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Christian Welton shoved his ski pole up the snow cave's air vent. He'd spent much of the night clearing snow from the shaft. Not that he was complaining. This cramped shelter on Mount Hood had saved his and his cousin's lives.
He glanced at Owen Slayter, who lay inside a sleeping bag. A foam pad kept the bottom of the bag dry from the snow beneath. The right side of Owen's face was swollen, bruised and cut. Dried blood coated his mouth. Superficial injuries.
Owen needed to be in the hospital with his multiple fractures. A helicopter rescue would be the fastest way off the mountain, but that hadn't been possible due to the weather.
Until help arrived, Christian would do whatever it took to keep them alive. That meant making sure Owen didn't go into shock or become hypothermic.
The inside temperature was approximately thirty-two degrees, practically balmy compared to the biting late-November cold. Christian listened, but couldn't hear anything outside the snow cave. He preferred the eerie quiet to the roar of wind as the storm unleashed its wrath yesterday.
For all he knew, Mother Nature had taken pity upon them, and the storm had passed overnight. A break in the weather would allow a rescue mission to be launched.
Time to find out if their luck had changed.
Christian slid off the raised sleeping platform. He wanted to see blue sky. He'd settle for gray as long as the wind and snowfall had died down.
At the entrance, he removed one of the backpacks covering the opening. Hope vanished in an instant.
Talk about an arctic hell. Seventy miles per hour winds, freezing temperature and zero visibility. He pushed aside the other backpack and peeked out. Each breath stung his lungs.
Disappointment shot straight to his cold toes. Helicopters wouldn't be flying today. No one would dare risk these conditions in the air or on foot.
Dammit. Christian's blood pressure rose to match his anxiety level.
Stupid dead cell phone battery. The thing was worthless. Useless. He hated not knowing what was going on down below or when help might arrive. If only…
Don't go there.
He had to concentrate on what was in his control. Anything else would only aggravate him more. Maybe upset him enough to make a bad decision.
Outside the cave, he struggled against the wind. He wiped snow from his neonorange based skis—crossed in an X to mark the snow cave—so they would be visible to rescuers either from the air or ground should the weather suddenly improve.
Christian ducked inside the cave. He covered the entrance with the backpacks.
A chill shivered through him. His legs shook. He slapped his thighs with gloved hands.
What he wouldn't give for a steaming cup of hot cocoa right now. No whipped cream, but little marshmallows floating on the top.
Christian glanced at his cousin. Fantasizing wasn't going to get it done.
Time to melt some snow. Both he and Owen needed water to drink. Eating snow decreased body temperature and would allow hypothermia to set in quicker.
Carbon monoxide poisoning from using Owen's stove inside the snow cave wasn't a big concern to Christian. Space between the packs, the vent and the wind outside allowed enough air movement and ventilation inside. But he still cleared the vent a couple times while the snow melted to make sure. He didn't want to take any chances.
With enough snow melted, he turned off the fuel then filled a water bottle. He climbed to where his cousin lay, careful not to sit too tall or he'd hit his head. Christian had been in such a rush to carve out the cave and get Owen out of the storm that he hadn't made the cave that big.
"Thirsty?" he asked.
As Owen blinked open his eyes, a grimace formed on his face. "Storm pass?"
His cousin's voice sounded hoarse, raw, like a wild animal. An injured, dying animal.
Christian's insides twisted.
Not dying. Owen was hurting. That was all. He'd groaned in pain through the night. Given his injuries a normal response. Both of them would get off this mountain and be climbing again. Not this season for Owen, but eventually he'd be back at it with Christian at his side. Or rather on his rope.
"The weather still sucks." Christian was a firefighter, used to running into burning buildings and saving people, not having to wait for someone to rescue him. He hated not being able to do more than keep his cousin warm and give him water to drink and energy bars to eat. "But people know where we are."
Owen cleared his throat. "OMSAR will find us."
He sounded stronger, confident they would be rescued.
Christian respected what OMSAR—Oregon Mountain Search and Rescue—did. Helping others when things went wrong appealed to him at a gut level. It was one reason he became a firefighter. He also loved being on a team where everyone watched each other's back and were equals.
Christian wasn't an equal of OMSAR. The mountain rescuer volunteers' skills far surpassed his own. He couldn't wait for them to arrive and get Owen out of here. But this storm would stop even the hardest of the hard men.
Still Christian knew Paulson and Thomas would get here when they could. They weren't only mountain rescuers, but firefighters. Part of the brotherhood. As soon as it was safe, they'd be here. No doubt Thomas would give Christian an earful, as usual. This time, however, he would gladly listen.
"Yes, they will," he said finally. Once the weather improved, OMSAR would know exactly where to locate them. Christian had given the 911 operator their GPS coordinates before his cell phone died. "Even if OMSAR doesn't make it up here today, we have all we need. Sleeping bag, bivy sacks, food, fuel for the stove and my wonderful bedside manner."
One side of Owen's dry and cut lips lifted in something that half resembled a smile. "You sound more like a mountaineer than a rock climber."
Christian straightened. His head brushed the ceiling. "That was the point of this climb."
"Then we succeeded." Owen had been climbing mountains since high school. Christian preferred rock climbing, but Owen thought it stupid to live on Mount Hood and not be able to climb it. Since spring, the two had climbed together throughout the Cascades. "I've always learned more from my failures."
"Then I should be an expert alpinist when we get down."
Owen laughed. Coughed.
Christian wished he could do more to help his cousin. Maybe there was something. When the rescuers arrived, they would need room to work. He reached for the shovel. "I'm going to make this place bigger. It's claustrophobic in here."
"Most snow caves are," Owen said. "Don't bother. You soaked through your clothes digging this out. You can't get your spare ones wet, too."
"If the snow settles—"
"We won't be here that long."
Christian wanted Owen to be right. At least he was more alert. Talkative. Both were good signs after a restless and fitful night.
A little tension released from Christian's tight shoulders. "No worries. Remember, I'm one of Hood Hamlet Fire and Rescue's finest. Strong. Brave."
"Full of it." Owen winced. He squeezed his eyes closed then opened them slowly. "Save the firefighter shtick for the pretty ladies. I got one word. Hypothermia."
"That would suck."
"Damn straight," Owen agreed. "If something happens to you, there won't be anyone to brew water and feed me."
"Yeah, letting you go thirsty and starve wouldn't endear me to your parents."
"Grandpa would be really mad at you, too."
Their grandfather, the patriarch of the Welton clan, would never forgive him. Christian was persona non grata anyway and would remain so until he moved home and embraced his role at Welton Wineries. That wasn't going to happen because of the terms his grandfather attached to whatever carrot he dangled. If Christian ever returned, he wanted it to be on his terms, no one else's.
He forced a smile. "Grandma wouldn't be too happy, either."
"And my sisters. And yours."
Owen's teasing was another good sign, but Christian couldn't deny the truth in the words. He dropped the shovel. "Okay, I'll wait."
Taking care of Owen was the most important thing Christian could do. His family, especially his grandfather, might even see that becoming a firefighter had been a smart decision. Not simply a way to put off working at the winery.
"Thanks." Owen closed his eyes again. "Welton Winery will go on now."
"Yeah." Their grandfather claimed the future of Welton Winery rested in Christian's and Owen's hands. Never mind Christian had other goals that didn't include just the winery and living in the Willamette Valley. But family—make that his grandfather's—expectations overruled individual dreams. Or so they were taught to believe. "Whether we want it or not."
Owen took a slow, deep breath.
Christian cleared the air vent again.
"Sorry for getting you into this." Owen sounded weaker once again.
"Hey, we're in this together." Christian had suggested they climb. His cousin had picked the objective. "No cutting the rope. No blaming each other. No losing it."
No matter how long they were stuck or how bad things got up here.
Things were bad up here. Driving winds limited visibility. The temperature remained in the low teens. The conditions weren't fit for man or beast. Yet here she was.
Leanne Thomas sniffled, her nose runny from the cold temperature. Her breath sounded against the ski mask covering her face. A layer of ice covered her goggles and clothing. Ice probably covered her pack, filled with forty-odd pounds of gear and medical equipment.
But the only other place she wanted to be right now was higher on the mountain. At 10,500 feet to be exact. The approximate location of the two missing subjects. If only the rest of the six person OMSAR team would pick up the pace…
She gritted her teeth. This slower-than-snails pace up the south side of Mount Hood was killing her. Leanne wanted to climb faster, as part of a twoor-three-person hasty team, but Sean Hughes, the team leader, didn't want anyone to break a sweat and risk hypothermia. He could be such a mother hen during missions. The trait was both endearing and annoying.
The scent of sulfur from the Devil's Kitchen hung in the air. Not as bad as some days due to the wind. The hot fumes from the mountain kept the rocks free from snow, but she could barely see them today due to the conditions.
Okay, Leanne shouldn't diss Hughes. She understood his concerns. Hypothermia and frostbite were real threats even with better conditions than yesterday. The lack of visibility meant they had to be especially cautious. No one wanted to lose a member of the team in this weather. But she hated having to move so darn slow knowing two climbers needed their help.
Worry gripped Leanne. Something she wasn't used to feeling on a mission. But this one was different than the others.
Focus, Thomas. Maintain objectivity.
Leanne jammed her ski pole into the snow. She'd been a mountain rescuer volunteer and a paramedic with Hood Hamlet Fire and Rescue long enough to know emotion didn't belong in the field. But staying detached wasn't so easy this time.
One of their own was missing.
Not an OMSAR member, but a Hood Hamlet firefighter. The station's rookie, even though he'd been working there for over a year now. The guy was the youngest among the professional firefighters at the station.
Leanne pictured his easy smile. Tall with brown hair and an athletic build, Welton defined the phrase babe-magnet with model-worthy good looks and striking blue eyes.
Not that she wanted to date him, or vice versa. Oh, he'd flirted with her at the beginning. His interest had surprised her. She discouraged the men she worked with so they would see her as one of them, not a woman. With Christian, that had been harder to do. But then he'd backed off, acting professional and treating her like the other guys. A good thing since the fire department frowned upon workplace romances.
But Welton was too hot for her not to notice him. She might not date anyone she worked with, but that didn't mean she couldn't look and appreciate a nice piece of eye candy on occasion. One who cooked a delicious Chicken Marsala and climbed, too.
He'd told her about learning to mountain climb, but rock seemed to be more Welton's thing. Unless a bluebird powder day appeared. Then she'd bump into him skiing.
But the North Side of Mount Hood had some challenging, technical climbs. Not something a newbie should undertake. She'd never seen Christian act rashly before. She would be surprised to find out he had with this climb.
The temperature dropped. She ignored the biting cold and took another step. A gust of wind nearly knocked her over. She clutched her ski poles and regained her balance.
"Slow down, Thomas," Hughes shouted. "You're not on your own out here."
Leanne barely heard him over the wind. She slowed her pace. She was getting ahead of the others, but she hadn't felt this anxious since last Thanksgiving when a broken snowboard binding made Sean fall, injure himself and need rescue. One of the longest Thanksgiving days of her life.
Going after strangers was one thing, but someone she knew and worked with was a completely different situation. Over a year ago, Welton had strutted into the station full of confidence. He'd shown a sense of humor with the hazing and bad duty assignments. He'd also shown surprising competence and composure for a rookie. Though he could be annoying at times, Welton was dedicated. Hardworking. Too bad he didn't put as much effort into the women in his life.
Last night at the lodge, Leanne had gone up to a beautiful, but distraught young woman named Alexa and given her a candy bar. Alexa said she'd gone out with Welton a few times and was "a little" worried about him. Alexa seemed a bit more into him than she let on. Poor girl. Welton kept things light and casual with members of the opposite sex.