The line of fire had passed over them. It left charred trees still burning, a hillside black and smoking, desolation and ruin in its path.
Out of the prospect hole a man crawled over Dave’s prostrate body. He drew a breath of sweet, delicious air. A cool wind lifted the hair from his forehead. He tried to give a cowpuncher’s yell of joy. From out of his throat came only a cracked and raucous rumble. The man was Shorty.
He crept back into the tunnel and whispered hoarsely the good news. Men came out on all fours over the bodies of those who could not move. Shorty dragged Dave into the open. He was a sorry sight. The shirt had been almost literally burned from his body.
In the fresh air the men revived quickly. They went back into the cavern and dragged out those of their companions not yet able to help themselves. Three out of the twenty-nine would never help themselves again. They had perished in the tunnel.
The women of Malapi responded generously to the call Joyce made upon them to back their men in the fight against the fire in the chaparral. They were simple folk of a generation not far removed from the pioneer one which had settled the country. Some of them had come across the plains in white-topped movers’ wagons. Others had lain awake in anxiety on account of raiding Indians on the war-path. All had lived lives of frugal usefulness. It is characteristic of the frontier that its inhabitants help each other without stint when the need for service arises. Now they cooked and baked cheerfully to supply the wants of the fire-fighters.
Joyce was in command of the commissary department. She ordered and issued supplies, checked up the cooked food, and arranged for its transportation to the field of battle. The first shipment went out about the middle of the afternoon of the first day of the fire. A second one left town just after midnight. A third was being packed during the forenoon of the second day.
Though Joyce had been up most of the night, she showed no signs of fatigue. In spite of her slenderness, the girl was possessed of a fine animal vigor. There was vitality in her crisp tread. She was a decisive young woman who got results competently.
A bustling old lady with the glow of winter apples in her wrinkled cheeks remonstrated with her.
“You can’t do it all, dearie. If I was you I’d go home and rest now. Take a nice long nap and you’ll feel real fresh,” she said.
“I’m not tired,” replied Joyce. “Not a bit. Think of those poor men out there fighting the fire day and night. I’d be ashamed to quit.”
The old lady’s eyes admired the clean, fragrant girl packing sandwiches. She sighed, regretfully. Not long since—as her memory measured time—she too had boasted a clear white skin that flushed to a becoming pink on her smooth cheeks when occasion called.