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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 1

Stas was acting funny.

Jack Erikson didn’t notice it at first. The trace of the old two-rut logging road he was following in his beat-up, old ’70s Jeep CJ-5 was faint indeed. It must have been years since anyone had been down it, and being very overgrown with the years that had passed it wasn’t always the easiest thing to follow.

Really, it was Jack’s girlfriend, Vixen Hvalchek, who noticed that that the old husky in the open back seat was acting agitated, sniffing the air, and making little whining noises. “What’s the matter, Stas?” the thin, plain, brown-haired girl said quietly, not wanting to disturb Jack’s concentration on his driving. She wasn’t real sure how Jack knew where he was going anyway. “You need a potty break?” she added, taking an instant to slide her glasses up on her acne-scarred face.

There it is, Jack thought. It’s got to bend to the right. He slowed up for an instant – not that he was going very fast – and checked his thinking. With no top on the Jeep it was easy to look around. Yes, the road through the brush and small trees had to bend to the right, not real sharp. After all, sometime about the time he’d been born a logging crew from Hoselton or somewhere had run huge log trucks up this two-rut, so it couldn’t wind around that much. Relaxing from his route finding for an instant, he diverted some of his attention to the dog. Yeah, he did seem a little agitated. “Something up, Stas?” he asked the dog. “Some bird, maybe?”

Stas was no bird dog. He’d been bred to tow a racing dogsled, but never had made it – he had fur more like a beagle’s than a husky, maybe even thinner than that. The thin fur made him useless for dogsled racing, but he’d made a fine pet for the Erikson family as long as Jack could remember. He was good at noticing birds, which had proved to be a lucky accident, because Jack had fallen in love with bird watching years before. Jack and the old dog had spent many happy hours together out looking at various birds.

That had something to do with why the three of them were in the old Jeep out on the pine barrens east of the Turtle Hills, in the cool of the morning. There was an eagle’s nest out this way that Jack had only seen from a distance, and one of the things he’d had on his mind all summer was finding how to get close enough for a better look at it. With their senior year of high school starting in a few days it made a perfectly acceptable excuse to go do some woods driving with Stas and Vixen, who was new to birding but a very enthusiastic apprentice.

Except that wasn’t the whole truth. Getting out early and looking for the eagle’s nest made a perfectly good excuse for the two of them to find a shady spot for what would likely be a hot afternoon. That spot would preferably be close to something that resembled a swimming hole, where they could spread a blanket out on the ground and spend some very private time with their new favorite activity, which most likely would include fewer clothes than they now wore. In fact, Vixen had laid some broad hints that she might let him take some nude photos of her, and that got his attention. However, going all the way was out of the question; they’d agreed to not do that until her birth control pills had time to take hold, which meant that it was at least a month into the future. While he and Vixen had agreed that they could wait, that didn’t mean that they weren’t going to try to keep each other’s interest up.

Stas stuck his nose over Jack’s shoulder, and whined again. Fortunately, the thin trace of two-rut was easy to follow now that Jack had made up his mind where it was. Jack and Stas particularly enjoyed driving around and exploring the maze of old woods roads around Spearfish Lake; he’d been doing it for years, even before he got his driver’s license. This wasn’t an area that he’d spent much time in, and that gave him a little thrill of exploration. “All right, Stas,” he said. “Let me get up to the top of that little rise, then we’ll stop for a minute.” As far as that went, he felt like he could stand to take a leak as well.

When Jack pulled to a stop at the top of the rise, nothing seemed particularly out of place. He’d hoped he could get his bearings a little bit there; they had to be getting close to the eagle’s nest, which he’d first seen earlier in the summer. A friend who worked for the railroad had made mention of it, and Jack had begged a ride on one of the trains to get a better idea of where it was. It had been an interesting trip, but it seemed to Jack that riding a train day after day would get old after a while. Just a few days ago he and Vixen had hiked up the tracks to check out the nest, but they still hadn’t been able to get very close.

“OK, Stas,” he said as he put the Jeep into neutral. “Now’s your chance.” However, Stas didn’t seem to have any particular interest in getting out of the Jeep. He stood on the floor of the back seat, pointing ahead, his tail still and the fur on his back lifted a little. “Something out there, Stas?” he asked.

The old dog gave a whining sound which somehow Jack took to mean, “Dude, this isn’t getting us any closer.”

“Oh, all right,” Jack said, thinking that he was in no real rush to take a leak himself. He put the Jeep back into first and pulled off. The next couple hundred yards were easy; although the two-rut was grown up it was fairly well defined, and he had no trouble following it. But slowly, Jack became aware that something wasn’t quite right; there was a sharpness in the air, an indescribable heaviness.

“Jack,” Vixen spoke up. “Do you smell smoke?”

That could be it, he thought. “Yeah, maybe, sorta,” he said, looking over at Vixen. “That could be it.”

She slid her glasses up on her nose again; they were always slipping down, for some reason. “Could something be on fire?”

“Well, you know what they say about where there’s smoke,” he shrugged. “It’s been dry enough out here I suppose there could be one. We’d better see.”

Rather than racing off, Jack stopped the Jeep for a moment to think. They were in a grove of aspen that had grown up in the last few years – not quite ready to harvest yet, but getting closer. In another few years, the loggers would be here again. That didn’t help at this moment, though; his view was obscured by the trees and leaves.

He noticed that the leaves were rattling a little bit, which meant that though the air seemed to be still, there was a small breeze blowing, although not strong enough for the leaves to give him any clue as to which direction it was coming from. Stas seemed interested in something off to the left of the front of the Jeep, so presumably whatever it was had to be more or less in front of him. “Let’s drive on a bit and see if we can find some place that’s more open.”

It proved to be a good move. In a quarter mile or so they drove out of the stand of trees, and were back in the red pine that seemed to be common in this area. It was clear that the trail was more or less straight ahead, but to the left an open area that didn’t seem to be trail at all led up to the top of a low hill in that direction. Without even thinking about it, Jack turned off what little there was of the two-rut and pointed the camouflage-painted CJ-5 up the hill.

As soon as the Jeep reached the top of the hill, their suspicions were confirmed: there was a fire out there, and to them it looked like a big one. It was belching out thick smoke that was hanging low, so it was hard to tell how big it was, but from perhaps a quarter of a mile away it appeared to be perhaps fifty yards across. “Shit,” he said. It really was about all that needed to be said.

“Yep, that’s a fire, all right,” Vixen shook her head. “You think maybe we’d better call someone?”

“Darn right,” Jack agreed. “I hope you brought your cell. Nothing else we can do about it.”

“Yeah, let me get it,” she said, twisting around in her seat to pick up the small school backpack that lay on the floor between the seats. As she twisted, Jack got a good view down the front of her tank top. Even though he’d seen her boobs uncovered on other occasions, it was still a sight not to be ignored and he took advantage of it – he was still a teenage boy, after all.

The view only lasted an instant; Vixen quickly had the cell phone open. “Damn,” she said after a second. “No bars. Not even the hint of a signal.”

“Well, shit,” Jack said. “Not surprising, though. We’re pretty well out here in the middle of nowhere. I guess we’d better get back to somewhere closer to civilization and try again. You got GPS on that thing?”

“No, it’s just a plain old cell phone,” she shook her head.

“Well, shit,” Jack grunted again. He dug around in his own pack and came up with a battered topographic map. Using his own internal navigation system, the odometer on the Jeep, and what landmarks he could see, he made a good guess of where they were. He then handed the map to Vixen, let up on the clutch, swung the Jeep in a wide circle, and headed back in the direction they had come from.

It was going to be a long haul, he thought. It had taken them close to an hour to get this far since they left County Road 919 to the north. It wouldn’t take that long getting back, since they’d taken their time on the trip in mostly trying to find the faded two-rut, but now he had some idea of where it was and where they were.

The fire – and, for that matter, the eagle’s nest – was in an awkward location, about as far from anywhere as you could get around Spearfish Lake and still be somewhere. The railroad wasn’t all that far to the south and probably was within a mile or so of the nest, but trying to drive the jeep up the rail line was just not a good idea. Rock trains ran a little unpredictably, so screwing around trying to take the Jeep down the railroad tracks wasn’t a good idea when there was several thousand tons of aggregate heading their way. So they’d come in along this old logging trail off County Road 919, several miles to the north. The first mile or so had been reasonable two-rut, but it had been an adventure for four miles or so after that. It would be several miles back to the southwest before they got around the Turtle Hills, which were probably blocking the cell phone signal from town. If they couldn’t get a signal there, at least they’d be close to Shaundessy’s Bait Shop on Wood Duck Lake, which Jack knew had a phone. It was going to take a while to even get out to the “good” two-rut.

There was nothing to do but to do it – as quickly as possible, but not pile up the Jeep or get stuck somewhere, either. As he hurried the Jeep to the north, he glanced off to the west at the bulk of Turtle Hill and wondered why someone didn’t have a cell tower there. It would give good coverage to the whole area – and then realized that there really wasn’t much out on this side of the hill that needed coverage. Now, it was just blocking the signal. If I got up on top of that, we’d have a signal, he thought. I could get up there from the other side – it was well known as the favored local spot to go to with your girl for fun and games. He and Vixen had never been there since he knew plenty of places that were much less well known among the teenage crowd. Have to check out the view some night just on general principles, he thought. Too bad there’s not a way to get up there from here.

That set another thought rattling around in his mind. Maybe there was.

Quickly, he braked the Jeep to a stop and retrieved the map from Vixen, who was still holding it in one hand. Yeah, he thought, the North Country Hiking Trail went right up the east side of the hill. It couldn’t be too bad, since they raced dog sleds up the trail in the winter. The trail crossing wasn’t far ahead, and he remembered seeing it on the outbound trip, and reflecting that it looked like it was in better shape than the two-rut. Jack knew that some guy drove a farm tractor and brush hog up it every now and then to keep it open enough for dogsled racing.

If a farm tractor could be driven up it, he ought to be able to drive a Jeep up it, he thought. Was it worth the gamble?

Jack got the Jeep moving again as he flipped a nickel in his mind. It was a risk, but not a huge one, and if it worked would save quite a bit of time on calling the fire department. He decided to take a second quick look at the trail when they got to the crossing, and if it seemed reasonable, he thought he might give it a try. If he missed the crossing, well then he missed it and he’d take the long way.

It wasn’t far to the trail crossing. Again, Jack braked to a stop and had a look at the trail. “Yeah,” he said to himself, but loudly enough that Vixen could hear him. “Looks like it might work.”

Again he let up on the clutch, and twisted the wheel far over to make the turn onto the trail. “Jack, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Short cut,” he said. “You’re not supposed to drive on it, but this is an emergency.”

“Oh, OK,” she said. “Have you been up here before?”

“No, but I hadn’t been over the other trail before, either.”

Jack really wasn’t going very fast – maybe fifteen or twenty miles an hour at the most – but that was about as fast as he could go on the old two-rut they’d followed into the place. In a way, the trail was more challenging than the two-rut, since it twisted around quite a bit more, but at least he could follow it. There were some spots where it was very narrow between large trees, hardly wide enough for the Jeep, but again Jack reasoned that if a farm tractor could get through, then a Jeep could make it. He was hurrying now, but at least finding the trail wasn’t an issue – there were blue blazes on the trees every few yards, so he knew he was on the right route.

Not long after they left the two-rut, the trail started rising. Remembering his glance at the map, Jack realized that the trail followed a long ridge that led to the top of the hill. Another couple miles and they ought to be there, he thought. Ten minutes, maybe.

The trees on the ridge were a little more developed than those out on the pine barrens, where they’d been earlier. Jack suspected that this area might not have been cut over since the big lumber boom of a century before. There were still some big old stumps out there that had to have been left over from the lumbering era, all rotted and wasted away, but still showing how big some of those old white pines must have been. Now, they were just more obstacles to bump around on the drive upward.

After a while, the big hardwoods thinned out a bit, and they drove into another patch of aspen, where the trail was even more crooked, although still passable. It had to be fun to drive a dog team up this at racing speeds, he thought sarcastically. It’d be a tough haul for Stas’ brothers and sisters; maybe he had lucked out.

Still the trail wound upward, and eventually broke into a clearing at the top of the hill. Jack followed the trail right to the top, where he could see the two-ruts and beaten ground of where the local kids came to park with their girls.

“OK,” he told Vixen. “Try the cell again.”

She flipped the phone open, turned it on, and as she hit the keys for 9-1-1 replied. “OK, we’ve got a signal. Lots of bars.”

“Good.” He twisted around in the Jeep, looking back toward the fire. Amazingly, he could see the smoke from here, a thick cloud hanging low over the pine barrens. It looked worse from here than it had from closer to the fire.

“Spearfish County 9-1-1,” Vixen heard in her ear. “What’s your emergency?”

“My boyfriend and I found a forest fire,” she replied. “We didn’t get real close to it, but it was pretty big.”

“Where is it?” the woman on the other end of the line asked.

“Here, I better let you talk to my boyfriend, he’s got the map.” She handed the phone to Jack.

“Sir, your girlfriend said you found a forest fire.”

“Yeah,” Jack said. “It’s in the pine barrens east of Turtle Hill. I’d say it’s about four miles east, two or three miles north of the railroad grade. We didn’t get real close, but it’s about fifty or a hundred yards across. We’re on top of Turtle Hill, and I can see it pretty good from here.”

“You’re not near the fire now?”

“No, we had to drive up here to get a cell phone connection; it’s dead air down there.” He hoped that he wouldn’t have to admit to driving up the trail to get the call through. “That was maybe twenty minutes ago.”

“How close did you get to the fire?”

“A quarter mile, I’d guess,” Jack told her. “We drove in on some old logging trails; we wanted to get close to that eagle’s nest north of the railroad grade.”

“There’s a logging trail out there?” the woman asked. “Nothing shows on the map here.”

“It’s old, it’s real faint,” he said. “It cuts off 919 about six miles north of Shaundessy’s Bait Shop, and it’s another six or seven miles in. We didn’t have any problems with it, though.”

“OK,” she said, after getting their names. “Hang on a minute, I’ll be right back.”

It was more than a minute. Jack sat there with the phone up to his ear and looked around, not just at the fire. Below and to the southwest he could make out the huge log building called Commons at the West Turtle Lake Club, the nudist resort that had been there fifty years and more. Commons was supposed to really be something, but he’d never been there – not many people from Spearfish Lake ever had been. He was very tempted to dig around in his birding gear on the floor of the back seat for his 12x80 binoculars to get a better look, but decided against it. They would be very difficult to hold with one hand, since he had to hold onto the cell phone. Besides, he figured that Vixen might not be real happy with him checking out the nudists, even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to see jack shit at this distance. Maybe sometime he’d have to dig out the telescope his parents had given him years before and come up here and try it when Vixen wasn’t with him. He smiled to himself; he probably wasn’t the first Spearfish Lake kid to think of that in the sixty years or so the place had been out there.

On the other hand, he was sitting next to a girl who had let him see her in the nude closer than that – a lot closer than that. She’d seen him like that, too, and there was the prospect of much more. Perhaps it was best to let well enough alone. He looked elsewhere. The whole of Spearfish Lake was spread out before him, blue and bright in the summer sunlight; he could see the city of Spearfish Lake in the hazy distance. It probably would be pretty cool to bring Vixen up here some night, maybe with a full moon, he thought.

He didn’t let his thoughts stray too far off in that direction. He swung around to look back at the fire. It really hadn’t changed much – it was still belching out low-hanging smoke. That seemed strange to him, but as he looked at it he thought that it must be that the fire really wasn’t too energetic, and maybe the air pressure was low. He knew that campfire smoke hung close to the ground when there was a low pressure area around, maybe that had something to do with it.

He was tempted to pull out his lightweight binoculars – 8x35s, not the heavy 12x80s – and get a better look at it, when he heard the woman’s voice on the phone. “All right,” she said. “We’ve got fire departments on the way, Spearfish Lake and Hoselton. Is there any chance you could meet them down at the turnoff where you went in off of 919 so you can guide them in?”

“Sure, no problem,” Jack told her. “We’re closer than they are, so we ought to be waiting for them. We’re in a camouflaged Jeep, we’ll head down there now. I’ll have my girlfriend leave the cell phone on, so call us if you need us.”

“That’ll be fine. Thanks.”

Jack ended the call and turned to hand the cell phone to Vixen. He hadn’t been paying attention to her for the last couple minutes, and was just a little surprised to see that she’d dug out the 12x80s and had them focused on the nudist resort. “Damn,” she said, a grin on her face. “I can make the place out fine, but I can’t see shit.”

“Next summer,” Jack laughed. “When we’re eighteen, maybe I’ll have to see if we can get us an invitation to visit.”

“You would, wouldn’t you?” she giggled. “Anything to get my clothes off.”

“Hey, you were the one looking,” Jack laughed, glad that he’d caught her, rather than the other way around. “We’d better get moving. She asked us to guide the firemen into the fire.”

Forward to Next Chapter >>
To be continued . . .

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