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Chase Dakota stared at cockpit windscreens buried in snow, dirt, rocks and branches. Only the flickering light from his dying console allowed him to see anything at all. Moments later, to his relief, the emergency lights turned on again. Dim but essential.
For long seconds he didn't move, but instead listened. Listened to a world gone oddly silent, muffled by snow and the plane's own soundproofing. No screams reached him. That could be good, or very bad.
He was sweat-soaked from the effort of bringing this damn plane down. The instant the engines had cut out, he'd begun to fly a boulder not a bird, and his battle to optimize the aerodynamics and prevent a fatal dive had been Herculean. Hitting the mountain's downslope had been a boon.
Now he cut off the fuel pumps. Although they'd had a dramatic drop in fuel level, he couldn't be sure something else hadn't caused the dual flameout of his engines and that there might be more than fumes left. Next he switched off everything else that was nonessential now that they were no longer in the air. Mission accomplished.
He took just a moment to do a mental self-check. He wasn't aware of having lost consciousness at any point, but he might not have known it even if he had. Everything still seemed to be in working condition. Good.
He didn't have time for shock. He reached for the buckles of his harness and released them. His first priority was to check on his four passengers. Everything else could wait.
Even as he rose and stepped through the small cockpit, his feet told him the plane had been seriously bent on impact. But looking back through the cabin as he pulled aside the accordion door, he saw with relief that the rest of the plane seemed to be intact. All of it. That meant his passengers were still with him. All of them.
At first all he could hear was panicked breathing. Then a familiar voice said, "That was a helluva landing, Chase."
Billy Joe Yuma. An old buddy.
"Not my preferred type," Chase managed, working his way back through the narrow-bodied business jet. "Anyone hurt?"
"I'm fine," Yuma said. "So's Wendy."
"I think I'm okay. My sister "
"I'm checking right now."
He passed the three people, still tightly buckled into their seats, and made his way to the small bedroom in the tail where the sick woman lay. He'd insisted that she be strapped in, overriding the Campbell woman's objections, and never had he been gladder that he'd been willing to go toe-to-toe over something. He grabbed a flashlight from a wall compartment as he passed the small bathroom, and flicked it on.
He saw her, still strapped in place, still too thin to be believed, but blinking. Awake. Aware. Panic filling her face.
"It's okay," he said. "We came down in one piece."
"Fire?" she asked weakly.
"Nope. None. You're going to be okay." An easy, hopeful lie. At this point he didn't have the foggiest idea just how bad this was. He was counting the good things right now, and the good things were that his passengers were alive and his plane intact enough not to present additional problems.
He paused, feeling the aircraft shift a bit as if the wind banged on its side. A quiet groan of metal answered, but nothing more.
"My sister?" the woman on the bed asked, her voice faint.
"She's fine. Everyone's okay. I'll send her back, all right?"
He didn't even have to do that. As soon as he turned around, he was face-to-face with the imperious young woman who had hired him to take her and her sister to Minneapolis. If she weren't so damn bossy, she'd have been an attractive Celtic beauty, with her black hair and deep blue eyes. "Cait," she said.
"She's asking for you."
He stepped into the W.C. to give her room to pass. Then he headed back up the aisle. With every step he felt the torture the plane had gone through as it had slid along the mountain slope. The deep snow had helped, but it wasn't enough to completely shield the plane from the ground underneath, especially boulders. This baby would never fly again.
But now it had one last duty: to help them survive. Glancing out the portholes that weren't yet fully covered by snow told him the blizzard conditions he'd been flying above had begun to reach them. Rescue lay a long way down the road of time and this mountain.
He sat in an empty seat facing Wendy and Billy Joe Yuma. He'd known them both most of his lifethe advantage of living in a small town. And he knew he was going to need them both now. They belonged to Conard County's emergency-response team, Wendy as chief flight nurse, Yuma (he hated to be called Billy Joe) as the primary rescue chopper pilot.
Wendy, now a gorgeous redhead of nearly forty, was much younger than her husband. Yuma had learned to fly choppers in Vietnam, and despite the years maintained an ageless appearance. Or maybe he'd done all his aging during the years of war, and afterward when he'd lived in these very mountains with a bunch of vets who couldn't shake their PTSD enough to live around other people.
"You're sure you're both okay?" he asked now.
"Believe it," Wendy answered.
"Been through worse," Yuma replied, "and walked away."
Chase didn't doubt that for a minute. He, too, had flown for the military.
"I'm gonna need you both," he said frankly. "We've got a really sick woman in the tail we need to take care of, Wendy. And Yuma, I need you to help me find out what still works, and how we're going to cope with this blizzard."
He received two answering nods, and both unbuckled their seat belts.
"I'll go back and find out what's going on," Wendy said. "Why do I think it's going to need more than a first aid kit?"
"Because I was supposed to fly them on to the hospital in Minnesota."
"Oh." Even in the poor light he could see Wendy's face darken. "That doesn't sound good." She rose, slipped past the two of them and headed to the rear of the plane.
Chase turned back to Yuma. "We need to make sure we can get one of the exit doors open, and keep it clear. And a walk-around would be good before we get buried any deeper."
"Agreed. Then we'll check the electronics. But first things first."
As they began to pull on their outdoor gear, Chase noted that the air inside was already becoming stale. The downside of having an airtight shelter. He was going to have to figure out how to exchange the cabin air without freezing them to death.
He gave a small shake of his head. As Yuma said, first things first.
Aurora Campbell, known as Rory to family and friends, sat on the edge of her sister's bed in the rear of the plane and clasped her hand as tightly as she dared. Her sister had grown so thin from her lymphoma and the treatments for the cancer that holding her hand was like holding the delicate bones of a small bird.
She hoped her face betrayed nothing of her terror. She'd deal with that later when she gave their pilot what-for. Right now she only wanted to calm Cait.
"The hard part is over," she lied reassuringly. "Hey, Cait, we were just in a plane crash but we're still in one piece. What are the odds, huh?"
Cait managed a weak smile. Even that simple expression seemed like it wearied her. "Yeah," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. "And people will come to help."
"Yes, they will." Despite the blizzard raging outside, despite the fact that she was fairly certain they were in the middle of nowhere. "And I've got enough medications to hold you until they do." Four days' worth. She had thought she wouldn't need even that much, because Cait had been slated for immediate admission at the hospital they were going to. Had been going to until this freaking jet had crashed on a mountainside in what was starting to look like a damn blizzard.
But for now she shoved her frustration, fear and fury to the background. "Need anything? Maybe I can rustle up some soup ." God, she hadn't even thought about that yet, either. Did this plane have anything on it besides snacks and liquor? Anything that didn't require a microwave to cook it? Because she suspected that was one of the things that probably wouldn't work now.
She didn't know much about planes, but she knew most of their electricity was generated by their engines. And this plane had no engines anymore.
"No," Cait sighed. "As long as we're okay I just want to sleep a bit."
Rory reached out and stroked the pale fuzz that was all that remained on Cait's head. "You do that." Cait was sleeping more and more of the time. Her heart squeezed, but moments later as Cait slipped away into sleep, she rose and walked out of the little bedroom.
The other woman passenger was waiting for her.
Wendy, Rory seemed to remember. On such small business jets, it was hard not to at least exchange introductions before takeoff.
"I'm a nurse," Wendy said. "Let's sit and talk a bit about your sister so I can help."
"You can't help her," Rory said brusquely. "I have her medicines. What she needs is a hospital, a clinical trial on a new drug. Doesn't look likely right now, does it?" Then she eased past Wendy and returned to her seat, blindly watching the snow build up outside the small window.
She hardly even paid attention to the two men who were forward in the cabin, working to open the exterior door behind the cockpit. She noted that the air was getting heavy, but at the moment she wasn't worried about that.
All she was worried about was Cait, and right at this moment, with the world outside invisible in swirling snow, she was fairly certain there wasn't a damn thing she could do. And she hated, absolutely hated, being helpless.
Wendy didn't give her long to sit in hopeless solitude. The woman came forward and sat in the seat facing her. "Cancer?" Wendy asked.
"Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Aggressive, this time." The words were painful, but she'd never been one to shy away from telling it like it was. No matter how much it hurt.
"This time?" Wendy's voice was gentle.
Rory almost sighed, realizing that she could either choose to be unutterably rude and say nothing, or just dump it out there and shut this woman up. She decided on the latter. "She went into remission four years ago. Unfortunately, she didn't tell me she had a relapse five months ago. I was in Mexico, and she didn't tell me." That hurt as much as anything.
"So you came home to find her like this? Why wouldn't she tell you?"
"She'd given up," Rory said. "Her husband dumped her the minute he heard and moved in with another woman. Kinda cuts out your heart, don't you think?"
Rory heard the sympathy in Wendy's voice, but she didn't want sympathy. Sympathy didn't help. All it did was make her want to cry. She didn't answer.
"You have medication for her."
Rory finally looked at her, her eyes burning. "Enough for four days. More than enough for a freaking four- or five-hour flight from Seattle to Minneapolis. Only that's not happening, is it?"
To her credit, Wendy didn't offer any false cheer.
"What's she on?"
"Immunosuppressants. Some other drugs. She's been through radiation, obviously. But as I said, the disease is aggressive."
"So you're pinning your hopes on a clinical trial of something new?"
"Yes. I was." That was sounded final. But right now everything felt final.
"They've got some great stuff now, I hear, but I'm not up on the disease." She leaned forward and laid her hand over Rory's.
Rory wanted to jerk back, but she couldn't because that touch somehow didn't offend her. Maybe because she needed not to feel entirely alone. "That's what they tell me."
Wendy nodded. "The important thing is to keep her going right now. Food. Warmth. Keep her resistance up.
I'll help every way I can. But I promise you, I'm part of the Conard County emergency-response team. As soon as this weather lets up, they're going to pull out all the stops to find us."
"Because you're here?"
"Because all of us are here. And we're damn good at what we do."
"How do you know we aren't someplace else?"
"Because Chase was going to drop us at the Conard County Airport on the way to Minnesota. You knew that, right?"
Rory nodded. "A brief fueling stop."
"Well, my husband was looking out the window as we came in. He said this is Thunder Mountain, maybe sixty miles out of town."
It was a slender lifeline indeed, but for once in her life, Rory was willing to grab it. What else did she have?
Turning her head, closing the conversation, she gazed out a window that snow rapidly covered, and fought down the rage, panic and tears.
The exit door behind the cockpit also served as steps. The fact that it opened out and down should have made it easier to move. But the plane's shape had been torqued by the crash, and things weren't meeting the way they used to. And the steps themselves, carpeted for that extra bit of luxury, hampered the effort to shove.
"Maybe we should try the rear exit," Yuma said, wiping sweat from his brow.
"I'd rather not open the door back there if I can avoid it. Any cold air we let inand there'll be quite a bit of itis going to hit our sick passenger first. I'd rather let it in as far from her as possible."
"Good point. Well, I doubt the snow is the problem."
"Not hardly," Chase agreed. "Not yet. Not with this."
But the snow was a problem all right, one that promised to grow even bigger in the next few hours. "We've got to get out," he said again. "Find out what our condition is, whether we've got anything else to worry about. And we're going to need to build a fire to heat food."
"In this?" Yuma cocked a brow. "That's always fun."
"I have plenty of alcohol onboard."
Yuma chuckled. "Imagine starting a fire with Chivas. Or Jack."
"I just hope it works. Alcohol burns cold."