Gambling One Ridge Away
We’re stuck on a Wyoming dirt road at nightfall after cutting line around homesteads and hunting cabins all day, two hours from camp, four from a tow truck, the fire one ridge away and the oil stain beneath the engine spreading wide. We’ve got the hood open when our Division Supervisor pulls up in her truck. We agree the grassy meadow is as safe a place as any, and she radios in to let dispatch know she’ll be spending the night out with us. We could’ve ridden to camp in the back of the truck, like we do on the reservation. We are White Earth Engine, Minnesota Ojibwe, Bureau of Indian Affairs, trained in the art of making do, but the Sup is old school Forest Service from California, where they take the every-passenger-has-a-seatbelt rule to heart.
We dig out the MRE’s fire camp packed for us and get down to eating. We keep a wooden bowl stashed on the engine, big enough for five men to huddle around, carved from the first red oak we felled together years ago. We shake the bags and, one by one, spill their hot contents into the bowl, like we’re sitting around the craps table at Shooting Star Casino, eager to see what luck brings: franks and beans, tuna noodle, and three indistinguishable combinations of rice and meat. We eat some then rotate the bowl to the next man while the Sup dines on beef ravioli in her truck, more evidence that BIA always rolls snake eyes.
We pull our red bags from the engine and get ready to bed down when the Sup orders us to keep our fire shelters close; there’s been a wind warning on the radio and she wants us ready. We don’t interrupt the Sup—she seems genuinely concerned—to tell her we smell rain on the way. We’re more worried that, with only three tents and so soon after dinner, we’ll be breaking our own brand of wind. We draw straws for the chance to sleep alone; the Sup stretches out on the seat of her truck, the windows halfway down.
We get an hour’s sleep in before the rain arrives, random pinging on the tents and vehicles. We know what those first drops mean: White Earth will be the first engine demobilized, sent home to Minnesota, our assignment cut short, and with it our overtime and hazard pay. We pull our sleeping bags up against the rivulets seeping through the tents’ worn seams until the Sup yells for us to take cover: The fire is closing in.
We find her inside the cab, wrestling with her shelter, her eyes wild with confusion, disoriented even after we convince her that the roar she hears is rain, not fire, falling from the sky. We coax the Sup to a tent, then settle down in the wet to watch over her. After all, we are White Earth Engine, near experts at shuffling the real and the dream.
Lori White's recent stories can be found online at The Kenyon Review, Spittoon, Necessary Fiction and In Her Place. She teaches English at Los Angeles Pierce College and lives with her partner and their three dogs in a trailer by a lake on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest.