Brian Crawford lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work is in Crazyhorse, Arts & Letters, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. His story collection was a finalist for the 2019 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.
The foreman had gone into town to spend the night with a stewardess, leaving Roy and Tommy alone at the mountain fire station with a radio and a water tanker they weren’t supposed to drive. “Nothing’s going to happen tonight,” the foreman had said, yanking on his boots. “For you guys, I mean. Nothing ever happens up here at night.” When the call came in a few hours later, Roy jumped from his bed and went to the radio and took down the dispatcher’s instructions. All he could find to write with was a dull pencil that kept ripping the paper. He listened and wrote and kept his mouth shut about Spender, the foreman. It was their first night on the job and he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.
The lightning-struck tree, according to the dispatcher, burned on a plateau atop Bald Mountain, within watershot of a dirt fire road. They were to take the tanker up the road, fell the tree, chop it up, cover the hotspots in water and dirt, and clear the perimeter of any fuel for stray embers.
When Roy was done with the radio he turned to his brother, who sat cross-legged on his bunk. Tommy’s dirty blonde hair looked ludicrous in the dim light, a surfer washed up in the wrong spot. Somehow, the space around his bunk seemed at the same time cluttered and clean.
“What was that racket earlier,” Roy asked, “and the light.”
“You mean the storm,” Tommy said.
“I mean all that tappin’ and bangin’ on your side of the room,” Roy said.
“I was getting my things ready,” Tommy said.
Roy shook his head and bent over his pack, started yanking out clothes. He was trying to think of something to say to get ahead of his brother’s protests.
“Spender was pretty specific about the water tanker,” Tommy said.
Roy stood up and moved to the window. He pulled the curtain aside, as if he could see the fire from there, but all he could see was the reflection of the room’s only burning bulb. “It’s one tree,” he said.
It was clear that Roy would drive the tanker because he was older and he had at least driven a truck before. He’d spent the previous summer clearing trees and brush at Enchanted Forest, a fledgling amusement park in the San Bernardino Mountains. Tommy had worked there, too, although he’d been one of the Villagers—the high school kids who ran the carnival games and castle feasts, manned the miniature golf course and sold concessions. The Foresters were older and more experienced, college students like Roy working alongside construction workers, carnies, and mountain men. They cut timber with the chainsaws and drove the trucks and backhoes; they spent their nights unsupervised in a boardinghouse down in the ravine; most of them were old enough to buy beer; some of them were on their way to Vietnam.
Roy started the water tanker and eased it along the driveway. The headlights revealed a thin mist settling over the ground. The rain had barely dented the dust around the station before shipping off, but the storm must have done more damage up on the mountain. The gravel popped under the truck’s weight. The driveway banked abruptly onto Tollhouse Road, and Roy didn’t want to stall on the incline, so he wrenched the wheel and gunned the gas and the tanker lurched onto the road, shearing off a wooden storage box on the corner and spilling fire tools onto the asphalt. He stalled it anyway when he backed up to survey the damage. “A stewardess,” he said, shaking his head. “Goddammit.”
When the brothers had arrived at the station, Spender had spent more time explaining the stewardess than anything else. He had showed them the water tanker gathering sap beneath a pine tree, pale green in the shade, and told them not to touch it until they trained for a license. He’d showed them pulaskis and mcleods, tools with odd combinations of axe blades and rakes and hoes. He’d told them the stewardess was based in Hawaii and her hair smelled always of coconut. This fact seemed invented to Roy, something Spender wished for but hadn’t experienced, but for him the wish was almost as good as the truth.
Roy and Spender were the same age, fraternity brothers at Fresno State. Spender had grown up ten miles from the fire station, up in Big Creek, a hamlet centered around a hydroelectric project on a tributary to the San Joaquin. He’d worked for the Forest Service from the age of sixteen, and while most of his stories were about drinking and girls and car crashes, he’d explained enough of the job to recruit Roy and give him a vague idea of what to do with a fire call in the middle of the night.
Roy slumped in the driver’s seat and listened to Tommy gather the spilled tools behind the tanker. He rubbed at the windshield with his shirtsleeve and looked up Tollhouse Road to where it disappeared into the mist. The circle he’d made fogged right back over, like ice reforming over a break in a frozen lake. He cranked down the side window. He could barely make out the silhouette of the station behind the big oak trees. He was startled to see that the place which was to be their home for the summer could be erased with a few feet of gravel road.
The clanking behind the truck had stopped. Roy leaned his body out the window. Outside, Tommy was hunched over the asphalt, arranging the long tools in a line. He went from tool to tool, tapping the blade a bit to the right, or the handle a bit to the left, until they were perfectly parallel. When he got to the end of the line he started the process again in the other direction.
Roy punched the truck’s horn, and immediately regretted it. It was low and loud, like a tugboat’s, and it sounded obscene in the mountain stillness. He didn’t know if there were other cabins nearby.
When Tommy finally got back into the cab, the leather seat exhaled roughly, as if he weighed more than he had before.
“Half the mountain could be in flames by now,” Roy said.
“I just wanted to make sure we had everything,” Tommy said.
“How would you even know it if we did.”
Roy restarted the tanker and jammed the long lever into gear, both of them flinging back and forward like two mannequins before regaining their posture, and then he worked the truck up the tortuous road while Tommy managed the map with a penlight between his teeth. Roy couldn’t yet gauge the truck’s size and he kept running a wheel off the road onto the loose shoulder, crunching twigs and pinecones along the embankment that ran down into the dark trees. Each time a wheel ran off the road Tommy would jerk his head up and shine the penlight into his brother’s eyes.
“Keep your head in the map,” Roy said.
“I know where we’re going,” Tommy said, pointing out the window. “Up.”
On a rare straightaway Roy had the stupid thought that he could just keep driving north. He expected another draft notice any day. It had begun to feel inevitable, like it was a part of him he had managed to loan out to someone else in some faraway place, and now it was coming back to him. Some nights he would picture a letter in the back of a truck, barreling toward California. He would see his mother reaching into the mailbox.
A few of his fraternity brothers had found some luck with openings in the Guard. But Roy had no connections, and he had no more deferments, even though he had a semester of college left. He had taken too long to complete his degree. Twice he’d had to drop out of school to work and save up enough money to return. His parents could barely support themselves, and Tommy. His father used to run a small grocery store down in San Bernardino, until his generosity with credit, especially with the drunks, forced him to sell the building to cover his debts. Since then, his neighbors had supported him with a spigot of odd jobs, but so far none of them had stuck.
His mother eventually secured a job at the county recorder’s office, a position she enjoyed and excelled at, and his father spent more, drank more, in protest. It was the county job that would enable his mother, years later, to reach across the kitchen table, past the ashtrays and crossword puzzles scribbled over with pencil, and hand Roy an envelope. “If your father asks,” she said, “tell him you won a scholarship. On account of your grades.”
Whenever Roy returned from college, he felt his father’s hope clinging to him like a burr. As if Roy had learned something magical in those first years of school that would help him gain back the store. He sometimes pitched investment opportunities to his son, waving a cigarette and a can of Schlitz, his hair slicked and shiny under the porch light. He was the one who told Roy about a local pastor’s plans to expand the Enchanted Forest summer camp into a world-class amusement park. Over the past few years the pastor had turned the place into a formidable fairyland, and now he had secured a lease on another 10,000 acres of forest. He was hiring an army of laborers to thin out the trees and make way for the expansion. There would be a steam train, log rides, the biggest roller rink in the country. It would be the Disneyland of the Mountains, everyone said, and Roy and Tommy had signed on.
In the tanker, Roy downshifted roughly and they labored up a series of switchbacks until they came up along the white gleam of a dam. They crested a pass above the dam and then Tollhouse Road retreated in elevation for a stretch before they emerged along the shore of Shaver Lake, which was flat and black and split down the middle with moonlight. Tommy directed him to turn onto another road, and they left the lake and ascended deeper into the sierras. On both sides of the road the dark trees ticked by. Every now and then, a flash between the trees, a clearing, a meadow cast in silver under the moon, and then the forest collapsed back in.
“There-there-there,” Tommy said.
A sign emerged—a jeep trail to Bald Mountain—and Roy yanked the tanker off the road, but he didn’t cut enough speed to make the turn. The tanker slid, splintered a field of saplings, and skidded into a clearing.
When they got out of the tanker their boots slopped in a marsh of stinking black mud. They let some air out of the tires and spent the next hour with the tools trying to build up enough dry dirt to get traction, but the tanker seemed to sink deeper with each attempt.
The truck had a gas-powered winch on the front bumper, but when they hooked the cable around a tree and started the winch it shrieked like a wounded rabbit and the vehicle wouldn’t budge.
Tommy strummed the winch cable, and then he slogged back and rubbed the water tank ruefully. “She’s gonna die out here,” he said. “Like one of those mastodons in a tar pit.”
“It’s too heavy,” Roy said. “We have to let the water out.”
“The water,” Tommy said.
“Yes,” Roy said. He was already sick of that look.
“The water for the fire,” Tommy said.
“Not all of it,” Roy said. “Just enough.”
They found the cold spoked wheel on the back of the tank and Roy loosened the valve while Tommy wove the hose down the embankment to keep the water from flowing back under the tires.
Roy smoked a cigarette on the rear bumper while Tommy scurried around him, turning the water valve, trudging down to check the hose, coming back to adjust the valve, and then back again to the hose. His boot soles made kissing noises in the mud.
“You’re gonna tire yourself out,” Roy said. “It’s the same as the last time you checked it.”
The water glugged out and every few minutes they tried the winch again, until the truck finally broke free and slurped out of the mud.
Roy eased the tanker back up the fire road. Branches slapped the side mirrors and flailed through the window, but he had to keep it open to see around the filthy windshield. Ruts and gullies flung the brothers to and fro in the cab. Tommy held the mcleod tool between his knees like he was storming the mountain with some ill-conceived harpoon.
Soon, a break in the trees revealed outcroppings of granite and dark stands of brush, a tabletop ridge, and the pale skullcap of Bald Mountain. On top of the ridge, a lone tree glowed orange and smoked.
“How are we supposed to get the truck up there?” Tommy asked.
“Let’s see how close we can get.”
They couldn’t get very close. They tried one more switchback but it became clear the road would take them around the other side of the mountain, farther from the burning tree. Roy reversed down to the closest entry point, the truck’s tires sliding in the shale, while Tommy eyed the dropoff and cursed.
Roy killed the ignition and it was just the two of them on the mountain with the ticking of the engine and the buzzing of the cicadas.
“The hose won’t reach,” Tommy said.
“I’m aware,” Roy said.
“We don’t have much water anyway.”
“I’m aware of that, too.”
Roy scanned the mountain for traveling embers. There wasn’t much around the perimeter that would burn. From where he stood, it looked like the last tree on earth.
“It seems nearly burnt out,” Tommy said.
“Well,” Roy said. “We’re all the way up here.”
In the back of the tanker they found backpacks fitted with plastic water bags. They would each carry a bag of water and divide up the mcleods, a pulaski, and the chainsaw. They soaked themselves trying to get the flow right from the hose.
Once filled, the packs must have weighed fifty pounds. Tommy lifted his pack and took half a dozen steps on the shale before he slipped and toppled over and rolled down against the truck tires. He sprung back up in a flurry of dust and clanking tools, and made a little bow.
It was a few hundred yards to the ridge, with no clear path to it. The most direct route was a chute choked with manzanita, flanked on both sides by giant wedges of granite. The rock was mostly too slick and perilous with the packs throwing them off balance, so they crisscrossed the gully, moving like drunken giants, cracking sticks, dislodging rocks, and crashing through the brush. It was hard going.
Nearly an hour passed and the tree was still some distance away, although it didn’t seem any more or any less afire. As Roy climbed, the pack straps cut into his shoulders and he hunched forward to take more of the weight on his hips and back. This screwed up his balance and he crunched a knee down in the brush, and when he stood back up the mountain shifted around his head. His heartbeat knocked in his ears. He’d had no time to acclimate to the altitude.
He pushed on through sheer will and a special kind of anger he reserved for times when he was in a predicament primarily of his own doing, but for which he found himself blaming others and then judging the blaming.
He was just doing what was asked of him. He saw things through, always had. But maybe, he thought, that was the damn problem. The previous summer, Enchanted Forest had run into financial trouble halfway through the expansion, and the paychecks had come late and then they hadn’t come at all. The pastor promised a share of the summer’s profits to anyone who would stick with him, and he had one last big idea to save the park. The 1966 Field Archery Association Championships will be held at Enchanted Forest! Nestled high in the San Bernardino Mountains, this endless expanse of pine and oak might have been torn from the black forest of Germany! Three hundred of the nation’s best bowmen and women will converge on this beautific spot to compete for prizes and glory!
Many of the Villagers quit and went home to their parents. The more experienced Foresters, men with families to support and the experience to get other jobs, cut their losses. But Roy and Tommy stayed on.
Engineers from the Field Archery Association came and placed stakes and marked heights for the archery targets, leaving behind pallets of compressed straw and sheaths of canvas marked with multi-colored circles. Roy and the remaining Foresters were charged with constructing the course. They cut trails to the stakes and lined them with logs, cleared firing paths and viewing areas, and assembled the targets. Not one of them knew a thing about archery.
The pastor instructed them to build majestically but to make do with what was on the property. They pulled materials from storage, parts of rides in need of repair or scenes yet to be assembled—dragons, dwarfs, wizards, foxes, bears, and bucks. As supplies and morale dwindled, they began stripping pieces from active amusements. Tommy and the remaining Villagers would arrive in the morning to find the head of a knight missing, a castle with no turrets, a drawbridge from the mini golf course relocated to a creek on the edge of the park.
The pastor spent the final weeks on fundraising expeditions in town, so Roy and his crew were left to their own accord. They drank and sang and worked late into the night under the growl of generators powering lights in the trees. With no boards or stray wood left, they used raw branches, cutting and leaving the carnage where it fell. In the morning light the crude formations looked like the remains of a battlefield, a no-man’s land of limbs frozen in place, flesh burned clean from bones. They had torn down and rebuilt the forest like medieval craftsmen, but in the end, the contest didn’t pan out, and Roy and Tommy never got paid.
Now, on the mountain, Roy again felt a particular responsibility for his brother, who wouldn’t be here if not for him. Tommy was close behind, working his way mechanically through the brush, his breath smooth and measured. Despite his gangliness, Tommy was a natural athlete, a solid baseball player who could probably throw as hard as the school’s starting pitcher. He never tried out for the team, though, because no one ever asked him to.
When they at last crested the ridge, the brothers threw down their tools and slid off their packs. They turned their faces to the sky, circled their arms, let loose their shoulders. They stood tall and weightless for a moment before Roy bent and picked up the chainsaw. “Let’s put her out of her misery,” he said.
As Roy approached the base of the tree, the wind picked up, and he turned to say something about it, but his brother wasn’t behind him. Tommy remained on the pale rock, rummaging through his pack. No, not rummaging. Tapping. Tommy tapped the top of his pack with two hands and then tapped the ground, gently, with the tips of his fingers, as if he was relocating a collection of tiny, fragile creatures. There seemed to be a rhythm to it, counts of two on the pack and two on the ground.
When Tommy saw Roy watching, he stood and shouldered his pack and shuffled over to the tree.
“I thought you outgrew that stuff,” Roy said.
“I did,” Tommy said, “for a while.” He kicked at the chainsaw. “You gonna build us an archery target?”
Roy shook his head and spat on the ground. He regarded the burning tree. It was a ponderosa pine, tall and narrow and strong as hell. It looked like it had sprouted clean out of the granite. Only the upper branches burned, but he could see where the lightning had struck and cored the trunk. A thick scar shot down to the base, pulsating orange in the wind. The tree stood a log’s length from the edge of the ridge. Roy eyed the brittle brush down in the chute. “We have to make sure it falls the right way,” he said.
“Do you know how to do that?” Tommy asked.
“I’ve seen it done.”
Tommy squinted at him.
“At Enchanted, we mostly dropped them the way they leaned,” he said. “We were in a hurry.” They stood close to the tree and looked up. The heat drove them back on their heels. “If anything,” Tommy said, “it’s leaning toward the edge.”
Roy put his hand up to block the glare of the fire. “Hard to tell in this light.”
“If you stand right here—”
“You want a damn protractor—it’s straight enough. We put a wedge in the trunk and it’ll fall that way.”
“Or we could just let it burn,” Tommy said. “There’s nothing next to it but rock. Why don’t we just leave it.”
“We can’t just leave it,” Roy said. “We’ve come this far.”
Roy started the saw and edged it into the bark at a steep angle. A spray of charcoaled steam blew out of the wound and he jerked the blade out and jumped back. “It’s too hot,” he yelled. “Get over here with the water.”
Tommy dragged his waterpack across the rock and emptied the water onto the tree’s trunk. The black bark hissed in protest. Tommy kicked the hollow pack back into the dirt. He sat down and gathered his knees to his chest.
Roy returned to cutting the wedge and when he finished he shut off the saw and looked at his brother. “You got an audience. Say it.”
“We’re up here putting on a big show,” Tommy said. “Going through the motions, just to say we did something. It’s like Pa and all those jobs, running around, moving piles from one place to the next. As soon as nobody’s watching, he’s out in his car, getting tight.”
Tommy pushed himself higher on the rock. The granite glowed in the early dawn, and it looked like he was sitting on a small craft hovering just above the mountain, just above the fire.
“It’s worse since you’ve been at school,” Tommy said. “Pa doesn’t get all happy like he used to, if you want to be educated about it.”
“I know,” Roy said. “I know all that.” The last time he’d seen his father was a year ago, outside a bus station in San Bernardino. They’d sat together in his car drinking coffee and watching the porters load the luggage. His father had seemed preoccupied and he kept putting his hand on the door like he was about to open it. He produced a flask and poured a splash from it into each of their cups, and they sipped in silence. Finally, his father said, “Your brother watches what you do. You don’t always think it but he does.” They patted each other’s knees and Roy got out and pulled his duffel from the trunk and slammed it shut. Through the car’s rear window, the man had looked a hundred years old.
Roy surveyed his brother's soot-streaked face. He held the pulaski out in front of him. “Here,” he said, “maybe you’d feel better if you had a job.”
Tommy knocked the wedge out with the pulaski while Roy watched the branches burn high on the tree. It was more smoke than flame now, and he wondered if his brother was right, if the tree would just burn out on its own and not bother anything else on the mountain. But then a gust of wind dragged through the brush and agitated the tree, and it released a shower of embers that floated some distance in the air. They both followed the embers until they settled somewhere in a stand of trees beyond the clearing.
“I thought it was supposed to be still up here in the morning,” Tommy said.
“I don’t know what it’s supposed to be up here,” Roy said.
Roy started with the saw on the other side of the trunk, and it only took a minute to see what was going to happen. The tree shifted and trapped the saw, and he had just enough time to shut it off and move out of the way before the trunk cracked and the tree toppled forward over the ridge. It broke against the rim of rock and the top fell burning into the brush.
Tommy, who had been crouched behind a boulder, stood up and put his hands over his mouth.
Roy ran to the edge. “Christ,” he said. “Oh, Christ.”
Within seconds the brush beneath them crackled with flame. Roy grabbed his waterpack by the straps and flung it over the edge. It exploded in a burst of smoke and steam that made no difference to the fire.
Tommy picked his empty pack off the ground and clutched it to his chest. “When did Spender say he’d be back?”
“Let me think,” Roy said. “Let me think for a second.” He stood at the edge and watched for a while, working his hand over the scruff on his face. The fire seemed fairly contained within the granite trough, but it was hot, too hot for him to stand there any longer. He retreated and sat down on the smooth bulge of rock. Before Tommy could sit, he did the thing again with the tapping in twos.
Roy looked at him. “Does it make you miserable,” he finally asked. “Having to do all that.”
“Sometimes,” Tommy said. “I guess. I don’t remember not doing it.”
“I do,” Roy said. “I remember you not doing it.”
“Maybe you just think you do,” Tommy said. He went silent, hugging his knees. His stony face flickered orange.
Roy stood and paced the rim of the ridge, shielding his face with a forearm. Below, the dwindling fuel had snuffed some of the flame, but the embers simmered and smoked, and a wall of heat shot straight up from the edge. It was nearly a physical thing he could lean against.
He heard Tommy shuffling behind him. “I got my notice,” Tommy said. “Before we left.”
Roy snapped around. “What do you mean, you got your notice.”
“I got my notice. What do you think I mean.”
“Does Mom know,” Roy asked.
Tommy shook his head. “I got to it first.”
“So, you can defer. You can go to school. You’re going to school.”
“I didn’t apply anywhere.”
“Your grades are good.”
“So we’ll figure something out.”
“There’s nothing to figure. I don’t see any envelopes of money coming my way.”
Roy pictured his brother back in San Bernardino, a stifling evening, Pa dead-out drunk on the recliner. “You can’t just let things happen,” he said.
Tommy stood and shouldered his pack. “Let’s get on,” he said. “We’ll radio from the truck. We don’t know what the fire will do.” He leapt off the rock and began making his way through the chaparral. “We have no idea,” he said over his shoulder.
Roy followed him. As they descended, a faint orange glow rimmed the mountaintops. It looked as if the whole range was besieged by flames, but it was only the daybreak. Roy could now see, to the east, the steep hinterlands of pine and brush that walled off the other side of California. He became aware of the chirping of morning birds, the whizzing of bugs, the sound of dripping water. The sun would be up soon.
Roy had a hard time keeping up with his brother moving through the brush. At one point, Roy bent to unhook his sleeve from a thorny branch and his hardhat fell off and his headlamp got tangled and he couldn’t free it so he left it hanging there. It was light enough now anyway and he didn’t want to lose sight of Tommy.
They emerged onto the fire road but they were some distance from the tanker, having taken a different path from the one they had climbed. Somehow, Tommy had found a quicker way down.
Roy shuffled up next to his brother, and for a while there was only the sound of their boots on the dirt and crushed rocks. Then he said, “Do you remember you had to make sure I had two ears. Before you could go to sleep, you had to see both my ears.”
Tommy looked over at him. “I remember you wouldn’t turn your goddamn head,” he said.
Roy smiled. “Sometimes I would, but I’d cover one of my ears. You used to get so mad.”
“I had this thing with symmetry,” Tommy said. “Still do I guess.”
Roy walked backward in front of his brother, cupping a hand in front of each ear. “What about now, brother. No ears at all. You gonna be able to sleep tonight.”
“Quit that,” Tommy said.
Tommy went on ahead. Roy turned and watched him march up the road, his helmeted head and tall mcleod tool bouncing in regimented precession. When Roy started off after him, he found himself counting his steps, chanting in cadence with his footfalls on the road, and while it had no effect on him whatsoever, he kept doing it, and when he came in sight of the water tanker with its windshield reflecting the orange and smoky sky, it looked, as his brother neared the tanker, like he was approaching another fire. •