HotFreeBooks.com
The Young Wireless Operator—As a Fire Patrol - The Story of a Young Wireless Amateur Who Made Good as a Fire Patrol
by Lewis E. Theiss
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"The trail's wide enough," said the man, sulkily. "Lots of trails aren't half as wide as that."

"It isn't a question of how wide other trails are," said Charley good-naturedly, "or of how wide this ought to be. All I can do is to obey orders. Mr. Marlin told me to clear the trail just as it was originally."

The man looked angrily at Charley and sudden passion lighted up his eyes. "If Mr. Marlin wants this trail that wide, he can say so himself. But nobody's goin' to make me take orders from a high school boy. I know how this trail ought to be brushed."

Charley saw that it had come to a show-down. Inwardly he was greatly agitated. His heart beat so fast and the pulse in his temples throbbed so violently that he was afraid the men would see how excited he was. But he took a grip on himself and answered slowly, thinking hard all the time, and trying not to betray his real feelings. Again he recalled what his chief had said about letting the men know he was boss.

"You are quite right," said Charley slowly. "Nobody can make you take orders from a high school boy. This is a free country and you do not have to take orders from anybody if you don't want to. You are free to quit this job at any time you like and nobody can stop you. But as long as you stay on the job you will have to obey orders. I'll give you your time and you can get your pay at the office if you want to quit. If you want to stay, just brush out that trail as Mr. Marlin wants it brushed."

Without waiting for a reply Charley turned away and returned to his place at the head of the line. The men about him resumed their work with a will. In a moment the tall laborer picked up his axe and began clearing out the bushes he had missed. Charley had won.



Chapter XXII

Charley Finds Another Clue



As he trudged homeward that evening, Charley pondered over the events of the day. At first he did not know whether to rejoice or be sorry over the outcome of his encounter with the laborer. He was sure the man would hate him, and if he did, he might try to make more trouble for him. On the other hand, he realized that if he had let the man get the better of him, he could never have hoped to maintain discipline; and Charley was old enough to know that without discipline he could not succeed in any post of authority.

Perhaps he was most worried by the fact that he could not talk to Mr. Marlin about the matter. Of course, he could have used the telephone, but the idea of discussing his difficulties before the Lumley family was so repugnant to him that he could not bring himself to attempt it. So he decided to get up his wireless at once. Then he could talk to Mr. Morton and Lumley could not understand what was being said. He felt free to tell the Mortons anything. By this time Mrs. Morton could operate the wireless readily and her husband was learning fast. So Charley hurried to eat his supper and get his wireless installed.

He foresaw that Lumley would insist upon helping him. He steeled his mind to the event and accepted the proffered assistance with the best grace he could. Afterward he thanked his lucky stars that he had done so.

While there was still light enough out-of-doors, Charley assembled and hoisted his aerial; and Lumley, who was really dexterous, was of great help to him. As soon as the aerial dangled aloft, Lumley got tools to bore a hole in the window-sash for the lead-in wire.

Now Charley got another insight into Lumley's character. It was a little difficult to make the hole just where it was wanted. Lumley instantly became impatient and went ahead recklessly. Suddenly his bit snapped. With a volley of oaths, Lumley threw down his brace and hammered the broken bit out of the window-frame. In doing so, he broke out a long splinter of wood, leaving a gaping crack in the sash. He swore until he was out of breath. Then he got some putty and puttied up the hole, forcing the putty into the crack with his thumbs. Then the wire was brought in through the sash and Charley began wiring up his instruments. But it had taken half an hour to accomplish what five minutes of patience would have done. Charley was utterly disgusted with the ranger's show of temper.

As he coupled up the instruments, he answered, as politely as he could, the ranger's numberless questions. Behind every question he saw, or thought he could see, some ulterior motive. By every means he could, Lumley was trying to find out all that was possible about Charley and his relations with the forester. And Charley could see that Lumley was envious of his intimacy with Mr. Marlin and jealous of him because, though a mere boy, he was already as high up in the service as Lumley was after years in the department. Charley realized that this was an unfair way to view the matter, as he, Charley, was not really a ranger, and did not expect to continue as a ranger after Mr. Morton was well enough to resume his duties. But he could see that Lumley took no account of that. He began to understand that it was the man's nature to be suspicious and jealous.

That was clear enough from Lumley's remarks about himself; for again he repeated the story of his family's former ownership of the big timber, and of how he had been robbed of his heritage. Charley felt sure the man had brooded over the matter until his judgment was warped. He listened, however, without comment.

Presently Lumley began to make insinuations about the forester, telling Charley that Mr. Marlin had been as much the child of luck as he had himself; but Mr. Marlin had had all the good luck, while he had had all the bad luck. When he spoke of Mr. Marlin's rise from the ranks, Charley could see plainly enough that Lumley was green with jealousy. He thought he ought not to listen to such talk, and telling Lumley flatly that Mr. Marlin's industry, he was sure, was the main reason for his success, Charley turned the conversation into more agreeable channels. Finally Charley finished coupling up his instruments and tested his spark.

"It's a slower way to talk," said the ranger as he watched Charley adjust his spark-gap, "but I can see that it beats the telephone all hollow. Why, a wind-storm, or a snow, or a thunder-storm can put the telephone out of business quicker than you can say scat, and it may take hours and hours to find the trouble and remedy it. I guess you couldn't put the wireless out of commission, could you?"

"That's where you are wrong," smiled Charley. "A piece of iron laid across the terminals for half an hour would put this battery completely out of business."

How easily the telephone could be put out of business was soon shown; for the very next day a terrific wind-storm came along, uprooting large trees, wrenching loose great limbs which it hurled for many yards, bending flat some of the smaller, weaker saplings and ripping its way through the forest with a roar indescribable. Charley was with his crew brushing out the fire trail. The wind was accompanied by some rain, and the crew sought shelter under an overhanging ledge of rock. While they waited for the storm to blow itself out, Charley turned the situation over in his mind. Hurricanes were something he had never thought to ask Mr. Marlin about. He felt sure the storm would mean some new duty for him, but he did not know exactly what. He hesitated to ask his crew, for he did not want to betray his ignorance. But a chance remark one of his men dropped about repairing the telephone-line furnished a clue for Charley. He thought the matter over, and by the time the storm had ended, Charley had come to a decision. Right or wrong, he determined to act promptly.

"I want one of you to help me look after the telephone-line," he said, picking out one of the crew. "The rest of you can go on with the fire trail."

With this helper, he made his way out to the telephone-line and followed it the entire length of his territory. In several places saplings had blown across it. One tree, partly uprooted, was leaning against it. And in one place the line was actually broken. Charley had no tools for handling wire, and he decided that he would henceforth carry a pair of nippers in his clothes. Fortunately for Charley, the wire had stretched so much before it broke that he and the man were able to get the broken ends together and give them a twist. The repair was temporary, but it would answer until a permanent job could be done. When Charley reported to headquarters that night, the chief commended him for his good judgment in repairing the telephone-line so promptly.

The few days that Charley had worked in the forest had made his hands very sore, for he had no gloves. He had cut and scratched and torn his fingers until it seemed to him there was room for no more bruises. He wanted to get some gloves, but did not know when he could get to a store to buy any. He mentioned the matter to Lumley.

"Buy them by mail," said Lumley. "We get most of our goods from mail-order houses."

Charley had never bought anything by mail, and had not thought of securing his gloves in that way. "That would be all right," he said, "but I wouldn't know how to order."

"Here," said the ranger, plunging his hand into a cabinet, "these catalogues will help you." And he drew forth three catalogues from as many different mail-order houses. There was one from Slears and Hoebuck, one from Montgomery Hard, and a third from Carson and Derby.

Instantly Charley thought of the telltale piece of green pasteboard and a quick suspicion leaped into his mind. As quickly it faded out. He could not for a single second bring himself to suspect a guardian of the forest of being a woodland incendiary. Yet he could not refrain from asking, "Which one of these concerns do you buy from?"

"Whichever one sells cheapest," replied the ranger.

Charley found some cheap working gloves that he thought would suit him and ordered several pairs.

In the days that followed, he thought often over the problem of the green pasteboard. It was true he had made another step in unraveling the problem, but he did not see that it helped him much. He had discovered that Lumley sometimes bought stuff from Carson and Derby, but doubtless dozens of other near-by dwellers also did. Furthermore, it did not follow that any near resident had fired the forest. Some one from a distance might have done so. The more Charley thought about the matter, the less importance he placed upon his discovery, and he decided to say nothing about it to any one. How the guilty party was ever to be traced Charley could not even imagine. The situation appeared hopeless.

However, Charley had small chance to worry about the matter. As the days passed, the forester laid more and more duties upon him. Many a lad would have thought the forester was imposing upon him, but Charley was eager to do everything he possibly could. He realized that the more he accomplished, the greater would be his experience; and that the larger his experience was, the faster he ought to get ahead. He had the good sense to know that the short way of spelling opportunity is w-o-r-k. And he realized that he had his chance here and now. So he did everything he possibly could do and asked for more.

The forester, like any other man in authority, was pleased beyond words at this spirit. His response was to pile the work on Charley. He was testing him out, to see whether the desire for work was just a whim or whether Charley possessed that real ambition, that inward spirit of progress that drives a man on and on through the years to greater and greater accomplishments. For the best worker in the world is the man who works because he wishes to work, and who is always striving to become a better workman.

Certainly Charley became a better workman, as any one does who works in the spirit he exhibited. The mere getting of a wage, the mere earning of a living hardly figured in Charley's calculations. He was working to learn, to get ahead, to climb up in the Forestry Service. Hence there was nothing perfunctory in what he did. He strove for perfection; and like all who so strive, he began to attain it.

Before he had been many weeks a ranger, Charley was as valuable a man in many ways as the forester had under him. All Charley lacked to make him perhaps the very best man was wider experience; and this was coming to him daily. Furthermore, Charley was fortunate enough to have learned, through his schooling, that although experience is the best teacher, he is a fool who learns only through his own experience. All the information in all the books that Charley had ever studied was the result of experience—somebody else's experience. And he had early grasped the fact that to learn through the experience of others is to save time and difficulty. So now he supplemented his own experiences by much reading and study at night and by the discussion of forest matters with the more intelligent of his workmen.

New experiences came to him frequently. The forester surveyed and laid out a road through the forest. Charley helped with the surveying and learned much about levels and grades and the theory of road making. And after the road was fairly started, the forester left its completion largely to Charley. This new road was to lead into the big timber operation which was shortly to begin in Charley's territory.

Already a great crew had been assembled and much timber had been cut in Lumley's district. Lumley had to oversee this operation and he was kept far busier than he liked to be. So Charley saw little of him.

In overseeing the operation in his own tract, Charley would have to select and mark the trees for cutting, see that they were felled so as to save the young growths, compel the prompt removal of trees that had fallen across little saplings that had been bent under them, and make sure the tops were properly lopped off and either burned where possible or piled so that they would quickly rot. Then he would have to be particular that the trees were thrown away from the roads and lines, and that a strip at least one hundred feet wide was kept cleared of brush between the cutting operations and the remainder of the forest, as a protection against the spread of fire. Then there would be timber to scale and a hundred other things to be looked after. To safeguard the state's interests would require both experience and determination should the timber operators wish to be tricky. Mr. Marlin intended that Charley, as a reward for the fine spirit he was showing, should handle the lumber operation in his own district entirely alone, just as a full-fledged ranger would do. It was both a high compliment to Charley and a fine reward, for the timber operation was large, involving great sums of money, and even with the most careful supervision the state might easily be defrauded of thousands of dollars.

But Mr. Marlin was far too wise to put Charley in such a position without adequate training. Personally, therefore, he began to prepare him for the work. Accompanied by Charley, he went entirely over the operations in Lumley's territory. He carried a duplicate of the contract under which the wood was being cut. Together they discussed every phase of the contract, and the forester showed Charley how each step in the operation should be carried out; how the trees should be selected and marked, how they should be felled and trimmed, how the brush should be disposed of, and finally how the timber should be scaled at the skidways along the highway, whence the timber was being carted away in huge trucks.

Then he went with Charley into the latter's own district and started him at the task of selecting and marking the trees for cutting. These had to be greater than ten inches in diameter, breast-high, and had to be marked. Crooked trees and wolf trees whose unduly large tops harmed lower growths were also to be cut. The trees were marked by blazing them at the butt and breast-high and striking the blazes with a heavy hammer that left the imprint of the state's marker on the wood. Merely to select and mark all the trees to be cut was a considerable task, but Charley tried to do this and carry on his other work as well. It meant that he worked from the earliest possible moment in the morning until he could no longer see at night. Day after day he worked at his tasks, content to eat cold meals that Mrs. Lumley packed for him, and reaching home so weary that he tumbled into bed and was asleep the instant he had telephoned his daily report to his chief.

Darkness had already fallen, one night, when Charley drew near the Lumley habitation. To his surprise he saw a light up-stairs in Lumley's room. As he drew nearer, he could faintly discern the forms of two men in the chamber. Involuntarily he stopped to scrutinize the figures. At the same instant Lumley's dogs began to bark, as they always did when any one approached. Quick as a flash the curtain of the chamber window was pulled down. But in that brief instant Charley was sure he recognized the man with Lumley. It was Bill Collins.

Charley was startled completely out of his weariness. A moment later he got a second shock. Like a flash it came to him where he had first seen Lumley. He had been with Collins the day the latter had appeared in the forest. Collins had attracted Charley's attention so strongly that he had hardly noticed Collins' companion. Yet now he was certain he was right. He was certain that he was not mistaken.

From the beginning he had believed that he had seen Lumley somewhere before the forester introduced Lumley to him. Now it came to him where he had first seen Lumley. Lumley was the man he and Lew had seen with Bill Collins.

Still another surprise awaited Charley. When he entered the house Lumley was seated at the table opposite a stranger, and the stranger was not Bill Collins. But he resembled Collins so much that Charley did not wonder that, at such a distance, he had made the mistake of thinking the man was Collins.



Chapter XXIII

A Startling Discovery



Charley was glad enough that the man was not Collins. Had he been Collins, Charley would have had another matter to worry about. He was carrying such a load of responsibility these days that he sometimes felt that he couldn't stand another thing; and in moments of depression he thought he could not continue to carry the load he already had.

For Charley was learning the lesson that every man in authority learns: when the forester laid out a piece of work for him, the forester expected him to get it done. No matter what the difficulties were, Charley had to find a way to surmount them. Many and many a day he would gladly have exchanged places with the humblest laborers in his crew.

All that was required of them was merely to do what they were told to do, hour after hour or day after day. There was no need for them to lie awake wrestling with problems that seemed impossible of solution, as Charley had more than once lain awake.

For it had not all been smooth sailing for Charley, any more than it is for any man in authority. After his first set-to with the surly laborer, he had not had any open trouble with his men. But more than one of his crew did not always do an honest day's work, and any failure on the men's part put Charley behind with the amount of work he was expected to get done. This difficulty Charley had finally remedied by asking for Mr. Morton's help. The latter had sent for several of the laborers and had shown them that in hindering Charley they were hurting the Forest Service and thus, in the long run, harming themselves.

Furthermore, as the days passed, and Charley showed that he knew his job, that he was just to everybody, that he had control of his temper, that he expected a fair day's work every day, while he himself accomplished more actual work each day than any man in his gang, the attitude of the men under him changed. Before the summer ended, Charley had as loyal a crew as any man could ask for. And to their loyalty they began to add ambition. For Charley was able gradually to instil into them the spirit which made them want to do as much as any other crew and a little bit more.

So his road making came on apace. Rapidly the rude highway advanced through the forest. Every day after his crew had gone home, Charley went over the area to be made the succeeding day, examining carefully every inch of the ground and determining how he would meet each little problem that would come up. Thus prepared, he speedily acquired a reputation for unusual ability. The result was that his men, when stopped by some obstacle, at once came to him for assistance, though at first they would have scorned to ask a "high school boy" for enlightenment about any task in the forest.

The road under construction was being pushed straight through the heart of the big timber. It was to lead directly to the foot of the mountain on the top of which Charley and Lew had had their secret watch tree. Materials for a real fire-tower, a sixty-foot structure of steel, had been purchased, and as soon as the road was completed, this material was to be trucked to the foot of the mountain, and the tower itself erected on the summit, close to the very tree that Charley and Lew had climbed so often.

The erection of the tower was another task for which Charley would be responsible. Long before the road was completed, therefore, Charley and the forester went over every step in the process of construction, and decided how to do each task, from the making of the concrete foundations to the stringing of the telephone wires when the tower was complete. The tower itself was to be a slender steel structure made of angle-iron supports bolted together, with a little square room at the top for the watcher. This room would be enclosed on every side with glass windows, and from this great elevation a watcher could see in every direction over miles and miles of forest. A telephone would connect with the forester's office.

At the foot of this tower Mr. Marlin intended to build a snug, little cabin, so that the tower man could remain at his post twenty-four hours a day throughout the fire season. The materials for the cabin would be trucked in along the new road and carried up the mountain, and some of them would be cut right on the spot; for the forester planned to erect a neat log cabin.

Before the road was completed, Charley had cement carried in as far as the trucks could travel. Then the cement was carried up the mountain by laborers. It had been put in small sacks so that it could be handled easily. Sand was already at hand, and water could be had at the run coming from the spring by which Charley had camped. Tools and boards were brought, the proper excavations made, forms fashioned and fitted into the excavations, and then cement was mixed and poured into the forms to make the foundation to which the tower was to be bolted. By the time the road was finished so that the steel framework could be trucked in, the cement foundations were hard as stone and ready for the instant erection of the tower.

At once the steel frame began to ascend. Upright was added to upright, cross brace bolted to cross brace, and rung after rung added to the steel ladder that led up to what was to be the watch-tower. In a surprisingly short time the steel work was completed. Now the forester brought in skilled carpenters and the wood for the tower room was cut after the patterns and the cut pieces hoisted up to the top of the steel frame where the watch-tower itself began to take shape.

While these operations were afoot, Charley and his laborers were back in the forest, running a telephone-line along the new road. Holes had to be dug, poles cut, barked, hauled, and set up, and the wires strung. While his men set the poles, Charley himself, with a helper, strung the wires. At this job he needed no instruction. His experiences with the wireless were now of great value to him, for he understood about insulation, grounding, short circuits, and the like as well as any skilled lineman.

So the telephone-line came on apace, and long before the tower was finished, Charley had the line complete from the highway, where it joined the main line, to the summit of the hill where the tower was going up. He installed an instrument in a waterproof box nailed to a tree, so that he could now talk from the hilltop to the forester's office. When the tower was finally completed, he ran the lines up inside the angle-irons to protect them from the terrific winds, so that the tower man could instantly communicate with the forester at Oakdale.

Now the cabin went up. Large, flat stones were assembled and a rough but stable foundation made below the level of the ground. Trees were felled, barked, squared on two sides, and properly notched at the corners. When a sufficient number had been prepared, the frame of the cabin was erected, log being laid upon log, with the corners dovetailing. Wooden pins held the logs in place. Windows and a door were cut out and framed. Then the rafters for the roof were fashioned, the sheathing nailed on, and shingles, made at a former lumber operation in Mr. Marlin's own territory, completed the job. A fireplace was made of big stones and concrete, and the cabin was about complete. A telephone extension was run into the building. At any time now a fire patrol could take up his twenty-four-hour watch at the fire-tower.

The early rush of fishermen was past; but the fine weather still brought hosts of them into the woods, and the danger of fire increased rather than lessened. The scanty rainfall in spring had left the woods still dry, and now but few showers came. Fire patrols were still difficult to obtain, however, and Charley decided that he would take up his residence, at least temporarily, in the new cabin.

There was ample room in it for two men, should a fire patrol be secured, and by living there, Charley would, of necessity, spend much time at this observation post. Night and morning and at intervals between, when he was at home, he could ascend to the tower and view every part of the neighboring forest. Furthermore, the location was very convenient, for the tower was close to the heart of his district. By living here he would be with his work twenty-four hours a day.

Mr. Marlin approved of Charley's decision to move into the cabin. With the new road completed, the forester could come to the very foot of the mountain in his motor-car. He was in instant communication with his ranger by telephone and, when it was necessary, he could get to him by motor-car with the greatest ease.

The forester himself helped Charley move his belongings from Lumley's house to the new cabin. While Mr. Marlin was loading Charley's other luggage on his truck, Charley was dismantling his wireless. When he removed the lead-in wire from the window-sash, he noticed Lumley's finger-marks in the puttied crack and told Mr. Marlin about the ranger's fit of temper. When everything was finally packed, Charley thanked Mrs. Lumley for her hospitality and then climbed into the waiting truck.

As he sat down beside the forester, he sighed with relief. Merely to get away from Lumley's house made him feel as though a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Mr. Marlin laughed at him, but that did not disturb Charley. He had never been able to rid himself of his feeling of distrust for Lumley, and he felt oppressed when he was in the Lumley home.

Charley and the forester carried Charley's possessions from the truck to the new cabin. A tiny stove had been brought along for Charley to cook on. Although it was so small, it was heavy enough. Between that and the battery, the two had all the carrying they wanted before everything was finally placed in the cabin.

Charley fastened his aerial between the fire-tower and his old watch tree, which was still standing, but which had been shorn of most of its branches to allow the watchman in the tower to see past it. Finally, everything was complete. The wireless was in working condition, Charley's few furnishings were in place, the stores put away, and the cabin was fully ready for his occupancy.

Immediately Charley called up Mrs. Morton on the telephone and asked her to talk to him on the wireless. A moment later their invisible messages were speeding back and forth over the miles of billowing pine tops that intervened between the two little forest homes, and no listener in on the department telephone system could either know that they were talking or tell what they said. Charley was overjoyed when Mrs. Morton told him that her husband was about ready to come back to work. His arm was still painful and he could not use it much, but he could now get around well and was fast becoming strong again.

When Charley told the forester the news, the latter expressed his pleasure. He studied Charley's face a moment to see how Charley felt over the news.

"You realize what it means to you when Jim is able to do his work again, do you?" asked Mr. Marlin.

"Certainly," said Charley. A feeling of regret passed through his mind and was mirrored on his face. But there was nothing unkind or unfair about it. "Maybe some day I'll qualify as a real ranger," sighed Charley, "but I'm glad I had this opportunity to learn something."

"Charley," continued the forester, "you've earned the right to see this lumber operation through. It's a big responsibility. You've worked night and day to get ready for the job. Do you think I'm the kind of man who would rob you of the reward that you have justly earned?"

"I don't exactly understand," said Charley.

"I mean," replied the forester, "that no matter whether Jim gets well in time or not, you are going to handle the lumber operation in this district. Jim can do something else. There's plenty of work for a dozen rangers. You are to be the boss of this job."

"Do you really mean it?" cried Charley in delight.

"Surely I mean it," said the forester. "It wouldn't be a fair deal not to let you take charge after the way you've tried to qualify for the work."

Charley held out his hand. "Thanks," was all that he could say, for a lump came into his throat.

"And while we are talking about the lumber job," the forester went on, "I want to say that I was never so badly fooled about anything in my life. The cut isn't coming anywhere near my estimate. It must be five to ten thousand feet per acre less than I thought it would run. I guess the Big Chief at Harrisburg will think I'm a pretty poor timber cruiser."

"How's that?" asked Charley.

"Well, you remember the day I first met you in the forest, Charley, I was cruising with two good timber estimators. They're skilled men. We were making the estimate on which this sale was based. I sent in my estimate and the department made its figures on that basis. But the timber that is actually being taken out doesn't begin to scale what I thought it would. Of course I was wrong in not cruising a bigger strip. But I just couldn't spare the time, then. Evidently the stand over in Lumley's district is not so heavy as it is here. The right way to estimate timber is to cruise strips entirely across the stand. You can't make a correct estimate by cruising an acre or two as I did and estimating an entire stand on the basis of that acre or two. You see the stand in the bottom may be half as heavy again as the stand on the hillside."

Mr. Marlin paused. After a moment, he went on, "Before the lumbermen get into your district I want to make another estimate. You and I will cruise a few strips the entire width of the stand. That will take quite a little time. We can't start to-day, but we'll get at it at the first opportunity. Meantime, I want you to get all the practice you can in scaling lumber, so that you can do it readily. You will have to scale every stick cut in your district and keep tally on all the lumber that is taken out. It's highly important work, for the state depends upon your figures to get its just pay for the lumber cut. If you make mistakes, the state will lose accordingly. I want you to practice scaling so that you can do it as readily as you can measure a board with a yardstick."

"Then I'll do some practicing to-day," said Charley. "You sent my crew into another district and I can put in a whole afternoon practicing."

"Very good. I'll take you out to the skidways where the logs are being piled by the highway, and you can work there as long as you like. Do you have that log-rule I gave you?"

"Sure. But what about this? How shall I know if my measurements are correct?"

"I'll tell you what we'll do. You scale every pile of logs at the highway and make a record of your measurements. When Lumley turns in his official record we can compare your figures with his. Then you will know how nearly right you are." They went down the mountain and climbed into the motor-car.

"Perhaps you would rather do this some other time," said the forester suddenly. "You'll have to walk back, for I must go right along to my office. And it's a great deal farther back here than it would have been to Lumley's house."

Charley's reply was a good-natured laugh. "Have you ever found me afraid of a little hike?" he asked. "I may not have another opportunity as good as this, for I'm going to be mighty busy when my crew gets back."

They drove on, and at the skidways Mr. Marlin dropped his subordinate. "I'll be out to see you to-morrow," he said, "with some maps and specifications I must work out to-night. Good-bye."

"He's a prince," muttered Charley, and fell to measuring logs.

Applying his log-rule to the small end of each log, he noted the diameter of the log and from the scale on the rule read the number of board-feet in the log. Already Charley had done a little scaling of logs and he went at the work readily. As he scaled pile after pile of logs, he worked faster and faster, acquiring greater facility with every measurement. The contents of each pile he noted down, a log at a time, on a bit of paper. When he had finished the work, he totaled up the board-feet, and whistled when he realized what a tremendous quantity of lumber was contained in the log piles he had been measuring.

"Gee!" he said to himself. "At the price lumber is selling for now, those logs are worth a small fortune. Gad! It makes a fellow feel pretty sober when he thinks how easily he could make a mistake that would cost the state hundreds of dollars."

He tucked his record in his pocket, along with his pencil, and started for his cabin. Despite the fact that he was soon to lose his place of authority, he could not help feeling happy. His diploma had been awarded to him on Commencement day, although he had not been able to be present to receive it, and that was one cause for happiness. His comrades had never yet been able to visit him, but he had received a letter that morning telling him that the entire Wireless Patrol was coming out to spend a Sunday with him in the new cabin. That was a second cause for happiness. His friend, Mr. Morton, was almost well, and that was a third cause for happiness. And finally, he had earned the confidence of his chief so completely that his chief was entrusting to him the very important task of overseeing the lumber operation. That made Charley's heart swell with pride. Even the near approach of his reduction to the ranks again could not mar his happiness; for in his heart he knew that he had made good and that it was only a question of time until he should become a ranger in fact as well as in name.

So he went on his way happy, rejoicing in his accomplishment, enjoying the new life of the forest, joyous with the strength and hope and confidence of youth. He came at last to his trail's end, and climbed the tower to look for fire and to watch the sun go down.

"It's warm enough so that a fellow could sleep up here now," he said to himself suddenly. "I'll just build a bunk up here and then I can sleep here whenever I feel like it. If I wake up in the night, I can take a look around and make sure everything is all right."

He went down to his cabin and got a rope, some boards, foot-rule, saw, hammer, auger, and nails. He went back to the tower and made some measurements. Then he came down, cut his boards, bored holes into them, tied them together, and went up again with his tools and nails and the end of the rope. He hauled up the boards and drew them into the watch-tower. Then he nailed them together and had a snug little bunk that stretched completely across one side of the little structure. He wove the cord back and forth across the bunk through the auger holes in place of springs. Then he went down to the ground, made a tick out of one of his sheets, filled it with leaves and got it up to the tower.

"Now," he said, as he spread it on the rope, "all I need is a pillow and a blanket and I'm fixed."

He went down and cooked his supper. Then he talked both to Mrs. Morton and to Lew by wireless. He made a cheerful blaze in his fireplace and studied until ten o'clock. Then he got a pillow and a pair of blankets, blew out his lamp, and ascended to the tower. He intended to go to sleep at once, but the night was so beautiful that for a long time he sat on his bunk, looking out over the forest, which lay still as a sleeping infant under the moon's white light. Finally he wrapped himself in his blanket, stretched out on his bunk, and was quickly asleep.

Charley was up early the next morning. He glanced at his watch and saw that it lacked three-quarters of an hour of the time he usually had a brief wireless chat with Mrs. Morton, so he cooked his breakfast at once. Before he had finished eating, he heard the distant chugging of the forester's car. Sometime later a cheery voice called up the slope, and looking out of his door, Charley saw Mr. Marlin climbing up the mountain. Charley hustled to get a cup of coffee ready for his chief.

"I came early," said the forester, "for it will take us some time to go over these plans. Also I brought Lumley's figures for you to check up your estimate by." And he handed Charley some slips of paper.

While Mr. Marlin was drinking his coffee, Charley compared Lumley's figures with those he had made on a bit of paper. At first he looked crestfallen. Then he appeared puzzled. Then an expression of great indignation came into his face. He seemed greatly agitated.

The forester was studying his expression closely. "What's the difficulty, Charley?" he asked.

"I told you I never trusted Lumley," he burst out. "Just look here."

He laid his figures beside Lumley's. Mr. Marlin ran his eye over them. At first he, too, seemed puzzled. Then his face grew black as a thundercloud.

"Are you certain that you know how to scale a log right, Charley?" he asked.

"Absolutely, Mr. Marlin."

"How do you estimate a log?"

Charley got his rule and laid it across the end of an unburned log in his fireplace. It was ten inches in diameter.

"If that were a twelve-foot log," he said, consulting the scale, "it would have three board feet in it. If it were sixteen feet long, it would have six feet."

"Absolutely correct, Charley. Did you measure those logs that way yesterday?"

"Yes, sir."

The two men looked at each other for a full minute. "Charley," said the forester, "I've been as blind as a bat. I never liked Lumley, any more than you did, though I couldn't tell you that. But I trusted him because he had been in the department a good many years and was fairly efficient. He has betrayed my trust and attempted to rob the state by false measurement. I understand now why my estimate seemed so far out of the way. The estimate was probably close enough. Lumley has sold out to the lumber operators. I'd like to know how they reached him."

The forester fell into a deep study. His face was dark and angry. A long time he sat silent. "I wonder," he said finally, "if Bill Collins' presence in the woods last spring had anything to do with it. I'd just like to know who that was with him."

"Oh! Mr. Marlin," cried Charley. "I forgot to tell you what I discovered. The other night when I got near Lumley's house, I saw Lumley and another man up-stairs. They pulled the curtain down quick when the dogs barked. At first I felt sure the man was Collins. But when I went into the house, Lumley sat at the table with the man. He wasn't Collins, though he looked like him. But I discovered this. The man I saw last spring in the forest with Collins was Lumley. I hardly noticed him at the time, but when I saw these two men together I felt sure they were the pair I had seen in the woods—only the stranger wasn't Collins."

"Are you quite sure?"

"The man I saw at the table wasn't Collins."

"Are you sure he was the man you saw in the bedroom?"

Charley looked at the forester in silence. "I never thought of that," he said, after a moment. "There must have been two strangers in the house. Lumley thought I was coming and would recognize Collins, so he must have hustled down-stairs with the other man and left Collins up-stairs. I'll bet anything that's what happened. And that makes me believe more than ever that Lumley was with Collins in the forest. Otherwise, why should he fear to have me see Collins?"

"Charley, it is as plain as the nose on your face. Collins is the go-between in this crooked lumber deal. These lumber operators meant to cheat the state when they sent in their bid. They must have had it all arranged with Lumley then. That's why they put in the highest bid, so as to make sure to get the timber. By George! They could afford to bid high. Just see what they've stolen in one day's cut of timber."

The forester's face grew black as a thundercloud. "But we'll fix them, Charley," he cried. "We'll get all that money back for the state and maybe put these fellows in prison besides. Anyway, we'll put Lumley there sure. Don't breathe a word of this to a soul. We'll check up Lumley's figures every day now at the skidways. When we have enough evidence, we'll act. Meantime, don't let a soul suspect that you know anything, and don't do anything to alarm Lumley."



Chapter XXIV

Checkmated



Charley was afoot very early next morning. At the usual time he flashed out a wireless call for the Mortons, and the ranger himself answered. Mr. Morton could now operate the wireless quite readily, though, of course, with nothing like the skill his wife had acquired. He reported that he was to return to duty the next morning, starting work, with a big crew, on a six-foot fire-line along the summit of Old Ironsides. Charley was overjoyed at the news. It meant that now he would have a chance to see this friend from time to time.

Mr. Marlin had not said that he would come to see Charley this morning, nor had he telephoned any message to that effect; but when Charley heard the steady chugging of a motor in the valley below, he believed it must be the forester. He was not quite certain, however, because the motor did not seem to beat exactly like Mr. Marlin's. The dense foliage completely hid the approaching car from view, so that Charley could not see what sort of an automobile it was.

It mattered little to Charley, however, who it was. He was the soul of hospitality, and at once he set some coffee to boiling for his approaching visitor.

This proved to be the forester. He presently came puffing up the slope, and after he had drunk some coffee and gotten his breath, the two men began to plan how they should best watch Lumley. The logs must be checked up carefully, yet it was desirable that no one see Charley measuring them. Finally it was decided that each day Charley should measure them in the early evening immediately after the last log truck had started away with its load. There would be nobody around then, and Charley could easily measure the day's cut and get home to his cabin before dark.

For an hour the two guardians of the forest discussed matters that pressed for attention. Then the forester rose to go. "I have Lumley's report on yesterday's cut," he said, "and if nobody is around when we reach the skidways, we'll just check it up. We can drive out in a few minutes, but you will have to walk back. Get your log-rule and come on." And they went down the mountain to the end of the new road.

"Hello!" cried Charley in surprise, as he caught sight of the forester's car. "You're driving a big truck, eh? I thought that motor didn't sound like your Henry."

"Yes; there was a load of stuff to be hauled out for Jim's crew. He starts work to-morrow. I killed two birds with one stone by bringing the stuff, which I dumped at Jim's, and then coming on out here."

As they reached the car, Charley said, "It looks powerful."

"It's one of those old army trucks Uncle Sam gave us. Got a great battery and tremendous power. Get in."

They climbed aboard. Mr. Marlin touched the starter and the engine began to chug. He let in his clutch but the car would not move. The car happened to be standing on a moist spot and its great weight had pressed the wheels far down into the soft new road. Mr. Marlin threw on the power. The truck jumped, something snapped sharply and a banging noise followed as the car moved jerkily ahead.

"Thunderation!" cried the forester. "I've broken the differential. I bet ten dollars on it." And investigation proved his diagnosis was correct. "I suppose it will take all summer to get a new part," growled the forester. "This truck will have to stand here idle until repairs come. But we can't stand here idle. Come on."

They set off down the road. After a long hike they came to the skidways at the main road. Nobody was in sight.

"We'll begin at one end and work toward the other until we hear somebody coming. Then we'll have business elsewhere."

Pile by pile they scaled the logs, Charley using the log-rule under Mr. Marlin's close observation, while the forester himself kept tally. Alone in the big woods, they talked freely.

"Why do you suppose Lumley took a chance like this?" asked the forester. "He might have known he'd get caught."

"Primarily because he wanted the money, of course," maintained Charley. "But there's another thing that may play a part in the matter. Did you know that Lumley's folks once owned this virgin timber?"

"I've heard that a generation or two back the Lumley family owned big tracts of land hereabouts. Naturally some of that land would now be included within the limits of the state's holdings."

"When I was living at Lumley's, he told me over and over about his family's having owned this timber and his grandfather's having been swindled out of it. He seemed to me to be mighty unreasonable about it. He was awful sore, and said he'd be a millionaire to-day if he had all the timber his grandfather owned and that it was his by rights, anyway. I recall that he said the thought of anybody else's getting the money for the timber made him almost want to commit murder."

The forester looked sober. "He's a bad egg," he said. "I really believe he wouldn't hesitate to commit murder if he were cornered. You want to watch him. We'll have to be mighty careful how we handle this business."

"Hark!" said Charley. "Isn't that the sound of a truck?" And as they listened, faintly they could hear the sound of a motor.

"Probably a log truck coming for a load. If we'd had a few minutes more, we could have completed the job. There are only two piles left. We'll just disappear until this truck goes away. Then we can come back and finish."

The beating of the motor sounded louder. The two men moved toward the forest. As they passed the farther end of the first unmeasured log pile, the forester stopped in amazement. A man sat on the ground, leaning lazily against the logs. It was the man Charley had seen that night at Lumley's.

"What are you doing here, Henry Collins?" demanded the forester sternly.

"I'm working for the lumber company," said the man, sullenly.

"You appear to be working hard," replied the forester scornfully.

"I help load the trucks," said the fellow, as the forester turned on his heel and walked away, followed by Charley.

"You don't suppose that he could have heard what we said, do you?" asked Charley, anxiously.

"Heard every word of it," replied the forester. "The jig is up. That was Bill Collins' cousin and he's as crooked as Bill. Lumley will know what's afoot as quick as Collins can get word to him. We've got to act quick. There's a detail of state constabulary at Ironton, and they could get here in a motor in thirty minutes if I could only telephone them. Why in thunderation did I ever leave the office without my portable instrument? The nearest 'phone is at Jim Morton's. It will take me three-quarters of an hour at my best pace to make it. But it's the best I can do. I'll hike for Jim's. You hustle back to your tower and keep a close watch on things. I'll telephone you as soon as I can. We've got to step lively if we are to catch that scoundrel Lumley."



Chapter XXV

The Crisis



The forester hastened down the highway at a A tremendous pace. Charley set out along the forest road he had so recently built. Before he knew it, he was running madly. He ran for a long distance, hardly conscious that he was running. Presently he stopped from very fatigue. Then he realized that he was greatly excited and that he was running from sheer nervousness.

"This won't do at all," he muttered to himself. "You're worse than an old hen. If ever you needed to keep your head, it's right now."

He took a grip on himself, drew a long breath, and settled to a fast walk, thinking hard. He could not see how he himself could accomplish the arrest of Lumley. If his chief did not think it advisable to attempt it, he was very certain that he ought not to try it himself. And he was glad at the thought. For he could not help but recall the wicked gleam in Lumley's eyes, the man's savage outburst of temper, and his vicious talk. He understood well enough that Lumley would not submit to arrest without a struggle.

Then the thought came to him that he had no business trying to arrest Lumley, even if he could do it. The chief was attending to that and the chief knew best what to do under the circumstances. Also, the chief had given him his orders. His business was to obey orders. And those orders were to take care of the forest.

Fresh alarm seized him. Why had the forester given him those orders? Was there danger of any one's setting fire to the forest? At the thought Charley was almost in a panic again. A passionate love for the great woods he was guarding had sprung up in Charley's heart. He held come to dread fire with a dread unspeakable. He had come to regard it with a feeling of absolute terror. In this feeling there was nothing of physical fear. A little blaze in the forest made him so wild with anger that nowadays he would fight it recklessly. His fear was the dread lest the immemorial trees he was guarding should be wasted and the forest destroyed. It was apprehension for the forest, not for himself, that troubled Charley.

Rapidly he passed along the road, now jogging to relieve the nervous tension, now proceeding at a fast walk. He came to the slope of the mountain but his pace was no whit slower. At last, panting and almost exhausted from his terrific efforts, he reached the crest. He staggered to the ladder and climbed painfully to the watch-tower. Steadying himself, he swept the horizon in every direction. The forest seemed to slumber. No smoke arose, no winds swayed the tree tops. The twilight peace enfolded everything. Satisfied that all was safe, Charley sank down on his bunk and lay there until he was rested. Then he climbed down to his cabin and cooked supper.

Never since he had been alone in the forest had Charley so much felt the need of companionship as he did now. He lighted a little fire in his hearth and the cheery snapping of the burning sticks comforted him. He sat down at his wireless and talked with Mr. Morton. The latter could not tell him much about the situation. The forester had telephoned from his place for the police and the latter had started at once for the forest. That was all Mr. Morton knew. Charley called up Lew and told him as much of the situation as he thought wise, and got the news from Central City. When he threw over his switch and turned away from his wireless table, he felt somewhat comforted. But the feeling of dread and apprehension had not altogether left him.

For some time he read, or tried to read. Study he could not. At last he went to the telephone and called Mr. Marlin. He reported that all was well in the forest. He was burning to ask his chief all about the situation, yet hardly dared. He might say something that the chief would rather have unsaid; for always there was the possibility of listeners in on the telephone. And Lumley's family could listen in as readily as any others.

Doubtless Mr. Marlin appreciated Charley's self-restraint. Before he said good-night, he remarked casually to Charley, "I may want you to do some work at the lumber camp to-morrow. I tried to find Lumley there late this afternoon to give him some orders, but he had gone away. I have asked his wife to have him call me the moment he comes home. Don't forget my final instructions to you this afternoon. Good-night."

To an outsider the message would mean nothing, as Mr. Marlin intended it should. But to Charley it told the whole story. Lumley had fled before the arrival of the forester and the state police.

Charley reviewed the forester's words to him, as they talked at the log piles. "He's a bad egg. I really believe he wouldn't hesitate to commit murder if he were cornered. You want to watch him. We'll have to be mighty careful how we handle this business.... You hustle back to your tower and keep a close watch on things."

Again a feeling of apprehension came to Charley, and this time there was something of personal fear about it. Again Charley recalled the fugitive ranger's violence of temper, and his evident jealousy of the chief. And as Charley considered the matter now, he saw that Lumley must have been even more jealous of him, Charley, than he was of the chief. Now he understood all the prying efforts Lumley had made to learn the size of his pay. Quite evidently Lumley could not endure to see another man get ahead. Charley felt sure that it would not be safe for him to meet Lumley. He resolved to be on his guard every second. Then he sighed with relief at the thought that Lumley had fled.

But a moment later his face became very grave. "How do I know that Lumley has fled?" he asked himself. "To go any distance, he would have to walk along a highway, or ride in a motor-car, or board a train; and in any case he might be seen and traced. On the other hand, Lumley knows the forest like a book. He has lived in it for years. Where else could he so well hope to elude pursuit?" Charley felt certain that Lumley must be somewhere in the forest.

Immediately he got his rifle, filled the magazine, and stood it within reach. He tried to read, but was too nervous. Then he thought of the open windows and his light within the cabin. Any one could see through the windows—or shoot through them. Charley put his flash-light in his pocket and blew out his lamp. The evening was warm, and Charley opened the door and sat down on the sill, leaning against the jamb of the door, and cradling his rifle across his knees.

Soon his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. From where he sat, Charley could look out over what seemed like infinite stretches of forest. The moon had not yet risen, and the valleys below him were vast depths of darkness. Mist floated above, partly obscuring the stars. A gentle breeze was blowing up here on the mountain top, but Charley knew that down in the valleys the air was like stagnant water. The whispering of the trees around him was like the quiet breathing of a babe asleep, and the occasional sounds of the forest creatures were no more disturbing than the gentle murmurs of a dreaming child. Peace enfolded the forest. It seemed to Charley as though that great, invisible, beneficent Spirit we call God had cradled the forest in His arms as a mother cradles her little ones. The thought comforted him. Something of the peace about him crept into his own heart. He drew a long sigh and sat back.

After a time he began to feel drowsy. He took his blanket and his rifle, and, closing his cabin door, climbed to the fire-tower. He closed and bolted the trap-door in the floor of the tower. For some time he sat on the edge of his bunk, watching the forest. Behind the eastern mountains the sky began to glow. The moon was coming up. In another hour or two, Charley knew, the forest would be flooded with silvery light. He loved the moonlight on the pines, but he was becoming too sleepy to stay awake to see it. The moment the moon's first rays shot over the eastern hilltops, Charley lay back in his bunk, stood his rifle within reach, drew the blankets about him, and was almost instantly asleep.

Yet he slumbered uneasily. Terrible dreams disturbed him. Once or twice he awoke and started up in alarm. Once the slender tower seemed to vibrate as though some one were mounting the ladder. But Charley dismissed the idea as idle fancy, for the nocturnal stillness was unbroken. So, fitfully, Charley slept through the night.

Dawn found him afoot. Eagerly he scanned the horizon. Banks of mist lay over the valleys, concealing much of the forest. Slowly Charley examined the horizon, half fearful, half relieved. From the two sides of his tower he could see nothing disturbing. But when he turned to the third side his heart stood still. Unmistakable in the whitish mist, darker clouds were rising upward. The forest was afire.

Intently Charley studied the smoke pillar, trying to locate it exactly and to estimate the extent of the blaze. Satisfied, he swept his glance farther along the horizon, but stopped abruptly. A second spiral of smoke was stealing upward through the mist. Before he had completed his survey, Charley discovered four more smoke columns. Somebody had fired the forest in half a dozen different places.

Whoever had done it must have known the forest intimately. The blazes had been kindled just where they would do the most damage.

Charley's mind worked like lightning. Even as he examined and located the smoke columns, he was planning how best to extinguish the fires. It was still very early. The wind would not rise for hours yet. Even then the dense timber would break its force. Meanwhile the fire would spread but slowly. If only he could get his men to the spot in time, Charley felt sure he could put out every blaze with but slight damage done. By the time he reached for the telephone, he had his plan of campaign mapped out. Morton's big crew would be assembling in a short time. The forester might be able to hasten their assembling and to collect more men. With trucks he could rush the gang clear to the foot of the mountain, where the broken army truck lay. An excellent fire trail would take some of them afoot direct to the first blazes. Other groups could strike through the passes for the other fires. With the chief and Mr. Morton and himself to head three of the crews, and experienced fire fighters to lead the other groups, Charley felt sure that they would hold the fires.

Sharply Charley whirled the bell handle and put the receiver to his ear. There was no response. Impatiently he rang again. Still he got no reply. A feeling of alarm took possession of him. Frantically he rang and rang, but the receiver at his ear was mute. The wire was cut.

"Thank God for the wireless!" cried Charley, snatching up the trap-door and descending the ladder recklessly. "There aren't any wires about that to be cut."

Involuntarily he glanced toward his aerial. Then he stopped dead. His aerial had disappeared. Now he knew why the tower had vibrated during the night. Somebody had been on the ladder. If only he had gotten up to investigate! But it was too late now for regrets. He must act. He must get up another aerial. An idea came to him and he shouted for joy. He would use the tower itself as an aerial.

He raced to the cabin and flung open the door. A single glance showed him his cupboard had been rifled of its food supplies. He leaped toward his operating-table and stopped aghast. His face turned pale, his hands fell helplessly to his sides, and he stood looking at the instruments before him, the picture of despair. A heavy file lay across the terminals of his battery, and the battery was useless.

Unnerved, Charley sank down on a chair. He covered his face with his hands. It would take him hours to reach the Morton home on foot. And it might be hours more before the forester could be notified. It looked as though the forest were doomed.

Fairly shaking himself, as a terrier shakes a rat, Charley freed himself of the fear that clutched at his heart and forced himself to think. Calmly he began to consider what he could do. He thought of the dry cells he had first used. They were still wired together and in the cabin. Like a flash Charley coupled them to his instrument, but the cells were exhausted. He could get no spark from them.

Again he sat down and thought. Suddenly he leaped to his feet. "The army truck!" he cried. "If he overlooked that, I'll beat him yet."

He began to assemble tools and instruments. But when he looked for wire to fashion an aerial, his face grew black. The intruder had taken both aerial and lead-in wire, and Charley hadn't a hundred feet of wire left in the place. What should he do? What could he do?

Again he paused and pondered. And again an idea came to him. "They use trees for aerials," he muttered, "and they make perfect ones to receive by. I don't know whether one could send from them or not. But it's my last chance. I'll try it."

He gathered together his tools and instruments, including the creepers he had used in putting up the telephone-line, carefully stowed them all in a big basket and started down the mountain. A hundred yards from the door he turned about and ran back. When he came out of the cabin again, his rifle was tucked under his arm. Then he went down the mountain as fast as he could travel.

Fearfully he studied the truck as he drew near. It was untouched. With a cry of joy, Charley tore open the battery box. In no time he had some wires fast to the battery. He spread out his instruments and coupled everything carefully together. The outfit lacked only an aerial.

Buckling on his creepers, and stuffing some spikes and a hammer in his pocket, Charley rapidly mounted a tall tree that stood close beside the truck. As luck would have it, the tree stood all by itself, its nearest neighbors having been cut in making the road. Two-thirds of the way up the tree, Charley drove a spike deep into the wood. He sank a second spike not far from the first. Then he drove home a third. The lead-in wire dangled behind him at his belt. He unfastened it and twisted it tight to the spikes, wrapping it close about one after the other. Then he climbed down and made sure his wire did not touch the earth. Trembling with eagerness, he sat down at his key.

One moment he paused, drawing out his watch. With a cry of joy, he put his finger on the key. It was almost the hour at which he was accustomed to exchange morning greetings with Mr. Morton. He pressed his key and a sharp flash resulted. Joyously he adjusted his spark-gap until he had a fine, fat stream of fire leaping between the posts. Then he fairly held his breath as he rapped out the ranger's call signal.

"JVM—JVM—JVM—CBC," he called and listened. There was no response. Again he called. And again there was no response. His face became pale. His fingers began to tremble.

"JVM—JVM—JVM—CBC," he rapped out frantically, sending the call again and again. Then he sat back to listen. Suddenly his receivers buzzed. With startling distinctness came the answer.

"CBC—CBC—CBC—I—I—I. Your signals very weak."

So the ranger could hear, Charley did not care how weak the signals were.

"Forest afire in six places," he flashed back. "Wires cut. Wireless broken. Talking over temporary outfit. Notify forester. Collect all men possible. Come immediately in trucks to end of new road. Can get to fires on foot from here easily."

"Where are fires?" replied Mr. Morton.

"South and west of fire-tower. In valleys both sides of fire-tower mountain."

"How far away?"

"About two miles—maybe three."

"How big are they?"

"Still small. Can put out before wind rises. Must have help quick."

There was a long pause. Then came this message, "Have sent neighbor with his automobile to notify forester. Will rush crew. Hold fire best you can. Good-bye."

With a cry of relief that came from his very soul, Charley threw over his switch and leaped to his feet. He seized his rifle, then stood a second, hesitating.

"No," he said decisively, "the man who set those fires won't wait around to be seen, even if he is a desperate man."

He slipped his rifle under a clump of bushes and buckled on his little axe. Then he started down the fire trail at a fast pace. Now running, now walking, advancing as fast as he could without exhausting himself, Charley hastened toward the fire. Long before he reached the nearest blaze, Charley smelled smoke. As he drew near the fire, he studied it as best he could. He rejoiced that it was so small. The mist bank and the heavy fall of dew had so moistened things that the fire crept but slowly.

Charley cut a pine branch and fell upon the flames ferociously. A great anger surged up in his heart, like the fierce passion that takes possession of a bull when he sees red. It lent power and determination to him. Yet Charley tried to conserve his strength. Yard after yard he beat out the flames, thankful that he had to face only a little creeping fire. Small as it was, the blaze was, nevertheless, hot and stifling.

Rod after rod Charley fought his way around the ring of fire, never pausing for a single instant to rest. By the time he had completed the circle and the blaze was out, Charley was beginning to tire badly. He doubted if he could beat out the six fires alone. If they grew any larger, he knew he could not. And larger they were becoming, for the first faint puffs of the morning breeze were beginning to stir the tree tops.

Half a mile through the trees Charley smashed his way to the next ring of fire. He could see that the flames were leaping a little higher and that they were eating their way along at a faster pace than the first fire had traveled. He knew it would be hard to stop this blaze. But he cut a new bough, and gritting his teeth, once more fell to fighting fire.

Quickly he found it was quite a different fire from the one he had extinguished. Fitfully the wind was coming up. When it blew, the flames seemed to leap at Charley. His shoes, his clothes, his hands and wrists were blistered by the heat. His fingers were torn and his muscles ached. His lungs and throat became painful. His eyes grew blurred. He could no longer see clearly. There was a ringing noise in his ears. Yet coughing, choking, gasping for breath, stumbling and tripping, and at times falling prone, he fought his way along the line of fire.

He was so weak, so worn out from physical exertion and nervous strain that he could no longer think clearly. But blindly, stubbornly, doggedly, he fought the flames. His movements became mechanical. Sometimes his descending bough hit the fire and sometimes it struck the unignited leaves. Charley was fast nearing the point of exhaustion. He could scarcely control his movements. Yet he tried valiantly to hold himself to his task. He thought of the turtle-dove on the burning stump and for a moment the thought seemed to give him new strength. But the inspiration was only momentary. Blindly now he staggered along the line of fire, gasping, reeling, swaying, hardly able to keep his feet. He tottered on.

He could hardly raise his brush. His efforts were useless. Yet he hung doggedly to his duty. Just as he was about to plunge headlong into the flames, a shout sounded in his ears, forms came rushing through the smoke, and Charley was lifted in the forester's strong arms and borne to one side.



Chapter XXVI

More Thumb-Prints



For a long time Charley lay on his back, hardly conscious of anything. But slowly the pure air revived him and his powers came back. He sat up, then rose unsteadily to his feet. In a few moments he felt all right. He began to look about him. The fire he had been fighting was extinguished. He ascended an easily climbed tree and saw that the third fire in the valley was also out. He knew that the fire fighters had gone on to the next valley to subdue the blazes there. The wind was still no more than a zephyr and he knew they would succeed. The forest was saved. A feeling of great relief came to him.

He sat down and rested, thinking what he ought to do. He remembered what the forester had said about the desirability of an immediate investigation of incendiary fires. Here was his job.

He made his way to the blackened area where he had put out the first fire. The space burned over was small. Charley stood and looked at it for some moments, thinking the problem over. Then he walked slowly around the burned area, examining it closely, but not stepping within the fire-line. Then he wet a finger and held it aloft. Unmistakably the light breeze was from the west. It had doubtless been blowing from that quarter all the morning, though this particular fire had been extinguished when there was hardly more than a suspicion of a breeze. The fire would have spread in an elongated circle, or more exactly an oval. Charley tried to figure out the exact starting point. He felt sure he could estimate it within a few yards.

When he had decided about where the fire must have originated, he made his way cautiously, a yard at a time, toward that point. He was careful not to disturb the leaves any more than was necessary in putting down his feet. Carefully he scrutinized every inch of the ground he covered. He was looking for a mound of burned leaves or any other suspicious thing. But he found none. Look where he would, the leaves seemed to have been disturbed before the fire started.

Not far from the point selected by Charley as the probable place of the fire's origin, the ground thrust up in a little, low shoulder, as though there might be an outcropping ledge of rock there. Immediately around this elevation the ground was clear of brush. No trees stood near. Charley paid little attention to the mound until he noticed that it was hollowed out on top. At the same time a piece of freshly dug earth caught his eye near by. At least Charley judged it to be freshly dug, although it was blackened by fire. He made his way very carefully to the little mound. Now he noticed that the leaves about this mound had been raked together, for the ashes lay thick in the hollow centre in the elevation.

Cautiously Charley began to scratch among the ashes at the edge of the pile. His fingers encountered many rough chunks of earth, partly hardened by fire. The rain, the frost, and the cold of winter would naturally have broken those chunks down into loose soil. So Charley knew they could not be very old. As he scratched more of them out of the leaves, he blew the ashes from them and examined them critically. He could think of no connection between these chunks of earth and the fire, yet something made him scrutinize them closely.

All the time he was carefully digging the ashes away, and working toward the centre of the pile. Suddenly he picked up a chunk that was quite different from the crumbly earth masses he had been handling. This piece was partly hardened and reddened. At once Charley saw it was clay.

Charley continued to scrape aside the ashes. He found more and more little chunks of clay, while the hollow place in the centre of the mound proved to be a square, small depression that must have been made with human hands. Even before he had it cleared of ashes, Charley knew that. The depression was much too rectangular to be natural. It was about eighteen inches square and almost a foot deep. In the bottom of it were charred ends of sticks and a little candle grease, buried under the mass of ashes.

When Charley had carefully scraped and blown out all the ashes possible, he lay flat on his belly and examined the place minutely. Some person or persons had dug a little square chamber, like a sunken box, right in the shoulder of the mound. Charley decided that a candle had been placed in the centre of the box-like excavation, leaves packed loosely about the base of the candle, some fine, dry twigs stacked across the edges of the excavation, and across the top of the hole other dry twigs had been placed. Then the candle had been lighted, the open side of the excavation closed with twigs thrust vertically into the clay, and leaves heaped over and about the excavation.

As Charley examined the mound, he could not but admire the devilish cunning exhibited in the construction of this fire box. The open space about the mound would give full sweep to the morning breeze, and the box was located in the windward shoulder of the little mound, exactly where the breeze would hit it hardest. The piles of leaves heaped about the box would spread the flames on all sides.

The candle grease in the bottom of the excavation, Charley had no doubt, was the remains of one of his own candles, taken with the food supplies from his cupboard. Nor did he doubt that the man who had taken it was Lumley. He must have disappeared in the forest the moment Henry Collins had told him what was afoot, for there could be no doubt Collins had informed him. After the moon rose, so that he could see well, Lumley must have come to the cabin, stolen food and candles, cautiously removed the aerial and grounded the battery, and gone straight down the valley to set his fires. If he could not get the money for the timber, or at least some of it, quite evidently Lumley did not intend to allow any one else to have it, not even the state.

In his own mind Charley had no doubt whatever that the incendiary was Lumley, and that he had done exactly the things Charley pictured him as doing. Even now he must be somewhere in the forest. But Charley felt relieved when he realized that in all probability Lumley had no firearms. He must have fled without taking time to equip himself. Also Charley doubted if he would remain in the forest. The forester would be certain to scour the woods for him, and Lumley could hardly hope to evade pursuit indefinitely. He would probably make his way out of the forest at some distant point and try to get away. Sooner or later, Charley felt sure, the man would be captured and doubtless sent to prison for cheating the state. It made Charley feel bad to think that he did not have enough direct evidence to insure Lumley's conviction for arson as well.

An idea came to Charley. Blowing away the remaining dust and ashes, Charley once more began an examination of the little excavation. Inch by inch he scrutinized the surface of the pit. He found it partly baked. Suddenly he gave a cry. He had found the distinct prints of some one's fingers. On the second side of the excavation he found more prints, and the third side yielded still others. Carefully Charley chopped out the incriminating bits of clay. When he laid them side by side and examined them under his microscope, he found they had been made, not by one person, but by three. Apparently each side of the pit had been fashioned by a different man.



Chapter XXVII

Trapped



While Charley was turning the matter over in his mind, the forester suddenly appeared. Charley gave a glad cry when he saw him.

"Did you get them all out?" he asked anxiously.

"All will be out in a short time," was the reply. "Morton and his big gang crossed directly into the other valley when I came here with my crew. As soon as we had finished your job here, we hustled over to the other valley. The fires there had spread considerably, but as there was little wind and we had a big force of men, we quickly got them under control. The minute I was satisfied we had them in hand, I came back to see how you were. Jim is in charge over there, so everything will be all right. How are you?"

"All O.K.," said Charley, "but I guess I must have been about all in when you got here. I don't remember much about it."

"Yes, you were about gone. We got to you just in time. Now tell me what you know about this fire."

The two men sat down in the shade and Charley told his chief all that had happened to him since the two had parted on the preceding evening. When he showed the forester the marks in the clay, the forester was elated.

"He's a pretty clever rascal who doesn't trip himself up somewhere," he said. "It's an easy guess who your three fire bugs are. I have a very great suspicion that the thumb-prints in that ball of clay I took from your secret camp will match up with some of these marks, and that both sets of prints will correspond with the marks on the thumbs of one Bill Collins, though I didn't know that he was in the neighborhood at present. And it's just as safe a bet that another set of those marks will match the ends of Lumley's thumbs. If only he had been as considerate as his friend Collins, and left his calling cards behind him, we'd have a complete case against him."

"We have," cried Charley, leaping to his feet in sudden excitement. "Lumley left his thumb-prints in the putty he stuck in his window-sash. I never thought of them until this moment."

"Excellent!" cried the forester. "I suspect we can find the duplicates for this third set of prints only when we lay hands on Henry Collins. But I have a strong suspicion we'll have a chance to make that comparison very soon."

"How?" asked Charley eagerly. "What do you mean? Have the police made any arrests?"

"I don't know," replied the forester. "But this is the situation. Lumley will never dare hang around in the forest, for he will know that every man in the Forest Service is looking for him. Then, too, he can't have much food with him."

"Only what he took from me, I suspect."

"That makes it certain that he must leave the forest soon. It's a good many miles from the lumber camp to this neighborhood, so the three fugitives must be traveling in this direction. If they keep on for fifteen or twenty miles further, they will come out of the mountains near Pleasantville or Maple Gap. They can board a train at either place. The state police already are watching both stations. If Lumley and his fellows went straight on after they started the fires, and Goodness knows they wouldn't hang around here, they could reach the railroad in six or eight hours. That means they would be there by this time. There is a train that reaches Pleasantville about eleven o'clock. They would have time to make it. I should not be at all surprised, when I get back to the office, to find a message saying that the police had caught them."

"Let us hope you do," said Charley.

The forester arose. "Would you like to go see?" he asked.

"Surest thing you know," replied Charley.

"Then we'll hike back to the road and slip out to Lumley's house in my car. We can get that window-sash and put it in a safe place in my office and be back here before Jim brings his gang out."

Rapidly the two walked back along the fire trail. "Charley," said the forester suddenly, "just how did you manage to get that message to Jim? It's all that saved the forest. The telephone was put as completely out of commission as your wireless was."

Charley then told the forester how he had used a tree for an aerial. "It was my last chance," he said. "If it hadn't worked, the forest would have burned. I had read about the use of trees to receive by, and I thought I had read that messages had been sent through trees, but I wasn't sure. It was my only chance and I took it."

"You're a wonder, Charley. I take back everything I ever said about the wireless. I have telegraphed for the Commissioner to come on from the capital. I shall put this entire matter before him and urge the installation of a wireless outfit in every district of the state forests. No matter what is done elsewhere, we're going on a wireless basis here as soon as we can get the outfit, just as I told you. If I can't get money from the state for the outfit, I'll pay for it myself and have your Wireless Club make it. This coming winter we'll start a radio school and you shall have charge of it. Maybe Jim can help you now."

"That will be grand," said Charley with sparkling eyes. "If only we had the money Lumley robbed the state of, we could buy a dozen outfits."

"We'll get every cent of it," said the forester with decision. "Don't you worry about that. When we went to the lumber camp after Lumley last night, I stopped all cutting. Before another stick is felled, you and I are going in there and measure every stump. Then we'll estimate the timber that came from those stumps and the lumber operators will pay for it or they will face a criminal prosecution. If we catch Lumley, we've got the operators dead to rights. He's the kind of a rat that will squeal quick when he's caught."

They reached the road, jumped into the forester's car and sped away to Lumley's house. Half an hour later they entered the forester's office, carefully carrying a window-sash. As the forester reached his desk, the man in charge handed him a message from the state police at Maple Gap. It read, "Have arrested three men who came out of the forest here and tried to board a train. They give fictitious names, but no doubt two of the men are wanted. Third has gold teeth and scar over right cheek. Do you want him?"

"Do we want him?" echoed the forester, as he began to write an answer. "Well, I should say we do."

He dashed off his message, and handed it to his assistant. "Rush that," he directed.

Then he took a long coil of wire from a closet and led the way back to his car. "That's for a temporary aerial in case you decide to make one," he said, as Charley climbed up beside him and they went whirling back to the fire-tower in the mountains.



Chapter XXVIII

Victory



In due time Ranger Morton came out of the forest with his big crew. The men were black with smoke and their hands and faces were blistered and scratched. But they were a happy crew for all that. They had extinguished what at first bade fair to be the worst fire ever seen in their district.

By this time every man in the gang had heard the story of Lumley's dastardly act and Charley's quick wit. Most of the men lived in or near the forest, and a great fire might have consumed their homes just as truly as it would have destroyed the forest. It was small wonder, then, that to a man they had only admiration and gratitude for Charley. The last vestige of ill-will that any of them might have had for Charley was gone. Like men of the forest, they said little. But Charley knew that this little meant much. He had won the good-will and respect of every man in the district. No wonder he was happy.

This thought did much to offset the feeling of regret that he could not help experiencing at the realization that his days as a ranger were numbered. When he became a patrol again, or a member of Jim's crew, for he believed that Mr. Marlin would grant him that wish, he knew that he would stand on a par with the men in their own estimation. So he waved good-bye to the departing trucks with a mixture of happiness and regret.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse