For understanding me,
and loving me anyway
Soon kindled and soon burnt.
Caught in the crosshairs of wind above the Bitterroots, the jump ship fought to find its stream. Fire boiling over the land jabbed its fists up through towers of smoke as if trying for a knockout punch.
From her seat Rowan Tripp angled to watch a seriously pissed-off Mother Nature’s big show. In minutes she’d be inside it, enclosed in the mad world of searing heat, leaping flames, choking smoke. She’d wage war with shovel and saw, grit and guile. A war she didn’t intend to lose.
Her stomach bounced along with the plane, a sensation she’d taught herself to ignore. She’d flown all of her life, and had fought wildfires every season since her eighteenth birthday. For the last half of those eight years she’d jumped fire.
She’d studied, trained, bled and burned—outwilled pain and exhaustion to become a Zulie. A Missoula smoke jumper.
She stretched out her long legs as best she could for a moment, rolled her shoulders under her pack to keep them loose.
Beside her, her jump partner watched as she did. His fingers did a fast tap dance on his thighs. “She looks mean.”
He shot her a fast, toothy grin. “Bet your ass.”
Nerves. She could all but feel them riding along his skin.
Near the end of his first season, Rowan thought, and Jim Brayner needed to pump himself up before a jump. Some always would, she decided, while others caught short catnaps to bank sleep against the heavy withdrawals to come.
She was first jump on this load, and Jim would be right behind her. If he needed a little juice, she’d supply it.
“Kick her ass, more like. It’s the first real bitch we’ve jumped in a week.” She gave him an easy elbow jab. “Weren’t you the one who kept saying the season was done?”
He tapped those busy fingers on his thighs to some inner rhythm. “Nah, that was Matt,” he insisted, grin still wide as he deflected the claim onto his brother.
“That’s what you get with a couple Nebraska farm boys. Don’t you have a hot date tomorrow night?”
“My dates are always hot.”
She couldn’t argue, as she’d seen Jim snag women like rainbow trout anytime the unit had pulled a night off to kick it up in town. He’d hit on her, she remembered, about two short seconds after he’d arrived on base. Still, he’d been good-natured about her shutdown. She’d implemented a firm policy against dating within the unit.
Otherwise, she might’ve been tempted. He had that open, innocent face offset by the quick grin, and the gleam in the eye. For fun, she thought, for a careless pop of the cork out of the lust bottle. For serious—even if she’d been looking for serious—he’d never do the trick. Though they were the same age, he was just too young, too fresh off the farm—and maybe just a little too sweet under the thin layer of green that hadn’t burned off quite yet.
“Which girl’s going to bed sad and lonely if you’re still dancing with the dragon?” she asked him.
“That’s the little one—with the giggle.”
His fingers tapped, tapped, tapped on his knee. “She does more than giggle.”
“You’re a dog, Romeo.”
He tipped back his head, let out a series of sharp barks that made her laugh.
“Make sure Dolly doesn’t find out you’re out howling,” she commented. She knew—everyone knew—he’d been banging one of the base cooks like a drum all season.
“I can handle Dolly.” The tapping picked up pace. “Gonna handle Dolly.”
Okay, Rowan thought, something bent out of shape there, which was why smart people didn’t bang or get banged by people they worked with.
She gave him a little nudge because those busy fingers concerned her. “Everything okay with you, farm boy?”
His pale blue eyes met hers for an instant, then shifted away while his knees did a bounce under those drumming fingers. “No problems here. It’s going to be smooth sailing like always. I just need to get down there.”
She put a hand over his to still it. “You need to keep your head in the game, Jim.”
“It’s there. Right there. Look at her, swishing her tail,” he said. “Once us Zulies get down there, she won’t be so sassy. We’ll put her down, and I’ll be making time with Lucille tomorrow night.”
Unlikely, Rowan thought to herself. Her aerial view of the fire put her gauge at a solid two days of hard, sweaty work.
And that was if things went their way.
Rowan reached for her helmet, nodded toward their spotter. “Getting ready. Stay chilly, farm boy.”
Cards—so dubbed as he carried a pack everywhere—wound his way through the load of ten jumpers and equipment to the rear of the plane, attached the tail of his harness to the restraining line.
Even as Cards shouted out the warning to guard their reserves, Rowan hooked her arm over hers. Cards, a tough-bodied vet, pulled the door open to a rush of wind tainted with smoke and fuel. As he reached for the first set of streamers, Rowan set her helmet over her short crown of blond hair, strapped it, adjusted her face mask.
She watched the streamers doing their colorful dance against the smoke-stained sky. Their long strips kicked in the turbulence, spiraled toward the southwest, seemed to roll, to rise, then caught another bounce before whisking into the trees.
Cards called, “Right!” into his headset, and the pilot turned the plane.
The second set of streamers snapped out, spun like a kid’s wind-up toy. The strips wrapped together, pulled apart, then dropped onto the tree-flanked patch of the jump site.
“The wind line’s running across that creek, down to the trees and across the site,” Rowan said to Jim.
Over her, the spotter and pilot made more adjustments, and another set of streamers snapped out into the slipstream.
“It’s got a bite to it.”
“Yeah. I saw.” Jim swiped the back of his hand over his mouth before strapping on his helmet and mask.
“Take her to three thousand,” Cards shouted.
Jump altitude. As first man, first stick, Rowan rose to take position. “About three hundred yards of drift,” she shouted to Jim, repeating what she’d heard Cards telling the pilot. “But there’s that bite. Don’t get caught downwind.”
“Not my first party.”
She saw his grin behind the bars of his face mask—confident, even eager. But something in his eyes, she thought. Just for a flash. She started to speak again, but Cards, already in position to the right of the door, called out, “Are you ready?”
“We’re ready,” she called back.
Rowan snapped the static line in place.
“Get in the door!”
She dropped to sitting, legs out in the wicked slipstream, body leaning back. Everything roared. Below her extended legs, fire ran in vibrant red and gold.
There was nothing but the moment, nothing but the wind and fire and the twist of exhilaration and fear that always, always surprised her.
“Did you see the streamers?”
“You see the spot?”
She nodded, bringing both into her head, following those colorful strips to the target.
Cards repeated what she’d told Jim, almost word for word. She only nodded again, eyes on the horizon, letting her breath come easy, visualizing herself flying, falling, navigating the sky down to the heart of the jump spot.
She went through her four-point check as the plane completed its circle and leveled out.
Cards pulled his head back in. “Get ready.”
Ready-steady, her father said in her head. She grabbed both sides of the door, sucked in a breath.
And when the spotter’s hand slapped her shoulder, she launched herself into the sky.
Nothing she knew topped that one instant of insanity, hurling herself into the void. She counted off in her mind, a task as automatic as breathing, and rolled in that charged sky to watch the plane fly past. She caught sight of Jim, hurtling after her.
Again, she turned her body, fighting the drag of wind until her feet were down. With a yank and jerk, her canopy burst open. She scouted out Jim again, felt a tiny pop of relief when she saw his chute spread against the empty sky. In that pocket of eerie silence, beyond the roar of the plane, above the voice of the fire, she gripped her steering toggles.
The wind wanted to drag her north, and was pretty insistent about it. Rowan was just as insistent on staying on the course she’d mapped out in her head. She watched the ground as she steered against the frisky crosscurrent that pinched its fingers on her canopy, doing its best to circle her into the tailwind.
The turbulence that had caught the streamers struck her in gusty slaps while the heat pumped up from the burning ground. If the wind had its way, she’d overshoot the jump spot, fly into the verge of trees, risk a hang-up. Or worse, it could shove her west, and into the flames.
She dragged hard on her toggle, glanced over in time to see Jim catch the downwind and go into a spin.
“Pull right! Pull right!”
“I got it! I got it.”
But to her horror, he pulled left.
“Right, goddamn it!”
She had to turn for her final, and the pleasure of a near seamless slide into the glide path drowned in sheer panic. Jim soared west, helplessly towed by a horizontal canopy.
Rowan hit the jump site, rolled. She gained her feet, slapped her release. And heard it as she stood in the center of the blaze.
She heard her jump partner’s scream.
The scream followed her as she shot up in bed, echoed in her head as she sat huddled in the dark.
Stop, stop, stop! she ordered herself. And dropped her head on her updrawn knees until she got her breath back.
No point in it, she thought. No point in reliving it, in going over all the details, all the moments, or asking herself, again, if she could’ve done just one thing differently.
Asking herself why Jim hadn’t followed her drop into the jump spot. Why he’d pulled the wrong toggle. Because, goddamn it, he’d pulled the wrong toggle.
And had flown straight into the towers and lethal branches of those burning trees.
Months ago now, she reminded herself. She’d had the long winter to get past it. And thought she had.
Being back on base triggered it, she admitted, and rubbed her hands over her face, back over the hair she’d had cut into a short, maintenance-free cap only days before.
Fire season was nearly on them. Refresher training started in a couple short hours. Memories, regrets, grief—they were bound to pay a return visit. But she needed sleep, another hour before she got up, geared up for the punishing three-mile run.
She was damn good at willing herself to sleep, anyplace, anytime. Coyote-ing in a safe zone during a fire, on a shuddering jump plane. She knew how to eat and sleep when the need and opportunity opened.
But when she closed her eyes again, she saw herself back on the plane, turning toward Jim’s grin.
Knowing she had to shake it off, she shoved out of bed. She’d grab a shower, some caffeine, stuff in some carbs, then do a light workout to warm up for the physical training test.
It continued to baffle her fellow jumpers that she never drank coffee unless it was her only choice. She liked the cold and sweet. After she’d dressed, Rowan hit her stash of Cokes, grabbed an energy bar. She took both outside where the sky was still shy of first light and the air stayed chill in the early spring of western Montana.
In the vast sky stars blinked out, little candles snuffed. She pulled the dark and quiet around her, found some comfort in it. In an hour, give or take, the base would wake, and testosterone would flood the air.
Since she generally preferred the company of men, for conversation, for companionship, she didn’t mind being outnumbered by them. But she prized her quiet time, those little pieces of alone that became rare and precious during the season. Next best thing to sleep before a day filled with pressure and stress, she thought.