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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Flaming Forest - Chapter 4
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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 4 Post by :codebluenj Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :589

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The Flaming Forest - Chapter 4

Chapter IV

Carrigan's first impulse, sudden as the thrill that leaped through him, was to cry out to the occupants of the unseen canoe. Words were on his lips, but he forced them back. They could not miss him, could not get beyond the reach of his voice--and he waited. After all, there might be profit in a reasonable degree of caution. He crept back toward his rifle, sensing the fact that movement no longer gave him very great distress. At the same time he lost no sound from the river. The voices were silent, and the dip, dip, dip of paddles was approaching softly and with extreme caution. At last he could barely hear the trickle of them, yet he knew the canoe was coming steadily nearer. There was a suspicious secretiveness in its approach. Perhaps the lady with the beautiful eyes and the glistening hair had changed her mind again and was returning to put an end to him.

The thought sharpened his vision. He saw a thin shadow a little darker than the gloom of the river; it grew into shape; something grated lightly upon sand and pebbles, and then he heard the guarded plash of feet in shallow water and saw some one pulling the canoe up higher. A second figure joined the first. They advanced a few paces and stopped. In a moment a voice called softly,

"M'sieu! M'sieu Carrigan!"

There was an anxious note in the voice, but Carrigan held his tongue. And then he heard the woman say,

"It was here, Bateese! I am sure of it!"

There was more than anxiety in her voice now. Her words trembled with distress. "Bateese--if he is dead--he is up there close to the trees."

"But he isn't dead," said Carrigan, raising himself a little. "He is here, behind the rock again!"

In a moment she had run to where he was lying, his hand clutching the cold barrel of the pistol which he had found in the sand, his white face looking up at her. Again he found himself staring into the glow of her eyes, and in that pale light which precedes the coming of stars and moon the fancy struck him that she was lovelier than in the full radiance of the sun. He heard a throbbing note in her throat. And then she was down on her knees at his side, leaning close over him, her hands groping at his shoulders, her quick breath betraying how swiftly her heart was beating.

"You are not hurt--badly?" she cried.

"I don't know," replied David. "You made a perfect shot. I think a part of my head is gone. At least you've shot away my balance, because I can't stand on my feet!"

Her hand touched his face, remaining there for an instant, and the palm of it pressed his forehead. It was like the touch of cool velvet, he thought. Then she called to the man named Bateese. He made Carrigan think of a huge chimpanzee as he came near, because of the shortness of his body and the length of his arms. In the half light he might have been a huge animal, a hulking creature of some sort walking upright. Carrigan's fingers closed more tightly on the butt of his automatic. The woman began to talk swiftly in a patois of French and Cree. David caught the gist of it. She was telling Bateese to carry him to the canoe, and to be very careful, because m'sieu was badly hurt. It was his head, she emphasized. Bateese must be careful of his head.

David slipped his pistol into its holster as Bateese bent over him. He tried to smile at the woman to thank her for her solicitude--after having nearly killed him. There was an increasing glow in the night, and he began to see her more plainly. Out on the middle of the river was a silvery bar of light. The moon was coming up, a little pale as yet, but triumphant in the fact that clouds had blotted out the sun an hour before his time. Between this bar of light and himself he saw the head of Bateese. It was a wild, savage-looking head, bound pirate- fashion round the forehead with a huge Hudson's Bay kerchief. Bateese might have been old Jack Ketch himself bending over to give the final twist to a victim's neck. His long arms slipped under David. Gently and without effort he raised him to his feet. And then, as easily as he might have lifted a child, he trundled him up in his arms and walked off with him over the sand.

Carrigan had not expected this. He was a little shocked and felt also the impropriety of the thing. The idea of being lugged off like a baby was embarrassing, even in the presence of the one who had deliberately put him in his present condition. Bateese did the thing with such beastly ease. It was as if he was no more than a small boy, a runt with no weight whatever, and Bateese was a man. He would have preferred to stagger along on his own feet or creep on his hands and knees, and he grunted as much to Bateese on the way to the canoe. He felt, at the same time, that the situation owed him something more of discussion and explanation. Even now, after half killing him, the woman was taking a rather high-handed advantage of him. She might at least have assured him that she had made a mistake and was sorry. But she did not speak to him again. She said nothing more to Bateese, and when the half-breed deposited him in the midship part of the canoe, facing the bow, she stood back in silence. Then Bateese brought his pack and rifle, and wedged the pack in behind him so that he could sit upright. After that, without pausing to ask permission, he picked up the woman and carried her through the shallow water to the bow, saving her the wetting of her feet.

As she turned to find her paddle her face was toward David, and for a moment she was looking at him.

"Do you mind telling me who you are, and where we are going?" he asked.

"I am Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain," she said. "My brigade is down the river, M'sieu Carrigan."

He was amazed at the promptness of her confession, for as one of the working factors of the long arm of the police he accepted it as that. He had scarcely expected her to divulge her name after the cold-blooded way in which she had attempted to kill him. And she had spoken quite calmly of "my brigade." He had heard of the Boulain Brigade. It was a name associated with Chipewyan, as he remembered it--or Fort McMurray. He was not sure just where the Boulain scows had traded freight with the upper-river craft. Until this year he was positive they had not come as far south as Athabasca Landing. Boulain--Boulain--The name repeated itself over and over in his mind. Bateese shoved off the canoe, and the woman's paddle dipped in and out of the water beginning to shimmer in moonlight. But he could not, for a time, get himself beyond the pounding of that name in his brain. It was not merely that he had heard the name before. There was something significant about it. Something that made him grope back in his memory of things. Boulain! He whispered it to himself, his eyes on the slender figure of the woman ahead of him, swaying gently to the steady sweep of the paddle in her hands. Yet he could think of nothing. A feeling of irritation swept over him, disgust at his own mental impotency. And the dizzying sickness was brewing in his head again.

"I have heard that name--somewhere--before," he said. There was a space of only five or six feet between them, and he spoke with studied distinctness.

"Possibly you have, m'sieu."

Her voice was exquisite, clear as the note of a bird, yet so soft and low that she seemed scarcely to have spoken. And it was, Carrigan thought, criminally evasive--under the circumstances. He wanted her to turn round and say something. He wanted, first of all, to ask her why she had tried to kill him. It was his right to demand an explanation. And it was his duty to get her back to the Landing, where the law would ask an accounting of her. She must know that. There was only one way in which she could have learned his name, and that was by prying into his identification papers while he was unconscious. Therefore she not only knew his name, but also that he was Sergeant Carrigan of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. In spite of all this she was apparently not very deeply concerned. She was not frightened, and she did not appear to be even slightly excited.

He leaned nearer to her, the movement sending a sharp pain between his eyes. It almost drew a cry from him, but he forced himself to speak without betraying it.

"You tried to murder me--and almost succeeded. Haven't you anything to say?"

"Not now, m'sieu--except that it was a mistake. and I am sorry. But you must not talk. You must remain quiet. I am afraid your skull is fractured."

Afraid his skull was fractured! And she expressed her fear in the casual way she might have spoken of a toothache. He leaned back against his dunnage sack and closed his eyes. Probably she was right. These fits of dizziness and nausea were suspicious. They made him top-heavy and filled him with a desire to crumple up somewhere. He was clear-mindedly conscious of this and of his fight against the weakness. But in those moments when he felt better and his head was clear of pain, he had not seriously thought of a fractured skull. If she believed it, why did she not treat him a bit more considerately? Bateese, with that strength of an ox in his arms, had no use for her assistance with the paddle. She might at least have sat facing him, even if she refused to explain matters more definitely.

A mistake, she called it. And she was sorry for him! She had made those statements in a matter-of-fact way, but with a voice that was like music. She had spoken perfect English, but in her words were the inflection and velvety softness of the French blood which must be running red in her veins. And her name was Jeanne Marie- Anne Boulain!

With eyes closed, Carrigan called himself an idiot for thinking of these things at the present time. Primarily he was a man-hunter out on important duty, and here was duty right at hand, a thousand miles south of Black Roger Audemard, the wholesale murderer he was after. He would have sworn on his life that Black Roger had never gone at a killing more deliberately than this same Jeanne Marie- Anne Boulain had gone after him behind the rock!

Now that it was all over, and he was alive, she was taking him somewhere as coolly and as unexcitedly as though they were returning from a picnic. Carrigan shut his eyes tighter and wondered if he was thinking straight. He believed he was badly hurt, but he was as strongly convinced that his mind was clear. And he lay quietly with his head against the pack, his eyes closed, waiting for the coolness of the river to drive his nausea away again.

He sensed rather than felt the swift movement of the canoe. There was no perceptible tremor to its progress. The current and a perfect craftsmanship with the paddles were carrying it along at six or seven miles an hour. He heard the rippling of water that at times was almost like the tinkling of tiny bells, and more and more bell-like became that sound as he listened to it. It struck a certain note for him. And to that note another added itself, until in the purling rhythm of the river he caught the murmuring monotone of a name Boulain--Boulain--Boulain. The name became an obsession. It meant something. And he knew what it meant--if he could only whip his memory back into harness again. But that was impossible now. When he tried to concentrate his mental faculties, his head ached terrifically.

He dipped his hand into the water and held it over his eyes. For half an hour after that he did not raise his head. In that time not a word was spoken by Bateese or Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain. For the forest people it was not an hour in which to talk. The moon had risen swiftly, and the stars were out. Where there had been gloom, the world was now a flood of gold and silver light. At first Carrigan allowed this to filter between his fingers; then he opened his eyes. He felt more evenly balanced again.

Straight in front of him was Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain. The curtain of dusk had risen from between them, and she was full in the radiance of the moon. She was no longer paddling, but was looking straight ahead. To Cardigan her figure was exquisitely girlish as he saw it now. She was bareheaded, as he had seen tier first, and her hair hung down her back like a shimmering mass of velvety sable in the star-and-moon glow. Something told Carrigan she was going to turn her face in his direction, and he dropped his hand over his eyes again, leaving a space between the fingers. He was right in his guess. She fronted the moon, looking at him closely--rather anxiously, he thought. She even leaned a little toward him that she might see more clearly. Then she turned and resumed her paddling.

Carrigan was a bit elated. Probably she had looked at him a number of times like that during the past half-hour. And she was disturbed. She was worrying about him. The thought of being a murderess was beginning to frighten her. In spite of the beauty of her eyes and hair and the slim witchery of her body he had no sympathy for her. He told himself that he would give a year of his life to have her down at Barracks this minute. He would never forget that three-quarters of an hour behind the rock, not if he lived to be a hundred. And if he did live, she was going to pay, even if she was lovelier than Venus and all the Graces combined. He felt irritated with himself that he should have observed in such a silly way the sable glow of her hair in the moonlight. And her eyes. What the deuce did prettiness matter in the present situation? The sister of Fanchet, the mail robber, was beautiful, but her beauty had failed to save Fanchet. The Law had taken him in spite of the tears in Carmin Fanchet's big black eyes, and in that particular instance he was the Law. And Carmin Fanchet was pretty--deucedly pretty. Even the Old Man's heart had been stirred by her loveliness.

"A shame!" he had said to Carrigan. "A shame!" But the rascally Fanchet was hung by the neck until he was dead.

Carrigan drew himself up slowly until he was sitting erect. He wondered what Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain would say if he told her about Carmin. But there was a big gulf between the names Fanchet and Boulain. The Fanchets had come from the dance halls of Alaska. They were bad, both of them. At least, so they had judged Carmin Fanchet--along with her brother. And Boulain--

His hand, in dropping to his side, fell upon the butt of his pistol. Neither Bateese nor the girl had thought of disarming him. It was careless of them, unless Bateese was keeping a good eye on him from behind.

A new sort of thrill crept into Carrigan's blood. He began to see where he had made a huge error in not playing his part more cleverly. It was this girl Jeanne who had shot him. It was Jeanne who had stood over him in that last moment when he had made an effort to use his pistol. It was she who had tried to murder him and who had turned faint-hearted when it came to finishing the job. But his knowledge of these things he should have kept from her. Then, when the proper moment came, he would have been in a position to act. Even now it might be possible to cover his blunder. He leaned toward her again, determined to make the effort.

"I want to ask your pardon," he said. "May I?"

His voice startled her. It was as if the stinging tip of a whip- lash had touched her bare neck. He was smiling when she turned. In her face and eyes was a relief which she made no effort to repress.

"You thought I might be dead," he laughed softly. "I'm not, Miss Jeanne. I'm very much alive again. It was that accursed fever--and I want to ask your pardon! I think--I know--that I accused you of shooting me. It's impossible. I couldn't think of it--In my clear mind. I am quite sure that I know the rascally half-breed who pot- shotted me like that. And it was you who came in time, and frightened him away, and saved my life. Will you forgive me--and accept my gratitude?"

There came into the glowing eyes of the girl a reflection of his own smile. It seemed to him that he saw the corners of her mouth tremble a little before she answered him.

"I am glad you are feeling better, m'sieu."

"And you will forgive me for--for saying such beastly things to you?"

She was lovely when she smiled, and she was smiling at him now. "If you want to be forgiven for lying, yes," she said. "I forgive you that, because it is sometimes your business to lie. It was I who tried to kill you, m'sieu. And you know it."

"But--"

"You must not talk, m'sieu. It is not good for you: Bateese, will you tell m'sieu not to talk?"

Carrigan heard a movement behind him.

"M'sieu, you will stop ze talk or I brak hees head wit' ze paddle in my han'!" came the voice of Bateese close to his shoulder. "Do I mak' ze word plain so m'sieu compren'?"

"I get you, old man," grunted Carrigan. "I get you--both!"

And he leaned back against his dunnage-sack, staring again at the witching slimness of the lovely Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain as she calmly resumed her paddling in the bow of the canoe.

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