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Ella Jackson looked longingly at the black leather couch against the far wall in her office. If only she could close her eyes for an houreven half an hourshe would be ready to tackle the rest of the data entry for the upcoming Northern Frontier Search and Rescue training weekend.
She trudged to her desk, staring at the stack of papers she needed to work her way through before picking up her eight-year-old son from day camp, then heading home. She should have been finished by now, but in the middle of the night a search and rescue call had gone out for an elderly gentleman. She had manned the command center for his search, which had ended with the man being found, but her exhaustion from lack of sleep was finally catching up with her.
When she saw her son, Robbie, he would no doubt have a ton of questions about the emergency that had sent him to her neighbor's. This wasn't the first time she'd disturbed her son's sleep in the middle of the night because of a search and rescue, and Robbie was a trooper. Once he'd come with her to the command center when she couldn't find a babysitter. He'd begged to go with her ever since then, but it was impossible to watch over him and fulfill her duties. She'd promised him when he was older, he could.
The sight of the training folder on the desktop screen taunted her to get to work. David Stone, who ran the organization, would return soon and need the list, since the instructional exercises would take place in two days. So much to get done before Saturday. As she sat in her desk chair, she rubbed her blurry eyes, then clicked on the folder. The schedule and list popped up, the cursor blinking hypnotically. When her head started dropping forward, she jerked it up. Not even two pots of coffee were helping her to stay alert.
The door into the hangar opened, and her boss entered. He'd conducted the aerial search for Mr. Ot-terman, who had finally been found wandering in the middle of a shallow stream two miles from his nursing home.
Her gaze connected with David's. "Mr. Otterman checked out fine, according to your wife, and he's safely back at Aurora Nursing Home."
"Thankfully Josiah and Alex got to him before he made it to the river the stream fed into." He looked as tired as she felt. "Josiah is right behind me. Send him into my office when he comes in."
For a few seconds, Ella was sidetracked by the mention of Josiah. There was something about the man that intrigued her. His short black hair, the bluest eyes she'd ever seen and a slender, athletic build set her heart racing. Although he was handsome, she'd learned to be leery of men with those kinds of looks. No, it was his presence at a search and rescue that drew her to him. Commanding, captivatingand a loner. She knew one when she met one because she was much more comfortable alone, especially after her marriage to an abusive man. For a second, thoughts of her ex-husband threatened to take hold. She wouldn't go there. He'd done enough to her in the past. She wouldn't allow himeven in memoriesinto her present life.
"Ella, are you all right?"
David pulled her away from her thoughts. "I'm okay. Bree wanted me to tell you to go home and get some sleep since you never went to bed last night."
"My wife worries too much. Josiah and I need to work out some details about the training this weekend." David studied her. "But you should definitely go home. You were here before I was this morning."
"But these lists"
The jarring ring of the phone cut off the rest of Ella's sentence. She snatched it up and said, "Northern Frontier Search and Rescue. How may I help you?"
"Mrs. Jackson?" a female voice asked.
It sounded like one of the counselors at the day camp Robbie went to during the summer. "Yes. Is this Stacy?"
"Yes. I'm so sorry to call you, but your son and two other boys are missing. We've looked everywhere around here and can't find them. We'll continue"
"What happened?" Stunned, Ella gripped the phone tighter. Surely she'd misheard.
"We don't know. Robbie, Travis and Michael were playing together during free time between activities, but when the counselor rounded up everyone for the Alaskan bear presentation, they were gone."
"I'll be right there with some help to search for them." She didn't know how she managed to speak a coherent sentence, her mouth was as dry as the desert. Phone still in her trembling hand, Ella rose, glancing around for her purse. Where did she put it?
"I'd hoped you would say that. It's not like them to run off."
"I'll be there as soon as possible." She nearly dropped the phone as she looked around trying to find her leather bag. Beads of perspiration broke out on her forehead. Usually it was on the floor under the desk near her feet.
Where is it? I need my keys. The camp wouldn't call me unless
Her heartbeat raced. Tears pooled in her eyes. She put the phone in its cradle, and then rummaged through her desk drawers.
David clasped her arms and forced her to stop her search. "What's wrong?"
"It's Robbie. He's missing from Camp Yukon with two other boys."
David released his grasp and reached toward the filing cabinet. "Here's your purse." He put it in her hand.
She hugged her handbag against her chest, then started for the door.
"Wait, Ella. Let me make some calls. We'll get volunteers out to the campsite. Josiah is still out in the hangar with his dog, Buddy. Catch him before his sister leaves. She was heading out to her car when I came in. Have one of them drive you. You shouldn't go by yourself, and it might take me some time to get the search organized and notify the authorities in case the camp hasn't."
As though on autopilot, Ella changed directions and headed to the hangar, scanning the cavernous area for Josiah Witherspoon and his search and rescue German shepherd. They had just been successful in finding Mr. Otterman. But then she thought back to the ones they hadn't found in time. Not my son. Please, God. Not my son.
Ella spied Josiah coming into the open hangar from outside, Buddy, a black-and-brown German shepherd on a leash next to him. He walked toward her, his long strides quickly cutting the distance between them.
"What's wrong, Ella?" His tanned forehead scrunched and his dark blue eyes filled with concern. "Another job?"
Words stuck in her throat. She nodded, fighting the tears welling in her. "My son is missing," she finally squeaked out.
"Where? When?" he asked, suddenly all business.
"About an hour ago at Camp Yukon, which is held at Kincaid Park near the outdoor center. They did a preliminary search but couldn't find him or the two boys with him. David said" She swallowed several times. "I hope you can help look for them."
Josiah was already retrieving his cell phone from his belt clip. "I'll let Alex know to go there. She just left with her dog, Sadie." He connected with his twin sister and gave her the information. "I'll be right behind you. I'm bringing Ella," he told her. Then he hung up.
"You don't have to. I can
" She gripped her purse's straps tighter, the leather digging into her palms. Robbie was all she had. I can't lose him, Lord. "Thanks. It's probably wiser if I don't drive."
"Let's go. My truck is outside." Josiah fell into step next to her.
Ella slid a glance toward him, and the sight of Josiah, a former US Marine, calmed her nerves. She knew how good he and his sister were with their dogs at finding people. Robbie would be all right. She had to believe that. The alternative was unthinkable. She shuddered.
On the passenger side he opened the back door for Buddy, then quickly moved to the front door for Ella. "I'll find Robbie. I promise."
The confidence in his voice further eased her anxiety and momentarily held the cold at bay. Ella climbed into the F-150 extended cab with Josiah's hand on her elbow, as if he was letting her know he would be here for her. She appreciated it, but at the moment she felt as though she was barely holding herself together. She couldn't fall apart because Robbie would need her when they found him. He was probably more frightened than she was. Once, when he was five, they had been separated in a department store, and when she'd found him a minute later, he had been sitting on the floor, crying.
As Josiah started the engine, Ella hugged her arms to her and ran her hands up and down them. But the chill had returned and burrowed its way into the marrow of her bones, even though the temperature was sixty-five degrees and the sun streamed through the truck's windshield, heating up the interior.
Josiah glanced at her. "David will get enough people to scour the whole park."
"But so many just came off working Mr. Otter-man's disappearance."
"That won't stop us. There are three lost boys. Do you have anything with Robbie's scent on it?"
"I do. In my car."
He backed up to her ten-year-old black Jeep Wrangler. "Where?"
"Front seat. A jacket he didn't take with him to the babysitter last night." Ella grasped the handle. The weatherman had mentioned the temperatures overnight would dip down into the forties, and all Robbie was wearing was a thin shirt.
"I'll get it." Josiah jumped out of the truck before Ella had a chance to even open her door.
She watched him move to her car. She'd only known Josiah and his sister for six months, since they'd begun volunteering for Northern Frontier Search and Rescue, but they'd quickly become invaluable to the organization. Alex had lived here for years, whereas Josiah had only recently left the Marines. They were co-owners of Outdoor Alaska, a company that outfitted search and rescue teams and wilderness enthusiasts.
Although he was a large man, she'd seen Josiah move with an agility that surprised her. He returned with Robbie's brown jacket in his grasp.
He gave it to Ella. "This will help Buddy find your son."
The bright light of a few minutes ago began to fade. Ella leaned forward, staring out the windshield at the sky. Dark clouds drifted over the sun. "Looks like we'll have a storm late this afternoon."
When Josiah flowed into the traffic on Minnesota Drive, an expressway that bisected Anchorage, his strong jawline twitched. "We can still search in the rain, but let's hope we find them beforehand or that the weatherman is wrong."
Ella leaned her head against the headrest and closed her eyes. She had to remain calm and in control. That was one of the things she'd always been able to do in the middle of a search and rescue, but this time it was her son. Now she knew firsthand what the families of the missing people went through. The thundering beat of her heart clamored against her chest, and the rate of her breathing increased. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and she scrubbed her hand across her face.
"Ella, I won't leave the park until we find the boys."
"There are a lot of trees and animals in the park. What if he runs into a bear or even a moose? They could
" She refused to think of what could happen. Remain calm. But no matter how much she repeated that to herself, she couldn't.
"How old is your son?"
"Has he had any survival training in the outdoors?"
"A little. One of the reasons I signed him up for the day camp was to start some of that. We've made a few excursions but haven't camped overnight anywhere." Robbie was timid and afraid of everything. If she'd left her ex-husband sooner, her son might not be so scared of loud noises, or the dark. At least Robbie wasn't alone and it was still light outside.
"We'll be there soon."
In the distance Ella glimpsed Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, which was north of the park. Maybe the counselors had found Robbie by now. Then she realized that they would have called her if they had. She checked her cell phone to make sure the ringer's volume was up.
Josiah exited the highway, and at an intersection he slanted a look toward her that made Ella feel as though he were sending her some of his strength and calmness. "Thank you for bringing me."
"Remember how successful we were at locating Mr. Otterman? The park is big, but it is surrounded on two sides with water and one with the airport. The area is contained."
"But it's fourteen hundred acres. That's a huge area to cover."
"Can he swim?"
Ella swiped a few stray stands of her blond hair back from her face. "Yes, but why do you ask?"
"I'm just trying to get a sense of what Robbie knows how to do since the park has water and Cook Inlet butts up against it."
"He loves to fish, so I made sure he learned to swim at an early age."
"I love to fish. Nothing beats a fresh-caught salmon."
Ella rubbed her thumb into her palm over and over. "That's how the bears feel, too. What if he runs into one and forgets everything he's been taught?" Her heartbeat raced even more at the thought.
Josiah turned onto Raspberry Road. "If he doesn't run from one and makes noise as he walks, he should be okay. Neither one wants to be surprised. I'm sure the first day the counselors went over how to behave in the wilderness."
Josiah slowed and threw her a look full of understanding. "You've dealt with family members when someone is lost, like Mr. Otterman's son and daughter-in-law earlier today. I've seen you. You always seem to be able to reassure them. Think about the words you tell them and repeat them to yourself."
"I pray with them. I tell them about the people who are looking for their loved one. How good they are at what they do."
"Exactly." Josiah tossed his head toward the backseat of the cab. "Buddy is good at locating people. I know how to track people through a forest. Tell you whatI'll start the prayer. You can add whatever you want."
As Josiah began his prayer for Robbie, something shifted inside Ella. The tight knot in her stomach began to unravel.
"Lord, I know Your power and love. Anything is possible through You. Please help Buddy and me find Robbie and the other two boys safe and unharmed." Josiah's truck entered the park, and he glanced at her.
"And please bless the ones searching for my son and his friends. Comfort the families and friends who are waiting. Amen," Ella finished, seeing Josiah in a new light today. They'd talked casually the past few months, but there was always a barrier there, a look of pain in his blue eyes. She knew that expression because she fought to keep hers hidden since she dealt with so many people who needed someone to listen to them when they were hurting. She could help them, but she wasn't sure anyone could help her.