Nick Merrill longs for adventure, and he finds it as one of the most highly-praised smoke jumpers on the West Coast. But when his best friend dies fighting a blaze, he returns to Lone Creek Ranch to shake off the loss. There he finds Sawyer Landon, a local middle school teacher who has a gift for reaching even the most difficult kids. When Sawyer asks him to speak at the school's annual Career Day, sparks fly. But Nick knows teaching and adventure are as polar opposite as it get--or are they?
Nick Merrill wrinkled his nose at the acrid odor of burned wood that permeated the cab of his pick-up truck. No amount of fabric refresher seemed to be enough to remove the foul smell. He grimaced and shifted in the passenger seat as memories rushed in to crowd his head—memories of Jeremy’s harrowing last minutes here on earth.
For a moment the blue horizon, framed by swaying grass of a wheat-tan pasture that was just beginning to green, faded and Nick was back to that fateful day. He could almost feel flames coursing across his back as he and Jeremy delved deeper into the fire-engulfed forest of Washington State. The resulting furnace had turned their jumpsuits to ovens. Heat licked up Nick’s spine, singeing hair at the nape of his neck. He shifted the pack on his back, thankful for the protective fireproof tent folded inside. If the winds shifted, even slightly, he’d need it. He clenched his jaw and the muscles across his shoulders knotted into a keen, tight ball. The roar was deafening…who would have thought flames could devour the ground—and everything in their path—with such a howl?
The truck hit a pothole, jarring Nick back to the present, and Dalton, his older brother by less than two years, glanced over from the driver’s seat, his deep-blue eyes narrowed with worry.
“Hey, bro, are you OK?” Dalton’s voice, low and gravelly, did battle with a cool breeze that rushed through the passenger window.
“Yeah.” Nick brushed a hand across his stubbled chin and turned his head so Dalton couldn’t see his eyes. They felt gritty with sleep, and his shoulders ached from another restless night. He hadn’t bothered to shave that morning, and was considering just letting the shadowy patch grow. He rolled his shoulders to battle the ache as his gaze drifted to the pasture grass beyond the window. Spring kissed the horizon, and the foothills of the Smoky Mountains danced with a flurry of Bradford Pears coming into full bloom. The snow-white blossoms wreaked havoc on Nick’s sinuses, and he swiped a hand across his face, drawing a ragged breath. “Just trying to wake up.”
“You’ll adjust to the early hours again.” Dalton nodded. “The ranch is changed now, and, well, it never really sleeps. We have programs morning to night, and Carson keeps the schedule pretty tight. You’ll get used to it.”
“You know how much I love mornings…” Nick had always been the night owl of the four Merrill brothers, and usually he could function on a shoestring’s worth of sleep. But losing Jeremy, his smokejumping partner and best friend, had really thrown a wrench into his system. Now, all he wanted to do was sleep. He’d let Dalton drive his truck, because his brain fogged from the pills he’d downed the night before in hopes of losing the gut-twisting memories for a while. And now he wondered why he’d allowed Dalton to roust him from bed and talk him into riding along into town at this early hour. Sleep was a much more comfortable option.
Dalton cleared his throat and pressed the gas. The truck flew over the highway. “I tossed a box of flyers behind your seat. Would you mind dropping them by the middle school while I head over to the building supply store? The school is expecting them to arrive this morning.”
“Flyers for what?”
“That camp Carson has slated to start next month—an outreach for troubled teens.” Dalton’s voice softened and Nick marveled that his brother cared so much about wayward kids. What had happened to the headstrong, bull-riding tough guy he’d known all his life? Dalton’s next word offered a clue for the change. “Emilee has a friend who teaches English at the school, Sawyer Landon, and she thought it would be a good idea to distribute the information, maybe draw in a few more kids who’ll benefit. Apparently, there’s a need for a camp like ours.”
Emilee…Nick might have known she was the reason for the transformation he’d seen in Dalton. Come to mention it, Jessica had worked a number on Carson, as well. The two brothers walked around starry-eyed, with grins the size of watermelons, whenever their wives’ names were mentioned. Marriage might work for them, but Nick had no desire to jump on that particular wagon.
A woman named Sawyer sounded like the kind of trouble Nick didn’t need—or want. “I’d rather go to the supply store and you deliver the flyers.” He pressed a finger to his temple to battle a throbbing ache that drummed like rain on a metal roof. “At least the store’s quiet, but the middle school…not so much.”
“Overruled.” Dalton thumped a palm over the steering wheel. “Suck it up and deal, Nick. The building supply store is my gig. Emilee would have my hide if the building order got mixed up.”
“Yes, she would.” Nick turned to Dalton, frowning. “And, you’re still bossy, you know.”
“It’s one of my favorite qualities.”
Nick shifted in the seat again. “I can’t believe you and Emilee are…married.” A burnished gold band hugged Dalton’s left ring finger, proof of the union. “It’s almost surreal—Dalton Merrill, famed rodeo rider, branding cattle and teaching kids to ride ponies. And you have a son—I have a nephew—to boot.”
A grin lit Dalton’s eyes. “I wouldn’t have it any other way—except for a more suitable house. The cottage is growing more cramped every day, with Colt getting bigger and wiggling to explore. Soon, he’ll be walking…and running. That’s why I need to hit the supply store. Em and I will break ground on our house this week, and hopefully be moved in by next fall.”
“Wow.” Nick yawned and stretched the kinks from his back. “That’s almost too much to fathom.” He couldn’t imagine making such a commitment—marriage and a baby. He’d rather head into a raging fire, blind. In relationships—much like in life—the only thing certain was the uncertainty of it all. Losing Jeremy was hard enough. They’d been through sandbox wars and backyard fort-building together, had tackled the mystery of girls and the adventures of adolescence. Friends since the first grade, they’d become firefighters together, learned to skydive together, and then went through rigorous smokejumper training together. Even so, they never imagined they’d both be called up to the same team, deployed to the same smokejumping mission. Jeremy was the fifth son Nick’s parents had longed for, and over the years their friendship knit together tighter than gauze. After losing his parents and then Jeremy, Nick couldn’t fathom losing a wife…or a child. Might as well just rip his heart from his chest, toss it on the ground, and stomp all over it—again.
Still…Dalton and Emilee seemed to embrace the whole marriage and family thing. They had chosen a nice location for their future home, nestled into the woods along prime Lone Creek property. There was plenty of room for their baby, Colt, to scamper and play. And, if he was anything like Dalton, the kid would soon begin to tackle the great outdoors. At nearly eight months old, he explored everything not nailed down and was already trying to pull up on the furniture. Nick was convinced no stuntman in Hollywood had anything on the inquisitive little monkey. A smile teased Nick’s lips as his mind wandered, just for a moment. After all, a guy couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like…
“There’s the school.” Dalton’s voice drew Nick’s attention back to the road. On the horizon, a familiar two-story, red-brick building rose to kiss the clouds.
“Thought they’d condemn that place after we passed through.” Nick studied the black-topped drive and a parking lot beyond filled with cars. “Remember when you set off those cherry bombs in the gym locker room?”
“I sure do. Man…what an explosion. Who knew metal lockers could dent like that?” Dalton grimaced, and Nick imagined he was remembering a certain conversation with their dad that followed the principal’s phone call. “But, the school’s still standing. Renovations done by the county last summer make the structure look almost new.”
As they neared, a voice crackled over loudspeakers mounted to the brick. A name was called, a student summoned to the office. Several more milled along the track at the rear of the building, dressed in shorts and T-shirts for gym class. The P.E. teacher blew his whistle, signaling them to gather ’round.
“Just like old times.” Dalton laughed. “You heard your name called over that intercom plenty, too. And I wonder if you still hold the record in the mile run?”
“Kept the teachers hopping, didn’t we?”
“You bet.” Dalton pulled through the drive, slowing the truck in front of the glass-faced double entrance doors. Beyond the doors, the hallway tile gleamed with a fresh-waxed shine. “I’ll drop you off and head over to the supply store, then swing back by for you. It won’t take me long.”
“Sounds good.” Nick slipped from the seat and reached into the back for the box Carson had filled with neon-orange flyers printed in bold, black ink. “Don’t leave me stranded, OK?”
“Never.” Dalton pulled the ball cap low over his eyes. “Leave no man behind—that’s the Merrill motto, right?”
“Right. See you in a few.” Nick thought of Jeremy as he hoisted the box onto one shoulder and turned toward the entrance. His friend had been left behind, and the memory tore at Nick’s soul, squeezing his heart and stealing his breath. Sweat beaded his forehead as the truck’s engine revved and Dalton pulled away.
Q1 Lesson in Lone Creek is based on 2 Timothy 1:7 "For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline." How do you think this message applies to Christians in their daily walk? As they relate with others?
Q2 At the opening of Lesson in Lone Creek, why do you think Nick refuses to speak with Sawyer's students when she asks? What do you think eventually changes his mind?
Q3 Have you ever had a teacher who stands out for his/her positive impact on your life? If so, explain how this helped to shape you.
Q4 In what ways do Sawyer and Nick influence Alex? Do you consider them roll models? If so, in what way? Also, do you consider NIck to be a hero? Why or why not?
Q5 How does the newfound love that Nick and Sawyer share help them both to let go of past hurts and doubts?
Q6 What do you think the future holds for the Merrill brothers and those they love?