“We must keep going,” Darel said. “In bush fires, more people die of asphyxiation or inhalation of smoke than from burning. Usually by the time the flames reach them, they’re already dead.”
“What’s the difference?” Cooper asked.
“Smoke replaces oxygen and you suffocate like a drowning person. With asphyxiation the fire has sucked all the oxygen away and there’s none left to breathe.”
“But the fire’s arrived,” Abbey gasped.
She was right. The blue sky had gone and they were in an artificial twilight with black smoke and sparks above them. Orange flames crackled and the Abbey reckoned that the temperature would now be over forty degrees. Abbey She started to gasp until Darel placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t try to breathe too deeply, Abbey. You’re just sucking in more bad air and inflating your lungs. Try tiny puffs.”
Abbey obeyed. Her lungs ached but the short breaths helped a little. She noticed Cooper was covered in perspiration and gasping through his mouth. He noticed her and held a hand out.
“Sorry, Abbey,” he panted
His hand felt clammy but the squeeze was tight. Abbey squeezed him back. “Darel seems confident,” she said and broke into a wheezing cough.
Cooper nodded. He stared at the Aboriginal man who had slipped ahead several paces. “I hope so,” he said. “Perhaps death is just a part of his philosophy. I’d personally like to stay around for a while.”
“Me, too,” Abbey whispered. She gasped in another mouthful of hot air and squinted as pain shot across her forehead.
Darel stopped, sucked on a finger and held it up in the air. “It’s here,” he said. “Hang on to me and follow. Remember, small breaths and if the smoke hurts, shut your eyes. Don’t let go, Abbey. You’re our anchor.”
Anchor! Abbey found both hands seized. Cooper had her right one and Darel had grabbed her left. Both men’s grips her were powerful and she felt her own fingernails dig into their skin.
An eternity of sheer hell followed. Abbey couldn’t bring herself to entirely shut her eyes so maintained a slit open enough to peep through. There was little to see, though, and her other senses soon replaced vision. The almost sweet scent of superheated eucalyptus oil filled her nose, mouth and throat. Her ears were blocked so all sound was as if it came through a tunnel.; the sound of a blast furnace rung through her ears which became blocked so all sound was as if it came though a tunnel. She gave up trying to navigate and concentrated on following Darel ahead.
His words vibrated through the fog of thoughts in her mind. “It’s uphill for a while, Abbey … We’re going left around a tree … Watch your head. There’s a branch… Ignore the sound.”
Abbey shook her head but the pain didn’t go away. Her lungs felt as if they’d burst. Even her eyes stung. Her stomach… oh, hell something was wrong. She felt bile form in her throat. Her legs felt detached like rubber bands gone wrong.
“Cooper!” she gasped. Tears washed her stinging eyes and for a second she could see her friend. He looked so worried.
“What, Abbey?” he asked.
“I can’t…” Abbey tried to form the words but her tongue filled her whole mouth. She tried to swallow but only managed a gasping cough.
“Abbey!” Cooper screamed.
Abbey shook her head. It was so hot. She was immersed in hot oil. Her skin felt as if it was dripping off her in drops. “I…” She coughed and her mind switched off.
“Darel,” Cooper cried out. “Abbey’s collapsed. Do something!”
Darel turned. He nodded and bent down. In one movement, he heaved Abbey over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold. Her legs hung over his left shoulder while her arms and body twisted around his right. Blonde hair hung down around pale skin and blue lips.
“It’s not far, Cooper,” Darel said. “Support Abbey’s head and keep branches from hitting her.”
“I don’t know, Cooper. Come on. We can’t remain here. The fire is close!”
It was now Cooper who walked in almost a trance. He held Abbey’s head and made sure the leaves and undergrowth were lifted aside as Darel moved forward.
Time had no meaning. Cooper couldn’t even tell if they were moving up or down hill. He just kept walking and shielded Abbey from the trees.
Darel never faulted but when he turned towards the flames, Cooper lost his confidence and grabbed at the man.
“Give her to me,” he half screamed and half-sobbed. “Stay away from the flames!”
“Hold your breath and count to a hundred,” Darel replied in a terse voice. “Count to a hundred. One hundred paces, that’s all I ask.”
Cooper staggered forward and counted. They were in the flames! Smoke! Oh my God he couldn’t breathe. The heat! What was he doing? Oh, yes, he was counting.
At the count of eighty, he almost stopped, but there were twenty numbers to go… nineteen… eighteen. A spark landed on Abbey’s hair. He flung the blanket over her and ignored the pain in his own arms.
“Feel the fresh air, Cooper,” Darel said. “Walk into the fresh air. It is narrow and I have to turn Abbey sideways but we’re safe.”
Cooper looked up. He was in a church but that was impossible. No, it was a narrow cutting that towered above like a church. He was in a cave! Cool, almost cold air hit his face and he could breath. Even better, though, the flames had gone. It was dark ahead. All the light, the heat and the roars were behind him. Even the soil beneath his feet was soft.
“This is the cave of my ancestors,” Darel said. “Nobody except my tribe have entered here before. It is sacred, Cooper, but our spirits wanted to save us today. Abbey’s life and yours and your lives are worth saving.”
He walked on in silence as the light faded but and the air became fresher. Finally, he stopped and lowered Abbey to the ground. He felt for a pulse in her neck and glanced up at Cooper. Can they see in this cave? If it is dark, Cooper can’t see what he is doing.
“She’s fine, Cooper,” he said. “She will awaken soon.”
“Thank you, ” Cooper whispered as tears ran down his face. He sat beside Abbey and held her in his arms.