The Forest's Greatest Foe

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

my captivity.

"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

to him.

"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

was shining.

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."

"You mean--"

"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!"

The Forest Ranger The Forlorn Hope facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail