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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 13657

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

For many minutes David stood at the bateau window and watched the canoe that carried St. Pierre Boulain and the Broken Man back to the raft. It moved slowly, as if St. Pierre was loitering with a purpose and was thinking deeply of what had passed. Carrigan's fingers tightened, and his face grew tense, as he gazed out into the glow of the western sun. Now that the stress of nerve-breaking moments in the cabin was over, he no longer made an effort to preserve the veneer of coolness and decision with which he had encountered the chief of the Boulains. Deep in his soul he was crushed and humiliated. Every nerve in his body was bleeding.

He had heard St. Pierre's big laugh a moment before, but it must have been the laugh of a man who was stabbed to the heart. And he was going back to Marie-Anne like that-drifting scarcely faster than the current that he might steal time to strengthen himself before he looked into her eyes again. David could see him, motionless, his giant shoulders hunched forward a little, his head bowed, and in the stern the Broken Man paddled listlessly, his eyes on the face of his master. Without voice David cursed himself. In his egoism he had told himself that he had made a splendid fight in resisting the temptation of a great love for the wife of St. Pierre. But what was his own struggle compared with this tragedy which St. Pierre was now facing?

He turned from the window and looked about the cabin room again-the woman's room and St. Pierre's-and his face burned in its silent accusation. Like a living thing it painted another picture for him. For a space he lost his own identity. He saw himself in the place of St. Pierre. He was the husband of Marie-Anne, worshipping her even as St. Pierre must worship her, and he came, as St. Pierre had come, to find a stranger in his home, a stranger who had lain in his bed, a stranger whom his wife had nursed back to life, a stranger who had fallen in love with his most inviolable possession, who had told her of his love, who had kissed her, who had held her close, in his arms, whose presence had brought a warmer flush and a brighter glow into eyes and cheeks that until this stranger's coming had belonged only to him. And he heard her, as St. Pierre had heard her, pleading with him to keep this man from harm; he heard her soft voice, telling of the things that had passed between them, and he saw in her eyes-

With almost a cry he swept the thought and the picture from him. It was an atrocious thing to conceive, impossible of reality. And yet the truth would not go. What would he have done in St. Pierre's place?

He went to the window again. Yes, St. Pierre was a bigger man than he. For St. Pierre had come quietly and calmly, offering a hand of friendship, generous, smiling, keeping his hurt to himself, while he, Dave Carrigan, would have come with the murder of man in his heart.

His eyes passed from the canoe to the raft, and from the big raft to the hazy billows of green and golden forest that melted off into interminable miles of distance beyond the river. He knew that on the other side of him lay that same distance, north, east, south, and west, vast spaces in an unpeopled world, the same green and golden forests, ten thousand plains and rivers and lakes, a million hiding-places where romance and tragedy might remain forever undisturbed. The thought came to him that it would not be difficult to slip out into that world and disappear. He almost owed it to St. Pierre. It was the voice of Bateese in a snatch of wild and discordant song that brought him back into grim reality. There was, after all, that embarrassing matter of justice-and the accursed Law!

After a little he observed that the canoe was moving faster, and that Andre's paddle was working steadily and with force. St. Pierre no longer sat hunched in the bow. His head was erect, and he was waving a hand in the direction of the raft. A figure had come from the cabin on the huge mass of floating timber. David caught the shimmer of a woman's dress, something white fluttering over her head, waving back at St. Pierre. It was Marie-Anne, and he moved away from the window.

He wondered what was passing between St. Pierre and his wife in the hour that followed. The bateau kept abreast of the raft, moving neither faster nor slower than it did, and twice he surrendered to the desire to scan the deck of the floating timbers through his binoculars. But the cabin held St. Pierre and Marie-Anne, and he saw neither of them again until the sun was setting. Then St. Pierre came out-alone.

Even at that distance over the broad river he heard the booming voice of the chief of the Boulains. Life sprang up where there had been the drowse of inactivity aboard the raft. A dozen more of the great sweeps were swiftly manned by men who appeared suddenly from the shaded places of canvas shelters and striped tents. A murmur of voices rose over the water, and then the murmur was broken by howls and shouts as the rivermen ran to their places at the command of St. Pierre's voice, and as the sweeps began to flash in the setting sun, it gave way entirely to the evening chant of the Paddling Song.

David gripped himself as he listened and watched the slowly drifting glory of the world that came down to the shores of the river. He could see St. Pierre clearly, for the bateau had worked its way nearer. He could see the bare heads and naked arms of the rivermen at the sweeps. The sweet breath of the forests filled his lungs, as that picture lay before him, and there came into his soul a covetousness and a yearning where before there had been humiliation and the grim urge of duty. He could breathe the air of that world, he could look at its beauty, he could worship it-and yet he knew that he was not a part of it as those others were a part of it. He envied the men at the sweeps; he felt his heart swelling at the exultation and joy in their song. They were going home-home down the big rivers, home to the heart of God's Country, where wives and sweethearts and happiness were waiting for them, and their visions were his visions as he stared wide-eyed and motionless over the river. And yet he was irrevocably an alien. He was more than that-an enemy, a man-hound sent out on a trail to destroy, an agent of a powerful and merciless force that carried with it punishment and death.

The crew of the bateau had joined in the evening song of the rivermen on the raft, and over the ridges and hollows of the forest tops, red and green and gold in the last warm glory of the sun, echoed that chanting voice of men. David understood now what St. Pierre's command had been. The huge raft with its tented city of life was preparing to tie up for the night. A quarter of a mile ahead the river widened, so that on the far sid

e was a low, clean shore toward which the efforts of the men at the sweeps were slowly edging the raft. York boats shot out on the shore side and dropped anchors that helped drag the big craft in. Two others tugged at tow-lines fastened to the shoreside bow, and within twenty minutes the first men were plunging up out of the water on the white strip of beach and were whipping the tie-lines about the nearest trees. David unconsciously was smiling in the thrill and triumph of these last moments, and not until they were over did he sense the fact that Bateese and his crew were bringing the bateau in to the opposite shore. Before the sun was quite down, both raft and house-boat were anchored for the night.

As the shadows of the distant forests deepened, Carrigan felt impending about him an oppression of emptiness and loneliness which he had not experienced before. He was disappointed that the bateau had not tied up with the raft. Already he could see men building fires. Spirals of smoke began to rise from the shore, and he knew that the riverman's happiest of all hours, supper time, was close at hand. He looked at his watch. It was after seven o'clock. Then he watched the fading away of the sun until only the red glow of it remained in the west, and against the still thicker shadows the fires of the rivermen threw up yellow flames. On his own side, Bateese and the bateau crew were preparing their meal. It was eight o'clock when a man he had not seen before brought in his supper. He ate, scarcely sensing the taste of his food, and half an hour later the man reappeared for the dishes.

It was not quite dark when he returned to his window, but the far shore was only an indistinct blur of gloom. The fires were brighter. One of them, built solely because of the rivermen's inherent love of light and cheer, threw the blaze of its flaming logs twenty feet into the air.

He wondered what Marie-Anne was doing in this hour. Last night they had been together. He had marveled at the witchery of the moonlight in her hair and eyes, he had told her of the beauty of it, she had smiled, she had laughed softly with him-for hours they had sat in the spell of the golden night and the glory of the river. And tonight-now-was she with St. Pierre, waiting as they had waited last night for the rising of the moon? Had she forgotten? COULD she forget? Or was she, as he thought St. Pierre had painfully tried to make him believe, innocent of all the thoughts and desires that had come to him, as he sat worshipping her in their stolen hours? He could think of them only as stolen, for he did not believe Marie-Anne had revealed to her husband all she might have told him.

He was sure he would never see her again as he had seen her then, and something of bitterness rose in him as he thought of that. St. Pierre, could he have seen her face and eyes when he told her that her hair in the moonlight was lovelier than anything he had ever seen, would have throttled him with his naked hands in that meeting in the cabin. For St. Pierre's code would not have had her eyes droop under their long lashes or her cheeks flush so warmly at the words of another man-and he could not take vengeance on the woman herself. No, she had not told St. Pierre all she might have told! There were things which she must have kept to herself, which she dared not reveal even to this great-hearted man who was her husband. Shame, if nothing more, had kept her silent.

Did she feel that shame as he was feeling it? It was inconceivable to think otherwise. And for that reason, more than all others, he knew that she would not meet him face to face again-unless he forced that meeting. And there was little chance of that, for his pledge with St. Pierre had eliminated her from the aftermath of tomorrow's drama, his fight with Bateese. Only when St. Pierre might stand in a court of law would there be a possibility of her eyes meeting his own again, and then they would flame with the hatred that at another time had been in the eyes of Carmin Fanchet.

With the dull stab of a thing that of late had been growing inside him, he wondered what had happened to Carmin Fanchet in the years that had gone since he had brought about the hanging of her brother. Last night and the night before, strange dreams of her had come to him in restless slumber. It was disturbing to him that he should wake up in the middle of the night dreaming of her, when he had gone to his bed with a mind filled to overflowing with the sweet presence of Marie-Anne Boulain. And now his mind reached out poignantly into mysterious darkness and doubt, even as the darkness of night spread itself in a thickening canopy over the river.

Gray clouds had followed the sun of a faultless day, and the stars were veiled overhead. When David turned from the window, it was so dark in the cabin that he could not see. He did not light the lamps, but made his way to St. Pierre's couch and sat down in the silence and gloom.

Through the open windows came to him the cadence of the river and the forests. There was silence of human voice ashore, but under him he heard the lapping murmur of water as it rustled under the stern and side of the bateau, and from the deep timber came the never-ceasing whisper of the spruce and cedar tops, and the subdued voice of creatures whose hours of activity had come with the dying out of the sun.

For a long time he sat in this darkness. And then there came to him a sound that was different than the other sounds-a low monotone of voices, the dipping of a paddle-and a canoe passed close under his windows and up the shore. He paid small attention to it until, a little later, the canoe returned, and its occupants boarded the bateau. It would have roused little interest in him then had he not heard a voice that was thrillingly like the voice of a woman.

He drew his hunched shoulders erect and stared through the darkness toward the door. A moment more and there was no doubt. It was almost shock that sent the blood leaping suddenly through his veins. The inconceivable had happened. It was Marie-Anne out there, talking in a low voice to Bateese!

Then there came a heavy knock at his door, and he heard the door open. Through it he saw the grayer gloom of the outside night partly shut out a heavy shadow.

"M'sieu!" called the voice of Bateese.

"I am here," said David.

"You have not gone to bed, m'sieu?"


The heavy shadow seemed to fade away, and yet there still remained a shadow there. David's heart thumped as he noted the slenderness of it. For a space there was silence. And then,

"Will you light the lamps, M'sieu David?" a soft voice came to him. "I want to come in, and I am afraid of this terrible darkness!"

He rose to his feet, fumbling in his pocket for matches.

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