XVI. 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 fears.

"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 Jim.

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 back.

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 slope.

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 yellow.

"Hear thet?" Hiram Bent shook his gray head as one who listened to dire tidings.

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 campfire.

"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 doing!"

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!"