Part Five
Chapter V
 

Charley Morton received the lunch with joy.

"Ain't had time to get together grub since we came," said he, "and didn't know when I would."

"What do you want us to do?" asked Bob.

"The fire line's drawn right across from Granite Creek down there in the canon over to a bald dome. We got her done an hour ago, and pretty well back-fired. All we got to do now is to keep her from crossing anywheres; and if she does cross, to corral her before she can get away from us."

"I wish we could have got here sooner!" cried Bob, disappointed that the little adventure seemed to be flattening out.

"So?" commented Charley drily. "Well, there's plenty yet. If she gets out in one single, lonesome place, this fire line of ours won't be worth a cent. She's inside now--if we can hold her there." He gazed contemplatively aloft at a big dead pine blazing merrily to its very top. Every once in a while a chunk of bark or a piece of limb came flaring down to hit the ground with a thump. "There's the trouble," said he. "What's to keep a spark or a coal from that old coon from falling or rolling on the wrong side of the line? If it happens when none of us are around, why the fire gets a start. And maybe a coal will roll down hill from somewhere; or a breeze come up and carry sparks. One spark over here," he stamped his foot on the brushed line, "and it's all to do over again. There's six of us," added the ranger, "and a hundred of these trees near the line. By rights there ought to be a man camped down near every one of them."

"Give us our orders," repeated Bob.

"The orders are to patrol the fire line," said Morton. "If you find the fire has broken across, corral it. If it gets too strong for you, shoot your six-shooter twice. Keep a-moving, but take it easy and save yourself for to-morrow. About two o'clock, or so, I'll shoot three times. Then you can come to camp and get a little sleep. You got to be in shape for to-morrow."

"Why especially to-morrow?" asked Bob.

"Fire dies in the cool of night; it comes up in the middle of the day," explained Morton succinctly.

Bob took to the right, while Jack went in the opposite direction. His way led down hill. He crossed a ravine, surmounted a little ridge. Now he was in the worse than total darkness of the almost extinct area. Embers and coals burned all over the side hill like so many evil winking eyes. Far ahead, down the mountain, the rising smoke glowed incandescent with the light of an invisible fire beneath, Bob, blinded by this glow, had great difficulty in making his way. Once he found that he had somehow crept out on the great bald roundness of a granite dome, and had to retrace his steps. Twice he lost his footing utterly, but fortunately fell but a short distance. At last he found himself in the V of a narrow ravine.

All this time he had, with one exception, kept close track of the fire line. The exception was when he strayed out over the dome; but that was natural, for the dome had been adopted bodily as part of the system of defence. Everywhere the edge of the path proved to be black and dead. No living fire glowed within striking distance of the inflammable material on the hither side the path.

But here, in the bottom of the ravine, a single coal had lodged, and had already started into flame the dry small brush. It had fallen originally from an oak fully a hundred feet away; and in some mysterious manner had found a path to this hidden pocket. The circumstances somewhat shook Bob's faith in the apparent safety of the country he had just traversed.

However, there were the tiny flames, licking here and there, insignificant, but nevertheless dangerous. Bob carefully laid his canteens and the rake on a boulder, and set to work with his sharpened hoe. It looked to be a very easy task to dig out a path around this little fire.

In the course of the miniature fight he learned considerable of the ways of fire. The brush proved unexpectedly difficult. It would not stand up to the force of his stroke, but bent away. The tarweed, especially, was stubborn under even the most vigorous wielding of his sharpened hoe.

He made an initial mistake by starting to hoe out his path too near the blaze, forgetting that in the time necessary to complete his half-circle the flames would have spread. Discovering this, he abandoned his beginning and fell back twenty feet. This naturally considerably lengthened the line he would have to cut. When it was about half done, Bob discovered that he would have to hustle to prevent the fire breaking by him before he could complete his half-circle. It became a race. He worked desperately. The heat of the flames began to scorch his face and hands, so that it was with difficulty he could face his work. Irrelevantly enough there arose before his mind the image of Jack Pollock popping corn before the fireplace at headquarters. Continual wielding of the hoe tired a certain set of muscles to the aching point. His mouth became dry and sticky, but he could not spare time to hunt up his canteen. The thought flashed across his mind that the fire was probably breaking across elsewhere, just like this. The other men must be in the same fix. There were six of them. Suppose the fire should break across simultaneously in seven places? The little licking flames had at last, by dint of a malignant persistence, become a personal enemy. He fought them absorbedly, throwing his line farther and farther as the necessity arose, running to beat down with green brush the first feeble upstartings of the fire as it leaped here and there his barrier, keeping a vigilant eye on every part of his defences.

"Well," drawled Charley Morton's voice behind him, "what you think you're doing?"

"Corralling this fire, of course," Bob panted, dashing at a marauding little flame.

"What for?" demanded Charley.

Bob looked up in sheer amazement.

"See that rock dike just up the hill behind you?" explained Morton. "Well, our fire line already runs up to that on both sides. Fire couldn't cross it. We expected this to burn."

Bob suddenly felt a little nauseated and dizzy from the heat and violence of his exertions in this high altitude.

"Here's your canteen," Morton went on easily. "Take a swig. Better save a little. Feel better? Let me give you a pointer: don't try to stop a fire going up hill. Take it on top or just over the top. It burns slower and it ain't so apt to jump."

"I know; I forgot," said Bob, feeling a trifle foolish.

"Never mind; you've learned something," said Morton comfortably. "Let's go down below. There's fresh fire there; and it may have jumped past Elliott."

They scrambled down. Elliott and Ware were found to be working desperately in the face of the flames. The fire had not here jumped the line, but it was burning with great ferocity up to the very edge of it. If the rangers could for a half-hour prevent the heat from igniting the growths across the defence, the main fire would have consumed its fuel and died down to comparative safety. With faces averted, heads lowered, handkerchiefs over their mouths, they continually beat down the new little fires which as continually sprang into life again. Here the antagonists were face to face across the narrow line. The rangers could not give back an inch, for an inch of headway on the wrong side the path would convert a kindling little blaze to a real fire. They stood up to their work doggedly as best they might.

With entire understanding of the situation Charley motioned Bob to the front.

"We'll hold her for a minute," he shouted to the others. "Drop back and get a drink."

They fell back to seize eagerly their canteens. Bob gripped his handful of green brush and set to work. For a minute he did not think it possible to face the terrible heat. His garments were literally drenched with sweat which immediately dried into steam. A fierce drain sucked at his strength. He could hardly breathe, and could see only with difficulty. After a moment Elliott and Ware, evidently somewhat refreshed, again took hold.

How they stuck it out for that infernal half-hour Bob could not have told, but stick it out they did. The flames gradually died down; the heat grew less; the danger that the shrivelled brush on the wrong side the fire line would be ignited by sheer heat, vanished. The four men fell back. Their eyebrows and hair were singed; their skin blackened. Bob's face felt sore, and as though it had been stretched. He took a long pull at his canteen. For the moment he felt as though his energy had all been drained away.

"Well, that was a good little scrap," observed Charley Morton cheerfully. "I certainly do wish it was always night when a man had to fight fire. In a hot sun it gets to be hard work."

Elliott rolled his eyes, curiously white like a minstrel's in his blackened face, at Bob, but said nothing.

"We'll leave Elliott here to watch this a few minutes, and go down the line," said Morton.

Bob lifted his canteen, and, to his surprise, found it empty.

"Why, I must have drunk a gallon!" he cried.

"It's dry work," said Morton.

They continued on down the fire line, pausing every once in a while to rake and scrape leisurely at the heavy bark beneath some blazing stub. The fierce, hard work was over. All along the fire line from the dome of granite over the ridge down to Granite Creek the fire had consumed all the light fuel on its own side the defence. No further danger was to be apprehended in the breaking across. But everywhere through the now darkening forest blazed the standing trees. A wind would fill the air with brands; and even in the present dead calm those near the line were a threat.

The men traversed the fire line from end to end a half-dozen times. Bob became acquainted individually and minutely with each of the danger spots. The new temporary features of country took on, from the effects of vigilance and toil, the dignity of age and establishment. Anxiously he widened the path here, kicked back glowing brands there, tried to assure himself that in no possible manner could the seed of a new conflagration find germination. After a long time he heard three shots from up the mountain. This, he remarked, was a signal agreed upon. He shouldered his blackened implements and commenced a laborious ascent.

Suddenly he discovered that he was very tired, and that his legs were weak and wobbly. Stubs and sticks protruded everywhere; stones rolled from under his feet. Once on a steep shale, he fell and rolled ten feet out of sheer weariness. In addition he was again very thirsty, and his canteen empty. A chill gray of dawn was abroad; the smell of stale burning hung in the air.

By the time he had staggered into camp the daylight had come. He glanced about him wearily. Across a tiny ravine the horses dozed, tied each to a short picket rope. Bob was already enough of a mountaineer to notice that the feed was very scant. The camp itself had been made under a dozen big yellow pines. A bright little fire flickered. About it stood utensils from which the men were rather dispiritedly helping themselves. Bob saw that the long pine needles had been scraped together to make soft beds, over which the blankets had been spread. Amy herself, her cheeks red, her eyes bright, was passing around tin cups of strong coffee, and tin plates of food. Her horse, saddled and bridled, stood nearby.

"Take a little of this," she urged Bob, "and then turn in."

Bob muttered his thanks. After swallowing the coffee, however, he felt his energies reviving somewhat.

"How did you leave things at the lower end?" Morton was asking him.

"All out but two or three smouldering old stubs," replied Bob. "Everything's safe."

"Nothing's safe," contradicted Morton. "By rights we ought to watch every minute. But we got to get some rest in a long fight. It's the cool of the morning and the fire burns low. Turn in and get all the sleep you can. May need you later."

"I'm all in," acknowledged Bob, throwing back his blanket; "I'm willing to say so."

"No more fire in mine," agreed young Elliott.

The other men said nothing, but fell to their beds. Only Charley Morton rose a little stiffly to his feet.

"Aren't you going to turn in too, Charley?" asked the girl quickly.

"It's daylight now," explained the ranger, "and I can see to ride a horse. I reckon I'd better ride down the line."

"I've thought of that," said Amy. "Of course, it wouldn't do to let the fire take care of itself. See; I have Pronto saddled. I'll look over the line, and if anything happens I'll wake you."

"You must be about dead," said Charley. "You've been up all night fixing camp and cooking----"

"Up all night!" repeated Amy scornfully. "How long do you think it takes me to make camp and cook a simple little breakfast?"

"But the country's almighty rough riding."

"On Pronto?"

"He's a good mountain pony," agreed Charley Morton; "California John picked him out himself. All right. I do feel some tired."

This was about six o'clock. The men had slept but a little over an hour when Amy scrambled over the rim of the dike and dropped from her horse.

"Charley!" she cried, shaking the ranger by the shoulder; "I'm sorry. But there's fresh smoke about half-way down the mountain. There was nothing left to burn fresh inside the fire line, was there? I thought not."

Twenty minutes later all six were frantically digging, hoeing, chopping, beating in a frenzy against the spread of the flames. In some manner the fire had jumped the line. It might have been that early in the fight a spark had lodged. As long as the darkness of night held down the temperature, this spark merely smouldered. When, however, the rays of the sun gathered heat, it had burst into flame.

This sun made all the difference in the world. Where, in the cool of the night, the flames had crept slowly, now they leaped forward with a fierce crackling; green brush that would ordinarily have resisted for a long time, now sprang into fire at a touch. The conflagration spread from a single point in all directions, running swiftly, roaring in a sheet of fire, licking up all before it.

The work was fierce in its intensity. Bob, in common with the others, had given up trying--or indeed caring--to protect himself. His clothes smoked, his face smarted and burned, his skin burned and blistered. He breathed the hot air in gasps. Strangely enough, he did not feel in the least tired.

He did not need to be told what to do. The only possible defence was across a rock outcrop. To right and left of him the other men were working desperately to tear out the brush. He grubbed away trying to clear the pine needles and little bushes that would carry the fire through the rocks like so many powder fuses.

He had no time to see how the others were getting on; he worked on faith. His own efforts were becoming successful. The fire, trying, one after another, various leads through the rocks, ran out of fuel and died. The infernal roaring furnace below, however, leaped ever to new trial.

Then all at once Bob found himself temporarily out of the game. In trying to roll a boulder out of the way, he caught his hand. A sharp, lightning pain shot up his arm and into the middle of his chest. When he had succeeded in extricating himself, he found that his middle finger was squarely broken.