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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 18606

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The astounding statement of the man who sat opposite him held David speechless. He had guessed at some mysterious relationship between St. Pierre and the criminal he was after, but not this, and Roger Audemard, with his hands unclenching and a slow humor beginning to play about his mouth, waited coolly for him to recover from his amazement. In those moments, when his heart seemed to have stopped beating, Carrigan was staring at the other, but his mind had shot beyond him-to the woman who was his wife. Marie-Anne AUDEMARD-the wife of Black Roger! He wanted to cry out against the possibility of such a fact, yet he sat like one struck dumb, as the monstrous truth took possession of his brain and a whirlwind of understanding swept upon him. He was thinking quickly, and with a terrific lack of sentiment now. Opposite him sat Black Roger, the wholesale murderer. Marie-Anne was his wife. Carmin Fanchet, sister of a murderer, was simply one of his kind. And Bateese, the man-gorilla, and the Broken Man, and all the dark-skinned pack about them were of Black Roger's breed and kind. Love for a woman had blinded him to the facts which crowded upon him now. Like a lamb he had fallen among wolves, and he had tried to believe in them. No wonder Bateese and the man he had known as St. Pierre had betrayed such merriment at times!

A fighting coolness possessed him as he spoke to Black Roger.

"I will admit this is a surprise. And yet you have cleared up a number of things very quickly. It proves to me again that comedy is not very far removed from tragedy at times."

"I am glad you see the humor of it, M'sieu David." Black Roger was smiling as pleasantly as his swollen eye would permit. "We must not be too serious when we die. If I were to die a-hanging, I would sing as the rope choked me, just to show the world one need not be unhappy because his life is coming to an end."

"I suppose you understand that ultimately I am going to give you that opportunity," said David.

Almost eagerly Black Roger leaned toward him over the table. "You believe you are going to hang me?"

"I am sure of it."

"And you are willing to wager the point, M'sieu David?"

"It is impossible to gamble with a condemned man."

Black Roger chuckled, rubbing his big hands together until they made a rasping sound, and his one good eye glowed at Carrigan.

"Then I will make a wager with myself, M'sieu David. MA FOI, I swear that before the leaves fall from the trees, you will be pleading for the friendship of Black Roger Audemard, and you will be as much in love with Carmin Fanchet as I am! And as for Marie-Anne-"

He thrust back his chair and rose to his feet, the old note of subdued laughter rumbling in his chest. "And because I make this wager with myself, I cannot kill you, M'sieu David-though that might be the best thing to do. I am going to take you to the Chateau Boulain, which is in the forests of the Yellowknife, beyond the Great Slave. Nothing will happen to you if you make no effort to escape. If you do that, you will surely die. And that would hurt me, M'sieu David, because I love you like a brother, and in the end I know you are going to grip the hand of Black Roger Audemard, and get down on your knees to Carmin Fanchet. And as for Marie-Anne-" Again he interrupted himself, and went out of the cabin, laughing. And there was no mistake in the metallic click of the lock outside the door.

For a time David did not move from his seat near the table. He had not let Roger Audemard see how completely the confession had upset his inner balance, but he made no pretense of concealing the thing from himself now. He was in the power of a cut-throat, who in turn had an army of cut-throats at his back, and both Marie-Anne and Carmin Fanchet were a part of this ring. And he was not only a prisoner. It was probable, under the circumstances, that Black Roger would make an end of him when a convenient moment came. It was even more than a probability. It was a grim necessity. To let him live and escape would be fatal to Black Roger.

From back of these convictions, riding over them as if to demoralize any coherence and logic that might go with the evidence he was building up, came question after question, pounding at him one after the other, until his mind became more than ever a whirling chaos of uncertainty. If St. Pierre was Black Roger, why would he confess to that fact simply to pay a wager? What reason could he have for letting him live at all? Why had not Bateese killed him? Why had Marie-Anne nursed him back to life? His mind shot to the white strip of sand in which he had nearly died. That, at least, was convincing. Learning in some way that he was after Black Roger, they had attempted to do away with him there. But if that were so, why was it Bateese and Black Roger's wife and the Indian Nepapinas had risked so much to make him live, when if they had left him where he had fallen he would have died and caused them no trouble?

There was something exasperatingly uncertain and illogical about it all. Was it possible that St. Pierre Boulain was playing a huge joke on him? Even that was inconceivable. For there was Carmin Fanchet, a fitting companion for a man like Black Roger, and there was Marie-Anne, who, if it had been a joke, would not have played her part so well.

Suddenly his mind was filled only with her. Had she been his friend, using all her influence to protect him, because her heart was sick of the environment of which she was a part? His own heart jumped at the thought. It was easy to believe. In Marie-Anne he had faith, and that faith refused to be destroyed, but persisted-even clearer and stronger as he thought again of Carmin Fanchet and Black Roger. In his heart grew the conviction it was sacrilege to believe the kiss she had given him that morning was a lie. It was something else-a spontaneous gladness, a joyous exultation that he had returned unharmed, a thing unplanned in the soul of the woman, leaping from her before she could stop it. Then had come shame, and she had run away from him so swiftly he had not seen her face again after the touch of her lips. If it had been a subterfuge, a lie, she would not have done that.

He rose to his feet and paced restlessly back and forth as he tried to bring together a few tangled bits of the puzzle. He heard voices outside, and very soon felt the movement of the bateau under his feet, and through one of the shoreward windows he saw trees and sandy beach slowly drifting away. On that shore, as far as his eyes could travel up and down, he saw no sign of Marie-Anne, but there remained a canoe, and near the canoe stood Black Roger Audemard, and beyond him, huddled like a charred stump in the sand, was Andre, the Broken Man. On the opposite shore the raft was getting under way.

During the next half-hour several things happened which told him there was no longer a sugar-coating to his imprisonment. On each side of the bateau two men worked at his windows, and when they had finished, no one of them could be opened more than a few inches. Then came the rattle of the lock at the door, the grating of a key, and somewhat to Carrigan's surprise it was Bateese who came in. The half-reed bore no facial evidence of the paralyzing blows which had knocked him out a short time before. His jaw, on which they had landed, was as aggressive as ever, yet in his face and his attitude, as he stared curiously at Carrigan, there was no sign of resentment or unfriendliness. Nor did he seem to be ashamed. He merely stared, with the curious and rather puzzled eyes of a small boy gazing at an inexplicable oddity. Carrigan, standing before him, knew what was passing in the other's mind, and the humor of it brought a smile to his lips.

Instantly Concombre's face split into a wide grin. "MON DIEU, w'at if you was on'y brother to Concombre Bateese, m'sieu. T'ink of zat-you-me-FRERE D'ARMES! VENTRE SAINT GRIS, but we mak' all fightin' men in nort' countree run lak rabbits ahead of ze fox! OUI, we mak' gr-r-r-eat pair, m'sieu-you, w'at knock down Bateese-an' Bateese, w'at keel polar bear wit hees naked hands, w'at pull down trees, w'at chew flint w'en hees tobacco gone."

His voice had risen, and suddenly there came a laugh from outside the door, and Concombre cut himself short and his mouth closed with a snap. It was Joe Clamart who had laughed.

"I w'ip heem five time, an' now I w'ip heem seex!" hissed Bateese in an undertone. "Two time each year I w'ip zat gargon Joe Clamart so he understan' w'at good fightin' man ees. An' you will w'ip heem, eh, m'sieu? Oui? An' I will breeng odder good fightin' mans for you to w'ip-all w'at Concombre Bateese has w'ipped-ten, dozen, forty-an' you w'ip se gran' bunch, m'sieu. Eh, shall we mak' ze bargain?"

"You are planning a pleasant time for me, Bateese," said Carrigan, "but I am afraid it will be impossible. You see, this captain of yours, Black Roger Audemard-"

"W'at!" Bateese jumped as if stung. "W'at you say, m'sieu?"

"I said that Roger Audemard, Black Roger, the man I thought was St. Pierre Boulain-"

Carrigan said no more. What he had started to say was unimportant compared with the effect of Roger Audernard's name on Concombre Bateese. A deadly light glitt

ered in the half-breed's eyes, and for the first time David realized that in the grotesque head of the riverman was a brain quick to grip at the significance of things. The fact was evident that Black Roger had not confided in Bateese as to the price of the wager and the confession of his identity, and for a moment after the repetition of Audemard's name came from David's lips the half-breed stood as if something had stunned him. Then slowly, as if forcing the words in the face of a terrific desire that had transformed his body into a hulk of quivering steel, he said:

"M'sieu-I come with message-from St. Pierre. You see windows-closed. Outside door-she locked. On bot' sides de bateau, all de time, we watch. You try get away, an' we keel you. Zat ees all. We shoot. We five mans on ze bateau, all ze day, TOUTE LA NUIT. You unnerstan'?"

He turned sullenly, waiting for no reply, and the door opened and closed after him-and again came the snap of the lock outside.

Steadily the bateau swept down the big river that day. There was no let-up in the steady creaking of the long sweep. Even in the swifter currents David could hear the working of it, and he knew he had seen the last of the more slowly moving raft. Near one of the partly open windows he heard two men talking just before the bateau shot into the Brule Point rapids. They were strange voices. He learned that Audemard's huge raft was made up of thirty-five cribs, seven abreast, and that nine times between the Point Brule and the Yellowknife the raft would be split up, so that each crib could be run through dangerous rapids by itself.

That would be a big job, David assured himself. It would be slow work as well as hazardous, and as his own life was in no immediate jeopardy, he would have ample time in which to formulate some plan of action for himself. At the present moment, it seemed, the one thing for him to do was to wait-and behave himself, according to the half-breed's instructions. There was, when he came to think about it, a saving element of humor about it all. He had always wanted to make a trip down the Three Rivers in a bateau. And now-he was making it!

At noon a guard brought in his dinner. He could not recall that he had ever seen this man before, a tall, lithe fellow built to run like a hound, and who wore a murderous-looking knife at his belt. As the door opened, David caught a glimpse of two others. They were business-like looking individuals, with muscles built for work or fight; one sitting cross-legged on the bateau deck with a rifle over his knees, and the other standing with a rifle in his hand. The man who brought his dinner wasted no time or words. He merely nodded, murmured a curt bonjour, and went out. And Carrigan, as he began to eat, did not have to tell himself twice that Audemard had been particular in his selection of the bateau's crew, and that the eyes of the men he had seen could be as keen as a hawk's when leveled over the tip of a rifle barrel. They meant business, and he felt no desire to smile in the face of them, as he had smiled at Concombre Bateese.

It was another man, and a stranger, who brought in his supper. And for two hours after that, until the sun went down and gloom began to fall, the bateau sped down the river. It had made forty miles that day, he figured.

It was still light when the bateau was run ashore and tied up, but tonight there were no singing voices or wild laughter of men whose hours of play-time and rest had come. To Carrigan, looking through his window, there was an oppressive menace about it all. The shadowy figures ashore were more like a death-watch than a guard, and to dispel the gloom of it he lighted two of the lamps in the cabin, whistled, drummed a simple chord he knew on the piano, and finally settled down to smoking his pipe. He would have welcomed the company of Bateese, or Joe Clamart, or one of the guards, and as his loneliness grew upon him there was something of companionship even in the subdued voices he heard occasionally outside. He tried to read, but the printed words jumbled themselves and meant nothing.

It was ten o'clock, and clouds had darkened the night, when through his open windows he heard a shout coming from the river. Twice it came before it was answered from the bateau, and the second time Carrigan recognized it as the voice of Roger Audemard. A brief interval passed between that and the scraping of a canoe alongside, and then there was a low conversation in which even Audemard's great voice was subdued, and after that the grating of a key in the lock, and the opening of the door, and Black Roger came in, bearing an Indian reed basket under his arm. Carrigan did not rise to meet him. It was not like the coming of the old St. Pierre, and on Black Roger's lips there was no twist of a smile, nor in his eyes the flash of good-natured greeting. His face was darkly stern, as if he had traveled far and hard on an unpleasant mission, but in it there was no shadow of menace, as there had been in that of Concombre Bateese. It was rather the face of a tired man, and yet David knew what he saw was not physical exhaustion. Black Roger guessed something of his thought, and his mouth for an instant repressed a smile.

"Yes, I have been having a rough time," he nodded, "This is for you!"

He placed the basket on the table. It held half a bushel, and was filled to the curve of the handle. What lay in it was hidden under a cloth securely tied about it.

"And you are responsible," he added, stretching himself in a chair with a gesture of weariness. "I should kill you, Carrigan. And instead of that I bring you good things to eat! Half the day she has been fussing with the things in the basket, and then insisted that I bring them to you. And I have brought them simply to tell you another thing. I am sorry for her. I think, M'sieu Carrigan, you will find as many tears in the basket as anything else, for her heart is crushed and sick because of the humiliation she brought upon herself this morning."

He was twisting his big, rough hands, and David's own heart went sick as he saw the furrowed lines that had deepened in the other's face. Black Roger did not look at him as he went on.

"Of course, she told me. She tells me everything. And if she knew I was telling you this, I think she would kill herself. But I want you to understand. She is not what you might think she is. That kiss came from the lips of the best woman God ever made, M'sieu Carrigan!"

David, with the blood in him running like fire, heard himself answering, "I know it. She was excited, glad you had not stained your hands with my life-"

This time Audemard smiled, but it was the smile of a man ten years older than he had appeared yesterday. "Don't try to answer, m'sieu. I only want you to know she is as pure as the stars. It was unfortunate, but to follow the impulse of one's heart can not be a sin. Everything has been unfortunate since you came. But I blame no one, except-"

"Carmin Fanchet?"

Audemard nodded. "Yes. I have sent her away. Marie-Anne is in the cabin on the raft now. But even Carmin I can not blame very greatly, m'sieu, for it is impossible to hold anything against one you love. Tell me if I am right? You must know. You love my Marie-Anne. Do you hold anything against her?"

"It is unfair," protested David. "She is your wife, Audemard, is it possible you don't love her?"

"Yes, I love her."

"And Carmin Fanchet?"

"I love her, too. They are so different. Yet I love them both. Is it not possible for a big heart like mine to do that, m'sieu?"

With almost a snort David rose to his feet and stared through one of the windows into the darkness of the river. "Black Roger," he said without turning his head, "the evidence at Headquarters condemns you as one of the blackest-hearted murderers that ever lived. But that crime, to me, is less atrocious than the one you are committing against your own wife. I am not ashamed to confess I love her, because to deny it would be a lie. I love her so much that I would sacrifice myself-soul and body-if that sacrifice could give you back to her, clean and undefiled and with your hand unstained by the crime for which you must hang!"

He did not hear Roger Audemard as he rose from his chair. For a moment the riverman stared at the back of David's head, and in that moment he was fighting to keep back what wanted to come from his lips in words. He turned before David faced him again, and did not pause until he stood at the cabin door with his hand at the latch. There he was partly in shadow.

"I shall not see you again until you reach the Yellowknife," he said. "Not until then will you know-or will I know-what is going to happen. I think you will understand strange things then, but that is for the hour to tell. Bateese has explained to you that you must not make an effort to escape. You would regret it, and so would I. If you have red blood in you, m'sieu-if you would understand all that you cannot understand now-wait as patiently as you can. Bonne nuit, M'sieu Carrigan!"

"Good night!" nodded David.

In the pale shadows he thought a mysterious light of gladness illumined Black Roger's face before the door opened and closed, leaving him alone again.

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