Chapter 1

2655 Words
Chapter One “Tony. Hey, you okay?” Parker Hansen pushed his friend on the shoulder, trying to jerk him out of his trance. This was exactly the type of behavior that could jeopardize an entire hand crew. Was he fatigued? Dehydrated? Exhaustion did funny things to people, and his crew had been working this grassland fire for four days straight. Fire didn’t give a s**t whether you were fatigued or dehydrated. In fact, Parker got the feeling it liked it. Too many times, fighting a wildfire felt like a fight to the death in a gladiator ring. They’d beat out a spot, and suddenly the fire would shift out of reach. Or pop up behind them. Taunting and challenging. It was downright eerie the way it seemed to know you were after it. And no way was Parker going to let this fire get the upper hand today. Not when he had men to protect, and ranchers’ livelihoods at stake thanks to one of the biggest prairie fires in Kansas history. To make matters worse, the wind had shifted, and if they didn’t move now, they’d be caught between the line they were backlighting and the leading edge of the fire, and roast like potatoes. “Tony.” This time, Parker grabbed the man’s arm and tugged. “Back at it, man. We’ve gotta keep going.” He turned and quickly pounded another ember with his fire swatter. The embers were landing with greater frequency. Never a good sign. Redoubling his efforts, Parker heaved his Pulaski at the hard, dry dirt. Instead of sinking in and upturning the roots of the prairie grass, the pick skittered and bounced. “f**k. Mike, you seeing this?” He shouted into the wind. Mike’s voice carried back, thin and strained. “It’s as dry as a witch’s tit.” Years of drought had hardened the soil to the consistency of asphalt. Parker tightened his grip on the Pulaski and heaved with all he had, grunting from the effort. The point knifed into the dirt then stopped a few inches below the surface. Damn. It must have hit a rock. A gust of hot air blasted his face. Sweat pooled between Parker’s shoulder blades and dripped straight down his spine, crawling under his protective gear and pooling above his a*s. It must be 115 out here. At least. “Mike,” he bellowed, waving his arms. “Wind’s shifted again.” Mike’s head sprang up at the sound of his name, and he turned, eyes widening as he looked behind Parker. Shit. Without even looking over his shoulder, Parker knew what he’d see. “Time to drop gear?” he shouted, his throat hoarse from the smoke and heat. Mike shook his head and pointed, white teeth glowing in an eerie smile against his sooty face. What the hell? They had to get out of here now. The gusts must be at least thirty. The thick, acrid smoke stuck deep in his lungs. If there was a smoke cloud barreling at them threatening to cut off their escape to the safety zone, they needed to drop and run. Now. Nothing mattered more than keeping his men safe. Mike gestured again, and Parker turned. Four Blackhawk helicopters flew toward them like dark avenging angels hovering above the growing smoke clouds and orange flames racing in their direction. Bambi buckets filled with water dangled like red yo-yos below them. Parker stood transfixed as they dropped their load on the advancing flames and turned. They were close enough he could see two soldiers sitting in the opening, acting as spotters. He raised an arm and received a wave in return. Was Cassidy up there in one of the ships? He sure hoped so. Only the most dangerous wildfires called on aid from the National Guard, and if Cassidy was up there, she’d make sure his crew stayed safe. Not that he had time to think about anything except getting to safety, but Cassidy Grace always had an uncanny knack of finding him when he most needed it. She’d helped him out of more than a few scrapes back in the day. While had irked him back in the day that he’d occasionally had to rely on a ‘girl’ to help him out in a bind, he’d be grateful for any help the universe threw at his team today. Especially if it was in the form of the sexiest and best helicopter pilot he’d ever met towing a Bambi bucket. The ships would be back in a few minutes with the next load, and he didn’t want to be under it. Cassidy might rock a flight suit, but he’d have to think about getting her out of it when his team was out of danger. Hopefully, the thousands of pounds of water the copters had just dumped would buy them enough time to get to their safety zone. The brush truck moved too slowly, and he wouldn’t risk getting it stuck in a depression, not with the fire shifting directions every few minutes. “Everyone fill your tanks,” Parker barked as he jogged to the brush truck. “Mike, grab Tony.” He hated it, but he was going to have to pull Tony off the line, at least until the guy was more rested. Fatigue was only contributing to the overall danger of the situation. The twins, Johnny and Jimmy Benoit, were already at the truck refilling their backpack water pumps. Parker turned and slammed his flapper into the ground, beating out another ember from the advancing line. “Johnny, fill up. Jimmy, grab the map. Can we see what in the hell this fire is doing?” Smoke on the prairie had a way of disorienting fire crews. Without significant landmarks, it was too easy to get turned around. His hand drifted to the emergency fire shelter secured across the front of his chest. Air attack might have bought them a few minutes, but if they didn’t move, they could still get caught by embers skipping over the wet fuel. This was as dry as he’d ever seen the prairie. All it would take was a handful of advancing embers and a big gust, and the small gain they’d made would be lost. “Tony, you okay? What happened back there?” Parker tried to keep the anger from his voice. He knew exactly what had happened, but he wanted to hear it from Tony first, before he chewed his friend a new asshole. A shudder went through Tony’s coverall. The reflective strips shivering with him in the yellow-gray light. “I don’t know, man. That’s never happened before. The smoke was moving like a tornado, and I-I couldn’t look away.” Not good. Tony had been outside of town last spring when a tornado destroyed half of Prairie. He’d been one of the first guys on the scene to help pull out victims. If the fire was giving him flashbacks, Parker had to get him out of here now. Problem was, he couldn’t pull Tony off the line without good reason. “You get any sleep last night?” Tony’s mouth set in a grim line. “I know what you’re thinking, Park. Don’t make me go back and sit on my a*s. I gotta do something.” “Not when you’re a danger to yourself and your team.” It gutted him to say that. Tony was a good guy. And capable. Parker looked back over his shoulder. They’d stayed at the truck too long. The fire was easily a half mile closer and rolling. “Jimmy, where we headed?” “It looks like the fire’s advancing to our safe zone. We need a visual before we move there.” “Anything closer?” Jimmy shrugged. “The advancing line is cutting us off from the black, and the wind keeps shifting. Upwind is a stand of cedars, but I don’t trust it to stay safe.” “Fuck.” Fire traveled faster uphill. Judging from the growth of the cloud, that fire was moving at an alarming rate. Jimmy was right. No way they could outrun it. And the cedars would go up like Roman candles if they ignited. He hit the button on his radio. “Remote Command, this is crew leader Hansen. Wind has shifted, and the fire is rolling. Can we get a visual from helitack, over?” A moment later a voice crackled over the radio. “Copy that. Hold tight.” Their best bet was to backtrack and hope they didn’t get out flanked in the gusty, swirling wind. They’d have to rely on helitack to slow and take the heat out of the leading edge. Parker had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. If the embers skipped over the safety zone, they’d have to deploy their shake ’n bakes, and no one wanted to do that. “Hansen. Move out now. Embers have ignited on the far side of your safety zone. There’s a four-way stop a half mile southwest. Get your asses there as fast as you can.” “Roger. Moving out.” He looked at his men, exhaustion etched on their blackened faces. “Time to get out. Drop your equipment if you need to.” The men nodded. This wasn’t the first time they’d had to abandon a brush truck. But it was the first time any of them had seen flames this big rushing toward them. Even with helo support, they were going to have to hoof it. They jumped to action, moving as one. They’d practiced this countless times in off-season training, and it was important to stay calm even while every cell in Parker’s body was screaming run. The churning air caused by the copter blades as they approached from behind fluttered against his Nomex, and Parker looked up in time to see another bird dump a load of water on the leading edge. The smoke cloud was so tall it almost seemed futile. He had to trust that they knew what they were doing. Another gust swirled around them, bringing even hotter air and smoke. Parker’s throat burned from the smoke. He’d be coughing for days after this. He broke into a jog, measuring his breath and trying not to cough with each exhale. His lungs burned. His shoulders ached, and his feet would be sore after running for it in steel-toed boots. But it was better than the alternative. Conversation halted as each man narrowed his focus to the task at hand. Parker could feel the heat coming off the wind in waves. He didn’t dare turn around. Fire had a way of hypnotizing you and his men were relying on him to keep a clear head. Up ahead, Jimmy called out. “I see lights. Looks like the cavalry is waiting.” “Pick up the pace, boys,” Parker hollered. In unison, the men sped up, continuing to spray the dry prairie as they jogged to the lights they saw flashing against the eerie gray sky. “Tank’s empty,” Johnny called. “Mine too,” Tony added. Parker could tell from the weight on his back that his tank was still about half full. “You three get to safety. Mike and I will bring up the rear.” “All for one, boss.” Fuck that. They were in danger. None of this three musketeers bullshit. “Move it,” he yelled. “That’s an order.” Reluctantly, Tony and Johnny picked up speed and passed Jimmy. They could see where they were headed now and didn’t need him to lead the way. “Why are you still here, Jimmy?” “Tank’s still full.” “Then use it,” he panted. “Ships are coming,” Jimmy yelled above the din. The fire must be catching them because this time the noise of the rotors was deafening, and he swore there was a split second of relief from the relentless heat at his back. “Boss, I’m calling an audible,” Jimmy yelled over the roar. “Time to sprint.” At that, Parker turned and looked. A fifty-foot wall of flames rose up out of the ground like a great specter in a billowing living cloak of smoke. He’d seen some crazy things fighting wildland fires every summer, but nothing like this. The fire looked like a demon. “Boss.” A hard yank on his arm brought him back. Damn. He’d been sucked in, just like Tony. Mike didn’t need to say anything more. Parker turned and sprinted for the lights. He guessed the leading edge was less than a quarter mile away. If they were lucky, the water trucks in the distance were already spraying, and a team of fresh fire fighters was turning over the dirt. That is if they had better equipment than his crew had. Surely the state had sent in a bulldozer crew by now? His toes slammed into the steel front of his boots as he ran. His legs ached, and still, he pushed them. Until he slipped on a bit of mud. He nearly landed on his a*s as relief hit him like a two-by-four, but he righted himself. A final burst of energy surged through him as he pushed with everything he had, slipping and sliding through the wet prairie to the safety of the road. Home free. Someone had already clipped the barbed wire separating the range from the road, and Parker scrambled through the opening, only stopping when his feet hit the asphalt. “Where is everyone?” he shouted, looking around for his team. He bent over, bracing his hands on his knees and gasping for air. “You dehydrated?” A rough voice asked. Parker didn’t recognize the man in front of him, but if he was asking, the man was likely the remote command control. He shook his head. “No. But one of my men is showing signs of fatigue, maybe dehydration. He needs to get off the line.” “No one’s getting off the line right now. I need all hands on deck. Have you seen what’s coming?” Parker turned. The fire had doubled in height. A hundred-foot wall of flame loomed ahead, menacing tendrils of orange flicking and twisting with the swirling column of wind. The fire whirl resembled a tornado, and Parker wasn’t sure which was more deadly. The realization kicked his focus into high gear. “Where do you want me?” “Don’t matter. Walk down the line and lend a hand. Helitack is dropping everything they have here. We’ve wet down the other side of the road because this motherfucker likes to jump the fences.” “Just like a bull after a cow in heat,” they both spoke at once. Parker stuck out his hand, grinning. “Parker Hansen. Prairie wildfire crew.” “Pete Wilder, Assistant Chief, Hutchinson, and for the moment, your boss. Nice to meet you, now get your a*s on the line.” Parker turned and jogged down the line looking for an opening. Past the enormous eighteen-wheeler tank with huge hoses snaking out of it, and finding space at the fourth hose. “What can I do?” “Step right up,” another firefighter said. “We need another pair of hands on the hose. We don’t open the nozzle until Pete calls.” “What are we waiting for?” The man in front of him lifted his chin. “The cavalry.” Of course. From the safety of the road, Parker could take a moment to appreciate the vision of the line of helicopters hovering above the smoke, Bambi buckets trailing in the wind. Only this time, when they dumped their load, the water didn’t seem to have an effect. The wind was too strong. The water disintegrated into a fine mist before ever hitting the fire. Shouts of Go relayed down the line, and the lead fighter turned on the hose. Water filled the slack hose between Parker’s hands, and he braced himself against the force of it. His body vibrated with the pulse of the water. Too soon, the hose softened. They must have emptied the whole tanker. They’d made a dent in this corner of the fire provided the wind didn’t change again. Peter’s voice barked out over a megaphone. “Everyone get out there and swat down those hotspots. The sooner we contain this section of the beast, the sooner we get to rest.” A chorus of grumbles rose up around him. He got it. They were beat. Parker guessed there were a lot of men out here who’d broken the rules and pulled back to back shifts. They all needed a rest, but he grabbed his swatter and went back at it. He’d lost track of his men, but they were here, and most important, they were safe. He just hoped wherever she was, Cassidy was too.
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