Authors: Sandi Ault
Wednesday, 1745 Hours
The burn area was still smoldering as we walked in our heavy boots through smoking duff and charred embers. Specially trained wildland medical crews worked on a high rock outcropping well up the slope of the mountain at a flat place used for a helispot. The Three-Pueblos Hot Shots, the elite Type 1 hand crew whose members all came from the three Tiwa-speaking pueblosâTaos, Picuris, and Tanoah Pueblo in northern New Mexicoâhad been found alive but in varying stages of serious to critical condition. Area hospitals had dispatched two emergency medical helicopters to airlift the victims to the nearest burn unit in Albuquerque. The medics had just finished shuttling the last of them on sleds to the choppers.
A member of the newly formed rescue command team had been designated to take photographs and document everything he saw and heard. “Did you get to talk to any of them before they were taken away?” he asked.
The noise of the choppers battered at my consciousness. “No. They were all tooâ¦they needed medical care.”
He pressed his lips together and shook his head, readying his camera to take another shot. “The winds are making it tough for the pilots,” he said, as he hurried off to a better vantage point.
The winds had been creating problems for more than the pilots: on my radio, I heard chatter about flying embers and spot fires to the north and west of where I stood, in the burned-over area called the black. I followed the sight line downslope to the place where I'd parked my Jeep earlier that day when I was looking for Grampa Ned. It was a long way down to the road, which looked like a tiny vein of dust from here. Stony outcroppings sprang up along the descent and blocked the view of the exact place where I'd found the truckâand the burning man. I continued to study the terrain below me. I sipped water from the tube of my CamelBak and reached into the case on my belt for my field glasses. The heat was already unbearable, but the smoldering ground and glowing coals beneath me made me feel like a roast on a spit.
As I studied the southwestern aspect of the mountain, I tried to imagine what route the burning man would have taken when he left his crewâhow he got all the way down to the road ahead of the blowup that entrapped his fellow crew members for hours. It seemed too far, the terrain too difficult for even the fittest firefighter to escape on foot. While scanning through my binoculars, a glint of silver gleamed in the corner of my left eye. I steadied the field glasses and panned slightly back to the left, then held solid. There it was again! A little more than halfway between the place where I was standing and the place at the bottom of the mountain where I'd parked my Jeep and started up the footpath, something glimmered against blackened ground.
An hour later, Kerry pointed at the silvery metal edge of a tool. “It was the blade of this shovel reflecting the light. That must have been what you saw.” The partly carbonized metal spade with only a stub of charcoal for a handle rested on the ground.
“You think the hotshot dropped his tool here and ran?”
Kerry nodded and pointed up the slope to where they had found the Three-Pueblos. “Well, this shovel is here, right along a fairly direct line from where his crew was to where you found him down there at the road.” His extended hand began to shake, and he drew it back to his side, self-consciously. He looked down, acted as if he were brushing something off his pants.
I felt shaken, too. I looked around, then down the slope toward the trailhead. “I don't get it. It's too far to the road for anyone to think they could have made it. He was a well-trained hotshot. They're the best of the best. Why would he panic and run? That doesn't make sense.”
“I don't know, but that has to be what he did.”
“Why would he be so far from his crew? He couldn't even have been a lookoutâhe was way below them.”
“Yeah, that's strange. Maybe he was trying to hike out for some reason. It looks like he was headed toward the road.”
I thought a moment, then remembered my first glimpse of the burning man, wavering on the road, his body smoldering. In my mind's eye, I saw the pack and Pulaski, a fire tool with two headsâan ax on one side and a short, sharp hoe on the otherâsitting on the road beside where he stood. “This can't be his shovel,” I said. “He had a Pulaski with him at the road.”
“Well, then, whose shovel is it?”
I scanned the area. “What's that mound over there?” I asked, pointing to the northwest.
We walked to the blackened hump, an ash-covered mound of rocks and dirt that was next to a recess in front of a shallow rock cave, an alcove no higher than three feet, and not as deep. “Someone's been digging here,” Kerry said. He pulled a multitool out of the case on his belt, crouched, and poked at a small pile of dirt and ash. “The soil is loose; this is recent. It needs to be documented. Let me get the photographer.” He thumbed his radio. “Documentation, this is Rescue Command.”
“Documentation. Go ahead,” his radio crackled.
“Are you about finished up there?”
“A-firm. I'm already headed down to you.”
“Bring your camera. We found something.” Kerry put the radio back in his harness.
“That's funny,” I said. “I experienced a dead zone with my radio right below this spot.”
“Seems to work fine here.”
“You think the hotshot was digging here for some reason?” I asked, gesturing toward the mound of ash-covered stones and earth.
Kerry shrugged, shook his head, and walked a few yards upslope, staring toward the place higher up where they had found the hotshots, watching for the photographer so he could signal him as to our location.
I stayed by our find and looked around. The land, the skyâeverything was gray or black, covered with ash and soot. The only color was a faint orange glow in the haze to the north of us, where the fire still blazed unabated. On the ground all around me tiny stems of smoke danced from jumbles of charred and unrecognizable matter. Dark monoliths that were living trees just hours ago jutted skyward like broken fingers reaching for mercy, obviously denied. Red veins still glowed across the scorched back of the land, pulsing as they drank the last of its life, while the real fury of the fireâits raging heartâdevoured everything in its path just over a quarter mile away. A strange clump of twisted matter a few yards below me caught my interest. I studied it for a moment, then realized what I was seeing. I moved toward it to confirm, desperately hoping I was wrong. But I was not.
A burned and blackened body was sprawled in a heap on the ground, its skull tipped at a strange angle.
“Oh, God,” I whispered. I instinctively made a small circle in the air with my left palm, a blessing I'd been taught to give to any living thing who had passed beyond the ridge. I winced, then squatted on my heels to take a closer look. As I did so, I felt intense heat emanate from the ground into the backs of my thighs and buttocks, the core of my body. For a moment, I couldn't breathe. I wrestled with a wave of dizziness, forced myself to draw in some of the stifling, smoke-filled air, and then blew it out slowly. “Who are you?” I said to the corpse, noting a solitary fluttering tuft of gray hair clinging to a flap of singed flesh that had come loose on one side of the skull. “Are you Grampa Ned?” I tipped my head to the side to study the deceased. “Please don't be Grampa Ned. I was supposed to find you. Bring you out. Not like this.”
I stood and dusted off my gloved hands, as if I'd touched something dirty, then noticed that the leather palms were black with soot, like everything else. I walked a few paces away from the cadaver, from the acrid smell. I swallowed, my throat raw from the smoke. I tasted grit on my tongue, and I cleared my throat. “Hey, Kerry,” I called. “I think I found our digger.”
Wednesday, 2000 Hours
Kerry came over and put his hand on my back. “Aw, babe,” he said. “You think that's your guy?” He bent his head and peered under the rim of my helmet at me, then reached a gloved hand up and pulled my sunglasses away from my eyes.
“I don't know,” I said. “Probably.” I put my shades back on.
“Yeah, I'mâ¦” I shook my head. “I'm okay.”
“There's no way we could have gotten him out.” Kerry tapped buttons on a GPS device to determine the latitude and longitude of the body.
It was me that was supposed toâ¦
Before I could finish my thought, he said, “It looks like this is part of the Southern Ute Reservation. I'll call the coordinates in to Dispatch. I bet the feds are going to want to see this one.”
Kerry was rightâthe FBI had jurisdiction over any suspicious death on Indian lands. “I'll stay,” I said, jutting my chin in the direction of the deceased. “I'll wait for them.”
Three men arrived on foot after what seemed like an eternity. They were wearing new-looking fire-retardant clothing and fire shelters, probably issued from the supply cache at Fire Camp. Kerry had hiked down to the trailhead, flagging the way, and met them at the road where he had staged his rescue command team.
Two of the new arrivals went to examine the corpse while the other came up to me. “Ron Crane, FBI,” he said, showing a badge. “You the one who found the body?”
“I brought an investigator with the Southern Ute police and the county coroner with me.”
“I'm Jamaica Wild, liaison officer for the incident management team,” I said. “I'm a resource protection agent for the BLM in Taos.” I wanted him to know that I was a law enforcement officer as well.
“That's good,” he said, giving an approving nod. “Okay, then, let's see what you got.”
After the three men had walked around the body and taken pictures, Crane returned to speak with me on the sidelines. “Notice how his head is twisted?”
“Yeah, I saw that. I'd hoped you'd tell me he fell wrong or something.”
“I don't think so,” Crane said.
“I didn't really think so either.” I'd spent a long time alone with the body while Kerry went down the slope to flag a path for the law. I had avoided walking around in case there were any clues left after the burnover. There was nothing to do but wait. And listen. And I knew somehow from that time spent in quiet with a spirit in transition that this had been a violent death. And not, probably, by fire.
“Looks like heâor somebodyâhad been digging just above here. Do you have any idea how long he'd been here before the fire burned through?”
“Not too long before the eastern flank blew out, I don't think. A member of the Southern Ute tribe told someone on the initial attack team that she'd seen a man named Grampa Ned drive in through the yellow tape. If this is him, it couldn't have been more than an hour.”
“Well, I'm pretty sure this is Ned Spotted Cloud.”
“Is it? I mean, it seemed likely, but I hate to draw any conclusions.”
“Well, that's his truck down below. And that body looks about the right size. And the woman who reported him entering the mine area?”
“It was Clara White Deer.”
“I don't think I know her. I know most of the Utes. I've been here for sixteen years.”
“She works at the intermediate school in Ignacio. She's the music teacher.”
“Probably never gets in trouble. The kind I know are the ones who do.”
“Did you know Grampa Ned?”
“Oh, yeah. I knew Grampa Ned all right.”
“So he was the kind who got in trouble?”
Ron Crane looked at me and smiled. “He made trouble like the Southern Ute Growth Fund makes money. All the time. Hand over fist.”
Crane returned to the body and talked softly with the coroner and the other investigator. I saw them examining the back of the dead man's head. The coroner pointed at the skull with the end of a slender silver pen. Crane stood up and took several measurements, then used a digital camera to snap some pictures of the deceased and the surrounding ground, including a large, blackened stone near the body.
He walked back upslope to the disturbed earth before the little cave and unfurled a large plastic pouch. He was wearing gloves, but he was careful to use only his thumb and forefinger to pick up the part of the shovel that once connected to the handle and put the spade into the pouch. Then he returned to speak with me.
“He's had a blow to the head,” the agent said.
“Whatever it was,” Crane said, “it made a pretty good gash in his noggin. Even though the body's burned, it's easy to see that he was struck with something, right at the base of the skull. Probably the blade of this shovel.” He held up his plastic pouch. “But we'll have to have the medical examiner look more closely at the wound, and we'll check this thing out, too, and see what we can find.”
“So you think Grampa Ned came up here a little while before the fire blew out to the east. And he or someone else was digging. And then Ned came down here by this treeâor what used to be a treeâand someone hit him in the head before his body burned?”
Ron Crane screwed his lips to one side, looking back at the body from where we stood. “Looks like it to me,” he said.
“It's usually the spouse,” he said, “except Ned didn't have one.” He grinned.
I winced. It seemed an odd time to be making jokes. “It just seems that no one else could have been here without getting seen or burned, too,” I said. “I was coming up that trail when the fire started crowning on this side.” Then I widened my eyes. “Oh, no!”
“No, what?” Crane asked.
“The burning man,” I said. “He was the only one whoâ¦”
“Yeah, I heard one of the hotshots tried to outrun the fire and got burned. Tell me about that.”
“I was coming up the trail looking for Grampa Ned. I saw his truck parked down there, and I was just going to see if he was close by. The fire started to crown, and I raced back down the path. I saw the hotshot on the road. He was standing a few yards away from my Jeep. His body was steaming, right through his Nomex.”
“Did he say anything?”
I had a terrible feeling of sadness as I spoke. “He said, âSave the grandmother.'”
“I know. It seemed odd to me, too. I wondered later if he'd meant to say
meaning Grampa Ned, but was just too disoriented from his burns.”
!” Agent Crane shook his head as he walked back to talk with the medical examiner.
I shook my head, too. It didn't make sense to meâwhy would a highly trained hotshot from New Mexico leave his crew in the middle of a blowup and go hit an old Ute man with a shovel?
Agent Crane returned. “It's starting to get dark,” he said. “I don't think there's much more to see here anywayâthe fire's pretty much burned everything up. But we're going to tape this area off just in case, and then we'll carry the body down. Here's my card.” He pointed to the phone number. “Just call me if you think of anything else. Have you got a contact number here?”
I took out my card and a pen. On the back, I wrote the number of my satellite phone.
“I'll be in touch,” Crane said.