Lance and Alexis had been back at the Oliver Ranch several days. He immediately saw the bullet holes, attempting several times without success to put thoughts of who had done this deed out of his thoughts. Being with Alexis in his magical paradise didn’t warrant negative thinking.
Dry lightning during the night, reminiscent of the war sounds of Vietnam, triggered another violent nightmare. At dawn, he yelled in the lodge, “Hang in there. We’ll make it!”
His shouts aroused Alexis. She came and in a soft voice said, “It’s okay. I’m here with you. Stay with your dream. Tell me what was happening.” Alexis hoped to help him flush away more his toxic war memories.
He came to a sitting position on one of the two single bed/sitting platforms still in the dream state. “It’s all rushing back,” he said, a hand to his head.
“I went into the Army because it was something I thought I was supposed to do at the time. In Vietnam, I began to realize, it was the way our government could cut the population of that country down so our nation wouldn’t run out of food. Just was a waste, all the guys who got killed.
“I went to Paris Island to boot camp. Three out of five guys never came back. We’d all met at boot camp and said we’d get together in a year, but most of them never came back so I never did.
“I was in 3rd Platoon, C Company, 1st Infantry Marines with twenty-two other men. After the war a lot of the guys wished they had either stayed in Nam or the Philippines, the way people were so hostile to us when we returned to the States. It was different in the Philippines. There they gave big parties for the men who were returning. Several in my Platoon were originally from the Philippines so they stayed there when they got out instead going back to the States.
“I’d been in the infantry, but after three months of that, I thought anything would be better than getting cut up by tall Elephant Grass or going through rice paddies and jungles. So I became a gunner in a green Huey helicopter.
“With one pilot, a co-pilot and two gunners, one of us on each side strapped to the open edge by a big harness, an ammo box and machine gun, we flew into the jungles. Often the pilot would fly so low that we’d scrape ground, but they were good. Our platoon was on Hill 96, the jungle below. The big brass would arrive in smaller helicopters called ’bumble bees” to check out what was happening.
“We were told we were there to help the people of South Vietnam who were being hurt by the people of North Vietnam. We’d also rescue guys on the ground who were wounded or trapped. The helicopter would turn to one side, the hot spot; I’d jump out and run to help the guy in.
“All you could do was to survive. If you got caught deserting, you’d be shot. You could stay and take your chances and hope you didn’t die. MP’s on road patrol would be watching us. Maybe a little kid would come up to them and detonate the bomb they had strapped to them. They didn’t have safe jobs either.
“The Hell’s Angels in the sixties offered to go in and clean the place out. They wanted to get Ho Chi Min. If they had, there’d have been no more war, but the States wouldn’t let them go. All of a sudden, they were being prosecuted for drug use.
“I saw things that were horribly wrong, but if I said anything, I was told to ‘stay clear.’
“I was in the helicopter eight months until I was hit with shrapnel in arms, legs and
shoulder and was sent to Yakama, Japan to recuperate. When I’d come in to pick up some guys, I’d jumped into a big hole and broke my ankle. I knew it hurt, but I didn’t realize that I’d broken it. Then something blew up and I was hit.”
He gasped. Alexis took her hand from his shoulder and passed him a mug of water.
“I am so glad you are able to tell things you might never have been able to bring back to memory because of their horror,” she quietly said.
He fell back, sweating.
A zone of high pressure settled over the nation, driving temperatures in Montana and other Pacific Northwestern states into the nineties early in the middle of the morning. By afternoon, they roared past the one-hundred degree mark.
Everyone worried and talked constantly about the torrid weather. The latest edition of the Great Falls Tribune, in an attempt for humor, ran a photo on their front page of three construction workers lounging in a make-shift pool they’d created in the back of their pickup in a tarp filled with water.
Even the night air was stagnant. Mornings were hot, the air already sticky as wet paint. The ground blistered and groaned under footsteps. Pine needles on trees and on the ground clung to the stillness, ready to ignite.
The heat had been building for weeks. Now it was so hot that clouds did not condense into rain. The static charges between clouds and the ground were now enough to be discharged as flashes of dry lightning.
This morning members of The Stitchers N’ Bitchers, gathered at the picnic table at the Rusty Springs Store eager to hear Joy Ann’s disturbing news about the huge forest fires raging near the Oliver ranch. She said, “Larry reported for duty as a local fireman last night. Residents in certain parts of the Rusty Springs Valley like us might any minute get evacuation notices so I can’t stay long.
“Forest Service fire fighters will be arriving now to help our local volunteers, the first line of defense. Larry came in an hour or so ago, exhausted and hungry. I gave him breakfast and left him lying down when I rushed over here. When he gets up in a couple of hours, he says he’s heading back up the valley to a place where the Forest Service is setting up main base at the Jones ranch. Last night they were using shovels, chain saws and rakes to make a containment line down to the soil along the line of the new fires. They trying to get rid of brush and trees to slow the fires down by starving it.
“Right now they’re afraid of any big winds which might come up. They’ve got to keep the fires from spreading into the heavier brush and timber up into the mountains where they’d be harder to control. I’m no fire fighter but I can see from Larry’s condition that after just one day how worn out these fire fighters will be.”
Taking it all in with intense interest were Lillian Beal, who’d lost her usual big smile, Gretchen, who never spoke during a crisis, Barbara who’d left her post at the store till, but wanted to hear the latest news about the fire so she could pass it along. Gladys and Stormy were hanging on her every word but so far neither of them had spoken.
Stormy longed for information about Lance. She knew he’d returned with a woman but was still hopeful that she might have a future with him. When Joy Ann mentioned his name, she promptly got up and moved so she could stand at the end of the bench across from Joy Ann and not miss a word she was saying.
“Larry wants our hired hand, to stay.” Joy Ann stood, gathered her purse and got ready to leave. “If we’re to be evacuated, he wants Lance to move the animals and vehicles. We don’t know where that’ll be. I can’t do it. I hope he does. But now that he has that strange woman living in his lodge, I don’t know if I can count on him. That’s the one thing I’m anxious to find out when I get home.
“If we are evacuated, what does that mean?” asked Joy Ann, a slight tremor in her voice. “I’ve never been evacuated before. Have any of you? What should I take?”
Her questions rose and lay there unanswered in the awful heat at the back of the store. Gretchen fanned herself with the United Parcel letter container she’d taken from the packing supply for the mailings, shaking her head. Each woman was anxious and sad for Joy Ann, wondering what they’d do if this were happening to them.
“Well, I’d take as many photos as possible,” finally said Widow Gladys. “I’ve learned that I cherish every photo that has George in it.”
“I’d fill up the back of my truck, too,” said Lillian, sniffing a bit.
“What about prescriptions? Those would be very important,” suggested Gladys.
“Important papers, you know, wedding and birth . . .insurance. . . tax returns. I keep ours in a metal box,” said the always practical Barbara. “Robert wanted me to use a paper accordion file but I held out for something that wouldn’t burn and now I’m glad that I did.”
“I wouldn’t go anywhere without my favorite pillow,” said Stormy, or thought Gladys, your birth control pills. “I would take the quilts I’ve made. I couldn’t leave those behind any more than my big rolling pin.”
Joy Ann stood. “I’ve got to go. Things are happening so fast, I feel as if I can’t be sure about anything.”
“Before you rush off, what’s Larry say he wants you to take if you are evacuated?” asked Gladys.
“He won’t tell me. Larry says our lives and those of the animals are his only concern.”
Lillian had tears in her eyes when she said, “We’re your friend, Joy Ann. Let us know how we can help.”