Rotary/SDN short story contest winner: The Fire of 1898

Rotary/SDN short story contest winner: The Fire of 1898

25 January 2012

published by

USA — All was dark. Crisp, wrinkled autumn leaves covered the dry ground. Earlier, the land had been chilled to the bone by the night air. Now the stars looked down on a frigid forest. The trees, bushes, every inch of the landscape were peaceful as the darkness continued to cover the mountains in a blanket of chill.

A bird called, shattering the silence. It was a mother, rising from her nest, shaking the cold from her worn and feathery wings. The mother stretched, chirped energetically, and beat her wings powerfully to rise into the air. The mother would call in assurance to her chicks that food was on the way.

The first rays of sunlight tickled the sky. Vibrant pinks splashed across the mountain peaks. The clouds appeared, white and puffy, as hints of orange flowed across their marshmallow surfaces.

The day was beginning. The dry forest was awakening.

Somewhere, down on the forest floor, a cough was heard, rough and startling a flock of birds. Then, another cough broke the silence and a moan. These were the sounds of a human being awakening. A cluster of teepees could be seen in the foliage. The entrance to one of these teepees opened, and a hand emerged through the folds of buffalo skin. Next the colorful feathered headdress of a Ute Indian emerged. His eyes were half-opened, disoriented, but they opened up immediately once they beheld the sunrise.

“Beautiful,” the Indian thought. He sighed heavily; sickened by the destruction he would soon bring to this beautiful landscape. It was against the ways of his people to harm nature in any way. The hatred between the white settlers and the Ute Indians had brought the chief to make this desperate, revengeful move. It was September, and as the Indian watched the red leaves flitter in the wind, he questioned his decision. Was the safety of his people truly more important than the safety of the forest he had once called home?

Now all of the tribe was stirring. Two more Ute Indians joined the chief. Their breath formed ghostly pale clouds in the air as they discussed the plans for the day. Many of the women wore blankets made from wolf fur as they brought down the teepees and formed them into bundles. Other women took stone bowls from the tents, horses nearby were loaded with materials. The ruckus could be heard for a mile radius, for it was so still in the forest at this hour. The animals of the forest cowered away from this activity coming from the clearing.

Just then, a new sound was added to the clamor. No animal recognized it, except for one aged fox with very sensitive hearing. The Old Fox perked up its ears and listened. He recognized the sounds of this Indian tribe, as well as the white settlers that had come after them.

The chief had lit a fire using a Native American trick known only by the Ute Indians. He used two dry twigs and a crow feather to create the spark. The pile of lodgepole branches sparked instantly, and in no time, a roaring fire leapt and licked at the stars.

These actions were deliberate. The purpose of this fire was retribution to the white settlers who had forced the Utes out of these forests. This fire would drive the animals out of the area and into Utah, where the Indians had been forced to move and now resided.

Now that the fire was started, the Indians hurriedly rode away on frightened horses. The horses’ nostrils flared at the smell of the rising smoke. None of the Indians looked back, because none of them could believe that the invasion of the white settlers had led them to this point.

The fire was now moving and devouring any available log, flickering and shaking in the morning air. A squirrel decided to investigate the scene of the strange sounds. There was nothing to find but the fire. The squirrel was excited by this event that he had never seen before, and called the other animals toward the scene. Deers and birds, badgers and raccoons, voles and mice aplenty stood and stared at the glowing, glorious orange fire as it grew and grew. They watched in awe as if a star were being born.

But then the Old Fox arrived. He was much wiser and older than any of the other animals, and so they were instantly drawn to him and his experience. The Old Fox saw the fire in his fading vision and froze. His whiskers twitched, and his eyes became dry and itchy. The Old Fox recognized this thing, fire it was called. He knew that this continuously growing thing would bring devastation.

Now the animals were frightened. Why was the Old Fox so afraid of this glorious sight? Just then, a spark flew out from the fire and sailed over the head of a baby mouse. He watched it as if it were a shooting star. The spark ignited dry grass near the mouse’s tiny paw. The flames were suddenly multiplying at an unmanageable pace! The frightened animals scattered into the forest, but the Old Fox took one last meaningful look at the fire before bounding away as fast as he could.

As the Old Fox left, the burning logs began to fall in upon themselves. The fire descended to the forest floor and lit the individual twigs like fireworks. In seconds, a trail of flame was forming. The fire crawled along on dirty, greedy hands as it devoured every piece of fuel in its path. The crackling orange flames reached out and scraped their venomous fingers on the edge of each pine tree in turn. The bark singed on impact, and as the fire snaked its way up the trunk, the tree slowly withered and became black, burning ashes.

The trees proved to light easily, as they had dried out through the summer and fall. The fire spread and tackled them like an angered grizzly bear. At one point, the fire consumed the bottom part of a tree trunk, nearest the roots, and the tree collapsed, sending up even more sparks of flame swirling into the air. The sound was deafening, crackling and groaning, the tree fell toward the forest floor.

The animals heard the tree crashing. As they were scrambling away, they could feel the ground shake. The flames very much resembled a monster, with lashing fangs and grasping orange claws, it tore its way through the pine trees of the forest. Pillars of smoke rose into the air and spun like tornadoes.

The fire continued to grow, unleashing its fury on the mountainous flora that had the unfortunate luck to come into its path. The Old Fox made haste and sprinted for any form of safety he could find. The Old Fox could feel the heat on his fur. The fire was chasing him through the woods, growing and growing faster than any animal could run. The Old Fox breathed wildly, his eyes crazed as he bolted as fast as his powerful legs could carry him. But he knew, as he ran through a forest lit up by thunderous flames, that he was fighting a losing battle. The fire was simply too fast. He did not make his escape H .

As the fire feasted on the fuel around it, it grew exponentially and more rapidly by the minute. It grew to the point that the entire Gore Range was on fire for more than 100 miles. This fire lasted for weeks, and settlers on the west side of the Divide were forced to flee for their lives. All of the wildlife had disappeared. The damage was enormous. Property and livestock were destroyed. The streams and rivers took major losses in water flow.

Once the fire had burned out, homes could be repaired, livestock could be found again, the settlers could go back to their previous lives. But the forest would never be the same. It would take 100 years for the lodgepole pines to repopulate. Different species of animals and plants would take the place of the old. Whatever the forest had looked like before the fire, it would have to take on a new look and it would not happen overnight. In the future it would be a completely altered forest, with new trees, birds, animals, people, and sunrises.

Authors Note: My story, The Fire of 1898, is based on the true events reported in the article, Forest Fires in Colorado. This article was first published in The New York Times on September 30, 1898. It tells of a series of forest fires that lasted for weeks on end, setting the Gore Range ablaze for nearly 100 miles. The information in the article was reported to The New York Times by a rancher named Henry Green, and it was later discovered that the Ute Indians had started the fires with malicious intent against the white settlers at the time.

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