XVII. The Back-Fire
 

Target pounded over the scaly ground and thundered into the hard trail. Then he stretched out. As we cleared the last obstructing pile of rocks I looked back. There was a vast wave of fire rolling up the canyon and spreading up the slopes. It was so close that I nearly fainted. With both hands knotted and stiff I clung to the pommel in a cold horror, and I looked back no more to see the flames reaching out for me. But I could not keep the dreadful roar from filling my ears, and it weakened me so that I all but dropped from the saddle. Only an unconscious instinct to fight for life made me hold on.

Blue and white puffs of smoke swept by me. The trail was a dim, twisting line. The slopes and pines, merged in a mass, flew backward in brown sheets. Above the roar of the pursuing fire I heard the thunder of Target's hoofs. I scarcely felt him or the saddle, only a motion and the splitting of the wind.

The fear of death by fire, which had almost robbed me of strength, passed from me. My brain cleared. Still I had no kind of hope, only a desperate resolve not to give up.

The great bay horse was running to save his life and to save mine. It was a race with fire. When I thought of the horse, and saw how fast he was going, and realized that I must do my part, I was myself again.

The trail was a winding, hard-packed thread of white ground. It had been made for leisurely travel. Many turns were sudden and sharp. I loosened the reins, and cried out to Target. Evidently I had unknowingly held him in, for he lengthened out, and went on in quicker, longer leaps. In that moment riding seemed easy. I listened to the roar behind me, now a little less deafening, and began to thrill. We were running away from the fire.

Hope made the race seem different. Something stirred and beat warm within me, driving out the chill in my marrow. I leaned over the neck of the great bay horse, and called to him and cheered him on. Then I saw he was deaf and blind to me, for he was wild. He had the bit between his teeth, and was running away.

The roar behind us relentlessly pursuing, only a little less appalling, was now not my only source of peril. Target could no more be guided nor stopped than could the forest fire. The trail grew more winding and overhung more thickly by pine branches. The horse did not swerve an inch for tree or thicket, but ran as if free, and the saving of my life began to be a matter of dodging. Once a crashing blow from a branch almost knocked me from the saddle. The wind in my ears half drowned the roar behind me. With hands twisted in Target's mane I bent low, watching with keen eyes for the trees and branches ahead. I drew up my knees and bent my body, and dodged and went down flat over the pommel like a wild-riding Indian. Target kept that straining run for a longer distance than I could judge. With the same breakneck speed he thundered on over logs and little washes, through the thick, bordering bushes, and around the sudden turns. His foam moistened my face and flecked my sleeves. The wind came stinging into my face, the heavy roar followed at my back with its menace.

Swift and terrible as the forest fire was, Target was winning the race. I knew it. Steadily the roar softened, but it did not die away. Pound! pound! pound! The big bay charged up the trail. How long could he stand that killing pace? I began to talk soothingly to him, to pull on the bridle; but he might have been an avalanche for all he heeded. Still I kept at him, fighting him every moment that I was free from low branches. Gradually the strain began to tell.

The sight of a cabin brought back to my mind the meaning of the wild race with fire. I had forgotten the prisoners. I had reached the forest glade and the cabin, but Target was still going hard. What if I could not stop him! Summoning all my strength, I quickly threw weight and muscle back on the reins and snapped the bit out of his teeth. Then coaxing, commanding, I pulled him back. In the glade were four horses, standing bunched with heads and ears up, uneasy, and beginning to be frightened. Perhaps the sight of them helped me to stop Target; at any rate, he slackened his pace and halted. He was spotted with foam, dripping wet, and his broad sides heaved.

I jumped off, stiff and cramped. I could scarcely walk. The air was clear, though the fog of smoke overspread the sun. The wind blew strong with a scent of pitch. Now that I was not riding, the roar of the fire sounded close. I caught the same strange growl, the note of on-sweeping fury. Again the creepy cold went over me. I felt my face blanch, and the skin tighten over my cheeks. I dashed into the cabin, crying: "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

"Whoop! It's the kid!" yelled Herky-Jerky.

He was lying near the door, red as a brick in the face, and panting hard. In one cut I severed the rope on his feet; in another, that round his raw and bloody wrists. Herky had torn his flesh trying to release his hands.

"Kid, how'd you git back hyar?" he questioned, with his sharp little eyes glinting on me. "Did the fire chase you? Whar's Leslie?"

"Buell fired the slash. Penetier is burning. Dick and Hiram sent me back to the pool below, and then didn't come. They got caught--oh! . . . I'm afraid--lost! . . . Then I remembered you fellows. The fire's coming--it's awful--we must fly!"

"You thought of us?" Herky's voice sounded queer and strangled. "Bud! Bill! Did you hear thet? Wal, wal!"

While he muttered on I cut Bill's bonds. He rose without a word. Bud was almost unconscious. He had struggled terribly. His heels had dug a hole in the hard clay floor; his wrists were skinned; his mouth and chin covered with earth, probably from his having bitten the ground in his agony. Herky helped him up and gave him a drink from a little pocket-flask.

"Herky, if you think you've rid some in your day, look at thet hoss," said Bill, coolly, from the door. He eyed me coolly; in fact, he was as cool as if there were no fire on Penetier. But Bud was white and sick, and Herky flaming with excitement.

"We hain't got a chance. Listen! Thet roar! She's hummin'."

"It's runnin' up the draw. We don't stand no showdown in hyar. Grab a hoss now, an' we'll try to head acrost the ridge."

I remounted Target, and the three men caught horses and climbed up bareback. Bill led the way across the glade, up the slope, into the level forest. There we broke into a gallop. The air upon this higher ground was dark and thick, but not so hard to breathe as that lower down. We pressed on. For a while the roar receded, and almost deadened. Then it grew clearer again' filled out, and swelled. Bud wanted to sheer off to the left. Herky swore we were being surrounded. Bill turned a deaf ear to them. From my own sense of direction I fancied we were going wrong, but Bill was so cool he gave me courage. Soon a blue, windy haze, shrouding the giant pines ahead, caused Bill to change his course.

"Do you know whar you're headin'?" yelled Herky, high above the roar.

"I hain't got the least idee, Herky," shouted Bill, as cool as could be, "but I guess somewhar whar it'll be hot!"

We were lost in the forest and almost surrounded by fire, if the roar was anything to tell by. We galloped on, always governed by the roar, always avoiding the slope up the mountain. If we once started up that with the fire in our rear we were doomed. Perhaps there were times when the wind deceived us. It was hard to tell. Anyway, we kept on, growing more bewildered. Bud looked like a dead man already and reeled in his saddle. The horses were getting hard to manage, and the wind was strengthening and puffed at us from all quarters. Bill still looked cool, but the last vestige of color had faded from his face. These things boded ill. Herky had grown strangely silent, which fact was the worst of all for me. For that tough, scarred, reckless little wretch to hold his tongue was the last straw.

The air freshened somewhat, and the forest lightened. Almost abruptly we rode out to the edge of a great, wide canyon. It must have crossed the forest at right angles to the canyon we had left. It was twice as wide and deep as any I had yet seen. In the bottom wound a broad brook.

"Which way now?" asked Herky.

Bill shook his head. Far to our right a pall of smoke moved over the tree-tops, to our left was foggy gloom, behind rolled the unceasing roar. We all looked straight across. Probably each of us harbored the same thought. Before that wind the fire would leap the canyon in flaming bounds, and on the opposite level was the thick pitch-pine forest of Penetier proper. So far we had been among the foot-hills. We dared not enter the real forest with that wild-fire back of us. Momentarily we stood irresolute. It was a pause full of hopelessness, such as might have come to tired deer, close harried by hounds.

The winding brook and the brown slope, comparatively bare of trees, brought me a sudden inspiration.

"Back-fire! Back-fire!" I cried to my companions, in wild appeal. "We must back-fire. It's our chance! Here's the place!"

Bud scowled and Herky grumbled, but Bill grasped at the idea.

"I've heerd of back-firin'. The rangers do it. But how? How?"

They caught his hope, and their haggard faces lightened.

"Kid, we ain't forest rangers," said Herky. "Do you know what you're talkin' about?"

"Yes, yes! Come on! We'll back-fire!"

I led the way down the slope, and they came close at my heels. I rode into the shallow brook, and dismounted about the middle between the banks. I hung my coat on the pommel of my saddle.

"Bud, you and Bill hold the horses here!" I shouted, intensely excited. "Herky, have you matches?"

"Nary a match."

"Hyar's a box," said Bill, tossing it.

"Come on, Herky! You run up the brook. Light a match, and drop it every hundred feet. Be sure it catches. Lucky there's little wind down here. Go as far as you can. I'll run down!"

We splashed out of the brook and leaped up the bank. The grass was long and dry. There was brush near by, and the pine-needle mats almost bordered the bank. I struck a match and dropped it.

Sis-s-s! Flare! It was almost like dropping a spark into gunpowder. The flame ran quickly, reached the pine-needles, then sputtered and fizzed into a big blaze. The first pine-tree exploded and went off like a rocket. We were startled by the sound and the red, up-leaping pillar of fire. Sudden heat shot back at us as if from a furnace. Great sparks began to fall.

"It's goin'!" yelled Herky-Jerky, his voice ringing strong. He clapped his hat down on my bare head. Then he started running up-stream.

I darted in the opposite direction. I heard Bud and Bill yelling, and the angry crack and hiss of the fire. A few rods down I stopped, struck another match, and lit the grass. There was a sputter and flash. Then the flame flared up, spread like running quicksilver, and, meeting the pine-needles, changed to red. I ran on. There was a loud flutter behind me, then a crack almost like a shot, then a seething roar. Another pine had gone off. As I stopped to strike the third match there came three distinct reports, and then others that seemed dulled in a windy roar. I raced onward, daring only once to look back. A fearful sight met my gaze. The slope was a red wave. The pines were tufts of flame. The air was filled with steaming clouds of whirling smoke. Then I fled onward again.

Match after match I struck, and when the box was empty I must have been a mile, two miles, maybe more, from the starting-point. I was wringing-wet, and there was a piercing pain in my side. I plunged across the brook, and in as deep water as I could find knelt down to cover all but my face. Then, with laboring breaths that bubbled the water near my mouth, I kept still and watched.

The back-fire which I had started swept up over the slope and down the brook like a charge of red lancers. Spears of flame led the advance. The flame licked up the dry surface-grass and brush, and, meeting the pines, circled them in a whirlwind of fire, like lightning flashing upward. Then came prolonged reports, and after that a long, blistering roar in the tree-tops. Even as I gazed, appalled in the certainty of a horrible fate, I thrilled at the grand spectacle. Fire had always fascinated me. The clang of the engines and the call of "Fire!" would tear me from any task or play. But I had never known what fire was. I knew now. Storms of air and sea were nothing compared to this. It was the greatest force in nature. It was fire. On one hand, I seemed cool and calculated the chances; on the other, I had flashes in my brain, and kept crying out crazily, in a voice like a whisper: "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

But presently the wall of fire rolled by and took the roar with it. Dense billows of smoke followed, and hid everything in opaque darkness. I heard the hiss of failing sparks and the crackle of burning wood, and occasionally the crash of a failing branch. It was intolerably hot, but I could stand the heat better than the air. I coughed and strangled. I could not get my breath. My eyes smarted and burned. Crawling close under the bank, I leaned against it and waited.

Some hours must have passed. I suffered, not exactly pain, but a discomfort that was almost worse. By-and-by the air cleared a little. Rifts in the smoke drifted over me, always toward the far side of the canyon. Twice I crawled out upon the bank, but the heat drove me back into the water. The snow-water from the mountain-peaks had changed from cold to warm; still, it gave a relief from the hot blast of air. More time dragged by. Weary to the point of collapse, I grew not to care about anything.

Then the yellow fog lightened, and blew across the brook and lifted and split. The parts of the canyon-slope that I could see were seared and blackened. The pines were columns of living coals. The fire was eating into their hearts. Presently they would snap at the trunk, crash down, and burn to ashes. Wreathes of murky smoke circled them, and drifted aloft to join the overhanging clouds.

I floundered out on the bank, and began to walk up-stream. After all, it was not so very hot, but I felt queer. I did not seem to be able to step where I looked or see where I stepped. Still, that caused me no worry. The main thing was that the fire had not yet crossed the brook. I wanted to feel overjoyed at that, but I was too tired. Anyway I was sure the fire had crossed below or above. It would be tearing down on this side presently, and then I would have to crawl into the brook or burn up. It did not matter much which I had to do. Then I grew dizzy, my legs trembled, my feet lost all sense of touching the ground. I could not go much farther. Just then I heard a shout. It was close by. I answered, and heard heavy steps. I peered through the smoky haze. Something dark moved up in the gloom.

"Ho, kid! Thar you are!" I felt a strong arm go round my waist. "Wal, wal!" That was Herky. His voice sounded glad. It roused a strange eagerness in me; his rough greeting seemed to bring me back from a distance.

"All wet, but not burned none, I, see. We kinder was afeared. . . . Say, kid, thet back-fire, now. It was a dandy. It did the biz. Our whiskers was singed, but we're safe. An, kid, it was your game, played like a man

After that his voice grew faint, and I felt as if I were walking in a dream.