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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe River's End - Chapter 24
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The River's End - Chapter 24 Post by :Ndoki Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1541

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The River's End - Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV

For 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 Bend--an' I didn't know you, I didn't know you, I didn't know you! I thought you was that cussed Conniston! I did. I thought you was Conniston!" He stood back at last. "Johnny--Johnny Keith!"

"Andy, you blessed old devil!"

They pumped hands again, pounded shoulders until they were sore, and in Keith's face blazed once more the love of life.

Suddenly old Duggan grew rigid and sniffed the air. "I smell bacon!"

"It's in the pack, Andy. But for Heaven's sake don't notice the bacon until you explain how you happen to be here."

"Been waitin' for you," replied Duggan in an affectionate growl. "Knew you'd have to come down this valley to hit the Little Fork. Been waitin' six weeks."

Keith dug his fingers into Duggan's arm.

"How did you know I was coming HERE?" he demanded. "Who told you?"

"All come out in the wash, Johnny. Pretty mess. Chinaman dead. Johnny Keith, alias Conniston, alive an' living with Conniston's pretty sister. Johnny gone--skipped. No one knew where. I made guesses. Knew the girl would know if anyone did. I went to her, told her how you'n me had been pals, an' she give me the idee you was goin' up to the river's end. I resigned from the Betty M., that night. Told her, though, that she was a ninny if she thought you'd go up there. Made her believe the note was just a blind."

"My God," breathed Keith hopelessly, "I meant it."

"Sure you did, Johnny. I knew it. But I didn't dare let HER know it. If you could ha' seen that pretty mouth o' hern curlin' up as if she'd liked to have bit open your throat, an' her hands clenched, an' that murder in her eyes--Man, I lied to her then! I told her I was after you, an' that if she wouldn't put the police on you, I'd bring back your head to her, as they used to do in the old times. An' she bit. Yes, sir, she said to me, 'If you'll do that, I won't say a word to the police!' An' here I am, Johnny. An' if I keep my word with that little tiger, I've got to shoot you right now. Haw! Haw!"

Keith had turned his face away.

Duggan, pulling him about by the shoulders, opened his eyes wide in amazement.--"Johnny--"

"Maybe you don't understand, Andy," struggled Keith. "I'm sorry--she feels--like that."

For a moment Duggan was silent. Then he exploded with a sudden curse. "SORRY! What the devil you sorry for, Johnny? You treated her square, an' you left her almost all of Conniston's money. She ain't no kick comin', and she ain't no reason for feelin' like she does. Let 'er go to the devil, I say. She's pretty an' sweet an' all that--but when anybody wants to go clawin' your heart out, don't be fool enough to feel sorry about it. You lied to her, but what's that? There's bigger lies than yourn been told, Johnny, a whole sight bigger! Don't you go worryin'. I've been here waitin' six weeks, an' I've done a lot of thinkin', and all our plans are set an' hatched. An' I've got the nicest cabin all built and waitin' for us up the Little Fork. Here we are. Let's be joyful, son!" He laughed into Keith's tense, gray face. "Let's be joyful!"

Keith forced a grin. Duggan didn't know. He hadn't guessed what that "little tiger who would have liked to have bit open his throat" had been to him. The thick-headed old hero, loyal to the bottom of his soul, hadn't guessed. And it came to Keith then that he would never tell him. He would keep that secret. He would bury it in his burned-out soul, and he would be "joyful" if he could. Duggan's blazing, happy face, half buried in its great beard, was like the inspiration and cheer of a sun rising on a dark world. He was not alone. Duggan, the old Duggan of years ago, the Duggan who had planned and dreamed with him, his best friend, was with him now, and the light came back into his face as he looked toward the mountains. Off there, only a few miles distant, was the Little Fork, winding into the heart of the Rockies, seeking out its hidden valleys, its trailless canons, its hidden mysteries. Life lay ahead of him, life with its thrill and adventure, and at his side was the friend of all friends to seek it with him. He thrust out his hands.

"God bless you, Andy," he cried. "You're the gamest pal that ever lived!"

A moment later Duggan pointed to a clump of timber half a mile ahead. "It's past dinner-time," he said. "There's wood. If you've got any bacon aboard, I move we eat."

An hour later Andy was demonstrating that his appetite was as voracious as ever. Before describing more of his own activities, he insisted that Keith recite his adventures from the night "he killed that old skunk, Kirkstone."

It was two o'clock when they resumed their journey. An hour later they struck the Little Fork and until seven traveled up the stream. They were deep in the lap of the mountains when they camped for the night. After supper, smoking his pipe, Duggan stretched himself out comfortably with his back to a tree.

"Good thing you come along when you did, Johnny," he said. "I been waitin' in that valley ten days, an' the eats was about gone when you hove in sight. Meant to hike back to the cabin for supplies tomorrow or next day. Gawd, ain't this the life! An' we're goin' to find gold, Johnny, we're goin' to find it!"

"We've got all our lives to--to find it in," said Keith.

Duggan puffed out a huge cloud of smoke and heaved a great sigh of pleasure. Then he grunted and chuckled. "Lord, what a little firebrand that sister of Conniston's is!" he exclaimed. "Johnny, I bet if you'd walk in on her now, she'd kill you with her own hands. Don't see why she hates you so, just because you tried to save your life. Of course you must ha' lied like the devil. Couldn't help it. But a lie ain't nothin'. I've told some whoppers, an' no one ain't never wanted to kill me for it. I ain't afraid of McDowell. Everyone said the Chink was a good riddance. It's the girl. There won't be a minute all her life she ain't thinkin' of you, an' she won't be satisfied until she's got you. That is, she thinks she won't. But we'll fool the little devil, Johnny. We'll keep our eyes open--an' fool her!"

"Let's talk of pleasanter things," said Keith. "I've got fifty traps in the pack, Andy. You remember how we used to plan on trapping during the winter and hunting for gold during the summer?"

Duggan rubbed his hands until they made a rasping sound; he talked of lynx signs he had seen, and of marten and fox. He had panned "colors" at a dozen places along the Little Fork and was ready to make his affidavit that it was the same gold he had dredged at McCoffin's Bend.

"If we don't find it this fall, we'll be sittin' on the mother lode next summer," he declared, and from then until it was time to turn in he talked of nothing but the yellow treasure it had been his lifelong dream to find. At the last, when they had rolled in their blankets, he raised himself on his elbow for a moment and said to Keith:

"Johnny, don't you worry about that Conniston girl. I forgot to tell you I've took time by the forelock. Two weeks ago I wrote an' told her I'd learned you was hittin' into the Great Slave country, an' that I was about to hike after you. So go to sleep an' don't worry about that pesky little rattlesnake."

"I'm not worrying," said Keith.

Fifteen minutes later he heard Duggan snoring. Quietly he unwrapped his blanket and sat up. There were still burning embers in the fire, the night--like that first night of his flight--was a glory of stars, and the moon was rising. Their camp was in a small, meadowy pocket in the center of which was a shimmering little lake across which he could easily have thrown a stone. On the far side of this was the sheer wall of a mountain, and the top of this wall, thousands of feet up, caught the glow of the moon first. Without awakening his comrade, Keith walked to the lake. He watched the golden illumination as it fell swiftly lower over the face of the mountain. He could see it move like a great flood. And then, suddenly, his shadow shot out ahead of him, and he turned to find the moon itself glowing like a monstrous ball between the low shoulders of a mountain to the east. The world about him became all at once vividly and wildly beautiful. It was as if a curtain had lifted so swiftly the eye could not follow it. Every tree and shrub and rock stood out in a mellow spotlight; the lake was transformed to a pool of molten silver, and as far as he could see, where shoulders and ridges did not cut him out, the moonlight was playing on the mountains. In the air was a soft droning like low music, and from a distant crag came the rattle of loosened rocks. He fancied, for a moment, that Mary Josephine was standing at his side, and that together they were drinking in the wonder of this dream at last come true. Then a cry came to his lips, a broken, gasping man-cry which he could not keep back, and his heart was filled with anguish.

With all its beauty, all its splendor of quiet and peace, the night was a bitter one for Keith, the bitterest of his life. He had not believed the worst of Mary Josephine. He knew he had lost her and that she might despise him, but that she would actually hate him with the desire for a personal vengeance he had not believed. Was Duggan right? Was Mary Josephine unfair? And should he in self-defense fight to poison his own thoughts against her? His face set hard, and a joyless laugh fell from his lips. He knew that he was facing the inevitable. No matter what had happened, he must go on loving Mary Josephine.

All through that night he was awake. Half a dozen times he went to his blanket, but it was impossible for him to sleep. At four o'clock he built up the fire and at five roused Duggan. The old river-man sprang up with the enthusiasm of a boy. He came back from the lake with his beard and head dripping and his face glowing. All the mountains held no cheerier comrade than Duggan.

They were on the trail at six o'clock and hour after hour kept steadily up the Little Fork. The trail grew rougher, narrower, and more difficult to follow, and at intervals Duggan halted to make sure of the way. At one of these times he said to Keith:

"Las' night proved there ain't no danger from her, Johnny. I had a dream, an' dreams goes by contraries an' always have. What you dream never comes true. It's always the opposite. An' I dreamed that little she-devil come up on you when you was asleep, took a big bread-knife, an' cut your head plumb off! Yessir, I could see her holdin' up that head o' yourn, an' the blood was drippin', an' she was a-laughin'--"

"SHUT UP!" Keith fairly yelled the words. His eyes blazed. His face was dead white.

With a shrug of his huge shoulders and a sullen grunt Duggan went on.

An hour later the trail narrowed into a short canon, and this canon, to Keith's surprise, opened suddenly into a beautiful valley, a narrow oasis of green hugged in between the two ranges. Scarcely had they entered it, when Duggan raised his voice in a series of wild yells and began firing his rifle into the air.

"Home-coming," he explained to Keith, after he was done. "Cabin's just over that bulge. Be there in ten minutes."

In less than ten minutes Keith saw it, sheltered in the edge of a thick growth of cedar and spruce from which its timbers had been taken. It was a larger cabin than he had expected to see--twice, three times as large.

"How did you do it alone!" he exclaimed in admiration. "It's a wonder, Andy. Big enough for--for a whole family!"

"Half a dozen Indians happened along, an' I hired 'em," explained Duggan. "Thought I might as well make it big enough, Johnny, seein' I had plenty of help. Sometimes I snore pretty loud, an'--"

"There's smoke coming out of it," cried Keith.

"Kept one of the Indians," chuckled Duggan. "Fine cook, an' a sassy-lookin' little squaw she is, Johnny. Her husband died last winter, an' she jumped at the chance to stay, for her board an' five bucks a month. How's your Uncle Andy for a schemer, eh, Johnny?"

A dozen rods from the cabin was a creek. Duggan halted here to water his horse and nodded for Keith to go on.

"Take a look, Johnny; go ahead an' take a look! I'm sort of sot up over that cabin."

Keith handed his reins to Duggan and obeyed. The cabin door was open, and he entered. One look assured him that Duggan had good reason to be "sot up." The first big room reminded him of the Shack. Beyond that was another room in which he heard someone moving and the crackle of a fire in a stove. Outside Duggan was whistling. He broke off whistling to sing, and as Keith listened to the river-man's bellowing voice chanting the words of the song he had sung at McCoffin's Bend for twenty years, he grinned. And then he heard the humming of a voice in the kitchen. Even the squaw was happy.

And then--and then--

"GREAT GOD IN HEAVEN--"

In the doorway she stood, her arms reaching out to him, love, glory, triumph in her face--MARY JOSEPHINE!

He swayed; he groped out; something blinded him--tears--hot, blinding tears that choked him, that came with a sob in his throat. And then she was in his arms, and her arms were around him, and she was laughing and crying, and he heard her say: "Why--why didn't you come back--to me--that night? Why--why did you--go out--through the--window? I--I was waiting--and I--I'd have gone--with you--"

From the door behind them came Duggan's voice, chuckling, exultant, booming with triumph. "Johnny, didn't I tell you there was lots bigger lies than yourn? Didn't I? Eh?"

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CHAPTER XXVIt was many minutes, after Keith's arms had closed around Mary Josephine, before he released her enough to hold her out and look at her. She was there, every bit of her, eyes glowing with a greater glory and her face wildly aflush with a thing that had never been there before; and suddenly, as he devoured her in that hungry look, she gave a little cry, and hugged herself to his breast, and hid her face there.And he was whispering again and again, as though he could find no other word,"Mary--Mary--Mary--"Duggan drew away from the door. The two had
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CHAPTER XXIIIAll 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
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