Disclaimer: They do not belong to me, nor do I make any profit off this work of fanfiction
Warning: Includes some tense situations and some foul language.
Chris blinked as the two hands proffered to him slowly coalesced into one. Reaching up, he grabbed hold of a steel-muscled forearm. As he was hauled back to his feet, he found himself face-to-face with a grinning stranger. Their eyes locked; sea green to sky blue. In that instant, a feeling of familiarity passed through him. He didn't have time to think about it because in the next moment he saw the man's eyes flick sideways. Like they had rehearsed it, as one, still clasping arms, they ducked as a chair sailed over their heads. They watched as it smashed against the wall behind them.
Exchanging broad grins, the two rose and launched themselves back into the melee. Vaguely Chris was aware that the stranger was back to back with him as he dodged the ham-like fist of the huge logger.
Luckily for Chris the man had drunk a little too much and his aim was slightly off. Otherwise, one blow from those powerful arms would probably have killed him. As it was, the mighty swing served to cause the giant to lose his balance. He stumbled and Chris slammed a chair over the back of his head.
Chris froze, as the behemoth appeared unfazed by the blow. The logger roared and turned to face his attacker. He took a step forward; stopped, a look of surprise crossed his face; he stiffened then fell straight forward, strongly resembling a felled tree.
Chris sidestepped rapidly, just barely avoiding being squashed. The whole building shook as the man hit the ground.
Everyone froze. It brought a moment of sanity to the situation. Now that the instigator was down, the fight stopped almost as suddenly as it had begun.
Chris took a deep breath and looked around. To his left was the longhaired, blue-eyed stranger. Once again they exchanged looks and grins.
"Though ya were a goner," the man said.
"Me too!" Chris exclaimed fervently. Then offering his hand, stated, "Chris Larabee."
The other man's smile broadened and his eyes lit up, as he returned the handshake in a forearm lock, "Vin Tanner."
Wondering what was so amusing, Larabee asked, "You new around here?"
But before Vin could say more than 'yeah', Chris was nearly knocked off his feet by a hardy thump to his back.
"Hell of a fight, hey pard?" Buck Wilmingtion loudly proclaimed.
Despite his throbbing eye, Chris had to agree; nothing like a good ol' fashion free-for-all to release some tension.
After spending the past couple of weeks preparing for the new fire season and planning the agenda for the returning veterans and the new recruits, Chris and Buck decided to go to a little bar outside of town to have a quiet, relaxing drink and dinner
Chris Larabee headed the smokejumping program for the Forestry Service headquartered at Missoula, Montana. Buck Wilmington was his second-in-command and chief instructor at the jump school.
Both were full time employees of the FS and seasoned smokejumpers.
Their off seasons were spent working in forestry conservation and fire suppression. Part of their job was to keep track of areas at higher risk for fire and organize the clearing of some of the fuel load, such as dead brush and fallen trees.
But come fire season, their primary job was training recruits, getting the veterans back into shape and arranging call schedules so that jumpers could be deployed at a moments notice. This involved co-coordinating not only the jumpers but also the aircraft and all the rest of the fire-fighting forces from the ground-pounders to the air tankers.
Wildland firefighters have a reputation for being able to organize massive amounts of equipment and personnel within mere hours of notification. Their ability to mobilize on short notice has even the military envious. This was no mean feat considering all of the agencies and manpower they had to deal with and it took no small amount of planning.
It had been a grueling two weeks and Chris had just wanted to unwind a little before the new recruits started their training the next day. They chose a bar a little outside of Missoula. One more frequented by logging crews and firefighters than by ordinary citizens. Usually they were a congenial group, since logging crews were often first line firefighters and worked hand-in-hand with the regular fire crews.
At the end of their meal, Chris and Buck were relaxing over a drink. They had discussed final plans for the training and conditioning programs for both the rookies and the returning veterans. They were actually enjoying a companionable silence when their attention was drawn to an escalating argument at the back of the room.
Curious, they turned to see what the commotion was all about. The rest of the bar became silent as the voices at the table became louder, rather as one voice became louder.
Shoving his chair back and standing up, a very large lumberjack shouted at the man sitting across from him, "You're a God-damn cheat!"
The obviously smaller man said something which couldn't be heard by the two sitting several tables away.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Chris demanded as Buck rose and started toward the enraged giant.
"Shit Chris, Daniels is mean enough sober, but drunk he'll kill that little guy. I'll try to calm him down."
Larabee shook his head in resignation, knowing full well where all this was leading. He stood preparing to help his friend. As he did, he noticed that most of the patrons were anticipating the coming brawl and were clearing the area, all but a lone man nearer to the action than were Chris and Buck. He appeared to be casually ignoring the ruckus while sipping on his beer, but as Chris drew nearer to the altercation, he glanced up, meeting Chris's eyes. Chris knew in that moment the man was completely aware of everything that was going on.
The corner of the man's mouth turned up slightly and gave Chris a barely perceptible nod. For some reason, which Chris didn't have time to analyze in that moment, he had the feeling that the longhaired stranger had just agreed to back them up.
By this time, whatever had been said to Daniels by his opponent, had served to further enrage the behemoth. Bellowing like an angry bull, he picked up the table between them and threw it aside. As he lunged for the smaller man, Buck, now aware that the time for talk was past, grabbed hold of an arm as big around as his thigh.
However, he only succeeded in being slammed into the other man, as he was lifted and tossed into the air as if he were weightless.
Chris launched into the man with a flying tackle and only managed to knock him off balance.
Completely ignoring Larabee, the logger once again zeroed in on his target, who, by now, was acutely aware of the danger he was in. Scrambling out from under the dazed Buck, he raised his hands in a placating manner as he tried to back away, "My dear sir, surely there is no need for violence."
Buck, unfortunately, picked that particular moment to stand, presenting himself as an unwitting obstacle between the two. Before he could fully orient himself, he was backhanded across the face and once again found himself airborne.
As the giant reached for his nemesis, Chris grabbed hold of one arm, bracing himself against the floor with his feet, trying to give the gambler time to get out of the way. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the longhaired stranger on the other arm was mimicking his actions.
The gambler was no fool. He took the opportunity to get out of range of the angry logger, only to be brought up short by a right to the jaw when one of the big man's friends decided to join the fray.
Buck by this time had regained his senses and delivered a one-two punch to the new man that took him out of commission.
Several other male patrons by this time had decided to join in the free-for-all, choosing sides at random.
Chris and the stranger only managed to slow the massive lumberjack down for a few seconds before he shook them off and continued in his single-minded pursuit of the man he thought had cheated him.
Prepared to go after Daniels, Chris didn't see the new player until he got a right to the eye and ended up on his back. While he was trying to clear his head, his longhaired teammate took the man out.
Now that the big logger was out of action, the other men set about helping to clean up the mess.
Some of Daniels friends loaded him into a truck and took him home before he had a chance to come to.
The man that had been accused of cheating approached his defenders.
"I want to thank you gentleman for coming to my aid. Ezra Standish at your service," and he offered his hand.
"Buck Wilmington and this is Chris Larabee. We just didn't think that it would be a fair fight, even if you did cheat."
As he shook the men's hands, Ezra drew himself up to his full height while looking curiously at his rescuers, "I assure you gentlemen, I did *not* cheat!" then he grinned, "the man's card playing was atrocious."
Buck laughed, "Yeah, I know. I've played with him, but he's a *real* sore loser."
Chris, in the meantime, turned back to find Tanner gone. Frowning he scanned the bar, puzzled as to why the man had just disappeared.
Chris and Buck declined the drink Ezra offered to buy them, deciding to call it a night. It had been an auspicious start to the new fire season and Chris sincerely hoped it wasn't a portent of things to come.
"Josiah! You ol' fire-dog!" Buck jumped up to greet the man who had just entered the building. "What the hell are you doing here?
"Buck," the big man acknowledged while shaking his hand.
"Chris," he grinned as Larabee rose from behind his desk and stepped forward.
"Been a long time Josiah," Chris observed, "good to see you."
"Same here," as he sat down in the chair Larabee waved him to.
Buck grabbed another, turned it around and straddled it, "So what brings one of the Washington big-wigs to the front lines?" He sobered, "We in trouble?"
Josiah gave a short laugh and shook his head, accepting the cup of coffee Chris handed him, "Naw, just needed to get away from that desk. Took a leave," he paused, "thought, maybe, I could spend this season with you guys."
Wilmingtion guffawed and slapped his leg, thinking that the older man was joking, but stopped abruptly when he noticed Josiah staring intently at Chris.
Chris returned the look, seeing the deadly seriousness of the request.
Hating to do it but knowing he had to, Chris said, "Josiah, you were once one of the best, and you know that I'd love to have you on the team..."
"But you think I'm too old," he interrupted.
Chris sighed, looking at his friend, started to explain.
"Look Chris, I'm not a rookie. I know what it takes to do this job. I'm not asking for any special considerations. I've kept in shape." Seeing the skepticism on Larabee's face, he hurried on, "Look, let me take the training, the pack test. If I wash out, okay, I'll go back to Washington and push papers, but at least give me a chance, a chance to see if I still have what it takes."
Chris studied his friend carefully. Jumping got into your blood. He tried to imagine what it was going to be like when he was no longer able to pass the physical requirements and was told he couldn't jump anymore. Sighing, he allowed himself a small grin, "Alright, but you have to pass all the tests. You have to be able to keep up."
Josiah's face broke into a huge smile. He rose and shook Chris's hand, "Thanks Chris. I won't let you down."
Buck congratulated Josiah, but after the veteran firefighter had left he turned to his friend and boss, "Are you sure this is a good idea? What if he doesn't cut it?"
Larabee shrugged, "Then he's out. At one time there was none better. I had to give him the chance."
The recruits were supposed to gather at one o'clock to talk about their training schedules and group assignments. Chris had pretty much left that end of things to Buck, since he was responsible for recruitment and training. Now, he was trying to finalize some last minute budget adjustments when Buck reminded him that it was time to meet the troops.
The classroom was set up in the hangar. As they entered they were met by a tall black man, another instructor, who was also an EMT and responsible for teaching first aid.
"They all here, Nathan?" Chris enquired.
"Yeah, here's the roster." Every year approximately two hundred people applied to the program. Of those only fifty were taken and of those about half would wash out.
Chris took the roster and positioned himself in front of the seated group. He took a moment to scrutinize the sea of faces. He allowed his gaze to rest for a few seconds on each. When he got to the back row he locked eyes with a familiar pair of blue ones. His lips curved slightly and with a nod he acknowledged the two finger salute and small grin Vin Tanner gave him.
He looked down at the list of names. There it was; Vin Tanner. For some reason the prospect of this young man joining the outfit pleased him, somehow it seemed...right.
Facing the assembled recruits, Chris addressed the group, "My name is Chris Larabee. I'm the ramrod of this outfit and one of your instructors. Your training over the next few weeks will be intense. Some of you won't make it." He paused to let that soak in, careful to avoid Josiah's eyes.
"Those of you that do cut it will be joining an elite group of firefighters. Smokejumpers are the special forces of wildland firefighters. They go behind the lines. They are often the ones to make the decisions on whether or not to call in extra troops to fight a fire or even if it should be fought at all or simply allowed to burn out. You'll be on call 24/7 during the fire season. Now, I'm not telling you anything you don't know. You all have some firefighting background or you wouldn't be here."
Again he looked at the assemblage, "Your training will be tough because you will jump in and usually pack out. Any emergencies that come up you'll have to handle until help can get to you, *if* help can get to you."
He saw a few look nervously at their neighbors, "That's why we only take the best. You have been chosen because we feel that you are the best."
Turning to Wilmington, he said, "Buck here is the chief instructor, so I'll let him take over from here."
Buck dipped his head once acknowledging Chris's introduction, but kept his eyes on the class and in particular the young man from the night before. He frowned slightly, having noticed the look that had passed between the two. For an instant he had the impression that they had just had a full conversation with a mere glance that none of the rest of them were privy to. He wondered what that was all about.
The next minute he shook it off, smiled at the group of men and women. First he introduced the other instructors then he began to outline their training schedules and what was going to be expected of them. "The rookies will train separately from the veterans. They will be divided into teams, each assigned to a primary instructor, but will rotate with most all of the others for specific instructions in specialty areas. Returning jumpers will be expected to pass all the physical tests but won't go through the same preparation as the rookies. Rookies will have three weeks of intense PT training (groans could be heard throughout the hangar)," Buck smiled, "sorry guys, but your life may depend on it."
After Buck finished and had explained bunking and eating arrangements, he said, "OK, that's it for now. Everyone meet here tomorrow at 0600 for your first physical fitness test, before breakfast."
He grinned as he was met with another chorus of good-natured complaints.
Vin waited as the recruits filed out. Grinning, he slowly sauntered up to a smiling Larabee. Locking forearms, they greeted each other as brothers.
Buck watching the exchange, moved over to join them. Sticking out his hand, he introduced himself, "Buck Wilmington, you two know each other?"
"Vin Tanner," returning the handclasp.
Chris explained, "Vin here helped us out in that little rumble at Smokie's last night."
Buck stared at the younger man a minute before grinning broadly, "Hey,
yeah, now I remember. Thanks for the help."
Vin chuckled, "He outnumber'd ya."
Buck laughed out loud, "Yeah, that he did."
About that time Nathan along with Josiah joined them. Chris made the introductions, "This is Nathan Jackson. Nathan's an EMT and one of our instructors." Turning to Josiah, he hesitated a second before continuing, "This is Josiah Sanchez. Josiah is a fire behavior specialist. Normally he works in DC but decided to return to his first love for a vacation."
The men laughed as Vin shook their hands and told them his name.
Josiah asked, "Well Vin, what prompted you to join our little group?"
So briefly that later Chris would not have been able to say for sure, a shadow passed over the young man's face. Then it was replaced by a wide grin, he said in a soft, Texas drawl, "Well, I hear y'all throw the best parties in the service."
Wilmington lead the laughter and slapped Vin on the back, "Hell, ya got that right, son!"
Tanner just grinned as he was knocked slightly off-balance by the exuberance of the instructor.
Chris asked Vin, "Are you settled in yet?"
"Good, well it's about time for dinner, why don't we head over to the messhall?"
Vin's smile widened, "Sounds good to me."
Chris found himself drawn to this quiet, soft-spoken man. He felt comfortable with him despite the fact that they barely knew each other. He glanced sideways at Vin as they walked to the building housing the dining area. He was smiling and nodding at something Buck was telling him with elaborate hand gestures. Feeling Chris's eyes on him, he turned his head, cocked it toward Buck and winked. Chris laughed, he already had Buck's number. Yep, he definitely liked this guy.
Six AM came all too soon. All hands; rookies, veterans and instructors, met on the training ground. After a series of warm-up exercises, they started the test. The FD required all jumpers to pass a basic physical fitness test. This involved; 7 pull-ups, 25 push-ups and 40 sit-ups. Then they had to run a mile and a half in eleven minutes.
Not surprisingly, everyone passed the first part of the test. Now came the run.
Chris watched as the runners took off. Josiah had done well with the first part. The fire-boss had no doubts about Josiah's strength, it was stamina that concerned him.
Jumpers were required to go into some pretty wild country, frequently without a trail or access road, that was one of the reasons they were flown in, but usually they had to walk out, and they had to carry out whatever they took in. This could be as much as 120 extra pounds. It included firefighting gear, personal equipment and about 85 pounds of flight suit.
Although an escape route was always planned for and hopefully that meant a road or trail, it didn't always work out that way. Sometimes they had to pack out through very rough terrain. That required not only strength but stamina.
Now watching the runners round the curve in the track toward where he was standing, he found himself silently cheering his old friend on.
Josiah was running steadily but he was dead last. Chris glanced at the stop-watch in his hand. If Josiah didn't speed up he'd never make the time.
Larabee sighed and bowed his head; he had truly hoped that the aging smokejumper would make it. Then as they rounded the last lap, Josiah put on a burst of speed. Chris raised the stop-watch so that he could see it and Josiah at the same time.
As the big man crossed the finish line, Chris grinned. He made it. There was only a couple of seconds to spare, but he did it.
The big man could tell from Chris's reaction that he had come in under the required time. Panting heavily, the ex-jumper walked over to Larabee and Wilmington. Buck stuck out his hand grinning broadly. "Congratulations Josiah! You did it!"
Josiah acknowledged the accolade with a handshake and a big toothy grin. "Well boss?" He said, turning to Larabee.
Chris grinned, shaking his head and holding out his hand, he said, "Okay, you're in."
"All right!" Buck exclaimed.
After breakfast, they divided the veterans from the rookies. The jumper 'wannabes' were then formed into squads of nine or ten each. Vin found himself in Larabee's group. He had a suspicion it wasn't by accident, but he grinned to himself, he didn't mind at all.
They were given their training schedules. Mornings, the first three weeks, would be dedicated to physical fitness training. In the afternoon, for the first two weeks, there would be classroom work and some practical training. This would cover everything from first aid to fire suppression and jump procedures. The second two weeks would be spent practicing everything they had learned in class with special emphasis on managing fire lines and jump procedures. The fourth and final week would involve the actual jumps. They would have seven jump tests. These were the tests that would weed out the class. Talking about jumping into a fire zone and actually doing it, were two different things. Larabee also announced that anyone wishing to carry firearms would have a qualification test at the end of the day.
After lunch, they began their class work with the individual instructors rotating, teaching their respective specialties. For most of the men, who were used to being active, the two hours of instruction, while interesting, seemed interminable. Finally, they got a fifteen-minute break and were told to then report to their various stations, assigned by squad.
Buck took his group to the roll pit, a large shallow hole in the ground filled with sawdust. There they would practice their landing rolls.
He stood in front of the small group and explained what they would be doing. "Jumpin' outta an airplane's easy," he began, "it's the landin' that can kill ya."
This statement brought out a few nervous laughs. Buck looked over the group with a practiced eye. His gaze rested briefly on one in particular. Damn, he thought, they're getting' younger ev'ry year, or I'm getting' older, he qualified wryly.
This one looked like he was still in high school; a straight mop of dark hair, almost black, hanging down into his face, wide hazel eyes and a eager puppy dog expression on his face. He was shifting foot to foot in his excitement.
Buck started by simply explaining how to land; feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent. He demonstrated that as soon as your feet touch, you immediately unweight to the left or the right, twisting slightly and letting the momentum of the fall carry your body around to the back and butt.
He had them practice the maneuver several times before taking them up on the platform above the pit. When he asked for volunteers to be first, he was not surprised that the dark-haired youth stepped up first.
Feigning a scowl, he barked, "Ain't you kinda young for this outfit?"
The youth blustered, "I'm old enough! I've been fightin' fires for three years!"
"What's your name...boy?" Buck towered over the young man.
Raising himself to his full height, which was considerably shorter than Wilmington, he answered, "JD Dunne, sir."
"And you want to be a jumper...boy?" Buck wasn't sure what it was about this kid, but he liked him. And that meant he was going to have some fun with him.
JD looked him in the eye as he said, "Yes, sir!"
Buck's eyes twinkled. "All right then, let's see what you can do. Climb up on that platform, jump into the pit and try not to break a leg."
Flashing a smile that threatened to outshine the afternoon sun, JD backed a couple of steps, nodded once, turned and bound toward the ladder. Buck watched with arms across his chest and feet planted wide as the youth scrambled to the edge of the platform.
JD paused momentarily to run through the sequence in his mind. The he jumped. With arms spread, he bent his knees as he hit and promptly fell backwards landing on his butt. The surprised look on his face was quickly replaced with one of anger at Buck's loud guffawing.
With hands on hips, Buck yelled down at the embarrassed youth. "Ya okay down there?"
JD gave him a disgruntled glare, rose to his feet and dusted himself off. He climbed out of the pit and with determination in his eyes, made his way back up to the platform.
Again, he stopped at the edge, went over the procedure in his head, took a deep breath and launched himself upward and outward. This time when he landed he bent at the waist, leaning forward so he was able to twist sideways and roll to his back, then onto his feet.
Straightening, he shot Buck a look of triumph. Buck laughed, giving JD a whack on the back as he passed that nearly sent him sprawling. Yep, he definitely liked this kid.
Chris's group spent the afternoon learning all about parachutes. This included everything from how to check and repair the harness, to inspecting and packing the chute. Needless to say, but said anyway, and to be reiterated a hundred times over, a jumper's life depended on his parachute. Each man was assigned a chute and it was his sole responsibility to maintain it. So, they practiced, over and over.
The Forest Service jumpers use round canopies while the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) use Ram-air square chutes. There have been long-standing arguments as to which chute was better; an argument that will probably never be resolved. The biggest difference for the jumpers was that the Ram-air chute is deployed manually whereas the round chute is on a tether that deploys the canopy.
Chris watched carefully as the rookies acquainted themselves with the equipment, noting in particular how they handled it. He found himself unconsciously pleased that Vin seemed meticulous with the chute and harness. He ducked his head, smiling and shaking it slightly. He really wanted Vin to make the team although for the life of him he couldn't figure out why.
It was obvious to Chris that this wasn't the first time the young man had handled a parachute. Moving up beside him, Chris squatted down, watching as Vin deftly straightened the chute cords. "You've done this before."
Without stopping what he was doing, Vin grinned. "Time or two."
Studying both the way he maneuvered the parts of the chute and the young man himself, Chris ventured a guess. "Armed Forces?"
Then the young man hesitated and Chris thought maybe he wasn't going to answer, then he grinned and said, "Yeah, four years."
"Rangers," Vin elaborated.
Chris looked at him with renewed respect; the Rangers were a tough outfit.
Vin finished packing the chute, gave it a pat, then grinned at Chris. "What's next, boss?"
Chris smiled back then stood to address the whole group. "Okay, those of you that want to qualify to carry firearms, come with me. The rest of you are off until 0600 tomorrow."
The blond was not surprised that Tanner stayed. They were joined by two others and then Larabee led them to the range.
There were a total of ten trainees. Once they were assembled, Chris instructed the group. "The Forestry Department rules say that you can carry firearms if you meet qualification and nothing smaller than a 357 Magnum. We do have the occasional bear encounter. They are unpredictable and they have big teeth; however, if you shoot one, they better be eating you. In some places, bears are an endangered species and killing one will buy you a mountain of paperwork and maybe charges against you."
That said, Buck, who had also joined the group, passed out the weapons, ear and eye protection devices and explained the shooting rules. They would be given one clip, 9 rounds, and they were allowed 3 shots at each of 3 targets; one at 50 yards, 75 yards and 100 yards. They needed to score a minimum of 350 points.
"All rightee, who's gonna be first?"
Not to Buck's surprise, JD volunteered to go first. JD scowled as the big man gave him a shit-eating grin when he stepped up to the mark. The young man just knew Buck was going to make some smart-assed remark about his shooting skills.
Buck, however, just grinned but JD just knew what he was thinking; well, he'd show him.
The young recruit holding the pistol with both hands straight in front of him, sighted carefully at the first target. His first and second shots hit the inner ring, his third shot, close to the center.
Smiling broadly, he lowered the gun and looked at Buck. The big man gave him a slight nod and wink, which caused the young man's smile to widen.
"Okay, who's next?" Buck asked, turning his attention to the rest of the group.
One by one, all the men took their turn at the 50 yard target. Finally, there was only Vin left.
He stepped up to the line, holding the gun down by his side. He eyed the target, then quickly in one smooth motion, brought his gun up and fired three shots in rapid succession.
Chris lowered his field glasses. Looking at Vin, he grinned. "Dead center!"
Vin just grinned back and slipped the gun into the waistband of his jeans after setting the safety.
They moved next to the 75 yard target. They shot in the same order as before, with Vin going last. As before, Vin put all three rounds dead center. The other recruits applauded when Chris announced the score. Vin's only acknowledgement was the small nod he gave to Chris's smile.
At the 100 yard target only about half of them managed to even hit the outer circle. Everyone waited with anticipation as Vin stepped up for his turn. Seeming to be oblivious to the heightened tension around him, he once again calmly fired his three shots rapidly, then popped the empty clip and handed the revolver to Buck.
Chris lowered his glasses after the final round. He walked over to Vin, grinning with hand extended. "Nice job," he said simply, but his eyes told Vin he was impressed.
They locked forearms and Vin felt inordinately proud of the respect he saw on his new friend's face.
Vin helped Chris and Buck gather up the equipment. The fire boss mentioned that he and Buck had some paperwork that needed doing but that they would meet the young recruit for dinner.
"Sounds good." Vin agreed, then added, "Say, if you'd like, I'll clean and put up th' guns for ya."
Buck, whose job it normally was, gave the young man a huge grin and slapped him on the back. "I knew I liked this guy," he proclaimed.
They both looked to Chris for the final okay. He grinned and said, "Sure,"
and tossed Vin the keys to the ordinance locker.
Vin stood for a few minutes thoughtfully watching his new friends stride toward the administration building. Any doubts he had about joining this outfit were quickly being dispelled. Then he began cleaning the guns, happily humming a slightly off-key tune.
Feeling good about this first day of training, Chris and Buck entered their office. Chris stopped short at the sight that confronted him.
"Hey!" Buck exclaimed as he ran into the back of his friend. "Ya forgot at signal."
As he backed up a bit, he looked over Chris's shoulder. Sitting at Chris's desk, feet propped up, shuffling a deck of cards and giving them a cocky grin, was Ezra Standish.
Chris's eyes narrowed as he glared at the other man. "What are you doing here?" He demanded.
Chris remained where he was but Buck moved around him and sat down on the corner of the desk.
Ezra's grin widened as his nimble fingers restacked the deck and placed them in an inside pocket of his expensive suit jacket. Removing his feet from the desk, he stood, dusting off his sleeves. "Mr. Larabee, Ezra P. Standish at your service," he said, affecting a courtly bow.
Chris continued to glare for a moment before all the puzzle pieces fell into place.
"YOU are our new pilot?" he asked, secretly hoping he had come to the wrong conclusion.
Ezra's smile widened more. Chris, with hands on hips lowered his head and slowly shook it, not bothering to suppress a low groan. He glanced sideways at Buck and saw that he was grinning ear to ear.
"What the hell are you grinning at?" he snarled.
The scoundrel looked at his friend and boss and said, "I'm thinking things are gonna get a lot more interestin' around here."
Chris's scowl deepened as he turned back to Standish. The contents of the letter he had received from Director Travis, flashed through his mind. A friend of Travis's was asking a favor. The man was a state Supreme Court judge from the state of Georgia. He had an ex-wife that he was still on amicable terms with. That wife had asked the judge for a favor concerning her only son who had found himself in a small legal jam.
That son, one Ezra Standish, was caught chauffeuring some high-stakes poker players across the Mexican border. Coincidentally, these same gentlemen just happened to be high ranking members of a Mexican drug cartel.
They were spotted by a border patrol; flying low, below the radar. They were met by the INS when the small plane landed. When questioned about his involvement, the pilot shrugged, saying he had heard about the high-stakes game and was offered a very generous sum of money to take the gentlemen. He said he didn't ask any questions. He has something of a reputation among professional gamblers and is frequently asked to join these games. To be offered a substantial sum of money to taxi some other players, was an offer to good to pass up. He denied knowledge of their identities.
The prosecutor pointed out that it looked very suspicious when he was caught flying under the radar and he neglected to file a flight plan. Ezra glibly answered that since he had flown into Mexico without a flight plan, he had thought it expedient to attempt to get back into the country without bothering the authorities. He felt that there might be questions he might not be able to answer.
The prosecutor sarcastically asked him if he went to all that trouble to avoid detection, did it not occur to him that what he was doing *might* be illegal. Ezra replied that actually he had thought of it more as a challenge. He really hadn't considered the legalities, it was more for the thrill.
His cavalier attitude grated on the judge's nerves, but he had already been *asked* to be lenient with the young man and as his very expensive lawyer pointed out, it was his first offense. So, the judge decided that he could put to good use his aptitude for flying, especially low flying, by assigning him to fly tankers and jump planes for the Forestry Department. It was to be considered community service.
They sent him to a class to learn how to fly the heavy tankers and now he was assigned to Chris Larabee's unit. Travis wanted to keep Standish on a tight reign and he felt Larabee was the one who could do it.
Now, looking at the smiling dandy and recalling the events of Saturday night, he wasn't so sure that could be accomplished.
Seeing how much pleasure Buck was getting out of this, he growled, "Fine. You show him his quarters and I'm holding you responsible."
Buck's grin quickly disappeared, he stood, uncrossing his arms and looked imploringly at his boss. "But..."
Chris raised his head and glared at him so Buck thought better of any further protests. Deciding that retreat was the better part of valor, Buck motioned to the pilot to follow him.
"Come on Standish. I'll show ya where t' bunk."
When they reached the building that housed the crews, Buck pushed the door open and Ezra followed him inside. Buck gestured toward the end of the barracks style room with rows of cots and cabinets for personal belongings, in between.
"There's an empty bunk at the end. Help yourself."
Ezra gaped at the clean but stark communal sleeping room. When he could speak, he gasped, "Surely you jest!"
Puzzled, Buck stared back at him. "What?"
With a look of horror on his face, Ezra exclaimed, "You...you surely can't expect me to sleep here!"
"And why not?" Buck scowled.
"It's...it's...so...plebian!" he gasped.
Buck's eyes narrowed, not sure what the word meant but he was fairly sure he understood the intent. "You saying this ain't good enough for ya?" The big man growled with fists on hips.
Ezra looked at Buck then stammered, "Well..it's..just..that.."
Seeing the expression on Wilmington's face, Standish swallowed hard and managed a weak smile. Acquiescing to the inevitable, he croaked, "Uh, nothing. I'm...I'm sure I'll be quite comfortable here."
Buck glared for a moment longer, then turned and stalked to the end of the row of bunks and pointedly gestured to the last one.
Ezra took a deep breath, as he released it he placed his hand over his heart. "Courage, Ezra, courage," he told himself, sotto voce. He then followed Buck to stow his gear.
The next morning all the firefighters and would be firefighters, met for their exercise session. After going through the routine calisthenics and a mile run, they lined up for announcements.
"Okay ladies and gentlemen," Chris announced, "today you have your first pack-out test. *Everyone* takes the tests. After breakfast, we'll meet back here. You'll be driven to the starting point. There, each of you will be given a 110 pound pack. You will carry it over a 3 mile flat course and you will have 90 minutes to complete it. Your second one will be in two weeks. It will involve a 1 ½ mile course over rough terrain. You all know why these tests are important, so good luck to you all."
Chris then dismissed them. He smiled as Vin ambled over to him. "You ready for this?"
Vin grinned. "Piece a cake."
Larabee smiled back, assessing his new friend; somehow he knew the young man wasn't boasting. In companionable silence, they started toward the mess-hall together.
Then Vin said, "I hear tha' gambler fella is gonna be flyin' us."
He glanced sideways at Larabee and noticed the sudden tightening around the mouth and eyes, but all he said was, "Yeah."
Obviously the fire boss wasn't happy about it, but Vin felt that it wasn't any of his business. But, he had to ask, after all their lives might depend on it.
"He any good?"
Vin felt rather than saw the other man clinch his jaw. "He damn well better be."
Further conversation halted as they entered the mess-hall and joined Buck, Nathan and Josiah for breakfast.
An hour later they gathered outside. Two large flatbed trucks with rails along the sides, were parked in front. Stacked next to the cab were several packs. The recruits were loaded onto the trucks and they took off to an area that had been marked off for the trial.
Vin was strapping on his pack when Chris walked up to him. Vin looked up and grinned. "You ain't joinin' us?"
Chris grinned back. "One of the perks of being boss."
Vin snorted then took the map and compass Chris handed him. Then they both walked over to join the other recruits.
Buck had been watching their youngest applicant. He actually liked the kid's spunk. He kind of reminded him of someone else he knew.
Ginning wickedly, he ambled over to the youth. "Hey kid. I brought ya a compass and a map. Wouldn't want ya t'get lost. Do you want me t' show ya how ta use it?"
JD straightened from checking the laces on his boots, to put his hands on his hips and roll his eyes. "Buck...I *know* how to use a compass and a map."
"Sure you do kid, but just in case, see this little N....?"
"OK everyone; listen up!" Chris announced, curtailing any further argument between the two.
"Each of you has been given a map and compass. It is assumed since all of you have worked on ground crews, that you know how to use them."
Buck grinned broadly when JD gave him an 'I told you so' look.
"At the top of each of your maps is a number. These were given out randomly. Find the person with the number that matches yours. That person will be your partner for the test. Once again, you'll have 90 minutes. Okay partner up and good luck!"
Vin and JD found themselves paired up. JD stuck out his hand. "Hi, I'm JD Dunne."
Vin returned the handshake. "Vin Tanner."
"That was some great shooting yesterday."
Chris held up a red flag; then dropped it, signaling the start of the test.
Vin started off with a strong, steady pace. JD was consulting him map and compass. Vin was several yards ahead before JD realized he was alone. Running, he caught up then followed the older man awhile before he felt compelled to check his map again.
Once more he looked up to see Vin proceeding ahead of him, not even slowing down. Hurriedly, he ran to catch up.
"Say, Vin." He started.
Without breaking his brisk stride, he answered, "Yeah?"
"Uhmmm, how do you know where you're going?"
"Whatta ya mean?"
"Well, I mean you haven't looked at your map or compass since we started."
Vin looked sideways at his younger companion. "Don' need t'"
Slightly breathless from trying to keep up with Vin's longer legged pace, he questioned. "What do you mean, ya don't need to."
For a few minutes JD began to think Vin wasn't going to elaborate.
"Had a friend. Knew a lot 'bout survivin' in the wild. Taught me a lot a stuff."
JD waited for him to continue, but gradually realized that it was all Vin was going to say. Every time JD had checked his map and compass, they seemed to be heading in the right direction, so the younger man decided to follow his companion and just try to keep up.
They had walked about an hour when Vin abruptly stopped and studied the ground closely. Curious but cautious, JD halted and watched.
Vin knelt and carefully brushed some dried grass away from whatever it was that held his interest. Slowly he stood and scrutinized the area in all directions without moving.
"Uhmm?" Vin replied, still intently studying the ground.
"Whatcha lookin' at?"
JD moved closer and peered over Vin's shoulder. "Really?"
Continuing to study the barely perceptible imprints, Vin nodded. Then he outlined one of them with his finger. "Bear."
"Wow, no kiddin'?"
"Yeah." Glancing up at the eager face, Vin couldn't help but wonder if he had ever been that young. Grinning, he added, "Grizzly, with a cub."
"How do ya know that?"
Vin pointed to some slight indentations about 3 inches from the imprint. "These here are claw marks. Grizzles are diggers, so they have long claws. Black bears have shorter claws."
Still squatting, Vin lifted his head to quickly survey their surroundings. "We'd better get goin'. These tracks ain't that old and nothing meaner 'an a mama grizzly with 'er youngin'."
Standing, he heads off at a more rapid pace with JD close on his heels. Any doubts he might have had concerning Vin's expertise in the great outdoors, were quickly being set aside. He didn't bother stopping to check his own map and compass; he just let the older man lead the way.
Some time later they rounded a bend and the two flatbed trucks came into sight. They weren't the first to make it to the finish line, but they were close. They could see Chris and Buck leaning against the bumper of one of the trucks.
JD sighed in relief as he trudged a couple of steps behind Vin. The pack was getting heavier and heavier.
Chris and Buck were smiling as the duo approached.
"Hey kid! Ya made it! An' ya didn't get lost!" Buck teased loudly.
JD sighed in resignation. Part of him knew that if he just ignored the other man, he'd probably stop harassing him, but it wasn't the part of him that controlled his mouth.
"Aww Buck! Told ya I could read a map but I didn't need to. Vin here knows a lot about stuff like that. Lead us right here and didn't even look at the map and guess what? We found bear tracks, rather Vin did. Said they were grizzly and she has a cub."
At that, both men looked to Vin, who was grinning slightly at JD's ramblings while he slipped off his pack and stowed it in the truck. "Yeah, maybe 'bout a mile east a here; big one with a cub. Might just wanna put a caution out. Wouldn' want someone to cross paths with her if'n they can help it."
Chris nodded and looked at the young man curiously. This Texan was a surprise a minute. The personnel files didn't quite seem to cover it.
At dinner that night, JD was walking by the table where Chris, Vin, Buck, Josiah and Nathan were already sitting.
"Hey kid! Why don't ya come sit with us?"
JD stopped and rolled his eyes but went ahead and sat down beside Buck; across from Nathan.
Buck was teasing the young man about something but JD didn't seem to be paying attention; instead he kept looking at Nathan. Finally Buck said, "Hey, boy, don't ya know it's not polite t' stare. You'd think Nathan had two heads."
JD blushed and ducked his head. "Sorry," he mumbled. But then he raised his head and once again looked at the EMT. "Nathan, I'm sorry, but..."
Nathan watched indulgently as the young man stumbled over his words. "What is it JD?"
The youth met the older man's eyes frankly. "I was just wondering. I was looking at all the pictures of smokejumpers that are hanging on all the walls and I saw one of an all African-American Army team called the Triple Nickels. One of the guys was named Nathan Jackson and he looked a little like you."
The veteran jumpers all broke into big smiles as Nathan said, "That was my grand-daddy. I was named after him."
JD's eyes grew big. "Wow, no kiddin'?"
"Yep," Josiah explained, "Nathan's grandfather was one of the original smokejumpers."
Nathan elaborated, "He joined the Army in '43 and they sent him to Fort Benning, Georgia, to train as a paratrooper. His unit was the all-black 555th Paratroop Infantry Battalion, the Triple Nickels. They were assigned to Operation Firefly to work with the Forest Service on the northwest coast of the US. Their main assignment was to fight the fires caused by Japanese incendiary balloon bombs."
Josiah took up the story. "They got to be so good at their job that their experiences became the first smokejumping manual. Out of more than 1,200 jumps, they only had one casualty, and they didn't have all the safety equipment we have today."
"Wow!" Was all JD could say and the others laughed.
Buck nudged JD with his elbow. "Yep, ol' Nate here comes from a smokejumpin' family."
JD grinned as he regarded the medic with renewed respect.
Finally, after 3 grueling weeks, it was time for the real test of a smokejumper; whether of not they would actually be able to jump out of the plane. They spent hours learning the techniques; going over safety procedures; now was the time to see if they could apply all that training.
They had lost some candidates. Some found the training too tough; others weren't able to pass some of the written tests and some decided that jumping out of an airplane at a low altitude into a blazing inferno; just wasn't their cup of tea. Out of 200 there were only 75 left.
Those that were left were now in the hanger. They were divided into groups of 15. There were 2 planes flying today and each plane would take up one group. In the hanger, they donned their flight suits and parachutes.
The suits are made of Kevlar; the same material used in bullet-proof vests and they were padded. They have high, wide, stand-up collars to protect their necks from branches. Their helmets are motorcycle style with a heavy wire-mesh face mask.
Later, they would practice jumping with all their gear, but today they would just wear the heavy suits.
Once the recruits were suited up they paired up and checked that the parachutes were strapped on correctly. That done; Chris, Buck and some of the veteran jumpers double checked. There was no such thing as being too careful.
When the first two groups were ready they waddled out of the hanger, much resembling the Michelin Tire men; across the tarmac to the idling planes. Clumsily, they climbed the short ladder to the plane's hatch. Once inside, they took a seat on one of the benches fastened on either side.
Vin and JD were on the same plane, along with Josiah as spotter. It is the spotter's responsibility to select the drop targets. Once in the air he supervised all aspects of the jump.
With everyone on board, Josiah told the pilot they were all ready. Through his headset he heard the unmistakable southern accent of their newest pilot. "Good morning ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Jumper Express Shuttle. We will be flying at an altitude of 1,500 feet..."
Josiah chuckled as he heard Chris's reprimand. "Ezra!"
"Yes, Mr. Larabee? I mean, *Yes* Mr. Larabee!"
"Enough horsing around. Get down to business!"
"Yes, Mr. Larabee!"
The fire behaviorist couldn't hear it but he could just imagine Chris grinding his teeth. The southerner, while not actually provoking the boss's anger had managed to continually irritate him.
The pilot had proven himself to be more than capable on his practice runs. Chris had insisted that their veteran pilots put him through a rigorous set of training exercises and to Chris's annoyance; he had passed every test with flying colors, so to speak. He was half hoping he would fail these tests, giving him an excuse to argue for his removal.
However, they all knew the real proof of his abilities would come when he had to meet the challenges of flying over a fire. To top it all off, he appeared to be an exceptional card player. At least as far as anyone could tell; he didn't cheat. He held court every night in the mess-hall and never seemed to lack in willing victims.
Other than complaining vociferously about his accommodations and the early start times he was forced to endure, he seemed to be doing well with his job. However, that didn't endear him to Larabee. The fire boss was still hesitant about trusting him.
Now, as Chris and Buck climbed into the Land Rover that would take them to the jump site, Larabee was relieved to watch the flawless take-off of the large DC-3.
He would be in constant contact with the plane as he would be during and actual fire jump. Always the final decision for responding to a fire was made just prior to the jumpers leaving the plane. Then it was a collaborative decision between the designated fire boss, who coordinated all fire-fighting efforts, the spotter and the pilot. That was the part that worried Larabee. Standish had no firefighting experience. While he might be an exceptional pilot, flying around fire was a totally different ballgame.
For one thing fire makes its own weather. One had to be constantly aware of sudden up or down drafts, or changes in the wind direction. A jumper's life could depend on such knowledge.
Chris had made Ezra take classes in fire behavior under Josiah's tutelage. The big man reported that the pilot was an apt student. But all that didn't make up for his lack of experience, however; only time would tell and that's what worried Larabee.
The first jump site was in an open field. For several of the recruits this would be the first time they jumped out of a plane and the instructors wanted them to concentrate on the mechanics of the jump, not about avoiding obstacles.
Chris and Buck parked some distance from a large, white X that was spray painted more or less in the middle of the meadow. The site was just a short distance from the school so they got there before the plane made its first pass.
The two watched as the plane approached from the east. As they passed over the large X, two weighted streamers floated down. These streamers would tell the spotter about wind conditions at the immediate site.
Josiah nodded in satisfaction as the streamers floated gently down. Wind conditions were ideal for this first jump. He relayed the 'go' to Chris and Ezra. Both agreed and Ezra banked the plane to circle around to begin their run.
The spotter signaled for the first jumper. He attached the tether, checked to make sure it was secure and motioned for the recruit to take his position in the open hatch.
Normally at a fire, jumpers would go two at a time, but for the first couple of jumps they would go one at a time, giving them some experience and not risk fouling each other's lines.
Chris and Buck watched the first three jumpers land safely although a little wide of the mark. There were a couple of the veterans waiting to help them with their chutes and suits to expedite clearing the zone.
The instructors were marking their evaluations as the DC-3 lined up for its next pass. They looked at each other when a jumper failed to appear.
There was a moment's hesitation before they heard, "No, everything is A-OK. Making another pass."
Again the instructors looked at each other. More than likely one of the recruits froze; unable to take that final step. It happened occasionally.
The plane was on approach. This time there were no problems.
As Chris watched the jumper expertly work the toggles, he knew that he was watching Vin. He smiled as the young man hit the X and immediately started to roll in his chute.
Buck glanced over at his old friend. "Don't tell me. Vin?"
Larabee just nodded.
Buck shook his head and grinned.
The next jumper down was JD. He didn't hit the mark but he wasn't too far off. Buck could see him talking animatedly to Vin as they took off their gear and loaded it onto a waiting truck.
Overall, the two instructors were pleased with the first jump as the last plane dropped the last jumper. Only one student had backed out at the last minute. That was about par for the course.
They spent the rest of that last week of their training actually practicing jumps which became increasingly more difficult. Their last jump before *graduating* would be their hardest.
They would be jumping in full gear into an area surrounded by trees. In addition to the jumpsuit, parachute and the reserve chute; there would be a personal gear bag strapped around the waist and 150 feet of 'let-down' rope in the right leg pocket of their jump suit.
One essential part of their training was how to get out of the chute and lower themselves to the ground should the parachute get caught in trees, hence the let-down rope.
In this case the site was picked ahead of time so that there would be trucks waiting close by to pick up the jumpers.
The day was a little trickier in that not only would they be landing in a small area completely enclosed by trees, but the wind was gustier. It would require more skill and diligence to avoid getting tangled up in the trees.
Once again Josiah acted as spotter. As the recruits waited, the veteran jumper could feel the increased tension. This was an important jump for two reasons: first, it was like their final exam. Everything they had learned about parachuting was now going to be tested. The second was that this was the first time they had to jump with such erratic winds.
Soon they were circling the jump zone. Vin, sitting closest to the door, saw the slight frown on the spotter's face as he watched the weighted streamer drift crazily to the ground.
The site they chose was an open area of just about fifty yards in diameter; surrounded by tall lodge-poll pines. These trees have stable canopies so that they are more likely to support a jumper without breaking.
Chris, too, watched the streamers' descent. The capricious wind justs sending them into a fitful dance.
"What do you think, Josiah?" he asked the spotter.
If they were jumping fire with experienced fire fighters, this wouldn't be a big problem; however, most of these recruits were still very green.
"Well, boss, I say let 'em try. They gotta learn sometime. At least if they miss the spot, you'll be there to bail 'em out. Besides," he chuckled, "it'd be good let-down practice."
Buck grinned when he heard this; jumpers hated getting stuck in trees. It wasn't so much climbing down as it was that you had to climb back *up* to retrieve your chute. They practiced it and prayed the whole time that it would be one part of their training that they would never have to use.
Chris finally nodded and said into the radio, "OK, get 'em started. Ezra?"
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
The fire-boss grimaced; why did he always feel that the man was being sarcastic. "You agree?"
Vaguely surprised that he was being asked for his opinion, he took a moment to consider his answer. "While the winds are a bit unpredictable, I'm not having any trouble holding the plane on a true course."
"All right then, it's a go."
Josiah grinned and nodded. He motioned for the first jumper to get set. The one closest to the door was Vin. The older man noticed that Vin always tried to sit next to the hatch. While the young man didn't make a big deal of it, he also noticed a certain tension that he didn't ordinarily exhibit.
Vin squatted down next to the spotter who did a quick last minute safety check and attached the tether. After Ezra finished circling around and the plane leveled out, Josiah carefully judged the best time for the jumper to exit.
A slap on the shoulder sent Vin sailing out the door. A long ribbon trailed behind him for several seconds; the tether detached and the jumper jerked upward as a loud 'frump' signaled the chute opening and blossoming above his head.
The men on the ground watch anxiously as Vin skillfully fought the wind gusts and guided himself into the target zone.
One by one the others took their turns. Almost all of them managed to land within the designated drop area. Only a couple got hung up in the trees. They were extracted with much teasing, from the rest of the jumpers.
The jeers and cheers grew louder when the recruits had to climb back up to retrieve their chutes. Sheepishly, but good-naturedly they weathered the ribbing while clumsily climbing back up the trees to gently unsnag the parachutes.
All in all, it was considered a very successful jump and a successful training season. Now, came the waiting for that first call; to jump fire.
Chris hung up the phone and walked over to a large map hanging on the wall.
"We got one?" Buck asked looking up from his desk.
"Yeah," Chris replied as he checked the co-ordinates and placed a red pin on the map.
"Where?" the big man asked moving to Chris's side and peering at the spot marked by the pin.
"Rattlesnake Ridge; some rafters on the river spotted smoke; radioed the rangers. They sent a plane to check it out. It looks like it covers about 2-3 acres. Most of the area is pretty rocky."
"Why don't we just let it burn?"
Chris pointed to an area just east of the ridge. "It borders a national reserve. We can't take a chance of it getting into the more densely forested area, especially now, at the height of the tourist season."
Buck nodded and peered closely at the map. "It's pretty remote. I don't see any access roads or trails."
Chris frowned. "Yeah, I know, but the river runs to the north. If we keep our back to it, we can break for it if things get too rough."
Buck looked at his friend and raised an eyebrow. "We?"
Chris looked sheepish. "Well, it's been a while since we've been on the front lines. I thought maybe you and I could be the supervisors on this one."
The big man cocked his head and regarded his boss intently. Suddenly he broke into a big smile. "Vin and JD are next up on the jump roster, huh?" he asked, accusingly.
His friend frowned then said gruffly, "Well, it never hurts to stay up on our skills."
Buck held up his hands defensively. "Whoa boss, I think it's a good idea." Then he added mischievously, taking a couple of steps out of arms reach, "I just find it interesting that you just happen to think it necessary at this particular time."
Chris didn't dignify the remark with an answer. Instead he said, "I'll check the weather. Have the boys meet us at the hangar and tell Standish to get the plane ready."
Chris had Ezra circle the fire again. The wind was mild and blowing from the southwest; good that it was mild, not good that it was from the southwest. A wind coming from that direction was drier; drier meant hotter fires.
Technically Chris was a jumper on this mission, so the spotter was a veteran jumper Chris had known for years, Jerad. But, old habits die hard and Chris wanted to check things out for himself. It didn't offend Jerad; he was used to Larabee's ways.
As the plane circled, the fire boss pointed to a small area on the north flank of the fire. Jerad peered at the relatively minute clearing and shortly, nodded. He relayed the information to Ezra and Josiah.
Receiving confirmation, Ezra circled and descended to jump altitude. During the first pass, Jerad dropped the streamers. The plane bounced as it hit the turbulence created by the fire.
The passengers held on to keep from being dislodged fron their bench. Satisfied that although, slightly turbulent, the winds were navigable, the spotter signaled for the first jumper.
Vin stepped up; the toggle was snapped on and then he jumped. He was quickly replaced by JD, then Chris and finally Buck. Jerad watched the four canopies maneuver to the ground while Ezra banked the plane to begin the run to drop the equipment.
All four firefighters made it safely to the clearing. They watched as the plane shifted to a lower altitude to drop their supplies.
After stowing their chutes, they gathered up the extra gear which included food, water, sleeping bags and the essentials for fire fighting; chain saws shovels, helmets with headlamps, a spare radio and the fire-fighters constant companions; Pulaskis, a combination hoe and axe.
Chris also carried a radio in his personal gear bag, along with extra batteries. Many lessons had been learned by the sacrifices of those who had gone before. Carrying an extra radio and batteries came from one of those times when the lone radio was smashed and there had been no way to call for help when a small fire blew up and became a raging inferno.
They found a spot they hoped would be safe from animals to stow most of their personal stuff. Then Chris brought out the topographic map to recheck their location. They were north and slightly west of the fire which was moving slowly on a diagonal away from them.
The firefighters would move around so that they were in front of the fire. There they would establish a fire line to stop the forward movement.
The four picked up their backpacks, helmets, chainsaws and Pulaskis and headed to the place they decided to start.
They established their line at the foot of the hill, about a mile from the river. The wind was against them but fires move slower downhill. They spread out in a line to start creating a 'dead zone'; an area cleared of burnable fuel.
For hours they cleared brush, cut dead wood and hauled it away; generally making a buffer zone and containing the fire. Then they moved slowly forward to start battling the fire itself; there was always still the chance of the fire 'crowning' or jumping the line.
The men wore Nomex yellow shirts and green pants. This was the uniform of the wildland firefighters. The fabric is fire resistant, which, for safety sake, was comforting, but they were hot.
They worked steadily throughout the afternoon and into the evening before taking a dinner break. They had made good progress and if the weather held, they could wrap it up by the next afternoon.
After dinner, they resumed their battle. Night was actually the best time to fight fire. The winds tended to die down and the humidity to rise, causing the fire to 'lie low', making it easier to put out.
They worked throughout the night, with only brief breaks for eating and the calls of nature. By morning, the fire was fully contained and they spent the rest of the day mopping up and making sure there were no spot fires. Later in the morning it started to get overcast and eventually a light, misty rain began to fall, helping to put out any hot spots.
It was close to nightfall when they were satisfied that the fire was completely out. They radioed back to base but because it would be dark before a chopper could pick them up, it wouldn't be until the next morning.
They moved to a site chosen in advance; big enough for the helicopter to land. By the time they finished eating their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) it was starting to rain harder.
They gathered their supplies and gear and covered them with tarps. Then they made makeshift tents called 'hooches' out of their parachutes and tree limbs.
Buck heard the ripping sound but failed to recognize the significance of it until he felt himself being dragged feet first by the sleeping bag. Frantically, he back pedaled out of the bag.
All the activity woke JD. "Buck?" he asked groggily. "Wha's goin' on?"
"Bear!" The big man squeeked.
"Huh?" JD wasn't quiet awake.
"Bear....BEAR!!" Buck yelled as he scrambled for his clothes.
Finally the young firefighter understood and began looking for his clothes and his gun. It was pitch black so in their frenetic haste they were just scattering their belongings, making it harder to find them.
The bear in the meantime, after shaking the now empty sleeping bag a few times, became bored and ambled over to the other hooch.
Vin was just beginning to rouse as the noise penetrated his dream-state when the makeshift tent came crashing down on them. The two occupants were briefly pinned under about 600 pounds of ursine weight.
By this time Buck had managed to find his pants and shirt and put them on quickly. He also found a battery operated lantern; turned it on and sat it on the ground by the mangled tent.
"Hey!" he yelled as he ran toward the bear, hoping to distract the animal from Vin's and Chris's tent.
"Hey!" louder now as the bear started nosing the lumps in the fallen tent.
JD gave up looking for his gun in the mess that was in their tent when he heard Buck shouting. He rushed outside and looked toward the sound of Buck's yelling just in time to see the bear turn and rise up on its hind legs and let out a mighty roar.
It happened so fast the big man didn't have time to react. Suddenly he was flying across the makeshift compound from a huge paw to the side of the head.
"Buck!" JD screamed and started to run to his friend's aid. The bear roared again and moved in that direction.
Hoping to lure the large mammal away from Buck, who was groggily shaking his head and attempting to get up, JD started yelling at the bear.
"Hey, bear! Over here, bear!"
The huge animal turned toward the young man. JD continued to wave and shout, backing up in the opposite direction of the downed jumper and the squashed tent.
Suddenly the bear lunged. JD jumped and turned rapidly; thinking that the bear was chasing him. Because it was so dark, he failed to see the tree in his path. He ran smack into it, face first. Stunned and in pain, JD fell backward, momentarily forgetting about the bear.
The bear wheeled around as Chris and Vin finally fought their way out of the collapsed tent. The two froze as the huge beast shook its mighty head and roared again.
Buck had, by now, regained his senses. Seeing the face-off between the animal and his two friends, he frantically looked around for something to use as a weapon.
He spied the equipment that they had placed under the tarp. Running over to the neatly stacked pile, he ripped the covering off. Grabbing a chainsaw, he fired it up and began waving it at the bear.
The bear turned and looked at the lunatic two-legged; who was jumping up and down, shouting and waving a loud buzzing thing in the air. He watched him for a few moments then nonchalantly turned to saunter off several yards away. There, he turned once again and sat down.
JD, with blood streaming down his face from his nose, regained enough awareness to realize what Buck was doing. He stumbled over and grabbed another saw and imitated Buck's movements.
Chris suddenly became more leery of JD, who didn't appear to be too steady on his feet, waving a chainsaw around, than he was of the bear. Cautiously he tried to approach the youth while keeping one eye on the bear
Vin, in the meantime, had found his gun, but since, at the moment, the bear didn't seem threatening; he decided to wait to see what happened. The bear must have been thinking the same thing as he cocked his head to one side and watched the antics of the humans.
As Chris tried to slip past Buck, the big man turned abruptly, causing Chris to jump back in alarm.
"Here...take it!" Buck said as he handed the fire boss his still running chainsaw. "I gotta idea."
Gingerly, Chris took the buzzing machine from the big firefighter and promptly turned it off since it didn't seem to be making any impression on the bear.
He tried now, to keep his eye on Buck, JD and the bear which wasn't easy since all but the bear were moving. He managed to shoot a glare at Tanner when he heard the younger man chuckling behind him.
Hurriedly, Buck rummaged through their gear. When he found what he was looking for, he let out a shout of triumph, "Ah ha!"
By this time JD also came to the conclusion that the large mammal was unfazed by the noise of the saws and turned his off.
Buck held a fusee; a flare designed as a railway warning device and the fire service used to ignite suppression and prescription fires. The big man lit the fusee. Once lit, he started waving it and shouting at the bear again, who sat calmly watching him.
The big man's antics became more animated as he slowly approached the bear. Vin shifted his position to keep the bear in his line of sight, in case things went array.
"Buck...," Chris cautioned.
"Don't worry Chris. I know what I'm doing."
"Just be careful." He said as he watched Vin move closer. Grizzlies can move extremely fast when they choose; up to 40 mph, so Vin wouldn't have much reaction time if the bear decided to charge.
So far, he just sat there, watching Buck's 'fire dance' without much concern.
"Ow...owww....shit!" Buck suddenly screamed as drippings from the flare dropped on to his bare hand. In pain, he tossed the flare in the general direction of the bear and grabbed his wounded appendage.
The fusee fell several feet short of the grizzly and he followed it with his eyes as it landed. He then looked at Buck; shook his mighty head, turned around and ambled off, leaving behind the confused and confusing humans.
Still chuckling at the little display he had just witnessed, Vin kept an eye out for the bear in case he decided to make a return engagement, while Chris rendered first aid to their fallen comrades. It was now getting light, so once the wounded were treated, they packed up the gear; fixed some breakfast and waited for their ride home.
Later that evening, after the two injured firefighters were treated; Buck for first and second degree burns on his hand and JD for a broken nose, the four entered the mess for dinner. Vin and Chris followed the other two into the building.
All the diners as one, stood and said, "Grrr.....!" with their hands extended like claws.
Buck stopped and scowled then turned back to the grinning twosome behind him. "Funny, real funny!"
It would be some time before Buck lived this one down.
For a few weeks the work load for the jumpers was pretty routine. They all took their turn in the rotation for the jumps and when not working a fire they were required to maintain a standard of physical fitness which included daily runs, aerobic exercise and weight training. Also, they had assigned duties such as maintaining the parachutes and rigging or the jump suits. In the loft above the hangar there were several sewing machines and each jumper learned how to use them.
It was about six weeks into the season when they got a call for six jumpers to a densely forested back country in northern Montana. A ranger flying a routine patrol had spotted it. Because of the dry conditions it had already spread over several acres and it was believed to have been caused by lightening since it wasn't in an area usually frequented by campers or tourists.
When the call came; Chris, Buck, Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan were the team assembled. Within ten minutes they were suited up and boarding the idling plane. The jumpers would serve as the front line until they could get ground crews up there.
The area was mountainous with very little open space to land. The winds were about 10-15 mph and erratic. Chris was glad that the rookies had a few actual fire jumps under their belts, 'cause this one would not be easy.
The ride up was bumpier than usual with the shifting winds. Even the most experienced of the jumpers found themselves battling nausea. At last, after what seemed ages, they were flying over the fire. So far it appeared confined to a valley, although most of the west side was involved and with the winds running west to east, it was only a matter of time before the fire would be running up the east side.
Chris, after conferring with the base incident commander, decided they would attack the dragon from the west side of the east ridge. Hopefully that would keep it from jumping the ridge and out to the Reserve to the east.
However, that meant jumping into an area almost completely covered with trees. There were a few bare areas or less dense areas might be more accurate, but it was going to take some skill to maneuver into them. Chris believed this team could handle it. As the plane prepared for the approach; Chris moved back to stand in front of the other jumpers.
Bracing himself on the overhead, he pitched his voice to be heard above the roar of the engines.
"No clear place to land. Watch out for snags."
With that warning, he returned to his place beside the spotter. Buck looked at JD and could see the nervousness there. He smiled reassuringly at him. "Piece of cake," He told the youth, leaning near so that he could be heard.
JD knew that Buck was just trying to ease his nerves. It wasn't going to be that simple. A jumper's nightmare is not being able to control his chute and land in trees. Snags are dead trees that are still standing; often hard to see because of the surrounding trees. Landing on one could mean a severe injury or death. If a parachute got caught on one, the chute could tear and the jumper could fall, maybe a hundred feet or more. It was drilled into the jumpers that if they couldn't avoid the trees, at least aim for a small one.
Soon, all too soon in JD's opinion, they were ready to jump. When it came to his turn, he knew he couldn't hesitate. There was an old belief in the service that if you ever froze at the door, you would never jump again.
Collecting his courage and his resolve, the youngest of the jumpers stepped up to the hatch. He tried to not look at the dense forest below. He felt the spotter snap his toggle and then the slap on the shoulder and then he jumped.
Then he was freefalling. He loved these few seconds; arms and legs outspread, the roar of the plane's engines fading, the wind whooshing past, and then the 'frump' of the parachute opening and the sudden jerk upward.
Now, he concentrated on following Chris's and Vin's chutes; trusting the more experienced jumpers to find a safe place to land.
Suddenly, the wind jerked him up and sideways. Desperately he tried to correct and finally succeeded in straightening himself out, but now he was off course.
Buck saw the rookie catch the updraft and he also saw that the correction was going to take him into a stand of trees. The veteran jumper knew that he could do nothing but try to pinpoint where JD landed so he could go to his aid.
The big man guided to a landing not far from Chris and Vin.
"JD was headin' for the trees!" He shouted, reeling in his chute.
By the time Josiah and Nathan were down safely and not too far away, Buck had rolled up his chute and climbed out of his jumpsuit. He was running in the direction where JD had gone down, when the young man walked out of the stand of trees with his parachute rolled up under his arm.
Buck stopped and with his hands on his hips and his head cocked to one side, he berated the youth, "You tryin' to give me a heart attack?"
JD gave the older man a big grin. "Piece a' cake, Buck!"
As he walked past the big firefighter, Buck, grinning, gave him a swat on the back of the head.
Actually it hadn't been quite as easy as JD had made it sound. When he realized he wasn't going to be able to avoid the trees, he quickly scanned the area for depressions. Spotting one, he guided toward it.
As he crashed through the branches of the canopy he was relieved to find himself between trees and they were small enough that he was able to touch the ground and pull the parachute free. There was a small tear in the nylon but that could be repaired. Because of his jumpsuit, helmet and face mask, he was completely unscathed, but he took a deep breath and a brief 'thank-you' to the Powers-that-be and to Big Ernie, the jumpers' fire god, before collecting his parachute and trudging off to find the rest of the team.
By the time he joined the others, the plane was making its cargo run. They had to search a bit for the supplies, but most made it to the ground safely. Only one got caught in a tree, but it wasn't too far off the ground and since JD had had the most recent tree experience; he was elected to climb up after it.
Once everything was collected, they divided the equipment up and began the long hike to the top of the ridge.
Because of the trees, they weren't able to see the fire itself but they could see the smoke to the southwest. They had mapped out how they would approach the fire before they left, and it still looked like a good plan. On this side of the ridge the trees weren't as thick and there was an old logging trail at the base.
They quickly set about cutting line. Chris radioed the incident commander to get an update on current weather conditions.
They worked for hours, taking only brief breaks to eat and answer the call of nature. It was just starting to turn dark when Chris radioed to Buck, who was working further down the line that he was going up to higher ground to get a look at the fire.
He passed by Vin on his way. The younger firefighter stopped him.
"Be careful," he told his boss and friend.
When Larabee gave him an odd look, Vin searched the green eyes that eerily reflected the firelight, wondering how much to say. Finally he pulled down the bandana he was using to cover his mouth and nose and looked carefully around.
"It's just that...," he hesitated. Then scanning the forest, as if looking for something unseen, he continued, "Something don't feel right."
Chris waited for further explanation, but Vin just shrugged. "Can't explain it. It's as if...as if...sumthin's waitin'."
Chris stared intently at the firefighter. Sometimes seasoned firefighters developed a sixth sense about fires and Chris had been in the business too long to ignore it. He gave the young man a curt nod and moved off.
As the veteran jumper moved further away from the front line, he began to understand what Vin was talking about. "It" did feel off.
When he got a ways from the fire he noticed that even though it was getting dark, the temperature wasn't dropping. As a matter of fact it actually seemed to be getting warmer.
Chris didn't like the feel of it; didn't like it at all. The humidity was dropping, too. He could feel the moisture on his skin drying up. He stopped and looked around. It *really* didn't feel right.
Once past the glow of the fire he looked up. He couldn't see any stars; that meant cloud cover. It hadn't been that way a couple of hours ago. He pulled out his radio and called the base asking for a weather update. They reported overcast but no abnormal weather conditions. However, high up here in the mountains, the conditions could change at the blink of an eye, without much warning.
He had reached a point on the hill where he could get a visual on the fire. He could see the glow through the trees; it was still confined mainly to the ground. While he was surveying the landscape, a brief column of flame shot up in the air as a lone tree burst into flame; the dragon had belched.
The air was so still and heavy. Instinct fought with logic and instinct ultimately won. Years of firefighting told him it would be foolish to not pay attention to the very instincts he had honed from those experiences.
Hurrying back to the line, he motioned to Buck. When the big man turned off the chainsaw he'd been using, he said in a voiced pitched to be heard over the noise of the fire, "Let's pull back!"
Buck pulled down his mask and asked, all the while collecting his gear, "What's goin' on?"
"This fire doesn't feel right. We're gonna pull back and see about attacking from a different angle."
Chris moved to collect his gear to find Vin holding it out to him. The younger man grinned, his teeth showing brightly white in his smoke-blackened face. "The dragon is holdin' his breath."
"Yeah," Chris agreed, feeling a new sense of urgency.
"Let's get the hell outta here," he yelled down the line and started leading them away from the fire.
Embers drifted lazily down and started spot fires that they put out as they pulled back. Chris's plan was to get back up to the ridge where it was rocky, providing some natural cover and also fires tended to slow down on a ridge.
As they trudged up the slope, the wind started to pick up a little; the embers falling faster. The men, as one, started moving faster, an unspoken mutual understanding that their time was running out.
They no longer stopped to put out the little fires. The wind was picking up, swirling and blowing smoke, dust and embers which resembled red, hot snow. Behind them, there began a faint roaring that steadily grew louder, like a freight train approaching.
The trees were sparser now and Chris paused a moment to look behind him and just as he did he saw a plume of flame shoot several hundred feet into the air. Only this time several trees around it caught fire.
"Drop the gear! Run!"
The roaring behind them intensified rapidly as they dropped everything but their Pulaskis and started running up the steep slope. The wind was whipping the embers in frantic swirls, searing exposed skin.
To their left the trees lit up like torches; the fire had crowned, taking to the tree tops. The ground fire would be behind it, traveling slower.
The terrain was getting rockier as they neared the top and the trees further apart. Panting, Chris stopped and looked behind them. The ground fire was now racing up the hill. A loud explosion signaled that one of the fuel cans they had been carrying, had ignited. It was followed rapidly by more as the chainsaws and other fuel cans went off, sounding like artillery rounds.
They were almost to the top of the ridge but time had run out.
"Dig in!" Chris shouted as he used his Pulaski to clear as much grass as he could from a man-sized area; the others doing the same. Without being told they also shed their backpacks and dug out the fusees and bottles of oil they carried to feed the chainsaws and then threw them as far away as possible.
Buck saw JD slowly turn in a circle, his eyes wide. The big firefighter knew what was going through the young man's head; fire: Beautiful, mesmerizing, deadly and now completely surrounding them. Buck knew he had to get the kid's attention or he would die.
He grabbed JD's backpack and pulled out the explosive items and threw them as hard as he could into the woods. Roughly he turned him around and took a small yellow pouch from his waist belt and shoved it at him. Leaning close to be heard above the deafening roar, he yelled, "Open it! Dig in!"
JD stared at it a moment then looked back at Buck and then the others who were all doing the same thing. Reality slammed into him and he tore open the pouch.
Those little yellow pouches were carried by every firefighter. Inside the pouch was a folded aluminum fire shelter that has a bonded inner lining of heat resistant fiber glass. The firefighters had nicknamed them "shake 'n bakes".
The men fought to deploy the shelters in the rising wind. Vin tried hard to not think about what they were about to do. He, as all firefighters do, had trained and practiced using the shelters while praying he would never have to use it.
The sound, the wind and the red glow from the fire gave everything a surreal appearance. The fire was in the trees to the right; soon it would be jumping the ridge with the ground fire rapidly catching up with the crown fire.
Vin slipped his feet into the straps on two of the corners and stretched the tent up over him. He took one last look before lying down on the partially cleared earth. Against a backdrop of orange flames, enormous maroon and purple balls of unburned gases rolled toward them, seeking oxygen so they could explode into flame.
Then he was on the ground, pulling the tent flaps in around him and then like a river in hell, the fire washed over them.
Vin felt the superheated air buffet the shelter and press down on his back, making the small space even smaller. The temperature rose astronomically, making it hard to breathe. Vin frantically clawed at the hard ground, trying to make a pocket for his mouth and nose while holding the shelter down with his elbow.
Around the edges he could see a thin line of flickering light as the grass around the shelter ignited. A couple of times the flames caught some of the grass inside the shelter on fire. Vin beat them out with his gloved hands.
The fire was sucking all the oxygen out of the air. The wind battered the shelter and the noise was horrendous. Slowly he took in a breath of the hot air. It burned the inside of his nose, throat and lungs, bringing tears to his eyes.
He gripped the edges tightly to keep the shelter from being torn from his grasp but it also helped him stay 'grounded'. The urge to jump up and run was almost overpowering. He hated closed in places and this one was getting smaller by the second. As the wind lifted the sides it also drove in heavy smoke. That triggered a coughing fit and he frantically tried to wave the air clear.
Vin felt his panic rise; he had to get out of there! He closed his eyes and willed himself to remain calm; leaving the shelter would spell a certain death. He took everything in him to stay where he was.
After what seemed like hours but surely had only been minutes, there was a brief lull, but nobody moved. That was just the first wave. That was the crown fire sweeping over them, now the braced for the final and most deadly assault.
It came as a ground inferno with winds approaching sixty miles an hour. With it came a sound that resembled the afterblast of jet engines. All the shelters flapped and shook; threatening to blow away, taking their frail human occupants with them.
Tears streamed down his soot covered face, as Vin coughed and choked on the heavy smoke. He was kept busy trying to keep the edges of his shelter tucked in. Temporarily he didn't have time to think of anything but trying to keep the fire out. He struggled for breath by pressing his face into the hastily dug depression as the fire robbed the atmosphere of life-giving oxygen.
Slowly he drew in a breath and held it, counting, then let it out; he repeated the process. He was beginning to get dizzy from the lack of air and all the while one thought kept going through his mind; he was going to die; alone.
He was concentrating so hard on just breathing and fighting the impulse to run that he didn't hear the yelling, at first. The men were shouting out their names in answer to Chris's demand for a roll call. Everyone accounted for but one.
"Vin!" Chris yelled.
Receiving no answer, Chris frantically began to search the area with the head lamp on his hard hat.
Chris's light reflected off the aluminum shelter still lying on the ground. A cold knot of fear settled in his stomach as he rushed over to the unmoving lump.
He reached down to grab the still hot tent and ripped it back, afraid of what he might find. As he did so, Vin scrambled to his feet; his eyes wild.
Startled, Chris stepped back.
"Vin! It's me, Chris!"
Looking wildly around him, Vin then turned back to Chris.
"You okay Vin?"
The younger man closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath.
Tentatively, Chris reached out a hand and placed it on Vin's shoulder. The trembling body jumped, but didn't pull back.
"You okay?" he asked.
Vin glanced sheepishly up at his boss. "Yeah...'m okay." He looked down briefly before once again meeting Chris's eyes. It wasn't easy for the young firefighter to talk about his fear but something told him from the first that he could trust this man as he could few others.
"Uh...," he hesitated, then in a voice raspier than usual from the smoke, he said, "I...don't much like small places."
Chris stared at him a moment, sensing how difficult it was for Vin to talk about this, then he gave him a somber grin and said, "Never cared much for the damn things, either."
Relieved, Vin managed to grin back; he knew Chris would understand.
"You two okay?" Buck asked as he and JD trotted up.
"Yeah...fine," Chris answered, looking around. He spotted Nathan bending over Josiah. "Is he all right?"
Buck looked back toward the pair. "Yeah, Josiah dropped his gloves when he was running; his hands are a little singed, but Nathan says that he'll be okay."
The fire boss nodded. "I'm going up to the top and see what we are dealing with."
The men were all but shouting at each other over the roar of the blaze. From where they were they seemed to be surrounded; a small island in a sea of fire. Even though the inferno had swept over them in one direction, the fire itself was creating all sorts of eddies, updrafts and downdrafts; sending the dragon in all directions.
Reaching the top, Chris could see nothing but fire. In less than an hour the blaze had erupted from covering several acres to several hundreds. Off to the west, even through the dense smoke, he could see lightening. His gut told him that it probably was not associated with any rain. He had the feeling that this had just turned in a project fire, the wildland firefighters' worse nightmare; a wildfire out of control.
Pulling out his radio, he tried to contact Missoula, but all he got was static. There was just too much interference from the fire and the lightening. The fire boss looked once again at what was left of the terrain.
Although they were standing in a relatively clear area and they were somewhat protected by the rocks, they were surrounded on all sides by the fire. At the moment, however, it seemed the safest place to wait until daylight and they could find a way out.
The men gathered what was left of their supplies, including the fire and smoke blackened shelters. They moved to a rockier area; cleared the rocks and spread the shelters on the ground. Thanks to Nathan, they all carried MREs, protein snacks and extra water in their backpacks, so they wouldn't go hungry or thirsty.
They settled in to wait out the night. The glow of the burn surrounded them, from the fire deep in the stumps of fallen trees to high up in the snags. Occasionally a crack could be heard as the fire burned through a limb and it would fall to the ground.
The night was just beginning to fade when the call came in. A passenger plane flying over a remote part of Montana on its way to Canada,, spotted a large fire and as a matter of policy, reported it.