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- Cowboy Dave - 21/28 -
knew something of their danger. "I guess we'll have to back fire. Though we could send for some plows, Dad"
"Yes, and I think I'll do that," the ranchman said. "The wind may shift, and I'd feel better if I had some plowed furrows between that blaze and my cattle."
Plowing and burning a strip are the two principal methods used in fighting prairie fires. The dry grass of the plains, when it starts to burn, goes like tinder. If it can be done in time, it is often effective to light another fire in front of the one that is rolling forward. This consumes the grass on which the flames feed, and when they reach that spot there is nothing for them to burn. And if one stands on the area burned he will be comparatively safe. Of course care must be taken not to get singed in the back-fire.
Another method is to plow the ground, turning the dried grass under, and leaving only the bare earth exposed. If a strip can be plowed wide enough the fire can not leap over it.
"Lively now, boys!" called Mr. Carson. "Dave, you go over and help keep the cattle from stampeding. Keep 'em milling." This means keeping the animals going around and around in concentric circles, like a mill wheel. When they can be made to do this they seldom break and run wild.
"Oh, Dad! Let me go to fight the fire!" pleaded the youth.
"All right. Only take care of yourself," was the caution.
"I'll go and help the boys mill the cattle," offered the water engineer. "I believe I can do that."
"I think so, though it isn't going to be an easy task," said the ranchman.
The glare of the distant fire was now brighter, and a dull roar could be heard. The cattle seemed to be aware of the danger, and it required hard work on the part of the punchers to keep them from breaking. With shouts and yells, with lashings from their shortened lariats and with shots from their heavy revolvers the punchers did manage, however, to keep the creatures in a compact mass.
Some cowboys, leaping into the chuck wagon, had started to drive to the ranch buildings to bring back plows and plow horses. They might, if they were lucky, return in time to help in keeping back the flames.
But the main fighting force, which Dave joined, rode straight toward the onrushing flames in the desperate endeavor to fight fire with fire. They would need to reach a spot, though, where the wind was blowing away from them and the cattle, and toward the main blaze. Such places can often be found in the rolling prairie, with its many glades and swales. Then, too, the heat of the big fire often creates a vacuum, or back draft, causing air to rush in toward the leaping flames, and making a wind blow toward them that will carry with it the fire started to offset the menacing one.
"Here's a good spot!" exclaimed Pocus Pete at length. "Scatter along here, boys, and set the grass ablaze."
Leaping from the backs of their ponies, the cowboys gave the reins into the hands of one of their number to hold, for the horses could not be trusted to stand alone with the fire coming ever nearer them. And without their mounts the cowboys would be lost.
The spot where the party now found itself was down in a little depression, or swale, and the wind was blowing away from them and toward the main conflagration.
"Light, boys!" cried the foreman, as he struck a match and applied it to a bunch of dried grass that made a rude torch. The others, including Dave, did the same. Soon little spurts of flame in the grass showed where the contending fire was started.
"Watch it now, boys!" Pocus Pete warned them. "If you see it starting to creep back on you swat it out. Take your blankets, and see if you can't find a water hole. Sozzle your blankets in that and swat the blaze if she starts to run back on you."
A spring, or, rather a mud-hole that passed for one, was found, and in this the blankets were wet. Then, as the contending fire burned onward, some little tongues of flame crept back toward the spot where the cattle had been left These were "swatted" with the wet blankets as fast as seen.
"Well, she's going!" cried Dave, as he saw the fire they had set to fight the other leaping onward as though to meet the blazing enemy. "That ought to burn a safety strip."
"If th' wind doesn't turn," murmured Pocus Pete. "If th' wind doesn't turn."
Anxiously now they waited, looking the while to see that no stray sparks set a fire behind them. Dirty, dusty, choking and smoke-begrimed, the cowboys fought the oncoming fire. Back of them their comrades worked hard to hold in check the frightened cattle, while others were racing back with the plowing outfit.
And off to the west glowed, roared and crackled the menacing prairie fire.
"Lively boys! Swat it out! Farther off to the left there, Skinny!"
"All right, Pete! I get you!"
"Dave, there's a flicker behind you. Swat it out!"
"Out she goes!" answered the young cowboy.
"Tubby, step along with a little more life!" the foreman cried. "Th' fire'll git yo' if yo' don't watch out!"
"I'm goin' along as fast as I can, Pete."
"Well, move faster. We've got to beat this fire!"
Thus with friendly gibes and taunts Pete kept his men at work. The fire was coming nearer, but the burned strip was widening too, and soon would be too broad for the flames to leap over.
They would separate, of course, and travel down on either side of the charred section, but the cattle might be saved.
Up and down the length of the line of fire they had started to offset the other, keeping well back of it, and watching that no stray sparks or wisps of burning grass got behind them, Dave and his comrades worked hard. The immediate danger seemed to have passed, but a shift in the wind might come at any time, and render their task futile.
"A little more, boys, and we'll call it done!" exclaimed the foreman, wiping his grimy, sweaty face on his sleeve. It did not greatly improve his countenance, however.
Dave and the others lengthened the line of back-fire, and then, seeing that they had burned a strip sufficiently wide to make it comparatively certain that the oncoming fire would not leap over it, they turned back to help plow the furrows, or to keep the cattle in order and from stampeding.
Leaping on their snorting ponies the cowboys rode back, leaving behind them two fires where before there had been but one. But soon the two would merge into one, leaving a broad, blackened barren strip, that contained no fuel for the flames.
"It's lucky we struck that swale where the wind blew in the other direction," Dave remarked.
"Mighty lucky," assented Pocus Pete.
Of course where a strong wind is blowing a prairie fire toward one, another method of escape can be taken. If there is time a fire can be started where one is standing. The wind will carry it in the same direction as that in which the main blaze is advancing, but ahead of it. Then, as the grass is burned off, and the ground cools, one can follow the second fire, getting far enough in toward the center of the area one has burned to be safe. But this method can not be used where the second fire would consume buildings or cattle, as would have been the case here.
"How'd you make out?" demanded Mr. Carson, as Dave and the others, smoke- begrimed and weary, rode up.
"All right. There's a big burned patch between us and the fire now," said Pocus Pete. "Have the plows come?"
"Hark!" exclaimed Dave. "What's that?"
A thunder of hoofs could be heard, thudding on the ground.
"The cattle--a stampede!" gasped Tubby Larkin.
"No, it's the boys coming back with the plow outfit," said Dave. "I can hear the rattle of the wheels on the chuck wagon."
And his guess proved correct. A little later the wagon rumbled up. Led along behind it were a number of horses kept for use on the farm that was attached to the ranch. The animals were quickly hitched to the plows-- several of them--and then began the turning over of a number of damp furrows of earth, which would offer no food for the flames.
The fire was increasing, for it found much dry material on the sun-baked prairie. It had not yet reached the strip that had been burned to stop it. Would it pause there, and divide? Or would it still come on toward the cattle?
Those were questions each one was asking.
The cattle were becoming more and more excited as the sky was lighted more brilliantly by the bright glare. The smell of fire and smoke was in the air, and the crackle and roar of the flames sounded louder. The cattle heard and were afraid.
"Come, Dave!" called Pocus Pete. "Guess we'll find our work cut out for us over there now. They won't need us to help with the plowing."
Indeed the cowboys in charge of the cattle had their hands full. Every now and then some steer would make a break, and if he were not quickly turned
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