AS THEY waited on the wharf Olaf kept wetting his finger in his mouth and holding it up to test the wind. It had died down now to a faint breeze, but it came from the north, always the north. The fire would still be moving south. From here you couldn't see it for the smoke that blotted out the mountains of Vancouver Island and hung dead, like a curtain of heavy woollen stuff, across the Straits.
“By t’ Lovely Dove!” Olaf was always saying that, but no one knew what it meant. “He’d better hurry, boy. Yoost one more hour and he can’t see to land. Don't like it . . . she’s too still.”
Beside the old Swede, Phil felt smaller than ever. He was fifteen now, but standing up as straight as he could in his new caulked boots, he hardly reached above the top of Olafs grimy overalls. At school the boys had called him the Shrimp, and, as he thought of his father coming now, he was terribly conscious of his flat, square face, his big ears and stiff reddish hair. Yes, he thought, reddish like a cooked shrimp—that was what his father would think. His father hadn’t seen him since he was a year old.
Olaf wet his finger and held it up again and muttered to himself. To the boy there was something wild and fearful about Olaf standing there in the greenish twilight of the August noon. He was huge, and gnarled by a lifetime of logging, and his face had been shattered long ago by a loading tong, so that it was twisted and lopsided and seamed with white scars, like a badly made mask of clay.
Phil hitched his thumbs behind his braces like Olaf, spat upon the oily sea, and dug the sharp caulks of his new logger’s boots into the planks of the wharf. He started to whistle. But inside he was bitterly afraid.
He was used to being afraid. The boys at boarding school had explained all that to him often enough—he hadn’t any guts. They’d told him that over and over again when they picked on him, until he knew it must be true.
He was afraid now, but not of the fire any more, though the smell of the smoke was in his nostrils, and the acrid taste of it on his tongue day and night, until he thought of it out there in the murk as a living, conscious thing, with the fierce cunning of a wild's animal, creeping along, ready to spring. It wasn’t the fire he was thinking of now. It was his father.
Somewhere through the smoke over the water, his father was flying toward them, coming back from the East. All his life Phil had thought about this moment, planned it over and over again, tried to imagine how his father would talk, had given him a thousand different faces. Always he was a big man, bigger even than Olaf, and stronger.
Why, everyone around here knew his father, called him Hank, and most of them were on his payroll in the T. and T. Logging. They’d stop and shake hands with Phil when they heard he was Hank’s boy. Now the whole countryside, the loggers and the settlers, were waiting for Hank to come. Hank, they said, could stop the fire if anybody could.
And Phil thought that when his dad came and they were here in the woods together he’d never be afraid of anything any more. There were things he could tell this man, dim things churning inside him, that he had never told his mother. He’d hardly known her anyway, spending most of the time away at school, nor had he known why she and his father didn’t live together.
Now she was dead, and after these two weeks in the woods that all seemed a long way off. If his father would let him stay up here, Phil was sure the old loneliness, the deep, nameless terrors of his life would be over for good. He wouldn’t be the Shrimp any more.
Just the same, now his father was really coming, he felt the familiar tug of fear in him again.
He caught the drone of an engine and the plane was almost upon them, skimming the water, before he could see it through the smoke. Olaf grasped a pontoon and pulled the plane alongside the wharf. Phil felt his throat go tight and dry.
THE CABIN door opened, and a man climbed out and jumped lightly to the wharf. It was a long, stupid moment before Phil realized who it was. Why, this man didn’t come up to Olaf's armpit. His face was square and kind of knotted, the skin stretched tight on it with deep lines down the cheeks. His hair had turned a little grey at the temples, but most of it was red, and his ears were big like Phil’s.
The boy watched without a word, and felt a sudden sickness in his middle. Hank Morden, his father, was only a little man.
Hank nodded to Olaf and sniffed the air deeply, looking up to the north, his bare head thrown back. He turned to help someone out of the plane, and Phil saw then it was a lady. She was young and pretty, with yellow hair and full red lips and black eyebrows.
Hank said: “Olaf, this is Miss Carson, from Montreal.”
He had a quick, jerky way of talking, as if he hated to waste a single word.
Olaf snatched off his torn canvas hat, and his mouth opened and closed tight again, his broken face flooding red. The lady smiled with white teeth at Olaf, and jumped down to the jetty, showing her sleek legs.
Hank turned to the cabin again, and an old man clambered out. He had a closely cropped white beard and he bristled exactly like a cranky terrier.
“Miss Carson’s father,” Hank said to Olaf.
The old man grunted. “The smoke,” he said, sputtering. “The smoke, blast it.”
Hank seemed to notice Phil for the first time. He took a step forward and looked down at the boy, his head on one side, with a kind of puzzled look. His eyes, Phil saw, were grey and flat and still, like the pebbles on the beach beside the wharf, and there were deep furrows at the corners of them. He didn’t seem to smile, but the corners of his mouth slowly turned up in a thin line and Phil felt better. Hank put out his hand and Phil felt it hard and lean in his.
“Look, Meg,” Hank said. “This is my boy. This is Phil.”
Phil offered his hand, but the woman leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. He smelled the sweet perfume of her, like lilac.
“Why, he’s a great big boy! And just like you, darling.”
Her voice sounded sweet like perfume, too, but Phil could hardly see her through the sudden rush of tears into his eyes. He understood now what his father meant. He was going to marry this woman, going to belong to her. The boy tried to swallow down a dry choking in his throat. He knew he hated her.
Quickly he turned to pick up her suitcase, so his father wouldn’t see his face, and as he started up the jetty he heard Hank say to Olaf: “Look, Ole. Should have told you before. Mr. Carson and some of his friends—buying me out. That’s why I stayed on in the East.”
Phil kept walking. He didn’t dare to look back, because the tears were running down his cheeks now. His father was selling out T. and T. Logging, going away from the Island with this woman. He knew now he hated them both. His father was only a little man anyway.
Hank drove the car, the girl snuggling beside him. Between Phil and Olaf in the back seat, the old man coughed and sputtered from the smoke.
The fire had curved into the shape of a horseshoe, ten miles across, and the shore road lay a mile or two from the east side of it. Sometimes from the car they could see a snag flaming through the smoke and then it was gone. Along the road they passed settlers trailing south with furniture heaped up on wagons and trucks. They drove cows and a few sheep before them.
At Tyee Bay they turned west and cut across the horseshoe of the fire itself, through a waste of young second growth that had burned a week before. The fire had cut the underbrush off clean like singed hair and moved on, and now as far as you could see the ground was covered a foot deep in ashlike grey snow, with the black skeletons of little trees sticking up through it.
The wind had died and the fire seemed to have gone into the ground, into the pitchy roots of old stumps, deep down into the soil, smoldering and sullen, ready to surge up with the first breath. Little patches of it would leap up now and then beside the road and run, hissing, through some dead bracken that had somehow escaped before.
Three miles farther along they crossed the first fire line, lying parallel to the inside of the curve of the fire, a smaller horseshoe inside a larger one. Tractors, with huge bulldozer blades, had plowed up the brown earth like a new road, and men were felling the dead trees that would burn if the fire blew up again, and spread it like torches. Out beyond the churned earth the fire smoldered in the grey ash and glowed in old logs.
In a stream by the road a gasoline pump spluttered, feeding a thick hose, and beside it a little man crouched on his haunches, his face black with charcoal. As Hank stopped the car, the man jumped up, grinning.
“If it ain’t Hank!” As he pushed back his filthy hat Phil saw the straight rim of pink on his bald head, above the black. “Look, boys, it’s Hank!”
Along the fire line the men looked up from their long saws and rested their axes, and a driver on a tractor waved a gloved hand. Hank waved back to them. He stood by the car with Olaf, looking up and down the fire line and beyond it up to the north, where the smoke was thicker.
Phil slipped out of the car and dropped down by the brook and started to drink.
“That’s Hank Morden.” the little man by the pump said confidentially. “Yeah, that’s Hank.”
Phil didn’t answer. Sure, he thought, they all say Hank is swell. They don’t know he’s selling them out and going away. Above him he heard Olaf mutter: “She’s risin’ again. I can smell her comin’.”
Phil started up the blackened stream bank and stumbled. As he fell he grabbed for a stump. His left hand stung sharply and he saw the bottom of the stump was smoldering, but it wasn’t until he reached the road that he realized his hand was really burned. He put it behind his back quickly when the woman looked at him. As they drove across the fire line into the green timber he thrust his unburned fist into his mouth and bit hard. Before, the fire had been a vague, distant thing. Now he knew how it could burn.
IT WAS dark when they crossed the railway tracks and drove into the sprawling village of wooden buildings of the T. and T. headquarters. Hank stopped the car by the long cookhouse, and Phil jumped out and ran up the back steps to the kitchen, half blind with tears and the pain of his hand. He stumbled to the sink and let the cold water run on the burn while Mah Kee, the head cook, watched him in his white cap and apron. The Chinaman’s round, shiny face twisted in sympathy.
The water made Phil’s hand feel better. He looked up to see his father standing beside him.
“Bandage, Mah,” Hank said. “Baking soda. Take it easy, boy. We’ll fix it.”
Mah Kee dumped a box of soda into a bowl and stirred it into a paste and spread it on a piece of gauze. As Hank dropped to his knees and wrapped the gauze about his hand, Phil noticed that his father’s fingers were lean and sure, like a woman sewing. Olaf stood behind Hank and winked at Phil, and his two teeth showed in his twisted grin.
The woman came in and started to say something, but Hank shook his head and she went into the eating room.
When he was finished with the bandage, Hank looked straight into Phil’s eyes, with a puzzled look, as if he were looking at the boy for the first time.
“Took guts to keep quiet, son. I like a boy with guts.” The corners of his mouth turned up in the thin line.
Mah Kee came out of the next room, leading a tiny fawn by a strap. The loggers had found it on the edge of the fire, beside its dead mother, and had brought it home and given it to Phil. The boy stroked its spotted back with his good hand. It nuzzled his leg and seemed to know him now. Hank watched them for a moment. “Well, let’s eat,” he said.
They went into the eating room where the girl and her father were sitting at one of the long, white tables. Hank smiled and sat down beside her. Phil sat next to Olaf, the deer at his feet. His hand felt better now.
Through the window they could see the whole camp, bright under big floodlights. Two skidders, with steel masts, and half a dozen donkey engines stood on the spur track, brought in from the woods to be safe from the fire. In the vast machine shop Phil made out the black bulk of two locomotives, half dismantled for repairs. Another locie stood puffing on the main line ready for emergencies. Two men in slickers, with heavy hoses, were soaking down all the roofs, in case of flying sparks.
To Phil this accumulation of great black machines was the most splendid sight in the world. Here was power to hurl the huge logs out of the woods, drag them down to the shore, push them with a surge of spray into the sea—power, movement, speed that made him feel strong, too, and big and tough and clean. He remembered again what his father had said in the kitchen—“I like a boy with guts.”
The woman looked out the window. “Poor Hank, to think of you living in this!” Her voice was sort of smooth and slick, Phil thought, like something in the movies.
“Awful,” her father said, and stuffed more steak into his mouth. “Awful. But it makes money.”
“We’ll soon have you out of all this, darling,” the woman said.
Hank bent over his plate. Olaf's face went red. Phil saw some loggers at the other end of the room glance at each other and grin. They had just come off the fire line and their faces were black, except for pink rings about their mouths and eyes.
The phone rang, and Olaf got up to answer it. He listened for a moment, and Phil saw his face freeze.
“She’s into Murdock’s slash,” Olaf said.
Phil knew what that meant. In slash the fire would travel as in a pool of gasoline.
“Wait,” Hank said. “I’ll take it.”
He took the phone from Olaf. “Yeh.” He spoke in his jerky way. “Yeh, I get it. What else? The cold decks, too, eh?” He paused for a moment, and Phil saw the little knots of muscle set hard in his cheeks. “All right. Cut across from Black Creek to Mile Seventeen. You know what to do. Get going.”
Phil understood what had happened. The cold decks at Quinitan had burned up, the great hills of logs that he had seen the boys drag out of the woods on the sky lines—millions of feet of fir and cedar, four and five feet through their clean butts. He pictured the fire burning them like a pile of kindling. They must have been worth a pile of money. The loggers around the tables had stopped eating and watched Hank.
He hung up the phone and sat down and started to drink his coffee. That was when Phil began to understand his father.
“What’s wrong, Hank?” the woman said. “What has happened?”
Hank looked up at her and smiled. He seemed to smile only at her.
“Nothing serious. Wind came up a little, that’s all. Fire crossed the line. They'll stop her again.”
The old man jumped to his feet. “I knew we shouldn’t have come! We’ll be burned alive! Hank, I warn you, we’re not buying a lot of burned timber. This deal . . . ”
“Everything’s all right, Mr. Carson,” Hank repeated, and drained his coffee. "The road’s closed, though. But we still have the railway. Maybe you folks would be more comfortable in the hotel at the bay for a day or so. I’ll send you out on my speeder.”
“Yes, yes,” the old man said eagerly. “Right now. What are we waiting for?”
“You, too, son,” Hank said to Phil. “Take the deer with you.”
BUT AS they unloaded the grips from the automobile into the big yellow speeder on the railway, Phil slipped away in the darkness, dragging the fawn by its strap, and hid behind the laundry. He heard his father call his name and the speeder whistle sounded in short, shrill blasts, but he crouched there, clutching the fawn.
Presently the engine started and, looking around the corner of the building, Phil saw his father standing beside the speeder and the girl bending over to kiss him. They were caught in the headlight of the big locie, all black and white, like a movie. The speeder moved off, its gears screeching.
Hank stood for a moment in the glare of the headlight, looking down the tracks. As the boy crouched down with the fawn beside him, he felt his eyes fill up again with jealousy.
His father found him there against the wall, and flashed a torch in his eyes.
“Hid out on us, eh? I thought so.”
Phil couldn’t see his face in the darkness, but his voice didn’t sound angry.
“Come on, son. Come inside.”
Phil rubbed his fist quickly across his eyes and followed Hank to his office, the fawn at his heels. Inside the hot, bare room, Phil saw his father had changed to overalls and caulked boots. Olaf sprawled, stomach up, on a couch, snoring, his torn mouth sagging loose. He hadn't slept for three days and nights.
Hank said : “How’s the sore hand, son?”
“It’s all right, sir,” Phil said.
“Look, don’t call me sir. Call me—well, call me Hank.”
“All right,” Phil said, but he couldn’t say Hank.
“So you wanted to see the fun, eh? Well, you’re safe enough here. She can’t touch the camp. Look.”
He turned to a big map on the wall. A pink tape hung pinned against it in the shape of a horseshoe, marking the fire. The camp was a black spot on the map, between the open ends of the horseshoe.
Hank pushed his finger against the curve of the ribbon on the west side. “See that? If the wind shifts to the west, that’s where she’ll break through. We’re going to cut a line from the railway to this lake here, see? That’s big timber on a sidehill. Got to keep her out of that. If she gets into it, she’ll crown. If she crowns. . . "
The door to the next room opened and the wireless telephone operator came in, a stooped little man with a smudge of whiskers. He handed Hank a scribbled piece of paper. Hank read it and grunted.
"Get this straight,” he said. “Tell ’em to start a new line from Pigeon Creek to Cherry Lake. And tell ’em we’ll be there inside an hour.”
The operator shuffled off, and Hank took out two of the pins on the map and stuck them in again. Now there was a dent on the ribbon on the west side.
“Wind’s changing,” Hank said.
“The train’s started,” the operator called from the next room. “Three cats and two hundred men.”
Phil looked at his father’s taut face, studying the map in front of him. Those men out there on the fire lines were all in his father’s hands. If he made a mistake now, if that looped ribbon closed in, they’d be surrounded by fire, burned up. He fingered his burned hand.
But, watching his father, Phil felt suddenly good, felt a kind of glow tingle through him as he thought of the fire out there creeping up on them and Hank here, like a general planning a battle. It seemed to him suddenly that there were only two powers left in the world, the fire out there and his father. They were sparring in the smoke, testing each other out. But they’d come to grips soon, they'd wrestle to the death. Hank didn’t seem small any more.
Involuntarily Phil blurted out: “You can lick her, Hank.”
His father looked around at him, for a moment puzzled. His fingers tousled Phil’s red hair and he grinned.
“We’ll lick her all right, son. You and I. Sure we can lick her.”
The operator shuffled in again and handed Hank another slip of paper. He read it and bit his lip. “Travelling, eh? Well, tell those boys to get out fast and meet us over at Cedar Corner. Hurry.”
He took the pins out of the top of the map and when he pushed them in again there was a deep dent in the top of the horseshoe, the shape of a V.
“Broken through again,” he said to Phil. With a pencil stub he drew in a black line across the horseshoe, back of the new dent. “Our new line will hold her there—maybe.”
ABRUPTLY he went over to the open window and looked out. Over his shoulder Phil could see a faint pink glow in the sky that hadn’t been there before. Hank wet his finger and held it up. “Moving west,” he said.
Phil kept watching him. He bit his teeth together hard, trying to make the muscles go taut in his cheeks, like Hank’s.
“It doesn’t look like much,” Hank said. He was staring out at the big machine shop with its dismantled locies, at the rows of bunkhouses, the donkey engines on the flat cars, the towering skidders. “Took twenty-five years to build it. It’d burn in twenty-five minutes. Wouldn’t want to lose it now.”
The boy knew what he meant, knew it all of a sudden, as if it had been written down on a blackboard, felt it inside him. He saw his father tramping through the woods alone, all those years, felling trees, flinging railways across the country, hauling the long trains of logs down to the sea—yes, just what he wanted to do himself, a kind of hunger inside him.
His father spoke again, hardly above a whisper.
“You know, I used to hope you’d be up here some time, like this. But after a while I guess I kind of forgot about it. A man has to have something.”
Phil didn’t know what Hank meant by that. He found out a moment later.
The operator called out from the next room. “The hotel wants you, Hank. It’s personal.”
Hank went into the other room and closed the door after him, but Phil could hear his voice.
“Nothing to worry about, Meg. Tell your father to be reasonable. Only lost a fringe of good timber so far. Eh? Oh, stop fussing, Meg. You go to bed now and forget it. I’ve got my hands full here.”
Phil went over to the window so his father wouldn’t see his face. Sickeningly he remembered the woman, remembered his father was going away with her, selling out. He’d forgotten all that, thinking of the fire.
He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.
“Look, you don’t like Miss Carson, son.”
“She’s all right,” Phil said.
“Sorry. Hoped you would. Women are queer . . . you’ll find that out. You never know about ’em.”
He kept looking out the window beside Phil, but he didn’t say any more about the woman.
Phil caught the moan of a train whistle. The new men and the tractors were coming up the line.
Olaf stirred and sat up, rubbing his broken face.
“Lovely Dove, but my corns hurt, Hank. She’s goin’ to rain.”
“Maybe. Too late,” Hank said. “We’re going up the line, Ole. You’d better stay here, son.”
“No,” Olaf said, and winked painfully at Phil. “He’s safer wit’ us. We can watch t’ little devil better.”
Hank looked at Phil, hesitating, and the corners of his mouth turned up slowly. The boy grabbed the fawn and dragged it over to the cookhouse, and left it with Mah Kee, and ran down to the tracks just as the train rumbled in.
The flat cars were crowded with men and there were four big tractors, glistening in the floodlights. Olaf lifted Phil aboard, and he crouched there between the old Swede and his father as the train jerked ahead. In the smoke the lights of the camp went out suddenly, as if a door had been closed. The smoke made his eyes sting and he began to feel the wind against his cheek getting warm. Ahead, and to the left, the pink glow in the sky began to grow brighter.
The train ground to a stop and everybody jumped down off the cars. The men started to unload the cats on big planks.
“All right, boys!” Hank shouted. “Let’s go.” To Phil he said, “You keep right at my heels all the time . . . all the time, see?”
He started into the darkness, swinging a gasoline lantern. Phil stumbled close behind him. He saw they were following a narrow trail through big timber, and he tried to figure out where they were on the map. Up at the top of the horseshoe, near the new dent in the ribbon, he guessed, but it was all mixed up in his head now. Behind him he heard the crackle of the men’s boots on the parched trail.
In a little while they saw lights ahead and heard a cat’s stammering roar. The trail opened into soft, plowed earth, and Phil guessed it was the new fire line that his father had drawn with his pencil on the map. He saw men cutting down big trees, crouching over their saws, faces vague and shiny in the light of lanterns on the ground. A cat pushed brush and logs to one side as easily as a hay rake.
HANK kept walking fast along the fire line, and Phil had to run to keep up with him. The plowed earth ended and Hank stopped, and as the men came up he set them to work, cutting down the big trees. The cats from the train came wallowing up and plowed into the underbrush.
Hank started off again and the trail climbed a steep hillside. Then all at once, through a gap in the timber, Phil saw the fire. He couldn’t tell how far away it was—a couple of miles maybe. On the hills ahead it was a single curved line of red, as thin as a thread of silk. It didn’t seem to move or turn. It just glowed there like a red-hot wire.
Hank stopped, looking at it, and a little group of men gathered around him, saws and axes on their shoulders. Their faces were blackly shadowed.
Phil could feel the heat of the fire now on his face, like the heat from an open oven. There was a dull rumbling sound as from a train a long way off.
“Come on, boys,” Hank said. “Plenty time yet.”
He started off, but stopped so suddenly that Phil bumped into him. Everybody looked across the valley again, and Phil heard Olaf's voice behind him mutter, “Great sufferin’ Lovely Dove!”
The thin line of red across the hills had swelled all at once and grown fat. A jagged point of red darted up, broke off clean, and darted up again. Little spots of red burst out, higher up on the hills.
“She’s crowning,” Hank said. His voice was still quiet.
Phil watched the little red patches grow on the hillside. He knew what was happening. The fire, burning in the underbrush of the big timber, had started to run up the trunks of the trees now—up into the branches, up two hundred feet from the ground, and as each needle of foliage swelled with the heat, its drop of liquid turned into a tiny balloon of gas and exploded. Billions of needles were exploding together, and the fire would run across the tree tops as it would run on fumes of gasoline. Nothing could stop a crown fire on a sidehill in a wind. Olaf had told him.
Phil moved closer to his father. Again it seemed to him that it was a fight between this little man and the fire out there. They were grappling now, they were fighting it out. Somehow his father would win. He had to win, had to stop that fire.
Watching it there, the swelling line of red on the other side of the valley, he forgot all about his sore hand, all about the woman, all about everything. It seemed to him that he and his father were all alone together, with the fire coming toward them. He edged closer to Hank.
The fire crowned with a sound like a gun fired close to their ears. Phil saw a sharp tongue of flame shoot out, sweeping into itself all the smaller red patches. A moment later it shot across the hill in a single flash, exactly like a blowtorch, with a hiss like steam out of an engine.
“Lovely Dove!” Olaf whispered again.
The ragged blob of fire seemed to spread out in all directions, in a widening patch, like red ink soaking into blotting paper. The sound now was like a train on a steel bridge.
“Goin’ a mile a minute, easy,” Olaf said.
The whole sky went scarlet, pulsating with ripples and waves of deeper color, and in the light of it the still, haggard faces of the men glowed ruddy. On the hilltop across the valley Phil could see distinctly the black, naked columns of trees with flames streaming from them, between their branches, as if they were waving their arms to throw the fire off.
“Get the boys in,” Hank said. His voice sounded so queer that Phil looked up at him again. In the flickering light Phil thought he saw a tear run down his father’s cheek, but it might have been sweat.
“Too bad,” Olaf said. “She’ll rain before mornin’. My corn hurts fierce.”
“Come on, son,” Hank said. He started to walk fast back along the trail, behind the men. Soon he began to run, looking back to see that Phil was with him.
When they got to the train, the men were on the flat cars. The locie kept blowing short toots. A squat man with a beard spoke to Hank. “Everybody’s in, except Gus Erickson. I was with him—at the south end. He didn’t start soon enough, I guess. She caught him runnin’. Shrivelled him up like bacon before he fell down even. No use us stoppin’, so we kept on.”
“Let’s go,” Hank said.
As the train lunged into the darkness Phil told himself, squatting close to his father, that Hank was licked at last. The fire had licked him. He was running away now, he was going back to that woman. And he thought of the young Swede, Gus Erickson, caught by the fire as he ran. Gus had made a bow and arrow for Phil, carving them of yew. Shrivelled like bacon, the man had said. Phil began to feel sick inside.
AT THE camp the few men who were still there clambered onto the flat cars. Mah Kee came running out of the cookhouse, still in his white cook’s hat and apron, a yellow pigskin suitcase under one arm. The fawn was wriggling under the other. He pushed the fawn up to Phil.
Hank and Olaf stood on the ground at the end of the last car, watching the men climb aboard. Phil could hear them talking.
“Huh,” Olaf said, “it’s a cinch. Half a dozen men could save t’ whole camp. No slash, no timber for a mile. Plenty water. And she rains before mornin’. I tell you, my corn—”
“Can’t take a chance.” Hank said. “Not with these boys.”
The train whistled and Phil missed what they said next, but they seemed to be arguing. Hank waved his lantern and the train started to move. Hank and Olaf were still standing beside the track.
The train was moving faster and they were past the edge of the camp now. Phil had no time to think what he was doing.
He pushed the fawn off the end of the car and jumped. He fell face down on the ties, but it didn't hurt much. He got up and started to run back toward the camp, and the terror in him made his legs stumble. The fawn bounded beside him.
Over by the machine shop he saw his father and Olaf, dragging a hose. He ran toward them, shouting wildly.
Hank turned around and caught the boy in his arms.
“Good lord, son! Why—”
He squeezed the flesh of Phil’s shoulders tight between his fingers and looked down the track where the train had gone.
“Too late!” Olaf shouted. He pointed across the tracks, and Phil saw now that the fire had leaped along the low hills and travelled past the camp. The whole sky seemed to be burning in one flame and the world was filled with the mumbling sound of the fire.
“Can’t get out,” Olaf said. “Safer here.”
Hank looked down the track again, his teeth bared. In the glow of the fire his bony face shone like copper.
He shook Phil by the shoulders, hard. “Look. Do just what I tell you. Don’t get excited. We’re all right, see? Now run back and turn on the tap.”
Phil ran along the hose and turned on the big tap at the bottom of the water tower. Olaf trained the hose on the roof of the machine shop. Its windows flashed red, blinking like huge, bloody eyes.
Hank was running across the track, past the black skeleton of the skidder, dragging another hose after him. When he waved his arm, Phil turned on the second tap. Hank beckoned to him and he ran out to the end of the hose. His legs felt better.
“Keep spraying up and down in front of you, see?” Hank’s voice, close to his ear, was as steady as when they were in the office together. He handed the hose nozzle to Phil. “We’re all right, son. Don’t worry. Yell if you need help.” He slapped Phil on the back and ran again toward the taps.
The hose pushed back in Phil’s hands and once it wriggled loose and thrashed wildly on the ground, but he fell on it and got hold of it again. He was drenched with water, and the bandage had come off his hand and it felt sore at the touch of the rough hose, but he hardly noticed it.
He kept walking up and down the track, spraying the bare ground beyond. He saw now that the main body of the fire was travelling on the ridge of the hill a mile or so away. Against the red glow of it he could make out the black skeletons of the old-growth trees, flames streaming from them, and then they were blotted out again by the solid fire.
He kept the spray from the hose moving back and forth across the smoke in front of him and heard the hiss of the water as it hit the fire. Sometimes pieces of flaming wood flew over his head and lit among the flat cars, or on the roofs of the bunkhouses. He turned then and smothered the spots of flame with water. Now and then he saw smoke. Half a dozen hoses seemed to be strung out in all directions with nozzles tied to posts and aimed at the fire.
Above the hiss of the water he caught the sound of the main fire on the hill. It seemed to Phil it was laughing out there with a deep rumbling laugh, and wheezing like a fat man. It crackled and chuckled to itself as if it were jeering at him, as if it could sweep down and over him any time it wanted to. He thought of young Gus Erickson. Shrivelled up like bacon, they said, before the fire even touched them.
His face smarted from the waves of heat and felt tight, as if it were cracking. When he breathed, there was a pain in his chest from the smoke, and his burned hand felt raw. But tugging there at the hose, he realized quickly, as if someone had just told him, that he wasn’t afraid any more. He wasn't afraid of the fire, and he knew now that he would never be afraid of anything again.
IT WAS as if all his life up to this moment had never been at all, as if he had only lived in the last half hour. It was all wrong then, a lie, what they’d told him at school. He did have guts. His father had told him that in the kitchen, but he hadn’t believed it. Now he knew it was true and it welled up in him like a song.
He began to shout and sing crazily at the fire on the hill. “Come out and fight!” he kept yelling. He’d heard a prize fighter say that in a movie. “Come out and fight! You’re yellow, see? You’re yellow!”
He remembered Olaf's strange oath, and he started to shout it at the fire. “By the Lovely Dove! By the sufferin’ Lovely Dove!” He didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed somehow to tell what he felt inside him, the bursting, unspeakable things that he couldn’t give a name to. The Lovely Dove! Everything was lovely now.
“By the Lovely Dove!” he yelled again at the fire. But it still laughed at him out there against the red sky.
He began to feel a little dizzy and his legs shook under him at the knees. He sat down to rest for a minute. The steel of the railway tracks was hot under his hand.
Then he seemed to be on his father’s back and his father was climbing a ladder. He crawled from Hank’s shoulders onto a big wooden beam and saw he was on top of the water tank. His feet dangled in the bubbling water.
His father bent over him and shouted in his ear. “Listen! If the camp starts to burn, keep slopping water over the edge of the tank. It won’t burn. Don’t you move from here at all, no matter what happens, see?”
“Okay,” Phil whispered. It was queer to feel so weak.
Hank pulled off his shirt and dipped it in the water and wrapped it around Phil’s head. He slapped the boy on the back again and climbed down the ladder. The cold water on his head and neck made Phil feel better.
His father’s face and bare shoulders came up over the edge of the tank again, and he thrust something soft into Phil’s arms. “Look after him,” Hank said. He grinned for a second and disappeared.
Phil held the fawn close to him and sloshed water on it. A patch of hair had been singed off its rump and the flesh was raw. It shook all over.
He saw his father running through the smoke and he wanted to climb down and help him, but he remembered what Hank had said. He was to stay there. He felt too tired to move anyway and he lay, stomach down on the beam, his feet dangling in the water.
Someone shook his shoulder and he looked up into his father’s face. It was completely black except for thin pink rings around his mouth and eyes, like a negro minstrel on the stage. His body was black too, and shiny. His teeth showed strangely white when he grinned. “Come on down, son. It's all right now.”
Phil sat up, feeling stiff. The fawn balanced on the beam beside him, hunched up like a kitten, shivering. It was daylight and a fog of smoke hung over the camp in long, ragged wisps, and out beyond, where the fire had been, there was only a curtain of smoke, like thick, purplish cloth, hanging from the sky. He saw now that rain was beating down hard on the ground.
Olaf sat on a pile of ties, his socks off, rubbing his bare foot. His black, lopsided face twisted into a smile. “Dint I tell you she’d rain? These corns never lied yet.”
Hank stood there, the rain falling on his black, glistening shoulders. He was looking around his camp, at the dark bulk of the machine shop with the dismantled locies in it, at the steel masts of the skidder, the donkeys on the flat cars.
A white rooster crowed in the wire pen. Faintly down toward the coast a train whistled. Then Phil remembered what he had forgotten all that night. The woman would be on that train. She’d take Hank in her arms and kiss him. She'd take him away with her.
The train whistled, louder. Hank put his arm around Phil’s shoulder and rubbed his grimy hand in the boy’s hair.
“We got work ahead, us three,” Hank said. “Take us two years to straighten this out. Yeh. And we got to salvage the burned stuff this year, before it rots.”
Olaf stopped rubbing his foot.
“Thought you was gettin’ out, Hank.”
“What the devil,” Hank said. “Who’d buy this mess? Guess the three of us can get along all right by ourselves, can’t we? Not kids, are we?”
Olaf winked his pink-rimmed eye at Phil.
The boy wanted to shout and kick his heels up and put his arms around Hank and kiss him. Instead, he rubbed the sharp caulks of his boots against a wooden tie. He hitched his thumbs into his braces and clenched his teeth, making the muscles go knotted in his cheeks, the way his father did.