It was going to be tricky but so long as they were still there we would at least have a chance. “They” were the canoes and kayaks that our Venture Crew had rented out from the different resort lodges in the area. There was a portage area that kept extra equipment in case of leaks and damage and that work shed was our destination.
I didn’t have a clue whether Thor could kayak or canoe and I knew for a fact that Mr. Hefling’s bad leg would make it difficult for him, but the rest of us were experienced at both. Even the Lindenhall boy, whose name I finally remembered was Turner Ashby, had a summer job helping run tourists from town up to the different drop off points.
We’d outrun the flames by going up and over on a trail that cut across rather than following the river. I almost cussed when we got there but Turner called, “Help me bust this lock off!”
Stro said, “Get outta the way! Easier to break the door than to break the lock!” And that’s exactly what he did; he broke the hasp right out of the wooden panel.
Inside were a couple of kayaks hanging from the ceiling. “Rochelle …”
“It’ll work, just let me show you,” I told him.
Turner said brusquely, “Not those … these. This is where we store them.” He pulled down a canvas sheet.
Three two-seater kayaks were suspended on rods on the wall. We quickly pulled them out and the oars that went with them and then put our packs in the float bags that were hanging on the wall next to the some additional wet gear. Only half of us got gear that fit but some coverage was better than none so despite the coveralls being several inches too short in the leg Stro, Thor, and I still put them on as well as the water proof coats that hit us midway between wrist and elbow. Thor wound up taking his jacket off again after saying, “Forget it. I’ll wear the rain poncho but I can barely lift my arms in this thing.” Stro and I looked at him and then followed suit. This wasn’t summer vacation and we might need to have full movement.
When it came time to get into the kayaks at the water’s edge Thor was not at all comfortable with the seating arrangement but I was the only one that realized it. Sand chose that moment to open his mouth when I wished he hadn’t. “Relax Thor. There are only a couple of rapids between here and where we’re aiming for.”
Thor looked at me, gave a sigh like a horse that has been ridden too long but knows he’s still got a ways before he gets to rest, and did his best to relax. Sand pushed off with Turner, Stro pushed off with his father, and then I pushed off with Thor. Thor and I rode deep in the water but since we were in a calm stretch the water didn’t lap over into the kayak.
My paddle muscles were telling me it had been a while since I had kayaked. Even with the weight training that Thor and I had started up the backs of my shoulders were feeling well used by the time we’d gone a quarter mile.
I felt the kayak bobble just a bit and then Thor said, “It doesn’t look like the fire has crossed the river yet but it is coming up hard on our side.”
Sand heard and said, “The fire is racing through the duff and now that flames have broken out it is drying the litter on top faster. River is going to narrow up here at the first rapid but I don’t think it’ll jump here … it’s too rocky and stays wet year round from a spring that empties into it right on the bank.”
I explained to Thor, “Not far now. It’s barely a Class 2. We’ll come out of this run, hit the rapid, then the cascade. The only maneuvering we’ll have to do is right at the end to avoid a large undercut.”
It was as smooth as I told him it would be. When we reached where the water was back to being a smooth run Mr. Fleming asked Sand, “Do you think they’ll get there in time?”
He answered, “It’s not that I’m worried about. They’ll be able to cut down time by running across the bow rather than around it. But if the fire gets there before they do and the bridge comes down or catches fire …”
Not a pleasant prospect and I prayed that wasn’t the case. The water was moving rapidly and waves were beginning to bounce us around a little bit throwing cold spray into our face. In a strained voice just loud enough for me to hear Thor asked, “Hon, did I ever tell you I’m not real fond of little boats?”
Every man has his weakness and I just figured out what Thor’s was. I leaned back as far as I could and told him, “Just hold on, we’ll get passed this and through the next bit of whitewater and it’s the worst of the three. Try and not lose your oar; as soon as I say pull it out of the water and just let me do the work. Pretend you are on a roller coaster.”
A strangled, “I’m not real fond of them either” was his only response.
I wondered how on earth a man that had, by all accounts from the stories I’d heard around the campfires all summer, jumped from airplanes, flown helicopters in bad weather, and rappelled down the sides of sheer cliffs could possibly get motion sickness in a little kayak. Then I didn’t have time to think, only steer.
I stroked and dragged doing my best to put us through the gentlest route. I heard a snap and then a curse as Mr. Hefling lost his paddle trying to avoid side swiping a boulder. I saw Sand’s kayak t-bone and then swing around. Lucky for them both were experienced kayakers and they worked in conjunction to straighten up before they went through the sieve. Thor and I did okay until the very end when an eddie caught us and I couldn’t keep us from hitting a pillow. I was able to get us out before we got sucked down into a pressure wave but we still rolled and it wasn’t until Thor accidentally helped that I got us back upright.
I expected to hear some fancy cursing from Thor but all was silent. I couldn’t look back until we were out of the cascade and by then Sand and Stro had paddled to our side. I turned and saw Thor had a bloody nose and a busted lip and a little bit of a crazy look in his eyes. “You did say that was the worst? Right Ro-chelle?”
I fought a smile, knowing he was all right if he could be a smart aleck and I said, “You betcha.”
All six of us then put our backs into it and by the time we got to the third rapid we fairly shot through it like a watermelon seed at a spitting contest. “All done with the rapids,” I said, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.
“We need to get dry,” Thor responded in a less than hearty voice.
I did turn around then and realized with some alarm that the bloody nose and busted lip wasn’t his only injury. But there was no time to say anything we were coming around the bend and heard guns shots.
“Well crud!” I complained.
“Yep,” Stro agreed.
We slowed the kayaks but our previous speed still took us around the bend and into the middle of a battle. We started paddling for the shore where our people were but Sand and Mr. Hefling both took hits in the process. We got up to shore and others were there waiting for us.
Thor stumbled and I put my shoulder up under him and got him onto the trail into the trees. Stro asked, “Thor hit too?”
“I think he hit a rock when we rolled.”
Thor said in goofy voice, “Gotta love that rock-n-roll.”
Stro looked at me with a startled expression. “Uh …”
“I’ve got him, you mind your dad. Sand?”
“I’m OK. It’s just a flesh wound.”
Mr. Hefling’s wound wasn’t, so over his father’s protest Stro picked him up in a fireman’s carry. I looked at Thor but he looked at me and said, “Not unless you want puke all down your back. I’ll be fine as soon as my stomach settles. Mostly-ly-ly shock I think.” The shivers grabbed him. His face was very pale and I hated like heck that I was going to have to drag him along when he really needed to find a place and get warmed up.
“Is it me or is it colder than it was not that long ago?” Thor asked.
I thought he was just chilled until I realized it was true. I looked at the sky and suddenly I got real worried. I looked at the guys. Some were still in a face-off with whoever was on the other bank but the few others were milling around like they didn’t know what direction to take.
“All right, that’s enough.” Hearing my voice as it rang with the dulcet tones that I’d learned from Coach they all stopped and just stared at me. My questions were simple and clipped. “Who’s on the other side?”
“Think it’s another bunch of Kemper’s people.”
“Think or know?”
One of them said, “Recognize one that came to the house a couple of weeks back. He was with Kemper then.”
“Where are the others?”
“Ran to do what Mr. Hefling said … firebreaks at the Narrows.”
I nodded. “I want an orderly fall back. Turner, help Sand. Stro, you’ve got your dad. Lawson, I want you and Mitchell to haul butt and let the others know we are on our way with injured.” Then I turned to the guys that were guarding our backs. “I want each end to fall back and head down the trail in pairs … outside to the middle which is those closest to the foot bridge. Don’t forget … break the trail through, don’t take either fork or you’ll wind up in the wrong place and take twice as long to get where you need to be. Rendezvous at the Narrows. Start …. now!”
Before they would go Sand wanted to know, “What about you and Thor?”
“Get going. We’ll bring up the rear.” He didn’t have any choice after that because Turner started pulling him away. I helped Thor put his pack on and then put my own on. The pack cut the wind off my back but it plastered my cold wet shirt to me giving Thor a sight that he attempted to leer at.
“I swun boy. Nothing stops you,” I joked half heartedly pulling my jacket closed, truly worried about the fact that he still seemed dazed.
“With you as fodder for my fantasies? Never expect anything less, no matter how old we get.” But he said it not in a dirty way but one that would have been fit for the most romantic candle lit dinner I could imagine. I prayed I’d get a chance to fulfill some of those fantasies he had as I slammed the last pieces of our rifles together where we’d stored them in the float bags to keep them from getting wet. The last pair from our side of the river ran by and I sent a spray from Thor’s automatic rifle across the bridge to give them something to think about before dragging him off down the trail after every one.
I didn’t want to hear it.
“Don’t say it Thor. Because if it makes its way out of your mouth you are going to have a lump on the other side of your forehead to match the first and you can go around looking like one of them drunk, sex-starved goats in Greek mythology.”
A snort and then he said, “Called a satyr Hon.”
“I don’t care what it’s called, you’re gonna look like one if you say it.”
I absolutely refused to entertain the notion of leaving him behind any more than he would have let me say such a thing. Lucky for him he’s a smart man and knew when to drop a subject a female didn’t have any intention of talking about. We were on a short bluff that ran near another piece of whitewater when a yell from ahead of us brought me skidding to a halt.
A young boy ran back to me; his coat was singed on one arm. “We can get through but my brother says to be careful. The fire crossed the river when a tree fell; nearly caught us.”
I nodded and then turned back around, rifle at the ready, when I heard yelling behind us. I kept praying under my breath, “Please take the fork, please take the fork, please take the fork …”
I danced trying to move forward without tripping while looking back at the same time, but no one ever appeared at our rear. Thor whispered, “Looks like He heard your prayer.”
I nodded but didn’t dare speak or he would have heard my own chattering teeth and started up again. The wind was cutting right through us and was cold and nasty. Then it felt like I was being hit with firefly sparks from a fire. I groaned. Ice storm.
Trying to look on the bright side when Thor realized why I groaned and then added his own I said, “This’ll help stop the fire.”
“Always the optimist,” Thor chuckled painfully.
We were falling farther and farther behind the others. Thor kept slipping and several times I was the one that almost took us down as the ground became glassy where the rocks came up through the dirt of the trail. An odd smell was on the air and I realized it was wet ashes. Just to be on the safe side I said a prayer of thanksgiving. Fire was one of the bigger things that could get too big for our diminished community to handle without God’s help. Then we did go down, hard enough that I would have cried if the wind hadn’t blown my eyes dry. One of my buttocks had landed on a very sharp stone.
We got ourselves back up but now we were both limping and I didn’t know who was helping who more. Finally I saw a knot of people waiting for us. Coach was the only adult left. “There’s no way to fight this. The storm and ice will either stop the fire or it won’t but we risk too much trying to stay out in it and fight. We’re all heading for home to prepare to move if need be.” Nodding in Thor’s direction he added, “He looks worse off than they made out. You sure you can make it?”
I looked around, “From here? Yeah, if the storm doesn’t get too much worse. I know a short cut up and over. What about Mr. Hefling?” I was leading Thor over to our horses that were behaving calmly just like war horses ought to.
“Hefling will be well cared for by Ms. Hefling and his boys, you just take care of you two. And if you can’t …”
I knew he was telling me to find a hole or make one. I nodded at him and the two younger boys that seemed to be stuck to him like glue. They flanked him as they rode away in one direction and Thor and I in the other.