Read CHAPTER III of The Valley of Silent Men , free online book, by James Oliver Curwood, on ReadCentral.com.

Again the world came back to Kent, the world that lay just beyond his open window.  But scarcely had O’Connor gone when it began to change, and in spite of his determination to keep hold of his nerve Kent felt creeping up with that change a thing that was oppressive and smothering.  Swiftly the distant billowings of the forests were changing their tones and colors under the darkening approach of storm.  The laughter of the hills and ridges went out.  The shimmer of spruce and cedar and balsam turned to a somber black.  The flashing gold and silver of birch and poplar dissolved into a ghostly and unanimated gray that was almost invisible.  A deepening and somber gloom spread itself like a veil over the river that only a short time before had reflected the glory of the sun in the faces of dark-visaged men of the Company brigade.  And with the gloom came steadily nearer a low rumbling of thunder.

For the first time since the mental excitement of his confession Kent felt upon him an appalling loneliness.  He still was not afraid of death, but a part of his philosophy was gone.  It was, after all, a difficult thing to die alone.  He felt that the pressure in his chest was perceptible greater than it had been an hour or two before, and the thought grew upon him that it would be a terrible thing for the “explosion” to come when the sun was not shining.  He wanted O’Connor back again.  He had the desire to call out for Cardigan.  He would have welcomed Father Layonne with a glad cry.  Yet more than all else would he have had at his side in these moments of distress a woman.  For the storm, as it massed heavier and nearer, filling the earth with its desolation, bridged vast spaces for him, and he found himself suddenly face to face with the might-have-beens of yesterday.

He saw, as he had never guessed before, the immeasurable gulf between helplessness and the wild, brute freedom of man, and his soul cried out-not for adventure, not for the savage strength of life-but for the presence of a creature frailer than himself, yet in the gentle touch of whose hand lay the might of all humanity.

He struggled with himself.  He remembered that Dr. Cardigan had told him there would be moments of deep depression, and he tried to fight himself out of the grip of this that was on him.  There was a bell at hand, but he refused to use it, for he sensed his own cowardice.  His cigar had gone out, and he relighted it.  He made an effort to bring his mind back to O’Connor, and the mystery girl, and Kedsty.  He tried to visualize McTrigger, the man he had saved from the hangman, waiting for Kedsty in the office at barracks.  He pictured the girl, as O’Connor had described her, with her black hair and blue eyes-and then the storm broke.

The rain came down in a deluge, and scarcely had it struck when the door opened and Cardigan hurried in to close the window.  He remained for half an hour, and after that young Mercer, one of his two assistants, came in at intervals.  Late in the afternoon it began to clear up, and Father Layonne returned with papers properly made out for Kent’s signature.  He was with Kent until sundown, when Mercer came in with supper.

Between that hour and ten o’clock Kent observed a vigilance on the part of Dr. Cardigan which struck him as being unusual.  Four times he listened with the stethoscope at his chest, but when Kent asked the question which was in his mind, Cardigan shook his head.

“It’s no worse, Kent.  I don’t think it will happen tonight.”

In spite of this assurance Kent was positive there was in Cardigan’s manner an anxiety of a different quality than he had perceived earlier in the day.  The thought was a definite and convincing one.  He believed that Cardigan was smoothing the way with a professional lie.

He had no desire to sleep.  His light was turned low, and his window was open again, for the night had cleared.  Never had air tasted sweeter to him than that which came in through his window.  The little bell in his watch tinkled the hour of eleven, when he heard Cardigan’s door close for a last time across the hall.  After that everything was quiet.  He drew himself nearer to the window, so that by leaning forward he could rest himself partly on the sill.  He loved the night.  The mystery and lure of those still hours of darkness when the world slept had never ceased to hold their fascination for him.  Night and he were friends.  He had discovered many of its secrets.  A thousand times he had walked hand in hand with the spirit of it, approaching each time a little nearer to the heart of it, mastering its life, its sound, the whispering languages of that “other side of life” which rises quietly and as if in fear to live and breathe long after the sun has gone out.  To him it was more wonderful than day.

And this night that lay outside his window now was magnificent.  Storm had washed the atmosphere between earth and sky, and it seemed as though the stars had descended nearer to his forests, shining in golden constellations.  The moon was coming up late, and he watched the ruddy glow of it as it rode up over the wilderness, a splendid queen entering upon a stage already prepared by the lesser satellites for her coming.  No longer was Kent oppressed or afraid.  In still deeper inhalations he drank the night air into his lungs, and in him there seemed to grow slowly a new strength.  His eyes and ears were wide open and attentive.  The town was asleep, but a few lights burned dimly here and there along the river’s edge, and occasionally a lazy sound came up to him-the clink of a scow chain, the bark of a dog, the rooster crowing.  In spite of himself he smiled at that.  Old Duperow’s rooster was a foolish bird and always crowed himself hoarse when the moon was bright.  And in front of him, not far away, were two white, lightning-shriven spruce stubs standing like ghosts in the night.  In one of these a pair of owls had nested, and Kent listened to the queer, chuckling notes of their honeymooning and the flutter of their wings as they darted out now and then in play close to his window.  And then suddenly he heard the sharp snap of their beaks.  An enemy was prowling near, and the owls were giving warning.  He thought he heard a step.  In another moment or two the step was unmistakable.  Some one was approaching his window from the end of the building.  He leaned over the sill and found himself staring into O’Connor’s face.

“These confounded feet of mine!” grunted the staff-sergeant.  “Were you asleep, Kent?”

“Wide-awake as those owls,” assured Kent.

O’Connor drew up to the window.  “I saw your light and thought you were awake,” he said.  “I wanted to make sure Cardigan wasn’t with you.  I don’t want him to know I am here.  And-if you don’t mind-will you turn off the light?  Kedsty is awake, too-as wide-awake as the owls.”

Kent reached out a hand, and his room was in darkness except for the glow of moon and stars.  O’Connor’s bulk at the window shut out a part of this.  His face was half in gloom.

“It’s a crime to come to you like this, Kent,” he said, keeping his big voice down to a whisper.  “But I had to.  It’s my last chance.  And I know there’s something wrong.  Kedsty is getting me out of the way-because I was with him when he met the girl over in the poplar bush.  I’m detailed on special duty up at Fort Simpson, two thousand miles by water if it’s a foot!  It means six months or a year.  We leave in the motor boat at dawn to overtake Rossand and his outfit, so I had to take this chance of seeing you.  I hesitated until I knew that some one was awake in your room.”

“I’m glad you came,” said Kent warmly.  “And-good God, how I would like to go with you, Bucky!  If it wasn’t for this thing in my chest, ballooning up for an explosion-”

“I wouldn’t be going,” interrupted O’Connor in a low voice.  “If you were on your feet, Kent, there are a number of things that wouldn’t be happening.  Something mighty queer has come over Kedsty since this morning.  He isn’t the Kedsty you knew yesterday or for the last ten years.  He’s nervous, and I miss my guess if he isn’t constantly on the watch for some one.  And he’s afraid of me.  I know it.  He’s afraid of me because I saw him go to pieces when he met that girl.  Fort Simpson is simply a frame-up to get me away for a time.  He tried to smooth the edge off the thing by promising me an inspectorship within the year.  That was this afternoon, just before the storm.  Since then-”

O’Connor turned and faced the moonlight for a moment.

“Since then I’ve been on a still-hunt for the girl and Sandy McTrigger,” he added.  “And they’ve disappeared, Kent.  I guess McTrigger just melted away into the woods.  But it’s the girl that puzzles me.  I’ve questioned every scow cheman at the Landing.  I’ve investigated every place where she might have got food or lodging, and I bribed Mooie, the old trailer, to search the near-by timber.  The unbelievable part of it isn’t her disappearance.  It’s the fact that not a soul in Athabasca Landing has seen her!  Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?  And then, Kent, the big hunch came to me.  Remember how we’ve always played up to the big hunch?  And this one struck me strong.  I think I know where the girl is.”

Kent, forgetful of his own impending doom, was deeply interested in the thrill of O’Connor’s mystery.  He had begun to visualize the situation.  More than once they had worked out enigmas of this kind together, and the staff-sergeant saw the old, eager glow in his eyes.  And Kent chuckled joyously in that thrill of the game of man-hunting, and said: 

“Kedsty is a bachelor and doesn’t even so much as look at a woman.  But he likes home life-”

“And has built himself a log bungalow somewhat removed from the town,” added O’Connor.

“And his Chinaman cook and housekeeper is away.”

“And the bungalow is closed, or supposed to be.”

“Except at night, when Kedsty goes there to sleep.”

O’Connor’s hand gripped Kent’s.  “Jimmy, there never was a team in N Division that could beat us, The girl is hiding at Kedsty’s place!”

“But why hiding?” insisted Kent.  “She hasn’t committed a crime.”

O’Connor sat silent for a moment.  Kent could hear him stuffing the bowl of his pipe.

“It’s simply the big hunch,” he grunted.  “It’s got hold of me, Kent, and I can’t throw it off.  Why, man-”

He lighted a match in the cup of his hands, and Kent saw his face.  There was more than uncertainty in the hard, set lines of it.

“You see, I went back to the poplars again after I left you today,” O’Connor went on.  “I found her footprints.  She had turned off the trail, and in places they were very clear.

“She had on high-heeled shoes, Kent-those Frenchy things-and I swear her feet can’t be much bigger than a baby’s!  I found where Kedsty caught up with her, and the moss was pretty well beaten down.  He returned through the poplars, but the girl went on and into the edge of the spruce.  I lost her trail there.  By traveling in that timber it was possible for her to reach Kedsty’s bungalow without being seen.  It must have been difficult going, with shoes half as big as my hand and heels two inches high!  And I’ve been wondering, why didn’t she wear bush-country shoes or moccasins?”

“Because she came from the South and not the North,” suggested Kent.  “Probably up from Edmonton.”

“Exactly.  And Kedsty wasn’t expecting her, was he?  If he had been, that first sight of her wouldn’t have shattered every nerve in his body.  That’s why the big hunch won’t let loose of me, Kent.  From the moment he saw her, he was a different man.  His attitude toward you changed instantly.  If he could save you now by raising his little finger, he wouldn’t do it, simply because it’s absolutely necessary for him to have an excuse for freeing McTrigger.  Your confession came at just the psychological moment.  The girl’s unspoken demand there in the poplars was that he free McTrigger, and it was backed up by a threat which Kedsty understood and which terrified him to his marrow.  McTrigger must have seen him afterward, for he waited at the office until Kedsty came.  I don’t know what passed between them.  Constable Doyle says they were together for half an hour.  Then McTrigger walked out of barracks, and no one has seen him since.  It’s mighty queer.  The whole thing is queer.  And the queerest part of the whole business is this sudden commission of mine at Fort Simpson.”

Kent leaned back against his pillows.  His breath came in a series of short, hacking coughs.  In the star glow O’Connor saw his face grow suddenly haggard and tired-looking, and he leaned far in so that in both his own hands he held one of Kent’s.

“I’m tiring you, Jimmy,” he said huskily.  “Good-by, old pal!  I-I-” He hesitated and then lied steadily.  “I’m going up to take a look around Kedsty’s place.  I won’t be gone more than half an hour and will stop on my way back.  If you’re asleep-”

“I won’t be asleep,” said Kent.

O’Connor’s hands gripped closer.  “Good-by, Jimmy.”

“Good-by.”  And then, as O’Connor stepped back into the night, Kent’s voice called after him softly:  “I’ll be with you on the long trip, Bucky.  Take care of yourself-always.”

O’Connor’s answer was a sob, a sob that rose in his throat like a great fist, and choked him, and filled his eyes with scalding tears that shut out the glow of moon and stars.  And he did not go toward Kedsty’s, but trudged heavily in the direction of the river, for he knew that Kent had called his lie, and that they had said their last farewell.