Free Fall (Rocky Mountain Smokejumpers #3) - Ophelia Sexton

Chapter 1

A Walk in the Woods

Routt National Forest, Colorado

Sunday, September 3

Time to go, thought Maggie Ornelas.

She rolled up her tiny tent and gathered together the rest of her camping gear in preparation for filling her backpack.

When she woke just after dawn this morning, the forest fire had been a distant haze of brown smoke over the mountains, with only a faint tinge of woodsmoke in the air.

Maggie had chosen this remote spot for her Labor Day Weekend getaway because it was a hike-in campground inaccessible to cars and RVs, located on the shores of a beautiful lake in a forested mountain valley.

Even better, all motorized watercraft were forbidden on the lake's pristine waters, and there weren't any docks or facilities. If you wanted to enjoy boating activities, you had to hike in carrying a canoe, kayak, or—in the case of the kids' outdoor summer camp that had invaded the campground yesterday morning and taken up all of the remaining camping spaces—small inflatable rafts shaped like swans and unicorns.

Thankfully, the kids and their adult chaperones had all packed up and headed out after lunch, loudly proclaiming their worry about having a fire so close by. By that time, the pristine blue sky had turned the same dusty color as a smoggy Los Angeles afternoon, and the whiffs of woodsmoke and burned resin began to grow steadily stronger.

In the wake of their departure, Maggie had cast an eye over the thickening pall of smoke hanging over the peaks and ridges, and decided that she could postpone her own hike back to the trail head parking lot long enough to take one last stroll through the forest in her jaguar shape.

It seemed a shame not to take advantage of the sudden peace and quiet, especially since the fire still seemed safely far away. Bad enough that she would have to cut her long weekend short.

Besides, she wanted to let the kids build up a healthy head start on the five-mile hike back to the trail head, so that she could enjoy her own hike out in peace and quiet, surrounded only by the sounds of birdsong and the breezes sighing through the treetops.

After months of hard work, she badly needed this time off, and her jaguar half longed to stretch its legs one more time, surrounded by the incredible Rocky Mountain scenery. The next few weeks were going to be crazy as she prepared to open her newest Cacao Bakery location in Denver, and she wanted to recharge her batteries before launching into this latest venture.

But while she was out enjoying a midafternoon run on four paws along the lakeshore, with plans to take a nice long swim to cool off, the wind suddenly picked up.

Less than an hour later, a line of orange fire, punctuated with pine trees flaming like giant torches, crested a nearby ridge and began advancing steadily downslope into the valley.

Darkness fell over the valley. The sky vanished behind a pall of dense smoke that turned the afternoon sun into a dull copper disk, illuminating everything in an eerie, dim orange glow.

Maggie turned tail and raced swiftly back to the campsite. There she shifted back to human shape and hurriedly got dressed.

I need to get the hell out of here, she thought, effortlessly shouldering her large, heavy backpack.

Things were about to get very bad. She knew the signs.

Before moving to San Francisco, she had spent a couple of years working as a volunteer firefighter in her hometown of Bearpaw Ridge, which was surrounded by National Forest lands. Wildfires were a yearly occurrence there, and the Bearpaw Ridge Fire Department regularly helped Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management wildland firefighters control blazes that threatened homes and other structures.

She cast one last glance around the campsite to make sure that neither she nor the other campers had left anything important behind.

I guess I should have gone with that luxury bed and breakfast in Durango, she thought wryly, and set off on the trail that led back to the parking lot.

Five hundred yards along the trail, Maggie unexpectedly encountered the ten summer camp kids and their three adult chaperones heading back towards the campground and the lake.

She halted.

The kids seemed extremely wound up, and the adults reeked of worry and fear.

"Hey, what's going on?" she asked the man leading the group.

Over the past couple of days, she had overheard the kids address him as Camper Bob. He was a white guy somewhere in his forties, with long, thinning brown hair pulled back