BEFORE Hank could get out the door, he heard the familiar shout of Brian’s deep baritone. “Hank! Come here a minute, will you?”
Hank rolled his eyes, knowing that he was going to get another lecture about drinking the night before a climb. He squared his shoulders and tried to look contrite as he eased around the corner. “Yeah, Bri, what is it?”
“Yeah, right, like you don’t know what this is about.” Brian Alan swiveled his chair away from his makeshift desk in the corner room of the barge’s cabin and fixed his most recent acquisition with his best boss-is-madder-than-hell glare. “You and I have had this little chat before, so can the bullshit and tell me why I shouldn’t fire your ass.”
Hank abandoned the contrite look for one that was more his usual style. With an arrogance and attitude that had become his trademarks in the logging business, he shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t really even need to answer. “Because I’m the best you got.”
“Stow that crap for a minute and let me substitute my reality for yours, okay?” Brian raised himself to his full height of six feet five inches and was in Hank’s face in only two strides. “You may think you’re the best, but let me tell you that I won’t hesitate to fire my best if you don’t stop this next-day hangover routine.” Brian poked a finger in Hank’s face and smiled. “Ten four?”
“Aw, for fuck’s sake, Bri—”
“I’m not talking to you as a friend, Hank.” Brian crossed his arms over his chest, staring down into Hank’s hesitant gaze. Hank—at only six feet three inches—knew, from many similar discussions, that Brian could teach him a sorely needed lesson, but Hank also knew that Brian wasn’t about to tangle with the union just to get his message across. “You put anyone’s safety at risk, and you will be out of here faster than you can spit.” Brian uncrossed his arms and strolled back to his desk, not bothering to look at Hank again. “Now get your gear and get ready for the chopper. I’m coming with this morning. We’re down a man.”
Muttering to himself, Hank backed out of the office and headed for the door to the helipad. I can top just as many, if not more, trees than the rest of these fuckers combined, and I’m getting shit because I want to have a little fun when the day’s over. Fuck him! As he exited onto the helipad, Hank’s mood was foul and got even fouler when he noticed Roddy coming up fast.
“Listen, Roddy.” Hank held up his hand to Brian’s second-in-command and shook his head. “I don’t want to hear it, okay?”
“Hey, man,” Roddy held up his hands as if surrendering. “I was just coming over to see if you needed any help. We’re already behind schedule.”
“Doesn’t matter. I got plenty of time.” Hank jerked his head to the left towards Brian’s office. “Bossman is coming with, and he ain’t even sorted his gear yet.”
“Actually, I sorted it for him.” Roddy smiled. “You got five minutes.” Roddy held up five fingers to emphasize his last statement and waggled his eyebrows, clearly mocking Hank and his most recent run-in with Roddy’s best friend since junior high.
“Fuck me,” Hank hissed, glad that no one was around. “Could this day get any worse?”
Hank got his gear assembled, his boots and safety vest on in record time, and was at the chopper before Brian and Roddy. As they climbed in, Hank decided to keep his mouth shut for once and try to make something out of this day. If he kept his mouth shut, he wouldn’t give them any ammunition to use against him later. As Kari, the chopper pilot, guided them to their secluded piece of the forest on Vancouver Island, Hank tried to figure out what Brian had against him. I do good work, more than anyone else. I top my fair share of trees, my cookies are always clean and precise, and I help to make the guy millions of dollars a year. What the fuck?
As the chopper approached the landing site inside the nest of huge western cedars and cypress trees, some of them already marked from their work the day before, Hank could admit to himself that he liked to drink, liked to chase women, and even liked to rib the other guys about how much slower they were at just about everything. But he’d never gotten anyone hurt, never cost the company any money because of his off-hour pursuits. Fuck, I’ve never even taken a sick day. Even with his sensitivity to the record hundred-degree heat out here in the summer, his little bouts with heatstroke had never slowed him down; he’d be down for twenty minutes or so, go in the shade to get some rest, and then he’d be back topping trees and jigging right alongside the other men.
Shaking his head in frustration, Hank jumped out of the helicopter and headed for his section of the woods, stopping only when Brian called to him. When he turned, he felt a little relief that Brian offered him a smile and a thumbs-up. Maybe I’m not in as much trouble as I thought. He found himself whistling as he set off north of the landing pad to finish the trees that he hadn’t finished yesterday. By his count, Hank had another ten trees to top, and then he would be done for the day, the weekend, and not have to be back here until next Thursday.
Almost an entire week, Hank thought to himself. Find myself some nice little shapely thing—or two—and keep myself horizontal until Thursday.
Hank approached his first tree, and remembering Brian’s warning about any screw-ups, he went through the mental checklist in his head. He fastened the spikes to his boots, ensuring the straps were nice and tight around his calf muscles, checked his vest to make sure it was good and tight, and then began inspecting his gear. His rope would need replacing sometime soon—too many frayed sections—but it would get him through another season or two. His safety vest was new and didn’t obstruct access to the rescue whistle at his shoulder. Even his helmet, which had definitely seen better days, had another few good seasons in it.
He clipped one end of his scare-strap on his hip harness, and winding his arm behind him as if he were about to swing at a baseball pitch one-handed, he swung his scare-strap around the trunk of the tree and caught it as it came around the other side. Catching it with ease, he clipped it into the other side of his hip harness. Planting his boot spikes into the base of the trunk, he flicked his wrists one at a time and started climbing. He’d forgotten to run the diameter at breast height of this particular trunk through the calculator, but years of experience told him the DBH was just right to ensure the load limits were observed, so he decided to keep climbing. He was never more thankful he didn’t have to do Brian’s job than at moments like this.
Within minutes, Hank’s expert climbing had him almost fifty feet in the air and looking out at the spectacular vistas through little fluffy patches of thinning fog. Hank had never been able to understand how some people could stay stuck in concrete buildings all day, content with the little bit of greenery they’d see between cement slabs or high-rise office buildings. Before he was even in elementary school, his mother had been chasing him out of the neighborhood trees. He’d loved to climb as high as he could and see what he would never be able to see from the ground, and he still did. Hank would never admit it to anyone, but he felt free up here. And something else he would never admit to anyone was the reason why: He didn’t know why, but he’d always felt more at home up here than anywhere else in the world.
A couple more wrist flicks took Hank near the first branches he would have to remove before he could top the tree. He hauled up the chainsaw that hung down on the long rope and pulled the cord, making sure to adjust the choke. As it roared in his ears, he pulled his visor down and started trimming. He didn’t have that many branches to remove, but he was sure he’d spotted a widow-maker up there somewhere. He’d worry about it when he got to it. He wasn’t being careless by any means, but he didn’t want to lose focus this far away from any potential problems. He could hear Brian’s words in his ears telling everyone over and over: “You have to concentrate your way up the tree; no use planning ten feet up when something will kill you four feet before you get there.” Despite the altercation that morning, Hank was more than willing to admit that Brian’s advice had saved his life on many occasions.
After another ten feet, Hank was ready to tackle the widow-maker that was stuck behind the marm. He studied the marm for a moment, wondering why these big, thick branches sticking out of the side of a tree and growing toward the sun had ever been called “school marms” in the first place. Certainly don’t look like school teachers. He took hold of his chainsaw and began to cut away at the thick, trunk-like branch, reducing it in size. He called down before each smaller piece fell to the ground; the sound always gave Hank a rush. He backed up before his last cut with the chainsaw and screamed as loud as he could that a widow-maker was on its way down. He’d worked with plenty of guys over the years who had been injured or even killed by these wayward branches—tall enough and thick enough to qualify as small trees—that careened out of the tree tops with lethal force.
Hank breathed a sigh of relief as he set himself up to top the tree. He didn’t need to send down the cookie, the little piece of the top showing his cuts and his technique, so almost a hundred and fifty feet in the air he started cutting through the trunk and sat back against his harness as he watched the top of the tree fall to the ground. Nothing better than this feeling, he reminded himself. What a fucking rush!
He set his red ribbon around and over the top of the cut trunk, the signal to the chopper pilot that this was one of the trees to take, and rappelled back down to the ground. The next tree he had to climb wasn’t within clawing distance, let alone jumping distance, but if he climbed down, he could jig the trunk at the bottom with his half-inch holding wood and move on. No need to come back to this trunk and jig it later.
It wasn’t until Hank was halfway up his tenth tree that he started to feel the heat. He had kept silent for most of the day, saying little in response to the playful banter that wafted over from the other guys or occasionally filtered through on his walkie-talkie, so he didn’t know what the temperature was—or if he’d heard someone mention the temperature, he couldn’t remember.
Must be over a hundred, Hank thought as he kept climbing, stopping more and more frequently to try to catch his breath or to lean over, uncertain if the heat was enough to make him lose the small breakfast he’d eaten that morning. He’d always ignored the comments from Brian and Roddy that drinking alcohol made heatstroke worse, but at moments like this when his guts felt like they were coming out through his nose with every breath, he wondered if they weren’t right.
Hank started up his chainsaw and finished topping his tenth tree, promising himself a little nap down in the shade until his stomach stopped doing flip-flops with every inch he climbed. Hearing Brian’s voice in his head for the hundredth time that day, Hank took every step very slowly. Hell, I’m done after this. No need to hurry anymore. His wedge was in and helped to push the tree away from him. He basked in the familiar rush one last time, stapled the ribbon around and over the top of the tree—now freed of its top—and started his descent.
Thank Christ! Now I can go find some shade and some water. He radioed to the other guys nearby that he was done with his ten and would be finding some shade to the north, away from the others, to rest for a while. He didn’t get a response right away but figured Brian and the others were still pissed at him. He rappelled down, coiled his rope, and set off for the shade.
HANK was fast asleep by the time Brian arrived near his section and climbed his final tree of the day. Brian now owned the company that had once belonged to his father, and while he enjoyed the climbing part of it, he didn’t much enjoy the administrative aspect. Employing and disciplining the men, having to worry about his men making enough money to provide for their families, and having to hire the helicopters—which ran about fifteen thousand dollars a day—were all more than he bargained for. But with his ex-wife Jennifer bitching and whining about alimony every chance she could get her lawyer on the phone, Brian didn’t have much choice. He was in better spirits these days, though. Jennifer was getting remarried, the alimony payments would end, and Kari, the chopper pilot, had been flirting with him like crazy. Brian wasn’t sure he’d pursue it, but it was nice to know that, at forty years old, he could still turn a good-looking woman’s head.
Halfway up the tree, Brian saw something off to his right. Fucking hell! Brian started yelling down to Hank. He said he was heading up further north! He continued shouting at Hank, but Hank showed no signs of life. If I have to climb down this tree to wake him up, he’s gonna be shitting wood chips for a month! Seventy feet up in the air, for fuck’s sake, and I have to lose this tree because he can’t handle the heat!
Brian was only ten feet down the tree trunk, thinking that he’d be closer for Hank to hear him, when he heard the familiar whirring of the blades of the Chinook helicopter. Fucking great! Not having any other option and wanting to be sure Hank was clear of any rotor wash the Chinook might kick up, Brian decided to claw his way to the next tree over. I can claw over and then be at least twenty feet closer, maybe rappel down and get him outta there. Brian took hold of his three-pronged steel claw and started letting some slack out. He let it swing back and forth about five feet below him and then tried to hook one of the stronger branches on a tree about fifteen feet away.
Yes, he thought as he felt the claw grab and hold the branch. Unhooking his scare-strap from his harness, he called down to Hank one more time. Nothing. No reaction at all. Fucker! Brian cursed as he slowly began to rappel over to the other tree. He reached for his walkie-talkie as he felt something give. He looked over and saw that he had not hooked his claw securely enough. He called to Hank one more time, and when he didn’t get a response, he pulled the walkie up to his mouth just as the claw came loose, his body hurtling back into the trunk of the tree he’d just left. His last conscious thought was for Scott, his younger brother. He’ll be all alone now.