Fire on the Mountain (novel)

Fire on the Mountain (novel)

Infobox Book |
name = Fire on the Mountain
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = The Dial Press first edition cover
author = Edward Abbey
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
subject =
genre = Western
publisher = Dodd, Mead and Company
release_date = 1962
media_type = Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
pages = 211 pp
isbn = ISBN 0-8263-0457-5
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Fire on the Mountain" is a 1962 novel by Edward Abbey. It was Abbey's third published novel and followed "Jonathan Troy" and "The Brave Cowboy".

The hero of the story is John Vogelin, a New Mexico rancher whose land is about to be condemned by the United States Air Force, who want to use his land to expand a bombing range. He is the last holdout among the several people whose land the Air Force wants, and he refuses to move. The story of his resistance to being thrown off his land and his tragic death is told through the eyes of his grandson, who is visiting the ranch for the summer.

Plot summary

Abbey includes the following paragraph to introduce this book:

The story which follows was inspired by an event which took place in our country not many years ago. However, it is a work of fiction and any resemblance to living persons or actual places is accidental.

Billy Vogelin Starr returns to his beloved New Mexico after having spent the previous nine months at a school in the East. His grandfather, John Vogelin, is driving Billy back to his Box V Ranch after picking him up in El Paso. Billy has one thought during the drive, he wants to see Lee Mackie II, who he considers the finest man alive and his own personal role model.

But when they reach the ranch Billy learns there are problems. They stop at Hayduke's place -- a name that would be used again by Abbey -- (a combination general store, post office and bus stop) for refreshments before returning to the ranch. Hayduke tells Vogelin he's received more letters from the government.

A cowboy comes up as they are preparing to leave.

"I hear you declared war on the United States Government, John", the cowboy said.

"No, they declared war on me."

They discuss Lee Mackie, wondering which side he will come down on. John thinks Lee will support him, but isn't certain. They return to the ranch and John points to Thieves Mountain, telling Billy that's where they will be tomorrow trying to track down a wayward pony. Just then three Air Force jets fly over. Billy points in wonder, but John has a different reaction.


Cruzita Peralta is waiting for them at the ranch. She's John's housekeeper and cook. She and her husband, Eloy, help maintain the ranch. Eloy is away repairing a fence that was knocked down by an Army jeep. When Eloy returns he tells John and Billy about an encounter he had with government officials. Three cows escaped through the gate they left open.

Billy goes to bed but has trouble sleeping. Eventually he hears 34-year-old Lee Mackie has finally arrived but can't make out what the two men are discussing. He sneaks up to listen. Lee is trying to convince the old man that he can't fight the U.S. government and win. Mackie urges John to take the $65,000 and sell the ranch. John says never. When the talk dies down, John hears Billy moving behind the door. That's when Billy is finally reunited with his hero. While out looking for the wayward pony the following day the three of them come across a sick calf. During the attempt to help him, John collapses. The old man insists he's all right, but Lee clearly doubts it. John heads off in one direction and Lee and Billy another, all looking for the pony on the mountain. On the journey up the mountain Lee and Billy cross the path of a Jeep with three soldiers in it and a coyote tied to the hood. They have clearly been hunting. Lee asks them if they have seen the horse they are looking for? The soldiers respond with rudeness and jokes. They refuse to answer Lee's question and eventually threaten him with the shotgun if he and the boy don't move aside so the Jeep can pass.

After Billy provides a distraction, Lee lunges forward and takes the shotgun from the soldier. Lee forces the other soldiers to hand over their guns and then asks them his question again. They claim not to have seen the horse. He hesitates, but decides to let them pass. But he refuses to give them back their guns. And then he demands they take the coyote off the hood too.

After the soldiers have left, they roll the dead coyote down the mountain and bury the guns, promising to pick them up on their way down and turn them into the police later. They continue up the mountain and eventually reach a cabin high on the mountain. John has beaten them there but there's been no sign of the lost pony. After dinner, Billy is out getting water from the stream when he comes across a lion resting on a rock above him. When the lion hears John calling out for the boy, he gets up and leaves.

The three wake when it's still dark and prepare for a new day. Lee apologizes, but he has to leave them and return to his wife and job. Billy and his grandfather search the entire next day, but can't find the horse. On the third day, they find him. He's dead. John is convinced the horse was shot before the lion tore him open. They return to the ranch, mostly in silence.

Lee tries once again to convince John to sell the ranch to the government. John wonders which side is Lee on?

Two days later Colonel Everett Stone DeSalius appears at the ranch to talk to John. He has brought a Declaration of Taking, basically saying the government can take his land over his objections for the Department of Defense, basing the decision on its vital importance to national security.

John still refuses to sell his land, not quite grasping the situation. DeSalius tells him a check for $65,000 is waiting for him at District Court and that they are standing on U.S. government property. DeSalius says they will be reasonable and give him a month to vacate their property, his home. They will also pay transportation costs for his goods and herd. The old man says no, he will not cooperate. Tells him to tear up that Declaration and that he will die on that property.

Things are quiet for the next month. Lee visits once a week and goes for long horseback rides with Billy, telling him stories of when he was a boy and how he helped defend the ranch in a raid by the Apaches. A lie, of course, but good entertainment for a long ride. Lee was there when the U.S. Marshal made his first appearance in July. He tells John that he was supposed to be off the property by today, but the judge had anticipated that he would still be there. So, the judge granted him a two-week extension. He also tells him that if the cattle are still there in two weeks, the government will remove them for him, at his expense.

John asks the marshal, Burr, how many men he'll bring next time. Burr responds with a smile, "How many you think I'll need?" John promises him he'll need more. And that he'll kill the first man who touches his house. Lee once again tries to convince the old man to take the money and leave, but John shouts, "No! They'll have to carry me out of here in a box" and that he'll take a few of them with him.

Two weeks later the government drove off the cattle while the men were off getting supplies for a long siege. Eloy, who was left to guard the place, was arrested. A soldier confronts the pair and informs them what is happening. John considers fighting them and reaches for his gun, but Billy sitting next to him convinces him to wait. He promises the soldier he won't interfere in their roundup of his stock.

John tells Cruzita that he'll go into town that night and bail out Eloy. He also tells her that he wants her and Eloy to stay off the ranch until this business with the government is settled. Cruzita refuses, but when John says he won't bail out Eloy unless she agrees, she does just that. Billy realizes that he'll be next. His school reopens in three weeks and his mother had sent a letter to his grandfather.

John begins to fortify his home, preparing for battle. Both the Vogelin men wonder where Lee Mackie is. Later that night Lee arrives. John asks him to take Cruzita and Billy into town, bail out Eloy, and then put all three of them on a bus to El Paso. Better yet, take them all there himself.

Billy puts up a fight, not wanting to leave his grandfather. John instructs Lee to make sure Billy is on that train when it leaves. By the time they bailed Eloy out and drove the 60 miles to El Paso they had missed the evening train. Lee and Billy spent the night taking in the sights in Juarez before sleeping in a hotel.

In the morning, Lee puts Billy on the train and has a private chat with the porter, handing him some cash. They say their goodbyes with a promise to see each other next year, then Lee watches as the train pulls away. The two wave at each other as the train begins moving. Billy gets up and moves toward the cabin door. The porter and conductor start moving toward him. Billy then goes into the bathroom. After a few seconds, Billy exits the bathroom, pulls the emergency stop brake, opens the outer door, closes his eyes and leaps.

When he stops rolling Billy discovers he's still alive and gets up and starts running. He heads for the tall buildings of downtown El Paso, hiding in the shadows whenever he spots a police officer. He eventually finds a bus station and buys a one-way ticket back to Baker, N.M. Then he has lunch while he waits. When they reach Haydukes, Billy hides in the shop until it closes. He helps himself to the snacks in the shop, feeling a little guilty for the theft, then begins to walk toward the ranch.

As he gets close to the ranch a car approaches him. He hides in a ditch, recognizing Lee. But he also sees his grandfather, who had promised never to leave the ranch again. He realizes he must be searching for him, but it's too late. They have sped past him. He goes to the ranch and spends the night in the barn. When he wakes, he's back in his bed in the ranch house.

Billy talks to Lee and his grandfather. They tell him what a foolish thing he did and that if he ever does it again, they'll never let him return to New Mexico for the summer. John also agrees to let him stay one more week. During the following week some soldiers stop by to put U.S. Government Property signs up around the house. When they try and put one on the house, the old man puts a shotgun in one of their faces, telling him if he touches the house, he's dead.

They back down and leave, trying to avoid a confrontation. Billy goes around and removes all the signs the two had just put up.

DeSalius returns and makes John an offer. He can continue to live in his house until his death with only one condition: He must leave the house on the days they do missile testing for his own safety. John refuses to sign the agreement. DeSalius tries to urge him to reconsider, promising this is his last chance. John Vogelin says no.

That night Lee arrives and tries to convince John to take the offer. He won't budge. Lee doesn't give up, arguing long into the night trying to make the old man see reason. The next day John tells Billy he's going home that night. And they're putting him on an airplane, so he can't jump out of that. The rest of the day John walks through his house, inspecting the fortifications and his storage of food. That's when they hear many cars approaching the house.

It's the marshal, Burr, and he's brought eight other men with him, all carrying rifles. John asks his grandson to sneak out of the house and go to the pickup truck and get the handgun out of the glove compartment. Billy agrees. John and the marshal begin to chat as Billy gets inside the cab of the truck. When he looks inside the glove compartment, the gun is not there. Billy realizes his grandfather had fooled him to get him out of the way. He tries to make a dash back to the house, but one of the deputies stops him and forces him inside the back seat of one of their cars.

Burr fails to convince John to give up. Billy opens the door and tries to make a run for the house, but the deputy grabs him and throws him back in the car, then threatens to handcuff him. Burr returns to his men and tells them they'll have to use force. He tells them to prepare the tear gas grenades and get the boy out of the line of fire.

John has retreated inside the house. The deputies move in. As Burr distracts Vogelin in front, one of the deputies sneaks around the back and climbs the roof. A shot rings out, missing Burr. The deputy on the roof drops a tear gas grenade down the chimney shaft.

John refuses to leave the house, despite the tear gas. When Burr approaches the house, a second shot is fired, missing him again. The deputies decide to wait him out, letting him breathe in the gas. When the deputy watching him relaxes a little, Billy makes another break for the house. Two other deputies catch him, bring him back and handcuff him to the hitching rail. After more tear gas and more time, Burr tries again for the house. This time the bullet lands at his feet. He returns, orders a deputy to take Billy away from the scene, then tells the other deputies to forget about the gas and to put some tracers into the house, hoping to burn the old man out.

That's when Lee Mackie arrives with Billy's Aunt Marian. He drives his car between the deputies and the house. He orders the deputies to release Billy, who is scooped up by his aunt. Lee talks briefly with the marshal, then takes his ax and heads for the house, calling out to John. John tells him to stop, Lee says he won't. John shoots over his head, but Lee keeps going. John opens the front door and points his rifle right at Lee, who tells him to go ahead and shoot. Finally, John gives up, calling Lee a traitor.

Billy tells Lee that he's a traitor and never to talk to him again.

Three days later the old man has disappeared. He was moved to Aunt Marian's house, but he was miserable living away from his ranch. Before leaving in the middle of the night, he visits Billy. He asks Billy if he can guess where he's going. Billy thinks about it and then says yes. He makes Billy promise not to tell them where he went.

The next morning the search begins. Billy doesn't tell them he knows where the old man went. The old man's truck is found in El Paso and Lee tries to help them with the search. Eventually, he decides John must have returned to the ranch and decides to go out there. He takes Billy with him. Marshal Burr stops them as they are entering, but decides to let them search if they promise to be out by sunset.

Lee and Billy spot John's tracks and then Lee confesses he too knows where the old man went. They're going up to the cabin on the mountain to talk to him. Eventually they have to leave Lee's car and climb Thieves Mountain on foot. They hear an Army Jeep following them, but decide there is little they can do about it. They have to climb over some trees that have recently been chopped down to block the Jeep trail.

They reach the cabin and discover John Vogelin sleeping against the cabin wall. Only, he's not asleep. The climb up the mountain and the work in cutting down the trees killed him. Lee and Billy talk about what to do with the body. Billy argues he knows his grandfather wanted to remain here. Lee is worried about laws. They can't bury him, because it's all granite six inches down.

Lee carries the body into the cabin and just as he's about to start the fire, the marshal appears. He confirms the old man is dead and regrets the series of events that led to this. While Lee and Burr argue over what to do next, Billy spills the kerosene from the lantern on the cabin floor. Before the marshal can stop him, Billy lights a fistful of matches and drops them on the floor.

The marshal tries to rescue the body, but Lee stands before him with a chair, threatening him. The marshal tries to stop it, but seems unwilling to go any further. Finally, he leaves and then they go outside to watch the fire burn.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

In 1981 the book was made into a made-for-television movie, "Fire on the Mountain". Buddy Ebsen played John Vogelin and Ron Howard played Lee Mackie.

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