In Harm's Way
Special thanks to Sheriff Walt Femling, his wife, Jenny, and their family. And to the residents of the Wood River Valley.
Glancing out the windshield and beyond the four-lane concrete bridge, Fiona spotted a log with flailing arms. Human arms. A child’s arms, struggling up through the river’s rushing water, held down by a tangle of branches.
Fiona instinctively reached out to block her passenger from hitting the dash while simultaneously slamming on the brakes. Her Subaru skidded, drifting into the breakdown lane just past the bridge. She set the emergency brake and released her seat belt in a single motion, her feet already on the asphalt. She crossed four lanes of busy traffic amid a flurry of horns and the high-pitched cries of biting rubber.
Over it all, she heard her passenger, Kira, calling out her name and she glanced back to see Kira hoisting her camera bag high in the air. Fiona gestured her back, but Kira ignored it and pressed forward, darting through gaps in the traffic. More tire squeals. A man crudely cursed from his black pickup as he avoided Kira by inches, careening off the roadway and onto the dirt shoulder, throwing up twin rooster tails.
Fiona ignored him, scampering down the bank, and waded into the shallow, painfully cold water at the river’s edge. The fist-sized, slippery round stones of the river bottom made her look drunk as she charged into the more swiftly moving, knee-deep water. She glanced left, timing the approach of the floating logs, preparing to dive.
The limbs of the first of four logs struck her, knocking her off balance, and she fell. They scraped across her back, tearing her shirt and dragging her down under. She struggled out of the grasp of the tangled branches and gasped for air as she resurfaced. Finding her balance, she dodged the next log. And the next.
Barreling toward her came the final tree: the one with the human arms she’d seen upstream. It bore down on her, a tongue of torn wood aimed like a lance.
She no longer saw the arms thrashing. For an instant, she wondered if she’d seen them at all.
The approaching tree was well over a foot thick and likely weighed hundreds of pounds. Driven by the force of June runoff, it would hit her like a battering ram.
Kira, now at river’s edge, again screamed, “F-i-o-n-a! No!”
From the same direction, Fiona heard a splash—the driver of the pickup now thundering out toward her.
The wide spread of pine boughs seemed aimed to sweep her off her feet once again. Distracted, she’d lost her chance to move out of the way. She counted down in her head . . .
Ten yards . . . five yards . . .
She drew a lungful of air and dove the four feet to the river bottom. Reached out and white-knuckled a mossy, large flat rock, keeping herself down. The limbs broomed over her, snagging her hair and yanking her head up and back. A chunk of hair tore loose. She screamed bubbles. Most of her shirt was torn off. She one-handed the rock, protecting her face as the remaining limbs scraped raw the flesh of her forearm.
In her blurred vision appeared a child’s pale bare foot. Fiona let go of the rock, grabbed the ankle with both hands and followed up the leg to the child’s waist, planting her feet in the maze of rocks on the river bottom and propelling herself up out of the water and into the snarl of tree branches. The tree limbs whipped and dug into her arms and face, demanding she release the child, but