By the time Lieutenant Chase told them to run, the loggers couldn't hear him over the howling of the wind.
They'd been felling a stand of spruce mixed with fir and hemlock on the crest of a ridge near Wessel Creek. The spruce grew thick here and the crew had been working the ridge for a week. Through the gaps they'd cut in the forest they could see the Pacific a few miles off, blue as lapis under the May sun.
After spending the first part of the day inspecting one of the loggers’ camps near the Siletz road, Lieutenant Austin Chase had come up to the logging operation late in the morning. He judged the men were in good spirits and working steadily. They knew their jobs better than he did, but it was his duty to keep an eye on things and make sure the work went well. So he limped around the site, leaning heavily on his cane, adding a word of encouragement here, asking a question there, mostly staying out of the way.
About midday a sudden gust of wind blew across the ridge, cold and hard, causing the trees to sway and the men to stop their work and look up. They were soldiers first, mostly draftees of the army hastily raised after America’s entry into the war. Whatever claims or misunderstandings or fates had put them in the forests of Oregon with axes and saws in their hands rather than in the trenches of France with rifles and bayonets, too few of them had enough experience in the woods to understand the message carried by the wind.
When the errant gust blew itself out, the men returned to their work, smiling and shaking their heads. None of them remarked on the strange silence that succeeded the wind, a stillness that lent an eerie clarity to every sound, from the thonk of an ax to the asthmatic pocketa-pocketa of the steam-driven donkey engine that hauled the felled trees up the slope. Nor did the men notice the birds gradually falling silent, no longer gliding through the trees but hopping from limb to limb in the rapidly thinning air.
Only Private Hakkonen continued to glance uneasily into the cloudless sky. When a corporal told him to get back to work Hakkonen shot him an agate-eyed frown and muttered something to himself before again taking up his end of the two-handled saw he'd been partnering with another soldier. But the stillness of the air ate at him and he soon stopped again. This time he walked away from the saw, ignoring the other soldier's puzzled look. When the corporal again told him to get back to work Hakkonen ignored him too and crossed the logged-over clearing to where Lieutenant Chase stood leaning on his cane.
“I think we oughta get out of here.”
Hakkonen never said “sir” and didn't give a damn about the hard looks most of the officers gave him for it. Chase, though, didn't seem to care. Maybe getting burned that bad changed you, Hakkonen thought. The scars down one side of his face and neck and God-knew-what-others hidden by his gloves and his uniform—that had to do something to a young guy.
His gloved hands resting on the neck of his cane, Chase cocked his head, turning the side less scarred toward Hakkonen. “Get out of here?” he asked. He didn't add “private” because he didn't give a damn about that kind of thing either, not anymore.
Hakkonen nodded toward the treetops. He was older than the other men, past thirty, his dark face creased from years of working outdoors.
“I don't know the Oregon woods,” Hakkonen said, “but if I was still logging up in Michigan I'd figure there was a bad blow coming.” The sharp whistle of the donkey engine cut through the air, warning men to scramble out of the way as it dragged a log up the slope. “I know you're new here and the ground seems dry, but it’s rained hard all spring and the ground's soft underneath.”
Chase looked into the sky, but knew he wasn't seeing what Hakkonen saw. He liked Hakkonen, blunt, square-headed, hard-working. He'd heard that before the war Hakkonen had been with the International Workers of the World—Wobblies, they were called—practically Communists. The civilians who supervised most of the logging in the are spoke his name with that peculiar contempt born of fear, and warned the Army he'd be trouble.
For some reason, maybe the fact that, in their way, they were both outsiders, the broad-shouldered Finn had, in Chase's case, suspended his habitual antagonism towards authority. When the Lieutenant first came to inspect the work site a couple of weeks earlier, Hakkonen had shown him how to tell if the men were being treated right and whether the civilian supervisors were doing what the Army needed them to do—cut spruce—and not felling the other timber the lumber bosses wanted for the open market. Most importantly, he impressed on Chase that logging was dangerous work, on most days more dangerous than soldiering, and taught him how to see which men knew what they were doing in the woods and which ones might get somebody killed.
Still, Chase shook his head. “I'm not in command here, Hakkonen, just inspecting the operation. It's up to the civilian supervisors to—”
“Well, they ain't here. And their loggers ain’t here neither. I don't know what got screwed up, but it’s just us soldiers today. You’re the only officer here right now. The men will listen to you.”
Chase nodded toward a short compact man with blond hair standing over near the donkey engine. “Sergeant McElroy—”
“—won't take a piss without some officer's by-your-leave.”
Again, Austin Chase looked into the sky, felt the stillness of the air. High above, a freshening west wind pushed a thin scrim of clouds across the sun.
He thought of other mornings like this, taking off from the dirt airstrip in France into the cool, quiet air, finding strong winds aloft that made him fight with the controls of his biplane as it danced across the sky like a butterfly.
He had promised himself not to think of that anymore.
“I don't know what you want me to do, Hakkonen. A little wind isn't going to hurt anyone.”
Hakkonen looked over his shoulder as if thinking he might go back to work. Instead, he stepped closer to Chase. He was a big man and looked down at the young lieutenant. “I know you ain't no woodsman, but you're always square with us. And I don't care what them bastards tell you. I'll work hard and honest, whether it's freezing or raining—even when there's snow coming down. But when it gets to blowin' hard it’s time to get out of—”
It came like the impatient “whoof” of a great bear, an exhalation of air followed by a deep groan as the wind rolled into the trees.
Again, the men stopped and looked up. This time none of them smiled.
Hakkonen heard it too and looked into the sky. When he turned back to Chase, the intensity in his face told the lieutenant everything he needed to know.
His eyes still on Hakkonen, Chase cupped his hands around his mouth. “Men, I want you to pick up your tools and head down the ridge to the plank road.”
The soldier-loggers turned their eyes from the sky and looked at him, but the moaning of the trees and the rush of the wind through the limbs drowned out his words.
A crack like a rifle-shot pierced the sighing of the wind and a thick limb fluttered down onto the forest floor, scattering the men below.
Chase froze, his eyes wide, gaping at the falling branch.
Hakkonen could see something had happened to Chase but didn't understand what it was. He shouted at the young officer, “We gotta get outta here, Lieutenant!”
Hakkonen's voice startled Chase back into the present. Fighting a headwind in his mind stronger than the one in the trees, he again brought his hands to his mouth.
Before he could speak, a deep boom rocked the air and the top of a tall hemlock snapped off and crashed to the ground like—Chase couldn’t run from the image—an airplane falling from the sky.
The men jumped away, looking to him for an order, unable to see that he was no longer really there.
Another limb fell—to Chase's mind, it too like the fluttering dive of a crippled fighter plane. From the crevice in his soul where they always lurked, flames danced to life. He imagined the smell of burning gasoline, felt the vise grip of panic in his chest. His breath came in strangled gulps as it had on that morning in France when he had struggled not to breathe the fire engulfing him.
Mustn’t let the men see me like this, he thought. He shut his eyes, choked down the fear, tried to breathe slowly, fought to control his damaged legs, which wanted to run.
Puzzled by the officer’s sudden inability to speak or even move, the Finn spun around and swung his arms toward the other men, waving them off the ridge and down toward the plank road. Some of them took a few steps, unready to follow the lead of an enlisted man like themselves, especially Hakkonen.
Ripping an act of will from deep in his gut, Austin Chase beat down the impulse to turn tail in front of the men and run. Leaning on his cane with one hand, he waved the men toward the road, shouting, “Go! On the double!”
Like the soldiers of a routed army throwing away their weapons, the men dropped their axes and saws and ran. The horse handler released his team from the log they were hauling and whipped them down the skid road. Above them, the tops of the towering trees reeled like drunks. Ominous cracking punctuated their groans.
Hakkonen shouted at Chase. “You better get going, Lieutenant. I don't think you can run so fast with . . . ” He nodded at Chase's cane.
“I'm not going to run,” Chase said between clenched teeth, more to himself than to Hakkonen.
Within moments the last of the men had dashed across the clearing and down the lee slope, their doughboy hats flying off in the wind. Leaning on his cane, Chase cast a last glance around and started to follow them.
At that moment two men scrambled into the clearing from where they had been working on the windward side of the ridge. Hakkonen waved them on, at the same time grabbing Chase by the arm, nearly yanking him off his feet to drag him toward the protection of the plank road.
With a crackling that started like the sound of a wood fire but quickly built into the thunder of a house tumbling down, the upper forty feet of a lone fir snapped off and toppled toward the ground.
One of the two men who had come up from below the ridge froze, staring at the treetop's gathering rush. His companion shouted at him to keep running, and showed him by example. But the first soldier, a thin, short fellow with his hat in his hand, appeared mesmerized. By the time he turned to run it was too late. With an earth-shaking “whump” the treetop hit the ground and the soldier disappeared under it.
Chase jerked his arm from Hakkonen’s grip, but as he tried to run toward the fallen soldier his cane slipped in the uneven soil and he fell headfirst onto the ground, dirt in his mouth.
“Dammit,” Hakkonen shouted over the wind, “you got to get outta here!”
Chase felt the Finn's hands under his shoulders, pulling him to his feet.
“No! Let go of me! We can't leave him here.”
“Half the damn tree fell on him. He's dead!”
Scrabbling for purchase with his cane, Chase rose and staggered across the open ground.
“Can't . . . leave . . . him.” The sight of the crashing tree had put him back in the cockpit of his falling plane. He felt the rush of wind, the flames rising higher, his uniform starting to burn. “Save him! Save him!” he cried, knowing he was talking about something more than the fallen soldier.
Hakkonen shouted, “I'll check on him! You get down to the road!”
A deep tearing sound rumbled across the clearing as a hemlock tilted over, pulling up its roots as it went, falling slowly toward the treetop that had trapped the soldier. Even as Chase and Hakkonen braced for its impact, the hemlock's crash stopped as it caught in the branches of another tree.
Chase stumbled forward, fell again, cursing. He shook off Hakkonen's grip and again pulled himself up.
Hakkonen gave up trying to turn Chase around and instead dashed ahead of him across the clearing and began to pull at one of the branches covering the pinned soldier, ignoring the tilting, precariously caught tree overhead. Chase caught up and dropped to his knees beside Hakkonen, tugging at the same branch, to no effect.
Through the limbs of the fallen tree he could see the trapped soldier, just a kid—eighteen, maybe nineteen—his face dirty, his eyes closed. Pulling together, he and Hakkonen tried to lift the branch against the dead weight of the tree.
The trapped soldier moaned.
Chase shouted, “He's alive!”
Hakkonen pointed at the hemlock suspended above them. “Get out of here! That thing’s going to give way.” But they both knew neither of them was leaving.
The Finn scrambled to his feet, grabbed a discarded ax and attacked the branch halfway along its length.
Pulling hard on the limb, Chase glanced up at the tree hanging over them, then looked at Hakkonen.
The Finn shouted “Shut up!” at the unspoken order to hurry. Relentless as a piston, he swung the ax again and again, the half-conscious soldier crying out at each blow. Finally he called to Chase, “Now, give it a try!”
Calling on what strength he could draw from his damaged legs, Chase braced himself against the ground and pulled. The limb didn’t move.
Throwing down his ax, Hakkonen jumped in beside Chase, pulling and cursing.
Caught up in the incantatory power of the woodsman’s oaths, Chase started cursing too, shouting every vulgarity he knew. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hakkonen bite his lip.
With the injured solider groaning under the limb, the wind howling over the ridgetop and an enormous tree threatening to fall on them, the big woodsman, hearing his officer swearing like a schoolboy, was struggling not to laugh.
Chase tried to force a frown but, like a bubble rising from his lungs, he laughed, cursed himself for laughing and laughed again.
Hakkonen gritted his teeth, trying to force himself to keep quiet, but couldn't hold back and snorted out loud, laughing through his nose.
Furious at themselves, the two men shouted an enormous “Hah!” that galvanized every fiber of muscle they possessed.
The branch cracked and broke.
Ignoring the wounded soldier's cries, Chase grabbed him by the shoulders, yanked him out from under the tree and struggled to throw the young man across his shoulders.
“Here, let me get him, Lieutenant. You can't—”
Chase shoved Hakkonen away and staggered to his feet. Bent nearly double under the soldier's weight, he lurched across the clearing.
Hakkonen grabbed the lieutenant's cane and tried to hand it to Chase.
“Screw the cane,” Chase muttered, stumbling forward.
After a few uneven steps, Chase's legs gave out and he fell to his knees. Hakkonen thrust a shoulder under the injured man and tried to take him from Chase's shoulders.
Chase elbowed him away. “I've got him,” he grunted, trying to rise to his feet. Though he would not give up the wounded soldier, he allowed Hakkonen's shoulder to slip under his own and lift him up.
With Chase carrying the young man across his shoulders and Hakkonen half-carrying Chase, they advanced like a broken insect, struggling to get out from under the shadow of the half-fallen tree. Neither of them looked up. There was nothing they could do about the danger of being crushed except to drop the kid and run, and that question had already been settled.
Wondering at every step if they were to be smashed beneath a falling hemlock, they reached the shelter of the trees on the far side of the clearing. Even then, Chase refused Hakkonen's pleas to give up the injured soldier. Together they scrambled down the lee slope, Chase by turns carrying, pushing and dragging the kid toward safety.
With a last tumble down the hillside, the three men slid to the edge of the plank road. A few of the waiting soldiers came up to meet them and Chase finally surrendered his burden to them.
Gasping for breath, their uniforms black with sweat, Chase and Hakkonen leaned back against the road cut. Above them, the trees rocked in the wind, but here the slope protected the men.
Resting against the cool dirt, struggling to catch his breath, Hakkonen turned toward the officer who had carried the injured man to safety on his own wounded legs.
Unable to speak, Chase flicked his hand toward Hakkonen, letting him know he should look at something else. Slowly, the terror that had proved a heavier burden than the injured soldier eased its grip and he blew out a long, free breath.
Hakkonen managed a smile. “Damned if you're not some lieutenant, Lieutenant.”
Chase tried to smile, but with the stimulant of danger receding, the shadow of melancholy from which he could not extricate himself, once more settled over him.