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IN A MOMENT OF PERIL.

It was a most benighted place —quite

“ the end of the world.” The nearest 1 log-hut was five miles away, and the j nearest settlement—the Old Red Ranch, as it was called —thirty. The ‘ Forest family had pitched upon it quite ( by accident, when they had migrated s from the old country ten years before. Mr Forest had purchased a vast tract i of. uncultivated land on the Red . River, and had settled there, like the 1 patriarchs of old, with his wife and i children, his men-servants and maid- i servants, his flocks and herds, and everything that was his. Since then everything had prospered with him. Wide ranges of prairie, magnificent sweeps of forest and wood, green hills and dales, belonged to him. He was literally and truly monarch of all he surveyed. His family consisted of his wife, three grown-up sons, and one daughter, Nancie, a sweet, mischievous, dark-eyed damsel of eighteen, whose capacities for flirting and mischief were as fully developed as any town belle’s. One would not have imagined there was much scope for these special accomplishments in the wilds of Texas ; but there was not a young fellow within fifty miles of Forest Hill who was not in love with Miss Nancie’s beaux yeux, and not one but would have ridden twice the distance for a kind word or a sign of favor from the somewhat capricious but always charming young beauty. The Northcotes —distant relatives of 1 the Forests —were the owners of the Red Ranch settlement, a place one [ degree more civilised than Forest Hill, 1 inasmuch as it boasted one shop and r a post-office. Young Fred Northcote, i the eldest son, was one of Miss 5 Nancie’s most devoted slaves, and, as 1 such, was tyrannised over quite unmercifully. The young fellow was } always finding his way over to Forest , Hill on some pretext or other. He had 3 spoken his wishes plainly enough long 1 before, but Miss Nancie was a flirt, f She would not say “ Yes,” but she did ' not say “No;” and meanwhile Fred j was kept in suspense, chafing and imt patient enough, and yet bound hand t and foot to his wilful, charming lady- - love, and perhaps, man-like, loving her all the more for her caprice. It was a brilliant morning in April—

summer weather in the Far West, the sun already blazing down fiercely, and promising a tropical noon-day. Mr Forest and young Fred Northcote, who had been spending a day or two at Forest Hill, were standing together before the picturesque porch of the long, low farm-house. Fred was a brown-faced, blue-eyed young fellow, strong and athletic. He looked very handsome in his careless backwoods costume of knickerbockers and gaiters, striped blue and white shirt, light loose jacket, and broad-brimmed straw hat shading his manly, frank face, with its soft moustache and bright keen eyes. A black horse of great beauty, deepchested, strong-limbed, was standing beside him, pawing the ground and tossing his handsome head under his master’s caressing hand. Hotspur was an English horse, almost thoroughbred. For fifty miles round there was not his equal for speed or endurance, nor, in Fred’s opinion, for beauty either. Mr Forest was speaking.

‘ Tell your father, Fred, that I cannot answer for that timber-merchant Dobson. He asked me to make enquiries about him—and report says he is a slippery customer, and not to be trusted further than one can see him.’

‘ All right, sir—l’ll tell him,’ returned Fred, who was on the point of taking his departure homewards ; ‘ and I will come back on Thursday and tell you the result,’he added, as an after-thought. ‘Very well, lad; we shall.be glad to see you. Bye-the-bye, I hear the prairie has been on firs away by the North Fcrks. Mind you do not get caught. The wind sets right from there, and it is just the weather for fires.’

‘ No fear,’ laughed the young fellow, as he put one foot in. the stirrup ; ‘ I’ve run many a tree with a prairie fire before now. Good-bye, sir, till Thursday,’ ‘ Cousin Fred, cousin Fred, I want to go to the Red Ranch—you must wait for me !’ cried a pretty, imperious voice, just as Fred’s horse had made a step forward, and a tall slight girl came running down the verandah steps, her nut-brown hair shining like burnished gold in the sunlight, a bright color in her fair arch face. Fred was down instantly, his face assuming an expression of surprise. Not half an hour before he and Nancie had had high words, and that she should voluntarily seek his escort now was somewhat unaccountable. But most of Miss Nancie’s caprices were unaccountable.

‘lt is too hot, child,’ interposed her father. ‘ Thirty miles in this blazing sun—it would half kill you.’ ‘ Oh, no, it would not !’ urged Nancie, her dark eyes sweet and wilful. ‘lt will not hurt me. Let me go, daddy—do. I can ride Miss Molly, and ’ —with half shy, half mischevious look at the young man— ‘ Fred will take care of me.’ Mr Forest raised one or two more objections, but Nancie—a spoilt pet and darling—overruled them all, and finally, as she always did, got her own way; and in half an hour the two were riding together through the maple woods which clothed the rising ground all about Forest Hill. Nancie and her chestnut mare Miss

Molly were a picture to look at. The girl was a perfect rider, and, in her close-fitting habit of light grey cloth, the only thing suitable for the country, with its touch of scarlet ribbon at the throat, and her broad-brimmed straw hat, looked her very best, and knew it too. ‘ This is an unexpected honor,’ began Fred, as they quitted the shade of the trees, and entered on the dry, crisp grass of the open prairie ‘ Do not flatter yourself,’ returned Miss Nancie, with a toss of her bright young head. * It suited my convenience to come. I expect to find some letters at the settlement which I wish to get for myself.’ ‘ Sixty miles is a long way to ride for letters which I rould have brought with me on Thursday,’ remarked Fred, with a somewhat incredulous smile. ‘I do not suppose they are of such vital consequence.’ ‘ I have no wish to make you my postman,’ retorted Miss Nancie; * and

* it is hot of the slightest consequence what you suppose or do not suppose.’ ‘ Probably not,’ allowed Fred, trying to look cool. ‘ You take care no one shall have a very exalted opinion of himself or his opinions either where you are, Nancie.’ ‘ Of course,’ retuned Nancie, calmly. ‘So I am glad your penetration has discovered that I came to please myself, not you.’ Fred disdained to answer, except by a most unnecessary cut of the.wbip on Hotspur’s glossy flank. The quarrel between the two had been in progress some days. Arising originally in a most trivial dispute about a rose-bud which Nancie had bestowed on one of her admirers, it had gone on ,from bad to worse, till the two were at daggersdrawn. Fred unwisely thought the storm had blown over when Nahcie insisted on riding with him to the; Red Ranch, but he soon found out his mistake. One or two attempts he made at reconciliation were promptly nipped in the bud. Nancie was as perverse and contradictory as she well coul^t - be, and at last Fred, too, grew resentful, and, ceasing to try to win her with fair words, relapsed into silence in his turn. In this unsocial style the two pressed on mile after mile, till the sun was high

in the heavens and half their journey over.

The track—it could scarcely be called a road—was simply a narrow path beaten through the tall grammagrass and reeds of the prairie, which rose on either hand five or six feet high, all matted and tangled together with wild pea-vines and creepers; it was burnt quite crisp and brown by the heat of the sun, and was as dry as tinder. As they brushed it in passing, the twigs and canes snapped ■at a touch. Right ahead, fifteen miles away, rising blue above the undulations of the prairie, was a steep bluff, the termination of a range of low hills, off-shoots of the Rocky Mountains. This bluff was .their landmark and guide, for a mile or two beyond it was the Red Ranch settlement, or Northcotes, as it was often called. Meanwhile the clear blue of the sky was becoming overcast with a sultry leaden haze. The air was intensely hot f and heavy. The wide, treeless, shadowless prairie rolled away on every side in long undulations like the swells of the great ocean. At last Fred grew tired of keeping up even a show of resentment, and began to talk again. * How well Miss Molly -goes to-day!’ * She always does,’ returned Nancie, a shade more graciously than before; she was tired of keeping silent so long. ‘ All the same, I would not back her against Hotspur.’ ‘No, because Hotspur would be beaten,’ asserted Nancie, confidently. ‘Will you try ?’he asked. ‘No, I won’t. It is too hot to race. How can you suggest such a thing in this blazing, sun ?’ ‘ Hot or not, it strikes me it is what you will have to do,’ he remarked coolly. ‘ What do you mean ?’ she said, raising a pair of dark incredulous eyes. ‘ Look there,’ and, raising' his''Whip,

Fred pointed to the right, behind them, whence the leaden-hued cloud was spreading oyer the sky. / What'does that look like?’ . ■. - Nancie turned her eyes in the direction indicated, and as she looked her face blanched to an awful whiteness. ‘Fire! The prairie is on fire !’ she cried, fearfully. ‘Oh, Fred, what shall we do?’ Involuntarily she drew, up her horse and gazed anxiously around. The ominous leaden grey haze was sweeping down upon them—already it had crept round behind them. Below the haze a faint line of dull red jwas just visible. * Yes, the prairie is on jfire, sure enough/ the young man said. Don’t be frightened, Nancie ; we must fly for it, that is all. What a mercy-our horses are to be depended on!’ w He had thrown himself off Hotspur ai he spoke, and began to tighten the saddlegirths and straps of, both horses —a precaution necessary enough in, > the race before them.

* Shall we be in time ?’ asked Nancie, in a low voice, as he stooped by. her side.

‘Yes,’ he replied, confidently; and she could not see the anxiety on his brown face as he slipped the buckle into its place. In two or three minutes he had remounted. As he gathered the reins in his hand, he gave a glance at Nancie. She was seated quietly in her saddle, gazing straight before her. ‘ Are you frightened Nancie ?’ he asked anxiously. She turned her dark clear eyes to his. Her face was pale, but there was no sign of weakness about the steady, brave mouth.

‘ No, I am not frightened,’ she answered, gravely, but smiling back into his anxious face. ‘ But I knpw the danger.’ * And how we can escape,’ he said, reassuringly. ‘ Now for it 1’ In another moment they were flying

along. There was no need to urge Hotspur and Miss Molly—they scented the danger and could scarcely be restrained. The bluff showed blue in the distance, fifteen miles away —they had to gain that before they would ‘be safe ; but between them were fifteen long miles of rough entangled track, and behind them was a waste of hot dry tinder which caught fire with, light-ning-like rapidity. The odds against them seemed awful ! (To be continued.)

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Permanent link to this item

http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AG18810507.2.11

Bibliographic details

IN A MOMENT OF PERIL., Ashburton Guardian, Volume 2, Issue 338, 7 May 1881

Word Count
1,959

IN A MOMENT OF PERIL. Ashburton Guardian, Volume 2, Issue 338, 7 May 1881

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