Friday, October 4, 2019

Her Sister's Keeper By Wes Blalock

When a 14-year-old girl with Down syndrome goes missing in 3000 square miles of national forest, Rangers Birdie McLaren and Katie Reynolds pull out all the stops to find her; by Wes Blalock.

11:33 AM

Ranger Birdie McLaren heard voices rise up from the Jacobson Campgrounds six miles from where she stood on the McClure Trail. The trail ran the edge of a hillside, a grassy slope to her left and the sequoias and madrones in the treeline to her right. The campers called out "Dor-o-thy," in a sing-songy plea for a response from a lost child. Birdie sighed, concern turning her lips into a small frown as she thought just how lost a child could get in 3000 square miles of national park. Scared, alone, and wondering when her parents were going to come to her rescue; the Sierra Nevada mountains unforgiving of age or innocence.

Oh, Dorothy, she thought, where are you?

The radio on her hip blared for all units to listen to an emergency broadcast. Turning up the volume, Birdie heard that Dorothy, a fourteen-year-old with Down Syndrome, wearing a Girl Scout uniform and a polka dot backpack, was last seen at the Jacobson Campground around ten in the morning. Birdie notified the dispatcher that she was nearby and another ranger, Aiden Walsh, asked her to meet him at the Brooks Fire Road. Birdie quickened her pace down the trail; few things were as sad as a fruitless search for a child. Except for a successful search that ended too late. Minutes meant everything.

The Cary Valley tradition of calling out for a lost child began in the early 1900s and continued to this day any time a child went missing. Birdie herself had explained its origins many times. In 1910, a boy named "Andy" wandered away from camp and the searchers had called out his name. Other campers joined in, hoping Andy would hear the voices and find his way back as cries filled the valley. Andy never was found and his parents came back every summer to look for him, calling out his name, until they too, failed to return. But the tradition remained and every summer, some camper who had heard the story would start calling out "Andy" until it was ringing throughout the valley, a memorial to a six-year-old boy lost and gone forever. Or, as was the case today, on those occasions when a new child went missing.

As Birdie crested a rise, she saw a white Ford Explorer, a green stripe with the words "US Park Ranger - Law Enforcement" on the side, parked where the road and the trail met. Aiden leaned against the truck waiting as she loped down the hillside. He glanced down at his watch. They forwent greetings and Aiden immediately referred to his notes, giving Birdie every detail.

"I spoke to her older brother," Aiden explained. "Seems she wants to be an Eagle Scout, like him. He didn't want to talk to us at first, just kept trying to tell us it was going to be okay."

"Really?" Birdie asked, in shock. "His developmentally disabled sister is out there, somewhere, lost and maybe hurt and he thinks it will all work out somehow? Is he stupid?"

"I know," Aiden said. "He thinks she's trying to complete a service project of some kind. He doesn't know what she's doing, but says that she has obsessed over 'Andy' for years, since the first time she heard the call, camping here in the park."

"Wow. Do we know where Andy disappeared from?" Birdie asked. That level of research was not in her repertoire.

Aiden nodded, indicating the direction with his eyes. "The Jacobson Campground."

Birdie took a worn, folding map from her backpack and opened it up on the hood of Aiden's patrol vehicle. "Any other useful 'Andy' information?"

"He wandered away from camp and was never heard from again," Aiden said.

"I said, 'useful.' I know that much." Birdie ran her finger over the lines of her map. "Do you happen to have a map of the trails from 1910?"

Aiden cocked an eye at her. "I have a GPS; I don't even have a current map of the valley."

Birdie sifted through her bag until she pulled another folded map out into the sunlight. "Ah ha." She unfolded the second map over the first one.

Aiden looked over her shoulder and read out loud, "US Army, Topographical Map of Cary Valley National Park and Trail System, 1900." Aiden's brow furrowed and he crossed his arms, defensively. "Where do you even get something like that?"

Birdie glanced up at him with one eyebrow raised and said, "Yard sales, flea markets, storage auctions," with an implied "duh" at the end, shrugging her shoulders.

Aiden scowled, leaning back against his truck again, "Are you kidding me?"

Birdie kept her eyes on the map and grinned. "Yes. You can find anything on eBay. You missed the word 'Reproduction'."

Aiden shook his head. "See anything?"

Birdie drew her finger along a line. "Here, off the fire road, there's an old trail that doesn't exist anymore. If you were searching for Andy, would you want to explore that one?"

"I certainly might," Aiden said, looking back and forth between the two maps. "It's close and looks pretty steep."

Birdie found the location on her current map and circled it. She then picked out a half dozen other locations that she thought were likely places to lose a child and circled and numbered them. Aiden reached over and used his phone to take a photo of her map, sending it to the Chief Ranger's email.

"I'll check these locations in the order I have them listed. If you get anything more, let me know." Birdie folded the map so that the section with her searches was on the outside, then threw on her backpack, scanning the woods. She nodded, having committed to a course of action, then patted Aiden's car and said, "Okay, I'm on it. Hopefully, we have her home by dinner."

Aiden wished her luck, got back in his car and drove toward the campgrounds to supervise the search.



12:21 PM

Katie Reynolds said a hurried goodbye to the tour group and double-timed across the plaza toward the Emergency Services Complex, holding her flat Stetson to her head as she went. She had just completed a planned nature hike that had taken her over an hour away from the Village. Thankfully, her group was already on the way back when Katie heard the radio call that a child was missing. In the distance, as she rushed the final few minutes of the tour, she heard the cry for "Dorothy" in the campgrounds. Katie had told the "Andy" story many times, as had every ranger she knew, explaining to campers the real history and the myths and the dangers of going missing in the immense wilderness that was Cary Valley National Park.

She burst into the Emergency Services Complex as the Chief Ranger handed out assignments, sending rangers, volunteers, park aides and maintenance staff to the most likely sections of the park to find the missing child. Katie waited patiently until Chief Ranger Woods waved her over.

"Katie, glad you could make it." He shuffled some papers until he found the ones he wanted and handed her a sheaf. "I need food, supplies, and volunteers at these locations. Can you get that done for me?"

"Absolutely," Katie confirmed. "So who did we lose?"

Ranger Woods pulled out a stack of flyers and handed them to Katie, explaining about Dorothy Harper.

Katie nodded as she absorbed the information. "Do you need me here?"

Woods looked around at the Emergency Services Complex, an old, wooden, converted warehouse in desperate need of an upgrade, full of people on phones and coordinating search grids. Wood nodded. There were a lot more people than phones or even chairs, the staff having fully outgrown the building. "Feel free to find yourself a quiet place to work. Just make sure I know what phone number you're at and that your radio's on."

Katie nodded and started out the door. She caught herself and turned back. "Chief, is Birdie already out there?"

"She was out on the McClure Trail when we got the report," Woods said. "She jumped right into a hasty search based on the information we were able to get from Dorothy's brother."

"And she hasn't found her yet?" Katie joked.

"Believe me," Chief Woods said, running his hands over his face. "I'm still hoping. She has the touch."

Katie scurried out the door, handfuls of paper rustling in the wind. She made her way down the walkway to the Visitor Center and entered through the exit door. Miriam Rayford, one of the park guides that staffed the Visitor Center waved as Katie cut toward the small office behind the gift store cashier's counter.

Miriam, a small, elderly woman with sun-browned skin and wire-rimmed glasses, smiled. "Working in here today? What's going on?"

"Missing child. I'm arranging support for search teams," Katie leaned in closer. "And the phones in here are better than the phones in the ESC or the law enforcement offices." She handed the flyers to Miriam for distribution to guests.

As she settled into the desk chair in the small office, Katie organized her paperwork. She picked up the phone and dialed the manager's office at the Cary Valley General Store by memory.

"Tandy, Katie Reynolds here. We have a missing child." Pause. "Yes, Ranger Katie. I need to know how much water we can get shipped to three different search sites, right away." Katie paused again. "Do you need to get more from outside? I have a purchase order number that you can bill to." She listened to the woman at the other end of the line. "Yes, that would be great. What about food? What do you have available?" Katie took notes as she listened. "That's perfect. I'll let you know if we need anything more."

Katie hung up the phone and then dialed another number and waited for it to ring. A man answered and Katie turned on her smile voice. "Wayne, yes. This is Katie Reynolds. Right. Ranger Katie. How many helicopters do you have available today?" She stood up with the portable phone in her hand and walked out into the Visitors center, eyes on the large, topographical map of the park on the far side of the room. "Yes, missing child. How about Wilcox Meadows, the Jacobson Campgrounds, and the Madrid Plateau? Can we get your birds out there? Of course I have a purchase order. That would be great. Thanks."

She set the phone down and wrote more notes on her pad. She dialed again. "Lt. Tolworth, this is Katie Reynolds, Cary Valley. Yes, Ranger Katie." She rolled her eyes. Ranger Katie, Ranger Katie, Ranger Katie, she thought, in her best Jan Brady voice. The law enforcement rangers get so much more respect; and people use their last names. She was thought of like a children's show ranger. "We have a missing child. We're in the early stages of the search, so I'd like you to have your search and rescue team ready to go within the hour." She moved back toward the office. "We'll be staging at the Wilcox Meadows and you can check in with Chief Ranger Woods. What ETA would you have? That should work."

Katie pulled out the operations plan and began making notes on the face page. She called the Chief Ranger to update him and they coordinated moving people and supplies to staging areas for the search. As she spoke, she looked out of the office and saw through the front door of the Visitor's Center something that caught her eye. A young boy stood in the plaza. Something about the boy's demeanor kept her eyes on him as she finished giving her report.

"Miriam," Katie got up from the desk but kept her eyes on the boy loitering in front of the Visitor's Center. "How long has that boy been out there?"

Miriam glanced out the door but had to turn back to a customer trying to buy some National Park patches. "I still haven't seen him."

The phone rang on Katie's desk and she picked up. "Katie Reynolds. Yes, this is Ranger Katie." She listened as she moved closer to the entrance, still eyeing the boy standing outside the door. The plaza, crowded with people, shimmered with activity. The boy, wearing worn coveralls and a tan shirt, stood very still. Most small boys that Katie knew wore sneakers; it was odd that he wore leather shoes. A part of her brain continued to perform her phone work, albeit distractedly, as she felt herself drawn to the boy. "That would be perfect. How many available volunteers in your organization tonight?"

Continuing to inch closer to the door, Katie was thankful for the cordless phone. She watched to see if a parent would walk up and take him or if he belonged to a nearby group that had just stepped away. Catching key words from the person on the other end of the phone, she responded with rote phrases and information. "We'll be staging your group at the Jacobson Campgrounds." She glanced down at the operations plan in her hand. "Your people will report to Ranger Aiden Walsh." She disconnected the call, distractedly.

"When it rains, it pours," she said aloud as she exited the Visitor's Center and approached the boy, stooping over to be at his height. "Hello there. I'm Ranger Katie, what's your name?"

The boy looked up at her with moist eyes. "Daniel Duncan Junior."

"Are you lost?"

He nodded.

"Are your parents here, somewhere?"

He shook his head.

"Is anyone looking for you?" She stood and looked around, trying to see if anyone was looking to claim the boy.

The boy nodded emphatically.

"Not much talking from you, huh?" Katie took his hand. "Why don't we go inside so we can find your parents."

They walked into the Visitor's Center, past Miriam as she helped another customer with a backpack purchase. Katie sat the boy in a chair just inside the office and returned to her desk. Picking up her radio, she asked over the air if anyone had any reports of a missing boy in the Village. No one answered affirmatively. Katie put out the description of the child sitting nearby and notified everyone that Daniel would remain in the Visitor's Center with Katie until his parents could be located.



4:17 PM

Birdie marched up the fire road and cut off into the woods, leaving the trail, something that she and other rangers constantly warned visitors not to do. She maintained a quick and even pace as she checked locations, one, two, and three: an old severe weather cache, an abandoned railroad spur, and a dried up, forgotten water well. At each location, she radioed the Emergency Services Complex with an update and listened to the progress of the other search and rescue efforts. Periodically, her radio wouldn't reach them until she gained higher ground, the line of sight radio system failing in some of the ravines.

The old, dilapidated army trail was her next stop. She found the fire road once again and searched until she saw the markings where a trail had once been. An old railroad tie embedded in the earth. A small piece of worn metal pipe cut off near the ground. A slight rill where storm runoff had cut along a badly designed trail. Birdie pushed her way through the brush to follow the bedraggled path until it opened along the ridgeline.

Four and a half hours into her search, Birdie heard a voice calling out for help.

Could she have been that lucky? Birdie's heart jumped in her chest. She called back excitedly, announcing herself as a park ranger and asking if the voice belonged to Dorothy Harper. The voice answered that she was and that she wasn't hurt, but that she couldn't escape the ravine. For a frustrating twenty minutes, Birdie and Dorothy played a dry land version of Marco Polo. Hands clenched and palms sweating, Birdie cleared the brush and arrived at the edge of a ravine, Dorothy standing at the bottom, watching for her with her hands akimbo, about sixty feet down. Birdie took a deep breath and felt her tension ease. We're okay, she thought. As Dorothy saw her, she began waving, looking up, small, but excited.

"Stay right there, Dorothy. I'm coming down to get you," she shouted.

"Okay," the girl called back, clapping her hands.

Birdie pulled a length of rope from her backpack and looked for a place to anchor. She couldn't keep the smile from her face and almost cried from the joy of finding the girl so quickly. Now, she just had to get down to her. She found a tree she liked, but was unsure about the hillside she was going to traverse. The shale was loose and would probably send small stones raining down on her as she rappelled. There had to be somewhere safer to climb, didn't there? She inched closer to the edge to get a better view of the cliff face, leaning over cautiously, looking for a better route. With a small scattering of pebbles, the earth gave way beneath her, dropping away suddenly. For a second, Birdie imagined herself a cartoon coyote, standing in midair, holding up a sign that said, "Yikes," only Birdie's sign read, "Shit."

Instinctively, she tightened her grip on the rope to arrest her fall, then realized she hadn't anchored it. Birdie bounced against the cliff face and tried to turn her body to protect her head and spine, her hands and feet out to meet the ground as she approached at thirty-two feet per second squared, and accelerating. Funny what her brain grasped onto as she fell. She didn't feel any pain as she ricocheted off a rocky outcropping and twisted in the air, spinning and coming to a complete stop on her left side in a cloud of dust. Shale rocks and pebbles and dirt rained down on her for a few seconds. As the detritus stopped falling, she lay silent and still, trying to assess herself.

I'm okay, she thought. I'm okay. Everything's good. Just pick myself up and dust myself off.

She cautiously raised her right arm and planted her hand in front of her, pushing herself up. Okay, she told herself. That worked. She tried to pull her legs underneath her to stand and a blinding pain shot through her left leg, nearly causing her to faint. Birdie slumped back down thinking that if she just reversed her actions, the pain would stop.

"Fuck!" she screamed, in anger, frustration, and embarrassment.

"That's a bad word," Dorothy said, appearing above Birdie. "Are you hurt bad? My mom says that word when she hurts bad."

"Yes," Birdie told her. "I think I broke my leg." She shook her head. "The good one. Do you see my backpack nearby? It has my medical kit in it."

Dorothy looked around, but didn't see it. Birdie replayed the last few minutes and remembered putting the backpack on the ground to get out her rope. The backpack was still at the top of the gully. Out of reach. Fantastic. Just peachy.

Just as Birdie wanted to spiral into a full blown temper tantrum, Dorothy became excited and waved her hands around.

"I know what to do. I know what to do," and she ran off.

"Dorothy, come back," Birdie called. "I just found you, dammit. Don't go getting lost again."

Swiveling slightly, Birdie reached the radio on her belt and carefully brought it to her face. She called the dispatcher, the ESC, and any other ranger, but no one answered. Hidden too far into the hills for the radio to work, she thought. She glanced back up toward the top of the cliff. Her satellite phone was in her backpack.

"Next time," she growled, "I put the backpack on before I fall."

Dorothy ran up with her own polka dot backpack in her hands. "I have a first aid kit," she said. Dorothy was short for her age, but bony and awkward, not unlike any other fourteen-year-old girl. Her blond hair was cut in a short pageboy, with neat bangs and clean edges. She had some scrapes and blood on one cheek.

"Dorothy, are you okay? You hit your face," Birdie said, still not moving from her flattened position.

"I'm okay. I hit my face when I fell," Dorothy said, digging in her backpack. "I didn't fall as hard as you. I kinda slid. You fell hard. I have a adventure medical kit. I made my mom buy it for me from REI. It has ev'rything. I'm going to fix your leg."

Birdie was suddenly alarmed by the idea of this young disabled woman wanting to manage her serious injury. "Dorothy, why don't we wait for the search crews. When I don't check in, they're going to come looking for us here. It shouldn't be more than a few hours. I think it's better if we don't mess with my leg."

Dorothy pulled a blue zippered bag from her backpack and opened it. "Don't move, ranger. I have my Senior First Aid Badge. I'm helping you." She pulled an aluminum and foam pre-made splint from the kit and held it near Birdie's injured leg. She paused a moment. "There's pain pills in the kit. Do you need a pain pill, ranger?"

Birdie thought about it. "Show me what you have there."

Dorothy pushed the kit toward her and Birdie lifted her head to look in. Reaching out, Birdie took several small packets of Ibuprofen and one of Acetaminophen. "I'll take these. Do you have any water?"

Dorothy pulled a water bottle from her backpack and handed it to Birdie who took all the pills in a mouthful and chased them down with a swig of water. She had resigned herself to allowing Dorothy to help with her leg; her options were limited. Hopefully the pills would make a difference.

Birdie thanked her and handed back the water bottle.

"Mom calls me 'Dot.' You can call me 'Dot,'" Dorothy told her.

"Okay, and you can call me 'Birdie.'"

"Birdie? That's a funny name," Dorothy laughed. "Like a chicken or a pigeon?"

"Yes," Birdie laughed back, as best she could, pain still coursing through her leg. "My name is really 'Huittsuu.' It's a Paiute word for 'little bird.' So my dad just always called me 'Birdie.'"

"Birdie," Dot repeated. "Okay." She made a big sigh, for Birdie's benefit. "I'm going to fix your leg now. Are you ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," she whispered as she fought her apprehension and watched Dot put the splint into shape. Dorothy fit the splint around Birdie's uninjured, right leg first, then lifted Birdie's left foot slightly to get the splint underneath, causing small explosions of pain to go off in Birdie's brain. She grunted and ground her teeth. Dot slipped the splint around Birdie's damaged leg, then began wrapping it with an elastic bandage to hold the splint in place. Pain flooded Birdie's senses and her head swam with swirling clouds of blue and black, threatening to push her into unconsciousness. Slowly, she became aware again of the world around her, a bird singing above, the warm summer wind blowing across the landscape, the dull, powerful throb in her leg.

"It's done." Dot sat back on her heels. "You should be better now. They said that in class. That you'd be better now."

"Thanks," Birdie said, still recovering. She inched her leg over to try and sit up and realized suddenly why Dot's brother had such confidence in her. Birdie felt a twinge of guilt for underestimating the young woman.

"I'll help you, Birdie," she said, taking Birdie's arm and rotating her up into a sitting position. Birdie's pain jumped up but wasn't as bad as before. Dot continued to talk about her mother and brother, the Girl Scouts, how she fell, watching Birdie fall. Birdie assessed the splint on her leg and was impressed by how well Dot had managed her injury. She sat back against the hillside, small bits of shale falling on her boonie hat and sliding off the brim.

"Dot, how did you get lost?" Birdie asked, interrupting a story Dot was telling.

"Oh." Dot was surprised. "I'm not lost. We are eight miles from the campground." Dot turned and pointed. "They are over there. I fell and I just can't get out."

"Well, that makes perfect sense," Birdie said in mild amazement and high admiration. She examined her surroundings and saw that the small ravine looked like a trap, with loose shale soil all around the edges. Anyone getting too close risked falling in. She was sure that if she searched the little valley, she would find the bones of animals that made the same mistake and met their fate down here, like a tar pit or cartoon quicksand.



4:51 PM

Katie paused and cradled her head in her hands for a moment, then fidgeted with the radio on the desk and picked up the phone again to remain busy. For a few minutes, she spoke to Ranger Vernon Keller at the Emergency Services Complex, giving updates and asking if any new resources were needed. Vernon explained that everything was being broken down and moved to the Meadows for Incident Command and that all logistics and support requests would be relayed through Katie's office in the Visitor's Center.

Katie's foot bounced and she rubbed the back of her neck while she updated the operations plan in front of her. She stood up and stretched, then walked to the copier behind the desk and emailed her paperwork to the Chief Ranger. As difficult as it was to sit and make phone calls while she desperately longed to join the search, Katie understood her importance and forced herself to be satisfied with the work before her. She glanced over at Daniel, checking on him, then sat, knowing that food, water, helicopter support, and volunteers were all headed out to the necessary locations, because of her work. Hopefully, no more resources would be needed. But if they were, Katie would provide with the people and numbers at her fingertips, because, she reminded herself with a smile, that she was good at it.

The phone remained busy as Katie answered and spoke to people about the search and coordinated responses, all the while keeping Daniel in her sight. She watched him get up and grab a book and a plush raccoon from the shelf and then sit back down and read, clutching the little stuffed animal. Katie glanced at Miriam, still inundated with customers. Another park guide Katie knew as "Elena" had joined Miriam at the counter, helping manage the flow of tourists.

As always when time is of the essence, the minutes seemed to fly by and Katie looked up at the clock to see that she had already been working at the desk for four and a half hours with no word that Dorothy had been found. The little boy looked up suddenly, as if startled by some sound.

"What's wrong?" Katie asked him.

He turned away and walked slowly out into the Visitor's Center, clutching the raccoon tightly. Katie stood and crossed around the desk, following. Daniel walked toward the massive map on the far side of the Visitor's Center and slowly oriented himself before grabbing a stool, pushing it to where he needed, and climbing up. With the raccoon tight in his left hand, he pointed to a small dimple in the earth on the topographical map, holding his finger there, and looking back at Katie. Katie stepped forward to look at the spot where his finger pressed.

"What's there, Daniel?" she asked quietly.

"Birdie," he whispered. "She and Dot are in trouble."

"Dot? Do you mean Dorothy Harper? Do you know her?" Katie's stomach sank, her hands started shaking.

Daniel just looked back at the map and kept his finger on the spot.

Katie's brain didn't have enough information to process what Daniel was trying to tell her, or why Daniel even knew what he knew. A simpler part of her brain, the part that accepted a higher power, that believed in heaven and reincarnation and karma; that part immediately grasped that Daniel knew that Birdie needed help. Now.

Taking out her notebook, she wrote down the GPS coordinates and ran to her desk. She picked up the phone and called Incident Command. It answered on the second ring.

"Vernon, this is Katie. Does Dorothy have a nickname?"

Vernon asked her to wait for a moment and then returned to the phone. "Mom calls her 'Dot.' Did you hear something back at the Village?"

Katie's face felt flushed and her head spun for a moment as her unreasonable fears seemed supported.

"Vernon, can we get a rescue team out to these GPS coordinates?" She rattled off numbers. Vernon confirmed them with her and said that a team would be sent out immediately.

"Did you get a call or something?" he asked her.

"Yeah," Katie said. "Or something." She looked out into the Visitor's Center, but Daniel was gone. The stool stood by the map with a plush raccoon sitting atop it. The book still lay open on the chair in her office. She hung up the phone and stepped into the Visitor's Center.

"Miriam, did you see where the little boy went?" Katie asked.

Miriam turned toward her. "What little boy?"

"The little boy that was lost, that I brought in here. He was just here, holding that raccoon." Katie pointed to the plush.

Miriam looked at Elena and they both shrugged. "I thought you were being funny."

"How is that funny?" Katie asked, frustrated and nearing tears.

Elena cocked an eye at Katie and Miriam's brow furrowed.

"Katie are you all right?" Miriam asked.

Katie shook her head and glanced over at the bookshelf, scanning until she snatched up what she was looking for; Into the Woods, Death in Cary Valley by Michael P. Ghiglieri. A history of those who had met their misfortune in the park. She flipped to the index, finding Daniel much more quickly than she anticipated.

"Daniel Andrew Duncan Junior, called 'Andy' by his parents, six years old, had wandered away from the Jacobson Campground and was never found," she read.

She set the book back on the shelf and slowly walked herself back to her desk.

"Katie, what's going on?" Miriam asked her.

"I'm just a little dizzy." Katie sat and turned up the volume on the radio.



5:03 PM

"So, Dot. I understand you came out here looking for Andy," Birdie said.

Dot nodded excitedly. "That was supposed to be a secret. How do you find out?"

"Your brother said that you were obsessed with Andy and that you were doing some kind of secret Eagle Scout service project." Birdie wasn't feeling well, with the pills and pain and wanted to keep her mind busy while they waited.

"Yeah, girls can't be Eagle Scouts, but I want to be like my brother. He's a good big brother, so I want to do what he does. So I can be a good sister." Animated, Dot went on, but became somber. "I wanted to find Andy 'cause he's lost. He's been lost so long, he should go home now."

Birdie nodded. "Well, I'm sorry you got stuck in here before you could find him."

"But I did find him," Dot said, her face brightening.

"What?" Birdie asked, uncertain. "What did you find?"

Dot ran off a short distance and picked up something from the ground. She brought it back to Birdie and held it out to her; a small leather boot, with buttons instead of laces. Birdie took the shoe and saw that the construction appeared to be turn of the century and that the leather was flaked and disintegrating. She tilted it toward her face and saw small bones contained inside, rattling around like dice in a cup. She set the boot on the ground carefully. Over the years, Birdie had recovered bodies broken and battered, lost and forgotten, but this was different. She stared at the tiny metatarsals in the shoe and imagined the boy that had worn it, then looked up in shock and admiration of the young woman that had found him, after a hundred years lost.

"Dot, I think you found Andy," Birdie said with a bittersweet smile, not quite sure she believed what she was seeing. "When no one else could. How did you do that?"

"I remember the first time I came here when I was eight," Dot said. With a sad note to her voice. "I got lost on my first hike, 'cause I didn't know the trails. I know them now. But then I was waiting for help, 'cause they always tell you to sit and wait for help. And I was waiting and I saw a little boy about my age just standing there and he looked at me and I saw that he was lonely and sad, but then he wasn't there anymore." Dot paused to drink some water. "And when I was found and back at camp, the ranger talked about Andy getting lost and I knew right away that I saw Andy."

Birdie canted her head, but felt it swim slightly.

Dot continued. "I tried to tell my mom and the ranger that I saw Andy, but no one believed me," she huffed. "No one ever believes me."

"Well, they'll believe you now." Birdie nodded and noticed that the world was spinning a little with the movement. Spinning.

"Ranger Birdie, are you okay?" Dot asked, getting closer to evaluate Birdie through her thick-lensed glasses.

Birdie wiped some sweat from her face and felt her skin. Cool and damp. Panic crept into her chest; these were not good signs. "Dot, are there scissors in your first aid kit?"

Dot looked through the contents and produced a pair of four inch EMT shears. "Here."

Birdie looked down at her left leg, wrapped in the splint. She didn't want to undo the splint but she needed to see her leg. She pointed to a spot on her pants above the knee. "Dot can you cut my pants here? I need to see my leg."

Dot wrestled with the canvas until she was able to make an initial cut, and then the cutting was easy. She cut down as far as she could until she was stopped by the cotton/polyester bandage holding the splint in place. Birdie, feeling more lightheaded by the minute, pulled the material away and saw that the flesh underneath was swollen and bruised, the skin looking tight. Birdie lay back against the dirt.

"Dot, my leg is bleeding inside and I'm going into shock," Birdie said, but her voice felt far away.

Dot pulled a book from her medical kit and looked through it until she found the section on shock. She read as quickly as she could, but had to go back a few times. Birdie's eyes were closed, so Dot took her backpack and pushed it near Birdie's legs, gently lifting her legs onto it so that they were raised. She found her sweater and draped it over Birdie's chest. Dot then sat back, arms wrapped around her knees, rocking gently back and forth. After a few minutes, Birdie opened her eyes. Her head felt light and her vision seemed to spin.

"Dot, we need help," Birdie said, trying to find Dot in her field of vision. Dot appeared beside her and put a caring hand on Birdie's forehead, pushing the boonie hat up and away from her face. "Can you climb up and get my backpack?"

"I tried to get out," Dot said, embarrassed. "I just kept slipping back down."

Birdie thought for a moment, then drew her gun. "Put your fingers in your ears."

Dot did as she was told. Birdie pointed the gun into the air, at a slight angle, held her arm straight out and pulled the trigger three times, quickly, then slowly fired three times more, followed by three more bullets in quick succession.

Dot gasped. "SOS."

"Listen to see if help is coming," Birdie whispered, putting a new magazine from her belt into the gun and holstering it. "If you hear anyone, wake me up." She closed her eyes.

Dot sat quietly, watching Birdie's chest rise and fall, ready to pounce if it stopped. She was so focused on listening for the sounds of voices or people walking by, she almost missed the sounds of helicopter rotor blades cutting through the air. She nudged Birdie gently and Birdie's eyes flickered open.

"Hey," Birdie said, weakly. "Helicopter. How long was I out?"

Dot looked at her watch and had to do some math that required moving her lips. "Twenty-two minutes."

Birdie took out her pistol and fired off another SOS. This time, she set the pistol on the ground beside her, unsure if she could get it back into the holster and more certain that she wouldn't be able to get it back out. Birdie fought to stay conscious, her relief mingled with the fear that they wouldn't be found in time. The helicopter grew closer and louder until it was overhead and deafening, looking down on them. Dot stood, waving her arms until the ranger in the open helicopter bay door waved back.

The rescue took forty minutes, getting Birdie and Dot into the helicopter - Dot strapped into a seat and Birdie tied into a Stokes litter. Retrieving Birdie's backpack required a third short trip to the top of the ravine. The paramedic ranger monitored Birdie closely, giving her oxygen and an IV before removing Dot's splint and replacing it with a compression splint.

"You did a great job placing the splint, considering your condition," the ranger told Birdie, leaning close to shout into her ear over the noise of the helicopter.

Birdie shook her head and pointed to Dot. The paramedic turned to look at Dot in awe. Dot waved. The ranger gave Dot a thumbs up and shouted, "Great job with the splint!"

Birdie tapped his arm. He had to lean close to hear her then replied, "Katie called and told us where you were and that you needed immediate rescue. We assumed it was the girl who was hurt."

"How did she know?" Birdie asked, confused.

"She said someone at the Village told her." The paramedic continued to check her blood pressure and jot down the results.

Birdie looked over at Dot, strapped into a seat, holding a small desiccated leather shoe in one hand and waving enthusiastically with the other. For just a second, Birdie could swear she saw a little boy sitting in the seat beside Dot, holding a small, plush raccoon, wearing old-fashioned clothes and a smile.



5:43 PM

Katie listened carefully to the radio as contract helicopters neared the area where she had sent them. After about fifteen minutes, the pilot spoke. "We have gunfire. Three fast, three slow, three fast. Sounds like your ranger is sending out an SOS."

Katie's adrenaline pumped even harder.

"We got 'em, they're flagging us down. Looks like the ranger is injured. We'll be lowering medics."

Katie stood up and walked calmly across the Visitor's Center. She put the stool away and picked up the stuffed animal left there. Turning to Miriam, Katie put the little raccoon on the counter and pulled her debit card from her pocket.

"This one seems a little worn, do you want me to get you a new one?" Miriam asked.

"No. This is the one I want." And she clutched it to her chest, fighting back tears she couldn't quite explain.

4 comments:

  1. Great Story. Just the right amount of suspense, foreshadowing, realism, and spookiness. As a parent of a Down Syndrome child, I loved the portrayal of Dot. The realism of the entire story is impressive. Thanks for sharing this very fine story.

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  2. A suspenseful adventure story. Kids would especially like it.

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  3. Good happy ending ghost tale with some great characters. Dot was terrific, and I especially liked Daniel's role, he sort of threw me off the scent of where the tale was headed.

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  4. Great story. The writing was spare but held my interest and kept moving. And each character was totally believable, but with minimal words used. Very good job.

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