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Title: Fire at Red Lake - Sandy Steele Adventures #4
Author: Barlow, Roger
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Fire at Red Lake - Sandy Steele Adventures #4" ***

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                        SANDY STEELE ADVENTURES

                             Black Treasure
                       Danger at Mormon Crossing
                             Stormy Voyage
                            Fire at Red Lake
                        Secret Mission to Alaska
                            Troubled Waters



                        Sandy Steele Adventures
                           _FIRE AT RED LAKE_


                            BY ROGER BARLOW


                           SIMON AND SCHUSTER
                            _New York, 1959_

                          ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
                  INCLUDING THE RIGHT OF REPRODUCTION
                    IN WHOLE OR IN PART IN ANY FORM
              COPYRIGHT © 1959 BY SIMON AND SCHUSTER, INC.
                 PUBLISHED BY SIMON AND SCHUSTER, INC.
                  ROCKEFELLER CENTER, 630 FIFTH AVENUE
                           NEW YORK 20, N. Y.

                             FIRST PRINTING

           LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NUMBER: 59-13882
              MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
               BY H. WOLFF BOOK MFG. CO., INC., NEW YORK



                                CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                                           PAGE
  1 The Lodge on the Lake                                              7
  2 Into the Woods                                                    17
  3 A Midnight Visitor                                                26
  4 The Missing A-Bomb                                                34
  5 Lightning Strikes                                                 43
  6 A Futile Search                                                   51
  7 A Birling Match                                                   64
  8 Fire!                                                             76
  9 Battling the Flames                                               88
  10 A Temporary Victory                                             104
  11 Last-Ditch Stand                                                115
  12 Trapped on the Hill                                             128
  13 An Unexpected Find                                              141
  14 The Rains Came                                                  152
  15 End of the Trail                                                157



                              CHAPTER ONE
                         The Lodge on the Lake


The battered station wagon bumped and groaned over the rutted dirt road
at about ten miles per hour, churning up great clouds of dust. Sandy
Steele wiped the grime and grit from his face with his handkerchief and
bent forward to yell in the driver’s ear.

“How much further, Mr. McClintock?”

The wizened little old man tugged his dirty straw hat down tighter as
the front wheels lurched in and out of a hole with a jolt that sent all
four occupants of the car bouncing several inches off the seats.

“’Bout ’nother quarter of a mile is all,” the man finally replied.

Sandy grinned at his high-school friend Jerry James, seated beside him.
“Well, we’ve come twenty miles; I guess we’ll last another fifteen
hundred feet.”

The short, stout boy seated up front with the driver turned to face
them, his eyes owlish behind thick, horn-rimmed glasses. “One thousand,
three hundred and twenty feet, to be precise,” he said solemnly. “That’s
a quarter of a mile exactly.”

Sandy and Jerry let out long-suffering groans. At fifteen, Clyde Benson
(Quiz) Taylor was the No. 1 student at Valley View High School in
central California where the three boys lived only houses apart. At the
age of ten, Quiz had been a winning contestant on a television quiz
program, which accounted for his nickname. Quiz could discuss Einstein’s
Theory of Relativity or the batting averages of the leading hitters in
the National and American Leagues with equal ease. His mind was a
bulging storehouse of facts and figures that his friends found very
valuable. But at times the superior manner in which he flaunted his
knowledge could be highly irritating.

“Why did you have to ask him along?” Jerry demanded wearily. “Living
with Quiz for a whole month is more than any human being can take.”

“That lets you out then, Jerry,” Quiz said, grinning.

“Okay, wise guy.” Jerry thrust his lantern jaw out indignantly. “Just
you wait till we’re camping out in the deep woods—hundreds of miles from
civilization, with no one around to hear your deathly screams.”

The driver interrupted this byplay, pointing to a patch of blue between
the trunks of the giant pines. “There, you can see the lake now,
fellers. Five minutes more, we’ll be at Mr. Steele’s camp.” He caught
Sandy’s eye in the rear-view mirror. “You’re Russ Steele’s nephew, ain’t
you?”

“Yes, sir.”

The driver nodded. “Great man, Russ Steele. My son was in his division
in Korea. Said General Steele was the best CO any outfit ever had. Used
to be real interested in his men. My boy said the dogfaces swore by
him.”

“Uncle Russ is a regular guy all right,” Sandy said.

“I’ll say,” Jerry put in. “How many big shots like him would spend their
summer vacations taking a bunch of teen-agers on a camping trip?”

The driver looked surprised. “Russ never talks about his work. Is he
really a big shot?”

“Mr. Steele is vice president in charge of research of World Dynamics
Corporation,” Quiz explained loftily. “That’s the firm that does all
that secret government work.”

The driver tipped back his straw hat. “Well, now, I never would’ve
guessed it. He sure don’t act it.”

At that moment, the station wagon rounded a curve, and the road broke
out of the trees on the lake shore. To the left and right, water
stretched away as far as the eye could see. Straight across, the far
shore was barely visible through the blue haze on the horizon.

Jerry whistled in wonder. “Wow! That’s a lake? It looks more like the
Pacific Ocean.”

“If I remember correctly,” Quiz said, “the Red Lake Indian Reservation
is somewhere around here, isn’t it?”

McClintock nodded. “Couple of miles west, on the lower lake. Actually,
there’s twin lakes, connected by sort of a gooseneck. Russ Steele’s
place is on the south shore of the upper lake. Here we are now.”

Set back in an acre of cleared land beyond the beach was a two-story,
rambling lodge with a wide front porch. The rough, pine log walls were
solidly chinked so that they could withstand the frigid north Minnesota
winters; Russell Steele, an avid hunter, used the place as often in
winter as he did in summer. A small dock ran out into the lake and
served as a mooring for three rowboats as well as a 16-foot cabin
cruiser.

As the station wagon drew up in front of the porch, a tall, powerful man
with broad shoulders came down the steps to greet them.

“Welcome to Red Lake.”

Sandy leaped out of the car and wrung his uncle’s hand vigorously.
“Uncle Russ! It’s great to be here.”

A lithe six-footer, Sandy seemed puny beside the older man. In his plaid
shirt and dungarees, Russell Steele looked more like a lumberjack than a
corporation executive. He shook hands with the other two boys.

“Glad the whole gang could make it,” Russ said, grinning.

“You’re a peach to invite us, Mr. Steele,” Jerry said.

Russell Steele walked over to the front window of the station wagon and
put one big hand on the driver’s shoulder. “How’s it going, John?”

John McClintock removed his straw hat and blew the dust off the crown.
“Not bad, Russ. But I could use some rain like everybody else around
here.”

Russ frowned. “It’s bad. Very bad. The ground is like cement and
everything is dry as parchment. I don’t mind telling you I’m worried,
John.”

The driver shrugged. “Like living in a tinder-box. I hear you’re takin’
these young fellers out into the deep woods. Better not go too far.
We’re just about due for a forest fire.”

“We’ll be careful,” Russ promised. He reached into his pocket and took
out a folded ten-dollar bill. “Thanks for bringing the boys out, John.
Here, let me take care of their taxi fare.”

John McClintock pushed the extended bill away firmly. “Not on your life,
Russ. This one’s on me. I owe you a favor after what you did for my
family last year.”

He looked up at Sandy. “Last winter when your uncle was up hunting
around my place, my youngest cut hisself bad on a band saw. Russ hiked
nine miles through a raging blizzard to fetch the doc.”

Russ laughed easily. “I needed the exercise, John. Now you take this
money—” But before he could finish, the old man had gunned the motor and
the station wagon leaped forward. It turned into the drive, backed
around in the road, then headed off in the direction of town.


Russ helped the boys carry their luggage into the lodge and upstairs to
their rooms. “The bathroom’s at the end of the hall. After you shower,
come down to the porch. I’ll have the cook fix you some lemonade and
sandwiches.”

Sandy was the first one finished. Russ Steele looked up and grinned as
his nephew appeared in the doorway, running a comb through his
unmanageable blond hair with dogged determination.

“Still having trouble with that cowlick, I see,” Russ said.

“One of these days I’m going to get a butch haircut like Jerry James’s.
Then all I’ll have to do is run a washrag across it.”

“Your mother will never buy that,” Russ laughed. “How are the folks?”

“They’re fine,” Sandy said. “Dad’s down in Mexico for two weeks.”

Russ took a long draw on his pipe. “On another one of those government
geological expeditions, I suppose. I envy John, getting to see so much
of the world.”

“He enjoys it, all right,” Sandy admitted. He looked up as a big,
sleek-haired dog came bounding out of the pines on one side of the
house. “Who’s that?”

“That’s Prince, the cook’s Doberman pinscher.” Russ whistled softly
through his teeth.

The dog’s sharp ears and muzzle thrust alertly into the air; then, with
the bounce of a recoiling spring, he came striding across the sunburned
lawn and cleared the front steps in a single leap, to squat in front of
Russ with his short stub of a tail wagging vigorously.

“Talk about jet propulsion!” Sandy exclaimed. “What do you feed him on?”

Russ laughed and leaned over to stroke the animal’s glossy black coat.
“Pound for pound the Doberman is the strongest canine bred. One of the
most intelligent, too. We use them as watchdogs at the plant. I brought
this fellow up as a Christmas present for the cook two years ago.
Prince, meet Sandy.”

Promptly, the dog turned to Sandy and raised his right paw.

“How do you do, Prince,” Sandy said solemnly, taking the paw and shaking
it. “Say, he is smart.”

Jerry and Quiz came out on the porch a few minutes later, and Russ
entertained the boys by putting Prince through some of his tricks. But
the dog was temporarily forgotten when a rangy, string bean of a man
arrived with a huge tray piled high with sandwiches and a pitcher of
lemonade.

“This is Lars Johannsen,” Russ introduced him to the boys. “He’s my cook
and caretaker. Lars used to cook in a lumber camp, so he’s used to chow
hounds. Dig in, fellows.”

Johannsen, who had lank blond hair bleached white by the sun, and a
drooping mustache, flashed a snaggle-toothed grin. “Ya, you eat all you
want,” he said with just a trace of a Scandinavian accent. “Plenty more
to eat in kitchen.”

“You don’t have to coax me,” Jerry said, grabbing a big, two-inch-thick
sandwich in each hand. “I’m famished.”

“Didn’t they feed you on the plane?” Russ asked.

“Sure,” Sandy told him. “We had a big breakfast just before we landed.
But Jerry is the hungriest man alive.”

“If he keeps it up, he won’t make the football team this year,” Quiz
said dryly. “He’ll be too fat to bend over to center the ball.”

“Look who’s calling who fat!” Jerry spluttered between mouthfuls. “The
original blob in person.”

Quiz sniffed. “My mother thinks I’m perfect just the way I am. When this
baby fat drops off, I’ll have a physique the likes of which you’ve never
seen.”

“_That_ I can believe!” Jerry said.

“Break it up, boys,” Russ laughed. “After a month in the woods, you’ll
both be slim as reeds and hard as rocks.”

“Will we really be camping out for the whole month?” Sandy asked
curiously.

“Well, we’ll always be on the move. Of course, there will be times when
we’ll stop over at ranger stations or lumber camps. But for the most
part, we’ll be roughing it in the best frontier tradition.”

“What time do we leave?” Jerry wanted to know.

“Tomorrow morning at six. Packs will be rolled before we hit the sack
tonight.”

“Packs?” Jerry asked.

Russell Steele nodded as he relit his pipe with a long wooden match. “A
conventional infantryman’s pack. Bedroll, shelter half, tent pegs, mess
kit, raincoat, socks, underwear, spare shirt and levis, canned goods,
K-rations, toothbrush, shaving kit, trenching tools, and, of course, a
canteen and cup on your belt. We’ll split up the larger utensils—pots
and frying pans.”

Jerry James jumped up, stood at attention and threw off a snappy salute.
“Yes, sir! Hut-two-three-four! We’re in the Army now. We march at dawn.”

Russ grinned appreciatively; then he said in his most authoritative,
military manner, “There’s just one thing, soldier. You don’t salute with
a boloney sandwich in your hand.”



                              CHAPTER TWO
                             Into the Woods


After a pre-dawn breakfast of sausage, eggs and flapjacks, Russell
Steele and the three boys strapped on their packs and walked down to the
dock where Lars Johannsen was warming up the cabin cruiser. Prince was
running back and forth on the pier, barking excitedly.

Jerry eased his thumbs under the pack straps where they cut into his
shoulders. “Boy, this stuff is heavy. You mean to say soldiers carry all
this weight for miles and miles?”

“More weight than that,” Russ told him. “Our packs don’t weigh more than
thirty or forty pounds. An infantryman may pack better than sixty
pounds. And that doesn’t include his cartridge belt and rifle.”

“Me for the Navy,” Quiz said emphatically.

Russ laughed. “After a few days you won’t even realize your pack is
there.”

The sun, a steaming red ball through the morning mist over the lake, was
just showing above the treetops as they climbed aboard the cruiser. Russ
cast off and the cook advanced the throttle slowly. With a roar of the
twin exhausts, the sleek craft shot away from the dock, her bow lifting
as it cleaved through the clear, blue water. Prince scrambled up on the
top deck and stood at the prow, leaning forward into the fine spray
whipping back across the cabin.

“He’s got a fine pair of sea legs,” Jerry said.

Sandy laughed. “Two pairs, you mean. He looks like a figurehead on one
of those old sailing ships, doesn’t he?”

Russ outlined the month’s itinerary: “Lars will drop us off at the
northeast corner of the lake, and we’ll strike out for Big Falls. From
Big Falls we’ll head south to Bow String Lake, and from Bow String west
back to the lodge. Actually, we’ll be traveling in a big triangle, about
one hundred and twenty miles altogether, I’d say.”

“This is a lumber region, isn’t it, Mr. Steele?” Quiz asked. “I’ve
always wanted to see lumberjacks at work.”

“You’ll have your chance, Quiz,” Russ promised him. “Although the lumber
industry in Minnesota is only a shadow of what it used to be. A little
more than a century ago, more than three quarters of the state was
forested. But ruthless cutting of timber without any thought of
conservation or restocking has all but wiped out the great pine forests
of the Lake States. The short-sighted men responsible never stopped to
consider how long it takes a tree to grow. Why, some of these big
fellows are mere babies after one hundred years.”

The little launch was fairly skimming across the mirror-like surface of
the lake now. There wasn’t a hint of a breeze, and although it was still
early morning, the sun burned down so intensely that they had to string
up an awning over the rear deck.

“Another scorcher,” Russ said grimly.

Lars grunted. “We better get rain soon, or we have pretty big trouble.
One spark in these woods and _poof_!” He threw up his hands.

Russ spoke seriously to the boys. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to
forgo the joys of the evening campfire. It would be much too dangerous.
I brought along a Coleman stove to cook on.”

Jerry was disappointed. “Heck, that’s half the fun of camping
out—shooting the breeze around the fire.”

“I feel bad about it myself,” Russ agreed. “But if you ever had had the
misfortune to see a forest fire at first hand, you’d understand that
it’s out of the question.”

“Have you ever seen one close?” Sandy asked him.

“Yes, I did. Down in Southern California a couple of years ago. It was
the most horrible experience of my life.” He seemed to go tense at the
recollection.

Jerry shivered and gazed intently at the approaching shoreline; the
foliage stretched away unbroken to the horizon like a roof over the
forest. “I’d hate to be somewhere in the middle of that if a fire did
break out.”

“I don’t think we have anything to worry about, as long as we’re
careful,” Russ assured him. “And you don’t have to worry about the
natives; their livelihoods—and lives—depend on good fire-prevention
habits.”

“That’s all well and good, sir,” Quiz said somberly, “but what about
lightning?” He studied the cloudless sky arching all about them like a
pale-blue china bowl. “When this hot spell breaks, you can bet it will
break with a ripsnorting thunder-and-lightning storm.”

“You’re a cheerful sort,” Jerry grumbled.

Russ Steele’s brow furrowed in concentration. “It’s a good point, Quiz.
All we can do is hope that if lightning does ignite any small fires, a
good rain will follow soon enough to douse them.”

“Don’t they have fire spotters in these woods?” Sandy asked.

“Certainly. The U.S. Forest Service has rangers stationed in fire towers
throughout all critical areas on twenty-four-hour duty. But there’s an
awful lot of territory to cover. Many times a blaze will be out of
control before it’s detected.”

The conversation broke off as the shoreline loomed up rapidly now. Lars
steered the launch toward a rickety wooden dock before a small frame
bungalow set back about 100 feet from the water’s edge.

“An old army buddy of mine owns that camp,” Russ told them. “He won’t be
up until the hunting season.”

As Lars maneuvered the launch expertly alongside the dock, Russ leaped
out and gave the mooring line a few turns around a piling. He lent a
hand to each of the boys in turn as they stepped up on the gunwale and
hopped gingerly across to the wooden platform.

“These packs throw you off balance,” Quiz grumbled, heading gratefully
for solid land.

They all laughed as Prince, who was leaning far out over the bow
watching the fish dart about in the clear water, lost his footing and
went tumbling into the lake. He surfaced and went streaking for shore
like a seal. The big dog scrambled out of the lake a few feet away from
Quiz and shook himself vigorously, sending the spray flying in all
directions.

“Hey!” Quiz complained, stumbling backward. “Somebody turn off the
sprinkler system.”

“Now, you won’t have to take a bath tonight,” Jerry kidded him.

When he was through shaking, Prince sat down on the bank and watched
them with his head cocked to one side.

“I think he wants to go with us,” Sandy suggested.

“Take him along,” Lars said. “The exercise will do him good.”

“Good idea,” Russ agreed. “All right, boy, you can come with us if you
want to.”

Lars gunned the motor and waved. “Well, so long. Have a good time.”

Russell Steele cast off the mooring line. “We will, Lars. And I promise
to take good care of Prince.”

Lars laughed. “Prince take good care of you, I think. See you in couple
of weeks.”

The boys watched until the boat was just a speck in the distance. “What
a sweet outfit that is, Mr. Steele,” Jerry said admiringly. “I could
spend the whole summer just cruising around the lake like that.”

Russ took out his pipe and filled it from a plastic pouch. “Before you
go back to California, we’ll try and get some water skiing in.”

“Boy, that will be great.”

Russ led the way up the beach to the bungalow. “We’ll fill our canteens
with fresh water from the pump behind the house and be on our way.”

They struck out through a grove of pines with Russ leading the way. The
boles were thick around as a man and clean of limbs for about thirty
feet up. A dim, soothing green light filtered down through the
interlaced canopy of branches above them.

“It reminds me of a cathedral,” Sandy said.

The silence was eerie; their footsteps were almost soundless on the
spongy forest floor.

“It’s like walking on cotton,” Jerry said. “This must be the softest
ground in the world.”

“We’re really not walking on the ground,” Russ said. “The duff and humus
here must be a foot thick.”

“What’s duff and humus?” Jerry demanded.

“Decayed vegetable matter,” Quiz translated promptly. “Falling pine
needles, scraps of bark, dead plants and bushes.”

As they got farther away from the lake, the matter underfoot began to
rustle crisply. A pine cone fell, rattling through the dry boughs. Russ
glanced up and frowned.

“If only it would rain,” he sighed.

At the end of the first hour, he called a halt. “Ten-minute break.” The
boys protested that they weren’t tired yet, but he was adamant. “If you
walk until you’re tired, you won’t want to get up again. A ten-minute
break every hour helps prevent fatigue. And remove your packs. The idea
is to relax completely.”

Jerry sat down with his back to a tree and removed his left shoe and
sock to examine a red welt on his instep. “Gee, I think I’m getting a
blister.”

“Let’s see.” Russ came over and knelt down by him. “Hmmm, it looks that
way.” He went to his pack, got out a first-aid kit and found a Band-aid.

As he applied the little adhesive bandage to the blister, his eyes fell
on Jerry’s sock lying on the ground.

“Is that a cotton sock?” he asked sharply.

“Yes, sir,” Jerry answered.

“I told you fellows distinctly to wear wool socks, didn’t I?”

Jerry’s face reddened. “Yes, but it was so darned hot that I thought—”

“Jerry,” Russ said patiently, “I didn’t tell you to wear wool socks just
to make you uncomfortable. I wanted to save you a lot of agony. If you
keep on wearing those thin socks for a couple of days, we’ll have to
carry you back on a stretcher.”

Sandy and Quiz stood nearby curiously. “How’s that, Uncle Russ?” Sandy
asked.

“A good pair of heavy wool socks protects your feet; keeps them dry and
won’t bunch up in blister-making creases. Any soldier or woodsman,
anybody who does a lot of hiking, can tell you. In my old army outfit,
wearing cotton socks on a hike was a punishable offense.”

“Hear, hear!” Quiz said with relish. “I vote we assign Jerry to
permanent KP duty for fouling things up.”

Sandy grinned. “I second the motion.”

Jerry’s lantern jaw sagged. “Aw, fellers, have a heart! General Steele,
I appeal to you.”

Russ laughed. “I have to admit that sounds a trifle severe. Let’s
compromise. Jerry, you can consider yourself on special detail for one
night. All the mess kits and pans.”

Jerry relaxed against his tree. “Whew! That was close. I thought for a
while you were going to court-martial me.”

“I’m all for it,” Quiz said testily. “Personally speaking, I think you
ought to face a firing squad.” He ducked as Jerry let a pine cone fly at
his head.

Prince went running after the cone, retrieved it and dropped it in
Jerry’s lap. The boy scowled at the others as he scratched the big dog
behind the ears. “At least I have one friend in the crowd,” he said.



                             CHAPTER THREE
                           A Midnight Visitor


At noon they stopped in a small clearing for a quick K-ration lunch. The
boys were intrigued by the contents of the oblong, waxed-cardboard
boxes.

Jerry announced the articles as he removed them. “Biscuits, fig bar,
instant coffee, sugar, a can of cheese and bacon—say, who ever said the
army eats bad!”

Russell Steele placed a pot of water on the Coleman stove. “Nobody ever
said the army eats bad. Matter of fact, it eats darn good. There’s
nothing wrong with K-rations, except that a steady diet of them can get
monotonous.”

When they were finished eating, Sandy and Jerry scooped out a deep hole
in the forest floor with their shovels and buried the garbage.

“Ordinarily, I’d prefer to burn it,” Russ told them, “but a fire is out
of the question now.”

They resumed walking until about four-thirty, when Russ consulted the
walk-o-meter strapped to his leg. “Well, we made fifteen miles today.
That’s not bad,” he said. “Let’s call it a day.”

Quiz groaned as he dropped his pack to the ground. “I am so pooped, I
could crawl into my bedroll right this minute.”

“Without supper?” Jerry asked incredulously.

“Frankly, yes.”

Russ frowned. “None of that, Quiz. You’ve got to eat, even if you have
to force every mouthful down. If you don’t, you’ll be weak as a cat
tomorrow.”

Sandy looked around at the tall trees towering over them like giants
with their arms outstretched. A chill ran along his spine. “Have you
ever noticed how nature seems to work against you when you’re out in the
wilderness like this? It’s constantly playing tricks on you. Like Quiz
being too tired to eat, or people falling asleep in the snow and
freezing to death. All your instincts seem to be wrong. It’s scary, sort
of.”

Russell Steele nodded soberly. “The Indians used to say that the
wilderness spirits resented the intrusion of the white man because he
came to destroy the forests and the wild beasts. They attributed all
kinds of devilment to the spirits. Whenever a white man was lost in the
woods, mauled by a bear, injured by a falling tree or struck by
lightning, the tribal medicine men would nod their heads wisely.”

“Heathen superstition,” Quiz sniffed.

Jerry looked around nervously. “Not so loud, huh. Just in case.”

Sandy and his uncle laughed. “Okay,” Russ said. “That’s all the folklore
for one day. Let’s eat.”

They camped in a small clearing on the bank of a stream, which Russ said
had once been a raging torrent. Now, only a thin rivulet of water
trickled through the rocky bed. Russ scooped out a hollow where the
water flowed between two boulders, to form a small pool, so that they
were able to wash up and fill their canteens.

Supper consisted of canned beans, bacon and pan-fried biscuits. Everyone
ate heartily, with the exception of Prince, who turned up his nose at
the conglomeration of food they piled up on a tin plate for him and
stalked off into the woods.

“Probably off to catch himself a rabbit,” Russ said.

Jerry wrinkled up his nose distastefully. “And I thought he was a nice
dog. That’s cruel.”

“Don’t be a dope,” Sandy said. “Is it any more cruel than slaughtering
cows, pigs, sheep and little lambs to feed our faces?”

“Animals are nicer than people,” Quiz said. “They only kill each other
for food. It’s the beautiful balance of nature. The fish and birds eat
the insects; and they in turn provide food for the larger animals. Every
living thing has its place and purpose.”

“Even snakes?” Jerry asked, suddenly scanning the ground suspiciously.

“Even the snakes,” Quiz said.

Sandy laughed. “Don’t look so worried, Jerry. They won’t bother you
unless you bother them first. I read it in a book.”

“Yeah,” Jerry said. “But how do I know the snakes around here read the
same book?” He grinned as the other two boys moaned and rocked back and
forth with their heads in their hands. “It wasn’t _that_ bad, fellows.”

Russ put down his empty dish and began to fill his pipe. “I think a joke
like that rates KP for another night, at least.”

Sandy and Quiz helped Jerry clear up the mess kits, forks and pans and
carry them down to the pool.

“Hey,” Sandy remembered suddenly, “we didn’t bring any soap powder. How
can he wash these greasy things in cold water without a strong soap?”

“We could boil some water,” Quiz suggested.

Russ got up from where he was relaxing against a tree and joined them.
“What’s the matter with sand?” he asked.

“Sand!” the boys chorused together.

“Sure, it’s the best detergent there is. Mix up some of that fine sand
on the bank with a little water and you’ll get these utensils as
sparkling clean as your mothers’ best silverware.” He turned away,
shaking his head. “Fine lot of woodsmen we’d be, going camping with a
case of soap powder and steel wool.”

While Jerry was finishing up the dishes, Russell Steele showed Sandy and
Quiz how to erect the pup tents. “Each of us has a shelter half in his
bedroll,” he explained. “Half of a tent, to be exact, with enough wooden
pegs to anchor it to the ground. We also have one ridgepole apiece. When
we pair off, we have the makings for a complete tent; that’s how they do
it in the army.”

From the creek, Jerry yelled, “What happens if there’s one guy left
over?”

Russ laughed. “He stands first tour of guard duty.”


The sky was still light when they crawled into their bedrolls. Sandy and
his uncle shared one tent, and Quiz and Jerry the other.

Jerry sighed contentedly as he lay back. “I must be tired. This old
ground feels like a feather mattress to my weary bones.”

“Don’t forget,” Sandy called from the other tent, “you’re lying on a bed
of duff and pine needles.”

“You guys are crazy,” Quiz grumbled. “It’s okay if you lie flat, I
guess. But I can only sleep on my side. What are you supposed to do with
your hips?”

“That’s what you get for being so fat,” Jerry chortled gleefully.

“Try scooping out a hole for your hip to fit into,” Russ suggested.

Quiz unzipped his sleeping bag and sat up. Working with his fingers, he
shaped a small hollow in the soft duff, then settled down again. “Ahhh,
that’s better,” he said with satisfaction.

“You see,” Jerry gloated, “there are some things you can’t learn in
books.”

“Oh, shut up!” Quiz mumbled.

Before Sandy dropped off to sleep, he heard Prince return to camp. The
big Doberman took a long drink from the creek and then settled down in
front of the tent at Russell Steele’s feet. His presence there gave
Sandy a feeling of warm comfort.

It seemed to Sandy that he had just closed his eyes when the noise of
voices, barking and the pounding of his own heart jolted him out of a
deep sleep. For a moment he lay there, paralyzed by terror. He opened
his eyes, then shut them quickly as a blinding spot of light knifed
painfully into his optic nerves. He had caught a fleeting glimpse of his
uncle sitting up and clinging to Prince’s collar with one hand.

With the full return of consciousness, Sandy could make out a strange
voice talking earnestly and urgently to Russell Steele.

“... they’ve been on your trail since noon, General Steele. The Forest
Service has had every ranger in the district looking for you. I spotted
your dog from my fire tower about eight o’clock and started to follow
him. Of course, he lost me pretty quick, but I knew you had to be
somewhere in the vicinity.”

“Like finding a needle in a haystack,” Russell Steele said. “You must
know these woods, all right.”

“My fire tower is about five miles from here. I’ll take you there and we
can radio headquarters. They’ll hook you up direct with Washington.”

Shading his eyes against the light, Sandy sat up. “What’s up, Uncle
Russ?”

“Oh, Sandy, you’re awake. Good. We’ll have to break camp immediately.
The Pentagon has been trying to get in touch with me. Very urgent. This
is Dick Fellows, Sandy; he’s a U.S. Forest Ranger.”

“Hi,” Sandy said, squinting at the young man who was crouched in front
of their tent.

The ranger touched two fingers to his stiff-brimmed hat and grinned.
“Sorry to disturb your sleep. You guys must be plenty tired if this is
your first day on the trail.” He stretched out one hand toward Prince,
who was still growling suspiciously deep in his throat. “Your friend
here doesn’t trust midnight visitors.”

Russ released his grip on the dog’s collar and gave him a light smack on
the rump. “He’ll be all right, now that he knows you’re not an enemy. He
wouldn’t have attacked you, in any case, unless you pulled a knife or a
gun. Prince has been trained to hold his quarry at bay until help
arrives.”

Sandy climbed out of his bedroll. “I’d better go wake up the rest of the
gang.”

“The rest of the gang is already awake,” Jerry’s voice sang out from the
darkness, “lying here quivering with our blankets pulled over our
heads.”

Quiz Taylor crawled out of the tent on his hands and knees, fumbling in
his breast pocket for his eyeglass case. “This moron got it into his
thick head that we were being attacked by Indians from the reservation.”

Dick Fellows laughed. “He’s partly right at that, I guess. My grandpaw
was a pure-blood Dakota.”

Russell Steele struggled into his boots. “Well, suppose you escort us
back to your tepee, chief.”



                              CHAPTER FOUR
                           The Missing A-Bomb


They reached the ranger fire station shortly after three in the morning.
It was a tower of tubular steel reaching over one hundred feet into the
air. Jerry craned his neck at the small cabin perched on top of it, a
boxlike silhouette against the brilliant starlit sky.

“You _live_ up there?” he asked the ranger.

“Certainly,” Dick said. “It’s very comfortable.”

He led the way up the flight of steel stairs that ran around the outside
of the tower. When they reached the platform at the top, Jerry looked
down and grabbed frantically at the guard railing.

“Yipes! I can’t even see the ground.”

The ranger pushed the door open, flicked on a wall switch, and a pale
amber light bulb flashed on in the middle of the ceiling. Sandy realized
that the one-roomed structure was larger than it had appeared from the
ground. There was a double-decker wooden bunk against one wall, a
comfortable-looking leather easy chair in the nearest corner, and three
straight-back wooden chairs. The wall opposite the bed was occupied by a
sprawling table; most of the table was taken up by a huge topographic
map, dotted with colored pins. A compass and a variety of other
instruments were scattered over the table. An impressive short-wave
radio rig sat in one corner. The other furnishings included a small
refrigerator, a foot locker and a bookcase. The four walls were solid
plate glass from waist-height to ceiling.

“This is all right,” Jerry said. “Boy, I’d give plenty to have a little
hideaway like this.”

Quiz walked across to the well-stocked bookcase and examined the titles.
“What a wonderful place to read and study,” he said enviously.

“It has its advantages,” the ranger admitted. “But it sure gets lonely
at times.”

It was the first time Sandy had got a good look at Dick Fellows. He was
a pleasant-faced young man with straight black hair, piercing eyes and
an aquiline nose. He wore the brown uniform of the Forest Service and
heavy storm boots.

Quiz walked to one of the big picture windows and peered out. “I can’t
see anything,” he complained.

“Light reflection,” the ranger explained, and flicked off the wall
switch, plunging the room into darkness. Immediately, the broad canopy
of the forest leaped into prominence, stretching away on all sides
beneath them.

“What a view!” Sandy breathed.

“Wait till you see it in the daylight,” Dick Fellows told him. He turned
the light on again and went across to the radio gear. “Have you ever
worked one of these things, General Steele?”

Russell Steele grinned. “I had one of the first ham licenses in this
country, young fellow.”

“Good; I’ll contact headquarters and turn it over to you.”

Russell Steele looked slightly embarrassed. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask
all of you to step outside until I find out what this is all about.”

“Certainly, sir,” the ranger said. “I’ll take the boys downstairs and
give them a lecture on forestry.” He flicked on the switch and picked up
the transmitting mike, twirling dials with his free hand.

“KYAT calling KVK.... Fire station KYAT calling headquarters.... Come
in, KVK....”

As soon as contact had been established, Russell Steele slipped into the
operator’s chair and put on the earphones.

The ranger and the boys made the long descent to the ground, where
Prince was waiting patiently at the foot of the stairs. He wagged his
tail and rubbed against them when they patted him, but occasionally he
would whimper and glance up anxiously at the top of the tower.

“He’s wondering what happened to Uncle Russ,” Sandy said.

Jerry followed the dog’s gaze. “I’m kind of curious to know what gives
up there, myself.”

Dick Fellows held up his hand, motioning for silence. “Do you hear
that?” he asked.

The boys stopped talking and listened. Faintly from the northwest there
came a distant rumble of thunder.

“Maybe we’ll get some rain,” Sandy said hopefully.

“Let’s hope so,” the ranger said. “And pray that it isn’t just a
lightning storm.”

“Do you stay up all night looking for fires?” Quiz inquired. “In bad
seasons like this, I mean.”

“Sometimes I do, when there’s been a lot of lightning striking in my
sector. Most nights I set my alarm clock to wake me up every few hours
or so.”

“You live up here all year?” Jerry asked.

“No, we only man these watchtowers during the fire season.”

“How do you get food and water?” Sandy wanted to know.

“There’s a stream just a few hundred yards back, and I get my supplies
by packhorse from headquarters.” Dick Fellows went on to describe the
fascinating life of a forest ranger.

About twenty minutes later, Russ hailed them from the top of the tower.
“All clear. Come on up, boys.”

As soon as Sandy stepped into the observation room, he knew that
whatever had transpired between his uncle and the Pentagon had been very
serious. Russell Steele’s face was gray beneath its tan, and it was the
first time in Sandy’s memory that he had ever looked his age.

“Trouble, Uncle Russ?” he asked hesitantly.

Russ nodded. “Bad trouble. The very worst.”

“I don’t suppose you can tell us what it is, sir?” Dick Fellows said.

“Well—it is top secret—for as long as it’s possible to keep it that
way.” Russ Steele seemed to be struggling with a problem. “Still—I’m
going to need all the help I can get. And we’re so isolated here that
there’s not much chance of a leak, even if you were inclined to blab
about it. Which I know you wouldn’t be,” he added hastily.

“You have my word, sir,” the ranger said quietly.

“And ours,” the boys chorused soberly.

There was a glint of determination in the older man’s eyes. “Good. I
think you can help. You’re all familiar with the Strategic Air Command,
aren’t you?”

“SAC Never Sleeps!” Quiz recited the slogan of the famous Air Force arm.
“Their bombers are in the air twenty-four hours a day. If the United
States was ever attacked, SAC stratojet bombers armed with A-bombs would
be on their way to knock out vital targets in the enemy’s homeland
within seconds.”

Russ Steele nodded. “That’s pretty accurate, Quiz. The Strategic Air
Command is the watchdog of our borders. Now, for an outfit that is
literally flying twenty-four hours a day, their safety record is
amazing; statistics show that a man is safer riding in an SAC bomber
than he is driving in the family car.” The muscles tightened across his
prominent cheekbones. “But accidents do happen. And last night a B-52
stratofortress had a serious accident.”

“I heard about that on the radio,” Dick Fellows cut in. “It crashed
somewhere in Manitoba, Canada. All the crew were killed.”

“That’s only part of the story,” Russ went on. “The last radio report
from the bomber placed it over Lake Superior. There was a small fire
aboard, but the radio operator thought they had it under control.
Shortly after that their transmitter conked out. The Air Force never
heard from them again—ship blew up in the air just south of White Mouth
Lake on the Canadian border.”

Sandy and the others listened in shocked silence as he continued: “Most
of the wreckage has been recovered—and the bodies of the crew.” He
paused dramatically. “But there is absolutely no trace of the A-bomb
they were carrying.”

Dick Fellows let out a long whistle of astonishment. “What happened to
it?”

“Nobody knows. The most logical theory is that they jettisoned the bomb
when the fire began to get out of control. Over some desolate area. It
could have been dumped almost anywhere between Lake Superior and the
scene of the explosion. Search teams have been out scouring the most
populated areas since dawn yesterday; they’re the critical points. Not
that there’s any danger of the bomb detonating, but a thing like this
could cause a lot of hysteria. Then there’s the matter of secrecy.” He
grinned wryly. “It wouldn’t do for the wrong kind of people to find
it—the kind who would put up a tent around it and sell tickets.”

Quiz frowned. “If the bomb casing is cracked or otherwise mutilated,
wouldn’t there be some danger from radioactivity?”

Russ Steele regarded the boy solemnly. “I’d prefer not to discuss that
aspect right now, Quiz. We won’t be in any danger searching for it, I
can tell you that much. The Air Force is going to drop us a couple of
Geiger counters from a helicopter tomorrow morning. So we’ll have ample
warning if we approach an area contaminated by radioactivity.”

Quiz Taylor’s eyes were enormous behind his thick glasses. “_We’re_
going to look for it?”

“That’s what the call from the Pentagon was all about. They knew I was
up here and they want me to take charge of the search operation in this
area. We won’t have any help from the military until the more densely
populated areas have a clean bill of health, but we’ll do the best we
can in the meantime.”

He turned to Dick Fellows. “Ranger headquarters are advising all fire
stations within a forty-mile radius to clear the woods of campers,
fishermen and sight-seers.”

“You folks are the only party I’ve seen in my sector in weeks.”

“Good. And now I’d suggest that we all get to bed for what’s left of the
night. Tomorrow will be a rough day.” He glanced at their packs piled up
in the middle of the room. “There’s plenty of room for us to spread our
sleeping bags on the floor.”

“You can take my bunk, sir,” the ranger said quickly.

Russ smiled. “That’s mighty generous of you, Dick, but I wouldn’t hear
of it. I’ve imposed on you enough for one night.”

When his four guests were settled in their bedrolls, the ranger turned
out the lights and scanned the surrounding woods carefully from all four
windows.

“I guess it’ll keep till morning,” he said wearily, as he stretched out
on his bunk.

Just before he fell off to sleep, Sandy was aware of a tremendous
luminous flash in the sky to the northwest. “Heat lightning,” he heard
the ranger mumble, but he was too exhausted to worry about it.



                              CHAPTER FIVE
                           Lightning Strikes


The storm hit with the suddenness and impact of an earthquake at 6:00
A.M. An ear-splitting crash sent the five sleepers jerking up like
jack-in-the-boxes. On all sides of the tower the sky was alive with
jagged streaks of lightning. The thunder rolled through the air in
continuous waves, shaking the earth. The tower creaked and trembled
violently. Sandy saw a pair of binoculars on the table dance crazily
over the edge and crash to the floor.

Dick Fellows leaped out of his bunk in T-shirt and shorts and swept the
other instruments off the table. “A couple of you up here!” he shouted.
“The rest of you pile onto chairs or my bunk. Insulated glass legs. Save
your life if the tower’s hit. Keep your feet off the floor.”

Sandy kicked out of his bedroll and scrambled up on the table. Jerry and
Quiz dove headlong onto the bunk. In a more leisurely fashion, Russ
Steele and the ranger sat down on high stools.

They had just settled themselves when they were blinded by a tremendous
ball of blue fire that shimmered in mid-air just outside the north
window. An instant later, they were deafened by an explosion that
sounded like the end of the world. The tower bucked madly, and Sandy was
sure it was going to topple over or collapse. Gradually his vision
cleared to reveal the most terrifying sight that he had ever witnessed
in his entire life. The whole room was full of tiny blue sparks that
sizzled as they ran in chains across the icebox and stove and along the
metal strips of molding that trimmed the edges of the floor and ceiling.
Everything metal was encircled by a sparkling halo. He could scarcely
believe his eyes when he looked at the other people in the room. Quiz
Taylor’s long hair was standing up perfectly straight on his head like a
brush; the same was true of his uncle and Dick Fellows. His own scalp
tingled strangely, and he could feel it bristle. Only Jerry’s close
crew-cut was unaffected.

“Don’t be frightened,” the ranger said calmly. “There’s no danger as
long as you sit tight.”

“On the contrary,” Quiz said brightly. “I wouldn’t have missed this for
the world.” He grinned as he touched a hand to his hair. “A fascinating
phenomenon of static electricity. Those sparks, too; they’re harmless.”

“You and your education!” Jerry moaned. “I’m petrified. Say, how long do
these things last?”

The ranger shrugged. “Hard to say. Maybe ten minutes; maybe an hour.”
His face was grave with concern. “And every minute it lasts increases
the chance of one of those bolts starting a fire. If only it would
rain!”

Sandy suddenly remembered the dog, who had remained below on the ground.
“Poor Prince. I wonder how he’s taking this?”

The ranger smiled. “Unless I miss my guess, he’s holed up under my
dynamo shack out back—along with an assortment of rabbits, squirrels and
chipmunks. There’s nothing like a little lightning to make buddies out
of natural enemies.”

“I wish I was with him,” Jerry said, “instead of sitting on top of this
giant lightning rod.”

Abruptly it began to rain, a driving downpour, and miraculously, it
seemed to Sandy, the lightning stopped. The boys began to cheer and
crowded against the windows, watching the drops pelt the treetops below.
But their elation didn’t last very long. In less than five minutes, the
rain ceased, as if a giant sprinkler had been turned off. Within a
quarter of an hour, the clouds disappeared and the sun beamed through.
Thin wisps of steam began to rise from the leaves, giving the illusion
that the entire forest was smoking.

Dick Fellows slouched despondently on his stool. “I knew it. Not even
enough to moisten the ground. And God knows what that lightning started.
A couple of good bolts hit trees; I could hear it.”

Sandy scanned the woods to the horizon on all sides. “I don’t see
anything to worry about. No fire, no smoke.”

“It’s not that simple,” the ranger told him. “A fire may be burning for
days before it’s even detected, particularly in stands of
conifers—pines, spruce, et cetera—where the duff is thick. For example,
suppose one of those lightning bolts struck a snag—a dead tree—all dry
and punky like those sticks the kids light fireworks with. Maybe there’s
a single spark smoldering deep down in the trunk, below the surface.
Maybe it’s as big around as a pea today; tomorrow it may be the size of
a penny. It’s got plenty of time—and lots of fuel. Slowly it will
spread, eating up through the duff until it reaches the surface. Now,
it’s really ready to go, once it hits the open air and has all that
lovely litter on the forest floor to feed on. If we’re lucky, we’ll spot
it now because of the smoke.” He stared out grimly across the trees.
“With everything so dry, we’d have to be real lucky to control it before
it blazes up in the brush and crowns.”

“Crowns?” Jerry said doubtfully.

“Burns through the top of the trees,” Quiz explained, “in the foliage.”

“That’s _real_ trouble,” the ranger said. He turned to Russ Steele.
“Gee, sir, I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you out today. I’m going
to have to stay rooted up here for the next twenty-four hours.”

“Don’t apologize,” Russ said. “First things first. A forest fire at this
time could really complicate my problem.”

“Hey!” Sandy exclaimed. “What would happen if that missing A-bomb was
smack in the middle of a raging forest fire?”

Russ Steele looked vaguely troubled. “I don’t know for sure. Probably
nothing. It would depend on a great many factors. I’m not anxious to
find out, I can tell you.”

The drone of a plane motor suddenly drew their attention to the east
window. “It’s a helicopter!” Quiz said excitedly.

“Come on!” Russ said, heading for the door. “Let’s go downstairs.”

No sooner had they reached the ground than Prince came crawling out from
under a small shed at the edge of the clearing, barking happily and
leaping all over Russ Steele. Russ scratched his head, chuckling. “Dick
had you pegged dead to rights, you old coward.”

Jerry knelt down solemnly and held out his right hand to the dog.
“Shake, old buddy. Us cowards have to stick together.”

The boys waved as the big chopper began to circle the tower in
tightening circles, losing altitude until it was almost level with the
observation booth. Slowly it cut speed, until at last it seemed to be
hanging motionless in space, held aloft by the great whirling rotors. A
hatch opened in the bottom of the fuselage, and a crate was let down
carefully on the end of a cable. Before it could touch the ground, Russ
Steele rushed over and grabbed it, bringing the fragile package gently
to earth. Quickly, he unhooked the cable and waved up at the helicopter.
The cable was reeled in smoothly, then with a roar of its engines, the
copter leaped into the air. Minutes later it disappeared over the
treetops.

The boys watched with interest as Russ Steele unpacked the carton and
removed two oblong black Bakelite boxes from the packing. They had a
very unscientific, unprepossessing appearance.

“Is that all a Geiger counter is?” Jerry said with a trace of
disappointment. “The transformer on my old electric trains looks more
complicated.”

Russ smiled. “The Geiger counter is very simple, Jerry—especially when
you consider how delicate it is and what it can accomplish.”

“How does it work?” Sandy asked.

“We made one in the science lab once,” Quiz said eagerly. “It’s just two
electrodes, really. One of the electrodes is a thin metal cylinder; the
other is a metal wire enclosed in a glass tube filled with gas—like a
neon light. When the counter is brought near any radioactive substance,
the rays given off ionize the gas—so it can conduct electricity—allowing
the current to jump the gap and close the circuit, the same way it does
when you switch on a light—”

“Only instead of a light, it activates an audible indicator,” Russ said.
“That’s the _clack-clack_ you hear when the counter detects
radioactivity. Look how sensitive it is.” He held one of the black boxes
near his wrist watch, and it began to chatter vigorously.

“Holy cow!” Jerry exclaimed, leaping backward.

Russ laughed. “That’s the infinitesimal grain of radium in the luminous
dial. So, you can feel secure that it will warn us if we enter an area
where there’s any unusual radioactivity.”

He rummaged around in the carton and pulled out two canvas straps.
“These hook on the ends so the counter can be slung across your shoulder
like a camera.”

Prince came over and sniffed suspiciously at the plastic boxes. “Nothing
to eat there, feller,” Sandy told him.

“Eat! That’s a good idea,” Jerry said. “I’m famished.”

Quiz was disgusted. “Only Jerry could think of food at a time like this.
Who cares about eating when there’s an A-bomb lying right at your
door-step?”

“I hope _not_,” Jerry said, looking around with an expression of
exaggerated horror.

“Jerry’s right,” Russ said firmly. “The first order of the day is to
pack away a substantial breakfast. We may be tramping through the woods
until dark. Let’s go upstairs and see what Ranger Fellows has cooking.”
He gathered up the two Geiger counters and walked to the tower.

Prince whined reprovingly as they left him at the foot of the steps.
“I’ll bring you down a bowl of chow right away,” Sandy promised.

They were halfway up the stairs when a sudden thought struck Jerry.
“Say, Mr. Steele, what would happen if one of those big lightning bolts
hit that atomic bomb square on the nose?”

Russ Steele’s face contracted in a sour grimace. “I don’t know. And stop
trying to spoil my appetite.”



                              CHAPTER SIX
                            A Futile Search


Immediately after breakfast, they set out north from the ranger station.

“We’ll be back in three days,” Russ Steele told Dick Fellows. “Using
your station as a base, we’re going to cover all the territory between
the Black River and the Rapid River, from Red Lake to the Canadian
border.”

“Good luck,” the ranger said. “I hope I can be of some help to you.”

Russ shook the young man’s hand. “You have already, Dick.”

As they started through the woods, with Prince crashing through the
underbrush ahead of them, Sandy was pessimistic. “How much ground do we
have to cover, Uncle Russ?”

“One hundred and twenty square miles or thereabouts. I’m not sure
exactly.”

“It seems so hopeless,” Sandy said. “I read in the paper about an
airplane that crashed in the north woods with three men aboard and they
didn’t find it for four months. A bomb—even an A-bomb—must be
considerably smaller than a two-engine plane.”

Russ nodded grimly. “It’s a big order, all right. But don’t forget,
there are, or soon will be, hundreds of teams like ours, each covering
an assigned sector. If we’re all thorough and painstaking, we’ll find
the bomb sooner or later.”

“What about air patrols, General Steele?” Quiz asked. “Why can’t the Air
Force retrace the route of the B-52 with another plane? Maybe they could
spot the bomb.”

Russ Steele jerked his thumb up at the sky as a wedge of pursuit ships
droned overhead. “They’ve been doing that for two days, but it’s a long
shot. First of all, no one knows precisely what route that big bomber
was flying after the radio conked out. Secondly, it’s pretty difficult
to spot objects from the air, especially in heavily forested country
like this. An object can drop through this thick canopy of foliage and
leave no more trace than if it had fallen into the ocean. No, I’m afraid
this is a job for the foot soldiers.”

“FOR-ward MARCH!” Jerry bellowed in a good imitation of a drill
sergeant. “Hut-two-three-four....”

Russ laughed. “I’m afraid this operation calls for a loose formation,
Jerry. Suppose we maintain an interval of about fifteen hundred feet
between each two men. That will keep us within easy hailing distance of
each other. I’ll be on the right flank with one of the Geiger counters.
You boys can draw lots to see who takes the left flank with the other
counter.” He grinned. “That poor guy will have to walk a little more
than a mile before we even get started.”

“I’ll be the fall guy,” Sandy volunteered. “I’m in better shape than
Jerry or Quiz.”

Jerry sniffed. “Show-off! But I’m not proud,” he added hastily. “Go
ahead.”

“That’s settled, then,” Russ said. “Our direction will be due north. You
all have compasses; check them regularly. All right, we may as well get
started.” He unstrapped the walk-o-meter from his leg and handed it to
Sandy. “You better take this to pace off the intervals. Quiz, Jerry and
I will wait until you’ve reached your position. Then you sing out and
the boys will pass the word down the line. If any of you see anything
unusual, sound off and sit tight until I get there.” He pointed to the
black box Sandy had slung over one shoulder. “And if that Geiger counter
begins to chatter, backtrack fast until it stops.”

Time passed quickly for Sandy. He was a little lonely at first, but it
didn’t last long. There were so many fascinating things to be seen in
the forest when you were alert, he realized. Chipmunks and squirrels
spied on him from tree hollows. He passed within two feet of a rabbit
burrowed into a pile of leaves. A lizard that blended so perfectly into
the bark of a tree that it was invisible from more than twelve inches
away didn’t loose its rigidity, even when he touched its tail. After the
first hour, Prince came bounding through the brush to keep him company.
An hour later, the dog went off to join somebody else. At regular
intervals, the boys would call out to each other, though an attempt by
Sandy and Jerry to keep up a running conversation soon left both of them
hoarse. They had no chance to get bored. The enormity and excitement of
the mission they were performing saw to that.

At noon, Russ Steele called a halt for lunch. “Stay where you are,” he
called to Quiz. “Break out a K-ration. Pass the word on to Jerry and
Sandy.”


Five hours later, they rendezvoused on the banks of a small river.
“We’ll camp here for tonight,” Russ said. “We should make the Canadian
border sometime tomorrow afternoon. There’s a logging camp up there,
Quiz, so you’ll get a chance to see lumberjacks at work.”

“If I’m still alive,” Quiz said wearily. “I feel as if I’d walked a
hundred miles today.”

Russ grinned. “Not quite. Maybe twenty.”

Jerry looked up from a heaping mess kit of beef stew. “Twenty miles!
Say, that’s pretty good. Bet you never figured you’d ever be walking
that far, eh, Sandy?”

“I’ll say.” Sandy, who had removed his shoes and socks, lifted one bare
foot and blew on it. “The soles of my feet feel all puffed up.”

“Before you go to bed soak them in the river,” his uncle told him.
“Matter of fact, we can all use a good bath.”

After they had finished eating, the boys teamed up to wash the mess kits
and pans. Then they stripped off their clothes on the river bank.

“Last one in gets KP tomorrow night,” Russ said. He dove off a small
bluff, cleaving the water in a perfect racing dive. Prince was right at
his heels, yelping excitedly.

“Boy, that dog sure loves to swim,” Jerry said.

Russ surfaced and flicked water at the Doberman with the back of his
hand. “He’s a regular porpoise. Come on in, boys; it’s great.”

Sandy walked gingerly down the steep bank and stepped into knee-deep
water. “Wow, is it cold!”

“Sissy,” Jerry laughed and went splashing past him. “Yipes! It’s ice!”

“Well, don’t kick it all over me!” Sandy roared.

Quiz gritted his chattering teeth. “The only way to get into ice water
is _fast_.” He belly-whopped between Jerry and Sandy, spraying them from
head to foot.

“You sneak,” Jerry gasped.

“C’mon,” Sandy laughed. “Let’s duck him.” He dove in after Quiz.

After a few minutes they began to enjoy their bath thoroughly. “It’s not
so cold,” Sandy said.

Jerry flopped on his back and blew a stream of water into the air like a
whale. “We’re just too numb to feel it. Look, I’m turning blue.”

“I don’t care. It feels like heaven after hiking twenty miles through
the woods with the temperature at an even hundred.”

Russ swam over to them. “How do you know it was a hundred?”

“I’ve got a thermometer,” Quiz told him. “In the little glade where I
ate lunch, it was one hundred degrees Fahrenheit at a quarter past
twelve.”

Russ gazed somberly toward the forest. “If it doesn’t rain soon—well—I
don’t know.”

A purple twilight was settling rapidly over the river as they toweled
their bodies briskly and dressed. By the time they finished putting up
the pup tents, it was dark. But even darkness brought little relief from
the heat that night. And the air was alive with mosquitoes, a few of
which managed to penetrate the netting.

“How are we going to get any rest?” Jerry groaned. “It’s too hot to
climb into our sleeping bags and if we lie on top of ’em we’ll be eaten
alive.”

Quiz sat up and searched through his pack. “I considered this
eventuality.” He held up a small aerosol bomb. “DDT. Shut your eyes and
hold your breath for a minute, Jerry.” He pointed it up in the air and
pressed down the button until the little enclosure was thick with white
mist.

“I always knew you were a genius, Quiz,” Sandy yelled over from the
other tent. “How about lending it to us?”

“Help yourself.” Quiz reached under the netting and rolled it over to
his friend.

Jerry sighed blissfully as Quiz lay back. “That did the trick, Quiz, old
boy. You sure saved the day—the night, I mean.”

Quiz grumbled as he rolled over on his side. “If I had _really_ been
smart, I would have brought along an inflatable mattress.” But two
minutes later he was asleep.


The new day dawned as bright and hot as the previous one. They broke
camp shortly after 8:00 A.M. and resumed their trek north at the same
500-yard intervals. The morning passed uneventfully.

At noon, Sandy relayed a question down the line to his uncle: “When do
we eat?”

Russ Steele asked the boys whether they could hold out for another hour.
“I think we can make the logging camp,” he explained. A chorus of “ayes”
answered him.

Shortly after one o’clock, Sandy heard a loud crash in the distance.
Right after that Russ Steele rallied the boys around him.

“We’re approaching the logging camp,” he told them. “That noise you just
heard was a tree being felled. Sandy, we’d better get these Geiger
counters out of sight. No use inviting a lot of questions that we can’t
answer. We’ll wrap them up in our shelter halves.”

When that had been taken care of, Russ led the way forward. Gradually
the trees began to thin out and diminish in size.

“This is a new stand,” Russ explained. “Nowadays, logging companies do
as much replanting as they do cutting. With proper methods of
conservation, they hope to undo some of the mistakes of their
predecessors.”

A quarter of a mile farther on, they emerged into a large clearing in
which a half dozen low, sprawling buildings were situated. There was a
great deal of activity in the camp. Across the clearing, a convoy of
trucks jammed with lumberjacks pulled out of a dirt road and drew up in
front of one building where a long line was forming. Whooping and
laughing, the lumberjacks vaulted the tail gates of the trucks and piled
over the side-boards.

Russ Steele smiled. “Chow time. That’s the mess hall.”

“What’s their hurry?” Quiz asked.

“I guess you get mighty hungry swinging an ax,” Sandy said. “I read once
that a logger eats about five thousand calories a day to keep him going,
as compared with the three thousand that the average man needs.”

Jerry grunted. “My old man says I must eat close to ten thousand a day,
every time he has to pay the grocery bill.”

“Ten thousand dollars’ worth a day?” Sandy said with a straight face.
“That sounds about right for you, chow hound.”

Jerry clipped the tall, slender boy on the arm with his knuckles.
“Calories, you dope! Don’t get smart.”

“I’ll bet neither one of you knows what a calorie is?” Quiz said dryly.

Sandy’s forehead puckered up thoughtfully. “I think I do. It’s a unit of
energy, isn’t it?”

“That’s close,” Quiz admitted. “It’s the amount of heat—heat is
energy—required to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree
Centigrade.”

Jerry nudged Russ Steele. “Bet you didn’t know that, General Steele?”

Russ smiled good-naturedly. “I had a vague idea it was something like
that. Let’s find the office. I used to know the foreman of this camp.”

The boys eyed the lumberjacks admiringly as they walked by the mess
hall. Most of them were stripped to the waist, their muscles bunching
and rippling in their sun-bronzed arms and torsos as they moved about.
The cuffs of their sweat-blackened levis were tucked into the tops of
hobnailed boots.

“Let’s recruit a couple of these bruisers for the Valley View football
team. Our line would be a stone wall for sure,” Jerry whispered to
Sandy.

Russ took them around the end of the mess hall to a small frame shack in
the middle of the camp. A big collie was sitting in the open doorway.
Instinctively, Sandy reached down and got a hold on Prince’s collar.

“They won’t fight,” Russ told him. “They’re old friends.”

The collie, recognizing Russ, came bounding out of the shack and leaped
up on his chest, trying to lick his face. Russ pummeled him in the ribs
playfully. “Bruce, old feller, how are you?” He looked up as a short,
squat, bald-headed lumberjack appeared in the doorway. “Well, Jonas! I
figured they would have retired you by this time.”

The man’s broad face lit up. “Russ Steele! You old dogface! What are you
doing here this time of year?”

“Brought my nephew and a couple of his buddies up on a camping trip.
Boys, I’d like you to meet Jonas Driscoll, the toughest
bull-of-the-woods who ever swung an ax.”

After the introductions, Jonas took them through the back door of the
mess hall while the two dogs chased each other around the compound.
“I’ll have Cookie fix them up a grand feed from the left-overs,” he
said.

Sandy felt self-conscious as Jonas cut in at the head of the line and
picked up metal compartment trays and silverware for each of them.
“Won’t those other guys get sore?” he asked, as they walked away from
the serving table.

Jonas laughed. “Naw, you’re company. Anyway, they’d be scared I’d
flatten ’em if they kicked.”

There were about twenty wooden tables with benches running down each
side of the mess hall. Jonas led them to a table at the rear that was
almost empty. Salt- and pepper-shakers and clean cups were stacked in
the middle of each table. As they sat down, Jonas motioned to one of the
mess boys, a gangly youth about sixteen. “Let’s have a couple of
pitchers of iced tea here, son.”

Jerry gazed bug-eyed at the five pork chops and the mounds of mashed
potatoes, vegetables and apple sauce heaped up on his tray. “This is
lunch?”

Jonas Driscoll’s blue eyes twinkled. “Just a light snack, son. Wait till
you eat supper.”

“Oh boy!” Jerry breathed rapturously.

“You ought to sign him on one of your crews, Jonas,” Russ suggested.

“He’s light on muscle—except between the ears,” Sandy said, “but he’s
got the appetite for it.”

“I can’t get sore with all this lovely food in front of me,” Jerry said,
as he went to work with knife and fork.

“You been a lumberjack long, Mr. Driscoll?” Sandy inquired.

“Fifty years last May. Started in as a cook’s helper when I was
thirteen. And I expect to be at it another forty.”

Russ looked across at his old friend fondly. “Logging is still a rugged
business, but nothing like it used to be in Jonas’ prime.”

“I’ll tell the world,” the foreman agreed. “Electricity and the gasoline
engine have taken all the work out of it.”

A kibitzing lumberjack at the end of the table held up his hands, thick
with calluses. “Is that _so_! Well, suppose you tell ’em where I got
_these_!”

Jonas laughed good-naturedly. “You’re right, French. Them bulldozers and
power saws don’t help you sawyers much—not in this camp anyway.” He
turned to the boys. “They’re the boys who swing the axes and pull the
big cross-cut saws.”

“Don’t all lumberjacks cut down trees?” Quiz wanted to know.

“Not exactly. There’s a lot of different jobs in logging just like in
any other business. There’s sawyers, high riggers, yarders and river
hogs. After lunch, I’ll take you out to the stand we’re cutting now and
show you around.”



                             CHAPTER SEVEN
                            A Birling Match


In spite of the fact that Jonas Driscoll kept insisting that all the
glamour had gone out of logging, Sandy and the boys found the business
of cutting timber fascinating. The husky lumberjacks were amazingly
thorough and efficient. Jonas pointed out one massive pine, at least
three feet in diameter, that seemed to be the object of heated
discussion among the sawyer gang. Long strings with leaded weights
dangling at the ends were fixed on the trunk at various heights to
determine the tree’s angle to the ground.

“Them plumb lines help ’em figure out which way that old feller would
fall naturally,” Jonas explained. “Then they got to take the wind into
account and the distribution of the foliage, plus a few other things.
After that the gang boss decides how to make it fall where he wants it
to.”

“What difference does it make where it falls?” Jerry asked.

“Well,” Jonas drawled, “a big feller like that could squash a whole crew
if it fell wrong, for one thing. Or it could end up leaning against
another tree, which is kind of messy.” He pointed out a stand of
seedlings to the left of the big tree. “Or it could break up a lot of
those babies; that’d be cheating your grandchildren out of some fine
timber. A good crew boss can drop a tree smack on a little wooden stake
and hammer it into the ground.”

Quiz looked impressed. “I’d say your crew bosses must have a thorough
knowledge of mathematics to be able to predict the angle of fall so
accurately.”

Jonas scratched his bald head. “Well, I don’t know, son. I suppose quite
a few of the boys these days have book learnin’. ’Course, in my day, the
way you made crew boss was to lick the old boss.”

“Did anybody ever lick you, Mr. Driscoll?” Sandy asked.

The old man drew back his lips, displaying two rows of broken teeth. “A
couple of times, as you can see.”

They walked closer to the big pine tree as two muscular sawyers started
to make the undercut that would determine the direction the tree would
fall. The chips flew as their double-edged axes flashed in the sunlight,
and a wedge widened rapidly in the side of the trunk. Their strokes were
rhythmic and effortless. Jonas called their attention to the smoothness
of the undercut.

“Good men,” he said. “The scarf is as clean as if it was cut by a saw.”

When the undercut was completed to the crew chief’s satisfaction, two
other men went to work with a wicked-looking two-handled saw with a
curved blade.

“We better mosey back to the sidelines,” Jonas told them. “Mistakes do
happen.”

From a safe distance they watched until, at last, the tree began to
tremble throughout its length like a live thing. Before the saw was
completely through the trunk, there was a grinding, crackling noise and
the crown swayed and dipped. Suddenly there was a sharp report that
Sandy first mistook for an explosion.

“She’s falling!” Jonas said.

“_Tim-m-ber!_” the crew boss sang out at the top of his lungs as the
great tree toppled slowly and majestically. It landed with a thunderous
crash that blurred Sandy’s vision and jarred his teeth. And then, for a
full minute, it lay there, writhing and groaning like some prehistoric
monster in the throes of death.

The boys were awed.

“I never saw anything like it,” Jerry whispered.

“It sort of gives you a lump in your throat,” Quiz said, his voice
touched with reverence. “That tree was probably hundreds of years old.
Now it’s gone.”

Jonas dropped one hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Not really. That old tree
will help build a lot of fine houses and furnish ’em too. Studding,
shingles, chairs, tables, cabinets, the works.”

Immediately, another crew with light power saws began cleaning the limbs
off the trunk.

“Soon as she’s limbed,” Jonas explained, “they’ll cut up the trunk into
manageable lengths and the dozers and cranes will stack ’em in cold
decks.” He indicated a neat pile of logs at one side of the road. “In
the old days we had to let them sit here until winter when the roads
were iced over, so they’d slide easy behind the horses. Today, we use
trailer trucks.”

“Makes it a lot easier on everybody, doesn’t it, Jonas,” Russ Steele
said. “Now, tell the truth, the ‘good old days’ weren’t really so good,
were they?”

The old man grinned sheepishly. “Well—we got the job done just the
same,” he said lamely.

Tractors, with thresher-like attachments, moved back and forth along the
length of the felled tree, gathering up the lopped-off branches and
chewing them up into smaller pieces. These scraps were later heaped up
into mounds.

“Come winter, we’ll burn a lot of that slash and spread the ashes around
for fertilizer,” Jonas explained.

“Must be quite a fire hazard in this weather,” Russ Steele said.

The foreman’s mouth tightened. “This heat spell has everybody on edge.
It’s getting so I wake up every half hour at night, thinking I smell
smoke. We been posting fire watches out here on our own. Them poor
rangers got their hands full as it is. You really picked a bad time to
go camping, Russ. You going back to Red Lake from here?”

Russ smiled evasively. “Oh, I don’t know. We thought we might go up to
the border and watch your boys run some of these logs down the big
river.”

Jonas shook his head. “Water level’s too low. You boys want to see a
gen-u-wine logging drive, come back up here next spring.”

Sandy was disappointed. “I sure hoped to see that. Do lumberjacks really
ride on top of the logs the way you see it in the movies?”

Jonas raised an eyebrow. “I’ll say they do, son. Why a good river hog
can ride a fresh pine log through the mill tail as pretty as a Hawaiian
on a surfboard. Say, maybe we can put on a bit of a show for you at
that. C’mon.”

He led them down the slope toward a small pond nestling in the valley.
On the way, he called to two loggers stacking logs.

“Pete! Charley! Want to show off your birling for our visitors?”

Wearing big grins, the two husky men fell in behind them.

“Pete and Charley are the camp champs,” Jonas explained.

“What’s birling?” Quiz asked.

“A game the old-timers dreamed up to pass the time on long drives. Two
men set themselves on opposite ends of a log and then they try to shake
each other off into the drink.”

“Oh, boy!” Jerry said. “That sounds like fun.”

“It is fun,” Jonas agreed. “But it’s also become quite a skillful sport.
Wait till you see these boys go at it.”

When they reached the pond, Pete and Charley carefully chose a log about
two feet in diameter and twelve feet long from a pile nearby and rolled
it into the water. Then they stepped onto opposite ends of the log and
Jonas shoved it into the middle of the pond with a long pole. The two
big men, hobnailed boots planted firmly in the bark, rode the bobbing
log like cats, their thumbs hooked nonchalantly in their belts.

“Looks easy,” Jerry said.

“Don’t kid yourself,” said Quiz.

At a signal from Jonas, the contest began. Pete took the offensive at
once. Back-pedaling with short, mincing steps, he sent the log rolling
over and over in the water. Faster and faster his feet moved until the
log was a spinning blur beneath them. But Charley jogged effortlessly
with the spin, never once removing his thumbs from under his belt.

“He must be part fly,” Sandy murmured admiringly.

Suddenly, Pete braked the log with his spikes. Charley hung on nimbly,
though he did have to extend his arms for balance. Pete studied his
opponent briefly, then tried another approach. Facing the other man, he
spread his feet, spikes dug deep into the soft bark. Throwing his weight
to the right, he rolled the log to that side, then jerked it back
sharply in the opposite direction. Back and forth, back and forth, he
went, stirring up waves in the little pond. Charley just crouched low
and rolled with the log.

Finally, Pete abandoned this method too, and began to jump up and down
on his end of the log until it was lurching up and down in the water
like a seesaw. Once Charley’s boot slipped as the log rolled
unexpectedly, but he recovered himself neatly.

“I’ve never seen such a display of balance and coordination,” Russ said.

“There’s a hundred tricks,” Jonas told him. “Every birler has his own
pet twists and turns and stops. Why I’ve seen my old man spend hours
studying a log before a big match.”

“What for?” Sandy said. “They all look pretty much the same to me.”

“Logs are as different as fingerprints. Pine logs are lighter than
spruce, for example, and roll much faster. Cedar logs ride higher in the
water. Thin bark is a different proposition than thick spongy bark—” He
broke off as the two birlers both sent the log spinning madly in the
water. “Here now, watch old Charley go to town.”

Faster and faster the log spun; then with a display of skill that set
Jonas to clapping his hands, Charley braked the spin and sent the log
twirling in the opposite direction before poor Pete could shift his
feet. He flipped over backward into the pond with a loud splash.

The boys joined in the round of applause for Charley, as Pete surfaced
and good-naturedly shoved the log in to shore, so the winner wouldn’t
get his feet wet.

“I’m out of practice,” Pete puffed, as he waded in, dripping wet.

“No excuses,” Jonas laughed. “Anyway, that saves you taking a bath
tonight.”

He turned to Jerry. “Still think it’s easy, young fellow?”

“Well-l-l,” Jerry drawled, “I think with a little practice I could do
it.”

“No time like the present,” Jonas declared. “How about it, Sandy? You
game to take your pal on?”

Sandy grinned. “Sure thing. I don’t care if I do fall in. It’s so darned
hot.”

Jonas brought the log in closer to the bank and braced it with his pole.
“Okay, boys, climb aboard.”

Sandy bowed with a flourish to the dark-haired boy. “After you, my dear
Alphonse.”

Stepping out on the log as cautiously as a tightrope walker on the high
wire, Jerry planted his feet firmly, crouching very low.

“Why don’t you sit down and straddle it,” Quiz heckled him.

“No remarks from the gallery,” Jerry grunted. “I’m just getting the feel
of it.”

Sandy took his place a trifle more confidently, and Jonas shoved the log
into the middle of the pond. Jerry tottered and flailed his arms wildly
in the air as the log started to roll beneath him.

“Hey, cut that out! We didn’t get the signal to start yet,” he protested
to Sandy.

“I’m not doing a thing.” Sandy was concentrating on keeping his feet
moving rhythmically with the motion of the log. In spite of his efforts
to slow it down, it kept picking up momentum, largely because of Jerry’s
frenzied footwork.

On shore, Quiz, Russ Steele and the loggers were doubled up with
laughter. Jonas gasped, “He looks like a clown I saw at a circus running
on a treadmill with a dog hanging onto the seat of his pants.”

The thought was too much for Sandy. Choking hysterically, he went
headfirst into the pond. But still Jerry’s mad marathon went on. “How do
you stop this thing?” he shouted.

“Just turn off your ignition,” Charley joked.

The tears were rolling down Pete’s face. “I ain’t seen a birler like
that boy in all my days. He’d be a sensation at the fall festival.”

“No use,” Jerry screamed desperately. “I’m going to bail out before it’s
too late.” Holding his nose he ran off the end of the log into thin air.
His legs were still driving like pistons as the water closed over him.

When the boys waded ashore, Jerry grinned sheepishly at the loggers. “I
was doing great till my accelerator got stuck.”

Jonas patted him on the back. “You’re all right, Jerry. Best show I’ve
seen all year.”

Walking up the hill, Jonas asked Russ, “How long will you be with us?”

“Oh, I guess we’ll be heading back to Red Lake tomorrow morning.”

“Better follow the river south as far as you can,” Jonas cautioned him.
“It wouldn’t do to get caught in the deep woods if a fire gets started.”

By this time the sun had sunk below the trees, and the loggers were
boarding the trucks for the ride back to camp. Russ and Quiz rode back
with Jonas in the cab of the lead truck, while Sandy and Jerry piled in
the one behind it.

“Do you fellows live in the woods all year?” Sandy asked the driver.

“Most of us single men do,” the driver told him. “It saves board money
living in the company barracks and eating three squares in the mess
hall. A few of the married boys live in town. We got a couple of little
towns within a comfortable distance. Some weekends we go in and stay at
a rooming house.”

“Don’t you ever get to the big city?” Jerry asked wonderingly.

“Maybe once a year, we go to Duluth.” He began to laugh uproariously.
“It usually takes us another year to get over a spree like that.”

Back at camp, Russ Steele spoke earnestly with Jonas Driscoll off to one
side. Then he went into the office alone and closed the door behind him.
The foreman walked over to where the boys were throwing sticks for the
two dogs to fetch and told Sandy that his uncle was making an important
phone call.

“He’ll be a while,” he said. “Why don’t you boys come down to my shack
and wash up before supper?”

Sandy looked meaningfully at Jerry and Quiz. “You guys go ahead with
Jonas. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”

As soon as they were out of sight, Sandy went over and sat down on the
steps of the office. Prince and Bruce camped at his feet, wagging their
tails and pleading with their eyes for more play. Finally Sandy gave in
and lobbed a few more sticks for them. After about ten minutes, Russ
Steele came out of the office. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts
that he almost stumbled over his nephew.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t see you.”

Sandy nodded sympathetically. “Still no news?”

“Not a trace. It begins to look more and more as if they ditched the
bomb over this area. Search teams are working in toward us methodically
from both Lake Superior and Manitoba where the plane crashed. We’ll just
have to do what we can until reinforcements arrive.”

To the west heat lightning lit up the sky like a monster flash bulb.
Sandy shivered as they walked slowly in the direction of the foreman’s
cottage. The air seemed to be buzzing with electricity.



                             CHAPTER EIGHT
                                 Fire!


After breakfast the next morning, Russ Steele and the boys said goodbye
to Jonas Driscoll and started back in the direction of Red Lake. Once
again they fanned out at 1500-foot intervals, as soon as they were out
of sight of the logging camp.

“It seems like such a waste of time,” Jerry complained. “We’re never
going to find that bomb, just four guys in a big woods like this.”

“Most likely we won’t,” Russ admitted. “Our team is only a small cog in
the vast search machinery, but the ultimate success of the operation
depends on how well each small team does its job. The military doesn’t
expect us to march straight to where the bomb is and say, ‘Here it is,
fellows!’ What they do expect is for us to be able to say with certainty
where the bomb is _not_ lying. Gradually, by a process of elimination,
they’ll be able to pinpoint its exact location.”

The trek south was just as unrewarding as the trek north. They covered
twenty-five miles by dusk, when they made camp and cooked a simple
supper of beans and bacon. The boys were so weary that they sacked in
before it was completely dark. Russ Steele sat outside awhile smoking
his pipe and watching the moon climb into the cloudless heavens.

In the early afternoon of the following day, they arrived back at the
ranger station. Dick Fellows signaled them with a flashing mirror from
the tower when they were still a half mile away. By the time they
arrived, he had a pitcher of iced tea frosting on the table.

“No luck,” he said flatly, as soon as he saw their faces.

Russ shook his head. “How about yourself? Still no rain in sight?”

The ranger sighed. “Just got the forecast before you got here. Fair and
hot for the rest of the week. I’ve been on twenty-four-hour duty for the
past two days. Headquarters has declared a state of emergency.”

“Why don’t you grab a couple of hours’ sleep?” Sandy suggested. “We’ll
keep a careful watch for you.”

“Thanks,” Dick said, “maybe I will. I’ve been sleeping with one eye open
these nights, and one ear on the alarm clock. How long are you fellows
going to stay around?”

“Until tomorrow morning,” Russ told him.

“We’ll cover the ground between here and Red Lake next trip.”

It was 2:30 P.M. Dick Fellows had been asleep for about an hour. Quiz
and Jerry had left to take a bath in a nearby stream. Russ Steele was
relaxing in the big easy chair with his pipe and a book from the
ranger’s library. Sandy was on watch. Standing at the north window, he
swept the horizon from east to west with a pair of binoculars.
Three-quarters of the way across, he stopped and trained them down on a
tall trunk that stood out bleak and spare against the thick foliage of
the other trees. With a frown, he dropped the glasses and blinked his
eyes, squinting through the distant haze.

“Uncle Russ,” he said steadily, “it’s probably an illusion, but I think
I see smoke.”

Russ Steele rose quickly, dumping the book off his lap onto the floor.
“Where?” he asked tensely, coming to the window.

Sandy passed the binoculars to him. “That big snag due north-northwest.”
While his uncle was studying the location, Sandy went back to the table
and picked up a pair of sunglasses specially treated to penetrate haze.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” Russ said tightly. “It could be heat waves shimmering
through the ground haze.” He turned to look at the sleeping figure of
the ranger on the bunk. “In any case, I think it rates the attention of
an expert. Better wake Dick.”

Dick Fellows sat up promptly the instant Sandy’s hand touched his
shoulder. “Trouble?” he asked grimly. He was at the window focusing the
binoculars before Sandy had finished explaining. After a brief look, he
put down the binoculars and studied the trouble spot through the haze
glasses.

Then he announced matter-of-factly: “Smoke, all right. Well, we’ve got
ourselves a fire.”

His voice sounded almost relieved. The waiting and the anxiety were over
now, at least. The enemy was out in the open—something tangible you
could see and fight.

Immediately, the ranger made a compass reading. Then he took a fix on
the smoking tree with an Osborne fire finder, an instrument roughly
resembling a sextant.

“The fire finder measures both horizontal and vertical angles,” he
explained to Sandy. “If we know the height of the fire tower and the
angle of the fire with respect to the top of the tower, it’s a
relatively easy matter to locate the site on a good topographical map.”

“What’s a topographical map?” Sandy asked.

“A map that charts the surface features of the terrain,” Dick said. He
went back to the table and made some rapid calculations on a pad,
stopping occasionally to measure off distances and angles on the big map
spread out before him. At last he stuck a red pin at an X that marked
the intersection of two lines. “That’s where she is,” he said with
finality. “Now I’ll radio the news in to headquarters. They’ll try and
get a sighting from another tower and double-check my fix on the fire.”

“What do we do in the meantime?” Russ Steele asked anxiously. Sandy
could see that, underneath the heavy tan, his uncle was pale. He had a
flitting mental image of the missing A-bomb lying in some desolate part
of the forest with flames licking in all around it, and he felt the
short hairs at the base of his skull bristle.

“I’ll go straight to the fire and see what I can do until a crew shows
up,” the ranger said.

“You’ve got yourself a crew,” Russ volunteered. “What can we do to
help?”

Dick Fellows smiled gratefully. “That’s wonderful. I’ve got plenty of
tools stored out in the shed. With any luck, maybe we can get it under
control before it spreads too far.”

At that moment, they heard Prince barking at the foot of the tower and
footsteps vibrating on the metal steps. “That must be Quiz and Jerry,”
Sandy said. He ran to the door, opened it and called down. “Stay where
you are. We’ll be right down. We’re going to fight a fire.”

Within fifteen minutes, the five of them were double-timing it through
the woods, loaded down with long-handled shovels, burlap sacks, fire
swatters and strange-looking implements that the boys had never seen
before. One resembled a giant fly swatter; another, the Pulaski tool,
was a combination ax and grub hoe. They had covered, perhaps, ten miles,
when Prince, who had gone running far ahead, began to yelp excitedly.
Before they even sighted the flames, they could hear the crackle and
roar of a formidable blaze.

Dick Fellows ran his tongue nervously over dry lips. “Not much smoke.
She had a good start before we spotted her.”

In spite of the ranger’s words, Sandy felt a wave of relief when they
finally reached the fire. It didn’t look nearly as bad as he had
expected it to be. At most, it ranged over a quarter of an acre, blazing
lazily in the surface litter that covered the forest floor.

“Gee, it’s just a little brush fire.” Jerry echoed his friend’s
sentiments.

“So far,” the ranger said grimly. “But all it will take is a little
breeze—” He left the thought unfinished, as without warning a dead tree
that stood in the center of the fire, blackened and smoldering, burst
into flame like a torch. The rotten wood gave off great flaming sparks
that were carried high into the air by the updraft. Sandy traced the
journey of one glowing ember as it plummeted down like a shooting star
into the woods about a half mile away.

“That could mean more trouble,” the ranger said. “Before you know it,
you have a half dozen spot fires burning in addition to the one you’re
fighting. I’ll have a look over in that direction later on. The first
thing we’re going to do is to build a fire line across the head of the
fire; I’d say maybe fifteen feet in front of it.”

Quiz nodded. “The head of the fire is determined by the direction in
which it’s spreading the fastest. Right?”

“Right. All fires have a roughly circular shape to begin with. But
depending on air currents, slope of the terrain and available fuel, they
soon take on direction. Usually they assume an elliptical shape, sort of
like an egg, with the fat part of the egg representing the head. We
always attack the head first—stop the advance. Then we can work down the
flanks to the rear.

“Our fire line will be about one hundred feet long. I’d say this
particular fire calls for a trench about two feet wide through the duff
and litter; we’ve got to get down to mineral soil. Everything
inflammable must be cleared off this path. Bushes or low-hanging
branches that the flames can reach have to be removed or avoided.”

At this point, he stopped talking to lay out the fire line, tracing its
path through the forest with a hoe. It was a zigzag route which detoured
around bushes that were too large to be uprooted and low-hanging tree
branches. “We avoid anything that would give the flames a chance to leap
the fire line,” Dick explained.

As soon as the boundaries were clearly defined, he distributed the tools
and assigned specific jobs to everyone. Russell Steele showed as much
respect for the young ranger as any enlisted man had ever accorded a
general. Sandy and Jerry worked with the hoes, breaking the first
ground. Their job consisted mainly in clearing a swath through the loose
litter, shoving it in toward the advancing flames.

Dick Fellows and Russ Steele came in back of them with Pulaski tools,
hacking out stubborn roots and small shrubs and cutting deeper into the
duff. Quiz brought up the rear with a shovel, scooping up loose matter
that had tumbled back into the ditch and sluicing a light layer of soil
across the ground in front of the line. They worked intently, without
speaking, to conserve their wind; and the line grew rapidly. Still, the
fire was within two feet of the barrier when Quiz sent the last shovel
of dirt rattling into the waist-high flames.

The heat was searing, and their lobster-red faces streamed with
perspiration. Their clothing was soaked and streaked with dirt. Jerry
and Quiz staggered back from the line and collapsed on the ground.

The ranger waved Sandy and his uncle back too. “Better take a breather,”
he warned them. “The worst is yet to come.” He took a long drink, then
emptied the rest of his canteen over his head.

After a five-minute break, Dick passed out the long-handled beaters to
the three boys. He handed Russ Steele a burlap bag soaked in water.
“We’ll do the best we can with these. The idea is to patrol the line and
keep a sharp watch for embers that fly over it.”

They stationed themselves at 25-foot intervals, with Russ and Dick each
holding down an end of the line. The flames reached the edge of the
break and leaned hungrily across it.

Sandy brought the flat of his rubber beater down on a spark that kindled
on his side of the line. “It gives me the creeps the way the fire seems
to be reaching out for you,” he yelled to Jerry. “It’s almost as if it
was alive.”

Jerry was too busy swatting to answer him. Down at one end of the line,
Dick tossed aside his smoking burlap sack and grabbed a shovel. With
horror, Sandy saw a thin trail of fire race along the edge of the ditch,
skirt the end and blaze up in a patch of grass around the ranger’s legs.
Sandy dashed down to attack the breach with Dick, and together they
extinguished the flames and the long fuse of burning grass that had
kindled it.

“Thanks,” Dick gasped, as Sandy raced back to beat at a fiery tongue
that was licking at the brush in his sector.

For at least a half hour they battled the tenacious foe, and then the
flames began to subside, their frantic efforts to leap the line growing
more and more feeble.

At last Dick Fellows announced hesitantly, “Looks like we have her,
men.”

The boys let out a lusty cheer, and Jerry did a comical little waltz
with his long beater. But their exultation was short-lived. For some
time, no one had paid much attention to the dead tree in the center of
the burned-out area, now a solid pillar of fire reaching into the sky.
The ranger had been relieved to note that it stood a safe distance apart
from the other trees, and he decided that its chief hazard lay in the
sparks that kept rising intermittently from it. Then disaster struck.

Crumbling from decay and the ravages of termites, and further weakened
by the flames, the towering snag unexpectedly gave way at the base. As
the fire fighters stared in hypnotic fascination, the tree toppled in
slow motion toward a thick cluster of pines on the left flank of the
fire. It went crashing down into their midst, sending a spray of sparks
and flame over the thick, dry foliage. Instantly the crowns of the trees
erupted simultaneously in a huge balloon of flame with a noise like an
exploding bomb. A blast of red-hot air singed Sandy’s hair and eyelashes
and sent him stumbling backward with his hands over his face.
Rejuvenated, the front of the fire leaped the barrier and blazed up
beyond control at a dozen separate points.

“She’s crowned!” the ranger yelled in despair. “That snag did it. The
surface fire had heated the foliage to the point of combustion and it
was just like touching a match to a gas jet.”

Sandy was aware of a strange rustling in the trees overhead. “What’s
that?” he asked the ranger. “It can’t be wind.”

“It’s wind all right,” Dick told him. “Once these fires get really
going, they make their own wind.”

“It’s simple,” Quiz explained. “You can even feel it standing near a big
bonfire. The updraft of hot air creates a partial vacuum over the fire
area, sucking in cool air from all around it.”

“What do we do now?” Russ demanded.

The ranger pointed to the crown fire, which was spreading from tree to
tree fairly rapidly. “Only thing to do is get out of here. We don’t want
to get caught if this thing really takes off. There’s a firebreak about
one mile back, where we can wait for reinforcements.”

He glanced up at the sky, and for the first time Sandy was aware that a
helicopter and a small observation plane were circling the area. “They
should be rallying a gang up there within a few hours,” Dick said.

“What’s a firebreak, Dick?” Quiz asked.

“A king-sized fire line similar to the one we made. It can be anywhere
from ten feet to a hundred feet wide. Nowadays critical areas are
interlaced with firebreaks, just in case. The one we’re heading for is a
road really; the idea is to take advantage of natural defenses as much
as possible when planning firebreaks—roads, rivers, clearings, railroad
right of ways.”

As they followed the ranger at a slow trot in the direction of the road,
Prince leaped out from behind a bush and fell in beside Russ.

“I was beginning to wonder what had happened to him,” Sandy said.

“Animals are deathly afraid of fire,” Russ said. “I’m surprised he isn’t
on his way back to Red Lake.”

Jerry snorted. “Some hero! And I thought dogs were supposed to be
fearless.”

Russ looked at Jerry solemnly. “Only fools are fearless. I can tell you
I’m plenty scared right now—for more reasons than one.”



                              CHAPTER NINE
                          Battling the Flames


By the time they reached the firebreak, men and trucks were streaming
down the dirt road from both directions; rangers and volunteers from the
logging camps and small towns in the area.

“Do we sit back here like soldiers in trenches and wait for the fire to
come to us?” Sandy wanted to know.

Dick Fellows shook his head. “It’s not likely. That’s too much timber to
give up without a fight. Most likely the fire boss will try and contain
the fire within some area much closer to the front. We’ll construct
another fire line—a lot bigger than the one we made, of course—and
backfire from that, probably.”

“Backfire?” Jerry looked puzzled.

“Yes, light more fires all along that line.” He had to smile at the
boy’s incredulous stare. “Fires that we know we can control. It’s the
only way to stop a running crown fire. A running fire picks up a lot of
momentum—you saw how those flames jumped our line. The idea is to light
the backfires right on the edge of your fire line so that they’ll burn
in the opposite direction, toward the main fire. Actually, the air
currents created by a big blaze tend to draw in the smaller backfires.
Under ideal conditions, the two fires meet head-on and die because all
the fuel has been exhausted.”

“That’s a fascinating image,” Russ said. “Like two greedy monsters
destroying each other.”

“Now I know where they got that old saying about fighting fire with
fire,” Sandy said.

“That’s right,” the ranger acknowledged. “It’s an old trick that goes
back earlier than the Christian era. Tricky business, though, and you
have to have a gang that knows what it’s doing every second. If anything
goes wrong, the backfire may get out of control and leap the fire line
itself.”

He looked up as a tall gray-haired man in riding breeches and high boots
got out of a truck on the far side of the road and hailed him.

“Dick Fellows! How does it look?” the tall man came across and joined
them.

“Hi, Paul! Not too good. We thought we had her for a time. Then
everything burst loose.”

He introduced Paul Landers, the district ranger chief, to Russ Steele
and the boys, describing their unsuccessful effort to stop the fire
before it crowned.

Landers shook his head grimly. “Nice try, anyway, Dick. And many thanks
to you, General Steele, and the boys, for lending a hand.”

Russ smiled. “Anything else we can do? We’re still available.”

The fire boss took off his ranger hat and mopped his brow with a
handkerchief. “Plenty to do, all right, General. Soon as they get my
headquarters tent set up over there, we’ll be having a meeting of crew
chiefs. I’d welcome it if you’d sit in. You ever had any experience
fighting fires? Before today, I mean?”

“I’m a greenhorn,” Russ admitted. “Just like the boys.”

“But we’re learning fast,” Jerry chimed in.

Landers laughed. “Good. That tent’s up now. Come along and I’ll show you
how we map out our battle strategy.” He glanced at Russ. “You’re going
to find, General, that a forest fire can be as diabolical and
treacherous as any human enemy you ever fought.”

“I’m beginning to suspect that already,” Russ said somberly.

Inside the big pyramidal tent, technicians were installing short-wave
radio equipment, electric lights and telephones. On a large square table
in the center of the tent, a topographical map was spread out; alongside
it was a vivid aerial photograph of the same region.

Landers indicated a section on the map shaded in red pencil. “This
represents the burned-out area, as it stands at this time. Roughly, the
front is about twelve hundred feet across, and she’s spreading fast.”

Dick Fellows whistled. “I’ll say she’s spreading fast. I don’t figure it
was more than a hundred feet when we pulled out.”

The fire boss bent over the map and rested both elbows on the table.
“She’s got all the makings of a Class E fire all right.”

“What’s a Class E fire?” Sandy asked.

“Forest fires are rated in five classes, A,B,C,D, and E, according to
the size of the burned-out area,” Landers explained. “Class E is three
hundred acres and up. This one could be a first-rate Class E if it gets
away from us. So we can’t afford to take chances.”

He studied the map thoughtfully. “The way I see it we’ve got to give her
plenty of room. If we can hold her down to two hundred acres, I’ll be
plenty satisfied.” He ran his finger along a ridge that ran off
diagonally to the road in a northeast direction on the right flank of
the fire. Then he penciled an _X_ at the foot of the ridge directly in
line with the head of the fire.

“Our best chance is to start backfiring here, about a half mile due
east. That ridge is a natural firebreak because it’s mostly rock with
only scrubby vegetation. It won’t take more than a skeleton crew to work
that side.”

He addressed two of the gang bosses: “Harry and Ed, you boys take ten
men and a bulldozer and start setting things up on that ridge. A
three-thousand-foot line should do it.”

Now from the foot of the ridge, he drew a line extending in a southeast
direction, so that between them they formed an angled pocket into which
the fire was advancing. “We’ll backfire for another three thousand feet
on this line. The rest of you gang bosses will round up your men and get
to work on that immediately.”

He singled out Dick Fellows. “Dick, you and your three young friends can
help out on the south line, if you will, as fire scouts. General Steele,
I’d appreciate it if you would help me get things organized here.”

The boys followed Ranger Fellows out of the tent as the gang bosses
crowded around the table for a question-and-answer session with the fire
boss and to get a final briefing. Sandy was surprised to see that dusk
was settling over the forest. He looked at his wrist watch and saw that
almost five hours had passed since he had spotted the first thin swirl
of smoke from the fire tower. To the west an enormous golden cloud hung
over the trees like a halo.

“Doesn’t that look beautiful?” Jerry said.

“Deadly beauty,” the ranger told him, explaining that it was the last
rays of sunlight slanting up from below the horizon on the screen of
smoke drifting up from the forest fire.

He led them over to the mess tent, where cooks were doling out
steaming-hot suppers to the fire fighters from big insulated containers.
“Eat hearty, men,” he said wryly as they took their places on line. “We
have a long night ahead of us.”

“How can anyone work in these woods at night?” Sandy said. “It gets so
dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face.”

“It’s not easy,” the ranger admitted. “Normally, Landers would wait
until daylight to tackle most fires. The rate of spread drops sharply
through the night, then picks up again when the sun rises. Dawn and
early morning are generally the best hours to work. But conditions being
what they are—this drought and all—the chief wants us to keep on top of
it every minute. It won’t be any picnic, though, building that south
fire line at night, even if they mount auxiliary spotlights on the
trucks and tractors.”

“What gives with this fire scout business?” Jerry wanted to know. “What
do we do?”

“Run messages up and down the line so that headquarters can keep in
touch with the progress on all sectors at all times,” Dick explained.
“I’ll be stationed at the junction of the north and south lines with a
walkie-talkie radio. You fellows will relay reports from the gang bosses
in to me, and I’ll call them in to the chief.” He grinned. “You’re going
to be mighty leg-weary before this is over.”

At the head of the serving table, a grizzled old man wearing a greasy
undershirt handed them each a tin plate and a knife and spoon. In quick
succession, Sandy received a ladle of hash, a ladle of cole slaw and a
slab of bread—at least two inches thick—slapped on top of it all. The
last man on the serving line dipped a tin mug expertly into a galvanized
can filled with iced tea and sent him on his way. Sandy had intended to
ask for something to eat for Prince, but then he saw that the big
Doberman was squatting patiently before the entrance of the headquarters
tent, waiting for Russ Steele.

When they had finished eating, they scraped their platters clean and
dropped them in a tub of soapy, boiling water to one side of the mess
tent.

It was almost dark now, but the area was bright in the glare of
spotlights that had been rigged up to the heavy power line strung from
poles at the side of the road. Dick Fellows stopped briefly at
headquarters to pick up his walkie-talkie radio, and then they hitched a
ride on a jeep truck. They were part of a long caravan of vehicles
moving slowly through the woods toward the foot of the ridge where the
fire line would be anchored. The boys could scarcely believe that a road
had been cut through the timber in such a short period of time. True, it
was rutted, and bristled with stumps, and twisted considerably to avoid
the biggest trees, but it was quite an accomplishment nevertheless.

“It’s magic,” Jerry exclaimed. “How did they do it?”

“Bulldozer magic,” the ranger said, pointing to the broken and uprooted
trees littering the sides of the road. “We even have some brush-breaker
trucks that can plow through a grove of trees up to six inches in
diameter as if they were matchsticks.”

The caravan ground to a halt before they reached the foot of the ridge,
so the dozers and tractors could complete a huge clearing where the
vehicles and equipment could assemble. To Sandy, it was a scene of
immense confusion and noise. It seemed to him that the gang bosses were
trying to outshout each other; the men were getting in each other’s way;
and the trucks and tractors were rumbling about aimlessly.

“What a mess!” Jerry groaned.

The ranger grinned. “It just looks that way. This is as smooth an
operation as I’ve ever seen. Wait till they get rolling.”

And in no time at all men and machines were peeling off in orderly
fashion to the right and left; up the ridge to the northeast; and
southwest through the forest, clearing a strip through the trees the
width of two bulldozers.

Behind the dozers came the plows, rooting up the thick bed of duff on
the forest floor; then the graders, piling up soil and sand in a high
bank against the advancing flames. Working by the light of big spots
mounted on trucks, agile volunteers—mainly high riggers from the lumber
camps—climbed the trees along the edge of the growing line, lopping off
low branches that hung across into the danger area.

“Just to make sure our backfires don’t backfire on us,” Dick Fellows
said wryly.

The young ranger set up his command post in the headlights of a jeep; it
consisted of a folding table, canvas chair and the walkie-talkie. Quiz
was intrigued by the little battery-operated receiver-transmitter. Dick
pulled the rod antennae out of the top of the little oblong case until
they were fully extended, and flipped the switch. There was a crackle of
static and a variety of other interference before he succeeded in
getting through to Fire Boss Landers at headquarters. Reception was poor
and he kept his head bent close to the instrument. The boys were only
able to catch snatches of the conversation. Finally he signed off and
looked up.

“The chief just received a report from air observation. She’s
progressing pretty much according to type. About three-quarters of a
mile wide at the head, and covering roughly one hundred acres. There’s
just enough wind to benefit us—keep the fire moving due east and
restricting the spread at the rear. Unless the picture alters radically
before morning, we’ve got her licked.”

“That’s great!” Sandy said.

Quiz glanced over the treetops at the faint reddish glow in the sky to
the west. “It’s not nearly so bright over that way now.”

“You’re right,” the ranger agreed. “That’s because the crown fire has
died out. It’s strictly a surface fire now. Of course if we get another
scorcher tomorrow, she’ll likely flare up again.”

Jerry was peering anxiously through the thick forest in front of them.
“You can just about see the flames now flickering over there.”

“It’s possible,” Dick admitted. “She’s only about a quarter of a mile
off now.” Ruefully, he surveyed the tall, stately pines in the grove
opposite them. “It breaks my heart to think we’re going to have to
sacrifice all that timber.”

“When do we go to work?” Sandy asked him.

“Right now. The chief wants to know how things are progressing all the
way down the line and he wants a thorough report on the contour of the
fire front. Sandy, suppose you work the ridge, and Jerry and Quiz can
take the south line. Find the gang bosses and ask them how things are
shaping up in their sectors.”

Sandy climbed a steep rocky incline at the right of the clearing to the
top of the ridge. From the crest, which was nearly forty feet higher
than any of the surrounding terrain, he had an unrestricted view along
the full length of the ridge. A full moon sitting on the very rim of the
horizon lit up the scene like a big orange bulb. It was obvious now why
Fire Boss Landers had chosen this site to construct the fire line. It
was a natural barrier running straight as an arrow to the northwest, at
least a mile long from tip to tip. Its rocky slopes, barren except for
grass and stunted shrubs, swept down about a hundred feet on each side
to the edge of the woods. The ridge was a great scar in the rich
Minnesota earth left by some passing glacier millions of years ago.

Halfway along the ridge, Sandy could see the dozers rumbling back and
forth over the crest, their headlights gleaming like the eyes of
prehistoric monsters. He started toward them at a dogtrot.

When he reached the nearest gang, a big man who seemed to be directing
the operation swung his flashlight full on Sandy’s face. “Hi, son,
what’s up?”

Sandy explained that he was scouting for Ranger Fellows.

“I’m Ed Macauley,” the gang boss introduced himself. “Everything looks
pretty good from here. We’re clearing a strip about ten feet wide just
below the crest on the far side here. We’ll start our backfires down
there in that tall grass at the edge of the woods. Then for good measure
we’ll light another one along the top of the ridge.”

Sandy was puzzled. “One thing I don’t understand. Why are you making the
fire line on the slope away from the fire?”

Macauley grinned. “Because fire burns a lot faster and picks up more
momentum going uphill than it does going downhill.” To illustrate, he
took a long wooden match out of his pocket and lit it with his
thumbnail. When he tilted the lit end down, the flame blazed up
brightly, licking greedily at the unburned stem. Then he tilted the end
up and the flame changed direction and flickered feebly at the blackened
stub and finally died out. “See, there’s less chance of the fire jumping
our line if it’s burning downhill.”

Suddenly he frowned and poked his nose into the air like a scenting
hound. “Hey, you feel that?” He wet his forefinger in his mouth and held
it up.

At that moment Sandy was aware of a cool, gentle breeze on the left side
of his face. When Macauley spoke, his voice was tight as a bowstring.

“Wind’s picking up, and it seems to be swinging around to the southwest.
That could mean the fire will veer smack into this here ridge.... Hey,
you better relay that news back to the fire boss fast. Maybe they’re
just wasting their time on that south line.”

“Won’t they realize the wind’s shifting?” Sandy asked.

“Maybe not. On account of the elevation here, we’d feel it first.”

Macauley handed the boy his flashlight. “Here, better take this so you
don’t stumble in the dark. And make it snappy.”

Jerry had already returned with a report from the south line when Sandy
stumbled into the bright lights of the clearing. Jerry was sprawled out
on the grass at the command post while the ranger phoned his information
into headquarters. Sandy interrupted Dick Fellows excitedly to announce
the unexpected wind shift. And Dick was even more excited as he told
Paul Landers about it.

Jerry shook his head skeptically as Sandy plopped down beside him on the
grass. “I don’t think that fire is going to change direction. You should
see it down near the middle of the south line. It’s so close now that
they can see to work by it.”

Sandy shrugged. “Won’t be able to tell for sure for a while. But that
wind is definitely swinging around and picking up velocity—by the way,
where’s Quiz?”

Jerry jerked his thumb back across his shoulder. “He’s back down the
line jawing away with some of the gang bosses. By the time this is over,
he’ll be an expert fire fighter.”

Sandy laughed. “Shakespeare to smoke-eating—that’s our boy. The expert’s
expert.”

Dick put the walkie-talkie down and turned to the boys. “Our aerial
observer reports a definite wind shift to the southwest. It’s still too
early to notice any effect on the head of the fire, but it’s an
important development.” He gazed skyward. “Just keep your fingers
crossed that it doesn’t really blow up. She’d probably crown again and
that could mean spot fires almost anywhere.”

“What are spot fires? You mentioned them before, but you never did
explain what they are.”

“In a stiff wind, great masses of flaming embers and foliage may be
carried through the air for miles and start other fires far ahead of the
original one. That’s where the real danger exists for fire fighters.
Lots of times in a bad crown fire, men have suddenly found themselves
completely surrounded by flames.”

Sandy shuddered. “That’s horrible.”

“Anyway, it’s nothing for us to worry about. We haven’t had a big blow
up this way in almost two months.”

“Say, Dick,” Jerry asked curiously. “Do they know for sure what started
this fire?”

“Not with absolute certainty,” the ranger told him, “but it’s a pretty
good bet that it was that lightning storm we had a few days back.
Lightning is by far the leading cause of forest fires in the United
States.”

Sandy yawned and glanced at his watch. “Gee, it’s almost midnight,” he
said.

“Why don’t you guys catch forty winks in the back of that big van over
there,” Dick suggested. “I’ll wake you up if there are any new
developments.”

At that instant, the walkie-talkie came to life. Dick conversed briefly
with headquarters, then smiled apologetically at the boys. “Sorry,
fellows, but that nap will have to wait. Landers has decided to hold up
setting the backfires on the south line until we know for sure what’s
going to happen with that wind. Jerry, you take the word on down: Stand
by with the flame throwers, but don’t start backfiring until we get
confirmation from headquarters. No sense burning down any more timber
than we have to.

“Sandy, you go down the ridge and tell Macauley and Roberts that they
can start backfiring any time they’re ready.”

“Right!” the boys said in unison, and started off in opposite
directions.


It was an eerie sight watching the men fire the grass with their flame
throwers. Rapidly they moved along the top of the ridge with the
cylindrical tanks strapped to their backs, the long metal nozzles
spewing out jets of blazing gasoline that consumed everything they
touched. Soon the entire crest was aflame. To the west, a towering
column of smoke spiraled high into the moonlit sky, the glints of the
inferno below shimmering on its underside. It reminded Sandy of the
familiar mushroom cloud of an atomic blast, and with a sick feeling he
remembered the missing bomb lying somewhere in these woods.



                              CHAPTER TEN
                          A Temporary Victory


Shortly after 3:00 A.M. Quiz Taylor aroused Sandy and Jerry, who were
asleep in the supply truck.

“Come on, they need us!” he told them excitedly. “The fire has really
busted loose again.”

Sandy sat up groggily, rubbing his eyes. “Whazza matter? Wha’ happened?”

“There’s a real southwester blowing up. The fire has crowned again—you
should see it! She may leap the ridge!”

“Leap the ridge!” Sandy sat up ramrod-straight, jolted into full
wakefulness. “Good night! Let’s go!” He and Jerry slipped on their boots
and laced them frantically.

The sight that greeted them as they leaped out of the truck was
frightening. To the east, as far as the eye could see, the canopy of the
forest was one massive sheet of writhing, twisting fire. Long, forked
tongues of flame leaped high into the sky, whipped about by the strong
breeze blowing from the southwest. The head of the fire had veered off
sharply and was attacking the ridge on a quarter-mile front which was
widening every second.

The boys hurried over to Dick Fellows, who was talking into the
walkie-talkie and scribbling frantically on a pad. As soon as the
conversation ended, he tore off the sheet he had been writing on and
handed it to Sandy.

“Make sure every gang boss on the ridge sees this,” he said tersely. “If
she crosses the ridge, they’re to pull out their crews at once and
retreat to the road. If this wind keeps up, we might not even be able to
hold her there.”

For the first time, Sandy was aware of the loose debris blowing across
the clearing. As he took the paper from the ranger, it almost blew out
of his hand. In the unburned portion of the forest, the treetops were
rustling nervously. It sounded like a lament, Sandy thought.

Dick looked at Jerry. “We’ve pulled most of the men out of the south
line already. Landers feels that we should abandon it altogether for the
present. Suppose you run down there and notify them, Jerry. Tell ’em to
report behind the ridge on the double. They need every man they can get.
Quiz, you stay here in case anything else important comes in.”

Sandy started up the crest of the ridge, but the ranger called to him,
“Better circle around in back. It’s pretty hot up there.” He looked at
the surface fire advancing slowly through the underbrush toward the
clearing on the flank of the big blaze. “It won’t be long before we’ll
have to get out of here. Better send back a couple of boys to move those
trucks off the line.”

“Right,” Sandy said, and circled around behind the ridge.

The protected slope was teeming with men and machinery. Bulldozers
scurried up and down like huge beetles, clearing off everything
inflammable. Tank-trucks were moving slowly along the foot of the slope,
their crews sweeping big firehoses across the face of the forest. Trees
were doused from crown to root. Other smoke-eaters with hoses were lined
up on the crest of the ridge like soldiers, dwarfed by the monstrous
flames that seemed to arch over them threateningly. Whenever a flaming
bough or a mass of burning foliage came toppling to the ground nearby,
they would train a jet of fine, foglike spray on it. Watching this
panorama, Sandy was once again impressed by the fact that the fire
behaved at times with what seemed like animal intelligence. Time and
time again, treacherous fingers of flame would stretch out to the men,
driving them back behind the safety of the ridge. One such streamer
actually did dart across the crest like a snake, badly burning a dozer
operator.

Sandy relayed the communiqué from Fire Boss Landers to all the gang
chiefs. He found Ed Macauley about a half mile down the ridge. His crew
had started to build a hasty fire line at right angles to the ridge in
an attempt to stop the fire racing down the edge of the forest, but they
had finally abandoned it.

“Nothing short of a miracle will stop her now,” he told Sandy
hopelessly.

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” the boy asked, his voice tinged with
panic.

Macauley shrugged. “Not till she runs into the big firebreaks. There’s
another road about two miles north of the ridge; runs east to west. With
enough men we can bottle her up between the two roads. But she’ll burn
off better than a thousand acres before she’s finished.”

The fire was now abreast of where they stood on the crest. A scorching
wave of heat swept up the slope, bringing tears to their eyes, and
forcing them to retreat behind the ridge. No longer did the men need
lights to work by, for the glare of the flames lit up the countryside
with an unearthly reddish glow.

Sandy was surprised to see Quiz come staggering breathlessly up to them.
He handed Macauley a message. “New plan from headquarters,” he gasped.

Macauley frowned as he read it, then crumpled the paper up into a ball.
“Darn waste of time, I call it.”

“What’s up?” Sandy asked.

“Landers wants to give it one more try. We’re going to build a line down
at the end of the ridge.” He walked a little way up the slope and
studied the head of the fire driving steadily forward before the wind.

“We’ve only got a little more than a half-mile leeway. We’re gonna have
to work fast. Need every man and machine we can spare. C’mon, boys,
you’re graduating to pick-and-shovel work as of now.”

The north end of the ridge terminated in a steep slide of gravel and
slag. The proposed fire line was to extend due west from this rockpile
for at least half a mile. As Macauley pointed out, everything was
against the fire fighters. The terrain was unsuited to efficient
operation of the dozers and graders; the timber was old and sturdy; and
in places the trees were jammed together so tightly and their foliage so
interlaced that trunks on opposite sides of the line appeared to have
common crowns.

“With this wind,” the gang boss predicted, “our backfires won’t
accomplish a thing. Most likely, they’ll jump the line themselves.” He
sighed. “But orders is orders.”

Because of the time element, the heavy machinery just punched
helter-skelter through the woods, and left the cleaning-up to the
pick-and-shovel crews. Behind them came the water wagons, wetting down
the brush and trees on the safe side of the line.

Quiz Taylor and Sandy Steele were assigned to a crew of ax men. Jerry
James, who had come along about a half hour later, landed a soft job
manning a hose. But when the overly plump Quiz collapsed at the side of
the trail, Jerry generously offered to swap jobs with him.

“Not permanently, you understand, old boy,” he warned Quiz. “Just until
you get your wind back.”

Within a half hour, Sandy’s hands were covered with blisters and his
clothes were plastered to his body. Sweat poured down his face, blinding
him and caking into mud as it mixed with the dust. His legs felt as if
they were made of cast-iron, and he could barely lift one foot after the
other.

Enviously, he watched Quiz riding on the back of the water truck. The
sight of the fine jet spray gave him a sudden inspiration.

“Hey, Quiz!” he shouted. “Turn that thing on us for a while.”

“Good idea, son,” one of the smoke-eaters said, and the rest of them
picked up the chant. “Let ’er rip, boy.”

Quiz obligingly swerved the nozzle in their direction and they were
engulfed in cooling mist. Sandy opened his mouth wide and let the water
soothe his swollen tongue and parched throat. After five minutes of
this, they went back to work with renewed energy.

The line was completed in record time, but none too soon. The fire front
was only about 200 yards away when Macauley gave the order to backfire.
Although the front was less than 1200 feet wide, the flame-thrower crews
ignited the fringe along the line for a full half mile. The boys,
resting with the pick-and-shovel men on the north tip of the ridge,
watched anxiously as the backfires flared up strong in the dry brush and
foliage. Innumerable times, the flames leaped the line to attack the
trees on the far side, but each time the dripping wet boughs repulsed
them.

“Looks as if we’ll stop her,” Sandy said with elation.

One of the fire fighters shook his head gloomily. “The backfire ain’t
getting anywhere though.”

It was true. The backfires were making only slight progress toward the
head of the fire, which was racing forward with incredible speed.

“You know what?” Quiz said hesitantly. “I think the wind is beginning to
die down.”

“Aw, it’s your imagination,” Jerry said wearily.

“No, he’s right,” another man exclaimed. “She’s slowing down.”

Sandy studied the flames closely. He didn’t notice any perceptible
difference in the rate of the fire, but he did notice that the smoke
appeared to be rising in a more nearly vertical direction. Then, almost
miraculously it seemed, the breeze died abruptly.

“My gosh!” Jerry said wonderingly. “It’s as if somebody turned off a
fan.”

Quiz called their attention to the broad band of silver on the eastern
horizon. “Look, it’s almost daylight. That’s the answer. It mostly
always calms down at dawn and dusk.”

The fire fighters let out a thunderous cheer that was picked up all
along the fire line. Macauley came striding up the slope, a big grin on
his face.

“Looks like the chief outguessed me,” he admitted gleefully. “She’s
gonna hold.”

With the ebbing of the breeze, the backfire and the fire head were
creeping toward each other with uniform speed.

“What do we do now, boss?” Jerry asked. “All go home?”

Macauley arched his eyebrows. “You kidding, son? There’s still plenty of
life in that old devil yet. She could switch off in another direction
any time. Once we got this front nailed down solid, we’ll attack her
from the sides and back. There’s still plenty of digging to be done for
those who can swing a shovel.”

“That definitely lets me out,” Quiz groaned. “I don’t think I could even
pick up a shovel, I’m so beat.”

Macauley stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Well, I gotta admit you boys
have done more than a man’s share of work for one night.”

“No,” Sandy protested, even though his knees were threatening to buckle.
“I’ll stick it out with you fellows.”

“Me too,” Jerry said valiantly.

Macauley smiled. “You boys are all right. But you need to rest. We all
do, for that matter. Suppose you make tracks back to headquarters and
tell the chief to get another crew in here to relieve us.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” Sandy said, with undisguised relief. “I guess we
should report back to Dick Fellows, anyway.”

“He was down here himself just a while back,” one of the men
volunteered. “Looking for you boys, I think.”

“Come on, let’s go find him,” Sandy said.

By the time they got back to the command post at the other end of the
ridge, it was broad daylight. Dick Fellows was directing a crew fighting
a small brushfire at the edge of the clearing. Beyond them the woods was
a charred, smoldering carpet. The tree trunks were blackened and burned
for about ten feet up their trunks; but the fire had not crowned.

“Heard you were looking for us,” Sandy announced. “We were fighting a
fire.”

The ranger grinned. “So I heard. How do things look up there? Does
Macauley think she’ll hold?”

“He’s got his fingers crossed. He wants to know when his men are going
to get some relief.”

Dick wiped his soot-streaked face with his sleeve. “Just as soon as we
can. Landers put a call out for more volunteers when she took off like
that last night. He had a crew all lined up, but then a report came in
that there was a spot fire up north about three miles, so he sent the
whole bunch of them to swarm over that one before it really gets
started. It’s been a rough night.” He looked around at the men beating
out the brushfires around the clearing. “I tell you what, though. I have
about a dozen smoke-eaters mopping up here and along the south line.
Soon as things look safe, I’ll send them down to replace a dozen of the
boys down there.”

“Those men need relief bad,” Quiz declared. “They’re so bushed that they
won’t be able to work efficiently for much longer.”

“I know,” Dick agreed. “You boys look pretty bushed yourselves. Why
don’t you take one of the jeeps and drive back to headquarters? After a
good meal and a few hours’ sleep, you’ll feel a lot better.” Ominously,
he added, “We may need you again.”

“Why is everyone so skeptical?” Sandy demanded. “Don’t you believe that
line will hold now?”

The ranger’s face was grim. “There’s nothing on this earth as
unpredictable as a forest fire. I won’t believe she’s really out until I
personally squash the last ember under my boot.”

Quiz stared off into the ravaged grove at the other side of the
clearing. “Those trees, will they die?” he asked the ranger.

“A tree is like a human being,” Dick explained. “It can survive some
pretty bad burns, although it may be scarred badly. Underneath the bark
there’s a thin layer of living matter called the cambium, which can be
compared with the underskin on a human being—the dermis. If the fire
burns through the outer bark all around the trunk and kills the cambium,
the tree dies. Fortunately, the bark usually burns through only on the
side of the tree facing the advancing flames. It depends on the age of
the tree and the thickness of the bark. I think most of those old
fellows along the fringe of the fire will pull through. Not much chance
for any others.” He sighed. “Well, I guess Sandy and Jerry aren’t
interested in hearing a botany lecture right now.”

Quiz smiled wanly. “Even _I’m_ not interested in botany right now. Let’s
go eat, fellows.”



                             CHAPTER ELEVEN
                            Last-Ditch Stand


When they reached the main road, Sandy pulled the jeep up in front of
fire headquarters. Prince came bounding out to meet them, leaping up on
Sandy and barking happily. Then Russ Steele appeared in the entrance.
His face was lined with weariness and worry.

“Well, hello there,” he said. “Back from the wars?”

“We’ve just about had it,” Jerry said. “So have the other fellows on the
line.”

Russ threw one arm across his nephew’s shoulder. “I understand you boys
are real hot-shot smoke-eaters.”

Sandy grinned. “We don’t feel like hot shots at the moment.”

“Tired, eh?”

“And hungry!” Jerry and Quiz added simultaneously.

Russ laughed. “I don’t doubt it. I was just on my way to chow. Come
along.”

They walked slowly in the direction of the mess tent, with Prince
trotting at their heels. “What kind of a night did you have, Uncle
Russ?” Sandy inquired.

“Spent most of it on the phone and radio. I’m hoarse. Not as rough as
you had it, however.”

“How’s Mr. Landers?” Quiz asked.

“Great! He thrives on this kind of excitement. What a dynamo that man
is. He can talk on six different phones at once, and play checkers at
the same time. And what he doesn’t know about forest fires wouldn’t fill
up the eye of a needle.”

“He sure fooled Macauley,” Sandy said. “He was certain that last line at
the end of the ridge wouldn’t stop the fire.”

Russ frowned. “Well, the chief wasn’t sure it would, either. He just had
a hunch that that wind would blow itself out come daylight. He’s still
not convinced that they’ve stopped her for good.”

“Gee,” Sandy said moodily. “Even the fire boss. This must be a
nerve-racking way to earn a living.”

“They don’t get any money for fighting fires. Not these boys anyway.
There are exceptions, of course. Gigantic fires where they can’t raise
enough men by the volunteer system. Then they have to hire them.”

At the mess table, their tin plates were heaped with scrambled eggs,
bacon and buttered toast. It was obvious from their dirty, disheveled
appearance that they had just come off the fire line, and the cooks
besieged them with questions. The boys talked freely—and not without
pride, Sandy had to admit to himself. It was a good feeling being
treated as equals by these hard-bitten old smoke-eaters.

When they were seated cross-legged under a shady tree, wolfing the food
and washing it down with gulps of hot coffee, Sandy changed the subject.

“Any news on that bomb?” he asked his uncle in a low voice.

Russ shook his head somberly and swallowed a mouthful of egg. “Nothing.
I was in touch with the Pentagon last night, and again this morning. As
you can imagine, they’re pretty concerned about this fire. They offered
to send in troops to help out if it becomes necessary.”

“Do they think there’s any danger?” Quiz asked. “Of the bomb exploding,
I mean.”

Russ put down his plate and massaged the thick stubble on his chin. Then
he took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one. It startled
Sandy, for he knew that his uncle never smoked cigarettes, except when
he was under extreme tension.

“They don’t _think_ so,” he replied, emphasizing the verb. “But there
are so many things we still don’t know about atomic energy. And of
course, there’s always the chance the casing was damaged in some
unpredictable way so that—oh, it’s only a billion-in-one chance.”

Jerry suddenly lost his appetite. “That’s just what they said in the
papers that time a comet landed right in some lady’s bed.”

“Not a comet, you dope,” Quiz said disgustedly. “It must have been a
meteorite.”

Jerry glowered at him. “So what? It happened.”

Russ offered Prince the rest of the food in his plate and the dog
gobbled it up eagerly. “Well, speculation won’t get us anywhere. The
important thing is to get that fire under control first.”

Quiz stretched out flat on his back in the dry, soft grass. “The most
important thing to me is sleep. I wouldn’t care if an A-bomb went off
right under my nose.”

Jerry snorted. “I kept expecting that to happen all night.”

Russ smiled. “I tell you what. There’s a small brook down the hill a
ways. Why don’t you go down there and wash up? Then stretch out on the
pine needles and take a snooze.”

“Good idea,” Sandy agreed. He looked at his watch. “It’s eight o’clock
now. Wake us up at two—that will give us six hours’ sleep. Unless you
need us for anything, of course.”

“I’m sure the worst is over,” his uncle assured him. “I think I’ll grab
some rest myself after I discuss a few things with the chief.” He pushed
himself to his feet and waved to them. “See you later.”

Prince trotted off faithfully behind him.


The boys came upon the stream in a shallow gully about a hundred yards
behind the camp. Like all of the streams they had seen in the
drought-racked forest, it had shrunk to a mere inch of water gurgling
over a pebbly bed. But by scooping out a basin where the flow was
heaviest, they were able to take a sponge bath. Clean and refreshed,
they stretched out under the small pines along the bank and fell asleep
at once.

“Wake up!” The urgent cry penetrated Sandy’s consciousness as a rough
hand shook him out of a deep slumber. He opened his eyes and stared up
into the harried face of his uncle.

“The fire,” Russ Steele said tersely. “It’s broken out again. You’ll
probably be needed. Come up to headquarters right away.” With that, he
turned abruptly and trotted up the slope.

His mind still foggy from sleep, Sandy woke Jerry and Quiz. And for
several minutes the three boys stared blankly at each other.

“How did it happen?” Jerry mumbled.

Sandy was vaguely aware of the wind whistling through the pines. “Sounds
like it’s blowing up again—I guess that’s it. Well, let’s get going.”

“What time is it?” Quiz asked.

Sandy looked at his watch. “A little after one o’clock.”

Dragging their feet like zombies, they walked up the hill to the big
tent. Paul Landers and Russ Steele were bent over the map with three
other men whom Sandy had not seen before.

Russ Steele looked up as the boys entered the tent. He indicated the
three strangers. “Fellows, I’d like you to meet Paul Ames, Bill Lukas
and Tom Fenning. They’ve come down from Canada to help us fight this
fire. And brought their own crews with them.”

“Just in time, too,” Landers said gratefully. “If only I had been able
to send in a fresh crew this morning, we might have been able to avert
this new flare-up. Those poor devils had been working for seventeen
hours without letup; they just didn’t have anything left.”

Sandy leaned over the map. “How did it happen?”

Russ ran his finger along a red line running out from the north end of
the ridge. “It jumped the emergency line you boys helped to build last
night. Shortly after noon that southwest wind picked up again and there
wasn’t any stopping her this time. It happened so fast, a half dozen of
the men were severely burned.”

Sandy could see that the fire was already advancing on a narrow front
past the end of the ridge.

“The fact is, it’s really a brand-new fire,” one of the Canadians said.

“Exactly,” Fire Boss Landers agreed. He drew a circle around the
burned-out area southwest of the ridge. “We’ve got it licked in this
sector.”

The Canadian studied the map with intense concentration. “As I
understand it, this region north of the ridge is rocky and not too
heavily forested.” He touched his index finger to a small oval
representing a hill. “Any vegetation growing on this hill?”

Landers shook his head. “Scrub and grass. The same as on the ridge.”

“Then I don’t see any reason why we can’t stop her there.” He took a
pencil and drew a short line connecting the hill with the end of the
ridge. “We’ll build one line here. And another on the opposite side.” He
traced a second line running east of the hill.

“You can try,” Landers said without much enthusiasm. “And if it fails,
we’ll just have to fall back and let her burn herself out between the
two big firebreaks.” He indicated the intersecting roads.

The Canadian looked up at his two partners. “Let’s not waste any more
time.”

Russ put a hand on Sandy’s shoulder. “I thought you boys could ride down
there with them and help out however you can.”

“Sure thing,” Sandy said, and the other two boys nodded in agreement.

Bill Lukas, the tall, blond Canadian who seemed to be in charge, flashed
his white teeth in a broad smile. “Glad to have you aboard, gentlemen.
We’re on our way.”

The Canadians climbed into the front seat of a small, squat truck parked
outside the tent, while the boys boosted themselves up on the rear end
and let their legs dangle over the tail gate. As they started off, Sandy
saw his uncle standing in the entrance with Prince; Russ bent over,
spoke to the dog and gave him a pat on the back. Like a shot, Prince
took off after them. He caught up with the slow-moving vehicle easily,
and with a graceful leap landed between Sandy and Quiz.

“He’ll see that you stay out of trouble!” Russ yelled to them.

Tom Fenning turned around in the front seat and grinned. “Hello, what’s
this? More reinforcements? He doesn’t look much like a firedog to me.”

“He’s a Doberman pinscher,” Sandy said.

Jerry snickered. “He’s also a confirmed coward.” The dog cocked his head
to one side and regarded Jerry with plaintive eyes.

“See, you hurt his feelings,” Quiz said.

Jerry patted Prince’s head. “That’s all right, feller. So am I.”

“That’s not what we hear,” Fenning told him. “Mr. Landers says you boys
were right in the thick of it all night. It was pretty rough, I guess.”

“It sure was,” Sandy admitted. “And discouraging. When we came back this
morning, we thought it was all over but the shouting.”

The three Canadians nodded sympathetically. “That’s fire for you,” Lukas
said.

Quiz asked the men what had brought them all the way down from Canada.

“Good neighbor policy,” Fenning said. “Your boys have helped us out on
some tough fires.”

At the cutoff that led to the fire sector, three trucks loaded with men
and equipment were parked by the side of the road.

Lukas waved to them as he drove past. “We’re off, boys. Follow us.”

By the time they reached the north end of the ridge, the bulldozers had
already started to clear a fire line to the hill about a third of a mile
away.

Dick Fellows and Ed Macauley came forward listlessly to greet them; the
ranger and the gang boss were too exhausted even to show their gratitude
that relief had finally arrived.

The ranger pointed to the walkie-talkie sitting on the ground. “Landers
radioed the new battle plan to us. We’ve got it under way.”

“Fine,” Lukas said. “We’ll take over from here. Your men must be ready
to drop in their tracks.”

Macauley sighed. “They’re working strictly on nerve.”

Lukas accompanied the ranger up to the top of the ridge, while the other
two Canadians mobilized their crews to go into action. From this vantage
point, it was possible to trace the course of the fire since its
beginning. With the heavy screen of foliage destroyed, the boundaries of
the burned-out area were clearly defined. There was a long narrow strip
parallel to the ridge, swelling out into a sector of more than 300 acres
to the southwest. Only a feeble surface fire was burning around the
fringes of this area now; the stiff gale was turning the flames back on
ground that had already been burned over.

Sandy’s first impression was that this latest peril had been
exaggerated. Compared to the awe-inspiring spectacle of the previous
night, the fire as it appeared now, in broad daylight, didn’t seem very
threatening. After it had jumped the line at the end of the ridge, it
had taken an unusual shape and direction. It had been slowed down in the
center by the thinning timber and brush on the approaches to the hill
beyond the ridge. As a result, the fire front had flattened out and then
assumed a crescent shape as the flames went racing through the heavier
growth that flanked the hill on both sides. Sandy estimated that the
area it was burning over was less than fifty acres. When he pointed this
out to Dick Fellows, the ranger shook his head.

“The way she’s crowning, we’d have trouble confining her on ten acres.”
He turned to Lukas. “You’re not going to have time to be too particular
with those lines. She’s moving in too fast.”

Lukas agreed. “We’ll have to get our backfires started as soon as
possible, and just pray that the tank trucks can put out enough water to
keep _them_ from jumping back at us. That infernal wind! Why doesn’t it
let up!”

Quiz called their attention to a great dark mass building up low on the
western horizon. “Aren’t those nimbus clouds?” he asked.

The ranger studied them uncertainly. “They look like it all right. But
don’t count on their doing us any good. I’ve spotted nimbus formations a
dozen times this month, but they always drifted off somewhere else.”

“What gives with this nimbus business?” Jerry demanded.

“Rain clouds,” Quiz translated. “And they do seem to be coming in this
direction.”

Lukas winked at the ranger. “The whole forest could burn down while
we’re waiting for rain. I better get to work.” He waved and started down
the slope toward the fire line.

“What can we do, Dick?” Sandy asked the ranger. “We had about five
hours’ sleep, so we’re ready for action.”

“Sleep,” Dick muttered, almost reverently. “I’ve forgotten what the word
means.” His eyes were sunken and bloodshot with enormous circles around
them.

“Why couldn’t I take over for you for a while on the walkie-talkie?”
Sandy asked. “Even if you only grab a half-hour nap it would help.”

“It sure would.” The idea seemed to appeal to him. “I could stretch out
here on the ground, and if anything important comes up you could wake
me.... The radio is a cinch to operate. All you have to do is keep
headquarters up to date on what’s happening at our end.”

“You want us to scout again?” Jerry asked.

“Yes. You take the line on one side of the hill; Quiz can scout the line
on the other side. Check back with Sandy every quarter of an hour or so
in case any new instructions come in from the chief.”

“What I can’t understand,” Sandy said, examining the walkie-talkie
radio, “is why you don’t have a whole flock of these things all along
the fire line. If every gang boss had one, you’d know exactly what was
going on in every sector.”

The ranger yawned. “Tell it to the taxpayers, my boy. It’s always the
things that are most important to their own safety and welfare that they
gripe most about paying for.... Well, I’m going to rest my tired bones.”
He stretched out on the hard, rocky ground and fell asleep immediately.

“Come on, Quiz,” Jerry said. “Let’s get on the ball. I’ll give you a
break and take the line across the hill, so you won’t have to walk so
far.”

Quiz snorted. “Big deal! Then I’m the guy who has to climb this hill
every fifteen minutes to check in. Unh-uh! I’ll flip you for it.”

“Okay,” Jerry conceded grudgingly. “Sandy, you flip the coin.”

Sandy grinned as he took a quarter from his pocket and spun it high in
the air. “You call, Quiz.”

“Heads!” Quiz snapped.

Sandy caught the coin deftly in one hand and slapped it down on the back
of his other hand. Slowly he uncovered it as Quiz and Jerry bent over to
look.

“It’s tails,” he announced blandly.

“I win!” Jerry exclaimed. “So I pick the far side of the hill. Don’t
take it so hard, pal. A little climbing will help to reduce that spare
tire of yours.”

Quiz shook his head solemnly as he and Jerry started down the ridge.
“Just my luck. I always call them wrong.”

As it turned out, it was one of the unluckiest calls Quiz had ever made
in his life.



                             CHAPTER TWELVE
                          Trapped on the Hill


Several times during the next hour, Sandy heard the deep rumble of
thunder, and a few minutes after three o’clock, the sun was blotted out
by a low overcast. But the velocity of the wind had been steadily
increasing, and the fire was raging more fiercely than ever. The
backfires had been completely ineffective, and at three-fifteen, Jerry
came puffing up the hill with the bad news.

“She’s breached the line. Lukas says there’s no holding her now. They’re
going to evacuate.”

For some time, a sweeping curtain of smoke had obscured Sandy’s view of
the fire front. And the reports he had received over the walkie-talkie
from headquarters indicated that aerial observation was no better.

“I’d better wake up Dick,” he said. He went over to the ranger, who was
still in a deep sleep, and shook him violently.

Dick Fellows raised himself laboriously on his elbows and listened
glassy-eyed as Sandy told him the latest development. “I knew it! I knew
it!” he mumbled. “All of it for nothing. In the end she was bound to
beat us.” He struggled to his knees. “I’ll notify headquarters. You boys
take one last scout down the line. Make certain all the men get out
safely.”

At the bottom of the slope, Sandy turned and whistled to Prince, who was
sniffing curiously at a half-eaten sandwich in the grass. “Better come
with us, boy, so you don’t get left behind.”

With a yelp, the dog trotted after them.

A solid wall of fire blocked the first 600 feet of the trail that ran to
the hill, and they had to detour more than a hundred yards into the
woods. Machines and men crashed by them on all sides, hurrying in the
opposite direction. As they neared the hill, they ran into Lukas.

“Where are you boys going?” he asked breathlessly.

“We’re supposed to make sure that everybody gets out safely,” Sandy told
him.

“You’re wasting your time,” the Canadian said. “All my men are accounted
for. We’ve lost her for good this time. She’s crowned and running fast
on both flanks.”

“We’d better check anyway,” Sandy insisted.

“Don’t get caught on that hill,” Lukas warned them. “In another twenty
minutes, the flanks will close and she’ll be cut off.”

“We’ll be careful,” Sandy promised. “Come on, Jerry.”

They ran on for another quarter of a mile without encountering anyone
else. As they came abreast of the hill, Sandy stopped. Ahead of them was
an impenetrable curtain of smoke, and beyond it they could hear the
unmistakable crackle of flames.

“We’d better turn back,” Sandy said grimly. “If anyone is up there,
they’re finished anyway.”

Jerry did an about-face without breaking step. “All you rabbits get out
of the way and make room for somebody who can really run,” he bellowed.

“Wait a minute!” Sandy said. “Where’s that darn dog?”

“He’s probably back at headquarters hiding under a tent flap,” Jerry
replied cynically. “The big coward. Come on, let’s go!” He reached out
and grabbed Sandy’s arm.

The blond boy shook him off. “No, Jerry! He was here a minute ago.”

Cupping his hands to his mouth, he began to shout: “Prince! Prin-n-ce!
Here, boy!” He put two fingers between his teeth and whistled shrilly.

There was a long silence. Then, from a distance, they heard the sharp,
urgent barking of a dog.

Jerry groaned. “Good night! What’s he up to now?”

Sandy was perplexed. “Sounds like he’s over by the hill. But why?” Once
more, he formed a megaphone with his hands and called to the dog.
“_Prince! Come on, boy!_”

This time he was answered by a mournful howl.

Jerry’s voice was trembling. “Sandy, we’ve got to get out of here. You
heard what Lukas said.”

The heat and smoke were stifling now, and the roar of the fire seemed to
surround them.

Still Sandy hesitated. “Suppose Prince is hurt, Jerry?”

“He was here just a minute ago!” Jerry’s voice was frantic. “How could
he get hurt?”

“Maybe he stepped into a trap.”

The other boy slapped one hand against the side of his head in
exasperation. “Oh, brother! Look, I’m leaving, pal.” He turned and ran
about ten paces, then looked back across his shoulder. “Aren’t you
coming, Sandy?”

“You go on,” Sandy said stubbornly. “I’m going over to the hill and see
what’s happened to Prince.”

“Sandy! Come back!” Jerry pleaded in desperation, as his friend
disappeared into the thick brush. He hesitated for just an instant, then
ran after him. “Hey, you dope! Wait for me!” he shouted.

Sandy had covered about 200 yards when he stumbled into ankle-deep
water. He vaguely recalled one of the fire fighters mentioning that a
stream ran around the east side of the hill. He continued on until he
felt the ground rise sharply beneath his feet. Then he stopped and
called out to the dog.

“Prince! Where are you, boy?”

Ahead of him, to the left, he heard loud barking. He followed the sound
and broke out of the trees onto the abandoned fire line. Glancing to the
left and right along the ten-foot strip, he saw a solid wall of fire on
both sides where the flames had jumped the line. Roughly 1200 feet
separated the twin fronts, but as the flames raced through the trees
behind the hill, the gap was closing fast.

Sandy started as Prince’s head burst out of a thicket across the path
from him. “There you are!” he said with relief. “What are you doing way
over here? Come on, we’ve got to get out of the woods fast.”

Prince barked and backed into the thicket again.

“You stupid dog! _Come here!_” Sandy yelled. In a frenzy of anger, he
dropped down on his hands and knees and charged into the thicket after
the dog. He had gone about five feet when he came upon Prince standing
over the still form of Quiz Taylor sprawled out on the ground. From the
fire line he had been completely hidden by the thick foliage.

Sandy had a moment of overwhelming panic and confusion. Behind him, he
heard Jerry calling to him. “Over here, Jerry,” he shouted as he stood
up in the waist-deep brush.

Jerry stared at him incredulously from the center of the path. “What are
you doing?”

“It’s Quiz,” Sandy said weakly. “He’s unconscious. Give me a hand. We’ve
got to carry him out.”

Jerry turned pale. “Good night!” He struggled through the bushes to
Sandy’s side and stared bug-eyed at Quiz. “Is he alive? What happened to
him?”

“I think he’s alive. But I don’t know what happened to him. If it hadn’t
been for Prince—” He didn’t finish the statement, but Jerry knew what he
meant.

The boys managed to get Quiz on his feet, and by slinging one of his
arms around each of their necks, they were able to drag him along
between them. Their progress was painfully slow. Every few feet, vines,
bushes and other impediments would snag on Quiz’s feet. And both Jerry
and Sandy were physically exhausted from the night before. They had only
gone as far as the stream when it became obvious to Sandy that the dead
weight of the stout boy was too much for them.

“We’ll never make it, Jerry,” he gasped. “The fire will get us for
sure.”

Jerry was on the verge of panic. “What’ll we do? We can’t leave him
here.”

Sandy looked around frantically. “We’ve only got one chance. The hill.
Maybe we can signal to the helicopter from the top.”

Jerry shook his head in despair. “They’ll never spot us through all this
smoke.”

“Just the same,” Sandy insisted. “It’s our only chance. I heard one of
the rangers say that forest fires often leave one side of a hill
untouched.” Abruptly, his eyes fell on Prince, who was standing in the
shallow water, whimpering and trembling. “Say, I’ve got an idea!” He
rummaged in his pockets until he found the stub of a pencil. “You got
anything I can write on, Jerry?”

“Here’s a piece of paper that’s blank on one side.” Jerry handed him a
folded sheet on which Dick Fellows had scribbled a message the night
before.

Sandy crouched down, and spreading the paper flat on his leg, he began
printing in big block letters:

                   TRAPPED ON HILL. SEND HELP. SANDY

When he had finished the message, he sat down and began to unlace one
boot.

“What the heck are you doing?” Jerry asked.

“I need the lace to fasten this note to Prince’s collar. The way he
travels, he can make it out of here easily. If the note gets to Uncle
Russ—or anybody for that matter—maybe they can notify the ’copter pilot
that we’re on the hill. You’ve seen how they perform air rescues in the
movies, haven’t you?”

Jerry’s voice wasn’t too hopeful. “Sure. They drop rope ladders or
slings. But by the time they get this note—if they _ever_ do—we’ll be
fried to a crisp.”

It took all of Sandy’s will power to force a feeble grin. “We’ll come
out of this, pal. The most important thing to remember when you’re in a
tight spot, Uncle Russ says, is to stay calm and cool; if you use your
head there’s mostly always a way out.”

“Save your breath, Sandy. I’m so scared I could blubber.”

Sandy folded the paper several times until it was a tight little wad.
Then he called the dog over to him. Wedging the paper into the leash
ring on Prince’s leather collar, he bound it securely in place with the
long thong from his boot. He took the Doberman’s slender muzzle between
his two hands and looked straight into the intelligent brown eyes.

“Prince,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word. “Go ... to ... Uncle
Russ ... Uncle Russ ... Understand? ... Find Uncle Russ ... That’s the
boy.” He turned Prince around in the opposite direction and gave him a
pat on the rump. “Go, boy!”

With a parting yelp, Prince streaked out of sight into the forest.

The crackle of the fire was louder now, and they could see it advancing
through the treetops on both sides of them. The sky was completely
blotted out by smoke, creating an artificial dusk.

“We’d better get back to the hill,” Sandy said.

“What do you say we soak ourselves in the stream?” Jerry suggested. “I
heard somewhere that you can protect yourself from the heat and flying
embers that way.”

“Good idea,” Sandy agreed. “Maybe the cold water will revive Quiz too.”

The two boys stretched out full length in the sluggish stream, turning
over and over until their clothing was soaked back and front. Last of
all, they pulled Quiz into the stream, splashing water on his face and
head.

For the first time since they had found him, he showed signs of life—a
soft moan and a fluttering of his eyelids.

“He’s got a lump the size of an egg on his head,” Sandy pointed out. He
scooped up a handful of wet mud from the bed of the stream and plastered
it on the swelling.

“Look, he’s coming to,” Jerry said.

Gradually, the injured boy’s eyes opened; they stared blankly into space
for a few moments, then focused on the anxious faces hovering over him.

“Sandy ... Jerry ...” he said weakly. “Was I asleep?”

“You were out cold,” Sandy told him. He touched the lump on Quiz’s head
gingerly. “Something must have conked you.”

Recollection flooded back to Quiz. “I climbed a tree to see if I could
get a better look at the fire. A branch broke and that’s about all I
remember.”

“Do you feel strong enough to walk?” Sandy asked him.

“I think so.” Suddenly his hands went to his eyes. “My glasses! Where
are they? I can’t see two feet ahead of me without my glasses.”

Sandy winced. “I picked them up, Quiz. But I don’t think they’re going
to do you much good.” He reached into his shirt pocket and took out a
pair of woeful-looking eyeglasses. The frames were twisted like a
pretzel and the lenses were spiderwebbed with tiny shatters.

Quiz accepted them glumly. By twisting and bending the pliable frames,
he was finally able to wear them, though they perched on his nose at a
rakish angle. In spite of their predicament, Sandy and Jerry had to
laugh.

“You look like a cockeyed owl,” Jerry said.

“Nobody asked you,” Quiz growled. He squinted through the shattered
lenses. “It’s like looking through cheesecloth. But it’s better than
nothing.”

A blast of scorching air hit Sandy on the side of his face. Because of
the smoke and the thickness of this portion of the woods, it was
impossible to tell exactly how far away the fire was, but he knew it
couldn’t be too far.

“Come on, boys, we’ve got to get back to the hill.”

Quiz’s mind was still a bit hazy. “Hill?” he demanded. “You mean the
ridge?”

Briefly Sandy described how the fire had out-flanked them.

“We’re cut off,” Jerry said with a note of doom in his voice.
“Surrounded by fire.”

Quiz swallowed hard. “There must be _something_ we can do.” He snapped
his fingers as a thought hit him. “Wait a minute! Macauley’s men left a
pile of shovels, hoes and picks behind when they were relieved by the
Canadians. We can clear a line in the grass on this side of the hill and
start a backfire.”

“What are we waiting for?” Sandy said. He led the way out of the forest,
which ended about ten yards beyond the abandoned fire line. Directly
ahead, the hill rose up like an oversized haystack.

Quiz pointed to a stack of digging implements off to one side. “There’s
the stuff I was telling you about. But first let’s go up to the top and
have a look around.” He started up the steep, grassy slope that ran up
about 200 feet to the summit.

The top of the hill was littered with rocks of all sizes and shapes. The
boys scrambled up on an enormous boulder, where they had a bird’s-eye
view of the surrounding countryside. Up here, the force of the wind was
so great that they had to crouch on hands and knees to keep from being
toppled over. On the west slope, a slow but determined grass fire was
burning all around the base of the hill. But they had never seen
anything to match the fury of the crown fire raging all around them. A
quarter of a mile behind the hill, the twin fronts had finally united,
sealing off the last corridor of escape. They were now literally
isolated on an island in the midst of a sea of flame. A shifting current
of air sent a hail of hot coals and blazing twigs raining down on the
hill.

“Ouch!” Jerry beat out a spark that was sizzling on the wet material of
his pants.

Smoke spiraled up from several spots on the grassy slope away from the
fire.

“Come on!” Sandy yelled, leaping off the boulder. “We’ve got to beat
those out before they really get started.” He ran down the slope to the
nearest place where the grass was smoldering and stomped on the sparks
with his boots.

Jerry went to another danger spot farther down the slope, while Quiz
spotted one in a patch of heavy brush far to the left. As Quiz leaped
feet-first into the bushes, Sandy, who was looking in that direction,
was startled to see his friend unexpectedly disappear as if the earth
had swallowed him. He heard the rattle of falling earth and stones,
followed by a cry of pain.

“Quiz!” he shouted in alarm, and started over in that direction.



                            CHAPTER THIRTEEN
                           An Unexpected Find


With relief, he heard Quiz’s voice. “Watch your step! There’s a big hole
over here.”

Sandy advanced cautiously to the rim of a crater hidden in the high
brush. “Good night!” he said anxiously, as Quiz’s head poked into view.
“This is your unlucky day. Did you hurt yourself?”

“I think I sprained my ankle.” The other boy held up his hand. “Give me
a lift, will you?”

Jerry came up and the two of them dragged poor Quiz out of the hole.

“Now, how do you suppose that got here?” Sandy said.

Quiz shrugged. “Looks like a meteorite crater. Anyway, it really wasn’t
such bad luck my falling into it. It’s the perfect place for us to wait
out the fire.”

“How do you mean?” Jerry demanded.

“We build our fire line right around the circumference. Clear a strip
about two feet wide out from the edge and start a backfire. It’s deep
enough so that even if the whole hill goes up, we’ll be protected from
the heat.”

“That’s a great idea, Quiz!” Sandy exclaimed, pounding him on the back.
“You wait here while Jerry and I go down and bring up some of those
shovels and stuff.”

Leaving Quiz to nurse his injured ankle, the other two boys hot-footed
it down the slope to the mound of equipment the fire fighters had left
behind. Sandy gathered up a shovel and two picks. “Grab a couple of
those Pulaski hoes,” he told Jerry. Tears streamed out of his eyes from
the smoke, and Jerry was seized with a coughing spell that almost choked
him. The heat was unbearable as the fire closed in on the hill.

Staggering up the slope again with their load, they dumped the tools at
the edge of the crater. For a few minutes, they were too breathless to
work.

“I’ve never been so pooped in my life,” Jerry gasped. “Even after four
quarters of football.”

“Lack of oxygen,” Quiz theorized. “The fire steals it out of the air.”

Sandy remembered a dreadful story he had heard about a dozen men who had
taken shelter in a cave in the midst of a forest fire. The fire hadn’t
touched them, but they had all died nevertheless. The fire had exhausted
all the oxygen in the cave in the same way that a candle will when it
burns under a glass bell in a laboratory experiment. He was glad that
this was an open pit high on the side of a hill.

“We had better get started,” he said. “Quiz has a bad leg, Jerry, so you
and I will do the heavy work. Quiz do you think you can follow us up
with a hoe?”

“Sure thing,” Quiz said promptly. “I think the old ankle will hold up.”

They worked in a frenzy, fear and desperation lending them strength and
endurance that Sandy had never realized they had. Only minutes before,
he had felt he was too weary to lift an ax, much less swing one in such
tireless fashion. In less than twenty minutes, they had cleared a broad
ribbon around the rim of the crater.

The hill was ringed in flames now. Below them the fire swept through the
grass from the wood line and started up the slope. The sparse growth on
the crest was ablaze, and on either side a dozen little spot fires,
ignited by flying embers, spread and merged.

Sandy jumped down into the loose sand and gravel of the crater. “C’mon,
you guys! Let’s shovel this stuff up all around the edges to form a
barricade.”

Grabbing a shovel, he plunged it into the sand. There was a dull _clank_
of metal jarring against metal, about two inches below the surface.

“Wow!” he exclaimed, feeling the impact vibrate through the handle into
his hands. “What did I hit?”

“Maybe a chest of pirate gold,” Jerry suggested, leaping into the hole
after Sandy.

“Bright boy,” Quiz said sarcastically. “Maybe Captain Kidd sailed all
the way to Red Lake to bury his booty.”

Sandy and Jerry dropped to their knees and began scooping the loose
earth away from the spot with their hands. Quickly they uncovered the
edge of what seemed to be a flat sheet of metal. They continued digging
until they had uncovered enough of the object for Sandy to get a grip on
it. He pulled and tugged, but it was immovable.

“This is only a small piece of whatever it is,” he said finally. “It’s
buried pretty deep.”

Quiz, who had come up behind them, was studying the exposed metal with
keen interest. “Dig some more,” he told them.

As the boys pawed away at the earth like dogs, the strange object began
to assume form—a vaguely familiar form, Sandy thought. It was coated
with a heavy, dull green paint.

“Oh, good night!” Quiz whispered suddenly. “You know what that looks
like?”

At that instant the same idea must have struck both Sandy and Jerry, for
they stopped digging and looked up with stricken expressions.

“It looks like a fin—a fin on the tail of a bomb!” Sandy said
tremulously.

“It couldn’t be!” Jerry’s voice cracked. “Or could it?”

Quiz adjusted his smashed glasses and peered more closely at the
mysterious object. “It could be and it _is_! That’s a fin all right. I
saw a newsreel once showing a demolition squad removing a dud bomb from
a meadow in England; it had been there ever since World War Two. And it
was lying half-buried in a crater just like this one.”

Jerry began to back away as if he were confronting a poisonous snake.
“Imagine sitting on an A-bomb, fellows! We gotta do something!”

Sandy looked around grimly at the flames converging on them. “Right now
we’re in a lot more danger from that fire than we are from any bomb.
Come on, Jerry, let’s get busy with the shovels. Quiz, you start
lighting the backfires. I picked up a signal flare down below along with
these tools. It’s over by the hoes. You should be able to ignite this
dry grass easily with that.”

With the backfires blazing strongly around the parapet of earth that
Sandy and Jerry had erected along the rim of the pit, the boys arranged
themselves in a prone position in the center of the pit. Its sides
shielded them from the direct blast of the flames, and the earth they
were lying on was cool and comforting. As an added precaution against
flying embers, they covered themselves from foot to neck with sand.

“Now I know how a mole feels,” Sandy said.

“I wish I were a mole,” Jerry answered. “I wouldn’t stop burrowing until
I reached China.”

Quiz heaved a handful of sand at a burning brand that had dropped a few
feet away. “I don’t know what you’re so worried about. We’re as snug and
safe here as three bugs in a rug.”

“Four bugs in a rug,” Jerry amended gravely. “You forgot the bomb. For
all we know that baby might be all set to blow this very minute.”

“Don’t be silly,” Quiz scoffed.

“It’s not so silly,” Jerry defended his position. “You heard what
General Steele said. Anything is possible. Even he couldn’t predict what
might happen.”

“Gee, I wonder what Uncle Russ is doing right now. He’s probably
wondering how he’s going to break the news to our folks,” Sandy said.

“You think Prince got to him with that note?” Jerry wanted to know.

Sandy shrugged. “Even if he did, Uncle Russ must think we’re fried to a
crisp by now.”

Quiz gazed affectionately at the exposed tip of the bomb’s fin. “We
might have been too, if it hadn’t been for this lovely hole. We never
could have dug it ourselves.”

Sandy raised his head and sniffed. “I wonder how the fire is coming?
Doesn’t it sound as if it’s letting up a little?”

“The smoke’s not so thick,” Quiz admitted. “Want to take a look?”

“I’ll go.” Sandy sat up, dumping the dirt off himself. “You fellows stay
in your cocoons.” Slowly he got to his feet and looked around.

On all sides of the crater, the ground was black and smoking and
littered with glowing embers. But only in a few places were there still
tongues of flame licking up. The hill had been burned clean, but the
danger was over. Sandy felt his knees go wobbly with relief. The forest
was still blazing fiercely all around them, but they were safe now.

“I think we’ve made it, fellows,” he said. “All we’ve got to do now is
wait for somebody to come and rescue us.”

For the next half hour, the boys watched the fire spreading through the
forest to the east. Several times Sandy ventured out of the pit, but the
burned ground seared his feet even through his thick-soled boots.

“How long do you think it’ll be before they find us?” Jerry asked
impatiently.

“I have no idea.” A new thought struck Sandy. “You know, maybe they
don’t even know we’re missing. There must be so much confusion back at
headquarters, that Uncle Russ probably hasn’t had time to give us a
thought. He may think we’re somewhere along the road working with one of
the crews.”

“Do you think they’ll be able to stop her at the road?” Jerry said.

“Oh, they’ll bottle her up between the two big firebreaks,” Quiz said.
“But it’s still going to be a major catastrophe. All that beautiful
timber going up in smoke—enough wood to build an entire city, Macauley
says.”

“Well, just so _we_ didn’t go up in smoke,” Jerry said. “Along with our
friend back there.... Doesn’t it give you the cold shivers to think that
you’re sitting on top of an atomic bomb?”

“Not in the least,” Quiz denied. “As a matter of fact, I’d like to dig
the thing out and see what it looks like. We can’t tell anything about
it from that little tip of the fin.”

Jerry stared at Quiz as if he were crazy. “You’ll dig alone, friend. And
wait until I’m at least a thousand miles away.”

Quiz shook his head despairingly. “Jerry, where’s your scientific
curiosity?”

“You know what curiosity did?” Jerry said.

Sandy motioned for them to be quiet. “Listen; hear anything?”

The throb of engines came to them through the smoky overcast.

“Sounds like a chopper,” Jerry said.

Soon it was directly overhead and building up in volume. Unexpectedly a
big helicopter broke out of the smoke less than fifty feet above them.
The boys leaped up and down, waving their arms and shouting. Even Quiz
hopped about on his one good leg. The figures in the glass-enclosed
cockpit were clearly visible.

“There’s Uncle Russ!” Sandy yelled.

The great rotor blades churned the air like the wings of a giant bird as
the ship braked its descent about twenty-five feet above the pit and
hung motionless in air.

“They’re not going to land, are they?” Jerry looked concerned. “It will
squat right on top of us.”

In answer to his question, a hatch in the underside of the plane slid
open and a Jacob’s ladder was let down slowly. A man’s voice blasted out
of the ’copter’s special loud-speaker system:

“This is Russ Steele.... Are you all okay?... Just nod your heads, I
can’t hear you.” The boys nodded vigorously. “Good! Think you can all
make it up the ladder?... Still too hot down there to try a landing.”
Sandy and Jerry nodded, then pointed to Quiz’s ankle with elaborate
gestures. “Quiz can’t make the climb?... Well, Quiz, do you think you
can hold on while we reel you in?” Quiz nodded his head affirmatively.
“Fine. Sandy and Jerry, you two come on up first.”

The ladder was dangling right before their noses now. Sandy took a long
breath and put his left foot on the first wooden rung, grasping the rope
sides firmly. “Here I go,” he said.

And go he did! Without warning, a gust of wind caught the ’copter and
lifted it ten feet in the air. Sandy, clinging for his life to the
ladder, went sailing up and out in a wide arc. Back and forth he swung
like an acrobat on a high trapeze. Below him the ground swirled
sickeningly and he squeezed his eyes tight shut. Uncle Russ’s voice rang
in his ears.

“_Hold tight! You’ll be all right._”

He swung and spun in diminishing circles until finally the ladder was
still. Then he began to climb as fast as he dared, praying that the wind
wouldn’t play any more tricks on him. At last, strong arms reached down
to pull him through the hatch into the plane, and he collapsed on the
floor, temporarily speechless. The most he could manage was a weak smile
of assurance for his uncle.

Russ Steele had aged ten years since Sandy had seen him earlier that
afternoon. He put both hands on Sandy’s shoulders and squeezed so hard
the boy winced. “Thank God you’re safe,” he said gratefully. “When I
read that note—” His voice choked. “Prince was nagging at me for over an
hour before I spotted that paper in his collar. Look, we’ll talk about
it later. I’ve got to get those other boys up here.”

Within a few minutes, Sandy had recovered sufficiently to crawl over to
the hatch and watch Jerry make the precarious ascent. This time the
’copter behaved itself, but Jerry had a great deal of difficulty
mastering the Jacob’s ladder. Every time he raised a foot and placed it
on another rung, foot and ladder would swing out and up and Jerry would
find himself hanging parallel to the ground. Russ Steele yelled to him
through the loud-speaker.

“Jerry, use your arms! Lift with your arms and push with your feet at
the same time. They’ve got to work together.”

“Lucky thing I’ve been on those ladders before,” Sandy observed
sympathetically. “Poor Jerry.”

But Jerry was eventually pulled aboard without any accident and lay
puffing and wheezing on the floorboards like a beached whale.

Quiz had the easiest ascent of all, standing on the bottom rung of the
ladder while it was hauled up to the plane.

Then the ’copter’s engines roared and it went leaping into the sky like
a big grasshopper.



                            CHAPTER FOURTEEN
                             The Rains Came


Because of this latest emergency, Fire Boss Landers had moved his
headquarters about two miles down the road to the junction of the two
big firebreaks. Over four hundred smoke-eaters were strung out along
this line. Twice they had fought the fire on its own terms in the thick
forest and had had victory within their grasp—only to see it get away
from them. Now, tired and discouraged, they had retreated to strong
defensive positions established years before for just such an emergency.
They would wait until the fire came to them, hurling itself against the
firebreaks as a wild beast throws itself against the bars of its cage.
They would watch its struggles become weaker and weaker until, at last,
it would burn itself out. But in some vague, intangible way, they felt
that the fire had really won the battle. For it would be hundreds of
years before man and nature could rebuild what the fire had destroyed.

The remarkable escape of the boys was the only heartening note in camp
that second night of the forest fire. Time and time again, they had to
repeat the dramatic story for new audiences.

“They ought to strike medals for the lot of you,” Paul Landers declared
enthusiastically.

“They might just do that,” Russ Steele mumbled under his breath, just
loud enough for his nephew to hear. As soon as the rescue plane had
landed them back at headquarters, Sandy had pulled his uncle aside for a
private conversation. Minutes later a carefully worded telegram was on
its way to the Pentagon:

  FIRE STILL RAGING UNCHECKED HERE AT RED LAKE BUT WE PLUCKED OUR HOT
  POTATO OUT BEFORE IT WAS TOO BADLY BURNED

“The local telegrapher must be really scratching his head over that
one,” Russ said with a laugh, as he and the boys sat around in a circle
on the ground eating supper.

“What happens now?” Jerry asked.

“The Air Force will fly a top-security demolition team up here pronto.
Probably tomorrow morning. The bomb will be dismantled and that will be
the end of it.... I don’t have to tell you boys that the government owes
you a debt of enormous gratitude for finding its ‘hot potato.’”

Sandy grinned. “We didn’t exactly find it. More accurately, we stumbled
over it.”

“_I_ stumbled over it,” Quiz corrected, patting his ankle, now tightly
strapped with elastic bandage. “But as I pointed out to Sandy and Jerry
before, General Steele, we owe our lives to the fact that the bomb fell
where it did. If we hadn’t had that hole to crawl into, there might have
been three well-done potatoes on that hill.”

Ranger Dick Fellows approached them with his plate and coffee mug. “Mind
if I join you fellows?”

“Sit down,” Russ invited him. “How’s the fire?”

“Looks as if she’ll lay waste the entire area due east and due north of
the end of the ridge between the two roads. All we can do now is
concentrate on the flanks. If that wind should reverse itself, she might
burn clear back to the river before we could stop her.”

The boys let out a long groan. “Oh, no!” Sandy said with disbelief.
“That couldn’t happen!”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Dick said pessimistically. “Fire in
Idaho played tag with the fire fighters for three days. Burned off
thirty thousand acres before it was controlled by—” In the middle of the
sentence, he stopped and cocked his head to one side. “Say, do you hear
what I hear?”

Sandy became aware of a loud rustling in the heavy foliage overhead.
“Sounds as if the wind is picking up again.”

“Wind nothing!” To the amazement of Russ Steele and the three boys, Dick
Fellows unexpectedly threw his mess tin high into the air and let out an
ear-splitting Indian yell.

“Holy smokes!” Jerry said, edging back from the ranger. “He’s blown his
stack.”

Sandy heard the deep rumble of thunder, and then he felt the _splat_ of
a raindrop on the top of his head, followed by another and another. Soon
they were falling all around him, making little pockmarks in the dry
dust.

“Rain!” Jerry said in an awed voice.

Dick Fellows was nearly hysterical. “Rain!” he repeated. And before
Jerry could stop him, he had snatched _his_ plate away and tossed it
into the air.

“Who’s hungry?” Sandy cried gleefully and sent his meat loaf and mashed
potatoes soaring. As if at a signal, the other fire fighters who were
eating in the grove followed suit.

“I can’t tell which it’s raining harder,” Quiz said, “gravy or water.”

Prince and a few other stray dogs who had attached themselves to the
camp were having a field day, scampering around gobbling up the
discarded food. The road was crowding up fast with men leaping about
with their faces turned to the sky. This was a rain to end all rain. It
was almost as if the sky had been filling up during all the weeks of the
drought and finally had burst open like a balloon, dumping its whole
reservoir onto the parched earth in one big splash.

Sandy saw men dancing together in a knee-deep rivulet running down a
culvert at the side of the road. He saw one man scoop up a handful of
mud and throw it at another man like a kid with a snowball.

Fire Boss Landers was standing by himself very quietly, his face turned
up to the sky, and Sandy had a feeling that tears were running down his
cheeks along with the raindrops.

Dick Fellows grabbed Sandy by the arm and pointed to a gigantic cloud
almost a mile wide that was rising and spreading across the forest to
the west.

“Smoke?” Sandy asked fearfully.

“Steam!” the ranger bawled happily. “What we couldn’t do in two days,
nature has done in a matter of minutes. The fire’s done for.”

Sandy saw his uncle walking slowly in the direction of the headquarters
tent. “Where are you going?” he called after him.

Russ turned and grinned back at them. “Don’t you guys know enough to
come in out of the rain?”



                            CHAPTER FIFTEEN
                            End of the Trail


Sleeping in a pup tent was out of the question that night. Ankle-deep
mud covered the ground as the rain continued unabated. Russ Steele
bunked in with Paul Landers and the boys were invited to use three empty
cots in one of the Canadian squad tents. It was pleasant sitting around
in a circle on the cots by the dim light of an oil lamp, hearing the
drops pelt and drum on the canvas sides of the tent. They shared these
quarters with two older men who were veterans of a thousand outdoor
adventures, and their stories held the boys spellbound.

But by ten o’clock none of them could keep their eyes open, and they put
out the light and rolled up in their blankets. For nine hours, Sandy
slept the deep, untroubled sleep of exhaustion until his uncle shook him
gently awake the next morning.

“Time to break camp,” Russ told him. “The helicopter pilot is going to
give us a free ride back to Red Lake. I don’t imagine Quiz will be able
to do much walking on that bad leg for a while.”

“He’s not the only one,” Sandy groaned. “I feel about ninety years old.
Every muscle in my body aches.”

“You’ll loosen up once you start moving around.”

In the next cot, Jerry pushed himself up drowsily on one elbow. “I’ll
_never_ be the same again.”

Russ Steele laughed. “Hey now, that’s no way to talk. You boys have
almost three weeks of your vacation to go.”

“What!” Jerry squawked. “It feels as though we’ve been living in the
woods all our lives.”

“Too much for you, eh?”

“Heck, no!” Jerry said hastily. “I wouldn’t have traded a minute of it
for anything.”

“Even the couple of hours we camped on the hill with that bomb?” Sandy
asked slyly.

“Absolutely not,” Jerry maintained. “Only if it’s all the same to you
guys. I’d just as soon spend the next couple of weeks camped smack in
the middle of Red Lake aboard that nifty power launch—with plenty of
water all around me.”

“I’ll buy that,” Sandy agreed.

Russ Steele nodded. “You can swim, fish and go water skiing. And explore
the lake. It’s pretty big, you know. Some day, we can cruise down to the
lower lake and visit the Indian Reservation.”

“Great!” Sandy looked around to make sure that their Canadian tent-mates
were not around. “What about the bomb? Are we just going to take off and
leave it?”

“Everything’s under control,” Russ assured him. “A special military
detail arrived at dawn to expedite that matter. You’ll be relieved to
learn that there is no trace of radioactivity in the area whatsoever.
Evidently, the casing was not shattered by the impact.”

Quiz woke up just in time to hear the last part of the conversation.
“That’s good. Last night I dreamed that I glowed in the dark like the
radium numbers on a watch face. What a nightmare!”

“So what?” Jerry said brightly. “Just think, you could read in the dark
by the light of your nose.”

Sandy swung his feet around to give Jerry’s cot a hard shove. “You
didn’t think it was so funny yesterday, old buddy.”

Russ Steele stood up. “Get a move on, boys. We don’t want to miss that
plane ride back to the lodge. I’ll meet you over at the mess tent.”

While they were dressing, Quiz began to speak self-consciously. “You
know, I never did get a chance to thank you guys.”

Sandy and Jerry exchanged puzzled looks. “Thank us for what?”

“Oh, you know,” Quiz said gruffly. “I mean you two wouldn’t have been
trapped by the fire if you hadn’t come back to look for me. Well, you
risked your lives to save me. I don’t know quite how to say it, but—”

“Don’t say it,” Sandy cut in, bending over quickly to tie his shoelace.
“Have it engraved on a medal.”

“Solid gold,” Jerry added. “None of this cheap gold-plated stuff.”

“Aw, wait a minute!” Quiz roared. “I’m trying to be serious.”

“On second thought,” Jerry said, “the town of Valley View might have
given us a gold _cup_ if we hadn’t bothered.” He ducked as Quiz heaved a
shoe at him.

“Oafs!” Quiz fumed.

Sandy laughed. “Old buddy, you know perfectly well that we couldn’t have
deserted anybody in a spot like that—not even Pepper March.”

“Good old Pepper,” Jerry mused. “He sure will feel bad that _you_ got
off that hill, Sandy. Just imagine, that would have left the quarterback
slot on the school team wide open for him this fall.”

“Good night!” Sandy sat up straight. “That’s right, summer is
practically over. In less than three weeks, the new term starts.”

Jerry slumped forward sadly on the edge of his cot. “You know what I
just did? I just went and ruined the rest of my vacation.” He sniffed as
the smell of frying bacon drifted into the tent. “But not my appetite.
Come on, you guys, let’s go to chow.”


                        SANDY STEELE ADVENTURES

                           1. BLACK TREASURE

Sandy Steele and Quiz spend an action-filled summer in the oil fields of
the Southwest. In their search for oil and uranium, they unmask a
dangerous masquerader.

                      2. DANGER AT MORMON CROSSING

On a hunting trip in the Lost River section of Idaho, Sandy and Mike
ride the rapids, bag a mountain lion, and stumble onto the answer to a
hundred-year-old mystery.

                            3. STORMY VOYAGE

Sandy and Jerry James ship as deck hands on one of the “long boats” of
the Great Lakes. They are plunged into a series of adventures and find
themselves involved in a treacherous plot.

                          4. FIRE AT RED LAKE

Sandy and his friends pitch in to fight a forest fire in Minnesota. Only
they and Sandy’s uncle know that there is an unexploded A-bomb in the
area to add to the danger.

                      5. SECRET MISSION TO ALASKA

A pleasant Christmas trip turns into a startling adventure. Sandy and
Jerry participate in a perilous dog-sled race, encounter a wounded bear,
and are taken as hostages by a ruthless enemy.

                           6. TROUBLED WATERS

When Sandy and Jerry mistakenly sail off in a stranger’s sloop instead
of their own, they land in a sea of trouble. Their attempts to
outmaneuver a desperate crew are intertwined with fascinating sailing
lore.

                    PUBLISHED BY SIMON AND SCHUSTER



                          Transcriber’s Notes


--Copyright notice provided as in the original—this e-text is public
  domain in the country of publication.

--Silently corrected palpable typos; left non-standard spellings and
  dialect unchanged.

--In the text versions, delimited italics text in _underscores_ (the
  HTML version reproduces the font form of the printed book.)





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