The girl, at a loss, flushed, and almost crying, looked at them all helplessly.
"But——" she cried.
"I believe it will all come about in time," said Thorne. "There's sure to come a time when it will not be too much off balance to require private firms to do things according to our methods. Then it will pay to log the government forests on an extensive scale; and private forests will have to come to our way of doing things."
"What's the use of all our fights and strivings?" asked Amy; "what's the use of our preaching decent woods work if it can't be carried out?"
"It's educational," explained Thorne. "It starts people thinking, so that when the time comes they'll be ready."
"Furthermore," put in Bob, "it fixes it so these young fellows who will then be in charge of private operations will have no earthly excuse to look at it wrong, or do it wrong."
"It will then be the difference between their acting according to general ideas or against them," agreed Thorne.
"Never lick a pup for chasin' rabbits until yore ready to teach him to chase deer," put in California John.
Bob found it much more difficult to approach Welton. When he did, he had to contend with the older man's absolute disbelief in what he was saying. Welton sat down on a stump and considered Bob with a humorous twinkle.
"Want to quit the lumber business!" he echoed Bob's first statement. "What for?"
"I don't think I'm cut out for it."
"No? Well, then, I never saw anybody that was. You don't happen to need no more money?"
"Of course, you know you'll have pretty good prospects here——" stated Welton tentatively.
"I understand that; but the work doesn't satisfy me, somehow: I'm through with it."
"Getting restless," surmised Welton. "What you need is a vacation. I forgot we kept you at it pretty close all last winter. Take a couple weeks off and make a trip in back somewheres."
Bob shook his head.
"It isn't that; I'm sorry. I'm just through with this. I couldn't keep on at it and do good work. I know that."
"It's a vacation you need," insisted Welton chuckling, "—or else you're in love. Isn't that, is it?"
"No," Bob laughed quite wholeheartedly. "It isn't that."
"You haven't got a better job, have you?" Welton joked.
Bob considered. "Yes; I believe I have," he said at last; "at least I'm hoping to get it."
Welton looked at him closely; saw that he was in earnest.
"What is it?" he asked curtly.
Bob, suddenly smitten with a sense of the futility of trying to argue out his point of view here in the woods, drew back.
"Can't tell just yet," said he.
Welton climbed down from the stump; stood firmly for a moment, his sturdy legs apart; then moved forward down the trail.
"I'll raise his ante, whatever it is," he said abruptly at length. "I don't believe in it, but I'll do it. I need you."
"You've always treated me better than I ever deserved," said Bob earnestly, "and I'll stay all summer, or all next winter—until you feel that you do not need me longer; but I'm sure that I must go."
For two days Welton disbelieved the reality of his intention. For two days further he clung to a notion that in some way Bob must be dissatisfied with something tangible in his treatment. Then, convinced at last, he took alarm, and dropped his facetious attitude.
"Look here, Bob," said he, "this isn't quite fair, is it? This is a big piece of timber. It needs a man with a longer life in front of him than I can hope for. I wanted to be able to think that in a few years, when I get tired I could count on you for the heavy work. It's too big a business for an old man."
"I'll stay with you until you find that young man," said Bob. "There are a good many, trained to the business, capable of handling this property."
"But nobody like you, Bobby. I've brought you up to my methods. We've grown up together at this. You're just like a son to me." Welton's round, red face was puckered to a wistful and comically pathetic twist, as he looked across at the serious manly young fellow.
Bob looked away. "That's just what makes it hard," he managed to say at last; "I'd like to go on with you. We've gotten on famously. But I can't. This isn't my work."
Welton laboured in vain to induce him to change his mind. Several times he considered telling Bob the truth—that all this timber belonged really to Jack Orde, Bob's father, and that his, Welton's interest in it was merely that of the active partner in the industry. But this his friend had expressly forbidden. Welton ended by saying nothing about it. He resolved first to write Orde.
"You might tell me what this new job is, though," he said at last, in apparent acquiescence.
Bob hesitated. "You won't understand; and I won't be able to make you understand," he said. "I'm going to enter the Forest Service!"
"What!" cried Welton, in blank astonishment. "What's that?"
"I've about decided to take service as a ranger," stated Bob, his face flushing.
From that moment all Welton's anxiety seemed to vanish. It became unbearably evident that he looked on all this as the romance of youth. Bob felt himself suddenly reduced, in the lumberman's eyes, to the status of the small boy who wants to be a cowboy, or a sailor, or an Indian fighter. Welton looked on him with an indulgent eye as on one who would soon get enough of it. The glamour—whatever it was—would soon wear off; and then Bob, his fling over, would return to sober, real business once more. All Welton's joviality returned. From time to time he would throw a facetious remark in Bob's direction, when, in the course of the day's work, he happened to pass.
"It's sure going to be fine to wear a real tin star and be an officer!"
"Bob, it sure will seem scrumptious to ride out and boss the whole country—on ninety a month. Guess I'll join you."
"You going to make me sweep up my slashings, or will a rake do, Mr. Ranger?"
To these feeble jests Bob always replied good-naturedly. He did not attempt to improve Welton's conception of his purposes. That must come with time. To his father, however, he wrote at great length; trying his best to explain the situation. Mr. Orde replied that a government position was always honourable; but confessed himself disappointed that his son had not more steadfastness of purpose. Welton received a reply to his own letter by the same mail.
"I shouldn't tell him anything," it read. "Let him go be a ranger, or a cowboy, or anything else he wants. He's still young. I didn't get my start until I was thirty; and the business is big enough to wait for him. You keep pegging along, and when he gets enough, he'll come back. He's apparently got some notions of serving the public, and doing good in the world, and all that. We all get it at his age. By and by he'll find out that tending to his business honestly is about one man's job."
So, without active opposition, and with only tacit disapproval, Bob made his change. Nor was he received at headquarters with any blare of trumpets.
"I'll put you on as 'temporary' until the fall examinations," said Thorne, "and you can try it out. Rangering is hard work—all kinds of hard work. It isn't just riding around, you know. You'll have to make good. You can bunk up with Pollock at the upper cabin. Report to-morrow morning with him."
Amy smiled at him brightly.
"Don't let him scare you," said she. "He thinks it looks official to be an awful bear!"
California John met him as he rode out the gate. He reached out his gnarled old hand.
"Son, we'll get him to send us sometime to Jack Main's Canon," said he.
Bob, who had been feeling the least shade depressed, rode on, his head high. Before him lay the great mysterious country where had penetrated only the Pioneers! Another century would build therein the structures of its institutions. Now, like Jack Main's Canon, the far country of new things was to be the field of his enterprise. In the future, when the new generations had come, these things would all be ordered and secure, would be systematized, their value conceded, their acceptance a matter of course. All problems would be regulated; all difficulties smoothed away; all opposition overcome. Then the officers and rangers of that peaceful and organized service, then the public—accepting such things as they accept all self-evident truths—would look back on these beginnings as men look back on romance. They would recall the time when, like knights errant, armed men rode abroad on horses through a wilderness, lying down under the stars, living hard, dwelling lowly in poverty, accomplishing with small means, striving mightily, combating the great elemental nature and the powers of darkness in men, enduring patiently, suffering contempt and misunderstanding and enmity in order that the inheritance of the people yet to come might be assured. He was one of them; he had the privilege. Suddenly his spirit felt freed. His old life receded swiftly. A new glory and uplift of soul swept him from his old moorings.
Next morning Bob was set to work with young Jack Pollock stringing barbed wire fence. He had never done this before. The spools of wire weighed on him heavily. A crowbar thrust through the core made them a sort of axle with which to carry it. Thus they walked forward, revolving the heavy spool with the greatest care while the strand of wire unwound behind them. Every once in a while a coil would kink, or buckle back, or strike as swiftly and as viciously as a snake. The sharp barbs caught at their clothing, and tore Bob's hands. Jack Pollock seemed familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the stuff, for he suffered little damage. Indeed, he even found leisure, as Bob soon discovered, to scrutinize his companion with a covert curiosity. In the eyes of the countryside, Bob had been "fired," and had been forced to take a job rangering. When the entangling strand had been laid along the ground by the newly planted cedar posts, it became necessary to stretch and fasten it. Here, too, young Jack proved himself a competent teacher. He showed Bob how to get a tremendous leverage with the curve on the back of an ordinary hammer by means of which the wire was held taut until the staples could be driven home. It was aggravating, nervous, painful work for one not accustomed to it. Bob's hands were soon cut and bleeding, no matter how gingerly he took hold of the treacherous wire. To all his comments, heated and otherwise, Jack Pollock opposed the mountaineer's determined inscrutability. He watched Bob's efforts always in silence until that young man had made all his mistakes. Then he spat carefully, and, with quiet patience, did it right.
Bob's sense of humour was tickled. With all his education and his subsequent wide experience and training, he stood in the position of a very awkward subordinate to this mountain boy. The joke of it was that the matter was so entirely his own choice. In the normal relations of industry Bob would have been the boss of a hundred activities and twice that number of men; while Jack Pollock, at best, would be water-boy or fuel-purveyor to a donkey engine. Along in the middle of the morning young Elliott passed carrying a crowbar and a spade.
"How'll you trade jobs?" he called.
"What's yours?" asked Bob.
"I'm going to make two cedar posts grow where none grew before," said Elliott.
At noon they knocked off and went back to the ranger camp where they cooked their own meal. Most of the older rangers were afield. A half-dozen of the newcomers and probationers only were there. Elliott, Jack Pollock, two other young mountaineers, Ware and one of the youths from the valley towns had apparently passed the examinations and filled vacancies. All, with the exception of Elliott and this latter youth—Curtis by name—were old hands at taking care of themselves in the woods, so matters of their own accord fell into a rough system. Some built the fire, one mixed bread, others busied themselves with the rest of the provisions. Elliott rummaged about, and set the rough table with the battered service. Only Curtis, seated with his back against a tree, appeared too utterly exhausted or ignorant to take hold at anything. Indeed, he hardly spoke to his companions, ate hastily, and disappeared into his own quarters without offering to help wash the dishes.
This task accomplished, the little group scattered to its afternoon work. In the necessity of stringing wire without cutting himself to ribbons, Bob forgot everything, even the flight of time.
"I reckon it's about quittin' time," Jack observed to him at last.
Bob looked up in surprise. The sun was indeed dropping low.
"We must be about half done," he remarked, measuring the extent of the meadow with his eye.
"Two more wires to string," Pollock reminded him.
The mountaineer threw the grain sack of staples against the last post, tossed his hammer and the hatchet with them.
"Hold on," said Bob. "You aren't going to leave them there?"
"Shore," said Pollock. "We'll have to begin there to-morrow."
But Bob's long training in handling large bodies of men with tools had developed in him an instinct of tool-orderliness.
"Won't do," he stated with something of his old-time authority in his tones. "Suppose for some reason we shouldn't get back here to-morrow? That's the way such things get mislaid; and they're valuable."
He picked up the hatchet and the axe. Grumbling something under his breath, Pollock shouldered the staples and thrust the hammer in his pocket.
"It isn't as if these things were ours," said Bob, realizing that he had spoken in an unduly minatory tone.
"That's right," agreed Jack more cheerfully.
In addition to the new men, they found Ross Fletcher and Charley Morton at the camp. The evening meal was prepared cheerfully and roughly, eaten under a rather dim lamp. Pipes were lit, and they all began leisurely to clean up. The smoke hung low in the air. One by one the men dropped back into their rough, homemade chairs, or sprawled out on the floor. Some one lit the fire in the stone chimney, for the mountain air nipped shrewdly after the sun had set. A general relaxing after the day's work, a general cheerfulness, a general dry, chaffing wit took possession of them. Two played cribbage under the lamp. One wrote a letter. The rest gossiped of the affairs of the service. Only in the corner by himself young Curtis sat. As at noon, he had had nothing to say to any one, and had not attempted to offer assistance in the communal work. Bob concluded he must be tired from the unaccustomed labour of the day. Bob's own shoulders ached; and he was in pretty good shape, too.
"What makes me mad," Ross Fletcher's voice suddenly clove the murmur, "is the things we have to do. I was breaking rock on a trail all day to-day. Think of that! Day labourer's work! State prison work!"
Bob looked up in amazement, as did every one else.
"When a man hires out to be a ranger," Ross went on, "he don't expect to be a carpenter, or a stone mason; he expects to be a ranger!"
Immediately Charley Morton chimed in to the same purpose. Bob listened with a rising indignation. This sort of talk was old, but he had not expected to meet it here; it is the talk of incompetence against authority everywhere, of the sea lawyer, the lumberjack, the soldier, the spoiled subordinate in all walks of life. He had taken for granted a finer sort of loyalty here; especially from such men as Ross and Charley Morton. His face flushed, and he leaned forward to say something. Jack Pollock jogged his elbow fiercely.
"Hush up!" the young mountaineer whispered; "cain't you see they're tryin' for a rise?"
Bob laughed softly to himself, and relaxed. He should have been experienced enough, he told himself, to have recognized so obvious and usual a trick of all campers.
But it was not for Bob, nor his like, that Ross was angling. In fact, he caught his bite almost immediately. For the first time that day Curtis woke up and displayed some interest.
"That's what I say!" he cried.
The older man turned to him.
"What they been making you do to-day, son?" asked Ross.
"I've been digging post holes up in those rocks," said Curtis indignantly.
"You don't mean to tell me they put you at that?" demanded Ross; "why, they're supposed to get Injins, just cheap dollar-a-day Digger Injins, for that job. And they put you at it!"
"Yes," said Curtis, "they did. I didn't hire out for any such work. My father's county clerk down below."
"You don't say!" said Ross.
"Yes, and my hands are all blistered and my back is lame, and——"
But the expectant youngsters could hold in no longer. A roar of laughter cut the speaker short. Curtis stared, bewildered. Ross and Charley Morton were laughing harder than anybody else. He started to his feet.
"Hold on, son," Ross commanded him, wiping his eyes. "Don't get hostile at a little joke. You'll get used to the work. Of course we all like to ride off in the mountains, and do cattle work, and figure on things, and do administrative work; and we none of us are stuck on construction." He looked around him at his audience, now quiet and attentive. "But we've got to have headquarters, and barns, and houses, and corrals and pastures. Once they're built, they're built and that ends it. But they got to be built. We're just in hard luck that we happen to be rangers right now. The Service can't hire carpenters for us very well, way up here; and somebody's got to do it. It ain't as if we had to do it for a living, all the time. There's a variety. We get all kinds. Rangering's no snap, any more than any other job. One thing," he ended with a laugh, "we get a chance to do about everything."
The valley youth had dropped sullenly back into the shadows, nor did he reply to this. After a little the men scattered to their quarters, for they were tired.
Bob and Jack Pollock occupied together one of the older cabins, a rough little structure, built mainly of shakes. It contained two bunks, a rough table, and two stools constructed of tobacco boxes to which legs had been nailed. As the young men were preparing for bed, Bob remarked:
"Fletcher got his rise, all right. Much obliged for your tip. I nearly bit. But he wasted his talk in my notion. That fellow is hopeless. Ross labours in vain if he tries to brace him up."
"I reckon Ross knows that," replied Jack, "and I reckon too, he has mighty few hopes of bracin' up Curtis. I have a kind of notion Ross was just usin' that Curtis as a mark to talk at. What he was talkin' to was us."
The week's hard physical toil was unrelieved. After Bob and Jack Pollock had driven the last staple in the last strand of barbed wire, they turned their horses into the new pasture. The animals, overjoyed to get free of the picket ropes that had heretofore confined them, took long, satisfying rolls in the sandy corner, and then went eagerly to cropping at the green feed. Bob, leaning on the gate, with the rope still in his hand, experienced a glow of personal achievement greater than any he remembered to have felt since, as a small boy, he had unaided reasoned out the problem of clear impression on his toy printing press. He recognized this as illogical, for he had, in all modesty, achieved affairs of some importance. Nevertheless, the sight of his own animal enjoying its liberty in an enclosure created by his own two hands pleased him to the core. He grinned in appreciation of Elliott's humorous parody on the sentimental slogan of the schools—"to make two cedar posts grow where none grew before." There was, after all, a rather especial satisfaction in that principle.
It next became necessary, he found, that the roof over the new office at headquarters should receive a stain that would protect it against the weather. He acquired a flat brush, a little seat with spikes in its supports, and a can of stain whose base seemed to be a very evil-smelling fish oil. Here all day long he clung, daubing on the stain. When one shingle was done, another awaited his attention, over and over, in unvarying monotony. It was the sort of job he had always loathed, but he stuck to it cheerfully, driving his brush deep in the cracks in order that no crevice might remain for the entrance of the insidious principle of decay. Casting about in his leisure there for the reason of his patience, he discovered it in just that; he was now at no task to be got through with, to be made way with; he was engaged in a job that was to be permanent. Unless he did it right, it would not be permanent.
Below him the life of headquarters went on. He saw it all, and heard it all, for every scrap of conversation rose to him from within the office. He was amazed at the diversity of interests and the complexity of problems that came there for attention.
"Look here, Mr. Thorne," said one of the rangers, "this Use Book says that a settler has a right to graze ten head of stock actually in use free of grazing charge. Now there's Brown up at the north end. He runs a little dairy business, and has about a hundred head of cattle up. He claims we ought not to charge him for ten head of them because they're all 'actually in use.' How about it?"
Thorne explained that the exemption did not apply to commercial uses and that Brown must pay for all. He qualified the statement by saying that this was the latest interpretation of which he had heard.
In like manner the policies in regard to a dozen little industries and interests were being patiently defined and determined—dairies, beef cattle, shake makers, bees, box and cleat men, free timber users, mining men, seekers for water concessions, those who desired rights of way, permits for posts, pastures, mill sites—all these proffered their requests and difficulties to the Supervisor. Sometimes they were answered on the spot. Oftener their remarks were listened to, their propositions taken under advisement. Then one or another of the rangers was summoned, given instructions. He packed his mule, saddled his horse, and rode away to be gone a greater or lesser period of time. Others were sent out to run lines about tracts, to define boundaries. Still others, like Ross Fletcher, pounded drill and rock, and exploded powder on the new trail that was to make more accessible the tremendous canon of the river. The men who came and went rarely represented any but the smallest interests; yet somehow Bob felt their importance, and the importance of the little problems threshed out in the tiny, rough-finished office below him. These but foreshadowed the greater things to come. And these minute decisions shaped the policies and precedents of what would become mighty affairs. Whether Brown should be allowed to save his paltry three dollars and a half or not determined larger things. To Bob's half-mystic mood, up there under the mottled shadows, every tiny move of this game became portentous with fate. A return of the old exultation lifted him. He saw the shadows of these affairs cast dim and gigantic against the mists of the future. These men were big with the responsibility of a new thing. It behooved them all to act with circumspection, with due heed, with reverence——
Bob applied his broad brush and the evil-smelling stain methodically and with minute care as to every tiny detail of the simple work. But his eyes were wide and unseeing, and all the inner forces of his soul were moving slowly and mightily. His personality had nothing to do with the matter. He painted; and affairs went on with him. His being held itself passive, in suspension, while the forces and experiences and influences of one phase of his life crystallized into their foreordained shapes deep within him. Yesterday he was this; now he was becoming that; and the two were as different beings. New doors of insight were silently swinging open on their hinges, old prejudices were closing, fresh convictions long snugly in the bud were unfolding like flowers. These things were not new. They had begun many years before when as a young boy he had stared wide-eyed, unseeing and uncomprehending, gazing down the sun-streaked, green, lucent depths of an aisle in the forest. Bob painted steadily on, moving his little seat nearer and nearer the eaves. When noon and night came, he hung up his utensils very carefully, washed up, and tramped to the rangers' camp, where he took his part in the daily tasks, assumed his share of the conversation, entered into the fun, and contributed his ideas toward the endless discussions. No one noticed that he was in any way different from his ordinary self. But it was as though some one outside of himself, in the outer circle of his being, carried on these necessary and customary things. He, drawn apart, watched by the shrine of his soul. He did nothing, either by thought or effort—merely watched, patient and rapt, while foreordained and mighty changes took place—
He reached the edge of the roof; stood on the ladder to finish the last row of the riven shingles. Slowly his brush moved, finishing the cracks deep down so that the principle of decay might never enter. Inside the office Thorne sat dictating a letter to some applicant for privilege. The principle was new in its interpretation, and so Thorne was choosing his words with the greatest care. Swiftly before Bob's inner vision the prospect widened. Thorne became a prophet speaking down the years; the least of these men in a great new Service became the austere champions of something high and beautiful. For one moment Bob dwelt in a wonderful, breathless, vast, unreal country where heroic figures moved in the importance of all the unborn future, dim-seen, half-revealed. He drew his brush across the last shingle of all. Something seemed to click. Swiftly the gates shut, the strange country receded into infinite distance. With a rush like the sucking of water into a vacuum the everyday world drew close. Bob, his faculties once more in their accustomed seat, looked about him as one awakened. His hour was over. The change had taken place.
Thorne was standing in the doorway with Amy, their dictation finished.
"All done?" said he. "Well, you did a thorough job. It's the kind that will last."
"I'm right on deck when it comes to painting things red," retorted Bob. "What next?"
"Next," said Thorne, "I want you to help one of the boys split some cedar posts. We've got a corral or so to make."
Bob descended slowly from the ladder, balancing the remainder of the red stain. Thorne looked at him curiously.
"How do you like it as far as you've gone?" he permitted himself to ask. "This isn't quite up to the romantic idea of rangering, is it?"
"Well," said Bob with conviction, "I suppose it may sound foolish; but I never was surer of anything in my life than that I've struck the right job."
As he walked home that night, he looked back on the last few days with a curious bewilderment. It had all been so real; now apparently it meant nothing. Thorne was doing good work; these rangers were good men. But where had vanished all Bob's exaltation? where his feeling of the portent and influence and far-reaching significance of what these men were doing? He realized its importance; but the feeling of its fatefulness had utterly gone. Things with him were back on a work-a-day basis. He even laughed a little, good-humouredly, at himself. At the gate to the new pasture he once more stopped and looked at his horse. A deep content came over him.
"I've sure struck the right job!" he repeated aloud with conviction.
And this, could he have known it, was the outward and visible and only sign of the things spiritual that had been veiled.
When Saturday evening came the men washed and shaved and put on clean garments. Bob, dog tired after a hard day, was more inclined to lie on his back.
"Ain't you-all goin' over to-night?" asked Jack Pollock.
"Why," explained the younger man, "always after supper Saturdays all the boys who are in camp go over to spend the evenin' at headquarters."
Aggressively sleek and scrubbed, the little group marched down through the woods in the twilight. At headquarters Amy Thorne and her brother welcomed them and ushered them into the big room, with the stone fireplace. In this latter a fire of shake-bolts leaped and roared. The men crowded in, a trifle bashfully, found boxes and home-made chairs, and perched about talking occasionally in very low tones to the nearest neighbour. Amy sat in a rocking chair by the table lamp, sewing on something, paying little attention to the rangers, save to throw out an occasional random remark. Thorne had not yet entered. Finally Amy dropped the sewing in her lap.
"You're all as solemn as a camp-meeting," she told them severely. "How many times must I tell you to smoke up and be agreeable? Here, Mr. Ware, set them a good example."
She pushed a cigar box toward the older man. Bob saw it to be half full of the fine-flaked tobacco so much used in the West. Thus encouraged, Ware rolled himself a cigarette. Others followed suit. Still others produced and filled black old pipes. A formidable haze eddied through the apartment. Amy, still sewing, said, without looking up:
"One of you boys go rummage the store room for the corn popper. The corn's in a corn-meal sack on the far shelf."
Just then Thorne came in, bringing a draft of cold air with him.
"Well," said he, "this is a pretty full house for this time of year."
He walked directly to the rough, board shelf and from it took down a book.
"This man Kipling will do again for to-night," he remarked. "He knows more about our kind of fellow than most. I've sent for one or two other things you ought to know, but just now I want to read you a story that may remind you of something you've run against yourself. We've a few wild, red-headed Irishmen ourselves in these hills."
He walked briskly to the lamp, opened the volume, and at once began to read. Every once in a while he looked up from the book to explain a phrase in terms the men would understand, or to comment pithily on some similarity in their own experience. When he had finished, he looked about at them, challenging.
"There; what did I tell you? Isn't that just about the way they hand it out to us here? And this story took place the other side of the world! It's quite wonderful when you stop to think about it, isn't it? Listen to this—"
He pounced on another story. This led him to a second incursion on the meagre library. Bob did not recognize the practical, rather hard Thorne of everyday official life. The man was carried away by his eagerness to interpret the little East Indian to these comrade spirits of the West. The rangers listened with complete sympathy, every once in a while throwing in a comment or a criticism, never hesitating to interrupt when interruption seemed pertinent.
Finally Amy, who had all this time been sewing away unmoved, a half-tender, half-amused smile curving her lips, laid down her work with an air of decision.
"I'll call your attention," said she, "to the fact that I'm hungry. Shut up your book; I won't hear another word." She leaned across the table, and, in spite of Thorne's half-earnest protests, took possession of the volume.
"Besides," she remarked, "look at poor Jack Pollock; he's been popping corn like a little machine, and he must be nearly roasted himself."
Jack turned to her a face very red from the heat of the leaping pine fire.
"That's right," he grinned, "but I got about a dishpan done."
"You'll be in practice to fight fire," some one chaffed him.
"Oh, he'll fight fire all right, if there's somethin' to eat the other side," drawled Charley Morton.
"It's plenty," said Amy, referring to the quantity of popcorn.
"Why," spoke up California John in an aggrieved and surprised tone, "ain't there nobody going to eat popcorn but me?"
Amy disappeared only to return bearing a cake frosted with chocolate. The respect with which this was viewed proved that the men appreciated to the full what was represented by chocolate cake in this altitude of tiny stoves and scanty supplies. Again Amy dove into the store room. This time she bore back a huge enamel-ware pitcher which she set in the middle of the round table.
"There!" she cried, her cheeks red with triumph.
"What you got, Amy?" asked her brother.
Ross Fletcher leaned forward to look.
"Great guns!" he cried.
The men jostled around, striving for a glimpse, half in joke, half in genuine curiosity.
"Lemonade!" cried Ware.
"None of your lime juice either," pronounced California John; "look at the genuine article floatin' around on top."
They turned to Amy.
"Where did you get them?" they demanded.
But she shook her head, smiling, and declined to tell.
They devoured the popcorn and the chocolate cake to the last crumb, and emptied the pitcher of genuine lemonade. Then they went home. It was all simple enough: cheap tobacco; reading aloud; a little rude chaffing; lemonade, cake and popcorn! Bob smiled to himself as he thought of the consternation a recital of these ingredients would carry to the sophisticated souls of most of his friends. Yet he had enjoyed the party, enjoyed it deeply and thoroughly. He came away from it glowing with good-fellowship.
At these and similar occupations the latter days of June slipped by. Bob had little leisure, for the Service was undermanned for the work it must do. Curtis sooned resigned, to everybody's joy and relief.
On only one occasion did Bob gain a chance to ride over to the scenes of his old activities. This was on a Sunday when, by a miracle, nothing unexpected came up to tie him to his duty. He had rather an unsatisfactory visit with Mr. Welton. It was cordial enough on both sides, for the men were genuinely fond of each other; but they had lost touch of each other's interests. Welton persisted in regarding Bob with a covert amusement, as an older man regards a younger who is having his fling, and will later settle down. Bob asked after the work, and was answered. Neither felt any real human interest in the questions nor their replies. A certain constraint held them, to Bob's very genuine regret. He rode back through the westering shadows vaguely uneasy in his mind.
He and two of the new mountain men had been for two days cutting up some dead and down trees that encumbered the enclosure at headquarters. They cross-cut the trunks into handy lengths; bored holes in them with a two-inch augur; loaded the holes with blasting powder and a fuse, and touched them off. The powder split the logs into rough posts small enough to handle. These fragments they carried laboriously to the middle of the meadow, where they stacked them rack-fashion and on end. The idea was to combine business with pleasure by having a grand bonfire the night of the Fourth of July.
For this day other preparations were forward. Amy promised a spread for everybody, if she could get a little help at the last moment. As many of the outlying rangers as could manage it would come in for the occasion. A shooting match, roping and chopping contests, and other sports were in contemplation.
As the time drew near, various mysteries were plainly afoot. Men claimed their turns in riding down the mountain for the mail. They took with them pack horses. These they unpacked secretly and apart. Amy gave Bob to understand that this holiday, when the ranks were fullest and conditions ripe, went far as a substitute for Christmas among these men.
Then at noon of July second Charley Morton dashed down the trail from the Upper Meadow, rode rapidly to Headquarters, flung himself from his horse, and dove into the office. After a moment he reappeared, followed by Thorne.
"Saddle up, boys," said the latter. "Fire over beyond Baldy. Ride and gather in the men who are about here," he told Bob.
Bob sprang on Charley Morton's horse and rode about instructing the workers to gather. When he returned, Thorne gave his instructions.
"We're short-handed," he stated, "and it'll be hard to get help just at this time. Charley, you take Ware, Elliott and Carroll and see what it looks like. Start a fire line, and do the best you can. Orde, you and Pollock can get up some pack horses and follow later with grub, blankets, and so forth. I'll ride down the mountain to see what I can do about help. It may be I can catch somebody by phone at the Power House who can let the boys know at the north end. You say it's a big fire?"
"I see quite a lot of smoke," said Charley.
"Then the boys over Jackass way and by the Crossing ought to see it for themselves."
The four men designated caught up their horses, saddled them, and mounted. Thorne handed them each a broad hoe, a rake and an axe. They rode off up the trail. Thorne mounted on his own horse.
"Pack up and follow as fast as you can," he told the two who still remained.
"What you want we should take?" asked Jack.
"Amy will tell you. Get started early as you can. You'll have to follow their tracks."
Amy took direction of them promptly. While they caught and saddled the pack horses, she was busy in the storeroom. They found laid out for them a few cooking utensils, a variety of provisions tied up in strong little sacks, several more hoes, axes and rakes, two mattocks, a half-dozen flat files, and as many big zinc canteens.
"Now hurry!" she commanded them; "pack these, and then get some blankets from your camp, and some hobbles and picket ropes."
With Bob's rather awkward help everything was made fast. By the time the two had packed the blankets and returned to headquarters on their way to the upper trail, they found Amy had changed her clothes, caught and saddled her own horse, tied on well-filled saddle bags, and stood awaiting them. She wore her broad hat looped back by the pine tree badge of the Service, a soft shirtwaist of gray flannel, a short divided skirt of khaki and high-laced boots. A red neckerchief matched her cheeks, which were glowing with excitement. Immediately they appeared, she swung aboard with the easy grace of one long accustomed to the saddle. Bob's lower jaw dropped in amazement.
"You going?" he gasped, unable even yet to comprehend the everyday fact that so many gently nurtured Western girls are accustomed to those rough-and-ready bivouacs.
"I wouldn't stay away for worlds!" she cried, turning her pony's head up the trail.
Beyond the upper meadow this trail suddenly began to climb. It made its way by lacets in the dry earth, by scrambles in the rocks until, through the rapidly thinning ranks of the scrubby trees, Bob could look back over all the broad shelf of the mountain whereon grew the pines. It lay spread before him as a soft green carpet of tops, miles of it, wrinkling and billowing gently as here and there the conformation of the country changed. At some distance it dropped over an edge. Beyond that, very dimly, he realized the brown shimmer rising from the plain. Far to the right was a tenuous smoke, a suggestion of thinning in the forest, a flash of blue water. This, Bob knew, must be the mill and the lake.
The trail shortly made its way over the shoulder of the ridge and emerged on the wide, gentle rounding of the crest. Here the trees were small, stunted and wind-blown. Huge curving sheets of unbroken granite lay like armour across the shoulder of the mountain. Decomposing granite shale crunched under the horses' hoofs. Here and there on it grew isolated tiny tufts of the hardy upland flowers. Above, the sky was deeply, intensely blue; bluer than Bob had ever seen a sky before. The air held in it a tang of wildness, as though it had breathed from great spaces.
"I suppose this is the top of our ridge, isn't it?" Bob asked Jack Pollock.
The boy nodded.
Suddenly the trail dipped sharp to the left into a narrow and shallow little ravine. The bed of this was carpeted by a narrow stringer of fresh grass and flowers, through which a tiny stream felt its hesitating way. This ravine widened and narrowed, turned and doubled. Here and there groups of cedars on a dry flat offered ideal shelter for a camp. Abruptly the stringer burst through a screen of azaleas to a round green meadow surrounded by the taller trees of the eastern slope of the mountain.
In other circumstances Bob would have liked to stop for a better sight of this little gem of a meadow. It was ankle deep with new grasses, starred with flowers, bordered with pink and white azaleas. The air, prisoned in a pocket, warmed by the sun, perfumed heavily by the flowers, lay in the cup of the trees like a tepid bath. A hundred birds sang in June-tide ecstasy.
But Jack Pollock, without pause, skirted this meadow, crossed the tiny silver creek that bubbled from it down the slope, and stolidly mounted a little knoll beyond. The trained pack horses swung along behind him, swaying gently from side to side that they might carry their packs comfortably and level. Bob turned involuntarily to glance at Amy. Their eyes met. She understood; and smiled at him brightly.
Jack led the way to the top of the knoll and stopped.
Here the edge of the mountain broke into a tiny outcropping spur that shook itself free from the pines. It constituted a natural lookout to the east. Bob drew rein so violently that even his well-trained mountain horse shook its head in protest.
Before him, hushed with that tremendous calm of vast distances, lay the Sierras he had never seen, as though embalmed in the sunlight of a thousand afternoons. A tremendous, deep canon plunged below him, blue with distance. It climbed again to his level eventually, but by that time it was ten miles away. And over against him, very remote, were pine ridges looking velvety and dark and ruffled and full of shadows, like the erect fur of a beast that has been alarmed. From them here and there projected granite domes. And beyond them bald ranges; and beyond them, splintered granite with snow in the crevices; and beyond this the dark and frowning Pinnacles; and still beyond, other mountains so distant, so ethereal, so delicately pink and rose and saffron that almost he expected they might at any moment dissolve into the vivid sky. And, strangely enough, though he realized the tremendous heights and depths of these peaks and canons, the whole effect to Bob was as something spread out broad. The sky, the wonderful over-arching, very blue sky, was the most important thing in the universe. Compared to its infinitudes these mountains lay spread like a fair and wrinkled footrug to a horizon inconceivably remote and mysterious.
Then his eye fell to the ridge opposite, across the blue canon. From one point on it a straight column of smoke rolled upward, to mushroom out and hang motionless above the top of the ridge. Its base was shot by half-seen, half-guessed flaming streaks.
Bob had vaguely expected to see a whole country-side ablaze. This single, slender column was almost absurd. It looked like a camp-fire, magnified to fit the setting, of course.
"There's the fire, all right," said Jack. "We got to get across to it somehow. Trail ends here."
"Why, that doesn't amount to much!" cried Bob.
"Don't it?" said Jack. "Well, I'd call that some shakes of a fire myself. It's covered mighty nigh three hundred acres by now."
"Three hundred acres! Better say ten."
"You're wrong," said Jack; "I've rode all that country with cattle."
"You'll find it fire enough, when you get there," put in Amy. "It's right in good timber, too."
"All right," agreed Bob; "I'll believe anything—after this." He waved his hand abroad. "Jack," he called, as that young man led the way off the edge, "can you see where Jack Main's Canon is from here?"
"Jack Main's!" repeated young Pollock. "Why, if you was on the top of the farthest mountain in sight, you couldn't see any place you could see it from."
"Good Lord!" said Bob.
The way zigzagged down the slope of the mountain. As Jack had said, there was no trail, but the tracks left by the four rangers were plainly to be discerned. Bob, following the pack horses, had leisure to observe how skilfully this way had been picked out. Always it held to the easy footing, but always it was evident that if certain turns had not been made some distance back this easy footing would have lacked. At times the tracks led far to the left at nearly the same level until one, two or three little streams had been crossed. Then without apparent reason they turned directly down the backbone of a steep ridge exactly like a half-dozen others they had passed over. But later Bob saw that this ridge was the only one of the lot that dipped over gently to lower levels; all the rest broke off abruptly in precipitous rocks. Bob was a good woodsman, but this was his first experience in that mountaineering skill which noses its way by the "lay of the country."
In the meantime they were steadily descending. The trees hemmed them closer. Thickets of willows and alders had to be crossed. Dimly through the tree-tops they seemed to see the sky darkening by degrees as they worked their way down. At first Bob thought it the lateness of the afternoon; then he concluded it must be the smoke of the fire; finally, through a clear opening, he saw this apparent darkening of the horizon was in reality the blue of the canon wall opposite, rising as they descended. But, too, as they drew nearer, the heavy smoke of the conflagration began to spread over them. In time it usurped the heavens, and Bob had difficulty in believing that it could appear to any one anywhere as so simple a mushroom-head over a slender smoke column.
By the time the horses stepped from the slope to the bed of the canon, it was quite dark. Jack turned down stream.
"We'll cut the trail to Burro Rock pretty quick," said he.
Within five minutes of travel they did cut it; a narrow brown trough, trodden by the hoofs of many generations of cattlemen bound for the back country. Almost immediately it began to mount the slope.
Now ahead, through the gathering twilight, lights began to show, sometimes scattered, sometimes grouped, like the camp-fires of an immense army. These were the stubs, stumps, down logs and the like left still blazing after all the more readily inflammable material had been burned away. As the little cavalcade laboured upward, stopping every few minutes to breathe the horses, these flickering lights defined themselves. In particular one tall dead yellow pine standing boldly prominent, afire to the top, alternately glowed and paled as the wind breathed or died. A smell of stale burning drifted down the damp night air. Pretty soon Jack Pollock halted for a moment to call back:
"Here's their fire line!"
Bob spurred forward. Just beyond Jack's horse the country lay blackened. The pine needles had burned down to the soil; the seedlings and younger trees had been withered away; the larger trees scorched; the fuel with which every forest is littered consumed in the fierceness of the conflagration. Here and there some stub or trunk still blazed and crackled, outposts of the army whose camp-fires seemed to dot the hills.
The line of demarcation between the burned and the unburned areas seemed extraordinarily well defined. Bob looked closer and saw that this definition was due to a peculiar path, perhaps two yards wide. It looked as though some one had gone along there with a huge broom, sweeping as one would sweep a path in deep dust. Only in this case the broom must have been a powerful implement as well as one of wide reach. The brushed marks went not only through the carpet of pine needles, but through the tarweed, the snow brush, the manzanita. This was technically the fire line. At the sight of the positiveness with which it had checked the spread of the flames, Bob's spirits rose.
"They seem to have stopped it here easy enough, already," he cried.
"Being as how this is the windward side of the fire, and on a down slope, I should think they might," remarked Jack Pollock drily.
Bob chuckled and glanced at the girl.
"I'm finding out every day how little I know," said he; "at my age, too!"
"The hard work is down wind," said Amy.
They entered the burned area, and climbed on up the hill. Though evidently here the ferocity of the conflagration had passed, it had left its rear guard behind. Fallen trees still blazed; standing trees flamed like torches—but all harmlessly within the magic circle drawn by the desperate quick work of the rangers. They threaded their way cautiously among these isolated fires, watching lest some dead giant should fall across their path. The ground smoked under their feet. Against the background of a faint and distant roaring, which now made itself evident, the immediate surroundings seemed very quiet. The individual cracklings of flames were an undertone. Only once in a while a dull heavy crash smote the air as some great tree gave up the unequal struggle.
They passed as rapidly as they could through this stricken field. The night had fallen, but the forest was still bright, the trail still plain. They followed it for an hour until it had topped the lower ridge.
Then far ahead, down through the dark trunks of trees, they saw, wavering, flickering, leaping and dying, a line of fire. In some places it was a dozen feet high; in others it sank to within a few inches of the ground—but nowhere could the eye discern an opening through it. A roar and a crackling filled the air. Sparks were shooting upward in the suction. A blast of heat rushed against Bob's cheek. All at once he realized that a forest fire was not a widespread general conflagration, like the burning of a city block. It was a line of battle, a ring of flame advancing steadily. All they had passed had been negligible. Here was the true enemy, now charging rapidly through the dry, inflammable low growth, now creeping stealthily in the needles and among the rocks; always making way, always gathering itself for one of its wild leaps which should lay an entire new province under its ravaging. Somewhere on the other side of that ring of fire were four men. They were trying to cut a lane over which the fire could not leap.
Bob gazed at the wall of flame with some dismay.
"How we going to get through?" he asked.
"We got to find a rock outcrop somewheres up the ridge," explained Jack, "where there'll be a break in the fire."
He turned up the side of the mountain again, leading the way. After a time they came to an outcrop of the sort described, which, with some difficulty and stumbling, they succeeded in crossing.
Ahead, in the darkness, showed a tiny licking little fire, only a few inches high.
"The fire has jumped!" cried Bob.
"No, that's their backfire," Pollock corrected him.
They found this to be true. The rangers had hastily hoed and raked out a narrow path. Over this a very small fire could not pass; but there could be no doubt that the larger conflagration would take the slight obstacle in its stride. Therefore the rangers had themselves ignited the small fire. This would eat away the fuel, and automatically widen the path. Between the main fire and the back fire were still several hundred yards of good, unburned country. To Bob's expression of surprise Amy added to the two principles of fire-fighting he had learned from Pollock.
"It doesn't do to try to stop a fire anywhere and everywhere," said she. "A good man knows his country, and he takes advantage of it. This fire line probably runs along the line of natural defence."
They followed it down the mountain for a long distance through the eddying smoke. The flames to their right shot up and died and crept. The shadows to their left—their own among the number—leaped and fell. After a while, down through the mists, they made out a small figure, very busy at something. When they approached, they found this to be Charley Morton. The fire had leaped the cleared path and was greedily eating in all directions through the short, pitchy growth of tarweed. It was as yet only a tiny leak, but once let it get started, the whole forest beyond the fire line would be ablaze. The ranger had started to cut around this a half-circle connected at both ends with the main fire line. With short, quick jabs of his hoe, he was tearing away at the tough tarweed.
"Hullo!" said he without looking up. "You'll find camp on the bald ridge north the fire line. There's a little feed there."
Having completed his defence, he straightened his back to look at them. His face was grimed a dingy black through which rivulets of sweat had made streaks.
"Had it pretty hot all afternoon," he proffered. "Got the fire line done, though. How're those canteens—full? I'll trade you my empty one." He took a long draught. "That tastes good. Went dry about three o'clock, and haven't had a drop since."
They left him there, leaning on the handle of his hoe. Jack Pollock seemed to know where the place described as the camp-site was located, for after various detours and false starts, he led them over the brow of a knoll to a tiny flat among the pine needles where they were greeted by whinnies from unseen animals. It was here very dark. Jack scraped together and lit some of the pine needles. By the flickering light they saw the four saddles dumped down in a heap.
"There's a side hill over yander with a few bunches of grass and some of these blue lupins," said Jack. "It ain't much in the way of hoss-feed, but it'll have to do."
He gathered fuel and soon had enough of a fire to furnish light.
"It certainly does seem plumb foolish to be lightin' more fires!" he remarked.
In the meantime Amy had unsaddled her own horse and was busy unpacking one of the pack animals. Bob followed her example.
"There," she said; "now here are the canteens, all full; and here's six lunches already tied together that I put up before we started. You can get them to the other boys. Take your tools and run along. I'll straighten up, and be ready for you when you can come back."
"What if the fire gets over to you?" asked Bob.
"I'll turn the horses loose and ride away," she said gaily.
"It won't get clost to there," put in Jack. "This little ridge is rock all round it. That's why they put the camp here."
"Where's water?" asked Amy.
"I don't rightly remember," confessed Pollock. "I've only been in here once."
"I'll find out in the morning. Good luck!"
Jack handed Bob three of the canteens, a hoe and rake and one of the flat files.
"What's this for?" asked Bob.
"To keep the edge of your hoe sharp," replied Jack.
They shouldered their implements and felt their way in the darkness over the tumbled rock outcrop. As they surmounted the shoulder of the hill, they saw once more flickering before them the fire line.
Charley Morton received the lunch with joy.
"Ain't had time to get together grub since we came," said he, "and didn't know when I would."
"What do you want us to do?" asked Bob.
"The fire line's drawn right across from Granite Creek down there in the canon over to a bald dome. We got her done an hour ago, and pretty well back-fired. All we got to do now is to keep her from crossing anywheres; and if she does cross, to corral her before she can get away from us."
"I wish we could have got here sooner!" cried Bob, disappointed that the little adventure seemed to be flattening out.
"So?" commented Charley drily. "Well, there's plenty yet. If she gets out in one single, lonesome place, this fire line of ours won't be worth a cent. She's inside now—if we can hold her there." He gazed contemplatively aloft at a big dead pine blazing merrily to its very top. Every once in a while a chunk of bark or a piece of limb came flaring down to hit the ground with a thump. "There's the trouble," said he. "What's to keep a spark or a coal from that old coon from falling or rolling on the wrong side of the line? If it happens when none of us are around, why the fire gets a start. And maybe a coal will roll down hill from somewhere; or a breeze come up and carry sparks. One spark over here," he stamped his foot on the brushed line, "and it's all to do over again. There's six of us," added the ranger, "and a hundred of these trees near the line. By rights there ought to be a man camped down near every one of them."
"Give us our orders," repeated Bob.
"The orders are to patrol the fire line," said Morton. "If you find the fire has broken across, corral it. If it gets too strong for you, shoot your six-shooter twice. Keep a-moving, but take it easy and save yourself for to-morrow. About two o'clock, or so, I'll shoot three times. Then you can come to camp and get a little sleep. You got to be in shape for to-morrow."
"Why especially to-morrow?" asked Bob.
"Fire dies in the cool of night; it comes up in the middle of the day," explained Morton succinctly.
Bob took to the right, while Jack went in the opposite direction. His way led down hill. He crossed a ravine, surmounted a little ridge. Now he was in the worse than total darkness of the almost extinct area. Embers and coals burned all over the side hill like so many evil winking eyes. Far ahead, down the mountain, the rising smoke glowed incandescent with the light of an invisible fire beneath, Bob, blinded by this glow, had great difficulty in making his way. Once he found that he had somehow crept out on the great bald roundness of a granite dome, and had to retrace his steps. Twice he lost his footing utterly, but fortunately fell but a short distance. At last he found himself in the V of a narrow ravine.
All this time he had, with one exception, kept close track of the fire line. The exception was when he strayed out over the dome; but that was natural, for the dome had been adopted bodily as part of the system of defence. Everywhere the edge of the path proved to be black and dead. No living fire glowed within striking distance of the inflammable material on the hither side the path.
But here, in the bottom of the ravine, a single coal had lodged, and had already started into flame the dry small brush. It had fallen originally from an oak fully a hundred feet away; and in some mysterious manner had found a path to this hidden pocket. The circumstances somewhat shook Bob's faith in the apparent safety of the country he had just traversed.
However, there were the tiny flames, licking here and there, insignificant, but nevertheless dangerous. Bob carefully laid his canteens and the rake on a boulder, and set to work with his sharpened hoe. It looked to be a very easy task to dig out a path around this little fire.
In the course of the miniature fight he learned considerable of the ways of fire. The brush proved unexpectedly difficult. It would not stand up to the force of his stroke, but bent away. The tarweed, especially, was stubborn under even the most vigorous wielding of his sharpened hoe.
He made an initial mistake by starting to hoe out his path too near the blaze, forgetting that in the time necessary to complete his half-circle the flames would have spread. Discovering this, he abandoned his beginning and fell back twenty feet. This naturally considerably lengthened the line he would have to cut. When it was about half done, Bob discovered that he would have to hustle to prevent the fire breaking by him before he could complete his half-circle. It became a race. He worked desperately. The heat of the flames began to scorch his face and hands, so that it was with difficulty he could face his work. Irrelevantly enough there arose before his mind the image of Jack Pollock popping corn before the fireplace at headquarters. Continual wielding of the hoe tired a certain set of muscles to the aching point. His mouth became dry and sticky, but he could not spare time to hunt up his canteen. The thought flashed across his mind that the fire was probably breaking across elsewhere, just like this. The other men must be in the same fix. There were six of them. Suppose the fire should break across simultaneously in seven places? The little licking flames had at last, by dint of a malignant persistence, become a personal enemy. He fought them absorbedly, throwing his line farther and farther as the necessity arose, running to beat down with green brush the first feeble upstartings of the fire as it leaped here and there his barrier, keeping a vigilant eye on every part of his defences.
"Well," drawled Charley Morton's voice behind him, "what you think you're doing?"
"Corralling this fire, of course," Bob panted, dashing at a marauding little flame.
"What for?" demanded Charley.
Bob looked up in sheer amazement.
"See that rock dike just up the hill behind you?" explained Morton. "Well, our fire line already runs up to that on both sides. Fire couldn't cross it. We expected this to burn."
Bob suddenly felt a little nauseated and dizzy from the heat and violence of his exertions in this high altitude.
"Here's your canteen," Morton went on easily. "Take a swig. Better save a little. Feel better? Let me give you a pointer: don't try to stop a fire going up hill. Take it on top or just over the top. It burns slower and it ain't so apt to jump."
"I know; I forgot," said Bob, feeling a trifle foolish.
"Never mind; you've learned something," said Morton comfortably. "Let's go down below. There's fresh fire there; and it may have jumped past Elliott."
They scrambled down. Elliott and Ware were found to be working desperately in the face of the flames. The fire had not here jumped the line, but it was burning with great ferocity up to the very edge of it. If the rangers could for a half-hour prevent the heat from igniting the growths across the defence, the main fire would have consumed its fuel and died down to comparative safety. With faces averted, heads lowered, handkerchiefs over their mouths, they continually beat down the new little fires which as continually sprang into life again. Here the antagonists were face to face across the narrow line. The rangers could not give back an inch, for an inch of headway on the wrong side the path would convert a kindling little blaze to a real fire. They stood up to their work doggedly as best they might.
With entire understanding of the situation Charley motioned Bob to the front.
"We'll hold her for a minute," he shouted to the others. "Drop back and get a drink."
They fell back to seize eagerly their canteens. Bob gripped his handful of green brush and set to work. For a minute he did not think it possible to face the terrible heat. His garments were literally drenched with sweat which immediately dried into steam. A fierce drain sucked at his strength. He could hardly breathe, and could see only with difficulty. After a moment Elliott and Ware, evidently somewhat refreshed, again took hold.
How they stuck it out for that infernal half-hour Bob could not have told, but stick it out they did. The flames gradually died down; the heat grew less; the danger that the shrivelled brush on the wrong side the fire line would be ignited by sheer heat, vanished. The four men fell back. Their eyebrows and hair were singed; their skin blackened. Bob's face felt sore, and as though it had been stretched. He took a long pull at his canteen. For the moment he felt as though his energy had all been drained away.
"Well, that was a good little scrap," observed Charley Morton cheerfully. "I certainly do wish it was always night when a man had to fight fire. In a hot sun it gets to be hard work."
Elliott rolled his eyes, curiously white like a minstrel's in his blackened face, at Bob, but said nothing.
"We'll leave Elliott here to watch this a few minutes, and go down the line," said Morton.
Bob lifted his canteen, and, to his surprise, found it empty.
"Why, I must have drunk a gallon!" he cried.
"It's dry work," said Morton.
They continued on down the fire line, pausing every once in a while to rake and scrape leisurely at the heavy bark beneath some blazing stub. The fierce, hard work was over. All along the fire line from the dome of granite over the ridge down to Granite Creek the fire had consumed all the light fuel on its own side the defence. No further danger was to be apprehended in the breaking across. But everywhere through the now darkening forest blazed the standing trees. A wind would fill the air with brands; and even in the present dead calm those near the line were a threat.
The men traversed the fire line from end to end a half-dozen times. Bob became acquainted individually and minutely with each of the danger spots. The new temporary features of country took on, from the effects of vigilance and toil, the dignity of age and establishment. Anxiously he widened the path here, kicked back glowing brands there, tried to assure himself that in no possible manner could the seed of a new conflagration find germination. After a long time he heard three shots from up the mountain. This, he remarked, was a signal agreed upon. He shouldered his blackened implements and commenced a laborious ascent.
Suddenly he discovered that he was very tired, and that his legs were weak and wobbly. Stubs and sticks protruded everywhere; stones rolled from under his feet. Once on a steep shale, he fell and rolled ten feet out of sheer weariness. In addition he was again very thirsty, and his canteen empty. A chill gray of dawn was abroad; the smell of stale burning hung in the air.
By the time he had staggered into camp the daylight had come. He glanced about him wearily. Across a tiny ravine the horses dozed, tied each to a short picket rope. Bob was already enough of a mountaineer to notice that the feed was very scant. The camp itself had been made under a dozen big yellow pines. A bright little fire flickered. About it stood utensils from which the men were rather dispiritedly helping themselves. Bob saw that the long pine needles had been scraped together to make soft beds, over which the blankets had been spread. Amy herself, her cheeks red, her eyes bright, was passing around tin cups of strong coffee, and tin plates of food. Her horse, saddled and bridled, stood nearby.
"Take a little of this," she urged Bob, "and then turn in."
Bob muttered his thanks. After swallowing the coffee, however, he felt his energies reviving somewhat.
"How did you leave things at the lower end?" Morton was asking him.
"All out but two or three smouldering old stubs," replied Bob. "Everything's safe."
"Nothing's safe," contradicted Morton. "By rights we ought to watch every minute. But we got to get some rest in a long fight. It's the cool of the morning and the fire burns low. Turn in and get all the sleep you can. May need you later."
"I'm all in," acknowledged Bob, throwing back his blanket; "I'm willing to say so."
"No more fire in mine," agreed young Elliott.
The other men said nothing, but fell to their beds. Only Charley Morton rose a little stiffly to his feet.
"Aren't you going to turn in too, Charley?" asked the girl quickly.
"It's daylight now," explained the ranger, "and I can see to ride a horse. I reckon I'd better ride down the line."
"I've thought of that," said Amy. "Of course, it wouldn't do to let the fire take care of itself. See; I have Pronto saddled. I'll look over the line, and if anything happens I'll wake you."
"You must be about dead," said Charley. "You've been up all night fixing camp and cooking——"
"Up all night!" repeated Amy scornfully. "How long do you think it takes me to make camp and cook a simple little breakfast?"
"But the country's almighty rough riding."
"He's a good mountain pony," agreed Charley Morton; "California John picked him out himself. All right. I do feel some tired."
This was about six o'clock. The men had slept but a little over an hour when Amy scrambled over the rim of the dike and dropped from her horse.
"Charley!" she cried, shaking the ranger by the shoulder; "I'm sorry. But there's fresh smoke about half-way down the mountain. There was nothing left to burn fresh inside the fire line, was there? I thought not."
Twenty minutes later all six were frantically digging, hoeing, chopping, beating in a frenzy against the spread of the flames. In some manner the fire had jumped the line. It might have been that early in the fight a spark had lodged. As long as the darkness of night held down the temperature, this spark merely smouldered. When, however, the rays of the sun gathered heat, it had burst into flame.
This sun made all the difference in the world. Where, in the cool of the night, the flames had crept slowly, now they leaped forward with a fierce crackling; green brush that would ordinarily have resisted for a long time, now sprang into fire at a touch. The conflagration spread from a single point in all directions, running swiftly, roaring in a sheet of fire, licking up all before it.
The work was fierce in its intensity. Bob, in common with the others, had given up trying—or indeed caring—to protect himself. His clothes smoked, his face smarted and burned, his skin burned and blistered. He breathed the hot air in gasps. Strangely enough, he did not feel in the least tired.
He did not need to be told what to do. The only possible defence was across a rock outcrop. To right and left of him the other men were working desperately to tear out the brush. He grubbed away trying to clear the pine needles and little bushes that would carry the fire through the rocks like so many powder fuses.
He had no time to see how the others were getting on; he worked on faith. His own efforts were becoming successful. The fire, trying, one after another, various leads through the rocks, ran out of fuel and died. The infernal roaring furnace below, however, leaped ever to new trial.
Then all at once Bob found himself temporarily out of the game. In trying to roll a boulder out of the way, he caught his hand. A sharp, lightning pain shot up his arm and into the middle of his chest. When he had succeeded in extricating himself, he found that his middle finger was squarely broken.
Bob stood still for a moment, looking at the injured member. Charley Morton touched him on the shoulder. When he looked up, the ranger motioned him back. Casting a look of regret at his half-completed defences, he obeyed. To his surprise he found the other four already gathered together. Evidently his being called off the work had nothing to do with his broken finger, as he had at first supposed.
"Well, I guess we'll have to fall back," said Morton composedly. "It's got away from us."
Without further comment he shouldered his implements and took his way up the hill. Bob handed his hoe and rake to Jack Pollock.
"Carry 'em a minute," he explained. "I hurt my hand a little."
As he walked along he bound the finger roughly to its neighbour, and on both tied a rude splint.
"What's up?" he muttered to Jack, as he worked at this.
"I reckon we must be goin' to start a fire line back of the next cross-bridge somewheres," Jack ventured his opinion.
Bob stopped short.
"Then we've abandoned the old one!" he exclaimed.
"Complete," spoke up Ware, who overheard.
"And all the work we've done there is useless?"
"We've got it all to do over again from the beginning?"
Bob adjusted his mind to this new and rather overwhelming idea.
"I saw Senator What's-his-name—from Montana—made a speech the other day," spoke up Elliott, "in which he attacked the Service because he said it was a refuge for consumptives and incompetents!"
At this moment Amy rode up draped with canteens and balancing carefully a steaming pail of coffee. She was accompanied by another woman similarly provided.
The newcomer was a decided-looking girl under thirty, with a full, strong figure, pronounced flaxen-blond hair, a clear though somewhat sunburned skin, blue eyes, and a flash of strong, white teeth. Bob had never seen her before, but he recognized her as a mountain woman. She rode a pinto, guided by a hackamore, and was attired quite simply in the universal broad felt hat and a serviceable blue calico gown. In spite of this she rode astride; and rode well. A throwing rope, or riata, hung in the sling at the right side of her saddle pommel; and it looked as though it had been used.
"Where's Charley?" she asked promptly as she rode up. "Is that you? You look like a nigger. How you feeling? You just mind me, and don't you try to do too much. You don't get paid for overtime at this job."
"Hullo, Lou," replied Charley Morton; "I thought it was about time you showed up."
The woman nodded at the others.
"Howdy, Mrs. Morton," answered Tom Carroll, Pollock and Ware. Bob and Elliott bowed.
By now the fire had been left far in the rear. The crackling of flames had died in the distance; even the smoke cleared from the atmosphere. All the forest was peaceful and cool. The Douglas squirrels scampered and barked; the birds twittered and flashed or slanted in long flight through the trees; the sun shone soft; a cool breeze ruffled the feathery tips of the tarweed.
At the top of the ridge Charley Morton called a halt.
"This is pretty easy country," said he. "We'll run the line square down either side. Get busy."
"Have a cup of coffee first," urged Amy.
"Surely. Forgot that."
They drank the coffee, finding it good, and tucked away the lunches Amy, with her unfailing forethought, had brought them.
"Good-bye!" she called gaily; "I've got to get back to camp before the fire cuts me off. I won't see you again till the fire burns me out a way to get to you."
"Take my horse, too," said Mrs. Morton, dismounting. "You don't need me in camp."
Amy took the lead rein and rode away as a matter of course. She was quite alone to guard the horses and camp equipage on the little knoll while the fire spent its fury all around her. Everybody seemed to take the matter for granted; but Bob looked after her with mingled feelings of anxiety and astonishment. This Western breed of girl was still beyond his comprehension.
The work was at once begun. In spite of the cruel throb of his injured hand, Bob found the labour pleasant by sheer force of contrast. The air was cool, the shade refreshing, the frantic necessity of struggle absent. He raked carefully his broad path among the pine needles, laying bare the brown earth; hoed and chopped in the tarweed and brush. Several times Charley Morton passed him. Each time the ranger paused for a moment to advise him.
"You ought to throw your line farther back," he told Bob. "See that 'dead-and-down' ahead? If you let that cross your fire line, it'll carry the fire sooner or later, sure; and if you curve your line too quick to go around it, the fire'll jump. You want to keep your eye out 'way ahead."
Once Bob caught a glimpse of blue calico through the trees. As he came nearer, he was surprised to see Mrs. Morton working away stoutly with a hoe. Her skirts were turned back, her sleeves rolled up to display a white and plump forearm, the neck of her gown loosened to show a round and well-moulded neck. The strokes of her hoe were as vigorous as those of any of the men. In watching the strong, free movements of her body, Bob forgot for a moment what had been intruding itself on him with more and more insistance—the throb of his broken hand.
In the course of an hour the fire line was well under way. But now wisps of smoke began to drift down the tree aisles. Birds shot past, at first by ones and twos, later in flocks. A deer that must have lain perdu to let them pass bounded across the ridge, his head high, his nostrils wide. The squirrels ran chattering down the trees, up others, leaped across the gaps, working always farther and farther to the north. The cool breeze carried with it puffs of hot air. Finally in distant openings could be discerned little busy, flickering flames. All at once the thought gripped Bob hard: the might of the fire was about to test the quality of his work!
"There she comes!" gasped Charley Morton. "My Lord, how she's run to-day! We got to close the line to that stone dike."
By one of the lightning transitions of motive with which these activities seemed to abound, the affair had become a very deadly earnest sort of race. It was simple. If the men could touch the dike before the fire, they won.
The realization of this electrified even the weary spirits of the fire-fighters. They redoubled their efforts. The hoes, mattocks and axes rose and fell feverishly. Mrs. Morton, the perspiration matting her beautiful and shining hair across her forehead, laboured with the best. The fire, having gained the upward-rising slope, came at them with the speed of an enemy charging. Soon they were fairly choked by the dense clouds of smoke, fairly scorched by the waves of heat. Sweat poured from them in streams. Bob utterly forgot his wounded hand.
And then, when they were within a scant fifty yards of the dike which was intended to be their right wing, the flames sprang with a roar to new life. Up the slope they galloped, whirled around the end of the fire line, and began eagerly to lick up the tarweed and needles of the ridge-top.
Bob and Elliott uttered a simultaneous cry of dismay. The victory had seemed fairly in their grasp. Now all chance of it was snatched away.
"Poor guess," said Charley Morton. The men, without other comment, shouldered their implements and set off on a dog-trot after their leader. The ranger merely fell back to the next natural barrier.
"Now, let's see if we can't hold her, boys," said he.
Twice again that day were these scenes reenacted. The same result obtained. Each time it seemed to Bob that he could do no more. His hand felt as big as a pillow, and his whole arm and shoulder ached. Besides this he was tired out. Amy had been cut off from them by the fire. In two days they had had but an hour's sleep. Water had long since given out on them. The sun beat hot and merciless, assisting its kinsman, the fire. Bob would, if left to himself, have given up the contest long since. It seemed ridiculous that this little handful of men should hope to arrest anything so mighty, so proud, so magnificent as this great conflagration. As well expect a colony of ants to stop a break in the levee. But Morton continued to fall back as though each defeat were a matter of course. He seemed unwearied, though beneath the smoke-black his eyes were hollow. Mrs. Morton did her part with the rest, strong as a man for all her feminine attraction, for all the soft lines of her figure.
"I'll drop back far enough this time," Charley muttered to her, as they were thrown together in their last retreat. "Can't seem to get far enough back!"
"There's too few of us to handle such a big fire," his wife replied. "You can't do it with six men."
"Seven," amended Charley. "You're as good as any of us. Don't you worry, Lou. Even if we don't stop her—and I think we will—we're checking the run of her until we get help. We're doing well. There's only two old fire-fighters in the lot—you and me. All the rest is green hands. We're doing almighty well."
Overhearing this Bob plucked up heart. These desperate stands were not then so wasted as he had thought them. At least the fire was checked at each defence—it was not permitted to run wild over the country.
"We ought to get help before long," he said.
"To-morrow, I figure," replied Charley Morton. "The boys are scattered wide, finishing odds and ends before coming in for the Fourth. It'll be about impossible to get hold of any of 'em except by accident. But they'll all come in for the Fourth."
The next defence was successfully completed before the fire reached it. Bob felt a sudden rush of most extraordinary and vivifying emotion. A moment ago he had been ready to drop in his tracks, indifferent whether the fire burned him as he lay. Now he felt ready to go on forever. Bert Elliott found energy enough to throw his hat into the air, while Jack shook his fist at the advancing fire.
"We fooled him that time!" cried Elliott.
"Bet you!" growled Pollock.
The other men and the woman stood leaning on the long handles of their implements staring at the advancing flames.
Morton aroused himself with an effort.
"Do your best boys," said he briefly. "There she comes. Another hour will tell whether we've stopped her. Then we've got to hold her. Scatter!"
The day had passed without anybody's being aware of the fact. The cool of the evening was already falling, and the fierceness of the conflagration was falling in accord.
They held the line until the flames had burned themselves out against it. Then they took up their weary patrol. Last night, when Bob was fresh, this part of fire-fighting had seemed the hardest kind of hard work. Now, crippled and weary as he was, in contrast to the day's greater labour, it had become comparatively easy. About eight o'clock Amy, having found a way through, appeared leading all the horses, saddled and packed.
"You boys came a long way," she explained simply, "and I thought I'd bring over camp."
She distributed food, and made trips down the fire line with coffee.
In this manner the night passed. The line had been held. No one had slept. Sunrise found Bob and Jack Pollock far down the mountain. They were doggedly beating back some tiny flames. The camp was a thousand feet above, and their canteens had long been empty. Bob raised his weary eyes.
Out on a rock inside the burned area, like a sentinel cast in bronze, stood a horseman. The light was behind him, so only his outline could be seen. For a minute he stood there quite motionless, looking. Then he moved forward, and another came up behind him on the rock. This one advanced, and a third took his place. One after the other, in single file, they came, glittering in the sun, their long rakes and hoes slanted over their shoulders like spears.
"Look!" gasped Bob weakly.
The two stood side by side spellbound. The tiny flames licked past them in the tarweed; they did not heed. The horsemen rode up, twenty strong. It seemed to Bob that they said things, and shouted. Certainly a half-dozen leaped spryly off their horses and in an instant had confined the escaping fire. Somebody took Bob's hoe from him. A cheery voice shouted in his ear:
"Hop along! You're through. We're on the job. Go back to camp and take a sleep."
He and Pollock turned up the mountain. Bob felt stupid. After he had gone a hundred feet, he realized he was thirsty, and wondered why he had not asked for a drink. Then it came to him that he might have borrowed a horse, but remembered thickly after a long time the impassable dikes between him and camp.
"That's why I didn't," he said aloud.
By this time it was too late to go back for the drink. He did not care. The excitement and responsibility had drained from him suddenly, leaving him a hollow shell.
They dragged themselves up the dike.
"I'd give a dollar and a half for a drink of water!" said Pollock suddenly.
They stumbled and staggered on. A twig sufficed to trip them. Pollock muttered between set teeth, over and over again, his unvarying complaint: "I'd give a dollar and a half for a drink of water!"
Finally, with a flicker of vitality, Bob's sense of humour cleared for an instant.
"Not high enough," said he. "Make it two dollars, and maybe some angel will hand you out a glass."
"That's all right," returned Pollock resentfully, "but I bet there's some down in that hollow; and I'm going to see!"
"I wouldn't climb down there for a million drinks," said Bob; "I'll sit down and wait for you."
Pollock climbed down, found his water, drank. He filled the canteen and staggered back up the steep climb.
"Here you be," said he.
Bob seized the canteen and drank deep. When he took breath, he said:
"Thank you, Jack. That was an awful climb back."
"That's all right," nodded Jack shortly.
"Well, come on," said Bob.
"The hell!" muttered Jack, and fell over sound asleep.
An hour later Bob felt himself being shaken violently. He stirred and advanced a little way toward the light, then dropped back like a plummet into the abysses of sleep. Afterward he recalled a vague, half-conscious impression of being lifted on a horse. Possibly he managed to hang on; possibly he was held in the saddle—that he never knew.