Ruthe Wheeler.

Janet Hardy in Radio City





No you wont. If theres any staying to be done up here, Ill be the one, decided Janet. Besides, I can run faster than you and your shoes are in no condition to go racing over this rough ground. You start down now and tell Curt exactly whats happening. Tell him the fire is moving steadily in our direction and I cant see that anyone is in front of it attempting to beat it out or to build barriers to halt it.

But I hate to leave you here alone, protested Helen.

Never mind that. You get back to the bus. Hurry! There was an anxious note of appeal in Janets last words and Helen flung down the stick she had been carrying and started back down the slope.

Janet watched her for a time as she darted around outcroppings of rock. Then she turned and gazed at the low wall of smoke which was being whipped along by the wind.

From that distance it was hard to imagine that the advancing smoke and fire could be such a deadly thing that it could lay waste to everything in its path, leaving, where it had passed, only a sear and desolate landscape.

The wind seemed to be strengthening with the passing of each minute. The crest of the advancing fire topped the ridge of another valley and started down the near slope, but it was still better than a mile and a half away. Occasionally a jet of flame rose higher than the others, as though some madman had tossed a torch high into the air at his exhilaration over the destruction the flames were causing.

The afternoon was waning rapidly and in the valleys between Janet and the flames the light was fading. She turned and gazed back down the long slope. Helen was almost at the bus, making every effort at speed and Janet felt sorry for her for she knew Helen must be suffering intense pain from her too-thin shoes for the rocks would bruise her feet badly.

Janet saw Helen reach the bus and the men turned their attention from the stalled motor to the newcomer. Janet thought she could distinguish Curt Newsom looming above the others but she couldnt be sure.

In less than a minute a solitary figure detached itself from the group around the bus and started up the slope toward Janet. From the long stride and the graceful carriage of the body she knew it was the cowboy star, coming up to get a first-hand glimpse of the advancing fire.

Someone down at the bus turned on the headlights, and twin beams of light flashed through the gathering purple of the evening.

Janet heard a scurrying up the other slope and a jack rabbit, scenting the danger of the approaching wall of smoke and fire, dashed past her. She knew that later there would be an onrush of the smaller animals seeking to evade the danger. But for some reason Janet felt strangely calm.

The fire was still more than a mile away. True, it was advancing steadily, but the thought of being trapped by flames had never really entered her mind and she refused to be stampeded now.

She turned back to watch the progress of Curt Newsom as he raced up the slope.

It was almost dusk now where she was standing but she could see him coming steadily toward her. He would be beside her in another minute.

The cowboy star, puffing heavily from the race up the rocky slope, reached Janets side.

The smell of smoke was stronger now and the flames were brighter as though they were eating their way through heavier underbrush.

Curts features were plainly visible in the half light of the early evening and Janet could see the lines of worry on his face.

Its worse than I thought from what Helen told us, he said, shielding his eyes and looking across the intervening valleys to the ridge down which the fire was now racing.

Is it serious? asked Janet. Are we in danger?

Curt stared at her hard, wondering just how much he dared to tell her. Then he decided she might as well know the truth and he spoke frankly.

The winds rising all the time and this fires spreading rapidly. Weve got to get out of here within the next few minutes or we may never leave these valleys alive.

Chapter Seven
RACING FLAMES

Janet felt an inward surge of terror sweep over her, chilling her mind and body. But it lasted for only an instant. She was too calm, too sensible to become panic stricken now. They might be in a tight spot but she had confidence that the angular, capable cowboy would be able to pull them through.

Weve got to get back to the bus and warn them of the danger. Maybe the boys will have the engine fixed by the time were back.

Curt turned for a final look at the advancing wall of smoke and flame.

A steady procession of small animals, driven from their homes, was racing through the underbrush and an occasional frightened rabbit would almost bump into them in its blind haste to find safety.

Come on! said Curt. He held out his hand and Janet grasped it. With the cowboy leading the way, they plunged down the slope. It was risky business, going at that speed, but speed was essential and they dared a twisted ankle to reach the bus with the least possible delay.

Janet dropped the stick she had been carrying and grasped Curts strong wrist with both of her own hands. They were fairly flying down the incline, Janets legs working mechanically as she followed the lead of the cowboy star.

They crashed through a low fringe of underbrush and reached the twisting roadway. Half a hundred feet away was the bus, its lights glowing, but no other sign of animation coming from the mechanical monster.

The smoke was not yet thick in this valley and for this Janet was thankful for the other members of the company obviously had not become panicky.

Billy Fenstow saw them first.

What about the fire? he asked.

Its bad. Weve got to get out of here and without losing any time. How about the bus?

It wont even cough, moaned the director.

Any word from the man you sent for help?

Not yet. Whatll we do? There was an anxious note in Billy Fenstows voice.

I dont know yet, but well do something.

Curt strode forward to the front end of the bus where the male members of the company were grouped.

Any chance of getting going within the next five or ten minutes? he asked the director, who was almost buried under the hood.

Afraid not, came the smothered reply. Ive found the trouble but its going to take about half an hour to get it fixed.

Curt turned and faced Bill Fenstow.

Thats too long, he warned the director. The winds getting worse and that fires coming fast now. In another half hour this valley will be an inferno. It will be impossible for anyone to live in it.

Then wed better start back for the ranch afoot, said the director.

Curts laugh was hard and thin and Janet, hearing it, thought it was a desperate laugh.

The fire would overtake us before we could get near the ranch, said Curt. Weve got to make a stand and we might as well make it here.

What can we do? It was the director asking the question.

We can start a backfire and burn off as much ground around here as possible. While some of us are doing that the others can see what they can do in getting the bus fixed. If its done in time, well run for it; if it isnt this is as good a place as any.

Helen came close to Janet.

Is it that bad? she whispered.

Im afraid it is, admitted Janet. Scared?

Scared to death, confessed Helen.

So am I, admitted Janet. But maybe there is something we can do to help the men.

Every member of the company was anxious and willing to do whatever they could and Curt Newsom snapped directions at them. Most of the men raced out into the brush and almost instantly small fires sprang up. They ate their way rapidly through the undergrowth and as they neared the bus itself were beaten out, the men using coats, blankets or whatever article they could find in the bus. In less than ten minutes there was a growing blackened area around the stalled vehicle. Their object was to create a large enough burned over area so that the main wall of the advancing fire would move around them.

Curt told them frankly that the heat would be bad, almost unbearable, but they could live through it.

The ridge from which Janet and Helen had discovered the fire was outlined against a sky shot with crimson for it was quite dark now. Small animals, scurrying before the red menace, were racing past almost constantly.

The fires which had been started around the bus were spreading out in a great circle, eating their way hungrily along the parched ground. In the light from them Janet could see Curt stalking here and there, directing one group and then another, and pausing now to beat down some flame with his blanket.

Both girls felt particularly helpless, for there seemed to be nothing they could do, and Helen, her light shoes torn and thin, was particularly wretched, for her feet were sore and bruised.

A sharp cry came from one of the men who had remained with the driver in an effort to get the bus repaired. Someone leaped into the seat, there was the whir of the starter and the heavy vehicle shook as its powerful motor thundered into motion.

The driver slid out from under the hood. His face was a smear of grease and his shirt was badly torn, for he had been working in close quarters. He stumbled, reeling from fatigue, but someone caught him and lifted him into the bus. Another man sounded the horn and the fire-builders, led by Curt and Billy Fenstow, returned to the bus.

Think the motor will hold up? Curt snapped at the driver.

It ought to, but I cant be sure, was the tired reply.

What do you want to do? The cowboy fired the question at the director.

Get out of here and get out quick! cried the director.

Wherell you go? Curt snapped the question back.

Billy Fenstow stared at him for just a moment.

Hollywood, of course. Everybody in!

But Curt laid a restraining hand on the director.

The road ahead curves back directly into the path of the flame. If we swing around this promontory, well be cut off ahead and before we can get back the flames will be over this section of the road. We can only go back.

Then back to the ranch we go, decided the director, and again he called, Everybody in!

Members of the company jammed their way into the bus and Curt took the wheel for the driver was too exhausted to handle the heavy vehicle.

The smoke was thick now and the first flames were licking their way over the crest of the ridge far above them.

With the motor roaring heavily, Curt threw in the gears and swung the big vehicle about in a sharp circle. Then, with the headlights vainly trying to bore through the almost stifling smoke, they raced back down the road.

It was dangerous going, for Curts vision was cut down to less than three rods, but speed was essential now and they plunged through the smoky night at a reckless pace.

Chapter Eight
THE LINE GOES DEAD

Lights in the interior of the bus were out now for Curt didnt dare run the risk that they might interfere with his vision. The heavy vehicle swayed from side to side as they bounced over the winding road and Janet and Helen clung to each other for protection.

Smoke was swirling across the road and the acrid fumes swept through the open windows of the bus, but there was no time now to close them.

They raced out of the valley they had been in, shot up over a slight rise, and descended into another valley, the glare of the flames being lost to view for the time.

Think well make it? gasped Helen, clinging tightly to Janets right arm.

Weve got to, replied Janet. The last shots for the picture are in the bus.

Im not worrying about the picture; its us, retorted Helen. My eyes hurt; so do my feet.

Janet couldnt help smiling for Helen was very much matter of fact.

There was a sharp report under the bus, like a gunshot or the backfire of the exhaust. But it was neither and the girls were thrown heavily against the side of the bus as the left rear tire let go.

The heavy machine swayed dangerously with Curt fighting for control. The brakes screamed as they ground to a stop and Curt leaped out to survey the damage. The driver followed him and then Billy Fenstow followed.

The driver turned on his flashlight and Janet could hear Curts muttered exclamation of disgust.

We can change; weve got a spare, the driver said.

Weve got to and well have to work fast, snapped Curt.

Under the lashing directions of the cowboy star, other members of the company turned to and lent a hand. Tools were taken out, a big jack was placed under the rear axle, and the work started.

From somewhere behind came the ominous roar of the fire and the sky behind the ridge they had just topped crimsoned. Helen, her thin oxfords badly cut, shifted miserably from one foot to another and longed for a hot bath in which to soak her aching feet.

While Curt and several assistants wrestled with the task of getting the flat tire off, the driver managed to get the spare wheel down from its rack at the rear.

Not much air in it, he grumbled.

There never is, snapped Curt, but you know how to use a pump.

Billy Fenstow seized the pump, fastened the hose to the valve on the tire, and bent his tired body to the task of increasing the air pressure in the big tire.

It was a tedious, wracking job, and the men alternated, working at top speed for a minute, then giving way to another fresher one.

Curt, scanning the horizon above the ridge, urged them to greater haste.

Fires getting close, he warned. Weve got to get under way.

Billy Fenstow unfastened the pump and Curt seized the big steel wheel with its huge casing. Other willing hands helped him get it on the axle. Anxious fingers sped the bolts into place and they tightened them as rapidly as possible.

Get going! Curt yelled at the driver.

How about the jack?

Never mind that. Throw her in gear and shell come off. That fires coming fast now.

As though in answer to Curts warning, the flames shot over the top of the nearest ridge and started down. They seemed to be racing now with the speed of a greyhound, leaping from thicket to thicket with unbelievable rapidity.

Janet and Helen, clinging together on the back seat, watched it with fascinated eyes. The fire was a living, advancing thing that might surround and swallow them in its flaming greed. The thought sent a deadening chill through Janet and for a moment she closed her eyes to the red spectacle.

The motor of the bus roared again as Curt trod heavily on the starter. The big vehicle pulsated with power and there was the crash of gears as they lurched ahead and the left rear wheel dropped off the jack.

Like a frightened elephant the bus leaped forward, its headlights once more boring through the smoke-laden night air.

Curt drove with reckless abandon, tramping the accelerator down almost to the floor boards. His passengers were flung from one side of the lunging vehicle to another, but they knew that only in speed now lay their hope for salvation and none of them cried out as their bruised bodies were flung back and forth.

Janet and Helen managed to wedge themselves in a corner where, by clinging together, they could escape with only a minimum of bouncing about.

Suddenly the road straightened out and the smoke thinned. Janet recognized where they were. It was the last half mile which led back to the ranch where they had completed shooting the new picture only that afternoon.

They had outdistanced the racing flames and Curt reduced the wild speed of the bus. In less than five minutes they swung into the broad yard of the ranch, but there were no lights in the house nor in the bunkhouse.

Curt blasted sharply on the horn, but there was no sign or sound of life anywhere.

Looks like everyones sound asleep, said Billy Fenstow, who was rubbing his bruises gingerly.

Theyve probably taken to the hills, replied Curt.

They unloaded and entered the ranchhouse. Curt lighted a lamp and it was evident from the disorder in the rooms that the owners had fled hastily. The corrals were open and all of the stock had been turned loose.

Janet and Helen stopped beside the water tank. Their throats were dry and tasted heavily of smoke so they drank deeply of the cool, fresh water.

Curt, pausing for a moment, stuck his whole head in the tank, and then drank from the cup the girls offered him. As he gulped down the water he watched the crimson horizon northwest of the ranch.

Looks like were going to be safe here unless the wind swings around a little more, he observed.

Im worried about the folks. They know what time we were going to start back and theyll be frantic when they hear about the fire, said Helen.

Phone line may still be up, said Curt. Go in the house and see if you can get a call through.

Helen turned and hastened toward the house while Curt rejoined the men, who were staying near the bus. The driver was buried under the hood again, making sure that there would be no recurrence of their previous engine trouble.

Janet followed Helen into the ranchhouse. The phone, an old-fashioned wall instrument, was in the dining room. There was a large plate of cookies, evidently left from supper, on the table, and neither girl could resist helping herself to several. Helen munched them as she cranked the telephone and listened for an answer from the operator in the nearest town. At last the response came.

Helen, talking rapidly, gave her fathers address and phone number in Hollywood. In less than five minutes the call was through and she heard her fathers voice on the other end of the wire.

Hello, Dad. This is Helen.

Where are we? Back at the ranch. No, were safe enough. The bus broke down and we had to turn back when the fire cut us off.

Now dont worry, Dad. Curt Newsom says he thinks the fire will swing around us. If it doesnt, we can take to the hills back of the ranch. Well come through all right. Tell Mother not to worry.

Whats that ?

Helen repeated the question, then looked blankly at Janet.

See if you can hear him, she urged and Janet took the receiver.

Hello, Mr. Thorne, she said. But there was no answer. She repeated the question and this time when there was no answer mechanically hung up the receiver.

The lines dead, she told Helen. The fire must have brought down the poles.

The girls stared hard at each other through smoke-rimmed eyes. The telephone had given them a sense of security, a feeling of contact with the outside world. Now they were cut off with the flames behind them and only the rugged hills ahead.

Chapter Nine
THE FIRE SWEEPS ON

When Janet and Helen returned to the spacious ranch yard, they found the men in the company gathered in a council of war near the bus. They were debating whether to risk remaining at the ranch or attempt to push on into the hills and onto higher ground.

Billy Fenstow felt the ranch would be safe and was loath to attempt to go any further, but Curt Newsom, who had been watching the shifting clouds of crimson, was wary.

A little more and the wind will shift enough to bring the fire down into this valley. Once its here it will travel like a race horse and well never reach safety, he warned.

The director pointed to several heavy steel containers which held the last of the shots for Water Hole.

Whos going to lug those through the hills? he demanded.

We could take turns, retorted Curt. Heres a better one. Are those cans watertight? He shot the question at one of the cameramen.

Theyre safe enough, all right, he replied.

Then lets fasten wires to the handles and lower them into the well here. If we have to run for it, well not be bothered with these heavy containers and well know the last shots are safe.

Billy Fenstow agreed that Curts suggestion was an excellent one and they scattered in search of a coil of wire. One was found near the bunkhouse. It was fastened to one of the containers and the heavy steel receptacle was lowered into the well. The wire was cut and the upper end securely fastened to a timber. Then the operation was repeated, the second can being lowered until it reached the bottom of the well. Curt snipped the wire with a pair of pliers and fastened the end with the first one.

Janet had been watching the skyline intently. Perhaps she was simply over-wrought, but she felt sure that the crimson glow had brightened as though the fire was nearer their own valley.

Watch the skyline, she urged Helen. See if the glow is brightening.

Helen peered through the half-light. Then she shook her head.

I cant be sure, but I think the fire must be nearer, she said. Had we better tell Curt?

Yes. Hell want to know.

The girls called the lanky cowboy aside and Janet confided her fears to him.

Curt spun on his heels and stared into the flame-rent sky.

Maybe Im imagining things, but it looks bad, he muttered. Then he called Billy Fenstow over to him and the rotund little director agreed that the fire must be getting nearer.

Curt sniffed the smoke. Its getting thicker. Wed better get out of here.

What about the bus? demanded the director.

Well use that as far as we can. Theres a trail that goes at least a mile back in the hills. After that well have to go on afoot.





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