“That stands for volunteer fire department, y’all.”
Sure, it’s hot in August down in our part of the country. But if you grow up around here, and I did, you get used to it. And if you’re a firefighter, and I am, then ninety-six degrees don’t seem like much. And humidity? Don’t even talk to me about humidity.
Don’t talk to me, either, about your automobile fires or your house fires or even your big old raging wild fires, the kind that take a few thousand acres of the federal land by the lake every dry year. I’ve fought all of them. Beat them, too, with the good people of the Stone’s Camp Fire Squad, Squad Number One of the Cane County Volunteer Fire Department.
How come the big boys down at the county seat in Jericho don’t get to be Squad One? Get to ride first down the street in the Fourth of July parade and take the light duty — serving coffee — at the pancake breakfasts? Well, that would be because the founding chief of the entire Cane County VFD founded Stone’s Camp Squad first. That’s Mr. Hezron Stone and he’ll come into this story directly.
Story, oh yes. What kind of man would shrug off house fires and wild fires both if he didn’t have some kind of story to back up his shrug?
It was about eight in the morning and I was doing the payroll at the Bybee Sawmill — that’s my day job, keeping the books out there — when the call came in.
“Vic?” It was Constance Coy’s voice squawking out of the two-way radio I always keep clipped to my belt. She’s the co-captain at Stone’s Camp. Co-captain, dispatcher, bookkeeper (I learned double entry from Constance) and principal equipment maintainer.
“This is Firefighter Vic Sapp,” I said, thumbing the transmit button. I try to follow the protocol for radio communications when I think of it. It’s easier to think of it when I’m sitting in my air conditioned trailer at the sawmill than when I’m speeding down the road or calling for backup.
“Vic, I’ve already called Bert.” She meant Gilberto Silverado, the other Stone’s Camp firefighter who worked at the mill. “He’ll pick you up.” And there was Bert’s truck, already sliding to a stop outside the office, throwing up a cloud of dust that would only remind an amateur of smoke.
I turned up the volume so I could hear Constance’s instructions as I rushed out of the trailer and into Bert’s Chevy. He’d thrown the door open so I didn’t have to break stride, just dove right in.
“It’s Tommy Asbury’s place,” Constance said. “And it’s bad.” Then she was gone, which was understandable. She was probably hanging off the back of the Squad One engine the whole time she was talking to me, and Little Bill Coy would have been driving. Little Bill is Constance’s husband, the other co-captain and a fearless man before a fire or behind the wheel.
Bert, he’s civic minded. He drove fast but sensible, didn’t say anything until I was buckled in. “Asbury. I know him. I visited his house before the election.”
Bert was the duly elected magistrate for the third district of the Cane County Fiscal Court. He’d run as an independent, kiss of death usually, even if you’re not a brand new citizen in a part of the country that’s not known for rolling out the welcome wagon to immigrants. But he’d had a string of luck since he left Chihuahua. Came up to work in the tobacco fields and wound up at the Coy farm. Decided to stay, learned English better than I ever hope to know it, got citizenship then ran for election the same year the Democratic candidate got caught wife-swapping with the Republican candidate.
He was also the first member of the Cane County Volunteer Fire Department (not just our Squad, I’m talking about the whole department) who wasn’t trained by Hezron Stone. Chief Stone had retired about a year before Bert came on board, so Bert’s training — and the training of all the other firefighters in the county — fell to his local chief. But since Bert’s local chief was actually two chiefs — and they were the Coys — I figured he’d had the next best thing to genuine Stone training. Hezron Stone…there wasn’t anything that man didn’t know about putting out fires.
Like he said, Bert had been to the Asbury place, so he knew the way. Hell, everybody knew the way to Tommy Asbury’s. He’s been the biggest, richest bootlegger in Cane County for the past thirty years. There wasn’t a dry county within seventy miles of us, and that’s a fact that made more than one old boy an illicit living. Lot of profit in bootlegging. In high school, I remember paying eighteen dollars for a case of Sterling beer, warm Sterling beer, warm Sterling beer in cans. Like I said, that was high school.
All that money had built Tommy a big house off Sand Creek Road, one of those cookie cutter ranch jobs out of a magazine, but set back in the woods. Big house, and Lord was that a big fire. I saw the Asburys all huddled under a quilt in a stand of birch trees off to one side as we pulled up. Other trucks and cars were squealing up at the same time, and Constance and Little Bill already had the helmets and boots lined up on the ground with the other gear.
The engine was parked at least thirty yards back from the blaze, but the heat made it feel more like five feet as we suited it up. The high pressure hoses on the engine — I saw that they’d laid the intakes right down into Sand Creek — are made for three men to handle when they’re going full blast. There was Little Bill, laying down a pattern of spray across the second floor with one hand while he waved at us to hurry with the other.
When most people meet Little Bill and find out his name, they think it’s one of those joke nicknames, like when a short man gets called Stretch. But that’s not it at all. Little Bill was a second string defensive tackle up at the University of Kentucky in the fifties — played under Bear Bryant — and while he was there another old boy named Bill Coy was on the team that was even bigger than ours. Our Bill is six foot eight if he’s an inch, must weigh 300 pounds and there’s only a little bit of that that forty years back in Stone’s Camp have turned to fat. That other Bill Coy must have been a hoss.
“Y’all hurry and get suited up!” shouted Constance. “The house is past saving but we’ve got to keep this thing from spreading!”
It sure looked like it wanted to spread — to the garage, to the trailer out back where one of the Asbury girls lived with some man from Ohio, maybe even to the woods. That was a huge fire, a hot fire, an angry looking fire. Smoke and tongues of flame poured out of every window and we could see the waves of heat rolling out, sucking the water from the air. A fire like that doesn’t get put out, it burns itself out.
Sometimes. This time, though, there was too much feeding the flame for us to relax even a little bit. We could hear little explosions as the cases of beer and bottles of whiskey Tommy stored in the basement fell to the heat. The fire kept growing hotter and higher until….
Well, until the thing that happened next happened. How did it happen? Where did he come from? Well, there’s what you might call schools of thought on the subject. Bert, he’s a Catholic, right? He says it was a demon that got called up by all that heat and liquor. Chief Stone wound up figuring it for some kind of fire creature created on the spot by the flames of what must be said to have been the hottest fire that ever burned in Cane County — combined with the alcohol. Seems like it amounts to the same thing to me, what you want to call it. Amounts to a hell of a lot of trouble.
Constance saw it first. I was standing right behind her, feeding her hose, so she blocked off the view. Little Bill was a big man, sure, and he’d married a big woman. They went off to school together and there’s people that say if it’d been her instead of him that played for UK then Cane County could boast a first stringer under the Bear instead of a second stringer. That’s not really fair, since her game was basketball. UK didn’t have a women’s team when she was there, but if there’d been one, she would have been a star. Hell, she would have been a WNBA star if they’d had that back then, either.
So, if a normal sized man had come lurching out of that front door just then, I might not have seen him at all. But this fellow had to bend over double to even get out the door and you’ve got to figure a door frame is at least what, seven feet tall? Even on one of those new houses out of a magazine.
And there he was. Twelve or thirteen feet tall, nearly that broad across the shoulders, and on fire. Looked like he was carved out of the blackest coal, with eyes like rubies. You know what he looked like? Like that statue that the University of Louisville uses on their coat of arms, The Thinker. I’m a UK fan myself, and their little symbol says, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” just like on the seal for the whole Commonwealth of Kentucky.
There’s four hoses that run off our engine, just about all that the fourteen of us can handle. We were united just then, all right, when we turned our hoses on the giant. Little Bill, busy as he was, was keeping an eye on the younger guys, Bert included. He was shouting instructions and so on. That’s Little Bill’s way, always teaching, even when things get grim. He got that from the Bear.
I don’t know how we knew that the giant was the bad guy in this particular situation, but nobody questioned it for a second. Maybe it was the way he looked. I mean, a thirteen foot tall flaming giant made from coal, roaring out of a bootlegger’s house with glowing red eyes and a bottle of Early Times in his hand, what would you think? I’m a Maker’s Mark man, myself.
All four hoses on him, then, and what happened? Steam. Water with that much pressure behind it should’ve knocked over anybody, even a body that weighed as much as that one did, but the water never even touched him. It rose up in billows of steam before it even got to him. And he carried on like he enjoyed it.
All those Asburys went scattering when the giant headed over to the little copse they were standing in. But he wasn’t headed after them. He reached up and pulled down the biggest branch off the biggest birch tree, dropped his whiskey bottle and took the branch up in both hands. It set to blazing as soon as he touched it, but birch is pretty tough, and it looked like it was maintaining structural integrity pretty good — better than the Asbury’s place at any rate.
We all drew back, figuring he was getting ready to lay into us. Sure enough, he drew back with the branch. But then he kind of turned it over with a little flick of his wrists — or as little as wrists big around as saplings can flick — and started beating himself with the branch. And laughing.
“You know, I believe that son-of-a-bitch is making fun of us,” said Little Bill, and he motioned for us to cut off the water. The steam died down right away, and the giant threw his branch back into the woods. It was still on fire, and we could see the brush back there starting to take the flames.
“Shit,” said Little Bill, then detailed six of the boys to go prevent forest fires. “Anybody got any ideas?”
The giant, flickering still, wheeled around like he was listening to us, but then set off up the road. Big flaming footprints sprung up in the blacktop after him. He moved at a pretty good clip, probably twenty-five of thirty miles an hour and that was at a walk, not a run.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Constance. Constance always had good ideas. “I’ve got two or three of them.”
We gathered around.
“When that bunch there finishes up with the brush fire,” she said, gesturing to the half dozen stalwarts of Squad One kicking out the fire set by the flaming branch, “You have them spray down what’s left of the house — “, and there wasn’t much left, the Asburys were milling towards us, finally, looking a bit stunned, ” — then follow old ornery up the road there. He’s going to be setting more than one little blaze.”
“Me and these here,” she continued, “are going to take the van down to Jericho and borrow their foam truck.” There’s some kinds of fire that water won’t touch and our boy looked to be possessed of one of those kinds.
Bert and I started toward the van with the other guys, but Constance said “Now hang on.” We stopped.
“There’s one more thing that needs doing. I don’t know about any of y’all, but I never had to fight a giant flaming man before.” The two of us couldn’t really say we had either.
“So we need some help, need to get somebody down here that can figure out how to send this one back to wherever he came from.”
Remember, Bert was fairly new, but I knew who Constance had to be talking about. “Come on,” I told him. “You drive and I’ll show you the way.”
“Where are we going?” he asked.
I told him. “We’re going to fetch Hezron Stone.”
The Stone Farm is on a high, rocky ridge above Bittersweet Creek. The turnoff is easy to miss, since it’s just a little washed-out place beside the main road. You have to drive right down into the creek, then follow it for about a hundred yards to a locked gate. The key to the padlock is in a coffee can nailed to a stump on the other side of the gate, so I had to get out and climb over for it, shooing away a crow while Bert locked in the hubs on his four wheel drive Chevy. He didn’t have to get out of the truck, they all have those automatic gizmos now.
I got back in and he turned down the radio so he could concentrate on the clay gully that passes for a drive leading up to Chief Stone’s house. Hunkered down over the steering wheel, he talked out of the side of his mouth. “I had no idea anyone lived up here. This road reminds me of Mexico.”
See, there’s Bert doing his magistrate job again. All that area around Bittersweet Creek is technically in his district, but he didn’t have any luck meeting folks up there when he was running for election. Those people don’t vote and they don’t partake of any of your public services except maybe the one county maintained road in that stretch of country, the one that we’d just turned off of.
“It’s pretty secluded,” I said. “People up here don’t even call the fire department that I know about.”
Bert had heard all the stories about the old Chief. “Maybe Hezron Stone puts out all their fires.”
“Maybe he does,” I said. “Look, there he is now.”
We’d reached the top of the road, where it spread out into a little gravel lot between the wood frame house and the old fieldstone silo. Hezron Stone must have heard us coming because he was standing in his front yard, gray and stooped, already had his hat on.
We got out and he greeted us, said, “Vic Sapp. How are you doing, boy?”
“Very well, Chief, very well.” I started to tell him why we were there but he’d already turned around and was looking at Bert, looking at his rubber boots and VFD jacket. “Well, well,” he sighed. “First of a new breed.”
Bert drew up straight and said, “It’s a great honor to meet you, sir. My name is Gilberto Silverado and I —”
The Chief put a hand on Bert’s shoulder and whirled him around, kept that hand there while he hooked his other hand in my arm and started us walking towards the truck.
“I know who your are, young man. You’re my new magistrate. And a firefighter, too, so you need to be in more of a hurry.”
“Did Constance call you, Chief?” I asked, waiting for him to climb into the cab. “Tell you we were coming up here to get you?”
He just kind of laughed. “Look at you boys,” he said. “Red faced, smelling like you do, wearing your gear. Hell no, she didn’t call me! But I can see out of these old eyes yet. I figured those Coys got into something they can’t handle.”
“You got that right, sir,” I said. “There’s nothing in the book about giants made out of coal setting fire to the countryside.” When we say book, we’re generally talking about the manual the Chief made up for all the squads before he took his retirement.
“No,” he said, slowly, serious now. “No, I didn’t put anything in there about that. Sounds pretty serious.”
As we eased back down the ridge Bert and I filled him in with what little we knew. He just nodded, taking it all in, said, “Woman’s smart,” when we told him Constance had gone for foam.
As we pulled up out of the creek, he asked, “What’s the weather man hollering?”
We’d been listening to the radio in the truck on the way over. Station I listen to is out of Green County because they’ve got a real meteorologist over there that writes up the weather instead of the dee-jays just reading it off the teletype out of Louisville. We hadn’t heard the weather, but the Chief was just asking kind of academically anyway. He could see out of those old eyes yet. There were big thunderheads piling up in the western sky, so I told the chief, “He’s hollering rain.”
But it hadn’t started raining yet when we met back up with the rest of the squad. Little Bill and his bunch had followed the monster about eight or ten miles from the Asbury place, putting out little brush fires the whole way, until the creature finally holed up at the Rural Electric Co-op substation hard by Lacey Independent Baptist Church.
He was in there when we pulled up, pulling apart transformers and dancing around, sticking wires in his mouth and glowing blue from all the electricity he was drinking. Little Bill had the engine crew wetting down the church just in case and Constance and her bunch were still setting up the foam gear.
The Coys saw us and came over, making noises about getting Hezron Stone into some gear. But he waved them off, staring at the coal giant. “This is one big ugly son-of-a-bitch, ain’t it?” said Chief Stone, kind of summing up the situation.
“We’re ready to go with the foam,” said Constance.
Chief Stone looked kind of worried, shook his head a little. “Well,” he finally said, “Looks like the RECC boys with the computers have shut off the electric. You’d better go ahead and try it.”
The juice had stopped running out of the electric wires the giant was holding. He kind of shivered a little, still crackling with left over lightning, then looked around.
“He’s fixing to light out again!” called Little Bill. “Foam him up!”
I ran over to the help out with the dispensers along with Bert. We laid down a big X pattern of foam over the whole substation, coating everything inside the chain link fence in a thick coat of the white stuff. We paid particular attention to our peculiar problem, made him look like the giant snowman the Jaycees always put on their float in the Christmas parade.
And it stopped him. At least for a minute.
After all that noise, the giant hollering, the electricity crackling, the water hitting the wooden siding of the church, the Coys shouting instructions and encouragement; it was a strange silence that settle down. Even the thunder left off.
Then the big snowman started bubbling. “Y’all better get ready to move,” said Hezron Stone.
The stuff melted away from the giant, his usual yellow and orange flames back now, flickering all over. The boys with the water hoses started to swing around, but Chief Stone waved them off, watching — learning I guess.
“What’s he doing now?” asked Bert.
We all wondered, because the giant hadn’t leapt out of the enclosure like we expected. Instead, he yanked a piece of tin off the roof of the little utility shed they have in all those substations, then ripped a long piece off one edge with a wicked shriek. Whether it was him or the tin that made the noise, I don’t know. He waved it around a little bit like a sword, and it did look sharp.
But then he bent over to the ground and gathered up a bunch of foam in one hand. You could see the flames along that arm dying down as he did it, the foam not melting now. And the flames of his face died too as he spread the foam across his chin and cheeks.
“You know what I think?” asked Hezron Stone.
The giant picked up his piece of tin — it must have been just as sharp as it looked — and started scraping it across his face, little bits of copper wire flying off every direction.
“I think that son-of-a-bitch is making fun of us,” finished the Chief.
And sure, the giant started howling, sort of guffawing I guess, and jumped out of the enclosure, plumb over the fence, plumb over the trucks, plumb over Lacey Independent Baptist Church. I don’t know that he was making mock exactly, though, because I’d seen the bristles on his face and he kind of did need a shave. I only have to shave every other day, myself.
Everybody started moving as soon as the giant hit the ground, trying to wheel around and get some water on him. He was doing some kind of little dance, shrugging his shoulders and shaking like a Louisville drunk. We could see then that there was something different about him from before. Big bulges had come up on his back, glowing white with heat.
“Now what’s that?” asked Little Bill, keeping one eye out while he wrestled with a hose.
Hezron Stone shook his head again. “That’s more trouble, Little Bill.”
Then the giant did a little shimmy, jumped into the woods, and was off again.
Everybody started rolling up hoses, piling into the trucks. The rain finally started and Little Bill had to shout to be heard. “Same drill, you bunch follow him on foot if you can and put out any fires he starts. This rain’s the first break we’ve had.”
And Constance had some last minute instructions, too. She’s always thinking. “Listen up!” Everybody stopped. “Y’all know these Lacey Baptists are a little touchy, right?”
The pastor of Lacey Independent preached against liquor and taxes and generally raised a lot of Cain. Everybody knew not to argue doctrine with that particular bunch of believers.
“Well, then. Y’all know better than to tell any of them that a drunk giant fire heathen was dancing in their church yard, don’t you?”
That Constance, she’s full of good ideas.
That was a long day. “Old Ornery,” as Constance had us all calling him, led us on a chase over half of Squad One’s territory. Luckily, we had a couple things working for us.
The thunderstorms subsided into a steady soaking rain, looked like weather that was settling in to stay a while. That kept the little fires he set down to a manageable level.
The other thing that helped was Old Ornery himself. He slowed down considerably as the bulges on his back got bigger and bigger. You could even kind of keep up with him as he loped along, if you could handle a dead run loaded down with fire fighting gear. We’re all in top shape on Squad One, not like the pretty boys in Jericho. We do calisthenics and everything.
Hezron Stone coordinated the activities. He was on the horn all afternoon, tracking the movements, calling in backup from the other squads, setting up something special. Little Bill had a big map spread out over the dash of his van, marking the path.
Finally, Old Ornery must have got tired, because he holed up again, this time in an old pole barn near the Clover Quarry. The Clover family leased out their tobacco to somebody pretty industrious, because the barn was already hung full of curing burley. Sweet blue smoke curled out from the barn, but we didn’t see any flames yet.
We’d been there about ten minutes when the last of the other Cane County Squads arrived. It was the first time I’d ever seen them all in one place except at parades or suppers or the softball tournament. The Jericho Squad was there with all their shiny new equipment; Cindy Sparks (that’s her real name, Sparks, and that’s a pretty good name for a firefighter) had all her daughters up from Lonely Oak, where the seven of them make up the whole squad; and the Dry Creek Squad and the bunch from Taylor Road; all fifteen squads.
The chiefs gathered around Hezron Stone, who stood staring at the barn. They were waiting for the word, and finally, Chief Stone gave it.
“I’ve got Tommy Clover in on this, setting up an extinguishing trap back at the quarry.” He waved down the hill, where the Clovers had big limestone pits carved out of their land. “We need to get our targets down into the number four dig.”
The Taylor Road chief said, “Targets? I thought you said there was only one of them.”
Just then the god-awfullest noise I’d heard all day — and I’d heard some pretty god-awful noises that day — rose up out of the barn. There was a howling and a shattering noise, like Old Ornery had broken down some of the tiers the tobacco hung on. The big doors shook, then they bulged, then they flew open. There he stood — looking himself again, no bulges — grinning crazy and puffing on a big cigar he’d rolled out of the tobacco and an old burlap sack. He had a bunch more cigars in his hands and we all ducked when he threw them at us.
When we looked up, there were three more Old Ornery’s about half the size of the first boiling out of the barn. Hezron Stone said, “There was. There was only one of them.”
Little Bill shouted out, “Cut loose on them!”
The assembled squads kicked the valves open on their hoses. The rain started falling even heavier and there was steam everywhere, but we could see that we had more of an effect on the little ones than on their — well, I guess you’d say their daddy. Or their mama.
Whichever he was, he stuck with those little ones (if you can call anything that’s seven feet tall little) as we moved the trucks, herding them down the hill. A couple of the boys stopped to pick up some cigars. They were huge, but I’ve seen other proud daddies handing around some almost that big. Bert offered me one but I declined since I don’t smoke that hand rolled stuff. I’m a Camel man, myself.
Four flaming coal men, then, herded into a played-out quarry by fifteen squads of firefighters. We knew that he could leave anytime he wanted and he growled at us quite a bit. But he wouldn’t leave his children. We were buffeting those boys around pretty good with the pressure hoses, drawing our water from tanker trucks first, then from the deep, cold reservoirs of the quarry pits. The little ones must not have been as hot as their old man because the water didn’t turn to steam until it actually hit them.
And hit them it did. Turned them left and right until after a hard half hour we had the four of them dancing into a limestone cul-de-sac cut out of the old bones of Cane County. No way out of there except straight up the walls slick with rain, straight through a determined bunch of firefighters, or out a crack in one wall just wide enough for two or three Baptists to crawl through at a time.
Somebody must have leaked word to the good people of Lacey Independent about the dancing drunken fire heathen.
Bert and I were on the left point, scrambling over rocks and dragging hose behind us, bracing up against the wall when we had to and really laying the water on those boys. That kind of situation — flaming demons getting chased down a manmade canyon by better than a hundred volunteer firefighters, trucks struggling through the mud in a heavy rain — well, in that kind of situation you don’t expect a pair of Sunday School teachers to kind of pop out of the wall in front of you and set towards the demons, singing hymns and trying not to slip on the rocks.
And after those two came two more, then three, singing at the tops of their lungs (my grandmother, a Methodist, always said that Baptists make up in enthusiasm what they lack in pitch — she was a paragon of Christian charity), egged on by their pastor who was kind of going back and forth between singing and exhorting the way a lot of those old preachers do. We couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, and Bert and I were trying to pick out the Coys or Chief Stone, hoping they’d get us some directions.
We were on our own in this particular crisis, though. The little ornery closest to us had spotted the crack in the wall and was leaning into the jets of water aimed at him, making his way straight towards us — and straight over the flock from Lacey. Bert scrambled past me, cutting off his hose and roping it over the fissure to prevent any more believers through. Two or three of them bunched up against him right away but he had that hose wrapped around an outcropping and a determined look on his face. They were hollering that they were there to sing down the glory, they were going to pray those demons straight back where they came from.
Who knows? Maybe it would have worked, but I couldn’t take the chance. I had a half dozen civilians in a fire zone with seven feet of nasty bearing down on them and no time to wait for backup. Going after Sunday School teachers, can you imagine? Those were some vindictive sons-of-bitches.
The preacher and the five of his followers that had made it though had kind of bunched up right below me, down on the flat part of the quarry floor. They seemed to be screwing up their courage, getting ready to meet the giants head on even with the rest of the congregation being blocked by Bert. You’ve got to respect their resolve.
There’s a lot of trust involved in fire fighting. You’ve got to trust your equipment, you’ve got to trust your training, and you’ve got to trust your squad mates. In this case, I was trusting that the main body of firefighters had seen my predicament by now and they would handle the demons while I handled the Baptists.
I trotted out to meet the little one shambling towards us, turned the pressure in my hose as low as it would go, and turned my back on him. Then I opened up on the Baptists, kind of easing them back up the side towards Bert.
My trust was rewarded, the squads laid into the little one behind me with all they had, driving him back to his fellows while I drove the civilians back up to theirs. Bert saw them coming and got out of the way in time to let them back through the crack. They had their hands up over their faces and they were carrying on like it was me they’d come to exorcise.
I’d be hearing about that particular decision — made under a great deal of pressure, I’ll remind you — for a long, long time. But I didn’t have time to worry about it just then, as the main body of firefighters rolled past us and Bert and I rejoined the fight.
We finally had them where Hezron Stone wanted them, and he stopped our forward motion. Through the rain, I could see some Clover boys backing a tanker truck up to the edge of the bluff above us. I guessed that it contained the old chief’s surprise.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the plans you draw up to fight giant coal men work out just the way you figure them? I knew Chief Stone was too savvy a hand to expect everything to go perfectly, but even he looked shocked when the big one turned around, jets of water not quite reaching his back, and started laying into the limestone walls. And having an effect.
He gave that wall some mighty blows, and up above, the Clover boys were shaking. They’d backed that tanker up so close to the rim that the rear valve was sticking out over the edge above the targets. The tires of the rearmost axle were resting on almost as much air as they were rock. And it was more air by the second as each blow into the wall caused more and more limestone to tumble down.
There was a lurch and the whole lip of the pit gave way. The Clover boys scrambled back, tried to get to the cab of the truck, but a big crack was widening between them and the truck. Those old boys had done a good job, but they were out of the fight, now. Their truck hung over the crumbling edge, the rear wheels spinning in the rain.
“This don’t look too good,” said Little Bill.
But Hezron Stone still had a card to play. He shouted for Constance and as she came running, he bent over and pulled up a little round rock, a little bigger than a softball.
“See that valve up there, Constance?” She looked at the valve, looked at the rock in her hand. The creatures were roaring and the big one had started to climb.
“That’s a long shot, Chief,” she said, but she was pulling off her gloves.
Little Bill saw what was going on. He took in the distance and said, “Hell, you’ve hit further, honey.” And she had. Who doesn’t know about Constance Kincaid (she was a Kincaid before she was a Coy) and her last second full court shot against the Russell County Lady Lakers to win the District Finals in 1951?
“Hey, Constance,” I said. “Time’s running out and you’ve got the ball.”
“And we’re down by one,” said Chief Stone. Like a lot of old timers, the Chief didn’t hold with the three point rule.
So Constance nodded, took the stone, and shot. Turn around jump shot, no look. Nothing but valve. WNBA for sure.
And the valve opened, and a trickle of something dripped out. A trickle, then a spray, then a flood.
“Masks!” shouted Hezron Stone, and we all pulled up our masks. Constance scrambled for her gloves and even the old Chief pulled on a greatcoat and headgear.
“What is that stuff?” shouted Bert.
“Acid!” said Chief Stone. “A lot of it!”
Old Ornery and his brood didn’t care too much for being showered with hydrochloric. The little ones set to howling even louder, then just kind of slumped down. They started puddling up into coal colored goo. This upset their daddy something terrible.
We could see that he was losing hold of himself, and I don’t mean just his temper. His shoulders, which had been so blocky, were going soft and round. We couldn’t see the glow of his eyes any more because bits of his forehead kept melting over them. He jumped away from the spray, shaken now by our high pressure hoses. And he started marching straight for Chief Stone.
We poured more and more water on him, but he kept coming. Thirty yards, twenty, fifteen, now he was out from under the acid rain and coming faster. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was Little Bill. He gestured at me and Bert, yelled, “Turn this on me!” Then he handed off the hose he’d been handling all by himself.
When he said it, we couldn’t guess what he meant. But then we saw what he was trying. Little Bill Coy, hell, Big Bill Coy, shrugged off his coat, hunkered into the mud, then went for the tackle.
It was a sight. Bill hit Old Ornery low, which was the only way you could hit a thirteen feet tall flaming giant. He kept his arms up, finding the creature’s center of gravity. He hit it so hard we could hear the crack of his collar bones going, then hit it again. Driving the thing back, throwing it for a loss.
Everybody turned their hoses from the creature to Little Bill. Acid and fire, mud and water, those were field conditions even Bear Bryant couldn’t have handled. But Little Bill Coy did. He drove the giant back into the last drops of acid, then collapsed at the edge of the pool of the stuff that had formed at the base of the wall.
Old Ornery staggered against the melting limestone wall, then finally gave himself up. He fell like a poleaxed demon, or fire creature, or whatever. The black goo of all of them ran seeped into the mess of acid and limestone at the base of the cliff.
We dropped our hoses and sprinted for Little Bill. Constance beat us there, but she stepped aside when the boys from Jericho roared up. They’ve got a whole EMT kit setup in one of their vans and I must admit I was impressed when they went to work on our fallen co-chief. He was a sorry looking site, but he was breathing, and by the time they loaded him into the back of the van, Constance at his side, he was conscious enough to give us a thumbs up. Always encouraging us.
Then all that was left was the clean up, and we were talking, the way you always do after a fire. Bert was quizzing Chief Stone. “How did you know about the acid?”
The Chief shrugged, muttered something about adding a page to the manual explaining what happens to alcohol when it’s exposed to acid in an aqueous solution. “See,” he said, “I’ve heard of Demon Rum. But you strip the alcohol out of his veins and what you got left is ethyl chloride. And who ever heard of Demon Ethyl?”
I punched Bert on the shoulder, said, “I told you, there’s nothing that man doesn’t know about fire.”
It was going to be hard to go back to work the next day, and I thought I’d call and let the boss know he’d have to get somebody to fill in for me doing the payroll at the sawmill, while I covered for the Coys at the station. See, there’s keeping books and there’s putting out fires and when it comes right down to it, I’m a firefighter, myself.