I frowned, unhappy with that revelation. Did I have to replace old vices with new? I was digging one hole to fill another. That didn’t seem right, either.
“Do you want me to carry that?” Tyler asked.
I tightened my grip on my pack. “I’ve got it.”
“We’ve still got a few miles to go. If you need me—”
Smitty looked at me over his shoulder and winked, but his expression fell when his gaze drifted behind me to Tyler. I wasn’t sure what exchange they’d had, but Smitty turned back around in a hurry.
The hotshots in the long line ahead had already started the trucks and had them toasty warm by the time we reached fire camp. The tents had been broken down and the equipment and generators loaded. Tyler opened the door for me, and I climbed in, scooting close to Taco to give Tyler plenty of room.
The engine revved, and the cab rattled before we pulled forward, heading for the back mountain road we’d taken there. Tyler fidgeted, barely able to sit still, as if each second sitting next to me was torture.
I clicked through the different pictures, deleting the junk and keeping my favorites. After a few miles, Tyler finally tapped my knee and leaned close to whisper in my ear.
I looked into his russet eyes. He was confused, and maybe a little hurt, but I couldn’t explain something I didn’t understand myself.
I started to mess with my camera again, but he gently touched my chin, tilting my head to meet his gaze. “Ellie. Tell me. Was it when I pulled you back? You know I’m just trying to keep you safe, right? If I was rough, I’m sorry.”
“No, I know. It’s fine,” I said, shrugging from his touch. “I’m not mad; I’m tired. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
He scanned my face, trying to discern if I was telling the truth. He knew I was lying, but nodded, choosing to let it go while we were riding in a truck full of his crew. The hotshots were being lulled to sleep by the rumble of the motor and the vibration of the tires against the uneven terrain.
Tyler looked out the window, vexed and frustrated. I touched his arm, but he didn’t move. After another ten minutes, his body relaxed. His head was propped against the glass, bobbing with the movement of the truck. I returned my attention to my camera, assessing the remaining images and hoping Jojo would be happy with at least a few.
Taco was snoring in the front seat, his head tilted back and his mouth hung open. The engine was so loud it almost drowned out the sound, and the others didn’t seem to notice.
I tapped on Jubal’s shoulder. “You’re driving the whole way?”
“I like to drive home. Clears my head.”
“Any day without injuries or fatalities is a good day.”
Jubal was smiling, but I sat back, stunned. The hotshots went out to each call hopeful, but never truly certain, if they would all return. I couldn’t imagine a sadder family unit than that, and I finally understood why a group of men from all over the country—some of them strangers—were so close.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys get hurt by snags—the trees still standing in the black. They can topple so silent, you never hear them coming. Lotta guys hurt that way. We work with a lot of sharp equipment—the saws, pulaskis—not to mention the drip torches and flares. Pretty much everything we do can get somebody hurt, and we’re operating on little sleep and physical exhaustion.”
“Why do it?” I asked. “Loving the outdoors and physical labor is a given to even think about this job. But when you’re exhausted and surrounded by fire in the middle of nowhere, what makes you think, ‘This is worth it’?”
“My boys. Doing something so difficult for months on end makes for a tight-knit crew. We’re family. Some days I think I’m getting too old, and then I remember there’s nowhere else you can find what we have. Soldiers, maybe. That’s all I can think of.”
I scribbled in my notepad, straining to see in the glow of the dashboard light. Jubal told me stories about the different crews he’d been on, how Alpine was his favorite, and how he’d decided wildfire fighting was his calling. Then he recalled the day the Maddoxes walked into the station.
“The closeness and trust level of a crew is paramount, but those boys … they came in and were the glue. I don’t know what we’ll do if they move home.”
Jubal thought about that for a while. “They’ve got two younger brothers there, too. They’ve talked about moving back to help.”
“That’s sweet, but I can’t imagine either of them doing anything else.”
“Neither can I, but they’re a close family, the Maddoxes. I’ve just heard Taylor and Tyler talk—I’ve never met any of ’em. The rest of the family doesn’t know the boys fight fires.”
“Nope. They don’t want to upset their dad. Those boys are rowdy, but they’re softies on the inside. I think the twins would light themselves on fire before they’d let anyone they love get hurt.”
I looked up at Tyler sleeping deeply, his face peaceful. I leaned over, barely touching my cheek to his arm. Without hesitation, Tyler reached around my shoulders and hugged me against his side. I stiffened at first, but then relaxed, feeling the warmth of his body thaw my frozen bones.
I met Jubal’s gaze in the rearview mirror. His smile touched his eyes, and then he looked forward. “Ellie?” he said. Just the reflection of his ice-blue irises seared through me. “Do you know what’s coming?”
Jubal smiled, concentrating again on the road. “Maybe not.”
Finley’s duck-lip selfie popped up on the display of my cell phone, but I pressed END and let my voicemail talk to her instead.
“Your sister again?” Tyler asked, patting his face with an old ratty hand towel. The rest of him was still dirty, as were the rest of us.
I’d forgotten what my hair smelled like when it didn’t reek of smoke, or how my sheets felt against my skin. I pulled my camera off my neck and fell onto the raggedy sofa of the Alpine duty station, deep in the Rocky Mountain National Forest. Fire season had started early, and I’d been camping with the Alpine Hotshots for fourteen days while they fought a fire that dug in so deep the smoke jumpers from all over the country were deployed. According to the Alpine crew, it was their biggest fire in two seasons.
The crew headed for the kitchen, and I sat, my limbs sprawled in every direction, watching them pass by. Every muscle in my body hurt, every joint, even my insides. I’d started my period our second day in fire camp, but it was barely present before it went away, most likely from the sudden surge in activity and decrease in caloric intake. My pants were loose. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to look at myself in the mirror.
Smitty high-fived Taco before opening the fridge and leaning in to weigh his options, his face smudged with soot.