Out of the Ashes

Branch Underline



By Beth Hodder - Cover Illustration by Tom Roberts - Map Illustrations by Guy Zoellner

Plans for Jessie Scott’s thirteenth birthday party are shattered when her parents make her leave her home in Montana’s Great Bear Wilderness because of threatening forest fires. Jessie is furious. But she gets more than she bargained for when she, her mother, and her dog, Oriole, get caught in a wildfire and separated. Was it a careless camper or arson? As Jessie searches for her mother, Oriole, and answers about the fire, she discovers what is most important to her.






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Leaving Schafer Meadows

   Oriole squeezed through the log cabin door ahead of me and raced to Mom, who sat at her computer working on her latest book. I let the door slam behind me and stomped toward the stairs, barely glancing at my mother.
   Mom patted Oriole and then continued typing, staring at her computer. “Come back here, Jessie. We need to talk.”
   I had one foot on the stairs but turned back and threw myself on the living room couch next to my mom’s small wooden table that held her laptop.
I moved to the far end of the couch and faced Mom, arms crossed. Oriole jumped up on her blanket and sat facing Mom, too. I leaned forward and scratched Oriole’s yellow back and gently pulled on her one black ear. She turned her head toward me in contentment.
   I took a deep breath and let it out. “Look, Mom. I’m not trying to give you a hard time. It’s just that all of a sudden I hate wildfires. They’re ruining my life. Can’t you see?”
   Mom stopped typing and turned in her chair to face me. “What do you mean, Jessie?”
   I moved closer to my mother while searching for the right words. Finally I threw my hands in the air.
“Okay, here’s the thing. When I was a young girl, I dreamed of being a firefighter, battling the biggest, baddest blazes in the western forests. Bet you didn’t know that, did you?”
   Mom shook her head, and I knew I had her. “But now that I’m almost a teen—I’m turning 13 soon, remember?—I’ve changed my mind. Not because I’m scared or anything, but because you and Dad won’t let me stay to fight a fire if one threatens Schafer Meadows. This is my home! I want to help.”
   Mom came and sat on the couch with Oriole and me. She looked down at her hands and then up at me. “You’ve been through a lot in a short period of time, Jessie. We uprooted you from your friends and home in New Mexico and brought you to the Great Bear Wilderness in one of Montana’s most remote places. You and Jed are the only kids within 20 miles. I get it.”
   “Right,” I said, “we are the only kids, but you don’t get it. I love Charlie, the world’s greatest station guard, and Jim, my favorite pilot. And don’t forget the Schafer Meadows trail crew. They’ve become my friends, too. The ranger station is my home.”
   I put my hands behind my head and eased down farther into the couch. “The problem isn’t that my 16-year-old brother and I are the only kids in a world of adults. It’s not that Dad is the U.S. Forest Service ranger here and makes all the decisions. And it’s not that I can’t make friends with kids my age because there aren’t any roads or phones or the Internet in the wilderness. I like it that Schafer’s remote. I love my life here.”
   I stood and paced. “The problem is you and Dad think Schafer isn’t safe for Jed and me any longer because of the fires burning nearby. ‘Nearby’ to you means fifteen to fifty miles away. How can those fires threaten us?”
   Mom let out a sigh. “They can, honey. They have the ability to move way faster than you can imagine. It’s just not safe.”
   “Well, Mom, don’t forget. It’s dangerous for Dad and the trail crew to stay at Schafer Meadows, too. A fire can overtake them just like us.”
   “We’ve been through this over and over, Jessie,” Mom said. “But let me repeat once more. They’re trained firefighters, they’re adults, and it’s part of their job to keep Schafer Meadows fire-ready. You’re right. Schafer’s not in immediate danger, but things can change in a second. If a fire threatens the ranger station, your dad and the others can be out of here much faster if we’re not around for them to worry about. And don’t forget about Oriole. Seems to me you said you’d always look out for your dog and take care of her.”
   That was a low blow. Oriole’s my best friend and my responsibility. If I ever caused her harm, I’d never get over it.
 Mom got up and went back to her computer. “I’m sorry. I know how much you want to stay here, but we’re leaving tomorrow. Now, please finish packing. We’re going first thing in the morning.”
   I stomped off to my room upstairs.


   The next thing I knew, I was riding horseback with my mom and Oriole on our way to the Spotted Bear Ranger Station. That’s my dad’s main office and where we live when he’s not working at Schafer Meadows. Lucky Jed got to stay at Schafer a couple more days. He sometimes helps the wranglers, and they needed him to round up the horses and mules out grazing in the forest near the station so they could be ready to leave for Spotted Bear in a hurry.
   Mom and I had been riding for a couple of hours. Sweat lathered Red’s bobbing neck, mane, and muscular shoulders as he carried me higher and higher up the mountain trail. I peered up, smiling at clouds turning from white to black, promising rain.  If it rained hard enough and got colder, the fire danger might lessen so we could go back to Schafer Meadows. But the sun continued to beat down, seeming to get hotter the farther we rode. My T-shirt clung to me, and a trickle of sweat snaked down my face beneath my straw cowboy hat.
   “Jessie, pick it up,” Mom said. She rode her small dapple-gray horse, Smurf, and carried our gear on Kitty, our brown mule. It meant she had to travel slowly to keep both of them safe. I had started off in front of Mom when we left Schafer, but she put me behind when she complained that I was going too fast. My thoughts had drifted from the smell of leather and horse to the smell of fires, which fueled my anger again. I pulled myself back to the present.
   “I’m trying to keep from eating your dust,” I mumbled. I’d been so caught up in my angry thoughts I hadn’t realized the clouds finally hid the sun and a light rain was falling. My sweaty shirt turned cold. I hurried to untie my long dark brown oil rain slicker from the top of my saddlebags and put it on. The slicker’s tail covered my legs clear to my cowboy boots. The rain fell harder, pricking my skin like needles.
   The storm battered us as my fingers fumbled to open my saddlebags that held the plastic cover for my cowboy hat. Pea-sized hail pelted us, even stinging me through my slicker. I felt sorry for our animals. Hail bounced off Red, Smurf, and Kitty.
   Oriole tucked her tail and raced from tree to tree, huddling beneath each one as we continued on the trail. Normally Oriole loves long trips, but this time she looked miserable.
Heavy rain lasted about 15 minutes before turning back into a light shower. At last the storm passed and the dark clouds moved on. I took off my plastic hat cover and slicker and shook them, spraying water everywhere. I stored the rain cover back in my saddlebags, rolled my slicker, and tied it behind me. The sun beat down on us once more and the air turned hot and sticky. So much for cooler weather.
   The rocky trail wound through a boulder field, climbing higher. The shadow of Whitcomb Peak’s sheer gray wall stretched over the trail and dropped below us. I hadn’t realized we’d reached the magnificent mountain of rock, even though it’s one of my favorites. My mind was on other things. I knew I needed to pay more attention to riding and less on my ill mood so I wouldn’t fall. I let my eyes search the ground in front of Red as he picked his way along the trail to keep from stumbling on the stones. His hooves scraped over the larger rocks, knocking out a steady beat as he walked. Whitcomb Peak provided shade and a short break from the sun. We would soon leave the Great Bear Wilderness and start our descent toward the Spotted Bear Ranger Station.
   “Let’s rest here,” Mom said from behind me. “These animals could use a break.”
Oriole stood sideways in the trail, facing downhill. She turned to stare back at me as if wondering why we stopped. Her sides heaved and her tongue hung low, flicking saliva, but her tail, soggy from the rain, still wagged. Mud from the trail covered her sleek yellow fur, and her black ear, eye, and chest. She looked like a dirty brown stray.
   I nodded. “Okay, Oriole, Red. Mom’s right. Let’s stop awhile.”
   Mom slid down from Smurf, her small dapple-gray horse, and reached into her saddlebags. “I’ve got lunch. Let’s find a spot off the trail to eat.”
   I flipped my right leg over the horn and jumped down from Red. Both feet hit the ground at the same time. Red snorted at the thud and nodded his head a couple of times as I led him along the trail. He seemed to be agreeing with my mom. “Okay, big boy,” I said. “We’ll find a place for all of you to hang out for a while. You deserve it.”
The trail was rocky and open, but Mom found a place ahead just off the path and tied Smurf and Kitty to a tree. As I tied Red to another small tree I looked north toward Glacier National Park’s distant peaks, across the Flathead River from us.  Blackened sky boiled upward from the mountains like an overflowing witch’s pot.
   “Looks like another storm’s coming,” I said. “Check out that cloud.”
   “That’s not a storm cloud, Jessie. It’s a smoke column from that big fire in Glacier.”
I pulled my hat farther down to shield my eyes from the sun to see better. What I saw rising from the mountains formed a giant slate-gray mushroom. It fanned out eastward, like an anvil the farriers use to shape horseshoes. “That can’t be from a fire. It’s gotta be a mile high.”
   “It’s a fire column all right, and it’s at least 4 miles high,” Mom said. “When they get that big they’re often mistaken for storm clouds. The park fire is over 15,000 acres and moving fast. They haven’t been able to contain much of it. Now you see why your dad and I decided you and Jed shouldn’t stay at Schafer Meadows. With the park fire, the other large one along the Hungry Horse Reservoir, and all the little fires popping up all over northwestern Montana, it’d be hard to get you to safety in a hurry.”
   I looked away. “I’m not a baby, Mom. I’m turning 13 this week. I know about safety, and so does Jed.”
   “You may think you do, but look harder at that smoke plume. Those mountains below it are at least 2 miles high. They seem tiny in comparison. Can you imagine the power it takes to create something that huge? If you got caught in a fire that size, there’s no way you could outrun it. Fires like that can move miles in minutes, becoming infernos and swallowing everything in their paths.”
   “Oh come on, they can’t travel that fast, can they?”
“They can if the wind carries embers ahead of the fire. Sparks can land on dry grass or leaves or in treetops and catch fire. Sometimes the wind blows them over the tops of mountains and drops them into another valley or canyon, starting new fires a long distance away. Don’t you see? It’s just too dangerous.”
   I hugged Oriole to my chest, covering her black eye and ear. She strained to pull away. I relaxed my grip on her, and as my hand slid down her wet, muddy back, she exhaled, settled down, and rested her head on her paws, groaning before she closed her eyes.
“It just dumped rain on us, Mom. Seems to me it’s safe to go back home now.”
   “One short storm isn’t going to change things. The forest is still tinder dry. If we get some good soaking rains, things may change and we can go home. Meanwhile, we’ll stay at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station until we’re sure we can return safely to Schafer.”
I sighed. “But I don’t know anyone at Spotted Bear—except for Will—and he may be gone with his dad to some meeting in Kalispell or something. It’s Tuesday. Hardly anyone will be at the ranger station, and my birthday’s coming soon. You’re taking me away from my friends at Schafer. I want to spend my birthday with them, but now you won’t let that happen. I won’t even get a party.”
   “Oh don’t be such a drama queen. I’m sorry this is happening to you now. I know how important it is for you to become a teen and to share your birthday with your friends. If we could have chosen when to take you away from Schafer, we would have picked any other time. But it didn’t happen that way. Fires don’t care about birthdays. When this is over, we’ll make it up to you.”
   I folded my arms and turned away.
   “Oh, so that’s how it is, Jessie? You plan to stay mad at me because I’m trying to keep you safe? Do you really think the most responsible thing for your dad and me to do is to let you stay at Schafer Meadows right now?”
“But Mom, you said Schafer’s not in any danger. And who’s to say some fire won’t start at Spotted Bear? If one happens while we’re there, then what? Are you going to run from Spotted Bear, too? Where will we go?”
I knew I’d gone too far but couldn’t help it. Mom jumped up, stuffed the plastic sandwich bag and her uneaten apple back into her saddlebags, and jerked them closed. She tightened Smurf’s cinch too tight. Smurf grunted, and Mom loosened the cinch. She grabbed Kitty’s rope and mounted.
   “I’ve had enough, Jessie. Some day you may understand why your dad and I are doing this, but until then, I don’t want to hear another sassy, disrespectful word from you. Now let’s get going.”  Off in the distance in Glacier Park a plane circled the giant smoke plume like an insect. It had to be a long way from us, because I couldn't hear its engine. It was so far away I didn’t know why we needed to worry about any fire anywhere, let alone that stupid one. I got up, jammed my lunch bag and Oriole's treats into my saddlebags, tightened Red's cinch, and mounted. Without a backwards glance toward Mom, I nudged Red down the trail.


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