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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe River's End - Chapter 23
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The River's End - Chapter 23 Post by :codebluenj Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :730

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The River's End - Chapter 23


All through the starlit hours of that night John Keith trudged steadily into the Northwest. For a long time his direction took him through slashings, second-growth timber, and cleared lands; he followed rough roads and worn trails and passed cabins that were dark and without life in the silence of midnight. Twice a dog caught the stranger scent in the air and howled; once he heard a man's voice, far away, raised in a shout. Then the trails grew rougher. He came to a deep wide swamp. He remembered that swamp, and before he plunged into it, he struck a match to look at his compass and his watch. It took him two hours to make the other side. He was in the deep and uncut timber then, and a sense of relief swept over him.

The forest was again his only friend. He did not rest. His brain and his body demanded the action of steady progress, though it was not through fear of what lay behind him. Fear had ceased to be a stimulating part of him; it was even dead within him. It was as if his energy was engaged in fighting for a principle, and the principle was his life; he was following a duty, and this duty impelled him to make his greatest effort. He saw clearly what he had done and what was ahead of him. He was twice a killer of men now, and each time the killing had rid the earth of a snake. This last time it had been an exceedingly good job. Even McDowell would concede that, and Miriam Kirkstone, on her knees, would thank God for what he had done. But Canadian law did not split hairs like its big neighbor on the south. It wanted him at least for Kirkstone's killing if not for that of Kao, the Chinaman. No one, not even Mary Josephine, would ever fully realize what he had sacrificed for the daughter of the man who had ruined his father. For Mary Josephine would never understand how deeply he had loved her.

It surprised him to find how naturally he fell back into his old habit of discussing things with himself, and how completely and calmly he accepted the fact that his home-coming had been but a brief and wonderful interlude to his fugitivism. He did not know it at first, but this calmness was the calmness of a despair more fatal than the menace of the hangman.

"They won't catch me," he encouraged himself. "And she won't tell them where I'm going. No, she won't do that." He found himself repeating that thought over and over again. Mary Josephine would not betray him. He repeated it, not as a conviction, but to fight back and hold down another thought that persisted in forcing itself upon him. And this thing, that at times was like a voice within him, cried out in its moments of life, "She hates you--and she WILL tell where you are going!"

With each hour it was harder for him to keep that voice down; it persisted, it grew stronger; in its intervals of triumph it rose over and submerged all other thoughts in him. It was not his fear of her betrayal that stabbed him; it was the underlying motive of it, the hatred that would inspire it. He tried not to vision her as he had seen her last, in the big chair, crushed, shamed, outraged--seeing in him no longer the beloved brother, but an impostor, a criminal, a man whom she might suspect of killing that brother for his name and his place in life. But the thing forced itself on him. It was reasonable, and it was justice.

"But she won't do it," he told himself. "She won't do it."

This was his fight, and its winning meant more to him than freedom. It was Mary Josephine who would live with him now, and not Conniston. It was her spirit that would abide with him, her voice he would hear in the whispers of the night, her face he would see in the glow of his lonely fires, and she must remain with him always as the Mary Josephine he had known. So he crushed back the whispering voice, beat it down with his hands clenched at his side, fought it through the hours of that night with the desperation of one who fights for a thing greater than life.

Toward dawn the stars began to fade out of the sky. He had been tireless, and he was tireless now. He felt no exhaustion. Through the gray gloom that came before day he went on, and the first glow of sun found him still traveling. Prince Albert and the Saskatchewan were thirty miles to the south and east of him.

He stopped at last on the edge of a little lake and unburdened himself of his pack for the first time. He was glad that the premonition of just such a sudden flight as this had urged him to fill his emergency grub-sack yesterday morning. "Won't do any harm for us to be prepared," he had laughed jokingly to Mary Josephine, and Mary Josephine herself had made him double the portion of bacon because she was fond of it. It was hard for him to slice that bacon without a lump rising in his throat. Pork and love! He wanted to laugh, and he wanted to cry, and between the two it was a queer, half-choked sound that came to his lips. He ate a good breakfast, rested for a couple of hours, and went on. At a more leisurely pace he traveled through most of the day, and at night he camped. In the ten days following his flight from Prince Albert he kept utterly out of sight. He avoided trappers' shacks and trails and occasional Indians. He rid himself of his beard and shaved himself every other day. Mary Josephine had never cared much for the beard. It prickled. She had wanted him smooth-faced, and now he was that. He looked better, too. But the most striking resemblance to Derwent Conniston was gone. At the end of the ten days he was at Turtle Lake, fifty miles east of Fort Pitt. He believed that he could show himself openly now, and on the tenth day bartered with some Indians for fresh supplies. Then he struck south of Fort Pitt, crossed the Saskatchewan, and hit between the Blackfoot Hills and the Vermillion River into the Buffalo Coulee country. In the open country he came upon occasional ranches, and at one of these he purchased a pack-horse. At Buffalo Lake he bought his supplies for the mountains, including fifty steel traps, crossed the upper branch of the Canadian Pacific at night, and the next day saw in the far distance the purple haze of the Rockies.

It was six weeks after the night in Kao's place that he struck the Saskatchewan again above the Brazeau. He did not hurry now. Just ahead of him slumbered the mountains; very close was the place of his dreams. But he was no longer impelled by the mighty lure of the years that were gone. Day by day something had worn away that lure, as the ceaseless grind of water wears away rock, and for two weeks he wandered slowly and without purpose in the green valleys that lay under the snow-tipped peaks of the ranges. He was gripped in the agony of an unutterable loneliness, which fell upon and scourged him like a disease. It was a deeper and more bitter thing than a yearning for companionship. He might have found that. Twice he was near camps. Three times he saw outfits coming out, and purposely drew away from them. He had no desire to meet men, no desire to talk or to be troubled by talking. Day And night his body and his soul cried out for Mary Josephine, and in his despair he cursed those who had taken her away from him. It was a crisis which was bound to come, and in his aloneness he fought it out. Day after day he fought it, until his face and his heart bore the scars of it. It was as if a being on whom he had set all his worship had died, only it was worse than death. Dead, Mary Josephine would still have been his inspiration; in a way she would have belonged to him. But living, hating him as she must, his dreams of her were a sacrilege and his love for her like the cut of a sword. In the end he was like a man who had triumphed over a malady that would always leave its marks upon him. In the beginning of the third week he knew that he had conquered, just as he had triumphed in a similar way over death and despair in the north. He would go into the mountains, as he had planned. He would build his cabin. And if the Law came to get him, it was possible that again he would fight.

On the second day of this third week he saw advancing toward him a solitary horseman. The stranger was possibly a mile away when he discovered him, and he was coming straight down the flat of the valley. That he was not accompanied by a pack-horse surprised Keith, for he was bound out of the mountains and not in. Then it occurred to him that he might be a prospector whose supplies were exhausted, and that he was easing his journey by using his pack as a mount. Whoever and whatever he was, Keith was not in any humor to meet him, and without attempting to conceal himself he swung away from the river, as if to climb the slope of the mountain on his right. No sooner had he clearly signified the new direction he was taking, than the stranger deliberately altered his course in a way to cut him off. Keith was irritated. Climbing up a narrow terrace of shale, he headed straight up the slope, as if his intention were to reach the higher terraces of the mountain, and then he swung suddenly down into a coulee, where he was out of sight. Here he waited for ten minutes, then struck deliberately and openly back into the valley. He chuckled when he saw how cleverly his ruse had worked. The stranger was a quarter of a mile up the mountain and still climbing.

"Now what the devil is he taking all that trouble for?" Keith asked himself.

An instant later the stranger saw him again. For perhaps a minute he halted, and in that minute Keith fancied he was getting a round cursing. Then the stranger headed for him, and this time there was no escape, for the moment he struck the shelving slope of the valley, he prodded his horse into a canter, swiftly diminishing the distance between them. Keith unbuttoned the flap of his pistol holster and maneuvered so that he would be partly concealed by his pack when the horseman rode up. The persistence of the stranger suggested to him that Mary Josephine had lost no time in telling McDowell where the law would be most likely to find him.

Then he looked over the neck of his pack at the horseman, who was quite near, and was convinced that he was not an officer. He was still jogging at a canter and riding atrociously. One leg was napping as if it had lost its stirrup-hold; the rider's arms were pumping, and his hat was sailing behind at the end of a string.

"Whoa!" said Keith.

His heart stopped its action. He was staring at a big red beard and a huge, shaggy head. The horseman reined in, floundered from his saddle, and swayed forward as if seasick.

"Well, I'll be--"



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CHAPTER XXIVFor a matter of ten seconds neither of the two men moved. Keith was stunned. Andy Duggan's eyes were fairly popping out from under his bushy brows. And then unmistakably Keith caught the scent of bacon in the air."Andy--Andy Duggan," he choked. "You know me--you know Johnny Keith--you know me--you--"Duggan answered with an inarticulate bellow and jumped at Keith as if to bear him to the ground. He hugged him, and Keith hugged, and then for a minute they stood pumping hands until their faces were red, and Duggan was growling over and over:"An' you passed me there at McCoffin's

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CHAPTER XXIIInto a narrow corridor, through a second door that seemed made of padded wool, and then into a dimly lighted room John Keith followed Kao, the Chinaman. Out of this room there was no other exit; it was almost square, its ceiling was low, its walls darkly somber, and that life was there Keith knew by the heaviness of cigarette smoke in the air. For a moment his eyes did not discern the physical evidence of that life. And then, staring at him out of the yellow glow, he saw a face. It was a haunting, terrible face, a face