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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 15347

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

As Carrigan stripped off his shirt, he knew that at least in one way he had met more than his match in St. Pierre Boulain. In the splendid service of which he was a part he had known many men of iron and steel, men whose nerve and coolness not even death could very greatly disturb. Yet St. Pierre, he conceded, was their master-and his own. For a flash he had transformed the chief of the Boulains into a volcano which had threatened to break in savage fury, yet neither the crash nor destruction had come. And now St. Pierre was smiling again, as Carrigan faced him, stripped to the waist. He betrayed no sign of the tempest of passion that had swept him a few minutes before. His cool, steely eyes had in them a look that was positively friendly, as Concombre Bateese marked in the hard sand the line of the circle within which no man might come. And as he did this and St. Pierre's people crowded close about it, St. Pierre himself spoke in a low voice to David.

"M'sieu, it seems a shame that we should fight. I like you. I have always loved a man who would fight to protect a woman, and I shall be careful not to hurt you more than is necessary to make you see reason-and to win the wagers. So you need not be afraid of my killing you, as Bateese might have done. And I promise not to destroy your beauty, for the sake of-the lady in the bateau. My Carmin, if she knew you spied through her window last night, would say kill you with as little loss of time as possible, for as regards you her sweet disposition was spoiled when you hung her brother, m'sieu. Yet to me she is an angel!"

Contempt for the man who spoke of his wife and the infamous Carmin Fanchet in the same breath drew a sneer to Carrigan's lips. He nodded toward the waiting circle of men.

"They are ready for the show, St. Pierre. You talk big. Now let us see if you can fight."

For another moment St. Pierre hesitated. "I am so sorry, m'sieu-

"Are you ready, St. Pierre?"

"It is not fair, and she will never forgive me. You are no match for me. I am half again as heavy."

"And as big a coward as you are a scoundrel, St. Pierre."

"It is like a man fighting a boy."

"Yet it is less dishonorable than betraying the woman who is your wife for another who should have been hanged along with her brother, St. Pierre."

Boulain's face darkened. He drew back half a dozen steps and cried out a word to Bateese. Instantly the circle of waiting men grew tense as the half-breed jerked the big handkerchief from his head and held it out at arm's length. Yet, with that eagerness for the fight there was something else which Carrigan was swift to sense. The attitude of the watchers was not one of uncertainty or of very great expectation, in spite of the staring faces and the muscular tightening of the line. He knew what was passing in their minds and in the low whispers from lip to lip. They were pitying him. Now that he stood stripped, with only a few paces between him and the giant figure of St. Pierre, the unfairness of the fight struck home even to Concombre Bateese. Only Carrigan himself knew how like tempered steel the sinews of his body were built. But to the eye, in size alone, he stood like a boy before St. Pierre. And St. Pierre's people, their voices stilled by the deadly inequality of it, were waiting for a slaughter and not a fight.

A smile came to Carrigan's lips as he saw Bateese hesitating to drop the handkerchief, and with the swiftness of the trained fighter he made his first plan for the battle before the cloth fell from the half-breed's fingers, As the handkerchief fluttered to the ground, he faced St. Pierre, the smile gone.

"Never smile when you fight," the greatest of all masters of the ring had told him. "Never show anger, Don't betray any emotion at all if you can help it."

Carrigan wondered what the old ring-master would say could he see him now, backing away slowly from St. Pierre as the giant advanced upon him, for he knew his face was betraying to St. Pierre and his people the deadliest of all sins-anxiety and indecision. Very closely, yet with eyes that seemed to shift uneasily, he watched the effect of his trick on Boulain. Twice the huge riverman followed him about the ring of sand, and the steely glitter in his eyes changed to laughter, and the tense faces of the men about them relaxed. A subdued ripple of merriment rose where there had been silence. A third time David maneuvered his retreat, and his eyes shot furtively to Concombre Bateese and the men at his back. They were grinning. The half-breed's mouth was wide open, and his grotesque body hung limp and astonished. This was not a fight! It was a comedy-like a rooster following a sparrow around a barnyard! And then a still funnier thing happened, for David began to trot in a circle around St. Pierre, dodging and feinting, and keeping always at a safe distance. A howl of laughter came from Bateese and broke in a roar from the men. St. Pierre stopped in his tracks, a grin on his face, his big arms and shoulders limp and unprepared as Carrigan dodged in close and out again. And then-

A howl broke in the middle of the half-breed's throat. Where there had been laughter, there came a sudden shutting off of sound, a great gasp, as if made by choking men. Swifter than anything they had ever seen in human action Carrigan had leaped in. They saw him strike. They heard the blow. They saw St. Pierre's great head rock back, as if struck from his shoulders by a club, and they saw and heard another blow, and a third-like so many flashes of lightning-and St. Pierre went down as if shot. The man they had laughed at was no longer like a hopping sparrow. He was waiting, bent a little forward, every muscle in his body ready for action. They watched for him to leap upon his fallen enemy, kicking and gouging and choking in the riverman way. But David waited, and St. Pierre staggered to his feet. His mouth was bleeding and choked with sand, and a great lump was beginning to swell over his eye. A deadly fire blazed in his face, as he rushed like a mad bull at the insignificant opponent who had tricked and humiliated him. This time Carrigan did not retreat, but held his ground, and a yell of joy went up from Bateese as the mighty bulk of the giant descended upon his victim. It was an avalanche of brute-force, crushing in its destructiveness, and Carrigan seemed to reach for it as it came upon him. Then his head went down, swifter than a diving grebe, and as St. Pierre's arm swung like an oaken beam over his shoulder, his own shot in straight for the pit of the other's stomach. It was a bull's-eye blow with the force of a pile-driver behind it, and the groan that forced its way out of St. Pierre's vitals was heard by every ear in the cordon of watchers. His weight stopped, his arms opened, and through that opening Carrigan's fist went a second time to the other's jaw, and a second time the great St. Pierre Boulain sprawled out upon the sand. And there he lay, and made no effort to rise.

Concombre Bateese, with his great mouth agape, stood for an instant as if the blow had stunned him in place of his master. Then, suddenly he came to life, and leaped to David's side.

"Diable! Tonnerre! You have not fight Concombre Bateese yet!" he howled. "Non, you have cheat me, you have lie, you have run lak cat from Concombre Bateese, ze stronges' man on all T'ree River! You are wan' gran' coward, wan poltroon, an' you 'fraid to fight ME, who ees greates' fightin' man in all dees countree! Sapristi! Why you no hit Concombre Bateese, m'sieu? Why you no hit ze greates' fightin' man w'at ees-"

David did not hear the re

st. The opportunity was too tempting. He swung, and with a huge grunt the gorilla-like body of Concombre Bateese rolled over that of the chief of the Boulains. This time Carrigan did not wait, but followed up so closely that the half-breed had scarcely gathered the crook out of his knees when another blow on the jaw sent him into the sand again. Three times he tried the experiment of regaining his feet, and three times he was knocked down. After the last blow he raised himself groggily to a sitting posture, and there he remained, blinking like a stunned pig, with his big hands clutching in the sand. He stared up unseeingly at Carrigan, who waited over him, and then stupidly at the transfixed cordon of men, whose eyes were bulging and who were holding their breath in the astonishment of this miracle which had descended upon them. They heard Bateese muttering something incoherent as his head wobbled, and St. Pierre himself seemed to hear it, for he stirred and raised himself slowly, until he also was sitting in the sand, staring at Bateese.

Carrigan picked up his shirt, and the riverman who had brought him from the bateau returned with him to the canoe. There was no demonstration behind them. To David himself the whole thing had been an amazing surprise, and he was not at all reluctant to leave as quickly as his dignity would permit, before some other of St. Pierre's people offered to put a further test upon his prowess. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to thank God at the top of his voice for the absurd run of luck that had made his triumph not only easy but utterly complete. He had expected to win, but he had also expected a terrific fight before the last blow was struck. And there had been no fight! He was returning to the bateau without a scratch, his hair scarcely ruffled, and he had defeated not only St. Pierre, but the giant half-breed as well! It was inconceivable-and yet it had happened; a veritable burlesque, an opera-bouffe affair that might turn quickly into a tragedy if either St. Pierre or Concombre Bateese guessed the truth of it. For in that event he might have to face them again, with the god of luck playing fairly, and he was honest enough with himself to confess that the idea no longer held either thrill or desire for him. Now that he had seen both St. Pierre and Bateese stripped for battle, he had no further appetite for fistic discussion with them. After all, there was a merit in caution, and he had several lucky stars to bless just at the present moment!

Inwardly he was a bit suspicious of the ultimate ending of the affair. St. Pierre had almost no cause for complaint, for it was his own carelessness, coupled with his opponent's luck, that had been his undoing-and luck and carelessness are legitimate factors of every fight, Carrigan told himself. But with Bateese it was different. He had held up his big jaw, uncovered and tempting, entreating some one to hit him, and Carrigan had yielded to that temptation. The blow would have stunned an ox. Three others like it had left the huge half-breed sitting weak-mindedly in the sand, and no one of those three blows were exactly according to the rules of the game. They had been mightily efficacious, but the half-breed might demand a rehearing when he came fully into his senses.

Not until they were half-way to the bateau did Carrigan dare to glance back over his shoulder at the man who was paddling, to see what effect the fistic travesty had left on him. He was a big-mouthed, clear-eyed, powerfully-muscled fellow, and he was grinning from ear to ear.

"Well, what did you think of it, comrade?"

The other gave his shoulders a joyous shrug.

"Mon Dieu! Have you heard of wan garcon named Joe Clamart, m'sieu? Non? Well, I am Joe Clamart what was once great fightin' man. Bateese hav' whip' me five times, m'sieu-so I say it was wan gr-r-r-a-n' fight! Many years ago I have seen ze same t'ing in Montreal-ze boxeur de profession. Oui, an' Rene Babin pays me fifteen prime martin against which I put up three scrubby red fox that you would win. They were bad, or I would not have gambled, m'sieu. It ees fonny!"

"Yes, it is funny," agreed David. "I think it is a bit too funny. It is a pity they did not stand up on their legs a little longer!" Suddenly an inspiration hit him. "Joe, what do you say-shall you and I return and put up a REAL fight for them?"

Like a sprung trap Joe Clamart's grinning mouth dosed. "Non, non, non," he grunted. "Dere has been plenty fight, an' Joe Clamart mus' save hees face tor Antoinette Roland, who hate ze sign of fight lak she hate ze devil, m'sieu! Non, non!"

His paddle dug deeper into the water, and David's heart felt lighter. If Joe was an average barometer, and he was a husky and fearless-looking chap, it was probable that neither St. Pierre nor Bateese would demand another chance at him, and St. Pierre would pay his wager.

He could see no one aboard the bateau when he climbed from the canoe. Looking back, he saw that two other canoes had started from the opposite shore. Then he went to his cabin door, opened it, and entered, Scarcely had the door closed behind him when he stopped, staring toward the window that opened on the river.

Standing full in the morning glow of it was Marie-Anne Boulain. She was facing him. Her cheeks were flushed. Her red lips were parted. Her eyes were aglow with a fire which she made no effort to hide from him. In her hand she still held the binoculars he had left on the cabin table. He guessed the truth. Through the glasses she had watched the whole miserable fiasco.

He felt creeping over him a sickening shame, and his eyes fell slowly from her to the table. What he saw there caught his breath in the middle. It was the entire surgical outfit of Nepapinas, the old Indian doctor. And there were basins of water, and white strips of linen ready for use, and a pile of medicated cotton, and all sorts of odds and ends that one might apply to ease the agonies of a dying man, And beyond the table, huddled in so small a heap that he was almost hidden by it, was Nepapinas himself, disappointment writ in his mummy-like face as his beady eyes rested on David.

The evidence could not be mistaken. They had expected him to come back more nearly dead than alive, and St. Pierre's wife had prepared for the thing she had thought inevitable. Even his bed was nicely turned down, its fresh white sheets inviting an occupant!

And David, looking at St. Pierre's wife again, felt his heart beating hard in his breast at the look which was in her eyes. It was not the scintillation of laughter, and the flame in her cheeks was not embarrassment. She was not amused. The ludicrousness of her mislaid plans had not struck her as they had struck him. She had placed the binoculars on the table, and slowly she came to him. Her hands reached out, and her fingers rested like the touch of velvet on his arms.

"It was splendid!" she said softly, "It was splendid!"

She was very near, her breast almost touching him, her hands creeping up until the tips of her fingers rested on his shoulders, her scarlet mouth so close he could feel the soft breath of it in his face.

"It was splendid!" she whispered again.

And then, suddenly, she rose up on her tiptoes and kissed him. So swiftly was it done that she was gone before he sensed that wild touch of her lips against his own. Like a swallow she was at the door, and the door opened and closed behind her, and for a moment he heard the quick running of her feet. Then he looked at the old Indian, and the Indian, too, was staring at the door through which St. Pierre's wife had flown.

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