Pine Ridge Range Ablaze





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.





Pierre Takes Steps To Preserve His Property Pink As Chappyrone facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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