Summer storm clouds were veined with lightning, but no rain fell. It hadn’t rained for weeks and the parching sun had cracked the playas into puzzle pieces with gaps wide enough to trap a man’s boot. Brittlebush bore no yellow blossoms, sagebrush faded from silver to brown, and tumbleweeds snapped free from their roots in hope of fleeing the heat. Pronghorn and wild horses were forced to paw at the thick crust that topped soda lakes. When the longing animals uncovered a trapped puddle to drink, salt would ring their muzzles like hoarfrost.
I was speeding along a gravel road that ran parallel to the northern border of Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. The newest recruit in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s special ranger program for Vietnam combat veterans like me rode shotgun. Loq was a much-decorated Marine who’d been hired in the spring to help patrol several wildlife refuges scattered across southeastern Oregon. Our orders were to divide the sprawling territory between us. Loq was to take the refuges near his Klamath Indian tribal home due west and I was to keep watch over the Hart, Malheur, Sheldon, and Deer Flat refuges from my base in the one-blink town of No Mountain in Harney County.
While our military training had taught us to obey the chain of command, we’d spent enough time in country to make decisions based on what was actually going down in the field rather than adhering to battle lines drawn on a map by officers far from the action. As wildlife rangers, we took the same approach, and for that reason, we teamed up more often than not.
This was shaping up to be one of those times.
The road ran straight at a horizon crimson with flames and muddled by smoke. Dry lightning had ignited a sea of sagebrush that surrounded a woodland of old-growth western junipers. Large mammals—predators and prey alike—routinely sought refuge from the blistering sun in the grove of thousand-year-old trees because it provided shade around a perennial waterhole. It was the high desert equivalent of Switzerland, a place where mortal enemies temporarily united by an even more powerful enemy honored an uneasy truce.
The fire had created its own weather, a superheated storm of whipsaw winds that sent columns of twisting, swirling soot and embers taller than any dust devil I’d witnessed since exchanging the confines of Walter Reed Hospital’s special ward for soldiers suffering from combat fatigue for the wide open spaces of the tenth largest county in the country. I could feel the firestorm’s furnace grow hotter as we neared.
Loq glanced over his shoulder, past the rack in the rear window that cradled my long guns, and checked on the flatbed trailer swaying behind the government-issued white pickup. Strapped to it was a 500-gallon plastic storage tank that we’d commandeered from a cattle ranch along with gear that would turn the four-wheel-drive into a jury-rigged firetruck: a gas-powered generator, pump, and 200-foot coil of hose. Picks, axes, and shovels skittered around the bed each time we hit a pothole.
The Maklak—how the Klamath referred to themselves in their native tongue—turned back to stare at the fire ahead. “Reminds me of a time in the Central Highlands. We were moving fast with only light arms and ran straight into an NVA division dug in with field artillery.”
“But you didn’t turn back, did you?” I said as I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and kept my boot on the gas.
He looked down his high cheekbones. “How come white men always ask questions they already know the answer to?”
“To make us feel superior,” I said.
Loq grunted. “Thing about you, Nick, when you tell a joke, I can’t always tell you’re joking.”
“This road goes straight by the woodlands. People use it as a shortcut between Lakeview and points south of Burns. If we go past the fire, we’ll be able to see how wide it is.”
“And then what?”
“There’s a dirt track that circles the trees. Hunters in their four-bys made it. If we can find a spot where we can get close, we can lay down water to create an escape route for any animals trapped in there. The Nuwuddu,” I said, using the Paiute word for the first people. Humans were the second people.
“Why bother going around it?” Loq said. “We know what we got to do. Go straight at it. And faster too before the heat melts the big bucket we’re toting and all we end up doing is giving each other a bath.”
“Roger that,” I said and cranked the wheel.
We swerved off the gravel road and bounced across the desert. I intercepted the smaller dirt track near the north end of the grove of ancient trees.
“There!” I shouted over the roar of the fire and rattle of the tools. “That game trail must lead to the waterhole. The Nuwuddu will be bunched around it.”
Knee-high flames were already licking both sides of the trail. The burning branches of a downed juniper blocked it a few yards past the entrance. The tree’s cones were popping like gunfire from the heat. I backed the trailer toward the entrance to put the water tank closer as well as give us a running start in case we needed to beat a hasty retreat.
Loq jumped out of the pickup. There was so much static electricity in the air from the lightning, his long mohawk stood straight up. When he’d been issued his allotment of Fish and Wildlife uniforms, he’d torn the sleeves off the khaki shirts to give his biceps more room. Now he yanked off the shirt, exposing the bear tooth that hung from a leather thong around his neck and the Semper Fi tattoo on his chest.
“You handle the hose. I’ll get rid of that tree.” He grabbed an axe and strode toward the blazing juniper.
I connected the pump to the generator and started uncoiling the makeshift firehose. I had the drill down pat. This wasn’t the first fire of the summer. Far from it. A new round of lightning strikes had ignited blazes like this one to join wildfires already underway in the high lonesome. For the past month, a deathly pallor of thick smoke had settled over Harney County, a 10,000-square-mile expanse of basin and range country bounded by the Blue Mountains to the north and Steens Mountain to the southeast. Unless the fires were in valuable stands of pine and fir managed by the Forest Service or threatened towns and ranch buildings, they were left to burn themselves out. That included any on Fish and Wildlife land. At least that was the agency’s official policy. It wasn’t mine and it wasn’t Loq’s either.
I got the pump going, grabbed the hose, and chased after him. Loq was swinging the axe at the burning tree. The blade sliced through flames and hacked off limbs. I trained the nozzle as the hose stiffened behind me. The water gushed out. I kept the spray up as I reached his side. Using the axe as a pike, Loq dragged the now-smoldering trunk to the side and we continued our march.
The fire’s noxious gases seemed ablaze and made breathing difficult. I pulled up a wet blue bandana I wore tied around my neck to cover my nose and mouth . I doused more spot fires and Loq kept swinging the axe at branches crowding the game trail and dragging them away to create an unimpeded path.
“It’ll be a trick to get the animals to leave. They’re bound to be panicked,” I said.
“I got a plan for that,” Loq grunted.
“What is it?”
“Stand to the side unless you want to get trampled.”
The hose grew taut and wouldn’t stretch any farther no matter how hard I yanked. I arced the spray as high as it would go to provide a sheltering curtain of water. Loq dashed beneath it to get behind the waterhole. He was soon swallowed by smoke. The tank ran dry. I stepped off the trail and waited.
The bark on the trees shriveled from the heat and made the trunks and boughs groan. The hiss of flames sounded like snakes slithering fast through tall grass. Cones continued to rat-a-tat-tat. Rising hot air rustled the crowns of the trees. “There’s no escape,” they seemed to moan. I steeled myself to prevent falling into a flashback of a running gun battle with Viet Cong as napalm incinerated the jungle around me. I didn’t drop the now-flaccid hose. It could prove to be a lifeline to lead us out of the eye-watering smoke.
A new noise sounded. At first I mistook it for a tree engulfed by flames rubbing against other trunks as it slowly toppled, but then it intensified. I leaned forward. There was no mistaking it now. It wasn’t the rumble of fast-approaching flames, but the warning growl of a large animal. The deep, primeval call grew in volume as it thundered from the vocal folds of a mohawked Klamath who took his name from the Maklak word for grizzly bear.
Loq’s roar thundered through the ancient woods. I felt the ground shake before I saw any animals. First came a half-dozen fleet-footed pronghorn springing down the trail. Right on their heels were two, no, three, no, four panicked mule deer. They passed so close I could’ve reached out and stroked their hides. A bobcat driven by fear and not hunger scampered close behind. I made eye contact with a cougar, but she never broke stride as she raced by.
The echo of Loq’s roar followed the big cat, but she was not the last refugee to abandon the waterhole. A two-legged figure emerged from the smoky gloom. It was a woman. She wore a torn white dress and was soaking wet. Watery soot left dark trails running down her face. Deep, straight wounds marred her forearms and thighs. Twigs and juniper needles littered her black hair. One of her braids had been hacked off above the shoulder.
I stepped out to intercept her. Her coal-black eyes widened and she shrieked. She threw her hands up to scratch my face, but before her nails could rake me, Loq appeared behind her and threw his arms around her, pinning hers to her side.
“Shh, sister,” he shushed. “You’re safe now.”