Where There’s Smoke
James Trivette looked up from his computer to watch the exchange going on across the walkway at his partner Cordell Walker’s desk. ADA Alex Cahill had come in to ask him to clarify a statement he’d made in a case she was working on. On the surface, all seemed professional and friendly, but Jimmy was looking below the surface. His two friends had had a bumpy relationship and recently they had seemed to settle on friendship as opposed to lovers, which he couldn’t be sure, but was convinced, they had been. Today though, there was clearly a strain between the two, at least to the trained eyes of a nosey Texas Ranger. Alex held herself stiff and away from the desk rather than leaning on it casually as she usually did and Walker was trying his best to answer her questions thoroughly without his usual teasing about her need for accuracy. Yep, he was convinced that something was wrong between the two and he was fairly certain he knew what it was.
It wasn’t until later that evening that he was able to put his theory to the test. He walked into C.D.’s Bar and Grill for a late dinner and a rundown of his day with his friend and mentor, retired Ranger C.D. Parker. C.D. missed the action of his Ranger days and lived vicariously through Jimmy’s. Out of respect and friendship, Jimmy stopped in often to tell C.D. about his day and let his friend tell him what he should have done or of something similar that had happened to him. Jimmy had long since found that talking with C.D. gave him great insights into his job and also into the way his partner thought, since C.D. had previously been partnered with Walker.
“Hey there Jimmy, what can I get you, son?”
“I’ve got a hankering for a nice garden salad,” Jimmy answered knowing that C.D. was going to give him a hard time.
“You want me to sprinkle some of that ‘tufu’ on it?”
“Tofu C.D. and yes, I think I would like some on my salad.”
“How in tarnation can you eat that stuff? You need some good rib stickin’ meat.”
“C.D., I’ve told you a hundred times, I’ve decided to be a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat.”
“Just ain’t natural,” C.D. muttered as he turned to give his waitress the order.
Jimmy decided to change the subject. “You seen Walker or Alex tonight?”
“Walker was in here earlier, didn’t stay too long.”
Jimmy knew that, like him, Walker usually tried to stop in and visit with C.D.. If he wasn’t out on a case or had some pressing issue to take care of, he stopped by to chat with his friend and often to have dinner. “He say anything about Alex?” Jimmy asked.
“Not a word. I asked him about her and he said that he didn’t know if she’d be by tonight and didn’t say nothin’ else. I figured they had themselves another spat.”
“I don’t think so, but I do think she’s upset with him.”
“Why’s that?” C.D. asked, his attention fully focused now. C.D. had a vested interest in the Walker/Alex relationship. Things had seemed to be going well until that business with Dalton Reed. Of course, he didn’t know exactly what had happened, but he’d heard from Jimmy about the way Dalton had danced with Alex and ever since that time, Walker and Alex had been ‘strictly friends.’ It was damn frustrating.
“You know that Walker and I are leaving this weekend to go on that ‘Survival Hike’, right?”
“’Course I know. You’re taking a bunch of troubled teens out to the wilderness and hikin’ some sense into ‘em.”
“Something like that. Four of the teens are female and policy says that we have to take along a woman on the hike.”
“Makes sense… what woman are you taking?” C.D. asked catching on to what Jimmy was insinuating.
“Walker asked Ranger Costas to come along.”
“Costas? I don’t know him.”
“Obviously, if you did, you’d know he was a she.”
“A woman ranger?”
“Yes, Ranger Maria Costas. She’s very much a woman and she’s had her sights on Walker ever since she was transferred to Company B last month.”
“Oh right, I remember now. I never could cotton to women in the Rangers. It just ain’t right.”
“Well, despite your outdated sexist views, there are women Rangers and Maria Costas is a prime example.”
“Oh yeah, this woman is amazingly beautiful. Every guy in the department has hit on her, but she has eyes for only one Ranger.”
“You got it.”
“And Alex has her panties in a ruffle because of some woman Ranger?”
“Well, she was fine with it to begin with, but Maria has made it very plain that she intends on having Walker. Alex seemed to be dealing with the woman’s suggestive ways until Walker asked her to go on this hike with us. Now Alex is acting all stiff and formal around him and I think he’s well aware that he’s made a tactical error.”
“That Cordell never has been much of a thinker when it comes to women. If he had half a brain, he’d have put a ring on Alex’s finger years ago.”
“Well, I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening in the foreseeable future. Alex is all business.”
“It’s not as if this hike is romantic or anything?”
“No, but you know the old saying, Where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. I guess she figures that since he asked Maria to go along instead of her, he’d rather spend time with Maria.”
“Well that’s just plain dumb. Cordell does everything he can to be with Alex, even though he tries to hide it.”
“A week out in the wilderness with twelve teens, Maria, her partner, Ron Hodges, and myself; I guess to Alex that sounds like trouble.”
“What exactly will you all be doing?”
“According to what Walker tells me, we travel out to the middle of nowhere and get dropped off with only what we can carry. The hike out of there is supposed to take seven to ten days and along the way, we teach the kids survival skills.”
“What’s wrong with these kids?”
“They’ve all been in trouble with the law. It’s a diversion program and people are selected by the courts for the program. Some have a drug problem; some have gang connections, things like that. The rule is that they can’t have any connections with each other and they agree to this to avoid juvenile detention.”
“What ages are they?”
“Thirteen to seventeen year olds.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun, I can see why Alex is so upset to miss out,” C.D. said with a great deal of sarcasm.
“It’s not supposed to be fun, but when the kids are out there, they’re completely out of their element and they have to learn to rely on others and to work as a team. It’s been very successful and Walker and I signed up to take a group out this year because we both believe in the program.”
C.D. held up his hand in surrender. He wasn’t about to argue with Jimmy about the usefulness of similar programs. He was of the old school that believed in punishing criminals, while Walker, Alex, and Jimmy all believed in second chances, especially for the younger ones. It was an old argument and he’d given up on it, for now.
“Why do you think Walker asked this Maria woman to go?”
“I don’t think it was intentional. Her partner had signed up and when we found out that four of the teens were female, we were talking about who we could ask to go with us. I was about to suggest asking Alex when Maria volunteered. Walker has final say, but I think he was rather cornered and felt that he had to say yes.”
“He shoulda just asked Alex and kept his mouth shut about it in the first place.”
“Yeah, shoulda, woulda, coulda, but didn’t.”
The week continued with Alex and Walker continuing to speak only about professional matters and Jimmy just kept watch, waiting for the big blow up. On Thursday, Maria Costas and her partner, Ron Hodges, were involved in a shootout at a bank robbery. Ron was shot and although his wound wasn’t life threatening, he was going to have to back out of the hiking trip. Walker was scrambling to find a replacement at the last minute as they were taking twelve teens and the rule was that they had to have one adult for every three teens. Jimmy decided to step in and told Walker he knew someone he could ask, but didn’t give him anymore info.
Alex had taken time off the week of the hike expecting to be asked to go. When Maria Costas invited herself along and Walker agreed she could go, Alex decided not to change her plans. She hated to waste a week of vacation time, but she would feel foolish telling others at work why she had changed her plans, so she just kept quiet. Trivette knew that she had already arranged to take the time off and even though they hadn’t talked about the fact that she hadn’t been asked to go with them, he also knew that her pride wouldn’t let her change her plans. Jimmy went to C.D.’s hoping to find Alex there, but when she hadn’t shown by 8PM, he knew that she wouldn’t be by. It was unfortunate, but when Walker and Alex were on the outs, neither went to C.D.’s for fear of running into the other. He decided to take the bull by the horns and go to her apartment.
Alex had changed into comfortable loose fitting shorts and oversized t-shirt to tackle a project she’d been putting off. She needed something to focus her attention on, so she’d taken out all of her photographs and began to sort them and put together photo albums. The unfortunate part of the project was that her photos were mostly of her, C.D., Jimmy and Walker on their various adventures and it only made her more melancholy to look at them. She was surprised when she heard the knock on her door, but suspected that Walker had finally summoned the courage to come and hash things out with her. She had some difficulty hiding her disappointment when she saw Jimmy through the peep hole and opened the door to allow him in.
“Hi Jimmy, uh… come in,” she said as she opened the door wide enough for him to enter.
“Hi counselor, I’m sorry to just stop by like this, but I didn’t see you at C.D.’s…”
“No, I wanted to get these photo albums put together. It’s a project I’ve been putting off…”
Jimmy stopped to look at some of the pictures and commented on a few of them, but then got to the reason for his visit. “I’m here to ask a favor of you.”
“Sure, what can I do for you?”
“It’s a big one and I’ll understand if you say no, but I’m really hoping that you’ll say yes.”
“To what?” she asked waiting to hear what he thought she might not agree to.
“I was wondering if you would come on this ‘Survival Hike’ with us.”
“I thought you had all of the volunteers you needed,” she said with a trace of bitterness.
“That was before Ranger Hodges was shot today.”
“Shot! Is he okay?”
“He will be, it was just a flesh wound, but he won’t be able to go on the hike.”
“So, you’re one man short and you want me to come?”
“That’s pretty much it. Alex, you know that we originally intended for you to come and things just got all mixed up with this new Ranger. She’s rather pushy and Walker and I got boxed in when she asked to come. Her partner was already signed up to come and it was just one of those things…”
“I don’t know, Jimmy. I haven’t spent a great deal of time with Maria Costas, but I have to say that what I’ve seen of her so far I haven’t exactly liked.”
“Exactly, I’m not fond of her either. I don’t mind pushy broads, I mean I like you…” Jimmy ducked as she swung at him and smiled to show he had been joking.
“Does Walker know that you’re asking me?”
“Nope, he just knows that I was going to ask someone, I didn’t tell him who.”
“Never mind. Listen, I don’t want to cause any problems.”
“Sure you do. Come on Alex, where’s that spunk, ‘damn the torpedo’s’ and ‘to hell with what everyone else thinks’ attitude that you’re famous for?”
“You’re not painting a very flattering picture of me.”
“I’m not here to flatter you. I’m here to give you a chance to come on a trip that you know you want to come on. You’re great with teenagers, especially troubled ones. Can you see Costas being sympathetic and getting a troubled teen to open up and share problems?”
“Not really, but then I don’t know her and maybe she has qualities that I haven’t seen.”
“Maybe, but I know for sure that you do. You also have good survival skills and you’d be a great asset on this trip. Plus, you’d get to spend time with one of your favorite people.”
“Walker is not one of my favorite people at the moment.”
“I meant me.”
Alex looked at Jimmy and knew that he’d just given her what she wanted, a chance to go on this trip. She had all of her gear ready and it wouldn’t take much at all to be ready to leave bright and early Saturday morning. She’d already made arrangements at work and it would give her a chance to keep an eye on Maria Costas and Walker.
“Okay, I’ll come. What time should I be ready?”
“I’ll pick you up at 5AM on Saturday morning.”
“I’ll be ready.”
“Thanks, I’m really glad you’re going to come along.”
“Thanks for asking me.”
“Hey, trust me; it was a purely selfish motive.”
Alex didn’t really believe him, he knew how much she’d wanted to go and he also knew how much she cared about Walker. She was still trying to rebuild his trust in her after the Dalton Reed fiasco and the last thing she wanted was to give another woman a shot at him while he was still smarting from her huge mistake.
Jimmy had Friday off and just called Walker to leave a message that he had gotten a replacement for Hodges. He didn’t tell him who because he was enjoying playing match maker and didn’t want Maria or Walker to have any warning about who the fourth person was going to be.
Saturday morning, Jimmy picked Alex up as promised and they drove out to the youth center where they were to meet the rest of the group. Walker was to drive one van with six of the teens and Trivette was to drive the other. Once they arrived, Jimmy hopped out and began organizing the group of six he was to transport and Alex stayed at the van helping everyone to load their belongings. The sun was just coming up and the teens were not in the best of moods to start the trip, so all attention was focused on getting them sorted out.
After getting his van loaded, Walker strode over to Jimmy’s van to talk about the route they would be taking and that was the first he saw who Jimmy had roped into coming on the trip.
“Alex!” he said surprised to see her.
“Hi Walker,” she responded and bent to lift up another backpack into the back of the van.
“I didn’t know Trivette got you to come,” he said unable to cover his surprise.
“All he had to do was ask,” she answered curtly as she slammed the back doors closed and checked to make sure they were secured.
Walker didn’t know what to say and finally said, “Well, I’m glad he did.”
Alex just nodded and went to hop into the front passenger seat of the van. She found a teen already ensconced in her seat, but Walker told the youth to move to the back. The sullen youth moved to the back muttering obscenities all the while. After conferring with Jimmy, Walker headed back to his own van and they started off on their trip.
The road trip was three hours and when they arrived at their destination, Alex looked around and wondered just what she’d gotten herself into. They were in a forested area, but it was the end of summer and everything was brown and imposing. The two vans parked and Walker and Trivette began tossing out backpacks and bedrolls and getting everyone organized. Walker assigned three teens to each of the four adults. He divided the four girls assigning two to Alex and two to Maria. They also each had one of the two youngest boys in their groups. Alex noticed that Maria was less than friendly towards her, but Alex was as friendly as she could be. She wasn’t going to be accused of being jealous of Maria’s presence.
Alex walked over to her assigned group and spent some time getting to know them. Karen was a sixteen year old who had a drug problem. She had been raised in an upper middle class white family and had fallen in with a bad crowd who had introduced her to drugs. After a stint in rehab, she had gone home and was caught driving her mother’s car while high on cocaine. That was how she landed in the Survival Hike program. Karen acted as if she was above everyone else on the trip and Alex knew that she would be a tough nut to crack. LaTeesha was a fourteen-year-old black girl whose mother was a prostitute. She had had a very tough childhood and was caught stealing food and placed in foster care. After running away on four separate occasions, the courts decided that she would benefit from the program. Alex’s third teen was a thirteen-year-old Vietnamese boy named Phong. He had been involved in a robbery along with his older brother and other members of a gang his brother belonged to. His brother had been sent to juvenile detention for armed robbery. Phong was being recruited by the gang, but was not yet a member and so was sent to the diversion program.
Alex decided that she had her hands full and focused on getting her group set for the initial stage of the hike rather than learning the other members of the group. She figured that there would be plenty of time for that. Her job was to get these three very different young people to learn to work together as a team and to rely on each other as well as her. It was a daunting task.
Just before they began the hike, a car pulled up driven by Ranger Erickson, their contact in the area. He was transporting two drivers who would take the vans to the nearest town, and then when they called to say they had arrived, meet them at their destination point on the other side of the valley. The car also carried the last pizza the kids would be consuming for over a week. They all sat down to inhale the pizza and sodas. When they finished, Walker and Jimmy checked their maps and compasses before taking point and heading off into the woods. Maria hurried to keep up with Walker and Alex dropped back to bring up the rear and help any stragglers along.
After two hours of hiking, Walker called a halt to check on the group to see how everyone was holding up. Alex had her hands full with Karen who was all but outright rebelling. Her other two charges were sullen, but they were keeping up with the group. Walker handed Karen the food pack and told her that she had to carry it for the next leg of the journey. She outright refused and Walker just shrugged and told her that if she didn’t carry the food, they wouldn’t have anything to eat when they stopped for the night. Deciding he wasn’t bluffing, Karen carried the pack and actually managed to keep up with the group for the rest of the day’s hike.
Once they stopped, Walker took his three guys and headed into the woods to get firewood. Trivette took his three and began clearing a sleeping area while Alex had her three dig a fire pit. The woods were very dry and they had to be extremely careful with fire while they were surrounded by so much fuel for a forest fire. Maria looked around and decided to get started on dinner. She had her group go through the food pack and get out some canned stew. Walker returned and taught his three charges how to build a safe fire and Maria had her group cook the dinner. As much as Alex wanted to find fault with her, she had to admit that, so far, Maria had pulled her weight.
The group sat around the fire and Jimmy was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the silence. The teens weren’t ready to open up and there was still tension between Alex and Walker, not to mention Alex and Maria. He finally suggested that they each share their names and something about themselves. He started and instructed the three boys in his group to follow suit.
“My name is Jimmy and I used to play for the Dallas Cowboys before I messed up my shoulder. After my career ending injury, I became a cop and with the help of a retired Ranger, I became a Texas Ranger.” He nudged the boy next to him.
“My name is Roger and I don’t want to be here.”
Jimmy insisted that he tell something besides the obvious.
“I like to ride motorcycles.”
Jimmy accepted this bit of information.
“My name is Kyle and I played baseball as a kid.”
“My name is Robert and I like to read Science Fiction books.”
Walker decided to go next and let his group follow Jimmy’s lead. “My name is Walker and I was raised on a Cherokee reservation.” He nodded to a Hispanic boy in his group.
“My name is Carlos and I play the guitar.”
“My name is Rick and I like to work on cars.”
“My name is Tyrone and I play basketball.”
Maria looked around and decided that she should start off her group’s introductions. “I’m Maria and I just moved to Dallas to join the Company B Texas Rangers.”
“I’m Kim and I have a twin brother.”
“I’m Cassie and I like horses.”
“I’m Sam and I like to watch movies.”
Alex smiled at the group and said, “My name is Alex and I enjoy whitewater rafting.”
Walker couldn’t help but look up across the fire at Alex. He knew that she’d intentionally brought up their rafting trip which had led to them making love for the first time. Of course, that had been before she had come out of Dalton Reed’s RV that crisp morning. Walker diverted his eyes and looked at the young Asian boy seated next to Alex.
“My name is Phong and I like to skateboard.”
“My name is LaTeesha and I like to listen to music.”
“My name is Karen and I like to party.”
Jimmy looked around at the faces of all the teens that were interspersed around the campfire between the four adults. “It’s nice to meet all of you. Now, I realize that if you were at home, you’d be staying up much later than this, but we get up with the sun out here, so you might want to get to bed early tonight.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Rick, the oldest of the teens complained.
“Nope, I’m not kidding. If any of you have any blisters or start to get any, let the adult you’re assigned to know about it. You don’t want to wait to get treatment. We’re a long way from civilization and it’s a long hike out of here.”
“Don’t you have a radio or something? I mean in case of an emergency,” LaTeesha asked.
“We have a cell phone we can use if we really need to get help, but I don’t plan to use it this trip,” Jimmy answered her.
“Come on, lets turn in,” Alex encouraged her group.
The sleeping bags had been put into the tents so that the two girls shared with Alex and Phong shared with Sam, the fourteen year old boy who was assigned to Maria. Maria’s tent was next to them with her two girls sharing with her. Jimmy and Walker also shared their tents with two of their charges each and let Kyle and Tryone share a tent. The tents were arranged in a circle around the campfire, which Walker thoroughly extinguished with the help of Robert.
Alex lay in her tent listening to the night sounds. It took some time for the teens to finally settle and go to sleep and she lay listening to owls and squirrels as she waited for sleep to claim her. She finally fell asleep and was woken by the sound of crying. She realized that LaTeesha was crying and sat up to ask her what was wrong.
“LaTeesha, what’s the matter?”
“I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Then shut up and let the rest of us get some sleep,” Karen interjected.
“Karen that was uncalled for,” Alex reprimanded her.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk?” Alex offered once again, knowing that there was no way LaTeesha would open up now.
“No, I’m sorry if I woke you up,” she said politely and huddled down into her sleeping bag.
Alex accepted defeat. It was only the first night; she had a week or more to get LaTeesha to open up.
The next morning, the group ate breakfast and then broke camp. They hiked down into the valley into the thick woods. The deeper they walked, the thicker the undergrowth became. There weren’t any manmade trails, but Walker kept them to animal trails, knowing that they would lead to a water source at the bottom of the valley floor. A quick stop for a cold sandwich and they were back at it. They had made good progress and were nearly half of the way down into the valley when they stopped for the night. Their trek would take them across the river at the basin and then back up the other side. The vans would be waiting for them another ten miles or so after they reached the top of the other side and hiked out to where there was a firebreak road.
Alex rallied her group to search for firewood as the others began to set up camp. When they returned, Maria had once again claimed the task of cooking dinner. Alex stepped back after laying the firewood down and saw Maria talking to Walker and touching his arm as she gestured to the place where Jimmy’s group had dug the fire pit. Deciding not to watch the other woman throw herself at Walker, she called Phong, Karen and LaTeesha over to begin putting up their tents for the night.
“Can’t we sit down for five minutes?” Karen complained.
“If we get it done now, we can sit down and eat and relax for the rest of the night,” Alex answered her.
Sam came over to help Phong with their tent and Alex succeeded in getting Karen to help her and LaTeesha to put their tent up.
After another dinner of warmed up canned food, Alex was hoping to claim the cooking duties the next night. She knew that there were some staples in the bag that would allow them to eat something that at least tasted fresh. She wasn’t the only one to complain as Rick let it be known that he was less than happy with the food. Jimmy again led them in the evening discussion. He began a story with a sentence and had each person add another sentence as they went around and around the campfire. By the end, they were all laughing at how ridiculous the story had gotten. They turned in early, but Alex was steaming after she saw Maria place her hand on Walker’s forearm and rub it up and down suggestively as she talked to him. The move wasn’t blatant, but it spoke of ownership and Alex considered Walker hers and wanted the woman to keep her mitts off her man.
The next morning, they continued their hike down into the gorge. Alex brought up the rear; she seemed to have most of the stragglers in her group. As she rounded a bend, she saw that the others had stopped for a rest and Maria had her tanned legs stretched out with Walker bent in front of her looking at something. It was all Alex could do not to go up and shove Walker back away from the woman. She got close enough to hear their conversation and discovered that Maria had a rash beginning on her left leg. Alex had to smother her smile when she heard Walker scold her for wearing shorts. She had apparently walked into some poison oak. Alex was less thrilled to see Walker smooth some anti-itch cream on Maria’s calve muscle. At least he used a latex glove to prevent infecting himself. She overheard him advise her not to scratch it as she risked spreading the rash.
Another evening passed without incident. Alex was grateful when daylight came as she didn’t seem to be sleeping well. She wasn’t sure why, but she had a feeling that the flashback images from her whitewater rafting trip with Walker may have something to do with it.
Alex was proud of her ability to control the smile that tried to force itself upon her lips when she saw that Maria hadn’t heeded Walker’s warning and she had spread the poison oak to her face. Alex watched her scratch at her stomach and was fairly certain that she had spread it there as well. This time, Walker assigned Kim, one of Maria’s charges, the task of applying the ointment. His sympathy for the female Ranger was reduced by her foul temper. Maria snapped at everyone who came within ten yards of her. Alex decided to get her group moving so that they could steer clear of the grumpy woman.
They had finally made it to the river bed at the bottom of the canyon by late afternoon. Jimmy organized his group of guys to try their luck at fishing. Walker didn’t have the heart to tell him that with the water so low, their luck was bound to be non-existent. You could see the bottom of the riverbed; the water was so shallow from the extended drought.
Alex assessed the situation and decided not to wait for the guys to catch any fish. Instead, she corralled Maria’s three charges to collect firewood while she and her three began to prepare supper. Walker, bless his soul, took his three to gather edible plants. He informed Alex of his plans before setting off, so she prepared a broth and added canned meat and rice. The plants gave the soup a fresh taste and everyone enjoyed the meal; everyone that was except for Maria who was completely miserable and covered in poison oak.
Alex finally took pity on the woman and rounded up the other four females in the group and took them all down to where there was a bend in the river. There they proceeded to strip off and bathe in the cool water with dusk to give them a sense of privacy. The bath helped to relieve Maria’s itching and burning and Alex applied the ointment for her, remarking at the painful welts that covered the other woman’s belly and cheek as well as her legs. Alex even began to feel sorry for the woman. Not sorry enough to forgive her, but sorry enough to soak a towel in the cool water for her to cover her welts with while she tried to get some sleep.
It was difficult to motivate themselves to leave the river bed. Having water accessible was such a treat in the hot dry weather. The adults decided that they should stay one extra day at their present campsite and take a day to rest and relax. Maria definitely needed the day as she was still extremely miserable. Alex and Walker still weren’t on friendly terms, but with Jimmy acting as go-between, they agreed to divide the groups so that Alex added Kim and Cassie to her group and Sam and Phong were absorbed into Jimmy and Walker’s groups.
Alex took her four sullen teenagers on a nature walk along the river’s edge. She pointed out plants and trees and showed them animal tracks near the water’s edge.
“See here, these prints were made by a deer and these over here were made by a mountain lion. All of the creatures in these woods come here for water.”
“Mountain lion?” gulped Kim.
Alex smiled, “Not to fear, they’ll be hiding up in a cool shade thicket this time of day.” She decided not to point out the snake trail.
“I thought this was supposed to be a day of rest. Why the hell are we walking again?” Karen wanted to know.
“I think it’s interesting, I love animals,” Cassie retorted.
“You would,” Karen huffed.
“Karen, if you’d rather, you can go back to camp and keep Maria company; just stay on the river bank, you don’t want to wander in the woods and get lost or get poison oak yourself.”
Karen didn’t comment on Alex’s suggestion, but she remained quiet the rest of the walk. They came to an area that was dammed up and Alex had the four girls sit and watch the family of beavers who worked to keep the dam from leaking.
“I bet most of the fish have ended up here. I have a hook and some fishing line in one of my pockets here. LaTeesha, why don’t you see if you can find a long straight tree limb? Cassie, are you up for digging up some worms?”
LaTeesha came back with a branch that was too short and thick, but Kim got interested enough to overcome her fears about mountain lions and went into the underbrush to help her break off a young sapling that was dried and brittle from lack of rain fall. They all worked as a team to tie on the line and bait the hook. Even Karen shouted with excitement as Kim pulled out a wriggling fish. Cassie baited the hook again and LaTeesha took a turn. After each girl had caught three decent sized fish each, Alex took out her Swiss Army knife and taught them how to clean and filet them. They left the innards and heads for the beavers and other creatures to snack on and took their fish filets triumphantly back to camp.
The boys had enjoyed a nature hike in the opposite direction and talked about how Walker taught them to track like he’d learned to do on the reservation. They hadn’t caught anything to eat for dinner though and were jealous of the girls’ success.
Walker just shook his head and said, “I might’ve known you’d be providing the meat. I don’t know how you do it. C.D.’ll never let Trivette and I live it down.”
It was a long running joke that no matter how well-honed the men’s hunting and fishing skills were, Alex always had the most luck at providing the main course when it came to their campouts.
Walker expertly fried the fish fillets and they put whole potatoes in the outer ring of the fire to cook. They enjoyed a very tasty meal that night and the boys did the clean up as the girls had done the work to provide the fish. After enjoying a companionable meal, Kyle asked Walker if he would tell them more stories about growing up on the reservation. Listening to Walker talk about his childhood was one of Alex’s favorite pastimes, so she had no complaints. He told of his parents’ deaths at the hand of racist thugs and about his time in the orphanage and later his struggle to fit into a new way of life on the reservation with his uncle.
Jimmy listened to Walker’s stories and new that speaking of his Uncle Ray was both painful and cathartic. They all missed Uncle Ray since his passing the previous year. After Walker grew hoarse from speaking, he encouraged Jimmy to tell of some of his struggles growing up a young black boy from the projects of Baltimore. Eventually, Alex was encouraged to share some of her more painful experiences, like losing her father in a painful divorce and later her mother’s death. The twelve teens listening were all going through their own share of difficult times. Seeing these well-adjusted successful adults and then finding that they had all gone through their own challenges early in life made an impression on each and every one of them.
Walker watched as Alex shared some of the more painful moments of her teen years and then got each of the teens to talk about something going on in their lives that they struggled with. She had a talent and he wondered that she had become a lawyer as she could have easily been a teen counselor. She had a gift of empathy and she listened without passing judgment. She was the only woman who had ever gotten him to open up and share his feelings with her. He thought back to Ellen and realized that even with her; he had only shared good times and had glossed over the bad. He was still smarting from that whole Dalton Reed episode, but he knew that resisting her was useless. She had some kind of magnetic pull that just kept him completely at her mercy. He couldn’t imagine how she could possibly be jealous of Maria Costas. The woman was much too pushy for him. Besides, he wouldn’t want to date someone he worked with. That thought brought another that made him laugh at himself. He worked with Alex, didn’t he? Yes, it was a little different, but still, he’d broken all of his personal rules by falling in love with the leggy blonde. The thought struck him, he was in love with her, but before he could analyze it, something else got his attention.
“Trivette, do you smell smoke?”
“Yeah Walkman, we’re sitting around a campfire.”
“No, it’s not coming from our campfire, don’t you smell it?”
Alex stood up and looked around, sniffing the air, “I smell it too. Walker, do you think it’s a forest fire?”
Walker looked over at her, “Pack essentials into backpacks, leave the tents and most of the sleeping bags. Get all of the kids into the river, I’m going to scout it out, but be ready to move if I tell you to.”
Alex didn’t question his orders, she merely followed them. She directed the kids to dump their packs. She had them fill canteens with the water they had been boiling while they talked. Then she had them go into their tents and dress in long pants and long sleeved shirts. She also instructed them to wear bandanas tied around their necks and had Maria tear up material for those who hadn’t brought bandanas. She also had them all wear hats and helped Karen and Cassie to tie up their long hair so that it would tuck under their hats.
Jimmy sorted through the large pile of supplies that had been dumped together when they emptied their packs. In addition to the canteens, he only wanted four packs. He and Walker would each carry one and the others could take turns carrying the others. He put in first aid gear, extra socks, and energy bars. He then attached a sleeping bag to two of the packs. They didn’t know what hazards they would run into and he wanted to be prepared for anything. He tried the cell phone, but wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t getting a signal. They would try it further up the mountain and hopefully be able to raise someone so that they could be evacuated.
Once everyone was organized, Alex had them take off their shoes and socks and wade into the river. “Get yourselves completely wet, but keep your shoes and socks dry,” she ordered them. “Make sure to wet your bandanas and put them over your faces.”
Walker returned to camp to find everyone all packed up and standing in the river – waiting his orders. Jimmy wore a pack as did Alex and Rick; he found another sitting on the river’s edge and picked it up and slid it over his shoulders. He walked straight into the middle of the group and addressed them.
“The fire is behind us, at least one mountain range over, but with all of the dried tinder around here, it won’t take long to get here. Alex, how deep was that fishing hole you were at today?”
“Not deep enough,” she answered. She knew that he wanted to know if they could submerge themselves and wait out the fire, but the river wasn’t wide enough and certainly not deep enough to protect them. Not to mention the smoke. He knew all of these things, so she decided that as bad as she thought it was, it must in fact be worse.
“Okay everyone, listen up. We’re going straight up this hillside and we’re going to do it double time. Everyone partner up. It’s your job to make sure that your partner gets up this hill and doesn’t get lost or left behind. It’s going to be very smoky and we’re not going to be stopping for rests. I’m not trying to scare you, but this is serious. Fire goes uphill faster than it goes down, so once it gets to where we are now, it’s going to come charging up after us. We have to get to the top of this ravine as fast as we possibly can. Let’s all go to the other bank, put your shoes and socks on and then line up, two by two and follow me and Alex. Trivette, you bring up the rear with Maria.” Walker didn’t tell Trivette that he was putting him with Maria because he couldn’t stand the thought of having Alex out of his sight in this dire situation, but Jimmy figured it out on his own.
Alex was glad to see Karen take LaTeesha by the hand. Sam and Phong paired themselves up, but Walker intervened and put each boy with one of the older boys. If need be, he wanted someone to be able to pull them along. Walker handed Alex a small axe he’d brought to chop up kindling for the fire. He himself wielded a machete he’d brought in case they ran into thick underbrush. He grabbed her hand and pulled her toward an animal path that came through the trees to the water. Alex liked the feel of Walker’s hand encompassing hers, but he soon let go as he had to use two hands to clear the brush to let them get through. He wasn’t following the meandering animal paths, but going straight up the mountainside. It made for tougher going, but between his machete and Alex’s axe, they were making good time.
It was nearing dawn when they came to a flat area. Walker had everyone stop and sit down to rest a few minutes. No one complained or questioned his decision, despite him initially saying they wouldn’t be taking rests.
“Everyone take small sips from your canteens. Remember what we told you a few days ago about drinking too much too fast. You don’t want to get sick. After that, rewet your bandanas and put them back over your nose and mouths. As we get higher up, the smoke is bound to get worse. Jimmy pass out the energy bars to eat as we walk. Put the extras in your pockets people and eat them as you go. Does anyone have anything they need us to know about?” He looked at each of the teens and then to the adults. Finally, LaTeesha raised her hand.
“I need to use the restroom.”
Walker looked at Alex, who took over. “Ladies room is this way, guys, you get the other side.”
The girls all stood up and followed her behind a large area of bushes. They each quickly relieved themselves and then regrouped.
“Trivette, how are you and Maria doing?”
“We’re good,” Maria answered for them. She may be uncomfortable, but she was a Ranger and more than capable of toughing it out in a life and death situation.
Walker looked at Alex, “You doing okay or should we let someone else take over the lead for a bit?”
Alex knew that next to Walker, she was the most experienced hiker. Breaking a trail was the most physically demanding task, but she was in great shape and determined to pull her weight. “I’m fine,” she answered.
Walker nodded, took one last look at the teens and then said, “The fire has just crested the ridge where we began this hike.” They all looked behind them and could see flames coming up over the top of the other side of the ravine. “We’ve got to pick up the pace a bit. If you get into trouble, holler.”
There were no smart answers, no attitude; all of the teens understood the seriousness of the situation. They all straightened their shoulders and lined up.
Roger, one of the older boys in Jimmy’s group, approached Alex. “You shouldn’t have to carry the pack and make the path, let me take a turn.”
Alex gratefully relinquished the pack to him and took her place next to Walker. They began to push their way through the brush once again.
The higher they climbed, the steeper the terrain became, but the undergrowth thinned out making it easer to break a path. Walker stopped swinging his machete and instead grabbed hold of Alex’s hand and pulled her along with him. The smoke was thick and they stopped once again to sip some water and rewet their bandanas. Kyle took the pack from Jimmy and Karen took the one Maria was carrying. Alex was proud of her. She looked after LaTeesha and had now volunteered to carry one of the packs. She hoped that they made it out of this situation so that Karen could see that under all of her attitude, she was in fact a caring young adult.
The sun rose higher in the sky, but the smoke was so thick that it wasn’t much lighter than night had been. The fire was burning down the other side of the ravine and was nearly level with them. They could feel the heat as it blazed away at the trees and consumed the dry undergrowth. Walker looked over to see if the fire had leapt across to their side and was glad to see that so far it had stayed on the other side. His relief was short lived as they came to a rock outcrop that jutted out over the path they had taken. He halted the group and quickly assessed it, deciding that taking time to hike laterally so that they could avoid the obstacle was not an option.
“Alex, I’m going up. Tie the rope around my waist and as soon as I get to the top, send one of the bigger boys after me.”
“Okay Walker, but… please be careful.”
Walker gave her a smile that she couldn’t possibly see in the smoke and then reach out and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. He took the axe from her and instructed Jimmy to let him stand on his shoulders. Jimmy bent down and with Alex helping to steady them; he lifted Walker as high as he could straight up the rock face. Walker used the axe to establish a handhold and pulled himself up with Jimmy pushing on his feet until they dangled too high above.
They waited tensely at the bottom, praying that Walker wouldn’t slip and come falling back down to where they were. Alex heard a raspy sound and turned as Roger came to her.
“Ms. Cahill, Sam’s havin’ a hard time breathing.”
Alex realized that the sound she’d heard was Sam struggling for breath. She knelt down beside him and knew that he was in trouble.
“Sam, do you have asthma?” she asked.
“Yeah… but not too bad,” he managed to gasp out between breaths.
Alex rummaged through the first aid kit until she found an inhaler. She got him to take a couple of puffs and hoped that it would ease his breathing a bit, but knew that it wouldn’t be enough, they were going to have to carry him, he couldn’t be expected to walk.
“Jimmy, give me the pack with one of the sleeping bags. I’m going to go up first and get to work on making a stretcher for Sam. Do you know how to tie the ropes to bring people up?”
“I think so; show me once more just to be sure.”
Alex tied the end of the second rope around Carlos to show Jimmy the technique. She then tied the other end around her waist so that she could pull the rope up with her. A shout from overhead told her that Walker had made it to the top, so she tied the end of his rope down and around her thighs and then had Jimmy hoist her up as high as he could with Tyrone’s help. Tyrone was the tallest of the teens and he agreed to lift everyone up as high as possible to get them over the outcrop to where they could be hoisted up by those on top.
Alex rose slowly and painfully up the rock facing. She braced her feet against it to protect herself as she ascended. She had given a quick lesson to the others down below and decided on an order of ascent. She wanted some of the strong boys at the top to help Walker with the lifting. Alex was never gladder than to feel Walker’s hand grip hers as she crested the rocky outcrop. He hauled her over the edge and they lay together panting with exertion for a minute. Alex then untied the rope that had pulled her up and tossed it back down while she and Walker hauled Carlos up.
As soon as Carlos was up, they began to haul up Robert. Next came Kyle and Robert and Carlos made up one team while Kyle joined Walker on the other rope, leaving Alex free to get started on a stretcher. She found two young trees and used the axe to cut them down. She then hacked off the tops and all of the branches. Each tree was about four inches thick and after she was through with them, eight feet long. She unrolled the sleeping bag and slid the tree trunks inside. She then took out her knife and cut out two holes so that branches could come back out. The sleeping bag hung between the two poles and would allow four people to carry Sam up the mountain.
Alex looked around to see that all of the others had been brought up the mountain except for Tyrone and Jimmy. Maria had Sam and was getting him to sip some more water and rewetting his bandana before tying it back over his face. She led him over to Alex and the two women put him in the sleeping bag so that they could carry him up the incline without him slipping off. Alex again used her knife to shorten the sleeping bag so that it was just longer than his body. She also cut a flap in the top so that he could see out and move it away to breathe if he felt claustrophobic.
By the time they had Sam secured, Jimmy and Tyrone were both up with the rest of the group. Carlos, Jimmy, Tyrone and Kyle each took the end of one of the poles Alex had fashioned and they again began their climb. It was hastened by the fact that the fire had jumped from tree tops on the other side of the ravine to the side they were on. They had a third of the mountain left to climb and the fire was hot on their heels. Their only hope was in not running into anymore obstacles.
Alex grabbed hold of Phong’s hand and brought him along as her new partner. Walker continued on in front, but since breaking through the brush was rarely necessary this far up, he was able to walk fairly unimpeded and didn’t require Alex’s help.
All of the members of the group had eyes that stayed teared up from smoke. Their lungs burned with each breath and their legs were shaky from the effort of hiking up such steep terrain at the grueling pace set by Walker. An hour up the trail, the boys switched out and let Robert, Maria and Walker take a turn carrying Sam. Jimmy remained on the fourth corner as he was determined to get the boy up the mountain in time to save his life. His determination was stronger than the pain in his hands and arms. Alex took point and she and Phong became the trailblazers.
It was late afternoon when they reached the top of the mountain. The fire was just behind them and although they wanted to drop from exhaustion, Walker wouldn’t let them. He picked up Phong and carried him on his back. That left Alex free to encourage the other teens who were nearly collapsed to keep on going. They worked as a team, taking turns carrying the makeshift stretcher and encouraging each other, dragging each other when necessary.
Walker pulled out the cell phone and tossed it to Alex. They had tried to use it at various points, but still weren’t getting a signal. She nearly fainted with relief when she powered up and got a signal. She called the check-in number and was greeted by whoops of joy when she got the wife of Ranger Erickson on the line.
“Where are you dear?”
“We’re close to the fire break road, near the rendezvous site, but the fire is right on our heals.”
“I’ll get a helicopter to fly over and see if they can spot you. As soon as I hang up, I’ll call my husband and get them to meet you on the road. Just keep traveling north away from the fire on the road and they’ll find you.”
“Okay, as soon as we get to it, we’ll do just that. We have one casualty, a young boy, Sam, he’s asthmatic and his breathing is just downright frightening.”
“I’ll relay the info, god speed!” June Erickson hung up to mobilize the rescue personnel who were all battling the blaze on different fronts. Many people had been evacuated from homes not far from where the fire break road ended. The fire was huge and they had less than 20 percent containment. They were going to lose structures, but she was damned if they were going to lose lives to this blaze.
Alex jogged up to Walker; she’d lagged behind as she talked on the phone. “We need to get to the fire break road and head north. They’re sending a helicopter to spot us and a vehicle to get us out of here.”
“Alex, I don’t know if we’re going to make it to the road. The fire is jumping all over the place.”
Alex looked around at the way the fire hopped and skipped around them. They were being pelted by hot flying embers and those same embers were starting new spot fires. “We haven’t come this far to give up now,” she said with determination.
“That’s my girl,” Walker said with a smile. She could only see his eyes; the lower half of his face was covered in a bandana. She saw his eyes wrinkle up and new he smiled. She decided to let the ‘girl’ reference slide, they were in mortal danger. She smiled back at him, wondering if her face was as black/gray as his from all of the soot and smoke. Her thoughts were interrupted by a cry from behind her. She turned to see that the sleeping bag that carried Sam had caught fire.
Maria was bringing up the rear of the group currently carrying the stretcher. She dropped her corner and dove on top of Sam, rolling her body so that she smothered the flames. Jimmy was at the front and as soon as Maria’s body weight rolled off of Sam, he yanked the boy out of the sleeping bag. He cuddled him to his chest, but he didn’t know if he could carry him. His arms were Jell-O.
Walker assessed the situation and saw the look on Trivette’s face. He had been going on sheer will for so long now, refusing to relinquish his hold on the stretcher. Walker dropped Phong off of his back and raced back to Jimmy. He scooped Sam into his arms and then nodded to the others.
“Let’s go, we can’t stop now, we’re almost there. Open your canteens and wet your hat’s to help with the flying embers.”
Everyone followed Walker’s advice and wet their hats with their remaining water. Alex tossed her empty canteen to the side and the other’s followed her lead. She then dropped the pack she carried, keeping only the phone. The other’s carrying packs did as she did and they all jogged to keep up with Walker.
Things continued to grow more and more grim. The fire was all around them and Walker had to zigzag to avoid new blazes that cropped up in front of him as he rushed through the sage brush. He wished he could look back to see how Alex and the other’s fared, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of his path.
It was Alex who first heard the sound. A water dropping helicopter had been diverted from the housing area at the base of the mountain they were on and sent to search for them. She looked up to see the helicopter just above them and saw the huge basket that swung from below it.
“Everybody drop!” she shouted.
The group followed her command as one. They no longer had the ability for independent thought; they were automatons obeying a voice they had learned to trust. The water was a huge deluge that rained down on them as it swept a path from just in front of them to behind them. If they hadn’t dropped, they would have been swept from their feet by the force of it.
“Let’s go!” Alex shouted as soon as the water stopped pelting them. They were soaked, but so was the immediate area. The water had doused the fire directly around them and had bought them some much needed time.
Twenty minutes later, they had made it to the fire break road and they were now on easier terrain and headed downhill. Jimmy ran up to Walker and took Sam from him; he’d gotten a second wind and was determined to carry his share of the load. Now that they were on the road and their direction was clear, Walker grabbed Alex’s hand and they dropped back to the rear of the group. From this vantage point, they could see the weak links. LaTeesha was definitely barely stumbling along, pulled by Karen who had made it her mission to keep her going. Walker and Alex moved up to the girls and Alex touched Karen’s arm, signaling to her that she could rest as she and Walker got on either side of LaTeesha and pulled her along between them.
The fire was once again gaining on them when they heard the sound of an engine. It was a forestry truck that was heading toward them. Erickson was in the front passenger seat and he got out and began loading the kids on board. Maria sat in the front passenger seat at Jimmy’s direction and he laid Sam in her lap. “There’s not room for all of us, we’ll hang on to the bumper for a bit, to get ahead of the fire, but then we’ll drop off and continue on foot.”
Walker and Alex, the other two who hadn’t been able to cram into the cab of the truck nodded in agreement.
Walker led Alex to the ladder on the back and helped her to climb up a couple of rungs. He then climbed on behind her and pressed the length of his body against her to help her stay on. Jimmy grabbed on to the running board on the passenger side and Erickson did the same on the driver’s side. They rode that way for about three quarters of a mile when their arms just wouldn’t continue to hold them on.
Jimmy shouted into the window to Maria, “Get him to the hospital and stay with him!”
She nodded and then he hopped off. Erickson did the same as soon as he saw Jimmy leap off. The driver slowed the truck for just a moment and Walker jumped off and called to Alex who let go and fell backwards into his arms. They both rolled and landed on the ground so that Walker was sprawled on top of her. The rolling motion had broken the impact of the fall though and they were none the worse for wear. Getting up, they didn’t bother trying to brush off; they were as dirty as dirty gets already.
The foursome began to hike on down the road, the smoke still burning their eyes and lungs, but they were out of the thickest part and the embers weren’t raining down on them. Erickson wasn’t as tired as the other three, but he was close. He’d been up for 36 hours helping to evacuate people and coordinating similar rescues of hikers and campers the wildfire had caught by surprise.
“Do they know how this started?” Jimmy broke the silence.
“It was deliberate. There were witnesses to the vehicle believed to be responsible, but we haven’t managed to identify it yet. We’ve lost a lot of land and wildlife, but no humans as yet.”
They heard the sound of another motor and it turned out to be June Erickson who had made all of her phone calls and then hopped into her SUV and headed to the fire road to see if she could be of any help. Walker, Alex and Jimmy climbed into the back seat while Doug Erickson climbed in front next to his wife. She sped them down the mountain and got them to the nearest hospital as quickly as she could.
Alex walked into the waiting room of the small hospital and saw at once that they were swamped. The majority of teens from their group sat huddled in chairs sipping water as they waited to be seen by the residents on staff.
Alex approached Maria who sat with the youths. “Any word on Sam?”
Maria looked up tiredly, “They took him straight back and they have him on breathing treatments and oxygen. The doctor came out a few minutes ago and said that he thought he would pull through.”
“Did he have any burns?”
“Some first degree burns on his leg, but nothing serious.”
“Thanks to you and your quick action,” Alex told her. She knew that Maria may well have saved Sam’s life when she leapt on top of him to put the fire out.
“We were lucky, all of us,” Maria said as she looked around at the others.
Walker went to check in at the reception desk and got updated on everyone’s condition. He returned to let Alex know what he’d learned.
“They’re going to Life Flight Sam to Dallas for respiratory treatment. LaTeesha is getting fluids now and they have Carlos being treated for a burn on his arm. They tell me that he’ll be fine and it won’t even scar. Karen has a sprained ankle, but the X-rays were negative for a fracture. They’re going to take the others in two at a time and check them out.”
Alex was amazed that Karen hadn’t even told them that she’d sprained her ankle. Of all the teens, she’d come the farthest in her quest for adulthood, learning at last to think of others before herself. She was officially out of the selfish teenage stage of her life and now Alex had real hope for her.
While the other kids were being treated for minor scrapes, burns and abrasions, Alex went to the lady’s room. She was shocked and appalled at the sight that greeted her when she looked into the mirror. Her face was unrecognizable under all of the grime and soot. Her clothes were tattered and dirty, her hair had fallen from her hat in strings of yellow around her face. She removed her hat and bandana and turned on the water. After first removing layers of dirt from her hands, she washed her face as best she could. The sight that greeted her after her brief wash up wasn’t much of an improvement, but it was better than nothing.
They spent the next two hours at the hospital and then June Erickson shuttled them over to a local motel that wasn’t in the path of the fire. Jimmy managed to arrange transportation on a small aircraft back to Dallas for himself, Maria, Phong, Cassie, Kim, Tyrone, Kyle, Roger, Robert and Rick. The kids’ parents were insistent that they get back home immediately. They had all been extremely frightened when their children were reported missing with a wildfire in the area they were hiking. Karen, LaTeesha and Carlos were requested to stay close by for a recheck before being given the green light to travel.
Walker and Alex checked into the hotel with the three kids. June took them to a local Target store so that they could each purchase an outfit and a nightgown. Alex shared a room with the two girls who had become strong friends and Walker shared with Carlos. The three women took turns showering and getting ready for bed.
Alex was the last to come out of the bathroom and found the two girls stretched out together on one of the double beds. Karen looked up as Alex walked out and she grimaced and said, “I don’t know that I’ll ever get the smell of smoke out of my hair.”
Alex smiled at her and reassured her that it would eventually fade. “What do you girls say to the idea of ordering room service and just staying in the room tonight?”
“Room service? Can we really order Room Service?” LaTeesha asked eagerly.
“Sure, I think we deserve to pamper ourselves, what do you think?” The two girls readily agreed, but they barely managed to stay awake long enough to eat the meal before they fell sound asleep.
Alex was just about to stretch out on the bed when she heard a light knock on her door. She walked to the door and opened it, not surprised to see Walker standing there. She was both glad and chagrined that she had purchased such a modest nightgown. Walker himself looked good, if exhausted.
“I just wanted to check on you three,” he said in sotto voice.
“The girls are asleep and I’m about to join them.”
“Yeah, Carlos was out like a light too. The pain medicine they gave him at the hospital finished him off.”
“Yeah, Karen took hers with dinner and she barely made it into the bed. LaTeesha helped tuck her in. It’s amazing how they take care of each other. Was it only a couple of days ago that they couldn’t stand the sight of each other?”
“I guess living through something as traumatic as a forest fire will do that for you.”
“Yeah, but next time, lets just do it the old fashioned way… walks and talks, no fires.”
“So you’d be willing to do this again?”
“Try and stop me.”
Walker looked at the naturally beautiful woman who stood in front of him and he was struck by the thought he’d had just before smelling the smoke. He loved her. Whatever mistakes they’d made, and he admitted that he’d made a few of his own, he knew he was going to have to continue the fight to capture this woman’s heart. He gave her a smile that lit up his eyes more than it curved his lips. Alex’s heart did flip-flops and she stepped back as he stepped inside the room just far enough to close the door behind him. Standing in the dark foyer, he reached and pulled her into his arms. Her warm soft body snuggled up against him as if coming home. Leaning back slightly, he strained to see her in the darkness, but then gave up and leaned forward to taste her.
Alex moaned softly into his mouth as they both deepened the kiss simultaneously. His hands reached around her to try and meld her body into his. His hands searched up and down her back from her shoulders to her waist and finally he cupped her tight rear and pulled her lower half tight enough to know just how much she affected him. Alex’s brain had turned to mush, but a thought kept nagging at her until she paid it enough attention to remember that they were not alone.
“Walker, Walker!” she whispered insistently.
Her words penetrated the fog of his brain and he pulled back realizing that touching her had been a mistake. Passion had consumed him as quickly as the wildfire had consumed the dry brush.
“I’m sorry; I’ll get back to my own room.” And take another shower, this time a cold one, he added silently.
“Okay, I’ll see you in the morning,” she said as she reached forward to give him a chaste kiss, letting him know that she wasn’t upset by what had just happened between them. If truth be told, she was cursing the fact that they weren’t alone so that things could have gone farther.
Walker let himself out and Alex went to lie on the bed. She thought that she was too worked up to sleep, but the exhaustion of the last day and a half caught up with her and she drifted off into a deep restful sleep. Her dreams were not nightmares about forest fires though. Instead, she dreamt about a sexy red headed Texas Ranger.
The next morning, the five of them met downstairs and ate breakfast in the motel before heading back to the hospital. There, the three teens were cleared for the return trip home. June Erickson met them there with one of the vans they had driven up in. It was close to lunch time before they were given the go ahead to travel home, so she invited them to her house for lunch.
After a filling meal, they piled into the van and Walker began the drive back to Dallas. Alex was determined to stay awake and keep Walker company, but LaTeesha, Karen and Carlos all fell asleep in the back of the van. It wasn’t often that Alex got Walker alone when he was virtually forced to talk with her, so she took full advantage of the situation. She wanted to clear up several misunderstandings between them and he was too tired and too focused on his driving to remember to guard his tongue. Alex was feeling much more optimistic by the time they reached Dallas early that evening.
When they reached the Justice Building where they were supposed to meet Carlos and Karen’s parents and the social worker responsible for LaTeesha, they found a mob of reporters. Apparently, word of their return had gotten out and the kids were mobbed. Walker tried to shield them, but his tactics with the press were never that good. Alex stepped up and managed to get the cameras and questions focused on her so that the kids could get to their parents. Alex gave credit to those fighting the fire for saving their lives and the lives and homes of countless others. She managed to make a plea for anyone who may have knowledge of the person or persons who started the fire. After the reporters exhausted their questions, Walker was able to guide Alex over to the Justice Building where the families had been ushered inside. It was difficult to say goodbye to the teens who had become such an integral part of their lives in such a brief time, especially LaTeesha who didn’t really have a home to go to. Karen promised over and over to keep in touch with her, but it broke everyone’s heart to see her sad little face as she followed the social worker out.
Six months later, Walker returned from having successfully caught the arsonists who had started the forest fire. He and Ranger Erickson had partnered to track the two young men down based on tips from the public. It had been a long and exhaustive investigation and at times it seemed that they would never get a break in the case. Finally, they felt that they had enough to go out and make a collar, arresting the driver of the van, which led to the arrest of his friend and partner who had actually set the fire.
Walker had been gone for more than a week and he hurried back to attend a reunion that Alex had planned for the teens who had been on their hiking trip. She’d twisted his arm and got him to agree to let her use the ranch. She had a stronger hold over him now than she’d ever had. They had experienced another outdoor adventure when they’d searched for the Swan Song and they were once again lover’s and this time the fact that they were a couple was a secret to no one.
Alex had arranged for a barbecue in Walker’s front lawn. The house was decorated with party streamers and balloons and it was a special celebration marking not only the survival of the twelve teens and four adults and the capture of the arsonists, but also the legal adoption of LaTeesha by Karen’s parents. Karen had done a lot of fast talking and convinced her parents to foster LaTeesha. They were so amazed at the change in their daughter and her obvious bond to the younger teen that they gladly accepted LaTeesha into their home. They filed to make the placement a permanent one by adopting her almost immediately and LaTeesha’s mother had relinquished her parental rights, speeding the adoption along.
The party was in full swing when Walker drove up in his Ram. Alex heard the truck coming up the driveway and greeted him as he stepped out. She didn’t say a word, but stepped into his arms with a big hug and an enthusiastic kiss.
“I sure missed you, Cowboy.”
“With welcomes like that, I just may go away more often,” he teased.
“Don’t you even think it,” she told him sternly and then softened as he pulled her into him for another satisfying kiss.
“I really need to wash the grime off before I join the party. I’m going to sneak in the back and I’ll be down in about fifteen.”
“Okay, need anybody to scrub your back?” she asked with a suggestive look.
“Once I get you alone upstairs, I have no intention of coming back down,” he told her.
“Darn, whose idea was this party anyway,” she moaned as her body heated up just with his proximity.
“That would be you, darling. You’ve no one to blame but yourself,” he told her and then with a quick squeeze, pulled away to hustle upstairs to shower.
C.D. was ringing the dinner bell when Walker rejoined them.
“Never say I don’t have perfect timing,” Walker stated as he grabbed a plate and managed to be first in line.
“Cordell, now let these growin’ boys have a chance here,” C.D. grumbled as he piled Walker’s plate high with Tri-Tip roast, barbecue beans and potato salad.
“They’re on their own,” Walker quipped as he took off with his plate and began to greet everyone in between bites. He came back to the line for seconds about the time Alex made it to the table for firsts.
“Walker, pace yourself,” she scolded him.
He leaned into her ear and whispered, “There are two activities that I have unlimited reserves for. Want to know what the other is?”
Alex blushed, revealing that she already knew what the other was and gave him a little elbow jab as she tried to get C.D. to give her smaller helpings of everything.
It was good to visit with everyone and see the progress they were making. Several of the older teens were talking about getting ready for college and all of the teens had improved in their grades and their behavior. The most amazing change though was in LaTeesha. She was growing into a confident, happy, young lady. It was amazing how belonging to a loving family had changed the shy girl. Karen looked after her and the fact that she put LaTeesha’s needs first was enough to convince everyone that she’d made a huge change as well. It was also good to see Sam fully recovered as he played horseshoes. He’d teamed up with Phong and they were holding their own against Carlos and Kyle. After repeated attempts and threats by gang members, Phong’s parents had realized that they needed to move in order to keep Phong safe. They were leaving in a week’s time to relocate to Arizona. Both of his parents had already gotten jobs there and they’d also found a home that was modest, but outside of the city.
The party lasted for several hours and everyone stayed to help with the clean up at Maria’s insistence. She and Alex had declared a truce after the hiking trip and she was transferring back to Houston. She could see the writing on the wall when she saw Walker look at Alex and she knew that her chances at winning him away were nil.
Kim had brought her twin, Tim and it was soon obvious why Kim had struggled to find herself. He was a football hero and she was overshadowed by him until she came back from her adventure and was a media darling for those few days. The kids in her school had been impressed though and she’d been invited to parties and other functions. Her confidence had grown and she no longer tried to compete with her brother.
Cassie had found an organization that gave horseback riding lessons to disabled people. She volunteered there and found that although her family couldn’t afford to buy her a horse, she could still work with them and learn about taking care of them. She was even given riding lessons after earning enough points through her hours of volunteering.
Roger and Rick who both enjoyed working on cars and motorcycles were given apprenticeships in a chopper shop and they were now convinced that they were going to learn enough to one day open their own business together. Tyrone had hopes of earning a basketball scholarship to get his college education and Carlos continued to play his guitar, but was working for the department of Parks and Rec. as a youth peer counselor. Robert was applying to colleges and working on writing his own Science Fiction novel. Kyle was coaching Little League and working to improve his grades so that he could go to a Community College. He eventually hoped to get his teaching degree and coach baseball at the Junior High level.
All in all, Alex felt that each teen now had a chance at a positive future. It was a good feeling to stand and watch them work together as they cleaned up and kidded with each other. They all enjoyed watching the banter between Jimmy and C.D. and the atmosphere was filled with laughter. Alex stood so that she was in the shadows and watched the people in front of her. She was relaxed and happy and thinking about how wonderful life could be when she felt an arm snake around her waist from behind and warm air against her ear as Walker whispered into it.
“How long before they leave?” he asked with urgency as he pressed himself against her so that she knew exactly how much he wanted to be alone with her.
Alex leaned back against his chest and turned her head to look up at him. “Another half an hour and they’ll all be gone.”
“I hope you’re rested, because we have a week to make up for.”
“I just hope your appetite for me can rival your appetite for C.D.’s barbecue.”
“Don’t you worry,” he promised and then looked up as Maria came over to say goodbye.
True to her word, Alex had everyone out within thirty minutes and was closing and locking the front door behind them. She reached up to turn off the porch light when a hand covered hers from behind and she was jerked around so that her back was pressed against the door.
“You’re twenty five seconds past your deadline, so don’t blame me if we don’t make it upstairs,” Walker said as he buried his head into her neck and began to nuzzle her, shooting sparks that ricocheted throughout her body.
Alex grabbed his hair and pulled him back, claiming his lips with her own as her fingers made quick work of the buttons on his shirt. “Don’t threaten me, Walker,” she warned as her questing hands found his belt buckle and began to undo it. “You’re lagging behind,” she commented as she managed to unzip his fly and ease his erection from his jeans.
Walker stepped back slightly to look at his engorged member as it lay in her hands. “There’s nothing ‘lagging’ here,” he denied.
While Alex’s hands soothed up and down his shaft, he undid her pants and pulled them down over her hips. He was so busy shoving jeans and panties down her legs, that he nearly lost all control as she began a strong pumping motion with her hands.
“Dammit Alex!” he groaned as he push her back against the door again and lifted her with both hands cupping her buttocks. He pressed himself against her, forcing her to move her hands and reach up around his neck. Her jeans were still around her ankles though and strain as she did, she couldn’t spread her legs to accept him.
“Walker, wait!” she insisted as she pushed back against his shoulders.
“God woman, you’re killing me,” he complained, but set her down long enough to bend down and release her legs and feet from shoes, jeans and silk panties. While he was bent down, he breathed in the aroused scent of her and decided to cause a little torment of his own. He probed her moistness with his fingers and she began to moan and undulate in rhythm with his fingers. Then he leaned forward to taste her with his tongue and she cried out, her fingers stroking through his hair, torn between pulling him away and pushing him closer. He continued his torment until she finally broke.
“Please, Walker, now, please!” she begged.
Satisfied with her response, he stood up and again lifted her up by her buttocks. He pressed her against the door and as her legs surrounded his waist, pushed deeply into her. He heard her moan or was that his own? He wasn’t certain as he lost himself in her sweetness. His tongue probed hers until he had to throw his head back for oxygen. His hips pumped against hers causing her to push repeatedly against the door. It sounded almost as if someone was trying to get in the house, but if they were, they were out of luck. The two lovers knew of nothing but their journey together to utter contentment.
Alex cried out once and then sunk her teeth into his shoulder as he spilled deeply into her with a final deep thrust. Then they both slid down until they were a heap on the floor of the entranceway. They lay there, a tangle of arms and limbs and bodies as they tried to regain their breath. Suddenly, Alex began to giggle.
“What?” he asked; never appreciating her sense of humor at these moments.
“I was just thinking that I hope no one had car trouble and came back up the stairs to ask to borrow the phone.”
“That’s what cell phones are for,” he answered her gruffly.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I thought you hated cell phones,” she laughed.
“They have their purposes.”
Alex lay back on the floor laughing until she didn’t think she’d be able to stop. She was filled with happiness and a sense of naughtiness and she just couldn’t control her giggles. Walker, however; knew one tactic that always worked. While she lay there laughing, he finished removing his boots and jeans. He pushed his open shirt off of his shoulders and then he reached forward to undo the buttons on Alex’s blouse. When his fingers brushed over her sensitive breasts, she immediately became as sober as a judge.
“Walker,” she cried out on a gasping sigh.
He smiled to himself, knowing that the giggles were over. He helped her to sit up and peeled off her shirt and bra, exposing her budding nipples to his gaze.
“Have I ever told you that you have the most beautiful breasts in the world?” he asked her.
“How many are you comparing to?” she asked.
“Hundreds; just think of all those women who wear those dresses that leave nothing to the imagination. But then, no one could imagine anything as beautiful as you sitting there for my eyes only.”
“This floor is getting hard,” she complained.
“So am I,” he countered.
“Let’s go upstairs where I happen to know there’s a nice soft bed,” she suggested.
“I like the way you think lady.”
Walker stood and gave her his hand to pull her up beside him. She looked around at all of their clothes scattered in the foyer.
“We’d better pick these up,” she said as she stooped to begin doing so.
He gave her a light smack on her bare rump, “Leave it; they’ll be there in the morning.”
Alex did as she was told, for once, and they headed upstairs hand in hand. They reached the bedroom only to have him push her back onto the bed and to join her as he rolled so that she was on top. He looked up to see his avenging angel looming over him.
“Be gentle with me,” he joked as she leaned down and began to taste and caress his chest.
“Like you were with me, downstairs?” she murmured as she nipped his pectoral muscle.
“Take it easy, I’ve already got your teeth marks embedded in my shoulder.”
“Complaining?” she asked, knowing the answer before he spoke it.
“No complaints, except… scoot down a little lower,” he offered.
Alex did as he asked and found his thick shaft pressing up toward her entrance. She lifted herself slightly and settled slowly down over him. Walker watched as her head was thrown back and she concentrated on taking him all the way inside her warmth. His hands went up of their own accord to cup her breasts and he lifted slightly, enjoying the weight of them in his palms. Alex began a slow circular motion with her lower body that brought a rumbling moan from deep in Walker’s chest. The motion was for her benefit as she rubbed her pelvis against his, satisfying that tiny nerve filled nub. Having satisfied his urgent need downstairs, Walker was more than willing to draw things out so that she enjoyed them to their fullest. He gently squeezed the two ripe tips of her breasts between thumb and forefinger, increasing the sensations she felt. Alex felt fire shoot down to her pelvis and she shifted to lean toward him, allowing… encouraging… demanding his possession of her breasts with his warm mouth and rough tongue. Walker complied and as he suckled and lapped at the breasts proffered, his hands slid up and around her back to grasp her hips and increase the rocking motion she had established.
Alex felt the pressure build within her and she panted as she began to pump him in and out of her with increasing speed. Walker felt himself grow tight and bit his lip to stave off his explosion. Somehow, in his efforts to pleasure her, he had lost track of the rate of his own desire building and he suddenly found himself on the edge. Knowing that he was in danger of coming before her, he reached his hand back around to the front of her and pressed hard on her clitoris, rubbing it frantically with his thumb. He felt the waves take over her just as he gave up his own fight to hold back and he shouted out as he felt himself spew his seed deep inside her.
Alex collapsed down on top of Walker. The waves continued to rack her body, but she was momentarily spent and she needed to rest. Their bodies continued to shudder as their breathing slowed. Walker’s fingers trailed slowly down her back to the base of her spine and then crept back up again. After a few minutes, he found the strength to talk.
“You are the most amazing woman; I can’t believe I managed to get you into my life… into my bed.”
“Honey, you didn’t get me into your life, I snagged you on my line and reeled you in. You struggled at first, but I knew that I just needed to be patient. As for being in your bed, I find it much more comfortable than your front door or the floor for that matter.”
“You think you’re smart, don’t you?” he asked always amazed at how brazen his sophisticated ADA could be in the bedroom.
“I know I’m smart. I’m on top aren’t I?”
Walker realized he had walked into her trap yet again. Battling this woman with words was a complete waste of time. Besides, there were much more interesting things he could think to do with the blatantly nude woman draped over his own equally nude body. Rather than talk about it, he began to kiss her, his favorite way to get her to be quiet. His kisses deepened until once again they were lost to the sensations their touches wrought. Their passion burned brighter than any forest fire well into the night. They finally slept, curled up together so that it would be impossible to say where one began and the other ended; just as it should be.