“ . . . The only green left, between here and the Hope, is the hundred acres around the camp.”
“ . . . It was the rain that saved us.”
“ . . . Did Lou Cross and his crew ever report?”
Patience and I had planned to just get coffee, but it smells so good we end up eating a whole breakfast.
“Excuse me,” Patience says when we’re almost finished. She stands and walks toward the kitchen to talk to the bald-headed cook. I can’t imagine what she’s saying. “More pancakes, please”? “Thank you for the nice meal”? She comes back with a clean, empty mason jar.
“What’s that for?” I ask, thinking it may have something to do with the burial preparations.
“My breasts,” she whispers, smiling, as if I would enjoy the joke. “They’re so full, I need to go somewhere private and get the milk out before I get a breast infection. I left the baby and Danny with Mrs. Maddock.”
“What are you going to do with the milk?”
“I don’t know. Put it in a pitcher next to Mrs. Ross’s coffee?” Here we both start laughing so hard I almost choke.
Back at headquarters, the big news is that Lou Cross and his crew have at last been rescued. Loonie Tinkshell sits on one of the wooden chairs in the waiting area projecting his voice so the men can hear through the open infirmary door.
“I went out to look for them and in a little gully about a quarter mile west of the trench, I heard a sound. Standing in a rocky area at the side of the ravine, I could hear water dripping somewhere, so I began to explore. That’s when I slid down the mining shaft. It must have been one the bootleggers’ coal mines. Their holes are all over these hills.”
Here the porch door swings open and, who should limp in, carrying a mug of steaming coffee but Lou Cross himself, still wearing his cowboy hat. He has on a clean uniform and, of course, looks quite dapper.
“There you are, you son of a bitch.” He slaps the mechanic on his back, pulls up a chair, and straddles it backward. “Pardon my French, ma’am, but he’s my friggin’ hero. We were more dead than alive when he slid into that hole.
“Here’s how it happened . . .” he begins, like a storyteller. “My boys and I found the bootleggers’ mining shaft about the same way Loonie did and it saved our lives,” Lou continues. “We were headed across the west slope, trying to meet up with the rest of the camp when the fire pounced on us like a cougar.” He smacks his hand hard on the back of his chair to make his point. “Smoke so thick and air so hot, we dropped our tools and ran, but there was no way we could outrun the flames.
“Arthur, hunched over and coughing, was in the lead one minute and the next he was gone. Fell right into the hole. Lucky for all of us, the slope was only a forty-five-degree angle, not straight down, but there were boulders at the bottom. That’s how Arthur broke his ankle.” I look across the waiting room and see a small, pale young man with his lower leg in a cast, Dr. Blum’s handiwork. Arthur grins and raises his hand, in case some of the group don’t know him.
“The rest of us were able to slow our descent by digging in our hands and heels. If it hadn’t been for that mineshaft, we’d be goners. The fire was right on our tails, drawn up the ravine like creosote in a tin stovepipe . . . Whoosh!”
“When I dropped down into the pit, I was kind of scared.” This is Loonie Tinkshell, continuing the narrative. “I wasn’t sure what I had found. ‘Hello!’ I called into the black. ‘Anyone down here?’
“‘Hell yes!’ Lou answered me. I couldn’t stop laughing.”
“The worst part was the heat,” Arthur, the kid with the cast, observes. “It was like we were trapped in a cooking pot. The twelve of us crowded away from the opening, got as far back as we could, but the shaft ended right there.
“Lou ordered us to take off our shirts, wet them with what we had in our canteens, cover our heads, and get down on the floor. The sergeant lay nearest the opening to keep any of the fellows from bolting out of there. Threatened to shoot us if we tried.”
“Well, I know how men are,” Lou gets back in the narrative. “We’d rather take our chances out in the open than be cornered. On the other hand, I was certain anyone who tried to break for it would be burned to a crisp. Turns out I made the right decision, boys! We are all still alive . . . Praise the Lord!”
“Praise the Lord!” the men echo.
Red Sails at Sunset
The days after the fire are only a blur. I walked and worked through a daze of acrid smoke, Boodean, hollow-eyed, at my side. In a lull between vital signs and dressing changes, I found my medic sitting in the corner of the superintendent’s closet listening to Count Basie, tears streaming down his face.
“You okay?” I could see that he wasn’t so I sat down on the floor beside him. “Is there something I can do to help?”
“Nah. Thanks, Nurse . . . I’m just tired. Don’t tell the fellows I was crying, okay?”
“I’m tired too. It will take us some time to get over this. You were a hero out there, Boodean. You know that? You saved a lot of men’s lives.”
“I didn’t save Drake Trustler or the captain or that colored kid Bowlin. He died in my arms.”
“No, we didn’t save everyone.”
“I don’t think I can do this anymore, Miss Becky, be a medic. I’m not cut out for it.” Boodean Sypolt breaks down then, crumbles like a little boy, all the pain and death and suffering pouring out of him in great gulping sobs. I turn up Count Basie so that no one can hear.
Dr. Blum stayed with me for three days. There were the wounded and burned to care for, and he slept in the dorms and ate in the mess hall, while I slept in the infirmary to be close to the men.
Side by side we worked as he talked, gave instructions. It was almost like old times. He even comforted the corpsmen in a kind but stiff way. Then one morning he insisted I get out of the clinic.
“Go up to the captain’s bungalow and get some rest,” he encouraged. “If you don’t take a few hours, you’re going to get sick, and the patients still need you.”
He knew from experience that such an approach always works on me. Get rest, not for yourself, but so you can better take care of others!
Nearly ten hours later, I woke to a hazy orange light pouring through the four-pane windows in the captain’s log cabin. The sun was fading to the west, and one thing I’ve learned is, you get spectacular sunsets after a big fire.
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