By Jan Verhoeff
When the smell of smoke assails your senses on the prairie, high winds and weather conditions become a concern, but the worst is finding who set the fire. The culprit is usually close enough to be caught in the cross hairs if you just know where to look. On that night in July, first to respond to the acrid aroma of smoke, I realized I’d have to make sure there were no victims inside Hinder Mills, before I could take time to call for back up or support.
If Mr. Beaver was inside, I’d only have a moment or two to find him before that roof came crashing down. I punched 9-1-1 and left my phone outside before I rushed into the burning building to check for people. The bed was empty and there were no bodies on the main floor. The second floor was already engulfed in flames. I took only a second to glance up the stairs before deciding I couldn’t rescue anyone up there and get out in time.
The first timbers fell in the back of the building as I reached the cell phone.
“Hinder Mills,” I screamed into the phone, the roar of the fire making it difficult to hear. “Mills Road past the cut off, I can’t find the resident on the premises.”
“They’re on the way, Gavin,” dispatch responded. “Is your partner with you?”
“No, I’d just dropped him off at home, and was riding back into town. We had just passed here on our way out from town. There was no fire when we passed, but it’s engulfed in flames now.”
“Were there lights when you passed?”
“No, and Mr. Beavers car wasn’t here either. It’s still not here.” I answered, my steps measured as I searched the circumference of the grounds.
I stopped for a moment to listen to the dispatcher pass on information. In the deafening silence between crackles from the fire I thought I heard someone calling. The aroma of gasoline was strong where I stood. I looked around.
Just beyond the fence sat the roof of an old well house. As I walked closer the voice was louder.
“Mr. Beavers?” I called out.
“In the well.”
I heard his voice and reached for the corner of the roof. With everything I had, I lifted the well house roof and pushed it aside. The stench of gasoline filled the night air, and I realized the roof had been saturated.
“What are you doing down there?” I asked, “Darma, Mr. Beavers is in the well. The roof of the well is saturated with gasoline. I need help FAST.”
“On their way Gavin, is there anything you can use to pull him out of the well? Is he okay?”
“Mr. Beavers, I’ve got to get you out of the well. Are you okay?”
“Scared and a little beat up, but I’m fine.”
The old man sounded a bit concerned but not bad. I could see from the light of the fire that he was standing on the narrow concrete edge of the well, but I couldn’t tell how thick it was or how far to water.
“Barbed wire, no rope, I’ve got a strap on my bike, not sure it’s strong enough or long enough, checking.” I talked to Darma at dispatch as I ran to the bike. “It’s long enough, I think. Hold on.”
I made a quick loop with one end of the strap and tied the other end to a fence post. When I dropped it down the shaft it was just long enough for Mr. Beavers to slip a hand through it and grip the strap. He grabbed the strap with the other hand too. I started pulling him out of the well. I’d backed up to the fence and he was still in the well. I tied off the strap, with one hand and kept pulling as I walked back to the well.
“Keep pulling.” I heard him gasp as I got closer to the well. “I’ve got a ways to go.”
I looked into the well, I could barely see him. The shadow around the well made it dark inside as the flames from the house darkened in the rolling smoke.
“Hang on Mr. Beavers.” I encouraged, still pulling.
“I’m here, Gavin.”
I heard the voice, but I didn’t look to see who was behind me. I kept pulling.
With everything I had inside I pulled on the strap that had Mr. Beavers on the other end. I felt the strength of someone behind me, but not enough to pull him out of the well. We backed up another length and I kept backing up. I heard sirens.
“Hold on Mr. Beavers,” I shouted with every breath inside me. Smoke assailed my senses and I kept pulling.
“Pull harder,” I heard him gasp from inside the well.
I gave one last tug on the rope and fell backward, under the smoke cloud. The grip I had on the strap kept me holding on. I pushed backward with my feet, still inching away from the well.
Cold water sprayed down on me as I felt myself losing consciousness. I could hear voices and I tried to call out.
“Gavin! He’s here. The line…” I could hear them talking, I was still conscious, but groggy. “In the well, help me pull him out.”
~ ~ ~
A fireman was pulling the strap loose from Gavin’s arm, and moving him to a safer location, when I arrived. When James called that he smelled smoke and Gavin had just dropped him off, I didn’t even slow down as I passed the house. I knew Gavin would find the fire first. I found myself arriving between the first responder truck and the county fire engine, in a cloud of black smoke, the kind you know was set by some stupid fool with an unlicensed gas can.
I’d skirted the scene when I saw a fireman on one knee beside my brother. The wind picked up and lifted the smoke away from the scene, just in time. The fine mist spray arching from the fire truck drifted toward me as I ran toward them.
“Gavin!” Bright orange flames danced into the darkness, lapping up the lower layers of black smoke, now lifting white clouds of steam, as the water changed forms.
“Help me!” The cry from the well was weak, barely audible. I grabbed the line and pulled with the fireman, until we saw the face of the old man who lived at Hinder Mill above the concrete casing. I held the line and the fireman moved closer to the casing and pulled the old man over.
“Gavin!” I screamed.
“Stop screaming. I can’t see, the smoke is too thick.” Gavin mumbled, “Emily, why can’t I see?”
I used the tail of my t-shirt to wipe the smoke from his eyes. “You’ll be fine. You’ve got smoke and tears in your eyes.” I sat behind him, holding him in my arms while I watched the fireman work on Mr. Beavers.
The Ambulance was not far behind. By the time they arrived most of the smoke was drifting north on the wind. Steam clouds billowed high into the sky, and Gavin’s eyes were clearing enough he could see the flames subsiding.
A fireman helped pull Mr. Beaver’s gas soaked clothing off him and wrapped him in a blanket. They’d moved him far away from the fire, behind Gavin and I. Embers from the house had blown across the well house roof and ignited it shortly after I arrived, but both Gavin and Mr. Beavers were safe.
“Emily, where’s the guy who was helping me pull Mr. Beavers out of the well?”
“The fireman?” I asked him, wondering why he’d ask the question that way.
“No, he was here before the firemen arrived. I heard him say, “I’m here Gavin.” Then I heard the sirens.” Gavin looked frightened, “I know there was someone else.”
I looked at the tracks, in the fading light, I couldn’t see much. “Gavin, I think it was the fireman.”
“No, Emily.” Gavin had that look in his eye, “There was someone else. I know there was. I heard him speak to me. He was behind me, helping pull Mr. Beavers out of the well.”
I knew there was a mystery unfolding before me, but I had to take care of Gavin first. I looked around at the firemen working to put out the fire. There were no extra people, and no one out of uniform.
EMT’s loaded Mr. Beaver into the Ambulance and one of them came to help me with Gavin. He washed Gavin’s eyes with a saline solution and checked his vital signs. Everything was good and his oxygen levels were coming up, so the EMT moved him further away from the fire to the seat of my truck. We stood there waiting for further instructions, while they checked him out again.
I called Mom on the cell phone and told her Gavin was safe, but he’d been called in on the Ambulance radio. I knew she’d hear the call from the paper. It was no surprise when I realized she was walking up behind me as I hung up the phone.
“Is he okay?”
“Yup, I’m fine. Mom, there was someone here before the fire trucks pulled in. He was helping me pull Mr. Beavers from the well, but he’s obviously gone now.” Gavin insisted, “Emily doesn’t believe me, but he’s probably who set the fire.”