Prairie Fire

By: Tessa Layne

A COWBOYS OF THE FLINT HILLS NOVEL(Book 5)




CHAPTER 1





“Tony. Hey, you okay?”

Parker Hansen pushed his friend on the shoulder, trying to jerk him out of his trance. This was exactly the type of behavior that could jeopardize an entire hand crew. Was he fatigued? Dehydrated? Exhaustion did funny things to people, and his crew had been working this grassland fire for four days straight.

Fire didn’t give a shit whether you were fatigued or dehydrated. In fact, Parker got the feeling it liked it. Too many times, fighting a wildfire felt like a fight to the death in a gladiator ring. They’d beat out a spot, and suddenly the fire would shift out of reach. Or pop up behind them. Taunting and challenging. It was downright eerie the way it seemed to know you were after it.

And no way was Parker going to let this fire get the upper hand today. Not when he had men to protect, and ranchers’ livelihoods at stake thanks to one of the biggest prairie fires in Kansas history. To make matters worse, the wind had shifted, and if they didn’t move now, they’d be caught between the line they were backlighting and the leading edge of the fire, and roast like potatoes.

“Tony.” This time, Parker grabbed the man’s arm and tugged. “Back at it, man. We’ve gotta keep going.” He turned and quickly pounded another ember with his fire swatter. The embers were landing with greater frequency. Never a good sign. Redoubling his efforts, Parker heaved his Pulaski at the hard, dry dirt. Instead of sinking in and upturning the roots of the prairie grass, the pick skittered and bounced. “Fuck. Mike, you seeing this?” He shouted into the wind.

Mike’s voice carried back, thin and strained. “It’s as dry as a witch’s tit.”

Years of drought had hardened the soil to the consistency of asphalt.

Parker tightened his grip on the Pulaski and heaved with all he had, grunting from the effort. The point knifed into the dirt then stopped a few inches below the surface. Damn. It must have hit a rock.

A gust of hot air blasted his face. Sweat pooled between Parker’s shoulder blades and dripped straight down his spine, crawling under his protective gear and pooling above his ass. It must be 115 out here. At least. “Mike,” he bellowed, waving his arms. “Wind’s shifted again.”

Mike’s head sprang up at the sound of his name, and he turned, eyes widening as he looked behind Parker.

Shit.

Without even looking over his shoulder, Parker knew what he’d see. “Time to drop gear?” he shouted, his throat hoarse from the smoke and heat.

Mike shook his head and pointed, white teeth glowing in an eerie smile against his sooty face.

What the hell? They had to get out of here now. The gusts must be at least thirty. The thick, acrid smoke stuck deep in his lungs. If there was a smoke cloud barreling at them threatening to cut off their escape to the safety zone, they needed to drop and run. Now. Nothing mattered more than keeping his men safe.

Mike gestured again, and Parker turned.

Four Blackhawk helicopters flew toward them like dark avenging angels hovering above the growing smoke clouds and orange flames racing in their direction. Bambi buckets filled with water dangled like red yo-yos below them.

Parker stood transfixed as they dropped their load on the advancing flames and turned. They were close enough he could see two soldiers sitting in the opening, acting as spotters. He raised an arm and received a wave in return. Was Cassidy up there in one of the ships? He sure hoped so. Only the most dangerous wildfires called on aid from the National Guard, and if Cassidy was up there, she’d make sure his crew stayed safe.

Not that he had time to think about anything except getting to safety, but Cassidy Grace always had an uncanny knack of finding him when he most needed it. She’d helped him out of more than a few scrapes back in the day. While had irked him back in the day that he’d occasionally had to rely on a ‘girl’ to help him out in a bind, he’d be grateful for any help the universe threw at his team today. Especially if it was in the form of the sexiest and best helicopter pilot he’d ever met towing a Bambi bucket.

The ships would be back in a few minutes with the next load, and he didn’t want to be under it. Cassidy might rock a flight suit, but he’d have to think about getting her out of it when his team was out of danger. Hopefully, the thousands of pounds of water the copters had just dumped would buy them enough time to get to their safety zone. The brush truck moved too slowly, and he wouldn’t risk getting it stuck in a depression, not with the fire shifting directions every few minutes.

“Everyone fill your tanks,” Parker barked as he jogged to the brush truck. “Mike, grab Tony.” He hated it, but he was going to have to pull Tony off the line, at least until the guy was more rested. Fatigue was only contributing to the overall danger of the situation.

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