On a balmy morning in 1868, fifteen-year-old Kyle Flanagan was taken from his precinct jail cell in the City of Chicago, and led before Judge Jeremiah Morton, who sat behind a tall wooden desk. Kyle's grim lipped father and his worried mother were waiting for him at the desk where the hearing was to be conducted. The balding judge was clean shaven except for a ferocious moustache. He banged his gavel and motioned Officer Weller, Weller, the cop who had arrested Kyle, forward. The cop went into a recital of his recollection of the event as the judge shuffled and sorted a pile of papers before him. At one point Kyle tried to make a correction to Weller's Weller's account, and the judge looked up and said brusquely, brusquely, "You will remain silent unless spoken to, young man, if you know what's good for you!" It seemed that Kyle was being accused of stealing a horse and wagon, and also of being a participant in a robbery that occurred at the time that the horse and wagon were taken. Judge Morton questioned the patrolman closely about whether he had, in fact seen Kyle emerge e merge from the street where the horse and wagon were found standing, allegedly waiting to be unloaded by other members of the gang. The officer finally allowed that he had not, but insisted that the accused had not exited a doorway and would have otherwise been seen by him if he had approached on the main street. Weller didn't mention that he had been looking into the sky, studying the chance of rain, when Kyle had collided with him. The judge pondered this and asked if there was an eyewitness to the theft itself. The y hadn't found any, any, Officer Weller Weller said, as everyone's attention at been drawn to the sound of a bomb exploding at the front of the establishment. The investigation was continuing, however. however. Judge Morton took a drink of water and held forth, looking directly at Kyle's parents. "The is only the slimmest circumstantial evidence that your son was involved in this crime," he said, "and if I bind him over for trial I have no doubt that a witness would be found. Here he glared reprovingly at the officer. "And I have no doubt , that if this were the case, that he would be convicted of the charge laid against him. Now, I have my suspicions, but there is a serious amount of doubt. Before I render my decision, I have a question to direct to you, his parents: What assurance can you give me that this boy will not be brought before me again?" His father tried to say something, but his mother was quicker, understanding what Judge Morton wanted as an answer. "His grandparents live north of here in the pinery, pinery, up by b y Green Bay," Bay," she said."He could go up there." "You "You are certain the y will not send him back in a few weeks?" "They will not send him back." "Very "Very well," said the judge, "I am going to release you into the custody of your parents, young man, while they make arrangements for your trip.You trip.You will remain in your house 'til then--you are not to leave it, do you understand? Officer Weller will see to it that you depart the city." He banged the gavel and left the room. Kyle and his parents also left. His father's face was ashen and his lips compressed. As they stated down the street, the elder Flanagan took a vicious roundhouse swing at Kyle's head and spat: "You worthless worthless son-of-
a-bitch!" His mother gasped at the outburst, and Kyle said, truculently, truculently, "Don't you talk about m y mom like that!" Three days later, Officer Weller Weller showed up at their doorstep, and Kyle was given a ride to Lake Michigan in a police wagon. He carried only a small bundle and a letter to his grandmother, Lena Gundel. "You're getting off easier than you deserve," said Weller, pushing him up the gangplank of his ship, "Don't ever let me catch you in Chicago again." When Kyle reached Green Bay he was glad to set foot on dry land once more. Standing on the dock, it occured to him that he had no knowledge about how to reach his destination.He only knew the name, Bullhead River --that must be really out in the sticks, if this was what they called a city here--and his grandparents' name. He began by asking questions of passersby. One had never heard of the place, another was of the opinion that it was up north somewhere, and the third jerked his thumb toward a shack with a sign nailed to the front. Kyle puzzled out the words, "River Cargo Company--Eb. Martin, Prop." Kyle pounded on the door, and there was a shout from around the side of the building. He looked and saw a thin, sunburned man with white hair and a mallet in his hand. He was attempting to repair some kind of flat-topped barge. Kyle walked over to him and said, "I want to get to Bullhead River." "So do I, Sonny," the man said, "But first I got to fix this boat." He looked more closely at Kyle and said, "You from Chicago?" "How do you know?" "Oh, no reason. You just look like a city boy. What business have you got there?" "My Grandpa lives up there b y the lumber mill. Emil Gundel." "Know him. You in a hurry to get there?" "I guess not," said Kyle, "They don't know I'm coming." "What's your name?" "Kyle Flanagan." "Flanagan, is it now?" was the reply. reply. "I'm Eb Martin. Look here, I've got to pick up some boards in Oconto. Give me a hand and I'll get you there before dark." "Good enough for me," said K yle. Martin went into his house and ca me back with a handful of dried meat he said was venison, and gave Kyle a piece to chew on.They pushed off and spent several hours pushing north along the coast. There wasn't much to see, throught Kyle, that he hadn't seen on the trip up from Chicago. They turned onto a river and spent spent some more time traveling, and came to a settlement. settlement. After After an hour of loading boards next to a sawmill, they returned to the bay and went north again before turning again onto another river that didn't seem to be much more than a creek. Kyle was afraid the old guy was going to spend the afternoon fishing before he finished the trip, but Eb said, "Bullhead River. The mill is up here a wa ys." They chugged along the stream and the trees seemed to close in on both sides. Kyle glanced around nervously, nervously, not certain they the y weren't going to be ambushed by Indians. He could almost see them lurking behind the trees in their war paint and carr ying tomahawks. At any time he expected an arrow to thunk into the boat. After awhile he began to see animals, and birds, too. He saw some whitetail deer. This wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. If you had a gun you could shoot deer and always have something to eat. Better than a piece of fatty pork with the bristles on it, any day. He stuudied the water and saw shadowy shapes moving away from the boat. Fish--and big ones, too. This might not be bad, at all. "On vacation?" asked Eb. "Naw," "Naw," replied Kyle, "I'm gonna live there."
"Some sort of problem, is my guess," said Eb. "I got kicked out of Chicago," Kyle replied. What the hell, what difference did it make what the old guy thought? "Good for a young feller to get out and see the world." replied Eb, "We're going to get these boards to a man who's building a boat for me." They went around a bend and headed to the Jacobson Boat Company dock. Kyle got stuck unloading boards with one of the boat builders who had come from Chicago a few years ago. They talked about the city until the riverman and old man Jacobson finished talking about the new boat. They all had a plate of firecrackers --beans cooked with cayenne pepper--and cold biscuits. By the time they had pushed off from the boat company dock, the sun had already set. They went a few miles more up the river until they came to a wide part and saw a saloon and some other buildings and what looked like another saw mill. Kyle had a sinking feeling that Eb was going to tell him that this was his destination. He looked at the old guy out of the corner of his eye, and Eb, who must have been reading his mind, nodded his head. Well, Well, it figured. In a few minutes, Martin aimed the boat at the shore, grounded it on the bank, and turned off the little steam engine that had powered it. "You "You can jump off here," he said, "Take that path through the trees for about a quarter of a mile, and it's on your right. Just a cabin and a few outbuildings in a clearing.Don't dawdle along, it will be dark as a bat's ass in half an hour." "What about you" asked Kyle. "Don't worry about me" said Martin, "I'm gonna camp out at the boatworks for a few days to see how things are coming along Sa y hello to Emil for me. Better get going now." He pushed the boat from the bank with a long pole and went drifting downstream. Kyle waved goodbye and went off to his new life. II.
Emil and Lena's parcel was adjacent to the Lorquist's on the river, and their back boundary abutted the land of a family named Selby.It was not an uncommon sight to see Emil, or "old man Gundel," as he was sometimes called, on the banks of the Bullhead with four or five long bamboo poles stuck into the bank, with their lines and bobbins well out into the stream. Despite the river's name-- the bullhead might be described as a small brown catfish seldom fished for--there were some excellent fish in the river, including northern pike and a few pickerel.The flowage by the Thorvald mill where the river widened out was the size of a small lake. He would rather fish than farm, far m, the neighbors said, and he usually did, so the land clearing of his forty acres proceeded at a less than leisurely pace. But as he was no longer youthful, and his and Lena's children long grown, there was little stigma attached to this. One expected old folks to take it as easy as they could. Emil was not quite so old as his reputation would have it, though. He had inherited his parent's farm in the southern part of the State after their deaths from cholera that resulted from a visit to relatives in Milwaukee. The Gundel's son had left for California, and their daughter had married a railroad man, from Chicago, named Flanagan. The combination of a good offer for their farm plus the lure of unlimited hunting hunting and fishing inclined Emil to move, and Lena had acquiesced acquiesced to him as she usually did in fa mily matters. They had hired a crew of lumberjacks, who needed summer summer employment, who cleared about five acres and erected a cabin of logs from the straighter hardwood they had cut down. The Gundels kept an ox for transportation and hauling, two goats for milk, chickens, and a series of housecats which lasted a year or two before they disappeared. They were not rich, but they had money put by from the sale of their farm. They settled down to a relatively inexpensive existence. They could send away for what they wanted when they wanted it, or the r iverman would bring it to them for a good price.Their combined skills made them more or less independent of the outside world. They got their flour and supplies from the
company store in town. Emil had struck up a curious relationship with Octavius--one of the black woodworkers Thorvald had brought up from Chicago to make windows for him. He had noticed the old negro on the banks of the Bullhead river on more than one Sunday, Sunday, and one da y when he had finally been overcome by curiosity he had made his way over. Octavius represented to him an unmined tradition of practical knowledge and a gap in his own learning. Emil had learned from the European tradition of practical arts and crafts, the woodsmanship of the American frontier, frontier, and the lore and skills of the Indian especially e specially the Chippewa. He knew little about the traditions of Africa or the antebellum South. It stood to reason that the old negro knew a few tricks worth knowing. Emil Gundel believed that there was a 'trick' to everything.He would probably allow that if you knew the trick you could achieve something as fabulous as perpetual motion or changing lead into gold.He did not harbor fantastic dreams of something-forsomething-for- nothing, limitless wealth, or the achievement of transcendent power. He was not attracted to ideas, but concrete, practical, knowledge. A trick or formula could be got by learning it from others, or discovering it by accident. He was not an inventor, and he did not have a grasp of a method by which knowledge could be discovered deliberately. deliberately. He was a connoisseur of practical secrets. He had first made his way over to Octavius in the hopeful expectation that he might learn what type of bait and rigging the old man was using, and to find out what he was fishing for.The was a trick to almost everything about fishing, from where and when to fish for the kind of fish you wanted , and what to use as bait, even pork fat or bread dough, how to move the line or not move the line, and when to set the hook and how to play and land the fish. Emil Gundel missed all of the excitement when Octavius and the rest of the negroes--except the soldier Marcel--were run out of town. He had gone to the company store to get a pound of brown sugar to make smoking salt, and had heard the story about the 'Ruckus.' What a shame to lose a craftsman like Octavius. Run out by a bunch of loafers and drunks, he concluded. Types Types like that were dogs in the manager; didn't want to do an honest day's work; didn't want anyone else to, either.But they got run out of town themselves, he had heard. They said Manning cracked down on the whole bunch of them at the sawmill; if you don't want to work, he said, get out. Should have done it years ago, and the problem with the niggers wouldn't have happened. Best idea was to steer clear of the whole outfit. He couldn't resist going into town for Thorvald's annual visit, though, the man was worth walking from here to Oconto to see. Queerlooking bird dressed up like a sodomist. You You almost took to laughing when you saw him dancing like a Spanish whore across the factory yard trying to keep his fancy shoes from getting wet. Doubt if the man put in an honest day's labor in his life. If Emil had been younger, he could have made a decent living b by y salvaging the boards the lumber company threw away or burned up.Some good boards with a crack or two they didn't want to ship out. A little little rot, and out it went. Could sell them in Green Bay easy enough if they had wanted to take the trouble. Of course he wouldn't have given a dime for most of the pine houses they built anyway: too lazy to do it right. If they built a house with good oak timbers they way they did back in Europe, they'd last for a few hundred years instead of rotting away in fifty or sixty years. He sure missed old black Octavius, though. Could tell you stories that would curl your hair. Like the one about witchdoctors putting poison in a man's food--it was the last meal he ate in his right mind. He went into a trance and seemed to be dead. The witchdoctor would dig him up that night--they had to bury them the sa me day they died because of the heat--and keep him doctored up. He couldn't help but do as he was told--a slave for life unless he ate salt. Niggers brought that sort of thing with them from fro m Africa. Emil never knew what to expect from his neighbors the Lorquists. The fellow had some good ideas but was careless with the details.Now that house he built--not bad, if you like living in a
cave. Strange fellow, though, some sort of pagan. Children strange, too. Can't get a straight answer out of them. Emil knew Nil's parents. His father was a good Lutheran, but not so good he would turn down a cold beer. The evening when the boy came, Emil and Lena were preparing to retire when a knock came on the door. Emil didn't recognize him at first, but finally made out that it was the girl's boy from Chicago. Nice-looking boy. Good to see some of the family once in a while, Emil thought. He brought a letter with him, but it was no time of day to be reading letters. Next morning, while the boy was sleeping, Lena opened up the letter and read it. He can't go back to Chicago, she said to Emil when he brought the eggs in, or they will throw him in prison; serious trouble with the law, but nothing proved.It sounded to Emil like Keith Flanagan fell down on his job as a father and let the boy run with a bad crowd. Probably not even his fault--those types were always looking for a goat for the law to catch to save themselves. In the following weeks, Emil tried to show the boy something about farming and how to get on out in the woods, but he didn't seem interested. Like to work with guns and cast bullets, though. Liked to hunt and took to fishing well enough, and he was good at handling the ox and taking care of animals. Emil tried to tell him the difference between the Indian style of farming and the European's style. The Indian would clear a limited area, a hundred square feet or so of brush and weeds by burning it off to begin with.They would girdle the bigger trees to kill them. They didn't have much in the way of metal tools until the whiteman came over, although some of them in the region had worked copper. They would plant their crops, squash and corn, in hills with a fish buried in the hill for fertilizer. The Indian raised his crops for himself and got his meat by hunting or fishing for it. So his farm was more of a garden than an ything else. The white farmer got his living b y cultivating a large cleared space, as much as he could work. Sometimes he sold his crops, but mainly they were used to feed his cattle and hogs. The animals needed a lot of feed, and in clearing land to feed them, he destroyed the trees growing nuts, the bushes growing berries, and the other food plants the Indian also ate. Emil showed Kyle the various tricks for making what was needed around a frontier farm. To make wood lye, for example, you took a good-sized wooden barrel, bored a small hole in the front at the bottom, and set it up on blocks just high enough to set a s mall lye collecting container beneath the hole. You then put a good layer of clean, coarse sand in the bottom, and each day added a layer of hardwood ashes and another layer of sand. When the barrel was filled you would pour in a small dipperful of water every morning and it would leach the lye from the ashes and drip out the hole at the bottom. Without the layers of sand you would just have dirty black water. Good lye was milky-looking in color, had a strong smell, and felt slippery when rubbed between the thumb and fingers. The sure test was that good lye would float a raw egg.Lye was used for a number of things. It was boiled with bear fat or tallow to make soap, it was used to make hominy, and sausage casings were made from hogs' small intestines that had been soaked in lye and scraped. Emil had his formulary in one end of a shed where he kept his chemicals and ingredients for his concoctions; such things as mineral oil, mineral spirits, turpentine, sulfer, saltpetre (potassium nitrate), arsenic, calomel, copperas, blue vitriol, distilled spirits of several kinds, white and red leads, beeswax, and so on. On the other side of the shed where he had a small bellows-fed forge for working iron, and a small bench for working wood, fixing harness, rigging fishing gear, and cutting glass. Emil didn't trust Kyle with the chemicals, but he showed him how to cast bullets, rivet harness, work leather, and carve a gunstock. III.
Kyle enjoyed country life as a novelty, but he couldn't see himself spending the best years of his life undoing a forest. Emil had taken him to see a Chippewa man who rode a long pole up and down for hours until a stump was pried out of the ground. Fortunately, this interest on the part of Emil was more theoretical than practical--he was fascinated by this 'trick' of removing stumps with little expenditure of effort. The Gundel's land clearing seldom had any well-defined goal.Emil was more interested in growing a sweeter muskmelon and well blanched dandelion greens than he was in clearing land to keep more animals, or growing crops to sell. The low part of Kyle's day was the lessons.He knew better than to complain, and secretly he was thankful to be put to the task, but in his youthful indolence he still chafed at sitting for hours copying passages out of the Bile, or finding passages that Lena wanted read aloud to her. Sometimes she made him write down her dictation. It has all come about when his grandmother insisted that he write his mother telling her of his safe arrival the day after he had come.His amateurish efforts at letter writing sparked a response in Lena comparable to that of a Prussian Field Marshal seeing his troops botch a manual-atarms.Correction would commence immediately! She finished the letter, and then plopped the Bible down in front of him and told him to start studying. Neither she nor Emil made a practice of reading the Bible, and they were Catholics, besides, but with her sense of frontier efficiency she reasoned that that he might as well be learning something as he practiced his reading and writing, and the Bible was the best choice available. There was one thing about his sojourn with the Gundels that stayed in Kyle's memory for the rest of his life. They ate better than anyone he had known, or would know. He was unaware of it, but there were gourmets in the world who would have been delighted with Lena's hotcakes served with maple syrup and Emil's smoked sausage. K yle could never recapture the taste of crunchy yellow hominy fried in butter, crisp smoked bacon, or baked catfish smothered in sour cream and herbs that was common fare at his grandparents' table. For all his lackadaisical farming, Emil spent vast amounts of time growing and preparing food. That winter they went fishing, slaughtered hogs, and made handles for tools. Emil showed Kyle how to dovetail joints, and do fancy wood inlays, and he made a small box for his mother's Christmas present that even Emil was not displeased with. He thought of his father not at all--out of sight, out of mind, as they say. They went deer hunting, duck hunting, goose hunting, rabbit hunting and ice fishing. What perplexed Kyle was that Emil had a seemingly endless list of things you had to do before you could do anything else.There was never anything simple.You had to dress a certain way, walk a certain way, from certain directions, go through the woods a certain wa y, look for moss on trees, keep an eye on the sun, smell the air, and test the wind with a wet finger go to certain spots, wait here and don't wait there, and so on, and so on. What is more, the old man would stop in the middle of something and deliver a message on different ways to do something right, and why one way was better at times than some other way, but there was never anything you could put your finger on as the right way all of the time. Kyle knew he could never remember all of the tricks and details, even if he tried. His idea was to go until he saw a deer and then shoot it. He did envy his grandfather's knowledge of gunsmithing. He imagined he could make a good living if he could fix and make guns, and it was something he found interesting. He did pay close attention to such skills as making bullets and gunpowder. Early next spring they made maple syrup, boiling it down in one of Emil's big iron pots. The old man insisted on using a different kind of wood for almost everything he did, Kyle discovered, and making syrup was no different. That winter they had to cut down a certain kind of tree for the fire that cooked the syrup-- Emil said it burned with an even heat which was important--and they cut branches from a different kind of tree for stirring the syrup; this was in early spring before the
trees had leaves and they all looked pretty much the same to Kyle. They made kegs of a different kind of wood, wrapping them with still another kind of wood, split spruce roots, and when finished they were filled with water so the wood would expand and they wouldn't leak. It was more than Kyle was interested in knowing. Later in spring they planted crops, and Kyle's befuddlement continued and increased. The melons were planted in hills, for example, because the mounds kept the seeds from being too wet and allowed the sun to warm the hills to speed germination. But first you had to put some fish under the hill to provide fertilizer--the worse it smelled the sweeter the melons--and you had to go fishing for those. Of course, a cerain kind of fish was better than another kind, and to get those fish you had to fish in a certain spot with a certain kind of bait, or net them out. And you couldn't go fishing until the phase of the moon was right for planting melons. And that was just for melons. For some plants you needed manure instead of fish so the skunks wouldn't dig up the hills to get the fish. Kyle thought he could understand that part--what was so hard about putting manure in a hole? But then he found that Emil wanted pig manure not ox manure. Wouldn't ox manure work? Kyle asked him. Well, it would work, Emil granted, but the trick was to use pig manure, well-rotted, so it wouldn't get too hot. Some of the seeds had been started in cold frames, and some of them, a little earlier in March when it still froze at night, in hot frames, where you wanted fresh manure so it would get hot. You had to put sulfur or limestone in the ground for this plant or that, and when you had that all straight you could plant your garden--provided you looked at the moon, of course. Kyle decided he would rather work at a good job and buy what he needed from a greengrocer. And then there were the Cycles of Nature. Everything ran in cycles, said Emil, and if you didn't know that you didn't know anything.He told the boy that ever y plant, tree, or bush and vine, put out flowers and leaves before or after every other plant, tree bush or vine you might happen to mention. For example, Emil cut the hay for his ox and goats so many days after the lilac bush in his front yeard bloomed, provided that the phase of the moon was right, and if it wasn't you had to decide which way to 'lean.' If it happened to be raining on that day, Kyle was told, you would cut it as soon as you could. It was his grandfather's contention that were he dropped unknowing of the time of the year into forest, he could tell you the calendar date within ten days, just by looking at the plants and trees and how the snow looked. The Indians didn't need calendars,he insisted, because if one told another to meet him at a certain spot at the first full moon after the wild rose bloomed, the other knew just the right time to be there to meet him. In Kyle's opinion, it was a hell of a lot easier to use a calendar. In the back of his mind, Kyle knew that if he learned all of these things it would only be like the first year of grade school. He suspicioned that Emil had more tricks up his sleeve than he even wanted to know about. He had seen him grafting tree with a special knife and grafting wax. Grafting, and bees, and the names and purposes of every piece of leather of a horse's harness, and the importance of the horse collar in history, and the arts the Indians used to build canoes, and medicinal plants, and so on. You had to admire Grandpa's knowledge of plants and trees and nature, but what was the point of it unless you wanted to live like an Indian, or like they did in the old days? And then you would be so busy looking at the moon, or tramping around the woods for special plants, you wouldn't have time to do anything else.You could tell that by looking at the way the Indians lived. They never learned to build a decent house or make a gun. But you noticed they didn't waste any time moving into houses or buying guns the first chance they got. They weren't dumb. IV.
A few weeks earlier, a honey tree Emil Gundel had his e ye on was discovered forcefully torn
"Are you sad about Grandpa?" he asked clumsily. "No," she said, clearing her throat, "I ain't sad.He had his life.They said he didn't have ambition. He was going to school when his pa moved away from Indiana. They gave him a chance of staying with his uncle and going to school, or coming along. He made his choice, and I ain't saying it was the wrong one." "My own daddy had a saying. He would have said that Emil was a man who never put his back into his work. I'm not saying he didn't do good at what he did--he did too good. Running a farm was too easy to keep his mind occupied, and too hard in the day-to-day work for him to make a go at it. This ain't no kind of life to live if you know better." "But Grandma," said Kyle, "How can you say that? You had everything." "No," she replied, "I had less than you think." She paused for a moment lost in memory, and in a few seconds continued, "And it ain't no kind of life for you, either." She took a knotted handkerchief from a pocket and handed it to him. "You have been like our own child, and you gave Emil something to live for. This is all the money I have got. It don't pay for the work you done, but it's something for you to get by on for awhile." "Are you saying you want me to go, Grandma?" "The Selby's come over to talk with me," she said. "They want this house for their son Josh and his wife. I can't run the farm and the y promised to keep me in Josh's cabin at their farm for the rest of my life, and I think that's a fair exchange.Before you go I would like you to take some things of your grandpa had set aside to give to his Indian friend by the name of Pine Snake. You can have anything you want from the rest of his things." She put her hand on his shoulder, drew him close, and kissed him with cold lips on his forehead. She then nodded her head at him in good bye, and he got up and left. V.
Kyle took Emil's old rowboat across and dowstream to the Chippewa's land. He was looking for Robert, from whom he expected to get directions to Pine Snake's dwelling.He wasn't to sure what it was, some teepee or shack, he guessed, but it was way back in the woods somewhere. He carried Emil's behest to the old man in a small burlap gunny sack over his shoulder. Robert and his brother Francois were sitting on the ground under a beech tree working at what seemed to be an antique flintlock pistol. Old Emil had never spoken highly of Robert, and at first Kyle thought it was because he didn't like Indians, but he eventually concluded that it was because the old man didn't think Robert was a real Indian. Pine Snake was his idea of a real Indian. His main complaint was that Robert and his generation had little knowledge of the lore and woodcraft of their ancestors. Robert had lost that, but he wasn't a whiteman in temperment or ambition. Although he had a gift for language, he wasn't conversant with white society.Of course, in his own way, neither was Kyle. Robert and his brother had the parts of the pistol carefully arranged on a small square of deerhide, and were working on the pistol itself. Robert looked up and smiled as Kyle came up. Kyle asked if it was an accurate weapon and Robert replied he didn't know, his mother wouldn't let him fire it for fear it would blow up in his face. K yle thought that this might be a distinct possibility. The boy must have been getting bored with his gunworking, because when Kyle asked the directions to Pine Snake, showing them the gunny sack, Robert said it was too hard to explain and he would show him the way. He folded up the pistol parts in the deerhide and led Kyle around the cabin to a hollow tree stump that had a board lying on top of it to keep out the rain, cached the pistol, and then the three of them started along a path that ran back into the woods. Robert took a short detour to stop at a hawthorne tree to get a handful of the red fruit to eat. A little later in the journey Robert made another detour, but found the hazelnut bush he had in mind had already been harvested. The continued on, stopping for a few minutes in a grove of white
oaks to see how the acorn crop was coming. They crossed a low area where they had to jump from grass clump to grass clump to keep their feet dry. They passed through a small forest of white birch trees, shuffling through the yellow leaves that were already beginning to litter the ground. "Pine Snake's place is not too far away from here," Robert commented. "How did he get a name like Pine Snake?" Kyle wanted to know. "When he was young he went through a--ceremony--and they gave him some special plants to eat. He went out into the woods and ate the plants and they made him crazy--fou. He sat under a tree for a long time, and the first animal he saw was a pine snake coming over to see what he was.So the snake became his special animal and he took its name, which in our language isn't pine snake, of course." Francois said something Kyle didn't understand and Robert laughed, shook his head at his brother, and said, "Nobody is interested in that stuff any more." They walked into the forest and Robert suddenly stopped, and after a moment's hesitation he left the trail, made a half circle through a low grassy area, and pushed through some heavy willow and dogwood brush. In a cove surrounded by rocks, trees, and brush, Kyle saw the strangest little house he had ever seen. It was little more than waist high, four feet wide, , and couldn't be more than eight or nine feet long. An old Indian with white hair and a weathered face was sitting cross-legged in front of it, watching their approach. It had to be Pine Snake. Kyle went forward and laid the bag at his feet. "It's from Grandpa," he said. Pine Snake said something he didn't understand, Indian language, he supposed, and Robert translated it for his benefit. "He says he knows that. Your grandpa was by to see him three days ago, before he left." Kyle was dumbfounded. Emil had not left home a good ten days before he died. The Indian must not have understood. "It wasn't him," he said, "He died last week. Grandpa's dead." Robert again translated and delivered a short reply. "He says he knows that." Now Kyle was in a quandary. The old man must have sensed Kyle's confusion, for he added, again with the assistance of Robert, "The spirit of your grandfather was by to see him. Pine Snake apologizes because he doesn't know how his words will sound when they are translated into English." Kyle was perplexed. "What is a spirit?" he asked. "The only Spirit I know about is the Holy Ghost." This led to confusion on the part of the translator. Kyle attempted to explain and Robert finally understood. He told the old man in so many words, "The boy says the only spirit he knows about is one of his gods. He wants to know what you mean by spirit. He doesn't know anything." The brought a look of bafflement to Pine Snake's eyes, and he replied, through Robert, "The spirit is that part of us that does not die." "But all of us does die," insisted Kyle, trying to remember the words of Father Lyle in religion class, "We only exist in the mind of God until the Final Resurrection, when Jesus Christ will descend with his angels from Heaven and raise the dead from the graves in which they were laid. Then they will live again and be judged. Those who have died in a state of Mortal Sin will be sent to hell in everlasting punishment." Robert had some difficulty in conveying this.The old man spoke at some length. Robert said to Kyle, "He is sa ying that with all due respect, he doesn't understand the teachings of your gods. He will have to think about this.He says thank you for bringing the gift, and have a safe journey." Kyle was again dumbfounded. How could the old man know he was leaving? He decided the whole conversation hadn't made any sense and that the best thing to do was to forget it. The old man had the sack that he had been asked to give him, so the whole thing was finished as far as he was concerned. Kyle smiled, nodded and made his way back to the trail. A few moments later, Robert and Francois joined him, and they had returned the way they had come. "Don't pay any attention to what Pine Snake says," Robert told him consolingly, " He's just
a crazy old man." VI.
Later in the week, when Eb Martin was due to make deliveries, Kyle said goodbye to his grandmother and walked down to the flowage landing on the McLoughlin property.Martin came in shortly, and Kyle asked him about passage to Green Bay. "If you give me a hand downstream, I figure four bits would be about right." They started off downstream with Kyle stationed at the front of the boat with a pole. The low water level occasionally caused the boat to nose into a mudbank on a turn, and Kyle's job was to keep it pushed away. "You can lay down the pole for awhile, " said Eb after a few miles, "We've got a long straight stretch coming up." Kyle did so and went back to talk to the boatman. "Why didn't the Indians build big boats?" he asked. "To hard to paddle, for one thing," said Eb. If you get around by canoe, it seems like the easiest and safest way to travel. No horse to take care of, you can always fish for dinner, and a bear isn't gonna run you up a tree." Eb glanced at Kyle, have regretted the thoughtless comment about the bear, but Kyle seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. They drifted for a few minutes and Eb continued, " 'Nother good reason, is that in the old days, you'd need a canoe to travel just about any stream in these parts. You'd have to have a boat that was light enough to pull out of the water and drag around the beaver dams. A stream like this might have three, four, good sized dams on it." "They could dam a river like this?" "Ee-yuh," said Eb, "No problem for them. It would amaze you what they can do. Can chew down good-sized trees, too. And they weave brush around the logs and pack the holes with stones and grass, anything they can find. Plenty beavers still around--I've got them discouraged from building on the Bullhead, but there are still plenty of dams in the back streams and creeks." "When the Frenchies came in, they had the Chippewa's and Menominees trap beaver to make their fancy top hats. Beaver fur, like mole hair, will lie flat in an y direction you brush it, and it makes a beautiful hat. I had one when I still thought I was a feller to be reckoned with." They went around a bend into a wider stream of water. Eb sent Kyle up to guide the prow while he added fuel to the firebox and cranked the grate.By turning a few valves, heating up the lines by blowing off steam, and banging around, he got the engine running and threw it into gear. There was a shudder as the paddlewheel began to turn, and then a comforting sense of control as the boat began to move faster than the current. "You can take it easy now," said Eb, "You've paid for your ride." "How far could you take this boat?" asked Kyle. "Pretty much around the world, I expect, If I made a few changes." "I mean how far could you go without taking it out of the water?" Eb spat over the side and replied, " there's at least three ways I know of to get to the ocean from here. One way would be to take the Eirie canal at Buffalo and down the Hudson to New York, second way would be up past Quebec on the Saint Lawrence, and a third way would be to take the lower Fox to Lake Winnebago, the upper Fox to the boat canal at Portage, down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, and then down that." Kyle was pondering this when Eb asked, "You heading home again?" "I don't know where the hell I'm headed," said Kyle with exasperation, I ain't got no place left to go. My Mom and the cops don't want me back in Chicago, and my Grandma kicked me out because Grandpa got killed by a bear and she sold the place to the Selby's." "I heard about that," said Eb, "And I'm real sorry. I knew Emil for years." He looked at the necklace of claws Kyle was wearing. "I see you took care of the bear," he said. "I skinned the son-of-a-bitch, but that don't seem to help, none." "Tell you a story that might ease your mind a bit," said the Vermonter, "The day I graduated
for bigger things than the Bullhead River Lumber and Manufacturing Company, which had never fulfilled the rosy future Thorvald had predicted for it. Manning was aware that many of the old time mill owners looked upon Thorvald as a dairyman who made a fortune in the Chicago land boom and was playing a rich man's game in the lumber business. Thorvald had had the luck to find, in a safe of a defunct lumber company (which he had bought simply for the property), the deed to 5,000 acres of Wisconsin pine land, which prompted his entry into lumbering. Manning's replacement was a man named Rufus Campion, who, one of Thorvald's lumbering acquaintances said, knew the business inside and out and could take over Matt's job. What the acquaintance didn't say was that that Campion was something of an odd duck who was a little too set in his ways to get along with the personnel in his own company, but who might do quite out in the sticks where he largely ran his own operation. Campion had his own ideas about production, and his first priority was to dismantle the entire system at the Bullhead River mill and replace it with his own system, which shunted Randy's position off to the side. There was a sense of discord between Campion and Hode from the very beginning. II.
In the bottom back corner of her cedar chest, Clara Hode kept her treasure box. It was black japanned chest about the size of two cigar boxes, one atop the other, with a hand painted picture of a plum branch in blossom on the cover. The box contained mementos, notes, letters, certificates, and other odds and ends that were small in value but rich in meaning. They were her tangible reminders that she existed and had been loved. A faded picture card celebrated her First Holy Communion in the small church Pittsburgh. Her parents had been there to witness her First Communion. Of course, it was Sunday, and they would have been there anyway. But they had been there and her mother had said she looked pretty in her white veil, and white dress with blue ribbons. When she thought of her mother, her heart ached. How many times has she gone to find her mother, as a child, with some wonderful little thing to share with her, and had stood there mute, not knowing what to say to bring a smile to the resolute face. Life was serious for her mother, she was one of those who cha ined themselves to the duty until it became their slavemaster. She could not say, "Enough for that," or "No harm done if we don't have carrots for dinner, why don't you show me that bird's nest?"She was always serious about what she did, and she was always driven to keep busy, as if she were a maid to be dismissed at her master's whim. But she wasn't a slave. She could have done what she wanted. I was not her child but a burden, a nuisance to be put up with. The Lord decreed that they must have children, and they did because it was their duty to do so, and it was the duty of their children to appreciate their sacrifice. The priest said it was their duty, and they were afraid to say no to the priest. But it wasn't just children. Life was a burden for them because it was a burden to do what somebody else demanded that they do, when they really wanted to be doing something else, whatever that was. And the priests were good at seeing you didn't do what you wanted to do. They were descended from the Romans who ruled the world, after all. It was a wicked world because it cared for things so much that it lived for things.
But now I am lying to myself because they are important. I get so angry with myself, but I can't help it. When I lose things I am counting on I feel like I am going to die and I become excited and shout. How many times had she stood shyly and watched her mother, and when her mother had seen her standing there, she would say gruffly, "Why are you standing there? There is work to be done!" She didn't understand that I was drowning. Wouldn't a loving person say, "Hold on to me and I will buoy you up?" Was Mama sinking too, clinging to a small board in the ocean, hoping that no one else would ask for that board? Hoping they would go away? Hoping that the Lord wouldn't say, "Help her up," and she would have to say, "Yes, Lord, it will kill me, but I will help her up since You command me." But the Lord didn't say that. And the Lord didn't say, "Welcome the child into the human family, even though she is a burden to you, even though her clothing is filthy with excrement, and you warned her about that, and she disgusts you." When she felt herself slipping away, spiralling down into herself, she went out into the forest to where a small spring of artesian water bub bled from the ground to form a clear, still, pool. It was a rocky place, and the spring had washed the ground away until only clear sand remained at the bottom of the water. Delicate plants grew there, small leafy ferns, wild geraniums in Spring, and sometimes a ladyslipper. Once she found a wild strawberry with a single red berry and she knew that it would have been the sweetest berry that she had ever tasted, but she didn't take it. She knew that such magic places were not a part of the world of scummy ponds, dead fish,cattails, and brush; fairies lived there. She had never seen one, but she knew they were there; that there was someplace in existence like that. Because if it wasn't a part of existence, the world was not a place in which she could live. No, she couldn't take the strawberry from the fairies garden. The world of humankind was not her world, anyway.The prests talked about the love of Jesus, but Clara couldn't believe in Jesus, because it was the same God, only acting nicer. But it was still a God of demands, of judgements, who cou ldn't accept you for what you were, what He had made you into. Jesus might talk nice, then the fierce light would come into his eyes and he would cast you out of the temple for doing something you didn't know you did. It was still the same temple and the same God. It was still the same God who would make a judgement against you for something you couldn't help. What she needed was not a God, or a judge, or a Saviour who saved you from himself, or a shining light, but a friend. A friend who didn't care, a friend who would take you for what you were without judgement. A friend who understood that the world has a way of making you into something that you didn't want to be, and then blaming you for it. A hand held out to help you get to your feet, that's all you needed, A little help against the world. A true friend didn't judge you in your weakness. And the priests didn't understand this,because they were too busy serving their God who was Caesar or Pharoah or King, the God that made them too important to concern themselves with an act of simple kindness to a bothersome child. The priests thought the heart was the haven of demons. She didn't know if this was true or not, but it could be true, that what they thought were demons was the real God struggling to get free. It sometimes came into Clara's mind that sin arose from, the imagination, not from the
heart. The mind was a mirror of strange images, a nd the heart, hoping to ease its pain, was seduced by the lies and promises of the brain. The mind could shame the heart and make it feel guilt. The God of the priests forgives the killer and the thief, thought Clara, but what of me, I who am a dirty nothing? I am like a dress dragged through the mud by frisky puppies. It is not God's fault, and it is not the puppies' fault, but it is I who must bear with it. How can I, who have been ruined, make myself whole again? Let me be free to be what I am in my heart and I will be strong enough to face the judgement of the priests' God against me. Clara unrolled a cylinder of paper she found herself holding. It was her marriage certificate to Karl Schmidt, a beautiful thing printed in colors. The certificate was for framing and displaying upon a bedroom wall. It showed Joseph and Mary kneeeling before a robed priest. In the center of the certificate was a space where it was duly noted that that Clara Ann Weininger and Karl Gustav Schmidt had been united in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. She couldn't cry, anymore, for Karl. God would be happy with a person like Karl, strong and determined, not lukewarm to be spat out of his mouth. Karl had tried to help her, to salvage her with his love, but somehow tha t had made it worse. She had lost him forever, but she couldn't cry about that, either; she suppoed she had always known she would lose him, one way or the other. But for awhile she had had hope, and the heart will lie to itself with the promise of hope. At their wedding reception, her father had pumped Karl's hand gratefully, almost joyously. She knew what that was all about. He was happy that another man had taken the burden of her existence from his shoulders. And when she and Karl had discussed their future and he had talked about moving to the frontier, she had almost pushed him into it--so anxious she was to get away from Pittsburgh and her family. She wanted to get as far away from them as possible so she and they would never be reminded of her existence in their world again. She had led Karl to his place of death. She rerolled the certificate and tied a ribbon around it. Her fingers found a crude, folded card, the hastily written testimony of a circuit preacher in Oconto. She and Randy had gone into his tent to be married between services. Neither they nor the preacher had known the fat lady who had witnesses the ceremony of a few words--she had come hoping to be healed of a lame arm, and was sitting in the front row, available. Clara was beyond hoping for love with Randall. An ally is all she needed. They were like two storm battered ships that had lashed themselves together to keep from sinking. It had started out like that, but somehow, their sharing, their a ffinity, wasn't strong enough, and they began to be embarassed by having the other see their weaknesses. They couldn't pretend hard enough. Randall was always in discomfort from the bone in his leg that was not set right, he couldn't hide that from her, and felt it diminished him in h er eyes. She couldn't make him understand that she didn't make such judgements, having been judged herself. But that wasn't the main thing. Randy was holding on by his fingertips, and was being dragged under, and he couldn't allow anyone to help him. She wanted to help him, but she knew
The job went well, and by dusk the first area was still smoking but otherwise clean except for the big logs, stumps, and the centers of the brush clumps. Even that was a big help, because they were spared the labor of hacking off the willow branches before they could get to the roots. The boys needed no advice from one another in tending a fire, and after several circuits around the burned area looking for stra y flames they were satisfied the fire had been contained. Walking back to the family cabin in the twilight, they noticed the beginning of a warm southerly breeze, but it was light, and the fire had been safely put to bed. The next morning the strength of the breeze had increased, and Clyde thought about taking a Sunday walk out back after breakfast, to look at the burning of the day before. They had barely settled down to breakfast, however, before a buggy pulled up before the front door. The visitor was a young man and his wife from a far m up the road. He said he was asked to enquire if they wanted to attend a Social a few miles down the road. The circuit rider was holding a prayer meeting, and there was dinner, too, if they wanted to come. "Why bless your heart!" cried Mrs. Stamper, "That is surely welcome news. We'll be ready in a few minutes. Tell your missus to come in for a cup of coffee while you wait." She instructed the boys to put on clean clothing and wash the soot off their boots, while she went off to select a few jars of her preserves in order to bring a little something to the meal.Clyde thought fleetingly of of his earlier plan to check on the fire, but dismissed it. Not enough reason. It was probably dead cold by now. A party with plenty of meat and pies was too good to miss. The party was being held at the cross roads farm of a gregarious and politically-minded family named Smith. Ed Smith was the Chairman of his Town, as they called townships out here, and an unofficial community leader.He saw to it that things got done. For example, he had brokered the purchase of a small sawmill that the local farmers used to saw boards for their building projects. The professional logging companies worked along streams and rivers bnecause they didn't want to drag the logs long distances, and pine was plentiful. And they didn't bother to harvest pine from land with only one tree per acre. So man y of the lumber trees in the pinery were not harvested by the lumber jacks.A generation of so earlier, a grist mill would have been the communities most pressing need. But as roads i mproved and the number of horses increased, farmers might travel ten miles or so to a gristmill that served the surrounding countryside.But almost every community wanted a sawmill. As the Stamper family and their neighbors settled themselves on benches beneath some huge maple trees, and the circuit rider was setting up his factory-made pulpit and the large framed canvases of Jesus and the Crucifixion for his audience to meditate upon, a wildfire was spreading a few miles to the southwest at the edge of the Stamper farm. The warm breeze during the night had fanned a dying ember back to life as a flame and the flame had spread to some dry leaves and grass in the burned area. This was no more than a s mall pocket of litter that had been missed by the fire of the Stamper brothers. This small blaze would have died out by itself, except that an exceptionally strong gust of wind lofted some of the burning material to an unburned grassy area a few yards be yond. It almost died out there. In a normal year the grass probably would still have been green in October, but on this year the grass was dry from the summer heat, and there had been an early killing frost several weeks earlier, and it began to burn. The fire spread slowly at first, it was just a small red grass fire in the early morning darkness. The Stamper brothers could have tromped it out with their boots if they had been there, but they weren't there. In the first few hours it wasn't very impressive.It almost seemed to avoid the forest, growing around and sideways through the dried grass. It flickered and danced, it would die here and reappear there, but it was spreading in ways a person could not keep track of. After the services, the ladies put out the meal on tables made from planks laid on sawhorses. The fare was simple, and few of them found fault with it. There were several large tubs of fried chicken, platters of smoked, sliced ham, more tubs of mashed potatoes, plenty of freshly baked bread and butter, many kinds of fruit preserves--blackberry, strawberry,and elderberry jams,
cooked with apple peelings to jell them, and apple butter and rhubarb sweetened with honey. There were boiled carrots, green beans, corn, and squash. There was apple pie and real coffee, and several large tubs filled with ripe muskmelons cooling in spring water. Clyde and Raymond Stamper ate until the y had to loosen their belts. Clyde went off to a discussion about farming hosted by Smith's son Charlie, and Ra ymond, who wouldn't have bothered to look at a cow when he passed it, went over to pass time with the little blonde neighbor girl named Charlotte who always giggled when he talked to her, and who at the moment was pushing one of the smaller children in a tree swing. Charlotte started to giggle again as Ra ymond came up, and he responded by jumping up, grasping a lower limb of the tree, and pulling himself up, pretending to almost fall as he did so. "You're gonna fall out of the tree and kill yourself." insisted Charlotte. "No I ain't," replied Raymond, "I was raised in trees." He slipped and almost fell out of the tree again, and Charlotte gasped. With an extra effort he moved to a higher limb. In a few minutes Charlotte would beg him to come down from the tree.In the meantime, there was a pretty good view of the countryside from here.He moved higher to see if he could make out the location of the Stamper farm, and then he saw the fire. It was still a thin orange line showing through some of the nearer trees. Raymond slid down from the tree, almost falling for good, this time, and Charlotte screamed as he tumbled to the ground and headed for the table where Ed Smith was sitting. "Fire!" he cried. "I seen a fire comin' from up in the tree." Ed Smith stared at him a moment and then yelled, "Charlie!" When the son came over, Ed said, "Climb up in the damned tree and see if there's a fire out there." Charlie did so and stared in a southerly direction for a few minutes. He then descended almost as rapidly as Raymond had done, and reported, "There sure as hell is, Pa. It's a couple of miles away and coming in this direction b y the looks of it." Ed Smith got up from the table and gave Charlie instructions to get the livestock together. Several of the other men took a quick look from the tree top and then hurried down to go about their affairs. In a few minutes, the meal and the afternoon gathering were forgotten, and wagons began pulling out of the yard. Some of those leaving would be dead before the next morning. The fire spreading north from the Stamper farm reached the Smith farm and engulfed it. But it was still a slow fire, almost, but not quite tame. The outbuildings caught fire and burned, but Ed Smith, being the politican that he was, did not believe in adopting an untenable position. He, his family, and his livestock were sitting up to their necks in water as the fire passed.He reflected that they probably could have saved the house if they had wanted to, but, what the hell--now he had an excuse to build a brand new one. The house had been a log cabin originally, and all of the progressive people in the region were starting to move into big board houses like they had back east. The date was Sunday, October 8, 1871 and on this da y the fire spreading northeast from the Stamper farm would claim twelve hundred lives, becoming a great forest fire. And, on the very same day, the city of Chicago, over two hundred miles to the south would also burn. II.
Several hours after noon, the fire reached the spot where Randall Hodes bones lay and turned them to ash Not far away, Pine Snake sat waiting for his death. He had heard it coing in the distance, like the roar of a waterfall for the last hour. He had watched the creatures of the forest fleeing before the fire. It was as if he were watching a parade of all the animal that he had seen during his life. He had awaited this great event for years. He had not known what it would be, or how it would come, but he knew that the forest awaited its end as he awaited his. There was no escaping the fire, and no need to escape. Perhaps he might flee as the animals had done, but then he would
have to wander homeless for the rest of his life because he had lacked the courage to face his death. And death would still cme, but on its own ter ms. He began his chant, saying goodbye to life, and giving thanks for the honor of having been given it. A sheet of orangish-yellow flame shot out to set his house and the trees around it ablaze. It seemed to recede for a moment, and then it swept forward and obliterated all trace of him. Less than an hour after that, it reached the banks of the Bullhead River. III.
"Freddy" Lorquist felt a curious admixture of fear, horror and pride. The world was on fire, but the little ones were safe. And who was to be thanked for this? Nils--her Nils, who thought to build a house covered with earth while they laughed at him in town. "Stupid Norwegian," is what they called him, and they said, "The Lorquists are happy living in a hole in the ground because they don't know any better." Well, let them laugh, now, in their kindling boxes! She immediately felt a pang of remorse for thinking like that. Jesus said you dasn't think like that if you wanted to be a good person. Ah--but Jesus died and now the children were frantic because they thought the Lad y was dying too. Six-year-old Mika and eight-year-old Ulysses, were terrified. "Papa!" they cried, "The Lady is burning up! Help her, oh please help her, Papa." Through the crack of the door they could see the world outside ablaze. Yet, they were safe from the heat. Nils knew there were places out there where three feet of earth were not enough to stop the heat, but here it was enough. For that he was grateful. He led the children to the table and wracked his mind for the right thing to say. First there must be food--that always helped. Fredrika cooked up a pot coarse-ground wheat which they ate with honey, and he began his story. "The Lady is not burning up," he said, "The forest is very large, and only a small part, the part we are in, is burning. Not tomorrrow, but very soon, we will go there, and you will see that most of the forest is not burned at all ." "The Lady is safe. She has her own house to go to. It is much better than this house. She is watching the fire, too,but she is sad.But it isn't the fire she is sad about. You know that a forest doesn't last forever. Lightning storms start fires. When a forest is full of old dead trees it will burn up. The Lady knows this, but she is not sad about it, because she knows a new, young, forest will grow up that will be better than ever because it is young and full of life." The Lady is sad because she knows the forest here will not come back for a long time. She is not sad for the deers, or the hawthorn trees with little red apples, or the fish, or the birds that cannot fly fast enough to escape the fire. She is sad because her heart has been broken. She is sad for her wayward children, you, me, mama, and all the rest." "She is sad because she did everything she knew how to do to make us happy. She gave us cool fresh water to drink and wash in, and she took out all of the poisons that would make us sick. Her brother, the sun, gave us light during the day, and her sister the moon gave us light at night. She gave us every plant we needed for medicine, trees full of good nuts, bushes with sweet berries, plants to eat and weave cloths from, and all of the other things we need." "But this did not make us happy-- we and the other wayward children. We did not want to live her way. She is sad because she knows that one day we will find that her way is the right way, and she is sad because it will take us a long long time to learn that. She is sad because the old wa y is finished. Even without the fire, the wa yward children will cut down the forest. The fire is only quicker." It was a long story, because he told it slowly so they could understand it. When he had finished, Mika had already nodded off, and he and Freddy carried her to her little bunk. The fire outside continued, casting strange patterns of light down the chimney. "I like the story you told the children," said Freddy as they later lay together in bed, "Are the old times really gone?" "Yes, he replied after a long sigh, "They are gone forever."
The death toll of the entire Peshtigo forest fire was about 1200--which can only be a reasonable estimate, for a good many of that number were homesteaders trapped by the huge wildfire that burned around them, such as the residents of the community of Suger Bush. The fire was intense enough so that evidence of those who perished was often obliterated. Almost half the residents of Peshtigo, and man y of the animals, saved themselves b y doing a simple thing--they immersed themselves in the Peshtigo river that widened to form a flowage at the town's edge. But seven or eight hundred did not, or could not reach it in time, and died because of that. They had ample warning; they knew that a fire was coming most of the afternoon. Very likely they didn't realize the magnitude of the event approaching them. The fire struck at a bout 10 P.M. on a Sunday night. Most of the working people were in bed. This was before the eight hour factory shift and they worked from sunup to sundown. The factory which was the major source of the small city's income made wooden products-wash tubs, small barrels, and so on. It was owned by William Ogden, who had made a fortune in real estate in rapidly growing Chicago (he was the first mayor of Chicago). Like many of the self made men of his era he had his finger in many pies. Former president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, Ogden was putting in a railroad from Green Bay which had just about reached Peshtigo at the time of the fire.Railroads of that era were customarily given alternate sections of land along the right of way. The fire thus destroyed millions of dollars of standing timber. Like Thorvald of the story, the fire was a disaster for him. He lost much of his property in the Chicago fire and on the very same day lost the woodenware factory in Peshtigo as well as the timber of the railroad land. Unlike the Thorvalds, however, he did not lose his life. It had been a very dry year, and the pinery had been plagued by almost countless fires all summer. There were barrels of water on the street corners of Peshtigo for putting out small fires. If we piece together the image called up by accounts of survivors, the last few minutes of Peshtigo-- and the entire town was destroyed in half an hour-- must have transcended a Medievalist's nightmares of the Fiery Pit of Perdition. There was, first of all, the intense and almost blinding brightness of the fiery sky. Clouds of dense, black smoke drifted and swirled above the city so that the brightness of one instant was replaced by the inky darkness of the next. Huge black balls of smoke rolled from the forest inferno and exploded into flames when they encountered oxygen-rich air. One survivor spoke of great sheets of fire curling and rolling over the city like breakers over a reef. Some spoke of tornado like winds that lashed the faces of fleeing residents with sand and gravel, and blew them down. The wind blew a steeple from a church, and tore the roof from a building, sending flaming shingles in an arc over the city. The fire crossed the Peshtigo river and set the Ogden factory ablaze. Minutes later, the building exploded, sending flaming barrels and tubs upward through the roof and into the river. It was said later that a girl, with her long blonde hair, and clothing, afire, ran through the fleeing crowd screaming. Some people ran blindly here and there screaming that the end of the world had come. A man seeking refuge in a well hung himself with a chain. A father cut the throats of his children and then took his own life with the same knife. Those that reached the river in time had to avoid swimming animals and burning logs drifting downstream. Some of the logs burned down to the water line. It was three-thirty in the morning before it had cooled enough for survivors to e merge from the water. The banks of the river were littered with bodies, but of those who had fallen on the board sidewalks and streets of the town, nothing remained except ashes. Green Bay, a little over forty miles to the south, didn't know about the fire until the next day due to the previously destroyed telegraph line. But another fire had raged in Door and Kewaunee Counties on the east shore of the Bay of Green Bay. One of the most graphic personal accounts of this fire was told by a woman who had survived the fire in the settlement of Williamsonville.
When the fire had burst upon them, the family and others of the settlement had take refuge in a three acre potato field, covering themselves with wet blankets.Sometime during the terrible night, Mrs. Williamson felt a disturbance and peeked out from beneath her blanket so see the body of a woman, her clothing ablaze, lying against her. She hid under the blanket again listening to the roar of the fire and the snapping and popping of burning flesh. At one point she discovered her shoes were on fire. She took up a handful of dirt to put the fire out and found that the earth in her hand was burning. In Madison, the Governor's wife, attempting to cope with things in her husband's absence, was about to send some railroad cars loaded with with disaster relief to victims of the Chicago fire when news came of the fire at Peshtigo. She had the cars diverted northward. The fire continued on north after Peshtigo, but largely burned around the twin cities of Marinette, Wisconsin and Menominee, Michigan, about eight miles north of Peshtigo. An extensive fire, or series of fires devastated the Michigan Peninsula on the same day. There were fires at Holland and Manistee on the Lake Michigan shoreline, and the State capitol at Lansing was threatened. The fires reached across the state almost to lake Huron. An estimated two hundred people died in these fires. Our perceptions of the great events of nature are colored by our limited experience.Thus, some of the accounts of the events of the Peshtigo fire may seem unbelievable. For example, one settler fleeing the fire with his family told of stopping to remove a tree trunk that had fallen onto the road. When he turned back, his wife and children were already dead and their clothing afire. He sought shelter in a shallow creek , and when he was able to return a short time later, nothing remained of the wagon except the ironwork. His wife, children, and the horse had been reduced to a few charred bones and piles of ashes.There were also reports of bodies with shrunken skulls .* Others told of tree stumps burning so co mpletely that one could see holes in the ground where the roots had been. In one such case a nearby field of cornstalks remained standing.The only man made structure said to have survived the Peshtigo fire was the frame of a building under construction--bare wooden two by fours. Is something paranormal afoot here? Are these grossly exaggerated tales? Perhaps not. Much of our normal experience with heat involves convection, not radiation. Small boys sometimes play a game in the dark. They cup their hands over a red light, a penlight, for example, and watch the light make the flesh of their hands glow red. Let us imagine an 'infra-red' source of energy so intense that the human body glows like an incadescent spotlight when exposed to it.Energy intense enough to penetrate the wood and boil the sap in a large tree, literally causing the tree to be blown apart by steam. Energy so intense that it can kill a human being or an animal at a distance in a second-- if that. A candle flame may produce a few dozen watts of energy. A few hundred candle flames may produce the heat of a fireplace--we are not uncomfortable a few feet from it, and it may generate a few kilowatts of heat and light. A hundred fireplaces might generate the energy of a small building burning and generate several hundred kilowatts of radiated energy, some of which is visible light and some of which is infrared. Being within a hundred feet of such a burning building can be uncomfortable. The heat energy of a few hundred such burning buildings would be measured in the megawatts. A a distance of half a block, or more, we could feel the infrared heat impinging on our bare skin. But a hundred such buildings, if equally spaced, might occupy half-a-million square feet, a square of several hundred feet on a side. Suppose that what came roaring at us was a wall of fire ten miles wide and fifteen miles deep that was radiating five hundred or a thousand times more energy--energy that had to be measured in gigawatts. A tree strump, presenting a much larger cross section to the radiation than a cornstalk, might be expected to capture considerably more energy. And this capturing would be continuous and faster than it could radiate away. Temperatures could thus build up to levels high enough to
reduce the wood fibers chemically to carbon and gas. A little over seventy years later when the cities of Dresden and Hamburg burned as a a result of massive bombing, it became understood that a great fire can create such an up flow of hot air that gale force winds at ground level are created. These winds blow inward to the fire, and there may be less convective heat than expected. So the man hiding in the ditch while his family burned was perhaps not subjected to as much hot air as might otherwise be expected, and might survive if he avoided direct exposure to the radiation. The same with the Williamson woman in a hole under a wet blanket. Most of the radiation would have been parallel to or at only a slight angle to the ground, and passed over her. The Dresden fire storm winds occurred at Peshtigo.But there seems to have been an additional phenomenon associated with them. One explorer into the burnt wasteland that remained, spoke of "whole forests of huge maples torn up, twisted, and broken." Another spoke of seeing trees piled up on one another like jumbled matchsticks. The trees seemed as if they had been struck by a tornado. Many of the charred trunks were harvested for lumber the following winter, although the loggers of that era were mainly only interested in the white pine. A day or so after the fire, they say, the rains finally came to Peshtigo. But pockets of peat fires smoldered on for years, sending up plumes of smoke across the blackened wasteland. And it has been said that there are some who believe, that somewhere in the back woods, in an unknown place, the fire is still burning. * [Dr. Wilton Krogman, a pathologist who had watched cadavers burn in normal fires in crematoriums under a variety of conditions, said that only in temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees F. had he seen bones melt.He also noted that he had never observed skulls shrink during cremation.Shrunken skulls have also been reported in some cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Cf Gaddis, Mysterious Fires and Lights .]