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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Flaming Forest - Chapter 13
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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 13 Post by :ben.g Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2886

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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 13

Chapter XIII

The morning passed like a dream to Carrigan. He permitted himself to live and breathe it as one who finds himself for a space in the heart of a golden mirage. He was sitting so near Marie-Anne that now and then the faint perfume of her came to him like the delicate scent of a flower. It was a breath of crushed violets, sweet as the air he was breathing, violets gathered in the deep cool of the forest, a whisper of sweetness about her, as if on her bosom she wore always the living flowers. He fancied her gathering them last bloom-time, a year ago, alone, her feet seeking out the damp mosses, her little fingers plucking the smiling and laughing faces of the violet flowers to be treasured away in fragrant sachets, as gentle as the wood-thrush's note, compared with the bottled aromas fifteen hundred miles south. It seemed to be a physical part of her, a thing born of the glow in her cheeks, a living exhalation of her soft red lips--and yet only when he was near, very near, did the life of it reach him.

She did not know he was thinking these things. There was nothing in his voice, he thought, to betray him. He was sure she was unconscious of the fight he was making. Her eyes smiled and laughed with him, she counted her stitches, her fingers worked, and she talked to him as she might have talked to a friend of St. Pierre's. She told him how St. Pierre had made the barge, the largest that had ever been on the river, and that he had built it entirely of dry cedar, so that it floated like a feather wherever there was water enough to run a York boat. She told him how St. Pierre had brought the piano down from Edmonton, and how he had saved it from pitching in the river by carrying the full weight of it on his shoulders when they met with an accident in running through a dangerous rapids bringing it down. St. Pierre was a very strong man, she said, a note of pride in her voice. And then she added,

"Sometimes, when he picks me up in his arms, I feel that he is going to squeeze the life out of me!"

Her words were like a sharp thrust into his heart. For an instant they painted a vision for him, a picture of that slim and adorable creature crushed close in the great arms of St. Pierre, so close that she could not breathe. In that mad moment of his hurt it was almost a living, breathing reality for him there on the golden fore-deck of the scow. He turned his face toward the far shore, where the wilderness seemed to reach off into eternity. What a glory it was--the green seas of spruce and cedar and balsam, the ridges of poplar and birch rising like silvery spume above the darker billows, and afar off, mellowed in the sun-mists, the guardian crests of Trout Mountains sentineling the country beyond! Into that mystery-land on the farther side of the Wabiskaw waterways Carrigan would have loved to set his foot four days ago. It was that mystery of the unpeopled places that he most desired, their silence, the comradeship of spaces untrod by the feet of man. And now, what a fool he was! Through vast distances the forests he loved seemed to whisper it to him, and ahead of him the river seemed to look back, nodding over its shoulder, beckoning to him, telling him the word of the forests was true. It streamed on lazily, half a mile wide, as if resting for the splashing and roaring rush it would make among the rocks of the next rapids, and in its indolence it sang the low and everlasting song of deep and slowly passing water. In that song David heard the same whisper, that he was a fool! And the lure of the wilderness shores crept in on him and gripped him as of old. He looked at the rowers in the two York boats, and then his eyes came back to the end of the barge and to St. Pierre's wife.

Her little toes were tapping the floor of the deck. She, too, was looking out over the wilderness. And again it seemed to him that she was like a bird that wanted to fly.

"I should like to go into those hills," she said, without looking at him. "Away off yonder!"

"And I--I should like to go with you."

"You love all that, m'sieu?" she asked.

"Yes, madame!"

"Why 'madame,' when I have given you permission to call me 'Marie- Anne'?" she demanded.

"Because you call me 'm'sieu'."

"But you--you have not given me permission--"

"Then I do now," he interrupted quickly.

"Merci! I have wondered why you did not return the courtesy," she laughed softly. "I do not like the m'sieu. I shall call you 'David'!"

She rose out of the hammock suddenly and dropped her needles and lace work into the little basket. "I have forgotten something. It is for you to eat when it comes dinner-time, m'sieu--I mean David. So I must turn fille de cuisine for a little while. That is what St. Pierre sometimes calls me, because I love to play at cooking. I am going to bake a pie!"

The dark-screened door of the kitchenette closed behind her, and Carrigan walked out from under the awning, so that the sun beat down upon him. There was no longer a doubt in his mind. He was more than fool. He envied St. Pierre, and he coveted that which St. Pierre possessed. And yet, before he would take what did not belong to him, he knew he would put a pistol to his head and blow his life out. He was confident of himself there. Yet he had fallen, and out of the mire into which he had sunk he knew also that he must drag himself, and quickly, or be everlastingly lowered in his own esteem. He stripped himself naked and did not lie to that other and greater thing of life that was in him.

He was not only a fool, but a coward. Only a coward would have touched the hair of St. Pierre's wife with his lips; only a coward would have let live the thoughts that burned in his brain. She was St. Pierre's wife--and he was anxious now for the quick homecoming of the chief of the Boulains. After that everything would happen quickly. He thanked God that the inspiration of the wager had come to him. After the fight, after he had won, then once more would he be the old Dave Carrigan, holding the trump hand in a thrilling game.

Loud voices from the York boats ahead and answering cries from Bateese in the stern drew him to the open deck. The bateau was close to shore, and the half-breed was working the long stern sweep as if the power of a steam-engine was in his mighty arms. The York boats had shortened their towline and were pulling at right angles within a few yards of a gravelly beach. A few strokes more, and men who were bare to the knees jumped out into shallow water and began tugging at the tow rope with their hands. David looked at his watch. It was ten o'clock. Never in his life had time passed so swiftly as that morning on the forward deck of the barge. And now they were tying up, after a drop of six or eight miles down the river, and he wondered how swiftly St. Pierre was overtaking them with his raft.

He was filled with the desire to feel the soft crush of the earth under his feet again, and not waiting for the long plank that Bateese was already swinging from the scow to the shore, he made a leap that put him on the sandy beach, St. Pierre's wife had given him this permission, and he looked to see what effect his act had on the half-breed. The face of Concombre Bateese was like sullen stone. Not a sound came from his thick lips, but in his eyes was a deep and dangerous fire as he looked at Carrigan. There was no need for words. In them were suspicion, warning, the deadly threat of what would happen if he did not come back when it was time to return. David nodded. He understood. Even though St. Pierre's wife had faith in him, Bateese had not. He passed between the men, and to a man their faces turned on him, and in their quiet and watchful eyes he saw again that warning and suspicion, the unspoken threat of what would happen if he forgot his promise to Marie-Anne Boulain. Never, in a single outfit, had he seen such splendid men. They were not a mongrel assortment of the lower country. Slim, tall, clean-cut, sinewy--they were stock of the old voyageurs of a hundred years ago, and all of them were young. The older men had gone to St. Pierre. The reason for this dawned upon Carrigan. Not one of these twelve but could beat him in a race through the forest; not one that could not outrun him and cut him off though he had hours the start!

Passing beyond them, he paused and looked back at the bateau. On the forward deck stood Marie-Anne, and she, too, was looking at him now. Even at that distance he saw that her face was quiet and troubled with anxiety. She did not smile when he lifted his hat to her, but gave only a little nod. Then he turned and buried himself in the green balsams that grew within fifty paces of the river. The old joy of life leaped into him as his feet crushed in the soft moss of the shaded places where the sun did not break through. He went on, passing through a vast and silent cathedral of spruce and cedar so dense that the sky was hidden, and came then to higher ground, where the evergreen was sprinkled with birch and poplar. About him was an invisible choir of voices, the low twittering of timid little gray-backs, the song of hidden-- warblers, the scolding of distant jays. Big-eyed moose-birds stared at him as he passed, fluttering so close to his face that they almost touched his shoulders in their foolish inquisitiveness. A porcupine crashed within a dozen feet of his trail. And then he came to a beaten path, and other paths worn deep in the cool, damp earth by the hoofs of moose and caribou. Half a mile from the bateau he sat down on a rotting log and filled his pipe with fresh tobacco, while he listened to catch the subdued voice of the life in this land that he loved.

It was then that the curious feeling came over him that he was not alone, that other eyes than those of beast and bird were watching him. It was an impression that grew on him. He seemed to feel their stare, seeking him out from the darkest coverts, waiting for him to shove on, dogging him like a ghost. Within him the hound- like instincts of the man-hunter rose swiftly to the suspicion of invisible presence.

He began to note the changes in the cries of certain birds. A hundred yards on his right a jay, most talkative of all the forest things, was screeching with a new note in its voice. On the other side of him, in a dense pocket of poplar and spruce, a warbler suddenly brought its song to a jerky end. He heard the excited Pe- wee--Pe-wee--Pe-wee of a startled little gray-back giving warning of an unwelcome intruder near its nest. And he rose to his feet, laughing softly as he thumbed down the tobacco in his pipe. Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain might believe in him, but Bateese and her wary henchmen had ways of their own of strengthening their faith.

It was close to noon when he turned back, and he did not return by the moose path. Deliberately he struck out a hundred yards on either side of it, traveling where the moss grew thick and the earth was damp and soft. And five times he found the moccasin- prints of men.

Bateese, with his sleeves up, was scrubbing the deck of the bateau when David came over the plank.

"There are moose and caribou in there, but I fear I disturbed your hunters," said Carrigan, grinning at the half-breed. "They are too clumsy to hunt well, so clumsy that even the birds give them away. I am afraid we shall go without fresh meat tomorrow!"

Concombre Bateese stared as if some one had stunned him with a blow, and he spoke no word as David went on to the forward deck. Marie-Anne had come out under the awning. She gave a little cry of relief and pleasure.

"I am glad you have come back, M'sieu David!"

"So am I, madame," he replied. "I think the woods are unhealthful to travel in!"

Out of the earth he felt that a part of the old strength had returned to him. Alone they sat at dinner, and Marie-Anne waited on him and called him David again--and he found it easier now to call her Marie-Anne and look into her eyes without fear that he was betraying himself. A part of the afternoon he spent in her company, and it was not difficult for him to tell her something of his adventuring in the north, and how, body and soul, the northland had claimed him, and that he hoped to die in it when his time came. Her eyes glowed at that. She told him of two years she had spent in Montreal and Quebec, of her homesickness, her joy when she returned to her forests. It seemed, for a time, that they had forgotten St. Pierre. They did not speak of him. Twice they saw Andre, the Broken Man, but the name of Roger Audemard was not spoken. And a little at a time she told him of the hidden paradise of the Boulains away up in the unmapped wildernesses of the Yellowknife beyond the Great Bear, and of the great log chateau that was her home.

A part of the afternoon he spent on shore. He filled a moosehide bag full of sand and suspended it from the limb of a tree, and for three-quarters of an hour pommeled it with his fists, much to the curiosity and amusement of St. Pierre's men, who could see nothing of man-fighting in these antics. But the exercise assured David that he had lost but little of his strength and that he would be in form to meet Bateese when the time came. Toward evening Marie- Anne joined him, and they walked for half an hour up and down the beach. It was Bateese who got supper. And after that Carrigan sat with Marie-Anne on the foredeck of the barge and smoked another of St. Pierre's cigars.

The camp of the rivermen was two hundred yards below the bateau, screened between by a finger of hardwood, so that except when they broke into a chorus of laughter or strengthened their throats with snatches of song, there was no sound of their voices. But Bateese was in the stern, and Nepapinas was forever flitting in and out among the shadows on the shore, like a shadow himself, and Andre, the Broken Man, hovered near as night came on. At last he sat down in the edge of the white sand of the beach, and there he remained, a silent and lonely figure, as the twilight deepened. Over the world hovered a sleepy quiet. Out of the forest came the droning of the wood-crickets, the last twitterings of the day birds, and the beginning of night sounds. A great shadow floated out over the river close to the bateau, the first of the questing, blood- seeking owls adventuring out like pirates from their hiding-places of the day. One after another, as the darkness thickened, the different tribes of the people of the night answered the summons of the first stars. A mile down the river a loon gave its harsh love-cry; far out of the west came the faint trail-song of a wolf; in the river the night-feeding trout splashed like the tails of beaver; over the roof of the wilderness came the coughing, moaning challenge of a bull moose that yearned for battle. And over these same forest tops rose the moon, the stars grew thicker and brighter, and through the finger of hardwood glowed the fire of St. Pierre Boulain's men--while close beside him, silent in these hours of silence, David felt growing nearer and still nearer to him the presence of St. Pierre's wife.

On the strip of sand Andre, the Broken Man, rose and stood like the stub of a misshapen tree. And then slowly he moved on and was swallowed up in the mellow glow of the night.

"It is at night that he seeks," said St. Pierre's wife, for it was as if David had spoken the thought that was in his mind.

David, for a moment, was silent. And then he said, "You asked me to tell you about Black Roger Audemard. I will, if you care to have me. Do you?"

He saw the nodding of her head, though the moon and star-mist veiled her face.

"Yes. What do the Police say about Roger Audemard?"

He told her. And not once in the telling of the story did she speak or move. It was a terrible story at best, he thought, but he did not weaken it by smoothing over the details. This was his opportunity. He wanted her to know why he must possess the body of Roger Audemard, if not alive, then dead, and he wanted her to understand how important it was that he learn more about Andre, the Broken Man.

"He was a fiend, this Roger Audemard," he began. "A devil in man shape, afterward called 'Black Roger' because of the color of his soul."

Then he went on. He described Hatchet River Post, where the tragedy had happened; then told of the fight that came about one day between Roger Audemard and the factor of the post and his two sons. It was an unfair fight; he conceded that--three to one was cowardly in a fight. But it could not excuse what happened afterward. Audemard was beaten. He crept off into the forest, almost dead. Then he came back one stormy night in the winter with three strange friends. Who the friends were the Police never learned. There was a fight, but all through the fight Black Roger Audemard cried out not to kill the factor and his sons. In spite of that one of the sons was killed. Then the terrible thing happened. The father and his remaining son were bound hand and foot and fastened in the ancient dungeon room under the Post building. Then Black Roger set the building on fire, and stood outside in the storm and laughed like a madman at the dying shrieks of his victims. It was the season when the trappers were on their lines, and there were but few people at the post. The company clerk and one other attempted to interfere, and Black Roger killed them with his own hands. Five deaths that night--two of them horrible beyond description!

Resting for a moment, Carrigan went on to tell of the long years of unavailing search made by the Police after that; how Black Roger was caught once and killed his captor. Then came the rumor that he was dead, and rumor grew into official belief, and the Police no longer hunted for his trails. Then, not long ago, came the discovery that Black Roger was still living, and he, Dave Carrigan, was after him.

For a time there was silence after he had finished. Then St. Pierre's wife rose to her feet. "I wonder," she said in a low voice, "what Roger Audemard's own story might be if he were here to tell it?"

She stepped out from under the awning, and in the full radiance of the moon he saw the pale beauty of her face and the crowning luster of her hair.

"Good night!" she whispered.

"Good night!" said David.

He listened until her retreating footsteps died away, and for hours after that he had no thought of sleep. He had insisted that she take possession of her cabin again, and Bateese had brought out a bundle of blankets. These he spread under the awning, and when he drowsed off, it was to dream of the lovely face he had seen last in the glow of the moon.

It was in the afternoon of the fourth day that two things happened--one that he had prepared himself for, and another so unexpected that for a space it sent his world crashing out of its orbit. With St. Pierre's wife he had gone again to the ridge-line for flowers, half a mile back from the river. Returning a new way, they came to a shallow stream, and Marie-Anne stood at the edge of it, and there was laughter in her shining eyes as she looked to the other side of it. She had twined flowers into her hair. Her cheeks were rich with color. Her slim figure was exquisite in its wild pulse of life.

Suddenly she turned on him, her red lips smiling their witchery in his face. "You must carry me across," she said.

He did not answer. He was a-tremble as he drew near her. She raised her arms a little, waiting. And then he picked her up. She was against his breast. Her two hands went to his shoulders as he waded into the stream; he slipped, and they clung a little tighter. The soft note of laughter was in her throat when the current came to his knees out in the middle of the stream. He held her tighter; and then stupidly, he slipped again, and the movement brought her lower in his arms, so that for a space her head was against his breast and his face was crushed in the soft masses of her hair. He came with her that way to the opposite shore and stood her on her feet again, standing back quickly so that she would not hear the pounding of his heart. Her face was radiantly beautiful, and she did not look at David, but away from him.

"Thank you," she said.

And then, suddenly, they heard running feet behind them, and in another moment one of the brigade men came dashing through the stream. At the same time there came from the river a quarter of a mile away a thunderous burst of voice. It was not the voice of a dozen men, but of half a hundred, and Marie-Anne grew tense, listening, her eyes on fire even before the messenger could get the words out of his mouth.

"It is St. Pierre!" he cried then. "He has come with the great raft, and you must hurry if you would reach the bateau before he lands!"

In that moment it seemed to David that Marie-Anne forgot he was alive. A little cry came to her lips, and then she left him, running swiftly, saying no word to him, flying with the speed of a fawn to St. Pierre Boulain! And when David turned to the man who had come up behind them, there was a strange smile on the lips of the lithe-limbed forest-runner as his eyes followed the hurrying figure of St. Pierre's wife.

Until she was out of sight he stood in silence and then he said:

"Come, m'sieu. We, also, must meet St. Pierre!"

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Chapter XIVDavid moved slowly behind the brigade man. He had no desire to hurry. He did not wish to see what happened when Marie-Anne met St. Pierre Boulain. Only a moment ago she had been in his arms; her hair had smothered his face; her hands had clung to his shoulders; her flushed cheeks and long lashes had for an instant lain close against his breast. And now, swiftly, without a word of apology, she was running away from him to meet her husband.He almost spoke that word aloud as he saw the last of her slim figure among the silver
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Chapter XIIDuring the next quarter of an hour David was as silent as the old Indian doctor. He was conscious of no pain when Nepapinas took off his bandage and bathed his head in the lotion he had brought. Before a fresh bandage was put on, he looked at himself for a moment in the mirror. It was the first time he had seen his wound, and he expected to find himself marked with a disfiguring scar. To his surprise there was no sign of his hurt except a slightly inflamed spot above his temple. He stared at Nepapinas, and there
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