Chapter 14

 

I walked slowly through the wood to Fairhaven cliff, climbed to the highest rock and sat down upon it to observe the progress of the flames, which were rapidly approaching me now about a mile distant from the spot where the fire was kindled. Presently I heard the sound of the distant Bell giving the alarm, and I knew that the town was on its way to the scene. Hitherto I felt like a guilty person. Nothing but shame and regret, but now I settled the matter with myself shortly, and said to myself. Who are these men who are said to be owners of these woods and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food. So shortly I settled it with myself and stood to watch the approaching flames. It was a glorious spectacle, and I was the only one there to enjoy it. The fire now reached the base of the cliffs and then rushed up its sides. The squirrels ran before it in blind haste, and the pigeons dashed into the midst of the smoke. The flames flashed up the pines to their tops as if they were powder.

– Journal, 1850

More than half of the Littleton Volunteer Fire Department were playing baseball when the alarm came. They scrambled up the hill to the brick firehouse on the Commons, followed by almost all of the spectators, who crowded anxiously into the communion hall while the firefighters huddled. Normally there would have been sixteen volunteers on call, but, like Spur, Will Sambusa, Bright Ayoub, Bliss Bandaran and Chief Cary Millisap had joined the Corps. Cape was currently Assistant Chief; he would have led the volunteers had not his son been home. Even though Spur protested that he was merely a grunt smokechaser, the volunteers’ first act was to vote him Acting Chief.

Like any small-town unit, the Littleton Fire Department routinely answered calls for house fires and brush fires and accidents of all sorts, but they were ill-equipped to stop a major burn. They had just one fire truck, an old quad with a 3,000-liter-per-minute pump and 5,000-liter water tank. It carried fifty meters of six-centimeter hose, fifty meters of booster hose, and a ten-meter mechanical ladder. If the burn was as big as Stark described, Engine No. 4 would be about as much use fighting it as a broom.

Spur resisted the impulse to put his team on the truck and rush out to the burn. He needed more information before he committed his meager forces. It would be at least an hour before companies from neighboring villages would arrive and the Corps might not get to Littleton until nightfall. Cape spread a map out on the long table in the firehouse and the volunteers stood around it, hunch-shouldered and grim. Gandy Joy glided in, lit a single communion square and slipped out again as they contemplated what the burn might do to their village. They took turns peppering Stark with questions about what he had actually seen. At first he tried his best to answer, but he’d had a shock that had knocked better men than him off center. As they pressed him, he grew sullen and suspicious.

The Sukulgundas lived well west of the Leungs and higher up the slope of Lamana Ridge. They’d been latecomers to Littleton and parts of their farmstead were so steep that the fields had to be terraced. They were about four kilometers north of the Commons at the very end of January Road, a steep dirt track with switchbacks. Stark maintained that the burn had come down the ridge at him, from the general direction of Lookover Point to the east. At first he claimed it was maybe a kilometer away when he’d left his place, but then changed his mind and insisted that the burn was practically eating his barn. That didn’t make sense, since the strong easterly breeze would push the burn in the opposite direction, toward the farmsteads of the Ezzats and Millisaps and eventually to the Herreras and the Leungs.

Spur shivered as he imagined the burn roaring through GiGa’s orchards. But his neighbors were counting on him to keep those fears at bay. “If what you’re saying is true,” he mused, “it might mean that this fire was deliberately set and that someone is still out there trying to make trouble for us.”

Torches in Littleton?” Livy Jayawardena looked dubious. “We’re nowhere near the barrens.”

Neither was Double Down,” said Cape. “Or Wheelwright.”

I don’t know about that.” Stark Sukulgunda pulled the cap off his head and started twisting it. “All I know is that we ought to stop talking about what to do and do something.”

First we have to know for sure where the burn is headed, which means we need to get up the Lamana Ridge Road.” Spur was struggling to apply what he’d learned in training. “If the burn hasn’t jumped the road and headed back down the north slope of the ridge, then we can use the road as a firebreak and hold that line. And when reinforcements come, we’ll send them east over the ridge to the head of the burn. That’s the way the wind is blowing everything.” He glanced up at the others to see if they agreed. “We need to be thinking hard about an eastern perimeter.”

Why?” Stark was livid. “Because that’s where you live? It’s my house that — ”

Shut up, Stark,” said Peace Toba. “Fill your snoot with communion and get right with the village for a change.”

None of the threatened farmsteads that lay in the path of the burn to the east was completely cleared of trees. Simplicity demanded that citizens only cultivate as much of their land as they needed. Farmers across Walden used the forest as a windbreak; keeping unused land in trees prevented soil erosion. But now Spur was thinking about all the pine and hemlock and red cedar, needles laden with resins and oils, side by side with the deciduous trees in the woods where he had played as a boy. At Motu River he’d seen pine trees explode into flame. And then there were the burn piles of slash and stumps and old lumber that every farmer collected, baking in the summer sun.

If things go wrong in the east, we might need to set our firebreak as far back as Blue Valley Road.” Spur ran his finger down the line on the map. “It won’t be as effective a break as the ridge road but we can improve it. Get the Bandarans and Sawatdees to rake off all the forest litter and duff on the west side. Then disk harrow the entire road. I want to see at least a three-meter-wide strip of fresh soil down the entire length.”

Prosper.” Cape’s voice was hushed. “You’re not giving up on all of this.” He traced the outline of the four threatened farms on the map, ending on the black square that marked Diligence Cottage.

Spur glanced briefly at his father, then away again, troubled by what he had seen. Capability Leung looked just as desperate as Stark Sukulgunda. Maybe more so, if he thought he had just heard his son pronounce doom on his life’s work. For the first time in his life, Spur felt as if he were the father and Cape was the son.

No.” He tried to reassure his father with a smile. “That’s just our fall back. What I’m hoping is that we can cut a handline from Spot Pond along Mercy’s Creek all the way down to the river. It’s rough country and depending on how fast the burn is moving we may not have enough time, but if we can hold that line, we save the Millisaps, Joerlys and us.” Left unsaid was that the Ezzats’ farmstead would be lost, even if this dicey strategy worked.

But right now the fire is much closer to my place than anyone else’s,” said Stark. “And you said yourself, there may be some suicidal maniac just waiting to burn himself up and take my house with him.”

Spur was annoyed at the way that Stark Sukulgunda kept buzzing at him. He was making it hard for Spur to concentrate. “We could send the fire truck your way, Stark,” he said, “but I don’t know what good it would do. You don’t have any standing water on your land, do you?”

Why?”

The truck only has a 5,000-liter water tank. That’s not near enough if your house gets involved.”

We could drop the hard suction line into his well,” said Livy. “Pump from there.”

You have a dug well?” said Cape. “How deep?”

Four meters.”

We’d probably suck it dry before we could do you much good,” said Cape.

No,” said Spur. “He’s right. Peace, you and Tenny and Cert take No. 4 up to Sukulgundas. You can also establish our western perimeter. Clear a meter-wide handline as far up the ridge as you can. Watch for torches. I don’t think the fire is going to come your way but if it does, be ready, understand? Get on the tell and let us know if anything changes.”

We’ll call in when we get there,” said Peace as her team scattered to collect gear.

Livy, you and the others round up as many as you can to help with the creek line. We may want to start a backfire, so keep in touch with me on the hand-tell. How much liquid fire have you got?”

At least twenty grenades. Maybe more. No firebombs though.”

Bring gas then, you’ll probably need it. Keep your people between the civilians and the burn, understand? And pull back if it gets too hot. I’ve lost too many friends this year. I don’t want to be burying anyone else. DiDa, you and I need to find a way to get up the ridge… ”

He was interrupted by the roar of a crowd, which had gathered just outside the firehouse. Spur froze, momentarily bewildered. They couldn’t still be playing baseball, could they? Then he thought that the burn must have changed direction. It had careened down the ridge faster than it had any right to, an avalanche of fire that was about to incinerate the Commons and there was nothing he could do to fight it; in the nightmare, he wasn’t wearing his splash pack. Or his fireproof field jacket. Spur shuddered. He wasn’t fit to lead, to decide what to let burn and what to save. He was weak and his soul was lost in darkness and he knew he shouldn’t be afraid. He was a veteran of the firefight, but fear squeezed him nonetheless. “Are you all right, son?” His father rested a hand on his shoulder. The burn licked at boulders and scorched the trees in the forest he had sworn to protect.

DiDa,” he whispered, leaning close to his father so no one else would hear, “what if I can’t stop it?”

You’ll do your best, Prosper,” he said. “Everyone knows that.”

As they rushed out of the firehouse, they could see smoke roiling into the sky to the northwest. But the evil plume wasn’t what had stunned the crowd, which was still pouring out of the communion hall. A shadow passed directly overhead and, even in the heat of this disastrous afternoon, Spur was chilled.

Silently, like a miracle, the High Gregory’s hover landed on Littleton Commons.