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

For a brief space after the breaking of the scow-sweep Kent did not move.  He felt Marette’s arms closing tighter and tighter around his neck.  He caught a flash of her upturned face, the flush of a few moments before replaced by a deathly pallor, and he knew that without explanation on his part she understood the almost hopeless situation they were in.  He was glad of that.  It gave him a sense of relief to know that she would not go into a panic, no matter what happened.  He bowed his face to hers, so that he felt the velvety smoothness of her cheek.  She turned her mouth to him, and they kissed.  His embrace was crushing for a moment, fierce with his love for her, desperate with his determination to keep her from harm.

His brain was working swiftly.  There was possibly one chance in ten that the scow-rudderless and without human guidance-would sweep safely between the black walls and jagged teeth of the Chute.  Even if the scow made this passage, they would be in the power of the Police, unless some splendid whimsicality of Fate sent it ashore before the launch came through.

On the other hand, if it was carried far enough through the lower rapids, they might swim.  And-there was the rifle laying across the pack.  That, after all, was his greatest hope-if the scow made the passage of the Chute.  The bulwarks of the scow would give them greater protection than the thinner walls of the launch would give to their pursuers.  In his heart there raged suddenly a hatred for that Law of which he had been a part.  It was running them to destruction, and he would fight.  There would not be more than three men in the launch, and he would kill them, if killing became a necessity.

They were speeding like an unbridled race-horse through the boiling rapids now.  The clumsy craft under their feet twisted and turned.  The dripping tops of great rocks shot past a little out of their channel.  And Marette, with one arm still about his neck, was facing the peril ahead with him.  They could see the Dragon’s Tooth, black and grim, waiting squarely in their path.  In another hundred and twenty seconds they would be upon it-or past it.  There was no time for Kent to explain.  He sprang to his pack, whipped a knife from his pocket, and cut the stout babiche rope that reenforced its straps.  In another instant he was back at Marette’s side, fastening the babiche about her waist.  The other end he gave to her, and she tied it about his wrist.  She smiled as she finished the knot.  It was a strange, tense little smile, but it told him that she was not afraid, that she had great faith in him, and knew what the babiche meant.

“I can swim, Jeems,” she cried.  “If we strike the rock.”

She did not finish because of the sudden cry that came to his lips.  He had almost forgotten the most vital of all things.  There was not time to unlace his boots.  With his knife he cut the laces in a single downward thrust.  Swiftly he freed his own feet, and Marette’s.  Even in this hour of their peril it thrilled him to see how quickly Marette responded to the thoughts that moved him.  She tore at her outer garments and slipped them off as he wriggled out of his heavy shirt.  A slim, white-underskirted little thing, her glorious hair flying in the wind that came through the Chute, her throat and arms bare, her eyes shining at Kent, she came again close within his arms, and her lips framed softly his name.  And a moment later she turned her face up, and cried quickly,

“Kiss me, Jeems-kiss me-”

Her warm lips clung to his, and her bare arms encircled his neck with the choking grip of a child’s.  He looked ahead and braced himself on his feet, and after that he buried one of his hands in the soft mass of her hair and pressed her face against his naked breast.

Ten seconds later the crash came.  Squarely amidships the scow struck the Dragon’s Tooth.  Kent was prepared for the shock, but his attempt to hold his feet, with Marette in his arms, was futile.  The bulwark saved them from crashing against the slippery face of the rock itself.  Amid the roar of water that filled his ears he was conscious of the rending of timbers.  The scow bulged up with the mighty force beneath, and for a second or two it seemed as though that force was going to overturn and submerge it.  Then slowly it began to slip off the nose of the rock.

Holding to the rail with one hand and clinging to Marette with his other arm, Kent was gripped in the horror of what was happening.  The scow was slipping into the right hand channel!  In that channel there as no hope-only death.

Marette was squarely facing the thing ahead.  In this hour when each second held a lifetime of suspense Kent saw that she understood.  Yet she did not cry out.  Her face was dead white.  Her hair and arms and shoulders were dripping with the splash of water.  But she was not terrified as he had seen terror.  When she turned her eyes to him, he was amazed by the quiet, calm look that was in them.  Her lips trembled.

His soul expressed itself in a wordless cry that was drowned in another crash of timber as a jutting snag of the Tooth crumpled up the little cabin as if it had been pasteboard.  He felt overwhelming him the surge of a thing mightier than the menace of the Chute.  He could not lose!  It was inconceivable.  Impossible!  With her to fight for-this slim, wonderful creature who smiled at him even as she saw death.

And then, as his arm closed still more tightly about her, the monsters of power and death gave him their answer.  The scow swung free of the Dragon’s Tooth, half-filled with water.  Its cracked and broken carcass was caught in the rock jaws of the eastern channel.  It ceased to be a floating thing.  It was inundation, dissolution, utter obliteration almost without shock.  And Kent found himself in the thundering rush of waters, holding to Marette.

For a space they were under.  Black water and white froth fumed and exploded over them.  It seemed an age before fresh air filled Kent’s nostrils.  He thrust Marette upward and cried out to her.  He heard her answer.

“I’m all right-Jeems!”

His swimming prowess was of little avail now.  He was like a chip.  All his effort was to make of himself a barrier between Marette’s soft body and the rocks.  It was not the water itself that he feared, but the rocks.

There were scores and hundreds of them, like the teeth of a mighty grinding machine.  And the jaw was a quarter of a mile in length.  He felt the first shock, the second, the third.  He was not thinking of time or distance, but was fighting solely to keep himself between Marette and death.  The first time he failed, a blind sort of rage burned in his brain.

He saw her white body strained over a slippery, deluge-worn rock.  Her head was flung back, and he saw the long masses of her hair streaming out in the white froth, and he thought for an instant that her fragile body had been broken.  He fought still more fiercely after that.  And she knew for what he was fighting.  Only in an unreal sort of way was he conscious of shock and hurt.  It gave him no physical pain.  Yet he sensed the growing dizziness in his head, an increasing lack of strength in his arms and body.

They were halfway through the Chute when he shot against a rock with terrific force.  The contact tore Marette from him.  He plunged for her, missed his grip, and then saw her opposite him, clinging to the same rock.  The babiche rope had saved her.  Fastened about her waist and tied to his wrist, it still held them together-with the five feet of rock between them.

Panting, their life half beaten out of them, their eyes met over that rock.  Now that he was out of the water, the blood began streaming from Kent’s arms and shoulders and face, but he smiled at her as a few moments before she had smiled at him.  Her eyes were filled with the pain of his hurts.  He nodded back in the direction from which they had come.

“We’re out of the worst of it,” he tried to shout.  “As soon as we’ve got our wind, I will climb over the rock to you.  It won’t take us longer than a couple of minutes, perhaps less, to make the quiet water at the end of the channel.”

She heard him and nodded her reply.  He wanted to give her confidence.  And he had no intention of resting, for her position filled him with a terror which he fought to hide.  The babiche rope, not half as large around as his little finger, had swung her to the downstream side of the rock.  It was the slender thread of buckskin and his own weight that were holding her.  If the buckskin should break-

He thanked God that it was the tough babiche that had been around his pack.  An inch at a time he began to draw himself up on the rock.  The undertow behind the rock had flung a mass of Marette’s long hair toward him, so that it was a foot or two nearer to him than her clinging hands.  He worked himself toward that, for he saw that he could reach it more quickly than he could reach her.  At the same time he had to keep his end of the babiche taut.  It was, from the beginning, an almost superhuman task.  The rock was slippery as oil.  Twice his eyes shot down-stream, with the thought that it might be better to cast himself bodily into the water, and after that draw Marette to him by means of the babiche.  What he saw convinced him that such action would be fatal.  He must have Marette in his arms.  If he lost her-even for a few seconds-the life would be beaten from her body in that rock-strewn maelstrom below.

And then, suddenly, the babiche cord about his wrist grew loose.  The reaction almost threw him back.  With the loosening of it a cry came from Marette.  It all happened in an instant, in almost less time than his brain could seize upon the significance of it-the slipping of her hands from the rock, the shooting of her white body away from him in the still whiter spume of the rapids, The rock had cut the babiche, and she was gone!  With a cry that was like the cry of a madman he plunged after her.  The water engulfed him.  He twisted himself up, freeing himself from the undertow.  Twenty feet ahead of him-thirty-he caught a glimpse of a white arm and then of Marette’s face, before she disappeared in a wall of froth.

Into that froth he shot after her.  He came out of it blinded, groping wildly for her, crying out her name.  His fingers caught the end of the babiche that was fastened about his own wrist, and he clutched it savagely, believing for a moment that he had found her.  Thicker and more deadly the rocks of the lower passage rose in his way.  They seemed like living things, like devils filled with the desire to torture and destroy.  They struck and beat at him.  Their laughter was the roar of a Niagara.  He no longer cried out.  His brain grew heavy, and clubs were beating him-beating and breaking him into a formless thing.  The rock-drifts of spume, lather-white, like the frosting of a monster cake, turned gray and then black.

He did not know when he ceased fighting.  The day went out.  Night came.  The world was oblivion.  And for a space he ceased to live.