CODE BLOOD

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Chapter Thirty Nine

It was Sunday morning, September 19, a week since 88’s responded to the accident at the Surfrider. The hot dry Santa Ana winds continued to blow in from the desert and Southern California baked in triple digit temperatures. Colt’s one-day shift was due to end at 8:00 a.m., but the tones dropped an hour earlier for a call about a rattlesnake in a backyard. The engine and squad responded.

Moose was the first off the engine and ran into the yard with a fire axe. Moments later, when Colt arrived in the squad, Moose was about to cut off the snake’s head.

Colt looked at the snake and shouted, “No, leave it. It’s a king snake, they eat rattlers.”

Moose paused.

The homeowner was hysterical. “I don’t care what it is, get rid of it,” she screamed. “Get it out of my yard.”

Colt pushed in front of Moose. “Yes ma’am, we’ll take care of it,” he said, bending down to pick up the snake. It twisted around in his hands as he carried it out of the yard and across the street to a vacant lot. He walked a few feet into the weeds and dropped it.

When the crew returned to the station, the men from C Shift were eating breakfast in the kitchen, waiting to go on duty. Captain Ames briefed them on the calls and problems of the last 24 hours. Moose and Brian joined them for coffee before heading home. Colt left the station immediately.

At his apartment, Colt took off his uniform and put on his jeans, a T-shirt and his father’s rodeo belt. He left his cowboy boots in the corner and wore his fire boots. He picked up the Igloo and Darci’s blue T-shirt and went out to his truck.

On his way to the freeway, he stopped at a convenience store and bought a large bag of ice, which he dumped into the cooler. As Colt drove east, the air conditioner in his old truck struggled. In Sheridan, the “warm spot” of Wyoming, it would be around 55 degrees and the beginning of the winter snow would be only weeks away. Traveling across the floor of the San Gabriel Valley, Colt watched the gauge indicating the outside temperature rise from a relatively cool 89 degrees at the coast to 103 degrees. By the time he exited the 210 Freeway and wound his way along Foothill Road through the communities clustered at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, the temperature stood at 106 and waves of heat shimmered on the soft blacktop. Colt thought a cold beer would taste incredible, even at this hour of the morning, but kept driving. He checked the Igloo to make sure the ice wasn’t melting.

In La Canada/Flintridge he turned up the steep Angeles Crest Highway, a forty-mile road running through canyons and along mountain ridges in the Angeles National Forest. A year earlier an arson fire started near the ranger station became an angry 165,000-acre blaze feeding on the thick brush and trees. Colt missed all the action in what became the largest fire in Los Angeles County’s history. While he was in the middle of paramedic training, three-thousand firefighters spent seven weeks fighting what became known as the Station Fire. Two firefighters trying to escape the flames died when their truck plunged off a cliff. A thick cloud of smoke visible on weather satellite images from space, billowed four miles into the sky. Ash and soot rained down on the city of Los Angeles. After containment, mop-up went on for several weeks, with helicopter crews using thermal imaging to find smoldering spots deep in ravines and canyons while inmate fire crews worked to clear the burnt debris from wilderness fire roads, trails and campgrounds. CalTrans closed the entire Angeles Crest for months while it replaced guardrails and parts of the road destroyed by the fire. Soon after the road reopened, the winter rains came and tons of mud and debris flowed down the bare mountainsides, eroding the slopes and destroying more of the highway. A year later, reconstruction was still underway.

A mile up the Angeles Crest, Colt came to a line of white and orange barricades and a large sign that said:

FIRE DAMAGED AREA

PUBLIC ACCESS PROHIBITED

A lone Highway Patrol cruiser was parked on the shoulder, partially sheltered by the shade of a tree. When Colt stopped and got out of his truck, the heat pressed down upon him. He had never thought of temperature in terms of weight. The freezing cold in Wyoming weighed nothing, but this unbearable heat in California had a heaviness he had never felt before. He walked over to the cruiser. The engine was running and when the officer lowered his window a couple of inches, Colt felt a tiny blast of cold air.

“Afternoon,” Colt said, and held up his fire department badge.

“A scorcher, isn’t it?” the officer said. “Where you headed?”

“Red Box.”

“Be careful up there, there’s a lot of construction equipment parked on the side of the highway.”

“Thanks.”

The officer raised his window.

The view on the ascent was bleak. What was once a spectacular panorama of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains was now a moonscape. As Colt climbed the steep, two-lane road, he looked out at a black carpet where skeletons of pine and conifer, oak, birch and cottonwood covered the hillsides. Colt tracked the direction of the fire where it had raced uphill in different places. Many trees, charred on the side where the fire approached, still had a few brown, dried clusters of pine needles or leaves on the sheltered side. Scorched pinecones hung from the high branches of the tallest trees. The massive blowtorch had seared away the manzanita, chapparal and sagebrush from the ground, leaving stumps, scorched earth and blackened rock. As he climbed higher, Colt saw a few patches of green where the wall of fire jumped over patches of trees and brush tucked into deep folds in the landscape.

Colt continued up to Red Box, a 5,000-foot high junction of three highways named after the large wood container where firefighting tools were stored at the turn of the 20th Century. Just after he moved to Los Angeles, Colt had visited Red Box and remembered the place clearly. The San Gabriel Mountains weren’t as rugged as the Rockies or the Tetons, but he thought the spot was beautiful. It was the perfect place for a burial.

He parked in the deserted turnout near a line of picnic tables and got out of his truck. The early afternoon temperature had dropped from triple digits at the base of the highway to 88 degrees. Colt walked across the road, listened to the crunch of the gravel under his fire boots and looked down into the canyon at the drainage of the San Gabriel River. The winter rains had caused rock and mudslides to cascade hundreds of feet down the hillsides, ripping out what vegetation was left and scouring the earth. Above, the sky was pale blue, fading into a white mist at the horizon. Several jet contrails crisscrossed and two hawks made lazy circles in the canyon, riding the air currents, barely moving their wings. The wind made the only sound. For a moment, Colt was a child again, sitting on his horse Flash, looking up at a cloudless sky above the mountains in the Powder River Basin.

The California heat and low humidity was insidious. Colt walked back to his truck and drank a bottle of water. He took the Igloo container and the blue T-shirt, went around to the bed of his truck and grabbed a Pulaski—the half axe, half hoe that wildland firefighters use. He started up the steep hillside beyond the picnic tables, using the Pulaski for balance. As he climbed, he saw how the earth had begun to repair the damage from the fire and prepare for a cycle of regeneration. The sunlight, once filtered out by heavy brush, overhanging branches and an accumulation of leaves, now touched the ground and nurtured new growth. Pine cones, awaiting a fire, had burst open and spread their seeds. Green shoots of plants and bushes were already pushing up through the burnt ground. In five years, a lush carpet of green would cover the mountainside again. In ten years, there would be no trace of the Station Fire. In 25 years, the mountainside would be overgrown once again and it would be time for another big fire.

Colt climbed until he came to a small level spot on the side of the mountain. A three-inch conifer sapling grew off to one side. With a few swings of the Pulaski, he dug out a hole deep and wide enough to contain a girl’s foot and a blue T-shirt. He opened the ice chest, took out the plastic bag and emptied the half-melted slush on the ground. Colt unzipped the bag and looked inside at the still frozen foot with the painted red nails for the last time. He placed the open bag in the hole. On top of the bag, he placed the neatly folded blue T-shirt.

“Rest in peace, Ma. Rest in peace, Darci.” Colt was certain they both would have liked this spot. “Wherever you are now, I hope you’re happy and at peace.” He looked out at the hazy horizon and listened to the silence in the mountains. Everyone had a different explanation for what happened at death. If nothing else, when the bones of her foot turned to dust, Darci would become part of the earth. Some part of her would reside under the spot where the three-inch conifer would grow into a majestic tree. Somewhere, some trace of his mother resided in the earth as well. He would choose to believe that it was in this place.

He pushed dirt into the hole with the Pulaski. After he filled it, Colt picked up pieces of shale and pressed them into the spot with the heel of his boot. He piled more dirt on top of the shale and rolled a large rock in place on top of everything. He looked around once more, then picked up his Pulaski and the Igloo and descended to his truck. In the turnout, he tossed the cooler into a trash barrel. When the head of the Pulaski hit the bed of his truck, the impact of metal on metal broke the silence. Colt got behind the wheel and rolled up the window. He felt a weak gust of cool air from his air conditioner when he started the engine.

Driving back across the San Gabriel Valley, Colt pulled to the side of the road and got out of his truck. Using Moose’s military binoculars, he focused on the Angeles Crest. He wasn’t certain, but he thought he could see Red Box, the place where he’d just buried Darci and said goodbye to his mother.

Colt got back in his truck and headed home. He needed a new love interest, he also needed a new pickup truck. One would be easier to acquire than the other. He tallied his paramedic scorecard. So far, he was 0 for 2. After losing Darci and Tyler, it was time to even the score. He had to rescue someone. He had to resuscitate someone on the verge of death. He was a trained fire paramedic. It was his job to save people, not lose them. He knew there would be days when he would see victims in great pain and near death. Some would die before his eyes despite his efforts, but he had a long career ahead of him and he knew he would save people. Maybe once in his life he would even do something miraculous.

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