Someplace Safe, 2009 First Place Winner’s Circle
By Bruce Bash
Jerry Burke drew the teeth of his crosscut saw through the butt end of a log balanced on a cutting frame. One final stroke, and a chunk of firewood dropped to the ground. He swiped an arm across his forehead and glanced over at his black Lab when the dog looked up and barked. A moment later, three long bell blasts rang out from his fire lookout tower.
“Cleo, how do you do hear things before they even happen?”
He started toward the lookout and nearly dropped the saw when a rattling boom of thunder shook the air around him. Low in the sky beyond the tower, black billowing clouds were rolling in fast. “Looks like we’re in for a storm, Cleo. We’d better get upstairs.”
He stopped at the cinderblock storage room beneath the glassed-in tower. Rusty hinges squealed as the door opened. A long hook protruded from the wall and he swung the saw into place, pulled the door closed again and trudged up fifteen steps to the wooden catwalk surrounding the tower. Raindrops were already splattering the windows.
As he stepped inside, something darted between his feet and he stumbled backwards. One glance at the small table in the far corner revealed his blunder: the end of a loaf of bread he’d left out after lunch had been chewed to shreds.
Jerry spun and rushed back onto the catwalk. “Tough Guy, you pain in the neck!” he shouted as a redheaded rodent disappeared into the talus rocks below. Jerry shook his head and tried to suppress a smile. The golden-mantled squirrels had come to visit the first day he’d moved into Rocky Point. They were irresistible beggars, often standing on hind feet and looking up at the tower with dark, pleading eyes. Tough Guy got his name from a split left ear, most likely earned in a fight for territory. He was also the biggest pest.
Another loud rumble shook the tower windows. The two bells on the ancient crank telephone pinged. The rickety phone line stretching five miles to the ranger station at Powell made a great target for lightning strikes. “Come on, clouds,” Jerry mumbled. “It’s been three months, can’t you give us a little rain?”
He took his binoculars off the alidade—the fire finder setting in the center of the ten-foot-square room—and picked up the phone receiver. Two short cranks and one long would reach Carl down at the ranger station.
“Jerry, glad you got back to me so quick.” The fire dispatcher’s voice sounded tense, anxious. “We haven’t been able to reach you by radio. You might want to check the wire connections.”
“I’ll do that, Carl. What’s up?”
There was a pause. “We have a problem, Jerry. A woman stopped here with her toddler a short time ago. She was driving up to Rocky Point to show her kids your fire tower when their collie whined to be let out. She stopped her car at the lower switchback, but when the dog jumped out, he flushed a covey of grouse and took off. The woman’s eight-year-old daughter went after the dog, but after an hour, when neither returned, she got scared and drove here for help. We’ve—”
The phone bells zinged again as if struck by a hammer. Jerry jumped back and dropped the receiver. He tapped the phone lightly with his fingertip before picking it up again.
“Carl, the storm’s right overhead. Do you want me to drive down the road to see if I can spot the girl? Carl? Hello, Carl?”
The phone was dead. He hung up the receiver and headed back down to the storage room. It didn’t take long to locate the problem. The radio wire, stretching from an outside antenna to a battery platform attached to the ceiling, hung down limp and chewed. Something hairy lay dead on the platform.
“Great. So that’s how the little monsters get upstairs.” Jerry could imagine the pointy-nosed shrews scurrying across the radio wire and climbing up through the hole cut under the alidade. Judging from the shredded insulation, the shrews had been gnawing on the wire for quite some time.
He turned to look for something to stand on when Cleo appeared in the doorway and barked. “What’s up, Cleo? Have you been chasing Tough Guy again?” Jerry grinned at his dog, but his smile quickly faded when a menacing odor drifted in with the gusting breeze.
“Oh, no. Not that. Anything but that.”
He sprinted up to the catwalk and scanned the surrounding forest. On a timbered ridge a mile or two to the south, angry flames shot up through the dense tree canopy. Black smoke belched into the air. The wildfire was burning on a long narrow ridge that gradually dropped off toward the ranger station and the Lewis and Clark Highway. But Jerry knew there was another problem as well. The only access road to Rocky Point—the one driven by the woman with the missing child—crossed the top of the burning ridge.
“Come on, Cleo. We don’t have much time.”
The two friends scrambled for a blue Willys Jeep parked at the end of the dirt road. Two clicks of the starter and the engine roared to life. Jerry drove hard, figuring no one would be on the road this late in the afternoon. His tires squealed and skidded around sharp corners; a plume of dust billowed out behind.
At the top of a wide switchback he eased off the gas and let the Jeep roll to a stop, not really knowing how much closer he dared get to the fire. Cleo jumped from the vehicle, and he slid out after her. Black smoke streamed overhead, pushed by the strengthening wind. Tall pine trees swayed and groaned as their trunks leaned and rubbed against each other.
Somewhere in the distance a heavy tree crashed to the ground. A wind gust grabbed his cap and lifted it skyward. Jerry sucked on his bottom teeth. It would be suicide to charge off into the brush to search for the girl with the fire so close. For all he knew she could be miles away. Maybe she’d already been found and was safe back at the ranger station.
“Come, Cleo. The storm’s getting worse. We need to get back to the tower.” He turned toward the Jeep just as a blinding flash split the air directly above his head. A hundred feet upslope, a Douglas fir tree exploded into flames.
“Whoa. Cleo, let’s get out of here!”
He swung the door open for his dog, but Cleo didn’t move. She stood at the edge of the road staring down the long steep slope toward a brushy creek drainage far below.
“Cleo, let’s go.” Jerry moved toward his dog and grabbed her thick leather collar. But as he began to pull, a faint sound tapped his eardrum and he stopped short. Had he heard something or was it his imagination? With the wind whipping the trees and the giant fir crackling on the slope above, was it even possible to hear some other noise? Then he heard it again. At least he thought he heard it. A low growl vibrated in Cleo’s throat.
Jerry grabbed a pack off the Jeep’s leather seat. “This is crazy, Cleo, crazy. But you heard it too, didn’t you? Let’s go. You lead.”
They charged off the edge of the road and scrambled downward, down toward the drainage, sliding, stumbling over hidden roots and exposed rocks. A sharp branch caught Jerry in the mouth and he tasted blood. He strained to keep Cleo in sight. She would disappear into the undergrowth, but always reappeared again farther downhill. “Hello,” he called out into the punishing wind over and over again. “Can you hear me?”
He ducked a pine branch and followed Cleo into a small clearing. There he saw a large boulder and he scrambled up on top to catch his breath and look around. A sudden blast of wind and twigs and dirt nearly knocked him off the rock. He felt a twinge of panic when Cleo disappeared too long from his sight.
Seconds passed. A half-minute. Through the tree canopy directly above he watched a lightening bolt arc between two clouds. And then he heard something—two dogs barking—and he knew for sure he hadn’t imagined hearing something at the road.
Jerry slid off the boulder and headed toward the excited barking. He tried to hurdle a tree in his path, but his foot caught on a branch and he tumbled forward. The sun-baked earth smacked hard as concrete. For a moment he lay stunned. Then he rolled onto his back and looked up, right into the terrified face of a young girl.
“I-it’s you! Are you OK? Are you hurt?”
The slender girl stood trembling; no words formed on her lips.
Jerry scrambled to his knees and slowly put his arms around her shaking body. Glowing embers, carried by the wind, streaked overhead. The fire was gaining strength, racing toward them. If they had any chance of escape, he needed the girl’s help.
“Hey, look at me. Hey. My name’s Jerry. I’m going to get you out of here.”
The girl’s eyes stared straight ahead as if fixed on something no one else could see.
“What’s your name? Can you tell me your name?”
Her shoulders jerked. She drew in a breath. She lifted her face and licked her cracked lower lip. “Kristi. My name’s Kristi. I’m lost.”
Jerry squeezed her tighter. Over her shoulder he saw a massive tree branch drop to the ground.
“Kristi, I need you to be strong. We’re going to get out of here, but you have to help me. Do you understand?”
She blinked twice and shook her head.
Jerry grabbed his canteen and twisted the cap. Kristi took a long drink.
“You have to keep up with me, Kristi. We can’t outrun the fire so we need to find someplace safe. OK?”
Again she shook her head.
“OK, stay close. Let’s go.”
They dropped deeper into the drainage. If they could get to the creek, maybe they’d have a chance. Fallen tree limbs and brush clawed at their legs and slowed their progress. Finally the ground leveled out and they squeezed through a patch of thick alder.
There it was, the creek. The water ran slow and shallow. Jerry scanned the creek channel and saw a cluster of boulders near the closest bend. Fewer trees grew near the boulders, fewer trees to catch fire or fall.
He grabbed Kristi’s hand and pulled her over the mossy rocks toward the boulders. He cringed and ducked when a boom of thunder cracked like a whip just above the treetops. The largest of the boulders rested in the middle of the creek. It wouldn’t be much protection, but it was all they had.
He slipped out of his pack straps and fumbled with the zipper. A stone’s toss to their left, floating hot embers ignited a snowberry bush; sparks shot into the air.
“Kristi, this is a fire shelter.” He had to shout to be heard over the wailing wind and crackling brush and trees. “It’ll protect us from the heat.” He unfolded the shiny silver fabric, straining to keep the wind from ripping it from his hands. “I’ll put the shelter over us in the creek and hold down the corners. It’s small. You’ll have to curl up under my chest. Can you do that, Kristi?”
The inside of the shelter was like being in a cocoon. Shadows of flames danced across the fabric. In spite of the fire’s heat, the creek ran cold, chilling. In the cramped space Kristi dipped water with her hands and splashed it on their clothes.
Time held its breath. There was no way to know how hot the fire raged mere inches away. Pent-up winds jerked and slapped the shelter; twigs and embers bounced off the material. Jerry clung to the shelter corners, his arms shaking, legs knotting with cramps. He cringed each time an unseen tree crashed to the ground.
It seemed as if days passed before the sounds around them began to change. Gradually the intensity of the wind eased; there was a light tapping on the shelter. The tapping increased, then intensified until thousands of tapping raindrops blended together into a soft summer shower. But the rain wasn’t satisfied with a shower; it fell harder. Water plummeted from the sky, crushing down heavy as wet sand on their fragile refuge. Talking became impossible. Kristi snuggled closer, her body shaking uncontrollably. Jerry knew that if they didn’t get out of the water soon, she’d become hypothermic.
He lifted a corner of the shelter expecting gasses and smoke to gush into his face. But the pounding rain had worked its magic. Taking a deep breath, he released his grip and the shelter tore away with the wind. Slowly he struggled to stand and force feeling back into his numb limbs. All around, fires burned on the undersides of fallen trees and in hollowed-out snags. But the fire’s fury had ebbed. He pulled Kristi from the creek and swung her onto his back.
The climb up the steep muddy slope was slow and dangerous. Pockets of burning roots and embers glowed like charcoal pits in spite of the rain. Water slid down the mountainside in rivulets. With Kristi’s weight on his back, he often slipped; his knees banged hard against fire-blackened rocks. Smoke, steam and rain filled his eyes and merged together like thick fog making it impossible to know which way to go. So all he could do was head uphill and hold tight to Kristi’s legs.
As quickly as it had started, the deluge slacked off to a sprinkle. He called Kristi’s name. She didn’t answer.
“Kristi, you have to walk now. Kristi.”
He eased her off his back, but her legs buckled and she sat down hard in the mud.
“Kristi, you’ve got to get up and walk. Do you hear me, Kristi? Kristi!”
Then, like the sound that had led him to Kristi, he heard barking.
“Kristi, listen. It’s your dog.”
“Trajan.” Kristi’s words slipped out between chattering teeth.
“He’s waiting for you, Kristi. Come on, let’s find Trajan.”
Jerry followed close, pushing, catching Kristi when she slipped as they made their way up the slope. They climbed and rested, climbed and rested, over and over again. It seemed as if their climb would never end when he finally spotted a road scar through the charred trees above. Then two dogs were in their faces: licking, leaping, barking. Another twenty feet and they crawled onto the surface of a soggy rutted road.
For a moment they could only rest, their bodies drained of energy. Jerry gathered the last of his strength and lifted Kristi out of the sticky mud. He felt Cleo’s warm body press hard against his leg. She let out a sharp bark and then another as the air began to vibrate with a deep rumbling sound. Moments later, headlights streamed through the misty smoke as a forest service fire engine crawled around a sharp bend in the road. The engine slowed and stopped a few steps away. Through the windshield Jerry saw the driver reach for a radio mike.
“Carl, this is Stephen. They made it, Carl. Jerry and the girl. They made it!”
The truck heater blasted full as the fire engine crept back down the muddy road toward the ranger station. Jerry and Kristi, wrapped in thick wool army blankets, huddled between two fire fighters. The vehicle slowed as it came to a smoldering Jeep, nothing more than a skeleton of charred metal.
The driver sighed and clicked his tongue. “Sorry about your Willys, Jerry. Real sorry.”
Jerry stared at the mangled vehicle as they eased past. From atop the engine’s water tank, he could hear two dogs barking. He’d spent months and years restoring and painting and tuning that old Willys. The Jeep had carried him safely all over the west. But now, all those countless hours of toil and sweat and scraped knuckles didn’t seem to matter.
He leaned back against the seat, pulled the blanket tight against his neck, and felt a small hand reach up and touch him lightly on the lips. Blinking back tears, he lowered his head and laid his cheek gently against Kristi’s damp, smoky hair. No, losing his old Willys just didn’t matter at all.