"A Good Night's Sleep"


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.

“Lupe.”

“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