Lorne spotted a figure waving up at him and felt a burst of relief. It was Sam. She was up, walking and apparently in good health. His fears had made his mind wander to dark places, horrible thoughts he would never dare share with anyone. So, the entire time he was in the air he forced himself to do one thing — pray. He didn’t consider himself to be a highly religious man, but while he dangled from the end of the long line, he prayed that Glacier Rescue wouldn’t suffer another loss; that one of his “little fingers” — this specific “little finger” — was still working, still whole, and, most importantly, still attached.
Lorne waved Sam in upon reaching the ground, not bothering to even unhook himself from the line. “C’mon, let’s get you on the line,” he shouted over the helicopter noise above them. “We haven’t got much time.”
“We need this, Lorne. He’s in there,” Sam said, unhooking the aerial rescue platform attached to the line and gesturing towards the cave under the large cedar tree.
Lorne stood motionless in confusion as he watched Sam walk away carrying the stretcher. Slowly, he unhooked himself from the line and followed after her.
“His leg is broken,” Sam said, nodding towards her tent while she cleared space outside the opening to make room for the stretcher.
Lorne unzipped the tent entrance and peered inside. He jerked his head back so quickly that he fell back on his heels and landed on his rear end. A large, nasty-looking dog curled up against a body was growling at him.
“Is that… Ben Black? You found him, eh.” It was half question, half statement.
“It’s okay, buddy. Lorne’s here to help,” Sam said as she patted her dog and coaxed him out of the tent. She then crawled inside, dragging the rescue platform in behind her. “He’s had some hot chocolate. He’s on the border of mild to moderate hypothermia, I think.”
“Right, okay. Good job, Sam,” Lorne said, snapping into action. “Immobilized the leg, looks good. Let’s get him on the stretcher, get him strapped in.”
“Ready Lorne? On three. One. Two. Three.” The two carried the stretcher out into the open where the long line from the helicopter was waiting.
“The extra harness is in that bag. Strap yourself in it while I secure Ben to the line. Leave your stuff for now. We can hike back up and get it when the storm’s gone. We have to get out of here now.”
“We need a harness for my dog too.”
“Now Sam, we don’t—”
“I’m not leaving without him, Lorne. I’d rather hike down with him.”
“That’s not happening Sam. We don’t have time—”
“I’ll have him all prepped with rope. Bring a harness for him.”
Lorne looked up at the clouded sky above him before his gaze settled on Ben. There was no time to argue, he thought, he had to get the boy back down the mountain as soon as possible. “Okay Sam. Be ready. If the weather doesn’t hold, just hang tight. We’ll come get you when it’s safe,” he yelled as the helicopter pulled away.
Sam waved at Lorne as he and Ben dangled below the chopper and became specks in the distance. She ran back to the cave, worrying that she wouldn’t be ready before Lorne came back.
First priority is my dog, she thought as she surveyed the mess inside the cave. Weaving two different ropes through her dog’s legs and body, Sam fashioned a makeshift harness. If one failed, there would be a backup, she reasoned. She took a deep breath and pulled up on the ropes, lifting her dog off the ground slightly. He flinched and his big eyes widened, but the knots held tight. He was secured.
Sam checked her watch. Taking care of her dog had taken longer than she had expected and she still had to clean everything up — her tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, dirty dishes, all the first aid gear. Packing had always been one of her least favorite parts of camping even though she knew it was always worthwhile to fold items nicely, roll out air pockets, keep things organized. She had learned that lesson the hard way when she had lost her crampons. But there was no time to wash dishes or pack properly now. She would take care of everything as soon as she got home. First, she would put the tent back up, air it out so it wouldn’t get musty. Then she’d wash all her cooking gear so it would be ready for the next trip. And finally, she would just chill with her dog for a few days, alone. The Challenge hadn’t been the fun experience she was hoping it would be, but at least she had succeeded in not killing Ben. At least there was that.
After pulling out the poles from her tent, Sam collapsed them and put them in her backpack. She collected her cooking gear and rolled up her sleeping pad, packing them away next. Lastly, she hastily folded her tent up — the sleeping bag, hot packs and blanket still inside — and stuffed it, along with Ben’s empty bag, into the top of her backpack. Her pack now overflowing, she tugged on the sides with one hand while she used the other to squish the contents down. After a bit of a struggle, she finally managed to close the top and secure everything inside.
Sam left the cave and waited for the helicopter to return. She glanced back at the cave one last time, making sure it was empty and that she had taken everything that she had brought up. But she didn’t just have everything she had packed. She had more. She had everything that was there when she found Ben.
Dan stepped out of his car and arched his back, stiff from the long drive home. Inside, he found a note from Sam about a dog, but there was no dog anywhere in the house, only a strong stench coming from a dog bed that was next to some meds and his favorite mug. He sniffed the mug and confirmed his suspicion that it was now the dog’s water bowl.
Dan walked into his wife’s office, opened the closet door, dusted off his backpack and methodically laid out its contents for close inspection. He hadn’t done anything outdoors for months. Backpacking, hiking, skiing, and all the fun associated with those adventures ended the day Elaine died. But today wasn’t a day for fun and adventure. Today, he was going to find his daughter.
The community center was packed when Dan arrived. He searched for Lorne at Glacier Rescue’s main rescue base but found Sunny instead.
“Hey Sunny, what was her last known location? Where did the boy go missing?” Dan asked, studying the map.
“Dan! You’re here, finally!” Sunny turned around from her post at the window. “Didn’t you get notified by the rescue coordination center? You should have. Sam sent out a distress signal. Lorne went out on the long line with Fiona.”
Dan checked his phone. No messages. Elaine’s contact information had been used when Sam had registered her beacon and he had forgotten to update the registry. He cursed to himself. He had avoided dealing with his wife’s death for too long and would have to start thinking about it soon.
“She’s here, Dan.” Sunny had joined Dan in front of the map and was pointing to an area circled in red.
“What the — how did she end up over there?”
Sunny told Dan everything she knew. She told him about the callout, about Ryder and about the articles that were being published in the Times. As Dan read the stories on his phone, more and more people stopped to stare. He had been so focused on Sam, her rescue and getting caught up on all the news that he hadn’t noticed the looks of curiosity, distrust, fear and anger on the faces of those around him. He hadn’t heard their whispers. He wasn’t even aware of the calls they made immediately after spotting him, the calls to 911 to report him to his own colleagues.
Sam shivered as the helicopter lifted her, Lorne and her dog from the ground.
“Why would you go out alone like that, in the middle of one of the worst storms we’ve ever had?” Lorne yelled over the sound of the helicopter. From the way he had blurted it out, Sam could tell that he had been thinking about it for some time, that he had been waiting to understand.
She had intended to keep her disastrous mistake a secret from everyone, but after one look at Lorne’s face, she knew she couldn’t lie to him. She knew that he never left base on callouts, that he had made an exception because she had been the one who had made the distress call, that the look of concern in his eyes came from a place deep within his heart. He looked so skinny and frail with his red-rimmed eyes, hollowed cheeks and wispy white hair whipping around under his helmet. One lie, even the smallest, whitest, most insignificant of lies would break his heart. And she could never do that to him.
“I’m sorry, Lorne. I know it was stupid. Everything I touch turns into a disaster. It was my fault he went missing.” Sam broke eye contact and swallowed hard, trying to push her stomach back as it crept up her throat. “I didn’t finish the barrier install.”
“What are you talking about, Sam?” His eyes were wide with confusion.
“When you called to ask me to sub for Ryder. I got distracted. I had to check it this morning and … it’s the reason Ben got lost.”
“Sam! Ben was kidnapped! You thought that…But you’re not…Look around down there.” Lorne pointed to the ground below them. “Some of those trees are hundreds of years old and look at what the storm did to them. Toppled and tossed around like toothpicks standing in fresh powder. Look down over there. The whole barrier’s gone, and over there too. You expect some little sticks and ropes to survive this weather? And besides that, there were no avalanches! The hazard area is only dangerous when there’s an avalanche. You’re not thinking straight, Sam.”
Sam surveyed the mountain below. He was right. It was a complete mess.
Lorne pinched Sam’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, turning her head to face him. He studied her face for a beat before he continued, his voice much softer now, “You okay, Sam? You don’t look so good. Y’know… I’m sorry. This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have asked you to sub for.…”
Sam watched Lorne’s Adam’s apple move up and down rapidly, his lips quivering. He looked suddenly so full of sorrow that she felt a pang in her chest, as though a tiny crack had formed in her heart.
“You said you weren’t up for volunteering this year,” Lorne continued. “Everything is all my fault. I’m the one who made the mistakes.”
“No, Lorne. I haven’t been sleeping well the past couple of nights, but I’m fine. I wouldn’t have volunteered if I couldn’t do it. This wasn’t your fault, I’m the one who screwed up. I’m always screwing up. I’m so sorry. Our camp was so close to the bluff and he just disappeared.”
“Sam, search and rescue is not a solitary effort. I know the past few months have been rough for you. Maybe you remember how I was when Joyce passed. But you’ve got to start letting people back in. If you had just talked to me—”
Sam nodded. Lorne may have been right about Ben, but he didn’t know about everything. He didn’t know what had happened with her mom. That truth would have to wait for another time.
“Fifteen down, Fiona,” Lorne instructed. “Five down. Four, three, two, one. We’re on the ground, Fee. Down, down.” Sam and Lorne unclipped from the line and she checked over her dog. From the corner of her eye, she spotted a figure approaching her.
“Dad!” Sam sprang up and gave him a hug.
“What were you thinking, Sam? What were you doing?” Dan held Sam at arm’s length, looking her over and checking her for injuries.
She was about to respond when she felt a firm grip on her wrist.
“I’m sorry, Dan, we’ve got to cut in,” Chief Constable Joe said.
“Sir, can you just give us a minute?” Dan asked.
“We’ve had thirty-six calls in the past hour, Dan. More than we’ve had this past month. We need to get this straightened out immediately.” He turned to Sam and said, “You need to come with me for a little chat at the station.”
“Well, at least let me take her in, sir. We can slip out the side here and avoid the crowd.”
“Uhh…no. You know what? Sorry, Dan. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but we can’t have people say we’re giving you and your daughter special treatment just because you’re on the force. There are a lot of eyeballs on us right now. I think that the best thing we can do is to show everyone how unspecial we’re treating her. Maybe even make a bit of show of it.” Chief Constable Joe slapped handcuffs on Sam.
“Sir! Is that really necessary?”
“You’ll thank me later, Dan. When people praise the force for being clearly incorruptible.”
Sam blinked at her dad. “Dad, my dog—” She didn’t get to finish before Chief Constable Joe paraded her through the most crowded areas of the community center and walked her out the front entrance, through the parking lot and into the police cruiser parked next to the side entrance. Flashes of light from cameras followed them the whole way, as did Dan, holding Sam’s backpack in one hand and the leashed dog in the other.
“Get in, Dan. You can ride with us to the station if you want.”
“Give me a minute, sir,” Dan said, walking to another parking spot. He locked the dog and the backpacks in his SUV and climbed into the backseat of the cruiser beside Sam.
As they drove away, above the muted chatter from the crowd, Sam heard the sound of desperate barks from the backseat of her dad’s car.
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