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Little Black Shack's All Burnt Up








From: The Flying U's Last Stand

It is a penitentiary offense for anyone to set fire to prairie grass or
timber; and if you know the havoc which one blazing match may work upon
dry grassland when the wind is blowing free, you will not wonder at
the penalty for lighting that match with deliberate intent to set the
prairie afire.

Within five minutes after H. J. Owens slipped the bit of mirror back
into his pocket after flashing a signal that the Kid was riding alone
upon the trail, a line of fire several rods long was creeping up out of
a grassy hollow to the hilltop beyond, whence it would go racing away
to the east and the north, growing bigger and harder to fight with every
grass tuft it fed on.

The Happy Family were working hard that day upon the system of
irrigation by which they meant to reclaim and make really valuable
their desert claims. They happened to be, at the time when the fire
was started, six or seven miles away, wrangling over the best means of
getting their main ditch around a certain coulee without building a lot
of expensive flume. A surveyor would have been a blessing, at this point
in the undertaking; but a surveyor charged good money for his services,
and the Happy Family were trying to be very economical with money; with
time, and effort, and with words they were not so frugal.

The fire had been burning for an hour and had spread so alarmingly
before the gusty breeze that it threatened several claim-shacks before
they noticed the telltale, brownish tint to the sunlight and smelled
other smoke than the smoke of the word-battle then waging fiercely among
them. They dropped stakes, flags and ditch-level and ran to where their
horses waited sleepily the pleasure of their masters.

They reached the level of the benchland to see disaster swooping down
upon them like a race-horse. They did not stop then to wonder how the
fire had started, or why it had gained such headway. They raced their
horses after sacks, and after the wagon and team and water barrels with
which to fight the flames. For it was not the claim-shacks in its path
which alone were threatened. The grass that was burning meant a great
deal to the stock, and therefore to the general welfare of every settler
upon that bench, be he native or newcomer.

Florence Grace Hallman had, upon one of her periodical visits among her
"clients," warned them of the danger of prairie fires and urged them to
plow and burn guards around all their buildings. A few of the settlers
had done so and were comparatively safe in the face of that leaping, red
line. But there were some who had delayed--and these must fight now if
they would escape.

The Happy Family, to a man, had delayed; rather they had not considered
that there was any immediate danger from fire; it was too early in the
season for the grass to be tinder dry, as it would become a month or six
weeks later. They were wholly unprepared for the catastrophe, so far as
any expectation of it went. But for all that they knew exactly what to
do and how to go about doing it, and they did not waste a single minute
in meeting the emergency.

While the Kid was riding with H. J. Owens into the hills, his friends,
the bunch, were riding furiously in the opposite direction. And that
was exactly what had been planned beforehand. There was an absolute
certainty in the minds of those who planned that it would be so,
Florence Grace Hallman, for instance, knew just what would furnish
complete occupation for the minds and the hands of the Happy Family
and of every other man in that neighborhood, that afternoon. Perhaps a
claim-shack or two would go up in smoke and some grass would burn. But
when one has a stubborn disposition and is fighting for prestige and
revenge and the success of ones business, a shack or two and a few acres
of prairie grass do not count for very much.

For the rest of that afternoon the boys of the Flying U fought side by
side with hated nesters and told the inexperienced how best to fight.
For the rest of that afternoon no one remembered the Kid, or wondered
why H. J. Owens was not there in the grimy line of fire-fighters who
slapped doggedly at the leaping flames with sacks kept wet from the
barrels of water hauled here and there as they were needed. No one had
time to call the roll and see who was missing among the settlers. No one
dreamed that this mysterious fire that had crept up out of a coulee
and spread a black, smoking blanket over the hills where it passed, was
nothing more nor lees than a diversion while a greater crime was being
committed behind their backs.

In spite of them the fire, beaten out of existence at one point, gained
unexpected fury elsewhere and raced on. In spite of them women and
children were in actual danger of being burned to death, and rushed
weeping from flimsy shelter to find safety in the nearest barren coulee.
The sick lady whom the Little Doctor had been tending was carried out on
her bed and laid upon the blackened prairie, hysterical from the fright
she had received. The shack she had lately occupied smoked while
the tarred paper on the roof crisped and curled; and then the whole
structure burst into flames and sent blazing bits of paper and boards to
spread the fire faster.

Fire guards which the inexperienced settlers thought safe were jumped
without any perceptible check upon the flames. The wind was just right
for the fanning of the fire. It shifted now and then erratically and
sent the yellow line leaping in new directions. Florence Grace Hallman
was in Dry Lake that day, and she did not hear until after dark how
completely her little diversion had been a success; how more than
half of her colony had been left homeless and hungry upon the charred
prairie. Florence Grace Hallman would not have relished her supper, I
fear, had the news reached her earlier in the evening.

At Antelope Coulee the Happy Family and such of the settlers as they
could muster hastily for the fight, made a desperate stand against
the common enemy. Flying U Coulee was safe, thanks to the permanent
fire-guards which the Old Man maintained year after year as a matter
of course. But there were the claims of the Happy Family and all the
grassland east of there which must be saved.

Men drove their work horses at a gallop after plows, and when they
had brought them they lashed the horses into a trot while they plowed
crooked furrows in the sun-baked prairie sod, just over the eastern
rim of Antelope Coulee. The Happy Family knelt here and there along the
fresh-turned sod, and started a line of fire that must beat up against
the wind until it met the flames, rushing before it. Backfiring is
always a more or less, ticklish proceeding, and they would not trust the
work to stranger.

Every man of them took a certain stretch of furrow to watch, and ran
backward and forward with blackened, frayed sacks to beat out the
wayward flames that licked treacherously through the smallest break in
the line of fresh soil. They knew too well the danger of those little,
licking flame tongues; not one was left to live and grow and race
leaping away through the grass.

They worked--heavens, how they worked!--and they stopped the fire there
on the rim of Antelope Coulee. Florence Grace Hallman would have been
sick with fury, had she seen that dogged line of fighters, and the
ragged hem of charred black ashes against the yellow-brown, which showed
how well those men whom she hated had fought.

So the fire was stopped well outside the fence which marked the boundary
of the Happy Family's claims. All west of there and far to the north the
hills and the coulees lay black as far as one could see--which was to
the rim of the hills which bordered Dry Lake valley on the east. Here
and there a claim-shack stood forlorn amid the blackness. Here and there
a heap of embers still smoked and sent forth an occasional spitting of
sparks when a gust fanned the heap. Men, women and children stood about
blankly or wandered disconsolately here and there, coughing in the acrid
clouds of warm grass cinders kicked up by their own lagging feet.

No one missed the Kid. No one dreamed that he was lost again. Chip was
with the Happy Family and did not know that the Kid had left the ranch

that afternoon. The Little Doctor had taken it for granted that he had
gone with his daddy, as he so frequently did; and with his daddy and the
whole Happy Family to look after him, she never once doubted that he was
perfectly safe, even among the fire-fighters. She supposed he would be
up on the seat beside Patsy, probably, proudly riding on the wagon that
hauled the water barrels.

The Little Doctor had troubles of her own to occupy her mind She had
ridden hurriedly up the hill and straight to the shack of the sick
woman, when first she discovered that the prairie was afire. And she had
found the sick woman lying on a makeshift bed on the smoking, black area
that was pathetically safe now from fire because there was nothing more
to burn.

"Little black shack's all burnt up! Everything's black now. Black hills,
black hollows, black future, black world, black hearts--everything
matches--everything's black. Sky's black, I'm black--you're
black--little black shack won't have to stand all alone any more--little
black shack's just black ashes--little black shack's all burnt up!" And
then the woman laughed shrilly, with that terrible, meaningless laughter
of hysteria.

She was a pretty woman, and young. Her hair was that bright shade of red
that goes with a skin like thin, rose-tinted ivory. Her eyes were big
and so dark a blue that they sometimes looked black, and her mouth was
sweet and had a tired droop to match the mute pathos of her eyes. Her
husband was a coarse lout of a man who seldom spoke to her when they
were together. The Little Doctor had felt that all the tragedy of
womanhood and poverty and loneliness was synthesized in this woman with
the unusual hair and skin and eyes and expression. She had been coming
every day to see her; the woman was rather seriously ill, and needed
better care than she could get out there on the bald prairie, even with
the Little Doctor to watch over her. If she died her face would haunt
the Little Doctor always. Even if she did not die she would remain a
vivid memory. Just now even the Little Doctor's mother instinct was
submerged under her professional instincts and her woman sympathy. She
did not stop to wonder whether she was perfectly sure that the Kid was
with Chip. She took it for granted and dismissed the Kid from her mind,
and worked to save the woman.

Yes, the little diversion of a prairie fire that would call all hands
to the westward so that the Kid might be lured away in another direction
without the mishap of being seen, proved a startling success. As a
diversion it could scarcely be improved upon--unless Florence Grace
Hallman had ordered a wholesale massacre or something like that.





Next: Rosemary Allen Does A Small Sum In Addition

Previous: The Kid Is Used For A Pawn In The Game



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