So you stay unmarried and have moments of great loneliness that even your profession cannot make up for. Then along comes a man and a forest fire
GEORGE ARMIN SHAFTEL
She thought with pity, as old Dr. Whalen spoke, how clearly pain came over the phone. As she listened she had the hope that when his tired heart came to rest it would be in his sleep. For one thing she was grateful: he was calling upon her more and more to help him.
“Martha, there’s this big fire over in Cross Basin. Ranger Casey has got a big crew fighting it. He sent word, just now, for me to rush over there. He’s got a man hurt. Burns and shock, probably.
I answered that I’d bet a woman she’d have twins and now I’ve got to go and deliver.” He chuckled. “Nevertheless, they need a doctor. Will you pinch-hit for me?”
“Of course. But why doesn’t Casey send the hurt man here?”
“Casey expects more casualties and wants a doctor on hand.”
“Tom, why don’t you send Dr. Albee?”
“He’s at a convention in Vancouver. But even if he were here I’d send you, Martha. Because Ed Monahan is with the fire crew. You’ll go by plane.” He chuckled again. “Good luck, Doctor!”
Martha stammered “Thanks,” and hung up, her face flaming.
Dr. Whalen hadn’t meant to be tactless; he had spoken out of heartfelt kindness. And yet mentioning Ed Monahan had been in the nature of a taunt ... an unintended echo of the smug and patronizing question she so often encountered: Why hasn’t a smart, attractive young woman like you ever married?
Tom,you think you’re giving me a break, she mused. Maybe you wouldn’t think so if you knew Ed Monahan.
She walked into the living quarters behind her office and changed quickly into more rugged clothes. She had the long, shapely legs and slim waist to wear slacks attractively; and upon her a sweater looked just right. She pulled a beret upon her fair hair; and, leaning toward a mirror, carefully shaped her mouth with lipstick.
She stood there, staring at herself, as the thought came to her: You’re making up ruefully carefully. For Ed Monahan?
HE HAD stalked into her office like a moody storm cloud one afternoon and demanded to see Dr. Norcross. Martha had studied him a moment before answering—a tall, burly man whose dark hair was rumpled and greying, whose dark eyes were sombrely truculent. Not more than thirty-five, probably, but seasoned and hard used, too much rueful knowledge putting wry ness into his eyes and lips.
“I’m Dr. Norcross. Can I help you?”
“How do you know when a kid’s appendix has to come out? For sure?”
■“Mistakes are made, of course, especially with young children. You know pneumonia in the right lung and pleurisy will cause pain over the appendix region. So we always examine the chest and—”
“Can’t a kid have a bad stomach-ache without getting cut up?”
Patiently Martha had explained, “We look for more than just pain. If a child is sick and feverish,
has a sore abdomen and stiffness in the muscles on the right side we suspect an appendix. But we check it with a blood test. Then, if we find that the white cell count has jumped from ten thousand to over twenty, and that a high eighty per cent of the white cells are ‘poly’ cells, why then we’re pretty sure that it’s a flaring appendix.”
“But not certain!”
It burst out of him, and an answering flash of temper rose in Martha. But she knew that his anger was the reflex of anxiety too frantic for him to control, and answered gently.
“Certain enough to operate.”
“How—serious is it?”
“Not bad at all. It’s relatively safe and simple.” He sighed with relief then; and she offered generously, “If you’d like I’d be glad to see the child.”
“She’s taken care of,” he said curtly.
And he placed a five-dollar bill on her desk. He had not taken it from a wallet, but from his watch pocket, as if it were all he had.
“There’s no charge,” she said hastily.
“There always is,” he retorted; and strode out. Martha glared at the door he had closed behind him. Of all the rude, boorish, ungrateful -She shrugged. Male hysterics. The man had been beside himself with worry . . .
And then, next morning, in her mailbox she had found a card. It hadn’t been mailed, for there was no stamp on it. Upon the card had been drawn a lumberjack swinging at the bole of a Douglas fir. Penciled beneath in bold, hurtling letters was simply, “I was rude. I’m sorry. Ed Monahan.” Blunt and forthright . . . The longer she studied the drawing the more impressed she became, for in it was combined a robust feeling for muscular action with a glowing sensitivity for light and shadow.
She showed the card to old Dr. Whalen and he had agreed with her; the moody roughneck had no small talent.
THEN, a week later, Dr. Whalen had got Martha to go with him to a dance given at the Odd Fellows Hall. Martha was new in Holton and had to meet people, he insisted. Later, Martha wondered if Tom had known that Ed Monahan would be at the dance.
Monahan had evidently come alone, for he danced with girl after girl and finally asked her to dance.
“How’s your child?” she asked.
“With the appendix.”
“Oh —she’s not mine—Casey’s.”
“Didn’t you bring your wife tonight?”
“No. I’m not married. I dance only with wallflowers. The fat and homely ones.”
She flushed hot. “I’m neither fat nor homely.” “No. You’re one of the queer ones.”
She stopped dancing, there in the middle of the floor.
It. took her a moment to move again, to shake off the stunned shock. Then she turned and walked away from him. Queer. She wasn’t fat, she wasn’t homely, so why wasn’t she married? That’s what he meant. Obviously the answer must be that she was—queer. Was she? Was she a misfit? Somehow abnormal?
THE question was torment as she lay trying to find sleep later that night. But thirty-one wasn’t hopelessly old. For a professional person it was very young!
Look around you! Think of all the professional women you know—the nurses and civil service workers, the statisticians and schoolteachers and lab technicians. So many of them aren’t married. Charming, clever women, too!
Had long years of study and preparation congealed the warm human impulses in them? Certainly not! she told herself angrily. Her own impulses were as warm and ardent as any woman’s.
Doing a competent job
Continued on page 26
Continued from pope 7
meant work. You couldn’t help it if strain put early grey into your hair and concentration put a disconcerting directness into your glance that seemed severe to a stranger. She knew that she had a touch of austerity.
So you stayed unmarried. And you had your moments of anguish. Of loneliness. In some measure you resigned yourself; and then an Ed Monahan came along and you were left sore and furious, adrift, rudderless, uncertain . . .
MARTHA drove hurriedly to the tiny airport at the edge of town. As she parked she saw a helicopter come over the field, surprisingly noisy and slow. It came almost straight down toa feather-light landing, rotors sighing over the muted rumble of its engine.
It was a small ship, with an open cockpit that would seat two, side-byside. Rigge d on each side of the fuselage was a bunklike platform of piping and cross strands very much like a Stokes stretcher. They were loaded now with supplies for the fire crew.
“Dr. Whalen can’t come,” Martha told the pilot. “I’m Dr. Norcross. You’re to take me to Cross Basin.”
He pushed up his goggles and stared in frank surprise. He was a young man, tall even sitting down, his sudden smile attractive.
“Glad to have you, Doc. I’m Dave Beatty. Climb in.”
The take-off was surprisingly easy but breath-taking in the way the tall trees beyond the field seemed suddenly to drop away and fall below. Her pulse stuttered; she was scared, but enjoying it.
Looking over the cockpit edge she saw the deep bowl of Cross Basin. From this height it looked to l>e a perfect oval, carpeted by a velvety pile of green which actually was heavy timber. From that velvety green was rising a crescent of smoke. The shape of that boiling uprush of vapor seized her startled attention, for it revealed that the fire had run north up the basin and then, whei the wind had shifted into the east, the conflagration had turned as well; and its extremities had sent out long arms that now were curving inward, like the closing points of a sickle-shaped moon. And it seemed that the helicopter was dropping into the middle of that ring of fire.
The soft blur of green became rough and uneven, became tree tops that rushed skyward. And then the ship was lowering down between tall spires of pine and fir. They landed in a small clearing.
A man came running toward them. Beyond him, near the edge of timber, were other men in temporary camp.
“Doc Whalen!” he shouted. “We— hey, where’s Whalen?”
Martha opened the cockpit door and jumped to the ground.
“I’m Dr. Norcross. Whalen’s too ill to come. Where’s your injured man?” Martha demanded, seizing her kit.
“We’ve got two more hurt. There, Doc!” He pointed. “Dave,” he told the pilot, “you’ll have to load these stretcher cases and get ’em out of here, fast! 'Ehe fire’s run away from us!” Martha hurried toward the injured men at the edge of the clearing. Two of them were lying on blankets and the third sat on a log, hunched over, his face grey and sick with pain. Martha smiled encouragement, to him and bent over the ne tirer of the two prone men. He was in a coma, brought on by shock.
To stimulate the heart she quickly pressed a 1 1 ■_> c.c. ampoule of corarnine intoan arm muscle. Then into an arm
vein she injected 100 c.c. of sen on albumin that would suck body wflind into the depleted burned tissues a*«, work to bring the man out of shock. She gave him a syrette of morphine to muffle the pain that would wildfire along his nerves if he came to.
She turned to the second injured man. He was writhing on his blanket and talking in delirium.
“Burning tree fell on AÍ,” someone explained behind Martha. She turned, startled, to stare up into Ed Monahan’s dark eyes. “Jake, there, pulled AÍ out from under, and got burned himself. Work fast, Doc, will you? We’ve got to make tracks out of here!”
She gave him a brief, furious glance; then bent to make her injections with more than usual deliberation. You don’t rush a hypo.
A man wearing a walkie-talkie strapped to his back came running to the uniformed fire boss.
“Casey! Mac’s reporting! He says the only way out now is over Modoc Ridge. He says we’ve got to run or get hemmed in!”
“We’re leaving right now. Hansón! Kyle!” Ranger Casey bawled. “We’re pulling out! Pass the word along. We’ve got to beat the fire to Modoc Ridge!”
“Casey, Lipe’s at the creek with five men !” Monahan said.
“Ed, go warn ’¡m, will you?” the fire boss ordered; then whirled toward the helicopter. “Dave, I’ll help you load these injured men aboard, then you haul right out of here!”
Reluctantly Martha let the two badly injured men be strapped onto the side platforms of the helicopter. The last patient, Jake, walked unaided to the ship and climbed in.
“Now git!” the fire boss commanded. ‘‘Good luck !”
He turned and started running after his fire fighters, taking the road that vanished into the timber on the east side of the clearing. The pilot jumped into the helicopter and beckoned to Martha.
“Come on, Doc! We’re taking off like we were jet-propelled!”
The cockpit, intended for two, was crowded with Jake between them. The pilot gunned his motor. Overhead the rotors whirled into blurring speed. Dave Beatty shoved the control lever.
The helicopter strained and shook, and the left side canted slightly into the air, but the right wheel did not leave the ground. Beatty swore, eased off the throttle a moment, then again opened her full, and the motor Flatted out in thunder.
But the helicopter, trembling on the verge of flight, could not lift off. Savagely Beatty chopped the throttle.
“She’s overloaded. Look, Doc.” He turned toward Martha, frantic. “We’ve got to dump this heavy guy on the platform!”
“But the fire would get him!”
“The fire’ll get us all if we don’t.” “No! The man’s in a coma. He’s he Ipless!”
“But he’s probably dyin’ anyhow—” “I forbid you to put him off!”
“Look, Miss, I’m pilot of this ship.” “Doctor Norcross, if you please. You’re functioning as my ambulance driver. I’m ordering you to take these men to the hospital at Marysville at once!”
“But we can't take off with this load !”
“We ll lighten the load.”
She already had the cockpit door open. She jumped to the ground.
“No!” Beatty shouted. “Get back in here!”
“These men must be rushed to town.”
“I’m not leaving a girl in this fire and taking—-”
. appreciate that, believe me. Rut se men need immediate care. I’m ordering you to take off right now!” “But Doc, this fat old guy here’s likely dying, and anyway, he’s jus; one of the no-good winos that Jenkins recruited on Skid Row—”
“These men are my patients!” She told him so furiously that he shut up. “You will take off at once!”
She turned, then. She whirled and ran across the clearing.
Behind her Beatty shouted for her to come back. She darted up the roadway into the timber, in the direction that the fire-suppression crew had gone. Reatty’s voice faded behind her, muffled by distance and trees.
After a bit she had to slacken her pace to a breathless walk. The timber seemed to press in close about her, dense and towering, astir with menace.
She heard a motor roar, startlingly close. She jerked her glance skyward. Overhead, between the swaying pine tops, she glimpsed the helicopter— —perilously low, but in the air, and laboring southward toward Marysville. Dave Beatty had taken off.
IT WAS hot. Dazingly, smotheringly hot. Sweat drenched Martha’s body and her heart pounded and she gulped for breath. Her eyes streamed and her nostrils burned from the smoke; and time and time again she cowered as a gust of heat hit her. She might not beat the fire to Modoc Ridge, she realized; foi the blaze seemed so much closer now. Plainly she could hear the snarl and crackle of fire leaping thunderously through resinous foliage.
She heard voices, and she peered ahead, straining to see Ranger Casey’s men. She could see no one. But. she did, then, hear the thump of running feet. Behind her. She turned—and saw men coming up the road toward her. Three, fivesix of them.
The first man gawked open mouthed at her. Without pausing, however, he looked back and yelled “Monahan!” and pointed at her. The others sprinted past—haggard, unshaven men who had discarded their mattocks and shovels. Only Monahan halted and stared at her, in outrage and consternation.
“Why didn’t you leave in that helicopter!” he demanded.
“It was overloaded.”
“That crazy Dave Beatty! I’ll heat some sense into him. He could’ve left one of those men behind.”
“He wanted to. 1 wouldn t permit it,. Those men were helpless!”
“So look what you’ve got yourself into!” he retorted. “Oh, come on!”
He started running again. She followed. And she tried to keep up. It became increasingly difficult. For the road slanted up the timbered base of the ridge, growing steeper.
Reeling with fatigue she tripped over a rut and fell headlong. She just lay there, gasping agonizedly for breath.
Monahan lifted her to her feet, angrily telling her, “The fire’s almost got us circled! Don’t you realize what a spot we’re in?”
She glared at him. At that moment she hated him. She didn’t care what happened 1o her. She wanted only to lie still and rest and suck air into her tortured lungs.
He said, “Come on!” This time he did not let go of her wrist but pulled her along with him at a run.
She couldn’t keep up. She fell, and landed heavily, breath knocked from her body. Monahar stooped and snatched her up in his arms and pounded on at a lurching run.
“Let me down! Let me down!”
He did not answer her. She tried to lift up, bracing her hands against his shoulders. He was sweating with
exertion, his deep chest pumping and his heavy muscles quivering as they worked.
When he did stop it was for a reason. He halted, and set her upon her feet. She swayed dizzily, and he put his arm about her shoulders. She relaxed against him, taking comfort in his bulk and strength.
looking up the road through the timber she saw, with a shock of realization, that none of the other men were in sight.
“You’ve been left behind by your men!” she exclaimed.
“Think you can run now? We’ve got to get past the fire!”
“You go ahead. Please.”
He did not answer. He was staring up the slope, and abruptly his full lips twisted in a grimace of dismay.
“Not even if 1 wanted to. The fire’s jumped the gap.”
“You m-mean we’re caught?”
“The fire’s ahead of us now.”
“Are your men caught, too?”
“They made it through, thank the Lord !”
She peered ahead. At first she saw only the smoke in the heavy timber up
the ridge, boiling thickly skyward. But now, suddenly, in that ballooning murk she saw the leaping red striations of flame, and heard the raucous shouting of fire as it lunged through the tree tops.
“That pilot,” he said, “should’ve made you get back into the helicopter.”
“1 make my own decisions!” she retorted sharply.
He looked down and grinned at her, a surprising warmth on his haggard face. Immediately, though, he sobered.
“There’s just one thing left— Come on!”
They broke out into 8 small clearing.
Martha saw an old, sagging house built of peeled logs, now grey with age, a corral, a long shed from which hung an ancient sign: Feed, Groceries and Mining Supplies* Jay Clark, Prop. Monahan led around the cabin. He paused before a small structure with a shingle roof under which hung a rusty wheel and rope and bucket. A well.
“No!” Martha cried. “A well’s a deathtrap. Heat and smoke would get us!”
His glance at her was approving; he nodded agreement.
He drew her on again. Behind the store building they found a pathway. He led on up it, through an orchard gnarled and broken with age, up into a slope of tamarack. The path grew steep, and Martha saw that they were climbing the ridge. Straight toward the fire! She held back, but Monahan pulled her on. Above them dense smoke poured from the trees in roiling bursts that puffed and swelled, ballooning skyward, whirling aloft brands winged with flame. Lower down she saw streaks of writhing scarlet. She saw a tongue of fire shoot out of the smoke like a giant lance—to hit a lopstick of dead fir. The tall stump was instantly ablaze.
“Here it is!” Monahan panted, and stopped.
They were on a little flat. Before them, set right into the hillside, was a door of planks grey with age. Crudely painted on it in letters almost erased by weather was the word EXPLOSIVES. Martha guessed what Monahan intended to do.
“No!” She pulled back frantically. “A cave’s as bad as a well. We’d die in there!”
“What do you think we’ll do out
He tugged on the door. A rusty padlock held it shut and, using one arm, he couldn’t open it. He let go of Martha. She turned to run, then stopped. Just stood there.
It was too late. A wall of fire was racing down through the tamarack, to the west of them.
Using both hands Monahan wrenched open the cave door. He whirled, caught Martha’s arm and drew her violently into the passageway.
KEEP on going. Far in as you can get!” he told her, and turned back to shut the door.
This wasn’t a cave, Martha saw: it was too narrow and regular. It was a prospect hole dug by some miner who abandoned it long years ago. The fire, she foresaw, would make a bake oven of it. That door would give no protection, for it would quickly burn away. Smoke and heat would enter; flame would blowtorch inside.
Monahan started heaping rubble into the entrance, until he had used up all the broken rock he could reach. He lient and grabbed up a fallen roof prop. With it he hammered at the ceiling. Fragments of rotten stone fell, and Martha winced as she saw chunks hit his shoulders. But he kept swinging the timber at the uneven ceiling of the tunnel. More debris came down in a shower of dust. And then, with an ominous ripping roar, a whole section of the roof caved in.
Martha screamed as the light was momentarily blotted out in a re-echoing darkness acrid with dust.
“Are you hurt?” Monahan shouted. She caught a shuddery breath.
“No. Just s-scared—”
“The rock fall doesn’t close the tunnel! We’ve got to get as far back inside as we can ! Come on!”
A dozen yards farther in they hurried, their feet sloshing through puddles of water that had dripped from the roof
—and came to an abrupt halt, a on here the way was blocked, the pros'Jnd hole closed down tight by the debris a cave-in which long ago had squeezed the tunnel shut.
“Lie flat!” he told Martha. “The air’ll be fresher near the floor. Here, against the wall. Breathe through your handkerchief. Give me your sweater!” She obeyed, and lay down. He dipped her sweater into a puddle.
“Here! Wrap your head in it!” He dropped down beside Martha, pressed against her, and put his big arm about her shoulders. She drew courage from his nearness; and felt pity as his big chest racked with coughing.
“It’s going to be bad,” he gasped. “Keep your head covered. If it doesn’t last too long maybewe’vegot a chance.” She felt him wince, and guessed that another gust of heat had lashed into the tunnel, tonguing over them; and she realized, gratefully, that he was shielding her from it with his own body.
Even through the sweater about her head she glimpsed a reddish glow. And then she felt him tauten, felt him shrink convulsively and heard him moan. Upon her hands, and through the sweater about her head, she felt heat so intense that it seemed like whipping flame. Smoke was suddenly agony in her nostrils and throat, and she choked, struggling for breath, her lungs burning, suffocating. She tried to raise up. In crazy panic she pulled the sweater from about her head and tried to gulp sweet air into her lungs. Monahan yelled something at her, and pushed her down flat. But the slashing anguish in her lungs, the smothering that was like an intolerable bursting within her, broke her self-control. She tried to pull away from him. She fought him, and got to her knees. Abruptly, mercifully, she passed out.
SHE was lying with her head pillowed on her sweater when she came to her senses. Ed Monahan was sitting beside her.
“Sorry I had to clip you on the chin. It was a rough anaesthetic.”
“The fire! Where—what’s—” “Burned on past by now. I hope.” Her eyes streamed, her head throbbed and her throat felt raw and lacerated. Then she had a coughing spell.
“Feels like you’ll bring your lungs up in chunks,” he said sympathetically. His own voice was hoarse and aching.
Moments ached past. The cigarette lighter wouldn’t last long, Martha realized. When it went out would she again have that terrifying feeling of smothering in darkness?
“Ed,” she asked nervously, “you work for the Forest Service?”
“That’s right. I sit in a high tower and look for smoke. It’s easy, and I squeeze it into a routine that gives me time to paint.”
“What a waste! You shouldn’t have to waste time doing work any highschool boy could do!”
“You remind me of a girl I once knew, only with reverse English. She was always prodding me to quit painting. I used to tell her that Adam’s rib was replaced by a thorn. She didn’t think that was funny.”
“What was she like?”
“Oh, cute and cuddly. We’d walk down the street together and the fellows would practically drool when we passed. She never grew up. She figured that painting houses wasn’t much different from painting pictures, except that I made good money daubing houses. She’s always had a sharp and immediate focus.”
“You kept on painting?”
“Yep. I learned. I grew. I can paint. I’ve had more than a dozen pictures in Continued on page 30
Continued from page 28 shows, hut last week I got word three of my paintings were chosen for showing. I went out and got drunk.”
“And, drunk, you came to that dance?”
“I did. And when I saw you there I decided to marry you.”
“You what?” Martha gasped.
“You looked so pretty and prosperous. Marrying you, I told myself, would be a break for both of us.” “You—you take my breath!”
“I reasoned, Look, Monahan, you’re thirty-seven. You went for that love stuff once, and look what a heartburn that was. You need a wife who’s mature enough to have charity for your weaknesses and appreciation for your strengths. And when you’re bored with painting you can talk about her work. Besides, I told myself, look at the financial aspect of it — Besides it would be such a kindness to marry the lonely gal—”
“You weren’t drunk, you were delirious!'”
“Of course I had some qualms. If a gal as pretty as you, I reasoned, could reach her thirties without being married—”
“I think I despise you!”
“But I resigned myself on taking a chance.”
“So n-noble of you!”
Her voice broke; hot tears of humiliation filled her eyes.
“Then you came here to the fire today. And I changed my mind about marrying you.” His breath hissed sharply, as if gulped through clenched teeth. “I saw you at work on Jake and Al. One thing about an artist. He has reverence for ability. I had to change my mind. I won’t marry you. In the first place you deserve a better break. And in the second place I realized that you wouldn’t marry me in the first place. You were too big a person.” He stirred restlessly, and again his gasp of breath masked a groan. “Lord, I—” He checked it. “I’m just running off at the mouth. I feel so—damned lousy—” Martha was sensitive to pain.
“Ed, you didn’t tell me you got burned!”
She lifted the cigarette lighter. His face was grey and sweating. He bent forward and she looked at his back. Under his shirt his flesh was a mass of blisters. He was running a high temperature and probably going into shock. And she did not have her medical kit with her! She had nothing with which to ease his agony. Impulsively she drew' his sweating face against her breast and held him close . . .
ED, do you think you can getting out of here?”
“We’ve got to try,” he said simply. They rose and walked to the edge of the rock fall. Peering out through the narrow space between the uneven debris and the jagged roof Martha shuddered. The roof was insecure, and the slightest jar might cause another cave-in that would solidly close the passage. They had to risk it, however; they had no choice.
They lay prone on the debris, and stomached over it, cruelly punishing knees and elbows on the shards of broken rock. Martha’s nerves writhed; fear was a throttling tension in her throat. Fear of brushing against the rough, down thrust edges of the shaky ceiling . . . fear that Ed might faint with pain, or slip into coma, and she’d never be able to pull him on through.
But Ed kept crawling, slowly, stubbornly. Dust trickled upon Martha’s neck, and she froze, taut, waiting. A pebble struck the back of her head, and a scream rose into her throat. But nothing more fell. And then they were at the tunnel entrance.
The door had been burned away, only charred fragments clung to the hinges. And outside the passing fire had left a black, smoldering desolation of the timber and brush.
But Ed grinned shakily as they rose to their feet.
“Did you ever see sky so blue? Or sun so bright?”
Martha said gently, “No, Ed.” “Golly, the world never looked so good!”
They walked downslope, to the roadway. He wanted to start toward town, but Martha made him rest, and wait. Somebody would be coming to assess the fire damage.
A half hour passed before they heard a clattering roar. It wasn’t a truck, however: it was the helicopter, making a sweep of inspection over the basin. Martha rose and waved and called.
Dave Beatty didn’t hear her, but he did see her; and the windmill ship slanted down to an easy landing nearby.
“Say, you two sure took a beating!” Beatty exclaimed.
“We’re bloody, but unbowed!” Ed retorted.
“Ed needs treatment,” Martha said. “We’ve got to hurry!”
Beatty helped her get Ed into the cockpit.
“How about you, Doc?” Beatty demanded. “You coming along this time, or letting your patient go without
“With this patient,” she said softly, “I go along!” ★