The Forest Fire Mystery (Wilderness Mystery #6) By Troy Nesbit

“GET OUT! GET OFF THE MOUNTAIN!”

FFM

Usually, fall means a look at the “girls’ series” published by Whitman in the 1940s through the 1970s: those thick, cellophane-clad hardcovers featuring teen girls sleuthing around Westchester County or California’s Bay Area.

And I hope to have at least one of those titles featured here this year, but in the meantime I have a BOY-SERIES, because as the Series Books for Girls blog pointed out, it is pretty easy to amass and never read a collection of Whitman books.

Also, when I googled “Troy Nesbit” the first hit indicated that was a pseudonym for Franklin Folsom, “children’s author and pro-Soviet activist.”

Background: While there is a disappointing lack of child-targeted communist propaganda contained herein, The Forest Fire Mystery is just about as good as you’ll find in these lesser-known Whitman titles: a serviceable mystery efficiently paced, with just enough local color and characters.

Listed in the back of the volumes alongside Trixie Belden and Donna Parker, as “Troy Nesbit Mysteries” they are not actually a traditional series and have no continuing characters. Reissued as “The Wilderness Mysteries” later in the 1960s (and again in the 21st century) they are instead related thematically, all being set in the, well… wilderness.

The Plot: As this story opens, 15-year-old Art Mills has recently relocated from Denver to the town of Belmont in the Colorado Rockies, where his parents have opened a diner. Art has had a hard time adjusting to his new school and making friends, as the local boys are clique-ish and regard him as a city slicker. Finally invited along on a hike above timberline with Joe, Rudy and the Block Brothers (Jed and Bobbie), he is excited to be included and hopeful that he’ll find some mineral specimens for the hobby he has just started. In a nice touch, it is noted that most of the local businesses display collections of rocks, minerals and crystals that the owners have collected from the local National Forest and abandoned mines surrounding the town.

Only Art spots a strange sight down below on the mountain: a man in a red hunting cap who seems to being followed by a second man, sneaking along behind him. When Art tries to tell Joe what he saw, he is jeered at by bossy Rudy (a real meathead type) and the sycophantic Blocks. Instead, Rudy proposes they explore Fittleston’s Folly, an abandoned mine, then abruptly changes course and proposes a Snipe Hunt, granting Art the “honor” of catching the creature in his knapsack while they flush it out of the bushes. Only some hours later does Art realize that he has literally been left holding the bag.

Despite being a tenderfoot, he does manage to coax a ground squirrel into his knapsack, and on the way back into town offers the squeaking, squirming bag as evidence that the hunt was successful, inviting all of the boys over the next evening for a Snipe Roast.

In contrast to Art, who comes off as pretty dim, his 11-year-old sister, Liz, is smart, quick witted and popular. In the short time since the family has arrived in town, she has not only become a social success, but has also used SCIENCE to figure out how to short-circuit the jukebox at the diner by spraying water into the coin slot, enabling unlimited plays without the benefit of a nickel. She accomplishes this with a squirt gun and has become a crack shot at it.

To help the children get around, their parents purchased them a burro, named Flossie, and got more than they bargained for when Flossie’s three offspring show up on their doorstep, braying away for their mother. The seller sheepishly explains that this has been an ongoing problem whenever he has tried to sell Flossie in the past and offers the family four-for-the-price-of-one on burros. Enterprising Liz immediately goes into business renting them out to tourists.

Having wormed his way out of the promised Snipe Smorgasbord (and after his ground squirrel escaped), the next day he and Liz ride the burros up to the abandoned mine to see if they can find some evidence about the mysterious men Art had seen the day before. He ends up falling into a pit inside the mine.

Liz rescues him, but when they return to the surface, they see a pickup truck driving away with Flossie in the back of it! They follow he three colts in trailing the truck (Liz has named them Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe!) and find a man viciously beating Flossie, who refuses to get out of the truck bed. Again, Art is a man of inaction:

Art saw the danger as well as Liz did. The truck would drive right out from under Flossie. She would take a terrible fall…

But while Art pondered what to do, Liz shot out of hiding. With a yell of rage she darted at the man who endangered her beloved Flossie.

Startled, the man cools his jets and Liz proposes a solution to getting Flossie safely out of the truck. In the meantime, Art is pondering that he looks awfully familiar…

He introduces himself as Paul Horner, a local prospector, and Art is certain that he was the one stalking the man in the red cap the day before. “Red Cap” shows up himself at the Mills’s diner the next day and Art learns that he is named Maynard and is the owner of a local logging company. Maynard is feuding with Perry G. “Piggy” Bank, a forestry ranger and local 4H leader over taking advantage of a loophole in logging regulations for the national forest.

Ok, did you get all that? Because these adults are going to cross and double cross each other, and only Art can get it all sorted out!

Art tentatively approaches Joe, the least-mean of the local boys, to get help in identifying a sample of a strange rock he found near the mine that Maynard had seemed particularly interested in. Consulting the display housed in the family gas station, Art and Joe identify it as perlite, a volcanic rock that has the strange property of expanding when it is heated. Art is delighted to have found a sample of this “popcorn rock” and proudly displays it in the front window of the diner along with his other specimens.

But the specimen soon disappears, and Art suspects Maynard of having taken it; soon after Maynard rents two of Liz’s burros and when they escape and return home, he finds their pack saddles loaded with the stuff. Annoyed, Art breaks off a replacement sample and types up a new ID card, snarkily identifying the source as “Maynard’s Mine”.

Abruptly it is announced that forest fires have been a problem the entire summer when a new one breaks out and Ranger Piggy arrives in town to collect the volunteer fire fighters. Art is eager to help but is informed that he is too young to do so. But Art and Joe will soon get their chance when they go to (again) return the runaway burros to Maynard’s mining camp and come across a fire burning in the underbrush. The logging crew is outfitted to fight fires on their own, and by the time Piggy arrives they have it out. Piggy offers an informative lesson on the various ways tourists can unknowingly start fires in drought conditions, including accidently leaving glass bottles or lost spectacles around to focus the sun like a magnifying glass. Paul Horner is particularly impressed by the last, trying it himself with his own glasses on a scrap of paper.

Art is doubly annoyed when his SECOND perlite specimen goes missing, and intrigued when Piggy stops in for lunch and news about the latest batch of fires, starting far off the trails frequented by campers and tourists. He is also menaced by a series of mysterious phone calls warning him to stay off the mountain. Art and Joe suspect Horner, then Maynard, then Horner again, when he starts making himself conspicuous in town right before a new fire breaks out- could he be alibiing himself up? Art and Joe are more convinced than ever when they find Horner’s old campsite with the scrap of paper he burned with his glasses- which was the ID card for Art’s stolen perlite sample!

Because it’s 1962, Art and Joe don’t even bother asking their parents for permission to sleep out when Horner announces that he has moved down from the mountain and into the tourist camp. While Art and Joe plan on watching his tent all night, they doze off, but awake in time to see him slip out and head back up the mountain. Art and Joe do their best to trail him, but eventually lose him, although they can still hear him- and he seems to be walking around in circles!

Art (finally) slips a piece into place when they find a soda bottle full of gasoline rigged up in a clearing. Somehow Piggy’s lecture and his sister’s trick with the jukebox help him understand that Horner is creating time-firebombs: rigging them up so he can be far away from the scene when they go off.

In a pretty hilarious scene, they trail Horner back to the abandoned mine and trick him into hiding in the tunnel by using “grown up voices” and then blocking the exit with an old ore car. Deducing that Horner is starting the fires to make logging unprofitable so he can file claims on the land for perlite mining, they jump into action, summoning Piggy to the scene by building a bonfire (um, unwise?)  When he gets there Horner confesses. And he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling…

BUT WAIT! Maynard is also summoned to the scene by the smoke from the bonfire. Hearing that Maynard’s truck had EXPLODED when he was hemmed in by another forest fire, Art figures out that Maynard wasn’t mining perlite and hauling it away in his car, he was bringing slabs of perlite that he had purchased up the mountain to “salt” a claim, exploiting that loophole that allows clear-cutting of lumber on land that is going to mined. With an alarming lack of Due Process, Piggy arrests him:

“I don’t know the name of the law you’ve broken, but you sure broke it. We’ll let the lawyers figure that one out.”

This chastens Rudy and the Blocks, who invite Art and Liz to attend the next 4H meeting. The end.

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