Prose Header

Hell’s Fire

by Sandra Yuen MacKay

part 1

With the threat of Earth’s destruction looming, Johnny Riggs goes on a mission to save his supernaturally gifted daughter Annie from alien abduction.

The view of the sun-baked Arizona desert rippled like waves from the heat. A tangerine sun shone directly overhead in a brilliant sky. To the north, clouds gathered over the ridge, promising a rainstorm after a month of drought.

Johnny Riggs, a lone gunman, sat tall in the saddle on his grey stallion. He wore chaps, spurs on his dusty boots and carried a loaded gun in a holster. Tendrils of blond hair were partially hidden under his tattered hat. The horse snorted impatiently and stamped on the ground.

The gunman’s gaze shifted from the horizon to a shimmer in the sand. He drew a quick breath and gripped his long, black whip. A diamond back rattlesnake raised its head, hissed and rattled its tail. The gunman struck his whip. It whistled around the snake in a corkscrew motion. He threw the rattlesnake against a rock and cracked its spine. After dismounting, Johnny jabbed his knife under its jaw and lifted the three-foot snake by the head. Finally he had something to eat.

Half an hour later, Johnny crouched over a small, crackling fire, rotating a piece of snake meat on a stick over the flame. He blew gently on it and ripped a chuck off with his teeth. He wiped his hands on his shirt and checked his course on his map. There was one ghost town left before Nogales, then he’d be across the border, His mission had just begun.

* * *

Johnny thought back to the extraordinary series of events that led him to the present situation. He remembered when his parents, William and Kathleen Riggs, were alive. William, an eccentric man, told Johnny stories about the Old West--a time when men and women were constantly challenged to survive. He’d dress up in a traditional cowboy outfit for barn dances and rodeos. William and Kathleen, died in a freak car accident with a gasoline truck that exploded, causing a twenty-car pile-up. The loss of his parents changed his attitude toward others. He didn’t trust others easily and kept to himself.

Johnny, at the age of 32, inherited all his family’s wealth and property. In town, single ladies would smile at him and say hello. He would stride by without raising his hat or greeting them. However, there was one he desired. Sheila, a shapely waitress worked at a local coffee shop he often frequented. One day, she stopped at his table to pour him a cup of coffee.

“Good morning, Johnny. Anything new?” Sheila asked.

“I’m getting married.”

She gulped. “Oh, congratulations. Who’s the lucky girl?”

“I’m looking at her right now.”

She looked at him coyly. “Mind your manners or I’ll spill the coffee.”

“C’mon, let me take you out after work.”

“I got to be home by midnight.”

“Who are you, Cinderella?”

“I got to get to work by seven, Prince Charming.”

“Well, maybe I’ll just spend the night at your place.”

“A little forward, aren’t you?”

“Because I know what I want. I want you,” Johnny said.

She shyly agreed to see him, so he picked her up after work and asked if she’d like to see the farm.

“You can’t grow potatoes out there. The soil’s no good,” she protested.

“Come and see for yourself,” he replied.

When they drove out to the farm, she saw the most beautiful house with yellow wood siding and white trim. Outside, a portico ran around it, and inside on the main floor, the rooms were covered with rich wood paneling, and featured broad ceiling beams and polished oak floors. The kitchen was large with a rustic look and held a huge table for casual family meals. She asked about a family portrait and learned his parents were both deceased. She seemed to understand what it was like for Johnny to be alone. She helped to fill the void in him. It wasn’t long before she realized she needed him as much as he wanted her.

* * *

“Marry me?” He sat beside her on the old swing on the porch, lit by light from the kitchen window. They had dated for only a month.

“Are you talkin’ to me?”

“Yes, I’m talking to you.” He caressed the back of her hand.

“In that case, the answer’s yes.” She kissed him, sealing the agreement. Three weeks later, they married at the church to the delight and approval of well-wishers with the exception of certain, disappointed, single ladies who stood apart.

“Enjoy yourselves!” said Sheila’s stepsister as the couple climbed into Johnny’s old black car. She blinked back tears of joy.

The newlyweds waved good-bye as tin cans tinkled hanging from the rear of the car. Young girls threw confetti and rice. The couple spent their honeymoon sightseeing around the Arizona backcountry. One spot, they visited on their honeymoon, that they particularly admired, was the view from the edge of the meteor crater east of Flagstaff.

The tour guide told them, “This crater pit was formed over 50,000 years ago, when a giant meteor weighing several hundred thousand tons broke through the atmosphere and landed here.”

Johnny was fascinated by the idea that something from space, millions of miles away, could land on earth. He wondered if such a meteor could somehow carry traces or evidence of life on another world. They hiked for a mile around the rim but didn’t even get halfway around the circumference.

* * *

Thirteen years later, he and Sheila decided to celebrate their anniversary by taking a road trip. Annie, their self-assured daughter, was now twelve. She had inherited the blond hair and blue eyes of her father. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine staying with the neighbors.” Annie waved goodbye as they left.

Their silver convertible veered past other drivers along the highway. They listened to songs blasting from the radio. Sheila sung loud and clear. Johnny tried to keep up, but they ended up laughing at his off-key tenor voice.

Curving off the highway, they took the next exit. They sped past a sign, which read “Meteor Crater.” She pointed into the distance; they rose over a hill and suddenly they saw the spectacular view of the enormous crater. He jumped out of the car first, slamming the door.

She followed breathlessly. “My god! It’s just the same.”

Into the wind, they ran to the edge of the cliff surrounding the crater, and then froze, teetering on the brink. Sheila’s foot slipped slightly and Johnny automatically grabbed her around the waist.

“Watch yourself,” he said.

She looked down the steep drop to the base of the pit, and just about fell in again. “Can we climb down partway?”

He looked to the right and left. On the right, a metal gate blocked a service road. Chained to the gate, a white board with red letters read, “ No trespassing beyond this point.” On the left, a weathered kiosk stood displaying maps and bulletins. A teenage girl, wearing glasses and a khaki uniform, sat alone behind the counter. She bit her fingernails, reading a book.

“Let’s ask her,” said Johnny, guiding his wife by the arm over to the old kiosk with its peeling paint and wooden sides. “Excuse me. What’s your name?” he asked the girl.

“Amy,” she said, peering through her thick glasses.

“Is there any way we can go down inside the crater?” he asked Amy.

She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Sorry, it isn’t allowed without a guide. Tour’s over for the day.” Amy took a pamphlet from below the counter and offered it. “Would you like an explanation of the meteorite impact instead? It’s all here in the brochure.” She gave them a fake smile.

“I’ll handle this,” he said to Sheila, “Look Amy, we drove all the way out here.”

“I’m sorry. We’re closed.” She slammed down her book with a sense of finality and shut the window in his face.

Sheila looked stunned.

“We’ll find our own way down. C’mon,” coaxed Johnny. Once again, they walked to the edge of the crater. “We can go down here.”

He unhooked the gate. The hinges whined. They descended slowly along a steep, winding road. She gasped at the spectacular view as he guided her gently. They had reached a marker about ten feet down when she tripped on a rock and lost her sandal. The sandal skipped away from her. She grabbed for it and lost her balance.

Suddenly she plowed over the narrow ledge and became suspended, hanging precariously from the edge of the cliff. She grasped the precipice with both hands. He kneeled down and tried to pull her up. A second later, the ledge gave away and they both tumbled. Rocks clattered about them. They both landed with a thud. They lay motionless then her eyes fluttered open and she saw the pale hint of blue in the overcast sky. She looked up to the broken ledge. They must have fallen twenty feet. She tried to move her limbs amongst the rubble. Pain sliced through her left arm. She propped herself up on her right elbow and found her voice.

“Johnny, can you hear me?” She squeezed his wrist. “Are you with me?” Fearing he was dead, she started to cry and shout for help. Her voice became louder until echoes rebounded off the sides of the crater.

Amy packed up her lunch box from the day’s work and left the kiosk. She removed the lock off her mountain bike, tittering away to herself about that funny couple who actually wanted to go down into the pit. This was a dangerous area with signs all over warning about rockslides and the unstable uneven ground. Tourists were stupid if they thought that they could go down there without a guide experienced in rock climbing. She put on her safety helmet, got on her bike and started to pedal away. Then she heard an echoing cry. Her guide training alerted her someone was hurt. She hopped off her bike and ran over to the rail. Then she saw them way over to the right. She was trained in emergencies and knew exactly what to do. She pulled out a cellular phone and dialed the emergency number.

A monotone woman’s voice crackled over the phone. “Hello. State the type of emergency.”

“This is Amy Becker. I’m calling from the crater. There’s a woman and a man in distress. They fell part way down into the meteor crater and can’t get out. I think they’re injured.”

“Good girl, Amy. We’ll send out a rescue team right away.” The woman on the emergency hot line immediately hung up and punched another button on her phone. An ambulance and rescue team were dispatched from Flagstaff, forty miles away. Less than an hour later, they arrived at the site with sirens blaring. Amy had alerted Sheila that help was on the way. Johnny was still unconscious. The rescue team burst into action, sending two experienced rock climbers down on ropes. Cries of “1, 2, 3...!” echoed as they descended in military fashion.

When they reached the landing, they crouched down and examined the Johnny and Sheila. One rescuer, with a moustache, yelled to the crew, “Woman’s arm is broken!” The other rescuer, a bald man, leaned over the still body of Johnny. He checked to see if he was breathing and for injuries.

“Is he dead?” Sheila cried.

“Not dead! Unconscious male.” the bald man yelled to the others at the top of the crater.

A head appeared from far above shouting, “Sending down the stretcher!”

Other voices yelled, “Stretcher! Stretcher!” An orange cot was lowered down quickly.

“Man first. He’s unconscious,” the bald man said to the man with the moustache.

With a heave-ho, the rescuers lifted him onto the cot, strapped him in and tugged on the rope. The men above began to hoist the stretcher carrying Johnny. It accidentally brushed against the walls of the pit, sending a scatter of rocks and dirt onto the party below.

From up above came a voice. “Watch out for falling rocks!”

Under the shower of earth pellets, the man with the moustache yelled, “We know!” A full minute later, the stretcher was dropped down again. Sheila trembled, whimpering, fearing for her husband. The bald man took some medical supplies from his knapsack. Pulling out a stiff board and some bandages, he made a rudimentary splint to secure her arm. Soon she was rising to safety out of the pit, wrapped in a grey blanket on the orange cot. She rested on the bumper of the ambulance while a paramedic examined her arm. Amy went over to Sheila to make sure she was all right.

“Thank you so much,” said Sheila.

“All in a day’s work, ma’am.” She marched off, carefully put her helmet back on and pedaled away on her bike with a look of satisfaction.

Sheila climbed into the ambulance, squeezing next to Johnny who wore an oxygen mask. A paramedic climbed in after her. The ambulance started off with a jolt then sped down the hill toward the main highway.

“Is he going to be okay?” she asked.

“He has no broken bones. His blood pressure and pulse are fine,” he answered.

“Is it very far to the hospital?”

“It’s less than an hour from here.”

Johnny remained comatose. Visions of a funeral procession, carrying the dead corpse of her late husband, filled Sheila’s head. The ambulance started slowing down causing her to look out the window. She saw they were in Flagstaff.

They were rushed to emergency. A nurse treated Sheila’s cuts for possible infection and wrapped her left arm in a cast and sling.

Sheila’s stepsister drove Annie to the hospital to be with her parents. Annie gave her mother a hug, relieved that she was okay but concerned about her dad. They sat by his bedside, not knowing if he would come out of his unconscious state. The sterile smell of the hospital bothered Annie. She didn’t like being there. Sheila and Annie catnapped on a chair in his room. They took turns going to the cafeteria to collect coffee, milk and chocolate donuts. They talked to him and each other in soft voices.

“Can you hear me, dad?” said Annie, leaning over him.

“He must be able to hear you. Keep talking, Annie,” Sheila said.

“He’s not moving. I want him to wake up.”

“He’s going to come out of this. He’s got to.” Sheila resolved not to give up hope.

He started to speak incoherently. They didn’t understand fully what he was saying. Sheila could only make out the words: “apocalypse,” “Hell’s Fire” and “Annie.” Another day passed by. The clock ticked the hours away.

At dawn, Sheila lay cramped in the chair, snoring softly. Annie lay curled up beside her dad next to him on the bed. Johnny’s eyelids started to move rapidly. He became aware of the warmth of the body next to him and sensed a familiar small hand in his. He smelled the antiseptic odor of the room. He wrinkled his nose. Slowly, he tightened the grip of his hand. Annie roused slightly, turning her face close to his. His eyes opened. He saw vague shadows and colors; he focused on the blond hair of his daughter. He opened his lips and blew across Annie’s face. She awoke, blinked and stared into the eyes of her father.

“Mom, wake up! He’s awake!”

Sheila bounded out of the chair and practically pounced on him. Relieved, she kissed him and hugged him tightly. She cried, “It’s a miracle!” A male nurse walked by, heard the commotion and looked in the open doorway. “Call the doctor! The patient’s awake!” Sheila called to him, displaying a wide grin.

After several days, the doctor gave Johnny permission to leave the hospital. His only outward signs of injury were a bandage above his left eye and scratches on his face and hands. “Watch that head of yours. Check with your family physician as soon as you can,” the doctor said.

As they left, a nurse jested lightly, “I hope we’ve seen the last of you.” Soon Sheila’s stepsister was driving the trio back home to their estate. Sheila was grateful for their good fortune after such a tormenting experience. They made the trip without further incident. Soon they arrived home, tired but safe.

Sheila noticed a change in Johnny after the accident. He stopped driving his car and left his work and chores undone. He would rise early in the morning, take his horse and ride to the hills. He would sit and watch the sunrise. At dusk, he would do the same. He’d ride to the hills and watch the sunset. She worried about him constantly.

Copyright © 2009 by Sandra Yuen MacKay

to Challenge 347...

[Editor’s note: The entire story is on line as of this issue. Subsequent installments can be accessed through the links in the Table of Contents.]

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