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When thou passest through the waters,
I will be with thee; and through the rivers,
they shall not overflow thee; when thou
walkest through the fire, thou shalt not
be burned; neither shall the flame kindle
upon thee. -Isaiah 43:2
From somewhere in the deepest recesses of Karen Pierce's slumbering mind, she heard the word, yet she failed to make sense of it. Licking her lips, she tasted the acrid smoke in the air and felt a burning sensation in her lungs.
Something didn't seem right, but in the world in which she found herself, Karen slipped deeper and deeper into darkness. With an indescribable weight pressing her down, she was helpless.
It was that word again. A word that seemed to have some sort of importanceurgency. Karen struggled against the hold of sleep. There was something she needed to do. Something ...
Then a scream pierced the night, and Karen felt a chill rush through her body. The cry sounded like that of her young charge, Leah Barringer. Now realizing that some element of danger existed, Karen forced herself to awaken.
Groggy and barely able to comprehend the need, she teetered on the edge of her cot. Drawing a deep breath, she coughed and sputtered against the bitter smoke.
Her heart raced. That word. That was the word she had tried to figure outthe word that made all too much sense now.
"Aunt Doris!" she called, choking on the thick air. Karen pulled on her robe and tried to feel her way through the darkness to the door. "Aunt Doris, wake up! There's a fire!"
Karen knew her elderly aunt sleptnot four feet away, but in the blackness, Karen could see nothing. With burning eyes and lungs that ached to draw a real breath, Karen pushed herself beyond her fear. Her hand brushed the door and finally the knob. Both were hot to the touch, but it didn't stop Karen from deciding to survey the situation beyond her room.
As soon as the door was open, an assault of more hot, smoky air bombarded her face. Flames engulfed the interior room, and panic immediately gripped her. Frozen in place momentarily, she thought she saw a figure moving through the fire. A big, broad-shouldered figure. Surely her mind played tricks on her.
"Karen! It's meAdrik."
The voice was muffled, but nevertheless welcomed. "The children!" she called.
"I'll get them," he yelled above the crackling of the flames. "You have to get out of here. The whole store is on fire. Come on. Now!" His command alarmed her more than the sight of the fire. The urgency was clear.
"I have to get Aunt Doris."
Karen turned back to the room and saw her aunt straining to get up. "Aunt Doris, we have to hurry. The building is on fire." With the intensity of the smoke, Karen could barely make out the older woman's form.
Coughing, her aunt replied, "Hurry, child. Don't wait for me."
Karen took up the Bible by the stand at the door. It was all that she had left of her mother and father. Only a few months earlier her father had succumbed to illness himself while nursing and ministering to some of the sick Tlingit Indians. Adrik Ivankov, their trusted family friend, had set out to bring him back to her and Dyea for better care, but God had other ideas. Karen was heartbroken at the loss.
"Hurry, Aunt Doris," she begged again. "The flames are already blocking a good portion of the room. We will have to run through the fire in order to get to the door."
Doris bent over in a fit of coughing before recovering momentarily. "Wrap a blanket around you, child."
Karen nodded and struggled to breathe. She felt panic anew wash over her as she sensed her body was no longer reacting as it should. Her movements were labored, her thinking less clear. She pulled the blanket from the bed and covered her head and shoulders. It seemed like the process was taking hours instead of minutes.
"Here," she said, taking hold of her aunt's blanket. "Let me help." She secured the wrap, then kept a good hold on the blanket. "Come on. I'll lead the way."
Stepping into the interior room was akin to stepping into a furnace. The feeling of panic and desperation mounted. They had to get out now!
Flames licked at their blankets as Karen pulled Doris to safety. She stepped out into the alleyway and gasped for fresh air only to find the smoke had permeated the air there as well.
Wracked with coughing, Karen collapsed to her knees and might have fainted but for the strong arms that lifted her and carried her to safety.
She fell back against Adrik's strong chest, desperate for air ... questioning whether she would live or die.
"Aunt ... Doris ..." she gasped as Adrik lowered her to the ground. "Jacob ... Leah?"
"I got the kids out. They're over there being tended to by the preacher," Adrik replied, pushing back Karen's unruly curls.
She looked up at him and saw the fear in his expression. "You saved us," she whispered, then fell into another fit of coughing.
Adrik gently grasped her about her arms with one hand while pounding her back with the other. "You're full of smoke," he said, as if she hadn't already figured it out.
Regaining control, Karen nodded. "Help me up, please."
He did as she asked, supporting her firmly against him. Karen's knees wobbled. "Where's Aunt Doris?" she questioned, looking up at the burning building. Several men were fighting to keep the flames under control. Panic began anew. "Where is she?"
Adrik looked around. "I never saw her."
Karen tried to head back to the building. "I helped her out. She was right here with me."
Adrik shook his head. "No, you were alone."
"I had hold of her ... I ..." Karen came back to the spot where she'd fallen. Doris's blanket lay on the frozen ground. "I had hold of her blanket."
Adrik saw where her gaze had fallen. The light from the flames made it easy enough to read the expression of her rescuer as Adrik raised his eyes back to hers.
"She's still inside," Karen said, barely able to speak. She jerked away from Adrik as he reached out to take hold of her. "Aunt Doris!"
"You can't go back inside. The place is ready to collapse," Adrik stated firmly. He took hold of her and refused to let go.
She fought him with the last remnants of her strength, sobbing. "I have to try. I have to. She's probably just inside the door. I know she was with me as we crossed to the door."
She turned her pleading expression to him and saw him study her only a moment before letting go of her arm. "I'll go," he said.
Karen watched in stunned silence as he pushed back several men. He pulled a woolen scarf to his face and reentered the burning building. Karen felt her breathing quicken in the smoke-filled air. Dear God, let him find her, she pleaded in anguish.
It seemed like an eternity before Adrik returned to the alleyway door, a small, unmoving bundle in his arms.
"Thank God!" Karen cried, hurrying forward to pull Adrik to a less smoky area than he'd previously taken her. "Put her down here," she commanded. Kneeling, she waited for Adrik to do as she said.
"Karen, I ..."
"Put her right here," Karen insisted. She patted the frozen ground and looked up to see that he understood.
Adrik lowered Doris's still frame to the ground, but instead of leaving her to Karen's care, he pulled Karen to her feet. "She's gone."
The words were given so matter-of-factly that Karen could only stare at Adrik for several moments. "What?"
"I'm sorry, Karen."
"No!" she exclaimed, pushing his six-foot-two-inch frame aside. "She's just ... overcome."
She knelt down again and stroked Doris's hand. The heat coming off the body caused steam to rise in the icy air. Karen pushed back the old woman's tangled and singed hair and gently rubbed her cheeks. "Aunt Doris. Aunt Doris, please wake up."
The woman's silence left Karen numb inside. She couldn't be dead. She just couldn't be. Once again, Adrik pulled her away from Doris and brought her to her feet.
"She's in better hands now," Adrik whispered.
"No," Karen moaned. "No!" She looked into the bearded man's face and saw the confirmation of her worst fears. "No." She fell against him in tears. This couldn't be happening. God wouldn't take her away from them. He just wouldn't.
Adrik wrapped her in his arms and stroked her hair. His words came in soothing whispers. "She's with God, Karen. She's in a better place. No pain. No suffering."
"I want her with me. She's all I have left."
Even as she said the words, Karen knew the statement was far from true. She had siblings in the lower states and friends right here in Dyea. There were many people who cared about her, including the Barringer children. Their father had deserted them for the goldfields of the Yukon. He had left them to her care, and in doing so, the trio had learned to cling to each other through their shared difficulties. Karen mourned the loss of the father she'd come north to find, while they mourned the loss of the father they'd come north only to lose.
They needed her. And somehow, she had to stay strong for them.
Adrik's comforting touch made the horrors of the night seem less overwhelming. She wasn't alone. Karen knew that now. Remembering her father's promise that God would always be there to comfort His children, she put her head on Adrik's chest and stared off blankly at the burning building.
Everything she owned, with the exception of her father's Bible, which now lay on the ground near Doris's lifeless body, was gone. Her clothes, her books, everything. She saw the flames reach highappearing to go upward until they touched the night skiescinders blending with the stars to offer pinpoints of light.
She was glad her friend Grace wasn't here to see the destruction. Their home had been attached to the back of the Colton Trading Post, the store owned by Grace's husband of three months, Peter Colton. How hard it would be to share the news of this loss, Karen thought. Peter had looked to this store as a means of salvationat least financial salvation.
Adrik released his hold. "You can plan to stay in my tent tonight, and I'll go bed down with Joe."
"Karen! Karen, are you all right?" Leah cried out as she rushed into the older woman's arms. "Oh, Karen, we could have died."
"We're safe now," Karen reassured her, holding Leah close and stroking her hair. "Are you burned or hurt?"
"No, just scared," Leah said, lifting her tear-filled eyes. "I couldn't find Jacob. I thought he was dead."
Jacob joined them. "Where's Aunt Doris?" he asked.
Karen frowned and hugged both of the children close. "She didn't make it." Tears blurred her burning eyes.
"She's dead?" Leah asked in disbelief.
Karen nodded and looked to Jacob, who stood shaking his head. "How?" Jacob asked as if he didn't believe her.
Karen felt a rush of guilt. "I had a hold of her, but she slipped away without me noticing. When I got outside, Aunt Doris wasn't with me. Adrik tried to save her, but it was too late."
Jacob turned away as Leah hugged Karen. "Will they be able to put the fire out?" she asked.
Jacob answered before Karen could speak. "It's gonna burn to the ground."
With this thought in mind, Karen gazed toward what she first thought was an illusion. But upon a second glance, she saw the man clearly and knew he was no illusion. Martin Paxton.
Paxton. The man who'd chased poor Grace all the way to Alaska in order to force her hand in marriage, their most embittered enemy, stood away from the gathered crowd. Leaning against the wall of another business, Paxton seemed to watch her with defined interest.
Karen straightened, stepping a few paces away from Adrik and the children. She barely heard his words suggesting she and the kids settle down for the night. Instead, she fixed her gaze on Paxton, knowing that he was aware that she was watching him. He tipped his hat to her as though they were attending a cotillion rather than observing a scene of devastation and death.
"He did this," she murmured.
"What?" Adrik questioned. "What are you talking about?" He reached out to touch her arm.
Karen broke away from his hold and started toward Paxton. "He set the fire. He killed my aunt!"
Adrik took hold of her arm and pulled her back. "You don't know what you're saying. You're just upset."
She looked at him, feeling a growing panic. "You don't understand. He's getting his revenge for what we did. We snuck Grace out right under his nose. He intended to marry her, but Peter Colton married her instead. He warned us. He threatened to destroy us, and now he has."
Adrik shook his head slowly. "No, he hasn't. Not yet. But if you go to him now, he will have won. Don't you see?"
Karen wanted to deny Adrik's words as meaningless, but they hit hard and the truth of them rang clear, even in her crumbling reality. "He did this," she whimpered, feeling the defeat of the moment wash over her. "He did this."
Adrik never disputed her declaration but instead pulled her back into his arms. "Now is not the time for you to face him with accusations. He would only laugh at youdeny it. Come. See to Leah and Jacob. The morning will give you other thoughts on how to deal with this."
Karen fell against him, her last remnants of strength ebbing in the flow of tears that fell. "He did this. It's all his fault."
Ashes and Ice (Yukon Quest book 2) byTracie Peterson
Copyright © 2001, Tracie Peterson