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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Flaming Forest - Chapter 16
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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 16 Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1117

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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 16

Chapter XVI

In the cabin David waited. He did not look through the window to watch St. Pierre's approach. He sat down and picked up a magazine from the table upon which Marie-Anne's work-basket lay. He was cool as ice now. His blood flowed evenly and his pulse beat unhurriedly. Never had he felt himself more his own master, more like grappling with a situation. St. Pierre was coming to fight. He had no doubt of that. Perhaps not physically, at first. But, one way or another, something dynamic was bound to happen in the bateau cabin within the next half-hour. Now that the impending drama was close at hand, Carrigan's scheme of luring St. Pierre into the making of a stupendous wager seemed to him rather ridiculous. With calculating coldness he was forced to concede that St. Pierre would be somewhat of a fool to accept the wager he had in mind, when he was so completely in St. Pierre's power. For Marie-Anne and the chief of the Boulains, the bottom of the river would undoubtedly be the best and easiest solution, and the half- breed's suggestion might be acted upon after all.

As his mind charged itself for the approaching struggle, David found himself staring at a double page in the magazine, given up entirely to impossibly slim young creatures exhibiting certain bits of illusive and mysterious feminine apparel. Marie-Anne had expressed her approbation in the form of pencil notes under several of them. Under a cobwebby affair that wreathed one of the slim figures he read, "St. Pierre will love this!" There were two exclamation points after that particular notation!

David replaced the magazine on the table and looked toward the door. No, St. Pierre would not hesitate to put him at the bottom of the river, for her. Not if he, Dave Carrigan, made the solution of the matter a necessity. There were times, he told himself, when it was confoundedly embarrassing to force the letter of the law. And this was one of them. He was not afraid of the river bottom. He was thinking again of Marie-Anne.

The scraping of a canoe against the side of the bateau recalled him suddenly to the moment at hand. He heard low voices, and one of them, he knew, was St. Pierre's. For an interval the voices continued, frequently so low that he could not distinguish them at all. For ten minutes he waited impatiently. Then the door swung open, and St. Pierre came in.

Slowly and coolly David rose to meet him, and at the same moment the chief of the Boulains closed the door behind him. There was no greeting in Carrigan's manner. He was the Law, waiting, unexcited, sure of himself, impassive as a thing of steel. He was ready to fight. He expected to fight. It only remained for St. Pierre to show what sort of fight it was to be. And he was amazed at St. Pierre, without betraying that amazement. In the vivid light that shot through the western windows the chief of the Boulains stood looking at David. He wore a gray flannel shirt open at the throat, and it was a splendid throat David saw, and a splendid head above it, with its reddish beard and hair. But what he saw chiefly were St. Pierre's eyes. They were the sort of eyes he disliked to find in an enemy--a grayish, steely blue that reflected sunlight like polished flint. But there was no flash of battle-glow in them now. St. Pierre was neither excited nor in a bad humor. Nor did Carrigan's attitude appear to disturb him in the least. He was smiling; his eyes glowed with almost boyish curiosity as he stared appraisingly at David--and then, slowly, a low chuckle of laughter rose in his deep chest, and he advanced with an outstretched hand.

"I am St. Pierre Boulain," he said. "I have heard a great deal about you, Sergeant Carrigan. You have had an unfortunate time!"

Had the man advanced menacingly, David would have felt more comfortable. It was disturbing to have this giant come to him with an extended hand of apparent friendship when he had anticipated an entirely different sort of meeting. And St. Pierre was laughing at him! There was no doubt of that. And he had the colossal nerve to tell him that he had been unfortunate, as though being shot up by somebody's wife was a fairly decent joke!

Carrigan's attitude did not change. He did not reach out a hand to meet the other. There was no responsive glimmer of humor in his eyes or on his lips. And seeing these things, St. Pierre turned his extended hand to the open box of cigars, so that he stood for a moment with his back toward him.

"It's funny," he said, as if speaking to himself, and with only a drawling note of the French patois in his voice. "I come home, find my Jeanne in a terrible mix-up, a stranger in her room--and the stranger refuses to let me laugh or shake hands with him. Tonnerre, I say it is funny! And my Jeanne saved his life, and made him muffins, and gave him my own bed, and walked with him in the forest! Ah, the ungrateful cochon!"

He turned, laughing openly, so that his deep voice filled the cabin. "Vous aves de la corde de pendu, m'sieu--yes, you are a lucky dog! For only one other man in the world would my Jeanne have done that. You are lucky because you were not ended behind the rock; you are lucky because you are not at the bottom of the river; you are lucky--"

He shrugged his big shoulders hopelessly. "And now, after all our kindness and your good luck, you wait for me like an enemy, m'sieu. Diable, I can not understand!"

For the life of him Carrigan could not, in these few moments, measure up his man. He had said nothing. He had let St. Pierre talk. And now St. Pierre stood there, one of the finest men he had ever looked upon, as if honestly overcome by a great wonder. And yet behind that apparent incredulity in his voice and manner David sensed the deep underflow of another thing. St. Pierre was all that Marie-Anne had claimed for him, and more. She had given him assurance of her unlimited confidence that her husband could adjust any situation in the world, and Carrigan conceded that St. Pierre measured up splendidly to that particular type of man. The smile had not left his face; the good humor was still in his eyes.

David smiled back at him coldly. He recognized the cleverness of the other's play. St. Pierre was a man who would smile like that even as he fought, and Carrigan loved a smiling fighter, even when he had to slip steel bracelets over his wrists.

"I am Sergeant Carrigan, of 'N' Division, Royal Northwest Mounted Police," he said, repeating the formula of the law. "Sit down, St. Pierre, and I will tell you a few things that have happened. And then--"

"Non, non, it is not necessary, m'sieu. I have already listened for an hour, and I do not like to hear a story twice. You are of the Police. I love the Police. They are brave men, and brave men are my brothers. You are out after Roger Audemard, the rascal! Is it not so? And you were shot at behind the rock back there. You were almost killed. Ma foi, and it was my Jeanne who did the shooting! Yes, she thought you were another man." The chuckling, drum-like note of laughter came again out of St. Pierre's great chest. "It was bad shooting. I have taught her better, but the sun was blinding there in the hot, white sand. And after that--I know everything that has happened. Bateese was wrong. I shall scold him for wanting to put you at the bottom of the river--perhaps. Oui, ce que femme veut, Dieu le veut--that is it. A woman must have her way, and my Jeanne's gentle heart was touched because you were a brave and handsome man, M'sieu Carrigan. But I am not jealous. Jealousy is a worm that does not make friendship! And we shall be friends. Only as a friend could I take you to the Chateau Boulain, far up on the Yellowknife. And we are going there."

In spite of what might have been the entirely proper thing to do at this particular moment, Carrigan's face broke into a smile as he drew a second chair up close to the table. He was swift to readjust himself. It came suddenly back to him how he had grinned behind the rock, when death seemed close at hand. And St. Pierre was like that now. David measured him again as the chief of the Boulains sat down opposite him. Such a man could not be afraid of anything on the face of the earth, even of the Law. The gleam that lay in his eyes told David that as they met his own over the table. "We are smiling now because it happens to please us," David read in them. "But in a moment, if it is necessary, we shall fight."

Carrigan leaned a little over the table. "You know we are not going to the Chateau Boulain, St. Pierre," he said. "We are going to stop at Fort McMurray, and there you and your wife must answer for a number of things that have happened. There is one way out-- possibly. That is largely up to you. Why did your wife try to kill me behind the rock? And what did you know about Black Roger Audemard?"

St. Pierre's eyes did not for an instant leave Carrigan's face. Slowly a change came into them; the smile faded, the blue went out, and up from behind seemed to come another pair of eyes that were hard as steel and cold as ice. Yet they were not eyes that threatened, nor eyes that betrayed excitement or passion. And St. Pierre's voice, when he spoke, lacked the deep and vibrant note that had been in it. It was as if he had placed upon it the force of a mighty will, chaining it back, just as something hidden and terrible lay chained behind his eyes.

"Why play like little children, M'sieu Carrigan?" he asked. "Why not come out squarely, honestly, like men? I know what has happened. Mon Dieu, it was bad! You were almost killed, and you heard that poor wreck, Andre, call for Roger Audemard. My Jeanne has told you about that--how I found him in the forest with his broken mind and body. And about my Jeanne--" St. Pierre's fists grew into knotted lumps on the table. "Non, I will die--I will kill you--before I will tell you why she shot at you behind the rock! We are men, both of us. We are not afraid. And you--in my place--what would YOU do, m'sieu?"

In the moment's silence each man looked steadily at the other.

"I would--fight," said David slowly. "If it was for her, I am pretty sure I would fight."

He believed that he was drawing the net in now, that it would catch St. Pierre. He leaned a little farther over the table.

"And I, too, must fight," he added. "You know our law, St. Pierre. We don't go back without our man--unless we happen to die. And I would be stupid if I did not understand the situation here. It would be quite easy for you to get rid of me. But I don't believe you are a murderer, even if your Jeanne tried to be." A flicker of a smile crossed his lips. "And Marie-Anne--I beg pardon!--your wife--"

St. Pierre interrupted him. "It will please me to have you call her Marie-Anne. And it will please her also, m'sieu. Dieu, if we only had eyes that could see what is in a woman's heart! Life is funny, m'sieu. It is a great joke, I swear it on my soul!"

He shrugged his shoulders, smiling again straight into David's eyes. "See what has happened! You set out for a murderer. My Jeanne makes a great mistake and shoots you. Then she pities you, saves your life, brings you here, and--ma foi! it is true--learns to care for you more than she should! But that does not make me want to kill you. Non, her happiness is mine. Dead men tell no tales, m'sieu, but there are times when living men also keep tales to themselves. And that is what you are going to do, M'sieu Carrigan. You are going to keep to yourself the thing that happened behind the rock. You are going to keep to yourself the mumblings of our poor mad Andre. Never will they pass your lips. I know. I swear it. I stake my life on it!" St. Pierre was talking slowly and unexcitedly. There was an immeasurable confidence in his deep voice. It did not imply a threat or a warning. He was sure of himself. And his eyes had deepened into blue again and were almost friendly.

"You would stake your life?" repeated Carrigan questioningly. "You would do that?"

St. Pierre rose to his feet and looked about the cabin with a shining light in his eyes that was both pride and exaltation. He moved toward the end of the room, where the piano stood, and for a moment his big fingers touched the keys; then, seeing the lacy bit of handkerchief that lay there, he picked it up--and placed it back again. Carrigan did not urge his question, but waited. In spite of his effort to fight it down he found himself in the grip of a mysterious and growing thrill as he watched St. Pierre. Never had the presence of another man had the same effect upon him, and strangely the thought came to him that he was matched--even overmatched. It was as if St. Pierre had brought with him into the cabin something more than the splendid strength of his body, a thing that reached out in the interval of silence between them, warning Carrigan that all the law in the world would not swerve the chief of the Boulains from what was already in his mind. For a moment the thought passed from David that fate had placed him up against the hazard of enmity with St. Pierre. His vision centered in the man alone. And as he, too, rose to his feet, an unconscious smile came to his lips as he recalled the boastings of Bateese.

"I ask you," said he, "if you would really stake your life in a matter such as that? Of course, if your words were merely accidental, and meant nothing--"

"If I had a dozen lives, I would stake them, one on top of the other, as I have said," interrupted St. Pierre. Suddenly his laugh boomed out and his voice became louder. "M'sieu Carrigan, I have come to offer you just that test! Oui, I could kill you now. I could put you at the bottom of the river, as Bateese thinks is right. Mon Dieu, how completely I could make you disappear! And then my Jeanne would be safe. She would not go behind prison bars. She would go on living, and laughing, and singing in the big forests, where she belongs. And Black Roger Audemard, the rascal, would be safe for a time! But that would be like destroying a little child. You are so helpless now. So you are going on to the Chateau Boulain with us, and if at the end of the second month from today you do not willingly say I have won my wager--why-- m'sieu--I will go with you into the forest, and you may shoot out of me the life which is my end of the gamble. Is that not fair? Can you suggest a better way--between men like you and me?"

"I can at least suggest a way that has the virtue of saving time," replied David. "First, however, I must understand my position here. I am, I take it, a prisoner."

"A guest, with certain restrictions placed upon you, m'sieu," corrected St. Pierre.

The eyes of the two men met on a dead level.

"Tomorrow morning I am going to fight Bateese," said David. "It is a little sporting event we have fixed up between us for the amusement of--your men. I have heard that Bateese is the best fighting man along the Three Rivers. And I--I do not like to have any other man claim that distinction when I am around."

For the first time St. Pierre's placidity seemed to leave him. His brow became clouded, a moment's frown grew in his face, and there was a certain disconsolate hopelessness in the shrug of his shoulders. It was as if Carrigan's words had suddenly robbed the day of all its sunshine for the chief of the Boulains. His voice, too, carried an unhappy and disappointed note as he made a gesture toward the window.

"M'sieu, on that raft out there are many of my men, and they have scarcely rested or slept since word was brought to them that a stranger was to fight Concombre Bateese. Tonnerre, they have gambled without ever seeing you until the clothes on their backs are in the hazard, and they have cracked their muscles in labor to overtake you! They have prayed away their very souls that it would be a good fight, and that Bateese would not eat you up too quickly. It has been a long time since we have seen a good fight, a long time since the last man dared to stand up against the half- breed. Ugh, it tears out my heart to tell you that the fight can not be!"

St. Pierre made no effort to suppress his emotion. He was like a huge, disappointed boy. He walked to the window, peered forth at the raft, and as he shrugged his big shoulders again something like a groan came from him.

The thrill of approaching triumph swept through David's blood. The flame of it was in his eyes when St. Pierre turned from the window.

"And you are disappointed, St. Pierre? You would like to see that fight!"

The blue steel in St. Pierre's eyes flashed back. "If the price were a year of my life, I would give it--if Bateese did not eat you up too quickly. I love to look upon a good fight, where there is no venom of hatred in the blows!"

"Then you shall see a good fight, St. Pierre."

"Bateese would kill you, m'sieu. You are not big. You are not his match."

"I shall whip him, St. Pierre--whip him until he avows me his master."

"You do not know the half-breed, m'sieu. Twice I have tried him in friendly combat myself and have been beaten."

"But I shall whip him," repeated Carrigan. "I will wager you anything--anything in the world--even life against life--that I whip him!"

The gloom had faded from the face of St. Pierre Boulain. But in a moment it clouded again.

"My Jeanne has made me promise that I will stop the fight," he said.

"And why--why should she insist in a matter such as this, which properly should be settled among men?" asked David.

Again St. Pierre laughed; with an effort, it seemed, "She is gentle-hearted, m'sieu. She laughed and thought it quite a joke when Bateese humbled me. 'What! My great St. Pierre, with the blood of old France in his veins, beaten by a man who has been named after a vegetable!' she cried. I tell you she was merry over it, m'sieu! She laughed until the tears came into her eyes. But with you it is different. She was white when she entreated me not to let you fight Bateese. Yes, she is afraid you will be badly hurt. And she does not want to see you hurt again. But I tell you that I am not jealous, m'sieu! She does not try to hide things from me. She tells me everything, like a little child. And so--"

"I am going to fight Bateese," said David. He wondered if St. Pierre could hear the thumping of his heart, or if his face gave betrayal of the hot flood it was pumping through his body. "Bateese and I have pledged ourselves. We shall fight, unless you tie one of us hand and foot. And as for a wager--"

"Yes--what have you to wager?" demanded St. Pierre eagerly.

"You know the odds are great," temporized Carrigan.

"That I concede, m'sieu."

"But a fight without a wager would be like a pipe without tobacco, St. Pierre."

"You speak truly, m'sieu."

David came nearer and laid a hand on the other's arm. "St. Pierre, I hope you--and your Jeanne--will understand what I am about to offer. It is this. If Bateese whips me, I will disappear into the forests, and no word shall ever pass my lips of what has passed since that hour behind the rock--and this. No whisper of it will ever reach the Law. I will forget the attempted murder and the suspicious mumblings of your Broken Man. You will be safe. Your Jeanne will be safe--if Bateese whips me."

He paused, and waited. St. Pierre made no answer, but amazement came into his face, and after that a slow and burning fire in his eyes which told how deeply and vitally Carrigan's words had struck into his soul.

"And if I should happen to win," continued David, turning a bit carelessly toward the window, "why, I should expect as large a payment from you. If I win, your fulfillment of the wager will be to tell me in every detail why your wife tried to kill me behind the rock, and you will also tell me all that you know about the man I am after, Black Roger Audemard. That is all. I am asking for no odds, though you concede the handicap is great."

He did not look at St. Pierre. Behind him he heard the other's deep breathing. For a space neither spoke. Outside they could hear the soft swish of water, the low voices of men in the stern, and a shout and the barking of a dog coming from the raft far out on the river. For David the moment was one of suspense. He turned again, a bit carelessly, as if his proposition were a matter of but little significance to him. St. Pierre was not looking at him. He was staring toward the door, as if through it he could see the powerful form of Bateese bending over the stern sweep. And Carrigan could see that his face was flaming with a great desire, and that the blood in his body was pounding to the mighty urge of it.

Suddenly he faced Carrigan.

"M'sieu, listen to me," he said. "You are a brave man. You are a man of honor, and I know you will bury sacredly in your heart what I am going to tell you now, and never let a word of it escape-- even to my Jeanne. I do not blame you for loving her. Non! You could not help that. You have fought well to keep it within yourself, and for that I honor you. How do I know? Mon Dieu, she has told me! A woman's heart understands, and a woman's ears are quick to hear, m'sieu. When you were sick, and your mind was wandering, you told her again and again that you loved her--and when she brought you back to life, her eyes saw more than once the truth of what your lips had betrayed, though you tried to keep it to yourself. Even more, m'sieu--she felt the touch of your lips on her hair that day. She understands. She has told me everything, openly, innocently--yet her heart thrills with that sympathy of a woman who knows she is loved. M'sieu, if you could have seen the light in her eyes and the glow in her cheeks as she told me these secrets. But I am not jealous! Non! It is only because you are a brave man, and one of honor, that I tell you all this. She would die of shame did she know I had betrayed her confidence. Yet it is necessary that I tell you, because if we make the big wager we must drop my Jeanne from the gamble. Do you comprehend me, m'sieu?

"We are two men, strong men, fighting men. I--Pierre Boulain--can not feel the shame of jealousy where a woman's heart is pure and sweet, and where a man has fought against love with honor as you have fought. And you, m'sieu--David Carrigan, of the Police--can not strike with your hard man's hand that tender heart, that is like a flower, and which this moment is beating faster than it should with the fear that some harm is going to befall you. Is it not so, m'sieu? We will make the wager, yes. But if you whip Bateese--and you can not do that in a hundred years of fighting--I will not tell you why my Jeanne shot at you behind the rock. Non, never! Yet I swear I will tell you the other. If you win, I will tell you all I know about Roger Audemard, and that is considerable, m'sieu. Do you agree?"

Slowly David held out a hand. St. Pierre's gripped it. The fingers of the two men met like bands of steel.

"Tomorrow you will fight," said St. Pierre. "You will fight and be beaten so terribly that you may always show the marks of it. I am sorry. Such a man as you I would rather have as a brother than an enemy. And she will never forgive me. She will always remember it. The thought will never die out of her heart that I was a beast to let you fight Bateese. But it is best for all. And my men? Ah! Diable, but it will be great sport for them, m'sieu!"

His hand unclasped. He turned to the door. A moment later it closed behind him, and David was alone. He had not spoken. He had not replied to the engulfing truths that had fallen quietly and without a betrayal of passion from St. Pierre's lips. Inwardly he was crushed. Yet his face was like stone, hiding his shame. And then, suddenly, there came a sound from outside that sent the blood through his cold veins again. It was laughter, the great, booming laughter of St. Pierre! It was not the merriment of a man whose heart was bleeding, or into whose life had come an unexpected pain or grief. It was wild and free, and filled with the joy of the sun-filled day.

And David, listening to it, felt something that was more than admiration for this man growing within him. And unconsciously his lips repeated St. Pierre's words.

"Tomorrow--you will fight."

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Chapter XVIIFor many minutes David stood at the bateau window and watched the canoe that carried St. Pierre Boulain and the Broken Man back to the raft. It moved slowly, as if St. Pierre was loitering with a purpose and was thinking deeply of what had passed. Carrigan's fingers tightened, and his face grew tense, as he gazed out into the glow of the western sun. Now that the stress of nerve-breaking moments in the cabin was over, he no longer made an effort to preserve the veneer of coolness and decision with which he had encountered the chief of the
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Chapter XVIt was easy for Carrigan to guess why the riverman had turned back for him. Men were busy about the bateau, and Concombre Bateese stood in the stern, a long pole in his hands, giving commands to the others. The bateau was beginning to swing out into the stream when he leaped aboard. A wide grin spread over the half-breed's face. He eyed David keenly and laughed in his deep chest, an unmistakable suggestiveness in the note of it."You look seek, m'sieu," he said in an undertone, for David's ears alone, "You look ver' unhappy, an' pale lak leetle boy!
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