Lucas gave the smoke-filled room one last glance. There was nothing left. He’d triple-checked. He confirmed with a hand signal to Forrester that he was moving, and couldn’t help letting out a sigh of relief as he exited the cabin and pulled off his oxygen mask as fast as he could.
“Too damn close, Attiker.”
Lucas looked up at his captain, but was saved from having to either acknowledge or apologize by the bottle of water that was thrust at him. He shot a grateful glance at Jacko, who had timed his interruption perfectly and was now passing the firefighter next to him a bottle as well. Lucas took long gulps of water and didn’t even flinch at the crash behind him when the roof caved in. They were in Rustic, a small tourist area popular with hikers and campers, forty miles northwest of Fort Collins, and at this time of year, a complete fucking nightmare of brush fires that could escalate faster than you could say tourist.
They’d contained everything in the last three days, and the ground pounders were combing the area, putting everything dead out. After being at the fire camp for more than a week, Lucas was nearly dead out himself.
“I hate to ask—” Captain Cassidy said.
“What is it?” Lucas interrupted, knowing Ray Cassidy wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.
“I need two in, two out, for the last campground.” They’d been fighting the wildfire for over a week. It was an offshoot of the main battle thundering through fifty thousand acres to the west that had lasted for months. Lucas guessed they were lucky.
He nodded and glanced at Jacko. “We’ll take Ricky and Karen. They’re the most rested.”
Jacko turned, shouting orders to the other men just clearing up. They would need four firefighters. Two in, two out meant two to clear the structure and two to wait outside in case the first two got into trouble. They would alternate between buildings. “I thought this was the last one.” He nodded to the smoldering detritus behind him that had once been a cabin.
“There’s another six past the lake, but our info describes them as deserted. The cabins themselves aren’t even fully constructed, but the chopper pilot reported that he thought he saw isolated smoke. I just wanted to double-check before I let the ground pounders have at it,” Cassidy confirmed.
That made sense. The type-two crew—often not even full-time firefighters—usually just did the mopping up. The captain wouldn’t want them deploying unless he knew the flames were totally out. Lucas pulled himself to his feet and tried to look like he wasn’t going to have trouble staying upright.
“I can send Flint,” Cassidy said doubtfully.
Lucas grinned. “Nah, we’ll be quicker.” A spark of humor glinted in Cassidy’s equally tired eyes. They both knew that Amos Flint was thorough, but unfortunately, he took three times as long as anyone else. And the expense of having their type-two crew standing around waiting for instructions wasn’t good for anyone.
“On the plus side, as soon as you report the area clear, you can all go home,” Cassidy said cheerfully
The US had more than a hundred hotshot crews. Lucas had toyed with the idea of joining one of them when he was younger, but the fires currently raging farther west were taking all the smokejumpers Colorado could get their Nomex-covered hands on, so Lucas had stayed where he was needed. Right now he and his team were leading the scouting party. He pulled his sweat-encrusted yellow jacket tighter and headed toward the utility vehicle Jacko had pulled up in.
Lucas shot a weary smile at Ricky and Karen. Karen was due to change station soon—fifteen years’ experience had gotten her a captain’s job down in Denver. Technically, Lucas only worked wildfires part of the year when the forest service pulled them in. During the quiet months, he went back to being a lieutenant of his small-town firefighting crew. He knew promotions were few and far between, but he wouldn’t swap his trees for apartments if they offered him double pay. He’d been lucky when Cassidy had kept the lieutenant’s post open for him three years ago.
Karen glanced at him as he climbed in. “We’re just double-checking it’s deserted?”
Lucas nodded, and they drove out past the small fire camp they had slept at for the past week. He’d seen the new area when it was cleared.
“How come the chopper’s not still looking?” Ricky asked Lucas. Ricky was their probie. Nine months on the job so far.
“Because the fires west of Fort Collins need them all. We’re done, except for the mopping up,” Jacko answered for him.
Ricky nodded and looked out the window, and Lucas followed his gaze. The countryside was beautiful in winter. Not that he didn’t appreciate the sun, but the dry weather brought so many problems with it, and they seemed to have completely skipped past fall this year. Over the years, he had known Greeley and Summerton to get the occasional snow flurry in September. He wasn’t the only firefighter who cheered that day.
“When was the report of smoke made?” Jacko asked.
“This morning at 0630, but the chopper made a second pass and nothing was seen, so they thought it was just smoke being carried from area two,” Karen explained. “There are only three intact cabins, but another six or so are in various stages of construction, and there’s a clubhouse that’s going to house some stores and possibly a restaurant in high season. They were hoping to open this section in the spring, but the contractor went under and there seems to be some dispute about who owns what, so it’s been standing empty.”
It took another fifteen minutes to reach the deserted cabins, and Lucas peeled himself out of the utility vehicle, not wanting to admit he had been struggling to keep his gritty eyelids up for the last five.
“I can’t get a signal,” Karen reported, almost instantly looking at her radio, and Lucas nodded toward the fifty-foot-high granite cliff face to the back of the cabins. That explained the poor reception.
The makings of a road had been started at the base of the cliff, but it ended on the rise, going nowhere. The forest stretched high behind the road, and smoke trailed from it. Lucas looked west. You could see the billowing black cloud, but it was blowing away from them. He didn’t like it. The fires might be contained, but the cabins were slam in the middle, and it looked like the construction was going to include a lake. The area had been excavated but was overgrown with tall grasses, another fire hazard.
He turned and walked to the first cabin. It didn’t even have a roof, and it took barely a few seconds to confirm there was no one there. Not that he’d expected anyone. Karen led into the second cabin. This was a little more finished. The roof and walls were constructed and intact, but there was no interior finish. He looked around for another minute and then followed Jacko into the third. On the surface, this one was as unoccupied as the rest, and while a quick search showed it was empty, there was an old sleeping bag and the detritus of a fire in the grate. Lucas stripped off his glove and checked the half-burned twigs—they were cold. Someone might have slept in here but not recently.
He looked up as Karen called out and went into the second room. She was looking at something on the floor and bent down to pick it up. “What is it?”
“A protein bar, unopened.” She turned it over in her hand. “It’s in date.”
Jacko shrugged. “Those things are good for months.”
“But bread isn’t,” Karen said, the urgency and worry apparent in her voice. There was an old rucksack on the floor that looked abandoned, with a half-eaten plastic-wrapped peanut butter sandwich in it. The bread didn’t look appealing, but he would have said it was two days old at best. “What do you think?”
“Search everything,” Lucas instructed, and they all fell into a practiced rhythm. After ten minutes of going through the partially built cabins, Lucas was satisfied no one was there. All that was left was a large structure that had been intended to be the clubhouse.
“Maybe it was someone passing through that decided to move quicker when they saw the smoke,” Jacko suggested. Lucas nodded, but his skin prickled.
“But you don’t think so,” Karen said flatly, her brown eyes flashing respect. Technically, after her promotion, she was his superior, but the respect was mutual. He shook his head, not knowing exactly how to express the feeling in his gut.
“Let’s do a thorough check.” There was what looked like some partially built storage structures behind the cabin.
“Lieutenant?” Ricky called. Lucas, Karen, and Jacko all went to the cabin door. Ricky was pointing toward the black smoke that was definitely not blowing in the opposite direction anymore.
“Shit,” Lucas said. The wind had shifted. “Is the radio working?”
Ricky shook his head and swallowed nervously.
“Jacko, get the truck going. Ricky, go with him. Karen, come with me.” Everyone moved quickly, and Lucas tried not to keep twisting his neck to see if the dark plume of smoke was getting closer. He had to be sure there was nobody around, but he wouldn’t put his team in unnecessary danger either. They cleared the last building and ran for the truck, then scrambled on board. “Get us out of here.”
Lucas would never have been able to say later what made him twist back around to look at the last structure, but as he did, he saw something out of the corner of his eye that nearly stopped his heart. Blue. A small edge of blue peeking out from the side of the building that looked all wrong, and he’d missed it.
“Stop,” Lucas yelled, and Jacko obediently slammed on the brakes, creating a cloud of dust. Lucas was on his feet before the wheels stopped turning.
“Lucas—” Karen started, shooting a worried look as the smoke was turning yellow, which meant the flames were growing nearer. The radio suddenly crackled.
Lucas heard the barked question from his captain and saw Karen calmly take the radio from Ricky. He jumped out of the truck and ran to the side of the cabin.
“What is it?” Jacko shouted.
It was an abandoned car. A heap of rust. He’d delayed them for what amounted to scrap metal that didn’t look like it was capable of driving anywhere. Smoke thickened the air as the wind whipped up. He could taste it. Angry with himself, he yanked on the door handle and then stood frozen in shock. Crouched on the front seat and obviously trying to start the car was a young man. Lucas had a second to register the guy’s terrified green eyes, huge against such a milky white face, and the vague impression he had seen him somewhere before.
Lucas reached out his hand and the man shrank back. “We need to go. The wind has changed, and the fire is heading toward us. Grab my hand.” For a heartbeat the man stared at him, and just as Lucas wondered if he understood English, he spoke up.
Lucas didn’t bother with another explanation as his fingers closed over the man’s arm, fully intending to haul him bodily over the seat, when a loud wail came from the back seat and he got his second shock of the day. A baby. Strapped into a car seat, red-faced in fear and possibly temper, she opened her mouth and wailed again. For the longest second, Lucas froze. Then he shook himself, backed up, and yanked open the back door. His fingers remembered how to unstrap the baby, even if his brain was trying to block it out. “Come on, sweetheart,” he crooned as tiny fingers grabbed his jacket and he pulled her out. Heart pounding, he unzipped his jacket and tucked her inside, turning her head away from the smoke. Mercifully, the man seemed to get his brain in gear, and he scrambled out. Lucas took his arm to hurry him along. “Run,” he ordered, seeing Karen coming toward them.
“Is he all right?” Karen asked, obviously seeing the man and wanting to check the baby herself.
“Where are we—” the man started to ask. Then he looked over Lucas’s shoulder, and his words died. Lucas didn’t need to see what had silenced him. He could taste the oppressive smoke tickling the back of his throat.
“We need to go. Now!”
Lucas let Karen guide the man toward the truck, as he tried not to think, not to remember. Now wasn’t the time. He couldn’t afford to get distracted. He took a last look over his shoulder, his hand cupping the little girl through his jacket, and hurried after them. Jacko had gotten back behind the wheel. Karen was helping the man sit, and Lucas threw himself into the first seat as Jacko gunned the engine. Lucas looked back to see the man reach out and open his mouth to ask for his child, but Jacko slammed on the brakes and Lucas pitched forward, nearly getting flung between the seats. His arms anchored him quickly to stop his forward motion and to protect the child just as a deafening crash assaulted his ears and the truck jerked and slid. Jacko grunted, twisting the wheel. There were loud thuds as rocks hit the vehicle, and the grind of metal and squeal of tires told Lucas that Jacko was losing the fight to keep the truck on the road.
The vehicle slid inexorably to the lake area and the grasses that would only take seconds to ignite. Lucas glanced at the window, knowing he had to keep his seat but itching to move. A half constructed road had split. A few of the huge trees on the hillside had slid and cracked the tarmac of the half-built path. The truck wasn’t in danger of rolling because the incline wasn’t steep, but the road was completely blocked. Lucas took one look as the ground steadied. The smoke was getting intense. The fire was minutes away, and they were trapped. “Everyone out,” he ordered just as lusty wails echoed from inside his jacket. Karen and Ricky stood obediently.
“Give her to me.” The man’s high-pitched cry was heard over the baby.
“We have to move. The fire is—”
“Then we need to stay in here,” the guy’s terrified voice cracked.
Lucas shook his head. If the blaze overran them, inside a vehicle was the last place they’d want to be. They all had the new M-2002 fire shelters, and while each of them was trained so they could nearly deploy them in their sleep, they’d all hoped it would never come to this. Lucas didn’t give the guy a chance to protest, reaching over and yanking him to his feet as the others pulled their packs back on. The man reached for the baby, but Lucas grabbed the front of his thin jacket to pull the guy toward him.
“We have one chance. You do exactly as I say, when I say it.” And without waiting for a reply, he pushed the man forward, checking his own hold on the baby was still secure. They all jumped down and started running, Lucas’s grip on the man remaining tight. He looked to his right and saw the flames licking at the tallgrasses of the lake area, and scanned the smoke-covered trees. They were trapped. The houses would go up. The cliff side was impassible, and so was the road. They had no choice but to get in the shelters. He dragged the man along and stopped at the clearing where the truck had parked originally. The cliff face offered some protection, but they had to be far away from the truck in case of an explosion. Any farther and they would also be too near the tallgrasses.
“Here,” he ordered, and Jacko and Karen immediately ripped open their shelter packs. Jacko took over for Ricky as he fumbled, and he could hear his friend yelling hurried instructions. “Feet to the fire. Trap yourself in with your legs as tight as possible. Grab the handles, roll, and put your face down into the ground.”
“What are you—”
“Listen to me.” Lucas gave the man his full attention. The heat and the noise were getting unbearable. “This is a fire shelter—”
“And using it is the only way we are going to survive,” Lucas interrupted, raising his voice over the noise and the terrified cries of the baby. “I need you to lie under me. I won’t crush you, but it’s going to be tight. Karen needs to take—”
“No,” he cried and clutched at the baby, who was still zipped in Lucas’s jacket.
Lucas didn’t have time to argue, much as he wanted to. The flames were racing across the grass, and the truck was nearly engulfed. They’d run as far away as they could. It was time to take shelter. “Down,” he yelled, and shook out the aluminum pack, stepping inside and wrapping them up. The baby was whimpering, and Lucas banked down his fear that they wouldn’t have enough air for all three of them, even if the pack kept them from being incinerated. At least his hands knew what to do, even if his brain was telling him what a tremendously bad idea it was.
“Oh God,” moaned the man, as he lay with his face pressed to the ground, the baby sandwiched between them and Lucas covering them both, trying to protect them with his body without suffocating them.
Wind suddenly gusted above them, and everything went still. A torrent of heat and noise swept over them, and Lucas determinedly anchored his legs and arms to keep them cocooned. He heard nearby trees whoosh as they burst into flames. Debris rained down on them, and then he cringed at the almighty boom signaling the truck had exploded. Lucas pressed his face into the hair of the man and held himself still.
Baby powder or something sweet tickled his nose over the god-awful stench of the thick smoke, and he fought to stay in the present. Not now. Now wasn’t the time.
He stayed icily rigid while the heat and noise raged above them. He tugged at the edges to keep them all enclosed, and prayed. Because of his height, he was the only one who had a larger shelter, but he was supposed to be lying on his front, and that was impossible with the baby.
He would never know exactly how long the burnover lasted. It was likely a few minutes, but he was sure it was all over for them, at one point. All he could do was take small breaths and hang on to the pack while whatever hell was wreaking devastation around them blazed on. The second he felt the noise ease, he counted another moment and heard Karen cry, “Clear.”
He had a panicked second where his muscles had cramped and he was terrified he’d crushed the baby, but then the pack was ripped off them and Jacko pulled him to his feet.
“Oh God. Oh God.” Tears streamed down the man’s blackened face, and the baby’s cries grew inconsolable. Karen quickly unzipped his jacket and lifted her out. Alive.
“Are you hurt?” Lucas barely felt the sting on his thigh where he had failed at sealing them in when the wind was at its fiercest. He ran assessing eyes over them both. The baby’s wrap was only lightly stained with smoke, and he took a shaky breath of utter relief. He lifted his head and saw Jacko checking Ricky. “Everyone okay?”
“Thanks to you,” Karen muttered and shot him a relieved smile as her hands quickly and thoroughly checked the child. Lucas focused back on the man in front of him. “They will send an ambulance or a chopper as soon as they can. We need to get you both to the ER.”
“No.” The man nearly wrenched the baby away from Karen and took a shaky step back.
Every alarm bell in Lucas’s head rang clearly and loudly. It was one thing being terrified when they first appeared in the panic to get safe, but surely now he would want a doctor to check the baby. “What’s your name?”
The infinitesimal pause before the man answered sealed the deal for Lucas. He knew the guy was going to lie before the words came out of his mouth. “J-John. And this is my daughter, Mia,” he said almost challengingly. No last names. Were they on the run… or worse, did the child not belong to him at all?
“She needs checking out.” She’d stopped crying, but she needed medical attention. “Babies can go from fine to critical in seconds.” Lucas didn’t sugarcoat his words. “Karen has first aid training, but we need to make sure she didn’t inhale any toxins.”
John—although Lucas doubted that was his real name—reluctantly gave up the baby to Karen, who unwrapped and checked her. Karen—with three children of her own—soon had the mite settled and rewrapped. “She seems fine, but she absolutely needs to go to the ER.”
John looked doubtful, and even though Lucas didn’t want to frighten him, he had to hammer it home. “Toxins can easily get into the lungs, making it difficult for her to breathe. The only thing that will confirm she is safe is a blood test.”
John staggered back, putting a fist against his mouth in an obvious effort to get himself under control. Lucas reached out instinctively, feeling like a complete shit. Karen shot him an understanding look. She clearly had the same suspicions he did. John’s knees wobbled, and his face went from pale to alabaster. Lucas had him on the ground, his head between his legs, in seconds. “That’s it. I got you. Just take a few breaths.” He glanced at Karen, who was holding the baby. “She looks fine, but we need to be sure. I’m sorry I frightened you.”
John took some steadier breaths, and Lucas crouched down, supporting him. They didn’t move for a few heartbeats, and Lucas gazed at the man, assessing him. He wasn’t burned, so his reaction had to be due to shock. Then the radio crackled. Jacko answered it immediately and confirmed they’d found civilians, including an infant, and that they needed a chopper. The road was still impassable.
Lucas was surprised when he heard the choked whisper from the exhausted man. He doubted the dark shadows under his eyes were just from the last twenty-four hours, though. John didn’t look like he had slept properly in weeks. “How old is she?” he asked carefully, knowing it was up to the cops to determine who “John” and “Mia” really were. Then he nearly forgot the question as John’s face softened and his eyes sought out the child. Whatever their circumstances, clearly John—or whatever his name was—was deeply attached to her.
“Seven months,” he said carefully, his voice holding a tiny bit of wonder, as if he could barely believe it himself.
Call him jaded. Call him a bastard. Call him whatever, but Lucas knew this guy was lying.
Just not about what.