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   Chapter 21 THE WELCOME TEMPEST

Hiram the Young Farmer By Burbank L. Todd Characters: 9504

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


To some youths this matter of the option would have been such a clog that they would have lost interest and slighted the work. But not so with Hiram Strong.

He counted this day a lost one, however; he hated to leave the farm for a minute when there was so much to do.

But the next morning he got the plow into the four-acre corn lot; and he did nothing but the chores that week until the ground was entirely plowed. Then Henry Pollock came over and gave him another day's work and they finished grubbing the lowland.

The rubbish was piled in great heaps down there, ready for burning. As long as the rain held off, Hiram did not put fire to the bush-heaps.

But early in the following week the clouds began to gather in a quarter for rain, and late in the afternoon, when the air was still, he took a can of coal oil, and with Sister and Mr. Camp, and even Mrs. Atterson, at his heels, went down to the riverside to burn the brush heaps.

"There's not much danger of the fire spreading to the woods; but if it should," Hiram said, warningly, "it might, at this time of year, do your timber a couple of hundred dollars' worth of damage."

"Goodness me!" exclaimed Mother Atterson. "It does seem ridiculous to hear you talk that a-way. I never owned nothin' but a little bit of furniture before, and I expected the boarders to tear that all to pieces. I'm beginning to feel all puffed up and wealthy."

Hiram cut them all green pineboughs for beaters, and then set the fires, one after another. There were more than twenty of the great piles and soon the river bottom, from bend to bend, was filled with rolling clouds of smoke. As the dusk dropped, the yellow glare of the fire illuminated the scene.

Sister clapped her hands and cried:

"Ain't this bully? It beats the Fourth of July celebration in Crawberry. Oh, I'd rather be on the farm than go to heaven!"

They had brought their supper with them, and leaving the others to watch the fires, and see that the grass did not tempt the flames to the edge of the wood, Hiram cast bait into the river and, in an hour, drew out enough mullet and "bull-heads" to satisfy them all, when they were broiled over the hot coals of the first bonfire to be lighted.

They ate with much enjoyment. Between nine and ten o'clock the fires had all burned down to coals.

A circle of burned-over grass and rubbish surrounded each fire. There seemed no possibility that the flames could spread to the mat of dry leaves on the side hill.

So they went home, a lantern guiding their feet over the rough path through the timber, stopping at the spring for a long, thirst-quenching draught.

The sky was as black as ink. Now and again a faint flash in the westward proclaimed a tempest in that direction. But not a breath of wind was stirring, and the rain might not reach this section.

A dull red glow was reflected on the clouds over the river-bottom. When Hiram looked from his window, just as he was ready for bed, that glow seemed to have increased.

"Strange," he muttered. "It can't be that those fires have spread. There was no chance for them to spread. I-don't-understand it!"

He sat at the window and stared out through the darkness. There was little wind as yet; it was a fact, however, that the firelight flickered on the low-hung clouds with increasing radiance.

"Am I mad?" demanded the young farmer, suddenly leaping up and drawing on his garments again. "That fire is spreading."

He dressed fully, and ran softly down the stairs and left the house. When he came out in the clear the glow had not receded. There was a fire down the hillside, and it seemed increasing every moment.

He remembered the enemy in the dark, and without stopping to rouse the household, ran on toward the woods, his heart beating heavily in his bosom.

Slipping, falling at times, panting heavily because of the rough ground, Hiram came at last through the more open timber to the brink of that steep descent, at the bottom of which lay the smoky river-bottom.

And indeed, the whole of the lowland seemed filled with stifling clouds of smoke. Yet, from a dozen places along the foot of the hill, yellow flames were starting up, kindling higher, and devouring as fast as might be the leaves and tinder left from the wrack of winter.

The nearest bonfire had been a hundred yards from the foot of this hill. His care, Hiram knew, had left no chance of the dull coals in any of the twenty heaps spreading to the verge of the grove.

Man's hand had done this. An enemy, waiting and watching until they had left the field, had stolen down, gathered burning brands, and spread them along the bottom of the hill, where the increasing wind might scatter the fire until the whole gr

ove was in a blaze.

Not only was Mrs. Atterson's timber in danger, but Darrell's tract and that lying beyond would be overwhelmed by the flames if they were allowed to spread.

On the other side, Dickerson had cut his timber a year or two before, clear to the river. The fire would not burn far over his line. Whoever had done this dastardly act, Dickerson's property would not be damaged.

But Hiram lent no time to trouble. His work was cut out for him right here and now-and well he knew it!

He had brought the small axe with him, having caught it up from the doorstep. Now he used it to cut a green bough, and then ran with the latter down the hill and set upon the fire-line like a madman.

The smoke, spread here and there by puffs of rising wind, half choked him. It stung his eyes until they distilled water enough to blind him. He thrashed and fought in the fumes and the murk of it, stumbling and slipping, one moment half-knee deep in quick-springing flames, the next almost overpowered by the smudge that rose from the beaten mat of leaves and rubbish.

It was a lone fight. He had to do it all. There had been no time to rouse either the neighbors, or the rest of the family.

If he did not overcome these flames-and well he knew it-Mother Atterson would arise in the morning to see all her goodly timber scorched, perhaps ruined!

"I must beat it out-beat it out!" thought Hiram, and the repetition of the words thrummed an accompaniment upon the drums of his ears as he thrashed away with a madman's strength.

For no sane person would have tackled such a hopeless task. Before him the flames suddenly leaped six feet or more into the air. They overtopped him as they writhed through a clump of green-briars. The wind puffed the flame toward him, and his face was scorched by the heat.

He lost his eyebrows completely, and the hair was crisped along the front brim of his hat.

Then with a laughing crackle, as though scorning his weakness, the flames ran up a climbing vine and the next moment wrapped a tall pine in lurid yellow.

This pine, like a huge torch, began to give off a thick, black smoke. Would some wakeful neighboring farmer, seeing it, know the danger that menaced and come to Hiram's help?

For yards he had beaten flat the flames and stamped out every spark. Behind him was naught but rolling smoke. It was dark there. No flames were eating up the slope.

But toward Darrell's tract the fire seemed on the increase. He could not catch up with it. And this solitary, sentinel pine, ablaze now in all its head, threatened to fling sparks for a hundred yards.

If the wind continued to rise, the forest was doomed!

His green branch had burned to a crisp. He had lost his axe in the darkness and the smoke, and now he tore another bough, by main strength, from its parent stem.

Hiram Strong worked as though inspired; but to no purpose in the end. For the flames increased. Puff after puff of wind drove the fire on, scattering brands from the blazing pine; and now another, and another, tree caught. The glare of the conflagration increased.

He flung down the useless bough. Fire was all about him. He had to leap suddenly to one side to escape a burst of flame that had caught in a jungle of green-briars.

Then, of a sudden, a crash of thunder rolled and reverberated through the glen. Lightning for an instant lit up the meadows and the river. The glare of it almost blinded the young farmer and, out of the line of fire, he sank to the earth and covered his eyes, seared by the sudden, compelling light.

Again and again the thunder rolled, following the javelins of lightning that seemed to dart from the clouds to the earth. The tempest, so long muttering in the West, had come upon him unexpectedly, for he had given all his attention to the spreading fire.

And now came the rain-no refreshing, sweet, saturating shower; but a thunderous, blinding fall of water that first set the burning woods to steaming and then drowned out every spark of fire on upland as well as lowland.

It was a cloudburst-a downpour such as Hiram had seldom experienced before. Exhausted, he lay on the bank and let the pelting rain soak him to the skin.

He did not care. Half drowned by the beating rain, he only crowed his delight at the downpour. Every spark of fire was flooded out. The danger was past.

He finally arose, and staggered through the downpour to the house, only happy that-by a merciful interposition of Providence-the peril had been overcome.

He tore off his clothing on the stoop, there in the pitch darkness, and crept up to his bedroom where he rubbed himself down with a crash-towel, and finally tumbled into bed and slept like a log till broad daylight.

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