“Had to threaten him with bodily harm,” the lawman chuckles.

“That’s not quite the whole story,” mumbles Blum.

“Had to pull my gun and order him to gather up his doctor stuff and get in the squad car.”

“That’s not quite it,” Blum says again. “I told you I would come, didn’t I?” He silently holds out his gloved hand as if I will know what he wants. I take a guess and hand over the scalpel. “The part about the gun is true, though, and you enjoyed it, Hardman.”

This is more than Blum has said in the last year, and he sounds almost like a regular Joe, but the banter doesn’t last. Two trucks pull up, horns blaring, and Daniel Hester slams through the door.

“Head trauma and burns,” he announces. “One of the CCC fellows found a colored boy under a fallen pine. It was so dark, he almost stepped on him. I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

“Boodean!” I look away from the surgical field. “Where’s Boodean?” The medic pokes his head through the door, tears in his eyes and I fear he is about to unravel. “Boodean, help the vet. Get the patient’s vitals. Try some smelling salts on yourself.”

“I’ll be with you in a minute, Daniel,” Blum says over his shoulder. “I’ve stopped the bleeding here. . . . Suture and needle holder, Nurse . . .”

When I look down, Rusty’s foot is not part of his body.

42

Afterburn

“In the end we saved many, most of them really.” I’m standing with Patience, the day after the fire, in the camp laundry room, our makeshift morgue, looking down at the dead. “We’ve already transferred ten men to the hospital in Torrington,” I tell her. “One of the first was Captain Wolfe; but he died in transport.”

“Oh, Becky. I’m so sorry!” Patience reaches for me, expecting me to cry, but I am done with tears and am only numb. When I touch my own skin I am numb. Even my bones are numb.

“Thirty-five were treated in the camp’s infirmary for everything from heat exhaustion to burns to broken bones. Three of those required surgery. It was amazing to watch Dr. Blum. The whole time the electricity was out, he moved among the wounded and the burned in the kerosene light like a Civil War surgeon. You heard one of the boys, Rusty, lost his foot? It was too mangled and Blum had to amputate. I’ve never seen so much death and horror.”

I am staring at the row of corpses lined up on the concrete floor wrapped in white sheets like babies. Patience has cared for them all. I offered to help, but she told me to go back to the clinic and take care of the living.

Gently she washed each body, changing the water in her white basin over and over, leaving the gauze over the burns or wounds. She closed the dead men’s eyes, put a rolled-up washcloth under their chin to keep their mouth shut, and then bundled them tight in a white sheet with only their feet sticking out; four bodies with white feet and two with brown. Little paper tags are tied on the toes and labeled with their names in Patience’s neat writing.

“Where’s Daniel?” she asks me.

“He went into Liberty for medication and supplies, Bayers, gauze, more laudanum, and some Silvardene, a new drug that’s supposed to prevent infection. Dr. Blum had used it at the hospital in Charlottesville.”

I lean over and read aloud the names of the six men, starting with one of the coloreds.

“John Doe. Who’s this?”

“No one knows. Head trauma. A tree fell on him and someone found him after the storm. We think he’s one of the homeless men who joined the firefighters. Probably has a family somewhere who’ll never know he died a hero.”

I continue reading. “Drake Trustler . . . Captain Norman Wolfe . . . Nate Bowlin . . . I met Nate Bowlin at Livia’s delivery in Hazel Patch,” I observe. . . . “And another time when he and Reverend Miller brought us some wood.”

“The boy was like kin to me,” Patience says. “Bitsy married his brother, Byrd. Nate was a real sweet kid, planned to go to college at Howard University next fall.” She takes off her wire-rimmed glasses and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “The first of his family to go on to college.”

The death count goes on as we stare at the row of bodies. Percy Bishop . . . Clarence Mitchell. This last name is familiar. . . .

“Lucy’s husband. Lucy with the twins! Clarence Mitchell.”

The sadness almost brings me to the floor. “Poor Lucy,” I whisper. “Poor Lucy and those three little kids.”

“You know this one too. Percy Bishop.” She points to a short, thick body wrapped in her neat white shroud.

“I don’t think so.”

“The Bishop brothers? Beef?”

“Beef, the son of a bitch? What was he doing here?”

The midwife looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “Fighting the fire. Don’t speak ill of the dead, Becky. Men came from all around. Daniel told me that Beef died trying to save Clarence Mitchell. Smoke inhalation.” She puts her arm around me. “Death is the great leveler, and in the end, death takes us all, the weak . . . the strong . . . the angry and loving. Mrs. Potts, used to say that some of us get nine days on this earth, some get ninety years, there’s no telling. . . . People like us should know that.”

“People like us?”

“Midwives,” says Patience. “Healers.”

Feeding the Army

Twenty-four hours after the first men left to fight the wildfire, Starvation has the wood cookstove going and is prepared to feed the Forest Army, but when we enter the mess hall, it’s as quiet as a church at midnight.

The corpsmen eat their eggs and pancakes, but have no appetite. Years later, they’ll tell stories about the Wildfire of ’35, but today they have lost good friends, have lived through a nightmare, have battled an inferno, and a motion picture of it still rolls behind their dark eyes.

CCC officers, corpsmen, and volunteers from the surrounding farms, both black and white, sit together, and I recognize a few faces. The Indian man, Mr. Hummingbird, looks up and waves a tired hand. One-Arm Wetsel is sitting with Reverend Miller, and John Dyer, the young polka-dancing father. Even the bearded, bootlegging coal miner who came to the house and his short, dark companion are here. As we walk past the tables I catch a few muted snatches of conversation.

“ . . . They estimate five thousasnd acres burned, maybe more.”

***

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