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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 18493

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


For a matter of twenty seconds-even longer it seemed to Carrigan-the life of these two was expressed in a vivid and unforgettable tableau. One half of it David saw-the blue sky, the dazzling sun, the girl in between. The pistol dropped from his limp hand, and the weight of his body tottered on the crook of his under-elbow. Mentally and physically he was on the point of collapse, and yet in those few moments every detail of the picture was painted with a brush of fire in his brain. The girl was bareheaded. Her face was as white as any face he had ever seen, living or dead; her eyes were like pools that had caught the reflection of fire; he saw the sheen of her hair, the poise of her slender body-its shock, stupefaction, horror. He sensed these things even as his brain wobbled dizzily, and the larger part of the picture began to fade out of his vision. But her face remained to the last. It grew clearer, like a cameo framed in an iris-a beautiful, staring, horrified face with shimmering tresses of jet-black hair blowing about it like a veil. He noticed the hair, that was partly undone as if she had been in a struggle of some sort, or had been running fast against the breeze that came up the river.

He fought with himself to hold that picture of her, to utter some word, make some movement. But the power to see and to live died out of him. He sank back with a queer sound in his throat. He did not hear the answering cry from the girl as she flung herself, with a quick little prayer for help, on her knees in the soft, white sand beside him. He felt no movement when she raised his head in her arm and with her bare hand brushed back his sand-littered hair, revealing where the bullet had struck him. He did not know when she ran back to the river.

His first sensation was of a cool and comforting something trickling over his burning temples and his face. It was water. Subconsciously he knew that, and in the same way he began to think. But it was hard to pull his thoughts together. They persisted in hopping about, like a lot of sand-fleas in a dance, and just as he got hold of one and reached for another, the first would slip away from him. He began to get the best of them after a time, and he had an uncontrollable desire to say something. But his eyes and his lips were sealed tight, and to open them, a little army of gnomes came out of the darkness in the back of his head, each of them armed with a lever, and began prying with all their might. After that came the beginning of light and a flash of consciousness.

The girl was working over him. He could feel her and hear her movement. Water was trickling over his face. Then he heard a voice, close over him, saying something in a sobbing monotone which he could not understand.

With a mighty effort he opened his eyes.

"Thank LE BON DIEU, you live, m'sieu," he heard the voice say, as if coming from a long distance away. "You live, you live-"

"Tryin' to," he mumbled thickly, feeling suddenly a sense of great elation. "Tryin'-"

He wanted to curse the gnomes for deserting him, for as soon as they were gone with their levers, his eyes and his lips shut tight again, or at least he thought they did. But he began to sense things in a curious sort of way. Some one was dragging him. He could feel the grind of sand under his body. There were intervals when the dragging operation paused. And then, after a long time, he seemed to hear more than one voice. There were two-sometimes a murmur of them. And odd visions came to him. He seemed to see the girl with shining black hair and dark eyes, and then swiftly she would change into a girl with hair like blazing gold. This was a different girl. She was not like Pretty Eyes, as his twisted mind called the other. This second vision that he saw was like a radiant bit of the sun, her hair all aflame with the fire of it and her face a different sort of face. He was always glad when she went away and Pretty Eyes came back.

To David Carrigan this interesting experience in his life might have covered an hour, a day, or a month. Or a year for that matter, for he seemed to have had an indefinite association with Pretty Eyes. He had known her for a long time and very intimately, it seemed. Yet he had no memory of the long fight in the hot sun, or of the river, or of the singing warblers, or of the inquisitive sandpiper that had marked out the line which his enemy's last bullet had traveled. He had entered into a new world in which everything was vague and unreal except that vision of dark hair, dark eyes, and pale, beautiful face. Several times he saw it with marvelous clearness, and each time he drifted away into darkness again with the sound of a voice growing fainter and fainter in his ears.

Then came a time of utter chaos and soundless gloom. He was in a pit, where even his subconscious self was almost dead under a crushing oppression. At last a star began to glimmer in this pit, a star pale and indistinct and a vast distance away. But it crept steadily up through the eternity of darkness, and the nearer it came, the less there was of the blackness of night. From a star it grew into a sun, and with the sun came dawn. In that dawn he heard the singing of a bird, and the bird was just over his head. When Carrigan opened his eyes, and understanding came to him, he found himself under the silver birch that belonged to the wood warbler.

For a space he did not ask himself how he had come there. He was looking at the river and the white strip of sand. Out there were the rock and his dunnage pack. Also his rifle. Instinctively his eyes turned to the balsam ambush farther down. That, too, was in a blaze of sunlight now. But where he lay, or sat, or stood-he was not sure what he was doing at that moment-it was shady and deliciously cool. The green of the cedar and spruce and balsam was close about him, inset with the silver and gold of the thickly-leaved birch. He discovered that he was bolstered up partly against the trunk of this birch and partly against a spruce sapling. Between these two, where his head rested, was a pile of soft moss freshly torn from the earth. And within reach of him was his own kit pail filled with water.

He moved himself cautiously and raised a hand to his head. His fingers came in contact with a bandage.

For a minute or two after that he sat without moving while his amazed senses seized upon the significance of it all. In the first place he was alive. But even this fact of living was less remarkable than the other things that had happened. He remembered the final moments of the unequal duel. His enemy had got him. And that enemy was a woman! Moreover, after she had blown away a part of his head and had him helpless in the sand, she had-in place of finishing him there-dragged him to this cool nook and tied up his wound. It was hard for him to believe, but the pail of water, the moss behind his shoulders, the bandage, and certain visions that were reforming themselves in his brain convinced him. A woman had shot him. She had worked like the very devil to kill him. And afterward she had saved him! He grinned. It was final proof that his mind hadn't been playing tricks on him. No one but a woman would have been quite so unreasonable. A man would have completed the job.

He began to look for her up and down the white strip of sand. And in looking he saw the gray and silver flash of the hard-working sandpiper. He chuckled, for he was exceedingly comfortable, and also exhilaratingly happy to know that the thing was over and he was not dead. If the sandpiper had been a man, he would have called him up to shake hands with him. For if it hadn't been for the bird getting squarely in front of him and giving him away, there might have been a more horrible end to it all. He shuddered as he thought of the mighty effort he had made to fire a shot into the heart of the balsam ambush-and perhaps into the heart of a woman!

He reached for the pail and drank deeply of the water in it. He felt no pain. His dizziness was gone. His mind had grown suddenly clear and alert. The warmth of the water told him almost instantly that it had been taken from the river some time ago. He observed the change in sun and shadows. With the instinct of a man trained to note details, he pulled out his watch. It was almost six o'clock. More than three hours had passed since the sandpiper had got in front of his gun. He did not attempt to rise to his feet, but scanned with slower and more careful scrutiny the edge of the forest and the river. He had been mystified while cringing for his life behind the rock, but he was infinitely more so now. Greater desire he had never had than this which thrilled him in these present minutes of his readjustment-desire to look upon the woman again. And then, all at once, there came back to him a mental flash of the other. He remembered, as if something was coming back to him out of a dream, how the whimsical twistings of his sick brain had made him see two faces instead of one. Yet he knew that the first picture of his mysterious assailant, the picture painted in his brain when he had tried to raise his pistol, was the right one. He had seen her dark eyes aglow; h

e had seen the sunlit sheen of her black hair rippling in the wind; he had seen the white pallor in her face, the slimness of her as she stood over him in horror-he remembered even the clutch of her white hand at her throat. A moment before she had tried to kill him. And then he had looked up and had seen her like that! It must have been some unaccountable trick in his brain that had flooded her hair with golden fire at times.

His eyes followed a furrow in the white sand which led from where he sat bolstered against the tree down to his pack and the rock. It was the trail made by his body when she had dragged him up to the shelter and coolness of the timber. One of his laws of physical care was to keep himself trained down to a hundred and sixty, but he wondered how she had dragged up even so much as that of dead weight. It had taken a great deal of effort. He could see distinctly three different places in the sand where she had stopped to rest.

Carrigan had earned a reputation as the expert analyst of "N" Division. In delicate matters it was seldom that McVane did not take him into consultation. He possessed an almost uncanny grip on the working processes of a criminal mind, and the first rule he had set down for himself was to regard the acts of omission rather than the one outstanding act of commission. But when he proved to himself that the chief actor in a drama possessed a normal rather than a criminal mind, he found himself in the position of checkmate. It was a thrilling game. And he was frankly puzzled now, until-one after another-he added up the sum total of what had been omitted in this instance of his own personal adventure. Hidden in her ambush, the woman who had shot him had been in both purpose and act an assassin. Her determination had been to kill him. She had disregarded the white flag with which he had pleaded for mercy. Her marksmanship was of fiendish cleverness. Up to her last shot she had been, to all intent and purpose, a murderess.

The change had come when she looked down upon him, bleeding and helpless, in the sand. Undoubtedly she had thought he was dying. But why, when she saw his eyes open a little later, had she cried out her gratitude to God? What had worked the sudden transformation in her? Why had she labored to save the life she had so atrociously coveted a minute before?

If his assailant had been a man, Carrigan would have found an answer. For he was not robbed, and therefore robbery was not a motif. "A case of mistaken identity," he would have told himself. "An error in visual judgment."

But the fact that in his analysis he was dealing with a woman made his answer only partly satisfying. He could not disassociate himself from her eyes-their beauty, their horror, the way they had looked at him. It was as if a sudden revulsion had come over her; as if, looking down upon her bleeding handiwork, the woman's soul in her had revolted, and with that revulsion had come repentance-repentance and pity.

"That," thought Carrigan, "would be just like a woman-and especially a woman with eyes like hers."

This left him but two conclusions to choose from. Either there had been a mistake, and the woman had shown both horror and desire to amend when she discovered it, or a too tender-hearted agent of Black Roger Audemard had waylaid him in the heart of the white strip of sand.

The sun was another hour lower in the sky when Carrigan assured himself in a series of cautious experiments that he was not in a condition to stand upon his feet. In his pack were a number of things he wanted-his blankets, for instance, a steel mirror, and the thermometer in his medical kit. He was beginning to feel a bit anxious about himself. There were sharp pains back of his eyes. His face was hot, and he was developing an unhealthy appetite for water. It was fever and he knew what fever meant in this sort of thing, when one was alone. He had given up hope of the woman's return. It was not reasonable to expect her to come back after her furious attempt to kill him. She had bandaged him, bolstered him up, placed water beside him, and had then left him to work out the rest of his salvation alone. But why the deuce hadn't she brought up his pack?

On his hands and knees he began to work himself toward it slowly. He found that the movement caused him pain, and that with this pain, if he persisted in movement, there was a synchronous rise of nausea. The two seemed to work in a sort of unity. But his medicine case was important now, and his blankets, and his rifle if he hoped to signal help that might chance to pass on the river. A foot at a time, a yard at a time, he made his way down into the sand. His fingers dug into the footprints of the mysterious gun-woman. He approved of their size. They were small and narrow, scarcely longer than the palm and fingers of his hand-and they were made by shoes instead of moccasins.

It seemed an interminable time to him before he reached his pack. When he got there, a pendulum seemed swinging back and forth inside his head, beating against his skull. He lay down with his pack for a pillow, intending to rest for a spell. But the minutes added themselves one on top of another. The sun slipped behind clouds banking in the west. It grew cooler, while within him he was consumed by a burning thirst. He could hear the ripple of running water, the laughter of it among pebbles a few yards away. And the river itself became even more desirable than his medicine case, or his blankets, or his rifle. The song of it, inviting and tempting him, blotted thought of the other things out of his mind. And he continued his journey, the swing of the pendulum in his head becoming harder, but the sound of the river growing nearer. At last he came to the wet sand, and fell on his face, and drank.

After this he had no great desire to go back. He rolled himself over, so that his face was turned up to the sky. Under him the wet sand was soft, and it was comfortingly cool. The fire in his head died out. He could hear new sounds in the edge of the forest evening sounds. Only weak little twitters came from the wood warblers, driven to silence by thickening gloom in the densely canopied balsams and cedars, and frightened by the first low hoots of the owls. There was a crash not far distant, probably a porcupine waddling through brush on his way for a drink; or perhaps it was a thirsty deer, or a bear coming out in the hope of finding a dead fish. Carrigan loved that sort of sound, even when a pendulum was beating back and forth in his head. It was like medicine to him, and he lay with wide-open eyes, his ears picking up one after another the voices that marked the change from day to night. He heard the cry of a loon, its softer, chuckling note of honeymoon days. From across the river came a cry that was half howl, half bark. Carrigan knew that it was coyote, and not wolf, a coyote whose breed had wandered hundreds of miles north of the prairie country.

The gloom gathered in, and yet it was not darkness as the darkness of night is known a thousand miles south. It was the dusky twilight of day where the sun rises at three o'clock in the morning and still throws its ruddy light in the western sky at nine o'clock at night; where the poplar buds unfold themselves into leaf before one's very eyes; where strawberries are green in the morning and red in the afternoon; where, a little later, one could read newspaper print until midnight by the glow of the sun-and between the rising and the setting of that sun there would be from eighteen to twenty hours of day. It was evening time in the wonderland of the north, a wonderland hard and frozen and ridden by pain and death in winter, but a paradise upon earth in this month of June.

The beauty of it filled Carrigan's soul, even as he lay on his back in the damp sand. Far south of him steam and steel were coming, and the world would soon know that it was easy to grow wheat at the Arctic Circle, that cucumbers grew to half the size of a man's arm, that flowers smothered the land and berries turned it scarlet and black. He had dreaded these days-days of what he called "the great discovery"-the time when a crowded civilization would at last understand how the fruits of the earth leaped up to the call of twenty hours of sun each day, even though that earth itself was eternally frozen if one went down under its surface four feet with a pick and shovel.

Tonight the gloom came earlier because of the clouds in the west. It was very still. Even the breeze had ceased to come from up the river. And as Carrigan listened, exulting in the thought that the coolness of the wet sand was drawing the fever from him, he heard another sound. At first he thought it was the splashing of a fish. But after that it came again, and still again, and he knew that it was the steady and rhythmic dip of paddles.

A thrill shot through him, and he raised himself to his elbow. Dusk covered the river, and he could not see. But he heard low voices as the paddles dipped. And after a little he knew that one of these was the voice of a woman.

His heart gave a big jump. "She is coming back," he whispered to himself. "She is coming back!"

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