"Fire! Please, help. Fire!"
The words swirled back at Chera James. Desperate to be heard, she stuck her head even further out her car window. Her tires on the dry logging road kicked up so much dust she could barely see the tree cutting equipment near the top of the hill, or the men working there.
A roar from a fully loaded logging truck effectively erased her scream. Choking on dust, Chera pulled her head back inside and held onto the steering wheel with all her strength. The vehicle bounced wickedly over a deep rut, then threatened to high center on a boulder.
If she ruined her not-yet-paid for car trying to get help, she'd--What was she thinking? Her car didn't matter.
"Lady! What the blame blasted--" She glimpsed the silhouette of a bearded man to her right but was afraid to stop for fear her car would roll backward on the steep grade. She gave the man a desperate, open mouthed stare, then again focused on what passed for a level parking spot near where the rest of the men were working on chain saws, securing the loads on the two logging trucks, doing whatever it was a crew did in the woods.
With a near shoulder dislocating effort, she yanked the wheel to the left and managed to find space between a couple of pickups that looked nearly as big as those monster trucks she'd once seen crushing a line of cars at a county fair. She pushed open her door and stepped out. The truck to her left had to be twice as tall as her vehicle.
Fire! Five desperate minutes ago she'd seen flames, heading away from the narrow logging road at the bottom of the mountain. The flames were licking their way toward summer dry brush and evergreens.
"Lady! What the devil--"
"Fire!" she screamed up at the man who suddenly appeared. "There's a fire. It--"
Twin vices clamped around her upper arms and she was pulled within an inch of a big, broad male chest sheathed in overworked flannel.
"Where?" he demanded. His breath, warm and insistent, hit her forehead and sent her hair flying away from her face. "Where?"
Although he continued to grip her so tightly that she was rapidly losing circulation in her arms, she managed to jerk her head in the direction she'd come from. "Down there. On the flat. Just after the turnoff to this road."
"We don't have time to talk," she interrupted. "There's no one around, no one to stop it. We have--"
He released her and spun away, yelling for everyone to jump into their rigs and haul down the mountain. As the men responded to his command, he whirled back around.
She saw his leathered hand snake toward her but didn't have time to do more than think about shying away before he again imprisoned her. Without saying a word, he began dragging her with him.
"Wait!" She planted her heels. At least she tried to. In truth, she felt like a small dog being pulled behind an impatient master. "What are you--"
"You're coming with me."
I can't argue that. "Won't I be in the way? I've never fought a fire, never even been near one."
Obviously the man wasn't interested in either her question or explanation, not that she could blame him. Giving up on the ludicrous idea of beating him in a wrestling match, she let him steer her through the maze of equipment. She thought he'd take her to his pickup and anticipated a wild ride over a wash-board road in a powerful rig.
Instead, he boosted her into the dirty cab of a massive vehicle that had been painted Forest Service green years and years ago. When it roared to life and began lumbering down the hill, she grabbed the open window frame and held on for dear life.
She thought about reminding the man that he'd have to take her back to her car once the fire was out, if they lived that long, but a glance at his intense profile was all the hint she needed. Whatever was on his mind right now, her comfort and safety wasn't part of it. Besides, how could she think of anything except the fire--and its potential destruction?
"I was driving along, trying to find the logging road, when I came around a corner and there it was. It looked like a river, a red, angry, smoking river."
"The fire," she explained. He held the steering wheel prisoner in his powerful hands. His body was hunched forward as if by sheer will he could hold the vehicle together long enough to reach their destination, and she sensed an all consuming concentration in his taut body, his deep eyes. "I was talking about the fire."
"One week, one lousy week."
"What about a week?"
He flicked a glance at her, then went back to staring at the snake-like path ahead of him. "What are you doing here?"
"I was--ow!" She rubbed the top of her head where she'd hit it on the cab roof. "Can't you go any slower?"
Of course he couldn't. What made her think any different? Chera focused on the road, or what passed for one. It had apparently been carved out of the wilderness by a bulldozer or something, but only a fool would call the job complete. As they slid around a switchback turn, she prayed the man would stay away from the steep drop-off. She should have stayed home where she belonged, where people knew the meaning of safety and restraint. Only, if she did, she might never do anything with her life except teach high school history.
"What is this?" She indicated the vehicle. "It's terribly heavy; I can tell."
"A thousand gallon engine's like that."
That didn't tell her a whole lot. "What does it do?"
"Pump water. What are you doing here?"
She focused on her surroundings. Thank heavens! The worst of the mountain was behind them. In a few more minutes they'd be on the graveled part. "I'm looking for a man."
He gave her an unfathomable glance. "Are you?"