Sam awoke to a painful throb in her head and a crushing pressure on her chest. She could only take short, shallow breaths. Wondering if she had broken a rib, she tried to bring her arms to her chest, but she didn’t seem to have the strength to lift them. She couldn’t move. Slowly, she opened her eyes, keeping them open for just a few seconds before she squeezed them shut again. Two giant nostrils poked her eyelid and a stinky tongue licked her face. Somehow, her dog had found her.
“Okay, off. Please off,” Sam whispered, wheezing.
The dog licked her once again but didn’t move. She nudged him with one hand and felt the debilitating weight lift from her chest. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes in relief. She could breathe. A paw came down on her chest just as she felt another lick on her cheek.
“No, no,” she said quickly as she raised her arm and blocked her dog from climbing back on top of her.
She looked down and checked her body, cautiously moving her fingers and her toes, then her arms and legs. Everything worked. She rolled onto her elbows and knees and slowly rose to her feet, looking at the sea of white around her. She must have rolled down the hill and the unpacked snow in the out-of-bounds area combined with the fresh powder had actually cushioned her fall. She bent over and hugged her dog, squeezing him tight as she thought about the sheer effort and determination he must have put into finding her. It didn’t matter how he looked or smelled, she kissed his head and squeezed him again. She felt a rush of gratefulness flow through her. She knew she had been incredibly lucky.
After swallowing two ibuprofen pills with a mouthful of water, Sam took out her GPS to orient herself. Where would Ben have fallen if he had come through the same gap in the barrier, she wondered. Could he be close by?
“Ben!” Sam yelled. The storm had calmed a bit since her fall, but the winds were still howling. Ben probably wouldn’t be able to hear her. She walked back up towards the barrier, but her dog started barking. He had wandered downhill and sat down, staring at her like he wanted to walk towards the village.
“Come! We’re going this way,” she called.
Her dog remained seated and barked again. She took a few steps and peeked back at him. He hadn’t moved. Stubborn pup, she thought, he’ll follow me eventually. But he didn’t. And he had stopped barking too. She turned to check on him again and almost fell forward. He had gotten in front of her, blocking her path. She had walked right into him.
“Oomph. How’d you get here so fast?” She tried to walk around him, but he stepped in front of her again.
“I need to find Ben, buddy. I can’t go back without him.” She looked at her dog for a beat and then a thought came to her. “Hey, can you help me find Ben? Go! Go find Ben!” She pointed ahead.
The dog stared at her and blinked.
Dog whisperer I am not, she thought, giving his ear a good scritch. He turned his head and thanked her with a slobbery lick on her hand.
“Phew, your breath is ripe, buddy,” she said, getting a whiff of her hand as she adjusted her helmet. “We’re going to have to get you a dental appointment when you’re better.”
“Wait a sec,” Sam murmured to herself, whipping off the white neck warmer she had found while searching for Ben. “Can you smell this? This is Ben’s. Can you find him?”
The dog sniffed the garment and blinked.
“Okay, let’s go! Find him!” She raised her eyebrows, shrugged her shoulders and pointed her palms upwards, hoping that the gesture meant “Help” in dog language.
The dog snorted.
Sam offered the neck warmer again, whispering, “Ben.”
He sniffed it furiously, his nose twitching from side to side.
“Where is he? Go find Ben!” She raised her hands in the air and dramatically shrugged her shoulders.
The two stared at each other.
Well, that was another stupid idea, Sam thought. She sighed, slipped the neck warmer back on and continued walking east. But after a few steps, she stopped suddenly. Her back stiffened as she tried to register what was happening. She had heard a bark but not from a dog who was next to her. Then there were more barks. The dog was definitely far away. She looked around and her dog was no longer beside her. He was now northwest of her in the distance. He let out two more short barks, turned, took a few steps uphill and barked again.
Sam gasped, feeling cold air rush into her mouth. “Good boy,” she shouted, her voice so full of excitement and hope that she hardly recognized it as her own. Her mouth still open in surprise, she ran to catch up with her dog.
Wesley sat back in his chair, closed his eyes and smiled widely to himself. His last tour of the community center had been full of awesome surprises.
First, there was the young father with his tiny brat who wouldn’t stop screaming her head off after she had waddled into him. Stupid baby, Wesley thought as he checked his leg for a bruise where the clutz had run into him. The father had blabbered on about how sorry he was, how his kid had only learned how to walk a month ago, how she didn’t mean to do it. Whatever. There was no excuse for bad manners, in his opinion.
Wesley was about to give the tiny imp a little shove, just to teach her a little lesson and help her grow into a respectful young adult, when he saw something change in the father’s eyes. A slight pull-back of his head, a little more roundness in his eyes, a spark of recognition. The father put one hand on Wesley’s shoulder and told him how brave he was being for carrying on despite the circumstances.
Exactly, Wesley thought. Strangers were finally starting to realize his true heroic character. That he — unlike his dumb brother who always acted so superior — was too smart, too agile and too tough to be taken hostage by anyone. The reality was that he didn’t fear anyone and that he was the one who should be feared. Everyone in the village should know by now that he was not to be messed with. He always knew a time would come when his subjects would truly love and admire him. Now that time had finally come, he thought.
A second surprise had happened just after he decided to spare the little ankle-biter from her much-needed lesson. Wesley had heard his name being called from someone in the crowded room. At first, he had just dismissed it as another one of his adoring subjects begging for a hint of acceptance. But when the calls grew louder, he decided to turn and see who was so desperate for his approval. Well, the sight of Rose Bloom grovelling for forgiveness was shocking. “I’m so sorry, Wesley. You must be worried sick about your brother, Wesley. Can I give you a hug, Wesley?” It was a tough decision that needed careful consideration. Should he show favoritism amongst his followers? Was she really deserving of that honor? But Rose did look genuinely regretful of her earlier actions. Wesley nodded. It was a show of mercy. Something that his people would praise him for as they renewed their vows of loyalty.
The truly satisfying part of it came at the end though, when Rose had pleaded for his help in writing an article for her crappy newspaper. That was going too far. She said she was interviewing everyone in Ben’s group and could he tell her about his experience on the mountain before and after Ben was kidnapped? Well, was everyone in the group related to Ben? Who else had outsmarted everyone and come out of the situation being so highly revered?
“That’s not the real story you should be writing about,” Wesley responded. Any article about the kidnapping should feature him as the lead subject, not just “one of the group members.” It was Rose’s loss that she didn’t understand the full extent of his mastermind.
But the third and most wonderful surprise of all, although he really should have seen it coming, was the beautiful redhead who was definitely following him around the community center, smiling, waving and winking. He was sure of it. Well, the first time at least. The second time she had rubbed her eye, but the first time was definitely a signal — a sexy, suggestive wink. He played it cool, of course. But it was such an awesome feeling. She was absolutely striking. And she was definitely, definitely interested in him. His stomach got all tingly and his chest felt like it was going to explode. His heart beating in his ears, he visited the men’s room where he checked all the stalls, making sure that he was alone. Then he let himself celebrate, but he made sure he did it silently. He clasped one hand over his mouth and giggled with glee into the water-spotted mirror. His legs suddenly felt like jelly, so he braced himself against the sink to stop himself from collapsing. Life. Was. Awesome.
Now, eyes closed and head resting on the back of his chair, he replayed the images of the handsome father making a speech in front of the crowd about Wesley’s bravery, of Rose Bloom crying as she kneeled at his feet, kissed his boots and grovelled for forgiveness, and of the beautiful, sexy redhead in her low-cut top blowing kisses and winking at him after seductively licking her lips. His mind lingered on this last image the longest. “Wesley,” she whispered into his ear. Her long, slender fingers with bright red nail polish caressed his knee as she continued to blow into his ear. “Oh, Wesley.” Everything was working out just fine, thank you very much.
Elle MacTavish tapped Wesley’s knee with her notepad a third time and repeated, “Wesley?”
This time, Wesley opened his eyes. His heart pounded as he saw the beautiful redhead crouched in front of him. Why was she suddenly wearing a turtleneck? It didn’t matter, there she was, sitting on her toes, looking up at him.
“Can I ask you a few questions, Wesley?”
Wesley squeezed his eyes closed and blinked a few times after he reopened them. Was this real?
“Wesley, what can you tell me about Samantha Shepherd?”
“Sam?” Wesley remembered her face when she caught him with a bloody hand and tears in his eyes — why did she have to be there and see him like that? He thought about her in the vet clinic as she tried to justify robbing him of his much-deserved kill and back again on the mountain as she threw a rope down to him to pull him up out of the creekbed. His happy smile now gone, Wesley felt the muscles in his mouth and chin grow tense and contract with disgust. He could have died in that creekbed. Broken his neck falling down that steep slope. Or drowned in the frigid water of the creek if there had been any water running through it. And she was the leader in charge of his safety. She was responsible for Ben’s safety too, regardless of what had happened to him. If that wasn’t enough, she was also harboring a rabid animal, putting the entire village at risk of a deadly disease. Everything was her fault.
“Sam should be in jail,” Wesley said. Fair’s fair.
Sam followed her dog, finding it hard to navigate through the deep snow, rough terrain and poor visibility. They were slowly making their way around the mountain. Unlike the groomed trails facing the village, the terrain on the opposite side of Black Mountain was difficult and full of debris.
Sam checked her watch. It was nearly 8 a.m. and the sun was starting to rise. Ben had been missing for at least seven hours now.
“BEN,” she screamed.
The dog looked back at her, his right ear perked up and pointed toward her, like a satellite dish trying to get better reception. Half of his left ear was flopped over, but she could see it twitch as his right ear moved.
“Go find Ben! Go! Go get him!” She pointed ahead and her dog ran, leaping over fallen trees and in and out of the deep snow. His long legs propelled him forward quickly. He ran straight for a distance and then disappeared around a corner.
Sam ran as quickly as she could to catch up. She came upon a massive and hauntingly beautiful cedar tree with limbs that twisted and radiated out from its trunk and roots, which spread laterally from the base. Underneath was a large cave where exposed roots dangled and some, as thick as small trees, formed columns connecting the tree with the ground below. On a normal hike, she would have stopped to admire the scene and taken a photo to capture the magnificence. But this was not a normal hike. She rushed forward to catch up to her dog, who had stopped running and was now staring at her, waiting for her to arrive.
Inside the cave, her dog sniffed at a body wrapped in a thick blanket. It was curled in the fetal position, except for one leg that stuck out from under the blanket. Beside them lay an empty backpack.
“Ben?” Sam approached the body cautiously.
The body didn’t move.
She bent over the body, pulling the blanket down to reveal the face. “Ben.” His name came out as a gasp, barely a whisper.
Sam checked for a pulse. It was weak, but he was alive. His face had lost all color, except for his lips, which looked slightly blue. His breathing was shallow and slow. She felt under his clothes and checked his hands and feet. They were dry. Good, she thought, that was very good. Sam watched him closely. He was shivering but then he stopped. Her heart started beating faster, recognizing the emergence of a more severe symptom of hypothermia. His body temperature was dropping.
Sam took off her backpack and emptied it beside him. She grabbed a heating vest and two chemical hot packs. After wrapping them in her sweater, Ben’s neck warmer and her mom’s jacket, she placed the vest around his torso, one hot pack around his neck and the other between his legs. It was extremely important that she warm him up gradually or she could cause more damage. She could almost picture the text from her training manuals on how to administer aid, though she never pictured herself in this position. She’d always imagined that if she was ever in an emergency situation, Mom or Dad or Lorne or anyone with more experience would be leading the rescue. She had always been a helper, an extra pair of hands to pick up bags, call for backup, or look after the little kids. This was all on her now.
“Ben? Can you hear me?” Sam asked.
Ben mumbled something indecipherable. Okay, that was good, she thought. Any response was better than none.
“Is something wrong with your leg, Ben? Can you move?”
Ben started to get up.
“No, no! Don’t move. I’m putting up my tent right now. I want you to get inside my sleeping bag when it’s ready, okay?”
“Donkey,” Ben mumbled.
“What? Okay, can you crawl inside?”
Ben moved towards the entrance of her tent, letting out a yelp as his leg dragged behind him.
“Here, let me help. Take it easy, just go slow. Good. I’ll take care of your leg next, Ben. Just get inside. Stay on the sleeping pad so you’ll be more comfortable and stay warmer. It’s okay, just go slow. That’s good. I’m going to call for help and make you some hot chocolate. You just stay here.”
She turned to her dog. “Here, buddy, come inside the tent and have some water. Good boy. Stay,” She zipped up the door behind him to keep the draft out while she boiled water on her stove by the mouth of the cave.
Sam tried to call Lorne on her mom’s satellite phone, but it didn’t work. She was in a tight valley with inhospitable terrain. Her satellite phone was useless here.
“Two is one and one is none,” she whispered, remembering what her dad always said as a reminder to pack extra emergency gear. She dug to the bottom of a pocket in her bag and pulled out her backup personal locator beacon. She activated it and waited. Ben needed a doctor urgently, but Sam had no way of knowing if anyone would receive her signal.
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