Chapter XIV
 

One night Keith was awakened by Nan's suddenly sitting up in bed. There came to his struggling consciousness the persistent steady clangour of many deep bells. Slowly recognition filtered into his mind--the fire bells!

He hastily pulled on some clothes and ran down the front stairs, stumbling over Gringo, who uttered an outraged yelp. From the street he could see a red glow in the sky. At top speed he ran down the street in the direction of the Monumental. In the half darkness he could make out other figures running. The deep tones of the bells continued to smite his ear, but now in addition he heard the tinkling and clinking of innumerable smaller bells-- those on the machines. He dashed around a corner to encounter a double line of men, running at full speed, hauling on a long rope attached to an engine. Their mouths were open, and they were all yelling. The light engine careened and swayed and bumped. Two men clung to the short steering tongue, trying to guide it. They were thrown violently from side to side, dragged here and there, tripping, hauling, falling across the tongue, but managing to keep the machine from dashing off at a tangent. Above them, high and precarious, swayed the short stout figure of Bert Taylor. He was in full regalia--leather helmet, heavy leather belt, long-tailed coat, and in his free hand the chased silver speaking trumpet with the red tassels that usually hung on the wall. He was in his glory, dominating the horde. His keen eye, roving everywhere, seeing everything, saw Keith.

"Catch hold!" he roared through the trumpet.

Keith made a flying grab at a vacant place on the line, caught it, was almost jerked from his feet, recovered himself, and charged on, yelling like the rest.

But now Bert Taylor began to shriek something excitedly. It became evident, from glimpses caught down the side streets, but especially through the many vacant lots, that another engine was paralleling their own course a block away.

"Jump her, boys, jump her!" shrieked Bert Taylor. "For God's sake, don't let those Eurekas beat you!"

He danced about on top of the waterbox of the engine, in imminent peril of being jerked from his place, battering his silver trumpet insanely against the brake rods, beseeching, threatening profanely. And profanity at that time was a fine art. Men studied its alliteration, the gorgeousness of its imagery, the blast of its fire. The art has been lost, existing still, in a debased form, only among mule drivers, sailors, and the owners of certain makes of automobiles. The men on the rope responded nobly. The roar of their going over the plank road was like hollow thunder. A man dropped out. Next day it was discovered he had broken his leg in a hole. At tremendous speed they charged through the ring of spectators, and drew up, proud and panting, victors by a hundred feet, to receive the plaudits of the multitude. A handsome man on a handsome horse rode up.

"Monumentals on the fire! Eurekas on cistern number twenty!" he commanded briefly.

This was Charles Duane, the unpaid fire chief; a likable, efficient man, but too fond of the wrong sort of friends.

Now it became evident to Keith why Bert Taylor had urged them so strongly in the race. The fire was too distant from the water supply to be carried in one length of hose. Therefore, one engine was required to relay to another, pumping the water from the cistern, through the hose, and into the waterbox of the other engine. The other engine pumped it from its own waterbox on to the fire. The latter, of course, was the position of honour.

The Eurekas fell back grumbling, and uttering open threats to wash their rivals. By this they meant that they would pump water into the Monumentals faster than the latter could pump it out, thus overflowing and eternally disgracing them. They dropped their suction hose into the cistern, and one of their number held the end of the main hose over a little trapdoor in the Monumental's box. The crews sprang to the long brake handles on either side, and at once the regular thud, thud, thud of the pumps took up its rhythm. The hose writhed and swelled; the light engines quivered. Bert Taylor and the Eureka foreman, Carter by name, walked back and forth as on their quarterdecks, exhorting their men. Relays, in uniform assumed on the spot, stood ready at hand. Nobody in either crew knew or cared anything whatsoever about the fire. As the race became closer, the foremen got more excited, begging their crews to increase the stroke, beating their speaking trumpets into shapeless battered relics. An astute observer would now have understood one reason why the jewellery stores carried such a variety of fancy speaking trumpets. They were for presentation by grateful owners after the fire had been extinguished, and it was generally necessary to get a new one for each fire.

Keith, acting under previous instructions, promptly seized a helmet and poleaxe and made his way to the front. The fire had started in one of many flimsy wooden buildings, and had rapidly spread to threaten a whole district. Men from the hook and ladder companies were already at work on some of the hopeless cases. A fireman or two mounted ladders to the eaves, dragging with them a heavy hook on the end of a long pole. Cutting a small hole with their axes, they hooked on this apparatus and descended. As many firemen and volunteers as could get hold of the pole and the rope attached to it, now began to pull.

"Yo, heave ho!" they cried.

The timbers cracked, broke, the whole side of the house came out with a grand and satisfying crash. An inferno of flame was thereby laid open to the streams from the hose lines. It was grand destructive fun for everybody, especially for the boys of all ages, which included in spirit about every male person present.

This sort of work was intended, of course, to confine or check the fire within the area already affected, and could accomplish nothing toward saving the structures already alight. The roar of the flames, the hissing of firebrands sucked upward, the crash of timbers, the shrieks of the foremen through their trumpets, the yells of applause or of sarcasm from the crowd, and the thud, thud, thud, thud of numerous brake bars made a fine pandemonium. Everybody except the owners or tenants of the buildings was delighted.

Keith, with two others, was instructed to carry the Monumental nozzle to the roof of a house not afire. Proudly they proceeded to use their scaling ladders. These were a series of short sections, each about six feet long, the tops slightly narrower than the bottoms. By means of slots these could be fitted together. First, Keith erected one of them against the wall of the building, at an angle, and ascended it, carrying another section across his shoulder. When he reached a certain rung, which was painted red, he thrust his foot through the ladder and against the wall, pushed the ladder away from the wall, and fitted the section he was carrying to the top of the section on which he was standing. He then hauled up another section and repeated. When the ladder had reached to the eaves, he and his companions dragged the squirting, writhing hose up with them, chopped footholds in the roof, and lay flat to look over the ridgepole as over a breastwork. All this to the tune of admiring plaudits and with a pleasing glow of heroism. There was a skylight, but either they overlooked or scorned that prosaic expedient.

At the other end of the ridgepole Keith made out the dark forms of two men from another company. His own companions, acting under orders, now descended the ladder, leaving him alone.

The next building was a raging furnace, and on it Keith directed the heavy stream from his nozzle. It was great fun. At first the water seemed to have no effect whatever, but after a little it began to win. The flames were beaten back, broken into detachments. Finally, Keith got to the point of chasing down small individual outbreaks, driving them into their lairs, drowning them as they crouched. He was wholly interested, and the boy in him, with a shamefaced half apology to the man in him, pretended that he was a soldier directing a battery against an enemy.

Along the ridgepole cautiously sidled the two men of the other company, dragging their hose. Keith now recognized them. One was a vivid, debonair, all-confident, magnetic individual named Talbot Ward, a merchant, promoter, speculator, whom everybody liked and trusted; the other a fair Hercules of a man, slow and powerful in everything, called Frank Munro.

"Look here," said Ward, "does it strike you this roof's getting hot?"

Recalled to himself, Keith immediately became aware of the fact.

"The house is afire beneath us," said Ward; "we've got to get out."

"What's the matter with your ladder?" asked Keith.

"They took it away."

"We'll use mine."

They let themselves cautiously down the footholds that had been chopped in the roof, and looked over. A blast of smoke and flame met them in the face.

"Good Lord, she's all afire!" cried Keith, aghast.

The flames were licking around the scaling ladder, which was already blazing. Keith directed the stream from his hose straight down, but with no other result than to break the charred ladder.

They crawled back to the ridgepole, and worked their hose lines around to the end of the building, out of the flames. Here a two-story drop confronted them.

"This thing is going to fall under us if we don't do something," muttered Ward.

"Duane's forgotten us, and those crazy idiots at the engines are too busy trying to keep from being washed," surmised Keith.

"Look here," said Munro suddenly; "I'll brace against a chimney and hang on to the hose, and you can slide down it like a rope."

"How about you?" demanded Ward crisply.

"You can run for more ladders, once you're on the ground."

At this moment the water failed in Keith's hose. He stared at the nozzle, then rapidly began to unscrew it.

"Cistern empty or hose burst," surmised Munro.

But Talbot Ward, cocking his ear toward a distant pandemonium of cheering, guessed the true cause.

"Sucked," said he. By this he meant that the Monumental crew had succeeded in emptying their water box in spite of the Eureka's best efforts.

"Get off your nozzle quick!" urged Keith.

Munro, without stopping to ask why, bent his great strength to the task; and it was a task, for in his hose the pressure of the water was tremendous. It spurted back all over him, and at the last the nozzle was fairly blown away from him.

"Now couple my hose to yours quick, quick, before my hose fills!" cried Keith.

"They won't go--" Munro began to object.

"Yes, they will, mine's a special thread," urged Keith, who had remembered Bert Taylor's reversed nozzle.

All three bent their energies to catching the threads. It was a fearful job, for the strength of the water had first to be overcome. Keith was terribly excited. Time was precious, for not only might the roof give way beneath them, but at any moment the water might come again in Keith's hose. Then it would be physically impossible to make the coupling. All three men concentrated their efforts on it, their feet gripping the irregularities of the roof or slipping on the shingles. Frank Munro bent his enormous back to the task, the veins standing out in his temples, his face turning purple with the effort. Keith helped him as well as he was able. Talbot Ward, coolly, deliberately, delicately, as though he had all the time in the world, manipulated the coupling, feeling gingerly for the thread. The water spurted, fanned, sprayed, escaping with violence, first at one point, then at another, drenching and blinding them.

"There!" breathed Ward at last, and with a few twists, of his sinewy hands brought the couplings into close connection. Munro relaxed, drawing two or three deep breaths. Without the aid of his great strength the task could not have been accomplished.

"Hook her over the chimney," gasped Keith.

With some difficulty they lifted the loop of the throbbing hose over the chimney.

"Down we go!" cried Keith, and slid hand over hand down the way thus made for them. The others immediately followed, and all three stood looking back. It was a wonder the building had stood so long, for in both stories it was afire, and the walls had apparently burned quite through. Indeed, a moment later the whole structure collapsed. A fountain of sparks and brands sprang upward in the mighty suction.

"There goes our good hose!" said Keith.

The remark brought them to wrath and a desire for vengeance.

"I'm going to lick somebody!" cried Keith, starting determinedly in the direction of the engine.

"We'll help," growled Munro.

But when they came in sight of the engine their anger evaporated, and they clung to each other, weak with mirth.

For the Monumental was "washed," and washed aplenty. This was natural, for now the water was pouring into her box from both directions, and would continue so to pour until the hose coupled to Ward's engine had burned through. The water was fairly spouting up from the box, not merely overflowing. Her crew were still working, but raggedly and dispiritedly. Bert Taylor, his trumpet battered beyond all recognition, was fairly voiceless with rage. An interested and ribaldry facetious crowd spared not its sarcasm.

"My crowd must be in the same fix!" gurgled Ward; "the back pressure has 'washed' them, too." Then the full splendour of the situation burst on him, and he fell again on Munro for support.

"Don't you see," he gasped. "They'll never know! The hose will burn through. Unless we tell, they'll never know! We've got even, all right."

At this moment Duane rode up, foaming at the mouth, and desiring to know what the assorted adjectives they were doing there. The crews awoke to their isolation and general uselessness. Bert Taylor, still simmering, descended from his perch. They followed the hose lines to glowing coals!

"Here, this won't do," said Talbot; so they reported themselves before the news of a tragedy had had time to spread.

The fire was now practically under control. It had swept a city block pretty clean, but had been confined to that area. An hour later they dragged their engine rather dispiritedly back to the house. Ordinarily they would have been in high spirits. Fires were to these men a good deal of a lark. The crews were very effective and well drilled, and the saving of property was as well done as possible, but that was all secondary to the game of it. But to-night they had been "washed," they had lost the game, and the fact that they had put out the fire cut very little figure. There was much bickering. It seemed that Bert Taylor, in his enthusiasm, had, out of his own pocket, hired extra men who appeared at the critical moment to relieve the tired men at the brakes; and it was under their fresh impetus that the Monumental had so triumphantly "sucked." Now Bert Taylor was freely blamed. The regular men stoutly maintained that if they had been left alone this would never have happened.

"These whiskey bummers never can last!" they said. Everybody trooped upstairs to the main rooms, where refreshments were served. After some consideration Keith decided to tell his story in explanation of how it was that the Monumentals were washed. Instantly the company cheered up, A clamour broke out. This was great! With Talbot Ward and Munro to corroborate, no one could doubt the story. Taylor ran about jubilantly, returning every few moments to pat Keith on the shoulder.

"Fine! fine!" he cried. "We've got those Eurekas! I can't wait for morning!"