The Red Book Magazine/Volume 1/Number 6/The Deliverance of Pima Jim
The Deliverance of Pima Jim
One of the horses neighed shrilly, and Pima Jim moved in his sleep. Then the high-noted whinny was repeated, and answered by a mare in the second team.
At that Pima Jim woke with a start, and sat up in the clear-cut, black shadow of his wagon-box. He rubbed his eyes and looked dazedly out into the white distance. The heat was terrific. A midday sun blazed flat and unbroken on the parched prairie-grass. Even Bull Creek trail lay a shimmering line of dust-wallows, and sixteen ragged holes in the prairie-sod, where the wagon-teams had slipped bridles to snatch at a noonday feed of oats, told only too plainly how the horses had fought the flies for one hot hour.
Pima Jim yawned, and rubbed his aching eyes again. And then he remembered! His gaze fell on the huge form of Trappan, stretched out under the second wagon-box. Then his mind flashed back to the long journey out from Red Bend Station, and bit by bit he went over the strange scene of the day before. He had prided himself a little in taking life as it came, in winning or losing like a Mexican. But who would have thought that Trappan, who had sweated and smoked and eaten salt with him, was to turn out such traitor, and worse!
Now neither heat nor dust counted much. He had thought that, once north of the Line, a man who had made a mistake could “get decent” again. Yet even while he was lying low and trying to live “white” once more, this shadow of the south-west, in the form of Trappan, had come sneaking up after him—and all for one of life's little mistakes, and a thing done in honest fight, a long year ago.
“How 'd y' ever spot me, anyway, Trappan?”' he had asked coolly.
The man of the law had pointed a lean forefinger to the bronzed and wrinkled eye-corners of the other.
“There's on'y one country's bin givin' y' this yere south-west squint, my friend!” Trappan had answered, easily. And he had even allowed that deputy marshals had been shot before, and nothing much had come of it, but with Pima Jim it was to be different.
“It was a uncommon promisin' man y' took off, my friend, an' they want you down there, some bad!”
So Trappan was to take him back, for he had told the man of law that he would go quietly. There was to be no fuss, of all things, so that little Calgary Nell, the girl who helped “sling grub in the Irrigation Camp, might never know.
“This yere g'al thinks I'm straight as a Stoney bead-line, Trappan. It may be all-fired weak an' sloppy, not scrappin' it out with y', f'r y' ain't got a shadow o' legal backin' in this vere Territ'ry. But I ain't goin' to disillusionize this little woman—nohow!”'
That was the one thing Pima Jim would not and could not stand for. So he had handed over his gun and given his word; and he was to go.
But it was hard, he felt, as he pondered over it in the black shadow of the wagon-box, it was hard to have it sprung on him without warning, to find the law he had eluded sitting on his own wagon-seat, sweating back to camp in the form of a new-found bunkie. Still, he reckoned Trappan had earned his head-money, dogging him in that fashion all the way from sage and greasewood up to fir and scrub-poplar, smelling him out even to the horse-camp of Tillison's Irrigation Company.
It was Pima Jim himself who had first pointed out to young Tillison, fresh from an eastern engineering school, that he could save a mile and a quarter of fluming by blasting through two hundred feet of limestone. When Tillison had eaten an obdurate way half through his ridge he ran out of dynamite. It Pima Jim and Trappan that he had sent in to the railway to freight out his second half-ton of blasting cartridges, for it was work the canny Scotch-Canadian teamsters from Ontario fought shy of.
Pima Jim was calmly meditating on the fact that it would in all likelihood be his last earthly job, when the mare whinnied again, and he looked out at her, solemnly.
“Poor ga'l, I reckon y' do want water uncommon bad!” he said aloud. Then the eyes with the tell-tale south-west squint turned to the heat-soaked sky-line. The horses had suddenly thrown their heads round to the north, and with uplifted distended nostrils stood looking nervously into the shimmering distance.
It was then that Pima Jim's nonchalant, squinting eyes fell on something that arrested his bristled jaw, half-opened in a cavernous yawn. It made him spring to his feet, out between the dusty wheels, with a cry of startled horror, the last trace of heaviness scattered and from head and limb alike.
For away to the north he saw a pale, shifting, circling veil of smoke, that hung over the undulating Alberta plains from Cameron's muskeg to the faint, low line of the foot-hills. Fringing the base of this cloud was a wavering rind of dull red, while here and there what had been a ranchman's hay-stack became, as he looked, a momentary volcano of crimson, capped with yellow, pennoning streamers.
A sudden blast of wind carried an intangible pungent odor into Pima Jim's nostrils. Then he understood the whinnying of the horses; in a moment he saw, and knew what it meant. The prairie was on fire!
A wet spring and a long, dry summer had left fourteen, sixteen, and in the lower-lying lands even eighteen inches of sun-cured hay standing on the open range. Water was all but unknown in those southern Alberta sand-dunes, and as he sprang to his horses' heads and jerked the bits up into their jaws, he remembered that the muskeg mud of Baldwin's swamp was two good miles away. And there only was any thought of safety.
He looked at Trappan, the one man who stood between him and his life of freedom. Trappan was still sleeping, open-mouthed, and white with dust. Why couldn't he stay sleeping there until the end, or at any rate until it was too late!
Already a mist, first of pale pearl, and then of more somber slate-color, was creeping over the sun. Stampeding horses and range cattle began scurrying by. Even the gophers had disappeared. The sultry, stifling heaviness was followed by a gust of wind and the first trailing billows of gray smoke.
It was too late to attempt back-firing; and even if he had water, blanket-trailing would be useless. There was no time to fight fire with fire—Pima Jim knew such grass was too heavy to burn off in time. The only refuge lay in that brackish muskeg-mud, a good two miles away. And even there, with that cargo of his, he could not be certain. Pima Jim, too, had no love for racing over a broken trail on an open wagon-box in which ten loose cases of dynamite lay on a flimsy bed of straw, when in each case lay fifty-six pounds of explosive, which only the day before he had described to Trappan as “onreliable 's wimmen folk!”
He looked out at the circle of rushing, on-sweeping fire, and then he looked at the sleeping man again. No; he couldn't leave even a dog to die that way! Not even Trappan.
The other man's hand went to his hip as he felt Pima Jim's boot touch his ribs roughly. He looked up angrily. Then he sniffed at the choking, tell-tale smoke; and once on his feet, he understood. He saw that line of advancing flame, and he saw the waiting team. He lost no time in deciding on his course of action.
“I reckon I lead this hand!” he cried with an oath, his foot already on the hub of Pima Jim's wagon-wheel.
“No, by God!' cried back the other, hotly. “You take your chance, same's me, with your own team!”
Then he reconsidered, for Trappan's gun was on him; and he felt that it would be just like Trappan, such a trick! He saw it was useless.
“Make it if y' kin, then; damn you! I reckon y're worth more'n me, anyway. But push 'em like hell, due west, over that hogback! Like hell, or ye'll be too late, I tell y'!”
Already the fatal red line was bearing down on them till the roar and hiss and crackle of it smote on their ears. And Pima Jim stood there one minute, bronzed, immovable, grim, and watched his team answer to Trappan's mad lashing.
Then the life-long fighter in him awakened. He hitched at his belt, mechanically, and ran to the heads of the remaining team. He felt that he would rather die in one good, last race with death, than let that red river of destruction creep calmly about him and carry him off. He flung the bridles on the frightened, plunging horses and snapped up the loosened harness. But that lost minute, he knew, was the minute that counted.
As the shaking team swung round, plunging and quivering with their instinctive animal fear, arms of smoke reached out for him, and he saw the red tide of fire bearing in on him. He knew that it was hopeless. But still he pushed on, carefully, most carefully picking his perilous road, holding his breath at every badger-hole, gasping at every jolt of the huge wagon-box. Through a momentary smoke-rift he caught sight of Trappan and the first wagon, lurching and rocking up the divide. For one moment he saw the fleeing man pouring the leather onto his team. And then it went out. A blow of sound, sudden, stupendous, smote on Pima Jim's ear drums, and struck, like a fist, on his breast-bone. Then a great, greenish-gray mountain of smoke flowered and withered in the heavens. A black, muffling shower of sand fell about his rearing team, and he noticed that he was bleeding at the nose. Then the smoke mountain drifted away, and he beheld a dun-colored pit of bald and ragged desolation, where a minute before he had seen the picture of a man lashing a frightened team up the slope of the divide.
With a hissing, full-arm swing of his quirt he sent his horses plunging fetlock-deep through the loose sand—sent them shaking and rearing on till they stood even knee-deep in the sand of the pit itself. At his heels a rushing, devouring, angry sea of lurid smoke and fire parted, hesitated, clutched out again greedily for its own, and then went sweeping past him on either hand.
A spark fell on the straw in the bottom of his wagon-box. Like a cat, he leaped on it, and stamped it out with his feet. Then he looked down at a bent and twisted wagon-axle that lay half buried in the loose sand, and from there gazed out on a world of ashes and ruin and desolation.
Finally, with his flannel shirt-sleeve he wiped the dust and sweat from his forehead and swore; swore solemnly, thankfully.
“Looks uncommon like hell let loose!” he said, as he fanned his moist face with his hat, and once more looked dazedly about him.