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"Run, Nakoma, we can' stop for burnin' shirts!" urged Carlos.
Nakoma turned to the right and down through another track of dusty, parched tules the couple fled. On—on through the tangled lobryinth of crackling reeds they fought their way feverously, desperately—obsessed with the madness of terror.
On they struggled, stubbing their toes in the dry, rutty hoof holes of the cattle. Staggering and coughing, they helped one another to keep to their feet as the blinding sheets of smoke passed over them.
"My Carlos! My Carlos!" the girl at length managed to gasp, "we are but runnin' round in a circle. See, dere es that leetle dried up arm of the Butte Slough! Tree times we hav' crossed et —an' see agin we approach et!"
"Ay! Ay! These paths ar' lak the
spider web "a furious fit of coughing
finished Carlos' sentence.
Confused, bewildered and on the verge of insanity with fear, the man and the woman scuttled down another opening while streamers of sparks eddied and hissed at their backs.
Down the vast plain the fire swept, leaping, dancing, spreading in impish maliciousness. Stealthily it came, yet eagerly, greedily, hissing and spitting an aspish undertone to the waxing roar of its temulent overhead flames.
Turgid masses of dense purple smoke circled and twisted and spewed their nightish folds into the very heavens. The sun was obscured and the whole Sutter Basin shrouded in impenetrable dinginess.
On the heels of the Mexican and his sweetheart the snapping and Fizzling increased. The heat grew unbearable, the smoke life-defying.
Once more Carlos stopped.
"Agin' we ar' but runnin' a circle: There es no gittin' out of thes grass— we ar' lost, mia naloma, we ar' lost!"
But the girl was yet undaunted. Snatching his hand, she again dived through an opening in the mesh of the heat-shriveled tules.
"Oh, Carlos," she gasped, where es
that ole wellow clump? Le's try to make for the wellow clump!"
"I thought et was out here," said Carlos, "but you see that et es not!"
"But thee ground es damp," the girl panted, "may be et es a leetle way over dere."
"No, I am of thee certain that thee weelows ar' not out here."
"Ef we could fin' a hole of wet mud— a cow wallow—thee ground es wet, dere mus' be one out near here somewhere. May be over dere!" the girl pointed.
But when the spot was reached no cow wallow marked its identity. The little hollow was drier, if possible, than the ground surrounding it.
"We are indeed lost!" the girl admitted, "I don' know where in the worl' we are!"
Lost in the maze of matted marsh weed, blinded in a maelstrom of smothering smoke, the helpless creatures watched the lapping phalanx of fire approach them.
Carlos lamented bitterly in Spanish:
"To think that it was I who brought you out into this!"
"But I say, Carlos, dere mus' be a mud hole about here close. I feel weth my feet that the ground es oozy," the woman insisted, as she saw her lover on the edge of collapse. "A few steps thes way an' may be yet we can fin' et!"
Up and out of the old dry hole and over and back a few hundred feet brought Nakoma to her mud hole. But when Bhe saw it—so small, so shallow, and oh, so dry for a mud hole, the girl threw up her hands and lamented hopelessly in the tongue of her lover:
"Ya no hay comedia!"
"The game es up!" Carlos repeated her cry in English.
Unreconciled, fearful, horrified, Carlos gazed out before him, while Nakoma reeled toward the mud.
"Come on Carlos, come on—we weel bury ourselves the bes' we can," she cried, pulling him down with her into the little depression. "Try to cup your face en thee mud, Carlos!"
A few minutes later she grieved:
"Ay! Ay! et es wirse than I thought. Nuthin' but a puddle of watery slime— not enough even to hide our faces en. Oh, Carlos, here es where we die, you an' me!"
Carlos, too exhausted to answer, tripped and with a groan fell sprawling in the mud. Nakoma sank wearily beside him and watched the flaming fringe of the coppery hued flames rusing toward them in running, vaulting, ever-consuming waves.
Her face was scorched, her body In blisters, but so filled with fear was she that she had been insensible to all physical pains. Now In the throes of hopeless despair, Nakoma felt the cruelty of their torture.
But she sat in the mud and clung to Carlos, crazed, awe-stricjken, dreading yet silent, uncomplaining, frozen in inperturable horror.
Carlos, by reason of his Latin blood, was inclined to be far more excitable, but the smoke had almost stifled the life out of him, so he lay in the mud, depleted and panting, while the flames withered his skin and singed his black hair.
Suddenly Nakoma lifted her ear. With the cat-like quickness of the Indian, she instinctively sensed the clatter of horses' hoofs over a nearby cow path In the flaming rushes.
"Lis'sen! Lls'sen!" she gasped. "Lis'sen, Carlos!" and she shook him impetuously. "I hear the runnin' of horses! Some one es comin' for us! Lis'sen! Don' you hear someone callin'? He-ey! He-ey!—He answers! He answers, Carlos!"
"You haf gone mad," the man told her. "There es no one callin'."
"Hey! He-ey! Here! Here! Here! —There es some one, Carlos. He answers!"
Carlos lifted his head.
"Et mus' be Joe Raven," he ventured "None but Joe Raven could ride like that —none but thee Raven would be bold enough to ride out here. He'ey;—Here! —Here! Call agin, my Nakoma, call loud. The voice haf been scorched out of me."
Nakoma called again—as long and as
loud as the remaining strength in her would vouch for an atom of energy.
"That es good of thee Raven to com' fin' us. We weel never forget et! Blessed Joe Raven!" Carlos was wheezing, when a voice close at hand answered Nakoma's last call.
Both Carlos and Nakoma looked up startled.
"That es not thee Raven's voice!" the girl cried excitedly. "That es Master Phelep's!"
"Si, si!" declared the Mexican, "et es Master Philipe! Master Philipe Bissett!"
"Carlos! Nakoma!—Oh, Carlos!" the horseman called and swooped down on them.
"Here! Here! Here!" cried the runaways rising to their knees and sobbing aloud with thankfulness.
The rancher sat astride a charging iron gray colt and led in the rear, a beautiful high strung bay. Both horses were covered with foam, manes and tails charred ragged and glossy coats scorched deep in many places to anguished hides.
Philip Bissett with his eyes on the fringent tongues of the baneful flames, hurriedly dismounted and helped the unfortunate pair to their feet, then gave orders quickly.
"Mount the bay, Carlos. Hurry!—and Nakoma, get on behind him. What's the matter, Carlos? Here, you can't take time to faint now! Why, his leg is broken! That's what has played him out so! Nakoma, you take the bay, and I'll swing Carlos on in front of me, where I can hold on to him. He's sure done up! Hurry up, Nakoma, can't you see the fire has eaten the rope on the halter while we have been standing here! Come on, follow us now, Nakoma!"
And then like a whirlwind, the horses turned and dashed down a trail through the blazing tule.
"But "pleaded Carlos, "how do you
know where to go en what direction?
We weel but get lost agin en thes burnin' grass forest!"
"No," answered Philip, "I know all the trails well. If we can keep out of the fire, I can find the way."
"Gracias a Dlos!" Carlos fervently gave thanks.
On dashed the horses, wild and snorting with fright and atremble with fear of the terrifying flames on all sides of them. Philip Bissett talked to them, patted them and assured them as he lead them bounding like streaks of lightening from the wake of the fire and up toward the levee of the river.
"Safe! Safe at las'!" panted Nakoma.
Then, as by some perverse whim, a gale of east wind shrieked down the basin with the viciousness of a thousand unleeched hell-cats. The fire turned, and with renewed bitterness swept back to leap at the yet untouched bulrushes on the western side of the valley.
"Thank God, indeed, that we made for the east side instead of the west! If there is anybody out there now—they are gone! Ah! she turns to the south! That catches the northwestern side of the sink. Listen to that wind, will you —whistling like a herd of banshees!"
"How good that we come thes way— how good!" breathed from Nakoma.
"Gracias a Dlos! Gracias a Dios!" piously chanted Carlos.
At the ranchero Mrs. Bissett, the pioneer woman, was awaiting them. At sight of her son, she ran and flung herself upon him.
Lathered with horse sweat and covered with the muck and moil from the mud hole, the rescuer and rescued descended from their horses.
"Thank God you got back!" exclaimed Mrs. Bissett.
"Yes, we've all been thanking Him, particularly Carlos," her son told her.
"Carlos," his mistress scolded. "Why did you run away before you were married? Shame on you, Nakoma!"
Carlos and Nakoma hung their heads.
"There es no dominie at thee ranchero," Nakoma ventured.
"Well, we'll have one here by next boat day, if you two promise not to run away in the meanwhile. Come on into the house now and let me tend to your burns," said the practical woman.
Supper time came and passed. The men came in from the fields, washed and ate the evening repast, demanding vivid accounts of the fire and the harrowing experiences of Carlos and Nakoma and the brave rescue by the young master.
Twilight came and nightfall, yet Joe Raven did not come. The men in the heat of the excitement did not notice his absence until quite late, and then came the query: "Where is the Raven?" No one knew. Who had seen him last? No one remembered having seen him since noon, until at length a very sleepy little Indian boy woke up enough to recall that he had seen Joe Raven going out toward the northwest.
Could he have been trapped by the trick of the winds? Everyone looked solemn. Then the drowsy lad added that the Raven was carrying fire brands, the boy guessed he had gone out to brand cattle.
Charlie Mountain Trout grunted, and each and every Indian in the circle, without so much as a movement of the head, looked cunningly into the eye of his neighbor—but said nothing.
Quietly, without undue ostentation, the east wind died down and hushed its dolorous whimperings. As a boomerang of just exaction, it had played its part this day.
Out on the gaunt, naked burned plains myriads of nebulous embers fleered with sullen glows of decisive winkings. A soft west wind sprang up and played wistfully over the dismal bed of smoldering ashes. Down by the river came the lonesome cry of the loon. And above it all, an unforgiving sky fought with the filmy wrack of now fast fading smoke. HOME on old timer, one more drag and we're up and then you can blow awhile." The leading rider of the little cavalcade encouraged his weary mount with a friendly slap on the shoulder and once more commenced the grinding ascent. The rest of the horses raised their heads and again started plodding methodically up the trail. The party which slowly made its way up the slope of the brown Californian foothills was composed of three riders and a pack mule, well loaded with miscellaneous bundles and encouraged by the last of the horsemen.
By Ronald A. Davidson
Since ten o'clock that morning they had been progressing slowly into the rugged brown hills. The first part of the trip had been along a canyon bottom which, though the stream in it had dried up several months before, offered partial shade and protection from the September heat. But for the last three hours, through the hottest part of the day, they had been struggling up the sheer bare face of the first range of foothills.
The trail they followed was only a cattle path which wound in endless switchbacks up the almost perpendicular slope. Except for clumps of wild walnut trees which studded the landscape in irregular patches and a few scrub oaks in the ravines there were no trees. The ground was covered for the most part with a short growth of wild oats, now dried to a brittle brown crisp which even the sheep would not touch. The wind ran down in long waves of furnace like blasts which raised the dust of the trail in choking clouds.
Steve Haines, or "the boss" as he was usually called, who lead the troup was the manager of the Copa d'Oro Land Company's modern stock ranch which occupied one of the green squares that appeared like checker-boards over the floor of the valley below. He was a young man of more than average height,
his dark hair and thick eye brows over clear grey eyes gave a hint of a serious, almost sullen, nature. However he mixed with his strict "attention to business" traits, enough love of fun and good-fellowship to have made him a wellliked man in his undergraduate days, and one of the best managers of men who had ever registered on the company's payroll.
The youngest member of the party was a short, well set-up chap of twenty, with a bearing which announced to all who saw him that Stanley Holmes was ready to take things as they came, and make the best of them. He was new to this life, being city bred, but was putting in the summer on the big stock ranch as an adjunct to a college course in agriculture. Now that the bulk of the summer's work was over the boss was taking him on that long promised trip to the upper ranch, which consisted of a cabin just over the first range of foothills and three thousand acres of hill land which furnished good grazing ground in the winter and early spring.
The third member of the party was one of the typical leftovers of the former cattle ranch days. His tall angular figure was clothed in the regulation overalls and blue shirt and a much battered felt hat, with a woven horsehair band, was pushed far back on his head. With his drooping grey mustache and the tobacco stained stubble on his face, he might have posed in any scenario as "Alkali Ike" or "Mojave Mike," but his real name was Henry Roscoe Peters and he was universally known as "Pete."
The trail had now become more level and following along the bottom of a shallow ravine came out finally at the top of the range. The scene was a jumble of more or less rolling hills forming a sort of sloping table land, leading up to the snow-tipped peaks in the distance. Here the leaders halted, slacked their bridles