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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Flaming Forest - Chapter 26
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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 26 Post by :add2it Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2861

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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 26

Chapter XXVI

Into the stream Carrigan plunged and found it only waist-deep in crossing. He saw where Black Roger had come out of the water and where his feet had plowed deep in the ash and char and smoldering debris ahead. This trail he followed. The air he breathed was hot and filled with stifling clouds of ash and char-dust and smoke. His feet struck red-hot embers under the ash, and he smelled burning leather. A forest of spruce and cedar skeletons still crackled and snapped and burst out into sudden tongues of flame about him, and the air he breathed grew hotter, and his face burned, and into his eyes came a smarting pain--when ahead of him he saw Black Roger. He was no longer calling out the Broken Man's name, but was crashing through the smoking chaos like a great beast that had gone both blind and mad. Twice David turned aside where Black Roger had rushed through burning debris, and a third time, following where Audemard had gone, his feet felt the sudden stab of living coals. In another moment he would have shouted Black Roger's name, but even as the words were on his lips, mingled with a gasp of pain, the giant river-man stopped where the forest seemed suddenly to end in a ghostly, smoke-filled space, and when David came up behind him, he was standing at the black edge of a cliff which leaped off into a smoldering valley below.

Out of this narrow valley between two ridges, an hour ago choked with living spruce and cedar, rose up a swirling, terrifying heat. Down into this pit of death Black Roger stood looking, and David heard a strange moaning coming in his breath. His great, bare arms were black and scarred with heat; his hair was burned; his shirt was torn from his shoulders. When David spoke--and Black Roger turned at the sound--his eyes glared wildly out of a face that was like a black mask. And when he saw it was David who had spoken, his great body seemed to sag, and with an unintelligible cry he pointed down.

David, staring, saw nothing with his half-blind eyes, but under his feet he felt a sudden giving way, and the fire-eaten tangle of earth and roots broke off like a rotten ledge, and with it both he and Black Roger went crashing into the depths below, smothered in an avalanche of ash and sizzling earth. At the bottom David lay for a moment, partly stunned. Then his fingers clutched a bit of living fire, and with a savage cry he staggered to his feet and looked to see Black Roger. For a space his eyes were blinded, and when at last he could see, he made out Black Roger, fifty feet away, dragging himself on his hands and knees through the blistering muck of the fire. And then, as he stared, the stricken giant came to the charred remnant of a stump and crumpled over it with a great cry, moaning again that name--

"Andre--Andre--"

David hurried to him, and as he put his hands under Black Roger's arms to help him to his feet, he saw that the charred stump was not a stump, but the fire-shriveled corpse of Andre, the Broken Man!

Horror choked back speech on his own lips. Black Roger looked up at him, and a great breath came in a sob out of his body. Then, suddenly, he seemed to get grip of himself, and his burned and bleeding fingers closed about David's hand at his shoulder.

"I knew he was coming here," he said, the words forcing themselves with an effort through his swollen lips. "He came home--to die."

"Home--?"

"Yes. His mother and father were buried here nearly thirty years ago, and he worshiped them. Look at him, Carrigan. Look at him closely. For he is the man you have wanted all these years, the finest man God ever made, Roger Audemard! When he saw the fire, he came to shield their graves from the flames. And now he is dead!"

A moan came to his lips, and the weight of his body grew so heavy that David had to exert his strength to keep him from falling.

"And YOU?" he cried. "For God's sake, Audemard--tell me--"

"I, m'sieu? Why, I am only St. Pierre Audemard, his brother."

And with that his head dropped heavily, and he was like a dead man in David's arms.

How at last David came to the edge of the stream again, with the weight of St. Pierre Audemard on his shoulders, was a torturing nightmare which would never be quite clear in his brain. The details were obliterated in the vast agony of the thing. He knew that he fought as he had never fought before; that he stumbled again and again in the fire-muck; that he was burned, and blinded, and his brain was sick. But he held to St. Pierre, with his twisted, broken leg, knowing that he would die if he dropped him into the flesh-devouring heat of the smoldering debris under his feet. Toward the end he was conscious of St. Pierre's moaning, and then of his voice speaking to him. After that he came to the water and fell down in the edge of it with St. Pierre, and inside his head everything went as black as the world over which the fire had swept.

He did not know how terribly he was hurt. He did not feel pain after the darkness came. Yet he sensed certain things. He knew that over him St. Pierre was shouting. For days, it seemed, he could hear nothing but that great voice bellowing away in the interminable distance. And then came other voices, now near and now far, and after that he seemed to rise up and float among the clouds, and for a long time he heard no other sound and felt no movement, but was like one dead.

Something soft and gentle and comforting roused him out of darkness. He did not move, he did not open his eyes for a time, while reason came to him. He heard a voice, and it was a woman's voice, speaking softly, and another voice replied to it. Then he heard gentle movement, and some one went away from him, and he heard the almost noiseless opening and closing of a door. A very little he began to see. He was in a room, with a patch of sunlight on the wall. Also, he was in a bed. And that gentle, comforting hand was still stroking his forehead and hair, light as thistledown. He opened his eyes wider and looked up. His heart gave a great throb. Over him was a glorious, tender face smiling like an angel into his widening eyes. And it was the face of Carmin Fanchet!

He made an effort, as if to speak.

"Hush," she whispered, and he saw something shining in her eyes, and something wet fell upon his face. "She is returning--and I will go. For three days and nights she has not slept, and she must be the first to see you open your eyes."

She bent over him. Her soft lips touched his forehead, and he heard her sobbing breath.

"God bless you, David Carrigan!"

Then she was going to the door, and his eyes dropped shut again. He began to experience pain now, a hot, consuming pain all over him, and he remembered the fight through the path of the fire. Then the door opened very softly once more, and some one came in, and knelt down at his side, and was so quiet that she scarcely seemed to breathe. He wanted to open his eyes, to cry out a name, but he waited, and lips soft as velvet touched his own. They lay there for a moment, then moved to his closed eyes, his forehead, his hair--and after that something rested gently against him.

His eyes shot open. It was Marie-Anne, with her head nestled in the crook of his arm as she knelt there beside him on the floor. He could see only a bit of her face, but her hair was very near, crumpled gloriously on his breast, and he could see the tips of her long lashes as she remained very still, seeming not to breathe. She did not know he had roused from his sleep--the first sleep of those three days of torture which he could not remember now; and he, looking at her, made no movement to tell her he was awake. One of his hands lay over the edge of the bed, and so lightly he could scarce feel the weight of her fingers she laid one of her own upon it, and a little at a time drew it to her, until the bandaged thing was against her lips. It was strange she did not hear his heart, which seemed all at once to beat like a drum inside him!

Suddenly he sensed the fact that his other hand was not bandaged. He was lying on his side, with his right arm partly under him, and against that hand he felt the softness of Marie-Anne's cheek, the velvety crush of her hair!

And then he whispered, "Marie-Anne--"

She still lay, for a moment, utterly motionless. Then, slowly, as if believing he had spoken her name in his sleep, she raised her head and looked into his wide-open eyes. There was no word between them in that breath or two. His bandaged hand and his well hand went to her face and hair, and then a sobbing cry came from Marie- Anne, and swiftly she crushed her face down to his, holding him close with both her arms for a moment. And after that, as on that other day when she kissed him after the fight, she was up and gone so quickly that her name had scarcely left his lips when the door closed behind her, and he heard her running down the hall.

He called after her, "Marie-Anne! Marie-Anne!"

He heard another door, and voices, and quick footsteps again, coming his way, and he was waiting eagerly, half on his elbow, when into his room came Nepapinas and Carmin Fanchet. And again he saw the glory of something in the woman's face.

His eyes must have burned strangely as he stared at her, but it did not change that light in her own, and her hands were wonderfully gentle as she helped Nepapinas raise him so that he was sitting up straight, with pillows at his back.

"It doesn't hurt so much now, does it?" she asked, her voice low with a mothering tenderness.

He shook his head. "No. What is the matter?"

"You were burned--terribly. For two days and nights you were in great pain, but for many hours you have been sleeping, and Nepapinas says the burns will not hurt any more. If it had not been for you--"

She bent over him. Her hand touched his face, and now he began to understand the meaning of that glory shining in her eyes.

"If it hadn't been for you--he would have died!"

She drew back, turning to the door. "He is coming to see you-- alone," she said, a little broken note in her throat. "And I pray God you will see with clear understanding, David Carrigan--and forgive me--as I have forgiven you--for a thing that happened long ago."

He waited. His head was in a jumble, and his thoughts were tumbling over one another in an effort to evolve some sort of coherence out of things amazing and unexpected. One thing was impressed upon him--he had saved St. Pierre's life, and because he had done this Carmin Fanchet was very tender to him. She had kissed him, and Marie-Anne had kissed him, and--

A strange dawning was coming to him, thrilling him to his finger- tips. He listened. A new sound was approaching from the hall. His door was opened, and a wheel-chair was rolled in by old Nepapinas. In the chair was St. Pierre Audemard. Feet and hands and arms were wrapped in bandages, but his face was uncovered and wreathed in smiling happiness when he saw David propped up against his pillows. Nepapinas rolled him close to the bed and then shuffled out, and as he closed the door, David was sure he heard the subdued whispering of feminine voices down the hall.

"How are you, David?" asked St. Pierre.

"Fine," nodded Carrigan. "And you?"

"A bit scorched, and a broken leg." He held up his padded hands. "Would be dead if you hadn't carried me to the river. Carmin says she owes you her life for having saved mine."

"And Marie-Anne?"

"That's what I've come to tell you about," said St. Pierre. "The instant they knew you were able to listen, both Carmin and Marie- Anne insisted that I come and tell you things. But if you don't feel well enough to hear me now--"

"Go on!" almost threatened David.

The look of cheer which had illumined St. Pierre's face faded away, and David saw in its place the lines of sorrow which had settled there. He turned his gaze toward a window through which the afternoon sun was coming, and nodded slowly.

"You saw--out there. He's dead. They buried him in a casket made of sweet cedar. He loved the smell of that. He was like a little child. And once--a long time ago--he was a splendid man, a greater and better man than St. Pierre, his brother, will ever be. What he did was right and just, M'sieu David. He was the oldest--sixteen-- when the thing happened. I was only nine, and didn't fully understand. But he saw it all--the death of our father because a powerful factor wanted my mother. And after that he knew how and why our mother died, but not a word of it did he tell us until years later--after the day of vengeance was past.

"You understand, David? He didn't want me in that. He did it alone, with good friends from the upper north. He killed the murderers of our mother and father, and then he buried himself deeper into the forests with us, and we took our mother's family names which was Boulain, and settled here on the Yellowknife. Roger--Black Roger, as you know him--brought the bones of our father and mother and buried them over in the edge of that plain where he died and where our first cabin stood. Five years ago a falling tree crushed him out of shape, and his mind went at the same time, so that he has been like a little child, and was always seeking for Roger Audemard--the man he once was. That was the man your law wanted. Roger Audemard. Our brother,"

"OUR brother," cried David. "Who is the other?"

"My sister."

"Yes?"

"Marie-Anne."

"Good God!" choked David. "St. Pierre, do you lie? Is this another bit of trickery?"

"It is the truth," said St. Pierre. "Marie-Anne is my sister, and Carmin--whom you saw in my arms through the cabin window--"

He paused, smiling into David's staring eyes, taking full measure of recompense in the other's heart-breaking attitude as he waited. "--Is my wife, M'sieu David."

A great gasp of breath came out of Carrigan.

"Yes, my wife, and the greatest-hearted woman that ever lived, without one exception in all the world!" cried St. Pierre, a fierce pride in his voice. "It was she, and not Marie-Anne, who shot you on that strip of sand, David Carrigan! Mon Dieu, I tell you not one woman in a million would have done what she did--let you live! Why? Listen, m'sieu, and you will understand at last. She had a brother, years younger than she, and to that brother she was mother, sister, everything, because they had no parents almost from babyhood. She worshiped him. And he was bad. Yet the worse he became, the more she loved him and prayed for him. Years ago she became my wife, and I fought with her to save the brother. But he belonged to the devil hand and foot, and at last he left us and went south, and became what he was when you were sent out to get him, Sergeant Carrigan. It was then that my wife went down to make a last fight to save him, to bring him back, and you know how she made that fight, m'sieu--until the day you hanged him!"

St. Pierre was leaning from his chair, his face ablaze. "Tell me, did she not fight?" he cried. "And YOU, until the last--did you not fight to have her put behind prison bars with her brother?"

"Yes, it is so," murmured Carrigan.

"She hated you," went on St. Pierre. "You hanged her brother, who was almost a part of her flesh and body. He was bad, but he had been hers from babyhood, and a mother will love her son if he is a devil. And then--I won't take long to tell the rest of it! Through friends she learned that you, who had hanged her brother, were on your way to run down Roger Audemard. And Roger Audemard, mind you, was the same as myself, for I had sworn to take my brother's place if it became necessary. She was on the bateau with Marie-Anne when the messenger came. She had but one desire--to save me--to kill you. If it had been some other man, but it was you, who had hanged her brother! She disappeared from the bateau that day with a rifle. You know, M'sieu David, what happened. Marie-Anne heard the shooting and came--alone--just as you rolled out in the sand as if dead. It was she who ran out to you first, while my Carmin crouched there with her rifle, ready to send another bullet into you if you moved. It was Marie-Anne you saw standing over you, it was she who knelt down at your side, and then--"

St. Pierre paused, and he smiled, and then grimaced as he tried to rub his two bandaged hands together. "David, fate mixes things up in a funny way. My Carmin came out and stood over you, hating you; and Marie-Anne knelt down there at your side, loving you. Yes, it is true. And over you they fought for life or death, and love won, because it is always stronger than hate. Besides, as you lay there bleeding and helpless, you looked different to my Carmin than as you did when you hanged her brother. So they dragged you up under a tree, and after that they plotted together and planned, while I was away up the river on the raft. The feminine mind works strangely, M'sieu David, and perhaps it was that thing we call intuition which made them do what they did. Marie-Anne knew it would never do for you to see and recognize my Carmin, so in their scheming of things she insisted on passing herself off as my wife, while my Carmin came back in a canoe to meet me. They were frightened, and when I came, the whole thing had gone too far for me to mend, and I knew the false game must be played out to the end. When I saw what was happening--that you loved Marie-Anne so well that you were willing to fight for her honor even when you thought she was my wife--I was sure it would all end well. But I could take no chances until I knew. And so there were bars at your windows, and--"

St. Pierre shrugged his shoulders, and the lines of grief came into his face again, and in his voice was a little break as he continued: "If Roger had not gone out there to fight back the flames from the graves of his dead, I had planned to tell you as much as I dared, M'sieu David, and I had faith that your love for our sister would win. I did not tell you on the river because I wanted you to see with your own eyes our paradise up here, and I knew you would not destroy it once you were a part of it. And so I could not tell you Carmin was my wife, for that would have betrayed us--and--besides--that fight of yours against a love which you thought was dishonest interested me very much, for I saw in it a wonderful test of the man who might become my brother if he chose wisely between love and what he thought was duty. I loved you for it, even when you sat me there on the sand like a silly loon. And now, even my Carmin loves you for bringing me out of the fire--But you are not listening!"

David was looking past him toward the door, and St. Pierre smiled when he saw the look that was in his face.

"Nepapinas!" he called loudly. "Nepapinas!"

In a moment there was shuffling of feet outside, and Nepapinas came in. St. Pierre held out his two great, bandaged hands, and David met them with his own, one bandaged and one free. Not a word was spoken between them, but their eyes were the eyes of men between whom had suddenly come the faith and understanding of a brotherhood as strong as life itself.

Then Nepapinas wheeled St. Pierre from the room and David straightened himself against his pillows, and waited, and listened, until it seemed two hearts were thumping inside him in the place of one.

It was an interminable time, he thought, before Marie-Anne stood in the doorway. For a breath she paused there, looking at him as he stretched out his bandaged arm to her, moved by every yearning impulse in her soul to come in, yet ready as a bird to fly away. And then, as he called her name, she ran to him and dropped upon her knees at his side, and his arms went about her, insensible to their hurt--and her hot face was against his neck, and his lips crushed in the smothering sweetness of her hair. He made no effort to speak, beyond that first calling of her name. He could feel her heart throbbing against him, and her hands tightened at his shoulders, and at last she raised her glorious face so near that the breath of it was on his lips. Then, seeing what was in his eyes, her soft mouth quivered in a little smile, and with a broken throb in her throat she whispered,

"Has it all ended--right--David?"

He drew the red mouth to his own, and with a glad cry which was no word in itself he buried his face in the lustrous tresses he loved. Afterward he could not remember all it was that he said, but at the end Marie-Anne had drawn a little away so that she was looking at him, her eyes shining gloriously and her cheeks beautiful as the petals of a wild rose. And he could see the throbbing in her white throat, like the beating of a tiny heart.

"And you'll take me with you?" she whispered joyously.

"Yes; and when I show you to the old man--Superintendent Me Vane, you know--and tell him you're my wife, he can't go back on his promise. He said if I settled this Roger Audemard affair, I could have anything I might ask for. And I'll ask for my discharge, I ought to have it in September, and that will give us time to return before the snow flies. You see--"

He held out his arms again. "You see," he cried, his face smothered in her hair again, "I've found the place of my dreams up here, and I want to stay--always. Are you a little glad, Marie- Anne?"

In a great room at the end of the hall, with windows opening in three directions upon the wilderness, St. Pierre waited in his wheel-chair, grunting uneasily now and then at the long time it was taking Carmin to discover certain things out in the hall. Finally he heard her coming, tiptoeing very quietly from the direction of David Carrigan's door, and St. Pierre chuckled and tried to rub his bandaged hands when she came in, her face pink and her eyes shining with the greatest thrill that can stir a feminine heart.

"If we'd only known," he tried to whisper, "I would have had the keyhole made larger, Cherie! He deserves it for having spied on us at the cabin window. But--tell me!--Could you see? Did you hear? What--"

Carmin's soft hand went over his mouth. "In another moment you'll be shouting," she warned. "Maybe I didn't see, and maybe I didn't hear, Big Bear--but I know there are four very happy people in Chateau Boulain. And now, if you want to guess who is the happiest--"

"I am, chere-coeur."

"No."

"Well, then, if you insist--YOU are."

"Yes. And the next?"

St. Pierre chuckled. "David Carrigan," he said.

"No, no, no! If you mean that--"

"I mean--always--that I am second, unless you will ever let me be first," corrected St. Pierre, kissing the hand that was gently stroking his cheek.

And then he leaned his great head back against her where she stood behind him, and Carmin's fingers ran where his hair was crisp with the singe of fire, and for a long time they said no other word, but let their eyes rest upon the dim length of the hall at the far end of which was David Carrigan's room.


(THE END)
James Oliver Curwood's Novel: Flaming Forest

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