The Smoke Jumper


It was nigh on noon when the smoke jumpers came. They plummeted in pairs on each pass of the plane, their bodies jolting as the parachutes cracked open and filled and left them floating like medusas in an ocean of sky. Now and then the chutes masked the sun that flared harsh and white and unforgiving behind them, making shadows of their downward drift on the veil of smoke that shrouded the mountainside. They were a crew of six men and two women and every one of them landed safely in the jump spot, a narrow clearing not forty yards wide. They shed their parachutes and jumpsuits and stowed them, then unpacked their chainsaws and pulaskis and shovels from bags that were dropped separately and soon they were ready to start cutting a fire line.

The peak that watched over them while they worked was called Iron Mountain. Its western shoulder was thickly forested and had no ready access by road. The fire had been spotted by a ranger that morning and, fanned by a strengthening westerly, had already taken out more than a hundred acres. If it continued to head east or switched to the north there was little risk. But to the south and west there were ranches and cabins and if the wind shifted they would be in grave danger, which was why the call had come for the smoke jumpers.

They cut their line along a limestone ridge that ran along its southern flank. The line was a yard wide and half a mile long. They worked in waves, keeping a good ten feet apart, sawyers first, then the swampers to clear the felled trees and branches, then the diggers. They sawed and hacked and scraped and dug until the ground was cleared to the mineral earth so that when the fire arrived it would be starved of fuel. By the time it was done, they were soaked in sweat and their yellow flameproof shirts and green pants were blotched like camouflage with earth and ash and debris.

Now they were resting, each in his or her own space, some squatting, some standing, strung along the ridge like weary infantry. None spoke and but for the rumble of the fire beyond the ridge the only sound was the harsh staccato babble of their shortwave radios. Last in line, some twenty feet below the others, stood a young man with straw-colored hair that was matted and tangled with sweat. He was tall and lean and his ash-covered face was striped black like an animal’s where the sweat had run. Even his pale blue eyes looked somehow feral. He had set his pack and hardhat beside him on a slab of rock and was carefully wiping clean the steel head of his pulaski. When he had it gleaming he leaned the shaft against the pack and took off his fire gloves and laid them on the rock too, then dragged his hands through his hair and wiped his brow and unhitched his canteen.

He was twenty-six years old and his name was Connor Ford and though he was tired and sweaty and dirty and his lungs were sore from the smoke, there was nowhere in the world he would rather have been. It was his first jump of the season. Squatting in the doorway of the DHC-6 Twin Otter a few hours earlier, watching forest and mountain and canyon tilt as if unhinged from the earth fifteen hundred feet below and seeing the blue and white and yellow canopy tops of those who had jumped before him drifting down and away, he had felt something not far short of ecstasy. And then the slap on his left shoulder from the spotter telling him to go and the leap into blue infinity, tucking himself in and counting to five and then the jolt as the chute snapped open and there he was, suspended in that wondrous arc of silence, neither man nor bird but something of sky and flesh and earth combined.

The water in his canteen tasted warm and metallic. It was only the end of May but it felt like high summer and Connor figured the temperature had to be well into the nineties. It had barely rained all year and the air was as dry as tomb dust. If things kept on this way it was going to be one hell of a summer for fires. Back at the base in Missoula, some of the jumpers were already fantasizing about how they were going to spend all the overtime and hazard pay. He’d called Ed in Boston two nights ago and told him to put down a deposit on the new car he’d been promising himself. Ed and that fabulous girlfriend he’d been going on about for months were arriving in Montana the coming weekend. It was the first time ever he’d missed the start of a fire season, which only went to show what a sorry effect a woman could have on a man.

From above him up the slope now he heard Hank Thomas, the incident commander, give the word to move on. Connor took one last swig from his canteen then fastened and stowed it. He was about to shoulder his pack when he heard a strange sound. It was only faint, like a strangled cry, and it seemed to come from over the ridge where the fire was. He looked and for a moment saw nothing. Then, just as he was about to pick up his pack, he saw what at first he took to be a flaming branch rise above the pale spine of rock. It took him several seconds to recognize that it was no branch.

It was a large bull elk, but like no elk Connor had ever laid eyes on. Every hair of its coat had been burned and its skin was charred black. Its great rack of antlers flamed like a torch. The animal scrambled up onto the ridge, dislodging a clatter of falling stone, and just as it found its footing it saw him. For a long moment the two of them stood quite still, staring at each other. Connor felt like a pagan before some ancient demigod or devil summoned from a world beyond. He felt the sweat chill on his neck.

Slowly, ever so slowly, he reached for the small Leica that he kept in his pocket and at the same time felt the wind around him lift and swirl and he saw the flames on the elk’s antlers dance and fan sideways and he heard the fire beyond it bellow as if in some dread conspiring chorus.

The animal was in his viewfinder now and it raised its muzzle proudly as if posing for a portrait and suddenly it occurred to Connor that there was a message here, though what it was and for whom he had no idea. He pressed the button and at the sound of the shutter the elk turned and vanished and Connor stood wondering if it had all been but a trick of his imagination. Distantly he heard a voice calling him.

“Hey, Connor! We got a fire to fight here.”

He looked up the ridge. The other jumpers had gathered their gear and were ready to move off. Nearest to him was Jodie Lennox, a tall, red-haired midwesterner who’d been in the same rookie class as Ed and Connor two years earlier. “Did you see that?” Connor asked quietly.

“See what?”

He paused. It seemed that the message, if that’s what it was, had been for him alone. He picked up his pack and swung it over his shoulder.

“See what?”

“Nothing. Let’s go.”

That night they snatched a couple of hours sleep in a sheltered shoulder of the mountain through which the fire had already passed. They worked shifts, checking for hot spots where the fire still smoldered in roots and stumps and crevices. The beams of their headlamps sent shadows jagging on the blackened earth as they made their slow patrol among the barbed wire tangle of charred scrub, scanning the ground like ghouls and scavengers in a war zone. And all the while the fire kept up its muffled roar around the corner of the mountain, telling them it was not yet done.

Connor woke around one o’clock, feeling hungry and cold. Two hours earlier the sky had been choked with orange clouds but while he slept the wind had shifted, carrying the smoke away, and now the universe spread unraveled above him. He pulled his sleeping bag around his shoulders and lay on his back, deciphering the constellations in the way his father had taught him.

He found the Pole Star and traced the spine of the Little Bear. From there it was only a hop to her big sister who Connor always thought looked more like her other names, the Plow or the Big Dipper, but which his father always called the Great Bear. Then in turn he traced her spine to the Northern Crown with her trailing kite and Arcturus at its point burning like a torch. Then he followed the broad river of the Milky Way until he found Scorpius who had stung Orion, the great hunter, which was why you couldn’t see him anymore. Another hunter was there instead, Sagittarius, who was half man and half horse and was standing there in the water, getting ready to shoot his bow and arrow while Aquila the eagle flew away in fear downstream.

“The sky’s full of stories,” his father used to say. “Thousands of them. All you have to do is look up there and read them.”

Connor remembered that first lesson when he was only four years old. His father had woken him in the middle of the night and told him to get dressed and to be quiet as a mouse so as not to wake his mother. The two of them walked out under the stars in their stocking feet to the corral where his father’s bay mare stood waiting and his father hoisted him up into the saddle and told him to hold on tight to the horn while he swung himself up behind. They rode at a slow walk up through the meadows with the cattle moving away like shadowed ghosts and the cottonwoods along the creek glowing silver in the starlight and stirring not a leaf in the still night air.

His father had to reach around him to hold the reins and Connor felt warm and safe yet full of adventure and could even now, all these years later, almost summon the smell of the man, of leather and hay and cows and sweat and tobacco, in a blend that was all his own. They rode to the crest of the butte where you could look down on the little ranch house and there they left the horse to graze while they lay side by side on their backs and studied the stars with the smell of fresh sage wafting sweet and smoky around them and an owl calling somewhere below in the trees.

Connor was fourteen when his father died, leaving him and his mother greatly in debt. But there wasn’t a day since gone by that he hadn’t thought of him and felt the loss of him nor a night such as this when he hadn’t traced the stars and recalled their stories with the echo of his father’s voice to guide him.

The image of the burning elk had haunted him all night. He had fallen asleep thinking of it and now it came to him again, imposing itself upon the stars. It bothered him that the animal’s antlers had been so big, for by this time of year it should have shed them and any new growth would be much smaller. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but still he couldn’t stop wondering what the apparition might mean and why he should think it had meaning at all. His father had never had much truck with superstition and Connor himself had never felt the need of it either. The here, the now and the visible seemed sufficient. His mother, on the other hand, was a walking almanac of omens. She said it came from her Irish ancestry and that her parents and grandparents before them had been worse with it than she was.

In her day she had been a minor celebrity on the women’s rodeo circuit and before every ride invoked a litany of ritual and incantation to keep bad luck at bay. Even now the sight of a lone magpie sent her into an elaborate mutter of exorcism which involved asking after the creature’s health as well as that of its absent partner and offspring. She always burned a sprig of sage the night before Connor left for his summer of firefighting and once he had overheard her quietly reciting some kind of prayer over it. She pretended it wasn’t serious, but he knew it was. So it bothered him that he felt the way he did about the elk. Perhaps some ancient Celtic gene had woken in his veins and he would forever, like his mother, be its slave.

The sky was starting to fill again with clouds. They were sliding in like a vault from the west and the nearest were already tinted amber by the fire on the mountain. Connor studied the slow eclipse of the stars. He wondered if the elk had lived and if so what lonely vigil it now kept and where. Then he cussed himself again for allowing it such rampant access to his thoughts.

It was with relief that he heard Hank Thomas starting to wake those who were still asleep. Connor sat up and rubbed his eyes. He fitted his headlamp and switched it on, then hauled himself out of his sleeping bag and set about organizing his gear.

“How you doing, cowboy?” Hank called.

“Okay. I could handle a steak and a beer.”

“I’ll get on the radio right away.”

Others chimed in with their fantasy orders while they packed their gear. Ice cream, pizza, chocolate milk-shakes.

“So when’s that lazy good-for-nothing musician friend of yours going to grace us with his presence?” Hank asked.

“Flies in Saturday.”

“I hear he’s in love.”

“I figure he must be. He’s bringing her with him.”

“Poor dumb bastard.”

“Poor dumb woman,” Jodie said. There was a cry of sisterly support from Donna Kiamoto, a “snookie,” or second-season jumper, from Wisconsin.

“Is she a firefighter or what?”

“Got enough on her hands fighting Ed off,” Donna said.

“No,” Connor said. “She’s a teacher. She’s going to be working on some wilderness program or something. Kids who’ve gotten in trouble with the law.”

“I know it,” Hank said. “Out of Helena. They’re a good outfit.”

Hank’s radio squawked into life and everyone hushed to listen. A helicopter was on its way to make a water drop on the flank of the fire nearest to them. Hank reported that he and the crew were moving out to cut another line. Soon they were all packed and ready to hike. Their headlamps angled fitfully while they checked each other over, the beams panning and shafting the charred darkness around them, glinting on their tools and sometimes catching the white of an eye or a flash of teeth in the black of their faces. “Okay, boys and girls,” Hank said. “Unless anyone wants a shower from that helicopter, I suggest we get our backsides out of here. I want to be home for breakfast.”

They didn’t make it back to Missoula in time for breakfast. Nor for lunch nor supper. Once the fire was dead, it took them three hours to hike out with all the gear to the nearest road where the bus stood waiting and by the time it dropped them back at the base it was just before midnight on Friday. Driving back into town Connor was so tired he almost fell asleep at the wheel of his truck. He collapsed on his bed still wearing his clothes and boots and reeking of fire and slept the dreamless sleep of the dead for twelve hours.

He and Ed were renting the same apartment they’d taken the previous summer. It was on the top floor of a ramshackle pale blue clapboard house on the east side of town, just over the river from the university. It was two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom and even a tourist from another galaxy might have guessed that for the rest of the year it was inhabited by students.

The floorboards creaked, the doors didn’t shut properly, the plumbing had a mind of its own and the walls were all scarred with Scotch tape and painted in various combinations of deep blue and purple, except for the bathroom which was entirely painted black. When Connor arrived the previous week, the only residents of the monster antique refrigerator had been an onion in its seventh stage of growth and a tub of apricot yogurt with enough green fur on it to upholster a small sofa.

He opened his eyes just past noon and found himself again under the scowling scrutiny of his least favorite rock group. They were on a poster he kept forgetting to take down. He’d never heard of them but they were clearly exponents of some dark and esoteric zone of metal. They were all half naked and pierced in so many peculiar places with rings and chains and studs and bolts that it made you wince even to look at them. They didn’t look too happy about it either.

Connor got up and walked to the window. It was another hot and cloudless day but at least there was a breeze ruffling the cottonwoods along the Clark Fork. Through a gap in the flutter of leaves he could see an old man in the shallows teaching a young girl to cast a fly. The sun was bouncing off the water behind them and it looked pretty enough to send Connor off to get his new Nikon. He changed the lens to a 200mm zoom and finished the last few frames on the roll. It reminded him that the roll of film he’d shot with the Leica on the mountain was still in his pocket. Maybe he’d have time to go to the studio and process both rolls before Ed and Julia flew in.

He took off his smoke-scented clothes, showered, shaved and dressed again in some old but clean blue jeans and a white T-shirt. And after he’d made himself some coffee and then cooked a death-defying brunch of ham and eggs and fried potatoes, it was getting on for two o’clock.

Outside the heat was shimmering off the sidewalks. He dropped a bundle of dirty clothes at the Laundromat by the gas station. Mrs. Tyler, the old woman who ran it, had a collie-cross that Connor always made a fuss of and he spent a few minutes hunkered down, stroking the dog’s stomach and telling the woman about the fire on Iron Mountain.

“They say it’s going to be another big year for fires,” she said.

“It’s getting pretty dry out there.”

“Where’s Ed? Isn’t he jumping with you all?”

“He gets in later today.”

“I thought it’d been a tad too peaceful. You tell him hi from me.”

“I’ll do that.”

He walked along Front Street toward North Higgins, hugging the shade where he could find it. It felt good to be back in Missoula. It was an easygoing place where you could be what you were without others rushing to judge you. Much of the laid-back atmosphere flowed from the university across the river. The town was always full of students, even now, with the summer vacation already under way. And sometimes this made Connor feel like an outsider, reviving in him a twinge, more of regret than of envy, that he’d never gone to college himself.

In recent years the town had become a magnet for those who were tired of city life but weren’t yet ready for the log cabin and hauling water from the creek. In Missoula they found the perfect balance. They could be in the mountains in minutes and still have at hand all those truly crucial things in lifeÑlike shopping malls, the latest Hollywood movies and a good cappuccino. Living alongside them were the environmentalists: from full-blooded eco-warriors who ate loggers for breakfast to more mild-mannered bunnyhuggers, hippies and assorted hangers-on who, at the drop of a recycled paper hat, would hug almost anything and anyone. Then there were the culture-vultures and counterculture-vultures, musicians, painters, sculptors and writers of every description. Ed, always a fountain of useless but often intriguing information, claimed there were more writers per acre in Missoula than in any other place on the planet.

The darkroom Connor used was tucked among some garages in a backstreet off North Higgins. It was one narrow room with a studio at one end and the darkroom area boxed off at the other. There were drapes along one wall and rolls of different-colored paper that could be lowered to make backgrounds for portraits.

The place belonged to a photographer called Trudy Barratt who worked mostly for The Missoulian, the local newspaper. She and Connor had met two summers ago when the paper used some of his forest fire pictures and they’d started an affair that lasted the rest of the summer. It faded in the fall when he went back over the mountains, as he always did, to spend the winter on the ranch. But the two of them had remained friends. Trudy had helped get him commissions and given him a key to the studio so that he could use it whenever he liked.

Connor let himself in and switched on the lights. The air was hot and dank and smelled of chemicals and he left the door open until he’d gotten the air-conditioning going. He took down a set of wedding prints that Trudy had hung up to dry and laid them carefully on the worktop. There was one among them that Connor knew was destined for what she called her “whoops album”: pictures her clients wouldn’t want to see. In this one the bridegroom was kissing one of the bridesmaids in a way that didn’t seem to impress the bride one little bit. It was an image that might prove useful come the divorce.

When everything was ready, Connor shut the door, turned out the main lights and took the two rolls of film from his pocket. He worked carefully, taking his time. He had always enjoyed this part of photography. The womblike intimacy, the aloneness, the ghostly red of the safe light that somehow suspended time.

He had taken pictures ever since he was a child. His father had given him a used Pentax SLR for his ninth birthday and later helped him rig up a darkroom in a corner of the barn. In those days Connor liked to take pictures of animals and when he was twelve, one he’d taken of a black bear standing on its hind legs in the creek won a competition in a wildlife magazine. In his late teens and early twenties he made a few dollars here and there selling skiing and climbing pictures to one or two magazines who liked his work. But it was smoke jumping that gave him his first big break.

It had happened three years ago, his and Ed’s rookie season and as fine a baptism as any jumper ever had. It turned into one of the driest summers on record and forest fires became big news all over the country, especially the ones sweeping through Yellowstone Park. Connor always took a camera with himÑnothing special, just a cheap pocket snapper. And one day, almost by accident, he took this breathtaking picture of Ed, alone on a ridge, swinging his pulaski, silhouetted against a wall of flames that must have been two hundred feet tall.

Trudy Barratt put him in touch with a photo agency in New York and the picture was printed on the front page of The New York Times and in newspapers and magazines all over the world. It earned Connor more money than he’d ever seen and with it he paid off all the debts that had accumulated on the ranch and still had enough to buy himself some new cameras and lenses. The Missoulian ran a feature piece about his success with a picture of him looking absurdly glamorous in his smoke jumping gear, which earned him much ribbing from every other jumper on the base. He even got a couple of fan letters which made Ed jealous as hell. Back in Boston that fall, Ed had the Yellowstone photograph of his silhouette blown up five feet wide and hung it on his wall. He claimed it worked wonders for his love life.

The two of them had met some years earlier when Ed was a freshman at the university in Missoula and Connor was wondering if he was going to be a ranch hand all his life. Every summer, throughout the West, the Forest Service took on casual “pounders” to fight backcountry fires. Pounding was a lot less glamorous than smoke jumping but you had to do it for several seasons before you could even apply to be a jumper. It wasn’t everyone’s idea of the perfect summer-vacation job. The young men and women whom it attracted came from many different backgrounds. But whether for the rest of the year they were cowhands, students or ski bums, they all had that same itch to find something with a little more adventure than washing dishes or waiting table.

Connor and Ed had found themselves side by side, cutting line on the same crew, and Connor, who already had a season of pounding under his belt, had gone along with the tradition of giving the college-kid rookies a hard time.

In the macho world of firefighting Edward Cavendish Tully was an easy target. He was from a wealthy family in Lexington, Kentucky, and was studying music and, at first, for both these facts, along with his slight southern drawl, the round gold-rimmed spectacles and aristocratic good looks, he was mercilessly teased. But he was as fit and tough as the best of them and took the taunts with such good humor that soon he was liked by the whole crew.

Connor was even more impressed when he found out that since the age of six, Ed had been diabetic and needed to inject himself with insulin before every meal. On top of all this, it turned out that this classical music scholar also played lead guitar in a college band and could do more than passable impressions of anyone from Van Halen to Hendrix. Getting to know him taught Connor the fallacy of judging people by their background or wealth or whatever other label happened to hang around their necks.

It was a classic attraction of opposites: Ed the extrovert intellectual, always ready with a joke or a story or an opinion on anything and Connor the level, laconic one. Connor wasn’t a great one for analyzing these things, but he recalled Trudy Barratt once saying that he and Ed each had those traits that the other lacked and aspired to and that if you could forge one person from the two of them, the result would be a really great guy. Connor wondered if that was supposed to be a compliment and concluded that it probably wasn’t.

What they undoubtedly did share was a passion for the outdoors. On their days off they would go climbing or fly-fishing or canoeing. The fires they fought that first summer forged a deep and durable friendship. They even invented their own private ritual. It came about when they were cutting line one day and the wind changed and the fire blew up and they suddenly found themselves, just the two of them, surrounded by flame.

“Hey, man!” Ed called. “We’re in the heart of the fire!”

And for some weird reason, without any kind of rehearsal, they had both put their clenched right fists to their chests and solemnly declaimed “Hearts of fire!” and then given each other a high-five. It was only a kind of mock macho joke and they laughed about it afterward. But they’d done it ever since before every fire they’d fought.

Connor had other friends, of course, mostly around Augusta and Choteau and a few in Great Falls, kids he’d grown up with and been with at high school. Then there were his climbing and skiing buddies and one or two other firefighters he met up with from time to time. But there wasn’t one among them he could call close. As an only child he’d always been something of a loner. His mother used to call him The Watcher. Once, only half joking, she’d said that he was happier looking at life through a camera than actually living it. The truth was, Ed was the only real friend he’d ever had.

After he graduated, Ed had moved back east, to grad school in Boston where he’d stayed ever since. Yet every summer he still somehow managed to come back to Montana and the two of them would spend some months together, fighting fires and having fun. Ed loved to help out on the ranch. It was only a small spread and since Connor’s father died, mother and son had had to handle pretty much everything on their own. It was the main reason Connor had never gone to college.

Ed’s family raised thoroughbreds and he would tease Connor’s mother about the ranch horses, telling her how slow and clunky they were and why didn’t she go to Kentucky and get herself something half decent. She would pretend to be cross but it was clear she adored him. She had once even referred to him as her second son. The only thing she had never been able to understand was what possessed him and Connor, two otherwise seemingly sane young men, to make them want to spend their summers putting out fires. Connor could remember the evening when they’d told her over supper that they were going to sign on as smoke jumpers.

“We’re going to be Zoolies, Ma.”

“What in heck’s name is a Zoolie?”

“A Missoula smoke jumper, Mrs. Ford,” Ed said. “They’re as cool as it gets. Even cooler than being a hotshot.”

“Oh, really. And what the heck’s a hotshot when it’s at home?”

“They’re ground firefighters, Mrs. Ford. They’re like the marines or something, I guess. Or think they are. Hotshots think they’re cool and are always boasting about it. Whereas smoke jumpers really are cool and don’t need to.”

“There’s only four hundred smoke jumpers in the whole country,” Connor said.

“There’s that many idiots, huh?” she said. “Let me get this straight. You get to go way up high in a little airplane, you find a fire and then you jump out and land in it. Is that the idea?”

“Ma, they do give you a parachute,” Connor said.

“Oh, well. That’s okay then. You boys must be out of your minds.”

Ed frowned. “Mrs. Ford? I forgot. How many years was it you rode rodeo?”

“That’s totally different.”

“Yeah,” Connor said. “In rodeo you don’t get a parachute.”

As it turned out, Ed had something of a struggle persuading those in charge of selection at the Missoula base that his diabetes wasn’t going to be a problem. But he excelled himself in training and with the help of a compliant doctor (a close family friend who didn’t quite lie but didn’t quite tell the truth either), managed to persuade them that his condition would in no way interfere with his ability to do the job. By now they were more than glad to have him.

Back in February, Ed had called to tell Connor about this new girlfriend he’d started dating. The guy clearly had it bad. Over the years there had been a number of girlfriends (mostly Ed’s) and one or two had even lasted more than one summer. Last year Connor had been heavily involved with a six-foot-tall hockey champ from Seattle by the name of Gloria McGrath whom Ed had nicknamed Darth. When these affairs happened, the two men happily gave each other space. Ed was a congenital romantic, forever falling in love and declaring every time that this, hand on heart, was the one. Nevertheless, listening to him going on and on about her over the phone, Connor had gotten the distinct impression that this Julia woman actually might be the one.

“You remember Natalie Wood in West Side Story?”


“Connor, really, sometimes, man, I despair of you. It’s a classic. You must have seen it on TVÑyou know, that little square thing that stands in the corner of the room?”

“So, she’s beautiful.”

“Yeah, but you know how some beautiful women know how beautiful they are? Well, Julia doesn’t. She’s totally natural. And you know what? She likes to climb, she can ski like a dream. She’s smart, funny, artisticÑ”

“Doesn’t the halo get in the way?”

“No, the wings do a little but they’re kind of sexy. I tell you, man. This is it. I want to have her babies.”

“I don’t think it works that way around.”

It was quite a buildup. Connor was looking forward to meeting her.

Both of the rolls of film that he was processing now were black and white. He often shot color too, especially when he’d been commissioned, but when he was shooting for himself he usually preferred black and white. The shots he’d taken of the old man teaching the girl to cast were a washout. There were one or two others on the contact sheet that were perhaps worth printing but he wasn’t going to bother now. He was too interested in the other roll, the one he’d shot on Iron Mountain. In truth he was really interested in only one frame of it.

His heart had beaten a little faster as soon as he held the negative up to the light and saw that it was there. He didn’t even look at the other shots. The moment the negative was dry enough he had gone straight for a ten-by-eight print. It was in the tray now and as he rocked it, letting the developer swill slowly to and fro across the paper, he could see the elk starting to appear, as if through a haze of smoke, just as it had on the mountain. In that fraction of a moment when he had taken the picture, the animal had lifted its head and turned it to a three-quarter profile and in so doing had sent the flames leaping from its antlers in a furious jagged swirl.

But it wasn’t this, nor the ripple of flames along its charred black back, that made Connor shiver again. It was the look in the animal’s eye. There was a rim of white along its lower lid and the message it conveyed was not of fear itself but rather of some fearful admonition.

Excerpted from The Smoke Jumper by Nicholas Evans Copyright 2001 by Nicholas Evans. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.