XVIII. Conclusion
 

That dreadful feeling of motion went away, and I became unconscious of everything. When I awoke the sun was gleaming dimly through thin films of smoke. I was lying in a pleasant little ravine with stunted pines fringing its slopes. The brook bowled merrily over stones.

Bud snored in the shade of a big boulder. Herky whistled as he broke dead branches into fagots for a campfire. Bill was nowhere in sight. I saw several of the horses browsing along the edge of the water.

My drowsy eyelids fell back again. When I awoke a long time seemed to have passed. The air was clearer, the sky darker, and the sun had gone behind the peaks. I saw Bill and Herky skinning a deer.

"Where are we?" I asked, sitting up.

"Hello, kid!" replied Herky, cheerily. "We come up to the head of the canyon, thet's all. How're you feelin'?"

"I'm all right, only tired. Where's the forest fire?"

"It's most burned out by now. It didn't jump the canyon into the big forest. Thet back-fire did the biz. Say, kid, wasn't settin' off them pines an' runnin' fer your life jest like bein' in a battle?"

"It certainly was. Herky, how long will we be penned up here?"

"Only a day or two. I reckon we'd better not risk takin' you back to Holston till we're sure about the fire. Anyways, kid, you need rest. You're all played out."

Indeed, I was so weary that it took an effort to lift my hand. A strange lassitude made me indifferent. But Herky's calm mention of taking me back to Holston changed the color of my mood. I began to feel more cheerful. The meal we ate was scant enough--biscuits and steaks of broiled venison with a pinch of salt; but, starved as we were, it was more than satisfactory. Herky and Bill were absurdly eager to serve me. Even Bud was kind to me, though he still wore conspicuously over his forehead the big bruise I had given him. After I had eaten I began to gain strength. But my face was puffed from the heat, my injured arm was stiff and sore, and my legs seemed never to have been used before.

Darkness came on quickly. The dew fell heavily, and the air grew chilly. Our blazing campfire was a comfort. Bud and Bill carried in logs for firewood, while Herky made me a bed of dry pine needles.

"It'll be some cold tonight," he said," an' we'll hev to hug the fire. Now if we was down in the foot-hills we'd be warmer, hey? Look thar!"

He pointed down the ravine, and I saw a great white arc of light extending up into the steely sky.

"The forest fire?"

"Yep, she's burnin' some. But you oughter seen it last night. Not thet it ain't worth seein' jest now. Come along with me."

He led me where the ravine opened wide. I felt, rather than saw, a steep slope beneath. Far down was a great patch of fire. It was like a crazy quilt, here dark, there light, with streaks and stars and streams of fire shining out of the blackness. Masses of slow-moving smoke overhung the brighter areas. The night robbed the forest fire of its fierceness and lent it a kind of glory. The fire had ceased to move; it had spent its force, run its race, and was now dying. But I could not forget what it had been, what it had done. Thousands of acres of magnificent pines had perished. The shade and color and beauty of that part of the forest had gone. The heart of the great trees was now slowly rolling away in those dark, weird clouds of smoke. I was sad for the loss and sick with fear for Dick and Hiram.

Herky must have known my mind.

"You needn't feel bad, kid. Thet's only a foothill or so of Penetier gone up in smoke. An' Buell's sawmill went, too. It's almost a sure thing thet Leslie an' old Bent got out safe, though they must be doin' some tall worryin' about you. I wonder how they feel about me an' Bud an' Bill? A little prematoore roastin' for us, eh? Wal, wal!"

We went back to the camp. I lay down near the fire and fell asleep. Some time in the night I awoke. The fire was still burning brightly. Bud and Bill were lying with their backs to it almost close enough to scorch. Herky sat in his shirtsleeves. The smoke of his pipe and the smoke of the campfire wafted up together. Then I saw and felt that he had covered me with his coat and vest.

I slept far into the next day. Herky was in camp alone. The others had gone, Herky said, and he would not tell me where. He did not appear as cheerful as usual. I suspected he had quarreled with his companions, very likely about what was to be done with me. The day passed, and again I slept. Herky awakened me before it was light.

"Come, kid, we'll rustle in to Holston today."

We cooked our breakfast of venison, and then Herky went in search of the horses. They had browsed far up the ravine, and the dawn had broken by the time he returned. Target stood well to be saddled, nor did he bolt when I climbed up. Perhaps that ride I gave him had chastened and subdued his spirit. Well, it had nearly killed me. Herky mounted the one horse left, a sorry-looking pack-pony, and we started down the ravine.

An hour of steady descent passed by before we caught sight of any burned forest land. Then as we descended into the big canyon we turned a curve and saw, far ahead to the left, a black, smoky, hideous slope. We kept to the right side of the brook and sheered off just as we reached a point opposite, where the burned line began. Fire had run up that side till checked by bare weathered slopes and cliffs. As far down the brook as eye could see through the smoky haze there stretched that black line of charred, spear-pointed pines, some glowing, some blazing, all smoking.

From time to time, as we climbed up the slope, I looked back. The higher I got the more hideous became the outlook over the burned district. I was glad when Herky led the way into the deep shade of level forest, shutting out the view. It would take a hundred years to reforest those acres denuded of their timber by the fire of a few days. But as hour after hour went by, with our trail leading through miles and miles of the same old forest that had bewitched me, I began to feel a little less grief at the thought of what the fire had destroyed. It was a loss, yet only a small part of vast Penetier. If only my friends had gotten out alive!

Herky was as relentless in his travelling as I had found him in some other ways. He kept his pony at a trot. The trail was open, we made fast time, and when the sun had begun to cast a shadow before us we were going down-hill. Busy with the thought of my friends, I scarcely noted the passing of time. It was a surprise to me when we rode down the last little foot-hill, out into the scattered pines, and saw Holston only a few miles across the sage-flat.

"Wal, kid, we've come to the partin' of the ways," said Herky, with a strange smile on his smug face.

"Herky, won't you ride in with me?"

"Naw, I reckon it'd not be healthy fer me."

"But you haven't even a saddle or blanket or any grub."

"I've a friend across hyar a ways, a rancher, an' he'll fix me up. But, kid, I'd like to hev thet hoss. He was Buell's, an' Buell owed me money. Now I calkilate you can't take Target back East with you, an' you might as well let me have him."

"Sure, Herky." I jumped off at once, led the horse over, and held out the bridle. Herky dismounted, and began fumbling with the stirrup straps.

"Your legs are longer'n mine," he explained.

"Oh yes, Herky, I almost forgot to return your hat," I said, removing the wide sombrero. It had a wonderful band made of horsehair and a buckle of silver with a strange device.

"Wal, you keep the hat," he replied, with his back turned. "Greaser stole your hoss an' your outfit's lost, an' you might want somethin' to remember your--your friends in Arizony. . . . Thet hat ain't much, but, say, the buckle was an Injun's I shot, an' I made the band when I was in jail in Yuma."

"Thank you, Herky. I'll keep it, though I'd never need anything to make me remember Arizona--or you."

Herky swung his bow-legs over Target and I got astride the lean-backed pony. There did not seem to be any more to say, yet we both lingered.

"Good-bye, Herky, I'm glad I met you," I said, offering my hand.

He gave it a squeeze that nearly crushed my fingers. His keen little eyes gleamed, but he turned away without another word, and, slapping Target on the flank, rode off under the trees.

I put the hat back on my head and watched Herky for a moment. His silence and abrupt manner were unlike him, but what struck me most was the fact that in our last talk every word had been clean and sincere. Somehow it pleased me. Then I started the pony toward Holston.

He was tired and I was ready to drop, and those last few miles were long. We reached the outskirts of the town perhaps a couple of hours before sundown. A bank of clouds had spread out of the west and threatened rain.

The first person I met was Cless, and he put the pony in his corral and hurried me round to the hotel. On the way he talked so fast and said so much that I was bewildered before we got there. The office was full of men, and Cless shouted to them. There was the sound of a chair scraping hard on the floor, then I felt myself clasped by brawny arms. After that all was rather hazy in my mind. I saw Dick and Jim and old Hiram, though, I could not see them distinctly, and I heard them all talking, all questioning at once. Then I was talking in a somewhat silly way, I thought, and after that some one gave me a hot, nasty drink, and I felt the cool sheets of a bed.

The next morning all was clear. Dick came to my room and tried to keep me in bed, but I refused to stay. We went down to breakfast, and sat at a table with Jim and Hiram. It seemed to me that I could not answer any questions till I had asked a thousand.

What news had they for me? Buell had escaped, after firing the slash. His sawmill and lumber-camp and fifty thousand acres of timber had been burned. The fire had in some way been confined to the foot-hills. It had rained all night, so the danger of spreading was now over. My letter had brought the officers of the forest service; even the Chief, who had been travelling west over the Santa Fe, had stopped off and was in Holston then. There had been no arrests, nor would there be, unless Buell or Stockton could be found. A new sawmill was to be built by the service. Buell's lumbermen would have employment in the mill and as rangers in the forest.

But I was more interested in matters which Dick seemed to wish to avoid.

"How did you get out of the burning forest?" I asked, for the second time.

"We didn't get out. We went back to the pool where we sent you. The pack-ponies were there, but you were gone. By George! I was mad, and then I was just broken up. I was . . . afraid you'd been burned. We weathered the fire all right, and then rode in to Holston. Now the mystery is where were you?"

"Then you saved all the ponies?"

"Yes, and brought your outfit in. But, Ken, we--that was awful of us to forget those poor fellows tied fast in the cabin." Dick looked haggard, there was a dark gloom in his eyes, and he gulped. Then I knew why he avoided certain references to the fire. "To be burned alive . . . horrible! I'll never get over it. It'll haunt me always. Of course we had to save our own lives; we had no time to go to them. Yet--"

"Don't let it worry you, Dick," I interrupted.

"What do you mean?" he asked, slowly.

"Why, I beat the fire up to the cabin, that's all. Buell's horse can run some. I cut the men loose, and we made up across the ridge, got lost, surrounded by fire, and then I got Herky to help me start a back-fire in that big canyon."

"Back-fire!" exclaimed Dick, slamming the table with his big fist. Then he settled down and looked at me. Hiram looked at me. Jim looked at me, and not one of them said a word for what seemed a long time. It brought the blood to my face. But for all my embarrassment it was sweet praise. At last Dick broke the silence.

"Ken Ward, this stumps me I . . . Tell us about it."

So I related my adventures from the moment they had left me till we met again.

"It was a wild boy's trick, Ken--that ride in the very face of fire in a dry forest. But, thank God, you saved the lives of those fellows." "Amen!" exclaimed old Hiram, fervently. "My lad, you saved Penetier, too; thar's no doubt on it. The fire was sweepin' up the canyon, an' it would have crossed the brook somewhars in thet stretch you back-fired."

"Ken, you shore was born in Texas," drawl Jim Williams.

His remark was unrelated to our talk, I did not know what he meant by it; nevertheless it pleased me more than anything that had ever been said me in my life.

Then came the reading of letters that had a rived for me. In Hal's letter, first and last harped on having been left behind. Father sent me a check, and wrote that in the event of a trouble in the lumber district he trusted me to take the first train for Harrisburg. That, I knew, meant that I must get out of my ragged clothes. That I did, and packed them up--all except Herky sombrero, which I wore. Then I went to the railroad station to see the schedule, and I compromised with father by deciding to take the limited. The fast east-bound train had gone a little before, and the next one did not leave until six o'clock. Th would give me half a day with my friends.

When I returned to the hotel Dick was looking for me. He carried me off up-stairs to a hall full of men. At one end were tables littered with papers, and here men were signing their name Dick explained that forest rangers were being paid and new ones hired. Then he introduced me officers of the service and the Chief. I knew by the way they looked at me that Dick had been talking. It made me so tongue-tied that I could not find my voice when the Chief spoke to me and shook my hand warmly. He was a tall man, with a fine face and kind eyes and hair just touched with gray.

"Kenneth Ward," he went on, pleasantly, "I hope that letter of introduction I dictated for you some time ago has been of some service."

"I haven't had a chance to use it yet," I blurted out, and I dived into my pocket to bring forth the letter. It was wrinkled, soiled, and had been soaked with water. I began to apologize for its disreputable appearance when he interrupted me.

"I've heard about the ducking you got and all the rest of it," he said, smiling. Then his manner changed to one of business and hurry.

"You are studying forestry?"

"Yes, sir. I'm going to college this fall."

"My friend in Harrisburg wrote me of your ambition and, I may say, aptness for the forest service. I'm very much pleased. We need a host of bright young fellows. Here, look at this map."

He drew my attention to a map lying on the table, and made crosses and tracings with a pencil while he talked.

"This is Penetier. Here are the Arizona Peaks. The heavy shading represents timbered land. All these are canyons. Here's Oak Creek Canyon, the one the fire bordered. Now I want you to tell me how you worked that back-fire, and, if you can, mark the line you fired."

This appeared to me an easy task, and certainly one I was enthusiastic over. I told him just how I had come to the canyon, and how I saw that the fire would surely cross there, and that a back-fire was the only chance. Then, carefully studying the map, I marked off the three miles Herky and I had fired.

"Very good. You had help in this?"

"Yes. A fellow called Herky-Jerky. He was one of Buell's men who kept me a prisoner."

"But he turned out a pretty good sort, didn't he?"

"Indeed, yes, sir."

"Well, I'll try to locate him, and offer him a job in the service. Now, Mr. Ward, you've had special opportunities; you have an eye in your head, and you are interested in forestry. Perhaps you can help us. Personally I shall be most pleased to hear what you think might be done in Penetier."

I gasped and stared, and could scarcely believe my ears. But he was not joking; he was as serious as if he had addressed himself to one of his officers. I looked at them all, standing interested and expectant. Dick was as grave and erect as a deacon. Jim seemed much impressed. But old Hiram Bent, standing somewhat back of the others, deliberately winked at me.

But for that wink I never could have seized my opportunity. It made me remember my talks with Hiram. So I boiled down all that I had learned and launched it on the Chief. Whether I was brief or not, I was out of breath when I stopped. He appeared much surprised.

"Thank you," he said, finally. "You certainly have been observant." Then he turned to his officers. "Gentlemen, here's a new point of view from first-hand observation. I call it splendid conservation. It's in the line of my policy. It considers the settler and lumberman instead of combating him."

He shook hands with me again. "You may be sure I'll not lose sight of you. Of course you will be coming West next summer, after your term at college?"

"Yes, sir, I want to--if Dick--"

He smiled as I hesitated. That man read my mind like an open book.

"Mr. Leslie goes to the Coconina Forest as head forest ranger. Mr. Williams goes as his assistant. And I have appointed Mr. Bent game warden in the same forest. You may spend next summer with them."

I stammered some kind of thanks, and found myself going out and down-stairs with my friends.

"Oh, Dick! Wasn't he fine? ... Say, where's Coconina Forest?"

"It's over across the desert and beyond the Grand Canyon of Arizona. Penetier is tame compared to Coconina. I'm afraid to let you come out there."

"I don't have to ask you, Mr. Dick," I replied.

"Lad, I'll need a young fellar bad next summer," said old Hiram, with twinkling eyes. "One as can handle a rope, an' help tie up lions an' sich."

"Oh! my bear cub! I'd forgotten him. I wanted to take him home."

"Wal, thar weren't no sense in thet, youngster, fer you couldn't do it. He was a husky cub."

"I hate to give up my mustang, too. Dick, have you heard of the Greaser?"

"Not yet, but he'll be trailing into Holston before long."

Jim Williams removed his pipe, and puffed a cloud of white smoke.

"Ken, I shore ain't fergot Greaser," he drawled with his slow smile. "Hev you any pertickler thing you want did to him?"

"Jim, don't kill him!" I burst out, impetuously, and then paused, frightened out of speech. Why I was afraid of him I did not know, he seemed so easy-going, so careless--almost sweet, like a woman; but then I had seen his face once with a look that I could never forget.

"Wal, Ken, I'll dodge Greaser if he ever crosses my trail again."

That promise was a relief. I knew Greaser would come to a bad end, and certainly would get his just deserts; but I did not want him punished any more for what he had done to me.

Those last few hours sped like winged moments. We talked and planned a little, I divided my outfit among my friends, and then it was time for the train. That limited train had been late, so they said, every day for a week, and this day it was on time to the minute. I had no luck.

My friends bade me good-bye as if they expected to see me next day, and I said good-bye calmly. I had my part to play. My short stay with them had made me somehow different. But my coolness was deceitful. Dick helped me on the train and wrung my hand again.

"Good-bye, Ken. It's been great to have you out. . . . Next year you'll be back in the forests!"

He had to hurry to get off. The train started as I looked out of my window. There stood the powerful hunter, his white head bare, and he was waving his hat. Jim leaned against a railing with his sleepy, careless smile. I caught a gleam of the blue gun swinging at his hip. Dick's eyes shone warm and blue; he was shouting something. Then they all passed back out of sight. So my gaze wandered to the indistinct black line of Penetier, to the purple slopes, and up to the cold, white mountain-peaks, and Dick's voice rang in my ears like a prophecy: "You'll be back in the forests."