Read CHAPTER XIII - A RACE AND A RESCUE of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

“WHAT’RE you doin’ under there?” asked the biggest brother, looking beneath the canopied bed, where the little girl was lying on her back, her feet braced at right angles to the loose board slats above her.

There was no answer, but the broad counterpane of bright calico squares that, by its heaving, had betrayed her presence, became suddenly still.

“Because,” continued the biggest brother, “I’m goin’ to the station this afternoon with the blue mare and the buckboard.  And if you ain’t doin’ nothing and want to go along, just slide out and meet me on the corn road.”

He exchanged his gingham jumper for a coat at the elk antlers in the entry, and left the house.  When his whistle was swallowed up by the barn, the little girl crept stealthily from her hiding-place, washed her feet, changed her apron, and, under cover of the kitchen, hurried eastward to the oat-field.  Having gained it, she turned north, crouching low as she ran.

HAYTIME was over and harvest was close at hand.  In the brief space between, the reapers were being put into shape for the cutting of the grain.  That morning, while the biggest and the youngest brothers were repairing the broken rakes of a dropper, the eldest had sharpened the long saw-knife, aided by the little girl, whom he compelled to turn the squeaking grindstone.  They had begun early, working under the tool-shed, and for hours the little girl had labored wearily at the winch-handle, with only an occasional rest.  By eleven o’clock her arms were so tired that she could scarcely go on, and she became rebellious.  Perhaps it was not only her fatigue, but the fact that “David Copperfield” had arrived the day before and was awaiting her temptingly in the sitting-room, that caused her, in a cross though not malicious moment, to give the circling handle such a whirl that the reaper blade was jerked violently forward; and, as it bounded and sang against the stone, it cut a gash in the eldest brother’s hand.

The swallows nesting under the roof of the shed saw the little girl suddenly run toward the house, followed by the irate eldest brother, who carried a basin of water.  The two disappeared into the entry, the little girl leading.  When the eldest brother came out, still holding the basin, he looked angry and warm.  For, with all his hunting, she had managed to escape him, and he was obliged to nurse his wrath and his hand unavenged.

The little girl had dived under the canopied bed, where she stayed, holding her breath, while the eldest brother looked for her high and low.  When he went out, calling the youngest brother to take her place, she yet remained discreetly hidden.  At dinner-time a plate of food and a glass of milk mysteriously made their appearance at the edge of the bed, so that she was able to stay in seclusion and wait for the storm to pass.  But even “David Copperfield,” which arrived with her meal, did not aid her in whiling away the hours.  So the biggest brother’s suggestion came as a welcome relief.

When the buckboard rolled along the corn road, the little girl stepped out of the field and climbed to the seat on the driver’s side.  Neither she nor the biggest brother spoke, but, as the blue mare jogged on, she took the reins from him and chirruped gaily to the horse, with an inward wish that, instead of being in the buckboard, she were free of it and on the blue mare’s back.  The mare made poor progress when she was hitched between shafts, since she was not a trotter, and reached her best gait under a blanket.  But this was known to the little girl alone, for the big brothers never went faster than a canter, and would have punished her if they had guessed how rapidly, on each trip to the station, the horse was ridden.

The little girl usually started for town in the early afternoon, as the biggest brother had that day.  In this way the local passed her, going east, when the trip was half over.  As the engine came in sight, the little girl urged the mare to a slow gallop, and, as the cow-catcher got abreast, gave her a sharp cut that sent her forward beside the train.  And so swift was the high-strung horse that she was never left behind until a long stretch of road had been covered.  The little girl liked best, however, to start the race at the outer edge of the broad meadow that lay west of the station, because, by acquiring speed before the engine came on a line with her, she could ride up to the depot with the rear car.

The almost daily brush with the train was seemingly as much enjoyed by the blue mare as by her rider.  With the engine’s roar in her ears and its smoke in her nostrils, she sped on, neck and neck with the iron horse.  When the local was still far behind she would begin to curvet and take the bit between her teeth.  After the first few contests, she needed no whip.  The little girl had only to slacken the reins and let her go, and she would scamper into the station, covered with dust and foam from her flashing eyes to her flying feet.

While the little girl was thinking over her exciting rides, the biggest brother was mournfully looking around at the farm.  The year had been a disastrous one.  A chinook had swept the prairies in the late winter, thawing all the drifts except those in sheltered gullies, and giving a false message to the sleeping ground; so that, long before their time, the grass and flowers had sprung up, only to be cut down by a heavy frost that was succeeded by snow.  Again a hot wind had come, and again the grass had sprouted prematurely and been blighted.  When spring opened, the winds veered to the south and drove back, and what green things had survived the cold died early in a hot, blowy May.

Lack of moisture had stunted the growing crops, the sun had baked the ground under them, and every stem and blade had been scorched.  Where, in former years, the oats had nodded heavy-headed stood a straight, scanty growth.  The wheat showed naked spots on its western side, the Vermillion having overflowed after the sowing and lain so long that the seed rotted in the wet.  The flax stems turned up their blue faces and shriveled into a thin cover on the sod.  And in the corn-field, that promised nubbins instead of the usual husking, there shone too soon a glimmer of gold.

Around the fields the brittle grass sloped down to the shrinking sloughs, where the muskrat houses stood high and dry, stranded on the cracked swamp-beds like beached boats.  The river, for weeks a wide-spread, muddy stream, was now but a chain of trickling pools.  Drought was abroad with its burning hand, and the landscape lay bared and brown.

But frost, sun, and winds had not been the only scourges.  Potato-bugs had settled upon the long patch that was bordered by the reservation road.  The youngest brother had painted the riddled vines green with poison, and the little girl had gone along the rows with a stick, knocking thousands of the pests into an oyster-can; but their labor had been in vain.  Cutworms had destroyed the melons; cabbage-lice and squash-bugs had besieged the garden, attended by caterpillars; and grasshoppers by the millions had hopped across the farm, devouring as they went and leaving disaster behind them.

The hot wind that bent the stunted grass beside the road reminded the biggest brother of every catastrophe of the year, and he cried out angrily to it.  “Oh, blow! blow! blow!” he scolded, and, reaching over, gave the blue mare a slap with the reins to relieve his feelings.  It started her into a smart trot, and she soon topped the ridge along which the track ran.  Then the little girl headed her toward the station.

“It only needs a fire to finish the whole thing up,” went on the biggest brother, ruefully eying the prairie.  “The country’s as dry as tinder.  And our place ain’t plowed around half well enough.  If a blaze should happen to come down on us”-he shook his head gravely.

As if in answer to his words, there came from behind them a gust of hot air that carried with it the smell of burning grass.  He faced to the rear with an exclamation of alarm and, shading his face, peered back along the rails.  “Catch that?” he asked excitedly.  “There is a fire somewheres; it’s behind us.  And the wind’s in the west!”

The little girl sprang to her feet, the buckboard still going, and also looked behind.  “Why, I can see smoke,” she said.  She pointed to where a dark haze, like shattered thunder-clouds, was rising from the sky-line.

“It’s been set by that confounded engine,” declared the biggest brother.  He seized the reins and brought the blue mare to a stop.

The little girl stood upon the seat, holding his hand to steady herself.  “Don’t you think we’d better drive home?” she questioned anxiously.

“Well, I don’t know,” he replied.  “Seems to me like the smoke’s gettin’ thicker awful fast.  We don’t notice it much because the sun’s so bright.  But it ain’t more ‘n eight or ten miles away, and comin’ like sixty.  It could make the farm ahead of us.  We’ll just get on to the back-fire at the station and keep from gettin’ singed.”

They sat silent for a moment.  Then the biggest brother turned about and clucked to the blue mare.  But the little girl continued to squint against the sun until, in descending into a draw, the black haze behind was lost to view.

The biggest brother kept the blue mare at a good gait, and the road, with its narrow strip of weedy grass down the center, flew by under the bouncing buckboard.  Soon the long, gradual incline leading up from the ravine was climbed.  At its top, on a high bench, the horse halted for breath.  Both the biggest brother and the little girl at once rose to their feet.  As they did so, they uttered a cry.

A moving wall of animals, that stretched far to north and south, was heading swiftly toward them from beyond the river bluffs.  They could hear the sound of thousands of hoofs, like the ceaseless roll of dulled drums, and across the black level of the wall they saw a bank of smoke, into which leaped tongues of flame.

Without losing a second, the biggest brother began to urge on the blue mare.  The black-snake was missing from its place in the buckboard.  So he used the ends of the reins.  He saw that the wind, which had been brisk all day, was now redoubled in strength, increased by another that found its source in the advancing fire.  He wondered if he had not better unhitch and let the horse carry them both, abandoning the buckboard to its fate on the road.  Yet he feared to lose any time, and, reflecting that perhaps the spirited creature would refuse to ride double, he decided to hurry on without making the change.  As the mare responded to the rein ends, something like a prayer moved his dry, firm-set lips.  For he knew that they were menaced not only by a conflagration, but by a mad stampede.

“The local’ll be along in about half an hour,” said the little girl, speaking for the first time since their dread discovery.  “Do you think the fire’ll hurt it?”

The biggest brother laughed uneasily.  “No,” he replied, “it’ll go right through the fire; but the cattle’ll pitch it off the track if they get in front of it.”

The little girl faced around to watch the oncoming rout, and the biggest brother renewed his thrashing of the blue mare.  But he was not satisfied with the horse’s speed.  She was acting strangely, wavering from side to side as if she were anxious to turn, at the same time keeping her head high and whinnying nervously.

"You know what’s comin’,” the biggest brother said to her between his teeth; “and you’d go back if I’d let you.”

The little girl called his attention from the mare with a shout.  He turned to look in the direction of her shaking finger.  What he saw blanched his dripping face.  From a point on the prairie where he knew the farm-house stood were ascending several dense, black funnels!

The line of flying animals had now crossed the farm.  The blaze seemed to be at the very flanks of the herd, licking up the dry weeds and grass from under their speeding feet.  The biggest brother groaned as his eye swept the oncoming panic.  He forgot for a moment the danger to those at home and the terrible loss that, doubtless, had been visited upon them, in the thought of the impending fate of himself and the little girl.  “They’ll be plump on us in no time,” he muttered, and, kneeling at the dashboard, he renewed his beating.

A bare three miles ahead lay the meadow beyond which was the town and safety.  The thundering host behind, at the rate it was coming, would catch them while they were crossing the wide basin, where the dropseed-grass and blue-joint were higher than the wild hay on the prairie about.  There the herd would have to increase its running to escape the swifter-going fire; hence, there lay the greatest peril to the biggest brother and the little girl.

In a few moments the animals heading the rout were out of sight in the draw crossed a little while before by the buckboard.  The fire followed them, creeping slowly down the farther hillside, where the growth was poor; but when it, as well as the stock, disappeared in the bottom, where the grass stood thick and tall, the narrow ravine top vomited smoke and flame like the mouth of a crater.

In a terribly short space the stampede rushed up the bench and came on, a dense mass, horning and shouldering wildly.  It was soon so close that the horses could be distinguished from the cattle.  Then it gained on the buckboard to such an extent that the little girl could make out, through the smoke and dust that whirled before it, animals that she knew.  But they were changed.  Was that old Kate, the cultivator mare, with bulging eyes and lolling tongue?  Or young Liney, the favorite daughter of a well-loved mother, whose horns cut the grass as she fled?  Or Napoleon’s dusky son, Dan, near the rails?  Even above the sound of their feet and the roar of the fire, she could hear them bawling from weariness and fear as they charged ruthlessly on toward the buckboard.

The blue mare was failing in her stride and acting more obstinately than ever.  Now to the right, now to the left, she turned, and it was with difficulty that the biggest brother kept her in the road.  She answered every blow on her lathered hindquarters with an angry hump.  The biggest brother, as he pounded her mercilessly, felt that escape was impossible.

Beside him, quiet and brave, sat the little girl.  A spot of scarlet showed on either cheek, her eyes were alight, her figure tense.  If she felt any terror, she did not show it.  She knew how rapidly the blue mare could travel, and she trusted her pet to bring them to safety.

As the buckboard struck the meadow road, the biggest brother gave a hurried glance over his shoulder to see how far behind was the herd.  “Never saw so many animals all together in my life,” he said.  “They’ll kill us sure if they catch us.  And that fire’s drivin’ ’em at an awful clip.  My God!”

The cry burst from him in dismay as a huge, burning tumbleweed, as high as a wagon-wheel and as round, rolled through a gap in the stampede and whirled past them, lighting the grass as it sped.  A second and a third followed.  Soon a dozen brands had shot forward, heralding the crackling fiend behind.  The blue mare shied wildly when the weeds came close, and each time the buckboard almost capsized.  She was lagging more than ever, as if waiting for the animals that were scarcely a half mile away.

There was fire all around now, and smoke and cinders floated over the biggest brother and the little girl, choking them and shutting out the road ahead.  The wind, as it brushed by, seemed to sear their faces with its torrid breath.  Suddenly, the dust and smoke clearing to the right, the little girl clutched the biggest brother’s arm and pointed out a dark, bulky creature that was in the lead.  It was a bison, evidently one of those lonely bachelors that, exiled from their kind, were the first hermits of the plains.  His bushy head was lowered and his beard swept the ground.  The biggest brother and the little girl could see his naked body gleam and quiver as he was crowded forward by a band of antelope.  He galloped blindly, as if he was failing in strength.  Even as they looked he tumbled to his knees and let the antelope pass over him, meeting an ignoble death beneath a hundred sharp hoofs and in the embrace of the fire.

The biggest brother’s attention was given to the bison only an instant.  For a long-horned steer collided with a hind wheel and a horse came dashing against the blue mare.  He guided the buckboard nearer the rails to avoid the horse and reached round to hammer with his hat the steer’s nose, which was thrust almost against the seat.  “They’ll trample us, they’ll trample us!” he cried, and he seized the little girl about the shoulders and thrust her in front of him.  “Drive,” he commanded.  Then he climbed back over the seat and furiously kicked out at the animals lunging upon the buckboard.

But he could as easily have stopped the pursuing fire, which was in the meadow and was house high; for, with those in the rear pressing them on at every bound, the leaders could not slacken their course.  He saw that there was but one thing to be done:  increase the speed before the buckboard was run down.  “Oh, why didn’t I unhitch?” he cried miserably as he climbed back to the little girl’s side.

Forgetful of danger, she was whipping the blue mare with all her strength.  The mare was traveling as fast as the herd now, and the station was in sight despite the drifting dust and smoke.  Before it lay the black stretch at which the fire must stop, and on which, if the blue mare could be brought to a standstill behind a building or a waiting car, there was succor from death.  Yet hope-with the herd upon them and the fire closer, hotter, and deadlier-was almost gone.  The biggest brother, in a very final frenzy of desperation, joined his efforts to those of the little girl, and pounded the blue mare and the crowding stock repeatedly with his naked fists.

But suddenly another phase entered into that run for life.  The roar behind them became louder, swelled to deafening, surged to their ears like a long, deep boom of thunder.  And then, with a shriek that seemed to divide the smoke and dust, the local plunged through the cloud across her track and came even with the blue mare’s muzzle.

In that moment, worn with her five miles’ gallop, it was the only thing that could have spurred her on.  Her eyes were bulging from lack of breath.  Her sides, streaked with blood, no longer responded to the scourge of the rein ends.  But, with the engine abreast, the desire to worst it, long nurtured by the little girl, set her into a wilder pace.  With a snort, she gathered herself together.

The buckboard, tossing from side to side on the uneven meadow, gained instantly on the herd and passed to the front once more.  The engine had distanced it, yet the blue mare did not slacken.  The biggest brother and the little girl, torn between hope and fear, yelled at her encouragingly.  Breathing heavily, she strained every muscle to obey.

Another moment and the engine was on the burnt strip; another, and the last car reached it; a third, and the blue mare’s feet struck it, and she scurried into the lee of the depot to let the animals behind her divide and charge by through the town.

THE biggest brother, as soon as the blue mare had been tenderly cared for, hired a livery horse and started homeward.  The little girl accompanied him, her face, like his, still streaked with dust and cinders.  Neither spoke as the bare, smutty meadow was crossed.  They only looked ahead to where smoke was rising slowly, ten miles away to the west.  They were spent with excitement, but their thoughts were on their mother and brothers, the house surrounded by a straw-strewn yard, the line of stacks behind the barn, the board granaries, the fields dry and ready for the match.

As they drove rapidly along through the sunlight, over the land just scored and torn up by the stampede, they passed dead and injured animals that, weaker than the others, had fallen and been trampled and burned.  Few horses and cattle had suffered, but, beginning at the draw, the sheep were pitifully plentiful.  Everywhere smoke floated up in tiny threads from smoldering buffalo-chips, and clumps of weeds burned damply, only now and then bursting into flame.

At last, with a shout of joy, the biggest brother made out the farm-house; with an unhappy cry he announced the burning of the stacks.  And when the buckboard came still nearer, they could see that the granaries were gone, and that all the sod buildings were roofless and open to the blurred sky, while on every side-the corn-field alone breaking the vista-lay the blackened fields.

When they drove up, their mother tottered to meet them, and waved one hand heartbrokenly toward the kitchen door, where the eldest and the youngest brothers, exhausted with fighting fire, their faces grimy, their clothing burned to tatters, sat weeping.  “It couldn’t have been much worse,” she sobbed, as the biggest brother took her in his arms.

The little girl tumbled from the buckboard and, forgetting their quarrel of the morning, threw her arms around the eldest brother’s neck.  He bowed his head against her apron, and there was a long silence, interrupted only by sounds of mourning.  Then the biggest brother spoke.  “Mother,” he said, patting her shoulder softly, “we’ve got the house and the farm left, remember.  We’ve got one another, too.”  He paused a moment.  Before he spoke again he gave a little laugh, and all looked up at him in surprise.  “What’s more,” he went on, “where’s the caterpillars and cucumber-bugs, and the potato-bugs and cabbage lice?  Burned up, slicker ’n a whistle.  And mother,” he persisted, holding up her tear-stained face smilingly, “have you happened to consider that there ain’t a blamed grasshopper in a hundred miles?”