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Desperate for more air, Firefighter Adam O'Malley cracked open the bypass on the regulator leading to his airpack.
The smoke inside the apartment building in Spruce Lake, Colorado, was thick and filled with lethal fumes. His helmet light shone through the gloom, barely illuminating his path as combustible materials manufactured in the seventies ensured the building burned fast and hot. Thankfully, the positive pressure inside his face mask prevented the noxious wastes from entering through its seals.
Adam heard the unmistakable whimper of a child and turned toward it.
He'd promised the mother he'd bring her toddler out alive. His vow had been the only thing that kept her from racing into the burning building to save her son.
Adam hadn't lost a victim yet and today wasn't going to be his first, not if he could help it.
Dropping to all fours, he crawled along the floor, where the smoke was less thick, toward the child. He spotted the little guy because of his diaper, a white beacon in an otherwise blackened world. He was on the floor beside his crib, hands stretched out, tears running down his chubby cheeks.
How could anyone have left a kid behind? he wondered as he ripped open his bunker coat, lifted the child into his arms and placed him inside its protection, talking to him in soothing tones. "It's okay, little guy. I've got you now. We'll see your mom in no time," he assured the child, praying their exit hadn't been blocked by falling beams or other debris.
He picked his way back out of the apartment, his body and jacket shielding the boy who clung to him, whimpering. The deafening sounds of fire consuming everything in its pathtimber splintering, walls exploding, windows shatteringfollowed Adam as he moved down the stairs, testing each step to ensure it was still intact. Moments later, they were outside in the bright winter sunshine.
The child's mother broke from Captain Martin Bourne's hold and rushed toward them. Tears streaming down her face, she muttered incoherently as she tried to take the child from his arms. But Adam wasn't giving up his charge just yet. The paramedics needed to check him over, so he grabbed her with his free hand and directed her to the ambulances waiting nearby.
He'd just extracted the child's deathlike grasp around his neck when the mother screamed and raced back toward the building.
"Don't tell me she's got another kid!" Adam yelled at his captain as he ran to intercept the woman.
Then he noticed she was chasing after one of the kids they'd rescued earlier. He was running back into the building. What was it with this family?
Adam had always been quick on his feet, and in spite of the cumbersome firefighting gear he wore, he managed to overtake the mother, warning her to "Get back!" as he passed her.
He caught up with the kid, threw him over his shoulder in a fireman's hold and returned to where Martin was trying to calm the mother. The kid kicked and screamed and beat at Adam's back but the blows slid off his bunker jacket, slick with water from the fire hoses.
He put the kid down but the boy spun away, intent on running into the building. Adam reached out one arm, snagged the child and hunkered down in front of him.
"What do you think you're doing, son? We got all your family out," he said.
"M M Molly's in there."
Adam glanced up at the mother. "You've got another kid?" Sheesh, how many did this woman have? Four frightened children had been extracted from the building and she looked as if she was hardly out of her teens.
"Tiffany was babysitting my children," the mother explained. "She got my oldest three children out."
Served him right for making that comment about her having another kid.
"Molly is the Polinskis' dog," she said.
"How do you know she isn't already out?"
The woman indicated two elderly people being loaded into ambulances. "They'd never go anywhere without Molly."
Except from a burning building, Adam wanted to say.
"Mrs. Polinski told me she's still inside!" the child yelled over the sound of more parts of the building collapsing. "She wants me to get her!"
Adam closed his eyes. Some days he hated his job. There was no way he'd find the poor animal. Not until long after the fire was out.
"Son, it's too late to get her," Adam said in as soothing a voice as he could muster. What the hell were the old people thinking? Expecting a kid to go rescue their dog?
As if reading his mind, a hound of some kind howled mournfully. Another of the woman's children screamed, this one a girl of about six. "Please! Get Molly!" she cried.
Adam wished everyone would calm down and stop yelling.
"Which apartment is she in?" he asked as the dog continued to howl.
The woman pointed up to the third floor. "The one on the end, next to ours."
Adam looked into the eyes of his battalion chief and knew he was going to refuse.
"Wait till the ladder truck gets here. We'll reassess the situation then," Chief Malone said.
Adam released the boy and stood. "You know I can't leave her there, Chief," he said and, without waiting for his go-ahead, turned back toward the building.
His battalion chief's warning shout ringing in his ears, Adam sprinted up the stairs to the third level. As he did, they collapsed beneath him. He leaped the last couple of steps and landed heavily on his face, smashing his face mask and breaking the connection to his air supply. The mask filled with acrid smoke.
Ripping it off, Adam crouched down and crawled toward the sound of a dog scratching frantically on the other side of a door at the end of the hall. Adam had no idea how people could leave their precious pets behind in a fire. Or any other disaster, for that matter.
Coughing because of the smoke, he opened the door.
Inside, he found the saddest-looking dog in the world. Without wasting a second, he scooped up the basset hound, headed across the room to the window and kicked through it.
As the glass shattered onto the snow-covered ground below, he gulped fresh air into his lungs. "Ladder!" he yelled, but his voice was a harsh squawk.
Since the stairs had collapsed, the ladder truck was their only way out of the building. If it hadn't arrived, he and Molly were toast. Literally.
Irritated by the smoke, he blinked, forcing his eyes to water. A shout came from below as someone spotted him. Adam waited and prayed, sucking in huge lungfuls of air. Finally, the truck swung its ladder around toward him.
The terrified young dog squirmed in his arms. "Easy, girl," he murmured as he swung his leg out over the ledge and waited until the bucket attached to the ladder was within reach.
The smoke billowing out of the window behind him was growing thicker, choking him and the dog, who was now squirming and coughing so much he could barely hold her. He glanced back to see flames licking through the apartment's doorway. The entire building was in imminent danger of collapse.
The bucket finally reached Adam's precarious ledge and he stepped into it. "Everything's okay, girl," he said as they cleared the building. "We'll have you down in a moment."
His tone seemed to calm her and she settled in his arms, whimpering softly as they were lowered to the ground.
Once there, he was immediately surrounded by other firefighters. Molly licked his face. That small act of gratitude drained the tension of the past few desperate minutes from Adam's body. He smiled and ruffled her ears. She was grubby with soot, and the soot covering the gloved hand he was petting her with wasn't helping but he was too spent to pull off his gloves.
Exhausted, he allowed Martin Bourne to take her from his arms, then fell onto the stretcher under a triage tent set up by the EMT who was attached to their firehouse. After she'd placed an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, she fitted another one on Molly, who lay on a stretcher beside him.
The dog was coughing pretty badly. "Look after her," Adam croaked, pushing the EMT's hand away as she began to wash out his burning eyes.
She ignored him and continued squeezing liquid into his eyes, then checked his vitals. He closed his eyes against the pain in his lungs and tried to relax in spite of his still-racing heart.
The flash from a camera bored through his eyelids. He looked up into the lens of Ken Piper, photographer for the local paper. "How does it feel to be a hero, Adam?" he asked.
"How about one of you and the dog? Smile!" Molly was lying on her back, all four legs in the air. She'd stopped coughing, so it was hard to tell if she was dead, playing dead or wanted her tummy rubbed. Ken's camera flashed again, then he melted into the crowd.
"Adam!" Hearing the familiar sound of his mother's voice, he opened his eyes again. Sure enough, his mom was elbowing her way through the crowd gathered around him and Molly.
He felt about twelve years old as he looked into his mom's piercing blue eyes and she glared down at him.
Positive that he was in for a lecture, he offered her a sheepish grin. "I got her out," he said, reaching across to rub Molly's tummy, hoping his mom would go easy on him since she was an animal lover. He didn't need a dressing-down in front of everyone.
"You sure did, darling," Sarah said, and dropped to her knees beside Adam and threw her arms around him. "I've never seen anything braver in my life."
She hugged him so fiercely the air whooshed out of his lungs, which started a coughing jag that felt as if daggers had been plunged into his chest.
"Careful, Mrs. O'Malley," his captain said. "Your son's just saved a baby, an elderly woman and a dog. Give him breathing room. There's little enough oxygen at this altitude as it is."
His mom drew back and cupped his cheek, making Adam feel like an eight-year-old instead. Why didn't she do this to any of his other brothers? Being the youngest of five boys was a curse. Since he was about to turn thirty, you'd think she'd accept that he was an adult now.
His mother's voice shook as she said, "I've never been prouder of any of my sons than I am today." Then she burst into tears.
Adam didn't know what to do. His mother rarely let her emotions showexcept when she was really angrybut now she was in all-out blubbering mode.
Luckily, Martin was good at dealing with emotional women and led his mom away, shouting over his shoulder at his men, "Find out if there's a veterinarian in the crowd to check out that dog."
Adam rubbed his eyes, unsure if his vision was blurred by the smoke or by his reaction to his mom's emotional display. Guaranteed, she'd be talking about this for a few years to come.
He'd been back in Spruce Lake less than a week and he'd had to fight his first big fire.
And then his mom had shown up. Great! Just great.