There is nothing quite as satisfying as a morning run. There are things more enjoyable, but nothing quite as satisfying. In the mountains, at that moment in time when the sun is about to crest the eastern ridge, rays splintering into a sky littered with clouds, the air becomes absolutely still, as if the earth is holding its breath, awaiting the new day.
Padding along the rutted dirt road that curled around a sage-covered hill below Tom and Julie Shanklin’s A-frame, I was greeted with the first trumpeting of a robin, a welcome burst of melody interrupting the stillness. Within moments neighboring birds joined in, and soon a whistled chorus charged the dawn with an intoxicating energy.
My friend Lyel’s new puppy, Derby, trotted at my side, her tail wagging, tongue drooping. Part shepherd, part collie, with sad brown eyes and a coy, baby-toothed grin, she was a joyful companion.
I have never been accused of being a workaholic. I spend as much time as possible in appreciation of life and the world around me. For this reason, I have not accumulated enough capital reserve to acquire any material goods of significant permanence. No house. No property. No stocks or bonds or securities of any sort. I divide my time between work and play as unequally as possible. Work is tied loosely to the edges of the music business and a partner in L.A. The reason I had been able to take time off to play was that I had spent the month of May locating a woman who had once been a member of a popular Motown trio. I had found her in Baltimore, where she and her husband ran a motel, and across town, a coin-op laundry. She was due a generous amount of money that my partner, Bruce Warren, had pried loose from a record company. The money, back royalties, had been buried for years in the tabular columns of a ledger book. For our part, Bruce and I split twenty-five percent of the pretax amount, which came to $18,500. I had left Los Angeles with a little shy of nine grand, a sum I hoped might carry me through a summer of fly-fishing and birding in the dusty hills of central Idaho.
I turned around at the third gate up Townsend Gulch, a distance that made my round trip run just over four miles. As I passed the Shanklins’ again, I noticed the Dobermans were out and roaming, so I kept Derby close. She was still of a size and naiveté that would make her little more than a breakfast muffin for a Doberman, even though the Shanklins’ Dobermans are as gentle as lambs. She growled and whined, tucking her previously wagging tail submissively between her scurrying legs as she strode alongside, one eye cocked toward her adversaries, who had the consideration to halt at the big gate and allow us to pass.
A mile and a half later the two of us turned right onto the narrow gravel lane that feeds Lyel’s property, property I have come to think of as my own. Lyel allows me residence in the “guest cottage,” a log cabin that sits alongside a deliciously private trout stream that plays host to an enormous amount of bird life. He occupies the main house, seven thousand square feet of bachelor opulence, if and when he’s in town, which amounts to about the same span of time that I’m in town. Therein lies the absurdity of the designation “house sitter,” a title he once bestowed upon me. Lyel always arrives in town shortly after I do, and always stays until I leave. In short, he could just as easily house sit, since he’s there when I’m there.
Lyel showed up just before noon as I was contemplating the enormous task before me: installing a lawn sprinkling system. Lyel had ordered the parts; I was supposed to supply the labor. He had brought me a St. Pauli Girl and a turkey sandwich from the Southside Deli in Butte Peak. We left Derby sleeping in the shade of the deck and took a break beneath the dancing leaves of a mountain ash. Lyel wore red and black jams, a white cotton golf shirt, and size fourteen flip-flops. I asked him where he found flip-flops that size and he told me that they had been hanging as demonstration models in the local drugstore.
Lyel keeps himself young by surrounding himself with young women. He has two housecleaners, a woman to mow his lawn, and a part-time cook. All four look perfectly wonderful in bikinis, and all seem to appreciate Lyel as much as I do—though in a different way.
A distant sound caught his attention. “Ag-cat,” Lyel said. He knows airplanes the way I know birds. The small plane was flying low, traveling from our right, passing directly over the town of Ridland and headed for a landing at Butte Peak’s small regional airport.
“Um,” I acknowledged in mid bite. Small planes don’t do much for me, except interrupt my serenity and scare away birds. It wasn’t until the plane exploded that I paid any attention; and then, because it was several miles away, it seemed somewhat surreal. A huge yellow-orange mushroom erupted into the tranquil blue of that midday sky, driving a black cloud of smoke above it like a top hat.
A moment later a second explosion rocked the ground beneath us. We were four miles away, and we glanced at each other in disbelief. A tower of red-black flame peaked at about a hundred feet.
“That,” Lyel said, “was the gas station.” Lyel was seldom wrong.
I have never been attracted to accidents. The sight of blood, especially human blood, makes me ill, though for some reason I have seen more than my share of it. I wasn’t in Lyel’s car barreling toward the flames from any love of accidents, I was in his car because the two of us, being large in stature and strong of build, have helped out the volunteer fire crew a number of times, and there was no doubt they would need our help today.
Steven Garman, ski patrolman, private pilot, fireman, and friend, had solicited our help some years back when a nearby barn went up in flames, threatening the lives of several valuable Arabian horses locked in stalls inside. The horses lived. From that day forward, Lyel and I had been considered auxiliary firemen.
As we came up the highway, we noticed traffic had already been detoured toward the high school. A number of drivers had pulled off the road to watch the blaze and the efforts to bring it under control. Lyel made the turn toward the high school, away from the spectacular flames, and parked in the lot of a real estate office. Sheriff Dan Norton, who was keeping the crowd of onlookers back, let us through. Lyel knew Norton well. Lyel knows everyone well. Steven, clad in a fireman’s rubber suit, was red in the face. He spotted us and hurried over. “Thank God,” he said. “We need every hand we can get. Whole damn station went up.”
What was left of the plane was standing on its nose and flaming like a gigantic wick. It had made a gaping hole in the chain-link fence that surrounded the airport.
“How about the pilot?” I asked.
“He bit it,” Steven informed us. “Looks like he tried to jump as he approached the fence. Might have made it too, but he landed on an old pipe sticking out of the ground.”
“Jump?” I asked. But Steven was already turning back to the blaze.
“Extra suits on the truck, guys. Not that they’ll fit you.” I saw another plume of smoke rising at our right.
“Mark’s place!” I hollered, pointing. Then another finger of flame went up on the left. “The rodeo arena.”
“Damn,” Steven shouted, cupping his hands over his eyes to study the rooftops of the buildings in the immediate area. “Fallout from the two explosions,” he said. The burning debris, returning to earth, had ignited these and probably other structures. Lyel is such a huge man that his voice commands authority.
When he said, “We’ll take Mark’s,” there was no argument from Steven.
“There’s a plug on the corner of that block,” Steven said. “Take a hose and a wrench.”
We grabbed the thick rubber suits and the hose and wrench from the ladder truck, piled everything into Lyel’s Wagoneer, and raced the two blocks to Mark Acker’s Snow Lake Animal Clinic. It was far worse than I’d expected. What had been a tiny tendril of smoke only minutes before had developed quickly into a raging blaze. Most of the roof was afire. Worse yet, there was no sign of Mark or Nancy, his assistant.
Even as only occasional volunteers, Lyel and I were well practiced; we were into the gear and had the hose hooked up and running within minutes. A running fire hose is nothing to fool around with; fortunately, both Lyel and I can hold our own against the bucking force. We adopted the stance, legs spread to lower our centers of gravity, arms hugging the canvas hose, Lyel on the nozzle, me just behind him. We arced the spray high into the air; it fell on the edge of the burning hole in the roof. Clouds of steam mixed with the smoke and flame. To the untrained eye the fire appeared suddenly much worse.
“Too little too late,” I yelled at him over the roar of water and flame. I watched his huge helmeted head nod. We both looked silly in our black fire hats, but rules were rules. I was roasting in the thick rubber suit. “We’re going to lose all the animals if we don’t do something.”
“Where the hell is Mark?” Lyel shouted back at me.
Clearly, if we waited much longer we would lose our chance to enter the building. “We’re not going to get any backup,” I roared. “It’s now or never.”
“Agreed,” he returned, the anxiety plain in his voice. “So which is it?” I asked.
“Now,” he said, indicating with a jerk of his head that I should kill the water. I left him to battle the strength of the hose and twisted the huge nut on top of the fireplug.
Entering a burning building is as close as any of us get to a look inside hell. Not only do heat and flame surround you, but the combustion consumes most of the available oxygen, leaving an unmasked fire fighter gasping for breathable air.
The front door was unlocked, but with smoke visible through the windows, we knew better than to throw the door open and charge inside. The starved fire would feed off the fresh air and probably blow us to kingdom come. We each picked up one of the large river rocks that bordered the parking lot of the one- story animal clinic tossing them through the windows. As the glass broke, the gray smoke inside the reception area flashed yellow, then blue, and various areas of the room burst instantly into flame. The windows seemed to implode. Lyel and I rushed to the front door; I turned the handle and we stepped back and kicked it in. Another whoosh of flame raced from the door toward the smoke-filled hallway. I used combat hand signals to indicate I would take the back and that Lyel was to search the examination rooms straight ahead and the apartment wing to our right. He tried to wave me off, to switch assignments—the back was burning out of control. The barking and cries of caged animals frightening—but I didn’t stick around to debate.
A huge piece of a gas pump had apparently crashed through the roof like a bomb, taking out the file room and a piece of the hall. I ducked and dodged around a burning beam. The last I saw of Lyel was as he carefully opened the door to the first examination room.
Beyond the fallen beam the hallway grew thick with smoke, the agony of the trapped animals deafening. I was immediately tempted to check the two other examination rooms to my left, but fighting fire is like fighting a battle: once the assignments are made, they must be adhered to. Systematic teamwork is the key to success, and it is in this area that Lyel and I excel. Over the past few years we had found ourselves in our fair share of difficult situations—more than our fair share. We were something like war buddies in this regard, having learned how the other man responded to a given predicament, what to expect, what to avoid. I knew better than to double-cover Lyel’s assignment, especially with gut-wrenching screams coming from the other side of the far door.
I paused by the door, turning my head in case the flames shot out at me, and cracked it open. The acceleration of air was so intense that the door whistled, the tone descending the scale as the crack widened. My eyes stung from the thick, acrid smoke. I coughed, tasting charcoal. The patient ward: a cement floor I could feel but not see; chain-link cages, some floor-to-ceiling, some divided into small animal high-rises. The smoke was coming from the ceiling, and I knew from past experience that there is an ignition point to such smoke. The hole in the roof grows with the fire; the smoke collects in the “attic” area formed by the roof trusses. At some point the hole enlarges, the trapped smoke ignites, and the roof blows off. The tighter the house, the more chance of explosion into the rooms below. If the ceilings of those rooms catch fire, as had happened here, then the air comes in from the bottom and accelerates the process. My instinct told me to get out—this room had reached its flash point. Soon the dense cloud of smoke would spontaneously convert to flame.
The cacophony of the thirty house pets all crying at once at the top of their voices kept my adrenaline high. I blocked my instinct to run.
The latches on the cages were difficult to work with my gloved fingers. Door after door came open. Animals leapt out at me, bit at me, barked at me. By the time I reached the next to last pen, I had an army of quadrupeds at my feet.
If several of the dogs had not blown past me into the pen, I might have missed her. In an effort to shoo them back out into the team, I stepped on Nancy’s leg. I knelt beside her. There was blood on her face, and she was unconscious. I gathered Nancy into my arms and rose, stumbling on the pets underfoot, and kicked open the latch on the last pen, freeing a certified criminal dog. It was a monster breed, with a front paw wrapped in white gauze and plaster. There was no hesitation whatsoever. He came after me with a vengeance, sinking his jaw into my rubber leggings and breaking the skin beneath. I tried to shake him off and nearly fell yet another time; finally I turned and kicked his bad paw. He whined in pain and backed off. I had reached the back door; luckily, something inside me, a sense of self-preservation, alerted me to the fact that the moment I opened this door, the gases in the room would ignite, fueled by the fresh air. I hesitated.
Unluckily, in that moment of hesitation, the smoke ignited, flames tearing across the ceiling. What spared us was that the room contained nothing flammable. Fire is like water: water seeks the lowest level; fire seeks air and fuel. The smoke was fuel, and it burned off in a single devastating flash of ignition, but the fire itself ripped up into the overhead rafters toward the air, not down toward me and my group. The dogs ran for the door through which I had entered. I followed them back out into the hallway, where I encountered Lyel, who was just about to duck under the flaming beam. He was tripped by the dogs and fell to his knees.
“I got Mark,” he yelled, opening his arms so that I might pass Nancy under the beam to him. He took her and turned for the front door. I ducked under the beam and grabbed Lyel’s hips, pushing him forward more quickly than he intended to move. Lyel has this thing about not rushing in a crisis. It was time to rush.
We knew better than to rest at the first taste of fresh air. I was coughing to beat hell, my lungs felt blistered. But we ran. Once clear of the building, Lyel carried Nancy effortlessly. I couldn’t see Mark, but I figured Lyel had put him in the Wagoneer. What a strange sensation it was, to be running as fast as possible, dragged into slow motion by the heavy rubber clothing. Only then did I see that several of the dogs had no hair; it had been singed off.
The explosion threw us to the ground. All of the available fuel in the building—wood, plastics, chemicals—ignited at once into a single rolling curl of fire that shot ferociously into the sky. The roof collapsed in an ear-shattering finale. The walls folded in. In all, we had been inside three minutes. It had nearly been a lifetime.
We drove Mark and Nancy to the county hospital, not far from the fire. The doctor insisted on looking us over as well. He sent me on my way with an inhaler. By the time we returned, Steven had the two major fires, the gas station and the rodeo grounds, under control. We were told to go home. I noticed a pair of paramedics pulling the pilot off the vertical steel stake he had had the misfortune to dive onto. I tapped Lyel on the shoulder and pointed it out to him.
“Disgusting,” he said.
“Why would he jump?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t you have?”
I shrugged. I wanted to agree, but I couldn’t see myself having the foresight to undo my seat belt, clear myself, open the door, and leap from a plane moving at fifty miles an hour, careening out of control down a runway. “This’ll do great things for the airport’s PR,” I said. This airport, growing in leaps and bounds, was the target of much public outcry. The quiet mountain community of Butte Peak had become the destination point of commercial airlines, the new traffic shattering the peaceful existence expected of such a place. The airport continued to be the hot news in the local paper. Political careers were in jeopardy. This accident was certain to add to the controversy.
I headed over to the paramedics. Lyel elected not to follow.
They were about to place the pilot in a body bag. The man had a messy chest. My stomach turned. His face was quiet and peaceful. One of the paramedics noticed me. “Tough luck,” I said.
“Damn tough luck,” the paramedic agreed. “He had it timed damn near perfectly, by the look of it. Shit, the runway ends and the highway is right there. He’s got what, forty feet of grass to hit? He should have lived. Shitty break.”
The man’s shirt was torn open, and I noticed he was wearing an undershirt. It was a warm time of year to be wearing undershirts, even at fifteen thousand feet. A couple of pieces of shiny fabric were lying in the grass by the bloody stake. They were soiled, but I couldn’t help myself. I squatted down and fingered one. Unusual material.
The paramedic saw me. “No souvenirs. Norton’ll want all that shit for the investigation. FAA will be in on this. Better not touch anything.” I nodded, my eyes fixed on the long straight stretch of black tarmac reaching south. Heat caused a mirage of water on its surface. The blue landing lights were kept illuminated even during the day. A small red-and-white-painted building caught my attention. It was new, and I recognized it as the Microwave Landing System that had been at the center of the public controversy for the past few months. Now that it was on line, planes could instrument-land in inclement weather. I was aware of it because the system demanded an approach pattern over the town of Butte Peak, rather than from the south. It was a change Lyel and I had welcomed: the old approach pattern went over Lyel’s property. The air traffic had increased steadily in the last few years, and this change in direction due to the MLS meant less noise for us, but more for the residents of Butte Peak. This was the residents’ major complaint. Concern over possible pilot error ranked right up there. “You hear me?” the paramedic asked. I put the fabric down and rose. “Right,” I said, wondering why the plane had landed from the south. So many used the approach from the north these days. Probably something to do with good weather and wind patterns.
“You coming?” Lyel hollered from a distance.
I nodded and joined him. We left our gear on the fire truck and walked back to Lyel’s Jeep Wagoneer.
“They’re lucky,” he said. “Only one man dead, from what I hear. The pilot.”
“What about whoever was in there?” I asked, pointing to the charred gas station.
Lyel shook his head. “That’s what I mean by lucky. Place was closed because of road repair. This stretch of road is closed what, once every two years for repair? If that.”
“That’s a nice coincidence,” I said.
“Don’t start with me, Klick. Luck is luck, that’s what it is. Some of us have it, some of us don’t. You and I, we get our share.”
I’ve never been fond of coincidence. I’m more from the everything-happens-for-a-reason school.
We were driving back toward home, alongside the runway and the perimeter fence. A long time ago this town had been a good place for a private airport, but that was before the excessive commercial development of the Snow Lake resort, which shared the airport. It had grown into one of the busiest airports in the state, second only to the one serving the capital, Boise, and the added air traffic presented risks to the public. An accident like this one proved the complaints were well founded. Furthermore, the noise pollution detracted from a quality of life, which was the very reason people moved to the area. To make matters worse, commercialization was limited. The small runways were impossible to expand due to the availability of land, which restricted the size of aircraft that could land and made Snow Lake more difficult to reach than any other western resort. With the rapid growth of ski areas around Salt Lake City and the expansion of both Idaho’s and Colorado’s ski areas, Snow Lake had become less attractive to the vacation skier, and the economic fallout had been heavy in the past few years. The arguments were all there for relocating the airport to an area that would allow expansion. Relocation would make it possible for larger jets to land, which would mean direct flights from major cities by major carriers.
Despite all of this, the mayor of Butte Peak, who also happened to be the manager of the airport, ignored such arguments. The big money businesses of Snow Lake opposed relocation, favoring expansion of the existing airport despite the complaints of locals, because a new airport would further distance the resort town from a quick-commute airport transportation hub. The bus ride between the airport and Snow Lake took thirty minutes in bad weather, and the chamber of commerce didn’t want this to increase. It was an issue that deeply divided the valley.
As we drove past the end of the runway, I spotted a group of workers frantically spraying water on one of the hayfields belonging to the Flying Heart Ranch. Nearly a mile from the burned gas station, it confirmed the potential danger of a large fire in an area considered high desert.
“The thing is,” I said to Lyel, who I knew didn’t want to hear anything about it, “I don’t see how the pilot could have reacted so quickly. I mean, think about it. Right now, even in these seats, say we’re doing seventy-five or eighty, and what, twenty yards ahead is a stopped truck. Now you realize the brakes don’t work. Hand brake doesn’t work. You have to unfasten the seat belt, open the door, and jump.” I unfastened my seat belt and yanked on the handle.
“Klick!” he shouted, wondering if I was mad enough to try it.
I looked back at a road marker. “We’re doing what, sixty? And it took me three markers to do all that. Nearly a third of a mile. You see?” He grumbled in annoyance. I refastened my seat belt and sat placidly, a good little boy. “The guy had brass balls,” I said, finally.
“He was headed for a fence, Klick. You might have jumped, too.” “You’re missing my point.”
“He didn’t have time to think about jumping. He would have to have been planning the jump well before he landed.”
“Did it ever occur to you he might have known he was in trouble? Maybe an instrument light came on or something. Maybe he knew in advance.” I could tell from his tone of voice that his impatience with me had hit critical mass.
“Maybe,” I said. But I didn’t believe it. I’m not fond of easy explanations, especially where dead bodies are concerned.