And all this, be it known, is more than a mere rule for campers. It should be their sacred creed. If one is not thoroughgoing sportsman enough to make his camp-site scrupulously clean, at least there is one detail he should never allow himself to neglect;--a detail whose omission should be punished by a term in prison: Namely, the utter extinction of the campfire.
Every year, millions of dollars' worth of splendid trees and of homes are wiped out, by forest fires. No forest fire, since the birth of time, ever started of its own accord. Each and every one has been due to human carelessness.
A campfire ill-extinguished;--a smolder of tobacco not stamped out;--the flaming cinders of a railroad train,--a match dropped among dry leaves before spark and blaze have both been destroyed,--these be the first and only causes of the average forest fire. All are avoidable. None is avoided. And the loss to property and to life and to natural resources is unbelievably great.
Any fool can start a forest fire. Indeed, a fool generally does. But a hundred men cannot check it. Forest wardens post warnings. Forest patrols, afoot or in airships, keep sharp watch. But the selfish carelessness of man undoes their best precautions.
Sometimes in spring or in lush summer, but far oftenest in the dry autumn, the Red Terror stalks over mountain and valley; leaving black ruin in its wake. Scarce an autumn passes that the dirty smoke reek does not creep over miles of sweet woodland, blotting out the sunshine for a time and blotting out rich vegetation for much longer.
This particular autumn was no exception. On the day before camp was broken, the Mistress had spied, from the eyrie heights of the knoll, a grim line of haze far to southward; and a lesser smoke-smear to the west. And the night sky, on two horizons, had been faintly lurid.
The campers had noted these phenomena, with sorrow. For, each wraithlike smoke-swirl meant the death of tree and shrub. Lad noted the smudges as distinctly as did they. Indeed, to his canine nostrils, the chill autumn air brought the faint reek of wood-smoke; an odor much too elusive, at that distance, for humans to smell. And, once or twice, he would glance in worried concern at these humans; as if wondering why they took so coolly a manifestation that a thousand-year-old hereditary instinct made the dog shrink from.
But the humans showed no outward sign of terror or of rage. And, as ever, taking his tone from his gods, Lad decided there was nothing to fear. So, he tried to give no further heed to the reek.