A New Story
Searching For Dad
Begins in 3 Days
A New Story
Searching For Dad
Begins in 6 Days
Chapter 33 – A Secret Revealed
Grace stepped out of the hospital room into the corridor when asked to by the nurse. Jane was standing outside the door. “How is he, Grace?” she asked.
“They’re cleaning Brad. He’s still unconscious. They’re trying to get his body temperature up. He made Matt wear the space blanket and he gave Matt the last bit of food and water. Matt wouldn’t have made if it wasn’t for Brad. And, now, I don’t know if Brad will make it. He’s listed in critical condition.”
“He’s strong, Grace. He’ll make it,” said Jane.
“He’s been out for two days, Jane. The doctors don’t know when or if he’ll regain consciousness, they said it’s unpredictable. I want to stay here for a few more days. I know Larry has to get back to work and you have things to do. I’ll be okay. I’d send Matt back with you, but he’s adamant about staying here. He’s even willing to skip basketball camp and you know how much he loves basketball. He went to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat.”
Jane looked at Grace, “Are you taking care of yourself? When was the last decent meal you’ve eaten?”
“Jane, I couldn’t hold anything down even if you force fed me. My stomach feels like its still in the middle of that storm.”
“You’ve got to eat. What will Matt do if you end up in the room next to Brad? Please, Grace,” begged Jane.
Grace took a deep breath, “I know you’re right. I promise I will eat something tonight.”
“I’m going down to the cafeteria now and I’ll bring you something to eat. I will stay with you until you finish every bite,” said Jane.
“You’re treating me like a child, Jane.”
Jane didn’t answer. She gave Grace a hug, turned and headed for the elevators. The nurse walked out of the room. She nodded to Grace and said, “You can go in now. He’s clean and resting.”
Jane walked into the room and stood by the side of the bed. She bent over and kissed Brad’s forehead, and told him thank you for saving Matt’s life. It was a ritual she performed each time she entered the room. She sat down in the chair next to the bed and placed her right hand on top of Brad’s left hand. It was the same chair Grace slept in the past two nights.
Grace felt exhausted. Her eyelids felt as if they had ten pound weights pulling them down. She started to close her eyes and she forced them back open. Once her head bobbed when she dozed and she pulled it straight up. The harder she fought sleep, the harder it became for her to stay awake. Her right leg twitched and her head bobbed. Maybe if I close my eyes for a moment until Jane comes back with my food. I won’t sleep, I’ll just close them and relax. It won’t be long, she thought. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Grace’s subconscious didn’t allow her to slip into non REM sleep, the deep sleep stage where the body begins to repair itself. She remained in the REM stage where dreams most frequently occur. Grace found herself on Indian Trail, Brad was lost, she had to find him. She looked at a hand drawn map Matt gave her. She came to the fork in the trail leading to the summit or further up Indian Trail. She heard Brad’s voice, “Over hear. I’m over hear.”
She looked around. She didn’t see him, “Brad where are you? Where are you? I don’t see you.”
“I’m here. I’m right here.”
Grace left the trail and ran through the thick underbrush, falling, hollering, “I’m coming, Brad. I’ll find you.”
Grace suddenly woke up, only she and Brad were in the room. She looked at Brad and said, “I had a nightmare, Brad. I dreamed you were lost and you were calling me. I couldn’t find you. It was horrible.”
Grace felt Brad’s hand move, he moved it out from under her hand and placed his hand on top of her hand and squeezed. Grace stood up, “Brad, Brad can you hear me?” She felt another squeeze on her hand. She bent over and kissed his forehead.
“I won’t leave you, Brad. I’ll be right here when you open your eyes. I promise,” said Grace, tears were rolling down her cheeks.
Brad rolled his head toward Grace and opened his eyes, barely audible, he mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
“You’re awake. Thank God, you’re awake. Oh, God, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
A small smile formed on Brad’s lips. He whispered, “I have to talk to you.”
“It can wait, Brad. You rest. We will have plenty of time to talk.”
Brad shook his head, “No. I need to talk now.” He squeezed her hand again.
“Okay, Brad. But, please don’t wear yourself out, Matt and I want you back.”
Brad managed another smile. He said, “My wallet?”
Grace opened the drawer on the small dresser next to his bed. Brad’s brown leather wallet was sitting among a few other personal effects. She picked it up and wondered about the wallet. The leather was soft and worn. It looked like it had been hand crafted and had carried it for years. She turned and faced him. “I have it.”
Brad said, “Open it.”
Grace laid the open wallet flat across her lap. “It’s open, Brad.”
“In the sleeve on right side, reach in and pull out,” Brad’s voice becoming weary.
Grace reached into the sleeve on the right and there was nothing there. She realized she was confusing her right hand with Brad’s right hand. She placed her fingers in the other sleeve and pulled out three items. She didn’t look at them, she said, “I have three things, what do you want me to do?”
“The photo, look at the photo.”
Grace moved an insurance card off the top, then a roadside assistance card, and then she came to the photo and gasped, “That’s, that’s Matt. Where did you get it?”
Brad’s turned his head slightly towards Grace’s voice. He struggled to keep his eyes open, “When I was deployed. They needed a fourth person for a dangerous mission, I volunteered. I only knew the other three by first names, that’s all. It started out well, we met with a native of the region who was supposed to help us. He set us up. Two of our group were killed in an ambush, one was wounded badly. I wasn’t hit. I carried the wounded soldier for two miles and scaled a cliff to escape. A helicopter came in to rescue us. The soldier’s name was Mike. That’s all I knew. He was in bad shape. The medics were working furiously on him. One of the medics looked at me and shook his head. Miked grabbed hold of my hand, he asked me to reach into his shirt pocket. I did. I pulled out this photo. He asked me to find his boy and mother and make sure they were okay. He died in my arms.
I didn’t recognize Matt at first and how many Mike’s are there in the service? I was telling you the truth when I said I didn’t know Mike. Later, after I passed the football with Matt, something about him started nagging at me. I couldn’t put it together. It wasn’t until after we swam that I looked in my wallet and pulled out the photo. I knew. I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
Brad closed his eyes. He held Grace’s hand tight. He breathed deeply, then he said, “Mike was a lucky man. You’re a special woman and Matt’s a special boy. When I get out of here, I’d like to know you both better.”
Grace’s face was streaked with tears. She whispered, “Yes, Brad. We want to know you better, too. I’d like nothing better.”
A NEW STORY BEGINS IN 4 DAYS
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.
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?”
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 ~ 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 28 ~ A Mountain Lion Stalks Brad
The tall pine trees obscured the much of the night sky making the forest surrounding Brad as dark as coal mine. The only light Brad had came from his small dying campfire. Brad lie on his space blanket sound asleep. He learned during his deployment to Afghanistan how to sleep and simultaneously be aware of his surrounding him during the roughest and most dangerous conditions. Twice he woke up, opened his eyes, and listened. Something, he assumed was an animal, was near the edge of the rock outcropping. Each time he woke, his hand reflexively grasped hold of the machete.
The third time he woke was right before dawn. Brad opened his eyes, he listened, his hand already rested on the machete. He grasped hold of it and in a swift motion rose to his feet. His attention focused on the furthest edge of the rock outcropping from where he stood. He wasn’t sure what he heard, but he knew his subconscious heard enough to sound the alarm. He was sure enough to trust his intuition, it never failed him. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a dry branch, no more than two feet long, lying a few feet away. He carefully moved toward the branch while keeping his eyes trained on the far edge of the rock outcropping. When he was within reaching distance, he stooped down, switched the machete to his left hand, and grab hold of the branch. He moved back toward the fire, his eyes still trained on the edge of the outcropping When he reached the small campfire, he stooped, and holding the small dry branch as he would a club, placed the front end of the dry branch into the small fire.
As he placed the end of the branch into the fire, the mountain lion stepped onto the rock outcropping. He’s looking for breakfast, maybe lunch and dinner all rolled into one big meal. I’m not on your menu, Brad’s inner voice said.
When the end of the branch caught fire, Brad pulled it out of the fire, stood up, and brandished it toward the mountain lion. Waving it erratically. He raised the machete in his left hand and menacingly jabbed the burning branch toward the mountain lion. The mountain lion stood his ground, and began to emit a low aggressive growl.
Brad stepped aggressively toward the mountain lion, and made a loud series of guttural shrieks that traveled light years from his ancestral past. The mountain lion hesitated, confused by the larger beast coming toward him, turned and fled into the forest. Brad stopped, he became frozen in time and space. He was as still as a fallen log in Arizona’s the Petrified Forest. Only when he was sure the mountain lion surrendered this territory to the alpha male, did he dare move. He turned to the east and saw the sky beginning the slow process of being filled with light. Brad knelt down on one knee and briefly prayed in gratitude for sparing him from the mountain lion and for guidance in finding Matt.
He rose off his knee and quickly prepared to continue his search as soon as there was sufficient light. He folded the space blanket and placed it in the backpack. He took a protein energy bar out and slowly ate it, sipping water between bites. As it grew lighter, he put out the fire, making sure there were no burning embers. Only when he was sure every spark was out, did he dare slip on his backpack. The last thing he wanted to do was to start a forest fire that would destroy both Matt and he and countless animals.
When the sun’s rays broke through the stand of pine trees, Brad knew it was time to go. He estimated it was five-thirty leaving him between ten and twelve hours to find Matt before the cold front came through, if the weather forecast was accurate. He knew it was a big if. He slipped down off the rock outcropping and walked to where he found the orange peels. He scanned the brush looking for any sign Matt had come this way. He knew it was going to be slow going, but any mistake on his part might mean certain death for Matt.
Each of his steps were carefully placed. He repeated the pattern over and over. He took a step and looked first to his right, then straight ahead, then to his left for any sign of Matt. After nearly thirty minutes without any luck, Brad stopped. What if, he thought. What if Matt tossed the orange peels from the rock outcropping. Did he hear something and bolt into the forest from where he tossed the orange peels?
Brad turned back and scurried up to the top of the rock outcropping. He saw the place where he made the campfire. He thought it is possible the mountain lion was prowling in the same area where he saw him this morning. This might mean Matt took off in the opposite direction. Brad turned and walked to the opposite side of the outcropping. He saw it right away, a small broken branch, and beyond it, a trampled bush. Brad was sure Matt had fled in this direction. He knew he was placing Matt’s life on the evidence of a snapped small branch and trampled brush, but what other choice did he have? He estimated he had nine hours to find Matt.
Brad briefly shook his head to clear his mind of memories in the Afghanistan mountains. When his mind cleared he began his search. There were times when it seemed the way was clear. Yet, there were other times where Brad spent considerable time looking for signs. A half dozen times he backtracked to picked up Matt’s trail. Early on, he heard a helicopter somewhere in the distance. The sound of the helicopter brought another flashback of his deployment in Afghanistan. The helicopter was not near Indian Trail. He estimated the helicopter was searching the trail toward the Summit.
Brad retrieved his extension service cell phone, turned it on and sent a text to Grace telling her he believed Matt had taken Indian Trail. He had service, the text appeared to go through. Matt wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to waste anytime. He turned the cell phone off and continued to track Matt. It was after the sun had reached its apex that Brad decided to take a ten minute break, eat a protein energy bar and replenish the fluids he sweat out of his body. As he rested he looked at the sky. He saw a black wall rising 50,000 feet into the sky off to the the far west. He knew it was the cold front. It looked more dangerous than predicted. He changed the estimate of its arrival to between three and five. He had only two to three hours to find Matt before the black wall slammed into the mountain.
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 ~ 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.