THE SHORT STORY ["THE DESTROYERS"]  BY JOHN R. SALTER, JR. [HUNTER GRAY]

COPYRIGHT 1959 AND 1960  BY JOHN R. SALTER, JR. [HUNTER GRAY]

The preceding page has considerable background info on "The Destroyers" and its publishing history.  And the following page continues the discussion.

"The Destroyers," published initially in Mainstream in 1960, won ever-broadening national and international renown. It was  reprinted abroad in a variety of journals -- including those of the Russian and the Ukranian writers' unions -- and it was also reprinted in the United States. And it was picked by Martha Foley and David Burnett as one of the very best short stories published in the United States in 1960 and included in their very special  "Roll of Honor" [about fifty stories]:   Martha Foley and David Burnett, The Best American Short Stories, 1961 and the Yearbook of the American Short Story [Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961.]

It was published most recently in Political Affairs, November, 2005.

[See also http://hunterbear.org/forest_fires_in_the_west.htm ]

 

The Destroyers

In the middle of that summer, when there had been no rain for weeks, and the forest was tinder dry, and the winds were high, a sheepherder built a cooking fire on the slope of Bear Sign Mountain. He then lay down and slept, waiting for the blazing pitchy pine knots to burn down to hot coals. While he slept, the wind aided the fire in jumping its bounds and the flying sparks touched off the dead pine needles on the ground; exploding sheets of flame climbed into the tops of the living trees; the holocaust lashed out in every direction; the herder escaped but his flock was destroyed. And when I came to the fire, only a day after its beginning -- to work, as befitted my scant sixteen years, as camp flunky -- the blaze had already consumed twelve thousand acres of yellow pine and was completely out of control; every available north Arizona man who was fit had gone to the Bear Sign to fight.

The Forest Service fire camp was a collection of hastily erected tents, in a tiny semi-clearing surrounded by heavy concentrations of timber, as close to the fire as it could exist with some safety. Over the ridges to the north and west of it, twenty odd miles away, was a solid mass of black smoke with a fiery colored base; the acrid smell of burning wood puckered the nostrils of everyone in the district. I was put to work as soon as I arrived and checked in; there were seven of us there -- before Junior came -- four cooks, the coffee-maker, the camp boss and I. I knew none of them at all from before the fire; and, with the exception of the camp boss Engstrom, who I discovered later normally worked as woods foreman for a logging company, the others were all transients.

Nor did my duties allow me to become much acquainted with any of them, that first day and most of the second; as the youngest, I was made bull cook, and I worked steadily peeling vegetables and stirring pots, washing and wiping dishes and cups and pans and other utensils after the meals were finished. The first day was a hard day for me, I occasionally fell behind, and in the evening, when it was all over, Engstrom, a big man in bib-overalls, who spoke with more than a trace of a Swedish accent, came over to me and said, “Before long we’ll have a helper for you, boy -- when we can find someone.”

But I worked as hard the next day, as I had the first, until, as I was beginning the supper dishwashing in the early twilight, a green government truck loaded with men arrived, one climbed off, and then the truck turned around and, carrying the remainder of the men, moved off toward the fire lines.

I stopped my work for a minute and looked closely at the small, denim-clad man who’d gotten off -- actually not much older than I -- for he was a Negro, and I had seen very, very few of them in my life. He walked slowly toward the tents, limping just a little, and then stopped and looked around. There was no one but me in sight; the coffeemaker, whose small fire and pots were just a few feet away from my dishwashing stand and who, from the little that I had seen of him, struck me as being kind of strange, had gone somewhere; the four cooks, who looked so commonplace and who had so few distinguishing characteristics that I could scarcely remember them or ever tell them apart, were playing poker in the kitchen tent; the camp boss was in the tent which served as his office, and the off-shift crew of firefighters was bedded down in the woods nearby.

“Can I do something for you?” I called.

He looked at me. “The camp boss. Where is he?”

I gestured toward Engstrom’s tent and then the big man himself came out and I began work again on my dishes. Occasionally I glanced up and saw him talking to the newcomer, and then the Swede walked over to me, by himself, and said, “I hope you got nothing against working with that kind of man,” and he pointed to the Negro.

“What kind is he?” I asked. “I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Engstrom.”

He stared at me for a long time. “A black man,” he finally said. “A Nigra. That’s what I mean.”

“A black man,” I repeated. “No. I’ve got nothing against him.”

“Then he’s your helper,” Engstrom said. He turned away and I heard him mutter, “Short of men. That’s why they hired him. And because he’s little and a crip, they give him to me. God knows I don’t want him here.” I still wasn’t certain what he meant, and I watched him, puzzled, as he walked back to the newcomer, pointed toward me, and then began to light the gasoline lanterns.

The young Negro came over and stood by me, and then picked up a dish towel. He looked at me, and I looked back at him, and then I put down the frying pan I was working on and reached out my hand and said, “Jack’s my name.”

He grinned, and we shook hands, and he said, “Junior’s mine. Just call me that.”

I had learned some time before how to roll a cigarette, and I took out my sack of Durham tobacco and the papers, and offered them to Junior. He rolled one quickly, and I made myself one, and we lit them. “You roll a good cigarette,” I told him. “A damn good one.”

“You make a good one, too,” he answered. “Not bad at all.”

“Is this your first fire?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “It is.”

Knowing that he wasn’t, but being curious, I asked, “You from around here?”

He shook his head, “No,” he said. “From a long ways off. I’m just a tramp wanderer.” He took the towel and began wiping the tin plates, and I started back on the frying pan. When, with the exception of the light of the lanterns, it was fully dark, the two of us had almost finished our task, and all that was left were the knives and forks and spoons. I lifted my head, and suddenly, in the pale light, I saw the coffeemaker, whom I had heard called Clyde, standing a few feet away, looking steadily at both of us. I returned his stare, and then I noticed Junior looking at him for a second before lowering his head and going on with his work.

The coffeemaker viewed us for a long, long time without speaking a word, his eyes glittering and shining with an emotion that I had never seen before, and a curious feeling of tightness began to course through my body. I watched him there in the lantern light, a tall, lean, hawknosed individual, with a face as heavily lined as dry, cracked adobe. There was something that was not right about him. In the two days that I had been in camp I had heard him several times, and for no apparent reason, muttering to himself as he sat by his coffee pots; sometimes he would curse and double up his fists; and the muscles in his face would twist and jump and jerk. And then, his face would grow hard and cold and stony and he would look quickly around the camp and I would pretend that I hadn’t been watching him. Now, as the silence between the three of us deepened, I knew that I was afraid of the coffeemaker Clyde.

My voice was tense as I asked him. “What do you want? What do you want, Clyde?”

The coffeemaker still was silent, and when he spoke at last, it was at Junior, not at myself, and he sounded icy and rasping.

“I’ll tell you what I want,” he said. “Get out of this camp. Right now.” Junior looked up at him and then back down again.

“What do you mean, Clyde?” I asked, tenser than ever. “Just what is wrong with you?”

The coffeemaker gave me a quick glance, and then he narrowed his eyes and fixed them on Junior, who was still looking down, fumbling with the spoons. “He knows what I mean,” said the lean man. “And he knows I mean it.” His voice rose as he said. “Get the hell out of here! Damn your soul!” And still Junior said nothing.

I started to ask, “Why?” and then I heard a noise over in the direction of the tents, and I turned partly around and saw the four cooks standing there, watching us. The coffeemaker and Junior both looked also, and then Clyde walked a few steps away, picked up a lantern that hung on the broken branch of a tree, and returned. He held it by Junior’s head and the Negro flinched slightly.

“See him!” said Clyde to the four, and the muscles in his face were frantic. “See him for what he is! His black hide!” And that was when I first really began to understand about the hate that springs from caves within the souls of men.

The four cooks neither moved nor spoke, and the coffeemaker talked again. “Do you want him here? Working with us? By us? Do you?”

Then one of the four shook his head, and each of the others said with loud and measured harshness, “No.”

Engstrom came out of his tent and stood there for a moment, his arms hanging down at his sides and his hands doubled into fists.  He said, “I know how it is, and it isn’t my fault. But I want no trouble. None at all. Not in my camp!” He looked at everyone, and then the four cooks went back into their tent, and the coffeemaker walked to his smouldering fire and his pots and sat down, and Engstrom moved back into his office tent.

I looked at Junior, but he said nothing, and neither did I. We continued our work; and when we finished and were wiping our hands, I heard a low, wordless snarl from the direction of Clyde; I looked and saw him sitting by his coffee, lantern light illuminating his burning eyes, again staring at us.

In a voice so nearly a whisper that I strained my ears to hear, he said to Junior, “Remember, black man. There is nothing here for you. Not that you’ll want. Better leave.” His lips drew back in a curl and, very slowly, he said, “While you can.”

Hate crawled into my bones, then, and mixed with fear. I began to form words but my throat was stiff and dry and I choked; Junior said, quietly, “Let’s get some sleep.”

We turned our backs on Clyde and walked across the camp to the piles of blankets which lay on the ground; talking several apiece, we made our beds on soft needles under a pine tree away from the light of the lanterns, and climbed in.

Without talking, we rolled cigarettes and smoked and I gazed up at the stars, blurred from the light haze of the fire smoke drifting through the night sky. Next, I turned my head and looked for a long time at the tall, grim figure of the coffeemaker, sitting on the other side of the camp. I hated him, but then moisture sprang to the palms of my hands, and a trembling came to my legs, and suddenly I hated myself for my fear; then anger at it all arose within, and a struggle gripped every part of me.

I finally shifted my head again and saw Junior half-raised in his bed, looking over at the lean man who sat by the pots. I forced myself to tell him, “Don’t worry about Clyde. Or any of them. It’ll be O.K.”

Junior looked at me slowly and answered, “I’ve seen them before. People like him.”

Half to myself, I asked, “Why? Why should they?”

He heard me and replied, “It’s the way things are. Just the way they are.”

“Do you think you’ll decide to leave?” I asked, not knowing what I wished him to do, and feeling my whole struggle well up to an even higher pitch.

“I can’t run,” he said, still looking at me.

“What they say and think and do,” I said. “It must bother you.”

But he was silent.

I slept after a time, in a troubled manner, and once I awakened in the middle of the night, and the smell of the smoke of the great fire seemed much stronger, and I could feel the wind blowing on my face, coming from the direction of the burning timber. Some distance away, close to the kitchen tent, men were talking and someone said, “It’s blown up worse than ever, now. Really crowned out.” And another man said, “If it keeps up this way, this camp’ll be in trouble.”

Although I could sense that Junior was awake also, I said nothing to him, and made myself not think of him or the coffeemaker or any of it. I finally slept again and awakened only when I heard the gong sound for the camp crew, early in the morning. I arose, and so did Junior.

It was still before dawn, and the smoke was thicker, there in the lantern light, and stronger than ever, and away up on the ridges to the north and west of the camp, where it had never been visible before, we could see the fire sparkling and shining in the darkness. “Close,” I said, and Junior nodded. We each had a cigarette, and then we walked to the kitchen tent.

They were all inside, the coffeemaker, the cooks, and Engstrom, and they stared at us as we entered, and then Engstrom said sharply to the two of us, “Help out with making the breakfast.” We nodded and went to work. No one said anything, but from time to time I could see their eyes drilling into us, and especially at Junior; again, the struggle between my fear and anger began to rise up inside of me; I hammered it down, trying to forget everything concerning it.

When breakfast was prepared, all of us in the camp crew served ourselves at the stove, and hurriedly ate our steak and eggs and toast. By the time we had finished our meal and had set up the food lines just outside the tent, the day shift men were coming up from the sleeping area, down in the thick timber, close to camp. We fed them and gave each one a box lunch, and then they climbed into trucks and went out to the fire lines. We brought forth more food, and in a while the night shift, dirty and tired, and with smoke and sweat in their eyes, came back in the trucks; after they had eaten, they took blankets and bedded down in the woods. Junior and I began to wash the breakfast dishes.

We worked quickly and without saying a word or looking at anyone, and the camp was quiet. The four cooks began work on the noon meal in the kitchen tent, and Engstrom was in his office, and the coffeemaker was out gathering wood for his fire. Finally, I allowed myself to think just a little about the trouble, and I told myself, “It’ll be all right. Probably they were just bluffing,” and even though the wind and the smoke and the fire coming down from the ridges toward our camp troubled me, I began to feel increasingly calm and relieved.

Then the coffeemaker returned to his fire with an armload of kindling. He dumped it, poured himself a cup of coffee, and sat down, staring into the flames under the pots. Junior went on with his work; I watched Clyde guardedly for a few moments, and then I too continued with what I was doing. And then I heard him mutter to himself again; I looked up to see him toss his cup, still partly filled with coffee, on the ground. He rose and came over to us.

My whole body stiffened with a jerk; we kept on working. When he was very close to us, I looked up and stared back at him.

For a moment or two, he stared back at me. Then he gave a strange, rattling and vicious laugh. He turned slightly and faced Junior, who had not looked up, and, reaching into his pocket, took out a long, heavy clasp knife and pulled the blade out. Again, fear and anger closed in on me; my head began to ache.

“You,” he said. Junior looked at him.

“They tell me you folks always carry one of these,” said Clyde, holding the knife in the flat of his hand, and hefting it. Then he gripped the handle. “Why don’t you take yours out?” he asked.

I looked quickly at Junior, and I could see him shaking slightly , but he seemed to be paying no attention to anything now but his dish towel and a plate. I looked at the coffeemaker and saw him with his knife and the smile on his face; and then the two sides of me were suddenly struggling with everything that each could muster up; my head was filled with sharp, stabbing pains; there was sweat all over me; I yelled aloud at myself, “Damn you!” And then I told Clyde, choking, “And damn you too! If we have to we’ll use these eating knives!” And I picked one up. And then my headache was gone.

The coffeemaker was staring at me. “You know what you’re doing?” he asked. “You better stay the hell out of this, sonny.”

The knife in my hand was jerking back and forth like tree limbs driven by a powerful wind. “Damn you,” I said in a hoarse voice. “Damn you to hell! You leave us alone!”

He was smiling again. “Yellow, both of you,” he said, and then was strangely silent, and looked past us. I followed his gaze and saw Engstrom standing in the door of his tent, his glowering face dark with anger. The coffeemaker slipped his knife away and went back to his fire; I put down mine and, feeling more tired than I ever had, but still savoring my anger, returned to work. When I looked again, Engstrom had disappeared.

Junior turned to me. “Look,” he said. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I have to,” I told him. “It’s mixed up. It’s all mixed up. But I have to.”

I worked for a moment longer, thinking, and then I took my hands out of the big dishpan, wiped them on my sides, and said, “I’m going to talk to Engstrom.”

Junior’s voice was strained and low. “Don’t,” he said. “It won’t do any good.” But I walked away, turning my head for a second to look at the watching Clyde, before continuing on.

I went to the tent of the big man. He was sitting behind a makeshift food-carton desk, working on a sheaf of papers. We looked at each other, and he asked, “What do you want?”

“Mr. Engstrom,” I said to him and then stopped. He said nothing, and I began once more. “Mr. Engstrom. There’s going to be trouble. You saw what just happened. Clyde. The knife.”

The camp boss was silent for a long time, and he looked down at his papers, thumbed through them, and then looked back at me. “Look, boy,” he said quietly. “There’s a lot about this that you don’t understand. Don’t mix in it.”

“I think I understand it,” I told him. “Most of it, anyway.”

He looked at me for a long, long time. Finally, he said, “If there’s trouble, I’ll get rid of the Nigra. Much as we need men. There’ll be no trouble here.”

“But it isn’t Junior’s fault,” I told him. “It isn’t his. You know that.”

Engstrom was silent again. Then he said, “Go on, do your work.”

I went to the door of his tent and turned. “You?” I asked. “You hate him, too?”

“I don’t know,” he said and his voice was sharp. He lifted his papers and dropped them and stared at me. “Don’t stand around here!” he said.

I went back to the dishwashing stand, and Junior looked at me, and I shook my head. The coffeemaker, over by his pots, laughed. “I know what you just did,” he said. “Didn’t do any good, did it?” He laughed again. “Could have told you that.” His face hardened, and he jerked his head toward Junior. “You’re as bad as he is,” he continued. “Just as bad.”

“You’re a rotten -- --” I started to tell him, and then Junior said quickly, “Don’t.” I stopped, shaking hard again.

“Not much longer,” said Clyde. “Not much longer at all. I think you’ll both be heading out of here, or ...” He clenched his fist and brought it sharply downward. I felt fear slash into me like the bitter wind of the winter; and then the anger came again in full force and as fiercely as a tornado, and the fear fled.

At high noon the wind was blowing much harder than at any time before, and the sun was hidden from us by the smoke; the fire was away down off the ridges and was now but half a dozen miles from the camp. The night shift men had come out of their blankets down in the timber to eat. Some had already finished, and Junior and I were just pouring the hot water, preparing to start on the dishes, when a green, government pickup drove into the camp and stopped.

A tall man dressed in ash-covered clothes and with grime over both his face and his Stetson hat climbed out of the truck. Engstrom walked over to him, and they talked for a few moments; then both looked up for a long, long time at the swirling, boiling cloud of reddish-black smoke. I heard someone say, “That’s the fire boss,” and then the tall man and Engstrom walked to the coffeemaker’s pots, and Clyde poured them each a cup of coffee. The two came over near Junior and me and stood, sipping coffee and smoking.

The tall man said, “I don’t know what’ll happen; and no one does anymore. It’s three times bigger than it was yesterday, and it’s out of control on every side.” He drained his cup. “But it’s worse on this end,” he went on. “I’m taking the night shift back with now. We’ve called for more help from all over the West. I don’t know if it’ll come in time.” He looked at Engstrom. “You say things are all on an even keel here?”

The camp boss began to nod, and then suddenly, without even really realizing what I was going to do, I said to the tall man, “No. It’s not on an even keel here.”

Both men looked at me, and Engstrom’s face was like the granite rocks of a mountain. The tall man asked me, “Now what was that?”

I spoke again, and my head was very light. “It’s not all right here.” I pointed to the coffeemaker, and the tall man turned and looked at him and then back to me. “He hates this man, “ I said, and I pointed at Junior. “Hates him enough to threaten him with a knife.”

The fire boss looked at Engstrom. “What’s this?” he asked the big man.

Engstrom was still looking at me, and then he shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing much.”

“I hope to God it isn’t,” the tall man said. He looked in the direction of the fire. “Our biggest problem is that,” he continued to Engstrom. “I want the camp to stay here as long as it can. Close by and handy. But get it ready to move. Keep close to your radio. Unless we can hold this thing, and damn soon at that, you’ll have to pull out. I’ll leave you one truck.”

He walked away and began gathering up the night shift. Engstrom glared at me and asked, “And just why did you have to do that?” Then he turned and left.

I could almost feel the stare of Clyde. I looked over at him. He was watching me, the muscles on his face were moving , and his eyes were widened and wild. For a moment, his lips formed silent words, and then he said aloud, “I won’t forget.”

I looked away from him and said quietly to Junior, “I’m sorry it didn’t help.”

“Thanks,” he murmured, still working, “Don’t try anymore. It won’t do any good.”

The tall fire boss began to call out his orders, and the night shift men finished their noon meal hurriedly; by the time they had loaded into the trucks with their tools and had all departed for the fire, the reddish-black smoke was so close that fine ash began to drift through the woods like snow upon our now almost deserted camp. Junior and I went to work silently on the dinner dishes, and the four cooks and the coffeemaker began to pile equipment onto the back of the one truck which had been left behind; Engstrom paced back and forth, occasionally directing the work, and holding a radio, with the long aerial pulled fully out, glued to his ear. At times I would look over at the other men, and I’d see the coffeemaker and the four cooks often pausing and staring at Junior and me, and whispering together, and I thought again and again, the anger high inside of me, “Something’s going to happen. Before this is all over. Something is going to .” And Junior too would glance up quickly at them, and somehow I knew with certainty that he was aware of the same thing.

We were nearly finished with the dishes, and the cooks and the coffeemaker were taking down the tents and folding and tying them up, when I heard Engstrom speaking on the radio. I looked at him and then saw him shove the aerial down into the instrument, then place the radio in the cab of the truck. He cleared his voice and said to all of us, “It’s official now. We’re going to get out of here. They can’t get help to this fire in time; what they have now can never hold it. We’ve got to leave damn fast.” To Junior and me, he called, “Don’t wash anything more! Throw the dirty ones with the clean ones and pile ‘em all into the truck!” He pointed to some gunny sacks on the ground, and I went over and picked them up, and Junior and I filled the sacks with the cooking utensils and loaded them.

The fire was very close now, and the falling ashes were thicker, and the wind moving toward us from the direction of the blazing timber came so steadily and strongly that all of us began to cough from the thickening smoke. The cooks and the coffeemaker and Engstrom were beginning to fold up the last remaining tent, and the camp boss told Junior and me, “Help here and hurry it up.” The two of us knelt on the ground by the spread-out tent on a side away from the others and began to fold it.

We had almost finished the folding and were preparing to tie it, when I saw Engstrom stand up and look through the haze, down toward the far side of the camp, at a small, forgotten bundle of blankets. I watched him start toward it and then hesitate briefly, and then he said, “I’ll be right back. Tie the tent and load it,” and he half-walked, half-ran away.

I stared at his back for a second, and then I looked at Junior and saw his head turned in the direction of the camp boss; then I saw him look toward the coffeemaker and the cooks, and I followed his gaze and saw them looking at both of us. Junior lowered his head quickly, but I continued to face them; the air and the smoke were hot and so was the emotion which lay within me. Suddenly, less than half a mile away, a burning pine tree exploded with a sharp, loud noise, and we all began to tie up the tent.

Within minutes, the seven of us working quickly with the folded tent and the ropes, had finished the tying and were just lifting the heavy, canvas bundle and maneuvering it up toward the top of the piled equipment in the rear of the truck. I remember that I had just looked through the smoke and had seen Engstrom, with the blankets in his arms, hurrying toward us, when suddenly, under the weight of his portion of the tent, Junior stumbled and fell, the tied bundle dropped off balance, and slipped from the grasp of the rest of us, and tumbled to the ground. I helped Junior up, and we both began to stoop down to pick the tent up again, and then I felt the silence, and perhaps Junior did too, for we both looked over at the same time at the coffeemaker and the four cooks, who were staring at us with pure hate in their faces.

The two of us stood fully up, and then suddenly the coffeemaker moved forward and with a smashing blow of his fist struck Junior and knocked him down, and as he lay there, Clyde lifted his boot to kick at him; I threw myself at the coffeemaker, and he fell back, cursing, and the four cooks pulled me from him. “Hold him tight,” Clyde said to the four. “I’ll get him in a minute.”

Engstrom came up and dropped the blankets, his face flushed and his voice harsh. “Stop this!” he said. “And damn you all for a bunch of fools!”

He began to say something further, but then the coffeemaker looked down at Junior, who was beginning to rise from the ground, and Clyde said, “Yellow! Fight why don’t you! Fight!” Then Engstrom ordered the coffeemaker to be quiet, and Clyde jerked out his knife, and as he opened the blade, his face trembling with rage, he told Engstrom, “You keep out of this!” and then he said to Junior, “Get out your knife! I’m going to cut you up!”

Junior stood there, and I saw him shaking and sweat poured from his face, and he said in an agonized voice, “I’ve got no knife; I’ve never had one.” And then a weird light came into the eyes of the coffeemaker, and the big camp boss must have noticed it also, for the Swede jumped toward Clyde; the coffeemaker held the knife out toward Engstrom, forcing him off, and then two of the cooks left me and leaped onto the camp boss, and he went down to the ground, fighting and swearing. I tried to escape from those two who held me, but they shoved me to the ground, and I felt a heavy boot crash against my temple.

For a moment my eyes closed, and then I opened them, and as I lay on the ground with the two cooks holding me, I saw Engstrom, his nose bleeding, trying desperately to wrench himself from the grip of the other two; I shifted my eyes and saw the coffeemaker, the knife in his hand, moving toward the shaking and sweating Junior, and then I tried again to free myself but they held me down. I coughed violently in the thick smoke, and then, only a few hundred yards past Clyde and Junior, I saw a flashing red through the trees and heard a loud crackling sound.

“Fire!” I thought. “The fire!”

The others saw and heard it also, every one of them, and I felt the grip of the two cooks on my arms and legs tense, and Engstrom on the ground began swearing louder and louder, and I saw those holding him down look first at the fire, and then, in a questioning manner, at the coffeemaker. I saw Junior take his wide, staring eyes away from Clyde’s knife and shift his head in the direction of the fire for a split second before returning his eyes to the long, steel blade. And then I saw the coffeemaker himself turn his face slightly toward the crackling noise and the jumping, flashing red; he smiled in a warped and twisted manner, and I thought, “He’s crazy! Crazy!”

The coffeemaker, still smiling, and with the knife held away out in front of him toward Junior, moved carefully and steadily around the Negro, who kept turning his own body to face the knife until his back was completely turned in the direction of the fire. Then the coffeemaker advanced toward Junior and in a strange, emotion-charged voice, he said, “Cold steel. You can’t get away. Cold steel, black man.” And Junior began limping away from the knife, toward the fire.

I yelled, “Not that way, Junior! Not that way!” and one of the cooks struck me in the face, but my call made no difference, for neither the advancing man, nor he who retreated, gave any sign that they had heard me. I watched, with my breath held and my eyes fixed and seeing nothing else, as Junior moved further and further backward; the slow, grim march was still continuing, when I heard Engstrom bellow.

“Sparks!” he yelled. “Sparks coming down! There’ll be spot fires!”

I looked up into the air and saw that the ash was still there, but that now there were also tiny, glowing red coals falling all over us; then I felt them on my skin, and next I saw tiny wisps of smoke on the ground and then flames began to spring up in the pine needles and the grass all around us. The cooks who held me and those who held the camp boss suddenly released us and stepped back; I lay there for a moment gathering strength, and Engstrom lay there too. And then I saw the coffeemaker and Junior pause and look at the falling sparks, and then they looked back at one another. Clyde rushed toward Junior, and the Negro turned and ran blindly toward the great fire, his lame leg jerking, and the coffeemaker followed him with his knife raised high -- and all around us were growing spot fires.

I climbed to my feet and ran through the patches of fire, straight toward the two smoke-dimmed figures and the tremendous red monster ahead, yelling, “Junior! Junior!” Behind me I heard the truck engine start, and I heard it driving away, and I thought, “They’ve left! They’ve left!” and then I felt someone jerk me around, and I saw the camp boss Engstrom.

“Get the hell out of here!” he yelled above the roaring of the fire. “Run for it! Get out! I’ll try to get your friend!” He ran past me toward the thundering inferno, and I followed him, and then ahead I thought I heard screams; and suddenly Engstrom was running back, a solid wall of fire right behind him and even then in all of the smoke and hell I could see him shake his head, and I saw the anguish on his face and in his eyes, and then he grabbed me and shoved me, and with the searing red death behind us and dodging the spot fires to the sides and ahead, we fled.

 

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