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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 19028

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03

It was utterly dark in the cabin, when the stillness was broken by low voices outside. The door opened, and some one came in. A moment later a match flared up, and in the shifting glow of it Carrigan saw the dark face of Bateese, the half-breed. One after another he lighted the four lamps. Not until he had finished did he turn toward the bed. It was then that David had his first good impression of the man. He was not tall, but built with the strength of a giant. His arms were long. His shoulders were stooped. His head was like the head of a stone gargoyle come to life. Wide-eyed, heavy-lipped, with the high cheek-bones of an Indian and uncut black hair bound with the knotted red MOUCHOIR, he looked more than ever like a pirate and a cutthroat to David. Such a man, he thought, might make play out of the business of murder. And yet, in spite of his ugliness, David felt again the mysterious inclination to like the man.

Bateese grinned. It was a huge grin, for his mouth was big. "You ver' lucky fellow," he announced. "You sleep lak that in nice sof' bed an' not back on san'-bar, dead lak ze feesh I bring you, m'sieu. That ees wan beeg mistake. Bateese say, 'Tie ze stone roun' hees neck an' mak' heem wan ANGE DE MER. Chuck heem in ze river, MA BELLE Jeanne!' An' she say no, mak heem well, an' feed heem feesh. So I bring ze feesh which she promise, an' when you have eat, I tell you somet'ing!"

He returned to the door and brought back with him a wicker basket. Then he drew up the table beside Carrigan and proceeded to lay out before him the boiled fish which St. Pierre's wife had promised him. With it was bread and an earthen pot of hot tea.

"She say that ees all you have because of ze fever. Bateese say, 'Stuff heem wit' much so that he die queek!'"

"You want to see me dead. Is that it, Bateese?"

"OUI. You mak' wan ver' good dead man, m'sieu!" Bateese was no longer grinning. He stood back and pointed at the food. "You eat-queek. An' when you have finish' I tell you somet'ing!"

Now that he saw the luscious bit of whitefish before him, Carrigan was possessed of the hungering emptiness of three days and nights. As he ate, he observed that Bateese was performing curious duties. He straightened a couple of rugs, ran fresh water into the flower vases, picked up half a dozen scattered magazines, and then, to David's increasing interest, produced a dust-cloth from somewhere and began to dust. David finished his fish, the one slice of bread, and his cup of tea. He felt tremendously good. The hot tea was like a trickle of new life through every vein in his body, and he had the desire to get up and try out his legs. Suddenly Bateese discovered that his patient was laughing at him.

"QUE DIABLE!" he demanded, coming up ferociously with the cloth in his great hand. "You see somet'ing ver' fonny, m'sieu?"

"No, nothing funny, Bateese," grinned Carrigan. "I was just thinking what a handsome chambermaid you make. You are so gentle, so nice to look at, so-"

"DIABLE!" exploded Bateese, dropping his dust cloth and bringing his huge hands down upon the table with a smash that almost wrecked the dishes. "You have eat, an' now you lissen. You have never hear' before of Concombre Bateese. An' zat ees me. See! Wit' these two hands I have choke' ze polar bear to deat'. I am strongest man w'at ees in all nort' countree. I pack four hundre' pound ovair portage. I crack ze caribou bones wit' my teeth, lak a dog. I run sixt' or hundre' miles wit'out stop for rest. I pull down trees w'at oder man cut wit' axe. I am not 'fraid of not'ing. You lissen? You hear w'at I say?"

"I hear you."

"BIEN! Then I tell you w'at Concombre Bateese ees goin' do wit' you, M'sieu Sergent de Police! MA BELLE Jeanne she mak' wan gran' meestake. She too much leetle bird heart, too much pity for want you to die. Bateese say, 'Keel him, so no wan know w'at happen t'ree day ago behin' ze rock.' But MA BELLE Jeanne, she say, 'No, Bateese, he ees meestake for oder man, an' we mus' let heem live.' An' then she tell me to come an' bring you feesh, an' tell you w'at is goin' happen if you try go away from thees bateau. You COMPREN'? If you try run away, Bateese ees goin' keel you! See-wit' thees han's I br'ak your neck an' t'row you in river. MA BELLE Jeanne say do zat, an' she tell oder mans-twent', thirt', almos' hundre' GARCONS-to keel you if you try run away. She tell me bring zat word to you wit' ze feesh. You listen hard w'at I say?"

If ever a worker of iniquity lived on earth, Carrigan might have judged Bateese as that man in these moments. The half-breed had worked himself up to a ferocious pitch. His eyes rolled. His wide mouth snarled in the virulence of its speech. His thick neck grew corded, and his huge hands clenched menacingly upon the table. Yet David had no fear. He wanted to laugh, but he knew laughter would be the deadliest of insults to Bateese just now. He remembered that the half-breed, fierce as a pirate, had a touch as gentle as a woman's. This man, who could choke an ox with his monstrous hands, had a moment before petted a cat, straightened out rugs, watered the woman's flowers, and had dusted. He was harmless-now. And yet in the same breath David sensed the fact that a single word from St. Pierre's wife would be sufficient to fire his brute strength into a blazing volcano of action. Such a henchman was priceless-under certain conditions! And he had brought a warning straight from the woman.

"I think I understand what you mean, Bateese," he said. "She says that I am to make no effort to leave this bateau-that I am to be killed if I try to escape? Are you sure she said that?"

"PAR LES MILLE CORNES DU DIABLE, you t'ink Bateese lie, m'sieu? Concombre Bateese, who choke ze w'ite bear wit' hees two ban', who pull down ze tree-"

"No, no, I don't think you lie. But I am wondering why she didn't tell me that when she was here."

"Becaus' she have too much leetle bird heart, zat ees w'y. She say: 'Bateese, you tell heem he mus' wait for St. Pierre. An' you tell heem good an' hard, lak you choke ze w'ite bear an' lak you pull down ze tree, so he mak' no meestake an' try get away.' An' she tell zat before all ze BATELIERS-all ze St. Pierre mans gathered 'bout a beeg fire-an' they shout up lak wan gargon that they watch an' keel you if you try get away."

Carrigan reached out a hand. "Let's shake, Bateese. I'll give you my word that I won't try to escape-not until you and I have a good stand-up fight with the earth under our feet, and I've whipped you. Is it a go?"

Bateese stared for a moment, and then his face broke into a wide grin. "You lak ze fight, m'sieu?"

"Yes. I love a scrap with a good man like you."

One of Bateese's huge hands crawled slowly over the table and engulfed David's. Joy shone on his face.

"An' you promise give me zat fight, w'en you are strong?"

"If I don't, I'll let you tie a stone around my neck and drop me into the river."

"You are brave GARCON," cried the delighted Bateese. "Up an' down ze rivers ees no man w'at can whip Concombre Bateese!" Suddenly his face grew clouded. "But ze head, m'sieu?" he added anxiously.

"It will get well quickly if you will help me, Bateese. Right now I want to get up. I want to stretch my legs. Was my head bad?"

"NON. Ze bullet scrape ze ha'r off-so-so-an' turn ze brain seek. I t'ink you be good fighting man in week!"

"And you will help me up?"

Bateese was a changed man. Again David felt that mighty but gentle strength of his arms as he helped him to his feet. He was a trifle unsteady for a moment. Then, with the half-breed close at his side, ready to catch him if his legs gave way, he walked to one of the windows and looked out. Across the river, fully half a mile away, he saw the glow of fires.

"Her camp?" he asked.

"OUI, m'sieu."

"We have moved from the tar-sands?"

"Yes, two days down ze river."

"Why are they not camping over here with us?"

Bateese gave a disgusted grunt. "Becaus' MA BELLE Jeanne have such leetle bird heart, m'sieu. She say you mus' not have noise near, lak ze talk an' laugh an' ZE CHANSONS. She say it disturb, an' zat it mak you worse wit' ze fever. She ees mak you lak de baby, Bateese say to her. But she on'y laugh at zat an' snap her leetle w'ite finger. Wait St. Pierre come! He brak yo'r head wit' hees two fists. I hope we have ze fight before then, m'sieu!"

"We'll have it anyway, Bateese. Where is St. Pierre, and when shall we see him?"

Bateese shrugged his shoulders. "Mebby week, mebby more. He long way off."

"Is he an old man?"

Slowly Bateese turned David about until he was facing him. "You ask not'ing more about St. Pierre," he warned. "No mans talk 'bout St. Pierre. Only wan-MA BELLE Jeanne. You ask her, an' she tell you shut up. W'en you don't shut up she call Bateese to brak your head."

"You're a-a sort of all-round head-breaker, as I understand it," grunted David, walking slowly back to his bed. "Will you bring me my pack and clothes in the morning? I want to shave and dress."

Bateese was ahead of him, smoothing the pillows and straightening out the rumpled bed-clothes. His huge hands were quick and capable as a woman's, and David could not keep himself from chuckling at this feminine ingeniousness of the powerful half-breed. Once in the crush of those gorilla-like arms that were working over his bed now, he thought, and it would be all over with the strongest man in "N" Division. Bateese

heard the chuckle and looked up.

"Somet'ing ver' funny once more, is eet-w'at?" he demanded.

"I was thinking, Bateese-what will happen to me if you get me in those arms when we fight? But it isn't going to happen. I fight with my fists, and I'm going to batter you up so badly that nobody will recognize you for a long time."

"You wait!" exploded Bateese, making a horrible grimace. "I choke you lak w'ite bear, I t'row you ovair my should'r, I mash you lak leetle strawberr', I-" He paused in his task to advance with a formidable gesture.

"Not now," warned Carrigan. "I'm still a bit groggy, Bateese." He pointed down at the bed. "I'm driving HER from that," he said. "I don't like it. Is she sleepin' over there-in the camp?"

"Mebby-an' mebby not, m'sieu," growled Bateese. "You mak' guess, eh?"

He began extinguishing the lights, until only the one nearest the door was left burning. He did not turn toward Carrigan or speak to him again. When he Went out, David heard the click of a lock in the door. Bateese had not exaggerated. It was the intention of St. Pierre's wife that he should consider himself a prisoner-at least for tonight.

He had no desire to lie down again. There was an unsteadiness in his legs, but outside of that the evil of his sickness no longer oppressed him. The staff doctor at the Landing would probably have called him a fool for not convalescing in the usual prescribed way, but Carrigan was already beginning to feel the demand for action. In spite of what physical effort he had made, his head did not hurt him, and his mind was keenly alive. He returned to the window through which he could see the fires on the western shore, and found no difficulty in opening it. A strong screen netting kept him from thrusting out his head and shoulders. Through it came the cool night breeze of the river. It seemed good to fill his lungs with it again and smell the fresh aroma of the forest. It was very dark, and the fires across the river were brighter because of the deep gloom. There was no promise of the moon in the sky. He could not see a star. From far in the west he caught the low intonation of thunder.

Carrigan turned from the window to the end of the cabin in which the piano stood. Here, too, was the second divan, and he saw the meaning now of two close-tied curtains, one at each side of the cabin. Drawn together on a taut wire stretched two inches under the ceiling, they shut off this end of the bateau and turned at least a third of the cabin into the privacy of the woman's bedroom. With growing uneasiness David saw the evidences that this had been her sleeping apartment. At each side of the piano was a small door, and he opened one of these just enough to discover that it was a wardrobe closet. A third door opened on the shore side of the bateau, but this was locked. Shut out from the view of the lower end of the cabin by a Japanese screen were a small dresser and a mirror. In the dim illumination that came from the distant lamp David bent over the open sheet of music on the piano. It was Mascagni's AVE MARIA.

His blood tingled. His brain was stirred by a new emotion, a growing thing that made him uneasy and filled him with a strange restlessness. He felt as though he had come suddenly to the edge of a great danger; somewhere within him an intelligence seized upon it and understood. Yet it was not physical enough for him to fight. It was a danger which crept up and about him, something which he could not see or touch and yet which made his heart beat faster and the blood come into his face. It drew him, triumphed over him, dragged his hand forth until his fingers closed upon a lacy, crumpled bit of a handkerchief that lay on the edge of the piano keys. It was the woman's handkerchief, and like a thief he raised it slowly. It smelled faintly of crushed violets; it was as if she were bending over him in his sickness again, and it was her breath that came to him. He was not thinking of her as St. Pierre's wife. And then sharply he caught himself and placed the handkerchief back on the piano keys. He tried to laugh at himself, but there was an emptiness where a moment before there had been that thrill of which he was now ashamed.

He turned back to the window. The thunder had come nearer. It was coming up fast out of the west, and with it a darkness that was like the blackness of a pit. A dead stillness was preceding it now, and in that stillness it seemed to Carrigan that he could hear the soapy, slitting sound of the streaming flashes of electrical fire that blazoned the advance of the storm. The camp-fires across the river were dying down. One of them went out as he looked at it, and he stared into the darkness as if trying to pierce distance and gloom to see what sort of a shelter it was that St. Pierre's wife had over there. And there came over him in these moments a desire that was almost cowardly. It was the desire to escape, to leave behind him the memory of the rock and of St. Pierre's wife, and to pursue once more his own great adventure, the quest of Black Roger Audemard.

He heard the rain coming. At first the sound of it was like the pattering of ten million tiny feet in dry leaves; then, suddenly, it was like the roar of an avalanche. It was an inundation, and with it came crash after crash of thunder, and the black skies were illumined by an almost uninterrupted glare of lightning. It had been a long time since Carrigan had felt the shock of such a storm. He closed the window to keep the rain out, and after that stood with his face flattened against the glass, staring over the river. The camp-fires were all gone now, blotted out like so many candles snuffed between thumb and forefinger, and he shuddered. No canvas ever made would keep that deluge out. And now there was growing up a wind with it. The tents on the other side would be beaten down like pegged sheets of paper, ripped up and torn to pieces. He imagined St. Pierre's wife in that tumult and distress-the breath blown out of her, half drowned, blinded by deluge and lightning, broken and beaten because of him. Thought of her companions did not ease his mind. Human hands were entirely inadequate to cope with a storm like this that was rocking the earth about him.

Suddenly he went to the door, determined that if Bateese was outside he would get some satisfaction out of him or challenge him to a fight right there. He beat against it, first with one fist and then with both. He shouted. There was no response. Then he exerted his strength and his weight against the door. It was solid.

He was half turned when his eyes discovered, in a corner where the lamplight struck dimly, his pack and clothes. In thirty seconds he had his pipe and tobacco. After that for half an hour he paced up and down the cabin, while the storm crashed and thundered as if bent upon destroying all life off the face of the earth.

Comforted by the company of his pipe, Carrigan did not beat at the door again. He waited, and at the end of another half-hour the storm had softened down into a steady patter of rain. The thunder had traveled east, and the lightning had gone with it. David opened the window again. The air that came in was rain-sweet, soft, and warm. He puffed out a cloud of smoke and smiled. His pipe always brought his good humor to the surface, even in the worst places. St. Pierre's wife had certainly had a good soaking. And in a way the whole thing was a bit funny. He was thinking now of a poor little golden-plumaged partridge, soaked to the skin, with its tail-feathers dragging pathetically. Grinning, he told himself that it was an insult to think of her and a half-drowned partridge in the same breath. But the simile still remained, and he chuckled. Probably she was wringing out her clothes now, and the men were cursing under their breath while trying to light a fire. He watched for the fire. It failed to appear. Probably she was hating him for bringing all this discomfort and humiliation upon her. It was not impossible that tomorrow she would give Bateese permission to brain him. And St. Pierre? What would this man, her husband, think and do if he knew that his wife had given up her bedroom to this stranger? What complications might arise IF HE KNEW!

It was late-past midnight-when Carrigan went to bed. Even then he did not sleep for a long time. The patter of the rain grew less and less on the roof of the bateau, and as the sound of it droned itself off into nothingness, slumber came. David was conscious of the moment when the rain ceased entirely. Then he slept. At least he must have been very close to sleep, or had been asleep and was returning for a moment close to consciousness, when he heard a voice. It came several times before he was roused enough to realize that it was a voice. And then, suddenly, piercing his slowly wakening brain almost with the shock of one of the thunder crashes, it came to him so distinctly that he found himself sitting up straight, his hands clenched, eyes staring in the darkness, waiting for it to come again.

Somewhere very near him, in his room, within the reach of his hands, a strange and indescribable voice had cried out in the darkness the words which twice before had beat themselves mysteriously into David Carrigan's brain-"HAS ANY ONE SEEN BLACK ROGER AUDEMARD? HAS ANY ONE SEEN BLACK ROGER AUDEMARD?"

And David, holding his breath, listened for the sound of another breath which he knew was in that room.

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