Stranded in the Mountains
Part of the Stand Alone Books
They survived the crash…
Now can they escape the wilderness?
Part-time treasure hunter Daniel Sturges’s secret assignment was simple—find a wrecked WWII B-17 and recover the artifacts inside. But now he’s stranded with fellow crash survivor Cassie Edmunds, who’s searching for the same plane, and they’ll have to trust one another with their lives. With temperatures falling in treacherous terrain, will they risk everything for the missing wreckage or discover something more valuable between them? That is, if they can stay alive…
Heat Level: Calm Seas
Stranded in the Mountains
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Stranded in the Mountains
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Daniel took Cassie’s hands for the second time that day and they prayed together for a man they’d known all of forty minutes. Yet he knew they’d be called on to tell the story of how Sean had died in the bravest manner; fighting to save all of their lives.
He released Cassie’s hands but she hung on for a second longer, giving him a quick squeeze of reassurance before letting go. “Thanks for doing that, Daniel. I don’t know where my priorities went.”
“We just survived a fatal crash. It’s only natural to forget about anyone but yourself. It’s how we’re wired.”
“I suppose so.” She rubbed at her elbows, still warming herself up.
“Are you still shivering?”
“No, not from the cold. It’s actually a lot warmer than I expected.” Her cheeks were the color of the sugar maple trees in autumn on the land he hoped to buy after this trip. Rosy, chafed from the cold and ordeal no doubt, but still appealing. Contrasting with her deep blue eyes.
He laughed. How was it possible to have this joy bubble up through the serious situation they were in? “It’s all relative. You sound like we’re on a Caribbean island.”
“Believe me, right now I’m wondering why I didn’t pick a tropical destination for my vacation. Except…except I made a promise to my grandma.”
“Tell you what. I’m very interested in that promise, and we’ll have a lot of time to talk about it as soon as we get the fire going.”
“Shouldn’t we put a call out, to emergency services or something?”
Dread wound around his heart. It had to be because he fully understood their predicament, had no illusions that it might be better than it looked. Not because he didn’t want to disappoint Cassie. “Sean sent out a Mayday when we first hit the cloud front. He would have recalled it when we stabilized, but—”
“But then the helicopter broke apart. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”
“We’ll never know, but yes, I think something catastrophic went wrong with the rotors, precipitated by the bad weather. It was out of Sean’s control. In fact, I think he did all he could to land in the lake, knowing it was the only chance we’d have of getting out alive. If we’d crashed against the mountainside, or into the trees…” He didn’t need to finish his statement. Didn’t want to. Didn’t want to put Cassie through more than she’d been through.
Odd, he barely knew her and yet her safety, her well-being was his top priority. He’d have to think about it later.
You can pray anytime. His mother’s words echoed in his mind. Sure, he knew that in theory prayer was meant to be an all-the-time deal. Recalling prayers from his childhood came naturally when it looked like they were going to crash in the helicopter. But he’d let go of the long talks he used to have with God years ago.
Maybe it’s time to begin again.
Cassie’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed the surrounding land. Past the brush, into the tree line that was only dwarfed by the sheer rock faces of the Torngat Mountains. “We would have been blown to smithereens.” No holding back. He liked her forthrightness.
Her blue gaze searched his face. “I know you think I’m a wilderness newbie, and yeah, I suppose I am, in many ways. But for what it’s worth, my phone is in a weather- and water-proof casing. It’s in the smaller bag you pulled out with my overnight bag. I’ll get it and we’ll be able to call for help.”
“That’s great, and if we ever get in range of a cell signal, it’ll be useful. But this far from Base Camp, the only thing that will work is a sat phone. I have one with me, but do you see that fog coming in? It won’t work through that.”
Her eyes widened and against the backdrop of the lake he saw her eyes were a deeper blue than he’d first noticed. With specks of silver gray, not unlike a snowcapped mountain. “That’s bizarre. I mean, that in the twenty-first century, with all of the available technology, we’re truly stranded. Someone has to be looking for us.”
“If they got the helicopter’s signal, if they heard Sean’s SOS, yes, someone will come looking. Eventually, when the weather clears. By all indications there’s going to be snow between here and Base Camp within the next day or two. Chances are good that the weather is keeping anyone from looking for us. We can keep trying our cell phones as soon as the fog lifts—we’re clear of storms. But we can’t sit here and wait for that. We’ll end up dead. We’re going to rest for the night as dark’s falling soon. At dawn we begin our walk out.”
“If our phones can’t send a signal, how do you know your phone will tell you where you’re heading? How are you going to know which way to go? How do I know you really know what you’re doing, that you’re not taking us to our deaths?”
He stared at the woman whom he’d come to value a lot in a short amount of time. In only a matter of—he checked his fitness band for the time—eight hours. “You don’t. You’re right. I could be making it all up. As I see it, there isn’t much choice here, is there? I downloaded maps of the area before I left home, just in case. They’re on my phone, still accessible.”
“Until your battery runs out.”
“I had some maps printed and laminated, too.”
Her face brightened a fraction and it released some of the tension in his chest.
The fog encroached across the lake and the temperature was noticeably lowering. He needed to get the fire going. Cassie’s shoulders moved and he saw her shiver. Instead of complaining, she laughed.
“Heck, some folks pay big money for this kind of adventure. No disrespect to Sean, of course. Look at me like a student, then. Whatever you want to teach me about wilderness survival, I’m ready to learn.” Her attempt at levity struck him somewhere in his center. In the midst of life-threatening weather and surroundings, Cassie dug deep and found a reason to keep going. The positive side. He could learn a lot from her.
“This light’s only going to keep fading. Even if the fog blows away it’ll be nighttime. We’ve got to set up our camp now.” His words smoothed the smile lines from her face and he immediately wished he could pull them back. Maybe it was time to start talking to God more freely. He needed all the help he could get to keep his wits about him.
Their lives depended upon it.
“I need to get shoes on that fit me. As in, my own boots.” Cassie wasn’t going to waste another minute trying to tell Daniel why she wasn’t the heavy baggage she figured he imagined her to be. Instead, they just had to get on with it.
“Your things are going to be soaked. We’ll spread them out as soon as I start the fire.” He repeated his earlier words as he squatted next to the neat pile of sticks and began stripping bark off a dowel-sized branch. Cassie had watched enough reality wilderness survival programs to know he was working toward that first needed spark. From that, all the heat and lifesaving warmth they’d need would come.
“You’ll see what I mean soon enough.” She muttered under her breath as she grabbed her two bags and hauled them across the beach, away from the water’s edge. It was safe to assume she looked a bit comical, dressed in Daniel’s much larger clothing, balancing both bags as she tried not to twist an ankle on the uneven ground, but Cassie was on a mission. Besides, no one was looking. Daniel paid her as much attention as one of the stones she stepped so carefully to avoid.
When she came within a few feet of him, she stopped and unloaded her small duffel bag, unzipping it and dumping its contents. She proceeded to do the same with her hiking backpack, the most expensive piece of luggage she owned. She’d chosen it especially for this trip.
“I wouldn’t do that until we’re certain I get the fire going. It’s difficult to repack wet clothing.” Daniel didn’t look up from where he was working a small rock and stick against each other.
“Ye of little faith, Daniel.” Cassie bit her lip to keep from grinning as she waited for Daniel to glance her way. His gaze met hers and he must have seen her sense of accomplishment in her expression, because he then perused the contents of her bags. All packed neatly and color coded into zippered plastic bags. They weren’t all one hundred percent waterproof, as in they wouldn’t survive hours underwater, but had just enough resistance to the dip in the lake that all of Cassie’s clothing was still dry.
“You prepacked all of your clothing?”
“One bag for each day. It makes changing easier and saves so much time. You never asked what I do for a living.”
He paused in his fire starting, his brow raised. “No, I didn’t. Tell me.”
“I’m a professional organizer.” She wasn’t going to tell him about her counseling degree, not yet. A small part of her longed for him to ask her about herself. To care. She mentally swatted the thought away as she brushed windblown hair from her eyes. Daniel’s impassive expression appeared to be wavering.
His stony face, so intent on his work and getting their survival strategy on track, broke into a heartwarming grin. “Fantastic. This is the best news I’ve had all day. So all of your clothing was in air-tight, waterproof bags?”
Self-satisfaction and pride in her hard-won skill warmed her insides. “Not completely waterproof, but close enough. I thought you’d appreciate that I can change into my own clothing and return yours. I would have mentioned it sooner but my mind wasn’t working right. Not until I warmed back up.”
“I don’t suppose you have any food in there?” He was back to the rhythmic motion.
“Two weeks’ worth of protein bars, nuts and individual packets of peanut butter. And chocolate, of course.” She looked over her supplies, remembering how she’d packed with painstaking thought, ensuring she wouldn’t over or under pack. Making certain that she’d have enough to fuel her days, no matter what kind of food the tour group provided.
“You know, that’s not far off from what I’ve packed. Did you bring any source of carbs?”
“Besides the chocolate? Only a few packets of this goo my mother insisted I take. Oh, and some honey.” She plucked the bag with her condiments from the pile. “I bought the peanut butter that has honey mixed in, too. Let’s see, there are twelve packets of it.”
“It’s not perfect but it’ll keep us from starving.” She knelt down across from him. “Can I help with the fire?”
“Nope.” His face lit up with relief as smoke snaked up from where stone contacted the bare branch. “Come on, stay lit.” He spoke as if it were a real baby, or pet. She knew she’d never take heat for granted again, as a blaze erupted in the pile of sticks Daniel was blowing air onto. His fingers were quick as he layered wood atop the kindling, taking care to allow room for air to feed the flames.
“I’m impressed. I’ve seen that done on television, and once or twice someone on our hikes was able to do that, but I’ve never had any luck with rubbing two sticks together.”
“It’s a skill, is all. It doesn’t hurt that I carry this.” He held up a flint starter, which she knew provided a spark each time the handles were squeezed together. But Daniel still had to get the wood hot enough to combust. “I’ll teach you—we’ll have plenty of opportunity.”
Worry sank her spirits to a new low. “You really believe we’re going to walk all the way back to the base camp? Or, rather, to it? Since we never got there to begin with.”
“I think it’s a real possibility, yes. But you know what else, Cassie? I know that we can do it. We’ve gotten through something most people never face, a helicopter crash. As for the water and cold, that’s something I’m always prepared for. It’s basic Wilderness Survival 101. All we need do now is stay warm, fueled and get rest each night.” He said “each night” as if there would be more than a few. Cassie’s stomach flipped and she took in a deep breath, held it for a count of six, blew it out forcefully. It was a technique she gave her clients for dealing with the stress and anxiety of daily living. It didn’t hurt when faced with life-threatening conditions, either. After two more rounds of deep breathing, she was in a better head space to summon the courage to ask the question she knew she probably wasn’t going to like the answer to.
“How far do we have to go, do you think?”
“Eighty miles. Doable in a week if we push it.”
“A week? I’ve hiked thirty miles a day without a problem.”
“In Pennsylvania?” His mouth curved in a half grin, softening what she otherwise would have thought was sarcasm.
“Hey, don’t knock it. You must know as well as I do that the PA portion of the AT is considered by many to be the rockiest of the entire Georgia-to-Maine route.”
“We’re not in PA, Cassie. This isn’t the Appalachian Trail, either. I know it’s not easy, doing the AT, but you’re always much closer to civilization and help there than we are here.” He spoke quietly, considered her. She had the distinct impression that Daniel was measuring his words. It was both comforting—that he wanted to keep her mentally comfortable—and infuriating, that he might think she wasn’t capable of handling the truth. Yet she didn’t pick up any “me-man, you-woman” vibes from Daniel. He’d been nothing but forthright and honest with her since they’d met in front of the coffee machine at the regional airport. And he’d treated her like a partner, for the most part. His lack of patience with some of her remarks was his way of showing his own anxiety over their predicament, she assumed. She hadn’t been on her best behavior these past several hours since they’d met.
It seemed like a year ago, not just this morning.
“I hear you, Daniel, but I’m an optimist by nature. How else could I help a hoarder turn their home into a welcome respite?” Her attempt at levity seemed hollow. “I’m unable to give in to the idea that we’re going to have that much of a problem hiking out. My only concern is how we’ll know which path to take, where we are at any one time, without our cell phone GPS. We can’t count on our batteries to last long, especially if the temps stay low.”
“The same way explorers and wanderers have always known.” Daniel stood and walked over to his backpack where he routed in the bag for a few seconds. He pulled out his hand and opened it to reveal a small object in his palm.
“That compass is going to work?” She eyed the tiny item. It looked like Daniel had found it as the prize in a box of cereal or caramel corn.
“Along with my maps, yes.” He reached over and pulled out what looked like a deck of cards. Within seconds he’d unfolded a laminated map and laid it on the ground between them. “We’re approximately here.” His finger pointed to a spot otherwise unmarked on the map. She noticed labeled points, and recognized the airport they’d come from, the base camp they’d been headed to, and three other tiny X’s. Two appeared close—within a day’s hike, maybe—to where she’d planned to go with the tour group. Where she thought her great-grandmother’s B-17 might be. “What are those X’s for?”
His expression shuttered and he folded the map back up, placed it in his left shirt pocket.
“Nothing, those are just spots I’d hoped to explore. You’re an organizer, I’m a high school history teacher.” The warmth she was getting used to seeing in his eyes dissipated. As if Daniel had something to hide.
“So you’re researching the history of this area?” She couldn’t have kept the skepticism from her tone if she’d tried.
“In a sense, yes.”
“If we’re going to get along and help each other out of this mess, it’s important that we’re honest with one another. What exactly are you here for, Daniel?”