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The wind tore the sturdy wood door from Maria’s numbed hands. Giving over now that the battle to reach shelter had been won, she let the driving snow push her exhausted body into the cabin. Tugged along by the life-line connecting them, her companion stumbled across the threshold. No longer feeling the gale force winds, Laars summoned the remainder of his strength to close the thick pine barrier behind them. The rustic cabin’s solid stone walls, slate roof and wooden floors provided welcomed relief from the blizzard.
The ceasure of the ice being driven into their bodies made the cabin feel hot. The park ranger flipped the mitten portion of her gloves back to free her fingers. Halfheartedly she lifted her goggles to view the room, knowing it would reveal the lost hikers weren’t here either. No welcoming flames were dancing in the riverstone-constructed fireplace; the table and mismatched chairs left behind by others were still stacked in a corner. The one open door would lead into a separate sleeping area, but little hope remained. Maria heard a sob escape and it took her a moment to realize the sound came from her own throat. Behind her, the intern assigned to her search-and-rescue team slowly slid to the floor.
The boy had been amazing. Maria was all for equal rights, but sometimes tasks just needed to go to the taller and stronger. Laars had at least a foot on her five foot two frame and the strength of a twenty-one year old male that enjoyed outside activity. He had blazed the trail since false dawn and took the brunt of the wind, until the storm unleashed whiteout conditions. She had often joked she could find her way around the park blindfolded; for the last two hours she might as well had been. She released the gorilla clip connecting the lifeline to her utility belt.
The sleeping room revealed a half dozen cot frames leaned against the walls, waiting for hiker’s pillows and bags. She closed the door. They only needed to heat one room tonight. A quick inspection showed the fireplace sturdy and ready for wood, but the box for wood was empty.
Maria closed her eyes; Patrick had been the one assigned to prep the cabins for winter. Laars replaced him in November, about the same time Maria came back to work full time after taking two months off to complete her GED. They were still discovering what had not been done by Patrick at the end of his six-month internship. The park manager, Nelson, was a wonderful trusting man who was willing to hire a migrant worker’s daughter, and she loved him for it. But that personality characteristic prevented him from double-checking work when an intern reported a task complete. He trusted people who were willing to work in the middle of his beloved beautiful nowhere.
Stepping over Laars’ long legs, Maria idly noted she still had on her snowshoes. Good, because she was going to need to bring in a lot of wood. College-boy and her had restock the sheds just after Thanksgiving, so there would be plenty. It would just feel like an eternity bringing the wood in.
Maria drew in a breath as she stood before the cabinet. The heavy thing was made from two inch seasoned oak and weighed over three hundred pounds, mostly to prevent campers from moving it around. Inside was suppose to be an emergency first aid kit, two tins of dried foot, several gallons of water for when the water pipes froze outside, and other survival materials.
Laars lifted his head when she switched from Spanish to English after examining the interior. It wasn’t like she had a Latin temper, but sometimes … She hoped she didn’t shock the kid’s whitebread sensitivities. Though he was two years older than her, he had a very protective upbringing. Upper middle class somewhere in Washington, a state her family picked apples in for two months when they did the West Coast circuit. His father was a doctor, lawyer or something like that.
Leaning his head against the door, his goggles completely fogged so he talked to the ceiling, Laars asked “Problem?”
Maria’s lips twitched. Single word sentences, but humor was returning. A good sign. They had just spent a full day of an unsuccessful search for three hikers who were stupid enough not to check the weather reports or to check in with the ranger’s office before taking one of the dozens of trails. They had found the car last night when closing the park, planned and fretted all night as the old man mountain promised to have his way, and initiated the search and rescue at first light. He had fallen down not one but two gorges, hiked over 20 miles in high winds that kept the helicopters grounded, and after no sleep and reaching an exhaustion he probably had never experienced before in his life, he could still joke.
She licked her cracked lips before answering. “Nope, none at all. Only we should have fired Patrick before we hired him.”
“Right.” Laars lifted one ice coated mitten to try and move his goggles, but gravity claimed the weight of the arm when lack of fingers prevented him from accomplishing his task. “No food, huh?”
“No food, blanket, and the first aid kit is a nest for something. There is not even a pot to piss in.” She closed the door to the cabinet before walking over to the intern. “Or melt snow for water.”
Standing over him, she continued. “Speaking of water, we need to get you stripped.” She picked up his hands. “Alley-up.” Fortunately, Laars had regained enough energy to help her pull him up. She was just over a hundred pounds soaking wet, and he had to weigh close to two hundred pounds in soaking wet gear. Nothing was dripping since inside the cabin was still the ambient temperature of the outside. Only lacking was the wind-chill factor.
She helped him remove his mittens then his gloves and muttered a short prayer to her family for sending her a pair of gloves that had mittens that flipped on and off the finger area. She set to work on the ice locked lifeline while he removed his eye and face protection. Her fingers, fragile from the cold, tore and bled a little but she managed to remove the line from around his body and unhook the front of his backpack so he would be able to take off his parka.
When she started working on her own backpack, Laars said, “Let me.” Maria willingly let him take over; he could see the hooks, snaps, and buckles and she could not. When she tried to shoulder off the backpack she discovered that ice had bonded it to her parka. She turned around and let the taller man leverage the pack off then did the same for him.
Placing her pack on the beatup table, she chipped away a little of the snow. The table wobbled; one of the legs was missing and someone had duct taped a branch to replace it. Eventually she was able to remove the two reflective rescue blankets. Not much good if the person was in hypothermia and not generating his own heat, but better than being naked. Turning around she noticed Laars was swaying back and forth and had made no further progress on undressing.
Grabbing what looked like the sturdiest chair, an old camp chair missing the canvas on one arm, she place it behind him and ordered him to sit. Maria took a moment to examine his eyes while she wrapped one blanket around his shoulders and placed the other on his lap. Good, her shadow cast by getting between the overbright whiteout windows and Laars caused his pinpoint pupils to get larger and darker. Some shock, but not life threatening. Not yet, if they could get a fire going. She wanted to get wood right away, but one more thing needed to be done.
Unclipping the satellite phone from her utility belt, she dialed the home office and reluctantly placed the cold metal to her ear after pushing back the parka hood. Someone she didn’t know answered. “Team Gamma has reached Merveille Chalet. No sightings of Greens. Over,” she reported.
“Verify Team Gamma at shelter. No sightings of Greens,” came the crackling response. The cell phone had trouble boosting through the storm.
Since she didn’t know who the person was, she bet he was someone from the National Guard. “Yes. Any luck at your end?”
“No Gamma, but the storm is suppose to clear tonight and the birds can fly tomorrow.” The dispatcher shared. “All other teams made it back; only you are still out in the field. I have marked you secured for the night.”
“Roger. We will report in the morning.”
“Roger and good luck tonight,” replied the solider. “Stay warm.”
No wanting to worry anyone, since they couldn’t help Laars and her anyway she responded with, “Will try, over and out.” The satellite phones were a great invention, able to get through most of the rugged terrain of the park. But the three pounds added up over time. She turned off the phone and took off the utility belt. No need for that extra weight when fetching wood.
Remembering one other rescue supply in her pack, she pulled out two cans of soup and activated the heat elements. Crouching down in front of Laars, she examined his skin, lips, and eyes again. He was awake but not doing well. “Laars, here is some soup.” She pressed warming can into his hand. “Drink it. I am going out and will be back as quick as I can.”
Debating a moment, she finished emptying her pack beside the table. She could carry twice as much wood this way, even if she wouldn’t be able to buckle it. She could carry it in her arms; on her back, the wind would pull it off balance and her with it.
Between the second and third load, she noticed he had switched soup cans. With the fourth load, he had started putting the tinder and kindling from the first load together in the fireplace. “I should be doing that,” he said as he tried to stand when she came in to dump the load of fuel logs. He nearly toppled over into the stone, but managed to grabbed the mantle before doing so. The Mylar blanket drifted off his shoulders to the floor. The mantle was a huge expanse of native wood nearly six inches in diameter and five feet long, varnished with the bark still on it. Several nails had been pounded into it to hang things and various carved names of previous visitors decorated it.
“No, you shouldn’t,” she said as she removed the wood from her backpack. The backpack provided an added bonus of moving the wood without getting snow on it during transportation. “There are at least four fire pits between here and there, and I guarantee that unless you know where each obstacle is out there you will twist an ankle or break a leg.”
Sinking back to the floor, he commented, “I am not clumsy.”
“Oops, sorry, didn’t mean it like that. I had no business having you break the trail after we passed marker 12 on Sunrift Gorge.” She pushed back her goggles to better see him. “Laars, you did incredible things today and should be proud. I could have never made it the distance without you.”
“I fell twice and you had to pull me out of a creek.” Came the sulking reply.
“So, you were my windbreak, practically carried me through some four foot drifts, and removed one rock slide.” Making certain his clear blue eyes met her brown ones. “Really, I needed you today. Understand?”
He nodded, looking like a schoolkid not certain the praise was real but wanting it to be so.
“Okay, so I am bringing in the wood because I am going to need you just as much tomorrow.” She waited for him to acknowledge that with another nod. She was pleased to see the pupils reacting more to changes in light and his lips had lost their blue tinge. He had started thinking again, but not up to full clearness. The man was normally a ball of intelligence and curiosity. Exhaustion and exposure made people do stupid things because they just can’t think. “What I need you to do is set up the fire, and then … drat.”
“What’s the problem?” asked Laars.
She walked over to where she had unpacked her supplies. “I don’t remember my matches. I have the rescue pack set up to go … double checked it last night, matches are on my list … did I check it off?” she mused to herself.
“I’ve got a lighter in my kit.” Volunteered Laars. “My swim should not have affected it.”
“Great.” She walked over to his pack. “Which pocket?”
After extracting the longnecked lighter, she handed it over to him. “Only got two more trips left and then I think we will have wood to get through the night. I want this place to be warm by then.”
“Yes boss.” He smiled.
Carrying the backpack in front of her, she quickly left the building. Outside she was almost grateful for the need to concentrate on moving. While in first aid mode, Maria had forgotten how attracted she was to him until he smiled. With the survival juices flowing she may do something stupid like admit she had fallen for the oaf. Her first day back on the job Nelson had told her to go help the intern and a Boy Scouts troop put up a new information lean-to by Avalanche Point. When she had got there, Laars was helping the tallest boys lift the beams overhead. He had had stripped down to his undershirt and khaki pants. Yum, something about a man working hard.
She had come to admire his willingness to work, but was a little worried about his eagerness to please. Yes, he was an intern but he only had one semester left before finishing college. He was smart, using his internship to study biodiversity within the park for a thesis. He should have more self-confidence.
After all he had everything going for him. Not at all like her with her patchwork schooling over sixteen states. She had been lucky to complete her GED. The only reason Nelson had been willing to hire her was because she spoke four language fluently; she was a guide he couldn’t pass up on. Her dad had dropped off the family at the park while the car was being repair and she had seen the advertisement for a bi-lingual guide. Lying about her age by one year, but not about her citizenship, Nelson had agreed to hire her for the summer. Since the job made more than twice the money she would have made picking crops, the family had been all for it. Maria missed them horribly, but one thing led to another and now three years later she was a full park ranger and had her GED. More than she ever expected from life. Definitely not in Laars’ league, however attractive he was.
The fifth trip through she opened the damper on the chimney; the smoke hadn’t been bad yet. City boys. Yes, think of him as not yet finished. Intern-expert. Worker-boss. Man-woman. Nope, don’t go down that path. Student-graduate. She was a graduate and no longer needed to worry about school ever again.
When she finished the last trip, the fire was just beginning to create a bed of coals, which would regulate heat throughout the night. She returned to the door to take off her snow shoes. The room was warm enough to start melting the snow. She stripped off her parka and outer pants and laid them out to dry before approaching Laars. He also was down to his park uniform and the room was beginning to look like a sporting good store exploded.
His soaked through park uniform; steam was rising from it as he continued to nurse the fire.
“Out of those clothes,” she ordered.
He looked up as she said the first words in nearly an hour. She had pulled the damper without a comment while trudging through. Laars looked at her in confusion, but with sparkling eyes totally aware.
Good, the worst of the exposure seems done, but why was he confused. She ran the words through her mind making certain she had spoken English. Yep. “Your clothes are wet. You know better than to stay in wet things, right?”
“Oh,” he looked at her sheepishly “but I don’t have anything to change into.”
“I know we didn’t bring extra clothes since we were not suppose to be out here all day. Just strip down and change into the extra socks and underwear. The blankets are not the best, but should do.” She said briskly.
“Extra what?” His fair skin allowed a blush to start at his neck and work its way up past his ashen eyebrows to his short curly blond hair.
Since she had taught the survival course herself the first week she was back, she replied icily, “The extra socks and underwear and knit cap that should be in your survival pack in little bags to make certain you can maintain temperature at night in dry undergarments.”
The intern dropped his eyes.
(words 2,932 - first published 10/30/2016)