VIEWS: 9 PAGES: 24 POSTED ON: 4/21/2012
Fire On the Mountain by Friscogirl KINGSTON’S MAIN STREET Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry stepped onto the boardwalk of the Jackson Hotel and took in the busy street. A woman balancing an infant in one arm and a shopping bag in the other hurried by them. Next door at the mercantile a clerk flipped the “open” sign to “closed,” locked the door and strode purposefully away. A wagon loaded with lumber creaked by, kicking up dust from the street. Kid pushed his hat back off his forehead and wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve. “Sure is a hot day.” Heyes squinted up at the sky and nodded in agreement. “Sure is. We could use some rain.” Curry grinned. “And I could sure use a cold beer about now.” Heyes returned the smile and pointed to the saloon across the street. “Just what I was thinking.” A splintered sign over the batwing doors boasted the name The Dancing Jug. The red paint was peeling and faded, and the wooden building looked beaten down from the elements. But music from an out-of-tune piano added some cheeriness to the dusty street, and from the sound of laughter and loud whistles accompanying it, it appeared to be doing a good business. Heyes and Curry headed across the street, stepping aside as another wagon loaded with uncut timber lurched by them. Just as they reached the saloon entrance, a half-dozen men in dusty work boots and sweat-stained shirts rolled up to their elbows, pushed their way past them and lurched inside. “Hey!” Curry complained as one man shoved into him, pushing him off balance and bumping him into Heyes. The man swiveled towards him with a glare; he was taller than Curry and looked like a nasty piece of business. He had a half-smoked cigar clenched in his mouth and a scruffy beard that hadn’t seen a barber for a long time. “You got a beef with me, boy?” He raised his fist, but his companion pulled him away. “Take it easy, Jake,” he urged. “Don’t get into a fight. The night ain’t even begun.” He pushed Jake through the door and looked over at the partners. “Sorry, fellas. It’s payday, and my friend has already been celebratin’ some.” Curry accepted the apology with a nod, and followed the man inside the saloon, trailed by Heyes. They looked appraisingly around the room. It was filled with men looking for ways to spend their money. At the long bar men stood elbow to elbow, keeping the two bartenders busy filling glasses with whiskey and beer. A faro dealer in a starched white shirt was tending to a busy table. Next to him a felt-covered table was surrounded by men shooting craps. A plump blonde in a short ruffled skirt with black stockings was doing some kind of dance to the piano music. The men clustered around the little stage showed their appreciation with wolf whistles and loud applause. Heyes and Curry stepped over to one of several card tables where four men were playing poker. “Can we join in?” asked Heyes. The players exchanged glances, and one man in a business suit nodded. “Pull up a chair.” A saloon waitress in a tightly corseted, red satin dress was at the table in an instant. “What’ll you have, gentlemen?” she asked, leaning between Heyes and Curry and showing off her ample bosom. Curry grinned at her. “Two beers. As cold as you got ’em.” She winked and pushed her way through the crowd back over to the bar. The players ended their round, and the man in the suit began dealing new cards. “Ante’s a quarter,” he said. Heyes and Curry tossed in their coins and took their cards. “My name’s Al Winston,” the dealer said by way of introduction. “I manage the loading dock down at the river.” “I’m Joshua Smith, and my partner here is Thaddeus Jones.” The men exchanged nods. “What brings you fellas to Kingston?” asked another player. He was wearing working clothes; his half-buttoned red-flannel shirt revealed a sweat-stained Henley. “Just passing through,” Heyes replied. “Looking for work. Two,” he said to Winston, and pulled in the new cards. “Mill ain’t hirin’,” the workman said. “Not much else here. Only one thing in Kingston, and that’s lumber. And we got plenty of trees to keep us busy.” Another player dressed in similar well-worn denim pants and a blue-checked shirt grunted in agreement. “Until the snows come.” “We could use some snow about now,” said the first workman. “Ain’t felt it so hot since I can remember.” “I’d settle for rain,” said Winston. “When was the last time it rained, anyhow?” The men shrugged. “A long time,” said the second worker. “Too long. Months.” “I call,” announced Winston, and revealed his cards. Two pair. Heyes laid his cards down. “I have three jacks,” he said with a smile, and pulled in the coins. The saloon girl returned and placed two glasses of beer on the table, and Curry paid her with a wink. She batted her false eyelashes at him and moved away, swinging her hips for all she was worth. Curry chuckled and returned to his cards. Heyes glanced over at Winston. “So how does that work, putting lumber onto barges?” Winston frowned at his cards and laid them on the table. “I pass.” He looked over at Heyes. “The wood is hauled in by wagon from where the cutters are working, about five miles from here. They bring it to the mill, which you mighta seen when you came in, sits right on the river. Once the wood is cut up proper, it’s hauled onto the loading docks at the edge of the mill. You see, it’s much easier to move lumber over water than over mountain roads. About twenty miles downriver is Greenview, where the barges unload. And then the wood is put onto the train and taken to Boise.” “But why not load onto trains right here?” asked Curry. “That’s how we came in. Two cards.” “We’re just a branch line. Trains don’t come in regular.” Curry tossed down his hand. “I fold.” Heyes spread out his hand. “Straight, tens high.” The other players sighed and tossed down their cards. Heyes grinned. “Looks like it’s my lucky night.” He raised an eyebrow. “Anyone care to up the ante a bit?” HOTEL ROOM – LATER THAT NIGHT When they returned to their hotel room, Curry immediately walked over to the window and pulled it open. He sniffed the air, and sighed. “I was hopin’ it would cool down by now. It’s as hot outside as it is in here.” He took off his hat and tossed it on the table. Heyes unbuckled his gun belt and coiled it over a bedpost. The room was no different from the hundreds they’d stayed in since trying for their amnesty; one lumpy double bed with a brass headstand. A chipped wood cabinet holding a pitcher of water and bowl for washing. A small wooden table by the window with two straight-back chairs. “But the cards were hot, too, Kid! We got fifty dollars from those lumbermen!” Kid grinned. “Too bad they can’t cut cards as good as they cut wood!” Heyes groaned and rolled his eyes. “So, whaddya think?” Curry asked. “Stay another day, or push on?” Heyes’ answer was interrupted by a crack of lightning, followed by a loud rumble of thunder. Heyes glanced towards the window. “Maybe a storm’s coming. Cool things off.” “Well?” Kid pressed. “I dunno, Kid. I don’t suppose there will be much poker tomorrow, being that it’s Sunday.” He sat down on the bed and began removing his boots. “I guess we should push off. We’ll check the train schedule after breakfast.” Another rumble of thunder sounded, further away this time. Then the night sky was lit up by a quick series of lightning bolts, and a fresh round of thunder. Kid turned from the window and began unbuttoning his vest. “I don’t like lightnin’ storms,” he muttered. Heyes pulled off his shirt and trousers, and stretched out onto the bed. “Aw, Kid,” he teased. “Don’t let ’em scare ya. Remember what Grampa used to say: ‘it’s just the thunder having a conversation with the lightning.’” Kid smiled. “Yeah. And the lightnin’ don’t much like all the yammerin’.” He put his gun belt over the other bedpost and unbuttoned his shirt and trousers before lying down next to his partner. Heyes reached over and blew out the lamp. TRAIN STATION – NEXT MORNING Heyes stood peering at the faded train schedule and frowned at the Kid. Clusters of townspeople milled around the platform; most carried traveling bags as they waited in line at the ticket office. Children scampered about playing tag. The adult faces looked anxious. “It looks like there’s only one train coming through today,” Heyes reported. “Due to arrive in about…” He pushed his hat off his forehead in annoyance. “Wait a minute, there’s an asterisk.” Curry was staring lazily down the tracks to over at the river, where several idle barges were moored, sinking heavily into the water under the weight of huge stacks of logs. “There’s always an asterisk to confuse things,” he commented. Heyes scratched his hair. “Well, it looks like a train comes in two hours. Connects in Greenview. Just like Winston said.” Curry joined him and looked cursorily at the schedule before glancing up at the cloudy sky. He sniffed. “I smell smoke.” Heyes scanned the sky as well. “Look!” He pointed off to the left. “Lots of smoke coming from there.” The smoke was dark and billowing high into the sky. Kid raised an eyebrow at his partner. “Hate to say it, but it sure looks like a forest fire. Maybe from the lightnin’?” Heyes stared at the smoke a moment before returning to the schedule. “Well, the train is coming from the north and heading down the valley. At least that’s away from it.” “If we can get tickets,” said Curry, nodding in the direction of the line at the ticket office. “Sure are a lot of folks travelin’ today.” Before Heyes could reply, a man in the uniform of a station manager stepped from the ticket office and onto a wooden bench. “Folks!” he called out in a reedy voice. He pushed his spectacles closer to his eyes and read from a small piece of paper. “Got some bad news! Listen up!” The would-be passengers stopped talking and clustered around him expectantly. “The train coming from Upton had to turn back at the Boise River. Seems a forest fire took out the trestle. Nothing can get through. The river stopped the fire from spreadin’, but the trestle needs to be repaired.” A loud, unhappy murmur greeted the announcement. “Can you wire for a train to come up from Greenview?” one man shouted. The station manager peered at the man through his spectacles. “Already sent it. At least the telegraph lines are holding up. I told them we have a lot of people anxious to leave town. But I haven’t heard about anything comin’ from that way. Mebbe. Mebbe not.” The murmurs grew louder, and Heyes and Curry exchanged apprehensive glances. Suddenly a man in a dark business suit elbowed his way through the crowd and joined the conductor on the bench. He spread out his arms, motioning for quiet. “Look, I know there’s a lot of smoke blowing in. And I know it’s worrisome. But it’s too early to panic. What we need to do is concentrate on putting the fire out instead of runnin’ away from it.” “Mayor,” one man shouted, “I’ve seen what fire can do. It ain’t rained in months, and that fire is gonna spread fast. These woods are gonna go up like torches! The town could be next!” Another man who was standing with his arm around his wife waved his hand for attention. “We have women and children to worry about! We gotta get them out of here just in case.” Loud voices joined his, and the mayor motioned again for quiet. “I know, I know!” he said placatingly. “And Burt here,” he motioned to the manager, “told you he’s trying to get a train in. But meantime, I want every one of you who can stand on two feet to meet up at the livery. We’re bringing in wagons and shovels, and we expect every man jack to pitch in to help us build a firewall. We already have crews from the mill up on the mountain, but we need all the help we can get. The lumber foreman tells me the fire’s big, and movin’ fast.” “But what about…?” “I need to stay with my children!” “This ain’t fair!” The mayor ignored the questions and pushed his way back through the angry crowd. “C’mon!” he shouted testily back at the men still standing on the platform. “Get a move on!” The men exchanged unhappy looks and started walking. “Whaddya think?” Curry asked Heyes as they headed back to the hotel. Heyes looked around at the flurry of activity on the dusty street; carts and wagons moving every which way; horses whinnying; women hurrying along the boardwalk tugging frightened children, some covering their mouths with handkerchiefs to try to avoid the thickening smoke. “I don’t think we got a choice, Kid,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna sell us a horse to ride out of here on our own. And we’ll look downright suspicious if we don’t pitch in. Think about it! We’re in just as much danger as everyone else around here.” Curry nodded soberly. “You’re right. Let’s catch up with the others.” THE LIVERY When they arrived at the livery, there were already more than two dozen men standing in small, anxious groups alongside the corrals. Several wagons were hitched up and ready to move out. The partners joined them. “I’m Caleb McGee,” a loud voice called out. The partners eyed a muscular man standing at the livery doors. He looked to be in his fifties, with a bald head and a gray whiskered face, wearing soiled overalls and a checkered cotton shirt. The men stopped their conversations and gave him their attention. “I’m one of the foremen at the mill,” he said in a raspy voice. “I’m gonna put you in teams and head you up the valley to join my men. We got a chance to stop this thing if we get movin’ fast. So far the fire’s keepin’ close to the ground, and if it don’t head for the treetops, we should be able to stop it by diggin’ a trench where the canyon narrows.” He pointed to a pile of shovels and pickaxes stacked by the stable door. “Grab somethin’ to work with and get on a wagon. No time to waste.” Heyes picked up a shovel and handed it to his partner. He was reaching for a pickaxe when McGee pulled his arm. “Take off those sidearms,” he barked. “Ammunition and fire are a bad mix. You won’t have time to do any shootin’ anyhow, and the guns will just get in the way of your work.” He scowled when Heyes and Curry hesitated and exchanged worried looks. “Or is there some other reason you need to go around armed?” Heyes shrugged and began unbuckling his belt, motioning to Curry to do the same. McGee took their weapons and stacked them on a crate inside the stable door. Heyes and Curry jumped aboard a dusty wagon with six other men. “Don’t feel right leavin’ our guns behind,” Kid said softly, leaning close to his partner so no one could hear. Heyes shrugged. “Didn’t really have a choice, did we?” The man seated next to the driver turned to his passengers. He was young, in his twenties, with long blond hair tied in a ragged ponytail. “I’m Swanson. Looks like we got a full house here. Road’s gonna be kind of rough, so settle in best you can. We’ll get to where we’re workin’ in about an hour.” The driver whistled to the horses and the wagon lurched forward. They drove past the hotel, the mercantile, an assay office and the town bank, and in minutes left the small town behind. Soon they were moving uphill into the forest. Heyes fingered his pick handle uneasily as he stared at the thick growth of trees and underbrush pressing in on the narrow road. His felt Curry’s hand bump against him, and looked over to see Kid taking in the passing scenery, patting the empty space above his right knee. Heyes nudged him and looked meaningfully at his leg. Brown eyes met blue. Kid pursed his lips, then sighed. The patting stopped. Swanson turned back to them. “Any of you men every done any fire fightin’?” “Nope.” “Never.” “First time.” There were general nods all around. “Well, I’ve seen me a few,” Swanson continued. “There’s no real trick in fightin’ a fire. Biggest thing is to get there before it’s goin’ completely wild. I got a feelin’ this one is still building strength, so maybe we got a chance to rein it in. So, just keep together; don’t wander off on your own. If the flames come close, never ever turn your back on ’em.” The men in the wagon were giving him their complete attention. “Cover up your nose and mouth,” Swanson continued. “It’s gonna be hot and nasty work. But we got no choice. The town’s countin’ on us.” Swanson turned to say something to the driver, and the work crew exchanged anxious glances. “Just the kind of work we always try to avoid,” Curry said to Heyes softly. Heyes grimaced. “Not this time, Thaddeus. Not this time.” He moved his axe handle to his left hand and stretched the fingers of his right. IN THE CANYON The wagons pulled up to where there was a small break in the forest. Canyon walls rose on both sides, covered with trees and large boulders. The wagon crews silently jumped to the ground and looked around warily. The horses snorted and started pawing the rocky ground with their hooves. The smoke was much thicker here; thick enough that those who wore them immediately took off their bandanas and wrapped them around their faces. Heyes and Curry took off their jackets and tossed them back in the wagon and untied their neckerchiefs. They could see other men already at work digging a trench. None of them took the time to look up at the newcomers. “OK men!” Swanson instructed, and motioned with his shovel. “Everyone pitch in and dig like your life depended on it.” “Hell, Swanson,” one of the workers snorted, “I think it does!” Curry and Heyes frowned uneasily at each other, and moved over to join the line of diggers. No one spoke much. Occasional grunts showed the difficulty of digging through compacted earth and stones. Heyes started swinging the axe to break up the dense clay to help Curry dig in with his shovel. “This needs to be at least three feet deep,” Swanson instructed as he began handing around canteens of water. Heyes looked down the line of hardworking men and frowned. The trench looked to be only a foot or so deep and just a few dozen feet long. Curry took a swallow from the canteen and handed it to his partner. Heyes nodded thankfully and took a few swallows before passing it along to the sweating man working next to him. He wiped his shirt sleeve across his forehead. It came back streaked with soot and dust. “Is it my imagination?” he asked Kid, “or is it hotter than it was before?” Curry squinted off towards where the smoke was coming from. “It is hotter. Fire must be gettin’ closer.” “That’s reassuring!” Heyes snorted and lifted up his pick axe. “Don’t ask somethin’ if you don’t want to know the answer,” Curry grumbled. He pushed his boot down on the shovel and grunted from the effort. Heyes swung the pick down, narrowly missing Curry’s boot. “Hey!” Kid protested, “watch what you’re doin’!” “Keep your foot out of my way then!” They exchanged grumpy glares. They looked up from their grumbling as a man ran towards them from the direction of the smoke. His face was black with soot, and sweat poured down his neck. His dirty Henley was singed in spots. His eyes were wide with fear. “It’s movin’ fast!” he shouted. “It could be here in a couple of minutes!” Swanson stepped over to him and grabbed his shoulders to stop him from running away. “Is it still keepin’ to the ground? Or is it movin’ into the trees?” “Both!” the man gasped, and thirstily gulped from the canteen Swanson handed him. “Trees are explodin’ like torches.” Heyes and Curry exchanged wary looks. Heyes took off his hat and ran his fingers through his dripping hair. The men around him were looking up at the sky uneasily. Swanson turned back to them. “You heard the man! It’s comin’ fast. So dig even faster!” Curry dug his shovel into the unyielding earth and scowled at his stubborn target. “Is this gonna be wide enough to stop a fire?” he asked Swanson, who had started digging next to him. Swanson shrugged. “It’s as wide as we can make it. We ain’t had much time.” “You ever seen this work?” Swanson nodded. “I’ve seen it work. Depends on the strength of the fire. How fast the wind is pushing it. How close it stays to the ground. If it jumps over us…” He left the rest of what he was going to say unspoken, and pounded his shovel more forcefully into the dirt. They all looked up, startled by at a loud roaring sound that seemed to rush in from overhead. Curry watched in amazement as flames tore up through a tall pine tree not a dozen feet from them. The tree turned brilliant orange and yellow, and started to fall. He glanced over to his partner, who was still working the axe, oblivious to the danger. “Joshua! Get down!” Curry pushed his partner unceremoniously into the ditch, tumbling down next to him as he did so. Swanson jumped in beside them, tripping over Curry’s legs. They cringed and pulled their hats down over their faces as a wall of heat blew against them. The tree made a loud groaning sound and suddenly toppled over the ditch between them and another group of cowering diggers. A man screamed. Curry looked up to see a worker bolt from the ditch with his shirt on fire. Another man leapt out after him and shoved him to the ground. “Roll over, Harvey! Roll over!” he urged. The two men writhed in the dirt until the flames were extinguished. Heyes and Curry crouched uncertainly in the ditch beside the now-smoldering tree. Heyes peered up as some undergrowth a few yards away exploded in flames, and winced. Swanson straightened carefully and peered through the choking smoke. No other trees were on fire. Yet. “We gotta get out of here!” he shouted. The crew wasted no time in gathering their equipment and heading at a full run towards the wagons. The horses were whinnying in fright as ashes fell onto them from the sky, and the wagon drivers were struggling to keep them under control. When all the men were aboard, the horses needed no encouragement to run full speed away from the flames. IN A CLEARING The crews had dismounted and were milling about the wagons while the drivers took a few minutes to give the sweating horses some much needed water. “That didn’t work out so well, did it?” Curry asked his partner. Heyes shook his head. “That was too close.” He used his bandana to wipe off his face, then tied it back around his neck. He stared thoughtfully back at the distant smoke, and suddenly straightened, turning to Curry with a twinkle in his eyes. “Thaddeus, I just remembered something.” Curry gave his partner a puzzled look. “Hey!” Heyes called to Swanson, and the young man jogged over to them. “There might be another way to make a fire break.” Swanson stared at him. “What other way?” “I remember reading in a newspaper about a fire that was put out with dynamite.” “Dynamite!??” Swanson’s look of puzzlement turned to skepticism. “How can a stick of dynamite put out a fire?” Some of the other crew members drew in closer to eavesdrop. “No, not just a stick of dynamite!” Heyes voice rose in pitch and enthusiasm as he remembered details from the article. “A whole string of dynamite, set off in a long line. Everything connected with wires. The newspaper said it blew a huge gap into the forest. Stopped the fire in its tracks. I remember it now.” “Never heard of such a thing.” “If my partner remembers readin’ it, it happened,” Curry put in. “It was in Montana!” Heyes said enthusiastically. “Maybe six months ago.” Swanson scratched his head. “I dunno.” “I tell you, it worked!” Heyes waved his hand in the direction of the fire. “What do we have to lose? Digging ditches by hand isn’t working.” “Worth a try,” one of the crew members cut in. “Hell, anything is worth a try,” said another. A general murmur of agreement echoed through the listening group of dirty men. “All right then,” Swanson said, nodding to the crew as he came to a decision. He turned back to Heyes. “But do you know anything about dynamite?” Heyes threw a grin at Curry, who was trying not to snicker. “Yeah. I’ve had some experience. Uh, working for a mining company awhile back.” Swanson looked relieved. “Then take a wagon and go pick up what you think we’ll need. We store the dynamite in a small brick building in an empty lot behind the train station. We keep it handy for the mill as well as local mines and the railroad.” He dug into his pocket and handed Heyes a key. “This’ll let you in.” Heyes took the key and winked at his partner. Swanson turned back to the crew. “While they get the explosives, let’s get to work and clear what brush we can from this area. No sense sittin’ around doin’ nothin’.” “I’ll drive, you ride shotgun,” Heyes said as they clambered into the wagon. Curry snorted. “As if I had a shotgun!” Heyes took the reins and whistled to the team of horses, and they set off back to Kingston. BEHIND THE TRAIN STATION Curry carried the last box of explosives carefully from the storage building and gently eased it onto the wagon. Stacked alongside the crates of dynamite were digging tools, wires and blasting caps. Heyes wiped the dust off his gloves and frowned as he locked the door. “Funny, this thing wasn’t locked when we got here.” Curry shrugged. “Guess somebody was careless.” “I suppose.” Heyes didn’t look like he was convinced. “You sure you got everything?” Curry whispered, looking around nervously to see if they were being watched. Heyes laughed. “Kid, why are ya whispering? We’re not doing anything illegal, ya know!” Curry grimaced. “Old habits, partner. You sure you got what’s needed’?” “Yeah. Trust me, Kid. We’ve done this before, you know.” Curry untied the horses and stepped gingerly up into the wagon, as if he were mounting a skittish horse. “Yeah, I know, Heyes.” He picked up the reins. “Sure could use Kyle about now.” He grinned as Heyes gently joined him on the seat. “Kyle would be in seventh heaven,” Heyes grinned back. Curry whistled to the team and flicked lightly on the reins. “Okay, fellas. Nice and smooth. Pretend we’re a baby carriage.” Heyes snorted as they moved slowly out of the storage yard. It was noticeably quiet now, with only a few men milling about. A woman was pulling a complaining child towards the train station. “Hey!” Heyes exclaimed, pointing to the loading platform. “A train came in after all.” The boarding area looked like a mad house. The train was only pulling three passenger cars, and people were shouting angrily and pushing and shoving to get on board. Curry reined in the horses to watch. He saw a man with a star on his vest push his way through the crowd and jump onto the mounting platform of the train’s locomotive. The man suddenly unholstered his gun and fired a shot in the air. It was immediately quiet except for the puffing sound of steam coming from the engine room. Heyes glanced at Curry with a raised eyebrow. “Only women and children are to get on board!” the sheriff shouted. “I told you before. Men, you gotta stay here and help protect the town! You’re gonna be needed if the crews up the mountain can’t hold back the fire.” Angry shouts greeted the order. “You can’t be the one decidin’ who boards and who doesn’t,” one heavyset man in blue overalls yelled. He had his arm protectively around his wife, who was looking around her with terrified eyes. “I ain’t lettin’ my woman go alone.” “Then she doesn’t go,” snapped the sheriff. He jumped off the engine car back to the platform, ignoring the sputtering protest from the man. The partners watched as a conductor booted two men in suits out of a passenger car. People on board the train had lowered the windows, and Heyes could see that the cars were completely full. Frightened faces stared out at the platform. “Geez, Kid,” he said to his partner. “I don’t blame people for wanting to get away from here. But this is crazy. People are gonna get killed before the train even leaves!” Curry nodded mutely, staring at the chaotic scene. Suddenly the train’s whistle gave a shrill screech, and the train began to slowly pull away. Another man was ejected from a car before the train picked up speed, and he landed in a heap on the gravel beside the tracks. The sheriff holstered his gun and shook his head, pushing his way through what remained of the would-be passengers, who were now standing staring down the tracks at the departing locomotive. “I’m glad at least the children got off okay,” Curry said as he clicked to the horses to move on. He coughed. “Air sure is smoky.” “Gonna get worse, Kid.” The wagon lurched in a rut in the road, and Heyes turned warily to examine the crates of dynamite. The wagon wobbled again, and two of the boxes shifted slightly. Heyes frowned and turned back to Curry. “Drive carefully now, Kid. Or this could be the end of a beautiful partnership.” Curry grinned, and flicked the reins again. “What’s happened to your sunny disposition, Heyes? I’m usually the one seein’ the dark side of things.” “You must be rubbing off on me, partner.” Heyes held tightly to the side of the wagon and glanced again uneasily over his shoulder. As they turned onto the main street, a well-dressed man in a dark suit and bowler hat watched them thoughtfully from the door of the mercantile. BACK AT THE CLEARING “Whoa!” Curry gently pulled in the reins and brought the wagon to a halt alongside the other waiting horses. Heyes stood up, stretched his back, and eased to the ground while Curry climbed into the back of the wagon. The fire crew hurried over to help them unload the explosive cargo, handing the boxes from wagon to waiting hands as if they were carrying crates of fresh eggs. “You figured out where to blow the trench?” Heyes asked Swanson. The young man nodded, and indicated a swath of dirt the crew had cleared the brush from. “That do?” Heyes nodded. “Looks good.” He turned to the pairs of men holding the crates and waiting for instruction. “Handle those real gently,” he told them. “Lay them out in a straight line along the cleared area.” One duo suddenly tripped over a rock and fumbled to keep hold of their box. Everyone froze with anxious eyes as they watched the two struggle before they found their balance. “Sheesh,” Heyes said in annoyance. “I told ya to be real careful. This stuff can go off if it’s shaken hard.” The men looked chagrined, and slowly moved away. “We brought punch bars to make the holes,” Heyes told Swanson. Curry began tossing the bars to waiting hands. “So here’s what ya do,” Heyes said, clearly relishing his job as leader. “Punch holes maybe two feet apart, and about a foot or so deep. We’ll stick a cartridge in each hole, attach the blasting caps, and then we need to connect all the wires to a lead wire. Got it?” The men nodded. “How this works,” Heyes continued, “is the sticks will explode one right after another within seconds, making a blast so powerful it will act like a huge gust of really strong wind. If we do our job right, it will be as simple as blowing out a candle.” He grinned, and the men chuckled. “A very BIG candle. You combine the force of the air with the big hole the blast is gonna leave, and that should be enough to put out the fire. What doesn’t go out, we can put out with all the dirt that’s gonna be blown up.” The men quickly set to work. Curry moved along the line making sure the job was done properly, occasionally squatting down for closer inspection. He made his way over to where Heyes was industriously splicing wires together where the string of explosives would end. “It’s almost like blowin’ a railroad track,” Kid said softly. Heyes nodded, his eyes intent on his work. “But this time we aim to make a big hole.” He squinted up the valley at the dense smoke billowing up over the trees. “At least I hope so.” “The air is sure gettin’ hot,” Curry said as he used his sleeve again to wipe his sweaty face. Heyes stood and used his hat to fan his face. “Fire’s real close.” He looked up and down the line of holes. “Just hope we have enough time.” OUTSIDE THE BACK DOOR OF THE TOWN BANK A man clad in a black suit made his way furtively around the Kingston Bank building, looking around nervously as he ducked into a narrow alley. There was no one else in the area. He hesitated a moment, then hurried up to the back door. Reaching into his coat, he pulled out a stick of dynamite fitted with a fuse. He leaned forward and carefully struck a match, leaping back behind a storage shed as the fuse began to hiss and the tiny flame inched towards the explosive. When it ignited, it blew a huge hole in the door. The man stepped out from behind the shed, looked around him carefully, and darted into the building. Moments later another explosion could be heard. BACK AT THE MEADOW “We finished the last hole!” Swanson shouted from the opposite end of the line of holes from where Heyes was finishing up the wiring. The men who’d been laying the dynamite straightened up and looked at Heyes for further instructions. Heyes stood up and walked along the line of holes, carefully made sure the blasting caps were properly connected. “All right!” Heyes called out, and waved his arm towards where the horses and wagons were tethered. “Everyone pull back a couple hundred feet. Move the wagon teams, too. And make sure you hold good and tight onto the horses. The explosion is really gonna spook them. I’ll wait here until the flames get real close before I set her off.” The men scurried to obey. Heyes pulled out a match and a flint from his vest, and watched nervously as the wall of yellow and orange snaked towards him. Curry stood silently beside him, his eyes squinting as he judged the fire’s distance. “How long’s the fuse?” he asked. “Thirty seconds, give or take.” They stared at the approaching flames, waiting. Curry licked his lips nervously, glancing down at the match in Heyes’ hand. When the flames felt almost close enough to singe the hair off his neck, Heyes struck the match against the flint. “Here’s to a really big bang,” he grinned to Curry. The fuse lit up and began to hiss noisily, and the partners took off at a dead run. “Everyone hit the ground!” Heyes ordered as he reached the crouching work crew and dove onto the dirt. It was several breath-holding seconds before the ground shook from the force of fifty sticks of dynamite blowing, one after another. Dirt and debris flew in every direction as a wall of air pummeled them, sending hats flying and pulling shirts out of trousers. The men began coughing from the dust and ash, and the horses were shrieking and rearing up in terror. Then it was still. Heyes got slowly to his feet and wiped the grime from his face. He caught Swanson’s questioning gaze. In unison they looked back towards the trench; there was no trace of the fire. “Let’s go see,” Swanson said. They found a deep pit some five feet wide and two feet deep crossing the opening of the canyon. Piles of dense ash, some still smoldering from the spent flames, spread away from them more than a dozen yards. Swanson whistled. “Lord have mercy,” he exclaimed. Heyes pushed his hat away from his forehead with a look of satisfaction. Curry patted him on the shoulder. “Good job, Joshua.” Behind them they heard the men cheering. THE SALOON Caleb McGee raised a glass of beer and tipped it in the direction of Heyes and Curry. “Let’s hear it for a man with a good memory!” he exclaimed, and was joined by a chorus of “Here! Here!” from the other crewmen gathered around them along the bar. Heyes raised his glass back at them, and took a deep swallow of the drink, smiling in pleasure. “Just glad it worked out, fellas.” “You shoulda seen it,” Swanson said to the foreman. “Wham! Trees fallin’, bushes scatterin’ every which ways. Dirt everywhere. And when it cleared, a big open space. Fire just couldn’t handle it. I left some men out there to keep watch on things, to make sure the fire don’t rebuild. But I think we took the energy out of it.” The other men nodded with proud smiles on their faces. They were all smudged with soot, except where the bandanas had been wrapped to protect them. Curry and Heyes clinked their beer glasses. “I don’t know about you, Joshua, but I could use a bath.” He glanced down at his dust-covered trousers. Heyes nodded. “You got that right. Let’s finish up here and see if the hotel can provide.” They downed their beers in a few big gulps and turned to the door, just as the sheriff they had seen at the train station stepped into the room with an undeniable air of authority. He was tall and muscular, and had eyes that didn’t miss much. Both Heyes and Curry zeroed in on the tin badge on his vest, and shared an uneasy look. “You the two strangers who came in for the dynamite?” he asked them bluntly. McGee hurried over to join them. “Yes, indeed!” he beamed. “They saved the day, Sheriff. Stopped the fire in its tracks. Wish you could have seen it. Heck, I wish I could have seen it, but I had to oversee things in town, don’t ya know.” The sheriff’s eyes bored into the two partners. “A lot of things I would have liked to have seen. Including who it was dynamited the back door of the bank sometime today. I found the door busted open when I was checking to make sure all the town’s buildings were secure.” Heyes looked to his partner in alarm before giving the sheriff his most innocent expression. “You’re not suggesting we had anything to do with it, are you Sheriff?” he asked. “As you just heard, we’ve been pretty busy trying to put out a forest fire. Just look at us!” He shook his ash-covered vest to make his point. The sheriff sneezed. “But maybe not too busy to make a little detour at the abandoned bank and helpin’ yourselves to what was inside.” “Then why don’t we have the money on us?” Curry asked, trying not to sound belligerent. He patted the dust and soot off his shirt, causing the sheriff to sneeze again. The sheriff glared at Curry as he wiped the dust from his nose. “You could have hid it.” “C’mon, Sheriff,” Heyes protested. “Anyone could have robbed the bank. Everyone in town was pretty preoccupied with getting OUT of town. When we rode in, there wasn’t hardly anyone on the streets.” “Most of the folks seemed to be at the station,” added Curry. “We saw you had a pretty rough time of it getting’ the women and children on board.” The sheriff shrugged. “Fear turns people into savages. I guess it’s human nature.” He pulled his gun slowly from its holster and pointed it at Heyes and Curry. “But that’s beside the point. Let’s all go down to my office and talk this over, shall we?” He motioned to the door. “After you, gentlemen.” Curry and Heyes exchanged worried glances and did as they were told. SHERIFF’S OFFICE Heyes paced up and down in front of the sheriff’s cluttered desk. Curry settled into an armchair watching Heyes’ movement, until his eye was caught by two prominent posters tacked up next to the window. He turned quickly back to look at the sheriff. Heyes caught his movement and looked over at the wall, swerving hurriedly back towards the sheriff and in the opposite direction of the posters. “I tell you, Sheriff, we had no time to break into the bank,” he said insistently. “Nor would we want to! We’re law-abiding citizens.” Heyes slapped his right leg. “We aren’t even wearing guns. Now, I ask you, would a bank robber walk around without a weapon? I ask you!” The sheriff poured himself a cup of coffee and perched on the edge of his desk with a scowl. “Probably not, but you gotta admit, you’re the likely suspects. You were in town. You had the key to the dynamite shed. Nobody was around to pay you no heed. And it seems you know a lot about handling explosives.” Heyes stopped his pacing and straightened as he remembered something. “Wait a minute! We didn’t need the key to the storage shed. The door was already unlocked.” “Is that so?” The sheriff didn’t sound impressed. “That’s a fact, Sheriff,” Curry put in. “We thought it was kinda strange. There wasn’t anyone else around who seemed to have any business with the shed, so we locked it up before we left.” “Locked it real carefully,” Heyes asserted. “So somebody else could have taken advantage of the situation and helped themselves,” Curry pointed out. “And after they robbed the bank, just how could they have gotten out of town?” asked the sheriff in disbelief. “I didn’t allow men to board the train.” Heyes’ eyes bored into him. “Nobody could have slipped by you? What with all the commotion and all?” “Sheriff, you can search our hotel room if you want.” This, from Curry. “You won’t find anything there.” “I already sent a deputy to have a look-see,” said the sheriff. “He didn’t find anything. It still don’t mean you didn’t stash it somewhere.” Heyes sighed dramatically. ‘”See, Thaddeus?” he asked rhetorically. “This is what we get for trying to be good citizens.” Curry rolled his eyes. “How much money are we talking about, anyhow?” continued Heyes. “Are we talking sacks of cash to be hauled right in the open down the street?” A shrug from the sheriff. “Don’t actually know. I can’t find Harold.” Pause. “The banker,” he added, seeing their puzzlement. Heyes put an amazed expression on his face. “You mean the banker lit out of town leaving his bank unprotected and all the money inside?” The sheriff shrugged and sipped his coffee. Heyes turned to his partner. “Does that make any sense to you, Thaddeus?” Curry looked offended. “Sure don’t. If I was the banker, I’d keep close watch on the money. The town’s money,” he added for emphasis. “Downright unprofessional, if you ask me.” “What are you trying to suggest?” the sheriff asked sharply. “Are you implying Harold Stanton had something to do with this?” He slammed his coffee cup onto the desk. “Nonsense! He’s one of our town’s most upstanding citizens! He’s on the mayor’s council, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t say he lit out of town, just that I can’t find him.” “I was just making an observation, Sheriff,” said Heyes. “I agree with my friend, Thaddeus. A man should protect his and his town’s property.” He started pacing again. “So this Stanton…he’s not at the bank and I assume he’s not at his home?” He paused to look questioningly at the sheriff, who shook his head. “Could he have ridden off?” “I’ve never seen him on a horse.” “I’m still bettin’ on the train,” opined Curry. “Impossible!” scoffed the sheriff. “I told you, only women and children were allowed to board.” “Maybe a little money changed hands with the engineer or a conductor,” Heyes suggested. “A banker is likely to have plenty of spare change.” The sheriff stood up and confronted Heyes, glaring at him in anger. “You’re leveling some pretty serious charges, Mr. Smith. With absolutely no proof whatsoever.” “And you’re leveling some pretty serious charges at US!” Heyes snapped back. “Listen, I’m just saying WE didn’t rob the bank. Someone did who could have lit a few sticks of dynamite to make things look good, and then hightailed it with the safe’s contents. There was so much confusion and panic in town, he knew it would take a good long time to figure out what had happened. Plenty of time to get away.” The sheriff snorted, and ran his hand across the stubble on his jaw. “All right,” he conceded, “you may have a point. But why would Harold steal from his own bank?” “I could think of all sorts of good reasons,” Heyes said, helpfully. “Maybe he had debts. Maybe he had a woman on the side.” “Maybe he is just greedy,” put in Curry. “I’ve known a lot of greedy bankers in my day.” Heyes shot him a warning glare. “Have you now?” the sheriff asked suspiciously. “Did some drivin’ for Wells Fargo,” Curry quickly lied. “I seen the type.” The sheriff walked to the dusty window, and stared thoughtfully outside. “Well, if Harold did take the money, we’ll never find him. He’s miles away by now.” “You could wire the towns down the line,” Heyes suggested helpfully. The door suddenly burst open and a flustered-looking deputy hurried inside. “Sheriff, come down to the station! The train’s back!” The sheriff grabbed his hat. “What happened?” he asked as he hurried after his assistant onto the street, following closely by Heyes and Curry. “Word is they ran into another fire about twenty miles south of here. Guess that lightning storm set off a bunch of ‘em last night. They had no choice but to head back.” On the platform dozens of frightened women and children were in the process of stepping off the passenger cars, looking around anxiously. Some fell into the arms of waiting husbands. Others stood in small groups holding their bags. A baby was howling. “What’s happening, Sheriff?” the woman holding the crying child asked as he stepped onto the platform. “Why did we have to turn back?” “Ma’am,” he started to explain, but was interrupted by the town mayor, who once again had jumped atop a bench to address his voters. “Folks, take it easy now. Calm down. The town ain’t in any danger any more. The fire here’s been put out. You’re safe to go on home.” A murmur of excited conversations greeted his remarks, and people began gathering up their bundles and hurrying to the street. Heyes stepped over to the sheriff. “Stanton has to be here somewhere,” he suggested. “What’s he look like?” The sheriff’s eyes were darting at the assortment of faces. “He’s short. Got a big stomach. Big side whiskers. Always wears a bowler hat.” Heyes and Curry nodded and started moving slowly along the cars. “There!” Curry pointed to a man hopping off the other side of the engine compartment. He was dressed in a dark suit and was carrying a bulky cloth bag. “That him?” Heyes asked the sheriff, who frowned and headed towards him. “It sure is. Harold!” he shouted to the banker. Stanton started, and clutched the bag to his chest. “This is madness, Sheriff!” he sputtered. “Is there no one here who knows what’s happening?” The sheriff held out his arm. “Hand it over.” Stanton clutched the bag even tighter to his chest. “You have no right!” he protested. The sheriff lunged for the bag. Stanton pulled at it frantically and broke away. “Let me go!” He started to scurry up the slight embankment away from the tracks, but lost his balance on the gravel. He tumbled back down to the tracks, still grasping the bag as if his life depended on it. The sheriff grabbed him by the coat collar and gave him a hefty shake. “Enough, Harold! There’s nowhere to run to.” Stanton sagged in defeat. The sheriff kept his hand firmly on his coat as he opened the cloth sack. Heyes and Curry peered over his shoulder to see what was inside; stacks of neatly bundled greenbacks. They grinned at each other in relief. “It’s not what you think!” Stanton squealed. “I took the money to protect it from looters! Perfectly above board.” “Did ya have to blow up your own safe to get to the money?” asked Curry. “Forgot the combination, did you?” “As a matter of fact, I did!” Stanton blustered. “I confess, I was panicked.” “This train was only for women and children,” the sheriff said angrily. “Looks to me like you were pretty desperate to get out of town.” “To save the town’s money!” Stanton tried again. The sheriff shook his head. “Not buyin’ it, Harold. That was real foolishness.” He took hold of Stanton’s shoulder in a firm grip, and pushed him off the platform towards the jail. “I owe you two men an apology,” he called over his back to the waiting partners. “No offense taken,” Heyes said cheerfully. For a moment they watched the two men walk off down the dusty street. Then Heyes turned to his partner. “Do you think it’s safe enough to try for that bath? There’s still no way we can find transportation out of town yet.” Curry removed his hat and beat it against his filthy clothes, covering both of them with a film of dust. “Well, I expect we’ll be the town heroes long enough to accomplish that.” He grinned. “But meanwhile, I’m strappin’ my gun back on. I’m feelin’ downright nekkid, and I ain’t even in the water yet!” They shared a laugh and ambled towards the livery. Postscript The story was inspired by "The Big Burn"...a devastating fire that destroyed towns and forests in Idaho and Montana in 1910. Desperate townspeople used dynamite to try to stop the fire, but it was so huge they were unsuccessful. The fire was finally extinguished by rain. I found a description of a demonstration given to a Forester's Association in the late 1880's, where dynamite was deployed in the manner copied by Heyes.
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