LESSON 6 The prairie on fire(II)
Before time had been allowed for remonstrance, the old man, who had continued during the whole scene like one much at a loss how to proceed, though, also, like one who was rather perplexed than alarmed, suddenly assumed a decided air, as if he no longer doubted as to the course it was most advisable to pursue.
"It is time to be doing," he said, interrupting the controversy that was about to ensue between the naturalist and the bee hunter; "it is time to leave off books and moanings, and to be doing."
"You have come to your recollection too late, miserable old man!" cried Middleton. "The flames are within a quarter of a mile of us, and the wind is bringing them down in this direction with dreadful rapidity."
"Anan! the flames! I care but little for the flames! If I only knew how to circumvent the cunning of the Tetons as I know how to cheat the fire of its prey, there would be nothing needed but thanks to the Lord for our deliverance. Do you call that a fire! If you had seen what I have witnessed in the eastern hills, when mighty mountains were like the furnace of a smith, you would have known what it was to fear the flames, and to be thankful that you were spared.—Come, lads, come; 'tis time to be doing now, and to cease talking, for yonder curling flame is truly coming on like a trotting moose.(1) Put hands upon this short and withered grass where we stand, and lay bare the earth."
"Would you think to deprive the fire of its victims in this childish manner?" exclaimed Middleton.
A faint but solemn smile passed over the features of the old man, as he answered, "Your grandfather would have said, that when the enemy was nigh, a soldier could do no better than obey."
The captain felt the reproof, and instantly began to imitate the industry of Paul, who was tearing the decayed herbage from the ground in a sort of desperate compliance with the trapper's direction. Even Ellen lent her hands to the labour; nor was it long before Inez was seen similarly employed, though none among them knew why. A very few moments sufficed to lay bare a spot of some twenty feet in diameter.
To one side of this little area the trapper brought the females, directing Middleton and Paul to cover their light and inflammable dresses with the blankets of the party. Then the old man, crossing to the other side, approached the grass, which still environed(2) them in a dangerous circle, and selecting a handful of the driest of the herbage, he placed it over the pan of his rifle. The light combustible kindled at the flash. Then he placed the little flame in a bed of the standing fog, and patiently awaited the result.
The subtle element seized with avidity upon its new fuel, and in a moment forked flames were gliding among the grass, as the tongues of ruminating(3) animals are seen rolling among their food, apparently in quest of its sweetest portions.
"Now," said the old man, holding up a finger, and laughing in his peculiarly silent manner, "you shall see fire fight fire. Ah's me! many is the time I have burned a path from wanton laziness to pick my way across a tangled bottom."
"But is this not fatal?" cried the amazed Middleton; "are you not bringing the enemy nigher to us, instead of avoiding it?"
"Do you scorch so easily? Your grandfather had a tougher skin. But we shall live to see,—we shall all live to see.
The experience of the trapper was in the right. As the fire gained strength, it began to spread on three sides, dying of itself on the fourth for want of aliment. As it increased, and the sullen roaring announced its power, it cleared everything before it, leaving the black and smoking soil far more naked than if the scythe had swept the place. The area in which the fugitives had taken refuge increased as the fire advanced; and by going to the spot where it had been first kindled by the trapper, they avoided the excessive heat. In a very few moments the flames began to recede in every direction, leaving the party enveloped in a cloud of smoke, but perfectly safe from the torrent of fire that was still furiously rolling onward.
The others regarded the simple expedient of the trapper with that species of wonder with which the courtiers of Ferdinand(4) are said to have viewed the manner in which Columbus made his egg to stand on its end,—though with feeling that were filled with gratitude instead of envy.
"Most wonderful!" said Middleton, when he saw the complete success of the device: "the thought was a gift from Heaven."
"Old trapper," cried Paul, thrusting his fingers through his shaggy locks, "I have lined many a loaded bee into his hole, and know something of the nature of the woods, but this is robbing a hornet of his sting without touching the insect!"
"It will do—it will do," returned the old man, who, after the first moment of his success, seemed to think no more of the exploit. "Let the flames do their work for a short half hour, and then we will mount. That time is needed to cool the meadow; for these unshod beasts are tender on the hoof as a barefooted girl."
The veteran, on whose experience they all so implicitly relied for protection, employed himself in reconnoitring objects in the distance, through the openings which the air occasionally made in the immense bodies of smoke, that by this time lay in enormous piles on every part of the plain.
—J. Fenimore Cooper.(5)
What did the trapper presently instruct his companions to do? How large a space did they clear? Where did the trapper place the females? What did the trapper do at the other side? What was the result? With what feelings did the others regard the trapper's device?