Mountain Man Rescued by Olivia T. Turner

CHAPTERONE

Kennedy


I didn’t do it.

I know that’s what all prisoners, say, but in my case it’s true.

I know they all say that as well, but… you just have to believe me…

Do you believe me?

Oh, that’s okay. No one else does.

“This is a big one!” the correctional officer in charge of my unit shouts as he walks down the aisle of the bus, looking like the Terminator behind those big aviator glasses. “Be shrewd or be barbecued.”

He chuckles at his own joke, but he’s the only one laughing.

I’m surrounded by a busload of other prisoners who thought it was a good idea to come charging into a wildfire with nothing but an axe to try and stop it from spreading through the mountains. We all thought it was a good idea to come out here in the burning mountains of California and risk our lives for three bucks a day. I’m surrounded by idiots.

Why the hell did I think I could do this?

It sounded like a good idea when I was bored out of my mind and lying on the cot in my cell. It didn’t seem so deadly then.

But now that the bus is bouncing along the dirt valley, heading straight toward the clouds of black smoke pouring off the mountains in the distance, it’s feeling very serious.

“Are you coming with us into the blaze?” one of the girls behind me asks.

The CO bends over, laughing his ass off as all of the girls frown at him.

“No, thank you,” he says as he lifts up his glasses to wipe his eyes. “I’ll stay in the air-conditioned bus.”

“Pussy,” I hear the girl behind me mutter under her breath.

I grip onto the seat in front of me as the bus starts really bouncing. We’re totally off-road now, heading straight toward the blaze that’s been keeping the local firefighters busy for days.

“Can we stay in the air-conditioned bus too if we change our minds?” I ask in the high-pitched squeaky voice that always comes out when I’m terrified.

He grins as he looks down at me. I can see my frightened reflection in his glasses.

“What the fuck do you think?” he bellows angrily.

“Yes?” I squeak out.

He laughs as he charges back up to the front of the bus while shaking his head.

“Five minutes until drop off,” he shouts before he sits down in the front seat.

“This is some bullshit,” one of the girls says as she peers out the window. “They expect us to go into that?”

I’m afraid to look.

“We’re going to be toast,” another one says. They’re all looking out the window at the out of control fire we’re headed toward.

The heavy smell of smoke comes drifting into the bus despite all of the windows being closed and I cough as it burns my lungs.

This is so bad.

I can point to many instances in my life where things have taken a wrong turn, but for once it’s my fault. I chose to be here.

I am an idiot.

The smoke is one thing, but when I feel the heat pouring in, my heart really starts to pound.

I can’t help but look.

No,” I gasp when I turn and look out the windows across the aisle from me.

I shouldn’t have looked. I really shouldn’t have looked.

The whole freaking mountain is on fire!

Every tree, plant, and bush in the vicinity is consumed in flames and it’s moving at an unstoppable pace.

What the hell is a busload full of convicts supposed to do against that?

Nothing. We can’t do a thing.

They must be feeding us to the wildfire or something. Maybe we’re an offering to the fire gods. Twenty-three young women sacrificed for it to stop. I wouldn’t put it past the Terminator up there. He’d probably burn us all for free.

“One minute!” he hollers as the bus flies forward, making us all bounce around violently on the hard benches.

I start to panic, looking around for an exit. Any kind of exit. I’d kick my window open and leap out of this speeding bus if I could, but the windows are probably bulletproof, let alone kickproof.

Anyways, I’d have to break the chains locking my ankles to the seat and snap my handcuffs. That’s not going to happen unless I happen to get superpowers within the next few minutes.

“No!” I gasp when the bus rolls to a stop.

The fire is so close. We’re downwind, but I can still smell the thick smoke. It’s burning my lungs and making my eyes water.

“Everyone out!” Terminator shouts as he begins walking down the aisle, unlocking everyone.

My hands are trembling when he gets to me.

“What are you scared about?” he asks as he sticks the key in my handcuffs and lets me loose.

“Seriously?” I gasp as I look at the blaze through the windows. “I’m afraid of being burned alive!”

“Isn’t that an upgrade to rotting away in a cell for the rest of your life?”

“No!” I shout. “Absolutely not!”

He’s done with this conversation. He grabs my arm and shoves me forward. “Go! Now.”

I gulp as I shuffle forward, wishing just for once that something in my life would go my way. Just fucking once.

It’s like every single thing in this universe is stacked against me and determined to see me fail. I don’t know what I did in the last life to deserve all of this misfortune, but it must have been pretty diabolical.

“Good luck,” the driver grunts as I walk by. He’s smoking a cigarette that smells so freaking good even though I don’t smoke.

“Can I have one of those?” I ask with a pathetic look.

He laughs and pushes me down the stairs. “You’re going to have enough smoke inhalation for a lifetime today. No need to waste a cigarette on you.”

The heat of the summer day mixes with the heat of the wildfire, and within seconds, I’m dripping in sweat.

“Grab your shit and go!” another correctional officer with a bald head and a thick neck shouts at everyone. He has the storage area of the bus open and women are grabbing axes, helmets, bags, and goggles before running toward the blaze.

“You!” he shouts as he points to me with a fierce glare. I guess my plan of standing here awkwardly hoping no one notices me isn’t going to work. “Get over here!”

My stomach is rock-hard as I shuffle over. “Yes?”

He shoves a bag into my stomach, dumps a helmet on my head, and pushes me toward the forest.

The sound of the fire is louder than you’d expect. It’s roaring in my ears as the fire consumes the forest, cracking branches and tumbling trees.

“What are we supposed to do?” I yell to the CO.

“Follow your training,” he yells back.

“I didn’t have any training!”

Oh shit, was I supposed to have training?

“Not my fucking problem!” he shouts as he gives gear to the woman behind me.

She grabs her stuff and runs forward. I catch up to her with my heart racing.

“Did you have training?” I ask her as she twirls her axe in her hands.

“Barely,” she says as she looks me over. “Only two weeks and we spent most of it watching outdated videos.”

“I didn’t have any!” I say, wishing I got to see those videos. They might have been outdated, but I don’t think much has changed when it comes to not getting burned alive.

“Help me,” I say desperately to her.

She swallows as she looks at me with pity for a moment before moving on. “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

My feet stop moving as she keeps charging forward.

“But what am I supposed to do?” I shout to her back.

She shrugs as she turns around and looks at me. “Don’t catch on fire.”

Oh great. “I already knew that!” I shout back at her, but she doesn’t turn around. She joins the women at the trees that aren’t on fire yet and begins cutting one down.

“What the hell?” I whisper to myself as I look around in a panic. Where are the firetrucks? Where is all of the water?

I thought I was going to be surrounded by hot hunky firemen, serving them lunch and giving their muscular shoulders some much needed back rubs. I wasn’t expecting this.

“What the fuck are you doing?” the bald CO shouts as he comes charging over.

Uh-oh.

“Get to that tree line and start chopping down trees!”

“Why those trees? They’re not even on fire?”

“Go!” he shouts as he shoves me hard.

He doesn’t look happy, so I rush over to the tree line, gripping my axe with white knuckles as I head toward a tiny tree that I can definitely chop down.

I hit the trunk but the blade ricochets off and lands right beside my foot, nearly taking a few of my toes off.

I’m seriously in over my head.

A big muscular woman grabs the back of my jumpsuit and starts dragging me into the forest toward the fire. “Hey!” I shout as I try to thrash around and get away from this maniac. It’s impossible. She’s so strong. I’m going wherever she wants to take me.

“You’re not doing anything over there but getting poison ivy,” she grunts as she drags me deeper into the forest.

“There’s poison ivy in here?” I ask with a gulp. Great. One more thing to worry about.

She’s silent as she drags me deep into the forest. There are huge thick redwoods all around us and I nearly pee myself when we come up to the fire. It’s right there. Right freaking there and she keeps dragging me toward it!

“Are you crazy?” I holler as I thrash around.

“Stop it!” she shouts in my face. “We’re here to save lives, understand?”

I shake my head. “I don’t.” The only life I can possibly save is my own and that requires me running out of here as fast and as far as I can.

“We’re establishing a control line,” she says as she gets to work, quickly clearing fallen sticks and dead bushes. I look around and the other women are doing the same. “We can’t extinguish the fire, but we can choke it out and limit the spread. Clear that area over there and watch out for falling trees.”

Oh shit. I have to add falling trees to my list of things to worry about? This day is getting worse and worse.

The women around me are not afraid, or if they are, they’re hiding it very well. I watch them moving as fast as they can and I start to get energized. Convicts or not, they’re really something and I start to get inspired.

You can do this, Kennedy. Help them!

I’m no good with the axe, but I can shovel. I’m Canadian and shoveling snow is practically a requirement for citizenship up there. My parents could never afford a snowplow and I was always the one who had to shovel the snow off the steps when I was a kid while my father shoveled the driveway.

With my pulse racing, I toss the axe on the pile of tools and grab a shovel instead. I rush over next to the other girls and start digging a trench and adding to the control line.

I glance up every few seconds, looking for falling trees, but the trees around us aren’t on fire. Yet.

It’s hot and my throat is burning, but I dig and dig and dig. My arms cramp up, my shoulders ache, my hands blister, but I keep going.

I’m like a machine as I keep an eye on the fire in the distance. The wind is to our backs right now, but if it changes directions, this fire is going to close in fast and all the work we’ve done will be for nothing.

“Timber!” one of the girls shouts as she cuts down a huge tree with a chainsaw.

I look up with my adrenaline pumping as it comes tumbling down. We’re doing it. We’re actually creating a control line for the fire.

It spurs me on even more. I think about the people who live near the forest and are evacuating their homes right now, I think of the poor animals fleeing in terror, and I think of the trees that deserve a little more time on this planet. I think of all that and keep going.

But there’s more in my mind right now.

I think about the society that locked me away and threw out the key. How they were so quick to discard me. How callous and cruel they were in their sentencing even though there was such little evidence.

I think about how unjust it all is, but then I forgive it.

There’s a lot of bad in the world, but there’s a lot of good too. And I’m risking my life right now for the good.

I ignore the aching in my back and the pain in my shoulders and keep going.

“Let’s go down there!” the muscular girl who dragged me in shouts as she finishes filling her chainsaw with gas. “The fire is starting to turn.”

She looks up at the dark clouds coming in. They’re both a blessing and a curse. They’re bringing swirling winds which is spreading this crazy wildfire in all directions, but they might also bring some much needed rain. Hopefully, it’s enough to put out the flames.

I run to keep up with the girl as we leap over a fallen tree and begin to carve out a new control line at the top of a slope. If we can get this done, we’ll save all the forest down below.

“You’re doing a good job!” she says as I wipe my sweaty forehead with the back of my glove. “What’s your name?”

“Kennedy!” I shout over the crackling and popping of the fire.

She smiles. “I’m Angela.”

I’m about to say ‘nice to meet you’ but she yanks the cord on her chainsaw and it roars to life. “Let’s fuck this fire up!”

I watch her in awe as she begins slicing through a tall tree. She’s a natural in here. She’s definitely in her element.

Her enthusiasm is contagious and I get to work, helping her out as fast as I can. I rush over to a bunch of dry bushes and start ripping them up with my shovel.

That’s when I hear the chirping.

My blood goes cold when I spot three chicks in a nest crying out for their mother. They’re in the distance—a few yards away—and the fire is headed toward them. There’s no way the mother is coming back in this thick smoke.

I should just stay here. I should follow the plan.

But I can’t just leave them.

They’re trapped and helpless.

“Oh, screw it!”

“Where are you going?” Angela shouts as I toss my shovel and start running toward them. “You’re going to die!”

I don’t care.

I duck under a thick branch as I sprint forward, racing against the oncoming flames. The storm is howling in the sky and the wind is swirling around, changing directions every few seconds.

This is beyond stupid. It’s reckless and crazy, but something comes over me and I can’t stop it. I’m saving those poor birds.

I may be in an orange jumpsuit. I may be chained and caged in like an animal. But I am still a good person.

They took everything from me, but they can’t take that.

I’m breathing in thick smoke and coughing as I run. It’s hell in here. It’s like the end of the world.

“I got you,” I call out as I get closer.

They’re sticking their poor heads out of the nest and squawking loud, desperate for help.

“I’m here,” I say as I arrive.

I carefully peel the nest off the thick branch and stuff the whole thing into my jumpsuit.

“Oh shit,” I whisper when I look back and see the fire all around me. It’s cut off my exit. The low thick branch I ducked under is already in flames.

“Angela!” I shout as loudly as I can.

She doesn’t answer.

But the forest does.

A huge flaming Redwood cracks like the sound of a cannon going off and falls between me and my group with a devastating crash.

I cradle the baby chicks through my jumpsuit and say a final prayer.