"Why did I kill Judge Kirkstone?" Keith repeated the words
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
"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?"
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
"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
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
Still later he heated the muzzle of his revolver in the flame of
"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!"