"Haw! haw! Ho! ho!" roared the merry lumbermen.
Then they trooped into the cabin. Buell headed the line, and Herky, sullenly reloading his revolver, came last. At first they groped around in the dim light, stumbling over everything. Part of the time they were in the light space near the door, and the rest I could not see them. I scarcely dared to breathe. I felt a creepy chill, and my eyesight grew dim.
"Who does this stuff belong to, anyhow?" Buell was saying. "An' what was thet bear doin' in here?"
"He was roped up—hyar's the hitch," answered Bud.
"An' hyar's a rifle—Winchester—ain't been used much. Buell, it's thet kid's!"
I heard rapid footsteps and smothered exclamations.
"Take it from me, you're right!" ejaculated Buell. "We jest missed him. Herky, them tracks out there? Somebody's with this boy—who?"
"It's Jim Williams," put in Dick Leslie, cool-voiced and threatening.
The little stillness that followed his words was broken by Buell.
"Naw! 'Twasn't Williams. You can't bluff this bunch, Leslie. By your own words Williams is lookin' for us, an' if he's lookin' for anybody I know he's lookin' for 'em. See!"
"Buell, the kid's fell in with old Bent, the b'ar hunter," said Bill. "Thet accounts fer the cub. Bent's allus got cubs, an' kittens, an' sich. An' I'll tell you, he ain't no better friend of ourn than Jim Williams."
"I'd about as soon tackle Williams as Bent," put in Bud.
Buell shook his fist. "What luck the kid has! But I'll get him, take it from me! Now, what's best to do?"
"Buell, the game's going against you," said Dick Leslie. "The penitentiary is where you'll finish. You'd better let me loose. Old Bent will find Jim Williams, and then you fellows will be up against it. There's going to be somebody killed. The best thing for you to do is to let me go and then cut out yourself."
Buell breathed as heavily as a porpoise, and his footsteps pounded hard.
"Leslie, I'm seein' this out—understand? When Bud rode down to the mill an' told me the kid had got away I made up my mind to ketch him an' shet his mouth—one way or another. An' I'll do it. Take thet from me!"
"Bah!" sneered Dick. "You're sca'red into the middle of next week right now.... Besides, if you do ketch Ken it won't do you any good-now!"
But Dick shut up like a clam, and not another word could be gotten from him. Buell fumed and stamped.
"Bud, you're the only one in this bunch of loggerheads thet has any sense. What d'you say?"
"Quiet down an' wait here," replied Bud. "Mebbe old Bent didn't hear them shots of Herky's. He may come back. Let's wait awhile, an', if he doesn't come, put Herky on the trail."
"Good! Greaser, go out an' hide the hosses—drive them up the canyon."
The Mexican shuffled out, and all the others settled down to quiet. I heard some of them light their pipes. Bud leaned against the left of the door, Buell sat on the other side, and beyond them I saw as much of Herky as his boots. I knew him by his bow-legs.
The stillness that set in began to be hard on me'. When the men were moving about and talking I had been so interested that my predicament did not occupy my mind. But now, with those ruffians waiting silently below, I was beset with a thousand fears. The very consciousness that I must be quiet made it almost impossible. Then I became aware that my one position cramped my arm and side. A million prickling needles were at my elbow. A band as of steel tightened about my breast. I grew hot and cold, and trembled. I knew the slightest move would be fatal, so I bent all my mind to lying quiet as a stone.
Greaser came limping back into the cabin, and found a seat without any one speaking. It was so still that I heard the silken rustle of paper as he rolled a cigarette. Moments that seemed long as years passed, with my muscles clamped as in a vise. If only I had lain down upon my back! But there I was, half raised on my elbow, in a most awkward and uncomfortable position. I tried not to mind the tingling in my arm, but to think of Hiram, of Jim, of my mustang. But presently I could not think of anything except the certainty that I would soon lose control of my muscles and fall over.
The tingling changed to a painful vibration, and perspiration stung my face. The strain became unbearable. All of a sudden something seemed to break within me, and my muscles began to ripple and shake. I had no power to stop it. More than that, the feeling was so terrible that I knew I would welcome discovery as a relief.
"Sh-s-s-h!" whispered some one below.
I turned my eyes down to the peep-hole. Bud had moved over squarely into the light of the door. He was bending over something. Then he extended his hand, back uppermost, toward Buell. On the back of that broad brown hand were pieces of leaf and bits of pine-needles. The trembling of my body had shaken these from the brush on the rickety loft. More than that, in the yellow bar of sunlight which streamed in at the door there floated particles of dust.
Bud silently looked upward. There was a gleam in his black eyes, and his mouth was agape. Buell's gaze followed Bud's, and his face grew curious, intent, then fixed in a cunning, bold smile of satisfaction. He rose to his feet.
"Come down out o' thet!" he ordered, harshly. "Come down!"
The sound of his voice stilled my trembling. I did not move nor breathe. I saw Buell loom up hugely and Bud slowly rise. Herky-Jerky's boots suddenly stood on end, and I knew then he had also risen. The silence which followed Buell's order was so dense that it oppressed me.
"Come down!" repeated Buell.
There was no hint of doubt in his deep voice, but a cold certainty and a brutal note. I had feared the man before, but that gave me new terror.
"Bud, climb the ladder," commanded Buell.
"I ain't stuck on thet job," rejoined Bud.
As his heavy boots thumped on the ladder they jarred the whole cabin. My very desperation filled me with the fierceness of a cornered animal. I caught sight of a short branch of the thickness of a man's arm, and, grasping it, I slowly raised myself. When Bud's black, round head appeared above the loft I hit it with all my might.
Bud bawled like a wounded animal, and fell to the ground with the noise of a load of bricks. Through my peep-hole I saw him writhing, with both hands pressed to his head. Then, lying flat on his back, he whipped out his revolver. I saw the red spurt, the puff of smoke. Bang!
A bullet zipped through the brush, and tore a hole through the roof.
I felt a hot, tearing pain in my arm.
"Stop, you black idiot!" yelled Buell. He kicked the revolver out of Bud's hand. "What d'you mean by thet?"
In the momentary silence that followed I listened intently, even while I held tightly to my arm. From its feeling my arm seemed to be shot off, but it was only a flesh-wound. After the first instant of shock I was not scared. But blood flowed fast. Warm, oily, slippery, it ran down inside my shirt sleeve and dripped off my fingers.
"Bud," hoarsely spoke up Bill, breaking the stillness, "mebbe you killed him!"
Buell coughed, as if choking.
"What's thet?" For once his deep voice was pitched low. "Listen."
Drip! drip! drip! It was like the sound of water dripping from a leak in a roof. It was directly under me, and, quick as thought, I knew the sound was made by my own dripping blood.
"Find thet, somebody," ordered Buell.
Drip! drip! drip!
One of the men stepped noisily.
"Hyar it is—thar," said Bill. "Look on my hand.... Blood! I knowed it. Bud got him, all right."
There was a sudden rustling such as might come from a quick, strained movement.
"Buell," cried Dick Leslie, in piercing tones, "Heaven help you murdering thieves if that boy's killed! I'll see you strung up right in this forest. Ken, speak! Speak!"
It seemed then, in my pain and bitterness, that I would rather let Buell think me dead. Dick's voice went straight to my heart, but I made no answer.
"Leslie, I didn't kill him, an' I didn't order it," said Buell, in a voice strangely shrunk and shaken. "I meant no harm to the lad.... Go up, Bud, an' get him."
Bud made no move, nor did Greaser when he was ordered. "Go up, somebody, an' see what's up there!" shouted Buell. "Strikes me you might go yourself," said Bill, coolly.
With a growl Buell mounted the ladder. When his great shock head hove in sight I was seized by a mad desire to give him a little of his own medicine. With both hands I lifted the piece of pine branch and brought it down with every ounce of strength in me.
Like a pistol it cracked on Buell's head and snapped into bits. The lumberman gave a smothered groan, then clattered down the ladder and rolled on the floor. There he lay quiet.
"All-fired dead—thet kid—now, ain't he?" said Bud, sarcastically. "How'd you like thet crack on the knob? You'll need a larger size hat, mebbe. Herky-Jerky, you go up an' see what's up there."
"I've a picture of myself goin'," replied Herky, without moving.
"Whar's the water? Get some water, Greaser," chimed in Bill.
From the way they worked over Buell, I concluded he had been pretty badly stunned. But he came to presently.
"What struck me?" he asked.
"Oh, nothin'," replied Bud, derisively. "The loft up thar's full of air, an' it blowed on you, thet's all."
Buell got up, and began walking around.
"Bill, go out an' fetch in some long poles," he said.
When Bill returned with a number of sharp, bayonet-like pikes I knew the game was all up for me. Several of the men began to prod through the thin covering of dry brush. One of them reached me, and struck so hard that I lurched violently.
That was too much for the rickety loft floor. It was only a bit of brush laid on a netting of slender poles. It creaked, rasped, and went down with a crash. I alighted upon somebody, and knocked him to the floor. Whoever it was, seized me with iron hands. I was buried, almost smothered, in the dusty mass. My captor began to curse cheerfully, and I knew then that Herky-Jerky had made me a prisoner.
XV. THE FIGHT
Herky hauled me out of the brush, and held me in the light. The others scrambled from under the remains of the loft, and all viewed me curiously.
"Kid, you ain't hurt much?" queried Buell, with concern.
I would have snapped out a reply, but I caught sight of Dick's pale face and anxious eyes.
"Ken," he called, with both gladness and doubt in his voice, "you look pretty good—but that blood.... Tell me, quick!"
"It's nothing, Dick, only a little cut. The bullet just ticked my arm."
Whatever Dick's reply was it got drowned in Herky-Jerky's long explosion of strange language. Herky was plainly glad I had not been badly hurt. I had already heard mirth, anger, disgust, and fear in his outbreaks, and now relief was added. He stripped off my coat, cut off the bloody sleeve of my shirt, and washed the wound. It was painful and bled freely, but it was not much worse than cuts from spikes when playing ball. Herky bound it tightly with a strip of my shirt-sleeve, and over that my handkerchief.
"Thar, kid, thet'll stiffen up an' be sore fer a day or two, but it ain't nothin'. You'll soon be bouncin' clubs offen our heads."
It was plain that Herky—and the others, for that matter, except Buell—thought more of me because I had wielded a club so vigorously.
"Look at thet lump, kid," said Bud, bending his head. "Now, ain't thet a nice way to treat a feller? It made me plumb mad, it did."
"I'm likely to hurt somebody yet," I declared.
They looked at me curiously. Buell raised his face with a queer smile. Bud broke into a laugh.
"Oh, you're goin' to? Mebbe you think you need an axe," said he.
They made no offer to tie me up then. Bud went to the door and sat in it, and I heard him half whisper to Buell: "What 'd I tell you? Thet's a game kid. If he ever wakes up right we'll have a wildcat on our hands. He'll do fer one of us yet." These men all took pleasure in saying things like this to Buell. This time Buell had no answer ready, and sat nursing his head. "Wal, I hev a little headache myself, an' the crack I got wasn't nothin' to yourn," concluded Bud. Then Bill began packing the supplies indoors, and Herky started a fire. Bud kept a sharp eye on me; still, he made no objection when I walked over and lay down upon the blankets near Dick.
"Dick, I shot a bear and helped to tie up a cub," I said. And then I told him all that had happened from the time I scrambled out of the spring-hole till I was discovered up in the loft. Dick shook his head, as if he did not know what to make of me, and all he said was that he would give a year's pay to have me safe back in Pennsylvania.
Herky-Jerky announced supper in his usual manner—a challenge to find as good a cook as he was, and a cheerful call to "grub." I did not know what to think of his kindness to me. Remembering how he had nearly drowned me in the spring, I resented his sudden change. He could not do enough for me. I asked the reason for my sudden popularity.
Herky scratched his head and grinned. "Yep, kid, you sure hev riz in my estimashun."
"Hey, you rummy cow-puncher," broke in Bud, scornfully. "Mebbe you'd like the kid more'n you do if you'd got one of them wollops."
"Bud, I ain't sayin'," replied Herky, with his mouth full of meat. "Considerin' all points, howsoever, I'm thinkin' them wallops was distributed very proper."
They bandied such talk between them, and occasionally Bill chimed in with a joke. Greaser ate in morose silence. There must have been something on his mind. Buell took very little dinner, and appeared to be in pain. It was dark when the meal ended. Bud bound me up for the night, and he made a good job of it. My arm burned and throbbed, but not badly enough to prevent sleep. Twice I had nearly dropped off when loud laughs or voices roused me. My eyes closed with a picture of those rough, dark men sitting before the fire.
A noise like muffled thunder burst into my slumber. I awakened with my body cramped and stiff. It was daylight, and something had happened. Buell ran in and out of the cabin yelling at his men. All of them except Herky were wildly excited. Buell was abusing Bud for something, and Bud was blaming Buell.
"Thet's no way to talk to me!" said Bud, angrily. "He didn't break loose in my watch!'
"You an' Greaser had the job. Both of you—went to sleep—take thet from me!"
"Wal, he's gone, an' he took the kid's gun with him," said Bill, coolly. "Now we'll be dodgin' bullets."
Dick Leslie had escaped! I could hardly keep down a cry of triumph. I did ask if it was true, but none of them paid any attention to me. Buell then ordered Herky-Jerky to trail Dick and see where he had gone. Herky refused point-blank. "Nope. Not fer me," he said. "Leslie has a rifle. So has Bent, an' we haven't one among us. An', Buell, if Leslie falls in with Bent, it's goin' to git hot fer us round here."
This silenced Buell, but did not stop his restless pacings. His face was like a thunder-cloud, and he was plainly worried and harassed. Once Bud deliberately asked what he intended to do with me, and Buell snarled a reply which no one understood. His gloom extended to the others, except Herky, who whistled and sang as he busied himself about the campfire. Greaser appeared to be particularly cast down.
"Buell, what are you going to do with me?" I demanded. But he made no answer.
"Well, anyway," I went on, "somebody cut these ropes. I'm mighty sore and uncomfortable."
Herky-Jerky did not wait for permission; he untied me, and helped me to my feet. I was rather unsteady on my legs at first, and my injured arm felt like a board. It seemed dead; but after I had moved it a little the pain came back, and it had apparently come to stay. We ate breakfast, and then settled down to do nothing, or to wait for something to turn up. Buell sat in the doorway, moodily watching the trail. Once he spoke, ordering the Mexican to drive in the horses. I fancied from this that Buell might have decided to break camp, but there was no move to pack.
The morning quiet was suddenly split by the stinging crack of a rifle and a yell of agony.
Buell leaped to his feet, his ruddy face white.
"Greaser!" he exclaimed.
"Thet was about where Greaser cashed," relied Bill, coolly knocking the ashes from his pipe.
"No, Bill, you're wrong. Here comes Greaser, runnin' like an Indian."
"Look at the blood! He's been plugged, all right!" exclaimed Herky-Jerky.
The sound of running feet drew nearer, and suddenly the group at the door broke to admit the Mexican. One side of his terrified face was covered with blood. His eyes were staring, his hands raised, he staggered as if about to fall.
"Senyor William! Senyor William!" he cried, and then called on Saint Somebody.
"Jim Williams! I said so," muttered Bud.
Bill caught hold of the excited Mexican, and pulled him nearer the light.
"Thet ain't a bad hurt. Jest cut his ear off!" aid Bill. "Hyar, stand still, you wild man! you're not goin' to die. Git some water, Herky. Fellers, Greaser has been oneasy ever since he knew Jim Williams was lookin' fer him. He thinks Jim did this. But Jim Williams don't use a rifle, an', what's more, when he shoots he don't miss. You all heerd the rifle-shot."
"Then it was old Bent or Leslie?" questioned Buell.
"Leslie it were. Bent uses a 45-90 caliber. Thet shot we heerd was from the little 38—the kid's gun."
"Wal, it was a narrer escape fer Greaser," said Bud. "Leslie's sore, an' he'll shoot fer keeps. Buell, you've started somethin'."
When Bill had washed the blood off the Mexican it was found that the ball had carried away the lower part of the ear, and with it, of course, the gold earring. The wound must have been extremely painful; it certainly took all the starch out of Greaser. He kept mumbling in his own language, and rolling his wicked black eyes and twisting his thin, yellow hands.
"What's to be done?" asked Buell, sharply.
"Thet's fer you to say," replied Bill, with his exasperating calmness.
"Must we hang up here to be shot at? Leslie's takin' a long chance on thet kid's life if he comes slingin' lead round this cabin."
Herky-Jerky spat tobacco-juice across the room and grunted. Then, with his beady little eyes as keen and cold as flint, he said: "Buell, Leslie knows you daren't harm the kid; an' as fer bullets, he'll take good care where he stings 'em. This deal of ours begins to look like a wild-goose stunt. It never was safe, an' now it's worse."
Here was even Herky-Jerky harping on Buell's situation. To me it did not appear much more serious than before. But evidently they thought Buell seemed on the verge of losing control of himself. He glared at Herky, and rammed his fists in his pockets and paced the long room. Presently he stepped out of the door.
A rifle cracked clear and sharp, another bellowed out heavy and hollow. A bullet struck the door-post, a second hummed through the door and budded into the log wall. Buell jumped back into the room. His face worked, his breath hissed between his teeth, as with trembling hand he examined the front of his coat. A big bullet had torn through both lapels.
Bill stuck his pudgy finger in the hole. "The second bullet made thet. It was from old Hiram's gun—a 45-90!"
"Bent an' Leslie! My God! They're shootin' to kill!" cried Buell.
"I should smile," replied Herky-Jerky.
Bud was peeping out through a chink between the logs. "I got their smoke," he said; "look, Bill, up the slope. They're too fur off, but we may as well send up respects." With that he aimed his revolver through the narrow crack and deliberately shot six times. The reports clapped like thunder, the smoke from burnt powder and the smell of brimstone filled the room. By way of reply old Hiram's rifle boomed out twice, and two heavy slugs crashed through the roof, sending down a shower of dust and bits of decayed wood.
"Thet's jist to show what a 45-90 can do," remarked Bill.
Bud reloaded his weapon while Bill shot several times. Herky-Jerky had his gun in hand, but contented himself with peering from different chinks between the logs. I hid behind the wide stone fireplace, and though I felt pretty safe from flying bullets, I began to feel the icy grip of fear. I had seen too much of these men in excitement, and knew if circumstances so brought it about there might come a moment when my life would not be worth a pin. They were all sober now, and deadly quiet. Buell showed the greatest alarm, though he had begun to settle down to what looked like fight. Herky was more fearless than any of them, and cooler even than Bill. All at once I missed the Mexican. If he had not slipped out of the room he had hidden under the brush of the fallen loft or in a pile of blankets. But the room was smoky, and it was hard for me to be certain.
Some time passed with no shots and with no movement inside the cabin. Slowly the blue smoke wafted out of the door. The sunlight danced in gleams through the holes in the ragged roof. There was a pleasant swish of pine branches against the cabin.
"Listen," whispered Bud, hoarsely. "I heerd a pony snort."
Then the rapid beat of hard hoofs on the trail was followed by several shots from the hillside. Soon the clatter of hoofs died away in the distance.
"Who was thet?" asked three of Buell's men in unison.
"Take it from me, Greaser's sneaked," replied Buell.
"How'd he git out?"
With that Bud and Bill began kicking in the piles of brush.
"Aha! Hyar's the place," sang out Bud.
In one corner of the back wall a rotten log had crumbled, and here it was plain to all eyes that Greaser had slipped out. I remembered that on this side of the cabin there was quite a thick growth of young pine. Greaser had been able to conceal himself as he crawled toward the horses, and had probably been seen at the last moment. Herky-Jerky was the only one to make comment.
"I ain't wishin' Greaser any hard luck, but hope he carried away a couple Of 45-90 slugs somewheres in his yaller carcass."
"It'd be worth a lot to the feller who can show me a way out of this mess," said Buell, mopping the beads of sweat from his face.
I got up—it seemed to me my mind was made up for me—and walked into the light of the room.
"Buell, I can show you the way," I said, quietly.
"What!" His mouth opened in astonishment. "Speak up, then."
The other men stepped forward, and I felt their eyes upon me.
"Let me go free. Let me out of here to find Dick Leslie! Then when you go to jail in Holston for stealing lumber I'll say a good word for you and your men. There won't be any charge of kidnapping or violence."
After a long pause, during which Buell bored me with gimlet eyes, he said, in a queer voice: "Say thet again."
I repeated it, and added that he could not gain anything now by holding me a prisoner. I think he saw what I meant, but hated to believe it.
"It's too late," I said, as he hesitated.
"You mean Leslie lied an' you fooled me—you did get to Holston?" he shouted. He was quivering with rage, and the red flamed in his neck and face.
"Buell, I did get to Holston and I did send word to Washington," I went on, hurriedly for I had begun to lose my calmness. "I wrote to my father. He knows a friend of the Chief Forester who is close to the Department at Washington. By this time Holston is full of officers of the forest service. Perhaps they're already at your mill. Anyway, the game's up, and you'd better let me go."
Buell's face lost all its ruddy color, slowly blanched, and changed terribly. The boldness fled, leaving it craven, almost ghastly. Realizing he had more to fear from the law than conviction of his latest lumber steal, he made at me in blind anger.
"Hold on!" Herky-Jerky yelled, as he jumped between Buell and me.
Buell's breath was a hiss, and the words he bit between his clinched teeth were unintelligible. In that moment he would have killed me.
Herky-Jerky met his onslaught, and flung him back. Then, with his hand on the butt of his revolver, he spoke:
"Buell, hyar's where you an' me split. You've bungled your big deal. The kid stacked the deck on you. But I ain't a-goin' to see you do him harm fer it."
"Herky's right, boss," put in Bill, "thar's no sense in addin' murder to this mess. Strikes me you're in bad enough."
"So thet's your game? You're double-crossin' me now—all on a chance at kidnappin' for ransom money. Well, I'm through with the kid an' all of you. Take thet from me!"
"You skunk!" exclaimed Herky-Jerky, with the utmost cheerfulness.
"Wal, Buell," said Bill, in cool disdain, "comsiderin' my fondness fer fresh air an' open country, I can't say I'm sorry to dissolve future relashuns. I was only in jail onct, an' I couldn't breathe free."
It was then Buell went beside himself with rage. He raised his huge fists, and shook himself, and plunged about the room, cursing. Suddenly he picked up an axe, and began chopping at the rotten log above the hole where Greaser had slipped out. Bud yelled at him, so did Bill; Herky-Jerky said unpleasant things. But Buell did not hear them. He hacked and dug away like one possessed. The dull, sodden blows fell fast, scattering pieces of wood about the floor. The madness that was in Buell was the madness to get out, to escape the consequences of his acts. His grunts and pants as he worked showed his desperate energy. Then he slammed the axe against the wall, and, going down flat, began to crawl through the opening. Buell was a thick man, and the hole appeared too small. He stuck in it, but he squeezed and flattened himself, finally worked through, and disappeared.
A sudden quiet fell upon his departure.
Jim Williams's voice! It was strange to see Herky and Bud flash up their arms without turning. But I wheeled quickly. Bill, too, had his hands high in the air.
In the sunlight of the doorway stood Jim Williams. Low down, carelessly, it seemed, he held two long revolvers. He looked the same easy, slow Texan I remembered. But the smile was not now in his eyes, and his lips were set in a thin, hard line.
XVI. THE FOREST'S GREATEST FOE
Jim Williams sent out a sharp call. From the canyon-slope came answering shouts. There were sounds of heavy bodies breaking through brush, followed by the thudding of feet. Then men could be plainly heard running up the trail. Jim leaned against the door-post, and the three fellows before him stood rigid as stone.
Suddenly a form leaped past Jim. It was Dick Leslie, bareheaded, his hair standing like a lion's mane, and he had a cocked rifle in his hands. Close behind him came old Hiram Bent, slower, more cautious, but no less formidable. As these men glanced around with fiery eyes the quick look of relief that shot across their faces told of ungrounded fears.
"Where's Buell?" sharply queried Dick.
Jim Williams did not reply, and a momentary silence ensued.
"Buell lit out after the Greaser," said Bill, finally.
"Cut and run, did he? That's his speed," grimly said Dick. "Here, Bent, find some rope. We've got to tie up these jacks."
"Hands back, an' be graceful like. Quick!" sang out Jim Williams.
It seemed to me human beings could not have more eagerly and swiftly obeyed an order. Herky and Bill and Bud jerked their arms down and extended their hands out behind. After that quick action they again turned into statues. There was a breathless suspense in every act. And there was something about Jim Williams then that I did not like. I was in a cold perspiration for fear one of the men would make some kind of a move. As the very mention of the Texan had always caused a little silence, so his presence changed the atmosphere of that cabin room. Before his coming there had been the element of chance—a feeling of danger, to be sure, but a healthy spirit of give and take. That had all changed with Jim Williams's words "Hands up!" There was now something terrible hanging in the balance. I had but to look at Jim's eyes, narrow slits of blue fire, at the hard jaw and tight lips, to see a glimpse of the man who thought nothing of life. It turned me sick, and I was all in a tremor till Dick and Hiram had the men bound fast.
Then Jim dropped the long, blue guns into the holsters on his belt.
"Ken, I shore am glad to see you," said he.
The soft, drawling voice, the sleepy smile, the careless good-will all came back, utterly transforming the man. This was the Jim Williams I had come to love. With a wrench I recovered myself.
"Are you all right, Ken?" asked Dick. And old Hiram questioned me with a worried look. This anxiety marked the difference between these men and Williams. I hastened to assure my friends that I was none the worse for my captivity.
"Ken, your little gun doesn't shoot where it points," said Jim. "I shore had a bead on the Greaser an' missed him. First Greaser I ever missed."
"You shot his ear off," I replied. "He came running back covered with blood. I never saw a man so scared."
"Wal, I shore am glad," drawled Jim.
"He made off with your mustang," said Dick.
This information lessened my gladness at Greaser's escape. Still, I would rather have had him get away on my horse than stay to be shot by Jim.
Dick called me to go outside with him. My pack was lying under one of the pines near the cabin, and examination proved that nothing had been disturbed. We found the horses grazing up the canyon. Buell had taken the horse of one of his men, and had left his own superb bay. Most likely he had jumped astride the first animal he saw. Dick said I could have Buell's splendid horse. I had some trouble in catching him, as he was restive and spirited, but I succeeded eventually, and we drove the other horses and ponies into the glade. My comrades then fell to arguing about what to do with the prisoners. Dick was for packing them off to Holston. Bent talked against this, saying it was no easy matter to drive bound men over rough trails, and Jim sided with him.
Once, while they were talking, I happened to catch Herky-Jerky's eye. He was lying on his back in the light from the door. Herky winked at me, screwed up his face in the most astonishing manner, all of which I presently made out to mean that he wanted to speak to me. So I went over to him.
"Kid, you ain't a-goin' to fergit I stalled off Buell?" whispered Herky. "He'd hev done fer you, an' thet's no lie. You won't fergit when we're rustled down to Holston?"
"I'll remember, Herky," I promised, and I meant to put in a good word for him. Because, whether or not his reasons had to do with kidnapping and ransom, he had saved me from terrible violence, perhaps death.
It was decided that we would leave the prisoners in the cabin and ride down to the sawmill. Hiram was to return at once with officers. If none could be found at the mill he was to guard the prisoners and take care of them till Dick could send officers to relieve him. Thereupon we cooked a meal, and I was put to feeding Herky and his companions. Dick ordered me especially to make them drink water, as it might be a day or longer before Hiram could get back. I made Bill drink, and easily filled up Herky; but Bud, who never drank anything save whiskey, gave me a job. He refused with a growl, and I insisted with what I felt sure was Christian patience. Still he would not drink, so I put the cup to his lips and tipped it. Bud promptly spat the water all over me. And I as promptly got another cupful and dashed it all over him.
"Bud, you'll drink or I'll drown you," I declared.
So while Bill cracked hoarse jokes and Herky swore his pleasure, I made Bud drink all he could hold. Jim got a good deal of fun out of it, but Dick and Hiram never cracked a smile. Possibly the latter two saw something far from funny in the outlook; at any rate, they were silent, almost moody, and in a hurry to be off.
Dick was so anxious to be on the trail that he helped me pack my pony, and saddled Buell's horse. It was one thing to admire the big bay from the ground, and it was another to be astride him. Target—that was his name—had a spirited temper, an iron mouth, and he had been used to a sterner hand than mine. He danced all over the glade before he decided to behave himself. Riding him, however, was such a great pleasure that a more timid boy than I would have taken the risk. He would not let any horse stay near him; he pulled on the bridle, and leaped whenever a branch brushed him. I had been on some good horses, but never on one with a swing like his, and I grew more and more possessed with the desire to let him run.
"Like as not he'll bolt with you. Hold him in, Ken!" called Dick, as he mounted. Then he shouted a final word to the prisoners, saying they would be looked after, and drove the pack-ponies into the trail. As we rode out we passed several of the horses that we had decided to leave behind, and as they wanted to follow us it was necessary to drive them back.
I had my hands full with the big, steel-jawed steed I was trying to hold in. It was the hardest work of the kind that I had ever undertaken. I had never worn spurs, but now I began to wish for them. We traveled at a good clip, as fast as the pack-ponies could go, and covered a long distance by camping-time. I was surprised that we did not get out of the canyon. The place where we camped was a bare, rocky opening, with a big pool in the center. While we were making camp it suddenly came over me that I was completely bewildered as to our whereabouts. I could not see the mountain peaks and did not know one direction from another. Even when Jim struck out of our trail and went off alone toward Holston I could not form an idea of where I was. All this, however, added to my feeling of the bigness of Penetier.
Dick was taciturn, and old Hiram, when I tried to engage him in conversation, cut me off with the remark that I would need my breath on the morrow. This somewhat offended me. So I made my bed and rolled into it. Not till I had lain quiet for a little did I realize that every bone and muscle felt utterly worn out. I seemed to deaden and stiffen more each moment. Presently Dick breathed heavily and Hiram snored. The red glow of fire paled and died. I heard the clinking of the hobbles on Target, and a step, now and then, of the other horses. The sky grew ever bluer and colder, the stars brighter and larger, and the night wind moaned in the pines. I heard a coyote bark, a trout splash in the pool, and the hoot of an owl. Then the sounds and the clear, cold night seemed to fade away.
When Dick roused me the forest was shrouded in gray, cold fog. No time was lost in getting breakfast, driving in the horses, and packing. Hardly any words were exchanged. My comrades appeared even soberer than on the day before. The fog lifted quickly that morning, and soon the sun was shining.
We got under way at once, and took to the trail at a jog-trot. I knew my horse better and he was more used to me, which made it at least bearable to both of us. Before long the canyon widened out into the level forest land thickly studded with magnificent pines. I had again the feeling of awe and littleness. Everything was solemn and still. The morning air was cool, and dry as toast; the smell of pitch-pine choked my nostrils. We rode briskly down the broad brown aisles, across the sunny glades, under the murmuring pines.
The old hunter was leading our train, and evidently knew perfectly what he was about. Unexpectedly he halted, bringing us up short. The pack-ponies lined up behind us. Hiram looked at Dick.
"I smell smoke," he said, sniffing at the fragrant air.
Dick stared at the old hunter and likewise sniffed. I followed their lead, but all I could smell was the thick, piney odor of the forest.
"I don't catch it," replied Dick.
We continued on our journey perhaps for a quarter of a mile, and then Hiram Bent stopped again. This time he looked significantly at Dick without speaking a word.
"Ah!" exclaimed Dick. I thought his tone sounded queer, but it did not at the moment strike me forcibly. We rode on. The forest became lighter, glimpses of sky showed low down through the trees, we were nearing a slope.
For the third time the old hunter brought us to a stop, this time on the edge of a slope that led down to the rolling foot-hills. I could only stand and gaze. Those open stretches, sloping down, all green and brown and beautiful, robbed me of thought.
"Look thar!" cried Hiram Bent.
His tone startled me. I faced about, to see his powerful arm outstretched and his finger pointing. His stern face added to my sudden concern. Something was wrong with my friends. I glanced in the direction he indicated. There were two rolling slopes or steps below us, and they were like gigantic swells of a green ocean. Beyond the second one rose a long, billowy, bluish cloud. It was smoke. All at once I smelled smoke, too. It came on the fresh, strong wind.
"Forest fire!" exclaimed Dick.
"Wal, I reckon," replied Hiram, tersely. "An' look thar, an' thar!"
Far to the right and far to the left, over the green, swelling foot-hills, rose that rounded, changing line of blue cloud.
"The slash! the slash! Buell's fired the slash!" cried Dick, as one suddenly awakened. "Penetier will go!"
"Wal, I reckon. But thet's not the worst."
"Mebbe we can't get out. The forest's dry as powder, an' thet's the worst wind we could have. These canyon-draws suck in the wind, an' fire will race up them fast as a hoss can run."
"Good God, man! What'll we do?"
"Wait. Mebbe it ain't so bad—yet. Now let's all listen."
The faces of my friends, more than words, terrified me. I listened with all my ears while watching with all my eyes. The line of rolling cloud expanded, seemed to burst and roll upward, to bulge and mushroom. In a few short moments it covered the second slope as far to the right and left as we could see. The under surface was a bluish white. It shot up swiftly, to spread out into immense, slow-moving clouds of creamy yellow.
"Hear thet?" Hiram Bent shook his gray head as one who listened to dire tidings.
The wind, sweeping up the slope of Penetier, carried a strong, pungent odor of burning pitch. It brought also a low roar, not like the wind in the trees or rapid-rushing water. It might have been my imagination, but I fancied it was like the sound of flames blowing through the wood of a campfire.
"Fire! Fire!" exclaimed Hiram, with another ominous shake of his head. "We must be up an' doin'."
"The forest's greatest foe! Old Penetier is doomed!" cried Dick Leslie. "That line of fire is miles long, and is spreading fast. It'll shoot up the canyons and crisscross the forest in no time. Bent, what'll we do?"
"Mebbe we can get around the line. We must, or we'll have to make tracks for the mountain, an' thet's a long chance. You take to the left an' I'll go to the right, an' we'll see how the fire's runnin'."
"What will Ken do?"
"Wal, let him stay here—no, thet won't do! We might get driven back a little an' have to circle. The safest place in this forest is where we camped. Thet's not far. Let him drive the ponies back thar an' wait."
"All right. Ken, you hustle the pack-team back to our last night's camp. Wait there for us. We won't be long."
Dick galloped off through the forest, and Hiram went down the slope in almost the opposite direction. Left alone, I turned my horse and drove the pack-ponies along our back-trail. Thus engaged, I began to recover somewhat from the terror that had stupefied me. Still, I kept looking back. I found the mouth of the canyon and the trail, and in what I thought a very short time I reached the bare, rocky spot where we had last camped. The horses all drank thirstily, and I discovered that I was hot and dry.
Then I waited. At every glance I expected to see Dick and Hiram riding up the canyon. But moments dragged by, and they did not come. Here there was no sign of smoke, nor even the faintest hint of the roar of the fire. The wind blew strongly up the canyon, and I kept turning my ear to it. In spite of the fact that my friends did not come quickly I had begun to calm my fears. They would return presently with knowledge of the course of the fire and the way to avoid it. My thoughts were mostly occupied with sorrow for beautiful Penetier. What a fiend Buell was! I had heard him say he would fire the slash, and he had kept his word.
Half an hour passed. I saw a flash of gray down the canyon, and shouted in joy. But what I thought Dick and Hiram was a herd of deer. They were running wildly. They clicked on the stones, and scarcely swerved for the pack-ponies. It took no second glance to see that they were fleeing from the fire. This brought back all my alarms, and every moment that I waited thereafter added to them. I watched the trail and under the trees for my friends, and I scanned the sky for signs of the blue-white clouds of smoke. But I saw neither.
"Dick told me to wait here; but how long shall I wait?" I muttered. "Something's happened to him. If only I could see what that fire is doing!"
The camping-place was low down between two slopes, one of which was high and had a rocky cliff standing bare in the sunlight. I conceived the idea of climbing to it. I could not sit quietly waiting any longer. So, mounting Target, I put him up the slope. It was not a steep climb, still it was long and took considerable time. Before I reached the gray cliff I looked down over the forest to see the rolling, smoky clouds. We climbed higher and still higher, till Target reached the cliff and could go no farther. Leaping off, I tied him securely and bent my efforts to getting around on top of the cliff. If I had known what a climb it was I should not have attempted it, but I could not back out with the summit looming over me. It ran up to a ragged crag. Hot, exhausted, and out of breath, I at last got there.
As I looked I shouted in surprise. It seemed that the whole of Penetier was under my feet. The green slope disappeared in murky clouds of smoke. There were great pillars and huge banks of yellow and long streaks of black, and here and there, underneath, moving splashes of red. The thing did not stay still one instant. It changed so that I could not tell what it did look like. Them were life and movement in it, and something terribly sinister. I tried to calculate how far distant the fire was and how fast it was coming, but that, in my state of mind, I could not do. The whole sweep of forest below me was burning. I felt the strong breeze and smelled the burnt wood. Puffs of white smoke ran out ahead of the main clouds, and I saw three of them widely separated. What they meant puzzled me. But all of a sudden I saw in front of the nearest a flickering gleam of red. Then I knew those white streams of smoke rose where the fire was being sucked up the canyons. They leaped along with amazing speed. It was then that I realized that Dick and Hiram had been caught by one of these offshoots of the fire, and had been compelled to turn away to save their lives. Perhaps they would both be lost. For a moment I felt faint, but I fought it off. I had to think of myself. It was every one for himself, and perhaps there was many a man caught on Penetier with only a slender chance for life.
"Oh! oh!" I cried, suddenly. "Herky, Bud, and Bill tied helpless in that cabin! Dick forgot them. They'll be burned to death!"
As I stood there, trembling at the thought of Herky and his comrades bound hand and foot, the first roar of the forest fire reached my ears. It threatened, but it roused my courage. I jumped as if I had been shot, and clattered down that crag with wings guiding my long leaps. No crevice or jumble of loose stones or steep descent daunted me. I reached the horse, and, grasping the bridle, I started to lead him. We had zigzagged up, we went straight down. Target was too spirited to balk, but he did everything else. More than once he reared with his hoofs high in the air, and, snorting, crashed down. He pulled me off my feet, he pawed at me with his great iron shoes. When we got clear of the roughest and most thickly overgrown part of the descent I mounted him. Then I needed no longer to urge him. The fire had entered the canyon, the hollow roar swept up and filled Target with the same fright that possessed me. He plunged down, slid on his haunches, jumped the logs, crashed through brush. I had continually to rein him toward the camp. He wanted to turn from that hot wind and strange roar.
We reached a level, the open, stony ground, then the pool. The pack-ponies were standing patiently with drooping heads. The sun was obscured in thin blue haze. Smoke and dust and ashes blew by with the wind. I put Target's nose down to the water, so that he would drink. Then I cut packs off the ponies, spilled the contents, and filled my pockets with whatever I could lay my hands on in the way of eatables. I hung a canteen on the pommel, and threw a bag of biscuits over the saddle and tied it fast. My fingers worked swiftly. There was a fluttering in my throat, and my sight was dim. All the time the roar of the forest fire grew louder and more ominous.
The ponies would be safe. I would be safe in the lee of the big rocks near the pool. But I did not mean to stay. I could not stay with those men lying tied up in the cabin. Herky had saved me. Still it was not that which spurred me on.
Target snorted shrilly and started back from the water, ready to stampede. Slipping the bridle into place, I snapped the bit between his teeth. I had to swing off my feet to pull his head down.
Even as I did this I felt the force of the wind. It was hard to breathe. A white tumbling column of smoke hid sky and sun. All about me it was like a blue twilight.
The appalling roar held me spellbound with my foot in the stirrup. It drew my glance even in that moment of flight.
Under the shifting cloud flashes of red followed by waves of fire raced through the tree-tops. That the forest fire traveled through the tree-tops was as new to me as it was terrible. The fire seemed to make and drive the wind. Lower down along the ground was a dull furnace-glow, now dark, now bright. It all brought into my mind a picture I had seen of the end of the world.
Target broke the spell by swinging me up into the saddle as he leaped forward with a furious snort. I struck him with the bridle, and yelled:
"You iron-jawed brute! You've been crazy to run—now run!"
XVII. THE BACK-FIRE
Target pounded over the scaly ground and thundered into the hard trail. Then he stretched out. As we cleared the last obstructing pile of rocks I looked back. There was a vast wave of fire rolling up the canyon and spreading up the slopes. It was so close that I nearly fainted. With both hands knotted and stiff I clung to the pommel in a cold horror, and I looked back no more to see the flames reaching out for me. But I could not keep the dreadful roar from filling my ears, and it weakened me so that I all but dropped from the saddle. Only an unconscious instinct to fight for life made me hold on.
Blue and white puffs of smoke swept by me. The trail was a dim, twisting line. The slopes and pines, merged in a mass, flew backward in brown sheets. Above the roar of the pursuing fire I heard the thunder of Target's hoofs. I scarcely felt him or the saddle, only a motion and the splitting of the wind.
The fear of death by fire, which had almost robbed me of strength, passed from me. My brain cleared. Still I had no kind of hope, only a desperate resolve not to give up.
The great bay horse was running to save his life and to save mine. It was a race with fire. When I thought of the horse, and saw how fast he was going, and realized that I must do my part, I was myself again.
The trail was a winding, hard-packed thread of white ground. It had been made for leisurely travel. Many turns were sudden and sharp. I loosened the reins, and cried out to Target. Evidently I had unknowingly held him in, for he lengthened out, and went on in quicker, longer leaps. In that moment riding seemed easy. I listened to the roar behind me, now a little less deafening, and began to thrill. We were running away from the fire.
Hope made the race seem different. Something stirred and beat warm within me, driving out the chill in my marrow. I leaned over the neck of the great bay horse, and called to him and cheered him on. Then I saw he was deaf and blind to me, for he was wild. He had the bit between his teeth, and was running away.
The roar behind us relentlessly pursuing, only a little less appalling, was now not my only source of peril. Target could no more be guided nor stopped than could the forest fire. The trail grew more winding and overhung more thickly by pine branches. The horse did not swerve an inch for tree or thicket, but ran as if free, and the saving of my life began to be a matter of dodging. Once a crashing blow from a branch almost knocked me from the saddle. The wind in my ears half drowned the roar behind me. With hands twisted in Target's mane I bent low, watching with keen eyes for the trees and branches ahead. I drew up my knees and bent my body, and dodged and went down flat over the pommel like a wild-riding Indian. Target kept that straining run for a longer distance than I could judge. With the same breakneck speed he thundered on over logs and little washes, through the thick, bordering bushes, and around the sudden turns. His foam moistened my face and flecked my sleeves. The wind came stinging into my face, the heavy roar followed at my back with its menace.
Swift and terrible as the forest fire was, Target was winning the race. I knew it. Steadily the roar softened, but it did not die away. Pound! pound! pound! The big bay charged up the trail. How long could he stand that killing pace? I began to talk soothingly to him, to pull on the bridle; but he might have been an avalanche for all he heeded. Still I kept at him, fighting him every moment that I was free from low branches. Gradually the strain began to tell.
The sight of a cabin brought back to my mind the meaning of the wild race with fire. I had forgotten the prisoners. I had reached the forest glade and the cabin, but Target was still going hard. What if I could not stop him! Summoning all my strength, I quickly threw weight and muscle back on the reins and snapped the bit out of his teeth. Then coaxing, commanding, I pulled him back. In the glade were four horses, standing bunched with heads and ears up, uneasy, and beginning to be frightened. Perhaps the sight of them helped me to stop Target; at any rate, he slackened his pace and halted. He was spotted with foam, dripping wet, and his broad sides heaved.
I jumped off, stiff and cramped. I could scarcely walk. The air was clear, though the fog of smoke overspread the sun. The wind blew strong with a scent of pitch. Now that I was not riding, the roar of the fire sounded close. I caught the same strange growl, the note of on-sweeping fury. Again the creepy cold went over me. I felt my face blanch, and the skin tighten over my cheeks. I dashed into the cabin, crying: "Fire! Fire! Fire!"
"Whoop! It's the kid!" yelled Herky-Jerky.
He was lying near the door, red as a brick in the face, and panting hard. In one cut I severed the rope on his feet; in another, that round his raw and bloody wrists. Herky had torn his flesh trying to release his hands.
"Kid, how'd you git back hyar?" he questioned, with his sharp little eyes glinting on me. "Did the fire chase you? Whar's Leslie?"
"Buell fired the slash. Penetier is burning. Dick and Hiram sent me back to the pool below, and then didn't come. They got caught—oh!... I'm afraid—lost!... Then I remembered you fellows. The fire's coming—it's awful—we must fly!"
"You thought of us?" Herky's voice sounded queer and strangled. "Bud! Bill! Did you hear thet? Wal, wal!"
While he muttered on I cut Bill's bonds. He rose without a word. Bud was almost unconscious. He had struggled terribly. His heels had dug a hole in the hard clay floor; his wrists were skinned; his mouth and chin covered with earth, probably from his having bitten the ground in his agony. Herky helped him up and gave him a drink from a little pocket-flask.
"Herky, if you think you've rid some in your day, look at thet hoss," said Bill, coolly, from the door. He eyed me coolly; in fact, he was as cool as if there were no fire on Penetier. But Bud was white and sick, and Herky flaming with excitement.
"We hain't got a chance. Listen! Thet roar! She's hummin'."
"It's runnin' up the draw. We don't stand no showdown in hyar. Grab a hoss now, an' we'll try to head acrost the ridge."
I remounted Target, and the three men caught horses and climbed up bareback. Bill led the way across the glade, up the slope, into the level forest. There we broke into a gallop. The air upon this higher ground was dark and thick, but not so hard to breathe as that lower down. We pressed on. For a while the roar receded, and almost deadened. Then it grew clearer again' filled out, and swelled. Bud wanted to sheer off to the left. Herky swore we were being surrounded. Bill turned a deaf ear to them. From my own sense of direction I fancied we were going wrong, but Bill was so cool he gave me courage. Soon a blue, windy haze, shrouding the giant pines ahead, caused Bill to change his course.
"Do you know whar you're headin'?" yelled Herky, high above the roar.
"I hain't got the least idee, Herky," shouted Bill, as cool as could be, "but I guess somewhar whar it'll be hot!"
We were lost in the forest and almost surrounded by fire, if the roar was anything to tell by. We galloped on, always governed by the roar, always avoiding the slope up the mountain. If we once started up that with the fire in our rear we were doomed. Perhaps there were times when the wind deceived us. It was hard to tell. Anyway, we kept on, growing more bewildered. Bud looked like a dead man already and reeled in his saddle. The horses were getting hard to manage, and the wind was strengthening and puffed at us from all quarters. Bill still looked cool, but the last vestige of color had faded from his face. These things boded ill. Herky had grown strangely silent, which fact was the worst of all for me. For that tough, scarred, reckless little wretch to hold his tongue was the last straw.
The air freshened somewhat, and the forest lightened. Almost abruptly we rode out to the edge of a great, wide canyon. It must have crossed the forest at right angles to the canyon we had left. It was twice as wide and deep as any I had yet seen. In the bottom wound a broad brook.
"Which way now?" asked Herky.
Bill shook his head. Far to our right a pall of smoke moved over the tree-tops, to our left was foggy gloom, behind rolled the unceasing roar. We all looked straight across. Probably each of us harbored the same thought. Before that wind the fire would leap the canyon in flaming bounds, and on the opposite level was the thick pitch-pine forest of Penetier proper. So far we had been among the foot-hills. We dared not enter the real forest with that wild-fire back of us. Momentarily we stood irresolute. It was a pause full of hopelessness, such as might have come to tired deer, close harried by hounds.
The winding brook and the brown slope, comparatively bare of trees, brought me a sudden inspiration.
"Back-fire! Back-fire!" I cried to my companions, in wild appeal. "We must back-fire. It's our chance! Here's the place!"
Bud scowled and Herky grumbled, but Bill grasped at the idea.
"I've heerd of back-firin'. The rangers do it. But how? How?"
They caught his hope, and their haggard faces lightened.
"Kid, we ain't forest rangers," said Herky. "Do you know what you're talkin' about?"
"Yes, yes! Come on! We'll back-fire!"
I led the way down the slope, and they came close at my heels. I rode into the shallow brook, and dismounted about the middle between the banks. I hung my coat on the pommel of my saddle.
"Bud, you and Bill hold the horses here!" I shouted, intensely excited. "Herky, have you matches?"
"Nary a match."
"Hyar's a box," said Bill, tossing it.
"Come on, Herky! You run up the brook. Light a match, and drop it every hundred feet. Be sure it catches. Lucky there's little wind down here. Go as far as you can. I'll run down!"
We splashed out of the brook and leaped up the bank. The grass was long and dry. There was brush near by, and the pine-needle mats almost bordered the bank. I struck a match and dropped it.
Sis-s-s! Flare! It was almost like dropping a spark into gunpowder. The flame ran quickly, reached the pine-needles, then sputtered and fizzed into a big blaze. The first pine-tree exploded and went off like a rocket. We were startled by the sound and the red, up-leaping pillar of fire. Sudden heat shot back at us as if from a furnace. Great sparks began to fall.
"It's goin'!" yelled Herky-Jerky, his voice ringing strong. He clapped his hat down on my bare head. Then he started running up-stream.
I darted in the opposite direction. I heard Bud and Bill yelling, and the angry crack and hiss of the fire. A few rods down I stopped, struck another match, and lit the grass. There was a sputter and flash. Then the flame flared up, spread like running quicksilver, and, meeting the pine-needles, changed to red. I ran on. There was a loud flutter behind me, then a crack almost like a shot, then a seething roar. Another pine had gone off. As I stopped to strike the third match there came three distinct reports, and then others that seemed dulled in a windy roar. I raced onward, daring only once to look back. A fearful sight met my gaze. The slope was a red wave. The pines were tufts of flame. The air was filled with steaming clouds of whirling smoke. Then I fled onward again.
Match after match I struck, and when the box was empty I must have been a mile, two miles, maybe more, from the starting-point. I was wringing-wet, and there was a piercing pain in my side. I plunged across the brook, and in as deep water as I could find knelt down to cover all but my face. Then, with laboring breaths that bubbled the water near my mouth, I kept still and watched.
The back-fire which I had started swept up over the slope and down the brook like a charge of red lancers. Spears of flame led the advance. The flame licked up the dry surface-grass and brush, and, meeting the pines, circled them in a whirlwind of fire, like lightning flashing upward. Then came prolonged reports, and after that a long, blistering roar in the tree-tops. Even as I gazed, appalled in the certainty of a horrible fate, I thrilled at the grand spectacle. Fire had always fascinated me. The clang of the engines and the call of "Fire!" would tear me from any task or play. But I had never known what fire was. I knew now. Storms of air and sea were nothing compared to this. It was the greatest force in nature. It was fire. On one hand, I seemed cool and calculated the chances; on the other, I had flashes in my brain, and kept crying out crazily, in a voice like a whisper: "Fire! Fire! Fire!"
But presently the wall of fire rolled by and took the roar with it. Dense billows of smoke followed, and hid everything in opaque darkness. I heard the hiss of failing sparks and the crackle of burning wood, and occasionally the crash of a failing branch. It was intolerably hot, but I could stand the heat better than the air. I coughed and strangled. I could not get my breath. My eyes smarted and burned. Crawling close under the bank, I leaned against it and waited.
Some hours must have passed. I suffered, not exactly pain, but a discomfort that was almost worse. By-and-by the air cleared a little. Rifts in the smoke drifted over me, always toward the far side of the canyon. Twice I crawled out upon the bank, but the heat drove me back into the water. The snow-water from the mountain-peaks had changed from cold to warm; still, it gave a relief from the hot blast of air. More time dragged by. Weary to the point of collapse, I grew not to care about anything.
Then the yellow fog lightened, and blew across the brook and lifted and split. The parts of the canyon-slope that I could see were seared and blackened. The pines were columns of living coals. The fire was eating into their hearts. Presently they would snap at the trunk, crash down, and burn to ashes. Wreathes of murky smoke circled them, and drifted aloft to join the overhanging clouds.
I floundered out on the bank, and began to walk up-stream. After all, it was not so very hot, but I felt queer. I did not seem to be able to step where I looked or see where I stepped. Still, that caused me no worry. The main thing was that the fire had not yet crossed the brook. I wanted to feel overjoyed at that, but I was too tired. Anyway I was sure the fire had crossed below or above. It would be tearing down on this side presently, and then I would have to crawl into the brook or burn up. It did not matter much which I had to do. Then I grew dizzy, my legs trembled, my feet lost all sense of touching the ground. I could not go much farther. Just then I heard a shout. It was close by. I answered, and heard heavy steps. I peered through the smoky haze. Something dark moved up in the gloom.
"Ho, kid! Thar you are!" I felt a strong arm go round my waist. "Wal, wal!" That was Herky. His voice sounded glad. It roused a strange eagerness in me; his rough greeting seemed to bring me back from a distance.
"All wet, but not burned none, I see. We kinder was afeared.... Say, kid, thet back-fire, now. It was a dandy. It did the biz. Our whiskers was singed, but we're safe. An' kid, it was your game, played like a man."
After that his voice grew faint, and I felt as if I were walking in a dream.
That dreadful feeling of motion went away, and I became unconscious of everything. When I awoke the sun was gleaming dimly through thin films of smoke. I was lying in a pleasant little ravine with stunted pines fringing its slopes. The brook bowled merrily over stones.
Bud snored in the shade of a big boulder. Herky whistled as he broke dead branches into fagots for a campfire. Bill was nowhere in sight. I saw several of the horses browsing along the edge of the water.
My drowsy eyelids fell back again. When I awoke a long time seemed to have passed. The air was clearer, the sky darker, and the sun had gone behind the peaks. I saw Bill and Herky skinning a deer.
"Where are we?" I asked, sitting up.
"Hello, kid!" replied Herky, cheerily. "We come up to the head of the canyon, thet's all. How're you feelin'?"
"I'm all right, only tired. Where's the forest fire?"
"It's most burned out by now. It didn't jump the canyon into the big forest. Thet back-fire did the biz. Say, kid, wasn't settin' off them pines an' runnin' fer your life jest like bein' in a battle?"
"It certainly was. Herky, how long will we be penned up here?"
"Only a day or two. I reckon we'd better not risk takin' you back to Holston till we're sure about the fire. Anyways, kid, you need rest. You're all played out."
Indeed, I was so weary that it took an effort to lift my hand. A strange lassitude made me indifferent. But Herky's calm mention of taking me back to Holston changed the color of my mood. I began to feel more cheerful. The meal we ate was scant enough—biscuits and steaks of broiled venison with a pinch of salt; but, starved as we were, it was more than satisfactory. Herky and Bill were absurdly eager to serve me. Even Bud was kind to me, though he still wore conspicuously over his forehead the big bruise I had given him. After I had eaten I began to gain strength. But my face was puffed from the heat, my injured arm was stiff and sore, and my legs seemed never to have been used before.
Darkness came on quickly. The dew fell heavily, and the air grew chilly. Our blazing campfire was a comfort. Bud and Bill carried in logs for firewood, while Herky made me a bed of dry pine needles.
"It'll be some cold tonight," he said, "an' we'll hev to hug the fire. Now if we was down in the foot-hills we'd be warmer, hey? Look thar!"
He pointed down the ravine, and I saw a great white arc of light extending up into the steely sky.
"The forest fire?"
"Yep, she's burnin' some. But you oughter seen it last night. Not thet it ain't worth seein' jest now. Come along with me."
He led me where the ravine opened wide. I felt, rather than saw, a steep slope beneath. Far down was a great patch of fire. It was like a crazy quilt, here dark, there light, with streaks and stars and streams of fire shining out of the blackness. Masses of slow-moving smoke overhung the brighter areas. The night robbed the forest fire of its fierceness and lent it a kind of glory. The fire had ceased to move; it had spent its force, run its race, and was now dying. But I could not forget what it had been, what it had done. Thousands of acres of magnificent pines had perished. The shade and color and beauty of that part of the forest had gone. The heart of the great trees was now slowly rolling away in those dark, weird clouds of smoke. I was sad for the loss and sick with fear for Dick and Hiram.
Herky must have known my mind.
"You needn't feel bad, kid. Thet's only a foothill or so of Penetier gone up in smoke. An' Buell's sawmill went, too. It's almost a sure thing thet Leslie an' old Bent got out safe, though they must be doin' some tall worryin' about you. I wonder how they feel about me an' Bud an' Bill? A little prematoore roastin' for us, eh? Wal, wal!"
We went back to the camp. I lay down near the fire and fell asleep. Some time in the night I awoke. The fire was still burning brightly. Bud and Bill were lying with their backs to it almost close enough to scorch. Herky sat in his shirtsleeves. The smoke of his pipe and the smoke of the campfire wafted up together. Then I saw and felt that he had covered me with his coat and vest.
I slept far into the next day. Herky was in camp alone. The others had gone, Herky said, and he would not tell me where. He did not appear as cheerful as usual. I suspected he had quarreled with his companions, very likely about what was to be done with me. The day passed, and again I slept. Herky awakened me before it was light.
"Come, kid, we'll rustle in to Holston today."
We cooked our breakfast of venison, and then Herky went in search of the horses. They had browsed far up the ravine, and the dawn had broken by the time he returned. Target stood well to be saddled, nor did he bolt when I climbed up. Perhaps that ride I gave him had chastened and subdued his spirit. Well, it had nearly killed me. Herky mounted the one horse left, a sorry-looking pack-pony, and we started down the ravine.
An hour of steady descent passed by before we caught sight of any burned forest land. Then as we descended into the big canyon we turned a curve and saw, far ahead to the left, a black, smoky, hideous slope. We kept to the right side of the brook and sheered off just as we reached a point opposite, where the burned line began. Fire had run up that side till checked by bare weathered slopes and cliffs. As far down the brook as eye could see through the smoky haze there stretched that black line of charred, spear-pointed pines, some glowing, some blazing, all smoking.
From time to time, as we climbed up the slope, I looked back. The higher I got the more hideous became the outlook over the burned district. I was glad when Herky led the way into the deep shade of level forest, shutting out the view. It would take a hundred years to reforest those acres denuded of their timber by the fire of a few days. But as hour after hour went by, with our trail leading through miles and miles of the same old forest that had bewitched me, I began to feel a little less grief at the thought of what the fire had destroyed. It was a loss, yet only a small part of vast Penetier. If only my friends had gotten out alive!
Herky was as relentless in his travelling as I had found him in some other ways. He kept his pony at a trot. The trail was open, we made fast time, and when the sun had begun to cast a shadow before us we were going down-hill. Busy with the thought of my friends, I scarcely noted the passing of time. It was a surprise to me when we rode down the last little foot-hill, out into the scattered pines, and saw Holston only a few miles across the sage-flat.
"Wal, kid, we've come to the partin' of the ways," said Herky, with a strange smile on his smug face.
"Herky, won't you ride in with me?"
"Naw, I reckon it'd not be healthy fer me."
"But you haven't even a saddle or blanket or any grub."
"I've a friend across hyar a ways, a rancher, an' he'll fix me up. But, kid, I'd like to hev thet hoss. He was Buell's, an' Buell owed me money. Now I calkilate you can't take Target back East with you, an' you might as well let me have him."
"Sure, Herky." I jumped off at once, led the horse over, and held out the bridle. Herky dismounted, and began fumbling with the stirrup straps.
"Your legs are longer'n mine," he explained.
"Oh yes, Herky, I almost forgot to return your hat," I said, removing the wide sombrero. It had a wonderful band made of horsehair and a buckle of silver with a strange device.
"Wal, you keep the hat," he replied, with his back turned. "Greaser stole your hoss an' your outfit's lost, an' you might want somethin' to remember your—your friends in Arizony.... Thet hat ain't much, but, say, the buckle was an Injun's I shot, an' I made the band when I was in jail in Yuma."
"Thank you, Herky. I'll keep it, though I'd never need anything to make me remember Arizona—or you."
Herky swung his bow-legs over Target and I got astride the lean-backed pony. There did not seem to be any more to say, yet we both lingered.
"Good-bye, Herky, I'm glad I met you," I said, offering my hand.
He gave it a squeeze that nearly crushed my fingers. His keen little eyes gleamed, but he turned away without another word, and, slapping Target on the flank, rode off under the trees.
I put the hat back on my head and watched Herky for a moment. His silence and abrupt manner were unlike him, but what struck me most was the fact that in our last talk every word had been clean and sincere. Somehow it pleased me. Then I started the pony toward Holston.
He was tired and I was ready to drop, and those last few miles were long. We reached the outskirts of the town perhaps a couple of hours before sundown. A bank of clouds had spread out of the west and threatened rain.
The first person I met was Cless, and he put the pony in his corral and hurried me round to the hotel. On the way he talked so fast and said so much that I was bewildered before we got there. The office was full of men, and Cless shouted to them. There was the sound of a chair scraping hard on the floor, then I felt myself clasped by brawny arms. After that all was rather hazy in my mind. I saw Dick and Jim and old Hiram, though, I could not see them distinctly, and I heard them all talking, all questioning at once. Then I was talking in a somewhat silly way, I thought, and after that some one gave me a hot, nasty drink, and I felt the cool sheets of a bed.
The next morning all was clear. Dick came to my room and tried to keep me in bed, but I refused to stay. We went down to breakfast, and sat at a table with Jim and Hiram. It seemed to me that I could not answer any questions till I had asked a thousand.
What news had they for me? Buell had escaped, after firing the slash. His sawmill and lumber-camp and fifty thousand acres of timber had been burned. The fire had in some way been confined to the foot-hills. It had rained all night, so the danger of spreading was now over. My letter had brought the officers of the forest service; even the Chief, who had been travelling west over the Santa Fe, had stopped off and was in Holston then. There had been no arrests, nor would there be, unless Buell or Stockton could be found. A new sawmill was to be built by the service. Buell's lumbermen would have employment in the mill and as rangers in the forest.
But I was more interested in matters which Dick seemed to wish to avoid.
"How did you get out of the burning forest?" I asked, for the second time.
"We didn't get out. We went back to the pool where we sent you. The pack-ponies were there, but you were gone. By George! I was mad, and then I was just broken up. I was... afraid you'd been burned. We weathered the fire all right, and then rode in to Holston. Now the mystery is where were you?"
"Then you saved all the ponies?"
"Yes, and brought your outfit in. But, Ken, we—that was awful of us to forget those poor fellows tied fast in the cabin." Dick looked haggard, there was a dark gloom in his eyes, and he gulped. Then I knew why he avoided certain references to the fire. "To be burned alive... horrible! I'll never get over it. It'll haunt me always. Of course we had to save our own lives; we had no time to go to them. Yet—"
"Don't let it worry you, Dick," I interrupted.
"What do you mean?" he asked, slowly.
"Why, I beat the fire up to the cabin, that's all. Buell's horse can run some. I cut the men loose, and we made up across the ridge, got lost, surrounded by fire, and then I got Herky to help me start a back-fire in that big canyon."
"Back-fire!" exclaimed Dick, slamming the table with his big fist. Then he settled down and looked at me. Hiram looked at me. Jim looked at me, and not one of them said a word for what seemed a long time. It brought the blood to my face. But for all my embarrassment it was sweet praise. At last Dick broke the silence.
"Ken Ward, this stumps me I... Tell us about it."
So I related my adventures from the moment they had left me till we met again.
"It was a wild boy's trick, Ken—that ride in the very face of fire in a dry forest. But, thank God, you saved the lives of those fellows." "Amen!" exclaimed old Hiram, fervently. "My lad, you saved Penetier, too; thar's no doubt on it. The fire was sweepin' up the canyon, an' it would have crossed the brook somewhars in thet stretch you back-fired."
"Ken, you shore was born in Texas," drawl Jim Williams.
His remark was unrelated to our talk, I did not know what he meant by it; nevertheless it pleased me more than anything that had ever been said me in my life.
Then came the reading of letters that had a rived for me. In Hal's letter, first and last harped on having been left behind. Father sent me a check, and wrote that in the event of a trouble in the lumber district he trusted me to take the first train for Harrisburg. That, I knew, meant that I must get out of my ragged clothes. That I did, and packed them up—all except Herky sombrero, which I wore. Then I went to the railroad station to see the schedule, and I compromised with father by deciding to take the limited. The fast east-bound train had gone a little before, and the next one did not leave until six o'clock. They would give me half a day with my friends.
When I returned to the hotel Dick was looking for me. He carried me off up-stairs to a hall full of men. At one end were tables littered with papers, and here men were signing their name Dick explained that forest rangers were being paid and new ones hired. Then he introduced me officers of the service and the Chief. I knew by the way they looked at me that Dick had been talking. It made me so tongue-tied that I could not find my voice when the Chief spoke to me and shook my hand warmly. He was a tall man, with a fine face and kind eyes and hair just touched with gray.
"Kenneth Ward," he went on, pleasantly, "I hope that letter of introduction I dictated for you some time ago has been of some service."
"I haven't had a chance to use it yet," I blurted out, and I dived into my pocket to bring forth the letter. It was wrinkled, soiled, and had been soaked with water. I began to apologize for its disreputable appearance when he interrupted me.
"I've heard about the ducking you got and all the rest of it," he said, smiling. Then his manner changed to one of business and hurry.
"You are studying forestry?"
"Yes, sir. I'm going to college this fall."
"My friend in Harrisburg wrote me of your ambition and, I may say, aptness for the forest service. I'm very much pleased. We need a host of bright young fellows. Here, look at this map."
He drew my attention to a map lying on the table, and made crosses and tracings with a pencil while he talked.
"This is Penetier. Here are the Arizona Peaks. The heavy shading represents timbered land. All these are canyons. Here's Oak Creek Canyon, the one the fire bordered. Now I want you to tell me how you worked that back-fire, and, if you can, mark the line you fired."
This appeared to me an easy task, and certainly one I was enthusiastic over. I told him just how I had come to the canyon, and how I saw that the fire would surely cross there, and that a back-fire was the only chance. Then, carefully studying the map, I marked off the three miles Herky and I had fired.
"Very good. You had help in this?"
"Yes. A fellow called Herky-Jerky. He was one of Buell's men who kept me a prisoner."
"But he turned out a pretty good sort, didn't he?"
"Indeed, yes, sir."
"Well, I'll try to locate him, and offer him a job in the service. Now, Mr. Ward, you've had special opportunities; you have an eye in your head, and you are interested in forestry. Perhaps you can help us. Personally I shall be most pleased to hear what you think might be done in Penetier."
I gasped and stared, and could scarcely believe my ears. But he was not joking; he was as serious as if he had addressed himself to one of his officers. I looked at them all, standing interested and expectant. Dick was as grave and erect as a deacon. Jim seemed much impressed. But old Hiram Bent, standing somewhat back of the others, deliberately winked at me.
But for that wink I never could have seized my opportunity. It made me remember my talks with Hiram. So I boiled down all that I had learned and launched it on the Chief. Whether I was brief or not, I was out of breath when I stopped. He appeared much surprised.
"Thank you," he said, finally. "You certainly have been observant." Then he turned to his officers. "Gentlemen, here's a new point of view from first-hand observation. I call it splendid conservation. It's in the line of my policy. It considers the settler and lumberman instead of combating him."
He shook hands with me again. "You may be sure I'll not lose sight of you. Of course you will be coming West next summer, after your term at college?"
"Yes, sir, I want to—if Dick—"
He smiled as I hesitated. That man read my mind like an open book.
"Mr. Leslie goes to the Coconina Forest as head forest ranger. Mr. Williams goes as his assistant. And I have appointed Mr. Bent game warden in the same forest. You may spend next summer with them."
I stammered some kind of thanks, and found myself going out and down-stairs with my friends.
"Oh, Dick! Wasn't he fine?... Say, where's Coconina Forest?"
"It's over across the desert and beyond the Grand Canyon of Arizona. Penetier is tame compared to Coconina. I'm afraid to let you come out there."
"I don't have to ask you, Mr. Dick," I replied.
"Lad, I'll need a young fellar bad next summer," said old Hiram, with twinkling eyes. "One as can handle a rope, an' help tie up lions an' sich."
"Oh! my bear cub! I'd forgotten him. I wanted to take him home."
"Wal, thar weren't no sense in thet, youngster, fer you couldn't do it. He was a husky cub."
"I hate to give up my mustang, too. Dick, have you heard of the Greaser?"
"Not yet, but he'll be trailing into Holston before long."
Jim Williams removed his pipe, and puffed a cloud of white smoke.
"Ken, I shore ain't fergot Greaser," he drawled with his slow smile. "Hev you any pertickler thing you want did to him?"
"Jim, don't kill him!" I burst out, impetuously, and then paused, frightened out of speech. Why I was afraid of him I did not know, he seemed so easy-going, so careless—almost sweet, like a woman; but then I had seen his face once with a look that I could never forget.
"Wal, Ken, I'll dodge Greaser if he ever crosses my trail again."
That promise was a relief. I knew Greaser would come to a bad end, and certainly would get his just deserts; but I did not want him punished any more for what he had done to me.
Those last few hours sped like winged moments. We talked and planned a little, I divided my outfit among my friends, and then it was time for the train. That limited train had been late, so they said, every day for a week, and this day it was on time to the minute. I had no luck.
My friends bade me good-bye as if they expected to see me next day, and I said good-bye calmly. I had my part to play. My short stay with them had made me somehow different. But my coolness was deceitful. Dick helped me on the train and wrung my hand again.
"Good-bye, Ken. It's been great to have you out.... Next year you'll be back in the forests!"
He had to hurry to get off. The train started as I looked out of my window. There stood the powerful hunter, his white head bare, and he was waving his hat. Jim leaned against a railing with his sleepy, careless smile. I caught a gleam of the blue gun swinging at his hip. Dick's eyes shone warm and blue; he was shouting something. Then they all passed back out of sight. So my gaze wandered to the indistinct black line of Penetier, to the purple slopes, and up to the cold, white mountain-peaks, and Dick's voice rang in my ears like a prophecy: "You'll be back in the forests."