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Leon’s Fire


[clock] 35-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2014

Stephanie Shieldhouse

Samson, our shot-​crew foreman, came to the Thunder Basin Hotshots in 1998 on a Greyhound ticket bought with money he made selling his hair to a wig shop. He said Navajo hair was the best because it was black and straight, and the wig makers liked it because it didn’t burn as easily when they straightened or curled it with heating irons. Soon after he showed up, his entire ranch went to hell after an assignment in southern Arizona. A few of us had to go there and help him pull his horses out of the mud with a skid steer. Two of the horses broke their legs when we tried to pull them out and for an hour they bayed and flopped and corkscrewed in the wet crabgrass until a guy named Leon, a local ranch hand and a stern-​looking Ojibwa, stepped forward with his .357 and volunteered to shoot them. He wore a sleazy, thin black leather vest, and his hair was braided tightly to his scalp like the lacing on a pair of military boots. After half an hour of watching the horses twitch in the milky bog, Samson gave a slight nod and turned away, and Leon shot them in quick succession and hauled them off on his friend’s flatbed. That’s how Leon met Samson, and that’s how he got hired to fight fire with the Hotshots in 2004.

Leon was a loser, but a tough loser trapped in a linebacker’s body. He wasn’t a vindictive person, or a hateful person, but there were long gaps in his disposition where you could tell a certain kind of dimness was setting in, the kind of dimness you see in someone’s eyes at the end of a cruel act, like the one on Samson’s ranch. 

I don’t give shit about shit, he would say. But it would be more like, I don-​give-​shi-​bout-​shi. Or even, I-​no-​shi-​bou-​shit, I-​no-​shi-​bou-​shit, I-​no-​shi-​bou-​shit, real fast-​like, frenzied. 

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” I said once after work when he accused me of breaking a fire tool in the crew carrier. “What the fuck are you saying? Who the fuck are you?” I turned to Samson. “Who is this guy?”

But Leon went on and on because he was drunk off his ass and he kept accusing me of intentionally breaking the “pig dick,” a fire tool that was like a sledgehammer or mining pick that we used to construct fire line through the volcanic rock in western New Mexico.

“You fuckin’ broke that tool on purpose.” He pointed the tip of his beer bottle at me. “You can’t f-​f-​f-​fuckin’ handle it, that’s why you broke it. That’s what they say about you.”

“F-​f-​f-​f-​fuck you? Is that what you’re trying to say, because you sound like a retard,” I said.

He punched me in the face. We wrestled in the volleyball court behind the crew trailers until one of the squad bosses pulled us apart. He was always drunk, and he fought sloppily, and emotionally, and when he threw punches he went for long haymakers that you could see a mile away.

“Native pride! Native pride, Leon! Keep it alive!” I had him in a headlock and the skin between his tight braids was bright pink, his ears trembling. “Keep it alive!”

He hated me after that, and a few other natives on the crew hated me as well. I was just a white boy to them, probably whiter than the usual crewmember around New Mexico. I was out of college, and I had a nice truck, and Samson put me in positions of responsibility despite the fact that I didn’t have anywhere near the amount of fire experience that they had. Some talked shit about me in Navajo or Acoma or Zuni. Others stared at me flatly when I was wasting their time or energy on the fire line. Others didn’t care either way. Most were only there for the money. 

I didn’t care. I was finishing up my divorce, and the money was too good to pass up. I was well behaved about the divorce, and my ex-​wife appreciated that. Even her new boyfriend, Michael, a Christian youth minister, liked me. On Hotshot crews it wasn’t uncommon for men and women to cheat on their spouses or have infidelity issues in the household. We had a name for the person who was fucking your significant other while you were on the road—​“Sancho” from the Sublime song “Santeria” that was popular at the time. I’d seen Sancho happen to four people. 

I didn’t fight over the house with my wife’s Sancho, or the truck, or anything else, except for our son, Cody, but we were able to share custody without getting the lawyers involved. Michael was a cheese ball, but he was a good cheese ball, and he was the kind of person who had patience for people like me. I trusted him with Cody’s moral guidance, and I knew he would tell Cody why people were bad, or why people quit certain things, or how people got lost in their own bullshit, and that meant a lot to me.

“So, do you ride in a fire truck?” Cody asked when I first got hired on the crew. “Do you have oxygen tanks for the smoke?” 

At my old home, in his toy chest, he had all the fire trucks from when he was two or three years old. He was seven now. His favorite was a hook-​and-​ladder truck that he used to bang against the kitchen cabinets when he was just a few years old, the same one that would leave black skids on the linoleum that I had to scrape off with a putty knife. They were all the wrong types of vehicles for what we did in the Forest Service. We drove around in shitty retrofitted busses and dug ditches. But I didn’t tell him this. 

I told him that he was describing a different type of firefighter, structural firefighters—​folks with extensive training in medicine and engineering. They were more suited for hazmat and search-​and-​rescue than us wildland folks. We were more like construction workers who ran chain saws and dug ditches and burned out swaths of fire line with drip torches. What I didn’t tell him was that a lot of the wildland folks were the rejects from Albuquerque Fire Department, people who didn’t pass their firefighter “interviews,” a set of coded questions the department had which were really a way of asking: Do you go to our church? Do I have to worry about your personal life spilling into the department? Have you ever been to jail?

And although a lot of us didn’t make it into fire departments in East Albuquerque, we made far more money going wildland with the feds, and saw far more fire than we ever would have in a municipality. But it was hard work. We often worked up to forty hours straight digging hand line and running chain saws around massive fires in the middle of nowhere. We wouldn’t shower for weeks. Samson worked us so hard that I once fell asleep standing up and woke up tumbling down the hillside with my saw rattling through the bushes and my hard hat flying off into the darkness like a Frisbee. It wasn’t uncommon for folks to lose twenty or thirty pounds after a difficult roll and develop stress fractures from the constant hiking and running. But I could make thirty-​five grand in six months and then another six on unemployment during the off-​season, and I was happy to throw myself under the bus for that kind of cash. It was good money, fast money, and you didn’t need to be a genius to do it. They just needed bodies, lots of bodies, and they went through them fast. I once heard a structure firefighter say that Hotshot crews were where convicts went to fight fire, and there is a certain amount of truth to that. I can find their faces now on the internet along with criminal charges filed against them by the state of New Mexico.

Battery on a household member …

Disturbing the peace …

Resisting arrest …

Leon is there with his stupid face. He’s the one with the battery charges. The other charges are held by a guy who got fired for being a drunk, a guy who later joined the Marines at the late age of thirty and went on to become recon. Leon shares no such legacy. In the mugshot, his shoulders are rocked forward slightly, and his head hangs in a fire of his own embarrassment. There is a look in his eyes as if everything is far away, as if all of circumstance is assembled somewhere off in the distance where it resides unarticulated and burning. They are the same eyes he had at four in the morning when the fire shot out of the canyon and raced through the trailer park, melting plastic jungle gyms and exploding propane tanks like fireworks over the sunrise in Reserve, New Mexico. Same as when we passed the gored mouths of trailers burst open like fried hot dogs and swing sets melted over chain-​link fences, hung there like stiff sheets of orange linen before pooling into the curb. 

“I-​don’t-​give-​shi-​bout-​shi,” I said in the early morning smoke as we patrolled a road for firebrands floating into the woods just outside the trailer park. The wind blew them like fireflies, and we had to chase them into the paper-​crisp chaparral with chain saws and cut them out before they established themselves in the valley bottoms and sent the fire bounding over the next range.

From the dirt road on the edge of town we watched the structure-​engines strobe through the subdivision, arcing thin streams of water onto the half-​destroyed motor homes. They looked like bashed aluminum cans from the dirt cornice where we were tasked with keeping the fire within the boundaries of the 501 road. Below, in the shallow valley bottom around the park, the trees smoldered in the blue glow from the sodium arc lights, and the needle cast burned in a thin yellow curtain across the south end of the valley. 

Leon busted his ass that night, and he had a rare discipline for it. The entire crew was overextended along a section of the 501 and it was just the two of us at the end of the containment line chasing firebrands into the gambel oak. All night we bored into the eight-​foot-​tall chaparral and tried to beat out the embers that blew like popcorn through the shrubs starting fires against the bases of the pinion trees in the rocky crags of the valley wall. 

But in the morning, the crews all up and down the line had lost the north end of the fire. The sun came up and laid its warmth on a cool canyon bottom near the trailer park where ember wash had been collecting all night and given rise to a thin wisp of gray smoke that shook back and forth in the morning diurnals until it fanned out like a dish, shot up the valley ridges, and pushed through the mouth of the box canyon before settling into the next subdivision. Ten minutes later, it blocked out the sun and a long, cylindrical, brain-​like plume folded over sideways and barrel-​rolled into the countryside, showering embers and igniting pine stringers throughout the valley. 

“Say it,” I said to Leon.

“Say what?”

“Say that stupid thing you always say.”

“What do I say?”

“You know what you say.”

“What?” 

“I don’t give a… . Come on, you know it. Don’t be fucking stupid.”

His eyes lit up with joy and he started shouting into the dim, acrid haze that had begun to envelop the entire valley. “I don give a shi bout shit! I don give a shi bout shit!” His face was completely black from refusing to shower at base camp, and when he laughed the sweat made creases in his neck and flaked away around the corners of his eyes. His body was sopping wet with sweat and his long, greasy hair clung to the side of his neck. He threw his line bag to the ground and did the moonwalk across the road before snapping around and shouting, “I don give a shit about—​fuck, cracker bitches!” toward the blue glow that pulsed in the valley bottom. He tore into his line bag, calling everyone a “fucking cracker” under his breath for some reason until he pulled out a plastic bag that had a few cigars in it and handed me one. After a while we could barely see each other through the smoke as the inversion set in. The small pulse of orange light from his cigar cut through the darkness before being canceled out by the soft, intermittent plumes that rolled by. We stood for hours holding that piece of line along the 501 until the early morning sun forced a blade of light through the pinion corridor. 

“You’re fucking crazy,” I said. “Fucking retarded.”

“Retard strong for sure,” someone else said. “He’s got the strength of ten retards.”

“Fuck it,” he said, walking through the low, cool smoke that sheeted across the 501. “The more their shit is on fire, the less my ass is in jail, so it’s all good with me, buddy. It’s all good with me.”


During Leon’s first month, the entire crew ran six miles each morning after an hour of push-​ups and sit-​ups, and then hiked up an 800-​foot mountain in the afternoon, piling logging slash until nightfall. Samson thought Leon would break, but he ended up being one of those rare, indestructible drunks that you could beat on forever and ever and he would never quit. And although he was broke, he kept finding ways to get drunk. He borrowed money, sold a shitty guitar and sheet metal, did odd jobs, and seemed to eat nothing but boiled potatoes so he could spend the rest on alcohol. 

One day, while working on the compound, he began to crimp up, as if someone were pulling on a cable inside his body. He walked in tight circles with one of his arms clamped behind his back and the other bunched up against itself like a gnarled twig. He then coiled up spastically on the ground, as if an electrical charge were shooting through him, pushing his face across the dirt like a bulldozer until his entire head was half buried. He then went into a full grand mal seizure and shook violently near the pull-​up bars. He bit halfway into his tongue and his mouth pooled with blood.

Samson found him lying in the gravel outside the Hotshot bay and rushed him to the hospital. A number of CT scans and blood tests showed that the seizure was the result of a combination of malnutrition, alcoholic withdrawal, and extreme physical exertion over the last few weeks. When he came back to the compound, his mouth was packed with what looked like a bloody sock and his cheeks were swollen and shiny. Yellow streaks banded across his face where the doctor had applied iodine. 

At the end of the day he sat like a dog in the corner of the briefing room as Samson talked to the District Ranger over the phone. 

Samson spoke loudly so that we could all hear.

When he hung up he said, “So you guys like to drink, huh? You guys like boozing.” He leaned back in his chair and stared directly at the ceiling and exhaled a long breath. “You guys are so stupid there are no words.” He waited several seconds while scratching the back of his neck. “You know, it isn’t the kind of stupidity my kids have when they ride their dirt bikes all over hell and break their frickin’ arms. At least they’re trying to get better at something. At least they have a goal in mind, or a jump or a hill they want to make. But what are you fucktards trying to prove?” He pointed at the six or seven people he knew were smuggling booze onto the compound. “Yeah, you guys. The six of you. I know all about you and the drinkin’. Don’t think for one second that I never knew about the drinkin’.” He was quiet for a moment and then said, “If you drink every fucking day, and you never fucking eat or drink any fucking water, your body will go into shock like this fucktard’s body just did,” he said, pointing at Leon. “Do you understand?”

He pointed at all of us. “I’m going to make you fuckers die during PT tomorrow. I’m going to make you run and hike till you puke and die. I want corpses out there. I want a field of corpses. I’m going to eat your bodies like fucking hamburgers.”

Leon sat in the corner with his bloody sock still in his mouth, his entire jaw so swollen that it looked like he had a softball in his neck. Samson looked at him. Leon kept his head low and said nothing.

“That’s the smartest thing you’ve done all day,” Samson said. “Maybe we can find a way to sew that thing in your mouth forever.”

The next day we ran and ran. People puked and went limp with muscle failure on the grinder pad after hundreds of push-​ups and sit-​ups.

At night the bunkhouse phone rang and rang. It was an automated message for Leon. 

This is the New Mexico Department of Child Services calling to inform you that you are:

Forty-​four

days 

delinquent

 of monetary payments to:

Susan

Ann

Price.

This message was sent on 

July

Seventh. 

All payments to Child Services shall be paid in accordance …

No one would answer it. There were four of us living in the bunkhouse, each with our own room. It rang until finally I opened my door and shouted, “Fucking Leon, you fucking asshole! Pay your fucking wife and be done with it!”

But he never said anything. He just sat there in his room high off Oxycodone or Percocet and that bloody medical sponge in his mouth probably trying to drink Black Velvet out of a straw. Then, when he got drunk enough, he would burst out of his room at eleven o’clock at night and holler, “I give no shi-​bou-​shi! I give no shi-​bou-​shi!” and then stomp around the barracks starting shit with people until he got tired and passed out on the couch or went back to his room. 

He liked to run his head into the wall in the hallway like a battering ram. Once, this exposed a 2x4 stud underneath the drywall. Another night, he hit the stud straight on, fell back on his ass, and went to sleep right there in the hallway. But we covered up for him because we loved drinking in the barracks every night and if someone ever found out that he was drinking with us, then we would all have to pay for the damage he’d done. So we covered it up with posters and furniture.

I once caught him when he was sober at the end of the workday. I tried to talk to him about his divorce, tried to say that I knew his situation and that I was in the same boat with the same problem. He nodded agreeably and kept saying, “I know, I know, I know. I’m sorry. I know.” 

“You got to stop this shit, man,” I said. “You’re killing us. Samson’s riding us hard because of you.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t know.”

“I know. It’s bullshit.”

“Get control over it.”

“You’re right, bro,” he said. “You’re right. I know, you’re right.”

He went on like this for a while. He made claims about loving his kids and suddenly seemed kind and understanding, saying things I’d never expected out of him. But after a while, he got nervous and started rubbing the insides of his arms and scratching his elbows, and soon he began to squirm all over the place. 

“Stop moving around like that. It’s weird,” I said.

“I can’t.”

“What’s wrong with you? Knock it off.”

“I can’t.”

Relax.

“I can’t!” he shouted. “I can’t!” And then he jumped straight up into the air and did an uppercut on the fluorescent-​light fixture in the hallway. It exploded in a puff of white dust and sent glass showering across the fake-​wooden linoleum. The electrical circuits hung like spaghetti from the ceiling, and the long plastic sheet that had filtered the light swung from a hinge before falling off and landing behind the couch. For a minute we both stood underneath the destroyed light fixture as the electrical wiring sparked and popped in the metal box above us until he said, “I want to get fucked up now,” and walked out the front door. The next morning he showed up drunk for PT and threw up in the front yard.


They were trying to get rid of Leon and were looking for a replacement from some of the Southwest Firefighter crews that shared the same government compound as us. A fat kid named Lance was the only one to volunteer. He had been on the Southwest Firefighters for a couple months and wanted to be a Hotshot, but he was out of shape and pudgy. Even worse than that, he was super white, and super Mormon. Chaz, a Zuni native, hated Mormons with a passion, and so did some of the Navajo and the Acoma.

No one liked him. He tried too hard to be our friend by asking about our families. He tried too hard to follow directions and kept checking with all of us to make sure he was doing the right thing, asking question after question. 

“Does this go here?” he would ask. 

“Do I carry gas or oil in my bag?” 

“How far should I run on the weekends?” 

“What’s our callback time?” 

“What are you doing after work?”

He tried too hard to be obedient, and I think that’s what people hated about him. At night, in the bunkhouse, he’d talk about some of the missionary work he’d done and some of the funny situations he’d been in overseas. But then he’d get too chummy with us, doing this thing where he’d offer you something like getting you a beer or grabbing you some food and then punch you very softly on the arm and say, “Yeah buddy, yeah buddy.” On Sundays we’d see him in his church clothes through the morning light that filtered through our greasy windows. In the evenings he’d cook elaborate meals that made the entire bunkhouse smell like shitty diapers. He chewed with his mouth open and would watch television extra loud late into the night, laughing at mindless sitcoms until someone came out and told him to be quiet. 

After a while, people began humiliating him. They’d make him Armor All the spare tires underneath the vehicles in the parking lot, or make him do push-​ups until muscle failure and then make him move stuff all around the Hotshot bay while calling him a pussy since he could barely lift his arms to do anything. When that got boring, people simply sent him off to an endless stretch of buck-​and-​rail fence to pull weeds until we called him on our cell phones to let him know work was over. But he would keep coming back with a cheerful disposition as if he thought we were testing him with shitty tasks in order to harden him and make him a better person, when in fact we just hated him and wanted to get rid of him. 

One Saturday afternoon Chaz got really drunk and found Lance grilling some food on a barbecue that was too close to his bunkhouse. “Get the fuck away from my table,” he said when he saw Lance sitting at his picnic table with a bag of briquettes.

“Sorry, I didn’t know this was your table.” 

“They are all my tables.”

“All of them?”

“Yes, all of them.”

“Fine.” Lance picked up his plate of chicken cutlets. He began to walk away, but Chaz walked up to him and slapped the plate out of his hand, sending the chicken tenders spilling into the dirt. Lance backed away, his cheeks flushed, a stupid, nervous smile on his face. 

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing.”

“I just fucked up your meal, man.”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s fine for you, but I want to fucking fight about it.”

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s everything,” he said and slapped him in the face. “I just slapped you in your fucking face. Is this nothing?”

“It’s nothing!”

He grabbed Lance by the chin and squeezed his cheeks together until his face looked like a fist of salami and then pushed his head away altogether. “It’s everything, cracker boy. It’s everything! Now get the fuck out of here before you get a suntan.” 

Lance walked away sheepishly, nervous and smiling, until Chaz picked up one of his chicken cutlets and threw it at him, plugging him in the back of the shoulder and sending the meat rolling across the blacktop.


The purge finally came for Leon. He was always drunk, and things were getting out of hand every night, and Samson wanted to consolidate the crew and get rid of the drunks before fire season went into full effect. But the foreman wouldn’t fire him because it was too much paperwork, especially since he was a minority working for the federal government. One night we were told by the squad bosses to show up in full gear the next morning and be ready for a long day in the mountains. Leon showed up drunk off his ass as usual along with the soon-​to-​be recon Marine, and we were all instructed to pack a cinder block in our bags along with a chain saw. The foreman walked around with a hanging scale and made sure each bag weighed ninety pounds.

It was only a one-​thousand-​foot elevation gain along a dirt trail, but Samson, a former smoke-​jumper badass, made us shuffle at a good clip along a mile of pavement before we even got to the foot of the trailhead. We were only a mile up the trail when Lance began to sway back and forth until he fell over himself and began gasping for air with his chain saw flung over his backpack and the tip of it digging halfway in the dirt.

“I-​I-​I can’t,” he said, heaving for breath, his eyes full of tears. 

Chaz stepped around him as if he were nothing more than a log and didn’t say a word. Someone offered to carry his saw, but he started shouting, “No! No! No!” and fell over his saw, protecting it, so no one could take it from him. Sweat dripped from his nose, and his arms quivered as he tried to lift himself from the ground. Everyone stepped around him, leaving him there sobbing into his hands. I felt sorry for him, but we were halfway up the second part of the trail and I could barely breathe myself. I didn’t care about anything except for the flat benches on the horizon where I could catch my breath. I was winded—​my jaw radiating pain, one of my feet beginning to go numb. The pain inside my chest was like a black balloon of dull fire that kept expanding until my breath whistled out of my throat. By this time I was somewhere in the back of the crew and the recon Marine was just a few yards behind me, dry-​heaving and doubling over to cough out the remaining puke that was stuck in his throat. Behind him, the squad bosses were trying to get Leon to quit, and even Samson had joined the group of hecklers.

“We’re going to do this all day, Leon,” Samson said. “All day, every day, until you quit and drive your sorry ass home in that shitty Ford Fiesta of yours.”

Soon, the recon Marine passed me and patted me on the shoulder. He reeked of booze and cigarettes, and his long hair came to greasy points that shot out the back of his hard hat, bobbing across his shoulders with every step. Soon, he passed others, and an hour later he was at the top, third place, smoking a cigarette.

Leon caught up to me after a half hour or so. He smelled like barf and was heaving back and forth along the trail, knocking rocks free and making sloppy footholds on the water bars that made diagonal passes across the trail. All I could hear was the “seee-​fooo, seee-​fooo” of his lungs pulling back and forth and the tops of his feet dragging over the gravel. When he passed, you could see that he had “shit-​farted” himself because a small oval in the rear of his pants had turned black and the smell of feces trailed behind him. The squad bosses were still laughing at him.

“You fucking stink,” I said, gasping for air.

“I think I shit myself, bro,” he said, barely getting the words out. “I’m fucking hung over, bro. Bad.”

“Well get behind me,” I said, pushing him away. 

When we got to the top of the last bench before the summit, I couldn’t see straight. Everything was blurry and faraway and the walls of the canyon leaned in with their muted textures as the clouds rolled in overhead. My feet flopped like rags between rocks and gave out halfway when I tried to lean into them. My jaw felt like it was gone from breathing so hard, and the only thing I could hear was the blood shooting though the thin veins behind my ears.

Up above, the trail narrowed to nothing more than a cluster of boulders that led to the top of the mountain. Leon was ahead of me, climbing over them like some kind of reptile on all fours with the little oval poop stain appearing and reappearing underneath the bottom of his line bag. I started to laugh, and when I did, I fell against a long, cool slab of granite and dropped my saw over my shoulder into the sand, forgetting it was ever even there.

He stopped for a moment in a tight spot where two granite sheets pinched together in a low shelf and said, “Pass it here. Give it to me. I’ll carry it.”

I leaned against the canyon wall trying to catch my breath. Everything throbbed in misery.

“Come on now,” he said. “Don’t be weak.”

When I got the saw, he was standing above me with his feet wedged against the granite boulders and his hand extended below him. He had a serious look on his face that made me laugh even harder. 

“Give it here,” he said, taking it from my hands. He pulled it up and then set it on the pass above him before climbing off into the rock bluff and making his way through the switchbacks. I fell to the ground laughing even harder as the squad bosses started yelling at me to catch up with the rest. 

When we reached the top, the crew laughed and laughed while Leon tried to get the shit out of his pants with a clump of sagebrush. He had his pants around his ankles like a toddler and scraped at the inside of them with his shitty fingers.

“Fuck it,” he said, giving up and pulling up his pants. He lay on his backside and poured a canteen over his face. His tongue swelled, and you could see the black stitches tracking across it as he tried to catch his breath. “I’d rather shit myself than go down. I’ll never stop, bro. Y’all can’t stop me.” 

That night Leon got even drunker than usual and walked through the halls of the bunkhouse knocking on doors and asking for money. When people told him to fuck off, he started chanting, “Y’all can’t break me! Y’all can’t break me!” He did this for some time until Sherman, our lead sawyer, came out into the hallway and said, “I’ll break you,” in a calm voice. Sherman was my favorite guy on the crew. He was a small, unassuming Navajo and the hardest worker I had ever known. He was losing his teeth at the age of thirty-​two, and his entire reason for being on the crew that year was to save enough money to have his teeth pulled and get dentures. After Sherman said he was going to break Leon, a few people walked out into the hallway and kicked Leon out of the house. Outside, Lance was cleaning his personal items out of the Hotshot barracks and cramming all his possessions into the backseat of his car. He’d decided to quit and go home for the summer. Leon walked up to him in that sleazy leather vest of his and said, “You were the one that was supposed to get my job, huh?” 

“I don’t know,” Lance said, throwing a few of his coats in the trunk of his vehicle.

“You can’t break me,” Leon said again, this time trying to keep his balance against one of the patio tables.

“I don’t care anymore.”

“You can’t do it.”

“Good for you.”

“None of them can.”

Lance went back into the barracks and came out with another armful of clothes that he stuffed through the back window. Leon struggled to keep his balance against the table. “I’ll never quit,” he said again, this time softly as he shook his head, his eyes looking past him. 

“That’s terrific,” Lance said, backing out of the driveway. 

Leon stood in the middle of the parking lot with a beer in his hand and watched him leave. He then fell asleep on top of the patio table and stayed there until we shook him awake for work the next day.


There was another hike like this in the Sawtooth Mountains when I had pneumonia in Stanley, Idaho. This was some time later that year after Leon had been fired. He had gotten worse, even worse than before, until his big mouth had been silenced by the skinny Navajo Sherman, who threw him to the floor and stomped in his face in with the heel block of his logging boot. I saw Leon the next day after he had gotten back from the hospital. His right eye was like a pink rose blossoming from its socket. All the skin around his eyes was split and stitched back together right where the soft tissue of his eye socket met the bone on the skull cavity. Leon sat in the parking lot dumbfounded, not knowing what happened the night before, not knowing who kicked his ass. He was fired on the spot by Samson and sent off the compound in his Ford Fiesta that trembled weakly in the parking lot as he tried to turn the engine over. 

A few days after that, Sherman got fired for missing an assignment due to an aggravated DUI, along with another guy who got arrested in Albuquerque for refusing to pay his cab fare after a hard night of drinking. 

Leon was a dumb-​ass, but there had been times when you could see a certain kind of intelligence flash across his face. Sometimes, when the fire got hot and sheeted off the top of a ridge line and you could smell the sweat and detergent starting to burn off your flame-​retardant Nomex clothes, he’d look as if he knew exactly what was happening, or as if he had been here a million times and was thinking, I’ve lived my entire life here. This is fine. 

In Stanley, the mornings were misery. We couldn’t even fill up our water from the day before because everything was frozen solid at base camp. Samson was pissed off about the lack of professionalism from the crew and was still trying to break us by hiking us from one division to the next when we could have easily taken our trucks. One morning we hiked for four hours because the word on the street was that Bruce Willis’s summer home was going to burn down and Samson had volunteered the entire crew to scout the area just for the extra hazardous pay. I’d lost twenty-​two pounds since the beginning of the season, but he kept saying, “I want to show you something,” and, “two more chains,” after every false summit. He broke a lot of us on that hike, and I was one of the first because my mind was starting to get weaker and my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I was also weak from walking pneumonia, and I fell over on the trail gasping for air with nothing more than a small circle of vision left to see what was happening. Along the trail, you could see the people swagger back and forth, toiling in their own misery as the line of black hard hats maneuvered through the subalpine fire and up the low draw.

Then I took a step and my knee gave way. My entire body collapsed, and I was on the ground gasping for air. I lay on my side watching zipping sparkles at the periphery of my vision until I was just squatting against a tree.

No one bothered to look back. 

I sat there coughing and coughing until Samson came on my handheld radio and said, “You coming, or are you going to quit?”

But I didn’t quit, and I was happy about that. At the end of the day, I made it to the top and we all sat on Lonesome Divide Saddle over the Ketchum Valley and watched the windows on Bruce Willis’s summer home shatter along with his generator, which flashed in a bright green arc and shot across one of his tennis courts, where it spun wildly, spewing black smoke in all directions like a gas canister. Retardant planes darted back and forth on the horizon dumping red surfactant on his mansion, but the head-​fire had already caught one of his eaves and soon the whole building burned and sagged at its center. The house was so big that it seemed to sink into the granite slope it was built upon and the pool so massive that when it caught a large blade of sunlight and reflected it across the hillside, it illuminated a long string of white pines before the sun dipped behind the Sawtooth Mountains and was gone. After a while, a gas line blew somewhere inside the burning structure and a column of blue fire shot straight into the air, lighting the shallow bowl of the valley in an aqua-​green haze as the retardant planes peeled off back to Boise. 

I thought about Lance, the Mormon kid, as I sat there on the divide. I thought of his face and his impossible foam-​balloon head masticating Hot Pockets at the bunkhouse breakfast table while he, for reasons beyond me, stood obediently on his lone precipice of goodwill and threw kindness our way, only to have it all thrown back in his face on that hike when Samson tried to break Leon. I wanted to grab him by the collar and shove him to the ground in front of that house and make him watch it burn. I wanted him to stop smiling. I wanted to shout, “Don’t you understand? They’re watching you! They’re judging you! They’ll take advantage of you! Get with it!” I wanted him to like it the way I liked it. The way some rich asshole’s little gazebo with its privileged enclave on the waterfront became nothing more than a flaming banner that blew back and forth on the shoreline, licking the sides of his cheesy sailboat. The way the ridiculous, campy chain-​saw carvings of totem poles and black bears would burn satanically in the lawn before falling over and scorching paths through the grass. The way the wooden homesteader antiques that authenticated his porch burned to nothing more than black rings and pins that lay on the dull concrete, abstracted from their structures. I wanted him to like it, and to know there was nothing wrong with it. But he quit months ago, back to countryside where his folks would take care of him and where he’d probably go on to be a good Mormon, and he would never see any of this. And it made me sad to know that Leon wasn’t here, either, with his huge, bloated eye and his big mouth. I think he deserved to see it the most. 

3 Comments

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Anthony Jones's picture
Anthony Jones · 2 months ago

To me, this is the definition of excellence in modern fiction. 

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Adam Boucher's picture
Adam Boucher · 2 months ago

Thanks Anthony.  Means a lot.  :)

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 3 weeks ago

I was trying to find some stories by Edward P Jones online and came across your article 'Just Write a Story' . I ended up reading this story and was blown away by your writing. I can't stress enough how incredibly gripping, vivid, and powerful this piece was. Thank you for deciding to write it!

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