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The Back-fire








From: The Young Forester

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.





Next: Conclusion

Previous: The Forest's Greatest Foe



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