The Keepers of Fire allowed it to escape. He watched as they let it loose. Then they ran. The Great Fire rose fast, like the wind, climbing the slopes from the floor of the valley, its white orange maw devouring everything it touched. The inferno pushed his tribe back against the high cliff above the river. It came too fast for him to protect them, so he found a place and clung to the rocks, the teeth of the fire gnawing at him, trying to break his grip. It burned him and the smoke stung his eyes but he held fast, knowing the churning rapids were far below. Eventually, the Great Fire moved on.
All but he had been consumed in its flames.
He made a pile of rocks to remember them and began walking. He moved north, toward the mountains. Crossing streams and following ridge lines, he relied on his instincts for direction. The farther he journeyed, the more evidence he saw of them. He felt he would soon find many of them. A relentless traveler, he kept moving. He would not stop until he had found the Keepers of Fire.
Had you asked him when he rolled out of bed that morning, Joe Wylie wasn't even remotely thinking about being first at anything. Being first had always eluded Joein birth order, in school, with women, with jobs, with pretty much everything. Something else Joe didn't think about very often was the fact he'd been married for twenty-four years. His wife Lori's unwavering daily consumption of handfuls of Ding Dongs and Double Fudge Yoo-hoos had doubled her weight since the day they were married. On top of that his nineteen-year-old daughter was over in Seattle shacked up with some dope-pushing jerk on a Harley and, maybe worse, his son had recently decided a nose ring would be a shrewd fashion statement.
Yet when Joe saw the nose ring, it didn't bother him, and that's when he realized he didn't have strong feelings about anything anymore. His sixteen-year-old had a ring in his nose and Joe didn't give a crap about that or anything else. Finally, he concluded, at forty-seven, it was nice to be all through with worrying. His rapidly receding hairline didn't even cause him the stress it used to, nor did his accumulating Budweiser gut. And he sure as hell didn't worry about his job, which wasn't particularly rewarding but paid well and was pretty frickin' easy. More or less drive a truck around in the woods, look at the trees, then tell your bosses they're still there. Piece of cake.
Uncharacteristically, Joe Wylie was actually thinking about his job as he steered up Access Road Number 4. Logging roads were rarely given descriptive, enchanting names like Pine Lake or Deer Hollow because they were only used to gain access to the seemingly boundless stores of timber owned by multinational conglomerates and, except for the rare logging crew, only people like Joe and kids looking for places to party made use of them. Road 4 was way the hell off the beaten track, high in the mountains, seven miles and four thousand feet above the last sign of civilization, a Weyerhaeuser equipment facility.
The day before, local kids had reported some busted trees up Road 4 and Joe was asked to investigate. Joe guessed it was probably the work of disgruntled, drunken loggers out of Sultan or Gold Bar. Joe had been timber cruising ten of the twenty-six years he'd been with Weyerhaeuser and little surprised him. He imagined the perpetrators were probably just vengeful independents put out of work either by his company or some damn owl or rare squirrel or something. He sort of sympathized with their frustration, but if they wanted to ruin trees, they could kindly go over to the national forest, or better yet, Buse Timber's property.
Joe fiddled with the radio, hoping to receive a Seattle station, but got only static. He remembered he was on the eastern edge of Snohomish County and that he almost never got good radio here. The dash clock's spindly hands indicated six forty. He wondered why the truck's manufacturer had bothered with such a shitty timepiece since it had never worked right. By the angle of the sun he reckoned it was about eight fifteen a.m.
From inside the paper sack on the floor he fished out another longneck Bud. He preferred the longnecks because they were easier to hold while he drove. For Joe they had the pleasant effect of rendering what could be completely stultifying work into the soothing vocational equivalent of easy-listening music.
Seven miles above the equipment station he slowed the truck as his eyes widened in wonder. A typically uneventful shift had suddenly become the jackpot of interesting mornings: ahead was something he had never seen in all his years in the woods. He stopped the truck and stepped down onto the damp hardpan. Clutching his coat tighter, Budweiser vapor swirling around his head, he stood and stared. Some broken trees, my ass. For fifty yards every tree on both sides of the road was snapped, maybe ten feet above the ground. Expecting two or three or even a half dozen, he quickly estimated a good hundred trees. This is crazy. This is big.
Joe walked down the lane of shattered fir and hemlock and tried to imagine who on earth had done this. And why? He'd seen the work of spiteful, drunken loggers but this was not that. Some of the trees were big, eight-inch-diameter second growth, yet all were splintered, some hanging by fibers, some clean off. Though he was an experienced woodsman, his mind whirled for answers but came up lemons. Brushing aside his dismay, he forced himself to tick off possibilities.
There had been no wind, so he ruled that out. Besides, he knew it would have taken a goddamn tornado to do this and that would have broken other trees, not just the ones facing the road. So his first conclusion was that this was planned. The notion irritated him because it was a waste of good timber, and if loggers had done this, then it wasn't just excusable rowdiness, it was vandalism, maybe even downright sabotage. Rolling the word sabotage around in his mind, he made a mental note to use it in his report.
As Joe's eyes swept the scene from the cold shadows to the sunlit treetops, he squinted, concentrating hard as to how this maliciousness had been carried out. It was then, despite the intake of several Buds and the fact it was not even eight thirty, that he unscrambled the puzzle. Somehow these really determined timber piratesas he now labeled themhad gotten a big diesel scissors loader up here and somehow snapped the trees off. He'd never seen a scissors loader do that, and sure, there were a few extra somehows in there, but that must have been how it happened. The fact that the pirates hadn't seemed to have actually pirated any timber was another small detail Joe let slide in his solution.
Joe smiled contentedly as he pondered the fate of such vicious despoilers of his arboreal kingdom. But then his smile faded as he realized that all of the faint animal sounds had just disappeared. Though he heard the truck purring nearby, suddenly the birds and insects and whatever else that sang and chattered in the woods had fallen silent, as if someone had hit the pause button on the forest sounds tape.
A moment later something even more disturbing happened. At first it was as if sunlight warmed his back, only he knew the sun's rays had not yet reached beneath the trees to touch him. Then Joe realized it was really more of a creeping-up-the-spine force, like someone watching you but there's no one there. He'd felt it before in the woods and had chalked it up to once in a while just feeling something eerie you can't explain. Dismissing things was Joe's path of least resistance, but this time the sensation bothered him, even scared him. He nervously scanned the woods but saw nothing. Suddenly he felt very alone, so he headed toward the safe haven of his truck.
A few yards from the refuge of his beat-up Chevy, a noise behind him caused Joe to spin around. The human mind can identify a threat in a tenth of second and it took about that long for Joe to realize he was in grave danger. And either despite or because of the extreme stress, his brain also reached the rather academic conclusion that in all those years he'd never believed it existed. Until now.
That's when the air and his vision and his thoughts became clearer than crystal, and it suddenly didn't matter if his kid had a nose ring or if his wife had porked out, because everything was about to change for him. Joe suddenly gave a crap again, because you always do when you're about to die. And with that supreme clarity of cognition he also understood he was about to check out in a very bad way, much worse than a car crash or house fire or gunshot to the chest, and a life-sucking chill rippled through his temples into his neck, down his spine, and jumped to his scrotum, which tightened up like a sea monkey in reverse. Joe's knees wavered, then buckled, and the two Buds that had gathered in his bladder drained into his pants.
Because for the first time in his life, Joe was about to be first.
* * *
Seven miles below at the equipment station, twenty minutes had elapsed since Chuck Pendleton waved to Joe Wylie as his truck passed. Chuck readied a couple of quarts of fifty-weight to pour into one of the big D8R Cats he maintained in his yard. As he punched the filler spout into an oil can, he thought he heard something. He set the can down and listened. Faint, it sure sounded like a scream. He shrugged, lit another Winston, and picked up the can.
Must have been the gate creaking.
* * *
© Matthew Scott Hansen