The Book of the Native

by Charles G.D. Roberts


The Forest Fire


The night was grim and still with dread;
    No star shone down from heaven’s dome;
The ancient forest closed around
    The settler’s lonely home.

There came a glare that lit the north;

    There came a wind that roused the night;
But child and father slumbered on,
    Nor felt the growing light.

There came a noise of flying feet,
    With many a strange and dreadful cry;

And sharp flames crept and leapt along
    The red verge of the sky.

There came a deep and gathering roar.
    The father raised his anxious head;
He saw the light, like a dawn of blood,

    That streamed across his bed.

It lit the old clock on the wall,
    It lit the room with splendor wild,
It lit the fair and tumbled hair
    Of the still sleeping child;


And zigzag fence, and rude log barn,
    And chip-strewn yard, and cabin gray,
Glowed crimson in the shuddering glare
    Of that untimely day.

The boy was hurried from his sleep;

    The horse was hurried from his stall;
Up from the pasture clearing came
    The cattle’s frightened call.

The boy was snatched to the saddle-bow.
    Wildly, wildly, the father rode.

Behind them swooped the hordes of flame
    And harried their abode.

The scorching heat was at their heels;
    The huge roar hounded them in their flight;
Red smoke and many a flying brand

    Flew o’er them through the night.

And past them fled the wildwood forms—
    Far-striding moose, and leaping deer,
And bounding panther, and coursing wolf,
    Terrible-eyed with fear.


And closer drew the fiery death;
    Madly, madly, the father rode;
The horse began to heave and fail
    Beneath the double load.

The father’s mouth was white and stern,

    But his eyes grew tender with long farewell.
He said: "Hold fast to your seat, Sweetheart,
    And ride Old Jerry well!

"I must go back.  Ride on to the river.
    Over the ford and the long marsh ride,

Straight on to the town. And I’ll meet you, Sweetheart,
    Somewhere on the other side."

He slipped from the saddle.  The boy rode on.
    His hand clung fast in the horse’s mane;
His hair blew over the horse’s neck;

    His small throat sobbed with pain.

"Father! Father!" he cried aloud.
    The howl of the fire-wind answered him
With the hiss of soaring flames, and crash
    Of shattering limb on limb.


But still the good horse galloped on,
    With sinew braced and strength renewed.
The boy came safe to the river ford,
    And out of the deadly wood.

And now with his kinsfolk, fenced from fear,
    At play in the heart of the city’s hum,
He stops in his play to wonder why
    His father does not come!