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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 11538

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

David moved slowly behind the brigade man. He had no desire to hurry. He did not wish to see what happened when Marie-Anne met St. Pierre Boulain. Only a moment ago she had been in his arms; her hair had smothered his face; her hands had clung to his shoulders; her flushed cheeks and long lashes had for an instant lain close against his breast. And now, swiftly, without a word of apology, she was running away from him to meet her husband.

He almost spoke that word aloud as he saw the last of her slim figure among the silver birches. She was going to the man to whom she belonged, and there was no hesitation in the manner of her going. She was glad. And she was entirely forgetful of him, Dave Carrigan, in that gladness.

He quickened his steps, narrowing the distance between him and the hurrying brigade man. Only the diseased thoughts in his brain had made the happening in the creek anything but an accident. It was all an accident, he told himself. Marie-Anne had asked him to carry her across just as she would have asked any one of her rivermen. It was his fault, and not hers, that he had slipped in mid-stream, and that his arms had closed tighter about her, and that her hair had brushed his face. He remembered she had laughed, when it seemed for a moment that they were going to fall into the stream together. Probably she would tell St. Pierre all about it. Surely she would never guess it had been nearer tragedy than comedy for him.

Once more he was convinced he had proved himself a weakling and a fool. His business now was with St. Pierre, and the hour was at hand when the game had ceased to be a woman's game. He had looked ahead to this hour. He had prepared himself for it and had promised himself action that would be both quick and decisive. And yet, as he went on, his heart was still thumping unsteadily, and in his arms and against his face remained still the sweet, warm thrill of his contact with Marie-Anne. He could not drive that from him. It would never completely go. As long as he lived, what had happened in the creek would live with him. He did not deny that crying voice inside him. It was easy for his mouth to make words. He could call himself a fool and a weakling, but those words were purely mechanical, hollow, meaningless. The truth remained. It was a blazing fire in his breast, a conflagration that might easily get the best of him, a thing which he must fight and triumph over for his own salvation. He did not think of danger for Marie-Anne, for such a thought was inconceivable. The tragedy was one-sided. It was his own folly, his own danger. For just as he loved Marie-Anne, so did she love her husband, St. Pierre.

He came to the low ridge close to the river and climbed up through the thick birches and poplars. At the top was a bald knob of sandstone, over which the riverman had already passed. David paused there and looked down on the broad sweep of the Athabasca.

What he saw was like a picture spread out on the great breast of the river and the white strip of shoreline. Still a quarter of a mile upstream, floating down slowly with the current, was a mighty raft, and for a space his eyes took in nothing else. On the Mackenzie, the Athabasca, the Saskatchewan, and the Peace he had seen many rafts, but never a raft like this of St. Pierre Boulain. It was a hundred feet in width and twice and a half times as long, and with the sun blazing down upon it from out of a cloudless sky it looked to him like a little city swept up from out of some archaic and savage desert land to be transplanted to the river. It was dotted with tents and canvas shelters. Some of these were gray, and some were white, and two or three were striped with broad bands of yellow and red. Behind all these was a cabin, and over this there rose a slender staff from which floated the black and white pennant of St. Pierre. The raft was alive. Men were running between the tents. The long rudder sweeps were flashing in the sun. Rowers with naked arms and shoulders were straining their muscles in four York boats that were pulling like ants at the giant mass of timber. And to David's ears came a deep monotone of human voices, the chanting of the men as they worked.

Nearer to him a louder response suddenly made answer to it. A dozen steps carried him round a projecting thumb of brush, and he could see the open shore where the bateau was tied. Marie-Anne had crossed the strip of sand, and Bateese was helping her into a waiting York boat. Then Bateese shoved it off, and the four men in it began to row. Two canoes were already half-way to the raft, and David recognized the occupant of one of them as Andre, the Broken Man. Then he saw Marie-Anne rise in the York boat and wave something white in her hand.

He looked again toward the raft. The current and the sweeps and the tugging boats were drawing it steadily nearer. Standing at the very edge of it he saw now a solitary figure, and in the clear sunlight the man stood out clean-cut as a carven statue. He was a giant in size. His head and arms were bare, and he was looking steadily toward the bateau and the approaching York boat. He raised an arm, and a moment later the movement was followed by a voice that rose above all other voices. It boomed over the river like the rumble of a gun. In response to it Marie-Anne waved the white thing in her hand, and David thought he heard her voice in an answering cry. He stared again at the solitary figure of the man, seeing nothing else, hearing no other sound but the booming of the deep cry that came again over the river. His heart was thumping. In his eyes was a gathering fire. His body grew tense. For he knew that at last he was looking at St. Pierre, chief of the Boulains, and husband

of the woman he loved.

As the significance of the situation grew upon him, a flash of his old humor returned. It was the same grim humor that had possessed him behind the rock, when he had thought he was going to die. Fate had played him a dishonest turn then, and it was doing the same thing by him now. Unless he deliberately turned his face away, he was going to see the reunion of Marie-Anne and St. Pierre.

Yesterday he had strapped his binoculars to his belt. Today Marie-Anne had looked through them a dozen times. They had been a source of pleasure and thrill to her. Now, David thought, they would be good medicine for him. He would see the whole thing through, and at close range. He would leave himself no room for doubt. He had laughed behind the rock, when bullets were zipping close to his head, and the same grim smile came to his lips now as he focused his glasses on the solitary figure at the head of the raft.

The smile died away when he saw St. Pierre. It was as if he could reach out and touch him with his hand. And never, he thought, had he seen such a man. A moment before, a flashing vision had come to him from out of an Arabian desert; the multitude of colored tents, the half-naked men, the great raft floating almost without perceptible motion on the placid breast of the river had stirred his imagination until he saw a strange picture. But there was nothing Arabic, nothing desert-like, in this man his binoculars brought within a few feet of his eyes. He was more like a viking pirate who had roved the sea a few centuries ago. One great, bare arm was raised as David looked, and his booming voice was rolling over the river again. His hair was shaggy, and untrimmed, and red; he wore a short beard that glistened in the sun-he was laughing as he waved and shouted to Marie-Anne-a joyous, splendid giant of a man who seemed almost on the point of leaping into the water in his eagerness to clasp in his naked arms the woman who was coming to him.

David drew a deep breath, and there came an unconscious tightening at his heart as he turned his glasses upon Marie-Anne. She was still standing in the bow of the York boat, and her back was toward him. He could see the glisten of the sun in her hair. She was waving her handkerchief, and the poise of her slim body told him that in her eagerness she would have darted from the bow of the boat had she possessed wings.

Again he looked at St. Pierre. And this was the man who was no match for Concombre Bateese! It was inconceivable. Yet he heard Marie-Anne's voice repeating those very words in his ear. But she had surely been joking with him. She had been storing up this little surprise for him. She had wanted him to discover with his own eyes what a splendid man was this chief of the Boulains. And yet, as David stared, there came to him an unpleasant thought of the incongruity of this thing he was looking upon. It struck upon him like a clashing discord, the fact of matehood between these two-a condition inconsistent and out of tune with the beautiful things he had built up in his mind about the woman. In his soul he had enshrined her as a lovely wildflower, easily crushed, easily destroyed, a sweet treasure to be guarded from all that was rough and savage, a little violet-goddess as fragile as she was brave and loyal. And St. Pierre, standing there at the edge of his raft, looked as if he had come up out of the caves of a million years ago! There was something barbaric about him. He needed only a club and a shield and the skin of a beast about his loins to transform him into prehistoric man. At least these were his first impressions-impressions roused by thought of Marie-Anne's slim, beautiful body crushed close in the embrace of that laughing, powerful-lunged giant. Then the reaction swept over him. St. Pierre was not a monster, even though his disturbed mind unconsciously made an effort to conceive him as such. There were gladness and laughter in his face. There was the contagion of joy and good cheer in the voice that boomed over the water. Laughter and shouts answered it from the shore. The rowers in Marie-Anne's York boat burst into a wild and exultant snatch of song and made their oars fairly crack. There came a solitary yell from Andre, the Broken Man, who was close to the head of the raft now. And from the raft itself came a slowly swelling volume of sound, the urge and voice and exultation of red-blooded men a-thrill with the glory of this day and the wild freedom of their world. The truth came to David. St. Pierre Boulain was the beloved Big Brother of his people.

He waited, his muscles tense, his jaws set tight. Good medicine, he called it again, a righteous sort of punishment set upon him for the moral cowardice he had betrayed in falling down in worship at the feet of another man's wife. The York boat was very close to the head of the raft now. He saw Marie-Anne herself fling a rope to St. Pierre. Then the boat swung alongside. In another moment St. Pierre had leaned over, and Marie-Anne was with him on the raft. For a space everything else in the world was obliterated for David. He saw St. Pierre's arms gather the slim form into their embrace. He saw Marie-Anne's hands go up fondly to the bearded face. And then-

Carrigan cut the picture there. He turned his shoulder to the raft and snapped the binoculars in the case at his belt. Some one was coming in his direction from the bateau. It was the riverman who had brought to Marie-Anne the news of St. Pierre's arrival. David went down to meet him. From the foot of the ridge he again turned his eyes in the direction of the raft. St. Pierre and Marie-Anne were just about to enter the little cabin built in the center of the drifting mass of timber.

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