In the Lava Tubes
As crazy as it sounds now, the night the Thunder Mountain Fire outflanked us, we were digging furious line through the steep, rocky terrain north of Devil’s Arch. A little brave and a lot stupid, it was our job to cut a trench ten across and a foot deep—a dry moat the fire couldn’t jump. That was all we could do to protect the wildland below us: scraggly juniper, prickly pear, the odd lace-leaf cedar. We dug parallel to the ridgetop and lipped our break with a berm to catch rolling logs. We’d been spiked out up there for two days, chain-sawing, clearing duff down to the dirt, raking away mats of dead pine needles, slash, and cured weeds. Our headlamps cut shafts through the thick white smoke. I had a rusty taste in my mouth from the nosebleeds and turned to spit—by that point, I was pretty much running on fumes—and that’s when I heard Justin. Blake! He shouted. Quick as a clap. I spun around, then stood still, listening for the snap of a twig, the brush of a branch catching sleeve, the echo still zinging in my head. I hadn’t heard my brother’s voice in over a year.
By that point in the season—the season after we lost Justin—our crew had worked fires in four states: cutting, back-burning, banking snags. A lot of the time we coyoted, slept out on the line, no bags, no buckets, nothing but what we carried—Powerade, Cliff Bars, jerky, our 6,000 daily cals. A couple days of eating smoke, barely sleeping, and I’d be wound so tight I’d blow a fuse over a bent brush blade. That’s when I’d start seeing my brother. I tried to shake it off, clear my head, focus, but Justin kept showing up.
When Thunder Mountain started, we’d just finished corralling six thousand howling acres near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, digging and clearing, keeping just ahead of the blaze.
“Hand to hand combat,” one of the rookies joked afterwards and Buzz, our squad boss, squeezed one eye and tipped his head back, like he’d taken a punch in slow motion.
“You don’t fight a fire, you guide it,” Buzz reminded him, scratching his beard, grown in coarse red hackles in contrast to his sandy thinning hair.
Base camp had been set up on a golf course in Jackson Hole: showers, porta-potties, burgers that required both hands. The last night, I sat up alone tracing the nubs and ridges of Kara’s back into the dirt, missing her. Dark evacuated houses hulked around the perimeter and that’s where I spotted him, leaning over a porch railing. Something about the way my breathing snagged, he looked up too, then hopped the railing, disappeared. I’d just pulled two shifts back-to-back and the weight in my limbs pretty much staked me to the ground, but I took off after him. I wanted to catch his sleeve, to yank him back, but I stumbled, my legs achy and weak, muscle gone to putty. I couldn’t call out. Guys on the crew would have heard me.
The time I broke my ankle playing paintball as a kid, Justin ripped the shoulder seam of his grey fleece pulling free from me. We were camping up near Hart’s Prairie. I was scared he’d get lost trying to lead Dad back to me, forget where to veer off the main trail and scramble up the hill into the aspen grove. My swollen ankle pulsed like my heart had slipped down my leg. Yellow aspen leaves rattled in the breeze, jangling as if cut from tinfoil. I was scared. Finally, Justin came tearing through the thicket of chalky trunks. “Found him! I found Blake!” he shouted. I cried I was so relieved. “You’re okay,” Dad said, helping me stand. His voice was even, like the ankle was no big deal. Probably, he was tired—earlier, he’d taken us down inside the lava tubes.
Justin walked behind, sniffling and dragging our paintball guns, white crescent of t-shirt peeking through the torn armpit of his fleece. “You’re okay,” Dad kept saying until I realized he wasn’t talking to me anymore, but to Justin. I leaned harder on Dad’s shoulder, wanting his full attention; he struggled to take up the extra weight. Justin sucked in his snot and started to hum to himself. Soon he was reading the dark initials, the dates and crude hearts gashed into the white bark of the aspens along the trail, the way he announced bumperstickers: Bad cop, no donut. Keep honking, I’m re-loading.
On long trips, Dad always woke us at the Mongollon Rim. “This is it,” he’d say, pointing out the invisible line. “Here’s where all the rivers stop flowing east and start flowing west.”
That night on the golf course, I unlaced my boots and crawled head first into my tent. I lay on my back, tent flap swelling and sagging in the drowsy breeze. By the time enough adrenaline leached out of me to actually close my eyes, it was dawn, Buzz already up, calling our names.
We flew home from Jackson Hole the next day. We’d just got to our summer barracks at the base of the Peaks, north of Flagstaff, and I was looking forward to sleeping it off for a day or two when we got the Thunder Mountain call. We were the last hand crew; they already had hotshots in from California. Buzz laid it out: the ignition point was a dry strike, about halfway up the slope. It had smoldered a couple days, but as long as it hadn’t spread into the foothill McMansions or the trailers around Chimney Rock, which torch like bales of straw, it hadn’t been much of a priority. Then, in the space of an hour, wind gusts rose and split it, swept it east toward Soldier’s Pass and north as far as Devil’s Arch, a two-header. I talked to Kara on the phone that morning. She said smoke was snaking up into the canyon, hanging over the creek like fog.
I’ve lived within ten miles of Thunder Mountain all my life, first with my folks in Sedona, then with Kara, in the cabin behind the trout farm, in the deep, hidden shade of Oak Creek Canyon. Justin had ridden with me out to the quarry in Ash Fork for the flagstone we faced the cabin with, load after load.
“Thick as mashed potatoes, Kid,” I coached while he mixed mortar.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, humming under his breath.
We wrapped the cabin’s exterior with wire mesh, then worked stones around horizontally from the bottom, keeping the joints narrow. He was good at judging fits.
“Try this one,” he said, when I struggled to make a flat chunk I’d chosen line up. “See? Better, right?” he asked, taking the one I’d been trying from my hand. He leaned in, wiped a mortar smear with a wet rag, admiring how close his piece fit, humming still. I had five seasons under my belt by the time Justin joined our squad. Buzz didn’t do favors—I was proud my brother made the cut. I was four years older and the season and a half he worked the crew with us I hassled him plenty, right up to the end, almost to the moment I saw his head resting in the crook of Ricardo’s arm. When I plunged down the slope toward him that day, Justin’s cuticles were still stained from the grout work. A head weighs eight pounds, as much as a gallon of water.
Thunder Mountain was close to home: a tall, red plug of rock skirted by crooked Manzanita, alligator juniper, prickly pear, and cured brush. But, at first, it was just another fire. Buzz would tell us what to do and we’d do it. This was before South Canyon, back when the last fire to kill a crew was Mann Gulch. Men older than my dad died working that fire. I didn’t think about it; none of us did. It seemed like ancient history.
We traded out gear and piled into the crummies. With Justin gone, nobody on the crew read out the church marquees anymore. They passed by silently: Stop, drop & roll with the Lord. Eternal fire insurance: apply within. Sometimes, simply: Pray for rain.
We headed down 89A, hemmed in on both sides by close-grown ponderosas, thick as telephone poles. A cop waved us through at the overlook. Normally, from there, the switchbacks carve down into the canyon, steep enough to spit and hit bottom, but that day the road disappeared around the first curve. We fell silent, controlling our breathing, as if the conserved oxygen might clear a passage. Smoke drifted and swelled in the headlights. We must have passed the spring, then the trout farm, where, a few days earlier, tourists had been laying out five bucks a pound to cast into silver funnels of half-starved fish in an old swimming pool. Even the cliff-diving ledges around Grasshopper Point were invisible in the haze, spots Justin had climbed four stories up, resurfacing in the bubbling froth inches from car-sized red creek boulders. I’d quit diving; it scared Kara. I’d stopped going down there at all. I blamed that on Kara too, but the truth was seeing Justin step off the edge gave me the same pang in my gut as she must have felt, watching me.
Where the canyon widened out into Sedona, we saw it: the smokecloud its own mountain—it made its own shadow. We bore right at the Y and the air cleared as we hooked around south of the fire. We passed the scorched nub of Thunder Mountain, crummies pitching up FS 152 to the Devil’s Arch trailhead. Sixty pounds of Gatorade, tools, fire shelter, and enough gorp and jerky to power through a week gripped my back through the stiff yellow Nomex. I had ten years on some of the rookies, but I still loved the soreness, the pull in my limbs at the end of a shift, like some kind of tide.
The air was so dry, if I’d snapped my fingers, the friction would have sparked, lit. I felt the itch, then blood worming. I rubbed my nose, sniffed. Yazzie saw and called up to Ricardo, our squad medic: “Heads up, Bloody Mary’s on the rag again.”
“Shit, Blake,” Ricardo called back. “Save some of that blood, you might need it.”
The Bloody Mary dig started back when we were GS-3s, temporaries. Buzz had a gift for feeling out soft spots. Ricardo was Elvis, since the first thing he did when we came in off a fire was shave and gel his hair, slicking and sculpting. I made like I didn’t hear, let the blood dry in two rusty lines.
As a kid, I got them all the time in winter. I’d snuff my nose with fresh powder, pack red snow in a ball.
“Hey, Just,” I’d ask, “want a cherry snow cone?”
He’d take off toward the house and I’d lob it, smacking the back of his coat. The morning after a big storm, Mom brought down her vials of food coloring. Justin and I jostled, watching veins of blue dye feather through bowls of clean breakfast snow. Only then were we quiet, eying each other’s bowls. Stuff like that, sometimes it just comes back to me.
Guys shot the breeze, hiking in to Devil’s Arch. On a twenty-two-man crew, six were rookies, divvied up, two to each squad. Losing Justin had reminded us that life has a valve that lets the air out. Guys had found reasons to transfer or take a gig in an uncle’s landscaping business. The rookies hiked in front, raising knee-high clouds of dust. For them it was all still a crazy rush, waking blurry-eyed from deep, fire-chasing sleep, always volunteering. I steered clear of them as best I could, since I lived in one world, where Justin still existed, still worked the lines with us, and they lived in another. Hiking in, I kept looking around for him and stumbling.
“You okay?” Ricardo asked, offering a hand up. “You seeing shit again? Man, you need to talk to Buzz if you’re seeing shit.”
“Naw,” I said. “I just need to sleep.”
“I’ve got stuff for that,” Ricardo said, taking off his helmet to check the crispy wave of his hair. “Ask me later.”
Where the trail ended, our squad split off. The other two squads headed out to clear a helispot. Meanwhile, we would hike north and start digging back toward them. We’d meet somewhere in the middle, encircle the fire’s west head, starving it off from new fuel. This was the quiet side of the fire. Most of the smoke swept off east, towards Brins Mesa. Thunder Mountain stood at our backs, along with the scorched hills the fire had already passed through.
Buzz checked the topo map and his GPS. Hiking up the rise, skirting ravines, we didn’t see it yet, but we were getting closer, red plumes of slurry blooming from the tankers, backlit by blazing sun. Ricardo climbed fast and I pushed to keep up, slipping, catching a crush of gravel in the heel of my palm. Suddenly, Ricardo swung around 180, off the trail, hands up. I stopped short. A rookie bumped into my pack and the guy behind smacked into him. We stared at the diamondback coiled on the trail. The flaky stub of its zebra tail, where the chewed-off rattle should have been, flicked in silent warning.
After that, Ricardo tossed rocks up ahead of us.
The terrain was too steep to drive in a dozer, too far to run a hose lay. We rose out of red rock, juniper,, and piñon into ponderosa and scrub oak, straining against our packs. We crested a hill, ridge visible beyond it and beyond that, the fire’s edge, nothing but blackened poles. Wind gusted and flames leapt up in the east, dark smoke rising as new trees torched and crowned.
“That shit is moving,” Ricardo said.
I dug a pebble out of my boot and caught up behind one of the rookies, a college kid. He kept looking off toward the fire and stumbling.
“Watch your feet, Kid,” I told him.
“I’m not your fucking kid,” Justin had said, the first time I called him that in front of the guys. We were out on a controlled burn and he was standing too close to a pile of lit slash, singeing his pants.
“Man, Blake, you going to take that from this kid?” Ricardo had asked.
“Yeah, Kid’s asking for it,” Buzz had joined in.
Ricardo turned around when I said it to the rookie, but the rookie really was a kid. Halfway through the season, still scared shitless. He’d burned and peeled all summer, skin raw pink above his beard, neck sprayed with freckles.
Thirty yards downhill from the backbone of the ridge, Buzz found the end of the other division’s line. The trench was a good ten feet across, ponderosas notched and felled to separate the crown. The ladder fuel—dead limbs and slash—had all been pulled, needles raked. Just over the ridge was the Black, the zone that had already burned out. If the wind changed, the fire could still double back around, come over the ridge. Buzz paced off, marking trees to continue the trench south and we started eating light smoke. Mostly a fire is something you breathe.
The saw team worked in front, Yazzie notching pines, calling “clear,” and a rookie pulling and hauling off cuts. The rest of us followed, digging up shallow roots that jerked free like extension cords and levering out deeper ones or chopping them with the axe heads on our Pulaskis, then flipping the handle, kicking up dirt to bury them. Buzz inspected the line, calling, “Bump up,” when we finished a section and we’d pace off fifteen more feet each and start over.
“Drink. Your brain’ll fry in your head,” he told the rookies. “More you drink, less you carry.”
Later, we sat on our packs and salted up on jerky. Our faces were sweat-slicked, hair soaked under our helmets. Sun glinted off our shades. A tanker droned overhead, led by a spotter. We hit a rhythm, pines tipping, chainsaw revving, the break a wide brown line. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and rusty scabs flaked off. I could make out the rookie’s clumsy bushwhacking behind me, the sound Dad made, knocking dead limbs off for kindling with an old driver he kept on the floor of his truck.
When I went home after my first season, Dad had a permit for elk. Justin and I went out with him, terrain a lot like that ridge. Justin dunked donuts into baked beans. He was still in high school then, but already girls followed him upstairs at parties—tourist girls whose glossy hair fell down their backs. His own hair was sun-streaked from cliff-diving. Dad took a 5X5 up near Kendrick Mountain that trip, lucky shot. It stumbled, then sank. We dragged it back to the truck, straining against the elk’s bulk. Justin held up fine, never would have known. All those pick-up games, kick-the-can, paintball, in a way, looking back, we were lucky.
In front of me, Ricardo tore through his stretch of line. I caught a blur, up near the top of the ridge. A coyote dove past, tongue hanging out the side of its mouth. Ricardo turned in time to watch it disappear down into the trees.
“What was that?” The rookie asked.
“Ky-oat,” Ricardo said.
“Aren’t coyotes nocturnal?”
I shrugged. We’d seen some crazy shit. Putting out hotspots after a big fire near Bozeman, we’d come across a herd of scorched elk. Their eyeballs had melted, run out of their sockets.
We bumped up again, and I saw tracks where the coyote’s pads had sunk into fresh-turned earth. White smoke drifted through the trees, blanketing the forest like the beginning of a snow. About that time, the chain on the saw busted and Yazzie replaced it. The motor sputtered, then caught. A giant ponderosa whooshed, then crashed, bringing down a smaller tree; I felt the tremor in my feet.
“Beaut,” Ricardo called, stopping to breathe. He squatted in the shade, mopped his face, took off his helmet, and did his best to comb his fingers through his dripping, flattened hair. The day of PT, the ten seconds it took me to tear down the hillside, Justin’s eyes were already rolled back. It was Ricardo who turned in time to brace Justin’s fall, Ricardo who’d crouched there, absorbing the shudder, the long, shallow exhale.
“Hey,” Ricardo said, snapping back into his helmet. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, shaking it off, clearing my head.
We started eating heavy smoke. Buzz radioed to make sure the fire wasn’t blowing back at us. The helispot was finally cleared, but high winds had grounded air support. Buzz sent me up to the ridgeline with the rookie to scout. I hiked first, fighting to breathe, blood gunked between my teeth. Suddenly, there was Justin, limping along the ridge. I swung up faster through the trees toward him, the rookie’s ragged breathing falling off behind me.
Justin had been hiking in front of me up Elden. Our annual PT: forty-five-pound packs, three miles vertical in forty-five or less.
“I don’t feel right,” he’d said, slowing.
“Man up, Kid,” I’d said. I don’t even remember looking at him, I was so focused on beating my time from the year before.
“No, like I really—” He stopped walking.
“Can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” I stepped around him, not wanting to add to my time. That might have been the last thing he heard me say. He sank to his knees on the trail, a punching bag cut loose from a beam, and I crashed through the brush, plunging down the slope toward him, my voice hurtling out across the valley. Maybe he heard me, maybe he was already gone.
With the rookie behind me, I took the last ten yards to the ridgeline and stared through the haze at the craggy foothills, searching for movement. The closest trees appeared dark, trees behind greyer, fading into smoke.
“Back a hundred years ago, we didn’t get these monsters,” I told him. I was buying time, waiting to see if Justin would double back. “Letting fuel ladder up to the crown like this, it’s all us.” I surveyed the charred stumps, the glow at the base of the smokecloud obscuring the rise of Brin’s Mesa.
The rookie took off his helmet and wiped his pink face on his sleeve. I smelled mesquite, the campfires we’d built up at Hart’s Prairie.
“If it’d just rain,” he said.
Woozy, I braced my arm against a ponderosa’s rough bark. In my head, I was shambling along the ridge, chasing Justin. I hadn’t slept since Jackson Hole. I needed to lie down.
“Here,” the rookie said, offering his canteen.
Back down on the line, I filled Buzz in: perimeter burned out, no danger of sneaking up on us. During breathers, Ricardo argued with Yazzie over what was a tougher dog.
“Rez dogs eat rocks,” Yazzie said.
“Bullshit,” Ricardo said.
“I’ve seen it, fool,” Yazzie said.
“Yeah, fool,” I said.
“Rez dog ain’t a breed,” Ricardo dismissed, his face filmed with grime.
We pushed through, following the ridge. Swollen veins snaked around my forearms under my Nomex, the stiff yellow cloth browned with dirt and bark. By that time in the season, calluses had built up so I wore them, gloves under my gloves.
Close to dusk, the pressure dropped, air roiling: electric. Smoke swept over the ridge, down the slope into us. On the radio, we heard crews working the split between the fireheads get called back, but our orders were to stay put. The thwhack of rotors headed for the helispot got Yazzie on the subject of his girlfriend, a smokejumper named Jessie. She’d parachuted into Yellowstone once; three guys with her broke legs, true story.
“I didn’t know they let chicks do that,” the rookie said.
“Whatever, she could kick your ass,” Yazzie said.
“I know, right? Chick’s ripped. Play those abs like a piano,” Ricardo said, bouncing his leg. Back when he was into Ritalin, Ricardo would get so hyped up he was like a dog chasing his own tail, but the Modafinil just made him jumpy.
Buzz radioed Incident Command again to double-check the forecast.
Ricardo squatted next to me. “Come on, Blake, you’re dragging,” he said, holding out two tabs. “Trust me. Stuff’s good. Pilots use it.”
I swatted the air between us.
“Whatever, man,” Ricardo said, unscrewing his canteen and swallowing both pills. Uppers made my heart race, an anxious, painful throbbing.
Thunder clapped overhead and wind whooshed through the trees, sky darkening, reflecting the glare of the fire. We sat and watched the strikes.
“Rain, you sonofabitch,” Ricardo cursed under his breath.
After sunset, the wind tapered off. We picked up the line, headlamps slashing Zs through the dark woods. Past midnight that first night, the chain brake on the saw went out, so Buzz told us to sleep. Yazzie stayed up with him to repair the saw. I lay on the duff with the others, but my brain wouldn’t turn off.
I listened to Buzz tell Yazzie about Elden burning in the seventies.
“Lit up like a Christmas tree, the whole mountain,” Buzz said. Even Yazzie, who went whole shifts without talking, loved hearing about it. Dad had some stories, but none like that—he’d given up wildland when Justin and I were kids. Funny how what made Dad quit—wanting to be near us—is the same thing that made me stay. Out on the line was the only place I still saw Justin, the only place I still felt him close by.
“They were using B-24s,” Buzz told Yazzie. “Those things flew over, you thought the world was ending.”
Normally, after the PT run up and down Elden, we sat around on our packs in the shade, red-faced, light-headed, staring at the mountain’s scarred face, listening to Buzz retell that old war story. That year though, he’d skipped it, said a few words about Justin instead. I’d felt guys stealing looks at me, but when I looked back, their eyes slid away.
The temperature had dropped. I dug a blanket out of my pack and pulled it around me, burrito-style. Smoke drifted over us, small, whirling disturbances caused by our breathing.
“Want some Ambien?” Ricardo offered.
“Naw, I’m good.” I burrowed into the blanket, tried picturing Kara doing her raindance in the parking lot the night I met her, thunder cracking, rain drilling down on the hood. Kara had ducked into my truck, thin fabric of her dress transparent, plastered to her pale, freckled legs.
“I made us some rain,” she said, like she knew us. Justin looked at me, a double-take, then back at Kara, then back at me, amused.
“Where we going?” Justin asked her.
“Someplace dry,” she said.
“You started it, can’t you stop it?” Justin asked.
“No such thing as too much rain,” Kara said, twisting water out of her hair. Rainwater beaded on the navy blue seat vinyl, patched with duct tape.
Justin pretended to study the windshield, knocked his knee against mine.
“We’re building a cabin,” I said.
“Okay,” Kara said, as if this were a normal conversation.
Justin’s face contorted, grin collapsing the surface as we drove. The cabin was nothing more than a shell then. I’d just got the roof on in time for the monsoons.
“I hear the creek,” Kara said. The rain had pretty much stopped by then. She dragged her hand along the cabin’s frame like she could already feel the drywall, the skim coat, the paint.
We walked over to the trout farm. Light from the owner’s porch wove through the chain link fence, illuminating the pool, reflecting off the curved silver pouches of fish. Justin kept quiet, hummed under his breath, let me think of things to say. Talking came easy to him, like fitting the flagstone. Something he just looked at and understood how to do.
“Pretty, huh?” I’d asked, staring at the trout: toothy, ugly, dumb.
Around dawn, Buzz got the saw working. I woke up choking exhaust. Most of what I remember about that second day is the drone of tankers, the thickening haze, smoke washing over the ridge, recoiling. It was a tough stretch, crossing a ravine. By dusk, we were a half-mile from our other squads. We should have hiked back down to the anchor point for the night, since we were eating a lot of smoke, but Buzz decided to go ahead and push through. Normally, a fire lies down overnight, when humidity rises. The division above us had already been reassigned to the east head, leaving the line north of us undefended. The east head was jumping trenches, so we expected to get sent there too, as soon as we finished.
We broke to eat, the night more smoke than air. The first fistful of gorp tasted like blood, even after I swished and spat. Buzz sat across from me, working a chewed-down stick of jerky. He’d walked wide of me all season, like he owed me something, like Justin’s coronary arteries were a knot he’d mis-tied, feeding the heart from the same side so that, if one failed, so did the other—a defect, one in a million. The day of PT, they got pinched between the pulmonary artery and the aorta, his blood backing up, furious and contained. We’d struggled to balance Justin’s weight between us, sliding down the steep slope. At the bottom, I braced my arm against the crummy and wept, sobs choking to the surface from a great depth. Buzz laid a hand on my shoulder and let it course up his arm, the electricity of grief.
Justin could have died any day of his life—as if the same isn’t true for all of us.
By midnight, we only had a quarter mile to go, so Buzz told one rookie to sleep. “You too, Yaz.”
Yazzie had scraped his knuckles pretty good earlier in the day and Ricardo had cleaned and bandaged them. He slept with the gauzed paw cradled in the crook of his good arm. Buzz hit the dirt too. The other rookie continued the line, then me, then Ricardo, all of us past tired, breathing shallow to avoid drawing in smoke. My slack arms tore away at the weave of pine needles, revealing a darker layer where the needles had started to decompose, and, below that, soil. I tasted blood, looked up the dark ridge and spotted Justin dodging through the trees. Spit caught in my throat. I’d been checked, everything normal, but still I felt blood building up in my chest, pressurizing.
“Bump up,” Ricardo called. “Hey, Bloody Mary, bump it up already.”
I heard my brother scrambling through the whooshing, swaying trees, their trunks creaking. My lamp cut jagged lines through the forest. A hand clamped down on my shoulder, huff of breath in my ear.
“What’s the matter with you?”
I spun around, light reflecting off the tiny, gold cross nestled in the curly hairs at the base of Ricardo’s throat.
“I said, bump up.” Ricardo shook his head at the fresh lines of blood running over my lips. “Blake, man, you’re bad news. Bears can smell that shit.”
“There’s no bears up here.” I kept digging, stealing glances through the trees.
“What do you see?” Ricardo asked, an edge in his voice like he’d been thinking about bears since he’d mentioned them.
“Man, you should have taken the Ambien,” Ricardo said.
Right then came the whoops, the zagging shafts of light: the other squad, up closer to the ridgeline. Right away, we started digging diagonally uphill to join our line to theirs. Mentally, I was already packing up, hiking down to the anchor point, draining and wrapping my blisters. Maybe they’d even let us catch a few in our bags before reporting to the east head.
I remember the breeze rising, churning through the trees, and then Buzz was up shaking hands with the other squad boss, the third squad already back down at the anchor point. The gauze wrapped around Yazzie’s knuckles came free and Ricardo hefted off his pack to dig out another clasp. Static fizzed from the radio.
I remember Buzz’s voice carried for a moment: “Load up. Bump out. Move!” Wind gusted, howling from below, crashing over us. I heard the fire then; it had jumped the line north of us, spread along the ravine and raced up on us from below, flames torching sixty feet in the air. Headlamps scattered. Buzz was shouting, but his voice didn’t reach. A wall of heat almost knocked me over. Ricardo dropped his Pulaski and took off up the ridge.
The rookie knelt over, digging through his pack. I grabbed the neck of his shirt, but he yanked away, fumbling with his fire shelter.
“Come on!” I yelled. I felt the vibration of my voice in my chest, but the sound was sucked out into the roar. I dragged him up toward the ridgeline until he fell against me, taking us both down. He pulled free, scrambled back to his shelter. I stumbled after him, ground heaving and sloping, until Ricardo grabbed me, hauled me up. We ducked under the smoke, over the ridge, the weight of my pack hurtling me forward. Logs crashed and rolled as we ran down into the Black, where there was nothing left for the fire to burn. Our feet sank into the ashy ground so that I had to jerk my knees up to free my boots, as from deep snow. Smoke baked in my lungs, but I felt them, two grey bags, inflating in my chest.
“Blake!” Ricardo yelled.
The rest of the squad was crouched behind me. I’d walked right through their shelters, a tinfoil camp. Buzz shouted into the radio, accounting for us, trying to confirm the coordinates of the other squad.
“He’s up there,” I said, but Buzz shook me off, digging for his own shelter.
The line we’d dug held until the fire found the gap between the unjoined lines. Flames tore through, crested the ridge. I crawled into my crinkled shelter. The fire roared down the hill toward us until it hit the burned-out edge of the Black. Even from that distance, we felt the heat. It can get so hot, your lungs cook in your chest, or get flecked with ash, like you swallowed a lit cigarette. I tried to focus, to imagine the glossy brown creek closing over my head, my stomach resting against the slick, cool silt.
“He’s up there,” I kept insisting, after we crawled out from our shelters.
“Stop, man,” Ricardo said finally. “Didn’t you hear Buzz? Other squad’s got him. He ate some smoke, that’s all.” Ricardo shook me by the shoulders, my heavy head lolling. “Hey, you’re bleeding again.” Ricardo held out his canteen. I cupped my hands under it. “You okay?” he asked.
I snuffed water over my nostrils, tilted my head back, waited for it to clot. Day was breaking, sky low and overcast. The thwack of the medevac chopper’s rotors swept over the smoldering flank of the ridge, bringing rain. Sudden, drilling rain; it ran down our beards, washed away sheets of charred soil.
It’s strange, what burns. The way the creek forks around shelves of dry land. When the fire tore up the ridge, it parted around an island of forest where I’d dropped my canteen. Later, I found it. There was still warm water inside.
It rained the next day too. We had the option to demob, but we coldtrailed with another crew instead, checking wet boles for heat. Later, Buzz sat on a bench at the demob station talking to the rookie’s mom on the phone—they were fixing him up. Yazzie unwrapped his hand, exposing the raw knuckles to the air. Ricardo fingered his dull, patchy beard. I called Kara. My voice cracked. I smothered the receiver.
We drove the crummies back to barracks to pick up our cars. My body lurched with the others, bumping knees around the curves, nobody talking, all thinking about the rookie, or a sore rib, or home. Once we got there, I sat in my truck in the parking lot. Buzz cranked his wrist in a circle until I rolled down the window.
“Kara okay?” he asked. “You’re not quitting on me, are you?” He lowered his head, level with mine. “I’d really hate to lose you, Blake.”
I tried clearing my throat, but I was still too choked up.
“Hey,” Buzz said, squeezing my shoulder. “Get some rest. Give it a couple days.” He held on for a moment. “Let us hear from you. Okay?” He smacked the truck door, hesitating before he pushed off.
89A needed re-paving and the pitted grey surface exposed a darker underlayer. At the overlook, chunks of red rock bluff dipped into sweeps of pines. I pulled off the switchbacks at the spring, filled the jugs at the spigot, tightened the caps. The creek was high. Wind swelled in the trees, warm coins of sun swept away by brown runoff. Farther upstream, up near the mouth of the canyon, is where we spread Justin’s ashes.
Kara was waiting on the porch, arms crossed, rocking from her toes back onto the balls of her feet. “I did my raindance,” she said. She was smiling, tears collecting at the rims of her nostrils until she wiped them with the inside of her wrist. “There’s a buttload of flies inside.” Later, she trapped one against my bare shoulder blade. I felt it brushing my skin, buzzing there in the clam of her cupped hand.
After that, I pretty much slept for three months. It took that long for me to get my head on straight. Every few days, Kara wiped dead flies off the dusty windowsills with a paper towel. It’s the fish guts that attract them. On a good day, the farm’s owner slits open two hundred trout on a narrow wooden slab balanced between two sawhorses. There are wild fish in the creek, smaller than these bloated meal-fed fish, quick, slippery flashes of silver.
This time of year, the creek is completely hidden by trees, but the sound of it still carries. The contractor I work for now is an early bird. We get out to the building sites by dawn and quit by four-thirty. I’m almost always home before Kara. It’s good work, physical; it tires you out. In my spare time, I’m training myself to reproduce the sound of the creek from memory, to tune out the radio and concentrate no matter how loud the highway or the whoosh and stir of the cement mixer. I say the creek because we spent so much time down there, horsing around, diving, floating on our backs, letting the current carry us. It makes sense, even if it’s just a way to trick the brain.
Scraggly brown grasses had been hacked back from our campsite at Hart’s Prairie. We had a fire pit ringed by blackened rocks, some old aspen stumps we sat on to wolf down our eggs.
After breakfast, Dad showed us a short cut, leaving the trail, hiking down through the woods. From time to time, he threw back his head to get his bearings. It was still early when we reached the lava tubes. Dad ducked under the stone overhang into the mouth of the cave and we followed his flashlight, walking first, then crouching, belly-crawling along the tunnel. Justin kept grabbing my ankle so we wouldn’t get separated—I hadn’t broken it yet; all that would happen later. It was cold in the tubes and the sleeves of our fleeces caught on the porous volcanic rock. When we came to the inner amphitheater, Dad switched off his flashlight, the cavern air dank, still. I remember listening to my brother breathe in the dark; I didn’t have to reach out to him to know how near he stood to me.
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