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Pine Ridge Range Ablaze








From: Her Prairie Knight

At dusk that night a glow was in the southern sky, and the wind carried
the pungent odor of burning grass. Dick went out on the porch after
dinner, and sniffed the air uneasily.

"I don't much like the look of it," he admitted to Sir Redmond. "It
smells pretty strong, to be across the river. I sent a couple of the
boys out to look a while ago. If it's this side of the river we'll have
to get a move on."

"It will be the range land, I take it, if it's on this side," Sir
Redmond remarked.

Just then a man thundered through the lane and up to the very steps of
the porch, and when he stopped the horse he was riding leaned forward
and his legs shook with exhaustion.

"The Pine Ridge Range is afire, Mr. Lansell," the man announced quietly.

Dick took a long pull at his cigar and threw it away. "Have the boys
throw some barrels and sacks into a wagon--and git!" He went inside and
grabbed his hat, and when he turned Sir Redmond was at his elbow.

"I'm going, too, Dick," cried Beatrice, who always seemed to hear
anything that promised excitement. "I never saw a prairie-fire in my
life."

"It's ten miles off," said Dick shortly, taking the steps at a jump.

"I don't care if it's twenty--I'm going. Sir Redmond, wait for me!"

"Be-atrice!" cried her mother detainingly; but Beatrice was gone to get
ready. A quick job she made of it; she threw a dark skirt over her
thin, white one, slipped into the nearest jacket, snatched her
riding-gauntlets off a chair where she had thrown them, and then
couldn't find her hat. That, however, did not trouble her. Down in the
hall she appropriated one of Dick's, off the hall tree, and announced
herself ready. Sir Redmond laughed, caught her hand, and they raced
together down to the stables before her mother had fully grasped the
situation.

"Isn't Rex saddled, Dick?"

Dick, his foot in the stirrup, stopped long enough to glance over his
shoulder at her. "You ready so soon? Jim, saddle Rex for Miss Lansell."
He swung up into the saddle.

"Aren't you going to wait, Dick?"

"Can't. Milord can bring you." And Dick was away on the run.

Men were hurrying here and there, every move counting something done.
While she stood there a wagon rattled out from the shadow of a haystack,
with empty water-barrels dancing a mad jig behind the high seat, where
the driver perched with feet braced and a whip in his hand. After him
dashed four or five riders, silent and businesslike. In a moment they
were mere fantastic shadows galloping up the hill through the smothery
gloom.

Then came Jim, leading Rex and a horse for himself; Sir Redmond had
saddled his gray and was waiting. Beatrice sprang into the saddle and
took the lead, with nerves a-tingle. The wind that rushed against her
face was hot and reeking with smoke. Her nostrils drank greedily the
tang it carried.

"You gipsy!" cried Sir Redmond, peering at her through the murky gloom.

"This--is living!" she laughed, and urged Rex faster.

So they raced recklessly over the hills, toward where the night was
aglow. Before them the wagon pounded over untrailed prairie sod, with
shadowy figures fleeing always before.

Here, wild cattle rushed off at either side, to stop and eye them
curiously as they whirled past. There, a coyote, squatting unseen upon
a distant pinnacle, howled, long-drawn and quavering, his weird protest
against the solitudes in which he wandered.

The dusk deepened to dark, and they could no longer see the racing
shadows. The rattle of the wagon came mysteriously back to them through
the black.

Once Rex stumbled over a rock and came near falling, but Beatrice only
laughed and urged him on, unheeding Sir Redmond's call to ride slower.

They splashed through a shallow creek, and came upon the wagon, halted
that the cowboys might fill the barrels with water. Then they passed by,
and when they heard them following the wagon no longer rattled glibly
along, but chuckled heavily under its load.

The dull, red glow brightened to orange. Then, breasting at last a long
hill, they came to the top, and Beatrice caught her breath at what lay
below.

A jagged line of leaping flame cut clean through the dark of the coulee.
The smoke piled rosily above and before, and the sullen roar of it
clutched the senses--challenging, sinister. Creeping stealthily,
relentlessly, here a thin gash of yellow hugging close to the earth,
there a bold, bright wall of fire, it swept the coulee from rim to rim.

"The wind is carrying it from us," Sir Redmond was saying in her ear.
"Are you afraid to stop here alone? I ought to go down and lend a hand."

Beatrice drew a long gasp. "Oh, no, I'm not afraid. Go; there is Dick,
down there."

"You're sure you won't mind?" He hesitated, dreading to leave her.

"No, no! Go on--they need you."

Sir Redmond turned and rode down the ridge toward the flames. His
straight figure was silhouetted sharply against the glow.

Beatrice slipped off her horse and sat down upon a rock, dead to
everything but the fiendish beauty of the scene spread out below her.
Millions of sparks danced in and out among the smoke wreaths which
curled upward--now black, now red, now a dainty rose. Off to the left a
coyote yapped shrilly, ending with his mournful howl.

Beatrice shivered from sheer ecstasy. This was a world she had never
before seen--a world of hot, smoke-sodden wind, of dead-black shadows
and flame-bright light; of roar and hoarse bellowing and sharp crackles;
of calm, star-sprinkled sky above--and in the distance the uncanny
howling of a coyote.

Time had no reckoning there. She saw men running to and fro in the
glare, disappearing in a downward swirl of smoke, coming to view again
in the open beyond. Always their arms waved rhythmically downward,
beating the ragged line of yellow with water-soaked sacks. The trail
they left was a wavering, smoke-traced rim of sullen black, where before
had been gay, dancing, orange light. In places the smolder fanned to new
life behind them and licked greedily at the ripe grass like hungry, red
tongues. One of these Beatrice watched curiously. It crept slyly into an
unburned hollow, and the wind, veering suddenly, pushed it out of sight
from the fighters and sent it racing merrily to the south. The main line
of fire beat doggedly up against the wind that a minute before had been
friendly, and fought bravely two foes instead of one. It dodged, ducked,
and leaped high, and the men beat upon it mercilessly.

But the little, new flame broadened and stood on tiptoes defiantly,
proud of the wide, black trail that kept stretching away behind it; and
Beatrice watched it, fascinated by its miraculous growth. It began
to crackle and send up smoke wreaths of its own, with sparks dancing
through; then its voice deepened and coarsened, till it roared quite
like its mother around the hill.

The smoke from the larger fire rolled back with the wind, and Beatrice
felt her eyes sting. Flakes of blackened grass and ashes rained upon
the hilltop, and Rex moved uneasily and pawed at the dry sod. To him a
prairie-fire was not beautiful--it was an enemy to run from. He twitched
his reins from Beatrice's heedless fingers and decamped toward home,
paying no attention whatever to the command of his mistress to stop.

Still Beatrice sat and watched the new fire, and was glad she chanced to
be upon the south end of a sharp-nosed hill, so that she could see
both ways. The blaze dove into a deep hollow, climbed the slope beyond,
leaped exultantly and bellowed its challenge. And, of a sudden, dark
forms sprang upon it and beat it cruelly, and it went black where they
struck, and only thin streamers of smoke told where it had been. Still
they beat, and struck, and struck again, till the fire died ingloriously
and the hillside to the south lay dark and still, as it had been at the
beginning.

Beatrice wondered who had done it. Then she came back to her
surroundings and realized that Rex had left her, and she was alone. She
shivered--this time not in ecstasy, but partly from loneliness--and
went down the hill toward where Dick and Sir Redmond and the others were
fighting steadily the larger fire, unconscious of the younger, new one
that had stolen away from them and was beaten to death around the hill.

Once in the coulee, she was compelled to take to the burnt ground, which
crisped hotly under her feet and sent up a rank, suffocating smell of
burned grass into her nostrils. The whole country was alight, and down
there the world seemed on fire. At times the smoke swooped blindingly,
and half strangled her. Her skirts, in passing, swept the black ashes
from grass roots which showed red in the night.

Picking her way carefully around the spots that glowed warningly,
shielding her face as well as she could from the smoke, she kept on
until she was close upon the fighters. Dick and Sir Redmond were working
side by side, the sacks they held rising and falling with the regularity
of a machine for minutes at a time. A group of strange horsemen galloped
up from the way she had come, followed by a wagon of water-barrels,
careering recklessly over the uneven ground. The horsemen stopped just
inside the burned rim, the horses sidestepping gingerly upon the hot
turf.

"I guess you want some help here. Where shall we start in?" Beatrice
recognized the voice. It was Keith Cameron.

"Sure, we do!" Dick answered, gratefully. "Start in any old place."

"I'm not sure we want your help," spoke the angry voice of Sir Redmond.
"I take it you've already done a devilish sight too much."

"What do you mean by that?" Keith demanded; and then, by the silence, it
seemed that every one knew. Beatrice caught her breath. Was this one of
the ways Dick meant that Keith could fight?

"Climb down, boys, and get busy," Keith called to his men, after a few
breaths. "This is for Dick. Wait a minute! Pete, drive the wagon ahead,
there. I guess we'd better begin on the other end and work this way.
Come on--there's too much hot air here." They clattered on across the
coulee, kicking hot ashes up for the wind to seize upon. Beatrice went
slowly up to Dick, feeling all at once very tired and out of heart with
it all.

"Dick," she called, in an anxious little voice, "Rex has run away from
me. What shall I do?"

Dick straightened stiffly, his hands upon his aching loins, and peered
through the smoke at her.

"I guess the only thing to do, then, is to get into the wagon over
there. You can drive, Trix, if you want to, and that will give us
another man here. I was just going to have some one take you home;
now--the Lord only knows!--you're liable to have to stay till morning.
Rex will go home, all right; you needn't worry about him."

He bent to the work again, and she could hear the wet sack thud, thud
upon the ground. Other sacks and blankets went thud, thud, and down here
at close range the fire was not so beautiful as it had been from the
hilltop. Down here the glamour was gone. She climbed up to the high
wagon seat and took the reins from the man, who immediately seized upon
a sack and went off to the fight. She felt that she was out of touch.
She was out on the prairie at night, miles away from any house, driving
a water-wagon for the men to put out a prairie fire. She had driven a
coaching-party once on a wager; but she had never driven a lumber-wagon
with barrels of water before. She could not think of any girl she knew
who had.

It was a new experience, certainly, but she found no pleasure in it; she
was tired and sleepy, and her eyes and throat smarted cruelly with the
smoke. She looked back to the hill she had just left, and it seemed
a long, long time since she sat upon a rock up there and watched the
little, new fire grow and grow, and the strange shadows spring up from
nowhere and beat it vindictively till it died.

Again she wondered vaguely who had done it; not Keith Cameron, surely,
for Sir Redmond had all but accused him openly of setting the range
afire. Would he stamp out a blaze that was just reaching a size to do
mischief, if left a little longer? No one would have seen it for hours,
probably. He would undoubtedly have let it run, unless--But who else
could have set the fire? Who else would want to see the Pine Ridge
country black and barren? Dick said Keith Cameron would not sit down and
take his medicine--perhaps Dick knew he would do this thing.

As the fighters moved on across the coulee she drove the wagon to keep
pace with them. Often a man would run up to the wagon, climb upon a
wheel and dip a frayed gunny sack into a barrel, lift it out and run
with it, all dripping, to the nearest point of the fire. Her part was
to keep the wagon at the most convenient place. She began to feel the
importance of her position, and to take pride in being always at the
right spot. From the calm appreciation of the picturesque side, she
drifted to the keen interest of the one who battles against heavy odds.
The wind had veered again, and the flames rushed up the long coulee
like an express train. But the path it left was growing narrower every
moment. Keith Cameron was doing grand work with his crew upon the other
side, and the space between them was shortening perceptibly.

Beatrice found herself watching the work of the Cross men. If they were
doing it for effect, they certainly were acting well their part. She
wondered what would happen when the two crews met, and the danger was
over. Would Sir Redmond call Keith Cameron to account for what he had
done? If he did, what would Keith say? And which side would Dick take?
Very likely, she thought, he would defend Keith Cameron, and shield him
if he could.

Beatrice found herself crying quietly, and shivering, though the air was
sultry with the fire. For the life of her, she could not tell why she
cried, but she tried to believe it was the smoke in her eyes. Perhaps it
was.

The sky was growing gray when the two crews met. The orange lights were
gone, and Dick, with a spiteful flop of the black rag which had been a
good, new sack, stamped out the last tiny red tongue of the fire. The
men stood about in awkward silence, panting with heat and weariness. Sir
Redmond was ostentatiously filling his pipe. Beatrice knew him by his
straight, soldierly pose. In the drab half-light they were all mere
black outlines of men, and, for the most part, she could not distinguish
one from another. Keith Cameron she knew; instinctively by his slim
height, and by the way he carried his head. Unconsciously, she leaned
down from the high seat and listened for what would come next.

Keith seemed to be making a cigarette. A match flared and lighted his
face for an instant, then was pinched out, and he was again only a black
shape in the half-darkness.

"Well, I'm waiting for what you've got to say, Sir Redmond." His voice
cut sharply through the silence. If he had known Beatrice was out there
in the wagon he would have spoken lower, perhaps.

"I fancy I said all that is necessary just now," Sir Redmond answered
calmly. "You know what I think. From now on I shall act."

"And what are you going to do, then?" Keith's voice was clear and
unperturbed, as though he asked for the sake of being polite.

"That," retorted Sir Redmond, "is my own affair. However, since the
matter concerns you rather closely, I will say that when I have the
evidence I am confident I shall find, I shall seek the proper channels
for retribution. There are laws in this country, aimed to protect
a man's property, I take it. I warn you that I shall not spare--the
guilty."

"Dick, it's up to you next. I want to know where you stand."

"At your back, Keith, right up to the finish. I know you; you fight
fair."

"All right, then. I didn't think you'd go back on a fellow. And I tell
you straight up, Sir Redmond Hayes, I'm not out touching matches to
range land--not if it belonged to the devil himself. I've got some
feeling for the dumb brutes that would have to suffer. You can get right
to work hunting evidence, and be damned! You're dead welcome to all you
can find; and in this part of the country you won't be able to buy much!
You know very well you deserve to get your rope crossed, or you wouldn't
be on the lookout for trouble. Come, boys; let's hit the trail. So long,
Dick!"

Beatrice watched them troop off to their horses, heard them mount and
go tearing off across the burned coulee bottom toward home. Dick came
slowly over to her.

"I expect you're good and tired, sis. You've made a hand, all right, and
helped us a whole lot, I can tell you. I'll drive now, and we'll hit the
high places."

Beatrice smiled wanly. Not one of her Eastern acquaintances would
have recognized Beatrice Lansell, the society beauty, in this
remarkable-looking young woman, attired in a most haphazard fashion,
with a face grimed like a chimney sweep, red eyelids drooping over
tired, smarting eyes, and disheveled, ash-filled hair topped by a
man's gray felt hat. When she smiled her teeth shone dead white, like a
negro's.

Dick regarded her critically, one foot on the wheel hub. "Where did you
get hold of Keith Cameron's hat?" he inquired.

Beatrice snatched the hat from her head with childish petulance, and
looked as if she were going to throw it viciously upon the ground. If
her face had been clean Dick might have seen how the blood had rushed
into her cheeks; as it was, she was safe behind a mask of soot. She
placed the hat back upon her head, feeling, privately, a bit foolish.

"I supposed it was yours. I took it off the halltree." The dignity of
her tone was superb, but, unfortunately, it did not match her appearance
of rakish vagabondage.

Dick grinned through a deep layer of soot "Well, it happens to be
Keith's. He lost it in the wind the other day, and I found it and took
it home. It's too bad you've worn his hat all night and didn't know it.
You ought to see yourself. Your own mother won't know you, Trix."

"I can't look any worse than you do. A negro would be white by
comparison. Do get in, so we can start! I'm tired to death, and
half-starved." After these unamiable remarks, she refused to open her
lips.

They drove silently in the gray of early morning, and the empty barrels
danced monotonously their fantastic jig in the back of the wagon.
Sootyfaced cowboys galloped wearily over the prairie before them, and
Sir Redmond rode moodily alongside.

Of a truth, the glamour was gone.





Next: Sir Redmond Waits His Answer

Previous: What It Meant To Keith



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