The Forest's Greatest Foe
From: The Young Forester
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"Hear thet?" Hiram Bent shook his gray head as one who listened to dire
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
"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
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!"
Next: The Back-fire
Previous: The Fight