A Western 1940s tale of love in a fire lookout.


Athe truck ground to a stop and she turned off the engine, a deep quiet settled over the mountain top. Suddenly, he wished she wasn’t there. She appeared to be arranging something inside the truck. He waited and looked down from the catwalk of his fire lookout. Then she unfolded herself from the cab. Long legs, he thought. Very long legs. She emerged holding a wicker basket and turned to grab a canvas rucksack from the bed of the truck.

“Need a hand?” he called down.

“Nope. Think I got it,” she replied.

Okay, he said to himself. An independent woman, bent to her own ways—self-minded. This could be interesting.

She ascended the single stairway, her long legs gobbling up steps two at a time.

“Hi,” he said, putting on his best smile and hoping for an easy opening.

“Hi yourself,” she spat back, extending her hand. No denying it, she was a handsome woman—not what he had expected of a seasonal Forest Service dispatcher. When she sat down, she took off her straw sun bonnet and shook out long strands of stunning red hair, the kind that can look—depending on the light—the color of copper, red, amber or any shade in between.

“That it?” she said as she nodded toward the Osborne Fire Finder perched on its pedestal at the center of the room. It was clear she knew what it was, and he took her question as a mild challenge, maybe just hoping he would rise to it. He didn’t.

What followed was a clumsy exchange that reminded him why she was here: to discuss a fire he had been working up on the other side of Benton Ridge and the “legals” he had assigned to it, meaning latitude and longitude, township and range and finally, the azimuth from the lookout to the fire, in this case 11.5 miles.

It wasn’t the biggest blaze he’d seen since taking post at the Rampage Mountain fire lookout, but it was big enough to be a reminder that even for all its wetness, northwestern Montana was not immune to significant burning. He’d been distracted earlier while recording the legals. News had come through the No. 9 phone line that the Allies had launched an invasion on the beaches of Normandy—and he’d stumbled through his notations as he pondered what this meant for the war.

She had been on shift that day down at the district office dispatch center and took his report.

“They were wrong, you know,” she said, referring to the coordinates. “And I got some heat for turning them into the fire officer without verifying your legals. It was your mistake and caused some bad feelings between me and my supervisor.”

It was true that the coordinates that he called in were flawed, caused largely by the fact that he could not actually see the base of the fire because it was on the other side of the ridge, could not even determine fuel type. Over the two days he tracked the intermittent smoke that puffed up now and then. He debated whether or not to call it in because he kept getting conflicting degree reads from his Osborne. After all, there had been no recent lightning strikes and no other obvious source of ignition—Benton Ridge being buried deep into the far forest. Plus, he was new to his job and eager to cement some credibility with the fire officer. Making it worse, the small crew of smokechasers was unable to locate the fire after two days of stumbling around the woods. But he had called it in anyway.

“Is that why you drove all the way up here? To dress me down over the Benton Fire?” he asked, matching her heat.

“Nope, just wanted to see who you were. You know, go to the source. Get
the facts.”

Then, she added: “I knew you wore glasses. Thought there might have been some vision issues.”

“How did you know I wore glasses?”

“I saw your photograph paper-clipped to your personnel file.”

“What? You were looking in my personnel file?”
he thundered.

“I have a girlfriend in the district office. Works in personnel. She has some horses and we go for long rides outside of her folks’ place down the valley. We talk a lot. I told her about the incident with Benton Ridge.” Then she paused. “I keep things to myself.”

“Look. If you have a beef with my job performance—or my vision—take it up with my supervisor. He had no problems with my sighting. Even praised me for spotting that fire when others hadn’t. Otherwise, let us just have it out right here.” He folded his arms across his chest.

She slid across the cramped lookout cab, all 225 square feet of it, found one of the two wooden chairs to settle into, crossed her legs and fixed a long look at him, saying nothing. Each of them held to a stare. Before today, she had been a faceless voice on the end of a No. 9 phone line. Now she was anchored in his lookout with a mission. Or perhaps not. He sensed it was more than just Benton Ridge. To shift the narrative, he said, “I still have some hot coffee. Want some?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

He explained his botched legals and she defended her haughtiness in light of a strained relationship with her supervisor that kept her on the edge of knowing if she had a job or not. They were two strangers on the mountaintop struggling to find their footing with their respective lives and responsibilities.

“Got a boyfriend?” he asked out of the blue, seeing no ring on her finger. In ordinary times it would have been a bold question, overly penetrating. Amid the uncertainties of wartime, though, it was a common question murmured among young couples looking at the short end of their 20s, feeling the dread of war.

“Had one. Killed at Anzio,” she said. “Had another one, too. Childhood chum. We exchanged letters after he decided to go off and win the war. Lost track of him after the letters stopped coming. He was with the 163 third Montana National Guard, 3rd battalion, in New Guinea. I even posted them air mail in hopes that they would make their way to him out there in that
big ocean, but… “You?”

He did not know how to answer this—what was she getting at? There had been high school sweethearts and all, mostly brother-sister friendships, an extension of grammar school playground kiss-and-tell stuff.

“We all have some stories. Don’t we?” he said.

After a while she left, her Ford pickup bump, bumping down the road until the thick stand of Douglas Fir gobbled it up.

Six days later, the phone line jingled two long rings and one short ring. He slipped the earpiece off its hook and pressed it to his ear. It was her. The lookout’s communication was a holdover from the ’20s, de rigueur in its day but out of place with the newer telephone systems. The trouble was, parts for the newer switchboard-based phones had been commandeered by the War Department leaving several of the district’s fire lookouts to rely on the clumsy crank phones. Two long cranks and one short was the code—or number—for Rampage Mountain Lookout. The district dispatcher: one short, one long and one short, as posted on the faded cardboard call card next to his speaker mouthpiece.

“Need some fresh milk up there?” said the voice at the other end.

Up there meant, for her part, the bone-rattling ride up the two-track road that wound around Rampage Mountain until it crested the final ridge to the lookout, elevation: 5,669 feet. Thirteen miles. No matter the weather, it was always a challenging journey. She sounded game for it.

From time to time, as the summer lingered on, she would visit the lookout. There, on the catwalk, they would lean back in the two wooden chairs against the low walls of the window frame and tell stories. And laugh. They both looked back on the Benton Ridge incident, teasing each other. Her visits were more frequent now, punctuated with deep stories of their previous lives. Childhood adventures. Their families. Even some tears. Sometimes she would bring dinner. Other times he would cook fire lookout meals, usually canned vegetables and venison steaks. Everyone knew that lookouts would harvest a wily whitetail out of season to supplement their dreary diet. Nobody seemed to care. She came and went like that, bringing picnic baskets to dine on and his mail from the district office, then at the end of the day, point her truck down the rugged road for home.

He told her how he tried to join the Army but was rejected because of a fused spine from an early childhood surgery, so very long ago that he only had memories of the ghastly smell of ether. The Marines and the Navy had said no as well. It turned out that the Great Northern was hiring conductors on their Empire Builder line between Havre and Spokane. There was an acute manpower shortage during the war and he could work as much as he wanted and took on hours and shifts that would enable him to take leave in the summer and work for the Forest Service. His first seasonal job was working on a trail crew on the Kootenai National Forest. His back nagged him all summer. The next year, 1943, he took a position as a fire lookout at Mount Baldy, outside of Eureka. This season, he found himself on Rampage Mountain Lookout, overlooking Hungry Horse Reservoir. He liked the work and the lookout because you could drive to it rather than make a long and tedious hike to it like at Baldy. Sure, there was some labor involved, not unlike trail maintenance: hiking up and down the phone line corridor, climbing trees, replacing insulators, splicing broken lines, cutting trees off the No. 9 wire—stuff his back could handle.

As for her, she had landed in Hungry Horse after a stint as a waitress at the beanery in the Milwaukee Depot in Missoula. That was after her parents had both died suddenly in ’41, prompting her to sell their house, buy a used 1939 Ford truck split window model, and seek a career. Not content with serving rude railroad workers, she used whatever family connections she had to secure a seasonal job as dispatcher with the Forest Service on the Flathead National Forest. It was a job that came available when most of the men on the district enlisted after Pearl. Knowing that she had to prove herself capable, and hoping for a permanent position with the district, she overthought and overachieved, causing the early tension with her supervisor who thought little of women dispatchers. Most young men her age in the district office, and just about everywhere else it seemed, had left for the service. The home front, for her, meant dingy saloons in Martin City, Coram and Hungry Horse filled with equally dingy men. There were infrequent trips to Kalispell for movie matinees with a few girlfriends. There were letters from her only sister back in Duluth where she worked in a ball bearing factory. They brimmed with bountiful descriptions of the Victory Garden she and her husband tended. There were the quintessential questions about how life was way out there in Montana since she had moved after their parents died. Have you made lots of new friends? Have you met any lumberjacks or ranchers? She tried not to think about how unfulfilling it all was.

The lookout became their rendezvous place for the remainder of the season. It was a place of solace for two young folks buffeted with headlines of the war. It was a time when it seemed even the earth beneath them was shifting in alarming ways. She would come and go like that, bringing newspapers and food. Then, at the end of the day she rumbled down the road, bound for home. As the summer weeks drew on, she often returned to the lookout on her days off. They eased into a comfortable amalgam. He pointed out all the key landmarks in view of his lookout and all the native wildflowers in great profusion everywhere; she filled him in on current happenings down the valley: war bond drives, casualty lists in local newspapers, progress in Normandy by Allied forces. But more and more, they just talked about themselves.

As the season wound down, the wildflowers dried up and the air adopted a nip. After gaining force in July, the Benton Fire had fizzled, now just a scar on the land. Her visits had become more frequent. There had been minimal lightning activity that season but he was able to proudly call in one “smoke” on Gabby Mountain, which had turned out to be a singular burning snag so high near the tree line that it threatened nothing more than rocks in an avalanche chute. The district didn’t even dispatch a hand crew, but still he felt he had erased any memories of his Benton Ridge mishap, now many weeks in the past.

Then it was time to close up. The larch trees were slipping into their annual golden cloak and dressed the slopes of the forest with welcome color change. Bull elk began their rut and whistled lustily, their bugles echoing across the valleys. As he prepared the shutters for the coming winter, the phone rang. Would he like some last company? She could bring some home- baked lasagna if that suited him.

This time she stayed the night.

Next morning, she helped him load some of his personal gear into her truck to take back to the district office for him in preparation for his check-out. Many weeks earlier he had signed a contract with the Great Northern to return to his route on the Empire Builder. As her truck rattled down the road one last time, he felt a stone-cold chill ripple across his back. He pulled the collar of his mackinaw up around his neck and wrapped his arms around himself as if to hold something in. Fall was coming.

Four generations deep in Montana’s history and culture, Michael Ober is a recently retired professor emeritus from Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana. During his 40-year career as Director of Library Services, he also taught English and Montana history. He also worked for 44 years as a seasonal ranger and wildland firefighter in Glacier National Park, and his freelance and professional writing has appeared in numerous regional and national publications.

Halle Hauer is a Bozeman-based graphic designer and illustrator, drawing inspiration from the stunning scenery and diverse activities abundant in Montana.