Fiction by Dixon Hill
Illustrations by Robert Carter
The smoke came wild and and woolly.
It piled against the windshield, slithered inside the truck, knotted our throats. We stopped, got out, feet crunching dry grass. The fire slowly stalked us, eating the grass as it came.
Professional firefighters fought the blaze on the other side, on its broad front, where wind-driven flames roared freight-train fast.
We 12 teen guys had volunteered to work on the back side to save 19 buffalo that lived there. We grabbed hard hats and face masks with respirators, and struggled to pull fire-retardant yellow pants and jackets over street clothes.
The fire chief yelled: “The wind’s blowing the fire away from where you’ll be working. If the wind shifts, run for the trucks. We’ll drive you out.”
Smoke towered like a thunderhead, blotting out the sun. A dirt road formed a firebreak on our right, a stony escarpment to our left. Behind us, bulldozers scraped two new firebreaks. The fire would force the buffalo into this protected rectangle, which two water trucks worked feverishly to soak down.
Our job: Buy time to build this safe haven.
I carried a shovel through smoke-darkness toward the fire.
We spread out, walking toward a flickering orange glow, until we stood in pairs — working in buddy teams — only feet from hungry tongues of flame licking forward through dry grass. Our shovels bit dirt. We threw soil into the jaws of the fire.
Digging, throwing dirt; back-breaking labor, pain in every muscle, continuous thirst as we slowly built a narrow ditch between the hungry fire and the grass at our backs.
The fire panted, roared and hissed, blinded me with smoke, baked me with its furnace-breath.
The ground quivered! It quivered again.
I turned, peered into the smoke behind. A shape loomed forward, eerily silhouetted by flickering flame-light. Huge. Immense.
It was the bull buffalo. Weighing two tons, within feet of the flames, he didn’t run. Instead, he moved slowly. Regally. I could dimly see his great shaggy head, curved horns, mountainous back — a creature strangely prehistoric. Prairie fires feasted upon these grasslands a millennia before humans trod the continent, and I realized the buffalo had been there, too. The buffalo understood; he was unafraid.
His mighty head turned. I caught a glinting eye. He was looking at me. I heard his deep-voiced chuff, felt myself drawn to him, walked into the dark smoke.
He seemed to melt away. But I could feel his footsteps.
Suddenly, the wind shifted and whipped the fire right through us!
Everywhere, dry grass exploded into leaping flames. The chief called over the radio: “Boys! Get out of there — NOW!”
A scrub oak burst into flame, snapped off down low where the fire had already eaten it away. It toppled over, punched me to the ground. I fell face-first onto a rock that shattered my face mask, hard hat lost.
I heard the truck horn — two short blasts, one long. They were calling us in.
We had been working in buddy teams, each looking out for the other. But I had wandered too far toward the buffalo and was caught alone. I struggled against branches that pinned me. The falling tree had snuffed the flames, but already the fire was eating its way back.
Two short, one long.
I scrabbled with hands and feet and knees. But I was snagged. I pressed low, tried clawing my way out. Smoke stung my eyes. Finally, my torso was free.
Two short, one long.
My right boot began smoking. Trying to pull myself forward, I yanked a rock out of the ground. I threw it into the fire, screaming, “Eat that!”
But smoke seared my lungs; my scream ended in a hoarse racking cough. In desperation, I unfastened my fire pants and yanked myself out. Now I wore only jeans between my boots and fire jacket, and had glass in my face. But I was free. I stood on rubbery legs, trying to get my bearings.
Two short, one long. I ran toward the sound but couldn’t see, kept falling on hot ground, had to reach the truck.
Then I heard it.
Three short horn blasts. The fire was too close to the truck; they had to leave. The engine roared to life.
Three shorts. I ran in desperation.
Three shorts. I couldn’t scream, could hardly breathe, couldn’t even see.
Three shorts — three shorts — the sound fading as they drove away. Three shorts.
I stumbled forward in despair, choking on smoke, legs threatening to give way.
Something slapped my face! Dry, coarse — like a girl’s ponytail. I stopped, squinted, was slapped again.
It was a buffalo tail.
I reached up. The tail disappeared. I saw flames. The buffalo had been standing in front of me, blocking my vision.
I stumbled around, looking for a path not blocked by flames, stopped where I could see no fire, just darkness.
The tail slapped my face again. I grabbed it. It jerked forward in my hand! I let go, heard a low-pitched chuff.
The tail slapped me again. I grabbed it.
This time I held on.
I held his tail, moving blindly through the inferno. A burning bush blocked our path. The great bull lowered his head, hooked one horn under the bush and tossed it away. I watched it spin as it flew, shedding little flaming branches, like a fiery pinwheel.
We moved on, emerged into thinner smoke. Through streaming eyes, I saw trucks and bulldozers.
I heard a deep chuff beside me.
I turned, saw his ancient shaggy face, ponderous hugeness, craggy horns, those ridiculously small eyes.
I stepped toward him. He lowered his head, pawed the ground. Thanks were not welcome.
I turned and made my way forward, feeling strangely owned, oddly free and impossibly connected.
The others spotted me, ran toward me.