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At 2:10 in the afternoon on the Fourth of July, Collin Traub glanced out the great room window of his house on Falls Mountain and could not believe what he saw in the town down below.
He stopped stock-still and swore under his breath. How could the situation have gotten so bad so fast? He probably should have been keeping an eye on it.
But he'd been busy, his mind on work. And it was later than usual when he stopped for lunch and came upstairs.
He could kick his own ass for not paying more attention. It had to be about the wettest day on record in Rust Creek Falls, Montana. The rain had been coming down in buckets since yesterday morning. And Rust Creek, which ran northeast to southwest through the center of town, had been steadily rising.
Collin had told himself it was no big deal. The creek had good, high levees on either side, levees that had held without a break for more than a hundred years. He'd never doubted that they would hold for another hundred.
And yet somehow, impossibly, sections of the levee on the south bank were crumbling. Through the thick, steady veil of rain that streamed down the windows, he watched it happen.
The levee just
dissolved, sending foaming, silvery swaths of water pouring through more than one breach. It was a lot of water and it was flowing fast and furious onto the lower-elevation south side of town.
People were going to lose their homes. Or worse.
And the water wouldn't be stopping on the edge of town, either. South of town lay Rust Creek Falls Valley, a fertile, rolling landscape of small farms and ranchesand any number of smaller creeks and streams that would no doubt also be overflowing their banks.
The Triple T, his family's ranch, was down there in the path of all that water.
He grabbed the phone off the table.
Deader than a hammer.
He dug his cell from his pocket. No signal.
The useless cell still clutched in his hand, Collin grabbed his hat and his keys and headed out into the downpour.
It was a hell of a ride down the mountain.
One-third of the way down, the road skirted close to the falls for which the mountain was named. The roar was deafening, and the pounding silver width of the falling water was twice what he was used to seeing. He made it past without incident. But if the rain kept on like this, the road could easily be washed out. He'd have himself a real adventure getting back home.
But now was not the time to worry over coming back.
He needed to get down there and do what he could to help. He focused his mind on that, keeping his boot light on the brake, giving the steering wheel a workout, as he dodged his 4x4 F-150 around mudslides and uprooted trees, with the rain coming down so thick and fast he could hardly see through the windshield. Now and then, lightning lit up the gray sky and thunder boomed out, the sound echoing off in the distance, over the valley below.
Lightning could be damned dangerous on a mountain thick with tall trees. But with the rain coming down like the end of the world and everything drenched and dripping, a lightning strike causing a forest fire was probably the last thing he needed to get anxious over today.
Water. Rivers of it. That was the problem.
There were way too many spots where the streams and overflowing ditches had shed their contents across the narrow, twisty mountain road. He was lucky to make it through a few of those spots. But he did it.
Fifteen endless minutes after sliding in behind the wheel, he reached Sawmill Street on the north edge of town. He debated: go right to North Main and see what he could do in town, or go left over the Sawmill Street Bridge, skirt the east side of town and make tracks for the Triple T.
The rest of his family was three hundred miles away for the holiday, down in Thunder Canyon attending a wedding and a reunion. That made him the only Traub around.
His obligation to the family holdings won out. He swung left and crossed the Sawmill Street Bridge, which was still several feet above the raging water. With a little luck and the Almighty in a generous mood, that bridge might hold.
The Triple T was southeast of town, so he turned south at Falls Street until he caught sight of the miniature lake that had formed at Commercial and Falls. He saw a couple of swamped vehicles, but they were empty. He swung left again. Having been raised in the valley, he knew every rutted dirt road like he knew the face he saw when he looked in the mirror to shave. Collin used that knowledge now, taking the higher roads, the ones less likely to be flooded in the troughs and dips, working his way steadily toward the ranch.
About a mile from the long driveway that led to the barns and houses on the Triple T, he crested a rise and, through the heavy curtain of pouring rain, saw another vehicle on the road ahead of him: a red Subaru Forester moving at a dead crawl.
He knew that Subaru. And he knew who was behind the wheel: Willa Christensen, the kindergarten teacher.
In spite of everything, the pounding, relentless rain and the flooded road and the pretty-damned-imminent danger, Collin grinned. Since a certain evening a little more than four years before, Willa had been running away from himand no, he hadn't been chasing her.
Yeah, he had something of a reputation. People called him a skirt chaser, a player, the Traub family bad boy. But come on. He had better things to do with his time than sniff around after a woman who wanted nothing to do with him. And since that night four years ago, Willa took off like a shot whenever she saw him coming. Collin found her frantic efforts to get away from him pretty comical, if the truth were known.
His grin faded. She shouldn't be out in this mess. The way she droveso cautious, like some nervous old ladyshe was way too likely to misjudge a flooded spot, to get all flustered and stomp the brake and end up trapped in the waters that swamped the low sections of the road.
He knew where she was headed. The turnoff to the Christensen Ranch wasn't far past the one to the Triple T.
But the way she was handling her vehicle, he didn't like her odds for getting there in one piece.
Collin readjusted his priorities, skipping the turn to the Triple T, staying on her tail.
The rain came down harderif that was possible. He had the wipers on high, beating fast and hard across the windshield. Thwack thwack thwack thwack. Even on high, they could hardly keep up with the sheer volume of water falling out of the gunmetal-gray sky.
Lightning flashed, a jagged spear of it striking a twisted oak on a rise up ahead. The red Subaru in front of him lurched to a stop as the old oak crashed to the ground, smoke trailing up in a shower of sparks. Thunder boomed across the valley as the Subaru inched forward once again.
Every dip in the road held a churning miniflood. Each time Willa drove that little red station wagon down into a trough, Collin held his breath, sure she wouldn't make it through the swirling waters streaming across the road. But each time, she surprised him. She drove steadily forward at a safe, even crawl. And each time, the swirling water had to surrender her to higher ground. He went through in her wake, gritting his teeth, letting out a long breath of relief when he made it clear, too.
The sick ball of dread in his gut tightened to a knot when she suddenly hit the gasno doubt because she'd finally realized that he was the guy in the pickup behind her. Instead of taking it slow and steady as she had been, watching the bad spots on the streaming, rutted road in front of her, suddenly she was all about getting the hell away from him.
"Damn it, Willa," he muttered under his breath, as if she might actually hear him. "Slow the hell down
." He leaned on the horn to get her to ease off the accelerator and watch the next dip. It looked pretty deep down there.
But the honking only seemed to freak her out all the more. She must have lead-footed it right to the floorboards. The Forester shot forwardand then took a nosedive into the water rushing across the low spot in the road.
It was bad. Deeper than he'd realized. As the vehicle leveled out, she was up to her side windows in churning brown floodwater.
And going nowhere. She'd swamped it.
Collin hit the brakes. The pickup came to a stop several feet above the flood. He shoved it into Park, turned off the engine, kicked down the parking brake and jumped out, hitting the rain-slick road at a run. Instantly drenched to the skin, with the rain beating down like it wanted to flatten him, he reached the churning water and waded in.
The Subaru was already drifting, picked up by the current and, half-floating, pushed toward the lower side of the road. The water was too high to see the danger there, but Collin knew that the bank at that spot dropped off into a ditch. A deep ditch. If the Subaru went over the edge, he'd have a hell of a time getting Willa out before she drowned.
She'd been raised in the valley, too. She knew what waited at the edge of the road. Inside the station wagon, she was working the door latch, trying to get it to open. She shouted something at him and beat on the window.
He kept slogging toward her, though the water seemed to grab at him, to drag him back. It was like those dreams you have where you have to get somewhere fast and suddenly your legs are made of lead. It seemed to be getting deeper, the pull of the swirling current more powerful, second by second.
Half stumbling, half swimming, while the Subaru slowly rotated away from him as it drifted ever closer to the shoulder and the ditch beyond, Collin bent at the knees and launched himself at the driver's door.
He made it. His fingers closed around the door handle. He used it to pull his feet under him again.
"You push, I'll pull!" he yelled good and loud.
She just kept pounding on the window, her brown eyes wide with fright.
He hollered even louder than before, "Push, Willa! Count of three."
She must have heard him, must have finally understood. Because she pressed her lips together and nodded, her dark, pulled-back hair coming loose, the soft curls bouncing around her fear-white cheeks. She put her shoulder into the door.
"One, two, three!" He pulled. She pushed. The door didn't budge.
"Again! One, two, three!"
The miracle happened. The Subaru rotated just enough that the current caught the door as he yanked the handle and she threw her shoulder against it. The damn thing came open with such force it knocked him over.
He went under. The door hit him in the side of the head.
Not all that hard. But still.
Trying to be a hero? Not the most fun he'd ever had.
Somehow, he managed to get his waterlogged boots under him and pushed himself upright, breaking the surface in time to see his hat spinning away on the current and Willa flailing, still inside the Subaru as the water poured in on her through the now-open driver's door.
He went for her, diving through the open door, grabbing for her and catching her arm. He heard her screamor she tried to. The water cut off most of the high-pitched sound. It kept pouring in, beating at them as it filled the cab.
They had to get out and get out now.
He pulled on her arm until he'd turned her, faceup, and then he caught her in a headlock. Okay, it wasn't delicate. It wasn't nice and it sure wasn't gentle. But with his arm around her neck, at least he could turn and throw himself out the door. She grabbed his arm in both her hands, but by then, she seemed to have caught on to what he was trying to do. She wasn't fighting him anymore. She was only holding on as tight as he was.
He squirmed around to face the open door. The water shoved him back, but at least the rotation of the vehicle kept the door from swinging shut and trapping them inside. He got his free hand on the door frame, knees bent, boots braced on the side of the seat. Another hard push and they were out just as the Subaru went over the bank into the ditch.
The weight of the vehicle going under sucked at them, but Willa slipped free of his hold and started swimming. Since she seemed to be making it on her own steam, he concentrated on doing the same.
Side by side, they swam for the place where the road rose up out of the ditch. His boots touched ground. Beside him, she found her footing, toofor an instant. Then she staggered and went under.
He grabbed her again, hauling her up, getting one arm around her waist. Lightning tore another hole in the sky and thunder boomed as he half carried, half dragged her up and out of the racing water.
She coughed and sputtered, but she kept her feet moving. The woman had grit. He had to give her that. He kept hold of her, half-supporting her, urging her to the high side of the road and up the hill far enough that they were well above the water and reasonably safe.
They collapsed side by side onto the streaming ground as the rain continued to beat down on them, hard and heavy, never ending. She turned over, got up on her hands and knees and started hacking and coughing, spitting up water. He dragged in one long, hungry breath after another and pounded her back for her, helping her clear her airways so she could breathe. When she was finally doing more breathing than hacking, he fell back on the ground and concentrated on catching his own breath.
Lucky for him, he just happened to turn his head and glance in the direction of his truck about then. The water had risen. Considerably. It was maybe two feet from his front wheels now.
He turned to the waterlogged woman gasping beside him. "Stay here. Do not move. I'll be right back."
Swearing low and with feeling, he lurched upright and beat feet on a parallel track with the road. When he got even with his truck, he half ran, half slid down the hill, raced around the rear of the pickup and hauled himself up into the cab. The key was still in the ignitionand the water was lapping around his front wheel wells by then.
He turned it over, released the brake, put it in Reverse and backed to the top of the last rise. Once there, he slammed it in Park again and jumped out to see how things looked behind him.
Not good. The road was flooded in the previous trough. Water in front of him, water behind. The truck was going nowhere until the water receded.
Fair enough. He got back in and parked on the shoulder. Taking his keys with him that time, he left the truck and locked it up.
Then he looked for Willa.
She was gone.