Chapter 25. "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.