It occurred to Dave that if the wind changed suddenly and heightened, it would sweep a back-fire round him and cut off the retreat of his crew. He sent a weary lad back to keep watch on it and report any change of direction in that vicinity.
After which he forgot all about chances of danger from the rear. His hands and mind were more than busy trying to drive back the snarling, ravenous beast in front of him. He might have found time to take other precautions if he had known that the exhausted boy sent to watch against a back-fire had, with the coming of night, fallen asleep in a draw.
SHORTY ASKS A QUESTION
When Shorty separated from Doble in Frio Canon he rode inconspicuously to a tendejon where he could be snugly hidden from the public gaze and yet meet a few “pals” whom he could trust at least as long as he could keep his eyes on them. His intention was to have a good time in the only way he knew how. Another purpose was coupled with this; he was not going to drink enough to interfere with reasonable caution.
Shorty’s dissipated pleasures were interfered with shortly after midnight. A Mexican came in to the drinking-place with news. The world was on fire, at least that part of it which interested the cattlemen of the Malapi district. The blaze had started back of Bear Canon and had been swept by the wind across to Cattle and San Jacinto. The oil field adjacent had been licked up and every reservoir and sump was in flames. The whole range would probably be wiped out before the fire spent itself for lack of fuel. Crawford had posted a rider to town calling for more man power to build trails and wield flails. This was the sum of the news. It was not strictly accurate, but it served to rouse Shorty at once.
He rose and touched the Mexican on the arm. “Where you say that fire started, Pedro?”
“Bear Canon, senor.”
“And it’s crossed San Jacinto?”
“Like wildfire.” The slim vaquero made a gesture all-inclusive. “It runs, senor, like a frightened jackrabbit. Nothing will stop it—nothing. It iss sent by heaven for a punishment.”
“Hmp!” Shorty grunted.
The rustler fell into a somber silence. He drank no more. The dark-lashed eyes of the Mexican girls slanted his way in vain. He stared sullenly at the table in front of him. A problem had pushed itself into his consciousness, one he could not brush aside or ignore.
If the fire had started back of Bear Canon, what agency had set it going? He and Doble had camped last night at that very spot. If there had been a fire there during the night he must have known it. Then when had the fire started? And how? They had seen the faint smoke of it as they rode away, the filmy smoke of a young fire not yet under much headway. Was it reasonable to suppose that some one else had been camping close to them? This was possible, but not likely. For they would probably have seen signs of the other evening camp-fire.