The Breed of Pioneers
The story of a certain woman who endured ordeal by fire and thereby discovered the mettle of a people, crude and rugged and very fine
A WHITE cloud billowed against the sunset beyond the stippled wall of pine. The village was silent. The lake was calm.
She crouched in the window-seat, peering out at the great cloud. Her husband was a tall, gloomy shadow, standing motionless by the table.
“You mean it?” he said, slowly.
Her gaze was fixed on the ominous sky.
“I mean it. I’m through.”
Her voice was hard and mechanical. The man did not say anything for a little while. He shuffled uneasily. Then
“I know you’re scared of the fires, dear, but there’s nothing to worry about. They always look worse than they are. This one is miles away—and there’s no wind. We have them every fall.”
She turned quickly toward him. The rosy glow of sundown illuminated her young face.
“Nothing to worry about! Didn’t a fire come right to the edge of the village two years ago? Aren’t people burned to death in the bush fires every season? I tell you, John, I’m in constant terror every time I see smoke out there. I’ve fought against it ever since we came here, but I’m not going to stand it any longer. I’m through. It’s dangerous living in a place like this. If a fire came down, we’d never have a chance.”
“We take those risks. When you live in a new country you’ve got to expect dangers like that. But you’ll get used to it—”
“I won’t get used to it. I lay awake for hours last night. I kept thinking and thinking of what would happen if there was a high wind and the fire came down on Pine Bay. I can’t stand it!”
“I think maybe you let it get on your nerves,” he said, patiently. “You haven’t enough to occupy you. If you’d mix with the people a little more you wouldn’t worry so much.”
“We’ve been over all that before. I’ve tried to take an interest in the town, but I can’t. I don’t like the people and they don’t like me.”
“They would if you’d give them a chance. They’re kinda rough, all right, but they’re mighty good-hearted.” “Cattle!”
She spat out the word.
“You wouldn’t say that, Ann, if you really knew them.” His voice was troubled. “They’re awfully good people when you understand them.”
She looked out the window again. Up in front of the grocery store, Scotty Macintosh and Gus Johnson were holding a spitting contest, surrounded by an admiring ring of males. She could hear their guffaws. Ann turned away with a polite shudder.
Her husband said nothing. After all, these men were his friends. You took them as they were—sweaty, profane, hard-working, loyal. Not one but would walk through red coals bare-footed for him. He understood them. They liked him. They were his kind.
“Why should you want to live among people like these? What do you see in them?” she persisted.
“You’re head and shoulders above any of them, miles too good for them, and they know it.”
“I’m no better than anybody else,” he replied, stubbornly.
“Maybe that’s why I get along with them all right because I don’t put myself above ’em. If you’d on^ try to mix around with the people a bit more, Ann, you’d come to like them like I do.”
“Mix around with them! I’ve mixed with them quite enough. Half of them are foreigners, most of them don’t know how to read or write, the men are vulgar and the women are slovenly and the children are dirty little brats and the whole place, the whole darn place, gets on my nerves!”
Her voice ended tensely and she slumped down on the window-seat, her finger-nails pressing tightly into the palms of her hands. The man gazed at her, helplessly. His eyes had a look of pained astonishment.
He had sensed the impending outburst for weeks. All through the summer he had known her resentment against Pine Bay had been deepening, but he had not known her feeling against the little village was quite so bitter as this.
Ann twisted about on the window-seat again and swept back the chintz curtains.
“Look!” she said, with an abrupt, nervous gesture. “Look at that! Do you wonder I’m sick of it? Plank sidewalks. Three stores with false fronts. A two-byfour railway station and one train a day. Log cabins and tar-papered shacks scattered all over the hill as if they’d been chucked out of the sky. A sawmill that screeches and screams all day long—”
“It’s a pretty good mill,” said John resentfully. He owned it.
“I know. It gives us our living. But it gets on my nerves. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of everything. Nothing but the lake in front of us and trees behind us and this miserable village all around us. I want to go back home.”
“You used to think it was kinda pretty.”
His thoughts went back to the morning they had arrived in Pine Bay, three summers past, when Ann had been ecstatic over the beauty of the great blue lake shimmering beneath the sun, and the green wooded hillsides ranging in stippled billows to the horizon. But it was not beautiful to her any more.
He had warned her that she would not find pioneer life easy. She was a romantic child; he had won her because he was invested with the glamor of distant places; her ideas of pioneer existence were far removed from the reality. At first the sheer novelty held her. The delightful game of furnishing their little house on the newly-cleared hillside, all the little tendernesses of their early married life, had cast a sheen over Pine Bay that made the nondescript little village a place of enchantment. Now the veil had lifted.
“It’s not only that I’m sick of it, but I’m afraid. You may call me a coward if you like, but I’m afraid of those fires.”
Through the window John Kane could see the gray cloud beyond the fringe of trees at the top of the hillside. The sunset was like the reflection of some gigantic conflagration beyond the rim of the world.
“It’s a hard country,” she said. “You risk death from cold in winter and fire the rest of the year.”
It was true, he reflected. A pioneer land must be tempered. Kane was profoundly depressed. He realized that to a girl of Ann’s upbringing the village must indeed seem squalid, but he saw the shacks and the tents and the cabins and the makeshift stores with the eyes of one who seeks the vision beyond. All these crude evidences of human toil took on a rough dignity and a certain humble beauty when one knew the spirit that had brought them into being.
Pioneer life at its best meant hardship and drudgery and isolation, but these could be endured if one looked constantly to the star ahead. Kane loved the little village. Its growth was his life.
“You want to go-back to the city?” he said, finally.
She nodded. In the gloom she saw him bow his head ir. resignation.
“Well—I want to do what’s right, honey. I want you to be happy. That’s the main thing with me. I guess I was sort of foolish to hope you’d get to like the life I’ve always been used to. You’ve been brought .up so different.” He searched awkwardly for words. “If you really want to go, why we’ll just have to go, that’s all. I don’t want to keep you here against your will.”
“It isn’t as if you had to stay here. You know the pulp company promised you a job in head office any time you asked for it.”
“Yes, office work. Oh, we’d get along all right. I kinda hate to leave here after practically starting the town, you might say—oh well—” He looked down at the backs of his hands.
She sprang up from the window-seat.
“You mean it? You’ll really take me away from here? Back to where we can have nice things and be safe and comfortable?”
She flung her arms about him. They stood there in the gloom. It was fortunate that she could not see his face. It was stern and sorrowful. Pine Bay had woven itself into his life.
rT'HE wind rose during the night and drove from the west.
When Ann looked out next morning she saw that the whole village was veiled in a thin gray fog. When she looked up at the bush she was frightened.
The sky was dark. The gloom was like the murk of a brooding thunderstorm and out of it came rolling clouds, that spread themselves high above the horizon. She saw a few people standing in the road, gazing toward the west. They seemed curiously unperturbed.
Jake Tully, a bandy-legged little man who lived next door, went by with another mill worker, and she heard him laugh and say:
“Oh, it’s miles off. Nothing to worry about.”
She felt relieved, and went back to serve John’s
“It’s a bad fire, all right,” he admitted, as they ate. “If that wind doesn’t change, there may be trouble.” “It wouldn’t burn the town, would it?”
He said he didn’t think there was any danger of that. The bush had been cleared away quite thoroughly halfway up the hill for more than a quarter of a mile from the outskirts of Pine Bay, and there was a fire guard. Still, the forest was very dry. There had been no rain for weeks. It all depended on the wind. It was blowing from the west, directly toward the town, and if it persisted the fire might be swept toward the ridge.
“It would be awful if we were burnt out, just when we’re going to leave here anyway.”
“I’m not worrying about the town,” said Kane, gruffly. “We’re not in any danger. It’s the mill I’m thinking of. If a big fire came near we’d be kept on the jump. Too many sparks in the air for comfort.”
He ate his breakfast and hurried away to his precious mill. In a little while the whistle blew and the rattle of the jack-ladder and the scream of the saw proclaimed the beginning of another day’s work.
Several times that morning Ann went out to look at the black sky. It fascinated her. The thin smoke hovered mistily through the village and after a while, as the wind steadily rose, it drifted out over the lake, lying close to the leaden water and hiding the farther shore from view.
Mrs. Tully, her neighbor, emerged from the kitchen doorway of a tar-papered shack and waved a fat, red hand. She was a short, stout, untidy woman with» flushed cheeks; a loose strand of graying hair fell across her forehead. Ann had heard her singing hymns as she went about her work.
“Looks like a bad one, eh?” shouted Mrs. Tully, in a boisterous voice.
“Do you think there’s any danger?”
Mrs. Tully strode across the yard. “God knows,” she answered. “You never can tell about them bush fires. If this here wind don’t change, we’re in for it.”
“What would we do?”
Mrs. Tully shrugged her fat shoulders, spat heartily and looked up at the dark cloud. “Hike to the lake, I guess. What else could we do? If our time is come, our time is come, that’s the way I look at it. Ever been through a bush fire before?”
“I was through a big blaze oncet,” declared the woman, stridently. “We got burnt out two years ago on a farm at the foot of the lake. We made for the swamp and buried ourselves in mud for hours. I was a nice lookin’ sight when that was over, I can tell you.” She laughed at the recollection. “A nice lookin’ sight,” she repeated, wagging her head.
“And yet you still stayed in the North!” exclaimed Ann.
Mrs. Tully looked blankly at her, as though she did not understand. “Why not?” said the woman, at last. And that was all. “Why not?” It seemed as if that settled it.
They gazed at the sky together.
Close to the horizon it was very black and dismal. A greasy bank of smoke thinned out higher up and became gray and seemed to overflow down into the bush on the slope. Ann tried to imagine what tremendous things were going on beyond that distant fringe of trees, down under the black cloud beyond the ridge. The silence was deadly. The smoke was like a cloak for some great evil thing that lay quietly out there beyond the barrier, brooding and waiting.
“Fire or no fire,” said Mrs. Tully, pushing back the hair from her forehead, “I’ve got work to do. What do you think? That boy Danny of mine is down with bronchitis! Can you beat it? If it ain’t one thing it’s another. Just as soon as I get through havin’ the whole tribe of them down with the measles, that youngster had to go and get sick again. I never saw the like.” She wiped her hands on her dingy apron.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Ann, sympathetically. “Is there anything I can do?”
“No. Thanks just the same. I’ll look after him. Oh, Lordy!” groaned the woman. “I suppose I’ve got to put up with it. When we bring youngsters into the world we’ve got to look after ’em, and I guess my own ma had her own troubles bringin’ me up, for there was nine others besides. But poor Danny is real sick, the lamb, and you don’t mind the work when it’s one of your own, as long as he pulls through all right.”
“Have you a hot water bag? I’ll lend you mine.”
“Well now, I’m sure it’s real kind of you, Missus Kane, and if you could lend it to me I’d be sure grateful. We ought to have one of our own, what with so much sickness in the house all the time, but they cost so dang much and we never seem to have a nickel to spare. I often say to Jake I don’t know how people would get along in the world without neighbors, for what one hasn’t got the other has, and although I guess there ain’t much in my house you’d ever want to borrow, you know you’re as welcome as the flowers in May.” She laughed again, her red cheeks shining, and adjusted the shoulder strap of her dress.
Ann went into the house and got the hot water bag. Mrs.Tully, big-hearted and friendly, was her only intimate in Pine Bay, chiefly because she was quite impervious to the younger woman’s reserve. The others left Ann pretty much to herself, sensing her feeling of superiority to them and resenting it. Mrs. Tully, if she sensed it at all, ignored it, for she believed in “neighbors bein’ neighborly.”
“Thanks,” said Mrs. Tully, taking the hot water bag. “It’s real good of you. Well, I guess I’ll be getting back. What with bein’ up most last night, I ain’t had a wink of sleep, and I have a lot of work I should have done my ironin’ yesterday but I didn’t get a chance, and then that wretch of a Billy fell in the lake and came home wringin’ wet—I could have killed him, but he looked so darn funny, like a drowned rat—,” she laughed cheerfully, and moved off toward her house. “Oh, it’s all in a lifetime. Just got to put up with it. Don’t worry about that fire, Missus Kane. The wind oughta change soon. I’ve been through more fire scares than enough, and they’re never as bad as they look.”
The woman’s sturdy nonchalance made Ann feel calmer. She went back into the kitchen. She made up her mind that it was foolish to be frightened so she resumed her work and resolutely refrained from looking out the window again until nearly noon, although the house grew darker and she could tell that the wind was still rising.
7TIEN she looked out again the * » smoke was very heavy. It was drifting down from the slope in a dense cloud. She could scarcely distinguish the cabins at the western end of the village. The whole sky was an enormous curtain of dun-colored smoke, rising from the blackness of night beyond the ridge.
She almost cried out when she saw the sun. So gloomy had been the morning that it seemed the sun must be hidden behind clouds, but she could see it hanging overhead like a livid, crimson ball, glowing wickedly through the veil that overhung the town.
The mill whistle shrieked the noon hour and the workers soon came hastening up the road. Each man cast an anxious glance at the silent and terrifying sky, then hastened to his home. People gathered in little groups and talked and moved away to other groups. All faces were turned toward the west.
Now that the scream of the saw and the clatter of the jack-ladder had been silenced, the stillness was like a pall. It was uncanny, persistent and profound. The huge billows of smoke came tumbling into the sky in such volume that one instinctively listened for a roaring commotion that never materialized. Ann would have welcomed the reassuring clamor of the mill again.
Charred leaves and blackened fragments of bark, light as feathers, were swept down by the wind and dust scurried in the roadway. The little cabin creaked in the rising gale and there was a hollow droning from the chimney. As Ann stood on the threshold her skirt whipped about her limbs.
Down at the mill a pump engine began chugging furiously and two men with a hose showered water on the lumber piles. Once in a while a glowing spark sailed through the smoke like a firefly.
When John came home he said he would not take time for dinner. He was plainly anxious.
“If this wind doesn’t die down we’re going to have trouble a plenty.” He struggled into an old pair of overalls.
“Where are you going now?” she asked him.
“Up to the edge of the clearing. Sparks are coming down from the undergrowth and it’s pretty dry.”
He picked up the kitchen broom, rummaged about in the woodshed until he found a pail, then strode away.
Other men were hastening toward the undergrowth at the edge of the heavy bush, for already sporadic curls of smoke were rising where little fires had started from the drifting sparks and embers.
Standing at the window, Ann could see the men moving through the misty smoke, stamping out those little fires. They would wrap gunnysacks about brooms and shovels, soak the sacks in water, then flail the smouldering bushes.
An hour passed. The mill whistle did not blow again. All the men were up in the smoky undergrowth at the edge of the forest by now. The wind from the west was now a gale.
For the first time, then, she saw the flames. They flickered like the brandished swords of an approaching army against the blackness of the sky beyond the trees. The fire had reached the ridge.
Ann was becoming really frightened now. “This horrible country!” she whispered, crouching by the window.”
The whooping wind brought with it a wave of heat from the oncoming fire. Papers and dead leaves were whirling about among the clouds of dust stirred from the roadway. Dead embers and flaming sparks from the forest swirled down through the smoke.
The house was suffocatingly hot. Ann went to the door. The gale had flung the whole world into a furious turmoil. Dust and sparks were flying, trees were threshing, doors banged, a loose tin on a nearby roof rattled.
When she looked down at the lake she saw that great waves were crashing over the little dock, hurling themselves high up on the shore; out beneath the dead pall of smoke was a slaty waste of water, flecked with foam where the whitecaps ran in a leaping pack.
Even above the howl of the wind she could hear the roar of the fire. It was the most ominous and terrifying sound she had ever heard, unlike anything she had ever known. All the top of the ridge was flaming and black smoke belched up from the pines that blazed and reeled and crashed. Now that the fire was actually in sight she was amazed at the swiftness of its rush. It seemed to fairly race down the slope from tree to tree, stopping merely to fling a dancing mantle of flame about a pine, then hurrying greedily on to the next, leaving a seething furnace behind.
Ann was terrified but she tried to remain calm. “It will stop at the fire guard,” she told herself over and over again. “It can’t cross the ploughed ground.”
The men and boys, and some of the women, were up on the slope. She saw Mrs. Tully standing in the doorway gazing up at the hillside with its monstrous corona of smoke and flame. A youngster clung to her skirts. Women with children in their arms were standing in other doorways, all gazing silently and fearfully to the roaring west.
Ann could remain inactive no longer. She left the house.
“Going up?” shouted Mrs. Tully.
“I can’t stand this,” she declared, tensely. “I want to be doing something.”
“I guess they need help up there all right. I’d go myself only I can’t leave the kids. It’s lookin’ bad!”
“Why it’s terrible—awful!”
“Well, they may stop it at the fire guard, although that wind is mighty strong. Gotta hope for the best.”
Ann went up the road, through the dense smoke. Two men hurried past. She heard one say:
“Telegraph operator says there’s a bad fire farther south and the tracks are warped. Train can’t get through. We’ll have to take to the lake if the wind don’t change.”
Up on the hillside people were running and stumbling in an acrid and unearthly gloom. A frantic team of horses plunged and reared, with a wild-eyed man clinging to the handles of a plow. There were deep furrows in the ground and a black swath about a hundred yards in width had been cut across the face of the open slope to widen the old fire guard. Beyond the furrows dim figures armed with brooms and shovels doggedly pounded at the flickering flames in the undergrowth. Boys stumbled about with water pails. There was a fantastic unreality about the lurching shapes and the weary shadows beating senselessly at the steaming earth.
Panic rose in her heart. Where was John? Somewhere in that swirling mist. Men shouted hoarsely. She listened, hoping for the sound of his voice, but the immense roar of wind and fire drowned the cries. She was trembling violently. Fear gripped her like a cold hand. She was frightened and alone in this smoky chaos, a stranger to all these obscure wraiths that flailed the earth like lost souls in torment.
A man stumbled toward her and thrust a broom into her hand. A gunnysack was wrapped about it, dripping with water. He shouted something, gestured wildly into the cloud and lurched away, coughing. Ann looked at the broom, bewildered, then moved on until she saw a little clump of bushes burning with yellow flames. She beat at the tiny tongues of fire until they disappeared. Some dry grass a few feet away burst into a puff of flame when a blazing ember came whirling through the air. She pounded at the blaze with the broom but flames were springing up everywhere as if bursting out of the very ground. It seemed hopeless.
She stayed there and beat at the fire until the gunnysack became dry and began to smoulder. A boy struggled out of the depths of the fog, carrying a water pail; the water splashed over the side against his legs. She dipped the gunnysack into the pail and the boy went on and vanished.
The heat was terrific. Her eyes were stinging and she coughed constantly from the smoke. Sweat trickled down her face and fine black dust settled stickily on her cheeks and arms. Her muscles ached.
And, monotonously persistent as the flailing broom, the question pounded at her mind—where was John?
She should go back to the cabin. He might look for her there. But she was immediately ashamed of the impulse, for when she saw the dim figures laboring in the heavy mist all around her she knew she must not desert them and she felt a curious kinship for those people who toiled as she was toiling, who endured the blinding heat and the suffocating smoke that was overwhelming them all, in defense of their homes, without thought of surrender until hope was utterly gone.
The wind was furious now, gusty, howling, clamorously insane; the heat pulsed in tremendous waves; the smoke rolled in thick billows. It was unbearable. Ann was forced back. Everyone was moving back. She felt a helpless fury against the flames because they threatened to consume her home; she could have sobbed with rage because the battle was so futile and the odds so overwhelming. It seemed that all life had resolved itself, focussed itself to the one essential purpose. Pine Bay must be saved. Her cabin, her home, must not be destroyed.
Then the wailing voice of surrender rose mournfully above the thunder of wind and flame as the mill whistle began to howl. The weird, doleful sound had a sad monotony of tone that filled Ann with dread and in the remorseless droning that surged and fell she sensed the rhythmic beat of doom. The fire had won; resistance was futile; the villagers must flee.
She staggered away, trailing the broom on the ground. She reached the plowed ground and stumbled in a furrow and sprawled there, too weak to rise, but someone dragged her to her feet. It was an odd little man with a black mustache and a face smeared with grime, one of the foreign mill workers.
“You all right?” he shouted.
She choked from the smoke. “Yes —yes,” she gasped. “I’m all right.”
“You go to the lake. Everybody go there. Everyt’ing burn.”
He released her arm and vanished into the smoke. Ann stumbled on. Once she looked back.
The whole hillside flamed. The burning trees in the foreground were silhouetted like black skeletons against the living wall of fire beyond. The pines were bending, crumpling, falling, twisting and writhing in torture. It was sad, it was pitiful to see the brave pines, the staunch and beautiful green trees, reeling and shrivelling before that blasting sheet of crimson. The flames leaped high into the air, hundreds of feet it seemed, and they arched to the gale that scourged them on.
Ann was frightened and bewildered. She was all alone. The running figures that now and then appeared and disappeared like shadows were wraiths of a monstrous dream. She stumbled across the railway tracks and went down the road. The droning of the whistle pulsed in her ears. The wind shrieked and the fire roared; it was like the howling of an army of devils. Sparks whirled through the air in a red rain.
Already the roof of a house at the outskirts of the village had caught fire. People were lugging trunks and bedding out of their homes. They reeled through the smoke. They shouted vainly to one another through the insane clamor of wind and fire. Women were screaming, children were yelling, dogs were barking.
Death rode the flaming wings of the hurricane. The lake was the only refuge, the cold lake and the waves that leaped and pitched in the universal frenzy.
The whole world had gone mad. Nothing was in its place. The sky wasn’t the sky any more: it was a tumultuous brown curtain. The solemn green bush was gone and in its place was a furnace. The lake was no longer the lake she had known, but a crazy inferno reflecting the unholy glare of the hill. All else was smoke and through it the people madly scurried and scrambled like a colony of ants surprisingly disturbed.
She forced herself to remain calm. “Keep steady. Keep steady,” she whispered to herself, over and over again. “Don’t lose your head.” And her heart kept saying, “This is the end.”
She reached the cabin at last and staggered through the doorway. The living room was very dark. Through the window she saw the dreadful banners of crimson and black.
John was not there. She was trembling all over. She was terrified, she wanted him, needed him. Uncertainly, Ann went to the door, hesitated, turned back. Surely he would come for her. Like a stabbing knife the thought came that he might never seek her, that he might be lying up on that raging hill. She looked about the dark little room, with its chintz curtains, the homemade window seat, the sideboard with its china, the gay lampshade, and a sob wrung her heart. She loved it all, and it was doomed. For the first time, she cried out:
Her voice was but a whisper in bedlam. The crackling roar of the fire, the howl of the wind, the shouts, the screams, the cries, the shrieks, merged in a dreadful and hellish clamor. Ann clenched her hands and forced herself to go over to the sofa. There she crouched, shivering with terror. She knew she should go to the lake, that the village was doomed, that death was swooping nearer, but she clung to that feeling of security and peace with which the little cabin seemed imbued, and she waited for her husband who would surely come.
He stumbled across the threshold.
“Ann! Ann! Are you here?”
The cabin was so dark that he did not see her at first and then she was in his arms, clinging to him with a desperate intensity, sobbing with relief.
“I’ve waited and waited . . . oh, I knew you’d come for me . .
His kisses were like a warm rain on her lips and eyes.
“Dear . . . thank God ... I looked everywhere for you.” She was conscious only of his embrace, consumed by a love for him that she had never known before. And then he was urging her from the cabin. “We must hurry—there’s only the lake now—”
Outside, they could scarcely see more than a few yards ahead, so dense was the smoke. When they had stumbled a few paces Ann looked back. Embers had fallen on the roof of the cabin and already flames were licking their way along the eaves. Just once she looked back and when she saw those yellow tongues she was overcome with dismay; it was as though something sacred were being violated; she wanted to run back and fight the flames with her bare hands. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Then a dingy billow of smoke blotted out the little home and she turned and went on with John toward the lake.
Utter confusion prevailed along the shore. Trunks, bundles, mattresses, household effects of all kinds were strewn in disorder on the sand. People blundered aimlessly about, crying, shouting, sobbing. A baby carriage lay turned over on its side and the baby sprawled on the beach, howling, with no one paying any attention; a cow lumbered to the water’s edge and bellowed plaintively; dogs barked, yelped and whined; three of the mill horses plunged knee-deep in the tossing waves, mad with terror.
People were splashing out into the water, seeking relief from the searing heat. The smoke was suffocating. They were pushed and jostled by the milling crowd. The faces were like the macabre visions of delirium, with staring eyes and gaping mouths and on every visage the ghastly stamp of fear.
John snatched up a blanket from a pile of bedding nearby.
“We’ll have to go out into the water,” he shouted. “It’s the only chance.”
She clung to his arm as they stepped out into the crashing waves and when they were up to their armpits in the icy water John sloshed the blanket back and forth until it was thoroughly soaked. The great waves beat against them, urging them back toward the shore. It was a large lake and the wind had a terrific sweep. Half a dozen canoes had been swamped. Some people had tried to push off from the dock in a rowboat but their craft had been dashed against the piers, the sides staved in.
Ann had a last confused impression of scarlet sky, swirling clouds, dark surging figures all around her in the waves, and then the soggy blanket descended over their heads. She clung to her husband, strangely content in spite of all her misery. She was with him. They were together. She had never realized how much he meant to her until then.
His voice came to her, muffled and strange :
“We can shut out the smoke this way. If we stayed on shore we’d smother.”
“Do you think—do you think we’re going to die?”
His arms tightened. “We’re all right. Don’t worry. If the wind would only change—”
The water was bitterly cold, for this was in the autumn. Ann’s body became numb. She was aware only of his sustaining strength.
Once there was a violent explosion. A great blast of wind struck them. John stumbled back, lost his footing; and they both went beneath the waves. It was agonizing. The blanket was wrapped about her head and she struggled with it; when at last she came to the surface and flung the sodden object aside she was crying and gasping with terror. There were splashings and hissings all around. A blazing fragment of wood hurtled past John’s head and plunged into the water.
The mill boiler had blown up, casting burning debris far and wide. Ann had one glimpse of an awful, fiery sky and then the heat smote her in a blistering wave and John struggled toward her and drew the sopping blanket over them again.
Toward the last, only his arms kept her above the water, because she was utterly exhausted, numb with cold and terror and despair. Once in a while John would take off the blanket and soak it in the water again, for the heat sucked away the moisture, and in those moments she caught glimpses of scores of shrouded heads emerging from the waves. People crouched under blankets, old clothes, canvas, anything to shut out the thick smoke and the blinding heat. As for Pine Bay, it was only a crimson smear in a black fog.
They must have remained there for hours. Ann fell into a stupor. It did not matter whether she lived or died. But John clung to her and they remained on their feet, swaying back and forth with the motion of the waves, cowled and mysterious like all those other anonymous figures, dark and silent in the smoke.
It was near sunset when John finally struggled ashore with her, but the smoke hung so heavily in an enormous pall across the face of the crimson slop that it seemed as though night had fallen.
“It’s all over.”
He helped her up on to the beach. The heat came in waves. All the forest was like a bed of coals, although flames still flared idly.
The village had vanished.
And as Ann gazed at the ugly smear that had once been Pine Bay she felt a sense of irreparable loss, as when something solid and friendly and secure has been swept away. It became a red mist.
“Poor, poor little town!”
The cry was wrung from her heart.
Through the gloom came people toiling out of the tossing waters up to the sands, dark bowed figures, a dreary procession lurching hopelessly forward in disconsolate disorder, with cries and curses and murmurings like the laments of lost souls. They surged about in their dripping clothes, for all the world like the weary drowned rising from the depths on judgment day.
It was impossible to face the glowing furnace and they went toward the high rocks farther down the shore, where the great boulders sheltered them from the heat but left them exposed to the bitter wind that swept over the lake. Ann crouched in the sand, shivering in her soaked and sodden clothes. Mechanically, she tried to fix her hair that hung wetly over her eyes. John stood beside her, swaying with exhaustion. Water dripped from his clothing. His face was streaked with black; his shirt had been almost torn from his shoulders. His eyes frightened her.
She reached out and drew him down beside her in the sand and gently stroked his weary face. His eyes were tortured. It came to her, then, what all this meant to him. He was dazed, crushed. His handiwork had been destroyed, his people ruined. She pitied him. She loved him.
“Oh, my dear . . . my dear . . she said, brokenly.
His big hand clasped hers, impulsively. She was all he had left in the world. In affliction they knew a communion of soul that nothing else had ever given them. She suffered with him in the wreck of all his hopes, in the destruction of all his achievements; she was humble with him in the face of an incomprehensible destiny that thus made cruel sport of the toil of man.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, abruptly. “At least there was a town to burn.” She knew what he meant, and as they clung together in the cold wind she knew that not even circumstance, which could wreck and overwhelm material things, could eradicate the soul of that tiny village. The shadow of the toil and vision could never be consumed; its gallant phantom rose above the glowing ashes.
Then her husband laughed. It was a strange laugh, harsh and cold.
“Nothing to keep us here now, Ann. Nothing—any more.”
She was silent, and somehow ashamed. She remembered the fierce resentment that flamed in her heart when she knew the village was doomed, the jealous affection she had suddenly experienced for the little town—too late. She felt disloyal.
“Couldn’t you build the mill again?” she asked, timidly.
He looked down at her, vaguely surprised.
“I could raise the money, if that’s what you mean. But we were leaving anyway. Perhaps it’s just as well.” Some of the men had gathered driftwood and the flames of a bonfire flickered sadly, illumining the tragic faces of the people crouched around the blaze. Into the glare emerged a familiar, bandylegged figure, Jake Tully, clutching a terrified youngster by the hand. He came toward them and would have passed by, unseeing, had John not spoken.
“How’d you make out, Jake?”
The man looked down. In his face was a profound despair.
“I lost her,” he mumbled, dully.
Ann felt a cold thrust of fear.
“Not—not your wife!”
Tully bowed his head.
“She wouldn’t leave Danny,” he told them, in a low tone. “They’re both dead. I tried to get back into the house, but it was burning, and the smoke—” He sat down, wearily, and brushed his wet sleeve across his eyes.
Ann shuddered violently. She began to cry. She recalled how she had looked down on Mrs. Tully; she had looked down on this heroic woman who had followed her man into the wilderness, realizing all that it meant, meeting poverty and toil and death because she was of the breed of pioneers.
John leaned forward and rested his hand on the man’s shoulder.
Tully stroked the fair hair of the youngster in his arms.
“God!” he said, in a choked voice. “She was a good woman—a good wife— none better.”
They were all silent.
“The place,” muttered the man, “won’t ever seem the same again. Not without her.”
“You’re going to stay?” asked John, quietly.
Tully looked at him, as though not comprehending.
“Oh, I’m stickin’ around,” he admitted. “I ain’t heard many talk of leavin’. Somebody saved a lot of tents from the store. We can live in them until we build again. I’m stayin’. Why not? You’re stayin’, ain’t you?”
“Well,” muttered John “I don’t—” But his wife, brushing away her tears, interrupted him.
“Of course,” she said, steadily. “Why not?”