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A Matter of Trust
By Susan May Warren
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2017 Susan May Warren
All rights reserved.
Gage Watson blamed the trouble on the bright, sunny day. A day when the sun arched high against a cloudless blue sky, and light gilded the snow-frosted, razorback mountain peaks with showers of gold.
Days like this lied to people, told them they could fly.
The air wasn't so cold as to frighten the hordes of skiers into their condominiums or the après-ski bars, nor so warm as to turn the mountain into a river of slow-moving slush. Instead, a perfect day, rich with the fragrance of white pine and cedar, the powder dusting up behind him as he shredded the fields of untarnished snow, as his board carved through the white, soundless and free.
Dangerous. Because this kind of weather seeped into the bones of the extreme skiers who dared the back bowls and mogulled faces of Blackbear Mountain and turned them ... well, as his father would describe it, reckless.
Or, more precisely, into idiots out to get themselves and others killed.
Like the kid dressed in an inflatable T. rex costume that Gage had chased down the mountain this morning.
Once upon a time, Gage had been that reckless T. rex. Maybe not wearing that ridiculous outfit — not when he had sponsor gear to display — but chin-deep in the lifestyle of the epic snowboarder, grinning for the cameras, basking in the limelight and cheers that came with the sport of backcountry skiing called freeriding.
Now he'd turned traitor, donning the red coat of a ski patrol and chasing down the renegades who sneaked past the roped-off areas for the run of their lives.
He stood at the edge of the perimeter of Timber Bowl, binoculars pointed to the tree-rutted, cliff-cut powder, scanning the undesignated area, just to make sure that hotshots like T. rex and his buddy hadn't returned for a late-afternoon run.
The sun glistened off snowfall so deep it could bury a man, a condition unbearably tempting for a true powder hound. Gage could hear it calling to him, the vast, crystalline fields of white, feel his board cutting through the snowpack like it might be frosting.
Never mind the deadly, concealed ledges, drop-offs, and steel-edged boulders.
Or the threat of avalanche. No one thought about death chasing them down a hill as they attacked the powder, but with the five inches of fresh, heavy snow layering the snow pack, the cornice ached to break free and rush down the hill in a lethal wave.
And if tonight's forecast was correct, he and the avalanche control team would be blasting another layer of powder off this slope come morning.
Gage had risen early with the rest of the Blackbear ski patrol, ridden the gondola up, and bombed the crust, the snow falling behind him, scarring the bowl. Then he'd skied through the layers, cutting into the pack to loosen it.
Still, it posed enough of a danger that they'd closed the slope and put up an orange safety line cordoning off the area from the early morning skiers sliding off the Timber Bowl express lift.
And that's when T. rex showed up. Gage pegged the snow-boarder at about nineteen or twenty. His buddy was attired with the appropriate GoPro, which made their intentions clear.
Gage had caught them just as they edged near the tape.
"Dude — the bowl is closed," Gage said, keeping it easy.
T. rex gave him a face, like, C'mon, really, and Gage saw himself, not so long ago. So he put a growl into his reply and threatened to confiscate their tickets.
Which apparently meant nothing, because not fifteen minutes later, as he'd scanned the mountain, he'd spied the duo some two hundred feet downslope, cutting through the pristine powder, catching air off a cliff, then disappearing into the treed perimeter below.
The dinosaur had slipped out of his radar, but Gage promised himself that he'd hunt the two hotshots down and kick them off his mountain if it was the last thing he did today.
"Ski patrol, we have a downed snowboarder just below the Timber lift, tower 37."
Gage lifted the radio attached to his jacket. "Ski patrol, Watson. I'm just below the lift, on Timber Bowl."
"Roger, Watson. The lift stopped, and apparently he jumped for the pole and missed. Possible fracture. We have another hanging from the chair."
Oh, for crying out loud. "I'm en route. Watson out."
Gage clipped on his radio, then unsnapped his splitboard and pulled out his skins.
Faster to climb his way to the top and ride his board down through the trees.
He put oomph into his climb and in a few moments spied the tower through a scrim of pine trees.
"Ski patrol, Watson. I'm on slope and heading down to the victim." Gage snapped his splitboard together and shoved the skins into his backpack.
Sheesh, he could have found the boys with his eyes closed, the way they were shouting. Keep it up and the Blackbear patrols wouldn't have to set off charges to bring down the mountain.
Gage snapped into his bindings, then pushed off, cutting through the soft, albeit dangerous, treed terrain. He ducked under a branch and emerged into the free, catching air. No fancy stuff, just necessity, and he landed easily.
Two more turns and he'd reached the first victim.
The kid had fallen nearly forty feet. His screams echoed through the valley of the Timber Bowl, bouncing off the edges and back to the terrified passengers of the stalled lift who were witnesses to the carnage as he lay broken below his chair.
His buddy, clearly possessed with the same tankful of smarts, had probably tried to stop him, lunging forward and slipping off the chair. The hero now dangled half on, half off the chair, his arms wrapped around the bar, his leg hooked on the seat, his boot wedged in to the side rail to secure him. Still, the kid was perilously close to joining his buddy below in a pile of broken bones.
Gage snapped out of his gear in seconds, lifted off his goggles, and dropped beside the kid who writhed in pain in the snow, his leg brutally twisted under him.
"Ski patrol. I'm here to help," Gage said. He didn't want to move the kid or splint his leg until he could get a neck collar on him. However, blood already saturated his gray ski pants, and the protruding bulk of bone from above his knee suggested a compound fracture.
"What's your name?" Gage pulled off the kid's mitten and reached for a pulse.
"Hunter Corbin." He wore a ski helmet, and blond hair trickled out the sides and back.
"How old are you?" Gage timed the beats. A little high and thready.
"Fifteen. It's my first time out West."
"Your parents around?" Gage kept his voice even, calm.
In the meantime, Hunter's friend dangled, screaming, forty feet overhead.
Gage wanted to feel sorry for Hunter, but whatever had possessed the kid to —
"They're at the bottom." He groaned, tears filling his eyes. "My cell phone. It fell — I wanted to get it before it got lost. It's a brand-new iPhone."
Gage took out his radio. "Ski patrol, this is Watson. I have a fifteen-year-old male with what looks like a compound femur fracture. Possible neck injury. I need a dual sled, a neck collar, leg splint, and a lift rescue team." He looked up. "And fast."
"Copy, Watson. We have a team on the express lift en route."
The express lift, on the other side of the mountain. Ten minutes, at least.
Gage glanced up at the dangling victim, assessing. "What's your friend's name, Hunter?"
"Adam. He was just trying to help me."
"Right." He got up, cupping his hands over his eyes. Overhead, spectators watched in silence, two or three to a chair, probably traumatized by the tragedy that had occurred on their vacation. A few held up their phones, and he wouldn't be surprised if the event made YouTube.
Hopefully no one would recognize him, or worse, tag him.
Just when he'd put the past to rest. Or tried to. "Adam, how you doing up there?"
A stupid question, but he hoped to keep the kid calm.
"I'm gonna fall!"
"Keep holding on, we're going to get you out of this."
Gage could see the lure of the stunt — the chair had stopped parallel to the tower, a mere three feet from the lift. And, with the rungs affixed to the side, Hunter might have landed that leap if he hadn't been wearing snowboarder boots and bulky mittens.
Or, if he were a trained mountain climber.
Gage had a lift letdown system in his pack, a weighted ball attached on one end, a sling on the other, but he strongly doubted that Adam could either catch and throw the rope over the lift cable or get the sling around his body.
"Don't let go!" Gage yelled again and grabbed his pack, retrieving the assembly. Then he headed over to the tower. "I'm coming to you, Adam." He jumped and grabbed on to the lower rung, pulled himself up to the next rung, and got his feet on the lowest bar. He began to climb.
The kid was swinging his body in an attempt to slide back onto the chair seat. The chair began to sway, moving the other chairs around it. Screams lifted from the riders.
"Stop swinging, dude!" Gage yelled, seeing in his mind the entire rig detaching and crashing to the ground, crushing Adam's already injured friend.
In fact, they might have an entire mountain full of injuries.
Gage pulled himself up parallel to the kid. He could just barely reach out and touch him when he extended himself. His grasp wasn't enough to pull the kid in, but he could help secure him.
He threw the weighted ball over the ski lift cable. It fell to the ground.
"Listen up, Adam. I'm going to put this sling over your head, and very carefully you're going to work it down under your armpits, one arm at a time. Then I'm going to climb down and secure the line to the tower. The sling will keep you from falling."
"Aren't you going to lower me down?"
He had hooked the sling over the boy's head, a little nervous at the way the kid turned to him with big, terrified eyes. Adam was a stocky kid in gray snow pants and a yellow jacket, and Gage had to give him kudos for hanging on as long as he had. He drew back fast, however. He couldn't get any closer or Adam might grab him, pull them both down.
"Wiggle it over yourself," Gage said.
The kid put one elbow up, through the opening in the sling.
"Good job, kid," Gage said as he scrambled back down the ladder and hiked over to the weighted line.
No sign of his patrol buddies on the ridge above.
Dragging the line back over to the tower, he glanced up and saw that Adam had worked the sling under both arms.
Gage threw the line over the bottom rung and slowly began to pull it taut. It tightened around Adam's chest.
"Don't let go! This is just to catch you if you fall." He secured the line to the tower.
"Let me down!"
"Help will be here soon. I can't lower you on my own."
Well, maybe he could, if he used the tower as both leverage and an anchor. But for now, Adam wouldn't fall, and Hunter was running out of time.
Gage knelt next to Hunter and checked his pulse. Gray, clammy skin, dull eyes. A pool of blood formed under his leg, saturating the snow.
The kid could lose his life to shock long before he bled out.
He lifted the radio. "Ski patrol, Watson. Where's my sled?"
"Just getting off the lift," came the answer.
Perfect. Gage pulled his pack over to himself and pulled out scissors and a tourniquet.
He took the scissors to the boy's pants, cutting away the bloody fabric to get to the source.
The jagged edge of his femur jutted out of his skin just above the knee.
Gage searched for a radial pulse from the posterior tibial artery and found none. The broken bone had cut off blood supply to his foot.
First, he had to stop the bleeding and then get the kid down the mountain before Hunter lost his leg.
Gage threaded the tourniquet under his leg and worried when Hunter didn't move. In fact, the kid had stopped writhing altogether.
"Hey, Hunter, stay with me here. Tell me, is that your Lib Tech board? A Snow Ape C2 BTX? One of the best power freestyle sticks on the planet. It's a dream on the snow, right?"
Hunter opened his eyes, tried to find the voice.
Gage finished the tourniquet and leaned up, meeting Hunter's eyes. So young and rife with fear. "Don't worry, I'm going to get you down the mountain. And I know this awesome doctor that will fix you right up. You'll be doing a half-cab quadruple backflip by this time next year."
"A what?" Hunter whispered.
"Google it and then come back here and I'll teach you myself."
"yep." "Ski patrol, Remington at the ridge." Ty's voice came through the walkie. "I see you, Gage. Coming down."
Gage looked up and spotted the two ski patrollers, red jackets against the glare of light and brilliant white, carving a trail through the powder. One of them guided a two-person sled.
They slowed before they reached the accident site, leaving the powder drifting safely away, and snapped off their skis. Ty reached him first. "Hey there, kid," he said to Hunter, pulling off his gloves and kneeling next to Gage. He carried the splint as the other patroller brought over the sled.
One of their rookies, Skye Doyle — Gage recognized her as she brought the sled closer. Blonde, in her early twenties, she'd joined the patrol as a volunteer. Gage didn't ask why Ty had let her lead the sled — probably practice. But she didn't have nearly enough experience to steady it going downhill. And she'd never be able to lower Adam on her own — she'd need Ty's strength.
"Let's load him up. Then we need to get Adam off that lift." Gage reached for the splint, a high-tech, emergency fracture response system. It moved to the shape of Hunter's fractured leg, and Gage strapped it into place to keep it immobilized as Ty affixed a neck collar on him. Skye brought over the backboard, and they eased it under Hunter, sliding him onto it and strapping him in.
Ty and Gage moved Hunter to the sled and zipped him inside the emergency blanket. Skye secured the boy onto the sled as Gage and Ty returned to the problem of Adam.
"How are we going to get him down?" Ty said.
"We could use the pole as leverage, with you wearing the descender. I could lower him down while you let out the slack."
"And what about Hunter? He's looking pretty pale." This from Skye, who'd joined their conversation. "I can take him down on the sled."
"No," Ty said, as if reading Gage's mind.
Skye had the good sense not to argue.
However, "Skye, you have climbing experience, right? Can you run the rappler?" Gage asked.
"Ty, you lower him down, Skye can brace against the pole and make sure the slack doesn't go out too fast. I'll take Hunter down to the bottom."
Ty glanced at the sled, up to Adam. "you sure you can handle the sled alone? Technically we're above the snow guns — it's too steep. You sure you won't get yourself — and this kid — hurt?"
Maybe it was the bright blue sky, the onlookers, the taste of adrenaline, but in Ty's question, Gage heard the past rise. Heard the voice, quiet, pleading. Female. "Please, Gage, don't do this. You're going to get somebody hurt."
It jarred him.
Then, Hunter groaned, and Gage came back to himself.
"Yes," he said. He hiked over to his board, glancing up at Adam. "My friends are going to get you down. Don't worry, kid!"
He happened to look at the onlookers just then. Yes, cell phones were tracking his movements.
Once upon a time, he would have waved; even now he felt the old habit stir inside him.
Then, three chairs down he spotted the T. rex.
And behind him, the buddy with the GoPro.
"You've got to be kidding me."
Ty glanced at him, but Gage shook his head. His rant would have to wait.
Skye was climbing into the belay harness when Gage snapped his boots into his board. He stepped between the brake handles of the sled, and Ty helped him out with a push.
Don't lose control. Don't overcorrect.
Don't get anyone killed.
He glanced up again at the T. rex and shook his head. "Hang in there, Hunter. We'll be down in no time."
* * *
The colder it got up here on top of the mountain, stalled on the Timber Bowl chair, the more the T. rex next to her threatened to jump.
"I could make it. The only reason that punk missed was because he didn't have enough launch."
"Are you kidding me?" Ella Blair curled her fingers into a ball inside her mittens. She already couldn't feel her toes, and she'd snugged her nose into her neck gaiter, a film of fog covering her goggles.
Three chairs ahead, at the tower, the two ski patrollers had anchored themselves around the pole and were using a kind of belay system to lower the skier. She still couldn't believe the bravery of the first responder — climbing up four stories on the pole to fix the kid into the sling. For a second there, she thought the terrified teenager might just leap into the patrol's arms.
Excerpted from A Matter of Trust by Susan May Warren. Copyright © 2017 Susan May Warren. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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