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

In the slowly breaking gloom of the cabin, with Marette’s arms round his neck, her soft lips given him to kiss, Kent for many minutes was conscious of nothing but the thrill of his one great hope on earth come true.  What he had prayed for was no longer a prayer, and what he had dreamed of was no longer a dream; yet for a space the reality of it seemed unreal.  What he said in those first moments of his exaltation he would probably never remember.

His own physical existence seemed a thing trivial and almost lost, a thing submerged and swallowed up by the warm beat and throb of that other life, a thousand times more precious than his own, which he held in his arms.  Yet with the mad thrill that possessed him, in the embrace of his arms, there was an infinite tenderness, a gentleness, that drew from Marette’s lips a low, glad whispering of his name.  She drew his head down and kissed him, and Kent fell upon his knees at her side and crushed his face close down to her-while outside the patter of rain on the roof had ceased, and the fog-like darkness was breaking with gray dawn.

In that dawn of the new day Kent came at last out of the cabin and looked upon a splendid world.  In his breast was the glory of a thing new-born, and the world, like himself, was changed.  Storm had passed.  The gray river lay under his eyes.  Shoreward he made out the dark outlines of the deep spruce and cedar and balsam forests.  About him there was a great stillness, broken only by the murmur of the river and the ripple of water under the scow.  Wind had gone with the black rainclouds, and Kent, as he looked about him, saw the swift dissolution of the last shadows of night, and the breaking in the East of a new paradise.  In the East, as the minutes passed, there came a soft and luminous gray, and after that, swiftly, with the miracle of far Northern dawn, a vast, low-burning fire seemed to start far beyond the forests, tinting the sky with a delicate pink that crept higher and higher as Kent watched it.  The river, all at once, came out of its last drifting haze of fog and night.  The scow was about in the middle of the channel.  Two hundred yards on either side were thick green walls of forest glistening fresh and cool with the wet of storm and breathing forth the perfume which Kent was drawing deep into his lungs.

In the cabin he heard sound.  Marette was up, and he was eager to have her come out and stand with him in this glory of their first day.  He watched the smoke of the fire he had built, hardwood smoke that drifted up white and clean into the rain-washed air.

The smell of it, like the smell of balsam and cedar, was to Kent the aroma of life.  And then he began to clean out what was left of the water in the bottom of the scow, and as he worked he whistled.  He wanted Marette to hear that whistle.  He wanted her to know that day had brought with it no doubt for him.  A great and glorious world was about them and ahead of them.  And they were safe.

As he worked, his mind became more than ever set upon the resolution to take no chances.  He paused in his whistling for a moment to laugh softly and exultantly as he thought of the years of experience which were his surest safeguard now.  He had become almost uncannily expert in all the finesse and trickery of his craft of hunting human game, and he knew what the man-hunters would do and what they would not do.  He had them checkmated at the start.  And, besides-with Kedsty, O’Connor, and himself gone-the Landing was short-handed just at present.  There was an enormous satisfaction in that.  But even with a score of men behind him Kent knew that he would beat them.  His hazard, if there was peril at all, lay in this first day.  Only the Police gasoline launch could possibly overtake them.  And with the start they had, he was sure they would pass the Death Chute, conceal the scow, and take to the untracked forests north and west before the launch could menace them.  After that he would keep always west and north, deeper and deeper into that wild and untraveled country which would be the last place in which the Law would seek for them.  He straightened himself and looked at the smoke again, drifting like gray-white lace between him and the blue of the sky, and in that moment the sun capped the tall green tops of the highest cedars, and day broke gloriously over the earth.

For a quarter of an hour longer Kent mopped at the floor of the scow, and then-with a suddenness that drew him up as if a whip-lash had snapped behind him-he caught another aroma in the clean, forest-scented air.  It was bacon and coffee!  He had believed that Marette was taking her time in putting on dry footwear and making some sort of morning toilet.  Instead of that, she was getting breakfast.  It was not an extraordinary thing to do.  To fry bacon and make coffee was not, in any sense, a remarkable achievement.  But at the present moment it was the crowning touch to Kent’s paradise.  She was getting HIS breakfast!  And-coffee and bacon-To Kent those two things had always stood for home.  They were intimate and companionable.  Where there were coffee and bacon, he had known children who laughed, women who sang, and men with happy, welcoming faces.  They were home-builders.

“Whenever you smell coffee and bacon at a cabin,” O’Connor had always said, “they’ll ask you in to breakfast if you knock at the door.”

But Kent was not recalling his old trail mate’s words.  In the present moment all other thoughts were lost in the discovery that Marette was getting breakfast-for him.

He went to the door and listened.  Then he opened it and looked in.  Marette was on her knees before the open door of the stove, toasting bread on two forks.  Her face was flushed pink.  She had not taken time to brush her hair, but had woven it carelessly into a thick braid that fell down her back.  She gave a little exclamation of mock disappointment when she saw Kent.

“Why didn’t you wait?” she remonstrated.  “I wanted to surprise you.”

“You have,” he said.  “And I couldn’t wait.  I had to come in and help.”

He was inside the door and on his knees beside her.  As he reached for the two forks, his lips pressed against her hair.  The pink deepened in Marette’s face, and the soft little note that was like laughter came into her throat.  Her hand caressed his cheek as she rose to her feet, and Kent laughed back.  And after that, as she arranged things on the shelf table, her hand now and then touched his shoulder, or his hair, and two or three times he heard that wonderful little throat-note that sent through him a wild pulse of happiness.  And then, he sitting in the low chair and she on the stool, they drew close together before the board that answered as a table, and ate their breakfast.  Marette poured his coffee and stirred sugar and condensed milk in it, and so happy was Kent that he did not tell her he used neither milk nor sugar in his coffee.  The morning sun burst through the little window, and through the open door Kent pointed to the glory of it on the river and in the shimmering green of the forests slipping away behind.  When they had finished, Marette went outside with him.

For a space she stood silent and without movement, looking upon the marvelous world that encompassed them.  It seemed to Kent that for a few moments she did not breathe.  With her head thrown back and her white throat bare to the soft, balsam-laden air she faced the forests.  Her eyes became suddenly filled with the luminous glow of stars.  Her face reflected the radiance of the rising sun, and Kent, looking at her, knew that he had never seen her so beautiful as in these wonderful moments.  He held his own breath, for he also knew that Niska, his goddess, was looking upon her own world again after a long time away.

Her world-and his.  Different from all the other worlds God had ever made; different, even, from the world only a few miles behind them at the Landing.  For here was no sound or whisper of destroying human life.  They were in the embrace of the Great North, and it was drawing them closer, and with each minute nearer to the mighty, pulsing heart of it.

The forests hung heavy and green and glistening with the wet of storm; out of them came the tremulous breath of life and the glory of living; they hugged the shores like watchful hosts guarding the river from civilization-and suddenly the girl held out her arms, and Kent heard the low, thrilling cry that came to her lips.

She had forgotten him.  She had forgotten everything but the river, the forests, and the untrod worlds beyond them, and he was glad.  For this world that she was welcoming, that her soul was crying out to, was his world, for ever and ever.  It held his dreams, his hopes, all the desires that he had in life.  And when at last Marette turned toward him slowly, his arms were reaching out to her, and in his face she saw that same glory which filled her own.

“I’m glad-glad,” she cried softly.  “Oh, Jeems-I’m glad!”

She came into his arms without hesitation; her hands stroked his face; and then she stood with her head against his shoulder, looking ahead, breathing deeply now of the sweet, clear air filled with the elixir of the hovering forests.  She did not speak, or move, and Kent remained quiet.  The scow drifted around a bend.  Shoreward a great moose splashed up out of the water, and they could hear him afterward, crashing through the forest.  Her body tensed, but she did not speak.  After a little he heard her whisper,

“It has been a long time, Jeems.  I have been away four years.”

“And now we are going home, little Gray Goose.  You will not be lonely?”

“No.  I was lonely down there.  There were so many people, and so many things, that I was homesick for the woods and mountains.  I believe I would have died soon.  There were only two things I loved, Jeems-”

“What?” he asked.

“Pretty dresses-and shoes.”

His arms closed about her a little more tightly.  “I-I understand,” he laughed softly.  “That is why you came, that first time, with pretty high-heeled pumps.”

He bowed his head, and she turned her face to him.  On her upturned mouth he kissed her.

“More than any other man ever loved a woman I love you, Niska, little goddess,” he cried.

The minutes and the hours of that day stood out ever afterward in Kent’s life as unforgettable memories.  There were times when they seemed illusory and unreal, as though he lived and breathed in an insubstantial world made up of gossamer things which must be the fabric of dream.  These were moments when the black shadow of the tragedy from which they were fleeing pressed upon him, when the thought came to him that they were criminals racing with the law; that they were not on enchanted ground, but in deadly peril; that it was all a fools’ paradise from which some terrible shock would shortly awaken him.  But these periods of apprehension were, in themselves, mere shadows thrown for a moment upon his happiness.  Again and again the subconscious force within him pounded home to his physical brain the great truth, that it was all extraordinarily real.

It was Marette who made him doubt himself at times.  He could not, quite yet, comprehend the fulness of that love which she had given him.  More than ever, in the glory of this love that had come to them she was like a child to him.  It seemed to him in the first hours of the morning that she had forgotten yesterday, and the day before, and ill the days before that.  She was going home.  She whispered that to him so often that it became a little song in his brain.  Yet she told him nothing of that home, and he waited, knowing that the fulfilment of her promise was not far away.  And there was no embarrassment in the manner of her surrender when he held her in his arms, and she held her face up, so that he could kiss her mouth and look into her glowing, lovely eyes.  What he saw was the flush of a great happiness, the almost childish confession of it along with the woman’s joy of possession.  And he thought of Kedsty, and of the Law that was rousing itself into life back at Athabasca Landing.

And then she ran her fingers through his own and told him to wait, and ran into the cabin and came out a moment later with her brush; and after that she seated herself at the fulcrum of the big sweep and began to brush out her hair in the sun.

“I’m glad you love it, Jeems,” she said.

She unbound the thick braid and let the silken strands of it run caressingly between her fingers.  She smoothed it out, brushed it until it was more beautiful than he had ever seen it, in that glow of the sun.  She held it up so that it rippled out in shimmering cascades about her-and then, suddenly, Kent saw the short tress from which had been clipped the rope of hair that he had taken from Kedsty’s neck.  And as his lips tightened, crushing fiercely the exclamation of his horror, there came a trembling happiness from Marette’s lips, scarcely more than the whisper of a song, the low, thrilling melody of Le Chaudière.

Her arms reached up, and she drew his head down to her, so that for a time his visions were blinded in that sweet smother of her hair.

The intimacy of that day was in itself like a dream.  Hour after hour they drifted deeper into the great North.  The sun shone.  The forest-walled shores of the river grew mightier in their stillness and their grandeur, and the vast silence of unpeopled places brooded over the world.  To Kent it was as if they were drifting through Paradise.  Occasionally he found it necessary to work the big sweep, for still water was gradually giving way to a swifter current.

Beyond that there was no labor for him to perform.  It seemed to him that with each of these wonderful hours danger was being left farther and still farther behind them.  Watching the shores, looking ahead, listening for sound that might come from behind-at times possessed of the exquisite thrills of children in their happiness-Kent and Marette found the gulf of strangeness passing swiftly away from between them.

They did not speak of Kedsty, or the tragedy, or again of the death of John Barkley.  But Kent told of his days in the North, of his aloneness, of the wild, weird love in his soul for the deepest wildernesses.  And from that he went away back into dim and distant yesterdays, alive with mellowed memories of boyhood days spent on a farm.  To all these things Marette listened with glowing eyes, with low laughter, or with breath that rose or fell with his own emotions.

She told of her own days down at school and of their appalling loneliness; of childhood spent in the forests; of the desire to live there always.  But she did not speak intimately of herself or her life in its more vital aspects; she said nothing of the home in the Valley of Silent Men, nothing of father or mother, sisters or brothers.  There was no embarrassment in her omissions.  And Kent did not question.  He knew that those were among the things she would tell him when that promised hour came, the hour when he would tell her they were safe.

There began to possess him now a growing eagerness for this hour, when they should leave the river and take to the forests.  He explained to Marette why they could not float on indefinitely.  The river was the one great artery through which ran the blood of all traffic to the far North.  It was patrolled.  Sooner or later they would be discovered.  In the forests, with a thousand untrod trails to choose, they would be safe.  He had only one reason for keeping to the river until they passed through the Death Chute.  It would carry them beyond a great swampy region to the westward through which it would be impossible for them to make their way at this season of the year.  Otherwise he would have gone ashore now.  He loved the river, had faith in it, but he knew that not until the deep forests swallowed them, as a vast ocean swallows a ship, would they be beyond the peril that threatened them from the Landing.

Three or four times between sunrise and noon they saw life ashore and on the stream; once a scow tied to a tree, then an Indian camp, and twice trappers’ shacks built in the edge of little clearings.  With the beginning of afternoon Kent felt growing within him something that was not altogether eagerness.  It was, at times, a disturbing emotion, a foreshadowing of evil, a warning for him to be on his guard.  He used the sweep more, to help their progress in the current, and he began to measure time and distance with painstaking care.  He recognized many landmarks.

By four o’clock, or five at the latest, they would strike the head of the Chute.  Ten minutes of its thrilling passage and he would work the scow into the concealment he had in mind ashore, and no longer would he fear the arm of the law that reached out from the Landing.  As he planned, he listened.  From noon on he never ceased to listen for that distant putt, putt, putt, that would give them a mile’s warning of the approach of the patrol launch.

He did not keep his plans to himself.  Marette sensed his growing uneasiness, and he made her a partner of his thoughts.

“If we hear the patrol before we reach the Chute, we’ll still have time to run ashore,” he assured her.  “And they won’t catch us.  We’ll be harder to find than two needles in a haystack.  But it’s best to be prepared.”

So he brought out his pack and Marette’s smaller bundle, and laid his rifle and pistol holster across them.

It was three o’clock when the character of the river began to change, and Kent smiled happily.  They were entering upon swifter waters.  There were places where the channel narrowed, and they sped through rapids.  Only where unbroken straight waters stretched out ahead of them did Kent give his arms a rest at the sweep.  And through most of the straight water he added to the speed of the scow.  Marette helped him.  In him the exquisite thrill of watching her slender, glorious body as it worked with his own never grew old.  She laughed at him over the big oar between them.  The wind and sun played riot in her hair.  Her parted lips were rose-red, her cheeks flushed, her eyes like sun-warmed rock violets.  More than once, in the thrill of that afternoon flight, as he looked at the marvelous beauty of her, he asked himself if it could be anything but a dream.  And more than once he laughed joyously, and paused in his swinging of the sweep, and proved that it was real and true.  And Kent thanked God, and worked harder.

Once, a long time ago, Marette told him, she had been through the Chute.  It had horrified her then.  She remembered it as a sort of death monster, roaring for its victims.  As they drew nearer to it, Kent told her more about it.  Only now and then was a life lost there now, he said.  At the mouth of the Chute there was a great, knife-like rock, like a dragon’s tooth, that cut the Chute into two roaring channels.  If a scow kept to the left-hand channel it was safe.  There would be a mighty roaring and thundering as it swept on its passage, but that roaring of the Chute, he told her, was like the barking of a harmless dog.

Only when a scow became unmanageable, or hit the Dragon’s Tooth, or made the right-hand channel instead of the left, was there tragedy.  There was that delightful little note of laughter in Marette’s throat when Kent told her that.

“You mean, Jeems, that if one of three possible things doesn’t happen, we’ll get through safely?”

“None of them is possible-with us,” he corrected himself quickly.  “We’ve a tight little scow, we’re not going to hit the rock, and we’ll make the left-hand channel so smoothly you won’t know when it happens.”  He smiled at her with splendid confidence.  “I’ve been through it a hundred times,” he said.

He listened.  Then, suddenly, he drew out his watch.  It was a quarter of four.  Marette’s ears caught what he heard.  In the air was a low, trembling murmur.  It was growing slowly but steadily.  He nodded when she looked at him, the question in her eyes.

“The rapids at the head of the Chute!” he cried, his voice vibrant with joy.  “We’ve beat them out. We’re safe!”

They swung around a bend, and the white spume of the rapids lay half a mile ahead of them.  The current began to race with them now.  Kent put his whole weight on the sweep to keep the scow in mid-channel.

“We’re safe,” he repeated.  “Do you understand, Marette? We’re safe!”

He was speaking the words for which she had waited, was telling her that at last the hour had come when she could keep her promise to him.  The words, as he gave them voice, thrilled him.  He felt like shouting them.  And then all at once he saw the change that had come into her face.  Her wide, startled eyes were not looking at him, but beyond.  She was looking back in the direction from which they had come, and even as he stared her face grew white.

Listen!”

She was tense, rigid.  He turned his head.  And in that moment it came to him above the growing murmur of the river-the putt, putt, putt of the Police patrol boat from Athabasca Landing!

A deep breath came from between his lips.  When Marette took her eyes from the river and looked at him, his face was like carven rock.  He was staring dead ahead.

“We can’t make the Chute,” he said, his voice sounding hard and unreal to her.  “If we do, they’ll be up with us before we can land at the other end.  We must let this current drive us ashore-now.”

As he made his decision, he put the strength of his body into action.  He knew there was not the hundredth part of a second to lose.  The outreaching suction of the rapids was already gripping the scow, and with mighty strokes he fought to work the head of his craft toward the westward shore.  With swift understanding Marette saw the priceless value of a few seconds of time.  If they were caught in the stronger swirl of the rapids before the shore was reached, they would be forced to run the Chute, and in that event the launch would be upon them before they could make a landing farther on.  She sprang to Kent’s side and added her own strength in the working of the sweep.  Foot by foot and yard by yard the scow made precious westing, and Kent’s face lighted up with triumph as he nodded ahead to a timbered point that thrust itself out like a stubby thumb into the river.  Beyond that point the rapids were frothing white, and they could see the first black walls of rock that marked the beginning of the Chute.

“We’ll make it,” he smiled confidently.  “We’ll hit that timbered point close inshore.  I don’t see where the launch can make a landing anywhere within a mile of the Chute.  And once ashore we’ll make trail about five times as fast they can follow it.”  Marette’s face was no longer pale, but flushed with excitement.  He caught the white gleam of teeth between her parted lips.  Her eyes shone gloriously, and he laughed.

“You beautiful little fighter,” he cried exultantly.  “You-you-”

His words were cut short by a snap that was like the report of a pistol close to his ears.  He pitched forward and crashed to the bottom of the scow, Marette’s slim body clutched in his arms as he fell.  In a flash they were up, and mutely they stared where the sweep had been.  The blade of it was gone.  Kent was conscious of hearing a little cry from the girl at his side, and then her fingers were gripping tightly again about his thumb.  No longer possessed of the power of guidance, the scow swung sideways.  It swept past the wooded point.  The white maelstrom of the lower rapids seized upon it.  And Kent, looking ahead to the black maw of the death-trap that was waiting for them, drew Marette close in his arms and held her tight.