Chapter 1-1

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"toc_marker-1" class="Chapter">Chapter 1 Two-Tall Tim Harada leaned over Akbar the Great’s shoulder to look out the rear door of the DC-3 airplane. “Ugly,” he shouted over the roar of the engine and wind. Akbar nodded rather than trying to speak. Since ugly was their day job, it didn’t bother Tim much, but this was worse than usual. It would be their fourth smokejump in nine days on the same fire. The Cottonwood Peak Fire was being a total pain in the butt, even worse than usual for a wildfire. Every time they blocked it in one direction, the swirling winds would turnabout and drive the fire toward a new point on the compass. Typical for the Siskiyou Mountains of northern California, but still a pain. Akbar tossed out a pair of crepe paper streamers and they watched together. The foot-wide streamers caught wind and curled, loop-the-looped through vortices, and reversed direction at least three times. Pretty much the worst conditions possible for a parachute jump. “It’s what we live for!” Akbar nodded and Tim didn’t have to see his best friend’s face to know about the fierce wildness of his white grin on his Indian-dark face. Or the matching one against his own part-Vietnamese coloring. Many women told him that his mixed Viet, French-Canadian, and Oklahoman blood made him intriguingly exotic—a fact that had never hurt his prospects in the bar. The two of them were the first-stick smokejumpers for Mount Hood Aviation, the best freelance firefighters of them all. This was—however moronic—precisely what they lived for. He’d followed Akbar the Great’s lead for five years and the two of them had climbed right to the top. “Race you,” Akbar shouted then got on the radio and called directions about the best line of attack to “DC”—who earned his nickname from his initials matching the DC-3 jump plane he piloted. Tim moved to give the deployment plan to the other five sticks still waiting on their seats; no need to double check it with Akbar, the best approach was obvious. Heck, this was the top crew. The other smokies barely needed the briefing; they’d all been watching through their windows as the streamers cavorted in the chaotic winds. Then, while DC turned to pass back over the jump zone, he and Akbar checked each others’ gear. Hard hat with heavy mesh face shield, Nomex fire suit tight at the throat, cinched at the waist, and tucked in the boots. Parachute and reserve properly buckled, with the static line clipped to the wire above the DC-3’s jump door. Pulaski fire axe, fire shelter, personal gear bag, chain saw on a long rope tether, gas can…the list went on, and through long practice took them under ten seconds to verify. Five years they’d been jumping together, the last two as lead stick. Tim’s body ached, his head swam with fatigue, and he was already hungry though they’d just eaten a full meal at base camp and a couple energy bars on the short flight back to the fire. All the symptoms were typical for a long fire. DC called them on close approach. Once more Akbar leaned out the door, staying low enough for Tim to lean out over him. Not too tough as Akbar was a total shrimp and Tim had earned the “Two-Tall” nickname for being two Akbars tall. He wasn’t called Akbar the Great for his height, but rather for his powerful build and unstoppable energy on the fire line. “Let’s get it done and…” Tim shouted in Akbar’s ear as they approached the jump point. “…come home to Mama!” and Akbar was gone. Tim actually hesitated before launching himself after Akbar and ended up a hundred yards behind him. Come home to Mama? Akbar had always finished the line, Go get the girls. Ever since the wedding, Akbar had gotten all weird in the head. Just because he was married and happy was no excuse to— The static line yanked his chute. He dropped below the tail of the DC-3—always felt as if he had to duck, but doorways on the ground did the same thing to him—and the chute caught air and jerked him hard in the groin. The smoke washed across the sky. High, thin cirrus clouds promised an incoming weather change, but wasn’t going to help them much today. The sun was still pounding the wilderness below with a scorching, desiccating heat that turned trees into firebrands at a single spark. The Cottonwood Peak Fire was chewing across some hellacious terrain. Hillsides so steep that some places you needed mountaineering gear to go chase the flames. Hundred-and-fifty foot Doug firs popping off like fireworks. Ninety-six thousand acres, seventy percent contained and a fire as angry as could be that they were beating it down. Tim yanked on the parachute’s control lines as the winds caught him and tried to fling him back upward into the sky. On a jump like this you spent as much time making sure that the chute didn’t tangle with itself in the chaotic winds as you did trying to land somewhere reasonable. Akbar had called it right though. They had to hit high on this ridge and hold it. If not, that uncontained thirty percent of the wildfire was going to light up a whole new valley to the east and the residents of Hornbrook, California were going to have a really bad day. His chute spun him around to face west toward the heart of the blaze. Whoever had rated this as seventy percent contained clearly needed his head examined. Whole hillsides were still alight with flame. It was only because the MHA smokies had cut so many firebreaks over the last eight days, combined with the constant pounding of the big Firehawk helicopters dumping retardant loads every which way, that the whole mountain range wasn’t on fire. Tim spotted Akbar. Below and to the north. Damn but that guy could fly a chute. Tim dove hard after him. Come home to Mama! Yeesh! But the dog had also found the perfect lady. Laura Jenson: wilderness guide, expert horsewoman—who was still trying to get Tim up on one of her beasts—and who was really good for Akbar. But it was as if Tim no longer recognized his best friend. They used to crawl out of a fire, sack out in the bunks for sixteen-straight, then go hit the bars. What do I do for a living? I parachute out of airplanes to fight wildfires by hand. It wowed the women every time, gained them pick of the crop. Now when Akbar hit the ground, Laura would be waiting in her truck and they’d disappear to her little cabin in the woods. What was up with that anyway? Tim looked down and cursed. He should have been paying more attention. Akbar was headed right into the center of the only decent clearing, and Tim was on the verge of overflying the ridge and landing in the next county. He yanked hard on the right control of his chute, swung in a wide arc, and prayed that the wind gods would be favorable just this once. They were, by inches. Instead of smacking face first into the drooping top of a hemlock that he hadn’t seen coming, he swirled around it, receiving only a breath-stealing slap to the ribs, and dropped in close beside Akbar. “Akbar the Great rules!” His friend demanded a high five for making a cleaner landing than Tim’s before he began stuffing away his chute. In two minutes, the chutes were in their stuff bags and they’d shifted over to firefighting mode. The next two sticks dropped into the space they’d just vacated. Krista nailed her landing more cleanly than Tim or Akbar had. Jackson ate an aspen, but it was only a little one, so he was on the ground just fine, but he had to cut down the tree to recover his chute. Didn’t matter; they had to clear the whole ridge anyway—except everyone now had an excuse to tease him.
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