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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 16755

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03

Huddled behind a rock which was scarcely larger than his body, groveling in the white, soft sand like a turtle making a nest for its eggs, Carrigan told himself this without any reservation. He was, as he kept repeating to himself for the comfort of his soul, in a deuce of a fix. His head was bare-simply because a bullet had taken his hat away. His blond hair was filled with sand. His face was sweating. But his blue eyes were alight with a grim sort of humor, though he knew that unless the other fellow's ammunition ran out he was going to die.

For the twentieth time in as many minutes he looked about him. He was in the center of a flat area of sand. Fifty feet from him the river murmured gently over yellow bars and a carpet of pebbles. Fifty feet on the opposite side of him was the cool, green wall of the forest. The sunshine playing in it seemed like laughter to him now, a whimsical sort of merriment roused by the sheer effrontery of the joke which fate had inflicted upon him.

Between the river and the balsam and spruce was only the rock behind which he was cringing like a rabbit afraid to take to the open. And his rock was a mere up-jutting of the solid floor of shale that was under him. The wash sand that covered it like a carpet was not more than four or five inches deep. He could not dig in. There was not enough of it within reach to scrape up as a protection. And his enemy, a hundred yards or so away, was a determined wretch-and the deadliest shot he had ever known.

Three times Carrigan had made experiments to prove this, for he had in mind a sudden rush to the shelter of the timber. Three times he had raised the crown of his hat slightly above the top of the rock, and three times the marksmanship of the other had perforated it with neatness and dispatch. The third bullet had carried his hat a dozen feet away. Whenever he showed a patch of his clothing, a bullet replied with unerring precision. Twice they had drawn blood. And the humor faded out of Carrigan's eyes.

Not long ago he had exulted in the bigness and glory of this country of his, where strong men met hand to hand and eye to eye. There were the other kind in it, the sort that made his profession of manhunting a thing of reality and danger, but he expected these-forgot them-when the wilderness itself filled his vision. But his present situation was something unlike anything that had ever happened in his previous experience with the outlawed. He had faced dangers. He had fought. There were times when he had almost died. Fanchet, the half-breed who had robbed a dozen wilderness mail sledges, had come nearest to trapping him and putting him out of business. Fanchet was a desperate man and had few scruples. But even Fanchet-before he was caught-would not have cornered a man with such bloodthirsty unfairness as Carrigan found himself cornered now. He no longer had a doubt as to what was in the other's mind. It was not to wound and make merely helpless. It was to kill. It was not difficult to prove this. Careful not to expose a part of his arm or shoulder, he drew a white handkerchief from his pocket, fastened it to the end of his rifle, and held the flag of surrender three feet above the rock. And then, with equal caution, he slowly thrust up a flat piece of shale, which at a distance of a hundred yards might appear as his shoulder or even his head. Scarcely was it four inches above the top of the rock before there came the report of a rifle, and the shale was splintered into a hundred bits.

Carrigan lowered his flag and gathered himself in tighter. The accuracy of the other's marksmanship was appalling. He knew that if he exposed himself for an instant to use his own rifle or the heavy automatic in his holster, he would be a dead man before he could press a trigger. And that time, he felt equally sure, would come sooner or later. His muscles were growing cramped. He could not forever double himself up like a four-bladed jackknife behind the altogether inefficient shelter of the rock.

His executioner was hidden in the edge of the timber, not directly opposite him, but nearly a hundred yards down stream. Twenty times he had wondered why the fiend with the rifle did not creep up through that timber and take a good, open pot-shot at him from the vantage point which lay at the end of a straight line between his rock and the nearest spruce and balsam. From that angle he could not completely shelter himself. But the man a hundred yards below had not moved a foot from his ambush since he had fired his first shot. That had come when Carrigan was crossing the open space of soft, white sand. It had left a burning sensation at his temple-half an inch to the right and it would have killed him. Swift as the shot itself, he dropped behind the one protection at hand, the up-jutting shoulder of shale.

For a quarter of an hour he had been making efforts to wriggle himself free from his bulky shoulder-pack without exposing himself to a coup-de-grace. At last he had the thing off. It was a tremendous relief when he thrust it out beside the rock, almost doubling the size of his shelter. Instantly there came the crash of a bullet in it, and then another. He heard the rattle of pans, and wondered if his skillet would be any good after today.

For the first time he could wipe the sweat from his face and stretch himself. And also he could think. Carrigan possessed an unalterable faith in the infallibility of the mind. "You can do anything with the mind," was his code. "It is better than a good gun."

Now that he was physically more at ease, he began reassembling his scattered mental faculties. Who was this stranger who was pot-shotting at him with such deadly animosity from the ambush below? Who-

Another crash of lead in tinware and steel put an unpleasant emphasis to the question. It was so close to his head that it made him wince, and now-with a wide area within reach about him-he began scraping up the sand for an added protection. There came a long silence after that third clatter of distress from his cooking utensils. To David Carrigan, even in his hour of deadly peril, there was something about it that for an instant brought back the glow of humor in his eyes. It was hot, swelteringly hot, in that packet of sand with the unclouded sun almost straight overhead. He could have tossed a pebble to where a bright-eyed sandpiper was cocking itself backward and forward, its jerky movements accompanied by friendly little tittering noises. Everything about him seemed friendly. The river rippled and murmured in cooling song just beyond the sandpiper. On the other side the still cooler forest was a paradise of shade and contentment, astir with subdued and hidden life. It was nesting season. He heard the twitter of birds. A tiny, brown wood warbler fluttered out to the end of a silvery birch limb, and it seemed to David that its throat must surely burst with the burden of its song. The little fellow's brown body, scarcely larger than a butternut, was swelling up like a round ball in his effort to vanquish all other song.

"Go to it, old man," chuckled Carrigan. "Go to it!"

The little warbler, that he might have crushed between thumb and forefinger, gave him a lot of courage.

Then the tiny chorister stopped for breath. In that interval Carrigan listened to the wrangling of two vivid-colored Canada jays deeper in the timber. Chronic scolds they were, never without a grouch. They were like some people Carrigan had known, born pessimists, always finding something to complain about, even in their love days.

And these were love days. That was the odd thought that came to Carrigan as he lay half on his face, his fingers slowly and cautiously working a loophole between his shoulder-pack and the rock. They were love days all up and down the big rivers, where men and women sang for joy, and children played, forgetful of the long, hard days of winter. And in forest, plain, and swamp was this spirit of love also triumphant over the land. It was the mating season of all feathered things. In countless nests were the peeps and twitters of new life; mothers of first-born were teaching their children to swim and fly; from end to end of the forest world the little children of the silent places, furred and feathered, clawed and hoofed, were learning the ways of life. Nat

ure's yearly birthday was half-way gone, and the doors of nature's school wide open. And the tiny brown songster at the end of his birch twig proclaimed the joy of it again, and challenged all the world to beat him in his adulation.

Carrigan found that he could peer between his pack and the rock to where the other warbler was singing-and where his enemy lay watching for the opportunity to kill. It was taking a chance. If a movement betrayed his loophole, his minutes were numbered. But he had worked cautiously, an inch at a time, and was confident that the beginning of his effort to fight back was, up to the present moment, undiscovered. He believed that he knew about where the ambushed man was concealed. In the edge of a low-hanging mass of balsam was a fallen cedar. From behind the butt of that cedar he was sure the shots had come.

And now, even more cautiously than he had made the tiny opening, he began to work the muzzle of his rifle through the loophole. As he did this he was thinking of Black Roger Audemard. And yet, almost as quickly as suspicion leaped into his mind, he told himself that the thing was impossible. It could not be Black Roger, or one of Black Roger's friends, behind the cedar log. The idea was inconceivable, when he considered how carefully the secret of his mission had been kept at the Landing. He had not even said goodby to his best friends. And because Black Roger had won through all the preceding years, Carrigan was stalking his prey out of uniform. There had been nothing to betray him. Besides, Black Roger Audemard must be at least a thousand miles north, unless something had tempted him to come up the rivers with the spring brigades. If he used logic at all, there was but one conclusion for him to arrive at. The man in ambush was some rascally half-breed who coveted his outfit and whatever valuables he might have about his person.

A fourth smashing eruption among his comestibles and culinary possessions came to drive home the fact that even that analysis of the situation was absurd. Whoever was behind the rifle fire had small respect for the contents of his pack, and he was surely not in grievous need of a good gun or ammunition. A sticky mess of condensed cream was running over Carrigan's hand. He doubted if there was a whole tin in his kit.

For a few moments he lay quietly on his face after the fourth shot. His eyes were turned toward the river, and on the far side, a quarter of a mile away, three canoes were moving swiftly up the slow current of the stream. The sunlight flashed on their wet sides. The gleam of dripping paddles was like the flutter of silvery birds' wings, and across the water came an unintelligible shout in response to the rifle shot. It occurred to David that he might make a trumpet of his hands and shout back, but the distance was too great for his voice to carry its message for help. Besides, now that he had the added protection of the pack, he felt a certain sense of humiliation at the thought of showing the white feather. A few minutes more, if all went well, and he would settle for the man behind the log.

He continued again the slow operation of worming his rifle barrel between the pack and the rock. The near-sighted little sandpiper had discovered him and seemed interested in the operation. It had come a dozen feet nearer, and was perking its head and seesawing on its long legs as it watched with inquisitive inspection the unusual manifestation of life behind the rock. Its twittering note had changed to an occasional sharp and querulous cry. Carrigan wanted to wring its neck. That cry told the other fellow that he was still alive and moving.

It seemed an age before his rifle was through, and every moment he expected another shot. He flattened himself out, Indian fashion, and sighted along the barrel. He was positive that his enemy was watching, yet he could make out nothing that looked like a head anywhere along the log. At one end was a clump of deeper foliage. He was sure he saw a sudden slight movement there, and in the thrill of the moment was tempted to send a bullet into the heart of it. But he saved his cartridge. He felt the mighty importance of certainty. If he fired once-and missed-the advantage of his unsuspected loophole would be gone. It would be transformed into a deadly menace. Even as it was, if his enemy's next bullet should enter that way-

He felt the discomfort of the thought, and in spite of himself a tremor of apprehension ran up his spine. He felt an even greater desire to wring the neck of the inquisitive little sandpiper. The creature had circled round squarely in front of him and stood there tilting its tail and bobbing its head as if its one insane desire was to look down the length of his rifle barrel. The bird was giving him away. If the other fellow was only half as clever as his marksmanship was good-

Suddenly every nerve in Carrigan's body tightened. He was positive that he had caught the outline of a human head and shoulders in the foliage. His finger pressed gently against the trigger of his Winchester. Before he breathed again he would have fired. But a shot from the foliage beat him out by the fraction of a second. In that precious time lost, his enemy's bullet entered the edge of his kit-and came through. He felt the shock of it, and in the infinitesimal space between the physical impact and the mental effect of shock his brain told him the horrible thing had happened. It was his head-his face. It was as if he had plunged them suddenly into hot water, and what was left of his skull was filled with the rushing and roaring of a flood. He staggered up, clutching his face with both hands. The world about him was twisted and black, a dizzily revolving thing-yet his still fighting mental vision pictured clearly for him a monstrous, bulging-eyed sandpiper as big as a house. Then he toppled back on the white sand, his arms flung out limply, his face turned to the ambush wherein his murderer lay.

His body was clear of the rock and the pack, but there came no other shot from the thick clump of balsam. Nor, for a time, was there movement. The wood warbler was cheeping inquiringly at this sudden change in the deportment of his friend behind the shoulder of shale. The sandpiper, a bit startled, had gone back to the edge of the river and was running a race with himself along the wet sand. And the two quarrelsome jays had brought their family squabble to the edge of the timber.

It was their wrangling that roused Carrigan to the fact that he was not dead. It was a thrilling discovery-that and the fact that he made out clearly a patch of sunlight in the sand. He did not move, but opened his eyes wider. He could see the timber. On a straight line with his vision was the thick clump of balsam. And as he looked, the boughs parted and a figure came out. Carrigan drew a deep breath. He found that it did not hurt him. He gripped the fingers of the hand that was under his body, and they closed on the butt of his service automatic. He would win yet, if God gave him life a few minutes longer.

His enemy advanced. As he drew nearer, Carrigan closed his eyes more and more. They must be shut, and he must appear as if dead, when the other came up. Then, when the scoundrel put down his gun, as he naturally would-his chance would be at hand. If a quiver of his eyes betrayed him-

He closed them tight. Dizziness began to creep over him, and the fire in his brain grew hot again. He heard footsteps, and they stopped in the sand close beside him. Then he heard a human voice. It did not speak in words, but gave utterance to a strange and unnatural cry. With a mighty effort Carrigan assembled his last strength. It seemed to him that he brought himself up quickly, but his movement was slow, painful-the effort of a man who might be dying. The automatic hung limply in his hand, its muzzle pointing to the sand. He looked up, trying to swing into action that mighty weight of his weapon. And then from his own lips, even in his utter physical impotence, fell a cry of wonder and amazement.

His enemy stood there in the sunlight, staring down at him with big, dark eyes that were filled with horror. They were not the eyes of a man. David Carrigan, in this most astounding moment of his life, found himself looking up into the face of a woman.

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