By Maureen Thayer
 
CHAPTER ONE -- WILDERNESS

Rollie looked out at the Oregon wilderness around them.  He and Angie seldom went to remote filming locations, but the nature of the movie they were working on and the F/X that was needed for it made it necessary this time.  Not that he was complaining.  It was great to get away from the noise and crowds of the city and be someplace where you could walk just a few yards and be completely swallowed up by restful silence.

“Hey, Rollie!”

The Aussie turned to Jonas Warren.  The helicopter stunt pilot was coming toward him with a big smile on his face.

“Got any plans for lunch?” the big man asked.

“Yeah, eating,” Rollie replied.

“Aw, you can eat any time, but how often do you get a chance to gaze upon one of the great wonders of nature?”

“And what might this great wonder be?”

“Crater Lake, Man.  We’re just about on top of Crater Lake National Park.”

“Crater Lake?  I think I heard something about that.  It’s inside a volcano, isn’t it?”

“Yep, that’s right.  It’s like the number one attraction around here.  I first saw it about three years ago.  It is totally amazing.  How about I give you a bird’s eye view.”

“How long would it take to get there?”

“Not long.  We’ll be back before one o’clock easily.”

“All right.  It sounds interesting.  Let me just go tell Angie.”

“Sure.  Invite her along.  We’ve got the room.”

Rollie found Angie over by the motor home they had set up as their on location studio.

“How would you like to go on a helicopter ride to see a wonder of nature?” Rollie asked.

“Huh?”

“Jonas wants to show me Crater Lake from the air, and you’re invited.”

“Sounds nice, but I can’t.  I promised Sally I’d go to lunch with her.”

Rollie smiled.  “Is she having man trouble again?  Whenever she wants to have lunch with you that seems to be the reason.”

Angie returned the smile.  “Probably so.  As usual, she hasn’t said anything yet.”

“Well, I’ll be sympathizing with you being stuck down here listening to her ranting and raving about how all men are slime while I’m up there enjoying the scenery.”

Angie made a face.  “Gee, thanks.  How thoughtful of you.  You will be back before shooting resumes, won’t you?”

“Sure will.”  Rollie headed over to where Jonas stood beside the helicopter, which was already running.

“No Angie?” the man asked, raising his voice above the sound of the rotors.

“She already has other plans.  It’s just you and me.”

The two men climbed into the cockpit and lifted into the air.  They took off to the north.  Rollie stared down into the greenness of the forest land they were passing over.  Nothing like this existed where he’d grown up.  Rollie still remembered the first time he saw a forest.  He couldn’t stop staring at the trees.  He’d felt like they had driven onto another planet.

Lost in memories of the past, Rollie didn’t realize how much time had passed until Jonas’s voice brought him out of his reverie.

“Well, there it is.”

Rollie looked up and saw the lake before them.  The water was intensely, amazingly blue.  As they passed over it, he saw that the lake was almost perfectly round and was surrounded on all sides by high cliff walls.

“That there is the deepest lake in the U.S., seventh deepest in the world,” Jonas commented.

“Incredible.  I’ve never seen water that was so blue.”

“Yeah, amazing isn’t it?  It took my breath away the first time I saw it.  The name isn’t right, though.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.  It isn’t inside a crater, it’s in a caldera.  A crater is the opening of a volcano where the lava comes out.  A caldera is what you get when a volcano collapses and leaves a big hole.  You see, about seventy-six hundred years ago, this was a twelve thousand foot mountain.  It had this major eruption.  End of the world type stuff.  Made the Mount St. Helens eruption look like a hiccup.  Anyway, after it was finished, the volcano was like this big empty shell.  Gravity did its stuff, and the whole thing just collapsed inward.  Boom!  No more mountain.  Eventually, the lake formed inside the caldera.  The volcano isn’t extinct, though.  There’s still some geothermal activity.  You see that island?  That’s Wizard Island.  It’s a mini volcano.”

Rollie smiled at the manner of Jonas’s educational speech on the lake.  “You sure seem to know a lot about this place.”

“Yeah, I learned all I could when I was here last.”  Jonas studied the water.  “One of these days, I’m going to fish that thing.”

“What, you haven’t already?”  Rollie knew how much the pilot loved to fish.

“Well, it isn’t so easy there.  Access to the lake is restricted.  No boating, no camping, and no way to get down to the lake by car.  They have a couple of tour boats that take people out on the water and over to the island, but the only way down to them is this really steep mile-long trail.  You can fish.  They put fish in the lake just for that purpose.  It just takes a bit to do it.  Most people go there just to look at the vista from the top of the cliffs, which, alone, is worth the trip.  There’s a lodge, a gift shop and eating place, too.  There’s also a road that goes all the way around the lake so that people can see it from all sides in the summertime.  I guess it’s just as well that they don’t allow all that regular stuff.  The water of the lake is really pure, and the whole place is so clean.  If they let people do stuff on the lake, everything would get spoiled.  The water would get polluted, they’d leave trash everywhere, and it wouldn’t be as pretty anymore.”

Rollie glanced down at his watch.  “We’d better get going.  We’ll only just make it back in time.”

With a sigh, Jonas aimed the chopper back in the direction they had come.  He flew lower over the trees on the trip back, giving Rollie a closer look at the wilderness.

Abruptly, the pilot exclaimed.  “What the. . . .  Did you see that?”

“What?”

Jonas didn’t answer.  He was too busy turning the helicopter around.  There was a look of anger on his face.

“What did you see?” Rollie asked again.

“I’m not sure.  I hope I’m wrong.”  He slowly flew back over the trees.  He came to a stop over a small meadow.  There was something very large and furry lying in the grass.  It looked like a bear.  Three men had been busy skinning the animal, but were now looking up at them.

“Damn it, damn it!  This is a national park.  It’s illegal to hunt here.  We’ve got to report this to the rangers.”

Suddenly, a shot rang out and something ricocheted off the side of the helicopter.

“They’re shooting at us!  Jonas, get us out of here!”  More bullets pinged against the metal of the fuselage.  Jonas swung the chopper around just as a bullet smashed through the windshield.  About two seconds after that, the helicopter lurched forward.

“Damn!  They hit the rotor!”  The pilot fought with the controls.  “It’s no use, Rollie.  I can’t keep her up.  We’re going down!”

Rollie stared in horror at the fast approaching ground.  The trees loomed larger and larger.

“Brace yourself!” Jonas screamed.

Rollie threw his arms over his head.  There was a horrible crashing sound, he felt his body thrown to the side--then he knew no more.
 

CHAPTER TWO -- DARKNESS

Angie looked up into the clear sky.  She glanced back down at her watch.  It was ten minutes after one.  The director was already starting to complain about Rollie’s absence.

“Look, we’ve got a schedule to keep.  We can’t be waiting around while your boss goes on a sightseeing tour.”

“They should have been back by now.  Rollie said they would.  I’ll reach them on the radio and see what’s keeping them.”  She went to the F/X motor home.  Turning the transceiver to the correct frequency, Angie tried to reach Jonas.  There was no answer.

“Come on, Jonas.  You guys are getting me into trouble here.  Merriman is already foaming at the mouth.”  Still no answer.

Angie began to get worried.  She picked up her PDA and tried to contact Rollie.  Nothing.  A bad feeling was building inside her.  Something was wrong.  Rollie would never deliberately cut off communications.  She looked at her watch again.  They were now almost twenty minutes late.  There was a knock on the door and the director came in.

“So what’s their. . . .”  He stopped when he saw the expression on Angie’s face.  “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t reach them.  Jonas isn’t answering the radio, and I can’t get Rollie on his PDA.  Something’s wrong.”

The director’s anger instantly disappeared.  “What are you thinking?  That they crashed?”

Angie’s chest tightened painfully.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know what to do.  I should call the authorities.”

“Are you sure that Rollie didn’t turn his PDA off?”

“He doesn’t usually do that, but I guess it is a possibility.”  A little voice inside Angie told her that she was clutching at straws.  Rollie wouldn’t have turned his PDA off.

“Well, let’s give them until two o’clock.  They might have just had some trouble that took out the radio.  I’ll rearrange the shooting schedule.  We can work around you for a while.”

Angie watched the director leave as she sat down to wait.


A sharp, nagging pain in his side and a deeper pain in his head slowly brought Rollie up out of the darkness.  He lay unmoving, his eyes still closed, concerned over what injuries he may have.  Cautiously, he opened his eyes.  The darkness remained.  Had it become night while he lay unconscious?  No.  This darkness was too deep.  He could see nothing at all.

A moment of sheer panic gripped Rollie.  ‘I’m blind!’ his mind cried.  He lay in the blackness, terrified to move.  Fighting for calm, Rollie took several deep breaths, then began to think rationally about his situation.  They’d crashed somewhere in the forest.  He must have injured his head in the crash, and that’s what was causing the blindness. This could mean that the loss of sight was temporary.  Reaching up with his fingers, he carefully explored his head.  There was a sticky wetness on the back of his head.  Wincing, he found the wound, a deep laceration in the scalp.  Rollie reached inside his pocket for a handkerchief and was immediately assailed by pain in another location.  His hand went to his side.  There was no blood, but there was a very large tender area over his ribs, and Rollie suspected that he had a monster bruise there.  He vaguely recalled his body slamming into the door of the helicopter as they hit the ground.  In fact, that was the last thing he could remember.  The impact must have thrown him out of the chopper.

Another thought suddenly came into his mind. Where was Jonas?  “Jonas?  Can you hear me?”  There was no reply.  Rollie tried sitting up.  A horrid pain in his side and an agonizing one in his head stopped him before he even got up onto his elbows.  Nausea and dizziness overwhelmed him, and he collapsed back on the ground.  He lay still until the feeling that his head had been stuck in a blender went away.  Then, very slowly, Rollie rolled over onto his uninjured side.  His head threatened to come apart again, but he ignored it.  In stages, he finally managed to roll onto his stomach.

“Jonas?” he called again.  Nothing.  Where was the helicopter?  In what direction?  Rollie felt around for a rock.  Finding one, he threw it as far as he could, gasping at the pain it sent through his side.  The rock landed with a soft thud on the ground.  He got another one and threw it in a different direction.  Again, there was the sound of it hitting the earth.  The third throw gave the same result.  Rollie threw a fourth rock and this time heard the sharp clang of metal.  Carefully, he crawled over in that direction.  After what must have been only a few feet, his outstretched hand touched metal.  Determining by touch that he was near the tail section, Rollie moved forward.  His hand slid into the open doorway of the cockpit.

“Jonas?” Rollie called softly.  Ignoring the pain and dizziness it caused him, Rollie climbed up into the cockpit.  He reached toward where he knew the pilot’s seat was, finding several tree limbs and branches in his way.  He felt the cloth of Jonas’s shirt, then he felt the blood.  It was everywhere.  Swallowing, Rollie’s questing fingers moved up to the man’s neck.  He felt for a pulse and found none.

“Oh no,” he whispered.  He sat back in his seat, wondering what he was going to do now.

Rollie reached for the helicopter’s control panel, but his hands found only a mass of mangled metal and plastic.  There was no way that the radio could have survived that.  He reached for his PDA and found it missing.  Even if it had survived the crash, it could be anywhere.  There was no way he’d be able to find it.

Carefully, Rollie climbed out of the cockpit and sat on the ground, his back against the helicopter’s fuselage.  He was blind, alone, and out in the middle of nowhere with no food or water.  Short of being dead, things couldn’t get much worse.

Just then, he heard a soft growl off to his left.  Something moved through the underbrush.

“Bloody hell.  What was I just saying about things not being able to get much worse?” he mumbled to himself.  Slowly, he felt around on the ground, looking for something he could use as a weapon, but there was nothing.  Whatever had made the growl was coming closer.  He could hear the crackle of dry pine needles beneath padded feet.  Should he stand, make himself appear larger or should he remain where he was and look nonthreatening?  He knew that dogs were less likely to attack if you did not appear threatening, but what about wolves?

The creature was quite close now, no more than four or five feet away.  It had stopped its approach. Afraid to startle it by speaking, Rollie silently sat where he was, his blind eyes turned toward where he knew the animal was.  The animal moved closer, and Rollie held his breath.  Suddenly, something cool and moist touched his arm.  Startled, Rollie jerked back.  He heard the animal scuttle away.  But it did not go far.  Rollie sensed that it was still there, a few yards away.  Long minutes passed, then the creature began approaching again.  Rollie waited.  This time when the animal’s nose touched his arm he did not flinch.  He remained still as the creature sniffed at him.

Something warm and wet slid across his cheek, and Rollie realized that he was being licked.  With a feeling of relief he relaxed.  Slowly, he reached his hand up toward what he now knew was a dog.  His fingers ran through its fur.

“Well, hello there.  So, what are you doing way out here?  Are you lost?”

The dog whined and licked his face again.  Rollie smiled.

“Well, I’m in a bit of a pickle, too.  I don’t suppose you can help me, though.  You wouldn’t happen to know where the nearest road is, would you?”

The dog whined again and barked.

“That’s what I thought.  Right now, though, I’d be happy just to get some water.”

The dog lay down beside him and rested its head in Rollie’s lap.  Idly, he stroked it, wondering how he was going to get out of this mess he’d gotten into.  He was due back on location at one o’clock.  When the helicopter did not return, a search party would be sent out.  Rollie had no idea how long he had lain unconscious.  For all he knew, a search party might already be out looking for them.  But would they see the wreckage through the trees?  Jonas had not given anyone his precise flight plan, and it was a very big forest.  Just then, Rollie remembered about the Emergency Locator Beacon.  If it wasn’t damaged in the crash, it would be sending out a signal that would lead the searcher right to them.  But if it had been damaged. . . .  Rollie shied away from that thought.  He’d gotten out of tougher situations than this.  He just couldn’t remember any right now.

As if sensing his anxiety, the dog whined and pressed closer to him.  Rollie patted it.  The thought of water again came to him.

“I bet you know where some water is, don’t you.  I guess I’ll just have to wait until you get thirsty.  I don’t want you leaving without me, though.  Let’s see what I can do about that.”

Rollie removed his belt and put it around the dog’s neck, making it into a collar and leash.

“I guess if we’re going to be spending some time together, I should give you a name.  What do you say . . .” Rollie’s hand slid down the dog’s belly, “Girl?  The Aborigines I spent most of my childhood with had a little dog.  Her name was Sandy.  How does that sound?”

The dog barked.  Rollie heard the thump of her tail wagging.

“Sandy it is, then.  You’re a lot bigger than the other Sandy was and a lot furrier.  I’m sure glad you’re here, though.”
 

CHAPTER THREE -- ODDS OF SURVIVAL

Angie was slowly going crazy.  When two o’clock had come and gone and the helicopter was still not back and still unreachable, she had placed a call to the police.  After being on the phone for nearly twenty minutes, she finally convinced them that Rollie and Jonas absolutely would not be late for a shooting schedule unless something was very wrong.  A call was put into the nearest Search and Rescue.

Angie watched the Search and Rescue team in the command station they had set up in one of the tents.  They were studying a map, which had been divided into search grids.  She admired their cool professionalism.  They clearly had a lot of experience in this sort of thing.

“Now, you said that they had mentioned something about Crater Lake?” asked the man who was the team leader.  He had introduced himself as Andrew Price.

“Yes,” replied Angie.  “Jonas wanted to show it to Rollie.”

Price nodded.  “Tom, give them a call up there and find out if anyone saw the helicopter.  That’ll give us some idea on when they went down.”

The man’s last sentence sent a chill through Angie.  In her mind, she kept picturing the twisted wreckage of the helicopter, Rollie’s body inside, torn and bleeding.  Angie closed her eyes and pushed the image away.  Rollie wasn’t dead.  He wasn’t.  They would find him, and everything would be okay.

“The problem is that we’re racing sunset here,” Price commented.  “We’ve only got about five hours of daylight left.  That isn’t going to be enough time to cover over one hundred eighty square miles of national parkland, not to mention the forest land between here and there.  The longer it takes to find them, the worse their chances are, especially if there are serious injuries involved.  Thank God it’s summer.  It still gets pretty chilly at night, but not enough that we have to worry about exposure, and the weather forecast says it’ll be clear for at least the next few days.  These are both big pluses in their favor.”

The pilots of the two search helicopters came in.  They were ready to take off.  Price assigned each of them an area to cover, and they quickly left.  Angie stepped out of the tent and watch the two choppers rise into the sky and take off toward the north.


A cool breeze brushed across Rollie’s face, waking him from the light sleep he had slipped into.  The temperature of the wind reminded him that it could get uncomfortably cold that night.  He felt the lightweight shirt he was wearing, wishing that he’d brought a coat along.  There was a possibility that there was some kind of survival kit in the helicopter.

Rollie attempted to stand.  He managed to get about halfway up when a wave of dizziness and pain brought him back down to his knees.  Breathing deeply, Rollie leaned heavily against the helicopter, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead.  Sandy was whining anxiously and licking his hand.  Rollie stroked her head.

“I’m okay, Girl.  I just got up too quickly.  I’ll be all right in a sec.”  He rested for a few minutes, then tried to get up again, more slowly this time.  He managed to make it to his feet, though the dizziness was threatening to overwhelm him again.  Leaning back against the fuselage, he gave himself another couple of minutes before attempting to climb into the cockpit.  Trying not to think about Jonas’s body in the pilot’s seat, Rollie pushed the other seat forward and climbed into the back.  He felt around for something that might be a survival kit, but found nothing.  He was just about to give up when he thought to check under the seat.  There, he found a metal box.  Opening it, he found what felt like first aid supplies, some foil packets that were probably emergency rations, another packet that had a thermal blanket, a lighter, matches, a knife, and a flare gun with three flares.  The one thing he was hoping for more than anything else was not there: some kind of emergency transmitter or transceiver.

Rollie climbed out of the cockpit and sat back down.  Sandy settled beside him.

“Well, we’re better off now than we were before, Girl.  At least I won’t freeze, and there’s enough food to last a couple of days.  Things are looking up, eh?”  Sandy barked and licked his hand.  She stood and moved a step away.  “What is it?”  She tugged at the leash.  “Okay, I get the message.”

Keeping a firm grip on the makeshift leash, Rollie slowly stood, the survival kit tucked under his arm.  This time, the dizziness was tolerable.  Carefully, he took a step, then another, his feet sliding forward in a shuffling gate, his arm outstretched before him.  The last thing he needed right now was to trip over something.

“Okay, Sandy, lead on.  I just hope you’re going for some water and not just to take a pee.”

As if understanding him, the dog tugged on the leash again.  Rollie went with her slowly, his hand and feet continually feeling outward for obstructions.  He had no idea how far they’d traveled when he heard the distant sound of running water.  Speeding up his pace, Rollie almost ended up face first on the ground when his foot tangled in some undergrowth.  His lesson learned, Rollie slowed back down.  A short time later, they were at the water.  By the sound of it, Rollie guessed that it was a creek.  Getting down on his belly beside it, he began to drink.  Once his thirst was quenched, he plunged his head in the creek, letting the cool water cleanse the scalp wound and wash away the drying blood.  He then washed the blood from his hands.

Feeling clean and refreshed, Rollie lay down beside the stream.  He knew that he should return to the crash site, but decided that it was more important to be near water.  If the search party found the wreckage, they’d no doubt continue searching for him in the nearby forest.  Also, he doubted that he’d be able to find his way back and didn’t want to get lost in the forest trying.

At that moment, his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  As he reached for the survival kit, a splash out in the water drew Rollie’s attention.  He recognized the sound from when he used to go fishing with the Aboriginal children.  That memory brought back another one.  The Aborigines often fished with a spear or pointed stick rather than a line, but, sometimes, the water was so muddy that you couldn’t see the fish.  Because of that, all the children were taught how to tell where the fish were by feeling the passage of their bodies through the water.  Rollie had been taught this, too, and had gotten very good at it--so good, in fact, that Mangela had sworn that Rollie could somehow actually see the fish.

But all that had been a very long time ago, and Rollie wasn’t sure if he could still do it.  A lunch of fresh fish did sound a whole lot better than some freeze-dried concoction, though.

He returned to the trees and felt around the ground for a suitable branch.  He fished out his pocket knife and began honing the end of the branch down to a point.  It was slow going since he couldn’t see what he was doing, but he finally had a nice sharp point.  Using the stick like a blind person’s cane, he returned to the creek.  He removed his shoes and rolled up his pant legs.  The water was cold against his bare skin as he waded in.  He needed to find a place where the water was moving slowly.  He moved downstream until he came to a large boulder.  Moving around it, Rollie came up on the other side.  Blocked by the boulder, the current was almost nonexistent here.  It was the perfect place.

Rollie took up a position against the boulder and waited, remaining utterly still, his stick poised to strike.  Though it really made no difference, he closed his eyes.  He concentrated on the water, trying to feel the movement of a fish’s body through it.  After about five minutes, he thought he felt something.  There, near his right leg.  Rollie lifted the branch higher and plunged it down where he thought the fish was.  He knew as soon as the end dug into the streambed that he’d missed.  Raising the branch, he waited for another chance.  The second time he missed as well.  On the third attempt, he waited until he was sure the fish was right in front of him.  Plunging the stick into the water, he felt its impact on the fish’s body.  Just as he had been taught, Rollie pushed the stick a couple of inches down into the creek bottom to make sure that the fish was far enough up on the stick that it would not slip off the end when he raised it.

Rollie lifted the end up out of the water, feeling the weight of the fish on it.  He waded out of the water.  Continuing on about three yards past the creek, he was suddenly stopped by Sandy, who was pushing against his legs, whining.  The dog was pushing against him so hard that she was threatening to knock him over.

“What’s wrong, Sandy?”

Just then, he heard it: a dry rattling sound coming from the ground a few feet in front of him.  He froze, instantly recognizing the sound of a rattlesnake.  Very slowly, he took a step backward, then another.  The rattling lessened.  Rollie reached out with the empty end of the stick and jabbed it in the direction of the rattler.  He felt the snake strike at the stick.  He kept jabbing.  Finally, the rattling stopped, and he thought he detected the very faint sound of something sliding away across the ground.

Rollie knelt and hugged Sandy close.  “You just saved my life, Girl.”  The dog squirmed happily in his arms and licked his face.

Rollie sat down and removed the fish from the stick.  He heard Sandy sniff at it.

“Okay, we’ve got lunch.  Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to cook it.”  He had the lighter, but it was going to be pretty hard to build a fire when he couldn’t see what he was doing.  That was a good way to get burned.  But, unless he wanted to eat the thing raw, he had to try.

Twenty minutes later, he had his fire--and only one slightly burned finger.  Carefully, he sliced the fish open and stuck it on a stick, which he held over the fire.  Sandy was sitting beside him, salivating, at least Rollie guessed she was salivating.  Once the fish was cooked, he gave the head and tail to the dog and devoured the rest in short order.

His stomach full, Rollie leaned against a tree and turned his thoughts to his predicament.  If the locator beacon had been working, someone would be here by now, which meant that the searchers were going to have to look for the crash site acre by acre.  Unfortunately, if the wreckage wasn’t visible from the air, it could be days before he was found.  If he could keep the fire going, someone might spot the smoke.  He was in no immediate danger.  He had water, food, and a blanket.  What he didn’t have was shelter.  Rollie sincerely hoped that it would not rain.  All in all, things could be a lot worse.

Rollie’s thoughts turned to Angie.  He was glad she hadn’t come on the trip, though, sitting in the back seat, she probably would have fared better in the crash.  By now, she must be frantic.  He wished that there was some way he could tell her he was alive.

He put some more wood on the fire, then rested his head back against the tree.  It was going to be a long afternoon and an even longer night.
 

CHAPTER FOUR -- INCREASING THE ODDS

Angie had been pacing nonstop for about an hour.  For the first time in her life, she felt absolutely useless.  The best friend she had in the world was out there somewhere, possibly hurt, and she could do nothing to help find him.  They had received word from Crater Lake that a helicopter had been spotted in the area sometime after noon.  It had flown overhead for about ten minutes, then headed off to the south.  This confirmed that Rollie and Jonas had crashed on their way back from the lake. It also narrowed the field of search, since Rollie and Jonas were apparently coming straight back.  But there was still a whole lot of area to cover.  If only there was some way that. . . .  Yes!  Of course!  Angie dashed into the F/X motor home, kicking herself for not having thought of this earlier.  She snatched up her notebook computer and headed over to the Search and Rescue tent.

“Are any of the helicopters returning for fuel soon?” she asked.

“Yes, one will be due to refill in about half an hour.  Why?”

“I want to join the search.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Ramirez.  That’s against regulations.”

“You see this computer?  It has the ability to detect heat sources, including people.  With it, I can spot anybody the helicopter passes within five hundred yards of.”

Clearly interested, Price asked, “There are a lot of deer and other large animals in that forest.  Will you be able to differentiate between them and a human being?”

“Sure, no problem.”  She could see that the man was still unsure.  “Look, my friend is out there.  I need to do something to help find him.  You can’t tell me that this wouldn’t help.”

Andrew Price looked at the desperate, pleading expression on her face.  “All right.  I’ll tell the chopper to stop by here before heading back out.”

“Thank you.”

As Price watched her leave, he sighed softly.  He had chosen not to point out that only a live person would give off heat.

When the helicopter arrived, Angie climbed into the cockpit and gave the two searchers inside a brief explanation on what she was going to be doing.

As they flew, Angie divided her attention between the computer screen and the forest below.  The hours went by with her seeing only the heat patterns of animals below and a few individuals in the forest near the main highway leading to the lake.  Their search pattern was slowly carrying them eastward.

There was about an hour of usable daylight remaining when she spotted two heat sources that were clearly human deeper in the forest.  She told the pilot, and he headed the helicopter in their direction.  When they arrived at the spot, Angie was disappointed to see that it was just a man and woman apparently out hiking.  Thinking that they might have seen something, Angie had the pilot land in a small clearing nearby.

“What’s going on?” asked the man as she approached them.

“We’re searching for a downed helicopter,” Angie replied.  “Did you see one fly by earlier, sometime between twelve and one?”

“No, I’m afraid not, though, come to think of it, we did hear something in the distance that might have been a helicopter.  About what time was that, Carol?”

“I’m not sure.  Sometime after 12:30,” the woman replied.

“Can you tell me in what direction you heard it?” Angie asked.

“Um, over that way, I think.”  She pointed to the east.

“Well, thank you for your help.”  Angie turned to leave.

“Wait!  Uh, our dog ran off a few hours ago.  It was so strange.  We were picnicking, and she just suddenly went nuts.  Started running around barking her head off.  When I tried to tie her up, she took off.  We’ve been out looking for her ever since.”  He paused.  “If you happen to spot her while you’re up there, could you give me a call?  Here’s my cell number.”  He handed Angie a business card.  “She’s a Golden Retriever/Saint Bernard mix.  If you find her, don’t try to catch her or anything.  She won’t let anyone but us approach her.”

“I’ll keep my eyes open for her,” Angie said.

She headed back to the helicopter and told the pilot what the people had said.  He called back to the base and gave them a report.  Then he headed the chopper east.


It was getting close to evening.  Rollie knew this because the temperature was beginning to drop.  He had managed to keep the fire going and had a big pile of wood ready for that night.

He had heard a helicopter off in the distance a while back, but knew it was too far away for the flares to do any good.  The fact that they were getting closer to his location was encouraging, though.  Anyone out looking for him would be stopping for the night soon, so it was pretty certain that he’d be spending the night out here.  He was glad of Sandy’s company.  She hadn’t left his side for more than a few minutes the entire afternoon.

Rollie’s head still hurt, but the dizziness was all but gone.  He’d managed to memorize the area between the creek and where he’d set up camp.  He could now walk it without fear of tripping over something.

He found himself thinking often of his blindness, wondering if it was, indeed, temporary.  If it was permanent, then his career in the F/X business was over.  What would he do then?  All he’d ever done his entire adult life was work in the movies, first as a stuntman, then in F/X.  He couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else.  And what about Angie?  Would she go on to start her own business?  She had the reputation and the knowhow.  She could do it, especially if he gave her the workshop, which he would since he’d have no more use for it.  In Rollie’s mind there formed a picture of the future.  He saw Angie off following her own career, while he was left alone to try and find some new way to make a living.  He could always do consultations.  He had thirteen years of experience in F/X.  That would count for something, wouldn’t it?

Rollie shook off the depression he was slipping into.  There was no need to start thinking about these things unless he found out that the blindness was permanent.  Strangely, the thing that upset him the most about his image of the future wasn’t not being able to do F/X anymore.  It was not having Angie with him.  She was a part of his life, a big part.  In fact, he couldn’t picture his life without her.  But if it turned out that he was never going to see again, he wouldn’t want her to waste her life watching out for him.  He’d want her to move on.

Deciding that it was not healthy for him to be dwelling on these things, Rollie got up and headed for the creek to catch their dinner.  The old instincts were coming back to him, and he got two fish fairly quickly.  He gave one to Sandy.

As the temperature dropped, he wrapped himself in the blanket, though it wasn’t so bad that he’d be in danger of freezing.  Actually, compared to the winters in New York, it wasn’t bad at all.  It was just a bit too chilly for the short-sleeved shirt he was wearing.

The sound of crickets rose up about him.  He listened to it for a while, then lay down beside the fire.  Sandy lay beside him, her warm body pressed tightly against his as if for comfort.  Whether it was to get it or to give it, he did not know.


Angie looked at the darkening sky.  The search had been given up for the night.  Andrew Price had assured her that it would resume first thing in the morning.

She walked over to the motor home that had been rented for her and Rollie to sleep in.  They had complained about having to share the same sleeping quarters, but had been told that the budget wouldn’t allow for another RV rental.  Right now, Angie would give anything to have Rollie there with her.  She sat in the darkness, not bothering to turn on the light.  The thought of Rollie out there alone in that wilderness, possibly injured, made it impossible to relax.

Throughout the day, she had refused to allow herself to think about the very real possibility that he could be dead, but, deep down inside, the terrible fear had always been there.  Now, in the darkness and silence of the night, the thought came unbidden to her mind.  What if he was dead?  What would she do?  She loved Rollie more than any other person alive.  He was more than her friend, he was her family, the only family she had.  If he was gone. . . .  Angie wiped away the tear that had slid down her cheek.  She had lost her mother, then her father.  Could life be so cruel as to take Rollie away too?

Angie’s mind went back to the day they first met.  She had been a child of eleven and Rollie a young man on the verge of leaving his teens behind.  She had fallen head over heels for the tall, handsome youth, especially when she realized that there were actually some brains underneath all that wavy brown hair.  In the years that had passed since then, her love for him had changed.  Rollie was no longer the object of some schoolgirl crush.  He was a vital part of her life.  She tried to picture her world without him and couldn’t.

Angie closed her eyes as another tear slipped down her face.  She picked up a pillow, hugging it against her chest.  Laying her head against the window, Angie looked out into the blackness of the forest, praying that tomorrow they would find Rollie safe and sound.
 

CHAPTER FIVE -- PURSUIT

It was still night when Rollie was awakened by Sandy nuzzling his face.

“Wha...?”  Rollie rose onto one elbow.  “What is it, Girl?”

Sandy whined excitedly and pulled at the collar of his shirt with her teeth.

“All right, I guess you want me to go with you.”  He put the leash back on the dog and got up.  Keeping the blanket wrapped around him, he allowed Sandy to lead him where she wanted to go.  A few minutes had passed when he heard the sound of voices.  Excited, Rollie moved in that direction.  He was just about to call out for help when the words of one of the men stopped him in his tracks.

“Look, you’re the idiot who started shooting at the chopper, Wally, not me.  If you hadn’t done that, we’d be out of here and back home figuring out our profit for this run.  Now we’re in it for murder.”

“I’m not the only one who opened fire, Ed.  I remember you getting off a few shots, too, so don’t go laying this all on me.  Besides, who is it that started shooting at that ranger last year who found our camp?  It wasn’t me.  It’s a damn good thing he didn’t see our faces or we’d be sitting in jail right now.  Actually, we’d probably be dead.  That guy looked like an Indian to me, and you know what they will do to people.”

“Oh, you and your idiotic ideas about Indians.  Your brain has turned to mush with all those old westerns you watch.”

“Yeah, well, you never had brains to start with.”

“All right,” said a third voice, “Just shut up and stop arguing.  Look, they didn’t nail us on the incident with the ranger, and there’s nothing here that can tie us to this.  Just leave the body where it is.  Sooner or later, those search parties will find it or the scavengers will.  One way or the other, we’re clear of this.  By the time someone figures out that the crash wasn’t an accident, we’ll be long gone.  Let’s just get out of here.”

Rollie heard the three men moving away.

“Wait!  Look at this!” the man named Wally cried.

“What is it?” asked the calmer one.

“Blood.”

“That means there was someone else in the chopper,” said the man called Ed.  “Oh, this is just great.  By now, whoever it is has probably made it to the highway and gotten a ride into Klamath Falls.  We’ll probably have two dozen state police combing the forest for us by morning.”

“Maybe not,” said the man with the calm voice.  “This is quite a bit of blood.  Whoever that other person was, he could be hurt pretty badly.  He might not have made it very far.  We could track him.”

“Well, we’re not going to be able to track him in the dark,” said Wally.  “We might as well make camp and get a couple of hours of sleep.  We can get started at first light.”

Rollie heard the men moving around as they made camp.  What was he going to do now?  These were the three hunters who had shot down the helicopter, and they were obviously prepared to add a second murder to their list of crimes.  How could he hide from experienced hunters when he couldn’t even see them?  He needed to get back to his camp.  At least there he had a weapon he could use if he had to.

Using some instinct he didn’t know he possessed, Rollie managed to find his way back to the stream.  The fire had gone out, which was just as well.  He heaped dirt on it to smother the embers, then grabbed up the survival kit.  Pulling the knife out, he slipped it into his belt.  He picked up his fishing spear.

“Come on, Sandy.  We’ve got to get out of here.”

Rollie folded up the blanket and put it into the survival kit.  He shivered as the chill night air brought goose bumps to his arms.  With the kit and spear in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other, he stepped into the creek and headed downstream.  They’d have a harder time tracking him if he kept to the water.  Rollie just hoped that, sooner or later, the creek would lead him to some kind of habitation.

He hadn’t made it very far when the temperature of the water began making his feet go numb.  He tripped over a rock and just managed to catch himself before falling headlong into the water.  This was no good.  He couldn’t see where he was stepping, and, now, he couldn’t feel it either.  He would have to leave the stream.

Rollie climbed up onto the bank and sat down.  He stripped off his soaked socks and shoes and tried to rub some warmth back into his feet.  Once he stared feeling his toes again, he slipped the shoes back on.  He rang out the socks and stuffed them into his pants pocket.  Sandy was sitting beside him.

“I’m in big trouble, Girl.  Those guys will kill me if they find me.”  Sandy whined and pressed close to him.  He knew that she could sense his fear.  He just wished that he could make her understand what the danger was.

Rollie decided to head in the direction he’d heard the helicopter.  If he was lucky, he’d find the searchers before the hunters found him.  But before leaving the stream, he had to figure out something that he could put water in.  There was no way of knowing how far from the next water source he was.  Rollie felt around inside the survival kit and found the bag that the blanket had been in.  Hoping that it wouldn’t leak, he filled the bag with water, then tied the end closed with medical tape from the first aid kit.  He fashioned a strap with the tape and hung the bag around his neck.  It seemed to be holding the water.  He stuck the flare gun in his belt beside the knife and the flares, lighter, and matches in the pants pocket that didn’t have the socks.  The blanket and emergency rations he stuffed down his shirt.  He stuck all that he could from the first aid kit in his shirt pocket.  The rest would have to stay behind.  Rollie hid the nearly empty metal box under a bush and struck out into the forest.

As had happened before, Sandy seemed to understand that he could not see and steered him clear of any major obstructions.  With the added help of using the fishing spear as a cane, Rollie was able to move at a reasonably good pace.  The problem was that he had no way of knowing if he was still traveling in the right direction.  Sandy seemed to know where she was going, but was it the right way?  Rollie decided to trust her instincts.

The voices of the crickets had silenced and Rollie could feel the sun warming the air when he finally decided to stop for a rest.  He pulled out an emergency rations pack that had what felt like beef jerky in it.  Opening it up, he found that he’d been right.  He gave half the jerky to the dog.  After they’d eaten, he carefully opened the bag of water.  Taking a swallow, he poured a little bit into the palm of his hand and let Sandy lick it dry.  He was still thirsty and knew that the dog must be, too, but he had to conserve what they had.  If there was one thing he’d learned growing up in the Australian outback it was that, if you didn’t know where your next source for water was, you were extra careful with the water that you had.

Rollie sealed the bag back up.  He removed his shoes and slipped his still-wet socks on.  He’d rather deal with wet feet than blisters.  Thank goodness he’d chosen to wear heavy hiking boots yesterday.

“Come on, Sandy.  We’d better get a move on,” he told the dog.  By now, the hunters had probably found his campsite and might be on his trail.  Again trusting to Sandy’s instincts, Rollie let her take the lead as they resumed their flight to safety.


Angie stared intently at the computer monitor.  The area of parkland they were flying over now was too far from the nearest road for there to be many hikers.  The chances were great that anyone she saw now would be Rollie and Jonas.  Ever since she woke up that morning, she’d had a feeling of urgency, like it was more important than ever that they find Rollie as quickly as possible.  Both helicopters were focusing their search on the forest land east of where they’d seen the couple yesterday, which considerably cut down the area they had to cover.  But the hard truth of it was still that, if the crash site couldn’t be seen from the air, it could take days to find it.  The computer she held in her lap was the only thing that might change that.

A call came in on the radio.  “Dan, this is Kenny,” said the pilot of the other helicopter.  “We spotted a truck hidden in some brush off Highway 232.  It looks like we might have some illegal hunting going on.”

“Gotcha, Kenny.  We’ll keep our eyes open for them,” replied Dan.

“Illegal hunting?” asked Angie.

“Yeah, it can be a problem sometimes,” said Greg, the other Search and Rescue worker in the helicopter.  “We’ve got a fairly good population of elk and black bear in the park.  It is, of course, illegal to hunt here, but that doesn’t stop some folks.  We’ve noticed a marked decrease in the bear population over the last two years, and there has been some evidence that a single group of hunters is responsible for it.  This is a particularly nasty bunch.  They tried to kill a park ranger last year.  I sure hope your friends didn’t get tangled up with them.”

Now more worried than ever, Angie returned her full attention to the computer screen.
 

CHAPTER SIX -- HIDING PLACE

The terrain had gotten more hilly, and Rollie was having a harder time navigating through it.  Sandy was still purposely moving forward.  By the direction Rollie could feel the sun in, he guessed that they were still heading westward.  He had no idea how much ground they’d covered, but he knew it wasn’t much.  Even with the dog and his makeshift cane, Rollie couldn’t move swiftly without taking the chance of a bad fall, and the last thing he needed right now was a sprained ankle.  If the hunters had found their tracks, they would eventually catch up to them.

At one point, Rollie again heard a helicopter.  It was much closer this time.  He had stopped for another sip of water.  By the time he’d put the bag down, pulled the flare gun out and put a flare in it, the sound was fading away.  The chopper was clearly running a search pattern.  It would be back.  Rollie just didn’t know how long it would take.  He left the flare in the gun and resumed walking.

It had been perhaps three hours since Rollie’s first rest stop when Sandy suddenly halted and swung around.  A low growl sounded deep in her throat.  Rollie immediately dropped to the ground.

“Are they back there, Girl?”  The dog replied with a louder growl.  Rollie took hold of the dog.  “Sandy, I need someplace to hide, someplace they can’t find me.  Damn, I wish I could make you understand.”

The dog abruptly jerked Rollie in the direction they’d been traveling.  Rollie got to his feet and followed her.  They started climbing a steep hill.  Trying to keep hold of the leash, Rollie felt around for foot and handholds as they ascended.  The ground leveled off.  Rollie felt out in front of him with the branch and discovered that there was a cave in the side of the hill.  Bending down, he went inside.  The smell of bear was strong in the cave, and he suspected that it was used as a den.  He fervently hoped that the tenants were gone for the day.

Rollie released the leash.  With one hand stretched out before him at head level and the other moving his cane back and forth, he headed toward the back of the cave.  By the time he reached the back wall, he’d gone at least a hundred and fifty feet.  He could hear the sound of dripping water off to his right and headed in that direction, keeping his hand against the wall.  He found a narrow crevice in the wall just big enough for him to get inside.  The dripping sound was coming from beyond the opening.  He inched his way though the narrow space, well aware that, at any moment, the ground could suddenly drop out from beneath him.  The opening twisted this way and that and eventually widened to what was apparently an inner chamber of the cavern.  Rollie followed the sound of water to its source.  A thin stream of water was flowing down the side of the cavern.  Rollie cupped his hands under the flow and began to drink.  The water tasted a bit bitter, but it was fresh and cold.

“Sandy?” he called.  There was no reply.  He thought he heard a faint yip at the other end of the crevice.  He went to the opening.  “What’s wrong, Girl?”  Rollie heard her whining.  Afraid that she might have gotten stuck somehow, Rollie moved back through the fissure.  He found her on the other end.  Kneeling beside her, he stroked her head as she gave his face a lick.  “What’s the matter?”  He took hold of the leash and tried to pull her into the crevice, but she refused to go.  That’s when it suddenly dawned on him.  She couldn’t see in there.  Out in the main cavern, there was enough light from the entrance to allow her to see where she was going, but in the fissure and beyond, the darkness would be nearly absolute.  To Rollie, there was no difference between the cavern and outside, so it hadn’t occurred to him.  And that’s when another thought came to him.  In here, he had the advantage.  Since the crash, he’d gradually come to pay more attention to what his other senses were telling him, especially his hearing.  It was no more acute than it had been before.  He was just getting better at interpreting what he heard.  After trekking blindly across miles of countryside Rollie was also losing much of his fear of moving around without his sight.

The hunters obviously had at least one flashlight, but if Rollie could figure out a way of taking the flashlights away or disabling them, the men would be virtually helpless.  They would be paralyzed by the same fear Rollie had suffered when he first discovered that he couldn’t see.

The first thing he had to do, though, was get Sandy into the chamber.  He got down on his knees and started crawling backward through the crevice, pulling at the belt around the dog’s neck.

“Come on, Girl.  I won’t let you get hurt.  We’ve got to get out of the main cavern before those hunters come.”  Sandy went about three feet, then stopped and wouldn’t budge, and she was too strong for Rollie to forcefully pull into the fissure.

He sat and put his face up to the dog’s, stroking her gently.  She was trembling slightly.  “Shh.  Hey, Girl.  It’s okay.  Don’t be scared.  Come on, now.  If you don’t come with me, they’ll shoot you.  Please, Sandy.  It’s going to be all right.  I promise.”

Rollie pulled on the leash again and was rewarded with Sandy taking a step forward.  Slowly, inch by inch, he managed to get the dog through the fissure and into the inner chamber.  He led her over to the water and heard her begin to drink.  Rollie sat beside her and pondered the strange twist of circumstances.  Since the crash, Sandy had been his eyes, a kind of seeing eye guide dog.  Now, it was he who had become her guide.

Her body trembling, Sandy pressed tightly against him.  Stroking her comfortingly, Rollie sat in the dark and waited.


“We’re going to have to refuel pretty soon, Ms. Ramirez,” commented Dan.

“Please, just a little longer.  I have this feeling we’re getting close.”

“All right.  We can stretch it out another half hour, but that’s all.  We--”

“Wait!” cried Greg.  “I saw something reflecting the sun down there.  Swing her around, Dan.”

The pilot turned the helicopter around back in the direction they’d come.

“Slowly, slowly . . . there!  There it is!”  Greg’s voice was full of excitement.

Angie looked down and saw the wreckage of Jonas’s helicopter among the trees.  “We’ve got to get down there!” she cried.  Then she looked down at her computer screen.  There was no sign of any heat sources in the area except small animals.  “Oh, God,” she whispered, knowing what this could mean.

Dan looked around for a place to land and spied a clearing about two hundred yards to the north.  He set the chopper down.

“I’ll radio in and tell them we’ve found the wreckage.  You get on over there.”

Angie and Greg jumped out of the helicopter and took off toward the crash site.  Angie ran headlong through the trees, oblivious to the danger of tripping and falling.  As the helicopter came into view, she stopped.  She stared at the crumpled wreckage in horror.  The entire front of the chopper was a mangled mass of metal.  Broken tree limbs were sticking out of the shattered windshield.  The chances of anyone living through a crash like that was next to none.

Greg looked at the expression on Angie’s face.  He squeezed her arm.  “I’ll go take a look.”  His jaw visibly firming, the man made his way toward the wreckage.

Angie stood where she was, her chest painfully tight and her hands shaking.  She watched as Greg moved around to the side of the helicopter where the pilot would be.  He was there about half a minute, then headed back toward her.  The look on his face was grave.

“What--”  Angie voice failed before she could finish the question.

“I’m afraid that the pilot is dead.  He must have been killed almost instantly.”

“And Rollie?”

“He’s not there.  The door on the passenger side is sprung open.  It’s possible that he was thrown out.  Depending on when it happened, his bod. . . .  He could be quite a ways from the crash zone.  See those broken treetops there?  It looks like the chopper plowed through them before it ended up here.  If he fell out then. . . .  I’m sorry, but the chances that he survived are not good.”

Feeling numb, Angie moved toward the wreckage.  This couldn’t be it.  Rollie couldn’t be dead.  Fighting to hold back the tears, Angie went around to the passenger side of the helicopter.  She did not look inside, not wanting to see poor Jonas’s body.  Her foot struck something, and she looked down to see the smashed remains of Rollie’s PDA.  The sight brought the tears forth.  She sat down and wept, pressing the PDA against her chest.  Angie turned her face away from the wreckage.  That’s when she saw the dark stain on some rocks a few feet away.  She scrambled over to it and stared down at the stain.  There was no mistaking what it was.

“Greg!  Get over here!”

The man ran over.  Angie saw that Dan was right behind him.

“Look!  That’s blood.  It can’t be Jonas’s, so it must be Rollie’s.  He was right here.  He’s alive!  He has to be.”

Greg knelt beside the brown-stained rocks.  “It’s blood, all right.  He was apparently injured in the crash and wandered off.”  The man stood.  “Are Kenny and Jennifer on their way?” he asked Dan.

The pilot nodded.  “They gave a ten minute ETA.”

“Well, we’d better not wait for them.  By the amount of blood there, Mister Tyler could be badly injured.  He should be pretty easy to track though the forest.”  Greg looked around on the ground, searching for signs that would tell them where Rollie had gone.  “There we are.  A footprint and . . . hello, what have we here?”

“What is it?” Angie asked.

“Was there a dog on the helicopter?”

“No.  Why?”

“Look there.  That’s a dog’s tracks beside Mister Tyler’s, and, by the looks of it, the dog was walking out in front.  Now, what on Earth would a dog be doing way out here?”

Angie remembered the couple she’d talked to the previous day.  Could this be their runaway dog?  She mentioned this to the men.

Dan shook his head.  “What would the odds on that be?”

The three of them followed the tracks down to a stream.  They found the remains of a campfire and evidence that someone had spent the night there.

“We’ve got more tracks here,” said Greg.  He was kneeling, looking at the ground.  “Three men by the looks of it.  They appear to be tracking Mister Tyler.”

“Who would be out here?” Angie asked.

“Well, some hikers do occasionally go out this far, but, more often than not, it’s hunters.  Damn.  I hope it’s not the ones we were talking about earlier.  The fact that they’re clearly following Mister Tyler has me worried.  That crash might not have been an accident.”

“You mean they shot it down?!” Angie cried.

“If your friends spotted them with a kill, they could have.  We already know these guys will shoot anyone who stumbles onto them.  The thing is, now they’re guilty of murder.  That’s going to make them even more dangerous.  If they get to Mister Tyler, they’ll kill him.”  Greg got up.  “Dan, you’d better let Andrew know what’s going on here.”

Dan headed toward their helicopter.  Just then, they heard the other search team arrive.

“I’ll give them an update,” said the pilot and took off through the trees.  A few minutes later, he returned with two other people.

“Andrew’s contacting the police,” Dan said.  “They’ll probably send a helicopter over from Medford, but that will take a little while to get here.”

“I don’t think we should wait.  These tracks of the hunters, if that’s what they are, are at least three hours old.  They are a couple hours behind Mister Tyler, but they’re moving a lot faster.  At this rate, they’ll catch up to him soon.”  Greg walked down to the stream.  “Mister Tyler took to the water here, probably to try and lose them.”  He followed the tracks of the hunters downstream, with Angie and the others right behind him.  “He came out of the creek here and headed west.  Yeah, those three are tracking him all right.”

They followed the tracks for about fifty yards.  “That dog is definitely taking Mister Tyler west.”

“The dog is taking him?” asked Angie, surprised.

Greg nodded.  “It’s in the lead.”

Angie stared down at the footprints.  “You don’t think that it could be trying to get back to its owners, do you?  They were west of here.”

“That’s very possible.  Animals have good instincts.  If the dog sensed that it was in danger, it would head toward where it felt safest, and that would probably be with its owners. I just can’t figure out why it came out here in the first place.  We’d better get back to the choppers.  There’s no way we’re going to catch them on foot.”

As they returned to the helicopters, the feeling of urgency that Angie had experienced earlier rose up stronger than ever.  They had to find Rollie before the hunters did, otherwise they might be too late.
 

CHAPTER SEVEN -- ONE BY ONE

A sound from the main cavern drew Rollie’s attention.  He moved closer to the fissure and strained to hear.  It came again: the sound of footsteps echoing through the cave.  Then he heard voices.

“I can’t see a thing in here,” said the man named Ed.

“Well, then turn on your flashlight, idiot,” replied the one called Wally.

“What’s the matter with yours?”

“The batteries are almost dead.”

“Well, mine are completely dead,” said the third man.  “We’ll have to make due with the one.”

“Are you sure he came in here, Stuart?”

“I’m sure.”

The footsteps drew closer.  “I don’t see him.”

“He’s here.  He’s just hiding.  Check for any side passages.”

Rollie listened as the three men moved around the cavern.  Gradually, they came closer to the fissure.  Sandy growled faintly, and Rollie quickly put a hand over her muzzle.  At that moment, he heard Ed exclaim.

“Here!  There’s a crevice in the wall.”

“Well, check it out,” said Stuart.

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the one with the flashlight, coward,” said Wally.

“How would you like my fist shoved down your throat?” asked Ed.

“Yeah, and how are you going to put it there after I plant your face in the ground?” replied Wally.

“Will you two just shut up?!” yelled Stuart.  “Look, Ed.  You’re the thinnest.  You’ll fit in there a lot easier than we will.  I doubt that Wally would fit at all.”

“You got that right.  His fat piggy belly would get wedged in there so tight we’d have to dynamite him out.”

Wally made an angry noise.

“Stop it right now!” said Stuart.  “Ed, get in there before I pop you one myself.”

Rollie heard the man enter the fissure.  Positioning himself beside the opening, he pressed against the wall and waited.

Sandy growled again, and Ed’s forward progress halted.

“Stuart, I heard something.”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just keep going, Ed.  You’re the one with the gun.”

“What if he has a gun, too.”

“If he did, he’d probably have shot you by now.”

After a long pause, Ed resumed walking.  He was almost at the end of the crevice.  Rollie got ready.

The moment the hunter stepped out from the fissure, Rollie grabbed him.  The man had time for a single cry before Rollie’s fist lashed out and struck him in the jaw.  Ed crumpled to the ground.

“Ed!  What happened?” called Stuart.  Only silence answered him.  “Ed?”

Rollie felt around for the flashlight.  He found it and turned it off.  One down, two to go.

“Something’s happened,” commented Wally.  “Maybe he fell down a very deep hole.”  There was a note of pleasure in the man’s voice.

“It wasn’t a hole in the ground that turned that flashlight off.  I saw the light, then it was gone.  No, whoever’s in there got the drop on him.”

“And now whoever that is has Ed’s gun,” said Wally.  “This is not turning out like we planned, Stuart.  We have no way of knowing who’s in there.  He could be almost anyone.”  There was a touch of fear in the man’s voice.

“Well, no matter who it is, we’ll get him,” Stuart said, but there was a false note to the confidence in his voice.

Rollie listened to the conversation.  The two men were afraid, which could only be to his advantage.  He now had to heighten that fear.

Remembering something that Wally had said earlier, Rollie got an idea.  He pulled the knife out of his belt and cut off quite a few locks of Ed’s hair as close to the scalp as he could.  He then removed the batteries from the flashlight and taped the hair to the flashlight with the medical tape.  He made a small cut in his finger and brushed blood on the cut ends of the hair.

Bending close to Sandy’s ear, he told her to stay, then he entered the crevice, being careful to make no sound.  He had memorized every turn of the fissure and knew when he had reached the last curve before the entrance.  Rollie raised his arm, stepped out from behind the wall, and threw the flashlight in one quick motion.  He was back down the crevice several feet before the flashlight hit the ground.

“What was that?!” cried Wally.

“Get your flashlight and take a look,” said Stuart.  There was the sound of someone rummaging through a knapsack or backpack, then the sound of footsteps.

“It’s Ed’s flashlight.  There’s something taped to it,” said Wally.  “My God, it’s Ed’s hair!  And there’s blood on it!”  The flashlight clattered to the ground.  “We’ve got some damn Indian in there!  He scalped Ed!”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  They don’t scalp people, not anymore.”

“Well, it sure looks like this one does.  I’m getting out of here.  I ain’t staying in a cave where there’s some wacko with a knife.”

“If we don’t kill this guy, you can kiss your freedom goodbye, Walter.”

“Yeah, well, I’d rather be alive and sitting in jail, then dead with my throat slit and my hair hanging as some trophy on this guy’s belt.”

“You really are stupid, aren’t you.  This is just what that guy wants.  He wants to scare us.  That’s all this is, a way to scare us.”

“And how sure are you of that, Stuart?  Are you willing to bet your life on it?”

“I don’t need to.  We have the advantage.  We’re out here and he’s trapped in there.  He can’t get out.”

“Have you forgotten that he has Ed’s rifle?  He has cover and we don’t.  He could pick both of us off just like that,” commented Wally.

“Then why hasn’t he?” replied Stuart.

“Because I’m not through having fun yet,” said Rollie, his voice echoing out of the crevice.  He had pitched his voice low and deep, removing all trace of his Aussie accent.

“That’s it!  I’m outta here!” said Wally.  Rollie heard the sound of someone running away.

“You damn coward!  Come back here!” yelled Stuart.  There was no reply.

“What are you going to do now, Stuart?” asked Rollie, his voice still deep and mysterious.  “You’re all alone now.”

“You don’t scare me, whoever you are.”

“Oh, but I should, Stuart, I should.”

Rollie went back into the chamber.  It took a lot of self-control not to laugh.  His little ruse had worked just the way he’d hoped it would.  It was now two down and one to go.

Guessing that Ed would probably regain consciousness soon, Rollie bound the man’s hands and feet and gagged him.

It was hard to say what Stuart would do now that he was alone.  Rollie doubted that he could scare him away.  He would have to think of something else.  His hand went to the flare gun.  If he was to fire it inside the cave, the flash would be almost blinding.  Stuart would be helpless for several seconds.  It could be Rollie’s best chance to get out of this.

Rollie stroked Sandy’s head and whispered in her ear, “I’ll be back for you, Girl, so don’t you worry.”  He then pulled the gun out of his belt and silently made his way down the crevice.  Stopping in the same place as before, he took a deep breath.

Rollie leaped out and fired the flare toward the ceiling of the cavern.  He heard Stuart’s voice cry out in pain.  Aiming toward the sound of the cry, Rollie ran forward at full speed.  He rammed into the man, and they both tumbled to the ground.  Rollie struggled with the enemy he could not see, trying desperately to get the upper hand.  But Stuart was a good deal bigger than Rollie had expected and a lot stronger.  Finally, the man managed to pin Rollie to the ground, and his hand, which Rollie sensed had a knife, began slowly inching toward Rollie’s throat.

And that’s when something large, solid, and very furry slammed into Stuart, throwing him back.  A wild, savage snarl echoed through the cave, mingling with Stuart’s scream.  Rollie climbed to his knees, listening to the struggle between man and dog.  Stuart was screaming in pain and fear, and Rollie began to fear that Sandy would actually kill him.

“Sandy, no!” Rollie cried.  “No!  Stop it!  Don’t kill him!”  Knowing that it was dangerous to do so, he scrambled toward the fight and reached out for Sandy.  He managed to grab hold of the loose skin on the nape of her neck and began pulling her off of Stuart.  She fought him for a moment, then allowed him to pull her away.

“Good Girl.  Just stay there.”  He turned toward where he knew the man was.  “And you stay where you are, too, or I’ll let her have you.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes,” sobbed Stuart, his voice shaking.

Rollie ordered the man to turn onto his stomach and to put his hands behind his back.  He tied the man’s hands with the medical tape.  He then felt around on the ground for the flare gun, which he had dropped in the struggle.  Just as his questing fingers found it, he heard a helicopter approaching.

“Sandy, watch him,” he ordered, then moved in the direction he felt the fresh air coming from.

The chopper was almost overhead.  Rollie frantically dug into his pocket for another flare.  He slammed it in the barrel of the flare gun and shot it into the air.  The helicopter slowed and came to a stop almost directly over him.  Then it turned and moved away down the hill, and Rollie realized that it was going to land.

Throwing caution to the wind, Rollie scrambled down the hill, sliding most of the way down on his backside.

“Rollie!  Rollie!” Angie’s voice cried.

“Angie!”  Rollie reached level ground and took a couple of steps toward Angie’s voice.  He could hear her running toward him.  Then he felt her arms go round his waist.

“Oh, Rollie.  Are you all. . . .  Rollie, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t see, Ange.  I was blinded in the crash.”

“My God!  We’ve got to get you to a hospital!”

“She’s right, Mister Tyler,” said a voice Rollie did not recognize.  He turned his head in the man’s direction.

“Rollie, this is Greg Wincott.  He’s with Search and Rescue.”

“Hello,” greeted Rollie.  “Before we do anything else, we have to get the police out here.  Jonas and I were shot down by three men who were illegally hunting in the park.  You’ll find two of them tied up in the cave.”  He smiled.  “The third you’ll find somewhere out here running for his life from murderous Indians.”

“Indians?  Okay, after we get you fixed up, you’re going to have to tell me all about this.  I can tell it’s going to be quite a story,” said Angie.

“Well, there wouldn’t be a story to tell if it hadn’t been for Sandy,” Rollie said.

“Sandy?  Who’s Sandy?”

Rollie whistled.  “Sandy!  Come here, Girl!”  Rollie heard the dog bark, then he heard her coming down the hill.  She jumped up on him, nearly knocking him off his feet.  Rollie laughed and scratched behind her ears.  He turned to Angie.  “She found me shortly after the crash.  She saved my life more than once.  I don’t know what she was doing out there in the forest, but I’m sure glad she was.”

“This is amazing.  I met her owners,” Angie said.

“You did?”

“Yeah, yesterday.  They were out looking for her.  For some reason, she just ran off suddenly.  They couldn’t understand what got into her.”

Rollie knelt and stroked the dog.  A little chill had gone through him.  “You don’t think. . . .  No, it couldn’t be.  That’s crazy.”

“What?”

“Do you know what time she ran off?”

“No, not really.  When we saw the owners, they just said that it had been a few hours ago.  That was last evening, near sunset.  Why?  What are you thinking?”

“I just had this crazy idea.  Forget it.  It was silly.”  He was saved from further explanation by the arrival of another helicopter.

“That’s Kenny and Jennifer,” said Greg.  “They’re the other search team.  They can watch those two hunters until the police arrive.  We really need to get you to a hospital as soon as possible.”

“All right, but let me show you where the one man is.  You may have a hard time finding him otherwise.  You’d better bring flashlights.  It’s pretty dark in there.”

After ordering Sandy to stay, Rollie began climbing back up the hill.  Angie offered to help him, but he assured her that he could do it on his own.  As they entered the cavern, Rollie heard Angie and Greg hesitate at the entrance.  He continued on in.

“How you doing, Stuart?” Rollie asked the hunter with a smile.  The man grumbled something unintelligible.

Rollie moved on past him and headed for the back wall.

Angie watched in amazement as Rollie moved with confidence through the darkness of the cavern.  The only clue to his blindness was the hand he kept stretched out before him.  He reached the back of the cave and moved a few feet over to the right.  Then he disappeared.  Surprised, Angie quickly moved forward.  That’s when she saw, by the light of her flashlight, a narrow crevice in the wall.

About a minute passed, then Rollie came back out with another man.  The other man was bound and gagged and possessed a very strange, lopsided haircut.  The guy did not look at all happy.

“This is Ed.  The one over there is Stuart.  The third guy is named Walter. They’re responsible for Jonas’s death.  They tried to kill me, too.”

“Mister Tyler,” said Greg Wincott, “I would dearly love to know how you managed to not only escape from these guys, but also catch them when you can’t even see.”

Rollie heard Stuart make a squawk of shock and protest.  “You’re blind?!  This is just too much.  Who the hell are you?”

Rollie smiled.  “Just someone who was very determined to live.”

Rollie was loaded into the helicopter.  It had taken a bit of doing to get Sandy in it.  As they took off, the dog pressed her trembling body against his.  Rollie put a comforting arm around her.

“She really is something special, Ange,” he commented.

“I can see that.  When we get on the ground, I’d better call her owners.  I can imagine they’re pretty worried.”

A moment of sadness touched Rollie.  He had grown very attached to the dog in the one day that he had known her, and it was hard to think of having to give her up.  But his life as a special effects artist was not one suited to taking care of a dog.  He spent too many hours away from home, too many days off on some movie location.  Sandy needed to be with people who had lots of time for her, not someone who would repeatedly have to stick her in a kennel.  But then, if it turned out that his blindness was permanent, that life would be over for him.  Rollie decided that, if that was the case, he would try to buy Sandy from her owners.
 

CHAPTER EIGHT -- WAITING

Rollie sat in the hospital bed, awaiting the results of the tests the doctors had run.  Angie was in a chair beside him.

They had learned a while ago that the third hunter had been captured.  All three men were being held without bail on one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder.  Rollie had told the authorities about the conversation he’d overheard concerning the park ranger.  That, along with the other evidence they had, would be enough to prove that the three men were the ones who had opened fire on the ranger.  Stuart, Ed, and Wally would be spending a very long time behind bars.  But that wouldn’t bring Jonas back.

Rollie mourned the loss of his friend.  He and the stunt pilot had never been close, but Rollie had liked the man a lot and had enjoyed the big guy’s enthusiasm for life.  It angered him that Jonas had lost his life because three men hadn’t wanted their illegal hunting discovered.  As had been the case so many times in the past, and would continue to be in the future, it all boiled down to greed.

Not wanting to dwell on Jonas’s death, Rollie turned his thoughts to Angie.  They had not talked a great deal since arriving at the hospital.  On the trip over in the helicopter, Rollie had told her about all the things that had happened since he and Jonas took off for Crater Lake.  He did leave out one thing, though.  He had not told her about his thoughts of the future if his blindness was permanent.  Rollie decided that now was as good a time as any to tell her his decision.

“Ange, I’ve been giving this some thought and, if it turns out my sight won’t be coming back, I want you to take over the business, make it yours.  You shouldn’t have any trouble getting jobs.  Everyone knows you and the experience you have working with your dad, then me.  There are plenty of talented young people out there that you could hire to help--”

“Rollie, don’t,” Angie interrupted, her voice angry and upset.  “I don’t want to hear this.”

“But, Angie.  We have to talk about this eventually.  We have to decide what you’re going to do if--”

“No, Rollie.  No, no, no!  You are not going to do this to me or to yourself.  You are not going to dump this business in my lap, then go off and vegetate somewhere.”

“I wouldn’t vegetate, Ange,” Rollie protested.  “But let’s face it.  I can’t be much of an active participant in this business without my sight.  There are some things I could still do, but I think you’d be better off on your own.”

This time when Angie spoke, her voice was trembling with emotion.  “You once told me that we were a team.  You said that we would never do anything that both of us didn’t agree on when it came to the business.  Well, I don’t agree on this!  I will never agree to leave you behind and go off to pursue my own career.  Do you understand?!  We are still a team, Rollie Tyler, no matter what.  If your sight doesn’t come back, then we’ll figure out a way to keep things going . . . together.”

Rollie remained silent.  He had no words to describe the emotions Angie’s statement had brought to him.  Many people called her his assistant.  He had even done so himself.  But she was so much more than that.  She was more like a partner to him, and he loved her like a sister and a friend.  Since Leo’s death, that friendship had become even more precious to him.  But they had never talked about their friendship or their feelings toward each other.  It had always been something they took for granted.  Hearing her words now made Rollie realize that she needed him as much as he needed her.  Their lives had become irrevocably intertwined.  Nothing would change that.

“Thanks, Ange,” Rollie said finally.  “This means a lot to me.”

At that moment, the door opened.

“Good afternoon, Mister Tyler,” said a voice that Rollie recognized as belonging to Doctor Harper.

“Have you gotten the test results back yet?” Rollie asked, not quite able to keep the tension out of his voice.

“Yes, I have, and I have very good news.  There is no reason not to expect a full recovery.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprise if you started regaining your sight tomorrow, perhaps even tonight.”

Rollie had an overwhelming desire to jump up and down, whooping and hollering.  “That’s fantastic!  Thank you, Doctor!”

“You are very welcome.  Now, don’t go celebrating too hard.  You received a pretty nasty head injury, not to mention those bruised ribs, and you need to take it easy for a while.”  He moved toward the door.  “I’ll be around for a few hours yet if you have any questions.”  Rollie heard the door open and close.

“I’m going to see again, Ange.”

“I never doubted it for a minute,” she replied.


Rollie stepped out the door and blinked into the bright morning sun.  He looked about at the trees, the mountains, and the sky overhead, feeling a deep sense of appreciation.  He would never again take for granted the wonderful gift of sight.

He and Angie headed for the hospital parking lot.  Production on the movie had almost come to a complete halt since the crash, and, now that Rollie was able to work again, the director was demanding their immediate return.

In the distance, Rollie heard a familiar sound and turned to see a big dog barking and straining at a leash held by a man of about forty with a woman beside him.

“Sandy!” Rollie cried in delight.

No longer able to hold the animal, the man released the leash.  In a blur of motion, Sandy streaked across the parking lot.  She leaped up on Rollie, knocking him, laughing, to the ground.  Smothering his face with wet kisses, the dog wiggled all over him, her tail wagging like a windshield wiper on high speed.

“Whoa, Girl!  Take it easy!” Rollie laughed.  He managed to get up on his knees.  Petting the dog lovingly, he looked for the first time upon the animal that had come to his rescue.  The dog had a large, blocky head, much like that of a Saint Bernard, but without the skin flaps hanging below the jaw and with a slightly longer, thinner muzzle and larger eyes.  Her body was strong and stocky and was covered with thick gold-red fur that lightened to pale gold on her belly.  Her color reminded Rollie of Uluru and Kata Tjuta back home.  She was beautiful.

Sandy’s owners had come up to them.  Rollie rose and shook their hands while Sandy lay her head against his leg.  The man, who introduced himself as Bob Greer, stared down at the dog and shook his head.

“You have no idea how amazing this is, Mister Tyler.  Amber simply does not take to people like this.  In fact, she seldom allows anyone but us to even approach her.”

Thinking that it was strange to hear Sandy called by another name, Rollie asked why the dog was so shy of people.

“Well, that’s a sad story.  You see, her first owner abused her from the time she was a puppy, made her deathly afraid of the touch of human hands.  By the time the Humane Society found out about it, she was virtually uncontrollable.  We have some experience in rehabilitating abused and neglected dogs, but it took months for us just to get to the point where she would allow us to come near her.  We’ve had her for two years now, and she still won’t go near other adults.  Yet look at her.  She clearly adores you.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well, we went through a lot together out there.”

“That’s what I understand.”

Rollie considered for a moment before asking his next question.  “Could you tell me what time it was that Sa . . . Amber ran off?”

“I’m not sure.  It must have been near one o’clock, maybe ten minutes to.  Why do you ask?”

Rollie again experienced the little chill he’d felt earlier.  “The last time I looked at my watch, just a few minutes before the crash, it was quarter to one.”

His statement was met with dead silence.  “But . . . how could she have known?” asked Bob Greer’s wife.  She sounded stunned.

“I don’t know.  But it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.  Somehow, she must have sensed it.”

All four humans looked down at the dog.  She looked back up at them as if to say, “Well, what are you all looking at?”

Mister Greer cleared his throat.  “Um.  Since we got her back yesterday, she’s just been moping around.  We didn’t know what was wrong with her until we saw her with you.  She was missing you.  We’ve decided that, if you want her, we would give her to you.”

Rollie knelt beside the dog and stroked her.  She could be his, if he wanted it.  He knew that he did.  But he had already realized that it wouldn’t be fair to her.  She was better off with the Greers, who obviously had the ability to devote to her the time she deserved.

With a sigh, Rollie stood.  “I wish that I could take her, but my job leaves little time for pets.  It just wouldn’t be right.  She’d end up getting lonely, and someone would have to take care of her while we were off on location in some other state or country.  No, it’s better that she stay with you.”

“I understand.  It’s a shame that other people don’t consider those things first before going out and getting a pet.  There would be a lot less neglected animals.”  The man looked at his watch.  “Well, we have to get going.  We’ve got a very long drive home.  We’ve been on vacation for the last two weeks.  We were supposed to start back yesterday, but we just couldn’t leave without her.”

“Where do you live?”

“Greenwich, Connecticut.”

Rollie smiled, thinking how small the world seemed sometimes.

“What is it?” asked Bob.

“We’re from New York City.”

“New York?  When we heard that you were with a film crew, we thought that you were from California.”

“It’s a common mistake.”

“Well, we’re really not all that far from each other.  Maybe you can come visit Amber sometime.”

Rollie’s smiled widened.  “I’d like that.”  He and the Greers exchanged phone numbers.

Rollie again knelt and pet Amber.  “Bye bye, Girl.  We’ll see each other again sometime.”

As the two people and the dog walked away across the parking lot, Amber kept turning her head and looking back at him.  Then they got in their car and drove away.  With a sigh, Rollie turned to Angie.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah.”  He smiled.  “Come on Ange, we’ve got a business to get back to.”
 

THE END

 
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