“Drake Trustler, where is he? Still in the ambulance?” I stand up and head for the door, but Boodean grabs my arm and won’t let go.
“Becky, don’t. Drake’s gone. We have to concentrate on Captain Wolfe.”
I can hear Mrs. Ross sobbing in the other room. “No!” she says over and over. “No!” She had become quite close to Drake when he was her assistant.
“Are you sure?” Tears come to my eyes and I don’t try to hide them. “Drake was trying so hard to get well, to get over his lung problems.”
Boodean looks straight at me. “He was trying to get down the mountain to alert us about the fire. He died a hero. That’s what’s important.”
“What happened to Loonie? I thought he was with Captain Wolfe.”
“He was planning to go up with him, but the captain ordered him to stay behind and fight the blaze. The trench is halfway down to the creek, but the fire is moving fast. Can you take care of Wolfe alone? I have to get the men from the kitchen to go back and help. We need everyone!” He stops to get a drink of water from the bucket.
“Do you think we should send a couple of the corpsmen out in a truck to try to get to a telephone? Mrs. Stone’s farm is only twenty minutes away.”
“The flames are fifty-feet high, Becky. They’re fanned by the wind so they flatten out, then swoop to the earth and catch on the dry underbrush. The boys would never make it. They’d be blown off the road or the gasoline in the truck would explode. If I ever wondered what hell would be like, I know now!”
“Mrs. Ross, can you help me?” I call. “The first thing we must do is get the rest of the captain’s burned clothing off.”
“Oh, honey, I don’t think I can.” The poor lady wipes her eyes with her wet hanky, and peeks through her fingers as if trying to make the vision of the scorched captain go away. “He was such a nice man. They both were.”
“Don’t say was, Mrs. Ross. Drake is gone, but the captain’s still alive. Just get over here and help me! This probably won’t be the only burn victim we’ll get tonight.”
“I can help.” It’s Snake sitting up on his cot.
I give up on Mrs. Ross for a minute. “Here, Snake, I’ll get you a chair and you cut the rest of his trousers off. Be very gentle. I’ll take off his boots. Look at the leather soles! They’re almost burned through!”
When I first see the brave captain’s legs, I let out a long sigh. From the top of his boots to the top of his knees his skin is black and peeling. His upper thighs have a mass of blisters and his hands too. His face isn’t so bad and neither is the back of his legs or his trunk.
I share what I know with Snake. “The first rule of thumb, when assessing burn injury is . . . if more than thirty percent of the body is covered in burns, the patient will lose too much fluid and go into shock, so our task is to try to keep that from happening.” Wolfe moans and I give him a few drops of laudanum. “If he makes it though the night, we must worry about infection. This will be a close one.”
“Hello! Hello!” Mrs. Ross is on the shortwave radio again, cranking away. If only the wind would calm down, she might be able to make a connection. “Can anyone hear me?! This is CCC Camp White Rock. Dammit! Pick up! We have a wildfire here and we need help!”
Snake and I look at each other, and though our situation is dire, we can’t help but smile. To my knowledge, no one has ever heard Mrs. Ross swear before.
I call the panicked woman over. “Mrs. Ross, I want you to run to the kitchen for sugar.” She looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. “When you come back I’ll show you how to feed the captain saline-sugar water with a dropper. We want to get a cup in the captain every hour,” I explain. “With so much of his skin gone, he’s losing his life fluids.” The secretary bustles off, happy to have a job that doesn’t involve looking at a scorched body.
Outside, the sky is crimson, a towering inferno. Sparks whirl up as another pine explodes and the blaze takes flight like a flock of red birds. I notice my breathing is way too fast.
Terror, the word comes to me. We are afraid, but the fire is afraid too and is fleeing the men across the mountain.
Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
When we hear the horn blast the second time, we are ready. Snake can’t do much lifting, but I’ve found him a crutch and he’s fixed another cot with clean sheets and a pillow. Mrs. Ross is still feeding the captain fluids drop by drop.
This time, Boodean brings back three patients, but thankfully they are all ambulatory, another burn victim, a second fellow with a dangling arm, and a third, Loonie Tinkshell, who just needs to lie down because he can’t catch his breath.
“It’s terrible out there, Miss Becky,” Loonie pants. “Hotter than Hades. . . . Fire jumped the creek . . . burning across the fields. . . .” He gulps air two or three times, just to get through one sentence. “You’re going to need more cots. I’ll go to the dorms. Get you some more blankets and pillows.”
“Loonie, just rest. Just stop talking and rest. Someone else can get the pillows. Here, take a drink of water and lie down.”
“He’s right, though,” Boodean tells us as he stays to get the three men situated. “It’s hell out there and the fire is spreading. If the boys can just get the trench finished in time, we can save the camp. Then we’ll just keep beating the flames with wet burlap sacks if they try to skip over.” He talks about the fire as if it had an evil mind of its own and he doesn’t say what will happen if they can’t get the trench finished.
“Unfortunately, we’ve lost contact with Lou Cross and his crew. It’s too dark and too crazy to do a roll call, and no one has seen them since morning. On the other hand, we got a couple of people coming in from Liberty the back way. Had to go all the way to Delmont to get in here. Apparently, one of your emergency calls got through to Sheriff Hardman, Mrs. Ross. . . . Gotta keep moving.” Before I can say good-bye, the medic rushes out the door.
“We need music,” Mrs. Ross says, and at first I think she’s lost her marbles. “Something to soothe us. The one thing the superintendent didn’t take with him was his Victrola. How about Count Basie, ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’?”
The melody is a nice touch and between feeding the captain the sugar-water and restarting the recording, Mrs. Ross now has a full-time job. She even manages to make us some coffee.
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