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"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
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.
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