Authors: Dave Hugelschaffer,Dave Hugelschaffer
Tags: #Fire-fighting, #Series, #Murder-Mystery
Copyright Â© 2008 Dave Hugelschaffer
First edition copyright Â© 2008 Cormorant Books
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The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for its publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, and the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Hugelschaffer, Dave, 1967â
One careless moment / Dave Hugelschaffer.
PS8615.U315O54 2008 C813Â´.6 C2007-906475-2
Cover design: Angel Guerra/Archetype
Formatted for ePub by Carolyn McNeillie,
based on a text design by Tannice Goddard, Soul Oasis Networking
Cover image: Â© Craig Aurness / CORBIS
Cormorant Books Inc.
215 Spadina Avenue, Studio 230, Toronto, ON Canada M5T 2C7
I'M RIDING WITH BB the King â not the blues legend, but a guy of considerable talent. Last night at camp he took sixty dollars from me in a card game, saying it would ease his retirement. I can understand his concern â at well past fifty, Bert Brashaw is one of the oldest firefighters I've worked with. If I sit at the card table with him many more nights, I'll go home to Canada poorer than when I arrived.
“Take a right up ahead,” he says, pointing. “But watch that curve.”
Brashaw is local, the supervisor of a district hotshot crew, and knows the road. I take his advice, braking gently, and we hit the curve at a reasonable speed. Too late, I see washboard and the 4x4 dances sideways, clanging hand tools. I swear and brake harder. Brashaw has a hand on the dash to steady himself, the other on the brim of his hard hat. “Maybe I should drive,” he says.
“Everyone's a critic.”
“Do they have drivers' licences up north?”
“No,” I tell him, jamming the shifter into a higher gear. “Buckle up sweetheart.”
Brashaw looks for something else to hang onto. He's a big guy, fully occupying his half of the front seat. On this rough road, his folds and chins jiggle, but there's a lot of muscle underneath. At camp, he was loading cubies â five-gallon water jugs â like they were softballs. We pull out of the curve and I glance in the side-view mirror. Barely visible in a plume of dust behind us, the crew bus rounds the corner. Farther back is the rest of the convoy; two fire engines and a D7 dozer on a lowboy. We may move slow, but we're armed to the teeth.
“Cassel, this is Missoula Dispatch. What is your present location?”
I reach for the radio, give BB a questioning look. “Blood Creek Road,” he says.
“Missoula Dispatch â we're approaching the Blood Creek Road.”
There's a pause, then Dispatch gives us an update. “Revised location is nine miles northeast of a sharp bend in the Blood Creek Road â you should see the smoke pretty soon. Eight smokejumpers have been dispatched and are currently en route to the fire. This will be Incident 47. Upon arrival, you are to assume control as the incident commander.”
“Copy that Dispatch. Any word on fire behaviour?”
Another pause. The dispatcher still has the radio keyed; other voices can be heard in the background, cutting in over each other. It sounds busy. The dispatcher says something clearly not intended for us, then we're told to stand by. Up ahead the road forks, and a small brown sign points the way to Blood Creek. We rattle over more washboard, then start uphill on a steep, winding grade. The trees â big ponderosa thick with fir understory â are so close to the edge of the road it seems the forest might slap together like a giant vise, trapping us.
I hope the fire isn't burning in the same type of fuel.
“Cassel, this is Missoula Dispatch. Jumpers are at location and report the fire is about thirty acres, burning in a canyon. Moderate rate of spread. Surface fire with some candling. Winds steady from the east at three miles per hour.”
“What about access?”
“There's a narrow bush road. Sounds pretty steep, but you might make it.”
“Copy that Dispatch.” I hang the radio mike in its bracket below the dash, look over at Brashaw. He's got a map out and is frowning. “You know that area?”
“Yeah,” he says, staring at the map.
He looks over at me, his normally jovial face pensive. “You could say that.”
I glance at the map, looking for contour lines, roads â anything that might give me a clue as to where we're going and what we're going to be up against when we get there. But the map is a fuzzy photocopy and the road ahead is a bit distracting; I yank the truck off a collision course with a massive ponderosa.
“What kind of slopes are we talking about?” I ask Brashaw. “Can we use the dozer?”
Brashaw looks at me a moment longer, as if deciding whether to answer. He gazes ahead, and with a beefy hand wipes sweat from his brow. “From what they said, I think it's burning in Holder's Canyon.”
I wait for more. Brashaw fidgets, building the suspense.
“Okay,” I say finally. “What's so special about Holder's Canyon?”
“Well ... forget it.” He folds the map, tucks it into the pocket of his yellow fire shirt.
“Forget what? You haven't told me anything. What kind of country is it?”
“It's rugged,” he says. “Pretty inaccessible.”
For a few minutes we drive without talking, listening to short bursts from the radio â smokejumpers talking to one another, checking in, regrouping after touching down. Mixed in are other conversations, from other fires. In this line of work, everyone gets a turn at burning up. This year it's the Pacific Northwest; Montana and Oregon are getting hit pretty hard. That's why I'm here, on loan from Alberta through the mars â Mutual Aid Resource Sharing â agreement, a wonderful example of cross-border co-operation allowing firefighters to make a little overtime when it's raining back home. So far, I've done pretty well: nearly two weeks on a fire farther south; then, this afternoon, as I'm waiting for orders, this one pops up. And it's all mine.
“So tell me more about Holder's Canyon.”
Brashaw lifts his hard hat and scratches his head, plops his lid back on and gazes out the side window. Green branches ripple past. “It's nothing you really need to know,” he says.
He's playing me just right â now I have to know. “Tell me anyway.”
“Okay,” he murmurs. But he takes his time. He takes the map out of his shirt pocket, unfolds it and stares at it until I'm just about to say something, then folds it again and places it in the glove compartment. At this rate, the fire will be out by the time he tells me. “You gotta keep an open mind,” he says.
“Open as a dumpster.”
“Well ...” He shifts, looks uncomfortable. “That canyon has a reputation around here.”
“Vampires?” I say, gearing down for a steep climb.
“People who go in never come out.”
For a minute, neither of us say anything. The transfer case on the truck whines and I glance in the mirror to see if the fire engines are on the slope yet, but they're hidden by a curve in the road. They're going to have a bitch of a time getting up here. Brashaw isn't going to have it much easier getting me to believe the campfire tale he's spinning. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what it is â have a little fun, intimidate the new guy.
“So what happens to them?” I ask. I can play right along.
“They die,” he says solemnly.
I wait, but he's not very forthcoming, which gives me an eerie chill. I've sat around a lot of campfires, heard a lot of tall tales, but most guys don't have Brashaw's sense of pacing. Between bends in the road, I glance over at him to see if he's smiling. We pull another steep grade, the steepest yet, then round a sharp corner. There's a trail forking to the left, just a set of brown dirt tracks with grass growing between them. Brashaw lifts a heavy arm. “Up there.”
I slow to a crawl to make the turn, stopping just long enough to ensure the crew bus sees where we're going, then gear up. The trail is so narrow the side-view mirrors are knocked out of alignment. The forest closes in. Dense shadow. A scent of fir so strong it's nauseating. I'm about to prompt Brashaw again â we'll be at the fire soon and I want to hear the end of this little fable before we get there â but he starts on his own.
“There used to be a hunting camp a few miles south of the canyon, run by an outfitter from town. Most of his customers were out-ofstate. Big shots who wanted a bear rug by the fire and a story they could use to impress their buddies back home. First thing the outfitter would tell them was they could hunt anywhere but the canyon, that it was cursed, and they generally stayed away â the canyon is so damn rugged no one wanted to bushwhack through there anyway. Until three hunters decide they have to check it out. The outfitter tried to talk them out of it.” Brashaw pauses, gives me a wry smile. “But the customer is always right.”
“Well, they went in â by themselves. The outfitter didn't want anything to do with it. Two days later, he's getting worried. The hunters aren't back yet, and they haven't squared the bill with him. He waits another day, just to be sure they won't come back on their own, then jacks up his courage and goes after them. Wanna guess what he found?”
“Three zombies with their hearts ripped out?”
Brashaw is unflappable. “They were all dead,” he says seriously.“Right next to the creek, shot through the heart. When the ballistics came back, they found three different slugs from three different rifles, all owned by the hunters. Seems they'd shot each other.” He watches me, frowning in a challenging sort of way. “No one could figure out how they'd managed to do that.”
I can think of a few scenarios, but maybe I'm just more creative.
The radio blares: Dispatch wanting an update. How close are we to the fire? Can we see it yet? I soothe her by saying we're five minutes back.
“So that's it?” I say to Brashaw. “A few hunters got shot?”
Brashaw looks mildly offended, scowling at the floorboards and shifting in his seat. But he rises to the occasion. “You think I'm making this up? Well, I'll tell you a little bit more about this canyon, although it might not help your peace of mind when you're in there. The canyon is named after Alister Holder. Holder was a miner back in the thirties who had a claim up there. One spring, he doesn't come to town like usual, for supplies, and the clerk at the store starts to get worried. After he's waited what he figures is a reasonable amount of time, he talks to the sheriff, and the sheriff saddles up and goes looking for Holder.” Brashaw shakes his head, as though he might have known Holder personally. “They checked his shack and his workings along the creek, but he was nowhere to be found. Story is, the sheriff found him by accident on his trip out. There was blood on some of the branches along the trail, and when the sheriff looked up to see where the blood was coming from, he found Holder â up in a tree, like he was trying to get away from something. Dead as a post. When they got him down, they discovered that he'd cut his wrists.”
I nod, impressed. A few holes, but not a bad story.
“Three weeks later, the sheriff had a heart attack.”
“So the place is haunted?”
Brashaw nods.“I guess. They say it's the avenging spirit of the Indians.”
There's a long uphill pull; the trail has turned to twin eroded gullies and I drift as far to one side as possible to avoid bottoming out. We're in another gully. Trees rise majestically on either side. At the top of the slope, the road levels and smoke hangs in gauzy suspension like early morning fog. Sunlight, sliced by the trees, projects ethereal beams through the haze. Ghosts don't seem entirely unrealistic. I stop the truck and get out, watch the progress of the convoy, worried they might not all make the hill. Below, the crew bus bounces over ruts. Behind them, fire engines labour forward in low gear. While I'm waiting I peer ahead, searching for the source of the smoke, but the forest is too dense and the fire remains hidden.
“Nothing like the smell of burning pine to get your blood roiling,” says Brashaw. He's facing away from me, hunched, adding his contribution to the gully erosion.
“So why do they call you BB the King?” I ask.
He chuckles, zipping up. “State secret.”
“I'll figure it out,” I tell him as we climb into the truck again.
The road rises over the toe of a long ridge and suddenly we're at the fire. Dense white smoke rises in a slanting column from a steep valley. Judging from the width of the column at its base, I'd say the fire is pretty close in size to the jumpers' estimate. The whiteness of the smoke is a good sign â the fire is lying fairly low, not doing anything too crazy. But it's still early in the day and burning conditions are bound to worsen.
“This is going to be a bitch to get into,” says Brashaw, leaning forward, a hand on the dash.
He isn't kidding. The canyon rises up the side of a rugged mountain, solidly carpeted with dense fir and brush â a smorgasbord of fuel for the fledgling fire. The north side of the canyon is a sharp, bony ridge, bisected by lesser gullies and ridges clogged with brush and deadfall. On the south flank, another ridge has been shorn away, leaving a high cliff. “We'll have to flank it,” I say. “Create a safety zone at the tail and anchor from there.”
Brashaw nods, chewing his lower lip.
I call Missoula Dispatch to let them know we've arrived, but get a broken response, the radio cutting in and out. Most of the message is garbled â too many ridges between us and them â and I relay through Kershaw Lookout, a local fire tower. After briefing Dispatch about what I see and how I plan to proceed, I request two more dozers for heavy line construction, another shot crew, and a helicopter. Dispatch confirms my order and tells me to stand by. While I'm waiting, I call the smokejumpers. The response I get is a little breathless.
“Cassel, this is Sue Galloway, smokejumper in charge. Welcome to Incident 47.”
“Glad to be here. Where are you and what is the fire doing?”
“We're on the south flank, working our way toward the tail.” Galloway's voice wavers, like she's walking on uneven ground. The pop and crackle of fire comes through like static. “We jumped into a bare area on the top of a ridge. It's pretty much a cliff from there on down, so it took us a while to get to the fire. It's candling quite a bit, but dropping down after a few trees go up. Lots of potential though, with this much understory. We get any more wind and it'll stay in the crowns.”
There's a pause and I ask what action they've taken.
“Not much we can do with hand tools in this type of bush, so I started flagging a dozerline from the base of the cliff. I take it you're the new IC, so what do you want us to do?”