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.
The driver of the truck and his assistant were full of tales of the fire's ravages in other sections. And their recital was heard with active interest by the folk who for fourteen days had been out of touch with the world.
"It's well we're lighting out for civilization," said the Master, as he superintended the loading of the truck. "The woods are as dry as tinder. And if the wind should change and grow a bit fresher, the blaze over near Wildcat Mountain might come in this direction. If ever it does, it'll travel faster than any gang of fire-fighters can block it. This region is dead ripe for such a thing. Not a drop of rain in a month . . . . No, no, Laddie!" he broke off in his maunderings, as the collie sought to leap aboard the truck in the wake of a roll of bedding. "No, no. You're going with us, in the car."
Now, long usage and an uncanny intelligence had given Lad a more than tolerable understanding of the English language's simpler phrases. The term, "You're going with us in the car," was as comprehensible to him as to any child. He had heard it spoken, with few variations, a thousand times, in the past nine years. At once, on hearing the Master's command, he jumped down from the truck; trotted off to the car, a hundred yards distant; and sprang into his wonted place in the luggage-cluttered tonneau.
He chanced to jump aboard, from one side; just as the guide's hobbledehoy son was hoisting a heavy and cumbersome duffle bag into the tonneau, from the other. Lad's eighty pounds of nervous energy smote the bag, amidships; as the boy was balancing it high in air, preparatory to setting it down between two other sacks. As a result, boy and bag rolled backward in a tangled embrace, across several yards of stony ground.
Lad had not meant to cause any such catastrophe. Yet he stood looking down in keen enjoyment at the lively spectacle. But as the boy came to a halt, against a sharp-pointed rock, and sat up, sniveling with pain, the great dog's aspect changed. Seeming to realize he was somehow to blame, he jumped lightly down from the car and went over to offer to the sufferer such comfort as patting forepaw and friendly licking tongue could afford.