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Stella Sullivan stretched, yawned, kicked off her covers, and got out of bed. She padded across her room in her bare feet and looked out the window.
The morning sky was completely clear. Not a cloud in sight.
It hadn't rained in almost four months. May, June, July, and August. Four dry, hot months in a row. The trees behind the Sullivans' small house looked worn outthe leaves on the aspens were faded and limp. The needles on the pines were brownish-green-a shade lighter than the grass.
Even the sky looked like it could use a good bath. Instead of blue, it was a hazy gray.
Stella wondered if another fire had started the night before. Spotty forest fires had been burning in the woods surrounding GatewayStella's hometown-for the past few weeks. Stella and her mother, Norma, had seen one start a few weeks earlier.
One good lightning strike. A little wind. And
FAAUUMPH! Dozens of acres had gone up in flames.
Stella and Norma had hung around for a few hours, keeping an eye on the blaze until a crew of firefighters reached the scene.
Watching the fire spread and grow was fascinating. Almost fun. Except that Stella had been worried about the wild animals.
Norma said she shouldn't worry. Wildlife wasn't bothered much by forest fires. Norma said elk and deer and sheep moved away from the heat, flames, and smoke. Birds flew awayalthough sometimes they were forced to abandon a nest and some fledglings. Critters that lived underground and in the water were out of harm's way. And the buffalo would graze right next to stands of burning trees.
Stella believedher mom. Still, she was concerned about a group of gray wolves that were penned up deep in the woods. The wolves couldn't ran away-they were locked in.
But the fire warden had called in a team of specialized firefighters. They'd dug a fire line around the wolves' pen. With all of the fuel around them burned up, the wolves would be safe for the rest of the summer.
Stella brushed her teeth, pulled on a pair of shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, and hurried downstairs. Rufus, Stella's five-month-old puppy, was waiting for her in the kitchen.
"Arf!" Rufus put his front paws up against the toddler gate that kept him inside the kitchen. He panted happily as Stella opened the gate.
"Hi, sweetie!" Stella let herself in.
Rufus backed up and ran in an excited circle.
"Arf! Arf! Arf!"
Stella scooped Rufus up with one hand and gave him a kiss between the eyes. He licked her cheek.
Rufus was a little doghe weighed only about four pounds. His fur was white and shaggy. He had black eyes, a black nose, and black lips. Nobody was really sure what breed he was, but he looked a lot like a Maltese.
Stella had gotten Rufus when he was two weeks old and close to death. Someone had abandoned his entire litter at a rest stop. Stella had nursed Rufus back to health, even getting up in the middle of the night to feed him through a stomach tube.
She didn't mind the lost sleep because she had fallen in love with the puppy the first time she'd seen him-even though he had been a pretty pathetic sight.
"Arf!" Rufus gave Stella a sad, "feed-me" face. "Don't try that," Stella said. "I know Mom already gave you breakfast."
She put Rufus down and went to the cabinet. She got out a bowl, a box of Cheerios, and a spoon. Then she went to the refrigerator and pulled out a gallon of milk.
Stella took her cereal to the table. Rufus settled in at her feet, sighing.
Even though it was only eight-thirty, the house was quiet. Stella's father was off at Montana State University where he was teaching Introduction to Journalism in summer school. Stella's fourteen-year-old sister, Cora, had gone to her job at Jake's Stables. Norma was already at work.
Norma had been putting in long hours lately.
Summers were always crazy at Goldenrock National Park, where Norma worked as a wildlife biologist. Thousands of peoplethrongs really descended on the place from across the United States and the world. Norma kept busy giving lectures about the creatures that lived in the park-buffalo, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, bats, bears, and hundreds more.
When she wasn't giving lectures, Norma was answering tourists' questions-lots of them. Most of the questions were about the park's animals. But there were a few questions like these: Where is the nearest bathroom? Are there poisonous
snakes in the woods? Have you seen a six-year-old boy who looked lost?
Lately, Norma had also been answering lots of questions about forest fires. She called this part of her job "impersonating Smoky Bear."
Stella spooned up the last of her cereal. She put her bowl on the floor. Rufus licked the bowl.
After she cleaned up, Stella got Rufus's brush out of a drawer. She pulled the little dog onto her lap and started brushing his silky hair. Under his neck. Down his back.