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My heart dances with the leaping flames of the campfire.
Mom never cared much for poetry, said she had no use for it in what she faced every day, but the cadence of words speaks to me. Kind of stupid when you consider who I am and what I do. There is more to a soul than what others see.
The flames mesmerize me. I hold my hands over the flickering light and take a deep breath I close my eyes. We used to roast hot dogs over a fire in our backyard, just me and Mom, in fall when the stars were clear and close and the air was a blade in my throat.
The Navajo witch settles beside me. I'm not afraid, even though my breath sounds in my ears. Shrouded by wolf skins, he seems to grow bigger. People have told me there's no such thing as a skinwalker. They are wrong. The hair on the back of my neck rises, almost as if it's saluting the magic of the imposing figure. The heat he radiates is as bewitching as the flames.
The witch begins to chant and drops something into the fire. It flares into the black Arizona sky. Color rises deep in the smoke, and I peer closer, longing to grasp the power that thrums around me like an unseen drum. The Navajo witch focuses his dark eyes on me, and I straighten. I am worthy. Suffering produces character, and my suffering is exquisite, like the hottest flame.
"You are not ready," the witch says. "I see no pain in your face."
His low, guttural voice vibrates with power, a power I will have, no matter what it takes. Can he not see the suffering that screams inside me? Curling my hands into fists, I force my anger back to its cave and peer into the man's unblinking stare.
"I'm ready," I say in a steady voice.
He shakes his head. "Not yet. Becoming a skinwalker takes much discipline. Many years. It is not a weapon you can grasp in your hand like a bow or a gun."
"I know." Power fills me, a sense of destiny no one can steal from me. "I will do whatever it takes."
He finally nods. "I will set you a series of tasks to do, but it will take time. One day, your soul will change at your calling."
"Tell me what to do." My voice is hoarse as I lean forward.
Instead of answering, the witch bends and picks up a firebrand. The red-hot end is in his hand, but he doesn't seem to feel the heat. My respect rises like the smoke ascending above our heads. Someday I will own his power.
He holds out the brand. "If you take it, you'll know what to do."
He who hesitates is lost, and I'm about to be found. I grasp the flame in my hand. A cry rises in my chest as the pain sears my hand, and I know I am right. Fire is my calling.
"You're not pigged in." Tess Masterson raised her voice above the roar of the DC-3's engines. Cooper Johnston, known as Coop to the rest of the smokejumpers, looked back at her and nodded. He attached the pigtail of his restraining line to the clip, then took a firm grip on the cargo-door handles. As the team's spotter, he took responsibility for making sure they hit the target.
"Guard your reserves," Coop said as he opened the door.
The jumpers all put a protective hand on their spare chute. The sudden influx of air had been known to inflate a reserve parachute and sweep the hapless jumper out of the plane and to his death when the lines tangled. The rush of mountain air blew through the plane filled with smokejumpers and their gear. Tess peered past Coop. Below her was the jump target, a heavy pine forest atop Horse Mountain on the northern cusp of Hellsgate Wilderness. A wisp of smoke wafted up through the pine treetops. The trees parted around a clearing, and she could see a line of fire crackling toward a cabin. A man on a small tractor was plowing up the meadow in an effort to stop the blaze, an effort that showed he knew something about fighting wildfire. He needed help though, and fast.
Tess watched Coop throw out the drift streamers to determine how the air currents were moving. The faint scent of smoke came to her nose, and the odor revved her adrenaline. She shuffled as she checked her lines. It was unusual to have a fire this late in the season, and all the smokejumpers were ready for some R and R. She'd been looking forward to it too, until her sister's call.
"Ready to get home?" Buck Carter asked.
Tess frowned as she glanced up into her friend's face. A wilderness outfitter in his other life, Buck had been a rock for her during her training and on the subsequent missions they'd flown together. Behind her, the rest of the smokejumpers shuffled as they prepared to jump. Ten smokejumpers, a tightly-knit cadre of firefighters--all men with the exception of Tess and Allie Stinson--who had become a family to her.
"I still don't know what she wants," Tess said.
"You have to go," Buck told her.
He always did that, read her mind before she said a word. She often wondered why there were no romantic feelings between the two of them when they were so attuned.
"Want to place odds that she'll think of an excuse to back out?" Flint Montgomery said to Buck.
Buck's wolf dog, Spirit, sat at his feet. Tess rubbed the dog's head, and Spirit practically groveled. Intelligence shimmered in his yellow eyes. Flint and Tess were two of the few full-time Forest Service employees on the team. The rest worked at other jobs when their seasonal firefighting gigs were over. Some were with the Forest Service and others were employed by the Bureau of Land Management. Raised by his Apache mother when his cowboy father died, Flint was the quiet one of the group.
Buck grinned and nodded toward the door. "You're in the first stick out, second jumper," he said to Tess. "There's time to decide on the visit later. Let's go."
The firefighters jumped in twos, referred to as "sticks." Tess forced her tight facial muscles into what she hoped was a cheeky grin. She pulled on her helmet, snapped the chin strap, and pulled down the wire-mesh mask. Tugging on her Nomex gloves, she followed Allie to the open doorway. Her vision filled with the glory of the landscape's panorama. She could see the world moving by below in a kaleidoscope of umber earth and the vivid green pine tops. She prayed she would acquit herself respectably today. The other sticks lined up behind them. Five sticks in all, ten jumpers, and she had the luck to be in the first group out the door today. As one of only twenty-seven women among the more than four hundred smokejumpers in the country, the responsibility always rode heavy on her shoulders.
"Stay out of the water," Coop admonished. "We haven't had any drownings this year, and I'm not about to start now."
"Yes, Mom," Tess said, rolling her eyes at Allie.
About forty, Coop usually kept his golden mane of hair corralled in a band, and the crags and planes of his face added to his lionlike appearance. The tough, sinewy muscles under his bronzed skin were hard and taut. He pointed at the streamers. "Looks like there's about two hundred yards of drift."
Tess nodded and lowered herself to the floor, dangling her feet into the slipstream. The heat from the fire warmed her face.
"We missed the best exit point," Coop shouted at the pilot. "Circle around for another pass."
The plane banked and began to turn back. They had a few more minutes, but Tess stayed put. Allie joined her, irked at the delay.
"Sorry about mixing up our chutes today. Distracted, you know. I'll straighten it out on the ground."
"It's okay. You've been preoccupied."
"You got that right. I should have quit a long time ago."
"No!" Tess gripped her friend's hand. "You're the best jumper in the country. Think of all the lives you've saved!"
"And all but ruined my own." Allie pulled her hand away. "I gave up too much for this."
"Daryl won't be angry at you forever," Tess said, reading between the lines. "You'll be with him in time for dinner."
"I should have been with him yesterday. His mom died this morning, Tess. What am I doing here? I can't believe I let you talk me into one more jump."
Tess gave her a playful punch in the arm. "You'll get over it."
"Easy for you to say."
"Ready?" Coop shouted over the roar of the wind.
The women nodded. Coop slapped Allie on the back. From the corner of her eye past the wire cage of her helmet, Tess saw Allie lean forward and tumble from the plane. Coop slapped Tess hard on the shoulder. She propelled herself forward with all her strength.
As the roar of the wind rushed past her ears, she began to chant off the count. "Jump-thousand." The world and the sky blurred together as she tumbled through the air. At ninety miles an hour, the air rushed past her in a howl that blotted out other sound. It was like riding bareback on the fastest horse in the world.
"Look-thousand." She glanced back to see Flint tumble from the plane. "Reach-thousand." Her hand reached for the green rip cord. "Wait-thousand." Even though she'd jumped hundreds of times, she always had to resist the impulse to pull the cord now.
She glanced to her left. Allie still hadn't pulled her rip cord. Was something wrong? Tess's hand dropped away from her chute handle. She angled her body into a downward torpedo and dove toward Allie. The shriek of the wind intensified. Allie's arms and legs were splayed, slowing her descent. She kept jerking on the chute handle. She looked up, her mouth open in a scream Tess couldn't hear.
Tess hugged all appendages as close to the trunk of her body as she could. Just a little closer and maybe she could grab hold of Allie. She zipped past Allie, then stretched out her hands to slow herself. Allie's hand brushed hers, and their fingers caught. Moments later, Allie was hugging her.
"Pull!" Allie yelled.
Tess pulled hard and her hand snapped back to her side with the handle in it. She felt herself tip forward, and a tugging sensation rippled across her shoulders. The drogue was out and struggling to open. Air filled her chute, and the resulting jerk lifted her and Allie. She looked up at the gleaming rectangle of orange and white. Silence settled as the rushing air slowed to a gentle glide. Riding on the wind, she had a bird's-eye view of the fire below.
"Thanks. I owe you." Allie's voice trembled. "Who would want to kill you?"
"What do you mean?"
"This was your chute. I saw him-"
The wind shifted and drove them toward the trees. "Look out!" They were coming down too fast. Tess tugged harder on the steering toggles. They hurtled down toward trees that reached high into the air.
"Pull right, pull right!" Allie screamed.
The gusts of wind were stronger than Tess and drove them closer to the stand of tall ponderosa pine that stretched upwards of a hundred and fifty feet. She managed to twist in the wind but was unable to resist the current. Tree branches rushed to meet them. They landed hard in the top of a ponderosa, and the impact knocked loose her grip on Allie. Allie slid away.
The chute billowed around Tess. Fighting the yards of fabric, she got the canopy out of her eyes and looked around. Her lines were entangled nearly a hundred feet off the ground. Her gaze scanned the treetops, and she caught a glimpse of white. Branches had snagged Allie's pack, and the young woman dangled above the ground. She was fighting with her harness, but the movement threatened the tree's tenuous grasp on her gear.
Tess heard Allie scream as she slid about two feet. "Tie off, tie off!" she shouted.
Allie's white face peered out of the foliage up at Tess as she reached for her letdown rope.
"Wait!" Tess shouted. She ripped off her Nomex gloves and tossed them to the ground far below. Trying to still the shaking in her hands, she managed to tie off her own lines. "I'm coming." By now several of the other smokejumpers had gathered at the base of the tree. Tess took out her climbing gear.
"I can't wait. It won't hold that long," Allie called. She sounded calm.
"Tie off," Flint called up. "It's not stable."
Allie was attempting to rappel down with her chute, which was what Tess would do, though that shortcut was a no-no. Standard procedure was to tie off to the tree for stability, shrug out of the pack, and then rappel down, but none of them liked to do it because they'd have to climb back up to retrieve the chute.
Allie reached into the pocket on the outside of her right leg. She took out about six feet of rope and passed it through the D-rings at the waist of her pants.
Was Allie's pack slipping? The straps seemed to be sliding in tiny degrees, though it was hard to tell through the swaying pine branches. Tess attached her climbing gear to a solid tree limb. She disengaged from her chute and left it behind as she began to rappel down. Pine branches slapped at her face and clutched at her clothes with sticky fingers. Her shoes were about ten feet from Allie's head.
Tess heard a ripping noise. Her horrified gaze shot to the lines just in time to see the tree release Allie's pack. Allie screamed, flailing. One hand grazed a branch, and she managed to latch onto it. She hung there with her other hand grasping toward the limb but unable to reach it. "Help me, Tess!" Her gaze met Tess's through the foliage.
Tess looped her legs around the branch and dangled upside down. Her hand grazed the top of Allie's head. Should she grab Allie's hand that was on the branch? She could touch that one. But what if she loosened Allie's grip on the tree and couldn't hold her? It would be better to try to catch her free hand. "Grab my hand!"
Perspiration dotted Allie's forehead. She made a wild swing at Tess's hand but only managed to graze her fingers. "I can't reach you. Come closer."
"There's no branch strong enough to hold us both." Tess loosened her knees and managed to gain an inch or so. "Try again."
Allie nodded, her face white as she stared into Tess's eyes. She whipped her arm up and grabbed at Tess's hand. The movement caused her grip to weaken, and her fingers fell away from Tess's hand.
Allie's hand slipped off the branch. Her eyes widened, and in their depths, Tess read resignation. "No!" she screamed. "Allie!"
But Allie was gone. She disappeared through the branches, toes pointed to the earth. The sound of snapping branches followed her descent. She hurtled through the air in the space of a heartbeat, her pack following like a bullet. The thud when she hit the ground was mingled with the sickening sound of breaking bones.
Tess sagged on the branch. She was tempted to let go, to follow her friend down. This was her fault.
"She's alive!" Flint's voice reached up through the branches.
Alive? Tess tightened her knees on the limb, then grabbed it with her hand. She managed to get upright. Rappelling down the tree, she feared what she would find at the bottom. Allie might have survived the fall, but at what cost to her future?
Buck reached up and lifted her down when she was five feet from the ground. Tess shook off his help and knelt by Allie. Her face was scratched by the branches, and one leg lay at an odd angle with the jagged ends of a bone sticking out through the material. "Call a chopper!"
"I already did." Flint dragged his EMT bag closer to Allie.
Tess moved out of the way. Flint's hands were gentle and assured as he pulled a cervical collar from his pack and slipped it around Allie's neck. "Will she live?" she asked. Please God, let her be okay.
Flint didn't look up. "I don't know, Tess. Pray."
"We've still got a job to do," Coop said, his voice heavy. "There's nothing you can do for Allie, Tess."
"I talked her into one last jump," Tess said. "I'm going back with her."
Coop stared at her, then nodded. "Okay."
Tess barely noticed him herd the other firefighters off through the brush in the direction of the flames. She managed to hold her tears until she delivered Allie to the hospital, where the doctors rushed her into surgery and told Tess to go home for now.
Tess returned to her barracks. Spirit had come back with the plane, and he met her at the entrance. He followed her inside, then nosed at her hand. Taking comfort from his coarse fur, she rubbed his ears. His golden eyes seemed to reflect her own distress.
Each of them lived with the possibility of death every day, but when an accident came it was always a shock. Her eyes burned, and her throat felt thick. Allie had looked right into Tess's eyes as she fell. Did she blame Tess? She should.
Allie had been the only one to share the women's barracks with her, and her friend's things were piled around the next bunk. Tess went to Allie's bed. She picked up the koala bear on the neatly made bunk. The bear had one eye missing, and the fur was matted and tattered. It had been given to Allie when she was five, and she still took it with her everywhere. Maybe it would bring her comfort when she got out of surgery. If she got out of surgery.
Tess curled up on the bed with the bear in her arms and closed her eyes. She doubted if she could sleep, but it was dark when a tap on the door awakened her.
"Come in," Tess called. She sat up and put down the bear.
Coop stuck his head in the door. "You okay?"
The scent of smoke drifted in with him. "I'm fine." Tess blinked rapidly and got control of her emotions. "I didn't hear the choppers come back. Are we heading out again?"
"No, the fire's under control. You just slept through the choppers. I hope this fire is the last of the season. I just wanted to check on you and give you your fall assignment."
"I thought I was going to the Casa Grande station." Tess had been looking forward to the thought of throwing herself into something interesting like the cataloging of the pueblo artifacts.
Coop shook his head. "We're keeping you here to help repair equipment. I heard your sister needs you at home, and you're close enough to stay at the ranch if you like."
She didn't like. In fact, staying at the ranch was the last thing in the world she intended to do. In the last three firefighting seasons, she'd managed to make sure she was assigned to camps on the other side of the state. "I see." She could guess where Coop heard the gossip. Blabbermouth Buck. He'd been after her to make peace with her past. "I don't know that she needs me at home. She just asked me to come see her. I'm only staying the weekend."
A long pause followed. "You're welcome," Coop said finally. "I can see you're thankful I pulled strings. I thought you'd like to stay at the fire camp. You generally love working on equipment."
"Sorry. I'm sure I'll enjoy the work. All winter?"
He nodded. "We've got lots of parachutes to repair as well as routine maintenance and some fairly major repair on the buildings. You won't be bored."
His mention of parachutes brought back the last moments in the air with Allie. "What happened to her parachute? It was actually mine. And she said something strange, something about someone trying to kill me."
Coop's eyebrows arched. "Maybe she was joking. We haven't looked at the chute yet. I'll try to examine it tomorrow."
"Seemed a poor time for a joke. Allie had just survived death."
"You know as well as I do that Allie has a warped sense of humor." Coop hesitated and glanced at Allie's bed. "Her parents are on their way from Phoenix."
"Any word from the hospital?" Coop dropped his gaze, and her heart sank. "What is it?" she whispered.
"She's out of surgery, but . . . "
"She's not going to make it?"
"They think she'll live." He reached down and scratched Spirit on the head.
"Look at me, Coop. What's wrong with her?"
He raised his gaze then. "May be brain damage. They won't know until she wakes up."