As the climb up the canyon grew steeper, John's excitement increased. Kimberly hadn't exaggerated: This route to the Punch Bowls far surpassed the main trail. Large rocks—boulders, really—lined the canyon walls above his head, one on top of another as if a giant had stacked them. The trail, a little overgrown with vegetation, dipped and twisted until it began to run parallel to a mountain stream. The water level was low, but John could imagine that during heavy rains, it would be a dangerous torrent. Right now it was only a foot or so deep, tinkling rhythmically as it ran to an unknown destination.
Without warning, the path turned sharply at a right angle and ended abruptly at the water's edge.
"What now?" Roy surveyed the scene.
John pointed to the opposite side where the trail started again. "We cross."
The water had a bite to it, but it felt refreshing, as the day was getting hotter. The two men continued their trek on the other side only to find a little distance away they had to cross back to the other side. They ended up doing this four more times. Finally they had climbed off the floor of the canyon.
Stopping for a drink of water, Roy wiped the back of his neck with his blue bandana. Scanning the boulders to his right, his mouth fell open. "You've gotta be kidding me!"
John followed his friend's gaze and began grinning like a little kid. This was going to be fun!
True to her word, Kimberly returned to the last fire ring at Grangers Outpost later that day. And she was excited! When she had finished patrolling earlier, she had stopped by the station and to her surprise found a letter waiting for her.
"It's from Ben!" she had squealed, drawing the unwanted attention of Nick.
"What did you say, Kim?" He looked up abruptly.
"Did you see who dropped this off?" she asked.
"I dunno. Some guy," Nick replied.
"Why didn't he wait until I got back?"
It didn't matter. Kimberly snatched the envelope off the desk and headed back out to the truck. She wanted to go to her favorite spot to read it. Pulling to a stop next to Johnny's Rover, she got out and sat down on a large, flat rock. Anxiously, she ripped open the envelope at one end and blew into it. Ben hadn't called in a week, not since he had received his orders to South Korea. She unfolded the paper with excitement.
"Kim, you're a really great girl, but I don't think we should keep seeing each other. I'm really sorry…"
Kimberly looked up from the bright white paper.
Then she began to cry.
The rest of the words danced across the page. Something about heading in different directions and it had been fun.
She had been sure he was The One. When they met at the air show in San Diego last month, he seemed to really understand her, though she had to admit she had been drunk and her judgment not the best. And, she admitted to herself in that moment of pain, she really didn't know that much of guys to begin with. Foolish, so foolish.
Emotions swirled as Kimberly's grief turned to anger. "You lousy son of a bitch!"
Jumping up, she ripped the letter in half and threw it among the charred logs and ashes in the fire pit. Breathing hard, she put her hands on her hips and stared off into the distance where the national forest land bordered county land. But she didn't see anything but Ben's face.
In the cloud of feelings that threatened to overwhelm her, Kimberly's thoughts focused on only one thing. She impulsively pulled out her cigarette lighter and set the letter on fire. She watched with distinct satisfaction as the paper flickered and curled in on itself.
The wind in the Ponderosa pines blew lonely and restless as dirt and leaves swirled at her feet. Another Santa Ana was coming, the weatherman had said, bringing awful heat and moisture-stealing wind to Los Angeles. But Kimberly didn't care. She didn't care about anything any more. She buried her face in her hands.
Gaining intensity, the breeze lifted remnants of the letter out into the dry forest grass. Wiping her eyes with the back of her sleeve, Kimberly didn't notice the brush alight until it was too late.
"No!" she cried as she ran to stomp on the grass. "No, no, no, no, no!"
But the dry undergrowth beckoned to the flames, which leaped from spot to spot like a starving animal that had just discovered a buffet of food.
Realizing she couldn't put out the blaze by herself, Kimberly ran to the truck to radio it in but skidded to a stop. How would she ever explain it? She would lose her job, lose everything. She watched the flames spread as the hot wind blew smoke and sparks further and further away.
Jumping in the truck and throwing it into reverse, Kimberly nearly spun out as she tore down the road. When she looked back at the fire in the rearview mirror she gasped in horror. It was racing among the scrub oak and circling the camping area like the predator it was.
She hit the accelerator. The truck made contact with every each bump in the road at a pace that sent her head crashing into the roof. She exited onto the twisting road down to the ranger station. Her thoughts raced.
Just say you thought you saw smoke in the distance, she thought. They won't know it's not true. No one will ever know.
Hot tears blinded her. She took the next curve fast as a new and horrifying thought flashed across her panicked brain. It was like all the air was sucked out of the car. She couldn't breathe.
"Johnny!" she shouted.
Kimberly knew she didn't matter anymore. Not her job, not even if it meant she had to go to jail. She had get help. Shouting expletives, she cursed the fact she hadn't responded at the scene. Fumbling for the mic, she hoped she hadn't lost too much time. In the split second it took to glance down, her tires were squealing. She jerked the wheel to the left, hard, at the next turn, but the truck was going too fast.
Screaming, Kimberly threw her arms up to protect her face as her car careened off the road and smashed head-on into a tree.