keith was both shocked and amazed. "If anything happens, let it be in the open and not on Shan Tung's premises," he had warned him. That implied in McDowell's mind a cool and calculating premeditation, the assumption that if Shan Tung was killed it would be in self-defense. And Keith's blood leaped to the thrill of it. He had not only found the depths of McDowell's personal interest in Miriam Kirkstone, but a last weapon had been placed in his hands, a weapon which he could use this day if it became necessary. Cornered, with no other hope of saving himself, he could as a last resort kill Shan Tung--and McDowell would stand behind him!

He went directly to Shan Tung's cafe and sauntered in. There were large changes in it since four years ago. The moment he passed through its screened vestibule, he felt its oriental exclusiveness, the sleek and mysterious quietness of it. One might have found such a place catering to the elite of a big city. It spoke sumptuously of a large expenditure of money, yet there was nothing bizarre or irritating to the senses. Its heavily-carved tables were almost oppressive in their solidity. Linen and silver, like Shan Tung himself, were immaculate. Magnificently embroidered screens were so cleverly arranged that one saw not all of the place at once, but caught vistas of it. The few voices that Keith heard in this pre-lunch hour were subdued, and the speakers were concealed by screens. Two orientals, as immaculate as the silver and linen, were moving about with the silence of velvet-padded lynxes. A third, far in the rear, stood motionless as one of the carven tables, smoking a cigarette and watchful as a ferret. This was Li King, Shan Tung's right-hand man.

Keith approached him. When he was near enough, Li King gave the slightest inclination to his head and took the cigarette from his mouth. Without movement or speech he registered the question, "What do you want?"

Keith knew this to be a bit of oriental guile. In his mind there was no doubt that Li King had been fully instructed by his master and that he had been expecting him, even watching for him. Convinced of this, he gave him one of Conniston's cards and said,

"Take this to Shan Tung. He is expecting me."

Li King looked at the card, studied it for a moment with apparent stupidity, and shook his head. "Shan Tung no home. Gone away."

That was all. Where he had gone or when he would return Keith could not discover from Li King. Of all other matters except that he had gone away the manager of Shan Tung's affairs was ignorant. Keith felt like taking the yellow-skinned hypocrite by the throat and choking something out of him, but he realized that Li King was studying and watching him, and that he would report to Shan Tung every expression that had passed over his face. So he looked at his watch, bought a cigar at the glass case near the cash register, and departed with a cheerful nod, saying that he would call again.

Ten minutes later he determined on a bold stroke. There was no time for indecision or compromise. He must find Shan Tung and find him quickly. And he believed that Miriam Kirkstone could give him a pretty good tip as to his whereabouts. He steeled himself to the demand he was about to make as he strode up to the house on the hill. He was disappointed again. Miss Kirkstone was not at home. If she was, she did not answer to his knocking and bell ringing.

He went to the depot. No one he questioned had seen Shan Tung at the west-bound train, the only train that had gone out that morning, and the agent emphatically disclaimed selling him a ticket. Therefore he had not gone far. Suspicion leaped red in Keith's brain. His imagination pictured Shan Tung at that moment with Miriam Kirkstone, and at the thought his disgust went out against them both. In this humor he returned to McDowell's office. He stood before his chief, leaning toward him over the desk table. This time he was the inquisitor.

"Plainly speaking, this liaison is their business," he declared. "Because he is yellow and she is white doesn't make it ours. I've just had a hunch. And I believe in following hunches, especially when one hits you good and hard, and this one has given me a jolt that means something. Where is that big fat brother of hers?"

McDowell hesitated. "It isn't a liaison," he temporized. "It's one-sided--a crime against--"

"WHERE IS THAT BIG FAT BROTHER?" With each word Keith emphasized his demand with a thud of his fist on the table. "WHERE IS HE?"

McDowell was deeply perturbed. Keith could see it and waited.

After a moment of silence the iron man rose from the swivel chair, walked to the window, gazed out for another moment, and walked back again, twisting one of his big gray mustaches in a way that betrayed the stress of his emotion. "Confound it, Conniston, you've got a mind for seeking out the trivialities, and little things are sometimes the most embarrassing."

"And sometimes most important," added Keith. "For instance, it strikes me as mighty important that we should know where Peter Kirkstone is and why he is not here fighting for his sister's salvation. Where is he?"

"I don't know. He disappeared from town a month ago. Miriam says he is somewhere in British Columbia looking over some old mining properties. She doesn't know just where."

"And you believe her?"

The eyes of the two men met. There was no longer excuse for equivocation. Both understood.

McDowell smiled in recognition of the fact. "No. I think, Conniston, that she is the most wonderful little liar that lives. And the beautiful part of it is, she is lying for a purpose. Imagine Peter Kirkstone, who isn't worth the powder to blow him to Hades, interested in old mines or anything else that promises industry or production! And the most inconceivable thing about the whole mess is that Miriam worships that fat and worthless pig of a brother. I've tried to find him in British Columbia. Failed, of course. Another proof that this affair between Miriam and Shan Tung isn't a voluntary liaison on her part. She's lying. She's walking on a pavement of lies. If she told the truth--"

"There are some truths which one cannot tell about oneself," interrupted Keith. "They must be discovered or buried. And I'm going deeper into this prospecting and undertaking business this afternoon. I've got another hunch. I think I'll have something interesting to report before night."

Ten minutes later, on his way to the Shack, he was discussing with himself the modus operandi of that "hunch." It had come to him in an instant, a flash of inspiration. That afternoon he would see Miriam Kirkstone and question her about Peter. Then he would return to McDowell, lay stress on the importance of the brother, tell him that he had a clew which he wanted to follow, and suggest finally a swift trip to British Columbia. He would take Mary Josephine, lie low until his term of service expired, and then report by letter to McDowell that he had failed and that he had made up his mind not to reenlist but to try his fortunes with Mary Josephine in Australia. Before McDowell received that letter, they could be on their way into the mountains. The "hunch" offered an opportunity for a clean getaway, and in his jubilation Miriam Kirkstone and her affairs were important only as a means to an end. He was John Keith now, fighting for John Keith's life--and Derwent Conniston's sister.

Mary Josephine herself put the first shot into the fabric of his plans. She must have been watching for him, for when halfway up the slope he saw her coming to meet him. She scolded him for being away from her, as he had expected her to do. Then she pulled his arm about her slim little waist and held the hand thus engaged in both her own as they walked up the winding path. He noticed the little wrinkles in her adorable forehead.

"Derry, is it the right thing for young ladies to call on their gentlemen friends over here?" she asked suddenly.

"Why--er--that depends, Mary Josephine. You mean--"

"Yes, I do, Derwent Conniston! She's pretty, and I don't blame you, but I can't help feeling that I don't like it!"

His arm tightened about her until she gasped. The fragile softness of her waist was a joy to him.

"Derry!" she remonstrated. "If you do that again, I'll break!"

"I couldn't help it," he pleaded. "I couldn't, dear. The way you said it just made my arm close up tight. I'm glad you didn't like it. I can love only one at a time, and I'm loving you, and I'm going on loving you all my life."

"I wasn't jealous," she protested, blushing. "But she called twice on the telephone and then came up. And she's pretty."

"I suppose you mean Miss Kirkstone?"

"Yes. She was frightfully anxious to see you, Derry."

"And what did you think of her, dear?"

She cast a swift look up into his face.

"Why, I like her. She's sweet and pretty, and I fell in love with her hair. But something was troubling her this morning. I'm quite sure of it, though she tried to keep it back."

"She was nervous, you mean, and pale, with sometimes a frightened look in her eyes. Was that it?"

"You seem to know, Derry. I think it was all that."

He nodded. He saw his horizon aglow with the smile of fortune. Everything was coming propitiously for him, even this unexpected visit of Miriam Kirkstone. He did not trouble himself to speculate as to the object of her visit, for he was grappling now with his own opportunity, his chance to get away, to win out for himself in one last master-stroke, and his mind was concentrated in that direction. The time was ripe to tell these things to Mary Josephine. She must be prepared.

On the flat table of the hill where Brady had built his bungalow were scattered clumps of golden birch, and in the shelter of one of the nearer clumps was a bench, to which Keith drew Mary Josephine. Thereafter for many minutes he spoke his plans. Mary Josephine's cheeks grew flushed. Her eyes shone with excitement and eagerness. She thrilled to the story he told her of what they would do in those wonderful mountains of gold and mystery, just they two alone. He made her understand even more definitely that his safety and their mutual happiness depended upon the secrecy of their final project, that in a way they were conspirators and must act as such. They might start for the west tonight or tomorrow, and she must get ready.

There he should have stopped. But with Mary Josephine's warm little hand clinging to his and her beautiful eyes shining at him like liquid stars, he felt within him an overwhelming faith and desire, and he went on, making a clean breast of the situation that was giving them the opportunity to get away. He felt no prick of conscience at thought of Miriam Kirkstone's affairs. Her destiny must be, as he had told McDowell, largely a matter of her own choosing. Besides, she had McDowell to fight for her. And the big fat brother, too. So without fear of its effect he told Mary Josephine of the mysterious liaison between Miriam Kirkstone and Shan Tung, of McDowell's suspicions, of his own beliefs, and how it was all working out for their own good.

Not until then did he begin to see the changing lights in her eyes. Not until he had finished did he notice that most of that vivid flush of joy had gone from her face and that she was looking at him in a strained, tense way. He felt then the reaction. She was not looking at the thing as he was looking at it. He had offered to her another woman's tragedy as THEIR opportunity, and her own woman's heart had responded in the way that has been woman's since the dawn of life. A sense of shame which he fought and tried to crush took possession of him. He was right. He must be right, for it was his life that was hanging in the balance. Yet Mary Josephine could not know that.

Her fingers had tightened about his, and she was looking away from him. He saw now that the color had almost gone from her face. There was the flash of a new fire in her yes.

"And THAT was why she was nervous and pale, with sometimes a frightened look in her eyes," she spoke softly, repeating his words. "It was because of this Chinese monster, Shan Tung--because he has some sort of power over her, you say--because--"

She snatched her hand from his with a suddenness that startled him. Her eyes, so beautiful and soft a few minutes before, scintillated fire. "Derry, if you don't fix this heathen devil--I WILL!"

She stood up before him, breathing quickly, and he beheld in her not the soft, slim-waisted little goddess of half an hour ago, but the fiercest fighter of all the fighting ages, a woman roused. And no longer fear, but a glory swept over him. She was Conniston's sister, AND SHE WAS CONNISTON. Even as he saw his plans falling about him, he opened his arms and held them out to her, and with the swiftness of love she ran into them, putting her hands to his face while he held her close and kissed her lips.

"You bet we'll fix that heathen devil before we go," he said. "You bet we will--SWEETHEART!"

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