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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 17414

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


In the few minutes following the efficient and unexpected warning of Bateese an entirely new element of interest entered into the situation for David Carrigan. He had more than once assured himself that he had made a success of his profession of man-hunting not because he was brighter than the other fellow, but largely because he possessed a sense of humor and no vanities to prick. He was in the game because he loved the adventure of it. He was loyal to his duty, but he was not a worshipper of the law, nor did he covet the small monthly stipend of dollars and cents that came of his allegiance to it. As a member of the Scarlet Police, and especially of "N" Division, he felt the pulse and thrill of life as he loved to live it. And the greatest of all thrills came when he was after a man as clever as himself, or cleverer.

This time it was a woman-or a girl! He had not yet made up his mind which she was. Her voice, low and musical, her poise, and the tranquil and unexcitable loveliness of her face had made him, at first, register her as a woman. Yet as he looked at the slim girlishness of her figure in the bow of the canoe, accentuated by the soft sheen of her partly unbraided hair, he wondered if she were eighteen or thirty. It would take the clear light of day to tell him. But whether a girl or a woman, she had handled him so cleverly that the unpleasantness of his earlier experience began to give way slowly to an admiration for her capability.

He wondered what the superintendent of "N" Division would say if he could see Black Roger Audemard's latest trailer propped up here in the center of the canoe, the prisoner of a velvety-haired but dangerously efficient bit of feminine loveliness-and a bull-necked, chimpanzee-armed half-breed!

Bateese had confirmed the suspicion that he was a prisoner, even though this mysterious pair were bent on saving his life. Why it was their desire to keep life in him when only a few hours ago one of them had tried to kill him was a. question which only the future could answer. He did not bother himself with that problem now. The present was altogether too interesting, and there was but little doubt that other developments equally important were close at hand. The attitude of both Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain and her piratical-looking henchman was sufficient evidence of that. Bateese had threatened to knock his head off, and he could have sworn that the girl-or woman-had smiled her approbation of the threat. Yet he held no grudge against Bateese. An odd sort of liking for the man began to possess him, just as he found himself powerless to resist an ingrowing admiration for Marie-Anne. The existence of Black Roger Audemard became with him a sort of indefinite reality. Black Roger was a long way off. Marie-Anne and Bateese were very near. He began thinking of her as Marie-Anne. He liked the name. It was the Boulain part of it that worked in him with an irritating insistence.

For the first time since the canoe journey had begun, he looked beyond the darkly glowing head and the slender figure in the bow. It was a splendid night. Ahead of him the river was like a rippling sheet of molten silver. On both sides, a quarter of a mile apart, rose the walls of the forest, like low-hung, oriental tapestries. The sky seemed near, loaded with stars, and the moon, rising with almost perceptible movement toward the zenith, had changed from red to a mellow gold. Carrigan's soul always rose to this glory of the northern light. Youth and vigor, he told himself, must always exist under those unpolluted lights of the upper worlds, the unspeaking things which had told him more than he had ever learned from the mouths of other men. They stood for his religion, his faith, his belief in the existence of things greater than the insignificant spark which animated his own body. He appreciated them most when there was stillness. And tonight it was still. It was so quiet that the trickling of the paddles was like subdued music. From the forest there came no sound. Yet he knew there was life there, wide-eyed, questing life, life that moved on velvety wing and padded foot, just as he and Marie-Anne and the half-breed Bateese were moving in the canoe. To have called out in this hour would have taken an effort, for a supreme and invisible Hand seemed to have commanded stillness upon the earth.

And then there came droning upon his ears a break in the stillness, and as he listened, the shores closed slowly in, narrowing the channel until he saw giant masses of gray rock replacing the thick verdure of balsam, spruce, and cedar. The moaning grew louder, and the rocks climbed skyward until they hung in great cliffs. There could be but one meaning to this sudden change. They were close to LE SAINT-ESPRIT RAPIDE-the Holy Ghost Rapids. Carrigan was astonished. That day at noon he had believed the Holy Ghost to be twenty or thirty miles below him. Now they were at its mouth, and he saw that Bateese and Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain were quietly and unexcitedly preparing to run that vicious stretch of water. Unconsciously he gripped the gunwales of the canoe with both hands as the sound of the rapids grew into low and sullen thunder. In the moonlight ahead he could see the rock walls closing in until the channel was crushed between two precipitous ramparts, and the moon and stars, sending their glow between those walls, lighted up a frothing path of water that made Carrigan hold his breath. He would have portaged this place even in broad day.

He looked at the girl in the bow. The slender figure Was a little more erect, the glowing head held a little higher. In those moments he would have liked to see her face, the wonderful something that must be in her eyes as she rode fearlessly into the teeth of the menace ahead. For he could see that she was not afraid, that she was facing this thing with a sort of exultation, that there was something about it which thrilled her until every drop of blood in her body was racing with the impetus of the stream itself. Eddies of wind puffing out from between the chasm walls tossed her loose hair about her back in a glistening veil. He saw a long strand of it trailing over the edge of the canoe into the water. It made him shiver, and he wanted to cry out to Bateese that he was a fool for risking her life like this. He forgot that he was the one helpless individual in the canoe, and that an upset would mean the end for him, while Bateese and his companion might still fight on. His thought and his vision were focused on the girl-and what lay straight ahead. A mass of froth, like a windrow of snow, rose up before them, and the canoe plunged into it with the swiftness of a shot. It spattered in his face, and blinded him for an instant. Then they were out of it, and he fancied he heard a note of laughter from the girl in the bow. In the next breath he called himself a fool for imagining that. For the run was dead ahead, and the girl became vibrant with life, her paddle flashing in and out, while from her lips came sharp, clear cries which brought from Eateese frog-like bellows of response. The walls shot past; inundations rose and plunged under them; black rocks whipped with caps of foam raced up-stream with the speed of living things; the roar became a drowning voice, and then-as if outreached by the wings of a swifter thing-dropped suddenly behind them. Smoother water lay ahead. The channel broadened. Moonlight filled it with a clearer radiance, and Carrigan saw the girl's hair glistening wet, and her arms dripping.

For the first time he turned about and faced Bateese. The half-breed was grinning like a Cheshire cat!

"You're a confoundedly queer pair!" grunted Carrigan, and he turned about again to find Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain as unconcerned as though running the Holy Ghost Rapids in the glow of the moon was nothing more than a matter of play.

It was impossible for him to keep his heart from beating a little faster as he watched her, even though he was trying to regard her in a most professional sort of way. He reminded himself that she was an iniquitous little Jezebel who had almost murdered him. Carmin Fanchet had been like her, an AME DAMNEE-a fallen angel-but his business was not sympathy in such matters as these. At the same time he could not resist the lure of both her audacity and her courage, and he found himself all at once asking himself the amazing question as to what her relationship might be to Bateese. It occurred to him rather unpleasantly that there had been something distinctly proprietary in the way the half-breed had picked her up on the sand, and that Bateese had shown no hesitation a li

ttle later in threatening to knock his head off unless he stopped talking to her. He wondered if Bateese was a Boulain.

The two or three minutes of excitement in the boiling waters of the Holy Ghost had acted like medicine on Carrigan. It seemed to him that something had given way in his head, relieving him of an oppression that had been like an iron hoop drawn tightly about his skull. He did not want Bateese to suspect this change in him, and he slouched lower against the dunnage-pack with his eyes still on the girl. He was finding it increasingly difficult to keep from looking at her. She had resumed her paddling, and Bateese was putting mighty efforts in his strokes now, so that the narrow, birchbark canoe shot like an arrow with the down-sweeping current of the river. A few hundred yards below was a twist in the channel, and as the canoe rounded this, taking the shoreward curve with dizzying swiftness, a wide, still straight-water lay ahead. And far down this Carrigan saw the glow of fires.

The forest had drawn back from the river, leaving in its place a broken tundra of rock and shale and a wide strip of black sand along the edge of the stream itself. Carrigan knew what it was-an upheaval of the tar-sand country so common still farther north, the beginning of that treasure of the earth which would some day make the top of the American continent one of the Eldorados of the world. The fires drew nearer, and suddenly the still night was broken by the wild chanting of men. David heard behind him a choking note in the throat of Bateese. A soft word came from the lips of the girl, and it seemed to Carrigan that her head was held higher in the moon glow. The chant increased in volume, a rhythmic, throbbing, savage music that for a hundred and fifty years had come from the throats of men along the Three Rivers. It thrilled Carrigan as they bore down upon it. It was not song as civilization would have counted song. It was like an explosion, an exultation of human voice unchained, ebullient with the love of life, savage in its good-humor. It was LE GAITE DE COEUR of the rivermen, who thought and sang as their forefathers did in the days of Radisson and good Prince Rupert; it was their merriment, their exhilaration, their freedom and optimism, reaching up to the farthest stars. In that song men were straining their vocal muscles, shouting to beat out their nearest neighbor, bellowing like bulls in a frenzy of sudden fun. And then, as suddenly as it had risen in the night, the clamor of voices died away. A single shout came up the river. Carrigan thought he heard a low rumble of laughter. A tin pan banged against another. A dog howled. The flat of an oar played a tattoo for a moment on the bottom of a boat. Then one last yell from a single throat-and the night was silent again.

And that was the Boulain Brigade-singing at this hour of the night, when men should have been sleeping if they expected to be up with the sun. Carrigan stared ahead. Shortly his adventure would take a new twist. Something was bound to happen when they got ashore. The peculiar glow of the fires had puzzled him. Now he began to understand. Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain's men were camped in the edge of the tar-sands and had lighted a number of natural gas-jets that came up out of the earth. Many times he had seen fires like these burning up and down the Three Rivers. He had lighted fires of his own; he had cooked over them and had afterward had the fun and excitement of extinguishing them with pails of water. But he had never seen anything quite like this that was unfolding itself before his eyes now. There were seven of the fires over an area of half an acre-spouts of yellowish flame burning like giant torches ten or fifteen feet in the air. And between them he very soon made out great bustle and activity. Many figures were moving about. They looked like dwarfs at first, gnomes at play in a little world made out of witchcraft. But Bateese was sending the canoe nearer with powerful strokes, and the figures grew taller, and the spouts of flame higher. Then he knew what was happening. The Boulain men were taking advantage of the cool hours of the night and were tarring up.

He could smell the tar, and he could see the big York boats drawn up in the circle of yellowish light. There were half a dozen of them, and men stripped to the waist were smearing the bottoms of the boats with boiling tar and pitch. In the center was a big, black cauldron steaming over a gas-jet, and between this cauldron and the boats men were running back and forth with pails. Still nearer to the huge kettle other men were filling a row of kegs with the precious black GOUDRON that oozed up from the bowels of the earth, forming here and there jet-black pools that Carrigan could see glistening in the flare of the gas-lamps. He figured there were thirty men at work. Six big York boats were turned keel up in the black sand. Close inshore, just outside the circle of light, was a single scow.

Toward this scow Bateese sent the canoe. And as they drew nearer, until the laboring men ashore were scarcely a stone's throw away, the weirdness of the scene impressed itself more upon Carrigan. Never had he seen such a crew. There were no Indians among them. Lithe, quick-moving, bare-headed, their naked arms and shoulders gleaming in the ghostly illumination, they were racing against time with the boiling tar and pitch in the cauldron. They did not see the approach of the canoe, and Bateese did not draw their attention to it. Quietly he drove the birchbark under the shadow of the big bateau. Hands were waiting to seize and steady it. Carrigan caught but a glimpse of the faces. In another instant the girl was aboard the scow, and Bateese was bending over him. A second time he was picked up like a child in the chimpanzee-like arms of the half-breed. The moonlight showed him a scow bigger than he had ever seen on the upper river, and two-thirds of it seemed to be cabin. Into this cabin Bateese carried him, and in darkness laid him upon what Carrigan thought must be a cot built against the wall. He made no sound, but let himself fall limply upon it. He listened to Bateese as he moved about, and closed his eyes when Bateese struck a match. A moment later he heard the door of the cabin close behind the half-breed. Not until then did he open his eyes and sit up.

He was alone. And what he saw in the next few moments drew an exclamation of amazement from him. Never had he seen a cabin like this on the Three Rivers. It was thirty feet long if an inch, and at least eight feet wide. The walls and ceiling were of polished cedar; the floor was of cedar closely matched. It was the exquisite finish and craftsmanship of the woodwork that caught his eyes first. Then his astonished senses seized upon the other things. Under his feet was a soft rug of dark green velvet. Two magnificent white bearskins lay between him and the end of the room. The walls were hung with pictures, and at the four windows were curtains of ivory lace draped with damask. The lamp which Bateese had lighted was fastened to the wall close to him. It was of polished silver and threw a brilliant light softened by a shade of old gold. There were three other lamps like this, unlighted. The far end of the room was in deep shadow, but Carrigan made out the thing he was staring at-a piano. He rose to his feet, disbelieving his eyes, and made his way toward it. He passed between chairs. Near the piano was another door, and a wide divan of the same soft, green upholstery. Looking back, he saw that what he had been lying upon was another divan. And dose to this were book-shelves, and a table on which were magazines and papers and a woman's workbasket, and in the workbasket-sound asleep-a cat!

And then, over the table and the sleeping cat, his eyes rested upon a triangular banner fastened to the wall. In white against a background of black was a mighty polar bear holding at bay a horde of Arctic wolves. And suddenly the thing he had been fighting to recall came to Carrigan-the great bear-the fighting wolves-the crest of St. Pierre Boulain!

He took a quick step toward the table-then caught at the back of a chair. Confound his head! Or was it the big bateau rocking under his feet? The cat seemed to be turning round in its basket. There were half a dozen banners instead of one; the lamp was shaking in its bracket; the floor was tilting, everything was becoming hideously contorted and out of place. A shroud of darkness gathered about him, and through that darkness Carrigan staggered blindly toward the divan. He reached it just in time to fall upon it like a dead man.

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