Chapter 6




MANLEY'S FIRE GUARD


Hot sunlight, winds as hot, a shimmering heat which distorted objects at a distance and made the sky line a dazzling, wavering ribbon of faded blue; and then the dull haze of smoke which hung over the land, and, without tempering the heat, turned the sun into a huge coppery balloon, which drifted imperceptibly from the east to the west, and at evening time settled softly down upon a parched hilltop and disappeared, leaving behind it an ominous red glow as of hidden fires.

When the wind blew, the touch of it seared the face, as the smoke tang assailed the nostrils. All the world was a weird, unnatural tint, hard to name, never to be forgotten. The far horizons drew steadily closer as the days passed slowly and thickened the veil of smoke. The distant mountains drew daily back into dimmer distance; became an obscure, formless blot against the sky, and vanished completely. The horizon crouched then upon the bluffs across the river, moved up to the line of trees along its banks, blotted them out one day, and impudently established itself half-way up the coulee.

Time ceased to be measured accurately; events moved slowly in an unreal world of sultry heat and smoke and a red sun wading heavily through the copper-brown sky from the east to the west, and a moon as red which followed meekly after.

Men rode uneasily here and there, and when they met they talked of prairie fires and of fire guards and the direction of the wind, and of the faint prospect of rain. Cattle, driven from their accustomed feeding grounds, wandered aimlessly over the still-unburned range, and lowed often in the night as they drifted before the flame-heated wind.

Fifteen miles to the east of Cold Spring Coulee, the Wishbone outfit watched uneasily the deepening haze. Kent and Bob Royden were put to riding the range from the river north and west, and Polycarp Jenks, who had taken a claim where were good water and some shelter, and who never seemed to be there for more than a few hours at a time, because of his boundless curiosity, wandered about on his great, raw-boned sorrel with the white legs, and seemed always to have the latest fire news on the tip of his tongue, and always eager to impart it to somebody.

To the northwest there was the Double Diamond, also sleeping with both eyes open, so to speak. They also had two men out watching the range, though the fires were said to be all across the river. But there was the railroad seaming the country straight through the grassland, and though the company was prompt at plowing fire guards, contract work would always bear watching, said the stockmen, and with the high winds that prevailed there was no telling what might happen.

So Fred De Garmo and Bill Madison patrolled the country in rather desultory fashion, if the truth be known. They liked best to ride to the north and east--which, while following faithfully the railroad and the danger line, would bring them eventually to Hope, where they never failed to stop as long as they dared. For, although they never analyzed their feelings, they knew that as long as they kept their jobs and their pay was forthcoming, a few miles of blackened range concerned them personally not at all. Still, barring a fondness for the trail which led to town, they were not unfaithful to their trust.

One day Kent and Polycarp met on the brink of a deep coulee, and, as is the way of men who ride the dim trails, they stopped to talk a bit.

Polycarp, cracking his face across the middle with his habitual grin, straightened his right leg to its full length, slid his hand with difficulty into his pocket, brought up a dirty fragment of "plug" tobacco, looked it over inquiringly, and pried off the corner with his teeth. When he had rolled it comfortably into his cheek and had straightened his leg and replaced the tobacco in his pocket, he was "all set" and ready for conversation.

Kent had taken the opportunity to roll a cigarette, though smoking on the range was a weakness to be indulged in with much care. He pinched out the blaze of his match, as usual, and then spat upon it for added safety before throwing it away.

"If this heat doesn't let up," he remarked, "the grass is going to blaze up from sunburn."

"It won't need to, if you ask me. I wouldn't be su'prised to see this hull range afire any time. Between you an' me, Kenneth, them Double Diamond fellers ain't watching it as close as they might. I was away over Dry Creek way yesterday, and I seen where there was two different fires got through the company's guards, and kited off across the country. It jest happened that the grass give out in that red day soil, and starved 'em both out. They wa'n't put out. I looked close all around, and there wasn't nary a track of man or horse. That's their business--ridin' line on the railroad. The section men's been workin' off down the other way, where a culvert got scorched up pretty bad. By granny, Fred 'n' Bill Madison spend might' nigh all their time ridin' the trail to town. They're might' p'ticular about watchin' the railroad between the switches--he-he!"

"That's something for the Double Diamond to worry over," Kent rebuffed. He hated that sort of gossip which must speak ill of somebody. "Our winter range lays mostly south and east; we could stop a fire between here and the Double Diamond, even if they let one get past 'em."

Polycarp regarded him cunningly with his little, slitlike eyes. "Mebbe you could," he said doubtfully. "And then again, mebbe you couldn't. Oncet it got past Cold Spring--" He shook his wizened head slowly, leaned, and expectorated gravely.

"Man Fleetwood's keeping tab pretty close over that way."

Polycarp gave a grunt that was half a chuckle. "Man Fleetwood's keeping tab on what runs down his gullet," he corrected. "I seen him an' his wife out burnin' guards t' other day--over on his west line--and, by granny, it wouldn't stop nothing! A toad could jump it--he-he!" He sent another stream of tobacco juice afar, with the grave air as before.

"And I told him so. 'Man,' I says, 'what you think you're doing?'

"'Buildin' a fire guard,' he says. 'My wife, Mr. Jenks.'

"'Polycarp Jenks is my cognomen,' I says. 'And I don't want no misterin' in mine. Polycarp's good enough for me,' I says, and I took off my hat and bowed to 'is wife. Funny kinda eyes, she's got--ever take notice? Yeller, by granny! first time I ever seen yeller eyes in a human's face. Mebbe it was the sun in 'em, but they sure was yeller. I dunno as they hurt her looks none, either. Kinda queer lookin', but when you git used to 'em you kinda like 'em.

"'N' I says: 'Tain't half wide enough, nor a third'--spoke right up to 'im! I was thinkin' of the hull blamed country, and I didn't care how he took it. 'Any good, able-bodied wind'll jump a fire across that guard so quick it won't reelize there was any there,' I says.

"Man didn't like it none too well, either. He says to me: 'That guard'll stop any fire I ever saw,' and I got right back at him--he-he! 'Man,' I says, 'you ain't never saw a prairie fire'--just like that. 'You wait,' I says, 'till the real thing comes along. We ain't had any fires since you come into the country,' I says, 'and you don't know what they're like. Now, you take my advice and plow another four or five furrows--and plow 'em out, seventy-five or a hundred feet from here,' I says, 'an' make sure you git all the grass burned off between--and do it on a still day,' I says. 'You'll burn up the hull country if you keep on this here way you're doing,' I told him--straight out, just like that. 'And when you do it,' I says, 'you better let somebody know, so's they can come an' help,' I says. ''Tain't any job a man oughta tackle alone,' I says to him. 'Git help, Man, git help.'

"Well, by granny--he-he! Man's wife brustled up at me like a--a--" He searched his brain for a simile, and failed to find one. "'I have been helping Manley, Mr. Polycarp Jenks,' she says to me, 'and I flatter myself I have done as well as any man could do.' And, by granny! the way them yeller eyes of hern blazed at me--he-he! I had to laugh, jest to look at her. Dressed jest like a city girl, by granny! with ruffles on her skirts--to ketch afire if she wasn't mighty keerful!--and a big straw hat tied down with a veil, and kid gloves on her hands, and her yeller hair kinda fallin' around her face--and them yeller eyes snappin' like flames--by granny! if she didn't make as purty a picture as I ever want to set eyes on! Slim and straight, jest like a storybook woman--he-he! 'Course, she was all smoke an' dirt; a big flake of burned grass was on her hair, I took notice, and them ruffles was black up to her knees--he-he! And she had a big smut on her cheek--but she was right there with her stack of blues, by granny! Settin' into the game like a--a--" He leaned and spat "But burnin' guards ain't no work for a woman to do, an' I told Man so--straight out. 'You git help,' I says. 'I see you're might' near through with this here strip,' I says, 'an' I'm in a hurry, or I'd stay, right now.' And, by granny! if that there wife of Man's didn't up an' hit me another biff--he-he!

"'Thank you very much,' she says to me, like ice water. 'When we need your help, we'll be sure to let you know--but at present,' she says, 'we couldn't think of troubling you.' And then, by granny! she turns right around and smiles up at me--he-he! Made me feel like somebody'd tickled m' ear with a spear of hay when I was asleep, by granny! Never felt anything like it--not jest with somebody smilin' at me.

"'Polycarp Jenks,' she says to me, 'we do appreciate what you've told us, and I believe you're right,' she says. 'But don't insiniwate I'm not as good a fighter as any man who ever breathed,' she says. 'Manley has another of his headaches to-day--going to town always gives him a sick headache,' she says, 'and I've done nearly all of this my own, lone self,' she says. 'And I'm horribly proud of it, and I'll never forgive you for saying I--' And then, by granny! if she didn't begin to blink them eyes, and I felt like a--a--" He put the usual period to his hesitation.

"Between you an' me, Kenneth," he added, looking at Kent slyly, "she ain't having none too easy a time. Man's gone back to drinkin'--I knowed all the time he wouldn't stay braced up very long--lasted about six weeks, from all I c'n hear. Mebbe she reely thinks it's jest headaches ails him when he comes back from town--I dunno. You can't never tell what idees a woman's got tacked away under her hair--from all I c'n gether. I don't p'tend to know nothing about 'em--don't want to know--he-he! But I guess," he hinted cunningly, "I know as much about 'em as you do--hey, Kenneth? You don't seem to chase after 'em none, yourself--he-he!"

"Whereabouts did Man run his guards?" asked Kent, passing over the invitation to personal confessions.

Polycarp gave a grunt of disdain. "Just on the west rim of his coulee. About forty rod of six-foot guard, and slanted so it'll shoot a fire right into high grass at the head of the coulee and send it kitin' over this way. That's supposin' it turns a fire, which it won't. Six feet--a fall like this here! Why, I never see grass so thick on this range--did you?"

"I wonder, did he burn that extra guard?" Kent was keeping himself rigidly to the subject of real importance.

"No, by granny! he didn't--not unless he done it since yest'day. He went to town for suthin, and he might' nigh forgot to go home--he-he! He was there yest'day about three o'clock, an' I says to him--"

"Well, so-long; I got to, be moving." Kent gathered up the reins and went his way, leaving Polycarp just in the act of drawing his "plug" from his pocket, by his usual laborious method, in mental preparation for another half hour of talk.

"If you're ridin' over that way, Kenneth, you better take a look at Man's guard," he called after him. "A good mile of guard, along there, would help a lot if a fire got started beyond. The way he fixed it, it ain't no account at all."

Kent proved by a gesture that he heard him, and rode on without turning to look back. Already his form was blurred as Polycarp gazed after him, and in another minute or two he was blotted out completely by the smoke veil, though he rode upon the level. Polycarp watched him craftily, though there was no need, until he was completely hidden, then he went on, ruminating upon the faults of his acquaintances.

Kent had no intention of riding over to Cold Spring. He had not been there since Manley's marriage, though he had been a frequent visitor before, and unless necessity drove him there, it would be long before he faced again the antagonism of Mrs. Fleetwood. Still, he was mentally uncomfortable, and he felt much resentment against Polycarp Jenks because he had caused that discomfort. What was it to him, if Manley had gone bock to drinking? He asked the question more than once, and he answered always that it was nothing to him, of course. Still, he wished futilely that he had not been quite so eager to cover up Manley's weakness and deceive the girl. He ought to have given her a chance--

A cinder like a huge black snowflake struck him suddenly upon the cheek. He looked up, startled, and tried to see farther into the haze which closed him round. It seemed to him, now that his mind was turned from his musings, that the smoke was thicker, the smell of burning grass stronger, and the breath of wind hotter upon his face. He turned, looked away to the west, fancied there a tumbled blackness new to his sight, and put his horse to a run. If there were fire close, then every second counted; and as he raced over the uneven prairie he fumbled with the saddle string that held a sodden sack tied fast to the saddle, that he might lose no time.

The cinders grew thicker, until the air was filled with them, like a snowstorm done in India ink. A little farther and he heard a faint crackling; topped a ridge and saw not far ahead, a dancing, yellow line. His horse was breathing heavily with the pace he was keeping, but Kent, swinging away from the onrush of flame and heat, spurred him to a greater speed. They neared the end of the crackling, red line, and as Kent swung in behind it upon the burned ground, he saw several men beating steadily at the flames.

He was hardly at work when Polycarp came running up and took his place beside him; but beyond that Kent paid no attention to the others, though he heard and recognized the voice of Fred De Garmo calling out to some one. The smoke which rolled up in uneven volumes as the wind lifted it and bore it away, or let it suck backward as it veered for an instant, blinded him while he fought. He heard other men gallop up, and after a little some one clattered up with a wagon filled with barrels of water. He ran to wet his sack, and saw that it was Blumenthall himself, foreman of the Double Diamond, who drove the team.

"Lucky it ain't as windy as it was yesterday and the day before," Blumenthall cried out, as Kent stepped upon the brake block to reach a barrel. "It'd sweep the whole country if it was."

Kent nodded, and ran back to the fire, trailing the dripping sack after him. As he passed Polycarp and another, he heard Polycarp saying something about Man Fleetwood's fire guard; but he did not stop to hear what it was. Polycarp was always talking, and he didn't always keep too closely to facts.

Then, of a sudden, he saw men dimly when he glanced down the leaping fire line, and he knew that the fire was almost conquered. Another frenzied minute or two, and he was standing in a group of men, who dropped their charred, blackened fragments of blanket and bags, and began to feel for their smoking material, while they stamped upon stray embers which looked live enough to be dangerous.

"Well, she's out," said a voice, "But it did look for a while as if it'd get away in spite of us."

Kent turned away, wiping an eye which held a cinder fast under the lid. It was Fred De Garmo who spoke.

"If somebody'd been watchin' the railroad a leetle might closer--" Polycarp began, in his thin, rasping voice.

Fred cut him short. "I thought you laid it to Man Fleetwood, burning fire guards," he retorted. "Keep on, and you'll get it right pretty soon. This never come from the railroad; you can gamble on that."

Blumenthall had left his team and come among them. "If you want to know how it started, I can tell you. Somebody dropped a match, or a cigarette, or something, by the trail up here a ways. I saw where it started when I went to Cold Spring after the last load of water. And if I knew who it was--"

Polycarp launched his opinion first, as usual. "Well, I don't know who done it--but, by granny! I can might' nigh guess who it was. There's jest one man that I know of been traveling that trail lately when he wa'n't in his sober senses--"

Here Manley Fleetwood rode up to them, coughing at the soot his horse kicked up. "Say! you fellows come on over to the house and have something to eat--and," he added significantly, "something wet. I told my wife, when I saw the fire, to make plenty of coffee, for fighting fire's hungry work, let me tell. Come on--no hanging back, you know. There'll be lots of coffee, and I've got a quart of something better cached in the haystack!"

As he had said, fighting fire is hungry work, and none save Blumenthall, who was dyspeptic and only ate twice a day, and then of certain foods prepared by himself, declined the invitation.




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