“Aw, fuck,” Paul said. He got tears in his eyes. “That wouldn’t happen.” He looked at Joe. “After all we’ve gotten through? That wouldn’t happen, would it?”
The firefighters and volunteers moved down the line to a new location, but now that the fire was moving in another direction, away from Virgin River, other crews to the northwest were taking over. A few hours later, the sun setting, the chief was ready to pull his camp out of Virgin River, relocate the base camp and send the Virgin River volunteers home.
“Can’t leave,” Preacher said. “Not till we figure out where he is.”
“No one came out the other side, Preach. And he’s not here. I think maybe—”
“No,” Preacher said. “No. He made it out, we just can’t find him. We’ll just keep looking. We’ll go back to where we saw him last, as close as we can safely get, set up a perimeter, look for a trail. We keep looking. That clear?”
It was quiet for a moment until someone said, “Clear, Preach. That’s what we’ll do.”
By five o’clock, the firefighters were moving out of Virgin River, but the men had not returned. The acrid smell of smoke was dissipating, finally moving in the other direction. By six o’clock the town had grown eerily quiet and by seven, clouds began to roll in from the coast.
Paige, Brie and Nikki brought the children back to town and Mel was at long last able to nurse Emma and cuddle David for a while. She settled them into playpens and makeshift beds in Paige’s quarters. Walt and Muriel continued to work the kitchen and bar, keeping an eye on the TV for local news updates, convinced that the men would return soon, hungry. By ten o’clock, still no word from their men, Mel saw the first few drops of rain fall on the dusty street outside the bar. She leaned out of the porch with her palm up and smiled as it grew wet. She stayed on the porch and watched, the smell of rain like the answer to a prayer.
She sat in one of the Adirondack chairs on Jack’s porch and remembered the early days, before she married Jack, before the babies came. Back when she was alone and sure she’d never have love in her life again. Jack, so large and powerful, could have swept her up in his strong arms and devoured her, but he’d been patient, so gentle. He’d waited for her to say it was time, that she was ready to feel something that didn’t hurt. And then his hands on her, his lips, had drawn from her the most amazing response she’d ever felt. A love so sure, so dependable, so constant. Jack didn’t do anything halfway. He’d been a carefree bachelor, a lover of many women, until Mel. And then he belonged only to her. A committed partner.
You should never be afraid of anything while you’re my wife. It’s my job to make sure you’re never afraid.
I’m a little afraid right now, Jack, she thought.
At midnight, she stuck her head into the bar and found Muriel slumped in a chair with her head on the table while Walt still stood behind the bar, watching the news on the new TV. Ready. Waiting. “Go lie down somewhere, Mel,” he said. “I’ll call you the second they come back.”
“Have you heard anything on the news?” she asked.
“They’re saying the fire’s contained. And now, with the rain, they should be on top of it before long.”
“Then why aren’t they back?” she asked.
“Maybe they’re still needed for something,” he said. “Maybe cleanup or something. Go. Sleep.”
Jack never slept while she worked, just in case she needed him—which she sometimes had. She shook her head. “I won’t sleep until I have my man back,” she said. “He’s on his way.” Inside, she could feel each step he took toward her, though her heart was beating suspiciously fast. But she was sure. He was on his way. Maybe he was out there looking for someone…
She remembered the first time she’d met these remarkable men, these marines who would never abandon each other. She fell instantly under their collective spell—their humor, camaraderie, pure zest for life, these men who loved their women and the life they could bring forth. They were fun and lusty, brave and loyal. Jack had proudly sent Rick off to become one of them.
Jack had fathered Rick in every way he could, with as much devotion and strength as he would give the fruit of his own loins. She remembered how he had held the boy against the grief of losing his own child, his heart breaking into pieces. Her man, he had so much love inside him, it was amazing his chest didn’t explode.
I’ll never let you go, Mel. I want you to trust me, you know you’re safe with me.
“I trust you,” she said aloud, though there was no one to hear. “I love you. I trust you. And I know you—you’ll never give up.”
He had saved her life when it was bleeding out of her after Emma’s birth. She was only semiconscious, but she heard his desperate, pleading words. You’re my life! Don’t do this, Mel. Stay with me. Don’t you leave me!
“Don’t you leave me,” she whispered. “Don’t you dare!”
As if you could get rid of me now.
Dawn found her still sitting on the porch, alert. She had spent a very long night thinking about her husband. He had so many faces; a fierce and dangerous expression for an enemy, a threat. A soft and tender expression when he turned his eyes to her. A sweet pride when he held their children. A joyful gleam when he was with his friends.
She remembered when he had first talked her into those stolen kisses, deep and meaningful and passionate. It had been hard to resist him, his allure was so penetrating. And how fortuitous, because that same desire had given her the children—she just couldn’t say no to Jack. His love was blinding, it was so bold.
Finally, finally, a truck pulled into town, a farmer’s truck. In the back sat their men, dirty and exhausted. She stood on the porch and watched as one by one, they crumbled out of the truck. Mike came up the porch steps. The black ash on his face was split by damp tracks of tears.
“Where’s Jack?” she asked.
“Mel,” he said. “We can’t find him, Mel. We looked all night.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked with a nervous laugh. “You lost him?”
“They were evacuating the area and he didn’t come out. There was a sudden explosion. Fire swept over the road.” He grabbed her upper arm. “Mel, he might have been trapped. Three firefighters were lost in a blast of fire when the wind shifted.”
“But not Jack,” she said, shaking her head. Her eyes were perfectly clear. “No, Jack’s coming.”
“Baby, I don’t know.” He pulled her into his arms, but she kept hers at her sides. “I don’t think so.”
Preacher came up the steps. His eyes were bloodshot, weary and sad. His face was covered with soot, as were his turnouts. He stood before her and hung his head as if ashamed. She knew him so well—he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he thought he let Jack down.
“It’s okay. He’s coming,” she said. “He’s going to be pissed, but he’s coming.”
One by one they approached her, touching her, hugging her, some of them with tears running out of their eyes. Before long the general was on the porch and, seeing the men, went to rouse Muriel and the younger women. But Mel was unmoved. “No,” she said over and over. “You don’t understand. If anything had happened to him, I’d know it. I’d feel it. He’s coming.”
“We’re going back out there after some fluids and rest,” Paul said. “We’ll figure out what happened. No matter what, we’ll bring him back.” Then, hanging his head, he walked into the bar. It wasn’t long before the sound of Brie’s cry split the dawn and caused Mel to stiffen her spine. But she grabbed on to Joe’s arm as he passed and said, “Tell her. Her brother’s all right. He’s coming. Tell her.”
Joe pulled Mel against him and held her. “Honey, I’m not sure about that.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. No one understood. If Jack were gone, she would feel it—there would be a deep, dark, hollow place in her. For just a second she was reminded that when her first husband, Mark, had been killed, she hadn’t had any kind of premonition. There had been no warning, no deep feeling. But she banished the thought—it was different with Jack. It had always been different with Jack. “He’s on his way.”
J ack sat by the side of a deserted farm road at dawn, his ankle a mess, his face scorched. He was dehydrated, weak. His turnouts were covered with flame retardant, peppered with little holes from flying sparks, and he wondered how long he should rest before he just started walking again. Make that limping—he’d wrecked the ankle pretty bad. The area had been completely evacuated and it was unlikely anyone would be driving along this road until either Forestry or Cal Fire came this way. By that time he could be passed out, if not dead.
Then, against all odds, he saw the dust from a moving vehicle. He dragged himself to his feet, but he was dizzy and wobbly, his dehydration made worse by the dryness from smoke in the air. He placed himself in the center of the road. He decided he’d rather get run over than passed by. Who would pass someone in firefighter’s turnouts? Only the devil himself.
Then the devil himself in a dark pickup with tinted windows came to a stop just inches from him. “Son of a bitch,” Jack muttered to himself, his mouth dry as cotton.
The grower who’d crossed his path too often in the last couple of years opened the driver’s door and stepped out. “Jesus. You’re like a bad dream,” the guy said to Jack. “You look like hell.”
“Yeah? You’re not exactly my favorite person, either,” Jack returned thickly.
“How bad are you hurt?”
“Thirsty,” Jack said. “Just thirsty. Just let me siphon out of the radiator tank and you can go,” he said, insane though the notion was. He was insanely thirsty.
The guy, minus the Shady Brady and a little smudged with what could have been ash, sighed deeply and walked around the front of the truck. He opened the passenger door and said, “Get in.”
“You got water?” Jack asked.
“Yeah! I got water! Just get in!” Jack limped toward the truck. “You said you weren’t hurt,” Shady Brady said, eyeing the limp.
“I’m mostly just thirsty,” Jack said, walking very badly.
“You break it?”
“Nah. You ever hear a sprain’s worse than a break? We’re gonna find out…”
Shady Brady laughed in spite of himself. “Christ, you’re a piece of work. Get in.”
Jack wearily pulled himself into the truck, not easy—it was high, he was weak and the ankle was real bad. He’d hurt it right off, taking that dive into the ravine.
When the driver was settled behind the wheel, he reached behind him into the extended cab and grabbed a bottled water, handing it to Jack. “Take it slow or you’ll puke in my truck.”
“I know how to do this,” Jack said, then guzzled the water fast enough to make the concern a reality. In fact he belched and hiccuped a few times and lowered his window. But it was okay; the water stayed down. He leaned his head back and said, “Oh man. Long night.”
“How’d you end up here?”
“I got separated from the crew. Wind shifted, a tree exploded, I had to take a dive and run for it. But with no stars because of the smoke, I have no idea where I am. I walked all night.” He guzzled more water. “What are you doing out here?”
The guy laughed. “Getting the hell out of here. Listen, I’ll leave you by the county road where you’ll get picked up. I’ll leave you water, but I can’t go back that way. I’m all done there.”