So Nicely Put
Post-deb meets handsome logger—Forest fire teaches both a lesson
THE TWO end chairs of the three standing in the bow of the boat had now been unoccupied for exactly forty-three minutes by the diamond-studded watch on Jane’s slim wrist. And that, she thought as she stared grimly over the rail at the unsurpassed grandeur of towering mountain peaks, azure skies and cerulean waters afforded those who take the scenic trip up Forbes Inlet, was a situation about which something must be done.
It had seemed a good idea to take the two-day trip up the British Columbia coast while the family yacht was being reconditioned at Victoria and her father was storming in and out of the timber offices. That is. it had seemed a good idea until forty-three minutes ago when, under Jane’s amazed eyes, Paul had gone down for the third time to the big-eyed little blond trick Bebe, unbelievably, was the creature’s name—who knew all the questions and how to look them. It had ceased, then, to be a good idea. Because Paul had gone off with Bebe, and Jane had been left alone. And that was something which simply did not happen to Jane, popular and publicized post-deb. Nor to Paul, who belonged to Jane. Who was engaged to Jane.
A portion of the scenery in the immediate foreground stirred and. when Jane brought her abstracted gaze back into focus, it resolved itself into a young man who was leaning sideways on the rail, staring at Jane. As her glance met his, he turned easily and looked down into the water.
He was dressed in a khaki shirt, open at the throat, blue denim pants up-rolled over caulked boots with peg heels and dangling laces, with the rigging gloves of the coast logger stuck through his belt. Before he turned away Jane had had time to note that his blond hair had a ripple in it, his jawline was definitely Dana Gibson, his waist was lean and his shoulders immense. He was, by and large, the most spectacular male she had ever seen. And with that realization her dark eyes widened. “Dear Diary,” she muttered, "it was then I got the Idea!”
CHE sat for a moment, staring into space, her fingers ^ drumming on her scarlet leather handbag; then she glanced quickly over her shoulder. Paul was still nowhere in sight, and. well, after all . . .
Whipping out her lipstick, she did a rapid paint job, stealthily slipped Paul’s star sapphire from her left hand to her right, and stood up.
The young man at the rail turned quickly as she came up.
His eyes w-ere arrestingly blue in his tanned face, and for a moment Jane felt as if they were piercing clear through to her backbone.
She did a bit of lashwork. “Can you tell me the name of that high peak over there?” He still stared. Then, suddenly, he smiled. “Sure, lady.”
(“I.ady.” But the voice was definitely good; deep, and especially gifted with that particular something.)
He told her the name of the peak and of all the other peaks. It appeared that he knew the country, stick, stone and splinter. He had been working in the woods all summer and had boarded the boat early this morning at the head of the Inlet. Jane listened while he told her of trees and logs and of the men who lived by logs. Of the high-rigger, whipped aloft in a great arc by the giant he had decapitated, his safety belt an inconsiderable ribbon between him and eternity. Of the “widow-maker.” the wicked line, stretched from a spar tree that could jerk a man to his Maker between two breaths.
His voice deepened as he talked, and Jane said curiously, “You’re fond of trees, aren't you?”
"They’re the best things I know.”
She must be slipping, because here was a good lead and she missed it.
He smiled down at her. “Guess you must be pretty tired of hearing me run on.”
She shook her head. “I like it.” She meant it, funnily enough. But then she remembered she had work to do, so she gave him her hand and a little-girl smile. “I think we should introduce ourselves. I’m Jane ...” Her tongue stopped just short of the Mardon, because it was a rather better than well-known name and, after all, you never knew. “Jane Jones,” she finished smoothly. “Vancouver.”
His hand was hard-palmed, well balanced, very strong. It held hers lightly and impersonally, and his eyes flicked at the sapphire on her finger. “I guessed you were from the city, lady.”
“You haven’t told me your name,” she said softly, her hand still in his.
They called him Sky-line Blondy in the camps, he said, but his given name was Bill. (“Given.” But Sky-line suited him ; it was big and sort of free.) She moved nearer expertly, so that if anyone happened to be watching they could see she was having a chummy time. “Tell me more about— everything, Voice of the Woods.”
His speech bothered her. It was too careful, she decided presently; as if he were listening in on himself. In the main it was correct, but off-the-record words kept slipping in. There was the everlasting “lady.” And he said “my folks,” and, constantly and gratingly. “Do tell.” Once he let fall an “I swan !” and looked quickly at her and away He was trying to talk up to her and there should have been a laugh in that. Only there wasn’t. (Funny how protective this huge child of nature made her feel.) She said quickly, “You don’t talk like a logger.”
“You noticed that?” He grinned like a schoolboy and pride crept into his voice. “Oh, I go to the movies. I get around.” He gestured toward the determined funsters behind them. “Care to take a turn at shuffleboard?”
Here’s where you lay off, my girl, Jane told herself. No more tricks; this lad is real.
TZ> UT then, immediately, there was Bebe, a little less than dishevelled -and Paul, a little more than guilty. There was Paul, not quite meeting her eyes, saying, a trifle too loudly: “For Pete’s sake! Where’ve you been? We’ve looked everywhere but in the drink.” And there was Bebe, smiling, smug as a little cat. So, of course . . .
“You have? I hadn’t noticed. Bill and I . . .” Jane stopped, a maiden all confused.
It was a good act; she could tell from Paul’s amazed face just how good it was. And then that great dumbbell had to crab it. Somehow Bill’s shoulder was between her and Paul, blocking him off. Bill’s deep voice was saying unhurriedly, “Lady, I want you should see the scenery over on the other side. It’s swell.” Bill’s hand was on her elbow, leading her away.
Before she could do anything about it he said, “Who’s the smoothy with the little fever frau?” And looked sideways at her. grinning.
She stared. “You have been to the movies! That’s Paul Encely, my—a friend of mine,” she finished shortly. She got a funny feeling down her spine. Strange she’d never noticed before that Paul did look smooth. Too smooth. Too spick-and-span looking. And yet, until now, he’d seemed so exactly right.
Bill had spoken no more than the truth—there was swell scenery on the other side. There was also, away up on a mountain, a feathery plume of smoke at which Bill bent to look frowningly.
Jane’s gaze followed his. “What is it?”
“I hope it’s a camp. If it’s a fire ...” He broke off, and she said idly, “Would that mean so much?”
It was his turn to stare. “Mean much? With the woods tinder-dry? If any kind of a wind cut loose ...” He stopped, shrugging.
Ridiculous, of course; but, just for a moment, she felt almost as if she had been tried and found wanting. Well, of all the nerve!
After a while there was Paul, with Bebe, whispering amusedly, “Who’s the clodhop claim jumper?” And later there was Paul, sans Bebe and very satisfactorily burned up, hissing furiously, “What’s the idea of the royal runaround?”
DANCING, they didn’t come any smoother than Bill.
Jane told him so when the moon was sailing over the mountains, and the orchestra was swinging a neat “Loch Lomond,” and Bill had exchanged his heavy caulks for a pair of shoes borrowed from a steward.
That pleased him, she could tell. He clasped her close and executed a prideful whirl, finishing up with a couple of snazzy bends that left her laughing helplessly. He was, definitely, a pet.
Around them the tempo of the evening had speeded up. There w'as laughter, singing; a couple of yodelling experts w’ere giving all they had. It was suddenly all too, too Coney Island, and Jane said, “Let’s get somewhere away from all this mob.”
Up on the boat deck the night was peaceful and serene. There were only the lifeboats casting their black shadows
on the white deck, and the music, mercifully muted, floating up from below’ and, beyond the rail, the mountains, immutable in majesty, reaching up to the incredible stars. “It’s—it’s beautiful,” Jane whispered, helpless before the inadequacy of words.
“You’re beautiful,” said Bill.
She almost stopped breathing. The something in his voice was an old, old story. But to hear it from him ! She turned slowly, her eyes w’ide.
And then suddenly her heart was hammering in her throat. Bill’s eyes were near and very bright. “You’re beautiful,” he said again. “Your hair, and your eyes, and your lovely, lovely mouth . . . And you go and spoil it” —there was a queer kind of exasperation in his voice now— “smearing it up with all that paint stuff. Why do you?” That crack rated an in-and-out, surely. And all she could do was to stand there gasping like a half-beached fish.
Something was happening to her. Something had taken her under control and was pushing her along. She reached for her handkerchief with shaking fingers and wiped the paint from her lips. “How do you like it now?” Her voice was shaking too.
He wouldn’t follow that lead, she thought despairingly. Not this Simple Samson.
But that w’as just where she w’as wrong.
A kiss had no business to be so out-of-all-reason sweet. Not when it was a stranger whom you had been taking for a ride for purposes of your owm, who did the kissing. It wasn’t fair. It was all wrong. It changed things too abruptly.
Which may have been the reason why, later, she pulled herself almost violently from Paul’s arms.
“Hey ! What is all this?” Paul, possessive and outraged. She stared at him incredulously. (Funny how’ cruel the tender moon could be.) Over his shoulder she saw Bill, in the distance, turn on his heel and stride away.
“What is all this?” said Paul again. And then, at sight of her face, “You weren’t jealous of that little ... ?” Jealous?
“No,” Jane said. She pulled the sapphire from her finger and dropped it into his hand. “I’m sorry, Paul.”
U ILL was standing where she had first seen him, leaning with his elbows on the rail. In the distance the lights of Victoria were a bright ribbon drawn across the night. Jane touched his arm. “Bill.”
He turned and looked her up and down. “So you got him back. Congratulations!”
She stepped back. “W-what do you mean?”
“Mean, beautiful lady?” (Not admiration in his voicecontempt.) “That the play was a success. ‘She Got the Boy Friend Back,’ or ‘Taking a Boob for a Ride.’ If you like that one better.”
She stared at him. Things were simply whirling round. She said stupidly : “You—you mean you were putting on an act?”
He leaned back against the rail.
“Why, sure. You were, weren’t you?
I just followed your lead, that’s all.”
She still stared, and he said with maddening patience, as if he were explaining to a child: "After all, if a girl—your kind of a girl—makes a play for a stranger—my kind of a stranger, when her man has walked out on her, and after she has switched a ring that’s been visible from one end of the boat to the other from one hand to another— well ...” He shrugged. “It doesn’t take long even for a sap from the sticks to cotton on.”
He yawned behind his hand, and suddenly anger ran like a flame through Jane. “I wonder you stooped to stooge in such a trivial act,” she said.
He considered that, lips pursed.
“Well”—his voice was so exasperatingly reasonable that her fingers crisped —
“a trip can be very boring, especially if you’ve made it a number of times; anything for a lift. Also, when I’m being taken for a ride I like to help with the driving; guess I’m funny that way. And then”—his eyes passed over her unhurriedly—“you underrate your charms, you know. You’re an attractive girl good eyes, nice hair, well built — not bad, in fact. Not bad at all.”
She seethed, “You—von --”
He straightened up. "Not me—you." His voice was different now; it cut like a knife going through silk. “Your kindand how I know your kind—”
She broke in, venom in her voice: “Of course! You’ve been to the movies!”
But he ignored that. “Your kind think that they are God’s gift to the universe; that everyone else exists just to be used. You’ve got pretty well everything, and you use what you’ve got to get more; to get what you want, regardless. Look at you today. You used your loveliness just like any cheap little tramp. You used it on me to get what you wanted. Did you care if I got hurt? Not on your life.
Clever ? I ’ll say. I was onto you at the very beginning, even though you had me fooled for a moment."
(Moonlight . . . Music . . . Your lovely, lovely lips . .)
“I’ll bet you’ve never heard the truth about yourself, but believe me you’re going to hear it now. The kindest thing anyone can say about you and your kind is that you’re handicapped. By environment. Too much money. Too much of everything. You’ve never touched reality at any point, so you’re not real people, you’re phonies. You haven’t got hearts, you’ve got lines, eighteen-carat lines, instead. And you’ve no guts—if you can’t have what you want the moment you want it, you squawk and grab-and heaven help the poor guy who gets in your way.” I le broke off but, before she could speak, went on: “Know what you remind me of? Fireweed. It blooms best in the ashes of destruction, and it s beautiful—from a distance. But when you get close to it, it . .
She said icily: “Go on. Why go coy on me now?”
“All right, then. It smells ...”
She just stood there, taking it. She couldn’t do anything else because all at once, and horribly, tears were closing her throat.
Suddenly his eyes softened. “Poor little phony !”
(Come on, now. Be natural. Give him what he expects— a bit of your own sweet self.)
She gave him a laugh, her dirty laugh. “You put things so nicely. But why spoil it? Why not skip the moaning at the bar?”
TT WASN’T until the dawn was making a pale square of her window in the hotel that Jane remembered something. She remembered that not once during his tirade had Bill spoken in the least like a logger.
She sat straight up. staring. “Well !”
Well, and so what? She lay down again and, turning over, buried her face in the pillow. What did it matter to her how he talked? She would never see him again.
CHE SAW him that very evening.
^ Her father laid down his knife and fork and pointed with his nose like a setter pup. “There’s that young chap I was telling you about this morning.”
It couldn’t be. But it was. Towering above everyone else in the doorway of the dining room, looking as if he’d been poured into his evening clothes.
“Fine-looking chap.” Andrew Mardon s voice sounded to Jane as if it were coming from a long way off. "McGill and Harvard. And one of the lx*st timber men in Canada, they tell me."
McGill. Harvard. ("Lady”—"Do tell”—"I swan.”)
11er cheeks flamed.
"... can take it, t. Doesn’t look as if he’d been handed that wallop.”
“What’s the gxxl of my telling you things if you don't listen?" Mr. Mardon was having trouble with his corn on the cob. "I said Dunstan, senior, had been playing the market, and that the bank had foreclosed on his timber holdings.
I bought them in yesterday. Young William’s been out in the wtxxls all summer and didn’t know a tiling about it until he hit town last night. Plenty tough. It can't have been all a surprise, though, because the Anglo-American's been wobbly for some time. Seems to me I heard that was the reason this lad’s girl gave him the go-by last year. Turned him down lor someone with a couple of million or so just before the wedding.”
(So that was why . . )
“Why don’t you give him a job, Andy?” Jane’s voice was careless but a little high. “I'm sure he’d love to work for the Mardons.”
Vicious. But her father didn’t notice. He was giving her the grudging look that parents use on bright offspring who give them ideas. He said slowly: "I think
you’ve got something there. Jinny. I certainly could do with a good man right now, especially one who knows these particular stands. The fire hazard’s pretty bad. Woods lxne dry and no rain in sight. Kind of raw, though, eh? Asking him to take a job in what was his own concern?” Jane's heart was beating thickly. “He'd do it to look after his trees. He adores them.” And then, at her father's look of astonishment, she said quickly: “Well, they all do, all timber men. Look at you.”
Bill had been ushered to a table across the room. He was sitting with his back to them. Andrew Mardon rose from his chair. “I’ll bring him over.”
“No!” Jane shot out a detaining hand. “I—I don’t go for that clumsy, brutal type!”
Her father sat down again and looked at her anxiously. “Not fretting after Paul, are you, honey?”
Honestly, there were times when VO.J positively yearned to see a beloved parent stretched upon the rack.
THE NEXT day Mr. Mardon was unaccustomedly difficult about letting Jane go with him to the company’s beach camp at Scrub Lake—a spot of paternalism, cropping out. “I don’t think you should go. The situation is quickly becoming serious. That wind last night whipped up the fires over a large front, and several of them are out of control. Young Dunstan’s just phoned that the Green River Company’s Number Four Camp, north of us, went up in smoke this morning.” “Dunstan! Then you did offer him a job?”
“Yes. And he took it. I put it to him that he’d be doing me a favor in an emergency. I told him that it was my daughter’s idea; that she thought it would be a good idea to ask him help save the stands.” “Andy! You didn’t!”
“Sure I did—why not? And I’m dam glad to have him. He knows trees, all right. And men. He’ll get the most out of the crews at a time like this. He’s going to meet me at the beach and take me up to Number Two. I’m going to be busy with him; I’ll not be able to look after you. So I’m darned if I can see why you want to go.”
Jane looked at him wonderingly. But, then, intuition is a woman’s gift.
Ten miles out of Victoria the car ran into a pall of smoke. It grew denser and more acrid as they drove north up the island. Six hours later, on the fringe of the Campbell River country, Jane sent the car racing through a five-mile strip of desolation. Yesterday an arm of the fire had passed this way, and wisps of smoke and an occasional flame broke from the blackened ground and the still smoldering stumps on either side of the road.
Andrew Mardon said gloomily it was just his luck to have been in time to buy into what looked as if it might turn into a national disaster. "If only it would rain! It’s the incalculability of a fire that defeats you. Jinny. It’s as if some malevolent joker pulled the strings. Look at that!” “That” was a narrow strip of fern and light brush bordering on the highway that the blaze, by a puckish freak, had left untouched, and pheasants and small birds whirred out of the sanctuary as they passed.
“You do everything that is humanly possible and provide for all eventualities— and a tiny puff of wind, blowing in a certain direction, can break you. But I’m glad the A. A. T.’s got the last word in fire-fighting equipment. That’s Bill’s work. (So it was "Bill” now'.) He says their caterpillar tractors can bulldoze out a break twelve feet w'ide by a foot deep, and push over trees seventy-five feet to a hundred feet high; they’re going to revolutionize firefighting methods.” He looked curiously at his daughter. “I can’t think why you took such a dislike to him on sight. He’s a grand lad. Most girls w'ould fall for him right away.”
Jane’s foot pressed hard on the accelerator. and the car leaped forward. She said coldly that there was no accounting for tastes.
TT WAS late afternoon when she swung the car from the main highway onto the company’s private road to the beach camp. She drove slowly, looking curiously around. The wind had died at last and. in the amber light reflected from the vast blanket of smoke overhead, the camp buildings and little gardens filled wñth roses and sweet peas looked larger than life and strangely unreal.
And then, all at once, the whole scene faded into a backdrop as unimportant as that on a last year’s movie set.
He was kneeling on the ground in front
of the camp commissary, the centre of a little group of absorbed youngsters. There was a feeding bottle in his hand; he was trying to get a tiny fawn, evidently a refugee from the fire, to suck milk.
He looked up when the car stopped a few feet away and, after an incredulous second, during which Jane’s heart jolted against her ribs, sprang to his feet.
Her fingers clutched the steering w'heel until they hurt. He was looking straight at her. His face was -eager! It looked stripped.
And then the eagerness went out of it like a light. He tossed the feeding bottle to the nearest child and strode over to Jane’s side of the car. “I get it,” he said. “The boss’s daughter. How' are you. Miss Jones?”
Andrew Mardon looked surprised. “Jones? This is my daughter Jane. I don’t think you’ve met.”
Bill bowed. His eyes on hers were blue ice in his expressionless face.
Well. That was that.
He spoke across her as if she didn’t exist. “I’m glad you turned up now, sir. I was waiting for you, but it’s a solid hour’s drive, climbing all the way, from here to Number Two, and I ought to be up there now. It’s essential that we get the fire lines there in by morning because I’ll have to rush the men down through here and on to Number Three.”
“Fine.” Andrew Mardon was climbing out of the car. “You’ll leave some men up at Number Two. though, won’t you?”
Bill shook his head. “With new blazes breaking out all over the island, the Government men have got their hands full. They’re shorthanded over at Number Three and that’s our most important stand —thirty million feet of felled and bucked and cold-decked logs. I’ve got to get every single man I can over there as soon as possible. I think, with any luck, Number Two will be all right. There’s a ridge behind, and the fire’s held back of that again. We’re reasonably safe there unless a gale gets up.”
“Fine,” said Andrew Mardon. “I’ll go up with you now. ’By, Jinny. You’re in for a dull time, my girl—but you would come. The camp superintendent’s wife will bed you down. How do we go up. Bill?”
Bill swung round. “In my car, sir.”
Suddenly Jane wanted fiercely to hurt something. “So noble of you, Mr. Dunstan,” she drawled, “to be saving someone else’s trees.”
Her father said, amazed: “Jinny! For lord’s sake!” He was furious. But what did it matter, she thought drearily. What did anything matter when there was Life, striding away without a backward look?
SHE ATE fried chicken, Canadian style, in the kitchen of the camp superintendent’s wife. And listened through a long evening to a rich Irish brogue recounting the exploits of one William “Sky-line” Dunstan—boy, and man.
Odd, how much punishment you can absorb at a single sitting. Odder still that something you have hitherto supposed to be just a figure of speech can become an actual physical fact. For example, an aching heart.
She was awakened at dawn by the sound of men singing. Slipping a coat over her pyjamas, she ran outside.
The cool air had forced the smoke down, and it filled her nostrils and stung her eyes. Through the murk she could see men pouring into camp. They came in trucks, in cars, riding the company’s giant bulldozers, roaring lustily:
“Go ahead easy,
Come back slow.
Haywire outfit On a sidehill show !”
She caught at the sleeve of a red-eyed, begrimed giant. “Have you seen my father, Andrew Mardon?”
“Sure, lady. He’s just back of me.”
She stepped back while men streamed past her to the cookhouse, where the women, drawn up in line, were handing out sandwiches, steaming coffee and great slabs of pie. They waved to Jane as they passed. Some of them were limping, punchdrunk with fatigue, but they were jubilant. “She” was quiet now, they shouted. “She” would stay that way—unless a gale cut loose—and all the breaks were in.
Jane saw her father, unfamiliar in his protective “tin” hat. “Andy, darling ! Are you all right?”
He turned. “Hullo. I was looking for you. Yes, I’m fine—pretty tired. You take the car and go on back to Victoria. I’m going through to Number Three with the boys. We need every pair of hands. I’ll come on later in Bill’s car and join you at the hotel.” He was halfway to where the waiting lorries were piling up with men.
She ran after him. “Where is Bill? All the men are down from Number Two, aren’t they?”
“He’ll be down after a while. He found that no one had let the work horse out of the stable, so he had to go back to do it.”
TTjWAS some while later Jane said: “I can’t think where Bill is, Mrs. O’Leary. Dad said he had gone back to let the work horse out of its stable, but surely he should be down by now. Something must have happened. Unless he could have come down by some other road—but there isn’t one, is there?”
“Och, now\” Mrs. O’Leary was plumply unconcerned. “No, there’s only the wan road down from Number Two; and with the bush as thick as thick on either side, it’s come by road or not at all. But shure nothing will happen to that one. Himself can look afther himself.” She threw back her head and sniffed. “It’s the feel of the air I’m not afther bein’ so crazy about; not at all, at all.”
Even as the words left her lips, they both heard it—a sigh, a rustle overhead, and suddenly the tree tops were whipping back and forth in the wind. It was as quick as that.
“Mother av hivin!” Mrs. O’Leary was white around the lips. She wheeled and strained her eyes up the hill in the direction of Number Two. “In this wind she’ll crest the ridge and jump the breaks. There’ll be nothing that can holt her ...” "Listen!” cried Jane.
There came the sound of drumming hoofs, and in a moment a huge black horse came pounding over the rise into camp. “Mother av hivin !” muttered Mrs. O’Leary again. “’Tis Pedlar, the wx>rk horse from Number Two.”
“Then something has happened !” Jane was racing toward the car. “Come on, Mrs. O’Leary, and show me the way.”
CWITCHBACK following switchback; ^ the road, surfaced with loose red dirt, led upward in a zigzag climb. The wind had reached the proportions of a gale now; it hummed through the creaking branches and sent the smoke swirling about the road. “Mother av hivin!” muttered Mrs. O’Leary. “Will yez look at that!”
Jane wrenched her eyes from the steepening grade ahead. An amazing, pitiful little army was streaming silently down the road —an advance guard of skittering chipmunks, a cougar loping in a huddle of deer, a couple of black bear lumbering in the rear.
Momentarily the gale blew the smoke clear. Then Jane saw it gather and billow, shot through with flame, across the crest of the ridge behind Number Two camp.
“There’s a trestle across a ravine just this side the camp, missy. ’Tis a short one, glory be ! But yez’ll need to keep a straight eye ahead.”
Jane was upon it before she saw it. No guard rail, a sheer drop on either side.
Ashes were falling all about the car. They could hear the roar of the flames now.
Fifty yards clear of the trestle, the car refused the incline into the camp. “Whut is it, missy?”
“No gas,” Jane groaned. “I meant to have had the tank filled last night.”
Mrs. O’Leary was peering through the smoke. “There should be a turnout just about here. There it is ! Swing into it.” They jumped from the car and sped up the winding road into the camp. The voice of the fire was much louder now. “She’s jirmped the lines already!” gasped Mrs. O’Leary. Even as she spoke the farthest of the camp buildings burst into flame.
“Bill !” Jane shrieked. “Bill, Bill, Bill !” “Let’s try this way,” Mrs. O’Leary said. They found him a few feet farther on, face downward in the dirt. They turned him over, and Mrs. O’Leary ’s hands passed over him expertly. “Leg broken, below the knee.”
He had evidently been trying to crawl out of the camp; his face was grimed and the palms of his hands raw.
Jane dropped on her knees beside him. “Bill! Listen, Bill!”
He opened his eyes and stared at her blankly. Then she saw consciousness come flooding back. “Where’s your car, Bill?”
He said weakly, “Back of the powder shed. Pedlar kicked me and smashed my leg when I let him out. I was trying to reach the nearest phone in one of the turnouts ...”
Jane looked at Mrs. O’Leary. “We couldn’t reach the car, now, missy. Not if it’s back of the powder shed. That’ll go any minute.”
Jane stared round desperately. “There’s a truck. Look !”
It was standing some distance away, loaded with three forty-foot butt logs. “But can you drive it, missy?”
Bill’s voice was stronger now. “The brakes aren’t much good. It’d be madness to try to drive it, especially with that loaded trailer attached.”
“It’s our only chance. Come on, Mrs. O’Leary, let’s get him in.” She bent down to Bill, steeling herself. “You must make it, Bill. You must!”
Somehow he was in, sprawled between them in the cab of the truck. “Nice going. Bill !” Jane sobbed. “Oh, nice going !” Thank heaven he had passed out . . . Behind them the whole world exploded into sound as the fire hit the powder shed.
C HE KNEW at once the brakes weren’t going to be any good. But she daren’t slacken pace, not with burning brands falling all about her and her lungs filling with acrid, torturing smoke. The grade down to the trestle wasn’t too bad. And then, with her front wheels hitting the rails, she felt her heart check. Because the trestle had been spotted by the fire; halfway across, it was ablaze.
Mrs. O’Leary said stonily, “No use to turn back.”
No use . Got to gamble that the underpinning of the trestle was still solid . . . Got to take a chance that the wheels would stay on the rails, because in all that mess of smoke and flame she couldn’t see a foot ahead.
A burning cinder fell on the back of her hand and stayed there. Because she daren’t do anything now but cling to the wheel. And pray.
It wasn’t possible—and yet. there it was; the trestle was behind them. No time for thankfulness, however; because now the truck was tearing down the grade. Jane crouched low over the wheel, striving to peer through the smoke. Suppose the load of logs on the trailer were to loosen and come crashing through the back of the cab? And on the heels of that thought there came a rending, crashing sound as, rounding a curve she was almost too late to negotiate, the trailer hit the hillside and the connecting pole snapped, hurtling the logs into space.
This was the end, Jane thought wildly. The truck, freed from the weight of the trailer, leaped ahead, careening madly from side to side. And then, incredibly, fear left her. She was filled with a wild, strange exultation. Her brain cleared; it was thudding like a piston. She felt her hands grip the wheel, become one with it.
"You can’t make the next curve. Both of you jump; it’s your only chance.” Bill’s voice, calm, cool.
She heard her own voice shouting, "Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
The curve was rushing toward her, was upon her . . .
It was behind her; the road was levelling out. The blessed, blessed rise into camp!
”D ILL’S nurse was coyly curious. "Miss Mardon, isn’t it? Only a few moments, please, Miss Mardon. Our patient is still weak. But he was so insistent.”
Bill looked strangely unfamiliar, flat in the high white hospital bed with a cage over his leg humping the covers. He turned his head very carefully on the pillow and stared at Jane. His eyes were very blue in his drawn face.
Funny what emotion can do to you; to your knees, for instance. This was like nothing she had experienced before. She felt—why, actually she felt shy.
He said, "Come closer. Please.”
(Come en nov.\ Pull ycurself together and be natural. Give nim what he expects from you—a bit of your own sweet self.)
She gave him a laugh, a shaky laugh. “Closer? But I’m fireweed—remember? Fine in the distance. But, close—”
He broke in violently: “Don’t! I was a smug, sickening fool ! When I think ...” He held out a bandaged hand. “Can you forgive me -darling?”
And of course, since he put it so nicely, there was nothing else site could do.