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THE RIVER'S END

James Oliver Curwood


JTABLE 10 25 1

THE RIVER'S END




I


Between Conniston, of His Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police, and
Keith, the outlaw, there was a striking physical and facial
resemblance. Both had observed it, of course. It gave them a sort of
confidence in each other. Between them it hovered in a subtle and
unanalyzed presence that was constantly suggesting to Conniston a line
of action that would have made him a traitor to his oath of duty. For
nearly a month he had crushed down the whispered temptings of this
thing between them. He represented the law. He was the law. For
twenty-seven months he had followed Keith, and always there had been in
his mind that parting injunction of the splendid service of which he
was a part - "Don't come back until you get your man, dead or alive."
Otherwise -

A racking cough split in upon his thoughts. He sat up on the edge of
the cot, and at the gasping cry of pain that came with the red stain of
blood on his lips Keith went to him and with a strong arm supported his
shoulders. He said nothing, and after a moment Conniston wiped the
stain away and laughed softly, even before the shadow of pain had faded
from his eyes. One of his hands rested on a wrist that still bore the
ring-mark of a handcuff. The sight of it brought him back to grim
reality. After all, fate was playing whimsically as well as tragically
with their destinies.

"Thanks, old top," he said. "Thanks."

His fingers closed over the manacle-marked wrist.

Over their heads the arctic storm was crashing in a mighty fury, as if
striving to beat down the little cabin that had dared to rear itself in
the dun-gray emptiness at the top of the world, eight hundred miles
from civilization. There were curious waitings, strange screeching
sounds, and heart-breaking meanings in its strife, and when at last its
passion died away and there followed a strange quiet, the two men could
feel the frozen earth under their feet shiver with the rumbling
reverberations of the crashing and breaking fields of ice out in
Hudson's Bay. With it came a dull and steady roar, like the incessant
rumble of a far battle, broken now and then - when an ice mountain split
asunder - with a report like that of a sixteen-inch gun. Down through
the Roes Welcome into Hudson's Bay countless billions of tons of ice
were rending their way like Hunnish armies in the break-up.

"You'd better lie down," suggested Keith.

Conniston, instead, rose slowly to his feet and went to a table on
which a seal-oil lamp was burning. He swayed a little as he walked. He
sat down, and Keith seated himself opposite him. Between them lay a
worn deck of cards. As Conniston fumbled them in his fingers, he looked
straight across at Keith and grinned.

"It's queer, devilish queer," he said.

"Don't you think so, Keith?" He was an Englishman, and his blue eyes
shone with a grim, cold humor. "And funny," he added.

"Queer, but not funny," partly agreed Keith.

"Yes, it is funny," maintained Conniston. "Just twenty-seven months
ago, lacking three days, I was sent out to get you, Keith. I was told
to bring you in dead or alive - and at the end of the twenty-sixth month
I got you, alive. And as a sporting proposition you deserve a hundred
years of life instead of the noose, Keith, for you led me a chase that
took me through seven different kinds of hell before I landed you. I
froze, and I starved, and I drowned. I haven't seen a white woman's
face in eighteen months. It was terrible. But I beat you at last.
That's the jolly good part of it, Keith - I beat you and GOT you, and
there's the proof of it on your wrists this minute. I won. Do you
concede that? You must be fair, old top, because this is the last big
game I'll ever play." There was a break, a yearning that was almost
plaintive, in his voice.

Keith nodded. "You won," he said.

"You won so square that when the frost got your lung - "

"You didn't take advantage of me," interrupted Conniston. "That's the
funny part of it, Keith. That's where the humor comes in. I had you all
tied up and scheduled for the hangman when - bing! - along comes a cold
snap that bites a corner of my lung, and the tables are turned. And
instead of doing to me as I was going to do to you, instead of killing
me or making your getaway while I was helpless - Keith - old pal - YOU'VE
TRIED TO NURSE ME BACK TO LIFE! Isn't that funny? Could anything be
funnier?"

He reached a hand across the table and gripped Keith's. And then, for a
few moments, he bowed his head while his body was convulsed by another
racking cough. Keith sensed the pain of it in the convulsive clutching
of Conniston's fingers about his own. When Conniston raised his face,
the red stain was on his lips again.

"You see, I've got it figured out to the day," he went on, wiping away
the stain with a cloth already dyed red. "This is Thursday. I won't see
another Sunday. It'll come Friday night or some time Saturday. I've
seen this frosted lung business a dozen times. Understand? I've got two
sure days ahead of me, possibly a third. Then you'll have to dig a hole
and bury me. After that you will no longer be held by the word of honor
you gave me when I slipped off your manacles. And I'm asking you - WHAT
ARE YOU GOING TO DO?"

In Keith's face were written deeply the lines of suffering and of
tragedy. Yesterday they had compared ages.

He was thirty-eight, only a little younger than the man who had run him
down and who in the hour of his achievement was dying. They had not put
the fact plainly before. It had been a matter of some little
embarrassment for Keith, who at another time had found it easier to
kill a man than to tell this man that he was going to die. Now that
Conniston had measured his own span definitely and with most amazing
coolness, a load was lifted from Keith's shoulders. Over the table they
looked into each other's eyes, and this time it was Keith's fingers
that tightened about Conniston's. They looked like brothers in the
sickly glow of the seal-oil lamp.

"What are you going to do?" repeated Conniston.

Keith's face aged even as the dying Englishman stared at him. "I
suppose - I'll go back," he said heavily.

"You mean to Coronation Gulf? You'll return to that stinking mess of
Eskimo igloos? If you do, you'll go mad!"

"I expect to," said Keith. "But it's the only thing left. You know
that. You of all men must know how they've hunted me. If I went south - "

It was Conniston's turn to nod his head, slowly and thoughtfully. "Yes,
of course," he agreed. "They're hunting you hard, and you're giving 'em
a bully chase. But they'll get you, even up there. And I'm - sorry."

Their hands unclasped. Conniston filled his pipe and lighted it. Keith
noticed that he held the lighted taper without a tremor. The nerve of
the man was magnificent.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I - like you. Do you know, Keith, I wish
we'd been born brothers and you hadn't killed a man. That night I
slipped the ring-dogs on you I felt almost like a devil. I wouldn't say
it if it wasn't for this bally lung. But what's the use of keeping it
back now? It doesn't seem fair to keep a man up in that place for three
years, running from hole to hole like a rat, and then take him down for
a hanging. I know it isn't fair in your case. I feel it. I don't mean
to be inquisitive, old chap, but I'm not believing Departmental 'facts'
any more. I'd make a topping good wager you're not the sort they make
you out. And so I'd like to know - just why - you killed Judge Kirkstone?"

Keith's two fists knotted in the center of the table. Conniston saw his
blue eyes darken for an instant with a savage fire. In that moment
there came a strange silence over the cabin, and in that silence the
incessant and maddening yapping of the little white foxes rose shrilly
over the distant booming and rumbling of the ice.




II


"Why did I kill Judge Kirkstone?" Keith repeated the words slowly.

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 TOMORROW!"

"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?"

"Sit down!"

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
saying?"

"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 ice.

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 on.

Still later he heated the muzzle of his revolver in the flame of the
seal-oil.

"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!"




III


Dawn - the dusk of another night - and Keith raised his haggard face from
Conniston's bedside with a woman's sob on his lips. The Englishman had
died as he knew that he would die, game to the last threadbare breath
that came out of his body. For with this last breath he whispered the
words which he had repeated a dozen times before, "Remember, old chap,
you win or lose the moment McDowell first sets his eyes on you!" And
then, with a strange kind of sob in his chest, he was gone, and Keith's
eyes were blinded by the miracle of a hot flood of tears, and there
rose in him a mighty pride in the name of Derwent Conniston.

It was his name now. John Keith was dead. It was Derwent Conniston who
was living. And as he looked down into the cold, still face of the
heroic Englishman, the thing did not seem so strange to him after all.
It would not be difficult to bear Conniston's name; the difficulty
would be in living up to the Conniston code.

That night the rumble of the ice fields was clearer because there was


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