Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
1607 1/9 - 2018 1/9: Plow Extra One
Joe McGuinnis, the accountant and fireman from Spearfish Lake, was sitting in the diner bus in Warsaw, trying to get around a cup of coffee and a plate of something that vaguely resembled stew and vaguely resembled garbage. This was the first real break he had taken since the two and a half inch blast of water knocked him off the woodpile in Yard 4. Back then, Masterfield had sent him to the rest train for a break, but it hadn't been much of one; it wasn't long before the Spearfish Lake chief had to call all his people back to help out in the shorthanded effort to keep the growing fire in Yard 4 out of the houses along Winter Street.
Even that had been hours before. The battle for those houses had long since been given up, and the fire line had fallen back to Plains Street. Now, McGuinnis sat in the diner trying to mentally put the furious night and day in order, and wondering about how his friend Rod Turpin was doing. He hadn't heard a word about Rod since the train hauled him off to the hospital in Spearfish Lake the day before.
Somewhere in the back of his head, McGuinnis realized that there must be all sorts of tax work that had piled up on his desk in the two days he had been away from it. After all, it was getting near the fifteenth of the month, and there were closings that had to be done.
He'd wanted a little break from books and taxes, and what a break it had been! Almost from his arrival in the stricken town, he had been on the go worse than he had ever been in the accounting business. It had started off easily, soaking down Yard 4 to keep the fire from spreading to it, but when Spearfish Lake turned its attention from the yard fire to helping try to save the paper plant, things had been busy.
By the time he had gotten back from his rest break after the incident in Yard 4, Spearfish Lake was fighting a totally different fire, for the pulp yard was fully out of hand and getting hotter every minute. With the limited help available -- at that point, just people from Hoselton, with no equipment -- McGuinnis couldn't see how Masterfield could have decided what to do next. The fire had been blazing away madly in front of them, blowing all sorts of smoke and unpleasant fumes right over them, setting spot fires in the houses along Winter Street.
He'd been in position to work on about four of those fires. They had ranged from a few shingles on one house to a fully-involved detached garage on another. At no time had there been enough people and enough water available to really do the job that was needed in the high wind.
In spite of that wind and the snow and the cold, the Spearfish Lake men had done the best they could. The wind blew sparks all over everywhere, and it blew streams of water into unexpected places -- McGuinnis knew that better than anyone. It was hard to keep water on a blaze, and everything around the place where the stick was directed got pretty well soaked, too. Then, once the water had done its job, it tended to stay around, rather than running off. Active fire areas soon became massive morasses of ice and slush.
At least Spearfish Lake hadn't had to move, much, because moving was a massive amount of trouble. Moving the apparatus wasn't much fun, either. There were places where the Warsaw fireman's bulldozer had to tow a truck into position, and then tow it out again an hour or so later. If a department had its hoses out for very long, they were bound to be almost buried, or sometimes even worse than that. Every move cost them hose, lost or buried in the ice. Everyone was glad that they'd thought to bring all the old and spare hose the department owned with them, since they wouldn't be seeing some of their hose back until spring. He'd heard that Lynchburg was low on hose, and Albany River, with their frequent moves, desperately so. Even if a department did get their hose out of a snowy grave, the couplings would usually be frozen; they had to be thawed so the hoses could be uncoupled and coiled up.
The diner bus was nearly empty, and McGuinnis was sitting alone at a table, thinking his thoughts. A door opened, and four people came in. He thought he recognized some of them, and then it came to him: these were people from the railroad. McGuinnis was aware as anybody of the fact that if it hadn't been for the railroad's regular arrivals with firefighters and equipment, there wouldn't be a town here at all. Thanks to them, there might be something left afterward. He motioned them over to the empty seats near him.
"Walt, what's been happening since the last time we were up here?" the haggard-looking, balding middle-aged man said. "I can see that they lost the plant. That's kind of strange. Time before last, it looked like normal, except for some smoke coming off the north side. Last trip, it was just a helluva bonfire. Now, it's more like an ash pile."
"They flat-assed lost, Bud," the older man with the flushed face and the reddened eyes said. "I really don't know for sure what's going on. It's been too far away to see, and I've been trying to stay near the Milwaukee. Last I heard, they were having a hell of a time over on Winter Street."
"We gave up on Winter Street," the fireman broke in. "Every house on the block between Second and Third is a total loss. We've pulled back to Plains Street. They were trying to keep the houses on the east side of the street from going when I left."
Bud turned to the firefighter. "I know I know you, but I'm too tired to think, right now."
"Joe McGuinnis from Spearfish Lake. You know, Dalhart-McGuinnis Bookkeeping. I talked to you a few months ago about doing some accounts for you."
"Yeah, should have remembered," Bud said. "What's happening over near the fertilizer plant? You been near there recently?"
"Right next to it. The department is over on Third between a house fire and Northern Fertilizer. The building is still standing, sort of, but it won't be any good after the fertilizer burns out of it. They're not trying to do much with it. The word I got is that if they use too much water on it, it'll screw up the village water table, so they're just treating it as a controlled burn."
"I heard they got the fire in the hopper cars out since I was up here last," the long-haired younger man said.
"Yeah," the firefighter replied. "John Penny, isn't it? I see you over at Kelty's Tavern every now and then."
"I was over by them, Bud," Frank Matson put in. McGuinnis wondered what the banker was doing here with the railroad people. "You were right. The ties had burned out completely under a couple of those cars. They had to be stuck to the axles. It's not surprising that you couldn't move them."
"They had to have been stuck," Ellsberg said. "The two Geeps should have been able to skid those four cars out of there, brakes or no brakes, loaded or not loaded."
Walt commented, "I see you didn't bring the Burlington."
"You didn't hear about that piece of shit? It crapped out on us east of the 919 crossing. John here had to come out with the Rock and tow us in. As far as I'm concerned, that's it. We're going to lose traffic because of this fire, so we were going to have to get rid of an engine, anyway. It makes it real simple to figure out which engine. How's the Milwaukee doing?"
"No better, no worse," Walt replied. "Frank and I ran out about five miles light to try and knock down some of the drifts for you. After that, we felt like we were kind of pushing our luck. So, what's the next step?"
"Nothing's the next step," Bud said. "There aren't any fire departments waiting in Spearfish Lake to come up here, and I'm beat. We came up with the plow pointing west, and we're going to sit right here with you in case you need help, unless there's a load of departments accumulated to come up, or there's an ambulance run that can't wait."
"If there's a need for another run soon," Walt said, "Why don't you let me make it, for once? You look like the jolly green giant stepped on your head."
Bud shook his head. "I still think you can get more out of the Milwaukee than I can, if we have to use it. But, for the next couple hours anyway, I'm so beat that I'm willing to take the risk."
"Tell you what," Walt said. "I scrounged up a cot and stuck it in the cab of the Milwaukee. It's a hell of a lot better sleeping in there than it is in those bunk buses. There's people coming and going all the time, and you don't get much sleep."
It sounded irresistable to Bud. "As soon as we get done with our coffee here, let's go out and get those heaters onto the Rock's trucks. It does seem to help. Maybe a few hours will get rid of the rest of whatever's causing the shorting."
"How was it running?"
"Only fair," Bud admitted. "John got a good start at drying it out, but we had to have him break off to come out and get us. It really wasn't up to par on the way up here. I figure we've got to keep heat on her whenever we can, just to try and stay even."
"You in good shape, John?" the banker asked.
"Yeah, I flaked out at Spearfish Lake for a while."
Matson nodded. "If Walt has to make a run down there, why don't you figure on going down there with him, instead of me. I wouldn't mind getting some sleep myself. After being up all night, I spent the day with Bruce Marshall. He's taking losing the plant real hard."
"Aren't we all?" Bud interjected, shaking his head. "Aren't we all?"
"He's fought and lost," Matson said. "The rest of us are still fighting. I'll tell you this much, though. I doubt that the bank is going to be very much help to the Camden and Spearfish Lake for a while. I'm pretty scared that we're going to drop a bundle up here before it's all over with, what with jobs being burnt out, and people just saying to hell with mortgages to get the hell out of town. I'm scared that we're going to be eating a lot of it."
"That's something to be scared about," Bud agreed. "I guess it makes the railroad seem like small potatoes."
"This fire is hard," Matson said, upending his coffee cup. "But the aftermath is going to be just as bad, if not worse."
"With that cheerful thought in mind," Bud replied sarcastically, "I'm going to say the hell with it and crap out for a while."
"How long have you been going?" Walt asked.
"Since early yesterday morning. I've got maybe two hours sleep in that time, total. Most of it was when John and Ed were towing the Burlington into Spearfish Lake."
"There's people up here that are getting along on less," Walt said absently.
McGuinnis agreed as he rose to leave. "Yeah, some of those guys from Warsaw are really zombies. They've been going that long without a break, and Walsenberg and us aren't very far behind. They've tried to rotate people out for rest breaks, but it seems like every time they do, a fire breaks out somewhere else. I've been away long enough myself. I'll see you guys around."
"Anybody hear what the weather's going to do?" Bud asked.
"More of the same," Walt said. "At least through tomorrow morning."
Bud shook his head again. "That means more than that, if those lying bastards run true to form. How much snow have we had, anyway?
"A hell of a lot," the bookkeeper said, pulling on his turnout coat.
"I heard three feet down in Camden," Walt said. "That's a hell of a bunch for down there. The town is all plugged up."
"We've sure as hell got more than that here," Bud replied. "A lot more."
McGuiniss headed out the door and walked back past the nearly burnt-out plant to where the Spearfish Lake department was doggedly trying to keep the end house on Plains Street from burning. It was an uncomfortable position for the department, since it was backed up against the burning fertilizer plant, which was giving off immense clouds of evil-smelling toxic fertilizer smoke. Normally, the wind kept the smoke from them, but still men fought the fire with gas masks close at hand.
Masterfield was getting as worn out as anyone else. He was sitting in the open door of a truck, half asleep, when he noticed McGuinnis approaching. "Back so soon, Joe?" he asked.
"I've had more rest than some people."
"Yeah, when you were knocked on your ass yesterday. Well, I guess if you want to stay at it, I shouldn't stop you."
"What's been happening here?" McGuinnis asked.
"We've been able to hold on so far, but a few minutes ago Albany River had a big spot fire that got out of hand. Linder pulled Hoselton down to help them, and then pulled Lynchburg down to cover Hoselton. It's looking like we're going to fight this one out here for a while."
"What do you need me to do?"
Masterfield shrugged. "Why don't you take over one of the booster lines on the city pumper?"
The one-inch line job proved to be dull, but necessary. McGuinnis found himself spraying water over a house on the east side of Plains Street, trying to give it a sparkproof outer coating of ice that might protect it from flying embers. Most of the rest of the department was still trying to knock down the fire in a house on Winter Street, working between the houses on Plains.
For the bookkeeper, it wasn't so much that the job was dull, but that it had to be done in the middle of an icy mist from the hoses upwind. The mist settled everywhere, creating ice instantly on everything it landed on. McGuinnis' footing was treacherous, especially fighting off the snaking of the hose. The ice got all over everything; in a few minutes, he was caked with it. In the last day and a half, they had become used to it, and hardly noticed.
Now that the fire was pretty much concentrated on a front along Plains Street, Fred Linder's roving of the now-straight line was much simplified. He was back to snowmobiling, now. Once he had satisfied himself that all the apparatus that could possibly work the growing spot fire was working on it, he realized that he hadn't checked with Kremmling or Blair for hours. Now that it was beginning to grow dark, he'd have to check soon, or he wouldn't be able to have a daylight view of their situation, so now was no worse a time than any other to steal away from the main event and see what was happening elsewhere.
Still, the situation at Blair or Kremmling couldn't have been too bad, or he would have heard about it. Still, he headed his snowmobile south.
Kremmling was still protecting the Warsaw Oil Company from the fire at Northern Fertilizer and from Yard 4. Their situation was stable. They hadn't been pumping a lot of water, but had confined their efforts to patrolling, and an occasional light soaking through the open doors of the fertilizer plant.
"We could get that out if we were to work at it," C.J. Green, the Kremmling chief, said. "But that would mean using a lot of water."
"Don't want much of that shit to get into the water table if we can help it," Linder replied. "So long as we don't let it get too bad, that son of a bitch isn't really hurting anyone."
"I wasn't complaining," Green told him. "It's just that it's kind of dull over here. We've been sending a lot of our people over to pitch in with you."
"I noticed them," Linder nodded. "And, thanks. But just remember, you've got potentially the most dangerous position of all to deal with. If the oil company gets going, we're going to have a hell of a mess. There's no way we can get rid of their stuff, either. The railroad doesn't have tank cars to haul it in, or storage capacity elsewhere, at least that's what the gal in their office told me. We're just going to have to keep it from burning. What scares me is, if we keep losing ground in town, I can see the block between Main and Herkimer Streets going just about the time the wind gets around to the north."
"If that happens, we're going to be in shit," Green agreed. "What's your chances of holding it?"
"I don't know," Linder said. "I think we're losing the west side of Plains Street with that fire that Albany River and Lynchburg and Hoselton are dealing with now. If the wind will get around and get its act together, we can hold whatever fire lane we're at. Until that happens, I think we're going to lose ground sooner or later."
Green nodded. "Oh, by the way," he said. "Chip Halsey was just over here. He says all of the ammonia is gone from the tank. There may be a little more in there, but it probably won't come out unless the tank is heated. He's closed the valves for now, but he says that he'll check later and pop them for a while if any pressure builds up."
"Well, that's something," Linder said. The toxic gas from the fertilizer smoke was bad enough, but the ammonia could cause skin damage as well. Luck had it that there had not been any department that had to work downwind of the tank, and that had dissapated a lot by the time the plume from the tank head reached the railroad tracks. Now, with the wind out of the northeast, there wasn't much besides the railroad tracks and the school that would be in the toxic smoke. There were some houses between Warsaw and the river, but Linder had seen to them being evacuated hours before. Beyond the river was a state forest; the next habitation was a good many miles downwind.
"I'll pass that on to Blair," Linder told the Kremmling chief. He got on his snowmobile and rode down through the cloud of toxic smoke to the school, wearing his gas mask.
Things seemed positively dull at the school, and Vern Houghton, the Blair chief, agreed. "I think we can pick up here for the time being," he said. "The fire at the main plant is pretty well out, and it's been a couple hours since anything serious has come this way. My crew is pretty well rested. What I'm thinking is that we'd leave our grass truck here, just in case. That would give you our main apparatus to do something with."
"We can use you," Linder replied. "I'd like to put you in line on Plains Street, but we're using all the water off the mains that we dare, and there's not a lot of room to get tankers in there. At least we've got some water in the tower again for a real emergency. Warsaw and Meeker have been dealing with spot fires on the south part of Main Street, and there's been stuff trying to get past them. I guess what I'll have you do is go over to the corner of Herkimer and Third. Put a pumper up each street and run lines out as far as you dare. Keep up protection patrols. You'll be right next to the oil company there, so if Kremmling has any trouble, you'll support them. If we fall back that far, you'll be in the center of things."
"We stay on tankers, right?"
"Right," Linder replied. "If the main fire lane gets to you, then you go on mains."
"Hope it doesn't get that far," Houghton said. "That'd put us right between the fire and the oil company."
"You and me, both." Linder fired up his snowmobile and headed back to the fire on Plains Street.
In the next hour or so, the outbreak of fire on the west side of Plains Street spread. As each house became fully engulfed, it was necessary to pull back from working between that house and the one to the south, and protecting the southerly houses was nearly impossible.
An hour after sunset, three houses on Plains Street were burning. Although the spread of the fire was being fought stubbornly, there wasn't a lot of hope for the east side of the street.
Then, for a brief moment that no one there would ever forget, the darkness on Plains Street was turned to light.
For the last day or so, Walt Archer had been the most bored man in Warsaw. There hadn't been much for him to do, other than make a few cautious runs out toward Hoselton with the Milwaukee to keep the drifts knocked down, in case the scram train was needed, and the short burst of snowplowing earlier that day. While he would have liked to have been doing something more constructive, he'd realized that he was just as happy being bored.