The River's End - James Oliver Curwood - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1919

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James Oliver Curwood

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Opis ebooka The River's End - James Oliver Curwood

A story of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police.

Opinie o ebooku The River's End - James Oliver Curwood

Fragment ebooka The River's End - James Oliver Curwood

About
Chapter 1
Chapter 2

About Curwood:

James Oliver Curwood, (June 12, 1878 – August 13, 1927), was an American novelist and conservationist. A great number of his works were turned into movies, several of which starred Nell Shipman as a brave and adventurous woman in the wilds of the north. Many films from Curwood's writings were made during his lifetime, as well as after his passing through to the 1950s. In 1988 French director Jean-Jacques Annaud used his 1916 novel, The Grizzly King to make the film The Bear. Annaud's success generated a renewed interest in Curwood's stories that resulted in five more films being produced in 1994 and 1995.

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Chapter 1

 

Between Conniston, of His Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police, and Keith, the outlaw, there was a striking physical and facial resemblance. Both had observed it, of course. It gave them a sort of confidence in each other. Between them it hovered in a subtle and unanalyzed presence that was constantly suggesting to Conniston a line of action that would have made him a traitor to his oath of duty. For nearly a month he had crushed down the whispered temptings of this thing between them. He represented the law. He was the law. For twenty-seven months he had followed Keith, and always there had been in his mind that parting injunction of the splendid service of which he was a part—"Don't come back until you get your man, dead or alive." Otherwise—

A racking cough split in upon his thoughts. He sat up on the edge of the cot, and at the gasping cry of pain that came with the red stain of blood on his lips Keith went to him and with a strong arm supported his shoulders. He said nothing, and after a moment Conniston wiped the stain away and laughed softly, even before the shadow of pain had faded from his eyes. One of his hands rested on a wrist that still bore the ring-mark of a handcuff. The sight of it brought him back to grim reality. After all, fate was playing whimsically as well as tragically with their destinies.

"Thanks, old top," he said. "Thanks."

His fingers closed over the manacle-marked wrist.

Over their heads the arctic storm was crashing in a mighty fury, as if striving to beat down the little cabin that had dared to rear itself in the dun-gray emptiness at the top of the world, eight hundred miles from civilization. There were curious waitings, strange screeching sounds, and heart-breaking meanings in its strife, and when at last its passion died away and there followed a strange quiet, the two men could feel the frozen earth under their feet shiver with the rumbling reverberations of the crashing and breaking fields of ice out in Hudson's Bay. With it came a dull and steady roar, like the incessant rumble of a far battle, broken now and then—when an ice mountain split asunder—with a report like that of a sixteen-inch gun. Down through the Roes Welcome into Hudson's Bay countless billions of tons of ice were rending their way like Hunnish armies in the break-up.

"You'd better lie down," suggested Keith.

Conniston, instead, rose slowly to his feet and went to a table on which a seal-oil lamp was burning. He swayed a little as he walked. He sat down, and Keith seated himself opposite him. Between them lay a worn deck of cards. As Conniston fumbled them in his fingers, he looked straight across at Keith and grinned.

"It's queer, devilish queer," he said.

"Don't you think so, Keith?" He was an Englishman, and his blue eyes shone with a grim, cold humor. "And funny," he added.

"Queer, but not funny," partly agreed Keith.

"Yes, it is funny," maintained Conniston. "Just twenty-seven months ago, lacking three days, I was sent out to get you, Keith. I was told to bring you in dead or alive—and at the end of the twenty-sixth month I got you, alive. And as a sporting proposition you deserve a hundred years of life instead of the noose, Keith, for you led me a chase that took me through seven different kinds of hell before I landed you. I froze, and I starved, and I drowned. I haven't seen a white woman's face in eighteen months. It was terrible. But I beat you at last. That's the jolly good part of it, Keith—I beat you and GOT you, and there's the proof of it on your wrists this minute. I won. Do you concede that? You must be fair, old top, because this is the last big game I'll ever play." There was a break, a yearning that was almost plaintive, in his voice.

Keith nodded. "You won," he said.

"You won so square that when the frost got your lung—"

"You didn't take advantage of me," interrupted Conniston. "That's the funny part of it, Keith. That's where the humor comes in. I had you all tied up and scheduled for the hangman when—bing!—along comes a cold snap that bites a corner of my lung, and the tables are turned. And instead of doing to me as I was going to do to you, instead of killing me or making your getaway while I was helpless—Keith—old pal—YOU'VE TRIED TO NURSE ME BACK TO LIFE! Isn't that funny? Could anything be funnier?"

He reached a hand across the table and gripped Keith's. And then, for a few moments, he bowed his head while his body was convulsed by another racking cough. Keith sensed the pain of it in the convulsive clutching of Conniston's fingers about his own. When Conniston raised his face, the red stain was on his lips again.

"You see, I've got it figured out to the day," he went on, wiping away the stain with a cloth already dyed red. "This is Thursday. I won't see another Sunday. It'll come Friday night or some time Saturday. I've seen this frosted lung business a dozen times. Understand? I've got two sure days ahead of me, possibly a third. Then you'll have to dig a hole and bury me. After that you will no longer be held by the word of honor you gave me when I slipped off your manacles. And I'm asking you—WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?"

In Keith's face were written deeply the lines of suffering and of tragedy. Yesterday they had compared ages.

He was thirty-eight, only a little younger than the man who had run him down and who in the hour of his achievement was dying. They had not put the fact plainly before. It had been a matter of some little embarrassment for Keith, who at another time had found it easier to kill a man than to tell this man that he was going to die. Now that Conniston had measured his own span definitely and with most amazing coolness, a load was lifted from Keith's shoulders. Over the table they looked into each other's eyes, and this time it was Keith's fingers that tightened about Conniston's. They looked like brothers in the sickly glow of the seal-oil lamp.

"What are you going to do?" repeated Conniston.

Keith's face aged even as the dying Englishman stared at him. "I suppose—I'll go back," he said heavily.

"You mean to Coronation Gulf? You'll return to that stinking mess of Eskimo igloos? If you do, you'll go mad!"

"I expect to," said Keith. "But it's the only thing left. You know that. You of all men must know how they've hunted me. If I went south—"

It was Conniston's turn to nod his head, slowly and thoughtfully. "Yes, of course," he agreed. "They're hunting you hard, and you're giving 'em a bully chase. But they'll get you, even up there. And I'm—sorry."

Their hands unclasped. Conniston filled his pipe and lighted it. Keith noticed that he held the lighted taper without a tremor. The nerve of the man was magnificent.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I—like you. Do you know, Keith, I wish we'd been born brothers and you hadn't killed a man. That night I slipped the ring-dogs on you I felt almost like a devil. I wouldn't say it if it wasn't for this bally lung. But what's the use of keeping it back now? It doesn't seem fair to keep a man up in that place for three years, running from hole to hole like a rat, and then take him down for a hanging. I know it isn't fair in your case. I feel it. I don't mean to be inquisitive, old chap, but I'm not believing Departmental 'facts' any more. I'd make a topping good wager you're not the sort they make you out. And so I'd like to know—just why—you killed Judge Kirkstone?"

Keith's two fists knotted in the center of the table. Conniston saw his blue eyes darken for an instant with a savage fire. In that moment there came a strange silence over the cabin, and in that silence the incessant and maddening yapping of the little white foxes rose shrilly over the distant booming and rumbling of the ice.


Chapter 2

 

"Why did I kill Judge Kirkstone?" Keith repeated the words slowly.

His clenched hands relaxed, but his eyes held the steady glow of fire. "What do the Departmental 'facts' tell you, Conniston?"

"That you murdered him in cold blood, and that the honor of the Service is at stake until you are hung."

"There's a lot in the view-point, isn't there? What if I said I didn't kill Judge Kirkstone?"

Conniston leaned forward a little too eagerly. The deadly paroxysm shook his frame again, and when it was over his breath came pantingly, as if hissing through a sieve. "My God, not Sunday—or Saturday," he breathed. "Keith, it's coming TOMORROW!"

"No, no, not then," said Keith, choking back something that rose in his throat. "You'd better lie down again."

Conniston gathered new strength. "And die like a rabbit? No, thank you, old chap! I'm after facts, and you can't lie to a dying man. Did you kill Judge Kirkstone?"

"I—don't—know," replied Keith slowly, looking steadily into the other's eyes. "I think so, and yet I am not positive. I went to his home that night with the determination to wring justice from him or kill him. I wish you could look at it all with my eyes, Conniston. You could if you had known my father. You see, my mother died when I was a little chap, and my father and I grew up together, chums. I don't believe I ever thought of him as just simply a father. Fathers are common. He was more than that. From the time I was ten years old we were inseparable. I guess I was twenty before he told me of the deadly feud that existed between him and Kirkstone, and it never troubled me much—because I didn't think anything would ever come of it—until Kirkstone got him. Then I realized that all through the years the old rattlesnake had been watching for his chance. It was a frame-up from beginning to end, and my father stepped into the trap. Even then he thought that his political enemies, and not Kirkstone, were at the bottom of it. We soon discovered the truth. My father got ten years. He was innocent. And the only man on earth who could prove his innocence was Kirkstone, the man who was gloating like a Shylock over his pound of flesh. Conniston, if you had known these things and had been in my shoes, what would you have done?"

Conniston, lighting another taper over the oil flame, hesitated and answered: "I don't know yet, old chap. What did you do?"

"I fairly got down on my knees to the scoundrel," resumed Keith. "If ever a man begged for another man's life, I begged for my father's—for the few words from Kirkstone that would set him free. I offered everything I had in the world, even my body and soul. God, I'll never forget that night! He sat there, fat and oily, two big rings on his stubby fingers—a monstrous toad in human form—and he chuckled and laughed at me in his joy, as though I were a mountebank playing amusing tricks for him—and there my soul was bleeding itself out before his eyes! And his son came in, fat and oily and accursed like his father, and HE laughed at me. I didn't know that such hatred could exist in the world, or that vengeance could bring such hellish joy. I could still hear their gloating laughter when I stumbled out into the night. It haunted me. I heard it in the trees. It came in the wind. My brain was filled with it—and suddenly I turned back, and I went into that house again without knocking, and I faced the two of them alone once more in that room. And this time, Conniston, I went back to get justice—or to kill. Thus far it was premeditated, but I went with my naked hands. There was a key in the door, and I locked it. Then I made my demand. I wasted no words—"

Keith rose from the table and began to pace back and forth. The wind had died again. They could hear the yapping of the foxes and the low thunder of the ice.

"The son began it," said Keith. "He sprang at me. I struck him. We grappled, and then the beast himself leaped at me with some sort of weapon in his hand. I couldn't see what it was, but it was heavy. The first blow almost broke my shoulder. In the scuffle I wrenched it from his hand, and then I found it was a long, rectangular bar of copper made for a paper-weight. In that same instant I saw the son snatch up a similar object from the table, and in the act he smashed the table light. In darkness we fought. I did not feel that I was fighting men. They were monsters and gave me the horrible sensation of being in darkness with crawling serpents. Yes, I struck hard. And the son was striking, and neither of us could see. I felt my weapon hit, and it was then that Kirkstone crumpled down with a blubbery wheeze. You know what happened after that. The next morning only one copper weight was found in that room. The son had done away with the other. And the one that was left was covered with Kirkstone's blood and hair. There was no chance for me. So I got away. Six months later my father died in prison, and for three years I've been hunted as a fox is hunted by the hounds. That's all, Conniston. Did I kill Judge Kirkstone? And, if I killed him, do you think I'm sorry for it, even though I hang?"

"Sit down!"

The Englishman's voice was commanding. Keith dropped back to his seat, breathing hard. He saw a strange light in the steely blue eyes of Conniston.

"Keith, when a man knows he's going to live, he is blind to a lot of things. But when he knows he's going to die, it's different. If you had told me that story a month ago, I'd have taken you down to the hangman just the same. It would have been my duty, you know, and I might have argued you were lying. But you can't lie to me—now. Kirkstone deserved to die. And so I've made up my mind what you're going to do. You're not going back to Coronation Gulf. You're going south. You're going back into God's country again. And you're not going as John Keith, the murderer, but as Derwent Conniston of His Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police! Do you get me, Keith? Do you understand?"

Keith simply stared. The Englishman twisted a mustache, a half-humorous gleam in his eyes. He had been thinking of this plan of his for some time, and he had foreseen just how it would take Keith off his feet.

"Quite a scheme, don't you think, old chap? I like you. I don't mind saying I think a lot of you, and there isn't any reason on earth why you shouldn't go on living in my shoes. There's no moral objection. No one will miss me. I was the black sheep back in England—younger brother and all that—and when I had to choose between Africa and Canada, I chose Canada. An Englishman's pride is the biggest fool thing on earth, Keith, and I suppose all of them over there think I'm dead. They haven't heard from me in six or seven years. I'm forgotten. And the beautiful thing about this scheme is that we look so deucedly alike, you know. Trim that mustache and beard of yours a little, add a bit of a scar over your right eye, and you can walk in on old McDowell himself, and I'll wager he'll jump up and say, 'Bless my heart, if it isn't Conniston!' That's all I've got to leave you, Keith, a dead man's clothes and name. But you're welcome. They'll be of no more use to me after tomorrow."

"Impossible!" gasped Keith. "Conniston, do you know what you are saying?"

"Positively, old chap. I count every word, because it hurts when I talk. So you won't argue with me, please. It's the biggest sporting thing that's ever come my way. I'll be dead. You can bury me under this floor, where the foxes can't get at me. But my name will go on living and you'll wear my clothes back to civilization and tell McDowell how you got your man and how he died up here with a frosted lung. As proof of it you'll lug your own clothes down in a bundle along with any other little identifying things you may have, and there's a sergeancy waiting. McDowell promised it to you—if you got your man. Understand? And McDowell hasn't seen me for two years and three months, so if I MIGHT look a bit different to him, it would be natural, for you and I have been on the rough edge of the world all that time. The jolly good part of it all is that we look so much alike. I say the idea is splendid!"

Conniston rose above the presence of death in the thrill of the great gamble he was projecting. And Keith, whose heart was pounding like an excited fist, saw in a flash the amazing audacity of the thing that was in Conniston's mind, and felt the responsive thrill of its possibilities. No one down there would recognize in him the John Keith of four years ago. Then he was smooth-faced, with shoulders that stooped a little and a body that was not too strong. Now he was an animal! A four years' fight with the raw things of life had made him that, and inch for inch he measured up with Conniston. And Conniston, sitting opposite him, looked enough like him to be a twin brother. He seemed to read the thought in Keith's mind. There was an amused glitter in his eyes.

"I suppose it's largely because of the hair on our faces," he said. "You know a beard can cover a multitude of physical sins—and differences, old chap. I wore mine two years before I started out after you, vandyked rather carefully, you understand, so you'd better not use a razor. Physically you won't run a ghost of a chance of being caught. You'll look the part. The real fun is coming in other ways. In the next twenty-four hours you've got to learn by heart the history of Derwent Conniston from the day he joined the Royal Mounted. We won't go back further than that, for it wouldn't interest you, and ancient history won't turn up to trouble you. Your biggest danger will be with McDowell, commanding F Division at Prince Albert. He's a human fox of the old military school, mustaches and all, and he can see through boiler-plate. But he's got a big heart. He has been a good friend of mine, so along with Derwent Conniston's story you've got to load up with a lot about McDowell, too. There are many things—OH, GOD—"

He flung a hand to his chest. Grim horror settled in the little cabin as the cough convulsed him. And over it the wind shrieked again, swallowing up the yapping of the foxes and the rumble of the ice.

That night, in the yellow sputter of the seal-oil lamp, the fight began. Grim-faced—one realizing the nearness of death and struggling to hold it back, the other praying for time—two men went through the amazing process of trading their identities. From the beginning it was Conniston's fight. And Keith, looking at him, knew that in this last mighty effort to die game the Englishman was narrowing the slight margin of hours ahead of him. Keith had loved but one man, his father. In this fight he learned to love another, Conniston. And once he cried out bitterly that it was unfair, that Conniston should live and he should die. The dying Englishman smiled and laid a hand on his, and Keith felt that the hand was damp with a cold sweat.

Through the terrible hours that followed Keith felt the strength and courage of the dying man becoming slowly a part of himself. The thing was epic. Conniston, throttling his own agony, was magnificent. And Keith felt his warped and despairing soul swelling with a new life and a new hope, and he was thrilled by the thought of what he must do to live up to the mark of the Englishman. Conniston's story was of the important things first. It began with his acquaintance with McDowell. And then, between the paroxysms that stained his lips red, he filled in with incident and smiled wanly as he told how McDowell had sworn him to secrecy once in the matter of an incident which the chief did not want the barracks to know—and laugh over. A very sensitive man in some ways was McDowell! At the end of the first hour Keith stood up in the middle of the floor, and with his arms resting on the table and his shoulders sagging Conniston put him through the drill. After that he gave Keith his worn Service Manual and commanded him to study while he rested. Keith helped him to his bunk, and for a time after that tried to read the Service book. But his eyes blurred, and his brain refused to obey. The agony in the Englishman's low breathing oppressed him with a physical pain. Keith felt himself choking and rose at last from the table and went out into the gray, ghostly twilight of the night.

His lungs drank in the ice-tanged air. But it was not cold. Kwaske-hoo—the change—had come. The air was filled with the tumult of the last fight of winter against the invasion of spring, and the forces of winter were crumbling. The earth under Keith's feet trembled in the mighty throes of their dissolution. He could hear more clearly the roar and snarl and rending thunder of the great fields of ice as they swept down with the arctic current into Hudson's Bay. Over him hovered a strange night. It was not black but a weird and wraith-like gray, and out of this sepulchral chaos came strange sounds and the moaning of a wind high up. A little while longer, Keith thought, and the thing would have driven him mad. Even now he fancied he heard the screaming and wailing of voices far up under the hidden stars. More than once in the past months he had listened to the sobbing of little children, the agony of weeping women, and the taunting of wind voices that were either tormenting or crying out in a ghoulish triumph; and more than once in those months he had seen Eskimos—born in that hell but driven mad in the torture of its long night—rend the clothes from their bodies and plunge naked out into the pitiless gloom and cold to die. Conniston would never know how near the final breakdown his brain had been in that hour when he made him a prisoner. And Keith had not told him. The man-hunter had saved him from going mad. But Keith had kept that secret to himself.

Even now he shrank down as a blast of wind shot out of the chaos above and smote the cabin with a shriek that had in it a peculiarly penetrating note. And then he squared his shoulders and laughed, and the yapping of the foxes no longer filled him with a shuddering torment. Beyond them he was seeing home. God's country! Green forests and waters spattered with golden sun—things he had almost forgotten; once more the faces of women who were white. And with those faces he heard the voice of his people and the song of birds and felt under his feet the velvety touch of earth that was bathed in the aroma of flowers. Yes, he had almost forgotten those things. Yesterday they had been with him only as moldering skeletons—phantasmal dream-things—because he was going mad, but now they were real, they were just off there to the south, and he was going to them. He stretched up his arms, and a cry rose out of his throat. It was of triumph, of final exaltation. Three years of THAT—and he had lived through it! Three years of dodging from burrow to burrow, just as Conniston had said, like a hunted fox; three years of starvation, of freezing, of loneliness so great that his soul had broken—and now he was going home!

He turned again to the cabin, and when he entered the pale face of the dying Englishman greeted him from the dim glow of the yellow light at the table. And Conniston was smiling in a quizzical, distressed sort of way, with a hand at his chest. His open watch on the table pointed to the hour of midnight when the lesson went on.

Still later he heated the muzzle of his revolver in the flame of the seal-oil.

"It will hurt, old chap—putting this scar over your eye. But it's got to be done. I say, won't it be a ripping joke on McDowell?" Softly he repeated it, smiling into Keith's eyes. "A ripping joke—on McDowell!"