When Henderson first saw it from the bridge, the fire was prowling in the weeds above the creek bed, sinuous, orange, menacing—a lion.
Without debating it with his better judgment, he cut his pickup left and headed down a dusty road between two dusty vineyards. In this dry season, a fire beginning on anybody’s place could spread to your own, so the thing was, to kill it as a cub.
As he pulled into the yard, an ugly dog with the blotched coat of a hyena ran out snarling at him, straining at the end of a long chain. The house was small with a room just added, lined with plastic, not quite plumb. There was a shed with a stack of copper tubing, a table saw, sheets of corrugated fiberglass, wooden forms. And a vegetable garden: sunflowers, tomatoes, beans.
There was no car or truck.
Yelling at the dog to drive him back, Henderson trotted to the standpipe near the garden and turned the valve. A pressureless trickle bled out the end of a short hose. They were on an old well here probably, or maybe just a cistern sunk in the creek bed. If you haven’t got water, Henderson thought, you haven’t got anything.
Henderson grabbed a shovel out of his truck and, swinging it once at the dog to send him away again, dug into the mound of soft silt along the creek bank and started throwing it onto the flames. The day felt as hot as the fire, a lesser sun sucking up the air around it, making the near vineyards and distant wooded hills quiver as though through molten glass. Just him and it, and he was damn well going to smother the son of a bitch.
Henderson told it so, loading up his idiot stick, arching it so the dirt whumped down along the spreading darkened cancerous edges, not making much headway, but at least staying even. It was all part of the same problem—the dry grass, the empty creek bed, the dust, the parched dying deer wandering the roads. Nothing water wouldn’t fix. And the dam he was working on would mean water. Only if you weren’t fighting the parts house, it was the construction timetable, the unions, the politicians or the environmentalists. It was becoming damn near impossible to do anything. Making this, by comparison, almost a relief: just Henderson and the fire.
He kept himself between it and the house, figuring to give up the garden and maybe some of the fruit trees. As long as the wind didn’t kick up, he could probably force it back to the gravel of the creek bed.
Henderson hated and feared fire the way other men hate and fear failure. Two summers ago, a grassfire started by some deer hunters had burned through twelve thousand acres of forest over near Rivermouth, had clouded the sky and rained ashes for thirty miles around. Three months back, Henderson had hiked out from the town of Fernwood, up the first row of hills and come upon the fireline. It was like standing at the edge of the sea. Had the people in the town any idea how close they’d come? How near the lion’s hot breath had been? From the way they lived now—leaves and twigs deep on the roofs, barrels of trash, dry brush around the houses—they grazed idly, in the lion’s hungry eye.
He felt the lion now, treacherous and cornered, looking for a lapse: a pounce at the butane tank, a leap of a spark onto the dry shake roof, and all that would be left here would be another square black carcass.
But he was on top of it when the pickup appeared, a kid driving, in Levi’s and T-shirt, long hair and a beard, but trimmed and clean, his pregnant wife and a toddler with him. The kid ran up, grabbed a shovel and did as Henderson was doing.
Setting up a rhythm then, the two men chuffed one shovel after the other into the silt, taking four steps, dance each around the other, arch the dirt onto the flames.
Goading and compensating, hitting it harder than either would alone, neither willing to take a lesser shovelful or miss a turn, the kid as if to prove the property was deservedly his, Henderson panting and straining to convince the girl? the kid? himself? that he could do a young man’s work. And all of this the stronger for remaining unsaid.
Under this attack, the fire gave ground, shrank, fought back at the edge of death. Then it was over, but for smoldering earth. And what had bound the men was gone.
Henderson’s face was hot, his eyelashes felt shorter, his clothes sweated wet inside, scorched dry out. He felt a twinge of shock for the first time, at the rashness with which he had acted.
“I’m Jim,” the kid said, smiling and extending his hand. “This is Nancy, and this is our son Darrell. This man saved our house from burning down, Darrell.” The toddler stared at
Henderson and looked confused.
They sat down on a lumber pile to take stock. The kid looked at the ugly smudge of smoking landscape that had been a simple stretch of weeds along the creek back of his house.
“We were gone less than an hour,” the kid said as if he ‘d caused it. “Just went into town was all.”
“You were lucky. I just came by here on my way back to work.”
“I can’t get over it,” the kid said. “It’s like the days when people pitched in to help their neighbors raise barns.”
“Nobody likes to see a fire this time of year,” Henderson said. “Call the Forestry and they’ll get out here in time to help you sift through the ashes.”
The girl appeared with a cloudy-looking pitcher of apple juice and a pitcher of iced tea. Henderson and the kid glugged tea out of the pitcher without pouring a glass. The girl said, “It’s amazing. In the city nobody would have thought of doing that.”
“What do you do?” the kid asked Henderson.
“Heavy equipment machinist. I went into town to pick up a part. “
“Do you like vegetables?”
“Don’t go to any trouble,” Henderson pleaded. But the kid was already into his garden, picking cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, squash. The two kids looked to Henderson like they could use nothing so much as a good steak and french fries.
“What’s all the copper pipe?” Henderson asked.
“Water heaters,” the kid called from the garden. “I install solar heating systems. Collectors, wood stoves, pool heaters.”
“Is that a fact.” Henderson stared at the work shed.
The kid dumped the vegetables into a cardboard carton and brought them over to Henderson who was already trying to figure who he’d give them away to.
Henderson thanked the couple, then tried to distract them from giving him anything else. “How you folks fixed for water here?”
“We manage,” the kid said defensively.
“We carry in cooking water,” the girl corrected him, “do our laundry in town and flush only when we have to.”
They exchanged looks and Henderson knew that water was An Issue between them. The life between man and woman, even that had been invaded by the same problem. What was it Henderson had heard or read somewhere? More men had been killed disputing water in the West than had died over gold. At least people could get together and do something about water.
Henderson slapped his palms on his knees as part of a move jack-knifing himself to his feet. His back hurt in a way that made it impossible to stand fully erect at first.
He attempted to console them. “You’ll have water in that creek year-round when the dam is finished.”
The kid gave the girl a stare so intense she turned her head away. Something mean entered his eyes, and then his voice.
“I hope it never is,” he said to her, and Henderson.
He was one of them, Henderson realized. One of the ones that circulated petitions, handed out leaflets, walked picket lines, and sabotaged machinery. Who got between Henderson and his job.
It had been a long, hot day and it wasn’t getting any cooler. The thing to do was for Henderson to leave quietly, tactfully. Yet he had earned the right to speak his mind.
“I work up there,” he told the kids, and smiled. “Repair graders, earth movers, CATs.”
“You’re aware, I suppose,” said the kid, “that it’s being built on a major earthquake fault.”
“That’s some other guy’s decision,” said Henderson.
The kid spoke like his thoughts had been written down and memorized in advance. You weren’t just talking to a person, Henderson felt, you were debating with a movement. What irked him most was the damned moral superiority of it all, as if you were doing something evil just by having a job.
“There are other sources,” the kid insisted. “Just cutting down on what’s wasted would be enough.”
“Everybody bringing in cooking water, using a privy, doing laundry in town?”
“No. Like maybe just getting some of the ranchers to stop pumping water out of this creek and using it to water grazing land for their cattle.”
Henderson hated arguments like this, spreading away like smoke from the seen to the unseen until people were driven, in the name of some distant invisible thing, to commit acts they never would have otherwise. A year ago, the night before construction began, the equipment had been vandalized. People had disabled the controls and pissed and shit in the cabs. They’d had to lock everything up after that and bring in security guards. Educated kids, he thought, discouraged then and discouraged now.
Kicking the dirt off his shovel, Henderson tossed the shovel into the back of his pickup. He started to say something hard, but deciding better of it, thanked the girl for the iced tea instead and invited them to come out and look at the dam.
“Look,” the kid began, pressured by a glare from the girl, “it isn’t that I’m not grateful for what you did. It’s just that this is something I—we—feel strongly about. It’s not always good manners to say what you feel.”
“I suppose,” Henderson agreed. “I don’t spend much time thinking about things I can’t do much about. And I suppose it’s better to be honest about how you really feel, in which case you can keep your vegetables, which I honestly don’t care for.”
Taking a final kick at the dog, Henderson climbed into his pickup.
He backed up, spewing dirt, then floored it in a redneck roar up the dirt road to the highway. The forces of Progress and the forces of Nature had fought a draw on a hot afternoon in California.