Jeff Buick

Lethal Dose


A little bit of fear is a good thing.

The thought passed through Gordon Buchanan’s mind as he gazed into the smoke from the approaching forest fire. The April sun was a hazy red ball, diffused and weakened by the floating ash. Six miles and closing quickly. Inside twenty-four hours, the flames would be licking at his timber concessions. Destroying the forest and costing him millions of dollars. No upside to the fire. None at all. And in forty-eight hours, it would be threatening his sawmill.

He glanced away from the incoming carnage as a voice, almost obscured by static, came over his two-way radio. One of the mill hands asking for him.

“This is Gordon,” he said into the transmitter. “Go ahead.”

“The forestry guys are here, Gordon. They want to speak with you.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” he replied, and returned the walkie-talkie to his belt. The air was thick with smoke and ash, and his throat burned with each word he spoke and each breath he sucked in. He hailed a rugged- looking logger working the trunk of a sixty-foot Ponderosa pine with his chain saw and pointed in the general direction of the sawmill. The man nodded, and Gordon jumped in his truck and steered onto the bumpy trail leading back to the mill.

Gordon Buchanan was in his domain-the forest. His father had worked with timber, and after his father had passed away at an early age, Gordon had followed on, building the business into a thriving sawmill. At forty-four, Buchanan was a self-made multimillionaire who preferred faded jeans and denim shirts to business casual. The leather on his steel-toed work boots was cracked and peeling. He wore no jewelry and seldom carried more than fifty dollars in his pocket. His face always had a tinge of red, either from the summer sun or the blustery winter winds that howled through the Montana forests. His face was well proportioned, with a long, sloping nose, bushy eyebrows framing intelligent brown eyes, and a high forehead with a full head of dark hair swept back in a permanent wave. At six-two and a hundred and ninety-five pounds, he was lean and powerful, something most women found attractive. That he was rich didn’t hurt his appeal either. But to date, no woman had managed to get him in front of a justice of the peace, despite many trying. For good reason: Gordon Buchanan liked being single.

The sawmill materialized through the trees as he took the last sweeping turn and entered the log yard. To the north were stacks of felled pine, their limbs removed and ready for a trip through the planer. Almost five million in rough timber. To the south of the mill were hundreds of pallets of finished precision end-trim studs, another eight million in product ready for market. And between the raw and processed wood stood a thirty-million-dollar mill. He glanced again to the sky, darkened with acrid smoke, and wondered if this was the time he would lose it all.

Fires had threatened his mills in the past, burning one of his smaller ones to the ground, but he had never had so much at stake as now. This mill was different, larger and more sophisticated. The equipment was new, fast, and very expensive. The building itself had cost over three million just for the frame. Count in the timber on either side of the operation and he was looking at well over forty million in losses if the fire could not be stopped. He wasn’t sure he could recover from that.

The main administration building was attached to the east side of the mill, and he parked close to the door. Three forestry trucks were already occupying spots near the office. His brother Billy’s truck was there as well. He entered the office to exactly the scene he expected. Six forestry officers, Billy, and his mill foreman were huddled over a huge table in the center of the room. They looked up from the map as the door slammed shut.

“Hello, Gordon,” one of the forest rangers said. He was mid-fifties, with wisps of gray tracing abstract lines through his black hair. His face was worn from too much exposure to the sun and wind-too many days in the vast Montana wilderness. He was the oldest of the group and their leader.

“Sam,” Gordon said, outstretching his hand. Sam Bennett was the top dog in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Department, and a friend for more than twenty years. Both men ended up working in the forestry industry, one saving them and the other cutting them. But it was Gordon’s commitment to responsible logging that kept the men best friends. Sam Bennett knew that if the timber concessions were granted to someone other than Gordon, his days would be filled with monitoring the areas slated for clear cut. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship that had survived many years, both bad and good.

“What’s the situation?” Gordon asked. “How close is the fire?”

“About five and a half to six miles. It’s moving quicker than we thought,” Sam said, looking back to the map. He pointed to a series of closely spaced isometric lines, indicating a sharp ridge. “We thought the fire would veer once it hit Sheep Mountain, but it circled the peak and kept coming. The pines are dry, Gordon. Not enough snow, and hot spring temperatures.”

“That and the damn pine beetles. Water-starved pines don’t produce pitch, and that leaves them at the mercy of the pine beetles. We’ve got thousands of dead Ponderosa pines out there, and they make good firewood.” Gordon glanced down at the forestry map. “If it’s broached Sheep Mountain, that leaves one natural firebreak between it and the mill. Canyon Creek.”

Sam nodded. “Other than the creek, it’s all dry timber. Crazy that everything’s so dry before the end of April, but it goes with having no snow last winter.”

“It’s a tinderbox out there, all right. And there’s nothing to stop that fire from coming right at us,” Gordon said quietly. He rubbed his temples gently, fished a toothpick from his pocket, and clenched it between his teeth.“What’s the weather forecast?”

“Dry for a couple of days, but there’s a low-pressure front moving in from southern Canada. The guys in meteorology are saying there’s a good chance of rain when it hits. First couple of days should see heavy rains, tapering off to a drizzle.”

“Two days until we get rain,” Gordon said, staring at the map. “That’s going to be cutting it pretty damn close.”

Bennett looked grim. “Too close. I had my crew run the numbers using the current wind speed and direction, and extrapolating the fire’s progress since it started. It doesn’t look good.”

“How not good?” Gordon asked.

One of the technicians, a black man in his mid-twenties with close-cropped hair and a stack of papers in front of him, answered. “Given that the variables don’t change, and the fire continues its progress unabated, you’ve got between forty and fifty hours.” Lewis Carling was Sam’s second in command, meticulous in his work, and more knowledgeable about forest fires than anyone in the forestry service in the northern states or southern Canada. “Without the rain, the fire will reach the mill.”

Gordon was silent. Everything he’d worked for all his life was on the line. He was insured, but only to seventeen million, the max his insurer would cover. The shortfall, some twenty-five million, would be a total loss. It would wipe him out. Pattengail Creek was too far west to provide a break, and Trapped Creek was south, almost at the mill. Too dangerous letting the fire get that close before trying to stop it. That left Canyon Creek, a rough slash through the virgin forest. Extremely rugged country and totally impenetrable by land.

“Billy,” he said, turning to his brother. “Could you get a crew on the south edge of Canyon Creek, down in this area?” he asked, his finger stabbing at the map.

Billy Buchanan was thoughtful. He was a large man, almost six-three, with an athletic frame and chiseled features. His face was sunburned from the early-spring heat wave, highlighting his rugged features and accentuating his blue eyes. “We could cut a firebreak at the creek, but the only way in is by chopper. I’d need at least fifteen men with chain saws. The break for the creek is already sixty to eighty feet wide. If we can extend that by another thirty feet, we could stop the fire from jumping.”

Gordon looked to the young technician. “What do you think, Lewis?”

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