Ruthe Wheeler.

Janet Hardy in Radio City

Orders snapped from Curts lips. Back into the bus piled the company, Janet and Helen were among the last and they stopped long enough beside the well for deep drinks of the cool water. It might be many an hour before they would have such an opportunity again.

Curt took the wheel for he knew the trail into the hills. The motor roared with a heavy song of power and they were away once more, fleeing before the ever-hungry flames.

Janet and Helen sank back on the cushions of the rear seat. The trail was soft and sandy and although the bus lurched heavily at times, they had an opportunity to relax a little.

Helen slipped off her oxfords and rubbed her aching feet.

Oh, for a good, hot bath, she moaned. My feet will never be the same again.

Mine ache a little even with my boots on, admitted Janet. She would have liked to have slipped out of her boots and wriggled her toes but they were too hard to lace up again.

Curt was driving with a desperate intentness as the going became more difficult. The trail had faded into two thin tracks and it was rougher now.

Sharp rocks protruded and at any moment a tire might give way. But they kept on boring into the hills. The engine was working hard now as they ascended a grade and Janet looked back through the broad, rear window of the bus.

The valley they had just left was plainly visible and topping the ridge above the ranchhouse were the first racing tongues of flame. They had started just in time.

Helen turned around and together the girls watched the fire skip down the slope. When the scene was finally shut off by their own descent into another valley, the fire was almost to the ranchhouse and Janet felt sick at heart as she thought of the destruction which was inevitable for the friendly, rambling old structure.

The trail they had been following faded completely away and Curt brought the bus to a stop.

Want to get out and walk or shall we go on in the bus?

The directors reply came quickly.

Where can we go?

Curt shrugged his shoulder.

You know as well as I do. Weve got to go someplace; anywhere to stay ahead of the fire.

Then jam the bus along as far as it will go, ordered the director.

Whos going to pay for the damage? demanded the driver.

Never mind that, snapped Curt. The first thing is to save our own necks. Then well worry about the bus.

But Ill have to report what happened to the company.

Youll be lucky to get back and make a report, retorted the cowboy.

They lurched into motion once more, traveling almost blindly now, and much slower.

Curt felt his way around clumps of underbrush and outcroppings of rock. The wind, swirling along with them, carried a heavy curtain of smoke.

They were rolling down a long slope when a front tire let go with an explosion like that from a young cannon and Curt twisted desperately at the wheel, fighting for control of the big vehicle.

The driver jumped to help him and between the two of them they brought it to a halt without an upset.

Curt jumped out to survey the damage and returned almost at once.

No chance of repairing the tire even if there was time, he announced. Well see how much further we can go.

With both Curt and the bus driver clinging to the wheel, they started on, though traveling at a painfully slow pace.

At the bottom of the valley they stopped, a thin ribbon of a stream blocking their way.

Once more the cowboy lunged out into the smoke-filled night to stamp through the shallow waters of the stream. The bottom seemed fairly firm and Curt returned and took the wheel.

Well try to go through, but everyone unload. No use to carry any excess weight.

The entire company piled out of the bus and watched Curt start across the stream. He made good progress, the front wheels climbing out on the other bank and for a moment it looked like he was going across. Then the sand gave way and the back wheels churned up a spray of sand and dirty water.

Curt snapped off the ignition and jumped out of the bus.

Were stalled for keeps, he informed them, but this is about as good a place as well find. Well start backfires and then when it gets bad, we can get under a bank along this creek. Therell be water to help us here.

Under Curts dynamic orders, half a dozen backfires were started, the men working like mad to clear away the underbrush and destroy all inflammable material near the creek bank where they had decided to make their stand.

There was little that Janet and Helen could do, but they insisted on seizing old coats, wetting them in the stream, and using them to beat out the flames of the backfires when they had spread far enough.

The burned area widened rapidly, but Curt spurred his workers on with renewed pleas and cajoling. One of the cameramen, slipping away to the bus for a minute, trained his camera on the scene and started grinding away. The crest of the hill above them was now outlined in a strong, crimson and the shadowy forms of the workers were visible as they hastened from one backfire to another. Janet saw the cameraman working, but she knew their work had progressed far enough so the absence of one man would not make a great deal of difference. Then, too, she knew that he might get some shots which would be invaluable in some film needing good fire sequences.

Fortunately the bank they had selected had been heavily undercut by the stream and would afford them protection. Curt set several of the men to the task of digging further into the bank and they worked with improvised tools taken from the bus.

Janet and Helen soaked the coats they had been using again and returned to the task of beating down the backfires. Curt joined them for a minute.

Better get back under the bank. This thing is going to come down this slope like a hurricane, he warned.

Well wait until the others start down, said Janet, but he took their coats and shoved them toward the creek.

Get going, he ordered, and his voice was firm.

They obeyed, for already the fire was starting down the slope and the girls hastened to the creek bed.

The water was shallow, not more than six inches deep in any place and the bottom was sandy. Helen slipped off her torn shoes and wiggled her toes in the cool luxury of the water. Just then she forgot to worry all about the fire in the pleasant delight of having her feet comfortable if even for the moment.

Men who had been working on the backfires came tumbling over the bank, falling and splashing into the water, but no one minded being dirty or wet.

Janet could hear a roaring that sounded like the beat of scores of kettle drums a roaring that was increasing in intensity and furore.

Splashing along the sandy bottom, she came to a lower place in the bank where she could look up the slope.

A solid wall of flame topped the crest, then swept down with an amazing rapidity. The air was hot and searing like a blast from an over-heated furnace.

A handful of men were still grouped around Curt, working until the last moment to spread the backfire as far as possible.

Helen, padding through the shallow water, joined Janet and they watched the awesome scene together. The roar of the onrushing fire increased and waves of heat beat against their faces. Janet knew that it must be terrific out on the slope and she wondered when Curt would lead his men in.

One of them, gasping and choking, ran toward the creek, lunged past them, and hurled himself face downward in the water.

Seconds later Janet heard Curts cry and the rest of the men, with Curt and Billy Fenstow bringing up the rear, ran toward the creek bank.

The director stumbled and fell heavily and the cowboy bent down and picked him up. Carrying the director in his arms, Curt, staggering under the extra burden, ran on. One of the men leaped over the bank to help and together they eased the little director into the water.

Curt turned instantly and watched the rushing flames. The roar was so loud now that it was impossible to communicate with one another except by shouting and Curt ran from one to another, shouting and pounding them down under the bank where they would get the utmost protection.

Reaching out he jerked Janet and Helen sharply and jostled them under the bank.

Get under there and stay under. Put a wet cloth to your nose and mouth. Dont breath any more than you have to.

Neither one of them possessed handkerchiefs, for these articles had gone astray long before. One sleeve of Janets dress had been ripped and she tore the whole thing out, ripped it again, and gave Helen one half of it. They dipped the cloth in the creek, squeezed a little of the water out, and applied the makeshift mask to their faces.

Burning brands, carried along by the wind, were dropping in the creek now, hissing and sputtering as they struck the water where they soon became blackened embers.

Janet, turning toward the opposite bank, saw a clump of underbrush burst into flame. The fire, whipped by the rising wind, spread out rapidly. Venturing a peep above the creek bank, a searing blast of heat struck her forehead and she could feel her hair curl. One glance was enough, for a towering wall of flame seemed to be rising straight into the sky.

Janet ducked back under the protection of the bank and dipped the cloth into the water again. She straightened up again and glanced toward the bus. The cameraman who had been grinding away steadily had deserted the bus and was dragging his camera with him. He reached the shelter of the bank and other willing hands helped him set up the machine in a position that was well protected.

It was impossible to hear now and Janet felt Helen crowding close toward her. They looked at each other through staring eyes eyes that reflected the inward fear that gripped their hearts. The heat was stifling now. The cloths they had soaked with water were drying with incredible rapidity and Janet remembered Curts warning to breath as lightly as possible. Helen, shoeless, was standing in the water. A hot ember dropped beside them and struck one of Helens legs before it had cooled. She winced at the pain, but there was no escape.

It seemed as though the entire opposite slope of the valley suddenly burst into flame and the intensity of the heat redoubled. Janet held her breath and dipped down into the stream to wet the cloth again. Helen did likewise a moment later and they gained some relief.

Billy Fenstow and Curt Newsom were crouched beside the cameraman who was still grinding away at the red terror.

Again the cloths on their faces dried and their breaths came in great choking gasps. Janet felt as though her heat-seared lungs would burst. She wanted to cry, but the tears were whipped away by the hot blasts.

The flame on the opposite slope seemed to reach a new peak of intensity and the water at their feet ran crimson. Then the roar lessened, the peak of the fire was past.

Janet, through smoke-rimmed eyes, saw it sweep over the far crest of the valley. Scattered fires were left burning in its wake, but the main advance of the fire had rushed on seeking new conquests.

As the red glow ebbed, they crept out from under the bank and dropped with abandon into the shallow waters. It mattered little that embers, some of them still hot, were drifting in the stream, or that the water itself was now lukewarm it was a haven from the horror that had just passed.

Chapter Ten

Janet couldnt even guess how many minutes they rested on the stream bed with the water washing away the aches in their weary bodies. As usual, Curt took the initiative when he had regained a portion of the abundant vitality that flowed through his veins.

The cowboy sat up and surveyed the scene. A dozen fires were still burning in the valley and the horizon ahead of them, tinged in crimson, marked the passing of the fire demon.

Billy Fenstow, digging sand out of his ears and sputtering heartily, was the first to speak.

Curt, how in thunder are we ever going to get out of here?

The cowboy shook his head.

Walk, he moaned, looking down at the once fancy boots which had never been intended for the heavy work in which they had been used that night.

Billy Fenstow groaned in anguish.

Then I guess Ill just settle down and wait for a flood to come along and wash me down the valley or until I come to some culvert where Ill stick.

The cameraman who had ground away steadily through the thick of the raging flames crept over to his machine. It had been subject to terrific heat and there was only a small chance that the negative had come through without serious damage.

How many feet did you shoot? asked the director.

The photographer squinted at the footage indicator on the camera, but there was not enough light to note the figures.

If the film isnt ruined theyll be the best scenes of a blaze like this that have ever been filmed, he predicted.

Janet struggled into a sitting position and looked around. Her eyes sought the bus, with only faint hopes that the vehicle had come through unscathed. If it had, it would offer their one hope of escape for she felt that repairs might be made to the tires and if not, maybe they could limp along.

But her hopes were doomed to disappointment. The bus was a glowing mass of steel. Fire had swept over it, igniting the upholstery and burning out the entire interior of the bus. It was a hollow shell with gaping windows.

Curt Newsom stood up.

Theres no use sitting around here wondering what well do, he said. If a couple of the boys will come along, Ill start back to the trail and well keep going until we find someone or can reach a telephone.

Two other cowboys joined Curt.

The rest of you might follow us and get back as far as the ranch. Maybe therell be a little drinking water left in that well, advised Curt as he started up the trail, hobbling painfully on his twisted boots.

Helen looked at her oxfords. They were in even worse shape than Curts boots.

I guess Ill have to stay here, she said, half to herself and half to Janet. Id never make it back to the ranch.

Janet picked up the water soaked piece of cloth she had used as a mask to shield her face.

Wrap this around one foot and use your piece for your other foot. Then slip your oxford on loosely. That ought to ease the pain.

Helen looked grateful and tried the suggestion at once. She wrapped the damp cloth around as tightly as possible and then pulled on her shoes. It was a snug fit, but there was a soft cushion for her bruised feet to rest upon. She stood up and tried walking.

Thats much better. Thanks a lot, Janet.

Billy Fenstow took charge then.

Well start for the ranch and go as far as we can, he decided. There may be some shelter there and were in no condition to stay out any longer than necessary.

With the director in the van, the singed and tired band started back for the ranch. After a short distance they struck the trail. It was faint, but they managed to follow it without too much difficulty.

Hot blasts of air seemed to sweep down from all sides and breathing became a painful exercise again. Janet wished that she might have just one cool, sweet breath of air just one.

Helen stumbled and Janet reached out and caught her companion before she fell.

All right? asked Janet anxiously, for Helen was not of as sturdy stock as she.

Ill make it, replied Helen, the words coming from tight-set lips.

But Janet was not so sure that Helen could do it. They fell further and further behind the others, but at last they topped the final ridge and looked down in the valley where the ranch had been, where they had filmed so many scenes of Water Hole, the new picture.

It was too dark to see the outlines of the ranchhouse but Janet could discern several large, glowing piles of embers and she knew that even the buildings at the ranch had been destroyed by the fire. Perhaps the well was still filled with pure sweet water. Her throat seemed drier at the thought and she turned her full attention to Helen, who needed a supporting arm for the final, down hill lap of their journey.

The cowboys were the first to reach the ranchyard and Janet could hear them ripping the cover off the well. There was a shout ahead of them.

The waters okay. Hurry up! It was one of the cowboys, and the news gave them the courage to quicken their lagging steps.

Billy Fenstow handed Janet a blackened dipper, but she insisted that Helen take the first drink. There was plenty of water and they all drank their fill while Billy Fenstow scrambled around the timbers above the well hunting for the wires which had been fastened to the film containers they had lowered into the well. He found them at last, but decided they were safer in the water than any place else.

What about going on? asked one of the cowboys.

No use in that. Someone had used the dipper before we got here, so that means Curt is up ahead of us and hes traveling much faster than we could. Well do better to wait right here where theyll find us. Try and make yourselves comfortable.

But the directors last words were of little help. The air was still dry and searing and there was no shelter anywhere. Fires still glowed all over the valley and little clouds of smoke swept around them.

Janet and Helen walked over to the ranchhouse, but the embers were glowing so brightly that it was impossible to get very close.

I ache all over, confessed Helen. When I finally get into bed Im going to sleep the clock around.

Count me in on that program, nodded Janet. Well, we might as well sit down and keep as comfortable as possible.

But they went back to the well for another drink before trying to relax on the ground.

The men were gathered a short distance away, talking in low voices about their harrowing escape. They conversed in monotones that soon lulled the girls tired minds and before she knew it Janet found herself dozing. They were fitful little naps, broken with sudden thoughts of the fire. Then she would snap to complete wakefulness, only to have her fatigue overcome her again. She had dozed perhaps half a dozen times when the increasing chill of the air awakened her.

Helen, curled up on the ground, was breathing steadily and deeply and had not noticed the change in the atmosphere.

Janet scanned the horizon. There was no scarlet in the northwest now only a dense blackness that seemed to be growing thicker. The southeastern sky was still vividly flame seared.

The men had ceased their talking, but an occasional glow of a cigarette marked the dark huddle where they had gathered. A slight snore could be heard and Janet attributed it to their tubby little director. A flash of lightning illumined the mounting clouds and Janet shivered at the thought of a storm sweeping down on them after the fire.

Helen must have felt the shiver run through Janets body for she stirred sleepily.

Ill sleep another hour, she mumbled, and Janet knew her companion thought they were back home. There was no need to awaken Helen now. She might just as well get as much relaxation as possible.

Helen slipped back into a deep sleep and Janet kept a lone vigil. The clouds swept higher and a distant rumble of thunder came down from the hills.

The men were moving restlessly now and Janet could hear Billy Fenstow berating the weather. But there was nothing they could do about it except complain a little and then hope that someone would reach them before the coming storm broke.

Janet wondered how far Curt and the two cowboys who had gone with him had been able to travel. Perhaps their aching feet had forced them to stop. But, knowing Curt, she had a feeling that he would get through and bring help to them as soon as possible.

Helen sat up, rubbing her blood-shot eyes.

More fire? she asked as the rumble of the thunder smote her ears.

Well, not quite that bad. Just a thunderstorm.

Helen shivered. Well catch our death of cold, she groaned, and Janet had to admit that Helens fears were not unwarranted. After the heat of the fire and the fatigue, they would be excellent candidates for severe colds or anything else that happened along.

Several of the men who had been hunting around the ranchyard returned to the well.

Cant even find half a board, one of them reported. The fire swept everything clean.

Billy Fenstow turned to Janet and explained.

I had a couple of the boys out looking for some boards or anything we could use to build a shelter for you girls.

That was thoughtful, replied Janet, but well get along all right.

Billy grumbled to himself. He wasnt so sure. The girls had stood a lot already and there was a limit to their endurance.

A patter of rain struck them, the drops sizzling as they came down on the remains of the ranchhouse.

Janets spirits dropped and for the first time in weeks she felt like having a good, old-fashioned crying spell, but there wasnt any pillow where she could bury her head and she didnt want to cry in front of the men in the company.

The valley was hushed for a moment. Even the thunder was silent in the breathless pause that often comes just before a mid-summer storm vents its fury.

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