Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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The others sat down when he left them, but he spent some minutes scrambling about near the fern before the faint gleam of a silver band upon the pipe caught his eye. Picking it up he turned back to rejoin his companions, and a few moments later he reached an opening between the firs by which they had left the hollow. The trees rose in black and shadowy masses on either side, but their ragged tops cut sharply against the sky, and a faint, uncertain light shone down into the gap between them. Soon after he strode into it Frank stopped abruptly, for there was a crackle of dry twigs and a soft rustle somewhere in front of him, and he could think of no reason why Harry or Mr. Barclay should come back. If they had wanted him to do anything they could have called him.

He felt his nerves tingle as he stood and listened. The sound had ceased and he could only hear the wind among the firs whose tops rustled eerily. But presently the unmistakable fall of a heavy foot came out of the shadows. Then he shrank back instinctively a pace or two into deeper gloom, for there was no doubt that somebody was approaching, and while he waited a black figure appeared in the opening not far in front of him. The faint light was behind the man and he showed up against it dim and indistinct, but Frank realized that he was not Mr. Barclay. He looked taller and less heavily built. Then the boy dropped noiselessly and held his breath, for a brittle branch had cracked under him. The stranger stopped and seemed to be gazing about him.

He moved on again, however, and Frank turned his face toward the ground, fearing that it might show white in the gloom, but it was only by a determined effort that he held himself still and mastered the desire to crawl back farther into the shadow. He knew that if he yielded to it he would be on his feet in another moment and might break away into the bush or do something else which he would afterward regret. He realized that Mr. Barclay and Harry must have seen the stranger and had for some reason kept out of sight and let him go by.

In the meanwhile the man was drawing nearer and Frank made out that he was carrying something. It seemed almost impossible that he could pass without seeing the boy, and the effort it cost the latter to lie still became more arduous. It would have been an unspeakable relief even to spring up and face the stranger with empty hands. Then he drew level, and once more Frank set his lips as he listened to the footsteps. At every moment he expected them suddenly to stop. They continued, however, and although, since he dared not turn, he could not see the man now, it was clear that he had passed.

Frank waited a minute or two longer and then rose softly with a gasp of fervent relief. He was annoyed to feel that he was still quivering with the tension and he stood still a few moments to regain his composure before he went quietly back toward his companions. As he neared the spot where he had left them Mr.

Barclay stepped out from behind a tree.

"You met that man?" he asked.

"Yes," said Frank, "that is, I saw him coming and kept out of the way. He walked close by me and I think he was carrying a spade."

"He was," Mr. Barclay assented. "I was afraid he might surprise you, but we couldn't shout and warn you without alarming him, which I didn't want to do for one or two reasons. We'll wait here until he's through with the business that brought him."

He drew Frank farther back among the trees and soon after they sat down a faint rustling followed by a clatter of stones reached them from the hollow. There was no doubt that the man was digging up the case. Harry, who was lying near Frank's feet, moved restlessly and at length he rose.

"That fellow's certainly one of the gang," he said. "I don't see why we shouldn't get him. Frank and I could work around behind the hollow and head him off while you walk in."

"Well," said Mr. Barclay dryly, "what would follow?"

"You could have him sent up."

"I daresay I could. What would be the use of it?"

"You'd have got one of them, anyway."

"Sure," said Mr. Barclay, "and I'd have scared off all the rest. I suppose I must be greedy, but I wouldn't be content with one bush chopper who probably only takes a hand in now and then. As I believe I told you, I'm after the whole gang."

Harry said nothing further for a while, and then he stopped and listened.

"He's coming back," he whispered.

The sound of footsteps came out of the shadow, and presently Frank saw a dusky figure pass among the trees carrying something upon its shoulder besides the spade. They waited until there was silence again and then moved quietly back to the beach, from which they saw a canoe cross the channel. Half an hour later they paddled across and duly reached the sloop.

"If that man had known she was here he would probably not have gone," Mr. Barclay observed. "As he didn't see her when there was a little light left, it's reasonable to suppose he couldn't have noticed her coming back in the dark, and on the whole I'm satisfied with the result of the trip. But it might be better if you went somewhere else for your flight shooting after this."

Then they set the mainsail and started back for the cove, keeping close in along the beach.

CHAPTER XX
MR. WEBSTER'S SLASHING

A month passed, which the boys spent quietly in grubbing up stumps and chopping. Then Mr. Oliver suggested that they go over to Mr. Webster's ranch and burn off his slashing, as he had promised its absent owner to send them. He added that they could camp there for the night and get a little hunting when they had done the work. There was a nipping air when they started early in the morning, each with a packet of provisions and a blanket upon his shoulder, and the newly turned clods in the clearing were iron-hard. The Pacific Slope is warmer in winter than the Atlantic coast, but there are times when the cold snaps are sharp enough in its northern part, and the boys were glad to plunge into the shelter of the woods where the frost was less stinging.

They reached the ranch without much trouble, and when they stopped at the slip rails Frank, who had not been there before, looked about him. The bush clearings are much alike, but this one was smaller than Mr. Oliver's. A little, very rudely built log house stood at one end with thick timber creeping close up behind it. There was also an unusual quantity of underbrush among the stumps near the door, which Frank had occasion to notice more particularly later. In the meanwhile it struck him that the place had an uncared-for look and Harry seemed to share his opinion.

"Webster's a very ordinary rancher," he remarked. "He can't stay with a thing and finish it. When he's about halfway through he lets up and starts something else. Any other man would have grubbed out all that withered stuff about the house and chopped back the bush behind it. It's not safe to have big trees growing so close."

"Why?" asked Frank.

"Because of the fires. They come along every now and then. It's lucky there's no wind to speak of, because I wouldn't put a light to this slashing if there was."

Frank glanced at the belt of fallen timber behind the fence on one side of the clearing. It had been badly cut and some of the trees lay across each other, while only a few of the branches had been sawed off and the undergrowth had not been mowed. If the fall had not been a dry one it would have been difficult to burn the slashing. Then he glanced up at the leaden-gray sky above the pine tops and fancied that it looked threatening. The dense wall of somber sprays seemed unusually harsh of aspect, and there was something curious about the light. Everything was gray and raw-edged, and he shivered, for the faint wind had blown across a wilderness of snowy mountains.

"It's not the kind of day for hanging round," he said. "Let's get to work."

Entering the house they found a can of coal oil and plenty of rags, for a heap of worn-out clothing lay in a corner.

"They'll hold oil and that's about all they're good for," Harry remarked. "I expect it's months since Webster pitched them there with the idea that he might mend them sometime."

Frank carried out one or two of the duck garments, and when they had torn them up and soaked them in coal oil he and Harry set about lighting fires here and there in the slashing, after which they stood near the door of the house and watched the conflagration. The fires spread rapidly, and one side of the clearing was soon wrapped in crackling flame that worked backward from the neighborhood of the fence, licking up branches and undergrowth as it neared the bush. That did not stop it, for the fire had flung out advance guards which leaped forward swiftly through the withered fern and hurled themselves in crimson waves upon the standing trunks. They seemed to splash upon them, flinging up fountains of blazing brands and sparks that seized upon the lower sprays and sprang aloft until each assaulted tree was wrapped in fire from base to summit. The conflagration made the draught it needed, and by and by it roared in what seemed to Frank malicious triumph as it pressed onward into the forest under a cloud of rolling smoke. Where it would stop he did not know, but he was almost uncomfortably impressed by the spectacle.

"It's a full-power burn," said Harry approvingly. "Guess it's going to clean up this slashing. And now we'll look around and see if Webster's left anything we can make our dinner in."

There was a stove in the house, but they soon discovered that it did not burn well, and Harry glanced disgustedly at the spider Frank discovered.

"A hole in the bottom of it!" he said contemptuously. "That's the kind of thing Webster uses. I'll be astonished if you don't find another hole in the kettle. You had better go along to the well and fill it."

In a few minutes Frank came back with the kettle, which fortunately did not leak, and Harry set it on the stove and laid a piece of pork in the spider, which he tilted on one side.

"It's going to be about an hour before that kettle boils, and, though I feel like doing it, there's no use in straightening up this shack in the meanwhile because the man would muss it up again as soon as he comes back. There's a slough beyond the rise yonder, and as it lies to windward we might get a shot at something. We could be back before dinner's ready."

Frank would have preferred to stay where he was, as he had already done a good morning's work. He assented, however, and accompanied Harry up a steep and very rough slope and down the opposite side of it. When they reached the bottom they plunged into a waste of tall grass and half-decayed vegetation among the roots of which the frost had not penetrated. As the result of this they sank to the knees here and there, and Frank more than once fell down. He soon had enough of it, but he was beginning to realize that there was very little worth doing in the bush which could be accomplished, so to speak, with one's gloves on. The small rancher and hunter must expect to get wet and ragged, as well as weary and dirty, and must face the unpleasantness cheerfully and mend his clothes afterward. The only other course was to stay in the cities.

Presently Harry discovered the tracks of a deer leading out of the valley and pointed them out to his companion.

"You won't mind waiting for your dinner?" he asked.

"No – not very much," Frank answered dubiously.

This satisfied Harry, who led the way up the hillside, and it seemed to Frank that they scrambled over fallen logs and branches and through thick undergrowth for the greater part of an hour before they crept carefully down again to another hollow. Though they floundered all around it there was no sign of the deer, and Frank was relieved when his companion intimated that they might as well go back to the ranch. Dinner was the first thought in both their minds when they reached it, but it struck Frank that the fire had become a tremendous conflagration and he noticed that a dense cloud of smoke was blowing across the clearing.

"It's a real fierce burn and there's more wind than there was, but we'll get a meal before we look around," Harry remarked.

There were, however, one or two difficulties in the way of their doing this. The kettle had boiled nearly dry, and the pork had disappeared through the burned-out bottom of the spider. Harry said that he could manage to fry another piece on the rim of it if Frank would refill the kettle, and eventually they sat down to dinner and spent a long while over it. Then Harry got up reluctantly.

"I guess we had better see what the fire's doing," he observed.

Frank was almost appalled when he reached the doorway. The whole clearing was thick with smoke, out of which there shot up a furious wall of fire that rose and fell with a crackle resembling volleys of riflery and a roaring even more disconcerting. What was worse, it seemed to be creeping into the thick bush behind the house, and Harry, running a few paces toward the corner of the building, stopped aghast with the red light flickering on his dismayed face.

"Dad promised he'd get Webster's slashing burned, but it wasn't in the contract that we'd burn off his house," he said. "We'll have to hustle. See if there's an ax and grubhoe in that woodshed."

Frank found the tools, and while he attacked the larger bushes near the back of the house, Harry began to cut down the undergrowth in front of it. By and by Frank came back and they dragged the brush away toward the clearing where it could burn harmlessly, but the smoke grew more blinding and every now and then a shower of sparks fell about the boys. Fires sprang up among the underbrush, and falling upon them with the ax and spade they savagely thrashed them out. Frank burned his hands in doing so, but there was no time to trouble about that and he toiled on, coughing and choking, until at last they were forced to stop for breath.

They stood close in front of the house, with a mass of withered fern and half-burned brush smoldering in front of them, while a sheet of fire rose and fell amidst dense clouds of smoke behind the building. The daylight appeared to be dying out, but Frank could not be sure of that, because it was almost dark one moment as the smoke rolled about them and the next they stood dazzled by a flood of radiance.

"We have done 'most all we can," said Harry wearily. "It was the wind getting up that made the trouble – I should have noticed it – but if it stands for the next half hour we ought to save the house. The fire's eating back into the bush all the while."

"Should we get any of the things out?" Frank asked.

"I'm not smart at handling hot stoves, and there's mighty little else in the place," Harry answered with a laugh. "I wouldn't bid a dollar for Webster's pans and crockery, and he made the table and the two chairs. Still, I don't know any reason why we shouldn't sling them out."

Just then the smoke rolled down about the boys in a blinding cloud; there was a great snapping and crackling, and a shower of blazing fragments drove them back thirty or forty yards across the clearing. Presently the smoke thinned, and a row of stripped trunks behind the house was outlined against a tremendous sheet of flame. Frank took off his hat and shook a few red embers from the crown of it.

"When we were getting those rags I noticed a keg behind them," he said.

"A keg?" said Harry sharply.

"A little keg. It looked thick and strongly made."

The red light struck full upon Harry's face, and Frank saw that consternation was stamped upon it.

"Then," he said, "it's full of coarse, tree-splitting powder. Some of the ranchers use it for blowing out stumps. Did you notice whether it had been opened?"

"The head seemed loose and one of the hoops had been started."

"Sure!" said Harry with dismay in his voice. Then he broke out in quick anger: "It's just the kind of thing Webster would leave lying around near his stove, without taking the trouble to head it up again. He'll have some detonators lying loose, too – I've heard he uses giant powder. We've got to bring them out."

They looked at each other with set faces while the sparks whirled about the house, and both were conscious of an almost uncontrollable impulse to vacate the clearing with the greatest possible speed. It was to their credit that they mastered it, and in a moment or two Harry spoke again:

"The sparks shouldn't get at the keg if we put a jacket over it, and one of us could carry all the detonators Webster's likely to have in his pocket."

Frank had heard that the big copper caps which are used to fire giant powder will contain a tremendously powerful fulminate, and he was conscious of a very natural reluctance to carry a number of them about his person through the showers of fiery particles that fell about the building. Indeed, he afterward confessed that if Harry had not been with him nothing would have induced him to approach it. How he screwed up his courage he did not know, but as the flame leaped up again the sight of a strip of blazing fence had its effect. The rest of it had been destroyed, and he felt they must make an effort to save the house.

"It wouldn't take us long to get the powder out," he said with a note of uncertainty in his voice.

Harry sprang forward and Frank was glad that he did so. He realized that this was not a matter for calm discussion, and vigorous action was a relief. Another cloud of smoke met them as they drew near the house, and the sparks that came flying out of it fell thick about them. The heat scorched their faces and they gasped in the acrid vapor, while Frank's eyes were smarting intolerably when he staggered into the building. There was, however, less smoke inside it, and a fierce light beat in through one window. Flinging the old clothes about they came upon the keg and found that the head was lying loose. Working in desperate haste they forced the top hoop upward and Harry wrapped a woolen garment over the top of the keg. After that he flung everything in a lidless wooden case out upon the floor and pounced upon a little box that fell among the rest.

"Detonators!" he shouted. "What's in the packet near you?"

Frank tore the paper savagely. "It looks like thick black cord."

"Fuse," said Harry. "It's harmless. I don't see any giant powder. Hold on. I'll look around his sleeping room."

He vanished through an inner door and Frank soon heard him throwing things about. The suspense of the next few moments was almost unbearable. A pulsating radiance alternately lighted up the room and grew dim again, and the roar and crackle of the fire set his nerves tingling. Then Harry ran back toward him.

"I can't find any giant powder," he reported, and added, "get hold of the keg. We'll carry it between us."

Frank set his lips as they sprang out of the door with it. The keg was not remarkably heavy, but it was an awkward shape and too big for either of them to carry on his shoulder or beneath his arm. Indeed, Frank felt his hands slipping from its rounded end and he was horribly afraid of dropping it among the patches of smoldering undergrowth and glowing fragments which lay all about him. A few moments later thick smoke whirled about him, and he hardly breathed as he struggled through it until it blew away again. Then, to his relief, he saw that the house was some distance behind them and they were clear of the worst of the sparks. They went on, however, to the opposite side of the clearing, where they deposited the powder, and then dropped the detonators a little farther on, after which Harry sat down on the frozen ground panting heavily.

"It's done and I want to get my breath," he said. "The next time I burn a slashing I'll see there's no powder about the place before I begin."

Frank made no answer. He was glad to sit still and recover, for the strain had told on him. Indeed, he was almost sorry when his companion stood up again.

"Perhaps we had better get back and pitch some water on the roof," he suggested. "I was too busy to think of that before."

The wind seemed to be dropping and the sparks were not quite so bad when they reached the house. They found a bucket, and after smashing more of the ice upon the shallow well Frank climbed up on the woodshed which reached to the low roof. The latter was covered with cedar shingles and he wondered why it had not ignited, because the sparks were still dropping upon it and there were several charred spots. This, however, was not a question of much consequence, and Harry kept him busy during the next half hour sluicing the roof with water which he passed up in the bucket. Some of it went over Frank's hands and clothing and it was icy cold, but they worked on steadily while the fire worked back farther from them into the bush. It had burned most fiercely when it had the dry branches in the slashing to supply it, but these were all licked up, and though the small stuff blazed the great standing trunks would not burn. There were already rows of them rising, charred and blackened columns, behind the slashing.



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