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

That morning Kent ate a breakfast that would have amazed Doctor Cardigan and would have roused a greater caution in Inspector Kedsty had he known of it.  While eating he strengthened the bonds already welded between himself and Mercer.  He feigned great uneasiness over the condition of Mooie, who he knew was not fatally hurt because Mercer had told him there was no fracture.  But if he should happen to die, he told Mercer, it would mean something pretty bad for them, if their part in the affair leaked out.

As for himself, it would make little difference, as he was “in bad” anyway.  But he did not want to see a good friend get into trouble on his account.  Mercer was impressed.  He saw himself an instrument in a possible murder affair, and the thought terrified him.  Even at best, Kent told him, they had given and taken bribes, a fact that would go hard with them unless Mooie kept his mouth shut.  And if the Indian knew anything out of the way about Kedsty, it was mighty important that he, Mercer, get hold of it, for it might prove a trump card with them in the event of a showdown with the Inspector of Police.  As a matter of form, Mercer took his temperature.  It was perfectly normal, but it was easy for Kent to persuade a notation on the chart a degree above.

“Better keep them thinking I’m still pretty sick,” he assured Mercer.  “They won’t suspect there is anything between us then.”

Mercer was so much in sympathy with the idea that he suggested adding another half-degree.

It was a splendid day for Kent.  He could feel himself growing stronger with each hour that passed.  Yet not once during the day did he get out of his bed, fearing that he might be discovered.  Cardigan visited him twice and had no suspicion of Mercer’s temperature chart.  He dressed his wound, which was healing fast.  It was the fever which depressed him.  There must be, he said, some internal disarrangement which would soon clear itself up.  Otherwise there seemed to be no very great reason why Kent should not get on his feet.  He smiled apologetically.

“Seems queer to say that, when a little while ago I was telling you it was time to die,” he said.

That night, after ten o’clock, Kent went through his setting-up exercises four times.  He marveled even more than the preceding night at the swiftness with which his strength was returning.  Half a dozen times the little devils of eagerness working in his blood prompted him to take to the window at once.

For three days and nights thereafter he kept his secret and added to his strength.  Doctor Cardigan came in to see him at intervals, and Father Layonne visited him regularly every afternoon.  Mercer was his most frequent visitor.  On the third day two things happened to create a little excitement.  Doctor Cardigan left on a four-day journey to a settlement fifty miles south, leaving Mercer in charge-and Mooie came suddenly out of his fever into his normal senses again.  The first event filled Kent with joy.  With Cardigan out of the way there would be no immediate danger of the discovery that he was no longer a sick man.  But it was the recovery of Mooie from the thumping he had received about the head that delighted Mercer.  He was exultant.  With the quick reaction of his kind he gloated over the fact before Kent.  He let it be known that he was no longer afraid, and from the moment Mooie was out of danger his attitude was such that more than once Kent would have taken keen pleasure in kicking him from the room.  Also, from the hour he was safely in charge of Doctor Cardigan’s place, Mercer began to swell with importance.  Kent saw the new danger and began to humor him.  He flattered him.  He assured him that it was a burning shame Cardigan had not taken him into partnership.  He deserved it.  And, in justice to himself, Mercer should demand that partnership when Cardigan returned.  He, Kent, would talk to Father Layonne about it, and the missioner would spread the gospel of what ought to be among others who were influential at the Landing.  For two days he played with Mercer as an angler plays with a treacherous fish.  He tried to get Mercer to discover more about Mooie’s reference to Kedsty.  But the old Indian had shut up like a clam.

“He was frightened when I told him he had said things about the Inspector,” Mercer reported.  “He disavowed everything.  He shook his head-no, no, no.  He had not seen Kedsty.  He knew nothing about him.  I can do nothing with him, Kent.”

He had dropped his “sirs,” also his servant-like servility.  He helped to smoke Kent’s cigars with the intimacy of proprietorship, and with offensive freedom called him “Kent.”  He spoke of the Inspector as “Kedsty,” and of Father Layonne as “the little preacher.”  He swelled perceptibly, and Kent knew that each hour of that swelling added to his own danger.

He believed that Mercer was talking.  Several times a day he heard him in conversation with the guard, and not infrequently Mercer went down to the Landing, twirling a little reed cane that he had not dared to use before.  He began to drop opinions and information to Kent in a superior sort of way.  On the fourth day word came that Doctor Cardigan would not return for another forty-eight hours, and with unblushing conceit Mercer intimated that when he did return he would find big changes.  Then it was that in the stupidity of his egotism he said: 

“Kedsty has taken a great fancy to me, Kent.  He’s a square old top, when you take him right.  Had me over this afternoon, and we smoked a cigar together.  When I told him that I looked in at your window last night and saw you going through a lot of exercises, he jumped up as if some one had stuck a pin in him.  ‘Why, I thought he was sick-bad!’ he said.  And I let him know there were better ways of making a sick man well than Cardigan’s.  ‘Give them plenty to eat,’ I said.  ’Let ’em live normal,’ I argued.  ‘Look at Kent, for instance,’ I told him.  ’He’s been eating like a bear for a week, and he can turn somersaults this minute!’ That topped him over, Kent.  I knew it would be a bit of a surprise for him, that I should do what Cardigan couldn’t do.  He walked back and forth, black as a hat-thinking of Cardigan, I suppose.  Then he called in that Pelly chap and gave him something which he wrote on a piece of paper.  After that he shook hands with me, slapped me on the shoulder most intimately, and gave me another cigar.  He’s a keen old blade, Kent.  He doesn’t need more than one pair of eyes to see what I’ve done since Cardigan went away!”

If ever Kent’s hands had itched to get at the throat of a human being, the yearning convulsed his fingers now.  At the moment when he was about to act Mercer had betrayed him to Kedsty!  He turned his face away so that Mercer could not see what was in his eyes.  Under his body he concealed his clenched hands.  Within himself he fought against the insane desire that was raging in his blood, the desire to leap on Mercer and kill him.  If Cardigan had reported his condition to Kedsty, it would have been different.  He would have accepted the report as a matter of honorable necessity on Cardigan’s part.  But Mercer-a toad blown up by his own wind, a consummate fiend who would sell his best friend, a fool, an ass-

For a space he held himself rigid as a stone, his face turned away from Mercer.  His better sense won.  He knew that his last chance depended upon his coolness now.  And Mercer unwittingly helped him to win by slyly pocketing a couple of his cigars and leaving the room.  For a minute or two Kent heard him talking to the guard outside the door.

He sat up then.  It was five o’clock.  How long ago was it that Mercer had seen Kedsty?  What was the order that the Inspector had written on a sheet of paper for Constable Pelly?  Was it simply that he should be more closely watched, or was it a command to move him to one of the cells close to the detachment office?  If it was the latter, all his hopes and plans were destroyed.  His mind flew to those cells.

The Landing had no jail, not even a guard-house, though the members of the force sometimes spoke of the cells just behind Inspector Kedsty’s office by that name.  The cells were of cement, and Kent himself had helped to plan them!  The irony of the thing did not strike him just then.  He was recalling the fact that no prisoner had ever escaped from those cement cells.  If no action were taken before six o’clock, he was sure that it would be postponed until the following morning.  It was possible that Kedsty’s order was for Pelly to prepare a cell for him.  Deep in his soul he prayed fervently that it was only a matter of preparation.  If they would give him one more night-just one!

His watch tinkled the half-hour.  Then a quarter of six.  Then six.  His blood ran feverishly, in spite of the fact that he possessed the reputation of being the coolest man in N Division.  He lighted his last cigar and smoked it slowly to cover the suspense which he feared revealed itself in his face, should any one come into his room.  His supper was due at seven.  At eight it would begin to get dusk.  The moon was rising later each night, and it would not appear over the forests until after eleven.  He would go through his window at ten o’clock.  His mind worked swiftly and surely as to the method of his first night’s flight.  There were always a number of boats down at Crossen’s place.  He would start in one of these, and by the time Mercer discovered he was gone, he would be forty miles on his way to freedom.  Then he would set his boat adrift, or hide it, and start cross-country until his trail was lost.  Somewhere and in some way he would find both guns and food.  It was fortunate that he had not given Mercer the other fifty dollars under his pillow.

At seven Mercer came with his supper.  A little gleam of disappointment shot into his pale eyes when he found the last cigar gone from the box.  Kent saw the expression and tried to grin good-humoredly.

“I’m going to have Father Layonne bring me up another box in the morning, Mercer,” he said.  “That is, if I can get hold of him.”

“You probably can,” snapped Mercer.  “He doesn’t live far from barracks, and that’s where you are going.  I’ve got orders to have you ready to move in the morning.”

Kent’s blood seemed for an instant to flash into living flame.  He drank a part of his cup of coffee and said then, with a shrug of his shoulders:  “I’m glad of it, Mercer.  I’m anxious to have the thing over.  The sooner they get me down there, the quicker they will take action.  And I’m not afraid, not a bit of it.  I’m bound to win.  There isn’t a chance in a hundred that they can convict me.”  Then he added:  “And I’m going to have a box of cigars sent up to you, Mercer.  I’m grateful to you for the splendid treatment you have given me.”

No sooner had Mercer gone with the supper things than Kent’s knotted fist shook itself fiercely in the direction of the door.

“My God, how I’d like to have you out in the woods-alone-for just one hour!” he whispered.

Eight o’clock came, and nine.  Two or three times he heard voices in the hall, probably Mercer talking with the guard.  Once he thought he heard a rumble of thunder, and his heart throbbed joyously.  Never had he welcomed a storm as he would have welcomed it tonight.  But the skies remained clear.  Not only that, but the stars as they began to appear seemed to him more brilliant than he had ever seen them before.  And it was very still.  The rattle of a scow-chain came up to him from the river as though it were only a hundred yards away.  He knew that it was one of Mooie’s dogs he heard howling over near the sawmill.  The owls, flitting past his window, seemed to click their beaks more loudly than last night.  A dozen times he fancied he could hear the rippling voice of the river that very soon was to carry him on toward freedom.

The river!  Every dream and aspiration found its voice for him in that river now.  Down it Marette Radisson had gone.  And somewhere along it, or on the river beyond, or the third river still beyond that, he would find her.  In the long, tense wait between the hours of nine and ten he brought the girl back into his room again.  He recalled every gesture she had made, every word she had spoken.  He felt the thrill of her hand on his forehead, her kiss, and in his brain her softly spoken words repeated themselves over and over again, “I think that if you lived very long I should love you.”  And as she had spoken those words she knew that he was not going to die!

Why, then, had she gone away?  Knowing that he was going to live, why had she not remained to help him if she could?  Either she had spoken the words in jest, or-

A new thought flashed into his mind.  It almost drew a cry from his lips.  It brought him up tense, erect, his heart pounding.  Had she gone away?  Was it not possible that she, too, was playing a game in giving the impression that she was leaving down-river on the hidden scow?  Was it conceivable that she was playing that game against Kedsty?  A picture, clean-cut as the stars in the sky, began to outline itself in his mental vision.  It was clear, now, what Mooie’s mumblings about Kedsty had signified.  Kedsty had accompanied Marette to the scow.  Mooie had seen him and had given the fact away in his fever.  Afterward he had clamped his mouth shut through fear of the “big man” of the Law.  But why, still later, had he almost been done to death?  Mooie was a harmless creature.  He had no enemies.

There was no one at the Landing who would have assaulted the old trailer, whose hair was white with age.  No one, unless it was Kedsty himself-Kedsty at bay, Kedsty in a rage.  Even that was inconceivable.  Whatever the motive of the assault might be, and no matter who had committed it, Mooie had most certainly seen the Inspector of Police accompany Marette Radisson to the scow.  And the question which Kent found it impossible to answer was, had Marette Radisson really gone down the river on that scow?

It was almost with a feeling of disappointment that he told himself it was possible she had not.  He wanted her on the river.  He wanted her going north and still farther north.  The thought that she was mixed up in some affair that had to do with Kedsty was displeasing to him.  If she was still in the Landing or near the Landing, it could no longer be on account of Sandy McTrigger, the man his confession had saved.  In his heart he prayed that she was many days down the Athabasca, for it was there-and only there-that he would ever see her again.  And his greatest desire, next to his desire for his freedom, was to find her.  He was frank with himself in making that confession.  He was more than that.  He knew that not a day or night would pass that he would not think or dream of Marette Radisson.  The wonder of her had grown more vivid for him with each hour that passed, and he was sorry now that he had not dared to touch her hair.  She would not have been offended with him, for she had kissed him-after he had killed the impulse to lay his hand on that soft glory that had crowned her head.

And then the little bell in his watch tinkled the hour of ten!  He sat up with a jerk.  For a space he held his breath while he listened.  In the hall outside his room there was no sound.  An inch at a time he drew himself off his bed until he stood on his feet.  His clothes hung on hooks in the wall, and he groped his way to them so quietly that one listening at the crack of his door would not have heard him.  He dressed swiftly.  Then he made his way to the window, looked out, and listened.

In the brilliant starlight he saw nothing but the two white stubs of the lightning-shattered trees in which the owls lived.  And it was very still.  The air was fresh and sweet in his face.  In it he caught the scent of the distant balsams and cedars.  The world, wonderful in its night silence, waited for him.  It was impossible for him to conceive of failure or death out there, and it seemed unreal and trivial that the Law should expect to hold him, with that world reaching out its arms to him and calling him.

Assured that the moment for action was at hand, he moved quickly.  In another ten seconds he was through the window, and his feet were on the ground.  For a space he stood out clear in the starlight.  Then he hurried to the end of the building and hid himself in the shadow.  The swiftness of his movement had brought him no physical discomfort, and his blood danced with the thrill of the earth under his feet and the thought that his wound must be even more completely healed than he had supposed.  A wild exultation swept over him.  He was free!  He could see the river now, shimmering and talking to him in the starlight, urging him to hurry, telling him that only a little while ago another had gone north on the breast of it, and that if he hastened it would help him to overtake her.  He felt the throb of new life in his body.  His eyes shone strangely in the semi-gloom.

It seemed to him that only yesterday Marette had gone.  She could not be far away, even now.  And in these moments, with the breath of freedom stirring him with the glory of new life, she was different for him from what she had ever been.  She was a part of him.  He could not think of escape without thinking of her.  She became, in these precious moments, the living soul of his wilderness.  He felt her presence.  The thought possessed him that somewhere down the river she was thinking of him, waiting, expecting him.  And in that same flash he made up his mind that he would not discard the boat, as he had planned; he would conceal himself by day, and float downstream by night, until at last he came to Marette Radisson.  And then he would tell her why he had come.  And after that-

He looked toward Crossen’s place.  He would make straight for it, openly, like a man bent on a mission there was no reason to conceal.  If luck went right, and Crossen was abed, he would be on the river within fifteen minutes.  His blood ran faster as he took his first step out into the open starlight.  Fifty yards ahead of him was the building which Cardigan used for his fuel.  Safely beyond that, no one could see him from the windows of the hospital.  He walked swiftly.  Twenty paces, thirty, forty-and he stopped as suddenly as the half-breed’s bullet had stopped him weeks before.  Round the end of Cardigan’s fuel house came a figure.  It was Mercer.  He was twirling his little cane and traveling quietly as a cat.  They were not ten feet apart, yet Kent had not heard him.

Mercer stopped.  The cane dropped from his hand.  Even in the starlight Kent could see his face turn white.

“Don’t make a sound, Mercer,” he warned.  “I’m taking a little exercise in the open air.  If you cry out, I’ll kill you!”

He advanced slowly, speaking in a voice that could not have been heard at the windows behind him.  And then a thing happened that froze the blood in his veins.  He had heard the scream of every beast of the great forests, but never a scream like that which came from Mercer’s lips now.  It was not the cry of a man.  To Kent it was the voice of a fiend, a devil.  It did not call for help.  It was wordless.  And as the horrible sound issued from Mercer’s mouth he could see the swelling throat and bulging eyes that accompanied the effort.  They made him think of a snake, a cobra.

The chill went out of his blood, replaced by a flame of hottest fire.  He forgot everything but that this serpent was in his path.  Twice he had stood in his way.  And he hated him.  He hated him with a virulency that was death.  Neither the call of freedom nor the threat of prison could keep him from wreaking vengeance now.  Without a sound he was at Mercer’s throat, and the scream ended in a choking shriek.  His fingers dug into flabby flesh, and his clenched fist beat again and again into Mercer’s face.

He went to the ground, crushing the human serpent under him.  And he continued to strike and choke as he had never struck or choked another man, all other things overwhelmed by his mad desire to tear into pieces this two-legged English vermin who was too foul to exist on the face of the earth.

And he still continued to strike-even after the path lay clear once more between him and the river.