Little Black Shack's All Burnt Up





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.





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