Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Seasons Series are the creation of the author.
Special thanks to Pat for her expert knowledge on rescue and firefighting methods. Thanks also to Sheri for providing the information on the beautiful island of Tobago.
My grateful thanks to the many readers who have traveled with me through the Seasons. You are the best! My deepest thanks to Lisa and Inga, my beta readers, who work very hard on my behalf and to Susan for her insightful critiques and for overseeing the character continuity. Lastly, to all those individuals who have written me about their own courageous life stories, my respect and my best wishes.
Note: The Seasons stories interrelate and should be read in the order they are posted. These stories are alternative fiction; please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Friends quietly came and went during the day bringing casseroles, sympathy and their love. Meals were warmed and served, lawns cut, dishes done and countless amounts of tea consumed. Janet and Robbie ate little, talked less and were unaware of much of the quiet support that went on around them. They were grateful not to be alone, yet too overcome with horror to interact with those around them. Mostly, they sat together on the couch, holding hands and waiting for the phone to ring, but it never did. The hours ticked on endlessly.
To the south, the head of the fire had been checked by the fire barrier that Robbie and the Bartlett Fire Department had cleared. But to the west, along the shore line of Lake Superior, a flank fire still stubbornly edged forward, fed on the high temperatures and dry air. It was hoped that the fire would be stopped by the natural fire break of the Indian Gorge. Still, the Bartlett Volunteer Fire Department had been called out again that afternoon, and as a precaution, they had assisted in the evacuation of The Bartlett School for the Gifted. They were stationed there now, to protect the school building should the flank fire not be checked.
Janet and Robbie were aware of all this and it added to their own worry. Somewhere out there their children were being held prisoners. They could only pray that they were at least safe from the fire. The police force too was stretched to its limit in dealing with the extra responsibilities of the fire emergency. And that meant virtually no one was involved with looking for the two missing children.
Milka had returned to the school and run pictures off Reb and Ryan on the photocopier before they were evacuated. The teachers had handed them out to firefighters and rescue personnel working in the area. The evening news province wide had broadcast the children's pictures and requested the public's help. The national and international news services were pouring into the town seeking stories about the famous Williams family and the kidnapping. And The National Tabloid, that evening, even managed to run a front page story about the curse of the Williams Family.
Moe Singh removed the tabloids from his store in disgust and from David Potts' Variety Store that he and his staff were manning while David was in Toronto with his brother. The town rallied around Janet and Robbie, protecting them from the media. They had learned a lot since the spring in dealing with the press. By common agreement, no one talked. Other than that, there was little anyone could do at this stage but wait.
Late in the night, the last of their friends left, leaving Janet and Robbie alone. Janet sat staring into the fire. Her mind numb with shock. She tried not to think about what might have been done to her daughters. Robbie was right, they had to look on this as a kidnapping for now and
not let the panic of uglier realities take over in their hearts and minds. It was hard though. It was so terribly hard! The house was so empty and quiet without the girls. Half the fabric of their existence had been torn from their world and stolen away in a blink of an eye. Tears rolled silently down Janet's face. It was not knowing that was the worst. Why the hell didn't the bastard phone?!
Robbie had slept some, sitting by Janet on the couch and holding her tight. She woke before dawn, however, and paced back and forth. She refused to let her mind dwell on what might have been done to her daughters. If she did, she'd go mad. Instead, she used her reasoning powers, trying to figure out a course of action. There had to be away to help her girls. There just had to be!
Janet woke up from a fretful sleep aware that Robbie had stopped pacing. The tall woman turned as Janet sat up and blue eyes met green. "He turned left onto Highway 11. Ryan wouldn't panic. She'd use her head and that means there is a good chance that she left a trail for us to follow!"
"What?!" exclaimed Janet, getting to her feet.
"I'm sure of it, Janet. There will be a trail. Ryan is no fool!" reinforced Robbie, as she got out the cell phones and checked the batteries. "I'm going out to look. You stay here and wait for that bastard to phone. I'll report back every half hour."
"Robbie, be careful!" Janet urged.
Robbie nodded, pulled Janet into her arms for a hug and kissed her head. "We'll find them. I promise," she whispered, and was gone. Janet stood at the screen door and watched her soulmate back the truck around and head down the driveway. If anyone could find their girls she had no doubt it would be Robbie. Pulling herself together, she got paper and pen out and made a list of questions to ask if the kidnapper phoned. She planned for different scenarios and worked out how she would handle it. Robbie and the girls were counting on her and she meant to handle the situation to the best of her ability if the kidnapper phoned. Robbie was right, they were going to get their girls back!
Robbie stopped the truck along the shoulder of highway 11 and taking her flashlight and phone, she started walking. Half a mile down the road, she found a small square of blue and gold cotton tied around an old rusty bolt. Blue and gold were the Bartlett school colours! What had Milka said? Ryan had been out in the field playing soccer! Was it part of a sports bib that Ryan had been wearing to identify what team she was on?
She flipped her phone open. Janet answered on the first ring. "I might have found something. I won't be able to tell until I go farther down the road. I found a small piece of cotton that is stripped in the Bartlett school colours..."
"Part of a sports bib?!" interrupted Janet excitedly.
"Maybe. Ryan might be dropping them out of the truck. I'll go on down the road and see if I can find more. You phone Jean Bissell and see if Ryan was wearing one during the soccer game."
"Okay. The kidnapper hasn't phoned. The fire has jumped the gorge and is spreading towards the school. You be careful!" Janet reported quickly, not wanting to hold Robbie back.
"I've got my fire gear in the truck. I'll be careful. I love you," Robbie finished, and snapped the phone shut. She marked the place where she had found the material with a small pile of stones then broke into a run back to the truck.
Moving slowly along the side of the road, Robbie used her highbeams to search the shoulder ahead of her in the predawn light. Had she missed it? It would be easy to do so in the poor light or if the bolt had bounced or rolled into the bush. Should she turn back or go on? Then she saw it!
She pulled the truck to a stop and got out. Another torn piece of material tird to an old bolt about a kilometer down from where she had found the first. She smiled and bent to make another pile of stones. Way to go, Ryan! She thought.
Janet reached for the phone and had the receiver to her ear before the first ring had finished. "Hi. I found another one. Ryan is leaving a trail alright!" came Robbie's voice, sounding confident and proud.
The voice spread like a cooling lotion over Janet's stress. "Jean said she was wearing a blue and gold stripped bib," reported Janet. "The fire is out of control, Robbie. They managed to save the buildings at Bartlett by pumping water directly out of the lake and onto the buildings but the woods around is gone. It's spreading in a long finger along the shore heading north. I can smell the smoke here."
"Are you safe?" asked Robbie in worry.
"Yes, as long as the wind doesn't shift. If it does I'll leave a message on our house phone with our cell number in case the kidnapper phones and head into Barlett. George Droullard is organizing the Lions Club in case they have to evacuate Barlett," explained Janet.
"Don't stay there too long if you need to get out," ordered Robbie.
"I won't," promised Janet.
The trail led Robbie back to Long Lake Road. The son of a bitch had the nerve to take the road right past their house! Robbie cursed and followed along the lane, her eyes beating back and forth looking for scraps of material. At the fork, Robbie found one of Ryan's socks. The truck had turned left away from the long driveway leading to their cabin and heading down past the lodge towards the end of Long Lake. The lane, Robbie knew, would join the Lakefront Road where Larry and Flo Butler lived and right in the path of the advancing fire!
"Janet, I'm near you, love. It looks like the bastard took them down Long Lake Road and then cut west. I think he must have headed up towards Lakefront Road. I just found one of Ryan's socks. She must have run out of bib."
"Robbie, That area is on fire!"
"Yeah, well our kids are up there. I'll keep reporting back to you," stated Robbie, and snapped the phone shut. She was not going to let Ryan down again if she had to go to hell and back for the kid!
Robbie could see the orange glow of the fire to her left as she turned right onto the Lakefront Road. She came to a stop and got out into air misty with blue smoke. Sitting on the road was the other sock. Robbie set her jaw and got back in the truck and headed off again. Close now, she thought, she could feel it!
Ryan hit the truck bed with a thud that knocked the wind out of her. Curling into a ball, she huddled under the back window so that she would not make an easy target and tried to get air back into her lungs. Funny it seems so easy when I see people in Mom's movie's do that! she mused, rubbing her bruised knees. She licked her dry lips and fought back the fear that flooded through her body on an adrenalin rush.
What would Mom do? She'd leave signals. Ryan ducked her head out of her sports bib and with shaking hands tore it into bits. I sure hope the school is going to be reasonable about this! she thought. Wrecking or losing sports equipment was almost a capitol offense at Bartlett. She could almost hear Bissell going on now about the three R's of the equipment room: RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY, and RETURN.
With a shrug of resignation, Ryan tied the first piece of cloth to a rusty old bolt that she had picked from a soggy cardboard box in the flatbed. She tossed the first marker over the side of the truck hoping that the driver would not notice. She looked up. Through the cab's back window, big blue worried eyes looked down at her. Ryan managed a smile and waved at Reb. She could see her sister mouth her name but the roar of the old truck drowned out any sound.
The driver turned and swore, grabbing Reb by the arm and pulling her out of sight but not before Ryan had seen the pain in her little sister's face and saw the tears spring to Reb's eyes. Anger boiled inside Ryan's guts. No! Stay calm! Reason! She ordered herself, That's what Mom would do. She prepared another marker and threw it over the side. You are not going to win, you bastard!
Ryan had gone through her pieces of bib and had thrown out both socks as they bumped along. She could smell the fire now and as she threw her last sock over the side she thought she could see heavier smoke snaking through the trees to the south. Oh shit! This is not good! she thought.
Instead of tossing the last sock over the side as she had done the other markers, she balled the fabric up and tossed it off the back so that it lay on the road and not the shoulders. If the fire did come this way, maybe the fire wouldn't burn the marker if it was laying on the road. For the first time, her fear grew from the realization that she and Reb were in very deep trouble with no one to help them out.
Ryan swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Stay calm! Stay focused! What should I throw next? Not my shoes, I might need them if we get a chance to run. Not my clothes if I can avoid it, that would be asking for trouble with a jerk like this. Okay, first the watch, then I'll rip the pocket and collar off my shirt, Ryan planned.
She grabbed on to the side of the truck with one hand as they bounced off Lakefront Road and onto a rutted track through the bush. Quickly, Ryan threw her watch over the back of the truck. Hoping that someone would see the entrance to the trail. Okay, Ryan, you must be getting close to the place where this guy is taking you. No one is here to help you and Reb so think of what to do next. Her green serious eyes surveyed the dirty truck bed and its contents. In a partly, broken quart basket, she saw a handful of rusty tools.
Ryan crawled over and searched through awkwardly as she bounced around in the back of the truck over the trail. Her hand closed around a long, heavy iron wrench. She knew she could not over power the man once he was out of the truck. The only time he was going to be vulnerable was when he opened the truck door and led with his head as he got out. She had to be ready to hit him then. No hesitating, no checking the swing, just hit him! she coached herself. Her hand ached from the tension in her muscles as she held the wrench tightly. She could smell the rancid stench of her own fear as the sweat trickled down her back.
The truck slowed and backfired. It turned slightly and came to a jerky stop in front of a run- down old trailer. For a second, there was silence. Ryan braced herself. The door of the truck creaked open and Ryan saw an unkept mat of greying hair. She hesitated, then brought the iron wrench down on the man's head with a glancing blow.
The man gave a cry of pain and lashed out at her. The blow caught Ryan on the bridge of the nose and filled her eyes with tears. "You fucking bitch!" the man yelled, grabbing Ryan by the hair and pulling her over the side of the truck. She landed with a thud on the ground and the wind was knocked from her lungs.
"You get out of the truck." She heard the man order and heard Reb crying as she was dragged from the floor of the cab. Ryan forced herself to her knees and Reb squirmed from the man's grasp and fell crying into her big sister's arms.
"Shhhh, it will be okay, Reb. You'll see. Our Mom's will find us. I know they will," she tried to reassure the small terrified child. Ryan didn't think she had ever been so scared. Her hand shook as she stroked Reb's dark locks. She looked up to see the angry man towering over them rubbing his ear.
"You're going to get yours before this is over, you bitch," the man vowed, as he grabbed Ryan roughly by the arm and pulled her to her feet. He half dragged, half carried them to the trailer and pushed them inside.
Ryan's heart was now pounding in her chest. She realized that by leaping on the truck, she could very well have put herself in a situation were she could be raped and murdered. Her eyes searched the small shabby interior for a weapon and she tried to think past her fear to what she should do next.
"Mommy! I want my Mommy!" sobbed Reb.
"You take that brat and get in the washroom. You make her stop crying, you here, or I'm going to make her stop. You got me?" snarled the kidnapper.
Ryan nodded and wrapped Reb closer as she backed towards the closet sized washroom. She stepped in and closed the door not sure if she should be relieved or more concerned that she was now trapped with no escape. She could hear the man wedging something against the door. For the time being anyway, they were safe.
She sat down on the cracked toilet seat and tried to think what to do next. "Hush, Reb, you've got to be quiet so we don't back the bad man mad. Hush," she whispered. Reb stifled her tears slowly and clung to Ryan as tightly as she could.
When Reb was calmer, Ryan took stock of her surroundings. The small space barely had room for a toilet and a small sink with a storage area below it. There was a yellowed window but it was too small for Ryan to squeeze through. She might be able to push Reb through, but then what would the small child do? She could smash through the aluminium wall but the man would hear her and, no doubt, would stop her in a way that she would regret. She bent around Reb's small body and looked under the sink. A piece of dried, cracked soap, a balled up stiff piece of rag and a rusted can of insect spray was all that was there.
Reb whimpered a protest as Ryan reached to grab the can. "Shhh, it's okay, Reb. I think we've got a way out of here." She shook the can and sprayed into the sink. Her heart pounded with relief as she realized that the can still had lots of pressure and repellant in it. It wasn't exactly pepper spray, but it would buy them some time.
They sat there the whole night, cramped, hungry, and miserable. The reek of the toilet was nauseating and there wasn't even water in the tap. The smell of frying bacon and eggs that evening added to their misery. Dressed only in her light gym outfit, Ryan was shivering with cold and fear by the time the sun started to rise. Several times the evening before, she had heard the man's angry voice . She couldn't make out the words but it sounded like he was arguing with someone on a phone. That meant he might not be working alone. Ryan knew, now that it was light again, that she was going to have to act quickly before any others arrived.
"Hey! My sister is sick! Hey! Come on! You've got to do something!" Ryan yelled. She held the can of insect spray in her hand and winked at Reb who sat wide eyed with fear on top of the sink cabinet where Ryan had put her.
Ryan heard the barrier being removed and the man, looking angry and rumpled with sleep, opened the door. Ryan stretched out her arm and sprayed the insect repellant directly into the guy's eyes. Then she kicked him aside with her foot and wiggled past him. She looked around madly, saw the cast iron frying pan still sitting dirty on the cold propane burner and grabbed it. No hesitation, this time, she slammed the kneeling man as hard as she could over the head. He didn't even moan. He just dropped to the floor.
Stepping over him, she scooped Reb from her perch in the cramped bathroom and made for the door. She ran to the truck and slipped a startled Reb along the seat. "Don't worry, Reb! We're out of here!" Ryan smiled, and reached for the ignition. No keys! Oh shit!
"Hang on, Reb! I just have to see to something," Ryan smiled, and forced herself to step back out of the safety of the truck. Her nerves were at a breaking point as she silently, stepped up into the trailer once again. She expected that at any minute the angry man would pounce on her. She stood in the doorway and surveyed the space. No keys. She couldn't see him putting them away in a drawer and since it was clear he had slept in his clothes it was likely that he had the keys in his pocket. Ryan edged forward and looked over the small counter.
The man lay on his belly on the floor of the trailer, his head to one side and his mouth partly open. Drool dribbled down the prickily facial hair on his chin. What if he grabs me? Ryan wondered, as she slowly knelt beside the man. Her heart was pounding in her chest. If he moves I'm going to have a heart attack and die right here!
She felt his pocket. The keys were a hard lump beneath the material. I wonder if I killed him. Oh my God! I'm a murderer and now I'm robbing a corpse! Swallowing her disgust, she wiggled her hand into the pocket and pulled out the keys. Then, quick as a jack rabbit, she hopped out of the trailer and ran for the truck again. Shaking with fear, she slammed the door shut and put the keys in the ignition, turning the key with trembling fingers. The engine turned over and died.
Oh God! I'm going to wet myself! Ryan moaned silently, as the sweat ran down her neck. Calm. Don't panic or you'll flood the engine, she commanded herself. She pressed down on the gas and turned the key. This time the engine caught! Crying with relief, Ryan turned the truck around and headed back down the trail leaving the still body of their kidnapper on the floor of the old trailer.
Robbie turned back, fighting the panic that was growing in her heart. Somehow she had lost the Ryan's trail. By now, she should have found another marker! Either she had missed it or Ryan was no longer able to leave a trail. That thought made her heart convulse in fear. With the back of her hand, she wiped the sweat from her upper lip. Christ! This was a thousand times worse than being in prison.
Now ahead of her, she could see the head of the fire . Blue-black smoke billowed into the sky and fire blazed behind. While she stared, a tree caught and a ribbon of flame raced up the trunk and set the branches into a blaze of fire. How far away? Maybe a few miles. Time was running out! Then she saw it! A narrow over grown trail to her left. She stopped her truck in the middle of the road and got out. Yes, a vehicle had gone down there recently. The weeds and grass were flattened into two tracks from the tires. A flash caught her eyes and bending, she picked up Ryan's watch from a clump of tall grass.
Setting her jaw, Robbie turned and ran back to the truck. She slammed the vehicle in gear and turned into the brush path bouncing along as fast as she dared. Coming around the corner, she came bumper to bumper with a beat up old chevy. She was out of her truck in a split second and was pulling the driver from the truck in a near blind anger. Then realized that she had hold of her daughter. "Ryan! Love! Are you alright? Did he hurt you? Reb?"
"No, I'm okay. Reb's in there. She's okay too but scared," Ryan sighed, from the safety of her mother's arms. Robbie pushed Ryan gently away. "We're in trouble. Get Reb out and into our truck. Where does this road go?"
"It's a dead end. It goes to an old trailer," Ryan said, as she fished Reb out from the floor of the truck. Reb slid from Ryan's arms into Robbie's.
"Obby! I want to go home. I want my mommy!" the little girl wailed.
"It's okay, Reb. We're all going home," soothed Robbie, as she listened to the phone in her hand connect. It was answered right away.
"Where are you? What have you been doing? I've been so worried. You've got to get out of there!"
"I've got them, Janet. Both of them," cut in the director, half crying with relief. She held up the phone to Reb's ear.
"Mommy! Mommy! You come get me, mommy. I want to go home!" cried Reb.
Robbie pulled the phone away from the upset child. She could here Janet crying and trying to sooth her daughter at the other end. "Listen, Janet, we are in a real fix here. The fire is only about two miles behind us. There is no going back. I'm on a track off to the east of Lakefront Road. Ryan said it comes to a dead end and there is an old trailer down there. Do you know the spot?"
Janet fought to get herself under control. Her voice, when she spoke, was surprisingly calm and controlled. "Yes, I know it. Lakefront dead ends about ten kilometers farther on and the fire is likely to catch up to you. It seems to be fingering along the shore line pushed by a wind out of the south. So far it has only spread about a kilometer inland. They are evacuating Bartlett though. Listen Robbie, go back to the trailer and head due east. Follow the ravine. It will lead you to Beaver Creek. I will meet you there with the canoe and we'll paddle back down to Long Lake. Go quickly, Robbie! There is very little time!" Janet finished, the panic cracking through into her voice.
"We're on our way. Don't worry, Janet. We'll met you at the creek," responded Robbie, snapping the phone shut and swinging into action. "You two get in our truck," commanded Robbie, as she got into the old grey vehicle and reversed it into the bush. She jumped out and ran to their truck and hopped in, putting the truck in forward and moving off.
"He's down there. I...I hit him on the head with a cast iron frying pan. I...I think I killed him, Mom," confessed Ryan in a shaky voice, as she buried her face into Reb's neck and hugged her little sister close.
Robbie couldn't take her eyes away from the rough path, but she nodded, reached out and squeezed Ryan's knee. "You did what you had to do to save Reb and yourself, I'm proud of you. Don't worry," reassured her mother.
Ryan nodded but said nothing. They broke clear of the trail and came out into an overgrown clearing in which sat a small run down trailer. "He's in there!" Ryan exclaimed, "He was lying on the floor!"
Robbie nodded again but said nothing. She saw the ravine sloping down behind a crooked outhouse and headed straight for it. The truck smashed through the flimsy structure and went head first down a steep embankment into an empty flood gorge. Robbie wheeled the truck around on the opposite bank and dropped it down onto the dry river bed. Popping the truck into low gear, she moved forward steadily. Smashing through fallen branches and thumping over rocks. Ryan held on tight to Reb and tried to protect her head as they swung about violently inside the cab.
"Shit, Mom, the owner of this truck is going to be pissed," Ryan observed dryly, as branches scraped the paint off the sides and they left their muffler behind on a rock.
"Don't swear. And the owner is good and pissed, believe me!" responded Robbie, with a playful growl.
They traveled on for several kilometers until the truck stuck fast in mud. "Out!" ordered Robbie, and Ryan did as she was told as quickly as possible with Reb clinging in silent fear to her. Robbie ran to the back of the truck and slipped into her fire gear. She dumped a knapsack of supplies and used her jackknife to cut the corners out of the bottom. "Here turn around," she said to Ryan and slipped the knapsack on her daughter's back. Then she lifted the now screaming baby from Ryan's arms and stuffed the stiff child non too gently into the make shift baby carrier.
Robbie rubbed Reb's head and looked into her little daughter's eyes. "Reb, I know this is scary but it is okay, we are going to find your Mommy now. You be good for Obbie, okay?"
Reb looked up with big, fearful eyes brimming with tears but she nodded silently. Robbie smiled and dropped another kiss on the child's head. "Ryan, I'll carry the gear. You follow with Reb. The wind is coming around to the east. We are in big trouble. Let's move!"
Ryan did not need any more encouragement. She followed her Mom at a quick pace down the dry, rugged ravine.
Janet phoned Milka to let her know what was going on. Then she got the first aid kit, some other needed equipment and ran for the canoe. Using powerful strokes, she cut the canoe swiftly through the water along the east side of Long Lake, turned into Moose swamp and steered through the lily pads until she got to where Beaver Creek drained into the bog. Thank God the creek was fairly deep and slow moving, she thought, as she pushed on. Even with the dry weather, the creek still was about four meters wide and one deep. Hang on Robbie, I'm coming! Janet thought, and gritting her teeth, she gave it everything she had to move that canoe upstream.
The sweat dripped steadily down Janet's face and the muscles in her arms burned with effort. How far had she come? Maybe four or five kilometers. The smoke had turned the world around her misty and it felt heavy on her lungs. Stopping, she took out one of the towels she had brought, wet it in the creek and wrapped it around her lower face. A wind stirred around her and
the woods ahead cracked and snapped like a bonfire.
Janet looked up in horror as the tops of the trees, visible beneath the rising smoke, flashed into flame one after the other. My God, the trees are crowning! It's a firestorm! The wind was blowing furiously now and the air she sucked in was oven hot. A few kilometers ahead of her, where she knew her family waited, was a solid wall of fire. She watched, mesmerized by the sheer power of the natural force unleached ahead of her. Oh God, what have I led them into!
The fire roared and swirled in licking tongues of orange and red, devouring trees and sucking in the air from the defenseless forest around. Animals charged in panic. Natural foes forgotten, as they fled from one of nature's greatest enemies. Skags, trees and branches on fire, crashed down spreading a carpet of fiery death that flooded out across the bush. It was hypnotic and terrifying, powerful and mad. Only a few kilometers in front of Janet, the world had become a scene from hell and within it her family.
Ten minutes later, the worst was over. Ahead of her, were less than half an hour before there had been a green forest, there now burned slowly the blackened sentries of hundreds of years of growth. Janet felt numb. Her mind refused to deal with the enormity of what she had just witnessed and the consequences to her family if they had been caught in there.
Like a robot, she picked up her paddle again and moved the craft forward towards the devastated wasteland. Her arms smarted as she stroked and looking at her hands with disinterested eyes, she registered that her skin was red and scorched. The message did not cause any reaction but remained a disconnected observation. Her shock at what had just happened was too great. With stubborn determination, she did the only thing that she could think to do and that was go on.
Sometime later, she was in the burnt-out path of the fire. Around her, through the veil of smoke, fires still burned in patches and trees smoldered, cracked and twisted in the heat. Her world had been reduced to black and white like a fussy old t.v. Painfully, she tore another towel in strips and wetting them in the blackened water, she wrapped her blistered hands awkwardly. Then she picked up her paddle and moved on. Not far now. The ravine would be less than half a mile ahead.
It was slow going, burnt and burning branches and tree trunks had fallen across the creek. Some, she slid under, others, she was forced to pull the canoe over. More burns, more delay, tears now stained her sooty face. She still moved on.
It was after one such portage, that she looked up and her heart simple ceased to beat. A low agonizing groan escaped from her open mouth. There laying on the bank of the river, one arm outstretched over the water, was the blackened fire eaten remains of a human. Janet stared in horror at the charred bones, the raw meat and black cavities. Someone tall. Robbie! With staggering steps, she forced herself forward, leaving the canoe wedged against the ashy shore.
Her whole body shook with cold shock. She made herself look. A belt buckle, remains of shoes. Men's shoes! It wasn't Robbie. Janet's lungs sucked in air through the damp, dirty towel. I'm sorry, whoever you are, but thank you, God. Thank you! It isn't Robbie! She stumbled back to the canoe through the knee high water and grabbing the gunnels, she half pulled, half floated the craft passed the burnt remains and continued on her way.
She knew now what she was likely to find. But still she went on. They were her family.
Robbie and Ryan hurried on. They had only stopped long enough for Robbie to tear her shirt to bits and wrap the strips around their nose and mouth. Reb had gone quiet and didn't look very well. Robbie was very worried. When she looked back, she could see the orange glow of flames now off in the distance. Then ahead, she saw the trees thinning. They must be close now to Beaver Creek.
The attack came from her right sending her crashing into the embankment. She looked up just in time to see a man swinging a heavy stick at her head. She ducked and took the blow on her shoulder. Her heavy Bunker jacket was just enough padding to prevent a broken collar bone but the pain still brought Robbie to her knees.
By now, Ryan had managed to slip out of the knapsack that she was using to carry Reb and place her sister on the ground. Then she made a flying tackle at the man's legs who had already stuck her mother once. He came down with a curse and Robbie was up in a second and helping Ryan pin the kidnaper to the ground.
It was the wind suddenly switching direction that warned Robbie. The fire behind them was sucking in the air building towards a firestorm. The air was heating rapidly. "Run! Run for the creek!" she screamed, pulling Ryan up and pushing her forward. She grabbed up Reb into her arms and ran after her teen daughter.
They broke into the open at the bank of the creek. Maybe three meters wide and half a meter deep. Not much but their only chance, Robbie evaluated. She pulled a package from her pocket and ripped it open to pull out a fire tent. She didn't need to say anything to Ryan and Reb. They had practiced with her many times both at the station and in their own livingroom.
Ryan splashed into the water and tucked her feet under the elastic edging of the aluminium foil fire shield. She dropped into the water and pulled the thin protection over her, holding the elastic edging down with her hands. It formed a small pocket of air until she would have to duck under the water completely. Robbie knelt down and tucked Reb underneath. Trusting Ryan to do what was needed to try and protect her little sister.
In the half minute that had past, the smoke had thickened quickly, nearly blinding Robbie. The air had become super heated and before she took a deep breath and ducked under the water, she had reacted in surprise as the torn bag that was still in her hand burst into flame! It was hard to stay under the shallow water. Even with her eyes closed, she was aware that the swampy water
around her glowed orange, reflecting the savage fire rolling over them. Her back and legs stung
as they caught the impact of the blast-furnace heat.
She struggled to get deeper in the now soot filled water. Her lungs ached. She held her nose and breathed in, as she had been trained to do, forcing the oxygen that remained in her mouth and throat down into her lungs, then released her nose and exhaled just a little bit to get some of the built up of carbon dioxide out of her system. She was in terrible pain now and she could feel herself close to blacking out. Please God, let Ryan and Reb live!
Ryan pulled Reb under her as she had been taught and Reb dutifully clung to her big sister's neck. "When I tell you, Reb. Take a deep breath and don't ever let go no matter how much you want to!" Ryan instructed earnestly. "This is for real, Reb. You do just as I say. It's important.
Now! Big breath!" ordered Ryan. The air that Ryan sucked in, not a second later, felt like fire in her lungs. She crouched in the water with Reb clinging under her and the fire tent stretched over her back. When she couldn't stand the heat any longer, she sank lower, pulling the struggling Reb with her. She jammed he elbow on the edge of the fire tent to keep the corner from blowing up with the fire-wind and used her freed hand to clamp her hand over Reb's nose and mouth as she held the two of them close to the bottom of the bog.
The water warmed until it felt like a hot bath, Reb's little body stopped struggling and went limp.
Ryan count off the seconds. Two minutes! She broke the surface with a gasp but made sure the fire tent still formed a protective dome around them. Pulling Reb up, she shook her gently in the darkness. No reaction. Ryan's heart lurched. Oh God! I've downed Reb! She took a breath of the sweltering, oxygen depleted air and breathed it into Reb's mouth. Once , twice, three times...
The small body started to struggle. "No, Reb, you got to hold still. The fire has burnt over us but it's still really hot. We have to wait a bit yet. You know like we practiced."
"I scared, Ryan," Reb whimpered.
"Me too," choked Ryan, in the smoke that now seeped under the wet fire tent. "Hang on!"
Ryan waited another two minutes, then cautiously she lifted the light aluminium blanket. The area around them was completely burnt out. The heavy smoke had dissipated and now a low misty blue surrounded them. Ryan pulled her wet cloth more firmly around her nose and mouth and sucked in air that after what they had just gone through, tasted surprisingly fresh. Reb clung to her like a barnacle, looking around in fear with big reddened eyes.
Ryan gave her a hug. "You were so brave, Reb! I was really proud of you! Wait until I tell the guys down at the fire hall! Now listen, I have to find Mom. You sit here under the tent and wait for me, okay?"
"No! Ryan, no go!" Reb bellowed, tightening her grasp on her big sister. Ryan didn't have time to argue. She had to find her Mom. She just hoped that what she and Reb were going to find would not be something that would live in their nightmares forever more. She pushed off the fire tent and stood knee deep in water, Reb still wrapped around her chest.
Looking around, she could see no one. Panic rose up like bile in her throat. She sloshed through the water, pushing hot debris out of her way and squinting in the smoke. Then she saw the blackened body, washed up on the opposite bank. "Mom?" she called, afraid of going over to see what she might find. "Mom?!" she called again, louder this time, the fear edging her voice.
"Ryan?" came a harsh croak.
"Mom!" cried Ryan, splashing over to the black form. Robbie's Bunker outfit was almost completely burnt through. Her hair that had just started to grow out was singed.
A face black and distorted with pain looked up from the ash. "You and Reb, okay?" Robbie whispered with effort.
"Yeah. Some small burns, that's all. Reb is scared shitless," Ryan stated, easing down beside her Mom and wandering what she could do to help.
"It's okay now, Reb," Robbie reassured. "Your Mommy will be here soon." She hid her fear that perhaps Janet had been caught in the firestorm too. "Ryan, you watch, Reb. Wait here until, your other Mom gets here. She should be here soon," she got out. For a few seconds she rested, the air wheezing as it left her lungs. Then, she continued. "Ryan, I love you. I'm really proud of you. Tell Aunt Janet I hurt. I promised always to tell her," Robbie's voice faded out.
Ryan sat beside her Mom afraid to touch her and cause anymore pain. She held Reb close to her and adjusted the rag over her nose and mouth. Then she quietly, told Reb about how they were going to build a sailboat and win the Bartlett Regatta this summer. All the while her eyes swung back and forth, checking her mother's breathing and looking down stream for her Aunt Janet.
Around their huddled forms, the roasted earth cooled, cracking and popping with released heat. The light smoke twisted into ribbons that threaded through the burnt out trunks of trees and the ash settled in a snowy carpet. It started to rain. The smoke and debris from the fire had salted the water laden air from off the Great Lake and created its own weather and death. Ryan shifted closer to her mother, protecting her body and Reb's from the big, heavy drops of dirty rain that formed craters in the ash around them until the world was pocked and streams of ash drained into the creek and swirled away in silver ribbons. Ryan had never felt more exhausted and alone.
Then the phone rang. Ryan leaned forward eagerly and undid the flap on Robbie's torn pocket. The phone came out damp and dirty but still miraculously working!
Janet had got the canoe as far as it was going to go. Ahead of her was an obstacle course of burnt and smoldering trees that had fallen across the creek. The rain that had started a few minutes before was steady now. Heavy splatters that stained everything in grey streaks of wet ash and smoke. She sloshed back through the water and shouldered her knapsack onto red hot, stinging shoulders. She pulled her phone out. She hadn't dared to use it before in case it slowed Robbie from running from the fire. The phone rang and rang. Janet could feel the cold ball of despair building in her cut when finally she heard a click and a hello.
"Ryan?! Is that you? Are the others with you? Are you alright?" Janet demanded, trying to keep the panic from her voice and staining to hear over the static on the phone.
"Aunt Janet, where are you?! I need you! Reb is asleep and Mom is unconscious. We are at the base of the ravine!"cried Ryan in relief.
Tears rolled down Janet's face too. "I am only about thirty meters down river from you. I'll be there soon. Hang on Baby, everything is going to be okay now," sobbed Janet, holding the phone with shaking hands.
The thought of her family pushed back her exhaustion and she scrambled forward through the debris. "Mom, I can hear you!" came a voice from up ahead. Then Janet was there wrapping her children in her arms and looking down with worry at where Robbie lay wheezing in the mud.
Her children still under one arm, Janet twisted to reach out and touch her lover. "She said to tell you she hurts," Ryan reported in concern.
Janet nodded, biting her lip. She leaned down and kissed her lover's dirty brow. "Hey, you in there?
Eye lids opened with effort. "Janet? Knew you'd come. Missed you."
"I missed you too, my silly olive," she whispered.
Robbie managed a horse laugh. "I feel more like Olive Oil!"
Janet smiled tenderly. "Hang on, I'm going to see if I can reach anyone on the phone. There is so much junk in the air reception isn't very good." Janet tried Bartlett numbers first. No luck. Then she tried the province emergency number. Someone answered but the static was so bad conversation was virtually impossible.
Janet leaned over Robbie. "Sweetheart, do you think you could walk to the canoe?"
Robbie nodded, saving what breath and energy she had for the grueling task that she knew she would need to do to help get her family out of there. "Okay, I'm going to help you up. Ryan, could you help Reb?"
Ryan nodded, worry for her Mom etched on her face. "Obby sick," Reb said. "You make her better, Mommy!" the little girl ordered fretfully.
"I'm going to, Hon," Janet reassured both her daughters as she helped Robbie to her feet. "You go ahead, Ryan and I'll bring Obby along presently."
Ryan nodded and lifting Reb up on her shoulders, she headed off leaving deep prints in the ash.
Janet turned and looked at Robbie. "How bad is it? I can't tell what is coat and what is you."
"I hurt. I've got some blistering on my back and legs that's for sure," she stopped to catch her breath, "But mostly my lungs are bad.....help me out of my Bunkers, okay. I'll be lighter ... and it will be easier to move."
Janet nodded and with a grimace helped Robbie peel out off her burnt firefighter outfit. Thank God she had it on! It had saved Robbie's skin from really serious burns, Janet thought. She discarded the burnt material and could now see that Robbie's back and legs had been burnt extensively but at least it seemed to be mostly first degree burns with more serious second degree in some places, as the director had said. Robbie was suffering from smoke inhalation however, and was in terrible pain. Infection was also going to be a great concern. She pulled her own t-shirt off and insisted that Robbie slip it on to keep the dirty rain from infecting her wounds.
They traveled slowly, Janet being very careful that Robbie did not scrap or get anymore dirt into her blistering skin. Robbie just trying to get enough oxygen into her inflamed lungs to keep on going. They moved on, Janet talking softly offering encouragement and love and Robbie stifling the groans and gasps of pain that ripped from her throat when she stretched her puckered and dried skin too far. They were a long time in reaching the canoe.
With Ryan's help they lay Robbie on her stomach in the bottom of the canoe and placed a ground sheet over to keep as much of the rain as possible off her. They tucked Reb in the bow and then wadded through the water together, pulling the canoe along through the fallen debris. Reb was fretful and Robbie cried in pain each time they had to scrap the canoe over a fallen trunk that blocked the creek. Both Ryan and Janet kept stumbling in fatigue but neither complained. They just pushed on. At last, they came out of the worst of the burnt tangle and could get into the canoe themselves.
Janet took Ryan's arm and whispered, "Down around this bend is the burnt body of a man on the right bank of the creek. I....It's not very pretty. I don't want Reb to see him. When we get to the corner, I need you to distract Reb until we are past."
Ryan nodded. "It's probably the kidnapper. He jumped Mom in the ravine and they fought. But when Mom realized that the fire was coming, we all made a run for it." Janet squeezed her oldest daughter's arm. She was quite the kid and Janet was very proud of her.
"You get in the bow with Reb. I'll take the stern," instructed Janet. The blond wadded along the gunnels and reached in to touch her lover's hot face. "How are you doing?"
"I hurt," Robbie mumbled, barely conscious.
"Not long now," Janet promised. Janet stabilized the craft as Ryan settled into the canoe, kneeling in the bow with Reb in front of her. Then Janet, leapt in lightly, pushing off with her one foot as she stepped in. They picked up their paddles and started the next leg of the journey home in the pouring rain.
Robbie woke to the sound of hospital machinery and her sister's quiet voice. "Robbie, hi, how are you feeling?"
Slowly, Robbie managed to get her eyes open. "Janet, the girls?" she managed to ask.
"They're okay. David has taken Ryan and Reb to Burger King. Janet is sleeping over at the motel. I insisted that she try to get some rest. She's been sitting at your side for the last forty-eight hours until the doctor told her you were out of danger.
"I don't feel out of danger, muttered Robbie. "Tell Janet, I love her and not to worry," she muttered as she drifted off into sleep again.
The next morning, she opened her eyes to find, Janet was there. "Hi, lover, how are you doing?" the smaller woman asked leaning over to peck Robbie's lips.
"You call that a kiss!" protested Robbie sleepily.
"Hmmm, I can see you are better!" smiled Janet, leaning forward to do a better job of the hello kiss.
"Yeah, I feel a little better. Help me escape before the night nurse comes back on duty. She's gunning for me!" Robbie demanded earnestly.
Janet's eyebrows went up. "What have you done?!"
"It wasn't my fault! If that chocolate bar hadn't been sticking out of her pocket and if she hadn't just told me gleefully that the kitchen was not going to be open for another ten hours I wouldn't have stolen her chocolate bar and eaten it while she was getting me another pitcher of ice water!"
"I was hungry and it was the middle of the night!"
Janet laughed. "You are impossible! I'll buy you some chocolate bars so you can pay her back tonight. The doctor said another few days just to make sure the infection in your lungs has settled down."
"I want to go home!" Robbie protested pouting.
"Me too!" Janet agreed. "Just a couple of days, love. You wouldn't believe the cards and flowers that have come for you. I told the hospital staff to share some of them with patients who don't usually get flowers. There are a few messages from fans that we need to discuss by the way! Who is Sweetchops, who will proudly wear a tatoo of your name over her heart forever?!"
"Really?! Did you get her return address?" teased Robbie.
"Over my dead body! You belong lock stock and barrel to me, Robbie Williams and don't you forget it!" warned Janet with a laugh.
"Hmmm, I won't," promised Robbie, reaching up to pull Janet down for another kiss.
Robbie lay on the couch propped up on pillows, covered with a fresh sheet and feeling in a daze. When had all this happened? Janet was in the kitchen with David sharing recipes and making peanut butter cookies. Elizabeth was at Janet's desk loading a physics program that she wanted to work on, Ryan was sprawled on the floor reading the plans for the boat they were going to start building next week, and Reb was motoring a toy race car around Rufus who lay contentedly by the couch.
She supposed there must have been hints that she was developing an extended family life but somewhere along the way she had missed it. Janet's small cabin looked absolutely packed. They really needed to move over to the lodge as soon as possible. Damn! I'm happy, she thought, as a grin spread across her face. She looked up and met Janet's eyes. She knows what I'm thinking,
Janet blew her a kiss and the smile on Robbie's face spread even wider. What a year it had been! But it had brought them all together in an invincible family bond. Robbie thought contentedly. What could go wrong now!?
A brief firm knock came at the door and Janet wiped her hands on a tea towel and went to answer it. "Alberta!" Janet squealed with delight and wrapped her arms around the new arrival and gave her a quick hug. Robbie was up off the couch and standing behind Janet in one swift movement.
"Hello, Janet, it's good to see you again. Robbie," Alberta finished formally, offering her hand stiffly to the director.
There was a slight hesitation before Robbie took the hand in a firm and brief handshake. "Hi Alberta," beamed Ryan, coming up too the tall, quiet woman's side.
Alberta reached an arm around the teen and gave her a hug. "Hi, kid."
"Alberta! Alberta!" laughed Reb and Alberta bent down to stroke the head of the little child that was wrapped around her leg.
"Hi, Reb. Would that be Rufus I see over there? Are you two still best friends?"
Big serious eyes looked up at Alberta. "Rufus and Ryan are my best friends," she corrected. "Ryan is going to build a boat and take me on it!"
"Really, that's great, Reb!" laughed Alberta.
Janet bumped the sullen Robbie aside. "Come on in, Alberta. You know David and Elizabeth. I'll put the kettle on while Robbie gets you settled," she finished turning to give Robbie a meaningful look.
Robbie smiled weakly and gestured to Alberta to follow her over to the conversation area around the fireplace. She indicated a single chair well away from the one Janet usually used for Alberta to sit in. "So what brings you here?" Robbie asked bluntly with a tone that just barely past for friendly.
"I've been sent up to retrieve and identify a body that Janet reported to the police. I thought it would save the constable and me a lot of aggravation if I just stopped in here and asked for directions," Alberta stated.
Robbie nodded, feeling somewhat more relaxed but still suspicious of Alberta. Damn the woman anyway. Why doesn't she just leave us alone!
"Here we go, tea for everyone. And you are in luck we have freshly baked peanut butter cookies.
David and I have been comparing recipes. This one's David's and it is great!"
Alberta took the tea that Janet offered and a cookie from the plate that Elizabeth brought around.
"Hmmm. These are super! I won't mind the recipe too, David."
David beamed from where ha sat on the edge of Elizabeth's chair. "I'll write it out for you right now before I forget," he said, getting up and bustling off to the kitchen.
I'm going to throw up! Robbie thought disgustedly.
"David can turn his hand to anything," Elizabeth stated proudly, her eyes sparkling as they followed David into the kitchen.
"Alberta, you must stay for dinner! Robbie is going to heat up the barbecue and we're going to have burgers," Janet said, finishing handing the girls their milk and coming to sit next to Robbie and leaning her back against her lover's chest. Come on Robbie, relax! I love you! Robbie's arm dropped protectively around her but she didn't say anything. Janet filled in the silence. "So how are you? We were concerned when we read in the papers that you had almost been drowned!"
No, we weren't. We were delighted! A good dunking is what you deserved for coming on to my wife! Robbie thought grumpily.
"I took your advice, Janet, and went home. Despite getting myself and Dawn almost killed, it was the best thing I ever did! Thanks for forcing me into it!" Alberta stated, in the straight forward, sincere way she had of talking.
"You're welcome," smiled Janet, her eyes sparkling with mischief. "So who is this Dawn. She's someone special isn't she?"
Alberta blushed and swallowed. "Yeah, she's special," she admitted softly, looking into her tea cup.
"Is she married?" asked Robbie, dryly and got a annoyed poke in the ribs from Janet.
Alberta looked up and blue eyes met blue in open hostility. "No, she is not."
"Robbie why don't you see about the barbecue, Hon, and I'll show David how to make my home made burger sauce. Ryan, could you take the canoe and show Alberta where to find the mouth of Beaver Creek?"
"Sure thing, Mom!" Ryan stated, swallowing the last of her milk and getting up off the floor where she had been sitting. "Come on, Alberta, it's a great day for a canoe."
After Alberta and Ryan were safely out on the lake, Janet turned to Robbie who was moodily cleaning off the grill of the barbecue with a steel brush. "Robbie..."
"Don't start! I am very grateful that she helped get my miserable hide out of prison and took care of my family when I couldn't, but Sweet Jesus, she made a play for my wife!" snapped Robbie, using more force than was necessary to clean the grill.
"That jealous, huh?" Janet said, leaning on the porch rail arms crossed. The steel brush stopped dead.
"You know, jealous, insecure because you don't think you can measure up," said Janet indifferently.
The brush dropped with a clang and Robbie was towering in front of her. "I can measure up just fine!" the director growled.
Janet snuggled into Robbie's arms. "Well, I thought so. That's why I married you because I knew that I'd never meet anyone else who could measure up to the love that I found with you but maybe you don't feel the same way. Maybe there is an insecurity about your...abilities that makes you so jealous of even harmless competition."
"I'm not jealous!" protested Robbie.
"Good, because I think you and Alberta could be friends if you two would just relax in each other's company," smiled Janet, standing on her tiptoes to kiss Robbie's throat.
There was silence for a moment while Robbie responded in kind. "Janet?"
"You just baited me and reeled me in didn't you?"
Blue eyes sparkled down into green. "Okay, I'll be good. But I don't have to like her!"
Janet grinned. "You won't be able to help yourself. She's nice. But she is not you, Robbie. I love you. You remember that. Alberta isn't even in the running and she knows that."
Robbie beamed arrogantly. "Yeah, I'm pretty good, aren't I ?" she joked, wiggling her eyebrows.
Janet wet a finger tip on her tongue and ran it down Robbie's nose and onto her lips. "We'll see just how creative you can be tonight with that sore back of yours," Janet responded, as Robbie's lips lowered to claim her own.
Dinner turned into a merry affair and ended with everyone going for a walk along the lake shore on Robbie's jogging trail to see the newly renovated lodge. On the trip back, Alberta and Robbie found themselves some distance ahead of the others.
"I'm sorry, about the girls being kidnapped, Robbie. That must have been hell for you and Janet especially after what you had just come through," Alberta said, attempting a conversation awkwardly.
"It was awful. We felt so helpless and ..and hell, it was our kids!" Robbie responded. She'd try. She had promised Janet she would try to talk to Alberta.
"Yeah. I imagine it was the publicity over your arrest that gave the guy the idea to try a kidnapping. There were enough pictures in the paper to i.d. the kids and in a small town like this it wouldn't be hard to work out your schedule in order to pick a good time for a grab."
Robbie nodded. "I've got some plans. I want to drop out of the public eye. It's not good for my family to have to hide from the media all the time. I want to work behind the scenes more."
"That's good. Janet and your kids, they are pretty special. She sure loves you very deeply. You are lucky," Alberta stated.
"Yeah, I am."
They walked a while in silence. 'I met someone out west. She has a daughter too," Alberta surprised herself by saying. Why was she disclosing such intimate information to Robbie? It was strange, despite the antagonism between them, she kind of liked Robbie.
"You two hit it off?" asked Robbie.
Alberta nodded. "Ever since I was a little girl, I fought to be some one. To get away from the ranch and have a life where I could use my mind and expand my horizons. I left guilty because I didn't want to be a mother to my brothers, or a house maid for my father or a good wife to some rancher. I felt I'd shame my family if they knew I was gay. Then, well, something happened that led to some pretty bad blood between my older brother and I and I just left and didn't go back.
Janet made me realize that I had to face those ghosts in order to really move on," Alberta explained.
"Yeah, she's good at that sensitive stuff," agreed Robbie, stooping to pick a handful of wild blue berries from a low bush growing in a crevasse of a flat rock outcropping. She shared the tasty treat with Alberta.
"Thanks. Yeah, she is. Then I met Dawn and Mackenzie. You know, I mean, I think I might be in love but...well... there were other issues to deal with and..and I just wasn't ready for a serious relationship."
Robbie stopped and looked at Alberta. "You panicked and ran, didn't you?"
Alberta sighed and looked over the lake. "Pretty much," she admitted miserably.
"You gotta go back," Robbie stated bluntly, as a way of showing her support.
"Going to. My brother's getting married in the fall. I told her I'd see her then."
"Good. You can work it out then," Robbie shrugged.
Alberta nodded and they walked on, the two women figuring that they had pretty well exhausted the subject and straightened out the problem. Robbie decided that Alberta wasn't so bad now that she had a girlfriend of her own.
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