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Glacier Creek, MT
The fire buzzer catapulted him out of bed at dawn, the strident alarm blaring through the firefighting base that housed the Glacier Creek smokejumpers, hotshot team, and search and rescue team. In the dormitory, Tyler Dodson was on his feet and yanking his pants up before he was even fully awake, responding instinctively to years of training.
He’d been back at the base for less than twenty-four hours after jumping a wildfire in Idaho earlier in the week. He’d had just enough time to shower, eat, and hit the sack for some much needed sleep before this next call came in, but he wasn’t complaining. He needed the overtime pay if he ever wanted to break ground on the sweet piece of real estate he’d bought over on the north ridge two years ago. He rented a small apartment in Whitefish year-round, but he lived at the smokejumping base during the summer so he wouldn’t miss any calls. With the crazy wildfire season they’d been having this summer, it looked like he’d finally have enough money to finance the construction of the timber frame house he’d been dreaming about.
Tyler glanced at his watch as he made his way swiftly out of the dormitory to the ready room. When the fire buzzer sounded, the smokejumpers had just fifteen minutes to suit up and get their asses on the jump plane. He took the stairs leading from the sleeping quarters to the ready room two at a time. As he crossed the lobby, he tried not to look at the parachute that hung from the balcony of the vaulted ceiling, a grim tribute to their former captain.
The outside doors pushed open and Vin Kingston came in, acknowledging Tyler with a nod as Vin fell into step beside him. Tyler had been a mentor to the younger man when Vin had gone through smokejumper training several years earlier. They’d both been close to their former captain, Russ Edwards, although that could be said of most of the team. Russ, with his easygoing nature, made everyone feel as if they’d been friends with him forever. After Russ had been killed in a jump accident the previous year, Tyler had thought Vin might quit the smokejumpers for good. He didn’t miss how Vin glanced up at the chute hanging over their heads.
Russ’s death had shocked the tightknit firefighting community, but had been especially difficult for Vin; even more-so when Russ’s widow, Jacqui, overcome with grief, had abruptly quit Montana and moved to Florida. Vin had surprised everyone by staying on, remote but determined to look after Russ and Jacqui’s dog, Muttley. But none of the crew had been surprised when Jacqui returned to Glacier Creek, thinner and more subdued than they remembered, and eventually succumbed to Vin’s charm. Only Tyler knew Vin had had a thing for Jacqui long before she became a widow.
Tyler was glad things had worked out for them. They needed each other, and while Tyler thought Russ and Jacqui had been great together, Vin had confided the marriage hadn’t been quite as perfect as they’d all believed. Tyler had to admit Vin and Jacqui made a damn good team. After what they’d both been through, they deserved some happiness.
“Hey, Vin.” He greeted the other man. “Any word on what we have?”
“Don’t know yet, but I can tell you that Jacqui’s not too thrilled about it.”
“Oh yeah?” Tyler shot his friend a sideways glance as they made their way to the ready room. “She tell you that?”
Vin snorted. “Nope. You know Jacqui; she’d never say anything about my jumping, but I know she worries every time I get called up.”
Jacqui had good reason to worry, considering her first husband had been fatally injured during a jump. Tyler gave the other man a reassuring slap on the shoulder. “I’ll make sure you get back in one piece.”
He knew as well as Vin what marriage to a smokejumper could do to a woman. That was another thing they had in common—their first marriages had each gone down the shitter. Tyler’s marriage—to a girl from California—had lasted for two years, but it had been doomed from the beginning; he’d just been too stubborn to realize it.
Vin, on the other hand, had married a local girl, Tori, but she hadn’t been able to handle his long absences during the busy fire season. Vin and Tori still saw each other on a regular basis, since she worked as a waitress at The Drop Zone pub, but they were at least on cordial terms. Tyler hadn’t seen or spoken to Alicia in almost eight years, since she’d remarried and popped out a couple of kids.
He pushed the unpleasant memories aside. Ten years might have passed since Alicia had divorced him, but he’d learned his lesson. There would be no more weddings for him.
Most of the smokejumper team had already arrived and were suiting up when Tyler and Vin reached the ready room, where the jumpers had their own equipment lockers and speed racks. The jump gear was pre-positioned to facilitate a swift suit up, and it took less than three minutes for Tyler to pull on his protective gear.
The suit itself was made of Kevlar, heavily padded to provide protection from tree landings and slamming into the ground. The jacket had a high collar to protect his neck and his helmet was equipped with a mesh face guard. He slipped into his harness, which would attach to his parachute, and buckled it securely. Lastly, he grabbed his PG bag, so called because it contained his personal gear, and then he jogged out to the flight line with the rest of the team.
The first glimmers of dawn were spreading pink and gold fingers across the horizon as Tyler made his way across the tarmac toward the waiting plane. Clouds of dust erupted around each man as they dropped their packs in the staging area. Almost immediately, the ground crew began loading the gear into the plane. The packs would be rigged into parachutes, and dropped separately, once the jumpers were safely on the ground.
“Okay, listen up!”
Sam Gaskill, the new captain who had replaced Russ several months earlier, gathered the crew in close for the in-brief. He was a few years younger than Tyler, but had proven his skill, both as a leader and a smokejumper, during this insanely busy fire season. Tyler didn’t begrudge the other man his newfound responsibilities as captain, although he knew some of the other crew hadn’t completely warmed up to Sam yet. He’d come in from outside the Glacier Creek community, and there were some guys who still complained that they hadn’t been selected for the position.
Tyler had thrown his own name into the hat, and had been more than a little surprised that he hadn’t made the cut, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to whine about it. That kind of shit didn’t endear anyone to the brass, and only eroded the crew’s ability to work together as a team. And when anyone became more important than the sum of the parts, it usually led to trouble. A smokejumper couldn’t operate alone, at least not safely. And Tyler was all about safety. He never wanted to experience another day like the one when they’d lost Russ.
As Sam began to brief the team about the deployment, Tyler noticed two other men standing to one side, listening. One of the men was their new spotter, Doster Cohen. His job was to select the best landing site for the jumpers, close to the fire.
“Hey.” Vin nudged him, nodding in Sam’s direction. “Isn’t that your old man?”
Tyler peered through the near-dawn darkness and recognized the second man standing just behind Captain Gaskill, and nearly groaned.
His old man.
What a joke.
Tyler and Mike Eldridge weren’t related by blood, as Mike had made abundantly clear, nearly from the moment he’d married Tyler’s mother.
I’m not your father.
How many times had Mike said those words to Tyler? More times than he could count. The first time had been following the wedding ceremony, when Tyler—just five years old—had happily declared that he finally had a dad. Mike Eldridge had crouched down in front of him, looked directly into his eyes, and said, “I’m not your dad, Tyler. You’re not to call me that. To you, I’m just Mike.”
And that had pretty much summed up their relationship for the next thirty years. But that hadn’t stopped Tyler from trying. He’d done everything he could think of to gain Mike’s approval, naively thinking if he could just be smart enough, strong enough, brave enough, then maybe Mike would want him.
He’d hero-worshipped his stepfather.
Mike Eldridge had been part of the Glacier Creek base for almost forty years. In his mid-sixties, he was a granite slab of a man, with a stubborn jaw and eyes like chips of glacial ice. He’d started his career as a hotshot, before moving over to the smokejumpers in his late twenties. He was very nearly a legend in the wildland firefighting world, having jumped more than three hundred fires during his long career. Retired now, he hadn’t jumped in almost two decades, and instead taught several wildfire training courses required for hotshot and smokejumper qualification. Tyler had taken them all. He had firsthand knowledge about the kind of man Mike was—hard, uncompromising, and unforgiving.
He and Tyler’s biological father had been best friends, part of the Glacier Creek hotshot crew. Bryce Dodson had been killed fighting a wildfire when Tyler was just a toddler; he had no memories of his father. But he’d heard the stories—Bryce Dodsen had been like the wildfires he’d battled—hot, wild, and unpredictable.
Sometimes Tyler wondered if that was why Mike Eldridge was such a hardass with him; he didn’t want him growing up to be like his father. But Tyler couldn’t recall a time when he didn’t want to be a smokejumper. Growing up in the shadow of his stepfather gave him a unique vantage point, and he would have done anything to gain that man’s approval. But Mike Eldridge had remained frustratingly aloof, even when Tyler had been voted all-star athlete in high-school; even when he’d enrolled in firefighting courses, and had graduated top in his class, and could hump a sixty-pound pack of gear up the side of a mountain in record time.
He’d gotten nothing.
Okay, there’d been the time right after graduation, when he had been working a summer job with a hotshot crew out of Helena, and they’d deployed to California to fight a wildfire there. Tyler had been twenty-three and pretty full of himself. After containing the fire, the crew had kicked back at a local pub where he’d met Alicia, a pretty blonde with a golden tan, and legs that could wrap around him like a vine. He’d been too dazed from all the sex to realize they weren’t a good match in the ways that mattered.
Before he knew it, they were married and living in his tiny, two-room apartment in downtown Whitefish, Montana. Oh, he’d gotten plenty from Mike Eldridge then. He’d thought the older man was going to burst an artery, he’d been so furious with Tyler. He’d called him irresponsible.
Not the qualities they were looking for in a full-time hotshot. That was when Tyler had known he’d blown it. He’d spent another couple of years working part-time jobs on different hotshot teams, trying to prove his worth. In the meantime, Alicia grew tired of being alone, and had returned to California and filed for divorce. Even knowing it was for the best, it had left a bitter taste in Tyler’s mouth. So when he got hired on full-time with the hotshots, and later with the Glacier Creek smokejumpers, he’d put any thoughts of marriage behind him.
He didn’t need to go through that again. His crew was his family. And over the next ten years, they had become his family. He’d gladly give his life for any of them, even the annoyingly cheerful Marco Linetti, the youngest crew member who had recently made it through boot camp, and was anxious to prove himself.
Tyler dragged his thoughts away from Mike Eldridge, and instead focused on the in-brief, which was thankfully short and sweet. Lightning had spawned a wildfire in the heavily timbered, mountainous terrain of Glacier National Park, on the eastern side of the popular tourist destination. High winds, compounded by a hot, dry summer had quickly fueled the blaze into an inferno that was rapidly devouring everything in its path.
Until now, the local ground crews from Missoula and St. Mary had managed the suppression effort, but shifting winds had caused the fire to behave erratically, jumping fire lines and spawning new fires that quickly grew and spread. The blaze had shut down the eastern portion of the park, and had destroyed thousands of acres of parkland. Fire roads were quickly becoming impassable, and the smokejumpers were the last line of defense before the wildfire threatened the nearby town of St. Mary.
As Tyler jogged toward the plane, he thought he heard Mike call his name, but he didn’t look back. He wasn’t that same starstruck kid anymore. He no longer needed or wanted Mike’s approval.
Once they were airborne, Tyler took time to strap on his parachute and take stock of who he’d be jumping with. There were fifteen jumpers in all, including the new captain. Vin sat beside him, and across from him sat Ace Clark, one of the younger guys.
Tyler had jumped plenty of times with Liam Ferguson, whose sister, Miranda, happened to be their pilot. The two of them had worked out of the Glacier Creek base almost as long as Tyler. Greg Winters and Garrett Broxson, both married, sat toward the front, and would be among the first ones out the door. Greg was a seasonal part-timer, but he was good at his job. Tyler had tried to persuade him to hire on full-time, but Greg insisted his wife would never allow it. The rest of the crew was comprised of guys who Tyler knew well and had jumped with dozens of time. He relaxed fractionally. No rookies on board, which meant he could focus on his own jump without worrying about the others.
Within an hour they were approaching the jump site. The sun had risen and, looking out the window of the plane, Tyler viewed the billowing black smoke that marred the brilliant sunrise. From his vantage point, he could see a long ridge of mountains topped with flames, and more wildfire extending down the eastern slope, toward the flatlands. He saw the long, narrow finger of St. Mary Lake, and beyond that, the tiny town of St. Mary. Captain Gaskill hadn’t been kidding—there were several spot fires along the western tip of the lake, and at least one had spread along the northern shore, in the direction of the town. The pilot made several passes over the front edge of the fire to determine the best spot to drop the crew.
The jump door was open now and the spotter leaned out, scoping out a safe landing site. He pulled several weighted, crepe paper streamers from a basket by the door and dropped them out of the plane, watching to see how they drifted, to ensure they came close to the landing site he had selected.
Doster Cohen was new to the base, and as Tyler glanced at the others, their grim expressions told him they were all thinking the same thing; they were recalling the day that their former captain, Russ Edwards, had died.
The spotter that day had selected a drop point, and released the streamers to ensure an accurate glide. But when Russ jumped, a rogue wind had caught him, driving him into a stand of tall spruces where he’d become tangled. He’d been unconscious, but had no visible injuries. They’d evacuated him by helicopter, convinced he would be okay, so it had been a shock to learn he had died en route to the hospital from massive internal injuries and head trauma.
He’d never regained consciousness.
The spotter had blamed himself, although an investigation had cleared him of any wrongdoing. He’d left the forest service soon afterward.
Tyler worried about wind gusts, not just for himself but for the rest of the guys. He knew the possibility of injury always existed, but he liked to think their attention to safety eliminated most of the risks. He was all about safety, even more so since Russ’s accident.
Surveying the landscape below, he saw the drop point where the streamers had landed. The spotter had selected a small tract of meadow on the side of the steep terrain, where the ground was more level. But each jumper would have to hit the spot precisely, since just above the meadow was dense forest, and the ground below fell away to a deep ravine.
While the jumpers made final preparations, Tyler took a moment to look at his map, orienting himself with the terrain, and figuring out how they might reach the leading edge of the blaze quickly, without overtaxing themselves. They’d each haul their own packs and equipment, and while they were all in top physical shape, they’d need all their stamina to battle the wildfire. Looking at the map, Tyler figured they could follow the ridge line horizontally, and avoid exerting too much energy in climbing. He also marked the map with two possible escape routes, in case the fire overwhelmed them and forced them to retreat.
“Hey, Ty.” Someone bumped his shoulder, and he looked up to see Sam crouched beside him. “We have a situation. I need you and two other guys to do a structure assessment, and possibly an evacuation. I’ll take the others and tackle the front edge of the main fire. I want you to be the point man for the evac.”
Tyler felt his eyebrows go up. They didn’t typically do evacuations, although it wasn’t outside their realm of duties. He bent to take a closer look at the map where Sam was pointing. On the extreme edge of the park, he could see what looked like an access road snaking into the steeper terrain.
“What kind of an evacuation?”
“A man and his daughter. They were told to leave two days ago, but looks like they decided to stay. The landlines are down, and the fire roads are impassable, otherwise the St. Mary crew would go in and get them. They can still use this access road if they leave in the next hour. It’ll take the ground crews at least two hours to reach them, which is why they want us to go in. The fire will reach the access road at this point”—Sam jabbed a finger at a spot on the squiggly line—“within an hour. If we can’t get them safely beyond this point, we’ll be looking at an aerial evac.”
Tyler could see the property was directly in the path of the fire. He barely contained a snort of contempt. Although the fire marshals provided ample warning for residents to flee ahead of a wildfire, there were always those who believed they could ride out the storm. They soaked their homes with water and hunkered down, putting their lives at risk, as well as the lives of those trying to rescue them. Tyler would go in after the man and his daughter because that was his job, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He resented risking the safety of his crew because some jack-wagon thought he was fireproof. That the man would endanger his own daughter—a child—was even more infuriating.
“I’ll take Vin and Ace,” he said. “We’ll get these people to safety and cut a fire line here.” He indicated a spot ahead of the leading edge of the fire. “If things get dicey, I’ll call for a slurry drop.”
Slurry was a fire retardant liquid, dropped by aircraft ahead of a wildfire, to protect that area from catching fire. Most commonly, it was used to protect homes and people.
Sam nodded. “They’re scooping water out of St. Mary Lake and dumping it along the access road. If they can keep the road wet, those folks will have a good chance of making it down the mountain.” He started to move away, and then turned back. “Listen, that front is moving fast and hot. No heroics. Just get those people out, and then you hightail it out of there. Head back to the drop site, and radio me for our position.”
Tyler folded his map and tucked it inside his suit, as Sam climbed across the gear to tell Vin, Ace, and Doster about the evac plan. Sam and the spotter bent their heads over the map, debating on where to drop Tyler and the other two jumpers. After several moments, obviously satisfied, Sam gave Doster a slap on the back, and then signaled the remaining men for the first jump. Tyler watched as each man positioned himself in the open door, waited for the spotter to tap him on the leg, and pushed himself out into the open sky.
Then it was just the four of them left in the plane, as the pilot banked sharply and the spotter leaned out of the open door to survey the land beneath them. Tyler never tired of seeing the majestic mountain ranges and sweeping valleys that defined this part of Montana. He’d lived here his entire life, had spent countless days hiking through the wilderness of the national park. Despite having traveled all over the continental U.S. and Canada, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Protecting this magnificent land from the ravages of wildfire was both a duty, and a privilege.
Less than five minutes later, they were over the second drop site. Tyler braced himself in the opening of the plane, surveying the area below. The landing site was a mix of conifer trees, meadows, and brush just below a rocky outcrop. If the winds didn’t cooperate, there was a risk of overshooting the drop site and being pushed into the rocks, or being carried into a dense copse of tall spruce. Either would suck. Tyler had dropped into trees before, and even if he managed to avoid being impaled by a branch, or getting his chute lines tangled, it was a complete drag.
When he felt the slap on his leg, he pushed forward, out of the plane and into the open air, free-falling toward earth. Tyler silently acknowledged he always had some anxiety before jumping, but once he was actually airborne, all of that vanished.
He was flying, free and untethered, the wind whipping at his jumpsuit and pushing at his face, and his heart soared with the sheer thrill of it. Then he pulled his chute and felt himself jerked upward, his downward plummet momentarily suspended. He glanced up to see the bright blue, rectangular canopy open above him. Grasping the two toggle handles, he peered down over his boots to where the ground was swiftly rising up to meet him. He steered toward the landing site, maneuvering himself to the center of the small clearing, and pulled hard on both toggles to slow his approach.
He landed on his feet, and quickly gathered in his chute and stripped off his helmet and his protective gear. Shading his eyes, he watched as Vin and Ace dropped out of the sky, wincing as Ace hit the ground hard. But the younger man was up on his feet almost immediately, and Tyler gave the thumbs up to the spotter, as the plane circled above them. Within minutes, their packs and equipment were dropped out of the aircraft, and Tyler swore softly as one of them drifted too far and landed in the trees. Retrieving the gear would cost them precious minutes and, with the wildfire bearing down on the trapped family, they needed every second.
It took them less than ten minutes to store their chutes, retrieve their gear, and begin hiking toward the threatened property. As they closed in on the wildfire, Tyler could smell burning trees and hear the ominous crackle of flames as the wildfire consumed the dry underbrush and spruce. He glanced at his map.
“We’re heading directly toward the fire. The property should be straight ahead, through these trees,” he shouted to Vin. “We’ll bring the family back this way, and get them to the access road.”
As long as the access road was still viable. If things went south and the road was impassable, they would bring them back to the drop site and call in a chopper. He could hear the roar of the wildfire ahead of them, and several times they encountered small fires that had sprung up from stray embers, carried by the wind. They suppressed those flames on the spot, working quickly to clear away flammable debris, and kick dirt over the embers. Sweat soaked Tyler’s shirt and ran in rivulets down his neck. His eyes burned from the smoke that filled the air, and he swiped the moisture from his face with the back of his gloved hands. They hadn’t even reached the main fire, and already he’d had a good workout.
They continued to push their way through the trees, using their pulaskis and, on one occasion, a chainsaw to cut through the dense forest. The sound of the wildfire grew louder. Through the brush, Tyler could now see the beginning of the property, and what looked like a high, wire fence that ran as far as he could see to either side.
Great. Now, they’d have to cut through the fencing to get to the house. Tyler cursed under his breath. The three men reached the fence line and Tyler stood back, momentarily puzzled. There were actually two wire fences, one inside the other, with a three-foot space separating them.
“What the hell?” Vin peered through the fencing. “Did you see that?”
A dark shadow moved on the other side of the fencing.
“Yeah, looked like a dog,” Ace said.
“Ah, hell.” Vin swore. “I know where we are. That wasn’t a dog—that was a wolf.”
Both Tyler and Ace turned to look at him, and Tyler knew his face showed his astonishment.
“I’ve heard of this place…it’s a wolf sanctuary,” Vin said, swiping a hand across his eyes. “I just didn’t realize it was so far off the beaten path.”
Christ. Wolves. How many were there? And had their enclosure been compromised by the wildfire? Tyler knew enough about wolves to know they preferred to avoid any contact with humans, but with the wildfire almost on top of them, their behavior could be unpredictable. Dangerous.
Perfect. Just when he thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, now he had to worry about wolves.
End of Excerpt