Chapter 31 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 31 ~ The Storm Strikes

Grace and Jane were in the ranger station standing in front of the counter. Ranger Stone was behind the counter on the phone speaking with the search and rescue team. Grace only heard one side of the conversation.
Ranger Stone said, “The boy’s mother got a text, we were searching in the wrong areas. Apparently, the boy went up Indian Trail. Can you do a quick search before the cold front?”
Ranger Stone paused, he turned toward Grace and shook his head. He spoke into the phone, “I know the weather bureau changed its forecast from a warning to a watch. There are several super cells associated with the storm. We need to get them out of there before it hits. Is there anything you can do?”
“They have to try. Can’t they make a helicopter sweep before the storm hits?” Grace begged. Jane had her arm around Grace’s shoulder.
Ranger Stone nodded to Grace letting her know he heard her, but his attention was on listening to the search and rescue commander. He kept nodding his head. He finally spoke, “I understand. I’ll explain everything. Thanks for your help.”
Ranger Stone turned to Grace, “They can’t go. It’s too dangerous, the winds have already picked up and their swirling creating dangerous updrafts. The Search and Rescue commander said they’d go as soon as the storm passed. He estimated they might get a chance to make a sweep of Indian Trail before sundown.”
Grace felt her knees starting to shake. She squeezed her eyes shut tight. If she wanted to say anything to Ranger Stone, she couldn’t. Her jaws closed so tight, the jaws of life couldn’t pry them apart.
Jane held onto Grace. She said, “Brad’s strong. He’s been through tougher things, you know that. He’ll survive and he’ll come back with Matt. I know he will.”
Grace opened her eyes and turned her head toward Jane and gave her a half smile, her eyes filled with tears. Grace and Jane embraced. When they finished, Grace looked at Ranger Stone and said, “Is it okay if we stay here with you?”
Ranger Stone nodded and said, “The storms should pass through within the next 90 minutes. The weather bureau is now saying that tornados are possible. We have a shelter at the campground. We need to go there before the storm hits.”
Jane said, “Let’s get Larry. He probably doesn’t know.”
Grace and Jane left the ranger station and headed to Jane’s cabin. Grace turned toward the west and saw the black wall off in the distance coming toward them. She tugged on Jane’s arm, “I’m scared, Jane. I’m really scared.”
Jane said, “Me too. Let’s hurry, we need to take shelter.”
_ _ _ _
Brad found the trail and started to follow it. The rain pelted Brad as if he were being hit with rocks. He ran on, his chin tilted down, his eyes on the trail. The trail turned into a series of switchbacks. New streams seemingly emerging from nowhere suddenly appeared and cascaded down the mountainside oblivious to the switchbacks. Brad stumbled, fell forward, bracing his fall with his hands. He turned slightly over his shoulder, “You okay, Matt?”
“Yes sir. I can run. It will be easier for you,” said Matt.
“You stay right there, hang on tight. The path is getting more and more slippery.”
“Brad, what’s it mean when the sky starts to turn green? I’ve never seen a sky like this one,” said Matt, his voice shaking.”
Brad didn’t mince words, “It’s tornado weather. We’ve got to find shelter, fast.”
A flash of white lightening struck a pine thirty feet from where Brad and Matt stood toppling the top half of the tree. Matt screamed. Brad kept running, his eyes darting searching for any kind of shelter. He spotted a large set of rocks, placed one on top of the other through some cosmic design millions of years earlier. He went off trail and headed for the rock formation.
When Brad reached the rocks, he said, “Get off me, Matt. Lie face down on the ground as close to the rocks as you can get. Rest your head on your arms so you can breathe.”
“What are you going to do, Brad?”
“I’m going to cover you with the space blanket and I’ll be on top of you. Can you hold my weight?”
“Why do you have lie on top of me, Brad?” asked Matt.
“No questions now, do as I say,” said Brad with urgency in his voice, the winds were gusting to nearly seventy miles an hour. Brad cast a wary eye toward the trees nearby and their bending branches. A lightening bolt struck another large pine close by splintering it in two. Brad felt Matt shudder at the deafening thunder that followed the lightening strike.

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Chapter 30 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 30 ~ Fighting for their Lives

Brad slowly and methodically tracked Matt’s trail. His progress was a series of hits and misses. It was nearly two in afternoon when he caught sight of a wall of big mountain sagebrush. Off to his right the sagebrush separated as if someone plowed through it. Brad made his way over the underbrush to the opening. He stopped. He looked just beyond the sagebrush and saw the edge of a cliff and a view of a valley stretched out more than five-hundred feet below.
Brad made his way the cliff’s edge, dropped to his knees, placed his hands, palm down on the edge of the cliff, and peered over the edge. He caught sight of a ledge. He scanned the ledge looking for a sign of life. He didn’t see any. The sound of thunder boomed in the distance and drew his attention toward the west. He saw a wall of clouds as black as the camouflage paint he wore on night operations in Afghanistan.
Brad stood up, took the backpack off his shoulder, opened it and pulled out the nylon cord he packed. He closed his backpack and slipped it back on his shoulders. He tied one end of the cord around an aspen and dropped the remainder of the cord over the edge of the cliff. He grabbed hold of the cord, turned his back to the cliff, and began his slow decent. He descended twenty feet to the ledge. He took off his backpack, set it down, and with his back to the stone wall he scanned the ledge. He noticed a shrub growing out of a small crack in the ledge several feet to his left. He slid over to it, stooped down and examined it. It had been recently damaged. Some of the shrub’s roots were exposed and the center branch was twisted.
Brad looked down beyond the shrub but only saw the tops of the trees far below. He looked to his left, the ledge continued but narrowed and disappeared. He looked to his right and saw the ledge continue and curve out of sight. A cloud to ground lightening strike followed by a roaring crash of thunder vibrating against the mountainside increased Brad’s sense of urgency. The black wall was no more two miles away. A moment later, he caught sight of a mountain bluebird flying up over the side of the cliff and into the forest above.
Brad didn’t hesitate, he began his slide along the wall. He traveled no more than ten steps when the first drops of rain hit his face. Brad continued on, a red tailed hawk sat on a nest and rose up off the nest flapping her arms. A gust of wind caught the hawk and she settled back down on the nest lowering herself on top of her chicks. The rain began to drive harder. Brad’s hair quickly became soaked and the water rolled off Brad’s cheeks as if he were taking a shower. Brad turned the corner and caught sight of Matt dangling with two hands clinging to a shrub growing out of a deep split in the stone wall.
Brad called, “Hang on Matt. One more minute. One more minute.”
“I knew you’d come. I knew it,” shouted Matt above the roar of thunder and increasing wind.
Brad deftly made his way to Matt. He stepped back, placing his heels on the edge of the ledge. He raised his two arms and placed them on Matt’s waist. He said, “You’re safe, let go, just drop don’t fight it.”
Matt closed his eyes, he took a look to the side, he said, “I’m going to let go, Brad. Hold on tight.”
“Don’t worry, Matt, you’re safe.”
Matt let go and Brad’s hands tightened around Matt’s waist as if they were the jaws of life. He gently eased Matt down to the ledge. “Don’t move until I tell you to move, Matt.”
“Yes, sir,” said Matt.
Brad stepped to the side and motioned Matt to move into the corner. “Stoop down, Matt. I want to give you quick check. We’ve got to get out of her and we don’t have much time.”
“I’m okay. I’m hungry and cold, that’s all. Maybe thirsty, too.”
Brad scanned Matt’s two arms, then he looked at his legs. “You’re pretty much bruised up. Do you have any sharp pains, anyplace?”
“No sir,” said Matt.
“Okay, Matt, stand up. Place your back to the wall. We’re going back along the wall. We’ll have to be careful. I’m going to hold on to your left arm. The ledge will be slippery because it’s raining. Glide to your left when I tell you to. Do not move without me telling you to move. Understand?”
“Yes, sir.”
Brad led Matt along the ledge. They passed the red tail hawk who glared down at them. Soon they were and to where Brad left his backpack. He picked up the backpack, and placed it on Matt’s shoulders. He said, “I’m going to turn sideways and stoop, place your arms around my neck and legs around my waist. I’m going to climb up this wall and you’re my passenger.”
“Yes, sir,” said Matt. He watched Brad stoop down. He placed his arms around Brad’s neck and put his legs around Brad’s waist.
When Brad was sure that Matt was holding on tight, he slowly raised himself up. He grasped hold of the nylon cord with his right hand. He used his left hand to wipe the rain away from his eyes. It did no good. The rain was driving sideways. Brad reached up with his left arm and his left hand grasped the cord and he pulled. His legs lifted off the ledge. He paused. His mind returned Afghanistan. A wounded buddy and he were trapped on the side a cliff. He signaled for help. He saw himself looking up the edge of a cliff. The Taliban were two hundred yards behind them. He had no choice but to scale the wall. He threw a grappling hook over the top of the cliff and pulled hard on the rope to make sure it was secure. His wounded buddy clung to him and he began the climb up the edge of the cliff, his buddy’s arms around his neck and legs hooked over his hips. Enemy fire ricocheted around them. Brad shook his head forcing the thoughts out of his mind. Hand over hand he grasped the nylon cord making sure he had a sure grip and he pulled lifting he and his cargo slowly up the canyon wall. His ascent was slow. The wind blew Brad and Matt from side to side almost as if they were on a wild ride at an amusement park. Brad’s muscles strained, his feet slipping agains the wet canyon wall. He kept climbing. When he made it to the top, he hoisted himself up and told Matt to drop to the ground once they were safely away from the edge. Matt dropped to the ground off of Brad. Brad turned around and Matt threw his arms around him and buried his head into Brad’s chest.
“It’s okay. You’re safe. We’ve got to get out of here. Before we go, I want you to eat a protein bar and drink some water. You’ll need all the energy you can get.”
Brad reached into the backpack, there was one protein bar remaining and one bottle of water. He gave both to Matt. He pulled out his PLB and turned it on sending out a distress signal. He place the PLB back in the backpack and pulled out the small first aid kit. He opened it and pick out an antiseptic wipe. He opened opened the packet and wiped Matt’s scrapped knees. He placed the packet back in the first aid kit and took out the antibacterial ointment and rubbed it on the broken skin on Matt’s knees.
Matt looked up at Brad, made an involuntary shiver and said, “Are you going to eat?”
Brad said, “I’m not hungry. I have a water proof space blanket in here. I want you wrap yourself in it when you finish your bar and drink, then climb on my back, we’re going to get out of here before the sun sets.”
Matt nodded and eagerly consumed the bar. He drank the water and placed the wrapper and bottle in the backpack. Brad handed him the space blanket. Matt draped the space blanket over his shoulders and pulled it tight around his neck. Brad stooped down, Matt climbed aboard. Brad got his bearings and began jogging back toward camp. It was nearly five o’clock. The storm raged around them. Lightening crack and thunder roared almost at the same time. Each time a bolt of lightening struck close by, Matt gripped Brad’s neck a little tighter.
Matt said in Brad’s ear, “Will we make it before it gets dark?”
All Brad said was, “We’ll make it. Hang on.”

Chapter 29 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 29 ~ Matt’s Hope of Rescue Suddenly Vanishes

Matt crouched in the corner where the trail and the stone walls met. Twice he lied on his belly and peered over the edge looking for a way he could get purchase to make his way off the ledge and to the valley below. The closest foothold was nearly fifteen below him. He stood up, and turned so that he faced the stone wall. He spread his arms wide and placed them on the smooth stone wall, lifted his head up and scanned the wall above him.
He spotted a shrub growing out of a crack in the wall four feet above him. And, another shrub off to his left and a bit above the shrub over his head. This shrub too was growing out of a fissure in the wall. There was a small rock protrusion jutting out from the wall three feet below the shrub to his left. He calculated if he could grab hold of the shrub above his head, he could swing and grab the shrub to his left. Once he had hold of it, he could pull himself up and brace his foot on top of the rock and gradually make his way up the stone wall. He stretched his arms as far as they would reach, the shrub above his head was two feet beyond his outstretched fingers.
Matt made a half-hearted attempt to jump. He looked back at the edge of the ledge and realized there was no room for error. If he put everything into his jump and missed, he might stumbled and fall over backward and the only landing spot was at least five hundred feet below him.
A mountain bluebird landed on the shrub above him, cocking its head toward Matt, paying no attention to his pleading with the helicopter. Matt thought about building a small signal fire. He opened his backpack, there was a half filled bottle of water and the knife his dad had given him. Matt slapped his palm against his forehead, why hadn’t he thought of his knife. He could have used the metal blade to flash the sun’s rays as a signal to the helicopter. He looked back along the way he traveled along the ledge and saw small dead twigs and dead grasses. He thought he could gather enough to start a fire, the way he once read Native Americans did. He’d rub two sticks together on top of the dried grasses and then add the dry twigs on top. He even watched a YouTube video one time where an outdoorsman did it in less than a minute.
Matt’s careful journey along the ledge collecting the small twigs and dried grasses was tedious. He pulled the bottom on his t-shirt up to use as a basket to hold the twigs and grasses. It took him more than an hour to traverse the ledge and collect everything he needed. When he returned with his to his corner, he looked toward the horizon hoping to see the helicopter. There was no sense starting a fire if no one could see it. He dumped the twigs and dried grasses out onto the ledge and then scanned the horizon for any trace of the helicopter. What he saw made his heart race. Out on the horizon’s edge was a long line of charcoal colored clouds billowing upward like exploding volcanoes. Buried deep within the black curtain muffled flashes of light made a surreal painting on the landscape.
I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t stay. I got to take a chance and give it everything I’ve got to reach the shrub, Matt said aloud. He looked up at the branch and saw the bluebird watching him. He studied the shrub. The branches were less than an inch thick. He wondered if its roots would hold his weight. Matt thought about his choices. He thought of huddling in the corner where the two walls and ledge came together. The far distant rumbling of thunder pushed this thought out of his mind. Mat had never seen clouds so black that they threatened to turn day into the darkest of nights. The black wall was relentless, slowly moving toward him. It was as if Matt was in the storm’s crosshairs.
Matt cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed, “Help! Help! Help!” In the vain hope a search party was within shouting distance. He heard his echo, but no other reply. The bluebird watched him.
Matt now saw dark sheets between the ground and the black billowing mass. He knew it was rain. He involuntarily shivered. He felt for his knife in his pocket. He’d leave his backpack, but not the knife his dad gave him. He edged back along the stone wall to give himself a three step start for his leap to grasp hold of the shrub.
Matt turned to face the shrub. His right shoulder touching the stone wall. His left foot now no more than a half foot from the edge of the ledge. He took a quick glance to the left and saw the tops of the trees far below him. He quickly turned away, his stomach did a quick flip. He said to himself, “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. Don’t be afraid. I can do this.”
Matt closed his eyes for a moment, he remembered his dad telling him the first time he jump into the pool from high dive that fear only stays with you as long as you stand there. The moment you jump, fear leaves. Never be afraid to jump, son. That’s what he said to Matt. Matt felt a surge of courage flow into him. He wondered if it was his dad sending it to him. At his dad’s funeral his dad’s captain came over to him told him one day when he needs courage his dad is going to give it to him. Maybe this was the time, thought Matt.
A flash of lightening that seemed to light the entire world was followed ten seconds later by an immense explosion of thunder. He turned his head toward the darkness that took no account of his fear and he felt the first drops of rain fall on his face.
Matt’s heart felt as if it were going to beat its way out of his chest. His breathing became shallow, He braced his right hand against the wall to steady himself. He shook his head to drive the thoughts of falling out of his mind. He forced a deep breath of air into his lungs and stepped off with his right foot. Right foot, left foot, and leap off his right foot, his right arm extended. It’s what he did. His right foot planted solidly and he leaped, his right arm extended, the bluebird took off. His right hand grasped hold of the branch. He held tight, he swung his right leg up and felt for the rock. He couldn’t find it. Matt found himself hanging by one hand from the shrub. His two feet feeling along the wall for the rock. He felt a slight give in the shrub. The shrub slowly began to yield to the stone wall and Matt looked wildly around him. With a last effort he reached out to the shrub off the left and grabbed hold of it with his left hand as the shrub in his right hand gave way.
Matt swayed on the branch. It held. He now had hold of with both hands while his feet searched for purchase. His left foot found a small piece of rock jutting out from the wall, and Matt placed the toe of his left foot on it, giving him a bit of support. And, then a large gust of wind almost tore him free from the shrub. His foot no longer had possession of the piece of rock and Matt swayed at the wind’s command.

Chapter 27 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 27 ~ Will Brad Find Matt Before The Cold Front Arrives?

Brad studied the area around the mountain lion’s kill. He slowly walked in the concentric circles with the deer carcass being the center of the circles. He made each circle three feet further away than the last circle. It was almost as if he were an anthropologist looking for signs of a lost civilization. He was meticulous in his scouring the area for any clue that might lead him to Matt.
He took the large machete-like knife from its holster and began swishing at the thick underbrush. He worked hard, his shirt now soaked with perspiration. Brad continually wiped away sweat droplets from his brow with his forearm. He worked for an hour and had not seen a trace of Matt. He felt his blood sugar level hovering near the warning signal. He stopped his search and spotted a large cropping of rocks and made his way to it. He climbed on top of the cropping, opened his backpack, took out a protein energy bar and one of his water bottles. Brad closed his eyes, quieted his mind, said a prayerful thanks for the bar and water and that Matt would safely return.
Brad opened his eyes, and tore open the protein bar wrapper. The sun was now at an angle where it seemed almost parallel to the tree tops. Brad knew it wouldn’t be long before the sun dipped down behind the mountains and he would be surrounded in total darkness. As much as he wanted to continue his search, he knew that ignoring the natural ebb and flow of the day in the forest could end in disaster. Even though it was still sunny, Brad knew sun quickly set in the mountains. One moment it is blazing bright and the next it slips below the mountain peaks laughing at hikers who thought they knew the ways of the sun. Brad knew the ways of the sun, he became its friend in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. He stilled his mind and thought now of searching for shelter, he knew he needed a good night’s sleep if he was to have any hope of finding Matt before the cold front hit.
Brad estimated the sun would set within forty-five minutes. He finished his protein bar, folded the wrapper and slipped the wrapper into his backpack. He flipped open the top of the water bottle, placed the tip of the bottle into his open mouth, and he squeezed the bottle. A thick stream of water quickly filled his mouth. Brad took enough liquid to hydrate his body, then capped the water bottle and slid it into his backpack. He stretched and slowly pivoted around. His mind repeatedly saying, ‘Where are you, Matt? Give me a sign.”
He made three-fourths of a complete turn when he stopped. He stooped to one knee and peered over the edge of the rock. He jumped off the rock, landing on both feet and walked ten yards away from the rock formation. He stopped and bent down and picked up three pieces of an orange peel not yet completely dried out. He placed the peels in his backpack, stood up and caught the dancing light of the last rays of the sun.
Brad walked back to the rock outcropping. He had fifteen minutes before it was pitch black. He quickly scavenged for kindling and some pieces of firewood. He used his machete to hack at dead branches of fallen trees. He scurried around grasping at dead grasses to act as starter fuel for the kindling. He placed the kindling on top of the dead grasses in a small circle, and put two larger pieces of dead wood on top of the kindling. He opened his backpack and pulled out his waterproof matches. He struck a match and lit the dead grass. He bent low over the flames from the dead grass and blew on it to provide oxygen to fuel its igniting of the kindling. The kindling began to glow red, then suddenly burst into flames engulfing the two larges pieces of firewood.
He raised himself tall on the rock outcropping, cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered, “Matt! Matt! Matt!”
There was no return call, only the echo of his voice. Brad squatted in front of the fire and placed his hands over the top of the fire. The heat from the fire felt good against the night’s chill. He wondered how Matt was handling the chill. Fortunately, the temperature wouldn’t go below freezing tonight. He expected it bottom out at relatively mild 60 degrees. Matt would get chilly, but hypothermia was not an issue, tonight. Once the cold front came through with the pouring rain and chilly temperatures, hypothermia became both Matt and his greatest enemy.
Brad reached into his backpack for his space blanket. He pulled it out and his extension cell phone caught his eye. He took a deep breath, he remembered he hadn’t text Grace his cell number. He type in her number from memory and hit send. Within seconds the message came back with the big red exclamation mark and message, message not delivered. Hit try again. He hit try again, and again the same message. He turned the phone off to save the battery and slid the phone into the backpack. Brad placed two more pieces of wood on the fire and lied down on top of the waterproof space blanket. He did not want his body to be chilled by the rocks. He placed his machete within arms reach. He closed his eyes and began to breath deeply. Within minutes he was sound asleep. A pair of large green eyes stared at him from thirty feet away.

Chapter 26 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 26 ~ Friends Count When The Going Is Tough

After Brad disappeared into the forest, Grace began knocking on cabin doors. She counted forty-seven cabins. She and Brad already spoke to Jane about Matt, and if she discounted her cabin and Brad’s cabin that left forty-four cabins. After having no answer to first five cabins, she decided to go back to the Ranger station and find out which cabins had occupants.
Grace jogged over to the Ranger station. Ranger Stone was at the counter, he looked up at Grace, and said, “Any word? Where’s your friend?”
Grace shook her head, “Brad went into the forest to search for Matt. I wanted to know …”
Before Grace could finish, the ranger interrupted Grace, “Your friend Brad has made the problem worse. If your son is missing, we’ll have two people wandering around in a national forest where nature doesn’t take prisoners. One mistake and it is often the final mistake. It takes lots of training to survive in this country. Everybody thinks they can watch a reality show and survive under the conditions you find out here, most of them don’t. That’s the sad part. Do you have any way of contacting him before it’s too late?”
Grace fixed a glare on the ranger, “Brad can take care of himself, he was with the 82nd Airborne.”
“Ma’am. That may be the case and he may have survival skills. Was he aware of the cold front coming in here tomorrow bringing torrential rain, potentially large hail, and significant lightening? That’s frightful for even the most experienced woodsman. He may be a former 82nd Airborne soldier, but unless he is prepared for this kind of weather, he’ll have a tough time of it if he doesn’t return. Please try to contact him and have him return. I promise you, I will be in this office at dawn and if Matt has not returned, I will put everything in motion to start the search ASAP. I’ve already alerted all the key people to be ready to go at dawn if they get they call.”
Grace was taken aback. She thought the ranger was an obstructionist, and now knew he was on her side and was doing everything within his power to help. She said, “Thank you, Ranger Stone. I really appreciate your help.”
Grace lifted her cell phone, she checked her text messages. There was none from Brad. He forgot to text her his extension service cell phone number. She looked up at the Ranger, “Brad works for the extension service. He was going to use their cell because it has better service. He forgot to text me the number. I don’t know how to get in touch with him. He’ll be okay. I know he will.”
The ranger took a deep breath, he waited a moment, “Is there anything else I can do for you ma’am?”
“Yes, can you tell me which cabins are occupied? I want to ask them if they saw Matt after we left.”
There are only three cabins occupied this weekend, ma’am because of the trails being closed due to the mountain lion and black bear scare. We posted it on our website. That’s where all the reservations are made.”
Grace felt a panic attack coming on, she remembered Brad’s advice to her to focus on what she can do not on what ifs. She looked at the ranger, “What can I do to help?”
“Whatever you do, don’t go looking for either of them. Stay with your friends. You need support. I promised you I will be here at dawn. Stay inside a cabin tonight, it’s quite common to have wildlife come into the campground at night scavenging for food.”
Grace nodded, she knew the ranger was right. At the moment, she couldn’t stand the sight of Jane. She didn’t want anything to do with her. All Jane thought about was Jane, a voice in Grace’s head said.
Grace looked at the ranger said, “Thank you, Ranger Stone.” She turned and walked out of the ranger station.
Grace walked slowly back toward her cabin. She passed Jane and Larry’s cabin. The door was closed. She smelled wood from the burning fireplace behind their cabin. She heard no sounds. She assumed they ate and were sitting in the cabin relaxing. Grace reached her cabin, walked up the few steps to the small porch, and placed a hand on the door nob. She took a long look to where Brad entered the forest, said a silent memorized prayer twisted the door nob pulled the door open. She stopped when she heard …
“Grace? Grace? Wait a minute, please?”
She turned and saw Jane running toward her. Jane was wearing jeans and Texas Women’s University sweatshirt. Jane stopped at the foot of the stairs. She looked up at Grace, “Grace, I’m sorry. I was a jerk. I made a fool of myself. I hurt the best friend I had in the world. Please forgive me. And, have you heard anything about Matt? I want to help. I really do.”
Grace paused for a moment, let go of the door nob, and hurried down the steps. Jane and she embraced. The stayed that way for minutes.
When they broke the embrace, Jane wiped tears from her cheeks, and said, “Look at us? No, don’t look at us. We’re a sight. Do you forgive me, Grace?”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Jane. It’s already forgotten. The ranger told me he’ll organize a search at dawn. You can bet I’ll be in his face at the first peak of sun. Brad went after Matt. The ranger said Brad’s in severe danger because a big cold front with torrential rains, hail and dangerous lightening is coming in tomorrow afternoon. I’m scared for Matt and Brad, Jane.”
Jane squeezed Grace’s hand, “Stay with Larry and me. We’ll all go to ranger station at dawn.”
“I’d like that, Jane,” said Grace.

Chapter 25 ~ Doing It Our Way

Chapter 25 ~ Brad Races Against Time to Find Matt

Five minutes later, Brad came out of his cabin, he wore a gray zipper hoodie, lightweight waterproof hiking shoes and dark lightweight stretch pants with zippers at the knees to convert the pants to shorts. He carried a backpack in his right hand. He stopped by his pickup truck, opened the tailgate, and climbed in the truck bed. He slid a key into a lock on a large metal chest that was fixed against the cab. He took the lock off the hinge and opened the metal chest. Brad followed a simple principle he learned from a friend in 82nd Airborne. His friend called it the survival triangle. He knew if the weather turned bad, you could die in three hours, you could survive three days without water, and if you were lucky enough to have good weather and water you could survive three weeks without food.
He set his backpack down and picked his extension service cell phone out of the chest. He turned it on and checked the weather forecast for Big Elk State Park with the U.S. Government Weather Service. The first thing he saw was a red alert highlighted on the website. A cold front was pushing down from the northwest and was expected to hit Big Elk around five the next afternoon. The temperature was going to drop from 70 degrees F to 53 degrees F. The temperature drop didn’t bother Brad as much as the forecast for violent thunder storms and torrential rains causing flash flooding in mountain areas.
Brad moved a few items around in the chest and took a personal locator beacon known as a PLB. When activated, the PLB could signal a satellite even if there was no cell phone service. Brad picked out a space blanket, a first aid kit, a large, machete-like knife he strapped to his belt, water proof matches, a signal mirror, nylon braided line, high protein energy bars, and three liter water bottles.
Brad strapped the backpack shut and slung it over his shoulders. He closed the metal chest and placed the lock back on it. He jumped down from the rear of the cab and lifted tail gate back into place. He turned toward Grace’s cabin, and waved. He started jogging west around the lake following the path where earlier he and Matt ran.
Grace was standing in the doorway, she returned Brad’s wave. She didn’t say anything. She watched Brad jog until he slowed to a walk when he reached the edge of the lake and the forest. He stopped and faced the lake. He closed his eyes and quieted his mind shutting out all sounds. Grace wanted to scream at Brad to do something. She forced herself to push her anxiety away. She watched and waited.
What seemed an eternity to Grace was no more than two minutes. Brad opened his eyes and ran parallel to the lake until he reached the trailhead a hundred and fifty yards ahead. When Brad reached the trailhead, he noticed the sign warning of mountain lions and black bears. He looked at the ground for some sign Matt had come this way. There were several footprints in the ground. He didn’t pay any attention to Matt’s running shoes and the prints they’d leave. The footprints were not help. He ducked under the metal pole and turned back toward the cabin where Grace still stood, arms folded across her chest watching.
Brad stepped back three paces and looked toward the cabin. Again, he closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. He walked to the metal pole guarding the trail, bent over and saw a tiny piece of cloth, from a white t-shirt clinging to a metal barb on the pole. The same color t-shirt Matt was wearing when Grace and he left for the coffee shop. He pulled the small piece of cloth off the barb and tucked it in his pocket. He glanced at the sign again, Indian Trail. He turned and headed up the trail.
Brad kept a steady jogging pace. His eyes constantly searching for more evidence of Matt. The trail continued to wind and climb until Brad came to a fork in the path and a sign pointing one way to Strong Summit and the other to the continuation of Indian trail. He walked a dozen feet toward Strong Summit, turned around and returned to the sign. He walked further up Indian Trail. Ten feet up the trail, he stopped and picked up a small branch, it was snapped in two holding together by the strands of its bark. He held the small branch in his hands and stared up Indian Trail. He dropped the branch and began to jog up the trail.
Brad scrambled up a rocky slope looking more like an orangutan than a human. When he got to the top of the slope, he again broke into a jog. He stopped suddenly when he saw a deer carcass off to his right. Most of the deer was consumed. He knew it was a relatively fresh kill otherwise smaller animals would have cleaned the carcass and left only the bones. He stopped and studied the ground. He found the path the mountain lion dragged the deer across the trail. Brad thought it was unusual for the mountain lion to drop his prey where he found it instead of taking it to his lair. He wondered if the mountain lion’s attention was drawn elsewhere.

Chapter 24 ~ Doing it our Way

Chapter 24 ~ Brad Decides to Search for Matt

Brad and Grace stood in front of the rustic log building. a sign post in front read, Ranger Station. An olive colored four wheel drive was parked on the side of the building. A symbol on the side read, “US Forestry Service. Brad assumed the four-wheel drive belonged to the Ranger. He walked up to the door and didn’t bother knocking He twisted the nob and walked in. Grace followed, a half-step behind him.
Brad noticed a long counter with a desk behind it. On top of the counter was a map of Big Elk State Park covered with a glass top. A series of photographs of wildlife in the park hung on the station walls. There were photos of mountain lions, coyotes, feral pigs, black bears, eagles, red tale hawks, and a variety of poisonous snakes. Off to their right stood a large rack filled with brochures and maps.
Brad called, “Hello?”
A moment later, a door behind the desk opened. A thin man, a head shorter than Brad, dressed in khaki colored pants and shirt, wearing a khaki colored ball cap stepped out. On the right front pocket of his shirt was a name plate, Todd Stone. On the left side of his shirt in cursive were the words US Forestry Ranger.
“Can I help you,” said the Ranger.
Grace spoke up, ” Matt is missing. He’s my son. You’ve got to help. I’m afraid something terrible has happened to him.”
The ranger looked at Brad and Grace. He said, “You’re Matt’s parents?”
Grace said, “I’m his mother, Brad’s a friend. We went to town for coffee. We invited Matt. He wanted to stay home. He wasn’t in the cabin when we returned. It’s not like him to disobey me. Brad thinks he went hiking. He warned me ahead of time. Brad, I should have listened to you.” Grace felt her stomach tying a knot tight enough to strangle an elephant.
Brad didn’t say anything, he eyes stayed on the ranger.
“How long has he been gone?” the ranger asked Grace.
“I don’t know. I don’t know when he left. We were gone about two and half hours,” Grace blurted.
The Ranger gave Grace a half smile, “Two and a half hours isn’t much time, Ma’am. It’s not unusual for folks to be gone on hikes for six hours or more. I can’t count the number of parents who’ve come in here worrying about their teenagers who went off hiking. We’ve never lost one.”
“He’s not a teenager. He’s eleven years old,” said Grace with an edge to her voice.
Brad eyes could have burned a hole in the ranger’s skull. The ranger averted Brad’s gaze and looked directly at Grace, and said, “Could he have gone swimming? I don’t want to think something happened to him in the lake, but you never know. We have to think of all possibilities.”
“We all swam this morning. Matt is an accomplished swimmer. He would never have a problem in the water. We checked with Jane and Larry in the cabin next to mine. They came with us. They didn’t see Matt either. Can you do something, anything? Can you call a helicopter search, call for a search party, use search dogs. Do something, please,” Grace pleaded.
The ranger shrugged, gestured with his hands and give her his best hangdog expression and said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I can’t help you right now. I’d like to, but it’s against regulations to start a search unless someone is missing for at least 12 hours. I’m required to follow policy. I understand your anxiety. I’d feel the same way if it were my son, but I can’t help you until the morning. Do you have any idea which trail he may have taken? We have four trailheads. All of them are closed right now, but it’s really easy to slip under the bar and hike the trail. Lots of folks do it.” The ranger gestured to the four trails on the map that lie on the counter.
Brad knew the ranger’s gestures were as empty as his words. He tugged on Grace’s arm and said, “Grace, let’s go. We’re not going to get anything done here.”
Brad turned to go, stopped and turned back to the ranger, “We’ll be back at dawn if Matt hasn’t returned.” Brad turned away and headed for the door. Grace followed Brad into the daylight.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Grace placed her hand on Brad’s arm, “Brad, what are we going to do? I don’t want to wait until morning.”
Brad turned around. He put both of his hands on Grace’s shoulders and looked into her eyes, “I am not waiting. I’m going after him. I want you to stay here in case Matt shows up. If he doesn’t show up and I haven’t come back, go to the Ranger station at dawn and refuse to leave until they put out a search team. Take a piece of Matt’s clothes for them to give to the search dogs. I also want you to call the Sheriff’s office.”
“Do you think you’ll find him before dark, Brad?” Grace’s eyes were filled with tears.
“The only thing I’ll promise you Grace is that I won’t come back until I find Matt or you call me and tell me Matt returned safely. Please don’t leave the cabin area. I don’t want to worry about two people. I’ll text you the cell number to my extension cell phone. It’s the one I’m going to use. If you can’t reach me, I’m out of cell service. I think I’ll be okay. I’ll text you number before I leave.”
Grace put her arms around Brad, and said, “Please, Brad. Please find Matt. I can’t lose him.”
A minute later, Brad stepped back and placed a hand on each of Grace’s upper arms, and looked into her brown eyes, and said, “Grace, it’s time for strength. Together we can deal with whatever we have to face. Don’t allow yourself to think about what ifs, they’ll only take you down a road that is counterproductive to helping Matt. Let’s only think about what we can do right now. What I can do is to use my training to search for Matt. You can check with all the other people who are staying here. Maybe they saw Matt. If you get any information, text it to me. Don’t get into a fight with the ranger or anyone else. We have one concern only, to find Matt.”
Grace looked into Brad’s eyes, “I’ll be strong. Thank you, Brad.”
Brad, nodded, smiled, and said, “I’m making a quick stop in my cabin. I have to change. There are a few things in my truck I’ll want to take along and then I’ll be gone.”
Brad turned and ran toward his cabin. Grace stood there watching him and wondered what she would have done without him helping her. Grace closed her eyes and repeated prayers she learned as a child. Each prayer ended with a petition for Matt’s safe return.