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"Please open up! It's a matter of life and death!" Jenna Atkins, panting from her run through the rain, listened for movement inside the farmhouse. She prayed that the little slice of light she'd seen when she'd driven by at this late hour meant that her new neighbors had moved in and that they were awake.
With the heel of her wet palm, she banged on the door again and waited, peeking through the sheer curtain for signs of movement. Cupping her hands against the windowpane, she strained to see. There was still a light on inside. Someone had to be awake.
Finally, the thud of feet hitting the floor let Jenna know she'd been heard. Her lips quivered and her body trembled from the cold seeping into her bones. She had only a moment to notice the curtain in the porch window lifting and then falling back into place before the person suddenly disappeared from view.
Within seconds the porch light blazed and the door swung open wide. Shielding her eyes from the sudden blast of light, she found a man standing at the threshold, taking up every inch of space in the doorway with intimidating height that was only slightly less menacing than his eyes. She couldn't make out their color, but the dark outline that puffed beneath them was telling, letting her know she'd interrupted his sleep. His dusty blue sweatshirt was slightly hiked up on one side. He probably wasn't even fully awake.
Guilt invaded her, but she instantly pushed it aside. Her baby needed her.
"Please, help me. It's an emergency!"
Tag opened his eyes as wide as he could to focus on the person standing on his porch. The yellow blur resolved into a rain-slicker-covered woman. She looked like a wet mop, Tag thought as he peered down at her, trying not to scowl. But he knew it was there. Abject fatigue didn't exactly bring out his charm.
Life and death. Had he been dreaming that part?
"I need your help. It's an emergency," she repeated.
He blinked the rest of the sleep out of his eyes as best he could and took a better look at her. The woman's eyes were red rimmed, as if she'd been crying, her obvious distress distracting him from the slightly upturned nose, the bow-shaped lips and those blue eyes the color of gems.
"What seems to be the problem?" he asked, raking his fingers over his head.
"My son needs to get to the hospital in Valentine. We were on our way, but my truck broke down just up the road from your house."
He glanced out into the darkness. "You walked all the way here in the rain?"
"No. I ran."
"Why do you need to go to Valentine? It's nearly a two-hour drive from here. If it's an emergency and your son is hurt, why not go to the clinic right here in Chesterfield?"
She shook her head impatiently. "They aren't equipped to handle Brian's needs. They'll only stabilize him and then send him by ambulance to one of the other major hospitals in the state. He needs to get to a major medical facility now."
"You can use the phone to call someone for a ride, if you need to."
"The sheriff runs an ambulance service, I was hoping I could use your phone to call him, and I can have the ambulance bring us to Valentine. Once I call the emergency number to let Sheriff Wayne know where we are, he'll meet us and drive us to Valentine himself."
"Where is your son now?" Tag asked, giving a quick look behind her into the darkness before stepping away from the door and motioning the woman to come in.
"I need to use your phone," she said, ignoring his question.
"Yes, of course."
Tag closed the door as the woman stepped into his living room, and took a second to peer past the curtain to see if he'd missed anyone else outside on the porch. When he turned around, the woman was frantically searching his living room.
"Your phone?" They both spoke at the same time.
He pointed to the far end of the living room. "The phone is in the kitchen. Right down the hall. You didn't leave your son out in the rain, did you?"
He followed her as she made her way to the kitchen.
"Of course not! Well, yes, in a way. He's in the car with my father."
Tag nodded, watching the woman as she first snatched the phone out of the cradle, and then stood there with a lost expression. With the phone gripped tightly in her hand, she closed her eyes, her hands visibly trembling. Frustration filled her expression, but Tag could see her struggle to contain her emotions and stay calm.
"The storm seems to have knocked out your phone line," she said at last. And though her voice was quiet, Tag could hear the panic behind it.
He knew the sound of that fear, how it could take hold of you, suffocating the life out of a person. He'd felt it enough times himself over the years to understand how crippling it could be.
Something took him over in that moment, an instinct honed from years of rigorous military training that led him to take charge of difficult situations when faced with the seemingly impossible. Whatever it was, it wrapped around Tag and had him gripping the woman by the upper arms.
His voice was calm and even as he spoke. He looked directly into her face. "Look at me. Your son needs to get to the hospital immediately, right?"
"Yes," she answered.
"Then there is no time to waste finding a working phone and waiting for the ambulance. But you have to listen to me and do what I tell you to, okay?"
As he turned away, he heard her soft prayer of thanks. His heart squeezed. He didn't want to acknowledge why right now. He knew he could help her. He had it within his means to do that much, and not even two years out of military life had taken away the drive from him to save the day, inasmuch as he could.
He let go of the woman's arms and grabbed his jacket from the coat hook in the mudroom. Then pulled on his boots.
"Listen to me I'm sorry. What's your name?" he asked.
"Jenna," he repeated. "The keys to my truck are on the counter. Take them, pick up your son and your father and bring them back here."
Jenna shook her head, her face perplexed. "But we need to get to the hospital."
"Yes. That's why I want you to drive around to the back of the yard and follow the road that cuts through the field. Once you're there, you'll see a small prop plane."
Her eyes widened. "You have a plane?"
"Yes, a small Cessna, but it's big enough to carry the three of you. I'll fly you to Valentine. We'll make much better time in the air than trying to navigate these back roads. We can radio ahead to the hospital and have an ambulance meet us at the airport."
She let out a sigh of relief, her face draining of the worry that had plagued it just moments earlier. She quickly scouted the counter until she found his keys. "Can you fly in this weather?"
A slight smile tugged at Tag's cheeks. He'd flown in all kinds of weather and conditions in the ten years he'd been a marine. A little drizzle wasn't enough to ground him. Besides, while they'd been talking, the storm had started to slow down. Flying would be easier now that the torrential rain had died back to a light drizzle. He only hoped the rain hadn't washed out the makeshift airstrip he planned to use to get the plane off the ground.
"It isn't a problem. I'm more concerned with whether or not you know how to drive a stick shift."
"Yeah. My father's truck has a manual transmission."
"Good, then you shouldn't have any problem. Get going and I'll meet you out back."
Tag watched silently as she flew out the door, leaving it ajar.
Jenna was out of his sight before he'd had time to move. The sound of his old faithful pickup firing to a roar was followed by the spray of gravel and dirt from spinning tires. Within moments the bright taillights of his truck bobbed down his driveway.
Tag's pulse urgently pounded against his eardrums. A rush of adrenalinesomething he hadn't felt in a long timekicked him into high gear. It wasn't just because he'd been woken out of a sound sleep. It was that sense of urgency, that rush of life, that made him feel alive. He'd loved this feeling back when he'd been in the servicethe thrill of knowing that his actions and his skill had the power to make a difference in someone's life.
Jenna. That was what she'd said her name was. And she had a sick child who needed emergency medical treatment.
Tag pushed past memories that flooded his mind and had him catching his breath. Tender memories that still haunted him, keeping him awake at night. He focused instead on the task at hand as he strode through the drizzling darkness toward the narrow path between the crop fields.
While he waited for Jenna and her son, Tag quickly did a thorough check through of the twin-engine Cessna. He also took a quick walk with the flashlight to make sure the earlier rainfall hadn't created any potholes in the ground he was using for takeoff.
He gave each step its due. That was the only way to prevent missing a problem that could spell trouble during flight. But preparation for flying and getting behind the controls of a plane had almost become as natural as breathing to him after all these years.
He'd been drawn to the skies as a child, and it had been the very reason he'd chosen to enlist in the military after finishing college.
And now, all these years later, flying still gave him solace. When Tag was up in the air, he didn't feel the PTSpost-traumatic stressthat had ended his military career. And with a combination of lots of flying and a complete separation from military life, the PTS appeared to be fading. Instead of nightmares every night, now he seemed to have only flashbacks when something triggered a memory. The flashbacks had become less frequent these last few months. So much so that Tag had all but forgotten them, especially when he was flying.
He couldn't help but wonder what kinds of memories having a child on his plane might trigger. But he didn't have time to worry about that. Minutes counted when dealing with a sick or injured person, and Tag had trained hard to think quickly and act in emergencies.
The engine of the plane hummed as it warmed. He was just about finished with his flight check when Tag caught the headlights of his truck cutting a path toward his driveway, toward his narrow airstrip.
When the truck tires ground to a halt, he saw that Jenna was no longer sitting behind the wheel. Instead, she was sitting in the passenger's seat, cradling a small child in her lap. She waited until the older gentleman she'd said her father had been with the boybolted from the driver's side and ran over to open her door. The older man lifted the young boy in his arms and loosely draped the blanket around him.
Jenna didn't bother to put the hood of her rain slicker back on her head as she ran from the truck to the plane.
"This is my father, Ben," she called out as she ran.
"Good to meet you." Tag nodded a greeting to Ben.
"Likewise. Are you ready to take off?" Ben asked.
"Just about," said Tag.
They were shielded from the rain as they stood beneath the wing by the door. "If we're going to get up into the air, we need to climb aboard," Tag said.
"I'll be driving," Ben said.
"There's room for four people," Tag replied.
"We'll need the truck to get back," said Ben.
Tag didn't bother to argue, just gripped the handhold as he climbed into the plane and readied a spot for the boy. He placed a small blanket over the seat and turned toward the door.
"Okay. I'm ready for him," he said, reaching his arms out to Ben.
Ben turned to Jenna. "Okay, then, I'll meet you there.
You go with Brian. I'll be there as soon as I can get that heap started again"
"Heap?" Tag interrupted. "You don't have time to bother with your vehicle now. Take my truck. You'll have plenty of time to fix whatever is wrong with your truck later."
Ben's eyes widened at Tag's offer. "You'd do that? You don't even know us."
"We need to get the boy to the hospital. We can't waste any more time."
"Thank you," Ben said, carefully handing over the young boy with a relieved sigh.
Tag tried not to look at the child's face, knew already it might be his undoing. He'd always had a soft spot for kids, especially those in need. As gently as if he was holding a tiny bubble that would burst in his hands, he eased the boy over to his seat.
"I've never been in a plane before."
The voice that drifted to Tag's ears was small, soft and weak. Tag glanced down at the small bundle he'd held as he carefully secured the safety belt. The blanket mostly hid Brian, but from what he could see, the boy's eyes were dark and round. A brush of Tag's knuckles against Brian's cheek told him the child indeed had a whopper of a fever. Tag wondered if the doelike expression was from the fever or fear.
He swallowed the hard lump that was lodged in his throat and looked away. "Don't you worry, Scout," he said, hoping to reassure the child. "I've done this a time or two before." He swallowed again, this time in an effort to get that familiar lump down to a managable spot. Poor kid. He was probably as terrified as his mother. "Your name is Brian, son?"
"Yes," Jenna answered, climbing into the plane.
"Nice to meet you, Brian. You just keep close to your mama and we'll be there soon."
Tag turned away and peered out the open hatch. Ben stood by the truck, staring at them, a look of desperation on his face. He would probably watch until the nose of the plane lifted into the air. He'd then jump in the truck and push the pedal to the floor the whole way to the hospital. With any luck, none of the roads between here and Valentine would be washed out and Ben would make good time.
The sooner he got there, the better because Jenna was going to need someone at the other end of this trip. And right now all she had was him.
As Tag buckled himself in and taxied down the makeshift airstrip between his fields, he recalled Jenna's soft prayer of thanks to God in the kitchen when he'd told her he would help her. A Christian woman, no doubt. That was goodit would comfort her to know the Lord was by her side in times like this. Jenna shouldn't have to be alone.
And Lord knew he was no kind of man to lean on.