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Excerpt from Chapter 15:

And the cinderwind whipped
a frenzy of glow-worms
at the glazed and echoing stars
in a cackle of abandon
as the day dipped . . .


About half an hour later, with John Joshua well on his way to Minstrel, the cookhouse guthammer began to clang wildly. A glance at the railroad watch I'd inherited from the old man assured me it wasn't suppertime yet. Puzzled, we straggled outside to find Benny Post, the cook, still rattling the triangle and pointing excitedly up the mountain. "Fire!" he was shouting. "We got a goddamn forest fire!"

We gazed in the direction Post was indicating. Sure enough, smoke was gouting up from the crest of the island in great grimy clouds, as though it had suddenly become an active volcano. What we had all been secretly fearing had finally happened.

Big Fanny came charging out of her house, tugging her suspenders up over her shoulders and cursing a blue streak. "Christ on a goddamn crutch!" she shouted wildly. "I had a feeling I should have left someone out there to spark-chase!" She pulled herself together. "Okay, boys, get your caulk shoes back on. There's a couple of pumps and a whole slew of hose in the shed beside the garage. Some axes, shovels and backpacks, too.

If we get the hell up there real quick, maybe we can nip this sonofawhore in the bud."

We loaded the pumps and other fire-fighting equipment aboard the army personnel carrier that Fanny used as a crummy, and headed back up the hill we had only just left.

The crummy strained up the switchbacks towards the source of the smoke, in the area where we were logging. "Geez, I've never seen a real forest fire before," declared Percy Frome, his voice betraying both apprehension and excitement.

"You're sure as hell going to see one now, kid," assured Ray Fenton, the veteran engineer. "I've fought some dandies in my time. I warn ya, it's no frigging picnic."

We jumped out a couple of hundred feet below the spar tree.

"Jesus H. Christ!" someone exclaimed.

The fire had established a solid grip on the hill above us, an angry red rash, widening fast. It was largely a cedar show and the steep slope was littered with slabs, chunks and other combustible wreckage. The flames chewed away at it like hungry animals.

Old Ray Fenton fired a gob of snoose into the dirt. "She don't look too good," he remarked grimly.

There was an angry crackling, like the sound of a hundred fireplaces. Smoke gouted up into the sky, almost obscuring the sinking sun. The upper reaches of the blaze were already licking at the edge of the standing timber.

Big Fanny arrived in her pickup and stood staring at the spreading inferno as though she couldn't believe it. I had never seen such a stern look on her face. Suddenly, she whirled on me, her eyes hurt and angry. "Must have been a fucking cigarette! Goddammit, Terry, I told you guys to watch it!"

"Look, Fanny," I said, "if anyone started it, it was Joshua. He was careless as hell with his smokes, didn't even butt them out half the time. He kept smoking tailormades, too." It was a relief to get that off my chest.

"That ignorant cultus bastard! He sure left us in one nice jackpot. I should never have hired the sonofabitch! Well, too late to worry about it now. We've got to get those donkeys the hell out of here before the wind shifts."

There was a flurry of frenzied and half-confused activity. Ray Fenton ran in the yarding cables just before the flames reached them. There was no time to drop the high-lead blocks, guylines or loading boom. As Fanny had feared, the wind suddenly shifted direction and the fire began chewing its way downhill towards us with frightening speed. Over an acre was ablaze by now, a swelling orange lake of unleashed energy. A
scorched fir log with the ground burned out from under it came barrelling down the slope, crashed past the spar tree and battered on to the valley bottom.

"Cut loose the tie-up lines on both machines," Big Fanny 'shouted. "We ain't got a helluva lot of time!"

I found a spike bar and a sledgehammer. Working as quickly as possible, the Frome brothers, the chaser and I freed both the big yarder and the small loading donkey from their tie-up stumps. The cat operator, who had been bulldozing the landing free of debris to make a better fire-break, backed his D-8 against the front of the yarder. We hooked him up to the sled and he clanked off down the hill, dragging the cumbersome donkey behind him.

Big Fanny was pacing about frustratedly as the flames drew closer. "We've got to get those pumps set up and the hoses strung. Let's fly the hell at her, boys."

The only available water source was a small creek, several hundred feet below the road in the V of the narrow valley. We struggled with the pumps along old deer trails and no trails at all, blundering through salal bushes, down slippery clay banks, over windfalls, towards the remote gurgle of the water. It was an awkward, bruising job getting to the small stream. Ray Fenton Stayed there to get the pumps running. The rest of us puffed back up to the road and got the hoses strung out. Finally everything was connected and functioning after a fashion. But there was little pressure because of the slope and the distance. It was a token gesture at best.

The D-8 was pulling the loading donkey out of the landing by this time, and not a moment too soon. A fiery root, like a tumbleweed spitting
sparks, came whirling crazily down the mountain and smashed across the spot the machine had just vacated.

"I'd better go call the Forestry," said Fanny, "and see about getting a relief crew for you guys. I'll get Benny to make you up some lunches and coffee. Not much you can do except wet down the edges of this bastard and try to contain it a bit. If she starts getting really out of control, you'd better get the hell off the mountain. I don't want anyone getting trapped or hurt." She jumped in the pickup and roared away.

We stood in a group some distance down the road, watching the forest fire raven and rampage. There really wasn't a hell of a lot more we could do at this point. We could feel the heat of it through the lesser heat of the day, and were forced to keep backing off further from its fierce breath.

The flames had reached the landing by now and were licking at the chunks and cold-decked logs with impatient appetite. Soon the spar tree itself, a pitchy second-growth fir, was on fire. Red fingers mounted it like a gang of high riggers from hell, dancing out along the heel boom, clawing up the trunk until it was a blazing pillar against the blazing slope. We watched in fascination as the guylines blackened and the high-lead blocks began to sizzle in their own grease.

"Well, they'll never have to strip that one now," remarked the chaser, a thin blond kid named Alf Kennedy. "Look at the old bitch burn!"

I felt a strange sense of unreality as I stood there with the others watching that raw power cutting loose. Ches and Pat Murphy had told me plenty of stories about fire in the woods, but actually seeing it first- hand was quite another thing. it was awe-inspiring, pure elemental
So far the fire was not burning in our direction to any marked degree; an old dry creek bed was acting as a natural fire-break. But it was a slim barrier and the flames would leap it easily if the unpredictable wind shifted again. In that case there would be nothing to do but run.

The fire was expanding rapidly in other directions. The smouldering logs and other debris had enabled it to vault the gravel ribbon of the road and now it was snarling on towards the bottom of the valley. Above the slash the flames had found the pitchy juices of the standing timber. They rioted up through the branches and laughed triumphantly in the crowns.

"The sonofabitch is really starting to take off," said Ray, the donkey puncher, shaking his head. "It's got its claws in pretty good. Keeps spreading like this, the whole frigging island's liable to go up in smoke!"

Somehow several hours had slipped by since our return to the mountain. It was past six o'clock and, despite the heat, most of us were getting more than a little hungry. Then, far off down
the road, we heard the pickup returning, struggling up the steep
grade with every ounce of its power. "'It sounds like chow time,"
grinned Percy Frome, rubbing his belly. Big Fanny pulled up beside us, eased herself out from behind the wheel and surveyed the flaming disaster area her claim had become. "Sure isn't calming down any," she observed ruefully. "Good thing my insurance is paid up!"

"Did you get hold of the Forestry?" asked Ray Fenton.

"Oh yeah. The Ranger's scaring up a relief crew around Minstrel. They ought to be here in about an hour. Anyhow, I guess you boys must be damn-near starving. Benny just about cleaned out the cookhouse. There's coffee, sandwiches, pie and a big pot of stew in the back. Grab yourselves some plates and dig in."

We didn't need any urging. In short order we were sitting on logs and stumps, wolfing down the food. It was like a bizarre picnic. A few hundred yards away, the angry forest fire cavorted and spat, feeding voraciously too, glutting itself on high- country wood, gnawing the sidehill down to ashy bedrock.

We finished our meal and Fanny headed down to camp again, this time with the crummy. The fire continued to sputter and snarl up and down the mountainside, but it still failed to jump the dry creek bed. We took turns manning the hoses and backpacks - portable fire extinguishers that carried their own water supply. It was beginning to grow dark. Clouds of sparks whirled up the sky, riding the smoke and heat like swarms of brilliant fireflies. The grimy hours dragged by. "I'm getting bushed," said Hank Frome. "I wonder if those replacements are ever going to bloody show up?"

"Dunno," I said, a bit worriedly, "Maybe they couldn't find anyone who'd come."

"Don't worry," assured old pro Ray Fenton. "If the Forestry calls you out you have to go. Otherwise they can throw you in the bucket."

But another half hour passed and there was still no sign of the promised relief crew.

Just as we were starting to resign ourselves to staying on the mountain all night, we heard the crummy low-gearing it up the switchbacks. "Hey," said Hank Frome, with a look of profound relief, "I think the cavalry's coming."

The army truck strained its way up the final hill and wheezed to a stop. A motley group of conscripts emerged and stood gazing around dubiously. The last two men climbed out, and I was amazed to spot a couple of familiar faces. "Hey, Davie, Luke, for God's sake!" I said in pleased surprise.

Davie Grogan, in particular, was obviously not too overjoyed to be here. "Gaddammer," he grumbled, "the warden here yarded us all out of Abie's pub. When I told him about the cafe, he said I should be running it and not sitting in the bar. Man can't even have a civilized beer anymore!"

"How's she going, Terry?" greeted Luke Carver, rolling with the punches as usual. "Don't worry about Davie here. He can use a bit of exercise."

"Like hell I can," retorted Grogan. Then he dropped the air of feigned outrage and gave me a cheerful grin. "Nice to see you again, kid. Quite a bonfire you guys got yourself going here!"

"How's the cafe doing anyhow?"

"Still pluggin' along. Ain't managed to find myself a new partner yet
but I'm getting by."

"Any word from the Slough?" I asked Carver. Despite myself, Jean was still very much on my mind.

"Nothing much since the dance," he grunted. "I did see Matt Slater for a minute a couple of days back. Says he's quitting Craddock pretty soon now. Moving into the city with Jean. Don't suppose it was Laserek you were asking after?"

"Not bloody likely. Is he still there after what happened?"

"Oh yeah. Far as I know. That animal's got no frigging shame. Anyhow, I don't think Craddock can afford to lose him. No self-respecting hooktender would work that hole."

The forest ranger was standing with Big Fanny, watching the progress of the fire. He was an adenoidal type with glasses, who looked as though he'd be more at home on a college campus. But it turned out he knew his business.

"That fire in the trees could mean trouble," he observed with a look of concern. "If it takes off over the ridge and starts spreading down the mountain, we could have a real problem here. They're testing out one of the new water bombers over Port Hardy way. If this thing doesn't die down overnight, I'll see if I can get it flown in tomorrow."

"That'd be just the ticket," said Fanny. "I hear those bombers do a pretty good job, and I've lost a lot of timber already." She turned to me and the other members of the crew. "Pile in the crummy, boys, and let's get the hell down to camp. These guys can hold the fort for a while."

"She's all yours, fellers," I said to Carver and Grogan as we prepared to head out.