Mount Hood Aviation’s lead smokejumper Johnny Akbar Jepps rolled out of his lower bunk careful not to bang his head on the upper. Well, he tried to roll out, but every muscle fought him, making it more a crawl than a roll. He checked the clock on his phone. Late morning.
He’d slept twenty of the last twenty-four hours and his body felt as if he’d spent the entire time in one position. The coarse plank flooring had been worn smooth by thousands of feet hitting exactly this same spot year in and year out for decades. He managed to stand upright…then he felt it, his shoulders and legs screamed.
The New Tillamook Burn. Just about the nastiest damn blaze he’d fought in a decade of jumping wildfires. Two hundred thousand acres—over three hundred square miles—of rugged Pacific Coast Range forest, poof! The worst forest fire in a decade for the Pacific Northwest, but they’d killed it off without a single fatality or losing a single town. There’d been a few bigger ones, out in the flatter eastern part of Oregon state. But that much area—mostly on terrain too steep to climb even when it wasn’t on fire—had been a horror.
Akbar opened the blackout curtain and winced against the summer brightness of blue sky and towering trees that lined the firefighter’s camp. Tim was gone from the upper bunk, without kicking Akbar on his way out. He must have been as hazed out as Akbar felt.
He did a couple of side stretches and could feel every single minute of the eight straight days on the wildfire to contain the bastard, then the excruciating nine days more to convince it that it was dead enough to hand off to a Type II incident mop-up crew. Not since his beginning days on a hotshot crew had he spent seventeen days on a single fire.
And in all that time nothing more than catnaps in the acrid safety of the “black”—the burned-over section of a fire, black with char and stark with no hint of green foliage. The mop-up crews would be out there for weeks before it was dead past restarting, but at least it was truly done in. That fire wasn’t merely contained; they’d killed it bad.
Yesterday morning, after demobilizing, his team of smokies had pitched into their bunks. No wonder he was so damned sore. His stretches worked out the worst of the kinks but he still must be looking like an old man stumbling about.
He looked down at the sheets. Damn it. They’d been fresh before he went to the fire, now he’d have to wash them again. He’d been too exhausted to shower before sleeping and they were all smeared with the dirt and soot that he could still feel caking his skin. Two-Tall Tim, his number two man and as tall as two of Akbar, kinda, wasn’t in his bunk. His towel was missing from the hook.
Shower. Shower would be good. He grabbed his own towel and headed down the dark, narrow hall to the far end of the bunk house. Every one of the dozen doors of his smoke teams were still closed, smokies still sacked out. A glance down another corridor and he could see that at least a couple of the Mount Hood Aviation helicopter crews were up, but most still had closed doors with no hint of light from open curtains sliding under them. All of MHA had gone above and beyond on this one.
“Hey, Tim.” Sure enough, the tall Eurasian was in one of the shower stalls, propped up against the back wall letting the hot water stream over him.
“Akbar the Great lives,” Two-Tall sounded half asleep.
“Mostly. Doghouse?” Akbar stripped down and hit the next stall. The old plywood dividers were flimsy with age and gray with too many showers. The Mount Hood Aviation firefighters’ Hoodie One base camp had been a kids’ summer camp for decades. Long since defunct, MHA had taken it over and converted the playfields into landing areas for their helicopters, and regraded the main road into a decent airstrip for the spotter and jump planes.
“Doghouse? Hell, yeah. I’m like ten thousand calories short.” Two-Tall found some energy in his voice at the idea of a trip into town.
The Doghouse Inn was in the nearest town. Hood River lay about a half hour down the mountain and had exactly what they needed: smokejumper-sized portions and a very high ratio of awesomely fit young women come to windsurf the Columbia Gorge. The Gorge, which formed the Washington and Oregon border, provided a fantastically target-rich environment for a smokejumper too long in the woods.
“You’re too tall to be short of anything,” Akbar knew he was being a little slow to reply, but he’d only been awake for minutes.
“You’re like a hundred thousand calories short of being even a halfway decent size,” Tim was obviously recovering faster than he was.
“Just because my parents loved me instead of tying me to a rack every night ain’t my problem, buddy.”
He scrubbed and soaped and scrubbed some more until he felt mostly clean.
“I’m telling you, Two-Tall. Whoever invented the hot shower, that’s the dude we should give the Nobel prize to.”
“You say that every time.”
He heard Tim give a satisfied groan as some muscle finally let go under the steamy hot water. “Not for a second.”
Akbar stepped out and walked over to the line of sinks, smearing a hand back and forth to wipe the condensation from the sheet of stainless steel screwed to the wall. His hazy reflection still sported several smears of char.
“You so purdy, Akbar.”
“Purdier than you, Two-Tall.” He headed back into the shower to get the last of it.
“So not. You’re jealous.”
Akbar wasn’t the least bit jealous. Yes, despite his lean height, Tim was handsome enough to sweep up any ladies he wanted.
But on his own, Akbar did pretty damn well himself. What he didn’t have in height, he made up for with a proper smokejumper’s muscled build. Mixed with his tan-dark Indian complexion, he did fine.
The real fun, of course, was when the two of them went cruising together. The women never knew what to make of the two of them side by side. The contrast kept them off balance enough to open even more doors.
He smiled as he toweled down. It also didn’t hurt that their opening answer to “what do you do” was “I jump out of planes to fight forest fires.”
Worked every damn time. God he loved this job.
The small town of Hood River, a winding half-an-hour down the mountain from the MHA base camp, was hopping. Mid-June, colleges letting out. Students and the younger set of professors high-tailing it to the Gorge. They packed the bars and breweries and sidewalk cafes. Suddenly every other car on the street had a windsurfing board tied on the roof.
The snooty rich folks were up at the historic Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood itself, not far in the other direction from MHA. Down here it was a younger, thrill seeker set and you could feel the energy.
There were other restaurants in town that might have better pickings, but the Doghouse Inn was MHA tradition and it was a good luck charm—no smokie in his right mind messed with that. This was the bar where all of the MHA crew hung out. It didn’t look like much from the outside, just a worn old brick building beaten by the Gorge’s violent weather. Aged before its time, which had been long ago.
But inside was awesome. A long wooden bar stretched down one side with a half-jillion microbrew taps and a small but well-stocked kitchen at the far end. The dark wood paneling, even on the ceiling, was barely visible beneath thousands of pictures of doghouses sent from patrons all over the world. Miniature dachshunds in ornately decorated shoeboxes, massive Newfoundlands in backyard mansions that could easily house hundreds of their smaller kin, and everything in between. A gigantic Snoopy atop his doghouse in full Red Baron fighting gear dominated the far wall. Rumor said Shulz himself had been here two owners before and drawn it.
Tables were grouped close together, some for standing and drinking, others for sitting and eating.
“Amy, sweetheart!” Two-Tall called out as they entered the bar. The perky redhead came out from behind the bar to receive a hug from Tim. Akbar got one in turn, so he wasn’t complaining. Cute as could be and about his height; her hugs were better than taking most women to bed. Of course, Gerald the cook and the bar’s co-owner was big enough and strong enough to squish either Tim or Akbar if they got even a tiny step out of line with his wife. Gerald was one amazingly lucky man.
Akbar grabbed a Walking Man stout and turned to assess the crowd. A couple of the air jocks were in. Carly and Steve were at a little table for two in the corner, obviously not interested in anyone’s company but each others. Damn, that had happened fast. New guy on the base swept up one of the most beautiful women on the planet. One of these days he’d have to ask Steve how he’d done that. Or maybe not. It looked like they were settling in for the long haul; the big “M” was so not his own first choice.
Carly was also one of the best FBANs in the business. Akbar was a good Fire Behavior Analyst, had to be or he wouldn’t have made it to first stick—lead smokie of the whole MHA crew. But Carly was something else again. He’d always found the Flame Witch, as she was often called, daunting and a bit scary besides; she knew the fire better than it did itself. Steve had latched on to one seriously driven lady. More power to him.
The selection of female tourists was especially good today, but no other smokies in yet. They’d be in soon enough…most of them had groaned awake and said they were coming as he and Two-Tall kicked their hallway doors, but not until they’d been on their way out—he and Tim had first pick. Actually some of the smokies were coming, others had told them quite succinctly where they could go—but hey, jumping into fiery hell is what they did for a living anyway, so no big change there.
A couple of the chopper pilots had nailed down a big table right in the middle of the bustling seating area: Jeannie, Mickey, and Vern. Good “field of fire” in the immediate area.
He and Tim headed over, but Akbar managed to snag the chair closest to the really hot lady with down-her-back curling dark-auburn hair at the next table over—set just right to see her profile easily. Hard shot, sitting there with her parents, but damn she was amazing. And if that was her mom, it said the woman would be good looking for a long time to come.
Two-Tall grimaced at him and Akbar offered him a comfortable “beat out your ass” grin. But this one didn’t feel like that. Maybe it was the whole parental thing. He sat back and kept his mouth shut.
He made sure that Two-Tall could see his interest. That made Tim honor bound to try and cut Akbar out of the running.
Laura Jenson had spotted them coming into the restaurant. Her dad was only moments behind.
“Those two are walking like they just climbed off their first-ever horseback ride.”
She had to laugh, they did. So stiff and awkward they barely managed to move upright. They didn’t look like first-time windsurfers, aching from the unexpected workout. They’d also walked in like they thought they were two gifts to god, which was even funnier. She turned away to avoid laughing in their faces. Guys who thought like that rarely appreciated getting a reality check.
A couple minutes later, at a nod from her dad, she did a careful sideways glance. Sure enough, they’d joined in with a group of friends who were seated at the next table behind her. The short one, shorter than she was by four or five inches, sat to one side. He was doing the old stare without staring routine, as if she were so naïve as to not recognize it. His ridiculously tall companion sat around the next turn of the table to her other side.
Then the tall one raised his voice enough to be heard easily over her dad’s story about the latest goings-on at the local drone manufacturer. His company was the first one to be certified by the FAA for limited testing on wildfire and search-and-rescue overflights. She wanted to hear about it, but the tall guy had a deep voice that carried as if he were barrel-chested rather than pencil thin.