The odor of smoke was strong enough that Joy Ann stopped a minute before entering the house to peer into the dark valley. Smoke crawled over the mountain leaving a four odor.
“Larry, Larry,” she called once inside.
“Mam,” called Lance a few steps away coming out of the master bedroom.
“Out where?” she asked, perplexed, her momentum stopped cold, concerned that he was hurt and someone had returned his truck.
“He’s dead to the world. I saw him drive in. I needed to talk to him, came in and found him lying face down on the bed in his big boots and fire gear. His eyes looked at me—just big holes filled with terror. Never saw anyone as burned out.”
“He shouldn’t have been . . .”
“No, Mam, but he did. When he’s awake, tell him the livestock are pastured at the Richard’s place where I left them with ten or so hay bales.”
“He’s not as fit physically as you.”
“That’s why bright and early when morning comes, I’ll take his place . . . that’s if we can get his fire gear off . . . don’t know if there’ll be extra gear at base camp.”
“What happened to your friend, the woman who was with you,” she asked. “Is she still . . .”
“Wildfires aren’t for her. She’s on her way back now to California.”
“Must go to Larry,” said Joy Ann turning to the bedroom. Lance followed her. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “I could fix you a steak.”
“Not now. Check on your husband. Don’t bother yourself none about me,” said Lance, his voice soothing.
Midway to the bedroom, she stopped. She suddenly realized that he was volunteering to take Larry’s spot as a firefighter. The hired hand was now standing in front of her with his clean-shaven, perfectly proportioned face. He appeared to be the best looking cowboy she’d ever seen coming to their rescue. He’s my hero, she thought. “Least I could do . . . well, if you want to cook a steak yourself, you can help yourself to one from the barn freezer.”
With rapid steps they made their way towards Larry. Heart sick, through the shadows in the room, Joy Ann saw him lying in a gigantic heap, seeming to take up all the space in the entire bed. He lie there in yellow fire pants, his arms stretched out, his legs falling over both sides of the bed.
She knelt by his side, stroking his snarled, smoky hair, blackened and sweaty face and hands. “I’m so glad to see you,” she whispered. “I’m staying right here with you. Lance is here, too. We’re going to help you get out of those big, old boots and pants. You sleep as long as you like. Lance will be fighting the fires in your place tomorrow. You’re home, lying in your own bed away from that horrible heat. It’s terribly hot and stuffy in this room though. We must get these heavy things off you.”
She removed her hand from its position under Larry’s arm and got up. Lance came then and brought his arms under Larry’s chest. He raised Larry enough so she could tug his long-sleeve shirt sleeves off and take the wet, smoky thing from his body.
Lance turned him over onto his back. “It will help him breathe easier,” he said, coming to the end of the bed to roll down the pants and pull off his heavy boots. He whispered, “Bring a pail of cool water and some towels.”
“Of course, “she said, but before fleeing the hot room to retrieve the items, she asked, pointing to two windows on either side of a large dresser, “Those windows have been stuck shut for years, can you open them?”
“If you bring back a can of WD40.” said Lance. “It might work them loose.”
Joy Ann was humming a little tune when she returned with the pail of water, towels and WD40. “Didn’t need this can, did I?” The outdoor air came in stagnant and odor-filled but it made the room feel less oppressive. She worked with a soapy cloth, floating away sweat, grime, grit, and soot to bring life slowly back into the body of the sleeping firefighter who was more exhausted than the firefighters who had prepared to fight fires by running, doing pushups and lugging heavy packs over miles to be physically and ready.
“Every person who puts themselves in harm’s way to do this grueling task is a hero. You’re my hero, Larry.”
It pleased Lance to watch her tend to her husband. When she mentioned ‘task’ he suddenly remembered one he had forgotten. “If you won’t be needing me,” he said, “I have something that needs doing outdoors. He picked up Larry’s dirty yellow fire-fighting pants, shirt and boots and went out the door.
He threw the sooty garments and boots out to air on a picnic table under a grove of pines near the ranch home, took out a steak in the barn freezer as Mrs. Oliver had suggested and went to his lodge.
Outside in a little fire ring, he cooked the steak with potatoes and carrots from the garden in a cast-iron frying pan, food which would give his body strength for his own ordeal the next day. Then he left to attend to his mission across the valley.