After half a dozen steps Anna was beginning to doubt her decision as well. It would be easy to get lost. All they had to navigate by was the slope. Ahead, the teeth of the fire were bared in hollow logs and stumps, glowing coals defying the petty attempts of the sleet to quench them. As winds eddied and shifted the coals brightened hungrily.
More unsettling was the fire that lived high in the burned-out snags. The forest was still there but it had been stripped of skin and muscle. Bare bones, charred a shade darker than the night, rose all around like macabre grave markers. High in many of the snags the fire gnawed at the marrow. An occasional crack or fall let them know that a lingering branch had been chewed off, brought down.
Anna kept climbing, pounding each step with her pulaski as John had told her. Behind her she could hear Lindstrom. He whistled "Ring of Fire" between his teeth.
Visibility improved as they gained altitude and their lamps began to be of more use. The ground flattened out and Anna stopped to catch her breath. So changed was the landscape it took her a minute to realize they'd reached the heli-spot.
"Home free," Lindstrom said as he came up beside her. "Wind's picking up."
A curtain of ash and grit blasted by them and they turned their backs.
"One damn thing after another," Anna groused.
A dirt road had been hacked from spike to the heli-spot and the going was easier. Lindstrom took the lead and she fell in behind him, relieved only to have to step where he stepped.
On the ridge the wind was shrieking. Without the sough of needles and leaves to soften its voice, the whistle was sharp and unkind. Stephen's light picked out the hulk that had been Paula's truck. The tires were burned off the hubs. One of the fenders was gone, blasted away when the gas cans exploded. The cab was gutted and the glass gone. In extremis the vehicle had been rendered black and elemental. It no longer looked out of place.
"Maybe it's still warm," Anna said hopefully. Brush jackets were made of unlined canvas, designed to protect from the scrape of branches and the wind. Now that the exertion of the climb was behind them, Anna was feeling the cold.
Using the truck shell as a windbreak, Anna dragged the radio from under her jacket. On the second try she reached Base. The line was etched by static but still readable. The two EMTs found themselves laughing from sheer relief. They weren't alone.
Gene Burwell, the incident commander, spoke with them and Anna sensed a hushed reverence awaiting her every word. Caught up in surviving, the rest of humanity had slipped her mind. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends were waiting by radios and telephones, the television tuned to CNN, hoping for news. The drama of what they had been through hit her and she was proud even as she mocked herself for feeling heroic. It was with sadness and an unpleasant sense of failure, slipping from her recently acquired pedestal, that she told them of Newt Hamlin, of Leonard Nims.
News of the murder was met with a static-filled silence Anna couldn't break. Burwell had his mike button down and, she imagined, his mouth open.
Three times he made her repeat the information. Anna was shouting now, her face and the radio shielded by the truck's engine block and Lindstrom's body. Rising wind competed for air time. "What do you want us to do?" she asked.
Burwell was quiet so long she began to be afraid they'd lost contact. Finally his voice cracked back: "Can you last out the night?"
"I think so." Anna had told him of injuries sustained and supplies available. It was a rhetorical question. Could rescue have been sent it would already be on its way?
"The National Weather Service thinks this'll break tomorrow. We'll send the helicopters in for you. We've sent a crew up the road but they won't be there anytime