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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 14328

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

During the next quarter of an hour David was as silent as the old Indian doctor. He was conscious of no pain when Nepapinas took off his bandage and bathed his head in the lotion he had brought. Before a fresh bandage was put on, he looked at himself for a moment in the mirror. It was the first time he had seen his wound, and he expected to find himself marked with a disfiguring scar. To his surprise there was no sign of his hurt except a slightly inflamed spot above his temple. He stared at Nepapinas, and there was no need of the question that was in his mind.

The old Indian understood, and his dried-up face cracked and crinkled in a grin. "Bullet hit a piece of rock, an' rock, not bullet, hit um head," he explained. "Make skull almost break-bend um in-but Nepapinas straighten again with fingers, so-so." He shrugged his thin shoulders with a cackling laugh of pride as he worked his claw-like fingers to show how the operation had been done.

David shook hands with him in silence; then Nepapinas put on the fresh bandage, and after that went out, chuckling again in his weird way, as though he had played a great joke on the white man whom his wizardry had snatched out of the jaws of death.

For some time there had been a subdued activity outside. The singing of the boatmen had ceased, a low voice was giving commands, and looking through the window, David saw that the bateau was slowly swinging away from the shore. He turned from the window to the table and lighted the cigar St. Pierre's wife had given him.

In spite of the mental struggle he had made during the presence of Nepapinas, he had failed to get a grip on himself. For a time he had ceased to be David Carrigan, the man-hunter. A few days ago his blood had run to that almost savage thrill of the great game of one against one, the game in which Law sat on one side of the board and Lawlessness on the other, with the cards between. It was the great gamble. The cards meant life or death; there was never a checkmate-one or the other had to lose. Had some one told him then that soon he would meet the broken and twisted hulk of a man who had known Black Roger Audemard, every nerve in him would have thrilled in anticipation of that hour. He realized this as he paced back and forth over the thick rugs of the bateau floor. And he knew, even as he struggled to bring them back, that the old thrill and the old desire were gone. It was impossible to lie to himself. St. Pierre, in this moment, was of more importance to him than Roger Audemard. And St. Pierre's wife, Marie-Anne-

His eyes fell on the crumpled handkerchief on the piano keys. Again he was crushing it in the palm of his hand, and again the flood of humiliation and shame swept over him. He dropped the handkerchief, and the great law of his own life seemed to rise up in his face and taunt him. He was clean. That had been his greatest pride. He hated the man who was unclean. It was his instinct to kill the man who desecrated another man's home. And here, in the sacredness of St. Pierre's paradise, he found himself at last face to face with that greatest fight of all the ages.

He faced the door. He threw back his shoulders until they snapped, and he laughed, as if at the thing that had risen up to point its finger at him. After all, it did not hurt a man to go through a bit of fire-if he came out of it unburned. And deep in his heart he knew it was not a sin to love, even as he loved, if he kept that love to himself. What he had done when Marie-Anne stood at the window he could not undo. St. Pierre would probably have killed him for touching her hair with his lips, and he would not have blamed St. Pierre. But she had not felt that stolen caress. No one knew-but himself. And he was happier because of it. It was a sort of sacred thing, even though it brought the heat of shame into his face.

He went to the door, opened it, and stood out in the sunshine. It was good to feel the warmth of the sun in his face again and the sweet air of the open day in his lungs. The bateau was free of the shore and drifting steadily towards midstream. Bateese was at the great birchwood rudder sweep, and to David's surprise he nodded in a friendly way, and his wide mouth broke into a grin.

"Ah, it is coming soon, that fight of ours, little coq de bruyere!" he chuckled gloatingly. "An' ze fight will be jus' lak that, m'sieu-you ze little fool-hen's rooster, ze partridge, an' I, Concombre Bateese, ze eagle!"

The anticipation in the half-breed's eyes reflected itself for an instant in David's. He turned back into the cabin, bent over his pack, and found among his clothes two pairs of boxing gloves. He fondled them with the loving touch of a brother and comrade, and their velvety smoothness was more soothing to his nerves than the cigar he was smoking. His one passion above all others was boxing, and wherever he went, either on pleasure or adventure, the gloves went with him. In many a cabin and shack of the far hinterland he had taught white men and Indians how to use them, so that he might have the pleasure of feeling the thrill of them on his hands. And now here was Concombre Bateese inviting him on, waiting for him to get well!

He went out and dangled the clumsy-looking mittens under the half-breed's nose.

Bateese looked at them curiously. "Mitaines," he nodded. "Does ze little partridge rooster keep his claws warm in those in ze winter? They are clumsy, m'sieu. I can make a better mitten of caribou skin." Putting on one of the gloves, David doubled up his fist. "Do you see that, Concombre Bateese?" he asked. "Well, I will tell you this, that they are not mittens to keep your hands warm. I am going to fight you in them when our time comes. With these mittens I will fight you and your naked fists. Why? Because I do not want to hurt you too badly, friend Bateese! I do not want to break your face all to pieces, which I would surely do if I did not put on these soft mittens. Then, when you have really learned to fight-"

The bull neck of Concombre Bateese looked as if it were about to burst. His eyes seemed ready to pop out of their sockets, and suddenly he let out a roar. "What!-You dare talk lak that to Concombre Bateese, w'at is great'st fightin' man on all T'ree River? You talk lak that to me, Concombre Bateese, who will kill ze bear wit' hees ban's, who pull down ze tree, who-who-"

The word-flood of his outraged dignity sprang to his lips; emotion choked him, and then, looking suddenly over Carrigan's shoulder-he stopped. Something in his look made David turn. Three paces behind him stood Marie-Anne, and he knew that from the corner of the cabin she had heard what had passed between them. She was biting her lips, and behind the flash of her eyes he saw laughter.

"You must not quarrel, children," she said. "Bateese, you are steering badly."

She reached out her hands, and without a word David gave her the gloves. With her palm and fingers she caressed them softly, yet David saw little lines of doubt come into her white forehead.

"They are pretty-and soft, M'sieu David. Surely they can not hurt much! Some day when

St. Pierre comes, will you teach me how to use them?"

"Always it is 'When St. Pierre comes,'" he replied. "Shall we be waiting long?"

"Two or three days, perhaps a little longer. Are you coming with me to the proue, m'sieu?"

She did not wait for his answer, but went ahead of him, dangling the two pairs of gloves at her side. David caught a last glimpse of the half-breed's face as he followed Marie-Anne around the end of the cabin. Bateese was making a frightful grimace and shaking his huge fist, but scarcely were they out of sight on the narrow footway that ran between the cabin and the outer timbers of the scow when a huge roar of laughter followed them. Bateese had not done laughing when they reached the proue, or bow-nest, a deck fully ten feet in length by eight in width, sheltered above by an awning, and comfortably arranged with chairs, several rugs, a small table, and, to David's amazement, a hammock. He had never seen anything like this on the Three Rivers, nor had he ever heard of a scow so large or so luxuriously appointed. Over his head, at the tip of a flagstaff attached to the forward end of the cabin, floated the black and white pennant of St. Pierre Boulain. And under this staff was a screened door which undoubtedly opened into the kitchenette which Marie-Anne had told him about. He made no effort to hide his surprise. But St. Pierre's wife seemed not to notice it. The puckery little lines were still in her forehead, and the laughter had faded out of her eyes. The tiny lines deepened as there came another wild roar of laughter from Bateese in the stern.

"Is it true that you have given your word to fight Bateese?" she asked.

"It is true, Marie-Anne. And I feel that Bateese is looking ahead joyously to the occasion."

"He is," she affirmed. "Last night he spread the news among all my people. Those who left to join St. Pierre this morning have taken the news with them, and there is a great deal of excitement and much betting. I am afraid you have made a bad promise. No man has offered to fight Bateese in three years-not even my great St. Pierre, who says that Concombre is more than a match for him."

"And yet they must have a little doubt, as there is betting, and it takes two to make a bet," chuckled David.

The lines went out of Marie-Anne's forehead, and a half-smile trembled on her red lips. "Yes, there is betting. But those who are for you are offering next autumn's muskrat skins and frozen fish against lynx and fisher and marten. The odds are about thirty to one against you, M'sieu David!"

The look of pity which was clearly in her eyes brought a rush of blood to David's face. "If only I had something to wager!" he groaned.

"You must not fight. I shall forbid it!"

"Then Bateese and I will steal off into the forest and have it out by ourselves."

"He will hurt you badly. He is terrible, like a great beast, when he fights. He loves to fight and is always asking if there is not some one who will stand up to him. I think he would desert even me for a good fight. But you, M'sieu David-"

"I also love a fight," he admitted, unashamed.

St. Pierre's wife studied him thoughtfully for a moment. "With these?" she asked then, holding up the gloves.

"Yes, with those. Bateese may use his fists, but I shall use those, so that I shall not disfigure him permanently. His face is none too handsome as it is."

For another flash her lips trembled on the edge of a smile. Then she gave him the gloves, a bit troubled, and nodded to a chair with a deep, cushioned seat and wide arms. "Please make yourself comfortable, M'sieu David. I have something to do in the cabin and will return in a little while."

He wondered if she had gone back to settle the matter with Bateese at once, for it was clear that she did not regard with favor the promised bout between himself and the half-breed. It was on the spur of a careless moment that he had promised to fight Bateese, and with little thought that it was likely to be carried out or that it would become a matter of importance with all of St. Pierre's brigade. He was evidently in for it, he told himself, and as a fighting man it looked as though Concombre Bateese was at least the equal of his braggadocio. He was glad of that. He grinned as he watched the bending backs of St. Pierre's men. So they were betting thirty to one against him! Even St. Pierre might be induced to bet-with HIM. And if he did-

The hot blood leaped for a moment in Carrigan's veins. The thrill went to the tips of his fingers. He stared out over the river, unseeing, as the possibilities of the thing that had come into his mind made him for a moment oblivious of the world. He possessed one thing against which St. Pierre and St. Pierre's wife would wager a half of all they owned in the world! And if he should gamble that one thing, which had come to him like an inspiration, and should whip Bateese-

He began to pace back and forth over the narrow deck, no longer watching the rowers or the shore. The thought grew, and his mind was consumed by it. Thus far, from the moment the first shot was fired at him from the ambush, he had been playing with adventure in the dark. But fate had at last dealt him a trump card. That something which he possessed was more precious than furs or gold to St. Pierre, and St. Pierre would not refuse the wager when it was offered. He would not dare refuse. More than that, he would accept eagerly, strong in the faith that Bateese would whip him as he had whipped all other fighters who had come up against him along the Three Rivers. And when Marie-Anne knew what that wager was to be, she, too, would pray for the gods of chance to be with Concombre Bateese!

He did not hear the light footsteps behind him, and when he turned suddenly in his pacing, he found himself facing Marie-Anne, who carried in her hands the little basket he had seen on the cabin table. She seated herself in the hammock and took from the basket a bit of lace work. For a moment he watched her fingers flashing in and out with the needles.

Perhaps his thought went to her. He was almost frightened as he saw her cheeks coloring under the long, dark lashes. He faced the rivermen again, and while he gripped at his own weakness, he tried to count the flashings of their oars. And behind him, the beautiful eyes of St. Pierre's wife were looking at him with a strange glow in their depths.

"Do you know," he said, speaking slowly and still looking toward the flashing of the oars, "something tells me that unexpected things are going to happen when St. Pierre returns. I am going to make a bet with him that I can whip Bateese. He will not refuse. He will accept. And St. Pierre will lose, because I shall whip Bateese. It is then that these unexpected things will begin to happen. And I am wondering-after they do happen-if you will care so very much?"

There was a moment of silence. And then, "I don't want you to fight Bateese," she said.

The needles were working swiftly when he turned toward her again, and a second time the long lashes shadowed what a moment before he might have seen in her eyes.

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