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The Young Wireless Operator--As a Fire Patrol by Lewis E. Theiss

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The two men looked at each other for a full minute. "Charley," said the
forester, "I've been as blind as a bat. I never liked Lumley, any more
than you did, though I couldn't tell you that. But I trusted him because
he had been in the department a good many years and was fairly efficient.
He has betrayed my trust and attempted to rob the state by false
measurement. I understand now why my estimate seemed so far out of the
way. The estimate was probably close enough. Lumley has sold out to the
lumber operators. I'd like to know how they reached him."

The forester fell into a deep study. His face was dark and angry. A long
time he sat silent. "I wonder," he said finally, "if Bill Collins'
presence in the woods last spring had anything to do with it. I'd just
like to know who that was with him."

"Oh! Mr. Marlin," cried Charley. "I forgot to tell you what I discovered.
The other night when I got near Lumley's house, I saw Lumley and another
man up-stairs. They pulled the curtain down quick when the dogs barked. At
first I felt sure the man was Collins. But when I went into the house,
Lumley sat at the table with the man. He wasn't Collins, though he looked
like him. But I discovered this. The man I saw last spring in the forest
with Collins was Lumley. I hardly noticed him at the time, but when I saw
these two men together I felt sure they were the pair I had seen in the
woods--only the stranger wasn't Collins."

"Are you quite sure?"

"The man I saw at the table wasn't Collins."

"Are you sure he was the man you saw in the bedroom?"

Charley looked at the forester in silence. "I never thought of that," he
said, after a moment. "There must have been two strangers in the house.
Lumley thought I was coming and would recognize Collins, so he must have
hustled down-stairs with the other man and left Collins up-stairs. I'll
bet anything that's what happened. And that makes me believe more than
ever that Lumley was with Collins in the forest. Otherwise, why should he
fear to have me see Collins?"

"Charley, it is as plain as the nose on your face. Collins is the
go-between in this crooked lumber deal. These lumber operators meant to
cheat the state when they sent in their bid. They must have had it all
arranged with Lumley then. That's why they put in the highest bid, so as
to make sure to get the timber. By George! They could afford to bid high.
Just see what they've stolen in one day's cut of timber."

The forester's face grew black as a thundercloud. "But we'll fix them,
Charley," he cried. "We'll get all that money back for the state and maybe
put these fellows in prison besides. Anyway, we'll put Lumley there sure.
Don't breathe a word of this to a soul. We'll check up Lumley's figures
every day now at the skidways. When we have enough evidence, we'll act.
Meantime, don't let a soul suspect that you know anything, and don't do
anything to alarm Lumley."

Chapter XXIV

Checkmated

Charley was afoot very early next morning. At the usual time he flashed
out a wireless call for the Mortons, and the ranger himself answered. Mr.
Morton could now operate the wireless quite readily, though, of course,
with nothing like the skill his wife had acquired. He reported that he was
to return to duty the next morning, starting work, with a big crew, on a
six-foot fire-line along the summit of Old Ironsides. Charley was
overjoyed at the news. It meant that now he would have a chance to see
this friend from time to time.

Mr. Marlin had not said that he would come to see Charley this morning,
nor had he telephoned any message to that effect; but when Charley heard
the steady chugging of a motor in the valley below, he believed it must be
the forester. He was not quite certain, however, because the motor did not
seem to beat exactly like Mr. Marlin's. The dense foliage completely hid
the approaching car from view, so that Charley could not see what sort of
an automobile it was.

It mattered little to Charley, however, who it was. He was the soul of
hospitality, and at once he set some coffee to boiling for his approaching
visitor.

This proved to be the forester. He presently came puffing up the slope,
and after he had drunk some coffee and gotten his breath, the two men
began to plan how they should best watch Lumley. The logs must be checked
up carefully, yet it was desirable that no one see Charley measuring them.
Finally it was decided that each day Charley should measure them in the
early evening immediately after the last log truck had started away with
its load. There would be nobody around then, and Charley could easily
measure the day's cut and get home to his cabin before dark.

For an hour the two guardians of the forest discussed matters that pressed
for attention. Then the forester rose to go. "I have Lumley's report on
yesterday's cut," he said, "and if nobody is around when we reach the
skidways, we'll just check it up. We can drive out in a few minutes, but
you will have to walk back. Get your log-rule and come on." And they went
down the mountain to the end of the new road.

"Hello!" cried Charley in surprise, as he caught sight of the forester's
car. "You're driving a big truck, eh? I thought that motor didn't sound
like your Henry."

"Yes; there was a load of stuff to be hauled out for Jim's crew. He starts
work to-morrow. I killed two birds with one stone by bringing the stuff,
which I dumped at Jim's, and then coming on out here."

As they reached the car, Charley said, "It looks powerful."

"It's one of those old army trucks Uncle Sam gave us. Got a great battery
and tremendous power. Get in."

They climbed aboard. Mr. Marlin touched the starter and the engine began
to chug. He let in his clutch but the car would not move. The car happened
to be standing on a moist spot and its great weight had pressed the wheels
far down into the soft new road. Mr. Marlin threw on the power. The truck
jumped, something snapped sharply and a banging noise followed as the car
moved jerkily ahead.

"Thunderation!" cried the forester. "I've broken the differential. I bet
ten dollars on it." And investigation proved his diagnosis was correct. "I
suppose it will take all summer to get a new part," growled the forester.
"This truck will have to stand here idle until repairs come. But we
can't stand here idle. Come on."

They set off down the road. After a long hike they came to the skidways at
the main road. Nobody was in sight.

"We'll begin at one end and work toward the other until we hear somebody
coming. Then we'll have business elsewhere."

Pile by pile they scaled the logs, Charley using the log-rule under Mr.
Marlin's close observation, while the forester himself kept tally. Alone
in the big woods, they talked freely.

"Why do you suppose Lumley took a chance like this?" asked the forester.
"He might have known he'd get caught."

"Primarily because he wanted the money, of course," maintained Charley.
"But there's another thing that may play a part in the matter. Did you
know that Lumley's folks once owned this virgin timber?"

"I've heard that a generation or two back the Lumley family owned big
tracts of land hereabouts. Naturally some of that land would now be
included within the limits of the state's holdings."

"When I was living at Lumley's, he told me over and over about his
family's having owned this timber and his grandfather's having been
swindled out of it. He seemed to me to be mighty unreasonable about it. He
was awful sore, and said he'd be a millionaire to-day if he had all the
timber his grandfather owned and that it was his by rights, anyway. I
recall that he said the thought of anybody else's getting the money for
the timber made him almost want to commit murder."

The forester looked sober. "He's a bad egg," he said. "I really believe he
wouldn't hesitate to commit murder if he were cornered. You want to watch
him. We'll have to be mighty careful how we handle this business."

"Hark!" said Charley. "Isn't that the sound of a truck?" And as they
listened, faintly they could hear the sound of a motor.

"Probably a log truck coming for a load. If we'd had a few minutes more,
we could have completed the job. There are only two piles left. We'll just
disappear until this truck goes away. Then we can come back and finish."

The beating of the motor sounded louder. The two men moved toward the
forest. As they passed the farther end of the first unmeasured log pile,
the forester stopped in amazement. A man sat on the ground, leaning lazily
against the logs. It was the man Charley had seen that night at Lumley's.

"What are you doing here, Henry Collins?" demanded the forester sternly.

"I'm working for the lumber company," said the man, sullenly.

"You appear to be working hard," replied the forester scornfully.

"I help load the trucks," said the fellow, as the forester turned on his
heel and walked away, followed by Charley.

"You don't suppose that he could have heard what we said, do you?" asked
Charley, anxiously.

"Heard every word of it," replied the forester. "The jig is up. That was
Bill Collins' cousin and he's as crooked as Bill. Lumley will know what's
afoot as quick as Collins can get word to him. We've got to act quick.
There's a detail of state constabulary at Ironton, and they could get here
in a motor in thirty minutes if I could only telephone them. Why in
thunderation did I ever leave the office without my portable instrument?
The nearest 'phone is at Jim Morton's. It will take me three-quarters of
an hour at my best pace to make it. But it's the best I can do. I'll hike
for Jim's. You hustle back to your tower and keep a close watch on things.
I'll telephone you as soon as I can. We've got to step lively if we are to
catch that scoundrel Lumley."

Chapter XXV

The Crisis

The forester hastened down the highway at a A tremendous pace. Charley set
out along the forest road he had so recently built. Before he knew it, he
was running madly. He ran for a long distance, hardly conscious that he
was running. Presently he stopped from very fatigue. Then he realized that
he was greatly excited and that he was running from sheer nervousness.

"This won't do at all," he muttered to himself. "You're worse than an old
hen. If ever you needed to keep your head, it's right now."

He took a grip on himself, drew a long breath, and settled to a fast walk,
thinking hard. He could not see how he himself could accomplish the arrest
of Lumley. If his chief did not think it advisable to attempt it, he was
very certain that he ought not to try it himself. And he was glad at the
thought. For he could not help but recall the wicked gleam in Lumley's
eyes, the man's savage outburst of temper, and his vicious talk. He
understood well enough that Lumley would not submit to arrest without a
struggle.

Then the thought came to him that he had no business trying to arrest
Lumley, even if he could do it. The chief was attending to that and the
chief knew best what to do under the circumstances. Also, the chief had
given him his orders. His business was to obey orders. And those orders
were to take care of the forest.

Fresh alarm seized him. Why had the forester given him those orders? Was
there danger of any one's setting fire to the forest? At the thought
Charley was almost in a panic again. A passionate love for the great woods
he was guarding had sprung up in Charley's heart. He held come to dread
fire with a dread unspeakable. He had come to regard it with a feeling of
absolute terror. In this feeling there was nothing of physical fear. A
little blaze in the forest made him so wild with anger that nowadays he
would fight it recklessly. His fear was the dread lest the immemorial
trees he was guarding should be wasted and the forest destroyed. It was
apprehension for the forest, not for himself, that troubled Charley.

Rapidly he passed along the road, now jogging to relieve the nervous
tension, now proceeding at a fast walk. He came to the slope of the
mountain but his pace was no whit slower. At last, panting and almost
exhausted from his terrific efforts, he reached the crest. He staggered to
the ladder and climbed painfully to the watch-tower. Steadying himself, he
swept the horizon in every direction. The forest seemed to slumber. No
smoke arose, no winds swayed the tree tops. The twilight peace enfolded
everything. Satisfied that all was safe, Charley sank down on his bunk and
lay there until he was rested. Then he climbed down to his cabin and
cooked supper.

Never since he had been alone in the forest had Charley so much felt the
need of companionship as he did now. He lighted a little fire in his
hearth and the cheery snapping of the burning sticks comforted him. He sat
down at his wireless and talked with Mr. Morton. The latter could not tell
him much about the situation. The forester had telephoned from his place
for the police and the latter had started at once for the forest. That was
all Mr. Morton knew. Charley called up Lew and told him as much of the
situation as he thought wise, and got the news from Central City. When he
threw over his switch and turned away from his wireless table, he felt
somewhat comforted. But the feeling of dread and apprehension had not
altogether left him.

For some time he read, or tried to read. Study he could not. At last he
went to the telephone and called Mr. Marlin. He reported that all was well
in the forest. He was burning to ask his chief all about the situation,
yet hardly dared. He might say something that the chief would rather have
unsaid; for always there was the possibility of listeners in on the
telephone. And Lumley's family could listen in as readily as any others.

Doubtless Mr. Marlin appreciated Charley's self-restraint. Before he said
good-night, he remarked casually to Charley, "I may want you to do some
work at the lumber camp to-morrow. I tried to find Lumley there late this
afternoon to give him some orders, but he had gone away. I have asked his
wife to have him call me the moment he comes home. Don't forget my final
instructions to you this afternoon. Good-night."

To an outsider the message would mean nothing, as Mr. Marlin intended it
should. But to Charley it told the whole story. Lumley had fled before the
arrival of the forester and the state police.

Charley reviewed the forester's words to him, as they talked at the log
piles. "He's a bad egg. I really believe he wouldn't hesitate to commit
murder if he were cornered. You want to watch him. We'll have to be mighty
careful how we handle this business.... You hustle back to your tower and
keep a close watch on things."

Again a feeling of apprehension came to Charley, and this time there was
something of personal fear about it. Again Charley recalled the fugitive
ranger's violence of temper, and his evident jealousy of the chief. And as
Charley considered the matter now, he saw that Lumley must have been even
more jealous of him, Charley, than he was of the chief. Now he understood
all the prying efforts Lumley had made to learn the size of his pay. Quite
evidently Lumley could not endure to see another man get ahead. Charley
felt sure that it would not be safe for him to meet Lumley. He resolved
to be on his guard every second. Then he sighed with relief at the thought
that Lumley had fled.

But a moment later his face became very grave. "How do I know that Lumley
has fled?" he asked himself. "To go any distance, he would have to walk
along a highway, or ride in a motor-car, or board a train; and in any case
he might be seen and traced. On the other hand, Lumley knows the forest
like a book. He has lived in it for years. Where else could he so well
hope to elude pursuit?" Charley felt certain that Lumley must be somewhere
in the forest.

Immediately he got his rifle, filled the magazine, and stood it within
reach. He tried to read, but was too nervous. Then he thought of the open
windows and his light within the cabin. Any one could see through the
windows--or shoot through them. Charley put his flash-light in his pocket
and blew out his lamp. The evening was warm, and Charley opened the door
and sat down on the sill, leaning against the jamb of the door, and
cradling his rifle across his knees.

Soon his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. From where he sat,
Charley could look out over what seemed like infinite stretches of forest.
The moon had not yet risen, and the valleys below him were vast depths of
darkness. Mist floated above, partly obscuring the stars. A gentle breeze
was blowing up here on the mountain top, but Charley knew that down in the
valleys the air was like stagnant water. The whispering of the trees
around him was like the quiet breathing of a babe asleep, and the
occasional sounds of the forest creatures were no more disturbing than the
gentle murmurs of a dreaming child. Peace enfolded the forest. It seemed
to Charley as though that great, invisible, beneficent Spirit we call God
had cradled the forest in His arms as a mother cradles her little ones.
The thought comforted him. Something of the peace about him crept into his
own heart. He drew a long sigh and sat back.

After a time he began to feel drowsy. He took his blanket and his rifle,
and, closing his cabin door, climbed to the fire-tower. He closed and
bolted the trap-door in the floor of the tower. For some time he sat on
the edge of his bunk, watching the forest. Behind the eastern mountains
the sky began to glow. The moon was coming up. In another hour or two,
Charley knew, the forest would be flooded with silvery light. He loved the
moonlight on the pines, but he was becoming too sleepy to stay awake to
see it. The moment the moon's first rays shot over the eastern hilltops,
Charley lay back in his bunk, stood his rifle within reach, drew the
blankets about him, and was almost instantly asleep.

Yet he slumbered uneasily. Terrible dreams disturbed him. Once or twice he
awoke and started up in alarm. Once the slender tower seemed to vibrate as
though some one were mounting the ladder. But Charley dismissed the idea
as idle fancy, for the nocturnal stillness was unbroken. So, fitfully,
Charley slept through the night.

Dawn found him afoot. Eagerly he scanned the horizon. Banks of mist lay
over the valleys, concealing much of the forest. Slowly Charley examined
the horizon, half fearful, half relieved. From the two sides of his tower
he could see nothing disturbing. But when he turned to the third side his
heart stood still. Unmistakable in the whitish mist, darker clouds were
rising upward. The forest was afire.

Intently Charley studied the smoke pillar, trying to locate it exactly and
to estimate the extent of the blaze. Satisfied, he swept his glance
farther along the horizon, but stopped abruptly. A second spiral of smoke
was stealing upward through the mist. Before he had completed his survey,
Charley discovered four more smoke columns. Somebody had fired the forest
in half a dozen different places.

Whoever had done it must have known the forest intimately. The blazes had
been kindled just where they would do the most damage.

Charley's mind worked like lightning. Even as he examined and located the
smoke columns, he was planning how best to extinguish the fires. It was
still very early. The wind would not rise for hours yet. Even then the
dense timber would break its force. Meanwhile the fire would spread but
slowly. If only he could get his men to the spot in time, Charley felt
sure he could put out every blaze with but slight damage done. By the
time he reached for the telephone, he had his plan of campaign mapped out.
Morton's big crew would be assembling in a short time. The forester might
be able to hasten their assembling and to collect more men. With trucks he
could rush the gang clear to the foot of the mountain, where the broken
army truck lay. An excellent fire trail would take some of them afoot
direct to the first blazes. Other groups could strike through the passes
for the other fires. With the chief and Mr. Morton and himself to head
three of the crews, and experienced fire fighters to lead the other
groups, Charley felt sure that they would hold the fires.

Sharply Charley whirled the bell handle and put the receiver to his ear.
There was no response. Impatiently he rang again. Still he got no reply. A
feeling of alarm took possession of him. Frantically he rang and rang, but
the receiver at his ear was mute. The wire was cut.

"Thank God for the wireless!" cried Charley, snatching up the trap-door
and descending the ladder recklessly. "There aren't any wires about that
to be cut."

Involuntarily he glanced toward his aerial. Then he stopped dead. His
aerial had disappeared. Now he knew why the tower had vibrated during the
night. Somebody had been on the ladder. If only he had gotten up to
investigate! But it was too late now for regrets. He must act. He must get
up another aerial. An idea came to him and he shouted for joy. He would
use the tower itself as an aerial.

He raced to the cabin and flung open the door. A single glance showed him
his cupboard had been rifled of its food supplies. He leaped toward his
operating-table and stopped aghast. His face turned pale, his hands fell
helplessly to his sides, and he stood looking at the instruments before
him, the picture of despair. A heavy file lay across the terminals of his
battery, and the battery was useless.

Unnerved, Charley sank down on a chair. He covered his face with his
hands. It would take him hours to reach the Morton home on foot. And it
might be hours more before the forester could be notified. It looked as
though the forest were doomed.

Fairly shaking himself, as a terrier shakes a rat, Charley freed himself
of the fear that clutched at his heart and forced himself to think. Calmly
he began to consider what he could do. He thought of the dry cells he had
first used. They were still wired together and in the cabin. Like a flash
Charley coupled them to his instrument, but the cells were exhausted. He
could get no spark from them.

Again he sat down and thought. Suddenly he leaped to his feet. "The army
truck!" he cried. "If he overlooked that, I'll beat him yet."

He began to assemble tools and instruments. But when he looked for wire to
fashion an aerial, his face grew black. The intruder had taken both
aerial and lead-in wire, and Charley hadn't a hundred feet of wire left in
the place. What should he do? What could he do?

Again he paused and pondered. And again an idea came to him. "They use
trees for aerials," he muttered, "and they make perfect ones to receive
by. I don't know whether one could send from them or not. But it's my last
chance. I'll try it."

He gathered together his tools and instruments, including the creepers he
had used in putting up the telephone-line, carefully stowed them all in a
big basket and started down the mountain. A hundred yards from the door he
turned about and ran back. When he came out of the cabin again, his rifle
was tucked under his arm. Then he went down the mountain as fast as he
could travel.

Fearfully he studied the truck as he drew near. It was untouched. With a
cry of joy, Charley tore open the battery box. In no time he had some
wires fast to the battery. He spread out his instruments and coupled
everything carefully together. The outfit lacked only an aerial.

Buckling on his creepers, and stuffing some spikes and a hammer in his
pocket, Charley rapidly mounted a tall tree that stood close beside the
truck. As luck would have it, the tree stood all by itself, its nearest
neighbors having been cut in making the road. Two-thirds of the way up the
tree, Charley drove a spike deep into the wood. He sank a second spike
not far from the first. Then he drove home a third. The lead-in wire
dangled behind him at his belt. He unfastened it and twisted it tight to
the spikes, wrapping it close about one after the other. Then he climbed
down and made sure his wire did not touch the earth. Trembling with
eagerness, he sat down at his key.

One moment he paused, drawing out his watch. With a cry of joy, he put his
finger on the key. It was almost the hour at which he was accustomed to
exchange morning greetings with Mr. Morton. He pressed his key and a sharp
flash resulted. Joyously he adjusted his spark-gap until he had a fine,
fat stream of fire leaping between the posts. Then he fairly held his
breath as he rapped out the ranger's call signal.

"JVM--JVM--JVM--CBC," he called and listened. There was no response. Again
he called. And again there was no response. His face became pale. His
fingers began to tremble.

"JVM--JVM--JVM--CBC," he rapped out frantically, sending the call again
and again. Then he sat back to listen. Suddenly his receivers buzzed. With
startling distinctness came the answer.

"CBC--CBC--CBC--I--I--I. Your signals very weak."

So the ranger could hear, Charley did not care how weak the signals were.

"Forest afire in six places," he flashed back. "Wires cut. Wireless
broken. Talking over temporary outfit. Notify forester. Collect all men
possible. Come immediately in trucks to end of new road. Can get to fires
on foot from here easily."

"Where are fires?" replied Mr. Morton.

"South and west of fire-tower. In valleys both sides of fire-tower
mountain."

"How far away?"

"About two miles--maybe three."

"How big are they?"

"Still small. Can put out before wind rises. Must have help quick."

There was a long pause. Then came this message, "Have sent neighbor with
his automobile to notify forester. Will rush crew. Hold fire best you can.
Good-bye."

With a cry of relief that came from his very soul, Charley threw over his
switch and leaped to his feet. He seized his rifle, then stood a second,
hesitating.

"No," he said decisively, "the man who set those fires won't wait around
to be seen, even if he is a desperate man."

He slipped his rifle under a clump of bushes and buckled on his little
axe. Then he started down the fire trail at a fast pace. Now running, now
walking, advancing as fast as he could without exhausting himself, Charley
hastened toward the fire. Long before he reached the nearest blaze,
Charley smelled smoke. As he drew near the fire, he studied it as best he
could. He rejoiced that it was so small. The mist bank and the heavy fall
of dew had so moistened things that the fire crept but slowly.

Charley cut a pine branch and fell upon the flames ferociously. A great
anger surged up in his heart, like the fierce passion that takes
possession of a bull when he sees red. It lent power and determination to
him. Yet Charley tried to conserve his strength. Yard after yard he beat
out the flames, thankful that he had to face only a little creeping fire.
Small as it was, the blaze was, nevertheless, hot and stifling.

Rod after rod Charley fought his way around the ring of fire, never
pausing for a single instant to rest. By the time he had completed the
circle and the blaze was out, Charley was beginning to tire badly. He
doubted if he could beat out the six fires alone. If they grew any larger,
he knew he could not. And larger they were becoming, for the first faint
puffs of the morning breeze were beginning to stir the tree tops.

Half a mile through the trees Charley smashed his way to the next ring of
fire. He could see that the flames were leaping a little higher and that
they were eating their way along at a faster pace than the first fire had
traveled. He knew it would be hard to stop this blaze. But he cut a new
bough, and gritting his teeth, once more fell to fighting fire.

Quickly he found it was quite a different fire from the one he had
extinguished. Fitfully the wind was coming up. When it blew, the flames
seemed to leap at Charley. His shoes, his clothes, his hands and wrists
were blistered by the heat. His fingers were torn and his muscles ached.
His lungs and throat became painful. His eyes grew blurred. He could no
longer see clearly. There was a ringing noise in his ears. Yet coughing,
choking, gasping for breath, stumbling and tripping, and at times falling
prone, he fought his way along the line of fire.

He was so weak, so worn out from physical exertion and nervous strain that
he could no longer think clearly. But blindly, stubbornly, doggedly, he
fought the flames. His movements became mechanical. Sometimes his
descending bough hit the fire and sometimes it struck the unignited
leaves. Charley was fast nearing the point of exhaustion. He could
scarcely control his movements. Yet he tried valiantly to hold himself to
his task. He thought of the turtle-dove on the burning stump and for a
moment the thought seemed to give him new strength. But the inspiration
was only momentary. Blindly now he staggered along the line of fire,
gasping, reeling, swaying, hardly able to keep his feet. He tottered on.

He could hardly raise his brush. His efforts were useless. Yet he hung
doggedly to his duty. Just as he was about to plunge headlong into the
flames, a shout sounded in his ears, forms came rushing through the smoke,
and Charley was lifted in the forester's strong arms and borne to one
side.

Chapter XXVI

More Thumb-Prints

For a long time Charley lay on his back, hardly conscious of anything. But
slowly the pure air revived him and his powers came back. He sat up, then
rose unsteadily to his feet. In a few moments he felt all right. He began
to look about him. The fire he had been fighting was extinguished. He
ascended an easily climbed tree and saw that the third fire in the valley
was also out. He knew that the fire fighters had gone on to the next
valley to subdue the blazes there. The wind was still no more than a
zephyr and he knew they would succeed. The forest was saved. A feeling of
great relief came to him.

He sat down and rested, thinking what he ought to do. He remembered what
the forester had said about the desirability of an immediate investigation
of incendiary fires. Here was his job.

He made his way to the blackened area where he had put out the first fire.
The space burned over was small. Charley stood and looked at it for some
moments, thinking the problem over. Then he walked slowly around the
burned area, examining it closely, but not stepping within the fire-line.
Then he wet a finger and held it aloft. Unmistakably the light breeze was
from the west. It had doubtless been blowing from that quarter all the
morning, though this particular fire had been extinguished when there was
hardly more than a suspicion of a breeze. The fire would have spread in an
elongated circle, or more exactly an oval. Charley tried to figure out the
exact starting point. He felt sure he could estimate it within a few
yards.

When he had decided about where the fire must have originated, he made his
way cautiously, a yard at a time, toward that point. He was careful not to
disturb the leaves any more than was necessary in putting down his feet.
Carefully he scrutinized every inch of the ground he covered. He was
looking for a mound of burned leaves or any other suspicious thing. But he
found none. Look where he would, the leaves seemed to have been disturbed
before the fire started.

Not far from the point selected by Charley as the probable place of the
fire's origin, the ground thrust up in a little, low shoulder, as though
there might be an outcropping ledge of rock there. Immediately around this
elevation the ground was clear of brush. No trees stood near. Charley paid
little attention to the mound until he noticed that it was hollowed out on
top. At the same time a piece of freshly dug earth caught his eye near by.
At least Charley judged it to be freshly dug, although it was blackened by
fire. He made his way very carefully to the little mound. Now he noticed
that the leaves about this mound had been raked together, for the ashes
lay thick in the hollow centre in the elevation.

Cautiously Charley began to scratch among the ashes at the edge of the
pile. His fingers encountered many rough chunks of earth, partly hardened
by fire. The rain, the frost, and the cold of winter would naturally have
broken those chunks down into loose soil. So Charley knew they could not
be very old. As he scratched more of them out of the leaves, he blew the
ashes from them and examined them critically. He could think of no
connection between these chunks of earth and the fire, yet something made
him scrutinize them closely.

All the time he was carefully digging the ashes away, and working toward
the centre of the pile. Suddenly he picked up a chunk that was quite
different from the crumbly earth masses he had been handling. This piece
was partly hardened and reddened. At once Charley saw it was clay.

Charley continued to scrape aside the ashes. He found more and more little
chunks of clay, while the hollow place in the centre of the mound proved
to be a square, small depression that must have been made with human
hands. Even before he had it cleared of ashes, Charley knew that. The
depression was much too rectangular to be natural. It was about eighteen
inches square and almost a foot deep. In the bottom of it were charred
ends of sticks and a little candle grease, buried under the mass of ashes.

When Charley had carefully scraped and blown out all the ashes possible,
he lay flat on his belly and examined the place minutely. Some person or
persons had dug a little square chamber, like a sunken box, right in the
shoulder of the mound. Charley decided that a candle had been placed in
the centre of the box-like excavation, leaves packed loosely about the
base of the candle, some fine, dry twigs stacked across the edges of the
excavation, and across the top of the hole other dry twigs had been
placed. Then the candle had been lighted, the open side of the excavation
closed with twigs thrust vertically into the clay, and leaves heaped over
and about the excavation.

As Charley examined the mound, he could not but admire the devilish
cunning exhibited in the construction of this fire box. The open space
about the mound would give full sweep to the morning breeze, and the box
was located in the windward shoulder of the little mound, exactly where
the breeze would hit it hardest. The piles of leaves heaped about the box
would spread the flames on all sides.

The candle grease in the bottom of the excavation, Charley had no doubt,
was the remains of one of his own candles, taken with the food supplies
from his cupboard. Nor did he doubt that the man who had taken it was
Lumley. He must have disappeared in the forest the moment Henry Collins
had told him what was afoot, for there could be no doubt Collins had
informed him. After the moon rose, so that he could see well, Lumley must
have come to the cabin, stolen food and candles, cautiously removed the
aerial and grounded the battery, and gone straight down the valley to set
his fires. If he could not get the money for the timber, or at least some
of it, quite evidently Lumley did not intend to allow any one else to have
it, not even the state.

In his own mind Charley had no doubt whatever that the incendiary was
Lumley, and that he had done exactly the things Charley pictured him as
doing. Even now he must be somewhere in the forest. But Charley felt
relieved when he realized that in all probability Lumley had no firearms.
He must have fled without taking time to equip himself. Also Charley
doubted if he would remain in the forest. The forester would be certain to
scour the woods for him, and Lumley could hardly hope to evade pursuit
indefinitely. He would probably make his way out of the forest at some
distant point and try to get away. Sooner or later, Charley felt sure, the
man would be captured and doubtless sent to prison for cheating the state.
It made Charley feel bad to think that he did not have enough direct
evidence to insure Lumley's conviction for arson as well.

An idea came to Charley. Blowing away the remaining dust and ashes,
Charley once more began an examination of the little excavation. Inch by
inch he scrutinized the surface of the pit. He found it partly baked.
Suddenly he gave a cry. He had found the distinct prints of some one's
fingers. On the second side of the excavation he found more prints, and
the third side yielded still others. Carefully Charley chopped out the
incriminating bits of clay. When he laid them side by side and examined
them under his microscope, he found they had been made, not by one person,
but by three. Apparently each side of the pit had been fashioned by a
different man.

Chapter XXVII

Trapped

While Charley was turning the matter over in his mind, the forester
suddenly appeared. Charley gave a glad cry when he saw him.

"Did you get them all out?" he asked anxiously.

"All will be out in a short time," was the reply. "Morton and his big gang
crossed directly into the other valley when I came here with my crew. As
soon as we had finished your job here, we hustled over to the other
valley. The fires there had spread considerably, but as there was little
wind and we had a big force of men, we quickly got them under control. The
minute I was satisfied we had them in hand, I came back to see how you
were. Jim is in charge over there, so everything will be all right. How
are you?"

"All O.K.," said Charley, "but I guess I must have been about all in when
you got here. I don't remember much about it."

"Yes, you were about gone. We got to you just in time. Now tell me what
you know about this fire."

The two men sat down in the shade and Charley told his chief all that had
happened to him since the two had parted on the preceding evening. When
he showed the forester the marks in the clay, the forester was elated.

"He's a pretty clever rascal who doesn't trip himself up somewhere," he
said. "It's an easy guess who your three fire bugs are. I have a very
great suspicion that the thumb-prints in that ball of clay I took from
your secret camp will match up with some of these marks, and that both
sets of prints will correspond with the marks on the thumbs of one Bill
Collins, though I didn't know that he was in the neighborhood at present.
And it's just as safe a bet that another set of those marks will match the
ends of Lumley's thumbs. If only he had been as considerate as his friend
Collins, and left his calling cards behind him, we'd have a complete case
against him."

"We have," cried Charley, leaping to his feet in sudden excitement.
"Lumley left his thumb-prints in the putty he stuck in his window-sash. I
never thought of them until this moment."

"Excellent!" cried the forester. "I suspect we can find the duplicates for
this third set of prints only when we lay hands on Henry Collins. But I
have a strong suspicion we'll have a chance to make that comparison very
soon."

"How?" asked Charley eagerly. "What do you mean? Have the police made any
arrests?"

"I don't know," replied the forester. "But this is the situation. Lumley
will never dare hang around in the forest, for he will know that every
man in the Forest Service is looking for him. Then, too, he can't have
much food with him."

"Only what he took from me, I suspect."

"That makes it certain that he must leave the forest soon. It's a good
many miles from the lumber camp to this neighborhood, so the three
fugitives must be traveling in this direction. If they keep on for fifteen
or twenty miles further, they will come out of the mountains near
Pleasantville or Maple Gap. They can board a train at either place. The
state police already are watching both stations. If Lumley and his fellows
went straight on after they started the fires, and Goodness knows they
wouldn't hang around here, they could reach the railroad in six or eight
hours. That means they would be there by this time. There is a train that
reaches Pleasantville about eleven o'clock. They would have time to make
it. I should not be at all surprised, when I get back to the office, to
find a message saying that the police had caught them."

"Let us hope you do," said Charley.

The forester arose. "Would you like to go see?" he asked.

"Surest thing you know," replied Charley.

"Then we'll hike back to the road and slip out to Lumley's house in my
car. We can get that window-sash and put it in a safe place in my office
and be back here before Jim brings his gang out."

Rapidly the two walked back along the fire trail. "Charley," said the
forester suddenly, "just how did you manage to get that message to Jim?
It's all that saved the forest. The telephone was put as completely out
of commission as your wireless was."

Charley then told the forester how he had used a tree for an aerial. "It
was my last chance," he said. "If it hadn't worked, the forest would have
burned. I had read about the use of trees to receive by, and I thought I
had read that messages had been sent through trees, but I wasn't sure. It
was my only chance and I took it."

"You're a wonder, Charley. I take back everything I ever said about the
wireless. I have telegraphed for the Commissioner to come on from the
capital. I shall put this entire matter before him and urge the
installation of a wireless outfit in every district of the state forests.
No matter what is done elsewhere, we're going on a wireless basis here as
soon as we can get the outfit, just as I told you. If I can't get money
from the state for the outfit, I'll pay for it myself and have your
Wireless Club make it. This coming winter we'll start a radio school and
you shall have charge of it. Maybe Jim can help you now."

"That will be grand," said Charley with sparkling eyes. "If only we had
the money Lumley robbed the state of, we could buy a dozen outfits."

"We'll get every cent of it," said the forester with decision. "Don't you
worry about that. When we went to the lumber camp after Lumley last night,
I stopped all cutting. Before another stick is felled, you and I are going
in there and measure every stump. Then we'll estimate the timber that
came from those stumps and the lumber operators will pay for it or they
will face a criminal prosecution. If we catch Lumley, we've got the
operators dead to rights. He's the kind of a rat that will squeal quick
when he's caught."

They reached the road, jumped into the forester's car and sped away to
Lumley's house. Half an hour later they entered the forester's office,
carefully carrying a window-sash. As the forester reached his desk, the
man in charge handed him a message from the state police at Maple Gap. It
read, "Have arrested three men who came out of the forest here and tried
to board a train. They give fictitious names, but no doubt two of the men
are wanted. Third has gold teeth and scar over right cheek. Do you want
him?"

"Do we want him?" echoed the forester, as he began to write an answer.
"Well, I should say we do."

He dashed off his message, and handed it to his assistant. "Rush that," he
directed.

Then he took a long coil of wire from a closet and led the way back to his
car. "That's for a temporary aerial in case you decide to make one," he
said, as Charley climbed up beside him and they went whirling back to the
fire-tower in the mountains.

Chapter XXVIII

Victory

In due time Ranger Morton came out of the forest with his big crew. The
men were black with smoke and their hands and faces were blistered and
scratched. But they were a happy crew for all that. They had extinguished
what at first bade fair to be the worst fire ever seen in their district.

By this time every man in the gang had heard the story of Lumley's
dastardly act and Charley's quick wit. Most of the men lived in or near
the forest, and a great fire might have consumed their homes just as truly
as it would have destroyed the forest. It was small wonder, then, that to
a man they had only admiration and gratitude for Charley. The last vestige
of ill-will that any of them might have had for Charley was gone. Like men
of the forest, they said little. But Charley knew that this little meant
much. He had won the good-will and respect of every man in the district.
No wonder he was happy.

This thought did much to offset the feeling of regret that he could not
help experiencing at the realization that his days as a ranger were
numbered. When he became a patrol again, or a member of Jim's crew, for he
believed that Mr. Marlin would grant him that wish, he knew that he would
stand on a par with the men in their own estimation. So he waved good-bye
to the departing trucks with a mixture of happiness and regret.

But he was not allowed many hours to indulge in either emotion. Very early
next morning the telephone, which Ranger Morton had promptly repaired,
began to ring. Charley answered the call and received a brusque order from
the forester to remain at the tower, as the forester was coming out to see
him.

"I wonder if Mr. Marlin ever sleeps," said Charley to himself. "He's
probably on his way here now and I'm hardly out of bed. I'll make him a
cup of coffee and some toast anyway."

But when Charley came to make the toast, he could find only three slices
of bread. Lumley had cleaned him out of food. It seemed no time at all to
Charley before he heard the chugging of the forester's motor in the
valley. A short time afterward two men ascended to the cabin. Charley was
surprised.

"Let me introduce you to the Chief Forester of Pennsylvania," said Mr.
Marlin. Charley was suddenly abashed. He held out his hand and responded
to the Commissioner's greeting, but was at a joss for anything further to
say. He thought of his toast and coffee and was more than ever
embarrassed, because he had only three slices to offer. Nevertheless, he
set what he had before his guests.

"I'm awfully sorry this is all I can offer you," he said, "but I had some
visitors yesterday who cleaned me out of food."

"So I have heard," replied the Chief Forester, with a smile.

"You will be glad to know, Charley," said the forester, "that those same
visitors have confessed to their crime, or rather Lumley did. When we
produced the thumb-prints in the putty and in the clay and compared them
with Lumley's thumbs, he made a clean breast of everything. It won't
surprise you to learn that he set the previous fires in this virgin
timber. He wants to be state's evidence."

"Excellent!" cried Charley. "They won't burn any more forests--or rob any
more cabins. By the way, Mr. Marlin, did you bring me any more supplies?"

"No," said the forester.

Charley looked vastly perplexed, but said nothing. He didn't want to
bother the forester, but how he was to live without food he could not
imagine. Evidently his face must have mirrored his thoughts, for the
forester, after studying Charley's countenance, burst into a laugh.

"Charley," he said, "it's clear that you don't pay much attention to your
Bible."

"What do you mean?"

"Why, don't you recall that we are admonished to take no thought for the
morrow, as to what we shall eat, and so on? Here you are worrying over a
little matter like food. Don't you have any ravens out in these mountains
to bring you grub if you get hungry?"

"It isn't any laughing matter," replied Charley. "What am I going to do? I
haven't an ounce of food left in the cabin."

The forester's eyes sparkled. "Shall we tell him what he's to do,
Commissioner?" he asked.

The Chief Forester turned toward them with a smile. "I guess you had
better. It would be a shame to torment this young man after what he has
accomplished."

"Very well, then. Listen, Charley. Here are your orders. To begin with,
Jim is now on deck again and you are relieved of your position as
temporary ranger."

Charley tried hard to choke back the lump that came into his throat.
Evidently his face betrayed his feelings.

"Look at him, Commissioner," said the forester. "I believe he's going to
pout."

Charley bit his lip and tried to smile.

"In the second place," continued the forester, "you are to remove your
belongings from this post and oversee the cutting of the lumber
operation."

The smile that now came to Charley's face was not forced.

"In the third place," the forester went on, "you are hereby appointed a
ranger in the Pennsylvania Forest Service to succeed one George Lumley."

"Oh! Mr. Marlin," cried Charley, "you don't mean it honestly?"

"I sure do. And there is nothing temporary about your appointment. You
are a full-fledged ranger. You have earned the place and I congratulate
you heartily on having won it." He held out his hand and clasped Charley's
warmly.

"Now, that is all I have to say to you," concluded the forester, "but I
think the Commissioner wants to speak a few words with you."

Charley turned to the Chief Forester and stood expectant.

"Mr. Marlin tells me that it is your ambition to become a forester," said
the Commissioner.

"It is," replied Charley.

"He also tells me that you are hindered by lack of funds and some family
obligations and that you cannot see your way clear to take the regular
course of studies at the state forestry academy and so achieve your
ambition."

"That is true, sir," said Charley. "There is nothing I would rather do
than become a forester if only it were possible. I love the forest."

"The way you have striven to protect it is proof enough of that. How would
you like to become a forester without attending Mont Alto?"

"Oh! Sir, if there is any way it could be done, I would work until I
dropped to accomplish it."

"There is, and you shall have the chance. It is the policy of this
department to promote men for merit and to make it possible for good men
to advance in the service. Mr. Marlin tells me that you came into the
forest absolutely ignorant of forestry practice, but that in a short time
by great application to your work and by study at night you have become
one of the best men he has. All you lack is experience. Time will remedy
that. If you could become a forester through a continuation of such study
and work, would you like to do it? Mr. Marlin is willing to teach you the
technical branches that you would study if you went to Mont Alto. He will
take you into his office in winter and you can assist him in technical
work from time to time in the forest, thus obtaining a complete training
for the position of forester. What about it? Do you wish to do it?"

"Oh! Mr. Commissioner," cried Charley, "I can't tell you how much I want
to do it. If you will just give me that chance, you'll find I'm no
shirker."

"Then the chance is yours. You have earned it. Now we must hurry back to
headquarters, Ranger Russell. I hope that some day I shall be able to call
you Forester Russell."

Charley's heart was too full for utterance. He grasped the proffered hand
and wrung it, but was afraid to say a word, for a big lump had come into
his throat.

A moment later he was bustling busily about the cabin collecting his
luggage. His heart was singing merrily.

"Some day," he said to himself, "we may get enough timber back on these
hills so that when a poor boy wants to build a boat he can do it, and so
that a working man can build a house without having to slave for a
lifetime to pay for it. I tell you it makes a fellow feel mighty big to
think he's going to have a hand in making life easier for so many million
people."

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