A Prairie Fire

A Prairie Fire


Excerpt from: Inn-Nu-Woh To Merhameh, Lulu.com – Karl May gives the account of a Mr J.T. Irving, who had separated from his company while hunting turkeys.

“[…]It was the end of October; the wind was already uncomfortably cold and I only wore my light hunting coat to ward it off. The sun was about to slip below the horizon; that’s when I noticed a strip of forest several more kilometres away. That had the same effect on me like the rider’s spurs on a tired horse. I ran down the sides of the hill with fresh courage, and then made my way through the rough grass. But when the sun was gone and darkness fell, everything went dim and the forest, which could only be another two kilometres distant, was no longer visible. I climbed on top of another hill, to wait for the moon to rise, because I feared losing my direction in the darkness.

“A sad feeling came over me while I was sitting there, nothing but the desolate expanse about me and the cold sky with its sparkling stars above me. The wind had turned into a storm, roared and whistled, and carried a wolf’s howl along every now and then. I sat there over an hour, leaning on my rifle, looking towards the eastern horizon, impatiently waiting for the moon to rise. I’ve never watched it rise with as much joy as when it rose above the boundless plain that night.

“I continued my walk as soon as possible, and after a strenuous one-hour march reached the forest. I had already learnt from the Indians how to prepare a lean-to, covered with twigs, and it wasn’t long before I warmed myself on a lively flickering fire I had lit next to the trunk of a fallen tree. I was very hungry, but even more tired and soon fell asleep. However, the increasing force of the storm woke me again soon. Sometimes the roaring reduced to dull noise, then it swelled again and raged, howled and whistled through the creaking trees. I sat near the dying fire glow for a while, and then buried myself in my bed of leaves and twigs again; but sleep evaded me. There was something ghastly about the sounds of the wind. At times, it seemed to me as if I heard voices scream through the forest, then all sounds fell silent for a while. I eagerly listened to every noise and, suddenly, a superstitious fear took a hold of me and I struggled to fight it. I took the rifle in my hand because my senses were so confused and deluded that I believed I would see an armed Indian near me at any moment. Finally, I rose again and rekindled the fire. That’s when a violent gust of wind blew through the forest and scattered sparks and ash in all directions. Immediately, some fifty fires sprung up and their tongues licked the air as if they were triumphantly laughing at me. As soon as they were born, they grew to towering proportions and easily leapt from one of the scattered dry grass tufts to the other. The next moment, they were already out in the prairie, and then a wave of flickering flames glowed into the dark atmosphere.

“A new squall was about to hit. It announced itself from afar and amid howling and whining drew nearer. A cloud of whirling leaf litter filled the air, tree saplings bent down to the ground, old trees cracked. The storm arrived and hit the prairie. Billions of glowing fireflies whirled up high, tufts of burning grass flung through the air like meteors. The flames spread to a huge ocean of fire and it poured across the grass plain like an unstoppable stream of lava, which flooded the surrounds of the forest into the far distance like a red band. The bright light made the darkness of the forest even blacker. The roaring and sizzling of the flames drowned out the howling wind; there were countless fire pyramids dancing across the devastation, and with raging speed awakened new dancers. Their roaring resembled that of a stormy ocean, the waves of which rose against each other and fought a wild battle.

“A grove of oaks stood in the path of the fire; their dry leaves still clung solidly to the twigs. The blazing flood reached and illuminated them. Black smoke engulfed the first tree—the inferno rushed up to the canopy and, triumphantly, shot thirty metres or more in the air. The effect was only momentary, because the fire had almost instantly spread through all the trees. It sank back down to the prairie and only a dark red glow played around the blackened limbs. The furious element continued and greedily scanned canyons and hills for more nourishment.

“The fire raged for several hours and the entire horizon was covered with a burning belt. The farther the circle stretched the smaller the flames appeared, until they finally snaked around the far hills like a thin golden thread. The fire had moved around fifteen kilometres away. Finally the blaze died down, although the crimson glow reddened the night sky for hours on end and indicated that the tireless element remained restless.

“The sun rose when I left my camp and continued on my way. What a change! The prairies had turned into a complete desert. No leaf or blade of grass had been spared. The trees of the forest stretched their naked, singed branches in the air—an image of survival after the onslaught. A thin layer of grey ash covered the ground and individual trees, their thin twigs had nourished the flames and were either still burning or sending tall smoke pillars into the sky. A cold bleakness traced the path of the flames. They had consumed the grass right down to its roots and had forced their way even against the storm. […]”

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