The cattle did not wander far after drinking, and the men ate their supper. It grew dark, but the heat did not lessen, and the oppressive air was filled with a smell of burning. Looking back between the trees, they could see a long streak of yellow radiance leaping up, and growing dim when the view was obstructed by clouds of smoke.
“It’s an awkward situation, and, as if it were not bad enough, there’s a big thunderstorm brewing,” Edgar said at length. “I’ll go along and look at the mark you made upon the bank.”
He strode away among the trees. It was very dark. The tethered horses were moving restlessly; but, so far as Edgar could make out, the cattle were bunched together. After lighting a match he came back.
“The water’s falling, but only slowly,” he reported. “Should we try to drive the stock along the bank?”
“We couldn’t herd them in the dark. Besides, it’s an extensive fire, and I’m doubtful whether we could get down to the water farther along.”
They waited for an hour, keeping the cattle together with some trouble, and watching the blaze, which grew brighter rapidly. At last, wisps of pungent smoke rolled into the bluff.
“The beasts are ready to stampede!” George suddenly called to Edgar. “We’ll have to make a start! Get into the saddle and drive them toward the ford!”
They were very busy for a while. Their horses were hard to manage, the timber was thick, and the herd attempted to break away through it; but at last they reached the steep dip to the waterside. One beast plunged in and vanished, more followed, and George, plying his quirt and shouting, rode in among the diminishing drove. He felt the water lapping about his boots, and then the horse lost its footing. George dropped from the saddle and seized a stirrup. For some minutes he could see a few dark objects about him, but they disappeared, and he and the horse were swept away down-stream.
He kept hold—the animal was swimming strongly—and after a time a lurid flash of lightning showed him a black mass of trees close ahead. They vanished, the succeeding darkness was impenetrable, and the crash of thunder was deadened by the roar of water. For a moment or two his head was driven under, but when he got it clear, another dazzling flash revealed a high bank only a few yards away, and when thick darkness followed he felt the horse rise to its feet. Then he touched soft bottom, and a little later scrambled up an almost precipitous slope with the bridle in his hand and the horse floundering behind him. They reached the summit, and, stopping among thin timber, it was with strong relief that he heard Edgar’s shout. Shortly afterward the lad appeared, leading his horse.
“There’s some of the drove on this side; I don’t see the rest,” he said, glancing toward the opposite bank, where dark trees stood out against a strong red glare.
“It strikes me we only got across in time.”