“Mac!” The Colonel shouted into the hall.
“Coming.” The youngest of the Barretts, ten-year-old McClellan, skidded into the foyer. His half-empty backpack hit the floor at his feet with the metallic clunk of a loose canteen. Whippet-thin, Mac was wiry, quick, and much stronger than he appeared. The Colonel didn’t bother to inspect his youngest son’s pack. Mac was part wild thing and could likely exist for years in the forest with nothing more than his instincts.
Their father wheeled himself through the front door and into the dawn.
“Ready?” Grant asked her.
“You bet.” Hannah feigned confidence. Honestly, the weekend was going to suck. Two days of trudging through mud and a night of camping on the wet ground didn’t appeal, but this was what it took to be a Barrett, and Hannah wasn’t going to be left out because she hadn’t been born with a penis.
Grant led the way into the light rain. The three younger siblings fell in behind him. Hannah hoisted her pack over one shoulder and headed for the specially adapted SUV their father drove. They piled into the vehicle, and the Colonel headed west into the mountains. Hours later, he stopped the vehicle, and the four children stepped out into a clearing. Hannah zipped her jacket and fished a cap and gloves from her pack. Early autumn had an icy bite. They lined up for last-minute instructions.
The Colonel stayed in the vehicle. Though he was fully capable of getting out of the SUV and into his chair solo, the process wasn’t quick, and the mud would be an issue. Depression dimmed the blue of his eyes. The Colonel did his best to ignore his paralysis, but he would have loved nothing more than spending the next two days playing Rambo.
He issued orders through the open window. “Grant, you’re in charge.” The Colonel held up a walkie-talkie. They all had matching units on their belts. “Stay together. You have the coordinates for the rendezvous?”
“Yes, sir.” Grant answered.
“Be safe. See you tomorrow.” The Colonel’s gesture was more salute than wave. The SUV turned around and drove away, leaving the four children alone in the dripping forest.
Grant unfolded his map. Lee, Mac, and Hannah gathered around. The Colonel was old-school. No fancy GPS equipment was allowed. Grant tapped a forefinger on a red dot drawn on the map. “Here’s where we are, and here’s our extraction point.” He pointed to another location.
Mac took one glance at the two dots and set off down the trail with a long and contented stride. “Water’s not going to be a problem.”
Trusting his internal compass, the rest of them followed in single file.
“Ready?” Grant asked Hannah.
“Always,” she answered his challenge.
Lee hunched his shoulders against the drizzle. “If we keep up a good pace, is there any chance we can finish this today?”
“No.” Grant studied the folded map as he walked. “It’s too far, most of it uphill, and we lost daylight to the drive.”
“Half the distance today and half tomorrow. We can do that by lunch.” As much as he hated these weekends, Lee’s optimism impressed her. “Suck it up” should have been their family motto.
The rain intensified until even Mac’s shoulders started to droop. Water found its way into the neck of Hannah’s jacket. She shivered as a rivulet snaked down her chest. She lowered her chin. Grant picked up the pace, anxious to cover ground. The incline steepened until she strained to keep up. Talking ceased as they saved their breath for the climb. Hannah was grateful the rush of rain on her nylon hood drowned out the sounds of her labored breathing. She stayed tight on her brother’s heels. Visibility worsened as rain became downpour. She slipped in the mud, going down on one knee.
Grant stopped to grab her elbow. He shouted over the rain, “Are you all right? Need to stop for a while?”
She shook her head. There was no way she was going to be the one to suggest they rest. No way. Not even if her feet were numb. She’d walk until her legs dropped off before she’d cry uncle.
“Suit yourself.” He turned and strode off.
Hannah scrambled to catch up. Rain washed into her eyes, and her legs trembled. Her jacket and boots were waterproof, but below the jacket’s hem, rain had soaked the thighs of her pants. The underlying muscles cramped in the cold. She tugged the brim of her hood down lower on her forehead. She could keep up with Grant. Pushing forward, she focused her gaze and her will on the back of his navy-blue jacket. Stopping would be the worst thing. Unless they found shelter and could start a fire, being still would only make her colder.
The rain slowed back to a fine drizzle.
Mac doubled back. Bareheaded, his blond hair was soaked, but he didn’t even look cold. “Hey, where’s Lee?”
“He was behind me.” Shivering harder, Hannah scanned the trail behind them. When had she seen him last?
“Shit.” Grant turned and hurried back down the path, Hannah and Mac close behind. “Where is he?”
The trail was empty.
Fear blasted Hannah with a surge of energy. Jogging next to Grant, she cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “Lee!”
“He was behind you. Didn’t you notice that he disappeared?” Grant asked.
“I couldn’t hear anything over the rain.” But it was her fault. She should have been watching out for him. But she’d been so obsessed with keeping up with Grant, she’d forgotten about Lee. “Damn it.”
Twenty minutes later, Mac came to a sudden stop. He pointed down the trail. “I see him.”
In a shallow trailside ditch, Lee’s bright blue jacket stood out among the brown autumn colors.
The path dropped off sharply for a few feet. Lee sat in a six-inch puddle of muddy runoff. Grant jumped down to land next to his brother with a splash. Hannah and Mac scrambled down the embankment.
“What happened?” Grant squatted next to Lee.
“I slipped. T-twisted my ankle.” Lee’s teeth chattered. His lips were blue. He’d been sitting in a cold puddle of water for at least forty minutes.
“Let’s get you out of the water.” Grant lifted him from the ditch.
Lee groaned, and his face went paper-white.
Grant set him on the ground. “We need a fire.”
“I’ll find some dry wood.” Mac scampered off into the woods.
“I’m going to take off your boot.” Grant loosened the laces. “Ready?”
Lee nodded, his eyes shining with moisture.
“One, two, three.” Grant slid the boot off. A moan escaped from Lee’s lips.
Hannah stared. Lee’s ankle was more than twisted. It was bent at a sharp angle—sideways.
“Shit.” Grant stood and rocked back on his heels.
“I’m sorry,” Lee said.
“Not your fault,” Hannah said. It was hers.
Mac came back with an armload of dry shrubbery. Hannah cleared a place for him to build a fire.
“We’re going to splint your ankle and call Dad.” Grant opened his pack and pulled out his first-aid kit. “Hannah, I need a straight stick about six inches long.”
“On it.” Hannah rooted through Mac’s pile of twigs and found one with the right diameter. She pulled the folded knife from her cargo pocket and sawed the stick to the correct length, then passed it over.
Grant handed Mac the map. “Find the closest possible pickup location.”
Hannah took over fire building, layering the dried brush over the bark scrapings he’d likely taken from the underside of a fallen tree. There was always dry timber somewhere if a body knew where to find it. She dug her waterproof matches out from inside her pack. In a few minutes, she was coaxing a tiny flame to life.
“Thanks.” Lee leaned closer to the small heat source.
“This is going to hurt,” Grant said.
The sky was darkening.
Squatting like a monkey, Mac tapped on the map. “This is the closest logging road. The terrain looks fairly flat. How are we going to get him there?”
“Going to be a hell of a hike, but I can carry him.” Grant glanced at Lee. “Good thing you’re skinny.”
Lee nodded, pain pushing him past where laughter was possible.
Hannah rooted through Lee’s pack for extra layers of clothing. She helped him take off his jacket and tug a fleece crewneck over his head. Then she zipped him back into his waterproof jacket in case the rain started again.
“Can you eat something?” She held a candy bar toward him. “The calories will help with body temperature.”
He shook his head. “I can’t.”
“OK.” She repacked her bag.
“We have a plan.” Grant unhooked the walkie-talkie from the side of his belt. They all stared at it for a solid minute, dread transmitting between them as if on a sibling frequency, before Grant radioed their father and broke the news. Concern—and disappointment—came across loud and clear in his voice as they discussed the pickup point.
“Are you ready?” Grant asked.
Lee nodded. The color had returned to his lips, but his body was trembling.
“Can you get on my back?” Grant asked. “It’s the easiest way to carry you.”
“I guess so.” Lee’s voice shook. Hannah helped.
They trudged through the mud. It took them a full hour to travel the single mile to the logging road. The Colonel waited in the SUV for Grant to load Lee into the passenger seat, then he checked the splint. “Nice job, Grant. What the hell happened?”
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