Read CHAPTER III - THE WORK OF THE FIRE of A Campfire Girl's Test of Friendship , free online book, by Jane L. Stewart, on ReadCentral.com.

At Cranford began the road which the Camp Fire Girls were to follow through Indian Notch, the gap between the two big mountains, Mount Grant and Mount Sherman.  Then they were to travel easily toward the seashore, since the Manasquan Camp Fire, ever since it had been organized, had spent a certain length of time each summer by the sea.

The Village of Cranford had been saved from the fire only by a shift of the wind.  The woods to the west and the north had been burning briskly for several days, and every able-bodied man in the village had been out, day and night, with little food and less rest, trying to turn off the fire.  In spite of all their efforts, however, they would have failed in their task if the change in the weather had not come to their aid.  As a consequence, everyone in the village, naturally enough, was still talking about the fire.

“It isn’t often that a village in this part of the country has such a narrow escape,” said Eleanor, looking around.  “See, girls, you can see for yourselves how close they were to having to turn and run from the fire.”

“It looks as if some of the houses here had actually been on fire,” said Dolly, as they passed into the outskirts of the village.

“I expect they were.  You see, the wind was very high just before the shift came, and it would carry sparks and blazing branches.  It’s been a very hot, dry summer, too, and so all the wooden houses were ready to catch fire.  The paint was dry and blistered.  They probably had to watch these houses very carefully, to be ready to put out a fire the minute it started.”

“It didn’t look so bad from our side of the lake, though, did it?”

“The smoke hid the things that were really dangerous from us, but here they could see all right.  I’ll bet that before another summer comes around they’ll be in a position to laugh at a fire.”

“How do you mean?  Is there anything they can do to protect themselves-before a fire starts, I mean?”

“That’s the time to protect themselves.  When people wait until the fire has actually begun to burn, it’s almost impossible for them to check it.  It would have been this time, if the wind had blown for a few hours longer the way it was doing when the fire started.”

“But what can they do?”

“They can have a cleared space between the town and the forest, for one thing, with a lot of brush growing there, if they want to keep that.  Then, if a fire starts, they can set the brush afire, and make a back fire, so that the big fire will be checked by the little one.  The fire has to have something to feed on, you see, and if it comes to a cleared space that’s fairly wide, it can’t get any further.

“Oh, a cleared space like that doesn’t mean that the village could go to sleep and feel safe!  But it’s a lot easier to fight the fire then.  All the men in town could line up, with beaters and plenty of water, and as soon as sparks started a fire on their side of the clearing, they could put it out before it could get beyond control.”

“Oh, I see!  And being able to see the fire as soon as it started, they wouldn’t have half so much trouble fighting it as if they had to be after the really big blaze.”

“Yes.  The fire problem in places like this seems very dreadful, but when the conditions are as good as they are here, with plenty of water, all that’s needed is a little forethought.  It’s different in some of the lumber towns out west, because there the fires get such a terrific start that they would jump any sort of a clearing, and the only thing to do when a fire gets within a certain distance of a town is for the people who live in the town to run.”

Soon the road began to pass between desolate stretches of woods, where the fire had raged at its hottest.  Here the ground on each side of the road was covered with smoking ashes, and blackened stumps stood up from the barren, burnt ground.

“It looks like a big graveyard, with those stumps for headstones,” said Dolly, with a shudder.

“It is a little like that,” said Eleanor, with a sigh.  “But if you came here next year you wouldn’t know the place.  All that ash will fertilize the ground, and it will all be green.  The stumps will still be there, but a great new growth will be beginning to push out.  Of course it will be years and years before it’s real forest again, but nature isn’t dead, though it looks so.  There’s life underneath all that waste and desolation, and it will soon spring up again.”

“I hope we’ll get out of this burned country soon,” said Dolly.  “I think it’s as gloomy and depressing as it can be.  I’d like to have seen this road before the fire-it must have been beautiful.”

“It certainly was, Dolly.  And all this won’t last for many miles.  We really ought to stop pretty soon to eat our dinner.  What do you say, girls?  Would you like to wait, and press on until we come to a more cheerful spot, where the trees aren’t all burnt?”

“Yes, oh, yes!” cried Margery Burton.  “I think that would be ever so much nicer!  Suppose we are a little hungry before we get our dinner?  We can stand that for once.”

“I think we’ll enjoy our meal more.  So we’ll keep on, then, if the rest of you feel the same way.”

Not a voice dissented from that proposition, either.  Dolly was not the only one who was saddened by the picture of desolation through which they were passing.  The road, of course, was deep in dust and ashes, and the air, still filled with the smoke that rose from the smouldering woods, was heavy and pungent, so that eyes were watery, and there was a good deal of coughing and sneezing.

“It’s a lucky thing there weren’t any houses along here, isn’t it?” said Margery.  “I don’t see how they could possibly have been saved, do you, Miss Eleanor?”

“There’s no way that they could have saved them, unless, perhaps, by having a lot of city fire engines, and keeping them completely covered with water on all sides while the fire was burning.  They call that a water blanket, but of course there’s no way that they could manage that up here.”

“What do you suppose started this fire, Miss Eleanor?”

“No one will ever know.  Perhaps someone was walking in the woods, and threw a lighted cigar or cigarette in a pile of dry leaves.  Perhaps some party of campers left their camp without being sure that their fire was out.”

“Just think of it-that all the trouble could be started by a little thing like that!  It makes you realize what a good thing it is that we have to be careful never to leave a single spark behind when we’re leaving a fire, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.  It’s a dreadful thing that people should be so careless with fire.  Fire, and the heat we get from it, is responsible for the whole progress of the race.  It was the discovery that fire could be used by man that was back of every invention that has ever been made.”

“That’s why it’s the symbol of the Camp Fire, isn’t it?”

“Yes.  And in this country people ought to think more of fire than they do.  We lose more by fire every year than any other country in the world, because we’re so terribly careless.”

“What is that there, ahead of us, in the road?” asked Bessie, suddenly.  They had just come to a bend in the road, and about a hundred yards away a group of people stood in the road.

Eleanor looked grave.  She shaded her eyes with her hand, and stared ahead of her.

“Oh,” she cried, “what a shame!  I remember now.  There was a farm house there!  I’m afraid we were wrong when we spoke of there being no houses in the path of this fire!”

They pressed on steadily, and, as they approached the group forlorn, distressed and unhappy, they saw that their fears were only too well grounded.  The people in the road were staring, with drawn faces, at a scene of ruin and desolation that far outdid the burnt wastes beside the road, since what they were looking at represented human work and the toil of hands.

The foundations of a farm house were plainly to be seen, the cellar filled with the charred wood of the house itself, and in what had evidently been the yard there were heaps of ashes that showed where the barns and other buildings had stood.

In the road, staring dully at the girls as they came up, were two women and a boy about seventeen years old, as well as several young children.

Eleanor looked at them pityingly, and then spoke to the older of the two women.

“You seem to be in great trouble,” she said.  “Is this your house?”

“It was!” said the woman, bitterly.  “You can see what’s left of it!  What are you-picnickers?  Be off with you!  Don’t come around here gloating over the misfortunes of hard working people!”

“How can you think we’d do that?” said Eleanor, with tears in her eyes.  “We can see that things look very bad for you.  Have you any place to go-any home?”

“You can see it!” said the woman, ungraciously.

Eleanor looked at her and at the ruined farm for a minute very thoughtfully.  Then she made up her mind.

“Well, if you’ve got to start all over again,” she said, “you are going to need a lot of help, and I don’t see why we can’t be the first to help you!  Girls, we won’t go any further now.  We’ll stay here and help these poor people to get started!”

“What can people like you do to help us?” asked the woman, scornfully.  “This isn’t a joke-’t ain’t like a quiltin’ party!”

“Just you watch us, and see if we can’t help,” said Eleanor, sturdily.  “We’re not as useless as we look, I can tell you that!  And the first thing we’re going to do is to cook a fine dinner, and you are all going to sit right down on the ground and help us eat it.  You’ll be glad of a meal you don’t have to cook yourselves, I’m sure.  Where is your well, or your spring for drinking water?  Show us that, and we’ll do the rest!”

Only half convinced of Eleanor’s really friendly intentions, the woman sullenly pointed out the well, and in a few moments Eleanor had set the girls to work.

“The poor things!” she said to Margery, sympathetically.  “What they need most of all is courage to pick up again, now that everything seems to have come to an end for them, and make a new start.  And I can’t imagine anything harder than that!”

“Why, it’s dreadful!” said Margery.  “She seems to have lost all ambition-to be ready to let things go.”

“That’s just the worst of it,” said Eleanor.  “And it’s in making them see that there’s still hope and cheer and good friendship in the world that we can help them most.  I do think we can be of some practical use to them, too, but the main thing is to brace them up, and make them want to be busy helping themselves.  It would be so easy for me to give them the money to start over again or I could get my friends to come in with me, and make up the money, if I couldn’t do it all myself.”

“But they ought to do it for themselves, you mean?”

“Yes.  They’ll really be ever so much better off in the long run if it’s managed that way.  Often and often, in the city, I’ve heard the people who work in the charity organizations tell about families that were quite ruined because they were helped too much.”

“I can see how that would be,” said Margery.  “They would get into the habit of thinking they couldn’t do anything for themselves-that they could turn to someone else whenever they got into trouble.”

“Yes.  You see these poor people are in the most awful sort of trouble now.  They’re discouraged and hopeless.  Well, the thing to do is to make them understand that they can rise superior to their troubles, that they can build a new home on the ashes of their old one.”

“Oh, I think it will be splendid if we can help them to do that!”

“They’ll feel better, physically, as soon as they have had a good dinner, Margery.  Often and often people don’t think enough about that.  It’s when people feel worst that they ought to be fed best.  It’s impossible to be cheerful on an empty stomach.  When people are well nourished their troubles never seem so great.  They look on the bright side and they tell themselves that maybe things aren’t as bad as they look.”

“How can we help them otherwise, though?”

“Oh, we’ll fix up a place where they can sleep to-night, for one thing.  And we’ll help them to start clearing away all the rubbish.  They’ve got to have a new house, of course, and they can’t even start work on that until all this wreckage is cleared away.”

“I wonder if they didn’t save some of their animals-their cows and horses,” said Bessie.  “It seems to me they might have been able to do that.”

“I hope so, Bessie.  But we’ll find out when we have dinner.  I didn’t want to bother them with a lot of questions at first.  Look, they seem to be a little brighter already.”

The children of the family were already much brighter.  It was natural enough for them to respond more quickly than their elders to the stimulus of the presence of these kind and helpful strangers, and they were running around, talking to the girls who were preparing dinner, and trying to find some way in which they could help.

And their mother began to forget herself and her troubles, and to watch them with brightening eyes.  When she saw that the girls seemed to be fond of her children and to be anxious to make them happy, the maternal instinct in her responded, and was grateful.

“Oh, we’re going to be able to bring a lot of cheer and new happiness to these poor people,” said Eleanor, confidently.  “And it will be splendid, won’t it, girls?  Could anything be better fun than doing good this way?  It’s something we’ll always be able to remember, and look back at happily.  And the strange part of it is that, no matter how much we do for them, we’ll be doing more for ourselves.”

“Isn’t it fine that we’ve got those blankets?” said Dolly.  “If we camp out here to-night they’ll be very useful.”

“They certainly will.  And we shall camp here, though not in tents.  Later on this afternoon, we’ll have to fix up some sort of shelter.  But that will be easy.  I’ll show you how to do it when the time comes.  Now we want to hurry with the dinner-that’s the main thing, because I think everyone is hungry.”