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   Chapter 25 No.25

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 17187

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Carrigan turned slowly and looked about his room. There was no other door except one opening into a closet, and but two windows. Curtains were drawn at these windows, and he raised them. A grim smile came to his lips when he saw the white bars of tough birch nailed across each of them, outside the glass. He could see the birch had been freshly stripped of bark and had probably been nailed there that day. Carmin Fanchet and Black Roger had welcomed him to Chateau Boulain, but they were evidently taking no chances with their prisoner. And where was Marie-Anne?

The question was insistent, and with it remained that cold grip of something in his heart that had come with the sight of Carmin Fanchet below. Was it possible that Carmin's hatred still lived, deadlier than ever, and that with Black Roger she had plotted to bring him here so that her vengeance might be more complete-and a greater torture to him? Were they smiling and offering him their hands, even as they knew he was about to die? And if that was conceivable, what had they done with Marie-Anne?

He looked about the room. It was singularly bare, in an unusual sort of way, he thought. There were rich rugs on the floor-three magnificent black bearskins, and two wolf. The heads of two bucks and a splendid caribou hung against the walls. He could see, from marks on the floor, where a bed had stood, but this bed was now replaced by a couch made up comfortably for one inclined to sleep. The significance of the thing was clear-nowhere in the room could he lay his hand upon an object that might be used as a weapon!

His eyes again sought the white-birch bars of his prison, and he raised the two windows so that the cool, sweet breath of the forests reached in to him. It was then that he noticed the mosquito-proof screening nailed outside the bars. It was rather odd, this thinking of his comfort even as they planned to kill him!

If there was truth to this new suspicion that Black Roger and his mistress were plotting both vengeance and murder, their plans must also involve Marie-Anne. Suddenly his mind shot back to the raft. Had Black Roger turned a clever coup by leaving his wife there, while he came on ahead of the bateau with Carmin Fanchet? It would be several weeks before the raft reached the Yellowknife, and in that time many things might happen. The thought worried him. He was not afraid for himself. Danger, the combating of physical forces, was his business. His fear was for Marie-Anne. He had seen enough to know that Black Roger was hopelessly infatuated with Carmin Fanchet. And several things might happen aboard the raft, planned by agents as black-souled as himself. If they killed Marie-Anne-

His hand gripped the knob of the door, and for a moment he was filled with the impulse to shout for Black Roger and face him with what was in his mind. And as he stood there, every muscle in his body ready to fight, there came to him faintly the sound of music. He heard the piano first, and then a woman's voice singing. Soon a man's voice joined the woman's, and he knew it was Black Roger, singing with Carmin Fanchet.

Suddenly the mad impulse in his heart went out, and he leaned his head nearer to the crack of the door, and strained his ears to hear. He could make out no word of the song, yet the singing came to him with a thrill that set his lips apart and brought a staring wonder into his eyes. In the room below him, fifteen hundred miles from civilization, Black Roger and Carmin Fanchet were singing "Home, Sweet Home!"

An hour later David looked through one of the barred windows upon a world lighted by a splendid moon. He could see the dark edge of the distant forest that rimmed in the chateau, and about him seemed to be a level meadow, with here and there the shadow of a building in which the lights were out. Stars were thick in the sky, and a strange quietness hovered over the world he looked upon. From below him floated up now and then a perfume of tobacco smoke. The guard under his window was awake, but he made no sound.

A little later he undressed, put out the two lights in his room, and stretched himself between the cool, white sheets on the couch. After a time he slept, but it was a restless slumber filled with troubled dreams. Twice he was half awake, and the second time it seemed to him his nostrils sensed a sharper tang of smoke than that of burning tobacco, yet he did not fully rouse himself, and the hours passed, and new sounds and smells that rose in the night impinged themselves upon him only as a part of the troublous fabric of his dreams. But at last there came a shock, something which beat over these things which chained him, and seized upon his consciousness, demanding that he rouse himself, open his eyes, and get up.

He obeyed the command, and before he was fully awake, found himself on his feet. It was still dark, but he heard voices, voices no longer subdued, but filled with a wild note of excitement and command. And what he smelled was not the smell of tobacco smoke! It was heavy in his room. It filled his lungs. His eyes were smarting with the sting of it.

Then came vision, and with a startled cry he leaped to a window. To the north and east he looked out upon a flaming world!

With his fist he rubbed his smarting eyes. The moon was gone. The gray he saw outside must be the coming of dawn, ghostly with that mist of smoke that had come into his room. He could see shadowy figures of men running swiftly in and out and disappearing, and he could hear the voices of women and children, and from beyond the edge of the forest to the west came the howling of many dogs. One voice rose above the others. It was Black Roger's, and at its commands little groups of figures shot out into the gray smoke-gloom and did not appear again.

North and east the sky was flaming sullen red, and a breath of air blowing gently in David's face told him the direction of the wind. The chateau lay almost in the center of the growing line of conflagration.

He dressed himself and went again to the window. Quite distinctly now, he could make out Joe Clamart under his window, running toward the edge of the forest at the head of half a dozen men and boys who carried axes and cross-cut saws over their shoulders. It was the last of Black Roger's people that he saw for some time in the open meadow, but from the front of the chateau he could hear many voices, chiefly of women and children, and guessed it was from there that the final operations against the fire were being directed. The wind was blowing stronger in his face. With it came a sharper tang of smoke, and the widening light of day was fighting to hold its own against the deepening pall of flame-lit gloom advancing with the wind.

There seemed to come a low and distant sound with that wind, so indistinct that to David's ears it was like a murmur a thousand miles away. He strained his ears to hear, and as he listened, there came another sound-a moaning, sobbing voice below his window! It was grief he heard now, something that went to his heart and held him cold and still. The voice was sobbing like that of a child, yet he knew it was not a child's. Nor was it a woman's. A figure came out slowly in his view, humped over, twisted in its shape, and he recognized Andre, the Broken Man. David could see that he was crying like a child, and he was facing the flaming forests, with his arms reaching out to them in his moaning. Then, of a sudden, he gave a strange cry, as if defiance had taken the place of grief, and he hurried across the meadow and disappeared into the timber where a great lightning-riven spruce gleamed dully white through the settling veil of smoke-mist.

For a space David looked after him, a strange beating in his heart. It was as if he had seen a little child going into the face of a deadly peril, and at last he shouted out for some one to bring back the Broken Man. But there was no answer from under his window. The guard was gone. Nothing lay between him and escape-if he could force the white birch bars from the window.

He thrust himself against them, using his shoulder as a battering-ram. Not the thousandth part of an inch could he feel them give, yet he worked until his shoulder was sore. Then he paused and studied the bars more carefully. Only one thing would avail him, and that was some object which he might use as a lever.

He looked about him, and not a thing was there in the room to answer the purpose. Then his eyes fell on the splendid horns of the caribou head. Black Roger's discre

tion had failed him there, and eagerly David pulled the head down from the wall. He knew the woodsman's trick of breaking off a horn from the skull, yet in this room, without log or root to help him, the task was difficult, and it was a quarter of an hour after he had last seen the Broken Man before he stood again at the window with the caribou horn in his hands. He no longer had to hold his breath to hear the low moaning in the wind, and where there had been smoke-gloom before there were now black clouds rolling and twisting up over the tops of the north and eastern forests, as if mighty breaths were playing with them from behind.

David thrust the big end of the caribou horn between two of the white-birch bars, but before he had put his weight to the lever he heard a great voice coming round the end of the chateau, and it was calling for Andre, the Broken Man. In a moment it was followed by Black Roger Audemard, who ran under the window and faced the lightning-struck spruce as he shouted Andre's name again.

Suddenly David called down to him, and Black Roger turned and looked up through the smoke-gloom, his head bare, his arms naked, and his eyes gleaming wildly as he listened.

"He went that way twenty minutes ago," David shouted. "He disappeared into the forest where you see the dead spruce yonder. And he was crying, Black Roger-he was crying like a child."

If there had been other words to finish, Black Roger would not have heard them. He was running toward the old spruce, and David saw him disappear where the Broken Man had gone. Then he put his weight on the horn, and one of the tough birch bars gave way slowly, and after that a second was wrenched loose, and a third, until the lower half of the window was free of them entirely. He thrust out his head and found no one within the range of his vision. Then he worked his way through the window, feet first, and hanging the length of arms and body from the lower sill, dropped to the ground.

Instantly he faced the direction taken by Roger Audemard, it was HIS turn now, and he felt a savage thrill in his blood. For an instant he hesitated, held by the impulse to rush to Carmin Fanchet and with his fingers at her throat, demand what she and her paramour had done with Marie-Anne. But the mighty determination to settle it all with Black Roger himself overwhelmed that impulse like an inundation. Black Roger had gone into the forest. He was separated from his people, and the opportunity was at hand.

Positive that Marie-Anne had been left with the raft, the thought that the Chateau Boulain might be devoured by the onrushing conflagration did not appal David. The chateau held little interest for him now. It was Black Roger he wanted. As he ran toward the old spruce, he picked up a club that lay in the path.

This path was a faintly-worn trail where it entered the forest beyond the spruce, very narrow, and with brush hanging close to the sides of it, so that David knew it was not in general use and that but few feet had ever used it. He followed swiftly, and in five minutes came suddenly out into a great open thick with smoke, and here he saw why Chateau Boulain would not burn. The break in the forest was a clearing a rifle-shot in width, free of brush and grass, and partly tilled; and it ran in a semi-circle as far as he could see through the smoke in both directions. Thus had Black Roger safeguarded his wilderness castle, while providing tillable fields for his people; and as David followed the faintly beaten path, he saw green stuffs growing on both sides of him, and through the center of the clearing a long strip of wheat, green and very thick. Up and down through the fog of smoke he could hear voices, and he knew it was this great, circular fire-clearing the people of Chateau Boulain were watching and guarding.

But he saw no one as he trailed across the open. In soft patches of the earth he found footprints deeply made and wide apart, the footprints of hurrying men, telling him Black Roger and the Broken Man were both ahead of him, and that Black Roger was running when he crossed the clearing.

The footprints led him to a still more indistinct trail in the farther forest, a trail which went straight into the face of the fire ahead. He followed it. The distant murmur had grown into a low moaning over the tree-tops, and with it the wind was coming stronger, and the smoke thicker. For a mile he continued along the path, and then he stopped, knowing he had come to the dead-line. Over him was a swirling chaos. The fire-wind had grown into a roar before which the tree-tops bent as if struck by a gale, and in the air he breathed he could feel a swiftly growing heat. For a space he stood there, breathing quickly in the face of a mighty peril. Where had Black Roger and the Broken Man gone? What mad impulse could it be that dragged them still farther into the path of death? Or had they struck aside from the trail? Was he alone in danger?

As if in answer to the questions there came from far ahead of him a loud cry. It was Black Roger's voice, and as he listened, it called over and over again the Broken Man's name,


Something in the cry held Carrigan. There was a note of terror in it, a wild entreaty that was almost drowned in the trembling wind and the moaning that was in the air. David was ready to turn back. He had already approached too near to the red line of death, yet that cry of Black Roger urged him on like the lash of a whip. He plunged ahead into the chaos of smoke, no longer able to distinguish a trail under his feet. Twice again in as many minutes he heard Black Roger's voice, and ran straight toward it. The blood of the hunter rushed over all other things in his veins. The man he wanted was ahead of him and the moment had passed when danger or fear of death could drive him back. Where Black Roger lived, he could live, and he gripped his club and ran through the low brush that whipped in stinging lashes against his face and hands.

He came to the foot of a ridge, and from the top of this he knew Black Roger had called. It was a huge hog's-back, rising a hundred feet up out of the forest, and when he reached the top of it, he was panting for breath. It was as if he had come suddenly within the blast of a hot furnace. North and east the forest lay under him, and only the smoke obstructed his vision. But through this smoke he could make out a thing that made him rub his eyes in a fierce desire to see more clearly. A mile away, perhaps two, the conflagration seemed to be splitting itself against the tip of a mighty wedge. He could hear the roar of it to the right of him and to the left, but dead ahead there was only a moaning whirlpool of fire-heated wind and smoke. And out of this, as he looked, came again the cry,


Again he stared north and south through the smoke-gloom. Mountains of resinous clouds, black as ink, were swirling skyward along the two sides of the giant wedge. Under that death-pall the flames were sweeping through the spruce and cedar tops like race-horses, hidden from his eyes. If they closed in there could be no escape; in fifteen minutes they would inundate him, and it would take him half an hour to reach the safety of the clearing.

His heart thumped against his ribs as he hurried down the ridge in the direction of Black Roger's voice. The giant wedge of the forest was not burning-yet, and Audemard was hurrying like mad toward the tip of that wedge, crying out now and then the name of the Broken Man. And always he kept ahead, until at last-a mile from the ridge-David came to the edge of a wide stream and saw what it was that made the wedge of forest. For under his eyes the stream split, and two arms of it widened out, and along each shore of the two streams was a wide fire-clearing made by the axes of Black Roger's people, who had foreseen this day when fire might sweep their world.

Carrigan dashed water into his eyes, and it was warm. Then he looked across. The fire had passed, the pall of smoke was clearing away, and what he saw was the black corpse of a world that had been green. It was smoldering; the deep mold was afire. Little tongues of flame still licked at ten thousand stubs charred by the fire-death-and there was no wind here, and only the whisper of a distant moaning sweeping farther and farther away.

And then, out of that waste across the river, David heard a terrible cry. It was Black Roger, still calling-even in that place of hopeless death-for Andre, the Broken Man!

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