In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Friday, May 11, 2012


-- 20 --

STEFFI stumbles into dim dawn, goes potty, splashes some creek on her eyes, and comes back to her rumpled campsite to struggle into her boots. Her feet always swell at night, especially the left one where the log got her, and her back always hurts these days, so boots are one of her bugaboos. Not getting younger. She packs up her camp. Tent, sleeping bag, candle, matches, a wrinkled copy of Desert Solitaire, water bottle, and the bag of trail mix, which is leaking oats at one corner where mice have gotten in. Laces it all on the pack frame. It's lighter than yesterday's load, so she leaves off the tumpline. Hup, hup, up, up before the sun hits the northern treetops. Once she's loaded up, she throws her poly poncho over the whole rig, popping her head through the hood. Things are damp this morning.
    She's on the trail, slapping through wet thimbleberry, watching her step in the mud. There's bear poop every hundred feet or so -- big pies, brown at the edges, purple in the middle -- berry season. One of them has a dragonfly sipping at its essence. My, this stuff looks fresh.
    Round the next bend, a commotion commences in the thimbleberries, enough to make Steffi's heart leap. Brush jumbles around upslope from the trail, and she sees just a bit of black, furry rump disappearing amid hazels and vine maples almost overhead.
    "Whatever," she says. "You gotta know, you scared me too."
    As she passes the spot where the animal has left the trail, she admires the damage that's been done to the thimbleberry bushes. Nothing subtle about bears.
    At the following bend of the trail, Steffi comes to a fork. To the right is the fire trail that goes straight up to the landing -- a wearying, leg-killing hike, and her feet and back are still bugging her. To the left the way stays with the creek a while longer, then ascends the ridge more gently, with switchbacks. It comes out on the road half a mile out of the way, but at least the hike back to her hidden motorcycle will be flat.
    Okay, let's do it.
    In ten minutes she comes to the beaver pond. It's black, still, and loaded up with slick logs, but she likes it here. The biggest log is covered with slabs of bark -- good traction -- and there's even a trail along it, consisting of a patina of mud and sand pocked with caulk holes. All around stand water-killed trees that have so much character she thinks of them as Ents, from Tolkien.
    She's halfway across when the huge log, which she would have sworn was tucked into the mud, does the impossible -- it rolls. She'd dance with it, to stay on top, but the pack frame is adding a fillip of clumsiness. One foot -- the left one, of course -- slips into the water, and then the log settles into its new preferred resting spot, with Steffi's foot caught -- not crushed, thank goodness, but absolutely immobilized -- somewhere beneath. She sits down heavily.
     How's the other foot? She's straddling the log, but on the other side there's a log nestled firmly against the big one; her boot heel rests on the crack comfortably. Nothing feels strained or sprained in either leg. Tailbone hurts from sitting down hard, that's about it.
    She tries rocking the log back and forth. Nope. It's happy right where it is. Can she reach the boot and unlace it? Nope. Can't feel the foot any more, either, in the cool water that's seeped into the boot.
    She shucks her poncho, shrugs out of the pack straps, drags the pack frame around to her side, and looks it over. Not much here to work with. Some water. The bottle won't fit in the crack to get more, once it runs out. Worry about that when she gets thirsty. Some food. Oh-- that'll make her thirstier. Oh well. That heavy pry bar that went up yesterday would be nice to have right now! Or at least a good whistle. But no one's close enough to hear a whistle. She can feel it.
    It's not a sunny day, but she's out in the open and will slowly burn, sitting here long enough. She pulls the poncho back over herself for shade and sits, staring at the trail where it picks up beyond the pond.
    Ho, ho, ho, that way lies madness. Steffi, you're in trouble. Correction. Whoever you might have been, you're in trouble.  When your leg is locked up like this with no one expected back to find you, you don't have a name anymore.
    After a few minutes, she digs out Ed Abbey and reads awhile. At first, it makes matters worse. He's always getting into exactly such scrapes and then finding a way out of them -- but he's not in a leghold trap. His attitude, though, is helpful. Undoubtedly he would chew through his leg if he had to -- or the rocks, presumably. Is there a way to chew this wood?
    Steffi looks at the pack frame. Why is she here without her knife for once?
    She reaches for the gorp bag and gnaws at some peanuts, oats and chocolate drops. She guzzles a bit from the water bottle. Whoa! Not so fast. She looks at the pack frame speculatively. It was once her first backpack, aluminum frame and canvas straps with an orange canvas packbag. Not great, but for fifteen dollars it made a good companion for ten amazing days on the Appalachian Trail. Nothing left of it now but the straps and frame, but still putting in a good day's work.
    Steffi separates the frame from the tent and sleeping bag and hefts it. Aluminum, dubious. But it's all the leverage she's got. She jams it between the left-leg logs and pulls. Nothing. Pulls again. Nothing. Pulls again, really leaning into it.
    The frame bends.
    One of the cross pieces has pulled loose from one of the uprights. She tugs and twists at it till it comes loose. She turns the soft metal tube in her hands. Not much of an edge, but -- something. Almost idly, she pokes at the wood in both logs with the open end of the tube, decides the far log is the punkiest, and starts digging.
    It's not an easy angle, and almost right away she can feel a sharp pain in the lower back. Aggh, okay, in stages. Hack wood, rest, read, hack wood, rest, read, eat, drink, hack wood. Her day's work is set. Like, how much worse is this than tree planting, really?
    Hack, rest, hack, rest, eat, drink, hmm out of water, hack, rest, hmm, thirsty. And, oh, it's getting dark. By now she has a decent pile of wood chips in front of her, some of which seem fairly dry. She gets out the Bic lighter and candle and drips some wax on the chips and starts a small fire right on top of the log. You never know, somebody might smell smoke down the canyon and come upstream to investigate. It hasn't been a really cold day, so there will be a sinking air mass, which means a downstream breeze.
    Hack, rest, hack. The hole between the logs hasn't grown much. Steffi looks up. The sky has cleared, there's a moon that was full only two days back.
    The eclipse party seems like years, decades, lifetimes, centuries ago. She'd been so sure they were gonna try to get her to say hi to the damned horse, she'd made a bit of an ass of herself.
    Nothing we can do about that right now.
    She stretches out with her pack frame and drags a rat's nest of beavered cottonwood branches and a chunk of fir bark over to her fire.
    The moonlight is mesmerizing. All the shadows round the pond are deep blue, and they move slowly, like daytime shadows do. Of course they would, she's just never noticed.
    The night air is getting colder, especially behind her, where the fire's warmth can't reach. Steffi wraps the sleeping bag round behind her and drapes her tent over herself. She must be a sight. Still thirsty, though.
    The tent has a rain fly. Steffi gropes around, finds it, twists it skinny, and stuffs it down the left-leg hole, by one of its shock cords. When the cord feels heavy, she fishes out the wet rain fly and wrings it out into her mouth.
    Yeah, that'll do. Let's chop log some more. See if we can get our name back.


Judging by the moon, it must be close to midnight. Still not enough wood gouged out to pull up that numbed foot. What's cold on her chest? Oh, it's the Buddha.
    Steffi fishes him out on his steel chain. It's a little metal Buddha pendant, not iron, probably pewter, but hey. A reminder of all the iron Buddhas she's met in the past three years. She smiles.
     Buddha smiles back, looking a bit like the Mona Lisa. Steffi wraps her hand round the pendant and leans back to rest a little bit.
    After awhile, a beat-up yellow crummy rolls up across the pond.
     "Hi, I'm Chuck. This is Willard, Amy, Juneen, Bill, Mike, Murray, Jerry-Up, Jerry-Down, Burt, and Marie. We're gonna pick up Dale and the MaGruders and go on up the hill."
    "Uh, hi, I'm Steffi Smith."
   "Throw your stuff in the back and climb in."
    She does so, and as she settles into the shotgun seat, turns around and waves. Everyone waves back.
    She spots Marie. "Marie, I'm sorry I ... "
    "Shh, it's okay, Stef. Watch the road."
    After the Magruders' place, the road ascends steeply. It's murky out, with a golden light suffusing the fog from above. Chuck eases round the curves, avoiding the cliffs on the left and hugging the cut-banks on the right. They come to a driveway, and here are Israel, Lon and Little Butch waiting with their dags, bags, caulks, lunch boxes, rain gear and hard hats. They climb in, laughing and joshing one another. Steffi rises, thinking to move toward the back, but Israel pats her on the shoulder. "Hey, kid, glad to see ya. Jus' stay right there, we got plenty room in th' back."
    Really? Seemed like a full crummy a few minutes ago. She cranes her neck to see back down the aisle, and sure enough, they're stuffing their gear into the overheads and piling into empty seats, smiling like pewter Buddhas. Chuck pulls the door handle, releases the air brake, and dodges back onto the narrow mountain road.
    The light is brightening. They come to a wideout and pick up Yoder, who has parked his ponderous van next to some kind of Forest Circus "Interpretive" sign, the kind sprinkled around the woods for the benefit of tourists. Steffi gathers up her stuff and sticks it in the front of the overhead, then pats the seat on her right. "What's the sign say?" she asks Yoder.
    Yoder settles right in, no longer the tentative newbie. "I got my spirit guide."
    "No, I mean the fazoo thingy."
    "Yeah, that's what I'm talking about about. The sign says my guide is you." He's wearing that idiotic pewter grin, like everyone else.
    "Ask a silly question ..."
    "Just watch the road, Stef, in case Chuck misses a stop."
    She does so. Just as it seems like the sunlight, the brightest sunlight ever, will break through the fog, they come abruptly to a halt, and there are Carlo, Dan, Jana, and Mervyn, who climb aboard with hazel hoes and Pulaskis.
    "Hey, Stef," says Mervyn. "D'ja bring your saw?"
    "Umm, don't think so. Didn't know this was a fire."
    Mervyn's foot kicks against something as he goes by. Steffi looks down; it's her chainsaw, in everyone's way in the aisle. She drags it under the seat, feeling her face flush with embarrassment at her thoughtlessness. She sits up and looks over her shoulder again.
    Damn, this is one big crummy.
    The bus rolls forward again, and finally pierces the clouds. Dawn awaits them, the sun shining on the fog bank; Steffi squints. It could be a million suns lamping a primordial sea.
    The bus stops again, and Rod climbs aboard, pants legs wet to his knees, carrying a long freshly cut sapling. All business, he jams the end of it under her seat and puts his shoulder to the other end. "What are you doing?" she asks him, startled.
    "Getting you out of this trap," he answers. "same as you'd do for me."
    Well, that was a diplomatic way to put it -- typical of the guy.  
    Steffi tries to sit up, but she's too stiff. Throwing an arm up against the sun, she sees that Rod is leaning into the sapling, prying apart two logs. "How did you find me?" Her voice is a croak.
    Rod stops long enough to give her a sip from a water bottle.
    "Carlo noticed you didn't show up at Central and called me. So I went to the Ritz and you hadn't been there. So I came straight here. Carlo, Dan and Mervyn will be right behind me, and we're going to litter you out of here." He drops the pole and gently fishes her foot from the dark pond, holding it out of the way while the great logs drift back together. "Would you like some breakfast?"
    "Yes. I'm ... I'm sorry I ran away from lunch, after you fixed it up so nice and all."
    "Nah, that was my fault. I shouldn't have put Mandolin Wind on the record player ... well, we'll just get you fixed up and back to your truck in no time."
    Steffi studies his face. "Or, if it's okay, maybe instead to your place. You, know, for ... for lunch."
    Rod sits back and tilts his head, studying her in return. Some kind of tension flows away from his shoulders. "Yeah? That'd be nice."
    Behind him, above the tall black firs, a raven floats across the canyon, casually dodging a smaller blackbird that's harassing it.
    Steffi would have preferred something more like an omen -- an eagle, maybe. Oh, well. Nothing's perfect. But some things are pretty damn good.

    The Buddha smiles.


End of Iron Buddhas. Risa will be working from this draft for an epub 
and print edition, which should come out in June 
(fingers crossed).


Sunday, April 22, 2012


-- 19 --

STEFFI MUSES as Little Bird whines around the curves. Much of this road will not abide fifth gear; she spends her time shifting between third and fourth. Lunch, a can of refries, rattles around in the five gallon bucket on the sissy bar. She'll eat at Central, get her marching orders and fill the bucket with provisions from the discount grocery.
    What was that all about at Stone Creek? Jana had led the way to Rod's place with the two pots of mint. He wasn't in, and she'd settled down on the front steps to give little Aaron a feed and, apparently, chat, which didn't seem at all like her.
    "I think he's getting your ride for you. Our phone is on the other side of the river, in a shed just down the bank from the wide-out." She'd smiled tentatively.
    Steffi had looked over beyond the rail fence, noting the black, muscular horse cropping grass there. The pasture had dried up for the summer, and the enormous creature was working the fence line, where shade had kept the good stuff going longer.
    She'd suddenly envisioned having to feed the thing an apple to please her hosts, and had felt light-headed. The day had gone badly after that.
    Distracted, she hits a sharp curve too fast, and is forced into the other lane. As luck would have it, here comes an old Oldsmobile, right at her. Steffi wrestles with Little Bird's handlebars, braking until she reaches gravel at the roadside, drops off the shoulder, and rattles to a frightened stop just short of a muddy creek, its embankment festooned with old-growth blackberries. She sits, gulping precious, miraculous air, steaming up her helmet's faceplate. Too close.
    I live in the country. How can there be so much going on in my head that I can't hit a simple curve without killing myself?


    She makes it in to Eugene before she discovers her lunch is gone -- bounced out, no doubt, when Little Bird left the road.


Walt, the duty bidder at Central, spreads a Forest Circus map. His kindly eyes, magnified by thick glasses, smile as he draws Steffi's attention to a penned circle in the lower left corner. "This is a creek in the Jones River watershed. We're building a little dam there for the fazoos, to help the salmon. Salmon need pools with gravel for spawning, and to get pools like that you need blowdowns lying in the water, and the loggers cleaned all the logs out back in the Fifties."
    "Uh huh."
    "It's only about two weeks' work, doesn't pay a lot, and the walk-in is a steep two miles. But it's about all we have on offer right now."
    "I'm there. Is this my map?"
    "No, but I'll photocopy this corner of it for you."


Hoedags from the local area -- The Magruders and a few others -- have hiked in to set up camp, while Carlo rode shotgun on a helicopter to drop supplies at the site.
    "That was the most terrifying thing I've ever done. Our whole camp was slung on a wire rope underneath us, and the guy zips down the canyon, with old growth and rock faces on both sides. Our gear was just skimming over the creek, seems like. I. Thought. I. Was. Going. To. Die." Carlo's eyes are maximum wide, remembering.
    "What do we do here?" asks Steffi, to distract him.
    "Well, there are four of these dams, actually. We drop a tree at each flag hung by the fazoos, across the stream bed. Then we cut the ends off, about fifteen feet long, and drag them with Peaveys to the downstream side and tie them in as braces. This one --" stepping onto it -- "is all done, you can see the drift pins we've hammered in at the mortises, and then we heaped stones and gravel on the upstream side, about three hundred buckets full. It's mostly about the buckets."
    Water pours evenly across the low point in the log dam, falling about eighteen inches with a pleasing tinkle. In winter, Steffi knows, this will be a raging torrent. With such extremes, it's anyone's guess whether these logs will actually be useful, but money is money. The feds want dams, they get dams. "Where do I start?"


    For three weeks, Steffi hauls buckets of rocks. The first couple of days, it's easy. Then she strains something and mopes in her rain-drummed dome tent for a day. Then, on reduced loads, she finds her own level. It's less rock per bucket than the guys are carrying, but they seem to appreciate her presence. She offers to dock herself ten percent of her take, but they turn her down. Fine, she'll do it at Central.
    As time goes on, the crew has to range farther and farther upstream or down to get gravel. Steffi loves the canyon and the routine, feeling her way through the icy water between glistening, fern-draped rock faces, as the big crawdads back away from her into submarine shadows.
    Fall is approaching. It rains a little, then a little more. Water is rising, and the crew puts in a couple of ten-hour days to finish the last dam. As Steffi pours out her final bucket of pebbles, muddying the water, the Magruders come down to water's edge.
    "We're packing up," says one. "Everybody will take two loads up to the road, and that's it till the tree planting starts," says the other.


Steffi follows Carlo with a load. The straps of the pack frame cut into their shoulders, and they stop to make themselves tumplines -- polycords that extend from the tops of the packs to their foreheads, with padding. With these on, as they lean forward, some of the strain will be taken off their backs.
    Carlo points ahead into the gloomy underbrush. "We'll take the right fork up ahead. It goes straight up the fire trail on the side of the old clear cut but gets us to the landing with plenty of daylight."
    Steffi adjusts the bandanna she's using for a tump pad. "It seems dark already."
    "That's because it's a north slope. You can see from the sunlight on the firs on the opposite side, there's plenty of daylight for this one trip, and a little bit of margin for error."
    The climb is one of those that will either build your heart or stop it cold. Steffi counts steps. Every twenty, she has to stop and blow. What's in this load? Oh, yah -- one Husky chainsaw, a pry bar, five drift pins, and a come-along, all arranged around a (mercifully empty) jerry can. Couldn't we have just stashed the bloody drift pins? It's a cool afternoon in the shade, but sweat works out from under the rolled-up bandanna and seeps around her eyebrows, stinging both eyes. She wrings them out with her thumbs.
    "One more pitch," says Carlo encouragingly.
    They reach the landing after an hour and half of straight-up torture, and there is Carlo's old pickup truck, warm and inviting in the late afternoon sun.
    "It's too late for the last load, which is mostly your bag and tent anyway," says Carlo. "We should head for Greenwood and I'll come back for it if you like. You really look done in." He scans around the landing. "How did you get here, anyway?"
    "I'm on my bike. Stashed in the brush." Steffi draws a ragged breath, leans back against the truck body, and shrugs herself out from under the pack frame. "What I want to do, I think, is go back down and spend the night. Bring my stuff out in the morning."
    "I dunno, Stef. You'd be the only person for thirty miles each way."
    She grins. "Carlo, you know that's what I like best."


Back in what's left of camp, which is mostly Steffi's little pop tent, her sleeping bag, and a bread bag half full of trail mix, she achingly pulls off her boots and damp socks, rolls up the cuffs of her jeans, eases down to the creek bank and puts her feet into the nearby pool. A red crawdad backs away, barely visible in the fading light. There are already stars.  
    Movement, perhaps the edge of a shadow on the water, prompts her to look up. A great horned owl has sailed across the stars and is disappearing among the black firs. Impulsively, she raises her arm to salute the giant bird's silent passage, and something -- a something soft, like a furball -- strikes her hand. There's a splash in the water.
    Steffi's first thought is that she has somehow hit a bat.
    A memory floods in behind her eyes, of neighborhood children beneath a street light, amusing themselves by swatting with a broom at tiny bats flitting into the lamplight for fire-addled bugs. So far as she can remember, no one ever managed to hit one. So what has happened here?
    There's a stir in the water. A small bird, so diminutive it takes her breath away, surfaces, hops on a rock, shakes itself thoroughly, and inspects its wings sullenly. It seems to Steffi the creature looks her over briefly, as if suspecting her of swatting it from the air on purpose. Then, with an indignant-sounding squeak, it flits away.
    Steffi finds herself alone with her thoughts.
    Jana had been disgusted. "What's with you all of a sudden?" she'd asked. "You're running away, without even staying for lunch."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chapter Eighteen


JANA TURNS up at Steffi's shoulder just as the moonlight starts coming back. "Y'wanna come over? We'll give you a place to sleep. Just a rug and a cowhide, but nice, you'll see."
    Steffi's up for that; so much party, she's bone tired. "Let's go."
    They don't need to feel around with their feet; it's after midnight with a full moon and their eyes have been fully adjusted for hours. Steffi sees silvered maples and silvery fir trees with silver-fingered sword ferns at their feet. From the openings she sees silver-lined mountains; they cross a tiny log bridge over a singing silver brook. The last clearing opens before them; there's a canvas tipi, eighteen feet tall, and it's bright orange, like a smoky sunrise. It's lit from within by no more than a bit of flame, yet illumines the clearing.
    Jana lifts aside the flap. "C'mon in."
    As Steffi's dilated eyes iris down in the interior's brightness, she finds she's facing, across a small firepit, a small woman sitting cross-legged. She looks a lot like Jana, but younger and rounder, and she's holding a sleeping baby. The younger woman speaks. "Threw some twigs on, so you could find your way home."
    "Lots of light out there," replies Jana. "Miryam, this is Stephanie."
    "Hiya.Heard lots about you. Settle in."
    Heard lots? Steffi knows, with her stiff body, she's not going to manage the cross-legged thing, so she kneels, sitting on her heels Japanese fashion, to Miryam's left. 
    Jana drops into place  on Miryam's right, cross-legged, easy as you please, and reaches for the baby. "Miryam's my sister," she says to Steffi, "Visiting from Columbia." 
    Miryam grins at Steffi's moment of hesitation. "Not the country, the college."
    "University," says Jana, checking the baby's diaper.
    "College to me. I'm testing out of everything I can, and plan to be out of there as soon as possible. I have one year down. One to go."
    "It will take you two," says Jana, looking in disgust at the slumbering infant's bottom. "There are only so many credits you can challenge. Want to hand over that pail?"
    Steffi casts about, not seeing anything at first in the stark and flickering shadows. It's a squarish plastic cat litter bucket, half filled with dried moss. She reaches it to Miryam, who hands it around the firepit to Jana. 
    Jana puts the bucket down and looks at Steffi. "Put about three pine cones on the fire so I don't stick Aaron, 'k? They're behind you." She grins, then puts two big diaper pins in her mouth.
    Steffi does so, admiring the procedure. Ponderosa pine cones. Seasoned and lightweight. They must be gathered specifically for this purpose, as she's seen none of the trees around here.
    In the bright light from the cones, Jana changes Aaron's moss. The baby cranks up, and Steffi feels a tightening in her middle -- she's sensitive to any noise she can't control. Half ready to bolt, she concentrates on Jana's hands. Line the diaper with moss, fold the outside edges in, almost meeting in the middle, fold the leading edge about half way to the middle, place Aaron with his bottom lined up with the fold, pull the front and back corners together and hold with one hand, take pin from mouth with the other, swipe it on your hair, stick it through the diaper, just missing Aaron, repeat on other side, done.
    Steffi's fascinated in spite of Aaron's goings on, which surprises her. "Wow."
    Jana smiles, but Miryam laughs outright, then covers her mouth with her hand, glancing at Jana from the corner of her eye. She sees she's not in trouble and returns her bright gaze to Steffi. "New at this?" 
    "Kinda. I've only seen the paper ones."
    "Well, we like cloth. When he's big enough to run around, he'll get bottomless pants until he's got himself under control. Our washer is the river, and the sun, when it's around, is the dryer. Otherwise we hang everything in here."
    Steffi knows some of this; there were kids, known as Hoebabies, in the work camps, but she's missed out on a lot of details by holing herself up in the Ritz. "What was that with your hair?"
    "Mm? Oh, it oils the pin, makes it a lot safer for the kid 'cuz it just slides right through the cotton."
    Aaron is really squalling now, so Jana ups her tee and offers him a breast. He roots, panicked and shivery, for a long moment, then latches on, gurgling and smacking.
    Miryam uncrosses her legs and pulls her knees up to her chin. She pokes at the embers with a twig, and they all watch as sparks rise, circle once or twice at the apex of the tipi, then find their way out through the smoke-hole. There are stars. "There's corn on the cob and potatoes under the fire, in aluminum foil," says Miryam to Steffi. "Have some for breakfast."
    "You still look a little puzzled."
    "Sure. My big sister's married, he's the guy that met you all at the landing."
    Jana smiles again, but says nothing. It's kind of a sad-looking smile.
    Miryam glances at Jana again, checking, and goes on. "They're kind of in a strain, so, like, they've got separate -- umm -- "
    "Domiciles," says Jana, looking into the fire.
    " -- domiciles, for now."
    Steffi actually knows what this is like. Should she tell them? Nahhh. Not yet, anyway.
    Jana lies down and pulls a woolen blanket over herself and little Aaron, whose noises are diminishing. Miryam rises on her knees and reaches for a rolled cowskin. "Here. Nice big Holstein, pretty soft really. You can sleep under it hair side up or down, suit yourself. Use a couple of my sweatshirts over there for a pillow."
    The carpeted floor is amazingly comfy. There's a dip right where Steffi's hip wants to go, and whatever is underneath -- sand from the river? -- yields better than expected. She's out before she finishes punching up her "pillow."


Rolling over, Steffi pulls the cow-robe down from her closed eyes and wishes she hadn't. A whole lot of morning gets into a tipi, and all of it seems bent on giving her a headache.
    No one's around. She's up, embarrassed to realize she's slept in her clothes, shoes and all, as a guest. Reflexively, she runs for the bushes for her monring business, then gets halfway out of the clearing when she remembers the corn and potatoes. Heading back to the sun-bright, steaming tipi. she roots through the ashes and finds the two packets left for her, still hot. 
    Outside, nothing seems to be doing, neither activity nor voices. Steffi, finding the air chill so near the river, moves to a steaming stump, soaking up sun and carbohydrates.
    She's brushing away potato flakes when Janna, with Aaron on a cradleboard, appears along the trail from the main house. "You're up! Go for a walk?"
    "Umm," says Steffi, wiping the back of her hand with her sleeve. She folds the foil pieces and pockets them for later re-use, then follows Aaron, who looks stolidly back at her from his mother's shoulders.
    They're on another trail, one that leads deeper into the canyon. At first, little sunlight reaches the ground, most of it blocked by green and glistening cliffs. Here there are maiden-hair ferns, late trilliums still in bloom, false-Solomon's seal, and even wild ginger.
    Jana walks on, touching the trunks of the Douglas firs as she passes. Aaron, jouncing along, grows heavy-lidded and nods. Steffi shares the feeling. She's missing her morning coffee.
    They come to a place more brightly lit, and Steffi realizes the canyon has opened up a bit. No, a lot. It's a hidden valley. Stone Creek must rise back in here somewhere. If so, it must be small; she hears no water. The trees are smaller here, like a precommercial thinning unit -- yet the ground is nearly flat, and looks as if, cleared, it might be decent farm land. She's reminded of the loblolly pine plantations of South Georgia. 
    Jana leaves the trail, which is faint now in any case, and, holding aside a hazel branch for Steffi, leads the way to a rising slope on which sits a strange sight: a house, many roomed, many-gabled, with windows of every shape looking in every direction. 
    It's a beautiful thing, and utterly ruined. Cedar shakes have fallen from the walls and roof, and already young alders are growing through in half a dozen places.
    "W-what?" Steffi stammers.
    "This was our house. This was Stone Creek. We had the horses here, we had our gardens. It's where we all came after the Sixties, to start over. And we almost did -- our Eden."
    "It's -- it's a wonderful place. So why did you move down by the river?"
    Jana turns to face Steffi. "There's a property line. We didn't know. Our eighty acres stops about three hundred feet back. Timberlands came by and said to get out. We got out."
    "Oh." Steffi looks at the house again. There are alder leaves on the nearest windowsill . Inside. "Wow, so that's why the houses are right by the river."
    "Yeah. We know we're taking a chance. Here in the Coast Range, the peak flow can be one hundred thousand times the minimum. But we'll just have to go with it. That's why the cable car is up so high."
    A distant crow caws, somehow reminding Steffi of brownies.
    Jana listens to the crow too, and comments. "That was an agreement. Crow says, "everything changes." You make plans, they fall through. Then you meet a guy, you get a baby. But that's not bad. I was a good tree planter, but I dunno if I could do it now. I mean, my sister'll go back to school, but everyone would watch the kid, my man would pitch in -- he's all right, I just can't stand being in the same house with him. But it's like, if I went back to it I'd be going back to it -- backwards is what it would be. Aaron is forwards. My tipi and the next house -- my own house -- forwards."
     Steffi can see that. Her body is getting harder to move in the mornings after a day's planting, or fire, or especially the saw work. She's all ears.
    Jana starts toward the trail without looking back at the house. "And, you, you think you're gonna plant forever?"
    "Well, umm, I thought maybe another year, then see what happens?"
    Jana does that smile again. "Uh-huh. So, I heard -- you were married? You got divorced?"
    Deep breath. Out with it.
    "Three divorces. No Mr. Right." Too many jerks. Think Mr. and Mrs. is a one way ticket.
    Jana stops in her tracks, swings around, and grins. "Oh, that's -- that's great."
    Steffi knits up her brows. "It is?"
    "Yeah, it means you believe in the institution."
    "And that's great because ... "
    "Oh, time will tell. Have you seen all the houses yet?"
    Where did all that come from?
    Jana bends down to the ground, tilting the snoozing Aaron skyward. "Oh, good. Look here."
   "This was my herb bed. There's still plenty of apple mint." Jana pulls up a handful, with dirt. "Here, take some. We'll pot it up back home -- two pots. Some for you, and we'll take some over to Rod's."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chapter Seventeen

- 17 - 

 THE FIRE crew is offered some trailing work between fires. Before you can light off a unit, you've got to cut a line down to mineral soil all the way round it. Nice work if you can make it pay.
     The Greenwooders do it this way: first, there's the cutter, with an old saw chain with the rakers taken off flat and teeth sharpened with a triangle or flat file. Next, the "swamper" spots trail for the cutter, throws fresh slash to left and right of the trail, brings gas and oil and water and tools on demand. Then, depending on terrain difficulty, come six to ten men and women with shovels, Pulaskis, and big heavy "hazel" hoes.
     Steffi has become One With Her Saw and often works point, waving the spinning steel at brush, logs, and the occasional snag.
     Ron, a guy she hasn't really met before, half Yankee and half devil, with a sardonic beard and a grin to match, is her swamper. What he lacks in height he more than makes up in smarts and a wiry physicality she admires. When the Stihl is thirsty or feeling dull, he's always right there; leading quietly from behind, he makes sure the crew does moderately well. Even at the going rate, which is not big money.
     It's a tough unit, part rock face, above a precipice that's all rock face, with a tiny highway and a smidgen of red roof -- Rosie's restaurant -- far below.
     Steffi leans into her work. After about an hour of hazel brush and sword ferns, punctuated by tree roots that have to be dug out and cut, she comes to a sizeable log. She only has her eighteen inch bar; it will take four cuts to get through it, and her chain's already dull.
     "Break!" She yells to Ron. He passes it back along the line, and the crew sits down in the shade, puffing and blowing.
     Ron passes the triangle file to Steffi and she parks the saw on the log and hews steel.
     "Where'd you learn to do that?" he asks.
     "Hoedags. Thinning on the Face crew."
     "How long have you been there?"
     "Three years. Same as here."
     "I know; you live up in the quarry." He smiles.
     What does that smile mean? The guy's mysterious, always a step ahead, never shows all his cards. She's irritated but doesn't want to show it. "Where .. umm ... so where do you live?"
    "Stone Creek; you know where that is, half of the original Face crew lives there. I built a little house and I run a string of horses."
     "Pack horses? No kidding!"
     "Sure; this isn't Alaska, but it's still kind of wild around here. Now and then somebody needs my services."
     "Wow." Steffi is not fond of horses; in fact, she afraid of them. In a recurring dream she's this guy, an Indiana volunteer that gets shot in the Cornfield, then moves to the Illinois plains, builds a sod hut for a wife and two kids, and then gets killed by the panicked plow team when a lightning storm passes over. Being cut in half by an iron moldboard plow will wake you up, sweating, every time.
    She knows it wasn't their fault, but she breaks out in hives around horses anyway. She realizes she's struggling to forgive Ron for liking the damned things.
     The saw is ready. Steffi hands back the file and cranks up.
     The first cuts are made from below, angled outward at the bottom. Then the second pair of cuts will be made from above, narrowed at the top, so that the section of log, four feet long, can drop out, which it won't do with parallel cuts.
     She's almost done with the cuts from below, when half of the section, which had split beneath the bark without telling anybody, falls off on her.
     It's about a hundred and fifty pounds of wood, and it pins her arm against the Stihl's muffler.
    Steffi screams.
    Antietam looms behind her eyes. She's just fired her first and last shot of the war and knelt behind the rail fence to ram in another MiniĆ© ball; from nowhere a Texan in brown wool pops up, scowls, and aims his musket in her general direction. His shot goes high and shatters her arm forever.
     Ron springs into action, heaving up the chunk by one end and sending it flying over Steffi's head and down the mountain.
     Steffi shuts off the saw and sits there, stunned.
     "Let's have a look at that," says Ron. He unbuttons her steaming flannel sleeve, rolls it up, and there on her forearm is a perfect mirror impression of a chainsaw muffler, cooked into place.
     Carlo, who has come down with the others, hops up on the log and surveys the damage. "Cheeses, Steffi."
     "We should get you down to the clinic," says Ron.
     "I'm all right," says Steffi.
     "You think so now, but that's gonna be at least second degree and maybe some third."
     But she insists. She greases the burn with some Bag Balm she carries in a little film can -- her entire medical kit -- and ties a bandanna around her arm. She stands up on shaking legs, tentatively picks up the saw, then yanks the crank rope, her streaming face turned away from the others.
     Ron's body language shows he does not approve, but he returns to swamping for her.
     The next time Steffi runs out of gas, she's been furiously sawing well ahead of Ron's efforts, and it takes him a couple of minutes to catch up at her call.
     "I hate to tell you this," he says, handing her the bleach bottle of sawgas, "But you've just cut your way through half an acre of poison oak." He sits down on a handy stump.
     Steffi looks down at the saw chips clinging to her chaps, clothing, and bandage. Takes off a glove and shakes out some.
     "Oh, well, huh." 
    "You know this is by the hour, right?"
     "What's with you, anyway? Always on, you never let up on yourself."
     Steffi thinks this over. One Life To Live? Go For The Gusto? Many other Hoedags are the same way. The Greenwooders, like Ron, are no slouches, they do savor adventure, but they kick back more. Lots more; it's a talent. Must be the landowner thing.
     "My dad, I think."
     "Ooh, psych one-oh-one. Love that stuff."
     "Knock it off. He, I think, I mean I know, he, he, wanted a boy. And they got just me, and I was 'just' a girl. File, please."
     He hands it over and puts his bearded chin in his hands. "I'm all ears."
     "Well -- they were always on my case. And any little thing, crit, crit, crit. Pain, especially."
     Steffi pushes the chain four links forward with the file and rasps down the teeth and rakers. "Y'know, one time I ran away -- kinda -- into a swamp less than half a mile from home. Middle of winter. Left a note saying I was fine, not far away, would be back on Saturday. And I built myself a wigwam and covered it with leaves, and sat by a fire for five days. Had to melt ice from the creek to get water. Loved it."
     "And you came home on Saturday."
     "Mm-hmm. And, y'know, for once they didn't have a single bad thing to say to me. Just, like, 'good morning, want some pancakes?'"
     "You'd outstripped their standards somehow."
     "Yeah. Like, if I out-guyed that guy in their heads, they'd quit bugging the girl in front of 'em."
     "But now you're here, three thousand miles away. You could maybe give that script a rest."
     "Oh, she says." 
    There's that sardonic smile again. But she's sure now it's not disapproval -- not of the deep things.
     Her arm is really throbbing now. "Umm, this -- " she points at the bandanna -- "I think I'd better go sit in the crummy."
     "Ah-h-h, you're learning. I like this idea a lot. How about you give Carlito your saw and chaps and we'll finish up here for you?"
     "Yeah -- umm, yeah."


Arm in a sling, Steffi goes to a lunar eclipse party at Stone Creek. She's not up to steering Little Bird, so she catches a ride with the Omega farmers. Stone Creek is up a tiny canyon, with rock faces on either side, sheer. It's a wild-looking sort of place, and access across Greenwood Creek is via a sort of homemade cable car.
    People are milling around on a landing in the twilight, and a bearded gent is instructing them, in groups of four, how to get into and sit in the galvanized steel tub; they'll be shoved down the wire rope about sixty feet, or halfway across the rapids, then haul themselves the rest of the way by hand on the overhead cable.
    "Everybody grab the cable and pull twelve inches over and over; that's all. The brake will keep you from rolling back. You go trying to shove yourselves two feet at a time, the last person in the car will lose a finger; got it?"
     Heads nod in semi-comprehension.
    Steffi, being walking wounded, is handed into the car, with a guy in front of her and another, a red-bearded fellow in a hand-knit wool cap, behind her. The host shoves them out over the river, pulley wheels squealing. At the low point in the cable, they're stopped by gravity and swing sickeningly side-to-side. Suddenly the water seems a long way down, and there's a chill on the river air. The guys start doing that hand-over-hand thing, and of course there's a ping behind Steffi and the guy in the back starts cursing. Eventually another Stony Creek resident appears from the gloom on the opposite landing with a long stick like a shepherd's crook, who hooks the car into its cradle and latches it in place, smiling.
    "Welcome to Stony Creek. You in the back, how are ya?"
    "Hurt," says Red Beard.
    "Takes practice. Everybody hop out; go on up to the house in the first clearing; they'll take care of you. Stick to the trail; it gets dark between here and there."
    He's not kidding. Fortunately, the trail, a narrow one that has never known a car or truck, has been worn deep by boots and horseshoes for a number of years. Steffi finds her way by feel; if there's a slope under either foot she's too far left or right. Doesn't anybody around here have a flashlight?
    The house, a cedar-shake affair that reminds Steffi of White Star, is lit, but with a dim orange glow that says "kerosene" to her. So this side of the river, there's no power, no cars, no phones either, most likely. Night is falling, but Steffi can see that there are several "roads" leading away from the clearing. The thresholds of these are like hobbit-holes; a circle of green leads to a tunnel through the alders, with a single brown track for a roadbed. The thought strikes her that this must be what it was like in the Middle Ages.
    Inside the house, there's a lamp on every table, and by the light of the lamp, people are having their hands bandaged. It's like a war zone, and the worst case, the guy that had sat behind Steffi, is getting the web of his left hand stitched by a striking, slim woman in long black hair. He's got a handkerchief, rolled up, clamped between his jaws. Raven Hair smiles at him; he relaxes a little, and she deftly puts in a last loop, pulls it tight, and snips with a tiny pair of nail scissors. Wounded Hand flexes his fingers a bit, winces, and smiles wanly at his hostess.
    The man who'd addressed the crowd across Greenwood Creek steps in, surveys the scene, and shakes his head. "You all told me you got it, and look at you."
    Heads hang in shame around the room.
    "Oh, well ... party time!" He hefts a six-pack of Rainier. "Eclipse at eleven-thirty. Bonfire's being lit now."
    A mild cheer rises from the crowd. Booted feet shuffle across the rough-hewn floor.
    Steffi is offered a brownie. "Uhh, thanks but no thanks."
    The woman making the offer turns out to be She Who Fixed Mr. Red Beard. "Oh, Hi, I'm Jana. I used to plant with Face Crew, up to '74, so we haven't met. I think I heard something about brownies ... "
    "I'll never live that down."
    "You shouldn't worry; people who don't have good stories about them are the ones who should worry."
    "You have stories?"
    "Yeah ... lots." Jana smiles, pats Steffi on the shoulder and moves off, working the room.
    Steffi's next offered a small aluminum tumbler poured from a bottle with a bearded gent in a heavy fur coat on the label. "Uhh, thanks but no thanks." She's learned where her minefields are.
    Someone opens a Rainier and hands it to her. "Thanks." Steffi wanders outside, sipping at the weak beer, to see that flames are rising from a heap of brushwood in the near distance. She joins the crowd.
    There are a lot of Star crew members here, though she doesn't see Dan or Carlo. Ron pops up by her side. "How's the arm?"
    "Oh ... hi. Umm, it's better than it looks. Doctor said give it a rest though. So I, I didn't have to pinch a finger coming across."
    "Smart move."
    "Funning you." He sips at his own beer, an Olympia, then looks at the can and purses his lips. "Cheapskates. So, how's the poison oak?"
    "Some around my neck, some around my wrists. Not much; this stuff is wimpy compared to what we had back East."
    "I remember it. Did you know, the wounded lay in hot sun for days after Gettysburg, in the lushest poison ivy anyone had ever seen?"
    Steffi hides behind her beer can. "Ack, please! No Civil War just now."
    "Oh ... sure." He creases his forehead.
    An impromptu band has formed, four guitars and a tambourine. Voices are roaring out "Midnight Special." Steffi taps her foot on the gravel. She'd join in, but she doesn't know if this man sings, and doesn't want him to feel excluded.
    One of the Stars is circulating through the crowd, a tall guy with a Van Dyke beard and recessed eyes. "It's starting, folks -- look at the moon!"
    The song tapers off. Sure enough, the silver is fading from the long, trampled grass round the fire, and most illumination that remains is from the bonfire's embers and glow of half a dozen cigarettes and joints.
    "The Red Dragon is eating the moon!" cries Jana.
    "Nahh, it's the Sacred Dog," says Red Beard, waving a glowing roach with his bandaged hand.
    "Huh," says the tall Star crewmember. He crouches, puts his long hands on his knees, tips back his head, and ululates. His shadow is haloed in deep red.
    Forty-seven voices lift in a long, exuberant howl of greeting to the wounded moon.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chapter Sixteen

- 16 - 

 FIRE SEASON returns, and Steffi's on the landing with a dozen Greenwooders. Everyone has napped, passed around books, had lunch, passed around joints, gone over to the edge to watch the burn, and napped.
     It's four in the afternoon before the white hats think the fire has died down enough to put out. Steffi's amazed at how dark it is; the column of smoke is over a mile high and blots out the sun. There are vermillion highlights on the undersides of the smoke billows -- reflections of the flames down on the unit.
     Steffi grabs her inch hose and brass nozzles and runs down the fire trail fifty feet past Carlo, who hooks her into the inch-and-a half with a wye and signals her that water's coming. The canvas hose fills and she starts knocking down flames that have jumped the trail into some brush and an old duff stump. The stump doesn't want to go out. She stays with it, tearing away rotten wood with the high-pressure spray, till the truck runs out of water somewhere above.
     Time to sit down and rest, till the truck comes back.
     Carlo comes down the trail and hunkers down near her.
     "They said next truck will be in twenty minutes. Hope so, 'cuz a lot of fire is still on the left of us and coming our way. Y'wanna, when the water comes, beat that down instead of excavating your stump any more."
     Carlo takes off his sweat-beaded glasses, wipes them with a bandanna. "Hot stuff." He puts them on, smiles, runs back uphill. He's out of sight before he's gone thirty feet.
     The smoke is getting heavy; Steffi bellies down looking for better air. It's some better but not a lot. She looks left. Flames. She looks right. More flames; the stump is at it again and so are its surroundings. Right on the trail she seems safe enough; the fuel in the area has already burned up pretty well. But the smoke is unreal!
     There's some fairly loose bark duff nearby. Instinctively she takes off her hard hat, digs a small pit in it and buries her face. Ahh.
     From time to time she pops up, checks to see if the fire is getting close enough to send her packing, to see if the smoke cloud has shifted, to see if water's coming down. The fourth try, she finds her hose distended and cool to the touch -- time to go to work, if there's enough air. She pulls her bandanna up over her nose, sets a wide spray and leaps up to attack the blaze reaching out for her from the unit.
     Nope. Way too hot. So's she. She turns the nozzle on herself for a quick cool down. And then the water quits, way too soon.
    "Stef!" Carlo is shouting from somewhere above. "The fire's burned through your hose! Grab your nozzle and come up out of there!"
     Sounds like a good idea.


After sunset, one of the white hats wants Steffi to check out a smoke on the opposite hillside. In the same valley as their last fire, this unit is across from the same old growth forest as before, and the trees there are if anything even bigger than those she'd seen before. And not owned by Timberlands. So it behooves Timberlands not to burn them up.
     The white hat drives around the mountain road in a pickup, with Steffi as shotgun. He hands her an oblong metal box wrapped in a leather holster. "Run straight down the hill here about three hundred feet and circle round till you find it. Radio up when you do, and we'll bring a hose down to put it out."
     "Yessir." She works her way down among the forest giants, some of which are lying down and have to be clambered over. She misses her caulk boots; the logs are slick.
    It's cool here, with lots of sword ferns and viney maple: a north slope. With so much delicious dampness, she's surprised a spot fire got going.
     Come to think of it, there doesn't seem to be one. Steffi has surely gone three hundred feet. She ranges sidehill and back both ways, sniffing and looking. Nothing! Has the guy even dropped her off in the right place?
     Something big hisses down from the dark canopy and buries its point, like a spear, in the soft soil not twenty feet away. It's a burning tree branch! Not small, either.
     Steffi looks up -- and up -- and up. Oh, my.
    She unsnaps the holster at her waist and holds the radio to her head, button down and hard hat askew.
     "Sir, you might want to come see."
     "What d'ya mean?"
     "It's a tree on fire -- maybe about a hundred feet from the ground."
     "Not that high."
     "Old growth, sir."
     "All right, damn. Damn, all right. Comin'."
     Presently his white hat gleams in the gloom, and the paunch bobbles over a log and puffs to a halt beside her. He looks at the smoldering branch, then looks up. "Godalmighty, what a tree." He reaches for the radio.
     "Gimme the saw crew with their longest bar, an' a water truck. Run a inch-an'-a-half line straight down from by my truck, with a inch tee and six sections of inch hose." He listens a moment to what sounds to Steffi like so much static, then looks at her. "You got your nozzle?"
     "Yes, sir."
     He stares off into space again, talking into the mouthpiece. "No, bring just one more." He looks at his watch. "While we're at it, ever'body comes down get headlamps and two extra for me an' th' girl. And send somebody to Rosie's for about fifteen sandwiches and thirty sodas."
     By the time the sawyers show up, dragging and carrying hose as well as their own gear, it's already time for headlamps. From the way they fling down the hoses, Steffi can feel their disdain for fire work in general and hippie fire crews in particular. She's suddenly glad the fire boss has stayed with her.
     He hands her a lamp. "Leave yours turned off till you need it -- we could be here awhile."
     The sawyers surround the tree and strategize over it. The thing is perfectly enormous, with a great bell shape at the roots and bark like fish scales.
     "Spruce," says the white hat. "They're gonna have to go way up to make their cut."
     After some gesticulating, a young cutter cranks up the big Stihl. It has a forty-eight inch bar, less than half the distance through the tree. Steffi is just cutter enough to know there will be a number of cuts -- they will indeed be here awhile.
     The young man cuts vertically into a massive root, then horizontally. When the cuts are almost done, an older man steps forward, places an orange plastic wedge into the vertical cut, swings a reversed single-bitted axe at it a few times, and knocks a fifty-pound chunk of the root away. It rolls down the mountain out of sight.
     "They'll do the same over on the other side. These'll be the platforms they'll work from."
     As this is going on, Steffi notices a shrunken, hunched old man with the others. He's been watching the canopy for more falling branches -- "widow-makers." As soon as both platforms are cut, he's helped onto one of them and the youngest man hands him the saw, still running. The middle-aged man positions himself behind the old man and grips him by his belt as he leans forward, slams the sharp dogs of the saw into the bark, and begins the cut.
     Eventually the saw head is far enough around the downhill side of the tree that the old man's helper is holding the old man's right hand while he runs the saw with his left -- otherwise he'd fall off the tree and roll down the mountain. When this cut is done, the performance is repeated with another cut to meet the first one in the classic "vee" -- to take a notch out of the tree and aim its fall downhill.
     Now the two cuts must be made from the other side of the tree, and these two cuts must match the first two, a neat trick if you can do it blind, sprawled around the corner from your work. The old man, easily their most accurate faller, manages to line up the cuts passably, but now he's used up and the youngest man is anchored around the tree trunk by the middle-aged man, twice -- to deepen all four cuts into a tree more than twice the diameter of their saw's reach.
     After about an hour they're happy enough with their notch to set the saw down and go to work hammering wedges -- one faller on one platform and one on the other, swinging axes.
     The sound of the axes echoes back from the other side of the valley. Steffi looks out through a gap in the trees. It's a dark night, but the unit still has many spot fires in it, and the effect takes her breath away.
     There are stars out, and the spot fires look enough like stars that it's disorienting -- there's no horizon. Steffi has recently seen a new movie, Star Wars, so she knows just exactly where she is.
     The sandwiches and pop turn up, brought by Mervin in a canvas haversack. Steffi takes two turkey salads on wheat and two Dr. Peppers. She's done with them before Mervin has made the rounds and comes back to sit with her.
     He turns off his lamp. "How are they doing?" he asks, still trying to catch his breath.
     "They're taking out the wedge from the notch; then they'll make the back cuts."
     "I had no idea one tree could go so slow."
     White Hat joins in. "The tree is two feet wider than the saw. They're having to beaver around in the cuts to get a workable hinge."
     Mervin looks up; Steffi follows suit. The tree is darker than the night. "Is there even a fire up there?" he asks her.
     "Well, it threw a burning stick at me."
     The wedge of tree trunk finally snaps loose, slides out of the notch and crashes down the mountain.
     "That thing weighs about as much as a car," says White Hat to no one in particular.
     The sawyers take turns eating their dinner and sharpening saw chain, then regroup and tackle the back cuts.
     Another hour goes by, its theme music the roar and whine of the saw.
     At last the fallers set the hot beast down, apply wedges to the back cut, and the night rings with the axes and their echoes for the third time.
     "Got your hoses laid and hooked up?" asks White Hat.
     Mervin stands up and snaps on his lamp. "I'll get 'em." He moves off upslope into the darkness.
     After a few minutes, there's a thump. Steffi turns on her lamp and locates the hose end, nozzle in hand.
     The axes fall silent and the fallers' lamps turn and shine up towards the fire crew.
     Steffi half expects to hear the ancient and romantic cry of "timber!" -- but hears only frenetic shouts of "there we go!" and "left, left! Get out of there!"
     The night lights up. It's the top of the giant tree, swinging down through the night -- its hidden flames flaring up in a dozen places as it gathers speed.
     Mature trees are swept from the path of the falling behemoth, shedding massive branches as they go. The old-growth Roman candle is clearing half an acre of mountainside in its death throes.
     Mervin arrives at Steffi's side with his own hose and nozzle. She glances over at him; the toppling, torching spruce reflects back to her from his glasses like a glimpse into hell.
     "Cheeses cripes all forking mighty," says Mervin softly. Or something like that.
     The ground leaps beneath them as the spruce finds the creek bed far below and shudders to a halt.
     White Hat checks his watch. "Two-thirty in the morning. 'K, kids, put yah fire out."
     As Steffi passes the big stump, she sees that the old sawyer is kind of dancing on it, measuring his handiwork with a steel tape.
     He sings out. "Nine and a half feet from bark to bark."

Chapter Fifteen

- 15 - 

AFTER SIX Rivers, weather moderates across the Northwest and Steffi finds herself motoring up the Columbia again in her cedar-shake fashion statement, thankfully alone. Her boarder had not turned out as badly as she'd anticipated; in fact, she'd gained weight. But he had waved goodbye to everyone at the end of the job, cheerily opining he'd find happier work in restaurants.
    Steffi's better at gauging distances this time, and doesn't run out of gas. The contract is in a different district, but based on the same city, so she feels very much at home as she pulls up to the hotel in Pierce. Some of the crew's personal rigs are in town as well, and she finds their owners in the bar, with their feet up on the brass rail.
     "Hey hey hey, it's Stef!" Lon salutes her with his glass. Little Butch raises his camera to record the moment, but the bartender points to the camera and wags his finger. No, no.
     Steffi is asked what she'll have, and she's feeling a little adventurous. "Maybe a shot glass of the guy in the fur coat?" She points to a bottle of Canadian on the shelf.
     Moving to a booth, Steffi nurses the little drink along for almost half an hour, trying to ration herself. It's not working. Someone has re-filled her glass when she wasn't looking; someone else has chatted her up and tossed back a few, leading her to sip along like an audience trying to sing along with Mitch. The room is starting to do things -- things she remembers with unease from Brownie Night.
     "Hey, Stef -- shoot some pool?" asks Lon.
     "Umm, not sure I know how." As a small child, in small town Georgia, she and her friends had fooled around with enormous sticks and enormous porcelain balls on an enormous green table in the next door neighbor's basement. That would hardly count.
     "Nothin' to it, here's yer cue." She's handed a much smaller stick than she remembers. The voice goes on. It's a local guy, and he sounds amused. "This game is eight-ball; you get th' odd ones and I'll shoot for th' even ones."
     Steffi is given a quick tutorial in how to approach the cue ball; many of the ideas presented are familiar from her softball days -- and from reading Zen and the Art of Archery.
     "Where do I start?"
     "Well, th' cue ball is over here and th' nine's over there by th' side pocket, a pretty easy shot. So I'd 'call' it -- say 'nine ball in th' side pocket' so's we can all hear it, then shoot. I'd try t' hit it right here -- " points with his cue -- "Otherwise th'cue will follow it inta th' pocket an' y' lose y' turn. See, if y' drop th' ball y' called, y' get to shoot at another of y' balls. But don't drop mine, that'll lose y' a turn too. Ready?"
     Steffi is feeling slightly ill. "Mm. Hm. N-nine ball, side ... side pocket?"
     "Yep, exactly right. Now shoot."
     She does. The nine goes in and the cue ball skitters away. She's as surprised as the guys that she has another shot.
     She calls another ball and sinks it. Then another. A shy person with, normally, performance anxiety, Steffi should have scratched the first shot. Instead, she runs the whole table and then drops the eight ball. She turns to the astonished local guy. "That's it?" she asks.
     Local guy rounds on Lon. "You people are havin' us on! She's a shark!"
     No, Steffi thinks, as the room tilts. The Sharks are another crew.
     Lon shakes his head. "Don't think so. Gotta be a fluke. Known her for years, never seen her shoot pool."
     Steffi nods vigorously. "It was, was, the guy in the fur coat. His fault." She's amazed at how slurred her voice is. With a shaky finger she points at the Canadian fellow leering from a bottle on the bartender's shelf.
     "An' anyway," says Lon, "It's not like we had real money on it." 
     Real money?
     Murray, at the bar, steps down from the rail and addresses the room, weaving. "We're th' Hoedags. We're. A. Legend. In. Our. Own. Time." He gestures wildly and bows from the waist.
     "In our own minds, he means," smiles Little Butch to a knot of Local Guys, who are bunching up and looking a little gruff.
     "We. Can. Take. On ... " begins Murray, who is trying to make a fist.
     Burt, who is late to the party but has heard enough to gauge the situation, intervenes. "Let's go, Murray. You too, Stef."
     They're bundled out to the street side by side, and tumble to their knees on a remnant of winter -- dirty, cold, white stuff piled up by snowplows.
     Murray loses his dinner. At the sound, Steffi feels green all over. She loses her dinner, too.
     "Oh. Man," offers Murray to her companionably. "Don't. You. Just. Hate. It. When. This. Happens."
     Well, now that she knows a little bit more about it ... yeah.


 The contract is unlike any other Steffi's seen. The area was burned over in a cataclysmic forest fire in 1910, and so few trees survived within the fire's boundaries that forest regeneration simply hadn't occurred. Instead, ninety thousand acres of deep brush grew up, creating less than ideal conditions for any conifer seeds that might sprout.
     The rangers have concocted a novel approach to the problem. With D-9 Cats bearing twelve-foot blades, they've terraced miles of hillside. The treeplanters' job will be to walk along in teams of two, inserting plugs -- seedlings sprouted in plastic tubes, from which each tree, potting soil and all, will be drawn just before planting -- in the berms of the meandering roads. Actual "units" consist of no more than a couple of blue pin flags marking the terminus of such walks.
     Yoder and Steffi pair off. Except for the weight of the plugs, which treeplanters dislike, it's an unusually easy job, and Yoder wants to talk philosophy.
     He questions Steffi on Buddhism and liberal Quakerism, both of which she's marginally involved in, and expands his inquiry to areas she knows less about: Native American belief in particular and shamanism generally -- and what does she think about the Greek philosophers -- and how do they compare with Thomas Aquinas?
     Steffi is not as well read as Yoder thinks, but she's flattered he wants a woman's opinion, and when the talk wanders into areas she knows less about than she should, she makes up stuff.
     "See, Plato was from kind of a poor family, and so he wanted everything to be all connected so it would belong to folks like him and not just to the rich; Aristotle on the other hand was from money and so he wanted everything to be just be itself and itself alone, so folks like him could lay claim to it and the Platonists would just be left out in the cold."
     "No kiddin'?" says Yoder, highly interested, and he pops a tiny grand fir from its container and into the hole he's opened. He thinks about the discrete reality of the tree and how it nevertheless may become part of a mysterious internconnected entity called "the forest." A National Forest, no less. Woo, Plato, deep stuff.
     The inspector, an affable young man, ambles around the curve behind them and taps a rock with his shovel to get there attention. "Do you two know you're planting about a quarter of a mile out of the unit?"
     "Oh! Sorry, Bill, we'll plant right back to it."
     Bill looks a little pained at their insouciance but plays along, setting out pin flags at their turnaround point.

 They're about halfway back to the crummy when an apparition appears to them. The brush just ahead of them rattles and wags, and from it emerges a pudgy, sweating man weighed down with an enormous panoply of outfitter's paraphernalia -- orange vest and hat, binoculars, rangefinder, sheathed Bowie knife, and a big scoped .308 that looks like it has never been fired. Steffi half expects price tags to still be hanging off all the items. And how has he kept those boots so clean?
     "Where am I?" asks the apparition. He's weaving like Murray at the bar, but he's just overheated.
     "About two miles from the Forest Circus road," they tell him.
     "Oh. Well ... seen any elk?"
     Nope. Not a one. But they're both eternally grateful he didn't halfway spot them from a ways off.


When the job's over, everyone melts away to work on other contracts. Yoder proposes that he and Steffi detour to do vision quests -- he on his mountaintop, she on hers. "There's nothing doing for at least a week. So we could go over into the Seven Sisters, do our thing, then caravan to Wyoming in time for the contract opener."
     Steffi's a bit too much of a loner to care for that much coordination, but, hey, she gets her own mountaintop.
     So, like, they do that.
     It so happens Steffi has thought of doing this before. She's sewn some 'sleigh" bells onto two leather strips with trailing thongs, suitable for tying around her ankles for dancing in what she thinks is might be an appropriate cultural appropriation. These she packs up with her sleeping bag (ain't gonna sleep naked, magic circle or no magic circle) in a rucksack.
     Steffi plans to bring no food. Ritzy is out of drinking water -- one of Steffi's many oversights -- and she's feeling too lazy to get down into the canyon across the road to stock up. She's got her cup and canteen, though, and is good at finding clean water -- what can go wrong? Leaving Ritzy locked down in the trailhead parking lot, she makes for the nearest mountain top.
     It's a cold-ish sort of day, after all, and the clouds are looking snow-ish. Nevertheless, a sure thing about mountain climbing, even on a graded trail, is that it makes you thirsty. And it's slowly dawning on Steffi as she sweats her way round the switchbacks, that her Sierra Club cup is not, by itself, going to find her something to drink. She'd thought she would be crossing draws, but the trail is that kind of steeply ascending thing built in the days of pack mules -- it's avoiding the available draws entirely.
     Three hours into her hike, she's not having fun any more. Just as she thinks she'd better abandon the trip and try to get out of there barely alive, she rounds a bend and here's a sight to gladden any dessicated tummy -- at trailside, by a cliff, there's a fifty-five gallon drum full of water, with moss growing on its rim, into which a steady trickle of the life-giving elixer drips, globule by shining globule, from a pipe driven into the hillside.
     For mules, no doubt. Steffi feels like braying in celebration. She fills the canteen with a prayer of thanksgiving for old-timers.
     This particular mountain tops out with two knobs at about six thousand feet elevation. The trail is heading for one peak, so Steffi picks the other as being private enough for her needs. She bushwhacks her way out of the saddle and approaches her holy ground -- a nondescript sort of place, just alpine enough to offer a panoramic view, with low shrubs and forbs all over.
     It's already after sunset, so she figures on dancing tomorrow. She drags her left foot around and makes a circle, spreads her sleeping bag in the middle, sets her pack, boots and ankle bells in a row beside the bag, and vaguely prays in the six directions, feeling very self-conscious.
     Not a very good start, she's thinking. This is nothing like Seven Arrows.
     In the morning, she climbs out of a dew-heavy sleeping bag to discover that her leather anklets are gone. There's nothing but the bells, lying hither and yon.
     Mice, dammit.
     Also, a big storm is making up over the Sisters and headed her way.
     Maybe the place is unhappy with her? Telling her to skedaddle?
     Teeth chattering, she packs up and skedaddles.


 Yoder thinks the story is absolutely hilarious, but eventually he catches his breath and says, "You know, maybe you did find them."
    "Find what?"
    "Your guides."
    Steffi's feeling particularly dense. "Who?"
    They're in a bar in Grangeville. Yoder, who's all of seventeen, raises his glass of fizzy water. "Remember Little Jumping Mouse? So, the mice got started with you right away, and made you leave before the storm could get you. Pretty generous, really."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chapter Fourteen

- 14 -

"I DUNNO, Stef, might wanta sit this one out," Amy is saying. "They sprayed it heavy with 2,4-D."
    "What's that?" asks Steffi.
    Amy does a double take. "Girl, you are somewhat wise in the ways of the woods but naive as to the ways of the wood products industry."
    Chuck beckons to Steffi. She and Amy follow him to the edge of the landing. He points at the nearest alder trees outside the burn area, which are dying, but don't look scorched. "See the tips of these twigs, they go all curly like a pig's tail."
    It does look a little odd. "Mmm, yeah. What's up with that?"
    "2,4-D kind of mimics growth hormones. It's making the cells that divide the most -- the one's in the growing tips of the branches -- expand erratically, shoving the twig around on its own axis in a spiral." He points at the trunks. "Soon these trees will die, turn punky, shatter and collapse, because most of their cambium cell walls will have burst. We're hearing from the Farmworkers Union in California that this stuff affects people, too."
    "So I'm, like, not going down there," concludes Amy, with a palm upturned. "Might wanna have a baby some day."
    Juneen walks over. "Me neither. Last time I worked in this stuff, my period was two weeks off."
    "Well, nobody's going to make you," says Chuck, taking off his hard hat and raking his hair with a grubby hand. "But we do have a contract, and if only the guys go, we're one short today and the fazoos will call it off and ding us for non-compliance."
    Steffi's funds have been depleted by her down time and repair work; she's anxious not to just haunt camp, which is particularly muddy and miserable this week. "I'll go."
    Amy kind of looks daggers at her, but doesn't comment.
    It's a strange place to work. The rangers claim the chemicals were all burnt up in the unit burn, but the air smells faintly diesel-ish and Steffi keeps trying to not breathe. She stops and dampens a bandanna and ties it round her face, as she's been known to do on fires at Timberland, but she still feels light-headed. She wonders if it's a placebo effect.
    Too, there's nothing to grab on to. All the slash that survived the burn is so brittle she can't haul herself around the steep hillside by it as she's used to doing. Steffi can see other treeplanters having the same trouble. A Magruder loses his balance, grabs a branch to stop his fall; it disintegrates and over he goes. A few moments later, Lon repeats the performance. As he tumbles into a draw, Little Butch snaps his picture, while barely keeping his own footing.
    Steffi finds a puddle and spots a thin sheen on the water. She looks closely. The sheen can be one of two things -- broken-up fractals of color, almost crystalline, which would be bacteria, or spirals and curves of color, which would be oil. It's definitely spirals and curves.
    "Hey, inspector, what's with the oily puddles?"
    The white hat, leaning on his shovel, grins. "S'just bacteria."
    S'just bacteria, hippie. Suck it up and dig.


In Steffi's Technicolor dreams that night, a young man stands by her bed. He looks a lot like her, except he has a black beard.
    "How's it going?" she asks him.
    "Not too good. I'm 'developmentally delayed.'"
    "What's that?"
    He goes over, taps a dark glass window in a cinder-block wall. "Ask the guy with the notepad; he's in there listening to us. Writing down my future. 'Special ed', no driving, won't be able to work. I can't even read clocks."
    "I -- I'm sorry." Who is this guy?
    "Could be worse. At least I'm getting them back by taking all the SSI."
    Steffi wakes up in a cold sweat. Belatedly protective, she covers her belly with her hands.


While she's lying there, staring at what's left of the dream, she notices the ceiling close above her head has taken on a rosy glow. There's noise, too: pops and snaps like someone dancing on that fragile slash, or like a really big bonfire.
    The glow flickers. Okay, bonfire. She scrabbles over to the edge of the loft, looks down through the window. Yoder runs past it with a five-gallon bucket. He's glowing too.
    There's shouting.
    Fire! In camp. She doesn't believe it.
    Chuck throws open her back door. "Fire!"
    She believes it.
    In her finest long johns, Steffi adds Little Bird's white bucket to the brigade. What's burning is a small travel trailer. Flames are coming out all the windows and, before long, as camp is not near running water, the roof as well.
    The main worry is the propane tanks, which are mounted on the trailer's tongue. Their valves have been cranked shut by a gloved hand, but where they are it's already too hot to try and dismount them.
    All the extinguishers have been emptied. Burt has been pumping water from the camp's fifty-five gallon barrel, but it's taking awhile to fill each bucket. Several puddles in the beat-up gravel road have already been bailed onto the flames, mud and all.
    They're out of things they can try, and backing away from the mess. Steffi turns around and finds Yoder gaping at the rapidly diminishing trailer.
    "Sometimes ya gotta punt," Chuck says to them.
    "Whose is that anyway?" asks Steffi. "I haven't seen it before."
    "Belonged to the Magruders," says Yoder. "But the new guy rented it from them. 'Don't let him use the propane heater, they said."
    "New guy?"
    Yoder points out a young man standing not too far away. Nobody's standing with him. He's medium height, just a little portly (tree planting will take that off if he sticks with it, she thinks), black curly hair, a thin mustache. Steffi's thinking he doesn't look contrite enough for the trailer.
    Chuck calls him over. "Dale; Yoder, Stef."
    Dale offers his hand. Sweaty palm; maybe he is contrite.
    Chuck catches Steffi's eye. "Seeing as we don't have the yurt on this job, Stef, y'think y'could put Dale up for awhile?"
    She's not r-e-e-e-al into it, but nods.
    Dale has saved his backpack full of to-be-laundered but not much else. By the fading firelight, Steffi leads him through the stinking pall of smoke to the housetruck's stoop. Huh, Ritz Hotel after all.
    "You can have the blanket; anywhere down here. I'm up there."
    "Up there looks comfy," he says hopefully.
    "You can have the blanket; anywhere down here. I'm up there."
    "O-o-kay, I gotcha."
    "Sure, 'night." He settles on the locker across from the Airtight and fishes in his breast pocket.
    "Oh, and there are house rules. No smoking indoors."
    Dale stops fishing. She half expects some grumbling but there's none forthcoming.
    Home sweet sleeping bag. After Steffi closes her eyes, Dale gets chatty.
    "Anybody rents ya a trailer, they oughta at least fix the heater first, y'd think."
    Steffi's not sure she has anything to say to this.
    Dale drags some soiled clothing from his pack and wads it up for a pillow. "Where ya from?"
    Where is she from? Steffi does have an Oregon driver's license; for three years now. It bears the address of an apartment in Eugene where she crashed awhile; she's not sure she even remembers whose it was.
    "No kiddin'? But I mean, before that."
    "Oh. Georgia."
    "Oh, wow. Me, I'm a native."
    He says it in lowercase, and Steffi understands him. She's heard people use the term a lot. It means born in Oregon. Capital "Native" is something else. "So, Eugene?"
    "Naah, Klamath Falls I think."
    "You ... think?"
    "I'm adopted."
    "Um. Sleep now?"
    "Oh, uh, sure. Sorry, I talk a lot."
    Well, at least he recognizes it.


In the early going, Steffi finds Dale a less than ideal roommate, and frequently has to re-establish boundaries and ownership, but, she reasons, there's an extra body in the crummy at a time when two crews are having trouble making up a day's one-crew roster. Dale gets up, sort of ready and sort of willing, day after day. That, even his hostess has to acknowledge, counts for a lot.
    Some people take to tree planting naturally; some do not. The crew watches Dale's lessons and, discreetly, shake their heads. He has trouble finding the line or getting his trees "right-side-up" as the old saw goes. He blurts out things to the suspectors they shouldn't hear, and his contributions at crew meetings are less than edifying.
    But he's a good cook. That, his fellow crew members admit, also counts for a lot.
    On the fourth night, Dale fixes dinner for the landlady. She's impressed. The crew authorizes him to make a town run with the "sixpack" to buy supplies, and soon he has everyone looking forward to supper every night.
    The work is slow, many of the units are a long crummy ride from camp, and the suppers are often prepared by lamplight.
    Comes a day, the crew is so tired no one wants to even try to leave the crummy.
    They all sit there, some still in wet caulks. Dale rolls a big one, lights it, passes it around. Steffi, as usual, waves it off with thanks. She thinks maybe she'd like a little air. With an effort she heaves herself up, staggers to the front door, cranks it open, and steps down to the wet sun-burnished grass. Pretty. Takes three steps toward Ritzy, and sinks down to rest against a stump.
    The sky has cleared at last, and there's a pre-sunset cloud show in progress: shades of rose, pink, mauve. Other planters drag themselves out, discover the cloud show, and settle into an ever-growing heap around the stump. Dale is the last out, carrying what's left of the damp roach gripped in a long pair of tweezers. He's watching his own cloud show, by the look of him, and he drifts off to Ritzy and falls into his own bed, a pallet of foam rubber and blankets he's acquired since Fire Night. Steffi can see his boots sticking out of his nest, by the open back door. Looks like he is asleep already.
    Some of those around her are napping also. Steffi just watches the sky.
    She's admiring purple and crimson streaks, in layers above the nearby ridge tops, when she spots Dale coming down Ritzy's steps with his boots, hard hat, and lunch box. These he thumps down, with a flourish, on a step; bodies stir all around Steffi.
    "So, y'all want pancakes?" Dale folds his arms and surveys the crew, beaming good nature.
    Eyes meet eyes round the circle. Heads nod imperceptibly.
    "Oh, uh, yeah, Dale, we want pancakes, you betcha," the crew choruses. "You betcha."
    "Comin' right up." Dale marches back into the Ritz; presently smoke issues from the chimney, and soon the heavenly smell of buttermilk pancakes draws the full attention of everyone present.
    It's a good dinner, served outdoors. No one goes lacking for butter or syrup, and there's enough jam for the jam fanciers. Dale pops in to the kitchen to fulfill a last request, then goes over to his boots, hard hat and lunch box, and heads over to the crummy.
    Halfway there, it dawns on him that it's getting darker, not lighter. Slowly he turns and looks at the sky. A star has come out. His gaze drops to the onlookers, all still sitting around the stump with their plates on their laps and their forks poised in the air.
    "It's not morning, is it?" he asks.
    Everyone cracks up. The Magruders, who have been a bit formal with Dale up to this point, are laughing the hardest. Both of them stretch themselves out on the ground and pound it with their fists, wheezing themselves breathless.
    It takes him a few moments, but Dale pulls himself together and cracks a lopsided grin. "Well, okay, y'all hadda good dinner, anyhows."