law, for N Division covered an area of six hundred and twenty thousand square miles of wildest North America, extending more than two thousand miles north of the 70th parallel of latitude, with its farthest limit three and one-half degrees within the Arctic Circle. To police this area meant upholding the law in a country fourteen times the size of the state of Ohio. And Kedsty was the man who had performed this duty as only one other man had ever succeeded in doing it.
Yet Kedsty, of the five about Kent, was most disturbed. His face was ash-gray. A number of times Kent had detected a broken note in his voice. He had seen his hands grip at the arms of the chair he sat in until the cords stood out on them as if about to burst. He had never seen Kedsty sweat until now.
Twice the Inspector had wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. He was no longer Minisak—"The Rock"—a name given to him by the Crees. The armor that no shaft had ever penetrated seemed to have dropped from him. He had ceased to be Kedsty, the most dreaded inquisitor in the service. He was nervous, and Kent could see that he was fighting to repossess himself.
"Of course you know what this means to the Service," he said in a hard, low voice. "It means—"
"Disgrace," nodded Kent. "I know. It means a black spot on the otherwise bright escutcheon of N Division. But it can't be helped. I killed John Barkley. The man you've got in the guard-house, condemned to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, is innocent. I understand. It won't be nice for the Service to let it be known that a sergeant in His Majesty's Royal Mounted is an ordinary murderer, but—"
"Not an ORDINARY murderer," interrupted Kedsty. "As you have described it, the crime was deliberate—horrible and inexcusable to its last detail. You were not moved by a sudden passion. You tortured your victim. It is inconceivable!"
"And yet true," said Kent.
He was looking at the stenographer's slim fingers as they put down his words and Kedsty's. A bit of sunshine touched her bowed head, and he observed the red lights in her hair. His eyes swept to O'Connor, and in that moment the commander of N Division bent over him, so close that his face almost touched Kent's, and he whispered, in a voice so low that no one of the other four could hear,
"No, it is true," replied Kent.
Kedsty drew back, again wiping the moisture from his forehead.
"I killed Barkley, and I killed him as I planned that he should die," Kent went on. "It was my desire that he should suffer. The one thing which I shall not tell you is WHY I killed him. But it was a sufficient reason."
He saw the shuddering tremor that swept through the shoulders of the girl who was putting down the condemning notes.
"And you refuse to confess your motive?"
"Absolutely—except that he had wronged me in a way that deserved death."
"And you make this confession knowing that you are about to die?"
The flicker of a smile passed over Kent's lips. He looked at O'Connor and for an instant saw in O'Connor's eyes a flash of their old comradeship.
"Yes. Dr. Cardigan has told me. Otherwise I should have let the man in the guard-house hang. It's simply that this accursed bullet has spoiled my luck—and saved him!"
Kedsty spoke to the girl. For half an hour she read her notes, and after that Kent wrote his name on the last page. Then Kedsty rose from his chair.
"We have finished, gentlemen," he said.
They trailed out, the girl hurrying through the door first in her desire to free herself of an ordeal that had strained every nerve in her body. The commander of N Division was last to go. Cardigan hesitated, as if to remain, but Kedsty motioned him on. It was Kedsty who closed the door, and as he closed it he looked back, and for a flash Kent met his eyes squarely. In that moment he received an impression which he had not caught while the Inspector was in the room. It was like an electrical shock in its unexpectedness, and Kedsty must have seen the effect of it in his face, for he moved back quickly and closed the door. In that instant Kent had seen in Kedsty's eyes and face a look that was not only of horror, but what in the face and eyes of another man he would have sworn was fear.
It was a gruesome moment in which to smile, but Kent smiled. The shock was over. By the rules of the Criminal Code he knew that Kedsty even now was instructing Staff-Sergeant O'Connor to detail an officer to guard his door. The fact that he was ready to pop off at any moment would make no difference in the regulations of the law. And Kedsty was a stickler for the law as it was written. Through the closed door he heard voices indistinctly. Then there were footsteps, dying away. He could hear the heavy thump, thump of O'Connor's big feet. O'Connor had always walked like that, even on the trail.
Softly then the door reopened, and Father Layonne, the little missioner, came in. Kent knew that this would be so, for Father Layonne knew neither code nor creed that did not reach all the hearts of the wilderness. He came back, and sat down close to Kent, and took one of his hands and held it closely in both of his own. They were not the soft, smooth hands of the priestly hierarchy, but were hard with the callosity of toil, yet gentle with the gentleness of a great sympathy. He had loved Kent yesterday, when Kent had stood clean in the eyes of both God and men, and he still loved him today, when his soul was stained with a thing that must be washed away with his own life.
"I'm sorry, lad," he said. "I'm sorry."
Something rose up in Kent's throat that was not the blood he had been wiping away since morning. His fingers returned the pressure of the little missioner's hands. Then he pointed out through the window to the panorama of shimmering river and green forests.
"It is hard to say good-by to all that, Father," he said. "But, if you don't mind, I'd rather not talk about it. I'm not afraid of it. And why be unhappy because one has only a little while to live? Looking back over your life, does it seem so very long ago that you were a boy, a small boy?"
"The time has gone swiftly, very swiftly."
"It seems only yesterday—or so?"
"Yes, only yesterday—or so."
Kent's face lit up with the whimsical smile that long ago had reached the little missioner's heart. "Well, that's the way I'm looking at it, Father. There is only a yesterday, a today, and a tomorrow in the longest of our lives. Looking back from seventy years isn't much different from looking back from thirty-six WHEN you're looking back and not ahead. Do you think what I have just said will free Sandy McTrigger?"
"There is no doubt. Your statements have been accepted as a death-bed confession."
The little missioner, instead of Kent, was betraying a bit of nervousness.
"There are matters, my son—some few matters—which you will want attended to. Shall we not talk about them?"
"Your people, first. I remember that once you told me there was no one. But surely there is some one somewhere."
Kent shook his head. "There is no one now. For ten years those forests out there have been father, mother, and home to me."
"But there must be personal affairs, affairs which you would like to entrust, perhaps, to me?"
Kent's face brightened, and for an instant a flash of humor leaped into his eyes. "It is funny," he chuckled. "Since you remind me of it, Father, it is quite in form to make my will. I've bought a few little pieces of land here. Now that the railroad has almost reached us from Edmonton, they've jumped up from the seven or eight hundred dollars I gave for them to about ten thousand. I want you to sell the lots and use the money in your work. Put as much of it on the Indians as you can. They've always been good brothers to me. And I wouldn't waste much time in getting my signature on some sort of paper to that effect."
Father Layonne's eyes shone softly. "God will bless you