Revenge! The thought of it spurred him every waking hour, roweling his wounded pride cruelly. There was a way within reach of his hand, one suggested by Steelman’s whisperings, though never openly advocated by the sheepman. The jealousy of the man urged him to it, and his consuming vanity persuaded him that out of evil might come good. He could make the girl love him. So her punishment would bring her joy in the end. As for Crawford and Sanders, his success would be such bitter medicine to them that time would never wear away the taste of it.
At dusk he rose and resaddled. Under the stars he rode back to Malapi. He knew exactly what he meant to do and how he meant to do it.
Dave knew no rest that night. He patrolled his line from San Jacinto to Cattle and back again, stopping always to lend a hand where the attack was most furious. The men of his crew were weary to exhaustion, but the pressure of the fire was so great that they dared not leave the front. As soon as one blaze was beaten out, another started. A shower of sparks close to Cattle Canon swept over the ridge and set the thick grass afire. This was smothered with saddle blankets and with sand and dirt thrown from shovels.
Nearer to San Jacinto Canon the danger was more acute. Dave did not dare back-fire on account of the wind. He dynamited the timber to make a trail-break against the howling, roaring wall of fire plunging forward.
As soon as the flames seized the timber the heat grew more intense. The sound of falling trees as they crashed down marked the progress of the fire. The men retreated, staggering with exhaustion, hands and faces flayed, eyes inflamed and blinded by the black smoke that rolled over them.
A stiff wind was blowing, but it was no longer a steady one. Sometimes it bore from the northeast; again in a cross-current almost directly from the east. The smoke poured in, swirling round them till they scarce knew one direction from another.
The dense cloud lifted for a moment, swept away by an air current. To the fire-fighters that glimpse of the landscape told an appalling fact. The demon had escaped below from San Jacinto Canon and been swept westward by a slant of wind with the speed of an express train. They were trapped by the back-fire in a labyrinth from which there appeared no escape. Every path of exit was blocked. The flames had leaped from hilltop to hilltop.
The men gathered together to consult. Many of them were on the verge of panic.
Dave spoke quietly. “We’ve got a chance if we keep our heads. There’s an old mining tunnel hereabouts. Follow me, and stay together.”
He plunged into the heavy smoke that had fallen about them again, working his way by instinct rather than by sight. Twice he stopped, to make sure that his men were all at heel. Several times he left them, diving into the smoke to determine which way they must go.