"Pablo" by Will C. Barnes

"And Pablo."

"Seņor?" And the boy looked inquiringly at the speaker. "You stay right here around this meadow. Here's plenty of feed and water for your band till I come back from town. Savvey?"

"Si, Seņor."

"I won't be gone but three days, Pablo," continued the man, shifting uneasily in his saddle, "an' it's a tough deal to give you, but there's nothing else to do. That misable, onery Mack is drunk down in town an' won't never git out till his money's all gone an' somebody takes him by the scruff of the neck an' kicks him out of the saloon an' loads him onto his horse. You've got twelve hundred ewes an' 'leven hundred of the best lambs that this here range has ever seen. There's ten negros, tres campanas, an' cinco chivos; reckon you can keep track of 'em all?"

"Si, Seņor," assented the boy, in whose veins flowed the blood of almost three centuries of sheepherders, "tres bells-campanas," and three fingers indicated the number of belled ewes in the bunch, "cinco goats," and one outspread hand showed the number of goats with the ewes, "diez black-a markers," holding up all ten fingers.

"That's right, muchacho," answered the man; "you keep track of your markers an' bells an' goats, an' you won't lose any sheep. There's plenty of water here for your camp, and the sheep won't need any for some days. There's a lot of poison weeds lower down on the mountain, an' it won't do to graze the band that-a-way. Take 'em up toward the top if you go anywhere; but keep your camp here an' stay with it till I come back, savvey?"

"Si, Seņor," with a quick nod of the head.

The man dropped off his horse, gave the curly black mop on the boy's head a hasty pat, picked up the lead rope of a pack mule standing near and, mounting, rode off down the trail.

The little meadow was located on a small bench high on the breast of a mountain whose bare granite peaks rose rough and ragged far above the timber line. At one side of the meadow, under a mighty fir tree, stood the herder's tent, a white pyramid among the green foliage. If there was another human being nearer than the little railroad town forty-five miles away, the boy knew it not. He watched the man ride slowly down the trail until he disappeared behind a mass of trees. The dog at his side whined as the man was lost to view and poked his cold muzzle into the boy's hand.

"Ah, perrito mio," and he hugged the fawning animal close to his body, "the patron has gone and left us here all alone to care for the sheep. Think of it, I, Pablo, to be trusted with so much. Shall we not care for them as for our own? Didst hear him say we were not to leave this camp while he was away? Ten black ones for markers, three bells and five great chivos. Aha, we shall count them each a hundred times a day, and sly indeed will be the ewe that shall escape from us. Is it not so, my brave Pancho?" And for answer the dog barked and romped about the lad as if to show he also appreciated the honor and responsibility thrust upon the two.

Down the trail the sheepman, Hawk, jogged along toward the town where Mac, the recreant herder, was doubtless wasting his substance in riotous living. "If ever I git holt of that there rascal, I'll wear out the ground with him," he soliloquized. "To go off and leave me with a band of ewes on my hands at such a time and not come back as he promised. Serves me right for letting him go, for I might 'a' known he'd not come back in time. That there Pablo's a good kid all right, but it's a pretty big risk to turn over to a twelve-year-old boy that many ewes and lambs. Lucky for me he happened to stay in camp after the lambing was over; his father's about the best sheepherder on the whole range, and them Mexican kids would rather herd a bunch of sheep than ride on a merry-go-round. Well," and he slapped his horse with the end of his rope, "he's got a good dog, the best in the mountains, an' if he keeps track of his bells an' markers 'tain't likely he'll lose any sheep. However, there ain't no use worrying over it, for I couldn't stay there myself any longer, an' the sooner I gits to town an' hustles that there red headed Mac out to camp, the better."

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 "Hawk met a forest ranger leading a pack mule"

Down at the foot of the mountain he met a forest ranger leading a pack mule.

"What's doing?" asked Hawk of the government man.

"Big fire over on 'tother side of the mountain," answered the ranger. "Old man phoned me to get over there as soon as ever I could and lend a hand. Mighty dry season now, and if fire ever gets started it'll take a lot more men to stop it than we got in this forest. I been riding now night and day for the last thirty days patroling my district, to lookout for fires, and I hate to have to go clear over on the other side and leave it all uncovered."

"How big a district you got, anyhow?" queried the sheepman.

"Little over six townships and a half; that's over a hundred and fifty thousand acres, and it's all a-standing on edge too"—he waved his gloved hand toward the range about them—"so there's twice as much, if you count the mountain sides. The Super, he asked for six more rangers last fall when he sent in his annual report, but the high collars back there in Washington said Congress was cutting down expenses and so we'd have to spread ourselves out and cover the ground, and do the best we could. That's why the boss rustled the boys out in such a hurry, for we can't afford to take any chances on a fire getting a start. If it ever does, it's good-bye trees, for once a fire gets under good headway in these mountains, with conditions just right, all the fire fighters in hell couldn't stop it. So long, old man, I've got to be a-drifting."

As the ranger moved off up the caņon, the sheepman turned and glanced up at the sky toward the spot where he had left Pablo and his charges. There were no signs of smoke in the clear blue above, so he touched the horse with his spurs and resumed his journey, content to leave the fire fighting to the ranger force until he was called on for aid. Anyhow, it was clear over on the other side of the mountain and he wasn't interested there, and it would be time enough to worry when it got over on to his side. Meanwhile, there was that miserable Mac drunk in town and another band of lambs and ewes somewhere on the range, that he ought to look in on before long.

Back on the mountain meadow Pablo and his ewes and lambs got on famously. The boy pushed the band out on to the mountainside, away from camp, telling Pancho to care for them while he went to find the two pack burros and drive them back to camp. All day long the boy watched the herd as a hen watches her chicks. Over and over again he counted the ten black "markers," those black sheep that come in every flock and without which no herder would work. If all ten of them were there in the herd it was safe to presume that none of the ewes had been lost, for, as they grazed back and forth through the timber, "cuts" might happen to the best of herders. Once he counted but nine. Yes, surely there were but nine. He called the dog to his side, pointed to a ridge beyond them and told the animal to go over there and look for the missing ones.

Away Pancho bounded, stopping often to look back at his master for orders. The boy waved his arm and the dog went on until he stood a black speck at the top of the ridge. With foot upraised and ears cocked, he watched again for commands. Another wave of the arm and the dog dashed over the ridge and out of sight. Half an hour later an eager bark came from the ridge, and there, slowly toiling through the trees, came the lost sheep, followed by the faithful dog, keeping them moving toward the herd and yet not hurrying them beyond the speed of the lambs. In their lead was the black marker. Once more his ten negros were all there.

The next night from over the mountain-top rolled a great wave of black smoke. The sheep, "bedded down" near the camp, were uneasy and kept sniffing at the heavy air. At daylight the boy pushed them from the bed ground and worked them up toward the mountain-top, where the trees stopped growing and there was little danger of fire reaching them. Leaving the dog to care for the sheep, the boy climbed up higher until he could see about him. On every side was a sea of smoke. Great black billows rolled up from below him and the wind blew a gale from the direction of the other side of the mountain. The patron would be back that night, but until then Pablo must stay where he was, for had he not been told to do so? All day he watched the smoke boiling up about him. The sheep were restless and bunched up in spite of his efforts to get them to scatter out and graze as they should.

In the afternoon he worked his way down the mountainside, below the meadow and, perched on a huge boulder, watched the fire licking its way slowly through the forest. As far as he could see the red line stretched like a fiery snake, but unless the wind changed it would not reach his camp for some time yet.

If only the patron would come and relieve him of this responsibility! All those ewes with their fine lambs grazing there, and depending on him, Pablo, for protection and care. What should he do? He must not leave the camp, and still, if he kept the sheep there and the fire really came to the meadow, they might all die.

Late that evening the wind changed and blew up the caņon like a gale, carrying with it clouds of smoke and burning brands which started fires far in advance of the main line. But the boy stayed with the sheep, wide awake and watchful, hardly taking time to eat his simple meals of frijoles, mutton and bread. Below him, the sky was alight with the flames. Now and then a thunderous crash told where some giant of the forest had given up the fight—three hundred and fifty years' work undone in an hour. Half a dozen coyotes and a wildcat skulked out of the timber that fringed the meadow and buried themselves in the little clump of willows that grew about the spring. By midnight he realized that to stay where he was meant death for himself and his woolly charges. The sheep were restless, constantly moving about on the bed ground, the lambs running and bleating through the herd as if they, too, realized the danger. The dog whined and looked anxiously toward the coming light, which now made the night almost as bright as noonday.

"What would'st thou do, Panchito?" said the boy. "Did not the patron tell us to remain here until he came, and yet, shall we stay and die when the fire comes?" Then the thought came to him that up higher on the mountain the sheep would be safe if once there.

At the first sign of coming day he set about his preparations for leaving. First, he tore from its pins the light tent, spread it out on the ground, swept into it the small supply of food which the camp contained, and rolled the tent about it. Then, with a short-handled camp shovel he dug a shallow hole in the soft mountain soil into which he placed, first, the sheepskins and blankets which formed his bed and then the bundle of the tent, covering it all with the dirt, thus securing it from the fire.

Having thus protected his food supply, he sent the dog around the sheep to bunch them up and started them up the mountainside. The sheep, frightened by the smoke and approaching fire, moved rapidly, and inside of half an hour the boy had them all bedded down on a great bare granite field in the middle of a little boulder-strewn valley where, ages ago, some slipping, sliding glacier had smoothed and polished the surface of the rocks until they were like some gigantic table top. The valley was far above timber and the sheep safe from fire.

Leaving the dog to watch the sheep, he hastened back to the meadow, there to await the coming of the patron as he had been bidden. Once upon the prairie, where his father lived, he had seen the men go out to meet an approaching fire and by means of back firing keep it away from the houses and fields.

In the camp was a stick of pitch pine which some one had brought for starting fires. Taking the ax, he quickly split off a handful of splinters, which he bound together with a handy piece of baling wire. Going to the lower end of the meadow toward the fire with his improvised torch, he started a line of small fires, hoping they would spread and thus be some slight protection to the meadow.

The wind favored him, and in a short time he had a wide swath burned clear along one side of the meadow and his fire was eating out into the forest and would keep the flames back some distance.

As the main fire line came along he was smothered with the clouds of smoke and waves of heat which swept down as from a furnace. He stood it as long as he could, fighting back the fire at every point where the flames were eating out into the meadow. Burning brands ate holes in his cotton shirt, and the soles of his "teguas," or rawhide moccasins, were burned through and through. As the mass of fire reached his back-fire line he ran to the little spring in the middle of the meadow and threw himself into it, rolling over and over in the mud and water about it. The coyotes and wildcat that had taken refuge there hardly noticed his presence in the face of the coming danger.

Half an hour or more of stifling smoke and burning heat and he dared to leave his place in the spring. About the meadow some of the trees were burning clear to their tops, and great logs were blazing everywhere, but the force of the fire was spent and had gone on past him and he was left as on an island in midocean.

It was far past noon. Perhaps the patron would come today. He found the shovel and dug up the buried tent with its precious contents and made a hasty meal of bread and meat. Then, taking a piece of the meat for the faithful Pancho, he struck out into the blackened area about him to find the sheep which he had left to the dog's care that morning.

He was very tired and his almost bare feet were badly cut and burned, causing him to stop and rest frequently, but he finally reached the granite ledge, and there found the sheep, with the dog watching their every movement, and woe unto the ewe or venturesome lamb that attempted to wander too far into the valley, for he was at its heels in a minute to drive it back.

That evening, about dark, two men rode into the upper end of the meadow. The face of each was black and grimy with smoke and sweat. Their eyes were red and swollen and their horses so tired they stumbled as they moved. As they came out of the blackened area about the meadow and were able to see across it the man in advance stopped his horse.

"Lord, I do hate to think of leaving that poor little devil up here all alone with them sheep," he said to his companion. "Naturally I hate to think of losing the sheep, but to have him burnt up too is awful."

Suddenly he straightened up in his saddle and rubbed his eyes. "Say, Bill," he called, "is that a bunch of sheep there, or are my eyes fooling me?" Before Bill could reply a dog barked and came racing toward them.

"Well, if it ain't Pancho as I'm a sinner," was the man's delighted cry.

Then the tinkle of a sheep bell reached their ears. They spurred their tired horses into a trot and soon reached the spot where once stood the camp tent. In the dim light they saw a freshly dug hole with a tent lying beside it, upon which was piled a miscellaneous assortment of food and camping utensils, mutely telling the story of how the camp outfit had been saved.

Nearby on a pile of sheep skins and under an old blanket lay a boy sleeping soundly. The eager barking of the dog and the heavy tread of the horses awoke him, and with a start he sprang to his feet. His clothing was a mass of mud, his face so black and tear-stained that it was almost unrecognizable, but the sheepman sprang from his horse and grabbed him in his arms with a strange choking in his throat he could hardly conquer.

"Why, Pablo boy, muchacho mio, how did you pull through this hell fire and save yourself and the sheep too?" he asked, patting the dirty cheeks and mud-filled hair.

"The patron told me to stay here till he returned," said the boy, "there are all the sheep, the ten markers, the three campanas, and the five chivos, that the patron left with me. All are there." The child's eyes glowed with the pride of accomplishment.

"Bill," said the sheepman, "what's that little feller's name what we used to recite about in school, him that did the stunt about standing on the burning deck?"

"You mean Casabianca?"

"That's him, that's the chap. Say, Pablo"—his voice choked and he swallowed hard before the words would come to his lips—"Pablo, you're Casabianca all righty, and then some, for that little feller didn't save his bacon by stayin' where he was tole to. You not only saved yours but twelve hundred of the best ewes and lambs in the state besides. I'll promise you that ole Santa Claus'll bring you somethin' mighty fine next Christmas to pay you for this here job."