The Meredith Mountain fire starts on Labor Day weekend and rages for days – an awesome sight, leaving a trail of havoc and destruction in its wake. Alice Adams edits the Clark’s Fort Guardian newspaper, ably assisted by her nephew, Stuart Campbell, and the two cover the blaze for the paper, vowing the local community with their stunning photographs and features.
When the fire is finally contained and the mop-up crew discover a burned male body under a fallen log, Alice and Stuart investigate. It seems he died in the fire, but with no ID and nobody knowing anything about the body, they soon face a daunting task – and some disturbing revelations. Can they unravel the truth?
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.55(w) x 8.74(h) x (d)|
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The Meredith Mountain fire was the biggest story in south-central Montana while it lasted, and is still legendary in the annals of big western fires. Local citizens still relish colorful tales about the best and worst aspects of the fire: how fast it grew, how destructive it was, yet how quickly it gained national attention for a little weekly newspaper and launched an appealing rookie named Stuart Campbell on a distinguished career as a photo-journalist.
Nobody ever proved what started the fire. But Alice Adams, who edited the Clark's Fort Guardian that year and read all the reports as they came down, believed the fire was human caused. 'There were no lightning storms that night,' she said, 'and the first responders found a trashy campsite.'
On Labor Day weekend, a couple of day-hikers apparently stopped for lunch on a slope above Clark's Fort, and treated themselves to a wienie roast. Ignoring the plainly posted warnings about extreme fire danger, they set a few dead branches ablaze, speared hot dogs on two sticks and broke out the lukewarm beer they had carried upslope in their backpacks. By mid-afternoon, with their crumpled beer cans gleaming in the bunchgrass around them, they let the fire burn down to nothing and stomped on the coals. There was no water nearby and they had drunk all the beer, so they must have thrown what they thought was plenty of dirt on the ashes, said, 'What the hell, out is out,' and gone home.
At sunset, the evening breeze hit the embers and the blaze revived. But it was one small fire in a vast wilderness – the fire lookout on Porphyry Peak didn't see the flames till near midnight. By sunrise on Tuesday morning, a crew of forest service volunteers had been assembled from Clark's Fort and a couple of neighboring towns. They drove to the fire site, or as near as they could get in a pumper truck, which carried 250 gallons of water, plus tools and protective clothing.
Fire was burning briskly through tinder-dry underbrush and a stand of aspen. Three crew members muscled the hose uphill and began dampening the bushes around the blaze while their chief phoned down for another crew and more supplies.
Mort Weatherby, owner-publisher of the Clark's Fort Guardian, had learned about the call-out and was monitoring the firefighters' radio traffic. When he heard how fast the fire was growing, he said, 'I'm going to try to get Sven up there with the next crew to get some pictures.'
'Why don't I go?' Stuart Campbell said. He had not been Mort's assistant editor for very long but he was strong and clever, just out of school at age twenty-two. 'I've hiked and hunted all over Meredith Mountain – I know it well. That's pretty rough terrain and I can get around on it better, no offense, Sven.'
Sven wasn't about to take offense. He was fifty pounds overweight and spent most of his days seated in the print-shop corner of the newsroom. The last thing he wanted to do was scramble around steep slopes with a wild fire at his heels.
Mort agreed to let Stuart try it for a day. 'Promise me you won't do anything stupid. You have to stick with your escort and follow the rules or they'll send you down on the next supply run.'
Alice Adams was in the newsroom too, a recently retired schoolteacher who had just come on board to edit the little weekly paper two mornings a week. Tuesday was one of her work days, so she was there to see Stuart hustle out of the Guardian's office, looking as if he'd just won the lottery. Mort asked her to work full-time till Stuart got back, and she agreed.
Forget full-time, everybody worked overtime on Tuesday and Wednesday to put out the usual midweek paper, plus a four-page insert on the fast-growing fire. In his first hours at the scene, Stuart sent down several paragraphs about the size of the fire and the two crews that were fighting it – nothing brilliant, but he got everybody's attention with two striking images of crewmen silhouetted against the blaze, one of a man swinging a pickaxe with beads of sweat flying off him.
Before nightfall, he'd shot a tear-jerker of two crew members in full gear, sleeping soundly on hard ground. On Wednesday morning, he wrote a description of the special hoe/axe tool invented by an early-day firefighter named Pulaski, and attached a close-up. A couple of hours later he got a terrifying picture of five men swinging Pulaskis on a ridge, flames leaping right behind them.
And just before deadline, Sven downloaded the money shot of the day, a four-point buck jumping a burning bush.
At the last minute, Alice, an avid newspaper reader as well as Stuart's aunt, (in Clark's Fort, half the citizens were related by blood or circumstance) noticed that all the stories were going into their slots with a byline that read: Special from the Clark's Fort Guardian.
'Wait a minute,' she said, 'this isn't right.' She changed the credit to read, 'Special from the Clark's Fort Guardian reporter Stuart Campbell.'
'I was starting to wonder,' Sven murmured. He labeled each picture, Photo by Stuart Campbell.
Mort saw what they were doing and said, 'Well, now, Alice ...'
'It's just proper procedure – all the big papers do it,' Alice said.
When Mort saw Sven behind her, nodding, he shrugged and said reluctantly, 'Yeah, I guess. OK.'
After that Stuart got a byline for every scrap of copy or photo they used, and they used almost everything he sent. Stuart was moving fast, taking chances when he had to, delivering superior work.
The fire had moved quickly out of the brush into a stand of mature lodgepole pines. Infested with bark beetles and half-dead before the fire reached them, the tall pines lit up like giant candles. The blaze quickly outran the two small crews working to contain it. By Wednesday they were calling for more help and supplies.
Stuart described how hard it was to wear heavy fireproof clothing while scrambling up and down hills. '... And I'm not carrying hoses and a Pulaski. Firefighting in steep terrain is very hard work. I eat everything that's offered, and I'm still hungry all the time.'
Mort announced that the paper would publish daily while the crisis lasted. He was cool about falling behind on the custom printing schedule, telling customers they'd catch up when the fire was out.
Nobody complained. Business was almost at a standstill in Clark's Fort anyway. Everybody in town was glued to some electronic device, watching and listening as the fire ate its way up Alder Gulch and on toward the ghost town of Hastings. The stats were ominous: the little five-acre blaze they'd gone up to fight was two hundred and fifty acres by the end of the first day, and a thousand acres by the second.
Stuart sent down a great story, mid-afternoon on Thursday, about a heroic rescue – a crew had formed a human chain to hoist a fallen member off a narrow ledge on a steep cliff. The pictures Stuart sent along were simply riveting – it seemed Betsy Campbell's freckle-faced boy turned out to have a real eye for the 'Omigod' moment. The fire was spotting ahead of itself into stands of spruce and pines now, growing fast.
Stuart's escort deal was originally for one day only, but 'Judy and the incident commander are very busy and I found some ways I could volunteer to help,' he told Mort, 'so is it OK if I stay a while?' Mort checked with Helena's fire headquarters to make sure – crews were coming from the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest now, bringing more equipment and a hierarchy of command. He was told his reporter was 'making himself useful, fetching and carrying,' and could stay. It probably didn't hurt, as Stuart reported to Alice privately, that Judy, the forest service guide, was 'kind of hot,' and they were getting along very well. He cemented his claim to the firefighters' regard with a glowing report about how seamlessly these small-town crews knit themselves together to face an emergency, and Alice saw to it that the report was printed on the front page.
Stuart hitched a ride to town with a resupply run Friday morning, and showed up in the newsroom grinning and high on adrenaline, very dirty, with a good start on a beard. Sven offered him coffee out of his own thermos, saying as he poured, 'I thought maybe you'd decided to vacation on that mountain till Christmas.'
'I'll stay up there as long as Mort lets me, but trust me, it's going to be quite a while before anybody stays on Meredith Mountain for the fun of it.' He gulped a lot of coffee and said, 'Ah. Good.'
'Bad fire, huh?'
'Bad and getting worse.'
'So no talk about containment?'
'The crew boss I asked this morning said that yesterday he was hoping for fifty percent by today. Now he isn't making predictions, he's just trying to make sure everybody survives.' When he shrugged, dirt and twigs drifted onto the floor. 'The smoke ... sometimes you can hardly see the guys ten feet away.'
'Most of the pictures you're sending down are clear enough to use. How are you getting them if the light's so bad?'
'This fire's taught me a new skill.' His grin gleamed through his new stubble. 'You wait for a big gust of wind. Then you snap it quick before the smoke settles back.'
'Stuart, be careful – winds around a big fire are unpredictable.'
'You think?' His shrug made them all want to be twenty-two again.
'The pictures look pretty good to you, Aunt Alice?' He was feasting on the praise.
'Of course they do. You see them before you download them – can't you tell?'
'I thought so, but I have to do everything so fast – we're always on the move.'
'Well, rest assured. I've never seen Mort look so happy. He's getting congratulatory calls from all over the state. Promise me you'll hit him up for a nice raise as soon as you get cleaned up.'
Stuart laughed. 'I'll think about all that when the fire's out. What day is this?'
'Good. Mort's bankers should all be at work.'
'So he'll have to raise some more money if he wants to keep publishing a daily – which I came down to talk him into doing. I know he's not breaking even on this venture, but the stories ... I've got a target-rich environment up there.'
'Listen, he's selling papers all over the country, Stuart. People are just raving about the stories. He can raise the money all right – he's nominating the Guardian for every journalism prize west of the Mississippi.'
'Good for him. Because the fire's growing so fast, they're sending a hotshot crew from Missoula. Don't ever quote me, Aunt Alice, because this is a disaster. But it's also the chance of a lifetime.'
'I know. Get serious, now, because here he comes.' She could see Mort parking his car at the curb. As soon as he got inside, Stuart started in on him.
'The big city papers are starting to send people, and TV networks will be right behind them. But I've got the inside track, now, I know a lot of guys on the crews and I'm tight with the incident commander. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – let's not blow it.' He looked quite impressive at that moment, determined and newly gaunt in the light from the big windows.
'I hear you,' Mort said, 'and I agree.' He vowed to continue the daily editions. 'As long as the fire's still out of control. Or we burn down or I can't raise any more money.' Everybody in the newsroom laughed and then clapped. It was an astonishing promise from such a risk-averse man. Mort was dreaming about prizes by then and punching way above his weight.
His anxieties surfaced momentarily when he asked Stuart, 'You sure you can compete with these big-city reporters coming up now?'
'Turns out that's the least of my worries.' Stuart laughed, a surprisingly carefree sound coming out of his disheveled, sunburned face. 'A couple of wire service dudes showed up late yesterday. I think they're used to getting a lot of respect, and right away they noticed that nobody gave a damn about them. Also, they're in a big, dangerous place with no street signs, and all they can find is foul-mouthed firefighters and terrified animals. When they saw I wasn't lost they started following me around.'
He laughed again. Lint and dust flew off him and floated in the sunshine. 'Before long I started to feel like a mother duck. They were dogging my steps so close, I started thinking that if I stopped, they'd get under me.'
'Anybody from the Montana papers?' Mort asked him, growing the sneaky-bully look competition always evoked in him.
'The Missoulian's got a crew up there – they know what to do all right. They've got that smokejumpers' school over there so they cover forest fires all the time. Couple of other state papers sent a team for one day.' He looked at his watch. 'I gotta go. Aunt Alice, take a look at tonight's pictures and tell me what you think. Pretty sure I got one of a coyote and three rabbits jumping a fallen log.'
'Stuart, you can see that any day in the woods.'
'With the coyote in the lead? I don't think so.'
Stuart caught a ride back to the fire with the next supply run, his pockets stuffed with fresh batteries and a bag of his mom's oatmeal cookies. By six o'clock on Friday night he was on TV, reporting as a stringer for one of the major networks.
The fire roared on, over one peak and then another. On Saturday morning it gobbled up the gas station and C-store at Eddiesville, and then raced at terrible speed through the two ranch homesteads facing each other across an intersection at Coleman's Corners. By mid-afternoon it was moving into Grizzly Gulch, everybody's favorite hiking area, where a cluster of mostly abandoned buildings was noted on the map as the ghost town of Hastings.
The old settlement had all the photogenic features you want in a ghost town – the gaping pit left by the Nelly Belle gold mine, the elegant brick chimney from the smelter that no longer smelted anything, and several blocks of moribund wooden houses and abandoned car bodies crumbling slowly back into the earth.
But Hastings wasn't quite a ghost town; a handful of people still lived there. Some ran businesses with unique appeal – a handweavers' studio, a glass-blower's forge. Alice and her family, when they had business in the neighborhood, often drove the two-lane gravel roads to Hastings to browse the shops and eat brunch at The Bakery, feasting on cinnamon rolls and eggs Benedict to die for. Or they'd celebrate Saturday night with dinner at the Bucket of Blood Saloon, which served good steaks and burgers and countless barrels of draft beer.
The two places were actually all one operation with a single kitchen. Its clientele, while geographically scattered, was remarkably faithful, because the three women who ran it were wonderful cooks and good at holding the camera for candid shots of grinning families in front of the grossly illustrated sign for the Bucket of Blood.
Sunday was the big day in Hastings, when the sexton of the one church that still had pews used his big iron key to open the creaky front door. He lit a couple of candles on the altar, added a few flowers if there were any, and a visiting pastor came from one of the half-dozen parishes in driving distance. One of three local pianists would come in to bang out a few hymns on the cold keys of the church's upright.
The pair performed a one-size-fits-all ceremony which emphasized the Lord's blessings and the comfort of prayer. The pastor often threw in a wedding ceremony and two or three baptisms after the regular service. All the celebrants piled into The Bakery after church to fortify themselves for the journey home, people perching on beer kegs and cases of toilet paper if they ran out of chairs.
The other enterprise that brought traffic to Hastings was the Owl Creek Pottery. A talented and energetic potter named Oscar, last name too long and complex to ever be remembered, had found a clay pit by the creek. He installed a couple of wheels and a kiln, and began to produce vibrant colors by crushing rocks from the mine tailings. He had an elegant touch, which allowed him to produce bowls and pitchers of great refinement. Word had long since spread among collectors with taste, and Oscar's pots sold well, not just to Montanans but all over the country.
When the incident commander saw they couldn't keep the fire out of Grizzly Gulch, he told Sheriff Tasker, whose job it was to organize evacuations. The few citizens still toughing it out in Hastings were gone within the hour. They had lived for years with a bag packed, knowing nothing would stop a fire if it ever got into this steep-sided canyon. The only resident left was Oscar who, when Tasker told him it was time to go, shook his head and said quietly, 'Thanks, Sheriff, but everything I have is here. I could never leave this place.'
Excerpted from "Burning Meredith"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Gunn.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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