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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Prairie Fire
By James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)
 
From ‘The Prairie’

“SEE, Middleton,” exclaimed Inez in a sudden burst of youthful pleasure, that caused her for a moment to forget her situation, “how lovely is that sky; surely it contains a promise of happier times!”  1
  “It is glorious!” returned her husband. “Glorious and heavenly is that streak of vivid red, and here is a still brighter crimson; rarely have I seen a richer rising of the sun.”  2
  “Rising of the sun!” slowly repeated the old man, lifting his tall person from its seat with a deliberate and abstracted air, while he kept his eye riveted on the changing and certainly beautiful tints that were garnishing the vault of heaven. “Rising of the sun! I like not such risings of the sun. Ah’s me! the imps have circumvented us with a vengeance. The prairie is on fire!”  3
  “God in heaven protect us!” cried Middleton, catching Inez to his bosom, under the instant impression of the imminence of their danger. “There is no time to lose, old man; each instant is a day; let us fly!”  4
  “Whither?” demanded the trapper, motioning him, with calmness and dignity, to arrest his steps. “In this wilderness of grass and reeds you are like a vessel in the broad lakes without a compass. A single step on the wrong course might prove the destruction of us all. It is seldom danger is so pressing that there is not time enough for reason to do its work, young officer; therefore let us await its biddings.”  5
  “For my own part,” said Paul Hover, looking about him with no equivocal expression of concern, “I acknowledge that should this dry bed of weeds get fairly in a flame, a bee would have to make a flight higher than common to prevent his wings from scorching. Therefore, old trapper, I agree with the captain, and say, mount and run.”  6
  “Ye are wrong—ye are wrong; man is not a beast to follow the gift of instinct, and to snuff up his knowledge by a taint in the air or a rumbling in the sound; but he must see and reason, and then conclude. So follow me a little to the left, where there is a rise in the ground, whence we may make our reconnoitrings.”  7
  The old man waved his hand with authority, and led the way without further parlance to the spot he had indicated, followed by the whole of his alarmed companions. An eye less practiced than that of the trapper might have failed in discovering the gentle elevation to which he alluded, and which looked on the surface of the meadow like a growth a little taller than common. When they reached the place, however, the stunted grass itself announced the absence of that moisture which had fed the rank weeds of most of the plain, and furnished a clue to the evidence by which he had judged of the formation of the ground hidden beneath. Here a few minutes were lost in breaking down the tops of the surrounding herbage, which, notwithstanding the advantage of their position, rose even above the heads of Middleton and Paul, and in obtaining a lookout that might command a view of the surrounding sea of fire.  8
  The frightful prospect added nothing to the hopes of those who had so fearful a stake in the result. Although the day was beginning to dawn, the vivid colors of the sky continued to deepen, as if the fierce element were bent on an impious rivalry of the light of the sun. Bright flashes of flame shot up here and there along the margin of the waste, like the nimble coruscations of the North, but far more angry and threatening in their color and changes. The anxiety on the rigid features of the trapper sensibly deepened, as he leisurely traced these evidences of a conflagration, which spread in a broad belt about their place of refuge, until he had encircled the whole horizon.  9
  Shaking his head, as he again turned his face to the point where the danger seemed nighest and most rapidly approaching, the old man said:—  10
  “Now have we been cheating ourselves with the belief that we had thrown these Tetons from our trail, while here is proof enough that they not only know where we lie, but that they intend to smoke us out, like so many skulking beasts of prey. See: they have lighted the fire around the whole bottom at the same moment, and we are as completely hemmed in by the devils as an island by its waters.”  11
  “Let us mount and ride!” cried Middleton; “is life not worth a struggle?”  12
  “Whither would ye go? Is a Teton horse a salamander that can walk amid fiery flames unhurt, or do you think the Lord will show his might in your behalf, as in the days of old, and carry you harmless through such a furnace as you may see glowing beneath yonder red sky? There are Sioux too hemming the fire with their arrows and knives on every side of us, or I am no judge of their murderous deviltries.”  13
  “We will ride into the centre of the whole tribe,” returned the youth fiercely, “and put their manhood to the test.”  14
  “Ay, it’s well in words, but what would it prove in deeds? Here is a dealer in bees, who can teach you wisdom in a matter like this.”  15
  “Now for that matter, old trapper,” said Paul, stretching his athletic form like a mastiff conscious of his strength, “I am on the side of the captain, and am clearly for a race against the fire, though it line me into a Teton wigwam. Here is Ellen, who will—”  16
  “Of what use, of what use are your stout hearts, when the element of the Lord is to be conquered as well as human men? Look about you, friends; the wreath of smoke that is rising from the bottoms plainly says that there is no outlet from the spot, without crossing a belt of fire. Look for yourselves, my men; look for yourselves: if you can find a single opening, I will engage to follow.”  17
  The examination which his companions so instantly and so intently made, rather served to assure them of their desperate situation than to appease their fears. Huge columns of smoke were rolling up from the plain and thickening in gloomy masses around the horizon; the red glow which gleamed upon their enormous folds, now lighting their volumes with the glare of the conflagration and now flashing to another point as the flame beneath glided ahead, leaving all behind enveloped in awful darkness, and proclaiming louder than words the character of the imminent and approaching danger.  18
  “This is terrible!” exclaimed Middleton, folding the trembling Inez to his heart. “At such a time as this, and in such a manner!”  19
  “The gates of heaven are open to all who truly believe,” murmured the pious devotee in his bosom.  20
  “This resignation is maddening! But we are men, and will make a struggle for our lives! How now, my brave and spirited friend, shall we yet mount and push across the flames, or shall we stand here, and see those we most love perish in this frightful manner, without an effort?”  21
  “I am for a swarming time and a flight before the hive is too hot to hold us,” said the bee-hunter, to whom it will be at once seen that Middleton addressed himself. “Come, old trapper, you must acknowledge this is but a slow way of getting out of danger. If we tarry here much longer, it will be in the fashion that the bees lie around the straw after the hive has been smoked for its honey. You may hear the fire begin to roar already, and I know by experience that when the flames once get fairly into the prairie grass, it is no sloth that can outrun it.”  22
  “Think you,” returned the old man, pointing scornfully at the mazes of the dry and matted grass which environed them, “that mortal feet can outstrip the speed of fire on such a path? If I only knew now on which side these miscreants lay!”  23
  “What say you, friend Doctor,” cried the bewildered Paul, turning to the naturalist with that sort of helplessness with which the strong are often apt to seek aid of the weak, when human power is baffled by the hand of a mightier Being; “what say you: have you no advice to give away in a case of life and death?”  24
  The naturalist stood, tablets in hand, looking at the awful spectacle with as much composure as if the conflagration had been lighted in order to solve the difficulties of some scientific problem. Aroused by the question of his companion, he turned to his equally calm though differently occupied associate, the trapper, demanding with the most provoking insensibility to the urgent nature of their situation:—  25
  “Venerable hunter, you have often witnessed similar prismatic experiments—”  26
  He was rudely interrupted by Paul, who struck the tablets from his hands with a violence that betrayed the utter intellectual confusion which had overset the equanimity of his mind. Before time was allowed for remonstrance, the old man, who had continued during the whole scene like one much at 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 on the course it was most advisable to pursue.  27
  “It is time to be doing,” he said, interrupting the controversy that was about to ensue between the naturalist and the beehunter; “it is time to leave off books and moanings, and to be doing.”  28
  “You have come to your recollections 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 quarter with dreadful rapidity.”  29
  “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 this 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. Put hands upon this short and withered grass where we stand, and lay bare the ’arth.”  30
  “Would you think to deprive the fire of its victims in this childish manner?” exclaimed Middleton.  31
  A faint but solemn smile passed over the features of the old man as he answered:—  32
  “Your gran’ther would have said that when the enemy was nigh, a soldier could do no better than to obey.”  33
  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 labor, nor was it long before Inez was seen similarly employed, though none amongst them knew why or wherefore. When life is thought to be the reward of labor, men are wont to be industrious. A very few moments sufficed to lay bare a spot of some twenty feet in diameter. Into one edge 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. So soon as this precaution was observed, the old man approached the opposite margin of the grass which still environed them in a tall and 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 withdrawing from the spot to the centre of the ring, he patiently awaited the result.  34
  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 animals are seen rolling among their food, apparently in quest of its sweetest portions.  35
  “Now,” said the old man, holding up a finger, and laughing in his peculiarly silent manner, “you shall see fire fight fire! All’s me! many is the time I have burnt a smooty path, from wanton laziness to pick my way across a tangled bottom.”  36
  “But is this not fatal?” cried the amazed Middleton; “are you not bringing the enemy nigher to us instead of avoiding it?”  37
  “Do you scorch so easily? your gran’ther had a tougher skin. But we shall live to see—we shall all live to see.”  38
  The experience of the trapper was in the right. As the fire gained strength and heat, 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 situation of the fugitives would have still been hazardous, had not the area enlarged as the flame encircled them. But by advancing to the spot where the trapper had kindled the grass, they avoided the heat, and in a very few moments the flames began to recede in every quarter, leaving them enveloped in a cloud of smoke, but perfectly safe from the torrent of fire that was still furiously rolling onwards.  39
  The spectators regarded the simple expedient of the trapper with that species of wonder with which the courtiers of Ferdinand are said to have viewed the manner in which Columbus made his egg stand on its end, though with feelings that were filled with gratitude instead of envy.  40
 
 
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