HotFreeBooks.com
The Lookout Man
by B. M. Bower
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

When his first four days vacation was offered him, Jack thought a long while over the manner of spending it. Quincy did not offer much in the way of diversion, though it did offer something in the way of risk. So he cut Quincy out of his calculations and decided that he would phone down for a camp outfit and grub, and visit one or two of the places that he had been looking at for so long. For one thing, he could climb down to the lake he had been staring into for nearly a month, and see if he could catch any trout. Occasionally he had seen fishermen down there casting their lines in, but none of them had seemed to have much luck. For all that the lake lured him, it was so blue and clear, set away down there in the cupped mountain top. Hank had advised him to bait with a salmon-roe on a Coachman fly. Jack had never heard of that combination, and he wanted to try it.

But after all, the lake was too near to appeal to him except by way of passing. Away on the next ridge was the black, rocky hump called Grizzly Peak on the map. Hank spoke of it casually as Taylor Rock, and sometimes called it King Solomon. That was where the bears had their winter quarters, and that was where Jack wanted to go and camp. He wanted to see a bear's den, and if the bears were all gone—Hank assured him that they never hung out up there in the summer, but ranged all over the mountains—he wanted to go inside a den and see what it was like. And for a particular, definite ambition, without which all effort is purposeless, he wanted to kill a bear.

Hank brought him all the things he needed, talked incessantly of what Jack should do and what he shouldn't do, and even offered to pack his outfit over to the Peak for him. So Jack went, and got his first taste of real camping out in a real wilderness, and gained a more intimate knowledge of the country he had to guard.

By the time his second relief was at hand, he was tempted to take what money he had earned and go as far as it would take him. He did not believe he could stand another month of that terrible isolation, even with his new friendliness toward the stars and the forest to lighten a little of his loneliness. Youth hungers for a warmer, more personal companionship than Nature, and Jack was never meant for a hermit. He grew sullen. He would stand upon his pinnacle where he could look down at Crystal Lake, and hate the tourists who came with lunches and their fishing tackle, and scrambled over the rocks, and called shrilly to one another, and laughed, and tried to invent new ways of stringing together adjectives that seemed to express their enthusiasm. He would make biting remarks to them which the distance prevented their hearing, and he would wish savagely that they would fall in the lake, or break a leg on some of the boulders.

When those with a surplus of energy started up the steep climb to the peak, he would hurry into his little glass room, hastily part and plaster his hair down as a precaution against possible recognition, and lock his door and retire to a certain niche in a certain pile of rocks, where he would be out of sight and yet be close enough to hear the telephone, and would chew gum furiously and mutter savage things under his breath. Much as he hungered for companionship he had a perverse dread of meeting those exclamatory sightseers. It seemed to Jack that they cheapened the beauty of everything they exclaimed over.

He could hear them gabble about Mount Lassen, and his lip would curl with scorn over the weakness of their metaphors. He would grind his teeth when they called his glass prison "cute," and wondered if anybody really lived there. He would hear some man trying to explain what he did not know anything at all about, and he would grin pityingly at the ignorance of the human male, forgetting that he had been just as ignorant, before fate picked him up and shoved him head-foremost into a place where he had to learn.

Sometimes he was not forewarned of their visits, and would be trapped fairly; and then he would have to answer their foolish questions and show them what the map was for, and what the pointer was for, and admit that it did get lonesome sometimes, and agree with them that it was a fine view, and point out where Quincy lay, and all the rest of it. It amazed him how every one who came said practically the same things, asked the same questions, linked the same adjectives together.

Thus passed his second month, which might be called his pessimistic month. But he did not take his money and go. He decided that he would wait until he had grown a beard before he ventured. He realized bitterly that he was a fugitive, and that it would go hard with him now if he were caught. From the papers which Supervisor Ross had sent him every week he had learned that the police were actually and definitely looking for him. At least they had been a month ago, and he supposed that they had not given up the search, even though later events had pushed his disgrace out of print. The man they had shot was hovering close to death in a hospital, the last Jack read of the case. It certainly would be wiser to wait a while. So he took his camp outfit to Taylor Rock again and stayed there until his four days were gone.

That time he killed a deer and got a shot at a young bear, and came back to his post in a fairly good humor. The little glass room had a homey look, with the late afternoon sunlight lying warm upon the map and his piles of magazines and papers stacked neatly on their shelf. Since he could not be where he wanted to be, Jack felt that he would rather be here than anywhere else. So his third month began with a bleak kind of content.



CHAPTER EIGHT

IN WHICH A GIRL PLAYS BILLIARDS ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP

Jack heard some one coming, snatched up a magazine and his pipe and promptly retired to his pet crevice in the rocks. Usually he locked the door before he went, but the climber sounded close—just over the peak of the last little knob, in fact. He pulled the door shut and ran, muttering something about darned tourists. Drive a man crazy, they would, if he were fool enough to stay and listen to their fool talk.

He crawled well back into the niche, settled himself comfortably and lighted his pipe. They never came over his way—and the wind blew from the station. He did not believe they would smell the smoke.

Darn it all, he had the wrong magazine! He half rose, meaning to scurry back and get the one he wanted; but it was too late now. He heard the pebbles knocked loose where the faint trail dipped down over the knob directly behind the station. So he settled back with his pipe for solace, and scowled down at the world, and waited for the darn tourists to go.

But this particular darn tourist had two reasons for lingering up there. Her first and greatest reason was a sheer delight in the panorama spread below and all around her, and the desire to saturate her soul with the beauty of it, her lungs with the keen elixir of the wind, heady with the eight thousand feet of altitude. Her second reason was a perverse desire to show Kate that she was not to be bossed around like a kid, and dictated to and advised and lectured whenever she wanted to do something which Kate did not want to do. Why, for instance, should she miss the pleasure of climbing to the very top of the peak just because Kate began to puff before they were half way up, and wanted to turn back?

Of course, she would do anything in the world for Kate; but that was no reason why Kate should be selfish about little things. If she didn't want to wait until Marion came down, she could walk home alone. There was a good road, and Marion certainly would never think of objecting. She believed in absolute personal liberty in little things. Therefore she meant to stay up on the peak just exactly as long as she wanted to stay, regardless of what Kate wanted to do. She had not tried to force Kate to come up with her—if Kate would just stop to think a minute. When Kate sat down on that rock and said she wouldn't climb another step, Marion had not urged her at all. She had waited until she was sure that Kate would not change her mind, and then she had come on up without any fuss or argument. And she would stay until she was ready to go down. It would be silly to spoil her pleasure now by worrying. She would like to see a sunset from up here. She had her gun with her, and anyway, she could get home easily before dark. She believed she would stay, just this once. Really, it would do Kate good to discover that Marion liked to please herself once in a while.

Which was all very well for Marion Rose, but rather hard on Jack, who was not in a mood for company. He smoked hopefully for a half hour or so. Most tourists got enough of it in a half hour. They began to feel the altitude then, or found the wind disagreeable, or they were in a hurry to climb down to the lake and fish, or they had to think about the trip home. Besides, their vocabularies were generally exhausted in half an hour, and without superlatives they could not gaze upon the "view"; not with any satisfaction, that is. But this tourist could be heard moving here and there among the rocks, with long lapses of silence when she just stood and gazed. Jack listened and waited, and grew more peevish as the lagging minutes passed. If he went out now, he would have to go through the whole performance.

The telephone rang. And while Jack was sulkily getting to his feet, he heard a girl's voice answering the phone. The nerve of her! What business had she inside, anyway? Must a fellow padlock that door every time he went out, to keep folks from going where they had no business to be? He went angrily to the station; much more angrily than was reasonable, considering the offense committed against him.

He saw a girl in a short khaki skirt and high laced boots and a pongee blouse belted trimly with leather, bending her head over the mouthpiece of the telephone. She had on a beach hat that carried the full flavor of Venice in texture and tilt, and her hair was a ripe corn color, slicked back from her temples in the fashion of the month. Graceful and young she was, groomed as though thousands were to look upon her. Normally Jack's eyes would have brightened at this sight, his lips would have curved enticingly, his voice would have taken the tone of incipient philandering. But in his present mood he snapped at her.

"I beg your pardon. This is not a public telephone booth. It's a private office."

She glanced inattentively his way, her smile directed mentally toward the person on the other end of the wire. With her free hand she waved him to silence and spoke, still smiling, into the mouthpiece.

"You're sure I won't do? I believe I could qualify, and I want—"

"If you please, this is not a public—"

But she waved her hand again impatiently and listened, engrossed and smiling. "Oh, just because I wanted to hear a human voice, I guess. I'd forgotten what a phone looks like, and so when I heard ... No, I am not a tourist. I'm a neighbor, and I'm the lonesomest neighbor in these mountains.... What?... Oh, down the road in a spooky little valley where there's a log cabin and a trout stream—only I haven't caught any yet. They bite, but they simply won't stay hooked. What?... Oh, just worms, and those fuzzy flies made with a hook on them—you know.... Oh, thanks! I surely do wish you could.... The what?... Oh! well, I don't know, I'm sure. There's an excited young man here who keeps telling me this is not a public telephone booth—do you mean him, I wonder?... He does look something like a fireman, now you mention it. What do you use him for? a signal fire, or something?... Oh! You do? Why, forevermore! Is he nice to talk to?... No, I haven't. He just keeps telling me this is not a public ... Oh, I don't! I don't see how anybody could mind him—do you?... Well, of course, a person doesn't look for politeness away up ... Ha-ha—why, does the altitude make a difference? Maybe that's what ails me, then— That's awfully nice of you, man ... No, never mind what my name is. Don't let's be ordinary. I'm just a voice from the mountain top, and you're just a voice from the valley. So be it.... Without an invitation? I only thanked you ..."

"Keep on," interjected Jack savagely, "and you'll have his wife trailing you up with a gun!"

"Well—we'll see.... But do come sometime when you can—and bring your wife! I'd love to meet some woman.... Oh, all right. Good-by."

With a gloved palm pressed hard over the mouthpiece she turned reproachfully upon Jack. "Now you did fix things, didn't you? Of course, you knew I couldn't be nice to a man with a wife, so you had to go and spoil everything. And I was just beginning to have a lovely time!"

"Help yourself," Jack offered with heavy sarcasm. "Don't mind me at all."

"Well, he wants to talk to you," she said. She put her lips again to the mouthpiece and added a postscript. "Pardon me, but I held the line a minute while I quarreled with your fireman. You're wrong—I don't find him so nice to talk to. You may talk to him if you want to—I'm sure you're welcome!" Whereupon she surrendered the receiver and walked around the high, map-covered table, and amused herself by playing an imaginary game of billiards with the pointer for a cue and two little spruce cones which she took from her pocket for balls.

When Jack had finished talking and had hung up the receiver, he leaned back against the shelf and watched her, his hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets. He still scowled—but one got the impression that he was holding that frown consciously and stubbornly and not because his mood matched it.

Marion placed a cone at a point on the chart which was marked Greenville, aimed for Spring Garden and landed the cone neatly in the middle of Jack's belt.

"Missed the pocket a mile," he taunted grudgingly, hating to be pleasant and yet helpless against the girl's perfect composure and good humor.

"Give it back, and I'll try it again. There's a place called the Pocket. I'll try that, for luck." Then she added carelessly—"What would have happened, if you hadn't answered that man at all?"

"I'd have been canned, maybe."

"Forevermore." She pretended to chalk her cue with a tiny powder puff which she took from a ridiculous vanity bag that swung from her belt. "Wouldn't you kind of like to be canned—under the circumstances?"

"No, I wouldn't. I need the money." Jack bit his lips to keep from grinning at the powder-puff play.

"Oh, I see." She tried another shot. "Why don't you cut the legs off this table? I would. It's miles too high."

"I don't monkey with government property, myself." He placed a peculiar accent on the last word, thus pointing his meaning very clearly.

"Now, what do you know about that? Missed it—with a government cone, shot by a government stick on a government table, while a government scowl fairly shrieks: 'Cut out this desecration!'" She chalked her cue gravely, powdered her nose afterward, using a round scrap of a mirror not much bigger than a silver dollar. "Do you stay up here all the time and scowl, all by yourself?"

"All the time and scowl, all by myself." Jack took his hands from his pockets that he might light his pipe; which was a sign that he was nearly ready to treat the girl kindly. "If you object to smoke—" and he waved one hand significantly toward the open door.

"All the time—all by yourself. And you don't want to be canned, either." With the pointer Marion drew aimless little invisible volutes upon the map, connecting the two spruce cones with an imaginary scroll design. "How touching!" she said enigmatically.

"Sure, you're heart-broken over the pathos of it. I can see that. You ought to put in about a week here—that's all I've got to say."

"Think I couldn't?" She looked across at him queerly.

"You wouldn't dare go any farther away than the spring. You'd have to stay right here on this peak every minute of the twenty-four hours. They call up at all kinds of ungodly times, just to see if you're on the job, if they think you're snitching. They'd catch you gone sometime—you couldn't get by with it—and then—"

"The can," finished Miss Marion gravely. "But what I want to know is, what have you done?"

"Done?" Jack's jaw dropped slack away from the pipestem. "What yuh mean, done?"

"Yes. What have you done that they should put you up here and make you stay up here? It sounds—"

"Now, even a tourist knows that this is a Forest Service lookout station, and that I'm here to watch out for fires down below! I'm your guardian angel, young lady. Treat me with respect, if not with kindness."

"I'm a member of the no-treat reform club. Honestly, don't they let you leave here at all?"

"Four days a month." He heaved a heavy sigh and waved his pipe toward the great outdoors. "'S big world, when it's all spread out in sight," he volunteered.

"Can't you—can't you even go down to the lake and fish, when you want to?"

"Nope. Four days a month—and if they didn't happen to have a spare man lying round handy, to send up here to take my place, I couldn't go then even."

Marion regarded him meditatively. "You can have an hour's recess now, if you like," she offered generously after a minute. "I'll stay and answer the phone, and stand them off if they want to talk to you. I'm good at that. You can go and climb down to the lake and fish, and have fun."

"Tell me to go and jump in the lake and I might do it," Jack returned gloomily. He found it rather pleasant to be sympathized with and pitied. "What if a fire broke out while I was gone?"

"Well, what if? I could do what you would do, couldn't I? What do you do when a fire breaks out?"

That gave Jack a fair excuse for leaving his place by the shelf, and coming around to her side of the table, and for taking the pointer from her and standing close beside her while he explained the chart. Needless to say, he made use of the excuse immediately.

"First off," he instructed, "you don't want to be a boob and go reporting train smoke, like I did the first day I was here. Picked up a black smoke down below, here—right down there! I got the number on the chart and phoned it in, and the lookout on Claremont didn't yeep about it. So they called up and asked him to come alive and report. By that time the smoke had moved from where I saw it, and the whole train was in sight from his station, coming round the hill into Marston. He never thought of that being it, he said afterward. They got busy in the office and called me up again, and I located her again—only in a different place. Fellow on Claremont—that's it away over there; see that white speck? That's the station, just like this one. He's an old crab, Hank tells me. He said I must be bugs. Had him squinting around some, I bet! Then they got wise that I was reporting a through freight, and they kid me about it yet. But they fell for it at first all right!"

"What do you know about that!" Marion melodiously exclaimed, and laughed companionably.

She wanted to know all the things that real tourists want to know, and Jack forgot that he hated to answer foolish questions. The piles of empty coal-oil cans, for instance—she should have known that they had been packed up there full, to run the oil stove in the corner. The spring—he had to take his bucket and go down with her and show her where the spring was, but he did not seem to mind that, either. The flag, whipping over the station on its short staff, interested her too, and he helped her guess how long it would be before the stars and stripes snapped themselves to ribbons. The book on astronomy she dipped into, turning it to look at the full-page illustrations of certain constellations that were to Jack like old friends. The books on forestry she glanced at, and the magazines she inspected with less interest.

"Oh, I've got the latest movie magazines. I could bring them up sometime if you like—or send them by the man who brings your stuff up, if you'll tell him to stop at the cabin."

"You bring them yourself," Jack urged, his eagerness so open and unashamed that Marion blushed, and suddenly remembered Kate down the slope there waiting for her. She must go, she said; and she went, almost as suddenly as she came, and never mentioned her half-formed determination to wait up there for the sunset.

Jack went with her as far as he dared, and stood under a wind-tortured balsam fir and watched her out of sight. On the last ledge before the trail dipped down over the hump that would hide her for good, she turned and looked up at him. She stood there poised—so it seemed—between mountain-crest and the sky. The lake lay quiet and shadowed, deep below her, as though God had dropped a tear and the mountain was holding it reverently cupped, sheltering it from the keen winds of the heights. Beyond, painted with the delicate shadings of distance and yellow sunlight, Indian Valley lay quietly across the lap of the world, its farms and roads and fences sketched in lightly, as with the swift pencil strokes of an artist; its meandering, willowfringed streams making contrast with the yellowed fields of early harvest time.

She stood there poised like a bird on the rim of the world. Her slimness, her sure grace, her yellow hair shining under the beach hat she wore tilted back from her face, struck him like a blow in the face from that pleasurable past wherein woman beauty had been so abundant. She was of the town; moreover, he felt that she was of the town from which he had fled in guilt and terror. She stood for a long minute, taking in the full sweep of the rugged peak. She was not looking at him especially, until she turned to go on. Then she waved her hand carelessly—slightingly, he felt in his misery—and went down the steep slope.

Until he could no longer see the crown of her hat he looked after her. Then, the sickness of his terrible loneliness upon him again, he turned and slowly climbed back to his glass-walled prison.



CHAPTER NINE

LIKE THE BOY HE WAS

Down the balsam and manzanita slope toward the little valley where she lived, Jack stared hungrily during many an empty, dragging hour. Until the darkness had twice drawn down the black curtain that shut him away from the world, he had hoped she would come. She had been so friendly, so understandingly sympathetic—she must know how long the days were up there.

On the third day Hank came riding up the trail that sought the easiest slopes. He brought coal-oil and bacon and coffee and smoking tobacco and the week's accumulation of newspapers, and three magazines; but he did not bring any word from Marion Rose, nor the magazines she had promised. When Hank had unsaddled the horses to rest their backs, and had eaten his lunch and had smoked a cigarette in the shade of a rock, his slow thoughts turned to the gossip of his little world.

He told of the latest encounter with the crabbed fireman on Claremont, grinning appreciatively because the fireman's ill temper had been directed at a tourist who had gone up with Hank. He related a small scandal that was stirring the social pond of Quincy, and at last he swung nearer to the four who had taken mining claims along Toll Gate Creek.

"Too bad you can't go down to Toll-house an' git acquainted with your neighbors," he drawled half maliciously. "There's a girl in the bunch that's sure easy to look at. Other one is an old maid—looks too much like a schoolma'm to suit me. But say—I'm liable to make a trip up here twice a week, from now on! I'm liable to eat my dinner 'fore I git here, too. Some class to that girl, now, believe me! Only trouble is, I'm kinda afraid one of the men has got a string on her. There's two of 'em in the outfit. One is one of them he schoolma'ms that goes around in a boiled shirt and a hard-boiled hat, buzzin' like a mosquito. He's sweet on the old maid. It's the other one I'm leery of. He's the brother of the old maid, and he's the kind that don't say much but does a lot uh thinkin'. Big, too.

"They've took up a bunch of minin' claims around there and are livin' in that cabin. Goin' to winter there, the old maid was tellin' me. I brought out their mail to 'em. Marion Rose is the girl's name. I guess she's got a feller or two down in Los Angeles—I brought out a couple letters today in men's writin'—different hands, at that.

"They's somethin' queer about 'em that I can't see through. They was both settin' out in the sun—on that log right by the trail as you go in to the cabin—and they'd washed their hair and had it all down their backs dryin' it. And the girl was cleanin' the old maid's finger nails for her! I come purty near astin' the old maid if she had to have somebody wash her face for her too. But they didn't seem to think it was anything outa the way at all—they went right to talkin' and visitin' like they was fixed for company. I kinda s'picion Marion bleaches her hair. Seems to me like it's a mite too yeller to be growed that way. Drugstore blonde, I'd call her. You take notice first time you see her. I'll bet you'll say—"

"Aw, can that chatter, you poor fish!" Jack exploded unexpectedly, and smote Hank on his lantern jaw with the flat of his palm. "You hick from hick-town! You brainless ape! You ain't a man—you're a missing link! Give you a four-foot tail, by harry, and you'd go down the mountain swinging from branch to branch like the monkey that you are! What are you, you poor piece of cheese, to talk about a woman?"

His hand to his jaw, Hank got up from where he had sprawled on his back. He was not a fighting man, preferring to satisfy his grudges by slurring people behind their backs. But Jack smacked him again and thought of a few other things to which he might liken Hank, and after that Hank fought like a trapped bobcat, with snarls and kicks and gouging claws. He scratched Jack's neck with his grimy fingernails, and he tried to set his unwashed teeth into Jack's left ear while the two of them rolled over and over on the slippery mat of squaw-carpet. And for that he was pummeled unmercifully before Jack tore himself loose and got up.

"Now, you beat it!" Jack finished, panting. "And after this you keep your tongue off the subject of women. Don't dare to mention even a squaw to me, or I'll pitch you clean off the peak!"

Hank mumbled an insult, and Jack went after him again. All the misery, all the pent-up bitterness of the past three months rose within him in a sudden storm that clouded his reason. He fought Hank like a crazy man—not so much because Hank was Hank and had spoken slightingly of that slim girl, but because Hank was something concrete, something which Jack could beat with his fists and that could give back blow for blow. Too long had he waged an unequal conflict with his own thoughts, his aloneness; with regrets and soul hunger and idleness. When he had spent his strength and most of his rage together, he let Hank go and felt tenderly his own bruised knuckles.

He never knew how close he was to death in the next five minutes, while Hank was saddling up to go. For Hank's fingers went several times to his rifle and hovered there, itching to do murder, while Hank's mind revolved the consequences. Murder would be madness—suicide, practically. The boy would be missed when he did not answer the telephone. Some one would be sent up from the Forest Service and the murder would be discovered, unless—unless Hank could hide the body. There was the lake—but the lake was so clear! Besides, there was always the chance at this season of the year that some tourist would be within sight. Some tourist might even hear the shot. It would be risky—too risky. Like Jack's, his rage cooled while he busied himself mechanically with saddling his horse. After all, Hank was not criminally inclined, except as anger drove him. He set the pack-saddle and empty sacks on the pack horse, led his horse a few feet farther away and mounted, scowling.

In the saddle he turned and looked for the first time full at Jack. "You think you're darn smart!" he snarled wryly because of a cut lip that had swollen all on one side. "You may think you're smart, but they's another day comin'. You wait—that's all I got to say!"

It did not make him feel any better when Jack laughed suddenly and loud. "R-r-r-evenge! By my heart's blood, I shall have r-r-evenge!" he intoned mockingly. "Gwan outa my sight, Hank. You ain't making any hit with me at all. Scat!"

"All right fer you!" Hank grumbled, in the futile repartee of the stupid. "You think you're smart, but I don't. You wait!" Then he rode away down the trail, glowering at the world through puffy lids and repeating to himself many crushing things he wished he had thought to say to Jack.

Jack himself had recourse to a small bottle of iodine left there by a predecessor, painting his scratches liberally, and grinning at himself in the little mirror because Hank had not once landed a bruising blow on his face. After that he washed the dishes and went to the spring for a bucket of fresh water, whistling all the way. It was amazing how that fight had cleared his mental atmosphere.

After that, he perched up on the little rock pinnacle just behind the station, and stared down the mountain toward Toll-Gate Flat, where she lived. He saw Hank ride into the balsam thicket; and he, too, thought of several things he regretted not having said to Hank. What rotten luck it was that he should be held up here on that pinnacle while Hank Brown could ride at his leisure down into that tiny valley! The government ought to gather up all the Hank Browns in the country and put them up on such places as these, and let decent fellows do the riding around.

Down there, beyond the trail, on a slope where the manzanita was not quite so matted together, he saw something move slowly. Then it stopped, and he got a gleam of light, the reflection, evidently of some bright object. He lifted the telescope and focussed it, and his heart came leaping up into his throat just as the figure came leaping into close view through the powerful lense.

It was Marion Rose, up by the hydrometer that looked something like a lone beehive perched on a wild slope by itself. She was sitting on a rock with her feet crossed, and she was inspecting her chin in the tiny mirror of her vanity bag. Some blemish—or more likely an insect bite, from the way her fingertip pressed carefully a certain point of her chin—seemed to hold all her attention. It was the sun flashing on the bit of mirror that had made the gleam.

Jack watched her hungrily; her slim shape, leaning negligently sidewise; her hat pushed back a little; her hair, the color of ripe corn, fluffed where the wind had blown it; the clear, delicate, creamy tint of her skin, her mouth curved in soft, red lines that held one's eyes fascinated when they moved in speech. He watched her, never thinking of the rudeness of it.

And then he saw her lift her face and look up to the peak, directly at him, it seemed to him. His face turned hot, and he lowered the glass guiltily. But of course she could not see him—or if she could, he looked no more than a speck on the rock. He lifted the telescope again, and her face jumped into close view. She was still looking up his way, the little mirror turning idly in her hand. Her face was thoughtful; almost wistful, he dared to think. Perhaps she was lonesome, too. She had told him that she had spells of being terribly lonesome.

Jack had an inspiration. He climbed hurriedly down off the rock, got his own looking glass and climbed back again. He turned the glass so that the sun shown on it aslant and threw a glare toward her. Then he lifted the telescope quickly to see if she noticed the sparkle. After a moment he decided that she had seen it but did not quite know what had caused it. At any rate, she was still looking that way, which was something.

Like the boy he was, he lay down on his stomach, balanced the telescope across a splintered notch in the rock so that he could steady it with one hand, and with the other he tilted the mirror; inadvertently tilted the telescope also, and came near smashing the mirror before he got the two balanced again. Well, she was still looking, at any rate. And now she was frowning a little, as though she was puzzled.

He signalled again, and this time he managed to keep her in the field of the telescope. He saw her smile suddenly and glance down at her vanity mirror. Still smiling, she lifted it and turned it to the sun, looking from it to the peak.

"She's on! I'll be John Browned if she ain't on to it already!" Jack chortled to the birds, and sent her a signal. She answered that with a flash. He managed two flashes without losing her in the telescope, and she immediately sent two flashes in reply. Three he gave, and she answered with three. He could see her laughing like a child with a new game. He could see the impish light in her eyes when she glanced up, like a woman engrossed in her favorite pastime of be-deviling some man. He laughed back at her, as though she was as near to him as she looked to be. He quite forgot that she was not, and spoke to her aloud.

"Some little heliographing—what? Come on up, and we'll make up a code, so we can talk! Aw, come on—it ain't so far! Husky girl like you can climb it in no time at all. Aw, come on!"

A couple of tourists, panting up to the peak with unsightly amber goggles and a kodak and a dog, found him addressing empty air and looked at him queerly. Jack could have murdered them both when he turned his head and saw them gaping open-mouthed at his performance. But he did not. He climbed shame-facedly down and answered the usual questions with his usual patient courtesy, and hoped fervently that they would either die at once of heart failure or go back to the lake and leave him alone. Instead, they took pictures of the station and the rocks and of him—though Jack was keen-witted enough to keep in the shade and turn his face away from the camera.

They were such bores of tourists! The woman was sunburned and frowsy, and her khaki outing suit was tight where it should be loose, and hung in unsightly wrinkles where it should fit snugly. Her high-laced mountain boots were heavy and shapeless, and she climbed here and there, and stood dumpily and stared down at Jack's beloved woods through her amber glasses until she nearly drove him frantic. She kept saying: "Oh, papa, don't you wish you could get a snap of that?" and "Oh, papa, come and see if you can't snap this!"

Papa was not much better. Papa's khaki suit had come off a pile on the counter of some department store—the wrong pile. Papa kept taking off his hat and wiping his bald spot, and hitching his camera case into a different position, so that it made a new set of wrinkles in the middle of his back. The coat belt strained against its buttons over papa's prosperous paunch, and he wheezed when he talked.

And down there on the manzanita slope, little flashes of light kept calling, calling, and Jack dared not answer. One, two—one, two, three—could anything in the world be more maddening?

Then all at once a puff of smoke came ballooning up through the trees, down beyond the girl and well to the right of the balsam thicket. Jack whirled and dove into the station, his angry eyes flashing at the tourists.

"There's a forest fire started, down the mountain," he told them harshly. "You better beat it for Keddie while you can get there!" He slammed the door in their startled faces and laid the pointer on its pivot and swung it toward the smoke.

The smoke was curling up already in an ugly yellowish brown cloud, spreading in long leaps before the wind. Jack's hand shook when he reached for the telephone to report the fire. The chart and his own first-hand knowledge of the mountainside told him that the fire was sweeping down north of Toll-Gate Creek toward the heavily timbered ridge beyond.

Heedless of the presence or absence of the tourists, he snatched the telescope and climbed the rock where he could view the slope where the girl had been. The smoke was rolling now over the manzanita slope, and he could not pierce its murkiness. He knew that the slope was not yet afire, but the wind was bearing the flames that way, and the manzanita would burn with a zipping rush once it started. He knew. He had stood up there and watched the flames sweep over patches of the shrub.

He rushed back into the station, seized the telephone and called again the main office.

"For the Lord sake, hustle up here and do something!" he shouted aggressively. "The whole blamed mountain's afire!" That, of course, was exaggeration, but Jack was scared.

Out again on the rock, he swept the slope beneath him with his telescope. He could not see anything of the girl, and the swirling smoke filled him with a horror too great for any clear thought. He climbed down and began running down the pack trail like one gone mad, never stopping to wonder what he could do to save her; never thinking that he would simply be sharing her fate, if what he feared was true—if the flames swept over that slope.

He stumbled over a root and fell headlong, picked himself up and went on again, taking great leaps, like a scared deer. She was down there. And when the fire struck that manzanita it would just go swoosh in every direction at once.... And so he, brave, impulsive young fool that he was, rushed down into it as though he were indeed a god and could hold back the flames until she was safe away from the place.



CHAPTER TEN

WHEN FORESTS ARE ABLAZE

It seemed to Jack that he had been running for an hour, though it could not have been more than a few minutes at most. Where the trail swung out and around a steep, rocky place, he left it and plunged heedlessly straight down the hill. The hot breath of the fire swept up in gusts, bearing charred flakes that had been leaves. The smoke billowed up to him, then drove back in the tricky air-currents that played impishly around the fire. When he could look down to the knoll where the hydrometer stood, he saw that it was not yet afire, but that the flames were working that way faster even than he had feared.

Between gasps he shouted her name as Hank Brown had repeated it to him. He stopped on a ledge and stared wildly, in a sudden panic, lest he should somehow miss her. He called again, even while reason told him that his voice could not carry any distance, with all that crackle and roar. He forced himself to stand there for a minute to get his breath and to see just how far the fire had already swept, and how fast it was spreading.

Even while he stood there, a flaming pine branch came whirling up and fell avidly upon a buck bush beside him. The bush crackled and shriveled, a thin spiral of smoke mounting upward into the cloud that rolled overhead. Jack stood dazed, watching the yellow tongues go licking up the smaller branches. While he stood looking, the ravaging flames had devoured leaves and twigs and a dead branch or two, and left the bush a charred, smoking, dead thing that waved its blackened stubs of branches impotently in the wind. Alone it had stood, alone it had died the death of fire.

"Marion Rose!" he shouted abruptly, and began running again. "Marion Rose!" But the hot wind whipped the words from his lips, and the deep, sullen roar of the fire drowned his voice. Still calling, he reached the road that led to Crystal Lake. The wind was hotter, the roar was deeper and louder and seemed to fill all the world. Hot, black ash flakes settled thick around him.

Then, all at once, he saw her standing in the middle of the road, a little farther up the hill. She was staring fascinated at the fire, her eyes wide like a child's, her face with the rapt look he had seen when she stood looking down from the peak into the heart of the forest. And then, when he saw her, Jack could run no more. His knees bent under him, as though the bone had turned suddenly to soft gristle, and he tottered weakly when he tried to hurry to her.

"Isn't it wonderful?" she called out when she saw him. Her words came faintly to him in all that rush and crackle of flame and wind together. "I never saw anything like it before—did you? It sprung up all at once, and the first I knew it was sweeping along."

"Don't stand here!" Jack panted hoarsely. "Good Lord, girl! You—"

"Why, you've been running!" she cried, in a surprised tone. "Were you down there in it? I thought you had to stay up on top." She had to raise her voice to make him hear her.

Her absolute ignorance of the danger exasperated him. He took her by the arm and swung her up the trail. "We've got to beat it!" he yelled in her ear. "Can't you see it's coming this way?"

"It can't come fast enough to catch us," she answered impatiently. "It's away back there down the hill yet. Wait! I want to watch it for a minute."

A bushy cedar tree ten feet away to their left suddenly burst into flame and burned viciously, each branch a sheet of fire.

"Well, what do you know about that?" cried Marion Rose. "It jumped from away down there!"

"Come on!" Pulling her by the arm, Jack began running again up the hill, leaving the road where it swung to the east and taking a short cut through the open space in the brush. "Run!" he urged, still pulling at her arm. "We've—got to—swing around it—"

She ran with him, a little of their peril forcing itself upon her consciousness and making her glance often over her shoulder. And Jack kept pulling at her arm, helping her to keep her feet when she stumbled, which she did often, because she would not look where she was going.

"Don't look—run!" he urged, when another brand fell in a fir near them and set the whole tree ablaze. The air around them was hot, like the breath of a furnace.

She did not answer him, but she let him lead her whither he would. And they came breathless to the rocky outcropping through which the pack trail wormed its way farther down the hill. There he let her stop, for he knew that they had passed around the upper edge of the fire, and were safe unless the wind changed. He helped her upon a high, flat-topped boulder that overlooked the balsam thicket and manzanita slope, and together they faced the debauchery of the flames.

Even in the few minutes since Jack had stopped on that rocky knoll the fire had swept far. It had crossed the Crystal Lake road and was now eating its way steadily up the timbered hillside beyond. The manzanita slope where the girl had sat and signalled with her mirror was all charred and stripped bare of live growth, and the flames were licking up the edges beyond.

Jack touched her arm and pointed to the place. "You said it couldn't travel very fast," he reminded her. "Look down there where you sat fooling with the little mirror."

Marion looked and turned white. "Oh!" she cried. "It wasn't anywhere near when I started up the road. Oh, do you suppose it has burned down as far as the cabin? Because there's Kate—can't we go and see?"

"We can't, and when I left the lookout the fire was away up this side of Toll-Gate, and not spreading down that way. Wind's strong. Come on—I expect I better beat it back up there. They might phone."

"But I must hunt Kate up! Why, she was all alone there, taking a nap in the hammock! If it should—"

"It won't," Jack reiterated positively. "I ought to know, oughtn't I? It's my business to watch fires and see how they're acting, isn't it?" He saw her still determined, and tried another argument. "Listen here. It isn't far up to the station. We'll go up there, and I'll phone down to the office to have the firemen stop and see if she's all right. They'll have to come right by there, to get at the fire. And you can't cross that burning strip now—not on a bet, you couldn't. And if you could," he added determinedly, "I wouldn't let you try it. Come on—we'll go up and do that little thing, telephone to the office and have them look after Kate."

Marion, to his great relief, yielded to the point of facing up hill with him and taking a step or two. "But you don't know Kate," she demurred, turning her face again toward the welter of burning timber. "She'll be worried to death about me, and it would be just like her to start right out to hunt me up. I've simply got to get back and let her know I'm all right."

Jack threw back his head and laughed aloud—think how long it had been since he really had laughed! "What's the matter with phoning that you're all right? I guess the wire will stand that extra sentence, maybe—and you can phone in yourself, if you want to convince them ab-so-lutely. What?"

"Well, who'd ever have thought that I might phone a message to Kate! Down there in that hole of a place where we live, one can scarcely believe that there are telephones in the world. Let's hurry, then. Kate will be perfectly wild till she hears that I am safe. And then—" she quirked her lips in a little smile, "she'll be wilder still because I'm not there where she supposed I'd be when she waked up."

Jack replied with something slangy and youthful and altogether like the old Jack Corey, and led her up the steep trail to the peak. They took their time, now that they were beyond the fire zone. They turned often to watch the flames while they got their breath; and every time Marion stopped, she observed tritely that it was a shame such beautiful timber must burn, and invariably added, "But isn't it beautiful?" And to both observations Jack would agree without any scorn of the triteness. Whereas he would have been furious had a mere tourist exclaimed about the beauty of a forest fire, which to him had always seemed a terrible thing.

They found the telephone ringing like mad, and Jack turned red around the ears and stuttered a good deal before he was through answering the questions of the supervisor, and explaining why he had not answered the phone in the last hour.

"Here, let me talk," commanded Marion suddenly, and took the receiver out of Jack's hand. "I'll tell you where he was," she called crisply to the accusing voice at the other end. "I was down the hill, right in the track of the fire, and I couldn't get back to the cabin at all, and—ah—this gentleman saw me through the telescope and ran down there and got me out of it. And right where I had been sitting on a rock, the fire has burned just everything! And I wish you would get word somehow to Miss Kate Humphrey, at Toll-Gate cabin, that Marion Rose is all right and will be home just as soon as she can get down there without burning her shoes. And—oh, will you please tell her that I took the bread out of the oven before I left, and that it's under the box the cream came in? I put it there to keep the bluejays away from it till she woke up, and she may not know where to look.... Yes, thank you, I think that will be all.... But listen! This man up here saved my life, though of course it is a pity he was not here to answer the phone, every minute of the day. What I want to say is that it was my fault, and I hope you'll please excuse me for having a life that needed to be saved just when you called! I wouldn't for the world.... Oh, don't mention it! I just didn't want you to blame him, is all. Good-by."

She turned to Jack with a little frown. "People seem to think, just because you work for a living, that your whole mission in life is to take orders on the jump. It was that way at the Martha Washington, and every other place I ever worked. That man down there seems to think that your life begins and ends right here in this little glass box. What made you apologize for keeping a telephone call waiting while you went out and saved a perfectly good life? Men are the queerest things!"

She went out and climbed upon the rock where Jack had lain watching her, and set herself down as comfortably as possible, and stared at the fire while Jack located on the chart the present extent of the blazing area, and sent in his report. When he had finished he did not go out to her immediately. He stood staring down the hill with his eyebrows pinched together. Now and then he lifted his hand unconsciously and pushed his heavy thatch of hair straight back from his forehead, where it began at once to lie wavy as of old. He was feeling again the personal sense of tragedy and loss in that fire; cursing again his helplessness to check it or turn it aside from that beautiful stretch of timber over toward Genessee.

Now the shadows had crept down the slope again to where the fire glow beat them back while it crisped the balsam thicket. Behind him the sun, sinking low over the crest of a far-off ridge, sent flaming banners across the smoke cloud. The sky above was all curdled with gold and crimson, while the smoke cloud below was a turgid black shot through with sparks and tongues of flame.

Where were the fire-fighters, that they did not check the mad race of flames before they crossed that canyon? It seemed to Jack that never had a fire burned with so headlong a rush. Then his eyes went to the blackened manzanita slope where Marion had been idling, and he shivered at what might have happened down there. To comfort himself with the sight of her safe and serene, he turned and went out, meaning to go up where she was.

She was still sitting on the rock, gazing down the mountain, her face sober. Her hat was off, and the wind was blowing the short strands of her hair around her face. She was leaning back a little, braced by a hand upon the rock. She looked a goddess of the mountain tops, Jack thought. He stood there staring up at her, just as he had stared down at her when she had stood looking into the lake. Did she feel as he felt about the woods and mountains? he wondered. She seemed rather fond of staring and staring and saying nothing—and yet, he remembered, when she talked she gave no hint at all of any deep sense of the beauty of her surroundings. When she talked she was just like other town girls he had known, a bit slangy, more than a bit self-possessed, and frivolous to the point of being flippant. That type he knew and could meet fairly on a level. But when she was looking and saying nothing, she seemed altogether different. Which, he wondered, was the real Marion Rose?

While he stood gazing, she turned and looked down at him; a little blankly at first, as though she had just waked from sleep or from abstraction too deep for instant recovery. Then she smiled and changed her position, putting up both hands to pat and pull her hair into neatness; and with the movement she ceased to be a brooding goddess of the mountain tops, and became again the girl who had perversely taken the telephone away from him, the girl who had played mock billiards upon his beloved chart, the girl who said—she said it now, while he was thinking of her melodious way of saying it.

"Well, what do you know about that?" she inquired, making a gesture with one arm toward the fire while with the other she fumbled in her absurd little vanity bag. "It just burns as if it had a grudge against the country, doesn't it? But isn't it perfectly gorgeous, with all that sunset and everything! It looks like a Bliffen ten-reel picture. He ought to see it—he could get some great pointers for his next big picture. Wouldn't that be just dandy on the screen?" She had found her powder puff and her tiny mirror, and she was dabbing at her nose and her cheeks, which no more needed powder than did the little birds that chirped around her. Between dabs, she was looking down the mountain, with an occasional wave of her puff toward some particularly "striking effect" of fire and sunset and rolling smoke and tall pines seen dimly in the background.

Jack wanted to climb up there and shake her out of her frivolity. Which was strange when you consider that all his life, until three months ago, he had lived in the midst of just such unthinking flippancy, had been a part of it and had considered—as much as he ever considered anything—that it was the only life worth living.

He went around the little rock pinnacle and stood looking somberly down at the devastation that was being wrought, with no greater beginning, probably, than a dropped match or cigarette stub. He was thinking hazily that so his old life had been swept away in the devastating effect of a passing whim, a foolish bit of play. The girl irritated him with her chatter—yet three months ago he himself would have considered it brilliant conversation, and would have exerted himself to keep pace with her.

"Listen!" she cried suddenly, and Jack turned his head quickly before he remembered that the word had come to mean nothing more than a superfluous ejaculation hung, like a bangle on a bracelet, to the sentences of modern youth. "Listen, it's going to be dark before that fire burns itself out of the way. How am I going to get home? Which way would be best to go around it, do you think?"

"No way at all," Jack replied shortly. "You can't go home."

"Why, forevermore! I'll have to go somewhere else, then—to some farm house where I can phone. Kate would be simply wild if—"

"Forget the farm house stuff. There aren't any such trimmings to these mountains. The next farm house is down around Keddie, somewhere. Through the woods, and mountain all the way." He said it rather crossly, for his nerves were what he called edgy, and the girl still irritated him.

"Well, what do you know about that?"

He had known she would say that. Cross between a peacock and a parrot, she must be, he thought vindictively. It was maddening that she would not—could not, perhaps?—live up to that goddess-on-the-mountain-top look she had sometimes.

"I don't know anything about it except that it's hard luck for us both."

"Well, what—?" She paused in the act of putting away her first-aid-to-the-complexion implements, and looked at him with her wide, purple eyes. "Why, you cross, mean, little stingy boy, you! You can have your old peak then. I'll go down and jump in the lake." She began to climb down from the little pinnacle quite as if she meant to do exactly as she said.

"Aw, come out of it!" Jack tried not to turn and look at her anxiously, but he was a human being.

"I'm not in it—yet," Marion retorted with dark meaning, and jumped to the ground.

"Hey! you wanta break a leg?" He swung toward her.

"Just to spite you, I wouldn't mind. Only you'd throw me down there amongst all those rocks and trees and make it my neck. Oh, would you look at that!"

"That" happened to be Mount Lassen, belching forth a stupendous column of ashes and smoke. Up, up, up it went, as though it meant to go on and on into infinity. Jack had seen it too often to be affected as he had been that first night. He looked at Marion instead. She was standing with her hands clinched by her side, and her breath sucking in. As the black column mounted higher and higher, she lifted herself to her toes, posing there absolutely unconscious of herself. Jack saw her face grow pale; saw her eyes darken and glow with inner excitement. She was once more the goddess on the mountain top, gazing down at one of the wonders she had wrought. It was as though she pulled that black column up and up and up with the tensity of her desire.

The column mushroomed suddenly, rolling out in great, puffy billows before it dipped and went streaming away on the wind. The mountain beneath it spewed sluggish masses of vapor and ashes up into the black moil above, until the whole mountain was obscured and only an angry, rolling cloud churning lumpishly there, told what was hidden beneath.

Marion relaxed, took a long, deep breath and settled again to her trim heels. She was not filled with terror as Jack had been; though that may have been because she was not cast up here like a piece of driftwood out of her world, nor was she alone. But Jack paid her the tribute of bowing mentally before her splendid courage. She gazed a while longer, awed ecstasy in her face. Then slowly she swung and stared at that other churning cloud behind her—the crimsoned-tinted cloud of destruction. She flung out both arms impulsively.

"Oh, you world!" she cried adoringly, unafraid yet worshipping. "I'd like to be the wind, so I could touch you and kiss you and beat you, and make you love me the way I love you! I'd rather be a tree and grow up here and swing my branches in the wind and then burn, than be a little petty, piffling human being—I would! I'm not afraid of you. You couldn't make me afraid of you. You can storm and rage around all you like. I only love you for it—you beautiful thing!"

It made Jack feel as though he had blundered upon a person kneeling in prayer; she was, after all, the goddess she looked, he thought whimsically. At least she had all the makings of a goddess of the mountain top. He felt suddenly inferior and gross, and he turned to leave her alone with her beautiful, terrible world. But manlike he did a frightfully human and earthly thing; he knocked his foot against an empty coal-oil can, and stood betrayed in his purpose of flight.

She turned her head and looked at him like one just waking from a too-vivid dream. She frowned, and then she smiled with a little ironical twist to her soft curving lips.

"You heard what I said about piffling human beings?" she asked him sweetly. "That is your catalogue number. Why for goodness' sake! With your hair done in that marcelle pompadour, and that grin, you look exactly like Jack Corey, that Los Angeles boy that all the girls were simply crazy about, till he turned out to be such a perfectly terrible villain!"



CHAPTER ELEVEN

SYMPATHY AND ADVICE

Every bit of color was swept from Jack's face, save the black of his lashes and eyebrows and the brown of his eyes that looked at her in startled self-betrayal. He saw the consternation flash into her face when she first understood how truly her random shot had hit the mark, and he dropped upon the bench by the doorway and buried his face in his shaking hands. But youth does not suffer without making some struggle against the pain. Suddenly he lifted his head and looked at her with passionate resentment.

"Well, why don't you run and tell?" he cried harshly. "There's the telephone in there. Why don't you call up the office and have them send the sheriff hot-footing it up here? If Jack Corey's such a villain, why don't you do something about it? For the Lord's sake don't stand there looking at me as if I'm going to swallow you whole! Get somebody on the phone, and then beat it before I cut loose and be the perfectly awful villain you think I am!"

Marion took a startled step away from him, turned and came hesitatingly toward him. And as she advanced she smiled a little ostentatiously whimsical smile and touched the butt of her six-shooter.

"I'm heeled, so I should be agitated," she said flippantly. "I always was crazy to get the inside dope on that affair. Tell me. Were you boys honest-to-goodness bandits, or what?"

"What, mostly." Jack gave her a sullen, upward glance from under his eyebrows. "Go ahead and play at cat-and-mouse, if you want to. Nobody'll stop you, I guess. Have all the fun you want—you're getting it cheap enough; cheaper by a darned sight than you'll get the inside dope you're crazy for."

"What do you know about it!—me running on to Jack Corey, away up here on the top of the world!" But it was hard to be flippant while she looked down into that stricken young face of his, and saw the white line around his lips that ought to be smiling at life; saw, too, the trembling of his bruised hands, that he tried so hard to hold steady. She came still closer; so close that she could have touched his arm.

"It was the papers called you such awful things. I didn't," she said, wistfully defensive. "I couldn't—not after seeing you on the beach that day, playing around like a great big kid, and not making eyes at the girls when they made eyes at you. You—you didn't act like a villain, when I saw you. You acted like a big boy that likes to have fun—oh, just oodles of fun, but hasn't got a mean hair in his head. I know; I watched you and the fellows you were with. I was up on the pier looking down at you whooping around in the surf. And next day, when the girls at the Martha Washington read about it in the papers, I just couldn't believe it was true, what they said about you boys being organized into bandits and all that, and leading a double life and everything.

"But it did look bad when you beat it—about two jumps ahead of the police, at that. You see Fred was along with the man that was shot, and being in the garage and around automobiles all the time, he thought to read the number of your car, and remembered it; near enough anyway, so that he knew for sure it was the Singleton Corey car by the make and general appearance of it, and identified it positively when he saw it in your garage. And that did make it look bad!"

"What did mother do when they—?" Jack did not look up while he stammered the question that had been three months feeding his imagination with horrors.

"Why, she didn't do anything. She went right away, that very morning, to a sanitarium and would not see anybody but her own private nurse and her own private doctor. They gave out bulletins about how she slept and what she had for breakfast, and all that. But, believe me, brother, they didn't get any dope from her! She just simply would not be interviewed!"

Jack let out a long breath and sat up. At the corners of his mouth there lurked the temptation to smile. "That's mother—true to form," he muttered admiringly.

"Of course, they scouted around and got most of the boys that were with you, but they couldn't get right down to brass tacks and prove anything except that they were with you at the beach. They're still holding them on bail or something, I believe. You know how those things kind of drop out of the news. There was a big police scandal came along and crowded all you little bandits off the front page. But I know the trial hasn't taken place yet, because Fred would have to be a witness, so he'd know, of course. And, besides, the man hasn't died or got well or anything, yet, and they're waiting to see what he's going to do."

"Who's Fred?" Jack stood up and leaned toward her, feeling all at once that he must know, and know at once, who Fred might be.

"Why, he's Kate's brother. He's down here at Toll-Gate cabin, working out the assessments—"

Jack sat down again and caressed his bruised knuckles absently. "Well, then, I guess this is the finish," he said dully, after a minute.

"Why? He'll never climb up here—and if he did he wouldn't know you. He couldn't recognize your face by the number of your car, you know!" Then she added, with beautiful directness, "It wouldn't be so bad, if you hadn't been the ringleader and put the other boys up to robbing cars. But I suppose—"

Jack got up again, but this time he towered belligerently above her. "Who says I was the ringleader? If it was Fred I'll go down there and push his face into the back of his neck for him! Who—"

"Oh, just those nice friends of yours. They wouldn't own up to anything except being with you, but told everybody that it was you that did it. But honestly I didn't believe that. Hardly any of us girls at the Martha did. But Fred—"

Just then the telephone rang again, and Jack had to go in and report the present extent of the fire, and tell just where and just how fast it was spreading, and what was the direction of the wind. The interruption steadied him, gave him time to think.

Since the girl knew him, and knew the circumstances of his flight, and since the boys had turned on him, Jack argued with himself that he might just as well tell her what little there was to tell. There was nothing to be gained by trying to keep the thing a secret from her. Besides, he craved sympathy, though he did not admit it. He craved the privilege of talking about that night to some one who would understand, and who could be trusted. Marion Rose, he felt, was the only person in the world he could tell. He could talk to her—Lord, what a relief that would be! He could tell her all about it, and she would understand. Her sympathy at that moment seemed the most precious thing in the world.

So he went outside and sat down again on the bench, and told her the exact truth about that night; how it had started in drunken foolery, and all the rest of it. He even explained the exact route he had taken home so as to come into town apparently from Pasadena.

"Well, what do you know about that!" Marion murmured several times during the recital. And Jack found the phrase soothing whenever she uttered it, and plunged straightway into further revelations of his ebullient past.

"I suppose," he ventured, when he could think of nothing more to tell and so came back to the starting point, "I ought to beat it outa here while the beating's good. I can't go back—on account of mother. I could hotfoot it up to Canada, maybe...."

"Don't you do it!" Marion wound the string of her vanity bag so tightly round and round her index finger that her pink, polished nail turned purple. She next unwound the string and rubbed the nail solicitously. "Just because we're down there at Toll-Gate doesn't mean you aren't safe up here. Why, you're safer, really. Because if any one got track of you, we'd hear of it right away—Kate and I walk to town once in a while, and there's hardly a day passes that we don't see somebody to talk to. Everybody talks when they meet you, in this country, whether they know you or not. And I could come up right away and tell you. Having a bandit treed up here on top would make such a hit that they'd all be talking about it. It certainly would be keen to listen to them and know more about it than any of them."

"Oh, would it! I'm glad it strikes you that way—it don't me." What a fool a fellow was when he went spilling his troubles into a girl's ears! He got up and walked glumly down to the niche in the rocks where he hid from tourists, and stood there with his hands in his pockets, glowering down at the fierce, ember-threaded waves of flame that surged through the forest. Dusk only made the fire more terrible to him. Had this new trouble not launched itself at him, he would be filled with a sick horror of the destruction, but as it was he only stared at it dully, not caring much about it one way or the other.

Well, he asked himself, what kind of a fool would he make of himself next? Unloading his secret and his heartache to a girl that only thought it would be "keen" to have a bandit treed up here at the lookout station! Why couldn't he have kept his troubles to himself? He'd be hollering it into the phone, next thing he knew. They'd care, down there in the office, as much as she did, anyway. And the secret would probably be safer with them than it would be with her.

He had a mental picture of her hurrying to tell Fred: "What do you know about it? Jack Corey, the bandit, is treed up at the lookout station! He told me all the inside dope—" The thought of her animated chatter to Fred on the subject of his one real tragedy, made him clench his hands.

The very presence of her brought it back too vividly, though that had not struck him at first, when his hunger for human sympathy had been his keenest emotion. What a fool he had been, to think that she would care! What a fool he had been to think that these mountains would shelter him; to think that he could forget, and be forgotten. And Hen had told them that Jack Corey did it! That was about what Hen would do—sneak out of it. And the man wasn't dead yet; not recovered either, for that matter. There was still the chance that he might die.

There was his mother hiding herself away from her world in a sanitarium. It was like her to do that—but it was hard to know he had broken up all the pleasant, well-ordered little grooves of her life; hard to know how her pride must suffer because he was her son. She would feel now, more than ever, that Jack was just like his father. Being like his father meant reproach because he was not like her, and that was always galling to Jack. And how she must hate the thought of him now.

He wished savagely that Marion Rose could go home. He wanted to be alone with his loneliness. It seemed to him now that being alone meant merely peace and contentment. It was people, he told himself finally, who had brought all this trouble and bitterness into his life.

He wished she would go and leave him alone, but that was manifestly impossible. Angry and hurt though he was, he could not contemplate the thought of letting her go down there into that blackened waste with the thick sprinkling of bonfires where stumps were all ablaze, fallen tangles of brush were smoldering, and dead trees flared like giant torches or sent down great blazing branches. She might get through without disaster, but it would be by a miracle of good luck. Even a man would hesitate to attempt the feat of working his way across the burning strip.

There was no other place where she could go. She could not go alone, in the dark, down the mountain to any of the lower ranches. She would get lost. A man would not try that either, unless forced to it. A man would rather spend the night under a tree than fight through miles of underbrush in the night. And she could not take the old Taylorville road down to Indian Valley, either. It was too far and too dark, and a slight change of the wind would send the fire sweeping in that direction. She might get trapped. And none of these impossibilities took into account the prowling wild animals that are at the best untrustworthy in the dark.

She would have to stay. And he would have to stay, and there did not seem to Jack to be any use in making a disagreeable matter still more disagreeable by sulking. He discovered that he was hungry. He supposed, now he came to think of it, that Marion Rose would be hungry, too. The protective instinct stirred once more within him and pushed back his anger. So he turned and went back to the little station.

Marion had lighted the little lamp, and she was cooking supper over the oil stove. She had found where he stored his supplies in a tightly built box under a small ledge, and she had helped herself. She had two plates and two cups set out upon his makeshift table, and while he stopped in the door she turned from the stove and began cutting slices of bread off one of the loaves which Hank had brought that day. With her head bent toward the lamp, her hair shown like pale gold. Her face looked very serious—a bit sad, too, Jack thought; though he could not see where she had any reason to be sad; she was not hiding away from the law, or anything like that.

When she became conscious of his presence she glanced up at him with swift inquiry. "How's the fire?" she wanted to know, quite as though that was the only subject that interested them both.

"She's all there," he returned briefly, coming in.

"Everything's ready," she announced cheerfully. "You must be half starved. Do you see what time it is? nearly eight o'clock already. And I never dreamed it, until a bird or something flew right past my face and brought me to myself. I was watching Mount Lassen. Isn't it keen, to have a volcano spouting off right in your front view? And a fire on the other side, so if you get tired looking at one, you can turn your head and look at the other one. And for a change, you can watch the lake, or just gaze at the scenery; and say!—does the star spangled banner still wave?"

"She still waves," Jack assented somberly, picking up the wash basin. Why couldn't he enter the girl's foolery? He used to be full of it himself, and he used to consider that the natural form of companionship. He must be getting queer like all other hermits he had ever heard of. It occurred to him that possibly Marion Rose was not really feather-brained, but that the trouble was in himself, because he was getting a chronic grouch.

He was thinking while he ate. He had plenty of encouragement for thinking, because Marion herself seemed to be absorbed in her own thoughts. When she was filling his coffee cup the second time, she spoke quite abruptly.

"It would be terribly foolish for you to leave here, Jack Corey—or whatever you would rather be called. I don't believe any one has the faintest notion that you came up here into this country. If they had, they would have come after you before this. But they're still on the watch for you in other places, and I suppose every police station in the country has your description tacked on the wall or some place.

"I believe you'd better stay right where you are, and wait till something turns up to clear you. Maybe that man will get well, and then it won't be so serious; though, of course, being right through his lungs, the doctors claim it's pretty bad. I'll know if he dies or not, because he's a friend of Fred's, and Fred would hear right away. And we can make up a set of signals, and flash them with glasses, like we were doing just for fun this afternoon. Then I won't have to climb clear up here if something happens that you ought to know about—don't you see? I can walk out in sight of here and signal with my vanity mirror. It will be fun.

"And when you're through here, if I were you I'd find some nice place here in the hills to camp. It isn't half as bad to stay right in the mountains, as it would be to stay in town and imagine that every strange man you see has come after you. Sometimes I wish I could get right out where there's not a soul, and just stay there. Being in the woods with people around is not like being in the woods with just the woods. I've found that out. People kind of keep your mind tied down to little things that part of you hates, don't you know? Like when I'm with Kate, I think about facial massage and manicuring, and shows that I'd like to see and can't, and places where I'd like to go and eat and watch the people and dance and listen to the music, and can't; and going to the beaches when I can't, and taking automobile trips when I can't, and boys—and all that sort of thing. But when I'm all by myself in the woods, I never think of those things."

"I saw you down there by the hydrometer, all by yourself. And you were using your powder puff to beat the band." A twinkle lived for a second or two in the somber brown of Jack's eyes.

"You did? Well, that was second nature. I wasn't thinking about it, anyway."

"What were you thinking about when you kept staring up here? Not the beauties of nature, I bet." A perverse spirit made Jack try to push her back into the frivolous talk he had so lately and so bitterly deplored.

"Well, I was wondering if you had gumption enough to appreciate being up where you could watch the mountains all the while, and see them by day and by night and get really acquainted with them, so that they would tell you things they remember about the world a thousand years ago. I wondered if you had it in you to appreciate them, and know every little whim of a shadow and every little laugh of the sun—or whether you just stayed up here because they pay you money for staying. I've been so jealous of you, up here in your little glass house! I've lain awake the last three nights, peeking through the tree-tops at the little speck of sky I could see with stars in it, and thinking how you had them spread out all around you—and you asleep, maybe, and never looking!

"I'm awful sorry you're in trouble, and about your mother and all. But I think you're the luckiest boy I know, because you just happened to get to this place. Sometimes when I look at you I just want to take you by the shoulder and shake you!—because you don't half know how lucky you are. Why, all that makes the world such a rotten place to live in is because the people are starved all the while for beauty. Not beauty you can buy, but beauty like this around us, that you can feast on—"

"And I get pretty well fed up on it, too, sometimes," Jack put in, still perverse.

"And for that I pity you. I was going to wash the dishes, but you can do it yourself. I'm going out where I can forget there are any people in the world. I'll never have another night like this—it would be too much luck for one person."

She set down her cup, which she had been tilting back and forth in her fingers while she spoke. She got up, pulled Jack's heavy sweater off a nail in the corner, and went out without another word to him or a look toward him. She seemed to be absolutely sincere in her calm disposal of him as something superfluous and annoying. She seemed also to be just as sincere in her desire for a close companionship with the solitude that surrounded them.

Jack looked after her, puzzled. But he had discovered too many contradictory moods and emotions in his own nature to puzzle long over Marion's sudden changes. Three months ago he would have called her crazy, or accused her of posing. Now, however, he understood well enough the spell of that tremendous view. He had felt it too often and too deeply to grudge her one long feast for her imagination. So he took her at her word and let her go.

He tidied the small room and sent in another report of the headlong rush of the fire and the direction of the wind that fanned it. He learned that all Genessee was out, fighting to keep the flames from sweeping down across the valley. Three hundred men were fighting it, the supervisor told him. They would check it on the downhill slope, where it would burn more slowly; and if the wind did not change in the night it would probably be brought under control by morning. After that the supervisor very discreetly inquired after the welfare of the young lady who had telephoned. Had she found any means of getting back to her camp, or of sending any word?

Jack replied she had not, and that there was no likelihood of her getting away before daylight. There were too many burning trees and stumps and brush piles on the ground in the burned strip, he explained. It would bother a man to get down there now. But he offered to try it, if he might be excused from the station for a few hours. He said he would be willing to go down and tell them she was all right, or, a little later, he might even take a chance of getting her across. But it would take some time, he was afraid.

Ross seemed to consider the matter for a minute. Then, "N—o, as long as she's up there, she'd better stay. We can't spare you to go. You might call her to the phone—"

"I can't. She's off somewhere on the peak, taking in the view," Jack replied. "She grabbed my sweater and beat it, an hour or so ago, and I don't know where she went.... No, I don't think she tried that. She knows she couldn't get there. She said she wanted to see all she could of it while she had the chance.... What?... Oh, sure, she's got sense enough to take care of herself, far as that goes. Seems to be one of the independent kind.... All right. I'll call up if she comes back, and she can talk to you herself."

But he did not call up the supervisor, for Marion did not come back. At daybreak, when Jack could no longer fight down his uneasiness, and went to look for her, he found her crouched between two boulders that offered some shelter from the wind without obstructing the view. She was huddled in his sweater, shivering a little with the dawn chill but scarcely conscious of the fact that she was cold. Her lids were red-rimmed from staring up too long, at the near stars and down at the remote mountains—as they looked to be that night. She seemed rather to resent interruption, but in a few minutes she became human and practical enough to admit that she was hungry, and that she supposed it was time to think about getting home.

When she got up to follow Jack to the station, she walked stiffly because of her cramped muscles; but she didn't seem to mind that in the least. She made only one comment upon her vigil, and that was when she stopped in the door of the station and looked back at the heaving cloud of smoke that filled the eastern sky.

"Well, whatever happens to me from now on, I'll have the comfort of knowing that for a few hours I have been absolutely happy." Then, with the abruptness that marked her changes of mood, she became the slangy, pert, feather-headed Marion Rose whom Jack had met first; and remained so until she left him after breakfast to go home to Kate, who would be perfectly wild.



CHAPTER TWELVE

KATE FINDS SOMETHING TO WORRY OVER

Kate may have been wild, but if so she managed to maintain an admirable composure when Marion walked up to the door of the cabin. She did not greet her best friend with hysterical rejoicings, probably because she had been told of her best friend's safety soon after dark the night before, and had since found much to resent in Marion's predicament and the worry which she had suffered before Marion's message came.

"Well!" she said, and continued brushing her hair. "Have you had any breakfast?"

"Ages ago. Where's everybody?" Marion flung down her hat and made straight for the hammock.

"Helping put out the forest fire, I suppose. They had to go last night, and I was left all alone. I hope I may never pass as horrible a night again. I did not sleep one minute. I was so nervous that I never closed my eyes. I walked the floor practically all night."

"Forevermore!" Marion murmured from the hammock, her cheek dropped upon an arm. "I simply ruined my shoes, Kate, walking through all those ashes and burnt stuff. You've no idea how long it stays hot. I wonder what would soften the leather again. Have we any vaseline?"

Kate looked at her a minute and gave a sigh of resignation. "Sometimes I really envy you your absolute lack of the finer sensibilities, Marion. I should not have suffered so last night, worrying about you, if I were gifted with your lack of temperament. Yes, I believe we have a jar of vaseline, if that is what worries you most. But for my part, I should think other things would concern you more."

"Why shouldn't it concern me to spoil a pair of nine dollar shoes? I don't suppose I could get any like them in Quincy, and you know what a time I had getting fitted in Hamburger's. And besides, I couldn't afford another pair; not till we sell our trees anyway."

"How is the fire? Are they getting it put out?" Kate's face was veiled behind her hair.

"I don't know, it is down the other side of the mountain now. But three hundred men are fighting it, Jack said, so I suppose—"

"Jack!" With a spread of her two palms like a swimmer cleaving the water, Kate parted her veil of hair and looked out at the girl. "Jack who? Is that the man up at the lookout station, that you—"

"He's not a man. He's just a big, handsome, sulky kid. When he's cross he pulls his eyebrows together so there's a little lump between them. You want to pinch it. And when he smiles he's got the sweetest expression around his mouth, Kate! As if he was just so full of the old nick he couldn't behave if he tried. You know—little quirky creases at the corners, and a twinkle in his eyes—oh, good night! He's just so good looking, honestly, it's a sin. But his disposition is spoiled. He gets awfully grouchy over the least little thing—"

"Marion, how old is he?" Kate had been holding her hair away from her face and staring all the while with shocked eyes at Marion.

"Oh, I don't know—old enough to drive a girl perfectly crazy if he smiled at her often enough. Do you want to go up and meet him? He'd like you, Kate—you're so superior. He simply can't stand me, I'm such a mental lightweight. His eyes keep saying, 'So young and lovely, and—nobody home,' when he looks at me. You go, Kate. Take him up a loaf of bread; that he had brought from town tastes sour."

"Marion, I don't believe a word you're saying! I can tell by your eyes when you're trying to throw me off the track. But old or young, handsome or ugly, it was a dreadful thing for you to spend the night up there, alone with a strange man. I simply walked the floor all night, worrying about you! I'd have gone up there in spite of the altitude, if the fire had not been between. I only hope Fred and the professor don't get to hear of it. I was so afraid they would reach home before you did! But since they didn't, there's no need of saying anything about it. They left right away, before any of us had gotten anxious about you. If the man who told me doesn't blurt it to every one he sees—what in the world possessed you, Marion, to phone down to the Forest Service that you were up there and going to stay?"

"Well, forevermore!" Marion lifted her head from her arm to stare at Kate. Then she laughed and lay back luxuriously. "I was afraid you wouldn't know where to look for the bread," she explained meekly, and turned her face away from the sunlight and took a nap.

Kate finished with her hair rather abruptly, considering the leisurely manner in which she had been brushing it. She glanced often at Marion sprawled gracefully and unconventionally in the hammock with one cinder-blackened boot sticking boyishly out over the edge. Kate's eyes held an expression of baffled curiosity. They often held that expression when she looked at Marion.

But presently the professor came, dragging his feet wearily and mopping his soot-blackened face with a handkerchief as black. He gave the hammock a longing look, as though he had been counting on easing his aching body into it. Seeing Marion there asleep, he dropped to the pine needle carpet under a great tree, and began to fan himself with his stiff-brimmed straw hat that was grimed with smoke and torn by branches.

"By George!" he exclaimed, glancing toward Kate as she came hurrying from the cabin. "That was an ordeal!"

"Oh, did you get it put out? And where is Fred? Shall I make you some lemonade, Douglas?"

"A glass of lemonade would be refreshing, Kate, after the experience I have gone through. By George! A forest fire is a tremendous problem, once the conflagration attains any size. We worked like galley slaves all night long, with absolutely no respite. Fred, by the way, is still working like a demon."

While Kate was hurrying lemons and sugar into a pitcher, the professor reclined his work-wearied body upon the pine needles and cast hungry glances toward the hammock. He cleared his throat loudly once or twice, and soliloquized aloud: "By George! I wish I could stretch out comfortably somewhere."

But Marion did not hear him—apparently being asleep; though the professor wondered how one could sleep and at the same time keep a hammock swinging with one's toes, as Marion was doing. He cleared his throat again, sighed and inquired mildly: "Are you asleep, Marion?" Getting no answer, he sighed again and hitched himself closer to the tree, so that a certain protruding root should not gouge him so disagreeably in the side.

"Shall I fix you something to eat, Douglas?" The voice of Kate crooned over him solicitously. "I can poach you a couple of eggs in just a minute, over the oil stove, and make you a cup of tea. Is the fire out? And, oh, Douglas! Has it burned any of our timber? I have been so worried, I did not close my eyes once, all night."

"Our timber is safe, I'm happy to say. It really is safer, if anything, than it was before the fire started. There will be no further possibility of fire creeping upon us from that quarter." He quaffed the lemonade with little, restrained sighs of enjoyment. "It also occurred to me that every forest fire must necessarily increase the value of what timber is left. I should say then, strictly between you and me, Kate, that this fire may be looked upon privately as an asset."

The hammock gave an extra swing and then stopped. Kate, being somewhat sensitive to a third presence when she and the professor were talking together, looked fixedly at the hammock.

"If you are awake, dear, it would be tremendously thoughtful to let the professor have the hammock for a while. He is utterly exhausted from fighting fire all night," she said with sugar-coated annoyance in her tone.

"Oh, don't disturb her—I'm doing very well here for the present," the professor made feeble protest when Marion showed no sign of having heard the hint. "Let the child sleep."

"The child certainly needs sleep, if I am any judge," Kate snapped pettishly, and closed her lips upon further revelations. "Shall I poach you some eggs? And then if the child continues to sleep, I suppose we can bring your cot out under the trees. It is terribly stuffy in the tent. You'd roast."

"Please don't put yourself to any inconvenience at all, Kate. I am really not hungry at all. Provisions were furnished those who fought the fire. I had coffee, and a really substantial breakfast before I left them. I shall lie here for a while and enjoy the luxury of doing nothing for a while. By George, Kate! The Forest Service certainly does make a man work! Think of felling trees all night long! That is the way they go about it, I find. They cut down trees and clear away a strip across the front of the fire where there seems to be the greatest possibility of keeping the flames from jumping across. They even go so far as to rake back the pine needles and dry cones as thoroughly as possible, and in that manner they prevent the flames from creeping along the ground. It is really wonderfully effective when they can get to work in the light growth. I was astounded to see what may be accomplished with axes and picks and rakes and shovels. But it is work, though. By George, it is work!"

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse