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Doctor Alison Stone dangled five hundred feet above the limestone canyons of Big Bend National Park, her harness secured to the bottom of a Bell Ranger helicopter. The roar from the engines was deafening, but with countless long line exercises to her credit Ali's concern was not for the din from the ship overhead but instead for the boy who'd been discovered in the small clearing below. As they approached she kept her eyes on the motionless figure, praying this mission would end in a patient rescue and not a victim recovery. Her heartbeat was normal; her hands steady where they clutched the basket litter to secure it in the sixty-mile-per-hour wind wash from the props. She had complete faith in her crew, certain Harry and Sid would deposit her gently on the rocky ledge and then return when she called for pick up. The search for fifteen-year-old Ethan Lamar had gone on for three days. Three days. Seventy-two hours with the diamondbacks, bobcats and coyotes was a minor survival exercise for a normal hiker. For a boy with Asperger's syndrome, being without supervision in the wild could be a death sentence. A tragic outcome she knew only too well.
Congressional hopeful Benjamin Lamar had managed to keep his son's diagnosis a private matter for over two years. But when the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker turned positive-thinking guru went to the media to plead for search volunteers, his personal drama became public fodder.
Ali's life's mission was to rescue young people, but this situation had her struggling with how to respond. Fortunately, prayer left her with no room for doubt or recourse. She cancelled her clients for the coming week, loaded her dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, into the Land Rover and the two best friends rushed from their home in San Angelo to the search site. As a woman who'd grown up alone in foster care and knew the firsthand, bottomless pain of losing her family, Ali's soul ached for the boy. As a psychotherapist who'd written her graduate thesis on the little-known disorder of Asperger's, she was drawn by the case and the cleverness of the missing kid.
She'd learned that although he was easily startled by the noise of kitchen appliances, he'd been brave enough to leave undetected from a camp for special needs boys, and throughout the weekend Ethan Lamar had eluded the party of rescue workers. But Monday's first search plane had spotted and confirmed a body wedged in the steep canyon.
Ali blessed Harry's experience as a pilot when he positioned her directly above the ledge and lowered her as planned. With her boots secure on a slab of rock she detached her harness and the litter from the cable. Two pats to the top of her helmet where her braid was tightly tucked signaled all clear and the ship pulled away, leaving her in the breathtaking silence of the national park.
Sixty vertical feet separated her from the young man curled on his side facing the cliff. His chin was pulled to his chest, his hands cupped over his ears.
"Lord, please don't let me lose another boy," she begged for Ethan's life while she secured webbing to a boulder to form an anchor. She lowered her equipment and then rappelled down the steep incline, dropping less than three feet from her patient.
"Ethan?" She forced herself to remain calm.
"Ethan!" Ali called his name louder as she pressed her fingers to his neck. A weak pulse throbbed beneath the scraped skin.
"Thank you, Father." Gratitude thumped in her chest as she put on a thin pair of latex gloves.
She cautiously rolled the slender but solidly built teen to his back. One leg twisted unnaturally and he cried out.
Her gaze ran the length of his filthy jeans as she noted dried blood caked at his right ankle. His canvas high top was wedged in a crevice, shackling him to the spot.
"My goodness, kiddo. How long have you been stuck like this?" With a careful twist and a sharp tug she dislodged the sneaker, then one pass of her EMT knife blade revealed his bare leg. She made note of an orderly row of thin pink scars, then leaned closer to examine fresh purple contusions and a jagged gash that needed a couple of stitches.
"Possible head trauma, lacerations but no obvious breaks." She prepared to make a report. She reached for her cell and shifted her weight to stand.
"Stop!" Ethan grasped her wrist, then immediately let go as if the touch had burned his hand. His eyes had sprung wide. "Don't leave me!" he pleaded, his voice raspy.
"Hey, Ethan," she kept her words soft and her manner calm as she moved closer to soothe the boy. "My name is Ali. I'm a volunteer with West Texas Rescue and I'm here to take you home. But first I have to call base. Your dad needs to know you're okay."
"He doesn't care," Ethan insisted, shielding his face at the mention of his only parent.
"Of course he does. He's been worried sick. Lots of people have been looking for you," she explained.
"He'll try to talk me into going back to that camp."
"Is that why you've been hiding from us?"
"Sorta." Ethan hitched one shoulder.
"I won't let him send you back there," she assured the youth, hoping she could keep her promise. But thirty-seven years of life had taught Ali a bizarre lesson: parents could be unpredictable and downright cruel at times. Standing in the gap for kids when the worst happened had been her life's work since the day she was licensed to practice.
She reached for Ethan's hand, noting how he pulled it to himself to prevent the touch. "We need to get you some medical attention, so you're gonna have to take a ride in a noisy helicopter. Will that be okay with you?"
"If you'll stay with me." His pupils were tiny in the bright daylight, the blue of his eyes as intense as the sky above them. He squinted hard waiting for her answer, looking so much like his handsome celebrity father.
"Girl Scout's honor." She gave the three-finger salute, then used her cell to call base camp. "I've got the patient. He's scraped up pretty good, but he's talking. Send the ship and drop Sid for me. I'm gonna need some help with the litter." Her message was confirmed and before snapping the phone shut she added, "And tell Mr. Lamar I'd like a few minutes with him at the E.R."
"I'm thirsty," Ethan's pleading turned to complaining.
"We'll get you some water soon." There was a bottle in her backpack, but she didn't dare offer it for fear of air sickness during the lift.
"I hear you're quite the amateur geologist." Knowing it was Ethan's compulsive area of interest, she asked the question certain it would distract him. While he croaked about the instability of igneous rock she made the best overall assessment possible considering his reluctance to being touched. She checked his blood pressure and heart rate, splinted his ankle to prevent further injury and covered open cuts with butterfly bandages.
"The good Lord was watching over you, Ethan," she assured her patient, wondering how on earth he'd managed to stay free of swarming bugs and deadly cactus. "You know legend says that after God created the rest of the world, he dumped the leftovers in Big Bend. Just about everything out here either bites, jabs or stings."
"I only wanted to see the hoodoos." Ethan referred to the majestic volcanic columns whittled by thousands of years of wind and water.
In his fifteen-year-old mind the reason for leaving the safety of the compound was probably that simple—he wanted a closer look. But to Ali's way of thinking Ethan's inability to judge rationally was precisely why he had no business in a wilderness area, no matter the reputation of the staff who supervised the campers. The fool who recommended this therapy should be tarred and feathered. She had every intention of sharing her opinion with the boy's father as soon as they met face-to-face.
In the distance four blades thumped hard, bringing the ship closer with each turn of the rotor. Ethan shivered and covered his ears. Alison prayed for the means to comfort him during the flight and the words to address his father. She wouldn't have to wait long for her conversation with the Texas football legend who was known to claim anything could be overcome as long as you maintain the right attitude.
The doors of the E.R. whooshed open at the touch of Ben's foot on the sensor pad. He'd hoped never to return to this medical center again, but as the Proverb says, "A man plans his course but the Lord determines his steps."
On the night of his wife's fatal accident Ben had entered through the same doors, soaked through by the pouring rain, refusing to accept anything but positive news. But the next morning when the sky cleared and the sun came up over San Angelo, he was a widower and the single parent of a son recently diagnosed with a misunderstood form of autism.
Two years later and he was back again. After signaling for the police escort to wait outside, Ben strode past the information desk trying to ignore the looks of recognition that turned his way. His gaze scanned the hallway for familiar uniforms that would identify the air rescue personnel. The one-of-a-kind orange chopper on the medical center's helipad confirmed they were still present. As soon as Ben saw for himself that his son was okay, the next order of business was to thank the man who'd secured Ethan in that basket and then dangled with him from the end of a thin cable during their lift out of Big Bend.
"Mr. Lamar?" A female called from the triage area.
"Yes, I'm Ben Lamar," he answered the nurse.
"Your son's in number eight, sir." She held the door wide and motioned for him to enter. "Right this way."
"How bad are his injuries?"
"The doctor will answer all your questions."
Ben followed her a dozen steps down the hall. She stopped beside a treatment cubicle identified with a black number eight plaque overhead. Once more he was cast back to the night God had stolen Theresa away—the blood, the machines, the effort of the medical staff, the ultimate hopelessness.
Father, why have you brought me this moment again?
Before Ben was fully prepared for whatever sight might assault him, the nurse grasped the curtain and swept it aside. A physician in green scrubs bent from the waist applying the final stitches to close a gashed shin.
When he stood to reach for a pair of scissors the patient became visible. Seeing Ethan propped in a sitting position next to a lovely redheaded EMT subdued the avalanche of fear Ben had been fighting back with a snow shovel.
His first instinct was to rush to his son's side and smother the boy with a bear hug. But for the last three years instinct hadn't been worth the spit it took to lick an envelope. At least not when it came to dealing with Ethan. It was as if the onset of puberty had drained his son of all common sense. The once popular kid's eccentric behavior couldn't be explained away. He seemed to have lost all ability to interpret facial expressions and tone of voice. No matter what the words conveyed, the translation in Ethan's mind was literal. While his peers socially matured Ethan didn't seem to.
His hearing had become even more acute. The sudden noise from a can opener or electric mixer could send him hiding in his room for hours. Ben could only imagine Ethan's terror while swinging from a cable beneath a roaring helicopter.
"Hey, buddy," Ben kept his voice low and nonchalant as he'd been taught by the most recent in a long string of therapists. "It looks like you're almost patched up and ready to go home."
"That's a fact," the E.R. doctor answered. "This young man needs a few days of rest and he's got stitches in a couple of places, but he's otherwise in good shape and quite a brave patient." The doctor moved aside to give Ben clear access. But two steps closer earned him a threatening growl from a menacing-looking brown dog that stood on long legs in the corner of the room.
"What is that mongrel doing in here?" Ben demanded, backing away. He and dogs were incompatible, like the Cowboys and the 49ers.
The redhead seated beside Ethan's gurney rose to her feet and gave a brief command. "Simba, down."
The animal complied. The growling stopped.
"For your edification, Mr. Lamar, Simba's a full-blooded Rhodesian Ridgeback and since she's a licensed rescue animal she's clear to accompany me everywhere I go."
Color shot through her lovely cheeks, her eyes flashed amber sparks. Ben knew the look of a lioness defending her cub.
"I see. Well, thank you Miss—" he waited.
"Stone. West Texas Rescue."
"Miss Stone." He took the hand she extended, and her grip was firm. "Thanks for waiting with Ethan until I got here. Would you mind taking your dog out of the room and rounding up your partner for me? As soon as my son's released we'll be going. The sheriff was kind enough to give me a VIP escort and I don't want to keep them waiting. But I have to thank the guy who performed that incredible air rescue."
"10-4," she answered, then whispered something to Ethan that caused him to snicker. "Simba, heel." The dog obeyed, falling into step beside her mistress with the bedraggled braid.
When the curtain jerked closed behind them the E.R. physician and Ethan both chuckled.
"What's so funny?" Ben asked. It had been a mentally exhausting few days and he was the odd man out in the joke.
"Sir, I think you're going to owe Doctor Stone an apology."
"Doctor Alison Stone. She's not only the best child psychotherapist on staff at the medical center, she was the guy hanging from that chopper with Ethan today. It was Alison Stone who rescued your son."