By JIM WEBER
Dispatch crackles over the cruiser’s radio: brushfire on Ranch Road 580.
Frank lights a cigarette, takes a deep pull. His shift over, he listens, unobligated, as Latimer asks dispatch to confirm the fire’s location.
He stares through the windshield at his house, a squat brick ranch. Scuffed exterior and summer-fried lawn identical to the others on the block. The front window drapes are pulled back, giving the house a grin, like an old friend commiserating: Seven years left on your note, Frank. Three years short of retirement. Tough math.
I’ll sell the place when I retire, Frank thinks, not for the first time. Move to Kerrville, or Boerne, or Bandera. Find a part-time security job to help make ends meet. Latimer talks up New Mexico. Strikes Frank as too far from central Texas, too far from the remains of the life he and Lizzie shared before she passed.
Drapes back means his daughter Caitlyn is up and getting ready for work. Two weeks before she’s off to college in Austin. Who knows if she comes back? Live your entire life in a place, can come to hate it.
“Ranch Road at the marker,” dispatch advises Latimer.
Frank mutters a curse over an exhale of cigarette smoke. Fire at the historical marker means a fire near the ancient oak that Lizzie loved so much. Shared memory of her fondness for the tree is about the only thing Caitlyn and Frank’s mother-in-law, Mary Alice, don’t argue about. As opposed to the historical marker. Perfect symbol of the chasm between the two women. Each of them claims it. Caitlyn as proof of historical injustices, her grandmother as heritage.
The state erected the marker in 1967 to commemorate a child born in 1858—the first white baby in what became Lampasas County. Damn thing just happens to stand ten yards over the county line on the San Saba side. Hard to get anywhere worth going in the two counties without driving by it. Fire at the marker means multiple responders: each county’s sheriff department, each one’s fire and rescue. The Lampasas city police, for sure. Tad too far for San Saba PD.
Frank hears the sirens now, out of the northwest and the east, like ghosts summoning each other.
He studies his house. Who’ll open the drapes when Caitlyn’s gone?
“Need to show the world we’re here, Sugar,” Lizzie used to tell Caitlyn, every day for almost five years, from the week they brought the baby home right through to the end. After Frank and Mary Alice brought Lizzie back from the hospital so she could die in her own bed. Do something every day and a person remembers, especially a child. Morning after Lizzie’s funeral, five-year-old Caitlyn was at the foot of the bed tugging the covers. “C’mon Daddy. We need to show the world we’re here.”
The cruiser’s dashboard clock reads 6:47 a.m. Frank looks down the street at the fourth in the line of copycat houses. Mary Alice will show by seven, parading down the street, high pile of hair bouncing. Blond out of a bottle these days. She’ll have prayed herself a bright smile but will spark at Caitlyn’s first slight, real or imagined. Faith only gets you so far. Caitlyn will give her grandmother back as good as she gets, real or imagined.
It happened so slowly, Caitlyn and Mary Alice drifting from shared loss to bitterness they vented at each other. Frank constantly in the middle, dumbfounded by the heat their arguments generated.
Should’ve done something when they first began to spat: Caitlyn, just thirteen, declaring herself done with church-going and meaning it. Mary Alice outraged, as much at Frank as at Caitlyn, as if he had the power to compel belief and simply refused to wield it. Should’ve told Mary Alice to back off the year she spent carping at Caitlyn after the girl decided to dye her hair: green, brown, red, and white, by turn, to match the seasons. Or he could have told Caitlyn to get over herself. Either way, felt like choosing sides. He constantly asked himself: what would Lizzie do? Even tried praying on it. Nothing came to him. So that’s what he did: nothing.
The radio squawks. Dispatch declares the fire a three-alarmer. Means worse than a brushfire. Cue the circus. Newspapers from both counties. The TV crew out of Killeen.
B.D. Dubois comes across the radio. “Responding.” Dispatch acknowledges.
Frank grins. The fire will be the new sheriff’s first taste of county competition.
He glances again at his mother-in-law’s place. Her third husband, Lucius, emerges in his tattered terry bathrobe. Mary Alice marrying that broke-down fool is a testament to loneliness.
Lucius gathering the morning paper means the man’s had his coffee. Means next person out the door will be Mary Alice, marching down the street to try to impose a regulation Hill Country breakfast on her vegetarian granddaughter. Odds of Frank getting a shower and hitting the sack without Mary Alice and Caitlyn starting in at each other? Zero. Plus, news of the fire will soon be online. Caitlyn is likely to see it first. A fire worse than a brushfire near the marker at the county line.
Near Lizzie’s oak.
“Mama loves that tree, Sugar,” Lizzie would say to Caitlyn whenever they drove by it.
“More than me?” Frank would ask.
“Most days,” Lizzie would say, squeezing Frank’s leg while rolling her eyes at Caitlyn. Their daughter would laugh once she was old enough to grasp her mother’s sense of humor.
Lizzie’s been gone thirteen years. Caitlyn is eighteen, considers herself wise to the world, but the oak at the county line near the marker remains “Mama’s tree.”
Frank stubs out his cigarette. He hits the ignition, puts the cruiser in reverse, belts it up the block and left at the corner. He hits the siren. Too bad for any neighbors still asleep. The cruiser squeals onto the ranch road.
“Unit 2 responding to county line,” he calls in. Dispatch acknowledges.
“Frank? We got this.” D.B. sounds snappish this morning.
Early returns suggest the new boss is a schedule enforcer, and Frank’s shift is over. Well, you’re not in Houston anymore, boss. Twenty-two years with the county, do as I please when wearing the uniform. Way it’s been. Way it will be.
“Practically there,” Frank replies. He floors it to make his statement almost true. The cruiser roars with what sounds like delight.
The fat sun promises another scorcher. Frank flips down the visor. The cruiser races east on the ranch road, parallel to the river where it curls through grassland pockmarked by stands of live oak and cedar. Cattle raise their heads as if the passing cruiser’s flashing lights will be the sum of the day’s entertainment.
Ahead, a tube of pewter smoke scurries straight up into the pale sky.
In the rear view, a white pickup, blue roof lights flashing, charges up the road, closing the gap to Frank’s cruiser. Boss got a brand-new truck as a sign-on bonus. Folks gripe about it, polite but pointed.
Frank’s foot flexes. The cruiser hurls itself down the road and bounces over the bridge where the river makes its severe turn southeast toward Austin.
The river falls away to the right, increasingly distant from the road.
Billows of smoke sweep over the cruiser. The fire is dead ahead.
Frank presses the brakes and sidles to a stop directly across the road from Latimer’s vehicle. D.B.’s pickup careens by and slides in behind an ambulance.
Must be fifty acres aflame, the fire jumping everything around it like a bloodthirsty mob.
Frank steps out of the cruiser into a roar of sound that is everything and nothing: snap and pop of the blaze, hurricane rush of wind, waterfall cascades of the fire hoses, and the pinball voices of frantic humanity. Inferno. The word pops into his mind.
Latimer emerges from the smoke, face grimed. “Can’t stay away from the fun, eh Frank?” He screams to be heard, the sound a mismatch to his linebacker-sized frame.
Latimer’s grin suggests the deputy is having a tad too much fun. Guy’s a rule bender, though Frank can never predict which direction the bend will go. Uses too much muscle on a suspect one day, lets another guy slide the next. Opposite of Frank, who takes comfort in adhering to procedure. But when pressed, Latimer always has his reasons. After ten years, the men trust each other.
Frank crosses the road, watches the flames leap into the sky and tumble back to earth. With each rise and fall the blaze consumes another swath of grassland and runt brush. A line of firefighters is digging a trench just east of the base of the fire, two hundred yards from Lizzie’s tree. Thankfully, the fire keels and twists as if determined to spread west and southwest, away from the tree.
The Lampasas County website claims the oak is three hundred years old. Calls it “a sentinel of time.” Five stories high and practically carved into the sky, it dominates the broad run of grassland extending from the road to the river. More than its graceful power and presence, the tree’s endurance appealed to Lizzie. “Been here long before us,” she once told Frank. “Be here long after we’re gone.”
Damn if Frank can tell who’s in charge. At least two fire crews are on the scene, plus EMS personnel from the two counties. A mob of law enforcement, doing little more than watching the fire and the dozen or so civilian gawkers.
Frank rejoins Latimer as D.B. walks up. The boss is the only one of the three wearing his Stetson. Matter of time, Frank thinks, before a gust sends it flying.
Latimer bellows a status update. D.B. is a half-foot shorter than either of his deputies and rocks on the heels of what look like new boots. Alligator, Frank guesses. The boss absorbs Latimer’s report with his eyes fixed on Frank. A schedule lecture will certainly be forthcoming.
“Set up a roadblock and have dispatch post a detour at the bridge,” D.B. shouts.
Frank spots D.B.’s Lampasas County peer a hundred feet up the road, barking her own set of instructions, notices that D.B. sees her too.
The sheriff leans in on Frank. “Go home, Frank. Get some sleep.” He sweeps his arm toward the blaze. “May need you to do a double shift tomorrow.” He slips away into the smoke to compare notes with his counterpart the way those with authority are trained to do.
“C’mon, Frank, let’s set up that roadblock,” Latimer says.
Frank shakes his head: Lizzie’s tree is out of harm’s way. “All yours, pal. I’m heading home in a bit.” He watches Latimer carefully reverse his cruiser down the road to where the smoke thins, then turn sharply across the road to block the curious from getting too close.
The wind swirls thick blankets of smoke, and for a moment Frank can’t see a thing. His chest contracts, and he starts to cough. The wind swirls again and the wall of smoke envelops Latimer and the vehicles down the road.
Ahead, along the side of the road, Frank recognizes a green pickup with a San Saba County seal on its door. The truck is boxed in by a fire engine, an ambulance, and a Lampasas city police patrol car. Frank walks to it through a wedge of smoke.
Everyone in two counties calls Willis and Charlie “the boys.” They’d married sisters the same summer, fathered a daughter apiece, and divorced their respective wives after five years. They drive the roads for San Saba County, cutting cedar and brush, patching potholes, hauling roadkill. Work, they call it, but the boys love it, posting what they get up to on social media. Ten thousand followers. Not bad for a pair of central Texas lifers.
“We called this baby in,” Willis shouts as he shakes Frank’s hand. With a nod he directs attention to Charlie, twenty yards away, filming the blaze with his smartphone. “We’re streaming live.”
Frank glances at Lizzie’s oak and chews on his bottom lip. D.B. is just up the road. Bound to chew me out, he thinks, for letting Charlie get so close to the flames.
“Be careful there, Charlie,” he bellows, even though it’s plain he can’t be heard.
“Already roaring when we came by,” Willis said as if Frank had asked. “Must’ve been a welding torch. Acetylene or something like.”
“What are you talking about?”
Willis points along the road to where a metal pole topped with a rectangular plaque lies on the pavement behind Charlie. “Me and Charlie’s theory. Told your new boss and that Lampasas sheriff.”
“Well now, dammit,” Frank says. He walks over to examine the marker.
“Hey there, Frank,” Charlie shouts over his shoulder. “Some shit, huh?”
“Stay smart, Charlie,” Frank calls out. “You jump, that fire comes back at ya.”
Frank squats over the pole; its bottom edge is blackened and jagged. The heat of the fire puffs against his back. He runs his hand over the plaque’s raised metal text that trumpets the memory of a white baby born in 1858. He wonders, did it strike folks as out of place from the day it was erected?
He stands. A part of him is glad the marker’s gone. A way of seeing the world better off forgotten. Of course, that’s hardly the problem, now.
The previous Sunday, he tried to broker a truce between his daughter and her grandmother. Didn’t want Caitlyn heading to college with the way things were, because who knew if she’d ever return. Burgers and sausages on the grill, a jug of sun-brewed sweet tea, and a twelve-pack of cold beers. Used his day off to drive to Austin to fetch vegetarian patties for Caitlyn. Got off to a decent start, the two women in the kitchen making coleslaw. A family recipe, handed down to Mary Alice, on to Lizzie, and then Caitlyn. Frank was at the grill, sipping a beer and ignoring Lucius, when he heard the raised voices.
“Oh sure, to hell with the native peoples having babies around here for thousands of years,” Caitlyn snapped at her grandmother as Frank entered the kitchen. “Tell you what, somebody ought to get rid of that fucking marker!”
“You watch your mouth, young lady!” Mary Alice barked.
Lucius had trailed Frank into the house and made his usual unhelpful contribution. “Like to see you try, missy. You’d be digging at it for days,” he declared.
Mary Alice added a mighty amen, but the sparkle of victory brightened Caitlyn’s eyes.
“You are such a dumbass, Lucius,” she’d said. “I can get any of a half-dozen boys I know with welding tools, have that shitty sign down in two minutes.”
Now, the marker smolders at Frank’s feet. Caitlyn, as good as her word, he figures. Soon to be in a world of shit. As if on cue, D.B. is at Frank’s shoulder.
“Me and Rawlings agree,” the boss shouts, referring to his Lampasas County counterpart. “Arson, for sure. Any ideas who might’ve done it?”
“It’s a Lampasas County marker,” Frank says.
D.B. scoffs. “Stands—stood—on our side of the county line.”
Frank wonders if Rawlings made that point to D.B, one sheriff to another, as if doing him a favor. Smart woman. Knows any investigation won’t just be about who did it. Quickly turn to the why. Politics. Way the world is now. “State put it up. State maintains it. Let it be State’s problem.”
D.B. looks at him as if he suspects laziness.
“Jesus, will you look at that,” Willis shouts somewhere behind Frank and D.B.
The head of the fire shoots into the sky like a horse rearing on its hind legs. D.B. keeps talking, something about wanting to build a strong relationship between the counties, but Frank is already on the move. He yanks Charlie by the collar as a column of fire plummets from the sky and cracks like a bullwhip toward them. The men topple onto the road. The tips of Frank’s boots are scorched.
“Good grief,” Charlie says. He smiles, holding his phone high. “That went out live.”
Willis and D.B. help Frank and Charlie to their feet.
“There she goes again,” Willis says.
The fire flares another orange and red tower that spins on itself as if considering what it most wishes to burn.
“Wind’s changing direction.” Charlie sounds like a neutral fan disinterested in a ballgame’s outcome.
D.B. declares it’s time to retreat. Willis and Charlie hustle after the sheriff toward a cluster of vehicles parked a safe distance from the blaze.
Frank doesn’t move. He thinks about long-forgotten training. Chains—he recalls the word firefighters use to measure the distance a fire might jump. He doesn’t remember the calculation: Wind speed. Air moisture. Other factors. Can’t recall if he ever knew it.
The fire makes its choice. Its flanks flash across the trench line dug at the eastern edge of the blaze. In seconds, the fire’s erstwhile base is its new head. It sweeps across the open pasture.
“Please, God, no,” Frank says. The thunderous inferno drowns out his prayer.
He slips around a squad of firefighters redeploying their hose and cuts through a second team furiously digging a new line of battle. He stops when a wall of heat insists he stop.
Flames encircle the massive trunk of the three-hundred-year-old tree. The first of its elegant branches catch.
D.B. appears again at Frank’s side. “Dammit, Frank! Let’s go!” he shrieks.
“There’s no saving it,” Frank mumbles. “No saving it.”
A fierce gust carries away the sheriff’s Stetson. He clutches at the air as the hat spins toward the heart of the fire. “Move, Frank, goddammit!”
Frank lets his boss stumble him back down the road. D.B. deposits him with the boys and is gone.
Charlie is no longer filming, and Willis is scrolling through his social media feeds. “Quite an uproar about that marker coming down,” he remarks.
Frank’s phone vibrates in his trouser pocket, and he realizes it’s been doing so for a while. He has fourteen messages: Caitlyn and Mary Alice, one after the other, like dual sonar pings searching for the same target.
Their first texts are identical. “Fire at the county line? You there?”
Caitlyn: “How bad is it?”
Mary Alice: “Fire bad?”
Caitlyn: “I’m calling in sick.”
Mary Alice: “Tell your daughter she needs to go to work.”
Caitlyn: “Boys are streaming the fire. Looks bad.”
Mary Alice: “Idiots filming a fire. Serve them right to get scorched.”
Caitlyn: “Daddy, I’m so sorry.”
Mary Alice: “News saying arson? Lord, no.”
Mary Alice: “Frank?”
On the far side of the blaze, the enduring oak is completely consumed by flames. There are more sirens. Seems to Frank that’s all he’s heard since Lizzie died.
A crowd of bystanders surges forward, people Frank’s known all his life marveling at the tree’s demise. A spasm of rage flashes down his spine and he closes his eyes for a moment to let the urge to violence pass. Someone grabs his arm.
“Heads up. Caitlyn and Mary Alice here,” Latimer says. He points out Frank’s mother-in-law amid a second cluster of civilians.
“Came in separate vehicles.” Latimer gestures in the direction of the roadblock. “She’s pretty upset. Kept saying it’s her fault, that she’s sorry.”
“That’s because she did it,” Frank says. It feels like his own confession. “Or got someone to do it.” Which Latimer do we get today? The enforcer, or the rule bender?
Latimer gives him a hard stare. “Think straight, Frank. Mary Alice was just up in my grill, hissing about Caitlyn and Ritchie Estevez. He’s a good kid. Family are good people.”
Rule-bender Latimer today, Frank thinks. Like always, the man has his reasons. And he’s right about Ritchie Estevez. Nice kid. Took Caitlyn to the junior prom. Mary Alice remains convinced it cost her granddaughter being homecoming queen the next year. Misses the point: Caitlyn doesn’t give a shit if it did. She called her grandmother a bigot. Misses the point: Mary Alice’s biases aren’t toward creed or color, just social standing. Ritchie’s family may run San Saba’s leading auto-body shop but that falls short of Mary Alice’s standards.
Frank glances at Mary Alice holding forth in the crowd behind him. Won’t be possible to keep this quiet.
Latimer seems to be thinking along with him. “Made more than clear to your mother-in-law, she keeps her mouth shut. And muzzles that jackass husband of hers.” Latimer leans close. “You can make this go away.”
Frank shakes his head. “Boss is already calling it arson. Knows the marker was on our side of the county line.”
“Jesus, Frank. Persons, unknown, cut down a state sign. That’s vandalism. Persons unknown panicked when sparks lit the grass. No intent. Can’t be arson.” Latimer sounds as if he’s practicing a speech for D.B.
Frank looks back toward the ruination of the fire and sees D.B headed for them. He tries to pull away; Latimer holds him fast. “D.B.’s got two boys. What do think he’d do in your shoes? Or that gal running the show in Lampasas?”
“Doesn’t make it right. We’re supposed to do what’s right.”
Latimer releases Frank’s arm. “You know what’s right.” He moves to intercept their boss.
Frank pushes through the crowd, ignoring the riot of questions and speculation thrown at him by folks convinced he has answers. Mary Alice’s voice pierces the air. “Frank! Frank! Frank!” He keeps moving.
Arriving at the nest of police and emergency vehicles, Caitlyn is suddenly there in front of him. She leans against his chest. “It is my fault, Daddy.”
Frank stands his daughter up straight. Two weeks, she’ll be off to Austin. But for now, today, she’s here. He stoops a little to catch her teary eyes. “Stop. Gonna have a word with Ritchie’s father, make it okay. Just don’t you speak of it, you hear me? Never. Not one word to anyone.”
“But Mama’s tree,” Caitlyn splutters.
For once, Franks knows what Lizzie would say. Knows how she’d say it. “Just a tree, Sugar. Just a tree.”
Jim Weber received a BA in history from Connecticut College and a law degree from the Catholic University of America. He lives in Austin, Texas where he is at work on a collection of short stories. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine and East By Northeast.