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The Settlers in Canada
Chapter XXVIII Fire in the Woods

Mr Campbell acceded to the offer made by the Commandant of the fort, and purchased of him, at a moderate price, eighteen oxen, which were all that remained of the stock at the fort, except the cows. He also took six weaning calves to bring up. The cattle were now turned into the bush to feed, that they might obtain some after-grass from that portion of the prairie on which they had been feeding. The summer passed quickly away, for they all had plenty of employment. They fished every day in the lake, and salted down what they did not eat, for winter provision.

Martin now was a great part of his time in the woods, looking after the cattle, and Malachi occasionally accompanied him, but was oftener out hunting with John, and always returned with game. They brought in a good many bearskins, and sometimes the flesh, which, although approved of by Malachi and Martin, was not much admired by the rest.

As soon as the after-grass had been gathered in, there was not so much to do. Henry and Mr Campbell, with Percival, were quite sufficient to look after the stock, and as the leaves began to change, the cattle were driven in from the woods, and pastured on the prairie. Everything went on in order; one day was the counterpart of another. Alfred and Henry thrashed out the corn, in the shed, or rather open barn, which had been put up by the soldiers in the sheep-fold, and piled up the straw for winter-fodder for the cattle. The oats and wheat were taken into the store-house. Martin’s wife could now understand English, and spoke it a little. She was very useful, assisting Mrs Campbell and her nieces in the house, and attending the stock. They had brought up a large number of chickens, and had disposed of a great many to the Colonel and officers of the fort. Their pigs also had multiplied exceedingly, and many had been put up to fatten, ready to be killed and salted down. The time for that occupation was now come, and they were very busy curing their meat; they had also put up a small shed for smoking their bacon and hams. Already they were surrounded with comfort and plenty, and felt grateful to Heaven that they had been so favoured.

The autumn had now advanced, and their routine of daily duty was seldom interrupted; now and then a visit was paid them from the fort by one or other of the officers or the Commandant. The Indians had held their council, but the English agent was present, and the supply of blankets and other articles sent to the chiefs for distribution had the expected effect of removing all animosity. It is true that the Angry Snake and one or two more made very violent speeches, but they were overruled. The calumet of peace had been presented and smoked, and all danger appeared to be over from that quarter. Malachi had gone to the council, and was well received. He had been permitted to speak also as an English agent, and his words were not without effect. Thus everything wore the appearance of peace and prosperity, when an event occurred which we shall now relate.

What is termed the Indian summer had commenced, during which there is a kind of haze in the atmosphere. One morning, a little before dawn, Mary and Emma, who happened to be up first, went out to milk the cows, when they observed that the haze was much thicker than usual. They had been expecting the equinoctial gales, which were very late this year, and Mary observed that she foresaw they were coming on, as the sky wore every appearance of wind; yet still there was but a light air, and hardly perceptible at the time. In a moment after they had gone out, and were taking up their pails, Strawberry came to them from her own lodge, and they pointed to the gloom and haze in the air. She turned round, as if to catch the wind, and snuffed for a little while; at last she said, “Great fire in the woods.” Alfred and the others soon joined them, and having been rallied by Emma at their being so late, they also observed the unusual appearance of the sky. Martin corroborated the assertion of the Strawberry, that there was fire in the woods. Malachi and John had not returned that night from a hunting expedition, but shortly after daylight they made their appearance; they had seen the fire in the distance, and said that it was to northward and eastward, and extended many miles; that they had been induced to leave the chase and come home in consequence. During the remainder of the day, there was little or no wind, but the gloom and smell of fire increased rapidly. At night the breeze sprang up, and soon increased to a gale from the north-east, the direction in which the fire had been seen. Malachi and Martin were up several times in the night, for they knew that if the wind continued in that quarter, without any rain, there would be danger; still the fire was at a great distance; but in the morning the wind blew almost a hurricane, and before twelve o’clock on the next day, the smoke was borne down upon them, and carried away in masses over the lake.

“Do you think there is any danger, Martin, from this fire?” said Alfred.

“Why, sir, that depends upon circumstances; if the wind were to blow from the quarter which it now does, as hard as it does, for another twenty-four hours, we should have the fire right down upon us.”

“But still we have so much clear land between the forest and us, that I should think the house would be safe.”

“I don’t know that, sir. You have never seen the woods afire for miles as I have; if you had, you would know what it was. We have two chances; one is, that we may have torrents of rain come down with the gale, and the other is that the wind may shift a point or two, which would be the best chance for us of the two.”

But the wind did not shift, and the rain did not descend, and before the evening set in the fire was within two miles of them, and distant roaring rent the air; the heat and smoke became more oppressive, and the party were under great alarm.

As the sun set, the wind became even more violent, and now the flames were distinctly to be seen, and the whole air was filled with myriads of sparks. The fire bore down upon them with resistless fury, and soon the atmosphere was so oppressive that they could scarcely breathe; the cattle galloped down to the lake, their tails in the air, and lowing with fear. There they remained, knee-deep in the water, and huddled together.

“Well, Malachi,” said Mr Campbell, “this is very awful. What shall we do?”

“Trust in God, sir; we can do nothing else,” replied Malachi.

The flames were now but a short distance from the edge of the forest; they threw themselves up into the air in high columns; then, borne down by the wind, burst through the boughs of the forest, scorching here and there on the way the trunks of the large trees; while such a torrent of sparks and ignited cinders was poured down upon the prairie, that, added to the suffocating masses of smoke, it was impossible to remain there any longer.

“You must all go down to the punt and get on board,” said Malachi. “There’s not a moment for delay; you will be smothered if you remain here. Mr Alfred, do you and Martin pull out as far into the lake as is necessary for you to be clear of the smoke and able to breathe. Quick, there is no time to be lost, for the gale is rising faster than before.”

There was, indeed, no time to be lost. Mr Campbell took his wife by the arm; Henry led the girls, for the smoke was so thick that they could not see the way. Percival and Strawberry followed. Alfred and Martin had already gone down to get the boat ready. In a few minutes they were in the boat, and pushed off from the shore. The boat was crowded, but, being flat-bottomed, she bore the load well. They pulled out about half a mile into the lake before they found themselves in a less oppressive atmosphere. Not a word was spoken until Martin and Alfred had stopped rowing.

“And old Malachi and John, where are they?” said Mrs Campbell, who, now that they were clear of the smoke, discovered that these were not in the boat.

“Oh, never fear them, ma’am,” replied Martin, “Malachi stayed behind to see if he could be of use. He knows how to take care of himself, and of John too.”

“This is an awful visitation,” said Mrs Campbell, after a pause. “Look, the whole wood is now on fire, close down to the clearing. The house must be burnt, and we shall save nothing.”

“It is the will of God, my dear wife; and if we are to be deprived of what little wealth we have, we must not murmur, but submit with resignation. Let us thank Heaven that our lives are preserved.”

Another pause ensued; at last the silence was broken by Emma.

“There is the cow-house on fire—I see the flames bursting from the roof.”

Mrs Campbell, whose hand was on that of her husband, squeezed it in silence. It was the commencement of the destruction of their whole property—all their labours and efforts had been thrown away. The winter was coming on, and they would be houseless—what would become of them!

All this passed in her mind, but she did not speak.

At this moment the flames of the fire rose up straight to the sky. Martin perceived it, and jumped up on his feet.

“There is a lull in the wind,” said Alfred.

“Yes,” replied Martin, and continued holding up his hand, “I felt a drop of rain. Yes, it’s coming; another quarter of an hour and we may be safe.”

Martin was correct in his observation; the wind had lulled for a moment, and he had felt the drops of rain. This pause continued for about three or four minutes, during which the cow-house burnt furiously, but the ashes and sparks were no longer hurled down on the prairie; then suddenly the wind shifted to the south-east, with such torrents of rain as almost to blind them. So violent was the gust, that even the punt careened to it; but Alfred pulled its head round smartly, and put it before the wind. The gale was now equally strong from the quarter to which it had changed; the lake became agitated and covered with white foam, and before the punt reached the shore again, which it did in a few minutes, the water washed over its two sides, and they were in danger of swamping. Alfred directed them all to sit still, and raising the blades of the oars up into the air, the punt was dashed furiously through the waves, till it grounded on the beach.

Martin and Alfred jumped out into the water and hauled the punt further before they disembarked; the rain still poured down in torrents, and they were wet to the skin; as they landed, they were met by Malachi and John.

“It’s all over, and all is safe!” exclaimed Malachi. “It was touch and go, that’s sartain; but all’s safe, except the cow-house, and that’s easily put to rights again. You all had better go home as fast as you can, and get to bed.”

“Is all quite safe, do you think, Malachi?” said Mr Campbell.

“Yes, sir, no fear now; the fire hasn’t passed the stream, and even if it had, this rain would put it out, for we only have the beginning of it; but it was a near thing, that’s sartain.”

The party walked back to the house, and as soon as they had entered, Mr Campbell kneeled down and thanked Heaven for their miraculous preservation. All joined heartily in the prayer, and, after they had waited up a few minutes, by which time they were satisfied that the flames were fast extinguishing and they had nothing more to fear, they took off their wet clothes and retired to bed.

The next morning they rose early, for all were anxious to ascertain the mischief which had been occasioned by the fire. The cow-house, on the opposite side of the stream, was the only part of the premises which had severely suffered; the walls were standing, but the roof was burnt. On the side of the stream where the house stood, the rails and many portions were actually charred, and had it not been for the providential change of the wind and the falling of the rain, must in a few minutes have been destroyed. The prairie was covered with cinders, and the grass was burnt and withered.

The forest on the other side of the stream, to a great extent, was burnt down; some of the largest trees still remained, throwing out their blackened arms, now leafless and branchless, to the sky, but they were never to throw forth a branch or leaf again. It was a melancholy and desolate picture, and rendered still more so by the heavy rain which still continued to pour down without intermission.

As they were surveying the scene, Malachi and Martin came to them.

“The stock are all right, sir,” said Martin; “I counted them, and there is not one missing. There’s no harm done except to the cow-house; on the contrary, the fire has proved a good friend to us.”

“How so, Martin?” asked Mr Campbell.

“Because it has cleared many acres of ground, and saved us much labour. All on the other side of the stream is now cleared away, and next spring we will have our corn between the stumps; and in autumn, after we have gathered in the harvest, we will cut down and burn the trees which are now standing. It has done a deal of good to the prairie also, we shall have fine herbage there next spring.”

“We have to thank heaven for its mercy,” said Mr Campbell; “at one time yesterday evening I thought we were about to be rendered destitute indeed, but it has pleased God that it should be otherwise.”

“Yes, sir,” observed Malachi; “what threatened your ruin has turned out to your advantage. Next year you will see everything green and fresh as before: and, as Martin says, you have to thank the fire for clearing away more land for you than a whole regiment of soldiers could have done in two or three years.”

“But we must work hard and get in the corn next spring, for otherwise the brushwood will grow up so fast as to become a forest again in a few years.”

“I never thought of inquiring,” said Mary, “how it was that the forest could have taken fire.”

“Why, miss,” replied Malachi, “in the autumn, when everything is as dry as tinder, nothing is more easy. The Indians light their fire, and do not take the trouble to put it out, and that is generally the cause of it; but then it requires wind to help it.”

The danger they had escaped made a serious impression on the whole party, and the following day, being Sunday, Mr Campbell did not forget to offer up a prayer of thankfulness for their preservation.

The roof of the cow-house was soon repaired by Alfred and Martin, and the Indian summer passed away without any further adventure.

The day after the fire a despatch arrived from the fort to ascertain their welfare, and the Colonel and officers were greatly rejoiced to learn that comparatively so little damage had been done, for they expected to find that the family had been burnt out, and had made arrangements at the fort to receive them.

Gradually the weather became cold and the fires were lighted, and a month after the evil we have described the winter again set in.

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