Chris awoke to the crackling of the radio. He had fallen asleep leaning against a rock. Jerking upright, he grabbed it and pressed the 'talk' button. "This is Larabee. Come in base, over."
"This is base...Chris? Over."
"Yeah...who's this? Over."
"Gentry, are you guys okay? Over."
"Yeah, but the fire blew-up. We are boxed in. Over."
"Is there any place a chopper can set down? Over."
"Hang on a minute, over." Chris told him as he brought out his map. Then he stood up and looked around at the devastation left by the fire. As far as the eye could see in every direction lay blackened earth and the skeletons that once were beautiful trees. The sky was dark from the smoke.
Looking to the west, he saw that both ridges were stripped of every living thing. Thumbing the transmitter, he replied, "Yeah, there's an old logging trail; runs north and south. It gets wider at the south end. There should be room for a chopper to set down, over."
"Hang on, over." Gentry replied.
It was only a few seconds before he was back. "Got it, Chris. We'll get a chopper up to you as soon as possible, over."
"Roger that, out."
Chris hooked the radio back onto his belt and looked at his colleagues. The others, awakened by his conversation with the incident commander, gathered around, waiting for his instructions.
The fire boss inspected his bedraggled crew. Considering what they had been through, except for being tired and dirty, they were very lucky. The only real injuries were the minor burns on Josiah's hands.
A few hours later found the men catnapping when the sound of a large helicopter could be heard. They stood, gathered their few remaining belongings and moved far enough out of the way to give the chopper room to land.
Chris raised an eyebrow in surprise as a large Chinook helicopter appeared over the ridge and settled gently down in the clearing. He was even more surprised to find that their pilot was Ezra, who flashed them a gold-toothed grin as they boarded.
Once airborne, Chris donned a spare headset. "Ezra, I didn't know you could fly helicopters and where did you get this one."
Chinooks are primarily military vehicles. They are very large and are too expensive for most of the companies that worked for the Forestry Service.
"Well, Mr. Larabee, you will find that I'm full of surprises and as for the helicopter, well....let's just say that I called in a few favors and probably it would best to leave it at that."
"Now, Mr. Larabee," the wily pilot interrupted, "it was either this or leave you up here for several hours longer as all the FS choppers are flying helitack."
The fire boss sighed and leaned his head back against the bulkhead. Ezra was right, if this fire was as big as he suspected, every service helicopter would be used to transport equipment, personnel and water to the front lines. He was also right in that maybe it was best if he didn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Once back at the base he checked in with the incident commander while the others cleaned up and grabbed some food.
He entered the base HQ where a skeleton staff remained to co-ordinate supplies, relief crews and to track what was now a full-fledged project fire.
After talking to Gentry at the main fire camp, he headed for the mess hall. He found his team easily since they were the only ones in the place. Chris got himself something to eat and some coffee and joined his men.
Josiah studied the somber face when Larabee sat down across from him, "What's up, boss?"
Before he answered, he pointedly looked at the big behaviorist's freshly bandaged hands and raised an eyebrow.
Josiah grinned and held his hands up, flexing his fingers. "I'm fine."
Chris then looked at Nathan, sitting next to him, who shrugged. "Really not much more than a bad sunburn. A couple of blisters; that's why the dressings; just want to keep 'em clean."
The fire boss nodded then took a sip of the hot coffee, relishing the reviving liquid. Then he broke the bad news. "Seems the fire has really blown up plus all that lightening we saw last night spawned several others. The fact that we've had so little rain is a big factor."
He paused to take another drink of his hot brew.
"They are going to need every firefighter they can round up. We'll be joining them tomorrow. Since we lost all our gear, we'll gather up what we'll need this afternoon; get some sleep; then leave at dawn."
No one said anything. They finished their meals each with their private thoughts about the upcoming battle and wondering if it was going to become an all out war.
The next morning as they gathered their gear, Chris informed them of where they were going. "There's a new fire north of the main one. It's threatening a small town. We are going up to start cutting line until the groundpounders can get up there. The town is pretty remote."
Once again they boarded the jump plane piloted by Standish, even Josiah, although Chris had wanted him to stay at headquarters. The big firefighter insisted that his hands were just a little sore and he would make sure he kept his gloves with him. Chris didn't give him much argument. He knew that before this one was over they would need every available firefighter.
As they flew north they had to fly just to the west of the main fire, now dubbed the Blackstraw Ridge Fire, where it all started. The men stared out at the now massive wildfire. From their high altitude they could see smoke columns a thousand feet high. Even thought they were several miles away, they could see the smoke and flames being whipped in every which direction by a fire out of control.
Soon they were over the small mountain town, which lay in a valley. The fire was in the next valley over, heading their way.
Their job would be to first establish a fire camp, then to organize the locals and what equipment they could find. Then they would establish a fireline to protect the town. Eventually they would be joined by ground crews and heavy equipment, or at least that was the plan.
After safely landing a little ways out of town, they collected their things and started walking.
Having seen the parachutes, the chief of the local volunteer fire department, which consisted of ten men, drove out to meet them. He had been advised that the jumpers would be coming and were thankful for the professional help. Although, because they lived in a densely forested community, they had attended classes in fighting forests fires and had even put out an occasional small fire, they had never encountered anything on this scale.
Chris quickly started getting things organized. First, he established the town park, which was located in the center of the town and surrounded on all sides by businesses and residences of the inhabitants, as the base camp. From here he would plan on how to best use available personnel and equipment to most effectively fight the fire.
They found that the citizens were more than willing to help in any capacity. Since the front lines were not a place for people with no experience, they would be used for support; helping to provide meals, etc.
Once things were started at the camp, Chris left Josiah in charge to further set things up; then he commandeered a couple of trucks. Chris, the local fire chief, the volunteer firemen, the jumpers and as much equipment as they could gather; headed to the fire.
When they reached the ridge that separated the town and the fire, Chris started planning his strategy for their attack. With the help of Mathews, the fire chief, who knew this back country and all the little trails and roads that weren't on the map, they decided on the best place to start cutting line.
Chris radioed this information to Josiah then they headed out. They traveled by truck as far as they could then set out on foot. The fire boss assigned two volunteer firemen to each of the wildland firefighters. He quickly went over some basics with them and emphasized that they were to follow the jumpers' orders implicitly.
They worked through the rest of the day and night. They were well into the next when Josiah radioed to tell them that reinforcements would be arriving shortly, and to tell them that a spotter plane reported that their fire was spreading north as well as east.
Chris relayed this information to Mathews and Buck. Chris and Mathews would head back to the base camp, leaving Wilmington in charge of the fire crew.
By the time Larabee arrived, the park was a bustling hive of activity as the different crews set up their encampments while awaiting their orders. Josiah had everything ready when the exhausted fire boss arrived.
Chris quickly reviewed the new information, including weather reports that the big behaviorist had compiled, then he deployed the various hotshot crews. He sent one group to relieve the jumpers and townsmen who had now been working for over twenty-four hours straight. Soon, there would also be a couple of bulldozers borrowed from the state's highway maintenance department, to help clear brush and fuel load closer to town, in case the fire got away from them.
Vin awoke from a light doze when he heard the truck slowly making its why up the rutted trail. When it was in sight, he moved further out onto the trail so the driver could see him more clearly.
The large vehicle pulled up beside the firefighter. While several men and women jumped down from the truck bed and gathered their gear, the passenger side door opened and a tall lanky Indian stepped out.
Grinning, he offered his hand to Vin and introduced himself, "Hi, I'm Jesse Bushyhead. Are you Tanner?"
Vin shook the hand and acknowledged the introduction. "Yeah, I'm Tanner, and I take it you're our relief," he said giving the other man a tired grin.
"Yeah, just show us the way in."
The rest of the crew, by this time, was gathered around Vin and Bushyhead, waiting for Vin to take them to the front line. The smokejumper noticed that they were all Native Americans. This was by no means unusual. It was a common practice, in conjunction with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FS and the BLM to hire NA to fight forest fires. Besides having a cultural respect for the environment, they seemed to often times have a sixth sense about fire behavior.
As Vin lead them in, he asked Bushyhead, "Where y'all from?"
Jesse answered, "Tahlequah, Oklahoma. We're hotshots from the Cherokee Nation. They call us the Fire Dancers."
Tanner grinned in appreciation, and then commented, "Y'all are mighty far from home."
"Well, seems this fire has really blown up and they're thinking it might be as big as the Yellowstone fire in '88. Plus, they've got some smaller fires that've popped up down in Colorado and New Mexico. So they are bringing in as many crews as they can to get a handle on it as soon as possible."
Vin nodded in understanding. The Yellowstone Fire was the biggest in US recorded history; consuming thousands of acres of forest. Every firefighter was well versed on that fire and they knew that conditions were very similar.
Once he had shown the hotshots where they'd be working, the jumpers and volunteers headed back to the base camp for some much needed rest and hot food.
The nest morning Chris woke his crew early. As they ate breakfast, he told them that while the fire was not contained they had managed to divert it away from the town. Now, with more help on the way, they were needed elsewhere.
So, they collected their gear and were driven several miles to a small airport where they were met by a jump plane.
Far to the northeast a call came into the warden of a minimum security prison. They were calling up his crew of firefighters.
In the wildlands of the west, hotshot crews were made up of all types of people. There were, besides those of the different government agencies, crews from every level of society. The FS and BLM had discovered a valuable resource in the prison system.
Inmates with a minimal security status and on good behavior were trained and allowed to work on fire crews. They were paid a dollar a day. Surprisingly, the men really enjoyed the work and it provided an extra incentive for good behavior.
Willy Clayton had managed to keep his nose clean for four years. He was up for parole in another six months but when the fire call came in, he decided that he couldn't wait that long.
He hadn't heard from his wife in several months. Word had reached him by a friend on the outside that she may have taken off with his ex-partner. Normally he wouldn't have considered it much of a loss, but in a moment of drunken stupidity he let slip where he had hidden the stash from his last job, and before he could hide it elsewhere, he was caught for a previous theft.
Clayton was mainly a two-bit thief. Home break-ins were his specialty. He didn't carry a gun usually and he was careful to pick houses where no one was home. On his last job he hit pay dirt.
It was the home of an apparently, eccentric, old woman. The house was big, old and relatively easy to get into. About the only time she left the house was to attend church services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.
He figured that it would be an easy target and there might be some old stuff lying around that he could hock. Come to find out, as he was rummaging through the house, he discovered that the elderly lady must have had a distrust of banks because he found fists full of money stuffed in odd places; jewelry that he felt certain was real and the piece-de-resistance, in a antiquated safe behind a picture in the bedroom, bearer bonds, totaling up to a quarter of a million dollars.
He stashed everything away, except for some of the cash; in what he thought was a safe place. He intended to let things cool off then find a fence to slowly get rid of the jewelry and bonds. His mistake was in letting the whole thing slip to his wife.
He suspected that she was the one who had turned him in; not for his last job, but for the one before and unfortunately, there remained some evidence to link him to it. Now this revelation did not present itself until in the last few months when suddenly he lost contact with her.
He managed to get word to a friend on the outside that did some checking. It seemed that she had quiet abruptly left town and in the company of a friend with whom he occasionally did jobs.
Because of his good behavior status, he was able to get on the hotshot crew and found that he actually enjoyed it; it gave him a sense of pride and fulfillment as few things had ever done. But now he saw it as a chance to make a break for it and find the no-good bitch and get even.
The prison crew was transported about fifty miles north. They were seventy strong with one armed guard for every ten men.
Clayton was well into his second shift when he saw his opportunity. One of the men sprained his ankle. The guard and another inmate helped him back to the fire camp.
With the three of them gone, it left some wide gaps in the fire line. Clayton merely slipped away into the forest on the back side of the line.
He knew enough about fire that he figured he could work his way around it. The wind seemed to be driving it northeast so he headed southwest, thinking to skirt around the flank. What he didn't know was that there was another fire roaring up the valley from the southwest and it was headed right for a lake resort.
The massive fire was sending out tentacles in all directions besides individual fires popping up all over the Northwest. Chris was now taking his crew up to head off the dragon before it gobbled the Pine Lake Resort. The plan was to try and herd the fire toward the northeast and the backside of another fire. If that was successful the fire would burn itself out.
The plane ride was very bumpy. As they flew over the area, Chris and the spotter tried to find a place to land. The jump wouldn't be easy; it was a very dense forest. Finally he decided that the safest place would be over the road. They would have to trudge in several miles but it was better than risking getting hung up in the trees.
The streamers darted to and fro as they danced crazily to the ground. Chris frowned. The wind was very erratic and he wasn't too happy about it; still, they had jumped under worse conditions. He looked at the spotter; technically it was his call.
Jacobs looked back at Larabee. He knew exactly what the fire boss was thinking; it was a jumper's worse scenario. Studying the landscape again, he spoke into his mike. "Standish, let's climb another five hundred feet and make another pass."
Ezra radioed his acknowledgement and gently banked the plane. At the higher altitude, streamers were once again released. At first they floated lazily down then they started jerking wildly around as they got closer to the ground.
Again, Jacobs looked at Chris and shrugged; it didn't look like it was going to get any better. Chris scanned the fire in the distance. He half wished he could let this one go. There were just too many things about this one he didn't like, but the resort was not only a big money maker for this part of the state, but since the main building was over one hundred years old; it was on the National Registry. It was going to take at least twenty four hours to divert troops and equipment up there.
"Okay, let's do it. Standish?" Chris replied to the silent statement.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"The winds are erratic but mainly from the southwest. How about keeping our present altitude and making a pass just to the south of the road? Your best judgment."
A few seconds lapsed as Ezra considered the plan. It was probably the best option so he said, "I concur. I'm turning to make the run."
Larabee turned to talk to his men. "All right, listen up! Looks like the best place to land is the road. The forest is pretty thick, be careful!"
The men gave Chris a thumbs-up to let him know that they understood.
Vin, as usual, was the first out with Chris close behind. At first the two jumpers were almost side by side but the swirling wind soon separated them.
Things seemed to be going well until Vin caught down air. Suddenly he lost all ability to control his chute. Within the blink of an eye, he was falling hard and fast. The ground was racing toward him at twenty-two feet per second.
He looked down, knowing that the landing was going to be hard and for once prayed that he would land in the tree tops. What he saw made his blood run cold.
He was headed straight for a stand of blackened spruce; trees left standing after a previous burn. Before he even had time to register the implications he felt the impact; followed immediately by a stabbing pain in his left thigh.
Gritting his teeth against the throbbing in his leg, he opened his eyes and looked around. To his amazement he was able to see out over the tops of the trees and then he looked down. A wave of nausea swept over him at what he saw.
He was literally sitting atop a blackened tree and there protruding through his thigh was the twelve inch tip of the spruce. Like a lance it had penetrated his suit and leg. Well, he though wryly, 'be careful what you wish for'.
He grabbed hold of the spike and bent over it so that his weight would not pull him backwards. His first thoughts were to wonder if anyone had seen him go off course and then; how would they find him, impaled high up in the tree?
So he clung to the tree and yelled and yelled. His words scattered like down on the erratic winds and the tree swayed.
Clayton was worried and lost. He hadn't realized the forest was so dense; he was a city boy; born and bred. When he hatched the scheme to ditch the hotshot crew, he had only been thinking about finding his ex and getting even. Belatedly, he realized that perhaps he should have planned things in a little more detail. Finding his way out of the forest hadn't really crossed his mind. He had assumed getting away from the guards would be the hardest part.
Now, he wasn't even sure which direction he was going. He even suspected that he might be walking in circles because the terrain looked very familiar, but hell, who was he kidding, it *all* looked familiar, yet unfamiliar since he didn't know one tree from the next.
At first, he thought he was hearing things; the wind was blowing through the treetops, making a constant whistling sound so it took him a moment to understand that he was hearing someone yelling for help.
He had been walking for hours and was more than a little desperate to get out of the forest, so he didn't give it a lot of thought when he decided to follow the call.
Vin yelled until he was hoarse. He felt himself grow lightheaded and dizzy. He knew enough about such injuries to know that there was the possibility that his femoral artery might have been pierced. If that were the case, he might be slowly bleeding to death, so it was time to do something.
First, he removed his helmet and gloves and tossed them down to the ground which was a good fifteen feet or so beneath him. Next, he unfastened one of the connectors that attached the parachute to his jump harness. It fell away easily. When he landed, the canopy of his chute had spread out over the trees behind him. Because of that, there was some tension on the lines connected to the opposite shoulder and when he let the connectors go, the release caused him to spin slightly. The tree snapped and he hurtled to the ground with a two foot section of tree protruding from his thigh, front to back.
Clayton saw the man fall. He approached him cautiously but could see that he wasn't moving. He recognized the jumpsuit and quickly looked around for other smokejumpers. Not seeing any, he bent down to check the other man's pulse.
Vin groaned, startling the convict.
Again, he glanced around, waited a moment to see if he was regaining consciousness and then began searching through Vin's personal gear bag. He hoped to find a compass but he was pleasantly surprised to find a gun. Stuffing it into the waistband of his pants, he continued to rummage through Vin's things.
The crew gathered; all talking excitedly. Those that had jumped after Chris and Vin had seen Vin catch the down air and go off course. They hadn't seen where he landed though.
Quickly Chris organized his team. JD and Josiah would stay and gather the supplies when the plane made its pass. The others would head out in the general direction Vin had taken.
"Buck, give Josiah your radio."
Buck promptly handed over the instrument to the big behaviorist, who gave his boss a sharp nod as he attached it to his belt.
"We'll radio you when we find Vin," Chris instructed, already half jogging away from him with the others close behind.
They heard a faint cracking sound and a yell. Picking up the pace, they crashed through some underbrush in time to see a man bending over something on the ground.
When he heard them the man jumped up, startled, and turned his head toward them. As they got nearer, Chris saw him pull something out of the waistband of his pants and point it toward the ground. As they got nearer, the man yelled at them, "Stay back or I'll shoot him!"
Chris stopped and put his hand up for the others to do likewise. Panting from exertion, the fire boss took a moment to assess the situation.
"Chris...," Buck started to say.
"I know," their leader hissed. They could all see that the body lying on the ground was Vin and from what the guy holding the gun said, he was alive.
Raising his hands up and away from his body, Chris said, "Look; we just want to get to our buddy. He's hurt; we need to help him."
Clayton stood immobile for a moment trying to decide what to do. He really wasn't a killer, nor in truth a violent man. As a matter of fact he usually went out of his way to avoid violence, but he couldn't get caught; he had to get away.
On the other hand, he was hopelessly lost. These men were smokejumpers; they could lead him out of there. What would happen then he decided not to think about right now. First he had to get out of this *fuckin'* forest.
"All right, but first take off the belts and backpacks," he said, keeping the gun pointed at Vin's head. "Turn your pockets inside out!"
Reluctantly, the jumpers did as they were told. Then Clayton said, "Just one of you can come over. The other two stand there with your hands in the air. Any funny business and your friend gets it!"
Chris ached to be the one to go but knew that was foolish, so he motioned for Nathan to step forward.
Nathan, still with his hands in the air, said, "I'm a paramedic. My supplies are in my backpack; let me bring it."
Willy wavered indecisively; it could be a trick. About that time Vin moaned softly and the con glanced down at him, trying not to see that large piece of wood sticking out of his leg. It kinda made him sick t' his stomach just thinking about it.
"Okay, but you try anything funny and I'll put a bullet through his head."
Nathan nodded and slowly picked up his backpack. Cautiously, he approached his downed friend. Glancing at the man holding the gun, he then turned all of his attention to Vin.
Frowning, he tried to figure out what that was that was sticking out of Vin's leg. As he got closer and realized what it was, he felt his insides turn to ice.
Kneeling at Vin's side, opposite the gunman, he made his first assessment. Taking a pulse and then using a small flashlight he checked Vin's pupils. Next he gently probed the back of his head. He felt a good sized knot but it wasn't bleeding. The back of his head had been partially protected by the high, heavy collar of the jump suit.
Next he checked the rest of Vin's body and but for the leg with the stake through it, the young jumper didn't appear to have any broken bones. At last he turned to the leg and couldn't help but wince.
He reached for his pack but was brought up short when the other man yelled, "Stop!"
Nathan froze and slowly looked at the man holding the gun, noting that he was perspiring profusely and shaking slightly. The medic surmised that the man wasn't really used to handling guns and that made him even more dangerous.
"I was just going to get a pair of scissors to cut away the pants so I c'n see the wound better," Nathan said evenly and calmly.
"Oh...okay, but slowly...any funny business, you're both dead," Clayton warned, putting the gun closer to Vin's temple.
Nathan could see that the man's finger was on the trigger and the way the man's hands were trembling, Nathan was afraid the gun was going to go off accidentally.
"Look, mister, I just want to help my friend. I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize his safety. So, why don't' you back up just a little; give me some room to work."
Clayton considered this and decided to back off a little. "Fine, but remember, I can shoot you just as easy."
He stood and took a couple of steps backward, away from the man lying on the ground. Glancing sideways, he saw the two other jumpers standing as still as statues although the look on the face of the shorter one could charbroil a grizzly.
"You two, pick up those packs, carefully, and bring them over here!"
As if in slow motion, Chris and Buck picked up the packs and brought them to the gunman.
Nathan found his scissors and meticulously cut the heavy fabric away from the stob. He noted that surprisingly, there wasn't as much blood as he expected. He looked up at the gunman who had waved Chris and Buck away from the packs. The man was even more nervous now, trying to watch all three of them.
"Mister?" Nathan began, "I just need to get some things out of my pack to clean up his leg."
"Alright..fine! Just watch your step!"
Willy was getting impatient; he didn't have time for this. He needed to get out of here before the police found him. Letting the guy tend to his friend did, however, give him some time to think.
Nathan, in the meantime, frowning, gently probed the area around the stake, which elicited a moan from the unconscious man. Chris made to move toward them when Clayton swung the gun in his direction.
"Stay where you are!" He fairly screamed.
Freezing, Chris glared at the man. "I just want to see if my friend is alright; Nathan?"
The medic didn't look up from his examination of the wound. "He's got a concussion, but that's not the big problem. The big problem is this piece of wood sticking through his leg. It might have nicked or severed the femoral artery. There isn't much bleeding on the outside but that doesn't mean he's not bleeding on the inside."
Nathan looked up and met his boss's eyes. "We need to get him to the hospital. He needs surgery."
This time it was Buck who was made to stop his forward motion by the gun. "I *said* don't move!" Clayton yelled.
Buck scowled and held up his hands. "Easy, Buddy. Nathan, can't ya just take it out?"
Nathan shook his head. "No, it's possible that the wood is putting pressure on the artery; keeping it from bleeding too much. If I try to take it out, he could bleed to death before we could get him to the hospital."
Before anyone else could say anything, the tense silence was broken by the crackling of one of the radios now lying beside the gunman and Josiah's booming voice resounded.
"Hey boss, you found Vin, yet? Over."
Everyone's eyes whipped to the source of the sound.
Several moments passed with no one saying anything or moving. Then Josiah's voice was heard again, this time with a note of anxiety. "Chris, you there? Over."
"Who's that?" Clayton demanded.
Calmly, Chris answered, "The rest of my crew."
The convict chewed on his lip, trying to formulate some kind of plan. If he ignored the radio, those other jumpers would come looking for their team mates; they might be armed and he could lose control of the situation.
Finally he pointed the gun once again at Vin but continued looking at Chris. He couldn't help but see the leader's jaw muscles jump and the hard glint to his eyes. This was a man to be reckoned with, but Clayton, with the sixth sense born of someone who has had to use his wits to survive, felt that the injured jumper meant more to him than as a mere colleague.
"You," he pointed at Larabee, "radio back your co-ordinates. Make it sound good or your friend is a dead man."
Chris nodded his understanding and slowly moved to pick up his radio.
"Josiah, this is Larabee, over"
"Boss? You okay? We were starting to get worried, over."
"We found Vin. He's hurt bad, I just didn't hear you at first, over."
"Where are you? We are on the way, over."
Chris gave them directions and signed off. Clayton stretched out his hand and Chris gave him the radio, which he attached to his belt.
Then Chris asked, "Look, what is it you want?"
Willy clenched his jaw and quickly looked around. "I want *out* of this fuckin' forest!"
Larabee studied the man. He was wearing the standard green pants and yellow Nomex firefighter's uniform. The only difference was that on the back of his shirt was stenciled in large black letters, the word 'Prisoner'.
So, the man was on a convict hotshot crew. Unfortunately, if he had run off and from all appearances, that was what happened, that made him desperate and desperate men were very dangerous men.
Chris made a decision. "Look, I'll lead you out of here if you'll let the rest of my crew go." He pointed to where Vin was lying. "He needs a hospital. Let them go and I'll get you anywhere you want to go."
"Chris..." Buck started to object but was cut short by the glare his boss shot at him.
The convict carefully studied Larabee and the others before answering. "No."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "You don't need all of us to take you out of here," he ground out with barely concealed anger.
"Maybe not," Clayton replied, "but I ain't taking a chance that you'll lead me in circles while your friends make it back and then send the feds for us."
"They won't." Chris bargained. "I give you my word."
"Yeah, right," Clayton replied cynically. "I'm supposed to believe that." It wasn't a question.
Chris made a low sound in his throat that, to Buck, sounded very much like a growl. The big firefighter saw his friend's hands clench into fists. He braced himself to stop Chris in case he was going to do something really stupid; like trying to take on a desperate convict who was pointing a gun at Vin's head.
A split second later he saw his boss's hands reluctantly relax. Obviously the same thoughts had occurred to him.
About that time the radio crackled again, causing them all to jump with the suddenness of it.
"Chris?" They could hear Josiah ask.
Clayton hesitated only a moment before unclipping the radio and handing it to Chris. For a brief second both men held onto the instrument; a glare exchanged, a silent message sent.
The convict let go and without taking his eyes off the fire boss, moved his gun to once again point at Vin's head. Chris didn't acknowledge the message, but Clayton knew he understood.
"Chris? Your signal is stronger so we must be getting close, over."
All the men turned their heads to the trees where Chris, Buck and Nathan had come out. Shortly, Josiah and JD broke through.
"Tell them to stop," Clayton ordered.
"Josiah, hold up and don't move," Chris commanded.
The big behaviorist halted mid-pace. Quickly he took in the situation and threw out his arm to stop JD.
"Wha...," the young man started to ask.
"Sh...," Josiah cautioned as he studied the tableau in front of him.
What he saw made his blood run cold. Nathan was kneeling by a body on the ground and he didn't appear to notice the new arrivals. He was very intently ministering to who could only be Vin.
Buck and Chris were standing a ways off and to the right, carefully watching Josiah and JD. And, in between, stood a man dressed like a firefighter, but he was holding a gun pointed directly at Vin.
JD took all this in a few seconds slower and then said, "Josiah, that man has a gun!"
Josiah grimaced and looked at the young firefighter out of the corner of his eye. "You noticed," pausing, he then continued in a voice that was half whisper, "it seems we got ourselves a situation."
Nathan, while carefully attending to Vin, was very aware of everything that was transpiring. He had taken a marker and outlined the swelling around the stake. This would help him determine how much and how fast Vin was bleeding internally.
Now he was cutting away the rest of the jumpsuit pant-leg, which wasn't easy because of the Kevlar. Finally he managed to cut through as much as possible without moving the leg.
Josiah and JD had just arrived and Nathan sat back on his haunches. He looked up at the convict who was standing close with the gun pointed at Vin. All eyes were turned toward the two who were now standing like deer caught in headlights.
Then the medic looked down at his patient only to find two steel blue eyes staring intently at the gunman. Then he watched as those same eyes drifted down to the gun and in a moment of clarity, he knew *exactly* what Vin was thinking.
"Mister," Nathan said startling the convict and he let out a slow sigh of relief when the man didn't accidentally pull the trigger.
"What?" Clayton exclaimed, trying to calm his racing heart. He was NOT cut out for this kind of stuff.
The medic looked back down at the impaled leg. His glance slid sideways to see that Vin's eyes were now mere slits and they were shooting daggers at him. Nathan would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so desperate. Then he spread his hands and addressed Clayton, "I need someone to help me get this jumpsuit off him."
'Shit', Willy thought, 'this is just wasting time and I need to get out of here.' Out loud he said, "Okay...okay," and then motioned to Chris.
"Get your men over here, get those packs off and have them sit down over there." He pointed to a spot about ten yards away.
Once that was done, he instructed, "You, with the mustache, help your friend."
Buck glanced at Chris, who nodded slightly. He then moved to Vin's side, across from Nathan. He knelt down and waited for the medic to tell him what to do before touching the downed jumper.
Thinking about it a moment, Nathan then said to the convict, "It'd be easier and faster with another person."
Clayton grimaced, if he had his way they'd just leave the guy, but somehow he knew that that wasn't an option. "Fine! Just hurry up!"
This time there was no leaving Chris out; he was the one to move in to help. Then with him holding Vin's leg, the other two removed the remainder of the jumpsuit.
Chris realized that Vin was conscious when he grimaced as they moved him. He could tell that the young jumper was trying hard not to make any noise.
He didn't have time to wonder why Vin didn't want anyone to know he was awake as he concentrated on trying not to jiggle the leg.
Finally the jumpsuit was off and Chris could see that Vin's face was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. Vin was hurting...bad. "Nathan, can we give him something for the pain?" he whispered.
"Yeah," Nathan said and started to reach in his backpack.
"What are you doing?" Clayton asked.
Nathan looked up and then pointed at the fallen man. "All that moving around has really caused him a lot of pain. I want to give him something for it."
These men were really trying his patience. If he didn't need them so desperately, he'd just tie all of them up and leave them.
"For Christ's sake! All right! Then we are leaving!"
Nathan, as an EMT, was allowed to carry a small supply of morphine. He took out a pre-measured cartridge and prepared to give Vin an injection.
"No...." The objection was barely heard.
Nathan stopped and looked down at the injured man. "What?"
"Vin...," Nathan started to object when Chris interrupted him. The fire boss leaned close to his friend. "Vin, look, we're going to have to carry you and that means it's going to be a bumpy ride. You need some medication to help make it easier."
"Chris...," Vin began
"No! You need the medicine. I'm not going to argue with you."
"No, no buts." Chris looked up at Nathan, steel in his eyes. "Nathan give him the shot."
The medic nodded and loosened Vin's pants so that he could pull them down enough to expose the upper hip. The men rolled him carefully, trying to not jostle his injured leg too much, but even that slight movement caused the large muscles of his leg to spasm and he cried out in pain.
Quickly Nathan swabbed the skin and injected the morphine and they rolled him back. Vin was gritting his teeth to keep from yelling. All of them were sweating profusely.
Lastly, Nathan told Buck and Chris that he wanted to wrap Vin's leg and the stob to stabilize it. What they didn't need was for it to be wiggling around and creating more damage.
Clayton was getting really impatient. To the north and northwest, great plumes of smoke could be seen, but there was no way to tell how far away the fire actually was. "You guys ready?"
Chris stood and faced the gunman. "Look, let Nathan stay with Vin and leave them a radio. Let them get Vin to the hospital. The rest of us will go as hostages."
For a brief moment he thought the ex-con might go for it, but in the end, Clayton said, "No...we all go."
Barely able to contain his anger, Chris tried one more time. "You want out of here, carrying Vin will just slow us down."
Clayton looked at Larabee. "Then we'll just leave him here."
All the men stood at that and faced the convict. "Not an option," Chris growled.
"Then pick him up and let's get going."
Everyone stood perfectly still for a fraction of a second. It occurred to all of them that if they rushed him, maybe...and then once again Clayton pointed the gun at Vin's head. He finally realized that the injured man was his best insurance for getting out of there alive.
They had been trudging southwest for over an hour, trying hard to ignore Vin's moans. They were using one of the fire shelters folded over two sturdy limbs as a makeshift stretcher.
Now, Nathan signaled a halt.
"What are we stopping for?" Clayton asked.
The men carefully placed the injured man on the ground and then Nathan said, "I need to check his wound."
Not waiting for an answer, he proceeded to unwrap the dressing. He was pleased to note that the swelling and bruising had only increased slightly. Making another circle that outlined the current swelling with his marker, he then checked the rest of Vin's vital signs. His temperature had gone up some and so had his heart rate; both not unexpected.
Vin was able to be aroused, so Nathan encouraged him to take a couple of extra strength Tylenol and some water. Then they picked him up and resumed their trek.
They'd been walking for almost an hour more when Josiah said, "Boss?"
Chris answered, "Yeah?" but it was more of a grunt as the toll of carrying his wounded friend was beginning to wear on all of them.
"The wind has shifted."
The fire boss, who had been concentrating more on just getting them, especially Vin, out of there safely, now shifted that concentration to his surroundings. All day the wind had been erratic and mostly from the west; at ground level, it had been rather light, but now it was coming more from the south and it was stronger.
Chris looked up to see the trees swaying back and forth. This was bad news.
"Hold up!" He yelled.
"What's going on?" Clayton demanded.
"The wind has shifted. We're walking straight into the fire," Chris explained.
"You're lying." The ex-con accused.
"Why would I lie? My friend is hurt. All I want to do is get him to the hospital."
"You said that this was the quickest way out."
"It is," Chris argued, "but there could now be fire between us and the road."
Clayton scrutinized the fire boss carefully. He actually was inclined to believe him but on the other hand, he wouldn't put it past him to try and use his knowledge of the forest to try and trick him. "Was there a fire in that direction?"
"Yes, but it was headed more easterly. Now that the wind has turned, it will be coming straight at us. It's stronger; there is no predicting how fast the fire will travel. We could be walking into an inferno."
"But you don't know that for sure."
Chris was beginning to lose his temper. "Of course not, if you'd let me have the radio, I could try and find out."
"Look, I just want to call for a weather report, that's all. It's standard operating procedure."
Clayton weighed the odds. The man certainly sounded like he was telling the truth, but he was trying to save his friend's life. He looked in the direction they were headed. He couldn't see any smoke, but they were in a gully and the sky was turning overcast. Besides with all the trees, he wasn't sure if he could see anything, anyway.
"No...we keep going. I'm not going to give you a chance to tip anyone off."
"Mister...," Josiah started to say.
"Shut-up! Just keep walking. If you want to get your friend some help stop yapping and get moving."
Once again they started moving slowly through the rough country, carrying their precious load.
It was starting to get dark when they topped a hill that was somewhat clear of foliage and what they could see from this vantage point resembled something straight out of hell. To the south and west were walls of flame, and the wind was blowing it in their direction. Chris estimated that it was about 5 miles away by land, but with the way the wind was blowing it wouldn't take long before it reached them.
At Chris's signal, the men gently put Vin down. Nathan immediately went to work checking Vin over.
Clayton didn't even object to the stop; he was too mesmerized by the raging inferno before them. He turned to find Larabee staring in the opposite direction. Slowly he turned to follow the fire boss's line of site.
They were surrounded on three sides by fire and with the wind created by the fires; it was a toss-up which would reach them first. He was so enthralled by the sight that he almost didn't see the big, older firefighter make a sudden move toward him.
He was so overwhelmed with the horrific sight, that the big behaviorist easily wrestled the gun out of his hand and threw him to the ground. Josiah was holding the gun on the convict when Chris moved up beside him, grinning evilly. Wordlessly, Josiah handed Chris the gun.
"Give me the radio," he demanded.
Clayton unhooked the radio and handed it to the fire boss.
Switching it on, Chris contacted the fire base. He explained the situation and told them that they were going to head east, which was, as yet, untouched by fire. That was the direction of the lodge and the lake it sat beside.
Assured that help was on the way as soon as possible, Chris signed off. Putting the gun on safety and shoving it into the waistband of his pants, he addressed Clayton. "You're welcome to leave, but I wouldn't take bets on your chances of surviving. You can stay with us if you want, but you step one foot out of line and I'll tie you to the nearest tree and let nature take its course."
Clayton stared wide-eyed at Larabee. He could see by the look in the man's eyes that he meant what he said. However, Willy had no intention of giving him any excuse to leave him. The ex-con had never seen a fire from this perspective and what he saw scared the shit out of him.
Satisfied that Clayton would no longer be a threat, Chris hurried over to Vin's side. "Nate, how's he doing?"
The EMT was trying to get the injured man to sip some water, which wasn't easy because Vin was now shivering violently and the shivering was causing the leg muscles to spasm again.
"'Bout as well as can be expected, but his temperature is going to spike. That's why he's shivering. The shivering is causing his muscles to spasm around the stob. I've given him some more morphine." Nathan paused and looked down at Vin.
Taking a deep breath, he relayed the message that he knew Chris didn't want to hear. "Chris he's getting an infection. If we don't get him to a hospital soon..."
Chris glared at the EMT. "What Nathan?"
"He...could lose his leg." Nathan hurried to qualify his statement when he saw the look of shock on their leader's face. "Right now there is still sufficient blood flow; his foot is warm and I can still feel a pedal pulse, but...if that infection spreads, then he is in big trouble." Nathan didn't have the heart to add that he could also die. He had a feeling that Chris knew that, anyway.
Nathan could see that Larabee was weighing all his options; none of which were good at the moment. Chris turned to look at the fire and then toward the east. It really wasn't a choice; it was their *only* option. He just prayed that they could make it before the fire over took them.
"Let's go!" Larabee said.
They were now in the last stages of twilight, which slowed them down. Luckily they were all still wearing their helmets with their lanterns on them, so they had some light.
From the hill he had spotted a creek that appeared to wind its way eastward; hopefully to empty into the lake. They made for it in the hopes that it would be easier to follow in the dark.
With a couple of short rest stops to relieve aching muscles, they reached the creek in a little under two hours. Drinking water was limited since they were forced to leave their packs behind and what they did have went mostly to Vin, but now they took a short breather and a few sips of water.
Chris watched as Nathan tried to get Vin to take some water but the young jumper moaned and turned his head. Chris knelt beside his friend and took the water from the medic. He, too, tried to get the injured man to drink but to no avail.
"I suspect the morphine is making him nauseated," Nathan said.
Chris raked his hand through his hair. He wasn't a doctor but even he could tell that Vin was not doing well, which was confirmed when he met Nathan's eyes.
"Shit!" He said in frustration.
Standing, he yelled, "Okay, let's get going!"
They picked up the litter and started out again. The going was slow. Any false step could cause a fall and possibly kill their friend.
An hour or so later, JD spoke up, "Hey, Buck."
"Yeah, kid," panting slightly.
"Do you hear that?"
"That, that sound; almost sound like a...a...train, maybe."
That got Buck's attention. "Chris! Hold up!"
Coming to a stop, Chris asked, "What is it, Buck?"
But the big firefighter was listening, hard. Then he heard it, too; faint, but it was there and it made his blood run cold. "God help us," he whispered and then, louder, "Chris, I think we've just run out of time and luck! Listen!"
Larabee heard it, too. The fire was right on their tail.
Ezra P. Standish would be the last person to admit it, or, God forbid, tell anyone, but he was actually finding that the challenge of flying these big tankers to be quite satisfying. He found that there was a great deal of skill involved in flying low and slow enough to effectively drop the fire retardant on the prescribed area. Plus, there was the danger element. The fire itself was always a threat, but also, flying that low, there was the possibility of running into trees, and the unpredictable winds created by fire made it doubly hazardous. However, he discovered that he was very good at it.
He had just left the tanker base with a full load, headed northeast, when the call came in.
"Standish, this is base, over."
"This is Standish, over."
"Standish, we are going to divert you to Cold Creek. Larabee and his team are right in the path of a firestorm; they are without shelters and they are carrying an injured man."
Ezra was already turning the plane to the required coordinates, a cold lump forming in his stomach. "Who...who is the injured man? Over."
Ezra increased the air speed, his face set in grim determination.
Now that they were more than half way through the fire season, the firefighters seemed to be satisfied that he could perform his duties adequately, even skillfully, but he wasn't one of them. Despite the importance of his job, he wasn't jumping out of planes and battling the beast hand to hand.
However, he had come to greatly admire these soldiers of the wildland fires. And while their acceptance of him into their inner circle had been slow, it had been Vin Tanner that had made him feel most comfortable; seeming to accept him for who he was.
Tanner had joined in on a few of the poker games Ezra, when not flying, regularly participated in. He found the younger man to have a quiet but razor sharp wit that thoroughly amused him.
Now, the knowledge that it was Mr. Tanner that was so grievously injured and in imminent peril; distressed him more than he cared to admit.
He was getting near the coordinates and what he saw terrified him. He was coming from the west; before him was an ocean of fire. How ever was he going to find the jumpers?
"Base, this is Standish, over."
"I'm close to the coordinates; however, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to find them. There is fire everywhere, over."
"Larabee said they were following Cold Creek to the lake, over."
"Roger that; is there any way to patch into Larabee's radio? Over"
"Will do; stand by, over."
The strained, out-of-breath, voice of the fire boss came across the air-waves with a distant roaring in the background. "Larabee!"
"Chris, this is Ezra. I have a full load of retardant and I'm going to attempt to lay a path for you to the lake. I have the coordinates of Cold Creek but I don't know how to tell where you are."
His transmission was, at first, met with silence, then Larabee's labored voice answered, "Don't...have...much...time. Estimate...half-mile from...lake. Make...best guess. Trust...you."
For a fraction of a second, Ezra was stunned. While Larabee had relented somewhat on his attitude toward the Southerner, he had never considered the possibility that he had earned the fire boss's trust. However, he quickly brought his mind back to the present situation. While he couldn't judge the speed of the fire from his position he could see the smoke blowing in an easterly direction. He could tell that there were strong winds blowing the smoke by the way it was 'laying' fairly horizontal to the fire, therefore, logically, the fire was moving at a great rate of speed.
Normally he would have a co-pilot with him to help with the instruments, but Donovan, the young ex-bomber pilot, who usually filled that position, had come down with an acute case of appendicitis and was currently recovering from surgery. So this time Ezra was flying solo and on instruments only.
Ezra lined the plane up, started his slow descent and headed in.
The men carrying their wounded comrade were moving as fast as they could over the rough terrain at night. They knew that the jostling had to be very painful for Vin, but they had no choice. The fire was coming on them fast.
Chris didn't look behind them to see how close it was, he didn't dare. If any one of them tripped, they would not only lose valuable time, but they could make Vin's injuries worse.
What Standish was going to try to do was their only hope, but it was very dangerous. Besides flying at a low altitude in the dark, he would be flying into thick smoke; he might not be able to see any tall trees until it was too late.
The air was getting thick from the smoke being pushed ahead of the wind-driven fire. About that time there was a slight change in the sound. Chris prayed that what he was hearing was the tanker.
With one hand he fumbled to unbutton his shirt. Finally he had the NoMex shirt off except for the arm that was supporting the liter carrying Vin. "Stop!" He yelled, bringing the men to a temporary halt. Shifting his load to the other hand, he pulled on the sleeve and removed his shirt. One handed, he threw it over Vin's face; then they pushed on.
Soon they could hear the drone of the big tanker as it approached. The sound grew louder and louder, fiercely competing with the roar of the fire now racing almost equal with them on the south side and not far behind on the north. The heat was getting unbearable.
"Keep your heads down," Chris yelled over the deafening cacophony. About that time the tanker began dumping its load of fire retardant, covering the men with a thick coating of reddish dust, but also laying a path to safety.
They faltered slightly as the heavy retardant hit them but Larabee managed to get to his radio and relay to Standish that he had been on target but also, that the fire would soon surround them.
"Roger that!...Circling around for another run! Over!"
By the time they heard the tanker for the second time, the intense heat was overwhelming. It was sheer willpower that kept the men moving. Vaguely, Chris thought it sounded louder than before. This time the drop was more to their left, where the fire was moving slower and most of the load missed the men.
Although Ezra wasn't exactly sure where the team was, he felt his estimation of their location was as good as it could be. Along with the coordinates there was a slight break in the fire which he hoped was the creek bed. He decided to make the second run slightly to the north side in the hopes it would make the heat slightly less intense. Because of the turbulence created by the fire and his complete concentration on the job at hand, Standish failed to notice the slight bump that signaled that he had hit something.
He had just finished dumping the load when the alarm sounded; the starboard engine was on fire. Ezra calmly reviewed his options while flipping on the radio switch.
"Mayday...mayday. This is Tanker two-niner!"
"Tanker two-niner, this is base, over."
"Base...my starboard engine is on fire...I'm going to try to ditch in the lake."
"Roger that two-niner. What are your coordinates? Over."
Ezra relayed the coordinates while he fought to bank the plane; his intention was to try a water landing. He would never be able to gain enough altitude to bail out; so the lake was really the only solution.
He circled the plane and started his descent. He prayed that he could bring the plane in at an angle that would keep it from breaking up, but it was becoming more and more difficult to control the craft.
Ezra felt the plane lurch sharply as the belly grazed the treetops. Fighting with all his strength to keep the wings level and the nose up, he braced himself for the impact.
Panting and exhausted, the men struggled on the uneven ground of the creek bed. Finally they could see a black area ahead that Chris prayed was the lake.
Just as they stumbled to a halt on the lakeshore, Buck shouted, "My God, look!"
Having reached relative safety, the men stopped and stared in disbelief where
Buck was pointing. A plane's headlights were coming straight toward them over the lake; low over the lake with a fire in one of its engines.
They watched in horror as the craft skimmed the surface; then the port wing dipped, flipping the plane sideways. As the plane rolled the wings broke away from the fuselage which continued to roll a couple of times before coming to a stop and then slowly started to sink.
The men on shore seemed frozen to the ground as the tableau unfolded before them.
"Dear God," whispered Josiah.
That seemed to galvanize the team. "Over here!" yelled Chris, indicating an area about 20 feet wide between the lake and the tree line on the north side of the creek. The men carefully set the makeshift liter on the ground as far away from the quickly closing fire as possible.
As soon as they were assured that Vin was as safe as they could get him, Buck, Chris and Josiah started stripping off shirts, boots and socks. When JD began to do likewise, Chris stopped him, "Stay here and start clearing brush!"
"But...," JD began to protest but this time Buck interrupted. "JD, we are bigger. We may need to break Ezra out of there; now don't argue; we need you here!"
With that the three men plunged into the lake, swimming toward the sinking aircraft.
The first thing Ezra became aware of was the dull throbbing pain in his head, followed closely by the sharp, stabbing pain in his left arm. Groaning, he opened his eyes, trying to remember what happened.
He was lying pressed against the steering column and slowly he began to recall the circumstances that led to his present predicament. That memory jolted him to full consciousness and to a wave of panic as he became aware of the rocking motion of what was left of the tanker.
He had ditched in the lake and he was sinking. Frantically, he tried to push himself away from the steering wheel but stopped when excruciating pain shot up his arm.
Breathing heavily, he fought to remain conscious. With his right hand he reached down and unbuckled the seat belt. Then, with all the strength he could muster, he pushed himself away from the steering wheel. The sudden release of his left arm sent renewed lightening bolts of pain through him.
Giving himself a moment to catch his breath, he next undid a couple of his shirt buttons and gingerly slipped his injured arm into his shirt front, using it as a makeshift sling. Once his arm was, at least partially, immobilized, he reached for the small axe that was secured to the bulkhead next to him.
Summoning his waning strength, he swung the axe at the port side window. He was able to form a hairline crack. Growling with frustration, he knew he might not be able to break the glass with only the use of one arm, but he had to try.
Again he swung the axe, widening the crack slightly. Twice more and he was able to puncture a small hole in the shatterproof glass.
He was almost at the end of his endurance, but he wasn't ready to give up yet. He paused a moment to catch his breath. It was then that he noticed the water lapping at his feet.
Panic swept through him; he was running out of time. He wasn't going to be able to break the glass this way. Suddenly and desperately, an idea occurred to him.
Careful not to jar his broken arm, he twisted his body around so that he was lying on his back with his feet against the chipped window. Bracing himself with his good arm on the steering column, he began kicking at the glass.
At first it seemed useless, but after the third try he felt the glass give a little. With renewed determination, he kicked with all his might and the window at last gave out and fell into the rapidly rising water.
He struggled to turn himself around so that he could escape head first. To avoid accidentally hitting his arm he positioned himself face up.
His head had barely cleared the opening when he felt himself being grabbed under his arms and dragged from the sinking tanker. Startled, he momentarily fought the helping hands, but was quickly reassured by a familiar, resonating voice, "Easy there, Slick, we are trying to rescue you."
Despite the panting hesitancy, Ezra recognized the dulcet tones of Buck Wilmington's voice and he thought he had never heard anything sweeter.
"You...OK?" The man on the other arm was Chris Larabee.
"I..think..I broke my arm."
"Relax...we've got you." And Ezra allowed himself to be pulled toward shore.
At first, briefly, JD was indignant, but common sense quickly took over and he realized that Buck was right. He turned back toward Nathan and Vin.
Clayton had dropped to his knees and was just sitting there, head bowed. JD ran over to him, "Come on!"
When the convict didn't move, JD grabbed hold of his shirt collar and yanked him to his feet. Even though he was several inches shorter, all the fear and frustration that the young firefighter had kept bottled up for the last several hours, came rushing to the surface. "Look you scumbag! This whole thing is your fault! We wouldn't be here if it weren't for you! So you ARE going to help!"
He pushed the startled man toward the tree line and they began to clear the underbrush with just their hands. Shortly they were joined by Nathan until they heard a shout from the water.
As one they turned to see Chris and Buck wading ashore supporting Ezra. They helped him settle down next to Vin's liter and Chris waved the others over.
"It's too late!" He yelled over the roar of the fire.
Buck pulled JD into the water, "Hey," the indignant youth protested.
"Get wet!" Buck shouted, "It'll help keep you from roasting!"
JD glanced back at the fierce blaze; the air temperature had increased tremendously. The dragon was upon them and he plunged into the lake.
Weary to his very bones, Chris leaned his head back against the wall in the hospital waiting room. He had conceded to a shower and had managed to get down a little food, but he wasn't going to allow himself to relax until he knew what was going on with Vin.
It seemed impossible that just a little more than twenty-four hours had passed since this whole nightmare had begun. The fire boss thought back to the events of the night.
Buck was fond of telling the newbies when they made their first jump into a real fire; 'Don't' worry, if we die, we won't go to hell 'cause we've already been there. Besides, the devil won't take us, he's afraid we'll put out his fire'. But the night they had just lived through made hell seem like a vacation resort.
Although they were on a strip of land about twenty feet from the forest, the heat was almost unbearable. The fire retardant that Ezra had risked his life to lay down for them probably saved their lives. It kept the fire far enough away that they weren't in imminent danger directly from the fire, but they were kept more than busy keeping flying embers and debris from burning them.
It would have been easier if they could have all stayed in the water, but they couldn't put Vin in the water because of his wounds. They took the shelter that they had used as a litter and the two tree limbs, and made a lean-to over the wounded firefighters.
Nathan stayed near the two men, keeping all three of them sponged down with lake water. The medic didn't have to tell the others how worried he was; they could see it every time he checked their vital signs, especially Vin's.
Several hours into the night they heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. It wasn't long before a powerful spotlight illuminated their makeshift firebreak.
All the men stopped what they were doing and shouted and waved at the chopper. About that time Chris's radio crackled to life.
"Larabee...this is Helitak 4...do you read? Over."
The fire boss grabbed the radio still clipped to his belt. "This is Larabee...over."
"We see you but the heat is too intense for us to get close enough to bring you up. We need to cool things off a bit, over."
"Roger that!" Chris responded.
The helicopter moved to the farther end of the lake; away from the fire. It lowered a large canvas bucket and dipped into the lake. Then the chopper flew to position above the tree line and let several gallons of water drop.
This process was repeated enough times that the fire for several yards back was out; helped by the loss of fuel which had already burned.
"Larabee, this is Helitak 4, over."
"This is Larabee, over."
"I think it's safe to evacuate your injured men. Can they use a sling? Over."
"This is Larabee. We have one man that can ride in a sling but the other is unconscious, over."
"Roger that; we'll send the sling down first, and then a Stokes for the other, over."
"Okay but I have a medic here; is there enough room for him? Over."
"Affirmative; it'll be a tight fit but we'll manage. Heads up; the sling is on the way, over."
The chopper lowered the sling and the men carefully helped Ezra into it. Nathan had cleaned up the head wound as best he could under the circumstances and had immobilized the broken arm. The southerner had been in and out of consciousness all night, but every time Nathan asked him questions, he was able to answer correctly.
Then they sent down the stretcher. The team gingerly laid the injured firefighter in the Stokes. He was slowly raised into the hovering chopper. Nathan was on the horn to the pilot describing the men's conditions.
When at last they were ready to leave, the pilot told them that another chopper would come to pick them up and where they were going to take the injured.
Several hours later found the men all at the hospital in Cheyenne. Ezra had been treated in the ER. His wound was dressed, his head CT scanned and his arm set and casted. He now lay in a room resting under the watchful eyes of Josiah.
Buck, Nathan and JD stayed with Chris. Chris had tried to get all of them to go to a motel and rest. And they had argued that Chris needed to rest. In the end they had all flat out refused to leave until they heard about Vin.
The young firefighter had been stabilized in the ER and then taken directly to the operating room. By the time the others had arrived, Vin had been in surgery for three hours.
Despite numerous inquiries and the ones by Larabee were more in the nature of threats, no one could or would tell them how Vin was doing. So he planted himself in the waiting room, along with his watchdogs until someone brought him word about the smokejumper.
At one point they'd convinced him to shower and change into some scrubs they'd borrowed from the hospital but otherwise he hadn't left the surgical waiting room. Nathan was able to coax him into eating a little.
Finally an exhausted looking surgeon came into the waiting room. He paused in the doorway and took in the appearances of the men in the room. It was way past the normal surgery hours so he assumed that these men were firefighters like the young man he had just spent hours operating on.
As if sensing his presence, the men looked up as one. Chris jumped to his feet and quickly moved to confront the doctor.
"Well?" He demanded.
The doctor knew these men had been through hell in every sense of the word, so when he felt himself bristle at the tone of the blonde's voice, he forced himself to push down his own exhaustion and present a calm demeanor. He held up his hands placatingly. "First of all, your friend is stable and in the recovery room."
He noticed that all but one of the men relaxed visibly and broke out in huge grins. The blonde with the blazing green eyes was waiting for the 'but..'.
The surgeon met the eyes head on. "Mr. Tanner was incredibly lucky. The 'stob', I believe you call it, missed the bone and the major arteries and veins. There is quite a bit of tissue damage but with a course of antibiotics, a lot of rest and some physical therapy, he should have a full recover."
'He knew it!'
'The next couple of days could be kind of rough. There is an infection and he is dehydrated. He is also suffering from smoke inhalation and exposure. Once we overcome these obstacles, and I fully expect a healthy young man like Mr. Tanner to do so, then there shouldn't be a problem with the rest of his recovery."
'Okay, this wasn't so bad.' He'd personally make sure that Tanner stayed put and do everything the medicos said he needed to do.
"Any questions?" the doctor was asking.
Brought back to the here and now, Chris looked to Nathan to see if the EMT was satisfied. The medic returned the look and nodded.
Chris turned back to the doctor. "When can we see him?"
"One of you can go into the recovery room with him. The others can take turns after we get him into the ICU."
"Where do I go?" Chris immediately asked. His tone brooked no argument and the surgeon gave him directions to the unit.
Without another word, the fire boss headed off toward the unit.
Watching their leader walk away, Buck halted the doctor as he was about to leave. "Hey, Doc, can I talk to you a minute?"
The two had a brief conversation and then left together. JD and Nathan looked at each other and then JD asked, "Wha's that about?"
Nathan shrugged. "Haven't a clue."
Chris stood in the doorway staring at the pale form in the bed. The sight of all the tubes and monitors made the hardened firefighter slightly nauseated.
A nurse, who was checking an IV pump, looked up and smiled, "Come on in," she said, softly.
Hesitating slightly, Chris approached the bed. Close up, Vin looked even worse. An oxygen mask covered a good part of his face. His skin was so white it looked bleached except for the red splotches on his cheeks from his fever.
The nurse saw the intense concern on the blonde's face. "Why don't you pull up a chair; talk to him; he'll hear you."
Chris looked dubiously at the nurse. She laughed softly and said, "Take hold of his hand and just talk to him; he'll *hear* you."
Chris looked back at his friend. Vin looked so fragile, so vulnerable, but he kind of felt funny about holding his hand. Glancing back up at the nurse, he reached out and gently grasped the too still hand.
'My God,' Chris thought, 'he's so hot!'
Seeing how self-conscious the man was, the nurse finished what she was doing and quietly left the room.
Chris was barely aware of her departure. His whole attention was focused on the young man lying in the bed. Scooting forward on the chair, he leaned forward. "Hey, Cowboy."
The fire boss discovered it wasn't as hard as he thought to just sit and talk. Several minutes passed before the nurse came back in. She efficiently checked the monitors and IVs. Chris stopped talking while she was in the room; slightly embarrassed about his conversation with the unresponsive man.
The nurse glanced at the cardiac monitor and just before she left, she said to Chris, "When you talk to him, watch the monitor."
The puzzled blonde was staring at the monitor as she softly closed the door behind her. He could see the EKG wave, which made no sense to him, but next to it was a digital readout of Vin's heart rate. It read 116.
He had no idea what he was supposed to be looking for; so after a couple of minutes he shrugged and resumed his one sided conversation. After a few minutes, he glanced up at the monitor where the digital rate read 100.
He didn't think much about it but paused to take a drink of coffee; talking sure dried the mouth. Before he started his monologue again, his eyes strayed back to the monitor; it read 120.
After a few more minutes of talking, he noticed that the heart rate started to slow down. Experimentally, he stopped talking and Vin's pulse increased. He started again and gradually the rate slowed. Amazed, Chris realized that Vin really could hear him.
A couple of hours later, Chris jerked awake. For a few moments he couldn't remember where he was. Blinking back the grit in his eyes, he focused on the still figure in the bed.
Gently he pulled his hand away from the too warm one. Stretching, he slowly stood, feeling twice his age. A soft groan escaped as he tried to work the kinks out.
"Getting' old, Larabee," came a croaky whisper.
Chris jumped slightly. "Shit, Vin! You scared me to death!"
The pale man on the bed squinted against the light as he opened his eyes. "Yep...," was all he said.
Puzzled, Chris asked, "Yep?"
"Ya...look...like...death," came the hoarse quip.
Momentarily stunned, Chris gaped at the injured man; then he burst out laughing. God, it felt good to laugh.
After he'd wiped the tears from his eyes, his gaze returned to Vin, who was lying with his eyes closed and was grimacing slightly.
"Hey, buddy, ya hurtin'?" he asked.
"'m okay," the injured firefighter said, through gritted teeth.
"Yeah, sure you are," Chris answered as he reached for the nurse's call button.
When she came into the room, Chris told her, "He's awake and he's in a lot of pain."
The nurse nodded, smiled and moved to Vin's bedside. She did a quick assessment and then reached for a device connected to an infusion pump. She clipped a button onto the front of his hospital gown.
"Vin, this button is attached to this pump," she explained. "The pump controls your pain medication. Whenever you need it, just press this button. The pump has a lock-out on it so that you can't give yourself too much medicine; no matter how often your push the button."
Saying this, she pushed the button. "In a couple of minutes you'll start to feel better. Now, Vin, it is very important that only you ever push the button." She looked at Chris as she said it.
He glared back but she seemed unfazed. "Sometimes it is hard to see people you care about in pain, but only they know how much pain they can handle. And they are the only ones that know how much medication helps. It is very important that they are the only ones to push the button."
She waited until Chris grudgingly nodded and then she smiled and left the room. Chris watched Vin's face as the medication took effect and he slowly relaxed.
The next morning Buck stood in the doorway of the ICU room, taking in the peaceful tableau before him. Vin was asleep in the bed and Chris was slouched over in the chair with his head resting on his arms on the bed.
The big firefighter grimaced in sympathy, knowing that his boss was going to be really stiff and sore. Quietly he moved to the opposite side of the bed; his eyes now on the pale figure lying there.
As if sensing his presence, Vin blinked his eyes open and stared owlishly up at his friend.
"Hey there, Junior," Buck smiled.
It took a minute for the voice to register through the foggy haze but then Vin managed a small grin.
"Buck," came a raspy whisper.
But Buck was distracted by the soft groan as Chris stirred. The fireboss slowly sat up and stretched.
Buck grinned, "Mornin' Sunshine."
Chris squinted at his second-in-command and attempted to glare which only made Buck grin wider. However, the glare softened when Buck handed him a large, steaming cup of coffee.
Gratefully, Chris took the coffee, grunting, which Buck interpreted as a 'thanks'. The big man turned his attention back to the man in bed.
Buck reached over and gently squeezed the injured man's shoulder. "How ya doin' Pard?"
Vin blinked and opened his mouth but only managed a raspy croak.
Buck grinned and reached for the glass of water on the bedside table. He figured that if it was there, it was okay to offer it to Vin.
"Here ya go." He placed the straw between the parched lips.
Vin took a small sip and let the wonderful wetness just sit in his mouth a moment. The he swallowed and reveled in the relief of the horrible dryness.
Greedily he tried to drink more but Buck took it away. "Not too much, Cowboy. Don't want ya pukin'; especially on the boss." He added cheerfully, earning a scowl from both of the other men.
About that time the nurse came in and shooed Chris and Buck out, explaining that Vin needed to get cleaned up.
Buck let out a whoop of laughter at the scandalized look on Vin's face as he and Chris left the room.
Buck finally convinced Chris to go to the motel where he had rented them rooms, after he looked in on Ezra.
Other than a terrific headache and other assorted aches and pains, the pilot was doing well. The doctors said he could be released the next morning. They found him grousing about having to deal one handed for awhile but otherwise, he was okay.
Buck had made arrangements for all of them with the exception of Vin and Chris to go back to Missoula the next day. Chris felt that someone needed to stay with Vin and he elected himself.
Clayton was turned over to the local authorities. Begrudgingly, the firefighters told the police that when push came to shove, the con had helped them outrun the fire. Although, all concerned knew the only reason he helped was self-preservation.
After some much needed sleep, a shower and something to eat, Chris went back to the hospital. He paused in the doorway of Vin's room to give Josiah a chance to notice him.
The older man looked up from the book he was reading and smiled. Rising slowly so not to startle the sleeping patient. Josiah then crossed the room. He gave his boss an encouraging smile and squeeze on the shoulder. "He's had kind of a rough day. His temperature is up and his breathing is a little more labored. The docs are afraid he might have pneumonia."
Chris looked hard at Josiah. "What are you saying?"
Josiah sighed and briefly closed his eyes, praying for guidance. He opened them and saw the impatience on his boss's face. "You know one of the things all of us have to worry about is respiratory problems from being constantly exposed to the ashes and smoke from the fires. Well, Vin is at greater risk because of his injuries. His natural immunities were considerably lowered due to trauma. He is having trouble fighting back."
Josiah watched the different emotions cross his friends face. The big man knew that Chris could very easily explode with frustration and was prepared to intervene. But instead Chris turned and once again stared at the young man who's breathing was becoming more labored.
He slowly moved to the chair beside the bed and sat down. Josiah saw the look of determination on their leader's face and knew that from here on out, Chris wasn't leaving until the young firefighter was completely out of the woods.
Chris could tell, even without all the alarms, that Vin was really struggling to breathe. Shortly after, Vin's nurse and doctor came in. The doctor carefully listened to the injured man's chest. Grimly he straightened and nodded to the nurse who hurried out of the room. Then he turned to face Chris.
"I'm Dr. Chang. Mr. Tanner's oxygen levels are dropping. He is wearing himself out trying to breathe. We got an x-ray earlier today which showed a lot of infiltrates."
He paused, giving Chris time to process what he was saying.
"Mr. Tanner has developed pneumonia and because he is working so hard, I feel it's best if we put him on a ventilator for awhile. That way his body can concentrate on getting better."
Chris looked hard at the doctor then looked at his friend who was obviously having a great deal of difficulty. He just nodded his head, indicating that he understood, but, God, he really didn't. Vin had been through so much; now this.
The nurse stepped forward, "Why don't you take a break while we move Vin to the ICU."
A couple of hours later found Chris once again sitting beside his friend's bed. He looked up tiredly as Buck stopped in the doorway of the cubicle. The big man's shoulders drooped at the sight of his friends.
Chris felt Buck's presence and looked up. Buck slowly shook his head and moved to Chris's side.
"Junior just can't catch a break," he observed in a subdued voice.
Chris didn't bother to answer. He just stared at the rhythmic rise and fall of Vin's chest; fueled by the ventilator.
About that time Vin's nurse and doctor came into the room. They both acknowledged the firefighter's presence with nods and smiles.
The nurse handed Dr. Chang Vin's chart which he looked over briefly. Then he took out his stethoscope and carefully listened to his patient's lungs.
When he finished, he straightened and turned to Chris and Buck. "The ventilator is taking some of the work load off Mr. Tanner's body. I feel confident that this will help his own immune system to better fight the infection and allow healing. However, we can't keep him on it too long. The longer he depends on the machine, the harder it will be to wean him off."
Buck, standing beside Chris, could feel the tension heighten. He hastened to lighten the situation. "But...hey...he's gonna be okay...right?"
The doctor looked at the two anxious men. "I have every reason to believe so."
With that he smiled and left, leaving the nurse to attend to the firefighter.
The rest of the team returned to Missoula, but Chris stayed with Vin. The next couple of days seemed a waking nightmare for the team leader. The only sleep he had was brief spells in the lounge chair the nurses had found for him. Vin was kept sedated until the third day so it was hard for Chris to see any improvement although the staff assured him that there was.
Early the morning of that third day, the doctor, after examining the young smoke jumper, told Chris that Vin's lungs 'sounded' much better, "We are going to wean him off the medicine and the ventilator and see how he does."
Looking at Chris sternly, the doctor warned, "Don't be surprised if things are a little rough at first. He might wake up with the tube still down his throat and panic. If that happens and the nurse isn't in here, put on the call light and reassure him until we can get here."
Almost like a prophecy a couple of hours later, Chris aroused from a semi-stuper, half watching ESPN and half dozing, by a noise from the bed. Starting, he stood up quickly and moved to Vin's side just as the young firefighter's eyes opened wide in panic.
Remembering what the doctor had told him, Chris pushed the nurse's call light. Then he grabbed hold of Vin's hands as they reached for the endotracheal tube.
"No, Vin, it's okay." Vin's movements became more frantic and the alarms on the vent started sounding.
"Vin, look at me!" Chris tried to reach his friend through the fear.
The wide eyes swung toward the familiar voice. Chris could see the terror in them. Holding tightly to the hands as they fought to free themselves, Chris tried again to get through to him, "Vin, listen to me. Calm down; it's okay. You've got a tube down your throat to help you breathe. Stop fighting!"
Finally, something, whether the words or the familiar voice, got through to the panicked young man and he stopped fighting.
The nurse on her way in had paged the doctor and a respiratory therapist. She arrived a few minutes before the others. "Vin, we are going to take out that tube but I just need to get a couple of things ready."
Vin's eyes were locked on Chris's but some of the panic seemed to leave them as he realized what was happening. Shortly after, the respiratory therapist arrived and turned the vent off after warning Vin what he was going to do. "Okay Vin, I'm disconnecting the tube. For a second it'll feel like you can't breathe but I want you to concentrate on taking a big breath."
Vin's eyes shifted to the man now disconnecting the ventilator from the ET tube.
"Okay, now Vin. Take a deep breath."
For a moment it appeared that Vin might lose it, but then he was able to take a shuddering, deep breath.
"That's great," the RT smiled. "Now, just relax and breathe normal."
Vin took a couple more deep breaths before relaxing into a more normal rhythm.
The tech carefully listened to Vin's chest. Putting away his stethoscope, he said, "Your lungs sound good. So now, we'll get rid of that tube. If that's okay with you," he grinned.
Vin's eyes had never left the tech's face. When he heard that, his eyes lit up and he nodded slightly.
"Okay, here we go. Open your mouth and take a deep breath." With a sure and practiced hand, he pulled the tube quickly out.
Vin coughed a few times and then accepted the cold water the nurse offered him. "Just a couple of sips," she warned.
When it appeared that Vin was going to try to drain the glass, she pulled it away. The young firefighter protested, "Thirsty," his voice even more raspy then usual from the ET tube.
She smiled as the RT fitted a nasal cannula to Vin and turned the oxygen on to a low setting. "I know, but you need to take it slow. You haven't had anything to eat or drink for a few days. It might not sit well."
Vin sighed with resignation and leaned back onto the pillows. Truth was, his stomach was protesting a little but it sure had tasted good. He turned his head to look at Chris who was grinning but looked tired.
He frowned, "You...been...here...whole...time?" he asked, slightly breathless.
Chris just shrugged, "Why don't you get some rest?"
"Been...resting. Wanna get...out a here."
This time Chris chuckled. It was good to have his friend back. This was the first real reassuring sign of improvement that the fire boss had seen in days. Now, maybe he could get some rest, too.
They moved Vin out of the ICU the next day and after 3 more days, the doctor decided that he could be discharged with precautions. His leg was healing well, but he would be on crutches for awhile and would need some physical therapy when he got back to Missoula.
Fire season was winding down as fall approached and many of the firefighters hired for the summer would return to their homes. As was the tradition at the smokejumper base; the crew was throwing its end-of-the-season blow-out party.
The big bash was held at the Smoke House, the favorite gathering place for the fire crews. Buck had appointed himself as party organizer and social director.
The party was in full swing by the time Chris and a still limping Vin arrived. Vin would have preferred an unobtrusive entrance but Buck was having none of that. With a shout that alerted most of the rest of the firefighters, who turned to see what was going on, Buck hurried over to the two who had now become the center of attention.
He moved up behind and in between them. He dropped an arm over the shoulders of each man and ushered them to a table. "'Bout time you two showed up. Hey, JD! Get these two a beer; will ya?" He hollered to the youngest member of their team, who was talking to some friends at the bar. JD saluted to indicate that he'd heard.
The other firefighters greeted them as they made their way through the crowd. When they were seated, Buck left them and climbed up on a chair. "Hey everybody! Listen up!"
The big man waited until the room quieted down. "Now, ya'll know that since this is the last party of the year, we decided it would be the perfect time ta give out a special award."
Everyone looked at each other. From the looks on their faces no one seemed to know what Buck was talking about and Chris's eyes narrowed.
Buck turned to the table where Vin and Chris were sitting. "Hey, Vin, come on up here!"
Vin stared at the big firefighter in disbelief. Then he looked over at Chris to see if he knew what was going on, but the fire boss just shook his head.
"Come on, Junior! Git on up here!"
Now, although they didn't know what was going on, the rest of the firefighters joined in to get Vin to the front of the room.
Vin took a deep breath and let it out slowly and then he stood and made his way to Buck's side amidst the loud cheering of the rest of the room.
"Okay, okay, settle down....QUIET!!" Buck yelled, still standing on the chair.
When everyone finally settled down, Buck continued, "Well, we..uh..I, decided that we needed to acknowledge the season's most creative landing. Hell, it's probably the most creative landing in Smoke Jumpin' history!"
Vin's eyes narrowed as he realized where this was going. He was gonna kill Buck.
"JD, hand me that plaque," Buck held out his hand to take the memento. Then he held it with both hands over his head. The crowd could see a flat piece of board with a tree stob attached to it and a gold-colored plate underneath.
"To Vin Tanner who took full advantage of the nearest tree to stop his fall when his chute failed in a downdraft. This here is the very piece of tree that sacrificed itself to stop our fallen comrade. So, it's with great honor that we present this to *Vin Tanner: Smokejumper*.
By this time everyone was laughing and cheering. Vin just stared at the big firefighter a moment and then shook his head, grinned and good naturedly, took the plaque.
Chris made his way to his friend's side and Vin showed him the award. Chris smiled, "Well, ya gotta admit, it's gonna be hard to top that and live to tell about it."
"There's always next season," Buck said as he led the room in a toast to the young smokejumper.
Comments: In the fall of 1988 I was attending Haskell Indian College in Lawrence, Kansas. Several of my classmates had spent the summer fighting the Yellowstone Fire and I became fascinated with their stories. After hearing about their adventures and doing some reading, I grew to greatly respect the wildland firefighters and the smoke jumpers in particular. So, it was only natural that once I got up the courage to try my hand at writing, that it would be about the jumpers. The venue of the Magnificent Seven was perfect and thus this story was born.
As I did the research for my story there were a couple of real life incidents that I had to include in the story, although I changed some of the details to fit the story line. One of these was the boys' encounter with the grizzly and the other was Vin's landing in the tree.
While I changed it some there really was a firefighter who landed in a tree just like Vin, several years ago. Because of it, they started making the jump suits out of Kevlar, while it doesn't prevent these kinds of accidents; it helps to lessen the injuries.
When I read about the incident, I immediately knew that I had to write a story around it and I hope you enjoyed it.