Authors: Sandi Ault
Wednesday, 2100 Hours
I rode back to the ICP with Kerry. He was never much of a conversationalist, but now he was as silent as a stone. I noticed his hand trembling on the steering wheel.
“You all right?” I said, giving a little smile. I reached out and touched his arm.
He flinched, then forced a little laugh. “You startled me.”
“Talk to me,” I said.
He shook his head and pretended to be fascinated by the pavement ahead of us.
“Hey, come on. Talk to me.”
“Your hands are shaking. You jumped when I touched you.”
“It's just the adrenaline,” he said. “I wanted to go get those guys, to save them. There was nothing I could do.”
“I keep going over it in my mind, trying to think of anything we could have done. All we could do was tie in at the road and try to flank the fire farther down. I couldn't go in there, I couldn't send anyone in there. There was nothing I could do. And then to find them like that, all in such bad shapeâ¦”
I reached across the cab of the truck and held my hand above the steering wheel for an instant so he could see I was about to touch him. I drew it back across his arm and gently stroked his shoulder. “It's all right. I feel the same way about Grampa Ned. I was sent to go get him, to bring him out. It doesn't even seem real, it hasn't quite sunk in for me.”
“And I could hardly think, it was so damned loudâ¦”
“I can still hear those frigging choppers in my earsâthey won't stop. It's like I'm hearing that throbbing
all the time, and it feels like everything's in slow motion.”
“It's all thatâthe noise, the heat, the smoke. On top of everything else.”
“I haven't worked that close to a chopper since I was in Somalia. I forgot how loud they can be.”
“You were in Sâ”
“There is nothing worse,” Kerry cut in, “than having your guys in trouble and not being able to go get them. Nothing.”
I waited to see if he would go on, realizing he'd just begun to open up and talk, but he'd said all he was going to say. I leaned out the open window and let the air blow against my face. We rode in quiet for the rest of the way.
When we got to the ICP, the mood was grim in the war room. Roy and a few of his staff were hunkered over a large map spread out on a table. The men's T-shirts were sweat-stained and a few of them had smoke-smeared faces. They all looked up when Kerry and I walked in.
“You two need to do a critical stress debriefing,” Roy said. “There's supposed to be someone coming tonight. Make sure you hook up with her, then take some time off, whatever you need.”
“No, I'm okay, I'm staying,” I said.
“I'm staying, too,” Kerry added. “Have you heard any news about the Three-Pebs?”
The Boss reached with one hand and took off his cowboy hat while he pushed his other hand through his hair. He jammed his hat back onto his head. “They all made it so far. That's all we got.”
“My guy died,” I said without thinking. I was surprised as soon as I'd said it. “I mean, they think the body I found was Grampa Ned.”
Roy narrowed his eyes at me. “You sure you're okay?”
“Oh, yeah.” I nodded. “It was just so hot in the burn area, I'mâ¦”
“Get yourself some water, sit down, take a breather,” the Boss said. “Go to Medical and get an IV to hydrate you if you need to.”
“What's the fire doing?” Kerry asked.
Roy looked down at the map and waved him in closer. “We're having a helluva fight with this one.”
Kerry went to the table and joined in the huddle with the other men.
I grabbed a bottle of water out of a cooler, sat down in a chair, and leaned back against the wall. My mind felt numb. My feet and legs hurt from going up and down the blackened slopes. I closed my eyes and must have dozed off for a few moments. I woke when I heard Steve Morella's voice.
“We couldn't get here in time for evening briefing,” Morella said. The archaeologist's yellow shirt was no longer clean and his nose and cheeks were sunburned. Elaine Oldham, the anthropologist I'd met with him earlier, stood behind him.
“Well, come on over and we'll bring you up to speed,” Roy said. “We got a real vicious one here. We've had to change our strategy, and this blowup we had today has thwarted any hopes we might have had for direct control. We're going to have to go the whole fire with coyote tactics.”
“Coyote tactics?” Morella asked.
Kerry spoke up. “Self-sufficient crews that go in, work their shift to construct their line, then stay there, sleep right near the fire line with a lookout posted, get up after a few hours' rest, and go after it again.”
“What about food? And water?” Elaine said.
“MREsâmeals ready to eat. Freeze-dried stuff,” Kerry answered. “The firefighters carry them in their line packs. Water, too. The only way we can get anything into this terrain is to airlift it. Once we drop the crews in, we'll have to leave them there and try to airdrop supplies to them later.”
Roy cut in. “But that's the problem right there: we can't get any air support. This whole zone is dry as a twig and there's fires everywhere. To really do this right, we need to get an air tanker and order the mud and keep it coming.”
“Mud?” Morella asked.
“Fire retardant. Slurry. We can't get in on the flanks of this fire because there's no roads and the terrain is steep and treacherous, and there's spotting on both sides. The only good way to fight it is to bomb it with mud, use it to create buffer zones so the crews can get in. Or let it burnâbetter than putting firefighters in harm's way.”
“And you have no air resources at all?” Morella said.
Roy shook his head. “We've got one chopper dedicated to this fire. We can either use it to drop buckets of water or to carry people and supplies.”
Steve Morella studied the map, the red line showing the perimeter of the fire, now exploded in size from earlier in the day when I saw it during my brief attendance at the Command and General Staff meeting.
Roy took a pen out of his pocket and used it as a pointer. “We got a ranch, about twenty homes, and a quarry up on the east edge of the river, out ahead of the northern head of the fire,” he said. “There's some open meadowland on that ranch, but the river area is thick with trees and dense undergrowth. And we've had so much curingâ”
“Would you explain curing?” Morella interrupted. “Dr. Oldham has never been on a fire.”
The Boss nodded. “Drying and browning of the vegetation ahead of the fire's front. The hot winds, the heat, it acts like a convection oven and bakes everything ahead of it. When the fire gets in the trees, it crownsâgets up in the tops of them and runs from branch to branch. That's what we had down here today.” Roy pointed to the area where we'd found the hotshotsâand the body. “We got ponderosa pine already bone dry from the drought, some piÃ±on and juniper, both of which are highly flammable, and plenty of oak brushâwhich is downright incendiaryâall in through there.” He swirled his pen in the air over the map. “If the winds don't die down, this fire will run up every one of these drainages and right through your Lunar Standstill ceremony at Chimney Rock, and there's not a damn thing we can do. The flames could easily run through these trees all along Devil's Creek, where we got a Ute tribal youth camp. And if it continues to push northward and gets into that dry meadow grass on that little ranch, it will run. And maybe even blow across the highway and into the national forest on the other side, where we got a hundred and twenty-fiveâkilovolt power line that feeds Pagosa; if that goes down, Pagosa will be dark.”
Morella sighed heavily. “You said something about letting this fire burn. You're not going to do that, are you?”
Roy looked him right in the eye. “I'm gonna try like hell not to, but we're talking about a force of nature over which I truly have no control, Dr. Morella.”
“But the Lunar Standstillâit only happens every eighteen point six years. In a little over two days, the new moon will rise between the spires. We have about forty people up thereâelders, spiritual leaders, indigenous people of the Southwestâpreparing for the event. They've come from all over just to be here for it. I didn't get to brief you and your staff at the afternoon meeting because there were more urgentâ”
Roy held up his index finger to interrupt. “I know about the Native Americans up at Chimney Rock. The Bureau of Indian Affairs talked to me about it. I'm going to try my best, but if we can't get this fire under control, the Archuleta County Sheriff's Office is going to go up there and evacuate them. That's for their own safety, Lunar Standstill or not.”
Steve Morella raised his hands, palms upward in resignation. “Is there any good news at all?”
Roy gave a wry grin. “Two things. One, we found all the Three-Pebs, and they're in the burn unit in Albuquerque. Even the one Jamaica found earlier today is still hanging in there. And two, we got plenty of water around here for the chopper to dip from. Sometimes that's a real problem, but there's the Piedra River, two creeks, a couple little ponds, and Capote Lake on the other side of Chimney Rock. But it ain't gonna be enough with just one chopper doing all the work.”
Morella said, “That is good news about the hotshots.”
“The bad news, though, is that the northern head of this fire is still running hot and strong, and it's after nine o'clock. Most of the time, a fire will make a good run in the afternoon, and then she'll lay down at night. We'll just have to see what she does as the night goes on. If we can get crews in to flank this baby, we'll want to take one of your field people with every crew, have them advise the firefighters so we don't disrupt any archaeological sites.”
“That's what I'm here for. I have a group of summer research assistants that will be ready first thing tomorrow. But we also came to take your staff up to the top of Chimney Rock and explain to you about the Lunar Standstill,” the archaeologist said. “I think if you understood the importanceâ”
“Jamaica,” the Boss interrupted, looking at me, “you can do that in the morning after briefing. Go, and then come back and give us the high points.”
“Where am I going?” I asked.
“Up on top of the ridge at Chimney Rock, right next to the two stone pillars,” Morella answered. “There's a historic fire tower up there.”
Wednesday, 2200 Hours
I had a little time to wait before the debriefing, so I decided to check on the native Puebloans before I left off my duties for the night. I drove up the steep, curving road to the parking lot on top in the dark, and parked in the same place on the side of the road. As soon as I got out of the Jeep, Mountain came bounding toward me. I planted my feet and got ready. He slammed right into me, almost knocking me over, and started his usual anxiety-driven circling and vocalizing, his tail thwacking me and thumping into the side of the car. I knelt down to put myself at eye level and I held and stroked him. I put my arm around his neck and pressed my face into the side of his. He huffed a few times, as if he couldn't get enough air, whimpered a little, and then finally began to settle down. I reached between his front legs and rubbed his chest, one of his favorite things. I could feel his great heart beating, and suddenlyâfor no particular reasonâI thought I might cry. It had been a rough day. And it wasn't over yet. I took a deep breath and pulled my face away and looked at my best friend, my only family. I gave him a little smile, and he sat down and wagged his tail. “How are you, baby wolf?” I asked.
He tossed his head back and gave a quick yip.
I mimicked his head movement. “Oh, you're mad at me, huh?”
He nipped at the air, making a
when his jaws snapped shut.
“Okay, I can see I've got a lot of making up to do.”
He leaned forward and nuzzled his snout into my breast, poked his nose under my arm, and then stood there, tucked into me. After a few moments, he pulled away, stood up, and circled in front of me, then pressed his haunches into my chest, inviting me to scratch his bottom.
I saw Momma Anna coming toward me holding up the bridle and lead. “He take off,” she said, shaking her head. “He know you come.”
I stood and nodded to my medicine teacher. “I think he knows the sound of my Jeep.”
Momma Anna studied my face. “You got sadness.”
I raised my eyebrows. “It shows, huh?”
“It was a rough day on the fire.”
She waved her finger at me. “Sadness like that fire. You must put out.”
I remembered a time when Momma Anna had performed a ritual with a corn pollen mixture to cure sadness in a family member before a wedding. She had told me then that the sadness could make everyone sick and the wedding could go bad. And I remembered in the days after her son's death and the death of her brother, Momma Anna had not indulged in grief, but rather had done the tasks that were before her and even found occasion to laugh and to enjoy good food. The Tanoah believe that each of us comes to this life for a purpose, and that purpose is all that matters. Even in the face of loss.
“I don't have any corn pollen with me,” I said. “I have a medicine pouch in my Jeepâ”
She interrupted with a scolding sound:
She stepped to the side of the road and pulled some piÃ±on needles from a tree. “Take this,” she said, reaching for my hand and placing the prickly greenery in my palm. She nodded at me expectantly.
I hesitated, not sure what I should do.
“Ask,” Momma Anna said, softly.
“What should Iâ”
But she cut in. “Not ask me! Ask put sadness out.”
I drew in a breath, the air still hot from the stifling day, the smell of smoke heavy in my nostrils. I closed my eyes and raised my palm in offering, but the smell of the fire only reminded me of the charred body of Grampa Ned. After a minute, I opened my eyes again and saw Momma Anna staring at me with pursed lips. I sprinkled the pine needles in a circle above my head, felt them falling into my hair and around my shoulders.
“Now, do,” Momma Anna said.
“I will do,” I answered, knowing that meant for me to get on with my purpose.
“They do story down there.” She pointed down the road heading back to the bottom. “You take me down,” she said.
“To the visitors' center?”
She didn't answer, but instead started around the car to the passenger door, stooping to avoid the branches of the piÃ±on.
The woman Clara White Deer had told me about was the storyteller for the occasion. She introduced herself and told her clan lineage in the Southern Ute tribe. Then she began the storytelling ceremony. She lifted a rawhide and willow stick rattle from a basket near her feet. The rattle bore a painted bear design on one side of its round hide globe, and strands of thong and feathers where the hide was tied to the handle. Mary Takes Horse closed her eyes and shook the rattle in an arc over her head, then held it high and made three percussive stabs in the air. She opened her eyes and looked out at the silent gathering. “They say there were two brothers who loved the same woman. It was a long time ago, when the People were moving all the time from camp to camp, and they had stopped one time for a long while to pick serviceberries. This woman was very beautiful and both the brothers wanted to have her for a wife, so they all the time tried to help her make up her mind. While she was out picking berries all day, they would hunt up a rabbit or a deer and leave it in front of her lodge. Each brother had a way of painting his arrows so that she would know which one of them had brought her meat, because they would leave the arrow in there.
“It took the woman a long time to make up her mind, and she had a lot of good meals for her and her parents while she was trying to decide. Finally, her dad told her that she had to choose or the brothers would get tired and neither one of them would want her for a wife. Well, both the men were handsome, but one of them was a lot bigger than the other. He had a big, strong chest, and he stood taller than his brother by a head. She thought the big one would make a better husband in certain waysâ¦”
At this, all the women giggled, and Mary Takes Horse smiled and waited until the laughter subsided.
“So anyway, she told the big man she would marry him, and off they went to the wedding lodge. Now, this was in the summer, okay? And when they were together that night, big man told her she could sleep next to him, but that he was not going to make her his wife until spring.”
The women in the audience all groaned and hissed. Again, Mary Takes Horse waited, smiling.
“So the next day, this woman talks to her mother and tells her what big man is doing. Or what he is
A round of laughter ensued from men and women alike.
“And her mother told her all kind of things to try to make big man change his mind. âPut bear grease in your hair, make it shine like a river,' her mother would say. Or âCook the rabbit with this herb so the whole camp will smell it and be hungry for what you made.' But nothing the beautiful new bride did would make big man change his mind. One night, she was combing her hair when big man got ready for sleep. He opened his buffalo robe, inviting her to come lie beside him. âWhy won't you make me your wife?' she asked him. He told her that she must wait until spring. That next day, she put his things outside the lodge and this told the world they were no longer married.”
The audience applauded. The man to my right put two fingers between his teeth and whistled loudly. Mary Takes Horse held up her hand.
“But that's not the end. This beautiful woman decides she will take the other brother, the little guy.”
The women hissed and booed.
“So the first night they are together, little man gets right down to business. He takes his pleasure from the woman, smacks her on her bottom, and turns his back and goes right to sleep.”
More hissing and booing from the women, but a few of the men nodded and winked at one another.
“And the next day, you know the woman is back talking to her mother again, saying how unhappy she is with this one. But the mother tells her she has made the stew and the meal is already cooked, so she can only eat it now, there is nothing else to do.
“Well, things go on and little man is happy to take pleasure from his beautiful young wife any night he wants, but he does not make sure she is happy in return. And the summer goes on.
“Pretty soon, the frost is there every morning and the People are leaving for a winter camp. They choose a place out by Red Hill, along the river, and they settle in for the winter. Meantime, that little man starts gambling with the men, and he rides off for long times saying he is hunting elk, but he does not bring the young woman back any meat, and she has to go to her family's lodge for dinner many nights through the winter. And one day in early spring, while the beautiful woman is outside helping her mother stretch a hide, she sees the big man bringing a deer he has killed to the lodge of another woman in camp. And that woman is a little bit older and not so pretty, but big man continues to bring her gifts and this not so pretty woman decides to accept the big man. And so big man and his not so pretty bride go into the wedding lodge, and it is spring.”
The audience laughed and clapped.
“Then the summer comes, and the People stop to pick serviceberries again. And pretty soon all the women in camp have made the last of the serviceberries into pemmican and the leaves of that tree are turning into the colors of sunset and fire. Frost paints the lodges again, and the People choose a winter camp, this time in Sagebrush Valley. They settle in and the snows come. The young woman notices that big man and his new bride don't hardly come out of their lodge much at all.”
Whoops and more clapping.
“Every once in a while, big man's bride would come out and gather some firewood and then she went right back in the lodge. And every time she did come out for wood, the People noticed that her skin looked softer and smoother, that her hair was shiny and strong, and her body was nice and round, that she was growing more pretty every day somehow, spending her days and nights all the time in that lodge with big man. Finally, the spring comes, and big man and his new bride come out of their lodge with two little bear cubs. Over the winter, big man has grown hair all over his body, and he has become a bear. At first, the People are afraid, but then they watch and see the tenderness and devotion he shows to his little ones and to his bride, and they see that he is a wise being. Big man has become a bear, and his bear spirit just needed the right wife to help him find his path.
“And the bear gave the People a lesson. There is a time for all things, even for things we love, things that bring us joy. Everything that happens is someplace on the medicine wheel, and the wheel is always turning. The bear knows that the spring is the best time to make love. Because on the medicine wheel, love is on one side, and children come around after that. So the wheel turns, and a spring marriage makes winter children, so the babies can sleep with their mother in the den as they grow fat and healthy, without hunters coming. And the bear also tells us that spring and summer are the time for hunting and gathering, because winter comes around on the wheel after that.”
“But what about little guy?” one man yelled.
“Aw, he was a coyote,” Mary Takes Horse said. “He ran off and went his own way. You know how they are.”