Authors: Jeanette Ingold
For my son, Kurt,
and for all the men and women
who fight wildland fire
Copyright Â© 2002 by Jeanette Ingold
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work
should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
First Harcourt paperback edition 2003
Although the events and some of the people mentioned
in this book are drawn from the real-life fire of 1910,
this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters
to actual people, living or dead, is coincidental.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
The Big Bum/by Jeanette Ingold.
Summary: Three teenagers battle the flames of the
Big Burn of 1910, one of the century's biggest wildfires.
1.Â Forest firesâIdahoâHistoryâJuvenile fiction. 2. Forest firesâ
MontanaâHistoryâJuvenile fiction. [1. Forest firesâFiction.
2.Â WildfiresâFiction. 3. IdahoâHistoryâFiction. 4. Montanaâ
HistoryâFiction. 5. Frontier and pioneer lifeâWest (U.S.)âFiction.
6. United StatesâHistoryâ1909â1913âFiction.] I. Title.
ISBN 0-15-204924-X (pb)
Text set in Caslon 540
Designed by Kaelin Chappell
DOM G H F
Printed in the United States of America
The wildfires had been burning for weeks.
They'd been born of sparks thrown from steam-driven trains and from the machinery of backcountry logging. They'd started in the working fires of homesteaders and miners and in the campfires of hoboes and in the trash-burning fires of construction camps and saloon towns. They'd begun when lightning had coursed down from an uneasy summer sky to ignite the towering snags of dry forests.
The wildfires lay behind a brown haze that was beaming to shroud mountaintops and drift like dirty fog through the forests of the Idaho panhandle. Thought no one then knew it, they were fires that would join ranks and run in a vast wall of flame.
When they did, it would be called the big blowup, the great burn, the Big Burn.
Once the dead had been counted, and once the awfulness was far enough behind that people could put pretty words to what had happened, August 20, 1910, would be remembered as the day the mountains roared.
But in mid-July that year, thought fire conditions were worrisome, that orange hell was still mostly unimagined as folks went about their lives.
A ranger guided a botany professor on a field trip. A peacetime
soldier assembled his rifle for a training exercise. An aunt and her niece on a wilderness homestead argued about the money its timber might bring in.
And a young man went after a fire, believing fire was something he could stop.
A fair day followed a night brightened by dry lightning streaking to earth. Ranger William Morris set out from Coeur d'Alene Forest headquarters in Wallace, Idaho, to accompany a university professor on an expedition to look at mountain vegetation. They headed south along Placer Creek and then angled off to climb Striped Peak. A stiff wind kept them comfortable as the day heated up.
The Coeur d'Alene National Forest stretched out around them, a million and a half acres of pine and Douglas fir, of larch and hemlock and cedar. Needled treetops locked together to line canyon bottoms and cover furrowed slopes in unbroken sheets of green. In the distance, when jagged, bare peaks rose from layered tiers of rough mountains, the green turned to hazy blue.
They were eating lunch atop the sixty-three-hundred-foot summit when Morris noticed smoke in the southwest. He took a compass bearing and went back to his meal. But then a second, quickly ballooning smoke appeared in the southeast and was soon followed by the wispy track of a third fire.
He plotted their locations on his map, and then he and the professor returned to Wallace to report them.
The next time Morris climbed Striped Peak, he would find that all the land's greenness was gone, replaced by a blackened tangle of burned trees. He would write that they reminded him of jackstraws more than anything else.
Private Seth Brown, seventeen, of the all-black Twenty-fifth Infantry (except for the white officers) slid the bayonet blade onto his rifle and jammed its keyhole fitting into place. Everyone else in the squad was long done cleaning up from the morning's training and preparing for the afternoon's, but Sethâhis fingers fumbling through still unfamiliar tasksâwas keeping them all from going to lunch.
"Hey, Junior!" one of the men said. "You break that U.S.A. government property, and you'll be buying it out of your pay."
"Shut up," another said. "You want to slow him down more?"
Seth bent over his last task, which was to fit the required gear onto his belt for the afternoon march. He hurried as best he could, but trying to remember how to attach it all.... And his canteen! How could he have forgotten to fill it? Even if he didn't need the water, Sarge would notice the canteen swinging empty and get on him about that.
A hand held out a filled one, and Seth looked up to see the new guy on the squad.
that was his name.
"I got here with an extra," Abel said, shrugging to make light of his help.
"Thanks," Seth told him. "I owe you."
"I'll collect," the other said with a smile.
Seth had seen how fast Abel had got all his own gear squared away, arriving less than an hour earlier and already fitting in. He was the kind of soldier Seth wanted to be, only the harder Seth tried, the more he seemed to mess up. Seth had thought that maybe when his company left its garrison outside of Spokane, he'd get a chance to show how he could at least stick to a hard job longer than anybody, but it hadn't happened. So far, bivouac was proving as much a disaster as anything else in the months Seth had been in the army.
Sometimes he wondered why he'd signed upâeven lied about his age so he couldâand then he remembered how he'd believed he could do his father proud. Join his father's old outfit and pick up where his father had left off, fighting wars and stopping riots. Those had been his father's favorite stories, told over and over those last days before sickness made his leg gangrene and then killed him.
Anger surged through Seth. It wasn't right for his father not to have told him the whole of it, how the army also meant learning a hundred new jobs and a hundred right ways to do them.
The army had a right and a wrong even for campfires, it seemed. Just that morning Seth had got up before reveille to make one, thinking the other men might welcome a way to ward off the early morning chill. Only, Sarge had yanked him to his feet and loudly demanded to know what Seth thought he was doing. "You want to burn this whole place down?"
Like I didn't have sense to handle a simple fire
! Seth thought. He smarted all over again, remembering the disgusted voices of his awakened tent mates. "Brown, of course. No one else dumb enough to find trouble even before wake-up."
Now, finally, Seth attached the last item to his belt, tightened the gaiters that wrapped around his trouser legs from foot to knee, and made sure he'd buttoned the four pockets of his uniform jacket. Cut for a man, it was too full for Seth's slender body, but he couldn't do anything about that. He reached for his wide-brimmed felt hat.
"Hey, looks like you got it," the new guy, Abel, said. "Come on. Let's get some chow, and then you can tell me what's what around here."
"Don't start," Lizbeth's aunt told her.
"You didn't buy
"Lizbeth unlatched the wagon's backboard and pushed aside sacks of flour and beans in hopes they hid a roll of fencing. "Celia, you promised. You
"I did not. I said I would think about it on my way to town, and I did. I found nothing to change my opinion that it would be a waste of our money."
"Keeping sheep might actually
Lizbeth got no answer from her aunt, who was unhitching Trenton and Philly. Ridiculous names, in Lizbeth's opinion, for two hardworking horses that deserved to be called something that matched their lives. Just more of Celia's denying the realities of her and Lizbeth's wilderness homestead several miles south of Wallace, Idaho.
Lizbeth wanted to shove herself in front of Celia and make her listen, so that next spring they could put a few lambs out to forage in the forest undergrowth. Bum lambs cost practically nothing, and fattened up for a few months they'd bring in six, maybe even eight cents a pound.
But Lizbeth could tell from the way her aunt's thin face was set that explaining it all again wouldn't be any use. Celia shut her ears against any idea for making their place go.
The truth was, Lizbeth thought, Celia was scared of hearing one that might work.
Hang on. Just hang on one more year.
Celia had said it so often that the words themselves hung in the air even on the days she didn't voice them. Just hang on one more year, until they got full title to their homestead and could do with it what they wanted. Once their claim was proved up, they could sell off every scrap of wood, and that was Celia's plan.
Leaving Celia to clean up from supper, Lizbeth went out to do her chores, still seething with frustration. There were just ten years between them, Celia's twenty-six to her own sixteen. Enough of a difference for Celia to be her legal guardian, which had been Lizbeth's choice as much as Celia's, but not enough difference to keep them from arguing more like warring sisters. At least like Lizbeth imagined sisters might argue.