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- The Young Firemen of Lakeville - 3/29 -
Accompanied by several men and boys, Bert ran toward the barn. The whole front, and part of the roof, were now blazing. The structure was beyond saving, as far as anything the bucket brigade could do, but the members of that primitive fire department did not stop.
The buckets were passed from hand to hand, but such was the haste that a full bucket seldom reached the end of the line. Usually about half the fluid was spilled. And what little did get there was merely tossed against the side of the barn that was not yet burning, though from the way it was smoking it would evidently not be long before it burst into flames.
Once more came the frightened neighing of the horses, tied in their stalls. Their cries were weird and terrifying, for a horse seldom gives expression to its fear in that manner.
"You can't get 'em out!" called Constable Stickler, who had heard what had been said. He left his supervision of the bucket brigade and ran alongside of the boy. "The fire's all around 'em. You can't get 'em out!"
"Well, I'm going to try," declared Bert.
"My fine horses!" exclaimed Mr. Stimson. "This means a terrible loss to me!"
"Is the barn insured?" asked the constable.
"Yes, but my stock ain't. Oh, this is a terrible calamity! An awful misfortune!"
Bert approached as closely as he dared to the blazing front of the barn. Clearly no one could enter that way. But he knew the structure well, for he had once helped Mr. Stimson get in his hay, when a shower was threatened.
"Come around to the side door!" he called to those who followed him, and, such was the effect of his leadership, that no one now thought of questioning it. In times of excitement one cool head can do much, and Bert was cool.
Beside the main entrance to the barn, which was up an elevated driveway, there was a door opening into a sort of basement, and from that, by means of stairs, the main floor of the barn, where the horses were, could be reached. This door was locked, but Bert smashed the fastening with a big stone, since Mr. Stimson was too much excited to remember where the key had been placed.
"Come on!" cried the boy.
"You can't take the horses down these stairs," said the constable, as he and several other men followed Bert.
"No. Don't try it," added the farmer. "They'll break their legs."
"I'm not going to," said Bert. "Couldn't if I wanted to. The stairs are too narrow and steep. Hey, Cole," he called to his chum, who with Vincent had left the now utterly useless bucket brigade lines, "you slip around and let out the cows. Mr. Stimson, you'd better show him."
"That's right. We'll git the cows out!"
The cows were kept in the basement of the barn, the entrance to it being on the other side, level with the ground. The flames had not eaten down, as yet, and the cows were found patiently chewing their cud. It did not take long for Mr. Stimson and his neighbors to get them out.
With the horses it was a more difficult matter. These highly nervous animals, half maddened by the fire, were running about, having now broken their halters, and they could be heard trampling on the floor overhead. Part of the floor was burning, and the animals were confined by the flames to one side of the barn.
"You'll never git them out," prophesied the constable.
Indeed, Bert was beginning to have his own doubts. But he had a plan which he wished to try.
"Come on, Vincent," he called to his chum. "You know how to handle horses, don't you?"
By this time the two boys and the constable had reached the head of the stairs, and were inside the barn, on the main floor. Fortunately the flames were not yet near the stairway.
"Look out for the horses!" yelled Mr. Stickler. "They're crazy with fear!"
The animals certainly were. Back and forth they rushed as the shifting flames and smoke drove them from place to place. The interior of the barn was becoming hotter and hotter. Most of the front had burned away, and through it, wreathed in flames and smoke as it was, those inside could look out and see the wondering crowd gathered before the structure.
"Goin' to drive the horses through?" asked Vincent.
"No. They'd never cross those burning embers," replied Bert, pointing to where pieces of blazing wood had fallen across the threshold of what had been the big doors of the barn. There was a wide zone of fire, and from it the frightened horses shrank back, though, once or twice, they seemed about to make a rush across it to safety.
"How you goin' to do it?" asked the constable.
"Look out!" suddenly called Vincent. "They're coming right for us!"
The maddened creatures, frightened by a puff of smoke that surged down from the now blazing roof, charged, like a small troop of cavalry, right at the two boys and the man.
"Down into the stairway!" cried Bert, making a dash for the place they had just come up. They reached it just in time. The horses thundered past, huddled together, avoiding by instinct the narrow, steep stairs, down which, had they stumbled, they would have met their deaths.
"Now's our chance!" cried Bert. "While they're in the far end of the barn!"
"What are you going to do?" asked Vincent.
"Open those other big doors!"
The barn had two sets of large doors. Only one pair was used, however, those up to which the elevated driveway led. The others were to give air to the place, when hay was being stored away, and they opened right into the cow-yard, ten feet below, with a sheer drop over the threshold.
"Do you think those horses will jump out there?" asked the constable.
"I think they will, rather than burn to death."
"But the jump will break their legs."
"Not a bit of it. The cow-yard is soft and mucky. They will sink down in it, and the men can lead them out. Come on, Vincent, help me open the doors." Bert's plan was now evident, and it seemed feasible. But would the frightened horses leap to safety?
Running up from the stairway, in which they had crouched when the horses thundered past, the two boys hurried across the barn to the big doors. Constable Stickler called out:
"I'll go and send some men around to the cowyard."
"All right," replied Bert.
He and Vincent were almost at the doors when, once more, the horses came at them with a rush. The boys were in great peril, but Bert saw their chance of safety.
"Jump up on the mowing machine!" he yelled, and he and his chum crawled upon the apparatus just in time. So close were the horses that one of them stumbled over the extended tongue of the machine, and fell. It got up in an instant, however, and joined its companions, that stood trembling in a corner, staring with terrified eyes at the flames that were eating closer and closer. The barn floor was smaller than it had been, for the fire was consuming it, foot by foot.
"Come on, now!" cried Bert, and a moment later he had thrown aside the heavy bar that held the doors in place, and had swung them open. The draft, created by the fire, served to hold them so.
"Now help me drive the horses out," he called to Vincent. "Get behind them, but look out they don't turn on you."
Cautiously the two boys made their way to where the terrified animals were. Their mere movement was enough to send the horses off on the run again. Fortunately the leader smelled the fresh air coming in through the opened doors. The horse paused a moment on the threshold and seemed to be staring down into the partly illuminated cow-yard. Would he jump?
"Go on, old fellow!" called Bert, encouragingly. "Jump! You won't hurt yourself. It's soft mud. Go ahead, old fellow."
Whether the horse understood, or whether the boy's words calmed him, could not be told. Certainly he did jump, after a moment's hesitation, and a glance back at the flames which were coming closer and closer.
The other animals followed in an instant, for they had wanted only a leader. Above the roar of the flames Bert could hear the thud as the horses landed in the soft muck of the cow-yard, ten feet below. Then came a shout as the men rushed forward to secure them.
Bert looked from the big double doors. He could see the horses floundering around. One had fallen down, but none of them seemed to be injured. The valuable steeds had been saved by the lad's ready wit.
"I wonder if there's anything more we can save?" asked Vincent.
"Let's see if we can't shove out the mowing machine," suggested Bert.
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