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Bob stood still for a moment, looking at the injured member. Charley Morton touched him on the shoulder. When he looked up, the ranger motioned him back. Casting a look of regret at his half-completed defences, he obeyed. To his surprise he found the other four already gathered together. Evidently his being called off the work had nothing to do with his broken finger, as he had at first supposed.
"Well, I guess we'll have to fall back," said Morton composedly. "It's got away from us."
Without further comment he shouldered his implements and took his way up the hill. Bob handed his hoe and rake to Jack Pollock.
"Carry 'em a minute," he explained. "I hurt my hand a little."
As he walked along he bound the finger roughly to its neighbour, and on both tied a rude splint.
"What's up?" he muttered to Jack, as he worked at this.
"I reckon we must be goin' to start a fire line back of the next cross-bridge somewheres," Jack ventured his opinion.
Bob stopped short.
"Then we've abandoned the old one!" he exclaimed.
"Complete," spoke up Ware, who overheard.
"And all the work we've done there is useless?"
"We've got it all to do over again from the beginning?"
Bob adjusted his mind to this new and rather overwhelming idea.
"I saw Senator What's-his-name--from Montana--made a speech the other day," spoke up Elliott, "in which he attacked the Service because he said it was a refuge for consumptives and incompetents!"
At this moment Amy rode up draped with canteens and balancing carefully a steaming pail of coffee. She was accompanied by another woman similarly provided.
The newcomer was a decided-looking girl under thirty, with a full, strong figure, pronounced flaxen-blond hair, a clear though somewhat sunburned skin, blue eyes, and a flash of strong, white teeth. Bob had never seen her before, but he recognized her as a mountain woman. She rode a pinto, guided by a hackamore, and was attired quite simply in the universal broad felt hat and a serviceable blue calico gown. In spite of this she rode astride; and rode well. A throwing rope, or riata, hung in the sling at the right side of her saddle pommel; and it looked as though it had been used.
"Where's Charley?" she asked promptly as she rode up. "Is that you? You look like a nigger. How you feeling? You just mind me, and don't you try to do too much. You don't get paid for overtime at this job."
"Hullo, Lou," replied Charley Morton; "I thought it was about time you showed up."
The woman nodded at the others.
"Howdy, Mrs. Morton," answered Tom Carroll, Pollock and Ware. Bob and Elliott bowed.
By now the fire had been left far in the rear. The crackling of flames had died in the distance; even the smoke cleared from the atmosphere. All the forest was peaceful and cool. The Douglas squirrels scampered and barked; the birds twittered and flashed or slanted in long flight through the trees; the sun shone soft; a cool breeze ruffled the feathery tips of the tarweed.
At the top of the ridge Charley Morton called a halt.
"This is pretty easy country," said he. "We'll run the line square down either side. Get busy."
"Have a cup of coffee first," urged Amy.
"Surely. Forgot that."
They drank the coffee, finding it good, and tucked away the lunches Amy, with her unfailing forethought, had brought them.
"Good-bye!" she called gaily; "I've got to get back to camp before the fire cuts me off. I won't see you again till the fire burns me out a way to get to you."
"Take my horse, too," said Mrs. Morton, dismounting. "You don't need me in camp."
Amy took the lead rein and rode away as a matter of course. She was quite alone to guard the horses and camp equipage on the little knoll while the fire spent its fury all around her. Everybody seemed to take the matter for granted; but Bob looked after her with mingled feelings of anxiety and astonishment. This Western breed of girl was still beyond his comprehension.
The work was at once begun. In spite of the cruel throb of his injured hand, Bob found the labour pleasant by sheer force of contrast. The air was cool, the shade refreshing, the frantic necessity of struggle absent. He raked carefully his broad path among the pine needles, laying bare the brown earth; hoed and chopped in the tarweed and brush. Several times Charley Morton passed him. Each time the ranger paused for a moment to advise him.
"You ought to throw your line farther back," he told Bob. "See that 'dead-and-down' ahead? If you let that cross your fire line, it'll carry the fire sooner or later, sure; and if you curve your line too quick to go around it, the fire'll jump. You want to keep your eye out 'way ahead."
Once Bob caught a glimpse of blue calico through the trees. As he came nearer, he was surprised to see Mrs. Morton working away stoutly with a hoe. Her skirts were turned back, her sleeves rolled up to display a white and plump forearm, the neck of her gown loosened to show a round and well-moulded neck. The strokes of her hoe were as vigorous as those of any of the men. In watching the strong, free movements of her body, Bob forgot for a moment what had been intruding itself on him with more and more insistance--the throb of his broken hand.
In the course of an hour the fire line was well under way. But now wisps of smoke began to drift down the tree aisles. Birds shot past, at first by ones and twos, later in flocks. A deer that must have lain perdu to let them pass bounded across the ridge, his head high, his nostrils wide. The squirrels ran chattering down the trees, up others, leaped across the gaps, working always farther and farther to the north. The cool breeze carried with it puffs of hot air. Finally in distant openings could be discerned little busy, flickering flames. All at once the thought gripped Bob hard: the might of the fire was about to test the quality of his work!
"There she comes!" gasped Charley Morton. "My Lord, how she's run to-day! We got to close the line to that stone dike."
By one of the lightning transitions of motive with which these activities seemed to abound, the affair had become a very deadly earnest sort of race. It was simple. If the men could touch the dike before the fire, they won.
The realization of this electrified even the weary spirits of the fire-fighters. They redoubled their efforts. The hoes, mattocks and axes rose and fell feverishly. Mrs. Morton, the perspiration matting her beautiful and shining hair across her forehead, laboured with the best. The fire, having gained the upward-rising slope, came at them with the speed of an enemy charging. Soon they were fairly choked by the dense clouds of smoke, fairly scorched by the waves of heat. Sweat poured from them in streams. Bob utterly forgot his wounded hand.
And then, when they were within a scant fifty yards of the dike which was intended to be their right wing, the flames sprang with a roar to new life. Up the slope they galloped, whirled around the end of the fire line, and began eagerly to lick up the tarweed and needles of the ridge-top.
Bob and Elliott uttered a simultaneous cry of dismay. The victory had seemed fairly in their grasp. Now all chance of it was snatched away.
"Poor guess," said Charley Morton. The men, without other comment, shouldered their implements and set off on a dog-trot after their leader. The ranger merely fell back to the next natural barrier.
"Now, let's see if we can't hold her, boys," said he.
Twice again that day were these scenes reŽnacted. The same result obtained. Each time it seemed to Bob that he could do no more. His hand felt as big as a pillow, and his whole arm and shoulder ached. Besides this he was tired out. Amy had been cut off from them by the fire. In two days they had had but an hour's sleep. Water had long since given out on them. The sun beat hot and merciless, assisting its kinsman, the fire. Bob would, if left to himself, have given up the contest long since. It seemed ridiculous that this little handful of men should hope to arrest anything so mighty, so proud, so magnificent as this great conflagration. As well expect a colony of ants to stop a break in the levee. But Morton continued to fall back as though each defeat were a matter of course. He seemed unwearied, though beneath the smoke-black his eyes were hollow. Mrs. Morton did her part with the rest, strong as a man for all her feminine attraction, for all the soft lines of her figure.
"I'll drop back far enough this time," Charley muttered to her, as they were thrown together in their last retreat. "Can't seem to get far enough back!"
"There's too few of us to handle such a big fire," his wife replied. "You can't do it with six men."
"Seven," amended Charley. "You're as good as any of us. Don't you worry, Lou. Even if we don't stop her--and I think we will--we're checking the run of her until we get help. We're doing well. There's only two old fire-fighters in the lot--you and me. All the rest is green hands. We're doing almighty well."
Overhearing this Bob plucked up heart. These desperate stands were not then so wasted as he had thought them. At least the fire was checked at each defence--it was not permitted to run wild over the country.
"We ought to get help before long," he said.
"To-morrow, I figure," replied Charley Morton. "The boys are scattered wide, finishing odds and ends before coming in for the Fourth. It'll be about impossible to get hold of any of 'em except by accident. But they'll all come in for the Fourth."
The next defence was successfully completed before the fire reached it. Bob felt a sudden rush of most extraordinary and vivifying emotion. A moment ago he had been ready to drop in his tracks, indifferent whether the fire burned him as he lay. Now he felt ready to go on forever. Bert Elliott found energy enough to throw his hat into the air, while Jack shook his fist at the advancing fire.
"We fooled him that time!" cried Elliott.
"Bet you!" growled Pollock.
The other men and the woman stood leaning on the long handles of their implements staring at the advancing flames.
Morton aroused himself with an effort.
"Do your best boys," said he briefly. "There she comes. Another hour will tell whether we've stopped her. Then we've got to hold her. Scatter!"
The day had passed without anybody's being aware of the fact. The cool of the evening was already falling, and the fierceness of the conflagration was falling in accord.
They held the line until the flames had burned themselves out against it. Then they took up their weary patrol. Last night, when Bob was fresh, this part of fire-fighting had seemed the hardest kind of hard work. Now, crippled and weary as he was, in contrast to the day's greater labour, it had become comparatively easy. About eight o'clock Amy, having found a way through, appeared leading all the horses, saddled and packed.
"You boys came a long way," she explained simply, "and I thought I'd bring over camp."
She distributed food, and made trips down the fire line with coffee.
In this manner the night passed. The line had been held. No one had slept. Sunrise found Bob and Jack Pollock far down the mountain. They were doggedly beating back some tiny flames. The camp was a thousand feet above, and their canteens had long been empty. Bob raised his weary eyes.
Out on a rock inside the burned area, like a sentinel cast in bronze, stood a horseman. The light was behind him, so only his outline could be seen. For a minute he stood there quite motionless, looking. Then he moved forward, and another came up behind him on the rock. This one advanced, and a third took his place. One after the other, in single file, they came, glittering in the sun, their long rakes and hoes slanted over their shoulders like spears.
"Look!" gasped Bob weakly.
The two stood side by side spellbound. The tiny flames licked past them in the tarweed; they did not heed. The horsemen rode up, twenty strong. It seemed to Bob that they said things, and shouted. Certainly a half-dozen leaped spryly off their horses and in an instant had confined the escaping fire. Somebody took Bob's hoe from him. A cheery voice shouted in his ear:
"Hop along! You're through. We're on the job. Go back to camp and take a sleep."
He and Pollock turned up the mountain. Bob felt stupid. After he had gone a hundred feet, he realized he was thirsty, and wondered why he had not asked for a drink. Then it came to him that he might have borrowed a horse, but remembered thickly after a long time the impassable dikes between him and camp.
"That's why I didn't," he said aloud.
By this time it was too late to go back for the drink. He did not care. The excitement and responsibility had drained from him suddenly, leaving him a hollow shell.
They dragged themselves up the dike.
"I'd give a dollar and a half for a drink of water!" said Pollock suddenly.
They stumbled and staggered on. A twig sufficed to trip them. Pollock muttered between set teeth, over and over again, his unvarying complaint: "I'd give a dollar and a half for a drink of water!"
Finally, with a flicker of vitality, Bob's sense of humour cleared for an instant.
"Not high enough," said he. "Make it two dollars, and maybe some angel will hand you out a glass."
"That's all right," returned Pollock resentfully, "but I bet there's some down in that hollow; and I'm going to see!"
"I wouldn't climb down there for a million drinks," said Bob; "I'll sit down and wait for you."
Pollock climbed down, found his water, drank. He filled the canteen and staggered back up the steep climb.
"Here you be," said he.
Bob seized the canteen and drank deep. When he took breath, he said:
"Thank you, Jack. That was an awful climb back."
"That's all right," nodded Jack shortly.
"Well, come on," said Bob.
"The hell!" muttered Jack, and fell over sound asleep.
An hour later Bob felt himself being shaken violently. He stirred and advanced a little way toward the light, then dropped back like a plummet into the abysses of sleep. Afterward he recalled a vague, half-conscious impression of being lifted on a horse. Possibly he managed to hang on; possibly he was held in the saddle--that he never knew.
The next thing he seemed conscious of was the flicker of a camp-fire, and the soft feel of blankets. It was night, but how it came to be so he could not imagine. He was very stiff and sore and burned, and his hand was very painful. He moved it, and discovered, to his vast surprise, that it was bound tightly. When this bit of surgery had been performed he could not have told.
He opened his eyes. Amy and Mrs. Morton were bending over cooking utensils. Five motionless forms reposed in blankets. Bob counted them carefully. After some moments it occurred to his dulled brain that the number represented his companions. Some one on horseback seemed to be arriving. A glitter of silver caught his eye. He recognized finally California John. Then he dozed off again. The sound of voices rumbled through the haze of his half-consciousness.
"Fifty hours of steady fire-fighting with only an hour's sleep!" he caught Thorne's voice saying.
Bob took this statement into himself. He computed painfully over and over. He could not make the figures. He counted the hours one after the other. Finally he saw.
"Fifty hours for all but Pollock and me," he said suddenly; "forty for us."
No one heard him. As a matter of fact, he had not spoken aloud; though he thought he had done so.
"We found the two of them curled up together," he next heard Thorne say. "Orde was coiled around a sharp root--and didn't know it, and Pollock was on top of him. They were out in the full sun, and a procession of red ants was disappearing up Orde's pants leg and coming out at his collar. Fact!"
"They're a good lot," admitted California John. "Best unbroke lot I ever saw."
"We found Orde's finger broken and badly swelled. Heaven knows when he did it, but he never peeped. Morton says he noticed his hand done up in a handkerchief yesterday morning."
Bob dozed again. From time to time he caught fragments--"Four fire-lines--think of it--only one old-timer in the lot--I'm proud of my boys----"
He came next to full consciousness to hear Thorne saying:
"Mrs. Morton fought fire with the best of them. That's the ranger spirit I like--when as of old the women and children----"
"Don't praise me," broke in Mrs. Morton tartly. "I don't give a red cent for all your forests, and your pesky rangering. I've got no use for them. If Charley Morton would quit you and tend to his cattle, I'd be pleased. I didn't fight fire to help you, let me tell you."
"What did you do it for?" asked Thorne, evidently amused.
"I knew I couldn't get Charley Morton home and in bed and resting until that pesky fire was out; that's why!" shot back Mrs. Morton.
"Well, Mrs. Morton," said Thorne composedly, "if you're ever fixed so sass will help you out, you'll find it a very valuable quality."
Then Bob fell into a deep sleep.
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