Still burning with the desire to be the first to reach Lee, he put the rifle and the shotgun on either shoulder, and set off at as rapid a pace as the thickets would permit. But he soon stopped because a sound almost like that of a wind, but not a wind, came to his ears. There was a breeze blowing directly toward him, but he paid no attention to it, because to him most breezes were pleasant and friendly. But the other sound had in it a quality that was distinctly sinister like the hissing of a snake.
Harry paused in wonder and alarm. All his instincts warned him that a new danger was at hand. The breath of the wind suddenly grew hot, and sparks carried by it blew past him. He knew, in an instant, that the forest was on fire behind him and that tinder dry, it would burn fast and furious. Changing from a walk to a run, he sped forward as swiftly as he could, while the flames suddenly sprang high, waved and leaped forward in chase.
TESTS OF COURAGE
Harry did not know how the woods had been set on fire, and he never knew. He did not credit it to the intent of Michael and his comrades, but he thought it likely that some of these men, ignorant of the forest, had built a campfire. His first thought was of himself, and his second was regret that so fine a stretch of timber should be burned over for nothing.
But he knew that he must hurry. Nor could he choose his way. He must get out of that forest even if he ran directly into the middle of a Union brigade. The wind was bringing the fire fast. It leaped from one tree to another, despite the recent rains, gathering volume and power as it came. Sparks flew in showers, and fragments of burned twigs rained down. Twice Harry’s face was scorched lightly and he had a fear that one of the blazing twigs would set his hair on fire. He made another effort, and ran a little faster, knowing full well that his life was at stake.
The fire was like a huge beast, and it reached out threatening red claws to catch him. He was like primeval man, fleeing from one of the vast monsters, now happily gone from the earth. He was conscious soon that another not far from him was running in the same way, a man in a faded blue uniform who had dropped his rifle in the rapidity of his flight.
Harry kept one eye on him but the stranger did not see him until they were nearly out of the wood. Then Harry, with a clear purpose in view, veered toward him. He saw that they would escape from the fire. Open fields showed not far ahead, and while the sparks were numerous and sometimes scorched, the roaring red monster behind them would soon be at the end of his race. He could not follow them into the open fields.
When the two emerged from the forest Harry was not more than fifteen feet from the stranger, who evidently took him for a friend and who was glad to have a comrade at such a time. They raced across fields in which the wheat had been cut, and then sank down four or five hundred yards from the fire, which was crackling and roaring in the woods with great violence, and sending up leaping flames.