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The women of Malapi responded generously to the call Joyce made upon them to back their men in the fight against the fire in the chaparral. They were simple folk of a generation not far removed from the pioneer one which had settled the country. Some of them had come across the plains in white-topped movers' wagons. Others had lain awake in anxiety on account of raiding Indians on the war-path. All had lived lives of frugal usefulness. It is characteristic of the frontier that its inhabitants help each other without stint when the need for service arises. Now they cooked and baked cheerfully to supply the wants of the fire-fighters.
Joyce was in command of the commissary department. She ordered and issued supplies, checked up the cooked food, and arranged for its transportation to the field of battle. The first shipment went out about the middle of the afternoon of the first day of the fire. A second one left town just after midnight. A third was being packed during the forenoon of the second day.
Though Joyce had been up most of the night, she showed no signs of fatigue. In spite of her slenderness, the girl was possessed of a fine animal vigor. There was vitality in her crisp tread. She was a decisive young woman who got results competently.
A bustling old lady with the glow of winter apples in her wrinkled cheeks remonstrated with her.
"You can't do it all, dearie. If I was you I'd go home and rest now. Take a nice long nap and you'll feel real fresh," she said.
"I'm not tired," replied Joyce. "Not a bit. Think of those poor men out there fighting the fire day and night. I'd be ashamed to quit."
The old lady's eyes admired the clean, fragrant girl packing sandwiches. She sighed, regretfully. Not long since--as her memory measured time--she too had boasted a clear white skin that flushed to a becoming pink on her smooth cheeks when occasion called.
"A--well a--well, dearie, you'll never be young but once. Make ye the most of it," she said, a dream in her faded eyes.
Out of the heart of the girl a full-throated laugh welled. "I'll do just that, Auntie. Then I'll grow some day into a nice old lady like you." Joyce recurred to business in a matter-of-fact voice. "How many more of the ham sandwiches are there, Mrs. Kent?"
About sunset Joyce went home to see that Keith was behaving properly and snatched two hours' sleep while she could. Another shipment of food had to be sent out that night and she did not expect to get to bed till well into the small hours.
Keith was on hand when she awakened to beg for permission to go out to the fire.
"I'll carry water, Joy, to the men. Some one's got to carry it, ain't they, 'n' if I don't mebbe a man'll haf to."
The young mother shook her head decisively. "No, Keithie, you're too little. Grow real fast and you'll be a big boy soon."
"You don't ever lemme have any fun," he pouted. "I gotta go to bed an' sleep an' sleep an' sleep."
She had no time to stay and comfort him. He pulled away sulkily from her good-night kiss and refused to be placated. As she moved away into the darkness, it gave Joyce a tug of the heart to see his small figure on the porch. For she knew that as soon as she was out of sight he would break down and wail.
He did. Keith was of that temperament which wants what it wants when it wants it. After a time his sobs subsided. There wasn't much use crying when nobody was around to pay any attention to him.
He went to bed and to sleep. It was hours later that the voice of some one calling penetrated his dreams. Keith woke up, heard the sound of a knocking on the door, and went to the window. The cook was deaf as a post and would never hear. His sister was away. Perhaps it was a message from his father.
A man stepped out from the house and looked up at him. "Mees Crawford, ees she at home maybeso?" he asked. The man was a Mexican.
"Wait a jiffy. I'll get up," the youngster called back.
He hustled into his clothes, went down, and opened the door.
"The seņorita. Ees she at home?" the man asked again.
"She's down to the Boston Emporium cuttin' sandwiches an' packin' 'em," Keith said. "Who wants her?"
"I have a note for her from Seņor Sanders."
Master Keith seized his opportunity promptly. "I'll take you down there."
The man brought his horse from the hitching-rack across the road. Side by side they walked downtown, the youngster talking excitedly about the fire, the Mexican either keeping silence or answering with a brief "Si, muchacho."
Into the Boston Emporium Keith raced ahead of the messenger. "Joy, Joy, a man wants to see you! From Dave!" he shouted.
Joyce flushed. Perhaps she would have preferred not to have her private business shouted out before a roomful of women. But she put a good face on it.
"A letter, seņorita," the man said, presenting her with a note which he took from his pocket.
The note read:
Your father has been hurt in the fire. This man will take you to him.
Joyce went white to the lips and caught at the table to steady herself. "Is--is he badly hurt?" she asked.
The man took refuge in ignorance, as Mexicans do when they do not want to talk. He did not understand English, he said, and when the girl spoke in Spanish he replied sulkily that he did not know what was in the letter. He had been told to deliver it and bring the lady back. That was all.
Keith burst into tears. He wanted to go to his father too, he sobbed.
The girl, badly shaken herself in soul, could not refuse him. If his father was hurt he had a right to be with him.
"You may ride along with me," she said, her lip trembling.
The women gathered round the boy and his sister, expressing sympathy after the universal fashion of their sex. They were kinder and more tender than usual, pressing on them offers of supplies and service. Joyce thanked them, a lump in her throat, but it was plain that the only way in which they could help was to expedite her setting out.
Soon they were on the road, Keith riding behind his sister and clinging to her waist. Joyce had slipped a belt around the boy and fastened it to herself so that he would not fall from the saddle in case he slept. The Mexican rode in complete silence.
For an hour they jogged along the dusty road which led to the new oil field, then swung to the right into the low foothills among which the mountains were rooted.
Joyce was a bit surprised. She asked questions, and again received for answers shrugs and voluble Spanish irrelevant to the matter. The young woman knew that the battle was being fought among the caņons leading to the plains. This trail must be a short cut to one of them. She gave up trying to get information from her guide. He was either stupid or sulky; perhaps a little of each.
The hill trail went up and down. It dipped into valleys and meandered round hills. It climbed a mountain spur, slipped through a notch, and plumped sharply into a small mountain park. At the notch the Mexican drew up and pointed a finger. In the dim pre-dawn grayness Joyce could see nothing but a gulf of mist.
"Over there, Seņorita, he waits."
"In the arroyo. Come."
They descended, letting the horses pick their way down cautiously through the loose rubble of the steep pitch. The heart of the girl beat fast with anxiety about her father, with the probability that David Sanders would soon come to meet her out of the silence, with some vague prescience of unknown evil clutching at her bosom. There had been growing in Joyce a feeling that something was wrong, something sinister was at work which she did not understand.
A mountain corral took form in the gloom. The Mexican slipped the bars of the gate to let the horses in.
"Is he here?" asked Joyce breathlessly.
The man pointed to a one-room shack huddled on the hillside.
Keith had fallen sound asleep, his head against the girl's back. "Don't wake him when you lift him down," she told the man. "I'll just let him sleep if he will."
The Mexican carried Keith to a pile of sheepskins under a shed and lowered him to them gently. The boy stirred, turned over, but did not awaken.
Joyce ran toward the shack. There was no light in it, no sign of life about the place. She could not understand this. Surely someone must be looking after her father. Whoever this was must have heard her coming. Why had he not appeared at the door? Dave, of course, might be away fighting fire, but someone....
Her heart lost a beat. The shadow of some horrible thing was creeping over her life. Was her father dead? What shock was awaiting her in the cabin?
At the door she raised her voice in a faint, ineffective call. Her knees gave way. She felt her body shaking as with an ague. But she clenched her teeth on the weakness and moved into the room.
It was dark--darker than outdoors. But as her eyes grew accustomed to the absence of light she made out a table, a chair, a stove. From the far side of the room came a gurgle that was half a snore.
"Father," she whispered, and moved forward.
Her outstretched hand groped for the bed and fell on clothing warm with heat transmitted from a human body. At the same time she subconsciously classified a strong odor that permeated the atmosphere. It was whiskey.
The sleeper stirred uneasily beneath her touch. She felt stifled, wanted to shout out her fears in a scream. Far beyond the need of proof she knew now that something was very wrong, though she still could not guess at what the dreadful menace was.
But Joyce had courage. She was what the wind and the sun and a long line of sturdy ancestors had made her. She leaned forward toward the awakening man just as he turned in the bunk.
A hand fell on her wrist and closed, the fingers like bands of iron. Joyce screamed wildly, her nerve swept away in a reaction of terror. She fought like a wildcat, twisting and writhing with all her supple strength to break the grip on her arm.
For she knew now what the evil was that had been tolling a bell of warning in her heart.
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