They came to an unusual place in the deep green foliage along the seaward side of the Coastal Sikiyous—an open area where a small grove of giant sugar pines stood to poison the ground with needles. The trees left an acidic chocolate dry surface, plowed by ground squirrels whose business it was to plant pine nuts and the acorns of tanoak. The coastal breeze combined with the squirrels’ tillage produced an acrid dust that hung in the air and plugged the nostrils of the men who’d come to breathe it. It was a pungent smell of withered needles, dried madrone berries and decaying acorn husks soaked with the dripped turpentine of the pines.
Finlay Arbuckle had seen many such sites over the years, but they were on the dryer, inland side of the coastal range. The seaward side was normally choked with green underbrush, drenched with dew, dense fog and rain. But this was an abnormal year for weather. It hadn’t rained in more than two months, and that, Finlay understood very well, was the problem.
He could think of a thousand places he’d rather be at the age of fifty-six. But he found himself too young to qualify for Social Security and too old to hold a job on a high-lead logging side—operations that had become smaller and fewer in number with every passing season. And realizing his unemployment claim only had two weeks left to run, he signed up to fight this fire.
Fighting forest fires wasn’t new to him. He’d fought a number of them over the years, but that was back when the woods were full of loggers and there was energy in the air. Now he found himself on a crew that reminded him of a chain gang. Mope, Finlay quickly came to discover, was the operative word here. And the Grand Wizard of moping was his crew-boss, Ignacio.
Ignacio did speak functional English, which is probably how he’d obtained his position. He spoke English into the two-way radio he wore on his belt, but he seemed embarrassed to speak it in front of his countrymen, as though it was a language beneath him. And having a man as old as Finlay on his crew was a thing he appeared to take as a personal insult.
They’d been tramping along for the better part of three hours when they stopped at the small stand of pines to take a breather. As they stood there, Finlay looked west to see if he could see the ocean, but he concluded they weren’t high enough yet. He could see a haze of heat rising off the green foliage of the forest though—fumes, he thought, waiting to ignite.
They hadn’t been there long, when Ignacio held up his hand and turned to face the wind. He seemed to be re-enacting something he’d seen in an old movie, featuring Douglas MacArthur about to order the amphibious assault on a Japanese held island. Then he announced something in Mexican Spanish that Finlay didn’t understand, and members of the crew began to shuffle about. But Finlay just stood with a confused look on his face.
“He wants to make camp here for the night,” said a young Latino boy who was standing beside him.
“But it’s only a quarter-after-two,” Finlay said, after pulling out his old pocket watch to back up his statement.
They boy simply shrugged.
“You speak English,” Finlay said to the boy.
“Second generation,” the boy said with a smile. “I went to school in the San Joaquin Valley, growing up.”
“Where in the San Joaquin Valley?” Finlay wanted to know.
“Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, Bakersfield,” the boy said, “wherever my folks could find work.”
It was a concept that seemed strange to Finlay. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m Finlay,” he said.
The boy nodded.
Other crew members were throwing their gear down wherever they could find a flat spot, but Finlay moved away and picked a place between a pair of small tanoaks, deciding to accept a bit of a steeper grade for some shade. Lupe went to join the others.
He looked around for ants before laying out his bedroll, then he pulled out his packages of MREs (meals ready to eat) and put them in a plastic bag. He hung the bag in a tree, thinking birds would be less interested in the MREs than creatures that crawled on the ground.
Finally, he sat and turned his back to the sun—still high in the sky. He thought back to the events of the day while the rays baked his shoulders. First, it took two hours to get out of base camp; then they stopped to eat lunch. Shortly after that they stopped for the day, where they were now, right in the middle of the afternoon. And all the while there was a fire burning out there someplace, a fire that had been started by a dry lightning strike the day before.
How big will the fire be by the time we finally get there, he wondered? Then he stood up, grabbed a roll of toilet paper, and started out into the brush to do his business.
He noticed some crew members gathered around an old rotten stump. Two of them—he’d come to know as Ruben and Ortiz—seemed to be up to something. Then he saw the McLeod hoe. This is the oldest game in the book—he thought.
A McLeod hoe—a firefighting tool often called a hazel hoe—has a wide flat edge on one side, and long spiky tines on the other. If a hapless pedestrian inadvertently steps on either side, the handle will jump up and smack that pedestrian in the face. It used to be a right-of-passage, to engineer a new and creative way to get a green firefighter to step on a hazel hoe. But that was back when raucous, foul-mouthed tobacco spitting loggers did it for fun—often with side bets on the outcome.
This was a game that Finlay was inherently onto—and he knew by the looks on the faces of the onlookers that he’d been selected as the fall-guy. Aside from knowing the game, another advantage he had was his second wife—a woman who’d gone through a square dancing craze at a time when Finlay was still madly in love with her. And though he really liked the fiddle music, he’d hated the dancing. At the time, though, he did it to please the misses.
So when he got up to the trap that had been laid for him, he simply sidestepped the larger man, Ruben. Then Finlay grabbed Ortiz by the shoulder with his left hand and put his arm around the smaller man’s waist. At that point, he swung the shorter guy around in a little do-si-do—and, at just the right instant he nudged Ortiz back with his left elbow.
The surprised little firefighter put his left foot back to maintain his balance, and, in so doing, he stepped on the tines of the hazel hoe with his heel. True to form, the hoe handle popped up and whacked the little fellow in the back of the head.
All in the same motion, Finlay simply completed his do-si-do, emerged on the far side of the group, and went happily on his way. But he could hear the howls of laughter coming from the crew as he picked his way through the underbrush to find a secluded spot.
Having gotten the best of Ruben and Ortiz, and knowing they’d be looking to get even, Finlay checked through his bedroll a second time when he returned—searching for both ants and things more sinister that might have been placed there. Not finding anything, he stretched out on top of the nylon cover to take a short nap.
When the last of the sunlight began to dim, Finlay partook of an MRE. Then he slipped into his sleeping bag for the night. But sleep didn’t come. His thoughts went back to the year after he’d gotten out of high school. He was living in a logging camp high up in the Cascades. There was an old WWII veteran on the crew there who often told of his wartime experiences in Burma. His name was Oscar.
Oscar had been stationed in Burma, and his job was to transport munitions and materiel from the coast to inland British forces who had engaged the Japanese invaders. There were no roads, rails or bridges, so Oscar and his fellow soldiers had to transport their cargo on the backs of mules.
As British demands for supplies continued to rise, the US Army began to replace regular American GIs with Burmese volunteers who were theoretically loyal to the Crown—though one element of the Japanese strategy was to recruit and incite bands of Burmese natives to revolt against their colonial overlords. There was no way, however, for the Americans to distinguish the loyalists from the rebels. So Oscar found himself surrounded by folks who not only didn’t speak English, but who very well might not want to see the supplies reach their desired destination.
Feeling they couldn’t trust their allies, Oscar and his fellow Americans would band together at night, and they made sure that somebody was standing guard while the others slept. But as the needs along the front lines climbed, things got to a point where the mule caravans had to be comprised completely of Burmese natives, with only one American supervisor in charge of each company.
As he told his story, Oscar used to laugh and say, “They made us all sergeants,” but the way he said it made it pretty clear that it had been a promotion he would happily have done without. Anyway, once he found himself to be the only American in the group, Oscar was afraid to go to sleep at night. He said he kept his sleeping bag close to the mules, hoping the animals would stir if someone came around.
The caravans took three days to get where they were going and two days to get back, with a one day layover on the British end. When he was in the company of the Brits, Oscar informed us, “That was the only night I could get any sleep.”
“The Brits used to tease us,” he’d chuckle. “They’d say, ‘These yanks, they seem to sleep like the dead.’ But me and my friends, we figured it was the only reason we weren’t dead.”
On his first trip out with an all native caravan, Oscar laid awake all night with his rifle close by and his trench knife unsheathed and in his right hand. After that first solo experience, he asked his commanding officer for a 45 caliber pistol, and his wish was granted. The American officers seemed to understand what the crew chiefs were going through. Most of them could be seen walking around the base with their service pistols conspicuously missing from their persons.
At night in the logging camp, Finlay recalled how Oscar would toss and turn in his bunk. He’d mumble in his sleep and sometimes he’d yell out and suddenly sit up in the darkness with a loud gasp. Oscar told the crew that he suffered from yellow fever and malaria in Burma, and it would sometimes come back to haunt him at night. And while Finlay understood how things from Burma would come back to haunt Oscar at night, he wasn’t at all sure it had anything to do with yellow fever or malaria.
And now, as Finlay lay in his sleeping bag, listening to the Spanish speaking voices of his crew members, as they told each other stories and laughed in the dark, he came to understand how Oscar must have felt, all those years ago—all alone, in a mostly forgotten part of the Pacific War, stuck in the bowels of Burma.
On one occasion, Finlay could hear Ignacio’s raspy voice rise about the others to yell something that sounded like, “Boxes nagrows hasten caters verdicts,” and all the firefighters laughed uproariously. But Finlay had no idea what Ignacio had said.
He did finally manage to drift off to sleep, in the wee hours of the morning, but when he awoke to the bright morning sunshine, he realized he’d been dreaming of pack mules.
And I could use a pack mule right now, he thought.
He hadn’t been up for more than a few minutes before he realized that the rest of the crew was gone. Ruben and Ortiz again, he thought, but he knew they couldn’t have pulled off this shenanigan without Ignacio’s complicity.
Knowing the pace at which the crew traveled, Finlay realized it wouldn’t take him long to catch up to them, so he took his time, getting things stowed in their proper places, and he ate a packaged breakfast. The trail wasn’t hard to follow. Ortiz carried a machete, and he loved to whack at things as he went.
Within forty-five minutes Finlay came up behind them, as they moped their way up the hill. He looked out again, hoping to see the ocean, but it still eluded him.
Lupe was hanging back a little behind the main group, and he greeted Finlay with a nervous smile.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Finlay wanted to know.
Lupe, acting more nervous than usual, said, “Ignacio told us that you were an old man, and we should let you sleep.”
Finlay knew he should have been ready for that, but he wasn’t really. He didn’t reply.
The group continued along for another couple of hours. Finlay had begun to wonder if there really was a fire out there someplace—and if there was, were they going in the right direction to find it?
After another hour or so, Ignacio decided it was time to eat lunch. Finlay sat behind the main group, with Lupe perched on a large rock between him and the others. Finlay watched as Lupe scrunched up closer to the main group when Ignacio came back to check on them.
No one said anything. Ignacio simply nodded. Then he returned to the front of his party and spoke into the radio. Conversations on the radio were conducted in English, but he was too far away for Finlay to hear.
Shortly after lunch, they started hiking again and Finlay began to smell smoke. Half an hour after that, he started to see drifting pieces of ash and embers. He knew from past experiences that these embers could land on a patch of dry grass, an old pitchy stump, or some dead pine needles and ignite a fire behind them—they could become trapped. He nervously glanced in Ignacio’s direction, wondering if the crew leader was aware of that.
But Ignacio was standing on a large rock outcropping, peering through a pair of binoculars at the origins of the smoke, half-a-mile away on the hillside. Finlay could see that the flames were bright and hot, and the fire was beginning to roar. It was drawing air in from the surrounding area, creating its own wind. That meant the embers which had concerned Finlay just a few moments earlier were now being sucked back into the blaze. But he also knew this was only a momentary reprieve. As the fire gained steam, it would throw embers much higher, to catch other winds and air currents, and those embers could start fires miles from where the crew stood now.
Ruben joined Ignacio up on the rock, and the crew boss let the big guy share the binoculars while he got on the radio to check in with headquarters. After Ignacio returned the mic to the clip on his belt, he stood facing the group with his arms stretched out. His gaze went from one man who was talking to his neighbor, to another who was drinking from a canteen. When he was absolutely certain that he had everyone’s attention, he announced in a loud happy voice, “Ha sido declarado que el fuego está fuera de control.”
With the exception of Finlay, everyone cheered.
He looked around until he spied Lupe standing at the back of the group with a slight smile on his face. He made his way over and asked, “Why is everyone so happy?”
“The fire has been declared to be out of control,” he said.
“That’s terrible,” Finlay exclaimed.
“No,” Lupe said. “That’s good. It means we all qualify for hazard pay.”
Suddenly things began to align themselves in Finlay’s mind—the late start, the slow walk through the woods, the constant breaks and early lunches. It all made sense now. They wanted to make sure that they didn’t engage the fire until they qualified for hazard pay.
Finlay felt more estranged and foreign than ever—as though Mr. Spock had inadvertently sneezed just as he was reaching out to push the button on the control panel, and he’d accidently beamed Finlay down to an unknown planet. He took a few steps back down the trail, the way they’d come. Then he stopped to think, trying to take stock of the situation in which he found himself.
He turned back to watch Ignacio and Ruben up on the outcropping. Ignacio had gone back to his binoculars. Ruben was standing quietly with a faint smile on his face. He seemed to silence the crowd with just his stillness and presence. When he spoke, Finlay was surprised to discover that he had a deep, cultured voice, like Ricardo Montalban. And he didn’t say much. He simply thrust his left fist in the air and yelled the same words Finlay had heard the night before. “Boxes nagrows hasten caters verdicts.”
The crowd cheered again, and Finlay turned to ask Lupe what those words meant. But Lupe had scurried away.
Ignacio allowed his binoculars to hang on a strap around his neck while he responded to a call on the radio. After he signed off, he announced something in Spanish and the crew began to make their way back the way they’d come. Not knowing what else to do, Finlay went with them. Then Lupe came back to walk beside him, to explain. “We’re going to get a safe distance from the fire and make camp again. Some air tankers and helicopters are supposed to be here in the morning.”
Not finding any tanoaks, Finlay rolled his bedroll out under a stout little chinquapin, thinking green leaves would be less apt to catch fire than pitchy fir needles or pine cones. Most of the crew stayed out in the open. It must be the kind of ground they’re used to, he thought.
He ate his MRE, though he didn’t think he’d done anything that day to earn it. Then he prepared himself for bed. There was still a lot of daylight left, and he made a mental note to himself—if I ever do anything like this again, I’ll bring something along to read.
Before going to sleep that night, he silently reminisced about all of the things Oscar had told him about Burma, those many years ago. Then he reached down and pulled out his pocket knife. He opened the longest blade—three and three-quarters inches, barely legal—and he held the knife in his right hand. He felt kind of foolish about it, but he did it anyway.
The following morning, just as Finlay was putting things away, Lupe came over to inform him, “The air tankers are scheduled to come in around ten-thirty. The helicopters should be here before noon too.”
Finlay nodded, by way of showing his appreciation for the news. Then he said, “What we really need up here are some Cats.”
“Cats,” Lupe laughed. “What would you do with cats up here, have them piss on the fire?”
“Not pussy cats,” Finlay growled, “Caterpillar tractors to build fire breaks.”
“You mean bulldozers?” Lupe asked in amazement.
“Yes, of course, bulldozers.”
“They can’t bring bulldozers up here. This is a wilderness area.”
“They’ll never get the fire out without them,” Finlay said, very matter-of-factly.
“No,” Lupe agreed. “They won’t.”
“Well what the hell are we doing up here?” he wondered aloud.
Lupe shrugged his shoulders. “It’s a wilderness area,” he said. “Mother nature started the fire. Mother nature will have to put it out.”
Finlay stood there in a state of stupor. Old Oscar would have said he’d been
Lupe sauntered back over to join the group.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Finlay watched as the woods filled up with smoke and ash and more non-English speaking laborers—all wielding wooden handled tools. It was their job to follow the fire and put out any hot spots they might find in areas where anything that could burn had already been consumed by the fire.
One day Finlay watched a beautiful stand of Port Orford cedar go up in smoke—trees with a commercial value of four-thousand dollars per thousand board-feet, on the stump. Let’s see—he thought, turning away—a log truck could haul about six-thousand feet of those beauties. They’re not heavy. That’d come to about twenty-four thousand dollars a load. He didn’t try to compute the number of loads there might have been. He was sick to his stomach as it was.
He’d read somewhere that the great Sahara Desert had once been a vast forest. And this is how you turn a green forest into a desert—he thought to himself—which is how he’d come to spend his time, thinking to himself. There was no one to talk to, except for Lupe, and only then when Lupe thought there was some pertinent information that Finlay needed to know.
In an attempt to maintain his sanity, and to pass the time while looking for hot coals, he composed little songs to sing—though he had to kind of hum them under his breath, so no one could overhear. He decided to base each song on whatever hand tool he happened to be using at any given time.
The songs went something like this: There was, I’m Shading My Eyes with a Number Two Shovel – sung to the tune of, “I’m Overlooking a Four Leaf Clover.” And then there was I’m l-leaning on a Hazel Hoe – sung to the tune of, “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” And: Those Super Dull, Rusty Old Pulaski Blues – sung to the tune of, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”
He developed a recurring line for the Pulaski song. Each time he put out a smoking ember, he’d hum, “So long, it’s been good to hoe you.”
And so it went.
But the adz was different. Finlay didn’t find the adz to be a particularly useful tool for making fire breaks. If it had been sharp enough, he could see how it would make a wonderful instrument for the task of hollowing out a dugout canoe, but for him, it simply wasn’t constructed properly to strike the ground where the target was on the same elevation as the operator’s feet.
Still, even though it was different, he felt the adz was worthy of some kind of a musical dedication. And because it was different, he began to work on some lyrics that he thought might be applicable to the old Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
And that’s what was occupying his mind when Ignacio strutted by and made some kind of an announcement that made the entire crew cheer.
Lupe came over and told Finlay that Ignacio had received orders from headquarters that we were scheduled to go back to base camp for a few days of R-and-R. “Rest and recuperation,” the young man added, though Finlay knew what R-and-R meant.
“Wow, I can’t afford to lose all that pay,” Finlay said with alarm.
“Oh no,” Lupe assured him. “You’ll be paid for it. It won’t be hazard pay, but…”
Once again, Finlay was gobsmacked.
It didn’t take the crew half as long to get back to base camp as it did to get to the fire. Finlay didn’t know how he’d managed to assume the position of bringing up the rear all the time, but it always seemed to work out that way. He was following Ortiz and another young fellow, when he heard Ortiz say, “Boxes nagrows hasten caters verdicts.” As he said it, he reached over and slapped the young man on the back. They both clapped their hands and laughed.
When they arrived at the base camp, Finlay was surprised to see the facilities that had been set up there. There were tents and showers and a kind of portable soup kitchen that consisted of cooking facilities on wheels with a plywood counter constructed along the front. And though he quickly discovered the fare of the day was hotdogs and beans, compared to MREs and water it sounded like a gourmet delight.
The first thing the crew did was to get in line for some chow. Finlay noticed there were some young girls working behind the counter, and another woman, a more mature lady, who seemed to be in charge. By the time he’d gotten to the end of the line, he’d been presented with three hot dogs, some little packets of mustard, and a gigantic portion of pork-and-beans—all on a paper plate with plastic silverware. He managed to balance a paper cup of coffee with everything else, and then he began to scout out a place to sit.
He carefully eased himself down at one end of one of a dozen mass-produced picnic tables that were scattered around out front. And though he was the only one at his particular table, he began to dig in. After a few moments, he became aware of another person joining him. He looked up to discover the supervisor from the soup kitchen.
When she realized she had his attention, she said, “Hi, my name is Max.”
“I’ve never met a woman named Max before,” Finlay told her, his speech muffled by the big bite he’d just taken. He wanted to smile, but his mouth was full of hot dog.
The woman did smile, though, and she said, “It’s short for Maxine.”
“Finlay Arbuckle,” he told her, after he swallowed. They shook hands.
“Finlay,” she said. “I’ve never met anybody named Finlay before either.”
He sat there, smiling. She was a pleasant looking woman, with auburn hair, a wide, toothy smile and earrings that looked like bobbers for crab pots. He couldn’t help but wonder how her ears could stand all that weight.
“They’re not as heavy as they look,” she said, seeming to read his mind. She unhooked one and handed it to him.
“I didn’t realize I was that transparent,” he said, amazed at how light the fake crab pot bobber was.
“You’re a little long in the tooth for this kind of a gig, aren’t you,” Max said, very bluntly.
“Yeah,” Finlay said, feeling his face heat up. “It was kind of the only gig in town.”
“I know how that goes,” she said.
Then something occurred to him. “Say,” he said, “is there someplace around here I could charge up my cell phone? I was mostly out of range up on the hill. The battery’s been dead now for almost two weeks.”
“You’re in luck,” she told him. “They furnished me with one of those tent-trailer things. They actually have power.”
After he finished eating, they got up from the table and he began to follow her. He could hear the hum of diesel powered generators, but he couldn’t tell exactly where the sound was coming from.
“I think you’ll be wanting to take a shower,” she said, looking back over her shoulder.
Feeling his face heat up again, he said, “Yeah, you got that right.”
When they arrived at her accommodations, she plugged his phone in to charge and said, “The showers are right across the way,” she nodded in the direction.
Finlay sat down in a canvas director’s chair. Then he leaned over to pull some clean underwear and socks from his backpack. He fished out a pair of stagged-off Wild Ass jeans and an old hickory shirt with the sleeves bobbed at the elbow. He took off his heavy boots and put on an old worn out pair of moccasins—without socks. Then he stood up to make his way to the showers.
Before he could get out the door, Max made sure he had a towel and a bar of soap. “I don’t have any shampoo without conditioner,” she said.
“I’ll just use the soap.”
“Make sure you’re in the men’s side before you turn the water on,” she said. “Otherwise you might not make it out alive.”
Finlay laughed at the image.
The first thing Maxine said when he returned from the showers was, “You could have used a razor.”
“A guy can’t get ahead of himself and do too many things at once,” Finley replied.
Max smiled and said, “I’m not supposed to, but I have some wine.”
“I haven’t drunk wine in years.”
“Just beer, I suppose.”
The only thing Finlay really knew about wine was the expensive kind came with a cork, and the cheap stuff had a screw cap. Maxine’s wine sported a screw cap, but it was a really big bottle.
They used paper coffee cups for glasses and toasted the first round making a soundless click.
Max told Finlay about herself, and Finlay returned the favor. The one thing that came through to Finlay was how similar their backgrounds were.
She finished with, “My husband was a fisherman. He was lost at sea.”
“Me and my ol’ lady just finally got a divorce,” Finlay responded, “both times.”
After a few more cups of wine, Finlay began to tell her about his experiences with the fire crew. “Talk about feeling like an outsider,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re saying, and they don’t want me to know.”
He went on to tell her about what he had been doing to occupy his time. After another cup of wine, he sang his little songs for her. He even got up and did a little dance with each tune, using a dust mop for a dance partner.
Maxine laughed hysterically. Tears came to her eyes—she couldn’t talk.
And when he saw that she was taking his little flirtation with insanity so well, he went on to tell her about his issues with the adz, and how he’d been trying to compose something to the tune of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
“Boy,” she responded when her normal breathing returned, “trying to line up an adz with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, that’s a tough one.”
They sat for a while without saying anything.
Finally, Max broke the silence with, “I had the same problem when I first went to work for this outfit. I didn’t know what was being said, and it bothered me. When the fall rains came that year I went to the local community college and took a course in Spanish. I don’t speak it well, but I can get by.
“It’s particularly useful when a bunch of them are sitting around at the lunch counter,” she said. “They’re often talking about one of my girls—or even me sometimes—and it’s not flattering. They don’t think I know what they’re saying, so I let them run off at the mouth for a while. Then I go over and ask them if they want anything more, and I say it in Spanish.
“It shuts them right up,” she said. “They usually leave after that.”
Finlay howled with laughter and slapped his knee. “I’d love to be there to see the look on their faces.”
Then he got serious for a moment. “You know,” he said, “you might be able to help me with something.”
“Those guys I’m working with, they say this thing from time to time, and when one of them says it, the others all laugh.”
Max sat with a puzzled look on her face.
“It goes kind of like this,” Finlay said, and then he mouthed the words, “Boxes nagrows hasten caters verdicts.”
Max smiled at his mispronunciation. Then she repeated it. “You mean, ‘Bosques negros hacen carteras verdes?’” She added a little Spanish lilt to it.
“Yeah,” Finlay said, “that’s it. What’s it mean?”
She shook her head. “It means black forests make green wallets.
“Are you shittin’ me?” Finlay howled, jumping up from his chair.
Sadly I’m not. I’ve heard it many times. Mostly when they don’t think anyone is around. Either that, or they don’t think I know the language.
Finlay sank slowly to his chair. He took a long pull on the wine in his paper cup.
“What’s the world coming to?” The question was addressed as much to himself as to Maxine.
Then she stood up and announced, “I have two single beds, but I pushed them together to make more room. I have to put the blankets on sideways. It kind of makes a mess.”
“I’ll go check into getting a tent,” he said.
“It’s too late. Come on,” she said, as she pushed back a canvass curtain that delineated the bedroom from the rest of the dwelling.
Finlay stepped out of his moccasins, pulled the suspenders off over his shoulders and stepped out of his Wild Ass jeans. The heavy pocket knife in the right-front pocket made a loud clunk when the trousers hit the floor. Then he slipped into the bed where Maxine had pulled the covers back. It was the most comfortable place he’d had to sleep in a very long time.
Max went around and slid in on the other side. Then she turned the light out.
Finlay turned on his side and Max squiggled over. He put his face down close to her and breathed in deeply. She was soft and warm, and smelled wonderfully of lilacs, like a long ago memory he never before realized he carried of his grandmother’s backyard.
He placed a heavily muscled arm across her shoulders, and she wiggled in closer. Then, they went to sleep.
They slept that way, hanging onto each other, secure in a bottomless slumber. It was like the sleep of death that the Brits teased Oscar about, all those years ago in Burma—when the old fellow was finally able to close his eyes after driving mules for three days through the jungle. At a time when Oscar finally knew he was safe and he could sleep unmolested behind the British lines—a time when he no longer had to carry some concerned officer’s Colt .45 automatic, and he could leave it stowed harmlessly away in his pack.
But unlike Oscar, soldiering for his country in a faraway land, Finlay and Maxine had fallen asleep in the country they were born in. They dozed away like a pair of modern day Rip Van Winkles, aware that over time the nation of their forefathers had drifted up some kind of a blind estuary. And like Van Winkle, they could no longer recognize the place. Unlike Rip Van Winkle, however, the country they’d always called home had become foreign to them while they’d been wide awake—and now they found it awash with irrational values, and adrift with no sense of direction.
Somehow, the two of them had unwittingly become strangers here. They no longer seemed to belong; they felt like unwelcome outcasts.
Tonight, though, it was as if they slept with Oscar, safely behind British lines. And they slept soundly. And as they slumbered, Finlay’s large, Case Stockman pocket knife lay harmlessly folded up on the floor, resting silently in the pocket of his hastily discarded Wild Ass jeans.