“That got intense for a second there,” Tyler said.
“Thanks for babysitting me … again. And for helping me with my tent. I can’t believe the guys slept on the fire line for three nights. Some of the guys didn’t even have coats.”
“They’re bigger guys. It’s called flight weight—sort of like a weight limit. Sometimes, the helos fly us to the more remote locations, so we don’t have to hike so far on foot. Between equipment, our fuel, and the crew, the helos can only carry so much. Sometimes, Runt will bring one of those aluminum sheets the mountain climbers use for camping because he’s skinny, and he has the flight weight to spare.”
“Huddle, share blankets, spoon … it’s fucking cold up there. Whatever works,” he joked.
“Sleeping on the fire line means hazard pay. Some of the guys prefer it to sleeping at fire camp.”
“You should have said something. We could have hopped in a truck and driven a little farther out, away from the noise.”
“I loved it out there. I really did.”
Tyler leaned over and sniffed my shoulder. “You smell amazing.”
“I’m serious. Wildland smoke is my favorite smell. On a girl? Makes you strangely appealing.”
The hotshots had already peeled off their suits and packs in the truck bay, but we all smelled like old cheese that had been smoked in a giant campfire. Tyler kneeled, pinching the laces of my snow boots and pulling apart the knots. He slipped them off, one by one, and I leaned back even further, wiggling my toes a few times to celebrate their freedom. He pulled off my socks slowly, grimacing at the new blisters, the seeping blisters, and the healing blisters.
“Gangrene isn’t an award.” He jogged over to fetch the first aid kit and began doctoring the mangled mess I’d been walking on for ten days.
I tried to blink, but it took a while for my eyes to open again. They felt like they weighed a hundred pounds. I could have taken a nap right there.
Tyler finished slathering antibiotic cream and taping gauze to my wounds, then took a blanket from the back of a recliner and unfolded it, spreading it over me. I bounced when he plopped on the sofa next to me, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved thermal, the three buttons at the top open. I preferred him in his ill-fitting, flame-retardant clothes and blue hardhat, but he would never let me forget it if he knew.
“You never complain. No training, you just jumped in there and hiked miles and camped out in the dirt and snow in freezing temperatures,” he said, relaxing next to me. “I’m impressed. All the guys are.”
“I don’t care,” I said, resting my cheek against his shoulder. I was frozen and exhausted, unsure how my fingers continued to function as the days went on. True to his word, Tyler had kept me close. It was a beautiful but difficult trek, up inclines and through the aspens. In some places, the snow was still ankle-to-shin deep, and we walked for almost an hour to the site through the underwood and slush. My feet and face were numb before we ever reached the fire, but I was distracted from any discomfort when I looked through the lens of my camera.
I could barely move, and the rest of Tyler’s crew were chatting and making sandwiches. After fourteen days on the mountain, they were owed forty-eight hours of mandatory R & R. Even though they were all worn down, their version of a weekend had arrived, and they were restless.
“How are they so … peppy?” I asked, my words slow, my voice hoarse.
“Adrenaline,” Tyler said, picking up my camera and clicking through the various shots.
“How can they still have an adrenaline high? The ride home took forever. I thought we were never going to get back.”
“Every time we leave for a fire, there’s a chance one or all of us might be injured or worse. Returning as a complete unit means a lot.” He handed me the camera. “Nice pics.”
He rested his chin on my hair. “Jojo is going to be happy.”
“Thanks. She texted me today. She wants to see what I’ve got.”
“So you’re going to show them to her now?” His eyebrows pulled in. “Does this mean you’re done?”
Tyler was watching his friends wrestle and joke in the kitchen, but he looked unhappy. “Ellie?”
I heard him call my name, but I was at the bottom of a barrel full of water, warm and unwilling to move. The sound of the guys in the kitchen faded away, and all I could hear was the sound of my own heart and the steady rhythm of Tyler’s breath. I sank deeper into myself, comfortable under the blanket and against Tyler’s arm.
“Shut the fuck up!” Tyler hissed. He jerked, and I blinked, seeing a blurry Watts jump over whatever Tyler had thrown at him.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Wow. How long was I out?”
“Three hours,” Jubal said with a smile. “Tyler didn’t move a muscle the whole time so he didn’t wake you up.”
“Did you get dinner?” I asked, looking up at him.
“I brought him a sandwich,” Watts said, throwing the small square pillow back at Tyler. “He’ll live.”
Tyler caught it and held it to his chest, pouting.
Watts jutted out his lip. “He’s pissed we woke you up.”
“Knock it off,” Jubal said, handing me a glass of ice water.
Smitty turned up the television, and Taco fished for his ringing cell phone, standing up to take the call in the office.
Tyler stood. “We should probably get those shots to Jojo and you home, huh?”
“I’ll take you,” he said immediately.
Jubal watched us with amusement, although I wasn’t sure why. The rest of Tyler’s crew seemed to be going about their business, while still keeping an ear open to whatever I might say.
All nineteen hotshots, from Fish to Pup, gave me a bear hug before I left, all asking me to come back soon. Chief made a rare appearance outside of his office to tell me goodbye, and then Tyler walked me to his truck, patiently keeping pace with my sloth-like speed.
“Fuck,” Tyler said under his breath. “I should have started the truck so it was warm.”
“It’s fine. Really, no big deal. I think I’ve proven myself by now not to be high maintenance.”
“That you have.” He opened my door but paused when he noticed me staring. “What?”
He shrugged. “Opening the door for you.”
“Why?” I said. His gesture made me feel awkward.
I climbed inside, hugging myself to keep warm while Tyler slammed the passenger door and jogged around to the other side. He was brooding, unhappy about something.