FLAMES danced on the dead branches low on the lodgepole pine’s trunk.
“Damn it! I didn’t think the tree would burn!” Kurt looked up from his shoveling to examine the tree at the edge of the woods. It had been smoking only moments ago.
“Stand back. I’ll get it.” I took hard swings at the tree’s trunk with my long-handled axe, hacking away at the side farthest from the small blaze we’d spent the last few hours putting out. The chips flew with each bite of my blade. Some muscle in my lower back screamed in protest. Kurt kept a careful eye on my progress as he threw more dirt on the smoldering remains of the fire. “Better back off. I think it’s ready to come down.” I wasn’t bothering to take the tree down neatly. Time was the bigger concern.
Kurt and I braced our heavy gloves against the bark and pushed, cracking the unchopped part of the trunk, toppling the thirty-foot-high pine to the ground, away from the other trees. It would not take its companions with it to a fiery end.
The tree crashed onto ground already scorched and disturbed, sending up a shower of sparks. We’d shoveled dirt onto burning mountain mahogany and grasses for half the day, trying to contain the fire before it went from heat and smoke to an open blaze. Between digging a firebreak and trying to deal with the burning material, it had been a busy few hours. The tree still bloomed with open flame; putting it out would mean the end of the hardest of the labor. A few minutes of brisk whacking took the crown of the tree off, letting us pull the unburned branches away from the danger zone.
The normally homey scent of flaming wood had a whole different meaning out here.
“So, rookie, what would you rather put out: a lightning fire or a human-caused fire?” Kurt retreated to the shade of the remaining pines to catch his breath.
“Whichever smolders more and burns less.” I pulled off my helmet to wipe my forehead. The canteen at my side flapped loosely; I unscrewed the stopper and tipped it to my mouth anyway for the last few drops of water. We had more drinking water back in the truck, but I’d have to hike for it. Kurt took a long swig from his canteen and offered me the rest. The warm, tinny water tasted delicious.
We had left the medium-duty tanker on the one-lane service road that was the only sort of road through most of the Uncompahgre National Forest because we couldn’t get it through the trees to the burn area. Half the forest stood miles from roads and had to be patrolled on horseback. The truck got left behind a lot anyway. We had to take what we needed from the equipment bins on the sides and do without the water if we had to hike too far back.
“Yeah, lucky you, that’s lightning fires usually, and they outnumber human fires by a wide margin around here.” Kurt waved me to follow him to some branches that were emitting puffs of smoke. “What do you think the score is?”
“Don’t know.” I threw shovelfuls of dirt at the felled tree alongside him. “The other five teams all had one or two fires each when we went into town last, and we haven’t been called to respond to one of their blazes.” I stomped a smoking branch with the heavy sole of my boot.
“And we haven’t had to call anyone in for one of ours. Might be a tie, or we might be winning with three.” He stepped back from the burn and unfastened his jacket. “The wind is down. Let’s squirt a hundred gallons at it—it’s out and it can damn well stay out.” We gathered up the shovels and axes and dragged them back to the tanker. More often than not, we’d starve a fire into submission rather than extinguishing it with water in the dry, windy Rocky Mountains.
We’d caught this fire early, still in the “thinking about being a forest fire” stage. It was far enough from the road that trying to put it out with just the water we carried with us in the tank on the back of the truck was hopeless; until the wind dropped, we couldn’t have shot it without losing three quarters of the spray. The loss wouldn’t have mattered that much if we’d been close enough to a pond or stream to stick the intake nozzle in. Then we could have sucked the stream up and put it to good use without using up water we might need later that day. But no, the fire was far enough from the road and through the trees that we were lucky to have seen it at all, so we fought it the old fashioned way: with dirt, muscle, and cuss words.
Today we won. Losing a battle with fire out here could mean a hundred acres burned, or a thousand, and if it went really bad, it would be a disaster, like the Storm King fire. Firefighters had died battling that one, men and women who loved the wilderness and worked to protect it. I hadn’t known any of them personally, but our boss and some of our co-workers had, and they still grieved. The mistakes that happened at Storm King got pounded into us to make us better rangers, to make us more effective firefighters. All this was new enough to me that the responsibility for the land weighed like a stone in my gut. I was glad not to be alone in the mountains for that and a lot of other reasons—Kurt and I made a good team.
Together we dragged the hose out to its full hundred fifty feet through the trees into a small clearing. Kurt jogged back to hit the pump, and I braced myself for the hose going stiff and ornery. The nozzle bucked in my hands as I struggled to aim the stream toward the fire; the water surging through the tube made it hard to control. I had to point it up and over the few trees between me and the burn site, making me glad we’d waited to do it until the wind died down. Kurt returned and steadied the hose from behind me. Four hands could accurately drop the water on the fire site, turning it from a potential disaster into soggy ash.
Together we pumped the water at the forest, and knowing my partner was behind me, helping me, made me feel just a little better. Fire was a scary thing, damned near alive but dangerous, mindless, and able to whup a lone man. The two of us, well, that was another matter today.
“Think that’s about a hundred gallons, Kurt?” I’d been trying to estimate the flow just by time passing.
“Just about, Jake. Point it up,” he suggested from behind me, “and hang on tight, I’m letting go.”
Warned, I was ready for the jolt in the hose when he let go. I wasn’t ready for him to sprint out into the private rainstorm I was making, but he’d left his heavy, fire-resistant clothing and helmet back at the truck when he’d gone to start the pump. Now he stood in dusty green utility pants and boots and nothing else, face up to the spray. The water came down on his upturned face, tilted to catch the arcing wetness, his mouth open and eyes closed, arms wide.
The droplets came down on him as he laughed and enjoyed the impromptu shower. The day was warm and the work had been hot, and now he turned from side to side to cool himself. Shallow rivers ran down his tightly muscled chest and arms and soaked his short, blond hair but couldn’t make it lie down. Instead, the drops caught the sun, flashing the light back at me, and my breath suddenly came short.
The fire in the woods was out. But now there was a fire in me, and it was already raging out of control.
FIRES would be part of my summer—I’d known that before ever getting up to the mountains.
I’d asked plenty of questions when I’d called the Chief. After a disastrous weekend excursion a little more caution was in order. A college seniors’ last road trip that should have been nothing but fun had cost me a few friendships and strained some others, and there hadn’t even been the consolation of an orgasm. The experience left me firmly in the closet, unsure about how to ever get out and wanting to get the hell away from people in general. Maybe a summer in the back-ass of beyond was exactly what I needed. Nobody to cuddle with, no one to fight with, no one to judge.
I’d work with one partner, possibly crusty and cranky, the Chief assured me when I finally called. And my new boss didn’t seem to think I was overeducated or underqualified for the ranger service. I tested out of four classes, told the University of Colorado where to mail my diploma, and headed for the high country.
One partner with Davey Crockett skills and possibly nineteenth-century hygiene to match, I figured I could cope with. I hadn’t figured on spending six months with the walking temptation named Kurt Carlson.
I’d driven my crudmobile Toyota, of a vintage older than my own, northwest on Highway 36 out of Boulder into the hills. Past mountainsides gone blue-gray with dead pines into the greener reaches of the high country, and hours later, I pulled into the tiny town of Meeker.
The bright balloons tied to the mailbox marked my destination, although the motley collection of pickups, SUVs, and a tanker parked in front of an unfenced, corner-lot brick house told me where the party was. I joined the group gathered around a picnic table and grill at the back of the house as instructed, to be greeted warmly by the Chief and again by Mrs. Chief, who directed me to a tub of iced pop cans.
The subdued chat among the group of mostly men didn’t expand to include me; some of them clearly knew each other, and others might have been furniture for all they were saying. I tried introducing myself to a few of them and got grunts more than names. The crusty old mountain man, straight out of my imagination, ground my knuckles and grimaced something that might have been a smile from behind his bushy beard. He could have a whole family of deer mice nesting in there. I ground back best I could, but was glad to get my hand back with a few bones left unpulverized. The fire season suddenly looked a lot longer than six months.
It took me a few minutes to steel myself for another social attempt, this time on a tall, lanky man who looked more receptive to a conversation than the Sons of Grizzly Adams.
“I’m Rich,” he told me.
“No, but you’re cute,” his female companion cracked and offered her hand to me. I took it carefully, which made her snicker. “I’m Abigail. Rich and I are partners. Have you met your partner yet?”
“I’m hoping it’s not the guy who just tried to break my hand.” I cast a backward glance at Old Crusty. At least these two were about my age and speaking complete words.
“Nah, he’s on a horse patrol team. We won’t see much of them unless we’re all called to one fire.” Rich chuckled, eyeing my attempts to realign my fingers. “I saw the assignments and think you’ll be out with Kurt Carlson.”
“That’s more than I knew coming up here.” I decided my hand might be usable again in half an hour or so. “You know him?” I glanced around the group, wondering if the mysterious Kurt was another knuckle crusher.
“Oh, sure! This will be our third fire season together. He’s—well—” Abigail shut her mouth with a snap, and her squinched lips were doing a terrible job of hiding the smile. “He’s been in the mountains for, like, his whole life and knows his way around. He did horse teams the last couple years.”
Oh no, not another one like Old Crusty. “Is he here yet?”
“No. You’ll know when Kurt shows up.” Rich exchanged a sideways glance with Abigail. “He’s kind of hard to overlook.”
“Any more generally recognizable features?” I began to imagine Paul Bunyan in ranger green.
“He probably hasn’t cut his hair since last fall,” Abigail mused. “And you’ll hear his bike coming.”
Paul Bunyan morphed to “Leather Lloyd.” I swallowed. Maybe he had spark plugs instead of deer mice hiding in his beard.
“He’s tough as they come. Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure he’s never actually killed anyone.” Rich took a drink out of his pop can, spilling a bit out the side of his mouth.
“I’m sure we would have known. The Chief does screen for warrants before he hires.” Abigail rubbed her upper lip with three finger tips.
“Leather Lloyd” now had Hell’s Angels patches all over his black vest. And tattoos. Lots and lots of tattoos.
“He’s smart, Abby, I don’t think he’d get…. Oh, sorry.” Rich grinned at me. “Don’t mean to worry you.”
Worry, hell. I now had a lump of ice in my gut over the enormous, potentially homicidal biker I was supposed to trust with my life. The whine of a motorcycle cutting through the mumbled conversations meant I had about twenty seconds to run to my car and forget I’d ever wanted to be a ranger.
The bike swung around the corner, drawing to a halt at the side street’s curb. I’d been seeing some gigantic Harley chopper with an equally gigantic rider, but the bike was a medium-sized Kawasaki cruiser, and the rider….
He dismounted, leaving his helmet and leather jacket on the bike, and shook out his hair, the only thing that matched my vision of him. Except where I’d been seeing basic brown, he had shoulder-length blond, and where I’d been imagining hardware or rodent-infested snarls on his chin, he was clean-shaven, with strong, sharp features and a dimple at one side of his mouth, he smiled at the group and called greetings.
“Heya, Sid! Mike! Good to see you, Elroy!” He passed through the crowd, exchanging handshakes, backslaps, and the occasional fist bump with a crowd gone suddenly lively. Mrs. Chief hugged him, as did the other female ranger, and he clouted Rich a friendly thump on the arm before pretending to be squished in Abigail’s welcome.
“Hi. I’m Kurt Carlson.” He stuck a hand out at me, and I shook it, numbed by the vividness that shone from his face. His eyes were the color of the sky, I thought stupidly. Bright blue, must be a reflection, and his smile was like sun breaking through the clouds.
“Jake Landon.” I had to think to take back my hand. Oh no. No, no, no. I needed an Old Crusty or a Son of Grizzly Adams, not this man who looked to be a few years older than me, a few inches shorter, a lot more buff, and infinitely more self-possessed.
His grin suddenly dimmed, then came back at half wattage. “Think you’re my partner this season.”
I’d known him eight seconds and I’d already disappointed him.
“We’ll have to talk more, but right now I need to see the Chief.” He waved at another late-arriving ranger and disappeared.
“Don’t worry, Jake, we were funning you. He is smart and tough, and he’s a really nice guy.” Abigail patted my arm. “You’ll like him.”
That’s exactly what I was afraid of. I would be drawn to him the same way as this entire crowd was, only more, because I now had a raging lust that demanded to be slaked against his skin, and how was I going to cope with that for an entire summer in a truck with him?
We surged toward the table, where Mrs. Chief was calling us to come and get it. I saw Kurt standing with the Chief by the grill, engaged in what looked like a low, fierce conversation. He looked determined, almost angry, and the Chief wasn’t having any. He shook his head and flipped another burger onto the plate. “Make the best of it,” I thought I heard the Chief say, and the slump of Kurt’s shoulders made me believe it.
Great. He’d known me less than a minute and was already trying to get away. Fine. That would make it really easy to damp down any feelings I might be tempted to have. I’d be his partner in the work, share the chores, and stay in my fucking closet.
THE days of orientation crawled by on one level and zipped past on another. Lectures were an extension of the classroom I’d so recently escaped, although any exams would be pass/fail on a practical level, meaning live/dead, injured/whole, or burned/saved. Figuring my best route to impressing my partner was to know my stuff, I mostly kept my attention on the Chief, which worked better when I couldn’t actually see Kurt. We used the tanker outside as a laboratory until the Chief was satisfied we could work the radio, gauges, and pumps. The horseback teams practiced with us, since they might need to fight a fire alongside the tanker teams, using our equipment. The presence of the Jeremiah Johnson clones kept me from embarrassing myself.
Abigail found me a couch in her dad’s house, so I didn’t join the sleepers in the tents that popped up like mushrooms all over the Chief’s lawn after the barbecue. I didn’t ask where Kurt was sleeping—better I didn’t know. I honestly thought he hadn’t come back for orientation when I didn’t spot a mane of long blond hair the following day, but the muscular stranger with close-cropped hair turned to expose Kurt’s killer smile and dimple. The change in style didn’t take one iota away from his appeal—it only exposed his high cheekbones.
“I’m going to cut mine too. It’s easier to take care of in the mountains,” Rich commented when I ran my hand through my own hair, pondering. “Much easier to rinse the shampoo out.”
Since my pelt currently resembled a brown bear’s, I followed him to the barber shop that evening. Kurt nodded approval next morning and showed me how to adjust the webbing inside my fire helmet.
Too soon for my peace of mind, Kurt had locked his motorcycle into a friend’s shed, thrown his sleeping bag into a compartment on our tanker, and given me some quick directions to our cabin. He’d barely spoken with me outside of training, though he’d been friendly enough. Maybe this could work out.
“Can this ride in the car with you?” Kurt had made one last trip into the Chief’s house, bringing out some sporting equipment that I barely recognized in its unstrung state.
“Sure.” I watched him stow a longbow, a quiver of arrows, and a compound bow crossways inside the car, next to my fishing rod. “Who are you? Robin Hood?”
“Will Scarlet.” He turned. “Have you ever shot archery?”
“No.” I didn’t think plastic bows in middle school gym class counted enough to mention.
“Then you must be Friar Tuck. On to the greenwood.” He jumped into the medium-duty truck’s cab, the engine rumbled to life, and I followed him out of town.
Friar Tuck indeed. I sucked my gut in for a moment. Good-bye, sedentary student life: hello, adventure.