Besides, Nim thought, he already had public image problems himself over that damned helicopter. It was coming this afternoon to Devil's Gate to return him to the city where urgent work was piled up on his desk. He had made sure, though, that the chopper would not arrive until after the press contingent had departed by bus.
Meanwhile, disliking this chore and relieved that it would end soon, he continued fielding questions.
* * *
At 2 pm, at Devil's Gate Camp the last few stragglers were climbing aboard the press bus, which had its motor running and was ready to leave. The group had lunched; their journey back to the city would take four hours. Fifty yards away, Teresa Van Buren, who was also going on the bus, told Nim, "Thanks for all you did, even though you hated some of it."
He said with a smile, "I get paid to do a few things, now and then, that I'd rather not. Was anything accomplished, do you . . . ?"
Nim stopped, not certain why, except for a sudden chilling instinct that something was wrong in the scene around him, something out of place. They were standing roughly where be had been this morning when he paused en route to breakfast; the weather was still beautiful clear sunshine highlighting a profusion of trees and wild flowers, with a breeze stirring the fragrant mountain air. Both bunkhouses were visible, the bus in front of one, a couple of off-duty employees sunning themselves on a balcony of the other. In the opposite direction, over by the staff houses, a group of children was playing; a few minutes earlier Nim had noticed among them the redheaded boy Danny, whom be had spoken to this morning. The boy was flying a kite, perhaps a birthday present, though at the moment both boy and kite had disappeared from view. Nim's gaze moved on to a GSP & L heavy-duty service truck and a cluster of men in work gear. among them he caught a glimpse of the trim, bearded figure of Wally Talbot Jr. Presumably Wally was with the transmission line crew he had mentioned earlier. On the road leading into camp a small blue tradesman's van appeared.
Someone at the bus called over impatiently, "Tess, let's go!"
Van Buren said curiously, "Nim, what is it?"
"I'm not sure. I . . ."
An urgent, frantic shout cut across the camp clearing and all other sounds.
"Danny! Danny! Don't move! Stay where you are!"
Heads turned-Nim's and Van Buren's simultaneously-seeking the source of the voice.
Another shout, this time close to a scream. "Danny! Do you hear me?"
"Over there." Van Buren pointed to a steep path, partially hidden by trees, on the camp's far side. A red-haired man-the technician, Fred Wilkins-was racing down it, shouting as he ran.
"Danny! Do what I tell you! Stop! Don't move!"
Now the children had stopped playing. Bewildered, they turned together in the direction where the shouting was aimed. Nim did the same.
"Danny! Don't go any further! I'm coming for you! Keep still!"
"Oh Christ!" Nim breathed.
Now he could see. High overhead, on one of the towers carrying high voltage lines across the camp, the small boy, Danny Wilkins, was ascending. Clinging tightly to a steel support member more than halfway from the tower base, he was clambering upward, slowly, steadily. His objective was visible above him-the kite he had been flying, now entangled in a transmission line atop the tower. A flash of sunlight showed Nim what moments earlier he had seen, so swiftly and briefly that it barely registered-the reflection from a slim aluminum pole the boy was clutching, a pole with a hook at one end. Clearly, Danny planned to use it to retrieve the kite. His small face was set determinedly as his sturdy body moved higher, and either he failed to bear his father's shouts or was ignoring them.
Nim and others began running hard toward the tower, but with a sense of helplessness as the small boy continued climbing steadily toward the high voltage lines. Five hundred thousand volts.
Fred Wilkins, still some distance away, was forcing himself to even greater speed, his face despairing.
Nim joined the shouting. "Danny! the wires are dangerous! Don't move!
This time the boy paused and glanced down. Then he looked up again at the kite and continued climbing, though more slowly, the aluminum pole extended out in front. He was now only a few feet from the nearest power line.
Then Nim saw that a new figure, nearer to the tower than anyone else, had sprung into action. Wally Talbot. Shooting forward, his stride long, feet barely seeming to touch the ground, Wally was racing like an Olympic sprinter.
The press reporters were scrambling from the bus.
The tower, like others in the camp area, was surounded by a protective chain link fence. Later it would be learned that Danny had surmounted the fence by climbing a tree and dropping from a low branch. Now Wally Talbot reached the fence and leaped. With what seemed a superhuman effort he grabbed the top and scrambled over. As he landed inside it could be seen that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. Then he was on the tower and climbing fast.
Breathlessly, tensely, the hastily assembled group of spectators, reporters and others watched from below. While they did, a trio of workmen from Wally's transmission line crew arrived and, after trying several keys, unlocked a gate in the chain link fence. Once inside the enclosure they, too, began climbing the tower. But Wally was far ahead, rapidly closing the distance between himself and the small redheaded boy.
Fred Wilkins had reached the base of the tower; he was winded and trembling. Briefly he moved as if to climb also, but someone restrained him.
All eyes were focused on the two figures nearest the top-Danny Wilkins, only a foot or two from the transmission lines, and Wally Talbot, now close behind.
Then it happened-so swiftly that those watching could not agree afterward on the succession of events or even precisely what they were.
In what seemed a single moment, Danny-perched, it seemed, within inches of an insulator which separated the tower from a transmission line conductor-reached out with the aluminum pole in an attempt to snare the kite. Simultaneously, from just below and slightly to one side, Wally Talbot grabbed at the boy and pulled and held him. A pulsebeat later both appeared to slip, the boy sliding downward, clinging to a girder, and Wally losing his grasp. At the same time, Wally, perhaps instinctively to maintain a precarious balance, seized the metal pole as Danny released it. The pole swung in an arc. Instantly a great ball of crackling orange light erupted, the pole disappeared, and Wally Talbot was enveloped in a corona of transparent flame. Then, with equal suddenness, the flame was gone and Wally's body sagged limply, motionless, across a tower support.
Miraculously, neither fell. Seconds later two of Wally Talbot's crew reached his body and began easing it down. The third man pinned Danny Wilkins to a girder and held him there while the others descended. The boy was apparently unhurt; he was sobbing and the sound could be heard below.
Then, somewhere on the other side of the camp, a siren began sounding short, sharp blasts.
The cocktail bar pianist switched nostalgically from Hello, Young Lovers! to Whatever Will Be, Will Be.
"If he plays manymore of those oldies," Harry London said, "I'm gonna start crying in my beer. Another vodka, pal?"
"Why the hell not? Make it a double." Nim, who had been hearing the music too, now listened to himself objectively. His speech was slurring at the edges, he observed, which figured. He had already had too much to drink, and knew it, but found himself not caring. Groping in a pocket, he took out his car keys and pushed them across the small, black-topped table.
"Take care of these. See that I get a taxi home."
London pocketed the keys. "Sure thing. You can stay at my place overnight, if you want."
"No thanks, Harry." Soon, when the liquor had dulled his perceptions further, Nim intended to go home, in fact wanted to. He wasn't worried about appearing there drunk-at least, not tonight. Leah and Benjy would be asleep and wouldn't see him. And Ruth, with her compassion and sympathy, would be forgiving.
"Testing, testing," Nim said. He had wanted to bear his voice again before using it. Now, satisfied with his coherence, he told Harry, "Y'know what I think? I think Wally'd be better off dead."
London took a swig of beer before answering. "Maybe Wally won't see it that way. Okay, so be got burned had and lost his pecker. But there's other . .."
Nim's voice rose. "For Chrissakes, Harry! Do you understand what you're saying?"
"Take it easy," London cautioned. Others in the bar had glanced their way.