Characters:Chris, Vin, Buck, Dr. Will
It always happened on Friday, usually sometime just after the doctor's office closed. So it came as no surprise when, through the glass window of his office, Chris Larabee saw Buck shake his head in resignation as he spoke on the phone. After dropping the receiver in its cradle, his tall roommate rose wearily and made his way to Chris' office door where he slouched against the frame.
Chris leaned back in his chair and tilted his head as he regarded his friend. "What's the matter, Buck? Looks like your horse died or somethin'."
Buck replied with a lopsided grin that wasn't backed up with humor. "That was Mrs. Potter. JD's got a fever and threw up."
Chris looked at his watch and snorted. "Not surprised. It's five-fifteen on a Friday and we have plans."
"Guess the camping trip's off. For me 'n JD at least." Buck came in and plopped down on the small couch. "No reason to disappoint Vin. If you don't do the camp out, what about a day trip?"
The eclectic family had planned a horseback camping trip for a couple of months now. This weekend was the last where all four would be available at the same time before school started. Between the agents' training and work schedules, the boys' summer school and chicken pox, summer vacation time had been scarce.
Summer school was a necessity for Vin as he had been behind in his schoolwork when Chris adopted him nearly a year ago. JD attended, too, but it was mostly to give him a break in the daily scenery. The sharp-minded little whirlwind loved school, but for Vin it was pure and utter torment. His poor reading skills and dyslexia made the entire ordeal of school almost like torture chamber. He was in dire need of a break.
Chris understood the feeling because he suffered right along with his boy. Things were getting better, though, that was clear to the adults in Vin's life. Vin, however, had a tough time seeing it. This camping trip would give the boy a chance to exercise the things he did excel in: Riding, following trail maps, setting up a camp. It was those kinds of survival skills and moxie that had allowed the two young boys to survive, homeless, on the streets before they were found by Team 7 during a warehouse bust.
"I may just do that," Chris said. "I think we'll keep it down to one night instead of two. Leave tomorrow morning and be back Sunday afternoon instead of Monday morning."
Standing, Chris tapped his keyboard and shut down the computer, and grabbed his briefcase. "It's all right. I'm sure Vin'll like the alone time."
Buck rose and laughed shortly. "Yeah, with JD stayin' home you just may actually see some wildlife!"
"There is that," Chris agreed. "Let's hit the road."
The pair stepped out of the office and Chris turned off the light. They paused in the bullpen area. "Time to go, boys," he announced to the rest of the team. It struck Chris then how hard they had been working these past few weeks as the remaining men practically bolted for the door. He slapped Josiah on the back as he passed.
"Got plans, 'siah?" he asked.
"Thought I'd check out the Habitat for Humanity site north of town. I hear they need someone who's pounded a nail or two."
Ezra wrinkled his nose with distaste as he shrugged on his jacket. "Sounds like an occasion defined by sweat and dust. Do not call me."
Josiah's toothy grin and the evil glint in his eye made Chris laugh.
Apparently, Ezra read the look, too. "On second thought, I believe I will simply turn my phone off and screen my calls. And lock the door. I wouldn't want anything to disturb my weekend with Opus Two and Coq au Vin."
"Those are funny girls' names," Buck teased.
"I will not discuss the particular lady who will be passing time with me and the previously named delectables," Ezra said firmly. "I must insist on some occasional 'privacy' in my private life."
"You don't have a private life," Nathan snorted as he closed the main office door behind all of them. "Might as well get that through your head now. Me 'n Raine had to accept that fact long ago."
Everyone but Ezra laughed at that established truth.
"Have fun on your trip, you guys," Nathan said as he waited for the elevator. "It's gonna be hot. Drink lots of water."
"Looks like it's just me and Vin. JD's sick."
Nathan raised a questioning brow as they stepped into the elevator car.
"Fever, throwin' up," Buck sighed. "It's going to be a long night."
"Lots of fluids. Popsicles. Motrin or Advil. Call me if you need me. Remember the B.R.A.T. diet," Nathan said.
"Bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Got it. I'll need to stop at the store," Buck said to Chris. They stepped from the elevator into the lobby. "See ya at the ranch?"
"See you in a bit, Buck."
"Relay my condolences to my young nephew," Ezra requested of Buck, and then turned to Chris. "And do not lose Master Tanner in the woods."
Chris chuffed. "Now that he has a place to call home I get the feeling that Vin could find his way there, blindfolded, from the Arctic Circle."
"That may be true, but he is only eight years old." Ezra dropped his annoyed tone, his true attachment to the boys showing in his face. "Be careful?"
"I'm always careful!"
"And still trouble seems to find you," Ezra said dryly, recovering his poker face. "Enjoy your time together."
"And watch out for ticks," Nathan added.
The glass was cool against Vin's forehead as he sat on the window seat and stared at the long driveway. Ringo, his dog, lay at his feet busily working on a rawhide bone. Vin could hear Mrs. Potter fussing in the kitchen. The quiet of the house felt like a heavy weight on his shoulders.
Vin was unsettled. He could feel it in his stomach. The overnight horseback camping trip had been in the works for weeks and now stupid JD and some stupid germs were going to ruin everything. As soon as he had the thought, he felt guilty, then to banish the guilt he reasoned that he deserved the break and then the cycle would start all over again.
Stupid germs. Stupid JD.
He sighed. All he wanted was to escape walls for awhile.
A motion at the street caught his eye and he straightened. Chris was home! Vin tripped over Ringo and the dog yelped in fright.
"Sorry, boy! Dad's home!" The pup had already learned that particular term. He scrambled to his big feet and bounded happily after Vin's heels.
By the time Vin got to the door and pulled it open, Chris' black truck was parking in front of the house. Boy and dog raced to the driver's side and skidded to a stop. Chris would make him feel better. He always did. His adopted dad was the only person he trusted in his life to always be there when he needed him, and that alone lifted a lot of his woes. It was a gift that had taken him a long time to accept and sometimes, still, he wondered when his luck would run out.
"Hey, Vin," Chris said as he stepped down from the cab. He immediately squatted down and opened his arms. Vin didn't hesitate jumping into the embrace and wrapped his arms around Chris' neck. When he stood, Vin wrapped his skinny legs around Chris' waist. It was a rare thing for him to accept being carried but the closeness felt good right now. "So JD's sick, I hear?" Chris leaned into the truck and retrieved his briefcase and then started to the house.
Vin loosened his grip around his dad's neck and leaned back a little to fiddle with the collar of Chris' shirt. "Uh, huh," he answered. "Where's Buck?"
"He stopped at the drug store to get some stuff for JD." Chris climbed the four stairs to the front porch.
After a long moment, Vin finally had to ask. "Guess our camping trip's off, huh?" He continued to finger the collar, his eyes fixed on the material rather than the apology he expected to read in Chris' eyes.
"Well," Chris started as he stepped inside. He put his briefcase down on the entryway table. "I wouldn't say that."
Vin's fingers stilled. Curiosity made his eyes peer upward to meet glittering green. He turned the words over in his mind. "Then . . . what would you say?"
"Pack your saddlebags for one night instead of two?"
Vin's heart leaped. "Yessssssssssss!" he hissed, punching upward into the air with a fist. "Just you and me?"
"Just you and me."
Vin's wiggling demanded he be let down. "When? Now? I got my stuff packed already!"
"Whoa, now, wait a minute," Chris laughed. "We'll leave in the morning. I'll hitch up the trailer tonight and we'll load what we can so we can make an early break. How's that sound?"
"Great!" Vin gushed. He turned to race to his room to tell JD, but stopped himself with a second thought. Deciding it was probably better to leave JD alone, he turned back to Chris. "JD's gonna be bummed."
"'Bummed'?" Chris questioned with eyebrows raised in amusement. "Where did you pick that up?"
Vin studied Chris' eyes deeply, looking for any sign of anger. He only saw humor, and relaxed. "A kid at summer school. He jus' moved here from California."
Chris rolled his eyes and smacked Vin playfully on the rump. "And here I thought you were learning math and spelling and all that useful stuff."
"Uncle Ez says words is useful."
"Yeah, well, Uncle Ez would. And it's 'words are useful'."
"Are useful," Vin grumbled, but immediately brightened again. "Can I watch TV 'til dinner? JD's sleepin' in our room."
"Sure." He ruffled Vin's hair, and then Chris greeted Mrs. Potter and got the run down on JD. He thanked her for the waiting dinner as she left. When he closed the door Chris stood a moment and looked around the living room. "Sure is quiet. Guess I'll check on JD."
Vin plopped on the couch and picked up a remote. "He barfed a couple times."
"So I heard."
Vin settled on the Outdoor Life channel and watched a man catching fish in a rushing river, imagining that he would soon be doing the same thing with Chris.
Dawn had just blanketed the sky with pale light when Chris felt a presence near him. Just lifting from the depths of sleep he opened his eyes suddenly to see a shadowy outline he recognized as well as his own.
"Vin," he said softly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"More or less," he replied knowing that would be it for sleep. Chris sat up and stretched. Vin didn't move. Chris looked at him and saw that he was shifting his weight from side to side. For Vin, that was the equivalent of jumping for joy. "Guess we best get movin', huh?"
A huge smile made the boy's face look his age instead of a serious, miniature adult. It was that smile that always made Chris realize that his son didn't smile enough. When he stood Vin raced from the room. Chris noticed he was already dressed.
After hitting the bathroom and dressing, Chris went to the kitchen and found cereal bowls already set out. He also found a bleary-eyed Buck slouched at the table, one hand propping his head up while the other clenched a cup of coffee. Vin was busy setting out cereal boxes, milk and juice.
"What're you doin' up Buck?" Chris said with a bit of pity as he poured himself a hot cup of caffeine. "Or are you actually up?"
"Been up since four," Buck mumbled. His eyes drooped. "Before that, since two. Before that . . ."
"JD's no better, huh?" Chris guessed.
"Don' know yet. What time is it?"
The sound of retching and a crying boy came down the hall as if on cue.
"Yup, he's better. He went two and a half hours this time." Buck oozed upright and with dragging feet, headed down the hall. "Have fun you two."
"Thanks, Buck!" Vin said much too cheerily. He caught Chris looking at him and wiped the smile from his face. "I really am sorry about JD bein' sick, Chris. Really."
"I know, son. Did he keep you up at all?"
"Nah. After he barfed at midnight Buck came an' got him."
Chris couldn't help but chuckle. He knew he should feel bad, but he also knew he'd get his turn. Sleep deprivation was what having a child was all about.
They ate, loaded the horses and were off in under an hour. The drive took them miles into the mountains. The heat rose with the sun and by the time they reached the base camp parking area, it was pretty hot. Chris wondered how the horses would take it with the extra weight and regretted the decision not to bring one of them as a pack animal.
Chris helped Vin saddle Peso and double-checked the supplies. Since Buck and JD weren't coming, he'd opted to double up on canteens.
"You be sure to drink lots of water, Vin, you hear me? It's important up here. And don't forget the sunscreen on your face and arms. Don't want you getting' as red as that t-shirt you're wearin'."
"Yes, sir," Vin replied with sigh of infinite patience.
They were ready for the trail by ten o'clock. Vin looked at the sky and surrounding mountains, then regarded the map. Chris was always amazed at the boy's ability to decipher maps, blueprints and graphic designs. He may not read words well but he sure could read a picture and had a bump of direction that was uncanny.
"How long to get to the campsite?" Vin asked as he mounted up.
"We'll be there before dark. We have to take is slow because of the altitude and the heat, all right?"
Vin nodded. "Got it. Let's go!"
Once mounted Vin reined Peso confidently to the trailhead. They had plotted their route and highlighted it on the map days before and Chris had no doubt it was permanently imprinted on Vin's brain. Chris chuckled, gave Pony a grateful pat and swung up into the saddle. "Lead on! Do you want to be Lewis or Clark?"
Vin gave him a dirty look over his shoulder. "Does this hafta be eddycasenul?"
"Nope, not at all. My mistake," Chris laughed, shaking his head. "Come on, then, we're burnin' daylight!"
The rare smile returned, again brightening the boy's face, and they were off.
The change in his son was like night to day. Vin rode ahead of him full of confidence - back straight, chin up, bright eyes roving constantly - and there was a relaxed curve to his thin frame that was seldom seen. On top of that, Vin was practically chatty. Chris wondered if this was the boy Vin would have been all along, given any semblance of a normal childhood; he also hoped that this was the boy he would permanently become in the near future. Chris vowed to make this kind of outing a regular event in an effort to coax that boy out more often.
As they continued up the mountain the day grew hotter. The trees offered welcome shade and by their lunch stop a dry, hot wind started to make itself known.
"It's getting pretty hot," Chris noted as he offered the horses water from a canteen. Vin had found a nifty collapsible plastic bowl on the internet that worked perfectly for this particular chore. Pony drank, and then Vin took the bowl to water Peso.
"It's okay that it's hot," Vin said. "Too hot for hikers so we got the trail all to ourselves."
"Good point," Chris conceded. Yes, this was a great idea.
Peso had enough to drink and started splashing the water with his nose. "Hey!" Vin yelped. Chris laughed as Vin half-heartedly scolded the horse and fought to get the bowl away from him. Peso kept poking his nose into Vin's hands, looking for his play toy. The boy finally got the bowl folded. Then Peso sneezed, spraying his young charge. "Thanks a lot!" Vin tried to sound firm, but ended up giggling.
Chris had to wipe his eyes from laughing. Six months ago Vin would have fallen apart with frustration and embarrassment. There were so many little ways in which he'd grown. Chris was proud.
Their day found them at dizzying heights one minute, deep in shrouded forest in the next. Traces of wildlife were abundant, and Chris knew that as it cooled they could expect to see opossums, raccoons, maybe a fox or two and possibly a bobcat. There were more kinds of birds than he could count. Vin soaked up any and all of the things Chris pointed out.
They kept a steady pace, took numerous breaks, and generally enjoyed the company of nature and each other. Vin was right about one thing - there hadn't been a hiker anywhere in sight today. It was early afternoon when they finally spied the lake they were to camp beside.
"Wow, we're almost there!" Vin said. "We made good time, huh?"
"Yup, we're right on schedule."
They reached the lake in a couple of hours and easily found the primitive campsite. Since this was one of the few horse camps in the area, there was even a small corral made from pipe.
"How do ya 'pose they got that up here?" Vin asked as he unsaddled Peso.
"Not sure," Chris wondered. "Helicopter, maybe?"
Once unsaddled, Peso demanded water by shoving Vin in the back, pushing him toward the narrow river that fed the lake. Chris grabbed Pony's lead line and headed out, walking next to Vin and Peso.
As the horses drank and nibbled river grass, Chris looked around.
The lake was in a bowl of low mountains that were covered with trees. Dry grass surrounded the lake, leaving open space to the tree line. They were in an upper valley, but there was another valley to the east that rose up as a narrow trench. The river flowed from there, feeding the lake. Chris briefly wondered where the river originated. Above them, the sky was clear and blue but over to the west he saw a growing cluster of roiling clouds that told him they might have a quick summer shower by dawn. He saw a pair of hawks circling, calling to each other as they hunted.
Vin was paralyzed, his mouth slightly open in awe as he surveyed their home for the night. "This is great!" he whispered. "Can we fish?"
"Sure, as soon as we set up camp. We can build a fire, but only in the fire pit. The only pit I see is a little farther from the campsite that I like, but it's the only one around. We have to very careful, Vin. It's fire season right now and this grass is very dry."
"I'll be careful."
They turned the horses loose in the corral and set up camp. Chris showed Vin how to prepare a campfire and insisted that they needed a container of water nearby if they lit it later. "If this wind keeps up, it would be better not to light it," Chris said. "We have stoves we can use to cook." Vin looked a little disappointed about the campfire, but Chris quickly changed the subject and suggested a try at fishing with the last hour of light left until dusk.
Vin settled next to Chris, sitting in the comfortable silence that marked their relationship. As he held his fishing rod, Vin watched the surface of the water for signs of his clueless prey. The hot, fractious breeze tickled uneven ripples across the surface and he saw frequent dimples from thirsty bugs as they dipped into the water.
"Whoa!" he yelled, pointing to a splash just offshore. "Did you see that? A fish jumped!"
"Hopefully, that's one less mosquito," Chris chuckled. "Hey, you got a nibble!"
Vin gripped his rod tightly. "Now what?" he breathed, bracing he feet.
"Tug once to snare it, then start reeling in our dinner," Chris said. He moved in close to Vin but allowed the boy control of the catch.
With Chris' calm instructions, Vin soon had the wiggling catch at his feet. "I did it!"
"You sure did. Now let's get that beauty in a skillet. It's nearly dark."
With Vin carrying his prize and Chris toting everything else, they headed to camp. Keeping a grip on the slippery catch took Vin's full attention. Chris soon had an area cleared to work and indicated that Vin set the fish down on a conveniently flat rock.
"I'm going to show you how to gut this fella, Vin, but you have to promise me you won't handle his knife unless I'm with you, okay? It's very sharp."
Vin agreed and paid close attention to the directions and soon had his first fish ready for dinner. As Chris prepared the frying pan, Vin set up the lantern and gathered their eating utensils.
"The mosquitoes will be out in force soon," Chris noted as he dropped the fish on the hot pan. It sizzled loudly and Vin's mouth instantly began to water. "Go get your long sleeved shirt on and some of that bug spray, and then bring our plates over here. I don't know about you, but I'm starved!"
"Me too!" Vin agreed before dashing into the tent.
"And wash your hands after you put on the bug spray!"
He was in heaven. When they first arrived at the campsite there was a twang of guilt that JD wasn't there, but Vin managed to shrug the feeling aside as they worked to set up camp. The pressure of school was long gone and he wished they could stay up here forever, just him and Chris.
While Chris finished putting dinner together, Vin took the horses to the river one at a time to drink and fed them their portion of feed pellets and grain. Along with the grass in the corral, they would be fine for the night.
By the time they sat down and ate, the wind had picked up to a steady rhythm, the heated breezes occasionally gusting hard enough to set the tent shuddering. The trees swayed around them like graceful dancers, sighing mournfully. Vin found the sound to be strangely comforting.
They ended up eating inside the tent to avoid any blowing dirt. Vin wanted to sleep outside, under the stars, but Chris pointed out the growing thunderheads to the west and explained that there would probably be a little rain before morning.
When they were finished with dinner, Vin collected the dishes and made sure that all traces of food were in the one backpack. Later, they would hang the pack in a tree to keep it from bears. The idea of bears made Vin's heart race; he hoped to see one. Not too closely, though. Chris sent him off with a flashlight to look for an appropriate branch, warning him not to lose sight of the campsite lantern. Vin wandered off, keeping track of the lantern with constant glances over his shoulder.
He was just far enough to lose Chris in the darkness when he stopped. The openness, the velvety dark and the hot wind stirred something inside and he felt a tingle of excitement in his limbs. Vin tilted his head back and gaped at the dusting of stars in the inky sky, awed by the sheer number of twinkling lights above. The two constellations he knew, the Big Dipper and Orion's Belt, were nearly lost in the stardust.
A blast of hot wind knocked him sideways and he laughed. He wished he could live like this forever, just him and Chris and the horses, away from school, tutors and the crowds of Denver. He might miss his bed, though, he admitted, and he was glad he'd managed to stuff Cat in his sleeping bag. The stuffed animal, his first gift from Chris, brought the comfort of home wherever he went.
"Vin?" he heard Chris call. "How ya doin'? Any luck?"
"Still lookin'!" Vin replied, tearing his eyes from the sky and getting back to his chore. It didn't take long to find a couple of likely branches and he turned back to report to Chris. When he got a little closer, he saw that Chris was still drying dishes, so Vin decided to look around a little more.
He circled the site, the lantern becoming the hub of his pattern, and came across the prepared campfire, set up away from the trees and in a small, sandy patch. Vin paused next to the pile of sticks, slightly disappointed they probably wouldn't get to light it because of the wind. He crouched down, the gusts making him set his feet firmly, and picked up a stick. He poked at the dry pile for a few moments, trying to imagine it aflame. His gaze dropped and he saw a box of matches.
Vin knew he wasn't supposed to touch matches but it was dark and Chris was busy, and what if Chris let him light the fire later? He didn't want to look stupid because he'd never used a match. Vin picked up the box and opened it, intending to just look at them, but a gust of wind jarred his hand and a few of the wooden sticks fell from the box. Vin quickly gathered them up and put them away, holding the last one under his flashlight beam.
He'd seen people light matches on TV and in person, but the mystery of how they worked intrigued him. Curious, he scratched the tip against a rock. Nothing happened. Frowning, he tried it again. A sudden "pop!" followed by a sharp smell and erupting spark, startled him and he dropped it. To his horror, the dry grass around the match head immediately fed the flame.
Panicked, Vin leaped up and looked around. Chris had insisted that a pot full of water be near the fire ring at all times; Vin had retrieved the water and now grabbed the pot and dumped it on the flame, drenching it. His heart pounded furiously in his chest as he glanced between the now blackened spot and Chris. A tiny puff of grey smoke was blown away from the burned area by another gust of wind and Vin, afraid that Chris would smell it, kicked dirt over the area.
He waited in fear, watching the newly kicked dirt. It looked like the fire was out so Vin hurriedly closed the matchbox and put it back. He took a step back, breathing hard, and made sure the site looked like it did before. He dropped the pot and figured he could blame it on being tipped over by the wind.
Finally satisfied that everything was all right and that Chris wouldn't notice, he returned to the campsite, forcing himself to take small, unhurried steps.
Chris would be really mad if he found out. Anxiety grew and Vin's thoughts went wild. Although he was starting to feel pretty secure at his new home, Vin's biggest fear was that Chris would change his mind and take him back to Child Services. Playing with matches was a big no-no and if Chris thought he could burn down the house, even by mistake, that was a very good reason to send him packing.
'He won't find out, he won't find out,' Vin chanted, trying to get himself to believe it. He pictured the area in his mind's eye - yeah, he'd covered it up good. Chris wouldn't find out, especially if Vin kept him away from the campfire.
"Hey, you okay?" Chris's voice jerked him from his panicked thoughts. His adopted dad was standing by the lantern, drying his hands on a towel. "What's wrong?"
"Nothin'." Vin tried to sound calm and come up with a reason for looking upset. "It's just so dark." He worked his "empty face" into place.
"Yeah, ain't it great? Did you find a branch?"
"Uh," Vin started. "Yeah, I found a couple over there." He pointed in the opposite direction of the campfire.
"Okay, then. Let's get packed up."
Grateful for the physical distraction Vin moved in and they stowed everything away. By the time they'd hung the food pack, cleaned up the campsite and secured the items against the wind, Vin had nearly forgotten about the fire mishap.
The hot wind had become steady with time. Chris put his arm around Vin's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Vin, but I don't think it's safe to have a fire tonight."
"That's okay," Vin sighed in relief. "Can we look at the stars for awhile?"
Chris grinned. "Sure," he said. "Let's spread out a blanket."
They opened Chris' sleeping bags and spread it on one side of the tent, using it as a windbreak. Vin was thankful for the long sleeved shirt over his t-shirt when he heard the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes around his ears. They flopped down and scooted close together, Vin's head finding a pillow with Chris' shoulder. Chris pointed out the Milky Way and other stars and constellations. It wasn't long before Vin felt a nudge and was told to get in the tent. Vin did so automatically and flopped on top if his bag, finding Cat and hugging him close. He remembered Chris tugging off his pants and boots just before he dropped off to sleep to the sound of whispering trees.
Chris stayed up a while longer. There was a growing feel of unease in his gut that he couldn't ignore. He slowly walked around the site, the weak moonlight his sole light source. He checked the horses and noticed they were having problems settling down, too. Chris stayed with them until he was satisfied they wouldn't do anything stupid and wandered back to the site.
Tilting his head back, he looked up and saw puffs of clouds racing across the sky. The dry, hot wind was coming from the west and, remembering the growing thunderheads, Chris realized they would probably have rain sooner than he thought. He made sure the saddles were covered and recognized the growing anxiety he felt as his natural barometer.
Thunderstorms usually rode into Denver in a heavy, well-defined front that electrified the air preceding it as it rolled over the city. Chris had always been sensitive to the atmospheric change and usually enjoyed the intense feeling. This time he felt out-of-sorts being so far from home and having the responsibility of keeping Vin safe on his mind. Now, the charged air was unnerving and unsettling. He perceived it as a threat.
Knowing he wouldn't be able to sleep, Chris faced the wind and waited for the tempest to come. The wind became heavier, thicker perhaps, and he soon heard the boom of distant thunder. Looking up, he could see the approaching front as a black mass slowly engulfing the stars, rolling with wild fury. It occasionally flared red and yellow with lightning as it advanced toward them.
The harsh wind intensified just before the front overtook them. It was then that Chris realized what was wrong - there was no smell of rain. At this point, the wind usually carried a musty smell of wet wood but this time, it only smelled of dust.
"A dry storm," Chris whispered with worry. That meant lots of lightning and very little rain. In this dry environment, that was a recipe for disaster. He quickly ran scenarios in his head and looked around, the weak moonlight making any detail impossible to see. He pulled out his cell phone and turned it on. The bit of hope he had was dashed with the "no service" message.
Chris pocketed the phone and again faced the oncoming forces of nature, hating the fact that he and Vin were at its mercy for the time being.
Buck pushed back the recliner to the maximum. The hot, slumbering body that was JD could now sprawl across his chest with a minimum of support. A sideways glance to make sure the plastic bucket was within reach helped him to relax a bit. He was sure he wouldn't sleep; JD felt like a heating pad on overdrive and the fear of having to clean up another puddle of puke kept him alert.
He reached for the remote and clicked on the TV, making sure the "mute" button was engaged. Being past midnight, Buck was sure there would be something mindlessly appropriate on at least one of the bazillion channels the satellite dish offered. As he flicked through the stations, the Weather Channel caught his eye. The perky weather gal is actually what made him pause in his button punching, but the line of thunderstorms he saw on the map behind her is what widened his eyes.
"Looks like the boys are in for a noisy night," he mumbled. A flash of worry raced across his heart. When the woman started pointing at the clouds, he un-muted the sound.
". . . wild and noisy conditions in the mountains. Not much rain has fallen from this front so we urge residents in these areas to be vigilant for fires. Now in the easternmost part of the state . . ."
Buck engaged the mute mode again and put the remote down with an uneasy feeling. He rubbed slow circles on JD's back and knew he wasn't going to get any sleep tonight.
Chris stayed outside the tent until the stars above him were swallowed by the cancerous black storm and a crack of thunder loud enough to wake the dead made him jump. The wind now was hot, dry and relentless. He heard the horses moving restlessly in their corral, smelling the oncoming storm
When he entered the tent he wasn't surprised to see Vin sitting straight up, tense and quivering. Chris immediately dropped next to him and draped an arm around his shoulders. He knew he had to remain calm.
"Chris? Are we gonna be okay?" Vin huddled close with an uncharacteristic need to be touched.
Chris encircled him with both arms. "Just a thunderstorm, Vin. The front will pass pretty quick and then things'll calm . . ."
His reassurance was interrupted by a rapid succession of ear splitting thunder. Brilliant flashes of near blinding light made Vin huddle closer. Chris rubbed his back, feeling the line of his spine under his double layer of shirts.
"It's okay, Vin. We're okay. It'll pass." Chris focused on his voice, keeping it soothing and low.
"Peso and Pony? Are they all right?" Vin's voice sounded tight.
"Yeah, they're a bit worked up, but they'll be okay. Horses have lived with this kind of weather for generations. They'll be fine."
The cacophony of light, sound and electrified air seemed to last forever but did, finally, roll over them as the front charged eastward. The wind, however, stayed. It wasn't as strong as that which pushed the storm front, but strong enough to discourage wandering outside. At Vin's request, Chris did poke his head out to check on the horses and saw them huddled in the far corner, rumps to the wind.
Once convinced the animals were fine, Chris felt Vin relax and settle down. He released Chris and crawled back into his bag.
"Wait'll I tell JD about that," he said sleepily. "Wish he coulda seen it, too."
Chris combed back Vin's hair with his fingertips knowing it helped the boy to relax. "It's gonna be hard to describe, huh?"
Vin yawned. "JD's not gonna believe there's somethin' louder 'n gunshots," he mumbled. His eyes had already slipped closed.
"Hmmm," Chris acknowledged, disturbed in knowing that both JD and Vin had experienced gunfire in the worst place possible - while homeless on the street. He could only imagine how terrifying that must have been to two small boys with no place to feel entirely safe.
Chris could tell by Vin's breathing that he was asleep. Laying back on his bag with one hand under his head and the other stroking his son's hair, Chris thought again about how lucky the four of them were to have found each other. As he thought about the strides both boys had made in the past year, he smiled in the dark and closed his eyes. Sleep came quickly.
Waking with a jerk, Chris froze for a moment as his brain caught up. 'Camping', he remembered when the tent walls finally registered. But what woke him?
Chris forced his breathing to slow and his senses to reach out. It was dark and quiet, the wind either in a lull or finished for the night. He cocked his head. Was that what woke him? Sudden silence? He tried to convince himself of that but his gut wasn't buying it.
He sat in the dark, listening, when his nose caught a faint smell that disappeared as quickly as it had come. Smoke.
He had fallen asleep on top of his bag, fully dressed except for shoes. Pulling his boots on, Chris twisted his head around for any other clues and found none. He crawled from the tent and stood, turning a slow circle as he sniffed the air.
It was eerily still and quiet. He thought the smell was coming from the west, but he couldn't be sure; it was a sporadic scent, at best. He scanned the sky above him, but the canopy of trees blocked a lot of the sky to the west. Chris walked toward the lake and the open space beyond the trees, passing the horses along the way. Pony and Peso, standing nose to nose and each with one hind leg cocked in rest, looked curiously in his direction as he went by.
"You two look comfy," Chris commented lowly, trying to ease his growing feeling of disquiet. Once in the open, he scanned the sky. Was it brighter to the west or were his eyes playing tricks on him? The smoky scent seemed less strong and more spotty out here. Unable to confirm his fear he returned to camp and went through the motions of making a pot of coffee. Chris knew he was fooling himself if he thought he'd sleep now.
The night was pleasantly temperate and still. As the coffee perked, Chris listened to the chitter of night insects and the hoot of an owl. One of the horses sneezed and the memory of Vin's unexpected shower made him smile. Finally, he poured a cup and settled down against a rock. Visions of an old-time cowboy keeping night watch over a herd crossed his mind and entertained him for awhile. From there, his thoughts drifted from work to home, from Sarah and Adam to Vin, and how he had gotten to this point in his life. The coffee was soon gone and his eyelids once again grew heavy. He dozed.
The horses woke him, the reason for their restlessness frighteningly and instantaneously clear.
It was snowing ashes from a steady breeze and the western sky glowed ominously, the trees' black and branching canopy clearly backlit in pulsing red.
Chris scrambled to his feet with a hammering heart. The horses whickered nervously as they circled their corral. Forcing himself into motion, Chris went to them, talking calmly and picking up the saddles along the way. He caught them one at a time and tied them to the inside of the corral and then quickly tacked them up. He even slipped their bridles on over the halters and tied the reins to the saddle horns in preparation for a quick escape. Falling ash nearly blinded him and the growing panic was becoming harder to control. Once done, he left them tied to the inside of the corral and ran to the tent.
In the short time it took to prep the horses, the glow in the sky had doubled in height and width. They had to hurry.
"Vin!" he called as he unzipped the tent. Ashes slipped off the material and nearly buried his hand. The first tendrils of heavy smoke were fat and thick. "VIN!" he tore open the flap to find his son already struggling to pull on his jeans. The roof of the tent glowed orange. Vin's eyes were wide and he hadn't uttered a sound, but it was clear he knew to hurry.
Chris ducked inside and yanked up the boy's jeans and then grabbed his boots. "We need to fill the canteens but we leave everything else behind, got it?" He stuffed a flashlight in his rear pocket and gathered the canteens.
Vin nodded and dropped down to pull on his boots.
"Do you have the map?"
"Saddlebag," Vin squeaked, his husky voice an octave higher.
Chris handed him two canteens. "Okay, let's go."
They pushed out of the tent to near blinding ash and smoke assaulting them on a growing wind. The horses whinnied with worry. As they moved toward the corral, Chris noticed rabbits racing across their path in an erratic panic-driven pattern. When they reached the corral, they could hear a distant roar. Chris grabbed Vin's arm, stopping him. He dropped to his knee before the terrified boy and caught his eyes with his own.
"Vin, I know this is scary, but you have to keep calm so the horses keep calm. Peso will be looking to you for support. You are a team. Can you keep calm for him?"
Vin nodded. "Yes."
"Okay, then. Let's go slow. You got your canteens?" Vin nodded again and held them up. "Good. Put them on the saddle horn before you untie Peso. You have a bandanna for your face?" Vin pulled out a corner of his blue bandanna from a rear pocket. "Good. You follow me out of the gate. I'll hold Peso so you can mount."
"Which way?" Vin asked. "Which way we goin', Chris?"
Chris turned back and really studied the horizon. Gusts of wind cleared the black smoke enough for him to see that the trail back to the truck was out of the question. He recalled seeing a trail on the map that lead up the river valley and looked that direction. The skyline was clear above the valley. If they could make it up beyond the tree line . . .
"East. Up the valley. Let's go, son."
The urge to flee rose like a beast but Chris managed to keep it at bay as he led Pony and Peso from the corral. Pony pushed anxiously against him but a calm word and firm hand kept him from bolting. Peso was right on his tail. Once outside Chris shortened Peso's lead rope and Vin climbed aboard. Vin's black shifted nervously and tossed his head against the bit. Chris kept hold on Peso's lead line as he mounted the prancing Pony.
Fighting the urge to run, Chris made both horses walk from the camp. Pony danced sideways, chomping the bit, making it hard for Chris to hold Peso's line. Peso was twitchy, jumping in place occasionally when Pony moved suddenly but Vin was doing a good job controlling him.
Chris decided to let Vin have Peso and moved in beside him. He tossed the rope over Peso's neck. "Wrap it around the horn so it doesn't fall." Vin did so. "You remember looking at the trail up the valley?"
Vin glanced at the valley then turned back to Chris and nodded.
"I know it's dark, so be careful. Can you trot ahead of me? Find the trail?"
Again Vin nodded. "I'll try," he said.
"Just remember to stay calm for Peso," he reminded, realizing at that moment that he had to shout to be heard. "Go!"
Vin reined Peso around and broke into a steady trot and Chris fell in behind, fighting to keep Pony under control. He turned to look behind them and wished he hadn't.
From the slight elevation of Pony's back he could now see the flames. Smoke whorled up like black tornadoes and it was eerily quiet save for the dull roar and crackle. As he looked, Chris saw two tall trees go up like Roman candles, instantly engulfed in hungry fire. The flames swallowed the forest as he watched, chewing its way toward them and spewing ash and smoke skyward. The wind pushed them, spraying hot ash and embers on their backs, increasing with intensity as the fire created its own wind. Living embers scampered weirdly along the ground - it took Chris a few moments to realize what he was seeing.
Rabbits, on fire, were running though the dry grass and spreading the inferno.
Unable to stomach the sight, Chris faced east, determined to keep the grizzly sight from his son, who already had too many nightmares to deal with.
It was closing in on three o'clock and Buck had already paced a pattern in the carpet as he angrily stabbed the buttons of the phone once more. The television was on but muted, a talking head superimposed on a map.
"This the Forest Service?" he snapped in the receiver. "I need to report campers in the fire area! Yes! By Lake Moreno! Don't put me on HOLD!!! Argh!!!" His pace continued and he stomped his feet. A knock at the door made him jump. He hurried to open it with the receiver pressed to his ear.
Josiah, Nathan and Raine spilled inside, silent questions in their eyes.
"It's okay to talk 'cos I'm on HOLD AGAIN!" Buck bellowed into the phone. His other hand ran through his hair. He pointed at the TV. "See that blue spot there?" The new arrivals peered at the screen. "That's the lake where Chris and Vin are camping."
"Dear Lord," Raine whispered, her hand at her throat. The blue spot was nearly surrounded by animated red flames.
"Where did they start?" Josiah asked, staring at the map.
Buck didn't try to reply verbally. He wasn't sure his closed throat would let him. Instead, he pointed at a spot in the middle of the sea of red, west of the lake.
"Lord have mercy!" Josiah rumbled. "You've notified the Forest Service?"
Buck pointed at the phone. "Tryin' to," he snarled.
"Where's JD?" Raine asked.
Buck was relieved to finally have an answer. "In his room. I gave him something to make him sleep. He's still feverish, but hasn't thrown up for about three hours now. Could you check him?"
"Of course, Buck." Raine quickly moved down the hallway.
"I'll notify Orin. Maybe he has some connections or suggestions." Nathan flipped open his cell phone.
"I'll start packing supplies in your truck," Josiah offered, turning to the kitchen.
"Yes? Hello? Yes, my friend and his son are camping at Lake Moreno. They're on horseback . . ." Buck listened for several seconds. "Yes sir. His name is Chris Larabee. His son's name is Vin. Vin's eight years old. Two horses . . . yeah, the primitive site on the south west side of the lake. Yes, they had a map. I'm an agent with ATF and can help you on site. Where's the command post?" Buck grabbed a pen and started scribbling. "Uh huh, got it. Thank you Chief. My team will be there as soon as we can. We're coming from Denver." Buck jotted down some numbers. "Got it. I'll contact you on our arrival. Thanks, Chief."
Buck turned the phone off and threw it on the couch. "We're headin' out. Where's . . ." he was interrupted when the front door swung open and Ezra stepped inside.
"It was fortunate I was screening my calls," he said.
Buck kept it short. He pointed at the television. "There's where Chris and Vin are."
Ezra paled. "Oh, dear. Any word yet?"
"Nope, and we're heading up there." He dropped on the couch and pulled on his boots. "Can you help Josiah with supplies while I gather up some things and see to JD?"
Nathan snapped the phone closed. "Orin said he could arrange an ATF helicopter to get us there. They were anticipating a mutual aid call from the Forest Service anyway, so they're getting ready to take off."
Raine rejoined them. "JD's sleeping, but you're right. He's still hot. Do you need me to stay?"
Buck cradled her cheeks in her hands. "You have no idea how much I love you at this moment."
"Hey," Nathan said teasingly.
"I mean, yes, Raine, and thank you. We'll be leaving in a few minutes." Buck hurried to pack.
Chris had read in the paper many times about how fires seemed to calm down near dawn. For some reason he couldn't recall, winds seemed to die at that time and slow progression. He was praying that phenomenon was true.
He followed Vin around the edge of the lake and started up the valley. True to his word, Vin was able to find the trailhead. With a waning moon, the light was poor and they were forced to go very slowly. Chris was thankful for the grassy space between them and the flames, but that wouldn't last long with the wind encouraging the spread.
The valley was rockier than their previous trail and the vegetation a little more sparse, but it would still burn in a heartbeat. Chris made sure to keep the river in sight. It wasn't that deep, but if push came to shove, they could lie down in it.
Part way up the valley they stopped to fill the canteens and rest the horses. Drifts of smoke made it hard to breathe and Pony had developed a cough. The air was unbelievably hot, the ash thick and heavy. Occasional embers, heavier pieces of burning material, would drop down from the cloud of smoke blowing over them. Chris and Vin both had tiny holes in their clothes from them and the horses had burnt spots of hair. The bandannas tied over their faces helped filter a lot of the ash.
Letting Vin take charge of the canteens, Chris looked back again. The forest below them was a blanket of undulating red, the circle of the lake a dark spot in the middle. He tried to figure the fire line and which way the beast would run, but it seemed to be going everywhere at once, spreading like a cancer. The wind direction was not in their favor and he hadn't bothered to study where the tree line went. It was too dark but Chris knew that the few trees that surrounded them now had no better chance than those below that were currently aflame. The river and distance were all they had to work with.
"Let's get movin'," he said quietly when Vin returned. They secured the canteens and pulled the map from Vin's saddlebags. Sadly, the map ended with the top of the valley. Chris had no idea what was beyond. He could only hope they would find out on their own. He smiled down at Vin. "Got it in your brain now?"
"Yeah," the boy replied. Then he turned his big blue eyes up to meet Chris'. "I'm sorry this happened," he said, wide, fearful eyes rippling with unshed tears.
Chris dropped down and held him close, his heart pierced. "Me too. Let's worry about it later, huh?" Just before releasing the embrace, Chris noticed something under Vin's t-shirt. He realized in an instant what it was and smiled. "Cat all safe?"
Vin sniffed and nodded, clutching his hand to his stomach. "You said to leave everythin' but I couldn't leave Cat." He wiped his sleeve under his nose, adding to and smearing the ashes already there.
"It's all right. I'm glad he's okay. We need to move." He fixed Vin's bandanna over his nose and mouth and then did the same with his own.
They mounted and moved on. The wind's force rose steadily with the inferno. Both horses were coughing now, along with Chris and Vin. Chris' chest hurt every time he inhaled and his head swam. He wondered how bad they would be if they didn't have the bandannas.
As they wound their way up the valley Chris tried to recall everything he'd ever heard about wild fires. He'd talked to a lot of firefighters about their experiences and also tried to remember what he'd read about those firemen that died fighting these kinds of incidents. What did they do wrong? What should they have done? What had survivors of wild fires done to survive? He was pretty disgusted that he didn't know nearly as much as he wished he did. The only thing he did recall were the many stories about firestorms - fierce gusts of flame that traveled at unbelievable speeds with frightful temperatures. They were best described by people that had seen them as fire tornadoes.
That thought made him uncomfortable. With this wind, these conditions and this heat, a firestorm incident wasn't out of the question.
"Vin!" he hollered. "We need to stay closer to the river!" Vin reined in and Chris stopped next to him, studying the water. "Where's the map?" Vin pulled it from his saddlebag again and opened it. Chris took his flashlight and studied it. "That's what I was afraid of. Look," he pointed at the map. "The trail continues to go up along this ridge but the river stays at the bottom of the valley. I think it's safer to stay by the water. We can get in it if we need to."
"But what about the horses?" Vin said worriedly. "We can't let 'em burn! There's no way out from the valley floor."
Vin was right. If he was reading the elevations on the map correctly, the valley was a box canyon. If he only knew how much time they had and what was on the other side of the valley the decision would be easier. At that moment, Ezra's words about always betting on a sure thing crossed his mind.
"We turn 'em loose here and take a stand. They'll do better without us. We need to stay by the river."
Vin looked completely terrified, the last of his bravado gone. Chris would have loved to take the time and explain better, but one look over his shoulder told him they had to move. The entrance to the valley was glowing red and the searing wind was growing to disturbing levels. They slipped off the saddles and began to strip the horses of their gear. Chris could see Vin's hands shaking as he worked soundlessly, doing what Chris asked solely on trust.
"Take off the bags and grab both saddle blankets," Chris directed. Vin did so without question as Chris pulled off the bridles and unhooked the lead ropes. He shoved Pony away. "Git!" he ordered waving his arms. Both animals hopped sideways a few steps and looked at him curiously. "Go on!" he hollered hoarsely, swinging the rope.
Then a small rock smacked Peso on the rump. "Go away! Run!" Vin added, his voice unusually rushed. Another rock to the horse's side encouraged the horses to move away.
"Come on, we don't have time. They'll move when instinct kicks in." Chris tried to ban the vision of the burning rabbits as he spoke. He grabbed the saddlebags and one blanket. "Grab the other blanket. Let's go."
Vin refocused his attention. His short, panicked gasps were hard to ignore but Chris felt the urgent need to move. A last glance at the horses before going over the valley lip revealed the animals starting to move upward at a trot. Apparently, their gut instincts were screaming at them like Chris' was at him.
Getting to the valley bottom was a painful endeavor. Riding boots didn't have much grip and they got most of the way to the river on their butts, coughing dust and ash all the way. Finally at the bottom, Chris urged Vin onward. He hoped the valley walls were bouncing sound, because the roaring noise of the fire seemed to be getting louder.
"A waterfall!" Vin rasped, the saddle blanket hooked over his shoulder. "Look!"
Chris had to stare a moment to make out a moving, glowing wall in front of him. It was water rushing down rock face, he realized. He also noticed that the reflection in the falling water was growing redder by the second.
Chris glanced back over his shoulder, the heated wind blasting his eyes dry. 'Oh shit!' he swore to himself before turning back. "Run, Vin! In the water! Quick!"
A wall of flame was closing on them at an unbelievable speed.