Chapter XLI. A Fire in the Mountains
 

A day in August can be as depressing as a typical one in May is inspiring, or in June entrancing. As the season advanced Nature appeared to be growing languid and faint. There was neither cloud by day nor dew at night. The sun burned rather than vivified the earth, and the grass and herbage withered and shrivelled before its unobstructed rays. The foliage along the roadsides grew dun-colored from the dust, and those who rode or drove on thoroughfares were stifled by the irritating clouds that rose on the slightest provocation. Pleasure could be found only on the unfrequented lanes that led to the mountains or ran along their bases. Even there trees that drew their sustenance from soil spread thinly on the rocks were seen to be dying, their leaves not flushing with autumnal tints, but hanging limp and bleached as if they had exhaled their vital juices. The moss beneath them, that had been softer to the tread than a Persian rug, crumbled into powder under the foot. Alf went to gather huckleberries, but, except in moist and swampy places, found them shrivelled on the bushes. Even the corn leaves began to roll on the uplands, and Leonard shook his head despondingly. Webb's anxieties, however, were of a far deeper character, and he was philosophical enough to average the year's income. If the cows did come home hungry from their pasture, there was abundance of hay and green-corn fodder to carry them through until the skies should become more propitious. Besides, there was an unfailing spring upon the place, and from this a large cask on wheels was often filled, and was then drawn by one of the quiet farm-horses to the best of the flower beds, the young trees, and to such products of the garden as would repay for the expenditure of time and labor. The ground was never sprinkled so that the morning sun of the following day would drink up the moisture, but so deluged that the watering would answer for several days. It was well known that partial watering does only harm. Nature can be greatly assisted at such times, but it must be in accordance with her laws. The grapevine is a plant that can endure an unusual degree of drought, and the fruit will be all the earlier and sweeter for it. An excellent fertilizer for the grape is suds from the laundry, and by filling a wide, shallow basin, hollowed out from the earth around the stems, with this alkaline infusion, the vines were kept in the best condition. The clusters of the earlier varieties were already beginning to color, and the season insured the perfect ripening of those fine old kinds, the Isabella and Catawba, that too often are frost-bitten before they become fit for the table.

Thus it would appear that Nature has compensations for her worst moods--greater compensations than are thought of by many. Drought causes the roots of plants and trees to strike deep, and so extends the range of their feeding-ground, and anchors vegetation of all kinds more firmly in the soil.

Nevertheless, a long dry period is always depressing. The bright green fades out of the landscape, the lawns and grass-plots become brown and sear, the air loses its sweet, refreshing vitality, and is often so charged with smoke from forest-fires, and impalpable dust, that respiration is not agreeable. Apart from considerations of profit and loss, the sympathy of the Clifford household was too deep with Nature to permit the indifference of those whose garden is the market stall and the florist's greenhouse, and to whom vistas in hotel parlors and piazzas are the most attractive.

"It seems to me," Leonard remarked at the dinner-table one day, "that droughts are steadily growing more serious and frequent."

"They are," replied his father. "While I remember a few in early life that were more prolonged than any we have had of late years, they must have resulted from exceptional causes, for we usually had an abundance of rain, and did not suffer as we do now from violent alternations of weather. There was one year when there was scarcely a drop of rain throughout the summer. Potatoes planted in the late spring were found in the autumn dry and unsprouted. But such seasons were exceedingly rare, and now droughts are the rule."

"And the people are chiefly to blame for them," said Webb. "We are suffering from the law of heredity. Our forefathers were compelled to fell the trees to make room for the plow, and now one of the strongest impulses of the average American is to cut down a tree. Our forests, on which a moist climate so largely depends, are treated as if they encumbered the ground. The smoke that we are breathing proves that fires are ravaging to the north and west of us. They should be permitted no more than a fire in the heart of a city. The future of the country depends upon the people becoming sane on this subject. If we will send to the Legislature pot-house politicans who are chiefly interested in keeping up a supply of liquor instead of water, they should be provided with a little primer giving the condition of lands denuded of their forests. There is scarcely anything in their shifty ways, their blind zeal for what the 'deestrict' wants to-day, regardless of coming days, that so irritates me as their stupidity on this subject. A man who votes against the protection of our forests is not fit for the office of road-master. After all, the people are to blame, and their children will pay dear for their ignorance and the spirit which finds expression in the saying, 'After me the deluge'; and there will be flood and drought until every foot of land not adapted to cultivation and pasturage is again covered with trees. Indeed, a great deal of good land should be given up to forests, for then what was cultivated would produce far more than could be obtained from a treeless and therefore rainless country."

"Bravo, Webb!" cried Burt; "we must send you to the Legislature."

"How is the evil to be prevented?" Leonard asked.

"Primarily by instruction and the formation of public opinion. The influence of trees on the climate should be taught in all our schools as thoroughly as the multiplication-table. The national and state governments would then be compelled to look beyond the next election, and to appoint foresters who would have the same power to call out the people to extinguish a forest fire that the sheriff has to collect his posse to put down mob violence. In the long-run fire departments in our forest tracts would be more useful than the same in cities, for, after all, cities depend upon the country and its productiveness. The owners of woodland should be taught the folly of cutting everything before them, and of leaving the refuse brush to become like tinder. The smaller growth should be left to mature, and the brush piled and burned in a way that would not involve the destruction of every sprout and sapling over wide areas. As it is, we are at the mercy of every careless boy, and such vagrants as Lumley used to be before Amy woke him up. It is said--and with truth at times, I fear--that the shiftless mountaineers occasionally start the fires, for a fire means brief high-priced labor for them, and afterward an abundance of whiskey."

Events furnished a practical commentary on Webb's words. Miss Hargrove had come over to spend the night with Amy, and to try some fine old English glees that she had obtained from her city home. They had just adjourned from the supper-table to the piazza when Lumley appeared, hat in hand. He spoke to Leonard, but looked at Amy with a kind of wondering admiration, as if he could not believe that the girl, who looked so fair and delicate in her evening dress, so remote from him and his surroundings, could ever have given him her hand, and spoken as if their humanity had anything in common.

The Cliffords were informed that a fire had broken out on a tract adjoining their own. "City chaps was up there gunning out o' season," Lumley explained, "and wads from their guns must 'a started it."

As there was much wood ranked on the Clifford tract, the matter was serious. Abram and other farm-hands were summoned, and the brothers acted as did the minute-men in the Revolution when the enemy appeared in their vicinity. The young men excused themselves, and bustle and confusion followed. Burt, with a flannel blouse belted tightly around his waist, soon dashed up to the front piazza on his horse, and, flourishing a rake, said, laughingly, "I don't look much like a knight sallying forth to battle-do I?"

"You look as if you could be one if the occasion arose," Miss Hargrove replied.

During the half-jesting badinage that followed Amy stole away. Behind the house Webb was preparing to mount, when a light hand fell on his shoulder. "You will be careful?" said Amy, appealingly. "You don't seem to spare yourself in anything. I dread to have you go up into those darkening mountains."

"Why, Amy," he replied, laughing, "one would think I was going to fight Indians, and you feared for my scalp."

"I am not so young and blind but that I can see that you are quietly half reckless with yourself," she replied; and her tone indicated that she was a little hurt.

"I pledge you my word that I will not be reckless tonight; and, after all, this is but disagreeable, humdrum work that we often have to do. Don't worry, little sister. Burt will be there to watch over me, you know," he added. By the way, where is he? It's time we were off."

"Oh, he's talking romantic nonsense to Miss Hargrove. He won't hurt himself. I wish I was as sure of you, and I wish I had more influence over you. I'm not such a very little sister, even if I don't know enough to talk to you as you would like;" and she left him abruptly.

He mastered a powerful impulse to spring from his horse and call her back. A moment's thought taught him, however, that he could not trust himself then to say a word, and he rode rapidly away.

"I must be misunderstood," he muttered. "That is the best chance for us both, unless--" But be hesitated to put into words the half-formed hope that Miss Hargrove's appearance in the little drama of their lives might change its final scenes. "She's jealous of her friend, at last," he concluded, and this conviction gave him little comfort. Burt soon overtook him, and their ride was comparatively silent, for each was busy with his own thoughts. Lumley was directed to join them at the fire, and then was forgotten by all except Amy, who, by a gentle urgency, induced him to go to the kitchen and get a good supper. Before he departed she slipped a banknote into his hand with which to buy a dress for the baby. Lumley had to pass more than one groggery on his way to the mountains, but the money was as safe in his pocket as it would have been in Amy's.

"I swow! I could say my prayers to her!" he soliloquized, as he hastened through the gathering darkness with his long, swinging stride. "I didn't know there was sich gells. She's never lectured me once, but she jest smiles and looks a feller into bein' a man."

Miss Hargrove had noted Amy's influence over the mountaineer, and she asked for an explanation. Amy, in a very brief, modest way, told of her visits to the wretched cabin, and said, in conclusion: "I feel sorry for poor Lumley. The fact that he is trying to do better, with so much against him, proves what he might have been. That's one of the things that trouble me most, as I begin to think and see a little of life; so many people have no chance worth speaking of."

"The thing that ought to trouble me most is, I suppose, that those who have a chance do so little for such people. Amy," she added, sadly, after a moment's thought, "I've had many triumphs over men, but none like yours; and I feel to-night as if I could give them all to see a man look at me as that poor fellow looked at you. It was the grateful homage of a human soul to whom you had given something that in a dim way was felt to be priceless. The best that I can remember in my pleasure-loving life is that I have not permitted myself selfishly and recklessly to destroy manhood, but I fear no one is the better for having known me."

"You do yourself injustice," said Amy, warmly. "I'm the better and happier for having known you. Papa had a morbid horror of fashionable society, and this accounts for my being so unsophisticated. With all your experience of such society, I have perfect faith in you, and could trust you implicitly."

"Have you truly faith in me?" (and Amy thought she had never seen such depth and power in human eyes as in those of Miss Hargrove, who encircled the young girl with her arm, and looked as if seeking to detect the faintest doubt).

"Yes," said Amy, with quiet emphasis.

Miss Hargrove drew a long breath, and then said: "That little word may do me more good than all the sermons I ever heard. Many would try to be different if others had more faith in them. I think that is the secret of your power over the rough man that has just gone. You recognized the good that was in him, and made him conscious of it. Well, I must try to deserve your trust." Then she stepped out on the dusky piazza, and sighed, as she thought: "It may cost me dear. She seemed troubled at my words to Burt, and stole away as if she were the awkward third person. I may have misjudged her, and she cares for him after all."

Amy went to the piano, and played softly until summoned without by an excited exclamation from her friend. A line of fire was creeping toward them around a lofty highland, and it grew each moment more and more distinct. "Oh, I know from its position that it's drawing near our tract," cried Amy. "If it is so bright to us at this distance, it must be almost terrible to those near by. I suppose they are all up there just in front of it, and Burt is so reckless." She was about to say Webb, but, because of some unrecognized impulse, she did not. The utterance of Burt's name, however, was not lost on Miss Hargrove.

For a long time the girls watched the scene with awe, and each, in imagination, saw an athletic figure begrimed with smoke, and sending out grotesque shadows into the obscurity, as the destroying element was met and fought in ways unknown to them, which, they felt sure, involved danger. Miss Hargrove feared that they both had the same form in mind. She was not a girl to remain long unconscious of her heart's inclinations, and she knew that Burt Clifford had quickened her pulses as no man had ever done before. This very fact made her less judicial, less keen, in her insight. If he was so attractive to her, could Amy be indifferent to him after months of companionship? She had thought that she understood Amy thoroughly, but was beginning to lose faith in her impression. While in some respects Amy was still a child, there were quiet depths in her nature of which the young girl herself was but half conscious. She often lapsed into long reveries. Webb's course troubled her. Never had he been more fraternal in his manner, but apparently she was losing her power to interest him, to lure him away from the material side of life. "I can't keep pace with him," she sighed; "and now that he has learned all about my little range of thoughts and knowledge, he finds that I can be scarcely more to him than Johnnie, whom he pets in much the same spirit that he does me, and then goes to his work or books and forgets us both. He could help me so much, if he only thought it worth his while! I'm sure I'm not contented to be ignorant, and many of the things that he knows so much about interest me most."

Thus each girl was busy with her thoughts, as they sat in the warm summer night and watched the vivid line draw nearer. Mr. Clifford and Maggie came out from time to time, and were evidently disturbed by the unchecked progress of the fire. Alf had gone with his father, and anything like a conflagration so terrified Johnnie that she dared not leave her mother's lighted room.

Suddenly the approaching line grew dim, was broken, and before very long even the last red glow disappeared utterly. "Ah," said Mr. Clifford, rubbing his hands, "they have got the fire under, and I don't believe it reached oar tract."

"How did they put it out so suddenly?" Miss Hargrove asked. "Were they not fighting it all the time?"

"The boys will soon be here, and they can give you a more graphic account than I. Mother is a little excited and troubled, as she always is when her great babies are away on such affairs, so I must ask you to excuse me."

In little more than half an hour a swift gallop was heard, and Burt soon appeared, in the light of the late-rising moon. "It's all out," he exclaimed. "Leonard and Webb propose remaining an hour or two longer, to see that it does not break out again. There's no need of their doing so, for Lumley promised to watch till morning. I'm not fit to be seen. If you'll wait till I put on a little of the aspect of a white man, I'll join you." He had been conscious of a feverish impatience to get back to the ladies, having carefully, even in his thoughts, employed the plural, and he had feared that they might have retired.

Miss Hargrove exclaimed: "How absurd! You wish to go and divest yourself of all picturesqueness! I've seen well-dressed men before, and would much prefer that you should join us as you are. We can then imagine that you are a bandit or a frontiersman, and that your rake was a rifle, which you had used against the Indians. We are impatient to have you tell us how you fought the fire."

He gave but scant attention to Thunder that night, and soon stepped out on the moonlit piazza, his tall, fine figure outlined to perfection in his close-fitting costume.

"You will, indeed, need all your imagination to make anything of our task to-night," he said. "Fighting a mountain fire is the most prosaic of hard work. Suppose the line of fire coming down toward me from where you are sitting." As yet unknown to him, a certain subtile flame was originating in that direction. "We simply begin well in advance of it, so that we may have time to rake a space, extending along the whole front of the fire, clear of leaves and rubbish, and as far as possible to hollow out with hoes a trench through this space. Thus, when the fire comes to this cleared area, there is nothing to burn, and it goes out for want of fuel. Of course, it's rough work, and it must be done rapidly, but you can see that all the heroic elements which you may have associated with our expedition are utterly lacking."

"Well, no matter. Amy and I have had our little romance, and have imagined you charging the line of fire in imminent danger of being strangled with smoke, if nothing worse."

Amy soon heard Maggie bustling about, preparing a midnight lunch for those who would come home hungry as well as weary, and she said that she would go and try to help. To Burt this seemed sufficient reason for her absence, but Miss Hargrove thought, "Perhaps she saw that his eyes were fixed chiefly on me as he gave his description. I wish I knew just how she feels toward him!"

But the temptation to remain in the witching moonlight was too strong to be resisted. His mellow tones were a music that she had never heard before, and her eyes grew lustrous with suppressed feeling, and a happiness to which she was not sure she was entitled. The spell of her beauty was on him also, and the moments flew by unheeded, until Amy was heard playing and singing softly to herself. "She does not join us again!" was Miss Hargrove's mental comment, and with not a little compunction she rose and went into the parlor. Burt lighted a cigar, in the hope that the girls would again join him, but Leonard, Webb, and Alf returned sooner than they were expected, and all speedily sat down to their unseasonable repast. To Amy's surprise, Webb was the liveliest of the party, but he looked gaunt from fatigue--so worn, indeed, that he reminded her of the time when he had returned from Burt's rescue. But there was no such episode as had then occurred before they parted for the night, and to this she now looked back wistfully. He rose before the others, pleaded fatigue, and went to his room.