Janet Hardy in Radio City
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Orders snapped from Curt’s 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 director’s reply came quickly.
“Where can we go?”
Curt shrugged his shoulder.
“You know as well as I do. We’ve 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.
“Who’s going to pay for the damage?” demanded the driver.
“Never mind that,” snapped Curt. “The first thing is to save our own necks. Then we’ll worry about the bus.”
“But I’ll have to report what happened to the company.”
“You’ll 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. “We’ll 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.
“We’ll 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.
“We’re stalled for keeps,” he informed them, “but this is about as good a place as we’ll find. We’ll start backfires and then when it gets bad, we can get under a bank along this creek. There’ll be water to help us here.”
Under Curt’s 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.
“We’ll 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 Curt’s 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. Don’t breath any more than you have to.”
Neither one of them possessed handkerchiefs, for these articles had gone astray long before. One sleeve of Janet’s 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 Curt’s warning to breath as lightly as possible. Helen, shoeless, was standing in the water. A hot ember dropped beside them and struck one of Helen’s 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.