Read CHAPTER XVIII of The Hound From The North , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

THE FOREST DEMON PURSUES

Prudence swung her mare out on to the overgrown trail to Damside City. Kitty was a trim-built little “broncho,” compact, well-ribbed, and with powerful shoulders and chest. She was just the animal to “stay” and travel fast. The road cut through the heart of the Owl Hoot bush, and ran in a diagonal direction, south-west towards the border. Then it converged with the border trail which skirted the great southern muskeg, and, passing through a broken, stony country, went on to Damside.

The wind was rapidly freshening, and the scudding clouds were quickly changing from white to grey, which, to the girl’s practised mind, indicated an immediate change of weather. But she thought little of the matter beyond being thankful that the wind was well behind her, she wished to travel fast, and a “fair” wind is as necessary to the horseman, under such circumstances, as it is to the mariner.

For a time the roughness of the road required her attention. Kitty was surefooted, but the outstanding roots with which her path was lined needed careful negotiation. Presently the trail became wider and its surface more even, and signs of recent usage became apparent. The roots were worn down and the projecting stones had been removed. Neither did it take the girl long to decide whose servants had done these things. On this obscure trail were to be seen many signs of the traffic upon which the owner of Lonely Ranch had been engaged. Now Prudence gave Kitty her head, and the mare travelled at a great pace.

The breeze had chastened the laden air of the pine world. The redolent woods no longer scented the air, which had in consequence become fresh and bracing. For the moment the emergency of her journey had dulled the girl’s sensibilities to her surroundings. She looked out upon the beautiful tinted world, but she heeded nothing of what her eyes beheld. Her mind was set upon the object of her journey, and her thoughts were centred round the players in the drama of her life.

How different her life seemed to have suddenly become from that which she had contemplated that morning. A great triumphant joy was with her since her lover had established his innocence to her. Her troubles and anxieties were still many, and the least thing might upset every hope she entertained, but there was always with her the remembrance that George Iredale was innocent, and in that thought she felt a wonderful security. That he was a smuggler was a matter of insignificance. She loved him too well to let such knowledge narrow her estimation of him. She was too essentially of the prairie to consider so trifling a matter. Half the farmers in the country were in the habit of breaking the Customs regulations by cutting wood and hay on Government lands without a permit, and even hauling these things from across the border when such a course suited them, and in every case it was “contraband”; but they were thought no less of by their friends. Iredale was no worse than they, in spite of the fact that his offence carried with it a vastly heavier sentence.

But for the dread that she might be too late to intercept her brother, Prudence would almost have been happy as she raced along that westward-bound trail. She knew her brother’s nature well. She knew that he was vindictive, and no doubt her own treatment of him had roused his ire and all the lower instincts of his malignant nature; but she also knew that he loved money needed money. His greed for gold was a gluttonous madness which he was incapable of resisting, and he would sacrifice any personal feeling provided the inducement were sufficiently large. She meant that the inducement should be as large as even he could wish, and she knew that in this direction his ideas were extensive. Her one trouble, the one thought which alarmed her, was the question of time. If the office were closed when she arrived, her journey would have been in vain, for the operator lived in Ainsley and would have gone home; Hervey would have arrived in Winnipeg, and, by the time the office opened the following morning, the mischief would have been done.

She flicked her mare with the end of her reins and touched her flank with her heel. Kitty responded with a forward bound. The increased speed was all too slow for the rapid thought and deadly anxiety of the girl, but she was too good a horsewoman to press the willing beast beyond a rational gait.

The hardy mare “propped” jerkily as she passed down the sharp side of a dried-out slough. She plunged through a thicket of long grass, and a grey cloud of mosquitoes rose and enveloped horse and rider. The vicious insects settled like a grey cloth upon the heated mare, and Prudence’s soft flesh was punctured by hundreds of venomous needles at once. The girl swept the insects from neck and face, heedless of the torturing stings. The mare fretted and raced up the opposite slope, while the girl leant forward in her saddle and sought to relieve the staunch little creature’s agony by sweeping the poisonous insects from her steaming coat.

The mare pressed on. Suddenly she threw up her head and snorted violently. Prudence was startled. Something had distracted Kitty’s attention, and her wide-set ears were cocked in alarm. Her nose was held high, and again and again she snorted. In consequence her pace was slackened and became awkward. She no longer kept a straight line along the trail, but moved from side to side in evident agitation. Prudence was puzzled and endeavoured to steady the creature. But Kitty was not to be easily appeased. She rattled her bit and mouthed it determinedly, grabbing at the side-bar with an evident desire to secure it in her teeth. The girl kept a tight rein and attempted to soothe her with the tender caress of her hand; but her efforts were unavailing. The ears were now turned backwards, and had assumed that curiously vicious inclination which in a horse is indicative of bad temper or equine terror. Kitty had no vice in her, and Prudence quickly understood the nature of her mare’s feelings.

The failure of her soothing efforts alarmed the girl. She sat up and looked about her. In the dense forest there seemed to be no unusual appearance. The trees were waving and bending in the wind, and their groanings had a sadly mournful effect, upon the scene, but otherwise there was nothing strange to be observed. The sky had assumed a leaden hue, and in this direction the prospect was not alluring, but the clouds were fairly high and there was no suggestion of immediate storm.

Suddenly a couple of jack-rabbits darted across the road. The mare “propped,” reared, and swung round towards the trees. Prudence brought her up to her work sharply. Then she saw that the rabbits were racing on ahead, down the trail. For the moment her patience gave way, and she dug her heel hard against Kitty’s side and the mare plunged forward. But her gait remained unsteady, and in her agitation she kept changing her stride, and once even tripped and nearly fell.

A coyote followed by his mate and two young ones ran out on to the trail and raced along ahead of her. They did not even turn their heads to look at her. Further on a great timber-wolf appeared and trotted along the edge of the woods, every now and then turning its head furtively to glance back.

Then quite suddenly Prudence became conscious of something unusual. She raised her face to the grey vault of the sky and sniffed at the air. A pungent scent was borne upon the wind. The odour of resinous wood, so strong as to be sickly, came to her, and its pungency was not the ordinary scent of the forest about her.

Half-a-dozen kit-foxes dashed out on to the trail and joined in the race, and the “yowl” of the prairie dog warned her that other animals were about. The resinous odour grew stronger every moment, and at last Prudence detected the smell of smoke. She turned her head and looked back; and behind her, directly in her wake, she saw a thin grey haze which the wind was sweeping along above the trees.

She drew her mare up to a stand, and as she sat looking back, a deadly fear crept into her eyes. Kitty resented the delay and reared and plunged in protest The restraint maddened her. And all the time the girl saw that the smoke haze was thickening, and some strange distant sounds like the discharge of heavy ordnance reached her.

The sweet oval face wore a strained expression; her eyes were wide open and staring, and the fear which looked out of them was fear of no ordinary danger. She watched the dull haze as it thickened and rolled on towards her. She saw it rise like great steam-jets and wreath itself upwards as fresh volumes displayed the lower strata. She saw the dull brown tint creep into it as it densified, and she knew that it was smoke. The rest needed no explanation beyond the evidence of her senses. The sickly resinous smell told her what had happened. The forest was on fire!

The thought found vent in a muttered exclamation. Then came an afterthought

“And the wind is blowing it straight along behind me.”

For a moment she gazed about her wildly. She looked to the right and left The forest walls were impassable. She looked back along the trail. The narrow ribbon-like space was filled with a fog of smoke which was even now enveloping her. What should she do? There was nothing for it but to go on. But the fire must be travelling apace in the high wind. Still she stood. It seemed as though for the moment her faculties were paralyzed with the horror of her discovery.

But at last she was moved to action. The mare became troublesome. The girl could no longer keep her still. The distracted animal humped her back and began to show signs of “bucking.” Then came a rush of animals along the trail; they came racing for dear life, and their numbers were augmented from the wooded depths which lined their route.

Antelope led the way; with heads thrown up and antlers pressed low down upon their backs they seemed to fly over the sandy soil. Then came the “loping” dogs, coyotes, prairie wolves. Birds of all sorts assembled in one long continuous flight. The animal kingdom of that region of forest seemed to have become united in their mutual terror wolf and hare, coyote and jack-rabbit, hawks and blackbird, prairie chicken and grey-owl; all sworn enemies in time of calm prosperity, but now, in their terror, companions to the last. And all the time, in the growing twilight of smoke, came the distant booming as of the discharge of great cannon.

The girl leaned forward. She clapped her heel hard against the mare’s side, and with a silent prayer joined in the race for life.

She had no exact knowledge of how far these woods extended, or where the break would come which should cut off the fire. The wild beasts were speeding on down the trail, and, with the instinct of her prairie world, she reasoned that in this direction alone must lie safety.

The smoke grew denser and more choking. Her eyes became sore. Under her she felt the mare stretching herself to the utmost of her gait. She came up with many of the racing denizens of the forest, but they did not attempt to move off the trail at her approach. They were beyond the fear of human presence. A more terrible enemy was behind them, pursuing with gigantic strides which demolished space with incredible swiftness.

Every moment the air grew hotter in spite of the mare’s best efforts, and Prudence knew that the fire was gaining. Hill or dale made no difference now. It must be on on, or the devouring monster would be upon them. Kitty never flagged, and with increasing speed her footing became even more sure. A loose line, with body bent well forward to ease the animal, Prudence did all she knew to assist her willing companion; but for every stride the faithful mare took, she knew that the fire was gaining many yards.

The booming had increased to a steady roar, in the midst of which the deep, thunderous détonations came like the peals of a raging storm; the wind rushed headlong forward, the fire bringing with it an almost cyclonic sweep of heated air. The mighty forest giants about her bent like reeds under the terrible force, and shrieked aloud their fears at the coming of the devouring demon.

The mare rushed down into a wide hollow. A culvert bridged a reedy slough. The affrighted beast raced across it. The stream of the animal world swept on about her. She breasted the steep ascent opposite, and Prudence was forced to draw rein. She dared not allow the horse to race up such an incline, even though the fire were within a quarter of a mile of her; she would have been mad to exhaust the faithful creature, which was now her only hope. Even the poor forest creatures, mad as they were with terror, slackened their gait.

At length the hilltop was gained, and a long descent confronted them. Kitty showed no signs of exhaustion yet, and faced her work amidst the rush of refugees with all her original zest. Down into the valley they tore, for the worst of all perils was in pursuit.

The valley stretched away far into the distance; ahead, here, in this hollow, the air was clearer. The hill had shut off the fog of smoke for the moment The refugees now had a smooth run, and a faint glimmer of hope gladdened the heart of the girl.

Without slackening her speed, she looked back at the hill, fearing to see the ruthless flames dart up over the path which her mare’s feet had so recently trodden. But the flames had not yet reached the brow, and she sighed her satisfaction. The smoke was pouring over the tree-tops, and, circling and rolling in a tangled mass, was creeping down in her wake, but as yet there were no flames. She looked this way and that at the dark green of the endless woods, the gracious fields of bending pines. She thought of the beauty which must so soon pass away, leaving behind it only the charred skeletons, the barren, leafless trunks, which for years would remain to mark the cruel path of flame.

Suddenly the roar, which had partly died away into a vague distant murmur beyond the hill, burst out again with redoubled fury. Again she looked round, and the meaning was made plain to her. She saw the yellow fringe of flame as it came dancing, chaotic, a tattered ribbon of light upon the brow of the hill; she saw the dense pall of smoke hovering high above it like the threat of some dreadful doom. The black of the forest upon the summit remained for a second, then over swept the red-gold fire, absorbing all, devouring all, in an almost torrential rush down to the woods below.

And now she beheld a sea of living fire as the hills blazed before her eyes. It was as though the whole place had been lit at one touch. The sea rolled on with incredible swiftness, as the tongues of flame licked up the inflammable objects they encountered. The efforts of her mare became puerile in comparison with the fearful pace of the flames. How could she hope to outstrip such awful speed?

On, on raced the mare, and on came the molten torrent. Now the heat was intolerable. The girl leant limply over her faithful horse’s neck; she was dizzy and confused. Every blast of the wind burnt her more fiercely as the fire drew nearer. She felt how utterly hopeless were her horse’s efforts.

The mare faltered in her stride; it was her first trip. The girl shrieked wildly. She screamed at the top of her voice like one demented. Her nerves were failing, and hysteria gripped her. Kitty redoubled her efforts. The fear of the fire was aggravated by the girl’s wild cries, and she stretched herself as she had never done before.

Now it seemed as though they were racing in the heart of a furnace. The whole country was in flames, and the roar and crashing of falling timber was incessant, and the yellow glow was everywhere even ahead.

Blinded, dazed, the girl was borne on by the faithful Kitty. She no longer thought of what was so near behind her. What little reason was left to her she centred upon keeping her seat in the saddle. An awful faintness was upon her, and everything about her seemed distant.

Kitty alone fought out the battle of that ride; her mistress was beyond all but keeping upon the faithful animal’s back. Had she been less exhausted, the girl would have seen what the mare saw. She would have seen the broad stream of the Rosy river ahead, and less than a quarter of a mile away. But she saw nothing; she felt nothing; she cared for nothing but her hold upon the saddle. Thus it was that when she came to the riverside, and the mare plunged from the steep bank into the deep, quick-flowing stream, she knew not what had happened, but, with a strange tenacity, she held to the pummels of her saddle, while her loyal friend breasted the waters.

How they got out of the river Prudence never knew, nor did she fully realize all that had happened when at last the horse and rider again stood on firm ground. And the tough little broncho had covered another mile or more before the girl awoke to the fact that they were now in an open prairie country, and skirting the brink of the great southern muskeg. Then it all came back to her, and, as Kitty kept steadily on, she looked fearfully about her. She saw away in the distance the awful pall, the lurid gleam of the flames; and a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving went up from that lonely trail for the merciful escape which had been hers. The girl leant over her mare’s shoulder and caressed the foaming neck.

“Good Kitty, faithful little mare,” she exclaimed emotionally. Then she looked ahead and she remembered all. “But on, girl, on. There is more to do yet.”

The telegraph operator at Damside was closing up his little shack. He had just disconnected his instrument and was standing in his doorway gazing out across the prairie to the east, watching the vast clouds of smoke belching from the direction of the woods. All about him was a heavy haze, and a nasty taste of smoke was in his mouth. He looked across to the only other buildings which formed the city of Damside, the grain elevator and the railway siding buildings. His own hut was close beside the latter. The men were leaving their work. Then presently he looked back in the direction of the distant fire.

“’Tain’t the prairie,” he muttered. “Too thick. Guess the woods are blazin’. That’s beyond the Rosy. Can’t cross there, so I reckon there’s no danger to us. The air do stink here; guess I’ll go and git my hand-car and vamoose.”

He turned back to the room and put on his hat. Just as he left his doorway to pass over to where his hand-car was standing on the railway track, he brought up to a halt A horse and rider were racing up the trail towards him.

“Hullo, what’s this?” he exclaimed sharply. “Maybe it is the prairie.”

Prudence drew rein beside him. She had seen her man, and she knew that she was in time. Her joy was written in her face.

“My, but I’ve had a time,” she exclaimed, as she slid down from her saddle. “I thought that fire had got me. Call up Winnipeg, please, Mr. Frances.”

“Why, Miss Mailing, have you ridden through that?” asked the operator, pointing to the distant smoke.

“Not through it, but with it distinctly hot upon my heels or rather my mare’s,” the girl laughed. “But I want you to send a message for me. It isn’t too late for Winnipeg?”

“Late, bless you, no. But what is it? Prairie or forest?”

“Forest,” replied the girl shortly. “Where’s a form?”

They passed into the hut. Prudence proceeded to write out her message while the man connected up Winnipeg and carried on a short conversation.

“Bad fire,” he said.

“Very.”

Prudence began to write.

“Just where?”

“Owl Hoot.”

“River’ll stop it”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Prudence went on writing.

“Iredale’s ranch burnt out?”

The girl started.

“Don’t know.”

“Must be.”

“Oh!” Then: “Here you are; and do you mind if I wait for an answer?”

“Pleasure.” And the man read the message

“To Hervey Malling, Northern Union Hotel,
Winnipeg.

“Return at once. Money awaiting you. Willing to pay the price on
your arrival. Do not fail to return at once. The other matter can
rest.

“PRUDENCE.”

The operator tapped away at the instrument.

Hervey was sitting in the Northern Union Hotel smoking-room. He was talking to a burly man, with a red face and a shock of ginger-grey hair. This was the proprietor of the hotel.

“How long can you give me? I can settle everything by this day month. The harvesting is just finished. I only need time to haul the grain to the elevator. Will that satisfy you?”

The big man shrugged.

“You’ve put me off so often, Mr. Malling. It’s not business, and you know it,” he replied gutturally. “Will you give me an order on your crop?”

He looked squarely into the other’s face. Hervey hesitated. He knew that he could not do this, and yet he was sorely pressed for money. However, he made up his mind to take the risk. He thought his mother would not go back on him.

“Very well.”

He turned as the bell-boy approached.

“Telegram for you, sir; ‘expressed.’”

Hervey took the envelope and tore it open. He read his sister’s message, and a world of relief and triumph lit up his face.

“Good,” he muttered. Then he passed it to his companion. “Read that. Do you still need a mortgage? I shall set out to-night.”

The hotel proprietor read the message, and a satisfied smile spread over his face. It did not do for him to press his customers too hard. But still he was a business man. He, too, felt relieved.

“This relates to ?”

“An ouylying farm of mine which I have now sold.”

“Your promise will be sufficient, Mr. Malling. I thought we should find an amicable settlement for our difficulty. You start to-night?”

“Yes.”